A/N Sorry it took so long! Hope you guys enjoy!
Buffy sat in her living room sipping at a mug of blood. She stared into the fireplace as Enzo poked at the fire. It was actually hot outside, but he knew that Buffy liked a good fire for comfort. He turned around and sat down across from her.
"How are you, love?"
"Hurt." Buffy said. "Pissed off." She placed her face in her hand. "God, I wish Damon was here."
"We need to figure out what's our next move to get him back."
She looked up at him, moving her hand down her face to rest on her cheek. "I don't even know where to start. If Stefan's right…."
"He's not right. Don't you lose hope, too. I won't allow it."
"I'm not…. I would never give up on Damon because he would never give up on me. I just don't know where to go from here. All those leads didn't pan out."
"We'll figure something out." Enzo patted her knee and stood up. "I'm going to go clean up. Meet me for breakfast in a couple of hours at the diner."
"Yeah, ok." Buffy continued to stare at the flames, sipping at her blood, as Enzo walked out of the apartment. Outside the window, the sun was just beginning its ascent into the sky.
Alaric's bedroom door opened and he poked his head out. "You're back." He came out to join her in the living room, sitting down next to her. "That was fast."
"We didn't go to Oregon." Buffy said. "We found Stefan."
"I thought you knew where he was."
"Well, I thought he was travelling and following the leads you'd been sending him, but nope. For the last two months or more he's been living his own, normal life…. Dating some girl named Liv…. Working at an auto repair shop…. Pretending to be human. He really did give up."
"That doesn't sound like Stefan at all."
"He said he didn't want anything to do with his old life. That he had to erase everything."
"Then why did he come here and stay with you? If he was trying to cut ties with his life here…. Why?" Alaric asked.
"He wouldn't answer me."
Alaric reached over and took her hand. "I'm sorry, Buffy. What are we going to do now?"
"I don't know." She moved over and curled up against Alaric. He wrapped his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. "My family fell apart and I don't know how to fix it."
"We'll figure something out, Buff. We will. For now…. We just need to go back to plan A. We take it one day at a time. I'll keep hunting for leads and maybe we can get Willow to look harder into a way to bring him back." Buffy stayed silent, but her suddenly stiff body told Alaric that he shouldn't have mentioned Willow. Buffy was still upset at what Willow had done to her over the last four months. "She meant well."
"I know that. It doesn't make it any easier or me any less upset. She should've told me about it. No, she should've asked my permission.""I completely agree, but she's your best friend. You should at least talk to her."
"Rick, can I just spend the morning sulking until I have to go meet Enzo? I don't want to talk about all the problems I've had going on since my husband died."
He sighed. "Sure. You can sulk. But at some point, you're going to have to deal with Willow."
"In the words of Scarlett O'Hara, 'I can't think about that today. I'll think about it tomorrow.'" Buffy smiled slightly and sat up. "Did you know that was one of Damon's favorite movies? Gone With the Wind?"
Alaric smiled slightly. Buffy talking about Damon without completely breaking down was a new thing. "I didn't know that. I would never have pegged him for an epic romance movie type of guy."
"I once told him that I was good at surprising people, but he was the one constantly surprising me." She looked down at her wedding and engagement rings, fiddling with them. He spotted the tears fall from her face down onto her fingers. "Rick…. What if I never get him back? What am I supposed to do?"
"I don't have an answer for that, Buff. I wish I did, but I don't."
Buffy nodded and stood up. "I'm going to go take a shower and get changed." She walked into her bedroom and shut the door behind her.
*1994 Bizarro World*
Damon leaned against a shopping cart, pushing it down the aisle, with Bonnie walking beside him. They were strolling through the aisles of the deserted grocery store shopping for their daily supplies. It was a real pain in the ass when the world around them reset and the food they'd collected disappeared.
"Did you and Buffy ever grocery shop together?" Bonnie asked.
Damon looked over at her incredulously. "Of course we did."
"I was just asking. I never saw you two leave the house for groceries."
"Well, we did. Not very often because Stefan liked to be Susie Homemaker, but every now and then Buffy and I would enjoy a trip to the store."
"Did you let her push the cart or were you just as stubborn about sharing?"
"We both pushed it."
Bonnie chuckled. "You know, for a married vampire couple with one of you being a hybrid Vampire Slayer vampire, you two were weirdly normal."
