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Destroying Your Hopes with a Flickering Spark

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The room was pitch black. Willow's groggy brain had just started wondering why her nightlight wasn't working when she felt the chains. Instantly wide awake, she pulled against her shackles, trying to break free. She couldn't.

She seemed to be spread-eagled on what was probably a bed although it wasn't hers. The blanket underneath felt itchy, like an old army blanket, and besides the bed was wider than she was used to. She didn't seem to have any clothes on and the room was so cold, with the almost damp chill of a basement, that her nipples felt like pebbles.

Willow wanted to scream, to shout out, to beg for help, but she knew better. Whoever came, wouldn't help her. As hard as it was, she chose to keep silent, hoping Buffy would find her. She had no way of tracking the time, but it must have been a long while because terror, so slowly that she barely noticed it, gave way to boredom.

When tried to stretch her arms, gingerly within the constraints of the chains, she heard a sound, a scritching that was barely audible, some distance away. It could have been a small animal, possibly a rat, scurrying around the edges of the room, but maybe it wasn't a rat. Maybe it was a frog except that frogs had those soft feet and probably hopped very quietly, and oh my God, there could be hundreds or even thousands of frogs hopping toward her, ready to leap, poised and waiting with their slimy skin and their creepy webbed feet and big eyes, and she'd never know they were there until she felt them landing.

She was, if anything, even quieter after that, trying to hear what might be around her, but other than the occasional soft scratches there were no sounds, and then it went completely silent for a very long time. She didn't know how long. She'd thought about counting, to help keep track of the time, but was afraid she wouldn't be able to hear the frogs over the sound of her own thoughts and then she could hear them, croaking all around her. She was pretty sure they were all in her head, but that didn't matter because they could be there, and it wasn't the not knowing but the idea that they could jump on her at any second. Unable to bear the suspense any longer, Willow's scream was a short, sharp sound that she shushed as quickly as possible.

Immediately, as if her scream had been a signal, she felt a draft, a brush of air across her nipple except it felt more like a cold breath, blowing over her skin and then stopping, as if someone were breathing in and out in a cycle that went on and on. Willow closed her eyes because blind people could hear better and maybe that would help, but she couldn't see anyway, not in that perfect darkness, so eyes open or closed really didn't make any difference. She couldn't hear anything. If someone were breathing on her, shouldn't she hear the breaths? Finally, unable to stand the terror of not knowing any longer, she whispered, “Hello?” The draft stopped. She waited, holding her breath, but it didn't come back. Not sure whether that was good or bad, she breathed out with a sigh. The draft, no it must be someone's breath, started up again but at her foot. Yanking her leg away, Willow screamed as the shackle rubbled her ankle raw. “No,” she whimpered in a long, drawn out wail.

After an eternity of flinching from little noises, shivering under drafts, and shying away from the image of leaping frog feet hopping silently toward her, Willow saw a light. It was out in the hallway, which she could finally see beyond the frame of an open door. The walls were cement and there were no windows so her basement guess seemed right. While it was a relief to see, the first thing she'd done was scan the room for frogs – there were none, that she could see – Willow really didn't want to meet the person holding the light, unless it was Buffy or Xander or Giles, but how likely was that? They'd be calling her name. So Willow couldn't believe her luck when Angel, holding a large pillar candle which was where the light was coming from, stepped into the doorway. The shadows that danced across his face gave him an almost menacing scowl, but the cheery glow of the candle seemed like safety and home. “Angel, thank God.”

As Angel crossed the room, he asked “How did you get here?” so earnestly – as if the answer were of the utmost importance – that Willow responded instead of insisting they escape first.

“I was in the library, doing research, and then I found Xander and Cordelia together in the stacks, and I ran out into the night, and something grabbed me from behind, covering my mouth so I couldn't scream and pinching my nose, and I couldn't breathe. I fought, but it didn't do any good. When I came to, I was here.”

