Willow In Wonderland
Willow In Wonderland

by Robert A. Black (bbovenguy@mindspring.com)

DISCLAIMER: Willow and all her friends are the creation and property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, the WB Network and so forth.


TIME CONTEXT: Set during Buffy Season Two, after "What's My Line?" but before "Surprise"

Part One

It had been a very long day, which had now stretched into a very long night. Willow Rosenberg stifled a yawn and tried to keep her attention focused on the computer screen, without much success.

Times like these had a way of putting Willow on edge. Her home town of Sunnydale, site of the Hellmouth that linked Earth with the realm of the demons, had received yet another unwelcome visitor from the ranks of the undead. Her friend Buffy Summers, the one chosen vampire slayer in all the world, was out there trying to find the creature and stop it from doing any more damage. And Willow's role in it all, the role she had chosen for herself, was to find any information that could help Buffy in her fight.

Of course, finding information rarely involved being in the same place as the actual fighting, which meant Willow often had to stay behind in the Sunnydale High library, waiting and worrying that Buffy would be all right. That's what put her so on edge.

BEEP! said the computer. A message flashed on the screen. "ACCESS FORBIDDEN: You are not authorized to use that directory."

Willow sighed heavily. She had seen that message far too often during the course of the night. Finding a back door she could sneak through had lost its charm two or three times ago. She sat back and waited while her decryption program did its job.

How had she gotten herself into this position? Just over a year ago, she had been plain, simple and quiet Willow Rosenberg, living a plain, simple and quiet life. Once, surfing the net meant nothing more than challenging her hacking abilities. Now it meant searching for vital information that could make the difference between life and death. Once, the only time people sought out her skills was when they needed to pass their next exam. Now people sought out her skills when they needed to save the world. And as for her social circle - once it had consisted of a mere handful of fellow misfits and outcasts. Now - well, she still belonged in the "misfit" category, but she and her friends were misfits with a purpose that had bound them all together.

Sometimes, it all seemed like too much, and Willow wondered how long she had before she cracked under the pressure. Other times, Willow embraced her new life, excited by the challenge and thrilled when she succeeded. But there was always one question that nagged at her. One question she couldn't answer. Where was this crazy life going to lead her?

The computer continued to work at its appointed task. Willow took the opportunity to gaze around the library and delve deeper into her musings. Despite being worried about Buffy, Willow also felt strangely secure at times like this. The library felt like it was her place, as if it had been waiting for her and would always welcome her. Not even the demon that once erupted from the Hellmouth below could shake that feeling. Was this the kind of place she could call home when she was an adult? Was this the kind of role she would always be called upon to fill? The thought frightened her. She was certain she could never handle that kind of stress. And yet a small voice in her mind was excited by the possibility and eager for the challenge.

Willow was still mulling over these thoughts when a sudden gust of wind blew through the library, scattering some of the papers that were stacked next to the computer. Willow looked up and glanced around the room. She thought she had heard footsteps, but no one was there.

"Giles?" she called. "Is that you?" The librarian had been in his office a few minutes ago. Now there was no sign of him. As far as Willow could see, she was alone. As far as she could hear, though, she was not.

Still cautious, Willow got up and looked around the floor at the papers that had been scattered onto it. One particularly vital page had flown halfway across the room. She started to walk across the library to get it when she heard the footsteps again. Once again, she looked around the room and saw no one.

Now things were getting wiggy. Willow hurried back to the table where her research was and selected a particularly heavy book from the ones she was using. More than heavy enough to stun a vampire, she thought. Satisfied that she was now properly armed, she turned back to look for her errant piece of paper again.

She found the page just in time to see a large foot appear and step on it. A large, white, furry foot.

Willow looked up and stared in amazement. The large, white, furry foot was attached to a large, white, furry rabbit that scurried through the library. It ran up the stairs and through the door leading into the stacks.

"Hey!" Willow cried out. Seeing a white rabbit run through her library was bad enough. Worse yet, Willow's vital piece of paper had stuck to the rabbit's foot. She had no choice but to go and try to retrieve it.

Taking her book along for protection, Willow hurried up the stairs and into the stacks. The rabbit was nowhere to be seen, but as Willow listened, she thought she heard some kind of scratching noise coming from a few bookshelves away. She slowly crept toward the noise to see what it was.

There was the rabbit - or half of it, anyway. The creature was trying to squeeze itself through a hole in the wall, and only its rear half was still visible. The piece of paper was still stuck to its foot.

"Stop! Wait a minute!" Willow called. She rushed over to catch the rabbit - or at least to get her paper back - before it was too late. For some reason, she couldn't remember a hole being in that wall before, but she didn't have time to stop and think about such matters.

She reached the wall just as the rabbit slipped through. Both it and the piece of paper disappeared into the darkness beyond. If Willow wanted her precious information back, she would have to go through the hole herself and get it.

"It wasn't that important, was it?" Willow asked herself, but she already knew the answer. Besides, large white rabbits didn't come strolling through the library every day, and the appearance of this one probably meant the Hellmouth was cooking up something new to throw at them. She had no choice but to investigate.

Getting down on her hands and knees, Willow shoved the book through the hole first, then crawled after it. She wasn't nearly as big around as the rabbit, so she fit through with ease. She was just beginning to feel more confident about her quest when the book she was holding suddenly dropped, as if the floor had disappeared beneath it.

Willow tried to pull the book back, but it felt as heavy as lead in her hands. She tried to let the book go, but it refused to be let go. Instead, it dragged her along toward the edge of the mysterious precipice.

In desperation, Willow kicked out her legs, trying to find something she could hook her feet around. All she did was flop onto her stomach, allowing the book to drag her along even faster.

In the end, gravity would not be denied. Willow screamed in terror as the book dragged her over the edge of the cliff and plunged her into the darkness below.

Part Two

Willow was falling.

She had already plummeted a long way down, and there didn't seem to be any end in sight. She tried to estimate how far she had traveled, guessing at the weight of the book and the amount of time it would take for her to reach terminal velocity. It was the "terminal" part of "terminal velocity" that convinced her there wasn't much point to estimating the distance.

At least the book Willow was holding no longer seemed so heavy. In fact, it now felt lighter than when she had originally picked it up. If it had been this light before, she never would have thought of using it as a weapon.

Curious - and with nothing better to do while she fell - Willow held the book up and looked at the cover.

OPEN ME, it read.

"Strange," thought Willow. "It didn't say that before." Still, she had nothing to lose, so she pulled the book open. The pages instantly caught the air as Willow fell through it. She was barely able to hold onto the book as it jerked upward.

"Well, actually," thought Willow, "the book isn't going up, it's just going down more slowly than I am." She didn't care about technical details, though. All she cared about was hanging onto the book as it slowed her fall. In no time, she was dangling by her arms as if the book had become her parachute. Her fall slowed to a safe rate, and she finally touched down on the ground with hardly a bump.

She closed the book and looked at the cover again. It had mysteriously returned to its original appearance.

"Curiouser and curiouser," Willow remarked. She thought for a moment that her comment sounded familiar, as if she was quoting something, but she couldn't remember what.

The sound of footsteps got Willow's attention, and she looked up just in time to see the White Rabbit scurrying away down a long hallway. With great surprise, Willow realized that the hallway looked very much like Sunnydale High School, although she knew perfectly well that she couldn't have fallen all that way just to end up where she started. The Hellmouth must be up to something truly peculiar this time.

If the hallway really was supposed to be like Sunnydale High, Willow reasoned, then the library should be just around the corner. Perhaps it held information that would explain where she was. She hurried off in the direction she would go to find her own library.

As Willow rounded the corner, she was surprised to see the White Rabbit. It had been running down the other hallway and in the opposite direction just a moment ago, but now it was hurrying back toward her.

"Man, I am so incredibly late," the White Rabbit muttered. "The guys are just gonna kill me, and that's only if the Queen doesn't do it first."

By now, Willow was hardly surprised to learn that the Rabbit could talk. She stepped forward and confronted the creature. "Hey!" she called. "Wait just a minute!"

"Don't have a minute," the Rabbit said brusquely. "Can't you see I'm going somewhere? I'm late for my gig already."

Willow looked, and sure enough, the Rabbit now had an electric guitar slung over its shoulder. She looked closer and noticed that the Rabbit wasn't completely white, either. It had reddish splotches of fur around its mouth and down its chin, as if it had a goatee and mustache.

