The day had been warm enough that Gruber hadn't even taken a coat with him on his walk at lunch. Willow watched him return to the newsroom, walking through as he always did and hanging his hat on a hook behind his office door. There was a small smile she could tell had been put there by sunshine. And she was not above using a pretty day to get what she wanted where he was concerned.
In fact, the blue skies visible from the office windows seemed to buoy everyone's spirits a bit. The rounding up of the university students had subsided finally. It had been a while since the Brits had tried any serious aerial assaults. And Willow's life had settled. She'd taken a small apartment in a reasonably nice building near where Xander lived. Buffy stayed there with her sometimes. She felt like she was finally tasting what "normal life" must be like among the Good Germans. She worked, came home, met her friends, did homework (some routines were hard to break) and did voluminous reading. In winter it had seemed like enough, but with Spring now upon them, she was restless. The whole city was restless. But Willow Rosenberg was particularly restless. It had been more than two months since Tara had left Berlin for her family's home north of the city.
She'd received letters-very sweet descriptions of the farm and of Donald's boys and Tara's cousin Beth and very sweet descriptions of how much she missed Willow. Every one of those letters was tucked in a little pocket of her suitcase, with Tara's name and return address carefully blackened out with India ink. Just in case some Nazi asshole ever got a hold of her suitcase, she didn't want Tara being branded a Jewish sympathizer, which, depending upon the mood of the authorities on any given day, could be tantamount to political insurgency.
And over the past few weeks, as she'd listened in more and more to the talk around the newsroom among the reporters when it came to the concentration camps, she had come to realize that political dissidence was really not something she wanted pinned on Tara or Xander or Buffy or anyone. The camps were on her mind these days because Riley Finn was out at Ravensbruck now. And because that's probably where they'd send someone like Willow if she were ever caught and the SS were not in a mood to shoot her on the spot.
She'd become curious. She'd pricked up her ears when the newsmen talked about rampant illnesses running virtually unchecked. Or about the staggering numbers of prisoners currently under "protective custody." Could there really be 60,000 at Bergen-Belsen alone? There were even rumors that the government had set up supposed "death camps" in Poland. It sucked to be a Jew in Berlin. But from the bits and pieces she heard it sounded far worse to be a Jew in Poland. The evil empire was growing more malevolent, the cancer of it spreading. The more vast Germany's holdings grew, the harder it was to maintain human decency. They were getting sloppy and it was becoming harder and harder for even the die-hards to ignore. The whisperings turned her stomach, filling her with a queasy kind of anger. Interestingly, the other reporters sounded just as disturbed by the news. The only problem was that it still wasn't the kind of news The People's Press-or any other newspaper-would dare to print.
But somebody had to do something, and she realized that she was the perfect person to do it-as if it were fate or kismet that drew her to take a job at this newspaper in the first place. And over the past few weeks, since Gruber had taken her out to dinner with the government bigwigs, she'd managed to get him to let her do some reporting...small news stories, rewrites of communiqués from the government. She understood the "Party lines" so she never betrayed her distaste for her sanitized subject matter, and little by little Gruber's trust in her had grown.
Today, she was going to push things quite a bit further.
She saw her opportunity as Gruber took his seat at his desk, and so she rose and followed him.
"Sir," she said as she softly knocked at his office door. He turned and raised an eyebrow.
"How's that piece on the Fuhrer's last speech coming?"
"Very well, sir. It's almost finished. I'll have the draft to you by two o'clock."
Gruber nodded affectionately. "Excellent, Miss Hermann. What else can I do for you?"
Willow felt her face redden, and her skin flush with sweat. This was hard....He noticed her discomfort and nodded toward the chair in front of his desk. She gladly took it. "I, um, have a request. There's a story I'd like to do. It's very important. But it's also very big, so I'd understand if you thought another reporter might be better for the job. Though, really, I think I would do a really great job with it. It's just that I feel really strongly about the subject matter and the need to reassure the people. There's-there's a weakness. Or perhaps not a weakness, per se, more of a gap, maybe, that needs to be filled with information. With something. So that the people don't have to worry. And-and I think if we wrote an important piece in the People's Press, it would help..."
"Miss Hermann," he interrupted softly. "What is this piece you feel the need to write?"
"I'm- I'm not criticizing the government when I say this..." She stopped. When had she become such a major liar? Were her untruthfulness skills growing? Was she just as guilty as the government for using words to manipulate? With a breath, she clicked back on mental track: "I think people are starting to wonder about the camps."
Gruber's eyebrows just about hit his hairline. "The concentration camps? You want to write about them?" He said it as if she had just announced she wanted to do a story about how Hitler liked to kill kittens and puppies. Which, come to think of it, wasn't such a bad analogy.
Willow had rehearsed some of this, but her little speech fell apart and she just went from the heart. "I've heard whisperings...even around the newsroom here. Nobody is criticizing the government or questioning its agenda. It's just with a lack of information, it's natural for people to start thinking the worst."
Gruber's eyes narrowed. "Just what exactly have you heard that makes you think the worst." He was dangerous. As much as he might like her, she knew he'd turn her in to the authorities in a heartbeat to protect himself and his newspaper.
"I've heard a bit about illnesses...and about huge numbers of prisoners. I mean, really, really big numbers of prisoners."
"We're at war. The fact that we have many prisoners means our efforts are effective. The people should be proud."
Willow pounced on this. "Exactly. They should be proud. They should be relieved. That's the story I want to tell. I want to reassure them that everything is under control..." Her voice trailed off. She knew this was an extremely huge can of worms she had just opened. Was that look on his face because he thought if she learned too much she'd turn traitor? Usually, the reporters stayed close to the newsroom, writing from what their sources told them. There was no source stepping forward here to offer information. She was suggesting going to get it. Until this moment, the word 'proactive' was not part of the vernacular of this news organization. Nor was 'enterprising.' However, 'helpful' was a word that described The People's Press, and that's the one she latched onto.
"I want to help."
Gruber leaned back in his chair, rubbing his clean-shaven chin. She noted that the sunny-day smile was gone. After a moment, he asked her tentatively, "How do you propose to go about getting this story?"
This part Willow was ready for. "I'd like to meet with the administration of one of the camps. They can show me anything they want. I'd like to bring a camera and take photographs-again of whatever they want. This is their opportunity to tell their story."
