Willow was crying. The sound of it made Tara's heart hurt.
"Hush, sweetie. Can you tell me what's wrong? Are you ok?" Tara tried to keep her voice steady. Buffy was standing at her elbow, and Beth was leaning in the doorway, her face concerned. Tara really wished for more privacy.
"Tara, it's so horrible."
Tara's heart leapt in fear. "What's horrible? Has something happened?"
"Baby, it's the place. You can't believe the place. What- what they do to people. People like me. Like us. Everyday people who just happened to get up on the wrong side of the bed one day and suddenly they're political prisoners. Tara, I saw things I wished I'd never seen..."
"Are- are you someplace safe? Where are you calling from?"
"Oh. Uh. Yeah. We're back at the inn."
Willow's mind was full of math. She had a very mathematical mind. And right now she was powerless to stop it from doing multiplication. The numbers ran in the background as she tried to sort out her feelings and somehow manage to be coherent on the telephone. How could she explain to Tara the small building that was set back away from the rest of the barracks and separated by razor wire? The one Riley referred to as "the bunker." How claustrophobic it was, with its narrow its passages and low its ceilings. Riley had led her around to what he pronounced to be the medical ward, which wasn't a ward at all, just a few small rooms with cruel-looking apparatus that confused Willow. She'd never seen appliances like these. Were they even from the modern era? They appeared Victorian, or perhaps even medieval. White-washed rooms with stockade-like benches. Riley had frowned when Willow snapped a photo.
"Uh, you probably don't want a picture of that," he'd said uncomfortably.
"Why? What is it?" she'd asked, the heat rising up in her cheeks.
But then they were interrupted by a stern-faced blond woman in a lab coat. The woman seemed to appear out of nowhere, materializing from some hole or passageway to confront them. "This is Dr. Maggie Walsh," Riley had announced by way of introduction. Dr. Walsh's gaze slid up and down Willow, as if she were examining a medical specimen. "Do you belong here?" she finally asked. And for a moment, Willow wondered what it was that Walsh saw in her when she looked at her like that. Willow felt as if her disguise had been recognized by someone who was an expert at spotting the kind of people who spoiled the gene pool.
She snapped a photo of Maggie Walsh, too. It caught the woman by surprise. Riley gave her that look again.
Willow didn't have the guts to ask the doctor how she cared for 40,000 women in a facility this small. And vacant. With sickness surely running through the camp, where were the sick people? Instead, there were spotless white rooms with sharp medical instruments. Metal picks, glass bottles of acids, shiny metal pans and shiny little knives. Dr. Walsh said little and watched Willow with a hawkish expectancy that made her glad for Riley. Otherwise she had the distinct feeling Dr. Walsh might have kept her, locked her in one of the stern little rooms with the strange stockades.
How could Willow explain to Tara what it felt like to crawl back out of that place and into the sunshine, to breathe air that wasn't tinged with antiseptic and chlorine bleach and the faint hint of meat. How could she explain to Tara the haunted looks a group of inmates gave her when they'd resurfaced. The mistrustfulness and fear and curiosity. And loathing. When they looked at her they saw a Nazi. They saw her as one of those others.
How could she explain to anyone the feelings she experienced when Riley showed her one of the barracks where the women slept, when they let them sleep at all. The only furniture the place held were sturdy wooden bunk beds. They were three-tiered, like tall warehouse shelving. But Willow's mind was good at math. She knew how many buildings were here. And how many women. And how few bunks.
"Do they sleep on the ground?" she'd asked, jumping ahead of herself. The uncomfortable look in Riley's eyes told her he knew what she was asking. And the way he averted her gaze gave her her answer. The quarters were so close. They had to sleep at least three if not more to a bed. And they probably slept on the floor, too. The hall was dark and smelled like sweat and soiled laundry. She snapped another photo, and she was sure from the look on Riley's face that he'd never let her out of here with her camera.
Willow tried to keep her voice light. She was a reporter for The People's Press. She was Wilma Hermann, here on assignment. "I need a shot of a group of women...maybe chatting. You know. Something pedestrian and everyday. That people can relate to..."
Riley looked confused. Of course he was. That's not the kind of thing you typically saw here.
Willow pressed on. "I need them to be wearing clean uniforms. And no patches. No red triangles or black triangles. And I need them to appear to be at leisure." She looked him square in the eyes as if she were instructing him how to save his own life. It took a moment and then he comprehended what she was getting at.
"You'll have to give us some time to find what you're looking for," he'd replied tightly. "But I think that's a good idea. And we can manage it."
They swung back by the office and Riley gave his instructions to two of his staff. Who'd stared at Willow with open contempt. But they'd agreed to do it because Riley was their superior, and they'd all been told to cooperate with the reporter. Willow snapped a photograph of their sour faces.
How could she explain the thick column of smoke that rose from the chimney of a building Riley said was the crematorium? "We have to deal with death here," he'd commented. "We're bigger than most cities, in terms of our population. Every city has to deal with its dead. We've found that this the best way to avoid spreading disease."
Willow did the math again, thinking about the small number of infirmary beds for a "city" of 40,000. And wondering what means of disposing of the dead they'd tried before they'd settled on this one as "best."
Behind the crematorium lay the beautiful lake. There was a large work crew of younger women prisoners, carrying wheelbarrowfulls of gray ash from the back of the building and down to the waterfront, where they deposited the material into the water itself or onto a small barge which, Willow presumed, would be taken out into the middle of the lake for dumping. Perhaps under the cloak of night. Armed guards stood all around, their rifles slung over their shoulders or gripped tight in their hands as the women trudged about their work, fine gray dust coating their clothing, their hair, their faces.