"Sorry," Willow said. "It's just that... well, when you ran through the library, you stepped on one of my papers and..."

"Library?" said the Rabbit. "The only library around here is down that way." It pointed behind itself to show Willow which way it meant. "Have a nice time. I've got to go."

"Wait!" Willow cried again. "I don't mean any library around here. I mean the one in Sunnydale High School. Don't you remember? You were just there."

"Sunnydale?" said the Rabbit. "And I met you there? What was your name again?"

"It's..." Willow started to tell the Rabbit her name, but she suddenly discovered that she couldn't remember it. No matter how hard she thought, her name wouldn't come to her.

"Well?" said the Rabbit. "Aren't you going to tell me?"

"I don't know," Willow replied anxiously. She was becoming very distressed at the way her memory kept failing in this strange place.

She didn't want the Rabbit to know about her difficulty, though, so instead of answering she looked it straight in the eye and said, "Well, you haven't told me your name, either. You go first."

The Rabbit fumed at Willow for a moment, but finally relented. "It's Oz," it said. "My name is Oz."

"The great and powerful?" Willow asked.

The Rabbit glared at her. "Wrong story," it said.

"Sorry," Willow replied. "Couldn't resist."

"Look," said Oz, "it's obvious that I'll never find out what your name is, so I might as well get going."

"No, please," said Willow. "It'll just take a minute. Things are a little confusing for me down here."

"Well, if you get everything figured out," Oz replied, "you can come see me at the Queen's party. That's if I haven't been killed for being late. Which I am, if you didn't notice."

With that, the Rabbit shoved past Willow and was gone down the hallway again. She thought about calling after it again, but it disappeared around the corner too quickly.

"Okay, this is fun," Willow told herself with more than a touch of irony. "How am I supposed to figure out what's going on when I can't even remember who I am?"

She finally decided to try the library Oz had pointed out. It wasn't too far down the hallway, in about the same place, relatively speaking, as the Sunnydale High library. The only difference was that this library had doors that were securely locked. There was no way for Willow to get in.

Frustrated, she turned away from the library and walked down the hallway, toward where the student lounge area would be back at Sunnydale. Sure enough, there was a lounge area in this place as well.

A pair of vending machines stood alongside the wall, one for snacks and one for drinks. Willow suddenly found herself feeling hungry and thirsty, but she didn't know if these machines would take her money. While she was pondering that matter, she looked down and noticed that there was already a can of soda sitting in the drink machine dispenser, and there was already a packaged snack cake sitting in the snack machine dispenser. They both sat there, tempting her to take them.

At first, Willow couldn't help feeling guilty. It wasn't like her to take advantage of someone else's forgetfulness, after all. But the food and drink quickly became almost irresistible, as if they were begging her to take them.

Finally, Willow relented and snatched her prizes from the machines. She opened the snack cake package first, and sampled the delicacy inside.

After her first bite, Willow suddenly noticed that the surrounding room looked larger. She looked around in confusion. It was as if everything had suddenly grown a full foot. While she was wondering what had happened, she absent-mindedly took a second bite of the snack cake. The room promptly grew in size again.

"Whoa!" Willow exclaimed. Maybe the room wasn't growing after all. Maybe the snack cake was making her shrink.

"Lucky I didn't eat this thing Xander-style," she remarked, thinking about her friend's technique of trying to swallow snack cakes whole. "I probably would have disappeared completely." It bothered Willow that she could remember a bit of trivia about her friend yet still recalled almost nothing about herself, but she was too busy thinking of other things to dwell on the notion for long.

Willow looked down at the cake and the soda can. Fortunately, they had shrunk along with her, as had her clothes. She shuddered at the thought of what might have happened otherwise. But again, before there was time to think too much about the matter, her mind was moving on.

"If the cake makes me smaller," Willow mused, "I wonder what the soda will do?" Intensely curious, she popped the top of the can and drank a large gulp of the beverage inside. She was quickly rewarded with a sharp whack on the back of her head as it hit the ceiling. The room was suddenly very small and confining.

Willow shifted around uncomfortably, crushing tiny chairs and knocking pictures off walls as she tried to bring the snack cake around to her mouth again. She finally managed to nibble a few small bites of the cake, shrinking herself back down to her normal size.

"This is amazing!" Willow exclaimed. "Imagine what I could do with this stuff. I wouldn't have to be scared of vampires any more. If any attacked me, I could just grow big enough to fight them off."

As Willow was still contemplating that possibility, another thought occurred to her. The library! The doors may be locked, but with the snack cake, she could shrink herself until she was small enough to fit under the door. Once she was inside, the soda can would return her to her normal size. It was a perfect plan.

She quickly hurried back down the hall until she reached the library doors. The space below them was very small, but Willow still thought she could get herself through. She carefully swallowed bites of the snack cake until she was small enough to wriggle her way under the door.

The pungent smells of dust and musty books greeted Willow almost immediately. This was one library that hadn't been visited in a long time. The books were in piles all over the floor. Mold and fungus were growing from some of them.

Willow was so fascinated by the view from her small size that she wandered into the library without bothering to drink any of the soda and make herself grow again. The books looked enormous. From this perspective, Willow could imagine them being full of knowledge in a way she had never envisioned before.

She was so busy reading the titles on the giant book spines that she didn't notice when she came upon a particularly large and moldy stack of books. It was a mistake Willow would quickly regret.

"Excuse me," came a deep, English-accented voice. "Who are you, and what are you doing in my library?"

Part Three

Willow spun around and looked up at the moldy stack of books. She hadn't expected to find anyone else in the library, but obviously she had been wrong.

A large mushroom was growing out of the top book on the stack, surrounded by a forest of mold and mildew. And sitting on top of the mushroom was a large worm - large compared to Willow's current size, anyway. Unlike other worms that Willow had seen, this one had arms, hands and a face. It was also wearing a tweed jacket and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.

It must be a bookworm, Willow thought to herself.

"Indeed I am," said the bookworm. Willow couldn't figure out how it knew what she was thinking. She waited for the bookworm to speak again, but it remained quiet. A small table sat on the mushroom next to the bookworm, with a cup, a pot of hot water and a jar of instant coffee on it. Rather than speak to Willow, the worm busied itself with making a cup of coffee and sipping it in silence.

After waiting a minute or so, Willow decided to speak up. "Um, excuse me," she said, "but are you going to say anything more? Because if you're not, I'll just go and..."

"Why should I say anything?" the bookworm said, interrupting her. "Who are you that makes you worth talking to?"

There was that question again. Willow tried to remember, but her name refused to come to her. "I... I don't exactly know right now," she replied hesitantly. "It's really wiggy. I knew who I was back in the other library."

"Another library?" the bookworm asked. "There are libraries other than this one?"

"Well, sure there are," Willow replied. "Lots of them."

"And do they have bookworms in them?"

"Um, not really," said Willow. "I've never seen anything like you before."

"You're making that up!" the bookworm snorted. "How can there be a library that doesn't have a bookworm? I'll bet you've never even been inside a library before."

"I have so!" Willow cried. "I'm in a library all the time, doing research and... and stuff."

"Are you?" the bookworm replied haughtily. "Then you should be able to answer a few simple questions, shouldn't you?"

"Of course," Willow replied. She was more than ready for the bookworm's challenge. Maybe then it would take her seriously.

"All right," the bookworm began. "How can you tell the difference between Egyptian and Etruscan iconology?"

"That's easy," said Willow. "Twenty-nine."

"I beg your pardon?"

Willow's heart missed a beat. She had known how to answer the worm's question a moment ago. Why hadn't she said it right? "Um... maybe I could try another one?" she asked.

The bookworm frowned, but went on. "Very well. What is the square root of eight-hundred-forty-one?" it asked.

"That's easy, too," said Willow. "It's a fruit."

The bookworm scowled. Willow squirmed. She had no idea why her answers were getting all mixed up.

"I shall give you one more chance," said the bookworm. "What type of plant is the tomato?"

"Um... er..." Willow stammered. She already knew the answer that popped into her mind wasn't right. "The cow should touch me from Thursday?" she said meekly.

The bookworm didn't even bother to comment. Instead, it went back to its cup of coffee, sipping in silence and apparently waiting for Willow to offer some other proof of her abilities. Willow didn't know what else she could do.

"Okay," she said at last, "maybe I'm not so good at your little pop quiz, but I'll bet I could find anything you want me to look up. Do you have a computer? I'm really good at finding stuff with them."

