La Mariée

**********

We, unaccustomed to courage

exiles from delight

live coiled in shells of loneliness

until love leaves its high holy temple

and comes into our sight

to liberate us into life.

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

old memories of pleasure

ancient histories of pain.

Yet if we are bold,

love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity

In the flush of love's light

we dare be brave

And suddenly we see

that love costs all we are

and will ever be.

Yet it is only love

which sets us free.

-Touched by an Angel, Maya Angelou

*********

She sits on the sandy beach and watches the sun sink, leaving the horizon a wash of pinks, purples, and orange over pristine blue waves. Her legs are pulled up against her chest and she wraps her arms around her shins, rests her cheek against her knee, and listens to the surf crashing against the rocky reef. It's beautiful, her favorite time of day. For these few quiet minutes she can feel the soft white sand under her and look at the vast expanse of ocean and watch the faithful sun and pretend that nothing has changed. She can pretend that she's just Buffy Summers, California girl, daughter, sister, slayer. She can pretend that they didn't lose, that she didn't lose, and that when she gets up and sweeps the sand off of her legs that she can go home to all of the people that she loves.

For these few minutes she can commune with powerful things that seem immune to change, invincible even in the face of apocalyptic adversity. The sun, the earth, the ocean.

Herself.

*

Eventually the siren sounds, an unnecessary reminder that the sun has set as far as Buffy's concerned because the lack of natural light makes it pretty obvious. It seems stupid and doesn't really do anything except make people feel anxious and afraid, but there are a lot of things like that these days. Rituals, protocols, rules supposedly designed to keep people safe, or at least to keep people feeling like they can have some control over safety. It's military rule that people accept because they've never really known anything different and because they've heard the stories, seen the pictures, and if they're very lucky, survived the random attacks that still occur when the border police get careless, sloppy, or just plain greedy.

She's already in motion, making sure she walks slowly and taking care to always stay in range of the roaming spotlights that light up the darkened beach. There are sentries posted in the guard towers all along the perimeter and though they know her routine, she's not naïve enough to believe that she's immune to "friendly" fire. There's too much fear, too many young men and women with too little experience who go into the border guard so that they can fight the monsters and feel good about protecting what's left on the human race. They carry an arsenal of weapons: stakes, grenades, and multi-artillery guns that fire pick-your-poison bullets that work on humans and monsters alike. In the dark, anything outside the fence and walls can look too much like the enemy.

When she gets to the entry-point she holds up her wrist and lets the scanner read the chip embedded under her skin. The red light turns green and she hears the click and clack of the super-strength locks sliding open. She pushes the heavy reinforced steel door open and steps into the compound. Into the island, into the city. It's all the same thing.

The door closes slowly behind her, and Buffy gives it a little pat. When the hurricanes hit, sometimes the only things left standing by the shores are these doors. They're monster-proof, slayer- proof, and weather-proof; a true modern marvel. She walks down a hallway and repeats the process at a second set of doors that open back into the courtyard, then makes her way to the small parking lot next to the bus stop.

Buffy has had plenty of time to learn to drive, and over the years she's come to prefer it over public transportation. A car is part of the "benefits" package the Island Council provides for her and even though the body of it is close to fifty years old, she loves it. Not many people have the luxury of a car these days and the public streets mostly teem with bicycles and pedestrians. She used to enjoy the normalcy, the freedom of getting around on buses and trains, rubbing elbows with regular people on their way to work or to a bar. Back then she could pretend to be just like them; that illusion of normalcy wasn't far out of her reach. But after a century of life, a hundred years of her body never aging beyond the twenty-year-old shell that had leapt from Glory's tower and been drawn back together with ancient and powerful magic, the illusion has shattered beyond repair. She isn't normal. She hasn't been for a very long time and she's long past that childish need to blend in.

Once the sun is gone the streets empty. There's no official curfew, but it's well known that the police force is more forceful after dark. It's been long enough since the last concentrated attack on Puerto Rico that the citizenry is starting to become more afraid of their human protectors than the monsters they're being protected from. Buffy thinks it won't be long before a real attack on an island somewhere shifts the balance, makes the police heroes again. Sometimes, in the darkest recesses of her mind, she even hopes that it might be this island. The next attack will keep her busy, give her focus.

Maybe it would even give her death.

The moon is high and bright, close to full. She drives for an hour before she reaches the outskirts of the rain forest, or what's left of it. It's a natural reserve, surrounded by walls just as high as those that ring the perimeter of the island itself. There's a wire fence, electric and barbed at the top. A sign on the entrance reads: Werewolf Sanctuary.

Buffy shakes her head and curls her lip at the words. Very little about this place is a sanctuary. It's a prison, plain and simple. All of the humans infected with lycanthropy are housed here. The last werewolf to pass through the importation docks came in almost five years ago and most people believe that they've been eradicated from the general population. Buffy suspects that a few of the larger islands might still have some holdouts, maybe some small packs who know to lock themselves away during the full moon to prevent infecting anyone and to prevent detection. She's not about to suggest that to anyone in power. The Island Council believes that they've done a great kindness to the werewolf population by not killing them outright and providing them a "reservation" to live on.

She signs in and tries to control her temper. Two visits ago she'd been escorted off the premises on the command of the director of the facility. Buffy smiles at the memory of Acevedo's face when she'd called him "warden" in front of his staff. His stupid rat face turned a shade of purple that was rarely found in nature and he'd had her thrown out on her ass. The two guards who'd had to do it had been terrified of her, knowing that Buffy was strong enough to resist if she wanted. The one, the girl, looked so damn apologetic that Buffy had let them escort her back to her car without a fuss.

Acevedo would like to keep her out, but he can't. Buffy is slightly higher up the totem pole as far as most of the Council is concerned. Super strength and immortality will do that. Not that everyone is a fan. Buffy has her detractors in the Council, bureaucrats and officials who are frightened of the fact that she shares more traits with the enemy than with the humans who are in ever vigilant exile from the mainland. To them she is a dangerous watchdog, an animal that might turn on them at any moment. So far the balance has loaded in her favor, more friends than foes on the Council, but she's aware that things could change.

Her work here at the Sanctuary as an unofficial advocate for the lycanthropes hasn't helped her popularity.

The guard who gave her the visitors pass buzzes her into the courtyard that leads to the dorms and Buffy steps through confidently, glancing around at the old faded picnic tables that "spruce up" the common area according to Acevedo. She quickly makes her way to the single women's dorm to check on the occupants. They're the ones she worries about the most. There've been a few bad guards over the years since the Sanctuary was built and Buffy is adamant that no one else will hurt the women and men here. After what she did to the last guy, word has gotten out and Buffy is pretty sure even Acevedo is afraid to see what will happen if anyone else abuses the werewolves.

She knocks on the outer door, more a courtesy than anything else since there are no locks on the dormitory doors. When she lets herself inside she's greeted by several of the women, and a few visiting men. She waves at Jonathan, a teenager who has a crush on her and when he blushes, his sister Ava pinches him and laughs. Buffy turns away before Jonathan can see her amused smile. She walks to the last bedroom cubicle on the left and greets the young Chinese woman who sits cross-legged on her bed.

"Hello, Meilin. How are you?"

Meilin was the last lycanthrope to arrive here, a transfer from Sulawesi. When the reservation on Puerto Rico had been established, a call for voluntary exportation had gone out and many of the werewolves still living on the islands had identified themselves and made the difficult and dangerous trip by ship. Most were tired of trying to hide what they were during the safe parts of the month and sick of being hunted during the three days they weren't human. Others, like Meilin, tried to avoid capture and deportation for as long as possible, preferring to be free in a dangerous world to being interred on a strange and distant island.

The Island Council felt that they were doing the werewolves a great kindness by providing them shelter and a rain forest to hunt in during the full moon. That they receive a bounty price for every lycanthrope they hold is glossed over as the price of humanitarianism. Buffy keeps trying to convince them that there's no reason to quarantine them during the waxing and waning of the moon cycles but so far, no one is willing to listen. There are so few full-blooded humans left that those in charge aren't willing to take chances. Tolerance, such as it was, is a thing of the past.

Meilin shrugs her thin shoulders and meets Buffy's gaze. "No one is hunting me, so there's that. Of course the change is coming tomorrow."

