In the Shadow of the Dead
So today everyone at school acted like nothing happened here at the Bronze last night, well nothing like what really happened, anyway, and Xander and Buffy and Giles were all high and mighty about proclaiming how they knew and they’d never forget, and sure, she was all on board and everything, but…
Is it just her or is it weird and wrong and stuff that no one – not even her – has mentioned Jesse? Okay, maybe they were trying to spare her feelings and all, seeing as how she was holding the stake when…
Don’t think about that. Never think about that. You don’t want to remember the way he looked… the shock and betrayal in his eyes.
She’ll never forget. She will never, ever forget. She thinks there’s some of him embedded in the threads of her sweater, the sweater she tore off the moment she got home and closed the door of her bedroom behind her. Should she wash it? Would that make it all go away? Like Jesse was never just standing there and then – like some magic trick – exploding into dust and… Oh god! She breathed in some of it.
Jesse’s inside her. In her lungs. In her bloodstream. She’s sort-of-kind-of-part-Jesse now.
No, she can’t be here right now. She just can’t. Because right over there – where Cordelia, of all people, is holding court with Harmony and the other popular girls – is where she was standing, holding that stake and wondering if she could… and she did. Oh, not on purpose, but it’s not like that makes Jesse any less dead and for sure she’d be convicted of at least involuntary manslaughter and… she has to get out of here.
Buffy’s on the dance floor and Xander is flirting with some girl who isn’t her, so Willow heads out the back door and into the alley. Funny the things you notice when your brain is busy running from uncomfortable and painful thoughts because, hey, there are actually fewer cockroaches out here than there are inside.
Breathe, Willow, breathe. Yeah, because that doesn’t remind her of last night at all. What would Jesse – pre-vampire Jesse, anyway – think if he knew that she, and not Cordelia, is the one he’s part of forevermore? Would he hate her even more than he probably already does?
She can’t help it; she starts to cry.
Jesse’s gone – really gone. The girl of his dreams is standing right where he was dusted and not even thinking about it and Buffy’s dancing and Xander’s chasing every miniskirt in the place and already it’s like the space Jesse occupied has closed up as if he never existed and it’s all her fault. If she hadn’t been so stupid about following that creepy vampire-guy to the cemetery, Jesse would probably never have gone off with his own creepy vampire-person and even if he had, maybe they could have saved him if she hadn’t needed to be saved too and she wouldn’t have… “Oh god. I killed him,” she chokes out, softly, but still out loud and she’s just glad there’s no one…
Yikes! Someone’s here. Clutching her chest, she looks every which way for the source of the voice until, after what seems like way too long, a man steps out of the shadows. A really good-looking – in an older and in no way attainable way – man. Of course, he’s also wearing a whole lot of black and he’s a little too old for The Bronze so she’s not too sure about him. “Umm… killed?” Wow. That was a word and not just an incoherent vowel sound. That’s a lot better than she usually does around guys who aren’t Xander or… okay, maybe it’s not such a great idea to think about the best friend she killed while she’s trying to pretend she isn’t out here crying about killing her best friend. “Who… who said anything about killed?”
That’s sure rude. Okay, he’s right, but still… rude. She tries again. “I didn’t say ‘killed’. I said…” What can she say she said? “Spilled! I said spilled.” You know, if Sunnydale High ever offers an elective in lying, she so needs to sign up for it. ‘Spilled’? Really? That’s the best she could come up with?
The response she gets is, admittedly, what she probably deserves – a chuckle. Only this one is rueful and the strange man isn’t smiling. “I know about what happened here last night.”
For some reason, the hair stands up on the back of her neck. “Y-you mean the gang members and stuff?” At least it’s a cover story that other people invented – people way better at things like that than she is.
“So there were gang members, too, huh?” Another rueful chuckle. “And here I thought it was just vampires.”
Oh god! He knows! But how…?
She’s about to say something when she remembers: Discretion is the better part of valor. Well, she’s never been noted for her bravery, but since this doesn’t involve weapons… “Vampires?” she says, as if she thinks he’s kind of delusional, “There’s no such thing as…”
“I saw you last night. You were with the Slayer.”
Uh-oh. Buffy’s secret identity really isn’t all that secret, is it? But Willow’s going to keep trying to be valiant. “Slayer? What’s a…”
He shakes his head and somehow that silences her. “I think you’re a good friend for keeping her secret, but I know. She’s the Chosen One. The one girl in all the world. She fights vampires – and you know that.”
This is so not a situation she’s prepared to deal with. Besides Watchers and classmates who just happen to overhear her talking in libraries, who else would know about the Slayer? Oh gosh… “Are you… you know… one of the bad guys?”
