FT14 Changing the Odds parts 20 to 24/24
“He’s old,” Vic murmured as they left Rustling Pines, “and getting frail.”
Willow nodded, feeling like there was something stuck in her throat, and maybe in her eyes. “He is pretty old. Cousin Erik’s his firstborn grandson, and he’s not exactly young himself. I’ve had people tell me that I should feel lucky that he’s lived this long, lucky that I’ve had a chance to know him. He’s always been very healthy for his age”
Vic nodded, but didn’t say anything else.
Willow didn’t want to say the words out loud, especially not near the Hellmouth. She didn’t want to admit that even if Erik’s mother had been the child of his youth, her Opa was very old. That he might not have much longer. That he was looking much older and frailer than he had only a couple months ago. Didn’t want to think about how something that she could recover from easily could be the death of her Opa.
She didn’t want to think about the fact that he could die soon. That perhaps ‘would’ was a more accurate word than ‘could’. Willow didn’t want to imagine life without her Opa, as she’d been forced to adjust to life without Jesse, life knowing about vampires and demons, life as a mutant. Even though she knew that one day, she would have to face that reality.
“You have a scary thing to find near the point. I’ll meet up with Xander and we’ll try to figure out what’s near the cemetery,” Willow tried to distract herself from worrying about her Opa. She considered various types of demons that lurked in cemeteries, considered packs of hungry vampires. Thought about another Carl, hiding in a cemetery, hoping that the vampires and demons didn’t find them and even more worried about the humans finding them.
Willow watched as Vic headed towards the point, ready to track down and destroy the predatory demon attacking the livestock. Despite all the lessons in self defense, despite her wire-wrapped staff, she felt less safe without him. She tried to convince herself that she was being, not exactly silly, but worrying too much. Vic wasn’t going to want to spend the rest of his life tagging along behind her, scaring away any hint of danger. Besides that, she’d been taking lessons to get to a point where she wouldn’t need a bodyguard standing behind her to scare away all the problems in her life.
“Not that a bodyguard can solve everything anyhow,” Willow admitted. She was far more capable of defending herself than she had been a year ago, but this was Sunnydale, and caution was still a good idea.
Willow had made it half way to the community of houses where Tracie lived when she felt the red static covered orangey presence of a vampire. The presence suggested a vampire larger than she was, but not as big as Vic - maybe Xander sized. The vampire was moving towards her, perhaps trying to sneak up on her if he knew she was there. Trying not to let herself panic, Willow shifted her grip on her wire wrapped staff, and with her other hand checked that the bag holding washers, bolts, nuts, screws and nails was open, edging it closer to the edge of her pocket. She wasn’t the same helpless girl from last year, and she didn’t need a Slayer or a bodyguard all the time… she hoped.
Willow spun around, her staff lifting into position to attack, the bag of metal bits falling out of her pocket. Bits of metal scattered across the sidewalk, ready to fling themselves at the vampire in an instant, not attacking without looking just in case the vampire was Angel.
It wasn’t Angel.
He had maroon streaks dyed into bright yellow hair and a battered Razorbacks letter jacket on, paired with a shirt for some band that she didn’t recognize and dirty jeans. A former jock turned vampire. There was no subtlety, his eyes were yellow under the heavy vampire ridges, and his sharp teeth were bared in a sneer, “You can’t hurt me, girlie. I’m too tough now. Gonna be around forever.”
Willow had never liked arrogant jocks. She didn’t like most vampires. A vampire that was also an arrogant jock was just appalling and frustrating and had to die. The bits of metal sped towards him, acting like a swarm of bees. They hit, with washers, nails and screws ripping at his skin while the bolts and nuts beat at him like bits of hail.
“What the hell?” The vampire twisted and flailed, trying to shield his eyes, swatting at the air around him.
