Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter Nine [BUFFY]

CHAPTER NINE: FOUR YEARS AGO

The final five miles to Arctic Ridge, which everyone expected would only take a few minutes to travel, dragged on for almost half an hour up a twisting mountain road. Willow ended up driving, with Cordelia refusing to let Xander drive while at the same time refusing to drive herself. Still, everyone was in fairly high spirits as they were finally about to reach their destination. It had finally stopped snowing, the roads had been plowed, and the wind had died down. The scenery itself was amazing: postcard-perfect views of mountain peaks with pine tree stubble.

Their first sight of the resort came as they crested a small hill and saw what must be the resort’s main lodge. From a distance, it looked like everything they were expecting: walls made of wooden logs, a wide chimney jutting from the roof, a banner proclaiming “WELCOME TO ARCTIC RIDGE—ENJOY YOUR STAY!” As they drew closer, however, their expectations were dashed. The banner was torn and dirty, the windows and door to the lodge were boarded over, many of the logs were cracked and in sore need of repair, and worst of all, they didn’t see anyone else around—no vehicles or skiers. Further on, they could see only a handful of small cabins and a ski-lift. It wasn’t running.

“I don’t get it,” Willow said. Everyone wore glum expressions, including her, as she stopped the SUV in front of the lodge. “The place looked great on the Internet. Happy skiers everywhere, a cozy lodge to hang out in.”

“Maybe the pictures were from before it went bankrupt,” said Xander.

“That can’t be,” said Willow. “I checked—the website was updated just a month ago.”

“Well I don’t care!” exclaimed Cordelia, obviously peeved. “This is so not what I was promised. When I get back I’m going to have my father call our attorney. This is like fraud or false advertising or something!”

They were arguing about whether they should go right back to Sunnydale or try to find somewhere else to spend the weekend when they saw a young man walking toward them from the direction of the cabins. He was dressed in jeans and a bright blue sweater, and had a pair of goggles around his neck. The man was quite handsome. With a broad smile and a cheerful wave, he looked as if he could have returned from an International Male catalog shoot.

“Well maybe it’s not all bad,” said Cordelia, getting out of the car and staring intently at the approaching figure. The others followed and waited for him to approach.

“Welcome to Arctic Ridge!” he yelled as soon as he was within range. He jogged the rest of the way over to them. “Chad Allen,” he said as he grabbed each of their hands and gave it a hearty shake. “I’ll be your guide for the rest of your stay.”

He saw the confused looks on their faces and then looked over at the lodge.

“Er, you are here to visit the resort, right?”

Buffy was the first to speak. Being the Slayer seemed to carry over to other fields as well: the others looked to her for leadership in situations besides vampire hunting.

“To be honest, uh, Chad, this was not quite what we were expecting.”

He looked slightly disappointed, as if the fault were his own.

“It’s just that, well we won these tickets, and I guess we were expecting something a little more . . .”

“Open,” Xander finished for her. He continued without pausing. “This place is deserted. No skiers, no employees. The lift isn’t even running. Are we supposed to ski back up?” It was clear Xander’s mood from the night before hadn’t completely worn off and Cordelia’s fawning over Chad wasn’t helping matters. “Let’s just get out of here,” he said, turning to the others.

“But it is open,” Chad said hastily. He noticed that Cordelia seemed especially attentive to his words. “There are other skiers. In those cabins over there, they just like to sleep in late.” He pointed as he spoke. “And the lift works just fine. I only need to turn it on. And as for employees,” he continued, “there’s me. I’m sort of the combination caretaker/ski instructor/equipment manager.”

He saw that the others were still skeptical. “Look, I know the place isn’t what it used to be. We had to close down the lodge because it was too expensive, and we don’t get many vacationers here anymore. Heck, I’ve been here three years and every spring I expect my paychecks will stop arriving. But I guess the old man wants to keep this place running, because they keep coming. I’m sure if you just give it a chance you’ll have a great time!”  He seemed genuinely welcoming and enthusiastic, unlike most everyone they ran into in California.

