Spike woke in a foul mood. Far below him the street sounds of an average Berlin morning were stirring. He was naked in bed and spattered in blood. It was all over his sheets. Not that he was a total neatnick, but he really hated bringing his work home with him. And last night that work had to do with decommissioning and disposing of one of Buffy's girlfriends-or at least a girl in his beloved Buffy's beloved circle. So some of the blood came from that. And some belonged to Spike himself. And maybe some from that fucking preacher Caleb.
They'd gotten into a rotten tussle after he'd shot Jenny. Of course Caleb had heard the shot. Of course he came into the house and started inspecting Spike's work, the fucking wanker. Like Spike wasn't an expert in killing for nothing. He'd earned the right to dispatch his prey as he saw fit.
Caleb had gone ballistic on him.
"What the fuck was that, Blood?" Caleb had demanded with a colorfulness of language that most preachers would not ordinarily use, at least in public.
"What the fuck was what?" Spike snarled. He had Jenny's blood on his shirt. Her blood traced a delicate spatter arc across the walls and window of the tiny kitchen, crimson speckles against white. It smelled metallic and meaty in the room. Spike had killed many times before, but not in such close quarters and not with such mental agonizing.
"Why the fuck didn't you just shoot her the minute you got in the apartment? It was her, right?"
"It was her. The Gypsy," Spike grumbled. "I- she was pretty. I just wanted to mess with her a bit."
"Great. Thinking with your cock." Again, not very preacherly. Had Caleb actually ever been a preacher?
"You saw the photograph. You tell me you wouldn't want to chat that lady up."
"She's a fucking degenerate."
"Was. She's dead now."
Caleb gestured to the red incrimination etched across the walls, the windows, the table, and Spike. "What is this? Amateur night? All this blood and mess. Shall I get a bucket and brush and start washing down the walls? Is this sloppiness worth ‘chatting up a lady?' Is it worth the reputation of the SS? Do you want Good Germans fearing us? The SS should be heroes in their eyes. Not making them feel scared in their beds."
Spike turned on him, bumping Jenny's hip, as he maneuvered in the tight space. "Oh, what now? Like we're not butchers already? Everybody knows there's a Gestapo. We're like the great big pink elephant in the neighborhood that nobody will talk about. Everybody knows about us, and everybody knows we deal in death. So what if I decide to play a variation on a theme?"
Caleb crossed his arms. "Her fucking head is gone."
Spike shrugged. "Is not."
"Then where is it?"
Spike glanced ruefully around the space. "It's...around."
Caleb stepped forward and flicked something off Spike's shirt. "Got some on you there, maybe?"
Spike shoved him roughly. "Step off, Caleb."
Caleb shoved him back. "Fuck you, Spike." He took a roundhouse swipe that connected with Spike's jaw. Spike hurtled back into a red-streaked wall, bumping Jenny to the floor."
"I say we burn the place down. This is a travesty," Caleb snarled.
Spike rubbed his jaw and scowled. "You stupid fuck. What was that for? I killed the bitch like we agreed. Let's finish the plan. Let's get the notebooks we came for. That Faith bitch said they'd be here."
Caleb turned on heel and headed for the other side of the house. "Get a bucket and mop and clean up your mess. I'll call backup and then get the notebooks."
Spike rubbed his jaw, still pissed. But he knew the notebook would make Caleb very happy. Lots of names, lovely names, in there. The names of all those beautiful young and stupid university students who were going to die one by one or in big groups. When they found the leaders, those lucky kids would be guillotined. To make a public point. The People's Press would be there, of course. All very maudlin and cautionary. It's always the young and stupid who are right and get punished for it.
After a while, Caleb came back into the kitchen to inspect Spike's progress. "Nice apron," Caleb smirked. "And I see you've bagged our girl. Thanks."
"She was fucking heavier than she looked."
"Did you cop a feel while you were at it? Maybe a little more?"
Spike punched his partner in the mouth. Caleb's lip came away bloody, but he chuckled an angry, mirthless little laugh. "You're not fooling me, Spike. Something about this girl made you soft. Am I right? Or, wait, was it hard she made you?"
"Shove it up your ass."
"Save your attitude. I know, Spike," said Caleb with a malevolent gleam. Like he really did know. Spike's blood ran cold, and he fought to keep his face impassive.
"I know, Spike," Caleb repeated. "You've held onto that one's photo for a long time. Sleep with it under your pillow, maybe? And the little redhead, too? Why?"
The question hung there between them like soiled underwear dangled in front of Spike's nose. It was hard to meet Caleb's eyes.
Caleb continued: "There are hundreds of people we've rounded up. Lots of pretty women, lots of little girls. You've always been nothing but top of your game...until lately. Why didn't you just strangle the Gypsy bitch? Why didn't you beat her? Hell, even stab her and leave her to bleed to death in a nice, compact puddle? Or, if you couldn't do it properly, why didn't you whistle for me to come bail you out?" Caleb took out a cigarette and lit it. The smoke filled the tiny kitchen like a polluted blue fog. "Did you know her, Spike?"
Spike shook his head, honestly. But Caleb's guess was pretty damn close. Too close. For an evil and heartless bastard when did he get so damn sympathetic-or empathic? When did he start crawling inside Spike's head?
"Do you know someone who knew her?"
"Come again?" Spike asked. It was a legitimately confusingly worded question.
"You know what I'm asking. Are these two ladies Willow and Jenny just a bit too close to the skin for you?"
"I fucking shot the bitch's head off. What's soft about that?" Spike's voice raised in anger.
Caleb smiled smugly. "Why don't you fess up to me? You know there's no shame in knowing the people we arrest. It's a small enough city. Every now and then we're bound to be called upon to round up people we've known."
"Yeah, like your mother." Spike wasn't joking, but Caleb laughed.
"She was pretty upset with me," Caleb chuckled. "But she refused to stop selling to the Jews. How hard can it be to comprehend the government's agenda here? The imperative to be done with them?" He took a long drag on the cigarette, speaking again on the blue exhale. "Anyway, she wasn't locked up for long. I sent her a Christmas present. We're good."
When he returned to his original topic, his voice was calm and smooth. "You need to tell me what you know about the girl Willow," he said. "Let's get her and get this business behind us. I don't want to fight. You and I, we've been partners a long time. We've got a lot more ahead of us. I'll let tonight's sloppiness pass. But I wanted you to know I noticed it. I don't ever want to feel like you're wavering on me. Fair enough?"
The words sounded reasonable, but Spike understood fully the menace behind them. Caleb would be watching him like a hawk for any wavering of allegiances. The next moment of weakness would be Spike's last.
So it was with a heaviness he woke this morning, the morning after, still bathed in the blood of one of Buffy's friends, readying himself to go kill the other one.
The morning light had crept into Tara's room, seeping in through the windows in its gradual way, sneaking inevitably upon them. Tara felt Willow stir beside her a moment before the girl sat up ramrod straight and scared.
"Shit!" she hissed.
