The bell jangled as the door swung wide, admitting a gust of cold wind that swept in what appeared to be a small girl wrapped in a dark coat and scarf. She scurried into the cafe spotting the booth right away and made a beeline to where a clean-cut, dark-haired young man sat nursing a hot cup of coffee between his cold hands. She unraveled her head, ran a hand hastily through red curls and dropped into the booth across from him, taking his hand in her own and giving him a big smile.
It was the same almost every evening and had been since last spring, the shop-keeper thought, watching the pair from across the room with the same detached interest he had about all of his regulars. These two would swing in first, followed by another pal, a blond girl about their same age. They'd all order coffees and maybe a slice of pie, maybe pore over some books together for a while and then slip back into the night. He assumed they were students at the university and kind of admired how they managed to keep a routine together when so much in Berlin these days was changing.
The boy ran his thumb along the girl's hand and her smile grew in intensity. They leaned in close across the table in animated chatter. Were they dating? Or was he dating the other one, the blond? The shopkeeper had given up long ago trying to guess.
The boy turned to the shopkeeper, happily chirping out, "Hey, Helmut, another cup of coffee over here and a slice of pie for the lady."
The shopkeeper nodded and brought the food around. The redhead smiled up at him with happily innocent eyes as he poured her cup of coffee. It seemed all too rare these days to see anyone looking so happy that the shopkeeper couldn't help but return the smile in spite of himself. He set the slice of pie on the table between the couple and rested two forks beside it.
"Your friend the blond coming in tonight?" Helmut asked, though he was pretty sure he knew the answer.
The boy spoke, "Buffy? Yeah, she should be along any minute."
Helmut nodded and set down a third fork before turning and heading back to the bar. He had more cups of coffee to pour for the rest of his regulars. He got back to work, a small ghost of the smile still at the corners of his mouth. Buffy--that was the blond's name.
"So, did you get it?" Willow asked breathlessly, leaning across the table and pulling Xander's hands away from the warmth of his coffee cup.
"Yeow, your hands are like death!" he protested, adding: "...If death were located somewhere near Iceland. And it was winter. Where the hell are your gloves?"
Willow knew the pair he was talking about. They had been his gift to her. Only now she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen them. She grinned and lied to him, "They're at home."
Xander tipped his head skeptically. "Ha, ha. Right. Considering you don't really have a home."
There was no malice in his comment. It was just a fact, and one she had long ago vowed not to let matter to her, so it didn't matter to Xander, either. She diverted the conversation back to its original course. "Come on. Tell me. Did you get the papers?"
Xander let his breath out in a big sigh, as Willow leaned in closer across the table, encircling his hands in her slim, icy grasp. The sigh was for being reminded of the trouble it had taken him to get something so small--and papery--but then his eyes brightened. "Yes," he said emphatically. His smile was playful and smug.
Willow just about burst at the news. She wiggled, grinning happily. "I knew it! I just had this feeling that today was going to be my lucky day. And don't I deserve a lucky day every here and there considering the odds of me having one are fairly stacked against me and that, well, in fact, I should have run for the hills a long time ago. Wow. What is today? The 26th? The 26th is now, officially, my lucky day."
Xander beamed affectionately. "As of today-the lucky 26th of January, 1943--you're no longer Willow Rosenberg," he said, his voice barely a whisper.
Willow considered this playfully, a sly blush creeping across her cheeks. "I wonder who I am?" It was as if suddenly all the world had opened up to her. Xander turned his head and called out to the shopkeeper for coffee and pie.
When they were delivered to the table, Willow couldn't help but beam happily up at the shopkeeper. She was feeling suddenly giddy and alive. She didn't feel compelled to keep her head down from fear the way she had for so long.
The door jangled again and a new gust of wind brought in Buffy. Her blond hair was blowing out of its hairpins, and she hugged a leather book bag to her chest. She strode quickly to the booth and slipped in beside Willow, letting her breath out in a gasp and yanking her gloves off. She glanced from Xander to Willow and back again. "What?" she asked. "Did you two just get engaged or something? What's with the hands?" Willow hadn't yet let go of Xander's.
"I- I think they're kind of frozen," Willow pondered, trying unsuccessfully to move them.
"Yeah, and it's no wonder. You lost the gloves I gave you!" Xander said in mock slight. "You know, I clocked a lot of hours for the Gestapo just to get those for you." He turned to Buffy, who was trying to tuck the stray strands of gold hair behind her ears. "And what about you?" he bleated at her. "Where's your hat?"
Buffy glanced around uncomfortably. "Uh. At school?"
Xander leaned back and surveyed the two women before him, shaking his head. "And to think that the future of civilization could rest on the shoulders of you two."
Buffy gave him a tepid smile.
"Oh, and speaking of futures, Will here now has one," Xander beamed broadly.
Buffy shot a glance at Willow and slapped the girl's shoulder. "Tell me you are not marrying Xander."
Willow rolled her eyes. "I am not marrying Xander."
"In fact, our little Willow is Willow no more," Xander grinned.
Buffy turned and scowled. "Then who are you?"
Willow scowled thoughtfully as well. "You know, I was just asking myself the exact same thing..."
Xander rifled inside his heavy overcoat for something, finally pulling out a slim passbook. He glanced inside. "She's now, uh, Wilma Hermann." He nodded, pleased with himself.
Willow took offense. "Wilma? You couldn't come up with a better name than that? Something more romantic or all movie starry. Like, like Marlene or Greta or, or..."
Buffy patted her friend's arm. "Down, girl. Wilma's fine. We can still call you Will. Ma. Wil-ma," she snorted while Willow looked unhappy.
"Sounds like I should be scrubbing floors. Or married to a caveman. Or both."
