Tara let the curtain drop and turned back to Willow, a confused and concerned look on her face. "Two cars," she reported.
Willow was wriggling into one of the pairs of pants Tara had left folded on the chair beside the bed. "Tara, get away from the window." Her voice was irrationally anxious. Guns, windows, her beloved. No, no, no.
Willow's alarm set Tara in motion. She reached for the other pair of pants while Willow struggled into the sweater and then wrestled with her shoes. The dogs barked like wild and there was a loud thump of a car door slamming. The sound made both of them jump.
"I have to get Beth and the boys," Tara whispered, her gaze saying she didn't want to leave Willow's side.
Willow nodded, her eyes like saucers. "I need to get Anya out of here, too."
"Meet me out at the barn if you can," Tara said over her shoulder as she pulled her sweater down and dashed out the bedroom door and down the hall. If you can. Tara regretted the sound of that.
Willow watched her disappear into the darkness, her heart pounding. And then she dashed out the door and down the hall the other way, toward Anya's room. She didn't knock-just swung the door wide. "Anya," she called out. The woman was already dressed and in a dark form-fitting coat. A dark stocking cap was pulled down over her head. She totally expected this.
"I was sleeping in my clothes," Anya shrugged. "You just never know."
"Anya, I need to tell you some things about Ravensbruck," Willow started blurting. "This is very important: There's a doctor there, Margaret Walsh. I think she's doing medical experiments-or- or torturing women. Her hospital is empty. And- And there's a head guard who's known as ‘the stomping mare.' She kills babies. An- and there's a crematorium. They're burning bodies and dumping truckloads of ashes into the lake....And-you have the rolls of film, right? You have everything?"
There was so much more she wanted to describe. She didn't even know where her reporter notepad was. This would have to do. If the fates allowed, she'd see Anya again and could elaborate.
Anya nodded impatiently, swung her bag over her shoulder and clapped Willow on the shoulder. "I have everything. I hope you don't die."
"Same here," Willow said, pressing one last thing into Anya's hand: the handgun Gruber had given her back before she'd left on this assignment. Anya's eyes grew wide. "You should keep it," she hissed. "It's your ass that's on the line."
"My ass won't be worth shit if you don't get out of here and complete the job. Ok? Just take it."
"Fine. Take my killing thing, then," Anya groused, handing Willow a deadly-looking military knife she'd stowed in her bag. Willow looked at it as if it were an incomprehensible thing, but accepted it.
And with that, the Russian swung down the stairs, tight on the heels of Beth and the boys who were being herded by Tara. Willow stood at the top of the hall watching them retreat and feeling sick to her stomach with the knowledge that she was the reason danger was descending upon the household.
Buffy and Xander had sprung to action the moment the headlights had swept across the front window. Two cars. The Preacher and Spike had back-up. Or they'd sent goons. Buffy had been worried this type of trouble might follow her friends here. She dashed to the kitchen and came back carrying a rifle she'd stowed there. By then Xander had fumbled through his things and come up with his Walther P38 service pistol. They dropped to their knees, Xander holding Buffy's hand to keep them focused. Behind them, Tara was ushering her family out the back door.
"Stay low," Buffy called over her shoulder to them.
Xander drew her attention back to the danger at hand. "I'll cover the front. You take the back," he said. "Anybody comes near the house, stop them." He pocketed three more clips of bullets and then crawled up to the window, careful to stay down and out of sight.
Buffy looked uncertainly at the rifle and nodded. "There's a barn in the back. Tara and I stowed a truck back there. The keys are in it. I'll try to keep ‘em away from there. The plan is to get the truck and get everybody out."
"We can't just go out there. The first sign of trouble and they'll radio for more backup," Xander warned, grateful for his SS training. In a pinch, he could be military guy.
Buffy scowled. "Then we've got to hold up until we can separate them from their cars...I have an idea. Trade me guns," she said.
"At least two guys will have gone around to the back already."
They made a quick exchange and Buffy stuffed the Walther in the waistband of her trousers, pulled her sweater down over it.
"Cover the others," she hissed.
Xander gave her a quick smile. She looked like a boy hero. He crept to the back of the house through the kitchen and let Buffy do her thing.
She rose to her feet and walked to the door. She hesitated only a moment and then tentatively swung the door open and stepped outside, rubbing the back of her hand to her eyes as if she were a scared boy who had been disturbed from sleep. The headlights caught her full in her eyes. The SS men were black silhouettes. She could hear their murmurs. She counted three. There could be five others at least on the prowl somewhere around the house and property.
"Hello?" she called in her best feeble-kid voice. "Who's there?"
Two men approached. She hoped with all her heart that one of them was Spike. She stepped through the doorway and down the porch to meet them. She wanted to keep them away from the house. A few paces from her, they stopped, still in silhouette, perfect outlines of hats and overcoats.
"What's your name, son?" asked one of the men in a voice that was not Spike's.
"Bert," Buffy replied, running a hand nervously through her short hair.
The man stepped closer and facial features seemed to materialize. It was neither Spike nor The Preacher. It was someone new, some random plainclothes man.
"Well, Bert," he said, smiling the grim and official smile that was meant to be reassuring and still communicate don't-fuck-with-me. "We're very sorry to disturb you folks so late at night, but we have reason to believe there is a criminal fugitive in the neighborhood, and we're checking all the houses in the area."
Buffy knew that was bullshit, but she nodded. "Yes, sir," she said, agreeably. "How can I help?"
The man shifted his weight and leaned his face closer. "We're looking for a woman named Willow Rosenberg. She may also be traveling under the name Wilma Hermann, a reporter from The People's Press."
"Uh, that's the newspaper, right?" Buffy drawled, trying to draw things out to allow her friends time to think through their exit strategies. As for her own, she'd have to improvise.
Willow crouched upstairs surveying the situation from one of the front windows. There were the two cars, headlights blazing at the house. Xander's car was well behind the officers'. They'd certainly know that meant she and Xander were here. And then there was Buffy walking out to greet them. What the hell was she doing? Willow was suddenly overwhelmed by an all-consuming need to protect her friend. Two men were approaching her to talk. And two others were back behind each car, guns drawn and pointed.
There was something insanely unnerving about seeing guns trained on someone you love. In a heartbeat or a hiccup Buffy could be dead. How could she possibly talk her way out of this? Unless she intended to play along. In which case, Willow had a number of choices she could make. But only one she'd allow herself to make.
She clutched Anya's knife and rose to go downstairs.
But at that moment she heard a loud gun blast at the back of the house. She and everybody outside all jumped at the sound. The dogs picked up their wild barking again. The two SS men with the pistols drawn dashed around to the back of the house, which left just the two who'd been talking with Buffy.
I'm afraid you'll have to come with us, Bert," the officer was saying even as Buffy's ears still rang with the decay of the single gunshot. One shot. That wasn't good, was it? That meant they hit somebody, right? Her heart pounded with surprise and worry. "It's for your own safety, son," the officer explained, drawing her by the elbow to one of the cars, where he kindly asked her to take the backseat. Otherwise the car was empty.
There was a second gunshot, and the two officers swung back around toward the house. Buffy took the opportunity to lean into the front seat, grab the radio cord and yank it out of the dash. The radio fell silent. She pulled the Walther from her waistband and slid over to the other side of the car, intent on getting to the second radio while the officers were distracted. Second gunshot. Good? Bad? Buffy moved quickly, her legs and arms shaking from adrenaline. She made it to the second car, wrested open the door and yanked out the radio. As she pulled back and turned there was Spike, eyeing her incredulously. Before she could even react, his fist connected with her face. And the black of night went...blacker.
"Stay there," Spike said to the woman he loved who was currently an unconscious heap on the ground. He noticed the pistol. He shot a glance around the scene and found nobody looking. With his toe, he nudged the handgun so that it was hidden under Buffy's body.
Then he turned his attention toward the house and started marching to the front door, his jaw grimly set. There was some very distasteful business that needed to be taken care of.
The house was dark and silent as Willow made her way down the slim staircase, with its creaking stair treads. Everyone was either hidden away indoors or out in the woods by now. The gunshots had scared her, reverberating in her chest and rattling her heart. This was a bad, bad mess. As she rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs, she could see that the headlights from the cars outside illuminated the living room, casting an unnatural glow as they shined through the curtains. She clutched her knife, steeling herself to walk out that front door and give herself up. Perhaps if they had her, they'd let the others go. Xander could plead he didn't know she was a Jew. Maybe they'd overlook Buffy, truly mistaking her for a kid. With her knife, she'd buy Tara time to escape. Her plan was to not go out quietly, but to wreak as much havoc as she could. She was resigned in a way to her fate. She knew the math, the inevitability of numbers, the laws of averages. And she knew that sooner or later her nine lives would be gone. Well, today was the day. She could at least die proud knowing she'd crossed many things off her life's to-do list. She felt warm with satisfaction that Anya would take her photos of Ravensbruck to the Allies, and in so doing perhaps help end the war that much sooner. She owed it to her parents, to Giles and Jenny, to Buffy's friend Faith, to the Schragenheims, to the women in the military transport headed into Ravensbruck yesterday. To the women prisoners who'd looked at her with such anger and hopelessness as she took their picture under the tree. She owed it to Xander and Buffy and Tara and Riley: to do what she could to end this so they could go on to normal lives. She'd bought herself nearly six years. Her life should have ended on Crystal Nacht. Every day after that had been a gift, an added bonus. All 1,800 or more of them.
