Elemental, My Dear Angel
Angel and Wesley shared a look in the hallway. "Well, that as they say, is that," Wes told his employer.
"After what she's been through, she deserves a little downtime," Angel replied softly. "She's living with enough ghosts in her head; she doesn't need a vampire in her apartment." Although the words were spoken lightly, they carried just a whisper of sadness.
Wesley had no chance to comment, for where Angel stood was now only open air. His broad shoulders disappeared beyond the bend in the corridor; by the time Wesley got his legs moving, Angel had already wrestled the top down on the convertible and had the engine idling. As soon as Wesley was seated, Angel pulled off into traffic.
The wind shear made conversation nearly impossible, so the trip was mostly silent. Except for the occasional request for direction, Wesley felt he rode in the car alone. This wasn't necessarily any indication of Angel's mental state; he was often quiet, the very definition of taciturn, or that "unflappable vibe" of which Cordelia had informed Wesley early in their partnership. Neither Cordelia nor Wesley actually believed that act any longer. Angel had shown an emotional depth, not seen since his days with Buffy, at both of their bedsides. He was a part of them, had invested a large part of himself in their well-being; they were family now.
Wesley was about to put that belief to the test. Whether by accident or design, Angel had never been to Wesley's place of residence. Wes had some deep-seated conviction that Angel wanted there to be an easily accessible haven for his partners should Angelus resurface. Angel, it seemed to Wesley, was caught in the classic approach-avoidance conflict regarding his friendship with his business partners. Part of him feared the contact, the responsibility of trust, but a greater and growing part desperately needed it.
Being lost in thought, Wesley was unaware they had come to a halt. When he came back to himself, he realized Angel was already parked and was muscling the balky top into place. Wes shook himself free of the unsettling thoughts and gathered up his books, joining Angel on the sidewalk. He pointed to the building's entrance to their left and Angel followed his lead.
The apartment was a third floor walk-up in a pre-War building that had somehow survived the many earthquakes to be remodeled. How Wesley came to live there was a strange tale. He had consulted many of the same demon sources as had Doyle when that worthy had found Cordelia her apartment. It was also rent controlled, but with an additional feature akin to Cordelia's: a Salamander came with. Wes made a mental note to warn Angel. Fire and vampires were the oil and water of the supernatural world.
Wes stopped before apartment 309 and fished in his pocket for the keys. The door opened with a creak, and a waft of warm, stale air escaped. A very small fire burned on the hearth, evidence the Salamander slumbered there contentedly. Stepping in, Wes dropped his keys and the short stack of books on a high table beside the door. His hand unerringly found the light switch; an antique fixture flared to life, casting a rich yellow glow over the room. Wes turned to face Angel, who by dint of what he was had to remain in the corridor. For a moment Wes was transported back in time, to that night Angelus emerged. He felt himself flung through the air, his back colliding solidly with the shelves which had lined the office wall. His Watcher's training provided a subconscious running monologue over the pictures, a short "this is your life" focused on the folly of trusting a vampire.
Angel shifted uneasily and cleared his throat as he looked away. Shame darkened his words as he spoke quietly, "Maybe this was a bad idea."
Constrained by the presence in the hallway of two of Wesley's neighbors, Angel turned with just slightly faster than human speed. The movement jarred Wesley out of his reverie -- really a silent panic -- and he stepped forward abruptly, hand darting out simultaneously. He gripped Angel's forearm, knowing full well his strength was insufficient to stop the movement of a vampire who didn't want to be stopped.
"Angel. Please wait."
Angel allowed Wesley to pull him around so they once more faced each other. Still, Angel studied the wall above the door, beside the door, anywhere but Wesley's eyes.
A heartbeat, then two, sounded loudly in Wesley's own ears. "I'm sorry. An inconvenient bit of Watcher baggage surfaced. Bad timing," Wesley explained remorsefully. "You're welcome here." Another heartbeat of silence. "Come in."
Angel remained in the hallway, but he finally glanced back at Wes. "Are you sure?"
Wesley couldn't imagine the pain that question caused his vampire friend. "Too late now," he joked, attempting to lighten the mood. Wes tugged at Angel's arm and repeated the invitation, letting the words reach his eyes.
Angel read the conviction there and stepped across the threshold, though he let Wesley close the door behind them.
"Angel, I'm sorry. I--"
Angel cut him off with a palm up. "I understand, Wesley."
"Doesn't make it any easier, does it?" Wes asked insightfully after a moment.
They exchanged a glance, and it was haunted by the memories of everything they'd been through in the last few months. Both were plunged back in time to other conversations: Angel's invitation to stay in LA, to join "the good fight"; Wesley's assurances he wouldn't kill Angel despite what the Ethros demon said, and Angel's acceptance; Angel declaring them family.
