The hotel was a grand place, with gilt and filigree and mirrored walls. It seemed large enough you could inflate a zeppelin in it, and the big band playing Cuban samba music at the far end of the hall seemed tiny. This was a showplace of opulence and engineering, and as the war wasn't going so well these days, the Germans needed things like this to remind them of what they were fighting for,...and of the reasons why the purity of their race was of the utmost urgency to civilization: Only the master race could be capable of great works like these. "Never mind that the pyramids were built by Africans," Willow was saying as she nervously deconstructed the whole charade while walking along on Xander's arm. Xander patted her hand sweetly. "Dear, please try not to bait the Nazis tonight, ok?"
"I can't help it. My mind has a low threshold for things that just don't make sense."
Xander stopped and turned to Willow, his eyes taking in the sight of her in her evening gown, which was black and came to black lace along the chest and neck and arms. Willow looked beautiful. "Will," he said. "I know it's tough for a brainiac like you, but tonight, just for once, please power down the synapses and focus on having a good time."
She smiled in that old way that had always made him adore her. She was appraising him in his uniform, and it was clear she liked what she saw. There. She was getting her priorities straight. She seemed proud and awed of him somehow and it made him feel ten feet tall. In a moment she had turned off nervous, over-analyzing Willow and became the girl he'd known since childhood.
"Some champagne would help," she wryly suggested, and he thought about the money in his wallet. He wasn't sure he could swing it. Wartime had made such luxuries nearly unaffordable. He grinned gallantly nonetheless. "But, of course." He scanned the crowd for anyone he knew who might be willing to go in with him on a bottle. His gaze landed on Tara, who looked resplendent--so much so he almost missed the fact that she was there with her boy-captain Riley.
"Oh. Friends!" he managed to blurt out, and practically dragged Willow across the room to meet them.
Riley spotted them first. Smiling and nodding Xander over. He said something to Tara who turned quickly in surprise. She seemed taken aback at the sight of Xander in his uniform, and then even more taken aback by the sight of the woman on his arm.
Xander grinned and made introductions. "Will, this is Captain Riley Finn and his girlfriend Tara....and Tara and Riley, this is Wil- uh- Wilma Hermann, my friend, and a copyeditor for The People's Press."
Riley was clearly impressed by the last part. He took her hand and kissed it, as was customary when formally being introduced to a lady in polite society. "The People's Press." he said. "The men on the front lines are ever indebted to the news organizations for keeping our loved ones informed of the our progress. It's a pleasure to meet someone so dedicated to the war effort."
Willow blushed bashfully and replied, "I'm just doing what I can to keep up morale these days." She said it more about herself, of course, than about the war effort, which she just hoped would go to hell. Where it belonged.
Tara couldn't help staring at Xander's date. She was beautiful and charming and wearing a really great dress. There was an air of confidence and sophistication about her. She even held an important and high-profile job. For a moment, Tara felt small and inconsequential, just another hausfrau--and not even a frau at that, definitely nothing special. But then, Willow's attention turned, her eyes kind and sparkling and genuinely interested in Tara. Willow took her hand almost in an echo of Riley's masculine politeness and held it in greeting. Her touch was light and her skin warm and soft. "It's really nice to meet you," Willow was saying, though Tara absorbed the words in a squishy and remote way as if her head were underwater. "Xander told me about the other night how he met you during the air raid." She leaned in conspiratorially. "Thanks for making sure no rocks fell on his head. His head's a little soft."
Xander rolled his eyes. "What about you? I heard you nearly threw up on Buffy's shoes that night."
Willow scowled in mock reproach. "I was scared. I have this whole list of things I want to do before I die, and it was a little unnerving thinking I might not have the chance to do them."
"And nearly throwing up on Buffy's shoes is one of the things on your list?" Xander quipped.
Willow looked confused. "Uh, no. That wasn't really on there. But I guess I can add it. And, heck, I can check it off, too."
Riley patted Xander's back in comradely fashion. "It's fair to say that these are hard times for just about everyone. Let's go get the ladies some champagne and forget our worries for a while." Xander grinned as if his evil plan to make Riley pay for the drinks had worked. Which it had. He followed the captain to the bar, venturing a quick look over his shoulder at the women.
"Don't mind us. We're fine," Willow waved. And then Willow and Tara were standing looking at each other.
"Why don't you j- join us o- over at our table?" Tara managed to get out, though with some obvious effort. Damn, she hated that nervous stutter. But Willow didn't seem to mind. She smiled a broad smile and took Tara's hand again with a simple, "Lead away."
"Can't we send you out into the countryside somewhere?" Giles was asking, though he knew it was a stupid idea. But he was feeling desperate and there weren't a lot of options. Jenny Calendar was pacing the floor of his small living room, her eyes trained on the carpet like they had been for the last half-hour. Her shoes made a soft squeak on the floorboards with each step.
"Enough," Buffy said, a tad more sharply than she'd intended.
"I can put a hex on them. That's what the Gypsies are supposed to do, right? That's what they think we're all about. Well, that, and tramping about," Jenny was saying. She was blathering in her anger. "Fuck this."
Buffy uncrossed her arms and climbed to her feet. "I have a plan," she said, waiting for the nervous commotion in the room to stop. It did. She had their attention. She drew a deep breath and continued.
"I know a guy who can get Jenny a visa. I can get her to England, And, Giles, I can get you there too. Pull a few strings. You know. But I can get it done."
Jenny stared at her. "What. You're going to have Xander forge more papers? His little trick for Willow may end up costing him dearly. These assholes play for keeps."
Giles interrupted, stepping forward softly. "Jenny's right. Xander needs to lay low. And Willow, too."
Buffy shook her head, her jaw set. "Right now they're at the Royal Hotel mixing it up with the high-steppers."
Jenny and Giles looked at her like she were mad...or Willow and Xander were mad. Or both. "They're at a Nazi soiree?" Giles hissed.
Jenny was agitated now. She pulled out a cigarette and lit up, muttering to herself. "Willow's getting in way over her head. I don't like it. She's got what? Maybe two lives left?"
Buffy shook off the cryptic remark. "Listen, this doesn't have to involve either of them. They're ok. Really. I have another source."
Giles gave her a fatherly glare. "All of this covert business is far too dangerous. Jenny and I will take a car out into the country."
Buffy shrugged in frustration. "Hello? The police have most certainly gone through all of Jenny's things back at her apartment. They know who she is, and they'll be looking for her. Taking a drive out of the city just isn't gonna cut it."
She turned to Jenny. "You've got to travel out of here. Get far away. Just until this stupid war is over. Put your life on hold. But at least you'll still have one."
Jenny seemed to mull this over. "Then Willow's coming, too. I won't leave her here."
Buffy let out a sigh. "Willow's going to do what she's going to do. I'll talk to her about it. But in the meantime tell me you want the visas because it's going to take some time to get them." They all knew what she really meant was that it was going to take some risk to get them.
Jenny's hands were shaking as she took another drag on her cigarette. She blew out smoke and finally said, "Ok."
Willow was extremely confused. The beautiful girl at the table with her had a boyfriend who was just about the biggest Nazi blowhard she had ever met, though of course her new occupation would likely bring her into circles with many, many more Nazi blowhards. And yet Tara seemed, well, genuinely nice. She came off as gentle and accepting, and truly interested in Willow.
