Summary: Riley's encounter with Sandy in the alley is interrupted by an unexpected intruder. Sixth story in the "Buffy of Amber" universe.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: T, for violence, intensity, and general themes.

Time Frame: Fifth-season BtVS, centered around the scene where Riley stakes Sandy in "Shadow," and influenced by the events of the first five stories of the "Buffy of Amber" universe in a manner that will soon become apparent. . .: - ).

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.


I felt the fangs pierce my neck, and felt the dizziness as Sandy started to feed. I eased the stake out of my belt and started to move it forward. If I didn't time this right, I'd be dead—or worse.

Sandy burst into dust with the usual muted scream of the dying demon inside her body, and I staggered briefly. I only had time to see the anger in a very familiar pair of hazel eyes before a fist moving too fast for me to see sent me crashing into darkness.

The first thing that I noticed when I started to come around was that my jaw hurt—no big surprise. I next noticed what felt like a pressure bandage on my neck, and noted the faint scent of disinfectant: my injuries had been treated. I was lying on a soft surface that felt like a bed, and I could see light through my closed eyelids. I carefully opened my eyes and sat up.

I was in a medium-sized bedroom, lit by lamps sitting in wall alcoves. They provided more than enough light for me to spot the figure standing near the room's doorway. She stood at relaxed attention, her eyes watching me carefully. Her outfit wasn't what I was used to seeing her in—she wore loose black pants, a gold top, and a short red cape that concealed most of her torso. I raised an eyebrow and commented, "New look for you—trying to confuse the blood-suckers?"

"You're hardly in a position to be criticizing anyone's new fashion statements, Riley." Buffy's voice was cold, but not angry. She took a couple of steps forward, and her eyes moved to my neck. "Particularly with that little souvenir you got from Sandy. She went to Sunnydale High with me, you know. Survived all the way to our senior year, and got killed and turned by a vamped Willow from an alternate reality. Will had some serious guilt over that—I'll have to tell her how it all ended up. Of course, sharing all the details might not help her deal. . ."

I glared at her—who was she to get on my case about vampire bites? I started to open my mouth, but some instinct within me caused me to close it again and hesitate before replying, "So is this where I get yelled at?"

Buffy sighed, and I was surprised to see her shake her head and sit down in the overstuffed armchair across the room from me. She watched me for a moment, then said simply, "I want you to tell me why I found you there with Sandy. Honesty and detail are going to make a big difference as far as how pissed off I'll be when you're done."

I scowled at her, and received absolutely no reaction: she meant it. Problem was—I wasn't completely sure myself why I had done it. I looked at the cool, appraising look that she was giving me, and I realized that lying to her would totally get my ass kicked—and she'd still want the truth when she was done. I sighed, let my mind go blank, and said the first thing that came to me:

"I was trying to understand you better."

Buffy's expression remained blank, and I winced inwardly: that sounded so lame out loud. She didn't interrupt, though, and I kept talking, picking up speed as I continued: "Since my operation—since your mom has been sick. . .I've felt like I'm drifting out of your life—that I don't really have a place in it any more. We still fight together, and you've come to me at times when you needed someone—but it's like we don't really connect any more. The Initiative brought us together, and now that it's gone, you're slowly moving back to your old friends. Sometimes it's like even Spike is more part of your life than I am."

Buffy smiled involuntarily at the last comment. "I hope you don't think I view that as a plus, if it's true. I mean, you've met Spike, right?"

I smiled back. "Point taken." Buffy nodded at me to continue, and I did so: "I've been going out on patrol alone more the last few weeks, while you've been busy with your mom and that mysterious demon lady—"


I blinked. "I beg your pardon?" I had no idea why she had just said that, but it wasn't going to make me abandon my manners.

"Her name is Glory—I overheard one of her minions calling her that." Buffy's tone was matter of fact.

"Oh." Not much to say to that. "Anyway, I've been out alone, and things have gotten a little hairy at times—"

"You mean, like going into a nest alone against several vampires and blowing them up with a big grenade?" Buffy's voice was calm, but I could see her eyes flicker with a dark humor that made me shiver a bit—she was acting very strangely.

"Well, yeah—but I had to do that: I like Willow and Xander, and even Anya grows on you after a while, but they were making noise and not paying attention! I had to take those vamps out alone." I knew I was sounding defensive, but I wasn't about to cop to things that I hadn't done wrong.

"Mmm-hmmm—and if I were to check your desk, would I find the stake that vamp used to puncture me? Without any scorch marks on it? How did you pull that off, Riley?" Buffy's voice was cold again, and I squirmed as she accused, "You went down and staked that idiot, didn't you? Before you nuked the rest of them with that grenade."

I was shocked and didn't bother to hide it. "How—"

"Spike saw you go in—he figured that he'd either be able to gloat about you getting your stupid ass killed, or get brownie points with me for dragging you out of there alive." Buffy glared at me, then snickered as she added, "When you dropped that grenade, I bet he broke the All-Undead record for running the mile getting the hell away from there."

"Damned snitch—I should have staked his ass months ago." I was mad enough at Spike that it distracted me from remembering to be nervous about how pissed off Buffy was at me.

"Been there—joined the club—bought the T-shirt." Buffy replied calmly, and added, "Yeah, the others have gotten a little too relaxed about patrolling lately—I haven't been taking them along, and they don't know how rough it's been the past few months. That's no excuse for what you did—you could have asked Giles: he's a better fighter than any of the others, and he's never taken a patrol lightly in his life. You went alone into a situation where you could have been trapped and killed, or turned. "

I had a thought, then suppressed it—but it was too late. Her glare seemed to pierce into my very soul, and she snapped, "Don't even think about going there, Riley—not even for the sake of a cheap joke." She shook her head in disgust and snapped, "Were you even listening to me when I told the story? Do you have any idea what I went through? What everyone I cared about went through? I was falling in love with Angel before I had any clue he was a vampire—I was sixteen years old, and all I knew about him was that he was a good-looking guy who seemed to always show up when I needed him. What we had was in spite of his being a vampire—not because of it. The fact that we couldn't stay away from each other ended up costing dozens of lives, Riley—including the life of the only woman Giles has ever loved. And I saved the best for myself, Riley—I sent him to Hell with my own hands. I watched the pleading in his eyes as he was sucked into a place of eternal torment. I still don't completely understand how he came back—and it's not important." I stared at her as she visibly gathered herself and continued in a harsh whisper, "The point is—I'm not going through it again. If you—or anyone I care about—get turned from now on, there's not going to be a curse, there's not going to be a miracle. I'm going to hunt you down and stake you—then I'll mourn you. That's what you're supposed to do with the dead. Am I making myself understood, Riley?"

