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Ten Thousand Miles

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When Donna woke up, she thought for a moment that she was dead. Everything was bathed in white light and there was harp music playing somewhere nearby, peaceful and soothing. Her whole body felt light and fluffy and very strange. It took about five seconds for her eyes to focus enough to tell her that she was looking at a white ceiling and her body to report that she was laying in some kind of bed. The harp music was anybody's guess. She still felt strange and fluffy-headed, but underneath it she could tell she'd done something pretty painful to herself. After another couple minutes of regrouping, she managed to turn her head and see Steph in a chair beside her bed, dozing off with a book in her hand. Donna coughed and managed a very scratchy “Hey.”

Steph's eyes shot open. “Hey!” she said with a grin. “You're awake, awesome! The doctor said it might be another six hours or so. Do you feel terrible?”

Donna thought about that, then nodded fractionally. The fluffiness was steadily retreating, and the awful was making significant progress towards the surface. “Did I get it?” she asked.

“Oh yeah, you got the hell out of it,” Steph assured her. “Giles and I were only like a minute behind you, but by the time we'd got there that thing was a steaming pile of goo melting into the earth. Thank god for self-cleaning demons, or we'd have needed trucks and cranes,” she added. “We almost didn't see you at first, your car was practically inside the thing's carcass and folded up like half an accordion. Willow had to magick you out because we were afraid you'd done stuff to your spine.”

“Did I...” Donna trailed off and coughed again. Steph offered her some tepid water with a straw, which helped. “Did I do stuff to my spine?”

“Miraculously no.” Steph shook her head. “Got yourself a good solid concussion, broke some ribs, snapped your right ankle in like five places and some other stuff, but nothing that's not going to heal.” She reached out and squeezed Donna's hand lightly. “I was worried about you.”

Donna smiled back, squeezing as best she could. It was good to be friends with Steph again. “What about the coven?”

That got an outright laugh from Steph. “Okay, so you know the Dark Heart of Glaurion thing? Turns out it wasn't so much a regular artifact as it was the literal heart of that giant monster thing. The coven had it under control somehow, but once the fireballs started flying, their containment field or whatever it was failed and the thing was on the loose. It ate a bunch of them on the way out, and then once it was gone, we were basically just doing mopup work while Giles and Rick tried to explain that translating old demon languages is really tricky and sometimes you make mistakes. So hey, way to save the day there, buddy.”

“Hooray,” Donna cheered in a whisper. She looked around the room. “Where's Rick?” she asked. He'd been acting all week like he was still her Watcher. A Watcher, or a boyfriend for that matter, should've been there. “Did he get hurt?”

Steph looked a little uncomfortable. “No, he was okay. I don't know where he is,” she admitted. “I sort of thought he'd be here already. You've been in the clinic for almost a full day already, which is why you're turning such an attractive shade of black and blue. You want me to make some phone calls?”

Donna nodded, which was one of the worst ideas she'd ever had, then dropped her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes. “Was he here at all?” she asked quietly.

“Um, not that I know of,” Steph replied. “Maybe for a couple minutes, but I've been here basically this whole time and haven't seen him.”

“Oh,” Donna responded softly. “Okay.” She kept her eyes closed, listening absently as Steph turned off the harp music CD and began making calls.

She was dozing when Steph spoke to her again. “I got ahold of Giles,” she reported. “He and Rick have been going through the books and records the coven left behind. He says he cut Rick loose hours ago so he could come over here, but that he did take a pile of books and stuff with him. I don't know where he is now.”

“Call the hotel,” Donna murmured flatly. “He's in his room studying.”

Steph looked as though she wanted to be doing anything else besides calling the hotel, but she was a good friend and picked up the phone again. Within two minutes, she was talking into it. “Hey Rick, yeah, it's Steph. I'm at the hospital... No, she's awake.... Yeah but she's a Slayer, dude, you really expected her to be down for thirty hours? Uh-huh. Okay, I'll let her know.” She hung up the phone. “He's going to be over 'presently,'” she quoted, with a very affected version of Rick's accent.

“So I've been here for a whole day and he didn't even come to see me.” Donna was glad in that moment that her eyes were already closed. “I thought for a little bit that we were patching things up.”

“Donnatella Marie Moss, if you ever get back together with that smarmy, sniveling, unworthy little creep of an ex-watcher, I will personally murder you with my bare hands,” Steph promised. “You think I'm kidding, but I'm really not. And since Slayers aren't allowed to kill even really terrible humans, I'd have to change my name and go on the lam. I”d be stuck living a cursed half-life, pursued and harried at every turn, longing only for justice to smile on me. And you know how bad I am at packing, so that just can't happen.” she finished at length.

Donna opened her eyes just a little. “That's not my middle name.”

Steph shrugged. “Something like half the women in Wisconsin have Marie as their middle name. It seemed like a good bet. What is it really?”