Of course, dummy. She has no idea she's sitting here with an evil Jew. For a moment Willow feared what she might feel if Tara happened to spew some anti-Semitic statement, which Good Germans were so prone to doing these days. Somehow Willow had a sense that such a remark would really sting in a way that the countless other remarks she'd heard over the years hadn't come close to. She tried to ponder why that was. Maybe that now she was Wilma she expected to get the real scoop on what the gentiles thought about the Jews. Was that what bothered her? Or was it something more specific to Tara? A person who, under different circumstances, Willow might actually like as a friend.
And what was with all the touching? Willow had always been affectionate with Xander and Buffy, but Tara was a complete stranger and yet Willow realized she now knew the exact temperature and sensation of the skin of Tara's hand, the softness and texture of her fingers. Why the hell couldn't she just drop it and leave it alone? Maybe it was the champagne. The boys had toasted a glass with them and then disappeared, leaving the bottle between the women. She and Tara had downed their first glass and were now on glass number two.
Tara sensed Willow's nervousness and grasped for something to say to break the silence.
"W- what part of town do you live in?" she asked. Not exactly the most interesting or witty conversation-starter, but it would have to do.
Willow's eyes saddened. "Uh, my apartment kind of, well, it got blown up, so I'm a little in between places, you might say."
"I'm so sorry. I got off easy the other night, but I know so many other people didn't. I think I'd probably have thrown up on somebody's shoes, too, if I were in your place."
A wry smile crept across Willow's face and the effect was luminous. "Don't apologize for being in one piece. I'm glad you're ok."
Tara's eyes focused on the tablecloth, unnerved by the gentle kindness of Willow's gaze and by intimacy of what Tara was going to ask next: "So what exactly is on that list of things you want to do before you die?" Tara regretted she hadn't the ambition to even have thought of such a thing for herself. This beautiful red-headed girl before her had an intensity she wished she herself possessed. Tara was curious.
Willow lost herself in thought for a moment, wondering really what she could tell a Nazi, since so many of the things on her list included, well, screwing the Nazis. She took a deep breath and plunged in. "Well, I'd really like to work as a photo-journalist. I- I have this job at the newspaper, so I guess that's a step in the right direction. Uh, let's see…I'd like to go to university because I love learning--but, but I can't b- because I need to work, you know, to support myself, so my friend Buffy lets me borrow her books, and I, you know, do a lot of the reading for her and help her out because it's easy for me-just kinda how my brain works. So, huh, maybe it's like I am going to university, except without the degree." A pause, and then: "I'd like to someday live in a nice retirement home, since that means I'd probably have made it through this crazy war and lived to a ripe old age, and, um, that would be a really good thing..." She paused again, taking another deep breath. "And I'd kind of like to fall in love, you know, for real?" Her mouth was dry after this last part. She had no idea she was going to say it, but then she also had the sudden awareness that the words were absolutely true.
Tara frowned. She had a cute frown. "W-what about you and Xa- Xander?"
Willow looked over her shoulder to where Xander and Riley were engaging in some man talk and cigar smoking among a group of military types. Her gaze was affectionate. "I love him. We've been friends since we were, like, five. I can't imagine my life without him. But we're just friends." Xander seemed to understand this, too. He'd never shown more than familial affection for her. And that was ok. It was enough between them.
"I want something more," she found herself saying, as if her mouth would not shut up. "Every day I wake up wondering if it will be my last, and I just crave in the most visceral way to feel something messy and passionate and all-consuming...to have something that overrides absolutely everything else--that, that obliterates all of the pain and suffering and fucked-up-ness. I just want something that's, you know, mine."
Tara was surprised by her companion's fragile candor, but then everything about Willow's face was open and honest. Tara's heart beat a bit faster at the realization that some of the things Willow wanted were the same things she herself wanted but had assumed she would never have. Particularly that last one.
Willow's gaze was dangerously naked. Tara held it a moment, and then dared herself to hold it a moment more. Willow broke first, with a joke. "And also I'd like to visit the country and maybe get over my fear of horses."
Tara brightened at this. "Horses? Oh, I could help you with that one. I grew up on a farm outside the city. We still have family there. I could take you sometime." She was shocked again at her forwardness and thought perhaps she was making a new friend.
Willow grinned. "See, and then maybe I could check off another thing from my list."
The boys eventually gave up on the Nazi talk and cigars and returned to the table with another bottle of champagne. Xander was feeling smug at his good fortune that he'd found them companions with cash--and clout. Riley seemed to think nothing of it. It was almost as if he were relieved that Xander appeared to already have a girlfriend so he didn't have to worry about somebody making a move on Tara.
"How's my girl?" Riley asked Tara, leaning down and kissing the top of her head. Xander and Willow exchanged glances. Even buzzed on champagne they both knew that Riley's treatment of her more resembled the affection he might have for a pet cat than for someone perhaps destined to be his wife.
Willow didn't get it. Tara was lovely. The lights seemed to gleam off the blond hair she wore pulled back from her face. Her skin was luminous. Her eyes the color of the ocean. Her whole aspect sensual. Xander was drooling. And then she noticed that she, herself, was a little slack jawed. But Riley wasn't. He patted Tara's shoulder and swung into the chair beside her. Tara gave Riley a shy smile that could scarcely have hinted at its full carnal power. A power that somehow Willow knew was there. Didn't Riley see it?
Willow bolted down another swallow of champagne, wondering what the hell was wrong with these two. They were Hitler's perfect specimens, and, darn it to hell, they were certainly never going to mate. Take that, evil Eugenics! She shot another glance at Xander. The smirk on his face said it all. He knew it, too. Tara was Riley's chattel.
But instead of amusement, Willow felt anger rising up inside her. She slammed her glass on the table and commanded: "Let's dance."
Xander flinched and then nodded agreeably with the plan. He took Willow's hand and led her across the room to the dance floor. The Cuban band was playing a slinky, hip-swaying number.
Tara watched them go, her eyes never leaving Willow's back, following the play of black lace as it charmed its way through the crowd. It seemed as soon as Willow left the table she took all the warmth in the room with her. Until she and Xander started dancing, and then the heat was back, this time rising up in Tara's cheeks. There was nothing overtly sexual about the way the pair danced. In fact, they fell into a friendly intimacy that was borne of familiarity. So what was it that made Tara wish she were there with them?
Tara drained her third glass of champagne and grabbed Riley's hand. "You heard the lady," she said. "Let's dance."
"Oh my god, do you think those two could be any more wooden?" Xander was laughing as he swept Willow across the dance floor. Xander was not a bad dancer, Willow thought. Or maybe it was the champagne doing the thinking. Hey, in fact, she wasn't really thinking. Yay, brain! Xander was right: She really could turn it off and enjoy herself.
"Maybe it's one of those, you know, arranged marriage things," Willow replied archly.
"Yeah, I hear the government has one of those books where you can mix and match your mate based on certain characteristics."
"Like choosing color swatches," Willow nodded. "Except all the swatches are, you know, pale."
"Guess that means I'm not in the book," Xander smiled. "Being tall, dark and handsome and all."
"It's ok, honey. You'd get points for being tall. And handsome."
That pleased Xander, and he gave Willow a good swing that made her eyes go wide. Whoa...Hips in new places.
"Right back at you. I'd let you in my gene pool anytime."
"I bet you say that to all the ladies."
"Just the beautiful ones."