"Yes. Any talk?" Buffy likes to stop in before and after the full moon, make sure the human staff sees her, likes to make sure they know that she is watching them. The protocol is for them to lock themselves in the outer administration building on the full-moon days but she worries that some may be tempted to hunt the captive wolves during the change. Lycanthrope teeth bring a substantial price on the black market.

"Lourdes is uncomfortable with Oliver, but he's Acevedo's man so there is probably little you can do about it. To my knowledge he hasn't stepped over any lines; just leering and some of the men have heard him make crass remarks about her. The usual. Doggy-style." At the last, Meilin's face contorts into a furious grimace and Buffy feels her own face twist into a mirror image.

"I'm on it. Make sure Lourdes isn't alone for a while."

"Of course."

Buffy looks at Meilin carefully. The woman looks tired, her eyes less bright and her mouth tight and pinched. It's a look that Buffy has seen countless times in the Sanctuary and it makes her sad. She's come to like the woman over the last several years and Buffy guesses that Meilin's as close to a friend as she has had in a very long while. Still, they are barely more than acquaintances and Buffy isn't sure if her concern will be welcome.

She leans forward impulsively and places her hand lightly, hesitantly, on Meilin's shoulder.

"I know this place is horrible. I'm doing everything I can to get you all out. I promise I won't ever stop."

Meilin's body tenses at the contact, but as Buffy speaks, she relaxes. She looks at Buffy with a mixture of curiosity tinged with just a bit of distrust. Buffy doesn't take it personally. She doesn't trust easily anymore either.

"Why?"

Buffy frowns. "I'm sorry?"

"Why do you do this? Why do you care when no one else does?"

Buffy swallows, lets her hand drop from Meilin's shoulder. She looks down, the sudden tightening of her throat reminding her that she can still feel. That her sorrow still exists, even if she hasn't cried in several decades.

For a moment she considers lying, but quickly decides not to. Meilin deserves the truth. Her pain must be even greater than Buffy's.

"I had a friend. Oz. He fought with us in the first Demon War and he survived. Most people . . . didn't. I had an army of Slayers back then and only a few made it through the Exodus alive. They scattered to different islands, looking for their families but Oz stayed with me. And then one night during a full moon I came home and found him dead, his teeth ripped out of his gums and his paws . . . hands . . . gone." Buffy stopped and shook her head, trying to get rid of the bloody images, the memories that she hadn't let herself think about for longer than she can remember. She takes a shaky breath and meets Meilin's gaze. "They broke into our house and killed a caged man who couldn't fight back. They were stupid and afraid and they wanted some extra cash, and I lost someone I loved. So I guess that's why I care. That shouldn't happen to anyone. I refuse to let it happen to you."

Meilin nods, her face softening. She tilts her head and gestures toward Buffy's left hand. "Was Oz your husband? Is that his ring that you still wear?"

Buffy twirls the simple titanium ring on her finger. "No, not Oz," she answers quietly.

Meilin's head dips in apology and she hesitates briefly. "Is the one whose ring you wear still alive, then?"

"No. I don't know." Buffy fumbles her answer, not sure why she adds the last part. She does know. He is most definitely dead.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Buffy. But I envy that you had someone, once. I am beginning to see that I will be trapped in this prison for the rest of my life and I do not love any of the men or women who are kept here with me. I am beginning to understand that I will die alone, just as I have lived."

Buffy wants to plead with her not to give up hope, but it seems almost cruel to promise something she isn't sure she can give. If things don't drastically change, then Meilin's fears will likely come true. So she nods, and reaches forward to squeeze the woman's shoulder one more time. Buffy can't give her freedom, but she can give her understanding. She knows what it is to feel hope fade, to look into the future and see endless days of emptiness spread before her.

She finishes her visit, checking in with a few more of the people who serve as de facto leaders. On the way out she pulls Oliver into a deserted hallway and holds his crotch in a tight painful grip as she describes to him what will happen if he continues being a pervert where Lourdes or any of the other lycanthropes are concerned. When she's convinced he's gotten the message, she returns her visitor's pass and signs out.

The rest of the night is spent investigating a report that she's had about a stash of potentially dangerous magical items that have been smuggled onto the island. She traces them to a small coven of witches who are relatively harmless and decides to wait until daylight to confront the High Priestess. The woman is a teacher at one of the elementary schools, a good one according to her sources, and Buffy doesn't want to see another human with benign magical tendencies burned at the stake for little more than being stupid. Buffy will confiscate the items and scare the coven into leaving the smuggling business to the real criminals, but she has no intention of turning in the women. She'll make something up and the police will have no choice but to take her word for it.

The sky is beginning to lighten as Buffy parks in the underground garage of her apartment building. She takes the steps up to the third floor and lets herself in the small one-bedroom home. The building is a few blocks from the ocean, a semi-luxury high-rise with high rent to match. Only the rich, reckless, and young would pay what the owner charges for the apartments and Buffy is none of these. The owner, a less powerful member of the Council, lets her stay free of charge. He says it's in appreciation of her service to the island, but Buffy knows that he uses her presence in the apartments to lure tenants. The ocean-front properties are considered to be the most unsafe of neighborhoods, given their proximity to the most likely points of invasion of the mainland demons. Having The Slayer living in the building gives the sensation-seeking tenants a sense of both class and safety, allowing them a false bravado as they sleep feeling secure in their beds. The truly rich live in gated and guarded compounds in the very center of the island. Everyone else crams into the space that is left.

The island's population isn't much higher than it was before the wars. What the demons didn't take care of, disease and starvation finished off. Now there are strictly enforced reproduction programs that limit who can have children and when so that the population is kept in check. The islands are the only safe places left in the world and the humans who have survived are desperate to keep them that way.

Buffy takes a long shower, not stopping until the water starts to run cold. She dresses in a grey tank and white cotton pants before climbing onto the large plush sleeping pallet. Her eyes close and she's instantly asleep.

The days when she had thoughts to keep her awake, daydreams to keep her mind occupied and distracted from sleep, are long gone.

*

Her morning coffee is dark and rich and maybe smells like heaven if she could remember what heaven smelled liked. Buffy takes a sip and hums a little at the taste as she pulls a bowl from the cupboard and slices a banana into the bottom. On top of that goes a tiny serving of oatmeal. Food is carefully rationed and she gave one of her two bags of oats to a mother with an illegal child who couldn't get extra rations. Now she's running low and though she could probably take advantage of her status with the Council to get more food, she won't. Extra for her means less for someone else and if she has to start eating beans at breakfast, she will. She has plenty of beans.

She eats her breakfast and drinks her coffee on the small balcony, watching the early afternoon foot traffic around her apartment. It is bright and warm and it looks like it will be a good day for the street vendors. Buffy sees a sign for one who offers mechanical work for trade and she briefly wonders if the man needs anything requiring her strength. She has found herself doing strange things over the years in barter but her unique skills come in handy when she needs something.

A look at the clock tells her she's running a little late and she hurries through her "morning" routine. She brushes her hair quickly, but takes the time to wash her face and moisturize her skin. Buffy admits it's both vain and paranoid for her to spend so much of what little money she has on luxuries such as lotion and sunscreen but she's had more than one nightmare of waking up and looking in the mirror to see paper thin, dry cracking skin. No matter how many years go by without a single piece of evidence that she will ever age a year over twenty she can't let go of the niggling fear in the back of her mind that she will wake up one day to a Tales from the Crypt sight.

When she's ready she sets out on foot to the Island Port. Before the Exodus there were nine sea ports on the island, but all but the port in San Juan were closed and barricaded. It's much easier to defend one docking space than nine and it isn't as though there are multitudes of cruise ships vying for port anyway. They get two or three ships a week on average, and everything that comes into the island goes through one central processing.

One of Buffy's jobs is to check all incoming ships for demon and vampire stowaways, as well as keep a lookout for contraband items. She looks forward to it. The mainland demons usually make a few half-hearted attempts a year to smuggle one of their own onto the islands. There are also sometimes vampire refugees acting on their own who try to get access to the fertile hunting grounds on the islands. If Buffy can find satisfaction in anything that has happened since they lost the wars, it's that the stupid vampires killed most of their primary food source to secure their victory. Her informants have told her that there are human farms on the mainland, humans raised like cattle and kept as pets, but that most of the vampires have to supplement their diet with animals. The masters eat well, but the minions stay in a state of hunger that sometimes sends them to the islands to try their luck.