"Don't even think about taking a picture of this," Riley warned under his breath.
One of the women guards interrupted them. Willow turned to find a pretty blond woman with a dark look in her eyes. "We have your garden tableau all set up, Captain," the woman announced. Willow recognized sarcasm when she heard it.
"So quickly!" Riley said, obviously relieved to be leaving this place. "Very good. Miss Hermann, this is Glory, one of the head guards. She's worked here for several years. She's one of our best."
"Pleased to meet you," Willow had said as impassively as possible, though it was becoming harder and harder to keep her cool.
Glory merely gave a toss of her head and turned to lead Willow to the "tableau" she'd assembled for the photo shoot. Riley trailed behind them as they strode across the courtyard to the one tree in practically the whole compound. As they approached, Willow surveyed the light and pulled out her camera bag for another roll of film.
"Can't believe you've gone through a whole roll already," Riley commented, almost as if to let her know he was keeping track. Willow had felt irritation, but didn't let it show. That other roll of film. That was for Anya. This one, the "PR" roll: That was for The People's Press. Gruber didn't want to know the details. He didn't want to see the bunker and the crematorium and the cloth patches of triangles and stars. He didn't want to see the bunks or the skinny dying women in their threadbare and dirty uniforms, covered in fine gray dust. He didn't want to see creepy Maggie Walsh or even Riley. All he wanted was a wholesome photograph. One shot was all that was needed. Willow knew this. She threaded the film carefully and advanced the roll a few frames, checking the light meter and setting her aperture.
Before her were three shrunken and sad-looking women. As Willow looked closer she realized they couldn't have been any older than she herself. In fact, they were barely teenagers. But their faces were hollow and ancient. They had long blond hair. When Willow raised an eyebrow, Glory explained that these were Norwegian student dissidents. As if that explained why they got to keep their Aryan hair, as opposed to all of those other women whose heads were humiliatingly shaved. These women, because they were more Aryan than even the average German, got to keep some part of their dignity here. Willow smiled ruefully and focused her camera, snapping off a couple of candid shots of the women standing in the shade of the tree. They looked stiff and uncomfortable. Willow would have to try to get them to relax.
"I need to work with them a little. Get them at ease," she explained to Riley and Glory. "Any chance I could get you two to stand over there and let me pose the women myself?"
Riley nodded, but Glory shot her a suspicious glare. "Don't believe the shit they tell you. Fucking whores are always making stuff up. They've got it good."
Coldness pooled in Willow's belly at the thought of why Glory would tell her something like that. "It's ok," Willow nodded. "I'm not interested in anything they might say. I just need a really good photograph."
That didn't seem to sit any better with Glory or Riley, who stood aloof, off to the side and out of earshot, as Willow returned to her reluctant photo subjects.
"I'm Wilma," Willow introduced herself. "I'm just going to take a few photos for The People's Press newspaper, and I need you to just talk naturally together, like you would if I weren't here."
"If you weren't here, we'd be digging graves," one of the women deadpanned. Was that deadpan? Or was that not? Willow adjusted her camera lens, but kept her eyes locked with the woman's.
"Is there something you can tell me? Something you want me to know?"
"There's nothing you can do with your Nazi newspaper," the second woman said with a tentative air of contempt. If contempt could ever be tentative, which Willow discovered, yes, it could be.
"I am taking your photograph for a Nazi newspaper," Willow confirmed. "But there are a lot of people out there who would be interested in your story..." She left the words hanging, hoping that the women understood her meaning. She couldn't safely spell it out any more plainly.
The first woman gazed at Willow contemplatively. Willow pulled the shutter, capturing her image.
"A lot of people, you say," the woman repeated. "Like who?"
Willow shrugged, advancing the film and refocusing. "Anybody with a human heart or soul."
The second woman snorted in derision. "A lot of good it would do."
Willow shrugged, giving the woman her best earnest look. "Tell me and we'll see." She snapped another photo.
The third woman, the one who had been silent so far, finally spoke up. She gave a little head nod toward Glory and Riley. "I'll tell you something those other two would never tell you."
Willow looked up from her camera, expectantly. In kind of a queasy way. She lifted the camera to her eye and focused. "Tell me."
The third girl furtively glanced around the compound. Women were marching in long columns. There were sounds of digging and industry and hard labor. As the girl's eyes scanned the place, Willow let her senses follow while she kept her viewfinder firmly aimed at the three women. "Look around you. Forty thousand women."
"Yes," Willow said, snapping another shot. "Closer together now, please."
The women linked arms. One of the girls ruffled the other's hair in a rare moment of playfulness that Willow recognized as genuine. Willow caught the shot. "Forty thousand women," Willow repeated.
"And have you wondered where their children are?"
Willow straightened and gestured for the women to sit together in the grass under the tree. "I assume they're at one of the nearby subcamps?"
The woman pressed on. "Forty thousand women. You ever wonder how many of them came into the camp pregnant?"
A city. A city of women. How many at any one time might be pregnant? Willow's mind started doing math again. "Um, a lot," Willow breathed, pushing the numbers away.
"Yes, a lot. Do you see any children here?"
"Aside from you?" Willow knew these girls couldn't be more than 15.
