The Slayers spent almost a month living in the Hyperion Hotel in Los Angeles, which Donna quickly came to realize was actually an ex-hotel, now spending its second life as home base for a vampire detective and his weird friends. She did not like the vampire hotel owner at all, didn't like the scratchy feeling of his presence on the back of her neck or the way Buffy, already diminished by the end of Sunnydale and all that was lost, tended to get smaller and sadder when he was around. Luckily, he didn't seem to enjoy sharing a hotel with fourteen Slayers very much either, so she didn't see a lot of him. Mostly she stuck close to the other mini-slayers, a silly diminutive with a lot of sticking power, or near Mr. Giles and Willow.
Donna liked Willow, who was funny and geeky and who liked doing research to find odd bits of trivia maybe even more than Donna did. Willow was a powerful witch, and apparently this could make her moody and even a little scary at times, but she spent a lot of time meditating and that seemed to help a lot. She was also Kennedy's girlfriend, and Donna liked Kennedy very much. Sure, she was pushy and loud and sometimes arrogant, but Kennedy had good ideas and followed through on them, a trait Donna admired. She was also the bravest of the mini-slayers and usually the first to volunteer for anything, be it extra training or taking point on patrols, something that a natural follower like Donna had to appreciate. Some of Willow's old friends and allies, the Scoobies, didn't seem to like Kennedy much, but Kennedy had enough ego not to care, so it was all okay.
But though Donna liked Willow and Kennedy, was a little in awe of Buffy, laughed at sad Xander's occasional jokes, and admired Vi and Rona's slaying skills, Steph was still Donna's best friend at the hotel. Having someone from home here in California helped ease the acute and desperate homesickness for both of them, and the anxiety Steph felt about still not knowing her Watcher's fate. When Mrs. Morello sent Donna a little money (appreciated nearly as much as the letter with news from home), Donna used a bit of it to buy a Wisconsin map to hang in their shared room. She'd been able to send a letter home with Willow's help to disguise its origins, after explaining that nobody in her family knew how to use a computer, but couldn't come up with any way to let them respond. Although she still missed her family horribly, it helped to have sent them a message, and there was enough going on to take her mind off things a lot of the time.
Days at the Hyperion could be a little boring if there wasn't a research project going on, but nighttime was Slayer time, and LA had a lot of stuff that needed slaying. Every night, a team of four minis would go out with someone, usually Faith but occasionally Buffy, and actually patrol the cemeteries and streets, seeking out monsters to kill. The others remained home to practice and hone their skills on training dummies, Xander in a puffy suit, and each other. Steph turned out to be a natural at fighting, and could put Donna on the mat four out of five times, while Donna used her years of training to avoid being completely embarrassed by all the other girls. She wasn't a bad fighter; by many standards she was a very good fighter, but Slayer standards were a lot higher. Fighting did not seem to be where her gifts lay. Actually going out and patrolling was much more gratifying for her. Donna could notice a vampire faster than almost any of the other girls, and even if somebody else killed it, that was a pretty good skill.
She had a lot of dreams too, especially in those early days. Never the Bringer dream again, thank god, and mostly nothing with the horrible urgency that said prophecy, but a lot of dreams of other girls, older girls who'd been Slayers years ago. Girls who'd never grown to be women, a fear that still churned her stomach, but brave girls who'd saved the world and seemed to consider that enough. Buffy was in the dreams once or twice, and Faith, and once in a great while she'd catch a glimpse of one of her mini-slayer friends. Donna wondered idly sometimes if anybody was dreaming of her. There were girls out there who were still alive, trying to find their way to the voice that had told them to be strong. Just in case they could hear her, Donna whispered the name of the Hyperion Hotel and Los Angeles over and over in her dreams, to the point where Steph told her she was talking in her sleep and it was weird. Mr. Giles didn't think it could do any harm, and assured her they were taking all possible steps to find the wayward new slayers.
The Scoobies held a lot of closed-door meetings that none of the minis except maybe Kennedy were privy to, but Donna got the definite idea that money was a problem. The Watcher's Council had a lot of money, but when it had been destroyed, the most immediate means of accessing it had been cut off as well. She had no idea what they were doing about that, but whatever it was seemed to be fairly successful, since by the end of May, Mr. Giles was looking at houses in Cleveland, home of the newly invigorated Hellmouth. Donna was more than happy to help with that project. Her mom had gotten her realtor's license as soon as Donna was old enough to start school, and had indulged her daughter's curiosity about the thick binders of MLS listings she'd bring home from the office. Looking through piles of faxed listings again was almost nostalgic, and putting them all in order was second nature. She liked things to be orderly.
