By Lori Bush


Feedback: lwbush@charter.net

Disclaimer: Joss Whedon, etc. owns Buffy. You know the routine.

Summary: It's all over. No, wait – it's just beginning…

Rated: PG-13

Pairing: B/X, D/X

Continuity: Takes place after the end of the series (all hail the end! – now we can fix this mess). Relies heavily on spoilers (some twisted to fit my own plans, some completely fabricated by me in order to save the characters I love), and the Season Six episode Normal Again. If you're worried about spoilers, just assume I made it all up, 'kay?

Author's Notes: This story has been brewing since the first time I heard the Matchbox 20 song of the same name. I bought the CD as soon as it came out, and I knew that song would be a Top 40 hit (it had yet to be released as a single then), and I knew I'd write a story inspired by it. Here it is.

I recently told Shawn that I was certain I wouldn't be able to write multi-part stories anymore, because I was so disillusioned. That maybe I would be relegated to mindless fluff from now on. Then I sat down and started this, and I realized it was going to have length, breadth, yea, even depth!  Then it started off in directions I truly wasn't expecting – hence the upcoming D/X. Will wonders never cease?

Dedication: For Liz Marcs, who's been a great inspiration to me lately. As well as Ray, just 'cos I hate to see him so down. And the rest of the Harem, too, just for being the people they all are.

Oh, yeah – the second part of the story particularly looks better in HTML. It should be on fanfiction.net properly formatted, if you care enough to go there anymore.


~My life has really improved since I died. ~

Buffy looked at the neatly scribed first sentence in her shiny new journal and snorted. Sentiments like that, if read by anyone on the staff here, could earn her an all-expenses paid (by Hank and Joyce) permanent stay at this fine establishment. Sentiments like that were the reason she'd specified "locking" when she'd asked if she could have a journal. She needed it. There was no one else here she could really talk to about what she'd been through previously.

"Hey, Buffy!" The bright happy greeting of Natalie Carlyle, an LPN and one of Buffy's only new friends, cut through her introspection and caused her to slam the cover of the small book and thumb the lock closed.

"Hey, Nat," Buffy returned, equally cheerful. "'Sup?"

The young woman, just barely older than Buffy herself, plopped down next to the blonde on her bed. "New guy – new patient."

"And I would care, why?" Buffy studied the other girl's face for a moment. "Ah – I know now – cute, right?"

Natalie blushed, dipping her head in shame. "Actually, yeah. But that's not the thing. The thing is, he's kinda like you used to be, before you got better. Almost catatonic. Mumbling about trees and dead presidents and daybreak and stuff. Kinda spooky," her head lifted and her eyes gleamed again, "But really cute."

"Honey," Buffy gently chided her friend, "if you can find one of the nutjobs here cute, myself excluded, of course, you so need to find a real man."

"Amen, sister. Preach it." The two girls dissolved into a fit of giggles together.

"Here" was Sunny Hills Rest Home, Los Angeles, California. "Rest Home" - nice euphemism for sanatorium, which was an old-fashioned word for nut house, or more politely, asylum. As in "insane asylum." It was where Buffy had been since she died – actually, since she died the first time, although she didn't know it then.

Buffy, the Sunnydale edition, had died three times.

The first, in the Master's lair, had been circumvented by her dearest (only?) male friend, Xander Harris, who'd given her CPR after she'd been drained and drowned by the Master himself. She'd really been dead, though. Any doubt was erased when Kendra, the second Vampire Slayer, appeared a short while afterwards. It seems Buffy's death was brief enough for her to recover, but long enough to screw up the whole "one girl in all the world thing" by activating Kendra, turning the "one girl" into two. That was true for a short while, until the mad as a Hatter vampiress, Drusilla, killed Kendra. Back to Slayer, singular.

Then came Faith. In a big way, which was the only way Faith did anything, apparently. But Faith and her appearance, her zest for – well, not so much life as all the fun and action she could suck out of it – wasn't important to Buffy's second death. The big figure there would be Dawn.

Dawn – the little sister Buffy couldn't pretend wasn't her blood kin, especially after their mother died. Even when she knew she wasn't. Even knowing that all those memories of cutting Dawn's hair with the pinking sheers from Joyce's sewing cabinet, or of falling out of the coat closet when she was eleven and Dawn was five, covered in ketchup, after telling Dawn stories of the mass murderer who was roaming their LA neighborhood, weren't real. Nor were the spankings she remembered getting both those times – and the grounding she recalled from the second incident when her mother had been coming home from the grocery store to find Dawn carrying her teddy bear, walking resolutely down the street away from their home, thumb in mouth. When Joyce had asked her youngest where she was going, she popped the thumb out and lisped, "Somebody killed Buffy and I was looking for you." Buffy's mother grounded her for a week, and both Hank and Joyce had spanked their eldest for that prank; she almost couldn't sit down for most of the next day. Except they hadn't, really. So why did her butt still hurt when she thought of that?