Tara reached a warm hand and stroked the lovely expanse of Willow's back reassuringly. Ok, also appreciatively. The young woman's skin was unreasonably soft and smooth. It was sometimes hard to imagine that a creature so lovely had landed in Tara's lap. And all she wanted was more. None of this scared whispering.
Tara gently pulled Willow back to the warmth of her embrace. "Shhh. Donald doesn't come in here. And he won't go in your room. In fact, you're safer here with me than anywhere in the house."
Willow relaxed into her. "I feel safer here with you than anywhere, period. God, Tara, sometimes I wish I never had to leave."
"I have my job. It's important. I need the job," Willow mused aloud, chanting, almost as if talking to herself. "But I'm not just talking about the job." She paused to turn so that she was gazing earnestly into Tara's eyes. Tara didn't understand what Willow was trying to say. In fact, it was hard to concentrate at all with Willow looking at her like that.
"Riley will come back," Willow said. Tara made some move to protest, but Willow stilled her lips with a soft kiss and then gazed seriously again. "He will come back."
Tara knew that the gift Willow brought home to her each night was the most rare and precious thing Willow could give anyone. And she chose to bring that each night and lay it bravely at Tara's feet.
"Wilma, I- I don't-"
Willow silenced her with another kiss. "My name is Willow. I want you to call me Willow. It's- it's important to me that you do."
Tara stroked Willow's red hair, distracted by its softness. "Why not just go by the name Willow, then?"
"Just people I'm closest to. When I'm with you I'm just Willow. Out there, that girl is Wilma, girl reporter extraordinaire."
"So Willow is what, your nom de guerre?"
Willow smiled a lovely smile. "Something like that. More like nom de coeur, maybe. Willow is my heart."
Tara thought about that a moment. She knew exactly what that heart felt and sounded like. She knew the tempo of it when she slept and the tempo of it after she came. With a little mathematical extrapolation she could probably calculate its tempo after she climbed the stairs, or wandered around the apartment. She knew the sound of Willow's blood, the amazing scents and tastes of her, the warmth of her hands and the cold of her toes. She knew the sharpness of her mind. And the oddness of the connections it sometimes made. She knew her voice in whispers, in laughter and in passion. These were subtle nuances that nobody else knew about her. And Tara had been given the privilege of knowing all of them.
The newsroom was already abuzz before Willow arrived. There were rumblings that the SS were going to have a big day today. Official sources were sketchy, but Gruber had gotten a phone call at his home, and one by one he'd contacted the reporters to get them in early. Since Willow was a copy editor she didn't rate a call, but there was plenty for her to do and Gruber seemed genuinely happy to see her.
"Miss Hermann," he called, waving her over to his office. She grabbed her notepad and joined him.
"We're expecting some important calls from the SS today. I need you to stick close to the phones. Any information that comes in, you take it down and get it to me. Understood?"
Willow nodded. "Do we know what it is yet?" she asked, the energy of the newsroom infusing her with urgency. A good day for the Reich didn't necessarily mean a good day for her, but it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement of the work.
Gruber shook his head. "I think it's something bad," was all he would say.
Willow took her seat and began reading over the stacks of copy already piling up on her desk. She made quick, clear editing marks as she went, cleaning up the text for the typesetters. She had a sharp eye and a quick mind for grammar. She liked all of these rules that tried to contain the unruliness of language.
The lack of sleep took its toll on her concentration. She rubbed tired eyes and decided to get a cup of coffee.
Tara set a plate of bread and cheese before Donnie and took a seat across from him at the small kitchen table. Two cups of coffee steamed between them. On the counter a third sat cold, where Willow had left hers long before the siblings had risen this morning. As she did every day, Willow had gotten up early and slipped out of the house for work.
"So," Donald said a bit brightly. Tara looked up expectantly while her brother took a sip of hot coffee and cleared his throat. "Wilma...She has bad dreams, then?"
Tara sat still, unsure of what to say exactly. It was true that she did, but Tara doubted that was what her brother was getting at.
Donnie's face reddened but he kept his tone light. "Didn't sound like her dream was that bad." He smiled.
Tara was confused. Donnie pressed on. "I've heard that sound before. Believe it or not. I mean I have children. I came by them somehow." Tara was still confused, but in a different way now.
"Is that ring hers?" He nodded at the metal band that seemed to mean less and less to her.
She shook her head. "It's Riley's," she said.
Donnie quirked a smile. "Then you've got a real problem, eh?"
Tara nodded slowly. This wasn't the sort of thing most people talked about, and she wasn't sure what to say. Was he going to give her a piece of brotherly advice, as man of the family? Or maybe a sermon? Or would he make a joke of it?
She took a swallow of coffee waiting uncomfortably for him to say whatever he was going to say next. Donnie was contemplative. He sipped his coffee and regarded the ceiling for a moment.
"I expect things will straighten themselves out once Riley's back," he said, not unkindly. "It's got to be lonely just waiting. Lord knows I haven't been a perfect saint myself. Maybe that's just a family trait. I don't know. But Riley's a good man, and you're a good woman. You're so wonderful with my children. I know you'll be a wonderful mother. We're blessed to have such a good family."
It was the most effusive he'd been toward her in a long time. The soldierly veneer came down and he was human, acknowledging her humanness. It made her want to hug him for being so understanding about something that really was objectively a mess. What made her feel uncomfortable was the way he acknowledged and accepted in one breath that she and Willow were lovers and then rationalized it away the next as a lark, a bit of nothing that would be swept out of the house once Riley returned. His assessment wasn't unreasonable. Tara did want a family and a future the way she'd always imagined it. But her heart ached.
The conversation was done. What more was there to say that wouldn't tread into the unseemly? She didn't want to know his opinion of sex between two women. She didn't want to create an opportunity for him to be judgmental. And it seemed he didn't want those things either. They let the words hang between them, their meaning simple and clear. And troubling, at least for Tara.
Spike had gotten Tara's name off the mailbox downstairs the other day when he'd tailed her while she was out running errands. She'd opened the mailbox and retrieved some letters. He'd stood off in the shadows, lighting a cigarette and watching. A Good German like Tara-what need did she have to be careful? She didn't skulk around, watching her back. Come to think of it, she had a nice back. Shapely. Nice face. Long blond hair pulled back in a simple knot. It would be easy enough to step forward and loosen it; And it would be fun to see the tresses fall about her shoulders. But he trafficked in people who weren't Good Germans. The only women he touched were tainted. So for now, he'd been content to be a ghost.
Today was different. He had Caleb attached to his hip, a gun figuratively pressed into his ribs. It was time to play Big Bad. That was his job and he was on notice. He couldn't afford to be a softy today. The two men marched up the stairs of Tara's apartment building on a raiding mission.
Spike rapped on the door, using his Very Official Knock, the one meant to intimidate a bit, get the occupants hopping to the door. Like always, it worked.
Tara opened the door with some trepidation. She didn't like the sound of the knock, the aggressiveness of it. In the hall stood two gentlemen in long gray coats and gray hats. Their shoes were shiny black. They had an official air about them, despite their civilian attire. One was taller, square chinned with eyes so dark they might as well have been black. The shorter one was equally intense. His blue eyes regarded her with a flicker of warmth and then it was gone. Her nerves tingled, and not in a good way.
