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Summary: After Yoko Factor, Willow goes to Toronto, where her epal Rosebud lives.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Television > Forever KnightLucindaFR15217,194474,9873 Jan 033 Jan 03Yes

Thorny Branchs

author: Lucinda
rating: y-14
pairing: Willow/LaCroix also has Natalie/Nick
disclaimer: I do not own anyone from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Forever Knight.
Distribution: please ask first,
note: this is the sequel to old Branches, New Roses. It is set after Yoko
Factor of season 4 Buffy, so there may be spoilers from anytime before that.
Tara and Willow were never dating.

Willow had decided to stay in Toronto. She had registered to start classes at a local college in the spring, and had spoken to her landlady about staying longterm. She was starting to learn where the interesting and important things were in the city. Last, but certainly not least, she had Lucian LaCroix. What had started as a friendship over the internet had grown into a friendship in person after she had gone to Toronto to think about the problems in her life. He was one of the most interesting people she had met, and they were sort of dating now.

It was a bit complicated, trying to make a relationship work with him. On top of the simple considerations of no sunlight with her boyfriend, and dinners were a bit tricky, there were other factors. He had centuries of experience to draw on, and had a tendency to try to run the lives of everyone around him. Willow had a big soft spot for him, and cared very much for him, but she wasn't about to let him completely run her life.

She also worried a bit about what his childe Nicholas would do. LaCroix and Nicholas had major issues between them, and Nicholas did not think that Willow should be involved with LaCroix. He had even tried to hypnotize her into leaving the city. She hadn't seen him again but Willow really doubted that he would have given up that easily.

Across town, Natalie Lambert was in her office, glaring at her computer. It was not cooperating with her, and she suspected that there was something seriously wrong with it. Exactly who was she supposed to call for a computer problem anyhow? She was completely startled when a voice disturbed the quiet of the morgue.

"Hey Nat. There's something I wanted to ask you about." Nick was behind her.

"Don't you ever get tired of sneaking up on people? What's wrong, you look like something is bothering you." She was almost always glad to see Nick. They were trying to find a way to make him human again, and somewhere along the line, they had developed feeling for each other.

"There's this young woman that LaCroix is seeing. I was hoping that you could talk to her, maybe explain to her some of the reasons why he's not safe for her." Nick sounded worried.

Natalie sighed, she really hated it when Nick gave her that look. He had this way of looking at her with those soft eyes, and it made her go all warm and melted inside. She had the feeling that she would be meeting this person involved with LaCroix in the near future.

end part 1.

Natalie Lambert was looking at the latest body that had been brought into her morgue. Something had mauled it severely, and ripped the arm completely out of it's socket. There were large portions of the body missing, and there were indications that something had scraped on the bones to remove them. This had definitely been some sort of savage behavior, and she had a suspicion that it was not from a human being. There had been some tissue caught under the fingernails, and it didn't look quite right to her.

Her computer was still not working right, meaning all this had to be recorded on tape and transcribed to paper. It slowed things down considerably, and made searching for information extremely slow. She didn't need anything else to go wrong tonight.

"How have you been, Doctor Lambert?"

The voice of LaCroix spilled through her surroundings, making Natalie jump. She knew LaCroix to a small extent, but didn't trust him. He was on the list of people she didn't like sneaking up on her. She also knew that he didn't approve of her helping Nick try to find a cure for his vampirism. Why was he here?

"LaCroix. I certainly wasn't expecting you. Why... What brings you here?" She tried to be polite. He was old, and powerful, as well as dangerous. She didn't need to annoy him on top of her frustrations.

LaCroix glanced around the morgue, his gaze stopping at the mangled body. His eyes widened a bit as he looked at it. He edged a bit closer, looking over it carefully.

"That is.... that was a horrible way to go. May his soul find rest." LaCroix looked a bit unsettled by the remains.

"I didn't think you paid social calls. Did Nick tell you to stay away from your young lady?" Natalie was both pleased to see that some things still disturbed the old vampire and worried that he looked shaken by this.

"Nicholas tried to convince Willow to leave. He had no luck." He glanced towards her, seeing the dark screen of her computer and the clipboard in her hands. "Is there something wrong with your computer?"

Ah, he was going to be polite. Natalie was somewhat relieved. "Yes, but I'm not an expert on computers. I don't know how to fix it, or even figure out what's wrong."

"Ask Willow. My fair young lady, as Nicholas would describe her." LaCroix smiled at the thought of Willow. "She has a talent for computers, and if you are supposed to speak with her anyhow, you might as well have a reason. I rest assured that you will not change her mind."

With that as a parting word, LaCroix turned to go, politely using the door for Natalie's peace of mind.

end part 2.

Natalie had been searching for Willow. She was new to Toronto, so she wouldn't be listed in the phone book. Nick didn't know where she lived, but he knew she was somewhere in the area of the St Martin's Catholic Church, because he had found her in a small park near there. She had been searching near there, at first glad to be away from thoughts of her work, and eventually getting tired of looking everywhere for this Willow.

Finally, she spotted a small park, and decided to sit down a bit and rest her feet. Sitting down, she tried to remember why she was looking for this person again. Admittedly, the day was lovely, but... Her thoughts were interrupted by a shadow falling across her. She looked up, and saw a red-haired young woman, maybe twenty, looking at her.

"Hey. You look kinda tired. Have you been looking for somewhere?" The redhead was talking to her, a cheerful expression on her face.

Natalie smiled, thinking it was nice to see a friendly face. "Actually, I'm looking for a someone. Maybe you can help, a Willow Rosenberg?"

The redhead frowned thoughtfully, then asked "Who are you and why are you looking for Willow?"

Nat smiled. "I'm Natalie Lambert, and someone told me that she could help me with my computer. Something's wrong with it."