Xander took Willow's hand once more. His eyes were wide and sincere. "No, Will. It's perfect." The table and the pie and the three forks gazed back at him, surreally. He met Willow's gaze for emphasis. "We don't have to worry as much anymore." And within that simple statement, the three of them understood the depth of things it represented: They didn't need to fear that one day Willow just wouldn't show up because she'd been found out and arrested or shot or worse. Being a Jew in the hate- and fear-stained streets of 1943 Berlin was treacherous at best. And out of defiance, Willow had chosen not to be cowed by it. She was small. She had endured 22 years being an unremarkable wallflower--a girl other people just didn't notice. But as the numbers of Jews in Berlin dwindled, and the government's promotion of hatred and violence ever escalated, and a frustrated people needed a scapegoat, the three of them knew it was just a matter of time before someone asked to see Willow's papers. When that day came, she needed to have some. Xander had, indeed, at great risk to himself, just secured Willow a future.
Willow thought her heart would melt with gratitude. "I love you," she whispered, squeezing his hand. Her fingers were finally warm.
Xander was walking home along the darkened streets of Berlin when the Air Raid sirens sounded. They bayed a woeful and familiar song that filled his chest with dread. He glanced around in confusion, trying to decide where to go. His home was many blocks away, and already he could hear the rumble of planes overhead. Other people- some individuals, some couples--were dashing quickly, running up steps into unfamiliar buildings. "Basement" was the only word his brain could conjure right now. His legs only obeyed the command to run. As fast as his legs could carry him, he followed a middle-aged man and woman as their shoes clicked up stone steps into a large apartment building. He turned as the heavy double doors were closing to see a huge flash of red illuminate the night sky some distance away. The crimson clung there, a luminous red stain across the horizon that flickered but did not fade. His mind flashed to Buffy and Willow, wondering where they were and if they were safe--frightened at the realization that there had been and would be many more moments when the three of them would be separated by what seemed to be the brutish and careless clashing of titans.
At the whistle of an airborne missile from above, he dove inside, and the doors clacked shut with a firmness that somehow didn't seem anywhere near firm enough. He followed the sounds of footsteps on stairs in a darkened hallway and found himself in a herd of apartment occupants moving as civilly as possible, considering the circumstances, down to the basement. He slipped into their crush and let himself be carried along.
Buffy and Willow had a similar jolt as the sirens came up. They had parted company with Xander not long ago and were headed in the opposite direction toward the flat Buffy shared with her mother and younger sister. They had been walking arm in arm, sharing their warmth and excitement. Willow's mind was moving at lightspeed calculating all of the things she'd dreamed of doing. "I could enroll at university--nobody there knows me. I could get a job. Who knows. I could even start up a business!" Her excitement was infectious, but Buffy couldn't help noticing a shopfront with windows hand-painted top to bottom with the curse, "JUDE,"--the lame work of some average Joe proclaiming his hatred and superiority over his neighbors. It was a mark of menace and intimidation. Buffy could tell by the board over the door that that particularly homespun sentiment of boycott had been effective: the place was dead inside. Willow passed the window without a glance. She was deep in dreamland, her cheeks a bright pink and her eyes glittering. Buffy pulled the girl closer and held on tight.
That's when the siren went off, shocking them to a complete standstill. In between its wails, Buffy focused her listening. "Planes," she said simply, tugging at Willow's arm. "Come on, Wilma. Time to hit the dirt."
Willow calmly followed her friend down the street, floating thoughts out behind her like puffs of warm breath into the night air. "See, that's just so interesting. Where did that expression come from, anyway? I could see if we were dodging sniper fire, then being low to the ground-like completely horizontal--would be very useful. But I think if we took a moment and stretched out here we'd probably just create more surface area, you know, for catching falling bricks."
"I knew there was a reason I have you do my physics homework," Buffy said.
As if on cue, a light flashed in the sky, searing the surroundings with a thick clap that was followed by the crumble and tumble of stones from the building across the street as one shoulder of the gothic structure was torn to rubble. Over the din of the explosion and the Air Raid siren, the girls could hear more than one voice in pain and frightened weeping.
They coughed on the dust and then sprinted away, hacking grime from their lungs as they ran side-by-side toward the broad stone steps of the opera house. The lights there were just being turned down as they stumbled up the steps, gasping. An attendant was pushing the doors closed. "Please," Buffy cried. Only one thought was in her mind: staying alive for her mother and sister. Her outstretched hand caught the door mid-swing. The attendant eyed her expressionlessly and then allowed them in. As they negotiated a crowded and dark corridor down to the basement, Willow noted that she and Buffy were decidedly underdressed among the frightened opera-goers, who seemed to include a rather healthy contingent of SS men, attractive and well-heeled ladies decorating their arms like fine ornaments.
The basement was dark. Later, Willow and Buffy would not be able to remember a single physical detail of it, except they were crouched in what seemed like a long stone archway or tunnel, pressed in close with the opera-goers, every one of them just as scared as they were. Here, in this moment, class and ethnicity and politics didn't matter. They were all Germans under attack. The weight of the whole opera house sat above them, immovable and proud --just waiting to be toppled.
The sounds coming from the sky were terrifying. In the darkness, Xander felt a slim hand slip into his own, a woman's hand. As a bomb hit freakishly close by, he gave the hand a squeeze, and fought down his own trembling to look up into the face of a young woman, maybe a little older than he was. Long blond hair pulled back and haunted blue eyes, mouth slack and scared. She was the perfect picture of the government's Aryan ideal: blond, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered. The perfect vessel for the next generation of The Fuhrer's genetically purified master race. Which was another way of saying the girl was pretty. She merely blinked back at him, thankfully oblivious to his thoughts.
