Title: Winter Lights [3/6]
Media: fanfiction & fanart
Creators: the_moonmoth, wolveswithhats, kylathelurker, bewildered
Characters: Buffy, Dawn, Giles, Andrew, OFC
Setting: Set shortly after ‘The Girl In Question’ and imagining it took place a little earlier than its air date.
Length: ~18,000 total (each chapter ~3,000)
Warnings: Attempted suicide and character death (both off-screen, but discussed)
Summary: Life, death, love, grief. Buffy takes a mission in the Arctic Circle with a slayer who never wanted to be and an enemy that barely compares to the one inside her own head.
Go here for notes, acknowledgements and chapter list.
When I was first called I used to have recurring dreams about drowning. After I defeated the Master, Giles thought they might have been slayer dreams, but they never really stopped, just became less frequent. In the dream I would be swimming, the water choppy and dragging at my clothes. I was afraid of something, something behind me, chasing me, and I could feel it getting closer, my arms and legs getting tired, but I knew if I could just make it to the shore I’d be safe.
It always caught me. Thick, slimy tentacles wrapped around my waist and ankles, dragging me under until I woke up thrashing, covered in sweat.
After he lost his soul, the monster wore Angel’s face, and when he pulled me under I would kick and scratch and struggle so hard I’d sometimes put gouges in my own skin. But when my friends brought me back from heaven, then… then the monster was me. I let her take me down without a fight, more often than not.
I haven’t had that dream in a long time. I don’t know whether that means I’ve conquered whatever it is I was afraid of, or if I’ve simply given up. Maybe you reach a point of having lost so much you just aren’t capable of fear anymore, or maybe I got so good at turning around to embrace the monster that…
Or maybe the monster just didn’t want to kill me anymore. Not like it would be the first time. But then I have to wonder, given all its various forms, why it never once came to me with platinum hair and a dangerous smirk. Maybe it knew… some part of me… I was never afraid of him.
In the wasteland she feels stripped bare. Which is dumb, because she’s wearing more layers than three normal outfits combined. But there’s something about the way the sky never gets completely dark, even after sunset, how the snow seems to make everything luminous, and how it stretches out to the horizon in a flat swath of white… There’s nowhere to hide, and the fact that they don’t set out immediately? Only makes things worse. She’s eager, itching for action, desperate for the purpose of having somewhere to go. No such luck.
“I’m really more action-girl than navigation-girl,” she protests when Bridget unrolls the map on her scratched and pitted kitchen table, but she rides right over Buffy with a flat don’t care.
“If something happens to me out there you’ll be on your own. You need to know what to do.”
It’s the same reasoning that’s had Buffy learning the dog calls – gee, haw, on by, line out – and enduring the euphemistic delight that is ‘hypothermia training.’ Bridget had enjoyed watching her throw herself into a deep patch of freezing water far too much, but afterwards she’d conceded that Buffy could call her ‘Bridge’ so she guessed they were friends now; kind of still hard to tell.
Looking at the map Buffy traces a finger along the Alaskan shoreline, and it occurs to her that something doesn’t quite add up. “The North Pole’s over here, right? So why are we setting off from Endurance and not somewhere closer, like in Canada?”
Bridge actually looks impressed. Buffy tries not to be pleased.
“We’re not going to the geographic or magnetic North Pole.”
“Ever heard of ley lines? They’re channels of mystical energy that traverse the globe. They converge in the Arctic, up here somewhere.” She gestures to a patch of ocean much closer to their location.
“A magical North Pole?” Buffy asks, but, well. Why not? It probably wouldn’t even make the top ten weirdest things Buffy’s ever heard of relating to magic. “Willow’s going to be so mad she missed this one.”