I blinked, then nodded curtly before turning away. I heard Buffy sigh, and I heard her approach and felt her sit next to me on the bed. Usually, at this point we'd be removing each other's clothes by now, but I knew without looking that that wasn't on her agenda. I turned to face her, and saw her watching me with sad eyes. I swallowed, then asked calmly: "Was there something else you wanted to say to me, Buffy?"

Buffy sighed again, and replied, "Damn it, Riley—you're too good for this. You've got a graduate level education in psychology, first-rate training from the military—and I've seen you move: you're still better than almost any vamp out there—you saved my life the other day, in case you've forgotten. Why in the hell are you acting like Nick Cage in 'Leaving Las Vegas?' You could leave here tomorrow and do whatever you wanted—why are you acting like your life is over?"

She hadn't put it to me like that before—not even when she was begging me to save my own life by submitting to surgery. I stopped to think for a moment, and I flushed as I realized that I didn't have a good answer.

Buffy shook her head, and looked into my eyes as she whispered gently: "Riley—I'm going to lay it on the line here. I am the last person that any sane person should be looking to as an anchor for a stable life. I have a job that could cause me to die a horrible, painful death at any moment—and maybe drag anyone near me along for the ride. I've got a tendency to push my friends and family away when things get really bad, in spite of the fact that I've been shown time and time again that doing that is really stupid. I've got a really nasty temper, and have been known to do and say things to people I love with all of my heart and soul that should have made them turn their backs on me and never forgive me. I am never, ever, going to be able to settle down and live happily ever after. If you can't live with that, you should leave me and never look back—and I will not think any less of you for it."

Buffy had hit me hard before—but her words hit me like nothing has before or since. I closed my eyes and shivered, then forced myself to look back at her and replied simply: "I guess I should take some time to think about this, Buffy."

"You do that." Buffy's voice was gentle as she squeezed my shoulder and added, "I don't waste my time with men I don't think are good people—even if they really piss me off sometimes. Whatever you decide about me, don't ever forget that."

I turned around and hugged her, and she didn't hesitate to return the gesture, squeezing hard enough to let me know she meant it without doing any damage. I relaxed, and was pulling away and feeling a lot better about things when I happened to look at her neck—and I froze in surprise and anger. Buffy sensed the reaction and frowned as she asked, "What's wrong, Riley?"

I took two quick steps back and quickly drew the 9 mm pistol I kept handy for things that it would actually affect, and pointed it at the woman in front of me as I snarled something that I would have found unimaginable thirty seconds before:

"Who in the hell are you?"

She blinked in surprise and replied without hesitation, "Buffy Summers—graduate of Sunnydale High—daughter of Joyce Summers. Who in the hell do you think I am, Riley? I don't like having a gun pointed at me."

I felt rage well up within me, barely restrained by the knowledge that—whoever she was—she had to be incredibly dangerous. I locked eyes with her and snapped, "I've been lucky enough over the last year to be able to make a pretty thorough study of Buffy Summers—I know every inch of her body. She's picked up a lot of scars over the years—and you're missing two pretty important ones. Pretty stupid of you not to do your homework. Now—before I have to start shooting off important body parts—who are you and what have you done with Buffy Summers?"

I'd have sworn that I saw a look of annoyed affection cross her face before her eyes shimmered and I felt dizzy for an instant. It was more than enough—she had disarmed me in a blindingly fast move and taken me to the floor before I knew what had happened. I was dazed, and did not move as she shook her head and whispered to herself, "I'm going to have to work on that glamour spell—forgot about the vampire bites." I stared in incomprehension, and she shook her head again and added, "I'm going to have to look him up in my neck of the woods—he's got to have something going for him if this is what his shadows are like." She sighed and stared deep into my eyes as she concluded:

"Take care of her for me, Riley."

Her lips descended on mine, and I knew no more.

I walked into the hospital, looking for Buffy. My neck still stung from the bite that the vamp had given me, but I wasn't about to let that get in the way of what I had to do. I spotted her walking out of a private room and walked over to her, wearing my most reassuring smile. "Are you all right? You look like you've been in a fight."

"Business as usual—killed an evil snake thingie raised up by that bitch who kicked my ass –again-. At least I know her name now—it's Glory." I felt a tingle of déjà vu at her words—why did I feel like I knew that already? Unable to solve the mystery, I dismissed the thought and listened as she added, "Maybe now we can do some research and come up with a strategy that doesn't involve me pummeling her fists with my face." I smiled supportively—trying to make sure she knew that I knew that she'd beat the bitch in question—and I saw the sadness in her eyes diminish somewhat for a moment before she looked at me more closely and commented, "Looks like you've had a rough day, too—what bit you and how soon can I kick its ass?"

I raised my hand to the bandage on my neck and managed a rueful look before replying, "My turn to have an off day—I was walking down Main Street and two vamps ambushed me and threw me into an alley. I staked one, but the other got behind me and put the bite on me. I used that throw we worked on a while back, and she had a close encounter with a brick wall—made staking her a lot easier. It still stings a bit—I almost chose a turtleneck to wear tonight, but I was afraid it would itch—but I'm fine. Like you said—business as usual."

