The house was empty. Of course, it would be – Buffy had taken Dawn to the hospital. Amy had gone back to her dad’s. And Tara was gone; Willow didn’t even know where she’d gone, where she was living now. It hadn’t seemed appropriate to ask. Or maybe I was just scared that she wouldn’t answer me. Wouldn’t want me to know where she lives. Maybe I just didn’t want to know how badly I’d broken her trust.
Broke Tara’s trust. Broke Dawn’s arm tonight. Broke Buffy, pulling her out of heaven. The house is empty because I’m in it. I broke everything.
Willow didn’t turn the lights on, making her way up the familiar stairs by feel. She blinked in the faint moonlight when she reached her doorway, staring in at the trampled, ransacked mess of a room. Am I hallucinating this? A bundle of dried sage crunched under her feet as she stepped hesitantly in the doorway. No, I don’t think so.
Rack’s tainted magic was still tingling faintly along her nerves, creating a weird and nauseating mixture of pleasure and revulsion. It still felt vaguely good, but it wasn’t strong enough now to overwhelm the feeling of wrongness. Her skin felt like it didn’t fit, her insides itched and ached. She couldn’t quite tell if she felt too hot or too cold, but somehow everything was just off. It wasn’t exactly painful, but she had the disconcerting urge to start screaming.
It was occurring to her belatedly how stupid she had been. Willow knew better than to take drinks from strangers. Didn’t smoke. Wore sunscreen. Probably would have died of pure shock if anyone had even thought to offer her a joint. She was a good girl. She was sensible. And I let some scuzzy freaky-eyed guy do god-knows-what to me. Just to get out of my head. I don’t even know what he did, because regular old magic doesn’t feel like that. It’s trippy, yeah, but not like that.
She sat down on the end of the bed, picking up a shirt that had been tossed across it and examining the material disinterestedly.
I broke Dawnie’s arm. Just to get out of my head.
I don’t think this is gonna work . .
A small suitcase had been flung out of the closet; it had landed next to a pile of old notebooks. Willow put down the shirt, picked up the suitcase, set it on the bed and flicked it open. She dropped the shirt inside. She grabbed a skirt from the floor near the wall, meandered dreamily into the bathroom and retrieved her toothbrush. It felt like she was moving in slow motion, walking through a thick flood of near-delirium. The aftereffects of her magic-induced high had moved on rapidly from disconcerting to numb and disorienting. Nothing felt quite real. That’s good. Do it before it sinks in. Get out of here.
She moved to her underwear-and-socks drawer, which remained undisturbed. Everything was neatly folded, little colorful squares and balls. She pulled the entire drawer out of the dresser and upended it over the suitcase.
Her jewelry box had already been pulled haphazardly apart, and it looked like someone had tried to force the lock on the bottom compartment – she murmured something under her breath and it sprang open. She pulled out her emergency stash – several hundred cash, plus traveler’s cheques, and an extra passport, assembled there in the weeks after Buffy’s death. An attempt at learning from their mistakes, after that desperate flight into the desert. Dawn had a similar stash, at Willow’s insistence, but Dawnie’s included clothes and non-perishable food items. She called it her life-in-a-box.
I broke her arm. Ran her right into a wall.
A wad of cash went into her pocket; the remainder went into the suitcase, tossed on top of socks and bras. The suitcase closed with a neat snap.
The walk to the bus stop was surreal; she realized she was shaking when she dropped the suitcase. It popped open in the middle of the deserted street, spewing money and socks everywhere. She retrieved most of it, but bending over was starting to make her head spin and her vision go gray, and she thought she might have missed some.
Gonna make somebody’s day tomorrow if I left a bundle of cash lying under a bush ..
She bent to pick up the mostly reassembled suitcase, lost her balance, lurched forward and vomited onto the sidewalk.
