i was not naked (antistar_e) wrote in veritasrecords,
i was not naked
antistar_e
veritasrecords

Fic: The Strauss Girls [The Book Thief][1/2]

Title: The Strauss Girls
Fandom: The Book Thief
Characters: Rosa Hubermann, Max Vandenburg (background Rosa/Hans, appearances by ensemble)
Word Count: 14,090
Summary: "Frau Hubermann?" The knocker is Agnes, Rolf Fischer's daughter, and she seems derailed by her appearance. "What were you doing in the basement? Didn't you hear me knocking?" Fear flares like a struck match in Rosa's throat. Fortunately, her mouth opens and replies for her with the ease of long practice, "I did not. Maybe I'll do all my chores in the basement from now on, just to get some peace from the stupid creatures knocking on my door."
Notes: This originally started as a Rosa&Max bonding fic, because reasons, and then developed into a full Rosa backstory before I knew what it was up to.

[read @ AO3]






When Wilhemne Strauss gave birth to her fifth daughter on a cool and rainy spring evening in 1896, it was not quite the state of affairs she'd been planning on.

For one, she had no name for the girl. It hadn't occurred to her that she might not have a boy this time, like somehow the chances for a girl were supposed to diminish with each successive birth.

Not that she particularly minded girls -- she had no patience for those who would try to pit female against female to make them decry their own sex. The way she saw it, the only people who benefitted from it were men. It was just … she had so many of them already, wasn't it time for a change?

She thought of her mother and her husband's mother, but both of them were already accounted for in their first two daughters, and in the next two, the only grandmothers that mattered. Of the other two grandmothers who were potential name donors, one had been a Roma traveler and the other a Calvinist, so they clearly wouldn't do.

Herr Strauss, when he came in to see how mother and newborn daughter were doing, tugged at his whiskers and offered, "Well, there's always 'Elsi.'"

Wilhemne looked at him for a long moment, then picked up her empty drinking cup from the bedside table and threw it at him.

It bounced off his chest, hit the floor, and spun to a stop.

When he fetched it and put it back, his wife informed him, "We are not naming our daughter after your childhood mare."

He chuckled deeply and responded, "See? You are not at such a loss."

In the end, she settled on Rosa, after a character from a novel she'd read once as a very young girl, on a trip up north to the Schleswig territory, during one of those times when it couldn't decide whether it was Danish or German. (The ridiculousness of the situation was one of the few things Austria and Prussia ever agreed upon, and the area now safely resides under Prussian control. It only took a war or two.) To this day, it remained the only thing Wilhemne Strauss had ever read cover-to-cover that wasn't the Bible.

She liked it, and when Rosa was an infant without much personality to display, she liked her, too.

She already had four workhorses for children, and nurtured the idea that perhaps she could finally raise a rose of a girl, for variety's sake; someone she could keep close to her apron, who would be better at embroidery than lifting hay bales, who would take care of her in her old age.

But, just like the rest of her sisters, Rosa grew up short and squat and entirely disinterested in being delicate or gentle or benevolent, and Wilhemne gave up.

It was the last time anyone pinned any kind of expectation to Rosa Strauss and thought she might come easily.


-


"I have five sisters."

She packs the words up, boxes them together, and sets them down with a heavy thump.

It's the first thing she volunteers to Max Vandenburg that doesn't involve soup or clothes or the state of the blankets. She thinks it'll do nicely.

"Four older and one younger," she adds, clumping it with the others and putting it down on the steps like she would the food.

She's addressing a collection of paint tarps drawn up into a vaguely humpy shape that wouldn't suggest a hidden body unless you knew it was there. Hans comes down to talk and to collect the waste, and Liesel avoids it entirely, as if proximity might make her books spontaneously catch fire. Rosa isn't sure threatening to burn her books was necessary, but regardless, it seems to have worked: they might as well have taken her eleven-year-old jaw and wired it shut.

She waits for a beat.

