Aria was not dreaming.

Her dreams were the better of two half-states these days – reconstructed distortions of what she once called her life, her existence. She found that her heartbeat was often the telling factor – if she could feel its thump, she was subject to her deplorable not-life.

At the moment her heartbeat was quiet, because she was not moving. But it was night, and that meant the needles would come and find her soon; they would pretend she could hide from the fiendish visions that awaited her in the vials. It was the sick and twisted game that the needles played with her.

And suddenly her heartbeat responded with a keen wail as she became aware of a forced movement. A moment later she felt the vile needles forced into every orifice – every inch of her skin – and they forced upon her indignity, pain, and memories of terror. It felt like running, like being dragged, and everything was so loud, so harshly bright, like the fiery terror of her last real moments.

She was running; running from impending vengeance; running from certain holocaust, as though her weary feet could outstrip the steel Angels of Death; as though she could escape the hungry fire they rained from the dark night sky. Her Gabriel was next to her.

She stumbled and fell into the shallow water. A mournful whistle followed the furtive roar of the Black Angels; the fire was coming now. Her beloved stopped and turned back for her.

"Gabriel!" she shrieked. "Gabriel, no! Run!"

Death and fire rained openly above them. Without a second thought, her beloved pushed her down, held her beneath the too-cold waters with his strong hands as the fire rushed forth to consume him. He kissed her as he became a ghost; she felt the inviting waters enter her lungs as Gabriel shielded her from the maelstrom of flames.

She teetered for a moment – or was it a lifetime – in the poignant limbo, caught between suffocation and the fires of hell.

She slipped back and forth between something that was not quite dream and not quite death. After what seemed like eternity, a pair of brutish hands that were not Gabriel's lifted her from the swamp.

"She's one of them, Sir. She's still breathing."

"Good. Get prisoner transport. Nidavel Ward, cell block 11-F."

"Sir."

That very moment, her life was over; her not-life began in earnest. There was pain and noise; blinding light and needles; oxygen, sustaining the memory of flames which must have come from hell itself.

Days became weeks became an infinite, cyclic abyss of dream and not-life.

The running stopped. Suddenly, she was beneath the freezing, blue water – and everything was quiet. She could not hear her lungs as they threatened to collapse, nor her heart as it began the mandated implosion. There was no air here, hissing and crackling along with the fires of her not-life – this place was peace, a dream.

And beneath the water, there was always Gabriel. Beneath the ocean of contrast of blackhole-dark rooms and blinding lights, she could feel strong hands always behind her neck – and she was for a moment alive again. She felt the air leave her lungs as Gabriel's cool waters kissed her hair, her neck, her breast; she could taste his lips in the azure waters; she could feel his heartbeat in place of her own, echoing like sonar beneath the vast, blessed emptiness. She opened her mouth to drink him in, to be with him again.

And her delicate dream shattered without warning; her not-life came back in a roaring inferno. She could hear her heartbeat again as his hands – her beloved Gabriel's hands – morphed before her closed eyes and chomped on her like a violent wolf, wrenching her out of Lethe's waters by the hair and bringing her up to the surface. She dimly felt what she had dreamed to be Gabriel's strong, beautiful hand abuse her cheek with a violent punch; she tasted blood as she fell back in the water, and her dream returned once more.

Her heartbeat was gone; Gabriel held her closely again; all was well here. She thought she heard a voice through the white walls of her dream, but she did not care.

"No one has ever lasted this long, Sir. She won't make it much further. She can't."

She waited with bated breath for Gabriel's invitation to inhale his hydrous kiss. Oh why would it not come sooner?

"She is a damned nuisance! Why hasn't she broken, Lieutenant?"

"I-I don't know, Sir."

And she heard nothing more; Gabriel's phantom lips kissed her goodbye as the hands-turned-wolves yanked her away. The dream faded like a wisp as more needles made their way through her body, telling her to see vile things – sick illusions that could not have come from her own mind, but from some demon whom she did not know or understand.

It was night again; she could feel her heartbeat. She hated that heartbeat – it reminded her how terribly far away she was from the three-by-four-by-three cerulean ocean, from the sense of nearly-drowning.

It was her last link to her beloved Gabriel – they didn't know, and they could never know, that every time they forced her head beneath the tub of too-bright Water of Death, they bathed her in the elixir of life. When they forced her to drink their water, they brought her Gabriel back to her; they brought her his passionate kiss, his strong hands that held her underwater to save her life, and his last, damning words to her before the skyfires sent him screaming and burning to his own hell:

"Live, my angel."