A look of recognition crossed the redhead's face. "Oh! You're Doctor Lambert. Lucian mentioned you, he said you and Nicholas have this sorta thing going on. I'm Willow. Why don't we go look at your computer, and on the way you can tell me what happened to it."

Natalie was slightly surprised. Exactly what had LaCroix said about her? And calling him Lucian... Natalie definitely didn't want to think to much on that one. She started to explain about her computer on the trip over to the morgue.

After listening for a while, Willow decide that she would have to inspect the computer, and asked Natalie if that would be workable for her. On the way up the stairs, she asked if there was anything else that Natalie wanted, any other reason for looking for her?

"Well, Nick wanted me to talk to you. But my office computer is really not working." Natalie explained to Willow, hoping that she could still fix the computer.

"Let me guess, he wants you to tell me 'Lucian LaCroix is dangerous, you should run away' and 'he might hurt me' with a possible side of 'get out of Toronto while I still can'?" Willow was not smiling, looking a bit annoyed at Nick's insistent interference with her life. "Honestly, he's thinks I have no clue what I'm doing. Thinks I can't take care of myself..."

Willow went over to the computer and tried to turn it on, listening carefully to the noises that it made. Eventually, she seemed to take pity on it and turned it off. Then, she found the plug and followed it to the outlet, where she unplugged the computer and opened it's casing to study the insides.

Natalie felt confident that Willow knew more about the inner workings of a computer than she did. There might be a return to computer filing in her future.

Willow was still by the desk, wholly focused on the insides of the computer when the night's first body was brought in. It was fairly straightforward, a gunshot to the chest, but Natalie started to worry about how Willow would react if she started to think about the dead bodies. This was a morgue. Willow hadn't looked up from the computer, and Natalie was able to examine the body, fill out her papers, and have it away in a drawer before the redhead looked up at her. She answered a few questions bout the demands placed on the computer, and then there was another body brought in.

This was another mauled one. The head had nearly been torn off, the spinal cord clearly visible amidst the gaping ruin of the neck. The body was mostly disemboweled, the internal organs missing. There were chunks missing from the thighs, the bones cracked and visible. There was blood everywhere. Natalie had the sinking feeling that this was the work of the same thing that had torn the arm from a man the other day. She was positive that nothing human could have done this.

Maybe Nick would have some useful information on this. She exited the morgue to call him on her cell phone. With luck, he would know what was doing this and how to stop it before it killed more people. She didn't even stop to worry about the fact that she had just left Willow alone in the room with the new corpse.

Willow heard the door close again. She looked up, and realized that Natalie had left the room. The body that had just been brought in was still sitting on the examining table. Well, since she was here, she might as well take a look. Toronto had been pretty safe so far...

The body was very definitely dead. Not only that, but it looked like it had been partially eaten. So much for the non-demonic appeal of Toronto. There were scrapes on the lower ribs, and the exposed thigh bones. The scrapes looked a bit like teeth marks, only whatever had done this had a mouth and jaws far larger than a humans.

So much for safety from the nighttime evils of home. This was the work of a scary bad thing that needed to be destroyed. What sort of nasty dangerous thing was it though? Willow forced herself to examine the body for clues, something to help identify what sort of thing had done this. They couldn't stop the killings unless they stopped the killer, probably by slaying it. She hoped it wasn't something that required a very particular weapon, like an iron spear or an obsidian blade.

end part 4.

Natalie was still fidgeting outside the morgue, reluctant to go back in when Nick arrived. He had rushed over, probably flying for more speed.

"Nat? You sounded very upset over this new body." Nick was concerned for her, trying to figure the best way to help sooth her distress.

"There was this horribly mauled corpse...oh my God, I left Willow in there with the body!" Nat turned and hurried back towards the morgue.

Neither one of them expected to open the door and see Willow calmly examining the body. She had pulled her hair back and made use of a ball cap to keep it away, and was inspecting the exposed lower ribs with a thoughtful expression. She hadn't screamed, or fainted, nor was she cringing away from it in dismay.

Nick could smell the blood from the body. The man hadn't been dead more than a few hours, and he had been terrified when he was killed. He looked at the body, feeling a mix of emotions run through him at the sight.

"How can you look at that so calmly?" He couldn't help himself, the question spilled out.

Willow answered without really thinking about the question. The distracted tone of her reply made it seem even more surreal. "It's not like I haven't seen dead bodies before. I've seen worse, although most of those were either over the computer screen or not human to begin with."

"What! What do you mean, not the first dead body..or over the computer screen?" Natalie was now looking at the body, seeing for herself the details of the mauling. The specifics of the body were different, but she figured it was the same killer as the previous horribly mauled corpse. There was something under the fingernails here as well.

"I used to hack into the coroner's database in my hometown. We had some really messed up bodies in Sunnydale. It could be very icky, but after a while you learn to cope with it. I've also found some dead bodies before, and that makes you learn to deal." Willow still seemed too calm for Nick's peace of mind.

"This must be LaCroix's fault. What has he done." Nick was starting to blame LaCroix, but Willow heard him.

"Now that is enough! I don't know all the issues you two have, but get over it! I met him over the internet, and he didn't let me have any idea that he was a vampire. I didn't know he was a vampire until you showed up and slammed him into a wall. All my exposure to the nasty things in the world was entirely independent of him, and I am tired of you thinking he's some sort of horrible monster. Whatever did this here," Willow gestured at the mangled body, "is a horrible monster that needs to be killed. Unfortunately, we don't know what it is, or how to kill it. I suggest that you focus on helping figure out what did this, rather than your family problems."

