Author: Lori Bush <lwbush[at]charter.net>

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

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

Rated: STRONG PG-13 - Natalie has quite the mouth on her.

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 worry about reading 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.

Also, the Dawn/Xander relationship is complicated, and essential to the story. But my Xander is no pervert. It is more than friendship, but not that.

Finally, the author is not a Kennedy fan.

Latest addition

Part One

˜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."


Part Two

˜I woke up this morning really missing Dawn. And Willow and Xander, and Giles. I know once I get out of here, get a real life with more than one real friend, I'll be better, but some days it's hard.

Mom and Dad were by yesterday, and I think Mom must have warped her Gold Card, she'd bought me so many new clothes. Dr. Shah told her that maybe next week, I could get a day pass and go shopping with her myself. I got so excited about the thought of going to a mall, I almost cried with happiness.

I think that may be why I'm a little depressed today. I had all this freedom, even though I was the Slayer, and all I ever thought about when I was there was the limitations in my life. Now I'm all worked up about being allowed to go shopping - something I did regularly in Sunnydale without giving it a second thought. I know now how selfish I was back there. I wish I could go back and apologize. But I still don't really want to go back. Still kinda selfish, I guess.

I started my college work two days ago. It's all core course stuff, and I remember some of it, too, from my time at UC Sunnydale. It's not really very hard - I still have more free time than I know what to do with. I've been thinking about going to the library and checking out the stuff about this Alex Lewis. If what brought him here is like what brought me, there's a chance he might have come from another reality, too, and I might be the only one here who could understand what he's going through. I know I swore I wouldn't have anything to do with the supernatural anymore, but this may just be one way I can start helping others like I want to in my career. I'd just be uniquely qualified in this case. Besides, the supernatural doesn't seem to crop up as much here as it did back there, so I doubt I'd be setting a pattern.

Besides, the guy might just be plain nuts. All I know is that what I overheard bothered me, and I'm not good at sitting back and ignoring anything that bothers me. So, I guess I'll be in the library today.

Seven weeks, one day to go.˜


"Hey," Buffy greeted the librarian. ˜Giles flashbacks.˜  "Uhm, can I use the microfiche?" When the woman nodded and motioned over to the bank of machines across the room, Buffy blanched. For all the time she'd spent in the library during high school, she'd never been much on actual library skills. "Or... Hey, the computer. Can I get to the internet from that?" Willow had taught her to use Google - surely if Alex Lewis was such a big deal, she could find out about him online. Heck, Willow found Cassie, and she was a nobody, sort of.

"I need clearance from your doctor," the woman cautioned, not unkindly. Buffy sort of understood - another thing she probably wouldn't have been allowed to do if she were still in That Ward. But a brief conversation with Dr. Shah, and the librarian was firing up a desktop and punching in passwords for Buffy.

˜Google-dot-com. Simple. Alex Lewis. Simpler yet, and... whoa! Look at that. Results 1-10 out of approximately 1,590,600?! Holy moley.˜ She was pretty sure they weren't all this particular Alex Lewis - it couldn't be that uncommon a name - but she was a bit overwhelmed by the amount. She began reading the summaries.

˜YAHOO SPORTS: Olympic Hopeful Alex Lewis Suffers Breakdown - Alex Lewis, star swimmer for UCLA, apparently collapsed in the locker room after...

Going For the Gold - BIOGRAPHIES - Name: Alexander (Alex) Harrison Lewis Height: 6-1 Weight: 185 Birthdate: September 23, 1980 Birthplace: AppleValley, CA ...

Official Athletic Site of the University of California, Los ...
... season. (more) With school record-breaking times, Alex Lewis leads Bruins to NCAA Championships Bruins will compete Thursday through Saturday. (more ...

Unofficial Alex Lewis Fanclub Site - He's tall, dark, and handsome, with a sad history and a body to die for - what about Alex Lewis is there not to love?  ...


She looked a few more in passing. The guy was obviously big news, but none of this was going to tell her anything Nat hadn't already, it seemed. Outside of a couple references to him collapsing in the locker room, his current condition seemed pretty well hushed up. She wished again Willow was here - she loved this kind of research stuff. Buffy so did not.

She might be bored, but she was not going to sift through a million plus web-pages about some guy she didn't know and probably wouldn't even meet, who may or may not have come from another reality to this one. ˜Oh, well - so I don't totally waste my time here...˜ "Excuse me, ma'am?"

The librarian looked up from her own computer.

"Do you have a copy of The Taming of the Shrew? 'Cos I need to read it for my English Lit course."


˜I find myself thinking a lot about what I'm going to do when I get home. This is neither Sunnydale nor the same LA I remember from when I was fourteen. I plan to finish out this semester at UCLA in the correspondence course, but what do I do then? Do I stay at home and commute, or try to live on campus? I know in Sunnydale I chose on campus so I could be there with Willow and fit into the college lifestyle better, but here I don't know anyone. I could end up with another Kathy as a roommate. Well, not exactly, but someone almost as bad, without the whole 'demon sucking my soul out' downside.

I don't have anybody to rely on here - my old Hemery friends probably barely remember me, and if they do, they may run screaming from the crazy girl if they see me coming. Maybe I should just finish college by correspondence, and start fresh with the working world. I think I kinda know how Xander must have felt sometimes - being the 'townie' when we all went to college, and even before, when Willow was embracing her inner witchiness, Oz was a werewolf, Angel a vampire and me and Faith, Slayers. Besides him, only Cordy was close to normal, and she was super Social Queen, herself. It's hard to be on the outside looking in. He was stronger than we gave him credit for, not to flinch and turn away.

I think about this swimmer guy, too - Alex Lewis. Maybe I should try harder to figure out his deal. I mean, he's on the outside right now, too, right? Nobody even knows he's here, of the people that might care. Or maybe nobody really cares about him, except those two coach guys. Nat said he didn't have a girlfriend. If he had friends, good friends, you'd think they'd be trying to get in to see him. I wouldn't let one of my friends just disappear without making a stink until I found out where they were, and then demanding someone let me see them.

Although the way I acted after the last time I was brought back from here, my friends might not believe that statement.

If his problem is like mine, maybe I owe him. Karma or whatever. I dunno. But it still nags at me, and even without Slayer Senses, it feels wrong to just forget about him. I just don't know if there's really anything I can do.

Six weeks, six days to go.˜


"Hey," Buffy waved at the librarian, who nodded in recognition. ˜She probably doesn't get a lot of patients in here.˜ "You mind cranking up the 'net for me again?"

Settled in, she clicked her way back to Google, and ran the same search as last time. ˜Where to start?˜ The biography seemed a good place, so she chose that one.

The page loaded kinda slowly while Buffy's mind wandered. She was almost finished with the Shakespeare assignment, and realized she probably should have brought her reading list so she could check out...

"Oh, my GOD!"

"Miss? Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost." Buffy ignored the librarian, staring open-mouthed at the computer screen. "What a nice looking young man," the older woman commented. Buffy still didn't answer. She couldn't.

Not until she could wrap her mind around the fact that Alexander Harrison Lewis was the identical twin of Alexander LaVelle Harris.


˜I don't know how. I don't know why. But that guy is Xander - I'm sure of it. Now I have to figure out a way to get in and talk to him. I wonder if they ran into another one of those spikey demon things. Or if he's dead. No, if he was dead, he wouldn't be zoning in and out and need to be brought here. Back to the demon theory.

I so need to talk to him - let him know he isn't alone. I also need to tell him not to try and kill Wills or Dawnie, in case the doctors try that with him. Maybe together we can figure out how to keep him in one world or the other. I just need to talk to him. Soon.˜

Once the shock wore off, Buffy had spent the entire afternoon surfing the Web, learning everything she could about Alex Lewis. A life more different than Xander's could hardly have existed.

Alex had a loving family, a great academic record, was successful in every endeavor. He was well-off, having inherited a great deal of money when his parents died, as well as receiving an almost record-breaking insurance settlement. It seems his parent's fatal accident was caused by an easily tested but faulty part in the brand new car they were driving. It was found in every car of that model. The product liability lawsuits that followed put the car manufacturer out of business. But Alex, when interviewed, said he gained no pleasure from that fact - it wouldn't bring his family back.

He was majoring in Mechanical Engineering at UCLA, and stayed near the top of his class in spite of a demanding competition schedule. He'd been eligible for the Olympic Team in 2000, but declined, feeling that completing his high school education first was more important. His place on the US Team in Athens next year was already assured - even though no one knew where he was at the current time. All the rumor sites had ideas, but no solid news about his whereabouts had been posted.

He didn't seem to have a best stroke - he swam superbly in all events, although his butterfly was called by one writer "a work of art." Matt Biondi supposedly asked for his autograph.

There appeared to be nothing this man couldn't do, and do well. Buffy hoped this really was Xander - this was the life he deserved.

Except the part about him being so alone. That was not something Xander should do, or ever really had done very well. He'd always had Willow, or Anya, or someone beside him - he drew people to him that way.

But this Alex seemed to all but push people away. The celeb gossip sites loved to talk about the famous girls who would come to watch him swim, and leave having spoken to him, but nothing more. Occasionally he was seen with a girl on his arm, but never the same one twice. Usually if the girl could be interviewed, she'd explain that he was just a good friend, and that was all he wanted to be. There was talk of a former lover, but it was nothing but talk, it seemed.

Everyone loved him, but he apparently had no one to love.

Still, Xander Harris in this world lived a life he never imagined in Sunnydale, in his wildest dreams.

Buffy really needed to talk to him. And she might have figured out a way.


"Is Dr. Coyle in?" Buffy had on her best outfit, and felt like she was on a job interview.

"Yes, Miss...?"

"Summers, Buffy Summers. I need to talk to him about Alex Lewis. I think I can help."

"I don't think..."

"It's okay, Melanie. I'd actually like to talk to Miss Summers, myself." Buffy looked over at the grandfatherly man standing in the doorway behind the receptionist. The voice was the one she'd heard in her hall, but she never would have connected this small jovial man to it.

Buffy looked back over her shoulder as he ushered her into the room. "You'd better call Dr. Shah, too. I have a feeling she'll need to be involved." The doctor nodded in agreement, and the girl picked up the phone.

The doctor extended his hand. "I'm Irving Coyle, Buffy. I'm pleased to meet you. Did Menah tell you I wanted to talk with you?"

"Actually, Dr. Coyle," Buffy answered while settling in her chair after shaking his hand, "Private conversations are best kept private when not conducted in a public hallway. Particularly the hallway outside the room of one of the subjects of the conversation."

The doctor guffawed. "You are a spitfire. And clearly better, too, aren't you?"

