“Are you sure you've thought this through all the way?”
“Really? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I do wish you'd reconsider, I'm afraid you haven't fully anticipated all the potential ramification on your future.”
“I swear to God, Donna, I wish I could just physically pull your head out of your ass right now.”
Donna slammed her way out of the Madison Slayer House and walked to her car, fuming. After the scene she'd gone through at home with her parents, she'd thought that she'd at least get some supportive reactions from her fellow Council people. Why couldn't any of them understand that this was for the greater good? It wasn't as though she wanted to leave school. But she had a sacred trust passed down from thousands of years of Slayers before her, and there were so many cities and towns that had no Slayer at all. Going to school right now was just selfishness, wasting her most effective years. She wished that Rick had come with her to the house, it made so much more sense when he was explaining it to her.
She pulled out of the driveway and drove to Rick's house without even thinking about it, the route programmed into her body after all this time. His place wasn't far from the Slayer House, but he'd insisted he needed his own haven for research and study, far from the madding crowd. He still had to spend a certain amount of time at the House, training the other girls and participating in group projects, but nobody at the House really understood him, and it caused a lot of tension. Donna was the only Slayer he Watched in the field, because of their special bond. Rick said that was the way it was supposed to be, one Slayer with one Watcher, seeking out evil and destroying it wherever it hid. A Watcher couldn't have a bond with five or six or ten Slayers, and a Slayer couldn't bond with just any Watcher. It was a spiritual bond, two hearts beating as one. Donna felt the bond, absolutely, as strongly as she'd ever felt anything. She just hadn't realized how lonely it was going to be when none of the other girls could understand that.
Rick was working at his desk when she got there, wearing white cotton gloves and paging through an extremely old and fragile tome. She started towards him, but hesitated when he held up one gloved hand in a “wait” gesture without looking up. It was not exactly the treatment she was hoping for after a very difficult afternoon, but his research was important, possibly even critical to the protection of the world. Honestly it would probably mean something was wrong with him if he didn't prioritize that, she reasoned. Anyway, it was only a couple of minutes before he finished up, pulled off the gloves, and looked up at her. “Back from the henhouse then?” he joked. “How did it go?”
Donna let her face crumple, finally releasing the emotions she'd been choking back. “It was pretty terrible,” she admitted, wiping at her eyes. “Nobody understands why I want to do this. They keep telling me I need to stay in school and finish. Even Giles- Dan called Giles all the way in Cleveland, I don't know why he would do that! Giles told me it was ridiculous for me to think I should be full-timing right now. They wouldn't even listen when I tried to explain!”
Rick hurried over and wrapped his arms around her, making soothing noises in her ear. “Oh, hush darling, that's the way, it's not so bad as all that,” he murmured. She loved his accent so much, he sounded exactly like Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy. “They simply don't understand you and your real strengths and needs.” He smiled down at her. “Didn't you show them your spring semester grades? That ought to have proved the point that there are more useful places for you than the University.”
Donna frowned and pulled away, stung. “There was an apocalypse on!” she reminded him tersely. “I missed a lot of classes, and I still managed not to fail anything! My grades from this summer were a lot better.”
“Of course they were,” he soothed, chasing after her and hugging her until she relaxed into him once more. “I was joking, very insensitively, I'm afraid. I'm an awful man, just terrible.” She hrmphed into his shoulder but didn't pull away again. “I'm merely saying that your considerable skills and formidable intelligence are being wasted in the formal educational setting while you attempt to decide what you want to do with your life. A young woman who is comfortable in her studies does not choose five separate majors and two minors in two years of study, then not complete more than ten credits in any of them.”
“Everything is interesting,” she protested into his shoulder. “I just want to learn about a lot of different things.”
“You know your course in life already,” he reminded her soothingly, rubbing small circles into her back. She sighed. “You are a Slayer, a brilliant young Slayer in her prime, and you and I together are going to be an astonishing pair. They will write books about us, teach classes on our techniques at that school Rupert is starting. By the time we're done, they'll be begging us to come and teach classes there, anything we like. No more being stuck in the back of beyond with sullen Slayers and resentful old has-been Watchers-”
“Don't call them that,” Donna protested. “Rick, those are my friends, and this is my home. I hate it when you say things like that.”