Another bomb hit closer this time, and Xander found himself clutching the girl to him--whether as comforter or comforted he did not know. Was that him shaking or her? Or both? Or was it maybe the ground? What a strange moment for multiple-choice reflections. They clutched each other in a manner that would have been impossible and unseemly were it not for the circumstances. Wartime makes for strange bedfellows, indeed. Of course, that was only an expression. He didn't mean that in a literal bed kind of way.
They crouched in the basement like that, holding each other tight, for what must have been a solid hour, until at last the sounds of planes and explosions had died away and one-by-one the apartment-dwellers began to rouse themselves. Families began to stand and shake out their stiff limbs, letting out the breath they'd been holding. Xander continued to hold the girl close, looking around for her family, but it seemed she was alone. Finally, he rose to his feet, pulling her with him. They were still locked in embrace. Noticing it, Xander coughed uncomfortably and disengaged, patting her arm and doing his best to look like a man should, all chivalrous and such.
"I'm not very brave," he said with a small chuckle, mentally kicking himself that this stupid statement was the first thing he said to a very pretty girl. And she was pretty in a creamy and voluptuous way. He revised his earlier assessment. "Broad-shouldered" didn't cut it: She was womanly.
The trembling in his hands was back, and he willed himself to take a deep breath and start over. But if the girl caught his fright, she didn't seem to care. She turned to him with eyes that could melt butter. She quirked a half-smile. "Personally, I never want to come down here again, either," she said in a wavering voice. And then she looked up at the ceiling. "I wonder if my apartment's ok?" she mused aloud.
Xander gentlemanly touched her elbow. "If it would make you feel safer, I'd be happy to walk you up."
The girl looked him over and noticed the collar of his uniform under his heavy black overcoat. Xander realized yet again that while his desk job at SS headquarters scared the shit out of him, it was going to instill confidence in someone else. The girl obviously took him for a soldier-and official--and therefore, perhaps, a sworn protector. And, yes, therefore safe.
"Ok," she said softly, but not softly in a flirtatious way. Just "ok" in the kind-of-shell-shocked-and-not-entirely-sure-if-things-were-ok-kind-of-way.
"Xander Harris," he said, by way of simple introduction.
"Tara Maclay," the girl replied in kind.
Dr. Thomas Ehrlich had a prosperous medical practice in Berlin. He was well-respected, accepted in high circles and occasionally had the opportunity to advise the government on medical matters. Especially now that Eugenics was the scientific flavor of the moment. It pained him on some level to testify before the government that Jews and Gypsies were genetically inferior, though clearly there was benefit in dissuading people with certain disabilities from having children. He held firm the belief that a strong state needed a strong and hardy people. It was good for nationalism, and a strong nation was what Germany needed to be. Yet somewhere in his heart there was still a spot of warmth and affection for the way things used to be. And now as he gazed across the darkened basement of the opera-house, his occupation made it impossible for him not to scan the faces of the people hiding there. He saw the fear, the grimaces as each bomb found its mark somewhere across the city. A faint glow of red filtered in through the high windows.
He noticed an attractive woman across the chamber from him. She'd apparently lost her hat somewhere, so it was the glint of her blond hair that first drew his eye, that and her youth and beauty. He had a son about her age. The woman leaned to a girl beside her and spoke softly in her ear. Dr. Ehrlich's attention shifted slightly to the redhead. He pondered them a moment more, until another bomb fell--this one much closer than before and sent a collective groan through the opera-goers. He shut his eyes tight and thought about his son, until sometime later he realized it had grown dark outside and the world had quieted. It was the stirring of the two young women that pulled him out of his reverie. They were the first to climb to their feet, and he could hear their whispered voices. They were eager to leave.
He stood, brushed off his hat, and stepped toward them.
"Miss Rosenberg?" he greeted the redhead. The fear in her eyes told him he was right.
Xander stood nervously in the darkened parlour of Tara's apartment, regarding the architecture because it was uncustomary for a young man to escort a lady he'd only just met alone to her dark apartment in the middle of the night, in the dark. Yes, darkness. It was all around. The air raid sirens had stopped long ago, so the blackout was lifted, but the power must have gone out. He stood, mindlessly flipping the hall light switch on-off, on-off in darkness, waiting for the girl to reappear.
When she did, she brought light.
"I h-had a few candles in the kitchen," she said, cupping her hand around a flame. The fire glow illuminated the body of the white candle and sent shadows dancing around the room. It was large, high ceiling, broad, dark woodwork and a bank of tall casement windows.
"So, is everything ok?" Xander asked with a shrug. His hands were stuffed nervously in the deep pockets of his overcoat.
Tara nodded. "Oh, yes. Some dust in the kitchen." She glanced around the parlour. "And some things knocked off the walls...nothing major to worry about." She went to the wall, taking the candle with her and retrieved a broken picture frame from the floor. Xander followed the light, stooping to help retrieve another fallen frame close by. He held up a stiff photograph portrait of a family--all blue-eyed and blond. Tara and a man in uniform and three small blond children. A blush crept across his cheeks. Of course. Someone as lovely as Tara would be married.
"Where's your husband?" he asked in what he hoped was an offhanded conversational tone. Tara shot him a funny look. "I- I don't have a husband."
Oh, right. It was wartime. Everybody had lost somebody. "I'm sorry," Xander said sincerely, gazing softly upon the family tableau. Tara reached for it and pried the picture from his hands.
"That's my brother," she said. "He's on the eastern Front. The children are his. The photo was taken just before he left for Poland. He hasn't been back in a while."
