The Lodge was incredibly crowded in the aftermath of the battle. They'd been at capacity even before the apocalypse had started up, with 36 Slayers-in-training in residence and another twelve trainee Watchers. That number had nearly tripled as trained veterans had poured in for the fight, some called in officially from their Slayer Houses, some coming on their own initiative to help friends already committed to the fight, others drawn in by the power of their own prophetic dreams. It had been a damn lucky thing, too, Giles thought as he surveyed the battered but victorious crowd. They'd lost two Slayers in the unseasonable apocalypse, but without the massive groundswell of support, they'd probably have lost far more. Even now he wasn't sure who or what had been behind the attempt to open the Cleveland Hellmouth, but he had an uneasy feeling that whoever it was, they were not done. For the moment, though, the battle was over.
Buffy and Faith were holed up in the cabin they'd once shared, both of them recovering from fairly serious wounds after leading the battle from the front. The staff doctor had looked them both over and declared them to be healing well, but Giles suspected it would be several days before either was really ready to be up and around. Giles had gone to sit with them awhile, but Buffy had chased him away affectionately before succumbing to sleep, telling him that he'd better get some ice for his head or she'd get out of bed to hunt him down.
Five girls were in hospital, not a measure he preferred to take, but saving their lives was worth the risk of suspicious questions being asked. Willow was with them, overseeing their care and making sure no awkward questions were asked, while Xander supervised the continuing cleanup at the Hellmouth. Dozens more Slayers were injured, but their own powers would have them up and around fairly quickly. They all needed places to stay, though, an effort that currently seemed overwhelming. He and his cadre of Watcher trainees had been operating on little or no sleep for a week already, and he felt every one of his years and more besides.
Promising himself that he would start working again in just a moment, Giles sat down on the front stoop, holding a half-melted ice pack against his head and watching the activity that was already unfolding. Tents were going up on one side of the property, down in the exercise area near the beach, and it looked as though someone had lit a bonfire to ward off the chill. The smell of food, probably some kind of pasta to judge by the tangy tomato scent, began wafting from the kitchen, and a quartet of excited youngsters raced past him down the steps, their arms laden with spare linens and pillows. The littlest minis, the eleven and twelve year olds, hadn't participated in the fight at all and still had energy to spare. Giles bestirred himself to stop them long enough to ask where they were going with all the blankets.
“Everybody who's not really hurt is going to stay in the tents tonight,” one of them told him. He was pretty sure her name was Marilee and she was from somewhere in Canada, but at this point he couldn't be sure. He'd made a valiant effort to learn at least the name and face of every girl who came through The Lodge, but with over four hundred active and tracked Slayers by now, it was more of a challenge every year. “We're supposed to find blankets and pillows and see if anybody has extra sweaters and coats to share around.”
“Yes of course,” Giles murmured, a little abstractedly. “Please feel free to take anything useful from my closet upstairs. I'm sure they'll be much too large, but there are warm things. Do you know what Andrew is doing for a meal tonight?”
Another one nodded. She was Himaya from Kenya; Giles remembered doing her visa paperwork. “Donna told him to make spaghetti because it's easy and you can make a lot of it fast. She sent the Watchers to the store in town for more food and first aid supplies. Do you think we can order pizza too?” she asked hopefully.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” Giles told her automatically before processing the rest of her words. “Wait, who did you say sent the Watchers to town?”
“Donna,” Marilee supplied, hefting her awkward armload of blankets. “You know, she's tall and blonde, she fought the displacer beast a few months ago.”
“Coeurl demon,” Himaya corrected didactically. “Only Andrew calls them displacer beasts. But yes, she's the one.” That was another strange thing about working with Slayers these days; while Giles had to fight to remember the names of everyone he taught, nearly all of them seemed to be aware of one another. None of these girls had likely ever met Donna, but they all could've picked her out of a crowd thanks to their dreams. “She's making everyone get organized. Buffy and Faith are hurt and nobody else was doing anything until she started giving instructions.”
“I see,” Giles replied, rocked back a bit on his heels. “I hadn't realized she was here. Is there a Watcher with her?”
A third girl spoke up, one whose name Giles couldn't remember at all. “No, most of them are hurt or too tired or she sent them off to do stuff.” She studied Giles uncertainly. “Is that bad? Should we not be listening to her?”