"A computer?" the bookworm scoffed. "Indeed! You claim to know your way around a library, but at the slightest difficulty you go running for your mechanical crutches."

The bookworm's attitude was really starting to bother Willow. She glared back at it and said, "What do you know about computers? I bet you've never even seen one."

"There's one in this very room," the bookworm retorted. "It's never done me any good."

"There's a computer here?" Willow repeated. She looked around the room, but at her current size, she couldn't see very much. At length, she saw what looked like a set of enormous power cables stretching up to the top of a table that appeared to be several stories tall.

By now, the bookworm had finished its coffee and was beginning to climb down off the mushroom. As Willow watched, it began to work its way down the stack of books.

"You may use the dread machine if you like," said the bookworm. "But don't expect it to be of much use. Its mouse is most disagreeable." And with that, the bookworm was gone, inching its way into the musty shelves.

Willow looked up at the table again. A reasonably working computer could tell her a lot about where she was. Maybe even who she was. She sipped a few drops from the soda can, slowly bringing herself back to her normal size.

As she grew, Willow could see the computer coming into view on the table top. The machine seemed ordinary enough - except for the mouse. And actually, the mouse looked ordinary, too - except that it was a live mouse and not a computer mouse. It sat washing its dark brown fur and didn't notice when Willow appeared.

"Um, hello," Willow said to the mouse. After all, if she could talk to rabbits and bookworms, why not mice as well?

"Eeek! A monster!" the mouse shrieked. It darted around behind the computer and hid there.

"No, wait!" Willow called out, but the mouse refused to listen.

"A monster!" the mouse insisted. "The bookworm sent you, didn't he? Nasty mean bookworm, sending horrible monsters to hurt me!"

Willow was getting nowhere. She stood there in frustration for a moment, until inspiration struck her. As the mouse continued to hide, she climbed up on the table top and quickly ate some of the snack cake. Within seconds, she was only a few inches tall again.

"You can come out now," Willow called to the mouse. "I think you'll like me better if I'm this size."

The mouse poked its head out from behind the computer. "You're sure you're not a monster?" it asked.

"I don't remember being one," Willow replied. Since she didn't remember who or what she was at all, Willow figured that even if she was a monster, she still hadn't lied.

The mouse crept forward, looking Willow over from head to toe. "But the bookworm sent you?" it asked nervously.

"I suppose so," said Willow. "Is that a problem?"

"The bookworm doesn't like me," said the mouse. "I thought he did once, but then he sent a horrible beast after me."

"So why are you still here?" Willow asked. "Couldn't you just run away?"

"Are you blind?" the mouse squeaked indignantly. It stepped out from the computer and whirled around so that Willow could see its hindquarters. A corkscrew-shaped piece of jewelry hung from the mouse's body, but Willow couldn't see where it was attached through the thick fur. She doubted that was what the mouse wanted to show her, anyway.

"What do you think this is?" asked the mouse. Sure enough, it didn't point to the corkscrew, but instead to a tail that was much longer than Willow expected to see on a normal mouse. In fact, the tail stretched all the way around to the back of the computer.

"You mean you're attached to the computer permanently?" Willow asked in disbelief.

"Wouldn't be much use if I wasn't," the mouse replied. "You must not know a lot about these things."

"I thought I did," Willow said. "That's why I came up here. I thought the computer could help me find out who I am."

"How would it do that?" the mouse asked. "What are you going to do, search for all the records on 'monsters with long red hair who can shrink and grow when they want?' I don't think you'll find anything."

Willow frowned. The bookworm was right - the mouse certainly was disagreeable. But at the same time, it had a point. She didn't exactly know how to do a computer search for herself.

"Do you have any better ideas?" she asked the mouse.

The mouse thought for a moment. "You could try the Queen's party," it said at last. "Anyone who's anyone will be there. Anyone the Queen thinks is anyone, that is. Maybe someone will recognize you."

"But I don't know the Queen," Willow said. "At least I don't think I know her. And I'm not very good at parties."

"Doesn't matter," the mouse replied. "The Queen will decide whether or not you're good at her party. By the time she does, you may have found someone who knows you."

Willow considered the idea. "Well, all right," she said. "How do I get there?"

"You'll need an invitation first," said the mouse. "Why don't you go and see the Duchess? She can probably get one for you."

"And where is she?" Willow asked.

"Oh, that's easy. I have the instructions right here." The mouse stood on its hind legs and folded its front paws as if getting ready to recite a poem:

15 SHELF = 1
25 IF SHELF = 5 GOTO 40
30 SHELF = SHELF + 1
35 GOTO 20
60 END

"There's a path that will take you right to her," the mouse concluded as it returned to its normal sitting position.

Willow thanked the mouse and quickly drank enough of the soda to return to her normal size. She jumped off the table and went to the stacks, which were in the same place as they were in her own library, then followed the mouse's directions. Sure enough, she found the back door quite easily and made her way onto the path beyond it.

In no time at all, Willow came upon a small cottage that looked curiously like an old-fashioned schoolhouse. This, she thought, must surely be the home of the Duchess. But as she approached the front door, she saw something that stopped her in her tracks. Getting to see the Duchess was not going to be as easy as Willow had hoped.

Part Four

The Duchess had a doorman. That seemed reasonable enough. Anyone important enough to be a Duchess probably would have a doorman, even in this strange place. What was not reasonable was the fact that this doorman was not a man. He was wearing a doorman's uniform, but underneath the outfit, he looked much more like an enormous frog.

And that was exactly the problem.

Willow didn't like frogs. In fact, they terrified her. They had for years, ever since that time...

Wait a minute, Willow thought. How was she able to remember something like that? Her memory was once again playing tricks on her, giving her glimpses of things she knew but refusing to give her the really important facts about herself. She had to find out what was doing these strange things to her, and right now the Duchess was the only lead she had to work with. Willow knew she had to go forward, whether she had frog-fear or not.

The Frog Doorman didn't move as Willow approached. For a moment, Willow wondered if he could see her, since his eyes were perched on top of his head in typical frog-fashion. Maybe she could slip past him and get through the door before he...

"Excuse me," said the Frog. "Where do you think you're going?"

Willow wouldn't have jumped any higher if she'd been a frog herself. "Nowhere!" she cried. "I... I just wanted to go through this door. I... I need to see the Duchess."

"Oh, you need to see the Duchess, do you?" the Frog said. "Well, I'm here to service your needs, and to help you respect the Duchess's needs. So, if your needs and her needs mesh..."

"I... I get the idea. Sort of," Willow said abruptly. She was really getting wigged out now that the Frog was staring straight at her. "Um, what exactly are the Duchess's needs?" she asked.

The Frog shrugged - which made a ridiculous but terrifying sight as far as Willow was concerned. "I don't know," it finally replied. "The Duchess is on that side of the door, and I'm on this side. Now, if I was on that side with her, she could tell me what her needs were, but then again, if I was on that side of the door, I wouldn't be a very good doorman, would I?"

Willow saw her chance. "So how do you know she doesn't need me to go in and see her?" she asked.

The Frog shrugged again. "I don't, I guess," he said. "But then, it's also possible that she needs me to keep you out here. What do I do then?"

Willow's mind raced for a moment. "I don't know," she said. Then inspiration seized her. The idea was almost too ridiculous to work, but in this place, the ridiculous was proving to work best.

"I, uh, I could go in and ask her for you," she offered.

"You'd do that?" the Frog exclaimed. "Oh, that would be very kind of you."

"No problem," Willow replied as casually as she could.

The Frog Doorman stepped aside eagerly. Willow hurried past him and went through the front door into the Duchess's cottage.

Willow had expected the interior to be a single cramped room, but instead it was a large open space with several doors leading off to other rooms. One end of the room was separated from the rest by a set of iron bars. There were several rows of desks behind the bars, with teenagers sitting in over half of them.

The Duchess herself stood in front of the bars, watching her charges so closely that she didn't notice Willow's cautious approach. As Willow drew near, she couldn't help noticing that the Duchess was an extremely ugly person. She was rather short, with ridiculously large ears and an extremely gruff, stern face. If the Duchess hadn't been wearing an old-fashioned schoolmarm's dress, Willow might have guessed that she was a man.

The Duchess may not have noticed Willow's approach, but the teenagers behind the bars certainly did. They began jumping up and down in their seats and howling incomprehensibly when they saw her.