Wes came out of it; in his eyes hung shadows of the bad times, though light from the good memories was brushing the shadows away. Still, his features behind his round glasses were cast in worry, and a tinge of sorrow for hurting someone who had come to mean so much in his life.
"It's all right, Wes," Angel gently assured his friend. "Hang on to the Watcher baggage. May save us all someday."
Wesley wanted to deny the fatalistic sentiments, but he knew there were more hard times ahead. The Scrolls of Aberjian were difficult to decipher, but the parts Wesley did understand were filled with frightening references to the evil still extant on earth, the overflow from the Hellmouth reaching its long arm all the way to LA. There was much more of that good fight ahead, and the promise of redemption if they all survived.
Wesley nodded his agreement. His Watcher skills would be more in demand than ever before.
Angel seemed satisfied, and acknowledged Wes' nod with one of his own. Convinced now that he was welcome, Angel dropped the cooler to the floor by the door and turned away to give the apartment the once-over.
The couch was care-worn but fitted with plush cushions, and a vibrant wool rug rich with burgundy and forest green took the edge off the hardwood floorboards. Books were piled haphazardly around the large room, though most were concentrated in a massive bookcase that filled one wall. The overflow landed atop a battered trunk jammed into a corner. In among the books stood a very serviceable but incongruous bo. Angel was astonished to see the ancient Chinese weapon, thinking Wesley would be more comfortable with the English equivalent, the quarterstaff.
Otherwise, the room was clean and inviting. A galley kitchen was off the living room to the left of the fireplace, while an archway to the right revealed an intimate dining area complete with '50s formica table and cherry red chairs. Two doors stood ajar not far from the entrance to the kitchen that Angel surmised were the bed and bath rooms.
Wesley's place was smaller than Cordelia's by at least 100 square feet, but Angel was homeless; until they rebuilt or relocated the offices, he either had to stay with Wes in these close quarters, or look for a temporary but suitable place of his own. There'd been enough change lately, and even a vampire needed a sense of permanance. At least there were few windows in the apartment, and more importantly, none in the living room.
"Nice," Angel pronounced.
Wes felt a stab of pride that he fought to repress. He couldn't explain his need for Angel's approval to himself, and he certainly didn't want to try to explain it to the object of the adulation. "With as colorful a history as Cordelia's also, I'm afraid."
A raised eyebrow asked for more detail. Wes gestured to the couch, indicating that Angel should make himself at home. His manners had lapsed momentarily, but his upbringing reasserted itself quickly. Angel nodded his thanks, shucked his duster and took a seat.
"Join me for some tea?" Wes offered hospitably.
"Sure." Angel didn't need anything but blood to survive, but Wes knew the warmth and scent of tea relaxed and comforted him.
Wesley excused himself, casually retrieving and bringing along the cooler of blood that Cordelia had thoughtfully packaged. Angel could hear him bustling around the kitchen, water filling a kettle and cabinets opening. He promptly lost himself in a book sitting beside him on the couch, a "care and feeding" manual on Elementals. The chapter on Salamanders was marked with the faded shop receipt where the rare book had been purchased, the date corresponding to Wesley's decision to remain in Los Angeles. Angel glanced from the book to the embers glowing an angry red in the fireplace, then back. He had found Wesley's colorful addition. From the pulsing, vivid flame and the increased heat, Angel could tell Salamanders had no love for vampires. This would be an interesting stay.
The kettle whistled for attention and Wesley entered the living room soon after, his hands fully occupied by a tray laden with the fixings for tea, plus a plate of shortbread. Angel half rose from his seat, leaning forward to clear a space on the coffee table. Wes set down the tray with a nod of thanks.
"I see you've deduced the identity of my other houseguest," Wes observed as he took a seat on the opposite end of the couch.
"Doesn't much care for vampires," Angel stated with some certainty, eyeing the fireplace warily.
"Ah, no. Another reason I hesitated." Wes followed Angel's eyes over to the fireplace. "It's become quite protective, I fear."
"So it sees me as your enemy?"
"Perhaps," Wes conceded reluctantly. It was his turn to avoid eye contact with his friend. "I've learned to communicate with it -- in the most rudimentary fashion -- but I believe I can convince it you're a friend."
"You think that's wise?" Angel challenged.
Wes glanced at him sharply, but moderated his expression when he realized the bravado only covered the uncertainty Angel felt at being a part of their lives. "You're right, of course," Wesley extemporized, "I'd best convince it you're family instead."
A cocky grin spread Wesley's lips, lighting his blue eyes to the color of an Alaskan lake under a summer sun. It took a few moments, but Wes was heartened to see the smile reflected on Angel's face as well. There was surprise in his eyes, and gratitude for Wesley's generous spirit.
Reaching over, Wes slapped a friendly hand on Angel's knee, then clapped his hands together. He picked up the pot. "Tea?"
