He looked at her curiously, then his eyes darkened; they seemed to fill with shadows. He pulled away from her slowly; he stood, seeming to gain his bearings, as if he had just stepped off a ship onto land. He put one hand on the wall, swaying. He made a small sound.
"Angel," she said.
He turned. The candlelight fell on his face. He gazed at her, horror slowly creeping over his features.
"Angel, it's OK.....it's going to be OK,"
He cried out sharply, as if he'd been struck.
"Oh," he said softly, then louder, "Oh-Buffy,"
"It's all right,"
His eyes pierced hers; they filled with tears. One tear ran down his cheek in a crooked rivulet and fell. He bent at the waist, wincing, and fell to his knees. He moaned, "No....oh, no,"
He bolted. Buffy followed him. He made it into the hall, gripping the railing of the staircase, and fell again. He was sobbing.
Buffy tried to take him in her arms. He jerked away from her. He was shaking violently. He moaned, "No, no," over and over again.
"It wasn't you," said Buffy, "Willow cursed you again so we could have you back. I know it wasn't you, everyone does,"
"Willow," his voice came out in a near-whine, "Little Willow," he sobbed, "And-"
"It wasn't you,"
"Oh, Buffy," he looked at her suddenly. The naked grief in his eyes was more than she thought she could take. Her tears began. He looked at the floor.
"I remember," he gasped, "I made you cry. I made you cry and then-"
"It wasn't you,"
"It WAS me," he shouted, "I remember it," his body rocked with anguish, "I have the memories, I'll always have the memory of that look on your face, I'll always remember how I hurt you, I broke your heart! I knew just how and I broke your heart-" he jammed his head against the bars of the stair railing. Blood ran from his scalp. "Xander was right." he looked at her again; blood trickled down his temple. "He was right, Buffy. He saved your life. I came for you, at the hospital. You were sick," sobs took him again.
"We'll get through this," she said.
"I can't do this again," he whispered, "I can't do it again,"
"Angel, it's my fault," she said.
"It's my fault. If I hadn't-"
"NO!" he shouted. "No, don't you see, that's the essence of it, that's the evil, to take you down, to make you ashamed, to degrade you! It wasn't your fault, Buffy! You're seventeen years old!"
"I wanted to," she said quietly, "You wouldn't have if I didn't want to,"
He gripped her shoulders in his hands and shook her. "No! If nothing else, I won't allow this. That's the game, Buffy. It's played to weaken you. You're stronger than this. You have to be. It's a mind game. You have to see above it. You have to. None of this is your fault," he released her and turned away again, "I can't do this again, I can't,"
A footfall sounded on the stairs below. They both froze. A faint whistle echoed up the stairwell, and a crackling sound. Angel leaped to his feet, seized Buffy, and threw her into the bedroom, slamming the door after her.
Buffy landed on the bed and rolled off it again quickly. She jerked the door open.
Angel was crouched at the top of the stairs. He turned and hissed at her, "Get back in there!"
"Don't worry, I don't bite," a voice echoed upward, "But I was trying to give you guys time to get something on. Vampires and humans, they got a thing for clothes,"
"Whistler," said Angel.
"It's me," said Whistler, "Get your clothes on. We need to talk,"
Angel walked past Buffy and began to dress.
"It's all right," he said distantly. "He won't hurt you,"
"I know," she said. She picked up her clothes from the floor. She was suddenly afraid. What would the demon do? What, for that matter, was left?
"Are you decent?" A bowler hat appeared in the faint flickering light, followed by the rest of Whistler; he was decked in a naugahyde suit and a green bow tie. He took a bite from a taco, rattling the wrapper. Buffy eyed him as he strolled into the bedroom. Angel sat on the edge of the bed, looking at the floor.
"What do you want?" said Buffy.
"Just paying a visit," said Whistler, around a mouthful of taco. He jerked his chin at Angel, "You remember the deal yet?"
Angel didn't answer him.
"What deal?" asked Buffy.
"He's still getting all of it back," said Whistler, "Give him a few. It's a lot to take, even for you," he said to Angel, "Give yourself a break,"
"Why are you here?" demanded Buffy.
"I'm sort of-well, sort of a friend, really," said Whistler, "I mean, nobody asked me this time. I was thinking about you guys, and then I checked in, and, whoa!"
"I can't," said Angel.
"Part of the deal, pal," said Whistler, "You already agreed to it,"
"No," said Angel.
"And stop what you're thinkin'," said Whistler, "You catch rays and the whole thing's off. Right back in the hole. No tan, buddy,"
"What are you talking about?" raged Buffy, "What is going on?"
"Hey," said Whistler, "Can you give us a break?"