Then the tarps reply, "I have six cousins."

She says, "ja," because he can't see her nod, and it's only when she's half-way up the basement steps that she realizes they both used the present tense out of pure self-preservation.


-


The thing about being the second youngest in a family of six girls is that she disappeared, without fail.

She wasn't the youngest and therefore not the baby, and she wasn't the oldest, who were the first to do everything -- her elder sisters got all the new clothes and new experiences, which they dutifully passed down to Franziska and Rosa and Gitte when they outgrew them; toys, pinafores, the scandalous practice of kissing boys, all secondhand.

As a child, Rosa never had much to say.

("Yes, really. What was that look for, you filthy swine, do I have something on my face?")

There was her father, her mother, her sisters, the dairy cow, the pigs, and an unholy cluster of chickens kept in a coop right underneath their bedroom window, all of whom were very good at talking just to hear their own voices, and instead of learning how to shout louder, Rosa just learned to listen. This meant that for the longest time, nobody bothered with Rosa Strauss longer than it took to determine that she was pleasant enough to look at, but Crucified Christ, she was dumb as a lump of coal.

For some reason, people always like to assume you're stupid when you don't talk a lot, but Rosa's found that there's an awful lot of stupid people who talk plenty.

When she married, and finally had her own home -- then, Himmel Street was actually much the same as it is now, although the cobble hadn't been laid in the road yet, but you could tell which one was Number 33 because it was the only one with a fresh coat of paint, mixed specially as a wedding present for her -- it was the quiet that unsettled her the most.

She thought, being in town, that perhaps it wouldn't be so bad, but with the absence of her sisters and the animals, Rosa found herself listening to the things the walls had to say, the creak of the stairs as they settled, the groan of the water pump out back. In the evenings, she went with Hans to the pub, where there was chatter and music and cheeky soldiers fresh back from France asking her about a dance, and he'd play his accordion the entire way home, even when the youngest Olendreich children pitched open their window right on cue and flung little projectile cracked peanut shells at him, and she'd be able to forget about the quiet until the next morning.

"You mind yourself now," she tells Liesel once, when she comes into the kitchen to find the girl murmuring laboriously over a page of text in one of her books. "Talk to it enough, you might find it talking back."

"Yes, Mama," Liesel returns, in the tone people use when they haven't the faintest clue what you're on about.


-


The farm had belonged to her father's father, and his father before that (who'd taken it as a spoil of war from a mild-mannered fellow who wasn't much fussed about the great destiny of the Prussian Empire, but everybody usually skipped that part of the story,) and one day was supposed to go to the eldest daughter and whatever husband she desired, so long as he be a good farming man.

"Well, that doesn't narrow down my choices very much, have you seen the options around here?" Trudy complained, and, "ow!" when their mother brought her spoon down hard on her knuckles.

Her future inheritance was a little plot of land that lay situated almost directly on the Amper River; it contained the cottage house, a small but serviceable barn, and a mill for the grain that the Strausses were very fond of, but that everybody else considered to be antique.

("They've got factories for that now, don't they?" Johann Hermann asked stupidly, and yelped like a startled calf when three of the six Strauss girls hit him at once.

They were very loyal, the Strauss girls, you understand, and anyway, you shouldn't trust Johann Hermann. He reads.)

Theirs was the first farm you encountered when you crossed the bridge from town, so it meant that the family often saw a lot of traffic: all the farm kids had to pass this way on their trek to school, and then everybody would go by on Sunday, since the closest church was in Molching proper. There was another bridge, up closer to the rich side of town, but Rosa didn't know anybody who used it who didn't live there. It had iron struts and was all very fancy.