Buffy welcomes them with open arms and a quick stake to the heart.

When she arrives she's greeted by Washington, the port inventory specialist. She likes him. They've been working together for a long time and have developed an unusual level of trust. They trust each other to do their jobs and do them well, which cuts down on the posturing and other bullshit she has to put up with elsewhere.

The ship that arrived that morning has been unloaded into the warehouse. The small crates and barrels that have already been inspected by the human staff are set to one side with bright green inspection stickers declaring them safe for delivery. She sees the dock workers already loading the approved inventory onto the trucks that will take them to the appropriate Council office for further inspection and eventual delivery. On the other side of the warehouse is stack of larger crates that have waited for Buffy's inspection, as well as two small items that have been set aside for possible contraband.

Buffy starts with the smaller boxes as Washington explains why they were tagged. The first holds several old books and a careful look shows them to be safe. She smiles as she recognizes one of the titles that made the inspectors question the contents: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It's old and fragile now but she remembers when it first came out. She thinks she might have even read it but she doesn't recall the story. A sudden urge to pull it from the box and take it back to her apartment to read hits, but she pushes the desire aside, checking the destination sticker instead and filing the information away for later. The second box holds a collection of herbs and spices. She grimaces as she opens each packet, smelling and sometimes tasting the contents. Sure enough, hidden in the midst are a few forbidden herbs that have been deliberately mislabeled. Washington sets aside the entire box to be destroyed, taking note of the destination sticker so that the police can arrest the intended recipient. Buffy feels a stab of pity. The sage was probably just intended for a family who wanted more variety in their diet and had the resources to pay for it, but the policy was strictly zero tolerance. No ingredients that are commonly used in spells, period.

Glad to be finished with the smaller items, Buffy moves toward the larger crates. They're all still sealed closed, waiting for her to open them in case they hold a demon or vampire hoping to make it through inspection. As soon as they are out of earshot of the other workers, Washington ducks his head close to hers.

"Your name is on one of the destination stickers. Crate all the way at the back. Figured you might want to take the contents with you tonight if it checks out, 'stead of waiting for processing at those slow ass Council offices. "

Buffy feels her heart start to pound and her whole body tenses. She tries to relax as she turns to Washington and gives him a small nod of thanks. He returns her look, speculation in his eyes and the lines of his face, and for a moment she thinks he might ask her what she's expecting but he eventually turns and walks away, leaving her to continue on her own. This is the third time since Washington took over the port inspection operation that she's received an "off the books" shipment. The trust that they developed for one another has come in handy in this regard. Washington keeps her crate safe, doesn't ask too many questions, and lets her skip central processing.

It's much easier this way, and Buffy is grateful.

She's still girly enough to not want to break her nails, so she grabs a crowbar and starts popping open crates. She searches through each one, making quick work of the bunch. Her mind is racing and she's distracted, but she still makes sure to check everything thoroughly enough to be sure there aren't any nasty surprises in this shipment. When she gets to the last crate she glances around to make sure she's still alone.

The destination sticker is handwritten in ink, her name artfully looped and swirled over a more precisely printed address. Buffy can't help the soft smile that pushes up the corners of her mouth as she traces the handwriting with a single, trembling finger. She runs her hand softly over the rough wooden slats, only stopping when a splinter pricks her palm. Forcing herself to be calm with a few terse thoughts, Buffy gently pries open the lid of the crate and sets it aside. The crate is filled with soft packing materials and she digs her hands in, brushing them aside until the contents are revealed. Her breath catches.

A large painting fills the box, dark vivid colors showing two lovers entwined in a night sky. The man gazes at the woman with a mixture of devotion and possessiveness and Buffy shivers, stopping her hand just before it touches the textured oil of the man's face.

A noise behind her alerts her to the presence of company, and Buffy turns quickly to see Washington approaching. She lifts the lid of the crate from the floor and partially covers the painting with the rough wood.

"I see you've approved the rest of the inventory. Just thought I'd let you know that the ship's crew is getting restless out there."

Buffy nods at Washington and moves to replace the lid on the crate all the way.

"That's a heavy painting you got there, took three of my guys to unload it," Washington remarks casually. "Beautiful, though. Reminds me of some of the old works I saw in a book once." He shakes his head. "So much art, so much culture lost to the Demon Wars. It's a shame, is what it is."

She hesitates for a moment, then reaches in to touch the ornate frame that holds the painting. "I commissioned an artist on Malta to reproduce one of my favorites for me," she lies. There is no doubt in her mind, given the source, that this painting is authentic. A lost work, lost no more. It isn't the first one she's received and she prays that it won't be the last. "It must be the frame that makes it so heavy. I'll have to have my wall reinforced before I can hang it." Buffy looks back up at Washington and gifts him with a rare smile. "Thank you for letting me skip the red tape. Who knows what kind of damage those idiots in central processing could do to this with their carelessness."

Washington mumbles that it is no problem as Buffy secures the lid to the crate once more. She gives it a lingering look over her shoulder as she makes her way out to the docks, and the waiting ship. Her last task is to do a sweep of the ship, check the crew before they disembark to make sure there are no stowaways brazen enough to try to make it onto the island under the guise of being a seaman. She makes quick work of the crew and gives them clearance to enter the island, then does a careful check of the entire ship. There will be guards posted on it the entire time it's in port, but she takes her time anyway, not wanting her eagerness to gather her unexpected delivery and go to be responsible for another human dying. The ship is large, with lots of hidey spaces, but after a thorough search Buffy feels relatively confident that there's nothing nasty waiting for dark to pounce.

By the time she's finished it's a little more than an hour until sunset. She'll have to hurry if she wants to spend a little time on the beach. Buffy makes her way back through the warehouse. The delivery truck has departed, leaving her crate sitting large and alone in a dark corner. Buffy shoots it a lingering look, wishing she could take its contents with her now.

Washington sees her glance and approaches her, inclining his head toward the box holding the painting.

"You need some help getting that out to your car?"

Buffy shakes her head. "Actually, I walked today so I'm going to have to come back later with my car. Make sure no one messes with it for me?"

"No problem."

Buffy thanks Washington and heads out, back toward her apartment and the beach.

As soon as she's alone, a smile spreads across her face. Her step feels light, like her feet aren't making contact with the ground.

She feels young again, and though it is bound to be a fleeting feeling, Buffy grabs onto it, lets it fill her body and soul.

*

When she pulls up next to the warehouse, it's dark. The light, youthful energy from before has turned into a buzzing kind of anticipation under her skin. She takes a deep breath to calm herself, letting it out slowly before slipping out of her car.

The parking lot is empty. The only people at the Island Port at this time of night are usually the guards. No ships are allowed in until morning and everything from the day has already been processed. There is no need for anyone to stick around. She tries the door anyway. It's locked, just as she anticipated.

Buffy holds her wrist to the side door's sensor and lets herself inside. The chip that sits under her skin gives her access to most of the Council owned doors on the Island. That alone makes the invasion worth it. The scientists in the downtown offices laugh at her continued reluctance to be chipped every time she has to go in for an upgrade, but she still remembers Spike and the way he was controlled by a tiny piece of electrical engineering. It gives her the wiggins to think about giving up that kind of control over her own free will, even if it had been for the best in Spike's case.

The heels on her shoes make a clicking noise that sounds exceptionally loud in the dark cavernous warehouse. She's thankful for the almost-full moon outside; without that light streaming in the windows near the ceiling, the interior would be pitch black and for some reason that has never made sense to her, slayer powers don't include perfect night vision. Turning on a light would attract the attention of the night guards and that's about the last thing Buffy wants to do so she uses the dim light from the moon and her knowledge of the warehouse layout to make her way to the corner that holds her crate.

Buffy manages to keep her steps measured and unhurried, but she can't stop her heart from picking up and by the time she reaches the rough hewn box, it feels as though it might pound out of her chest. She makes quick work of the lid, throwing it aside with a little too much force in her haste to reach the contents, and it clatters loudly against the ground.

The painting is hard to see in the dark, but its beauty is still unmistakable. She carefully, reverently, lifts it out. It's large, heavy and awkward to hold by herself. She sets it down against the wall and turns back to the crate.