Deciding that she obviously couldn’t control enough separate bits with enough force to do serious harm, Willow made a mental note to work more on that skill later. Instead of seriously hurting him, she had him off balance, frustrated and confused. The same could be said of her physical muscles. With a come-here gesture, Willow summoned a manhole cover to bash the vampire in the back of the head. While he was stunned, she staked him, feeling much better as he crumbled to ashes. A few moments later, the manhole cover was back in place, her tiny metal swarm was back in the bag and in her pocket, and she was walking down the street again.
“Sometimes I can save myself,” she whispered.
Willow was smiling as she continued towards Tracie’s house. Granted, she clearly needed to practice more with her meat swarm, and it might not hurt to get some sharper bits in there. Maybe she could put an edge on the washers, or find some tiny saw blades? It would also help to strengthen her muscles. She was much stronger than she had been last year, but there was still plenty of room and reason to improve. If she’d been stronger, maybe she could have stabbed the vampire while her swarm had him distracted.
If she had better control, maybe her metal swarm could have shredded the vampire leaving no need for a stake. It wasn’t that she couldn’t pull something hard enough to damage someone, just that she couldn’t seem to manage that much force with more than one or two things at once. Too many things split her concentration too much to apply as much force, unless she let her fine control diminish. It would take practice to keep the control and increase the strength.
“Most things take practice. Why would this be different?” She thought back on everything that she’d done or might have done with her power. “But I’ve come a long way.”
End part 20.
Willow knocked on Tracie’s door, hoping that she wouldn’t be interrupting anything. As unhappy as she’d first been when Xander had started dating someone that well, wasn’t her, she wanted things to go well for him. Wanted her best friend since kindergarten to be happy. Well, happy and safe. Without her walking in on them doing anything that would traumatize her, or maybe send her into a jealous fit.
“Hey,” the door opened, revealing Tracie. Stepping away from the door, she said, “You seem to be in a good mood.”
“A vampire tried to jump me on the way over,” Willow admitted as she stepped inside. The lack of a verbal invitation was only sensible here, preventing recently turned vampires from slipping inside to kill you before you noticed something was wrong.
“Vampires are not our friends, and them jumping us is a bad thing, remember?” Xander called.
“The part where I managed to kill him is a good thing,” Willow countered.
“What, Vic didn’t rip him apart before you could?” Xander looked doubtful. “We all know how he enjoys killing the vamps, the demons… probably the anything…”
“Vic is on his way to the Point to find and kill a nasty. I was all by myself when the vampire tried to get me,” Willow paused, considering that all by herself wasn’t that safe. Pushing the fear away, she smiled, “And I got him all by myself. It wasn’t elegant, it wasn’t fast or subtle, but it worked.”
“Alazcia doesn’t think we should go by ourselves to the cemetery,” Tracie pouted. “Something might eat us… and I suppose she has a point.”
“But wouldn’t the group of us, by definition of a group, not be alone?” Xander asked. “Back me up here, Willow. A group can’t be alone, right? Cause a group is, you know, more than one.”
“Well, a group is more than one,” Willow agreed. “I think what she means is there needs to be someone strong enough that she doesn’t feel like we’re all gonna die. Maybe she could come with us?”
“What do you expect to find at the cemetery?” Alazcia handed Tracie a large handgun.
“Unless Willow’s learned more since this afternoon, we don’t know what to expect,” Xander shrugged.
“Willow would have mentioned if she was certain of a hostile demon, wouldn’t you, Willow?” Tracie glanced at Willow as she tucked the gun into an underarm holster.
“There’s been signs of someone about, and some empty pop bottles and food wrappers. The neighbors have reported a prowler about and heard what’s been written as strange noises. I’m not sure what they meant by that, because the police reports didn’t describe them. So there’s something or somebody there, and they eat food,” Willow sighed and tried to identify how many bullets were in Tracie’s gun.
“So not a vampire,” Alazcia murmured.
“Maybe it’s another mutant?” Xander looked up. “Wasn’t Carl hiding in a little cave?”
“He was and it could be. Or it could be some sort of demon,” Willow answered.
“And if it is a demon?” Tracie looked up, her eyes fading from hazel to yellow.
