"...and so the user said, 'I broke the coffee cup holder.' I'm all, 'What coffee cup holder?' 'You know, you press a button on the tower and the coffee cup holder slides out. I broke it, I need a new one.' The idiot had been putting her mug in the CD-ROM caddy!"
Willow joined in with the laughter. "Oh, I've got a good one." She drained her can of Coke and grinned. "There's this real snob at my school." Willow stopped and thought for a second. "Well, she's not really that bad of a snob anymore. Anyway, she was languishing in computer class and wanted to know how to save her program. I told her to hit 'deliver.'"
There were puzzled looks for all of three seconds until one of the guys hooted, "Delete!" and everyone lost it. Willow settled deeper into the comfortably beat-up couch in the rec room and relaxed, really relaxed, for the first time in months. Outside, the rain rattled the windows and pattered on the roof. Inside, the fire in the fireplace made everything warm and cozy. In the week she'd been here, she'd felt more accepted, more a part of the action then in her whole life in Sunnydale. She never would have imagined speaking up in front of a crowd of people at home. But the people here didn't make fun of her clothes or her hair or her interests.
She had found the nerds, and they were her.
She pushed away the twinge of guilt that hit when she thought of Buffy and Xander. Yeah, they accepted her. But Xander had known her her whole life, and Buffy... Buffy wouldn't have told her the truth about vampires if Willow hadn't already seen the evidence for herself. Probably she and Buffy would have never really become friends otherwise. Willow would have helped Buffy with her homework and sometimes wondered at the weird things that Buffy would say. But she would have never really known her.
Cutting into Willow's musing, the big grandfather clock in the room started booming. "Oops. Shift change. Okay, who's got the lab for the next two hours?" Rick asked. The lab was open twenty-four hours a day, and the kids who were attending the computer camp signed up for two hour blocks of time on the mega computers that the company sponsoring the camp provided.
Willow got up and stretched. "I've got the 6 AM to 8 AM block," she said, yawning, "so I'm going to sleep now."
The vastly night-owl-skewed population of computer geeks shuddered. "6 AM?" Lily asked. "Nobody's awake then! The sun isn't even up yet!"
"But it rises pretty soon," Willow pointed out. "I like the sun. Watching it rise, I mean. 'Night."
Willow set her clock for 5:30 AM so she'd have time for a shower, and fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillows. But at 4:30 she found herself wide-awake and bright-eyed.
"Okay, I'll just get an early start. The labs pro-AW-" she yawned, "-bably deserted now, so I can get some extra time on the computer."
She stumbled in and out of the shower on automatic pilot, but perked up the closer she got to the lab room. It was still dark, and so intent was she on the thought of putting in some time on the lovely, lovely computers in there that she almost ran into a girl standing in front of a cabinet. "Whoa. Sorry."
The girl didn't seem to notice that she had nearly been collided with. "Where is it?" she muttered. "Confound it, I know it's around here somewhere. Where is it?"
Willow tilted her head a little to the side and looked at the other girl. She was a few years older than Willow, maybe a college student come to intern at the house. She was dressed in a long, floral, old-fashioned-looking dress, and her dark hair was in a long braid down her back. Willow hadn't seen her around before, but everyone had been putting in a lot of time in the labs, so it was possible that she'd been here for the past week and Willow just hadn't seen her.
"What are you looking for?" she asked finally. The other girl turned and jumped as though she had been stuck with a pin.
"Oh!" Wide dark eyes met Willow's. "It's... my journal," she said finally. "I can't find the dratted thing. I know I put it in here somewhere.... " The words trailed off as the girl seemed to forget Willow's existence, turning back to the open cabinet.
Except that Willow was quite sure that cabinet was always kept locked. Well, maybe if the other girl worked here, she had a key. "Can I help?" Willow offered.
"Um... could you check the pie safe? Why a pie safe is in the parlor I don't know...."
"Pie safe? What's a pie safe?"
"Over there, under the window." The girl, still distracted, pointed impatiently. "The cook locks his pies in it to keep them from being devoured before dinner. He will be put out to find someone has moved it in here."
Willow located the small, squat chest and opened it. Entertainment Weekly, People, Time and, of course, every shade and variation of computer magazine, but nothing that looked like a journal.
