Nobody tells her. Realization just sneaks up on her until she wakes up one morning, flush with the knowledge that this is more than just a hook-up. Or something suitably gross and one-night-stand-ish. Because that she can almost understand, in the not really understanding at all way. Something that’s just about the physical.
She’s miffed, too. She wants to be told these kinds of things! Not just because Buffy really wants to know the minute details that are sure to give her nightmares; but she knows she trusts him with every little piece of her. The good, the bad, everything. Even the kinds of things she can’t tell Willow, sometimes, because she doesn’t want comfort. Just understanding and unquestioning support. And she’s a little upset—okay, a lot upset, mostly at herself—that he isn’t feeling the same way.
At least, that’s what she convinces herself she’s feeling. Right up until she sees them.
The Magic Box is empty. They don’t even know she’s there—she gets that a lot, since coming back. Not that they’re ignoring her, or they’ve forgotten about her. She’s just a little quieter, a little more subtle about announcing herself. She wonders, sometimes, if she’s lost some vital part of herself in the three months of blackness. But she never thinks about that for long—there’s too much to do, and in this case, too much to watch.
Spike’s lost the gaunt look. When he’d touched her bruised and broken hands, tender and distant as he’d bound them, she had worried then that somehow he’d forgotten her. That his attentions really were as fickle as she had always claimed. But he hadn’t and they weren’t; he’d just allowed himself to find comfort, something she approves of. Even now that she knows who he’s comforting himself with. But her tacit forgiveness is a benediction for him and he’s starting to put on weight again. He’s quieter, too, she sees. Like his edges have been blunted, or he’s been distilled. Essence of Spike, the kind she’s never seen before. Not really.
He still moves like pure lust. His body is an advertisement, a shield, too. That doesn’t go away. It’s just more focused now, honed down to a singular point with an intensity she remembers used to frighten her. She never wanted to be the focus of so much of someone. And now that she isn’t, well, it's colder and darker away from the spotlight's glare.
They’re chatting about inconsequential things. How late they should keep the Magic Box open, since Willow and Tara are going to be by later. If they should go visit Dawn, surprise her and Buffy with dinner. “Only if we go out,” Spike says with a wry smile, his eyes dancing.
Xander looks at him from the side of eyes, moving to the same unheard rhythm. “Uh huh. So we should be stopping at the grocery store first, I take it?”
“Butcher mentioned some nice porter houses were coming in today. You know Dawn likes those.”
“I thought she was on a vegetarian kick?” Xander’s wrapping something on the counter. He’s not looking at Spike, but she can see the way every particle of his being is focused behind him. Spike moves closer, sliding arms around Xander’s waist and resting his cheek on broad shoulders. They’re beautifully picturesque and Buffy can feel her throat closing up.
“For about three weeks, Xan. She’s craving meat again. And you know the Slayer won’t object.” Spike’s eyes are closed as he rests there, perfectly content the way she’s never seen him except for a single moment when he was with Drusilla. The comparison should bother her, but it doesn’t. “But we’re gonna go out.”
“Sure we are,” Xander drawls. “Just like last week, when you tried to make us reservations at Burger King just to prove we were absolutely, definitely, without a doubt, going out to eat.”
“I hate you.”
“Uh huh.” Xander stops trying to wrap the item and lets his head tilt back. His hands settled over Spike’s, linked around his middle, and a small smile is playing on his lips. He looks distilled, too. Anya’s injury and eventual flight from Sunnydale didn’t hurt him as far as Buffy can tell, but it has made him sadder. Older, really. Or maybe that’s just because Dawn’s started to look at him when there’s something going on she needs help with, and Buffy either can’t or isn’t willing to help. Buffy knows Mom and Pop games, she’s played them herself. But knowing that it’s Xander and Spike who are Pop is something she hasn’t quite wrapped her head around yet. She will, though. And not just because Dawn needs her to.
“How come you got off work early?”
“That would be the incredible thunderstorm that let you come here. I kinda thought you’d still be at home. I called there first. . .”
Spike’s arms visibly tighten and he moves even closer. His voice attempts to leer, but Buffy can hear that it’s just an attempt: “Had some merry games planned?”
“I was thinking about it, and don’t you dare do what you’re trying to do what you’re doing in the middle of the store. Anyone could see us.”
Spike eyes open and focus directly on her. “No one here but us, love,” he says, smiling shyly—Spike! Shyly—at her. “Not gonna offend anything, are we?”
Eyes wide, Buffy shakes her head back and forth. No, she isn’t offended. She isn’t miffed anymore, either. Xander isn’t keeping secrets from her and neither is Spike. They’re just being. They don’t need neon proclamations or an old fashioned herald to tell the world. The world already knows.
“So we’re hitting the grocery store?” Xander says eventually.
“Yeah. It’s nearly six, so Dawn’ll be back from her after school thing. Want me to close up?”
“Just hang a sign, Wills said she’d be by later, remember. Hey, Buffy?” Without leaving Spike’s embrace, Xander turns just enough to smile at her. “D’you want to come with us? We’ll stop by the bakery. . .”
She has to blink quickly, hoping her wet cheeks aren’t that visible. “Sure,” she answers after hastily clearing her throat. “I’d like that.”
“Did you have a good work out?” Xander either is ignoring her eavesdropping or he just doesn’t know. The wicked look Spike gives her means the latter, she thinks, and she finds herself smiling. “We can hang around longer if you want to continue beating things up some more.”
“No. I’m good.” As they finish cleaning up and head towards Xander’s car, Buffy makes sure she walks next to Xander, bumping shoulders. “Hey,” she says.
“Hey, yourself. Are you okay?”
It’s not the greatest opening, but it works. She stops, knowing he’ll stop automatically, and wraps her arms around him and hugs. “Yeah,” she says against his chest. It’s big and broad and so strong against her. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He hugs her back, kissing the top of her head. “Um, so I’m assuming that imminent stakeage is—”
“Not,” she interrupts, “even a consideration.” Reaching behind her, she finds Spike’s hand there, waiting, knowing what she needs the way he always does—even though it’s now Xander he thinks about most. Which is kind of what she needs, too, she reflects. She tugs him closer but doesn’t include him in the hug. She’s not sure she can get away with that.
“So. . . not to break up this happy moment or anything, but I’m hungry.”
Xander laughs and, after wiping her cheeks, Buffy does too. “You just can’t wait to cook,” Xander teases, an arm still around Buffy’s shoulders.
Spike looks affronted, sniffing disdainfully. “Don’t like cooking, I’ll have you know.”
“So that wasn’t you who made Dawn dinner two nights ago? Because if it was, I think I’m going to have to do something I swore I’d never, ever do, ever again.”
Both boys look at each other, clearly not understanding. “Er? I did make her dinner,” Spike says slowly. “It was just a casserole, though, she did a lot of it herself and—”
Buffy grins and stands on her tiptoes. Spike’s cheek is smooth and it smells like Xander’s aftershave. “Thank you,” she says, kissing him. “And don’t ask me to kiss you somewhere else,” she adds. “Because you’ve got a boyfriend now, and I don’t think he’s afraid to kick my butt if I try. Or yours, if you ask!”
She expects some kind of wise-crack. It’s what the two of them are famous for, really, and she knows she’s left herself open for a multitude of slightly-dirty comments. But all they do is smile this silliest, sappiest, happiest smiles she’s ever seen on two grown men.
When she sighs, though, they both immediately start tickling her until she’s crying for mercy.