Willow was glaring at Nick, furious that he was more concerned about the idea that Lucian had exposed her to dead bodies than finding the thing that killed this poor man. "I lived in Sunnydale. It was a smallish town, and located right over something called a Hellmouth. We had a higher per capita death rate than Toronto, and most of it was from nasty things, vampires, demons, evil spells. The first time I found a dead body was when a group of vampires trying to destroy the world slaughtered about six of the other students at my school and left a huge bloody mess in the lounge at school. That was my sophomore year, and I hadn't even met LaCroix yet. I have probably seen more dangerous demonic things than you have, and I know this was not a vampire. The bite radius is huge." Willow gestured with her hands, showing the size of the bite wounds.

Natalie was feeling a bit stunned. Willow knew that LaCroix and Nick were vampires. She had found the dead bodies of people she had known in her freshman year? She had known about vampires in her sophomore year? What sort of place did Willow grow up in?

Nick was pretty stunned himself. Willow had told him before that she had lived over something called a Hellmouth. He had vaguely remembered LaCroix telling him, centuries ago, that it was best to avoid the Hellmouth, because it had a very unpleasant effect on vampires, something about it influencing their thoughts. Slaughtering half a dozen students... that was not like any sort of proper vampire behavior. Vampires had rules, and one of the first was to conceal your existence. She had come from a place that swarmed with evil, and seemed to have emerged untainted. She also had quite the temper. He thought it would be best not to provoke her farther, especially since she had been entirely correct. Finding the thing that had done this was more important than insisting that LaCroix was dangerous.

They turned their attention to investigating the body, rather than arguing about LaCroix. Natalie pulled out the scrapings from beneath the fingernails, and they seemed to be the same as the stuff that had been under the nails of the first body, which she did pull out for comparison.

Natalie leaned over to whisper to Nick. "What's this about LaCroix and a wall?"

end part 5.

Willow and Natalie made careful observations of the pattern of wounds on the two victims. They looked at the size of the bite wounds, and the scrapings left on the bones from the teeth of the thing. Nick very quietly made the observation that they had died in a state of extreme terror, the scent of fear was still strong from both bodies. Nat had winced slightly at the reminder of Nick's vampiric state, Willow had simply nodded. In Nat's opinion, the actual death had been fairly fast in both cases, with most of the further mauling happening afterwards.

They had covered the bodies, and put them away. Nick had to leave the women researching the strange bits of tissue so that he could go on shift. He promised to watch for any signs of large nasty monsters.

Willow sighed. They needed more than just the damage done to the victims to identify what was killing them. While Natalie filled out some of the necessary papers, Willow searched for the file on the first body, trying to determine where it had been found. She had started her own page of notes, with the important facts jotted down. The bite radius, and the fact that the killer was feeding on the bodies, but not any specific part beyond going mainly for the organs and muscle mass. She had the times of death, and the locations where the bodies had been found.

Knowing where it killed should help identify where to start looking for the lair. Knowing what sort of location it frequented should also help identify what was killing the people so that they would know what measures to take to kill it.

Natalie had discovered that the tissue scrapings from under the victims fingernails seemed to be similar to amphibious skin, and was a pale greenish color. Willow was not happy with the implications of amphibious, was the monster some sort of giant carnivorous frog? ick.

Willow frowned, thinking about the information they had so far. It sounded vaguely familiar. Not the sort of familiar of something that she had actually encountered, though if it had been only the skins.. well, they had covered that once in high school with the swim team. Willow suspected that she had seen something that sounded like this in one of Giles' big books of demons while looking for some nasty that had come to Sunnydale. She would have to call Giles and see if he could find something in his books.



“First, you need a new motherboard for your computer, and I can get one that will suit your needs fairly easily, tomorrow when the computer stores are open. Your computer won't be a problem, and all the files will still be there. I need to use your phone. I know someone that should be able to find us some information on this thing." Willow's voice was resolved.

end part 6.

Willow took a deep breath, and picked up the phone. She intended to call Giles, the man who had been more of a father to her than her own had ever been. The man that, the last time she had tried to speak with him, had been at least half-drunk and muttered about the trouble that happened when outside influences got involved with slaying. She hadn't had any contact with anyone from Sunnydale since she had left. Grated, she had sent an email telling everyone that she had gone away to think, and decided that there was no need for her to return, but... Nobody had emailed her back.

She was incredibly nervous. Dead bodies were easier to deal with, they just sort of stayed put and were icky. Dealing with people... that was tough. What if they hadn't responded because they all hated her? What if they hadn't responded because they didn't care where she was or what happened to her? What if... Calm yourself Willow. You need to make this call, and then you will know how they feel. If Giles hangs up on you, you can try calling Wesley in LA. There is a plan B if you need it.

Hands shaking, she dialed the number for Giles' apartment. The phone rang, and Willow had all sorts of thought go through her mind. Dozens of painful what ifs, and memories of the way they had parted, everyone angry and not speaking to each other. It had been nearly two weeks, and she hadn't heard from any of them.

-Hello? Who is this?- Giles answered the phone, his voice with it's British accent bringing up so many memories for Willow.

"Giles? ummm This is Willow. I wanted to ask you if you could help me find some information?" Her voice was hesitant, uncertain.

-Willow! Thank God you're alright! I have been extremely worried about you. What sort of information did you want?- Giles didn't sound angry. He sounded relieved? Maybe he wasn't still mad at her for being in Buffy's life. Willow could hear something in the background, it sounded like voices, not close enough to make out any of the words.

"There's something killing people here. I think I saw something in one of your demon books during a research session. Anyhow, I was hoping that you could help figure out what's killing people so we can kill it." Willow's voice was still soft, uncertain of how welcome her call was. On the positive side, Giles was actually talking to her.

-What information do you have? How much do you know about whatever this is?- Giles was listening, and he sounded concerned.

