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Ten Thousand Miles

Chapter Text

May 1997

It was hard to believe the fight was over. Buffy sat near the front of the bus, trying to gather her scattered thoughts and push away the grief and guilt that threatened to overwhelm her in every quiet moment. They'd won the battle, saved the world again, but the cost had been staggering. She'd told herself she was prepared for that, had led her little army down into the Hellmouth with the full understanding that none of them were likely to walk out again. A small part of herself, the part she never, ever listened to, took pleasure in the thought that this might be the perfect way out: a meaningful and necessary death, a return to heaven with no guilt. She had not been prepared to escape the Hellmouth herself and be left to mourn the ones who were left behind.

Dawn was asleep in the seat beside her, snoring gently with her jacket balled up under her head as a pillow. Buffy carefully slid away from her and stood up, turning around and looking at her fellow passengers for the first time. Faith and Robin were just across from her, Robin laying awkwardly half-across Faith's lap while she watched the road ahead of them, grimly willing the bus to go faster. Giles was pushing the machine to its limits, trying to get them to LA where Angel could help them find a safe and discreet hospital, should Robin live that long. She spotted Xander in the back of the bus, hunched over with grief, staring out the back window towards the ruins of their lives and the body of his love. She didn't see Andrew, but suspected he was as far from Xander as possible, drowning in his own guilt. Willow and Kennedy were sleeping together in a seat as Willow's hair finished fading back to red. Spike was-- Buffy closed her eyes and dropped her head for a moment. She didn't have to look for Spike anymore.

Besides the remaining Scoobies, a dozen new Slayers littered the seats of the bus, sitting alone or together, some of them sleeping, all of them silent. It was the quietest bus of teenage girls Buffy had ever been on. She wished she could remember more of their names, or exactly how many of them there had been, going into the Hellmouth. They had seemed like a hundred when they were all living in her house, but she'd really stopped keeping track at “about twenty-five.” Now there were twelve, brand new Slayers all, their new powers healing their injuries while they tried to come to terms with everything that had just happened to them. Buffy could feel the hum of the Slayer in them like electricity before a storm. The first time she'd had that feeling from Kendra, it had baffled her. From Faith, it had alternately challenged and comforted her, the pleasure and disappointment of not being unique. In these girls, at this volume, it was altogether unsettling. She'd done this to them, for better or worse.

“How much longer?” she asked Giles quietly.

“Another thirty minutes, give or take,” he answered, not taking his eyes from the road. “The traffic is increasing, but we won't be driving through the worst of it.” They'd managed to get in touch with Angel using Willow's bulky, balky cellular phone, and made arrangements to meet at a clinic in Long Beach. “Are you in pain?”

Her hand went absently to cover the red stain on her shirt. “I'm fine,” she told him automatically. “Buffy-healy-powers clicking right along.” He didn't look like he believed her, but there was nothing to be done, so he let it go and concentrated on getting them safely up the 405 in afternoon traffic.

Buffy walked down the aisle, bypassing Dawn and instead taking a seat next to one of the new Slayers sitting alone. She didn't remember this one 's name, only that she was one of the newer ones, had found her way in alone after Giles had stopped actively collecting. Even at sixteen or seventeen she was tall, with a rail-thin body and wispy blonde hair. If Buffy hadn't been who she was, she'd have been surprised that this one had made it through the battle at all, given how delicate she looked. She wasn't unscathed, hardly any of them were, but the sling on her arm and the bloody bandage around her thigh didn't look currently life-threatening. And at least she was awake, looking out the window at nothing at all. “How are you doing?”

The girl startled at being addressed, whipping around to look at Buffy, then wincing from the pain of the movement. This one still needed some work on her instincts. “I didn't see you there!” she exclaimed, a fraction louder than sounded normal on the quiet bus, then winced at her own noise. “I mean... I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention. Did you need something?”

Buffy shook her head. “I asked how you were doing. You looked pretty far away.”

“Oh, no, I'm okay.” The girl shrugged her uninjured shoulder. “Okay enough, I guess.” She used the side of that hand to push her hair back from her face. “I keep thinking about the fight, back in the hellmouth. It's not always like that, is it?” She was doing a good job of keeping a brave face, but the scared little girl was there in her voice.

“No, it's not,” Buffy said honestly, leaning her head back against the seat. “It's never been exactly like that before, but that was an apocalypse, and they come around pretty often. Apocalyps- es, -i?” She stumbled for a second over the plural, certain she'd used it before, but never quite sure of whether she was right.

“Apocalypses,” the girl offered helpfully. “Because it's Greek. Like eclipse and eclipses.”

“Yeah, okay.” Buffy nodded at that. “Anyway, apocalypses are all different, but before it's always been one slayer against a Big Bad Evil thing. This time we fought the biggest big bad evil thing I've ever even heard of, but instead of just one, there were a lot of us, and we fought together.”

“My friends died,” the girl said, looking down at her one clenched fist.

“Yeah, I know,” Buffy answered quietly. “Mine did too.” The girl nodded, and they sat in silence for a minute, the bus rumbling beneath them. “I'm sorry,” Buffy finally said. “I can't remember your name.”

“Oh.” The girl, the Slayer, turned and looked at Buffy. “Yeah, I guess there were a lot of us to keep track of. I'm Donna Moss.”

Buffy patted Donna's shoulder in the least awkward way she could manage. There was a faint tingle of energy as they touched; Buffy wondered if that was going to fade, or if it was something she'd have to get used to with the ex-Potentials. “You should try and get some rest, Donna. We'll be there in probably twenty minutes.”

“I don't sleep very well in buses,” Donna admitted. “Or anywhere, I guess. But thank you.”

Buffy nodded and let it go. She remembered the nightmares after her calling, and all the new ones after Hemery. She wondered if any of them would ever sleep soundly again after today, between the revitalized Slayer essence and the memory of what they'd seen. She wondered if her dreams tonight would be full of flickering flames and cleansing light, and whether that would be nightmare or absolution. No time to think about that now. They had a long road still to go.

Chapter Text

Donna first learned she was a potential Slayer when she was thirteen years old, but for four years it was an abstraction, some distant possibility that barely affected her life. She knew that her parents had been coaxed to Madison by a good job offer and a house that was too good to pass up, one that put them just down the block from a semi-retired Watcher in a good position to keep an eye on a young Potential. She knew that while Mrs. Morello really was a schoolteacher, Mr. Morello was not just a writer of history books, and that he'd once guided a Slayer for more than a year. The stories he told her were exciting and scary, but being a Potential had no more actual meaning for her than her excellent speed running track and weekends spent training in demon lore and martial arts.

Mr. Morello didn't believe she'd ever be Called, but he still wanted her to be ready, just in case. He had her do research with him, which she honestly enjoyed much more than the fighting, teaching her Slayer lore and legend, making sure she knew about all different sorts of demons and monsters. He told her that one day she could be a Watcher if she wanted, that many Potentials still worked for the Council and helped save the world. That sounded good to her. On her seventeenth birthday she had a weird dream about wrinkled bald vampires and men with no eyes, but when she woke up, she was definitely still just a potential, so she forgot the dream. Three weeks later, Potentials around the world started dying.

Donna didn't hear about the deaths for another full week, but she noticed right away that Mr. Morello was increasingly distracted, and both the Morellos much more attentive and worried than usual. Finally he broke down and told her what was happening, and that her only choice, likely her only chance was to leave Madison and get to California, where the real Slayer and her Watcher were assembling a team of experts and powerful people to fight off the coming apocalypse. Donna didn't want to hear that, didn't want to leave home and family, but he pointed out that with many of the dead Potentials, the eyeless men had come for their families first. She would be protecting them by leaving. She wanted him to come with her, but someone had to stay behind in case they came anyway. He would take care of things until she could come back.

Mr. Morello secured a car for her and she had a license of her own already, she could make the cross-country drive by herself. He gave her money for gas and lodging, a falsified ID so she could get a hotel room, a calling card so she could check in until things were safe again. Mrs. Morello packed an enormous picnic hamper full of food, and a small bundle of all the books Donna ought to be reading for English class. Donna wrote a note to her parents that she had something important to do and she would be home as soon as she could, soaked it with her tears, and packed up favorite clothes and bears and jewelry and diary. She drove out of town on a Friday night. By the time she checked in from Utah on Monday morning, Mr. Morello was already dead.

Losing her Watcher was like losing her rudder, sending her drifting aimlessly with the tide. She forgot that she had to go to California, forgot the Slayer's team of magical experts. She wanted to go home more than anything in the world, but she couldn't, and she couldn't seem to move on, either. She stayed in the motel Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, using up her money and food thoughtlessly, spending most of her time crying. For some reason she left the room for a few hours on Thursday morning, walking down to the drugstore with the vague idea that she should send Mrs. Morello a sympathy card, a “sorry I got your husband killed” card, or something like that. She couldn't, of course, and was coming back empty-handed when she saw movement in front of her motel room.

The strange men from her dream were there, men with eyes stitched shut, two of them, pushing aside a housekeeping cart as they emerged from the room. Donna hid in the bushes along the parking lot, not knowing what else to do, but the eyeless men didn't so much as glance -glance?- in her direction before leaving. She darted into the room to grab her bag and her car keys, and was abruptly confronted with the body of the housekeeper, a young blonde woman not much older than her, her throat slashed wide open. Donna threw up in the trash can, grabbed her suitcase, and ran. All at once, Sunnydale seemed like the only viable option.

The Slayer's operation in Sunnydale wasn't at all like Donna had expected. She knew of the Slayer, of course. Mr. Morello told her stories about Buffy Summers, absurdly old for a Slayer at twenty-two, with almost seven years service on the Hellmouth. She'd been reportedly dead twice, but the first time was just for a moment and the second time she'd actually been lost in some kind of hell dimension for a few months until her colleagues could retrieve her. Donna knew the Slayer was highly competent, knew the people she worked with had done some impressive thing. It was still a crushing disappointment to arrive in town and realize that the secure compound full of Watchers and researchers she'd been imagining was a two-story colonial house with one Watcher and two dozen frightened teenage potentials, and that the team of experts was the Slayer's group of twenty-year-old friends who seemed to do most of their planning by the seat of their pants. She took the sleeping bag they gave her and found a corner of one bedroom to stash her suitcase, but she was pretty sure this town was where she was going to die.

Premonitions of doom or not, it was in Donna's nature to be useful, so she'd tried to help out where she could. She found the Slayer distant and unapproachable, which she guessed made sense after seven years of slaying vampires and saving the world. It didn't sound like a happy-go-lucky career path. The younger sister, Dawn, was a little easier to talk to, but she seemed to spend as much time out of the house and with her normal friends as possible. Again, Donna found it hard to blame her. The Potentials were encouraged to stay inside or in the screened backyard whenever possible, to avoid attracting attention from the steadily dwindling population of neighbors. It seemed that only monsters and nascent Slayers were attracted to Sunnydale these days.

She finally found a useful occupation assisting Mr. Giles, Buffy's watcher. He'd debriefed Donna when she'd come to town, made careful note of the eyeless men, who were called Bringers, and expressed sympathy for her watcher, whom he'd apparently known slightly. He was at least as distant and unapproachable as his Slayer, but he had piles of research that needed done, and Donna knew how do that. She even scored a trip to the library to work on the computers there, using the tricks Mr. Morello had taught her to shell out of the restrictive library OS and access the Watcher databases. Everything she found about Bringers and The First Evil and the Eye of Beljoxa was gut-wrenchingly scary, but she pretended it was fictional and that this was all just a fantastic story she'd tell when she got home to Madison. Mr Giles and Willow, apparently his deputy Watcher, at least seemed to find the information valuable.

Even with her new job, there were a lot of idle hours for the Potentials. Willow's girlfriend Kennedy had to be nearly too old to be a Potential, but her Watcher had trained her like a Slayer and she knew a lot of martial arts. They had classes in the backyard, and though Donna had counted herself no great shakes at combat, she was already a lot better than many of the completely untrained girls. Some of them whispered, though there was no real proof, that the Bringers had gotten the best Potentials first, that maybe they had a spy in the Council who had tipped them off to who they believed was best suited to become Slayer. Some of the girls had never had a Watcher at all, and had just been picked up and brought in by Mr. Giles. Kennedy started holding exercise classes and training in the afternoons, and with nothing else to do, most of the girls joined in.

They watched movies at night, mostly romantic comedies and the occasional period drama, nothing scary or sad. Some of the Potentials who still had money would sneak out from time to time and go buy food, which they were usually good about sharing. It wasn't like anybody was starving, really, but they all had high metabolisms and there was barely enough to go around most days. They ate mostly pasta, because it was easy to make a lot of that cheaply, a lot of meatloaf, a lot of pizzas. One day Kennedy brought back a dozen boxes of brownie mix, two boxes of eggs, and a bottle of vegetable oil, and they'd baked all afternoon. Donna and all the others had eaten themselves half-sick on chocolate, but it was more fun than she'd had since she got there.

There was one other Potential from Wisconsin, a girl named Steph who lived in Green Bay. She and Donna started hanging out together, unrolling their sleeping bags next to each other and talking at night about growing up someplace with actual weather. Steph had actually been adopted by her Watcher when she was very little, after she'd been found in the foster system. He'd sent her off the way Mr. Morello had Donna, but she didn't know what had happened to him after that. Donna couldn't offer her any comfort, but they could lay sleepless in the dark and whisper about the future, wondering what was going to happen to them. Steph didn't want to be a Slayer either; she wanted to be a teacher, and to travel around the world learning about other countries. Donna didn't know what she wanted to do, except that she didn't want to die here. They made friends with some of the other girls: Molly from London, Chao An, who nobody could talk to but who Donna could exchange simple written notes with thanks to the efforts of both their Watchers. Bettina from Mexico, only fifteen but braver than Donna thought she'd ever be, Nancy from Texas who could play three instruments but had only had a Watcher for three months. Amanda, who'd actually grown up in Sunnydale and knew more about what was going on than the rest of them. Nothing made this world seem normal, but having friends made it bearable.

Then things had started getting really scary, really fast. The town started emptying out, and the scary vampires from Donna's dreams, the Turok-Han, were suddenly everywhere. Buffy had showed them it was possible to kill one, but not by any methods Donna had any hope of ever mastering. The other Slayer Donna had heard about, the one who'd gone evil and been locked away, broke out of her prison cell and came to join the gang. Donna wasn't sure if she should be afraid or be happy that there was one more Slayer around. Buffy fought with her Watcher and with Robin, the closest thing to a backup Watcher they had, and though Donna didn't know much about why, the fighting couldn't be a good sign A new bad guy showed up in town, as though they'd needed any more, catching one of the new Potentials and hurting her, burning her just as a message to Buffy. There was a raid on the bad guys' lair, and Donna and Steph didn't go along because they were too inexperienced, but when the group came back, Molly wasn't with them and hardly anybody seemed to care. People were hurt, Donna understood that, but Molly was dead and that was important, too.

She organized a little memorial service in the backyard, wrapping Molly's diary and a pair of her earrings in a pillowcase and burying them under a tree while the others looked on or sang or said prayers. She didn't know the other girl who died very well, but another Potential named Vi said a few words and added a watch and a stuffed rabbit to the grave. They carved names and dates into the tree, but beyond that, as soon as the hole was filled in, the two girls might as well not have existed. Now there were almost enough sleeping bags to go around. Going to the weird bar/nightclub in town that night had felt as much like a wake as anything else. No matter how they tried, it just wasn't very much fun. Later that night, when Buffy had told them they were going back and the rest of the group had united against her, Donna had sat on the floor and watched, Steph's hand clutched in hers. They were all going to die here, and there wouldn't be anyone left to miss them or mark their graves.

The next day Donna found herself following Faith the Dark Slayer into the sewers of Sunnydale along with her friends, searching for a Turok-Han armory to raid. So many of the Potentials were already on the injured list, even less-seasoned and late-arriving Potentials were being tapped for missions. It wasn' very reassuring. They found the armory, but it turned out to be some kind of ambush with a bomb, and suddenly they were running and fighting for their lives. Actually fighting vampires was very, very different from training against Mr. Morello in his sunny exercise room. Right when it seemed impossible that any of them would survive, Buffy had reappeared, clutching a strange weapon and looking like an avenging angel. In that moment, Donna would've followed her anywhere she asked. But Buffy had just led them home and helped them patch up their injuries once again.

The town emptied out completely, and it became obvious that the final battle was at hand. Buffy outlined her plan to them, then left them alone to absorb it as best they could. In some ways, that made things easier. Things like food could be had for the taking, so at least their last few meals would be plentiful and tasty. Donna showed her friends how to cook on camp stoves in the yard like good girl scouts, and when they went to bed at Xander's house that last night, they stayed up late, telling each other their stories, just in case anyone didn't make it out, just in case anyone made it out at all. Donna thought about trying to call or write her parents one last time, but the post office was abandoned and the phones were dead. She looked out a window and wished them love on a star, then laid down and tried to sleep once more amongst her new friends.

Most of the next day passed in a blur. Robin found a bus to carry them to the school, warning them that last time they'd fought at the school it had exploded, so maybe not to bring anything they couldn't spare. Donna tucked her wallet in her pocket from habit, but left everything else except her weapons behind. Going into the school was surreal and nightmarish; it looked and smelled almost exactly like the school she'd left behind in Madison. How could anybody die here, how could the world end here? And then they went into the basement and down into the Hellmouth, and everything changed. She didn't know how she survived the first few minutes of the fight, calling on every instinct she possessed just to stand her ground, just to parry the killing blows raining down around her. And then... it was like being bathed in light, but the light was black, but the blackness wasn't dark. Something unfolded inside her, and she remembered Buffy's voice from yesterday, echoing in her head as clearly as though she were saying it aloud, asking if she was ready to be strong.

Donna was ready, so very ready, and suddenly the strength was there. Not just strength, but skill, and instinct, and the understanding of battle she'd never had before. She saw Bettina fall, saw Amanda, but she kept fighting anyway. Nancy the musician went over the edge with a scream, but she took three vampires with her, and the bright darkness inside Donna was proud. She and Steph wound up fighting back to back, holding their ground until a brilliant wash of light disintegrated the vampires around them and their part of the battle was over. Only then did Donna realize how hurt they both were, and they staggered up the stairs together, finding the others, running for the bus as the whole town shook itself to pieces around them. They left Sunnydale a crater, a yawning grave and a closed Hellmouth, testament to the time the world didn't end.

The bus drove them to the edge of Los Angeles, to a hospital whose energies made Donna's new senses bristle with unease. But the doctors looked human, and they took Robin into surgery and bandaged up the hurt girls. Donna got a dozen stitches in her various hurts, a shower and a pair of scrubs to change into, and three bottles of red Gatorade. They climbed back into the bus, which took them to a strange hotel called the Hyperion, whose inhabitants looked almost as strained and shell-shocked as the new Slayers felt, but at least there were enough beds for everyone.

It was the first time in months that Donna had gotten a bed to herself, not since her last night at the hotel in Utah, before the Bringers had attacked. The empty, scared, powerful supernatural being she was now had little in common with that other girl, the one who'd started on the road to Sunnydale with a suitcase full of childish mementos she couldn't bear to part with and a certainty that everything would blow over soon anyway. The suitcase was as thoroughly lost as that other Donna, buried under a thousand tons of rubble and dead things, and yet somehow she was still alive. Realizing she wasn't going to sleep anytime soon, Donna climbed out of bed and went to find her sisters.

Chapter Text

Taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon still felt strange to Willow, but it really did feel nice, especially with all the long days and sleepless nights of the past month or so. The house on Revello had never been truly quiet with so many people staying in it. Even when the girls were sleeping, the feeling of so many living beings packed like sardines had played over Willow's skin like fingers running along her spine. And not good Kennedy-fingers either, bad, annoying ticklish fingers. Here in the hotel, everyone had more room to spread out, including this out-of-the way corner suite that had needed an afternoon of elbow grease to make habitable again. It had been more than worth it.

Yawning, Willow extricated herself from the grip of Kennedy-fingers, then Kennedy-arms, rolling herself out of the bed and leaving her girlfriend to stretch and sleep. The new Slayers were sleeping a lot in the daytime lately, which Giles said was not abnormal. Buffy said she'd have gladly gone nocturnal after becoming the Slayer if it hadn't been for the pesky matter of high school to cope with. Once their powers developed fully, they'd need less sleep overall and things would be easier. For now, Willow chose to see it as a blessing. Even though only half their crop of Potentials had survived, they could still make a lot of noise and commotion, especially now that they were accidentally breaking doorknobs and folding silverware left and right. In the eight days since they'd arrived in Los Angeles, the girls' wounds had healed, and they'd started to come to terms with everything that had happened to them down in the Hellmouth. Willow wasn't sure she understood such effortless resilience, but Buffy had been sixteen once too, had buried her watcher and burned down her school and still worried about clothes and boys for awhile longer. At the time, Willow hadn't appreciated how unusual that was.

She walked down the hallway towards the staircase, passing several Scooby rooms along the way. Giles had chosen to room on the second floor, exchanging isolation for convenience and fewer flights of stairs to climb, but Xander and Buffy had both picked rooms near Willow's, far from the maddening crowd. When she concentrated, Willow could feel them in their rooms, Buffy napping restlessly after a restless night, Xander awake but in no mood for company. He'd only just started coming out of his room at all day before yesterday. When he was out, he was friendly, jovial Xander, Scooby extraordinaire, friend to all mini-Slayers, but she could tell how much it cost him. Willow wished she could talk to him. She wished she had loved Anya more, so that Xander would feel like he could mourn with her, wished the same about Spike, sort of, just so Buffy wouldn't feel so alone. When Tara had died, Willow had been enraged by the cosmic joke that had let them fall back in love just before ripping Tara away forever. Now, seeing how it felt to lose a lover before that reconciliation, she was desperately grateful for what she'd had.

Buffy did the same thing as Xander in her own way, presenting herself as Mom-General Buffy when she was out, bossing the minis like a big sister or a drill sergeant, making sure they ate and slept and practiced the basic skills of Slaying over and over, then disappearing as soon as she couldn't cope with her own feelings anymore. Buffy wasn't resilient now the way she had been at sixteen, not with eight years of Slaying, dead friends and dead lovers, and the weight of heaven and hell on her shoulders. Faith had taken up a surprising amount of the slack, once it became apparent that Robin would recover. She was dividing her time between hospital and hotel, wrangling the new Slayers for chores and shopping, plus taking them out in small groups for the Slaying that was inevitably required. One Slayer tended to attract evil things naturally, fourteen of them in a single building was turning into the supernatural equivalent of a giant bug-zapping lantern. Faith was doing most of the zapping, but the girls were learning quickly.