Willow crouched there, eyes tightly shut, panting and sweaty and suddenly freezing cold, feeling reality seep back in. She ached. She’d scraped both knees when she fell. But she felt clearer. It suddenly occurred to her that there probably wouldn’t be a bus until morning. There were vampires out here. And demons. And the thought of doing anything more magically strenuous than levitating a pencil was making her stomach heave again. In short, this is an excellent way to get very dead.
But it’s still the right thing, isn’t it? You’ve got to get away from here. You can’t stay and pretend it’ll get better, and hurt someone else.
She felt around for the suitcase and stumbled a few feet forward before opening her eyes, not particularly wanting to see what she’d puked up. Once it seemed she’d gone a safe distance, she sat down on the curb, setting the suitcase on her knees and hugging it to her chest.
And for one million dollars, the question is . . what now?
I don’t think suicide-by-nighttime-stroll-in-Sunnydale is a responsible option, appealingly effortless as it is. It gets major points for not involving any further movement. But could involve getting turned, and thus it flunks the not-hurting-anyone-else requirement.
I don’t think I really want to die. Just not too sure about that living thing anymore, either.
Welcome to rock bottom, population me.
Willow slumped down over her suitcase, cradling her throbbing forehead against her left elbow, her right arm flung out despondently.
I just need to get away –
There was a sudden deafening BANG.
Willow screeched and scrambled backwards on all fours, as something huge and very purple came to a shuddering stop in the street right in front of her.
It was a bus. An enormous, purple, triple-decker bus. And unless I’m doing the trippy thing again, it just appeared out of nowhere. Willow stumbled to her feet, staring, wondering idly if it was more appropriate to run like hell or start laughing hysterically. It’s a giant grape-coolaid-colored apparition of a bus.
The doors on the bus opened with a metallic squeal, and a young man in an equally purple uniform jumped down onto the sidewalk.
"Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard," he began reciting. "Just stick out your wand hand, step on board, and we can take you anywhere you want to go. My name is Stan Shunpike, and I will be your conductor this evening." He paused. "And I’d like to congratulate you on being our farthest-flung call ever. Never got no calls from California before."
Willow gaped. Stan waited expectantly, standing politely to one side of the door with his arms folded.
"Er, miss? You did call us, dincha?" he asked.
"I .. um .." Willow stammered.
"You are stranded?"
"I think so," Willow squeaked. Emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard?
"So where’d you need t’get to?" Stan asked, giving her an impatient look.
"I don’t know," Willow answered a little dazedly.
"You dunno," Stan repeated incredulously, sounding as if he were beginning to doubt her sanity.
"Um, not here?" Willow offered. Stan just glared at her. "How about wherever you’re going next?"
"London," Stan answered. "That’s .. from ‘ere . . gotta figger that a minute, never got out this way afore .. guess a Galleon an’ five Sickles."
"A huh and five what?" Willow asked. And how does a bus get from California to London? And why am I seriously considering getting on the giant radioactive grape, anyway?
"A Galleon," Stan said slowly, "an’ five Sickles. If you ain’t got it, could drop you off somewhere ‘tween here and there .. New York, maybe?"
"A Galleon like .. an old Spanish ship?" Willow asked, bewildered. I thought he sounded English. Stan sighed.
"You dunno what a Galleon is?" His tone suggested it was a feat of ignorance comparable to not knowing how to tie your own shoes. "You got any wizard money at all?"
Stan just stared disbelievingly.
"Um, I have regular US-dollars money," Willow offered, holding out two twenties. "Is that enough?"
"Don’t take Muggle money," Stan said firmly. "You *sure* you called? There weren’t nobody else around? In robes, maybe?"
"Nobody else," Willow shook her head. "Uh, what’s a Muggle?" And . . robes? Like judge’s robes? Or like bathrobes?
"What’s the hold-up?" called an annoyed voice from inside the bus.