“If it attacks us, we defend and hope it isn’t invulnerable to everything we’ve got. If it’s some sort of not so violent demon, we suggest that the cemetery might not be the best place to hang out due to vampires,” Willow shrugged. According to some of Giles’ books, Tracie was a demon. But Tracie didn’t seem to be dangerous, and she felt more threatened by some of the popular girls at school than she did by Tracie. She was willing to give someone who didn’t look human the benefit of the doubt, as long as they didn’t attack her or her friends first. And maybe that was another change from last year.
“When are these strange noises occurring?” Alazcia asked, a knife vanishing into her boot.
“The police reports claim between midnight and three,” Willow shrugged. “Vic’s supposed to meet us after he takes care of the nasty killing animals near the Point. Just in case the noises are something that wants to hurt us. For all we know if could be some sort of giant raccoon making the noises and just an ordinary but kinda lucky bum in the graveyard. In which case we hope the raccoon doesn’t bite and warn the bum about vampires.”
“A giant raccoon?” Xander smirked.
“You still don’t believe me about the frog, do you?” Willow sighed.
“Frog?” Tracie asked.
“There was a camping trip when we were what, five? Maybe six?” Willow paused, looking to Xander to see if he could remember which age. “I went for a walk around this pretty little pond. Out of the water came this giant frog. It must have been bigger than I was.”
“Wills came screaming back to our camp, babbling about giant frogs and ukeleles and evil slime. She’s been creeped out by frogs ever since,” Xander managed not to laugh, though it was obviously a close thing.
“If there can be giant frogs, why not giant other things?” Willow frowned, remembering the crocodile-like demon that had been in the sewers. There had been the walking frog-demon that had tried to kill her over the summer, which Vic had shredded in the driveway. And some of the books mentioned giant newt demons. “It isn’t that much weirder than things that we’ve already seen.”
“That’s… okay, I’ll give you that one,” Xander sighed. “The Hellmouth sucks.”
“So we have a few hours before we can expect the disturbances,” Alazcia mused. “And I’ve also seen oversized frogs.”
“Okay, so there are giant frogs. I guess we head over and hope not to see too many vampires?” Xander muttered.
“Vic was going to meet up with us after he took care of the nasty near the Point,” Willow offered. Xander’s expression made it clear that he didn’t find Vic reassuring.
End part 21.
Xander and Tracie were walking hand in hand towards the cemetery, whispering to each other. Alazcia was watching them with an odd expression that seemed to mix amusement, cynicism, hope and maybe a little jealousy. Willow was walking towards the back, watching all of this. She could understand some of those emotions, unless she was completely reading in things that weren’t there. Alazcia had mentioned a husband – maybe she was jealous that Tracie had someone here and now. Maybe she was hoping things would work better for them.
Willow sort of wished that she had a someone of her own. Someone that she could walk hand in hand with, smiling and whispering sweet things. Someone to sneak kisses with. Except that she really didn’t have such a someone and she currently was rather lacking in prospects. Even if there’s been someone interested before, the whole mutant thing seemed to have taken that from ‘slim chance’ to ‘no chance’.
And now she was feeling sorry for herself about her non-love life. “I have to stop that. No more angsting for me, and no more chick-flicks where the girl stumbles over true love. I’m healthy, I’m smart, I’ve got plenty of time. It’s okay that I don’t have a guy right now.”
The cemetery was… well, a cemetery at night. She didn’t feel any vampires lurking at the front, though they all had stakes just in case. The moonlight on the headstones looked almost pretty in a creepy and morbid sort of way, and there were wilting flowers on a recent grave. A second glance let her see that the headstone read Melissa Masterson, and she remembered that name being on the suspicious bodies list a few nights ago. The disturbed ground suggested that Buffy may have had to Slay Melissa already.
“Where are we looking?” Xander called.
“If someone’s hiding here, we should check the big mausoleums. You know, big and roomy enough to not give someone claustrophobia.” Willow replied.
As they moved towards the back, Willow found herself thinking that something was off, she just wasn’t certain what. Deciding to ask the rest, she called, “Is it just me, or is there something… not the way we expect?”