Gruber nodded. "I believe I have a source in the administration at Bergen-Belsen. I can ask them to draft something-perhaps send some photos along. And, yes, you can edit the piece. I'll give you the by-line on it."
Now the tricky part. "Sir, I'd like to go myself. I believe that as an outsider-and a woman-I can capture exactly the right tone."
"There's no way I'd send a woman reporter-even a very bright and capable one-out to Bergen-Belsen."
"I have a contact-an official at Ravensbruck. Captain Riley Finn. I would work with him. I met him this winter through my, uh, fiancé, who works at SS headquarters. It's a women's camp, and perhaps my fiancé, Alexander Harris, could accompany me-as a chaperone. I think Captain Finn would trust me and welcome me. He's told me he appreciates the work I do here at The People's Press..."
"Miss Hermann. That sounds all well and fine, but what makes you think that anything you write about a women's camp would be reassuring to the German people? They don't want to know that the Government has women and children locked up."
"That's exactly why this is the story we should write and why I'm the one to write it: They will believe me, as a woman and therefore sensitive, when I give my first-hand account, photos and all. They will know that a woman will have a sharp eye toward the safety and comfort of women and children. I guarantee you everyone who picks up a copy of the newspaper will want to read that story. And if they see the fairness with which women are treated, then they'll think less about the men. Isn't that really what people fear-that the government could be treating the most vulnerable unfairly? By showing them we are not, they'll have renewed respect and peace of mind."
"You realize it's not all roses out there," he said dangerously again.
"I'm not expecting roses. I want to help."
He sat silent for what seemed like an insufferably long time. And then he sighed. "You're right," he said grudgingly. "You are very astute. It's a shame you're a woman and not a man who could be performing strategy work for the government instead of editing government communiqués and news releases."
Willow took this as a compliment, though it was certainly a weird one. "I don't mind being a woman," she smiled. "As long as there's something I can do."
He acquiesced completely. Even made a few phone calls to Ravensbruck, SS Headquarters and to the Nationalist Party to get clearance for her to take on the assignment. He was successful in getting Captain Finn assigned to escort her on her reporting mission at Ravensbruck. And he was also successful in getting Alexander Harris assigned to accompany her, so that she'd have an SS man to keep her safe on the road. The rest of the afternoon was occupied with finding her the equipment she'd need: a camera and rolls of film. In the meantime Willow finished the story she was working on so that she could turn it in to him by two o'clock as promised.
At the end of the workday, Gruber intercepted her on her way out. He handed her the camera bag, with the camera and film and with three reporter's notepads. "Meet with me first thing in the morning, so we can map out your itinerary...and so that we can discuss the outline for your story. I need to submit that to the Nationalist Party before they'll give final approval. But, overall, I must say, they were very pleased with your personal initiative..."
Willow beamed. Praise like this meant a lot to her in a fundamentally Willow sort of way. "I'm glad. Thanks for all of your arrangements. And thank you for entrusting this to me. I won't let you down."
Gruber chuckled. "That I know. You never have. I've asked for Mr. Harris to come in tomorrow, as well."
That caught Willow by surprise. Gruber chuckled again. "Well, it's only right that I meet your fiancé...and the man who I'm entrusting your safety to. I want to make sure we have everything covered."
"He's a good guy. You'll like him."
"If you like him, I'm sure I will," Gruber said, and with a wave he bade her good-night.
The next afternoon, Willow was grinning as she tossed a set of car keys to Xander. He was dashing in his uniform, and she was feeling giddy. They were down on the street, getting their car from the newspaper motor-pool. A couple of checkmarks on a form and a signature from Xander, and they were suddenly with wheels.
"Road trip!" Xander grinned.
Willow stopped, wondering where that expression came from. Was that literally so that the passenger could shoot while the driver, well, drove? She thought again of the SS-issued handgun Xander carried. And then of the one Gruber had pressed into her palm as they'd readied to depart. It was the one he usually kept in his desk drawer, so she knew this was a Very Special Gesture on his part.
"You know how to use it?" Gruber had asked.
"Um, no," Willow replied, a bit spooked to be holding a deadly weapon.
"Get your fiancé to show you. It's merely for backup. I don't want anything bad to happen to you. And you, young man, make sure to return my reporter to me in the same working condition she leaves in. Understand?"
Sometimes talking to Gruber was like talking to your dad, she thought. At his gruff bark, Xander snapped his heels and saluted him. "Yes, sir," he reflexively answered. That had almost made Willow giggle. Was there such a thing as free will? She inwardly sighed. Not officially, according to the government. But if she and Xander played the game just right what they were about to do was a huge in-your-face to the Big Bad.
Once in the car with the motor started, they both laughed with excitement.
"This is either a very good or very bad idea," Xander said.
Willow nodded, thoughtful for a moment. "I'm pretty sure it's both. And thank you for doing this with me anyway."
He grinned. "He thinks we're getting married?"
Willow rolled her eyes. "How else was I going to get him to request your services?"
"My services don't come cheap, you know. How come I haven't noticed the ring before? Looks like it could be worth some cash."
"I'm not hocking it to pay you off. It's from Tara. I guess it means I'm engaged to her, huh?"
He smirked. "More like engaged with. I'm fairly certain no church Christiany or Jewish would let you two lovely ladies get married. It would make the Baby Jesus cry. And the Baby Moses. But it is nice to know that when a woman woos another woman she resorts to jewelry just the same as us guys do."
"Are we all really such sheep?"
"I'm no expert, having never actually had a ring to give somebody. Nor somebody to give the ring to, of course. But I'm told the ladies like the rings. Hard to go wrong there."
"Yep. Worked on me."
Xander was holding Willow's hand in his, thoughtfully inspecting her ring. Helmut had brought them pie and coffee-just a little something for fun before they hit the road for Ravensbruck. "So is that really an engagement ring?" he asked.
"Maybe more like an indecision ring. There seem to be a lot of rings rolling around her jewelry box these days. It's hard for her to know which one to go with."
"Well, this one is nice. Simple. A bit understated. But then, you're not one for being flashy. It suits you."
"That's so funny. I'm quite sure she doesn't see me as nice, simple or understated in the least."
"Maybe it's more of an expression of her personality, since it is her ring."
"Uh, I don't know...She has a side to her that's definitely not understated, either. Or nice."