"Comin’, Ern!" Stan turned around and called. He frowned and looked a little embarrassed when he addressed Willow again. "Look, uh, sorry ‘bout this, but we gotta get on, and if’n you got no money –"
"It’s okay," Willow assured him, swallowing down a lump in her throat. Great. Even the giant purple freak bus won’t have me. "It’s no big. I can walk to .. wherever." He was giving her a pitying look. And I’m getting sad looks from the conductor of the giant purple freak bus. My life is officially several levels below totally sucking. And .. dang it, I wanted to find out what was up with the bus. It’s all purple. And freaky. And begging to be researched. But no, no researchy goodness for Willow. Please see above re: life sucks.
She picked up her suitcase, shrugging and trying not to sound as awkward as she felt. "You know, it’s good exercise, and .. uh, bye." She turned to leave, wondering vaguely where exactly she was going to go on foot.
Maybe I could just chug some holy water, and then reconsider the whole suicide-by-moonlit-stroll-on-the-Hellmouth idea. I wonder if that’d work. Holy-water-filled belly, no getting turned. Instant dustiness. I should tell –
The girl I pulled out of heaven, who’s sister’s arm I just broke. Right. Keep walking.
"Hey!" Stan called after her. "Hey, I got a thought .." She paused, glancing back at him. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Seein' as you haven't got a destination in mind . . we wouldn't be goin' nowhere ‘specially for you, an' it's not like we're 'xactly bustin' at the seams with passengers tonight, so . ."
"So?" Willow asked weakly.
"So this one's on me," Stan said, shrugging and stuffing both hands in his pockets. "But don't you be tellin' nobody. We sorta specialize in lost an' pathetic, see, so can't have ever'body thinkin' they can get a free ride just for bein' . . well . . " he suddenly seemed to realize she might consider 'lost and pathetic' to be an insulting sort of description.
"It's okay. Lost and pathetic. That'd be me," Willow said with a self-deprecating shrug. She bit her lip. "You're sure you're not gonna get in trouble for this?"
"Nah," Stan scoffed. "Ern won't care, so just s'long as you don't go spreadin' it about -"
"These lips are sealed," Willow assured him, hefting her bag and stepping onto the bus. "I officially owe you one. Or two. Or lots. Do you like cookies?" The young conductor was giving her a look that said he was once again doubting her sanity. "It's what I do," she explained. "Cookies. I bake. Well, that's not the only thing I do, but it's the thing I do when I owe people, and - oh!"
Willow stopped abruptly, staring down the center isle of the bus; the sides were lined not with seats, but with brass beds. Wide, comfortable looking brass beds. And the entire interior - which looked suspiciously larger and more stable than the radioactive-grape exterior - was lit by soft candlelight.
"Never been on a wizard bus before either, eh?" Stan asked.
Willow shook her head. There was a woman asleep in a bed near the back, an impressive array of multicolored carpet bags set beside the footboard, and hanging up on a small peg on the wall near the window was a witch's hat. A black, pointy, wide-brimmed, wicked-witch-of-the-west hat. And I am soooo not in Kansas anymore.
"And you ain't got *no* idea where you need to be?" Stan queried again. "I won't take it back, 'bout it bein' free, if you thought of a place . . "
"Not a clue," Willow answered honestly. Not one single clue anywhere in sight. About anything. And great Goddess, that is a *witch's hat*. There are witches somewhere that actually wear them? And there are giant purple busses that appear out of thin air. How did I miss this?
"Right then," Stan said with a sigh. "Just pick a bed. Don't matter where, but you feel the bumps less 'round the middle."
Willow nodded absentmindedly, eyes still fixed on the black pointy hat. Its owner rolled over in her sleep with a slight frown. She had dusty blonde hair, and a faint smattering of freckles across her decidedly ordinary, middle-aged face. And she wore that hat.
"You'll lemme know when someplace catches your eye, then?" Stan prompted.
"Where she's going," Willow blurted, before she was even aware of the idea forming in her mind. "The lady with the hat. Wherever she's going." She turned to the young conductor with a questioning look, and saw that he was eyeing her warily again.