Now her movements take on an urgency, a frantic edge that has her ripping the packing out to flutter carelessly to the floor. Seconds later she finds what she's looking for. Her fingers scrabble into the rough wood and she has to force herself to slow down so that she doesn't break the box. She takes a breath and searches the seam until she finds it—a release button that opens up the hidden compartment that runs the length and width of the crate. Buffy pulls the false bottom out.

Her eyes meet his, dark brown that look almost black set against his pale skin and the dark purple circles under his eyes. There's a blue constellation of veins standing out on the strong line of his jaw, visible proof of his weakness, his hunger. She wonders how long he's been trapped in this box.

"Angel." Her throat is so tight it that his name comes out as a harsh choking sound.

He slowly reaches out a hand and traces her face with his fingers. Her eyes prickle with tears and she closes them, surprised, because she didn't think she was capable of crying anymore. It's been so long.

Angel says her name and his voice cracks with disuse, but the sound is still beautiful to her ears. Her eyes fly open, and her body remembers how to move again. She needs to get him out of that box. Buffy reaches down and clasps his forearms, pulling him up as he pushes his limbs to respond. A low moan of pain hisses out of his parted lips and Buffy's muscles tense in response. She almost hates herself for being so happy that he's here, that he put himself through this to see her when she knows how much it terrifies him to be trapped in a box.

When he's on his feet and out of the crate, Angel tugs Buffy into his arms. She molds herself to his body, her arms snaking around his waist and up his back. She buries her nose in his chest as he nuzzles his face into her hair. He takes a deep breath and they stand there in silence, relearning shapes, scents. Buffy isn't sure how long she gets lost in him, but when she feels the slight shudder that works itself through his body, she looks up to see that his face has morphed.

"I'm sorry," he says through a mouth of teeth, but he doesn't look away. They are well past him trying to hide his demon's face from her. "I haven't . . . you smell like. . . "

"Food," Buffy finishes for him, with a nod. She steps away, giving him some distance from her scent. As soon as he's gained enough control to smooth out his face, she gestures toward the door. "We should leave before the guard comes." Buffy has a cover story prepared for Angel's presence if needed, just a friend she brought along to help with the awkwardly large painting, but she prefers that no one see him here at all. She grabs the painting and packs it back away. There's a tow dolly leaned up against the wall and she loads the crate upright onto it. It would be easier if she could leave it behind, but she can't risk someone else finding the false bottom and anyway, taking it with them will save the need to build a new one for Angel when it is time for him to leave.

The thought that this visit is temporary, just like all of the visits that have come before, makes Buffy's heart ache. She suddenly feels weary, so tired, like she is the one who has traveled for weeks unable to move in a dark, airless box.

Angel sees the change in her face and steps toward her. Buffy doesn't miss the way he almost stumbles, like his legs haven't quite gotten their feeling back. She guesses they won't until he gets some blood.

"I can help with that," he offers, clearly mistaking her sudden change in mood. She raises an eyebrow at him and shakes her head.

"No you can't. Come here and lean on me. My car is just outside."

They make it safely to the parking lot without running into anyone. When Angel sees her car he smirks and breathes out a whisper of a laugh.

"I can't believe you still have that old Jeep."

The last time he was here, Angel was endlessly amused by the big old utility vehicle with huge tires that made Buffy look like a dwarf when she was standing next to it. It looked like a gas guzzling monster, but it had been completely retrofit just like every other car on the Island. The mechanics under the hood were fairly new and efficient and Buffy liked the nostalgia of driving a car that was almost a true antique.

She remembers that her mother had driven a Jeep. Buffy doesn't rule that fact out as a reason she loves her big ugly car so much.

Buffy loads the crate with the painting in the back, strapping it down so it won't fly out on the badly paved roads. She helps Angel up into the passenger seat and then hops up on the driver side. They are silent as she drives back to her apartment, but it's the most blissful silence Buffy's experienced in a long while.

After she gets Angel settled onto her sofa, she goes back down to take care of the painting and then heads into the kitchen to get Angel something to drink. He's starving and Buffy can tell it isn't all from the trip. She grabs a sharp knife from a drawer a pulls out two glasses. A quick slice up her forearm and she spills her blood into the first glass. The wound heals too quickly and she curses under her breath as she has to open it back up to fill the second. Buffy hates doing it this way, but she knows he's hungry enough that he'll refuse to take it straight from her vein for fear that he'll lose control and force her to hurt him.

She walks into the living room to see Angel sitting rigidly against the couch cushions, his face already shifted from the smell of her blood. His hands are clenched in fists on his legs and at first he refuses to unclench one long enough to take a glass from her.

"Angel, please. You're starving. How many times do we have to go over this? There are no other options on the Island." They went through this every time. It was as though Angel willfully forgot that there were no blood stores allowed on the Islands, human or animal. To store blood of any kind was a death sentence and they could hardly allow Angel to stalk the streets. Even if she'd allow him to feed from rats and other stray animals, the danger of getting caught was too high.

His head falls and he stares at his fists for one long moment. When he looks back up, he reaches for the glass at the same time. Her fingers brush his as she passes him her blood and the simple touch sends tingles up her spine. A sudden rush of want runs through her body, pooling heavy between her thighs. Angel's eyes flicker to hers as he lifts her blood to his lips and she sees the recognition in his gaze. Buffy takes a deep breath and looks away, trying to calm her reaction. She knows he is too weak and tired for anything more than eating and sleeping for at least a day.

Welcoming him home to her body will have to wait.

*

The next afternoon she wakes up wrapped in Angel's arms. She shivers, unused to his body temperature. It's been four years, maybe five, since the last time she saw him.

He's still asleep, his face smooth and peaceful and looking so much better already. Buffy lingers in bed with him for several more minutes, unwilling to leave his side for even the moment it will take her to pull on a sweater. Finally, when her stomach rumbles and the goose bumps on her arms can no longer be ignored, she gently untangles her body from Angel's. She decides to hit the kitchen first, ignoring the oatmeal for a triple dose of fresh fruit. Last night's blood donation doesn't seem to have had any lasting effects but Buffy knows she'll need the extra vitamins to replenish her over the next several days. Angel will need more blood.

A quick call to Washington reveals that there haven't been any new arrivals and Buffy smiles as she says goodbye. Now there is no reason to leave her apartment for the day. Her smile grows even wider.

Angel is awake when she reenters the bedroom. He sees her smile and his lips twitch back up at the corner. Buffy goes to her dresser and pulls out one of the lightweight sweaters she keeps for him. As she slips it on over her tank, Angel watches her, his face taking on a look of hunger as he sweeps his gaze up her small muscular body. Her reaction is instantaneous, a rush of blood to fill her breasts and her sex with a dull, aching throb.

She slips back down on the sleeping pallet, lifting the blankets and molding her body against Angel's side. He immediately slides a hand under her and pulls her to lie on top of him. Buffy hums at the feel of his body under hers, at the weight of his large hands on her hips.

"Well good morning to you too," she murmurs against his lips. Angel's mouth opens under hers and she kisses him, slowly and deeply until she's forced to pull away to catch her breath. His hands lightly knead her hips and she's already feeling heavy and liquid with want. Her lips meet his again with more urgency this time, urgency he seems happy to return. Buffy undulates her hips against his, searching for friction, and Angel groans, shifts his hands to cup her ass and pulls her roughly against him. She can feel the beginnings of an erection and she shifts her body until Angel's growing cock is situated between her thighs. With the urging of his hands, she rocks against him, wishing there were fewer layers of clothes between them but not yet wanting to stop long enough to shed anything.

After a few minutes, Angel lets out a frustrated groan as he pulls away from Buffy's mouth. She's breathing hard, feeling a little dazed, but she knows what's wrong.

"I'm sorry. I'm going to need more blood before I. . ."

Buffy cuts off his apology with another kiss, more chaste this time because fuck her body is already a livewire and she doesn't need to torture herself any more. She shouldn't have let herself get this out of control in the first place. She knew he was too starved, that he'd need more time, more blood, to recover. Now she's dripping wet and she's got a normally virile four-hundred-year plus vampire underneath her who can't get it up through no fault of his own.

The absurdity of the situation strikes her. Buffy tries to choke back her laugh but it's too fast, too unexpected and she can't hold it in. Angel's eyebrows rise over his dark, frustrated eyes.

"Are you laughing at me Buffy?"

