Equinoxium II: The Fading: Chapter 4
by Lisette

Legalese: See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.

Author's Note: Thank you for all of the support and your patience! This year has been tremendously busy for me, and as the due date for my first child is quite literally right around the corner (May 9th!), this next year isn't looking much different. Nonetheless, this story has not been abandoned and I will do my utmost not to leave you all hanging for too long in between updates. Thanks again - your reviews are treasured!

Buffy woke with the sound of warm laughter in her ears, tears upon her cold cheeks, and the words, There's no such thing as happy endings for heroes whispering over and over in her mind. But there was no laughter here; no sunlight, no warmth, and no beautiful clearings filled with friends and family.

Her friends and family were dead; such a great many that she had gained here in Middle-earth, and inevitably, all that she had left behind in Sunnydale, save for the possibility of a souled vampire or two. The youngest of them all, if she were alive today, would be 130 years old. Dawn would be 130.

No, Dawn was dead. Her baby sister was dead, and without Legolas by her side, Buffy felt so very small and alone on this empty stretch of wild land.

There was nothing but the cold, hard-packed earth - tempered by the fresh spring grasses of the rolling plains - beneath her thin sleeping roll, the night dark and quiet around her while the River Anduin rushed by in the distance. The fire had been banked hours ago, and the campsite was bathed in shadows that were relieved only by the brittle light of the stars.

Twisting slightly, Buffy strained against the darkness and her keen eyes pierced the shadows. She could see the still form of Arwen across the charcoaled remains of their fire. The queen was silent and still - sleeping, likely - but seeing as how Arwen had been silent and still over the past twenty days of their travels, this was hardly any different. They would arrive at the borders of Lothl?ien tomorrow, and then Buffy would lose her traveling companion as Arwen completed her journey alone.

Though if she were to be honest with herself, already it felt as though she traveled alone. Arwen had been a ghost - never talking and eating only when prompted. The slayer wasn't even sure when the queen was sleeping or awake, as her blank-eyed stare never changed. Even when their campsite was overrun by mountain men along the Great West Road, just a week into their journey, the queen's stoic silence never faltered. Buffy doubted the queen even realized the very real danger that they had faced.

Arwen sat before the fire, a pale, silent wraith that stared just to the right of the modest flames that Buffy had painstakingly stoked to life. The last few days of their voyage had been marred by a steady spring rain that soaked the lush, rolling plains of Edoras, as well as the bits of kindling that the slayer had managed to gather during their day's travel. Not to mention the travelers themselves. Buffy was soaked through, and feeling all kinds of miserable as she huddled beside the weak flame.

She had already tended to both of their horses, checked on their supplies, and closed the queen's cool, slick hands around the small bit of lembas that was to be their supper this night. Arwen would eat the food slowly, mechanically, as she always did, and when she finished Buffy would get her to drink by putting a flask in her hand, and then put her to bed by steering her towards the bed roll that she had already laid out by the sputtering fire. It was a routine that got them through each day and night - a routine that brought them closer to Lothl?ien.

It was a routine that was breaking Buffy's heart.

Buffy looked at Arwen, and she no longer saw her cool, ethereal, and compassionate friend. Buffy looked at Arwen and she saw a pale stranger who was a mere shell that once housed such a beautiful, vibrant personality. It was as though her friend had died with Aragorn, and Buffy was merely escorting her empty vessel to its final resting place.

The wind shifted, and Buffy stilled. Though she never turned her eyes from Arwen's hunched form, the small slayer's senses exploded outward. Her sensitive hearing caught the slight rustle of wet leather beneath the pattering of the incessant rain. The sour tang of unwashed bodies competed against the acrid scent of the moist wood that sputtered and popped in the fire before her. The stars were hidden above the thick cloud cover, and the light from the weak flames obscured her vision beyond the small circle of their camp.