"Can I help you?" she asked in her most level voice.
"Tara Maclay?" the smaller one asked, although it was clear he already knew he had the right person. Gestapo, she assumed. They made it their business to know things.
"I'm detective Blood and this is my partner Caleb. We're looking for a fugitive, and we have reason to believe you might know this person."
Tara shrugged and invited them inside, closing the door against the prying curiosity she knew such a scene would stir amongst her neighbors. The last time the SS had been here it was to arrest the Schraders across the hall. That had been the talk of the floor for a while. She assumed it was something similar this time. She was right, but not in a way she was prepared for.
Detective Blood pulled a photograph from his breast pocket. "We're looking for a Willow Rosenberg," he said flatly, watching Tara intently for her reaction.
Tara felt her body turn ice cold and her heart pound. There was no mistaking it. That was Willow. The surprise on her face gave her away, she was sure of it. Donnie came up behind her, dressed in his military captain's uniform. He'd heard the knock at the door. And he saw the picture the officer held in his hand.
The SS men seemed surprised to see a soldier with Tara. "This is m-my brother, Ca-Captain Donald Ma-Maclay," Tara stuttered. Damn that stutter!
She returned her gaze to the photograph of Willow smiling in the sunshine and felt a whole new worldview snap into place. This one not good or fair or honest or safe.
"You know her, don't you?" the taller officer asked, his eyes narrowing.
Tara nodded. "Yes, she's be-been staying here. But I-I know her by a di-different name-Wilma. She said her apartment had been bombed out in the last air raid."
"Her apartment was raided," Mr. Blood corrected. "We were taking a group of Gypsies and Jews into protective custody. This one got away."
Her mind worked at several things at once. Willow was a Jew. She was wanted by the Gestapo. And Tara knew that protective custody had nothing to do with protection. This was very serious. What was she willing to tell them? What could she not tell them? It took pretty much all she had to remain standing.
Donald spoke up from behind her. "Jewish? Are you sure?" He sounded extremely skeptical.
"Well," Donald continued, hotly. "She's a real charlatan, then, bringing such scandal into this household. I'm a captain in the Reich's army. And my sister's fiancé is as well. I assure you we would not knowingly harbor a Jew in our home. If you go back through your files you'll see that we're the family who turned in the Schraders from across the hall when we suspected them to be Jews."
The SS men seemed to make note of this.
"What in- information c-can we give you to-to aid in your investigation?" Tara asked.
Blood gazed at her squarely. "What name does she go by? And where can we find her?"
Donald continued to speak for them. Man of the house, of course. "The name she gave us was Wilma Eberhardt. Works at the phone company." Tara was shocked at the ease with which her brother lied.
"Did you see papers that attested to that as her identity?"
Tara and Donald shook their heads.
"When will she be home?" the tall one asked.
Her heart sank. They intended to camp out and wait for Willow. Honestly, Tara didn't think she could take such a confrontation. She couldn't meet Willow at the door tonight only to deliver her to the SS men and watch them drag her away. Her mind played out the disturbing scenario so that she thought again that her legs might give out.
"We don't expect her," Donald said, crossing his arms and blushing bright red.
"You don't expect her? I thought you said she was staying here."
"I did. She was," he nodded. "But I threw her out...She...I'm sorry. This is very difficult for me to say...She made unseemly advances toward my sister. It caused much distress. This morning..." He stopped, uncomfortably, and then scraped up the words to continue. "This morning I discovered them in bed together. The woman you're looking for--that perverted thing seduced my sister."
Three sets of eyebrows shot up. Tara felt hot tears roll down her cheeks. She was helpless to stop them.
"Is this true?" one of the SS men demanded. Tara nodded.
"My sister's fiancé is serving on the eastern Front right now. He's a very fine soldier. But I'm afraid he's left Tara very lonely. That lying wench clearly took advantage of her. First her kindness and then her person." Donald took a shaky breath. "I sincerely hope you do find her." Through his own emotion, he choked. "Let me know what I can do to help."
Mr. Blood gave Donald his card. "Do you mind if we search the apartment? As a matter of routine, of course?"
Donald shrugged. "Fine. If she left anything, I assure you it was in her haste to get away from me. I was pretty upset. You're welcome to any of it."
Tara sat numbly on the parlour couch while the men wandered purposefully through her home. Donald accompanied them. She felt utterly violated, and not only by the police.
Spike always kind of liked this part of an investigation: poking through people's houses, seeing how they lived, what they ate, what they read. He could see from the bookshelves that indeed Tara and her brother were Good Germans. Mein Kamphf sat next to a copy of The Bible. There was a healthy stack of The People's Press by the reading lamp. The kitchen was tidy, all the morning dishes put away, a bit of a lingering scent of coffee. Further back in the hallway were the bedrooms. It was still early enough that Tara hadn't yet gone around to straighten things up.
The first bedroom, he knew, belonged to her. The bed was a mess, a tangle of sheets, and the room was heavy with the scent of sex. And, yes, interestingly, the scent was decidedly female. Made him kind of wish he'd been there. Just a fly on the wall. Maybe more. They were very pretty girls, after all. Caleb was sucked into the room, too. The two of them and the brother stood staring at the bed, stupidly, really. The picture was clear enough. They were just breathing in the perfume. And dreaming.
Spike finally turned and led the party back to the hall. Next room was the brother's. One quick pass inside said it all. Smelled like a man's room. Shaving kit on the bureau. Socks and pants thrown about in typical manly fashion. It was clear that Captain Maclay was home for just a short leave.
The last room surprised him. It was a children's room. One of the siblings-probably the brother--had sons. Counting the beds, it seemed there were three or possibly four. The room was covered in dust, and it was cold and stale. Clearly the boys had been gone for a while. One of the beds had been turned down, and there were a few women's items laying about-a comb, a lipstick, a skirt. Miss Rosenberg had been staying here. But there wasn't much else. No suitcase or anything else that would indicate she actually lived in the apartment any more.
So far the story was panning out. As they made their way through the place, Caleb had been on hideout detail, opening closets, checking under beds and couches, kicking up carpets-all of the usual places you might find signs of hiding spots, or, if you were lucky, your fugitive. "The place is clean," Caleb said quietly.
They returned to the parlour where the sister sat looking miserable on the couch. Her face was beet red and her eyes red-rimmed. Everybody had learned some secrets today. And Miss Tara's were the most embarrassing of all. Spike's heart went out to her momentarily, and then he shoved the tenderness back down again. Tara wasn't off the hook yet. They'd have to tail her for a while longer to see if her lover came back. If Red had the nerve to screw a captain's sister in his own house, then she was clearly nervier than he might have thought from the doe-eyed photograph he carried. Now this Willow interested him.
"Where are the children?" Caleb was asking the Maclays.
Tara answered, her voice broken and defeated. Spike liked that. It suited her. "I sent them to the country to stay with their aunt after the November air raids." That seemed to track with the evidence.
"They're my boys. My wife is dead. Tara looks after them, since I'm away from home for long periods of time," Donald said.
