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Ten Thousand Miles

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Donna first learned she was a potential Slayer when she was thirteen years old, but for four years it was an abstraction, some distant possibility that barely affected her life. She knew that her parents had been coaxed to Madison by a good job offer and a house that was too good to pass up, one that put them just down the block from a semi-retired Watcher in a good position to keep an eye on a young Potential. She knew that while Mrs. Morello really was a schoolteacher, Mr. Morello was not just a writer of history books, and that he'd once guided a Slayer for more than a year. The stories he told her were exciting and scary, but being a Potential had no more actual meaning for her than her excellent speed running track and weekends spent training in demon lore and martial arts.

Mr. Morello didn't believe she'd ever be Called, but he still wanted her to be ready, just in case. He had her do research with him, which she honestly enjoyed much more than the fighting, teaching her Slayer lore and legend, making sure she knew about all different sorts of demons and monsters. He told her that one day she could be a Watcher if she wanted, that many Potentials still worked for the Council and helped save the world. That sounded good to her. On her seventeenth birthday she had a weird dream about wrinkled bald vampires and men with no eyes, but when she woke up, she was definitely still just a potential, so she forgot the dream. Three weeks later, Potentials around the world started dying.

Donna didn't hear about the deaths for another full week, but she noticed right away that Mr. Morello was increasingly distracted, and both the Morellos much more attentive and worried than usual. Finally he broke down and told her what was happening, and that her only choice, likely her only chance was to leave Madison and get to California, where the real Slayer and her Watcher were assembling a team of experts and powerful people to fight off the coming apocalypse. Donna didn't want to hear that, didn't want to leave home and family, but he pointed out that with many of the dead Potentials, the eyeless men had come for their families first. She would be protecting them by leaving. She wanted him to come with her, but someone had to stay behind in case they came anyway. He would take care of things until she could come back.

Mr. Morello secured a car for her and she had a license of her own already, she could make the cross-country drive by herself. He gave her money for gas and lodging, a falsified ID so she could get a hotel room, a calling card so she could check in until things were safe again. Mrs. Morello packed an enormous picnic hamper full of food, and a small bundle of all the books Donna ought to be reading for English class. Donna wrote a note to her parents that she had something important to do and she would be home as soon as she could, soaked it with her tears, and packed up favorite clothes and bears and jewelry and diary. She drove out of town on a Friday night. By the time she checked in from Utah on Monday morning, Mr. Morello was already dead.

Losing her Watcher was like losing her rudder, sending her drifting aimlessly with the tide. She forgot that she had to go to California, forgot the Slayer's team of magical experts. She wanted to go home more than anything in the world, but she couldn't, and she couldn't seem to move on, either. She stayed in the motel Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, using up her money and food thoughtlessly, spending most of her time crying. For some reason she left the room for a few hours on Thursday morning, walking down to the drugstore with the vague idea that she should send Mrs. Morello a sympathy card, a “sorry I got your husband killed” card, or something like that. She couldn't, of course, and was coming back empty-handed when she saw movement in front of her motel room.

The strange men from her dream were there, men with eyes stitched shut, two of them, pushing aside a housekeeping cart as they emerged from the room. Donna hid in the bushes along the parking lot, not knowing what else to do, but the eyeless men didn't so much as glance -glance?- in her direction before leaving. She darted into the room to grab her bag and her car keys, and was abruptly confronted with the body of the housekeeper, a young blonde woman not much older than her, her throat slashed wide open. Donna threw up in the trash can, grabbed her suitcase, and ran. All at once, Sunnydale seemed like the only viable option.

The Slayer's operation in Sunnydale wasn't at all like Donna had expected. She knew of the Slayer, of course. Mr. Morello told her stories about Buffy Summers, absurdly old for a Slayer at twenty-two, with almost seven years service on the Hellmouth. She'd been reportedly dead twice, but the first time was just for a moment and the second time she'd actually been lost in some kind of hell dimension for a few months until her colleagues could retrieve her. Donna knew the Slayer was highly competent, knew the people she worked with had done some impressive thing. It was still a crushing disappointment to arrive in town and realize that the secure compound full of Watchers and researchers she'd been imagining was a two-story colonial house with one Watcher and two dozen frightened teenage potentials, and that the team of experts was the Slayer's group of twenty-year-old friends who seemed to do most of their planning by the seat of their pants. She took the sleeping bag they gave her and found a corner of one bedroom to stash her suitcase, but she was pretty sure this town was where she was going to die.

