Notes: Inspired by “Wake Up Older” by Julie Roberts.

Disclaimer:  All Joss.  Not mine, no money, etc. Dang it.

Waking Up

There were, Buffy decided, distinct downsides to being a party girl.

First and foremost, of course, was the hangover.  The light sneaking in between the curtains stabbed directly into her eyes, her head throbbed with every beat of her heart, never mind what it felt like when she actually tried to use it to think, and her mouth… She really didn’t want to think about what her mouth tasted like, because it made her stomach think about turning inside out.  And having her stomach thinking like that was so not a good thing.

The second thing she noticed was a literal pain in the neck, something that the hangover only intensified.  She dimly remembered flopping down on the sofa because she didn’t want to stumble down the hall; it was too far, and the last time she’d done it, she’d been humiliated because she’d fallen over her own feet right in front of Dawn’s door.  She’d managed to get one of her high-heels off before passing out on her face.  Now, her neck ached as she levered herself into a sitting position.

Neither her stomach nor her head thought very highly of all this movement.  Whoa! she thought, closing her eyes again and resting her head on the back of the sofa.  Steady now, stomach.  Nothing in you to throw up anyway, so you just stay put, all right?

Slowly, she became aware that she felt… crusty, due to the fact that she’d slept on the sofa without taking a shower.  She was still wearing her flirty, sassy, sexy slutty… no, not slutty little dress from the night before.  That reminded her of why her face felt like it was caked with something.  When she glanced down at the sofa cushion on which she’d lain, she saw that her makeup – or, rather, what had remained of it after her night out – had smudged all over it, and sighed at the sight.  Gotta remember to clean that up, she told herself.  Soon as I take a shower… and remember what day it is… and if Dawnie needs to go to school…

Oh, shoot.  What time is it?  Meaning… is Dawn already gone or do I have to pretend I don’t have the hangover of the damned?

Dawn would either be sullen and disapproving or she would shriek that Buffy needed to pull herself together and wake up.  If she had already left for school, Buffy was much more likely to get sullen when her sister got home, which at least had the advantage of being easier to deal with while hungover.  Rubbing her neck, she managed to climb to her feet, tripping over the shoe she’d removed, and finally prying off the other.

Dawn’s bedroom door was closed, but that didn’t mean much anymore; her door was often closed whether she was home or not.  The clock in Buffy’s room said it was 9:30 – long past time for her sister to be in school.  Pulling her fluffy robe on over the dress, she shuffled back down the hall to tap on Dawn’s door.  When there was no response, she slowly opened it, and found the room empty.  Dawn was at school.  I hope, she thought, and closed the door again.

The shower was as hot as she could stand it when she stepped in, and she just stood there under the spray until it had cooled appreciably before she began to wash.

Afterwards, looking into the mirror, Buffy wondered why she bothered.  Without makeup, her face was thin and drawn and so very pale, except for the bloodshot eyes and the dark circles beneath them.  For a long while she studied herself in the glass, absently dragging a comb through her wet hair.  I don’t even know myself anymore.

Her friends and sister had encouraged her to have fun at first.  But it hadn’t really been fun in the beginning, and it wasn’t really fun now, no matter how she wanted to pretend.  It was… work, just a different kind.  Working hard at playing, acting as if she were having a good time. 

It’s called drownin’ your sorrows, love.

Her lips twisted in a bitter smile, or so it appeared in the mirror, anyway.  There he is, she thought.  Briefly, she focused on her reflection, on a spot just over her shoulder, imagining he was standing there.  Whether he was really there or not didn’t matter; he wouldn’t show up either way.  “It’s hard,” she said quietly, and closed her eyes, wishing she dared lean back, that his firm chest and strong arms would catch her.  “You never said it was so hard.”

I never said a lot of things.  I know I never said you should do this.  Shouldn’t have any sorrows to drown.

“Oh, so it was good enough for you, but not for me?” She kept her eyes closed, and half-imagined, half-felt his hands creep around her waist, clenching in her towel.

‘Course.  Not worth you doin’ this to yourself.  Just another worthless vamp, pet.  I don’t deserve this, never did.

His presence was so palpable to her, and the words so infuriating, that she spun around to argue with him.  “Yes, you… do…” But he wasn’t there, and she sagged back against the bathroom counter, the sense of loss overwhelming her, familiar and new all at once.

She left the towel puddling on the floor and crawled back into her robe, drawing it tight around her.  Within moments she was curled up on her bed shaking, as the pillow beneath her head dampened.