As Willow descended the stairs, she caught wind of yummy smells coming from the kitchen. She peeked in to see the adorable Fred with a couple of the girls, Steph and Rona, if Willow remembered correctly. They were making tacos and laughing about something, though both Slayers looked up automatically when Willow walked in. Those reflexes were definitely getting better, and Willow didn't see a single smashed dish today. It was a good sign. She waved and passed on by. Angel was down in the basement for the day; Willow could feel the distinctive vampire tingle below her feet, but she traced the feeling of Slayer into his office and found Donna sitting at the desk, working carefully in a spiral-bound notebook. It was easier for Willow to remember Donna than some of the others because Donna was a secret nerd at heart and had a surprising talent for research. Giles had tapped her for a research assistant back in the last days of Sunnydale, and she was still helping out now.

Donna looked up when Willow came in, just like the others had. She gave the witch a polite smile. “Hi Willow, did you need that info on Ghora demons? I just finished it.” Reaching for a second notebook, she pushed it across the desk. “There wasn't a lot in the books, but I talked to Wesley this morning and he gave me a little more. I'm not sure it's going to be what you need, though,” she admitted.

“That was quick!” Willow commented, leafing through the pages. Donna's handwriting was scrawly at best, but Willow had years of experience reading arcane languages and cramped grimores, it was nothing she couldn't handle. “I'm not sure what I'm looking for yet. Just, you know, looking at all the options.” She gave the young Slayer a self-deprecating shrug. “Never know when inspiration's gonna hit you between the eyes, right?” She leaned forward over the desk. “Whatcha working on now?”

“Oh, it's... you know, just a letter home.” Donna drew the notebook back towards her, her pale cheeks flushing slightly. “I'm trying to write to my parents, but it's hard deciding what to say.”

Willow blinked. “I didn't know you still had parents,” she admitted. “I mean, it's good that you do, obviously, that's wonderful. Everybody should have parents, they're great. Most of the time! I just thought that most Potentials, with their Watchers and all that, at least that was how it was with Kendra and we never met many other Potentials-” Willow realized she was babbling and cut herself off. “Do they know?” she asked instead. “About... everything?”

Donna shook her head, hugging the notebook against her chest now. “My Watcher told me when I was thirteen, but he told me I shouldn't tell them, that it would upset them for no reason because I'd probably never be called. We did weekend training and I helped him research, and his wife would make me cookies and make sure I was reading enough good books. They were like my grandparents.” Willow could see slow tears trickling down her cheeks. “But then all this happened, and there wasn't time to tell my parents anything. I made it look like I was just running away and didn't tell them why, and my Watcher gave me money and a car and told me he'd look after them. But the Bringers killed him,” she whispered. “I want to go home, but I don't know what to say.”

Willow sank down into the chair opposite the desk. “That's a tough one,” she admitted. “I guess you probably can't just tell them what you've been doing this spring.”

“No way.” Donna shook her head again, drawing her knees to her chest so she was curled in Angel's big office chair. “They've always thought I'm a little flaky, but now they'd think I'm totally crazy. And... and if they did believe, it would just scare them. Everything about this is huge and scary, and I just wish I could go home and have none of this ever have happened.”

“Yeah, I understand that,” Willow commiserated. “But the whole knowing-about-vampires deal is kind of a one-way street, especially for Slayers.” She glanced at the little pile of broken pencils set off to one side of the desk. “You're not ready to go home yet, kiddo. Slayers on their own don't last long, especially without being trained or having a Watcher. You've read some of the diaries, right?”

“Yeah,” Donna grimaced. “I kind of wish I hadn't.”

“It's pretty grim,” Willow agreed. “But that's why we're changing it. It doesn't have to be that way anymore,” she promised, leaning forward in her seat. “You don't have to be alone now. There's a lot of you now, and we're going to find all the Slayers and make sure they all get training and support, so that you don't have to spend all your time fighting and die before you're old enough to drink.”

Donna furrowed her brow and cocked her head at Willow's declaration. “I can't decide if that makes me feel better or not, honestly,” she admitted. “The dying thing... I don't want to die.”

“Then we'll find ways to help you stay alive,” Willow told her. “How about you write your folks a letter to tell them you're alive, but don't tell them exactly where you are for now? I'll email it for you so it can't be traced back here if they're looking, but you can put whatever personal stuff in it that you want so they know it's from you and you're safe. I'm sure they'll be happy to hear from you.”

“I still have no idea what to tell them,” Donna reminded her. “Maybe I've joined a cult or something. The Most Holy Order Of The Pointy Stick.” She smiled just a little bit.

“I know the Moonies are out there, and the Krishnas,” Willow mused. “Maybe we'll just be the Scoobies.” She laughed.

“That's not going to be any easier to explain,” Donna remarked.

“No, but you probably shouldn't say you joined a cult anyway. Maybe we can help you come up with a better story over tacos. Are you hungry?” Willow figured this was a safe bet. The mini-Slayers were always hungry.

Donna nodded and set her notebook aside to follow Willow back to the kitchen. More of the girls were emerging from their rooms now, drawn by the scent of carnitas and hot tortillas. Dawn was with them, letting herself be swept along with the tide as she advised a couple of the girls on how to keep their weapons in the closet without risking their clothes. She might not be a Slayer herself, but the younger Summers sister certainly knew how to handle them. Watching as dinner unfolded in a cheerfully raucous manner, Willow still worried for her friends, but allowed herself a few moments of hope that things were going to start getting better from here.

Chapter Text

The Slayers spent almost a month living in the Hyperion Hotel in Los Angeles, which Donna quickly came to realize was actually an ex-hotel, now spending its second life as home base for a vampire detective and his weird friends. She did not like the vampire hotel owner at all, didn't like the scratchy feeling of his presence on the back of her neck or the way Buffy, already diminished by the end of Sunnydale and all that was lost, tended to get smaller and sadder when he was around. Luckily, he didn't seem to enjoy sharing a hotel with fourteen Slayers very much either, so she didn't see a lot of him. Mostly she stuck close to the other mini-slayers, a silly diminutive with a lot of sticking power, or near Mr. Giles and Willow.

Donna liked Willow, who was funny and geeky and who liked doing research to find odd bits of trivia maybe even more than Donna did. Willow was a powerful witch, and apparently this could make her moody and even a little scary at times, but she spent a lot of time meditating and that seemed to help a lot. She was also Kennedy's girlfriend, and Donna liked Kennedy very much. Sure, she was pushy and loud and sometimes arrogant, but Kennedy had good ideas and followed through on them, a trait Donna admired. She was also the bravest of the mini-slayers and usually the first to volunteer for anything, be it extra training or taking point on patrols, something that a natural follower like Donna had to appreciate. Some of Willow's old friends and allies, the Scoobies, didn't seem to like Kennedy much, but Kennedy had enough ego not to care, so it was all okay.

But though Donna liked Willow and Kennedy, was a little in awe of Buffy, laughed at sad Xander's occasional jokes, and admired Vi and Rona's slaying skills, Steph was still Donna's best friend at the hotel. Having someone from home here in California helped ease the acute and desperate homesickness for both of them, and the anxiety Steph felt about still not knowing her Watcher's fate. When Mrs. Morello sent Donna a little money (appreciated nearly as much as the letter with news from home), Donna used a bit of it to buy a Wisconsin map to hang in their shared room. She'd been able to send a letter home with Willow's help to disguise its origins, after explaining that nobody in her family knew how to use a computer, but couldn't come up with any way to let them respond. Although she still missed her family horribly, it helped to have sent them a message, and there was enough going on to take her mind off things a lot of the time.

Days at the Hyperion could be a little boring if there wasn't a research project going on, but nighttime was Slayer time, and LA had a lot of stuff that needed slaying. Every night, a team of four minis would go out with someone, usually Faith but occasionally Buffy, and actually patrol the cemeteries and streets, seeking out monsters to kill. The others remained home to practice and hone their skills on training dummies, Xander in a puffy suit, and each other. Steph turned out to be a natural at fighting, and could put Donna on the mat four out of five times, while Donna used her years of training to avoid being completely embarrassed by all the other girls. She wasn't a bad fighter; by many standards she was a very good fighter, but Slayer standards were a lot higher. Fighting did not seem to be where her gifts lay. Actually going out and patrolling was much more gratifying for her. Donna could notice a vampire faster than almost any of the other girls, and even if somebody else killed it, that was a pretty good skill.

She had a lot of dreams too, especially in those early days. Never the Bringer dream again, thank god, and mostly nothing with the horrible urgency that said prophecy, but a lot of dreams of other girls, older girls who'd been Slayers years ago. Girls who'd never grown to be women, a fear that still churned her stomach, but brave girls who'd saved the world and seemed to consider that enough. Buffy was in the dreams once or twice, and Faith, and once in a great while she'd catch a glimpse of one of her mini-slayer friends. Donna wondered idly sometimes if anybody was dreaming of her. There were girls out there who were still alive, trying to find their way to the voice that had told them to be strong. Just in case they could hear her, Donna whispered the name of the Hyperion Hotel and Los Angeles over and over in her dreams, to the point where Steph told her she was talking in her sleep and it was weird. Mr. Giles didn't think it could do any harm, and assured her they were taking all possible steps to find the wayward new slayers.

The Scoobies held a lot of closed-door meetings that none of the minis except maybe Kennedy were privy to, but Donna got the definite idea that money was a problem. The Watcher's Council had a lot of money, but when it had been destroyed, the most immediate means of accessing it had been cut off as well. She had no idea what they were doing about that, but whatever it was seemed to be fairly successful, since by the end of May, Mr. Giles was looking at houses in Cleveland, home of the newly invigorated Hellmouth. Donna was more than happy to help with that project. Her mom had gotten her realtor's license as soon as Donna was old enough to start school, and had indulged her daughter's curiosity about the thick binders of MLS listings she'd bring home from the office. Looking through piles of faxed listings again was almost nostalgic, and putting them all in order was second nature. She liked things to be orderly.

It was clear that the Scoobies were looking for something a little bit outside the normal 3br-2ba craftsman-type home; most of the listings were for old apartments, dormitories and even office buildings, places that could hold a lot of people. It was a lot cooler than normal house-hunting. Donna combed through the binder she'd put together, highlighting words her mom had told her meant trouble, making index cards about places that seemed like they might fit the bill. She dragged Steph (over voluble protest) and Kennedy (because riding LA public transit was scary) to the library to check out books about real estate, zoning, and taxes, then was proud of herself when she went alone to return them (at noon on a Saturday). After two weeks of this, Donna was absolutely sure she did not want to be a realtor, but she'd managed to pare down the list a great deal and was happy about it. The faster they got a new place, maybe the faster they'd get to Cleveland, which would get them out of the vampire hotel and incidentally cut a whopping 21 hours off the drive to Madison.

Mr. Giles didn't say much about Donna's work on the houses. That was a little discouraging, but she tried to remind herself that he was a man with a lot on his mind. Three brand-new slayers had already made their way to the Hyperion on their own, tracking like homing pigeons in a way none of them had been able to describe but that all the Slayers could understand. There was no doubt in Donna's mind that she could've found her way back to Buffy and the others from anywhere, just by following the dreams and the static buzz of their energy. Trying to explaining that to a couple of skeptical watcher-types, though, was not something she had any interest in. Between the new girls, the money problem, and a bunch of other issues Donna was sure she had no idea about, the house hunt sat on the back burner. She was therefore pretty surprised when Giles informed her that he wanted her to come along on their first trip to Cleveland.

This was heady stuff, her first Scooby trip, made even more so when Donna realized she'd be the only mini going along on this expedition. Robin and Andrew were staying behind to mind the store and Faith to keep the training going, and Willow was staying behind for unspecified reasons involving vibes and purification rituals necessary before visiting a new Hellmouth. Plane tickets were expensive so it made sense to take as few people as possible, but she'd done the most work on the search and knew the most about the places they'd be seeing. Also, apparently nobody else could decipher her extensive note-taking system. That was almost insulting, but it got her a trip to Cleveland to help buy a house, so she decided to take it as an overall win.

“I'm not so sure about this one, Giles,” Buffy began as they drove from the airport to the first of their destinations. “From the pictures it looks less homey and more prisony. Do we really want to ask a bunch of teenage girls to live there?”

In the backseat, Donna looked up from her job sorting Xander's toolbag into some semblance of order. She'd had to pester him for a few minutes before he'd wearily handed it over, but it needed serious help. “The institution?” she asked. “It's ugly, but it's more than 20,000 square feet and the boiler is only three years old. Plus it's already halfway renovated into apartments, we'd just have to finish the job.”

Giles barely glanced over at Buffy as he drove, obviously preferring to concentrate on Cleveland traffic. “I'm afraid aesthetics ended up rather low on the list of necessary attributes, after space, affordability, and defensibility. While admittedly, a former mental institution is not the ideal location for a Slayer stronghold-”

“A mental institution?” Buffy cut in, her voice suddenly colder, and sharp enough that Donna stopped working entirely for a minute. Next to her, Xander was similarly wary. “Do you really think a former loony bin is a good place for anybody to live?” Buffy demanded.

“While ordinarily I'd agree with you,” Giles argued, his voice clipped, “I'm afraid we're much more beggars than choosers on this particular occasion, and any location that meets our needs deserves at least a look. The building is large enough, it has solid walls and a security system already installed, and the location is near an excellent public high school. I realize you have unfortunate past associations with these-”

Buffy cut him off again, and this time she was looking back at Donna. “Giles, could we maybe just not right now?” she asked, all at once sounding tired. That was familiar; Buffy sounded tired almost all the time.

“Even if the first one doesn't work out, there are five places on the list,” Xander piped up, obviously trying to smooth things over. “I'm kinda partial to the old lake resort.”

“Ten units!” Donna chimed in hastily, eager to help in Xander's efforts. “Air and running water in each, with a central building housing five more bedrooms, laundry and dining. And it sits on almost fourteen acres, so lots of room for expansion and training.”

“Is that the one that's like twenty-five miles outside the city?” Buffy asked. “Long night's commute to the Hellmouth.”

“Wills might call that a feature rather than a bug,” Xander offered with a half-smile. “She's way into the pastoral scene these days.”

“And it might be nice to have separate living quarters,” Buffy mused, casting another glance over her shoulder at Donna. “Not that I don't like you guys or anything, but I haven't had a good night's sleep in months.”

“That's okay,” Donna offered with a bold grin, “we wouldn't mind getting all the grown-ups out of the house either.”

“Ouch!” Buffy slumped down in the front seat. “Giles, tell her that I'm not a grown-up,” she insisted.

“How old are you, Donna?” Giles asked instead, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.

“Seventeen,” Donna told him, “but I'll be eighteen in November.” Which did not, she had to admit, make a lot of difference in June.

“Ah. So if my knowledge of American schools is correct, Buffy was already in the first grade when you and your fellow trainees were still in the womb.” Giles actually sounded like he was almost enjoying himself, unprecedented in Donna's experience.

“Giiiiles!” Buffy protested, slumping even further. “My god, I'm an old woman.”

“You'll be a mentor to these girls,” Giles continued relentlessly. “You can impart your years of wisdom to them, perhaps sitting in a rocking chair next to a fireplace while they sit at your feet...” Xander was laughing pretty hard, so Donna thought it was probably safe to giggle too, mostly at Buffy's outraged noises as Giles continued to describe the bucolic scene of ancient Buffy counseling the young Slayers. It was nice to feel the break in the tension, and Donna relaxed and spent the rest of the trip making sure Xander would be able to reach in his bag and actually find the tools he needed.

The former institution was somewhat less unprepossessing in person than on paper, with a pretty, tree-shaded lane leading towards it and climbing ivy softening the stern brick facade. Donna wondered as they parked what it would look like if somebody planted some shrubs around the foundation, maybe added a porch. Xander was a very good carpenter even with one eye, maybe he could-

Her thoughts ground to a halt the second she actually set foot on the gravel driveway. Donna actually pulled her foot back into the car and stared down into the dirt, trying to figure out what had made her feel that way. Nearby, Buffy climbed out of the car, then hissed like a scalded cat. “What the hell is that?” Buffy demanded. She didn't jump back in the car with Donna, but she looked seriously uncomfortable, scrubbing her arms with her hands and looking around as though waiting for an attack.

On the other side of the car, Xander and Giles seemed unaffected. Giles hurried over to his Slayer, looking around as well, but not bothered in the same way “What's wrong, Buffy?” he asked insistently.

“Can't you feel that?” Buffy asked urgently. “It's like the son of St. Wiggins just walked over my grave. Something really bad is going on here. Like, serious badness.”

Xander rounded the car as well, keeping his bad side towards it as though waiting for an ambush. Even if he didn't see the problem, he obviously trusted Buffy that there was one. “So what do we do?” he asked. “Is it scramming time now?”

“I'm not sure what in the area would be causing this sort of premonition of disaster,” Giles admitted. “The location, perhaps, and it's connotations-”

“No!” Buffy shouted. “It's not that! I'm not cracking up, Giles, God!” She wheeled to look at Donna. “You feel it too, don't you?” she demanded. “Something bad.”

Donna nodded emphatically, feeling vaguely foolish about joining the conversation through the open car door, but not about to step out again unless she had to. “It feels like that high school,” she offered. “Only that was old and sunken in, where this is new and right on the surface. I almost feel like I'm going to step in a puddle of it.” She shuddered at the thought.

The three Scoobies looked at each other, then towards the building that loomed behind them. Buffy nodded in slow agreement. “First try,” Xander muttered. “What would you say the odds are on that one?”

“Given the company, I'd say approaching one hundred percent,” Giles answered dryly.

Buffy leaned against the car next to Donna, studying the institution's blank facade in silence for a moment. “What I really want to know,” she finally said, “is who underwrites the homeowners' insurance for houses built on Hellmouths. That's gotta be a tough business.” Donna looked up at her questioningly, but the older Slayer was still watching the building, her face resolute. Apparently they'd already found their new enemy.

Chapter Text

A long time ago, a lifetime ago, Xander had tried to go on a trip to see the world. After he'd graduated high school with a decent GPA (thanks to Willow), no money and no plans, he'd needed a place to start from. Getting off the Hellmouth for a summer had sounded like a pretty good idea. Of course, like all his plans, that one had failed as well; he'd spent the summer washing dishes in a strip club and never made it out of California. Now he had the whole world open to him, but all he wanted to do was stay on the Hellmouth, trying to fix up a home.

Finding the Hellmouth in their first hour in Cleveland had been surprising, almost funnily so. Buffy, who'd had just enough college literature to be dangerous, had complained for the rest of the day about dramatic irony and foreshadowing, but Xander was just glad this one wasn't under a school. They'd taken a break for lunch after surveying the location and talked about what they should do about it. Despite the general hellmouthiness of the place and the fact that it had been abandoned mid-rehab, the size of the place and its location on a growing edge of town gave it a hefty price tag that the Scoobies wouldn't be able to swing unless they were planning on actually living there. Since Donna, their resident mini, wouldn't even come out of the car long enough to look at the place, that seemed like a nonstarter even if it hadn't been the worst idea Xander had ever heard. For the moment, they'd just have to keep an eye on the place from a distance and hope nobody bought it up for demon luxury apartments or something like that.

After looking at five more locations in two days, they'd eventually settled on the one Xander liked best from the start: an old resort lodge of ten cabins and a main building on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, bordering a small lake and surrounded by trees. Defensibility was a problem, one that Giles and Buffy spiritedly debated whenever the realtor was out of earshot, but that wasn't Xander's main concern. It was quiet out here, but not the deathly, unnatural quiet of the last days of Sunnydale. There were birds and animals, the sound of lake water lapping against the dilapidated little dock, the rustle of the wind in the trees. He could take a deep breath and actually feel it filling his lungs. The place needed a huge amount of work, some of the cabins were close to falling down and the main building hadn't been updated in half a century, but the work was doable and the price was right. He'd found Donna sitting on the porch of the main house, organizing the information from the roughly five thousand questions she'd asked the realtor. “What do you think about this place?” he'd asked. “Any bad vibes?”

She'd looked up at him and smiled shyly. He'd already gotten the idea that she wasn't used to people asking her opinion on things. “I think it's great, I think it would be a good place to put a school for Slayers. We wouldn't all have to live in the same building, or worry so much about practicing outdoors. And it's so beautiful here. Some of the girls who come here will be so scared already, and why do we have to put them any closer than this to the Hellmouth? But I don't know if we can fix everything that needs to be fixed.”

He'd grinned at her. “Don't worry about that part. I know a guy.” And so they'd bought the place lock, stock, and barrel with what they'd been able to free up of the Council's funds, with the agreement that the first thing they would look into was top of the line perimeter security, both mundane and magical. Buffy also wanted a slayer house in Cleveland proper, with some idea about rotating teams of girls staying and slaying, then coming back to base. It seemed like a fine idea once they were up and running, even if Xander suspected that the Los Angeles girl in Buffy was mostly wigged about living so far from civilization. There was enough livable cabin and lodge space already for the twenty-five members of their expanding coterie, so Giles and Buffy flew back to figure out the logistics of moving their whole operation halfway across the country, while Xander and Donna stayed to start the wheels turning on repairs and upgrades. Paying in cash had gotten them a very rapid closing and immediate possession, so the pair set up camp in bedrooms on the second floor of the main building and bought a lot of microwavable food.

Xander quickly decided that having a Slayer assistant was pretty much the most useful thing ever. Donna was tireless, following him around the lodge all day long, jumping onto roofs to check for damage, dragging broken furniture out of the cabins so he could inspect the floors and walls, and taking notes on everything they saw and everything he said. She was quiet through most of the first day, taking notes and taking orders, sort of like a really strong secretary. When they went into town for supper and supplies, he managed to nudge her into an argument on the proper toppings for pizza and found she could babble like Willow when pushed to it. (As a native Wisconsinite, Donna had very strong opinions about the necessity and beauty of the “extra cheese” topping, which Xander contended was a cop-out to let pizzamakers provide less of other topping.) She also ate two-thirds of the pizza, but Xander was used to that from Slayers. By the second day, Donna was complaining about having to carry Xander's toolbag around just because she was the stronger one. He figured that was a good sign she was getting comfortable.

Being able to lose himself in work was an incredible relief. Their stay at the Hyperion had let time hang heavy on his hands, which just led to thinking about things he wasn't ready to deal with. Even being around his best friends had hurt more than it helped, watching them mourning, or fighting, or snuggling with their surviving loved ones. Here at the lodge, their days were consumed with getting things repaired themselves or finding experts to fix things, or sourcing the massive supplies they would need to feed literally dozens of slayers. He'd wake early in the morning to get started and go all day, then collapse into his slightly musty bed at night, too tired to miss Anya, too tired to dream of her.

Donna was a good assistant but she was no apprentice; she was barely interested in the actual construction work except as it could be fit into her increasingly elaborate balance sheets and timetables. After four days, Xander gave in and bought a secondhand computer and a creaky old dot matrix printer just so other people would be able to read all the paperwork she was putting together. He taught her how to make up work orders and spec sheets, and in a surprisingly short amount of time they had an organized operation going. It was all time-consuming, and all required a lot of thought, and mostly that was very good.