Buffy shrugged. "I feel good, and Dr. Shah agrees."

"Indeed, I do." Buffy hadn't even heard her doctor come in the door. Dr. Coyle smiled brightly at her.

"Menah, do come in and have a seat. I was just getting to know your patient here."

"I thought I made it clear you didn't have my permission to contact Buffy, Irving."

"Ah, but she came to me. She asked for you, too. She's a smart girl who overheard us talking in the hall, and now that you're here, I'd like to hear what she has to say."

"You told Dr. Shah that whatever is wrong with Alex is similar to what was wrong with me. Now, I don't remember a lot from my worst days, but I do remember some of the better ones. And I remember needing someone to talk to that understood. It might have made the transition easier, if I could have discussed my delusions with someone who wasn't always judging me on them - I know it was Dr. Marcus trying to help me deal with reality, but sometimes it felt like judgment."

"Buffy, you don't want to enable Alex in his delu..."

"Dr. Shah, they told me to rid myself of the things that supported my hallucinations," Buffy interrupted angrily. "In my confused mind, I heard him telling me to kill my friends! As if I wasn't messed up enough - imagine with me dealing with the thought that I'd killed the only friends I had, the only friends that were real to me at that time."

"I never did agree with Sid's method of handling this case," Dr. Shah mumbled guiltily, looking up at Dr. Coyle.

"Nor did I," Irving reassured her gently. "And maybe that's why she didn't get better until he left and you took over her care. I think we should give Buffy a chance to talk with Alex. I'm not going to stop his medications or quit having sessions with him or anything, but I don't think she'd do him any harm."

Buffy's gaze bored into the older doctor's eyes. "I have another request."

He half smiled. "Shoot."

"I know you won't let me go in there alone - I wouldn't, if I were you. Too many things could go wrong - there should be a witness. But I don't want to take a doctor in there, or anybody that might appear to be threatening. Say, a big burly intern."

Dr. Coyle was smiling openly now. "I assume you have someone in mind?"

"Natalie Carlyle."

Part Three

"Hey, Buffy. Why are you in Dr. Coyle's office? And why did they call me in, and leave when I got here?"

"Sit down, Nat. I have a lot to tell you, and I'm not sure how well you're gonna deal with some of it."

The young nurse dropped into the chair across from her friend and lifted one eyebrow at Buffy.

"Nat, do you believe in magic?"


"You know, of course, I don't believe any of it." Nat was following Buffy into the secure ward, heading down the hall to Alex Lewis' room.

"I know," Buffy said lightly, "but I also know you trust me, and you know I'm not still psycho, in spite of what I told you. Anybody else in this place would have sedated me and be right now rolling me into this ward in a wheelchair."

"How do you know I'm not just letting you walk into your new digs?" Natalie responded in an equally light tone.

"'Cos I know you could never pass up a chance to go see Alex Lewis," Buffy smirked, pushing open the door.

"Guilty as charged," Natalie whispered, eyeing the male figure on the bed.

His back was to the door, and it was clear he had to strain to lie on his side against the restraints fastened to the bed and around his wrists. He had on a short-sleeved grey tee and loose pants of the same color, in heavier fabric. His bare feet were tucked up as far as they would go, as if he were trying to keep them warm, forcing his body into a ball. A soft whimper that could only be coming from the man on the bed was the only sound in the room.

Buffy held her breath. He looked so wounded. What if she were wrong, and this only looked like Xander? Would she damage him even further? Still, she had to try. She made her way around the bed, feeling the physical lurch of her heart when she saw the familiar face. His eyes were scrunched tightly shut, and she could see tears leaking out. Every once in a while, he'd tremble. Gathering her nerve, she laid her hand softly on his face, and called to him. "Xander?"

His eyes flew open. Xander's beautiful, dark, expressive eyes. Both of them. Buffy swallowed the lump in her throat. He tried to reach for her, but his chains wouldn't allow him the distance. "Buffy?" he croaked, his voice sounding like that of a man hundreds of years older. Then more clearly, more joyfully, "Buffy! You're here." His smile widened. "Where's Anya?"


˜He'd been sick, back home, and he thought he might have died, since why else would he be seeing me, his dead friend? But I felt bad when I had to tell him Anya wasn't here. He managed to choke out around his disorientation and grief that she'd died as well during the final battle to close the Hellmouth.

He didn't know why he was sick, but it had him floating back and forth between there and here, like I had before. He vaguely remembered waking up in a big, cold room with a bunch of guys shouting at him. He might have hurt one, he wasn't sure. And no, no spiney pokey demon involved, either. As time went on, not much time, but enough that I could assure him I'd be here when he needed me, he became less and less focused. Finally I lost him - he was staring somewhere far beyond me, and he stopped answering my questions. I guess he was back in Sunnydale.

Dealing with Natalie afterwards was a major big challenge. She held it together until we got back to my room, then she was mildly hysterical.˜

"All that crap you told me, Buffy - he knew it. He knew about Sunnydale and demons and... Shit, Buffy, that stuff is real?"

"Shhh, Nat. The night nurse is gonna be in here if you don't calm down."

Natalie dropped to an angry near whisper. "You're telling me I could walk out of here and be eaten by a fucking vampire?"  Buffy had never heard anyone squeal and whisper at the same time.

"No, Nat. It's real, yes, but not here. As far as I can tell, everything in this world that's just a scary story is really just a scary story. None of it's real here. Xander - Alex - and I come from somewhere else."

"Where you're dead," Natalie snapped with venom.

"Yeah," Buffy sighed, "and so is my mom. She and my Dad are divorced, Xander has a crappy life where his ex-fiancé died in the same fight I did, and he only has one eye. His parents are alcoholic and abusive. I don't much want to go back, and I'm not so sure he does, either. Natalie, you have to help me help him, whatever he decides. I want him here, but he needs to be the one to make the choice. I don't know what's holding him in Sunnydale any more than I know what brought him here, but I hope to find out."' She turned to the now calming nurse with fire in her eyes. "I'm not gonna let him down again, Nat. But I can't do it without you."

Natalie blew out a breath. "Fine. You've got me, I'm in."


Sunnydale Reality

"BUFFY!" Xander shot upright in bed, sweating and frantic and began babbling. "It was Buffy, and she's good - she's fine. She was alive."

Slender arms wrapped around him, stroking him and soothing him. "She's dead," the gentle voice assured him. "You were just dreaming."

Xander shook her off. "No, Dawn, I know what I saw. She was there. But Anya wasn't." He grew morose at that, and finally completely listless. Dawn tucked him back under the covers, then grabbed her robe and went out into the hall, knowing Willow and Kennedy would have heard the outburst.

"He's feverish again," she said flatly to the two girls waiting outside the door in their own pajamas. "Hallucinating about Buffy."

"We heard," Willow nodded.

"Hell, Santa Ana probably heard," Kennedy groused, looking still half-asleep.

"You two go back to bed," Dawn insisted. "I'm just gonna go get some juice and then come back up."

"Do you think we should give him a shot?" Willow asked, her fear leaking from her eyes even though she kept it from her tone.

"He took the pain pills before bed - we probably shouldn't mix them," Dawn responded. Ever since the loss of his eye, they'd had strong medications around for Xander, and were all trained to administer the shots if needed. But he'd refused any drugs before the final battle. Since then, he'd been more willing to drug away the pain - although Dawn doubted it was physical, most days.

After Buffy and Anya and several assorted Slayers-In-Training had died at the hands of Caleb and the First Evil, albeit ultimately stopping them, Xander had seemed fine. Sure, he mourned. They all did.

Then the remaining girls scattered to places where there were new Watchers waiting for them. Giles went back to England. Andrew decided to move to San Francisco. Spike simply vanished - no one left really cared where.

And little by little, things went back to normal, or a reasonable facsimile.

Dawn's school got cleaned up and re-opened. Robin Wood had resigned to travel the country slaying evil with Faith, so there was a new principal. Dawn started attending classes again.

Willow completed the last couple of weeks left of her last few courses and graduated from college, taking a job at the tech support desk for a software company with offices an hour away. The commute was a killer, but the pay was good, so she managed.

Kennedy was the new Slayer, but the Hellmouth seemingly did choke on the last one. There wasn't much for her to do, but the tattered remnants of the Watchers Council had asked her to stay on, so of course she did. It didn't hurt that Willow wanted to stay, either.

And Xander did nothing.

Well, not really nothing. When he realized his boss wasn't going to create some desk job just to keep him on, he applied for disability. The investigator that handled Sunnydale didn't even question his claim. The checks began coming fairly quickly.

It wasn't enough money to keep up his apartment, but he'd pretty much been living at the Summers' house for months anyway, and there seemed no need to change that, so he let go of the lease. He had the deed to the Magic Box - for some reason, Anya had left it in his apartment. So he began working there, doing repairs and fixing it up to either reopen it himself or to rent out.

He went to the doctor's every other week.

And he began sleeping with Dawn.

It really hadn't been his idea. He'd taken the master bedroom - once Joyce's, next Willow and Tara's, then Buffy's. He'd moved out Buffy's furniture and moved his own stuff in from the apartment. But he was clearly struggling with the idea - even if Dawn was the only one to see it. After all, he was sleeping in the room where three women he'd cared about and that had died had once slept, on the bed he'd shared with his ex-fiancé, also deceased. Dawn would hear him up at night, wandering. His eyes were puffy and dark ringed in the morning. Finally she could take it no more.

Dawn got out the sexy satin tap pants and camisole she'd bought a week previously at the mall. Putting them on, she waited in her room until she heard Willow and Kennedy go into their room. Xander spent most evenings in his room with the TV running, so she knew he was there, and probably not asleep.

Buffy had been seventeen when she'd lost her virginity to an older man. Dawn had plans to follow her sister down that path, although with not so much of an older man. Besides, he needed to relax so he could sleep. She'd help him out on that. She slipped quietly in the door, but he looked up from the TV almost instantly.

"Dawn? What the hell...?" Okay, not the reaction she'd been hoping for - still not a total surprise.

"Xander," she breathed, trying to sound sexy, "I know you aren't sleeping well at night. Let me do something to help."

"No," he'd said, incredulity clear in his voice.

"Why not?" she challenged, moving closer, and making sure her hips swayed just so.

"Oh, God, Dawn, you are so beautiful," he moaned. Her ego swelled - she was getting through. "And really, I'm honored you'd want me that way. But no."

She might be still a virgin, but Dawn was female, and knew all the tricks of the gender. Her eyes filled, and she pouted, then bit her lip trying to hold back the tears.

"Aw, shit..." she heard him mumble softly, and she bit her lip harder to avoid giggling. He stood up and walked towards her, and she tried not to whoop in victory.