"We know that the thing has a bite radius of about nine inches. It's killed two people, and it ate most of the abdominal organs and a lot of the muscle mass. The victims were both adult men, within six blocks of a large body of water when they were attacked. The attacks took place at night, and both victims were alone when .. when it happened. There were scraps of tissue under the fingernails, and it was pale green. Nat said it looks similar to amphibian skin." Willow was trying to be calm, to focus on the information rather than allowing herself to worry about how they thought of her.

-This sounds rather ominous. Offhand, I can't think of what would fit the behavior pattern you mentioned.... possibly in the Donnetto's index or the Mallory compendium..... Are you certain about the victims?- Giles sounded like he was already thinking about the information.

"I am absolutely certain that both of the victims were male. No idea on if that was deliberate choice or just that the first lone target of the evening that the thing found happened to be guys both times. It might be a deliberate type of prey or it may hunt on a first come, first eaten basis." Willow had to clarify for Giles. She knew that sometimes, the type of victim made quite a difference to things... and sometimes it didn't matter.

-I shall certainly have to look into this... Give that back. Hey.- Giles voice grew faint. It sounded like someone had physically taken the phone away from him, refusing to give it back. -Willow! Are you okay? Where are you and why did you go away?- Xander had the phone now, and his voice was filled with worry.

"Xander? I thought there were voices in the background... ummm I went away from Sunnydale. I sent you an email about it. After that big fight, which I might add was Spike's fault mostly, nobody wanted to talk to anybody, including me. You said I didn't need you anymore because I was in college, so you weren't going to talk to me anymore. Nobody would talk to me, so I left to think about what happened. I sent you all an email saying that I had found somewhere safer, and planed to stay since I wasn't needed in Sunnydale, and nobody bothered to send any sort of reply. Didn't seem like you were too upset." Willow was glad to hear the voice of Xander, he had been her friend forever. But he hadn't wanted to talk to her before she left, not had he bothered to reply to the email that she sent.

-You have no idea how sorry I am for saying that, Wills. I guess we never expected you to leave. No matter how much we all pushed you away, we never really thought that you'd go. You were always there, making sure everything went the way it was supposed to. I never expected that you could just leave. Thinking back to the way we all screamed at each other that night, yeah, it was really ugly. You were right that we should make up to each other, but...- Xander sounded very upset, not angry, but worried and sad and regretful.

-I guess we were still too angry about what everyone said. We took too long to get over it, and then you were gone. Not killed by some evil thing, but gone as in left Sunnydale, and it was all our fault. Are you... you really aren't coming back?- He sounded so miserable, so lost that it brought tears to Willow's eyes.

"I can't. I lost sight of who I was. I'm not the computer girl, or the researcher, I'm Willow. Only... I sort of lost sight of who Willow really is. Corny as it sounds, I'm finding myself here. I'm making myself a new life, where I can stand on my own feet, not in Buffy's shadow. I never meant to just... cut off my past, but" Willow paused, trying to find the right words. " I had to move on instead of dwelling on my pain. I want you to still be my friend, Xander. I never wanted to stop talking to all of you, well... maybe to Spike."

-Promise? You aren't going to just forget us and go off on your own to be someone.... You won't forget us? You didn't leave so you could make a life without us having any part?- Xander was nearly pleading with her.

"Xander, you're my friend. I don't forget my friends. You will always be part of my life, I just ... It felt like you didn't want me to be in your life anymore. I'm here now, not in Sunnydale, but that doesn't mean we can't still be friends. You might have to use the computer or the phone now to talk to me, but... we can try." Willow was feeling much better. Xander and Giles didn't hate her. Xander still wanted to be her friend, still cared about her.

There was some noise, and Giles had the phone again. -Ahem, yes, we all miss you very much Willow. I can certainly understand how upsetting things must have been for you. I, myself am deeply sorry for the last time we spoke, I was most unwelcoming... I promise that we shall look in the books for this creature, and I assume that you will contact us if you have any new information?-

"I'll call if we learn anything new, or if there's another body. Giles, I accept your apology, how could I not forgive you? umm... I need to let you go, Nat has a call on the line, and I need to give her back her phone. Love you all." Willow felt much better, knowing that she wasn't hated. Having help finding out what this danger was and how to deal with it was even better.

end part 7.

Lucian LaCroix had the feeling that there was something going on. More than Natalie asking Willow to help with her computer and more than Nicholas trying to make her leave Toronto. He had dropped by, visiting Willow, and while she had been delighted to see him, there was a shadow of worry in her eyes. Something was troubling her, and he wanted to know what it was. He had the suspicion that Nicholas would have some idea what it was, so he decided to find him, have a few words with him.

Nicholas was out with his partner, investigating something. He dropped down near the building, and predictably enough, Nicholas soon emerged, scowling at him. "LaCroix."

"One might get the impression that you are unhappy to see me." LaCroix was not entirely surprised that his childe was unhappy to see him, but as always, he felt a slight pang of something every time his childe tried to push him away. " I didn't come here to bother you about your choice of lifestyle. Something is bothering Willow, and it started after she spoke to your friend, Dr. Lambert. I was hoping that you could enlighten me as to what is troubling her."

"So it is bothering her. That's a relief." Nick's first words did not reassure LaCroix in the least. "While she was looking at Nat's computer, there was a body brought in. It was .... bad. Something had killed and partially eaten someone, and Willow was there when the body was brought in. She and Nat were examining it, and they don't think that whatever killed it was anywhere near human."

LaCroix frowned, troubled by the news. He remembered the mauled body that had been present when he spoke to Dr. Lambert. "This not human killer... by chance did it kill another man, and remove his arm before eviscerating him?"

"Yes. That was the first body that was found. So far, we've only found those two. Willow thinks the killer is some sort of demon or evil thing." Nick had become slightly less suspicious after learning why LaCroix was here, but thinking about those bodies left him disturbed. "She was planning to try to identify it so we would know how to kill it."