But all that, or the unreality of all that, was forgotten when Glory, a hell god with Vogue sensibilities, set her sights on Dawn, who was actually a mystical Key made flesh and sent to Buffy for protection. Dawn was her family, and all she had left, so Buffy did what she felt she had to – she sacrificed her own life to save Dawn. Dead Buffy, take two.

Willow and company had brought her back after a few months, but she'd remembered being someplace good. Heaven, she'd thought. It kinda screwed with her mind – giving the warm, safe place up to go back to the fight. She'd done a few things she wasn't so proud of during the time she was adjusting to that transfer.

She'd almost died, or something, when skewered by that pokey demon – ghlargook, or gobbledygook, or whatever. Or maybe she didn't, but whatever had happened, she'd been here, in Sunny Hills, and she actually remembered it as it was this time. But in the end, she'd chosen her friends over the place she was sure was just a demon-induced fantasy.

Then came the battle with the First Evil. Angel had come from LA and brought a pendant of some sort, meant to be worn by a Hero (or was it Champion?) who would save the world. She'd considered who should wear it. She knew both Xander and Willow were, by anyone's definition, Heroes, although Willow's time on the Dark Side probably disqualified her as Champion. Buffy wasn't sure – she hadn't gotten the detailed job description from above. But she wasn't willing to give either one of them up, so no dice, either way. Especially since she was still reeling from the stupid decision she'd made that had cost Xander one of his eyes. She wasn't about to turn around and sacrifice either of them, perhaps futilely. The same went for Giles and Dawnie. No way.

Faith probably had the same disqualification as Willow, although Buffy knew, knowing Angel and his story, it was a flimsy one, at best.  Champions were who they were, not based on their history. But she wasn't willing to throw her sister Slayer away if she didn't have to. Faith had too much living still left inside of her to be the point man in what appeared to be a suicide mission.

The Slayers-In-Training were too untried. Wood, also.

Spike might be a Hero. Even a Champion. After all, he had his soul. But that soul was untested and he'd killed even with its return, although he had been under the influence of the First. Still, she couldn't be sure. And after the loss of Molly, and Xander's eye, and her position of leadership, this time she had to be sure.

So she wore the pendant herself. Sure, she knew she hadn't acted much like a Hero or a Champion lately, but she needed to be. She'd been one before. It was her purpose in life, her reason for being. After two returns from the dead, she had to be the one who was destined to die to save the world. Besides, she was experienced.

And die she had. Painfully, completely, and finally.

She'd been assured by the Powers That Be that she wouldn't be called back again. They'd made sure she couldn't be. She'd already gone above and beyond her original calling. She could rest.

Enter Sunny Hills Rest Home. Apparently, this was her version of Purgatory. The in-between place before she could go home to her mom and dad and the heaven she'd have just living a normal life. Not too long ago, the doctors had let her move on too quickly, and they found out she wasn't really ready yet.

~I can't remember much about the place I met with the Messenger of the Powers. But I knew the person well enough. I just so couldn't believe the Powers would have the nerve to send Darla's spirit, after all these years.~

"Why you?" Buffy had faced the Sire of her former lover defiantly.

Darla giggled, which disturbed the Slayer to no end. "I see why he liked you – you're headstrong and difficult, just like Drusilla and I were." Darla's expression grew pensive, and she paced a bit, giving Buffy a chance to study the senior member of the Scourge of Europe. She was dressed like a college girl headed to Sunday School – not a look Darla had cultivated previously. Although Buffy did remember her wearing a Catholic schoolgirl outfit when she first met her. But this – this was not a costume; Darla appeared sincerely comfortable with the pearls-and-gloves style daintiness of her clothing.

"I understand better than most what it's like to die repeatedly," Darla finally offered. Then she shrugged. "That's my best guess. They didn't really tell me why. I was as surprised as anyone." Her expression softened, and Buffy could see it was aimed at someone inside her memories, not Buffy herself. "Besides, I've done the whole 'messenger for the Powers' thing before." Darla's smile faded and grew melancholy. "I hope it goes better this time."


Darla shook off her gloom and smiled tenderly. "You've died again - you do know that, right?" Buffy nodded. "Well, the good news is that you're never going to have to go back. There's been a kind of metaphysical lock put on your spirit. No magic known, or anything else, can take you back to Sunnydale again." She nodded at Buffy's skeptical expression. "Really."

"Anybody tell my friends?" the late Slayer muttered cynically.

Darla pressed on. "You're going back to the place where you were before – it's a different world, but a real one. One you've always existed in, as Buffy Anne Summers, very normal girl. Or at least, that was the plan. Your spirit was supposed to come here when you died, meld with the you that was here, and you could live the simple life you've dreamed of since the day Merrick threw your world for a loop. And it did – until that boy of yours did CPR on you and brought you back after the Master killed you."