"Dawnie, I love you so much. Too much. But..." her victory whoop was dying - she could feel it, "not that way. And I can't have sex without love anymore - that kind of love. I know it's not the way guys are supposed to be..."

Dawn conceded defeat. "...but it's one of the things that I love about you, Xander. And I do love you. That way. I really want you to be the first."

He was standing right in front of her, and although the time, the outfit and the place were all just right, she knew the type of intimacy he was offering wasn't the type she'd come for. But she also knew it was good. "I'm honored," he repeated. "Should the day come that things change, I'd be more than thrilled with that offer. You're certainly lovely, and you're not, amazingly, really that young anymore. It's just me." He shrugged, looking a bit chagrined. Then he spread his arms, and she melded against his chest, crying a little, for real this time.

Eventually the tears died off, and she calmed. She looked up at him, taking liberties she knew she hadn't been given; running her hand through his hair like a lover. "You're still having trouble sleeping, though, aren't you?" He looked embarrassed, but didn't actually answer. The aversion of his one good eye told her all she needed to know. "Could I just - stay in here with you? Keep you company?" She looked down sheepishly. "I could even change into my regular pajamas."

That night, with Dawn in his arms, for the first time since Buffy and Anya had died Xander Harris slept the night through.

The look on Willow's face the next morning when Dawn emerged from Xander's bedroom in her pajamas almost harkened back to her Black Magic days, but Dawn explained quickly. Willow admitted that Xander hadn't been quite right, even though she'd tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away. And that maybe someone there, comforting him so he could sleep, wouldn't be so bad. When you've lived your worst nightmares while wide awake, sleeping, she conceded, could be tough. She should know.

So Dawn gradually moved all her things into the Master bedroom, and took up residence there, along with Xander.

Once Buffy had accused Willow of monitoring Xander's blood pressure and temperature; now it was Dawn. She administered his medicine, balanced his checkbook, even bought his clothes. He didn't seem to have the energy left to fight her about it - he let her do as she pleased. With the exception of the time she was required to be at school, she was at his side almost constantly. And because of that, she was the first, possibly the only one, to notice he still wasn't just bouncing back from his recent losses.

He slept, which was an improvement. But his nightmares often woke her up with his pained moans and sometimes loud cries of the names of loved ones he'd lost. The most frequent were the names of her sister and Anya, but Dawn often heard him mourning the loss of Joyce, Tara, Jesse and more. When Dawn pressed him about it, he just said it was hard to lose family. After all, he'd continued, she and Willow were the only family he had left. "I don't really get Kennedy," he confided, conspiratorially. Dawn had snorted, responding, "Who does?"

He didn't eat much anymore, although he hid it well from the others. He pushed his food around on the plate, took smaller servings, threw his food away while Willow and Kennedy were busy talking.

He worked hard at the Magic Box, but the clean-up was almost done, and he couldn't commit on whether he was going to re-open it, or lease it out. With that undecided, the finishing work couldn't be done, because if it were to be rented, he was planning to offer a custom build-out on it. Dawn suspected he really didn't want to re-open the shop, since he'd had little interest or involvement with magic himself. However, if he leased it away, he'd be giving up a part of Anya by giving up something that had been so important to her.

Nobody knew that she knew exactly which box Giles had packed away Tara and Willow's old magic books in. At night, when the house was quiet and the others asleep, she'd go down and thumb through them.

She was going to find a way to help Xander and make him feel better if it was the last thing she did.

Part 4

Sunny Hills Reality

˜I've visited with Xander twice since the first night. Once I managed to pull him back here, and once I didn't. The first time I went back, he wasn't here - he was glassy eyed and moaning about Dawn and Willow. He mentioned the shop, too - I assume he meant the Magic Box. At one point, he got angry, and yelled "Why don't you people stop fussing over me? I'm fine!" Then he got quiet. I guess either they left him alone, or he was once again back in Sunnydale fully.

The second time, he was cognizant and totally here with me for a while. He assured me he'd been taking good care of Dawn, like a big brother should, although he blushed slightly when he said that. I didn't push him - didn't want to lose him so soon by asking grating and suspicious questions. Besides, if I was stupid enough to trust Spike with Dawn after he'd tried to rape me, surely I would be more stupid not to trust Xan with her. He's always been the most trustworthy man I've ever known besides Giles.

We tried to figure out what was causing his fading in and out of the two realities, but so far, no clue. No demons, not even any enemies as of now. My sacrifice actually seems to have shut down the unrelenting evil that streamed to the Hellmouth when it was open. He says Kennedy is almost bored. And that a bored Kennedy is even more annoying than an irritated one. I find that hard to believe.

He got upset when I suggested maybe Willow had done one of her wonky spells on him. He says Willow gave up magic entirely when I died, and that she's working full-time at some computer place. She even lost her keys last week, and he had to find them. Magic-y Willow would have done a locator spell in a heartbeat, he insisted. And I know he's right.

I lost him again soon after that. It's so frustrating, not being there to look at the evidence and find out what's causing this. It's even worse not to be able to talk for long with the one witness I have on that end without him fading away in the middle of a sentence. I want so desperately to fix this for him.

On the home front here, Dr. Coyle has arranged it so Nat is Alex's primary nurse whenever she's on duty. She was the one who called me when he came around this last time. We even have beepers.

She's been with me every time I've been in there, and I think she might be crushing on Xander as well as Alex Lewis. Hee. But she's a lot of help - even if it's just as someone I can talk to about it all. The doctors (both Coyle and Shah) have agreed I don't have to share with them anything Alex says to me, unless I think he's in danger somehow. I was glad I got them to agree to that, 'cos there's no way they'd understand. Nat is still freaking over it, although in a much more controlled manner nowadays.

I've dropped all my classwork except English Lit. I already told Dr. Matt that I'm going to take some time off after I finish that, so I can help Alex. Apparently, we're some sort of legend around here - everyone knows that I'm doing this, just not any real details. All the doctors have made a point of patting me on the back and thanking me whenever they see me in the halls. If only they knew how ulterior my motives are.

Six weeks, one day to go.

Aw, shit, it just occurred to me - what if I have to leave before I fix this?˜


"Dr. Coyle?"

"Hello, Buffy - come right on in. How's our patient doing today?"

"He was coherent for a while earlier - it was nice. But that's not why I'm here. I have a question for you."

"Shoot." The doctor templed his fingers and looked serious.

"What if I'm released before Xa - Alex gets better?" She looked up at the man anxiously - had he caught her near slip-up?

"You go home, of course."

"But I can't leave him alone!" Buffy was distraught - she was now under a time limit, too.

Dr. Coyle's face cracked into a wide grin, then he chuckled loudly. "You've become quite fond of the young man already, it seems. Buffy, just because you might go home doesn't mean we won't let you back in. You can come see him every day, if you want. You can even keep the beeper, and Miss Carlyle can page you when he comes to. He actually talked to me the other night, for the first time since he was brought here, instead of just moaning and staring."

Now Buffy was indignant. "What? And you didn't call me?"

The doctor's amused grin remained firmly in place. "I did think I was still his primary physician?" He chuckled again at her chagrinned expression. "Still, you're making progress with him that I was not before you became involved. There's no way I want that to stop merely because your parents want their daughter home. How selfish of them. Perhaps I can talk Menah into."

"Let's not get hasty here, doc," Buffy backpedaled. "As long as you'll let me see him, I'm good."

"Yes, my dear, you're very good. And why do I get the feeling that even if I didn't plan to let you see him, which I do, trying to stop you would be futile?"

"You must have known me in another life," Buffy said grimly.


Sunnydale Reality

It was useless. He was completely finished. Done. Kaput.

He'd exhausted everything he could do on the Magic Box without starting the custom work, either to reopen the shop or for a new tenant.

Damn. Now Xander Harris officially had nothing to do.

Well, except try to figure out why his consciousness seemed to be split between two realities.

He'd talked to Dawn about it; explained that he thought it was like when Buffy got demon-poked and was hallucinating about another world where she was in an institution.

In fact, he was the one in the institution, and Buffy was there, talking to him sometimes when he found himself there, although sometimes there was this really nice doctor, and once a pretty little black girl he didn't know, but who seemed to know him. He thought she might be a nurse. She'd even called Buffy for him. It was kinda hazy, but he knew he'd spent time talking to Buffy.

He hadn't meant to make Dawn cry.

So he'd let it go. He wasn't sure why it upset her so much, but he wasn't sure about a lot of things lately. Like where he was each time he woke up, and why sometimes he felt as if he'd just woke up when in fact he'd been standing, say in the living room, before, and still was, then.

He remembered how Buffy had zoned out for extended periods when she was reality hopping, and he assumed, from the looks he got the few times it happened when someone else was around, that he'd done the same. But there was a reason, and had been a cure, for what affected Buffy. There wasn't the same, so far as he knew, for him.

He hadn't said anything, but he was pretty sure his body was shutting down. He'd been hiding it since before he had that first vision, or dream or hallucination a few weeks ago. He wasn't exactly sure how long - time was moving oddly for him lately.

He couldn't really eat much without getting nauseous. Some days he vomited after every meal. Others he managed to keep small amounts down. Lately there'd been bloody diarrhea - such fun. He knew he was going to have to share at least that one with the doctor on his next visit.

His skin felt tight and - prickly. Like it belonged on someone two sizes smaller than Xander. Not that Xander wasn't already at least two sizes smaller than he'd been right before his aborted wedding to Anya - he was that and more. He was so glad they'd gotten used to seeing him in baggy clothes, because even his tightest fitting stuff from before was hanging on him now. Dawn knew, of course. She'd seen him in his boxers - she could count every highly visible rib.

But she was his accomplice in whatever this was. She gave him the pain meds when he knew she knew it was only so he didn't have to feel the emptiness. She knew he'd been running a fever on and off for days now, and she hadn't told Willow. Willow had figured it out, anyway, having felt his heated body when she hugged him goodnight one evening, but she just thought it was a touch of the flu. Dawn knew where it was his mind wandered off to when he was gone, even if she didn't want to hear about it. She kept his guilty secrets, and even seemed to feel as guilty herself, for him.

Suddenly, the world shifted dramatically, and he was.


Sunny Hills Reality

"Okay, Doc, we understand each other, so."

Dr. Coyle laughed again. "I would never be presumptuous enough to assume I understood a young woman in this day and age." Buffy glared at him. "But do go on," he finished mildly.

Still frowning, she continued. "Alex doesn't have any family, at least, not that seem to care. His folks are dead. His coaches really do care about him, but is it a fatherly concern, or the showman for his prize bull? Somebody needs to know the sitch. Tell me what you'd tell his family, if they were still alive. I'm the closest thing he's got, now."