Premonitions of doom or not, it was in Donna's nature to be useful, so she'd tried to help out where she could. She found the Slayer distant and unapproachable, which she guessed made sense after seven years of slaying vampires and saving the world. It didn't sound like a happy-go-lucky career path. The younger sister, Dawn, was a little easier to talk to, but she seemed to spend as much time out of the house and with her normal friends as possible. Again, Donna found it hard to blame her. The Potentials were encouraged to stay inside or in the screened backyard whenever possible, to avoid attracting attention from the steadily dwindling population of neighbors. It seemed that only monsters and nascent Slayers were attracted to Sunnydale these days.

She finally found a useful occupation assisting Mr. Giles, Buffy's watcher. He'd debriefed Donna when she'd come to town, made careful note of the eyeless men, who were called Bringers, and expressed sympathy for her watcher, whom he'd apparently known slightly. He was at least as distant and unapproachable as his Slayer, but he had piles of research that needed done, and Donna knew how do that. She even scored a trip to the library to work on the computers there, using the tricks Mr. Morello had taught her to shell out of the restrictive library OS and access the Watcher databases. Everything she found about Bringers and The First Evil and the Eye of Beljoxa was gut-wrenchingly scary, but she pretended it was fictional and that this was all just a fantastic story she'd tell when she got home to Madison. Mr Giles and Willow, apparently his deputy Watcher, at least seemed to find the information valuable.

Even with her new job, there were a lot of idle hours for the Potentials. Willow's girlfriend Kennedy had to be nearly too old to be a Potential, but her Watcher had trained her like a Slayer and she knew a lot of martial arts. They had classes in the backyard, and though Donna had counted herself no great shakes at combat, she was already a lot better than many of the completely untrained girls. Some of them whispered, though there was no real proof, that the Bringers had gotten the best Potentials first, that maybe they had a spy in the Council who had tipped them off to who they believed was best suited to become Slayer. Some of the girls had never had a Watcher at all, and had just been picked up and brought in by Mr. Giles. Kennedy started holding exercise classes and training in the afternoons, and with nothing else to do, most of the girls joined in.

They watched movies at night, mostly romantic comedies and the occasional period drama, nothing scary or sad. Some of the Potentials who still had money would sneak out from time to time and go buy food, which they were usually good about sharing. It wasn't like anybody was starving, really, but they all had high metabolisms and there was barely enough to go around most days. They ate mostly pasta, because it was easy to make a lot of that cheaply, a lot of meatloaf, a lot of pizzas. One day Kennedy brought back a dozen boxes of brownie mix, two boxes of eggs, and a bottle of vegetable oil, and they'd baked all afternoon. Donna and all the others had eaten themselves half-sick on chocolate, but it was more fun than she'd had since she got there.

There was one other Potential from Wisconsin, a girl named Steph who lived in Green Bay. She and Donna started hanging out together, unrolling their sleeping bags next to each other and talking at night about growing up someplace with actual weather. Steph had actually been adopted by her Watcher when she was very little, after she'd been found in the foster system. He'd sent her off the way Mr. Morello had Donna, but she didn't know what had happened to him after that. Donna couldn't offer her any comfort, but they could lay sleepless in the dark and whisper about the future, wondering what was going to happen to them. Steph didn't want to be a Slayer either; she wanted to be a teacher, and to travel around the world learning about other countries. Donna didn't know what she wanted to do, except that she didn't want to die here. They made friends with some of the other girls: Molly from London, Chao An, who nobody could talk to but who Donna could exchange simple written notes with thanks to the efforts of both their Watchers. Bettina from Mexico, only fifteen but braver than Donna thought she'd ever be, Nancy from Texas who could play three instruments but had only had a Watcher for three months. Amanda, who'd actually grown up in Sunnydale and knew more about what was going on than the rest of them. Nothing made this world seem normal, but having friends made it bearable.

Then things had started getting really scary, really fast. The town started emptying out, and the scary vampires from Donna's dreams, the Turok-Han, were suddenly everywhere. Buffy had showed them it was possible to kill one, but not by any methods Donna had any hope of ever mastering. The other Slayer Donna had heard about, the one who'd gone evil and been locked away, broke out of her prison cell and came to join the gang. Donna wasn't sure if she should be afraid or be happy that there was one more Slayer around. Buffy fought with her Watcher and with Robin, the closest thing to a backup Watcher they had, and though Donna didn't know much about why, the fighting couldn't be a good sign A new bad guy showed up in town, as though they'd needed any more, catching one of the new Potentials and hurting her, burning her just as a message to Buffy. There was a raid on the bad guys' lair, and Donna and Steph didn't go along because they were too inexperienced, but when the group came back, Molly wasn't with them and hardly anybody seemed to care. People were hurt, Donna understood that, but Molly was dead and that was important, too.

