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Present and Unaccounted For

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The bell rang once. Twice. Or had it been ringing for much longer than that? At first Buffy thought she was still asleep. Rain pounded against the roof above her head, muffling the sound and adding to the dream-like sensation. And if she was dreaming of something as mundane as a doorbell, her nights were getting to be just as dull as her days had become. She shut her eyes tightly and willed herself to dream of him. Soft lips, smooth skin, rough hands…

The bell rang again.

She sat up and glanced at the clock. It was almost midnight. Dawn must've forgotten her key. Again. Dawn forgetting her key, of all things, was a constant source of amusement for both of them - except when Buffy was sound asleep. And except when it was after curfew, like now. Groggy and bleary-eyed, she made her way down the stairs and pulled open the door of their flat, prepared to give her sister the standard lecture number twenty-three on responsibility.

"Evenin' Slayer."

Buffy blinked slowly, taking him in. Bit down on the inside of her lip to make sure she was awake. Ow. He looked just the same. Hair a little longer, roots showing a bit. Maybe a bit thinner than he'd been, though it was hard to tell with the coat on. He’d ducked under the small overhang which barely sheltered their stoop, rain drizzling down behind him. He was soaked to the skin, water running in rivulets down the sealskin of his coat as he pushed his wet hair back off his face. His eyes were so blue.

"Gonna invite me in outta the rain?"

She stared back at him, surprised at how calm she felt.

"No."

His head inclined towards her, inquisitive as a cat, searching her face. Trying to read her. She tried her best to look unfazed, but he had the gall to look amused. "Aren't you glad to see me, pet?"

"I would've been, say, six months ago. Now, not so much." Her anger bubbled to the surface, surprising yet somehow comforting. How dare he stand there on her doorstep like he’d just gone out for beer and cigarettes, after he’d disappeared for so long without a word?

"You’ve a right to be mad.”

She could barely speak, she was so furious. "Gee, thanks."

"Buffy…” He shuffled a step closer, just inches from the doorway now, and it was all she could do not to launch herself into his arms. “I’ve so much to tell you."

"Let me guess. You were transported to the world without phones."

He reached his hand out slowly towards her, until it bumped up against the invisible barrier between them. He kept it there, as if he were pressing his palm against a pane of glass.

"Missed you, love" he said. “So much.”

His voice was soft and sad and full of longing, and she had to swallow hard past the lump in her throat. As if under its own power, her hand reached out for him. She pressed her palm to his while the magic that kept them apart hummed, an electrical charge between them.

"I missed you too." The weight of all the time that had passed, waiting and worrying, was sitting on her heart, threatening to crush her. She snatched her hand away. "Do you have any idea what you've put me through?"

"Buffy, just let me…” Just let him what? Into her home? Into her life? Into her heart?

"No! You go to hell!" She slammed the door in his face, then turned and leaned back against it for support, taking in deep breaths to calm herself down.

"Well," Dawn said, "that was dramatic." She stood on the landing in her pajamas and a terry cloth robe, giving Buffy her best 'I can't believe you're related to me' look. Rushing down the stairs, long braid bouncing behind her, she pushed Buffy unceremoniously out of the way and flung open the door. "Spike! Get in here!"

Spike still stood where Buffy had left him, and he gave her an apologetic shrug as Dawn grabbed his hand and pulled him over the threshold.

"Oh my God, it's really you!" She threw her arms around him and hugged him fiercely. Spike laughed and picked her up off the ground for a few moments as she squealed happily, kicking her feet. "And you're soaked!" she said, looking down at her own now-damp clothing. "Take off your coat. Buffy, go get him a towel."

Dazedly, Buffy walked into the bathroom and grabbed a towel off a shelf, tossing it in Spike’s direction.

"Much obliged, Slayer," he said, obviously enjoying this. Buffy really wanted to hit him.

"Buffy is totally justified in her anger, by the way," Dawn said.

Spike raised an eyebrow.

"Hey, we get Oprah here,” she explained. “And I’ll be mad at you later, too - but right now I'm just so happy to see you!" She threaded her arm through his and steered him toward the sofa. "There will be a later, right? You're all souled up and sticking around, now?"

"All souled up," Spike said, looking over Dawn's head at Buffy. "Whether I stick around or not is up to big sis over there."

"Ah, well, I'd better let you get to pleading your case then. Because she looks really pissed off this time."

"I sussed that out, yeah."

Dawn gave Spike another squeeze. “I’m only going upstairs if you promise you’re not going to bug out on us again.”

Spike crossed two fingers over his chest. “Cross my heart and hope to…uh, well, I promise I’ll let you know where I am at all times. How's that?”

“Okay. And I hope that’s here,” Dawn stage whispered, before giving him a peck on the cheek. She gave the same to Buffy before bounding up the stairs. "Don't be too hard on him," she said.

Buffy just shook her head. The two of them, ganging up on her again. First Dawn, with her uncanny resemblance to a happy puppy. And then Spike, sitting there with his wet hair all mussed from the towel and his shirt clinging to his body. Unfair advantage. It didn’t matter. She was the Slayer, dammit. Well, a slayer. With a small ‘s,’ now.

"I'm going back to bed," she said, starting for the stairs. "You're not invited."

Spike stood as she passed, arms shooting out to grab her and pull her back against him.

"You're not goin' anywhere. Not ‘til I've had my say."

Exasperated, she tried to pull away, and he tightened his grip. She could still throw him off if she wanted to, but she was surprised at how difficult he was making it. He was stronger now. And it seemed like that wasn’t the only thing that was different about him.

"Gee, Spike,” she asked turning her head to flutter her eyelashes at him. “Have you been working out?"

"Good of you to notice. You gonna sit and listen, now?"

Her voice hardened. “And what if I’m not? Why the hell should I listen to you after all this time? I’ve gotten used to you not being here. I had to. I thought you were dead, Spike. And I gave up on ever seeing you again a long time ago.”

The pain hit her then. The loneliness. It was all she could do not to turn and cling to him, and sob in his arms, so she held herself stiffly, refusing to give an inch. What would he do? Would he try to kiss her? Or back off, afraid he’d gone too far? He didn’t do either. He loosened his grip, and bent his head to speak directly in her ear.

“Then I’ll come back tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that, until you’re ready to listen. Because you may have given up on me, on us. But I never did. And I never will.”

And then his hands were gone, and he stepped away; she nearly stumbled forward, already feeling the loss of contact. “You’ve been gone for months,” she said, whirling around to face him. “Without a single word.”

“Had a reason. Seemed like a good one at the time.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Now I’m not so sure.”

“I looked for you,” she whispered. “Every place I could think of.”

He nodded. “Know you did. Wasn’t the time, pet.”

“And now it is? Because you’ve decided?”

He didn’t say anything. Just stood there, giving her that – yes - soulful gaze.

Was there really any possibility that she wouldn’t hear him out? Buffy sighed and crossed slowly to the sofa, sitting down and curling her legs up underneath her. She grabbed the nearest throw pillow and hugged it to her chest.

"Okay, Spike.” She patted the place next to her. “Tell me a story."