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More Than Life Itself

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Note: In a 4/17/05 online chat, series creator Daniel Knauf gave an enigmatic response to a question.

Q: Do Ben and Sofie love each other?

A: Yes, more than life itself.

He never elaborated on those few words, a claim that touched off heated debate among fans. Some of us - notably, myself - argued that while that kind of love may have been meant to develop in future seasons, there was no evidence of it in the two seasons that aired.

But I recently had a "Eureka!" moment, in which, I think, I finally divined Mr. Knauf's intent. In this fic, I'm speculating that I've hit on correct motivations. But to make those motivations clear, I'm using dramatic license to let more thoughts pass through the characters' minds than would really have been possible, given the pace at which certain key scenes unfolded onscreen.

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Morning.

"Ben is to blame for all of this," a furious Sofie muttered, as she abandoned her laundry basket and strode up the lawn toward the Crowe house.

But the voice of reason told her, You know that's not true.

The hard truth was that Justin Crowe either was or wasn't a shady Russian capable of murder. There was no way Ben could have transformed him into something he hadn't always been.

And while Carnivale had undoubtedly followed Ben to New Canaan - bringing Apollonia's ghost with it - it was unfair to blame him for that. He'd arrived before the carnival; there was no reason to think he wanted it there. And he certainly didn't want Apollonia's ghost to torment Sofie - hadn't he somehow banished her when she did it before, back in Nebraska?

Sofie felt uncomfortable whenever she thought about that last night in Nebraska. She didn't understand why she'd deserted Ben, after such wildly exhilarating lovemaking, without at least waiting for him to return from Damascus and trying again to persuade him to leave with her.

The strangest thing of all is that I never did really think about it, till I saw him again. It's as if Brother Justin's radio sermon swept me away, and made me forget everything else.

By now she was so confused that she was no longer sure where she belonged. But one thing she was sure of was that she couldn't let her dead mother control her life.

Mama never wanted me to leave Carnivale. And now it's here in the valley. She must have appeared at Justin's bedroom window in hopes of scaring me into fleeing - to the most obvious place, right back to the carnival! But if I do that, I'll never be rid of her.

I can't count on Ben to help me. So I'll have to face her in the bedroom, and order her out of here myself.

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Fifteen minutes later, she was so afraid of Justin that she'd all but forgotten her original reason for venturing into his room.

From down the hall, she'd caught a glimpse of movement through the half-open door. Seeing a long, black garment, she'd been convinced the black-clad ghost of Apollonia was still there. But she'd walked in on Justin in his cassock. And before he could button it up, she'd seen in the mirror that he had a tattoo of a dead tree on his chest. He undoubtedly knew she'd seen it.

Suspicious as she already was, she'd thought immediately of the vision she'd once had of her mother's rape. She hadn't seen the chest of the man who'd raped Apollonia, but his back had been covered with dead-tree tattoos. Could the trees be a symbol of some evil cult?

When Justin asked her to snip a loose thread from the back of his collar - and handed her a razor with which to do it - she'd imagined herself using the razor to slit his throat. But she hadn't really been tempted to try. She was still in awe of him, still unsure what he was.

Justin had been polite, gracious - until she turned to leave. Then he got to his feet and called after her, "Sofie!"

The door slammed shut, though no human hand had touched it.

And in a voice that sent chills running through her, he said, "You really should have knocked."

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Since then he'd been bombarding her with questions.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she hedged.

But of course, she did.

She'd lain awake most of the last two nights, puzzling over Ben's connection with Justin - and over her own behavior.

Since Ben thought Justin had killed his father and meant to kill him, and he hadn't come to New Canaan to "save" her from Justin, it was a safe guess that he'd come to try to assassinate him - if only as a preemptive strike. She'd insisted that she didn't believe his wild claims. But if she'd been so sure Justin was innocent, why hadn't she gone to him or Iris immediately, to warn them about the would-be assassin? How could she have feared that the man who'd forgiven a deranged Rev. Balthus for shooting at him, who'd counseled her to forgive everyone who'd ever wronged her, would be anything but merciful in dealing with a deluded boy?

She'd told herself that she trusted Justin, but not his thuggish security guards. But that had set her to wondering why he surrounded himself with such unsavory characters.

She hadn't gone to Justin or Iris. And then, one incident after another had suggested that Ben was right.