The only hard time was when Donna would try and discuss budgets, and he'd see her blond hair and listen to her talking excitedly about amortization and equity, and suddenly he'd miss Anya more than he could possibly bear. When that happened, he usually needed to make an excuse to step outside for awhile and let the birdsong and the noise of the trees distract him. Donna probably thought he was crazy, or at least that he really hated talking about money, but she never asked him about it. She went off on her own sometimes as well, and he figured she had her own soothing places and her own painful memories to deal with. If he were a better mentor-Watcher type, he would've gone after her and tried to help her somehow, but it was all he could do to hold himself together these days.

In the dark days after his botched wedding, Xander had tried to convince himself that what he'd had with Anya wasn't real. She'd wanted him because romantic relationships were her most immediate experience of humanity and she wanted to be in one. He'd felt strongly tied to her because being wanted by anybody was rare and worth hanging onto, even somebody fundamentally incompatible. He'd loved having sex with her. She was giving, creative, inventive, and tireless. Who wouldn't love a woman like that? But he'd been embarrassed by her tactlessness and her bluntness, had cringed every time she'd plainly spoken a truth he would've hidden with obfuscating humor or not dared say at all. He'd known she thought he lacked ambition, he had been terrified and ashamed to introduce her to his family. They hadn't really fit at all, so it had been easier to tell himself that it wasn't love, it was codependence and convenience and habit. It wasn't until she'd turned back into a vengeance demon that he'd realized there had to be more between them than mutual lust and the fear of being alone. There had to be something more, or neither of them would've hurt so badly. It wasn't until after she was gone that he'd acknowledged that whatever else he felt, he really had loved her and had let her die not knowing that. Nights when he wasn't tired enough to sleep, he laid in the dark and wondered if demons with souls went to hell dimensions.

On the fifth day, work teams started coming in to get all the stuff done that they'd planned and budgeted. Xander was watching the plumbers installing an industrial washer and dryer in the main building when Donna found him. “I want to go the library,” she told him.

“Put it on the list,” he suggested, distracted by dread fascination at the lead plumber's sinking waistline. It seemed inevitable that he'd lose his pants entirely at any minute. “Maybe on Thursday when we get groceries.”

“I want to go today,” she insisted. “I've got something stuck in my head and I can't remember all of it. I need to look it up.”

“We've got three crews in here,” he pointed out. “I don't want to be the one to have to explain to Buffy why the phones don't work, or the laundry. And if the furnace guy ever shows up, we might not even freeze this winter.”

“Ohio doesn't get that cold in the winter,” Donna scoffed.

“Thank you, Nanook of the North, but I'm from California,” Xander quipped back. “The idea of snow fills me with confusion and terror.”

“All the crews will be done this afternoon, and the library is open till six,” Donna pressed. “Or I could take the rental car.”

“You don't get to drive the rental car,” he reminded her. Getting himself put on the rental car agreement had involved an extremely painful rate hike for insurance purposes; getting a seventeen-year-old on the agreement had been out of the question.

“Come on!” she wheedled. “I can be trusted with a sword or a stake or, like, the entire budget and schedule for this entire renovation, but somehow I'm too young to drive a car?”

Xander smirked at her. “Sorry, kiddo. Having seen my share of Slayer driving, you're at least as likely to kill somebody with the car as with a sword.” Of course, after that he'd wound up having to drive her to the library that afternoon, just to stop her sulking (and to keep her from calling Buffy and telling her what he'd said.)

He'd found some comic books and the latest issue of the woodworking magazine he liked, which kept him busy while she perused Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and books of poetry. While he was in the bathroom, she started an argument with the librarian about whether an invoice from the plumbers counted as proof of address, especially since she was a minor with no ID of her own. Somehow, he wasn't even entirely sure how, Xander ended up pulled into the argument, showed his ID with Sunnydale, California printed on it, and wound up the proud owner of a new Cuyahoga County Library card, which Donna used to check out a half-dozen books. On the way home, Xander asked why she didn't use her own driver's license, the one she'd been crowing so loudly about earlier.

“Because I'm a runaway,” she told him simply. “My parents might find me if I start using my ID in a place I'm not leaving.”

“You have parents?” he asked, a little dumbfounded by the idea.

“We weren't all raised by the Council, and not all our families got killed,” she told him, a little sharply. “I don't like hiding from them, but I think it would probably cause a problem if they learned I was here and about everything we're doing.”

“Yeah, you're not wrong,” Xander mused. “I guess we better get something set up to deal with problems like that.”

“You're gonna need a lawyer,” she agreed.

On the sixth day, a company came with a load of gravel for the driveway, leaving Xander and Donna to shovel it into place. Despite her general disdain for manual labor, Donna burned off a lot of energy on the pile, bulldozing around with massive scoops of rock, then letting Xander smooth it out. She was on a strict no-slaying prohibition while they were in Cleveland with no backup, and the inactivity was obviously starting to grate. Saved a lot of money on the driveway, though. “We've got to be ready,” she told him. “I've been telling the other Slayers where we are. They're going to find us.”

“They all know where we are,” Xander reminded her. “It's just a matter of getting the transportation sorted out and making sure everybody's going to have a place to sleep. Next week sometime.”

“Nuh-uh,” she replied with a secretive smile. “The other ones, the new ones. We're going to have to find a way to get some of them, they're too young, or too far away, or stuck where they are. But some of them are already on their way, and I told them not to bother going to California. They're coming.”

“Okay, when you say it that way it sounds really creepy, you know that right?” Xander asked with a shaky laugh. She'd merely grinned at him and gone on spreading gravel. Sure enough, the first new Slayer arrived that night. Alicia from Altoona had stayed home in Pennsylvania when the Slayers had been assembling in California, but considered hitchhiking the two hundred miles to Cleveland much more doable. The hitchhiking was less of a concern to Xander, since who'd be able to kidnap even an untrained baby slayer if she didn't want to go, but the fact that she claimed thirteen and looked even younger was a real problem. Alicia assured him that her mom wouldn't care she was gone, but Xander was on the phone to Giles as soon as Donna took Alicia upstairs to one of the finished bedrooms.

Giles agreed that a lawyer or a team of lawyers would be an important acquisition for the new council, but he was more sanguine than Xander at the prospect of very young Slayers. “It's not at all unheard of,” he informed Xander, his voice taking on the didactic tone that said Xander was about to learn something, whether he liked it or not. “A girl can become a Slayer anytime after the onset of puberty, which has been growing younger even as we as a society have begun to prolong childhood and adolescence. Historically it is rare for such a young Slayer to be called, but if she is the closest and best-qualified when a Slayer dies, even a young Potential will be activated. The youngest Slayer on record was called in Warsaw, Poland, in 1943, at ten years and seven months of age.”

Xander's mouth was dry. “What happened to her?”

“The Council lost track of her almost immediately when her Watcher was killed,” Giles replied, his voice solemn, “but only about seven weeks passed between her Calling and the next. Later records indicate she died at Treblinka. There were no more Slayers called anywhere in Europe until 1961.”

“Right.” Xander blew out a breath. “But Willow's spell activated every Potential who could be a Slayer, no matter how unlikely, which means we could be looking at a crowd of fourth-grader Slayers needing training. We've gotta get our act together, Giles.”

“I certainly can't say that you're wrong about that,” Giles agreed, “but we must move with deliberate haste. Having a secure base of operations is vital, elst we may just be assembling vulnerable girls in one place so they might be picked off more easily.”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

“Did Alicia say anything about how she found her way to you?” Giles asked.

“Yeah, but it was Slayer woo-woo, so I figured I'd toss it up the chain of command,” Xander joked weakly. “She says Donna told her the address in a dream.”

“Ah,” Giles said, as if Xander'd told him that Donna mailed the girl a map.

“Ah?” Xander repeated. “This is actually a thing that is with the sense-making?”

“I'm afraid that we're operating largely on conjecture at this point when it comes to the evolving power of the Slayer,” Giles told him. “When Buffy and Kendra both possessed the Slayer essence at the same time, we on the Council were left to rely on information gleaned from the legends of antiquity. Now that the Slayer essence has been split and multiplied in infinitely more directions, we're operating far outside the bounds of any established knowledge base. However, Buffy has reported that she and Faith have occasionally communicated information through shared dreams, an experience that Faith has corroborated. Faith also reports that she was immediately aware of Buffy's death and subsequent resurrection, despite being many miles away and imprisoned. It seems as though the Slayer essence is becoming stronger and more pronounced since the mass Calling, especially in certain of the girls who seem more sensitive. Given what we know, and the fact that Alicia makes the fifth Slayer to find her way to one of our groups based on dream instructions, I think it fair to say it is... 'a thing.'”

“Weird,” was Xander's best analysis.

“Indeed,” Giles agreed gravely. “How go the renovations?”

“Assuming you've all gotten used to a dilapidated hotel on the edge of being condemned, you should feel right at home,” Xander quipped. “Nah, it's going great. Thirty new mattresses with frames being shipped in tomorrow, and we're gonna buy out the bedding department at Walmart. Any more interior decorating I'm leaving to the girls, since I need to protect what little testosterone I have left.”

“Excellent. Faith and Robin are leaving overland with the bus and the girls whose identification has not yet been sorted tomorrow morning, and the rest of us will be flying to Cleveland in three days time.”

“Great!” Xander said with real enthusiasm. “Getting the band back together. Good luck flying with that many teenagers.”

“Indeed,” Giles said, his tone much drier now. “And we are going to have some words about you poaching my research assistant and turning her into a construction foreman. I have a great deal of work to do, you know.”

“You've still got Dawn and Willow,” Xander pointed out blithely, “and you'll be glad for it when the bills start coming in. I'd have just thrown everything in a shoebox for later. It used to drive Anya-” He stuttered to a halt just from hearing her name aloud. “Anyway,” he went on after a stilted moment, “you'll be surprised at how the place looks. Still a lot to do, but big progress.”

“I'm certain of that,” Giles assured him, his voice oddly gentle. “Keep in touch, and we'll see you beginning of next week.” Xander had agreed and hung up, checking once more on the girls before he went to bed himself. They were both awake, talking and making a severe dent in the household Twinkie supplies, but at least looked bedded down for the night. He went on to his own room, pulled off his shoes and belt, and laid down. It took a long time to get to sleep.

The next day was Saturday, which meant no work crews, but a huge delivery of mattresses and bedframes to fill the empty cabins and replace the unpleasant antiques in the lodge. Alicia and Donna amused themselves by seeing who could run faster while carrying a mattress on her back. Donna had a significant height advantage that gave her an easy victory, but Alicia retaliated by climbing a tree and dropping onto the next mattress Donna carried, sending both of them tumbling to the ground along with the hapless furniture. Xander, who could carry approximately zero mattresses unassisted without risking an embarrassing fall, left them to it and stuck to assembling bedframes. When the carrying was done, the girls went and jumped in the lake, both of them obviously pleased to have made a new Slayer friend despite the significant age difference.

With a little bit of free alone time, Xander went for a walk along the water's edge, trusting the girls to take care of themselves. The lake was really more of a very large pond and may have once been groomed to perfection, but was now mostly overgrown with algae and choked with cattails around the edges. A little ways from the ring of cabins, he found the gazebo the realtor had told them about, one that marked the outskirts of the property and was “perfect for picnics!” if one did not mind spiders the size of golf balls. Andrew had immediately asked if it was a dread gazebo and then cackled at his own wit, but Xander didn't really care what esoteric things Andrew thought were funny these days.

Walking in, Xander realized immediately that Donna had been hanging around in here this week. The place was freshly swept out, spiders and all, and he could smell a whiff of the wood sealant he'd been using on the porch coming from the benches. The place needed some work, he noted, but nothing he couldn't do himself with a few supplies from the Home Depot. He noticed something tacked to one of the walls, a piece of yellow legal paper like what she'd been using for notes all week, this one carefully sealed inside a Ziploc bag to protect it from the weather. She'd written neatly on it, which must have taken forever.

“ Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of death,
Into the mouth of hell.
Charging an army
While all the world wondered.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.”

Xander read the words over twice, recognizing them vaguely as something he'd probably had to read once for an assignment in school, wondering what they meant for someone who'd descended into the mouth of hell and come back again. He looked across the water to where Donna and Alicia were playing. Maybe they needed a team of counselors to go along with that team of lawyers, but who would they get who could possibly understand? Buffy had certainly never gotten any comfort from modern psychology. Another problem to kick down the road, he guessed. The first thing they had to do was find all these girls and keep them alive.

Chapter Text

Donna was just starting to get used to the quiet peace of the Lodge with only Alicia and Xander for company when suddenly the rest of the Scoobies and the minis arrived like a tidal wave, washing over the camp and changing it completely. That wasn't really such a bad thing. Peace had been nice, but she'd found herself spending a lot of time sitting in the gazebo and brooding, thinking about the friends who had died and missing her family. She needed people and activity to keep her busy and out of her own head, and now she had it in spades.

Overnight, the place was turned into an operation that resembled nothing so much as Slayer Summer Camp, two girls to a bedroom, four or six per cabin, with Scoobies in the main building. Buffy and Faith shared a two-bedroom cabin of their own, no roommates for either of them. After months of being crammed into the house on Revello Drive, then weeks of living in the musty hotel, it was nice to have the room to spread out. Donna and Steph ended up sharing a room again, Wisconsin poster and all, and she used her computer access to print out pictures of Bucky Badger, the Wisconsin state flag, and a cow. It wasn't home, but it was good.

Now that they had a home base set up, the Scoobies put their heads together and got down to a lot of planning. Donna, of course, was not privy to those meetings, but she typed up notes for Giles and chased down contractors, handymen, security experts, whoever was needed to get the work done. Learning to sound like a mature professional on the telephone was an easy skill to master, much simpler than the very complex martial arts moves that Buffy and Faith were trying to teach now in daily exercises. Sometimes Donna wondered if there had ever been Slayers who were also office managers or city planners or something. She liked exercise and actually slaying satisfied a deep need inside her heart and brain, but none of it was as interesting or fulfilling as helping to get the Lodge up and running.

Donna screwed up her courage and asked Giles about it one day while she was going over estimates for cabin repairs with him. Giles was always busy and he wore detached remoteness like a cloak over his shoulders, but he knew more about Slayers than anybody else here, maybe anybody else in the world right now. She waited until they were finished with the estimates, then dawdled for a minute while reorganizing the supply invoices. “Mr. Giles,” she asked, “I was wondering, do all Slayers kill vampires? I mean, is that all they do, professionally?”

She could feel Giles studying her and ducked her head to avoid his gaze, busying herself with the paperwork. “All Slayers kill vampires and demons, as well as fighting the forces of evil and staving off apocalypse,” he informed her. “It- ah, in the past it has been unusual for a Slayer to attain her majority and thus need to worry about supporting herself with a career-” Donna gave him a look that must have clearly conveyed her horror, judging by his immediate backpedal. “Of course, the rules are quite different now, thanks to the mass calling, and there will undoubtedly be new customs and ideas of normalcy for this generation of Slayers.”

“I guess I was just wondering...” She brushed her hair back behind her ear. “When my Watcher was training me, he told me I'd probably never be a Slayer, but I could be a researcher for the Council, maybe even become a Watcher.” If she kept her eyes on the papers and didn't look at him, she could finish talking. “I don't think I want to be a full-time vampire slayer,” she admitted. “I don't like it the way some of the other girls do. Do you think it's possible that maybe a Slayer could do something else? Like, anything else?”

When she finally looked up, she saw that Giles was cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief, one of his typical nervous habits. “Well, yes, I suppose... yes,” he repeated with more confidence. “Yes, that is absolutely possible. You'll always be a Slayer, but no one girl is The Slayer anymore. You'll all have more choices because of it.”

“I want to finish school,” Donna told him earnestly. “I want to go to college and learn... well, kind of everything. I'm not sure yet,” she admitted with a little laugh, then hesitated. “I want to go home to Madison.”

Giles steepled his fingers. “Well, we would certainly miss your skills here, but I can understand that desire. When your training is completed, we can explore setting up an outpost-”

“What if I just wanted to go home?” she pressed. “I don't know when I'm going to be done training, or when we'll be able to start posting Slayers away from Cleveland, but I miss my family!”

He gave her a severe look over his glasses. “Donna, have you ever faced a vampire alone, with no other Slayers nearby and no backup available?”

She frowned and rounded her shoulders. “Only with a team,” she admitted, “but you wouldn't let me patrol by myself.”

“Because I'd like to keep you alive long enough to explore that adult life you're planning for yourself!” he insisted. “You, all of you who were in Sunnydale, endured a dreadful crucible. Even so, you've been sheltered from the harshest realities of life as a Slayer. Most Slayers do not die because they faced a vampire who was smarter or stronger or more dangerous than all the others. They die from inattention, from carelessness, and from the fatigue of performing their duties by themselves night after night, month after month. If you return to Madison by yourself, you will attract the attention of evil forces,” he continued inexorably.

“You have some training and a certain amount of innate skill, so I'm sure you'll be able to dispatch many of those threats. But there are far more of them than there are of you, and they are not respecters of ideas like uninvolved civilians. You will need to find ways to protect your family even as you put yourself constantly at risk. And you will have to prepare them for the reality that the average length of service for a lone Slayer with no Watcher is approximately five months, including some especially talented outliers.”

Somehow the unemotional, didactic tone of the lecture just made it hit harder. Donna ducked her head and shuffled uselessly through the papers again. Giles seemed to relent a bit, his voice softening. “I realize that when you are seventeen, six months feels like an eternity, especially to be separated from home and family. I have no intention of holding you or any of the other girls here indefinitely. I have already begun contacting Watchers who survived The First's purge and will be bringing some here to speed the training process. Continue honing your skills, even when it seems dull, and perhaps we'll find a way to get you home by Christmas.”

“Really?” she asked, looking up again.

“I can't make any promises,” he reminded her, “but it seems like a reasonable timetable given our progress so far.”

Donna worried a little about the caveat, but the idea of being home this Christmas was tantalizing, exciting enough to allow her to even overlook the million problems besides vampires she'd have to face while going home. “Thank you, Mr. Giles,” she told him wholeheartedly. “I'll work really hard.”

“I'm sure you will,” he told her with a small smile. “And you might as well just call me Giles, Donna. After all these years, the Mister really does sound strange anymore.”

Summer at the Lodge seemed to fly by, busy with a million things to do. Xander started organizing the girls into work teams to get the place in order faster and cheaper. Some girls helped with construction, some with maintenance, some with kitchen duties, some with research and administration. Donna was more than pleased to find herself at the de facto head of the small R&A work team because she could use all the computer software and nobody else wanted to do it. Even with Andrew coming in constantly to bug her about the kitchen supplies budget as though she had some kind of input, it was a good gig.

Steph was on the construction crew and developed a huge crush on Xander almost immediately, along with about a third of the other girls. “It's so sad what happened to his eye,” she told Donna earnestly one day over laundry, “but his face has so much character. And he's so nice, even though he's had so much tragedy in his life...” Trailing off, she just sighed wistfully.

“I don't think he's looking at anybody our age,” Donna pointed out, trying very hard not to openly mock her best friend. “Or anybody at all right now.”

“You got to spend two weeks alone with him!” Steph pressed. “You guys must have talked. What's he like? What does he like?”

“He is nice,” Donna replied, carefully matching up her socks and checking the inside collars of her shirts for her name. None of the refugees had anything after Sunnydale, so most of their wardrobes consisted of largely identical copies of whatever had been cheaply available at Walmart. She'd taken labels and laundry markers to her clothes just to keep track of them. “He likes the quiet, and he hates talking about money. I think he's really sad right now. Maybe everybody should just leave him be.”

“Yeah, he is sad,” Steph agreed. “He and Buffy are just sad all the time. Maybe they should get together, maybe it would make them, you know, feel better.” Steph folded her laundry fast and sloppy, she was done with her entire pile already.

“I don't think it works that way,” Donna offered dubiously. “Neither of them are like lonely-sad. He's sad because of Anya, and she's sad because of Spike. I don't think getting together would fix it.”

“Yeah, but she was a demon and he was a vampire!” Steph pointed out, dropping her voice conspiratorially. “I mean, we're supposed to kill those things anyway! He was locked up in the basement and crazy half the time, and she kept yelling about how we were all gonna die like it didn't even matter to her! Maybe these guys just need to get over it!”

“Yeah, I know,” Donna agreed with a little grimace. She could not understand the appeal of dating outside one's own species even a little bit. “But even if it doesn't make sense, it mattered to them. I think we should just leave them alone.”

Steph sighed. “You're no fun.”

“I suck,” Donna concurred cheerfully, finishing the last of her clothes. “Andrew's making brownies today, want to go bug him till he gives us the bowl?”

“Yes, absolutely.” Clothes hampers in hand, both girls took off at top Slayer speed, laughing.

More and more minis came trickling in, two or three a week, coming in on their own or being found and brought in by Giles and Robin. Willow tried to help Donna and some of the other heavy-dreaming minis to explore lucid dreaming and the possibility of directing their dreams to convey and receive more useful information. Donna typically had no trouble falling asleep during the meditation portions of these sessions, but most of her dreams were decidedly less than lucid. Considerable practice made it so she could recite directions in her dreams, to the point where the first time she encountered Miette from Lousiana and Rina from Long Island in person, her first response was to blurt the Lodge's address out one more time. That had been slightly mortifying, but everybody else just thought it was funny.

The dreams weren't the only weird supernatural thing going on that summer, though that was probably to be expected with so many supernaturally-enhanced people living in one place. They'd only been in residence a month when the first concerted attack by local vampires had come down. The vamps had plotted it out, waited until Buffy and her team were gone to the city for the night's patrol, then come down hard in the hopes of scattering and disorganizing the leaderless minis. Unfortunately for them, they hadn't realized Faith was still at the Lodge, or that the security systems were motion activated and more than able to detect vampires. The instant the alarms had gone off, girls were pulling weapons from under their pillows and spilling into the yard, organizing into fighting units just as they'd been trained. Giles and Andrew later estimated nearly forty vampires in the attack, an extraordinary example of vampires banding together against a threat, but they'd been no match at all for a score of angry mini-slayers, many of whom had cut their stakes on Turok-han. There was a short battle and a long celebration with lots of ice cream, and Donna and Steph both decided that slaying vampires did have its cool moments. Buffy and her gang returned hours early from patrol, with several of the minis saying they'd known something bad and exciting was happening at home and begged to turn around. They were graciously allowed to share in the ice cream.

Picking up on the emotions of other Slayers seemed to be happening more and more as the summer passed. Willow theorized it had to do with proximity, the various pieces of the Slayer spirit communicating with itself through the girls it had bonded with. Andrew had talked excitedly about Betazoids and telepathy until Kennedy threatened to throw him bodily into space, but it wasn't really like that. It wasn't even all emotions, mostly the strong and surprising ones. When Vi had stumbled upon a massive Chirago demon on patrol, everybody with her knew instantly to zero in on her position, and when Willow had surprised Kennedy on their six-month anniversary, a bunch of grinning minis had tiptoed around outside their room, hanging up congratulatory signs both cheerful and mocking. Cathy had been saved a lot of grief when her bunkmates felt her snapping her ankle in a nasty bike fall and went to find her, and when Robin told Buffy the story of a new Slayer he'd been too late to save from demonic sacrifice, the entire cadre of minis had wound up milling uneasily in the yard until Giles told them what had caused such angry grief.

