For someone who already had her entire life packed into the backseat of a Honda Civic, it took Donna a surprisingly long time to make a break for her new life. It wasn't because she was nervous, absolutely not. She was the kind of person who could decide on a plan of action and then go for it with no hesitation or second-guessing. (That was what she told herself anyway, that was the person she was going to be from now on.) There was just a lot more to do than she'd planned, and new little obstacles just kept cropping up.
First it was waiting a few days for the bumps and bruises of the apocalypse to heal, since “losing side of a prizefighting match” was not the sort of professional look she was hoping to take into her new life. She'd gotten off easy in the battle, largely because she hadn't been in the main, organized push of senior slayers. They'd entered the former mental institution and fought their way through its halls, down to where the Hellmouth was spewing out demons as fast as it possibly could. Instead, she'd been an hour late to the start of the apocalypse despite breaking as many speed limits as she could in her four-cylinder car, thanks to Rick and his obsessive need for control. She'd told him a battle was going to happen and that she needed to be there, but in his mind, if it wasn't part of his quest, it was no place for his Slayer. They'd had a real barn-burner of a fight and she'd left him at their latest motel, but even then she'd almost been too late. In the end it had worked out; the less-trained minis outside the building had needed experienced support when a cadre of Fyarl demons had shown up unexpectedly and Donna had been glad to be there as backup. She'd wound up looking like she'd gone through a tumble dryer, but none of the teenagers she'd been fighting alongside had died.
While she'd been healing up, Donna had pitched in at the Lodge, of course. She honestly wasn't a great nursmaid; inured though she was to blood, being around people in pain made her feel uncomfortably helpless. But there was plenty of stuff to organize and she was great at that. It was a little bit weird how easy it was to slip into the same quasi-official role she'd had in the first year at the Lodge, wielding authority because nobody else wanted to be in charge of logistics. Andrew gave her a little pushback at first, but she'd watched a lot of old Star Trek reruns on all those hotel TVs when she wasn't watching the news. A little strategically-deployed nerd talk went a long way towards winning him over again. By the time Donna's bruises faded, most of the downed Slayers were back on their feet, the depleted supplies were well on their way to being replaced, and things were starting to return to normal.
She spent a little time helping Willow input data for the new Slayer House database she was setting up, but even the comfortably mind-numbing work wasn't enough to get her mind to settle. There were too many Slayers here, too much temptation to pretend that the past year had never happened and just ignore the nightmares and bad memories. But a thousand generations of Slayer memories told Donna what happened to Slayers who lost the will to fight. She had to go before she got any worse, before some fledgling on a routine patrol had one really good night.
The Bartlet campaign was headquartered in New Hampshire, which made sense given that he was the governor and that the primary was so early there. She had the address and, thanks to AAA, an extensive set of maps. After one last round of goodbyes in Cleveland and one in Madison, Donna struck out bright and early from her folks' house on the last day of January, armed only with a stake in her glove box, a short sword in her suitcase, and her own determination. The first day she could've easily stopped in Cleveland, which was very close to halfway through the trip if one didn't account for traffic, but she passed on through. This trip was for new Donna, non-Slayer Donna, Donna on her own, and stopping to crash at the Lodge for the night would sort of defeat the purpose. She drove on to Erie instead, mostly because the name amused her. There were vampires in Erie, surprise, surprise, but not that many. Remembering her promise to Giles, Donna conscientiously slayed them, then looked for suitable lodgings.
Finding a cheap hotel and cleaning out the riff-raff was hardly a new chore after the year she'd spent with Rick, but it was strange to do it alone. It was strange to go to bed alone, strange to just be alone, all the time. When she concentrated, she could still feel the presence of Buffy in Cleveland, the brilliant center of the Lodge's paranormal beacon, with all the other Slayers there a bright corona. It was harder to sense Faith in New York, further away and in a strange place, but Donna picked her out after a few minutes. It was hard to miss either of those two, no matter where they were. She couldn't reach out as far as Madison, but that was all right, she knew they were there. Comforted, she fell asleep on the very squeaky bed, telling herself she could wean more completely away from Slayer things tomorrow.