It would sweep over her just about any time, that feeling of unutterable loss, leaving her bereft and grief-stricken all over again, as if it had happened only yesterday… mostly after a glimpse of him like this.

But what she had felt after Sunnydale – after losing Spike there – was nothing compared to how she felt now, after losing him again.

Even if she hadn’t really known he’d been back and that she could lose him again.

The year just past had, in hindsight, taken on an aspect of Buffy-on-pause, as if she somehow had known deep in her being that Spike had returned, and had just been waiting for him to appear.  The grief from then didn’t seem as deep, the pain as immediate or real.  But now… she was drowning.

Spike had come back… and he hadn’t sought her out.  He’d stayed in Los Angeles with the grandsire he’d professed to hate, and he’d died there again.

Permanently.  This time, there would be no get out of death free card in the form of a shiny Liz Taylor amulet; she could see it in the concern in Giles’ eyes, hear it in the soft cadence of Willow’s voice.  Spike was gone.  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

And maybe that was why, at last, he was with her.  She could only have him when he wasn’t really there.

Don’t cry, love… you know I can’t stand it when you do.  Didn’t mean to make you cry.  She imagined him, black clad as always and sitting sideways on the bed, looking at her, sad soul in his eyes, upset because she was.

“Then don’t tell me stuff like that,” she whispered.  “You are worth it.  You are.”

Never had been in the past.

The words were nothing but a simple statement of fact, but they struck her with the force of the harshest accusation, and made her wither inside.  She hiccupped around a sob.  “Yeah, well, I was a stupid, selfish bitch in the past, too.”

Here, now, that’s the woman I love you’re callin’ names.  His words teased her gently, as if he were really there, trying to make her smile.  Best be takin’ that back, pet.

She gave a snort of laughter, even as the tears continued to trickle down her cheeks.  “I won’t,” she murmured, and then the sadness overwhelmed her again.  “I won’t take back the truth.”

Love, don’t…

Buffy shook her head.  “No.  I’m not lying to you any more.” This time her laugh was anything but humorous.  “Not even in my head.”

She heard him sigh.  Okay, so you’re not lyin’ to me… but what about to them?

She closed her eyes.  “They don’t care if I lie to them.  As long as I pretend to be happy, that’s all they care about.”

Maybe they want you to really be happy, pet.

“Maybe.  And maybe I… I can’t…”  Her voice broke.

Buffy… She imagined him reaching out, letting his fingers brush over her hair, and she wished that he really was there, able to touch her and able to be touched.  In that instant, weeping and longing and hurting, she felt she had never wanted anything quite so much in her life.

But his touch never came, and the emptiness inside her only seemed to grow.

When she’d won the struggle to contain her tears, she found he was still sitting next to her, watching her with an expression she’d come to know better than she liked that last year in Sunnydale.  Without words, it said I want to help you, to hold you until you feel better, but I can’t; without words, he told her how unworthy he felt.

That expression made her want to hurt herself, because she was the one who put it there.

She knew Spike wasn’t really there; she knew this was just her mind playing games with her.  But knowing that didn’t make the way she felt any less real, didn’t make her want this to be real any less.

Somehow, she knew that all the questions to which she really wanted answers – Why didn’t you try to talk to me? Why did you stay away? Don’t you love me anymore? – would send this phantom-Spike back into the depths of her sub-conscious, never to return.

And she wasn’t sure she could handle that.

Slowly, Buffy hitched herself upright, until she was leaning against the headboard, looking at him.  The weight of her gaze made him turn away from her briefly, as if he was afraid she would catch him staring.

Even though she knew he wasn’t real, Buffy couldn’t help but treat him as if he were, as if he were truly Spike.  And the question was one that had fallen from her lips with great regularity at one point… though at least this time it had none of the negative emotions she’d once attached to it.  “Why are you here, Spike?”

Because you want me here.

“No, I don’t.” And for a second, she couldn’t believe that the words had come out of her mouth.  And who was it just a few minutes ago who was fantasizing she could feel his touch?  I’ll give you a couple of hints; first letter B, rhymes with “fluffy”…

You do, love.  If you didn’t want me here, I wouldn’t be here.

She pinched the bridge of her nose, as she’d seen Giles do so many times.  It was true enough that her psyche was a strange and exciting place – exciting in the sense that something might jump out at any second.

And for example one, witness Spike’s non-presence in my room.