"Why didn't you go with them out to the country where it's safer?" Caleb asked Tara.
She shrugged. "This is my home. I guess I thought they'd be back here by now. And they would have been except for the last air raid. Plus Riley was here with me part of the time."
"That's her fiancé," Donald added, helpfully. Oh, yeah, brother, nice opportunity to remind us your little sister is only a part-time lesbian.
Caleb and Spike left shortly after that, leaving the Maclays with the standard call-us-if-you-have-any-contact-or-information. On the street, they both lit cigarettes and compared notes.
"Good job, Blood," Caleb said as he puffed to light his cigarette in the wind. "We practically had her. How did you know she was staying there?"
Spike blew a stream of smoke out onto the wind. "I'd spotted her with a redhead a couple weeks ago. I couldn't see if it was our girl, but I got a good look at the blond. Came back a few times until I had a chance to follow her. I wasn't sure. Just a hunch, but it panned out. Lucky, I guess."
"We don't have her yet. But I think the family's telling the truth."
Spike chuckled. "Who'd have thought little Red would turn out to be a firecracker."
Caleb shook his head. "The damn Jews! The ones who are left are getting desperate. Seems like they'll do practically anything to ensure they get off the streets. Our girl Willow happened onto a very good thing. Who knows how long it might have gone on if the brother hadn't caught them."
Spike worked at being casual. "So where shall we be off to next? The phone company?"
Caleb nodded. "Just perfunctory, though. You and I both know she's not there and never was. Just more lies. But I guess it's on the way to our next stop."
"Back to the university. This is going to be a big day over there. Wouldn't want to miss it."
Caleb's grin was dark. Spike couldn't help smiling himself.
Tara couldn't have moved off the couch if she tried. She felt like the entirety of her had curled into a hard little ball. She'd stopped crying. Donnie was still standing in front of the door, staring at it as if he expected the SS men to return. Or as if he kept replaying their conversation in his head. Finally, he threw up his hands in disgust and paced back into the parlour. Tara waited for the other shoe to fall.
"Good God, Tara. I just lied to the Gestapo!" He was clearly agitated. He paced back and forth in front of her. "Do you understand what that means? If they ever find out I essentially aided and abetted a wanted criminal!"
Tara found her voice. "Why did you?"
He stopped short, staring at her like she was insane. "Tara, Wilma wasn't truthful with us. She put us in a very bad spot. But I don't want to see her dead. Which is what she'll be if they catch her."
For the second time today-or was it third-Donnie was surprising her. Basic human compassion was winning out over strict military training.
But his flexibility only went so far in this regard. He pointed a finger at her. "But. I meant what I said about her being out of here. I don't want to see her again. If I see her again, I'll turn her in myself. You call her up at work and tell her she's not welcome here. Or I will."
"I'll do it," Tara said.
"And you understand, of course, that you can't see her again. You've got to break it off. If they catch you together again, you'll be as dead as she is. And, really, a little roll in the hay, no matter how good, isn't worth it. It's not worth your safety or your future. They'll be watching you. You don't know what the secret police are capable of. But I do."
Tara felt amazingly detached from her body. She didn't know how to absorb all that had happened. She was left mortified and scared by the visit from the detectives and unsafe knowing that they were watching her. Which meant the neighbors would be watching her. Which meant that anything strange she said or did would be likely to prompt a phone call to the authorities for suspicious behavior. That's if the authorities who would be watching her like a hawk didn't pick her up for something innocuous. Why did it seem like the whole world wanted to hurt each other? She felt angry at the times. She felt angry that Willow had endangered her without saying anything. Rationally, she understood why Willow felt like she couldn't tell her. But the dishonesty of it hung there, revealed and stark. She felt stupid for thinking that the two of them shared some rare connection that was completely real and honest and present. Tara should have been old enough to see through that, that people will do and say anything in bed like it's all make-believe. Maybe she thought with a woman it was different. Mostly, Tara felt unfathomably empty.
Donnie was in another room. He was angry with her for compromising the safety of the family. He knew she didn't mean to. He'd get over it. But for now he was mad. And she was mad at herself. What had started as a great day had turned black so quickly it made her head spin.
She picked up a discarded copy of The People's Press from the floor and searched inside for the office phone number. Damn that girl. Tara didn't know whether Willow was exceedingly clever and brave or exceedingly dumb and suicidal to be working for the Nazi newspaper.
She asked for Wilma Hermann and was placed on hold for what seemed like forever. Finally with a click a voice was there again.
"This is Wilma."
There was a long pause as the girl on the other end of the line processed. Tara now understood that the hesitancy was fear that her identity had been found out. Then there was a relieved sigh as Willow apparently finished going through the short list of people who knew her by that name and recognized her voice.
"Tara?" Willow sounded small and a bit spooked.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you at work. I need to tell you something," Tara replied.
"Something as in good news or something as in a bad something...or a neutral oh-by-the-way something, maybe?"
"It's not good."
Tara could feel Willow's fear. Her voice was even smaller: "Ok, how not good?"
"S- some men came by the apartment this morning."
Willow was silent.
"They were looking for you. F- for Willow...Rosenberg."
A pause, followed by a shaky sigh. Tara pictured Willow sitting hunched over her desk, her forehead resting on her hand, trying to make herself small and quiet and quite possibly invisible.
"Oh, God, Tara. I'm so sorry. Are- are you all right? They- they didn't..."
"I'm fine," Tara said, a bit too abruptly.
Willow was silent on the other end of the line and then pressed again. "They didn't hurt you? Or- or threaten you or your brother?"
Tara thought of the stinging humiliation of the men pawing through her bedroom and what conclusions they came to. She struggled to keep the edge out of her voice. "No, they didn't threaten or hurt us. But you can't-"
Willow interrupted her. Her voice was heavy. "I know."
"You ca-can't come back here," Tara said. "And they'll be wa- watching me, so..."
Willow's voice a whisper: "I know."
Another pause as they both sat a moment with the heaviness of it. Life had gotten impossibly harder.
"Did you tell them where to-uh, where I work?" Willow asked slowly.
"Do you guys, um, plan to tell them where I work?"
Tara was almost insulted by that question, by Willow's lack of faith in her, her underestimation of Tara's humanity. "No."
"Is your brother going to kill me?"
"Are you going to kill me?" The question floated lightly, though its meaning was anything but.
"I'm so sorry, baby. I didn't mean to drag you into this. It wasn't fair of me. I just-I just wish we'd have had more time. I know that's selfish. Everything's selfish. And stupid..." Tara could tell Willow was crying now.
"Shh, sweetie. Don't fall apart in the middle of the newsroom. You've got to keep it together. It's going to be all right." She wasn't sure of that last part, but it seemed like the only thing to say.
" Tara, I'd give-I'd give anything for more time. This can't be over. I just-It just was getting really good, you know?"
Tara had trouble finding her voice. "I know."
"I- I can't believe this is happening. I don't want to go. I don't want this to be it. This can't be it."
Another long pause. "I'm not going to see you again, am I?"