Willow advanced the film to the end of the roll and popped out the canister. She pulled another roll from her bag and reloaded the camera quickly. "Um. I don't want to know the answer to this, do I?" she said softly as the three girls looked up at her with round eyes that should be full of youthful innocence but just plain weren't. Willow understood the answer: The Nazis committed infanticide. They killed the children and the newborns.
The third girl gestured toward Glory and Riley again. "That woman. The guard. She's the worst. She's referred to as 'the stomping mare.'"
Willow contemplated this as she threaded the film with shaking fingers. It was too horrible to even conjure mind pictures. She took several deep breaths to steady herself and then began snapping more photographs of the three girls. In silence. Because the tears had threatened to well up, and if she let them, then she wouldn't be able to stop. And Wilma Hermann needed to keep calm. The girls saw her struggle, and a wordless understanding seemed to pass between them.
"Thank you," Willow finally said, dropping the camera to her side. "I think I have what I need."
Then the armed guards were there to herd the three prisoners back to their labor. Willow turned slowly back to Riley and Glory, somehow unable to take her eyes off the woman's heavy boots. When at last she was able to meet Glory's gaze, it was cold and mean. Willow got the distinct impression that Glory knew exactly what the prisoners had told Willow. And didn't give a shit.
"So, lover. Like what you see? Doesn't it make your heart bleed?"
Willow looked to Riley, whose face was an impassive mask. How much does he know? What barbarian ways are people treated here? Or murdered? Suddenly, all of this was making a few run-ins with the SS in Berlin seem like nothing. Glory stared her down cold. Willow had no doubt the woman could snap her neck instantly with a flick of her wrist, if she wanted to. And Willow had no doubt that she wanted to.
So she found her voice. "Like I said. I'm writing a piece for The People's Press. And the people have no desire to know anything about your prisoners might have to say. What they or anyone else tell me is irrelevant. I have my assignment and that's all."
"Oh, but you're human and weak. You're not going to tell me you're not running home to your fiancÚ-nice ring, by the way-and tell him all about this horrible, nasty old place."
"I don't have a fiancÚ."
"Word games. You know what I mean. You don't look like you live under a rock. What about the boys back at the newspaper office?"
Willow held her ground. "I was briefed. I know my orders."
"Do you always follow orders?"
Riley was shifting from foot to foot, uncomfortably. He couldn't help her in this conversation.
"I'm not military, if that's what you mean. But I do know how to follow orders," Willow answered crisply.
"Girlfriend, I don't care who you are or who you work for, but you shouldn't have come here. You're either a dumb sheep or sly as a fox. And why is it you don't strike me as a sheep?"
I can be very sheepy, Willow wanted to say, but somehow managed to put a lid on that comment. "You're just messing with me. I get that. Well done."
"Darlin', if I were messing with you, you'd know it." She leaned in close, whispering almost conspiratorially. "What if I told you that everything the women here say about me is true? 'Cause, you know, it is. Does that make it harder for you to follow orders?" She wiggled her eyebrows, and Willow wanted to smack the smug off her face. "Or...what if I were to say someone-Captain Riley, for instance-that I think you intend to use your notes and photos for purposes other than your newspaper?"
"Why would you do that?"
"Because it's true, isn't it?"
Thankfully, Glory didn't let Willow answer. She pressed in. "Every person in this place would be tempted. Anybody who ever got out. They'd talk to people. How could they not? And your photos. They're just the thing that turns one woman's story into truth. Photos don't lie."
Willow looked from Glory to Riley and shrugged. "She has a point," Willow conceded. "The film is too valuable. And too dangerous. Even for people in the newsroom." She reached into her camera bag and pulled out a roll of film and handed it to Riley. "It's yours. Keep it. Burn it. The shots in the camera are the photos of the ladies under the tree. Those are the only shots I'd consider using."
Glory raised an eyebrow skeptically.
"You saw me load the camera. Though if it makes you feel better..." She removed the film from the camera, inserted it back into its metal canister and handed it to Riley.
"Develop the roll and send us just the pictures you want us to have. In fact, when you have someone develop them, give the specific instructions to destroy any negative that's not a shot of the women under the tree."
Riley nodded. "Sounds reasonable. Under the circumstances. But I'd still like the option to send no photograph if that's what we determine is best."
"Fine. Take it up with your superiors who can sort it out with Hans Gruber. I've done my job here. Now I'm done."
That was the end of the tour. Riley had one of his men drive Willow back to the inn, saving Xander the trip. She'd felt relief wash over her to be out of that place and then intense anxiety. She hoped Riley wouldn't discover that she'd kept back one roll of film. The one with all the photos of the camp. And she ached with the knowledge that she couldn't tell anyone-except perhaps for Anya-what she'd seen there.
So here she was on the phone with the one person in all the world she wanted to break down and cry to-to share this terrible knowledge and be comforted-and she didn't dare.
"Tara, I can't tell you more, baby. I just wish you were with me..."
Tara heard something plaintive and scared in Willow's voice that reminded her of Riley. Had Willow become bruised like he had? Would she be haunted? Was this the price of getting too close to the truth?
"Sweetie, I love you. As long as you're safe, it's going to be all right."
"I- I don't know...What's safe anymore? What was ever safe?" The math, the terrible math was running in the background, in her mind.
Tara's voice was gentle but firm. "I want you and Xander to come down here now. Tonight. Get in your car right this minute and don't stop along the way."
Willow nodded wordlessly on the other end of the line. "I need that. I need you."