She smiled a little at that.  “All right… maybe I do want you here… but I don’t want you here.  You know?  I want Spike, non-dusty, non-ghosty, non… Buffy-talking-to-herself-because-you’re-not-really-here-and her-sub-conscious-is-completely-whacko.”  She trailed off, winding her way through the end of that thought, and hoping, hoping, hoping that her admission of non-reality didn’t make him disappear.

But she could see his look of smug satisfaction as clear as day.  Always did drive you crazy, love.

She laughed.  “Always.”  She reached out to him, hesitating before she would have touched his arm – before she would have passed through the illusion of him.  “Yeah, I do want you here,” she said softly.  “I miss you… even though you drive me crazy.”

He ducked his head as if embarrassed, giving her that winsome little boy smile that she loved so much despite herself.

And, quite suddenly, Buffy discovered she didn’t care – not about her clearly fractured sanity, not about what Dawn and Giles and the others would think.  She just wanted Spike, wanted him any way she could have him.  And if that meant accepting this not-real-Spike her mind had somehow conjured up, then that was what she would do.

What she was doing to deal with her pain and grief – all the nights of going out dancing and getting plastered and pretending to look for someone to have some meaningless comfort sex with, but never quite going through with it – wasn’t working.  She didn’t think anything really would, but this… surrendering to the Spike in her head offered the only solace that even came close.  The kind of consolation that only Spike could give her.

She knew that from experience.

“I know you didn’t believe me in Sunnydale,” she started, somewhat hesitantly, trying to pick her way through what felt like a minefield of emotions and uncertainty, “but I meant it when I said I wasn’t ready for you not to be here.”  She smiled nervously.  “I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.”

He gave her an appraising look that slowly morphed into his familiar smirk.  Is that right?

“Yeah.” Her smile grew; her words hadn’t made him disappear, though she was certain that the ones she wanted to say would.  My mind is such a weird and wonderful place.  “So… do you think you could stay?

Yeah, love, he replied, and she closed her eyes to better pretend she could actually feel it as his hand ghosted over her cheek.  Yeah, I could stay.

“Good.”  She opened her eyes once more and met his gaze, then patted the bed next to her.  “Come a little closer.”

As much as she hoped, the mattress didn’t actually dip as he shifted closer, until he was leaning on one elbow beside her.

So, now that I’m stayin’, what’s on the agenda?

“We could do that thing we both absolutely suck at.”

Spike arched one eyebrow in wordless question.

She felt her cheeks heat at the innuendo.  “No, you perv! Talk.  You, me, words coming from our mouths?”

Oh, that. Right.  He gave her his most lascivious leer.  I guess someone needs to work on her… communication skills.

She rolled her eyes.  “Oh, please.  The bleach has killed your last brain cell, hasn’t it?”

Well, here’s somethin’ to talk about. Without warning, he was scowling at her.  You want to explain to me why you’re out playin’ at bein’ a party girl damn near every night?

Buffy cringed a little at his vehemence.  “But… I thought we’d already covered that…”

Oh, no, pet.  You wanted to talk, so we’re gonna talk about that.

“Fine,” she huffed, and was silent. 

Talkin’ means you have to say something, you know.

“I know it, you pest!”  Then, she lost the anger that had kindled so briefly.  “I wanted to… to find something to take the hurt away.”  She stared down at the rumpled bedspread, tracing the folds with one finger.  “I… when I was… was back from Heaven, it was you.  You could take the pain away, for a little while.  So I thought maybe…” She glanced up at him quickly, then shrugged and looked away again.

He sighed deeply.  You can’t short-cut your feelings that way, love.  Sometimes you’ve just gotta go through the hurt.

“Yeah, I know… with as much as I’ve gone through, I know it.” She sniffled and tried to smile at the same time.  “You can’t blame a girl for trying, though, when it hurts this much.”

Guess not.  He was silent for a moment.  So… you have a lot of admirers?

The jealousy rolling off him was palpable, and she had to laugh.  “Down, Spike!  I danced mostly alone, drank mostly alone and stumbled my way home definitely alone.  No need for the green eyes.”

The tension in him dissipated, and he relaxed.  So, is it because they’re all blind or because they’re all poofters?

“No, it’s because I wasn’t really interested.  They were crowding around me three deep.”

She received a narrow-eyed glare.  That so?

“Hey, guys are impressed by girls who take their Jim Beam straight.”

He snorted.  Even if they make their ‘this is so nasty!’ face?

She grinned wider.  “I haven’t made that face in forever!”