Willow got to her feet and turned back to look at the other girl. "I don't see...." Her voice died.
The sun was coming up, shining through the window behind the other girl. And *through* the other girl.
A moment later, the ghost vanished.
She could handle this. She could. Willow repeated her not-terribly-convincing mantra to herself as she made her way to the computer lab. It wasn't a vampire or a witch or a demon in a full metal jacket, or a three-headed *thing*. It was just a ghost.
Just. Just a ghost. What had her life become that she actually framed a thought with the words "just a ghost" in them?
She could handle it, though. No sweat. She reached the lab and booted up the computer, logging in.
First things first. Go for the easy answers. She jumped on Yahoo and did a search on ghosts, poltergeists, wandering spirits, and the like. She'd done enough 'Net research for Giles to know at a glance which of the sites were just lurid imaginings and which contained useful information.
And which needed to be dug into a little more deeply...
By the time people started entering the computer room, the sun was fully up and shining with all its might and Willow had been online for three hours. She collected her printouts and unobtrusively slid them into her backpack, then started the project that was supposed to be her focus for the six week session, pretending that she had been working on it since daybreak. "Hey, Will," Rick leaned over the back of her chair. "What was that?"
"Nothing," Willow said casually. "Just some script that I think I need to go over later. I don't want to waste my time on the computer doing it now." ~Hate lying, hate lying, hate it, hate it...~
"Okay. Um, some of us were going into town to grab some dinner tonight. Maybe go to a movie. Did you want to come with me?"
"Hmm?" Willow said absently. "Oh, I thought I'd get something out of the kitchen here. I, um, am falling behind on my project."
"Oh," Rick said. "Another time?"
"Sure. Another time what?" Willow's fingers were flying over the keyboard, and she didn't notice Rick's ignomous retreat.
By the time she was kicked off the computer, she had managed to get a good amount of work done on her project. She retreated to her room with her printouts and started highlighting things that seemed appropriate. Within a few hours, she had assembled enough information to begin to figure out what was going on.
Ghosts fell into a few categories. There was your loud and annoying chain-rattling type. There was the quiet and unobtrusive specter type. And then there was the destructive, whirlwind poltergeist type.
This ghost didn't seem to be destructive. And no one else mentioned hearing chains rattling or doors opening or phantom shrieks in the night. But the ghost did seem to be more than your average wandering spirit. She had a definite purpose and desire.
Ghosts became ghosts, so the theory went, because they had left some earthly thing undone. This particular ghost had been looking for a journal. Willow put down her papers and got up to head down to lunch, thinking hard. If the journal was found, would the ghost be free?
It wasn't until Willow almost turned away from a crowded table to sit by herself to think that she realized what she was doing. Why did she automatically think that *she* had to fix things? Just because there was a ghost and the ghost *may* want her freedom, didn't mean that Willow was obligated to drop everything to help her, right? That was her life in Sunnydale. And that life had nearly gotten her killed.
Flipping her long hair over one shoulder, Willow stopped by a empty seat. "Um, is this one taken?" The chorus of welcomes almost drowned out the mournful wail in her head.
Willow sighed, turned over, and punched her pillow. "Sleeping would be good about now," she said out loud.
Nobody answered her.
It wasn't her job. Right? She wasn't the Chosen One. She just happened to have developed an odd talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or right place at wrong time. Or...
Besides, even Buffy wasn't a Ghostbuster. She was a Vampire Slayer. The fact that they had been up against some other really weird stuff had nothing to do with Buffy's duties, and everything to do with the fact they lived on a Hellmouth. This really was Giles' area of expertise.
"Great, now I have guilt." Willow dumped her pillow on the floor and flopped facedown into the mattress.
"Okay, okay, I'll do it." Sighing, Willow sat up and pushed her long hair away from her face. Maybe the ghost didn't want to be released from her captivity. Maybe she was happy to be haunting a house full of computer geeks. Maybe Willow couldn't do anything about it.
But she couldn't sleep until she tried.
There were still faint sounds coming from the computer lab, nocturnal creatures discovering the joys of C++. In her robe and slippers, Willow tiptoed into the small parlor where she had seen the ghost before. "Hello? Anyone here? Hello? Um... are there any ghosts around? Anything undead at all? Okay, I tried. Can I sleep now?"