Nick glanced up again, but LaCroix was gone. "I hate it when he does that."

Lucian LaCroix was very worried about Willow now. She wasn't just being bothered by some aspect of life, she was contemplating some dreadful monster that left mutilated corpses. He hoped never to see Willow left in a state anything like the body he had seen. He had to talk to her, to convince her to be careful. She had somehow found her way into his heart, and he found himself caring very much about Willow and what happened to her.

He caught sight of Willow on the roof of the coffee house where they had first met. She was the only person on the roof, so he simply landed near her. She looked at him and smiled, gesturing that he could join her if he wanted.

"Willow. I spoke to Nicholas. He mentioned that you had been in Dr. Lambert's office when ... He said there is a dreadful thing in the city, and that you intend to help get rid of it. Willow, you must realize that if this thing can do that to those men, it could certainly do terrible things to you." LaCroix was worried about Willow's safety. He hadn't even thought about her temper.

"I think I know where you're are headed with this, and I can already say 'stop'. Yes, this thing is dangerous, that's why someone needs to kill it. Nat and Nick have no idea how to identify something like this, they don't have the resources to learn how to stop it. I have to help, I can't just sit back and let some evil amphibious thing eat people while I do nothing!" Willow was glaring at him, her cup of coffee cooling on the table.

"This is too dangerous..." LaCroix knew he had said the wrong thing as soon as the words left his lips.

"Too dangerous? I am not going to let you shut me in a box to keep me safe from the big bad world! I know that it's dangerous! I have no intention of getting killed, and I don't plan on fighting it myself if there's another way. But I do intend to figure out what this thing is and how to stop it. Nobody is going to change my mind about that. Not Buffy, not Nick and his how can you be so calm about this and not you. I refuse to be put in a box and sheltered from life!" Willow's eyes were flashing, and she looked furious.

LaCroix could only stand there stunned as Willow left. He was trying to figure out exactly where all of that had come from, certain there had been more prompting it than just his ill-chosen words. She had quite the temper.

end part 8.

Willow was still angry the next night. He had suggested that this was to dangerous for her. She had had enough of people trying to put her in a little box and say that's it, no farther because it wouldn't be safe. Rationally, she knew that Lucian was only concerned for her safety because he cared about her, but she didn't want to end up with someone running her life again. The phone rang, distracting her from her thoughts.

-Willow? We got another one. Do you think you should come and look at it to see if it changes anything you need to find the killer?- Nat sounded upset, very shaken.

"I think maybe I'd best go look at it. You sound upset. Nothing else, I can be moral support for you." Willow paused, worried for her new friend. "I can be there in about ten minutes."

Willow had braced herself for the corpse, and it was about as bad as she had expected. There was a slightly different pattern of bite wounds,but the abdomen had been devoured. ick. There were the tooth scrapes on the bones again, and more of the pale green stuff under this victim's nails.

Willow called Giles, hoping that they had found something that could help stop this.

"Hello? Giles, we have another body. Same basic pattern, killed near water right around sunset, lower organs and muscle mass eaten. Same tooth scrapes on the bones, and more green stuff under their nails. Please tell me that you found what's doing this in your books and can tell me how we can kill it?" Willow's voice was shaking slightly. Despite her words to Lucian, she didn't like this, and would rather not be here, standing near a half eaten body. However, if she didn't, who would? Somebody had to help find a way to stop this, and she seemed to be the only one that could.

-ah.. yes. We found something that seems to fit your circumstances. It's called a Ku'Rikas, and it somewhat resembles a newt. The fact that it's about nine feet long does stand out as a difference. According to my books, the creature will be laired either beneath the water or somewhere very close to the water. They have problems with either very hot or dry environments, and fire has been used to repel them. The skin is coated with a protective slime that makes it very slippery, and difficult to engage in combat. The creatures are also very agile, and can turn rapidly. They are usually solitary.- Giles paused, and Willow could hear him flipping some papers.

-The good news is that there is no special means required to kill it. Basic dismemberment will suffice, as would decapitation, incineration, all the standards. I will suggest that you be very careful when dealing with this, and if possible, let someone with more practice with actual armed combat deal with the creature. If you must deal with it personally, then please find a way to do so from a distance.- Giles was asking Willow to be careful, his voice full of concern.

"Giles, I do know how to be careful. I don't plan to let this thing eat me, or maul me or any other fatal version of 'the giant newt got me'. I will do my best to be careful, I promise. Stop worrying so much." Willow sounded somewhere between touched by his concern and exasperated by his concern.

-We would all be devastated if anything were to happen to you, so please be careful, for our sakes. Call us and let us know when the creature is slain, please?-

After her conversation with Giles, Willow looked at her notes. Now, to plan an effective way to kill this thing, preferably while staying healthy herself. Someone with practice at armed combat, Giles had suggested. Suddenly, a plan formed in Willow's mind. This might make several people happier. She dialed Lucian's phone number.

end part 9.

Willow had asked Lucian to meet her for coffee. She had also mentioned that she had the beginning of a plan to deal with the problem. He was not surprised to see that she was on the roof again, but there were other people there as well, so he had to use the normal entry. He joined her, carrying a single cup of coffee, mostly as an excuse, although he figured he could give it to Willow.

"You mentioned a plan, my lovely flower?" Lucian smiled at Willow, seating himself across the small table from her. "May I hope that this plan does not place you in certain danger?"

Willow smiled a bit, knowing that he only wanted her to be careful. "I have a plan, although it could still use a bit of refinement. I called Giles, and he had some useful information about our problem. It's an overgrown newt."

Lucian couldn't help himself. " A newt? There has been that much panic and those... from a newt?"