"Ha!" Damon pointed out a doorway between two of the cold display cases. "We snuck back there once and…."
"Ok…. What have I told you about talking to me about sex stories with your wife?"
He shrugged. "One day, Bon-Bon, you're going to have a husband and all you'll want to do is have sex and be happy and tell the world how happy you are. But for all that magic to happen, you need to get us out of here!"
"I'm working on it." Bonnie reached into the cart and picked up a small piece of paper. "We need strawberries." Damon made a noise in his throat. "Eggs, milk and…. ooh candles." She picked up one and set it in the cart.
"I know it's been awhile, but you couldn't do magic as an anchor, so I'm curious what momentary lapse of reason makes you think you can do it now?"
"You know, when all this started, you sucked at making pancakes but now they're somewhat edible. Milk."
"My wife loves my pancakes." Damon stopped the cart, opened one of the refrigerator doors, and grabbed a carton of milk, setting it in the cart.
"That's because she loves you. And there's no reason to be Peter Pessimist. We have proof we're not alone."
"First of all. Don't nickname, that's my thing. And this proof…. This mysteriously filled in crossword, could very easily have been you."
"I didn't fill it in."
"No. You don't know you filled it in. You also don't know that you talk in your sleep. Eggs."
Bonnie opened the fridge beside them and grabbed the eggs. "What are you saying? Are you saying I sleep crossword?"
"I'm saying it makes more sense than the alternative." He snatched the eggs and slammed them in the cart.
"I get what you're doing."
"What am I doing?"
"You refuse to have hope that you'll see Buffy again so you don't have to be disappointed."
"Actually, I don't refuse to have hope. I hope, but it's hope that my wife and her best friend…. The all powerful witch that brought Buffy back to life…. Are working on finding a way out. My hope lies with them. Not you and your non-magic-y self!"
"Not on the list and ew."
"No, Damon, there were pork rinds on this shelf. There have been pork rinds here on every shopping trip we've had for the past 4 months." Suddenly, the music from the carousel outside started playing. "You hear that?" She hurried out of the store and Damon followed. Sure enough, the little carousel outside was going in circles and playing its music. "Hmm, you hear that, Damon? That's what hope sounds like."
Damon opened the switch box of the horse carousel and plucked at the wires. "It's gotta be a short, faulty wiring, something."
"Or someone put a quarter in it and turned it on." Bonnie said.
"You know I'm a little confused with all this misplaced hope. All right, let's just say there's someone here. How do you know we're gonna get out?"
"Well, you say that this is your hell right? If there's someone else here, that means it's not your hell, and if it's not your hell that means Grams put us here, and if Grams put us here there's a way out."
"That's a hell of a logic knot you've tied for yourself."
"Thank you. So now that we have properly placed our hope, let's play a game. When we get out, what's the first thing you're gonna tell Buffy?"
"I killed Bonnie, but you'll understand that she was the most annoying person in the world." Damon stood up and walked towards the parking lot. "She wouldn't shut up. She just kept talking. I mean, it's a wonder I made it as long as I did, but here's the thing, I think it's better this way because she didn't have magic, and she was pretty much useless."
"I don't know…. You still think I'm useless?" She pointed to a very familiar car sitting in a parking spot. It was Damon's blue convertible.
Damon checked the plates and smiled brightly. "That's my car. That's my car!" He opened the top and hopped in the driver's seat. "Oh, you beautiful thing you!" He grabbed the wheel and started making car sounds with his mouth, pretending that he was driving fast down an open road.
"How much longer are we gonna listen…."
"Shh, shh, shh, shh! This sound is the opposite sound of your voice and I so enjoy it."
"How did it even get here, Damon? Did you leave it here in 1994?"
"I don't know, Bonnie. It was 18 years ago. Had a lot going on that day."
"Ok. So you admit that it's pretty unlikely that you did."
"Which would stand to reason that…."
"Someone may have put it here, Bonnie. Yes, I admit that." He glanced over at the passenger's seat and sighed. He had a sudden flash of Buffy's face looking at him with worry as he sped towards The Grill. "I'm gonna tell Buffy how much I love her." Bonnie smiled. "And then I'm gonna apologize for killing you."
"Wait. Did you just see that?"