The older man had that odd look on his face he got sometimes. Like he didn't know exactly what he'd just heard, but it had to be funny, right? He cleared his throat, and began. "The 'sitch,'" he eyed Buffy oddly and shook his head, "is that Alex has spent so long trying so hard to live up to the public image of himself that he finally, to use the technical term, cracked." Buffy rolled her eyes, but didn't interrupt. "Whereas in your case, you imagined yourself to be a superbeing - a 'Slayer' - in order to step outside what you felt was a meaningless existence, Alex has become - if I may use another technical term - a 'nebbish.' A nobody. A weak creature in a world of super-powered beings. His friends are a mighty witch, a mystical girl who can open portals to other worlds, and strangely enough, a 'Slayer.'"

Buffy looked up, panic in her eyes. Dr. Coyle was no longer laughing. Her heart started pounding. "Yes, I do know. Whatever it was that you went through, it is exactly the same thing Alex is going through. I don't believe in shared hallucinations, but there's nothing I can believe in that explains what is going on." He slapped his palm down on the folder on his desk. "Menah gave me your file - I've read it all. You often mentioned a 'Xander' in your hallucinations - another nickname for Alexander. Is this our Mr. Lewis?"

Buffy nodded, looking at her lap. Her freedom was over. She'd be locked back up, put back in the grey shapeless clothes, and never let out again. And poor Xander would suffer the same fate. His hopes of Olympic glory as Alex Lewis would be dashed. The tears welled in her eyes. She'd failed, and both of them would suffer. Just like Sunnydale.

"Buffy," Dr. Coyle said softly. He didn't say anything more, and finally, after a few minutes, she lifted her head to look into his eyes. Eyes that held a gentle sympathy instead of the condemnation she was prepared for. "Whatever it was that happened, you overcame it. I think you can help Alex do the same. I said it from the first, and I still believe that. I won't tell anyone else, I promise." His gently sarcastic smile returned. "I'm not sure how I'm going to write it all up for his files, but I'll think of something. I did ace Creative Writing in college."

Buffy stared at him in wonder. No one, even in Sunnydale where it was real, had ever believed her without question when strange things happened. They either needed to be convinced, or they just denied it. She'd just been given permission, not orders, and not to save the world at the possible cost of her own life, but to save one of her best friends and give him a better life. She'd have official support. Darla had been wrong - this was heaven.

Dr. Coyle had come around her desk, worried he might have given her one shock too many. She was, after all, a girl who'd only recently come through psychological trauma of her own. The way she was sitting there with her jaw agape was starting to make him nervous.

His concern turned to surprise when she jumped from her chair and threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing. "You won't regret this. I'll tell you everything, and I promise I'll get him back. For both of us."

He patted her back as she sobbed against his chest, her tears of relief making a wet spot on his white lab coat. "I know you will, Buffy. I know you will."


"Who are you?"

Natalie jumped. She'd been watering the plants in Alex's room, having checked his vitals and refilled his water pitcher already. Lately she seemed to spend a majority of each work day just taking care of him, with the encouragement of most of the rest of the staff. She wasn't sure if it was because of his celebrity status or Buffy's unique experiment in peer-to-peer patient counseling, but she sure didn't mind. He was cute, and famous, and - she had to admit it, it was clear in his eyes whenever she was around - totally Buffy's.

"Nat - I'm Natalie." She turned and headed over to the bed.

"Can you undo me?" he asked hesitantly, holding up his leather-shackled wrists. Nat didn't see why not - he hadn't thrashed or been violent since the first time he saw Buffy. He was certainly no danger to anyone while awake.

"Sure." Carefully she unfastened the buckles, almost afraid to touch him, and not sure why she felt that way. "I have to call Buffy," she told him, more to make conversation than anything else, "I'm supposed to let her know when you're awake."

"So she's a doctor here?"

Okay, that shouldn't have amused her quite that much. But the young nurse just couldn't stop laughing. Finally after a few minutes, she started to catch her breath. "{Snort} Not quite. {hehehe} She's.just {wheeze} another patient. {hehehe} A really {cough} pushy one."

He had an adorable lopsided grin - almost stunning enough to make Nat stop laughing and just look at it for a while. He looked on the edge of a fit of giggles himself. "That's my Buff," he said proudly.

Natalie turned away quickly; sure the hurt was showing in her eyes. "His" Buff - he belonged to Buffy. She knew that. But - she glanced back over her shoulder to see the remains of the grin shining in his eyes - he was nice, from the little she'd seen of him. Buffy'd told her he'd been a great friend. Why couldn't he be her friend, too? She really had to stop husband shopping - particularly in an asylum. By the time she reached the phone, her grin matched Alex's prior one.

"Buffy," she sang into the phone, "He's Ba-a-ack." She heard him snickering behind her.


(He's Ba-a-ack)

Buffy hung up Dr. Coyle's telephone. Turning to the doctor, she snorted, "Xander's back, and I think he's infected Nat."

"With whatever's causing him to hop realities?" The usually unflappable doctor sounded vaguely panicked.

"No, with his smart-ass sense of humor. C'mon - we need to let the team know you're on board, I think." Buffy breezed out the door, while Irving Coyle wondered how he'd let this little slip of a patient take over what sometimes seemed like the entire institution. He was glad she was only interested in a single case, or she'd probably have done just that.

"Sir, yes sir," he muttered. She was clearly comfortable with being in charge.

They caught the end of a conversation between Xander and Natalie as they entered.

".really thought she was a cavewoman?"

"She didn't think she was - she really was. The whole lack of personal pronouns thing - she called me "boy," for example - and."

"I think that's quite enough, boy," Buffy interrupted.

Xander pouted. "I was going to try and impress her by telling her you thought I smelled nice."

"And suppose I tell her about the time every girl in Sunnydale was in love with you except the only one you wanted?"

"Yeah, they were, weren't they, Ratgirl." They both burst out laughing together.

Natalie, in the meantime, had caught sight of Dr. Coyle, and her dusky skin had paled to grey. "Uh, Buffy, uhm." How could she get them to shut up and not spill their secret? He must have seen Buffy coming in the hall and followed her in. They were going to be in so much trouble. She started tugging on her friend's sleeve. "Dr. Coyle." She couldn't finish the sentence, just pointing instead.

"Oh, yeah. Xander, this is Dr. Coyle. He understands about Sunnydale, and he knows you aren't the run-of-the-mill mental patient."

"Indeed - I'm an exceptional mental patient," Xander smirked. "Nuttier than a fruitcake."

"He knows?" Nat grumbled. "He knows!? I thought this was a real secret, not a one-secret-fits-all party!"

"I like her," Xander said softly to Buffy. "She's funny."

"Yes, Miss Carlyle. I really do like to know what's going on with my patients, unlike others in my profession," Dr. Coyle replied somewhat coolly. Then, seeing the nurse's stricken expression, he softened the harsh words with a friendly smile and a pat on her arm. Then he turned to Xander. "Mr. - Harris, is it? Or Lewis?"

Xander shrugged. "I don't know. I feel like I could answer to either one."

"Alexander, then."

The young man winced. "Alex, please. Or Xander. Just not the full name - it's always meant I'm in trouble, in either world."

"Alex." The doctor paused, gathering his thoughts. "This is still a bit surreal to me. None of the probing questions I learned in med school seem quite appropriate in this case." He thought a moment longer. "How much do you remember of your life here, as Alex Lewis?"

"Pretty much all of it, now. For the first week or so, it was hazy, and I kept getting it confused with Xander's life. Fortunately, there aren't a lot of people left in Sunnydale who know me well enough to catch me when I got confused there. Only Dawn spends any time with me at all, these days." He smiled sadly at Buffy, who took his hand comfortingly. "I think I'm pretty sick, there." He reached up and touched his left eye, wonder on his face. "I seem to be a lot better, in lots of ways, here."


Part Five

Sunnydale Reality

Dawn sat nervously in the hospital Emergency Room Waiting Room.

She'd come home from school early, skipping her last period class, to find the house empty. She knew Xander had been planning to work on the Magic Box today, so she gathered up some snack food and a couple of sodas and climbed in the car to go over there. When she arrived, she found him passed out in the middle of the room, and he'd apparently hit his head on the corner of the counter on his way down, if the seeping head wound was any clue. Willow was at work, she neither knew nor cared where Kennedy was, and she was afraid to move him herself, so she whipped out her cell and called 911.

She felt more tired than someone her age had a right to. She wondered if this was how Buffy felt all the times she'd sat in this room while her mom or one of the Scoobies was inside. Dawn was sure she'd filled out enough forms to fill a large book, and she was equally sure that most of them would be filed, forgotten or shredded soon. She was mindlessly clutching a cup of cold coffee that some friendly nurse had pressed upon her earlier. Certainly it had been hot then, she thought as she took a sip and made a face. Not anymore.

She'd called Willow at work, but it was late enough in the afternoon and the commute was so long that she told her not to leave work early - she'd call her as soon as she knew anything. She even called Giles in London, hanging up guiltily before he answered when she realized how much that call would cost made on a cell phone. God, she missed Buffy.

The doctor emerged, and apparently had been standing in front of her chair for a few minutes before she noticed. When she did, she jumped up, almost into his face. "Xander," she demanded, "How's Xander?"

"We're going to have to run a few tests to confirm some things, and he's still unconscious. But the cut on his head seems to be superficial." The man looked uncomfortable, running a hand through his hair. "I hate having to ask the girlfriend questions like this, but do you know if he's been exposed to AIDS?"

The look on Dawn's face was answer enough, apparently. "Sorry - the tests were negative, but we can't seem to find any other reason for what's happening to him. The man shrugged. "He's in dialysis now. His kidneys had almost completely shut down, and it was probably the renal condition that caused him to black out. But it's not all. His lungs are weak, his heart's arrhythmic - it's like his entire neural system got together with his auto-immune system and staged a walk-out strike." He looked at the shell-shocked girl in sympathy. "Unless we can figure out what's causing this, I'm afraid your boyfriend may die."

Dawn sat down slowly, aware the man was still speaking to her, but not hearing a word of it. Xander was dying. He wasn't supposed to die. He was just supposed to be happy - if anything he'd be all better. Something had gone terribly wrong. Dawn was going to have to tell Willow what she'd done - maybe she could fix it.

It never even registered that she'd sort of gotten one thing she'd wanted since all this started - everyone there considered her Xander's girlfriend.


Sunny Hills Reality

˜Xander was still with us, or whatever you call when both minds are sharing the same body, until it finally got late enough he began yawning uncontrollably, and Dr. Coyle chased us all out of the room. I wonder who he'll wake up as tomorrow morning?