"You mean I was in heaven then, too? Geez – I was screwed up enough after I came back from LA. I'm sure glad I didn't remember that."

"Well, it isn't exactly heaven, more like just a reward for a job well done. But you were screwed up for good reason," Darla assured her. "You soul was melded to the one here, then ripped away and returned to the other world. I'd say you did admirably just to be bitchy for a while." The twinkle in Darla's eye as she said that last bit made Buffy wonder if she could actually have liked this woman before she'd been turned.

Darla's smile faded. "The ripping away of your soul damaged the soul of the Buffy in this world, though. For a few minutes she was totally both her and you, and when you went back, she went a little crazy. Hence, the asylum became her home."

"I remember being there last year," Buffy said, and shuddered. "Didn't like it much."

"Well, she couldn't get out and function until the missing part of her returned. So when you did your swan dive to save Dawn, you came back, and you two melded again. She was released and sent home."

"And Willow's magic brought me back to Sunnydale, and Other Me lost it again, right?" Buffy was beginning to feel guilty about what she'd inadvertently put her alter-ego through.

Darla nodded sadly. "This time, the meld was more complete, and the separation more psychically bloody. Neither you nor her were completely right afterwards."

"Okay, I can definitely vouch for that on my part, anyway. And from my short glimpse into her life afterwards, I'd bear witness to the fact she wasn't having any picnics in the park, either." Buffy looked up at the other blonde. "So now…?"

"So now you go back, fill in the missing pieces and become whole again. Nothing can tear you two apart in this world or the other. You're home free." Darla shuffled, looking at her feet. "Except…"

"Except? Except! There's always an 'except.'" Buffy was prepared for the worst, but wasn't going to be happy if that's what she heard.

"We-e-ell…" Darla equivocated, "we're pretty sure they're not going to let you out of the asylum real soon. They let you go right away when you came back after the Glory thing, and when you – she - relapsed, it wasn't pretty. She lost it, big time – tried to jump off a bridge 'to get to Sunnydale.' She had your memories, and knew she needed you back, so she was going after you. She talked constantly about your friends, your work – sometimes she even seemed to know what was going on over in your world. They aren't going to make the same mistake twice, I'd bet. You may be stuck in Sunny Hills for a while."

"Sunny Hills? Oh, where's the irony there?" Buffy laughed a bit hysterically. "Over hill over dale…" she warbled a little off-key.

Darla rolled her eyes. "Hey, I just work here. Don't shoot the messenger."

~So here I sit, in Sunny Hills, which is so much better than SunnyHell, even if it is an institution. At least everyone in this world seems to have normal pulses and breathing patterns. And some of them are really nice. I've been moved from the 'secure' ward, where they put all the 'danger to self and others' ones, to the recovery ward, where I can wear my own clothes and listen to music, and go outside if I feel like it and everything. The clothes thing made me happy - grey and baggy so didn't do much for my complexion. Actually, after almost seven years inside, grey and baggy described my complexion.  In this ward, they let me lay out in the sun sometimes. Hey, we even get real silverware in the dining room.

Dr. Mathias got me the materials to test for my GED, and I passed. Heh – it was a breeze for a high school grad. I managed to remember stuff I learned in good old SHS – wouldn't Snyder be surprised?

Actually, I remember everything about Sunnydale. I even remember my life here, up until I screwed up my own life by dying the first time over in SunnyD. But things are sparse in the memories of my days of drool and psychosis. From what I do manage to recall, there's no great loss in forgetting.

Dr. Matt (his idea for shortening Mathias, not mine) also knows somebody in admissions at UCLA, so I'm gonna be starting my freshman year via correspondence course there soon. I already know I want to major in Child Psych – between my time as a counselor under Robin Wood in Sunnydale, which I really enjoyed before everything went south, and the doctors I've observed talking with other young people here, I think I could really do some good in that kind of job. I can be the 'emotional difficulties' Slayer, maybe.

All in all, things are okay. I'm keeping a calendar on how long until I get to go home, though. Mom and Dad come to see me almost every day. Dr. Shah told me after our last session she thought if I stayed lucid like I am for eight weeks, they'd probably let me go. I started marking off squares that afternoon. Only seven weeks, four days to go. ~


"And I say Lewis' circumstances are entirely different. Miss Summers' case is completely inapplicable."

Buffy's ears perked up when she heard her name being mentioned out in the hall.

"Still, the symptoms are eerily similar." The other doctor, whose voice Buffy didn't recognize, sounded upset with Dr. Shah.

"I'm sorry, Irving. I won't let you look into my patient's records. It would be a violation of her privacy. I don't even know how you know as much about it as you do."