Some of her sisters had friends from the neighboring farms, and church was always a social minefield (none of them knew anybody who actually used the church for its intended purpose, because worship was nice and all, but more importantly, there was the week's gossip to be shared,) and sometimes Rosa thought little Gitte might be nursing some sweetheart sentiment for that Johann, but when she herself took a tally of her friendships, she came up with just the one:

Her sister, Franziska, who was closest to her in age, who slept beside her at night in their little cottage house. She'd been born the summer before, and like Rosa, she was short and had hair so black and straight it was like it'd been drawn on top of her head with a pencil.

Also like Rosa, her favorite thing in the world was to compare third parties to her own ideal standard and list all the ways they were deficient.

There was nobody in the world Rosa Strauss loved more.


-


Max Vandenburg is at their kitchen table.

It is late afternoon, but with the shades drawn, it's more like twilight: the light that comes in is yellowed, softened by fabric, shut up like a sickroom. Max keeps looking around, each unsteady blink a slow fall of his eyelashes, because it's been a very long time since he's seen their kitchen in the daylight.

No one will think it strange to find their shades drawn, not today, and anyway, they couldn't have this talk in the basement: she needs the kitchen light to sew up the gash across her husband's hands. The Nazis whipped him in the street, and it's taking all of Rosa's strength to keep her own hands from shaking themselves stupid with anger.

Hans, of course, is useless, shocked and muddled and swimming in guilt, the silver in his eyes tarnished.

Max keeps looking from him to her. His sketchbook huddles atop the table, half-hidden underneath his hand like a very small pet. Liesel's been sent to bed, even though it's scarcely past dinner. They can all hear her walking in circles; the floorboards groan, abused.

Rosa thinks.

Roa thinks, fast.

Where can they hide him? Where else can Max Vandenburg possibly go? The Gestapo will come. Right now, it's only matter of how many more infractions need to be investigated before they reach Hans Hubermann, stupid Hans Hubermann and his stupid, stupid weeping generous heart, and Max cannot be here when they arrive. It's a very simple problem.

She parts her cardboard lips.

"The farm. On the Amper River," squeezes out through the gap. It flutters to the table, a small slip of a statement caught on an eddy.

Two sets of eyes alight on her.

"My old home," she clarifies. "They never rebuilt it after it burnt, but the millstones are still there, and so's what's left of the bridge. There's enough for shelter."

Hans Hubermann looks at his wife in wonder.

"You're right," he realizes. "Nobody goes there. You'll be hidden and safe," he turns to Max now, his voice a plea cluttered atop the table with the rest. "Temporarily. As long as it takes me to -- to do whatever -- anything -- whatever I have to do fix this, and then I'll come get you and we'll come back," and a smallness tears at the corner of Max's mouth, a near-smile, because what else is there to do when Hans Hubermann turns that earnestness on you?

He looks again to his wife.

"Do you have a map?" he says urgently. "To help him find his way there tonight?"

Rosa makes a rude noise.

"Write down what I tell you," she orders Max, and his hand twitches open the sketchbook in a kneejerk response to her tone.

She gives him the directions: Rosa Hubermann knows how to find her way home, even in the dead of night.


-


Liesel Meminger was not Hans and Rosa's only foster child.

The first came to them while Hans Junior and Trudy were still living at home. The Reich, at that time, was toddling into its second decade as a unified government, and the Nazi Party had not yet gained majority, although most considered it to be only a matter of time, and the boys on the street had taken to hassling her son.

"What's going to happen to your papa, Hubermann?" The jeers gored at him, struck straight through his back. "You know what they call him at party headquarters, right? Der Juden Maler -- the Jew painter."

Those boys.

Only brave in packs, and only brave when they're picking on just one.

But Hans was losing costumers, and when Hitler rose to power in 1933, the situation in the Hubermann household was very hand-to-mouth, and getting worse. So when Gitte came down from Munich for a visit and mentioned a certain Frau Heinrich, who often stopped by the convent to collect charity supplies and who worked in the social services, which gave allowances, you know, for people who opened their homes for fostering -- well. Sweet Gitte. Sweet, baby Gitte. She was brilliant.

The first fosterling Frau Heinrich set them up with was, coincidentally, a Molching boy. His name was Peter.