Buffy and her friends walked off a little distance and conferred in whispers.

“Well, I’m not going to spend another twelve hours stuck in that car with you losers. Besides, Chad’s pretty cute.” Cordelia flashed a smile in his direction as she spoke.

“I think it sounds creepy,” whispered Willow. “And that lady said the place was haunted. Just cause we’re not in the Hellm—“

Xander clamped a hand over her mouth and then held up his pinky. “Remember? Don’t disrespect the pinky!”

“Well anyway,” Willow continued after Xander removed his hand, “freaky things can happy anywhere. What kind of ski resort only has one employee?”

The thought of driving all the way back to Sunnydale seemed like the waste of a perfectly good weekend to the others—and who knew when they would get another chance? In the end, Willow was outvoted. She contemplated putting on her resolve-face but thought better of it—she didn’t want to be the one to ruin the others’ fun.

They followed along slowly in the SUV as Chad led them in the direction of the cabins. A few minutes later, they stopped outside one of the medium-sized cabins near the ski-lift. The cabin was of simple construction, but looked sturdy. Two windows, a door, and a chimney were all the features that could be seen from the outside. The other cabins looked the same, but one was larger than the others.

“This is where you’ll be staying,” said Chad. “Take a few minutes to unload and relax. Come over to that cabin when you’re done,” he pointed to the largest one, “and I’ll get you outfitted with some gear. Lessons start at nine a.m. I really am glad you decided to stay!” He smiled again and waved goodbye before walking away.

The inside of the cabin looked larger than one would expect from the outside, but it was still cozy. A double bed lay next to each of the side walls, while a fireplace dominated the back wall. A door led to a small restroom in the rear of the cabin. Otherwise, the cabin was unadorned.

Cordelia seemed to be regretting her vote to stay, but tried to make the best of it. “I’ve got this one,” she said, laying her cosmetics case on the larger of the two beds.

“Fine,” said Buffy, knowing there was no point in arguing. “Willow and I can bunk together. That means you’ll have to sleep with Xander.”

“I’m not ready for that yet!” Cordelia exclaimed. “I mean, he’ll have to sleep in your bed.”

“There’s no way we’re fitting three—“

“Ladies, ladies,” interrupted Xander. “I’ll just sleep . . . here.” He tossed his suitcase on the floor and sighed.

The lift was already operating by the time they made it outside, and they saw a few middle-aged women chatting away vociferously as they walked towards one of the intermediate slopes.

The inside of Chad’s cabin presented an odd contrast. One room looked like a typical bedroom, with a dresser, footlocker, and posters on the wall. Across a small entryway, the other room looked like a small store. A counter and cash register were set up, and racks of skis, clothing, and other gear lined the walls.

Chad stood behind the counter and waved them over when they came in. He examined their tickets carefully before pronouncing them valid.

“I’m surprised, though,” he said, placing them in the cash register drawer. “As far as I knew, we stopped all advertising and promotions a few years ago.”

“Why was that?” inquired Willow, sure she was getting to the bottom of something.

“Not sure exactly. It was after the owner’s daughter died. He started acting kind of weird after that. Stopped putting money into the place--didn’t want to close it, but didn’t want to pay much to keep it open either.”

“Which is why you’re the only employee left,” observed Buffy.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Chad said. “The other employees weren’t forced out or anything. It’s just that some of the other larger resorts, like Vail or Breckenridge, pay a lot more. And working at a ski resort is seasonal employment anyway. I liked it here though, and decided to stay year-round. As the others left, I just started taking on some of their responsibilities. And . . . well here I am,” he lifted his palms up and grinned again. “But enough talk. Let’s get started with the fun stuff!”

Willow eyed Chad suspiciously as he helped them pick out the right length of skis and poles. Xander managed to snatch only snowboard. He hoped his skill with a skateboard would rub off on it, but even if it didn’t, he knew it would look cooler.