Tara was silent. She didn't know. Suddenly, she became aware of the finality which Willow seemed to have comprehended all along.
"I meant what I said earlier." Willow's voice dropped to a whisper: "I love you."
Tara couldn't find words. Willow sighed. Tara imagined her nervously running a hand through red hair. "I'm- I'm sorry...I- I should go. God, I'll miss you, Tara. I miss you." She chuckled ruefully, "I already do."
"Willow. Be safe."
"It's- it's ok. I'm going. I- I love you."
When the line went dead, Tara felt stung and floaty. She clung to the receiver a moment, as if doing so would preserve this link of metal wires that led directly from her to her lover. Former lover. She imagined Willow holding the phone on her end, as well.
Finally, Tara set the phone back in its cradle. Her life didn't feel any simpler.
Hans Gruber looked up from his desk and surveyed the newsroom. Reports were coming in from the universities that the government was rounding up more students and faculty members for traitorous activities. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling depressed. This time it wasn't just a handful. Days like this made him feel tired and raw. Then he spotted Wilma Hermann smoothing tears away from her eyes, looking like she was doing everything she could to hold it all together. His heart went out to her. He swiveled out of his chair and sauntered to his office door, calling to her.
She didn't look up from her copyediting. Did she not hear him? "Hermann!"
The girl jolted in her chair as if she'd been shocked, locking eyes with him. She looked terrified. He motioned to her to come into his office. She rose slowly and marched as if expecting to be fired. Gruber was puzzled. He wasn't an expert in young women, but then with Miss Hermann he didn't need to be. She was an open book to him.
As she entered his office he invited her to take a seat. He went to his desk drawer and yanked it open, pulling out a revolver and dropping it heavily on his desk. The young woman jumped in fear.
"Settle, settle. I'm not going to shoot." He quirked a smile and reached into the desk drawer again and this time withdrew a bottle of gin which he set on the desk beside the gun. He raised his eyebrows in entreaty. "You look like you could use this."
"The revolver?" Miss Hermann quipped. He liked her. That brought the first smile to his face all day.
He set out two glasses and poured. One for him and one for her. He handed her the glass and then took a seat at his desk. He squinted at her a moment. There was something about her that he found very interesting. She wasn't like other girls in the office. She had a sharp mind and worked harder than just about anybody in the newsroom. Himself included. He felt a fatherly pride in her. As if he really wanted to see her succeed in life. But life these days seemed to be treating everyone hard.
He tipped back the drink and let the liquor slide down his throat, warming him. He eyed her carefully as she did the same. She held the glass out for a refill. He chuckled and obliged.
"I know why I'm in a bad mood today," he said carefully, "but I don't know why you're blue. Perhaps you could tell me."
Those pretty eyes were red-rimmed. And still they were pretty. She rubbed them again as if to erase the evidence of her tears. As she composed herself, he tried to guess what she'd say. Boyfriend problems. He had his money on that.
"A- a fight," she said, her voice small and shaky. "A bad one. It- caught me by surprise. I'm really sorry it's affecting my work today. I'm very interested in the stories about the student arrests. I'm really paying attention. I- I'm just-, I just...It's not a great day for me."
He smiled a fatherly smile, pleased that he'd guessed right. He could always read her.
"Your work is fine," Gruber dismissed her worries with a wave. "But you look like you could use a distraction."
The girl held up the glass. "Uh, this is a fairly, um, effective distraction. And I must say that for not being much of a drinker, I seem to have a glass growing out of my hand lately."
"These are good times for the liquor business."
"Are there any bad ones?"
Touche. He chuckled again. He regarded her as she swallowed down the second glass of gin, her face contorting with the fire in her throat and bitterness on her tongue.
It was decided. "You're coming with me to dinner tonight. I'm meeting a few SS officers, and I think they'd like your company."
Miss Hermann shook her head. "I- I really appreciate the offer and the kindness, but I really feel like being alone tonight. And besides, I'm not dressed for it."
Gruber's face settled into dead seriousness. "Don't make me use the gun."
Green eyes widened. She didn't laugh.
Did he really frighten her so much? He wondered why.
Donald was watching Tara closely. He didn't even try to conceal his scrutiny as they ate their meal across the table from each other in uncomfortable silence. Tara kept her head down. Over the course of the afternoon and evening his mood had darkened considerably. It took everything she had in her to ignore him and pretend that nothing had happened, that nothing from the day bothered her in the least, that it was back to life as usual-back to life before. She was a terrible liar, though.
A deep sigh and then Donald finally set in on her. "I'm closing up the house," he announced.
Her head snapped up. "And what?"
"You'll go out to the country and stay with Beth and the kids. It's safer outside the city. I should have sent you a long time ago."
Tara didn't think a 28-year-old woman deserved "sending." She could make her own decisions. She gazed at him ruefully.
"Don't give me that crap," he spat, as if she'd argued with him. As siblings, they didn't really need words to have a conversation. "You know I'm right. And if you refuse me I'll know it's because of her."
Tara felt her face redden, but she refused to be baited.
He proceeded as if she had taken the bait. "You're an engaged woman. You have a fiancé. You'll get married and start a family. It's time you stopped with these big-city notions. You've had plenty of time to play. I dare say you've had more time than I took before I started my own family and the obligations caught up with me as they will with you, too. You should thank me for being an understanding brother. But there's too much temptation here. I mean, that's fairly obvious. You can't deny that. There are too many opportunities to fall in with the wrong crowd, and it's not only disrespectful to your future husband, it's also dangerous to this family. Some time out at the farm will give you some perspective on this. I know you don't like what I'm saying now. But you'll understand the wisdom of it later."
She doubted that. Tara had never considered her brother particularly wise. Especially when it came to her. He had her pegged to a certain extent. She was a romantic, and she did have romantic notions about living in the big city. What he never understood was how wrong the farm felt to her, how stifling, how suffocating. That's why she'd chosen to send Donald's children to live with Beth while she risked bombs falling on her apartment to stay in Berlin. It had taken an extreme effort to go against her family's wishes and move here in the first place. She knew if she left now she'd be stuck there until the end of the war. And then she'd be Riley's wife-expected to follow him wherever he'd have them go next. Her chest tightened with the knowledge of her own future and how much suddenly she couldn't stand the thought of it.
Had one month with Willow dumped her world-view so upside down that she'd never be satisfied with the life she was expected to live? Four weeks had made one thing crystal clear: She didn't love Riley. Her heart ached instead for something much more dangerous-even deadly. A Jewish girl named Willow. It was all madness and passion and lust, given and received in equal measures. It was perfect, in fact. But it would never work. There was no family in a future with Willow. There was no comfortable home, with a cozy front porch. In fact, there was no future. There never could be one. Willow wouldn't be able to evade the Gestapo forever. They had her assumed name. They knew she went by the name Wilma. Willow was a very brave, very stupid girl whose time was running out.
She let a tear roll down her cheek, but refused to meet Donald's eyes.
His voice was quiet, taking her silence for acquiescence. "Everything will be right when Riley gets back. You'll see."