"Be quiet, you animals!" the Duchess shrieked. She had a coarse voice that matched her features perfectly.

By now, Willow had reached the Duchess's side. "Um, excuse me?" she said as politely as she could. "You're the Duchess, aren't you?"

The Duchess whirled around and looked at Willow sternly. "That's what they call me," she said. "The Duchess of Discipline! Are you here to join the these other brutes?"

Willow's eyes grew large as she backed herself away in a hurry. "No, no!" she exclaimed. "I came here from the library. I, uh, I was told you could help me get into the Queen's party."

An eraser flew through the bars and whizzed past the Duchess's head. She turned and glared at the teenagers. "I told you to pipe down in there!" she roared.

Turning back to Willow, the Duchess then muttered, "I don't know what's with you kids today. All you're interested in are parties and having fun. Is that all you plan to do with your life?"

"I... I don't know," Willow said. Another eraser flew through the bars, sprinkling chalk dust on Willow's nose as it passed by her.

The Duchess glared through the bars once again before looking back at Willow. "And that's precisely the problem," she said. "You're just like these animals, not thinking about where you're going. That's why you need someone like me to keep you in line."

Willow had to look away, unnerved by the intensity of the Duchess's gaze. As she did, she caught another glimpse of the teenagers. Was it just her imagination, or were they looking hairier than when she first saw them?

"If I had my way," the Duchess went on, "I'd throw you in there with them. You've got that same look about you. I can just smell it."

"You can smell how I look?" asked Willow.

"Don't get smart with me," the Duchess commanded. Willow was now getting very worried. If the Duchess put her behind those bars, she'd probably never get to the Queen's party, let alone discover who she was. And yet the mouse had thought the Duchess could help her. There had to be something Willow could do.

A desk chair crashed against the bars, making Willow jump. She looked into the enclosed section of the room again, and was amazed to see that all the teenagers were definitely transforming into other creatures. Some now looked like apes, others like birds, and still others like large cats. They snarled and howled at the Duchess as they hurled more pieces of furniture at the bars.

Willow turned back to the Duchess. "What's going on here?" she cried out. "What's happening to these kids! Can't you do something?"

"It's too late for them," the Duchess replied. "They're only turning into what they were all along. You can't stop nature from taking its course. You can only keep the beasts locked up where they won't do any harm."

"How can you say that?" Willow exclaimed. "Don't you care at all?"

"That's enough!" said the Duchess. "If you feel so strongly about these animals, you can go in there and join them!"

The Duchess went to the door of the cottage and opened it to call the Frog Doorman. He came running in at her command.

"What are your needs, O Duchess?" said the Frog Doorman. "Because my needs are to fulfill your needs, and so our needs will always mesh with perfect..."

"Spare me the touchy-feely talk," ordered the Duchess, "and throw that creature into the cage with the rest of them."

"Immediately, my Duchess," said the Frog Doorman. He advanced on Willow menacingly.

"Can't... can't we talk this over a little?" Willow asked. She tried to move away, but there was nowhere to go except backward against the bars. She could hear the howls of the wild animals behind her.

"Now, I know this isn't exactly what you wanted," said the Frog Doorman. "But sometimes we have to make compromises for the greater good."

The animals snarled and gnashed their teeth as the Frog Doorman approached. Willow couldn't bear to look any more. She closed her eyes as the Frog Doorman closed in.

"I just hope there aren't any hyenas in there," Willow heard the Doorman say.

Then suddenly, everything went quiet. Willow braced herself for whatever was about to happen.

"Are you all right?" an unfamiliar voice said.

Slowly, Willow opened her eyes again. She was on the other side of the bars, but the wild animals were gone. Instead, she was surrounded by a group of normal teenagers. She even thought she recognized a few of them.

"What happened?" Willow asked. "Where did the animals go?"

"They're over there," said the boy who had spoken to her before. He pointed through the bars. Willow looked over and saw the Frog Doorman, looking just as he did before. Standing next to him was an enormous warthog, wearing the same dress Willow had seen the Duchess wearing.

"Okay... I guess," Willow said to no one in particular.

A door had somehow appeared in the far wall of the room, and the teenagers were already filing out of it. The boy who had spoken to Willow was one of the last kids remaining in the room.

"Where are you all going?" Willow asked him.

"The Queen's throwing a party," the boy replied. "We're all going to see if we're invited."

"You don't know?" Willow asked.

"The Queen changes her mind a lot," the boy explained. "We have to check in every day to see if we're still part of her court. If you're not, you might as well not exist until she changes her mind again."

"Well, I was trying to get to the Queen's party myself," Willow said. "I was hoping the Queen would know who I am."

The boy shrugged. "You're welcome to try," he said. "I don't think any of us have ever seen you, but the Queen might have. Just don't be late."

With that, the boy was gone, leaving Willow alone in the room. She took one last look at the Frog and the warthog and hurried out the door.

Part Five

All the teenagers were gone when Willow left the Duchess's cottage. She turned around and looked back, and saw that despite the size of the cottage on the inside, it still looked small on the outside. Things like that weren't surprising her any more. Not in this place.

By now, it was night outside. On one hand, that made sense to Willow, since it had been night in Sunnydale when she fell down the hole in the library wall. On the other hand, it had been day when she'd gone into the cottage, so it shouldn't be night that quickly. On the other other hand, it shouldn't be day or night, since she was at the bottom of a deep hole that had appeared in the library wall. All in all, things were confusing once again.

"It's always like that around here," said a voice. "After a hundred years or so, you get used to it."

Willow whirled around, trying to see where the voice had come from. There was no one else around.

"Up here," said the voice.

Willow turned toward where the voice had come from, and found herself standing next to a large, gloomy tree that had lost all its leaves. She looked up and saw a large bat hanging from one of the lower branches. It had rumpled dark brown fur and was wearing a white T-shirt and a dark leather jacket. Its face was set in a stern scowl, with its mouth turned down in a frown. Since the bat was hanging upside-down, however, the frown looked like a ridiculous grin instead.

"Were you talking to me?" Willow asked.

"I don't see anyone else around," the bat replied. "Unless you've got an invisible girl with you."

Willow's eyes bugged out at the thought of the bat's suggestion. She looked around again, despite the fact that she wouldn't find an invisible girl even if she tried.

"I don't think there's anyone else here," she said at last.

"But you still had to check, didn't you?"

"I've seen some pretty strange things tonight," Willow explained. "Besides, I wasn't sure you'd want to talk to me. Do you know who I am or something?"

"Maybe," said the Bat. "I know a lot of things. Dangerous things. But not just anybody can know them. Some of the things I know are pretty tough to handle. It's quite a burden."

"Is that why you're frowning?" Willow asked. "At least I think you're frowning. It's hard to tell with you hanging upside down and all."

"I always frown. I'm a Cheshire Bat," said the Bat, as if that explained everything.

"Oh. Okay," Willow replied. She wasn't sure she would understand a more detailed explanation even if she got it.

The Cheshire Bat looked even more troubled than before, as if it was pondering some extremely weighty matter. "Look," it said at last, "I can't tell you who you are - not right now - but I can tell you something else. I'm not sure you can handle it, but... you're in pretty serious danger."

Willow looked at the Bat with alarm. "What kind of danger?" she asked.

The Bat was silent for a moment, debating whether or not to complete his warning. Finally, he said, "It's... it's... the Duchess."

"What about her?" Willow asked, becoming a bit confused.

"Don't go near her. She'll put you in a cage for sure."

"That's your big warning?" Willow exclaimed. "I just came from the Duchess's cottage. She already put me in the cage. You saw me leave."

"Oh, yeah," the Bat admitted. "Sorry."

And with that, the Bat promptly vanished. To Willow's surprise, the night promptly became day again at the same moment. Willow blinked several times to make sure she was seeing things properly. Sure enough, the sun was out again, and the tree was empty.

Wondering where she should go next, Willow began to look around for any sign of the other teenagers or of the Queen's party. As she did, the sun abruptly disappeared, and night fell again.

"I have another warning for you," said a now-familiar voice. Willow looked back at the tree and saw the Cheshire Bat again, still hanging upside down and frowning.

"What now?" Willow asked. She didn't know whether or not to hope that the Bat's new warning would help her more than the last one did.

"Watch out for the Bookworm," said the Cheshire Bat. "If he sees you, he's sure to quiz you about how much you know."