Willow blushed. Chuckling, Xander asked, "Which reminds me. Did she talk about me?"
That did it. With the flick of her wrist, Willow took the lead from him. Xander laughed and fell into step with her. Willow shot him a mischievously intoxicated look and said, "About you? Not so much. We talked about me."
Xander's eyebrows shot nearly up to his hairline. "Is that right? Wow. Who knew Wilma Hermann already had a back-story."
"Wilma's got a lot more than that, wouldn't you say?" With that she gave him a dramatic dip.
The night was cold, and Buffy really, really wished she hadn't left her hat--the one Xander gave her last Christmas--at Spike's. She took the trolly partway to his house, then got off and walked the last 10 blocks. A glance up to a lighted window high above told her he was still up. From the front steps, she rang the bell to his apartment. It was late, but he'd be expecting her.
His apartment was on the fourth floor, and the steps were a good workout. Buffy climbed them two at a time. When she hit the landing, Spike was standing in his doorway. He bowed and admitted her into his home.
"And what brings you here tonight, I wonder?" he asked, leaning against the door as he closed it behind her. The look on his face made it plain he was hoping she'd admit it was lust. He was infuriating, but useful. Putting up with his crap was just part of the price she paid for having him on her side.
Buffy scanned his apartment, idly wondering how he spent his time up here. There were newspapers scattered about and unwashed dishes in the sink. He was nowhere near as fussy and tidy as Giles. She sat on the arm of a chair, carefully avoiding newspapers and other errata. "I need some help," she said, her gaze unwavering, as if she were on a mission of greatest importance.
Spike held her gaze a moment, weighing its gravity, and then let out a deep chuckle. "Oh, right. This is about getting visas or something for one of your little friends. What's up? The Jew get kicked out of her apartment again? Or maybe her boy's been found out a sympathizer by the Gestapo?" Spike had never met Willow or Xander, or Buffy's family for that matter. She had scrupulously worked to keep him out of their affairs. He didn't even know their names, though she did talk about them from time to time. They were important to her.
In a way, Spike was grateful not to know them. In his line of work, hunting down Jews, traitors and degenerates, he really would rather walk into an arrest situation innocent of whether he was screwing up the lives of people Buffy loved. It somehow made things morally simpler for him. He could help them behind the scenes a bit--for a price, of course. And they were free to hide as best they could, but if he found them, then it became about his work. He couldn't help what he was.
That Buffy came to him for help was baffling in a way. He knew deep down she must love him, though she'd never admit it. That had to be the real reason she kept coming around, with these thin excuses. Getting visas was no problem. He had access to records because of his line of detective work. And he had friends in official organizations like the Red Cross, who cold be counted upon--again for a price--to supply him with papers. He really didn't mind working both sides. People were people. They had a right to do what they liked, to defend themselves or run or hide or whatever. But as the war wore on and the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other riffraff became fewer and fewer in Berlin, his job became simpler in some ways. He and his detective partner would be handed a dossier and they had more time to track down a good trail and a lead. That probably meant that at some point one of Buffy's friends would come into the cross-hairs of one of his investigations. He sorely hoped that if the day came he wouldn't be aware of who he was picking up, or interrogating or chasing down and shooting, or whatever. And he really hoped Buffy never visited his apartment with tears in her eyes because one of her friends was dead. It was just a matter of time and the law of averages. Fate was stacking against her. She was a university student. Surely she could understand the math.
"Ok, love," he purred. Give me the particulars. Gender. Age. Make up some occupation and come up with some amusing name, too. That stuff. And I'll see what I can do. I assume you have money,"
Buffy nodded, her coat pocket stuffed with all the cash Giles and Jenny could manage...and a few food stamps to boot in case it wasn't enough. She pulled it out and gave him all of it. He eyed the bills and chuckled at the stamps. These people obviously meant something to her. Could it be the girl she would only refer to as "Red" and the boy she called "X-Man"? Or maybe her mom and sis? Buffy didn't say. She grabbed a notepad from his kitchen table and started scribbling.
It was late, and Riley and Xander were off fetching the ladies' coats. That left Tara and Willow standing together in the lobby of the grand hotel. They faced each other, warmed by champagne and dancing. They smiled at each other in affable silence, comfortable in each other's company. Willow thought she could stand for a long time just watching how the lights played off Tara's skin, and how the blue of her eyes seemed to change colors depending upon how the light hit them.
Tara caught Willow staring, and her smile spread into a lopsided grin.
"It was nice meeting you, Wilma," Tara said a bit shyly.
Willow was taken aback by the use of her new name and was dragged back to the reality of the true distance between them, between herself and anyone, really, the things that would remain lies beneath the veneer of her new life. Xander was wrong. She'd developed no back-story for Wilma. Tonight had been pure Willow. Part of her wanted Tara to know that girl.
Tara picked up a bit of the sadness as Willow replied. "Yeah, it was really nice to meet you, too, Tara. I had a great time." She teetered a bit unsteadily on her feet. "Maybe too much of a good time, truth be told."
Tara steadied Willow's arm and found herself wondering where the pretty redhead who was not Xander's girlfriend was headed to now. "Do you have other family in the area you can stay with?"
It was as if a cloud momentarily passed across the sun. "No family," she said. "But I have friends I can stay with until I find a new place."
"You're lucky to have friends," Tara said, an ache in her heart at the realization she could really use some herself.
Willow's smile seemed to even surprise herself. "Yeah. I am kinda lucky."
Willow tossed a rock up to Buffy's bedroom window. It was her sister Dawn who drew open the sash. "Oh. Willow?" Dawn whispered.
"Yeah, um, mind if I come in?"
"Sure. Nice dress," Dawn replied. "Are you sure you want to climb up in that?"
Joyce slept in the front room, and Willow really didn't want to wake her.
"Yeah. I'll climb up. Just give me a moment." It was freezing cold, but Willow didn't want to risk tearing the only nice dress she had--one of the few nice things she'd bought with an advance from the newspaper office. Mr. Gruber had been kind and understanding, what with the fact that Willow's apartment had been destroyed by the evil Allies and all. It was cold out, but Willow peeled off her overcoat and tossed it up to Dawn, shivering. Then she slipped out of the dress, feeling a bit more than daring standing half-naked in the alleyway. She carefully tossed the dress next.
While Willow climbed, Dawn's fingers ran over the garment. "It looks so good on you. And I think it might fit me, too. Do you mind if I borrow it sometime?"
Willow wasn't really listening. "Sure." She was more focused on keeping her balance. At the windowsill, Dawn grasped her wrist and pulled her inside.
"Wow! It's freezing out there," Willow hissed against chattering teeth. And then next: "Where's Buffy?"
Dawn waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, she's out with one of her boyfriends. She should be climbing up the wall any time now. I thought you were her."
"Buffy has boyfriends?" Willow pondered aloud. Her friend had never mentioned it.
Dawn was sketchy. "I think she's dating some SS guy. Or maybe two. I don't know. She doesn't talk about it much. Maybe she thinks mom would disapprove."
Willow shook off her surprise, kicked off her shoes, quickly got ready for bed and then slipped in next to Dawn. She fell asleep thinking about dancing, the shape and temperature of Tara's hand and the list of things Willow wanted to do before she died.
