I. L.A. Summer, 1998
Ceramic plate. Red vinyl cushion.
Half-eaten pillowy pancake. Glass, child-prints smearing condensation.
The metal strip around the table-rim. That crack between the strip and the Formica.
It’s on her neck, and Buffy doesn’t know how it got there. It’s also on the inside of her elbow, and she doesn’t know how it got there either.
Her uniform feels thick with it, and everyone keeps touching her. They grab her hand, “that soda, sweetheart?” They bump her hip, “Hey, watch where you’re goin’, sister!”
Carnal, meaty, they touch her wrist, “Waffles and syrup and oh-yeah-sausages, to hell with blood pressure, eh?” She doesn’t ask them to stop, and at the end of the day they’re’ll still be people-prints all over her.
There’s a Kendra-print on the film of Buffy’s sleep, because Kendra, that bitch, she bled right on Buffy’s brains and smeared it on the celluloid. Now Buffy’s dreams feel straight out of the forties, monochromatic, but in the sepia tint of dried blood and that—that damn maple syrup . . .
Frame after frame flickers slower and slower on the screen of Buffy’s brain, Kendra after Kendra, slowing so drastically Buffy wonders whether there was ever one Kendra at all. The dream forties phonograph announces, “Of course der iz more dan one Kendra; if der waz only one—well then, what has happened to my accent? There are hundreds of us, thousands, we die and we wake, die and wake, come on now Buffy—wake up.”
“Wake the fuck up, Anne, you airhead, I could have you replaced like that, what, you think you’re the only gal in here, you’re no different from the rest of them by Christ . . .” Sighing, Buffy pins on her name and ties on her apron, which after it’s washed still feels like dollar bills on her body, smooth, worn, handled, because people have been in this before, they’ve been in her body. They’ve been a different person at the time, but it’s the same Slayer, and they just pin on their different names, an Anne or a Susan or a Hai-Chi, but really, when was the last time you ordered a cheeseburger from someone-with-a- . . . face it buster, someonewithanameofherown?
“My grandfather,” eggs-and-orange-juice says, “my grandfather’s name is Ed, with a brother named Fred, and he’s an attorney, and a legislator, and a race car driver, and a mechanic, and some people are three people, know what I mean?” “Say, what’s your—oh, I see, Anne—why so glum, chum, don’t you know tomorrow is another day; Greta Garbo said that once, didn’t she, or it was . . . I got it, it was you, little orphan . . . wait, no, Annie was . . . Annie was bet your bot-tom dol-lar that to-morrow . . .” “So their mom died,” Belgian-waffles-the-price-is-too-high is saying, thick voiced and syrupy sweet, “and the father was heaven knows where, so we had to bring the kids home, you know, and so mom’s like their mom too now, and their aunt, and I’m their . . . well, it’s complicated . . .” And the stories stick, like something she can’t forget, like the dead open eyes of Teresa, the bruised pale form of Willow, like Kendra and Giles and Xander and Mother, oh Mother, and even Cordelia, and Miss Calendar, oh God, and Angel, always Angel, and who was she again, under all this—under all these bodies?
“Buffy” clawed out of Angel is as close as vocal chords get to coming, his throat pulsing and aroused with her name, yeah oh yeah she remembers that, the groan of tepid air inside her mouth, the rush between her legs, the arched tightening, thrusting, wet warm whispered we’re the only people in the world. It doesn’t last, though; tomorrow he’s another person and she’s another year older; “it was a good time, but it doesn’t mean we have to make it a big deal,” and then her friends’ deaths pile on her like dirt on a grave, until she’s wondering whether Kendra died, or whether it was actually her, because what’s one Slayer or the next? They all do their job, and it ain’t waitin’ tables, honey, it’s putting friends in danger and killing lovers, yeah oh yeah she remembers that, and torturing men with silver hair and father-crinkles round his eyes, but the funny thing is she can’t remember Hemery, her first kiss, her first movie, her first moment on the ice, her first self, because that self doesn’t seem to matter, so it must’ve been Buffy who died, because hey look, I’m in this grave, and there’s so much . . . what the . . . so much maple syrup . . .
II. Three Months Later
Time, not a line, is spherical smoke, not a chimney with its single acclivous direction, but sooty past and future spreading in all directions into the open air, and every moment he is dying, his blood distending into the sky of Darla, the line Darla cuts across her breasts a bloody horizon: Darla the dawn of Angelus, and every moment his soul is thrusting into him, a kind of rape, non-consensual love of fellow man, and every moment her sword is thrusting into him, Buffy kind of raped, non-consensual love for her fellow man pushing that sword in deeper . . .