Willow. Oh. The inadvertent intrusion into the conversation of the best friend she hasn’t seen in nearly a year makes her quiet and downcast, and as soon as they’re done she steps outside of the squat little wooden house and trudges down the pathway cut into the snowdrifts. Bridge lives beyond the edge of town, an outcast among outcasts. Does that make Buffy – the barely tolerated houseguest – a triple outcast? It wouldn’t be a million miles away from what she’s feeling.
She climbs the low rise behind the house and looks out at the clustered lights of Endurance, hunkered down and half-buried in snow. The strip of pink on the horizon marks the perpetual twilight. It must be pretty late to be as dark as it is, but time has started to lose meaning for her. Turning away, she stares instead out into the tundra, a vast expanse of nothingness, glowing like the moon and blanketed in velvet blue sky, a scattering of stars just barely visible. She feels herself acutely – hands, arms, puffing lungs – one small woman in all the world.
“How do you live like this?” she asks the footsteps that come up behind her some thirty minutes later. “Doesn’t it drive you nuts?”
Bridge grunts. “This is nothing. This is nice. Give it another month and the sun won’t set at all; less, where we’re going.” Buffy feels the weight of her gaze, studying her, before she continues. “Not quite what you meant, though, is it? The old folks say the tundra is a mirror. You having trouble facing yourself, Slayer?”
“What?” Buffy turns to her. “Why would you call me that?”
Bridge shrugs. “It’s what you are, isn’t it? More than me. More even than any of the others, I’d wager. Not hard to see, after spending some time with you. Slaying is something that just happened to me – didn’t want it, don’t usually do anything about it – but you, it’s your life.”
“You’re wrong,” Buffy says, shaking her head with a smile that starts out wry but twists into something else altogether. “I’m retired. I teach now, I train the new girls. I’m only here because the forces of evil seem to have decided to go into overdrive and we couldn’t spare anyone else.”
Bridge just looks at her with shrewd brown eyes. “Which brings us back around to the question you’re trying to avoid.”
“I am not trying to avoid…!” She huffs, annoyed now. “And I don’t actually know what you were talking about. It doesn’t look very mirrory to me.”
“Yeah? If you yelled right now into that,” she gestures expansively at the snow receding into the distance, “and you heard someone yelling back, you tell me, is it more likely to be some nomad out there in his igloo, or an echo of your own voice?”
Buffy thinks about that a moment.
Bridget rocks back and forth on her heels, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of her parka. “Nah,” she says eventually, “I don’t like you enough to put it into smaller words. You’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.”
And that’s the other thing. Bridget has this way of looking at her as though she’s a bug under the microscope. She’s not used to being so intensely interesting to someone, not anymore. And isn’t that kind of weird behavior for a loner, supposedly more interested in her dogs than her neighbors? It’s weird, she’s weird, and Buffy starts to feel like every conversation is a minefield.
She would escape into the town, visit the shop, maybe get a coffee and check her email, except with the wind coming in off the tundra, the drifts can build up to waist height or more in just a couple of hours and she doesn’t fancy getting stuck on foot having to wait for Bridget’s rescue. Yet somehow, when Bridge drives her tank of an SUV down for supplies, Buffy finds herself refusing the ride just for the chance to be alone in the house.
She spends more and more time out among the kennels with the dogs, Midnight her favorite and Roxie the lead dog, slipping them treats despite her host’s dire warnings just so she can bury her hands in their deep, soft fur and feel uncomplicated connection to another living creature.
She writes letters in her head, to Dawn, to Xander and Willow, to… others, but never actually writes them.
And several times a day, no matter what they’re doing, her eyes will come to rest of their own accord on the white, white landscape surrounding them in every direction. It beckons to her, the way the long drop off a tall tower once did; frightens her in the same way. It doesn’t sit well with her, though, being so afraid of something so patently unscary, and so she prods at that place inside that shies away with the same irresistible urge as poking her tongue at a sore tooth. Poking her fingers into a gaping wound.
She’s never been more palpably, achingly lonely.
Maybe that explains it.