Before she could turn to go back to bed, a crackle of static energy lifted the fine hairs on her nape. Slowly turning her head, Willow saw the ghost standing in front of the window. Wan moonlight spilled through her incorporeal body.
Willow swallowed. Twice. "Um... hi," she managed weakly. How *did* you address a ghost?
Like their earlier meeting, only when Willow directly addressed the not-quite invisible girl did she seem to recognize Willow's presence. Wide dark eyes fixed on the mortal girl's slight figure. "Oh! Did you find it?" she asked eagerly.
Willow shook her head. "No. Um... what is it that you are looking for? Exactly?"
The ghost turned and knelt in front of the fireplace, poking slightly up the chimney. "My journal. Papa threatened to burn it. He didn't, did he?" the ghost asked anxiously, glancing back over her shoulder.
Willow shook her head vigorously. "No. Um, I don't think so."
Pulling away from the hearth -- without a trace of soot from either modern or prehistoric fires -- the girl sat back on her heels. "Where *is* it, then?" she fretted.
Willow took a step toward her. "What's your name?"
"Oh, how rude of me! I'm Eleanor Gordon. My friends call me Nell. Or at least, they did...," Nell's voice trailed off uncertainly, "...long ago."
"I'm Willow." ~Do you know you're dead?~ Willow thought, but didn't ask.
The girl smiled brightly. "I'm quite pleased to meet you." Her eyes turned vague again. "Where is the blasted thing? It had all my work in it." She rose and turned toward the door.
"Wait! Tell me what looks like at least. Maybe I can help you find it?"
"It's a *journal*," Nell said with the impatience of both youth and ghosthood. "Leather cover."
"What's in it? Is it your diary?"
"No, no! It's my work, do you understand? The new university, the one Stanford is founding, won't take women. But I've got formulas and equations that will *prove* to them that I'm not a foolish girl, that I'm the equal of any of the men who will attend. But if I can't find it, I can't prove to them that I can do the work. And if Papa burned it...."
Nell's transparent face crumpled in grief, and Willow couldn't resist putting out a comforting hand. The electric shock she received when she touched Nell's form jolted her back a step.
When she looked up again, Nell was gone.
"Willow?" Meri, one of the other kids at camp poked her head into the room. "Who were you talking to?"
"Uh... nothing. No one." Willow was still staring at the spot that Nell had occupied a moment before. She had disappeared right before her eyes. Just poof. There, and gone.
"Yes, you were," Meri insisted. "I heard you!"
"Just... myself. Myself."
Meri gave her a weird look, and unpoked her head from the room. Willow stood still for several moments, her heart pounding. The look on Meri's face... as if Willow were some kind of weirdo. ~Isn't that what I am? I talk to ghosts. How much weirder can you get?~ "I thought I could take anything," she muttered. Then she turned and ran from the room.
Willow avoided the parlor for the next few days. She worked hard on her project, and slept with her pillow over her ears to block out any ghostly pleas.
She didn't *want* this. She'd finally found a place where she fit in, really fit in, and she didn't want anyone looking at her the way Meri had that night. Looking at her as though she was strange, bizarre. Abby Normal. She wanted to fit in.
She didn't fit in at Sunnydale High. She never would. But here... she had a chance to find out what normal was. She didn't want to screw it up.
It was early evening, not even quite dark yet. Willow was brooding in the rec room. Before she had met Buffy, she'd been plain Willow Rosenberg. Resident hacker, tutor-for-begging, doormat and lonely. Since Buffy had arrived in Sunnydale, Willow had nearly died more times than she really wanted to remember. But she'd also been truly, completely accepted for the first time in her life. Xander, always a bud, had become one of her closest friends. And Buffy, while not exactly a role model, taught her fashion and make-up and self-esteem.
Here, she was another computer geek, just another face in the crowd, but a *part* of that crowd. With Xander and Buffy and Giles, she was a part of something else entirely, something that frightened her. She loved them, loved them all, but she didn't know if she could handle what came with being around Buffy.
"Will!" Rick beamed at her. "There you are. Wanna go into town with us?"
She looked up, meeting Rick's eyes, Lily's eyes, Juan's, Ben's. Sudden, she felt a little dizzy. They were all her age, and yet she felt so much older than all of them. They hadn't had to see the bodies of their friends strewn all over. They hadn't had to fight the forces of evil. She wasn't good with people anyway. It had always been easier to just withdraw, to avoid conflict, to not fight.
