Elemental, My Dear Angel
Cordelia puttered around her apartment. Her very empty apartment. Even Dennis had gone back to the Twilight Zone, or wherever, leaving Cordelia alone with her thoughts. They were noisy thoughts. The more she focused on that inner voice, the more she realized, with her newfound emotional depth, she had hurt Angel.
Sure, he was dead, but Cordy didn't need an x-ray to tell he had a heart.
Guilt began to seep in, and no matter how hard she tried to keep her mind occupied, her thoughts returned to the look on Angel's face when she kicked him out. He was Cinderfella, his house a burnt-out shell and all belongings a pile of ashes. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. See, just like she was saying: those children's rhymes were full of death and destruction.
A memory came unbidden into her mind, derailing her thoughts. Late that first night, after Wesley had gone home and Cordelia had already been abed for several hours, a noise intruded on her sleep. She got up, making the inevitable trip to the bathroom. Angel stood before the sink, hair still damp from the shower, clad only in a pair of beat up jeans Cordelia had found for him. He was just standing there, staring at the place where his reflection should have been. As she watched, Angel lifted his hand to the mirror and touched the cold and empty surface. Cordelia had no idea what his expression was, but she knew him now and could guess what he was feeling. No home, no visual evidence that he existed -- that had to be tough, even after all the years. She moved into the doorway, her reflection appearing unobstructed, and he froze. His hand dropped to his side and he slowly turned. He mumbled some apology for waking her. Her words to him were meant to comfort: "I see you." Angel met her eyes ever so briefly, then he silently padded out. The look on his face nearly brought her to tears.
So, guilt. It wasn't only that Angel's feelings were hurt. No, that she maybe could've ignored. But his expression -- the same one as that first night -- had said, "I deserve this." She didn't like it when ghost lady had done it to her. Cordy was angry at herself that she had done the same horrible thing to another person, especially Angel. He had been so good to her. He was there for her when her own family had abandoned her, betrayed her trust. He gave her a job, looked after her, was kind to her even when she was at her tactless best. He even said he liked her. She had been adored and envied in Sunnydale, but no one had really liked her. Only in her deeply private thoughts could Cordelia admit that fact. Angel -- and Wes -- overlooked her faults. They were her friends, her family now, for better or worse.
She had to do something to make up for her meanness to Angel. Mind made up, she grabbed her denim jacket and shoulder bag, checked for her keys and headed out.
Cordy never reached the door.
The vision hit forcefully. Bag, jacket and keys tumbled from her nerveless fingers. Grasping her temples in pain, Cordelia dropped to her knees, bombarded by sensory missiles. She squeezed her eyes shut. The vision ripped through her, filling her inner sight with a fiery red wall before careening wildly to the feral faces of several vampires. A black shape, blurred by speed, momentarily clouded the landscape of her mind. Flames took over once more, a bright white light cutting through the fire. Another face appeared, hideous to behold, its horned and scaled visage menacing even though intangible. A stench rose from it, sulphuric and bitter, and Cordelia gagged. Wesley and Angel were at the edges of the scene one moment, swallowed by fire the next. Her body flushed as though she walked through that wall of flame and for a moment she thought she burned. Drenched immediately in sweat, she shivered from the cold hand of fear, gut-wrenching and insuperable. A scream tore loose from her throat, ending in a whimpered "Please." Senses battered again by a last barrage forced her into fetal position. Roaring flames, burning vividly, seared her inner vision with a brilliant flash of red. The pungeant odor of burning flesh was acrid in her nostrils.
The vision faded gradually, but it was a long while before Cordelia uncoiled and managed to sit up. Her hands were still shaking and her legs refused to hold her the first time she attempted to stand. Afterimages played against her retinas, but she tried to shake them away. The movement brought a stab of pain to her head and she nearly sank back to the floor. Only willpower kept her upright. Another minute passed before Cordelia could rise to her feet and make her way to the bathroom. The vision had been bad, very bad, but there were three Tylenol with her name on them and she had to answer their sweet call.