"Menah, you know as well as anyone that gossip travels faster than a flu bug in a group of people this size. The nurses and interns talk. Good God, I'm shocked the front pages aren't proclaiming the fact we've got Alex Lewis shackled to a bed to keep him from hurting himself or others. I can only figure that his coach has a lot of influence with the sports writers, since nothing has appeared about his condition as yet. The Times just says he's 'resting to recover from stress.' Sports Illustrated hasn't even said that much. You know most papers would kill to be able to report he was found in a fetal position on the floor of the UCLA locker room, moaning and crying. Or that he broke the assistant coach's arm when he tried to get him up. I'm betting that people have told the papers, but it's being hushed up by the editors or publishers. A little knowledge about some schoolgirl's schizophrenia is a drop in the bucket, in contrast."

By the end of the conversation, Buffy was standing at the crack of her door, straining to hear the final words. Any further discussion was lost as the doctors turned the corner in the hallway.

"Hey, you."

Buffy squealed and jumped at Nat's greeting.

"Geez – I didn't say 'boo.' Why the freak out?"

"Sorry," Buffy apologized, regaining her calm. "I was just doing a little eavesdropping. I do that when people talk about me." Suddenly, her mind replayed, the nurses and interns talk, and her curiosity won out.

"Nat, what can you tell me about Alex Lewis?"

"You mean besides what everybody knows?"

"Ahem – I've been Psycho Girl for the past seven-plus years. Let's just pretend I don't know what everyone else knows, 'cos I probably don't."

Natalie blushed slightly. "Good point." She frowned a little, then motioned inside Buffy's room. "Let's sit. First, there's a lot everybody knows. Second, I'm not sure about the ethics of telling you all about another patient, even if you could read most of it in back issues of Sports Illustrated. A somewhat less public place might be good." Buffy nodded in agreement, shutting the door behind them as Nat sat on the chair beside her bed. Once Buffy was seated, the other young woman began.

"Alex Lewis is expected to be the next Mark Spitz. He's the star of the UCLA swim team, and America's shining hope for Gold in the next Summer Olympics. He was raised here in California, in Apple Valley, and the stories say he started swimming about the same age he began walking, although how much of that is urban legend is unknown. All that's known for sure is that he began winning swim meets in Elementary School, and his high school team was unbeaten, mostly thanks to him. He could have gone to college anywhere in the world, pretty much, but he chose to stay here in California because, well, several reasons."

Nat paused a moment, collecting her thoughts. "He told the press it was because his Dad went to UCLA, and so did his high school swim coach. But speculation was that he wouldn't leave the state his parents were buried in. See, they died in a car wreck when Alex was sixteen. His high school coach applied for and was granted custody until he reached majority, but Alex apparently asked he not be legally adopted. He's been quoted as saying he dedicates every race to his dad, and they say he's visited their graves on a weekly basis since they died, unless he's out of town for an entire week at a meet."

Buffy liked this guy, and she didn't even know him. She certainly understood how he felt. The loss of Joyce had been a turning point in her life, although not really one for the better. This Alex seemed to have used the tragedy of his parent's deaths to inspire him to success. More power to him. But he was obviously here now, so… "Did their dying drive him over the edge? Is that why he's here?"

"If it did, it was a slow burn. They died six years ago. Actually, the gossip around here is that it was the pressure he's had on him – although his coaches have always admired him and never seemed to have to push him – at least if you believe the sports writers. He's completely focused on his sport – and his studies. He's a President's List scholar in college, and managed to graduate as Salutatorian of his high school class. He's never had a girlfriend, although he's dated some. And trust me, honey, it's not because he's any hardship to look at, either."

The statement rang a bell for Buffy. "The really cute new guy?"

"One and the same." Nat sighed. "There's talk among the staff - I'm not sure how much is just that, and how much people really know – that he's become violent. I do his vitals, and he's pretty harmless when I'm there, although he is in restraints. His old high school coach comes to visit a lot, and so does the college one, although not as often. Mostly he stares blankly into space, and sometimes he mumbles. That's about it. You know what I know." She shrugged. "Although I was never much to follow the sports pages – I more read about him 'cos I liked the pretty pictures. You might be able to find out more if you went to the library – I think we've got a bunch of old magazines on microfiche. He was even on the cover of Time not too long ago." The girl looked at her watch. "Oh, man. Rounds. Gotta motor."

She turned at looked at Buffy as she headed through the door. "He's a nutjob, remember? You're gonna be outta here soon – wait for a normal guy."

Buffy snorted. "I was just curious, Nat, not interested. He's all yours, if you still want him." The other girl just waved as she hurried down the hall. Buffy murmured to the retreating back, "It's part of my new philosophy. Nothing but normal guys for this girl from here on in."