"Will? Please? I don't want to be the only girl out with all these he-men." Lily's voice was teasing, but her eyes were honestly pleading.
Buffy had taught her to fight. And she knew she could. Maybe she had seen and done things that most kids her age would never have to deal with. But it had made her stronger. More than that. It was a part of her. She was Willow Rosenberg, Slayerette, as much as she was Willow Rosenberg, hacker extrodinaire. Two sides of one person.
She'd proved that she could handle the powers of darkness. She could definitely handle that arguably more scary task of social interaction.
"Sure." Moving forward, she blended with the group. "As long as we hit a McDonald's. I'm starved."
"And a movie? They're rereleasing Scream up here," Rick said, slinging an arm around her shoulders. Willow stole a look at him, and sighed. Yeah, he was cute. But she was a little leery of guys after "Malcolm." And, despite everything, she still loved Xander, as clueless as he was.
Which didn't, however, mean that she couldn't appreciate a little male attention...
Willow stood at the bottom of the attic stairs and took a deep breath. "I can do this. I can. I can."
Questioning the house administrator had lead her to this spot, up in the quietest part of the house. Mrs. Marshall had assumed Willow was a history buff, interested in the history of the house and its former owners. She had told Willow that all the family possessions had been stored in the attic following the house's sale.
If the diary was anywhere, it was up there.
Armed with a flashlight and a firm grasp on her courage, Willow climbed the steps and tried not to remember certain key scenes from the movie she had just watched -- watched being a loose term, considering how much time she had spent with her hands clapped over her eyes.
The attic was hot and dusty, still holding the heat of the summer day. It was also very dark. Moonlight slanted through random cracks in the boards, making crazy patterns on the floor. Dust motes shimmered in the close, still air.
Willow started poking in corners, lifting lids of trunks, peering into wardrobes. The beam of the flashlight found treasures, alone in the dark. Hats missing half their feathers, faded and torn dresses from time gone by, fans and trinkets and *things* that didn't seem to have any use, and were exotic for their very uselessness.
It was an oddly peaceful way to spend time. Willow felt surrounded by ghosts -- but they didn't bother her this time. There were lives represented by the accumulation of stuff that had been hidden away in the attic. People, plain old ordinary people. Willow almost forgot her mission until she turned to the last piece of furniture -- a big mahogany desk.
Squeezing around a dressmaker's dummy and a big framed mirror, Willow knelt down in front of the desk. It had more drawers than she would have expected a desk to have, and the top one was locked. She tried all the other drawers, but they were empty of everything except for random papers that looked boring.
So she found a long hooked thing that prompted a vague memory of "Little House on the Prairie," and started working to pry the locked drawer open. She hated to damage the beautiful wood, but she'd promised Nell that she would try to find the journal. And if it was up here, it was probably in this desk that Willow was willing to bet belonged to....
A stray rumbling sound had Willow poised to dive into the kneehole of the desk. She was California-born and bred, and earthquake-reflexes were bone-deep with her. But the rumbling stopped and she started chipping away at the drawer again, suddenly scared and eager to get out. She held the flashlight awkwardly with her chin and used both hands, trying to pop the lock out of its groove.
A crash made her scream and drop the flashlight, which rolled over and over, its light careening around the confines of the attic. She crawled out from under the desk and looked around. A glass figurine lay on the floor, shattered. While Willow tried to convince herself that it had fallen after the brief tremor, a music box sitting on a three-legged table nearby flew through the air and smashed against a tall wardrobe. The pieces showered to the floor in a rain of disjointed music.
At that point, Willow realized she was seeing altogether too well for her light source being a dim moon and a fallen flashlight. She really, really didn't want to turn around, but it was a toss-up which was worse: not knowing what was behind you, or *knowing.*
"Not knowing," she whispered, her throat suddenly very dry, and turned.
He was an old man, fifties or sixties, with a thick head of hair and a handlebar mustache. Willow's mouth worked for a few moments, taking in the old-fashioned clothes and the faint luminosity that surrounded his figure. "Are you Mr. Gordon?" she asked.