“I’m new to the whole night time walks through a cemetery, so whatever it is, I’m missing it,” Tracie admitted.
“You know, now that you mention it…” Xander paused, glancing around before he offered, “It’s really quiet. Like we’re the only ones here.”
“Be cautious, such quiet may be a sign of danger.” Alazcia warned.
Willow tried to extend her awareness, and felt something at one of the mausoleums. She wasn’t close enough to know what was there, but she really doubted that it was anything human. “Over there, one of the mausoleums is… not empty. But whatever’s in there isn’t a random human.”
“Anything more specific?” Tracie asked.
“Sorry, I’m barely close enough to tell that it’s occupied. I don’t think human or vampire though,” Willow offered.
“What of mutant?” Alazcia mused.
“So far, the mutants that I’ve met have felt like humans. I suppose some might feel different, if they were really not the same as most people are, or really big or small or had extra limbs, but –“
“Shhhh,” Alazcia whispered. “We are getting closer, and they may be hostile.”
Moving closer to where Willow could feel habitation, they could see light spilling out of one of the mausoleums. It was one of the larger ones, the sort intended to look big and impressive and to permit even the dead of the wealthy families to show how much better their budgets were than the ordinary people.
As they approached, Willow’s nose wrinkled at the scents carried on the slight breeze. Cigar smoke, and something sort of like pond scum, and beer. There was also the sound of laughter.
“Why am I suddenly reminded of Dad’s poker nights with his buddies?” Xander whispered.
Just a little closer and they could hear the sounds as well. Someone was laughing, though there was a strange clicking mixed in the laughter. Someone else was hissing, though the general feeling was that the hissing being was complaining. Another voice was saying something in a language that Willow couldn’t even identify, much less understand. From this distance, she could sort out that there were seven beings inside, none of them quite the orangey feeling presences that were human. Then again, Tracie also had the same sort of orangey presence.
Edging over, Willow peeked at the doorway. She just see a little bit inside, identifying a pair of scaly elbows, suggesting that whoever the elbows belonged to had two arms on that side, a leg clad in dark grey track pants, and a portion of a visor cap over a bald, scaly head. Moving just a little more, she could see that two of the large stone crypts had been pushed together, with a couple empty beer bottles at the edge, and another on the floor beside an empty potato chip bag. Looking for the hands attached to the scaly elbows, she saw one hand holding another beer bottle and the other with several playing cards. Several stacks of poker chips had been piled behind the cards, with a less orderly heap there as well, and a CD case poking out of the pile of chips.
Willow edged back, tying to keep from laughing or muttering. Gesturing for the others to back up with her, she shook her head, whispering, “That was surreal.”
She looked at Xander, “You were closer than you knew. It appears that the disturbances are from demons playing poker.”
“Demon poker night?” Xander blinked, “Is that even… what are they playing for?”
“I saw poker chips, a CD, and beer. Pretty normal looking, except that the guy I saw was scaly and had two arms on that side,” Willow shrugged. “Possible gambling addictions aside, I don’t think we need to try to bust up their poker game.”
“Demons play poker?” Alazcia shook her head, and muttered a few things to herself involving hellmouths and insanity and beer.
“Let it not be said that those with scales shouldn’t be allowed to play poker,” Tracie offered, her own expression showing amusement.
With that, they headed out of the cemetery.
“I guess they must do that pretty regularly,” Xander mused. “I mean, if there keep being reports of noises and trash.”
“No worse than what the high school and college students get up to, and they probably don’t have to worry about the vampires eating them,” Willow shrugged.
They had left the cemetery before a shape loomed in the darkness. Xander squeaked, fumbling for his stake before the shape moved closer, proving to be a rather messy Vic. He was half covered with blood that may or may not have been his own, his teeth bared in a frightful smile, and bits of something caught under his claws. “Problem at the Point solved, what’s in the cemetery?”
“Demons playing poker. We figured that a poker game for chips and beer is harmless enough,” Willow answered. After a moment, she asked, “Are you okay? You look… umm… it looks like whatever was there objected.”
