When You Can't See The Wood

A/N Many thanks to rahirah for the fast beta read on this; much appreciated. Written for the Autumn Angel Book of Days Challenge, stories archived here: www.moracle.co.uk/angelbod/archives/aut03/index.html


When You Can’t See the Wood...


 “I can’t pay you, you know.”

The words were honey-sweet but if there was a trace of either regret or embarrassment in the voice, it was so faint as to be invisible.

Angel and Wes exchanged glances. In the space of a few seconds they silently, urgently conversed by means of widened eyes and facial twitches.

Don’t like taking money for helping people.
Quite.
So we can let her go?
Yes – no! Cordelia!
Oh, God.

Angel coughed and turned to their client. Cordelia’s views on clients who didn’t pay might not match his own in any way, but he’d become an unwilling convert after a few of her lectures. She’d ranted at length; variations on a single theme, which seemed to be that rich people needed helping too and allowing them to show their gratitude with a check was only polite.  Ranted over and over, her voice passionate and intense, her eyes glowing with a holy fervour he’d only seen her show when she’d bought something on sale and got them to knock off even more for a flaw so tiny he’d been unable to see the slight blemish until she’d ...

“Angel?” Wesley said, his voice uncertain. “Were you going to say something?” This century, he added silently.

“What? Oh...yeah.” He turned and offered the woman in front of him a tentative smile. Cordelia had mentioned the need to look friendly, and made him practice smiling and shaking hands. Wesley’s attempts to copy him had met with her grudging approval, tempered by a scathing assessment of his ‘way too English and not in a cool, Hugh Grant sort of way’ clothes. His own awkward attempts at welcoming clients had resulted in a despairing look and a sad groan as she sank into her chair and rested her head against her desk. “Were you ...  not happy with the service we provided at, umm, Angel Investigations?” Please say ‘no’ so I can tell Cordelia it’s why you didn’t pay.

She blinked, nut- brown lashes sweeping down to cover hazel eyes. “Of course I am! You both did a wonderful job killing that horrible, horrible demon.” She smiled at them and Wesley felt a warm glow kindle as she let her gaze linger on him. “I couldn’t be happier. Really. I’m just not able to pay you.”

“Why is that?” Wesley asked, striving to sound politely curious rather than curt. It wasn’t that he minded helping her as a favour, but he felt a slight indignation stir and cool the flattered glow. The herbs for the binding potion had been out of season; he’d ruined the edge on his favourite axe chopping the head off the demon, then finding out that the arms (four) and legs (three) needed to be separated too, and his blue shirt was never going to be wearable again. Thekoth slime was corrosive. “The details you gave us seemed to indicate that you are, forgive me, rather a wealthy woman?”

She laughed, a gentle sound, musical and soft. “Oh, I made that up! I don’t have any money at all. Why would I need it?”

Angel frowned. He wasn’t in any way able to price her outfit accurately but it looked expensive. Her hair was a wild swirl of chestnut that had to be purposeful because it looked too silly to be natural, and Cordelia would have walked through an ocean of Thekoth slime for those shoes. “Clothes? Food? Somewhere to live?” he said tentatively.

She shrugged, a beautiful movement that set her body swaying as though a breeze had blown through the Hyperion lobby. “All those are provided for me.”

“By whom?” Wesley asked. He flushed uncomfortably as an obvious explanation sprang to mind and began to stutter. “That is. Oh. I didn’t mean. I do apologise.”

She smiled at him, a puzzled smile. “Why?”

Angel glared at Wesley. “Perhaps we could just move on? If you can’t pay your bill right this minute, Ms. Woods, maybe we could set up...installments?” He voice trailed away. God, he hated this. It was so sordid. He was supposed to be helping people, not hounding them for cash.

“No.” Her lilting voice went flat. “That wouldn’t work at all. Now that you’ve destroyed the demon menacing my tree, I must go home. It’s been too long already.”

“Your tree?” Wesley said. “I thought – you told us that it was a danger to you and your children! What does a tree have to do with anything?”