“Come on, continental, get your ass out of bed.” There are definitely nicer ways to be woken than shaken roughly at an hour of the morning that shouldn’t exist, but Buffy hauls herself into her clothes practically on reflex before registering an objection.
“What’s going on?” she asks, sparing a thought for the fond remembrance of curling tongs.
“You should probably see this,” is all Bridge says, and Buffy stumbles out after her, fearing the worst.
Outside, the first thing she notices even above the cold is that the snow has turned green. She squints, then rubs her eyes. “I feel like there’s a Greenland joke in here somewhere,” she mutters, mentally reviewing where her weapons are.
“Look up,” Bridget says witheringly. She does. And it becomes clear. Wow.
Draped across the sky is a ribbon of fuzzy green light, undulating slowly like a charmed cobra.
“What— Is that magic?” She can’t help but think of Dawn. Her heart speeds up. “Is it the warlocks?”
“No. People used to think it was magic. Spirits, gods. Turns out it’s just a bunch of space junk getting caught in the earth’s magnetic field. Pretty, though.” There’s a pause, tinged with embarrassment. “Figured you should see it. It’s bright for this time of year, might be your last chance.”
Realization comes. “The northern lights.”
She’s right, it is really, really pretty. As they watch, the green seems to solidify along one edge so that it looks more like a curtain billowing in the breeze. Violet and red flare up along the edges before fading, reappearing elsewhere. The light seems alive, streaming upwards into the heavens, and the swelling urge to reach her arms up, to throw herself after it, overtakes her for a moment before subsiding.
To her mortification, Buffy realizes she’s crying.
For once, Bridget doesn’t twist the knife, just quietly leaves her to it. The tears don’t last long, as out of practice as she is, and by the time Buffy’s wiping her face she’s managed to convince herself it was just the wind and the bitter cold making them water.
She stays out, though, watching until the colors fade into the lightening sky, wishing, and wishing, and longing, and sorry.
How totally tragic is it, that her reaction to something beautiful is to have her carefully reconstructed heart scooped out again? Feeling paper thin and hollow, with the sun skirting the horizon, Buffy turns and goes back indoors.
Bridget is sitting at the table doing something with a tangle of dog harnesses, a bottle of clear liquid and two empty shot glasses sitting in front of her. The husky at her feet raises its head at Buffy’s entrance before padding over – each night Bridge takes two indoors on a roster, and they’re sociable creatures but not exactly pets. This one is a wheel dog called Artemis, so big and muscly she unsteadies Buffy when she nuzzles her hand in greeting, and Buffy feels again how small she is, how insubstantial.
“You drink?” Bridget asks without looking up.
“Not usually,” Buffy replies, but has unscrewed the cap and poured for them both before she’s even sat down.
They’ve been at it half an hour or so, and Buffy is starting to feel pleasantly warm for the first time all week, but she’s never been able to hold her liquor – or maybe just never learned to go slow – the sour shock of it on her tongue still making her grimace. At first they don’t talk much, in what Buffy is optimistically thinking of as a companionable silence, but even though Bridget’s focused on her task, Buffy can still feel her attention like an itch on her skin. In the end, scratching is mandatory.
“You said your… the… people used to think the northern lights were spirits?”
A grunt of assent. “Some still do.”
“Spirits like evil demonic possession spirits?”
“You mean like the pigiitchuat? No. They summon evil spirits from the abyss. These are supposedly spirits from… heaven, I guess. The afterlife.”
“They play football with a walrus skull.” Bridget shrugs. “Just people spirits, I think.”
“Huh.” Buffy gets a sudden mental image of her mom in the long white gown Dawn had once described seeing her in, kicking a walrus skull around with her bare feet. It doesn’t sound anything like where she went, after Glory – where she’s certain her mom went, too. Disturbed, she shakes the vision off. “What’s the abyss? Like a demon dimension?”