The house fell into a hush then, with just the sounds of scraping dishes as they continued to eat their dinner. The phone rang, making them both jump. Tara was closer, so she rose to answer it. She fought to keep her voice steady, succeeding more than she thought possible. It was Xander calling for Wilma.
"She- she wasn't at work when I tried her there. I really need to talk to her, to know she's safe."
Tara crafted her words carefully. She knew Donald was watching her. "Wilma's not here...Wh- why are you concerned about her safety?"
Xander paused, clearly trying to figure out how much to tell Tara, finally giving in to: "It's another friend of ours. She's dead, and I'm worried about Wilma."
"Is this other friend a Jew, too?" Tara asked lightly.
There was shocked silence on the other end of the line, and then: "Shit! Please, no." He hung there a long moment. "Is she- did they--?"
Tara's voice was harder than she intended. "Some detectives came by earlier today. I- I called her at work and gave her a heads-up." She paused. "She won't be coming back here."
Xander's tone grew more desperate. "Do you know where she intends to go? Did she say anything?"
She told me she loved me. Tara sighed. "She didn't tell me where she was going. I'm afraid you'll just have to wait for her to contact you."
"What do they know?"
Tara flicked a cautious look at her brother who was frowning. "They know her name is Willow Rosenberg. And they know she's going by the name Wilma."
More anguished cursing from Xander, and a bigger frown from her brother.
Xander composed himself and then ventured a last question. "The detectives. Were their names Blood and Caleb?"
Tara was surprised he would know that. "Uh- yes," she breathed.
"They work in my department," Xander offered. Then he stopped, as if he'd realized he'd said too much, as if it just occurred to him that she might not be on Willow's side. And Xander's side. It clicked in Tara's mind at the same time that Xander was just as brave and stupid as Willow for working for the Nazis.
His voice was small and helpless. "Please, Tara. You must realize how bad a situation we're in. Please don't tell them anything. Or we don't have a chance."
"I- don't have anything else to tell them," she assured. In her estimation they already didn't have a chance. She wanted to wish him luck, but with Donald watching her, she had to play it neutral.
"Thanks, Tara...And I'm really very sorry I got you mixed up in all of this. Really, I am. You're too good a person to have done that to, and I'm sorry. It's- it's just that I need Willow. I love her. She's my family."
Tara felt hot tears want to come, but she forced them back. She said nothing. She didn't trust her voice.
The line went dead and Tara found herself holding the receiver a moment more for the second time today, wanting to prolong a connection that was severing and realizing it had been destined to sever all along. She just hadn't known it.
When she finally returned to the table, Donnie had a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
"Her friends are worried, now, eh?" he said. "Means the hounds are closing in. It won't be long, and all this will be behind us." He seemed relieved.
Tara didn't feel relieved.
Willow Rosenberg was dead.
And Wilma Hermann was about to be.
That was the mantra that seemed to revolve around and around Willow's mind all day since she'd received the phone call from Tara. That phone call. The terrible one that would resonate with all the devastation of an avalanche until her dying breath, which was probably not far away now. She glanced as casually as possible around the table of the restaurant and her head swam at the sight of the sea of officers' uniforms. All she could see were the outfits. The faces had all become a blur. She'd been fueled by adrenaline all day. Her head ached from the gin and her mouth felt cottony and sour. Gruber was her anchor, sitting to her side, chatting the Nazis up as natural as can be.
There were a couple of other women at the table. Wives or girlfriends, perhaps, of the officers. She was there as Gruber's date. Well, not a date, exactly, since he was her employer and old enough to be her father, and he seemed interested in her company as a father might. She told herself that again. It was better than thinking that he was leading her into a trap, that he'd figured out she was a Jew-or someone had told him-and he was just biding his time until he deposited her with one of these fine officers at the end of the evening. Or maybe he'd coerce her into a compromising position in order to retain her freedom. How far was she willing to go? What would she put on the line in order not to die?
She'd already put Tara on the line. That was why Tara had been so mad. She was scared. Understandable. Well, welcome to the hellmouth. For a few days Tara would experience some of the fear Willow had felt practically every day of her life for the past five years, since neighbors had taken her parents away on what the Nazis later came to call The Night of Broken Glass, or Crystal Nacht-really too pretty a name for what should have been called Hate Night. She'd been 16. And in the space of a few hours, the years of politicking that she'd tried not to think too much about before the November 1938 riots settled firmly into her young mind. It became real in the way a verbal threat becomes real when it's followed by a punch to the gut.
So at 16, she understood the evil that stalked the streets of Berlin-and every hamlet in the nation-in a way that the gentiles never would. Because the seeds of darkness were held in their own hearts. People like Tara lived in a different Germany than Willow did. One that affirmed and celebrated their inherent superiority. Which was based solely on their race. Which was a load of baloney, if you looked at it objectively, with all the facts. Which the gentiles had no motivation to do, apparently. They were too busy being aggrandized-and loving every minute of it. After five or ten years of being told over and over that you were God's chosen people, the most magnificent people to ever walk the planet and that the Beautiful People could only maintain their status and purity by driving out all that was supposedly dirty, as if scrubbing the streets clean of disease germs living among them, people like Tara had been taught to think of people like Willow as the equivalent of gangrene. Conveniently, they didn't think about the disinfectant the government employed to wipe out the germs. And to try to reveal it, as Buffy and her student dissident friends had tried, was senseless. Because the Chosen, Beautiful People were too invested in seeing themselves as perfect to accept something so ugly. It made them want to rid themselves of those germs, too.
Even as she smiled at the officers now and made appropriate small talk, she was mentally slapping herself for letting herself sink so fully and comfortably into her life with Tara, into Tara herself. If Willow stepped back objectively she recognized her own folly. She could pretend to be a Chosen, Beautiful Person all she wanted. But she wasn't one. She was a germ. She was gangrene. Her worth as an individual was irrelevant. She was disease.
Tonight, sitting in a fine restaurant, surrounded by the sworn protectors of the Good Germans she'd foolishly assumed she could blend in with, she was filled with the reality that she couldn't. She never would. She bore her germ status just as surely as if she wore the Star of David on her chest, like she was supposed to. It filled her entire being because it was her entire experience. This-this was just farce. A few weeks of practice based on what she thought Nazis and their sympathizers were like. She was a terrible liar.
But tonight, she had to be a superb one. As if everything depended upon it. And it did. So she smiled and laughed and raised her wine glass in toasts that the men suggested in their merriment and engaged in yet another set-piece of normalcy that was part of the stage play of Wilma Hermann's life. Knowing that at the end of the evening the curtain would fall on her performance and she'd be out on the street, apparently, since her warm and loving home was wrecked. Yet again.