She'd heard the brother and sister arguing in a language that could have been Russian. She'd seen Justin cruelly tormenting two of his guards: he'd actually used some supernatural power to make one of them come dangerously close to chopping the other's hand off. Opening a drawer, she'd found a broken plaster-of-paris mask of Ben's face; Justin's reaction to her seeing it frightened her. Later, he'd displayed his sadistic streak again, at the expense of the unfortunate Rev. Balthus. Finally, he'd caught her on the porch and made an unwelcome sexual advance; she'd thought for a few seconds that he meant to rape her.

All of that, she knew, had begun with his finding a hatchet in his bedroom. Could Ben have slipped into the house and left it there?

Why? Why would he simply have left the weapon, and not hidden in a closet till he had a chance to use it?

Could he have hoped that finding the hatchet would unnerve Justin - as it had - and get him to show his true colors, so she would realize what he was and leave?

Justin wasn't buying her act. He studied her face...and drew a conclusion. "He's out there with them, isn't he? With the carnival. He's one of them."

She stalled for time. "Who?"

"The boy!" Exasperated, he spelled it out. "Ben. Your friend."

"I didn't say he was my friend."

She should have admitted to "friend." Justin's eyes narrowed, and he said shrewdly, "Something more, perhaps?"

"I said I knew him, that's all."

Another realization seemed to dawn on him. "You were with them too, weren't you? You were one of them!"

One of the carnies.

"Not anymore," she insisted. I'm not!

"Why do you continue to deceive yourself?" Now he spoke with the voice of a silver-tongued orator...the voice that had mesmerized her when she first heard it on the radio. "Can you not see that you are a prisoner of your past? Only I can set you free from this bondage."

For a moment, she was tempted.

"It is time to choose, Sofie. You must choose, them or me." Whether or not he realized it, his eyes suddenly changed into obsidian-black orbs. Not even the whites were visible, let alone the formerly blue irises. He thundered, "Tell me!"

It's all true, she realized. Her last doubts, her last illusions about him, shriveled to nothing. He's a demon. He really does intend to kill Ben. And if I make the wrong choice - if I refuse to go along with him - he'll kill me.

What help could I be to him, if I gave in? All I could tell him is that I don't know whether the carnies are here to support Ben or to stop him. So he could be with the carnival, or still hiding in the New Canaan community...

She suddenly realized she knew more. In an instant, the memories flashed through her mind.

Back in Tipton, I wondered where the townspeople had gotten the idea Ben was a miracle worker. He said they'd mistaken him for someone else, who claimed to be a faith healer. But the rubes said a little girl had pointed him out as the healer who'd cured her paralysis. He'd been with Carnivale at the time - the girl and her mother had followed the carnival from Milfay in hopes of seeing him again.

If he was for real, Samson didn't know it, and Ben didn't want him to know. But until that old Mrs. Donovan told him not to heal her, it looked like he was about to try.

Later, everyone was saying he and Ruthie were an item. She almost died from a snakebite, and Gabe said Ben had helped nurse her through it. But then he began avoiding her, and no one knew why. Maybe he used his powers to save her, but he still didn't want anyone to know about them, and he felt uncomfortable around Ruthie because he wasn't telling her the truth!

Yes, there was information she could give Justin - information he might be able to rip out of her mind, if she yielded and "joined" him - that would help him find Ben, or at least prepare him for what his young enemy could do.

He'll probably be able to find and kill Ben anyway. If I resist him, I'll be throwing my life away for nothing...

No, not for nothing.

She wasn't sure she loved the youth with whom she'd shared those few incredible minutes of passion in a beat-up truck. She realized now that she'd never thought about it - perhaps, had never been free to think about it.

But she was sure she could never, even tacitly, go along with Justin's killing him.

Never. No matter what the cost.

She looked straight into those terrifying black eyes, and spat out, "Go to hell!"

Justin sneered.

"Go?" he said haughtily. "Why? I plan on bringing it here."

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Evening.

Sofie's to blame for all o' this, Ben thought bitterly as he stumbled through the cornfield.

But the voice of reason told him, You know that ain't true.

Ben had bought into Samson's plan because it felt so right: an approach that would enable him to defeat evil by performing good works. He was sure Brother Justin had only survived his ride on Colossus because he'd known Carnivale was connected with his enemy - and had been prepared mentally, not necessarily for exactly what happened, but for something other than a straightforward physical attack. One obvious possibility was that Sofie had not only warned him of a potential assassin, but told him everything she knew or suspected about Ben.

But I got no call to assume that, Ben acknowledged. Stroud knew about Carnivale too. He wouldn't even o' needed to see Samson - which he did. Once he saw the name o' the carnival, we were in trouble.