One clawed hand waved, as if dismissing the idea of problems. “Fine. Demons playing poker? I suppose that’s not a reason to go kill them.”
“You don’t have to sound disappointed,” Willow sighed.
“He likes to kill things,” Xander muttered.
“So? It’s fun and I’m good at it,” Vic growled.
Xander and Tracie stepped closer together, and edged a bit nearer to Alazcia, staring at Vic. “Umm. Why don’t we just go home now?”
“Would it do any good at all to say that you shouldn’t go around scaring people just because you can?” Willow asked as her friend, his girlfriend, and his girlfriend’s defense instructor retreated.
For a moment, Vic seemed to be pondering that before he shook his head, “Naah.”
Willow just sighed. “I think it’s time for me to get home too. I still need to do a little research on that new girl. She’s hiding something, and I don’t know what. For all I know, she could have some evil plan.”
Vic shrugged, and fell into step behind her.
“Demons playing poker…” Willow let herself laugh about that on the way home.
End part 22.
“You’re sure I can’t go kill them?” Vic asked, gesturing back towards the cemetery.
“While I’m quite certain that you’re capable of it, there’s no need to kill anyone for playing card games. How about if we set the guideline of not killing them unless they’re attacking people or trying to dig up and eat dead bodies at the cemeteries?” Willow’s nose wrinkled as she remembered the descriptions of ghouls.
“Why?” Vic asked.
“If I’m going to say that mutants aren’t bad just because they aren’t human, then if I say that demons must be bad for not being the same as humans, that’d make me a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so just not being human isn’t enough to say that they should be killed. But if they’re trying to eat someone who can ask for mercy, then that’s not okay. And digging up dead bodies is creepy and disrespectful, so that’s not okay either. The whole idea is to make the place safer, even if you’re green or can move things by thinking about it, or have claws. Especially for children who can’t be expected to save themselves,” Willow babbled as she tried to explain.
“So, I can get them if they’re hurting someone else? Especially a kid?” Vic looked thoughtful.
Something about Vic’s smile made Willow think back over her words. That smile looked awfully gleeful, and predatory. No killing just for not being human. Not for looking different or someone else thinking they were scary. What had he heard in her words that she had missed?
Ah, she’d figure it out sooner or later. Home beckoned, with the chance to settle in with some hot cocoa and her computer, do a little hacking, look up a few things… Maybe she could sort out a good time for Chris and Lili to visit.
* * * * * * * * * *
Morning came far too soon, though that could have been connected to the simple fact that Willow had stayed up too late on her computer. She’d learned a few things about Esme Stepford, or at least about an Esme Stepford, of fifteen years of age and born in Boston. If this was the same Esme, and the things that Esme had mentioned about herself did match. The Esme that she’d found had been one of a set of quintuplets, born with considerable complications to Maria Stepford, the second wife of Edmund Stepford. Both parents came from families best described as ‘old money.’ To make things stranger, the Stepford quintuplets were apparently identical. Willow had tried at various times to imagine having a brother or sister, and failed. The idea of having four sisters – four identical sisters – was mind-boggling. But nothing that she’d found gave any explanation why that Esme Stepford would be in Sunnydale California, especially not alone, without parents or sisters.
Someone else would have taken that fact to mean that the Esme at Sunnydale High couldn’t be the Esme Stepford she’d found on the computer. Just a freaky coincidence.
Willow wasn’t that person any more. Instead, she wondered if it was desperation or some sort of plot. If Esme had deliberately come to Sunnydale, and if so, what had she expected from the little town. She’d had several ideas of what the explanation could have been, ranging from running away from home to some sort of conniving plot to gain influence if not control over someone of particular interest, possibly Buffy the Slayer.
Without more information, all she could do was watch carefully and wait. Which also applied to whatever she’d said that had left Vic looking so incredibly pleased. That sort of gleeful smile generally meant that he’d found something he was allowed to rip to bloody or slimy shreds…
“There’s a lot of waiting in this town,” Willow sighed.
End part 23.