Xander glanced around the place once more. Even by candlelight he knew the apartment was spacious. Tara's family must be moneyed. "You live here all by yourself?" he asked, a little slack-jawed. The blush that crept across Tara's cheeks told him he was getting a tad too personal, that perhaps she didn't believe he was there for chivalrous reasons, after all. She nodded, though. "Alone," she said simply and then turned toward the door. It was his cue to leave.
Damn, Xander cursed silently. He'd blown it. He followed the dancing candlelight toward the door.
Willow stood rooted to the ground as if she'd sprung there from seed. She found herself staring wide-eyed into a face that was familiar. And not in a good way. Buffy stepped up beside her as the bearded gentleman extended his hand to Willow.
"Miss Rosenberg?" he asked. A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth, a mirthless half-twitch. She fought the urge to deny it, and her legs simply would not go.
"Willow, isn't it?" He had her hand in his now. She was as good as captured. With a whistle, any of the uniformed officers here could be summoned. The pieces of paper in her pocket would do her no good after all. Not in the face of Dr. Ehrlich's word against hers. He knew her, and he knew what she was.
His eyes flicked to the breast of her overcoat. He was looking for the Star of David, which of course he wouldn't find there because she refused to wear that humiliating rag. His eyes were reproachful for a moment as he looked her head to toe. He seemed to be contemplating something. Willow could feel fear and anger radiating from Buffy beside her. Bless her heart. Buffy was always itching for a good fight.
Dr. Ehrlich's eyes finally met hers once more. "Your father was a good man." He turned to leave. "You be careful now," he said over his shoulder and then slipped into the column of opera-goers who had collected their things and were making their way back out into the night.
Willow was trembling. Buffy had to bodily shove her, hissing "Out. Now," into Willow's ear. Following a command was easy. Willow fell into step beside her friend and eventually found herself outdoors again. Blood was pounding in her ears.
"Oh, God, Buffy. Do you know who that was? How close that was?" she gasped, nearly doubling over.
Buffy was fairly sure all she really needed to know was written on her friend's face. She patted Willow's back, running soothing circles against the dark wool coat as Willow focused on more rudimentary things, like the sidewalk. And breathing. And not throwing up on Buffy's shoes.
Willow choked out more: "Tha-that was my father's business partner. They had the medical practice together. Until Crystal Nacht. I think he-he had something to do with my parents' disappearance. I don't know..."
Buffy continued rubbing Willow's back. "You can't know that for sure. And he didn't turn you in just now. Maybe he wasn't involved."
"Maybe he feels guilty," Willow heaved. "He got the business. And I got nothing, except orphaned."
"Bastards will get what they deserve in the end."
"Is your friend injured?" a young man's voice called out to them. Buffy looked up to see a soldier with a flashlight approaching. Buffy shook her head vigorously. "She's fine. Just a little shell-shocked is all."
The soldier nodded, then hesitated. "It's no hour for you girls to be out on the streets alone. You'd better get home."
Buffy detected the faint sound of Willow swearing under her breath. " I don't have a home" as if it were the punchline to an old joke.
Buffy grabbed her by the collar and hauled her upright. "Come on, Wilma. You're coming with me."
Willow woke early. She lay flat on her back staring up at the ceiling deep in thought. Buffy was nestled asleep beside her, softly snoring. And on the other side of Buffy lay her younger sister Dawn. It wasn't a big bed, but it was soft and warm with a pretty crocheted coverlet of cream-colored lace. The Summers sisters' mom Joyce was in the kitchen making pancakes. She'd been a great housewife until her husband joined the military and then disappeared two years ago. Now she rose early every morning and made her daughters breakfast before heading off to work at a nearby woolen mill. None of the Summers women ever talked about Mr. Summers any more.
Joyce had met them at the door last night, as she and Buffy tumbled in out of the night. The look of relief she gave Buffy was all mama-bear. She pulled her daughter into a tight embrace, and the two of them stood like that for a long moment.
"I don't like you going out at night," Joyce reproached, clinging to her daughter like she'd never let her go. Her soft brown eyes swept up finally and rested on Willow with a mixture of relief and trepidation. Then Joyce opened her arms and admitted Willow into her embrace, too. Willow buried her face in Joyce's blond hair, breathing in the comforting scents of soap and cooking.
Willow now rose silently and slipped into her clothes from the night before, taking a moment to straighten her skirt and smooth her hair in the mirror. Then she headed for the kitchen.
She'd always liked Joyce and the sight of her in the sunny window made Willow smile. Willow noticed the street scene outside. Mounds of rubble covered the streets, like a snowfall of brick dust had blanketed the city overnight.
"Wow, would you look at that." Willow mused softly. The world kept seeming to end--and then not really--in so many ways. If fate kept up the barrage of near-apocalypses it would be kind of tough to know when the real one came, right? Or maybe the apocalypse isn't a single, discreet event. Maybe it's a whole tumbling series of things that culminate in a good snuffing. "I put my money on the whole tumbling-culminating-in-a-good-snuffing kind of apocalypse," she said, turning to Joyce. "Oh. I said that last part out loud, didn't I?"
Joyce chuckled good-naturedly. "They say the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow," she said, offering her own non sequitur and pouring coffee for Willow. The cup was half-full. Rations were low and staples were becoming harder to come by. Willow was thankful for a shot of anything hot. She accepted the cup humbly and leaned up to give Joyce a peck on the cheek.
"Thanks for letting me stay," she said bashfully. "I didn't think I should try to get back to my flat last night." "Flat" was a really loose term for Willow's current housing accommodations. She'd found a room in an old building that would accept money from Jews. The money was paid under the table, and the rent was a bit steep, considering how many people she shared the one room with, but as winter approached her options had been few. A friend of Buffy's from the university had helped Willow find the place. Waking up in Buffy's house reminded Willow of the comforts of home from before the war.