More important, I knew from the minute I saw Sofie here, waitin' in line to be baptized, that she'd become a disciple o' Brother Justin. I chose to take the risk o' lettin' her see me, tryin' to warn her, when I coulda laid low. If she went straight to Justin, I got no one to blame but myself.

Ben had been hurt, badly, by Sofie's walking out on him after they'd made love - without giving him another chance to urge her to stay, without even trying again to persuade him to go with her. She'd wounded him again in New Canaan, when she said she'd felt "empty" at the time she left Carnivale.

But the problem may o' been that we were too much alike. That's why I was drawn to her. We're close to the same age. Both grew up without fathers, an' were bitter about it. Both lost our mothers a while back, in painful ways. Both had guilt feelin's - me 'cause I didn't use my powers to save my ma, Sofie 'cause she survived the fire where Appy died.

What she needed, at least right now, may not o' been a young lover with the same problems as herself. I reckon she needed some kind o' spiritual father figure. She just picked the wrong one. An' that was an easy mistake to make, with thousands of other people doin' the same thing.

No, he had no right to judge Sofie. And no one was really to blame for his confrontation with Justin having gone so horribly wrong. He hadn't had a chance to do what he'd wanted to do: kill his enemy before the carnival arrived on the scene. Once Carnivale showed up, more lives had inevitably been put at risk.

Includin' Sofie's! Before then, Justin didn't pose no physical threat to her. It don't matter how he found out she had a connection with Carnivale. The bottom line is, he did. Now she's bein' held hostage, I got no idea who's guardin' her - an' even if I can kill him, damn it, his henchmen ain't gonna think it was a natural death.

But his immediate problem was surviving long enough to kill Justin. I ain't got no weapon but my dagger, he thought bleakly. How in God's name can I get close enough to use it, when he's got a scythe that can slash me at more than arm's length?

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Fifteen minutes later, Ben had already taken one wound from that scythe - a cut on his upper left arm. Fleeing desperately, he knew he was leaving a trail of blue Prophet's blood.

Running with his head down, he stopped just short of crashing into...something. When he drew back to take a look at it, he realized it was a scarecrow. Complete with a man's broad-brimmed hat, and mounted on a rough wooden cross.

He started to ease around it - taking care not to disturb the cans hanging nearby, meant to serve as another deterrent to crows when the wind set them jouncing and jangling. But then he looked up at the cross again. And suddenly, he found himself remembering something Samson had said earlier that day.

"You think the Lord had to die to make his point? What if when they said, 'Come on down from that cross,' ol' Jesus just come on down an' spit right in their eye?"

Sorry, Samson, I still don't think that woulda worked for Jesus. But it may work for me!

By the time Justin came barreling down the row, Ben had taken the scarecrow's place on the cross, with the hat obscuring most of his face. Justin had his own head down; he was bending to look at the corn as he walked. He went right past Ben in the dim light - belatedly recognizing the "scarecrow" as what it apparently was, ducking most of the cans, but not caring that he stirred some of them enough to announce his presence. He, of course, had no fear of the wounded prey he was stalking.

A few steps farther on, he stopped.

Sneaking a look over his shoulder, Ben thought, This is it. He's caught on that he ain't seein' no more o' my blood on the cornstalks. He'll turn an' come back this way, standin' up straight an' lookin' around, thinkin' to spot me in another row.

An' I'll drop down on him. Not on his back, like I woulda had to do if I caught him as he passed. I want to take him from the front, get that tattooed chest he's showin' with no layers o' clothes over it.

For the second time that night, the Usher walked into a trap.

Ben pounced on him, exactly as he'd planned. Gripping the dagger in his strong right hand, he drove it at his enemy's chest.

And the dagger broke!

What the hell -? His skin is like armor!

The blade of the dagger - most of it - skittered off to Ben's left. He had time to see there was no blue blood on it; the skin hadn't been pierced at all. Then Justin flung Ben off him - and slashed him deeply, viciously, in the left side of his lower abdomen.

Ben landed hard, on his back. He was still conscious. But he knew the battle was over. This time, he'd taken a mortal wound.

His enemy bent over him. Eyes that glowed, despite being black as pitch...chest that rose and fell regularly, despite being festooned with the image of a dead tree.

"Look at you, boy. Such a sad mess."

I don't need you to tell me that, you sumbitch...

Lifting Ben's head to get a better look, the Usher said regretfully, "So young..."

Ben loathed the patronizing attitude. But he knew he'd been defeated, was slipping into death.