Picking up the cordless phone on the way to the bathroom, Cordelia dialed Wesley's number from memory with an awkward flexing of her thumb. She listened with growing apprehension as the phone rang ten times with no answer. Beyond worried, Cordelia hurriedly swallowed the pain relievers and rushed out, stopping only to retrieve her jacket, bag and keys from the floor. The door swung closed behind her and the lights winked out.
Wesley regarded his vampire friend dubiously but Angel remained resolute and nothing Wesley said could sway him. After a few fruitless minutes, Wes realized arguing was a waste of energy better spent mastering the Way and controlling the Salamander. He'd never hear the end of it from Cordelia should he reduce their boss to a pile of cinders. Best take care.
His face set in determined lines to match Angel's, Wesley took the grimoire in hand and sing-songed the cantrip, "Fires of the Salamander, I invite thee to test those within this sphere."
Angel braced himself as the Salamander bounced once then rose from Wesley's hand. He managed not to back away, but he couldn't help the automatic flinch as the Salamander darted around him. It seemed content to hover above him until unexpectedly touching down on Angel's head; it brightened to the intensity of a magnesium flare.
Wesley threw up his hands to block the blistering glare but it lasted only seconds. As the Salamander sank into Angel the room plunged into a Stygian darkness, all light falling away into the circle of dark flames like a black hole. Wes had no illusions that he still controlled the Salamander -- if he ever had. The Way remained open but that was the only certainty. He could just barely hear the Salamander's song but it was faint, like a far-off cry on the sea or a radio tuned to a weak station. The glow built slowly, so slowly that Wes thought it a mere afterimage of the light on his retiinas. But no, the light increased and gradually the black receded, replaced by a fiery orange-red wall.
Angel knelt in the center of that glow. It invested him, gave him shape. The Salamander had joined to his flesh and its fire illuminated him. He took on the look of a painting by Raphael, a saint limned by a golden halo. As soon as the thought bloomed in Wes' mind, he realized it was an absurd analogy for a vampire inhabited by a Salamander.
Caught in a raging conflagration, mouth spread wide in a silent scream, Angel burned. Or more accurately, the demon burned. Angel knelt within a pillar of fire, the white hot center of a burning coal. Pain wracked him, throbbing and immediate. He bellowed but the sound swirled into the wall of flame and was swallowed. Fire ran along every nerve, infused every muscle, heated every bone. His cold heart began to beat, deep and resonant, the rhythm pulling and pushing his ribcage in an unfamiliar movement. He gasped and his lungs took in a great draught of air. More heat flowed in, filling him with life, a life he had been denied for so long. He was cradled by warmth. Music, high and sweet, surrounded him, lifted him, carried him. He was soothed. The pain dissolved. Peace replaced it. Dangerous peace. Seductive peace.
Angel walked the Way.
He stood in a clearing. There was magic all around. Wind danced through the high branches. Rattling leaves, creaking bark. A symphony of Nature played for his ears alone. He turned in a slow circle. As he completed a full revolution, his eyes lit upon a fire, small at first but growing before his eyes.
It left the ground in an impossible flight. He held out his hand, knowing instinctively the fire would do him no harm here. The flame sang and danced to its own music. It lit on his open palm, pulsing softly from red to orange to yellow, the colors merging, separating, undulating. A face emerged, a human face and torso with hair and tail of flame, and its smile was made of joy.
His own lips spread in response. Joy. Almost a foreign emotion, the memory of it so dim. Peace. Joy. Contentment was just beyond his grasp.
No, this is wrong. The curse. He shifted uneasily. Pain edged in. He must never be content. Fulfillment was denied him as long as he walked in darkness.
The song grew in volume. "You are touched now, darkness. Why do you fight?"
Confusion reigned. "This is wrong," he repeated aloud.
The fire flared angrily. "You deny the light?" it trilled dangerously.
He hastened to explain. "I want the light but that is not my place in the universe."
The small flame flitted off, darted around his head, then alit once more. Its song lifted in awe. "You are the Warrior. The light has claimed you, yet your purpose binds you to the dark." The flame cooled to blue momentarily. "In darkness there is naught but sadness.