Joyce sat at the small kitchen table across from Willow. "Buffy told me last night you might be able to find work?" Joyce had always thought it a tremendous shame Willow couldn't attend university. The girl had a sharp mind and a tenacious work ethic. Willow's look was guarded a moment, and then she softened. "Uh, yeah. I have a bit of a new lease on life, it would seem, anyway."
"What do you intend to do?"
Willow knew exactly what she intended to do. She'd had her mind made up even before she and Xander had discussed forging her papers. "I'm going down to the newspaper office today," she replied.
"To place an ad?" Joyce asked, assuming the girl meant to hire herself out as a domestic or something like that.
"Uh, no. I'm going to ask for a job working there."
Joyce was certain her face froze. Willow's ambition was to work for a Nazi newspaper?
"It's sort of a sheep in wolves' clothing kind of thing," Willow explained, a bit distressed at Joyce's reaction. It seemed so obvious to her what she needed to do: The only way to ensure nobody asked to see her papers was to never put herself in a position of being asked for them.
"Well, I suppose you and Xander can stop for cocktails at the Officers Club after hours, then," Joyce shook her head.
Willow smiled tentatively. "Well, yeah. If he earns some stripes."
Xander stared at a dossier on his desk, absently picking at the rubber band that held its contents together. There were a lot more like this one stacked up in the oak in-box on his desk. But for the past half hour it seemed all he could do was stare at this one. And swallow down a squishy stew of guilt and dread. It had seemed a simple enough thing yesterday, swiping the documents he needed for Willow and in a few minutes and with the aid of a typewriter concocting a new identity for her. At the time, he'd been sweating profusely, listening for any sound of voices or footsteps approaching. His hands had shaken at the typewriter, and he'd had to do it twice, but finally he'd gotten it right. He'd stuffed the documents deep into the inside pocket of his overcoat and then grabbed his hat to go.
Now, this morning, there was a small matter of this troubling file. It kept staring at him. It was a certain file marked Wilma Hermann. As in the real Wilma Hermann, the dead woman whose identity he had borrowed for his childhood chum. To finish the job, he needed to go in and change certain documents to match the characteristics of his very real and very alive Willow. And every keystroke he made at the typewriter, each document he shredded and replaced would implicate him further in this fraud. In the end he'd need to sign it himself and refile it. He'd intended to do the work tonight, just before leaving for his regular rendezvous with his friends at the diner. But then, when he'd arrived at work this morning, the file had been sitting right here in the middle of the desk. He was sure he'd filed it last night before he left. And now there it was sitting here. How could it be sitting there, with its rubbery rubber band and its bland manila face and the name of that dead woman typed neatly across the tab?
His eyes had shifted nervously to the other clerks and officers who strode through the office, expecting to catch the eye of the person who'd left this on his desk. Unless it was some gross and stupid oversight on his part, and of that he could not be certain, though it was likely. His paranoia told him someone was messing with him. It wasn't exactly unheard of for government employees to abuse their access to information on behalf of a friend or loved one. He shuddered at the thought of what they might do to him.
He was torn between the impulse to shove the whole file in his book bag...to shred the whole thing...or to just shove it back in the alphabetical hanging stacks. Someone was messing with him. Did he dare alter a word? And if he didn't and Will got caught, she'd be a dead woman. He dropped his head in his hands and tried to pull himself together.
It was a few moments before he noticed the shiny brown shoes just a few feet in front of his desk. He slowly lifted his gaze to find an older, distinguished looking man in gazing back at him, his expression half-amused.
"Not feeling well, comrade?" the man asked.
"It was a long night," Xander smiled back, rubbing his eyes.
"Ah, yes. The joys and hazards of romance," the man said, and they both chuckled at the absurdity of it, since every resident of the city had certainly spent most of the night a huddled mess in a basement somewhere.
"Believe me, I wish my skill with the ladies were enough to make a woman overlook the fact that the city was falling down, but, ah, I am not possessed of such skills. Or of such a lady." He shook his head at his own pathetic-ness. And then set his files aside so he could attend to the fine citizen here who was probably wanting to rat out his neighbors over something. Which was even more pathetic.
The newspaper office was not far from Willow's flat. She decided to take a short detour there on her way to get a fresh shirt. This part of town had sustained some heavy damage. City workers were helping clear away rubble to allow traffic through. She picked her way carefully along the sidewalk, her scarf tied tight against the wind. She was halfway down the block with the door to her building in sight when she stopped short. Something wasn't right. She spotted a cluster of police and a van at the corner. As she watched, an officer led one of her flat-mates forcibly by the arm down the front steps and into the back of the van. The man had no shoes or coat on. He looked bewildered and broken. Another soldier followed with the man's wife in tow. She was crying.
Willow stood still, scarcely breathing, as if she could will herself invisible. Her impulse told her to run, but that would be bad. They'd spot her and chase her down. So she stood rooted and watched people she'd become friends with out of a strange brand of happenstance disappear into a truck with no hope of saying good-bye, or see you again sometime, or be right back.
A hand gripped her shoulder. She spun around and into the face of a friend--a friend who looked scared and grim, but somehow reassuring nonetheless. "This way," the woman whispered pulling Willow into the slim alleyway between buildings, into the shadows.
"Jenny?" Willow said, clutching the woman's arms tightly, wanting to be sure she was real. "What's happening?"
"I was just coming home, too. They're cleaning the place out. We've got to find a new place to stay." The woman's dark eyes flashed anger and determination.
Willow felt tears well up and begin to fall. "No! Not Mr. and Mrs. Schneiderman. And, and George...and, and..."
"We can't help them," Jenny hissed, a bit more harshly than she intended, but her nerves were on end, too. "We have to get out of here."