“How can I do otherwise,” he protested, “when they've treated you so poorly and made you cry? They deserve only my scorn as far as I'm concerned. But if you don't want me to, then I shall keep my silence, I promise. I'm sure they'll come around very quickly anyway, once we begin proving ourselves in the field. And I think I know just the place to start!”
Releasing her, he led the way back to his desk, pointing towards the book he'd been studying. “I've been doing some very careful reading of the old texts we uncovered after this spring's aforementioned apocalypse. That old warlock had quite a library, whatever his other flaws. From looking at his notes and studying this volume, I believe that there is a demonic artifact housed under the town of Peshtigo in northern Wisconsin, one that may have been responsible for that dreadful fire. It's indicated here that the artifact is protected by a coven of slumbering witches who await the Day of Dissolution in order to use its power. We ought to go and investigate this artifact, and if necessary, secure it against any possible use by malign forces!”
Donna leaned towards the desk, looking at the notes in fascination. “That's amazing,” she murmured. “If there's a coven of witches involved, we should call Willow and her team in first. They always do the investigating when there could be magical traps.”
“I really don't think that's necessary,” Rick assured her. “They've been sleeping for hundreds of years, since long before the town was destroyed and rebuilt around them. Any traps will have been disabled or dissolved long ago. If we arrive and the situation seems more dangerous than anticipated, then of course we'll reevaluate. But wouldn't it be nice to be the first to find something for once, instead of merely a brute force retrieval team?” he coaxed.
Donna smiled, only a little guiltily, and nodded. “If we're only going to look around, there's no sense in getting too many people involved,” she agreed. “When do we go?”
There is a saying that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is especially true when one does not have much of a plan in the first place. It was surprisingly easy to navigate through the tiny town of Peshtigo, destroyed once by fire and rebuilt on its own ashes, easy to find their bearings by way of memorial plaques and a trip to the towns small Fire Museum. The building that replaced the old church that had been built over the artifact stood abandoned itself now, chained and boarded, with No Trespassing signs posted at every approach. Even without a map or a building, though, Donna thought she probably could've found her way just by the unnerving thrum of evil in the air. Rick was thrilled to hear it, and lost no time in directing her to open the door to the storm cellar behind the house.
She crept down the stairs, short sword in one hand, stake in the other, and was startled when Rick began descending after her. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“I'm your Watcher!” he reminded her. “I'm not standing outside while you investigate alone! You need my skills.” Donna wasn't sure that was a very good idea, but she also wasn't quite sure about going by herself into the dark cellar. The protocols Buffy and Faith designed had Slayers working in pairs and trios most of the time, not alone. She'd really never done a solo mission, only routine patrols. But she wasn't alone if Rick was with her! His presence was a warmth at her back as she walked into the dark.
There was indeed an artifact deep in that cavernous basement under the abandoned house. There was indeed a coven of sleeping witches as well, though they did not stay asleep for long once a young Slayer and her Watcher walked into their midst. Donna didn't remember very much of what happened once the lights went out and the chanting started. Rocks began to fall from the ceiling and Rick slumped over next to her, the smell of blood a sudden sharp tang in the air. Donna grabbed him up and began running as fast as she could in the dark, trusting her other senses, bouncing painfully off walls whenever she guessed wrong, but still moving, still running. She burst from the storm cellar and kept going, vaulting the fence, leaving the property, running all the way out of town before she could make herself stop, gasping and sobbing. Far away in the distance she could see unearthly red and yellow light as the old house burned to the ground.
Rick was awake by the time she got him back to the car, and insisted that they return to Madison without stopping for medical care. Donna didn't like the idea, but he was both the Watcher and the most injured party, so she followed his instructions, stopping only once for gas. It was near dawn by the time they made it back to the Slayer House, but before she'd even parked the car there were people pouring from the building.