It was clear that the Scoobies were looking for something a little bit outside the normal 3br-2ba craftsman-type home; most of the listings were for old apartments, dormitories and even office buildings, places that could hold a lot of people. It was a lot cooler than normal house-hunting. Donna combed through the binder she'd put together, highlighting words her mom had told her meant trouble, making index cards about places that seemed like they might fit the bill. She dragged Steph (over voluble protest) and Kennedy (because riding LA public transit was scary) to the library to check out books about real estate, zoning, and taxes, then was proud of herself when she went alone to return them (at noon on a Saturday). After two weeks of this, Donna was absolutely sure she did not want to be a realtor, but she'd managed to pare down the list a great deal and was happy about it. The faster they got a new place, maybe the faster they'd get to Cleveland, which would get them out of the vampire hotel and incidentally cut a whopping 21 hours off the drive to Madison.
Mr. Giles didn't say much about Donna's work on the houses. That was a little discouraging, but she tried to remind herself that he was a man with a lot on his mind. Three brand-new slayers had already made their way to the Hyperion on their own, tracking like homing pigeons in a way none of them had been able to describe but that all the Slayers could understand. There was no doubt in Donna's mind that she could've found her way back to Buffy and the others from anywhere, just by following the dreams and the static buzz of their energy. Trying to explaining that to a couple of skeptical watcher-types, though, was not something she had any interest in. Between the new girls, the money problem, and a bunch of other issues Donna was sure she had no idea about, the house hunt sat on the back burner. She was therefore pretty surprised when Giles informed her that he wanted her to come along on their first trip to Cleveland.
This was heady stuff, her first Scooby trip, made even more so when Donna realized she'd be the only mini going along on this expedition. Robin and Andrew were staying behind to mind the store and Faith to keep the training going, and Willow was staying behind for unspecified reasons involving vibes and purification rituals necessary before visiting a new Hellmouth. Plane tickets were expensive so it made sense to take as few people as possible, but she'd done the most work on the search and knew the most about the places they'd be seeing. Also, apparently nobody else could decipher her extensive note-taking system. That was almost insulting, but it got her a trip to Cleveland to help buy a house, so she decided to take it as an overall win.
“I'm not so sure about this one, Giles,” Buffy began as they drove from the airport to the first of their destinations. “From the pictures it looks less homey and more prisony. Do we really want to ask a bunch of teenage girls to live there?”
In the backseat, Donna looked up from her job sorting Xander's toolbag into some semblance of order. She'd had to pester him for a few minutes before he'd wearily handed it over, but it needed serious help. “The institution?” she asked. “It's ugly, but it's more than 20,000 square feet and the boiler is only three years old. Plus it's already halfway renovated into apartments, we'd just have to finish the job.”
Giles barely glanced over at Buffy as he drove, obviously preferring to concentrate on Cleveland traffic. “I'm afraid aesthetics ended up rather low on the list of necessary attributes, after space, affordability, and defensibility. While admittedly, a former mental institution is not the ideal location for a Slayer stronghold-”
“A mental institution?” Buffy cut in, her voice suddenly colder, and sharp enough that Donna stopped working entirely for a minute. Next to her, Xander was similarly wary. “Do you really think a former loony bin is a good place for anybody to live?” Buffy demanded.
“While ordinarily I'd agree with you,” Giles argued, his voice clipped, “I'm afraid we're much more beggars than choosers on this particular occasion, and any location that meets our needs deserves at least a look. The building is large enough, it has solid walls and a security system already installed, and the location is near an excellent public high school. I realize you have unfortunate past associations with these-”
Buffy cut him off again, and this time she was looking back at Donna. “Giles, could we maybe just not right now?” she asked, all at once sounding tired. That was familiar; Buffy sounded tired almost all the time.
“Even if the first one doesn't work out, there are five places on the list,” Xander piped up, obviously trying to smooth things over. “I'm kinda partial to the old lake resort.”