Buffy shakes her head frantically from side to side, even as more laughter pours out of her throat. She's mortified, but she can't seem to stop it.

His eyes narrow and she swears she sees the corner of his mouth twitch just a bit before the expression is gone. Then his hands are moving with purpose, one slipping under the back of her pajama bottoms and into her panties, the other moving under her clothes to rest against the bare skin of her back. Buffy shivers again, this time less from the sudden coolness of his touch and more from the heat that has reared back to life, setting her nerve endings singing. She is the one starving, needing his touch.

The laughter comes to an abrupt halt, interrupted as it is by the low moan that forces it aside. His long fingers cup her from behind, slide through her wetness from top to bottom once, twice, before pushing inside. Angel starts with two fingers, not messing around, moving them slowly inside her as his other hand settles on the small of her back and presses her pelvis down into his. The angle puts just enough pressure on her clit and Buffy closes her eyes, throws back her head and rides Angel's fingers to an almost embarrassingly quick climax.

Buffy collapses against Angel's chest, her breath coming in harsh puffs. When she opens her eyes and angles her gaze up to his face, she sees him smirking down at her.

"Who's laughing at who, now," she asks, but her voice is reedy and her limbs are liquid and they are both still fully clothed so she can't work up any indignation because if the tables were turned, she'd be smirking too.

Instead she drops her face into Angel's neck and smiles against his skin.

*

The next time her eyes open it's dark outside. It occurs to her that this is the first day in years that she has missed watching the sun set on the beach.

She feels Angel's lips brush against her forehead and she can't bring herself to care.

"Are we going to spend all day in bed, or do you have somewhere you have to be?" His voice is quiet, content and Buffy thinks she knows just how he feels.

She angles back and stretches, taking a moment to look him over. The shadows under his eyes are lighter and he looks much better. Another few days of good rest and slayer blood and he'll be as good as new. She settles back down next to him and winds a hand under his shirt to play along the muscles of his stomach.

"I should probably take a trip out to the Sanctuary. I like to make my presence known during a full moon."

"Do you get hunters?"

"Not yet. It's probably only a matter of time though. Too much temptation with all of them captive in one space like that."

Angel grunts in agreement and Buffy lets herself relax and enjoy the feeling of his hand sweeping up and down her back for a few more minutes.

Eventually she gets up to shower. When Angel takes his turn, Buffy sterilizes a knife and fills another glass for him so that when he steps out of the bathroom with wet hair and a towel wrapped around his waist, it's waiting for him.

She swallows back another wave of lust, feeling like a teenager again. Angel glares at her hand and the glass it holds as she reaches it out for him.

"You shouldn't weaken yourself before going out like that, Buffy. I could have waited." His jaw clenches with irritation.

Buffy shrugs. "I'm fine. It's done now, so take it before it gets cold."

Angel mutters something under his breath but he takes the glass and tips the contents down his throat. Buffy watches his face, noticing that it doesn't shift this time. It means his hunger is lessening, his control growing. A look of unmistakable pleasure passes over his features but when he catches her looking he turns away and finishes quickly.

She takes the empty glass to the kitchen and rinses it out. When she comes back out, Angel is dressed and putting on his shoes. Buffy frowns.

"What are you doing?"

He looks up at her, irritated. "I'm going with you. You've given me too much in the last 24 hours and I'm feeling stronger than I should. Which means you must be feeling weaker than you should."

Buffy frowns and huffs, equally irritated. "You need to rest. Go lay back down."

Angel just looks at her, his face stony and blank with his stubbornness. Buffy knows that look well. She narrows her eyes and shakes her head at him, but gives up the fight, knowing it is one she will not win.

The tension between them fades as they get closer to the Sanctuary. By the time they get there, their voices are weaving together in quiet conversation. Buffy updates him on the situation at the Sanctuary and he listens, asking a question here and there and offering a suggestion when she asks for it. She can tell by the set of his jaw that the captivity of the werewolves bothers him, but his level of upset doesn't seem to match hers. Buffy supposes that to him, the plight of the lycanthropes is tolerable if not ideal. After all, he lives his life in a world where it is the humans who are held captive, taken as pets, and farmed as food for the demons. At least the werewolves are no one's pet.

She avoids the administration building with its adjacent parking lot and parks on a dirt road that surrounds the enclosure. Buffy watches Angel carefully as he gets out of the car. He looks strong and only a little tired. She relaxes a little, gesturing for him to follow her.

They spend the next several hours checking the perimeter of the werewolf enclosure. Buffy can hear the howls of the hunting wolves inside. There doesn't seem to be any evidence of anyone breaking into the Sanctuary and eventually they turn to circle back to her car.

The wind picks up, the warm breeze blowing Buffy's hair across her face. She shakes her head, annoyed and wishing she'd pulled it back before they left the apartment. Angel grabs her elbow and pulls her to a stop in front of him. With his free hand he reaches up and brushes her hair back, gently fingering the strands before releasing them.

"I haven't seen your hair this long in a very long time, probably not since the first time I ever saw you sitting on those steps," he says quietly. He hesitates for a moment and when he continues his eyes look far away. "It reminds me of the way that Dawn used to wear her hair. Long and straight and shiny. Like Fred's used to be, before Illyria."

Buffy's heart twists with an old, stale kind of pain. "I don't remember," she whispers, looking away.

Angel doesn't say anything, just pulls her against him. The guilt is strong now, stronger than the pain, and she feels the urge to make a confession against his chest.

"I don't remember what she looked like. I don't remember what any of them looked like. I mean, I can tell you the color of their hair, their eyes, but I can't picture the way those little pieces of description fit together into Dawn, or Giles, or any of them. They're just pieces. No wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts."

"Your pictures. . ."

"Gone. Hurricane, can't remember which one." There have been too many and it was a long time ago.

He holds her, anchors her to the moment and they stand under the full moon and listen to the howling of the werewolves and feel the warm tropical breeze on their skin.

*

Two days pass. Buffy spends most of it at Angel's side as he recovers, talking quietly when he's awake and watching him sleep when he isn't. She wonders how long the trip took this time, how many weeks or months it has been since he'd last fed well. He takes one more glass of her blood and then refuses more, says it's working and he just needs to rest as it repairs him. Buffy agrees, a voice in the back of her head insisting that he take it directly from the vein the next time anyway, and she feels a stab of guilt for being so selfish and needy when he isn't well.

The next day there's a new ship in port and a call from the Council checking in on her progress on the smuggled magical items. Buffy grumbles as she tears herself away from Angel's side to do her job. Usually she's grateful for any small distraction from the otherwise monotonous cadence of her life but usually she's alone and just trying to fill her days and nights. For the first time since Angel's last visit, Buffy wishes she got vacation and sick days.

She seeks out the priestess of the coven first, waiting until the closing bell rings at 2:30 to go inside the school where she teaches. Buffy knows she could wait and meet the woman at her home, but she's counting on the fear that a public encounter with the Slayer will provide to scare her straight.

The children she passes look at her with a mixture of excitement and fear. She's a celebrity of sorts on the Island, a protector and a warrior but also immortal. Different. Buffy suspects that she is boogeyman to some of these children, the scary thing that will come get them if they dare to misbehave. Most people, when they know who she is, give her wide berth. During the mostly peaceful times her presence on the Island is tolerated, but not precisely welcome by the humans.

When all hell breaks loose, sometimes literally, they usually change their tune.

The priestess, Erica Lands, is cleaning up her classroom when Buffy slips inside. When Ms. Lands looks up and sees Buffy watching her, she gasps and drops the eraser on the floor. The eraser sends a puff of chalk into the air and Buffy watches the white particles dance with the dust in a stream of sunlight from the window for a moment before looking back at the witch.

"Someone's been a little naughty."

The woman's face drains and for a second Buffy thinks she might faint. She doesn't feel any pity for her. If it were anyone else who'd followed this lead, then this woman and the rest of her coven would be burning on the beach later tonight.

Buffy flinches as the memory of that smell floods her senses. Willow.

"What . . . what do you want? I haven't done anything," Ms. Lands pleads, backing away from Buffy with her hands raised to ward her off.

Buffy sighs, annoyed, and raises an eyebrow.

"I think we both know that isn't exactly true."

Ms. Lands starts crying and Buffy's even more sure that this woman's coven is harmless, if stupid. There's no way this witch is a danger to the Island.