Steph was in the lead. “Jesus Christ, Donna! What have you been doing? We've been trying to call you all night, you woke me up out of a sound sleep, screaming! Poor Lucy had her first bona-fide Slayer goddamn nightmare!” She pointed to their newest mini, twelve years old and newly promoted from The Lodge. Before Donna could even answer, Steph was checking her all over, hissing at the burns on Donna's back that she'd only begun to feel on the trip home.
“Rick,” Donna managed, pointing to the car. “He's hurt, you've got to help him!”
“There's a lot I've got to do to him,” Steph muttered, but Chao-Ahn and Erin went around and pulled the Watcher carefully from the car, carrying him into the house. Only then did Donna let her legs give out from under her, almost too fast for Steph to catch her.
Debriefing from that mission took all the next day, after first aid, food, and a short nap. Donna tried her best to recount every detail she remembered of the building and its location, the number of witches she'd seen in the moment before the flashlight had gone out, the few words that stuck in her head of the chanting that had echoed through her brain and in the air. She was more than a little surprised to see Giles and Willow arrive halfway through the afternoon, both of them looking travel-worn and grim. It was only then that Donna started to realize how big this was, and the kind of trouble she and Rick might be in.
Seeing Dan's disappointment in her had been terrible, but getting dressed down, however gently, by Mr. Giles was a hundred times worse. He listened carefully to her story, then related each and every one of the training precepts she'd broken by going alone into an untested situation where she knew there was magic being used, by not informing her Slayer House of her whereabouts, by not notifying the Council coven of possible hostile witches, by not seeking immediate medical treatment or calling for assistance after the mission had turned south, by not doing anything to prevent the loss of the artifact or the escape of the hostile witches, who were now mostly likely long gone and potentially anywhere the Upper Midwest with their dangerous prize.
“I'm sorry,” was all Donna could say at the end of it, because he was right. She'd made so many mistakes. “We were just going to look around. I didn't mean for it to get so out of hand.”
“You followed your Watcher,” Giles pointed out gently. “Which is a good thing, but not when done blindly. He led you into danger, Donna. He's not a good influence on you or the other girls.”
She hugged the couch pillow she'd been holding, looking up at Giles with stricken eyes. “Rick didn't lead me into danger, he would never! His information was right, we knew right where to go! It was an accident, and he was right beside me the whole time!”
“His one redeeming quality,” Giles agreed. “Nonetheless. Richard Lancaster is no longer an employee of the New Watcher's Council. I'm going to be assigning you a new Watcher sometime in the next few days-”
“No!” Donna protested, coming to her feet. “You can't fire him! He's the best Watcher you've got, you've just never given him a fair chance because you don't like him!” she accused.
“He almost got you killed!” Giles retorted sharply, rising as well. “This adolescent crush of yours is blinding you, Donna, and you are better than that. You are far more perceptive and more intelligent than any of your recent behavior would indicate, and it can all be traced back to Richard Lancaster. Does it never occur to you to wonder why none of the people you purport to trust will trust him, why none of your friends like him? He is neither a good Watcher nor a good man, and I will not have him endangering this organization or the young women in it any longer.”
Donna stared at him, letting the silence stretch. He looked back at her, unflinching. “Am I fired?” she finally asked.
Giles blinked. “What?”
“Am I fired?” she repeated coldly. “You fired Rick, am I fired too?”
“Of course not,” he told her. “Slayers aren't fired, they are retrained or reassigned. I don't believe your training is faulty in this case, so y-”
“Then I quit,” she snapped. “If he goes, then I go too. We have a bond, a spiritual bond, and I'm not going to stay here if you're sending him away. He was right about all of you!” She felt tears filling her eyes and struggled to blink them back. “I'm going to be an amazing Slayer, and I'm going to destroy evil and save peoples' lives, and none of you will have anything to do with it!”
Turning on her heel, she walked out of the house with her head held high, letting the door slam shut behind her. She was on the sidewalk before she realized she'd left her car keys and her purse behind, but she didn't care. There was no way she was ruining an exit like that, even if it meant walking all the way to Rick's house. It was just the two of them now against the entire world. The feeling of freedom was exhilaration and terror all at once.