Sometime near morning, Willow felt a cold body slip into the bed between Dawn and her. Buffy snuggled down and burrowed her face into Willow's hair, drawing herself up tight against Willow's warm back. "Geez, Will, when did you take up cigar smoking?" she chuckled against her friend's neck. It tickled. Willow smiled, replying, "All the Nazis are doing it."
"And if the Nazis all jumped off a cliff you'd jump right with them, eh?"
It was Willow's turn to chuckle. "Nah. That would be pretty neat, though."
Spike strolled into the SS office of the secret police a bit late the next morning, a corrugated box under his left arm. He stubbed out his cigarette in the lobby and headed for the stairs up to his office. On the landing he spotted the clerk at his desk. An affable enough guy. Just a regular Joe. Young and a little soft. Interchangeable with any of the rest.
"Morning, Harris," Spike said as he glided by in his long overcoat. Harris barely looked up. "A fine morning it is, Mr. Blood." Spike chuckled. The kid greeted him differently every day. Sometimes it was, "Morning, did you say?" or "Right back at you, Mr. B." Always something. Spike let the chipperness follow him into his office like a soothing breeze. He flipped on the electric light and tossed the carton on his desk and hung his hat and coat on the tree behind the door. The sun was shining a tad too brightly, so he pulled the blind down half-way. That was when he trained his attention to the box. Taking a seat at his desk he began pulling out items and inspecting each of them for clues. There were always clues. When his boys had cleaned out a nest of Jews a few days ago there were a couple of occupants unaccounted for. The other Jews wouldn't fess up, of course. They always ran thick as thieves and couldn't be trusted to give away their own kind. No, his men had questioned the neighbors instead, giving them polite but firm treatment, accusing them of knowingly harboring Jews. That sort of thing always made the Good Germans a bit nervous and was usually enough to get them to cave. From the report he knew he was looking for a couple of young women. Names of Willow and Jenny.
Now he picked through the small belongings of the former occupants of the squalid little apartment, bits of cheap jewelry, a hair brush, a lipstick, old letters and a myriad of strange little mementos that these folks so often latched onto when they left their former lives behind to live on the lamb. He shoved each one of these personal things impersonally aside. He was looking for something specific. Papers, passports or...ah, yes, here they are: snapshots. Sepia-toned and a little blurry. Nothing written on the back, which was a shame. That usually made things easier. But there were definitely photos of two women who were not among those folks picked up. They were pretty, one a bit younger than the other--obviously not related by blood. From their smiles it was clear the snaps were taken in happier times. As was always the case.
Spike stubbed out another cigarette in a crystal ashtray on his desk (a souvenir from just such another box a few months back) and sighed. He began the task of the real detective work: trying to piece together the stories of these two ladies. How well did they know each other? Were they friends from way back? Might they be on the lamb together still? The first order of business was figuring out which one was Willow and which was Jenny. He always felt a better hunter when he could put a name to a face.
He sauntered down the hall to the office of his partner--an evil fuck named Caleb. Spike never cared for him. He was about the most heartless bastard Spike had ever met, and Spike considered himself fairly heartless. Caleb was a real piece of work. Hurting girls made him happy. Spike hammered his fist on the closed door, setting the window glass shaking.
"Come on, partner. We have some people to go see," he said.
Caleb opened the door, his coat and hat in hand. He tossed them on quickly and then inspected his handgun before pocketing it. His eyes flicked briefly over the photos Spike showed him.
"Pretty ones," was all he said for a long moment. Then, as the two of them were ambling down the hall: "It's the pretty ones who always turn out to have the darkest souls."
Spike had long since chosen to ignore the former preacher's twisted good-and-evil mutterings. Today was a workday. He had work to do. They both had work to do. And so fuck the wacky bastard. They would just go do it.
Tara woke early. The apartment was cold and the sunlight bright. She rolled over to find Riley there beside her. She was in a small satin nightgown. He was fully clothed. Well, except his shoes were off. Socks. But no shoes. He was huddled up beside her, sleeping like a baby. In fact, his face seemed so serene and angelic, his breath tickling at the nape of her neck. She let out a sigh and leaned back into the pillows, staring up at the shapes in the tin ceiling above her. Why wouldn't he touch her? It wasn't like she hadn't been forward. Hell, she was half-naked. She'd practically thrown herself at him last night after he'd brought her home from the dance. No. Actually, she had thrown herself at him. He had seen her practically head-to-toe naked and still he fell asleep on her. Riley hadn't been her first boyfriend, and in the past she'd never encountered anything quite like this, so she was worried. What did this mean?
Had he been drunk? There had been a lot of champagne last night. Maybe he passed out. Or- or maybe there was something wrong with her? She wasn't pretty enough or strong enough, or something enough. Did she do it all wrong? Should she have let him take the lead? Was it the man's job to decide things like this? Should she get up now and put on some clothes and just pretend nothing had happened? Did she want to stay here until he awoke, to see if something might happen? What is it that she did want, really?
She frowned. For all of this she blamed in an odd sort of way one Wilma Hermann. She had seemed so certain and self-possessed. And it was certainly not lost on Tara how the girl had maneuvered Xander so that she was leading their dancing. A bold move that made Tara feel kind of funny inside, as she thought about it. She'd never danced with another girl that way, letting another girl lead, and so she thought about that, about how that might feel, if Wilma had been leading her. Or if she herself were the one doing the leading.
There were so many things a woman might do that Tara had never stepped outside her prescribed role to imagine. She could hold a job. Wilma did. She could have men as friends and keep it at that, the way Wilma seemed to with Xander. Would Riley be happy with Tara as a friend and companion without the complications or obligations of sex? She glanced at him again, his peaceful face and thought that, yes, perhaps all he really wanted was this simple, unnamed thing they shared. He called her whenever he was in town. They'd go do things. She'd go to events with him. He'd take her to dinners. He was handsome in his uniform, and she knew she was lovely on his arm. He liked talking with her. They spent long hours talking. Or listening to the radio. He'd sleep here sometimes, with her pulled tightly against him. In her presence he was absolutely as vulnerable as it was possible for him to be and she let him be vulnerable and did not judge him.
He'd done terrible things. In war, how could one not? Tara chose not to dwell upon it. Of course he'd killed people, and killing is an evil thing, right? No matter how just the battle. He'd spent time at the Front. He'd led men into combat who had never returned from it. That had to haunt him. Tara tried to imagine herself in his place and knew that killing was something far beyond her. In fact, she couldn't imagine it. Or wouldn't.
So if he lay here peacefully, and if she gave him some real comfort, made him feel whole, even, if that were possible… then that was worth something. He didn't ask much of her in return. He didn't pry into her life, or try to direct her. To a certain extent she was free.
She slipped quietly out of bed and drew on her robe and walked to the window, gazing out over the street far below. The city was waking and starting to stir. That meant that people would be going to work. That industry would rise in its natural rhythm and life would go on as usual, even despite the war and the rubble and ruin. And Riley would rise and ready himself to go back to the front today. He was leading men to the eastern front to engage the Russians, who were proving difficult to defeat given their great numbers and the difficulty of traversing the cruel winter terrain. She knew he must be frightened. She was frightened for him. And she would miss him. She would be alone.
She headed to the kitchen to make him breakfast. It was another measure of comfort she could give him and that he would accept. While she poured water from the tap into the teakettle another thought struck her. She set the kettle on the stove and fetched a pad of paper and a pen and began composing a letter. To Wilma.