"Don't talk to her like that," snapped Angel.
Whistler was instantly contrite. "I'm sorry, " he said, "But I need to ask you to give us a little time. It's kind of-private,"
Buffy walked slowly up to Whistler, pushing her face into his.
"If you hurt him-"
"I," said Whistler, putting his hand on his chest, "Haven't hurt him,"
"Stop it," snarled Angel, then he addressed her, "Buffy, I'm sorry. I need to find out-"
"Do you trust this demon-whatever?" Buffy asked, her eyes still darting into Whistler's.
"Yes," said Angel.
Whistler was shaken by the nearness of Buffy. His taco trembled in his hand, scattering greasy particles.
Buffy heaved a sigh. "I'm going on patrol," she said, gathering her jacket and pack. She sank to her knees in front of Angel and slipped her hand across his cheek. "I'll be back in a couple of hours. I'll bring you something to eat. You can't go out yet, nobody knows you're back. It's better if you stay here. It's all boarded up, so no one can get in. You're safe here,"
His eyes were weary with sadness. He gazed at her silently.
"I love you," said Buffy, "I'll be back soon," She shot Whistler a look and stalked out.
"Wow," said Whistler, "She's all grown up,"
"I can't remember-" said Angel, "I remember....the things I did,"
"Yeah," sighed Whistler. He sat on the bed next to Angel, bouncing his heels on the floor, "Rotten luck. Doesn't count too bad against you though, considering. Pre-smoochies, you were really rackin' up the good points,"
"I can't," choked Angel, "I can't do it,"
"What? Keep going? You have to," said Whistler.
"I don't care if I go back,"
"Whoa! Whoa right there. Now I'm gonna say something,"
"All those things I did to her," Angel lowered his face in his hands and wept. Whistler sat beside him and waited it out. Angel's grief was disturbing, even to Whistler; it came out of love, clean and untainted. It had a vicious purity. It seemed to rip it's way out of him.
"Hey," said Whistler, after a while, "What was that thing she said, just before she left? Something about the "L" word, I think-"
"I was never good enough for her,"
"Well, I don't know her that well," said Whistler. He wadded up the taco wrapper and tossed it carelessly into a corner, "But I doubt she'd agree with that,"
Angel fixed his swollen eyes on the demon.
"I can't stand it," he whispered, "I can't do it. I don't care if I go back. She'll be safe,"
Whistler jumped off the bed and began pacing the room. He stopped in front of Angel, fidgeting. He took a breath, and looked down at him.
"All right. Here it is, straight. They won't let you in. It's not even an option. I'll save you the trouble. You wanna take a walk at high noon? Go ahead, it won't get you in. You'll wake up with amazing pain that lasts for months, but you'll still have the same destiny before you. You set this up. You don't remember it yet, but you did. It's not really a bad deal," he leaned foreword, catching Angel's eyes again, "You're not a bad guy. That's why you got out in the first place,"
Angel rested his arms on his lap; his head was bowed, looking at the floor. Occasionally tears dropped, making little circles on the inlaid wood.
"I can't stop loving her,"
"Well, that wasn't part of it,"
"No," said Angel, "I know that. But how-"
"Stay busy. It's not like you two are couch potatoes or anything. I mean, do what you said you'd do, what you're bound to now. You're stuck with this agreement, so make the best of it. Anyway, isn't she going away to college?"
"Oh...yes, I'm sure she is,"
"You can still keep an eye on her, keep tabs on her. She's not going to stay gone forever, pal. Who else really understands her?"
"Then she'll be all right," said Angel, hope creeping into his voice, "Because we'll be so far apart. And if she needs-"
"She'll need you," said Whistler, "Trust me. You two are so alike,"
Angel shot a glare at him.
"Anybody ever tell you that you've got a self-esteem problem? What's wrong with that? It's not the little souls that have to do all the extra suffering, they'd break. It's the ones that can take it, they get stronger. They learn, they teach, they're giving members of the etheric community. Not everybody can do that. She's like you, because her suffering was given suddenly; she was ready for it. So were you. You both have obligations, things you gotta give, gotta spread around. Beats the hell out of pushing a broom,"
"How- how can I-"
"Make it up to everybody? Don't expect true forgiveness from humans right away. They hate feeling like victims, they resent it for a long time. But I can tell you this: you'll get your chance. With every one of them. You'll get your opportunities. You're worthy," Then Whistler did a strange thing: he smiled. It had all the eerie charm of a dog smiling. "Well, I gotta go,"
"Thank you," said Angel.
"It's a pleasure," said Whistler, "And hey, isn't love always part of the bargain, anyway?"