“Go away,” he said stonily.
“Are you going to jump? Or are you just going to wait for the sun to take care of it?” I asked. “If you’re so bent on it, why don’t you ask one of us to help?”
“Because I wouldn’t ask anyone to do that.”
He sounded so noble and so righteous. It drove me mad, because nothing he was doing right then was particularly noble or righteous. It was an adolescent gesture of flamboyant, childish parameters.
“Why not? You’ve already made your monumentally childish decision, so why not just take it one step further and let your last sight be of the people you’re about to betray?” I asked.
“Wesley, shut up.”
He was such a child. Whatever he’d been before he became Angel, it hadn’t been someone of great personal virtue or fortitude. In the bad moments, I understood how easy it was to despise him. His need for the drama was almost unbearable.
“Do you think me not saying it will make it any less true?” I asked. “Because you’re acting quite the coward in any case.”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” he said. “You’ve never felt anything like this. You didn’t give a damn about Buffy.”
I’d had enough. Even I, the devoted believer and supporter, was tired of melodrama. I was going to get this bloody baby off the ledge or die trying.
“Do you think you’re the only person ever to lose someone they loved, you ridiculous prat?” I asked angrily. “Get back into the goddamn hotel and at least wait one more night before deciding Buffy’s ghost needs you more than the world.”
The words worked exactly like I hoped they would. More or less. Angel was on solid ground in a heartbeat, and in two more he had me against the wall, hand clenched around my throat.
“Don’t you ever say her name again,” he growled. “Do you hear me?”
“Let me go,” I said calmly, if a bit strained under the force of his hand. To my surprise, he did, eyes fixed on me like a predator’s.
“You have no right to come up here and do this,” he said.
“I have every right. I’m sort of in charge, remember?” I asked bitingly. “Besides, no one else is in any condition to say anything. Cordelia’s in tears, Gunn doesn’t know what’s going on, and poor Fred’s just spent five years trying not to get her head blown off by a slave collar. I shouldn’t be up here right now. I should be helping our friends in this very difficult time, and so should you. But instead, here we are, playing out a little melodrama so your tortured soul can feel a little better.”
He moved a step closer, trying to intimidate me. The old me, the me of even a month ago, would have given way, done what he wanted, coaxed him downstairs with promises of sunnier tomorrows. I was tired of that game. Angel’s moods didn’t deserve to be catered to, especially not at a time when he needed to be strong.
“You’re on dangerous ground, Wesley,” he warned.
“I’m not afraid of you,” I said. And I really wasn’t, at least not for that second.
“You should be,” he said, eyes glittering. “I’m this close from crushing your throat.”
I did something very Cordelia-esque then and bared my throat for him.
“Do it,” I said. “Come on, make yourself feel better. Just a little squeeze. Never mind that nothing will change. She’ll still be dead. You’ll still be angry. But if you want to crush my throat, do it.”
He slammed me into the wall again, this time pushing his hands against my shoulders with an iron grip.
“You’re not doing yourself any favors, you know,” he said. “If this is supposed to be some sort of magical reverse psychology where I snap out of it, it’s not working.”
“I’m not interested in reverse psychology, Angel,” I said. “I’m telling you the truth. No, I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now. But I know what you mean to this world. I know you. And I knew Buffy.”
“I told you not to say her name,” he said, trying to push me further into the wall. “You cowardly, ruthless–you don’t know how it feels inside of me right now.”
“Like there’s a big gaping hole that’ll never be filled, right?” I asked sarcastically. I was tired of him and his need to be coddled. Of course he hurt! Of course he felt horrible! Did he think we all didn’t know that?
That was when he punched me. I wasn’t very surprised. I had even tucked my glasses into my pocket in preparation for the hitting. It hurt like a son of a bitch nonetheless.
“Shut up, Wesley.”
“Why?” I asked. “Because I might be right?”
I earned a fist to the gut for that observation–exactly where I’d been shot, as a matter of fact. I doubled over in agony, already feeling the swelling that would be a black eye soon. I was going to look like I’d been in a brawl.
Then I realized this wasn’t just stupid on his part. It was stupid on my part, too. So I wouldn’t coax him downstairs because that was playing his game, but I’d let him beat the shit out of me? What brilliant master scheme was that a part of? Operation Target the Messenger?
“You’ve got a big mouth, you know that?” Angel asked. “You got anything else to say?”
“We’re both cowards,” I said, curled up against the wall, shuddering with pain. “We’re both pretty pathetic excuses for heroes if you ask me.”
“I’m not asking you, Wes.”
“Yes, but I’m telling you.”
He almost hit me again, but something in him stopped before he let the punch fly, the part of him that realized one more good punch would put me out of commission for days. The part of me that was stupid enough to be a punching bag was grateful for the reprieve.
He looked at me, pathetically huddled against the wall, and shook his head.
“I hit you where you were shot, didn’t I?” he asked.
“I meant to,” he admitted. I nodded and tried to ignore the pain I was in. “I’m an asshole.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Why’d you let me hit you?” he asked. “That’s not like you.”
“I suppose I’m an asshole, too,” I said, trying to straighten myself up. “Buffy was a hero. She was brave and noble and good. A legend among legends. Someone like that should never die. But she’s always the type who does die, because–well, because who else would?”
He looked at me, his eyes softened, sullen, broken all at once. “I would have. If I’d been there.”
“She wouldn’t have let you,” I said. “Angel, I know this is going to hurt like hell, but you and Buffy haven’t been connected like that in a long time. It wouldn’t have been your place to sacrifice yourself for her or her sister.”
He stared at me, the anger rising in him again. But he held it in, listening. Trying to find the place where I was wrong and failing. It was odd to watch him watch me like that, but everything about the moment was odd. And stupid. And painful. And human.
“You don’t know,” he said at last.
“No, I don’t, but I can make a fairly good guess,” I said, finally managing to stand up. “She’s dead, Angel. And I’m sorry. I know that if you could have, you would have moved heaven and earth to save her. But that wasn’t how it happened. And nothing you do now will change that.”
The silence was deafening. I didn’t want to be there any more. I desperately needed a stiff scotch and several containers of ice. Angel needed something rather stronger, but I didn’t know what that was. He probably needed a good punch in the gut, too, but I wasn’t capable of that. Just a few harsh words with good intentions behind them. But we all have our gifts, and that was the one I had to give him.
“You’re a know-it-all son of a bitch,” Angel said finally. “Come on. There’s asbestos all over. Wolfram and Hart will probably sue me for unsafe workplace conditions and use you as their star witness if they ever find out.”
It was quite possibly the stupidest thing he’d ever said to me. But I understood completely. I very carefully walked out of the room watching the curtains flap and the moon drift past.
Angel brushed past me. He looked back at the dark room and then at me again. A strange fit of expression crossed his face.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” he said.
“Billions of people do it every day,” I replied. “Come on, Angel. You owe me a scotch.”
“I don’t,” he said as we walked downstairs. “But I’ll buy you one anyway.”