One of the women they had seen earlier joined them for the morning lessons, which were fun and flew by quickly. Chad was a skilled skier, but kept the lessons lighthearted by cracking jokes and doing silly stunts. Most of the time was spent getting everyone strapped correctly to the skis to begin with, and then the balance lessons began. Falling was the most common result of the lesson, but it always ended with giggling instead of bruises. Cordelia seemed to topple over, quite coincidentally, every time Chad walked nearby she noted with pleasure that he caught her every time. Xander expected the snowboard to be easier, but landed on his duff several times for want of poles to balance himself with. Buffy learned to balance on the skis quickly, her ice-skating training no doubt coming into play. Unfortunately, Willow barely managed to stand up and wobble forward.

Near the end of the morning, Chad took them over to a very gentle slope that flattened out after just a few dozen feet.

“This is what we refer to as the ‘Bunny Slope’,” he said, pronouncing it carefully as if it were a complex technical term, causing the others to grin slightly. “This is where you’ll do your first real skiing. Now remember, keep your knees bent, your balance forward, and your eyes straight ahead.”

Chad had instructed hundreds of students, but he still had trouble suppressing laughter when he watched newbies try to ski for the first time. If he had a video camera, he knew, he could make thousands from America's Funniest Home Videos. Despite his best efforts, the new visitors fell in just about every way imaginable, and some that weren’t.

Xander had just found himself lying on his back from one such fall when he looked up and saw Cordelia making butterfly eyes at Chad yet again. It’s not like I’m jealous or anything—I just hate seeing her with other guys. This thought led Xander to initiate something he had always wanted to take part in but never had the opportunity to do.

He rolled over into the snow and grabbed a handful, discretely squeezing it with his hands before rising to his knees and aiming carefully. The snowball hit Cordelia square in the back with a thud, almost making her fall. She gave a little yelp and with effort managed to turn around. It took her a moment to realize what had happened, but then she looked around and set her eyes on Willow, who had stopped in front of Xander to help him up.

“You bitch,” Cordelia said to her, but with a slight grin instead of a scowl. She quickly rolled up a snowball of her own and bounced it with a lucky shot off of Willow’s shoulder. Willow looked shocked at this uncalled for violence, but responded in kind—only she overshot, and Chad took a solid hit right in the ear. Everything went downhill from there, and even the women they saw earlier joined in. For Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Cordelia, who had lived in California their whole lives, this was their first snowball fight—and it represented to them what life outside of Sunnydale could be like.

When they were all exhausted and anxious to get someplace warm, Chad squeezed into the backseat of the SUV and directed them to a small town about ten miles away on the other slope of the mountain. They feasted on pancakes at a local diner, swapping stories and generally having a good time. Chad had just finished a rather ribald tale about what happened when one of the guests a few years back decided to try skiing naked when Willow asked him about the resort being haunted. Buffy was disappointed by the question. For a few hours, she had succeeded in forgetting all about Sunnydale and the Hellmouth—and now she was thinking about it again.

“Guests do ask about it sometimes,” Chad responded. “But I really have no earthly idea where the rumors originate from. I’ve never seen anything, and I’m always at the resort. Not that I mind much—every tourist attraction in the country is happy to be ‘haunted’—draws in thrill-seekers if nothing else.”

Although she was warming up to Chad, Willow was still skeptical. “How was it the owner’s daughter died?” she asked.

Chad’s smile quickly dropped, and he looked uncomfortable. “A skiing accident,” he finally said. “I swear it doesn’t happen often. But . . . well, Sonny Bono’s not the only one to smack himself into a tree at high speed.”

The conversation lulled after that. Maybe I came on to strong with the Agent Scully routine, Willow reflected. After lunch, they dropped Chad off at his cabin and pulled up in front of their own. The unanimous agreement was that a nap was in order—after last night’s drive and this morning’s excitement, they were all rather tired. Before they got inside, however, Xander noticed a visitor he hadn’t seen before. She was just beginning down one of the slopes about a hundred yards away, but even from a distance she was simply gorgeous. She had long, blonde hair, and a cute, pert figure.