Xander leaned back. "Ok. I'm beginning to get disturbing little pictures in my mind again. I think I'd prefer to think of you two holding hands and...well...just holding hands..."
Willow arched her eyebrow. "What's this 'again' business? Just how much have you been thinking about us...holding hands?"
Xander looked uncomfortable. "Well, there was that one time, with Spike...and your suitcase."
"Just that one time?"
Xander turned to look out the window looking for something-anything-to change the subject. Uh, oh. That was too easy. And too hard.
"Willow, honey...The Preacher is coming."
"What?" she said, turning to look at the man who wanted her dead. Who'd stared at Buffy as if he were the grim reaper, and who had followed Tara just wishing she'd screw up so he could cart her off to a concentration camp. Oh, and who also was Xander's coworker. His eyes were indeed an inky black, his jaw stern. He was a little younger than she had imagined. How could someone so young become so jaded and filled with hate? Oh, wait. He was a Nazi.
Xander's hand was on her arm. "I think he's coming in here. You'd better duck into the restroom and stay there until I come get you."
Willow nodded and did as she was told. She grabbed her hat in case she needed to tuck her conspicuous red hair up under it. Then she pushed her way to the back of the diner and disappeared behind swinging doors. Xander turned his attention again to his cup of coffee. And waited to see if Caleb would notice him.
Of course he did. Gestapo were trained to notice things. And here was Xander. Someone he would, of course, notice.
"Afternoon, Harris," The Preacher said, strolling over to Xander's table and towering above him. Xander looked up. It seemed somehow incongruent to see the cold-blooded killer Caleb holding a white café coffee cup just like any regular person. He was definitely not a regular person.
"Caleb," Xander replied with a smile. What else should he say: "Nice to see you?" No. "Beautiful day?" Yeah, he could do that one.
"Beautiful day, huh?"
Caleb nodded with a smile. An actual smile. As in upturned lips. As in Caleb has lips.
"It is, indeed, a lovely day. What are you up to? Shouldn't you be at work?"
Those damn Gestapo types and their propensity to interrogate even in casual settings. "I'm enjoying a cup of coffee like yourself. Taking a little break before getting back to work."
"The office is across town," Caleb replied, taking a slurp from his white cup.
"How right you are. With your keen detective skills I bet you're like a walking tour map."
"If you plan on walking back there you won't make it before five."
Was that humor? Xander ventured tentatively: "So. You walk a lot, then."
They regarded each other a moment over the rims of their coffee cups as they both took another sip in silence. Caleb was still standing, comfortable in an intimidating way. And Xander was in a cozy booth with a half-eaten slice of pie, two forks and two cups of coffee.
"So when's she coming back?" Caleb asked, coolly, that little smiley non-smile tugging at the corners of his mouth again.
Xander nearly spit his coffee. "She?"
Crap. "Well, that depends upon what you mean by coming back. And of course who you mean by she." Xander was blathering now. What did Caleb know? Was he being played? What could he say? The truth? What was the truth, anyway? Caleb stood patiently, waiting for the answer to his question. And Xander was determined not to give it to him.
"Do you always play detective? I mean, do you ever have a conversation that's not all...questionny?"
"Conversation is the art of asking questions. People love to talk."
Xander chuckled. "So true." A beat, and then: "So what brings you here?"
"I'm looking for someone," Caleb shrugged.
"Ok. You're going to have to do better than that to call yourself a conversationalist. It's no fun being the guy who has to play 20 questions to get things started."
"Now you know how I feel."
Xander chuckled again. This was quite possibly the longest conversation he'd ever had with Caleb. Either the guy was truly being friendly or he was about to drag Xander's sorry ass out to a paddywagon. All he knew was that either way he couldn't afford to stay here chatting with The Preacher. Eventually, he'd lose. He rose to his feet, pulled out his wallet and tossed some money onto the table to cover the pie and coffee. He didn't dare look at Helmut or do anything else that might suggest this was a place Xander went often.
"Well, nice chatting, Caleb. But I'm heading out. I'd better let you get back to your detective work."
"Aren't you going to wait for her?"
Xander did his best not to freeze. He turned slowly, letting his heart choose his words.
"Wait for her? I'll wait my whole life for her. I love her with all my heart. Maybe one day she'll understand just how much."
And with that, he clapped Caleb on the shoulder and walked out of the diner, leaving Willow behind.
It was the only thing he could think of to do.
The dogs were barking down by the road, disrupting what was otherwise another quiet day. "What is it?" Tara called upstairs to her cousin Beth who was making the beds while Tara finished the breakfast dishes. Three young boys dashed around her legs making a beeline for the window to look outside. Not much happened on the farm.
Beth's voice floated back down from above. "Looks like some soldier. Not from around here. Wonder what he wants."
Tara tossed her dishtowel aside and replied. "I'll get it." She walked to the door with a surprising sense of dread. Riley. She remembered she wasn't wearing his ring. That's the first thing he'd notice. She had no idea how she'd greet him. A kiss to the cheek? A warm embrace? How would she explain the ring? What if he planned on staying over? Could she tell him she was uncertain and that she had feelings for someone else she needed to work through? Wouldn't he demand to know who his competitor was? And then, being tight with the SS, wouldn't he run a background check? Damn. Every step she took became heavier.
"Look at the uniform!" Donald's oldest boy was saying. "I want one just like it."
"War is overrated," Tara wanted to say aloud, but she held her tongue. With a deep breath she opened the door.
"Buffy!" That was a surprise.
Willow's friend looked uncomfortable. "Sorry to just show up unannounced. Hope it's not too much of an inconvenience."
Tara took a step back so that Buffy could come in. Suddenly her emotions swung away from fear of Riley to fear of something else. "Willow. Is she...?"
"Wilma's fine," Buffy smiled as she shrugged off her Hitler Youth hat to reveal short-cropped hair. Which itself was a bit disorienting. Tara hadn't seen Buffy in full scout mode before. That day at the hotel-the last time Tara had seen Willow-Buffy had worn a scarf and a long coat. Today she was every bit the adolescent male. It was kind of cute, though disorienting.
"In fact," Buffy was saying, "Auntie Wilma sent me here ahead of her. Seems she's covering a news story up north and expects to stop by here on her way back to Berlin. She put me on the train here to meet her. I hope you don't mind?"