Buffy reached out and squeezed my hand, and I felt a tingle at the warmth in her eyes as she whispered, "I'm glad you're OK—I couldn't stand it if—" She stiffened, and turned away, but I was sure I had seen tears in her eyes before she turned. She coughed self-consciously, then added, "I'm sorry I haven't been around—it's just that—"

"Your mother is sick and you've had a lot on your plate lately? Yeah—believe it or not, I kind of get that, Buffy." She turned around and looked up at me—she was too quick not to pick up on the tone of my voice. I looked back at her and swallowed hard before elaborating: "Buffy—things have been pretty lousy lately, and as usual it's dumped a ton of crap for you to deal with. I haven't known you as long as the others, but by now I know all the stories well enough to know what it's been like for you, and how you've dealt with it. I know there's a lot of stuff none of us can take off your shoulders, and I get that I can't possibly imagine what it's like to be you—but I'm begging you: please let me do what I can to help. I really hated finding out about Joyce from Spike—"

Buffy flushed. "I'm sorry—I was so screwed up when I found out about Mom's tumor, I just wasn't thinking straight—"

"And you called the people you've always gone to when things were bad, and you forgot to call me. OK, not a problem." Buffy blinked, and I nodded and continued. "Water under the bridge—but I'm here now and I know. If you need me to hold you while you cry, I'll do it. If you decide that Slayers can't do that, and you just need me to stand around and look supportive, I'll do that. If you're pissed off at God and the world and you need to have a good, long sparring session—I'm more trustworthy than Spike and can take a lot more abuse than Xander. The reason I'm here instead of a graduate program in psychology at Harvard or a black ops military demon hunting unit is that I want to be here—and I want to help. Please let me, Buffy."

Buffy blinked, and the warmth in her expression and in her eyes grew. I waited—hoping to hear three words she had never said to me—and was only mildly disappointed when she whispered three other words instead: "Thank you, Riley."

"Glad to be here." I replied and reached out to embrace her. I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye—and turned my head slightly to look down the hospital hallway: no one was there.

"What's wrong?" Buffy had felt me freeze, and she followed my gaze down the empty hallway. "Someone over there?"

"Guess not," I replied, looking down at her. "Living in Sunnydale can make you paranoid." Buffy nodded in rueful agreement, and I led her over to some nearby seats before adding, "Nothing to worry about—why don't you tell me what's happening with your mom?"

Buffy nodded and began to tell me what had happened, and I felt a sudden moment of peace. Things were rough, but Buffy had survived worse than this, and I knew she could get through this—particularly since anything that wanted to get at her would have to get through me. I sighed, and shut the rest of the world out as I listened to Buffy.

I watched them for a few moments before turning away and heading out. Riley turned once and looked in my direction, looking suspicious, but any invisibility spell designed by Fiona is definitely proof against the senses of even a somewhat enhanced former supersoldier, and he turned back to pay attention to the Slayer next to him.

I'd marked this one down as a mild screwup on my part—I hadn't intended to be so heavy-handed about pulling the Jedi mind tricks here with Riley. I've had enough experience with possession to know that having people play games with your body and mind is nasty, and I try to keep it at a minimum. Unfortunately, my failure to remember that most Buffys who didn't end up leaving for Amber picked up a couple of souvenirs from the number of vampires who pass through their lives left me with a mess to clean up, and I decided that as long as I was there, I might as well slip Riley a few hints as to how to deal with an emotionally screwed-up Buffy Summers. He's got the educational background to do the rest—maybe even better than I could do it myself. Particularly since the Buffy Summers who lives in this neck of the woods might find me a bit hard to deal with.

No matter—I had one last piece of business to deal with here. I walked outside and found a secluded space to work before waving my hands in a complex pattern and uttering four words in quick succession. I saw a brief flash of light and felt myself being tugged in two directions. I noted that the direction of the strongest tug was from the former location of Sunnydale High, and ignored it. The other tug was in the direction of the largest park in Sunnydale, and I calmly moved off towards it—there was no hurry at all.

Twenty minutes later, I was walking into the lobby of a small luxury apartment building on the edge of the park. The elevator worked perfectly, and I found myself at the door of the penthouse apartment. I checked my equipment, then delivered a kick that shattered the doors. A couple of those rotting hobbit minions came at me, and went down hard when I simply swept my right arm in front of me as if shooing flies. I left the quivering bodies behind me and walked into the master bedroom—where the lady of the house had just stood up with an irritated expression on her face. She saw me and smirked: "New look for you—did I wreck all your other clothing when I kicked your ass?"

"Nah—just decided it was time for a change." I looked back at her with a smirk of my own and added, "By the way—found a big snake thingie in the park without a leash, so I had to kill it. Was it yours? There's a big fine for that sort of thing, you know."

Glory snarled and replied, "I'm sick of you, and your stupid jokes, and your pathetic refusal to let me get my KEY! I'm going to break every bone in your body, and then I'm going to suck your brains out and listen to you babble—maybe then you'll tell me where it is! And if that doesn't work—I'm going after your friends and family and do the same to them! Little Slayer, you have no idea who you've chosen to piss off!"

I feigned thought, then responded, "Well, let's see. Your name is Glory, and you're a chaos goddess who got her ass kicked back home and was exiled by the winners to this dimension, to share a body with a rather cute doctor by the name of Ben. You're looking for the Key so that you can go back home, not caring in the slightest that doing so would breach the barriers between all of the known dimensions and kill countless people. How close am I?" Glory blinked in shock, and I added, "I'll let you in on a little secret, though. You're really a second-rate shadow, a knockoff of a Lady of Chaos by the name of Glorifica, who is renowned far and wide in the Courts of Chaos as the official hairdresser of the High Lords of Chaos. She's really quite good—I've patronized her establishment myself. She is a bit of a bitch, though—so I really don't blame you for what you are. Don't take being killed really dead personally—O.K.?"