Hans Junior took to him immediately, having had no compatriot in the house except for Trudy, who was entirely uninterested in his pursuits. The boys were only a year or so apart and liked the same things: iced buns, the cherry-aid that Herr Diller would sometimes sneak them while his wife wasn't looking, and the imagined glory that would come with Germany's splendid rise to power.

"Was he that boy --" Hans Hubermann finally, finally asked. "The illegitimate one born in that house on Heide Strasse?"

"Oh, now he puts the pieces together," Rosa said in aggravation. "It's just as well I didn't marry you for your smarts."

She remembered. The house on Heide Strasse was shut up all through the war, while people like Hans Hubermann were getting shot at on grassy hills and people like Rosa Strauss were screaming and shaking her sisters awake in the middle of the night while the French soldiers took their flamethrowers to the fields as part of the Munich blockade, and when it opened again, nothing much had changed, except for one of the maids, who had in her possession a year-old son. Peter.

Whatever the Reich tried to tell you, there were black people in Germany. The maid on Heide Strasse was one of them.

Peter could pass at first glance -- tall, with strong jaw and strong shoulders, beige skin and hair that matched -- but it was his nose that gave him away. Rosa caught him once or twice in the washroom, poking at it in the mirror, trying to thin it out.

When Hans Junior joined up with the party, he was sent to Munich proper, where his skills as an apprentice painter were needed for the flurry of new Fuhrerbauten ("Fuhrer buildings") that were being erected in Hitler's honor. Munich was, after all, the birthplace of Nazism.

Peter did not go with him, choosing instead to accompany his foster father to the Knoller in the evenings, where he was eventually taken on as help.

He phased out of social services, and Hans and Rosa filed with Frau Heinrich for more.

They were, it turned out, very good at it.

Competence is attractive, and the Hubermanns gained a reputation. When the curious case of the Memingers landed on Frau Heinrich's desk at a time when Hitler was rapidly overturning every stone, looking for scapegoats, it was them she thought of. She visited and brought the situation with her, patted down into a few component parts: "Two, this time. A sister and a brother. Slavs, I think, judging by what little I've seen of the mother's alphabet, although it's impossible to get any answers out of her. They've clammed her up tight. But you see why I'm eager to get them in a home and the file shut before -- well, before they come with questions."

"What will we do if they come and question us instead?" Hans Hubermann asked. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility: his home had been ransacked before.

Very tiredly, Frau Heinrich said, "They are very young. Nine and six, respectively. Never let them think they are anything but German, verstehst?"


-


A little after the Fuhrer's birthday, 1940, Rosa turns to her husband in the silent, empty kitchen and says, "The next time you go to the Knoller, you check on Peter, understand?"

"… ja."

Three nights later, he sits down on the bed next to her and says, "He's gone. Herr Schmiekl said he took all of his savings and used it to emigrate to Spain, three months ago."

"Good," says Rosa, and goes back to sleep, until Liesel's screaming wakes them both a few hours later.


-


That first winter, they trade congestion and cough back and forth, again and again.

As soon as Max -- always the last to get one and the last to get over it -- clears up from one virus, Liesel would bring home another one from school and promptly passes it over like it went in-hand with the washing and ironing money. Rosa gets very sick of the sound of sniffling.

One night at the stringy end of January, a few weeks before Liesel's twelfth birthday, they're all sitting by the fire; Max in his corner like a boxing ring, Liesel on the rug, Hans in the chair, and Rosa on the bed with her feet up, thank God, and they pass around a bowl of steaming water and a damp towel, trying to clear their stuffy heads.

"All right, saumensch, you've had it long enough," Rosa slaps down, her voice murky with snot. "If you hand that thing up to me and it's cold, you do know who's going to have to go boil more, don't you?"

"Yes, Mama."

Carefully, she lifts the bowl up to Rosa (still warm, and oh, how the ache in her head eases already,) and then, suddenly, Liesel giggles.