The ghost didn't seem to hear her, although he could certainly *see* her. His eyes were fixed on her with an intensity that made Willow want to be somewhere, *anywhere* but where he was. His expression was one of fixed coldness, lacking even the most basic thread of humanity. While she was trying to decide the quickest way out of the attic, the drawers started flying out of the desk, crashing into the wall. All but the locked one.
"Please," Willow said. "I just want to find your daughter's journal --"
~Bad move. Very, very bad move.~ The poltergeist didn't seem to like that idea. Willow screamed again as every breakable in the room seemed to fling itself at her head. Terrified, she took shelter behind a bureau and covered her head with her arms.
Only to be trapped when the wardrobe slide towards her, inextoribly coming closer. She was pinned in a corner between the bureau and the wall, and would be crushed...
"Father, no!" Nell's cry seemed to stop the wardrobe's advance, although it was still blocking Willow's escape.
As though a switch had been thrown, the ghost seemed to suddenly come to life. He was still transparent, but there was consciousness, understanding, *soul* in his eyes. "Nell, lass, go to your room."
"I want it back," she begged, tears pouring down her face. "Please!"
"No daughter of mine is going to ruin herself trying to prove herself a man," Nell's father thundered. "What man would marry a woman who played with numbers all day long and couldn't cook to save her life? I'm doing this for your own good, lass."
"Please, Father! You don't understand. My *work* is in there, everything I've learned, years and years of studying. You can't take it away from me."
Willow was watching the drama through the narrow crack between the bureau and the wardrobe, and swore that she saw Mr. Gordon's expression soften. "Lass..." he said quietly, "I don't want to see you break your heart on what can never be. Even if they would allow you into that school, even if I let you go... what would you do? Who would hire you to use the knowledge you would gain? You're better off marrying and having a son who you can teach what you know."
"I don't want to marry and raise a son to have what I cannot. *I* want it! I want to try. Father..."
Crying desolately, Nell's ghost flickered and disappeared.
Mr. Gordon remained behind his desk, staring at the space where his daughter had been a moment before. "I didn't know. I swear I didn't know, girl. I didn't know you cared so... I'm sorry. I'm sorry..."
Slowly, the wardrobe inched its way back from its looming position over Willow's head. No fragile breakables flew through the air as she crossed to the desk. Mr. Gordon was gone. So, too, Willow suspected, was Nell.
But on the scarred and scratched surface lay a small leather book. Inscribed on the flyleaf with faded ink was the name, "Eleanor Gordon."
"It's not fair. It's not. Somehow, I thought that when I gained the courage to show Father my work, when I proved to him that it was real and true and not just a foolish young girl's imagining... I thought he would understand, and would believe in me. I so needed him to believe in me. To prove to him that I was not just his silly, flighty daughter, that I could make him proud.
"But I failed. He laughed in my face, and said I was a fool for thinking that I could ever gain admittance to the university. Such was not for me. My duty, my fate, was to marry and keep a house and be a mother.
"But... but I had to try. I had to believe I could win. If I had not... then my soul would have been a desolate thing. I *know* that the work I have done in my little book is good, that my mind is equal and more to any of those who will wander the halls of this new university. And that knowledge is my one comfort and solace."
Willow closed the book before any of her tears smeared the ink, clasping it to her chest and thinking. Poor Nell. That was the last entry. She must have died young, of what, Willow didn't know, but young.
Leaving behind this book.
Willow glanced at her bedside clock, blinking in surprise when she saw the hour. At this rate, she was rapidly becoming accustomed to the night-owl hours that so many of her hacker ilk kept. They were often the same hours that Buffy kept, as well, in her duty to pursue and kill the demons who hunted the night.
And she belonged to both. She could take pride in the fact that what she had done for Buffy had helped her. The horrors that she had seen were nothing compared to the love and acceptance she had now.
Tiptoeing downstairs, Willow peered into the parlor. "Nell?" she whispered. "Nell?"
Smiling slightly, Willow left the journal lying amid a stack of computer magazines. Someone would find it tomorrow. Someone would read it, and recognize what it contained.
"I hope you're at peace now, Nell," Willow said softly. She turned to the door, to head back up to go to bed, and stopped, struck by a sudden realization. "Because I am."
Buffy's Story | Giles' Story | Willow's Story | Xander's Story
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