Funny how everything came back to Tara. All her mental ramblings led back to the one thing, the one huge lesson she had just learned: She loved Tara. She couldn't have steeled her heart and not have loved her. She'd risked everything to cross that line and taste joy. Their relationship hadn't required words. Words these days were hurtful, hateful little knives sharpened by evil men. Words were not to be trusted. Instead it was actions that spoke truth. Willow knew what Tara was saying with every kiss and every touch, and Willow had conversed with her in a similar tongue-a language built on touches, on physical and emotional openness, the small intimacies that couldn't be faked. What had sprung up for Willow was a knowledge of Tara's beauty that had nothing to do with her Aryan perfection but with her Willow perfection: They simply fit. If there was one thing she was sure of in this fucked-up world, it was that. But what she didn't know was whether Tara could set aside the hateful indoctrination of words and see the real language that flowed between them. And even if she could see it, feel it, crave it in the same way Willow did, would she risk her Chosen-one status to be a germ? To Willow it felt like there was no choice. She had to make every day count. She had to love and breathe and eat and drink and pack as much living in to her waking hours as she could. Tara had only to wait out the war. Tara had a whole life ahead of her. Willow's whole life was now.
Damn it, busy brain, stay on task. For a moment. she wished she could follow Xander's advice to let alcohol turn off her rapid internal multi-tasking and just focus on having a good time. In Tara's presence she'd been able to do that. It was trickier here to stay focused, what with all the mental untangling going on in her head. Willow-brain was a very busy place tonight.
She could tell by Gruber's glowing that she was doing a fine job. That reassured her a little. But she hoped he wouldn't try to be her friend. The veneer that was Wilma Hermann was far, far too thin to bear it.
At the end of the evening, Gruber gentlemanly offered to drive her home. She grew quiet. They were out on the street now, at his car, and he was asking where he could take her. She made up her mind quickly and gave him the address. She wasn't ready to give up everything just yet.
It was late, but Tara insisted on sitting up and reading the evening's edition of The People's Press. Donnie had gone off to bed with a few terse words about heading back to the Front the day after tomorrow. She'd offered to do his laundry. He'd made her agree to go to the country, though she'd got him to agree to let her stay in town for a short while longer to close up the house and put all their household affairs in order.
She couldn't fool herself. She wanted another chance to see Willow. That's why she insisted on staying. That's why she was reading the newspaper. That's why she sat up late, listening intently for familiar footsteps on the stairs. If the detectives had not come by today, Willow would already be here now. She would have arrived hours ago for dinner. They would have greeted each other in the darkened hall. Willow would have pulled something small from her pocket-a colorful rock? A paperweight from the newspaper office? A love poem? Tara was certain she would have kissed Willow there in the entryway. Not some chaste peck on the cheek. She would have drawn Willow in, holding her wind-chilled face in warm hands and kissed her gently, waiting for that moment when Willow's mouth would seemingly melt open, and they'd be simultaneously suffused with the longing and comfort of being inside each other.
Tara knew she wanted to watch that beautiful mouth as they ate dinner together, watch it later as they sat in the parlour talking about the news of the day-the funny bits and pieces, the silly observations, the interesting or unsettling conversations she'd had on the telephone as she interviewed news sources to check facts. And then, right about now, in fact, she'd be watching again as that mouth worked its way down Tara's body, setting it on fire.
Instead, she sat here under the glow of the floor lamp beside the chair, learning about the bits and pieces of the day from text, instead of from her source. She was having trouble imagining the funny parts that had gone on behind the scenes. She tossed the newspaper to the floor beside her and watched out the window instead. She wondered what Willow was doing right now.
Gruber's car pulled to a stop outside the tall apartment building. He cut the motor off. Willow flashed him a smile that made him smile back. But there was something in his eyes that said she wasn't fooling him. Damn. She was a really, really bad liar.
"I'd hoped that a night out would help get your mind off your worries," he said.
Willow's smile grew more sincere. "Actually, that was a nice dinner. Much nicer than I was going to have, for sure. And- and it was amazing meeting some of those men...They're the people who are shaping the nation. They're like mythological figures you only read about in the newspaper-our newspaper, of course. And there they were in the flesh, with wives and girlfriends and everyday interests, just like anybody else, you know?"
"Yes. I do know. I still feel amazed sometimes to be let into their inner circle. And I've been with them, reporting on all the major events from the very beginning."
"I kind of imagine it's hard to be both on the inside and be a newspaper man. You've got a pretty important job."
He nodded, then shrugged a bit modestly.
"So, not to be disrespectful or anything, but why invite me tonight? There's a whole newsroom full of reporters-guys with a lot more experience than I have...and- and a lot more responsibility. Shouldn't-shouldn't one of them been here instead?"
Gruber chuckled. "It's simple. I knew you'd really cherish the chance to meet these people. More than any of the others would."
Willow had to admit it made an impression on her she was sure the other newsroom hacks would not have had. She also understood he trusted her. And she really needed someone to trust her right now, even if she didn't deserve it.
"It was just the perfect thing," she said, meaning it.
Gruber nodded. "But now you need to go patch things up. Your fight from earlier?" He looked like he hoped he was getting the nuances right.
Willow smiled and looked up at the building. "Well, yeah. Though I'm not sure what's broken can be mended. We- we're in a pretty difficult place."
This was something he could do: He could impart fatherly wisdom. So he did: "You're young. With a few years you'll have a bit more perspective to know that life's too short to let wounds fester. Better to do something about it than worry about doing something about it."
Willow chuckled. "Carpe diem," she grinned.
"Seize the day. Exactly."
With that she bid him goodnight and walked up to the front door of the building, taking the steps two at a time. She caught her breath gazing up at the tall wooden doors and then pushed her way through them and on toward the stairs. She took these two at a time for the first two flights and then had to slow down for the remaining three. She was winded by the time she hit the fifth floor, but walked on sure feet to the familiar door and knocked.
A moment later, it swung open to reveal a very surprised Xander. He grabbed her immediately into a tight bear-hug. "Oh my god, Willow! We were so worried about you. Where have you been?"
Over his shoulder she saw that Buffy was there as well, and it warmed her.
When Xander finally released her, Willow replied, "Oh, you know. Hanging with the Big Bad. I was out to dinner with a bunch of Hitler's muckies and my editor. Seriously. I think I'm going to have an aneurism over how stressful this day has been."
Xander rubbed her shoulder and led her to a seat on the couch. She felt amazingly relieved to be among friends.
"Yeah, we sort of heard from Tara that, well, you wore out your welcome over there."
"She's really mad at me. I feel like an amazing ass. Wait. Did she call you?"
Xander shook his head. "I was kinda phoning to check up on you and got an earful." He paused. "No, strike that. She was fairly tight-lipped, but my interrogation skills are excellent. I guess my job at the SS is finally rubbing off on me."
Willow dropped her head into her hands. "She hates me."
"I apologized for the both of us profusely," Xander said. "I think she'll get over it. Either that or she'll turn us all in."
"Speak for yourself," Buffy piped up. "This doo-doo is your doing. You're the ones who thought pretending to be Nazis was a great idea."
"Well, guess who else has been chumming it up with the fun-and-guts-loving Gestapo? Our own Miss Buffy Summers."
Willow suddenly noticed something different about Buffy's appearance. "What's up with the hat?"
Buffy looked sheepish. "It's to, uh, cover up a really bad haircut."