Donna definitely thought the emotion thing was weird, but Willow theorized it would fade with distance and time, so maybe it wouldn't be a problem at all in Madison. As it was, it became easier to ignore with practice. By the time summer became fall, fourteen slayers had become thirty-five, and Giles had also dug up three retired Watchers and two trainees who'd been on holiday when the Council was destroyed. One cabin became the Watchers Cabin, two Watchers to a room, with the remaining one obligingly moving in with Alicia and the other littles as a sort of den mother. School became a pressing concern, but somehow Giles managed to grease the wheels of the local school system so they'd accept thirty new female students all from one address without asking too many questions. Sometimes Donna wondered if Giles used magic in his negotiations, but she didn't think he probably would. Money was usually good enough. In any case, she began her senior year of high school in Cleveland, much to the delight of Mrs. Morello, who'd been fretting.

By October, thirty-five Slayers had become almost fifty, and Donna and Steph now had two more roommates in their Wisconsin-themed room. Training was proceeding apace, and Donna could even step on the ground near the Hellmouth without wanting to throw up very much. She and Steph were both Senior Minis now because they'd been at Sunnydale, trusted to lead two or three other girls in patrols around the Lodge or when splitting up on group patrol in Cleveland. Donna was comfortable now with her ability to sense and slay a vampire without help, but she had to admit it was good to have company. On Halloween, everybody at the Lodge had a huge party with music and costumes and absolutely ridiculous amounts of candy. Andrew made enough amazing chocolate and caramel dipped apples to feed their small army, and there was cider and soda and punch for the minis and beer for the Scoobies and Watchers. The only rule, and this was hard and fast, was that there could be no evil costumes. Everybody had to dress as something good, or at least neutral. This had led, of course, to Xander telling what had to be a heavily embellished story of Buffy's first Halloween in Sunnydale, where she'd turned into a helpless noblewoman and almost been eaten by vampires before being saved by Army Guy Xander and Ghostly Punk Rock Willow. Buffy had laughed too, but she'd looked sadder than normal, and Donna wondered what the rest of the story was. But it was a great party.

Mid-November was colder than Donna would've expected for Ohio, something about the lake effect maybe, but there was already some snow on the ground. She was helping Andrew with the grocery circulars, checking for sales on things they could buy in bulk, when a sudden burst of startled elation erupted in her brain. She leapt up, ignoring Andrew's questions, and raced to the yard. Steph was standing by a newly-arrived car, engulfed in the arms of an older man who was rocking her back and forth. When she got closer, Donna could hear her sobbing “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” A half-dozen other curious Slayers popped up as well while Steph was composing herself.

“This is my dad!” she introduced him, beaming at everyone. “He's my Watcher too, but he adopted me when I was little. I thought... I couldn't find him after the Bringers came, but Giles and Robin tracked him down!” Steph bounced on her feet and hugged herself, grinning.

“Hi, Mr. Steph's Dad,” Donna said politely, grinning at her friend's joy. “I'm Donna, Steph's roommate.”

“Nice to meet you, Donna,” he replied with a friendly smile, reaching out to shake her hand. “I'm Dan Gault. You can call me Dan, it's probably easier than 'Steph's Dad.' He made introductions with the other Slayers as well, then Dan had to go in for a Watchers' debriefing with Steph still keeping a firm grip on him and the rest of them dispersed.

That night, Donna slipped down to Steph's bunk (they were in bunk beds now, to free up more space) after their roommates were sleeping. “I'm so glad your dad is alive,” she whispered.

Steph nodded vigorously, wiping at her eyes. “I was sure he was dead,” she murmured back. “He had to run and get underground, they knew who he was and where he lived. He was trying to get to Sunnydale, but it was never safe, and then it was gone entirely. He thought I was dead too, until Giles tracked him down. Now we can go home!”

“You're going home?” Donna asked, surprised. “Back to Green Bay?”

“Or, you know, somewhere around there. Our house got destroyed,” Steph confided. “We're going to have to figure out what to do next, where to stay, all of that. I love Slayer Camp,” she admitted, “but I want to be in a real home with my dad again, even if I am out Slaying at nights.”

Donna thought about that. “Would you guys consider maybe living in Madison?” she suggested. “I know somebody you could probably stay with while you got on your feet, and Giles won't let me move back without a Watcher and ideally some backup. We could have our own outpost.”

Steph's eyes got wide. “I love that idea!” she yelped, a little too loudly for the quiet room. “Let's ask tomorrow. That would be so amazing, we'd be like Slayer sisters, taking care of a city together. I'm sure my dad will go for it.”

In the end, it was a little bit more involved than that. Giles, Dan and the Scoobies all agreed that Madison was a decent place to set up a Slayer outpost. Though it had only average demonic and vampiric activity, its large school and hospital made it an inviting target, and the city also had proximity to most of the large cities in Illinois in Wisconsin. It was an eight hour drive from Cleveland, which could be managed in one day, and as it turned out, was almost equidistant in the west to New York in the east, where a Slayer outpost was also being planned for Kennedy, Rona and a few other Senior Minis who were ready to move out. Quarters at the Lodge were at risk of becoming cramped. The coming weeks of planning would be brutal, but Giles was certain, he announced with a glance Donna's way, that teams could be sent out before Christmas.

Planning was one of Donna's best things, but even she was taxed by the logistics of getting everything set up for the move to Madison. The Council would subsidize rent on a house and basic living expenses, plus Giles was hopeful about things like scholarships once he had access to all the Council's funds. There were utilities and plane tickets and all kinds of furnishings and weapons to acquire and account for. Even so, on Thanksgiving Day, Donna was confident enough to make a phone call she'd been hoping to make for six months, since the day their yellow school bus had rocketed out of Sunnydale. “Hi Mom, it's Donna. I want to come home.”

Chapter Text

June 1998

Faith wasn't sure how she felt about Madison. Sure, it was better than anything California had to offer, at least in the eyes of a native Bostonian, but the entire Midwest still gave her a touch of the wig. Cleveland was okay, the Hellmouth and being pretty close to the Eastern Seaboard gave it a nice familiar ambiance, but once you got into farmer territory, no way. She firmly believed that there was no such thing as farm-country nice, just people who were more repressed and who'd smile as they slipped a knife between your ribs. All the same, the airport wasn't too bad, and the capitol building was pretty enough, and she was going to ditch her traveling companion here, which counted for a lot. Maybe Madison wasn't so bad.

Richard Lancaster, currently cowering beside her in the passenger seat of the sporty red rental car, had been a pain in her ass for every minute of the four days she'd known him. A half-trained Watcher before the Council had gotten itself blown up, he'd spent nearly a year trying to uncover any remaining traces of the old Council (or more likely hiding under his own bed), before Giles and Robin had tracked him down through some of Giles' London contacts. They'd brought him to Cleveland for Watcher School, the companion program to Slayer Camp that had started up at the converted lodge. He was supposedly twenty-three, Faith's own age, but he seemed a lot younger and more callow in his outlook, except when he got his Watcher on and started channeling his inner forty-year-old-asshole.

Buffy had gotten sick of his shit within two months at The Lodge, so Giles, who was trying pretty hard to repair the shredded remains of his relationship with her, had sent the kid off to Robin in New York.
That had lasted all of two weeks, most of which Faith had been out of the country on a Slayer-finding expedition in Eastern Europe. By the time she'd arrived home, Richard had managed to alienate Robin, Robin's two other trainee Watchers, and three of the five in-house Slayers, while the remaining Slayer was head-over-heels in crush with the guy. He was a definite hottie, Faith would give him that much, but a chiseled profile and movie-star blue eyes seemed to be the only things he had going for him. Honestly, she wasn't sure how somebody with no spine could be so inflexible at the same time.

In any case, Robin claimed he was already up to his ears in FNGs while Dan in Madison had none, so it was time to spread the load around a little. Coincidentally, news of Rick the Dick had not yet spread to Madison, so Dan had cheerfully agreed to the additional help with his five Slayers and two Minis. If the guy washed out here, they were going to have to throw him into the ocean or something.

The Madison Slayer House was a tidy and not-too-fussy six-bedroom place on the edge of the city, one of those big old places left over from the days when folks had lots of kids in case some died. Steph and Chao-Ahn had moved into the house when it opened, and thank Christ some Watcher could finally speak enough Cantonese to help the poor girl start learning English. Erin and Jessie had trained up in the second batch at Slayer Camp and come out for some seasoning, while Donna had somehow patched things up with her family and kept living at home. Madison had an unusual setup in that they also had Molly Morello, the widow of a dead Watcher, who knew the score and was compassionate enough to take in a couple of the orphaned littles who weren't old enough to be on their own or live in a Slayer house.

The town wasn't exactly hopping on the supernatural front, certainly not enough to keep so many girls busy, but they took field trips and stuff on the weekends up to supernatural hot spots in the surrounding states, and sometimes went south to help out the friendly coven already supervising Chicago. Girls in New York and at the new Slayer House opening in LA went there because they wanted to be full-time Slayers. The girls in Madison, on the other hand, were finishing their educations and making plans for college. Faith didn't really understand that desire, but she liked the fact that it was a choice they could make. In Scooby meetings, Buffy's tongue-in-cheek term for the New Council's executive board meetings, Giles and Buffy were already talking about about Slayer-Watchers, educated Slayers who could mentor the next generation of empowered girls from the front, rather than placing their fates in the hands of people who could never truly understand what being a Slayer meant. Girls like Steph and Donna would be proof of concept, if they survived long enough. Until then, there were guys like Rick.

The whole crew was assembled at the house when Faith pulled up; she could feel the faint buzz of Slayer essences and if she'd concentrated, she probably could've picked out all seven individually. Activating all the Potentials had been necessary and was turning out to be pretty useful, but it came with a whole load of brand new metaphysical bullshit to deal with as well. Steph and Donna were out on the front porch by the time she parked, leaning on the rail and calling out envious comments about Faith's car. The second Rick got out of the car, Faith caught a quick and unmistakable pop of lust from the direction of the porch. Judging by the way Steph elbowed Donna in the ribs, she'd felt the pop even harder. Donna paid no attention to either of them, absolutely focused on the new trainee Watcher. Fantastic, Faith thought with a sigh. This would make everything so much less complicated.

Chao-Ahn and the other girls spilled out onto the porch, alerted by the same sense, and were therefore just in time to watch a starry-eyed Donna nearly fall down the stairs in her haste to make Rick's acquaintance. College girl or not, though, she was still a Slayer, and managed to catch herself with just one artful palm pressed against his chest. “Hi,” she began breathlessly, “I'm Donna Moss. You must be Richard Lancaster. We've all really been looking forward to meeting you.”

“I am, in fact,” the Watcher replied, giving her a smile that showed lots of very even white teeth, “but you should feel quite free to call me Rick.” He didn't seem even a little bothered by the girl practically annihilating his personal bubble. “I'm very glad to be here. I've been told a great deal about your training regimen here and the way this house operates. We're obviously at the rawest beginnings of what could one day grow into a tremendous program for molding young Slayers. I'm sure I'll have a great deal to contribute, and I imagine I'll learn a few things as well.”

“Oh yeah, I think so too,” Donna said earnestly. Faith noticed Steph knocking her head gently against one of the porch pillars, but Donna was completely oblivious. She was too busy earnestly introducing Rick to everyone in the house, while ever-so-subtly (and possibly subconsciously) asserting her own claim on him. None of the girls seemed particularly inclined to challenge her on that, instead clearing out of the way to allow them in for an equally enthusiastic tour of the house.

Faith sidled up to Dan and Molly as the girls went back into the house. “So.... sorry about this,” she began awkwardly. “It's not too late, I could still drive him out into the country and leave him, tell the girls he's gone to live on a nice farm.”

Dan gave her a smile that was only slightly strained. “How long did you say he'd been in the New York house?”

“Bout two weeks,” Faith admitted. “And a couple months at The Lodge before that. He still needs to find, like, his niche.”

“Have I done something wrong?” Dan asked plaintively. “I had no idea Rupert and Robin were so annoyed with me.”

“I think Giles might still be a little torqued about losing his research assistant,” Faith replied, “but you weren't really the one to blame for that. You got yourself a nice cozy situation up here with a buncha quiet girls and not too many vampy issues, you've got to expect to get something foisted on you that nobody else wants to deal with.” She grinned. “Just let the girls chew him up and spit him out, it'll be like a bonding experience and work off some of the extra energy.”

“Oh yes, that sounds like fun,” Dan groaned. “That's my daughter you're talking about, as well as four other young women I'm very fond of. The last thing they need is some self-important asshat trying to get his hooks into them at an impressionable age.”

“You're taking it way too seriously, Dan,” Faith advised. “Learning to hit and quit is a vital Slayer skill, just like staking. Otherwise they're gonna end up like Buffy, and then they'll have real problems.”

“Faith,” Molly murmured, using the Mom voice.

“Sorry,” Faith muttered. Nobody was immune to the Mom voice. It was frankly embarrassing.

“She does have a point, though,” Molly suggested to Dan. “The girls are old enough that they're going to be bringing young men home anyway, some of whom will be less suitable than others. I'm confident that even if Donna is a little besotted at the moment, she'll overcome it quickly and it'll be a good lesson for her. And you have been hoping for someone to wear the puffy suit,” she reminded him, a gleam in her eye.

Dan laughed. “If anything can put a little humility into a young Watcher, that ought to do the trick. You're planning on staying a few days, aren't you, Faith?”

“If you're planning on a demonstration, twist my arm,” Faith agreed. “I'm supposed to be doing the biannual audit while I'm here, but if they were really worried about anything, they'd have sent somebody else. What are you having for supper?”

“It's pie night,” Molly informed her. “Homemade chicken pot pie, with apple pie for dessert. I'll even omit the cheese slice from the top if you like.”

“Just the sound of that is way gross,” Faith told her, “but the rest sounds great. I'll hang out.”

Dinner was about the way Faith had expected it would be after dealing with Rick for a couple days. Molly Morello was a hell of a cook, which sort of made up for the way the trainee Watcher held forth on his background, his training, his family, and his harrowing (and probably mostly made up) escape from the wrath of the First Evil. Dan, Molly, Faith and Steph all tried in turn to move the talk in other directions, but were stymied at every turn by Donna, who was some kind of fucking jiu jitsu master of interviewing and who really wanted to hear everything Rick had to say. Every conversational ball was adroitly fielded and immediately passed along to Rick, who slobbered all over it like an eager cocker spaniel. Steph finally just dropped her forehead to the table and stayed that way until it was time to clear the table. Faith could respect that.

After dinner, Dan pulled Rick into his study for Watcher talk, which gave Faith a chance to collar Donna and pull her onto the porch for a little Slayer to Slayer chat. She'd never been close to the wispy blonde Slayer, who'd worked hard enough to get by at Slayer Camp but never stood out for good or bad, but they still had the weird bond of a shared essence. It was enough to prompt her to pass along some hard-won advice. “Never date Watchers, kid. They'll break your heart.”

Donna gave her a weird look. “Aren't you still with Robin?” she asked curiously.

“Yeah, but that doesn't make it less true,” Faith assured her. “Lots of Watchers are assholes. Most of them are dead now, but there's a new crop of assholes out there, just waiting to bloom. You'll see plenty of them before we get the supply problems sorted out. An asshole Watcher will break your heart because it's what assholes do,” she explained, leaning against the porch rail. “He won't care about you, or he'll put his career advancement ahead of your safety, or he'll try and leverage the way he controls you to give him more power with other Watchers. You trust your heart to a bad Watcher and you'll wind up betrayed or humiliated or maybe having to kill them yourself before they start an apocalypse. Either way, you'll be sad and sorry.”

“What about if he's a good Watcher?” Donna demanded, hopping up to sit on the rail. “All the Watchers I know are good, they wouldn't do any of that. Robin wouldn't do any of that.”

“If they're good Watchers, they're gonna die,” Faith replied simply. “They'll throw themselves into a fight because they want to protect you, or sacrifice themselves to save the world, or any of a hundred brave and stupid ways to die.” Donna flinched, and Faith suddenly remembered that Donna had once had a Watcher of her own, just like Faith had once had Diana. “And yeah, then they're heroes, and you always remember them, but they still broke your heart. You don't want any of that. Find a normal guy who likes strong chicks.”

Donna looked away. “I don't believe it has to be like that,” she retorted, mouth set in a stubborn line. “Maybe it used to be like that, but not anymore. We get to live now, why shouldn't they live too? If I loved a Watcher, I would always protect him. Nothing would ever happen to him.”

Faith sighed. There wasn't going to be any convincing this one, except maybe through painful experience. “Just keep it in mind,” she advised, then went back in for some more pie.

Chapter Text

September, 2000

“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.

Chapter Text

December, 2001

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.

Chapter Text

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.”

“Which woman?”

“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.

“From where?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Sorry?”

“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.

Chapter Text

“Order of the Hyacinth, huh? Sounds weirdly pretty for a doomsday cult.” Buffy rested her chin on one fist. The conference room at the Lodge was twice the size of their meeting area at the Magic Box, nearly the size of the open area at the school library, but it was a lot more crowded these days when Giles called a Scooby meeting. The usual suspects were all present, including Dawn, but they'd added Faith to the Scooby roster, plus Vi from the Lodge and Steph from Madison as representatives of their Slayer houses, plus their watchers, plus Andrew for reasons Buffy never really had figured out.

“Yes, well,” Giles stuttered a bit, organizing his papers. “The origin of the word Hyacinth is from Greek mythology. Hyacinth was a companion to the god Apollo, and when he was killed, Apollo refused to let his soul pass to the realms of the underworld. The goals of the Order-”

“To erode the barriers between life and death by not allowing the souls of the dead to move on, gotcha.” Buffy nodded and flicked her fingers to show they could move on. “But they've given up on the whole Greek Life thing to terrorize Wisconsin? Why?”

“Maybe they thought the Upper Peninsula would be too cold,” Willow suggested puckishly. She'd been spending a lot of late nights tracking down the coven already, and it was starting to show.

“Maybe they just like the name Sheboygan,” Xander offered. “She-boy-gan. Shaboygin.” Vi and Andrew seemed to feel the idea had merit, repeating the word along with Xander a few times till Giles called things back to order.

“The Order in its current incarnation is not particularly old as these things go,” Giles explained, once Xander was momentarily quelled, “but it was quite large and well-organized. It was founded sometime after 1850 by a self-styled prophetess named Marian Wheelwright. Wheelwright was a fairly skilled witch, although she had only moderate power of her own. A spell to erode dimensional barriers requires a phenomenal amount of power, as well as an astrological alignment most of the time. Wheelwright believed that she could power the spell with a massive ritual to bind the spirits of the newly dead, so long as enough people died in a relatively small region on the date in question. The fortuitous date she chose was October 8, 1871.”

Willow's eyes rounded. “They caused the Great Chicago Fire?” she gasped.

“Indeed,” Giles nodded, “but that was a lesser conflagration, more a backup fire, if you will.”

“Giles, you just agreed it was the Great Chicago Fire,” Buffy pointed out. “Wouldn't that be the Lesser Chicago Fire?”

“The Great Chicago Fire destroyed 3.3 square miles of Chicago, killed three hundred people, and left a hundred thousand homeless,” Giles explained. “It was utterly devastating for the city, unlike anything they'd seen before. But on the same day, several hundred miles north, a firestorm ripped through the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin and its surrounding environs. Contemporaneous accounts had the fire so fast it raced trains, and so strong that it jumped both firebreaks and actual streams. By the time it burned out, twelve communities had been completely eradicated, two thousand lives lost, and 1.2 million acres burnt over. Several additional fires the same day in Michigan killed another two hundred, but the devastation was centered in Northern Wisconsin.”

“That does put things in perspective,” Willow agreed, frowning. “Why didn't it work?”

“We aren't certain,” Giles admitted. “It's possible that the coven may have gotten caught up in the fire they created and had to abandon the ritual before its completion. Or it may simply have been that two thousand lives was not enough of a sacrifice, despite the incredible collateral damage. The Order of the Hyacinth, and Wheelwright herself, disappeared entirely and were never heard from again. There were rumors that a coven of powerful witches had ensconced themselves somewhere in that region, protecting the Dark Heart of Glaurion until the Day of Dissolution-”

“Wasn't he that Klingon guy from Star Trek?” Dawn asked quizzically.

“That's Gowron, kiddo,” Vi corrected her. “Glaurion was the first dragon on Middle Earth. He ate a bunch of elves in the Silmarillion.”

Andrew looked appalled. “That was Glaurung!” he insisted. “Also known as the Dagor Bragollach, he broke the Siege of Angband with a mighty army of orcs and Balrogs!”

“This doesn't have anything to do with Glory, right?” Buffy asked, rather concerned. She was losing track of all these names.

“No it does not,” Giles assured her, “nor has it anything to do with fictional aliens or dragons!” He raised his voice just a bit to make the point. “The Dark Heart of Glaurion is a powerful artifact with various dimension-spanning properties that I will discuss at much greater length with Willow and anyone else who cares to delve into them. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that without the artifact, the sacrifice of souls, and an especially fortuitous alignment of the stars, the ritual has no real chance of being successful. The rumors remained unsubstantiated and the coven undisturbed in their rest... until recently.”

“That sounds ominous,” Buffy decided. “Who do we have to spank?”

“I'm always up for a little spanking,” Faith joked from her spot in the corner.

Giles attempted valiantly to continue speaking over the laughter. “Most of you will probably recall the trouble we had last year with Richard Lancaster, the Watcher from Madison-”

“You're going to go spank Dick Lancaster?” Steph asked Faith, ill-concealed glee on her face. “I'd pay to see that. Well, not pay, and not real spanking, that would be gross...” She subsided with a glance towards her father, her face reddening.

“Yep, looks like Faith's up for spanking duty,” Xander teased. “No take-backsies, either.”

Faith glowered at him, but whatever reply she'd have made was cut off by Giles shouting “Enough! Every single one of you complains about the length of these Council meetings, and yet you cannot bring yourselves to avoid extending them with endless chatter! If you could all bring yourselves to pay attention for five more minutes, perhaps I could convey some actual information to you.”

“Sorry Giles,” Buffy replied meekly, trying her best to look contrite. “We'll be good.” The rest of the Scoobies played along as best they could, zipping lips and straightening in chairs, looking attentive or at least looking in his direction. Inwardly, though, Buffy could barely suppress a grin. It was rare to have all her oldest friends in one place anymore and even more rare for them all to be joking and laughing, even if it was at another potential apocalypse.