“No, no, it's fine,” Giles assured her. He was almost certain it was true. “Donna is an excellent organizer, and there's a great deal to be done before dark. Do whatever you can to help.” They nodded and scurried away, early adolescent gawkiness combined with preternatural Slayer grace. As Giles looked around, he did notice that there seemed to be fewer girls milling around aimlessly than there had been even half an hour ago.
Another young Slayer jogged up to him, and Giles decided he'd just give himself a break for an evening on remembering everyone's names. “Mister Giles, here's the casualty and actives list,” she told him, passing over a clipboard. “Or it's supposed to be,” she admitted. “I can't really read it.”
Giles flipped through the pages, noting the distinctively scrawled penmanship. “Yes, thank you, that's what it is. Have all the injured been taken care of?”
The girl shrugged. “Well, everybody's hurt,” she pointed out. “But I don't think there's anybody still, like, bleeding all over everything. We're waiting on more first aid supplies, but Donna said put everybody who got hurt bad in the cabins and have one less-hurt person watching in every room till the doctor gets a look, so I guess it's pretty good?”
“That sounds fine,” Giles agreed. “Thank you for the list.” She nodded and ran off again, back into the gathering twilight. With a little more effort than he'd have liked, Giles pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the throbbing in his head and the slight doubling of his vision. It wasn't really a cracking good apocalypse if he didn't get at least a bit concussed, after all. The smell of wood smoke grew stronger in the air as he approached the campfire, which already had a half-dozen girls around it in various stages of disrepair. They were ignoring their wounds in favor of roasting marshmallows on sticks, cheerful as Girl Guides at a camp-out. One girl was roasting hers on the end of a rapier, and he allowed himself a moment to hope she'd cleaned it thoroughly beforehand. Several girls were in the process of cleaning weapons used in the battle, while another girl inventoried them and put them carefully into crates when they were done. All of them were chattering, telling stories of the battle at the Hellmouth, who saw what, who killed the most demons, who would have the most interesting new scar. The resiliency of youth, Giles thought, a trifle enviously.
He spotted Donna on the edge of the gravel driveway, engaged in an intense conversation with some of the older Slayers. As he got closer, he recognized Stephanie and Erin from the Madison Slayer House, both of whom had self-deployed for the apocalypse. Stephanie looked as though she oughtn't be up and around yet; her shirt was torn open to reveal a large white bandage wrapping her chest, her arm was in a sling, and she was leaning heavily on Erin. That was, of course, not enough to stop a Slayer in high dudgeon from giving someone a piece of her mind. Donna looked to be trying to get a word in edgewise, but not having much success.
Before Giles got close enough to hear anything, Stephanie apparently finished saying her piece and stalked away, or as much as one could stalk while being largely supported by a friend's arm. Donna watched them go for a moment before becoming aware of his presence and turning his way. He could see the emotions playing over her face, a quick flush of shame, the momentary desire to flee, finally settling into a defeated sort of resolve as she waited for him. “Hi, Giles,” she murmured as he reached her.
“Hello, Donna,” he said, keeping his voice in the neutrally friendly register he cultivated for teaching. “I hadn't realized you were here until some of the girls told me. I hear you are restoring order to the chaos around here.” He didn't have to ask if she'd been there for the battle as well; she was heavily bruised all over her face and body, with a bloody tear in her sleeve and a bandage around her arm. Comparatively light damage, but as the girls had vociferously informed him, fast healing didn't make the wounds hurt less.
“Yeah,” she murmured, looking down at the list in her hands. “I just... nobody seemed to know what needed to be done, and it's going to be dark soon. I'm sorry if I overstepped.”
Giles risked putting a hand on her shoulder, hoping to find a less-bruised area. She flicked a glance up at him, but didn't pull away. “Not at all,” he assured her. “It's the sort of day where every willing pair of hands is needed. I simply hadn't expected to see you.”
“I had the dreams,” she told him. “I could barely sleep at night, and I knew I had to come. No matter what anybody said.” Her look turned vaguely mutinous, though for once that expression wasn't directed at Giles. “I know I quit, but you were still sending me the stipend so I thought that maybe I could come back and help...”
“Slayers can't be fired,” he reminded her. “You elected to strike out on your own, but we have had credible reports for the past year that you've still been slaying, and thus earning your stipend. Any separation from the organization is entirely voluntary on your part.” That was probably too stuffy of him, he decided with a mental wince. Buffy would be giving him such a look right now. “It's good to have you back.”