This was something she could do to make a difference.
There were only so many weapons. Buffy and Xander had guns. She had the knife, and she'd wield it. She'd do her best. And she always was an overachiever. But she had to get out there before her friends fired upon the soldiers and got themselves into even more trouble. She had to buy them a chance.
She crept across the squeaky floorboards, every step filling her further with icy fear. She reached her hand for the doorknob, imagining the white light that would fill her eyes when she swung the thing open. She tucked the knife into the waistband at her back. And then the door swung open almost of its own accord. The silhouette of a man stepped inside. Her heart gave a lurch and she jumped back.
Tara tucked Beth and the boys safely into the small stone well house at the back of their property. It was black in there and smelled like cold, wet earth and decay, and the boys were crying out of fear and anger that one of the soldiers had shot their dog. As Tara moved to close the door, Beth grabbed her by the arm.
"What is going on here?" she hissed.
"Something very, very bad," Tara replied, her voice a frightened waver. "And I'm really sorry. I'm so sorry. But you stay here. They'll find you, I think. But they won't hurt you. Just wait in here as long as you can."
She turned to leave, but Beth clutched at her sleeve even harder. "You'll be back?"
Tara couldn't lie to her. "I don't think so," she whispered.
And with that Beth pulled her into a tight embrace, her voice thick and muffled as they squeezed each other. "Please come back."
"I love you," Tara said, giving Beth a small kiss on the top of her head.
And with that she was off again, running as stealthily as she could toward the barn. She looked to the house as she ran, watching the flashlight beams swing wildly around the place like little searchlights examining the farmhouse. They'd go to the barn, too, she knew, and search the place for their quarry. She wanted to get there first if she could and retrieve the truck.
She'd have an advantage over the soldiers, given that she knew the land and its buildings so well. Her mind raced through an inventory of things she might use as a weapon to defend herself. She'd left Xander with her father's rifle. Considering everything, she was glad she hadn't yet heard it.
He'd be waiting for her to start the motor. That was their whispered plan as they dashed down the back steps. Then he'd use the gun as a diversion, to draw their attention and fire as she pulled out of the barn. All Willow, Buffy and Xander had to do was get to the truck. Which, of course, would be easier said than done. Everything was easier said than done. At most there had been a dozen men packed in those two cars parked out front. As long as four of them swung their flashlight beams around in the backyard, she and Xander at least knew where they were.
The tall, wide-open doors of the barn gaped blackly before her. She glanced over her shoulder and then slipped inside only to find that a fifth flashlight danced like a firefly in the middle of the large open room. She hadn't seen its glow from outside. Ok, she thought to herself, I can handle this. She ducked silently behind a workbench and peered carefully. The soldier was beaming the light up at the ceiling, hoping to cast reflection there that would illuminate the whole room. But the ceiling is high, so the beam only created a faint glow. The man's eyes glittered as he took in the enormity of the room, as if it were a dangerous-or even magical-place. She could tell he was listening, trying to reach out with his senses to find anyone who might be hiding. Well, she decided she was not hiding. In fact, in this case, she was the hunter, and he was right to feel unsettled in here.
He stood between her and her goal: the truck.
As Spike's eyes adjusted to the darkness he was surprised to see...Willow. Her eyes were huge and registered recognition. She remembered him from the diner. They stood motionless a few moments, breathless, then Spike's lip curled and he took off after her. She yelped, turning on heel and dashing around a corner and up the stairs. Spike followed in hot pursuit, his trenchcoat billowing out behind him as he took the steps two at a time. His heart pounded in familiar blood-lust. He always loved it when they ran.
He caught her in the hallway, capturing a fistful of her sweater. She pitched forward and fell heavily with a frightened groan, but rolled quickly and scuttled away. She had the adrenaline-fueled speed that his quarry always seemed to have. The young ones, anyway. Which was no problem. There was nowhere to run.
The little mind-fucker Red ducked into one of the bedrooms, and he followed her easily. She tried to slam the door on him, but he caught it and shoved it open again. She was just a little bit of a thing. He could overpower her. He could snap her neck with one hand. She stared at him with fear and what? Anger? He couldn't help but chuckle. She was adorable.
"What?" she demanded, clearly not seeing what was funny.
"Well, well. At last we properly meet. Heard so much about you. I've thought so much about you. I'd kind of like to shake your hand, pet. Maybe sniff it a little?" Spike purred. He should just shoot her now. Do the humane thing. Like he had with Jenny. He wondered if there was any liquor in this place. What else could he do to make her comfortable?
She looked at him in disgust like he was a pervert or something, which was actually kind of funny, considering. Pot calling kettle black and all. He still carried her panties in his coat pocket. Maybe he always would. He rubbed them in his hand now as he thought about it.
She was just a little thing, so young and pretty, and he was struck again by the innocence that was undeniably there but didn't deserve to be, considering her myriad of deceptions. This one wasn't hardened like Jenny. She didn't have that air of resignation about her. Her eyes were so wide he thought he could see all the way into her soul. His heart ached for this one. He thought perhaps he could see a bit why the Nazi Captain's fiancé had fallen for her. And why Buffy and Xander and pulled together to protect her. And why Spike himself had even given her second chances.
And then she said the most amazingly brazen thing: "Let me go. I don't want to hurt you."
Spike threw his head back and laughed at the sheer audacity. "You don't want to hurt me? What you got, love? A mean left hook?" Hell, maybe she did. She was a surprising one, that little Red.
"I mean it," she growled. "I- I know you're important to Buffy. And- and you've helped me before. I'm really very grateful for that. So please. I need to go help my friends. Just let me do that."
He eyed her seriously. "They'll shoot you dead the minute you walk out that front door."
"I don't care," she said, but he could tell that wasn't true. Her eyes spoke volumes, and she was shaking. How had such a rotten liar managed to snow so many people?
"My name is Willow," she corrected, hotly.
"Willow. I can't save you. I'm not here to save you. But I can make it easier for you. You don't want to go out there and be shot to pieces in front of your friends. How do you think they'd take that? Buffy and Xander and your girl Tara?"
Willow stood still, wavering just a bit. She loved them dearly. A single tear dropped heavily, glittering in the glow from the headlight beams outside. She said nothing.
"The faster we do this, the faster my men stop terrorizing your friends. I give you my word I'll make it quick. I'm a professional." In the back of his mind he hated his own lie. Her death wouldn't stop the men from rounding up the others. She probably knew it, too. But he was offering her an easy out in the most gentle way he possibly could.
"So how do you propose to do it?" Willow asked, an air of almost scholarly curiosity in the question.
"How?" he repeated, dumbstruck.
"Well, yes, if you're going to make it easier, then I'm wondering what my options are."
His instincts told him to shoot her right then and there and be done with it. But she was Buffy's friend, and he'd never be able to look his girl in the eye again if he did this wrong.
"I was thinking I'd just shoot you," he said, realizing how silly that sounded.
She laughed at him. "Shoot me? Well, that's a shocker."
"No," he sighed. "I was going to make it all humane, you see."
"What. Like a blindfold and cigarette?"
Spike looked at her earnestly. "I do have a cigarette, if you'd like one," he said.
"No," she replied, then thought better of it. "Oh, what the heck. I'll take one if you have it."
From his pockets he drew out a pack of cigarettes and his silver lighter and held them up for her to see, inwardly smiling at the word "heck." She walked toward him, her pretty green eyes locked on his, searching for some flicker of betrayal or disingenuousness. If she drew close enough perhaps he'd just break her neck. He'd hold her and shush her until she died.
But he was broken out of this little reverie by the glint of steel as she wielded a fairly serious-looking knife at his throat. He dropped the smokes and grabbed her wrist, the knife just nicking his arm as he twisted the thing out of her hands. It clattered heavily to the ground and he kicked it away. She was panting and cursing as he pulled her to him, one arm wrapped firmly around her belly, the other across her shoulders to pin her arms. She struggled against him, trying to lash and kick, and he felt a little bit bad about how much he enjoyed it. He breathed hotly against her neck, reveling in the smell of her hair, that luscious hint of sweat and sex. And every twist and struggle filled him with bodily knowledge of her. Buffy would kill him. But it was kind of nice, actually. And Buffy didn't have to know everything.
"So you want to fuck this one, too?"