Giles gave them all a look that said he doubted that very much, but kept going. “Last year, Mr. Lancaster convinced one of the Senior Slayers from the Madison house to join him on an unauthorized mission to locate the coven and recover the Dark Heart of Glaurion. His disregard for protocol involving magical antagonists led to them waking the coven from a state of suspended animation and nearly getting killed for their troubles. By the time a Council team managed to reach the scene of the incident the coven was gone, as was the artifact. That was the end of Richard Lancaster's relationship with the New Council but I have reason to believe he and the Slayer have continued their pursuit of the artifact until recently.

“Is this another Glove of Myhnegon situation?” Willow asked, this time sounding a bit more subdued.

“I don't believe so.” Giles shot Faith a look that was almost apologetic. “The Dark Heart of Glaurion has no known properties that would grant power to its bearer. It is the focus for a small number of dimensional magic and dimensional travel rituals, but if that is where his interest lay, given his position on the New Council he'd have been better served to simply kidnap Dawn.”

“Hey!” Dawn squawked. “Does it always have to be kidnapping? I'm old enough now, can't they try seducing me to the side of evil at least once or twice?” Buffy gave her a quelling glare.

“Be that as it may,” Giles continued, clearing his throat, “as far as we know, Lancaster's pursuit of the artifact has been for the sake of rubbing our noses in it, as it were. A sort of professional redemption. I would personally be inclined to let him continue scouring the outer reaches of the Upper Midwest for it indefinitely, but our friends in Devon have informed me that there is a conjunction of stars coming up on the first of April that may suffice for a reenactment of the Order of the Hyacinth's signature ritual. I need not tell you that another set of fires of that magnitude in this day and age would kill far more than two thousand people.”

There was a moment's silence around the table. Buffy was the first to break it. “So, I'm guessing we go rough up Ex-Watcher Guy till he tells us what he knows, find out where this Mary Wheelbarrow is hiding out, then get our slay on, all before April Fool's Day?”

“Maybe we shouldn't rough him up right off the bat,” Willow chimed in. “Guys like that want to show off. He'll probably tell us more if we let him think he's getting one over on us because we're coming to him for help.” She threw up her hands at the looks of distaste around the table. “Yeah, I know it stinks, but time is of the essence, right?”

“We should also talk to Donna,” suggested Dan Gault, the Watcher from Madison. “She was with Rick for the awakening and for nearly a year while they were searching for it. She's got a highly detail-focused and analytical mind, there may be things she can tell us about what they were doing that he won't disclose. Her familiarity with the region will also be useful on the hunt.”

“I'm not sure about that,” Xander suggested uncomfortably. “Donna's on reserve status now, she's got a job and a life outside. Just because she got her head turned by an asshole doesn't mean she's not entitled to say when she wants to be done with Slaying.”

Buffy was torn. She wanted to agree with Xander, who had become a reliable voice on behalf of the Slayers as young women instead of fighting machines. The right of a Slayer to say no, to take a sabbatical or just retire, was a right Buffy believed in utterly, one she'd wished desperately for herself when she was younger. And maybe she was too old and too broken by violence and death to take advantage of that option herself anymore, but that was only more reason to extend it to others. But at the same time, if the fate of the world was at stake...

Giles broke in before Buffy was done wrestling with herself. “Reserve status does not mean retired,” he pointed out to Xander. “I spoke with Donna before she left, and she specifically indicated her readiness to be recalled in the event of apocalypse. I, too, would much rather leave her to enjoy her new venture in life, but needs must as the devil drives. There are very few Slayers who would not turn up to prevent the end of the world, especially one that they themselves caused, however inadvertently.”

Xander nodded reluctantly. “Does anybody know where the campaign is right now? She keeps sending postcards from cheesy tourist attractions, but I can't keep up.”

“They're actually coming to Columbus day after tomorrow,” Steph piped up, sounding almost reluctant. “Donna was planning on trying to drive up here for the night if there was enough of a break in the schedule.” She smiled halfheartedly. “I told her she wasn't allowed to brainwash the minis into campaign volunteers. I guess maybe we can catch her then?”

“No,” Buffy decided, resting her fingertips against the table. “I'll go up and get her, at least give her a chance to say goodbye.”

_ _ _

Dawn had appointed herself chauffeur for the trip, loudly reminding anyone in earshot of how Buffy and driving were decidedly unmixy things. Buffy rolled her eyes, but wasn't going to complain too loudly about not having to fight Columbus traffic. As she stared out the window and tried to ignore Dawn's annoying music choices, she found her thoughts drifting back a dozen years to her arrival in Sunnydale. She'd been in the passenger seat and staring out the window then, too, (with a dubbed-in memory of Dawn sulking in the backseat for good measure). Angry about the unfairness of her expulsion from Hemery, but at the same time hoping that leaving Los Angeles would let her outrun the grim fate Merrick had painted for her.

Sunnydale had seemed the perfect place to live a normal life, but nobody could outrun their destiny. She couldn't, and neither, it seemed, could Donna. Sometimes Buffy wondered why the other Slayers, the Sunnydale girls in particular, didn't hate her for what she'd done to them in the name of saving the world.

The convention hall where Governor Bartlet was going to speak was crowded and noisy, full of excited people who were either jockeying for positions closer to the stage or running around with no discernible purpose at all. Buffy didn't follow politics even a little, but having a Slayer out on the campaign trail had drawn some interest around the Lodge. Well, mostly it had interested Andrew, who inflicted his interests on everyone else, so she knew enough to know that the Bartlet campaign was starting to pick up a little steam after the first couple primaries. Buffy and Dawn edged their way around the crowd towards the backstage area where the staff seemed to be clustering. Raised voices caught Buffy's attention, drawing her eye to an argument between an angry, balding, bearded man and-

“Wow,” Buffy murmured out loud without realizing it.

Dawn followed her gaze. “Dibs,” she said instantly. “Double-dibs.”

Buffy slanted a glare in her direction, then looked back at the tall, blue-eyed piece of salty goodness trying in vain to argue with the bald man.“You can't call dibs on somebody you don't even know, no matter how hot he is. Besides, there's no possible way he's straight.”

“Maybe I can change,” Dawn sighed dreamily. “I think Willow still knows that spell...”

That called for a swift whack upside the head, a big sister's most sacred duty. “Pull yourself together, Dawnie. We're looking for Donna, remember?”

“He's wearing a campaign badge,” Dawn pointed out brightly. “I bet he could help us!” Unfortunately for Dawn's libido, the argument seemed to end at that moment, both men retreating behind the stage with packets of paper in hand. “Dammit.”

A red-haired woman approached them from the side of the stage, wearing a campaign badge and carrying an outsized vase of red, white and blue chrysanthemums. Buffy felt a little tingle along her spine, and in her sinuses as well. She sneezed.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked briskly. “I”m afraid this is a staff-only area. Governor Bartlet will be shaking hands-”

“Actually we're looking for a staff member,” Buffy cut in, wearing her best ingratiating grin. “Do you know if Donna Moss is around? We're old friends from home.”

The woman did a slight double take at that, for no reason Buffy could figure out. “Um, sure, I think she's right around here somewhere.” The woman pursed her lips and looked around, then pointed to the other side of the stage. “Over there.” Sure enough, Buffy caught just a glimpse of Donna, furiously taking notes as she trailed a wildly gesticulating man through the crowd.

Buffy turned to thank the woman but she was already gone, giant flowers and all. With a sigh, Buffy grabbed hold of Dawn's arm and hauled her all the way back through the crush of people to the far side of the stage. About halfway there Buffy caught the telltale resonance that said Slayer, making it easier to home in on her target. The same resonance had Donna looking in their direction when they were still a dozen yards away, notebook forgotten for a moment. Buffy could tell the moment she caught sight of them, the momentary happiness at seeing a familiar face immediately chased off by worry about why the Head Slayer was intruding on her normal mundane life.

Donna rested her hand on the shoulder of the man she was with and murmured something in his ear, then hurried over to meet the pair with a smile that only seemed a little strained. “Hey Buffy, hey Dawn! I wasn't expecting to see anybody from Cleveland down here for the rally, I was going to drive in tonight to say hi. I know it's only been a month since I left but it seems like forever and it'll be nice to get a chance to see everyone and tell them about what I'm doing. Did you come to see the rally? It's going to start any minute and it's going to be pretty great...” Her babbling, Buffy noted, was almost at Willowian levels of putting-off-the-inevitable, but trailed off eventually. “Something's wrong, isn't it,” she guessed.

“Yeah, that word lesson you gave me about eclipses looks like it's going to come in handy this year,” Buffy told her with a rueful half-smile. “And it's only March! Is there a place we can talk?”

“Um, sure...” Donna looked around, clutching her notebook to her chest. Buffy noted that even in her new civilian life Donna wasn't going entirely unarmed: her wispy blond hair was held up in its bun with two slender wooden hairsticks that Buffy knew from experience were a lot stronger than they looked. They'd been a huge fad in the Slayer houses two years ago, she had a pair or two knocking around in a drawer herself. “I can't talk long though, or Josh will come looking for me. He needs some hand-holding on polling days.”

Dawn arched an eyebrow at that as Donna led them down the side aisle towards the service corridor. “So is Josh the curly-haired guy you were with? What about the gorgeous one who was arguing with the bald guy?”

“That's Sam,” Donna told her, sounding a little distracted. “He's one of the speechwriters, he and Toby spend most of their time arguing. Josh is the guy I work for, he's the chief campaign strategist. Here we go.” She pushed open a door and led them into a bare little room occupied by a single forlorn chair dolly. “What's going on?”

Buffy opened her mouth to frame the situation as best she could in the time allowed, but Dawn jumped in first. “Those witches you and Rick woke up last year are going to cause an apocalypse on April Fool's Day and you have to come help us stop them.”

Donna's face didn't have a lot of color to begin with, but she lost what there was of it. “What?” she asked, her voice a dismayed whisper.

Buffy glared at Dawn. “Nice, very diplomatic.” Dawn had the grace to look a little sheepish. Buffy then gave Donna a thumbnail sketch of what Giles had told them about the Order of the Hyacinth and their Dark Heart of Gilgamesh, or whatever it was called.

Midway through, Donna turned to a clean page in her notebook and began taking rapid notes. “April first, that isn't a lot of time,” she mused. “But what do you need me for?”

“You and that Watcher tracked these guys for like a year,” Dawn reminded her. “You know a lot more than we do about places they might be likely to go. We're getting him in on this too, but you'll be able to tell us if he's bullshitting us with the info he gives. But hey,” she added, seeing Donna's growing dismay, “maybe once we get done with the slaying and the partying, you can come back here and get back to the-” She waved a hand. “Politics stuff.”

Donna shook her head, a pained little smile on her face. “I don't think so,” she told Dawn. “If I take off now, it's probably for good. I got my one chance.” She looked at Buffy. “Do we have to go right now, or can it wait till after the rally? I want to talk to him, I mean, I should tell people I'm leaving, and it's just so busy right now.”

Sitting through a political rally was not high on Buffy's list of ways to spend a rare non-slaying afternoon away from Cleveland, but she couldn't ignore the pleading look on Donna's face. “Sure, we'll hang out,” she agreed. “But we need to be back at the Lodge before dark. I've got patrols tonight.”

“Okay, I can do that,” Donna assured her hastily, wiping at her eyes. “Wait for me after the speeches, I'll find you and we'll go. And help yourself to some food, the chicken is awful but there's some kind of potato and cheese thing that's pretty good.” With that she was gone, clicking gracefully away on her sensible heels as she raced back for one last campaign hurrah.

The potato stuff was indeed good, especially when one had the sort of metabolism that didn't worry about counting carbs or fat grams. While Dawn walked around in search of the elusive speechwriter from earlier, Buffy found a seat at the back of the hall and hung out. Places like this were weird, she decided. Spending most of her time at the Lodge made her feel ancient most of the time, especially when she was teaching. Her twenty-eight years made her an icon of longevity among Slayers despite the occasional deaths along the way, and most of them seemed to see her as some kind of wise ancestor-type. It was probably good she had Dawn visiting from school on the regular, stealing her stuff, making fun of her and otherwise reminding her that she was almost a normal human. Out here in this world, though, Buffy was one of the younger people in a room full of middle-aged and older politicians and political junkies. All the other people her age were running around doing errands for older, more experienced folks. There were lines of work out there where twenty-eight still counted as just getting started.

The speeches were not as tedious as she'd feared. Governor Bartlet was actually a pretty good speaker, despite the occasional tendency to ramble, and there were a few genuinely funny lines sprinkled in among the usual promises of prosperity, freedom and potted chickens. During the question and answer session, Dawn distracted her by whispering potential questions like “Do you believe vampires deserve the right to vote?” and “What's your stance on being able to claim slime-ruined clothing as business expenses on tax returns?” Buffy was half-tempted to ask that one; he'd have earned her vote for sure.

Once the speechifying was done, the Governor walked down into the audience to talk with people face-to-face. Buffy almost laughed aloud when she realized the guy was nearly as short as she was. Maybe she really would vote for him, assuming he managed to make it that far. The crowd began to thin out eventually, volunteers moving through to pack up food and stack chairs while the campaign staff continued doing whatever it was that they did near the front. Dawn caught sight of Salty Goodness Sam again and nearly darted away like a puppy into traffic, only to be literally collared by Buffy grabbing the back of her coat. “Even if he is straight, he's like fifteen years older than you,” she reminded Dawn, “and you're never going to see him again. Appreciate him from afar, like beautiful art.”

Dawn stuck out her tongue at Buffy, then both of them schooled themselves to more sober expressions as Donna rejoined them. She was toting a suitcase this time and looked like she was trying very hard not to cry. This close, Buffy could feel the sadness and disappointment rolling off her in waves. On the other side of the room, she got a glimpse of curly-haired Josh, his face stormy, trying to watch them without looking like he was watching them. She put a hand on Donna's shoulder as they headed for the door. “What did you tell him?”

Donna swallowed as they dodged around a few knots of people still talking politics in front of the building. “I told him I had left things unfinished with my boyfriend,” she managed quietly, “and it was time for me to go home where I belonged.” They walked the rest of the way to the car in silence, the faint political conversations carrying behind them on the wind.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Despite Donna's loud and lengthy protests (which earned her nothing but a visit from Molly Morello), she remained in the hospital for five full days. By the fifth day she was climbing the walls, would've been doing so literally if her ankle weren't still messed up. Slayers were not built for long periods of convalescence. The bruises liberally covering her face and body had lingered for days as her healing had other priorities, but even those were mostly faded by the time an exasperated nurse wheeled Donna to the front door of the hospital and gave her a pair of crutches. Donna cheerfully ignored the advice to take it easy or she'd break her neck and swung her way into Steph's waiting car. Her ankle was still sore and iffy but her arms were just fine; she could easily have run home if she'd wanted to (except again for the Mrs. Morello thing.) After that she spent several more days at home, where her mom was so busy fussing over her that she forgot to give the usual lecture series on the many errors in judgment Donna had made with her life thus far. That was kind of nice, actually.

Getting back to the campaign was a more complicated proposition. Although the bones in her ankle were knitting nicely, she was confined to a boot cast for a whole week more, which meant no driving. She'd either have to wait till she was completely better or find a driver to take her and her car all the way back to New Hampshire. That was a bit of a tough sell, seeing as how Manchester was not exactly high on most Slayers' list of exotic destinations for fun and demon-hunting. Eventually Steph drove her to Chicago, where she was able to hook up with two young minis heading to Cleveland for more training. Letting a sixteen-year-old Slayer drive her car was faintly terrifying, but the incident with the dragon had recalibrated Donna's meter of what was scary in cars and they got by all right. In Cleveland, Faith took it upon herself to drive the next leg of the trip since she was heading back to the New York Slayer House anyway. Donna quickly realized that maybe her meter had not been recalibrated quite as much as she thought.

The last time Donna had driven cross-country to New Hampshire, the trip from Cleveland to Manchester had taken just over ten hours. With Faith behind the wheel, they arrived in just over seven. It wasn't until somewhere during the fourth hour, cruising down the interstate at a hundred miles per hour, that Donna finally let herself relax. She trusted that Faith’s reflexes would keep them from crashing, and Faith claimed to have several foolproof methods to avoid speeding tickets. Because they'd left early in the morning (Foolproof Method Number One was that public servants were far more sluggish before breakfast), they reached BFA Headquarters by midafternoon. From the frantic rush visible behind the wide glass windows, the campaign was in town today. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. Part of her would've liked another day to try and worm her way back in before seeing Josh again, but it was probably better to just bite the bullet.

She got out of the car and sorted out the situation with her crutches, something that was still a little awkward. It would've been easier to go without, but she didn't trust that they weren't hexed to inform Mrs. Morello if they weren’t being used. “Thanks so much for driving me,” she told Faith. “I really owe you one. Sasha's going to be picking you up here, right?”

“Yeah,” Faith agreed, glancing idly at her phone. “She was up in Boston seeing her boytoy. Says she'll be here in about an hour, she totally wasn't ready for my efficient travel strategies.” She shoved the phone in her pocket and grinned. “So I got some time. Let's go meet your friends.”

Donna's mouth dropped open a little as Faith blithely headed off towards campaign headquarters. “What?” She swung across the street with wide sweeps of her crutches, only modulating them when she remembered she wasn't supposed to have that much upper arm strength here. She caught up with Faith at the door, but only because the older Slayer allowed her to. “You don't need to come in, I'm sure you'll think it's really boring...”

“What, and miss out on the chance to meet a guy who could be president?” Faith asked with mock astonishment. “Or the dreamboat Dawn still won't stop mooning after? Nah, it'll be great. Besides, gotta make sure the situation's safe here, what with you still on the injured list and all.” She pulled the door open and held it for Donna, a shit-eating grin covering her whole face. “You're not ashamed of me are you, Dragonslayer?”

“Oh my god.” Donna could feel how red her face was, but there was nothing to do at this point but walk through the door and let Faith follow her. It was a little bit like those dreams she had of walking into school completely naked, except here everyone was so busy that people barely had time to notice the crutches or the unapologetically badass woman in the leather jacket behind her. This could be okay, Donna decided. All she had to do was maneuver Faith through the bullpen and back to Josh's closet of an office, maybe let her terrorize Sam a tiny bit, and steer her out the back before-

“Donna!” came a very hearty, very familiar voice from the other end of the bullpen. Donna froze in her tracks, a smile that felt like a grimace affixing itself to her face. Governor Bartlet was crossing the bullpen from the conference room, CJ and Toby at his heels. They were all wearing coats, which probably meant that they were already late for something, but that very rarely bothered the Governor. Given the way he felt about most campaign events, he was probably looking for any momentary reprieve he could get.

Sure enough, he stopped right in front of Donna and Faith. “It's nice to see you back! I hope you enjoyed your vacation back home, but you're not allowed to leave anymore. That curly haired guy has been lost without you,” and Donna honestly couldn't tell if that was a joke or if he really didn't remember Josh's name. It could've easily gone either way. And I've also been reading some extremely interesting facts about the history of gardening that nobody else seems to appreciate. Did you know that the tomato-”

“Sir,” CJ broke in, sounding incredibly pained, “we needed to be in the cars five minutes ago. The fundraiser-”

“The fundraiser includes a champagne cocktail mixer to loosen the donors up before I even begin begging them for their money,” the Governor reminded her. “I think both they and I will be happier if they have an extra twenty minutes of that instead of hearing me speak.” Faith laughed at that, which of course drew his attention. “And is this young woman your sister?” he guessed in Donna's direction.

“My sister?” Donna squeaked. There was not even the faintest sort of familial resemblance there, surely? “No, this is, this is...”

“I'm Faith,” Faith cut in smoothly, offering her hand. “Donna's my cousin. Second cousin, maybe, our moms are related in some weird way. But since Donna's not driving lately, I gave her a ride back here and she told me I should come in and meet everybody.”

“That was very kind of you.” Governor Bartlet said approvingly, giving Faith’s hand a practiced politician shake. Donna knew that Faith had a handshake that could crush fingers if she wanted, but she was behaving herself impeccably for the moment. It made Donna nervous. “It’s tremendously heartening to see young people getting involved in the political process. It’s the young people who will inherit the world we create, and you should have a voice in how it’s made! Are you looking for an internship as well? I’m sure we could find something, maybe Toby’s office…”

“That’s a real flattering offer,” Faith replied, pretending to give it due consideration. At least Donna hoped she was pretending. Toby was giving Faith an appraising look, taking in the leather jacket and pants, the swagger that she could never quite hide. He looked ready to say something til CJ stepped on his foot. “I’ve already got a full-time gig down in New York,” Faith finally said, “but maybe I’ll knock on some doors for you guys when you get down that way. Little cuz here has been getting everybody at home all excited about politics.”

“Governor, the cars?” CJ broke in again. She was definitely Donna’s new favorite. “It’s great to see you again Donna, Josh has been down in Nashua but he’ll be back soon. We really do have to be going, though.” She herded the governor and Toby out through the front door, deft as a border collie with a couple of recalcitrant sheep, leaving Donna and Faith standing in the bullpen.

“I like him,” Faith decided. “If I weren’t a felon and all, I’d probably vote for him. Where’s the hottie?”

Resigned now, Donna took Faith to the back offices and introduced her to Sam, who was still grounded from any fundraiser involving alcohol after hitting on a state senator from Vermont in January. She had to admit it was a little amusing to watch how quickly Faith could reduce a confident, Ivy League-trained speechwriter to a blushing mess, but she did still have to work with these people. Eventually she hauled Faith away, to Sam’s mixed chagrin and relief, and steered her down the hall to Josh’s tiny office.

“Holy shit,” Faith said, looking around. “This place looks like Andrew’s office the day after they cancelled Deep Space Nine. You really work here?”

“It doesn’t look like this when I’m working here,” Donna pointed out, though she was cringing a little herself. It didn’t look like a single piece of paper had been filed in the entire time she’d been gone, and the desk and floor were littered with empty coffee cups and candy wrappers. “He’s obviously been… busy.”

“You sure you don’t want to come on down to New York?” Faith offered magnanimously. “Room of your own, three squares a day and all the vampires you can-”

“Shhh!” Donna interrupted, looking around. “Ixnay on the… you know!” Shoving her crutches aside, she clumped over to the desk and began picking up cups and wrappers. “This is perfect, actually. If I can get some of this mess cleared away before he comes back, he’ll remember why he wanted an assistant in the first place. Then maybe he’ll forget that I quit, and we can just go back to things being normal without all the awkward questions or me having to explain-”

“Uh, Donna,” Faith interrupted, but Donna was on a roll.

“I’m serious, give me an hour and I can get most of the way through the mess on the floor and the chairs.” The garbage can was empty, hidden under its own pile of manila folders, so she quickly began filling it, reorganizing files into every spot of clear space she opened. “Get rid of the garbage first obviously, then call somebody to bring in some file boxes and maybe a shredder and a vacuum cleaner, then there’s the huge pile-”

“Donna!” Some part of Donna was hardwired to respond to that tone of voice from Faith, but by then it was already too late. She looked up to see Faith snickering, but her attention was immediately drawn to Josh, standing in the doorway and looking like someone had whacked him unexpectedly with a pillow. She couldn’t read the expression on his face, whether he was happy or mad or indifferent, he just looked startled.