She smiled at that, just a little, and relaxed a bit under his hand. “I missed all of you,” she admitted. “It's been...” Donna pursed her lips, looked down at the ground. “It's been a really hard year. And now all my friends are mad at me because I left them. I don't know if there's anything left for me here if I do come back. And I'm so tired of Slaying.” Her voice was all but inaudible for the last sentence.
“Your friends were very worried about you,” Giles reminded her, “they wouldn't feel that way if they didn't care. There's always a period of exhaustion and letdown after an apocalypse, emotions are running high, people are injured...”
“I know,” she told him, crumpling the edge of her list with restless fingers. “Anyway, the Watcher trainees who went to the store should be back soon with first aid supplies. You look like you could use some yourself.” She gave him a half-smile, then took a penlight from her pocket and shone it in his eyes. Giles flinched backwards in spite of himself. “That looks like a concussion. You need to be in bed.”
“If I went to bed every time I had a concussion, I would get very little Watching done,” Giles informed her.
Donna gave him an unimpressed look. “You'll get less done if you kill off all your important brain cells because you're not letting them recover. I think things are pretty much under control here, at least until morning. Do you need some help up to your room?”
Giles favored her with a withering stare, but even he could tell that it wasn't anywhere near his best. “I believe I can still toddle off to bed under my own power,” he assured her.
For whatever reason, acerbic snark got more of a smile from Donna than his attempts at kindness had. “Okay. I'll get Andrew to send you up some tea and paracetemol.” She was obviously proud of herself for knowing the British term.
“Thank you,” he replied with a sigh, then bowed to the inevitable and went to find his bed. He really did have an abominable headache. At this point in his life it would probably be wiser for him to step back and manage the business of the Council rather than its battles, but as long as his Slayer was still actively fighting, he found it difficult to countenance staying behind. Knowing Buffy as he did, that probably meant he'd be following her into the fray for many years yet.
Giles had time to removed his coat and shoes and begin treating his various abrasions with antiseptic cream and bandages before Andrew showed up with a tea tray and pills. Whatever else Giles might've said about the high-strung young man, Andrew was a stickler for details. He had the tea service laid out just so, with piping hot water ready to pour over a tea ball full of loose-leaf in a china mug. Just the scent was enough to let Giles relax a bit. “Thank you, Andrew,” he told the cook. “Is everything going well in the kitchen?”
“Oh yeah, everything's great,” Andrew promised. “It's spaghetti tonight, I'm making about twenty pounds, plus I've got a big pot of the chicken soup stock I made last month on for the girls who aren't up to eating just yet. We're going to need to go to Costco tomorrow and stock up on a lot of provisions if all these Slayers are going to be sticking around much longer, they've pretty much eaten me out of house and home.” Andrew sounded perversely proud of this fact. “But the valiant warriors shall be served their victory feast, and I also saved back ten gallons of ice cream I can give them if they start getting too antsy. I disguised the tubs with labels marking them as frozen tomato soup. Pretty clever, huh?”
“Quite,” Giles agreed, squeezing a lemon slice into his tea. “I imagine you've noticed that Donna has returned.”
“Ah yes,” Andrew agreed sagaciously. “Another prodigal Slayer, returning to the fold in an hour of need. Probably just as well, too, nobody was listening to me,” he added with a bit of a pout.
“Yes, well,” Giles hmmed, unwilling to commit on that issue. “If she's available this evening, see if you can get her input on the shopping list. I believe she has an inventory going on the first aid supplies.”
“Yeah, okay.” Andrew went into the small attached bathroom and filled a paper cup with water, bringing it to Giles for the pills. “But do you think we should really be putting her in charge of logistics? I mean, she did ditch us for that smarmy watcher like Dr. Crusher bailing on the Enterprise crew for some anaphasic alien hottie.” Giles just stared at Andrew until the young man began to twitch, the only effective response Giles had found for these flights of pop culture fancy. Andrew flapped his arms a bit. “How do you know she won't just leave us high and dry again?”
“I don't,” Giles replied simply. “Her life is her own, but she's here now and has a useful skillset she's willing to put to work. Have her help you with the shopping list.”
