For a long, long time, all she knew was pain. Misery. Eventually, the nebulous, all-consuming agony resolved into more discrete aches. An arm that throbbed rhythmically, in multiple locations. A dull twinge in her right hip, and a sharp, stabbing pain in her left thigh. Scrapes that burned, brittle things poking into her tender skin. An unscratchable itch in her gut. And a splitting headache so intense, once she became aware of it she had no choice but to vomit, thin bile trickling down her cheek when she couldn't find the strength to roll to her side.
Let me die.
She might have, at least for a little while. She couldn't say. Time passed, marked by drastic changes in temperature: frigid cold, followed by intense heat. Eyes crusted shut, she could only guess it meant day had followed night. When the temperature dropped once more, the constant groans and shrieks surrounding her grew louder, along with the whistling of the wind. She shivered uncontrollably, teeth chattering, head pounding.
Sometimes there were voices. They called to her, but disappeared before she could answer.
She woke, tongue so swollen she could hardly swallow. Her tears of bitter disappointment at still being alive didn't make it any easier to breathe, so she tried not breathing. It didn't work.
Hold on. I'm coming. The words pounded through her skull. Can you hear me? Don't move.
I'm not going anywhere, she thought. Be quiet and let me die.
The voice was louder now. Insistent. "Hold on. I'm almost there."
Something nearby fell with a thump. She moaned as the impact shuddered its way through her body.
"It's okay. Don't move, I'll be there in a minute."
A moment later, a hand cupped her head, tilting it, and cool water trickled into her mouth. She choked. The water stopped, then started again, a few drops at a time.
"You're going to be okay. I'm going to try to move you, so you're more comfortable." A pause, and then, "Can you move your feet?"
She couldn't quite remember how to make her body obey her commands. She focused all her concentration on the not-so-simple task. The attempt left her gasping and shaking, and she had no idea if she'd even managed it in the end.
"Okay, okay. You can stop now. Relax."
The voice muttered on for a while, too low for her to understand. She drifted off, floating in a haze of pain, only to be jerked back to consciousness as her body was moved. She screamed, and screamed again when she was lowered back to the ground.
"I know, I know. Shhhh. It'll be better in a minute. I had to get you off those rocks, okay? The blanket will be more comfortable. Okay, now open up. This will help."
A bitter, foul liquid trickled down her throat. She spluttered and choked. The voice talked her through several more doses, hands smoothing her hair back from her forehead, and then the pain receded.
"Where am I?"
"You're safe. Can you open your eyes?"
She managed to crack open one eye, then promptly shut it against the too-bright light.
"Here. Try again."
This time, the light was dimmer. She could see a lantern glowing nearby, and darkness beyond. "Where am I?" she repeated.
"There was an accident. You… fell. I'm going to get you out of here."
She turned her head towards the speaker. The face was blurry, but judging from the timber of his voice, male. His hair appeared brown in the dim light. "Who are you?" She frowned. It hurt, so she stopped. "Scratch that. Who am I?"
"You don't remember?"
Duh, she didn't bother saying. Sarcasm took too much energy just now.
"Buffy. Your name is Buffy Summers."
He chuckled. "Really. I had nothing to do with it, I promise."
"Buffy," she tried. It didn't feel right. But it didn't feel wrong, either. She let it go, for now. "And who are you?"
The man hesitated. "You sure you don't remember anything?"
Buffy closed her eyes. Various bits of random information made themselves available – six times two is twelve; the capitol of California is Sacramento; the supermarket is on Oakridge Drive – but the who and what of her life remained a blank. She started to shake her head, then thought better of it and croaked out a no instead.
"My name… my name is Rupert Giles. I'm your Watcher."
"Watcher?" It didn't ring a bell.
"Your… guardian, after a fashion. We work together."
"Oh." She put that aside as well. "What happened? To me?"
Rupert offered her a drink. When she'd managed to swallow a little, he said, "Sunnydale – that's where you live – had a cave-in. Most of the town collapsed. You were caught in the collapse." He took her hand. "And here I am, to save you."
Buffy mulled that over, trying to make it fit. "Are there other injured people? My… family?"
"The scientists had advance warning. Most everybody got out ahead of time. You had to stay behind for… work. You cut it a little too close."