Things were all abuzz at The People's Press office. Willow glided in quietly and found her desk. There was a stack of copy there for her to proofread, but she let it sit there a moment. She looked up to where Mr. Gruber was, in his office pacing back and forth, visible through the window. He was talking on the telephone. The men of the newsroom were busy at typewriters or on phones. Willow moved past them to the pressroom, just as she had every morning since coming to work here. The typesetters were a friendly lot. They liked having a pretty girl in the newsroom--especially one who seemed to take an interest in what they were doing. They teased her gently and she went about her business scanning the galleys for anything interesting. She knew she could always wait until the paper came out. But she was drawn to the information. She had a compulsion to know the latest news--any scrap that might give her encouragement or be useful in some way.
There was a lot of hateful bullshit to wade through. But whenever she felt her face redden, she'd remind herself again that she was someone new. Today much of the news was a recasting of the "progress" on the eastern Front. She knew the truth of the situation must be truly awful because it sounded bad enough even in its sanitized presentation here. She looked at the casualty counts and felt sickened. Was all of this so worth the cost, really? She glanced at the jovial men setting type. They joked and chuckled and went about their work as if the world hadn't come unglued. When many of their neighbors had disappeared, their businesses burned, their possessions stolen by the government, or even by their neighbors. When many of their brothers had marched off to fight and die. And when what it took for them to still feel good about themselves was to believe in the words that appeared on the sheets of newsprint issued from this office everyday--or the words on the radio. All that stood between them and self-loathing, shame and fear were words.
She gave a little wave to the boys and headed back to her desk. She turned her mind off as she went about her work proofing copy. She was good at grammar and could diagram any sentence, finding comfort in the almost-mathematical rules of language.
It was almost noon before Gruber came out of his office and greeted her. The expression on his face made her think that perhaps she wasn't the only one saddened by the drubbing the Germans were taking at the hands of the Russians. "These are trying times, indeed," was all he would say, though, running a hand through his silver hair. He was a consummate wordsmith, of course, but his eyes were at odds with his understatements. She nodded gravely in return. He smiled in fatherly fashion at her. "Ah, yes, you know what I mean," he said. "You always do."
With that he handed her an envelope. "I wonder if this might be from an admirer?" he asked casually, perhaps trying to lighten the mood a bit. Willow was confused. Was it something from Xander or Buffy--or Jenny? And if so, it couldn't be good news, because why, if it were good news, would they try to so desperately reach her, right?
Gruber saw her trepidation as she took the letter from him. He chuckled. "Come on, it can't be so bad as that, Miss Hermann. After all, the letter is perfumed."
Willow was startled and confused, not only at the fact of a perfumed letter addressed to Wilma Hermann, but also at the knowledge that Mr. Gruber was not above sniffing the morning mail.
It took another 15 minutes to get Gruber to go back to his office and stay there so that Willow had some privacy with which to open the envelope in peace. He'd already popped out twice with silly grammar questions for her to answer, as if she were the newspaper's schoolmarm. She was fairly certain he was toying with her. She guessed that was good. Meant he liked her enough, anyway, that she didn't have to worry about keeping her job. She patiently shooed him away one last time with the flick of her wrist, and she could see a crease of smile on his face. She hated that he was making a big production out of something that, well, might just be worthy of a big production.
Finally, with shaking hands she opened the envelope and slipped out a single sheet of paper. The handwriting was unfamiliar.
It took a moment to register, and then she realized the letter was from Joyce, Buffy's mom. She scanned it quickly, heat rising up in her cheeks as she did so. She wasn't expecting this. Well, maybe she was, but not the news coming to her in this way.
"I sincerely hope things are going well for you with your new job. I'm glad to know it has so much promise for someone as bright and talented as you. I'm sure you'll do very well there, as you seem to do well in everything you put your mind to. I hope the job affords you a bit of independence, perhaps even the ability to rent an apartment. I think that's why you'll understand the request I'm going to make of you. And I surely hope you will understand that this has nothing to do with how dear you are to me, or to my daughters. It's just that I feel as a mother that I need to look out for their well-being first and foremost, and so it would be best if you found some other place to stay. I hope you will be happy, and I'll be eager to hear news from Buffy about how you're faring. Joyce."
Willow craned to see around her desk. She noticed that the letter had come with a suitcase.
Spike lit a cigarette and stretched his legs. From this comfy spot he was merely a watcher as Caleb did all the talking. In fact, Caleb could do the whole thing. The whole good cop-bad cop routine. Spike was really superfluous to this task. Caleb liked "interviewing" neighbors. The detectives were enjoying the afternoon sunlight in Mrs. Eberhardt's parlour as Caleb presented first the one snapshot and then the other for the old lady's inspection. She had politely told them that there were so many people coming and going from that rented room that she never had learned everybody's names.
"This is very serious business, Mrs. Eberhardt. They have committed grave sins against the state. We're asking good citizens to step forward and aid us in their quick apprehension," Caleb said with such solemnity that you'd have thought the girls in question were murderers.
"Goodness, what have those people done?" Mrs. E asked, her mouth slightly agape.
Caleb chuckled softly. It was a perfunctory and mirthless sound as if he were reciting from a worn out playbook. "I really can't tell you. That's state business. But suffice to say you're considerably safer with that bad element gone from your building. I can only hope that these two women do not try to come back here. It would be dangerous for you if they did. These women are dangerous."
That last bit was a damn lie, of course. If those two girls in the photos were capable of violence he would be shocked. He'd never met a woman yet who had resisted arrest. A few ran. They were easily dispatched with a handgun. But there was never fisticuffs. The ladies never wore weapons, though you'd think these days it might not be such a bad idea.
Caleb looked Mrs. Eberhardt hard in the eyes. He held up one photo. "Willow?" and then the other: "Jenny?"
Mrs. E pursed her lips and practically trembled. That meant she definitely knew these girls. Liked them, even. Caleb just about had her. He reversed the order of the photos. "Jenny? Willow? If you know, Mrs. Eberhardt you have to tell me. Failure to cooperate is a crime against the government during wartime. And I assure you these two fugitives are not worth getting yourself arrested."
Spike could see the self-loathing as the old woman caved in. With a slight head nod to the left she said, "That one's Willow, the redhead."
Here a few hours later it was after quitting time and Spike sat in the tightly-packed trolly as it made its way across town. He'd picked up the evening paper, The People's Press, and was trying to read despite the poor light and the jostling. A heavy-set woman knocked into him at one stop and interrupted his reading. In frustration he folded the newspaper under his arm to read later. Instead he scanned the heads of the folks ahead of him. That's when he noticed a girl with red hair sitting a few rows up and to the right.
Of course, now that he knew one of his fugitives was a redhead he'd suddenly start spotting a million of them everywhere, probably. This girl was a tantalizing specimen because he couldn't see her face. From behind she seemed small and slim. He could just catch the slightest curve of pale cheek. Certainly not enough to compare to the snapshot he carried in his pocket. Besides, he was off-duty, right?
Still, what the woman had said had stuck with him. This Willow was a redhead. Made chances of finding her a lot easier. But there was a twinge of trepidation as well. Could he be on the tail of Buffy's friend "Red"? He sure as hell hoped not. And yet he was curious to know things about Buffy's life--to know who she was close to, what she liked to do, where she liked to hang out--even what she was studying at university. He found himself wanting to know her friends, to see the people who'd won the heart and loyalty of Buffy, when clearly he himself hadn't. Maybe he'd find he wasn't so unlike them, after all.