Damon turned around just in time to see a figure running behind a parked car. "I did that time. Let's go meet our little friend."
Buffy sighed. "Elena, I really don't want to go to a party." She looked at Enzo grinning at her across the table and threw a spoon at him.
"It would do you some good." Elena said. "You need some fun."
"I don't need fun. I need to stay focused on what I'm doing."
"What are you doing?"
"Working on finding a way to bring Damon and Bonnie back. Something no one else seems to be interested in except Enzo."
"I'm interested. You know that I am, but you need to take a minute and recharge. Come have a little bit of fun. And besides, Stefan will be there."
"I don't want to speak to that prick."
"He wants to apologize."
"Yes, I've gotten and deleted every one of his messages. I'm not interested in an apology."
"He's your brother, Buffy."
"Only by marriage."
"You love him. He's your family."
"And just because he's family doesn't mean that I have to like him. Cause I don't."
"Will you at least consider coming to the party?"
"Jeremy is coming."
"He's actually venturing out of his bubble?"
"Yeah! You should come say hi. Check on him. Talk to him."
Buffy sighed and looked at Enzo. "Do you want to go?"
"To a college party?" Enzo asked. "Could be fun. Will Caroline be there?"
"Then, yes. I want to go."
"Enzo and I will stop by later for a little bit. But do me a favor? Keep Stefan away from me."
"I'm not making any promises." Elena said. "See ya later!" She hung up before Buffy could say anything else.
Buffy rolled her eyes and looked at Enzo. "Why did you ask if Caroline would be there?"
"I like her. She's feisty." Enzo got up to go pay the check and Buffy spotted a red spot on his shirt.
"Blood or pie?" She asked, gesturing at the spot.
He dabbed his finger on the spot and tasted it. "That would be Shirley…. A special off the menu item. This little diner is surprisingly well stocked."
"Enzo, seriously? Did you at least snatch, eat, and erase?"
"Funny thing about that…. You do the first two properly, the third isn't necessary."
"Oh, don't act all shocked."
"I'm not shocked. I'm annoyed. You can't go around killing people. It leads to official investigations."
"I'm terrified. I already have three warnings. One more is a fine."
"Maybe for you, but I don't have the time or the patience to deal with all of that."
Enzo leaned down and kissed Buffy's cheek. "So don't."
He walked off and Buffy groaned, burying her face in her hands. "Damon, I seriously need you right now."
Buffy walked to the clearing that Elena had asked to meet her in and found the tall brunette dialing a number on her phone. She glanced over Elena's shoulder and saw that she was calling Stefan. "Oh good, he's not here." Buffy said.
Elena startled and whipped around to stare at Buffy. "God! Make a noise when you're sneaking up on people."
"I wasn't sneaking." She walked around to sit down next to Elena. "Where is that betraying brother of mine? I'd like to not be here when he is."
"He said he was here to apologize."
"Lying is one of his new things."
Caroline walked up to the clearing. "I'm here. Where is everyone? Buffy!" She plopped down next to Buffy and gave her a hug. "It is so great to see you out and about and socializing."
"I'm not staying."
"You have to!" Elena said. "You're already here."
"And I really don't want to be."
Tyler and Matt walked up to the clearing next. "Buffy." Matt said. "Hey!"
"Where's Jeremy?" Buffy asked him. "Didn't he come with you?"
"No. He came with that girl Sarah."
"What girl Sarah?"
"The one that you bit outside of town and Caroline compelled to forget."
"Why is he with her?"
"Hey. Have you guys seen Stefan?" Elena asked.
"I didn't even know he was back."
"So you want to fill us in on what we're doing here?" Tyler asked.
"You don't remember this place?" Elena said. "We used to sneak off here and get wasted while our parents were outside grilling. Granted, we all have a few less parents, and my legal guardian is here now, but we can still have fun." She reached into a bag and offered them all Jell-O shots.
Tyler stepped back. "Actually, I can't. I'm working on my rage issues, and this wouldn't help."
"My buddy's wasted, and I've got to train in the morning, so…." Matt said.
"Ok. Well, I don't want to sound like an alcoholic, but I do want a shot, so will someone do one with me?"
Caroline raised her hand. "Done!"
Buffy shook her head. "No thanks. Never was one for Jell-O shots."
Elena handed a shot to Caroline. "Bottoms up."