School was the normal, predictable mess of homework, gossip, social maneuverings, and tests. There was a pop quiz in Geometry, and the announcement of a big paper for Chemistry, worth a hundred points. They were reminded of their next few weeks of Wuthering Heights assignments. Devon and Harmony had a big fight between third and fourth period, and while there had been some speculation about them dating rather than just having had a couple dates, that was definitely not happening anymore. Miranda Fueza, one of the seniors and a star of the girls’ basketball team, was mad at her boyfriend who might have been out on a date with a redhead from the next town over. There had been a substitute teacher for junior English, and one for the French classes. Maxwell had been busted for drunk driving. Somebody had seen Izzy McTavish in the drug store, buying a pregnancy test. And one of the swim team guys had got into a big fight with someone in his shop class, which had somehow led to the other guy getting decked and needing to report to the nurse’s office. All pretty normal high school drama.
Willow had found herself watching Esme Stepford during class, wondering just what had brought her to Sunnydale. If she had run away from something, if being sent to a small town in California was some sort of punishment. Who she was staying with and if the girl was being careful after dark. If this Esme was one of the quintuplets, had she stayed in contact with her sisters?
By the end of the day, Willow didn’t have many answers about Esme. The girl either wasn’t afraid, or could hide it very well. Esme didn’t want to go out with Marcus on the track team, or Jerry who’d been boasting about having one of the highest grades in the junior year as well as a sweet red sports car. But was the girl hiding things, or just someone who didn’t want to talk about herself?
Slipping into the library during last period, Willow smirked at the sight of Giles glaring at the computer. “If it’s giving you problems, there is a computer teacher here. Maybe Miss Calendar can help you with whatever is frustrating you.”
“That might be necessary, though I do worry that she might find something questionable on that machine,” Giles sighed.
“Questionable? Just what have you been doing with the poor computer?” Willow could feel her eyebrows rising and her cheeks turning pink.
For a moment, Giles just gave her a blank look before he sputtered, “Willow! I- I simply meant that there have been numerous checks to the coroner’s office, and those police reports. Those websites with the information on demons and the prophecies. Such sites are rather out of the ordinary bounds for a simple school librarian, and some would raise more than a few awkward questions.”
“Oh, right,” Willow nodded, more than a bit relieved that he was only worried about the demony things, and that he hadn’t been, well, cruising porn sites.
“On a less embarrassing note, how did the various quests go last night?” Giles moved back to the wooden table, picking up a cup of tea.
“Vic said the thing near the Point is dead. It looked like things got messy, so we didn’t ask for details. And those noises at the cemetery,” Willow snickered at the memory, “Well, it turns out that there’s some sort of regular demon poker game going on. It seems to be for poker chips, CD’s and beer. Considering, we decided to just let them be.”
“Demon poker games? How droll,” Giles sighed.
“So, to change the subject, how goes it with the shiny box and the old book that was inside it?” Willow asked.
“I’ve sent some pictures of the box and of the cover of the book to a friend of a friend, someone who has made extensive studies of South American cultures and demons. He’ll be able to give a much better idea of what it is and what it might mean,” Giles explained.
Willow nodded, and began helping Giles put away the books that had been returned by the ordinary students. The ones who didn’t fight demons or have grand and terrible destinies like Buffy. People that had to write papers for class, or look up scientists or theories or specific battles. She also tried to amuse herself by imagining the various reactions of other students if they stumbled onto the demon compendiums, or one of the books of prophecies. Shock, fear, confusion. The idea that it was a joke. A conspiracy. Or would they take it seriously? Perhaps there were other students who’d learned that things in Sunnydale weren’t right, who had learned about the vampires and the demons.
Just what would someone do if they learned about the monsters? If they didn’t know that someone was already trying to fight those monsters? Would they want to fight back? To leave Sunnydale, hoping that the monsters were only here, that they weren’t in other cities, other states? How would someone even start? And just what would they do to be able to fight against the monsters without dying? All good questions, but Willow didn’t have the answers for any of them.
End part 24.
End Family Tree 14: Changing the Odds