Manchester was a bigger place than she'd realized, probably not even half the size of Madison, but considerably larger than the sleepy New England hamlet she'd imagined. By the time Donna arrived, it was already starting to get late, so she found a room in a very sketchy Econo Lodge near the airport and concentrated on getting into young professional political volunteer mode. That meant more than just showering off the road dust and ironing her clothes for tomorrow, it meant changing her whole mindset. She'd loved political science when she'd taken it in school, had thought it would be incredibly exciting to work on a political campaign. There'd been no time for it back then, even without Rick crowding her attention. Slaying and school just didn't leave one with many free hours!
Donna did her best to think her way back into that old college mindset, though without reverting entirely to the naive and gullible romantic she'd been back then. She was never, ever going to be that dumb again. The local news showed a few clips of the Bartlet campaign with an attitude of “look at this amusing local color story,” but she ignored the subtext and just focused on the twenty seconds of Jed Bartlet speaking. He was a man who needed to be president, and she was going to help him.
She arrived bright and early at the headquarters of Bartlet for America, an unprepossessing little place tucked into a converted storefront on what had probably once been a main street of a much-smaller Manchester. It was busy even at this hour, with folks hustling in and out, carrying signs or cell phones, conducting rapid-fire conversations on topics she could almost halfway understand. She stood across the street for a long time, five or ten minutes at least, trying to work up the courage to actually go inside.
This was nothing, she reminded herself sternly. When you've already stood on the mouth of hell and stared it in the face with a cheap sword and a wooden stake in your hand, what is there to fear at all anymore? Of course she had to concede that the worst consequence she'd have faced on the Hellmouth would've been dying in battle, which was easy and made you a hero. Donna didn't think she could cope with living through one more embarrassing failure.
With a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and pushed open the door. The inside of the offices matched the outsides, cheap and busy, with no money being spent on frills like partition walls or an excess of chairs. This was probably a good thing, since chairs would only have impeded the near-running speed that seemed to be the normal travel pace. Donna paused in the doorway to get her bearings and was nearly bowled over from behind as somebody else zoomed in past her. She took a few hasty steps to one side and nearly ran into somebody herself. Hands caught her shoulders, and only relentless training let her subdue the reflex to break the hold and put her “assailant” on the ground. Instead she caught her balance and turned, looking into the bluest pair of eyes she'd ever seen, set in a face that should've been carved in marble in a museum. Her brain stuttered for a second before rebooting.
“Are you okay?” the man asked, letting go of her shoulders and giving her a quick looking-over. “Sorry about that, everybody's in a rush today. Are you new?”
Donna quickly smoothed down her hair and mustered her best professional smile. “Yeah, today's my first day. I came to work on the campaign,” she added needlessly. Don't babble, she reminded herself. Smile, and try to act like you already know what you're doing. Faking competence was almost as good as actually having competence, at least when it came to making first impressions. “Sorry about almost falling into you. I'm Donna Moss.”
“Nice to meet you, I'm Sam Seaborn.” He grinned at her, and her brain stuttered again briefly. She wondered if he might be some kind of really humanoid demon. No human being could be that pretty. At the very least he couldn't possibly be straight. But he was still talking. Donna wrenched her attention back to his actual words “... director, Toby Ziegler. He's really not as bad as he seems, just a little touchy. But if you need help getting oriented, look for Margaret. She's a tall redhead, looks really efficient, you can't miss her.”
“Okay, thanks,” Donna managed, earning her another quick smile before Sam was on the move again and out the door. She didn't understand why they didn't have that guy on television 24/7. He'd win a lot of votes. She caught sight of a tall redhead and made her way across the room, pausing when she felt a prickle at the back of her neck. There were no demons here, just a lot of really busy humans, several of whom were now having to divert around her because she'd stopped in the middle of the walkway. It was almost certainly just nerves, she decided, and kept going. Margaret didn't bother to get Donna's full name or any of her slightly dubious qualifications before pointing her to a phone bank in the corner and giving her a sheet of instructions.
Donna worked the phone bank faithfully for two full hours, placing dozens of calls to people who were mostly not at home or not willing to talk. It didn't seem like an efficient use of resources, calling when people were almost certainly at work, and after awhile she started casting about for something else to do. A phone was ringing incessantly in an office down the hall, with nobody ever seeming inclined to pick it up and answer it. Setting down her call sheet, Donna wandered down that way for a look.