It trips out of her and lands on the carpet, splashing there like the contents of an upended teacup.

"Sorry," she says, when everybody looks from the laughter stain on the carpet to her and then back again.

Then she giggles again, and this time, Papa joins in. A few chuckles scrape their way out of Max's throat, too, flinty like he's not sure they won't catch alight.

(A year from now, when Liesel hovers behind her and asks, Mama, will he survive?, Rosa will tell her, if all those colds we gave him didn't kill him, this certainly won't, he has too much practice. Now make yourself useful, girl!)

"What is wrong with you all?" Rosa demands grumpily when they don't stop.

Hans spreads his hands and says, "Look at us, Rosa," and then shoves at his red nose with a handkerchief. "Aren't we the true faces of treason?"

And Liesel and Max laugh harder, shapes curling up on the rug like they're burning and hurting with something.

"That's not a joking matter!" she hisses out. They've all gone mad!

But her husband just continues, scarcely able to get his words out through snatches of laughter, "What would the Fuhrer say -- do you think -- if he could see us now?"

Max pipes in, "The great threat to the pure German ideal!"

And even Rosa has to smile at that one: this exaggerated, grandiose voice coming out of a skinny Jew with a runny nose, Mein Kampf jumping nervously in his hands, because isn't it ridiculous -- when you stop and think, isn't it absolutely ridiculous that this is what an entire nation has been trained to fear: people, just people, people who get laid out with headcolds, just like them.


-


Rosa considers motherhood to be largely an act of aggression, a strategy that had to be played purely on offense.

Certainly, she had a talent for it, much the same way she had a talent for aggravating everyone she'd ever met, the same way Hans had a talent for painting and her sister Franziska for being singularly offensive and Liesel for getting herself covered in some kind of filth. And anyway, Hans Junior and Trudy turned out all right -- well, more or less, there was that little hiccup about politics, but surely once the young Nazis had pounded their chests enough and burned a few synagogues, that mislead surge of nationalism would dry up, right, and they'd all get over it? She hadn't raised the kind of boy who would murder other boys, she knows she didn't.

Trudy drops by unannounced the weekend after Max's twenty-sixth birthday, full of hugs and apologies, saying she won't be able to come for Christmas the following week: her family of employment's seeking safety in the countryside, and as a nanny she is, of course, a vital expense.

"You take care, girl," Rosa tells her, bundling her up into a bruise of an embrace. "Being country didn't stop the French from burning down my home in the last war."

"Mama, you were just down the Amper River, that wasn't exactly country," Trudy says congenially, bruising her back.

The Hubermann women bear the shape of each other in their bones, everyone says.

"Back then, it was country."

Trudy stays until well past nine that evening, at which point they have to push her out the door or she'll miss the last train out. Hans offers to walk her to the station, "you coming too, Mama?" he asks, slinging his coat around his shoulders, and she retorts, "What, and leave this one to put herself to bed? That's a shovel of pigshit waiting to happen."

"Mama!" Liesel protests. "I'm almost thirteen!"

"Ja, und?" Rosa says with an eyeroll at her oldest daughter, who grins back.

As soon as she sees them turn the corner by Frau Diller's, she twitches the curtains shut and turns to the stove, while Liesel hurries to the top of the basement steps and throws down the all-clear to Max. Well-meaning and efficient, Trudy'd cleared away their dinner before Hans or Rosa could come up with an excuse to save any, and -- quicker on the uptake than her parents -- Liesel tried to feign ill so that they'd set her food aside, but Trudy, with the absent-mindedness of someone used to living in privilege, just cleared that bowl away too, still full.

"Didn't know she was coming today," she says when Max appears. It's the closest to an apology she's willing to hand over.

"Please, don't worry about it."

"Nein, sit down, the both of you, you'll be fed, and fast. It's late enough already. Blast that girl," she says, and doesn't mean it.