It was nice, having all of us in there working together on his problem. I'd forgotten what it was like to have a functioning team. It had been so long since I actually worked in concert with my friends, instead of in spite of them, back in Sunnydale. The last time we really worked together was the Adam thing. There were bits and pieces of it with Glory, but I wonder whether, if I'd let them all do all I know they were capable of, if we'd have finished her off without either me or Dawn having to die. I suppose I'll never know. Even if I'd been willing, Willow was pretty much Lone Rangering the Glory affair, what with Tara and the brain suck and all. So maybe there was no hope for that one.

I know I can now see with twenty-twenty hindsight how badly I mangled the deal with the First Evil. I mishandled the Slayers-In-Training, Giles, Faith - everything. I'm surprised Dawn's even talking to Xander after what I convinced him to do to her so I could get her away from it all. Let alone taking care of him.

At one point, I jokingly asked Xander if he was sleeping with my sister, he talked about her so much, and imagine my shock when he said "yes!" He was so lucky I don't have Slayer Strength anymore, or he'd have been an interesting stain on the wallpaper right now. But he saw my face, and started to stutter and backpedal like crazy. It turns out, they share a bed, but that's all. And that's only because they both were so broken up over the losses they'd suffered, he thought it would help them feel more secure and less alone. Sort of a breathing Mr. Gordo, he'd joked. Now that I think about it, it's a Xander kind of thing to do - becoming my sister's live stuffed animal - so I don't know why I was surprised.

He and Dr. Coyle talked for just about forever. He said he remembered everything about his life as Xander and his life as Alex, but when he was back in Sunnydale, all the Alex stuff faded away, and even the times he's seen me and Natalie had felt like dreams. He told us about how his Xander body seemed to be breaking down, and how it all started after the first "dream" incident, after Alex had freaked out in the locker room at school.

He's really worried that he's going to die - the Sunnydale him. I explained to him that if he did, he'd just become Alex full-time, probably. But that wasn't the problem - the problem was his concern for Dawn. She's already lost so many people who were important to her. He couldn't bear to be one more.

How could I have forgotten how sweet Xander always was? When he cares for you, he cares for you on all eight cylinders. Enough to go into an obvious trap after giving a heart-rending pep talk to a bunch of scared girls, only to lose your eye because your leader was headstrong and full of herself. So what if I had a holey soul then? I'm beginning to think I've always given the soul too much measure, and should have paid more attention to the Heart. At that point, I don't think I had one of my own, and I'd pretty much shredded even Xander's. So much to regret.

But there's no time for regret right now. We still haven't figured out what's going on with Xander. I'm beginning to despair of ever really knowing. As for him leaving Dawn, well.

I'm kinda torn on that one myself. I was steaming when I realized that Giles had up and left for England yet again, just expecting Xander and Willow to take care of Dawn themselves. At least he went to the trouble of legally obtaining the status of Emancipated Minor for her, since her only legal parent, my (in Sunnydale) deadbeat Dad, wasn't going to interrupt his carefree existence to take care of her. This way she could legally own the house and the car, get the insurance money and do all the things she'd be able to in less than a year anyway.

And Giles really did have a responsibility to the Watchers Council or what there was that remained of it, to try and rebuild. It probably would have been crueler to drag Dawn back to England with him. I never could stay mad at Giles for long, it seems. Standard exceptions apply here - I'm getting tired of repeating it. I know he did what he thought was best for everyone.

But if Xander is really fading back in SunnyD, he needs to let go. Willow will still be there, and so will Kennedy. Xander said the new Slayer is getting better. She's really trying to be a part of the group, and she and Dawn even went to the mall together recently and had fun. And he's really proud of Willow - she's working real hard, and already got a raise at her new job. She's supporting the lot of them, along with Xander's disability stipend. Surely she could take care of anything Dawn couldn't handle herself.

I remember how distressing it was to snap back and forth between realities, and I want him to be able to settle in one place or the other. From what he tells us, things don't look good for it being Sunnydale. And, selfish again, I'd like to have him here - even if it is as the world-famous swimmer Alex Lewis and not the goofy construction worker normal guy, Xander Harris. It'd be nice to have somebody else who could relate to all I've been through - to have someone to talk to besides this journal. Although I do have Nat and Dr. Coyle, now.

Aw, hell, I just miss Xander, and am finding it hard to think about giving him up again now that he's been here. I'm sure if it were Dawn or Willow, I'd feel the same. But it's not - it's Xander, and I want him to stay.

Speaking of staying - five weeks, four days more.˜


Sunnydale Reality

"I honestly can't figure out what went wrong, Dawn, so I don't think I can fix it."

Emotions had been high at the Summers' house. After everyone came back from the hospital without the still comatose Xander, Dawn had shoved a book at Willow and brokenly asked her to undo the spell on Xander. It had taken Willow more than a few minutes to connect the dots and realize it had to be a spell Dawn had done. And Dawn obviously thought it to blame for her friend's current condition.

The last time the redhead recalled being as angry as she was when she figured out what had happened, a man had died, skinless and in ashes. She was thankful the instinct to call upon her magic had left her and she was forced to resort to hurtful and vicious words. Still, it almost seemed like magic when a girl almost five inches taller than she looked so small after the former witch was done with her.

"Magic has consequences, Dawn. Have you forgotten what happened to your sister? To me? To WARREN? I can't believe you could be so stupid."

"I only wanted him to be happy. You didn't know - you didn't see what it was doing to him. His spark was all gone, Willow." Dawn had been crying hard ever since the doctor had talked to her in the hospital, and the spate of tearing sobs her guilt and fear brought on with this round finally had the inevitable effect. At least she made it to the powder room before she threw up.

Her forced absence gave Willow time to calm down. When Dawn came out of the bathroom, pale and shaking, Willow really looked at her - without all her preconceptions. Their little girl had become a woman - a woman in love with a man too wounded by life's slings and arrows to love her back. She'd honestly thought she could give him a reason to go on, maybe recover enough to love again, even if it wasn't her, by doing this spell. Willow had certainly done spells with far less noble intentions. She nodded her head once to Dawn in apology, and set to work studying the text.

It really was a simple spell; one that the most novice of witches shouldn't have been able to screw up. Every now and then she'd question Dawn on her technique, and if she wasn't lying, which Willow didn't think the girl had the energy left to do, all was done correctly. All it was supposed to do was give the subject of the spell whatever they needed most in life. There was no way it should kill anyone.

Of all people, Kennedy offered the most likely solution for the problem of why this was happening. Willow really did love the girl, but when it came to things like subtlety, other people's feelings, and especially magic, she was usually thick as a brick. Sometimes the redhead thought she understood how Xander must have felt when Anya would blurt out something stupid. But this time, the new Slayer had hit the nail on the head.

"What if the thing Xander needed most was unattainable?"

"You mean like - world peace? Or the Beatles getting back together? Or Anya, or . Buffy?"

Dawn considered Willow's words. "He was always a big Beatles fan, but. If it were Anya or Buffy, couldn't they just come back from the dead?" The younger girl grew thoughtful. "I kinda thought it might be his eye."

"Anya was a vengeance demon for over a thousand years - the Powers might think it a bit much to bring her back from the grave after she'd already existed all that time. And Buffy - well, don't they say third time's a charm?"

"So, if what he wanted couldn't be had in this life, he'd just die?" Dawn was starting to cry again. Willow understood; her own chest was feeling pretty tight.

"It's the best explanation I can come up with right now."


They brought him home the next morning. He'd regained consciousness sometime during the night, and demanded he be released as soon as possible. The phone had rung at seven-thirty that morning.

(Dawn.) His voice was gruff, his tone impatient.

"Xander," she breathed, relief in her tone. It had all been a bad dream. He was okay. He wasn't dying. She wasn't really fooling herself.

(Come get me.) It was almost like he'd been given only a limited number of words to use, and he was being as economical with them as possible.

"Did they say it was okay for you to come home?" The unasked question hovering, "Did they make you better?"

(No.) She knew he'd heard and was answering both questions.

"We'll be there soon."

Willow had been up late the night before, on the phone with Giles, then over to the 24-hour Quick Print to fax him a copy of the spell. He promised he'd fly back to California as soon as he could get reservations, but not before he'd exhausted his sources of arcane knowledge to try and find a way to recover all of Xander. Dawn hated to wake her so early, but didn't want to upset her again by not taking her along to pick up her lifelong friend when he was released from the hospital. Kennedy - well, even Kennedy had been uncharacteristically quiet about last night's revelations, and probably wouldn't complain too much about the early hour. If she did, another of Willow's black looks would silence her as it had last night, when she'd suggested that with the life Xander now had, maybe dying was what he needed most.

Dawn knocked on the door, and Willow answered it almost right away. The redhead clearly hadn't been sleeping. "He wants us to come get him," the younger girl offered. Willow nodded, her eyes dead. Without a word she shut the door, probably to change. Dawn heard Kennedy's voice murmur, then Willow's. She went out in the living room to wait for them.

He was sitting stiffly on the side of his bed when they arrived, dressed in his rumpled clothes from the day before and clearly out of sorts. He stood up when the three women entered, and hugged Dawn when she came to him, although somewhat mechanically. She could tell he was angry at the nurse in his room, and trying not to explode. "I don't give a damn about medical advice," he rumbled at her in a tone that suggested this had all been said before. "If I'm gonna die, I want to do it at home with the people who care about me."

The uncomfortable silence irritated him further. "What?" he spat out, looking around, "I'm dying. Big whoop. It's already happened to some of the best people I know. I've lasted longer than the odds would have given me." Suddenly, all the fight went out of him, and he sort of collapsed upon himself. Dawn felt his weight as she began supporting him. "Look, I'm just really tired," he complained weakly, pulling loose from Dawn's embrace and sitting heavily on the bed. "Can I please go home now?"

The nurse scuttled off to find a wheelchair, while Willow put on her best cheerful face, which at that point looked even more strained and weary than Xander's expression. "Giles is coming back," she said. "He'll know what to do."

The nurse saved Xander from formulating an answer by returning with the wheelchair and bustling him into it, nattering on about picking up his paperwork and remembering his dialysis appointments. But his grateful smile aimed at his oldest friend seemed to loosen something in Willow that had been wound too tightly since their arrival. Taking Xander's hand in hers and motioning to Kennedy to push the chair, Willow lifted her chin and looked to the door. "C'mon," she said, her voice barely quivering, "let's get outta here."


Sunny Hills Reality

˜Xander's been around a lot more lately, as Alex. We both know what that probably means - somehow the decision has been made, and eventually he'll be Alex, all day, every day. And the Xander Harris I once knew will be dead.