He couldn't say exactly why, but when "Red's" turn to get off the trolly came, Spike purposely ignored his professional impulse to follow. No. Not this time. The red-headed thing: That was an advantage to him. He knew he would find his frauline Willow in time. But if she truly were Buffy's friend, then he owed her a break. Just one. He wasn't completely evil. As the car started again, he watched the red-headed girl walk away from him, a suitcase in hand, looking like she didn't have a friend in all the world.
Willow kept her head down, walking quickly and hating the awkward weight of the suitcase. It would have been better if she'd had two. Then she could have balanced one in each hand. She could have gotten a better and more efficient rhythm going in her step. But it seemed over time she traveled lighter and lighter. It had been a long time since she had enough possessions to require two suitcases. So, yes, she was down to the one. And stuck walking like a peg-leg.
Down the street a bit she passed an open-air market. This was not her neighborhood. She wasn't very familiar with this part of town, but she slowed down. And then Xander was magically there beside her, matching her stride.
"Hey there, beautiful," he smiled. His very presence made her finally want to let her guard down and cry. He took the suitcase from her hand, and at last she could walk straight. He took her hand in his and squeezed reassuringly.
"If it's any consolation to you, and it's probably not, Buffy feels really bad about this," Xander said. "Joyce didn't even tell her about it. I did. After you called me."
Willow let the words wash over her. She didn't care. She had more pragmatic issues on her mind. "I should find Jenny. Maybe she's found another place to stay."
Xander shook his head emphatically. "Buffy says no way. It's not safe. Jenny's staying with Giles, and she's scared of the heat. Buffy's trying to get them visas to England." He paused. "She can get one for you, too."
Willow stopped and looked up at him warily. "Is that what you want? You want me to just pick up and go to England?"
Xander let out an exasperated sigh. "Willow, what is there here for you? Why stay?"
Now the tears threatened to come again. How could she explain to him that this was her home, the place where she'd grown up. The place where her parents died five years ago during what the Nazis called Crystal Nacht, but was basically Aryans rioting in the streets, destroying Jewish businesses and killing their neighbors. She thought again of that spooky Dr. Ehrhart she'd run into at the Opera house the night of the air raid. He'd been her father's business partner, and she suspected to this day he was the reason her father was dead. Jackals and opportunists and cowards. She wanted revenge. She wanted to spite them. For the past five years her complete identity had built around disobedience. She'd transformed into someone entirely different from the girl who hid under the dining room table as neighbors bashed in the windows of her house and dragged her parents away.
Fear was no longer enough pull to get her to go. She wanted to beat these bastards. She wanted to win. She did not want to give up everything. Xander and Buffy were all the family she really had. And she believed too much in her own skills at hacking the Nazi system to really believe the Big Bad would get her. She'd evaded it so long now, it was just part of her life, nothing extraordinary.
Xander saw he was making no headway. "I love you, Willow. I want to know you'll be okay. That's more important than anything else."
She knew he meant it, and he was being sweet. "I know. I'm just not ready to go is all, you know?"
With that, they fell into step again, side by side. "I knew you'd say that," he smiled. "That's why I've already been working on Plan B."
Willow wondered what the hell they were doing in such a nice building, climbing floor after floor of a grand circular staircase up and up. She was glad he was the one carrying the suitcase. At last they hit the fifth floor landing, and Xander led her down the hall to a dark and heavy wooden door. He knocked. They stood staring at each other, trying to catch their breath and straining to hear whether anyone was home.
"Where are we?" Willow whispered. Until now she'd let Xander lead her. Now they were both waiting awkwardly in a strange hallway. They could half make out voices through the door--a man and a woman, And they were clearly arguing about something.
"We should go," Willow said, hurriedly.
Xander looked uncomfortable and nodded. "Maybe this wasn't such as good idea."
But then the door swung open suddenly, stopping them both like deer in headlights. A young disheveled woman clutching the throat of her bathrobe was at the door. "Yes?" she impatiently asked. It took Willow a moment to realize this was Tara.
"Who's there?" came the man's voice. That would be Riley. The same nice, dull Riley from last night? Willow had never pegged them for the Bickersons.
"Xa- Xander?" Tara asked, and Willow almost rolled her eyes. Great. The boy had gotten himself wrapped up in a Nazi love triangle. "Why are you here?" Tara asked, impatience winning out over politeness. They were clearly interrupting something.
Willow tugged at Xander's sleeve. "We should go," she implored. But Xander wouldn't budge.
Tara finally saw Willow there. Her face registered surprise. "W- Wilma?" She glanced from one to the other. "What are you doing here? Please, come in."
Xander nudged Willow. "See? I knew I should bring you along."
Inside the door, all three of them were bathed in light from the overhead lamp in the apartment's entryway. Willow could see that Tara had been--what? Crying, maybe? She looked flustered. Tara could see that Xander was carrying a suitcase. The fluster became confusion.
Then Riley was there, hastily buckling the belt of his uniform and tucking in his shirt. He looked red-cheeked as well.
"My, my. Company." He commented dryly. There was none of the boyish civility of the night before.
"We should go," Willow said for what felt like the tenth time.
Tara and Xander both grabbed for her arms. "No," they said in unison.
"Where's Willow?" Buffy swung into the booth across the table from Xander. Her concern was plain. She pulled off her gloves and scarf and ran a hand through her blond hair, which hung loose to her shoulders. Xander had prepared a little thing to say.
Buffy nodded. "That's good. Safe is definitely good." She paused as if waiting for him to say more. When he didn't her eyebrows shot up. "What? Nothing else?"
Xander nodded. "She's in a safe place, Buffy. She's getting--settled."
"God, I feel so rotten. I can't believe my mom would do something like that without even talking to me first." The house wouldn't seem the same when she went home tonight. "I mean it's Willow. Not some stranger. She's--she's family. I'd do anything for her."
"She's Wilma," Xander said. "And, you know she'd do anything for you, too. It has nothing to do with how any of us feel about each other. There's Dawn. And your mom to think about."
Buffy waved Helmut for a cup of coffee. "What, You think I don't know that?"
"Of course you do. But this is about us. We got into this. Not them."
Helmut was there with a white cup, pouring the black gold for Buffy, who shook her head deep in thought. "But this is also about Willow. Why isn't she here? She must think she's been totally dumped."
Helmut walked back to the bar contemplating the complexities of young love. It was clear the redhead had lost out this time. He smiled. Willow was a pretty name.
Giles turned the key, and the door to his apartment opened to darkness. His heightened senses could detect nothing. He looked down the hall. No one else was about. He shifted the weight of the grocery sack in his arms and ducked inside, pulling the door closed behind him.
With a click, a floor lamp switched on, illuminating Jenny under a cone of soft amber light. She retracted her hand from the switch and remained motionless on the couch, seated upright, like a still-life. It was a little unnerving. Giles realized she must have sat that way in the dark for hours now, since it would have been dusk at about 4 p.m.
"I've brought us a few things. The kitchen was a little lacking," he apologized softly.
Jenny stretched. "It's okay Rupert. Quiet place you have here. The sort of thing you don't notice. Until you have hours of silence to think about it." To Jenny, it had actually felt claustrophobic, coffinlike, completely absent of any outside stimulus. She would have welcomed Allied bombing, Anything but the darkness. It felt as if she were waiting for death.