"Mmm!" Caroline said after the two girls threw back the shots. "Well…. Here we are, having fun. I'm having fun. Aren't we having fun? This is really fun."
"Nice sarcasm." Buffy said.
"Ok. Clearly, this was a big mistake." Elena said. "I just wanted to spend one afternoon where we pretend for just one second like we're not all drifting apart."
"Well, that's the problem, Elena. Not all of us are ok with pretending." Caroline said. "Some of us prefer to face our problems head-on."
"I think we should go." Tyler said.
"Yeah." Matt agreed. The two of them waved at Buffy and left.
Elena looked at Caroline. "What's going on?"
"I'm just lonely, ok? And Bonnie's gone…. Stefan's gone. Buffy's busy dealing with her grief."
"I'm still here, Car."
"Yeah. You're still here." Caroline sighed and walked off.
Elena looked at Buffy. Buffy sighed. "Welcome to life after high school, Elena. Your friends start to find their niche in the world and you feel like you're being left behind."
"But what was that comment about facing our problems head on?"
"I think she means that you're not dealing with what Stefan's done. You should be pretty damn angry at him."
"He lost his brother. He was trying to deal with it."
"No, Elena. He was running away from it. He stopped caring about the people in his life because thinking about Damon hurt him too much. He's not dealing with it at all." Buffy stood up. "I'll see you later." She headed off to head back to her apartment, but just before she opened the door to the building, she turned and headed down a couple of streets over.
*1994 Bizarro World*
"It was behind the pickup." Bonnie insisted.
"No. It was in the front." Damon argued.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Absolutely I'm sure. It was right there." He turned towards the back of the truck where a tarp was flapping in the wind. "It was a tarp. We saw a tarp." Suddenly the horse carousel turned on and music started playing. "And that…. that is on a timer. That turned on by itself."
"But your car."
"I left it here in '94."
"And the crossword?"
"You filled it out, Bonnie. Which means we're alone in my own hell with no Grams escape hatch."
"Give me your ring."
"Give me your ring." Bonnie grabbed his hand and tried to snatch it, but Damon resisted her. "If this is your hell, if it's so bad, why don't you just end it? Hope is the only thing keeping me going, Damon, so if you're really done, then be done because this isn't helping."
Damon watched her walk away and turned to head back into the store. "I have hope. Just not in you. I know that my wife is out there…. Somewhere…. And she's going to find a way to bring me back." He headed to the aisle of liquor and picked up a bottle of bourbon. A sound nearby drew his attention away and he put the bottle back. When he moved a little further down the aisle, he spotted a man lounging on a patio chair munching on the missing pork rinds.
"Rough day, huh, Damon? Sorry. Manners. I'm Kai. Nice to meet you. Pork rind?"
Damon stared at the newcomer, but the chomping on the pork rinds was getting annoying. "That is gonna have to stop."
"Oh, you think this is annoying? Hmm. Try listening to you and Bonnie bicker every 5 minutes."
"So you've been following us."
"Of course I have. You two are the closest thing I have a to a TV. I mean, you're no Baywatch, but…. Remember Baywatch?"
"No, I do not."
"Oh. Oh, man, you gotta watch it. You like lifeguards, like…. Hot ones?"
"This has been a monumentally bad day in a sea of bad days, so I'm gonna need to know who you are, what you're doing here, and how it relates to me, or I'm gonna rip your throat out."
"Temper's gonna get you in trouble, Damon. It's already driven Bonnie away how many times? Oh, oh, oh, wait. I know. Thirteen."
"You think my temper's bad with her? I like her. You not so much." Damon rushed Kai and grabbed him up by his collar.
"Ok. Ok. Sorry. Seriously, I'm just kind of rusty on the face-to-face type human interactions."
Damon dropped him. "Answers now."
"Maybe you should have a drink. That usually calms you down."
"Thanks." Damon made his way back over to his bottle of bourbon.
