It was so dark.
He didn't even know if his eyes were opened or closed anymore.
He was exhausted, tired of struggling, of trying to resist, of holding onto the distorted vestiges of his self. He couldn't remember why he was fighting or even who the enemy was. He had reached the limits of his endurance.
It felt good to lie here, to feel the cool stone floor against his chest, his cheek, his lips, his belly. Against his cock. He tried to roll over, but found he couldn't. He wanted to raise his hand.
The sharp pain in his wrist brought him back to harsh reality.
< Oh, nononononono >
He had been crucified spread-eagled, face down, on the floor.
A hand snaked in his hair and his unbeating heart tightened with dread. The fingers clutched his scalp and forced him to raise his head, twisting his neck, almost breaking it.
'It's me, your worst enemy.'
In his terror, he recognized the familiarity of that voice.
'She is lost. Forget her.'
< No! >
'You are lost. Renounce your self.'
< No! >
'Who are you?'
< I don't know. >
'*I*? You are not *I*. What is this *I*?'
< Help me... >
'*Me?* You are stubborn... Do you believe that you deserve this punishment?'
< No, I... >
'Keep quiet. Look.'
He closed his eyes, but it wasn't enough to keep the images at bay. Images of death and mayhem, violence and blood, torture and corpses - the memories of a century spent killing and maiming his way through Europe projected on the unwilling screen of his lids. All the victims wore the face of a young blonde girl whose name he could not remember, yet whose features brought tears to his eyes. Her body was broken and deformed, supplicating. And the monsters kept on torturing her, and he did nothing.
'You are free now. You can go and save her. Why aren't you getting up?'
< I'm scared. >
'She is on her knees.'
< Leave her alone. >
'It's not me, my friend. It's you.'
< Please... >
'Maybe I will put an end to her suffering.'
< No! >
'Or prolong it.'
< No! >
His scream died but its echo haunted him and he huddled up in a tight ball of misery. He concealed his head between his arms, hiding his despair and his shame from the shadows' scornful stare. A barrier between himself and the darkness that always ended up smothering him. He knew nothing but the pain and the certitude that he deserved his punishment. Yet he couldn't remember what his sin was, and that more than anything else terrorized him. For how could he ever hope to redeem himself if he ignored the extent of his transgression?
Not for the first time, he considered surrendering - but his instinct of self-preservation took over.
It was dark. And he was lost.
Tired. So very tired.
He gave up his vain struggle against the tears and sobbed himself to sleep.
< Angel, Angel, Angel... I am Angel. My name is Angel... >
When he woke up again after a too short rest, he found himself chained to a wall.
It didn't even occur to him to try and free himself. To escape. To plead.
He saw It coming. His Nemesis. In one of its many corporeal manifestations too.
So. There would be no hallucinations this time, no mind games. Just torture.
The monster floated over him, its eyes gleaming, vindictive, full of hatred. Its hands were talons, the sharpened claws of a predator. It did not howl. Its breathing was whistling and muggy. The features of its face - or what passed for it - were indescribable, deformed beyond any analogy to the living world. Or the dead.
Its figure sometimes dissolved in a black, burning steam, alternatively sharp and shapeless. The monster was inhabited of a deep pulsation, the rhythm of the liquid flowing in its veins directing its movements, its stare.
The creature pressed itself against him, the talons closing around his wrists, inhuman restraints that threatened to rip him to shreds. But the demon did not wish to feed off his blood. It wanted his flesh and all of his soul.
It tried to settle into him like a snake dwelling in its lair. Like the creation returning to its creator.
The fusion was cataclysmic.
He contorted, more out of disgust than pain. The thing was in him now, ripping him apart from within, turning and twisting in his stomach like a cat looking for the most comfortable position on the living room couch. Fear drowned his senses, sucking him down into the abyss. His skin was burning, incandescent.
Still the monster raped him, its anger always stronger, ignoring the body of its host tormented to the breaking point.
And where there was pain, there was pleasure.
The beast tried to seduce him, rubbing against him, caressing his feverish back, shaking him like a dog trying to separate the meat from the bone before gnawing at it. The black steam twisted still, baiting his body. It wouldn't let him deny the pleasure, willing to feed off of sex as well as flesh - and a sensual stroke - over his cock, his nipples, his soul - preceded each new torture.
His erection hardened and he wanted to heave, repulsed by the treason of his own nature.
The reward instantly became punishment and he moaned quietly, crushed, bent, submissive, abused, enslaved. A jolt and he resisted, refusing to let the creature make itself at home inside of him. The demon snarled, fought, screeched and insulted him, grabbed a limb then another, quartering its prey, twisting and turning the limp form to mold him to its whim.
The monster penetrated him one last time, violently, exploding inside of him, knowing that it wouldn't steal much more out of this convulsing, worn body.
It left him there. This mount wasn't going anywhere.
They had all eternity to play.
As the demon faded away, the man hung in the chains, blood dripping down his arms. He wished he could sleep again but dared not close his eyes. Sleep. This peaceful haven was a lie, a false prophet. They always came after him when he tried to rest. His fear was paralyzing and foul. He didn't even possess the strength or the ability to feel humiliated anymore.
He thought he could remember the names, the faces of those who awaited his return, but they were probably the product of his fevered, diseased imagination. For who could ever want him? No one had ever wanted him. He deserved the cold, the endless pain, the dark and the helplessness.