She organized a little memorial service in the backyard, wrapping Molly's diary and a pair of her earrings in a pillowcase and burying them under a tree while the others looked on or sang or said prayers. She didn't know the other girl who died very well, but another Potential named Vi said a few words and added a watch and a stuffed rabbit to the grave. They carved names and dates into the tree, but beyond that, as soon as the hole was filled in, the two girls might as well not have existed. Now there were almost enough sleeping bags to go around. Going to the weird bar/nightclub in town that night had felt as much like a wake as anything else. No matter how they tried, it just wasn't very much fun. Later that night, when Buffy had told them they were going back and the rest of the group had united against her, Donna had sat on the floor and watched, Steph's hand clutched in hers. They were all going to die here, and there wouldn't be anyone left to miss them or mark their graves.

The next day Donna found herself following Faith the Dark Slayer into the sewers of Sunnydale along with her friends, searching for a Turok-Han armory to raid. So many of the Potentials were already on the injured list, even less-seasoned and late-arriving Potentials were being tapped for missions. It wasn' very reassuring. They found the armory, but it turned out to be some kind of ambush with a bomb, and suddenly they were running and fighting for their lives. Actually fighting vampires was very, very different from training against Mr. Morello in his sunny exercise room. Right when it seemed impossible that any of them would survive, Buffy had reappeared, clutching a strange weapon and looking like an avenging angel. In that moment, Donna would've followed her anywhere she asked. But Buffy had just led them home and helped them patch up their injuries once again.

The town emptied out completely, and it became obvious that the final battle was at hand. Buffy outlined her plan to them, then left them alone to absorb it as best they could. In some ways, that made things easier. Things like food could be had for the taking, so at least their last few meals would be plentiful and tasty. Donna showed her friends how to cook on camp stoves in the yard like good girl scouts, and when they went to bed at Xander's house that last night, they stayed up late, telling each other their stories, just in case anyone didn't make it out, just in case anyone made it out at all. Donna thought about trying to call or write her parents one last time, but the post office was abandoned and the phones were dead. She looked out a window and wished them love on a star, then laid down and tried to sleep once more amongst her new friends.

Most of the next day passed in a blur. Robin found a bus to carry them to the school, warning them that last time they'd fought at the school it had exploded, so maybe not to bring anything they couldn't spare. Donna tucked her wallet in her pocket from habit, but left everything else except her weapons behind. Going into the school was surreal and nightmarish; it looked and smelled almost exactly like the school she'd left behind in Madison. How could anybody die here, how could the world end here? And then they went into the basement and down into the Hellmouth, and everything changed. She didn't know how she survived the first few minutes of the fight, calling on every instinct she possessed just to stand her ground, just to parry the killing blows raining down around her. And then... it was like being bathed in light, but the light was black, but the blackness wasn't dark. Something unfolded inside her, and she remembered Buffy's voice from yesterday, echoing in her head as clearly as though she were saying it aloud, asking if she was ready to be strong.

Donna was ready, so very ready, and suddenly the strength was there. Not just strength, but skill, and instinct, and the understanding of battle she'd never had before. She saw Bettina fall, saw Amanda, but she kept fighting anyway. Nancy the musician went over the edge with a scream, but she took three vampires with her, and the bright darkness inside Donna was proud. She and Steph wound up fighting back to back, holding their ground until a brilliant wash of light disintegrated the vampires around them and their part of the battle was over. Only then did Donna realize how hurt they both were, and they staggered up the stairs together, finding the others, running for the bus as the whole town shook itself to pieces around them. They left Sunnydale a crater, a yawning grave and a closed Hellmouth, testament to the time the world didn't end.

The bus drove them to the edge of Los Angeles, to a hospital whose energies made Donna's new senses bristle with unease. But the doctors looked human, and they took Robin into surgery and bandaged up the hurt girls. Donna got a dozen stitches in her various hurts, a shower and a pair of scrubs to change into, and three bottles of red Gatorade. They climbed back into the bus, which took them to a strange hotel called the Hyperion, whose inhabitants looked almost as strained and shell-shocked as the new Slayers felt, but at least there were enough beds for everyone.

It was the first time in months that Donna had gotten a bed to herself, not since her last night at the hotel in Utah, before the Bringers had attacked. The empty, scared, powerful supernatural being she was now had little in common with that other girl, the one who'd started on the road to Sunnydale with a suitcase full of childish mementos she couldn't bear to part with and a certainty that everything would blow over soon anyway. The suitcase was as thoroughly lost as that other Donna, buried under a thousand tons of rubble and dead things, and yet somehow she was still alive. Realizing she wasn't going to sleep anytime soon, Donna climbed out of bed and went to find her sisters.