"Then makes you angry, then sad, then calm again. It's a weird cycle, and look, if you really want to know the reason I'm following you, it's because I want to kill you." Kai watched as Damon took a swig of the bourbon and began coughing it back out. "Vervain in your bourbon. Who didn't see that one coming?" Damon collapsed to his knees, his mouth burning from the vervain. "Who buys patio furniture from a grocery store? I mean, somebody must. Otherwise, it…. it wouldn't be here," Kai picked up a beach umbrella and broke it's wooden end into two piece. "But now I'm a little unfamiliar with vampires, but from what I've gathered, a stake in the heart should do it, right?" Damon reached out to grab Kai, but Kai stabbed him through his hand. "You can always fight dirty, Damon. Like that time you and Bonnie played monopoly and you stole from the bank. Not cool."
Damon managed to free his hand and stood up. "I'm gonna rip your head off."
"No. You're not." Kai smashed all of the bottles on the shelf and the liquid from them burned Damon's skin where it splashed him. He fell to the floor again. "I didn't know which bottle you'd take, so I vervained them all." He raised the other half of the umbrella to stab Damon.
"Stay away from him." Bonnie said, appearing behind Damon.
"The useless one is here. Thank God. I've watched you try to do magic for months now. What are you gonna do, fail at me? It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed for you." Bonnie looked at Damon for a moment before turning to look at a candle on a side shelf. Much to everyone's amazement, it lit up.
"Uh-oh." Kai said.
"Run." Bonnie said to Damon. He used his vampire speed and got out of the aisle. "Phesmatos Incendia." Fire lit up the alcohol on the floor around Kai.
He held up his hands. "Ok. Ok. Ok."
"Giving up so soon? I'm embarrassed for you."
Damon appeared behind Kai and knocked him out. He looked over at Bonnie. "Sorry I called you the most annoying person in the world. I hadn't met him yet."
Buffy knocked on Willow's door and waited. A few moments later, the red head opened the door. Her face lit up, but then sobered quickly. "Hey, Buffy."
"Tara told me about Stefan. I'm really sorry."
"Yeah. Me too. Can I…." Buffy gestured past Willow.
"Oh, yeah! I forgot you haven't been here." Willow stepped out of the way. "Come in." Buffy stepped over the threshold and Willow shut the door behind her. "Buffy, I'm really sorry about what I did."
"I know you are." Buffy turned around and looked Willow in the eyes. "Why didn't you ask me if it was ok?"
"To be honest, I don't know. I just…. I hated seeing you so sad. I wanted to give you a little bit of happy."
"It wasn't real, though. And because of it, I almost killed a girl. If Caroline hadn't showed up, I would have."
"I didn't know that would happen. I never would have done it if I'd known."
"You never should have done it in the first place." Buffy sat down. "I thought he was real. I thought I was somehow connecting with my dead husband and when I found out…. It was like losing him all over again."
"I know. I know you are. And I'm working on forgiving you. I kind of have a lot going on right now. My emotional cup run-eth over."
"What can I do to help?"
"I need you to find a way to bring Damon back. You did it for me. There has to be another way."
"I don't know of any other way, Buffy. And he didn't die by any supernatural means…."
"But he was supernatural."
"So was Tara when she died, but I couldn't raise her back from the dead because she was killed by human means."
"Damon was killed under a mystical bubble as he blew up a bunch of Travelers."
"Maybe! But at least I'm trying!"
Willow sighed and sat down. "I have a theory."
"It's not really one that's panned out, but…. What if, when the Other Side collapsed, Damon didn't move on to whatever is beyond that?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what if he's…. somewhere else?"
"Where else would he be?"
"I don't know. That's the part that I'm still…. Panning."
Before Buffy could say anything, her cell phone started ringing. It was Enzo. "What?"
"I have a bit of a problem, love."
"Don't we all?"
"I just killed a vampire hunter."
"Those still exist around here?"
"I'm in the woods near the party."
Buffy groaned. "Fine. I'm on my way." She stood up.
"Do you need some help?" Willow asked hopefully.
"Not for this. Just…. Keep panning on that theory. Bring my husband back." Buffy turned and rushed out. She used her super speed and listened for Enzo's voice.
"You've got to be bloody kidding me. I just saved your life." Enzo was saying.
"So you can give me a lifetime full of misery." She heard Stefan say. He was standing in front of Enzo pointing a gun at him. "Well, that's fine. I'm just gonna shorten the lifetime."
Buffy suddenly appeared between the two vampires. "Stefan."
"Good news, Buffy." Enzo said. "I thwarted a vampire hunter. Bad news…. Stefan has become a vampire hunter."