Dr. Irving has been counseling him, helping him get over his guilt at abandoning Dawn. Alex has moved out of the secure ward into a suite down the hall from me and I spend a lot more time there than I do in my own room. In fact, I spend so much time out of my room, my folks have called me on it.

It seems every time they come to visit, someone has to "retrieve" me from somewhere else. And while before, I was always chattering about Nat and gossiping about the other patients, or my school stuff, now I don't say much about anything when they're here. We even got that day pass and Mom and I went shopping, and I made extra effort only to talk about fashion and style and stuff, and not Alex. Although I did sneak away from her to buy him a book and some cookies.

Finally last night, they asked. I wonder why it took them so long - I guess because they're still treating me carefully, as if I might break again.

"Buffy, we can't help but notice something has been - odd, lately," Joyce began carefully.

"Your mother says you're never here when she calls, and I know you aren't when we get here. You've abandoned your college work, so soon after you'd started it. And you act like you're hiding something from us." Hank was blunter, but his care shone through his frustration. "Frankly, we're concerned."

She should have been expecting this, but she'd been so wrapped up in all things Alex, she hadn't planned ahead for the intrusion of the rest of her life. Still, the truth was easier to remember than an elaborate lie - just not quite the whole truth. "There's this guy."

Her mother cut her off, radiating disapproval. "Buffy! You've given up your schoolwork and cut yourself off from us because you like some boy?! After so many years, you should be looking forward, trying to prepare to reenter the real world, not indulging in some schoolgirl crush. This is hardly the time."

"Mom, please."

"Is he a doctor, or an intern?" Hank was trying to make the best of what was fast becoming a bad situation, but then Buffy looked at her lap and shook her head. "He's a patient?" She nodded. "Do you think that's wise?" The disappointment in her father's voice almost crushed her and harkened back to the time before the divorce in the other world, when she'd driven her father away.

"Aw, honey, c'mon. It's not the end of the world. We're not really angry at you, just surprised." This Hank Summers wasn't leaving. This Hank Summers wasn't having an affair with his secretary. This Hank Summers.

He seemed startled when she crawled in his lap like a little girl. "Daddy," she mewled. He wrapped his arms around her, giving his wife a warning look to cut off any further discussion for the time being. She was still fragile - something they couldn't forget.

"I'm sorry Buffy. It's okay. We'll take things one day at a time."

"Honey?" Joyce asked hesitantly. "Do you think we could at least meet him?"

Part 6


Sunnydale Reality

It was only a matter of time.

Xander declined quickly after leaving the hospital, and Dawn basically stopped going to school. She was so much older than those giggling little girls there, anyway. Once Xander - once it was all over, she'd get her diploma somehow. It just didn't seem important right now.

Giles had come and stayed, unable to fix the spell, but not wanting to leave his loved ones alone at yet another difficult time. He read to Dawn, and they had spirited debates over some of the literature he'd loaned her. She knew he was surreptitiously attempting to keep up her education, and she was grateful.

Xander had elected the best medical insurance, and had kept it through the COBRA option after leaving the construction company. They could only thank God for that. Dialysis was extraordinarily expensive, as was the hospice care they finally had to have. The doctor put him on intravenous feeding to try and halt his dramatic weight loss. He took handfuls of pills every day. But they'd stopped pretending he wasn't going to die.

He had occasional good days, when if they tried hard enough, they could almost see the old Xander inside the broken shell. But nobody was play-acting anymore. Even on those days, Xander himself was pretty matter-of-fact about it. No one was sure how he kept holding onto life, really.

Finally, on one of his rare good days, Dawn figured it out. "How ya feeling big guy?" she asked him with false cheer - the only kind she had, it seemed, lately.

She must have taken him by surprise, because the mask he often wore was down. "It hurts, Dawnie. It hurts like hell." She reached over for his hand, and squeezed it gently. He went on. "I just hate thinking about what's going to happen to you once I'm gone. I know I can't do much to take care of you anymore, but. Aw, hell. You've lost your mom and then your closest female friend, then your sister. Now me, too. It just isn't fair."

It hit her like a ton of bricks. He was afraid to die because he thought it would hurt her. So he suffered, more gone than here, hurting and struggling so she wouldn't hurt. She would never find another man like him. She wasn't sure she'd ever try.

"It's okay Xander. I'll survive. It's never easy, but you need your rest. You're fighting too hard, and your body just needs to rest." The tears were streaming down her face, and she wasn't sure if he heard what she said next. "I love you."

Dawn was less surprised than anyone when she awoke the morning after having given him permission to die next to the cooling body of Alexander Harris in the bed they shared.


Sunny Hills Reality

"Hey, Buff."

"Hey, Alex." Even though he was on the recovery ward, now, Alex rarely went out of his room because of his celebrity status. He'd talked it over with his coach, and while he never planned on keeping his breakdown a secret once he was released, there was no need to disturb the other patients with the crush of press and fans that might show up if word got out about where he was. So he had been given a double suite, and the adjoining room had been set up like a living room, with a TV and couch and several nice chairs. He even had a treadmill brought in so he could start building his strength back up. The doors were kept locked, and Buffy, Natalie and all the doctors were the only ones with keys. "I need to talk to you about something."

He thumbed off the TV with the remote. "Shoot."

"Uhm, my mom and dad were asking where I was spending all my time lately. I've pretty much stopped having any discussions with them about anything but the weather, 'cos I didn't want to spill your secret - our secret." She smiled at him guiltily. Sometimes she forgot they hadn't lived in this reality forever. "But I sorta told them there was this guy, and they sorta want to meet him. There's just a couple of possible problems." Alex wasn't the talker Xander had been, so she wasn't surprised when he waited silently for her to go on. She ducked her head. "First, even though it doesn't happen much anymore, I'd hate for you to fade out while they're here. It'd scare 'em."

"I don't think that's going to be a problem anymore, Buffy." She heard the sadness in his voice, and looking up caught the shadows in his eyes.

"Oh," she said, stunned.

"There's no place for me to go. Xander Harris is no more. He - I died last night." He looked like a lost little boy, unsure of his next step or even if he should be where he was. Buffy jumped up, moving over to him, and into his arms and lap as he reached for her. He didn't actually cry, but she could feel his breath hitching unevenly as she rested against his chest and he stroked her hair. "Dawn."

"Has friends who'll help her find her way. You did everything you could for her."

"I don't know if I did," he whispered brokenly. "Sh-sh-she was my world, after you were gone. And at least at the end, I was hers. But I found you on the other side - who does she have, now?"

Buffy held his head steady, her tear filled eyes locked on his as she dared him to look away. "She's strong, Xander. Remember, she was made from me."

They sat there quietly, clinging to each other and mourning a home now lost to them both.

˜I honestly don't know who moved first, but suddenly I was kissing Alex, and he was kissing me back. And it was good - very good. Finally we pulled apart, but he didn't loosen his hold on me, and I was in no hurry to get off his lap, either. We just rested there, still hanging onto each other, but in a much calmer way than before. I know it was just the emotion of the moment that led to us kissing, but I feel like it won't be the last time we do that.

Finally, he asked me what the other thing was. When I shook my head, not understanding, he reminded me I'd said there were a "couple" of possible problems. I could hear humor in his voice, and knew he was back from that dark place he'd just been in. So I warned him about my dad.˜


Sunnydale Reality

Rupert Giles had to wonder when Dawn had become the most mature one of the group. Although Willow had calmed considerably since Xander's death a couple days ago, she still wasn't handling it completely well.

Dawn had made the funeral arrangements - there was a plot between the place they'd buried Anya and the empty grave that represented Buffy's final resting place that had always been meant for Xander. Joyce's grave was beside Buffy's, and the one where Giles would one day lie was to Joyce's other side, just past the one planned for Dawn. Only Willow's space was somewhere else - not far away, next to a simple stone marked "Tara McClay." Hers had originally been the spot beside Xander's, but when Anya died, she acknowledged that the ex-demon should have that place. He suspected Kennedy didn't know where Willow's planned burial site rested, and thought it would be beside Anya's.

The priest was the same one who'd done Joyce's service, and Buffy's and Anya's... far too many. Dawn even weakly joked that they should get a bulk discount on caskets, but that attempt at levity had ended in tears.

Mostly, though, she'd been strong. Everyone treated her as the grieving widow, and indeed, she'd earned the title. There were wives who'd not given their lives so totally to their spouses.

And Xander had left her well taken care of. He'd had a generous life insurance policy, naming Dawn as beneficiary. He'd also left her the Magic Box, his car, his now mostly depleted savings, and some expensive jewelry Giles suspected he'd bought originally for Anya. What he'd given her that wasn't mentioned in his will was the afore-noticed gift of maturity, although it was bought at a very dear price.

Dawn looked around the gravesite from her spot beside the casket. All who were left were there. Willow, leaning limply on Kennedy's shoulder. Giles, looking so very tired and painfully old. But even Angel, who should be ageless, looked worn by the ravages of time.

Willow had managed to hold it together enough to call the LA gang. It seemed Cordelia was still in a coma, and no one was talking about Conner, but Angel and Fred and Gunn and Wesley had all trouped in late last night. Lorne hadn't known any of the Sunnydale crew and opted to stay behind and "mind the shop." Apparently their unexplained new "resources" had allowed Fred to develop a short-term sunshield for vampires, which Angel had already tested and would be wearing at the graveside.

Dawn wasn't sure who'd found Oz, or Faith and Wood. Or how they'd found them.

There were also a smattering of former Slayers-In-Training, and some guys from Xander's old construction crew. His parents were conspicuously absent.

Dawn's mind wasn't on the comforting words of the priest, or the people around her for long, though. She'd had a lot of time to think on what she'd do once Xander was gone, and she reviewed some decisions that were already made.

She was going to sell the house. The memories were too raw and painful - the losses too plentiful. She had to get away from it. Xander's insurance money enabled her to take her time, so Willow and Kennedy could find a place of their own before she put it on the market, but after tonight, Dawn wasn't going back there anymore.

She'd stayed up late talking to her sister's ex, and Angel had invited her to come to LA and live with the team at the Hyperion. It sounded good to her, especially since she hadn't yet figured out where she was going when she left Sunnydale. LA would work just fine.

She was going to finish high school, and go to college. Xander had always pushed her to do well in school, always regretting the lack of his own college education. She wasn't certain she'd do it traditionally, but she was going to get her diploma and then her degree, for him.

She was also selling the Magic Box. She was never going to touch magic again.