Another shake of the head and a chuckle that’s not nearly as rueful but not mocking either. “I’m on your side,” he says, and she decides to believe him, even though, come to think of it, she asked a pretty dumb question and he probably wouldn’t have actually told her if he was evil. Still, he’s not trying to kill her either, so that probably means he’s telling the truth. Right?
Is there a book or something that she can study? Because this ‘battling the forces of darkness’ stuff is brand new territory for her and it’s way harder than school, that’s for sure.
“Who is it you killed?” he asks again.
He sounds really kind and he knows about vampires and so, even though it’s na´ve and stupid and they’ve never even been properly introduced, Willow opens her mouth and out it comes” “Jesse. He was my best friend. Well, one of them. He was…”
“Let me guess – he was turned. He was a vampire. That’s why you had to…”
“Kill him, yeah.” The man seems so sympathetic and he knows and… Willow can’t help it; she begins to cry again.
A moment later, the man holds out a handkerchief and she takes it, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose. “Thank you.”
Should she hand it back? It’s kind of gross now, which he seems to notice because he tells her to “Keep it” and she stuffs it in her pocket.
“He wasn’t your friend anymore, you know. Vampires… they may look just like who they used to be, but their souls are gone. Your friend… he would have killed you in a minute. Maybe even damned you by making you a vampire as well. You didn’t kill your friend. You killed a demon that took over his body. He was already dead.”
She gets what he’s saying, she does, but how can he be so sure? Because when she looked into Jesse’s eyes… “You don’t know that.”
“I…” He pauses and she gets that ‘hair standing up on the back of her neck’ thing again before he continues. “I knew a vampire. I knew him very well. He… he told me about who he’d been when he was human.”
“Really?” Is it weird that she finds this fascinating?
A nod and then her companion continues. “When he was human he was… well, he wasn’t as good a person as your friend, I know that. He was a drunk and a layabout. But he wasn’t evil. He wasn’t evil…”
His voice trails off and in the gap of the silence Willow thinks about Xander’s Mom, about how she drinks but also about when she doesn’t and then she’s really nice. No, being a drinker doesn’t make you… “He doesn’t sound evil at all,” she says, defending this vampire she’s never even met.
The man gives her a soft, sad smile. “He wasn’t… not when he was human. But after… After he was turned, evil was all he thought about. He slaughtered men, women, children. He delighted in torture and cruelty and in… well, things you’re too young and too innocent to know about. For two hundred years he struck terror in the hearts of men. He reveled in that fear. It made him proud. He was proud, can you imagine that? Proud of every horrible, depraved thing he’d ever done.”
Willow shudders, not even insulted by being called young and innocent. Something in the tone of the man’s voice… yeah, he’s right – there’s stuff she doesn’t need to hear. But…. “You really think? Jesse…?”
“I know. If you hadn’t destroyed him, there’s no telling how many lives would have been lost.”
She doesn’t feel better, not yet, but maybe she will, now that she knows… but wait… There’s something missing from the man’s story. She doesn’t know enough yet to know what it could be, only that there’s an empty place where a ‘something’ should be. If only she knew what to ask. In the absence of that, though, she goes with the obvious question. “What happened to your friend? You know, the vampire?”
“He wasn’t my friend. He wasn’t anyone’s friend.”
Oh. Is that how he gets…? “Did you… you know…?”
There’s the rise of an eyebrow as he nods. “I’m the reason he’s gone.”
“Wow.” She says the word softly and gently, trying to think of something better to say – something kind and understanding and sympathetic – even as the fact that all of these things have really and truly happened comes crashing down. This is the world. There’s calculus and Doogie Howser and frozen yogurt and… and vampires. It’s all the same and it’s all just as real.
All just as real as Jesse isn’t anymore.
“Willow?” a voice calls out.
It sounds like Buffy, so she turns and, yeah, it’s Buffy. And Xander. “I’m here. Just talking to…” But when she turns back, there’s no one there.
“Talking to who?” Buffy’s eyes dart quickly about, scanning the alley for someone, anyone.
Willow’s about to say something like ‘he just left’, when for some reason she doesn’t understand she says something else entirely. “To myself, of course. Because I do that sometimes.”
Xander puts his arm around her. “And that’s why we love you, Will.”
“Wanna come back inside and talk to us? Or maybe not talk, because it’s kind of loud. But I’d be a lot happier if you weren’t outside. In the dark. All alone.”
Giving in to Buffy’s protectiveness, Willow allows herself to be led back inside, pretending she’s as over last night as her friends seem to be. The friends who aren’t Jesse. The friends she didn’t kill. But in the back of her mind, she’s still mulling over all the things she heard tonight – all the things that she learned from someone she just met – all the questions she should have asked him and didn’t – all the things she still thinks she’s just as glad he didn’t tell her.
Just as she’s inside the Bronze again, she realizes something.
She never even asked the man’s name.
Oh well. It’s not like she’ll ever see him again.