"It happens to be about nine feet long. At least it wasn't a frog." Willow shivered at the thought. Frogs were very unsettling to her. "Basically, we only need to find it and apply suitable physical damage. It has no special immunities, but it is all slimy and slippery. Giles wants me to be careful too."

"What do you have in mind for dealing with this giant newt then?" He was certain she had a plan. It would probably be practical, straightforward, and contain at least one thing to make him unhappy.

Willow smiled, and LaCroix figured he had just opened himself up for the delivery of the part he wouldn't like. "Giles suggested I have the actual fighting the newt done by someone experienced at armed combat, and capable of dealing with something that is both strong and fast. I thought of you and Nicholas. If we have someone waiting near it's location, it will go after that someone, and then you two can chop it into dead newt chunks."

He sat there, the coffee warming his hands, and considered Willow's words. It was logical, and made sense considering that both he and Nicholas had experience with sword work. One thing stood out in his mind... "You mention having someone waiting for the beast. Who did you plan to have serve as bait...." Sudden comprehension flashed in his mind. He knew there would be something he didn't like. "Can I talk you out of playing the part of bait?"

Willow looked at him. "Can you think of another plan? We can't just grab some random person. The person playing bait needs to be someone that won't completely panic at the sight of a giant man eating newt. I've fought nasty scary things before, so I can do this. Besides, if it comes down to it, I can try to use my magic to help hold it off long enough for you guys to kill it."

As it turned out, Nick wasn't particularly happy with the plan either. He didn't like the idea of Willow playing bait, and he didn't like the idea of attacking a giant newt with a sword very much either. He had to conclude that her arguments made sense. That was why they found themselves in their current situation. Willow was walking alone along the street closest to where they figured the lair was. Nick and LaCroix, both carrying swords, were in the air following her, watching for any sign of the creature.

Suddenly, something moved below. He caught a hint of reflected light, as if it was glistening of something wet or slimy. He dropped down towards the street just as the thing lunged towards Willow. Willow shrieked and flung herself backwards, as something pushed the thing away from her. She scrambled to her feet and away from it as the two vampires landed, swords ready. They had definitely found it. The creature hissed at them, it's large eyes a burning red like embers.

He and LaCroix moved apart, so that hopefully, they could both attack from different angles. It's skin was a mottled pale green and glistened with a layer of slime. He could see a great many sharp teeth in its large mouth, and hoped that it would not get past his defenses. The creature lunged first towards Nick, and LaCroix took advantage of the moment to slash at it's rear, cutting along the top of it's tail. The creature roared, and then the fighting got intense.

It was fast, and very strong. They moved all around the section of street, trying to prevent it from actually sinking teeth into anyone. Several times, it had managed to hit one of the vampires with its tail, flinging them back into a wall or onto the street. It managed to hit Nick and fling him right into LaCroix, dropping the both of them on the street in an awkward sprawl. It moved towards them, jaws gaping. A ball of bright blue green flame burst into the air between the vampires and the newt, throwing of large quantities of heat. Hissing, it retreated, giving them time to regain their feet and ready stances. The fire winked out, leaving only a warm spot in the air to mark it's existence. It was bleeding from a number of wounds, undoubtedly painful, but none of them fatal.

LaCroix and Nick advanced on the creature, sensing that it was tiring. They attacked, one from either side, and the creature retreated, tail lashing, hissing in fury and pain. One violent swing of it's tail hit something softer that the walls. LaCroix could do no more than helplessly protest as Willow crumpled to the ground, having been struck by the tail.

They left the newt monster in a heap of bloody pieces, as LaCroix carefully picked Willow up and flew with her to the nearest hospital. She was unconscious, and there was a lump swelling on the back of her head.

end part 10.

There had been some difficulty with signing Willow in. The person on shift kept giving LaCroix suspicious glances, as if he thought LaCroix had caused Willow's injuries. The matter was complicated by the fact that LaCroix didn't know all the information wanted on the sign in form. It was quite possible that the only thing that kept him from snapping the annoying clerk's neck was the fact that they had already taken Willow behind the doors for treatment.

After the hassle of signing Willow in was dealt with, there was nothing to do but wait. Nick did call Nat, informing her that they had got that thing taken care of, so it shouldn't be causing her anymore problems. He carefully kept his words vague, aware of the fact that he was in a hospital, surrounded by people. LaCroix was pacing, wondering what was taking them so long to help Willow. Nick had the stunned realization that LaCroix was genuinely worried about Willow.

"LaCroix. I think we need to talk. Come out here with me, it will help you stop pacing." Nick spoke to LaCroix, his maker and for years, his tormenter. He was starting to wonder if perhaps they had aggravated things... maybe if they had done things differently...

LaCroix followed him out of the emergency room, and into the area that was filled with rows of flowers and a few benches. At this hour, it was empty. "Concerned that I was scaring the humans, Nicholas?"

"Actually, that wasn't why I thought we should talk. Let's talk about Willow." Nick sat on a bench, hoping that this attempt to talk to his sire wouldn't backfire.

LaCroix looked at Nicholas. He wasn't certain why his Childe was bringing Willow up for discussion. "What about Willow? She knows about the dangers in the night, possibly more than either you or I, to judge from this trouble. I have not tried to conceal from her what I am, or what that means..."

"You care for her. You actually care. I haven't seen you looking this worried for centuries. I would have expected you not to care for someone that's mortal and vulnerable to time, injury... all the reasons that you think I won't be able to have a good relationship with Natalie." Nick's voice was thoughtful, and slightly jealous.

"What Willow and I have isn't quite the same as what you and Natalie have." LaCroix held up a hand to prevent Nick from interrupting. "Natalie fears the parts of you that remind her that you are a vampire. The darkness within you frightens her, and so she supports you in your quest to become human again. She loves parts of you, and fears other parts."