"There is a place in the light," it offered.
He hesitated. To feel the sun again, to love. Heart beating out a song of life again. On some primal level, he desired that life, the life which should have been his, the life he willingly denied himself. Temptation was a bitch.
"I have my place in the dark but I know the light will come for me one day. I trust in that." He swallowed the desire. It was bitter in his throat like old blood. "I must."
The flame pulsed faster and faster until it whirled upwards. Defying gravity, it hovered above him. "This is your final choice?"
"It is," he confirmed resolutely.
"You have chosen wisely, Warrior of Light. Know that you have an ally in the Fire." Its song rose in multiple voices, a riotous choir of notes rising in joyous abandon.
"Know that there is always a sanctuary where my home fires burn," he offered spontaneously in return.
The flame danced about his shoulders before darting around the clearing. It was clearly pleased. "The Light has chosen wisely, as well."
Increasing speed, it plumetted directly towards his chest, plunging straight through to his heart. Soul anchored by an elemental power greater than any curse, contentment flooded him, a deep drowning pool from which he couldn't - wouldn't - surface. For just a moment, a small slice of his own personal eternity, he knew utter peace. The voices of those he brutally murdered quieted. He was easier in his own skin, as if the elemental fire burned away some of the demon's hold on his flesh. For just that one moment, he felt one with the world again, warm, the sun's fiery corona contained by his skin.
He had to let it all go. This wasn't his place. There was still more of the good fight to be waged. He had not yet earned his peace. He was needed. Trusted. Befriended.
Swept along by the tide, he was nearly lost but as vampire and Elemental both spilled from the Way, the tranquility shattered. Thrust from the Way like a baby breaking free of the womb, Angel opened his eyes. The arms supporting him barely registered.
They were under attack.
Cordelia's driving, never careful under the best of circumstances, suffered greatly from the press of tension and fear. Lights were ignored, pedestrians barely went unscathed, small animals quaked. How she avoided the notice of the police was a miracle she would have attributed to the PTBs, had she cared, at all -- which she didn't, at all.
After all, she was on a mission in the reality version of Sin City.
Careening around the final corner with a total disregard for public safety, Cordelia slammed on the brakes and the car rocked to a stop. A black van, with the tell-tale windowless look favored by demons and vampires, stood at the curb across from Wesley's building. She had a very bad feeling.
Feeling totally exposed, Cordelia hurriedly backed the car behind a UPS truck that had stopped to make a delivery. From her urban blind, she watched the black van. Tension sang in her; adrenaline was the accompaniment. The blood surged through her veins, pumped by a heart pounding out a wild rhythm.
After five minutes, when no creatures had emerged from the dark vehicle, Cordelia caught her breath and willed herself to relax. She could be mistaken, after all. The van could belong to one of the seedy businessmen who frequented this borderline neighborhood.
Yeah, right, she chastised herself, and tonight I'll be the lead in Phantom.
A car hurtled past, travelling at a fast clip for a city street, and the blur of black jarred loose a piece of her vision. The realization hit her like a brick. She could sit in her car for the next hour and nothing and no one would come out of that van. Bile rose in a throat constricted by terror.
They were already inside.
Before Cordelia realized what she was doing, she had flung herself from the car and was standing on the sidewalk before the entrance to Wes' apartment building. Immobilized by indecision, Cordelia ran through several courses of action and discarded them one by one as foolish or ineffectual. The police were ill-equipped to handle the undead or demonic (even Detective Kate, who had issues of her own); they'd be killed for sure. Yelling to passersby for help was sheer lunacy and ultimately a waste of lives. Buffy, who shouldn't be anywhere near Angel despite being the undead-ass-kicking Slayer, was too far away to matter.
Entering the building was equal parts foolish, brave and suicidal, but when push came to shove, it was the only plan that had the slightest chance of success. She wasn't the partner of a vampire and a rogue demon hunter for nothing. Cordelia had kicked major undead booty in her time, and there really was no other choice. She would deal.