At her question, there’s a long pause from the other side of the table, but vodka for breakfast seems to make it more thoughtful than hostile. Then, like water flowing after ice-break, Bridge talks.
“You’re asking the wrong person, Summers. Half a foot in neither world, that’s me – never learned the proper Inuit ways and never got or wanted a slayer’s education. Haven’t got a clue what a demon dimension is, and as for the abyss, all I can tell you is the half-remembered stories I heard at my grandparents’ summer camp. The old woman and the bear, Raven who made the land and sea… It’s strange,” she takes a moment to examine the fingers of her right hand, spread out like a fan, “I remember the place more clearly than the words, the smell of the sod and how my fingers were always stained purple from berry picking. Then in the evenings, we’d sit around and eat, and Taata would tell us stories in Inuktitut, but I barely speak it anymore, so I don’t really remember…
“The world – they thought it was flat – was supposed to be covered in this hard dome, and beyond that is the abyss. It’s just… nothingness. But sometimes evil, too. They thought the aurora was a pathway that led through a small hole in the dome, over the abyss and into heaven, but it was narrow and treacherous, and not everyone made it. My Aana always warned us: don’t die on a dark night, because the spirits who light the way along the path, with their green and red and purple lanterns, have all gone away, and the abyss will try to claim you.”
“And you don’t think there’s anything to it?” Buffy asks, picking idly at the label of the bottle. “Giles is always saying about – the thing with teeth? Oral – oral history – with magic and whatnot, how it’s more true than most people realize.”
This is the most they’ve talked since Buffy arrived, she’s well aware of that, just as she’s aware that previously she was perfectly fine with it. But right now? Somehow silence is worse than the sound of another woman’s low, gruff voice. And anyway, maybe there’ll be something useful in all this cultural information – that’s what Dawn would say. You never know, where magic’s involved.
Bridge snorts softly and stretches, drawing her straight black hair into a ponytail that she holds at the back of her head for a moment before releasing. “My Aana and Taata believed they could personally call the aurora into being, talk to those torch-bearing spirits, send messages to the dead.” Buffy feels her focus narrow abruptly, fingers turning lax so that her glass slips from her hand to clunk on the tabletop. “Superstitious nonsense,” Bridget concludes, meeting her eyes with uncomfortable knowing. “Just like the rest of it.”
“But what if—?”
There’s something bitter in those two words, and so painfully familiar that all Buffy can say is, “Oh.”
Bridget reaches over to refill their drinks before downing hers. The slam of the empty shot glass on the table has an air of finality about it, and so Buffy is unprepared – wholly unprepared – for any kind of continuation.
“So what did you do?” Bridget asks, her tone curious, almost mocking. “No one chooses to come this far north without a damn good reason and you look like a runner to me.”
“Um, power hungry pig-people ringing any bells?”
Bridge just shakes her head with a sardonic smile. “What are you afraid of, hotshot? No point in denying it. Alaskans have Fear instead of God, we know what it looks like, and I know that you are.”
And maybe it’s the shock of the question coming straight out of left field, but it jolts Buffy’s brain into fragile, crystalline honesty, and she thinks, The way time presses on my chest. The way I wake up and it’s like that. The knowledge of the day; the fact of it; that there’ll be one following it, and one after that. The way he died to give me this time and now all I have is hours.
The way I feel like I need a vacation from the vacation of my life, where I party and shop and sleep with a cute guy who’s good for information but probably not good, because this time instead of hatred and self-loathing I feel such a well of grief that I can’t come near it without it threatening to swallow me whole.
“We’re slayers,” she says. “We don’t get the luxury of being afraid.”
She turns away, looks out the snow-crusted window onto the tundra. Taking this mission was supposed to have been a break, some well needed violence to snap her out of it… it… whatever it was. She’d meant for it to be that. But she probably should have known; how many breaks can one person take before coming full circle? Because here, too, there is nothing but snow and herself and the weight of time.
Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/517063.html