Giles came and sat beside her on the couch and she reached out a hand, touching his knee reassuringly. He was there and warm and real. He drew her into an embrace that told her she was loved. She allowed herself to sink into it and felt tears melt their way up to the surface. He ran fingers through her hair, feeling that if only he could hold her tight enough it would be all right, that nothing bad could happen to them if only he could squeeze her tight enough. She clung back as if for the last time. It wasn't lost on her that any time could be the last time. She was old enough to not allow herself the luxury of naivete: the kind of blind optimism Willow seemed to have in bucketloads, and Xander and Buffy, too. Giles worshipped them like they were his children. And he was their helpless father who could do nothing for them but pray they had the smarts and luck to stay safe.
No, Jenny didn't have that optimism. All she had was love for this frumpy, fatherly professor who could have returned to England years ago except he loved her more than his own well-being. She worried that had been an incredible mistake. Of course, back then nobody knew how bad this Big Bad would become. Things like this are always clearer in hindsight.
Spike sat alone in his apartment, a single light bulb illuminating his armchair. He'd finished the evening paper, cheered to hear that the government thought the war on the Russian Front would be over soon. More reinforcements were on their way at this very moment. More young men to feed the appetite of pure evil. He took a drag on his cigarette and pulled out the two photos he'd been carrying all day in his pocket. He gazed at them for what must have been the hundredth time. The dark one, Jenny, was a lovely woman. Hard to think of her as a criminal or degenerate. There was a bit of a hard edge to her, a knowing. He liked that in his women. They didn't have to be pure as driven snow, though snow wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He gazed at the photo of Willow. That one had a doe-eyed innocence that a Jew girl didn't deserve to have, not this many years into a wholesale ethnic cleansing campaign. She even had a bit of a sense of humor to her smile. A real sweetie, he bet. She'd cry like a schoolgirl when he caught her. He wondered what her most desperate cries might sound like. It gave him warm tinglies.
From the way the snapshots fit together, he figured they were taken the same afternoon, somewhere near a lake, maybe. There was tall grass in the background. Part of being a detective was being able to piece together people's stories. Spike prided himself on taking the time to appreciate the subtleties of human motivation and behavior. He found people inherently interesting. It was his line of work. He was the outsider, an observer, a watcher.
That's where he and Caleb clashed. Their styles couldn't be more different. For example, while Spike was here in his cozy apartment thinking about the hearts of pretty ladies, Caleb was most certainly still out on the street, stalking in his own cruel way. He had that righteous intimidation that all zealots think is their birthright.
The door to the apartment had closed behind Xander, and the silence hit them as Tara and Willow turned to face each other. They could barely meet each other's eyes. But then Willow didn't want to seem to be staring at Tara's bathrobe either. It was a nice robe, soft and of light material, like it was made to go over some lovely nightgown. It had been a long time since Willow had seen such a thing. Her mother had had some nice pajamas. Willow herself had only the slip she wore under her dress.
"Uh, Xander was a little out of line. You don't really have to take me in. I have my own income and I'm sure I could find a perfectly nice place to stay. I just haven't had a chance yet. I only just today learned that I wouldn't be able to stay with our friend Buffy's family while I took time to look for a new place. That hit me as a bit of a surprise, I have to say, or, more exactly, like a kick to the gut, but I'm really not looking for a hand-out. I don't want to bother you. You-you have your own place. Your own routine, and I bet if you wanted someone staying with you, you already would have had a roommate. So I understand. Really I do." Willow looked around helplessly. "But maybe I could stay here, um, tonight? I mean it's pretty late, and I'm really sorry to inconvenience you. Xander didn't tell me what he was up--or where he was taking me. I- I think I'm as surprised and confused as you are. Uh, and it's late and all. I mean if it's an inconvenience, I could probably find a place to sleep at the newspaper office. I think there's even a shower there. And they keep coffee there. And I think Gruber also has some scotch, which I've got to say sounds pretty darn good right now. Al-Although I don't want you thinking I'm a total lush, what with the champagne and now the bit about the scotch. Of course it's not like anybody could really blame a person these days for wanting to blot out reality. Though I'm not a blotter…or blotto. No, definitely not blotto. Except the other night and that's because I'm a lightweight. And, speaking of the other night, I, uh, didn't do or say anything inappropriate, did I?"
Why did Tara keep looking at her that way? Why didn't she say something to stop her? To stop this stream of words that kept tumbling out in a nervous cascade. This was all too unnerving. To break the tension, Willow turned and strode over to the couch to fetch her suitcase. "I'd better go." She grabbed her overcoat and scarf.
Tara finally spoke. "My brother's room is right down the hall. You could stay there," she said.
"For tonight," Willow said, nodding. "I'll clear out in the morning. You'll hardly know I'm here."
Tara sighed. "You can stay," she said, simply. It had been a hard day and she just wasn't capable of much more energy, but it was true: She wanted Willow to stay, and not just for one night. "I've been lo- lonely. It would be nice to have someone to- to talk to."
Tara felt herself warm as the nervousness left Willow's face, replaced by about the most beautiful and open smile she believed humanly possible. The relief was palpably rolling off Willow in waves. And in its emotional deluge there was also some excitement. Tara let it swirl around her in eddies and felt herself buoyed.
"And I h- have scotch, too," Tara said shyly. "So you don't need to go all the way back to the newspaper office to have some." She paused. "Unless you want to."
She took Willow's coat and hat. "Sounds like we've both had a hard day. Let me get you a glass."
Willow wordlessly followed Tara down the hall. They passed the first bedroom with its rumpled bedclothes thrown wide and pillows strewn on the floor as if Riley and Tara had had a real tussle in there. The sight gave Willow a weird thought that maybe the impassioned yelling hadn't so much been yelling at all as something, well, more passionate. It gave Willow a strange blow low in her belly to think of it. She averted her gaze to Tara's back and followed her down to the next room. This one was a bit larger. The bed was neatly made with a dark red coverlet taut across it. The bureau was tall and held simple man-things: a shaving kit, a small beveled mirror in an adjustable frame, a family photo of a much younger Tara and a boy she presumed was the brother laughing and holding a golden retriever. God, even the dog looked Aryan. Tara opened the top two drawers and pulled out her brother's things, making room for Willow's.
"You- you don't think he'll mind, you know, some stranger staying here?" she asked in a voice that sounded small and uncertain even to her own ears.
Tara gave her an impassive look and then softened. "He's been out on the Front a long time. Got a letter from him last week. I don't think he'll be back any time soon. She pulled back the covers from the bed and fluffed up the pillows. "Besides, it would probably give him a charge to think that a pretty girl was sleeping in his bed while he's gone."
"You know, if it makes him happier with the arrangement, I can sleep naked," Willow said and then mentally kicked herself.
Tara giggled and grabbed Willow's hand, leading her back to the parlour and seating her on the couch. "Just a minute," she said, making it clear Willow was to go nowhere. So she stayed put. Tara returned shortly with a bottle of scotch and two glasses. She set them down on a small table, poured them both a generous drink. Willow really wanted that drink.
Their fingers brushed as Tara handed her the glass, and Willow's heart jolted just like it had the night before when in the space of a few casual touches, she somehow had managed to memorize the entirety of Tara's hand. She looked up to find Tara gazing back at her funny. Had she felt that, too? The other woman smiled and tipped back her head, blond hair falling down her back as she swallowed the liquor. She set the empty glass on the table. Her eyes encouraged Willow to follow.