They shared a pot of the English panacea in companionable silence, Wes reviewing the volume on Elementals for just the right approach to settling the brewing conflict between his two houseguests. Angel was content to sit quietly, reveling in this opportunity to just be and not do.
"So?" Angel prompted after a protracted period of inactivity. Wes had sunk into research mode, and Angel discovered he'd rather do than be, after all.
"Hmmm? Yes, I believe I know what to do."
"Just how did you end up with a Salamander?" Angel asked, curiosity getting the best of him. "I thought they needed to be cultivated for seven years in a fire of myrtle wood."
"And so it was," Wesley affirmed, "by the white witch who lived here before I moved in."
"She just left it?"
"She couldn't rightly remove it. Its essence invests this dwelling. Removing it would most likely extinguish it," Wes explained in his best Watcher tones. "Word on the street is that she settled a long-running blood feud with her sister, and now the two of them are living peacefully in Scottsdale, Arizona."
"Stranger than fiction," Angel mused wryly.
As he explained, Wes gathered the focal objects that accompanied the cantrip. In any summoning of an Elemental there was a focus item and a vocal item. The vocal item was the spell of summoning, usually an eight or more word cantrip. The focal items in this case were five tall candles, each one a different color, and each of the colors found in flames: red, orange, yellow, blue and white. Wes also drew a long match from a cardboard cylinder on the hearth stone, and a set of wind chimes from the trunk in the corner. He leafed through the grimoire and spread it open to the page containing the correct Way to summon the Salamander. Wes had not done this particular cantrip before but he was confident he could employ it to access the Way.
"Here," Wesley gestured to the table and the rug, "help me shift these."
Angel moved the coffee table aside with barely any effort, freeing the rug. He gripped the opposite corner from Wesley, and the two men rolled it up so that it fetched up against the foot of the sofa. The hardwood floor had been painted with two concentric circles in a red that seemed to have been distilled from the sunset. At five equidistant points around the outer circle were flames, each a matching color to the candles which stood nearby. Four were of a size, but the red one facing south was several inches larger. Wes explained that red was the dominant color and south was the preferred orientation of Fire Elementals.
"You seem to know a lot about this," Angel commented, impressed by his friend's arcane knowledge.
"I had to learn quickly, or lose a great opportunity. Also, the Salamander was foundering for want of magical upkeep. It was nothing," he finished in a self-deprecating manner. "I would never have been able to help were the Salamander not part of the first Way. It is the most physical and therefore the easiest to master." Wesley realized his voice had modulated into the pedantic tones of a Watcher yet again. He glanced up in time to catch the amused expression on Angel's face. "Ah, well, gone but not forgotten."
All business once more, Wes placed the candles at their designated positions, lighting each in its turn from cool color to warm, stopping short of the red candle. He placed the match across the top of the focal candle, its tiny flame remaining lit, the magic of the circle already beginning to assert its influence. The heat and ambient light in the room rose noticeably.
Angel shifted uneasily though he tried to hide his anxiety from Wesley. If Angel remembered his early readings about Elementalism, no ritual was required, only the mental prowess and concentration of the Walker of the Way. He wanted Wesley to feel he had his full trust and confidence. He had doubted Wesley once during the exorcism of Ryan Anderson, leading to nearly fatal results. That mistake would not be made again.
Wesley peered at his watch and noted the time. "Hmmm, well, it's not noon, but I am hoping that midnight -- an hour ofttimes associated with magic -- will suffice. We have a few minutes left to prepare."
Gripping Angel's upper arm, Wesley led him into the inner circle. Angel hesitated a moment, but Wesley barely noticed, focused as he was on his preparations. Angel directed his gaze to the floor, noting the intricate pattern bisecting the circle. On closer inspection, he discovered the pattern was a series of Greek letters forming the word salamander. Wesley dropped to his knees, fingers still encircling Angel's bicep, and Angel followed suit. They knelt facing each other, one man on either side of the line. Wesley checked Angel's position and then his own, assuring himself they were both entirely within the inner circle.
Reaching to his left Wes took up the chimes, gave them a gentle shake, then incanted, "Oh, Salamander, embodiment of fire, come unto me."
As he finished the vocal, Wes touched the match to the red candle's wick, then threw the match into the fireplace. Flames ignited and licked hungrily over the log of myrtle wood. With a rush of hot air, the flames roared from the fireplace to fill the outer circle in a ring of fire.
Wesley had opened the Way.