Wondering for the hundredth time if wherever Xander was, he was finally happy, the seventeen-year-old virgin widow stepped forward to lay a red rose atop the coffin, and throw the first handful of dirt on her departed love's grave. Then, dusting the dirt from her hands, she walked away.


Somewhere Else

It was misty. Not dark - there was light from everywhere and nowhere. Xander looked down at his clothes, and wondered who picked the all-white color scheme. He felt a sudden pressure and looked down to see Buffy holding onto his hand. She was dressed all in white, too.

Somebody was just ahead of them in the mist, moving towards them. He squinted - it was a girl. She got closer. A blonde girl. Then he recognized the face and tensed. After all these years, even without the makeup and tarty clothing, he knew the face of the vampire that had turned his best friend, necessitating that Xander stake him.

"She's okay," Buffy insisted, speaking the first words he'd heard since they got to this ethereal place. "She works for the good guys now."

"You sure?" he hissed. "You've been wrong about vampires before."

"Listen," Darla interrupted. "She'll be here soon - I only have a few minutes. This is for closure. They never meant for there to be this much more pain. But too many lives, too intertwined." Her voice faded, and her figure grew taller; her hair darker and longer. Her voice.

"Xander? Buffy?" Her voice was Dawn's.

˜You can't touch her, either.˜ Darla's command floated into their ears from behind.

"Hey Dawnie." Xander smiled warmly. Then Dawn stepped forward, and he and Buffy retreated slightly. "Can't touch. Sorry."

She grinned crookedly. "Just like home."

"I always let you touch," he teased, her humor infectious.

"Not the fun parts."

"Dawn!" Buffy gasped, scandalized.

"I bet he lets you touch the good parts," her sister pouted.

Buffy cut her eyes up at Xander's smirk, and grew one of her own. "Not yet, but."

"If you say 'It's coming' I am so going to strangle you," he shot back at her. They all laughed.

The laughter quieted and Dawn's smile grew melancholy. "It looks like you're finally happy."

Buffy fielded that one. "We both are. It's a good place, and we're together."

"Is Tara here, or Mom? Anya?"

"Mom's here. We haven't seen Tara or Anya, but maybe they're in their own good place, someplace else." Buffy carefully avoided mentioning Hank - she didn't want to confuse the issue.

The younger girl looked more hopeful. "Maybe someday I'll be here in this good place with you guys."

Buffy could feel from the tension running through Xander's body that he wanted nothing more than to step forward and sweep Dawn into a hug, but he was holding himself back. "Maybe someday you'll be in your own good place, with people you haven't even met yet. Or ones you have, but don't see that way right now." He smiled with understanding at Buffy, who smiled the same way back. "You're young. You have a lot of life still ahead of you. Live it facing forward, not looking back."

"The hardest thing in life is to live in it, but only if you make it that way, Dawn. You can be better than that." Better than me, Buffy thought to herself.

Then the mist closed around them all, and they lost sight of each other.


Sunny Hills Reality

Alex heard the door creak, and then the lock turn shut again. His clock shone "3:28." "Buffy?" In the dim light, he saw a small blonde head nodding. "I've kinda been expecting you."

"Did you.?" She paused.

"The dream?" he countered. "Yeah." He held up the covers, and she crawled in beside him. He scooted his head down to lie again on the pillow, and she wrapped herself around him, the small size of the bed forcing them as close as they wanted to be, anyway. "I think it was real."

She snuggled further into him, knowing it was where she belonged. "As real as this is," she agreed. "And just as important."


˜He can't say I didn't warn him. He knows what he's getting into. Of course, I wouldn't have believed my dad could be the way he is if I hadn't seen it before. Still, he does need to meet mom and dad before we get out of here. Dr. Irving is hoping that Alex will be ready to go when I leave, and I'm all with him on that.

I mean, we have discussed my moving into his apartment and going to UCLA next semester. I'm thinking mom and dad are going to have to really like Alex before we spring that one on them. Although I seriously doubt Dad will be any problem once he finds out exactly who "this guy" is.

See, my dad is a UCLA alumnus, and a serious Bruins nut. He's also the guy who probably had the very first publicly offered subscription to Sports Illustrated. The word "fanatic" is in no way strong enough to describe Hank Summers and sports - especially UCLA sports. Once, when I was ten, he ran into Kermit Alexander in the grocery store and talked to him for fifteen minutes or so. Now, it didn't matter that Dad had to explain to almost everyone to whom he told the story that Kermit Alexander had been the 1986 UCLA Hall of Fame inductee for football, he still told the story to everyone he met. Until I was at least thirteen.

I'm thinkin' once he finds out his little girl wants to move in with Alex Lewis, he'll be out renting a U-Haul.

And, hey - only a little over three weeks. Three weeks, two days to be exact.˜

When the meeting finally took place, it would be a hard call to decide who was more nervous, Hank and Joyce, or Buffy and Alex.

Hank and Joyce, because they'd finally accepted that this boy was a Big Deal to Buffy. Maybe THE Big Deal. They'd just gotten her back and well, and she went and gave her heart away. They weren't too excited about that. But they promised they'd give him a chance before they whisked her off to a convent in the Swiss Alps guarded by The Incredible Hulk. Actually, Joyce simply said they'd give him a chance - the convent and the Hulk were Hank's idea.

Alex was terrified. He'd always been too busy for a girlfriend, so he'd never done the whole "meet the girlfriend's parents" thing before. He kept trying to shove down the (apparently sixteen-year-old) Xander inside of him who did a happy dance every time he thought of Buffy as his "girlfriend." It didn't help that Nat had asked if she could come videotape the "fireworks." She'd gotten way too much joy out of the pair's answering angry scowls.

So the time was here. He'd changed shirts six times, finally settling on Buffy's favorite. He'd called his high school coach for advice. Then called him back to discuss the advice. He was showered, shaved and about ready to climb the walls. Meanwhile, Buffy was heading toward the lobby to collect her parents.

˜Please let them like him, please let them like him, pleaseletthemlikehim.˜

No, the former Slayer wasn't nervous, much. She was just in the middle between the three people she loved most in the world, and wondering if she was going to need super strength she no longer possessed for everyone to come out of this alive.

"Hi!" she greeted her stone-faced parents perkily. Her mother smiled, but her father was still auditioning for Mount Rushmore. "We need to meet in Alex's room. Follow me."

"He's dangerous," she heard Hank mutter stonily. "They can't even let him out of his room - he'd probably hurt people."

"Daddy!" she chastised him. "You'll understand why in a minute."

Alex heard the scratch of keys in the door and jumped up to the sound of a man's voice saying, ".lock him in. He is dangerous, isn't he? He's probably." Then Alex was looking into the most startled pair of hazel eyes he could recall ever seeing. ".Alex LEWIS?!?!"

"A little louder Dad, I don't think they heard you in the Alzheimer's Ward."

"Your boy - your 'Alex' - is Alex Lewis?"

"To the best of my knowledge I am, sir." Alex stepped forward, offering his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Summers."

Buffy's dad was pumping his hand up and down in glee. "Hank. I'm Hank. And you're Alex Lewis! This explains so much."

Alex gently disentangled his hand and guided the older man to the couch. "Why don't you have a seat, Mr. - Hank. Have a seat, Hank."

"And you can call me Joyce."

Alex froze at the sound of the long gone but still beloved voice. Turning, he saw once again the eyes, the smile - all the things he'd thought gone forever. "Joyce," he said with reverence.

Buffy understood the emotion - she remembered feeling it herself. But Alex was going to freak her mom out if he hugged her or fell at her feet or something, so she moved quickly to his side. "Why don't you get mom and dad some water or a soda, honey? Mom, you can sit on the couch, too."

Alex shook his head to gather himself, and went and pulled a couple of Coke cans out of his mini-fridge, another privilege of his being who he was. He didn't drink Coke, but he'd had Natalie bring him in a six pack, because Buffy had said her folks liked it. "This okay? Sorry I don't have any glasses." He handed them the cans and went back to retrieve bottled water for himself and Buffy. The Xander Happy Dance was going on inside his head to tune of "Joyce," now. But he reminded himself he had to act like he'd never met her before.

"You're the young man who's been . missing, recently, aren't you?" Joyce asked as Alex gave them their drinks. "The swimmer."'

"Honey, this is not just any swimmer, this is Alex Lewis," Hank said with awe.

Alex sat across from them, deciding to pretty much ignore Hank. Buffy hadn't been wrong about him. "Yes, ma'am. I had a. well, I don't remember a lot about what happened to me, but they tell me it was stress. All I know is that Buffy here helped me through. She's most of the reason I'm better now." Buffy perched on the arm of his chair, finally relaxing. She thought her dad would be a slam dunk, but she had a feeling Alex's sweet, troubled soul would touch her mother's soft spots, as well.

"I feel like I know you from somewhere." Alex and Buffy looked at each other, wide-eyed. Was this their Joyce, here?

"Of course you do, honey. His picture's been on every magazine cover and in the paper more than the president's!"

Alex gazed into Joyce Summers' blue eyes, and the connection was made, somewhere inside. She would never be conscious of it, really, but the Joyce that had come from Sunnydale accepted that this was her Xander, who'd been like one of her own children, and that Buffy was fine, no better than fine, with him. Her body language subtly relaxed. "That must be it," she conceded to her husband. She turned to her daughter. "Do you suppose we could get one of those pass things for the both of you, and take you out to dinner?"


˜Well, by my calendar, I have at least a week to go, but Dr. Irving and Dr. Shah just came into Alex's room and told us they were letting us both leave early. Jake was here, too (Jake Steward, Alex's college coach), and the way he was smiling, I think he already knew. When I called Mom, it seemed she and Dad already knew, too.

We're both starting back to school after Christmas Break - Alex is going to spend the time until then getting back into shape. He says he feels scrawny and that he's really missed the weight room. I personally don't find much wrong with his body, but.

Mom, of course, will be more than glad to feed him to get him back up to fighting weight. She's been reading cookbooks, trying new vegetarian meals. He says he has to eat fish and chicken sometimes, for the protein, but he really prefers meatless. He only drinks water. So not like Xander. Sometimes, actually more and more lately, I forget that life ever existed, and so does he.

Oh, but Alex does have a weakness for Twinkies.

Still, we've settled into Buffy, normal girl, and Alex, star swimmer. I have this Buffy's normal reflexes, and I'm even a little on the pitifully weak side. But Alex says he's going to get me started running with him, and one of the courses I've signed up for next semester is Self-Defense. He's got a lean, muscular shape the Sunnydale Xander hadn't had since our Junior year (or at least, that was the last time I ever saw it), and his wit is just as sharp, although much more sophisticated. He's quite honestly brilliant.