She had the feeling he wasn't telling her everything, but couldn't summon the energy to press for answers. "How are we getting out of here?" She tried wiggling her toes again. They obeyed, but it hurt like hell. All her other aches and pains took advantage of the moment to make themselves known, the sharp pain in her thigh foremost among them, and she moaned. "Something tells me I won't be walking anytime soon."
"I think you'll be surprised," Rupert said. "Get some more rest. I guarantee you'll be up and about sooner than you think."
He encouraged her to eat, small bites of an energy bar that tasted like sawdust but helped quell the hunger, and then gave more of the bitter liquid to swallow. "Sleep now," he said, and she did.
Buffy had lost track of how many times she'd fallen into a drugged sleep, but when she opened her eyes this time, it was with minimal effort.
The man – Rupert – was perched on a nearby rock, sorting through a large rucksack. She took a moment to study him, trying to jog her memory. The breeze ruffled his somewhat shaggy blond-brown hair, and he sported several days' worth of stubble. The rugged look suited him, and went well with the crew shirt, jeans, and sturdy hiking boots combination he had going on. He looked older than her – or so she thought, since she couldn't quite remember her age. He'd called himself her guardian, so he had to be older. Didn't he?
She closed her eyes and focused inward, but nothing new came to her. Panic welled, white-hot and ready to swallow her whole. Buffy took a shaky breath and forced it down. She'd already been there, done that, and had nothing helpful to show for it. She sat up carefully, mindful of the splints on her arm. "I'd kill for a shower."
Rupert chuckled. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty." He slid off the rock, bringing a water bottle and an energy bar.
Buffy wrinkled her nose. "And real food. If I never see another of those disgusting things again, it will be too soon."
"I couldn't agree more. I think I hear a cheeseburger calling your name. But…" He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb, toward the lack-of-trail he'd pointed out earlier as their way out of there. "You're going to have to move your butt, young lady. No more lazing around."
She pushed herself to her feet, groaning out her disapproval for his plan. "I don't know why I put up with you."
"Because I'm a charming bastard. And I'm your rescuer." Rupert held out a hand to steady her. "How you doing?"
"I think I'll live." She squared her shoulders and took a few tentative steps. Realizing that it wasn't as painful as she'd feared, Buffy let out a surprised laugh. She scrambled up over the rock overhang that had been their shelter, and peered back down at Rupert. "What's taking so long, slow poke?"
"Ah, the impetuousness of youth," he said, mouth quirked into a half-smile, then shouldered the rucksack and clambered to her side.
Buffy turned and began to carefully pick her way across the ruined landscape. "You promised to fill me in on what happened here. And tell me more about my life." With Rupert's assurances that it was only temporary, she'd moved from panic over her apparent amnesia into an uneasy acceptance, the demands of her broken body more pressing than those of her broken mind. But now that the overwhelming pain had receded to something manageable, something that didn't eclipse all other thought, the giant black hole of her past was demanding answers once more.
"It's a story, all right. Let's begin with the fun part. Do you believe in vampires?"
"Vampires! No, everybody knows vampires aren't real. Wait." She glared over her shoulder at Rupert. "Is this a trick question? One of those things I should know – vampires are real – and forgot?"
He laughed. "You got me. Most people think vampires are a myth, but a select few know the truth. Vampires – and werewolves and witches and a whole lot more – are real."
"And I'm one of those select few?" she said doubtfully. Rupert's amused expression held, but despite the wry grin, he seemed sincere. Buffy decided to play along. "Great. How did I get to be lucky enough to be one of the chosen ones?"
"Because, Buffy. You are the Chosen One."
Hands on hips, she came to a full stop, in order to glare at him more effectively.
He stopped too. "There's even a spiel: Into every generation, there is a Chosen One. One girl in all the world. She alone will wield the strength and skill to stand against the vampires, etc., etc. She is the Slayer."
"Slayer? One girl in all the world? Okay, now I know you're full of shit. Ha ha, let's make fun of the poor, helpless amnesiac. Asshole," she added under her breath. Tears threatened, barely-repressed hysteria slithering just under the surface of her enforced calm. Buffy tightened her fists, eyes narrowing to slits as she studied the stranger who'd rescued her.
What did she know about this Rupert, really? He'd saved her life, which earned him the majorest of points, but didn't guarantee he was truthful. Or sane.
"Trust me, Buffy. You're far from helpless." He'd climbed to stand beside her, and his intense gaze held hers.
Whoa. Blue. Blue eyes.