Glory's eyes narrowed with incomprehension and fury, and she charged me without hesitation. I waited, then sidestepped quickly, wheeling around and giving her a swift kick in the ass as she went by. She lumbered into a nearby wall and reduced it to rubble. I laughed out loud and walked over next to her bed as she stood up, covered in plaster dust. I grinned and made a "come and get it" motion with my right hand. She growled and charged at me again with her arms outstretched—she obviously expected me to dodge again. I waited until the last second before reaching out and grasping her right arm, throwing her onto the bed. Before she could recover, I pulled my Pattern Dagger—formally named Heart Seeker, but I'll always think of it as "Mr. Pointy"—and drove it deep into Glory's chest as I began to chant in Thari.

Glory's eyes widened in shock, and she looked at me in disbelief as I pulled the dagger out and finished my chant. I sighed and offered the only comfort I could: "Don't take it too hard—you never had a chance."

The wound ignited, and Glory managed a long shriek before bursting into flame and vanishing—leaving a rather underclothed dark-haired man in her place. Ben blinked as I walked over to a drawer and pulled out a T-shirt, jeans, and underwear and tossed them to him. He had the presence of mind to dress quickly before saying anything, and it was a few more seconds before he managed to croak, "Buffy?"

"More or less," I replied, looking at him with a neutral expression. "Glory is history—I decided that destroying the universe would be a really bad way for her to get back in touch with her roots. I need you to clean up her mess."

"Story of my life," Ben replied, shaking his head in disgust and asking, "What do you want me to do?"

"Glory's left a collection of crazies in Sunnydale—they're all in the psycho ward at Sunnydale General, as you know." Ben nodded at my comment, and I handed him a scroll and a good-sized ruby. "Wait until late night on your next shift, then go into the ward and read this spell while holding the ruby in your right hand. It'll make them sleep for twelve hours straight, then wake up with their marbles back where they belong. The ruby will turn to dust afterwards, as will the scroll—make sure everyone is there." Ben nodded again and was starting to look around for things to pack when my next words caused him to freeze in his tracks: "And shame on you for thinking about summoning the Queller Demon to kill those poor people."

"How could you possibly have known that?" Ben whispered, shaking his head and staring at me. "What are you?"

"A glorified janitor." I replied softly as I walked up to him and seized his shoulders—and I felt absolutely no guilt as I stared into his eyes and intoned quietly, "When I leave this room, you will forget everything that you saw here tonight, and you will not think of Buffy Summers except in the context of her sick mother. As far as you're concerned, Glory was killed by a fluke of fate, and you are free to live your life as you wish from now on—as long as you don't dabble in the dark arts or do anything equally stupid." Ben blinked and stared blankly, and I turned away and left, whispering, "Good-bye, Ben."

It had been about two months—Amber time—after my return from Tir-na Nog'th when I had received a Trump call during a solo workout. I accepted the contact, and it was Corwin—he asked me to let him pull me through to where he was, and I agreed without hesitation.

I found myself in a place I knew well—Benedict's formal office in the castle. The walls were covered in thick mahogany paneling with elaborate Japanese carvings, and the floor was polished black marble. Various specimens of fine art from at least two dozen shadows decorated the walls and competed with the furniture for space in the room. It was a display designed to impress visitors, and it never failed to impress me. I took a moment to enjoy the sight, then blinked as I realized that I was not alone with Corwin—or even with Corwin and Benedict.

Benedict was standing behind his desk, and he inclined his head at me with an approving expression as he clearly noted that I had been training. Fiona was watching me quietly from a spot next to an abstract sculpture carved from pure obsidian, and she smiled briefly at me before turning to examine the sculpture more closely. Flora flashed a brilliant smile at me from her position next to the wall map of Amber City and the surrounding regions. However, the figure who caught my attention was the tall redhead with a broadsword on his hip and a twinkle in his blue eyes. I smiled at him and called out, "Hi, Dad."

Bleys smiled back at me and walked over to give me a hug. Yes, it was a pain in the ass that my father was rarely around—but he was more than affectionate when we did find time to meet up. The man has a talent for planning vacations that would make Cordelia turn green with envy. I looked up at him and looked at him with narrowed eyes for a moment before commenting, "You're here with the four people who have either been teaching or advising me most often for the last year—why does this feel like a parent/teacher conference?"

Corwin and Flora chuckled, Benedict raised an eyebrow, and Fiona smiled and stepped forward as she replied, "We're not trying to put you on the spot, Buffy. Benedict and I have been discussing your educational situation, and we believed it would be useful to bring in the other parties most interested in your development into the discussion. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable—we have a proposal for you."

I took a moment to walk over and accept the Mai Tai that Corwin had thoughtfully mixed for me, and found a seat that would let me see all of them before looking over and replying, "You've got my attention."

The five elder Amberites looked at each other, and it was Benedict who began: "Buffy, your progress has been more than satisfactory over the past two years—you clearly have learned to use your improved physical strength, stamina, and speed to build on the martial skills you had as the Slayer, to the point where you would have been more than a match for any of us at the same age. Flora has instructed you in the diplomatic arts, and—unless I miss my guess—Corwin has taught you a few useful things about when and where to break the rules." Bleys chuckled, and Corwin shrugged in visible amusement as Benedict continued, "Fiona has instructed you in the mystic arts, and into the lesser mysteries of the Pattern itself. You now are quite competent to roam Shadow and discover what is to be found there, with little danger to you other than the possibility of running across a hostile member of the family, or a High Lord of Chaos."

I flushed slightly, then noticed the implied hesitation. "Compliments are nice—but I hear a 'but' coming."

"Problem is, hostile family members and High Lords of Chaos—along with other threats we may not know about—have a way of popping up, Buffy. The younger generation has had a rather hard time of it." Bleys' tone was uncharacteristically sober as he walked over next to my chair and continued, "Martin was decades older than you and had received some pretty good training from Benedict before he truly went out on his own, and he nearly died at the hands of Brand. Merlin could have died half-a-dozen times during the time between when he left Flora's Shadow Earth and when he ascended the throne of Chaos. Rinaldo's parents were. . .less than adequate: it's a wonder the boy turned out as well as he did. We never had any idea that Dalt was a member of the family until recently, and his early life has been destructive both to himself and to Amber. As for your Aunt Coral. . .she has perhaps been most ill-used of all, though Rinaldo and Merlin have certainly done their best to make her life more comfortable." I shuddered, remembering that particular part of Merlin's tale, and Bleys nodded as he concluded, "We're hoping to spare you that nastier part of the developmental process, as much as is possible under the circumstances."