Tara had nearly stopped breathing. "Y-you mean Wil-Wilma will be, um, paying us a visit?"
Buffy nodded, "That's right."
"In-in just a couple of days?"
"Right. If that's ok with you. She really should have written you first, but this business trip came up rather suddenly..."
There was a clattering of footsteps on the stairs as Beth came down to see who their visitor was. "Um," Tara began, "This is my friend Wilma's nephew..."
"Bert," Buffy jumped in quickly, extending her hand to Beth in a businesslike handshake. Tara had to work to keep the smirk off her face.
"Nice to meet you, Bert," Beth said in her talking-down-to-youngsters voice. "You look very handsome in your uniform. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Sounds great! Do you have any cookies..."
It had been a long time. Too long. Willow felt her anxiety rising with each breath she took. What was taking Xander so long? Was The Preacher still out there? What was Xander doing? She looked at her watch, but it had stopped. She wound the gears to get it going again, but she had no idea how long she'd been waiting. Well, she'd memorized the wallpaper. That was one clue. She clutched the edge of the sink and stared at her own reflection in the mirror. She could wait. She could. But not knowing about Xander: That was the hard part. And she couldn't stay here forever.
Spike strolled into the diner to meet Caleb. They'd set this little lunchtime rendezvous to go over work items. They had a nest of Jews to take care of this afternoon. As always, it was the neighbors who'd turned in the unlucky family. But it was the executions of the university students that was the triggering event. In the weeks since the university raids, Spike and Caleb had a lot more business on their hands than usual. Seemed like everybody was trying to deflect attention or settle up old differences. It was no secret that the neighbors were usually the ones who scavenged the apartments after Spike and Caleb had apprehended their quarry. Many, many people were quietly making out like bandits while their former friends and neighbors rotted somewhere. Probably literally.
Spike lit a cigarette in disgust, hoping it would distract him from his dark thoughts. The day was too pretty for darkness. "What's up?" Spike smirked, noticing his partner turning the salt shaker in his hand contemplatively. Caleb was the quiet sort, for sure. And he was crafty as all get out. But Spike had never seen him in an actually contemplative mood. The killer the other agents called The Preacher smiled a bit.
"It was that kid Harris."
Spike blinked. "Who? You mean the boy from our office?"
"Yeah. He was in here a few minutes ago. A pie and coffee break."
Spike flicked ashes into the ashtray. "It's a bit far of a stroll from headquarters."
"That's what I said. There may have been a lady involved."
Spike's eyebrows shot up at that. "Harris has a girlfriend?"
Caleb grinned wickedly. "That was exactly my reaction. I was almost sure the guy's a homosexual. I've just been waiting for proof to nab him. They actually have nice places for the perverts at the concentration camps. And, well, we wouldn't want him weakening the gene pool, would we?"
"I imagine if he's a faggot then we wouldn't have to worry about the gene pool, eh?" In the midst of his own cruel chuckling, it occurred to Spike that he shouldn't encourage this line of conversation. Buffy would never forgive him if something happened to her pal. He backtracked. "But I think you're wrong about that one. I happen to know he has lady friends."
"Lady friends? As in more than one? When he marched out of here he made it sound like there was one undying love of his life. And then he scooted out of here as if I'd caught him in some illicit tryst."
Spike grew annoyed. "Ask the owner if you want to know who Harris was here with."
"Not a bad idea." Caleb rose and sauntered over to Helmut. Spike couldn't make out the conversation, but then he had a sinking feeling. Maybe asking the owner wasn't such a good idea after all. If being here with someone gave Harris the jitters, then it was probably for good reason. He was hiding something. Or someone.
Caleb came back to the table, grinning. "Helmut there tells me young Harris was here with a redhead and that they appeared to be admiring an engagement ring together. Apparently she left before he did."
"See? Told you so. Now can we move on to other matters?"
Caleb looked self-satisfied...and predatory. "But. Something tells me they aren't together. Something he said. Or didn't say. I still think he's homosexual. I think the girl is a friend. After all these years, how often have I been wrong about a hunch? How many things have I missed? Maybe a little surveillance..."
Spike waved his hand dismissively and took another drag off his cigarette. "I can't believe we're even wasting breath on all this. Let's work out our plan for capturing the Weismans this afternoon."
But Caleb wouldn't let it go. "No. Harris really has me thinking: Just how well do we know the people inside the SS? I think we should secretly double back on our own people and scour the headquarters for traitorous activity."
Spike sighed heavily. He knew there was a reason it was better to never actually talk to his psychopathic partner. But he was also worried. A sweep of headquarters could reveal not only Harris's deceptions, but his own. It chilled him. "I had no idea you were bucking for promotion."
The Preacher grinned darkly. "I would get a promotion, wouldn't I? But, really, I'd do it even for nothing."
In this war, some bastards really found their calling.
Out on the street, Xander was pacing and muttering to himself. Upset almost beyond words. He was half a block away from the diner, so that he could see when Spike and The Preacher left. But far enough away he could duck so they wouldn't spot him. His thoughts were entirely on Willow.
"God, she must hate me. She must think I abandoned her. Or that The Preacher and I got into it. Which we did, didn't we? And I managed to hold my own, didn't I? Maybe for once talking got me somewhere. Except that somewhere is out here, which is bad. I am such a chickenshit."
It had been half an hour. He felt utterly helpless. He knew what would happen next, and it made his insides go ice cold.
That was it. Her anxiety finally won out. Willow steadied herself in the mirror, tucked her hair up under her hat, turned to the door and took a deep breath. She swung the door wide and walked out, heading from the dark back part of the diner and toward the light. The place was narrow, just a row of booths up against the windows and a long row of chairs along the bar. She had maybe 40 feet between her and the door at the far end. Her eyes flicked to The Preacher. He was sitting in a booth, his back to her. That was good. But just then she locked eyes with his partner. There was the cold glint of recognition in his eyes.
Holy mother of god. That's Red. And she was about to stroll past him casual as could be. Spike's heart picked up its pace, the inner predator in him responding first. It would be so easy to nab her, and Caleb would be impressed. But he bit back the impulse, his fingers tightening against his coffee mug instead. He wanted to reach out and grab her wrist, give it a good twist, hear her whimper in pain and fear. And yet he himself was feeling fear, too. Such an odd and unexpected feeling. The chat about Xander had been intellectual. Almost philosophical, really. But here was flesh-and-blood prey before him. He felt both savage and protective. How disconcerting.