Liesel sits at the table, Max sits on the top step, hidden from view by the basement door, and Rosa grumbles at them both until her husband returns, saying, "She's on the train all right." And then, awfully, "she's scared."

Silence jams itself awkwardly into the room -- everybody watching it stumble and bumble and none of them addressing it -- before Rosa finds something else suitable to start in on: Trudy's family of employment, those selfish swine, hurrying off to the country so they can be comfortable while everybody else pinches and scrapes and waits to see if the enemy is going to start dropping bombs.

After, while Liesel scrubs at the pot, Max pauses. His voice, when it comes out, minces its way over to them.

"I'm sorry about your daughter. I've only ever heard her voice, but -- she seems very nice, from that."

He vanishes, his descent back into the basement near-silent. Movement catches Rosa's attention, and she looks over as Liesel lets the pot sink in the basin. She translates the mischief on her face too late; the girl flies over to the top of the steps and throws her voice down it, suds dripping off the ends of her extended fingertips.

"You'd like her a lot!" she calls, gleeful and teasing. "She's very beautiful, and only a few years younger than you!"

Rosa: "Liesel!"

And Max, scandalized: "Excuse me?"

Liesel laughs, and a beat later, shrieks and dodges: a dried paintbrush hurtles past her head.



-


Max's voice, when it comes, pokes at her gently, with timid fingers that feel at her pockets.

It says, "What happened to Trudy?"

"Hold still," Rosa snaps back. "And for Christ's sake, keep your arms out straight."

"Sorry." It's four months later, and this is the first time she's gotten Max Vandenburg on his feet since he woke up. When his bare arms start trembling, she catches them, under the guise of feeling them the same way she'd checked his ribs for worrisome bumps or sores, the same way she'd pressed her fingers into the soft spots under his jaw, feeling for swelling.

She grouses at him, "Stick your 'sorry.' Lucky for you, you're putting the weight back on -- good, because I have to go stand in the ration line and I certainly wouldn't have time for your nonsense if you weren't. You can put your shirt on now, hurry up, and what was that about Trudy?"

Max accepts the aggressive shove of her affection in its course, and says, "You never told me. About her."

His skin disappears from sight. His modesty had only lasted as long as it took Rosa to wallop him and say, laughingly, and who do you think had to keep you clean the entire time you were asleep? You didn't magically just stop shitting, I promise, you stupid arschloch.

"She's gone away to the country with those rich pigs. Why do you ask?"

"Not your daughter." He finishes the buttons on his undershirt, and she pushes his sweater at him next; it's as grey and limp as the rest, but good quality and heavy, and Rosa takes a moment to thank Walter Kugler, wherever he is, for clothing Max marginally better than they could. It might have saved his life. "Your sister."

She pauses.

"The eldest one, right? Who was supposed to inherit your land."

Inside her chest, her heart hiccups.

The washroom is narrow, the tiles grey and corroded with rust, and Rosa Hubermann gathers herself up in great big armfuls like she would the washing and says, "She fell through the ice."

She doesn't look at him.

"We brought her in as soon as we could, and heated up the hottest bath, thinking that would -- thinking -- well. We didn't know. There was no way for us to know back then, that you're not supposed to heat it too hot, that the shock of it would --" She hands him his coat, all the violence gone from the gesture. "I was twelve."


-



Until the age of eleven, Rosa attended school with the others, crossing the bridge and cutting through the developing outskirts of Molching through mud and rain and snow.

She never had much interest in it, knowing the way all farm kids do that she wasn't going to be there long. She sat with Franziska in the schoolroom and in the yard, they jumped rope together and plotted how to steal the ball away from the boys. They were often joined by Wolfgang Edel and a couple of his friends, who were all a little too duck-footed or ill-fitting in their own skins to be much use in the ball game.

Wolfgang Edel came from a family of carpenters and was going to be a carpenter and none of them knew exactly what that entailed at their age, but he believed it and so did they.