Spike stiffened at the sound of Caleb's voice coming from the doorway. He noticed Red had stiffened, too, her breath coming now in shallow gasps. Ah, yes, she was much more scared of The Preacher than of Spike. And for good reason. Spike felt a cold ball of dread settle in his stomach knowing that Red's chances were zero now. His own weren't much better.
"Well, I thought I might, actually. Fuck her, that is. Want some?"
Caleb chuckled that dry, humorless laugh of his and stepped closer. He was holding Red's knife. He ran a finger along the blade and then licked the blood off his red fingertip, watching the pair of them as he did it. "Is that her blood, William? Or yours?"
"Dunno. You're the one taste-testing. Now do you want to fuck her or not? Because I am." Willow wriggled helplessly in his arms as if she were a bunny, and her heart beat nearly as fast. He was sorry she had to hear this stupid charade he and Caleb were playing. She probably believed he intended to rape her. Not that the thought of fucking a pretty little dyke like her wasn't a compelling one. He ran a hand up under her sweater, inadvertently brushing his palm along the smoothness of her breast. She sucked in a quick breath in shock. Could she possibly like this? Maybe even a little bit? His cheeks grew hot at the thought.
Caleb stepped forward. Spike had him intrigued. He felt Willow's body quiver and her breathing quicken. She struggled to no avail. Spike held her firm as the asshole gently lifted Willow's chin so that she was looking him right in those evil black eyes of his, and then he said, more to Spike than to her, "You like your women fighting, William?" Willow arched her back, squirming and trying to turn away from him. The Preacher held her chin a moment more. "Well, I like mine dead."
With that he ran the blade into deep into Red's belly and withdrew it, just as matter-of-factly as if he were punching his timecard at work. Red was completely shocked, and Spike was, too. For a long few seconds, no one moved or uttered a sound. Then he felt her breaths come in ragged gasps and the room filled with the scent of her blood, which pumped hotly down Spike's arm. Caleb could truly have been a bastard and eviscerated her, but the stab wound would ultimately prove just as deadly. Spike held her until he felt her grow heavy and limp in his arms, and then he dropped her to the floor. Gently.
He looked Caleb in the eye. "Ok. You want to fuck her now?"
Tara adjusted her grip on the pry-bar, her hands measuring the weight of it. She gave it a little swing from her wrist, careful not to knock it against anything. The soldier was only a few feet away from her now and coming her way with his flashlight trained on the ceiling, illuminating the place like a half-hearted torch. He might as well have held up a butane lighter. But, actually, his light was going to help her. She passed the pry-bar to her left hand and picked up a pair of pliers in her right. She watched his eyes sweep first toward her and then away, his head turning with each careful pass. She waited until he was looking away from her, and then flung the pliers as hard as she could. They hit the far wall with a sharp clack, and the soldier spun, taking aim and firing his gun at nothing. She leapt out from behind the workbench and swung the pry-bar hard at the back of his head, silently reciting a prayer for forgiveness. The thing connected with a sound that was softer than she was expecting. What was she expecting? Her heart thudded in her chest as the man dropped and she realized she must have killed him. She watched his flashlight roll away on the floor, its beam reduced to a little sliver of light. She was standing in blackness again.
She hesitated only a moment, then crouched and collected first the flashlight and then the gun. She knew that this gunshot would be like a siren song to his buddies out in the yard. She had to move fast. She covered the distance to the truck in a handful of seconds, the flashlight throwing wild shadows around the place as she ran. She stuffed the gun in her pocket and opened the car door, sliding in and reaching for the key.
Shit. It wasn't there. Had Buffy taken it with her? No, that wasn't the plan. It must have fallen out. Her hands trembling now, she slipped out of the truck and trained the flashlight on the ground and then swept the light across the cab of the truck: the seat, the floor, the running boards. Shit, shit shit!
"Looking for something?"
It was a man's voice behind her. She spun around to find a Gestapo man standing right behind her with his pistol aimed at her head. In his other hand he dangled the keys for her to see. There couldn't have been more than five feet between them. How had he snuck up on her like that? Maybe he'd known someone would come for the truck and all he had to do was wait.
"In about twenty seconds, there will be four other soldiers rushing in here to see what the commotion is about. But you won't live that long."
He cocked his pistol and she ducked, his shot missing her and making an ugly metallic sound as it ripped into the body of the truck. She didn't trust herself to quickly fire the unfamiliar handgun, so she swung it at him instead, knocking him hard in the arm and throwing off his next shot which went wild, hitting somewhere in the ceiling. She could hear the sounds of footsteps approaching fast. She knew her twenty seconds were almost up.
The Gestapo man glared at her. She'd knocked his hat off, and his eyes were wild. He swung to slap her, and she felt the bite and sting of the back of his hand. He hit her hard enough to knock her to her knees and start white spots dancing before her eyes. She was vaguely aware that she'd dropped the flashlight and that he'd bent down to retrieve it. She knew she was down to her last breaths. She looked up into the light, sending out her last prayer.
And then she heard the sound of firing. Big and loud and...from across the room. She opened her eyes to see the flashlight flying, and the body of the secret police officer tumble backwards and fall. She didn't see his head. Did he still have one? It took a moment to register that the shot had come from her father's rifle. She ducked, sprawling against the ground to stay out of the way of the volley of gunfire she was sure would ensue. Her eyes searched for the keys, spotting the glint of something silvery caught in the beam of the flashlight which had rolled some distance away from her.
Pistol shots rang from outside the barn, and her father's rifle answered with a fat roar. Xander was covering for her. "Better hurry with the truck, Tara," he risked calling out to her, which meant he was scared. His voice sent her scrambling toward the light...and right through a patch of warm, sticky blood. She felt her stomach lurch, but she didn't slow down. The keys were right there, just an arm's length away. She lifted them up from the dark ooze that spread there. They glistened wet and red. She wiped them on her pants and then climbed to her feet, taking the flashlight as well, and ran back toward the truck.
"What are you doing?"
Caleb was eyeing Spike with a mean glint in his bottomless black eyes. His shoulders were hunched menacingly.
"What do you mean what was I doing? I was dispatching our quarry. As usual."
"I didn't ask what you were doing I asked what are you doing? There's something that just isn't right about this," Caleb said, not actually in reply to anything Spike said. He was just playing detective bastard and feeling entirely too clever.
"Well, it's done now," Spike said briskly. "There are others to be rounded up."
A gunshot rang out from outside the house. The dogs barked again, and there were shouts from the men outside. Spike's heart pounded. They'd found another one. Which one this time? The lovely Miss Maclay, who was dragged into this whole stupid affair for no other reason than she happened to have a soft spot for little redheads? That stupid fuck Harris? Or Buffy, maybe? His stomach felt sour.
When he looked up, Caleb's gun was aimed at Willow's head.
"No!" Spike shouted. A reflex. He hadn't meant it. Shit.
Caleb's eyes pinned him for a traitor. Which, in his heart, he was, wasn't he?
"Well, well, " Caleb growled, his voice cold and dangerous. "Looks like I guessed right. You're soft on this one. A little too close to home, eh? What's wrong, Blood? A bullet to the head is only being merciful."
Caleb swung his gun, taking aim at Spike. But Spike was faster. He pulled the trigger against his partner, blasting a hole through his chest and sending a spray of blood across the room. A solid heart shot, though Spike doubted the man had a beating heart even in there, regardless of what all the blood might otherwise indicate. As if in echo, more shots started ringing outdoors, a distant thunder of an angry god coming to take his black devil home.
"I hope you rot in hell," Spike spat as he watched Caleb slip slowly to the floor, sliding down the wall and leaving an inky streak of red-black blood that would be a bitch to wash out.
"The line's crossed. I hope she's worth it. Because you're a dead man," Caleb wheezed with difficulty.
"Such a waste of final words." Spike shot him in the head. Not to be merciful. Just to shut the stupid fucker up. He'd had enough of The Preacher.
He took a deep breath and then turned his attention back to Red. He dropped to the floor by her side and put a hand to her cheek to see if she was still with him. She was lying still, face down in a pool of blood. She was so small and so still. And so cold. Spike quickly started to remove his trench coat so he could lay it over her.
And then the light clicked on.
In the harsh brightness he saw Buffy standing in the doorway, her eyes wide and icy as she took in the scene. The red-spattered walls, the blood on his hands, the blood on the floor, Willow. Buffy's face fell and she dropped to her knees. "I can't believe this. I can't. That- that you'd do this. After everything. I- I thought- God, blood everywhere." She looked like she might be sick.
"Buffy, please. It's not how it looks," he blurted. Though, yeah, strictly speaking, it was. Red was nearly dead, if not a goner already. And he was just a Nazi dumbfuck who let it happen. He didn't deserve Buffy. He never deserved her. Her eyes told him what he already knew.