Buffy removed the cap she'd been wearing, but no long blond hair tumbled down from beneath it. Willow's eyes widened as she aligned the image of the Buffy before her to the one she had known for years. "It's, uh, very Hitler Youth."
Xander chimed in. "It's got that tough-but-adorable thing going for it. Not everyone can pull it off."
"It's way bad," Buffy repeated, pulling the cap back down over her head. "How am I going to get a boyfriend looking like, well, a boy?"
"Oh, men will still notice you-just not the kind of men you want to go out with," Xander teased.
Willow repeated, slack-jawed: "You look like Hitler Youth?"
Buffy nodded. "That's the idea. It was Xander's idea, anyway. I have the whole uniform. Cute shorts, suspenders, tie..."
Xander rose to his feet. "Long, long story, Will. And not much of the good, I'm afraid. So I'll just go and make a pot of coffee and we can settle in for a thorough catch-up."
While Xander was out of the room, Buffy came to sit across from Willow. She leaned in close, her eyes serious. "The other day, the student arrests-or the first wave of them anyway? I almost got picked up," she said. "And by picked up, I mean as in firing squad on the quad."
"I- I looked for your name. At the newsroom. A source called in and gave me your name. And a few others. You know, to print in the newspaper. I kind of, well, I kind of butchered it. I think I referred to you as Betty something."
Buffy laughed out loud. "No way! I read the story and was seriously wondering who those people were. I'd never heard of any of them."
"It was very loud in the newsroom. I was having a hard time hearing."
"Yay for occupational hearing loss."
"I just thought that you and the others and everybody deserved, you know, another chance. Plus abuse of power? Very heady stuff. I could get used to it."
Buffy rubbed Willow's arm. "Thanks."
"So- so they know what you look like? Is that what's up with the new you?"
"The detective who asked for my papers. I knew him," she said. "He pulled a Willow and purposely butchered my name in front of his detective partner. He saved my life. But the other guy's seen me. And I think now with the second wave of arrests, pretty much everybody who goes to Humboldt is going to be more than ready to sell me out. Did I mention the firing squad on the quad? Killing your classmates on campus tends to freak people out."
"So you're moving back a few grades?"
"I really should have paid more attention to my studies. Hindsight."
Willow grabbed Buffy's cap. "Let me see your hair, silly," she said gently. Buffy's blond hair fell in a lock across her forehead. Willow reached out to tuck it behind her friend's ear and brushed her fingers through the bristle of the shear-cut swath that ran from Buffy's temples to her neck. It was soft as velvet.
"Wow," Willow breathed. "You could be your own brother. I mean, if you had a brother. Which you don't, but, wow."
Buffy pushed Willow's hands away with a self-conscious laugh. "Stop looking at me that way."
"It's amazing. You went to a barber shop?"
"Xander did it all. Cut my hair, got me my cool new uniform and my cool new coat."
"I could do you, too, Will," Xander said breezily as he came back into the room. He was clearly smug about his craftiness. "It would be like Xander's Youth Troop. Me in my big uniform. The two of you in your little uniforms. I have so much to teach you."
"No thanks," Willow said. "I mean, not that it's not a good look, because on Buffy it's definitely a good look. Well, actually, it's wrong. Really wrong. But in a good way, if that makes sense. But I think I'd rather keep working in the newsroom instead of, well, being the newspaper delivery boy. The pay is better. I- I can get my own place." She looked helplessly at Buffy. "You could live with me. You'd be my nephew or something like that."
Buffy dismissed the notion with a flick of her wrist. "Like I'd let you be the boss of me."
"Hello! Scout-master Xander?"
"Not loving that, either." Buffy heaved a boyish sigh. It was cute. "I'm not loving any of it."
Xander grinned, trying to keep it all together. "Ladies. Life on the old hellmouth right now is pretty much a suckfest. Buffy's going to stay with me. She's my nephew." He pointed at Willow who'd made a move to argue over that. "Willow, you don't even have a place to live right now. Really. Little Buffy needs more stability than that, all right? And, Buffy, if you'd like to earn some extra cash to help out around the Harris household maybe you could take Aunt Wilma up on that paper route job."
"Fuck this." Buffy was on her feet pacing the small apartment. "God, I can't even laugh about it right now."
The three of them fell into silence. The coffee began to percolate on the stove. The clock on the wall showed that it was nearly midnight.
"So Tara's really pissed at you?" Buffy finally asked, her back turned as she gazed out the window.
"Yeah. She called the newsroom. I could...hear it...in her voice."
"The detectives have a photograph of you," Buffy said, without turning. "They showed me. It was a nice shot, really."
"That's bad. They know what I look like and they know I'm going by the name Wilma. Looks like I'm screwed." But the part that really stung was the part where she'd disappointed Tara. Everything comes back to Tara. Willow shook her head and asked if the coffee was done. She needed sleep, but doubted it would come anyway. Xander moved quietly back to the kitchen.
"The detectives, the ones who approached me, the ones who went to Tara's apartment, they..." Buffy struggled to find words. Willow watched her friend's back with growing worry and impatience. "They found Jenny."
The words hung there until Willow couldn't stand the very shape of them. "God!" she shouted. "Will this hell never end? Everything we do, everything we touch, it's just...This detective saved you but he's gunning for me, like he was gunning for Jenny?" Willow was aware her tone was accusatory. She couldn't help it. She was choking on tears.
"I know," Buffy said grimly. "It helps that I know him. But, unfortunately only up to a point. He has a job to do."
"Why can't he misplace a couple of files, like Xander does? Sorry, sweetie, I didn't mean it to sound like you're not a conscientious worker...Couldn't your friend, you know, misplace my photo? Or maybe get bored and move on to somebody else? Can't you talk to him?"
"I can try. But I've never had a direct conversation about you or Jenny or Xander or my family or anybody. I just don't know how much he can do. Good news is that the SS is tied up with rounding up student baddies, and they'll be tailing Tara, of course, for a while."
"I'm not going to see her again, am I?" It was the same question she'd asked rhetorically earlier on the phone with Tara and it was just as doubtful now as it was then, if not more so.
Xander patted Willow's knee. "That's the least of your worries. In fact, it's good. Let them follow her. She's a Good German. She'll be fine. It's not like you two have that much in common. Unless your plan is to marry some soldier friend of Riley's."
Wow. So wrong. But Willow couldn't bring herself to say more on the subject of Tara. It was too raw and too complicated. And too depressing. Instead she turned to Buffy. "So what do my Gestapo stalkers look like?"
"They work in my department. I'll see if I can get photos."
Willow shot Xander an indignant look, growing increasingly flustered. "You know these people, too? And you can't find a way to somehow-I don't know-lose a file, or something like that?"
Buffy jumped in. "Down, Will. We're all just figuring this out as we go here. And with all three of us in a room together, we have a lot more information than we had a couple of hours ago. The three of us here in the same room? This is of the good. Lots to be thankful for."
Willow frowned. Damn. If Tara were here the picture would be even more complete. It would all be more complete. Everything kept coming back to Tara.
"I call dibs on the couch," Willow said, heavily, leaving Buffy and Xander to fight over the bed and the floor.