Buffy walks forward and the woman flinches away. "Calm down and listen carefully," Buffy orders. "You and your friends did a very stupid thing and unless you want to die you will do exactly as I say."

She spends the next several minutes scaring the witch into never, ever, ever again hitting the black market for banned magical items. When she's sure Ms. Lands understands, she makes plans with her to pick up the smuggled goods later that night.

The rest of the afternoon goes by quickly. A search of the most recent shipment comes up clean and she gets finished just in time to meet a still terrified Erica Lands who practically shoves the box of paraphernalia at her. Buffy stows it under a blanket in her car. She'll deal with it later. She heads to the beach, not because she wants to but because she's already skipped three nights and she doesn't want anyone to question her sudden change in routine.

The sun hasn't sunk all the way beyond the horizon when she leaves. She can't wait any longer to get back to Angel.

The apartment is quiet when she lets herself in. The lamp that sits on the end table next to her sofa is on, sending a soft wash of light through the room. Buffy sets the box down near the door, toes off her shoes, and is headed toward the bedroom to see if Angel is still sleeping when he appears in the threshold. He's dressed in pants and a white undershirt, his feet and his muscular shoulders bared to her appreciative gaze. His hair is wet from a recent shower and his bicep stands out under his skin, rolling and contracting as he rubs a towel through his hair.

Angel looks good, well rested, the purple shadows gone and the vein proclaiming his starvation no longer visible on his face. Buffy feels her body respond and the way Angel's eyes smolder when they find hers tells her that he's noticed her reaction.

He drops the towel and stalks toward her. Buffy stays still, fighting against her instincts to fight or flee from the dangerous vampire coming at her. Her heart races as she holds his predatory gaze. In this moment she has a renewed understanding of how this life, this hell on earth, has changed him too. He's not an animal, no more than she is at least, but there is a part of him that is more primal, less careful, and it makes her body ache with want.

Buffy sucks in a harsh breath when Angel stops just in front of her. His eyes never leave hers; a small smile plays on his lips.

"I guess you're feeling better." It comes out so low and breathy that she barely recognizes it as her own voice.

"Yes, I do. Do you feel like laughing now, Buffy?"

She smirks and shakes her head, not trusting her voice after that last weak performance. He takes a step forward and she takes a step back. Her back brushes against the wall. His body presses against her, trapping her.

Buffy sighs, her eyes closing as Angel leans down and runs his lips lightly down her jaw, her neck, over her exposed shoulders. She feels his chest expand as he breathes in, deeply, and the movement against her blood swollen breasts makes her weak in the knees.

Angel sighs and moves back to her ear. "You smell like sunshine and sex. You smell like heaven. Mine." His words are punctuated by kisses down her cheek and with the last one he captures her mouth. His hands grab hers and Angel twines their fingers together before pressing them above her head.

It's been so long since she has been able to surrender some of her power, some of her control, and for a brief second Buffy doesn't know if she can do it. She resists the urge to struggle against Angel, to turn the tables and press him against the wall, make his body beg. He senses her hesitation and instead of backing off he moves one large thigh between her legs and presses it firmly against her.

The sensation of his hard thigh rubbing against her pushes every impulse for escape out of Buffy's head. A new urge takes place of the old, the need to escape, to dominate, replaced by the need to melt into his hard demanding body. She feels her legs crumble a little beneath her, the action putting her center in more direct contact with his thigh. Buffy rocks against him as he continues to kiss her. She can feel her wetness soaking into his pant leg and when he groans and kisses her more fiercely, she knows he can feel it too.

Suddenly his hands are gone from hers and he's backing away, just enough to grab the sundress she's wearing and pull it over her head. Buffy's fingers hit the hem of the undershirt that hides Angel's chest from her touch and she fights the urge to rip it away, knowing that she might have a hard time replacing it. By the time she's maneuvered it up and over his head, his fingers have made quick work of her bra, leaving their chests bare to one another.

Angel looks down at her, eyes so dark and filled with heat, and Buffy's nipples tighten under his gaze. He makes a guttural noise that sounds like her name and in one quick motion, picks her up by the waist and latches his mouth over her breast. His blunt teeth press into the soft flesh, biting down just short of pain, and his lips suck at the hard tip. Buffy moans, lifts her legs and wraps them tightly around his waist, and his hands shift to her ass as he carries her into the bedroom.

They shed the rest of their clothes and sink to the mattress. Their movements are rough and urgent, his body so hard over hers. When he thrusts inside her, she calls out his name, revels in the mixed pleasure and pain as he stretches and reclaims her. It is years of pent up desire and longing and they don't try to control it.

Buffy feels the pressure building, the incredible pleasure striving to peak. She feels the angle of Angel's hips change, and she whimpers in protest. He covers her mouth with his and thrusts into her once, twice, three times before the hard planes of his back tense under her fingers. The feeling of him coming inside her, the sound of her name a low groan against her mouth, triggers her need and with a quick, rough twist of her hips she begins to follow him into the abyss.

She's still riding through the clench and release of her orgasm when pulls out and before she can even think to miss him he's between her thighs, knuckle deep inside her. Angel licks at the wetness on her thigh, a tender stroke that is followed by the sharp prick of fangs. As he takes a deep pull from her the pleasure that had been ebbing away comes back at full force and she feels her second climax come on top of the first. Her back arches and her body strains against his mouth, his fingers, as he takes a few long, slow swallows.

Angel continues to stroke her gently long after he's pulled his mouth away from her inner thigh. Buffy looks down her body with heavy, hooded eyes and watches him place reverent kisses over his bite marks. Eventually the movement of his fingers against her is too much and, sensing her discomfort, Angel pulls away and moves back next to her. She snuggles up to his side and places a breathless kiss over his heart.

Buffy dozes off for a bit. She wakes up when she feels Angel moving, opens her eyes to see him pulling on his pants and leaving the bedroom. He comes back several minutes later with a glass of orange juice and a plate of scrambled eggs. He settles back in next to her, letting her lean up against his chest as she eats. The silence between them is easy, natural. She remembers that she used to think that she had to talk non-stop when they were together, to make up for all of the time they spent apart. That seems forever ago.

"Thank you for not making me beg," Buffy says after she's finished the eggs.

He smirks. "I thought you like it when I make you beg."

She rolls her eyes at his attempt to avoid this topic of conversation. "You know what I mean."

There's a long moment of silence and then he sighs. She can feel the air leave his chest as she sinks back further against him.

"I've already taken more than I should. More than I need."

"It feels good. I want it." Buffy feels him tense behind her as the words leave her mouth. His hands leave her as he leans back and pushes them through his hair.

"I want it too, and that's what scares me. Damn it Buffy. I don't want to accidentally kill you just because it feels good."

This argument is old, worn. She can't remember a time when blood wasn't an issue between them. It's stupid, and pointless. There are no other choices on the Island, even if she wanted there to be.

There's silence again, but it's not as comfortable as before.

*

The next night, the streets surrounding her apartment are filled with people celebrating Island Day. It's the one night a year when people stay out well after dark, drunk and giddy as they celebrate the tenuous safety they've established. Buffy and Angel take the opportunity to get out into the fresh air.

The market stalls are still open and she leaves Angel to browse for a moment while she tries to explain to one of her nosier neighbors who her "friend" is. Buffy tells the woman that his name is Liam and he's visiting from the other side of the island. It's several minutes before she's able to break away from her neighbor. Her eyes search the market until she sees Angel's tall, broad figure bartering at a stall. Even from the distance she can see the eyes of the man widen as Angel hands over a few real coins to pay for his purchases. Buffy feels a stab of unease. Real money is rare in this part of the city. She pushes away the fear, knowing that it's irrational. No one could possibly guess that a vampire from the mainlands is in their midst, much less one who is so clearly attached to the Slayer.

The rumors of her tendency to become romantically involved with the enemy are long dead, along with most of the people who knew them to be true.

Buffy smiles up at Angel when he joins her again. They continue weaving through the celebrating masses. Angel seems relaxed, happy to be out of the apartment and stretching his legs. Buffy shoots him frequent glances, unable to look away for too long.