Angel’s eyes narrowed. “Is there something you’re not telling us?” he asked. “Because I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this. We found the demon in the grove, just where you said he’d be, and yes, he had an axe and there was kindling stacked around the trunk of a tree, but we assumed – that is, Wes told me that –”

“The Thekoth ritually dismember, then cook and eat their victims. Which doesn’t quite fit with another text I translated that seemed to indicate they were vegetarians, but when you called us in such a panic and we saw his preparations –”

“We killed him when he attacked us,” Angel said, finishing off Wesley’s sentence and ignoring Wesley’s tight-lipped look of reproof.

“Yes. You saved me and mine. We are eternally grateful. I must go.”

“You’re a dryad, aren’t you?” Angel said bluntly, his voice certain and his arms folded across his chest as he watched her face register surprise.

Wesley gasped. “Of course! Now I see! If the tree to which your spirit is bound were to die, so would you. Now the texts make sense; the Thekoth is both vegetarian and a particularly brutal killer. Fascinating.”

She gave them both a rueful smile and for the first time looked a little uncomfortable. “You’ve guessed correctly,” she said. “Now do you see why I have no need of money?” She gestured down her body. “All this – a glamour.”

“We would have helped you anyway,” Angel said quietly. “You didn’t need to lie.”

She walked to him and cupped his face in a slender brown hand. As Wesley looked at her, he thought he could catch glimpses of her true form. The hair looked less like tangled tresses and more like leaves, overlapping and swirling as though wind-tossed. Her skin was darker, smooth and gleaming with a dull gloss. Wesley found his mind drifting back to the schoolyard and conker season. He’d had one champion conker once; boiled in vinegar, pierced and threaded onto a length of twine. Sore knuckles and stinging fingers hadn’t stopped him from winning match after match until, with the abruptness of all crazes, conkers were out and the winter chill had brought other games.

“I see that you mean that. Now I wish...” Her hand fell away and she looked at them, her eyes shifting from summer green to autumnal brown. “I will give you a gift instead.”

Cordelia wouldn’t be appeased by anything that wasn’t attached to a designer label, but Angel tried to look grateful and suitably appreciative. He wondered what a dryad considered precious. Fertiliser?

She reached out, her hands locking around Wesley’s left wrist and Angel’s right.

“I have power enough for a glamour, but that can do more than disguise; it can reveal. I give you both an hour in which you can –” She looked thoughtful and then mischievous. “Return to nature, yes? See life as I live it. Discover truths that lay hidden. A new experience. For an ageless vampire and a young man with an enquiring mind, that should be a gift worth having.”

She dropped their hands, stepped back and flung her arms up high in a wild, swift gesture that reminded Wesley of boughs whipped by an autumn gale, scarlet and brown leaves scattering like droplets of blood...

The violence of the image was mildly disturbing but he forgot it in the shock of discovering that his feet were rooted to the floor. Literally rooted.

“Angel!”

“Wesley? I can’t move. Where did she go?”

“Angel.”

Something in Wesley’s voice drew Angel’s eyes and attention. “What?”

“Why are we...naked?”

Angel glanced down. “I have leaves sprouting,” he offered. “Maybe they’ll spread.”

Wesley scanned his own body, twisting and bending as much as he could. He discovered that he could move his torso and arms but his legs, though not fused together, didn’t respond to his mental commands. He was naked and his skin was marked in a combination of white and silver grey swatches of colour. A silver birch. It had to be. Leaf buds, tightly furled, were emerging from his body in a pattern that he realised, when he saw it on Angel, seemed to follow the path of the major blood routes in his body.

Angel. Once his gaze fell on Angel, he couldn’t look away. The strong, powerful body had become an oak, mature, weathered and majestic. Angel’s pale skin had deepened many shades and his hair and eyes seemed to have lightened until they were a light brown.

Wesley’s eyes closed and he became aware of dozens of new sensations, new information for his mind to absorb. Hunger, heat, pain and pleasure; all still existed, but in a subtly different form. He knew, without looking, that the floor of the lobby had been pierced and broken, that whatever he and Angel had become was reaching down, searching for earth. There shouldn’t have been any; the basement lay beneath them, but whatever magic had transformed them seemed well able to take care of a detail like that. He felt sticky, delightfully moist soil wrap around the finest tendrils of his roots, felt the cool flow of water moving up, suffusing him with more than moisture. He crav