Now it was Willow's turn to frown. "I met him, too. And he already gave me his quiz."

The Bat squirmed a bit on its branch. "And you got all the answers mixed up, didn't you?"

Willow nodded. "I didn't like it, but I survived," she told the Bat.

The Bat shrugged. "Okay, I guess," it said, then disappeared again. The sun promptly reappeared in the sky.

Willow quickly decided that her best course of action was to get away from the tree as fast as she could. She hurried off, heading down another path that she found leading away from the Duchess's cottage.

She hadn't gone very far when the sun disappeared again. It took Willow a moment for her eyes to adjust to the sudden reappearance of night, but once they did, she quickly saw another barren tree standing along the side of the path. Sure enough, the Cheshire Bat was hanging in one of its branches.

"What is it this time?" Willow said, a little more agitated than she intended.

"I have another warning," the Bat replied.

"Is it any better than the last two?" Willow asked, this time exactly as agitated as she intended. The Bat was starting to annoy her now.

The Bat seemed to notice Willow's irritation and hesitated before speaking. "You... you already know not to eat the snack cakes in one bite, don't you?" it asked uncertainly.

"Yes!" Willow cried. She held her half-eaten snack cake up as proof. She briefly noted that she hadn't remembered it being in her hand since the library, but that minor detail didn't seem very important to her.

The Bat's frown grew more intense, making it look all the happier upside-down. It shifted on its branch again.

"Look," said Willow, "I don't mean to get mad, but... don't you have anything useful you could tell me?"

"Um...," said the Bat. "Follow the yellow brick road?"


"Sorry," said the Bat. "Wrong story."

Some inner sense told Willow the Bat was about to vanish. "Wait!" she cried. "Do you think maybe you could not do that thing where you're gone all of a sudden? Because it's really been wigging me out."

The Bat sighed resignedly. "Oh, all right," it said. "I suppose I can do that for you if nothing else."

As Willow watched, the Bat faded from view slowly, beginning with its feet, then its wings and its body, complete with the T-shirt and jacket, and eventually its head. As it disappeared, the daytime sun slowly began to reappear. Finally, just before full daylight returned, only the Bat's upside-down frown remained, grinning at her briefly before it vanished as well.

Willow waited for a moment to see if the Bat would return, but this time it didn't. Finally, she started down the path again. She walked along for a while, still wary of any sudden return to night and a reappearance of the Bat, but the sun remained in the sky.

Finally, Willow reached a crossroads. A road sign told her she was on a path called, "ROYALTY LANE," while the crossing path was called "MAD AVENUE."

"Royalty Lane," Willow repeated. "This has got to be the way to the Queen's party. I guess I just have to keep walking until I find it."

Still, for some reason, Willow felt compelled to take at least a quick glance at the cross street. Mad Avenue was, in fact, a simple dirt path leading to two houses, one in either direction. The house on the right had two chimneys that were shaped like giant ears, and the roof had a thick coat of moss growing on it. The house on the left looked relatively ordinary, but it was in terrible shape. Its residents obviously didn't believe in household repair.

While both houses looked strange, Willow didn't see any reason to investigate them further. She had a Queen's party to get to, and the White Rabbit had already warned her about the dangers of arriving late.

Unfortunately, Willow's feet had other ideas. As she tried to continue on her way down Royalty Lane, her feet suddenly veered to the left, heading toward the run-down house. The rest of Willow's body stubbornly followed along.

As Willow approached the house, she began to hear the strains of a bizarre piece of music. As strange as the music was, though, it seemed oddly familiar. Her memory was playing tricks on her again, offering trivia while withholding the important things. This time, her memory was telling her she had heard this music while watching late-night Indian television.

The music was definitely coming from the run-down house. As Willow approached it, she looked through a window and thought she could see figures moving around inside. Perhaps her feet knew what was best after all. Maybe one of these figures could help her find out who she was.

No longer reluctant, Willow strode forward to the run-down house's door, ready to meet whoever was inside.

Part Six

The front door to the house was standing half-open. The strange Indian music drew Willow inexorably through the entrance and into a large living room.

A big-screen television sat against the far wall, dominating the entire room. Willow knew she had seen Indian romantic comedy that was playing on the screen, but she couldn't remember where. She looked the rest of the room over and saw a large modular sofa stretching around the television in a U-shape, with a table full of various snack foods and drinks in front of it.

Two figures seated on the sofa caught Willow's attention, just as she caught their attention as well. The one closest to her was a large, dark-furred rabbit. "No," her intermittent memory corrected her. "It's a hare. Genus lepus. You can tell by the longer ears and legs."

The rabbit, or hare, or whatever it was, raced to Willow's side, looking her up and down approvingly. "Hey, look!" he said enthusiastically. "New girl!"

Willow looked over at the Hare's companion, a dark-haired teenage boy. He was sloppily dressed in jeans and an untucked loud Hawaiian shirt, with a baseball cap perched backwards on his head. Definitely the Slacker type.

"Really?" said the Slacker. "What's she like?"

The Hare looked Willow over again, then turned back to his friend. "New girl!" he said again.

"Well, you're certainly a font of nothing," the Slacker remarked. As he spoke, Willow noticed small dark crumbs dropping from the sides of the boy's mouth. She looked at the table and saw an enormous pile of chocolate brown cylinder-shaped snack cakes. She vaguely remembered reading somewhere that eating too many of those could do weird things to a person's mind. It was only fitting, then, that the Slacker lived on Mad Avenue.

"Come on in," the Hare invited. "Have a seat. We're just following some incomprehensible Indian story lines while we wait for the videos to start."

"Uh, thanks, I think," Willow replied. She looked for a place to sit down, but almost every inch of the sofa was covered with empty cans, crumpled snack food wrappers and discarded socks.

"You can't do that!" the Slacker cried out. "She'll eat too much of the food, and then we won't have enough."

"Hey!" the Hare whispered loudly, apparently making a miserable attempt to talk to his friend without Willow overhearing. "What are you trying to do? I'm on the prowl here. Don't get in my way."

"It looks like you've got plenty of food," Willow remarked. "When are the videos supposed to start, anyway?"

"We don't know," the Slacker replied.

"You don't know?" Willow repeated in disbelief.

"The VCR's busted," said the Slacker. He pointed at the machine, which was sitting on a shelf below the television. Willow looked over and saw that its display window was flashing "12:00" repeatedly.

"No, it's not," Willow told the duo. "You just need to set the clock, that's all."

"Set the clock?" the Slacker cried. "You mean do something that requires actual thought?"

"We usually let the Dormouse handle that," said the Hare.

"The Dormouse?" Willow asked uncertainly.

"Yeah," the Slacker explained. "We always get her to fix the TV or the VCR. She's real handy with that stuff."

"She's good at doing homework, too," the Hare added.

"Helping with homework," the Slacker corrected. Whispering just as ineffectively as the Hare had, he added, "Do you want to blow that for us or something?"

"But where is she?" asked Willow. She looked around the room again, but could see only the Slacker and the Hare.

"Oh, she's here somewhere," said the Slacker.

At that moment, a large pile of wrappers and socks began to move slightly. Willow looked, and for the first time, she noticed a shape underneath the debris. It was a large mouse - overgrown to about the same scale as the Hare, Willow thought. It had reddish-tinted fur that Willow found vaguely familiar, but beyond that, the mouse seemed utterly nondescript and ordinary.

"Oh, there she is!" said the Hare. "She's sleeping. Either that or she's too shy to talk to you. Sometimes we can't tell the difference."

"You might ask her, you know," Willow suggested.

"Aw, she'll be all right," said the Slacker, shoving another chocolate snack cake into his mouth whole. "She juwst wike dat sometime," he added as he chewed, dribbling crumbs down his chin.

A particularly unfathomable scene appeared on the television, and the Slacker turned to watch it with renewed interest. Meanwhile, the Hare tried to use the distraction to wrap a paw around Willow's shoulders.

"So," said the Hare, "ya wanna kick back and stay with us a while? It'll be fun."

"Um, I'm not sure," said Willow. "How long is 'a while?'"

"Who knows?" the Hare replied. "We're just gonna hang until the VCR is fixed. Then we'll hang some more while we watch the videos."

"You're just going to sit here until the Dormouse decides to help you?" Willow cried. "What if she gets up and leaves?"

"She already did that," said the Hare. "Twice."

