Sometimes, Buffy thought back to her Sophomore philosophy class. She hadn't wanted to take it, thinking that too much, well, thinking would give her a headache, but just like with the psychology class the year before, Willow talked her into it. And also just like the year before, she ended up liking it a lot more than she thought she would. She was actually pretty good at it, even. Who'd have thought it? Thinking turned out to be Buffy Summer's thing.

It was too bad she had to drop the class.

But she didn't focus on that. She learned long ago that she would only go crazy if she focused on all the things she couldn't do because of the things she had to do. Things like monster hunting and vampire staking and hiding Dawn from a god and folding laundry and making school lunches and grocery shopping and--well, like she said, she didn't focus on it.

She did however, think back on a few things they went over in that class every now and then. Like that whole "I think therefore I am" thing. She wasn't sure that idea was completely solid, after all, as a slayer she came across a lot of things that shouldn't exist but did, and she was pretty sure that many of them did not think at all. One or two them didn't even physically have a brain.

One thing that really stuck with her though, was the Allegory of the Cave. No matter how many other things from college faded from memory, were pushed aside (right along with high school algebra formulas, elements of the periodic table, and what exactly the phrase "angle-side-angle" referred to) to make room for battle tactics, mystical stone identification and a list of names and breeding grounds of various demons, she could always remember Plato's story about the cave. Maybe it was because the idea of humans being strapped and chained up in a cave for the entirety of their lives to watch creepy shadows on the wall appealed to her Slayer Sense of Extreme Badness that she was never able to forget it.

Or maybe it was because the day they went over it in class was the day she came home to find her mom dead on the couch.

For hours afterward, the only thing going through her mind was that if Plato was right, if everyone in this world were just people chained up in a metaphorical cave, and everything they saw were just shadows of what's real, then maybe this wasn't real either. Maybe if she could just close her eyes, turn around, and when she opened her eyes again her mom would be there. Whole and healthy and alive and very, very real.

Afterwards though, she didn't put too much stock in the theory. Sure, it was a very deep-thought provoking idea, that everything in the in whole world were just shadows of their true form, that somewhere outside of their realm of reality was something better, something truer, and she was sure that Willow would be enthusiastic and extremely excited if Buffy ever wanted to spend hours in a dimly lit coffee shop going over the idea with her, that Giles would be all too happy that she was occupied with something from her classes (and philosophy of all things!) rather than just boys, clothes and pointy objects. But despite the fact that as the Slayer, she came across things from other worlds and dimensions far too often than she'd like, Buffy didn't have time to spend philosophizing about true forms and other states of reality. She had too much in this world to worry about. She had Dawn, and Glory and slaying and suddenly she was absent both a boyfriend and a mother and she had too many things that already turned out to be not real in her life (her sister, for one thing) to focus on the rest of the world being an illusion as well.

And then she died.

That should be the end of the story, shouldn't it? But it wasn't. Just like how it wasn't the end of Plato's story when one of the men chained up in the cave were suddenly set free and brought up into the real world. After he'd been up there for a while, after he'd gotten used to the real world, to the light, to the sun, after he'd seen the true forms of the shadows he spent his whole life believing were real, after he felt that only then, out of the cave was it that he knew what it was like to live…then they dragged him back, chained him up again.

He hated it. Hated the shadows on the wall, hated the people who stared at them, happily going on with their lives in the cave because they knew nothing different, hated himself for knowing that there was something better. And most of all, he hated the man who brought him out of the cave to begin with, because maybe those moments in the sunlight weren't worth the pain of living without it for the rest of his life, weren't worth being trapped in the darkness, in the cold, when he had touched something warm and bright and real.

Yeah. She could relate to that.

You see before--before the leap from the tower, before death and heaven, before warmth and love and light and real--Buffy could never quite imagine it. She would look at the objects in her room and think, of course this is real. Despite Plato's riveting and vivid (and somewhat depressing) allegory, it was still hard to imagine. After all, he'd given a description of what not-real looked like--the shadows--but there wasn't anything explain was real-real was. Now, as the one who had been shown the sun and then dragged back into the cave, she knew.

And Plato was little off in his description.

It wasn't like sitting in a dark cave just watching shadows, guessing at the shapes made like a child giggling at a puppet show on a wall. You didn't just watch the world.

You had to live in it.

Sometimes, she would close her eyes and see the outline of shapes in the dark. They were fuzzy and out of focus, floating across the back of her eyelids like they were in water. And even though she knew what they were--the images of things she had seen with her eyes open--she couldn't quite figure out what each amorphous, glowing shape was supposed to be. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate, to focus, the images remained fuzzy, and she thought: this is what its like.

She had seen, had felt, what was real once, and now all she had was fuzzy outlines. Now no matter how hard she tried--how hard she fought and worked and pretended to smile and pretended to laugh and no matter how many times she said that she was "okay"--everything remained out of focus.

Plato said that if the man returned to the cave then he would be bad at guessing at the shadows, that he would no longer be able to join the others in their games. Buffy returned and she was bad at life. It was like she was swimming and she just…didn't know how to maneuver. She was just floating, like the images in the dark when she closed her eyes, slowly wading through life. And all the while the thought, "not real, not real, not real" was repeating in the back of her mind.

And then she felt something.

It wasn't a right something, or a good something and she couldn't help but feel that she had messed up somehow, that there was something wrong with her. Because after all, it's supposed to be emotions like love and happiness that make a difference, right? That's how it happens in fairy tales, and in all those Lifetime specials that her mom used to force her to watch with her. It shouldn't be lust for your hated enemy that makes you feel alive again, should it?

Except she didn't really hate him anymore. She didn't have the energy for it, if she was honest. Just like she didn't have the energy for a lot of things lately. And maybe she didn't quite hate him before she died either. Maybe. She couldn't really remember.

In any case it didn't matter, because when she was with Spike she felt better. Not happy, not peaceful, and he certainly didn't make the world any more in focus for her. But there were moments. Moments when emotions spiked (pun definitely not intended), whether it was anger or frustration or lust or pleasure or just plain old annoyance, and things were just a little bit clearer, just a little more real.

Or at least, if they weren't real, she could pretend easier that they were. And hey, if they weren't, it got her off the hook. It didn't matter what you did with your supposed to be most hated enemy when everything was just some big pointless illusion anyway, right?

Yeah, she was an idiot.

She realized that despite whatever issue she had with Plato, with real and not-real, (death and life, heaven and hell) the people around her, her friends--it was real for them. A point that was brought home when she saw the expression on Spike's face the night she broke it off with him (and every night after), when she saw Xander's the night they caught Anya and Spike at the Magic Box. And maybe it was a bit real for her too.

Like she said to Spike the day of Xander's wedding: it hurt.

And then, she realized one more thing. As she climbed out of that hole in the cemetery, as she stood there with Dawn and realized that the world was still there, that it hadn't ended and she was glad that it hadn't ended, as she took in the blue of the sky and the green of the grass and the sunlight (yes, the sunlight) through the trees and thought that maybe Plato was wrong, maybe it was real.

Then they passed an all too familiar crypt and she felt an ache go through her that really shouldn't at the sight of how empty it was and thought:

Maybe it didn't matter.