For her part, Red faltered. She hesitated like a small rabbit. Those green eyes went round as saucers. He'd never seen her up-close like this. She was pretty, all smooth white skin, tender and unblemished-a slim little slip of a thing, hardly bigger than Buffy herself. She blinked at him. Clearly she knew who he was. Right. Xander had spotted Caleb coming and told her to go wait in the back. But then Xander left, and here she still was. She couldn't hide forever. She had to find her own way out. And walking the gauntlet was it. He had to hand it to her. She was never a coward. He gave her credit for hiding among the Gentiles, seducing the fiancé of an Army officer and befriending traitors like Buffy and Xander. And now walking straight past the two detectives who could arrest her on any of those accounts and ship her off to a concentration camp in a heartbeat. Unless Caleb was in a twisted mood, in which case she wouldn't make it that far. Or probably even to the end of the street.
Spike stayed motionless, trying to make his eyes seem impassive. He didn't want Caleb turning around just now. He flicked Red a spare little smile. He meant it to be encouraging. He didn't know whether he was successful at it. She still looked scared, but she picked up the rhythm of her steps again, staring Spike straight in the eye as she walked past. He could smell her cologne and feel the brush of her coat, the aisle of the restaurant was so narrow. The contact made his skin tingle. If Caleb knew what he'd just done, he'd be a dead man. Even as he felt Red go, part of him wondered if he shouldn't do some dramatic double-take and alert the bastard to the chase. He imagined what would happen next, how it would unfold:
The two detectives would bolt from the table. The commotion would spook Red, who'd streak off at full tilt, banging through the glass doors and out into the street. She'd probably turn right and head toward the blocks with the narrow alleyways, hoping to shake them, but they'd be tight on her tail. She'd lose her hat in the chase, red hair flowing out behind her as she ran for her life. And Spike and Caleb would be burning with blood-lust-the desire the job required that you relish your kill. They'd run her down like jackals. And if she managed to make it into an alley, they'd draw their pistols, take steady, practiced aim, and shoot. The bullet would hit her in the middle of the back. She'd stumble, the momentum carrying her a step or two further before she crumpled to the ground. She'd hit hard. Maybe she'd be dead straight away. Or maybe not. They'd jog up to her to find out what their prize was, exactly. One of them would shove a toed boot in her side to see if she cringed. Maybe she'd be struggling, coughing up blood, whimpering, begging for mercy, uttering the word "please" as if clawing desperately at the edge of the abyss. They might let her go on for a bit. The word "please" had such a pleasant ring to it. In a case such as this another bullet would be called for. This one to the brain. It was Spike's turn to do the honor. They traded off. Then, mission accomplished, they'd amble back out into the daylight at the end of the alley, panting and feeling exhilarated. The killing always made Spike want to fuck something. And that's when he'd think of Buffy. And that's wherein the problem with this little death fantasy went awry.
He gripped his coffee mug and listened to the jangle of the door as Red bolted outside. Yet again, he let her slip away.
"Will!" Xander shouted as he watched his friend pop through the doors of the diner, looking scared and in a hurry. A sense of relief washed over him suffusing him with warmth.
"Over here!" He caught her attention, and then she was running full-barrel down the sidewalk toward him. She risked a glance over her shoulder-but just one-and then kept running until Xander caught her up in his arms.
"I guess the pie was a bad idea," he deadpanned, unsure exactly how he even could crack a joke at a moment like this. But she chuckled into his chest. "No, the pie was a good idea. It's your coworkers that suck big-time."
Xander kept his eye on the door, making sure The Preacher didn't emerge. "He didn't spot you then?"
"Who? The Preacher? No. But Buffy's buddy Spike did. Or at least I assume it was Spike. A guy this tall, blue eyes and with a perpetual smirk on his face?"
"Sometimes it's more of a sneer, but, yes, that would be Spike," Xander affirmed. "He spotted you and let you go?"
"I swear he knew who I was. He looked straight at me. We recognized each other."
"So you had a little moment with William the Bloody."
"I wouldn't say we were properly introduced, and there were no actual sentences exchanged, but, yes. I think we definitely shared a moment."
Xander shook his head. "Man, Buffy must really have him whipped. But he's still evil. Let's not give him a chance to change his mind, shall we?"
Willow agreed and they both took off at a run for the borrowed car.
Ravensbruck was not far from a quaint little town called Furstenburg, about 75 kilometers north of Berlin. A train went there fairly regularly, but Gruber had given Willow a car instead, suggesting that she and her "fiancé" take a few days up there, look around a bit, enjoy the countryside, hoping she'd bring him back a package of stories, talk to locals along the way, and record the stoic and resolved good people of the small towns. He had such romantic notions sometimes. Willow had shyly asked if she could use the car to visit a friend who lived in a in another village on the way home. She asked if she could have an extra couple of days and promised to call him every day to check in and let him know she was safe. Apparently, either she deserved vacation or they had just slipped into a new phase in their relationship in which he could deny her nothing. But then, she knew that was only because he thought she could do no wrong, while in fact everything she did and was about to do...and, in fact, everything about her...was wrong.
Xander grinned at her from the driver's seat as they bounced along the road to Furstenburg. They were outside the city finally, with the windows rolled down. The day had warmed considerably. It was almost like the dark pall that had seemed to hang in the air was dangled merely over Berlin. Here as the landscape sped by were lush greens against dramatic blue skies. For a few moments Willow truly loved being alive...and this time not only because she'd managed to cheat death another day. She was going someplace. On an important mission for the paper and for the resistance. Her best friend was with her, and in two days time, give or take, she'd be reunited with Tara. That alone was enough to put a smile on her face. Memories of her encounter with the detectives at Helmut's cafe receded into the background further and further with every mile they traveled.
"So this source you mentioned," Xander was saying, "The one who you plan to give your photos to...How did you find her?"
"She found me. I think she's a Russian national who's been living in Germany for a long time. Kind of laying low. They're not rounding up Russian expats unless the Gestapo thinks they're sympathizers-or their neighbors think they're sympathizers. Anyway, this woman is working with the German government in Munich. She was helping me check facts about the university raids there and we got to talking. I told her what I wanted to do...you know, about going up to Ravensbruck and taking photos, and she got excited about it. She wants to join us in Furstenburg. Gruber made hotel arrangements for you and me there-hopefully no honeymoon suite (sorry, sweetie)-and I invited her to stay with us."