LaCroix turned slightly, his fingers brushing over a small red rose, his mind clearly on other thoughts than the small flower. "I do not know if Willow loves me. What I do know is that she accepts me, every part of me. She accepts the fact that I am a vampire, and she does not pretend that I am not, nor seek to change me back to a human. She makes me feel welcome in her life, makes my own existence feel brighter, less empty. I do not know how I could bear the long turn of centuries without her now that I know her."

Nick sat on the bench, stunned. That was as much of an admission of feeling... "I can see it. She's.. I've never met anyone quite like her. You're right about her not forgetting the vampire aspect, I've seen that in the way she was trying to figure out this mess. I'm still not sure that you would be good for her, but" now Nick was the one gesturing to forestall interruption. "I know that she's going to make that decision on her own. Willow wants you in her life. I think she's actually been good for you."

LaCroix smiled softly at the thought of Willow. "I mentioned things about my life to her before we met, before she knew a few of the more colorful aspects. She knew about you, my childe the detective. I had told her that we had quarreled, and you weren't on good terms with me anymore. She told me that it was partly my fault, and when she explained I had to agree with her."

Nick was startled, and looked at LaCroix, trying to see if he was sincere. Had he actually admitted that things between them were partly his fault? "How so?" Nick whispered the question without thinking.

LaCroix turned to look at his childe. "She told me that I have control issues. Willow pointed out that I have a need to try to control my life, and those around me, and I have tried to control your life as well. She said that every parent comes to a point when they need to let their childe go, let them live their own life. Even if they live it differently than I would want, even if they make mistakes. She pointed out that I was not very good at letting go."

Looking at Nick, he continued. "Much of our problems have been caused by my trying to control you, and you doing all sorts of things sometimes to annoy me, sometimes to try to be rid of me. I need to stop trying to run your life as well as my own life."

Astonished, Nick could only smile. Willow had convinced his sire to stop meddling or at lest, that his meddling resulted in a good deal of the tension between them. Hopefully, this would mean his sire stopped meddling as much in his life. "You were a good teacher. You made certain that I learned the rules and why they were there. I would never have lasted so long without your teachings."

The two of them waited in the garden, pondering their relationship with each other and waiting for news on Willow.

end part 11.

Eventually, the doctors allowed them to see Willow. Her injuries were not life threatening since she had been able to get medical attention. The visit was brief, as Willow was still unconscious. She looked very pale and fragile against the white sheets, and it made Nick feel nervous. He could only imagine what LaCroix was feeling as he gazed at Willow. Nick was very eager to leave the hospital and visit Nat, to remind himself of his very own sweet and charming lady.

LaCroix left the hospital for a brief time, returning to give Willow a large bouquet of roses, and a smaller one of assorted bright flowers. He was certain that Willow had mentioned promising to call Giles when the overgrown newt had been slain. Currently unconscious, Willow would not be using a phone, so he would call for her. He dialed the number for Rupert Giles, absently wondering if the hour would be terribly late for the man on the other end.

-Hello? Who is this?- The phone was answered by a man with a British accent.

"My name is Lucian LaCroix. I'm calling on behalf of Willow. You are the Rupert Giles listed in her address book?" He was certain that Giles had to be the person she had called BookMan.

-Yes, I am Rupert Giles. I was expecting Willow to call... she was going to get back to me about a particular matter. Is Willow all right?-

The man had to be the source of her information. Just as clearly, he didn't know how much LaCroix knew, and did not want to give away information unnecessarily. "You may rest assured that the Ku'Rikas is thoroughly dismembered. Willow asked for the assistance of myself and someone else she knows that was also aware of the bodies to help. We have some practice with swords. However, there was a bit of a problem."

-Problem? What do you mean a bit of a problem? Is Willow alright?- The man was clearly worried about Willow.

"She's in the hospital here in Toronto. She has a lump on the back of her head and some of her ribs were broken. The doctors have given us assurances that Willow should recover with no difficulties, that she only needs time and rest. I'm certain that she would have called you anyhow, probably describing her condition as a few bumps and bruises. They gave her some drugs and she's not awake." LaCroix found himself trying to reassure Giles. It was something he didn't have very much practice with.

After a few more questions, Giles gave a polite if distracted goodbye, and the awkward phone call was over.

end part 12.

The next morning in Sunnydale, Giles gathered the group of people that defended Sunnydale from vampires and demons in the back of his store, the Magic Box. They had all found themselves trying to deal with Willow's absence from their lives. Buffy and Xander had been Willow's closest friends and had been having he most trouble in her absence.

"As Xander already knew which means the rest of you have learned, Willow had decided to stay where she was and make a future. What he didn't know was that Willow called because there was a demon eating people where she was, and she wanted our help in identifying it. Willow was afraid that we were still mad at her from that fight, so she had been reluctant to contact us. In fact, even when she did contact me for information, she would not tell me where she was, only that she was safe there." Giles paused to gather his thoughts, absently polishing his glasses.

"Last night, I received a phone call. I was expecting Willow to call me and inform me that the demon, a Ku'Rikas if you're curious, had been dispatched. The call did not come from Willow. It was from someone that she knows, a person named Lucian LaCroix. He said that the Ku'Rikas had been killed, but Willow was injured."

Giles was interrupted by a number of questions. They wanted to know who this LaCroix person was, how he knew Willow. How did he get the number. More importantly, they wanted to know what had happened to Willow, how badly had she been hurt. He managed to wave them all silent after a bit.

"I do not know how he knows Willow, but he got the number from her address book. He assured me that Willow's injuries were not life threatening, she had a lump on her head and some broken ribs. Also," Here Giles had to raise his voice to carry over the protests and concerns for Willow and her ribs. "he told me that she was in Toronto."