Xander quickly grabbed his snowboard out of the SUV’s trunk where he had stowed it earlier. “Guys,” he said distractedly, “I’m not really all that tired anymore. Think I’ll go for a run.”

He heard Buffy say “Where are you going?” but didn’t respond as he ran over in the girl’s direction. He reached the slope quickly but lost sight of her. Knowing that she must have started down it already, he decided to follow after her and quickly strapped on the snowboard. It wasn’t until he was a few dozen feet down the slope and picking up speed quickly that he realized what he had done. The slope was steep and he had no idea how to stop himself without tumbling over into the snow. He continued to pick up speed and soon objects in his peripheral vision were a blur as he concentrated on staying upright and hoped that the slope would level out soon.

He had just started to praise himself for coolness under fire when he realized he was headed straight for a cluster of thick pine trees. He began to panic then, pinwheeling his arms all about to maintain his balance as he leaned desperately in every direction to get the board to turn. Something came out from nowhere and tackled him to the ground, knocking the breath out of him. He hit the ground hard, and even with the snow to soften the fall, he was dazed. He felt something covering him, then the weight was removed and something was tugging on his hand.

“Come on, get up. I know you’re not hurt,” he heard a voice say.

His eyes focused with difficulty and he saw that the girl he had chased after was standing over him, trying to pull him to his feet. She was wearing a yellow snowsuit, but it could have been a yellow bikini as well as it showed off her body’s features. Her face was round and pretty, with cheeks red from exertion. He knew she must be about his age, maybe a little younger.

It was hard to stand while still strapped to the snowboard, but she pulled hard and Xander managed to regain his feet. He put a hand to the back of his head and looked around, still disoriented.

“Let me guess. You’ve never ridden a board before, have you?” she said dryly but with a hint of teasing behind it. She was balanced carefully on a snowboard of her own.

Xander tried to think up either a good fib or a witty retort, but for once he was struck dumb. He just stood there with his mouth open, wondering why he wasn’t saying anything.

The girl giggled. “A man of few words. I can admire that. Suicidal, too, apparently,” she said with a sparkle in her eye and pointed towards the trees. “This part of the resort is off-limits. You know what’s on the other side of those trees?”

Xander shook his head, mentally urging his brain to get it in gear.

“Nothing.”

“What?” he said, proud of himself for finally saying something.

“Those trees overlook a cliff. If you were lucky enough to miss them, you would have sailed off almost four hundred feet. For one brief, shining moment, you would have been just like those guys who jump from the airplane on snowboards in the Mountain Dew commercials. Then you would have gone ‘splat.’”

Xander sat down and unstrapped the snowboard, heeding the call of the all-too-vivid image of himself smashing into rocks. She led him back up the slope.

“So. Uh, what’s your name?” he said and and then bit his tongue. Clever. Next I’ll ask her what her sign is and then go straight for the phone number.

“Amara. And you must be Xander.”

“How did you know that?”

She shrugged and said teasingly “My agents are everywhere.”

They had a long walk back to the main area of the resort, but the time passed quickly. Xander found it easy to talk to her once he got started, though he had difficulty not mentioning anything about all of his adventures with Buffy—everything that had happened to him in the past year paled in comparison to them. Amara chatted easily as well—she could transition from explaining why Ginger made a mistake in leaving the Spice Girls to why the United States should have intervened in Rwanda—and she made it look easy. Xander had difficulty following everything she said, but what he could follow, he liked.

When they reached the resort, instead of leading him back to the cabins, she led him over to one of the beginners’ slopes and told him to get back on his board. He was afraid she was going to ditch him there since he wasn’t up to her level, but she stayed and helped him glide down several times. She was as good an instructor as Chad, and Xander definitely found her much more attractive. He felt he was really starting to get the hang of it. When it started to get dark, she took him back to her cabin for dinner and more conversation.

“So?” Willow said.