She hung up the phone and composed herself. When she turned back to the room, Xander and Anya were sitting at the bar together laughing about something. They'd seemed to hit it off. Willow walked up to them and pressed her one last roll of film into Anya's palm in handshake. The little metal canister was cool between them.
"Anya. It was wonderful meeting you. Xander and I have to go. Like right now. If you need anything more, call me at the newspaper. But this is all I have for now. Please don't let these go right away. Like we discussed, I can't have them traced back to me. You'll give it eight weeks like we talked about?"
Anya nodded and eyed her suspiciously. "They rattled you, eh?"
Willow nodded reluctantly, her eyes nervously focused on the floor. Which was waxy.
Anya's voice was soothing. "Well, that's their job, and they're really good at it. But no worries, Wilma. You did good."
Riley's head hung heavy in his hands. It was well after six o'clock, and the office was quiet. He sat silently in the small pool of light his desk lamp made across the desk. Before him lay the one film canister that Wilma Hermann had asked him to have developed for her. His stomach was in knots. Maggie Walsh had already been by to chastise him for letting the reporter into the bunker. And he'd endured Glory's vocal tirade about letting outsiders in at all. And they'd both expressed displeasure with the notion of The People's Press doing a story on Ravensbruck. Some stones were best left unturned, Dr. Walsh had suggested. Riley couldn't have agreed more. It's just that he had his orders. And he wanted to give Wilma the benefit of the doubt. Could she create a piece that retold the story of the camps so that for posterity people saw them as something slightly less evil than they actually were?
His stomach growled, but he didn't have the heart to go to dinner. He listened instead to the sounds of the camp that filtered through his opened window. The whistles and shouts of the guards rounding up the women and herding them back to the barracks for dinner. There were so many women moving about out there that he could hear the shuffle of their collective footsteps, their slow slog back to the barracks. For most of the women, they'd go back to work after dinner. But for this little 45-minute window, the whole camp seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief. And Riley wanted to find the peace to be able to relax, too. His world was falling apart.
A loud rap at his office door jolted him to attention. Maggie Walsh was there. "You have visitors," was all she said, her ubiquitous smirk firmly in place.
Riley ran his hands across his face and looked up to see two plainclothes men standing in the doorway before him. One was tall, with eyes so dark they were almost black. The other smaller with sharp blue eyes.
"Captain Finn?" the smaller one asked.
Riley held the photograph in his hands, bending it this way and that under the pooled light emanating from his desk lamp. He was silent, choosing to ignore the two SS detectives seated across from him while he gathered his thoughts. And stuffed down his anger. A flick of a glance at the detectives told him they were amused by his reaction and perfectly content to let him take whatever time he needed to finally say something. He sighed. Then Riley returned his gaze to the photo of Wilma Hermann. Or, actually, the detective named Blood had just told him she went by another name: Willow Rosenberg.
Rosenberg. Jewish. No doubt about it.
"She works for The People's Press, for chrissakes," he ground out through gritted teeth. His jaw was tight again, giving him a headache, as usually happened by the end of the day. But this headache was different. He knew it wouldn't be going away anytime soon.
"Yeah, she's a real scamp," Blood replied with a mean twinkle in his eye.
He squeezed his temples, trying to tame the dull ache, to no avail. "I had no idea she was a Jew."
Blood's reply sounded sympathetic. "How could you?"
"That's right. She works for the Party newspaper. My own superiors cleared her to come here. How could I have known she's a Jew and a fugitive?"
The other detective, the quiet one, bent forward out of the shadows to speak at last. "Thought maybe your fiancÚ might have told you."
That jerked Riley out of his stupor. He shot a fiery glare at the two detectives. "Tara! You'd better be careful talking trash about..." But then he lost steam, fell back in his chair and sighed heavily, wondering: "Tara?"
Blood shook his head. "You mean she didn't tell you?"
Riley shrugged. "No." He was angry she knew and hadn't told him, that she'd let him be compromised in this way. But he loved her and wouldn't say anything further. He opened his mouth to deflect the conversation back to Willow Rosenberg, but Blood cut him off before he could speak.
"So she didn't tell you then...about the two of them?"
Riley's stomach took a dive and the silence of the room suddenly pounded deafeningly in his ears. What were they trying to say? "Just tell me," he growled. Was Tara in on some conspiracy? What, exactly, had she been doing in Berlin while he was gone?
"She didn't tell you that she and Red were, ah, lovers?" Blood drawled out sweetly. "Or are. Could be they still are." The other detective nodded in agreement.
That did it. Riley swept his arm across his desk in fury, knocking everything but the desk lamp to the floor with an ugly clatter that resonated slowly back into silence. The lamp sat askew, shining a bit more now on the detectives, who squinted like a couple of raccoons caught in a flashlight beam. He wanted to knock those stupid smirks right off their faces.
"Don't mess with me," Riley yelled in his meanest go-to-hell voice. And then he collapsed again into his desk chair, scowling at them as their words started to sink in. The ring. Tara not wanting Riley to bring Wilma-or Willow-down to the farm. Tara calling off their engagement. Wilma defending Xander's honor. Shit. It did add up.
"Oh, God," he groaned, rubbing his hands across his face. The detectives sat impassively watched the emotions play out.