Up ahead she sees a small chapel, just a tiny hanging sign with a cross setting it apart from the old storefronts it's sandwiched between. There is a steady stream of people coming in and out, participating in the remembrance portion of the holiday. She wonders how many of these people have lost someone personally and how many celebrate in vicarious support. Buffy knows that not one of them has lost as many people to the wars as she has. She knows that not one of them carries her shame.

A wave of guilt washes over her. It's been too long since she has stepped inside a chapel and paid honor to the memory of the fallen. Buffy pauses, her hand coming to rest on Angel's forearm. He looks down at her, his face unreadable, and then he reaches into the bag that holds his market purchases and pulls out a candle and a small book of matches.

"How did you know?"

He shrugs. "I just wanted to be prepared."

Buffy almost laughs. Angel is hardly the boy scout type. Instead, she gives him a quick hug then takes the candle and matches. He nods at her as she gives him a lingering look over her shoulder, supporting her even though he can't chance entering the chapel with all of the crosses that are sure to decorate the interior.

She steps inside the chapel. It's shabby and a little dirty, the large brass cross that gleams at the altar the only thing that seems to be well taken care of. The light is low, all the better to highlight the dozens of lit candles in front of the cross. Buffy's shoes sound too loud as she walks down the aisle. When she gets to the front, she pauses, suddenly unsure of why she's doing this.

The only sounds are the quiet prayers, the sobs, of the people that fill the chapel. The loss and the sorrow are so thick that she feels like she could choke on it. None of it is her own.

So many dead. So much of it her fault. Buffy knows this, feels the guilt and the shame of it, but not the sorrow. Not the despair. She remembers that she felt it in the past, but she's unsure how many years have gone by without it. It's so distant, like all of it happened to someone else.

It was a mistake to come here. Buffy turns around, thrusts the unlit candle and the matches at a waiting mourner and walks briskly back out into the warm night air. She sees Angel standing against a light post across the street, waiting patiently for her. He cocks his head at her, his face set in wordless question at her quick exit. She winds her way back to his side.

"Are you ok?"

Buffy nods and smiles, trying for reassuring. "Yep. Thanks for waiting."

Thankfully he lets it go.

They head back to her apartment. A few teenagers set off some illegal fireworks and the crowd gets uneasy. By the time they get back, the streets have begun to empty. They sit on the front steps of her building and keep an eye on the mostly drunken crowd that remains. It isn't long before the night is quiet and empty once again.

"There's a slayer at the Miami Farm. Hard to tell when she came into her power- they're understandably keeping it quiet, but I'd guess within the last year or so." Angel's voice is hushed even though there's no one around to hear.

Buffy's heart pounds a little harder. She hasn't heard about a new slayer in a while. There are a few others besides her, stationed on the larger islands, but the days when she was the queen of slayerdom are gone. Still, the thought of a slayer on the mainlands makes her stomach knot.

"Can you get her out. . . Cuba, maybe?"

"I'm working on it, but I don't know. Getting a human out is tricky . . . she can't exactly travel the way I do." He doesn't mention how jealously guarded the humans are, how they are a precious resource that are almost completely protected from escape. Island-dwelling humans have mostly given up on ever successfully rescuing those born and bred on the mainland. It's easier to pretend they don't exist.

Buffy sighs, rubs her arms against a sudden chill that runs through her. "They'll find her. Kill her. "She thinks about how long Angel's been traveling, how long he's been visiting. "Maybe they already have."

"Maybe."

She looks at his face, sees the traces of pain and guilt that he almost always carries with him. She knows that he remembers things that she doesn't. He still feels sorrow.

Buffy takes a deep breath and looks down at her hands, clasped in her lap. She tries to make her voice even, emotionless.

"If she's still hidden when you get back you should take her. Angelus is powerful enough to demand a donor."

Angel's angry hiss has her fighting not to flinch. "Do you know what they call permanent donors? Pets. You want me to take a pet? A slayer as my pet. What the hell are you thinking, Buffy?"

She's thinking he's stubborn, too noble for his own good but she doesn't say it. Buffy understands his need to resist the rituals of the demon world he lives in. He's managed to stay alive for decades, delicately balancing who he is while pretending to be Angelus for everyone around him. He takes on the burden because it allows him to work from the inside, protect the free humans while pretending to hat them as much as any other demon. But she also sees how tired, how starved he is every time he steals away to come to her and she knows there are ways to make his life easier without becoming the monster he's always afraid he'll become.

"A pet? No! She could be your partner. Someone powerful to help you. It could be win-win for both of you. You keep her safe, out of the hands of the monsters, and she can keep you strong." Buffy swallows, tightening her hands into fists. "Slayer blood," she finishes in a whisper.

"No." His tone is final. Absolute.

"What? Why? Don't be stupid, Angel." Buffy isn't a masochist. She doesn't enjoy the thought of him taking blood from someone else on a regular basis, much less another slayer. But she has become very practical. She's had no other choice.

He stares at her, studies her face and her body language. His posture is stiff and his jaw is clenched. Buffy can see how angry he is.

"Don't try to push me away, Buffy. You think I don't know what you're doing? You are my partner. No sixteen year-old human could ever take your place."

Buffy stands up, shaking her head. She has no idea what he's talking about. She's not doing anything but trying to make his life easier, better.

"Fine. Forget it then."

*

Angel hangs the painting in her bedroom, across from her bed. Buffy finds herself drawn to it, unable to stop studying it.

She lies with her head on Angel's shoulder, her hair spread across his chest and her pillow. Her mind drifts as she looks at the woman in the painting, floating. in the dark night sky, the adoring man cradling her in his arms. It looks like love.

"You like it," he states, his voice rumbling low in her ear.

Buffy smiles. "Yes." She turns to look at him. "Chagall, right?"

Angel's face twists in surprise. "Right."

She narrows her eyes at him and smacks his chest. "Why so surprised? Like I couldn't pick up some culture sometime in the past century or so."

He rubs his chest and smiles. "It's just the Buffy I used to know wouldn't have bothered to know something like that."

Buffy's face falls, a sudden tightness twisting in her chest. Angel is just teasing, she knows that, but he's right. She wouldn't have bothered with art history, or world history, or literature, or any of the other things that she has gradually begun to fill her brain with. She would have been more concerned with her family, her friends, and her mission. But she doesn't have Angel's photographic memory and she's lost so much of the detail of her early life. Buffy has spent a lot of time trying to replace her failed autobiographical memory with facts, knowledge that can be easily relearned and replaced when it begins to fade away.

Her hand wraps around Angel's and she begins tracing the Celtic tattoo that circles around his left ring finger with her thumb.

"Do you ever wonder . . . if all of the things that made you who you were disappeared, would you still exist?"

Angel tilts his head and furrows his eyebrows in confusion, so she huffs out a breath and tries again.

"I was born and I had a mother and father and sister and friends, and a purpose. And now all of those things are gone, not just gone but missing, faded into nothing." She hesitates for a long moment, and then her voice drops to a whisper. "Sometimes I think Buffy Summers doesn't exist anymore. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can't see Buffy at all."

"Buffy," Angel murmurs, halting and worried. Suddenly he is moving, hovering over her, his big hand tracing her face with such gentle affection. "I see you."

For that moment, at least, she knows she exists. For that moment she can see herself reflected in his warm brown eyes.

*

Buffy receives a report that one of the inner-islanders has been showing off a demon artifact, meant for conjuring, at dinner parties. She leaves Angel and makes the trip to investigate. There have been a few reports like this over the years and most of the time they've been false. For some reason the rich people in the middle of the island like to buy bad local art and try to pass it off as something dangerous. The extra gates and guards surrounding them give them an aura of invincibility.

Unfortunately, this time the artifact is real and the rich guy bragging about it doesn't think he should have to give it up. Buffy gets tazered and then sucker punched by a big goon serving as bodyguard before she gets pissed and knocks a few heads together. She calls in the police and when they get there to serve as witnesses, she crumbles the ugly statue under the heel of her boot while the guy seethes. The rest of the afternoon is spent scouring his house, looking for more contraband.

She's tired and cranky when she gets back home. A glance at the rearview mirror reveals the shadow of a bruise still on her jaw. The cut from the bodyguard's ring that had accompanied it is closed over by now, mostly healed, but there's still a pink line of new skin that shows where it was hours before.