Xander flashed a grin. "You and me and another woman? In a honeymoon suite?"
Willow frowned. "I said no honeymoon suite. At least I hope. That's all we need-to make a big scandalous scene up there."
Xander sobered a moment, growing thoughtful. "How do we know we can trust this person?"
Willow shrugged. "We don't."
The phone rang at the Maclay residence. It broke the silence and jangled Buffy's nerves. She almost leapt off the couch where she politely sat with a cup of tea and a plate of cookies, chatting with Tara and her cousin Beth. Jesus, it's quiet out here! She'd never noticed the constant background hum of the big city until she'd been enveloped in the absolute silence of the countryside.
Beth patted her knee and smiled as she rose to go stop the infernal ringing. After Beth left, Tara smiled from her seat across from Buffy. "You make a really great boy," she whispered, slyly. Buffy just smiled. She'd had a couple of months now to get used to male impersonation. She'd worked out a lot of the mannerisms, and she'd learned not to say a lot, figuring that the more she played a background role the less likely she was to draw really close scrutiny. Tara's compliment was reassuring. Tara was certainly scrutinizing her closely, and clearly she was passing the test.
"Thanks...I think," Buffy said. "But you're looking at me the same way Willow does, and it's a little unnerving."
Tara blushed. "Uh, sorry."
Buffy laughed-not the boyish laugh, but a real Buffy laugh. "No worries. I just wouldn't want your cousin thinking you have a thing for younger men-as in way younger."
"I couldn't agree more. My life is already complicated enough..."
Just then Beth called across the house for Tara. "It's Riley on the phone," she announced.
Buffy watched Tara's smile fade as the woman rose to go take the call. Yes, Buffy thought to herself, Tara's life was definitely already complicated enough.
Spike was rolling a cigarette and daydreaming when Caleb busted into his office with red-flushed cheeks and a wicked grin. Uh-oh. This couldn't be good. He tipped back in his desk chair and licked the cigarette closed, warily meeting his partner's eyes with a guarded, "What? Send your mom back to jail, or something?"
Caleb frowned at him. "Bastard. No. I have something very interesting on that Harris kid."
Spike sighed and rolled his eyes, trying to dampen the feeling of dread that gathered in his chest. "Don't tell me you're in love with him...One cup of coffee does not a romance make."
"Fuck you," Caleb sputtered. Spike liked it when he riled The Preacher. It was like poking a tiger in the ass with a sharp stick.
"It so happens that young Mr. Harris is on a special assignment to escort someone to Ravensbruck."
Spike eyed him warily still. "The women's prison?"
Spike shrugged. "We escort folks to prison every day. So what."
"This wasn't just putting someone on the one-way train. I hear he's on a personal escort job. Why wouldn't he have mentioned it when I saw him at the diner earlier today?"
"Maybe he didn't think it was important." Spike pointed a finger at Caleb. "Or maybe it's classified information and he was just doing his job keeping his tongue."
Caleb seemed to consider this. "Maybe. But I just think there's something more to this."
Inwardly, Spike agreed. They'd both been at this job long enough to know to pay attention to the small things-the little things that just didn't add up quite right. It was quitting time. He wanted to make sure that Caleb didn't start his investigation tonight. He took a deep breath, preparing to do something he really didn't want to do.
"Come on, pal. The day's over. We'll pick back up on Harris's trail tomorrow. Let's go grab a beer and chat up some ladies over at the Officers Club."
Caleb looked a little disappointed, like he didn't want his momentum to stall.
"Come on. Tell me you do like the ladies," Spike poked.
They lived in dangerous times when anyone could send another person off to the concentration camps upon the flimsiest of pretenses. Caleb was smart. He accepted the invitation.
The room at the inn was no honeymoon suite, but it was comfortable enough. One large bed, a couple of chairs and a beautiful view of the countryside. The air out here smelled fresh, and Willow opened the window to breathe it in while Xander carried their luggage upstairs. The proprietor had given them the name of a restaurant in town when they'd inquired about good eateries, and, fortunately, it was the place they'd agreed to meet Willow's contact from Munich.
Now the two of them were sitting quietly at a small table ordering drinks and waiting. A handful of locals shared the place with them, dressed in simple clothes. Willow stood out a bit in her more stylish city dress. She'd let Buffy help her shop recently. All the shopkeepers thought "Bert" was a darling for putting up with Auntie Wilma's trying on of various dresses and outfits. But the outing was actually a vicarious thrill for Buffy, whose wardrobe had essentially been reduced to men's pants, shirts and sweaters in varying shades of gray-green and gray-blue. Fortunately, she looked good in those colors. And, even more fortunately for Willow, Buffy had really been jonesing for some style. Hence, Willow looked every bit the romantic part of the urban woman reporter in a flowing red-print dress. Xander had on his uniform, since ostensibly he was still on official business. Clearly being so close to Ravensbruck meant that the townies here were not unfamiliar with men in uniform. So it was Willow who stuck out. So much for blending in and not causing a scene. Even now Willow and Xander could pick up the surreptitious glances from the locals and the restaurant staff.
But if they were worrying, they shouldn't have been because the scene was about to become much more colorful. There was a rattle as the door swung open wide to reveal an attrative blonde woman in a figure-hugging white wool coat trimmed in some kind of fluffy white fur. She strode in with her chin held high and swept her gaze around the place until she spotted Willow. She made a swift beeline straight for their table. Willow and Xander scraped their chairs in their haste to politely receive their dinner companion who was extending her hand in greeting.
"You're the only person in this whole room who remotely looks like she's seen a city in recent history, let alone a hairbrush. Wilma Hermann, right?"
Willow had half a mind to deny it, though she nodded and shook hands.
"The red hair kind of gives it away," the blonde chuckled. "You're just the way I imagined you over the phone. Only prettier."
"Uh, I guess you're not exactly what I was expecting, either...You know...phones...They leave things out, or something like that," Willow smiled. In fact, Willow was expecting someone older and, frankly, a bit more pinched. Yet here was someone young and beautiful who had the directness of an old lady and tended to talk as if she were hard of hearing. Or thought everyone else was. Or didn't care.