Willow held her glass a moment longer, letting the scotch swirl around, coating the sides a bit. She was afraid to meet Tara's gaze. With a breath, she put the glass to her lips, tilted back and let the scotch slide down, hot, warming Willow's body from chest to extremities in the fraction of a second it took the aftertaste of the liquor to reach her tongue. She felt a sensual wave engulf her as she steadied the glass on the tabletop. Tara was watching her, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, and Willow realized she knew exactly what Tara's mouth would taste like. And wanted to know what that mouth would feel like against her liquor-fired tongue.
Wow. Usually when Willow drank, she found herself loose-lipped, but not like this, as in literally wanting to loosen her lips. Her mouth slackened. Tara said nothing, just smiled and lifted an eyebrow in a silent invitation for another shot. Willow felt herself nodding, wanting nothing more than to sink further into this warm oblivion where the only sound was the ticking grandfather clock and Willow's own breathing and the pounding of blood in her ears. She leaned back into the pillows of the couch and watched Tara pour. Her gaze flicked over the crescent of pale skin visible at the throat of Tara's robe, which had fallen open slightly since she'd stopped clutching it closed. That same otherworldly smoothness of her skin caught the light and shimmered like it had last night. And suddenly Tara was every bit the goddess Willow had seen at their first meeting.
The second shot of scotch went straight to Willow's thighs, which felt rubbery and tingly. She wasn't sure she could walk. She was sure she didn't want to. Those deep-ocean eyes regarded her, half-lidded, from where Tara was curled on the opposite couch. The physical distance felt like nothing, like a sigh. Willow was sure her mouth was unable to form words, which is really saying something.
At last Tara stood and extended her hand to Willow, who rested a moment longer before gently taking it in hers, testing the warmth and fit of it. She rose wordlessly to her feet and followed Tara down the hallway, past the first bedroom. Again, the strewn sheets and pillows, again the flutter low in Willow's belly, this time accompanied by a mental image of Tara semi-naked lying there, and Willow was standing in Riley's place. Or was it Willow who was naked and Tara gazing down at her? The flutter was followed by a kick. Wow. Down girl. She tore her gaze away from the dirty linens and found Tara looking back at her. Willow didn't know Tara enough to read her expression, but one might have described it as curious. At the second doorway, Tara stopped. The lights were off.
"Uh, guess this is where I get off," Willow joked, and then realized she was only half-joking and cleared her throat. Her entire body was tingling. She'd never exactly felt this way before--at least not from wanting another woman. Or anyone else, truth be told. She wanted to pull Tara into an embrace, to learn her scent, to chart not only the shape of her hand but also the rest of her, to physically join. But they were strangers. Strangers throwing some sparks, But strangers, still.
Even in the darkness, Willow could see the pink flush across Tara's cheeks. They stood close, connected by hand. As if she only just noticed that fact, Tara let go, and Willow felt something she hadn't noticed earlier as her hand slipped down Tara's fingertips.
"A ring?" Willow heard herself say. Tara hadn't been wearing one when they'd met.
Tara's expression changed, as if she'd only just remembered it herself. "Oh," she said. "We got engaged last night."
"Oh," Willow replied, trying to keep the strangeness out of her voice. "Congratulations." It was what you say to little announcements like that. Even confusing announcements like that one. Willow turned to her new room. "A big day," she said, nodding. "And more tomorrow."
It was a weird good-night, but it was the best she could manage. Her feelings clashed with all the messiness and jumble of the eastern Front.
"Wilma, good night."
Another jolt, and not in a good way. Willow turned and slipped through the doorway. And as she slipped out of her clothes and in between cold sheets that smelled like Tara's brother, Willow realized that this, too, was a place that could never be home to her. She rolled onto her side, missing Buffy and Dawn's warmth--and the warmth of Jenny from before that. Tonight, she lay in the cold bed of a stranger, in a room with unfamiliar shadows and unfamiliar things, nursing an unfamiliar arousal for a woman she'd only just met and who didn't even know Willow's name. And then there was a little surprise of jealousy she knew she had no right to feel. As always, she was a day late, a dollar short and a pound too Jewish. The warmth of the liquor was long gone.
Tara retreated to her room, leaving the lights off. She picked up the pillows and threw them on the bed, dropped the robe from her shoulders and climbed in naked, dragging the covers up over her. Her body was on fire. All she'd wanted all day today was sex. She ached for want of passionate consummation. But Riley had resisted. She couldn't understand why, after he'd given her his ring. Was he that much of a prude? She'd neglected to get dressed all day. She'd let the fabric of her robe fall open for him, but he wouldn't move. So driven by the fuel of all the frustration that had built up inside her so long made her bold. She took his hand and brought it to the warmth of her breast. He'd moaned, his eyes registering want and pain. He even kneaded the tender flesh there, and then he withdrew with a simple, "Tara, I can't right now. The time isn't right. I've got to go. I love you, but I can't do this right now."
Was it that he believed in waiting until marriage? If so, he'd never mentioned that before. Was it was the war? Was he scared and sad and needed to steel himself for unspeakable horrors to come and against unspeakable horrors past? A long scar across his forehead and cheek only barely hinted at the things young Riley Finn had endured in his five years of military service. Or was it weirdness from his childhood before that? There were so many experiences that shaped a person. But what kind of thing had he been shaped into?
Tara wanted to be his anchor, but it was hard, because she wasn't an inanimate thing or a marble statue or whatever else he needed her to be. What the hell was wrong? The longer she thought about it, the more angry and agitated she became. Her face had flushed red with humiliation, and she'd taken his hand again, and this time placed it lower on her belly, letting the robe drop to the floor. His eyes darkened, and at last he pulled her to him, dragging her down on the bed, kissing her and running warm hands along her back, along her thighs. His breath warmed her throat. And for a while, they kissed and took turns leading, first she pinning him beneath her, her hands working at his clothing, wanting to feel skin. But he would eventually still her hands and roll her over, biting at her neck, kissing her shoulders, hands running the length of her, and still refusing to meet her eyes.
This infuriating game made her ache and rage. She had implored him verbally to take her with a directness and ferocity she didn't know she was capable of. How hard could this be? But he wouldn't be moved. She'd gotten up and stalked angrily around the apartment.
She had yelled at him, and he at her. She had cried in frustration. And then, just at the height of the insanity, there was the knock upon the door. And then Xander was there, toting a very uncomfortable Wilma Hermann with him. And Riley got off the hook. He donned his uniform, gave her a sweet and sorry kiss, and left.
Lying here in the dark she thought how strange it was that the girl sleeping down the hall from Tara right now had hungrier eyes for her than her own fiancé had. Looking up at the ceiling she thought about that and felt her heart quicken. She thought about the letter in her robe pocket, the one she'd written and meant to send to the newspaper office today but hadn't. It had been a letter inviting Wilma over for tea and a walk to the park. She'd wanted to get to know Wilma better, to see what she looked like in daylight, in everyday settings. She imagined sunlight glinting off red hair and stream-of-consciousness soliloquies and that animated energy that Tara had seen last night. To Tara, here in winter in wartime, there was no one who seemed to be more alive.
And then, tonight, as if answering a prayer, Xander had delivered Wilma to her. To stay.