"That sounds like a plan I can get behind—what have you guys come up with?" I was genuinely interested—and really thrilled at the idea that I could avoid a lot of the crap the others had gone through to move up from lightweights to second-stringers in this family.

Fiona waved her right hand, and the light in the room dimmed. A shimmer appeared in the center of the office, and formed into something familiar to me from my training in Pattern-lore—a three-dimensional image of a region of Shadow. I recognized the shadow in the center instantly as the one I had been born in—I had Walked to and around it enough for me to have no doubt of it. Fiona noted my reaction, and nodded as she elaborated, "As you can see—your home shadow is far more solid than any near it: it was visited by two Amberites before your birth, and you spent the first eighteen years of your life there without interruption. As such, it has created its own mini-shadow array in its own right—the shadows immediately surrounding it have become echoes of your personal reality, with varying degrees of fidelity to the original." Fiona concentrated, and a number of regions around my home shadow lit up in pink. The Sorceress of Amber gestured to the regions and explained, "The realities of all of the shadows I have marked are all keyed around variations of a single event—your encounter with the Master in May of 1997. The course of events after that varied for each, but that is the basic starting point for all of them. As you well know, that poses grave risks for the inhabitants of each of those shadows, and there is no guarantee that the Buffys of those shadows will prevail as you have."

I frowned. "Are you suggesting that I go in there and make sure that everything turns out all right in all of those shadows? I like helping people, but wouldn't I be just stealing accomplishments from the Buffys and Scoobies who live there?"

"If that's all that was at stake, I'd agree with you, Buffy—they have the right to live their own lives and win their own victories." Corwin spoke for the first time, and his voice was grim as he continued, "Fiona's study of the shadow array around your home shadow has revealed a genuine problem that suggests that we can't just live and let live here. Your shadow was first strengthened by Brand's and Bleys' visits, then further by your presence—and the connection between the Logrus of Chaos and the Sunnydale Hellmouth strengthened it even further. That strength influenced the surrounding shadows quite directly—as you continued to prevail, the other shadows were pushed into developing in a positive way. This process reached its climax with your defeat of Brand and the sealing of the Hellmouth. . .but it also led to a problem. With the Hellmouth sealed and you departing for Amber, your shadow—while remaining very strong by the standards of Shadow as a whole—became less powerful in relation to the shadows around in than before, and—more importantly—ceased to directly influence their destinies. Since they all contained active Hellmouths of their own, this tended to make things develop for the worse within them. Fiona's studies indicate that if these shadows deteriorate too far into the direction of Chaos while in the proximity of a strongly Pattern-oriented shadow as yours has become, the conflict will rip them into pieces. If this occurs often enough, a large Shadow storm will result that will have devastating effects on surrounding Shadow—including your home shadow itself. These shadows either have to be stabilized to the point where fatal conflict with your home shadow does not arise, or—"

"Or Fiona will have to go in and erase them before they do," I commented grimly. Fiona had only hinted at what such a process would involve—and it was way outside anything I could think of doing any time soon—but I knew it meant nonexistence for every living thing in the shadows involved. I looked over at Fiona and saw that her expression was blank, refusing to reveal to me what she was thinking about the prospect of wiping out countless billions in the name of preserving existence. I frowned, looked over at Benedict, and commented, "It looks like I've got one killer final exam to do—how soon can I start? How long do I have to finish?"

It took three hours, and a lot of detailed explanations that would have made Giles' eyes cross, but when Fiona, Benedict, and Corwin had finished, the answer was clear: there were about one hundred shadows that needed to be stabilized to get rid of the problem, and I had one year of Amber time to deal with them. Fiona saw my jaw drop at the mention of the time frame, and was quick to remind me: "Buffy—a major reason you are being given this task is your natural connection to these shadows: this will enable you to manipulate them with more ease than would otherwise be possible given your expertise and power. I have trained you in shadow manipulation—I believe that you will not find time to be a problem."

I had nodded: screwing around with the time flow of Shadows had been a major item in Fiona's training, and I had practiced it enough to realize the possibilities that it gave me. It did raise a question, though. I looked over at Benedict and commented, "This will be the first time I've done something like this—I'm going to live through a lot of personal time before I finish my task. How's it going to change me?"

I wasn't surprised when Flora was the one to answer: "It seems that the point at which our personal aging process ends depends on our unconscious self-image, Buffy. I was about twenty-eight when I first looked as I do now—the boys seemed to prefer to let themselves ripen a little more." Bleys snickered, and Flora favored him with a grin before amending, "Except for the King—who had a reputation as a youthful ruffian to keep up out in Shadow. Oberon was a shape-shifter, so he may have made himself look older than whatever his true appearance would have been—we can't know. I've never had the nerve to ask Dworkin if his customary appearance is his true one. I believe your cousins have mostly opted for a more youthful look to contrast with the older generation. The bottom line is—you won't know until you live through another decade or two. I doubt you'll be disappointed with the results, though."

She had been right. Disappointed I wasn't—now, "wondering what in the world was going on in that twisted skull of mine" might have been a better description. I had completed my work in twenty shadows before it occurred to me to take a good look at the changes subjective time had wrought in me—I had seen myself in the mirror any number of times over those years, but had never given it much thought. I went to the nearest mirror and carefully examined the image I saw there. . .and found that it was the same face that had looked back at me the morning after the Hellmouth was sealed in my home shadow and my life changed forever. My subconscious had decided that I should live for thousands of years looking like a kid who just got out of high school—terrific. I had taken time out from my schedule to bitch to Corwin about this, and he had looked at me with an expression that blended amusement and sympathy before he had commented gently: "Buffy, there will come a time when everyone you know from your home shadow—with the possible exception of your mother—will be dead and gone, and you will only have your memories of them. I'm not really surprised that you'd choose to keep the face that you had when you spent the most time with them."