“Yeah, okay, fine,” Andrew said again, this time a little more sourly. “But I still get final say on the food!” He walked out, leaving Giles with tea and pills and a bit of blessed peace and quiet. He savored it for a few minutes before calling Xander and Willow to make sure they were still all right, then calling Dawn at school to assure her that everything was still fine and she didn't need to miss her final exams to come help out. He thought he ought to call the other Slayer Houses to check in as well, make sure that nothing was trying to take advantage of the buildup at the Hellmouth to stage something nasty, but he was just too tired tonight. The girls would know if something frightening was happening to their fellow Slayers, so just this once he thought it could probably wait until morning. He slept.
The next morning, Giles felt considerably better, though the headache was going to linger for the next few days. A shower and clean clothes went a long way to setting him to rights before he went down for breakfast. The menu today appeared to be egg casserole, heavy on the eggs, served in huge pans and being vacuumed up with speedy enthusiasm by the Slayers. Giles had to give Andrew that much as well, he had learned how to cook for large numbers of extremely hungry people with great efficiency and creativity. Xander and his crew were back on premises this morning as well, having finished hiding the evidence of the all-out war between Slayers and demons in the rubble of the old mental hospital. Giles still wasn't sure what the insurance appraisers were going to think, but since the new owners had been particularly entrepreneurial demons themselves, he didn't really care very much. In any case, Xander's team had made certain that nobody would find any demon corpses or magical artifacts laying around, and the natural incredulity of the human mind ought to take care of the rest.
It took another full day to begin setting the Lodge back to rights, with tired girls piling into cars or shuttling to the airport to get back to their home Houses, while others stuck around to care for the wounded or help with cleanup. Andrew's mood was vastly improved by bringing home a pickup truck full of supplies to feed the masses, and the general mood picked up when Faith and Buffy both made it to the dining room for lunch. Willow came back for awhile as well, switching off with one of her coven-mates so she could eat and catch some sleep. During her long night, she'd had an epiphany about a computer database connecting all the Slayer locations that would, according to her, revolutionize their ability to manage more Slayer Houses and get girls assigned to demonic hotspots much more efficiently. Giles only grasped about half of it, but he was happy to allow her and Andrew to go on about it at length.
There was a memorial that evening for the two lost Slayers, a somber event on the edge of the lake, attended by anybody who could walk or be carried. Even though death came much less regularly for these Slayers than their predecessors, any girl who made the transition from mini to full-fledged Slayer made plans for the possible end of her life. Giles spoke briefly about the girls, both of whom he had trained, both of whose faces he could still remember clearly in his mind, trying to give some comfort to the sea of young women in front of him. By the end, he still couldn't really tell if he'd done any good at all. One of the girls included a hymn in her plans, sung quietly but beautifully by a group of her friends, and the other asked for a poem. Buffy chose to read that personally, bracing herself against the wall of the gazebo to help her stand.
“Under the wide and starry sky,” she began, her voice a little raspy from being nearly throttled the day before,
“Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
and I lay me down with a will.”
Giles already knew the words of the poem, of course, who didn't know Stevenson, but he still flinched ever so slightly at those words, read by this person. He didn't dare look around to see if the other Scoobies were similarly affected. Buffy herself didn't seem to notice anything as she went on.
“This be the verse you grave for me,
Here she lies where she longed to be.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter, home from the hill.”
There was a soft sigh from the audience at the end of the words, no applause, just a small reaction of approbation, understanding. A few girls came up to offer eulogies as the sun set, and then finally it was over, and everyone broke up to go to dinner or back to bed. Giles lingered for a little while, speaking to a few of the girls who needed a bit of extra reassurance or who just wanted to talk. Comfort had never been his strong suit as a Watcher, but he'd learned a great deal in the past few years. He liked to think he was getting better. He knew he'd need to speak to Buffy later about the poem, but he had no idea what he could say to her. Giles liked to think that Buffy no longer dreamed of heaven the way other people dreamed of a soft bed at the end of a long day, but he had no way of knowing for sure.
He was about to turn back to the Lodge when he saw one more figure down by the lake and went to investigate. It was late enough by this time that he got close before recognizing Donna, putting her bare toes in the water and looking into the darkness. “It's a lot cleaner than it was when we bought the place,” she commented.
“If it were any dirtier, it would be a bog instead of a lake,” Giles pointed out.
“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed. “We got a lot done today. I think once more people start clearing out, things will go back to normal.”
“I think you're right,” Giles replied. He stood back just far enough to protect his shoes, close enough he could hear her quiet voice. “Thank you for the work you put in today and yesterday. It sped up the process quite considerably.”
“I'm glad,” she told him. “I just wanted to do something to help.” She sighed and fell silent.