He knows it too. An' it was me he wanted. Will he be content with my death, free his hostage?

He managed to say, "Sofie -"

Justin replied unctuously, "She's waiting for you."

And Ben's anger flared up. The bastard's already killed her? Ain't he got no heart at all?

That thought triggered another. Suddenly, he heard Belyakov's voice intoning, "A dark heart dwells where branches meet..."

Hell. Was I was supposed to take that literally? "Where branches meet"...in the tattoo?

Justin evidently wasn't planning to wait out the few minutes Ben thought he might have left. As he was saying, "I'll be quick. You will not suffer," Ben's eyes frantically sought the blade of his dagger. He saw it - within reach, if he had sufficient strength in his wounded arm. But there was no time...

And then Justin stopped to gaze up at the heavens, proclaiming, "My Kingdom come!"

Ben grabbed the blade in his left hand, and lunged at the man who'd been about to kill him. This time, what remained of the dagger found the vulnerable spot in that tattooed chest. Justin let out an agonized cry as he staggered backward and then fell, the blade still in him.

Ben fell backward too. He clung to consciousness. But his head was swimming, and the pain in his belly was so excruciating that only weakness kept him from screaming.

Since he wasn't screaming, he was able to hear Justin's gasps.

Can't stop now. He's still alive. Gotta...hang on long enough...to finish him...or it will all be...for nothin'!

He forced himself up to a sitting position, just as a flash of lightning illuminated the lurid scene - and let him see how much blood he'd lost.

He shuddered. Okay. I know where Justin is. A few feet away. Last journey o' my life, an' it's gonna seem like the longest. But I gotta get there. He ain't in good enough shape to fight me now, but I can't assume he won't snap back later. Can't die in peace till I'm sure he's dead.

The journey was as arduous as he'd expected. But he made it.

Justin's chest was still heaving.

Ben maneuvered himself into the right position, placed both hands over the protruding blade...

And suddenly realized that he didn't have to "die in peace."

As I kill Justin, I can drain his life-force an' draw it into myself!

He'd understood for months now that Belyakov had kept him at a distance because he'd been tempted to drain him, using the youth's life-force to heal his own injuries and ailments. The old Prophet had rejected that as an "abomination," because it would have left Ben dead or horribly maimed.

This was different. Ben had good reason to kill the man he proposed to drain.

He assumed Justin had used the scythe to behead Scudder. And he vaguely remembered reading in one of Belyakov's books that a wound from an anointed blade would never completely heal. But he was sure he could heal himself partially, and make his way back to the relative safety of Carnivale.

I'm only nineteen. I don't want to die...

Then he thought of Sofie.

Oh my God.

She really is dead - I know she is. Justin didn't have no reason to lie.

Tears streamed down his cheeks.

I don't want to die!

But...

Do I love Sofie? I don't know. But what I do know is that I can't save myself an' leave her dead.

I tried to kill myself last November, to save Ruthie. My pa explained why I couldn't do that. But this time I can give my life - not by takin' it with a blade, but by sendin' Justin's life-force somewhere else.

Yes.

It felt right.

He willed to revive Sofie, absolutely not to draw any life-force into himself - and with the last of his strength, he drove the dagger all the way into Justin's chest.

"Plunge...thee...deep!"

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Epilogue.

Ben had no way of knowing that he'd collapse over Justin, and the pressure of the body against his abdominal wound would prevent his bleeding to death. Nor could he have foreseen that in the absence of anyone to give them orders, Justin's henchmen would do nothing...and the first people to venture into the cornfield would be his friends, who'd get him safely out of New Canaan.

Sofie had never really been dead. But in later years, an embittered, still-ailing Ben would remain convinced he'd brought her back to life, at considerable cost to his own health...only to have her, inexplicably, marry a magically-revived Justin!

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The End

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Author's Afterword: It's possible to take this idea further, and speculate that when Sofie let out a shriek on being overwhelmed by the emergence of her inner nature, she did not merely faint, but died, from heart failure or stroke. That would account for her having remained "unconscious" for an otherwise surprising number of hours. (It appears that she only comes to when Jonesy is cutting her bonds, after Ben has killed Justin.) In this scenario, Justin was correct - though not for the reason he thought - in telling Ben she was dead, and Ben actually did restore her to life.

There is, however, a problem with that: we have reason to believe Sofie is pregnant. It seems unlikely that Justin's life-force could resuscitate both Sofie herself and a fetus in her womb. That's why my first choice was the scenario in which she has never been dead.