As Angel sat the candle down, Willow glanced around the room, taking in the unusual number of shelves, tables and elaborate candlestick holders. The one closest to her, for example, rising about waist high from the floor, was carved with ornate scrollwork. As Willow stared at the candle and its holder, it dawned on her that they fit together too well. The candle that Angel had brought in and the holder that had been in the room, sitting right beside the bed, had been made for each other. Her head jerked toward Angel, who was sitting at the side of the bed, doing nothing, certainly not releasing her, which didn't make sense. It couldn't be safe here, and even if it was he shouldn't want to see her chained up.

“Um, do you think you could let me go now?”

Angel shook his head, no, and then blew a cold breath across her nipple. It felt just like every draft that'd had her shivering when she'd been less alone in the dark than she'd hoped. “Angel?” she asked, knowing he wasn't.

“Angelus.”

As she cringed away the few inches the chains would let her, Angelus' face broke out into a huge grin. Turning towards the candle, his face lit with such a look of ineffable joy that Willow could see how he'd gotten his name. “Did you ever notice that vampires are always surrounded by fire? It's true. We place torches on walls, candles on,” he paused, “well almost anything – tables, ledges, next to gauzy curtains on windy nights – even though we know one little spark and just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “we're up in smoke.”

He turned to look at Willow, his face so serious it was almost deadpan. “It's a complicated relationship.”

Gazing toward the candle again, he added, “I think it's an ancient connection, dating back to the fall of the true demons and the Turning of the first vampires, to a time when mankind huddled around fires, hoping the light would protect them from the monsters lurking in the darkness. For us fire meant food, victims, and fun. It must have been like one of those neon signs you see at a diner, light flickering on and off in a pattern designed to attract attention, or a clanging dinner bell chiming out 'Come and get it.' Of course, fire was dangerous, especially to us, but risk, well, risk is enticing. You never feel so alive as when you're near death.” He blew a breath across Willow's belly. “Just like you feel now, your heart pumping, your adrenaline racing. You'll never feel more alive than you do in this moment, partly because I'll be killing you soon, sometime in the next couple of weeks, or maybe months, I haven't decided yet, but I digress. I want you to understand this complicated relationship with fire. Oh, for humans it's usually safety, warmth, seeing in the darkness, but it can be so much more, which is why we're going to play the game.”

There was a blur of motion and then Angelus stood next to the bed, towering over her, the candle in his hand casting such eerie shadows that Willow wondered how she could have ever thought it was cheery. He slowly held his hand out, moving it until the candle hovered over Willow and held it there until he heard her gasp of comprehension. Only then did he tilt the candle, dribbling wax onto her nipple. Willow's teeth clenched, but she didn't scream.

Placing the candle back on the stand, Angelus knelt next to Willow and blew across her nipple, checking between breaths, until the wax had hardened. As he pinched her nipple tightly, rubbing it between his fingers, Willow squirmed beneath his hand, trying to move away. “I'm sorry, baby,” he said with a smirk that belied his words, “but I need to get this wax off if I'm going to visit here again this evening.”

Brushing the wax off of Willow's breast, Angelus explained. “This is how it's going to work. You'll always be safe in the dark, no more mind games, not then.” He blew across her nipple, “I promise. You'll always see me coming, just like you did today, the candle lighting my way. That's when I get to play.” He looked into the candle and shook his head. “Not yet,” he added, as if disappointed, and Willow knew he was waiting for more wax to melt. She was thanking whatever gods might be listening that wax melted so slowly when he started in again. “You see it, don't you? The longer the candle is lit, the more wax I have to play with so the light, which should be comforting, will come to mean danger and pain.” Walking toward the far end of the room, to a large chest Willow hadn't noticed earlier, Angelus said, “Let's start, shall we?”

He pulled out a candle, larger than the first, lit it and walked, with a stately and slow pace, across to the other end of the room before placing it on a small table. As he walked back to the trunk, Willow's head jerked wildly, scanning the room, taking in the tables, candle holders, and ledges. There were enough for hundreds of candles.

Angelus drew a third candle out of the trunk.