Being back in the Madison Slayer house was surreal for the first two days or so. Donna had been assigned to the same room she'd had when she lived there before, during the brief periods when she wasn't living at home, so she'd wake up and suddenly feel two years younger, like for a minute all of the stuff with Rick and all of Bartlet for America had just been a vivid dream. Then she'd remember why she was here and that her little adventure was over, and she'd have to spend a few minutes just being depressed about her life. Hadn't she been punished enough for Rick already? Hadn't Rick himself been punishment enough? Eventually the brief moments of pity would pass and she'd roll out of bed, get herself ready for the day, and go down to face Mr. Punishment himself.
For somebody who was ostensibly in disgrace and possibly responsible for an oncoming apocalypse, Rick Lancaster seemed to be having a very good time being back at the Slayer house. Donna knew from experience that he was the sort of guy for whom any attention was good attention, and being in a situation where important people wanted to hear everything he knew about a subject was absolutely his cup of tea. She suspected he was already making plans to parlay this disaster into a triumphant return to the Council, as farfetched as that might seem. With Rick and Donna on site, the Scoobies staying over as well, and the regular complement of the house, the place was crowded enough to remind Donna of the last days of Sunnydale. Thankfully they wouldn't all be stuck here nearly so long.
Returning to the piles of books and maps that she and Rick had spent almost a year poring over fruitlessly was also fairly demoralizing until Donna realized what a difference having a whole team of people to work with would make. She knew Giles and Willow were both incredibly smart but she'd never had the opportunity to see them in action before. The two of them sat down with her on the second night back in Madison and carefully, exhaustively debriefed her on everything she could remember about her travels with Rick last year. Every clue that seemed to lead nowhere, every dead end, every promising lead that petered out. As she spoke, she started to feel overwhelmed with the futility of everything she'd done, but Willow looked more and more excited. Somehow she'd taken that pile of nothing and seen a pattern Donna couldn't, and in less time than it had taken to fly from Cleveland to Madison. They told her she could help with the ensuing research party if she wanted too, but she'd needed a little time to clear her head.
Donna walked out onto the front porch, where the air was biting cold but dry, stinging her lips and fingertips as she sat down on the balcony rail. It shouldn't bother her so much that she wasn't good at this, she reminded herself. She already knew that from the ill-fated adventure itself. Maybe if she'd finished school, maybe if she'd paid more attention during training instead of trying to make a database of every asset the Cleveland house had, maybe if she'd just done everything different, she wouldn't be such a disaster now.
“I guess this is still your favorite place to come and brood,” came an amused and familiar voice from behind her. Donna didn't turn around. “Were they hard on you, sweetheart? I asked them to take it easy, it would be almost impossible for you to remember most of what I was studying back then.” Rick came up and stood next to her, just shy of touching her arm.
“I don't really want to talk to you right now,” she said bluntly, depressed enough to be rude. “Why don't you go help with the research party?”
“I can understand that,” he told her, surprising her more than a little. “I treated you poorly, especially in our last months together. And when it came to our parting, I'm afraid I was a first-rate asshole, and a poor Watcher to boot.” She turned her head to look at him. His face looked completely sincere, even remorseful. “Of course you needed to be back in Cleveland when you felt the pull. I never should've doubted your intuition. I was so wrapped up in my own cleverness and schemes that I failed to remember that you channel a power that is far more than human. Had I to do it over again, I'd have been in that car with you from the first moment, watching your back as we always used to do.”
“You made me feel worthless,” she murmured, her fingers tightening on the wooden railing. “You said I was stupid.”
“No, absolutely not!” he insisted, shaking his head. “I would never have called you stupid. I suppose that when I was very angry I might have used your lack of schooling against you or intimated that you didn't have the knowledge required to understand what I was trying to accomplish in our quest, but I would never call you stupid. There are no stupid Slayers, least of all you.” He raised a hand and ran it lightly over her hair, now loosed from its ponytail after a long day. She didn't stop him. “You are an incredibly clever young woman, it's simply that most people underestimate you because they don't understand your skills. Most people may believe you're simply a vacuous blonde, but of course you and I know better.”
The pep talk didn't actually make Donna feel much better, but it was nice to have gotten an apology from him for his bad behavior. Despite everything he'd put her through, he could be very funny and very sweet sometimes, and she'd found herself missing him occasionally in the boring hours of the campaign. “I went out and got a job,” she told him. “I worked on a Presidential campaign.”
“Yes, I heard people talking about that. See, very clever,” he praised. “A good way to travel and learn a little about politics while you let the past fade from people's minds. We live in a world of the now,” he explained, putting one hand on her shoulder while gesturing with the other one. “Failures of the past don't matter so long as one is important to solving the problem at hand. You and I are being handed our redemption on a silver platter here, and all we have to do is take hold of it. Once this apocalypse is taken care of, both of us will be back in the good graces of the Council. I imagine they might assign us our own territory!”
Donna wasn't at all sure that was what she wanted, but she was saved from potential confrontation by Willow calling them inside to help with the books. Donna sat back for most of that research session, watching and listening as theories were batted back and forth, but not really participating. She wondered if people really thought of her as vacuous, or how she would know if they did. She certainly couldn't blame the Scoobies if they thought she was pretty dumb, or Josh for that matter. Things had been going so well for her there, and now he'd think she'd just ditched him because she didn't care as much about getting Governor Bartlet elected as she did about her semi-imaginary doctor boyfriend. She didn't think he was angry so much as disappointed in her, and that was worse.
At least she could make herself useful when it came time for the fighting and bad-guy-stopping portion of the apocalypse. She was a Slayer, and Slayers were good at that sort of thing. She was also pretty good at logistics, she eventually reminded herself, and went out to make sure everybody was going to have food for the next few days, clean bedding and sharpened weapons. Getting things organized always made her feel better.