Giles let the silence hang for a minute before speaking. “Donna, where's Rick?”
He watched her face go from solemn to stony. “He's still alive and kicking, if that's what you mean. Somewhere on the Upper Peninsula, last I saw him,” she replied stiffly. “He's still trying to track down that coven we lost last year, as though that's more important than an apocalypse. I told him to go to hell and I took my car to get down here. If he wants to come back, he's gonna need to hop a Greyhound.”
“That seems entirely appropriate,” Giles answered, trying to keep his voice from betraying anything. He regarded Richard Lancaster as something of a personal failure, and certainly a cautionary tale he thought back to when recruiting new Watchers. Merely having a firm grasp of Council history and the stamp of approval of Quentin Travers and his ilk had not been enough to make a good Watcher. Indeed, Giles thought in retrospect that they should've weighed more heavily against the young man. That failure in vetting had caused more than a little friction among the Watchers of various Slayer Houses and had ended in him finally being ejected, but not without taking with him a very promising young Slayer who Giles personally liked quite a bit. “Are you all right?” he asked cautiously.
“I'm fine,” Donna said automatically, then shook her head. “Actually I'm not. I'm so tired, Giles.” There was a catch in her voice that wasn't quite a sob yet. “I thought I was doing the right thing. I worked so hard, and there was so much fighting, and I was always getting hurt or getting almost killed...” She pursed her lips, shook her head again. “I knew I needed to help out with the fight this time, but I don't think I can do it anymore,” she admitted. “I want to just... I want to stop.”
Giles was quiet for a moment, considering that. “Have you thought about what you might like to do?” he asked carefully.
She looked down at the sand, a humorless and embarrassed smile tugging at her lips. “Yeah, but it's stupid.”
“Come now, let's not be self-indulgent in our defeatism,” he chided, tongue in his cheek. He suspected she wouldn't respond well to actual sympathy right now.
It was enough to draw a little laugh. “Yeah, I guess not. When we were on the road, I watched TV for hours in the daytime because I was bored. There was a lot of stuff on about the election next year. A lot of people are really working hard to get the right person elected. I was thinking what it would be like to understand that much about government, and care that much about politics. It's like... they're trying to save the world too, but in a totally different way.”
“You could go back to school,” Giles suggested. “If you majored in political science-”
“No, I don't want to do that,” Donna said immediately. “I'm not- I'm not really ready to go back to Madison right now. I'd kind of like to put my life back together first, you know?”
“Do you have a different place in mind?”
She scraped her hair behind her ear before daring to look up at him. “Governor Bartlet in New Hampshire is running for the Democratic nomination. I really like the things he has to say, even if nobody thinks he's going to win. I'd like to go volunteer for his campaign for awhile and see what it's like. I know it's not a real job,” she added hastily, as though trying to anticipate his objections, “and I know if there's another apocalypse or something I'll have to come back. But just for a little while, I want to do something good for the world where nobody's going to get hurt or die.” She looked him in the eye, obviously pleading with him to understand.
“Well, you'd be on detached duty, obviously,” Giles told her, businesslike as possible. “If you got wind of any supernatural or demonic activity, you'd need to report it to the nearest Slayer House, and of course if the situation came up, you'd be expected to slay as necessary. But it might not be a bad idea to cultivate some political savvy within our organization,” he pointed out. “If our history teaches us nothing else, it's that we're bound to run into the government sooner or later. This could be an opportunity for you to discover how government really works, one that could help us all in the future.”
Donna's entire body seemed to relax as she smiled. “You really think so? You really don't mind if I go?
“I would suggest waiting a few more days,” Giles pointed out with a slight smile in return. “Once the bruises have faded, I believe you fit the look of a young political volunteer quite well. I do hope you'll keep in touch a bit more.”
She nodded definitively. “Yeah, absolutely. I think I've had enough of that lone wolf bul- garbage. And if you ever need me for anything, you just have to call and I'll come back. I know where my priorities need to be.” Donna probed her own face with gentle fingertips and winced. “But yeah, maybe a few more days first.”
“Well then, in the meantime I suggest we go to dinner,” Giles offered, nodding his head toward the house. “If you'd like to assist with the cleanup administration here while you're recuperating, I'm sure your efforts would be appreciated.” And during that time, Giles decided silently, he himself would track down Richard Lancaster and make sure that notable was not intent on causing any more trouble. They had plenty of difficulties in their lives already.