"You're stronger than other people. Faster. More agile. Think about how quickly you recovered – believe me, that's not the norm for the rest of the poor saps out there."
Buffy shook her head, still convinced he was screwing with her. "You've been super nice, taking care of me and all, so don't think I'm ungrateful. But why should I believe you? I don't remember anything past a few days ago, so the only person I have to compare myself to is you. And I don't seem to be leaving you in the dust, Rupert."
"As your Watcher –"
"There's that word again. Watcher. What the hell does that mean?"
"It's just a title. It means I watch over you. Train you, guide you, that sort of thing. But being a Watcher comes with perks of its own. I have to be able to keep up with you if I'm going to train you."
With a frustrated sigh, she recommenced picking her way over the twisted remnants of a building. Screwing with her or not, she was far from one hundred percent, and Rupert was her only help out of this crater. She had no choice but to trust him. For now. Besides, other than making her wonder which one of them was the bigger candidate for the cuckoo's nest, he'd done nothing to set her alarm bells ringing. It made zero sense to worry he'd saved her life for unknown nefarious purposes. "So you say. But, Rupert –"
"Giles. You call me Giles. Most everybody does."
"Giles, fine. You really expect me to believe that not only are there vampires, but I'm some sort of superhero destined to fight them? And why me? Is this something I signed up for, because I have to say, non-amnesia me seems to have made a pretty crappy career choice if almost dying in a crater is where it got me."
"Oh, you're a superhero, all right. One of the best ever, Buffy."
She paused, waiting for him to catch up so he could boost her up. "Gee, thanks. I think."
"But no, you didn't pick this path. It was chosen for you."
Giles laced his fingers together, and she placed one foot into his cupped hands. "Hence the Chosen One?" she said as he raised her up.
"You got it."
Buffy scrambled over the edge, then reached down and grasped Giles' arm and tugged him up. "Lucky me."
"Hey. You are lucky. Most people go through life with no idea who they are. They spend their short, pathetic lives wondering why they were put on this planet. Wondering what their purpose is. You don't have to."
That brought her up short. She took a drink while she mulled over his words, the underlying fervency beginning to win her over despite her doubts. He believed, that much was clear. "But I didn't choose that purpose. If you're telling me the truth – 'cause I haven't decided to believe you yet – and that really is my purpose. But why don't I get a say in my own life? Doesn't seem fair."
Giles laughed. It was a dry, dark sound. "Aren't many get to choose their lot in life. We're all cast into the world with our burdens to bear. Your choice comes after – what you do with the lot you're given."
Huh. Well, if he really was her Watcher guy, Buffy could see why. He had good answers – and he didn't even have to think about them. Of course, presuming his version of This is Your Life was real, she'd probably asked him all the same questions a hundred times before.
Too bad his answers didn't make her feel any better. Maybe it was the amnesia talking, but Buffy didn't feel any more satisfied now that she knew her supposed Purpose In Life.
When they reached a stone ledge that seemed like a good resting spot, Buffy plunked herself down with a groan. "Super healing or not, I need a break. These boots? Not the hiking kind." She eyed Giles' sturdy boots. "Don't suppose you want to trade?"
"Gee, if only I fit into a size tiny."
While they rested, Buffy took advantage of their new, higher elevation to survey the crater. It stretched out ahead of them for miles in every direction. The wind whistled through it, bringing with it the sounds of settling rock and protesting wreckage. A helicopter droned overhead, somewhere on the far side of the ex-town. Besides herself and Giles, Buffy couldn't see or hear any other signs of life. The sudden realization made her shiver.
"You said I stayed behind for my work. Slaying? What was so important I couldn't abandon ship with the rest of the town?"
Giles passed her an energy bar. "I didn't give you the full story before."
"Vampires are a lot like people –"
"With a nasty blood habit?"
He laughed. "And an inconvenient sun allergy. But most are schmucks just trying to find their next meal. Others are more ambitious. Vampires can live a long time – in theory, forever. The smart ones, the ambitious ones, well, they're just like anybody else. They want power. With death and destruction on the side."
"You said it. There's one vamp in particular been gunning for power in these parts. And this –" He flung his arm out. "All this is his doing. He's the reason your hometown is nothing more than smoke and ash."
"A vampire did this?"
"Oh yes." Mouth set in a grim line, Giles' intense blue eyes blazed with fury. "His name is Angelus. And it's our duty to destroy him."