As it turned out, Donna wasn't really needed in the research session anyway, and by morning the Scoobies had sussed out a probable location for the coven and cooked up a plan of attack. Willow believed that the coven had retraced their steps to Peshtigo, to the epicenter of the first great wave of fire and the place where Rick and Donna had first located them. There was a lot about the law of resonances and magical affinity that Donna didn't really understand, but that was probably all right because Buffy, Faith and Steph were all looking pretty glazed over as well. The long and short of it was that the best place to activate the Dark Heart of Glaurion was at the place where its ritual had killed the most people the last time, so that's where they would almost certainly go.
Peshtigo was just a few hours north, a fairly easy day trip, and Donna managed to get them all rooms at a non-sketchy hotel in nearby Marinette. (One of the first skills she'd learned during the campaign was how to find the non-sketchy hotels so Josh didn't whine about them all night.) Rick insisted that she ride in his car and she accepted, mainly because her long legs made riding in backseats really uncomfortable. She'd had lots of practice listening to him talk about his research for hours at a time, anyway. To her surprise, instead of his usual monologue they had a nice conversation for almost two hours about all the different things they'd seen last year on their tour of the Upper Midwest. She'd been so angry about the way they'd split up, it had been easy to forget that not everything had been bad.
By the time the rest of the crew arrived, Buffy and Faith had been there long enough to park their motorcycles and get the lay of the land. The rest of the hours before dusk were spent reconnoitering and refining their plans, studying the ramshackle old convenience store outside town with the pit full of dark magic underneath its gas pumps. Donna had been fine with all that until she realized she was being left outside with the cars.
“But I can help!” she insisted, struggling to use her reasonable and grown up and definitely not throwing a tantrum voice. “I'm the only one here who has already gone up against this group, I know I can do it. Rick or Giles can stay with the cars, it'll be safer that way anyway!”
“We need Rick and Giles down with us to identify the Dark Heart of Glaurion and any other artifacts we see,” Buffy reminded her with a hint of impatience. “They can't do that from up on the surface. Anyway, if there are any stragglers or anybody tries to escape, they'll be your job to mop up.”
“I thought you brought me here to help stop the coven, though!” Donna insisted. “I quit a job I loved because you said you needed me and I've done nothing but pack sandwiches and answer questions about what I was up to last year. You're not even going to let me fight?”
“When's the last time you trained?” Buffy asked her coolly. “Have you been keeping up?” Donna looked away, rounding her shoulders in defeat. Buffy sighed and leaned against Rick's slightly battered little car. “Look, we do need you on this. You know rear guard is an important job, it's not something we can give to somebody who's going to get bored or flustered and screw up. If something happens and we don't come out, you're going to be in charge of getting the reinforcements in. But you're not in practice, you're not in sync with a team, and I really don't want to see you get killed on this one, okay?”
There was really nothing Donna could say except “okay” to that, and do her best not to pout overtly. It wasn't as though she loved to fight like some of the other girls, but if she'd ruined her brand-new life to be here, it seemed as though the least they could do was let her slay something. Instead she watched as Willow performed a little glamour on the group to make them invisible, then stared at the empty space she assumed was the team heading inside. Almost as soon as they were gone, the sun finished going down and it got very, very cold. Donna hung around outside for five minutes, checking and double-checking her radio, making sure nothing was coming from any direction, then climbed into one of the cars and turned the heater on while she waited.
She waited, and waited. Five more minutes, then ten. Either everything was going really well or incredibly poorly. Buffy had told her to make the call for reinforcements at the thirty minute mark, but Donna was starting to get a really bad feeling. Her stomach was churning and the shudders down her spine were hard enough to shake her shoulders. Something down there was very bad, something-
“HOLY SHIT” Faith's voice over the intercom nearly had Donna wetting her pants. “There's some fucking big-ass monster down here! It's heading away from us, real fast. We're pinned down by these fucking- Jesus Christ! Fucking fireballs, somebody cover!”
“Roger that,” came Buffy's calmer voice, “we're moving in on it... shit. That thing is really fast. Donna, do you copy? It's heading for the surface!”
No sooner had the words come out of the radio than the side wall of the old convenience store blew off Kool-aid Man style, and something larger than a semi, dark and sinuous came racing out with a sound like glass dragging over concrete. It took off down the state highway at an easy seventy-five miles an hour.
“Copy,” Donna thought to say into the mic. “Moving to intercept.” She threw the car into gear and gunned the engine, leaving rubber on the parking lot as she peeled away after the fleeing beast. “It's heading for Peshtigo.” She dropped the radio and put both hands on the wheel as she accelerated, trying to keep the dark shape in view against the darkness all around them. “And here Andrew said it wasn't a dragon,” she muttered.
It didn't take her long to start closing the distance to the monster, but chasing it down wasn't going to do her a lot of good, especially this close to town. She had no idea what kind of damage a thing like this could do in a populated area and she really didn't want to find out. Flicking on her high-beams, she laid on the horn, sending out an ear-piercing noise that had the monster shrieking indignation. Before Donna could really register the success of her maneuver the thing had wheeled around and was heading in her direction, again at a very high rate of speed.
There was an instant to make a choice. She could try to swerve the car and avoid the monster, but that would leave it free to keep going. She could try and bail out of the car before it hit, but she didn't actually know how to do that, especially when there wasn't even enough time to find and set the cruise control. Or she could stop the monster with the only weapon she had and her fate in her own hands. She thumbed on the radio again. “Intercepting. Tell my folks I love them.” Firming her grip on the wheel, she gunned the engine, closed her eyes, and Slayed.