“Oh, hey Josh,” Donna began with an awkward smile, ready to brazen her way through whatever he’d throw at her. “So, I’m back.”

He stared at her for a minute with that inscrutable face, till finally a hint of smile broke through. “Thank god,” he told her. “There’s a pile of stuff on the desk.” He waved a hand vaguely towards the area that was probably the desk.

“And how,” Faith muttered under her breath.

“You want me to get to work?” Donna asked hopefully.

“Yes!” he said quickly, his voice suddenly rising in both tone and pitch before he modulated it. “Yes, yeah, yes, that would be good. You get started on that, and I’m just gonna go talk to Sam about the, the thing. You get to work.” He was gone then, his shoes clattering on the old wood floors as he hustled down the hallway.

Faith put her tongue in her cheek. “So, he seems nice.”

Donna was still staring at the doorway, but she shook herself out of it to respond to Faith. “Yeah, oh, sorry, I should’ve introduced you. That was Josh, my boss. I kind of thought that was going to be harder,” she admitted.

“Look where he ended up without you,” Faith pointed out. “Guy obviously needs you, just don’t let him run you over, okay?” She pushed away from the wall she’d been leaning against. “Sasha’ll be here soon, so I’m gonna shove off. Take care, okay?”

“I will,” Donna promised with a smile. “You too, and say hi to everybody for me. And thanks.”

“No problem, Dragonslayer!” Faith called back as she walked out, loudly enough for the people in the hallway to hear. “See you at Christmas!”

Donna had just enough time to sigh and sit down before Margaret stuck her head in the door. “Dragonslayer?” she asked curiously.

“Long story.” Donna laughed ruefully and scratched the back of her neck. “Sort of a family thing. I’m just glad to be back.”

Chapter Text

“All right, scoot over, coming through with croquettes,” Andrew called over the din as he made his way through the common room. Most of the Lodge’s first floor had been gutted early in its rehab to create space for the library, the infirmary, an industrial kitchen, and a living room big enough that all the resident minis could cram inside when something really good was on TV. There were not that many people here now, only about a dozen slayers and support staff, but they were making a lot of noise as they clustered around the television. “Come on, Sasha, don’t make me jump over you, you know I have very weak ankles. What’s the count so far?”

“Still neck and neck,” Sasha reported, rolling to her feet with inhuman grace and snagging a pair of croquettes. “They’re starting to talk about what happens if it gets thrown to the House of Representatives.”

“They can’t do that!” Desiree cried from her spot on the couch, voice impassioned. “We have to know who’s going to win! We’ve been waiting for months! I knocked on doors!”

“Me too!” agreed Gabby, Desiree’s absolute best friend in the entire world. “We did a PSA on Channel One at school! Governor Bartlet has to win!”

“I still wish Hoynes had won the primary,” Elisa put in, pouting a little. “He’s so handsome.” She was rewarded with a throw pillow bounced off her head.

“He’s gross,” Desiree countered. “Donna says he’s skeevy.”

“He can’t be that skeevy, they put him on the ticket.” Elisa’s pout was deeper now as she carefully fixed her hair. “Anyway, it’s not like I wouldn’t have voted for Bartlet, if I could vote. We need a Slayer in the White House.”

“It’s gonna be so cool!” Gabby agreed, her voice nearly a squeal. “We can take a field trip!”

“Hey, are you guys watching the election results?” Willow asked, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. It was always hard to tell whether that meant she’d approached quietly or had actually teleported into the room. “Oooh, tater tots.”

“They aren’t tater tots!” Andrew protested, though he was too much of a professional to pull the platter away from her. (Willow was also a little scary when denied food, he’d learned.) They are mashed potato croquettes!”

“He means they’re big tater tots,” Vi drawled from her seat on the arm of the couch, grinning. Twenty-one now and a trainer herself, she was allowed to have beer while watching the seemingly endless march of districts and states reporting in. Andrew would’ve too, but he had a sensitive, finely honed metabolism like a Swiss watch, and it did not tolerate alcohol very well.

“They are not tater tots, Violetta,” Andrew repeated with exaggerated patience. “They have bechamel dipping sauce, and therefore they are croquettes.” He ignored Vi’s murmured “tater tots with gravy” and turned his attention back to Willow. “I organized an election viewing party for the girls doing their extra credit for social studies, or who volunteered for the campaign.” He slanted an eye towards the clock and admitted, “I didn’t think it would go quite this late.”

“If nobody wins, I think Mr. Giles should be President,” Trinity piped up, nibbling carefully at the edge of her croquette. A mini among Minis at ten, her feet still brushed air when she sat on the sofa. “Then we could all go to the White House.”

“Mr. Giles isn’t a natural-born citizen,” Willow pointed out with a smile, happy for the chance to teach something. “And most of the rest of us aren’t old enough to be President, because you have to be thirty-five. Robin could, I guess,” she added, cocking her head thoughtfully.

“He’d be good too,” Trinity decided. “Are these really not tater tots?”

Andrew opened his mouth, but Willow intervened before he could launch into an impassioned and well-deserved defense of his croquettes, which were different from tater tots in several important ways. “Vampire slaying is a nonpolitical activity,” Willow reminded the assembled girls. “Slayers as people can have political beliefs, but as an organization, we save everybody equally. Even if they’re homophobic misogynists who might be better off with a bite or two in them,” she muttered under her breath, glancing towards the screen.

“What we really need is a Slayer to become President,” Vi decided. “Then we could go public without having to worry about the military or political pressure. Get the CDC working on a cure for vampirism, give all Slayers government salary and benefits…”

“Get a balance demon shoving their boot up our asses,” Sasha sassed back. “We get our power from other places, right Andrew?”

Andrew was startled for a moment at being addressed, but he supposed he had been the one to teach the seminar on Great Power and Great Responsibility to the mini-minis the past three years running. In all honesty it had mostly been an excuse to watch all the best parts of all his favorite superhero movies with the girls, but it obviously made him a mentor figure as well. His voice took on a deeper, more thoughtful intonation. “Politics is a dangerous and fickle game,” he informed the girls. “Easily tainted by those who thirst for power instead of the public good. The realms of earthly power must be safeguarded for the forces of righteousness, but that is not the purview of the Slayer. Slayers have enough burden to carry, they should not truck with human wickedness as well. Politics is not her place.”

“Except for Donna,” Vi pointed out.

“And me!” Desiree reminded him. “I knocked on doors!”

“Well yeah,” Andrew answered, his voice slipping back to its normal register. “You should still vote and all that, I meant like you shouldn’t stake the mayor or something.”

“Unless he’s a giant snake!” Willow chimed in. “Then it’s totally justified.”

That reminder brought a clamor of requests from the younger girls for Willow to tell them the story about blowing up the Mayor, an exciting and bloody fairy tale this many years out from its painful reality. Andrew, who mostly remembered Tucker’s graduation day as a haze of screaming and running, trying to drag his aunt along with him before they both got eaten by vampires, didn’t find the story as charming but he had to appreciate Willow’s style in telling it.

He let his mind wander as he nibbled a croquette and tried to ignore the fact that it was distinctly tater-totty. Could a Slayer be President one day, if the organization ever decided to go public? It seemed like being chosen by a mystical force beyond human comprehension to battle evil was a pretty good endorsement for a candidate. Slayers tended to be smart, and they all had at least the attractiveness that came from being in excellent physical condition and getting a lot of fresh air. Maybe one could do it, and they really could crack down on vampires from the top….

Andrew thought of everything he’d learned about the Demon Research Initiative back in World War II, and the more pithy Initiative in Sunnydale. He thought about all the firsthand knowledge he had of the ways power could corrupt, and the way people who sought power were often corrupted already. He thought about Donna, maybe on her way to the White House albeit in a much less exalted position, and hoped she was really good at pretending. The Slayers were not mortal weapons.

Willow had just gotten to the part where all the students had stripped off their gowns to reveal their stakes and swords when Gabby squealed at the TV. “They’re calling it, they’re calling it!” Pandemonium reigned for a moment as everyone piled back into their seats and Gabby scolded everyone to be quiet.

“And with sixty-one percent of precincts now reporting,” the newscaster was reciting, looking like he was about to vibrate himself apart with excitement, “we are prepared to call Colorado for Governor Jed Bartlet, which makes Governor Bartlet the next President of the United States!”

The barely settled room erupted back into cheers, with Gabby and Desiree racing out the door to shriek the news to everyone in hearing distance. Andrew popped a bottle of sparkling grape juice with a flourish before retreating to the kitchen to finish icing his sheet cake. The polls had been too close to call, so he’d made a victory/consolation cake and just left off the writing until now. It was quite a relief though, victory cake tasted so much better.

He was just putting the finishing touches on a spray of red, white and blue fireworks when the house phone rang on the wall, two rings for an outside line. It took a few moments for him to carefully set down the pastry bag, but nobody in the other room had answered by the time he picked up on the fifth ring. “Calendar Institute for Exceptional Young Women, Andrew sp-”

“Andrew!” Donna yelled into the phone. It sounded like a massive party was in full swing behind her. “Were you watching the news? Did you hear?”

“I did indeed,” he informed her, “ we held vigil with you in spirit through the endless hours of purgatory, good and evil locked in-”

“We’re going to the White House!” she squealed. “Josh made me an official job offer, I’m going to be a senior assistant! I’m going to have my own desk in the WHITE HOUSE! I’m going to have junior assistants to boss around!” Judging by the slight slur in her gleeful voice, Donna had been celebrating with more than sparkling grape juice, but her metabolism would burn it off as quickly as it had poured into her system.

Andrew may have squealed a little too, though he was sure it came out more like a manly shout of triumph. “That’s great!” he told her sincerely. “Congratulations! And thank god, I told Melissa at the new DC house you were coming her way weeks ago. When do you move?”

Donna paused a moment. “You already told Melissa I was coming? You really thought we were gonna win all along?”

“Of course I did!” Andrew said staunchly. “A valiant band of underdogs fighting for good in a world of indifference and encroaching darkness, how could you not succeed? It would be totally narratively implausible!”

That had her pausing another moment, to the point where he wondered if she might have gotten disconnected, except for the faint sound of the Doobie Brothers coming over the line. “Uh, Andrew, you know that real life doesn’t work on narrative structures, right?” she finally asked.

“You’d be surprised,” he told her soberly, “how often our lives wind up following narrative structures, for anybody who’s watching closely enough. But anyway, I knew you were gonna win, but I figured even if you didn’t, you’d be happier someplace where you could stay involved with politics, right? Not that I didn’t enjoy being the Spock to your McCoy here at the Lodge, and I have to admit that you might work a budget just a little bit better than I do, but that is not your destiny!”

“You’re right,” she agreed, traces of a laugh in her voice. “You’re right on all of it. Guess you really are Andrew the Wise.”

“And don’t forget it!” he insisted. “Listen, I’m gonna put you on the extension in the living room so you can talk to the girls. Congrats again, and don’t forget two aspirin and a bottle of water before bed. Slayer hangovers are a curse not to be trifled with.” With a promise to remember extracted, he pushed the buttons that would start the living room phone ringing. “PICK UP!” he yelled into the other room. “It’s Donna!” With a grin on his face, he bent down to finish the icing on his Bartlet For America cake.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, Donna had envisioned working at the White House to be a job that involved fewer late nights than vampire slaying. She’d been disabused of that notion before they even got into the White House proper, when she’d gone whole days without seeing the sun during Transition in their cramped little workspaces mere blocks from the seat of national power. More than once, she and Josh had wound up sleeping on couches in the staff lounge, both of them too tired to get home for a handful of hours before coming back. Things had actually eased up a little once they were actually in the White House, with most of the staff hired and Josh’s job focused mostly on the Congressional agenda. She was getting some sleep, anyway.

The late-night schedule didn’t leave her a lot of time to patrol, though she did her best to at least get the area around the White House and the National Mall every couple of days. There was not much nocturnal activity thanks to the good lighting and police activity, but she did pick off a pair of vamps behind the National Archives who’d bussed in with a group of tourists from Des Moines. They hadn’t provided enough of a challenge for her to suss out their entire plan, but she gathered it had involved turning the Secretary of Agriculture for some reason related to farm subsidies. Lord spare her from vampires with political ambitions. Fortunately for Donna and her precious few hours of sleep, the other three Slayers in the new DC Slayer House picked up a lot of the slack.

“House” was perhaps not the right word for it, maybe “Slayer team” was better. DC rent was so expensive that they hadn’t been able to afford any kind of actual house in the city proper. For now, Donna was rooming with Maya, one of the no-longer-Minis she’d met at the Lodge during those first weeks of renovation. Maya also had two cats but Donna didn’t mind that; it was kind of nice having access to pets that she didn’t have to take any responsibility for unless Maya was on a long hunt. They all got along pretty well.

Maya was, unfortunately, not too wild about Josh after he got so ridiculously drunk on Inauguration Night that Donna dragged him home and put him to bed on the couch. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except that instead of obligingly passing out, he’d stayed up long enough to rail loudly at Sparky and Pumpkinpie for their perceived Republican leanings. They’d wound up hiding under Maya’s bed while Maya spent the evening loudly sharpening stakes in her room. Donna had learned a valuable lesson about Josh-management that day, and in the future planned to drag him to his own house, to which she had already acquired a key. Proper prior planning prevented piss-poor performance, and also getting one’s boss murdered by irate Slayer roommates.

The long nights weren’t really that bad, though, Donna figured, tidying up her desk for the night with the bullpen empty around her. The work was hard but it was exciting, a daily adrenaline rush that satisfied the Slayer instincts that would’ve chafed in a normal office. A crisis could pop up at any moment. Sure, she’d spent the morning typing dictation and scheduling appointments, but then at 3:45 a Senator had wandered out of the safe voting corral and needed to be herded back in before the wolves of the Republican Party could eat him alive and sink their very first appropriations vote! They’d plunged into action, outflanking the enemy and outthinking the Senator, using every trick Josh had learned in his years of politics and every bit of diplomatic cunning Donna could dredge up.

It was possible, she was willing to admit in her very secretmost heart of hearts, that part of the thrill of working in the White House was working for and with Josh. She really did like him, and she’d caught him looking at her more than a few times. She was learning a lot from him, sure, but it was more than that, a chemistry that was hard to deny when he could parry every verbal thrust she sent his way and return them in a tone that sounded as much like flirting as arguing. Donna still wasn’t anywhere near ready to do anything about it, if there’d been anything she could do in the first place. She was enjoying being “Donna” way too much to let herself become “And Donna” again so easily, but Josh did make the hours go by quickly. By the time she’d sent Josh home half an hour ago, their efforts had been successful and peace once again reigned on their fair capitol hill. He’d tried to drag her along, but she still needed to prep tomorrow’s files if she didn’t want to hate herself in the morning.

It was part of Donna’s new routine that every night before leaving, she’d stack up tomorrow’s files so she wouldn’t need to pull them in the morning when everybody was in her way. She had a very specialized filing system, taught by the President’s assistant Mrs. Landingham and designed specifically to keep bosses from meddling in important files. It was working great so far! Tomorrow was going to be a big day, with nearly a score of files making their way from the cabinets to her desktop. She was nearly done, so very, tantalizingly close to done, when of course file number nineteen had to slide off the top of her stack and behind one of the file cabinets.

“Oh, come on!” Donna exclaimed aloud, setting aside the rest of the pile so she could reach down to try and grab it. Perhaps if she’d had arms eight inches longer that would’ve worked, but as it was, she wasn’t even close. Probing at it with a yardstick didn’t push it out either, just mussed the pages. She looked around to see if there was anybody tall around who could help, but of course the bullpen was empty. She glared at the filing cabinet. It was definitely mocking her. A look at the clock reminded her that the metro trains would stop running at 11:30, and it was a very long walk home, even for someone used to patrolling.

Smoothing her palms over her skirt decisively, she crouched down in front of the cabinet and wedged her fingers between it and the terrible scratchy government carpet. She lifted it easily off the ground and balanced it on the palm of one hand as she reached out and snagged the errant folder with the other. Hadn’t even spilled the pages, she noted triumphantly as she shifted, intending to put the folder aside before she dropped the cabinet. It was only then that she heard the noise from behind her: breathing, fast but even.

“Put down the cabinet,” a very calm, very level voice demanded, “and stand up very slowly.” Donna looked up to see Ron Butterfield, the head of Gov- of President Bartlet’s Secret Service detail staring at her, with a cross nearly in her face and a stake held steady in his hand. She blinked. This wasn’t good.

“Look,” she tried, “this isn’t what it looks like…” He seemed distinctly unimpressed. She dropped the cabinet with a thud and rose, putting her fingers out to touch the cross, then wrap around it as she stood. He let her, looking suddenly uncertain. “There’s windows everywhere in here,” she tried again. “You can see my reflection in them, can’t you?” Belatedly she realized she ought to have played dumb and asked him what the hell he was doing, but too late for that now. Maybe she just wasn’t cut out to lead a double life.

Ron was much too good an agent to be easily distracted by a suspect, but Donna saw his eyes flick momentarily to one side to check the windows. She made sure to stand extremely still while he did so. As soon as his eyes returned to hers, she tried a smile. “See, no fangs or anything! But if you’re going to hunt vampires, you really shouldn’t get that close. An actual vampire could’ve taken you out before you finished talking,” she offered helpfully.

He relaxed fractionally, but still looked like he could replace stake with gun at a moment’s notice. “I didn’t think you were really a vampire,” he admitted. “I’ve seen you in daylight too often. But what the hell are you?” The suspicion in his voice told her he would be very unimpressed by any cute answers, and that whatever she said would strongly influence whether she stayed at her job in the White House any longer.

“I’m a human,” Donna began, “absolutely human.” That was true, but he didn’t seem at all convinced. She cocked her head at him, wondering exactly how much he already knew. “I got some training in Sunnydale, California, back before it collapsed.”

Ron actually scoffed, which was rather unflattering. “You can’t be a Slayer,” he said, “You’re way too old. Some kind of demon? What are you doing here?”

“Not a demon,” she assured him quickly. “But if you think I’m too old to be a Slayer, I think you might be working with some outdated information.” She frowned. “How do you know about Slayers anyway? I thought nobody in the government did.”

He seemed to weigh the question for a moment, probably deciding if it would hurt anything to tell her what was probably very secret information. These were unusual circumstances though, which was obviously the conclusion he came to as well. “Come with me.” He led her down to the end of the bullpen, to a tiny office she’d never seen before. Donna knew the main Secret Service offices were in the basement, but apparently they had little security closets as well, who knew? With the door shut, the two of them stood not even an arm’s length apart.

Ron turned away for a moment to rummage on a shelf, then wordlessly presented Donna with a thick metal bar of the sort used to secure sliding doors. She sighed a little but obligingly twisted it up into a neat coil before handing it back. The look on his face was a little funny, mostly because he was trying so hard to remain impassive. “I’m not here to hurt anybody,” she told him. “But I want to know how you know.”

He looked again at the coiled bar before setting it aside. “The Council of Watchers had an understanding with the security forces surrounding many world leaders. Apparently every so often a supernatural threat arises that is more interested in earthly power than most. By sharing information and tactics with the upper echelons of the Secret Service, the Royal Guard, the Russian Federal Protection Service and others, they hoped to circumvent the possibility.”

“Wow,” Donna said, blinking as she took that in. “I had no idea.” More importantly, she was fairly sure Giles and the others had no idea either, which could be a serious problem. “So they told you how to fight vampires, and you let the Slayer come in and do her work without giving her a hard time when she needed to?”

“Essentially, yes,” Ron confirmed.

“So I’m guessing you lost touch with them around the time the Watcher’s Council in London got blown up?”

He hesitated a moment, then nodded confirmation. “There are some other government agencies who have ties to the supernatural. The word from them was that the Council was eradicated and the Slayer was lost. And yet here you are, so I have to wonder why.”

“I’m here to be Josh’s assistant,” Donna told him with perfect frankness. “If a supernatural threat crops up I’ll deal with it, but I joined the campaign because I wanted to change the world through government. He doesn’t know, none of them know,” she admitted, lacing her fingers together and looking away for a moment. “My background, well, it doesn’t really lie, but it leaves some stuff out. But nothing dangerous, I swear. I would never, ever hurt anybody here unless they were turned into a vampire and trying to eat the President or something,” she added hastily.

Ron gave her a long, assessing look. Donna did her best to stand without squirming, but even for a veteran of Mrs. Morello’s inspections it was a harrowing experience. A sudden thought struck her. “You know, if you let me stay on, I can help you get in touch with the new Council. I’m sure they’d be interested in talking with you!”

“I’d be interested in talking with them as well,” Ron finally said. “There’s been a great deal of… concern, I would say, from various protection agencies about what might have happened in Sunnydale. As for you yourself…” He paused again, and Donna could almost see the internal struggle going on behind that near-expressionless face. “Slayers have always been described to me as forces for good. If your presence does not constitute a threat, then I see no reason your background shouldn’t be treated with the same confidentiality as any other White House employee.”

Donna released her pent-up breath and resisted the urge to give him a hug. He really didn’t seem like the hugging type. “Thank you so much!” she told him, “I’ll get somebody to get in touch with you as soon as I can!” It was late, sure, but finding out that people in the White House knew about Slayers was probably a good enough reason to wake Giles. At least with the time zones, it would be an hour earlier in Cleveland. Or would it? She was never quite sure. The important part was, she’d get to keep her job! She hurried back to the bullpen for her coat, taking just a minute to put the file cabinet back where it belonged before rushing out to catch her train.

Chapter Text

The first time Margaret had stepped into her White House office, she'd had a moment of dissociation so severe she'd wondered if this was literally all a dream and she was going to wake up with a hell of a story to tell her mother during their next phone call. During their year in office so far she'd learned that her office was merely haunted and the dissociation was the ghost's way of saying hello, but the unreality of things did still occasionally crash down. Like now, for instance. She looked from the sheet music on her desk to the two turkeys in cages in the hallway and wondered if waking up was still an option. “All right, Carol,” she said into her phone. “I'll tell him when he's out of his meetings. Remind CJ to push fluids, and that garlic and basil are good for fevers, so if she can eat some spaghetti... no, okay, maybe after the nausea passes. Yeah, talk to you later.”

She hung up the phone and looked at the turkeys again, then at the sheet of music. “Who chastens and hastens his will to make known?” she murmured aloud. “That's poorly constructed. Why would you chasten your own will?” In the hallway one of the turkeys gobbled in apparent agreement. It was her favorite. “I'm going to let Leo deal with you guys,” she told them, rising from her desk. “I have enough problems.” In this error-prone administration there was never a good day to have the press secretary out sick, but the day before Thanksgiving was especially poor timing. CJ's deputy Henry could handle the press briefings and wrangle the journalists, but he was a vegetarian, and a squeamish one at that. Margaret had also been at karaoke night with him once on the campaign, and she wasn't about to tempt the wrath of the almighty by getting the man to sing a hymn. Leo was used to making life or death decisions, so he could deal with choosing the lucky pardon turkey, but if she asked him to sing there would just be yelling. She herself didn't even know the tune. Her parents had never been much for church.