She turned to Xander and extended her hand. "I'm Anya."
Xander was dumbstruck. He shook her hand and introduced himself and then helped seat the ladies. "Well, with you two ladies as my dinner companions, I certainly am the luckiest man in this fine establishment tonight," he said smugly.
"So why are you here, again?" Anya asked him.
"I guess you could say I'm Miss Hermann's escort," Xander suavely replied.
"He's here to make sure the folks at the concentration camp don't try to keep me," Willow translated.
A beat and then Anya said: "You know that's not funny, right?"
"Of course it's not funny," Xander said heavily. "It's just-Well, it never hurts to step back and appreciate life's little absurdities now and then."
"I don't get your absurdity," Anya frowned. "I'm foreign."
Xander looked helplessly to Willow.
"Why are you here, Anya?" Willow asked, gently deflecting Anya's own question back at her.
"Why?" Anya repeated, staring at Willow.
"Yeah, I mean, I know what we agreed to on the phone and all...about the story. It's just that I don't know why. As in why travel all the way here and meet me?"
Anya regarded her coolly a moment and then with a stiff nod spoke. "I'd rather not say."
Xander leaned forward again. "That's not playing fair with the non-answer. We're sticking our necks out trusting you here. Help us out with a little get-to-know-you."
"Generally speaking, I think that's highly unwise," Anya insisted. She turned to Willow. "I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of things you'd rather people didn't know about you, right?"
Willow felt a blush rise up in her cheeks and nodded. "Maybe a couple of things. I guess." In a moment, she understood Anya's shrewdness. A Russian expat had to be extremely guarded. Perhaps even more so than Willow, who could at least pass as a Good German. One look at Anya and you sorta knew she wasn't from around here. Or anywhere remotely near here. With this new perspective Willow smiled. "It's ok, Anya. I get it. Let's not leave an information trail a mile wide, here."
"Exactly. I'm perfectly fine eating in silence."
Xander shook the cobwebs from his head. "Well, I'm not! I'm sure we can find enough 'safe' things to talk about to fill an hour or so of polite dinner conversation."
Anya regarded him with some doubt. "Ok, then. You start. Tell me something about yourself."
Xander was flustered at this. He clearly had to stop and think. Willow smiled, truly wondering what he'd say.
"Ok," he sputtered. "Fine. How's this: I'm 22. I grew up in Berlin and I'm unmarried."
Anya nodded. "I see. Well, it seems like you and Wilma are very good friends, and I gathered from our introductions that she's unmarried as well. Why haven't you married her?"
Xander stopped. Willow looked at him. "Yes, sweetie. I'd like to hear the answer to that one, too," she jabbed.
"I don't want to talk about it," he scowled. "Let me think of something else."
Anya turned to Willow. "And I see you're wearing a ring. Is that an engagement ring? And if so, why are you traveling with Xander and not your fiancé?"
Willow felt the blush creep up again and grinned. She couldn't help admiring the ruthless way Anya's mind worked. This might be a fascinating dinner, after all. "Ah, let's skip that one, too."
Anya's brow furrowed. She was getting into this. "Try another one," she waved.
Willow thought hard. What could she say about herself that wouldn't potentially draw Tara or Buffy into the conversation? She realized the only way to converse with Anya was to be completely truthful. And therein lay the danger and the lesson.
Xander was understanding as well. "What are you? Gestapo? You'd make a great interrogator."
"You have firsthand knowledge? Your uniform suggests you might work for the Gestapo, but then perhaps your knowledge comes from being questioned yourself."
Or both, Willow thought, smiling ruefully, as Xander again pled the Fifth. "I'd rather not get into it too much. Though, yes, I do work with the SS in their civilian investigations department."
Anya stiffened. "Shit. This is a trap?"
Xander looked around the room, confused. "I- I don't think so. Will, do you see anything?"
Willow chimed in. "Believe me. This is no trap, unless you're some kind of double-agent. Xander and I are harmless."
"I am not a double-agent. I am not an interrogator. And I don't believe that anyone is harmless. Just by being here you're doubtless putting people in harm's way. You and I are not innocent. Maybe some of these bumpkins who live in this backwater are harmless. But you and I are powerful. We have access to people and information that could help...or hurt, as the case may be."
She looked first at Xander and then at Willow. "And clearly we all have our backstories that are a little too prickly to go into. Probably because we're protecting others as much as ourselves. So, no, I don't believe that any of us is harmless."
She paused and regarded Willow closely again. "And yet, you must certainly know this. You must know that you have to be extremely careful what you say these days. And who you say it to."
"Yes. Definitely. The less said the easier," Willow agreed.
"And yet you don't seem very careful. You wanted to talk, to 'chit-chat' and get to know one another."
Willow considered this a moment before answering. "I guess it's because I want to live my life the way I did before the war. I want to be a regular person, with a regular life with people I care about. I refuse to just roll over and give in to fear and intimidation. I'm doing what I'm doing because I have to. It's who I am. It's who I want to be. I've found people I trust. People I trust my life to, because that's what's required to even have a life. And they trust me to do the same. Yeah, there's more risk, but there's more of everything else, too."
"So you're wanted by the SS," Anya said evenly. There was no hint of judgment, just a statement of fact.
Willow sighed deeply. "I was really trying to make a point."
"I understood your point. And you've just described my existence to a 't.' That's why I said you must be wanted by the SS...I'm right, aren't I?" When Willow refused to answer, Anya smiled gently. "It's ok. I think we understand each other just fine."
Xander was in Hell.
That is, if Hell were a cozy room in a cottage inn shared with two beautiful women, one of whom was his lesbian childhood chum and the other a psychotic. He'd just stepped out of the small bathroom down the hall to find Willow dressed in the pajamas Xander had packed for himself, and Anya was wearing something he'd only ever seen in pinup-girl pictures. She still had her high heels on. The two women were squabbling over the bed. Xander blushed furiously, stopping flat. "Ah. Please. If there's going to be a pillow-fight, do you mind if I watch?"
Willow and Anya both turned to him, obviously interrupted mid-squabble. "What," they said in near unison. A question that begged him to restate his reason for existence rather than repeat the bit about the pillow fight.