Aside from giving me a major "duh, Buffy" moment, Corwin's comment reminded me that I had a major issue to deal with back home. Once we learned that dear Uncle Brand had turned up as an unexpected growth on another part of my family tree, I had asked Fiona—the expert on all things Pattern—about whether my mom, grandmother and great-grandmother could take the Pattern. Fiona had been silent for a moment before replying: "They have the right to try, Buffy—but you have good reason to know that navigating the Pattern is a supremely demanding experience. If you had the time to be properly prepared, your own first time would have been far less risky than it was—but you already had received the benefit of having your true abilities partially awakened by your 'death': that is an advantage your family members will not have. As Merlin would tell you, I have always been inclined to take an optimistic view of the ability of family members to survive the experience even under adverse circumstances, but I would advise you not to have your great-grandmother or grandmother try—it would almost certainly be fatal. They don't know about Amber yet, do they?" I shook my head, and Fiona smiled and continued, "Then it is probably for the best. They will live long, healthy lives due to their heritage, and die without the sense they have missed anything. A far better fate than most in Shadow can expect."

I nodded reluctantly, and asked, "What about Mom?"

"With proper preparation, I would deem that she would have a good chance of succeeding—but there would be a substantial risk to her life, Buffy: she needs to know that if she is to make the attempt." Fiona's tone was grim, and I nodded as she continued, "It will have to be soon, though—there is only so much benefit to be gained from preparation as weighed against the aging process."

I had immediately gone to Mom and explained the situation to her. She hesitated, then replied, "Buffy—I'm not afraid of dying, but I hate to think of leaving you alone so soon. From what you've told me, being related to the Amberites through Brand will give me a good long life even if we do nothing—isn't it probably best to just appreciate the time I have left without doing this?"

I frowned, then replied, "Mom, I hear what you're saying—and part of me agrees with you—but I've seen some things since I last saw you that make me want to ask you to try this, if you're willing." I swallowed hard, and I described the dozens of shadows I had visited during my tasks, particularly the ones which had been a year or two ahead of where our home shadow was. A common theme was that in those shadows, Joyce Summers died young. Sometimes it was a brain aneurysm, sometimes it was a random demon or vampire, and on one horrible occasion it had been a stupid, random car wreck. I looked at Mom with pleading eyes and whispered, "Mom—Amberites don't die stupid, random deaths: it takes someone really trying, or them doing something dangerous, to kill them. I can't be here all the time to protect you, and I want you to be as safe as possible. I'm betting that I can get you through this if I give you every advantage I can, and if you succeed, you will probably start helping those other Joyces survive, too. It's your choice—but I think it's a good idea."

Mom had hesitated, then nodded, and I called Dad to help. We both explained the various sections of the Pattern, and what she could expect, then used the methods that Fiona had taught me to transfer energy to her before taking her to the Pattern. As one last precaution, I gave her a Trump of me—as a last ditch measure I could try to pull her off the Pattern that way, though from what Fiona told me it could wind up killing both of us.

Dad and I watched as Mom slowly progressed along the elaborate design, standing straight and wearing a determined expression that I knew all too well. For all of my life, she had simply been my mother—someone who was alternately an obstacle and a comfort. Now, she was a peer, doing something that I had done before—something that had almost killed me. I was struck by her dignity and grace—if she was to die on this day, she would do so without shame or hesitation. I watched, and I prayed—and I knew from the expression on Dad's face that he was doing much the same.

She hesitated only once—at the Final Veil—and I bit my lip almost hard enough to draw blood as she set her jaw, stared straight ahead, and took one, two, three steps and stumbled into the center of the Pattern. I stared, then looked away so she wouldn't see me crying in relief. When I turned back, Mom had appeared next to us, and was busily kissing Bleys in a way that had me resorting to Xander's favorite expression for announcing that he doesn't like what he's seeing: "HEY!"

My parents turned to me, and I snapped, "You know, picturing this was gross enough before I found out that you were his great-grandniece. I'm going to need, like, five centuries of therapy."

Mom gave me a reproving look, then replied with a wicked grin, "Relax, Buffy. Bleys isn't going to tie himself down to one woman anytime soon, and I don't react well to cheaters—as you have good reason to know." I blushed, and Mom turned back to Bleys and added, "But there are just some moments where kissing a handsome boy is called for."

I turned my glare on my father, and Bleys shrugged and commented, "Is it my fault I cause this response in beautiful women?" My glare remained undiminished, and Bleys added, "Buffy—given the usual standards of royal families, this is nothing. Even your cousin Rinaldo's situation is rather run-of-the-mill by those standards. Just be glad that you don't have any brothers out there to accidentally fall in love with."

I raised an eyebrow. "And how exactly would I know this, Mr. Sowing Your Wild Oats For Two Thousand Years?"

Mom laughed, and Bleys abruptly decided to change the subject by taking out a Trump and transporting us all out of the Pattern room.

With that important task taken care of, I went back to the task of sorting out the problems of the various shadows. Thanks to Fiona's training and advice, I had a fairly standard method for evaluating the problems of the particular shadow and coming up with a solution. I would carefully get a sense of the shadow I was about to enter—as entering it directly before manipulating it could easily cost me weeks of Amber time if I tried to manipulate it from within—and sped up the time flow of that shadow, moving into it as its time flow exceeded that of Amber and continuing the procedure until I had increased the passage of time there to thousands of times that in Amber. After that, I would acquire enough local money—using various magic and mundane means—to set myself up in a quiet apartment that I'd use as a base of operations. Another spell—which drew on my knowledge of the principal important figures of the world—would tell me who among my friends and family were alive, what they were doing, and the dangers they faced. Once I identified the Big Bad of the moment, I would decide whether killing them outright or another approach would be the best way to go.