But Tara had left Berlin two months ago. So that meant if Wilma were her lover, they couldn't have been together since then, right? Maybe Tara hadn't told him because she was embarrassed. Trying to forget about it herself. Just a short, embarrassing indiscretion. Maybe she thought her unfaithfulness made her unworthy of him and that's why she broke off their engagement. Things started making more sense. He could just talk to her and tell her he was angry and that he'd get over it. He could forgive her.
"Do you have any idea where the woman formerly known as Wilma Hermann was headed after her appointment here with you?" Blood asked softly.
"I don't know. Back to Furstenburg? She must have been staying at an inn in town there. Of course, she could make it back to Berlin easily tonight." He was fairly sure she was headed out to see Tara. Should he say it? Should he send the SS out to the farm? What if they weren't telling the whole truth? What if Tara was in on a conspiracy and they wanted to find her? He thought again about the ring. No, the ring was something romantic. It had to be a love affair. If he sent the detectives to the farm, they'd apprehend Wilma, probably piss off Tara and make her cry, but then she'd be done with the whole business and could get on with her life. As long as Wilma was out there, Tara wouldn't be safe. Nor would Riley. If he helped the detectives capture their fugitive, things would go easier on Riley. It would take the heat off him. It would prove he wasn't somehow in on whatever agenda Wilma had for coming to Ravensbruck under the guise of reporter. He'd ask the men to go easy on Tara, in return for his cooperation. He took a deep breath and rolled the dice.
"Wait..." he said, almost under his breath.
The detectives leaned forward in their chairs. They were all ears.
Beth was confused. The dogs were barking outside, and Tara was pacing nervously across the length of the front room. She looked impatient and...what? Scared? Bert sat stoically on the couch, arms crossed, looking somehow far older than his 14 years. He looked dangerous, like a tightly-coiled spring ready to release. Beth wanted to say something, to ask her cousin what was up. Why were they so worried about Bert's Aunt Wilma? They'd been agitated ever since the phone call from Wilma that neither of them would tell her about.
All Tara would say was that Wilma and somebody named "Zander"-her boyfriend?-were on their way and would be staying over. Beth had been busy trying to work out the sleeping arrangements: Where would the boys sleep? All together with Bert, so that Wilma could sleep in the guest room? Would Zander have to take the couch? But then Tara hadn't moved to help her make up the rooms. That was not like her. And when Beth had offered to set a kettle of soup on the stove, Tara had not pitched in to help ready the house for her guests.
And Bert who had seemed so charming and precocious before was merely broody now. He'd gone with Tara outside for a few minutes, to the garage and back, but otherwise hadn't moved from the couch in over an hour. He'd suggested a couple of times that Tara relax and sit down, but she wouldn't.
For their part, Donald's boys were disappointed that Bert was preoccupied. They'd wanted him to play with them. And when he declined to join them, they'd gone upstairs to their room to read comic books and sulk.
Then headlights swept up the driveway, illuminating a swath across the front window. The dogs erupted again into wild barking outside, and Tara and Bert jumped. The boys upstairs started stomping their way excitedly down the hallway and then down the stairs.
But before they had even hit the landing, Bert and Tara had grabbed their coats and were out the front door.
Beth moved slowly over to the window and pulled back the drape.
The expanse of grass between the front steps and the car was entirely too far. Tara bolted with Buffy close on her heels. First Xander and then Willow climbed out of the car, looking tired but happy to have found the place. Tara crossed the grass in two heartbeats and swept Willow into her arms in a tight embrace, which Willow returned with equal fierceness. They spun together, breathing in and acclimating to the heft and feel of each other. "Buffy's right," Tara whispered into Willow's neck.
"About what?" Willow asked, live and in the flesh.
Tara chuckled. "She is dressing you better these days."
Willow laughed and pulled back so she could survey Tara better. "God, I've missed you," she gasped and then clutched Tara closely to her again.
Buffy's arms snaked around them both, so she could give Willow a hug, too. "Glad they let you out," she said.
"Definitely not a place I'd like to stay."
"This a little better?" Tara asked, meaning her embrace.
Willow nuzzled in closer, burying her face in Tara's chest. "Vixen. This is definitely much better. In fact, I think I'll move in here."
"I wish you would...I think I could manage to find a place to put you..." Tara purred.
"Is that right? Hmmm," Willow mumbled into Tara-cleavage.
Buffy stepped back. "Ok, stop with the double-entendres, please," she joked. "I'm at a very impressionable age, remember?"
Tara grinned and straightened, noticing for the first time the small nervous-looking woman dressed in body-hugging white. And beside her was Xander, who stepped forward and gave Tara a hug, since Willow had finally managed to let go of her.
"This is Anya," Xander said. "She's an associate of Wilma's."
He turned to Anya. "This is Tara, Wilma's...friend. And this is her nephew Bert."
Anya's dark eyes narrowed in confusion. "'Bert?' Is she a lesbian, too?"
For a moment, everyone stopped. Tara swung her head around to see if Beth was behind them. She was still in the house. Wow.
Xander laughed a bit nervously. "Uh, this is one of those things we don't talk about, okay?"
Buffy stuck out her hand to Anya. "Please call me Bert." They shook. "Please," Buffy said, pointedly.
Anya leaned in closer. "So you prefer that people think you're a male?"
Buffy blinked. "Uh...yeah?" She shook the cobwebs from her head. "But 'prefer' is probably an overstatement."
Willow stepped in. "It's okay, Anya. 'Bert' has a backstory is all."
Anya shoved her hands in her pockets uncomfortably and glanced from Buffy to Willow. "I think I get it," she said, uncertainly. "Backstories. Very interesting."