Buffy opens her apartment door and gasps at the sights and sounds that greet her. Soft music plays from the speakers of her small sound system, a compilation of ancient jazz that she's pretty sure predates even her own existence. There are candles everywhere, filling the living room with low, flickering light. There's a hint of the scent of wax from the candles under a much stronger smell of roasted meat that makes Buffy's mouth water. And there is Angel.

He carefully sets down the book he was reading when she opened the door and stands. A soft smile graces his mouth. Instantly Buffy relaxes, leaves her crappy day behind her, and smiles back at Angel.

"This is . . . wow."

Angel pulls her into his arms. His kiss is soft but passionate, a slow press of cool lips, a gentle tangle of tongues. Buffy's body is singing when he pulls away to look down at her.

"Happy Anniversary, Buffy."

Buffy's breath catches in her throat as her hands tighten around him. She's been so busy, so wrapped up in finally seeing him again, that she'd forgotten what today is. Before she can apologize, Angel is rubbing his thumb gently over her bruise.

"Bad day at the office?"

She snorts and shakes her head. "Who cares about that?" She pulls slightly away and lets her gaze sweep the apartment. "This is amazing, Angel."

He ushers her to the small dining table that he's brought in from her balcony. When she's seated with a small glass of wine, he disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a plate loaded with food. There is a side of roasted chayote and breadfruit, but the mouthwatering smell that she noticed from the moment she stepped inside is coming from the roasted breast of chicken in the middle of the plate.

"Fresh chicken? This must have cost you an arm and a leg."

Angel smiles, not bothering to answer her, and sits down to keep her company while she eats. Buffy takes a bite of the chicken, groaning softly at the taste as it hits her tongue. She rarely gets fresh meat, instead surviving on the reconstituted version that comes with her yearly staple rations. This is heaven in her mouth.

After she finishes her dinner, Angel pulls her over to the sofa and holds her as she discusses her day. It feels so normal, so right, to be curled against his side as she recounts the day's events. Angel asks a few questions, raises his eyebrow when he hears her describe the summoning statue and tells her it's a good thing she destroyed it before that particular demon could be conjured onto the island.

Eventually Angel pulls away and stands up. Buffy's lips moue into a pout.

"Come back," she pleads and Angel laughs in response.

"I will. Just let me get something from the bedroom."

Buffy waits, impatient, for his return. When he comes back out he is holding a rectangular box that is wider and longer than it is deep. There is a silk ribbon tied artfully around it and Buffy's eyes widen.

"God, Angel, I didn't get you anything. . ."

He sets the box down on the sofa next to her and slides into the empty space, pulling her back against him. His lips touch her ear.

"You're all I want. Make love to me later and we'll call it even."

She shivers, the sensation of his mouth on her ear combining with the smooth suggestion of his words to make her body come alive with anticipation. Buffy turns to him, shifts to crawl into his lap, but he laughs against her lips.

"Open your gift first. Then I'll open mine. I promise."

She sends him a wicked smile as she settles back down next to him. Buffy feels happy, the light weightless kind of contentment that makes her playful and bright. The kind of happy she only feels with Angel.

The box is fairly light. She takes her time untying the bow, fingers the rare silk and enjoys the feeling against her skin. Buffy figures he must have brought this with him, stuffed in a pocket. Silk is so hard to find, at least on the islands in this part of the world.

When she's finished playing with the ribbon she opens the top of the box. Buffy gasps at the contents, feels her throat and her chest and her stomach tighten in a mixture of joy and a pain that is, for once, fresh. It feels amazing, and she welcomes it.

Her fingers drift into the box, stopping just short of touching the delicate paper inside. Instead, she traces the lines of charcoal with her eyes, lingering on the way Angel has made Dawn's hair seem to shine, the wide beauty of her smile.

"Angel," she chokes, and then her throat closes before she can tell him how beautiful, how precious, how priceless his gift is.

He watches her as she carefully sifts through the contents of the box, pausing for long minutes to study each of the drawings of her friends and family that rest inside. Giles, looking up from a book, his eyes so incredibly wise and kind. Oz, playing a guitar, his hair spiky and his body relaxed. A drawing of her, surrounded by Xander and Willow, sparks a memory she thought long dead. She knows this is a reproduction of one of her old photographs. So is the next one, a drawing of Dawn and Buffy surrounding their mom.

A sob tears out of Buffy's chest, a sound so harsh that she thinks it must have been building inside her for years. The feeling of tears on her cheeks is foreign but she has enough presence of mind to swipe at them before any can drop onto the precious drawings.

She crawls into Angel's lap, but it isn't about sex this time. His arms surround her, hold her as she cries. It feels awful and amazing at the same time. She can't tear her eyes away from her gift. He's given her back her memories, given her back her family, given her back a piece of herself that she thought was gone forever. Buffy remembers who she was, who she is.

"Thank you, thank you so much," she gasps when her sobs have calmed enough to give her breath to speak.

"You're welcome, Buffy," Angel replies in a soft voice. He kisses the crown of her head. "There's one more, when you're ready."

Her fingers tremble as she reaches in the box and reveals the final drawing. In it she is standing in a simple silk dress in a night garden blooming with evening primrose. Angel is in a dark suit beside her, looking down at her with unmistakable love.

Buffy smiles. This she remembers, even if it was decades ago.

"Happy Anniversary, Angel."

Her eyes meet his and he's looking at her with the same expression as in the drawing.

"I love you forever, Buffy."

Something inside her balks at the word forever, even now. She may remember who she is, but that just reinforces how unnatural it is for her to still be alive. Buffy remembers the days when she hoped to live long enough to die peacefully in her bed, old and wrinkled and surrounded by fat grandchildren. That hope is dead now; the only death she has to look forward to one that is filled with violence and pain. But she's meant to die, she knows. Someday. Not even the promise of Angel's undying love is enough to make her want to stay on this earth forever.

Buffy traces a finger over his brow, his strong jaw, his smooth lips. Angel is her rock, the greatest love of her very very long life. She doesn't want to promise him forever, but she can promise him all of her heart for as long as she lives and maybe beyond.

"I love you always, my Angel."

*

Buffy lies on top of his chest, sweating, as she tries to catch her breath. All of the blood she has given him these past weeks has made him strong, insatiable.

She's not complaining.

Angel's hand traces a lazy pattern eight on her lower back. "I have to leave soon."

She feels her heart clench.

"I know."

"I wish. . ."

Buffy props her chin up on his chest and covers his lips with her fingers. She knows what he's going to say and she doesn't think she can hear it and be strong enough to let him go.

"Me too."

*

Another sunset. Another day gone in a march of endless days.

She sits with her chin resting on her knees and watches the ship on the horizon as it moves further and further away. The ocean is deep and wide, stretching as far as her eyes can see and beyond. The waves carry away her heart, but she doesn't cry.

Buffy doesn't want to live forever. Still, she hopes she'll live to see him again.

-End

Rating: Adult

Author's Note: This fic takes place far in the future, in an alternate universe setting post-NFA. In my mind for this story, the actions of Not Fade Away start a long series of skirmishes between demons and humans that eventually culminate in a full-scale war. Demons come out of the closet, so to speak, and wage war on the humans. Buffy and her slayers fight hard for a long time, but they lose. Most of the people Buffy loved died during the wars but Buffy remains alive, never aging as a result of the spell Willow did to pull her back to life in Bargaining.

The remaining humans fled to the islands of the world, and have been able to hold off demon attacks on most of them through carefully controlling the airspace and strictly guarding the perimeter from attacks coming from the oceans. A few islands that are too large (definitely Australia, Greenland, Great Britain) to defend were lost but the rest have become sanctuaries, and prisons, for the humans that survived. I envisioned the islands as being a mishmash of old and new- some technology that's advanced, but so isolated that they also have to recycle and reuse old things, like Buffy's car which looks old and antique on the outside but has new technology that keeps it running on the inside. The humans live on island paradises, but they aren't on extended vacation- they can't even enjoy the beaches, which all exist outside the gates and walls of the defense system. They live in a very restricted manner, under police law, governed by a council (not to be confused with the Watcher's Council, which is long defunct in this story as there are no more watchers).

Inspiration for this story included Mark Chagall's "La Mariée" (The Bride), which provided the title for this story and the image of the painting that Angel brings her. Buffy is, of course, the bride celebrating her anniversary with her husband. While writing I listened to a lot of Otis Redding, most notably "That's How Strong My Love Is" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long".