“That's classified.” Donna insisted with a faint smile. “Remember that my first name is Donnatella and you'll have a good idea of what my middle name is like.”

“Man, I bet you never got anything personalized as a kid.”

“Nope.” Her lips curved down in a pout. “No room for Donnatella, everything already said Stephanie on it.”

Steph laughed. “There were three Stephanies in my class growing up. Be glad you're unique.”

At that point the doctor came in and had to give Donna some prodding to remind her of where everything hurt. They'd brought her to Madison, to the University Hospital where a few of the doctors and nurses knew enough about Slayers to help them keep things quiet. The doctor today told her that she was healing very nicely, that they hadn't needed to set pins in her ankle but she'd need to use crutches for at least a week to avoid messing it up, and that she'd be much better off if she spent most of that time flat on her back anyway. As soon as the door closed behind him, Donna was adjusting the bed, trying to sit up.

“It's nice to see that your unwillingness to follow advice is a universal thing and not just with me,” Steph remarked dryly.

“I can't be on my back for a week!” Donna protested, even though sitting up was making her feel more than a little lightheaded. “I have too much to do! I have to-” She trailed off, realizing that she had nothing to do. No more mission, no more fresh start. No more Bartlet for America, no more Josh Lyman. She was completely at loose ends.

Steph plucked the remote control from her hand with preternatural speed, deftly adjusting her back to a supine position. “Your first job is to lay here and get better so I don't have to haul your stubborn ass back here after you limp out and collapse in the parking lot. Slayer healing is magic, yeah, but it's not, you know, magic-magic. You've gotta give it some time.” She patted Donna's hand and fiddled with the remote control. “Look here, I'm putting it on Animal Planet, and they're running a whole marathon of Weird Animal Facts shows. You'll get all kinds of new material. Some of the others are gonna stop by in a little while to check in and see how you're doing.”

“Are you leaving?” Donna asked.

“Not for long,” Steph promised. “But I haven't gotten a shower since we went demon-slaying and I'm pretty rank. Also starving. I'll bring you back something better than hospital food when I come, okay?”

“Get me Culver's,” Donna insisted. “I want cheese curds and a turtle malt.”

“Will do, Miss Dragonslayer.” Steph headed out and Donna dozed a little more, watched TV a little more, had odd dreams about a dog who could count to twenty riding shotgun with her in the car as she crashed it into the dragon. It was too surreal to be scary, and when she woke up, she wasn't alone anymore. Rick was sitting across the room under the now-muted television, his face buried in the thick tome he was reading.

She took a minute to just look at him, a luxury she could afford since he didn't seem likely to notice her anytime soon. He was still handsome, despite being slightly disheveled, but now she could see it for the shell it was. Not over evil, he wasn't a demon or a vampire or anything like that, but over pettiness, over selfishness, over vast arrogance. It was hard to admit that, not because she wanted to believe otherwise, but because she hated to have been wrong when everybody around her was trying to tell her she was being wrong. She sighed and raised the head of her bed a bit, but that didn't begin to touch his concentration. “Interesting book?” she asked.

Rick jumped. “Ah, you're awake!” He smiled at her, carefully putting one of his special acid-free place markers in the book before setting it aside. “And looking lovely despite the damage. Your poor face... are you in very much pain?”

“It comes and goes,” she told him. Truthfully the headache was already considerably better. Slayers had hard heads, and concussion was really just soft tissue damage and soreness. It was the bones that would take the most time. “Pretty sore all over. What are you reading?”

He brightened with enthusiasm. “This tome is almost certainly the jewel of the collection we took from the coven; a comprehensive history of magical advancement in the central United States in the nineteenth century! Handwritten, you understand, and with certain portions in various demonic languages, but a fascinating read. It confirms several of my theories that I was absolutely ridiculed for at the Watcher Academy, especially the parallel development of at least three white magic covens in the years before World War One-”

“So it's a history book?” Donna cut in, knowing from experience that Rick was not going to stop anytime soon.

“Not a history book, my dear. The history book! A completely one-of-a-kind volume that I really oughtn't have out of a climate-controlled room at all,” he admitted with a roguish grin. “But I've just been over to the University to discuss it with a colleague, and since it was already with me, well, I simply couldn't resist!”

Donna closed her eyes for a few moments. A history book. “All right, you can go now.”

She could hear the puzzlement in his voice. “But I only just got here!”

“Yeah, I noticed that,” she said flatly, opening her eyes to look at him again. “I notice that you weren't here when I was brought in, or when I was unconscious, or when I woke up. I notice that it's been two and a half hours since Steph called you, and you only just got here because you were at the University talking about a book that has no current relevance to anybody except you. You're not my Watcher, you're not my boyfriend, and I know that because I notice things. So why don't you do us both a favor and get the hell out of here with your book of historical apocrypha.”