"That'd be 'ogsmeade," he said, slowly. He paused a minute, as if expecting her to recognize the name.
"Ogsmeade?" Willow repeated.
"*Hogs*meade," Stan enunciated.
"Oh," Willow said. "That's kinda funny. Hogs and mead. Drunken hogs." She giggled slightly. Stan watched her as if he expected her brain to start dribbling out her ears at any moment. "So, um, yeah. I want to go to Hogsmeade," Willow affirmed, in what she hoped was a reasonable and sane sort of voice.
"Got any family there? Friends or anythin'?" Stan asked.
"No, I don't think so," Willow answered. I just want to go to the place where people wear pointy witchy hats, because I think that's probably about as far out of my reality as I could possibly get. Stan sighed.
"Well you're gonna have a problem then," he said, with a hint of exasperation creeping into his weary voice. "'ogsmeade's all wizarding folk."
Willow stared at him blankly.
"They won't take Muggle money?" he prompted, his expression now suggesting she was not only mad as a hatter but also an utter idiot.
"Oh," Willow sighed dejectedly. "Well, I guess . . I guess I'll think of somewhere else then . ."
Stan gave an explosive, long-suffering sigh, rolling his eyes. "Oh bloody 'ell," he exclaimed. "You got muggle bills an' coins and stuff, right?"
"Yeah," Willow answered, puzzled. But he just said regular-people money's no good.
"I reckon my kid brother'd think that was real neat," he said, digging in his pockets and producing a handful of coins in gold, silver and bronze. "I 'spose I could trade ya. You got all different ones?"
"Um, yeah," Willow said, after a moment's stunned pause, digging in her pockets. She pulled out a twenty, a ten and some ones, and a handful of loose change. "What's the exchange rate? I can do those in my head. Is this good?" She held the disorganized wad of money out to him.
"Dunno 'xactly," Stan shrugged, thrusting the heavy coins into her empty hand. He held up a one dollar bill and examined it. "Look'at that - picture's just sittin' there. Looks like 'e's starin' at me, don't he? Not blinkin' or nothin'."
"They do that," Willow commented, examining her newly acquired currency. She had no way of knowing, but she suspected the many gold coins she now held amounted to considerably more than the thirty-four dollars and change she'd turned over. "Er, that is, look like they're doing that. They can't actually be staring at you, 'cause, you know, picture."
"Creepy," Stan said, but he was grinning. "Jimmy'll love this."
"You're sure this is right?" Willow asked. "I think you might have given me too much -"
"Close enough," Stan mumbled awkwardly. "S'not like I'm gonna spend yours, anyhow. But - you won't be *tellin'* nobody, will you? 'cause this ain't Gringotts, y'know, can't have people thinkin' we're bloody money-changers now too."
"I will take it to the grave," Willow solemnly assured him; he looked at her oddly again. "Er, it's an expression. Like, I won't tell anybody until I'm dead." He looked non-plussed. "And then, you know, dead. So can't tell." That reaching-for-a-straight-jacket-soon expression was back. Willow giggled self-consciously. "Guess it's an American thing. Or – Muggle? Did I say that right? Muggle thing. Just means - won't tell. There will be no telling."
"That's fine, then," Stan said. "Y'might as well settle in. 'ogsmeade's last stop. Think we're ready to go, Ern!" he called up to the driver.
"'Bout time!" the driver called back. Stan hurried up towards the front of the bus, as Willow settled down onto a bed near the middle. "Thanks again!" she called after the young man, and she thought she saw the back of his neck flush red, but he gave no indication that he'd heard her.
There was a loud bang, and with a sharp jerk that made Willow yelp and drop the coins onto the bedspread, the bus was moving. She plucked up the coins and poured them into her pocket, then lay down, facing towards the back of the bus; towards the pointy black witch's hat.