But not any more, Angel has to tell himself, all that is in the past, and time is slinking straight again, a simple path to follow, and the world is one place again, not strata of time layered on time, world upon world, reality upon reality, his reality in Hell. There is a defined set of colors in this world, and no more, a defined set of scents, and no more, a defined set of places with no parallels, a defined set of experiences with no reverb back to an infinity of pain.
And the defined set of colors contract into a well-remembered color, a beloved, arulent flash, and the defined set of scents constrict into a subtle whiff of fear and scented soap and ash—
So familiar, these sights and scents, bringing him back into this one world, this one time, this particular place, this particular person, and somehow, some way, his particular self—
He bursts through a door and his world constricts again, into this particular circumstance, and for the first time in infinity, he knows what he is there for.
The colors and the scent and that beloved shape he now remembers are fighting, afraid, threatened, and he is there for her.
He hears a loud roar, the crash of chains, and metal on flesh, only a supplement to her choke, her sob, her breathing.
Then he is killing a man, and he is remembering that killing used to have something to do with him.
But not any more, at least he doesn’t think so; the only thing that has to do with him is her.
He has a thousand iterations: killer, lover, son, father, friend, loner, drifter, god.
He has a thousand iterations, but she only ever saw him in one way.
She is only one, the only one, the shape, the scent, the self.
He is on his knees in front of her, in worship.
On his knees in front of her, in lust.
On his knees, in love with her.
On his knees, in prayer.
In desperate longing.
III. Tibet, Summer of 2001
By the pale hills, casters of long shadows, by the houses in the hallows, with rock walls, by the teak trees and blooming juniper, Angel sits in silence, before the morning, before the demons possess the people here, before the resurrection and before an apocalypse in an alley, this is when Angel sits in silence, cross-legged, sipping in the scent of potentilla, still inside the darkness, inside the night, inside all of space, thinking of the space, the night, the darkness and the scent. Above him, a needle pin drops from a chir tree, swift and settling down beside him, part of the grass and ground, part of the earth, of bodies buried beneath the surface, part of Buffy, rolling round in earth’s diurnal course, with rocks and stones and trees. Beneath him, she’s there, he knows, digested in the dirt, decay, and death, but instead of her presence, he feels her absence, as the tree feels the absence of its leaf, as the darkness feels the absence of the flooding sun, as the space vacuums in wormholes of black, so must the world feel her loss, the earth skinned, scraped, naked without her, smaller now and sensitive to touch, like sex without a partner, angry flesh and frantic fingers, like gums lacking a tooth, ripped raw and gushing blood failing to fill the gap, like himself without a soul, empty, ugly, violent, like him without her.
He walks the winding paths of the holy temples, he leaves the holy offerings, he speaks the sacred words, but all of this seems smaller somehow, the paths shorter and straighter, the offerings rotting, the words faint, trifling, without meaning, the peace inside himself stunted and unwilling. The monks do not intersect his path, do not give him the illusion of moving forward by leaving them behind; the others do not speak to him and he cannot bring himself to ask them to listen, to ask them if he is really speaking if there is no one to hear; the others are saturated in calm, in silence of the holy kind, in unself of the holy kind. His master, his teacher from many years ago, teacher of others like him, is no longer a man but many men, no longer a river but an ocean, no longer a bird but the sky, and the mantra of this place, his mantra, never spoken, never taught, but felt, in men, in oceans, in sky, is let it go, let it go.
Angel doesn’t know how to let go what was forcibly taken from him; she is gone, forcibly taken from him; his self is gone, forcibly taken with her, and who was he without her, before her, ignorant of her all those years, ignorant of hope, of love, of living without breathing. And the men in ochre robes breathe out themselves, breathe in the world, letting go self, life, the needless seeking, but what of those who seek no longer, those who have sought and found, found the reason to go on, the reason he is here; he needs no further answers. Wasn’t that moment inside of her nirvana, the exhalation of her name a breathless om, the oneness of their beings a oneness with the world, her love not his individual redemption but a complete transcendence of place, of time of him?
But the world keeps on turning without her, not raw, exposed, blistered as he half hoped, but the same world, with its needles falling from the firs, with its rhododendrons rioting. Time keeps trudging forward, the same time, the Nyangchu River flowing straight and forward and strong, the monks bowing their heads in reverie and dreaming for cessation of the cycle. He himself is trudging forward also, freighting overseas so that he may leave her body behind, meditating among the trees so that he may leave her mind.