"I- I think she's still with us. Help me with her," he said urgently. Maybe if he gave Buffy a job. She was the type who needed to be doing something. He finished removing his coat and bent back to his task of ascertaining Red's status. He heard Buffy crawl across the floor to him. She paused, noticing the other lifeless body in the room.
"The Preacher," Spike sighed unhappily. "Fuck his eternal soul. He's the one who hurt your friend. Stabbed her with that mean-looking pig-sticker over there. She's pretty bad off, I think. We need to get her out of here."
Spike had rolled Willow over onto her back. Her eyes were glassy and half-open in that thousand-yard stare kind of way. Was she dead? No. She took a gasp of air and focused for a moment, then nodded out again. Buffy leaned down over her friend so their foreheads touched.
"You listen to me, Willow," Buffy growled. "Don't you give up. Tara's gone to get the truck, and then we're leaving. And you're coming with us."
She said it so casually and with such certainty, as if she meant that Miss Maclay had just stepped out to the garage to fetch the car. Buffy looked up at him with angry, worried eyes. "What. We're leaving. Help me carry her."
She was serious. As if on cue, Spike heard the sound of an engine starting up back behind the house somewhere. Shots continued ringing out. One of Buffy's friends had a big rifle. The other, indeed, had a truck.
He bent down and easily lifted Red into his arms, wrapping his coat around her, and followed Buffy out into the hall, pausing only to turn the light off again.
The flashlights made it easier to get a bead on the baddies. And the rifle had superior firepower. It was a nice rifle. Semiautomatic. He took a moment to reload and spared a glance back over his shoulder to Tara. That was a close call. Willow would have his ass if anything happened to her. Hell, he'd have his own ass if anything happened to her. But she seemed fairly together-in fact, more than together-as she got into the truck and started the thing. The engine kicked in with a throaty roar, and she was smart and didn't turn the headlights on. The last thing he wanted was to be cast in silhouette for all the military guys out there.
The small triumph of getting the truck started aside, he was worried. He'd heard gunshots from inside the house. Not good. Nothing of the good ever came from guns shooting in houses. He knew Tara heard the shots, too. But she was holding it together. She had the truck. And had it rolling slowly toward him. He made a dash for the running boards, climbing on as Tara rolled the thing toward the open barn doors. "There's two more little flashlights dancing outside there," he reported breathlessly. "I got two of them, so those are the two that are left. A-aside from whoever they've got in the house."
"The gunshots," Tara worried, her face looked ghostly in the green glow of the dashboard lights.
"Buffy has my gun. She went back in the house. I saw her go in." His hands were trembling. "I'm going to climb in back. You keep your head down. Please."
She smiled at him, and he was suddenly aware of the way they'd met back on the night of the last big air raid. They'd huddled like small children in the basement in relative safety compared to this. Back then only their lives were on the line. Right now, everything was on the line. Everything.
"You keep your head down, too," she said. She had the unwanted privilege of having new knowledge about how soft human heads are. And how hard she could be if she needed to be.
He gave her a wink and then disappeared up over the side-rails and into the bed of the truck. She heard him land and get settled, and then she flicked on the headlights and put the truck in second gear, leaning low across the seat so she could only just peer over the dash. She had the flashlight and the two guns she'd collected from the dead men in the barn on the seat beside her. They were within easy reach. She'd help Xander get these last two-and any more she had to. For the first time she felt grateful her father had taught her to shoot a gun. She might live in the city but she was a farm girl at heart.
As the truck rolled out of the barn, the first thing she noticed was there were no more dancing flashlights. The house was dark, too, illuminated only by the headlight beams trained on it from the front, giving it a cold silhouette. Where were the flashlights? Her heart jumped fearing the soldiers and secret police had converged inside the house.
She rolled the truck forward, knowing the thing was just begging to be shot at: one big rolling target. At this moment, she welcomed it. Anything she could do to distract attention away from Buffy and Willow, wherever they were.
"Shit!" She heard Xander's exclamation from the back of the truck and turned her attention to something metallic on the periphery of the headlight beams. It was a soldier holding a gun to Beth's head. And beside him, stood a second soldier with his gun trained on her brother's boys.
"Shit!" Tara hissed, too, in fear and sinking dread. She'd promised Beth they wouldn't be hurt. How could they handle this situation so that shooting one soldier didn't cause the other to shoot. She pulled the truck around so that her family was fully illuminated by the headlights. She idled the motor.
"Stop the engine and throw down your weapons," the man holding Beth shouted.
Xander took a deep swallow and hoped Tara wouldn't kill him for this, but he called back: "They're not ours. You can have them."
Tara's jaw dropped, and so did Beth's.
Spike chuckled to himself. That Harris kid was cheeky. He and Buffy had just slipped out the back door and were creeping down the steps, thankful for the motor noise, which muffled their footsteps. He turned to Buffy. "How good a shot are you?"
She held Xander's pistol in her hand as if it were a foreign thing. "I'm not," she replied. "But I can be menacing."
"Not dressed as a boy scout you're not," Spike replied. "I don't suppose you can hold Red for me?"
Her confident nod surprised him. "Hurry," she said. "I need Xander and Tara in one piece. I don't think I can bear any more of this."
By the time Spike had transferred Willow to Buffy (who struggled only a little a bit with the dead weight of her friend), the SS men had convinced Xander to throw down his rifle and for Tara and him to get out of the vehicle. The woman and kids must belong to Tara's family. He hadn't counted on "collateral damage" on this little raid. But it happened often enough he shouldn't have been surprised.
He knew this drill. His men would shoot Xander and Tara where they stood, and then they'd shoot the family execution-style. There was going to be a lot of mop-up on this job. He sighed heavily, feeling Buffy's eyes burning into his back, willing him to do something. He lifted his pistol and steadied it in his two hands, sighting down the barrel at the back of one of the SS men's heads. Over the years he'd become quite a marksman. And he was especially skilled at shooting folks in the back. Though usually they were moving.
But the first shot was not his. In fact, Harris and Miss Maclay drew pistols in unison and popped off shots at the men. Harris managed to peg the one holding down the kids. His talents were really being wasted on his desk job. But Miss Maclay's shot went wide. The woman hostage ducked before SS goon #2 could pull the trigger. The lady out of the way now, Tara shot again, this time nailing the guy square in the chest. Well, her talents were being wasted, too. That's for sure.
He tucked his gun away and took Red back from Buffy.
Xander's heart was racing and he thought he'd throw up. That had been the single most frightening moment of his life. He let out a deep breath and doubled over to get his nerves under control. Tara was trembling beside him. He flashed her a grin. "Nice shooting," he said.
"Just doing what I have to," she replied, but she never completed the thought. She'd just spotted Detective Blood and Buffy coming down the stairs with a body wrapped in a coat. "No," she breathed, a small half-wail that threatened to take her feet out from under her.
Xander straightened and took in the same sight. "Shit, that's Will!" No, this, in fact, was the most frightening moment of his life. Funny how each moment just got worse and worse. Or not funny, actually.
As Spike walked quickly into the headlight beams it became apparent he was covered head to toe in blood. Buffy trailed behind him, her hands and pants covered in it as well. Spike noticed their expressions. "Don't worry," he said. "It's not all hers."
But whether that was truly comforting or not, he wasn't sure. To him, it was a plus, anyway. Buffy edged around him and ran up to Tara and Xander, taking their hands. "She's bad, but she's alive. We need to get her to help right now. Tara, what's nearby here?"
"The-there's a- a doctor I- I can call. A f- friend of the family who l-lives not far."
Xander piped up. "And we passed a convent on the way here. It's not a field hospital, but I bet they have someplace clean, and not a lot of questions asked."
Tara nodded vacantly. "I- I'll call Dr. Gorman and a-ask him to meet us there."
Beth stepped forward, shaking and scared. "I'll make the call. You go."
Tara looked to Spike and Buffy. "Buffy, can you drive?"
The blond woman shook her head. Xander interjected. "Believe me. You do not want her at the wheel. You should drive. You know the way." Tara knew that was right, but her stomach dived at the thought of not being at Willow's side.
"I'll take care of her," Xander said. And Tara knew he meant it. She nodded. Spike stepped forward quickly and handed Willow to him. Xander got a small look at her face. "Oh, god," he moaned. She was gray. Tara stepped up, her voice quavering. "What is it? Gunshot wound?"
Spike shook his head. "Big-assed knife. To the gut." He probably could have used a different word-one that didn't bring up mind pictures of, well, guts. "I have the knife, if it's helpful to the doctor to know what got her."
The muscles were working in Harris's jaw. Spike knew he was outraged. There'd be time for explaining later.
"Are- are you coming, Detective Blood?" Tara asked. She could see Spike's eyes shining and upset.
The man shook his head. "Somebody's got to work cleaning detail. It's a big job. Now you kids run along and get Red fixed up." He handed her the knife. It was sticky with blood. Willow-blood.
Buffy piped up beside him. "I'll stay and help. I'll meet you at the convent."