“Ten units!” Donna chimed in hastily, eager to help in Xander's efforts. “Air and running water in each, with a central building housing five more bedrooms, laundry and dining. And it sits on almost fourteen acres, so lots of room for expansion and training.”
“Is that the one that's like twenty-five miles outside the city?” Buffy asked. “Long night's commute to the Hellmouth.”
“Wills might call that a feature rather than a bug,” Xander offered with a half-smile. “She's way into the pastoral scene these days.”
“And it might be nice to have separate living quarters,” Buffy mused, casting another glance over her shoulder at Donna. “Not that I don't like you guys or anything, but I haven't had a good night's sleep in months.”
“That's okay,” Donna offered with a bold grin, “we wouldn't mind getting all the grown-ups out of the house either.”
“Ouch!” Buffy slumped down in the front seat. “Giles, tell her that I'm not a grown-up,” she insisted.
“How old are you, Donna?” Giles asked instead, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.
“Seventeen,” Donna told him, “but I'll be eighteen in November.” Which did not, she had to admit, make a lot of difference in June.
“Ah. So if my knowledge of American schools is correct, Buffy was already in the first grade when you and your fellow trainees were still in the womb.” Giles actually sounded like he was almost enjoying himself, unprecedented in Donna's experience.
“Giiiiles!” Buffy protested, slumping even further. “My god, I'm an old woman.”
“You'll be a mentor to these girls,” Giles continued relentlessly. “You can impart your years of wisdom to them, perhaps sitting in a rocking chair next to a fireplace while they sit at your feet...” Xander was laughing pretty hard, so Donna thought it was probably safe to giggle too, mostly at Buffy's outraged noises as Giles continued to describe the bucolic scene of ancient Buffy counseling the young Slayers. It was nice to feel the break in the tension, and Donna relaxed and spent the rest of the trip making sure Xander would be able to reach in his bag and actually find the tools he needed.
The former institution was somewhat less unprepossessing in person than on paper, with a pretty, tree-shaded lane leading towards it and climbing ivy softening the stern brick facade. Donna wondered as they parked what it would look like if somebody planted some shrubs around the foundation, maybe added a porch. Xander was a very good carpenter even with one eye, maybe he could-
Her thoughts ground to a halt the second she actually set foot on the gravel driveway. Donna actually pulled her foot back into the car and stared down into the dirt, trying to figure out what had made her feel that way. Nearby, Buffy climbed out of the car, then hissed like a scalded cat. “What the hell is that?” Buffy demanded. She didn't jump back in the car with Donna, but she looked seriously uncomfortable, scrubbing her arms with her hands and looking around as though waiting for an attack.
On the other side of the car, Xander and Giles seemed unaffected. Giles hurried over to his Slayer, looking around as well, but not bothered in the same way “What's wrong, Buffy?” he asked insistently.
“Can't you feel that?” Buffy asked urgently. “It's like the son of St. Wiggins just walked over my grave. Something really bad is going on here. Like, serious badness.”
Xander rounded the car as well, keeping his bad side towards it as though waiting for an ambush. Even if he didn't see the problem, he obviously trusted Buffy that there was one. “So what do we do?” he asked. “Is it scramming time now?”
“I'm not sure what in the area would be causing this sort of premonition of disaster,” Giles admitted. “The location, perhaps, and it's connotations-”
“No!” Buffy shouted. “It's not that! I'm not cracking up, Giles, God!” She wheeled to look at Donna. “You feel it too, don't you?” she demanded. “Something bad.”
Donna nodded emphatically, feeling vaguely foolish about joining the conversation through the open car door, but not about to step out again unless she had to. “It feels like that high school,” she offered. “Only that was old and sunken in, where this is new and right on the surface. I almost feel like I'm going to step in a puddle of it.” She shuddered at the thought.
The three Scoobies looked at each other, then towards the building that loomed behind them. Buffy nodded in slow agreement. “First try,” Xander muttered. “What would you say the odds are on that one?”
“Given the company, I'd say approaching one hundred percent,” Giles answered dryly.
Buffy leaned against the car next to Donna, studying the institution's blank facade in silence for a moment. “What I really want to know,” she finally said, “is who underwrites the homeowners' insurance for houses built on Hellmouths. That's gotta be a tough business.” Donna looked up at her questioningly, but the older Slayer was still watching the building, her face resolute. Apparently they'd already found their new enemy.