"It's probably not what you're thinking," Buffy said, obviously worrying about what Anya might be thinking.
Anya blinked. "Huh. Because I was thinking that you're probably in disguise because you're on the lamb from the Gestapo, just like these two are." She hooked her thumb at Willow and Xander. "But now that you said that I'm wondering if you're actually just a little uncomfortable about your sexuality. Which, by the way, Wilma, bravo for you for living your life out loud and proud." Anya gave Tara an approving glance.
Tara watched both Willow and Buffy squirm, and she felt the color rise up in her own cheeks as well.
Xander stepped in. "Okaaay...Thank you, Anya, for making me think about my friends in entirely new-though not at all unpleasant-ways." He turned to Tara and Buffy, explaining: "Anya has almost superhuman powers of observation. Willow and I have learned quickly to just let it go."
Anya looked disgruntled. "What? I just say it like it is. It's all the rest of you who get freaked out about the truth. I don't even want to know the truth about any of you. It'll make things easier when the SS sends its henchmen down here to arrest us all."
Everyone spun around to find Cousin Beth standing on the grass, looking warily at the newcomers.
Tara blushed. "No one, of course. It's just an expression," she lied.
It took some doing to get everyone inside and Beth calmed down about all of the unexpected houseguests. Yes, Tara was really overstepping propriety here. It was Beth's home. Tara was just staying here until things cooled off in Berlin. So she couldn't blame Beth for being a bit upset to have her house overrun with strangers. The cousins exchanged words in the kitchen as Tara made a pot of coffee and Beth ladeled up soup from the big black stockpot on the stove.
"I half expected to see Riley here, considering your friend Wilma was interviewing him at Ravensbruck today. Of course, he'd have to sleep in the barn anyway, since we're short of flat surfaces around here tonight."
Tara took a deep breath. "Riley and I broke up," she said matter-of-factly.
Beth gasped and her whole demeanor changed from one of peevishness to almost sisterly concern. "Oh no! What happened, Tara? Was it the war? Did he find a woman in another town?"
No, but I did. Tara bit her tongue, saying only: "The war probably had something to do with it. It was changing him, Beth. Calling off the engagement...It was my decision."
"What? Why? Did- did he hit you?"
Tara regarded her in confusion. "What? No, he was a perfect gentleman. Always." Too much so, in fact.
"Did you find another fellow?" Beth asked. "Like maybe that cute Xander fellow? I noticed how he looks at you."
"He looks at everybody that way. Or the women at least. No. He's a very dear friend. And he introduced me to Wilma and Bert. They're like family to me...or were, anyway, when I was alone in Berlin."
"This is all way too colorful for my tastes. I've never lived in a big city, it's true. Things are very simple here. And you probably consider it all quite boring. But excuse me for saying I think you've let that city living go to your head. Marrying Riley was going to be about the smartest thing you ever did, and now you've given that all up-and for what?"
For love, maybe? Tara frowned. "You and Donnie seem to think the world's going to come crashing down if I don't marry somebody. Well, I'll tell you what. You don't need to worry about me being a burdensome old maid." She winked. "Old maid, maybe. But I promise to get out of your hair as soon as I'm able."
Beth shot her an uncomfortable and wary look and sighed, pulling her apron off. "You know what? Fine. If you want an evening of big-city living with your friends, be my guest. Literally. But I'm tired. I'm going to head upstairs to bed. Keep it down. And don't drink all the vodka, okay?"
Willow slipped into the kitchen as Beth was just leaving. She smiled brightly at Tara's cousin. "This must be a little crazy for you. I'm sorry we've crashed your quiet evening. And thank you for the hospitality. Is there anything I can do to lend a hand?"
Beth softened a moment, reacting to Willow's smile the way just about everybody did. Tara was certain the girl could win over Beth eventually. At that thought, Tara felt Willow's arms snake around her waist from behind, and her hands started those slow circles that always seemed to light a fire in Tara's belly. Tara was fairly sure Willow didn't even realize she was doing it, but Beth did. The woman shot Tara an unfathomable look and then left.
So, okay, maybe it would take some work for Willow to win her over.
"Did I say something wrong?" Willow asked, her voice small.
The door closed and the house was finally quiet enough to hear the ticking of the clock. There were whispers-Xander in the downstairs front room with "Bert," where they planned to camp out on the couches. Anya was in "Bert's" room, talking to herself apparently. Beth and the boys had turned in a while ago. Now it was just Willow and Tara, and after being apart for two months, Willow was not about to complain.
Tara had watched her all evening with a hungry look in her eyes. She was a quiet person by nature. A bit of a Mona Lisa, to be quite honest. She was there at the dining room table with Xander and Buffy, Anya and Willow, lending a certain weight and calm whenever Willow's insides felt flighty, scared and stirred up. Anya, Buffy and Xander had been charming over dinner, talking around the edges of Willow's little adventure into prison. But Willow had purposely revealed little. Later, tomorrow, perhaps, she'd tell Anya the whole story. After all, it was she who would carry the burden of delivering the photos and notes to the Allies.