The office, which belonged to one Josh Lyman according to its sign, looked as though it had been the site of a very localized tornado or an unusually bloodless demon battle. At first she wasn't sure if it might not be a storage closet where people were tossing their junk, but all of it seemed to belong to this Josh Lyman and some of it looked important. Donna felt the prickles come back, but this time they were in her fingertips, itching to restore order to chaos. Nobody was paying attention, so she set to work. When the phone rang she took messages and was careful not to commit to anything more than a return phone call “as soon as possible.” For all she knew, Josh Lyman was off in Washington or out with the flu, in which case she'd at least have plenty of time to figure out his filing.
Occasionally people stepped in to add more papers to the piles already in progress. The first time it happened, Donna was sure she'd be busted back to the phone lines, but other than a couple puzzled looks, nobody seemed to care. A very tall, somewhat redheaded woman who was not Margaret asked her jokingly if somebody was finally going to get Josh to meetings on time. Donna didn't know what to say, but luckily, the woman was satisfied with a noncommittal half-laugh as an answer. Eventually most of the important people seemed to gather in the front room for a meeting, leaving her to do her work in peace. The desk was starting to look almost organized when yet another person stepped into the office while she was on the phone.
“-I can get your name and number and give Josh the message when he gets back. Thank you very much.” Donna was just finishing up the call when the confused “Hi?” from the doorway caught her attention.
“Hi,” she replied, trying not to stare. The man in the doorway wasn't pretty in the way Sam was, but there was something about him that grabbed her attention and held onto it, momentarily snagging her ability to think as well. Maybe it was his eyes, a deep and penetrating brown, or his face, boyish and masculine all at once. The fact that he seemed to have the top three buttons on his shirt undone didn't hurt either. She reminded herself to watch out for the handsome ones, they'd given her nothing but trouble in the past.
“Who are you?” he asked, giving her a funny look. It seemed unwarranted, she was fairly sure she wasn't actually staring.
“I'm Donna Moss,” she told him cheerfully. “Who are you?”
“I'm Josh Lyman.”
“Ah,” Close your mouth, she reminded herself sternly. This was a difficulty, but not an emergency. He was just very much not what she'd expected Josh Lyman to look like. She'd expected, honestly, somebody a lot more schlubby. And older. And who was maybe gone for the next couple days. She probably should've made a few more battle plans in her mind for this moment. Fake competence until you get competent, she reminded herself. “I'm your new assistant.”
He blinked. “Did I have an old assistant?”
“Maybe not.” Definitely not, to judge by the state of his office. He should be happy to have an assistant at all, didn't he notice that the top of his desk was actually visible now?
“Who are you?”
No way out but through at this point, she decided. She wasn't going back to phone banking. Josh Lyman looked like he was in a hurry and somewhat harried, he probably didn't pay attention to who was helping out anyway. “I came here to volunteer and the woman assigned me to you.”
“Becky,” she replied, pulling a name out of the air.
“You mean Margaret?” Well, that was one name he obviously knew, though he was really having trouble figuring out Donna's name. And he seemed to have a surprising amount of trouble accepting the idea that she was his assistant. Wasn't she assisting him right now?
She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised when he took off for a cruise around the office while still quizzing her, given the fact that nobody ever seemed to stop moving for more than a minute around here. Keeping up wasn't hard with her skills and reflexes, but trying to hold up her end of the conversation was a challenge. He assumed right off the bat that she was fresh out of a bad breakup, which was not all that far from the truth but missed a few very salient details. It seemed like the sort of question to steer away from, maybe with one harmless little fib about her qualifications. Saying she was a college graduate who wanted to work for the Bartlet campaign was much more impressive than “college dropout” and a lot easier to explain than “unemployed vampire slayer.” Her brain caught on the idea of an unemployed vampire slayer only slaying unemployed vampires, leaving her unprepared when he started on a new line of questions entirely.
“Where did you graduate from?” It was of course the next logical question to ask, and Donna kicked herself for being unprepared. She should've been ready for this, this was how normal people talked to each other. People in this world cared about things like where you went to school and what you studied and how your grades looked. Not good.
“Okay,” she began, “when I said I graduated, I might have been overstating a little. I was a couple of credits short,” she hurried on, running over whatever he might have been about to say.
“University of Wisconsin.” That part was at least true, though God help her if he asked for her transcripts.
“You majored in Political Science and Government?”