Angel was burning, of this Wes had no doubt. Face set in a rictus mask of pain, Angel screamed, but the sound never reached Wes' ears. As Wesley prepared himself to enter the Way and attempt a rescue, Angel's features smoothed out. Wes watched as his vampire friend took in one incongruous deep breath and then another until his breathing was even and steady. Normal human breathing. Worry edged aside the relief. An aura of unmistakeable heat radiated from Angel, and a hand placed on his bare forearm confirmed the rise in body temperature. Not quite normal for a human, but still much higher than usual. Anxiety slowly replaced the worry.
The wall of flames rose higher, forming a dome over the pair within the circle of eldritch fire. Watching the flames completely enclose them, Wes expected the oppressive hand of claustraphobia but instead a great feeling of elation suffused him, soothed away the sharp edges of apprehension. The colors around him changed, corruscating brightly, a living kaleidoscope. Defying all logic, the fire appeared happy. A jubilant song, formed of many voices, swelled and filled the enclosed space. There was inherent joy in the way the flames danced to its own music.
Wesley closed his eyes and basked in the ambient peace spreading from the fire. The respite was short-lived. An insistent ringing pulled him out of his reverie. As his eyes fell on Angel's face, fear replaced all thoughts of anything but the danger of the Salamander. A look of pure joy painted Angel's features. Joy. Peace. A near-contentment. His body rocked like seaweed caught in a gentle tide. Wesley was suddenly anything but peaceful. A sharp sound and a muffled shriek drew his attention to the door.
Loathe to break the communion Angel shared with the Salamander, Wesley could no longer safely ignore the danger. He called his employer's name, with no discernible result. The flame darkened briefly, and the song hummed, like a swarm of angry bees. A disturbance in the corridor outside demanded action, but Wesley couldn't abandon Angel. He called his name more forcefully and was rewarded with a momentary frown of confusion. Still, that was much less of a reaction than Wes wanted.
Clearly alarmed by the sounds of struggle in the hall, Wesley nearly missed what was happening right before his eyes. Angel gleamed with a diffuse light whose intensity gradually increased. The glow narrowed down to a single point of light in the center of his chest, a burning ember from which the Salamander emerged. Wes bellowed Angel's name and the wall of flame absorbed the sound and sent it reverberating back ten-fold into the circle. With a sharp intake of breath, Angel slumped forward. Wesley caught him by the upper arms before he could plunge into the elemental fire.
The door shook under a continual pounding, then buckled under the strain of the constant barrage. Wes watched in alarm as the door was jolted from its hinges. The lock was a deadbolt, but it wasn't designed to take such punishment. Another thunderous blow and the jamb shattered, sending deadly yard-long splinters of wood shooting into the apartment. The door burst inward as Angel opened his eyes.
A cluster of five demonic creatures huddled just past the lintel, holding a struggling human woman. A glimpse of long brunette hair and a cry of frustrated rage identified her as Cordelia. Angel began to launch himself to her aid, but Wesley still held him by the upper arms. His face morphing, Angel snarled at the restraining hands, but was soon calmed by Wes' convincing words on the folly of plunging though the circle of protective fire. Failing to get a rise out of Angel, the true demon nocked a bolt into his crossbow and let fly. The vampire at his right hand followed suit. The arrows sped true but burned to an instant cinder as they hit the wall of flame. Angel spared a glance at Wesley, and by the "oh no, not again" look on the ex-Watcher's face, they had both arrived at the same conclusion.
They were under attack.
The hairs on the back of Cordelia's neck were at attention as she cautiously entered the lobby of the apartment building. She was instantly on guard as she stepped into a space that should have been well-lit but was dark as pitch. Swearing softly, she promised herself to add a mini- flashlight to the regular arsenal she now kept stocked in her bag.
Cordelia should have turned and ran then but she continued towards the back of the vestibule where she knew the stairs were located. If memory served there was a window at the base of the staircase that should shed enough light to manuever. Shuffling her feet to keep from tripping, she made her way carefully across the lobby.