Tara and Xander nodded. Tara's parting words to Beth, who was running toward the house: "If he asks what happened, tell the doctor it was a domestic dispute." Beth stopped for a moment, but then, understanding, she took off again.
"That's our story," Tara said firmly, and helped Xander get Willow into the back of the truck. She took off her coat and gave it to Xander to wrap around Willow. Buffy did the same. Then she hugged Xander and Tara before the pair climbed in, and with a flick of the wrist Tara started the beast and drove it uphill and out of sight.
The silence was deafening. Nothing but crickets. And the ringing in Buffy's ears. Clean-up detail. Spike made it sound like it was a routine part of his job. Perhaps it was.
"Will she be ok?" Buffy asked. Spike was an expert in these things.
"Well, she's a hell of a lot better off than if Caleb had put a bullet in her head like he tried to," Spike replied, all bravado. He pulled a package of cigarettes and a lighter out of his trouser pockets and lit it up with bloody hands. Buffy noticed that his hands shaking a bit. She didn't think it was from the cold.
Inside the house, Beth was turning on lights. Spike took the stairs two at a time and yelled in through the back door: "I'll clean the middle bedroom. Best to stay out of there for now. I'll need bleach and some old rags." With that he let the screen door slam shut again.
"The middle one's Tara's room," Buffy softly noted.
"Tara might not find it too homey any more," Spike mumbled. "I know I wouldn't."
Buffy gazed around the grounds, noticing the litter of bodies on the lawn. "Where do we even begin?"
Spike rubbed his forehead, smudging a red streak there. "Let's ask the lady indoors if there's a lake close by. Then we have to move quickly." He wished Harris and Miss Maclay had taken one of the cars. A truck would be handy right now.
While Buffy went into the house, Spike strolled the yard and retrieved a couple of flashlights.
They were in big, big trouble. But he couldn't think about that just yet.
The ring was nice. Simple. Not too flashy. Perfect for that non-committal way of saying "you're mine." It was silver. It had a nice heft to it, but not in a manly way. It looked old, and it was probably worth a lot, both in terms of monetary and sentimental value. It had been Tara's mother's. Maybe it had even been her grandmother's before that.
Xander found that the ring was the only thing he could look at. Not the gray face or the blood-soaked sweater or the gaping hole just below the chest that did not rise and fall. And he couldn't imagine what Tara had found to focus on. He stole a glance at her. Her face was lined with grief and she held the other gray hand in her own, rubbing little circles there.
The doctor looked very grave. Grave. A terrible, though appropriate, word for their current situation. He glanced up next at the nuns. A small ring of them encircled the table they'd laid Willow on, hovering sweetly like little angels. Willow would have liked that.
And then he looked down at his own arm, at the medical tubing that ran from his forearm to Willow's, connecting them in a way he was sure he'd never be connected to another human being again. His blood type was O. That made him a universal donor. And when he'd given her as much of his blood as he could, then Tara was ready to step in next. She was O, too. He knew they had a lot in common. He knew it the night he first met her.
He was starting to get light-headed. The doctor had told him to speak up when that happened. But Xander didn't want to speak up. He wanted to do this. He wanted to give whatever he could for her. She was his oldest friend. And this seemed like little enough to do for her. Wasn't there something more he could do? Couldn't he save her? He was strong. And true. He was definitely that. For her, he was true, and he always would be. If there was no one left on earth who could help her, he'd be her champion. He had never wavered. And he never would.
He'd do anything. He'd send up prayers to his God and hers and to every major and minor deity in the Heavens if he had to. Even to Thor and Zeus and those old gods nobody listens to anymore. He'd send a prayer out to them and he'd give them thanks every day for the rest of his life if they'd just give him the strength to save her. He could hear his own heart beat all fuzzy and muffly in his ears. He could do that. He could beat his heart for her.
And so he did.
He always would.
She'd watched everything. She couldn't help but watch everything. This was her everything. Now, more than ever before, she was completely committed. There was no halfway anymore. No turning back. It wasn't Willow's future that hung in the balance. It was hers. Willow was slipping away from her. A part of Tara's own heart was gone, too, just as sure as if a hole had been blasted through it.
She'd never seen a dead person before, up close and personal. This was about as close as she ever hoped to come to such a thing. She'd watched as the doctor arrived grim-faced and pessimistic. She'd cajoled him into trying. She'd cried and pleaded and practically offered to fuck him to get him to try. Just try to save this girl. The one who wore her ring and was brave and sweet and stupid. She didn't know exactly what it was she'd said that convinced him. But he'd acquiesced, finally, rolling up his shirt-sleeves and ordering the nuns around to fetch him this and that and to call for more supplies. He'd worked as a field doctor, which meant he was schooled in shortcuts and make-dos. His skills would be put to the test. And Tara vowed to make sure he applied himself.
So she'd watched as he cut away the blood-soaked sweater and then lifted the makeshift dressing Buffy and Detective Blood had tied around Willow's middle. As the cloth fell away, the wound began bleeding again, a clotted, crimson ooze that bubbled up and made Tara feel woozy.
But she had to watch this.
She watched as his hands delicately probed to find just what the injuries were, going in clean and pink and coming out red. He got one of the nuns to assist him, pressing white towels and sheets to sop up the blood so he could see his work. So many linens. And all the while she clutched Willow's hand, feeling it grow cooler, and her color fade. Tara had rubbed Willow's hand furiously, as though the small act could keep the girl's circulation going. She pressed her fingers to the pulsepoint at Willow's wrist as though that would provide some reassurance. It didn't. She couldn't feel anything.
And yet, Dr. Gorman assured her that Willow was still alive. He agreed not to give up. Which was good. Because Tara had a gun, and she was ready to wave it around if she had to. But she didn't. The doctor pulled Xander from his nervous pacing and got him to roll up his sleeve for transfusion. Tara watched Xander's expression of shock grow stranger and more distant. He couldn't look. He focused only on Willow's hand, which he held tight as his blood flowed to her.
Tara could have kissed him. That little red line leading into Willow's arm was like the cavalry arriving. Finally, instead of life draining away, life was finally pumping back into her. Tara watched Xander as he muttered and talked nonsense, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. Was he talking to himself? Was he talking to Willow? When his eyelids began to droop, Tara alerted the doctor and helped line up the next transfusion. It was supposed to be herself, but she didn't trust Dr. Gorman to see the job through without her there to prod him. So she asked one of the nuns to take her turn.
The nuns were saints to have answered Tara's plea for help at all, but they did so practically without question. They lined up as if it were a sacred duty, something small that they could do to make a difference. In a country and a time where life was thrown away so carelessly, where soldiers and civilians were human cannon-fodder, this was one life the sisters could try to save. They couldn't change the world, no matter how hard they prayed. But they could help this one girl and her grief-stricken friends on this one miserable night.
The doctor bent to his task of delicately sewing back together what that nasty "pig-sticker" had sliced apart, as the detective had put it so indelicately when he gave her the knife. For a moment, she wondered about that: about the fact that Detective Blood had helped them. Why? But it was a fleeting thought, one she'd have to come back to later. For now she was watching. The doctor's hands were slim and delicate, the movements familiarly domestic, as if he were sewing the hem of a skirt. His handwork led her to believe him to be a most expert seamster. He moved with quick efficiency.
Tara could sew. It made her speak up. Was there something she could do to help him, she asked.
He shot her a glance over his glasses. "She's breathing, but she could use some help. Can you help breathe for her? Just till the supplies arrive. They're supposed to be bringing oxygen. But I'd rather not wait."
He explained what to do. Tara nodded her understanding. She could do this and still make sure he did his job. The more hands that helped, the more he'd be committed to saving Willow, too.
In this moment, as her lips brushed against her lover's only to find them frighteningly cold, she took solace in the fact that at least for now every one of them in this room were committed.
Then she drew a breath, the first of many.
Spike knew what to do with evidence. Evidence was his job. He was a detective. He knew the things that people hid, and he knew where to look for them. So, to his way of thinking, bodies were just big pieces of evidence, really. And he relied on his knowledge of detective work-and of the practices of the secret police-to guide him in what to do with the seven dead SS men lying about the Maclays' farm.
He would have done the work by himself if he had to. So acute was his desire to erase the evidence that his men had ever been here. But Buffy insisted on working side-by-side with him. They tackled Tara's room first. A real slaughterhouse, that place. He'd hauled Caleb's dead ass down to one of the cars and pitched the corpse inside. Good cousin Beth had mixed up buckets of water and bleach and found some old scrub-brushes. The three of them sopped up the stains, stripping the bedding, pulling down the gauzy curtains, wiping down the ceiling light fixture and the desk. The whole place was spattered.
"Maybe you've got some more of this white paint?" he'd asked Beth at one point. "Not so much for applying now. But in a couple days when this is dry you might try a coat. Or two."