Yes, just say yes! the smart part of her brain insisted, but of course her mouth was long gone by then. “And, ah, Sociology and Psychology. And biology for awhile, with a minor in French?” By now he was looking at her as though she was from Mars, so it didn't seem like it would hurt to finish it out. “And drama?”
“You had five majors and two minors in four years?” Even though he wasn't looking at her, she could hear the clear incredulity in his voice.
“Two years,” she muttered, suddenly glad she couldn't see his face.
They arrived back at his little office then, and suddenly he was looping back behind the desk, into his position of power. “Look...”
“I had to drop out!” she insisted hotly, ready to defend her decision as ardently as she had to her parents or Giles or Steph, then realized she had absolutely nothing she could say to this so-normal guy in his so-mundane world that would make sense. “I had to drop out,” she repeated instead.
“Your boyfriend was older than you?” Josh asked, seemingly apropos of nothing.
“I think that question's of a personal nature?” She'd meant for it to come out quelling, but instead it came out a question. The smart part of her brain, still barely online, was starting to wonder exactly how ridiculous she was going to look showing up at the Lodge barely a week after heading off to her bold new career, admitting that she'd failed yet again. Maybe she could change her name and get a waitressing gig somewhere instead.
“Donna, you were just at my desk, reading my calendar, answering my phone, and hoping I wouldn't notice that I never hired you,” he pointed out, a sardonic smile twisting his lips. “Your boyfriend was older than you?”
“Yes,” she muttered sullenly.
“Law student?” he guessed.
Not hardly. But to let him keep guessing was ridiculous, and she couldn't tell him the truth. Something he'd believe, then. “Medical student.”
He looked impressed by his own accuracy anyway. “And the idea was that you'd drop out and pay the bills till he was done with his residency.”
That was a better story than any she could've come up with on her own, so she rolled with it. It was even strangely parallel to what had actually happened, if she turned her head and squinted. “Yes.”
“And did you?”
“And why did Dr. Freeride break up with you?”
That was just a bit too much. “What makes you think he broke up with me?” she demanded, indignant. He just stared at her, leaving her little moment of independence to wilt on its own. She sat down in the chair opposite his desk. Maybe she could head for the New York slayer house instead. It was closer anyway, and maybe abject failure would be less embarrassing around people she barely knew.
“Donna,” Josh began, running a hand over his face as though he were being physically wearied by her, “this is a campaign for the Presidency, and there's nothing I take more seriously than that. This can't be a place where people come to find their confidence and start over.”
“Why not?” Donna's mouth demanded before her brain could engage.
“Why can't it be those things?” she insisted, gaining a little momentum. “What, is it going to interfere with my typing?”
He looked slightly baffled, but he didn't have a good answer either. “Donna, we're picking up today and going to South Carolina. If you want to stay in the Manchester office-”
Oh no, that wasn't nearly good enough, not now that she was finally on a roll. “I want to come to Charleston.”
“I can't carry you, Donna!” he insisted. “I've got a lot of guys out there not making the trip!”
“I'll pay my own way,” she countered.
“With what?” His incredulity was not exactly flattering.
“I'll sleep on the floor, I'll sell my car,” she told him glibly. Her stipend would cover her basic needs so long as she continued slaying where necessary, but she wasn't going to mention that. “Eventually you're going to put me on salary.”
“Donna-” he began, but she cut him off.
“Look, I think I might be good at this,” she told him, trying to put every bit of confidence she could muster into one quiet assertion. “I think you might find me valuable.” He stared at her for a moment and she stared back, both of them ignoring the phone when it rang. There was something in his face that was almost hypnotic, something that felt like destiny to the part of her that was much older than twenty-two. She ignored that part, which had absolutely no place in this normal mundane world. All she needed right now was this job, this chance.
The phone rang again and he finally spoke, his voice different now, softer. “Go ahead.” She picked up the phone, not breaking his gaze until she had to look away and concentrate on the message the caller was delivering. By the time she looked back, his campaign badge was in his hand and he was offering it to her. She took it, exchanging a wordless smile with him before he turned once again and careened out of the office, off to slay another political dragon.
As soon as she hung up the phone, she put the badge around her neck, letting it fall so it lay against the pendant of her cross necklace with only her shirt between them. Two pieces of jewelry that showed she belonged, that she had a place. Now she just had to make it all work out.