"But what about our stuff?" Willow knew the words were stupid even as she spoke them, but considering most of her worldly possessions these days fit in a large suitcase she was loathe to be reduced to just the clothes on her back. She knew for Jenny it was the same. Everything Jenny had was in the flat, too, and Jenny didn't seem to think Willow was being shallow.
"I know. I hate this. We'll have to come back later tonight and see what's left," she hissed. "Fuck Hitler."
That earned Jenny a chuckle. Willow had always liked her. Her people were Romani--Gypsies--and therefore on the Nazi's shit-list just as much as the Jews. Jenny had been one of Willow's teachers years ago before the seeds of hatred had started spreading and neighbors turned against neighbors. Willow had been humiliated, withstanding taunts at school, which she'd put up with as long as she could bear because she loved learning. But Jenny had been dismissed five years ago after Crystal Nacht and then her family members started disappearing one by one. Now it was just Jenny living in a small apartment with a bunch of strangers.
Willow leaned in and gave her friend a reassuring hug. "You still have me."
Jenny squeezed her back. "How many lives does that make for you now?"
"I don't know," Willow pondered. "Maybe seven? I've got at least another two. I might even have more. What's so magic about the number nine, anyway?"
"Nine is the way it works for cats. Probably doesn't apply to people," Jenny surmised.
Willow held the embrace a moment longer. "How many for you, then?"
Jenny's voice was dark. "I'm pretty sure I'm on number nine."
Tara sat quietly waiting for her lunch companion to arrive. She took a long sip of water from the goblet at her place setting. Last night the bombs were raining down. Out in the streets there was a chaos of stone and brick and random bits of furniture, the myriad errata of people's everyday lives blown out of their homes and dispersed across the streets for all the world to see. It was a terrible enough sight made even more terrible by the fact that here she was in a fine restaurant, at a table decked in linen tablecloth, waiters moving briskly about the place as if nothing had happened. The war didn't reach inside fine restaurants, apparently.
Oh, wait. It did. Tara looked up to see her companion walking toward her. He was dashing in his officer's uniform. She stood as he approached and he gave her a warm hug before they both took their seats.
"I'm glad you're all right," Riley said, leaning across the table, obviously relieved. "You stayed in the basement?"
Tara nodded, thinking momentarily of the kindness of the stranger named Xander who'd made sure she made it back to her apartment ok.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," he said, and she almost wanted to laugh at the naked self-importance of his comment. As if he or the army or whatever powers that be had merely made a clerical error, as if that's what caused enemy planes to bomb the city. It also struck her as somehow an absurd understatement considering the destruction of people's lives visible for all to see. Tara had been lucky. She'd been inconvenienced and, at worst, scared. In Riley's world it was about looking beyond the details to focus on the big picture. Where Tara saw stones ad rubble, he saw nothing.
She decided to meet him conversationally on his level. "The allies think they've struck a blow, but they have no idea how adversity strengthens Germany's resolve," she said in her best "party line" voice, trying to hide an amused smile.
"Exactly!" Riley grinned, as if she were the first person who seemed to get it. As if she had just given him the perfect excuse not to feel guilty and heartbroken over not being able to better protect his countrymen. "We won't let them get away with it. Even now, we have machinery in motion. I can't tell you more, but you have to trust me: We're going to make very short work of those bastards--pardon my language. It's just that I feel very passionate about this, and I'm not the only one who does."
Tara took another sip of water and regarded him somewhat objectively. He was a good man, beautiful, honest and sincere. But it was interesting how often he expressed more passion for his work than for her. There was affection, certainly. And love, but in a blunted sort of way. The vulnerable parts of him secreted away in an emotional bomb shelter.
Maybe that was the way of many soldiers--or perhaps the officers anyway. In times like these everyone did what they could to get by. And if getting by meant that Tara spent a few lunchtimes or evenings being Riley's tether to normal life, so be it. There was so little in her life right now that she was eager to do almost anything to get outside of it. Funny how the domesticity that smothered her was exactly the kind of comfort Riley craved. In return, he gave her some financial support (though she didn't need much), and he gave her some sort of promise for the future. Though they didn't speak of it, there was a tacit understanding between them that when the war was over they'd marry.
"There's a gathering at the Officers Club this Friday evening," he was saying. "I'm wondering if you'd like to go with me?"
Tara smiled. "Anything I can do to help support the war effort and improve the morale of the brave men who are securing a safe and prosperous future for us I feel it is my duty--no, my honor, to do. I am at your complete disposal."
That almost got a giggle out of him.
"Am I lucky? What is luck, anyway? Is it fair to call it luck that I didn't get arrested but my friends did? And in the sense of this morning's raid, what exactly does 'arrested' mean? The Nazis have a sanitized term for everything. They euphemize everything--especially the Jews. My friends just got hauled away to be euphemized. You gotta give them credit for their love of language."
Willow sat quietly in a stiff wooden chair waiting for an opportunity to meet with Mr. Gruber, the editor of The People's Press, a euphemism if ever there was one.
Gruber's secretary had seemed a bit skeptical when she'd walked in without an appointment, but Willow had given her a resume and writing samples to pass along to him for perusal. She was hoping that once again her intelligence and attention to detail would make an impression. Now she'd been sitting for nearly an hour as patiently as if she had just sat down. She had nowhere else to be until she met with Xander and Buffy at the café for their daily "Hey-we're-all-still-here" pie and coffee check-in. She and Jenny had talked about going back to the flat to see what they could salvage of their things, but Willow was quickly giving up on that idea. If Jenny had already used up her nine lives there was no reason risking her last for a handful of things. Maybe if she asked, Buffy or Xander might be able to go by and look on behalf of the both of them. The neighbors and authorities would regard them as Good Germans merely redistributing wealth, whereas Willow and Jenny would be considered the vermin that pest control had missed.