Donna, she thought with a sudden flash of brilliance. Donna was a decent singer, and she had to know something about church, what with the cross necklace she wore everyday. Best of all, Donna owed Margaret a favor after the last time Josh had almost disrupted a high-level security briefing in Leo's office because he wanted to rant about Congress. Throwing herself into the path of runaway staffers was only part of Margaret's job description when the staffer was Leo himself, thank you. But this was perfect! Donna couldn't say no, and Thanksgiving would be saved. Gathering up the music and skirting the cages, Margaret headed for the Operations bullpen.

It wasn't until Margaret stepped into the empty hallway that she realized how late it had gotten. CJ had gotten sick near what would be the end of the work day for normal people, and by now many of the lower-level staffers had gone home for their holiday weekend. The bullpens were nearly empty, and Donna's desk was vacant. Margaret looked to Josh's office automatically but although the lights were on, there was nobody home there either. Margaret pursed her lips and relaxed her brain to think. If she were Donna, where would she be? The basement, she decided with a sudden flash of insight. It didn't make sense, but Margaret always trusted her gut. It rarely led her wrong.

Margaret didn't go down into the basement much, both because her job didn't call for it and because the basement was the most intensely haunted part of the building. The White House was old and important enough to have more than its share of ghosts, though most of them were little more than cold spots or momentary flashes of emotion. There was a cat who was pretty active in the Residence and every so often somebody caught a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln wandering around, but the only one Margaret saw routinely was a young man in a blood-spattered military uniform circa World War II who stood outside the Situation Room late at night sometimes. Most people couldn't see him, but Margaret counted herself as more intuitive than most. It was a good reason to stay out of the basement.

Nonetheless, her feet led her unerringly down the steps and through the warren of basement corridors, tiny offices and storage areas until she found herself in Secret Service territory. That was strange, what would Donna be doing down here? She heard noise from halfway down the corridor and kept going until she arrived at the open door of the small workout room.

Donna was exactly where Margaret's gut had told her she would be, but that was the only thing that made sense about the whole situation. The blonde assistant was in workout clothes instead of her usual businessware, and was... sparring? with two of the agents from the President's detail. Margaret didn't know names for anything she was seeing, but it looked like some sort of martial arts fighting, barehanded and quick, using the entire body to make and avoid hits. And though she was no real judge, Margaret thought Donna seemed to be, well, winning. Neither agent seemed to be able to get a hit in on her, certainly. Against the wall, Ron Butterfield was watching the exercise with flat, analytical eyes.

Margaret watched for a minute, her mind filled with questions, until she became aware of the churning in her stomach. She wondered for a moment if she'd gotten CJ's flu, then realized it was a nervous, uneasy roil, nothing like the flu. Something about the way Donna moved spoke of danger, of... doom? Her intuition wanted her to leave, and leave now. Margaret left. She was most of the way back to her office before she decided that it probably wasn't actually necessary to go find a closet to crawl into and hide. Donna apparently knew how to fight from somewhere, but that didn't make her dangerous. The Secret Service wouldn't let her work there if she was dangerous, and they obviously knew about her skill, right? It had to be all right, and they could just never speak of it again.

She slipped back into the office, ignoring the inquisitive warbles from the turkeys and smoothing the wrinkles her too-tight grip had made in the sheet music. She'd just ask Donna about the song tomorrow morning.

Chapter Text

“So what's Big Block of Cheese Day?” Sasha asked, staring around the lobby with undisguised fascination as rest of the tour group finished going through security.

Donna gave her a slightly distracted smile, trying to keep an eye on everybody in the group at once. The six mini-slayers on the tour had obligingly bunched themselves up in the middle of the lobby, but that still left Robin, Xander and two parent volunteers emptying their purses and pockets for the security guard. “It's a day when people and organizations who don't usually get to meet with government officials have a chance to be heard.”

“What's that got to do with cheese?” Gabby asked, baffled.

“It's kind of hard to explain,” Donna admitted. “Andrew Jackson had a two-ton block of cheese in the lobby of his White House-”

“Okay, that's all of us through,” Xander reported, coming up next to Donna. “Lead on, oh fearless politician! Did you say something about cheese?”

Donna snorted but led the way further into the building, giving the ten-cent tour as they went. Her stomach was full of butterflies, not from the tour she could've given in her sleep, but from the odd sensation of her two worlds colliding. The White House, for all its drama and mystique, was relentlessly rooted in the world of the mundane, as far away from the world of vampires and magic as the moon. Bringing more slayers here, even a gaggle of teenagers on a school trip to DC, seemed like it might be inviting trouble. After all, the only thing more tempting to evil than one slayer was a bunch of slayers.

Still, getting a private tour of the White House would've been Donna's own dream field trip in high school, and she wasn't going to deny it to a bunch of girls she was supposed to be a good example for. And of course the tour had the secondary purpose of covering up Xander and Robin's surreptitious meeting with Ron Butterfield and the director of the Secret Service. It had taken nearly a year to get to this point, careful and delicate contact and negotiations just to put high level Council members and the government in the same room. Xander wasn't necessarily the first person she'd have picked for the job, but it turned out Dan Gault wasn't allowed into the White House for some reason. She was going to have to look into that at some point.

When Donna had complained (politely) about the time it was taking, she'd been told vague stories about “Initiatives” and slayers being used as weapons by unscrupulous governments in the past. Giles was very concerned that if the government, any government, knew how many slayers there were now, they might start seeing national assets rather than mystical guardians. Donna could understand that, and while she'd have gone to the wall to defend the integrity of Ron Butterfield, she couldn't say the same about his boss she'd never met, or his counterparts in other countries. At least she'd been given permission in the meantime to help train up a few members of the President's Secret Service detail, putting them through their paces and making sure they'd be able to protect the president if push came to shove. Despite loving her civilian lifestyle, Donna didn't think she'd be able to forgive herself if a vampire ate President Bartlet.

Sure enough, Donna noticed Xander and Robin slipping away from the tour just past the Roosevelt Room, escorted by a black-suited agent. She continued without missing a beat, showing the girls all around the building except for the Oval Office, which was off-limits because the President was home. She finished by showing them her own desk in the Operations Bullpen. “And if you work hard and really enjoy politics, any of you could work here someday!” she finished cheerfully.

“When do we get to meet Josh Lyman?” Gabby asked.

“Yeah!” Desiree chimed in enthusiastically. “He's smoking hot.” Both girls giggled. “And Dawn already called dibs on the speech guy.”

Donna cleared her throat, tried not to blush. “Josh is very busy today, he's got all sorts of meetings-”

As though saying his name had summoned him, Josh stuck his head out of his office. “DON- oh, there you are.” He looked from her to the girls and their chaperones, obviously baffled. “What's going on? This isn't some kind of cheesehead invasion, is it?” The banter was normal, but Josh himself looked strange and strained, like he'd gotten bad news and didn't want to talk about it. He'd been acting weird since the morning staff meeting, but nobody Donna had pumped for information had any to give.

“It's a field trip,” Donna told him, “some girls from my old school are visiting Washington this week, so I thought I'd give them a tour while everyone is taking meetings today anyhow.”

“Hi Josh!” all the girls chorused, grinning at him. Donna had long since gotten used to the way a band of Slayers could resemble a pride of lionesses in the quality of their attention, but Josh definitely hadn't. He blinked a couple times, then waved a hand vaguely. “Right, hello... Donna, can we talk in my office?”

“I'll be right back,” Donna told the girls. She followed Josh into the office and closed the door. “I know we're busy, but they've never been to DC before and it's just for part of the afternoon-”

Josh flapped his hand at her. “Whatever, whatever. Listen, I got a...” He trailed off and just stared at her for a moment, as though memorizing her face.

She frowned. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I'm fine,” he told her on an indrawn breath, seeming to break free from the trance. “Just having kind of a weird day.” He raked his hands through his hair, giving him a vaguely clownish look as it all stood on end. “I feel like... sometimes I feel like you don't get enough credit for the work you do here.”

Donna tilted her head and studied him, judged that now was not a good time to sit him down and try to shake some sense out of him, especially not with a crowd of sharp-eared teenagers idling just outside. “You could always put me up for a raise,” she suggested cheerfully.

This was a well-rehearsed dance, since she'd started asking him for raises well before she'd actually gotten onto the payroll. His next move ought to be rolling his eyes at her and banishing her from his sight unless he needed something from her right at that minute, but he didn't this time. He looked almost sad instead, or maybe guilty. That was worrisome, because usually Donna knew before Josh did when he ought to be feeling guilty. “I'll ask Leo about it,” he finally said.

The unexpected response put Donna on the back foot for a moment. “Oh... thanks! Um, is there anything you need me to do this afternoon?”

“Just the usual.” Josh circled his desk and dropped into his chair, making it creak alarmingly. “I'm going to be out playing tennis for a couple hours, if anybody calls for me just take a message. Did you hear about the President's chili shindig tonight?”

“Yeah.” Donna grinned now. “You want I should pick you up some antacids?”

He sighed. “Nah, just grab a new stomach lining for me if you get to the store, it'll be faster. And don't laugh,” he insisted, waggling a finger. “You're invited too, so we both get to suffer.”

“But Josh, I'm watching my girlish figure,” she countered, deliberately widening her eyes. “And nobody will notice if I only eat a tiny, invisible, possibly imaginary bite.”

“I will,” he told her darkly. “I'll be watching. Go, I don't know, teach the children or something.” He shooed her out, making a show of turning to his emails. He was still in a weird mood, but she thought he seemed closer to normal.

Donna closed the door behind her and returned to the group in the bullpen. Xander and Robin had reappeared while she was gone and were catching up on what they'd missed from the girls. Neither of them looked too grim, so she hoped the meeting had gone well.

“Did he kiss you?” Gabby asked in a loud whisper.

“No!” Donna squeaked. “He's my boss, we work together. It's nothing like that.” She gave the girls a quelling look, which worked about as well as it ever did when lives weren't at stake. “Anyway, you've had the tour now and I've got a couple hours leeway, so how about I show you all the best ice cream place in DC?” This suggestion was very well-received, and did the job of distracting the girls long enough to get everybody out of the building. Donna was very pleased with herself.

She waited until they'd passed through the security gates and were out on the broad sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue before dropping back to talk to Xander and Robin. “How did it go?”

Xander shrugged. “We came out alive, so I feel pretty good about it,” he quipped. “Seriously, how do you even get around in that place? I was starting to think I should've brought a ball of yarn to unwind.”

“The basement's the worst part,” Donna assured him. “But the meeting, it was okay? Did you get something set up? Are we going to have a formal arrangement with the Secret Service now? Could a Slayer join the Secret Service?”

“No,” Robin said immediately and very flatly. “No way. Slayers don't work for the government.”

“Wait a second!” Donna bristled a little at that. She didn't want to be a Secret Service agent herself, but she liked a lot of the agents very much. “How can you tell the girls-”

“You're different, Donna, you're not working as a Slayer,” Xander pointed out. “We're not going to stop them from doing whatever they want with their brains and non-slaying talents. But imagine if we get Slayers joining the Secret Service, or the Army, or the CIA? We're already changing what Slayers are for, but we can't let anybody start seeing you as weapons that can be used against regular humans.”

Donna wasn't exactly appeased, but this wasn't the time for an argument on that topic. “So what did you end up deciding on?” she asked coolly.

“We're gonna let Butterfield come to Cleveland,” Robin told her. “We're gonna think about letting a couple of agents get trained in vamp-fighting techniques. Beyond that...” He spread his hands. “We've got to take it a step at a time.”

“That is the most boring way to take things,” Donna sighed, but she let it go for now. Increasing her pace, she rejoined the girls and let herself get swept up in all the latest gossip from home.

Chapter Text

The Lodge had changed a lot in the seven years since Dawn had first seen it, fresh off the plane from LA and as exhausted as she'd ever been. Back then it had been one shaky step up from a horror movie set, dumpy buildings, dirt pathways and an algae-choked lake that bred mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. Years of hard work by Xander and an ever-changing crew of teenage-girls-with-crushes-on-Xander (Dawn reluctantly included herself in this number) had turned the cabins into neat little cottages and the main house into a beautiful piece of vintage architecture, as welcoming as a grandma with open arms. Dawn tried never to let on how much she missed the place when she was gone at school, but seeing it dressed up in its winter finery, colored lights everywhere and the pond frozen into a sheet of moonlit glass, she sort of wanted to park her ass next to the fireplace and never leave again. And not just because it was also extremely cold.

The ChristmaHannuKwanzaSolstiGurnentha-Day annual party was a New Council tradition that Giles assured them all was infinitely preferable to the extremely stuffy Christmas dinner party that the old Council had favored back in the old country. This year's was the biggest yet, set in the lull between Christmas and New Years to ensure maximum attendance, and with Andrew promising that this year the cake was definitely going to catch on fire even if he had to douse it with kerosene. When Dawn arrived at the Lodge on December 23, there were already so many cars she had to park nearly at the road and hike in. It looked like the apocalypse had come early, except most apocalypses didn't involve Slayers flinging themselves from the cabin roofs into the deep drifts of snow piled everywhere. Every impact had Dawn's spine twinging in imagined sympathy. Was this what getting old felt like? How could she be getting old when she was barely old enough to drink?

“DAWNIE!” School had made Dawn's reflexes slow and stupid, a fact that she didn't fully comprehend until she was bowled over in the doorway by 117 pounds of turbocharged big sister. “Jeez, we were about to send out a search party! How was the drive? I can't believe you drove from New York, nobody drives in New York, haven't you ever watched a movie?” Even as Buffy babbled at her, she was conducting a not-so-subtle damage assessment, making sure all Dawn's parts were present and in good working order. “Come on, have some wassail, we're drinking wassail now, it's a thing.”

“Wassail?” Dawn managed. “Isn't that like caroling?”

“I know, that's what I thought too!” Buffy agreed, leading the way back through to the kitchen. “But it turns out it's like hot apple cider with orange juice and cloves. It's good except Andrew keeps trying to put toast in it. He's such a weirdo.”

The whole house looked like someone had very tastefully vomited Christmas all over it, lights and garland and tinsel on every stationary surface. It was... nice, Dawn decided. It was the way she remembered Christmases from her imaginary childhood, when Buffy and Mom would gleefully pull down a dozen boxes from the attic to turn home into a winter wonderland. It had been a long time since Buffy had felt good enough to go all out for anything that didn't involve an apocalypse. It was really nice.

Dawn fell willingly into the cheerful madness, hugging Xander and Willow and Giles, greeting all her Cleveland friends, even sampling the enormous bowl of wassail. She had to admit it was better with toast, much to Andrew's smug satisfaction. Dinner was enormous frozen lasagnas,since most of the kitchen team's attention was on getting ready for the party, but there was plenty of ice cream for dessert and an all-night movie marathon happening in the common room.

Honestly, it was slightly more like Dawn had envisioned college than NYU had turned out to be, but that was okay. NYU had the big upside of nobody treating her like somebody's little sister. Here she practically had to wrestle Xander to the ground to get her hands on a single bottle of beer, much less anything stronger. “It's not your age,” he'd assured her, “it's your genetics. We don't let Buffy have beer either.” Which was completely unfair on like seven different levels, but she'd gotten her fingers into the sensitive spot between his ribs and gotten her beer anyhow, so it was all right.

Being somebody's little sister had at least helped her score a real bed for the night, even if it was a cot pushed up against the wall in Buffy's room. It beat the hell out of a sleeping bag in one of the cabins. She was braiding her wet hair in the vain hope of voluminous waves tomorrow when Buffy came in, halfway through a huge yawn. “Man,” Buffy began, slightly muffled through the yawning, “if that's just the pregame, I don't know if I'm gonna survive the actual partying.”

“Ooooold,” Dawn caroled, happy that at least somebody was feeling more decrepit than her tonight.

Buffy rolled her eyes, even as she sat down on the edge of Dawn's cot and took over the braiding. Dawn closed her eyes and enjoyed feeling eight years old again for a few minutes, back when Mom used to do this for both of them every night. “Old isn't the worst thing in the world,” Buffy reminded her. “One of these days I might get used to it.” She ignored Dawn's disbelieving snort. “Hey, I want you to sit in on a Council meeting tomorrow morning.”

Dawn opened her eyes. “What's it about? You're not trying to trick me into some kind of boring responsibility thing, are you? I hear old people do that all the time.”

“I'm not a hundred percent sure what it is yet,” Buffy admitted, wrapping an elastic around the end of the braid, “but I'm pretty sure it won't be boring.”

So that was how Dawn found herself the next morning, fortified by breakfast and a delightfully puce fruit smoothie that Andrew insisted prevented hangovers, sitting in the conference room while Donna introduced Giles and Buffy to the Secret Service agent she'd brought home with her. Ron Butterfield was apparently a high muckety-muck agent at the White House, and he knew just enough about vampires and demons to be very nervous about the possibility of any of them getting near the President. He'd caught Donna deadlifting a file cabinent with one hand (and if Donna thought Dawn was going to let her live that down soon, she was very much mistaken), and they'd managed to negotiate their way to a truce. Donna could work at the White House in her strictly non-Slaying capacity, and she'd put Butterfield in touch with people who might be able to help him. They'd been feeling their way along for the past year, and it just so happened that Christmas gave the perfect cover for actually making contact.

“To be perfectly frank,” Giles was saying, “I'm not entirely sure how we can help you in any capacity beyond what we have already provided.” He was very high in the boughs this morning, full Britishness on display. Something about this meeting definitely had him rattled. “The references you were given access to should allow you to detect and dispatch any of the more common supernatural threats, and of course we are available for consultation if something more exotic should arise.”

“And we appreciate that assistance a great deal,” Butterfield assured him, his voice and face perfectly even. He was not a physically intimidating man, nondescript in a way that probably helped him at work, but Dawn decided she wouldn't want to play poker with him. She had no idea what he was thinking, or if he was at all intimidated by coming alone into a stronghold of people who outmatched him physically and metaphysically. Next to him, Donna was doing her best to keep a neutral expression, but she mostly looked like a kid whose divorced parents were trying to have a civil conversation about her in an Applebees dining room. If this meeting went to hell, it wouldn't exactly bode well for her career prospects. “But,” Butterfield went on, “the best research in the world is no substitute for hands-on experience-”

“We already said no Slayers,” Buffy broke in, her gaze about ready to burn a hole through the agent's forehead. “That's a hard limit. We let Donna train with you because it's good for her, not because the government needs our help. Never again.” Dawn caught a twitch on Butterfield's face that might have been surprise and wondered how much, if anything, he knew of the Initiative and its predecessors. “So if you're looking to recruit-”

“Not at all,” Butterfield cut her off in turn, raising one calming hand. “We're not looking to hire your people, Ms. Summers. While I admire the program you have built here and the skill and dedication of your team, even if you were willing I doubt we could put a Slayer onto a Secret Service detail without raising far too many questions. We have young women who are agents, of course, but they've gone through extensive training and vetting in our own programs before they get anywhere near a White House position. Slipping in a ringer would invite scrutiny from the press and within the agency that would defeat the purpose.”

“Oh,” Buffy said, momentarily deflated. “Then what is it you want from us?” Giles' tiny nod said that this was his big question too, and he was worried it wasn't going to be anything good. Magic artifacts, a witch on standby, access to vampires for experimental purposes, it wasn't like the government usually lacked in bad ideas.

“It's really the opposite,” Butterfield told her. He'd accurately pegged Buffy as the motivating force in the room by now. That made Dawn like him a little more, since a lot of alpha male types never figured that out at all. “I can't train your Slayers to be agents, but I'm hoping you can train some of my agents to think more like Slayers. A small handpicked group of female agents, training for a limited period of time here at your facility, learning how to fight things much stronger and faster than they are in order to keep their protectee alive.”

Buffy blinked, sitting back in her chair a little. “That... might be a not-terrible idea,” she allowed. “Why only female agents?” That was definitely a test. If there was even a hint of sexism in the answer, Dawn figured he'd be out the door with a designer bootprint on his ass.

“Mainly for ease of accommodation in your facility,” Butterfield told her, his manner still entirely calm. “I can't imagine you have as many living quarters available for men as women. The Secret Service would pay the expenses for housing and feeding, but there are no hotels near here where male agents could be housed. And as far as the training goes, my understanding is that both men and women are equally outmatched when it comes to fighting supernatural creatures. Sending in male agents wouldn't be any more effective against a vampire or demon, and any techniques the agents learn could be passed on to their male counterparts as needed.”

Buffy was nodding slightly, so he continued. “In addition, Zoey Bartlet, the President's youngest daughter, has just started her studies at Georgetown University, which will make her the most exposed member of the First Family. She has requested a team of agents who can blend in on campus and in the dormitory. Given what we know of vampire feeding patterns, I'd like to see some of those agents trained here first.”

Buffy and Giles had one of those weird eyeball-only conversations that Dawn could never quite parse. Donna was shifting in her seat and looking like she wished she had a notebook and pen just for something to do with her hands, but Butterfield might as well have been a stone statue. Finally Buffy smiled, and to Dawn's surprise it was a real smile, not just the bright California cheer she pasted on so often. She actually liked this guy. “We'll start with one,” she told Butterfield. “One agent for one month, and we'll see how things go. If she does all right and things don't get all disastery, we can see about more. But you'll want to send her soon, apocalypse season starts ramping up by April around here, and we're going to get way busy.”

Butterfield looked slightly taken aback at the idea of an apocalypse season, but he just nodded. “Thank you. I have an agent in mind already, I'll see to it that you receive her information immediately. In the meantime, I'd like to continue the sparring sessions with Ms. Moss. They have been quite instructive for several of my agents, despite the fact that she has not shown the full range of her abilities.”

“That's up to Donna,” Giles replied. He looked over at Donna, whose face had gone pink in an effort not to laugh. “Have you been enjoying the sessions?”

“They're good practice,” Donna said earnestly, swallowing back the laugh, “and good stress relief, honestly. There hasn't been much to slay around the White House so far, knock on wood. Ron told the agents that I'm a mixed martial artist, and well, the ones who didn't believe him at first do now.” She tipped her head forward a little, the fall of her hair concealing what Dawn was sure was a very smug expression.

“Good job, kick their asses,” Buffy encouraged. “I mean, you'll have to go pretty far to beat me taking out an entire army unit in under five minutes, but we've got to keep the guys on their toes, right?” She full-on grinned at Butterfield, who cracked the smallest of smiles in return. “Well then, I guess we're all done with the boring stuff. You staying for the party?”