At first Rick looked as though he were preparing to indulge her in one of her little tantrums, but when she insulted his book, his face became a nearly-comical study in affront. He rose and carefully slipped the volume into a leather messenger bag. “I would've thought that by your age you'd have grown out of being an attention-seeking child, but I see I was mistaken.” he said coldly. “Despite my best efforts, you will never be more than a foolish, ignorant woman and a mediocre Slayer, and I regret wasting my valuable time this week attempting a reconciliation.”

“Count yourself lucky,” Donna murmured with a faint smile. “You wasted a week. I wasted a year and a half on your worthless ass.”

He huffed and walked out, nearly colliding with Buffy in the doorway before drawing himself up and stomping away. Buffy effortlessly juggled the blue paper bag and drink tray she was carrying, raised both her eyebrows and looked at Donna. “Well, somebody got up on the stompy side of the bed this morning. What's with him?”

Donna grinned. “I just figured now would be a good time to give him a piece of my mind, when all the painkillers are making me brave. Good riddance.”

Buffy laughed. “I can't believe you needed the painkillers for that. 'Intercepting...'” She shook her head. “I think you scared a couple years off Giles' life. But nice job with the slaying.” She passed over an only slightly melted turtle milkshake and set a paper packet of fried cheese curds on the tray next to the bed.

“Thanks,” Donna said, smiling and feeling suddenly a little bit shy. Compliments from one of the Head Slayers were rare and valuable things. “Sorry I wrecked... whoever's car that was.”

Buffy waved a negligent hand. “They'll get over it. I'm sure trying to deal with the insurance company is going to be a lot of fun. Do you think they'll raise our rates for no-fault demon collisions?” She took out her own package of cheese curds and popped one in her mouth. “Oh my god.”

“Kinda makes you want to move to Wisconsin, huh?” Donna asked smugly, carefully taking a small bite.

“No way,” Buffy told her. “Slayer metabolism wouldn't be enough. They'd have to haul me around in a swimming pool and spray me down with oil while I yelled at people.”

Donna blinked at that bizarre mental picture, but no explanation was forthcoming. Buffy took advantage of the silence to eat another cheese curd. “Where's Steph?” Donna finally asked.

“I sent her to bed before she fell over,” Buffy explained. “She hadn't really slept since before the big fight. She was really worried about you. Willow said your life force was strong, but you looked like hell. Anyway, I told her I'd get your some lunch and keep you company for awhile. She didn't mention the part about how this is Satan's own fast food.”

“Yeah, she told me I was looking kind of rough.” Donna took another bite, chewed thoughtfully. “But I'll be up and around in another week, tops. I guess I have to figure out what I'm going to do with myself after that.”

“You could go back to your job,” Buffy suggested offhandedly. “I don't know a lot about politics, but people don't even vote till November, right?”

Donna struggled not to wince, for a couple of reasons. “We're in primary season now,” she explained, “people are voting for who the nominees will be in the general election. This is a really important time right now, and I just up and quit with no notice.”

“Mmm,” Buffy acknowledged while she finished chewing. “And I guess that with the salary and benefits you were getting, people were lining up three deep for your job.”

That made Donna laugh. “Okay, not exactly. I was technically volunteering, and Josh is, um, kind of challenging to work for. It was more like the other assistants were amazed I would keep working with him. But I really liked it. He yelled, but I learned a lot from it. It was kind of like training.”

“Training with Faith, anyway,” Buffy insisted. “I never yell.” Donna tried to hide her smile at that, but suspected she was unsuccessful. “So you were the only one who wanted to work with this guy, and you worked well together. And you really liked it. Why not go back?”

“I told him I was leaving to go back to my fake med-student boyfriend who had dumped me!” she reminded Buffy. “I don't think I can ever show my face there again.”

Buffy shrugged. “This time you got to dump him,” she retorted. “That makes a big difference. Get your Helen Reddy on, go be empowered and liberated and all that. Democrats are all about that kind of thing, right?” This time Donna did laugh. “Come on, after everything you've already done, you're scared of trying to get your job back?”

Donna was quiet for a moment, thinking hard. She didn't foresee any possible future in which Josh didn't give her an exceedingly hard time over her defection, but it was possible that his need for an assistant who would put up with him might trump his disappointment in her. Going back would mean getting to see if all their careful strategizing would work, if they could win Illinois, if maybe they really did have a chance of running the table despite all Hoynes' advantages. Compared to that, anything she could do in Madison would seem tame. “I guess it's worth a try, anyway. If I can get out of here in two or three days-”

“Nope,” Buffy interrupted calmly, stealing some of Donna's cheese curds. “You might get out of the hospital, but you're not going anywhere on your own for a full week. I've been authorized to use maximum force to keep you here.”

“Maximum force?” Donna's lips curved. “Are you gonna make me run laps?”

“Nope,” Buffy replied, popping the P like the valley girl she'd probably been once. “I'm calling Mrs. Morello.”

“That's not fair,” Donna pouted,but subsided back into her bed. It looked like she wasn't going anywhere for awhile.