The office door swung open and a tall, silver-haired man in a suit called out, "Miss Hermann?"
It took Willow a moment to realize she was being addressed. She put on her best Wilma face and stepped into his office.
Another lifetime ago Willow had been a terrible liar. There would have been no way she could have made a bald-faced lie to somebody without fidgeting or betraying her guilt in some way. As Wilma responded to Mr. Gruber's questions, Willow felt herself detach completely as if watching the proceedings from somewhere up above. Damn. Wilma was good.
"So why is it, Miss Hermann, that you list no address on your resume?" he was asking.
"I'm afraid my housing situation is at present a bit up in the air," Wilma replied. "In fact, it was pretty much blown up into the air last night."
"You have other prospects for lodging?" he asked. She nodded her head vigorously. "Oh, yes. I have friends in the area. I just need to make arrangements. It's all been a bit sudden is all."
"Why is it you wish to work here? The hours are long and sometimes a bit irregular. If a big story breaks, we don't leave until it's finished. Whatever it takes."
It was Willow--not Wilma--who looked him clearly in the eye and answered him. "Sir, I'm here because I want nothing more than for this war to end. I think I'm relatively safe in saying that after last night, most any German you talked to would say as much. There's too much suffering. We've all suffered. And the sooner we can be done with the suffering and moving on to the building and rebuilding the better. I guess you could say I'm a bit impatient. And that I'm an optimist. I can think of no better place I could apply myself than by working for this newspaper, sir. I need to do something."
"And the hours?"
"I'm not married, and I don't have children, so my time is my own."
"Your writing samples are very good. But I'm not sure you're the right man for the job," he said, a bit amused with his own humor.
"I'm an excellent writer," Willow said, letting his remark pass. "I'm also extremely resourceful."
This being a Nazi rag, she knew what he was driving at. But she answered in her own way: "I love all that is good and pure about my homeland. I would die to defend it." Interesting images flashed in her mind as she spoke the words.
Gruber let out a satisfied sigh. He was done grilling. He turned in his chair toward her and extended his hand in congratulations. "You'll be our new copy editor. You can start immediately."
The grin that spread across Willow's face could not be contained. She had a new name and now a new job that would provide income. Soon, she'd be in a position to actually support herself.
The dark hallway echoed with the sounds of footsteps in the stairwell far below. Xander was on the fifth floor, staring at the door before him. He collected his thoughts a moment, cleared his throat and then knocked.
The faint sound of footsteps reverberated through the door. A moment later, it swung open to reveal the lovely woman whose hand he'd held the other night. She looked surprised to see him.
Already, he loved the adorableness of her nervous stutter. And it was kind of nice to know someone like Tara found him stutter-worthy.
He began to release the words he'd rehearsed on the bus all the way over here. "I was in the neighborhood. Thought I'd stop by and see how you were doing. You know, getting over the big scare the other night. I wanted to be sure everything was all right."
Tara smiled and opened the door wider, inviting him in. "Tha-that's very kind of you. I-it w-was definitely hard to fall asleep. I k-kept dreaming of bombs and airplanes."
"I imagine Dr. Freud might have a thing or two to say about that. But not me. Sounds perfectly normal to me. I was never into his whole dream thing. Or that thing about cigars. Not that I've spent time reading his work, much." He felt his cheeks burning. Must get rid of these mind pictures of explosions and cigars, and Tara. But Tara just smiled pleasantly back at him as if waiting for a small child to complete his first sentence. Xander swallowed, hoping he was at the end of it.
Oddly, he was relieved to be saved by the sounds of a second person in her apartment. Tara turned and flashed a smile in the direction of the sounds. Xander took her momentary distraction as an opportunity to pinch himself. Hard.
"Who is that, sweetheart?" came a man's voice.
Sweetheart: a term of endearment usually reserved for two people who are close to signify a special bond between them. Xander heard Willow's voice in his head as he thought this. He looked at his shoes. One could call friends sweetheart. In fact, he and Willow and Buffy happened to use language like that a lot, and they were friends. Also, parents use that endearment when talking with their children. Or at least most parents do. The ones who love their children, as opposed to his own no-account boozer parents. But, no, the person who uttered the endearment didn't sound parental enough.
He looked up to see a tall, sturdy fellow in an officer's uniform standing beside Tara, laying a meaty hand upon her shoulder. He didn't look like the brother from the photograph he saw the other time he was here. He appeared to be an affable enough guy, handsome and smiling. Xander hated him instantly.
"This is Captain Riley Finn," Tara said by way of introduction. "Riley, this is Xander Harris, the fellow from the SS who stayed with m-me in the ba-basement d-during the air raid and made sure everything was safe upstairs here."
Handsome Captain Finn extended his meaty hand in greeting. "Nice to meet you. And thank you for helping keep Tara safe. I don't like her being here alone so much. I'm glad you were there."
Xander imagined that if Tara were his girlfriend she wouldn't "be here alone so much." He smiled cordially and shook the man's hand.
Tara invited him in for tea. He would have declined, but he'd just ridden across town on the bus, and as long as he was here he might as well at least warm himself before heading back out into the winter afternoon. Later, as he strolled along the street below, headed back to his own little world, he had a slip of paper in his pocket from Riley, inviting him to an Officers Club event on Friday. "Great," he thought. He had come here wanting to get to know a pretty girl and maybe ask her out. And instead the girl's boyfriend asked him out.
"So, professor, I have a question about the reading..."