Willow had looked around the table then in sadness realizing that in some ways after today things would never be the same again. She had so much to say to Tara. She couldn't wait to pull her away from the table and climb upstairs so she could begin to try to say it. But, then, this moment of togetherness around the table felt so perfect: the way Xander waggled his eyebrows at his own jokes, and the way Buffy's face lit up when she really let herself laugh (which didn't happen nearly often enough), the way Anya so earnestly tried to comprehend this world, and then just as Willow thought the moment couldn't be more perfect, she'd catch Tara's eye and see the absolute warmth reserved there just for her. The little smile that curled at the edges of her mouth-that was about sex. Willow had learned that much. But Tara's gaze communicated so much more: there was acceptance of the silly and reckless world of Willow. And there was pride, too. That no matter what happened or who said what that Tara loved her and found her amazing. As Willow's heart pounded in fear, Tara grounded her.
She knew they may have made a mistake in coming straight here, but she couldn't help it. Now closing the door, she finally turned and faced Tara alone, and she felt shy and vulnerable.
"Hey," she whispered. Her throat would allow no more sound to escape. Tara was folding clothes on the chair near the bed...big bulky sweaters and long pants. The kind of clothes a country girl would wear tending to the farm. Catching Willow's eye, Tara stopped what she was doing and crawled up onto the bed. The springs creaked noisily, causing both women to giggle.
"That, I'm afraid, is simply not going to do," Willow said with a wicked grin.
"Oh, no?" Tara replied, her eyes wide and innocent. "Come here."
Willow took two steps and the floorboards groaned as if she were carrying a piano across them "Shit!" she whimpered. "This is so not fair."
"A little exhibitionism hasn't stopped you before," Tara teased.
"Yeah, but- but that was all with the dark and the come-hither and the- that thing with your mouth. And- and you definitely had surprise on your side that time. And- and I don't have a problem with being quiet, per se. No sir-ee. It's just that the moment I even kiss you, seven other people in this house are going to know it. Heck, the dogs will probably start barking outside, even."
"Welcome to my Hell," Tara rolled her eyes.
Willow bashfully dragged her toe on the floor, shooting Tara a meaningful look. "Maybe you, you know, might have figured out a work-around for this little problem?"
Tara feigned shock. "Willow Rosenberg, are you suggesting that I've entertained gentlemen callers here in my childhood bedroom?"
Willow looked around the room a bit uncertainly. "Um, yeah?"
Tara sighed in mock exasperation. "Well, usually I drag them out to the barn where we can do whatever we want. As long as we want. And as hard as we want. You know me and, well, hard...And, anyway, there are some interesting games you can play with some of the equipment....What?"
Willow's mouth hung open in shock-and what? Curiosity? Lust? "Uh, can we go outside, maybe?"
Tara gave her a heavy-lidded smile and extended a very lovely hand-one of two that knew Willow so well. "Come here," Tara purred.
Willow crossed the squeaky floor without any other thought than what she might like to do to Tara in a big enclosed space with no one around...and with interesting...equipment. Tara caught her in her arms and wrestled her down onto the groaning mattress, rolling on top of her. They hung suspended like that for a moment, Tara's face hovering just above Willow's, their bodies in complete stillness. And then with an innocent smile, Tara leaned in for a kiss, capturing Willow's lips tenderly and sending warm tinglies to all points south. The net of springs sighed more than groaned with the motion, so Tara tested further, pushing Willow's legs apart with her thigh and running her hand along Willow's leg, drawing the fabric of her skirt along with it. Willow hummed with the sensations that were gathering about her: the whisper of breath against her mouth, the silky trace of fingertips along her thigh and the weight of Tara's body pressing into her, compelling Willow's body to move as if by only the magic of gravity. And perhaps a little chemistry. Tara smelled really, really good. Willow drew her arms around Tara's shoulders and tangled her fingers in her hair, pulling her closer. Tara responded with a roll of her hips. And a long, slow creak of the mattress. Willow couldn't stifle her nervous giggle, which made Tara giggle, too.
"Can't we go outside...Please?" Willow begged.
"It's cold out there, sweetie. We'd freeze." Tara gave another roll of her hips, and Willow instinctively felt her legs part wider to afford more room-and more delicious pressure. She groaned in a duet with the springs, gazing helplessly up into Tara's eyes, which were dark and naughty.
"You're enjoying torturing me," Willow grinned.
"If I wanted to torture you, I'd take you out back to the barn."
"Oh, yeah? What then?" Willow definitely liked the naughty look in Tara's eyes and how she punctuated the words with a subtle testing of the bedsprings, triggering the sounds with the slightest movement of her hips. Willow smiled sweetly, waiting to see what Tara would say.
"Well, there's a hayloft, of course. That's where we'd end up...eventually," Tara purred, rolling into Willow again and grinning as Willow answered the motion with a roll of her hips as well.
"It's soft there. I'd lay out a blanket. You'd be on your back and I'd be between your legs. Kissing. In that way you seem to like so much. In the way even my brother knows you like so much," she chuckled. Another slow roll with its answering moan from the springs. "I'd tease you. I'd get you wound up. I know the way your breathing catches when you want to grind. That little bit of you that wants to control the tempo and the pressure. You come when you want to come. But not this time. I'd wind you up, and you'd start to set your own pace, and then I'd stop."
Tara stilled her hips. And Willow lamented the loss of movement. She wrapped her arms low around Tara's back and pulled hard, straining to keep the friction and heat mounting.
"Case in point," Tara said. "You're a hard woman to say no to. I like that you know where you want to go. It's just that sometimes I want to take you the scenic way."
Willow relaxed her grip and gazed patiently into Tara's eyes. She was willing to let Tara drive. Tara was a very good driver. She just hoped Tara would drive a little faster.