If forever’s only since last night.  He shot her an evil grin.

She responded in the only way possible; she blew him a raspberry.

Real mature, love.

“What can I say? You bring out the best in me.”

Since I’m gonna be stayin’, then, I can suppose that you’ll be out patrollin’ tonight instead of out drinkin’?

Buffy stared at him for a moment before collapsing into giggles.  “You sound just like Giles!”

He gave her a look of mock-affront.  Heaven forbid!  You take that back, Slayer!

She just shook her head, still grinning.  “Nuh-uh.”

Not very nice, pet, he replied, lower lip sticking out in a pout.

And the pout got her every time.  She melted.  “Oh, all right.  You’re nothing like Giles.  Happy now?”

Immensely.  Thank you.  Now, about patrol?

“Oh, all right! I’ll go out on patrol.” She heaved a sigh, even though saying the words didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice; it was what she really wanted to do.  “You do know there are like a million other slayers out there, right?”

Yeah, but patrollin’ will help you feel better.  Maybe feel more like you.

She sighed again, this time without the drama.  “Yeah, I know.  How come you know so much?”

Just know you, love.

Buffy gave him a soft smile.  “Yes, I guess you do.”

And they talked.  She paid no attention to the way the shadows in the room changed, shortening and growing longer.  She concentrated solely on the apparition lying beside her, and the words they exchanged.

Until the grating of metal on metal signaled that Dawn had returned.

For a moment, Buffy didn’t recognize the sound, and just carried on talking.  Then the front door banged shut loudly, indicating that an upset teenager had arrived, and her eyes widened.  “Stay with me, please, Spike,” she said, and wished she could take hold of his hand.

Before he could even reply, Dawn had pushed open the bedroom door and was looking around almost eagerly.  Her face fell as soon as she had, though, and Buffy felt a pang of guilt, knowing her sister must have heard her say Spike’s name.

“Who were you talking to, Buffy?” Dawn’s voice was blatantly accusing, and she was already scowling.

Buffy forced herself not to move, not to let her eyes flick to Spike.  “I was just trying to work some things out by talking to Spike,” she replied, and was relieved that she sounded nearly normal.  “I guess I was saying things out loud.”

Dawn’s expression wavered, turning slightly sad before firming into her usual petulant glare, the one that Buffy knew from experience was just barely covering her own pain.  Then she seemed to notice that Buffy was still wearing her robe, that her hair was all tangled and snarled up, and that her eyes were still a bit bloodshot, and immediately sniffed.  “God.  Haven’t you even gotten dressed today?  You are such a lush.” She whirled around and stormed out, slamming the door to her own bedroom.

When she turned to look at Spike again, he was frowning slightly.  What was that about?

“What?” she asked, confused, and remembered to keep her voice low at the last second.  “Oh.  You mean telling Dawn?”  When he nodded, she just grinned back at him.  “I told you.  No more lying.  Not to you, not about you, not about what I’m doing with you… even if it’s just talking.”

The look on his face was one of astonishment, and for an instant, she wondered if he really was the product of her mind, because she couldn’t recall ever seeing him look quite like that.  Then… the smile he gave her was blinding, one that she’d seen only rarely, and it filled her to bursting.

I can’t say the words, she thought, studying him.  But I can at least show him how I feel.

He moved, drawing her attention away from her thoughts as he swung his legs off the bed.  Best go pacify the Nibblet.  Then, grinning evilly, he added, Don’t envy you that at all.  Got a temper, that one.  Kind of like her sister in that respect.

Buffy just rolled her eyes and pushed herself upright.  But even the idea of fighting with Dawn didn’t raise the dread that it would have only a little while ago, and when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she had to look again.  Her smile was much more genuine than it had been in a long time, and just the fact that it was there was more than she’d had only that morning.

After dressing, she turned around to find Spike sneaking a peek and then quickly ducking his head, abashed, when he caught her gaze.  She just grinned.  “If you didn’t at least try,” she said softly, “I’d wonder if it were really you.”  Then her humor disappeared, divided as she was between making peace with Dawn and staying.  “Spike…?”

He looked at her, face solemn.  I’ll be here, Buffy, for as long as you need.  Promise.

“Better settle in for a good long stay, then.”  She squared her shoulders and went to face Apocalypse Dawn, feeling his eyes on her with every step.

And in a strange way, that gave her the courage she needed to wake up.

December 3, 2007
© randi (K. Shepard), 2007