Buffy had waited patiently until there were no students left to approach Giles. She knew that it was best if her classmates didn't see her receiving any special attention from the professor. You didn't have to be a member of the Hitler Youth to know that the Brit hadn't been run out of town yet because he kept his head down.
But this was a moment where she needed to check in with him--and quickly. She'd seen Willow's flat-mate Jenny stop by the door during class to tell Giles something--something that had clearly bothered him. She knew it had to be bad if Jenny had shown up at university. The only thing worse that being British (and therefore of questionable allegiances, given the Allies situation) was being a Gypsy. And worse than that, Jenny used to be a teacher here, too, and some of the students were sure to have recognized her.
Giles turned to her and let out an exasperated breath. "So stupid. She should know better than to waltz in here no matter how bad the news."
Buffy frowned. "So there's bad news? How bad's the bad news?"
"Well 'bad' is a rather relative term these days one might suppose."
"Ok, then, on a we-live-on-a-hellmouth scale, how bad is bad?"
Giles laughed at that. "We live on a hellmouth. That's good. I'll have to remember that one."
"I may have to hurt you if you don't tell me what's going on. Why was Jenny here?" As she said the last part she heard the fear in her own voice.
Giles sobered and looked out the classroom window. "It would appear that the police raided Jenny's apartment this morning and rounded up all of the occupants and took them God knows where."
"Willow?" Buffy's heart leapt.
"She and Jenny weren't home at the time. They arrived on the scene, as it were, and discovered the kidnappings in progress." They both knew the official version of the story--the government account would be that the people had been picked up for questioning. But then few if any ever returned from questioning.
"So will she stay with you? Jenny, I mean?"
"I live in a bachelor apartment. I'm a British citizen. And Jenny is a Gypsy. I can't really think of anything else that would draw negative attention to ourselves than if we took up cannibalism. Which during food rationing I suppose is not outside the realm of possibility."
"When you live on a hellmouth."
"I can't tell you how frustrating this is. To be absolutely powerless to help her--or even myself for that matter."
Buffy hesitated, not sure if she should say the next. "I'm going to find a way to get you both out of Germany," she said with a determination that made Giles regard her warily.
"Buffy, I appreciate your concern, really I do, but I'm not sure there's anything you could do. And even if there were I wouldn't want you to endanger yourself on my behalf."
She cut him off. "I'm only going to say this once: This is what I do. I help people. I'm--I'm a helper. I help." There had to be a better word for it, but there was safety in obliqueness.
"So. You got a job today," Xander was repeating. "And you got, uh, evicted."
"Yep, in a nutshell. Although I prefer to think of myself as now 'thoroughly repurposed,'" Willow said. "It's better than 'thoroughly screwed.'"
"And you're working for The People's Megaphone?"
"More like The People's Mega-phoney, but, yes. I'm all with the keeping-the-enemies close. Keeping tabs on where the swastika's been. Being first in the know could be handy...you know?"
There was something pained in Xander's expression that she hadn't expected to see. "What is it? I thought you'd be happy, well, at least about the first part--the me-getting-a-job part."
"I think we're taking too many risks here. I'm worried is all."
"You think I'm taking too many risks. Is that it?"
"Not just you. Me. Buffy. Jenny. Professor Giles. It's turning into something different."
Buffy chimed in, releasing her death grip on the warm coffee mug. "Everything's changing because instead of getting papers for people we don't know, it's becoming personal."
Xander elaborated: "We're all on the line in a way we haven't been before. We're connected through a paper trail. If one of us falls, we all fall."
"Are you saying you regret it? That you regret helping me?"
"It has nothing to do with that. I love you. I'd do anything for you. But this is now like a chess game. Any move one of us makes--one little bit of carelessness--and it comes back around to all of us. If Jenny gets picked up it gets traced back to Buffy. You're staying with Buffy and you used to live with Jenny, so they blow your cover, too. Buffy's mom's in the clink and the guys at my office notice that a certain Alexander Harris signed the documents in the Wilma Hermann file."
"I didn't know you play chess. Had you pegged for a checkers kind of guy," Buffy quipped.
"I'm relationship guy. I see the relationships here," Xander said.
Buffy practically dismissed Xander's worry, slipping instead into fix-it mode: "We were all always on the line in exactly the same way we always were. Only now we have more power. Willow, you focus on being the best Nazi newspaper copy editor you can be. Xander, you're going to be the exemplary SS headquarters clerk--maybe even go for promotion. And I am going to continue to be a straight-A university student."
Willow arched an eyebrow skeptically at that last part.
Buffy: "Ok, That might draw a too much attention. I'll shoot for more middle-of-the-road university student."
That earned a smile.
Buffy clicked into high gear. "Look, there's a Big Bad out there and we can't even see it. It could be anyone. It could be everyone. We can't trust that anybody is what they seem. And we're going to fight it the only way we know how: By walking among them, in plain sight, and choosing to live and not hide. I think this thing smells fear. We need to step back and study it. Know its moves. And then if we're lucky we can stay safe and maybe do some real good in this fucked up place."
"So, we have to stick together," Xander said, as much confirmation that he understood Buffy as an affirmation of their bond.
Willow shook her head. "No. To blend in and walk among them, we may need to split up. I can't stay with Buffy and put Dawn and your mom in any kind of danger. I could never live with it if something happened."
Xander to Willow: "If you're going to do that we need to get you some more Nazi friends. We need to acclimate you more into the Nazi scene. Come to the Officers Club with me on Friday. I have some friends who're getting me a pass to get in."
"Are you asking me out on a date?"
Xander blushed. "Well, actually, there's a girl who's going to be there..."
"A Good Nazi?"
"Kind of a poster child. I think she'd make The Fuhrer proud."
Willow smacked him in the head, though not too hard. "Fine."