The year she turns thirty-four, Buffy realizes that she finally has the life she’s wanted for years and thought she might never have. She’s alive, the slaying is under control and no longer only her burden, her loved ones are safe and (mostly) away from the Hellmouth, she has a job and a house and all the adult type things she thought would be out of reach for her, and of course, Angel, human, beside her for an endlessly possible future. The thing about it is this: she gets used to it.
Sure, every so often she remembers how miraculous the whole thing is, how impossible it had all seemed just a few years ago, but most of the time, it’s just her life. She and Angel go grocery shopping together and when they get home she finds that he’s stealthily purchased in the delectable little Ben and Jerry’s cups that she refuses to get herself. “I love you,” she whispers as she unpacks them into the freezer, and Angel gives an adorably confused smile because it’s not clear whether she’s talking to him or the ice cream. Angel screws up the bedroom air conditioning trying to get the thing to blow colder because he knows she gets hot at night, and they stew in the heat of it for three days before he gives in and allows her to call a repairman. ("I still love you," she tells him, even as she dials the already memorized number.)
"Love you," she calls absently from the couch as Angel hefts his ax and goes to take care of a reported Pheljen sighting downtown, and she settles in to text opinions on Four Weddings episodes with Dawn.
She's the one who says, "I love you" most often. By a lot. There's enough space in her life, in their life, now for her to do things like compare who says it more. Before, things like that paled in comparison to whether she'd even get a chance to say it to him at all before he was taken from her somehow. Now, settled and snug, she has time for a tally - and Angel is not holding up well.
Sure, he says it. At their wedding, his forehead pressed against hers, tears in his eyes and an unburdened sort of smile on his face that is only beginning to become familiar. Just before stepping side by side onto another battlefield. Softly and with a reassuring squeeze of the hand the night they’d sat beside Maryam’s hospital bed, watching her beginning to wake up, and she’d blamed herself because where would this fifteen-year-old slayer be if Buffy had made different choices?
But these are Occasions, big and purposeful moments to say it. She keeps waiting to get to the part where he’ll just be casual about it, and maybe that’s greedy, but she feels like she’s allowed to be a little greedy now.
“You’re the expert on the significant other of few words,” she tells Willow on the phone one night. “So school me, Teach.”
She’s curled around a pillow on the couch. The house still smells like syrup and butter. Angel’s an expert at breakfast for dinner, which is good because Buffy loves it. He’d left after eating to go meet up with Connor for a cup of coffee. (That’s a relationship she doesn’t really understand and which certainly seems to have some serious baggage, but considering the luggage store that comes with most of her friendships, she probably doesn’t have a reason to talk. And they do both seem to be trying. And it’s not like he’s ever actually asked her to be around Connor, so it’s pretty low on the “Buffy’s business” scale.)
“I don’t know,” Willow says. “Oz and Tara, they’d both actually talk to me. You know, about their feelings and stuff. When they had something to say.” Buffy can hear the adorable little blush in her voice, but with something sadder beneath it. “Angel’s sort of...broodier. He doesn’t really talk unless you push him.”
She’s right, and Buffy knows that. Sometimes that means talking at him, ramping up his emotions, until he bursts out with the way he truly feels. But there’s a more direct way too. “So ask me,” he’d once said when she was frustrated over how hard he was to read. She just still hasn’t quite learned how.
When she is leaning against him the next night, the lights turned down low for their movie, she imagines herself saying something.
“Do you love me?” she would ask, and he would say, “Of course I love you,” in that way that would make her forget why she ever doubted it. But she would feel silly about it, too, and it might hurt him, knowing about her uncertainty when he thought they were long term residents of certainty these days. Maybe even king and queen by now...
Angel presses a kiss to her hair and she has to stop herself from startling. “Time for more popcorn?” he asks. She glances down and nods. Apparently she’s managed to eat her way through her entire bowl. Thinking munchies can strike at any time. There should be a PSA.
She flicks through her phone, still sitting in the dark with the movie paused, until Angel returns with freshly refilled bowls for each of them. (He made them register for an air popper because he doesn’t like the microwaveable bags. Just a few years of eating again, and the man’s already a food snob.) They settle back together, and Buffy tries to focus on the screen as she starts up Netflix again. She reaches for a handful of the still hot kernels, pops them into her mouth. The flavor of them slides through her.
“Cinnamon sugar?” She is so surprised that the words come out quietly, even though they’re the only ones here and Angel’s resigned himself to the fact that he married a movie talker.
"Yeah." His eyes just barely flick away from the screen. "That's what you always like for your second round. First is classic butter, second is cinnamon and sugar, and if there's a third or you're in a mood, then it's sriracha." He makes a little face. Maybe he's foodie Angel by now, but he still can't handle spice. Probably hard to get too far past the fact that he was raised in a country where the national delicacy was, she assumes, plain potatoes.
"Oh." She looks down into the bowl and sifts through the top layer of popcorn. "I hadn't realized you noticed."
There's a warmth inside of her that she hadn't expected from thinking about popcorn. She finds that she is actually relaxing against him now, instead of just doing a sort of leaning thing.
He angles his head to catch her eye. "Of course I notice," he says, and she blushes a little and blinks and cannot hold his gaze.
After that, she starts noticing things more. He spends a Sunday afternoon with the manual open in front of him, cursing more than she had thought would be allowed, but he learns how to use the DVR, and what he does with it most often is make sure to record her shows. (He also has a bunch of episodes of Jeopardy because he likes to look smug when he knows the answers and the contestants don’t, and that PBS show that's obviously a soap opera and not fooling anyone just because it's British. That’s fine; she knew he was an old man when she married him.) She presses against his side when she sees them all programmed in there. On her mom's birthday, he makes grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken and stars soup without her mentioning it. She doesn't even realize she needed it until she's sitting down at the table. On her birthday, he flies Dawn in for a surprise visit and sits with the bickering two of them all through dinner, teasing Dawnie and holding Buffy's hand, and then makes himself scarce so they can have some sister time over dessert.
Now that she's noticing, all of these little details that he's remembered, all the things he thinks to do for her...it all feels purposeful. She had thought that she needed declarations out loud, those exact words said to her with frequency and some sweeping combination of casualness and perfection, but what she has is this: Angel telling her he loves her every time he calls the insurance company when she doesn't want to, when he makes her favorite kind of pie, when he gives her a kiss and reminds her to drive safely every time they part.
She invites Connor over for dinner. He's never been to their place before.
"I wasn't sure what kinds of things he would like," she says, coming over to sit at the kitchen table, a notebook and pen in her hand. "I thought we could come up with a menu together."
She expects Angel to tease her about wanting to be a backseat chef, all of the food talk with none of the food preparation. Instead he takes her hand, the pen still clutched in it. He looks up at her and kisses the back.
"I love you too, Buffy," he says.
She doesn’t need it, but it’s still nice to hear it out loud.