Glory was a "kill and clean up the aftermath" problem—she was way too tough for most Buffys to deal with without her and possibly a lot of others dying in the process, and I had seen the aftermath of Buffys dying and being brought back in some of the faster shadows: it wasn't pretty. Dealing with Riley problems was another big headache—he was, as it happened, a shadow of Rinaldo, and would have been a major factor in my own shadow's history if the sealing of the Hellmouth hadn't caught the government's attention and resulted in the plans for the "Initiative" to be established underneath U.C. Sunnydale to be scrapped. Usually, a pep talk right around the time when he started his creepy attachment to getting used as a blood bag did wonders for him, and only occasionally did I actively have to re-arrange his memories to make the advice stick. Only once did I have to actually stake him, and it wasn't fun. All roads led to he and his Buffy breaking up and going their separate ways, but the point of the exercise was to keep that world's Buffy from becoming so depressed about her prospects at keeping any man from going around the bend that Spike, for God's sake, looked like an attractive option.

Ah, Spike. That little bastard was a fun problem to deal with. It was a bit ironic when he turned out to be Brand's shadow; after all, Spike was still enjoying his undead life mostly because he had helped me –save- the world during the Acathla mess. It was enough of a paradox that I took a break when I found out and had some long talks with Fiona, Corwin, and Benedict over it. Fiona was the most helpful—she having known Brand better than probably any of his other siblings did. She took me to that secluded place in Shadow where she had taken me after my night in Tir-na Nog'th, and we drank thoroughly unreasonable amounts of absinthe while she told me what she could of my enigmatic uncle. "Buffy, you must never forget that a shadow of one of us—even in a powerful shadow world—is often only a echo of a small part of our beings, and might even be a polar opposite. The image is distorted, and possibly even utterly transformed, though it still represents something within one of us."

I nodded, and took a long sip from the greenish-white drink in front of me as I marveled at the fact that Aunt Fiona—who was even smaller than me—had consumed twice as much as I had and showed absolutely no effects. I'm going to have to get her involved in a drinking contest with Gérard someday and get killer odds on Fiona drinking him under the table. Fiona smirked at me and continued, "There have been a few other clues as to Spike's makeup—who is his greatest rival?"

"Well. . .me, I suppose." I replied.

Fiona shook her head. "You know better than that. I've heard your life story, and Spike would have killed you without a thought or much interest if Joyce hadn't intervened. You proved to be a challenge to him, but it wasn't because he was particularly preoccupied with you—at least not in your own history: some of those shadows have turned out differently, obviously. Who is Spike really trying to impress?"

The answer—when Fiona had given me the clues—was obvious: "Angel—at least when Dru isn't pissed off at him."

"Yes, it might be interesting if you could track her down and see what family member the crazy vampire is a shadow of, if any. Nonetheless, you have the correct answer." Fiona looked at me with searching eyes and asked, "Who is Angel a shadow of?"

"Corwin—I've known that for a long time now—" I paused in mid-sentence and shook my head. "Damn—should have seen that coming a long time back."

"It takes a lot of practice, and the use of a bit of acquired intuition—it isn't as easy it as I just made it look." Fiona commented. She finished her absinthe and prepared two more, adding as she did: "It's not completely obvious from our family history, either. The most intense rivalry in the family was between Eric and Corwin, but—as I'm sure you've concluded from speaking to him—that was a rivalry of two brothers who were very similar: both were loyal sons who wanted to be the center of their father's attention. Corwin's amnesia and time in Shadow changed him somewhat, but it took Eric's death to really shake up the dynamic the two of them had. Brand, on the other hand, was always a force for chaos, even in the old days. It wasn't birth order or gender that caused us to choose Bleys for the throne had we achieved victory over Eric's faction—Brand wasn't fit to rule the center of order in the universe, and I prefer not to be the most visible person in any power structure. It tends to make you a target."

I shivered, remembering the ill-fated conspiracy that my father had been involved in, and Luke's nearly successful assassination attempt against him. Fiona nodded at my reaction and continued, "The point is that Spike—like Brand—is a force for chaos and completely self-centered. He wished to preserve the world, but only because he enjoyed living in it—not for its own sake. Brand found the universe as it exists not to his liking, and chose to try to transform it to his liking at any cost. Your description of both your Spike and the ones from the lesser shadows seem to be following that pattern of behavior, each in their own way. You should react accordingly."

After I recovered from the really nasty hangover that drinking large amounts of toxic beverages tends to give you, I followed that advice. In each shadow I entered after my talk with Fiona, I made sure I knew what Spike was doing, and I varied my tactics based on it. The Gem of Amara was usually high on my hit list in the slower shadows—I located it with Pattern magic and destroyed it a total of fifteen times—only once did I have to deal with Spike in doing so. The most dangerous shadows with Spike-related problems were the ones where he and Dru had made up and he was indulging her apocalyptic impulses to a degree. I showed no mercy to either of them in those—eight in all—I stalked and killed them both without hesitation or much difficulty: Dru's mind tricks were not very effective against the mental defenses I was able to erect after my Pattern walk and training with Fiona. In shadows where they hadn't gotten together, I still made a point of hunting Dru down—she was far too dangerous to leave walking around, and there was a debt owed to the Kendras they had killed.

I left Spike alive a surprising amount of the time—he tended to prove himself rather useful to his Buffys, though the usefulness was not without cost. There were a few worlds—ones where the time flow had been rapid and where the Buffy living there had perished in the battle against Glory—where I had to deal with the seriously icky situation of Spike sleeping with the newly resurrected Buffy and how to make sure that he didn't turn her or drive her permanently insane. A nifty vampire binding spell that Fiona taught me dealt with about half of those situations, and a bit of subtle brainwashing of the shadow Buffys took care of the others—two Spikes who tried to rape their Buffys wound up dust after I had bolstered their sense of outrage at such treatment. I'll admit I was curious about the appeal that the annoying bastard had to my shadows, but I've already got enough vampire issues in my life without pulling a Faith and screwing some random Spike silly just to find out what it was.