Angel was badly startled and he shied away from the edge of the circle. Even with a soul, a vampire's reaction to fire was visceral and immediate. A scream formed in his throat but he swallowed it down with effort. No, I can't break Wesley's concentration he cautioned himself. His muscles tensed to bolt, without conscious direction. Eyes darting right and left, he instinctually assessed the danger. The wall of fire grew more solid by the minute and the heat built steadily, until Angel felt sweat break out on his brow. He fought to contain the panic that rose apace with the flames. His limbs spasmed violently, seemingly out of control. Closing his eyes helped. He pictured his center and settled himself, using techniques he had learned decades ago to control the demon. Opening his eyes, Angel took a breath he needed only mentally. The wall of fire was now solid and no other light penetrated, but the heat had leveled off, and once Angel got a handle on the terror, he realized the fire would not burn him.
Wes was oblivious to Angel's distress. His eyes were open, but they were focused inwardly, seeking out the plane where the Salamander dwelled. His lips moved, but the sound was snatched from them by the crackle of the surrounding flames. Brow creased in concentration, Wes threw his head back suddenly. The air pressure changed abruptly, sound returning in a rush with the force of a thunderclap. Flinging his arms akimbo, Wesley chanted three times in quick succession, "Into my hand I call forth fire!"
Wesley had entered the Way.
Woven into the wall of flame was a dancing, blistering light. A shape, no bigger than a common mouse, detached itself from the ring of fire, a comet's tail of red, orange and yellow trailing behind. The chimes at Wesley's side stirred. Contained in the musical notes were almost-words, but they did not resolve. The music was beautiful, though, and the notes filled the space within the wall of flame until their bones fairly thrummed with the sound. The shape darted around the circle, testing its boundaries before settling itself on Wesley's outstretched palm.
He cupped it in his hands and brought it close to his body. The salamander still sang, and Wesley tilted his head to the side to hear over the fire-wind. The more he listened, the more understanding he gleaned from the trill of notes. A beautific smile lit his features from within and he nodded in time to a tune only he could hear.
Worried, Angel tentatively touched his arm, staying far from the tiny flame which danced in Wesley's other hand. "Wes?"
Finally taking notice of his surroundings, Wesley came back to himself with a startled jerk and a low cry of alarm. His eyes darted between the vampire across from him and the Salamander on his hand a bit wildly, as if he had no idea who or what they were or from where they had come. Shock painted his expression.
Wesley now walked the Way.
The wall of flame and the Salamander in Wesley's hand registered slowly. He had to clear his throat twice before sound would issue from it. "It would appear I've been successful," Wesley observed mildly, totally at odds to their situation. He still regarded the Salamander with a fair amount of awe.
"Wesley, you all right?" Angel asked with no small measure of concern.
Wesley swallowed noisily and took inventory. "Um, yes, I believe I am. How extraordinary." He thought a moment, then his eyes widened in realization of just what surrounded them. "The fire! Angel, are you alr--"
Angel rubbed the back of his neck a bit sheepishly. "I'm fine, though I'm here to tell you I almost lost that unflappable vibe." Angel managed to produce a smile to allay his partner's fears. "I'm fine," Angel assured Wes.
Wes waved his free hand at the wall of flame. "This never happened before," he explained apologetically. "I never would have placed you in jeopardy."
"Sure, I know." Angel eyed the Salamander cautiously. "But, can we get on with this?"
Wesley peered intently at the Salamander perched lightly on his open palm and hummed a few notes. The Salamander danced and sang a short song. Eyes widening in apprehension, Wesley shook his head. "No, no, that can't possibly be right," he mumbled absently. Wesley hummed again, more forcefully than his opening salvo, but the response was the same. "Ah, yes." He caught Angel's gaze and translated the Salamander's song. "It says it must protect all within this place from...darkness." Wes frowned. "I have tried to convince it--" His words were drowned out by a protracted song, accompanied by a kaleidoscope of color changes. Wesley sang in return, "He is a member of my family."
Wesley listened intently for a moment, but he didn't need to translate any longer. The wall of flame had taken up the chant and it spoke in words fabricated of song and fire, sweet and sharp.
"He is unlike you," the Salamander trilled.
"One may be different and still be family," Wes argued with some urgency.
"He must be tested. No darkness may remain within."
"I'm afraid an Elemental can be quite stubborn," Wesley told Angel. "It seems you are to be tested."
"What does this test involve?" Angel asked, as the panic which had only just subsided began to re-surface.
"The thing of darkness must be touched." The words were not angry; in fact, they held no emotion at all, but the tone brooked no refusal.
"This is your final word? Your touch may harm him."
"If the darkness truly harbors no ill will, it will be safe."
"I'm sorry, Angel, but I see no other way." Wes was truly apologetic.
Angel just stared at the Salamander for a long moment, then he nodded abruptly, coming to a decision. He would have to place his life in Wesley's hands. It was an unfamiliar feeling. The jury was still out on whether he liked it. What Angel liked was to be in control. Control meant safety. These days, safety was a luxury he could not afford.
"Let's do it," Angel consented before the fear could conquer him.
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