"Heh. Pillows. Pajamas. Go together like...like..." Xander mumbled, trying to rally. Didn't work. He turned on his heels and headed back to the bathroom, where he intended to sleep in the bathtub.
Buffy knew it was unseemly to be knocking upon a woman's bedroom door, so she rapped softly. After the phone call with Riley, Tara had unceremoniously disappeared upstairs and sequestered herself away in her room. Buffy had been left on her own to have dinner with Beth and the four boys. Which had been an interesting experience.
Beth was a nice enough person. Pretty, though not as lovely as Tara. And a little uptight, perhaps, for being someone so young. She was maybe 19 or 20 and saddled with holding down a whole household and small farm on her own. She had help from Tara's brother's boys. But the eldest of them was only 11, so their help was limited. Really, it was like Beth was a stand-in for Donald's deceased wife, and she apparently found purpose in fulfilling the role.
And she'd been a delightful hostess, clearly taken with "Bert." Such a well-spoken and thoughtful 14-year-old. Of course, Beth didn't know this 14-year-old inhabited the body of a 22-year-old. Buffy did her best to be charming and interested. And she deflected as best she could questions about the Hitler Youth, training and other military-stuff. She'd studied up on it, since she knew her disguise required some working knowledge, but she hated making herself vulnerable by potentially saying too much. It was a bit tough with the boys peppering her with questions about the kinds of things the Hitler Youth do-like did she get to shoot guns, or learn how to operate intelligence equipment? Had she ever turned in a Jew? Had she ever been in a fist-fight? What was her rank? It was a bit dizzying and a little disturbing, but they were boys and their questions weren't out-of-line.
When it was time for bed, Beth had ruffled "Bert's" hair affectionately and showed Buffy to her room (fortunately there was a guestroom, so Buffy wasn't forced to bunk with the kids). She watched closely to see which rooms belonged to Beth and the boys and then surmised that the other one was Tara's. She waited until the house quieted down for the night and then crept down the hall to Tara.
She knew she could just wait until morning...maybe draw Tara out for a walk on the property to talk. But the light was on in Tara's room, and Buffy wasn't sleepy, so she decided to at least say good-night.
After a soft rap at the door, Buffy could hear Tara moving in the room, and then the door opened a bit. Tara's eyes were red-rimmed. It was clear she'd been crying.
"Hey," Buffy whispered. "Thought you might like someone to talk to...You know, someone who maybe understands?"
Tara looked bone tired for a moment, but then nodded and opened the door to Buffy.
"We have to be, um, really quiet," Tara whispered.
"I understand completely," Buffy chuckled.
Tara's room was simply-appointed. There was a small brass double-bed with a white bedspread, a couple of stiff wooden chairs and a bureau with a mirror. On one wall was a framed photograph of Hitler. On another wall, there was Jesus. And that was about it. On the bureau Buffy noticed that Tara had out a pen and paper.
"I- I was writing a letter," Tara explained, noting the object of Buffy's gaze.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you...but I thought, you know, the whole Riley phone call...and then you retreating up here. I thought maybe something bad had happened. Tough phone call?"
Tara sat on one of the chairs and put her head in her hands. "One of the toughest. Seems like I've had too many of those lately."
Buffy took the other chair and rubbed Tara's shoulder encouragingly. "What happened?"
"I- I told him that I didn't think I could marry him...that I have feelings for someone else. He'd wanted to come down here to visit after he met with Willow at Ravensbruck. He- he thought they could both come down and spend some time here on the farm. But I just couldn't do it. I just can't have them both here. It was way past time to say something-or do something. I'm not being fair to either of them..."
Buffy continued to rub small circles on Tara's shoulders. "But it's confusing..." she nodded.
"Yeah. And it shouldn't be. I should marry him. It's more than time enough to be married and having a family. He's a wonderful person..."
"But you're not in love with him."
Tara sighed heavily, meeting Buffy's gaze finally. "I can't get her out of my head. I can't stand being away from her and yet I'm scared to be with her."
Buffy nodded. "Yeah. The fear part is not unreasonable. The Jewish thing, the woman thing..." She looked around the room. "But you and Beth are here, living together and people probably don't give it a second thought."
"We're family. And the neighbors expect that we'll find nice men and marry them, eventually. Beth's young."
"And Willow's charming. And bright. And ambitious. If anyone could win over the neighbors and make them love her, it's Willow."
Tara nodded. "I'm less worried about Willow-I mean I am worried about Willow. I'm always worried about Willow-but when it comes to being together I'm worried about me. That some part of me will feel self-conscious and scared. She doesn't deserve that. I'm afraid I'll be too weak."
Buffy gestured around the room. "What's weak about you? You're the person who stepped up and loved our girl when you didn't have to. You've stuck by her even after you found out she's a Jew. And after being embarrassingly interviewed by the Gestapo..."
"Humiliatingly," Tara corrected.
"Right. And they followed you around. You marched into SS headquarters. You stood up to your brother. You've come out here to hold down the fort with your cousin. You accepted Xander and me even after you learned that we're kind of dangerous to be around, too. And you just broke up with your fiancé. I don't see any weakness in you at all. And if you think Willow or Xander or I are never scared, then please know right now that's not true. I've hid in sewers. I ran away from home. Hell, I've gone back to grade school. And changed genders. I'm scared all the time. And Willow puts up a great front but she's scared, too."
"I don't want to be another thing that scares her or puts her at even greater risk."
Buffy chuckled. "Tara, I think I can safely say you are the one thing that's holding her all together. You're the one thing she's not scared about. You're this shining thing she holds onto-you represent what life could be like after the war. Xander and I are her family. But you're her strength." She looked closely at Tara. "And I think she's yours, too."
Tara thought about this for a moment. And then smiled. "She's so strong already."
"Yeah, she is strong. But stuff always comes along to weigh her down. The notion of marriage is a partnership, where two people support each other. Ok, so you two might not have white gowns in your future, but between the two of you I think you've got enough strength to do anything."
"You love her," Tara said.
"Yeah, I do. For the same reasons you do," Buffy smiled, then amended: "Just not in a gay way."
Tara laughed. "Yeah. I don't know what that's about. I've never felt that way about another woman." She stopped a moment. "In fact, I've never felt that way about anyone, period."
"The world's tough right now. But it can't always be. Times change. All I know is that if you hang in there, Willow is worth it. And I know she'll hang in there for you."