Buffy took the floor. He knew it creeped her out, scrubbing at the congealing blood of her best friend. Not knowing if the friend was dead or alive. There was so much blood that Spike was worried, too. He understood a thing or two about wounds, and about the shades of color people turn when they're bleeding out. He couldn't lie to Buffy. If there was one person he owed the truth, it was her. Thankfully, she didn't ask his opinion of Willow's chances. She just scrubbed, putting her back into the task as if she might sand the finish right off the floorboards.
When at last the room was reasonably white again, the three of them climbed to their feet and gazed at each other. Buffy's eyes were cold, hard and scared. Beth's were way beyond spooked. She had a lot of weight on her shoulders. The rest of them could run, hide, disappear. But Beth couldn't. She had to stay with the boys, and that was harder. As a detective he knew that. In a way it's harder for the people left behind, the ones who have to lie and endure interrogation. And those boys. Being in mortal peril, watching men gunned down before them , by their auntie, no less. Dark men descending upon their quiet farm for no apparent reason. How do you get over something like that? Beth had her hands full. She was so young. And this was going to be hard.
"I've got some more cleanup to do outside," he said softly to her. "Buffy and I are going to take care of it." He shot Buffy a glance, and she nodded in solid affirmative. "But I will be back, and I'll give you some instructions about what to say and do. This is my job, and I'm very good at it. I will help you."
Beth nodded vaguely, perhaps too shell-shocked right now to even let the words sink in. But he would be back. He had to make sure the loose ends were tied up just so. This was a messy, rotten job. They were in big trouble. All of them. But he would do what he could to buy them all their freedom.
He and Buffy swung out of the house then and hit the barn and then the yard, dragging and piling the bodies one-by-one into the cars. Spike really regretted showing Buffy this kind of travesty. Some of these men were missing heads. Xander had been wielding a mean rifle, and he was a dead shot. And in the barn, when they flicked on the lights they discovered that Tara had a mean swing with a crowbar. He had to credit Buffy with her toughness, for not throwing up all over her shoes.
He set her to work pitching hay down onto the barn floor while he scuffed up the bloody bits. Then, they shoveled the mess into wheelbarrows and took it down to the pigsty. All along the way, Buffy retrieved flashlights and pistols as if they were Easter eggs, slinging them into a canvas bag she'd found in the barn.
"We'll need some rope and a couple of knives," he said, and she set off to the barn to fetch them.
They met back out front. Her eyes glittered darkly. They had only a couple more hours of darkness. They had to move quickly.
"Can you drive one of the cars?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I don't know how."
He chuckled. "City girl. Come with me, then. I'd rather not be alone just now, anyway. We'll make one trip and come back for the other carload."
There was something kind of weird about driving a vehicle that was piled high with fresh corpses. Again, he had to hand it to Buffy that she sat quietly beside him, as if they were partners and this was just a job. It probably kept her mind off Willow and the others.
"Care for a smoke?" he offered.
"What?" she said, shaken out of her reverie. "I don't smoke."
Shit. He should know that. Why didn't he know that? What did he know about her, really? He didn't know where she lived, or what classes she was taking in college. He didn't know her family, had never met her mom or sis. He hadn't known for sure she was wrapped up with Red and Xander and Tara until recently. He knew she liked him. She came over to his apartment often enough for some rough-and-tumble. But he didn't know her favorite color or her favorite food. He didn't know the things that made her laugh. He didn't know what she'd wanted for Christmas or even where she'd spent the holiday. He didn't know her birthday. Shit, he didn't even know how old she was.
And what had she ever cared to learn about him? Not much. She knew his mother was dead and where she was buried. She knew he was born in England and raised there before emigrating to Germany. She knew he liked to read. And that he had no friends.
Suddenly, the span of the car seat seemed like an insurmountable distance between them. He gave a deep sigh and focused on the drive.
The lake was still, a seemingly bottomless black pool that lapped only gently at the shoreline. Buffy was covered head to toe in blood. Willow's, The Preacher's, unnamed dead SS men's. Her hands were sticky. The car smelled of blood and death. It felt suffocating. Like she'd never be able to scrub herself clean again. Like the stench would follow her everywhere, permanently embedded in her skin. This whole night had been just one horror after another. And the only good part of it was that if Willow had managed to live, then this, perhaps, was the last horror.
She and Spike had the second car pointed into the lake. They'd stripped the bodies and tied them naked, weighting them with rocks. The two of them had dragged each man out as far into the water as they could before letting him descend to his watery grave. Would they stay put? Spike didn't know. She wondered how much of this he actually knew and how much he was making up as he went along. But it didn't matter. He was the best thing they had, their best hope for getting out of this mess and getting on with their lives. Yet again, his occupation proved to be an asset. For as many times as she wished he'd just quit his job and join the resistance, he always proved to be more useful for his knowledge and connections as an SS insider.
Now the car. Spike let off the parking brake and the two of them pushed the thing as fast and hard as they could at the water. It was deep here close to shore, just as Beth had said it would be. And the cold, inky blackness swallowed the car whole, leaving them cold, wet and panting on the shore. The sun was starting to rise. The first glow of dawn was appearing, and her eyes slowly adjusted to the absence of headlights.
The horrible work was done. The Maclays' house cleaned. They had just Xander's newspaper motorpool car to deal with, and they'd probably take that to the convent. She let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Probably for all night. And she stretched the sore muscles of her arms and back.
"I'll take you up on your offer of a cigarette now," she intoned flatly.
Spike chuckled, retrieving the dry pack from the pocket of the farm coat they'd borrowed from the big barn. He put the jacket around Buffy's shoulders and lit the cigarette for her, handing her the burning torch of it. The ember end danced in the dark toward her as though enchanted.
"The last lady I offered a cigarette to tried to knife me," Spike chuckled mirthlessly.
Buffy accepted the cigarette, but didn't really want the details. No more stories of blood and guts. "Tell me something good," she asked him.
"‘Good?'" he repeated. "You mean as in a tall tale?"
"No, I mean something of the good. Something hopeful, beautiful and shining. I need to shake this darkness."
Spike had half a mind to tell her he loved her. That was something beautiful and shining. And hopeful. But he couldn't bear to hear her say she didn't feel the same. So he chose different words.
"I think you and your friends are amazing. You're the kind of people I wish I knew more of. You're brave. Stupid as hell. But brave. I'll give you that. And you love with all your hearts. I wish I'd had a chance to get to know you all better. The little surprises and likes and dislikes. I think the world is a better place for having you all in it. It's put me in danger more than once-like tonight, for instance-but I'd do every bit of it over again. I'd do whatever I can to help you. Hell, part of me thinks I should hang up my invisible badge and call it quits and be done with it all. I guess knowing you has changed me. For the better, I think."
He paused, lighting his own cigarette and trying to read her face in the first glow of day.
"It sounds like you're saying good-bye," she said softly.
"Doesn't have to be," he replied. "Besides, there's a little more I want to do to help ensure you and your friends have a chance to escape this. It'll require a little drive. We'll stop off at the convent on the way. Maybe first put on some dry clothes."
"Preferably clothes without bullet holes in them."
Her friend looked a little like the corpses she and Spike had recently "dispatched." And Xander and Tara looked only slightly better. The nuns filled her in on the details while the exhausted doctor sat in a chair, his head heavy in his hands. They were all bone tired.
It was unnerving at first to see Willow half-naked. But even more unnerving to see the three-inch gash, sewn tight like the stitching on a canvas bag. Except this was human skin. This was Willow. The nuns scuttled away with amazing piles of blood-soaked towels and bedding, off to be boiled and laundered.
They looked at Buffy with sad eyes, assuming her to be Willow's brother or nephew. Or maybe they saw through her disguise and sympathized with her pain as a friend. Maybe the sisters were sad, too.
"He did a nice job," Spike whispered.
"She's alive. That man deserves a kiss," Buffy sighed.
The doctor looked at her funny. Spike stage whispered, "Figuratively speaking, eh, Bert?"
For a moment Buffy had forgotten who she was. Or wasn't. Or whatever. "Whatever," she said, waving her hand dismissively.
Tara came and gave Buffy a big hug. They stood like that, practically propping each other up, for what seemed like a long time. "What are you going to do now?" Buffy asked. What were any of them going to do now?
Tara gave a big sigh. "We're staying here today. The doctor thinks he may be able to get her in to a nearby hospital, though I explained she lost her papers. An-ad I d-don't know what n-name to give."
"I may have found them," Spike said, hefting a bag from the floor. "Her notebooks and such are here. We were able to find them. Her papers may be there."
Tara looked confused. Willow couldn't go by Wilma Hermann anymore, not since the SS had sent men to apprehend her. Men who ended up dead.
Spike gave her a reassuring look. "It's ok, love. I have one more stop to make to straighten things out." He turned to Xander. "And Mr. Harris and I will need to go there together. You stay here with Red. See that she pinks up a bit."