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Buffy asked Stefan, ignoring Enzo.
"Why don't you ask him?" Stefan lowered the gun and walked away.
Buffy sighed and turned to Enzo. "Ok, what did you do?"
"He's probably pissed off that I killed his little girlfriend."
"What?! You can't tell me you didn't want to hurt him."
"Not by killing some random bystander! It wasn't her fault that Stefan was using her to hide behind." Buffy turned and started to walk away.
"Where are you going?"
"To find Stefan and apologize for your rash decisions. It's like dealing with Damon when I first met him!"
"Aren't you going to help get rid of the body?"
"It's your mess. You clean it up." She finally caught up with Stefan and rushed in front of him. "I didn't know about Ivy. I am sorry that he killed her. But you have to admit…."
"What? That I was fooling myself? I was using her as an escape? Yeah, I know what you think, Buffy."
"Yes, that is what I think. I was going to say 'but killing Enzo won't bring her back'."
"No, but it will stop him from reminding me of my brother. I kill him, I can leave this place, and I can start over again."
Buffy shook her head. That wasn't what she'd expected to hear. "Move on? So why did you leave all those messages on my phone promising me apologies? Why did you visit Elena and come to this party? To kill Enzo and start over?"
"You're a terrible liar, Stefan. You should've just stuck with the silent treatment. Or are you ready to answer my question?"
"Which one? You've asked so many."
"Don't get sarcastic with me. I'm on the verge of snapping your neck and pulling a Silas. My question that you never answered was: Why did you come back to check on me all those times? And the answer is: Part of you misses this place and your friends. I know that being back here reminds you of how much we need you." Buffy felt the angry tears start to slide down her cheeks. "How much I need my brother…." She wiped the tears away. "But if I'm wrong, then leave. Just go. Start over. I'll mourn both Salvatore brothers alone! But if just a little part of you came back to check on Elena, who's missed you for four months and begged me for updates on you every day…. Or Alaric who just came back from the dead…. Then stay." Stefan waited for a moment but then turned and vanished suddenly. Buffy started to cry and the closest tree was kicked over in her anger. Elena, who had been making her way towards the sound of Buffy's angered voice, walked up and hugged Buffy tightly.
*1994 Bizarro World*
Kai, who was now tied to a chair in front of the fireplace at Damon's house, was slowly regaining consciousness. Damon and Bonnie stood in front of him. They'd argued about Damon torturing Kai, but Damon tried never to lose an argument.
"You're awake. Good." Damon said. "Now for the Q&A portion of the evening."
"Let me guess." Kai said. "I answer right, I get a pork rind. Wrong, I get a poker."
"What? No, no, no. These are for me." Damon held up the pork rinds and smiled. "You just get the poker."
"Yeah. You don't have to do that."
"We're on the same team."
"Really?" Bonnie asked. "Do you always try and kill your teammates?"
"The important thing is that you have your magic back. It worked." Damon and Bonnie looked at each other dubiously. "What, you…. you didn't really think I'd kill Damon, did you? In what universe does that make sense? Who would kill 1/3 of our population? I'm not a monster. I knew Bonnie would show up. She always comes back, all thirteen times, and I knew with the right motivation she'd be able to access her magic. Although I…. I did get a little worried with all your bickering that Damon's life wouldn't be enough motivation, but turns out it was. I guess that's just how you two show your love."
"So you did all that just to make sure I would have my magic?"
"Of course I did. Because your magic is the key to getting the hell out of here." Kai gave them a smirk.
Buffy and Elena walked back towards Buffy's car. Jeremy spotted them and walked over. "Have you guys seen Sarah?"
"No. Why?" Elena asked.
"There's no ice."
"I think you'll live, Jer."
Jeremy pointed at a girl walking away from the cooler. "Caroline compelled that girl to go get ice. She didn't."
Caroline, who was already making her way over to Buffy and Elena, heard the comment and rushed over. "Well, why not? Is she on vervain?"
"No. She had to go into Mystic Falls to get it. She had to cross the border."
"Compulsion is magic." Buffy said.
"Which means that every memory Caroline compelled away came back. So Sarah, the girl you attacked," Jeremy looked at Buffy. "And you compelled…." He looked at Caroline.
"Knows what I am." Buffy said. "Well, this day couldn't get any worse."