He looked surprised at the invitation. Dawn was surprised too! Inviting the government in for a meeting was one thing, but having them stay to supper... She took a closer look at Buffy, who was regarding the Secret Service agent with what suddenly seemed like more than professional interest. Dawn blinked. Buffy's looks hadn't changed much since Sunnydale, and it was sometimes hard to remember she was turning thirty next month. Butterfield still had probably ten years on her, but that was mild compared to some of the older men she'd dated. This had to be a good sign. Nobody could mourn forever, or spend their whole life training girls to slay vampires. Buffy deserved a little fun, and if he did anything to hurt her or make her sad, Dawn could just hire a friendly demon to filet his liver and serve it to him on toast points. Easy-peasy.

“You should!” Dawn chimed in. “If we're going to have Secret Service here, the girls are going to be interested. Some of them will probably have questions. Plus, you'll get to see more of how things go around here.” Butterfield still didn't seem entirely sure, but he agreed to stay for a little while. Dawn was the absolute best sister ever.

As soon as the meeting broke up, with Buffy deftly steering the agent in the direction of the impending merriment, Dawn attached herself to Donna's side. “So Donna, long time no see! How are you liking DC? How do you like your apartment there? How''s your Christmas? Get any good presents?”

Donna looked briefly startled at the onslaught of questions. “It's good,” she told Dawn, “I really love it there. The apartment is very... quaint, and the neighborhood is gentrifying. Last month I got to slay a Miquot demon out by the dumpster!” She seemed to view this as a perk of the location. “And Christmas is very good. I got a new book...” Her eyes went a little dreamy as she lost focus on the conversation.

“A book?” Dawn repeated, trying to poke her back to life. “What kind? Please tell me it wasn't an Anne Rice book.”

“It's called On The Art and Artistry of Alpine Skiing,” Donna told her with a big smile. “My boss gave it to me.”

“The what?” Dawn was sure her face was baffled, but she tried not to be disgusted at such a lame gift. “He gave you a book about skiing?”

“It has a mottled calf cover and original drab boards! It's very rare!” Donna told her, looking defensive. “It's beautiful, and he-”

“Oh, well, if it's an antique, that's different,” Dawn replied quickly. Making Donna mad was the opposite of what she was angling for here. Plus, if anybody could appreciate a good really-old book, it was someone who'd spent her (only slightly imaginary) middle school years shelving books in Giles' library. A book about skiing was still lame, though. “Anyway, I heard that Maya's moving out of DC.”

“Yes, she's taking the senior position at the new house in London,” Donna replied, obviously pleased with her roommate's promotion. “I hope my next roommate likes cats, Maya can't take hers with, so they're staying.”

“I love cats!” Dawn blurted, earning her a blink from Donna. “I mean, that's a perfect segue into what I wanted to ask you! Which is! I've been accepted to grad school at Georgetown in the Linguistics department, with a concentration in theoretical linguistics that is going to be absolutely amazing for learning to analyze demonic languages plus a bunch of old texts that we're pretty sure were written in some sort of quasi-phonetic code but that nobody's been able to translate and we can't exactly just farm it out somewhere in case it's evil, right?”

Donna was still looking a little stunned from the flow of words, which meant that Dawn could keep right on going. “Anyway, so I'm starting in the summer session but Buffy keeps making NOISES about how she could take a leave of absence from the Lodge to live in DC for four or five or six years to keep an eye on me because DC is somehow soooooo much more dangerous than New York, and that would be great except for the part where I would absolutely be forced to murder her before I even finish my master's degree and talk about a lot of work down the tubes and wasted potential, plus her being dead would probably suck eventually, right? Like, maybe there would be another apocalypse, even, and it would be my fault, but I couldn't really be blamed because I was provoked! She's only going to be happy if I'm protected while I'm living in DC, which in her warped brain doesn't mean campus security or a good alarm system, it means living with a Slayer, and the absolute last thing I ever want to do again after Sunnydale is live in a Slayer House, you understand? So can I be your roommate? Pleeeeasse?”

Dawn had to take a couple of breaths after that, which gave Donna time to regroup. “You want to move in with me for protection?” she asked, sounding vaguely incredulous, which was slightly better than dismissive. “I spend fourteen or sixteen hours out of the house most days, I'm never even around!”

“Which is perfect!” Dawn enthused, then quickly backtracked. “I mean, not like I don't like you, but it's good for roommates to have spaces in their togetherness, right? And you'll want somebody who is around more often to spend time with the cats, and grad students spend all their time holed up and writing papers. No wild parties whatsoever!”

“That's a good point,” Donna allowed. “The cats do need somebody who can take care of them when I'm busy, especially since the midterms are coming up. But I'm not going to be a lot of protection for you, is what I'm saying, plus I'm not sure your sister's going to be impressed with my protection credentials. I'm kind of a better office worker than I am a Slayer.” She slid her hair back behind one ear, embarrassed.

“Come on, you drove a car into a dragon, what more can anybody ask of you?” Dawn chirped. “You're a Slayer, so you count! Please, please, please? I need to get my admissions packet in before New Years, and Buffy has been looking at Rent.com and it's giving me anxiety! I have enough anxiety in my life already, I promise you! Come on, Donna, don't make me beg.”

“You're pretty much begging already,” Donna pointed out with a faint smirk.

“I'll use the puppy dog eyes, don't test me on this.” Dawn swore. “I'm a woman on the edge.”

“All right, fine!” Donna laughed, shaking her head. “If Buffy says it's okay, then sure, you can move in. Maya won't be out till probably March, but that'll give you some time before your term starts.” She hesitated a second. “Um, how are you with occasional visits by a drunk, yelling guy who might sleep on the couch? Perfectly harmless and platonic, of course.”

Dawn raised an eyebrow. “He doesn't have bleached blond hair and a leather duster, does he?”

“No?” Donna replied, puzzled.

“Just checking.” Dawn smirked. “It'll be fine. Just like home.”

Chapter Text

“Joo-osh” Donna singsonged, tapping on the doorframe of his office for show before sweeping in. “Alarm clock, alarm clock!”

Josh tore his attention away from the vote-tally blackboard long enough to give her a sour look. “You have truly never been more annoying to me than you are right now.”

“It's part of my charm,” she told him blithely. “It's quarter to midnight, and we have to be on the plane by two-thirty. You need to go home, shower, shave, and get your clothes for California.”

“What I need to do,” he shot back, “is get one more damn vote on this ethanol tax credit bill, preferably yesterday.”

“Are you gonna get it?” she asked.

His shoulders slumped. “No,” he admitted.

She patted his shoulder. “Then you should go and get your clothes,” she advised. “You don't want to look like a hobo in LA, you don't make enough money to pull it off.”

“I hate fundraisers,” Josh muttered. “I hate LA fundraisers even more than usual. Swear to god, the only thing worse is Texas fundraisers, and at least nobody in Texas likes us! What about you?” he realized suddenly. “You're going too, you begged me for five straight days. Where are your clothes?”

“My roommate is bringing them,” she told him cheerfully. “You should get a roommate, they're very useful.”

“Your roommate nearly took my head off with a claymore for yelling at her cats,” Josh reminded her. “I think I'll be healthier on my own.”

“It was a prop weapon,” she lied patiently for the dozenth time. “Maya was very into theater and historical reenactments. Besides, she moved out, remember? This is the new roommate.”

“But you still have the cats somehow,” Josh confirmed.

“Yes, and you're still banned from yelling at them. They're sensitive.”

“Maybe your roommate could pick up my clothes while she's getting yours anyway.”

“Maybe you could get some actual food into your system and a beverage that isn't coffee while you're out.”

“Well that doesn't seem very likely, does it?” he scoffed, but he was moving towards his desk as he said it, stacking up a few files. “This is bullshit anyway. Hoynes is just going to have to put on his big girl panties and do his only actual goddamned job in this administration!”

Donna blinked. “That's quite a mental picture.”

Josh paused, blinked as well. “Yeah, forget I said that. But he's going to have to break the tie, because nobody's budging and I'm not giving up anything more for a lousy tax credit. He's a free vote, Donna! A free vote for our side, and we're hesitant to pull the trigger because he's not sure he waaaants to. It's bullshit,” he repeated, dumping files into his backpack.

Donna took the bag from him and began organizing the files while he pulled his coat on. “He'll break the tie if the President tells him to, right? So there's no point in even worrying about it.”

“Maybe I'll have Sam call some guys in the morning,” Josh ruminated. “Like, the really early morning, while we're on the plane.”

“Because that always makes senators more agreeable,” Donna pointed out, rolling her eyes.

“You said it yourself, we're not budging the vote on this one,” he reminded her with a grin. “I may as well have some fun with them.”

“And with Sam.”

“Well, yeah.” He took the bag from her and slung it up on his back. “You know, you could actually go home for a couple hours, you don't need your roommate coming in at midnight.”

“Got stuff to do!” she told him blithely. “I'll call you at two to make sure you haven't fallen asleep in your car.” He didn't even bother to respond to that, just waved one hand at her dismissively as he headed for the doors. Donna smirked as she turned back to her desk. It only took a few minutes to pack the bag of files and supplies she'd need for the trip, just in time for the desk to inform her that she had a visitor.

Dawn was waiting in the lobby with her scarlet A of a visitor's badge around her neck and Donna's luggage scattered around her feet. Donna looked over the collection anxiously while Dawn made exaggerated panting noises and shook the muscle strain from her tired arms. “Did you bring the sunscreen?” Donna asked.

“Yeah, all forty pounds of it,” Dawn sassed, pointing to one of the bags. “I thought this was a one-day trip! I thought you wanted me to bring you, like, an overnight bag, not my own weight in suitcases. How many outfits do you pack for one day?”

“A business outfit for the plane,” Donna listed off, grabbing hold of the suitcases like they were weightless. “A second business outfit in case I spill cranberry juice on the first one. A swimsuit and coverup because I am absolutely going to be tanning in the California sun from 2-4pm, no matter what Josh has to say about it.”

“Hence the sunscreen,” Dawn guessed.

“Hence the sunscreen. My dress and accessories for the fundraiser, which have to be wrapped extremely carefully because I have to return them to the store this weekend and they have to look like I didn't wear them. A comfortable outfit for the trip home. A spare dress shirt for Josh in case he spills mustard or chutney or anything else that can squirt out of a sandwich.” Donna led the way through the bullpen to Josh's office, Dawn tagging behind with one small carry-on and craning her neck around to see everything. “Plus my workout clothes.”

“Wow, the White House is kind of more cramped and dingy than I imagined,” Dawn remarked, looking at the inside of Josh's office. “I was envisioning more grandeur and gold plating.” She ran one finger over the desk. “Is this plaster dust?”

Donna looked up at the ceiling. “Probably. There's kind of a thing with the plumbing. And the wiring. And some of the walls.” She shrugged at Dawn's incredulous look. “It's a very old building that nobody is ever going to shut down long enough to renovate, what do you want?”

“A little love and understanding in the world?” Dawn asked plaintively, plopping down in Josh's chair. It squeaked loudly. “Why do you need workout clothes if you're going tanning?”

“Those are for tonight,” Donna explained. “Gina's freaking out over meeting the President on the plane tomorrow. I told her I'd go a round with her if she thought it would help and she said maybe. Still haven't heard back, though.”

“Sounds like punchy good fun. So where's your boss at?” Dawn began fiddling with the tape dispenser, which was already broken after a particularly long day of Josh's incessant fidgeting. Donna rescued it anyway. “Isn't he coming along on this thing?”

“He had to go home and get his stuff, since he doesn't have a helpful roommate who likes visiting the White House.”

“Single, that's good,” Dawn muttered, nodding as thought marking off a mental checklist.

“What?” Donna demanded.

“Nothing, just figuring that if he hasn't got anybody to bring him clothes and you're the one whose couch he sleeps on, he's probably available, and that's good.” Dawn folded her hands and rested her chin on them, all innocence. “I was hoping he'd be here, though. I'm supposed to find out his intentions towards you.”

Donna narrowly refrained from yelling “What?” again. “His intentions?” came out as a bit of a sputter, though.

“Yeah, after the way you were talking about him nonstop at Christmas, we figured we'd better check this guy out. Not that we don't trust you, but you do have a little bit of a history...” Dawn made a see-sawing motion with her hands, making her head rock side to side.”I mean, anything's better than the guy who let the dragon out, and it's not like any of us are going to match Buffy on the totally regrettable exes hall of fame, but still!” She leaned back in the chair and looked around. “He does have kind of a weird interior design- whoa!” The chair gave an alarming lurch, and only Donna's quick reflexes kept Dawn from falling over backwards. “Let me guess, the chair is an important historical artifact too?”

“No, it's just a piece of garbage. I keep meaning to call somebody to get it fixed.” Donna pulled Dawn to her feet and away from the offending furniture. “Anyway, it's not like that with Josh and I. If I talk about him a lot, it's because dealing with him is ninety percent of my job here, and my job is pretty much my whole life right now. He's my boss, and he's my friend.”

“I might believe that if you weren't blushing so hard,” Dawn told her, tongue in cheek.

“I have sensitive alabaster skin!” Donna insisted, resisting the urge to feel her own face. “Anyway, who's we? I can't imagine anybody but you thinks my romantic life is interesting.”

“No way!” Dawn told her, obviously suppressing giggles. “You were very persuasive in your argument that Josh Lyman was not only the sole architect of the entire presidential campaign and the linchpin of the administration, but he also had the cutest dimples in DC. And hair, obviously.”

“I was not!”

“We were pretty deep in the wassail at this point, you might not remember,” Dawn told her. “But I was trying to explain how extremely attractive my future boyfriend Sam is, and you practically shouted me down! And then Faith and Andrew both agreed with you instead of me, which was demoralizing, and then Vi tried to argue that CJ Cregg looks better than either of them, and then Buffy told us we were all nerds and I think after that Faith tried to dump her in a snowbank. It's a little fuzzy.”

Donna stared at her for a moment, then rubbed her temples. “I don't even know where to start with any of that,” she admitted, “but I'm never drinking anything Andrew gives me again.”

“You should've tried it with the toast in it,” Dawn advised. “Really soaks up the liquor.”

Donna ignored that. Anything else would cause her head to explode, she was fairly sure. “Josh is my friend,” she said again, “and he is not here, and you will absolutely not, at any time now or in the future, be asking about his intentions. Anyway, you want the ten cent tour?”

“Do you even have to ask?” Dawn demanded. “I need you to show me every secret place that nobody gets to see on the tours.”

“I'm not allowed into most of the secret places people don't see on tours,” Donna pointed out, “but I know some stuff. Come on.” Leaving her luggage behind, she walked Dawn around the West Wing, showing her highlights like the bullpens, the mess, and the blessed spot in the lobby where Mandy had slipped on a clot of tinsel at Christmas and fallen on her ass.

“Can we see the Oval Office?” Dawn finally asked, after they'd made their way through the Roosevelt Room and the Mural Room. “I mean, is it allowed?”

“Not usually,” Donna admitted, “but sometimes when the President isn't in the West Wing, we take a little peek.” She steered Dawn into Mrs. Landingham's alcove and pointed out the large windows. “See, there's no secret service detail outside the windows, so he must have gone up for the night.” Going to the door, Donna gently, gently pushed it open, still feeling like an interloper-

“What are you doing?”

Donna and Dawn both jumped and yelped, spinning towards the hall. Margaret was standing in the office doorway with an armful of files, watching them quizzically. Donna took a breath and tried to will her racing heart to slow. “God, Margaret, you scared the life out of me! I didn't think you were going on the trip, what are you still doing here?”

Margaret's face said that the answer was clearly “sulking,” but she hefted the armload of files. “With everybody gone, I have a bunch of extra work to do tomorrow. I'm trying to get ahead of it, because you know Leo isn't going to cut me any slack just because the office is practically empty.” She smacked the files down loudly on Mrs. Landingham's desk and turned to face them, her eyes wide and slightly chartreuse in the dim light. “So you'd better not be planning on stealing any state secrets, or it's going to be a lot of extra work for me tomorrow and I'm definitely not explaining that one to Josh.”

“No secrets, I swear,” Donna protested, raising her hands innocently. “This is my new roommate, Dawn, the one who speaks ten languages and knows feng shui, remember? She came to drop off my luggage for me, and I'm giving her the tour. We just wanted a little peek,” she wheedled.

Margaret rolled her eyes. “Why does everybody want to see the Oval Office, anyway? It's just a room with a lot of windows that's extra hard to vacuum. It doesn't even have the ghosts. You're interested in feng shui, huh?” she asked Dawn, switching subjects without a pause. “We should talk sometime when I'm not doing the work of four people. This place could use a lot of chi improvement.”

With that, she swept right back out again, her heels clicking on the tile floor of the hallway. Donna quickly opened the door to the Oval and let Dawn look through before anybody else could come by. Neither of them actually went so far as to step into the room, but Dawn was suitably impressed by its roundness and high ceilings. After that, Donna felt it was probably prudent to wrap up the tour.

“So that was Margaret,” Dawn began, back in the safety of Josh's office. “She seems a little edgy.”

“She's not normally like that,” Donna promised. “She's really disappointed that Leo decided not to go to California, and not to send her along anyway. We're all a little desperate for some warm weather and relaxation.”

“Yeah, I feel that,” Dawn agreed. She hesitated. “So, you did notice...”

“That she's probably something like a quarter Sadeki demon?” Donna finished with a wry grin. “Yeah, I picked up on that during the campaign when she always knew what was going on half an hour before anybody told us. She can also find anybody, anywhere, at any time. The weird thing is, I'm not sure she actually knows. Her eyes do the thing sometimes, but she just keeps talking about her persistent jaundice.”

“Soooo...” Dawn pressed. “Is she evil?”

“No!” Donna exclaimed. “Definitely not evil. Sadekis are neutral by nature, you know that. And when they break bad, it's pretty noticeable. If somebody around here starts ordering random missile launches or stabbing people in the corridors maybe I'll revisit that, but Leo would be really upset with me if I had to slay his assistant. Plus she's my friend,” she added, a little defensively.

“Hey, I'm not saying you should slay her!” Dawn protested, “I was just asking! I mean, it's DC, right? Everybody's always saying politicians are evil vampires.”

“Haven't met any of those yet,” Donna told her. “But there's a first time for everything. Most of the vampires around here like to hang around the college bars and get late night snacks, but the other Slayers take care of them. Plus Gina, now, if she makes it onto Zoey's detail.”

As though summoned, Gina Toscano appeared in the doorway, knocking lightly on the frame. “Hey Donna, are you busy? Oh, hi Dawn!”

Gina and Dawn had met during Gina's month of training at Slayer Camp, which Donna was a little sorry she hadn't been around to see. To hear Dawn tell it, there had been a learning curve involved in figuring out how to teach Slayer-style tactics to someone who was much less gifted than a Slayer, but much stronger and better trained than the average Watcher. The curve had apparently involved Gina getting thrown into some walls, a country-fair style test-your-strength game for Slayers using the giant troll hammer, and somehow the return of puffy-suit Xander. But the Secret Service agent had acquitted herself well, and now there were a couple more young field agents in for training. She still had one last test to pass: meeting the President during the plane ride to California.

“I'm not busy,” Donna assured her, gesturing to the suitcases. “Just getting packed up. How are you feeling?”

Gina took a deep breath. “A little nervous,” she admitted, then hesitated. “A lot nervous. This is his youngest daughter, and I'm going to be her chief daytime watch...”

“You'll be fine,” Donna promised. “The president is very protective of his daughters, he wants the best for them. Ron has already told him that's you, and he's right. You've got great instincts and great training, and you can throw a stake into a vampire at twenty feet, which hardly any unenhanced people can pull off. You can't tell him that part,” she acknowledged, “but you know it's there. Just be respectful and polite, but stand up for yourself. He likes people who aren't afraid of him.”

“No fear, got it.” Gina ran her open palms down the legs of her pants, obviously trying to wipe away the sweat. “I really need to punch something,” she finally blurted.

Donna laughed. “All right, fine. But no hits above the collarbone, neither one of us needs to be explaining a black eye on the plane.” She slung her gym bag over her shoulder. “You coming, Dawn, or have you seen enough?” She suspected that for Dawn, who had grown up watching the world's finest Slayers beating each other up on the regular, watching a skilled human fighting against a Slayer with just enough conditioning to keep her alive wouldn't be too thrilling.

“I got class tomorrow, I've got to get home,” Dawn told her. “Thanks for the tour, though. Hey Gina,” she added, “if you see Josh Lyman, ask him about his intentions, okay?” She strolled out cheerfully, leaving Donna blushing again behind her.

“Do not ask Josh anything!' Donna insisted, nearly snapping the strap on her gym bag by accident.

“I wasn't going to!” Gina replied quickly, raising both hands and stepping out of the doorway as they headed for the gym. Her Secret Service deadpan was fully in place as she added, “I mean, there's no point, his intentions seem pretty clear to me.”

Donna glared. “You're lucky that I'm such a peaceful and nonaggressive person at heart, so I'm just going to smack you around a little bit instead of a lot.”

 

Twelve hours and a transcontinental flight later, Donna smeared herself thoroughly in stupidly expensive sunscreen and stretched out on a chaise lounge to bake to a very careful light golden brown. On the other side of the pool area, she could hear Josh on the phone, trying to corral a rogue congressman in the brief respite between flag-burning town hall and glitzy fundraiser. She deliberately did not look over to see whether he was checking her out while he argued. Really, she decided, if she was having any weird thoughts about Josh today, it was entirely Dawn's fault. Josh was an attractive man, and very charismatic when he wasn't melting down over someone being wrong in politics. Women were attracted to men like Josh, it was only natural, and given that they spent nearly all their waking hours together, surely some sexual tension was all but inevitable. She liked working with Josh, liked how she could anticipate his needs, and maybe even liked the way he was just a little bit helpless without her to handle the details. She liked listening to him talk and following the sometimes convoluted patterns of logic that could lead to genius or madness with equal ease. She liked arguing with him, liked stealing the french fries off his plate when they ate together, liked how on long plane flights he didn't care if she sometimes used him as a pillow...

Donna stared up at the dull green leaves of the palm tree over her head. She absolutely would not, could not, must not fall in love with her boss. That was probably the worst thing she could possibly do for about a hundred different reasons. She'd done the power-differential relationship before, and it had sucked. She was done playing Eliza Doolittle for any guy (even if the little voice in her head insisted Josh wasn't like that.) And if she'd thought dating her Watcher had caused her trouble at work, she suspected the professional calamity of dating her direct supervisor at the White House would dwarf those difficulties, dragons and ancient witches excluded. Not to mention that any infatuation was almost surely one-sided on her part. Josh liked little brunettes who were mean to him, and Donna really didn't fit that bill. Nursing a one-sided crush would just be painful, not to mention embarrassing.

She flipped over onto her stomach to hide her groan. The answer was simple and obvious. She just wouldn't fall in love with Josh, no matter what lusty badwrong thoughts Dawn might have encouraged to creep into her head. Josh was her friend, probably her best friend, and she liked it that way. Thinking anything else was just likely to ruin her brief and precious moments of vacation, and that was unacceptable. The last time Donna had been in LA, she'd had to stay in a demon hotel that hadn't been renovated since the forties and spend her nights learning to slay vampires. She was going to enjoy this visit a lot more.