Oh, and I love him. Not just as a friend, either - I've never done some of that stuff with my friends! (I'm really glad his room door locks!) He makes me feel safe and happy and complete, and he says I do the same for him. He says I always did, even when he was Xander. And I love him for that, too, even though I know it's partially a lie.

I've spent some time on the "What ifs," but the best I can tell, the Buffy of Sunnydale was never really willing to have a happy life. If she had been, she'd have given more time to the things that bolstered her humanity, instead of making choices that condemned her to dwell on the darker side of her life. Angel, for example, when Xander was so available. After she died the first time, the die was cast already. The messed up version was just living out what the whole me had started. Unfortunately, she dragged her friends down into the darkness with her.

But enough of ancient history. Right now - we're going home! Alright, I'm going to my parent's house and he's going back to his apartment, but we're going to fix that soon enough. We just have to work on my parents a little. By the time school starts again, I have a feeling I'll be receiving my mail at an apartment not far from the swimming complex. That's my plan - his, too. And next year, I'm going to Athens to watch my guy wow the world at the Olympics. He's planning to surprise Natalie with a ticket too, since he's gotta stay in the athlete's housing, and he wants me to have company. Well, besides Mom and Dad, who he's including in the family tickets with me. Nat's going to come undone. She admitted to me once she'd never been out of California. I think Greece isn't going to know what hit it!

We have to continue outpatient counseling with Dr. Irving and Dr. Shah, but for the most part, this will be behind us. Alex has planned what and how he's going to share about his "absence" with the press, and he and Jake even decided which sportswriter he's going to let have the story first. Dr. Irving helped him find a fairly unfamiliar diagnosis to claim, a mental disorder the doc thinks needs more attention, but not one people would necessarily know all the symptoms for. We were seen when Mom and Dad took us out to dinner a couple of weeks ago, so the rumor mill is already up and grinding and he needs to dive into it quickly.

As for me, as Xander told Dawn to do not too long ago, I'm gonna live my life looking forward. And I have a lot to look forward to.


Alan Timmerman, exclusive to Sports Illustrated

After an unnerving detour, Alex Lewis is back on the road to Athens, with a new outlook on life.

(Los Angeles)

When Jake Steward of UCLA called me and asked me to do a private interview with Alex Lewis, I was intrigued, at the very least.

Swimming's Boy Wonder had been missing from the public eye for months - his whereabouts and reasons for disappearing were secrets more closely held than the contents of Area 51. Now he was coming out, to me, about where he'd been and what he'd been doing.

I thought I'd be ready for anything.

I was wrong.

We met in a small café near the University campus. Lewis was already there, his usual meal of a salad and fruit before him. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about life, the weather and the Bruins in general, and once my meal arrived, we got down to brass tacks.

"I'm not here to put a pretty face on it, Al," he began. "I've been pretty bad off. I didn't know just who I was, or where I was, or anything for a while."

Such openness about mental illness is unheard of in the sporting world, but Alex wants everyone to know, so that maybe others who are suffering from Schizophreniform disorder, a stress-related disease often mistaken for schizophrenia, will seek help such as he received.

Alex credits the staff at Sunny Hills Rest Home, a facility just outside of Alhambra, for his quick and thorough recovery. And a certain young lady, who he's yet to identify.

"This isn't about my love life, Al. It's about my illness, my recovery, and my plans for making up for the time I've lost in preparing for Athens. I'm sure the personal stuff will come out soon, but right now, we're just enjoying spending time together without the press interrupting us."

And all over the country echoed the sound of young girls' hearts breaking.

Alex Lewis, who began swimming competitively at a very early age, has never taken a break of any length before in his athletic career. He won his first National Title at the age of...


Dawn threw Gunn's magazine on the counter. You had to be brain-dead in LA not to know the details of Alex Lewis's swimming career, and she wasn't interested enough in the article to wade through them again.

She hated the times when she relieved the receptionist. It was so boring. But it wasn't often; she shouldn't complain.

She had turned eighteen last week. The Angel gang had taken her out to dinner, bought her pretty things, and made her feel loved. It had been good for her. Even Willow and Kennedy had driven down from Sunnydale to celebrate with them.

She was almost through her night-study high school course, and would be getting her diploma in January. She had a good job, researching and running the records room at Team Angel, Inc. - formerly the law firm of Wolfram and Hart. Her life mattered.

She was at peace. That one fact was more surprising to her than any of the others.

When Xander died, she was sure her whole world would follow him to the grave. But something had happened soon afterward - she wasn't completely sure what - and she simply woke up one morning ready to go on with her life. True, she was hardly your usual carefree eighteen-year- old, but she didn't carry the burden she'd expected to shoulder along with her when she'd moved to LA from Sunnydale.

She had family and friends. She had purpose. She had her precious memories.

It was almost everything she ever wanted.

"Excuse me, Miss?"

Okay, WOW. Serious hottie at the desk. He was about her height, maybe a bit shorter, with muscular shoulders and deep, almost indigo blue eyes and dark blonde hair, cut really short. He was gorgeous. He was... She looked down at the picture on the magazine cover on the desk.

"Alex Lewis?"

"Yeah." He blushed. How adorable. Then he pulled the petite black girl clinging to his hand forward. "This is my girlfriend, Natalie. There's something really weird going on, and we were told you were the people to see about it."


Author's Notes On Unwell


These will probably be kinda random, as I think of the stuff I wanted to say.

First, this story ended up nothing like I envisioned it when I began it. My original idea stayed close in the first chapter - Buffy would die and end up in the Normal Again world. It made sense, considering how the last scene of that episode played out. Also, given Joss' clear theology - there is no real Hell, only Hell dimensions. Why would there be a real Heaven? I'm pretty sure that Joss has been quoted as stating he didn't believe in either, or something to that effect. And in a world where the omnipotent powers are The Powers That Be, a semi-malicious group who only slightly seem to favor humans (giving them Champions, but giving said Champions Hell on Earth to live through), why would there be a good place for people after they die? The only reason the Sunny Hills Reality existed was for Buffy to live a normal life - no one else was actually supposed to get that reward. Even Joyce was only sent there due to her importance to Buffy. Was Xander slated to go there originally by TPTB? Seems unlikely.

Somehow, though, Xander would end up there, with a different name, so she wouldn't know who he was just from overhearing the doctors talk about him. But the fact his case resembles hers will lead her to finally offer to go see him, and then her figuring out it's him.

Next came the problem of getting him there. He couldn't just go there, entirely, because he'd need the phasing in and out in order to end up institutionalized. So it had to be magical, and not "this is heaven (or heaven-like dimension) where all the Scoobies end up when they die." Because that wasn't the impression NA left us with. No, this was a real place, where Buffy was a real human. Normal. And it was the effect of the demon that sent her there. So something had to send him there as well.

I really didn't want to use the tired old "Willow does a spell" - I've even subtly joked about it in my recent stories. It's a tired plot contrivance. But someone had to send him there, preferably accidentally. Who better than Dawn? Innocent, well-meaning Dawn.

But Dawn is suffering her own sense of loss. She's lost all the same important people as Xander has, and unlike Willow, but just like Xander, she has no one else to turn to. I felt her feelings for Xander had to be pretty strong for her to risk a spell, knowing all she does about what can happen with Magic. A romantic relationship between them was the best way I could see for her to gain the vested interest to do such a thing. So I stated in the intro that one relationship would be D/X. And I got a review on that chapter (where the relationship had only been stated, not even portrayed as yet) condemning Xander as a pervert due to this.

I didn't want to even hint at that, although it troubled me, since there are far fewer years between Dawn and Xander than there were between Buffy and Angel, the one relationship that was seen as the touchstone of the entire series, and the ideal Buffy relationship in many eyes. But I actually disliked B/A for that very reason (the age difference between Angel and Buffy, especially since it started when she was only sixteen and he appeared to be in his mid-twenties), and didn't want that for Xander. When I thought about it, this Xander, who had lost both Buffy and Anya in one fell swoop soon after losing his eye, and with it his livelihood, would be too broken to have a relationship at this point. So it would have to be all Dawn. Who after all, is still seventeen and idealistic enough to think she can make it all right with love (which in Sunnydale seems to equal sex, at least between most people). So I thought maybe Dawn would come on to him, fail to gain his interest, then take advantage of him when he was out of it.

I ended up hating that idea, too, because it made Dawn look bad, which wasn't my plan. I like her. But I wanted her to end up pregnant with Xander's child, to be born after he died and striking some kind of chord in Alex when it happened, keeping open the link between Sunnydale and Sunny Hills. So I thought, maybe an immaculate pregnancy? Naw, too Biblical. In fact, until I started writing the Epilogue, I didn't know how it would go. I was planning to just end it with the magazine article. Then it came to me.

There was a tie between the worlds. It was due to the spell Dawn used. The spell needed someone to pattern Xander's life in the Sunny Hills world on, and it chose Alex Lewis. Perhaps there's a version of all of our favorites there - I'm not sure. Perhaps there's now a Xander Harris there, with indigo blue eyes and short dark blonde hair - who knows? But the world, meant as a reward for Buffy when Slaying killed her, is now, thanks the vagrancies of magic, inexorably linked to the world of Sunnydale.

My characters go where they want. I didn't start out wanting to do D/X. I didn't know Dr. Irving Coyle would end up such a sympathetic character, and buy Buffy's story. (I knew I hated the doctor in Normal Again, and wanted him gone - hence his replacement by Menah Shah - named after my mother's GP.) I didn't even know Natalie was black until Xander mentioned it! Willow became all responsible and started supporting them all, leaving her unavailable to take care of Xander. I didn't mean for her to be so absent during his illness, so clueless. But between work and Kennedy.

I may have mentioned I don't care for Kennedy.

Schizopherniform disorder is a real mental illness. I searched all the clinical writings about it I could find online, and couldn't find a clear cause, so I made it stress-related. I knew I couldn't use real schizophrenia, because it's genetic, and I didn't want Alex permanently broken. But it had to resemble schizophrenia closely, since the doctor in Normal Again stated that Buffy had a "non-differentiated form of schizophrenia" at one point to Hank and Joyce.

Sunnydale Joyce was well submerged inside the Sunny Hills one, since she got there first and through entirely natural means, so she didn't have the parallel memories Buffy and Xander came there with. She just settled into the memories of the reality she now lived in.

There will be no sequel. I don't know where it goes from here. It was an unexpected, nearly Joss-ian (when that used to be a good thing) twist, leaving you going, "Huh?" At least, that was what it was supposed to be.

I'm proud of this child of mine. It did what I wanted it to - made at least a few people remember why we liked Buffy (both the show and the character) once upon a time. And of course, it ended with my favorite couple together.