"Fwee times," corrected the Slacker, spewing more crumbs as he spoke.

Willow was dumbfounded. "How long have you been here?" she cried.

The Slacker shrugged, swallowing as he did. "Beats me," he said. "As long as the food holds out, it doesn't matter. And that - " he cast a pointed look in the Hare's direction as he spoke, "is why you can't ask her to sit down."

The pile of debris on top of the Dormouse shifted again. Willow looked over and thought she saw the Dormouse open her eyes. The minute Willow caught the Dormouse's gaze, though, the creature shut her eyes again and turned over, burying her head beneath a pair of old sweatsocks.

"Um, guys, I don't mean to be rude," said Willow, wondering why she would even have to say such a thing to these two, "but I can't stay anyway. I'm trying to get to the Queen's party. Do you know where that is?"

"The Queen, eh?" said the Hare. "I think we're supposed to go to that party, too. The Queen likes me, you know."

"In your dreams," scoffed the Slacker. "Besides, why would you want the Queen to be interested in you? If you ask me, she can't be far enough away."

"You're just jealous," the Hare retorted.

"Yeah, sure!" the Slacker shot back. "You don't believe me? I'll go right up to the Queen herself and tell her so. That's what I'll do. I'll walk all the way to the Queen's party, get right in her face, and say, 'Queen, I can't wait to get away from you...'"

"Oh, right!" jeered the Hare. "You're going to go all the way over there, just to tell the Queen..."

By now, Willow had heard enough. She obviously wasn't going to get any help in this house. She quickly went back to the door and left. The Slacker and the Hare were still too busy arguing to notice her exit. If the Dormouse said anything, Willow didn't hear it.

Willow hurried back to the intersection of Mad Avenue and Royalty Lane. This time, her feet did not turn her away from taking the path that she was sure led to the Queen's party. In fact, this time her feet seemed more eager to reach the party than the rest of her did.

In no time at all, it seemed, Willow reached what looked like a small town. Royalty Lane ran straight through what looked to Willow like a rather bad part of the town, and for a moment, she couldn't understand why a Queen would want to have a party there. Still, there weren't too many alternatives available, and Willow somehow knew she was on the right track.

The path became a road, and then an alley. Past the various brick walls on either side of her, Willow saw a box-shaped building with corrugated gold-leaf metal siding. It was rather strange for a place of royalty. In fact, it looked like someplace else Willow thought she should know, but didn't for some reason.

Strange-looking or not, familiar-looking or not, there was one thing that convinced Willow she had come to the right place. The entrance to the building had a large sign in front that said, "THE QUEEN'S PARTY."

Willow had arrived at last. She still didn't know how she was going to get into the party, or how being at the party would help her find out who she was, but at least she had reached her destination. She steeled herself and walked forward, ready to face whatever was waiting for her.

Part Seven

With a single glance, Willow could tell that getting into the Queen's party would not be easy.

Near the entrance of the building where the party was going on, Willow saw a large chalkboard with the words "PARTY GUESTS" written in large letters above a list of names. A boy one or two years older than Willow stood next to the sign, as if he was standing guard. He wore a crown on his head and a shirt that had the letter "K" and a red heart embroidered on it.

Willow felt a little intimidated, but she knew she had to go forward. Somehow, she knew the answers she needed were inside, and she had to find them. Besides, her feet had already decided they were heading for the party whether the rest of her wanted to come along or not.

The boy standing guard spotted Willow as she approached. "Stop right there!" he commanded. "I'm the King around here, and I say no one gets into the Queen's party unless their name is on the list."

"You're the King?" Willow asked. "What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be at the party with the Queen?"

The boy King looked down at his feet. "Well, that's kind of a long story," he said hesitantly. "The Queen... the Queen hasn't been very happy with me since that thing with the invisible girl." He looked up again, and for the first time Willow noticed a number of fading but still visible bruises on the King's face. "You... you didn't bring one of those along, did you?"

"What?" Willow asked.

"An invisible girl," the King replied.

Willow looked around. "I don't think so," she said.

The King looked visibly relieved. Unfortunately, that also meant he became more belligerent again. "Well, whether you did or not," he said with renewed authority, "you still don't get in unless your name is on the list. So is it?"

In Willow's current condition, the King's challenge was a formidable one. Even if her name was on the list, she wouldn't be able to recognize it. She looked at the chalkboard, but none of the names written on it were familiar.

The King began to glare at her, clearly growing impatient. In desperation, Willow decided to pick a name from the list at random and try to bluff her way into the party. She had never been very good at lying, but she felt like it was her only chance.

"My name...?" Willow began. "Sure, it's... um, right there." Pointing at a name, she said, "Yeah, that's my name all right. It's..."

She never got the chance to continue. At that moment, the door to the building swung open and a burly Swedish-looking boy dragged a teenage girl into the alley. He hurled the girl away from the building and stood there blocking the door until she went away.

"The Queen changed her mind about someone else, Sven?" the King asked the Swedish boy after the girl had departed.

"Ya," Sven replied. "I just vish she'd speak English ven she does that." He pitched his voice higher as he mimicked, "'Sven! Throw-ee out-ee!'" Then returning his voice to normal, he added, "Vat planet does she think I'm from?"

"Better not say that too loud," the King advised, "or the Queen will tell someone else to throw-ee you out-ee."

"I suppose you're right," Sven agreed.

The burly Swede started back into the building, but the King stopped him. "Hey! Don't forget," the King said. "You've got to cross that girl's name off so I'll know not to let her back in."

"Oh, ya," said Sven. He went to the chalkboard and crossed off one of the names - the very same name Willow had been planning to use for herself.

Willow gulped as she watched Sven go back inside. Her will to try bluffing had evaporated. Even if she picked another name and was successful in getting past the King, she would probably just end up being tossed out of the party by Sven sooner or later. Her predicament was looking hopeless.

The King turned back to Willow, clearly expecting her to identify herself. Just as she was thinking she would have to go away, the door into the building opened again. Three creatures walked out - Willow might have called them boys, except that they also looked like yellowish-brown dogs. Dingoes, her brain decided to volunteer. A familiar figure appeared behind the three Dingo-boys. It was the White Rabbit, Oz. Willow remembered him carrying a guitar and mentioning a "gig." She guessed that the Dingo-boys were his fellow musicians.

Willow was struck by a sudden inspiration. "I don't need to be on your list," she told the King. "I'm with the band."

"You are?" the King asked.

"Sure!" She hurried over to the Rabbit's side. "Hi, Oz!" she greeted the Rabbit. "Go ahead and tell the King how well you know me."

"What?" Oz seemed confused. He looked over at the King and said, "I have no idea who this girl is, Your Majesty."

Willow instantly broke into a fit of nervous laughter. "He's such a kidder, isn't he?" she babbled. "Go on, Oz. Tell them about the last time you saw me. You know, when you were so worried about being la..."

"Oh, yeah!" the Rabbit shouted, cutting Willow off. As Willow had been hoping, Oz wasn't too eager for the King to know how late he had been. "She's, uh, she's with us."

The three Dingo-boys looked at Oz curiously, but the Rabbit quickly hushed them.

"So," Willow said hurriedly, trying to keep her momentum going, "you were just about to take me inside. Right?" She gave the Rabbit the most pleading expression she could manage.

"Um, yeah," the Rabbit replied haltingly. "If you say so." Leaving the Dingoes behind, he turned and went back through the entrance, leading Willow to her long-sought destination.

The party was in full swing. The stage was empty, since Oz and his band weren't playing at the time, but recorded music was blaring loudly enough to entertain a crowd of teenagers on the dance floor. Willow looked at them more closely and discovered that, just like the King outside, the teenagers all had numbers and symbols on their clothes, as if together they made up an entire deck of playing cards. The kids who represented higher cards - other Kings and Queens, as well as Jacks and Tens - had their values embroidered on their clothes, just like the King of Hearts. The kids unlucky enough to represent lower cards only had their values silk-screened on, or in some cases, drawn with marker pens.

The Queen of Hearts sat above it all, high on a throne that was shaped like a red convertible sports car. She wore a shimmering white gown with a single heart-shaped red jewel on it and a dazzling jeweled tiara, all of which made a startling contrast with her dark brunette hair. There was no way anyone in the room could miss her.

At the moment, the Queen was surrounded by her subjects, and apparently she was bestowing some of her wisdom on them. Willow crept closer and tried to listen in.