Xander fell in with Spike and they shuffled to the door. At the last moment, Spike turned once more. "Oh, and if she wakes up and starts talking trash about me, please explain that I was only trying to help. Though I expect she won't believe it. But it's true."
Then Spike and Xander left to make a visit to a certain Captain Finn.
Xander had an uncomfortable urge to turn over the desk and beat this guy senseless. The guy who'd invited him to the Officers Club. The one who'd shared a bottle of champagne and a lovely evening. The same one who sent The Preacher out to the Maclay farm. And now seven people were dead. Eight if his best friend didn't pull through.
Riley Finn sat there at his desk, doing whatever he did running a fucking concentration camp. Probably to him, a few casualties didn't mean much. People get jaded. But what Xander couldn't understand was what hatred could make him turn on the woman he loved and her family. Certainly he had to know what could happen. Didn't he love her even a little bit? As weird as it sounded in his head, he was glad that Spike had been on that little mission or they might all be dead right now.
For his part, William the Bloody was pretty pissed, too. He held a gun straight at Riley's head.
"I've got one thing to say to you, pal," Spike intoned with some menace. "You have fucked things up royally. And you will help straighten them out again. Do you understand me?"
Riley looked confused and more than a little spooked. What was the Gestapo detective doing threatening him? And why did he have Xander in tow? "I don't understand," he stammered.
"It's either do as I say or I shoot that smug Nazi head off your shoulders."
Riley's eyes darkened. "So you're in on all of this, too."
Spike was firm. "That's not the point. See, Harris here and I are SS. And what we say has a hell of a lot more pull with our department than you'd think. We kill you, and all I've got to tell them is that I investigated it and the suspects are still at large. See? Isn't that the shits?"
"Ok, I really don't understand. I told you what you wanted to know yesterday. We sat right here. You wanted to know where Wilma Hermann was and I told you. I cooperated."
"As a result of that your little Tara, who you wanted to teach a little lesson to, killed two people. SS men. Shot one. Caved in the head of the other with a tire iron. This is your sweet girl. The one you planned to marry. So you had a lovers' quarrel. Does that mean you send in the goons?"
Riley looked upset, but he held firm. "I did as I was asked. I provided information. I didn't force Tara to kill those men."
"Oh. You'd rather she was dead now. Because that was option number two. The only other option, I might add."
"How could I have known she and her...friends...would resist arrest?"
"Just where do you think you work, buddy? Do you see those ladies out there in the yard pulling weeds or counting rocks or whatever mindless torture you've got them doing? You wanted your girlfriend to come live here, so you could keep a closer eye on her?"
"I made a mistake," Riley said quietly. "I don't want her arrested. I didn't think they'd go after her. I thought you were after that Jew dyke. Wilma Hermann. Did you at least get her?"
Xander pulled his gun and trained it on Riley, too, growling, "Watch your mouth, asshole. I've been up all night covered in blood, and I'm itching for some payback."
Spike took a seat and placed his hands on the desk. "Now here's how it's going to go. You never met my partner and me. You never sent us to Tara's little farm. And we never had the conversation we're currently having. Got it? Simple as that. Wilma Hermann is a polite, earnest and enterprising reporter, and she interviewed you for a story. That's it."
"You're asking me to overlook the fact that she's a Jew?"
"Is that a crime?" Xander snapped.
"Well, she's a criminal, right?"
"And you've never committed a crime?" Xander pressed.
Spike craned his head to look out the window behind Riley's head, raising his eyebrows. "You ever maybe let some of ‘em, you know, just die, or something?"
The captain's face went scarlet. "I perform my duties."
"I think Wilma Hermann's field notes would take some of those duties to task, don't you?"
"The government would never allow her to print anything like that."
"What if her notebooks were to, say, not make it back to the newsroom? But land somewhere else, perhaps?"
Riley glared. He let out a deep breath. "Fine. I never should have agreed to that interview, and I never should have sent the secret police to the farm. I was stupid. I have enough of my own trouble here. I'd like to forget all of it."
Xander dropped the gun to his side.
"Is- is Tara all right?" Riley asked quietly.
Xander shrugged. "Well, eight armed goons descended on her house in the dead of night and tried to kill her and her family. Drove them out of the house and chased them down like dogs. They'd be dead if it wasn't for Tara. She shot one of the SS men right in front of the kids." He couldn't even bring himself to say the part about Willow. His voice dropped to a pained whisper. "I don't know if Tara's all right. But I do know that you don't deserve the right to even walk in her shadow. Don't give me a reason to come find you again."
The Preacher was never here. He never put all the pieces together and figured out that fugitive Willow Rosenberg was Wilma Hermann of The People's Press. And he never figured out that Alexander Harris was a traitor to his country for knowingly trying to hide her. The Preacher never harassed Tara Maclay. That embarrassing morning at her apartment that revealed she was a sexual deviant harboring a fugitive never happened. With The Preacher gone, all of his tracks were erased. All of his hunches and conjecture went nowhere. They disappeared like his head. They disappeared like rest of him into the big black lake. Into a bottomless nothingness.
Wilma Hermann and her SS escort Alexander Harris were involved in a grave automobile accident on their way back to Berlin to file her story. She nearly died. She was in the hospital recovering, with Xander and her friend Tara and nephew Bert at her side. The newspaper would send her a nice bouquet of flowers and a card.
Beth and the boys spent another bucolic day out at the farm. There were so many lovely and average days like these that they all blurred together.
That left Spike. Buffy stood before him with a gun in her hand, shaking and upset.
"Come on, love. You can do it."
"Yes, you can. I'm the Big Bad. Just shoot me."
"I can't. I hate these things. Giles and Jenny and Faith. And countless millions of other people will all be forgotten because someone had a gun and shot them." She looked up at the sky. "Did you know that Japan is the only culture that actually considered doing away with guns altogether? The westerners brought them, and the Japanese tried to reject the technology. They didn't want it. And, you know what? They managed to keep guns out for something like 200 years. Willow taught me that. She read it in one of the History textbooks I was supposed to be the one reading. Except I was too busy trying to save people-my friends, people I love, even complete strangers-from guns."
Spike's voice was gentle. "Shoot me."
"You can and you have to. I'm the last loose end here. I'd rather it be you than some asshole from the SS."
They were standing in a field. Spike wore his shirt and tie, his hat and his trenchcoat, all freshly laundered. Buffy looked like a small and scared young boy. They were close to the border with Poland. Far away from Ravensbruck or the farm.
"Give it a good shot, but not too good," he instructed. "Maybe in the leg or something. Be sure to cut my forehead, too. Not too much blood."
"No," Buffy said, little tears welling up in those pretty eyes.
"It'll be all right. And, besides, this way we'll still be friends. I can help you get papers for people. Stuff like that. I could even get us all out of here if we needed to. Someplace nice like England or even America. You'll always know how to find me."
"And you'll try not to find me?" she asked.
"No, pet. I'd like very much to know how to find you. Harris can give you a heads-up when I get back to H.Q. Maybe we could go for coffee. I believe there's a diner you and your chums like to go to."
"Ok. I'm doing this for you. For us. For all of it," Buffy said. "But you're a bastard for making me." And then she took reluctant aim and fired.
Spike shouted out in pain as the bullet tore through his leg and dropped him to the ground. The wound seared, alternating hot and cold, and he watched the blood bubble forth from his own body distantly, as if it weren't his own. His brain was unwilling to accept his body's shock. So is this what it felt like for all of those others, the many who'd tasted lead from his gun?
Later that day William Blood, Gestapo detective stationed out of Berlin, was found shot and bleeding by a roadside near the border with Poland. He and his partner had traveled there to follow up on a lead about a nest of university students talking shit about the Reich. They'd picked up a detail of six SS men to accompany them, but they never made it to their destination. Blood's partner and the other SS men all vanished, suspected victims of the Polish resistance. The injured detective remembered nothing. He spent a week interviewing the locals and came up with nothing but dead ends. The case is still open.
The men in the newsroom cheered the day Willow came back to The People's Press.
It took both Tara and Xander to help her up the steps and into the building. She leaned heavily upon them, careful of the wound in her side, and Tara and Xander handled her gingerly. The steps were hard and she tired so easily.
"Are you sure you're ok, sweetie?" Tara ad asked, apparently able to detect the fact Willow had broken into a cold sweat.
"I can do this," she replied through gritted teeth.
As her step faltered, Xander swept her off her feet and bodily carried her up the last steps. "Of course you can do it, Will. We just don't want to wait around all day while you try."
Then the doors to the office swung open, and Willow saw the looks of relief and happiness and heard the cry go out around the place that Wilma Hermann was finally back. Willow knew she was probably coming back too soon. But she was feeling better. And bored. For days her mind had been busy begging for math problems to do. Or reading. Or anything. She'd started driving Tara crazy. Not literally, of course. Tara was an extremely well-balanced and patient person.