A hand caressed his hair again and he sobbed, resigned to the inevitable. Without hope.
But the smooth fingers weren't clawed, weren't gouging his skin or lacerating his face. They calmed his fevered brow, traced reassuring patterns over his naked shoulders, healed the gaping wounds in his sides, soothed the inflamed lash marks which covered his entire body.
He saw her.
She seemed hauntingly familiar. The copper hair. The emerald, bright eyes, full of pain and compassion. For him.
This was familiar, too.
He opened his dry, parched lips. "Who are you?" His voice was broken, hoarse - like rocks dragged over sand.
"Angel. You are Aingeal. And you are my friend."
She shushed him sweetly, like she would an agitated child. She unchained him and took him securely in her arms. He bit his lower lip against the pain but still pressed himself tightly to her, soaking up her warmth, lulled by the steady, strong lullaby of her heart.
A live body. It had been so long.
She lay a hand on his forehead and said, "Watch."
He closed his eyes.
And she fed him.
She fed him his own memories. And he remembered.
Her. Buffy. His love. He remembered all the good things. The passion, the acceptance, the loyalty, the warmth, the sentiment of belonging. Her laugh. Her smile.
"She loves you, Angel. If you can only remember one thing, then be secure in the knowledge that she loves you. I will get you out, Angel. I promise you. Just hold on. Please hold on. You'll be with Buffy again, soon."
And then the arms were gone.
He heard the voice again. Wavering.
"Please forgive me, Angel. I have to go. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
She was gone.
He raised himself on his knees, holding the memory of Buffy close to his heart.
He whimpered, cowering against the wall, feeling the all too familiar, hissing breath on the back of his neck.
"I am Angel, Angel, Angel..."
Enraged, his tormentor roared.
"You are nothing! You are no one! And you will learn."
It buried its claws deeply in the vampire's stomach, slashing through the tender skin with a vociferous snarl.
Angel cried out in agony.
Angel's scream ricocheted between the walls of the apartment at the very second Buffy's eyes popped open.
The Slayer shot out of her makeshift bed on the couch of the living room and rushed to the study. She was by Angel's side in the blink of an eye, not bothering to wipe off the tears streaming down her face.
The vampire was still trapped in sleep, gasping, thrashing on the sofa-bed. His fingers gripped the sheets, his head was thrown back, his mouth open on a silent plea for mercy.
Buffy sat on the foldout couch and dragged him against her. He whimpered and she wrapped herself around him, coupling her legs to his, immobilizing his arms but still giving him enough space to move without hurting himself.
"I'm here, Angel. I'm here and you're safe now. Shh. Shh, my love. You're safe. Safe, Angel..."
Angel resisted the feminine restraint, convulsing in her hold, and she realized he was crying in his sleep. Yet the sobs that shook his tall frame were inaudible.
Hell had taught him to dream and cry in silence.
Buffy felt rage surge under the guilt and the grief.
She raised her head, trying not to disturb Angel, and met Spike's gaze.
And she knew he had shared Angel's dream - nightmare - too.
The blonde vampire approached cautiously, eyes gleaming, more distraught than Buffy remembered ever seeing him. She extended a hand and he took it. She pulled lightly, until he lied down on Angel's other side.
Angel's whimpers turned into distressed moans before he fell silent. He was still tense, trembling and shaking, his muscles hard - as if frozen by rigor mortis.
Hesitant, Spike slid an arm around his Sire's waist and returned the Slayer's stare over Angel's shivering form.
"You were... there."
It wasn't a question.
"The... the Guardian..."
Buffy's lips tightened. "Yeah, I saw her too. She was with him."
Angel's warm tears fell on her forearm and she kissed his dark head softly, smoothing the perspiration-soaked hair away from his forehead.
His eyes were wide open.
So full of anguish and grief.
"I'm here, love," she murmured, caressing his cheek with the tip of her fingers. "Spike is here, too." She raised her eyes to the blonde vampire pressed against her lover's back and met a gaze the color of the Atlantic in winter.
"I... I dreamed..."
"Shh. We know. We were there."
Angel frowned, slowly coming back to himself. "What?"
"We shared your dream... like I did last Christmas, remember?"
"Yes, mate," Spike whispered, leaning on an elbow, subdued.
"I did, as well."
Buffy jumped, startled to find her Watcher standing in the doorway.
"After Morghane sent everybody to bed to get some rest, I decided to check out a few things and fell asleep upstairs researching. I... I experienced Angel's recollections too." He turned soft, understanding eyes to Angel. "I assume this dream was a... memory?"
The vampire nodded mutely and shuddered in Spike and Buffy's twined embrace.
"Morghane didn't tell me she had been with you... there," the Watcher added in a measured, calming voice, trying not to upset Angel even more.
Angel shook his head slowly. "I... I didn't know. I didn't even remember until now..."
Giles nodded, getting closer to the bed. "I think she must have taken some of the memories from you... we saw her feed you recollections of your time with Buffy. Morghane was trying to preserve your mind." Gently. "Your sanity." He took his glasses off to wipe them clean on his uncharacteristically untucked shirt - like he often did when he speculated out loud. "Seeing her again after all this time must have triggered repressed memories..."
He realized that no one was listening to him anymore. Their stares were fixed on some point behind him.
He turned around.