Tara continued her narration. "But then I'd see you sprawled out before me in the moonlight (of course, it would be perfect with moonlight coming in), and I'd want so damn bad to be inside you that it would be hard for me to battle my own impatience. Because I know the minute I slip my hand inside you, I'd be a goner. I'd have to drag that orgasm out of you, and I'd want to. I know how much you like it. And I know the way you'd feel. How the muscles inside you squeeze when I'm fucking you just the right way. And, damn it, I'd definitely be fucking you the right way."
Willow felt her face flush and her stomach dive. Who knew that the girl she met this winter-the one who could barely stammer out a sentence--could end up being such a naughty talker?
Tara's eyebrows shot up. "Shall I keep going?"
Willow nodded, barely trusting her voice. "Please do...only, except...could you put your hand inside me? I- I need to feel you."
Tara rose to her knees, pulling her shirt over her head to reveal her lovely breasts. The sight made Willow's mouth water with wanting to kiss them. The bed squeaked as they both worked to remove clothing, the coolness of the house in the evening settling over them, making nipples hard and skin beg for the heat of friction and exertion. Willow worked her way out of her dress only to find Tara rolling her stockings down her legs, her thumbs brushing Willow's inner thighs.
"You're wet," Tara whispered, licking the moisture from her thumb.
"I think I've been wet for, uh, about two months now."
Tara settled her now-naked self back down above Willow, running her breasts along the length of her until their lips met in a searing kiss. Willow could taste herself on Tara's tongue, which played languorously against her own, teasing and receiving.
"Please," Willow whispered, in between kisses. "Your hand inside me."
Tara eyed her, as if deciding whether or not to tease.
"The- the way you do. You know, the right way." Willow was not above begging.
Tara sat up again then and dragged Willow's hips up onto her lap. Willow lay on her back and opened herself to whatever Tara had in mind. Tara wrapped Willow's legs around her, running her hands possessively along them, teasing Willow's wetness with her thumbs and generally sending off white sparks throughout Willow's body. All the while Willow kept her eyes locked on Tara's.
Tara pressed a hand low on Willow's belly. "I want you to stay still. I want you to stay relaxed. Think you can do that for me?"
Willow shook her head, uncertainly, earning a smirk from her lover. "Just try, sweetie. I promise to take very good care of you."
With that Willow took a deep breath and nodded, letting all of the tension drain away from her and willing it to pool somewhere on the floor, far away from her.
And then she felt Tara slide softly in. She took another deep breath and steadied herself, acclimating to the welcome intrusion of Tara's beautiful and clever fingers. Tara kept her hand still, but her breathing picked up. She definitely liked what she'd found there.
"Oh, my God. You feel amazing," Tara whispered. "I- I can feel these little flutters inside you. And, god, you're so wet and soft." Willow struggled to stay relaxed. She could feel the faint involuntary and fluttery clenching, particularly when Tara pressed her hand against her belly.
"God, I just want to climb inside and fuck you."
It was then Willow realized that this relaxation game was as much a test for Tara as for Willow.
"What do I want?"
Tara caught her gaze. "Huh?"
"What does my body tell you? I'm all letting-go girl here. I'm not telling it what to do...Uh!"
Tara's hand had shifted slightly, setting off a big flutter inside Willow. Tara's eyes were wide. And dark. "I think it's telling me you need fucking."
Willow grinned, pulling in slow, steadying breaths. "I think it's telling you to tease me."
Tara gave another playful pull and Willow's hips started moving involuntarily. Tara smirked.
Willow sighed. "Fuck."
Buffy gave a big huff and rolled her eyes heavenward. "God," she grumbled.
Xander grinned pleasantly. "I don't know, Buff. I think it has a nice beat. You could dance to it."
They were, of course, referring to the bed springs overhead. Xander tapped his toes. Buffy covered hear ears in frustration.
"Poor Anya. She must think we're just the biggest freaks," she groaned.
Xander wagged a finger at her. "You haven't spent two solid days with Anya like I have. When it comes to strange and uncomfortable, she's definitely right at home."
Buffy sat up on her couch. "I noticed. Like at dinner when she wouldn't answer anybody's questions. I mean, she actually pretended not to hear us."
"She's a tough nut to crack, for sure. But I think I'm on to her secret. Oh, yes: She was raised by wolves."
"What must Tara's cousin think of all this?"
"Uh, that she doesn't know Tara half as much as she thought she did?"
Buffy was thoughtful a moment. "Tara called off her engagement. Yesterday, I think."
"No kidding. Huh. Will didn't mention it."
"Maybe she didn't even know." Buffy rolled her eyes. "Of course, I'm sure Tara's shared that little bit of news by now. Hey, maybe that's why all the celebrating."
"Man, I feel bad for Riley. He's like the last to know. I mean even the detectives in my department knew. Heck, Will and Tara are like their pinup girls. Sorry, Buff. About your thing with Spike."
"I told you. There is no thing with me and Spike. We're not seeing each other. We- ah- shit. Who am I kidding? I'll just shut up now."
There was silence punctuated only by the sound of the springs, but even that eventually changed. Maybe they were, you know, done. The low sounds of murmuring drifted down now. Buffy and Xander sat on their respective couches in thought. And then a thought struck Xander.
"Man, if it were me and I was the last to know, I'd be pretty pissed."
He stopped and felt his stomach drop. "Holy shit. He could know. Spike and The Preacher..."
An iciness settled over both of them. "And if he did know..."
And then the dogs started barking outside.