He is moving on somehow, he is letting her go, and in this whirling, pooling, death of himself, his soul, her, he is holding on somehow, finding himself, deeper than before. He is emptying self of his father, of Darla, emptying himself of Spike, Drusilla; he is emptying himself of Buffy—never of love, but as close as he’ll get to forgiving himself. He is becoming something deep within himself, deeper than he thought he could go, to the alien part in the body of a demon, to the soul.
And the trees, the stones, the rocks, the earth in its diurnal course, none of it can change who he is; the death, the demons, the tragedy and pointlessness of it all, it doesn’t matter. He will always love her, nothing changes that, he will always be a killer, nothing changes that, nothing he does matters, thus clearer than ever that all that matters is what he does.
So Angel sits in silence, thinking of the space, the night, the darkness and the scent, wondering how to love it, to battle it, to use it, to know it. By the teak trees and blooming juniper, Angel does what she would want for him; he thinks of how to go on fighting.
He finds himself, not in this time, not in this world, not in some particular circumstance or some particular person, but in himself. He finds himself, for the first time, without her as his compass.
He is the fight, he is the right, he is the reason to go on. He is all he’ll ever have; he is all there is.
He is his past, yes, but most of all his present; he is what he does, what he chooses to be.
Dawn is bloodying the eastern sky, but he is not quite the creature Darla made.
The light is gray, but he is not quite the innocent Buffy stabbed.
He is not quite Liam, not quite Angelus, but always himself.
Another needle drops, but he feels no unbearable loss.
The flowers’ scents sweeten; he enjoys them.
He will love life as though he had one still.
He will fight as though she lived.
He will not give up.
Not cease to be.
Not fade away.
IV. Three Months Later
He steps forward.
She is in his arms.
“So it’s true,” he says.
He is speaking into her hair.
“I’m not sure what’s true any more.”
“This is,” he says, and maybe he’s right.
His arms used to be the truest thing she knew.
That was before she woke up, before Heaven, before she died.
Now his embrace is an echo—of happiness or of Heaven, or both.
Either way, she feels like metal, his skin on hers a percussive strike.
The resulting diapason reverbs through her hollow body until she is sure she will shatter.
Her billion brassy pieces will be better broken, settling in this world she no longer knows.
“I don’t fit,” she muses aloud, and she realizes she also means his arms, not just the world.
He’s too tall somehow and she’s too small, and she’s not the person she was before and their love isn’t the same.
She’s been to Heaven and he’s been to Hell, and now all that’s left is in between, the never perfect and no longer innocent.
Between Sunnydale and L.A., between lovers for eternity and bad break-up exes, between going their separate ways and always coming back.
“None of us fit,” he tells her, and his hand brushes her cheek, “but I think maybe the point is to find a place” and he had a place once by her side.
Now that place is gone and she doesn’t know where she is, or whether there is a “she” at all, or whether his arms, so heavy, so cumbrous on her body are just another part of her.
His eyes, lightly self-full, don’t need her any more, don’t plead her, and even though he loves her that’s just another fact, fact piled on fact, “life piled on life” Tennyson said once, even if she didn’t know that, someone else probably did.
She is someone else now, some shaley fossil of herself with herself piled atop herself atop herself atop herself but without that single self underneath, and she’s so thick, so gravid with life and death she’s sure she can’t fit anywhere, this woman who is the Slayer but who is also Buffy, this woman who is a killer but also a friend, this woman who will love Angel forever and ever—but also, she realizes with horror—a woman who no longer loves Angel at all—this woman who’s been to Heaven, lives on Earth, and feels like she’s in . . . she’s in-between, she’s in God, where am I?, she’s in . . . Hell, Buffy, that question should be “who” . . .
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Summary: Buffy’s in L.A., then Angel comes back; Angel’s in Tibet, then Buffy comes back.
Notes: The title is from the Upanishads, a Hindu text: “The wise who knows the Self as bodiless within the bodies, as unchanging among changing things, as great and omnipresent does never grieve.” The quote doesn’t fit the fic, imo, but I liked the phrase. On that note, forgive me if some of the stuff about Buddhism is inaccurate or distorted; I wanted to say something meaningful about “self” in Eastern religion, but Angel strikes me as just so Western. A line from Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” is also ruthlessly hijacked: “Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees.” The quote “life piled on life” is from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”
A/N: For Chrislee, who is amazing, not only for hosting this marathon, but just for being herself.