This prompted another furious debate. Everyone wanted to go visit Willow, to reassure her that they loved her and wanted her to get better soon. Unfortunately, everyone could not go. After a great deal of argument, it was decided that Buffy and Giles had to remain to safeguard the Hellmouth. Dawn couldn't go, her mother wouldn't let a fourteen year old go off to Toronto during a school week. That left Xander and Anya to go, and everyone else would simply have to send cards, letters, possibly get well presents.

The trip to Toronto was painfully long, and Xander was really wishing for a much better car by the time they finally got to the city. They found a hotel for their stay, and decided to figure out where the hospital was so they could visit Willow first thing in the morning.

They went to the hospital early, and found Willow's room with minimal trouble. When they went in, Anya noticed the large bouquet of roses, deep red ones and pale ivory in a dark gray vase. Xander first noticed the man in a nurses uniform, asking Willow about her health. He heard Willow tell him that she couldn't remember how she was injured. They waited, hovering awkwardly until the nurse finished checking Willow and left the room. Willow smiled at them, slightly nervous.

"Wills! It's good to see you again, except for the whole hospital thing. Um.. we come bearing gifts and out most sincere wishes for a quick recovery." Xander was delighted that Willow was happy to see them. He almost gave her a great big hug, but remembered her ribs just in time, changing it to a quick squeeze of her shoulders.

"Yes. We have gifts to show our dismay at our injury and hopes for a recovery. We have cards, and Dawn sent you these balloons. Who gave you those roses? They look nice, and expensive..." Anya added her voice to Xander's. After Xander gave her one of those looks that said remember the talks about proper compliments, she smiled at Willow. "I'm glad to see you again. Did they give you good painkillers? I brought you some things from Giles' store as a get well present."

"I see you haven't changed to much from what I remember, Anya." Willow had to smile, Anya just had such a different approach to things. "The roses.. they would be from Lucian. They did give me painkillers, so I don't hurt to much. Before you get to upset, Xan, I do remember how I got hurt, but I didn't want to explain to everyone here how a giant man eating newt smacked me into a wall with it's tail."

They spent hours catching up on news. Xander told Willow all about what had been going on in Sunnydale, with Anya adding in some of the more violent details. She told them some of what she had been up to in Toronto, omitting the parts about Lucian and Nick being vampires. Not that they didn't already know about vampires, but Willow was certain that Xander would be upset at the idea that she was dating one of the undead.

They had barely left the room when Lucian arrived. He had hated the fact that the sunlight had prevented him from visiting Willow sooner in the day. Willow smiled when he entered the room, and thanked him for the flowers. That was about the time that Anya returned to the room, having realized that she had forgotten her purse. Anya looked up, saw the ancient vampire standing next to Willow, and squeaked.

Willow and Lucian both looked up at the unexpected squeak. LaCroix frowned, something about the woman seemed familiar to him. She was looking at him, her expresion terrified.

"ummm Anya? Breathing is good. This is Lucian LaCroix. He's the one that gave me the lovely roses. Why are you shaking?" Willow had no idea what could have upset Anya. The only thing different from when she had been inside moments before was Lucian... "Anya? have you met Lucian before?"

"Willow... your boyfriend is a vampire. Did you know that? I sorta met him in Bavaria about nine hundred years ago.. and this is one of those things that's not going to be a normal discussion is it?" Anya was as nervous as Willow could recall seeing her. She was probably reflecting on the fact that now that she was human, she could die easily.

"Willow, how would your friend Anya know where I was nine hundred years ago? She seems to be quite human." LaCroix's words were quiet, but they carried well in the room.

Willow sighed. "Anya used to be a vengeance demon. She recently lost her power focus and was made human as a punishment. ummm she's Xander's girlfriend now. Anya, yes, I know he's a vampire. No, we have not had sex, there are no details to share, I don't need any suggestions either. Thank you."

Anya looked a bit reassured that Willow knew about her boyfriends health condition. She also seemed relieved that he probably wasn't going to kill her or anything like that. As for the rest of Willow's statement, she pouted slightly. "Sex is fun. He's old enough that he should know how to make you happy."

Willow was blushing crimson. "ummm right. We haven't done that yet. This is one of those things that's a private conversation topic, and I'd rather not talk about it, okay?" She looked over at Lucian still blushing. "Anya hasn't been human very long. She's still learning what are public and private topics for conversation, and she has a tendency to over-share personal details."

Anya reclaimed her purse, and after promising that she and Xander would come back in the morning, she fled the room.

end part 13.

Xander and Anya had stayed in Toronto until Willow was released from the hospital. Xander had met LaCroix, and had thought he seemed okay, a supportive friend to Willow. He had missed the currents of attraction between them entirely, a fact that did not surprise Willow. Xander was also still blissfully unaware of the fact that Lucian LaCroix was a vampire, or that Willow's new friend the detective was a vampire as well. Xander and Anya both were impressed by Nick's job, and thought he would be a good friend for Willow to have.

Nick and LaCroix were getting along better. They had talked for hours about some of the things bothering them. Willow privately suspected that some of this 'talking' had involved screaming insults and using fists, but she didn't ask for details. It was enough for Willow to know that they were getting along better. They were guys, of course they resolved their issues differently.

Willow had called Sunnydale several times, talking to Buffy and Dawn, Giles, even Spike had wished her a swift recovery. Willow hadn't been quite certain how to react to that one, so she had thanked him for his concern. After that, she had grilled Xander and Anya to find out what had happened in Sunnydale concerning Spike after she had left.

Nick and LaCroix were getting along better, and their talks were now without the subtle barbs that had lurked in their past exchanges. Willow was getting along well with Natalie, and she was also rebuilding some of her friendships from Sunnydale. Life was looking up for her.

end Thorny Branches.

The End

You have reached the end of "Branches Series". This story is complete.

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