Angel was strolling idly along the sidewalk next to one of Sunnydale’s larger cemeteries when he heard the unmistakable sounds of fighting within. Immediately, he vaulted the eight-foot wrought-iron fence and sprinted in the direction of the commotion, but by the time he was close enough to see that it was a fight between Buffy and some newly-risen fledgling, she had succeeded in getting her stake under one of his flying punches. She was facing the other direction, so Angel took the opportunity to lean casually against the nearest tree.
She only turned around after brushing dust off the jacket he’d given her. She didn’t even jump when she spotted him, just folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “It’s not very polite to sneak up on a girl while she’s in the middle of a fight to the death.”
“Looked like you had it under control.”
“I don’t usually have much trouble with newbies. They make pretty good punching bags, though.” The edge of bitterness in her tone caught his attention.
“Does that mean you were looking for a fight tonight?” he asked, walking a few steps closer.
She shrugged and sat down on a wide marble headstone. “Maybe.” Even though he’d just witnessed her turn a vampire to dust, she looked rather vulnerable sitting there in a jacket far too large for her. The sight reminded him forcibly of the first glimpse he’d caught of her, sitting on the steps outside her school in L.A.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She glanced sideways at him. “Are you sure you do?”
“I’ve got nowhere else to be.” Certainly nowhere else he’d rather be.
She drew the jacket a little tighter around her. “It’s probably nothing, but...one of my new friends might not be who I thought he was.”
Angel swallowed and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He wasn’t who she thought he was either. He wasn’t supposed to be involved in her life enough for that to matter, but that didn’t seem to be the trajectory he was on. “What happened?”
“So far, he’s been a fun, goofy dork, but tonight at the Bronze, he was different. For one thing, he sniffed my hair and was offended that I’d taken a bath, which was majorly weird, but then he laughed in a really mean way when a gang of bullies picked on an overweight kid.”
Angel didn’t want to make her feel worse, but living on the Hellmouth meant they didn’t have the luxury of assuming nothing was seriously wrong. He sat down next to her on the headstone. “Any chance he got grabbed by a vampire since the last time you saw him?”
She jerked around to face him, eyes wide with panic. But then it subsided. “No, I don’t think so. That wouldn’t explain his sudden friendliness with those morons, and Xander and Willow have both been really careful about going out after dark ever since what happened to Jesse.”
“Remember the potential friend I was trying to rescue?”
Buffy looked down at her hands. “I was too late. They were using him as bait, but they didn’t need him to still be human for that.”
“And now you’re worried you might lose another friend.”
“For very different reasons, but yeah. Maybe I’m overreacting, though.”
“Or maybe it’ll turn out to be something else.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Is it bad if part of me hopes that’s what it is?”
Angel chuckled. “Sometimes literal demons are easier to deal with than figurative ones.” Sometimes. In his case, neither variety was easy to deal with. He knew he needed to tell her what he was. He couldn’t keep rationalizing that keeping her in the dark made it easier for him to do what Whistler had sent him here to do if he was also doing things like flirting with her, giving her his jacket, and showing up to talk to her when it wasn’t about the Hellmouth.
She got to her feet. He copied her automatically. She smiled at him in an apologetic sort of way. “I should probably get home. Thanks for listening.”
“Of course,” he said.
She raised a hand in farewell before beginning to walk away.
“Buffy,” he called after her. This was it. He was going to tell her.
She turned, her expression inquisitive. It was at precisely the moment when her eyes met his that he realized he’d fallen in love with her. He’d been captivated since that first glimpse, sure—watching an innocent girl suddenly thrown into the role of the Slayer was wrenching enough even to pull someone like him out of his own woes. But it was more than that now. In the months since that day—almost a full year now, she’d shouldered her new burdens, even though she still wasn’t happy about them, and they’d made her not only stronger but more intuitive, compassionate, and gentle. As he realized this, a longing to be the recipient of her warmth rushed over him so powerfully that it was a physical ache in his chest.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the words he needed to tell her caught in his throat as that longing turned to fear. After everything he’d done, how could he even dare to hope for anything from her? “Don’t give up on your friend,” he said. “Even if nothing supernatural is wrong, he might just need some sense knocked into him.”
“Oh,” she said. He hoped he was imagining the hint of disappointment in her expression. “Thanks. I won’t.”
He watched her leave the cemetery. He was such a coward.