“So?” Buffy responded.

“Come on, you gotta tell me. It’s like The Young and the Restless, only better and not as hokey.” The pair were wandering around outside. Willow was wearing the over-sized winter jacket she had worn to portray an Inuit at the International Culture Festival a few weeks before—it was the best piece of winter clothing she had. They had just eaten but were too sore to do any more skiing for the day. With Cordelia spending all her time around Chad, and Xander off doing whatever, they were alone for the first time in quite a while.

“It . . . it’s going perfectly,” Buffy confided, smiling widely. “He is such a gentleman too. And such a good kisser. I think for my birthday I just want Angel tied up in a bow.” They both giggled. “And what about you, Will? Any developments on the Oz-track?”

Willow blushed just a little. “No. Well kind of. I mean we’ve been talking a lot.”

“That’s definite progress,” Buffy said confidently.

They walked a bit further, both lost in thought.

“Buffy?” Willow said finally.

“Huh?”

“Do you think Xander knows I like him and is consciously rejecting me, or doesn’t know I like him and is subconsciously rejecting me?”

Buffy felt sorry for her. “Willow . . . everyone in Sunnydale and a two-hundred mile radius can tell you like Xander. He would have to be completely oblivious not to notice. But . . . I don’t think he notices.”

“I think he’s too focused on you,” Willow teased, even though it hurt her to say it because they both knew it was true.

“Well, he does have great taste,” Buffy said, trying to lighten the mood. “But come on Will, you know I haven’t done anything to lead him on.”

“I know. You know what, on the last night of summer before school started, he was almost about to kiss me. Maybe. I think,” Willow said, remembering a smudge of vanilla ice cream on her nose.

“Well what happened?” Buffy said.

“Vampires. And you showed up to save the day.” Willow felt bad—she didn’t mean it to sound like that.

“He’ll come around,” Buffy replied. “And if he doesn’t—well, it’s his loss.”

Xander didn’t return to his own cabin until well after sunset. He wasn’t quite sure why, but he knew he was infatuated with this girl. She was cute, funny, smart—everything he had been looking for. Maybe, he reflected, his luck was beginning to change now that he was finally out of Sunnydale and the Hellmouth’s vibes. Maybe he had finally broken the “I-always-end-up-dating-psycho-women” curse. Or maybe not, he said to himself as opened the door. Maybe she’s actually an intelligent orangutan disguised as a woman, or a demon from another dimension, or a “What the—“

He stepped back slightly, not sure what he was seeing. Buffy, Cordelia, and Willow were each dressed in their pajamas, propped up on pillows. They were singing some silly song he didn’t recognize, and Buffy was painting Willow’s toenails while Cordelia was braiding Buffy’s hair. The smell of somewhat-burnt popcorn filled the air intermingled with the distinctive odor of roasted marshmallows.

“Hi Xander,” said Willow sweetly. “We wondered where you were.”

“Just, uh, out,” he said. He had expected that they would be more curious about Amara, since they he had spent most of the day with the girl. He had even expected that Cordelia would shoot him some dirty looks or be weird about it. But the three acted completely nonchalant and didn’t say anything about it.

“So,” he said. “Can I just ask—what the heck is going on here?”

“Slumber party,” Buffy said looking up. “It’s way too cold to do anything outside, and there’s nothing to do inside. So, slumber party. It’s been years since any of us have had one. It was Willow’s idea, but Cordelia found the popcorn and marshmallows.”

“But you can join in too Xander,” said Willow, following up. “We even saved some for you.” She held up a small bottle of pink nail polish.

“I . . . don’t think so,” Xander said, remembering the night that several frat boys had forced him to dress up in womens’ clothes.

“C’mon Xander, haven’t you ever wanted to be in on some girl talk?” said Buffy.

“Well . . .” It was either join in or sit in the corner and watch. “I guess,” he said walking over. “But only if I get the red polish. Pink is just so effeminate,” he stated as laughter rippled throughout the small cabin.

Next Chapter

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