It was fortunate, then, that Buffy didn't need to see in order to avoid the large, disheveled man that suddenly burst from the shadows. He carried a rusted, pitted sword that Buffy easily parried - to the man's obvious surprise - as she went from hunched misery to her full and admittedly unimpressive height faster than his eyes could follow. She had her favorite sword in one hand, a gift from Gimli, and the dagger that Legolas had given her for her 112th birthday in the other.

He was dead - dagger thrust to the heart - before he knew what hit him. In the moment that followed, Buffy impassively looked down at the aggressor's bloodied body and tried once more to remember a time when taking a human life had been forbidden. If memory served, it had been the number one rule of being a slayer - but that was back when it was Buffy's chosen duty to be the one girl to stand before the unnatural darkness. In Middle-earth, that philosophy had worked for a time. There had been the dark-elves to slay, as well as the occasional orc, warg, troll, etc., etc. But when the unnatural baddies ran out, the natural ones remained.

Hadn't Warren taught her once, so very long ago, that evil came in many different flavors - including human? And in Middle-earth, the rule of the road didn't allow for cops, judges and juries. If you were attacked, you defended your own. End of story. And so death became death. Killing became killing. It wasn't easy, and it certainly wasn't fun, but it had been decades since Buffy had last hesitated before taking a human life. She no longer had the luxury of seeing evil in the black and white of human or non-human. Her eyes had been opened - and if it meant keeping her friends safe, Buffy would never close them again.

A moment of introspection was all that she was afforded, and that moment officially ended when the dead man's six friends split from the shadows to step into the weak light. They were all hulking, heavily-muscled men of questionable hygiene. Mountain Men - down from their caves to prey upon the unwary traveler. Buffy had seen their like before - and the remnants of their raids. Vicious and brutal, the men and children would be killed and their valuables taken. If they were lucky, the women were killed, too. The unlucky were taken - never to be heard from again.

They were armed with rusted swords and knives, a few clubs, and their dark eyes burned with a hungry sort of fury.

Buffy could understand that. She had killed their friend, after all. But she had a friend, too, and even though Arwen still hadn't moved from her spot by the fire, hadn't even looked in their direction, Buffy understood that none of these men were going to survive to spread the tale of the short, painfully thin blonde woman that killed their hulking friend.

And none of them did. The fight lasted a few minutes, at most, and in the end their small clearing was littered with the bodies of the Mountain Men. Blood had been everywhere - so thick that Buffy could taste the sharp copper tang on her tongue. Someone had gotten lucky with their knife and had cut a deep furrow from her wrist to elbow. Decades past, the wound would have been debilitating.

No longer.

Mere moments later, as she had wiped away the blood she saw that the wound had already healed over. Only a faint pink line remained, and even that was beginning to fade. The healing potency of her blood grew with time, and now there was very little that could keep her down for long.

Not that Arwen had noticed - noticed anything at all, really. When Buffy turned back, she saw that the queen hadn't moved from her perch beside the guttering fire. She was a small, frail sparrow that stared at nothing. She still held the lembas in her hand, mechanically lifting it to her lips and biting off a small piece, chewing it slowly, methodically, before swallowing.

At first, the queen's silence had been unnerving, but as the days passed, Buffy had become accustomed to her silent companion. Now, as she stared at her mute, unmoving form from where she could just see her prone outline from across the remnants of their earlier fire, she wondered if Arwen would even break her silence to say goodbye.

"When we first met, you talked of death."

"What?" Buffy breathed as she startled up into a listing slouch upon her bed roll, her eyes squinting at the queen's eerily still form. And then the queen twisted upon her own roll until, for the first time since their journey began, Buffy caught the glint of Arwen's eyes in the bare light of the stars.

"When we first met," Arwen repeated, her voice so strong for one who hadn't used it in close to three weeks, "you talked of death. Of your own death."

"I did?" Buffy returned, her nose scrunching as she tried to remember a meeting that occurred 114 years ago.