Family issues were the hardest to deal with—aside from Mom's shadows tending to die young, Hank Summers tended to suffer nasty fates, and I made an effort to try to divine what the most likely threats were to him and guard him against them. He wasn't my real father, but he was the real father to those other Buffys, and as absent as he was, having him die would cause them pain—as losing my Hank Summers would cause me pain, though he wasn't my father. I saved about three-fourths of them, and never once had to reveal myself in the process, though I was tempted to confront all of them and yell at them for not spending more time with his daughter. . .or daughters, as the case occasionally was.

The Glory shadows inevitably meant that I had Dawn issues to deal with too—the first time I ran into both of them I went back to my home shadow and found the monks who had the Key and gave them a good talking to—after finding and taking out the Glory living there. They admitted they had been planning to make their Key human, but when I told them that Glory wasn't an issue any more, they agreed to let me safeguard the Key. . .OK, they agreed after I threatened to tie them up and drop them in the middle of a snowbank in Tibet. I took the ball of green energy and constructed a shadow pocket to store it in—one that I closed from the inside and created a Trump for as the only means of entry. That solved the problem for my home shadow—but it left me with about a dozen shadows where my shadow had magically acquired a sister, with varying consequences. In shadows where I killed Glory before she was able to find Dawn and hold her ritual, things mostly went smoothly, with Dawn never knowing that she was "special" and with Giles, Joyce, and Buffy keeping that secret indefinitely.

The slowest shadows were the worst ones, of course—they were the ones where Angelus was still a potential or ongoing threat. A couple of them were slow enough that a few implanted memories together with a planted text that described the functioning of Angel's curse was enough to throw cold water on the situation. The rest required more drastic solutions, like waiting for the Judge to be blown up and ambushing Angelus as he tried to set up his own ambush, or brainwashing Jenny into having the sense to do her work somewhere that vampires couldn't walk into, or simply setting the Factory on fire and waiting for Angelus to flee in my direction. As with the other shadows, I made sure that Dru ended up dead regardless of the fate of Spike and Angelus. I had started to get a little cocky about dealing with even those shadows when I entered one particular shadow and found that Angelus' final attempt to open Acathla was about twenty minutes away, and that I was on the other side of town. I uttered some thoroughly memorable curses in Thari and broke into a dead sprint.

I made it to the mansion—having covered ten miles in nineteen minutes flat: yay me—just in time to see Angelus knock my shadow out with a vicious uppercut, as Acathla's maw yawned wide behind them. The demon grinned and moved in for the kill, only to be denied by my coming in and throwing my own uppercut with all of the might that my Amberite heritage granted me. Angelus went down, and was out of it as I dragged the other Buffy out of sight, claiming her sword as I did so. I strode towards Angelus, raising my sword to the demon who was rising to his feet—

--and whose eyes glowed brightly as he gasped, dropping back to his knees. I stared at him in disbelief, and lowered my blade as I felt a spasm of horror: Not again!

Angel was speaking, but I shut it out as I considered my options for a moment. I could knock him out, then use my Shadow control powers to try to close Acathla. . .it would spare this Buffy the loss of her Angel and save the shadow. The grim and sensible side of my mind—which had gotten more powerful with the passage of subjective decades—told me that this was a very bad idea: Acathla had a very specific means of being shut down, and trying to overcome it with raw power was a chancy operation at best. I could either fail or tear the shadow to pieces in trying to overcome the resistance.

Angel continued to call out to me in puzzlement, and I forced myself to move, embracing him and uttering comforting, lying words. I knew what had to be done. The blade moved back, and I drove it into Angel's belly as the vortex continued to swirl behind him. I forced myself to watch as he stared at me in disbelief, then was drawn into the vortex, leaving Acathla quiet and inert.

I swallowed hard, then moved back over to the other Buffy and knelt beside her, touching her head as I whispered: "You killed Angelus, but he managed to knock you out as you did it. His death closed Acathla forever. Your friends need you—let them help you get past this."

The other Buffy's features seemed to relax, and she relaxed into normal sleep. I left the mansion, trying not to stagger—before remembering that the other Buffy's new destiny would doom others to pain and death. I turned to the south and concentrated carefully. After some time, I found it—a gateway to a pocket of this shadow that was a place of horrors. I focused on it with all of my power, and it sealed as if it had never existed. I smiled grimly, then turned and saw Corwin standing ten feet away. I sighed and commented, "Should have expected to get a visit after this one—thought it would be Fiona, though."

Corwin shrugged. "We all agreed that a bit of bedside manner would be good for this one, and that nominated me, though it's a case of grading on a curve, obviously." I nodded numbly, and Corwin continued, "We still want you to finish this exercise, Buffy—but this moment was what the whole thing was all about. This shadow faced you with your worst moment again—and not only did you still make the tough call and send Angel to hell, you also kept the presence of mind to both protect the sanity of the other Buffy –and-- deal with the consequences of that Buffy not going to Los Angeles. You've managed to summon the detachment that an Amberite needs to function in a universe that surrounds her with death and difficult choices, without losing the compassion that you had while living as a human being. Well done."

I nodded again, and said quietly: "Thank you—is it all right if I cry now?"

Corwin smiled at me and nodded once, and I threw myself at him and sobbed on his shoulder as he pulled out a Trump and removed us from the scene.

That moment was twenty-five years ago, personal time, and my rescue of Riley and Slaying of Glory moments ago marked the last Shadow I need to clean up. I walked back to the apartment I had in this Shadow. . .and here I am, staring into the bathroom mirror with the same face I had when I started this task subjective decades ago. The eyes are older, and I am a different person than I was when I started on this task.

I am Buffy—daughter of Prince Bleys and Lady Joyce of the Royal Family of Amber—Duchess of Buffonia—Slayer Emeritus. I am the savior of a hundred shadows and am older than my great-grandmother. I am ready for the challenges that face me—and I will not let those challenges prevent me from protecting both my new family and my old one.

Having concluded my internal monologue, I reach for a Trump—I am finished with this place, and it is time to seek the next challenge.

As always, comments are welcome and desired.