The window came into view -- along with the vampire guard -- at roughly the same moment. Cordelia tried back-pedaling, but the vampire was on her in a flash of speed that barely registered as movement. She put up a good fight, hitting him in the sternum with a lucky shot of her elbow and sliding her fashionable, heavy-soled mules down his shin. She was rewarded with a grunt of discomfort but the vampire easily overcame her struggles. He twisted both her arms up behind her shoulder blades and force-marched her up the stairs, all the while keeping her subdued. Cordelia tried to fight but her arms were stretched to the breaking point. Pain ripped through her shoulders with each step, but she wouldn't succumb to her panic. She had to warn Angel and Wesley about what she saw in her vision.
Cordelia opened her mouth to scream but the vampire pinned her arms even more brutally, and cruelly warned, "Scream and I'll break your neck." He licked her throat and Cordelia jumped, but all that escaped her lips was a whimper. She'd be no good to the boys if she were dead.
She was steered around the corner by the hand that crushed her wrists. Three other vampires, one dressed all in black, one tall and lanky with blood red hair and the last a nerdy little man with glasses, were pounding on Wesley's door while the vilest specimen of demon Cordelia ever had the misfortune to see stood by giving directions.
"Here's another one," the vampire guard announced gruffly. He licked her throat again, relishing the taste of fear. "Can I eat her?" he asked eargerly, tongue darting out to wet his lips.
The others looked over with interest, like diners eyeing a banquet table, but the demon was the one to answer. "No. We need her for the ritual." Its voice was like broken glass, sharp with hate. "Give her here," it demanded.
The vampire guard released Cordelia and gave her a rough shove towards the demon. She went sprawling at its webbed and taloned feet. Cordy dragged her arms around, shaking them to restore her circulation, then pushed herself upright. A hand to match the feet reached down and lifted her by the chin. The demon pulled her close and she let loose with a soul- wrenching scream. The demon tightened his grip on her chin, bringing her up on her toes, until it was satisfied by the tears of pain and fear Cordelia couldn't help but shed. Still, she was a Chase and she wouldn't cower, not if she could help it.
Giving the demon a deprecating once-over with her best haughty sneer, she slowly took in its appearance. It stood nearly seven feet tall, from the tips of its helix horns rising from the top of its bald head to taloned feet the size of small canoes. Set into a face malformed of melted, sallow skin were three liquid red eyes marred by a blaze of white, off-center. It smiled evilly and the wan light of the hallway glinted off a double row of barracuda-sharp teeth framed by rubbery lips. A miasma of sewerage clung to its battered leather tunic and leggings, and a putrid odor that Cordelia didn't need to identify wafted from its open mouth.
She swallowed mightily, holding down her dinner with difficulty. "God, you give new meaning to coyote ugly," she disparaged. "Does even your mother love that face?"
With a growl of rage the demon threw her back to her vampire captor. He was no prize either on the beauty meter and she mouthed a silent yech of disgust. Her head pulled back sharply by the hand tangled in her hair, Cordelia was forced to look into the mouth of her captor. Fangs green with ichor and stained with old blood, the vampire cranked his mouth open and moved towards her throat. Cordelia was completely overcome by the stench, but she was damned if she'd let some two-bit, pointy-toothed thug get the best of her.
"Even Rembrandt couldn't help that smile," she insulted the vampire. "Better gargle with nitro. I'll just go get some."
She tried to wriggle free from his grasp, but his large hands implacably encircled her biceps, like the steel jaws of a bear trap. She was saved by the demon's command to stop. The vampire snarled his defiance in the demon's general direction, but he reluctantly obeyed and refrained from feeding, to Cordelia's intense relief. Instead, he turned her to face Wesley's apartment.
She watched in horror as the door, having taken all the punishment it could, burst inward. The demon and the black- clad vampire next to him both brought crossbows to bear and let fly. Cordelia screamed again as the arrows sped true. They never reached their intended victims, as a corruscating wall of flame that surrounded Wesley and Angel burned the arrows to ash upon impact.
They were under attack.
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