"You said, 'I was dead and my time was over. My time was over, I know it was over, but my friends brought me back. They brought me back to life.'" Arwen quoted, much to Buffy's bewildered amusement. Trust an elf to quote a conversation, word for word, that occurred over a century before.

"I guess I did," she allowed, her bemused smile slipping as she noted that although Arwen's voice sounded strong, it also sounded wrong.

"And is it true what you said?" the queen persisted in a flat monotone that caused the fine hairs on Buffy's arm to bristle. "Did you truly die? Were you truly brought back to life by those you held dear?"

"I was," Buffy confirmed, matter of fact in face of the queen's queer tone.

"What, then," Arwen asked, her gray eyes piercing Buffy through the dim light, "is the One's Gift to Men?"

"Peace," came Buffy's instinctive response as a small, bittersweet smile pulled at her lips. With a soft breath, her eyes fluttered closed and despite the decades that had passed, she easily recalled that hazy feeling that she associated with her time in Heaven. Buffy opened her eyes and for the first time, she recognized the deadened look in Arwen's gaze, and the emotion that was buried in her cold features. The queen was gray and drawn, a mere shell of the elf that had helped to rebuild a nation, but more than that - she was terrified.

"Arwen, I remember very little of when I was dead," Buffy continued with a twist of her shoulders. "I don't think that we're meant to know what comes next, but I can tell you what I felt when I was pulled back to life. It was an absence - an absence of such peace, warmth and contentment that it made life feel like hell. I was a mess for months because for the longest time, I couldn't feel anything but that loss. It's... dying is like finally going home.

"Don't fear death," Buffy sighed as she lay back upon her bed roll, her eyes lifting to a sky filled with bright stars. "Death is inevitable for we mere mortals," she murmured, quoting Gimli and his brief attempt at comfort, "and somehow I think that Aragorn will be waiting for you. Waiting to take you home."

There was no response to her words, but Buffy didn't expect one. The queen had asked her question, and perhaps the slayer had even given her the answer that she had wanted. None of it mattered for tomorrow morning they would go their separate ways and Arwen would never be seen again. She would die, as all mortals were supposed to, and Buffy had to believe that in that moment, Arwen would once more find her king. They would spend eternity together.

But despite her longevity, Buffy, too, was mortal - at least, mortal in the ways of the elves that she had lived amongst for so many years. Like the elves, she didn't age - but like them she, too, could die. Upon her death she would return to that place of peace, warmth and contentment, but unlike Arwen, Buffy's prince wouldn't be waiting for her. Arwen chose to bind her path with Aragorn's, but Buffy didn't have that option. If she died, her and Legolas' paths would be irrevocably severed. She would never see him again, in this life or after.

Buffy's breath caught in her throat as a sudden, cold fear seized her heart. For the first time since she was sixteen years old, Buffy really and truly feared death. She couldn't do it. She couldn't leave Legolas - not if it meant an eternity without him.

There's no such thing as happy endings for heroes.

It didn't take a degree in psychology for Buffy to understand that her recurring dream had less to do with anything slayer-related, and everything to do with a lingering superstition that this time, like all of the times before, something was going to come around and ruin Buffy's chance for happily ever after. What with all of the losses that she and Legolas had suffered - especially within the last few decades - it was no wonder that the dream had persisted for so long. Death was on her mind, and had been for years.

But Aragorn was dead, and tomorrow she would say her final goodbye to Arwen. In just a few days she would be reunited with Gimli in Edoras, and after that she would find Legolas waiting for her upon his spiffy grey ship at the docks of Osgiliath. And after that? After that came Valinor.

There they would make a home, make a life for themselves. It was called the Undying Lands for a reason, and they would live forever in a place without violence. Without death.

A small smile pulled at Buffy's lips as she rolled over on her bed roll and put her back to the fire, her hands pillowed beneath her head. It was time to close the door on gloomy, recurring dreams and just stop worrying about all of the what-ifs that could somehow tear this happiness away from her. The future was theirs - and Buffy was going to make it the best damn happily ever after she could.