But Willow had the energy. So she'd gone through her notebooks and composed her story about Ravensbruck longhand and was eager to type it up and deliver it to Gruber. He'd been waiting so long for it. And this was the day she was going to complete the assignment.
Tara and Xander each kissed the top of her head, and Tara promised to come back for Willow at the end of the day. Or sooner, if she felt tired. Gruber greeted Tara like he found her to be the most divine creature on the planet. So lovely, blond and blue-eyed. Nazis really seemed to be drawn to Willow's girl. She didn't mind. She knew where Tara's heart lay. And as a result of her own recent physical trauma, Willow also knew for certain where her own heart lay, both figuratively and literally. She'd recently done some reading about knife wounds and anatomy and field medicine.
Gruber invited Willow into his office. He helped her to the door and into the chair. He seemed genuinely happy to see her. She grinned back at him, glad to be here at all.
"I must say we've missed you. The newsroom was not the same without you. Can I offer you a drink, Miss Hermann?"
Willow chuckled. "Normally I'd accept, but I'm afraid I might not be quite watertight yet. The wound isn't completely healed."
He smiled at her joke, like an adoring father might. "Miss Hermann, do you mind if I... I mean I was wondering if I- if I could please take a look at your injury?"
Since she was fascinated by the thing, she wasn't bothered by the fact that Gruber might be, too. She delicately lifted the hem of her sweater so that he could see the angry red length of scar. He regarded it in silence for a few moments.
"Such a terrible wound. Much worse than I'd imagined from your fiancé's description on the phone. It's really a wonder you're still with us. Do you remember much?"
She shook her head. "I remember leaving Ravensbruck. And Xander and I packing the car to come back here. That's about it until I woke up in a hospital. Though I also have one strange recollection of nuns or angels or something. And of drifting toward the light."
"The light. Yes, I've heard similar stories recounted by men who've had near-death experiences," he nodded thoughtfully. Willow realized she'd just risen a notch or two in his mind for being tougher than he'd imagined. She proved tough enough to write the Ravensbruck story, and her will to survive was evident.
"It was a field doctor who saved me. Well, a doctor trained in field medicine. And my friends and a few strangers, even, who lent me their blood."
"It is truly amazing the kindness one can find among strangers, even in wartime. It's almost as if we instinctively want to connect and help each other."
There were certainly plenty of examples to the contrary, but she chose not to dwell on them just then. He wasn't wrong. There were many kind and decent people.
Proof in point, it was a kind and decent person who came to retrieve Willow at the end of the day. She gazed up from her desk into blue eyes and a smile that belonged to Willow only. Her heart beat a bit faster, like it did any time Tara was near. Mostly from infatuation. But sometimes from an irrational fear that Tara would slip away from her, that they'd be separated. In moments like this, Tara would pull her close and stroke her hair and tell her there was no way Willow was getting rid of her any time soon. Willow knew the fear was like a little echo from the night she couldn't remember. A body memory of her body nearly dying. Amazing that for all one's higher intellect, there are some things the body just knows.
And Willow knew only that she felt most calm and quiet when she lay in Tara's arms, the city light spilling in through the tall windows of Tara's room at the flat. When Willow had been hurt, Tara had moved back into the city with her. They'd taken up residence in the old apartment, spending long evenings lying quietly together in the dark, holding each other. At first, Tara would keep Willow's mind off the fear by telling stories from her childhood, reading books to her, singing songs, lavishing her with gentle touches and kisses. In time, as Willow grew stronger, it was she who became storyteller, describing life before the war, how she'd met Xander and then later Buffy, Buffy's family, Jenny and Giles and about the ragtag resistance movement they supported. She told Tara about the Night of Broken Glass, when everything had changed both for Germany and for her. She talked about her fear and grief over the disappearance and presumed death of her parents. About how weird it was that life even went on at all after that. About how neighbors turned against neighbors. And the things she had to do to hide and survive since then. Tara took everything in with only amazement and gratitude that the world hadn't ended, that it apparently saw fit to let her and Willow stay together.
Some time later, Tara explained about the night Willow couldn't remember, and it was Willow's turn to be amazed and thankful beyond words that the people she loved were all still standing.
But tonight their thoughts would be far from this. After catching up with Xander and Buffy, Tara would take Willow home and check her wound, making sure it was healing. Touching it reverently, almost. "Hey, you know what I look like inside," Willow had mused aloud on one such evening as Tara changed Willow's dressings. Tara's eyes had darkened, but Willow had enthused: "No, that's a good thing. Kind of a special thing. I mean, how many people can say they've actually seen inside another person? I mean literally."
"I saw inside you from the first moment we met," Tara had blushed. She preferred not to think of Dr. Gorman's pink fingers that turned blood red. "Everything I needed to know about you was all there from the start. I saw you and you were beautiful." She'd kissed Willow's forehead.
Tara would always be in Xander's debt. For holding her hand that night in the basement during the frightening air raid. For bringing Willow to come live with her. For delivering the suitcase and Tara's letter. For being Willow's lifeline when it seemed there was nothing that could be done to save her. She'd seen inside him the first time they'd met and found him beautiful, too.
She felt extremely lucky. She'd walked through hell and come out the other side. They all had. Bruised, battered, forever changed. But they'd made it. The war was still raging, but it felt like some distant abstraction, a low rumbling on some faraway horizon. Life happened much, much closer to home, now. Every day was precious. Willow told Tara that she probably had seven or eight lives left. In Willow-logic, apparently, that made sense.
Tonight Tara listened patiently as Willow chattered about her day while they rode the bus back to their part of town. She could listen to Willow talk her streams of consciousness forever. Tara loved the transparency of this girl who seemed not to live in a glass house, but to be a glass house. Bright, shiny and reflective. A vessel for knowledge and experience and love and light.
"Oh! Word from Anya came into the newsroom today," Willow gushed, excitedly. "Well, not from Anya herself. I mean, she didn't call or anything like that. We didn't talk. But a communiqué came into the newsroom that the Allies have photos from Ravensbruck and that stories are circulating. Yay, Anya!"
"Was Gruber mad at you? I mean, it's clear that the Allies got their hands on pictures you took."
"I was in a car accident. I almost died. Who could blame me for having some things go missing?"
"Does he regret sending you?"
"You know, you'd think he would regret it. I mean, he was certainly very disturbed that I got hurt. But I think he's kind of proud of me."
"I'm proud of you, too, sweetie."
"Huh. And I've actually done something that may help stop this stupid war. I think there's something about genocide that just tends to rub people the wrong way. As they say, a picture paints a thousand words."
"I'm sure you could give them a thousand words, too."
"And, you know, I just might."
They got off the bus and slowly walked the block and a half to the diner. The bell jangled as they pushed their way through the swinging glass doors, out of the warm evening and into the comforting familiarity of their old home base. Xander had already gotten them a table. And ordered pie. Helmut was just delivering a slice and three forks to the table. He flashed a smile at Willow. "Been a while since we've seen you in here. Good to see you," Helmut said.
"I'm glad to be here, too."
As Willow and Tara slipped into the booth, Xander raised his hand for Helmut and requested one more fork. Almost as soon as it arrived, the bell jangled again and in came Buffy, her short hair covered by a stylish hat. She had started experimenting with reclaiming her more feminine side. So far, nothing bad had befallen her. Apparently, the Gestapo were on to chasing someone other than leaflet-wielding university students. Buffy slipped into the booth beside Xander, giving him a warm hug. She animatedly told them all about having gone home today. She'd gotten to see her mom and sister for the first time in months. God, she'd missed them. Dawn must have grown about a foot, at least.
Spike smiled to himself at the thought. He sat at the bar, sipping a cup of hot coffee and smoking a cigarette. He glanced over his shoulder and managed to catch Buffy's eye. She smiled in surprise and then patted the seat beside her. He raised his eyebrows, wanting to be sure he'd understood correctly. Her smile turned indulgent, and she patted the seat beside her again. He stamped out his cigarette and swung off his barstool. Everybody scooted over a bit to accommodate one more person. Tara reached and affectionately squeezed his hand.
Willow looked confused. "Aren't you going to introduce your friend?" she asked.
All eyes shot around the table in surprise. Then Xander spoke up: "Wills, this is Detective William Blood, the fellow Buffy knows who works in my department."
Willow extended her hand to him in greeting. "Right, right. So you're Spike. I've heard so much about you. At last we meet."
Spike smiled wryly, his gaze catching first Tara's and then Buffy's. Well, at least there was one among them who mercifully didn't have to live with the memories of all the evil and terrible and very bad things that happened that night. She got to keep another bit of innocence, her face untroubled, her heart open to life's possibilities. Then looking around the table here, from the perspective of being inside the circle rather than outside of it, he could see that it wasn't just her: that despite everything-or perhaps because of everything-they all had the flush of excitement for this moment, and the next, and the next.
Xander waved Helmut over again, and, for the first time he ordered a second piece of pie for the table.