"Now, ladies," the Queen was saying, "never underestimate the power of a good moisturizer. Do you see those Threes and Fours out there on the dance floor? Do you know why they're always going to be Threes and Fours? Because by their twenty-first birthday, they're already going to have crow's feet like nobody's business."

The crowd around the Queen nodded appreciatively, but Willow found herself wishing she had heard something more profound. Perhaps the Queen was merely warming her crowd up and would have more meaningful words next.

"Now, men," the Queen went on, "I know hearing about all the work these women go through might seem a little intimidating. After all, it's your job to show them the proper gratitude for their efforts. But don't be afraid. If you feel true love and affection in your hearts, you don't need to express it with words. Cash or expensive gifts will do just fine. Sometimes, even bett..."

The Queen stopped herself short as something caught her eye. She turned and looked in Willow's direction. "What is that?" she said angrily.

Willow braced herself as the Queen hurried down from her throne. She could hardly believe she had been discovered so quickly. It was a huge relief, then, when the Queen charged straight past her and hurried onto the dance floor. The Queen of Clubs was out there, dancing with the Six of Diamonds.

"Harmony!" the Queen said to the Queen of Clubs, pulling her aside. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm dancing," Harmony, the Queen of Clubs, replied. "This is a dance party, isn't it?"

"You're dancing with him?" the Queen of Hearts said accusingly. "Have you no shame? He's only a Six."

Harmony quailed before the Queen's anger. "I... I'm sorry. I guess I just didn't think. He was so cute and..."

"You can't let these boys make you forget your position," the Queen of Hearts said sharply. "They'll ruin you in the end."

"Uh oh," said Oz, who was still standing at Willow's side. "This could be close."

"What do you mean?" Willow asked.

"I already told you, the Queen of Hearts can be pretty mean sometimes. If the Queen of Clubs doesn't apologize, it could be 'off with her hair.'"

"Don't you mean 'off with her head'?"

"Nah," said Oz. "The Queen of Hearts is a lot meaner than that." He pointed upwards and added, "Just look."

Willow looked up to where Oz was pointing. Above them, on the balcony of the room, sat a row of barber chairs. The Queen's servants were holding a frightened and helpless girl in one of the chairs while another servant shaved her head completely bald. Another girl whose head had already been shaved was being prodded down the stairs, no doubt to be paraded before the crowd on the dance floor. The sight was enough to make Willow shudder.

Meanwhile, Harmony was still contemplating the Queen's words when another boy, the Ten of Spades, ran up to the group. "We've caught her, Your Majesty," he reported upon his arrival.

"Who?" the Queen of Hearts demanded.

"The Jack of Hearts, Your Highness," the Ten replied. "You had ordered us to capture her."

"Oh, yeah. That," said the Queen. Raising her voice, she called out, "Sven! Bring-ee here-ee!"

The crowd on the dance floor parted as Sven brought his struggling prisoner forward. Willow tried to get a good look at the them, but it wasn't until Sven had almost reached the Queen's side that she could see them clearly. When Willow finally did see the prisoner, she felt her eyes bug out as she gasped audibly.

"Hey, Willow," said the captive Jack of Hearts. "I was hoping you'd get here."

"BUFFY!" Willow cried.

Part Eight

Willow stared in amazement as Sven brought the captive Jack of Hearts forward. Of all the people she had seen in this weird place, the Jack was the first one she recognized. But what was Buffy doing here instead of out slaying vampires like she should be doing?

Even more startling was the fact that Buffy seemed to know who Willow was. At least she knew what Willow's name was, which was more than Willow herself could say. Willow's heart raced, excited by the hope that all her questions were about to be answered. Provided, of course, that the Queen of Hearts didn't get in the way by punishing Buffy for whatever crime she was supposed to have committed.

"Buffy, what's going on?" Willow asked her friend. "Why are you the Jack of Hearts?"

"I can be a Jack if I want to," Buffy replied. "It's the nineties. The gender barrier has got to go."

"Yeah, but how did you get here?" Willow asked pleadingly. "What are we supposed to be doing? How do we get home?"

"Excuse me," said the Queen of Hearts, looking at Willow crossly. "We're doing something very important here, and I don't remember asking you to be a part of it."

Willow backed away, cowed by the Queen's anger. Satisfied, the Queen turned back to Buffy.

"Now then," said the Queen, "a crime like yours deserves some really cruel and unusual punishment. But since I can't think of one right now, we'll just start with the regular stuff. By the time that's finished, I'll have something really good in mind." Looking at the burly Swede, she commanded, "Sven! Off-ee with her h..."

"WAIT!" Willow cried out in a voice so loud that she even surprised herself.

The Queen spun around on her high heels and glared at Willow. "You again?" she spat. "What do you want now?"

"Well," said Willow, trying to maintain her sudden boldness, "how can you punish Buffy when she hasn't been convicted of anything yet? That's hardly fair, is it?"

"In case you didn't notice, I'm the Queen around here. I don't have to be fair."

"I know," Willow countered. Scrambling to think of something, she said, "But... you'd be... a lot more popular Queen if your subjects thought you were fair. Yeah, I'll bet they would. And what better way to make them think you're fair than by giving Buffy a trial?"

"More popular?" the Queen repeated. "I didn't think I could be more popular than I already am."

"Just try it," said Willow. "You might be surprised."

"Okay," said the Queen. "We'll have your trial, then we'll have the punishment." She looked at the Swede again and ordered, "Sven! Call-ee the jury-ee!"

Before Willow knew what was happening, the dance floor had been transformed into a courtroom. The Queen's throne sat where the judge's bench should have been, and a jury box appeared next to it. Buffy stood in the center of the room, with Willow still beside her.

Members of the jury began filing in. Harmony, the Queen of Clubs, took the first seat, followed by Oz and the three Dingo-boys. Next came the Frog Doorman and the Duchess of Discipline, who was now back in her human form. The Slacker and the Hare entered after them, dragging along a wheelbarrow that held the still-slumbering Dormouse. The King of Hearts took the next-to-last seat, but left the chair beside him open.

"This is the jury?" Willow asked. "Who gets the last seat?"

"That's for the invisible girl," the King replied. As if on cue, he suddenly jerked sideways, then grabbed his arm as if someone had punched him.

The Queen took her seat on the throne. "All right, jury," she commanded. "Let's have the verdict. She's guilty, right?"

Some of the jury members looked at each other uncertainly, but it didn't take long under the Queen's icy glare before they all started to nod. Things did not look good for the accused.

"Wait a minute!" Willow cried. "How can they give you a verdict when we don't even know what the charges are?"

"Who are you?" the Queen demanded. "The Jack's lawyer?"

"Um, in a... in a way," Willow said a bit more hesitantly. "I guess you could say I'm representing her."

"That's the way, Will," said Buffy. "I knew I could count on you."

"You want to know what her crime is?" The Queen glared at Willow, barely containing her fury. "You want to know what her crime is?" she repeated.

Willow felt like running away, but she had come too far to do that. "Um, yeah," she said. "It would be nice."

The Queen stepped down from her throne again. She went straight up to Willow and stood there, staring into Willow's face. "I'll tell you what her crime is," she snarled.

As Willow watched, the Queen went to stand in front of Buffy, looking at her accusingly. "Everything was perfect before she came along. I was the Queen, and nobody questioned it. The Kings and the other Queens were part of my court. The Eights, Nines and Tens looked up to us. The lower cards kept their places. It was perfect, but then she had to start ruining it."

"I'm a rebel," said Buffy. "What can I say?"

"Don't say anything," the Queen ordered. "You've already said enough. You could have had it all, you know. A lot of friends. A place in my court. Everything that being one of my chosen people has to offer. But no, that wasn't good enough, was it? You had to be different. You had to spoil everything."

"Wait just a second," said Willow. "I still don't understand what Buffy did wrong."

The Queen turned back to Willow. If anything, she looked even more furious. "Oh, really?" she said. "You wouldn't know, would you? As far as you're concerned, everything's just fine, isn't it? I should have known. You're a part of what she did wrong!"

Willow's head began to spin. Before she could say anything, the Queen produced a life-sized cardboard cutout figure. To Willow's amazement, she recognized it as being a picture of herself, dressed like the other kids at the party. She was the Two of Hearts. As Willow looked closer, she noticed that the cutout was covered with small pinholes, as if someone had been using it for target practice or a game of darts.

"This is what you were," said the Queen. "This is what you should still be. A Two. A nothing. Just someone to fill out the background while I take center stage. And you would have stayed that way if Buffy hadn't come along."

The Queen stalked over to Buffy and stared at her again. "You couldn't just let her be, could you? Oh, no - you decided to talk to her. You decided to be nice to her. You accepted help from her. You... you decided to be her friend." She spat the last word out of her mouth as if it was a profanity.

Buffy simply stared back at the Queen and said nothing. The Queen sneered and turned to address the jury next. "Where does it all stop? What Buffy did was like... like letting the genie out of Pandora's Box or something. If people in my court think they can associate with Twos, what's going to happen next? Before you know it, the commoners will be thinking they can ask me out on a date!"

"That'll never happen, Queenie!" the Slacker shouted from his seat in the jury box. "Just come on over here and I'll tell you how that'll never happen."

"Be quiet, man," said the Hare. "She was looking right at me until you distracted her."

"She was not!" the Slacker retorted. He reached out and slapped the Hare across one of his ears. The Hare quickly lashed back and hit the Slacker on the arm. Before anyone else could react, the Slacker and the Hare were in a full-blown scuffle, wrestling back and forth above the sleeping form of the Dormouse.

"STOP THAT!" The command from the Queen brought everyone back to attention. "Any more out of you two and you'll be spending some quality time with Sven."

The Slacker and the Hare quickly sat back down, still glaring at each other but remaining quiet. The Queen turned back to Buffy and Willow. "All right, I've presented my case against the Jack of Hearts," she said. "So now it's time for your verdict. Hurry up and convict her. I don't want to be late for my nail appointment."

The jury members began what looked to be a rather short deliberation. Buffy remained silent, preferring to stand there defiantly rather than offer any kind of defense. Things would be over very quickly, unless...

"You're wrong, you know..." Willow found herself saying. Something was bubbling up inside her. She could feel its power tickling at the back of her mind.

"What was that?" said the Queen.

"You're wrong," Willow repeated. "Buffy's not the one you want. I am."

"You? Why would I want anything from you?"

"I'm the one who's guilty," Willow insisted. "Buffy didn't make me what I am. She just saw who I already was and gave me the courage to bring it out."

Willow stepped forward and snatched the cardboard cutout of herself from the Queen's hands. The Queen shrieked indignantly, but Willow ignored her.

"This isn't who I am," Willow said, waving the cutout in the air. "It never was."

"Oh, really?" snorted the Queen.

"Really," Willow replied. She looked over at Buffy and smiled broadly. Buffy - the Jack of Hearts, the Slayer, her friend - smiled back. The power Willow felt in her mind began to swell.

"All right, then," the Queen said contemptuously. "Just who are you?"

Willow turned back to the Queen. The power inside her continued to grow. "You want to know who I am?" she said. Then again, only louder. "You want to know who I am?"

The power in Willow's mind was almost at a full boil now. "I'll tell you who I am," she told the Queen. And at that moment, she knew that she could.

The power burst into Willow's mind, through her whole being. She felt it carry her along, unlocking the doors that had been slammed shut in this strange land. The frustrations she had felt fueled her exuberance over finally being able to understand.

She whipped the cardboard cutout into the air and swung it around at the Queen. It hit with a satisfying thwack!

"I - " Willow shouted.

Thwack! The second blow was even more satisfying than the first. Willow was almost feeling giddy.

"- AM -" she shouted.

THWACK! Let Sven drag her away. Let them shave her bald. Let them do what they wanted. They couldn't change what Willow knew.

"- WILLOW -" Willow was almost drunk with the joy of knowing her name again.

THWACK! The cardboard cutout was now bent and mutilated almost beyond recognition. One more hit would finish it.

"- ROSENBERG!!!" Willow's name cut through the room, drowning out everything else.

THWACK!!! The last blow shredded the cardboard cutout. It disintegrated into hundreds of tiny pieces. At the same time, the Queen of Hearts herself disintegrated into a blizzard of playing cards, scattering through the air.

Willow's momentum carried her through the swing and spun her around the room. Or was the room itself spinning? She felt dizzy. The floor began to tilt beneath her...

Meanwhile, over in the jury box, the Dormouse finally woke up.

Part Nine


Willow hit the floor - hard. Her chair slammed down next to her, and an avalanche of books and papers rained down all around her. Dazed and bewildered, she looked up to see where she was.

She was in the library. Her library. Back where she belonged.

"Willow! Are you all right?" Giles raced out of his office and knelt down beside her.

"I think so," Willow said, her mind still confused. "What happened?"

At that moment, the library doors opened and Buffy walked in, followed by Xander and Cordelia.

"Hey, guys!" Xander called. "We're ba..." he stopped short at the sight of Willow on the floor, surrounded by Giles, the fallen chair, the books and the papers.

"Willow!" Buffy cried as she came into view of the scene. "What happened? You guys weren't attacked, were you?"

"I believe Willow fell asleep," said Giles. "She, ah, must have tried to turn over and fell out of her chair."

"Way to go, Will," said Xander as the three teenagers reached the library table.

"You're okay, aren't you?" Buffy asked.

"I... I think so. I had the strangest dream," Willow replied. Looking at each of her friends in turn, she said, "You were in it... and you were in it... and - no, wait. That's the wrong story."

"Well, it doesn't matter," said Giles, "as long as you're all right. Perhaps it's time you were heading home for the evening."

"No, I'd rather stay," Willow said. "If... if you still want me to, of course."

"Do I ever," said Buffy. "I know you guys have been working hard, but after what I found on patrol, I'm even more confused about our undead buddy of the week than I was before."

"Hello?" said Cordelia. "Are you forgetting what that creep did to my car? Don't leave that out."

"Yes, yes," said Giles. "Give us all the details, and I'll get back to my books."

"Okay," said Xander. "Late-night research party. I'll go get the Ho-Ho's. Anybody else want something?"

"The usual will do, thanks," said Buffy.

"Pick up a mineral water for me," said Cordelia.

"Mineral water?" Xander repeated. "What kind of late-night research food is that?"

"Look, Xander," Cordelia shot back, "all this midnight monster-show stuff is hard enough on my looks. The least you can do is help me keep my system hydrated and at the right pH level."

"Oh. Well, excuse me," said Xander. "I had no idea it took so much scientific knowledge to look so..."

"Better listen to her, Xander," Willow muttered under her breath. "It's not smart to argue with Her Majesty..."

The two bickering teens must have heard her, because they both stopped talking and looked in her direction. Willow flashed them a guilty smile, then said, "Um... I mean, it must take a lot of effort to look so... uh... majestic, Xander. You should have some respect for that."

"There, you see?" said Cordelia. "Even Willow agrees with me. For once."

Xander merely stood there gaping at Willow in surprise. Before he could say anything, Cordelia dragged him away, pointing him toward the library door.

"Willow," Giles called from the table, where he was still picking up everything Willow had knocked on the floor. "If you're finished with these volumes, I think I'll take them back to my office. You'll probably need the space for the new books we have to look through."

Willow thanked the librarian and watched him as he carried the books away. Another faint smile crept across her face as she imagined him slithering there instead.

"Okay," Buffy said, drawing Willow's attention back to the matter at hand. The Slayer was holding a rock that was half-covered in deep gouges. "We caught Mister Ugly sharpening his fangs over in Waverly Park. And if you look outside at Cordelia's car, you'll see the same tooth pattern on her back bumper. Think you can find the kind of creature this matches?"

Willow considered the rock carefully. "It'll probably take a while," she said. "Catalogs of undead teeth marks are hard to find. But I'm sure I can dig up something."

"That's the way, Will," said Buffy. "I knew I could count on you."

Buffy's words cut straight through Willow's mind and touched the core of the dream that hadn't quite faded yet. Impulsively, Willow put the rock on the table and embraced her friend tightly. "Thanks," she said.

"What's this all about?" said Buffy. "If you're that starved for appreciation, I can have Miss Calendar give Giles another sensitivity talk."

"No, you don't have to," Willow replied, letting Buffy go again. "It'd take too long to explain. Just... thanks for being here."

"Any time," Buffy said, still a bit uncertain. With that, she turned and went to join her Watcher in his office.

Willow watched Buffy leave, then sat back down at the table and examined the rock more closely. Sometimes it seemed like her job was never done. And that was just the way she liked it.

The End