He lived in town, which was novel: Franziska and Rosa hadn't socialized much with town people before, assuming, as you will, that people who lived in town had to be rich. Didn't you have to be, if you didn't grow your own food just to survive? And it's only when they got to know Wolfgang and his boys that they realized that no -- if anything, you could be even poorer, in town.

"-- good at it," he went about saying one day, watching Rosa and Franziska expertly steal away some of his crew to swing the jumprope for them while they double-Dutched through sheer force of will. "Like Hubermann here is good at mixing paints," he jabbed his thumb at another one of his friends, a gangly beanstalk of a boy who never seemed to be walking the same direction his limbs seemed to be taking him. He looked up at the sound of his name, smiling absently; he was studying a trail of ants that worked its way between his legs. "What are you good at?"

Rosa shrugged. She clapped hands with her sister and they changed places, still skipping.

Franziska, of course, spoke for her. "Rosa's really good at mixing words," she said proudly.

He looked at them. His disbelief wrote itself all over his face. He took it, balled it up into a single word, and punted it at them. "Really?" It hit them hard, turned bits of them splotchy and red.

"Yes," said her sister, "you'll see," and Rosa cut them a smile.

Franziska spoke for her until Rosa came out with her own fists one day, flagging Wolfgang down after he let some of the younger children make off with her jumprope and hitting him with a fist to the middle of his back and snarling, "What did you do that for, you filthy saukerl?"

It was the first time she ever branded anyone who wasn't a Strauss with that particular title, and the result was wonderful:

Wolfgang Edel's jaw dropped. His eyes turned the color of beetles, iridescent and surprised.

"Excuse me, I do what with pigs?" he demanded, after a beat or two of stuttering.

Behind him, Hans Hubermann hid a smile behind his hand, to no better effect than a single cloud trying to hide the sun. Rosa's eyes snapped to him, then back to Wolfgang's screwed-up face, and she felt the peculiar, warm sting of pride. (She's liked Hans Hubermann since that time when they were seven, when he caught her picking her nose and wiping it on the back of Johann Hermann's sweater for lack of anywhere better, and he didn't say a thing, just smiled. You earn a lot of loyalty for a thing like that, and Rosa's never forgotten it. She won't know much about him until later, when they've both left school and he'll go out of his way to continue existing in her peripheral. He's an only child, town-bred but with a farmer's work ethic, with a slow, conscious way of interacting with the world that only comes with abject poverty. Respect shaped him early.)

Rosa Strauss's greatest achievement to this date is a vast collection of insulting, offensive things to call people.

You have to be creative with your insults, in a family like hers: all the good ones were already taken by the time Rosa got old enough to start talking back to her sisters, all of their gratifying scandal and sting worn out of them. So she invented new ones.

Saumensch and saukerl, she feels, are her crowning victories.

You won't find them in a dictionary, but there are probably people in Molching who will laugh at you if you try to tell them that, given the number of times they've had it flung at them by a very short, irate Rosa. She wasn't anticipating how popular they'd be with the Steiner kids, who picked it up like they would scripture or the national anthem, hurtling saumenschs and saukerls at each other's retreating backs while their mother watched with bemusement.

The Steiners moved in next door when Hans Junior was four, Trudy three.

They were teenagers, then -- Alex Steiner still had puffy baby fat underneath his jaw, but he and Barbara had hard hands, with scrubbed knuckles and uneven nails like they'd clawed their way into the space they currently occupied, and they kept to themselves at first. Rosa thought them rude.

"They're shy, Mama," Hans told her, pinning his sleeves up to help her wring out the washing. His eyes twinkled at her. "Imagine moving somewhere where everybody knew each other growing up, it seems like, and not knowing how to start new friendships. Besides, they're sweethearts -- right now, the only thing they need is each other."

Rosa harumph'ed. "Well, I will go over there tomorrow, then," she said, already planning out how to shove a conversation on them.

"Perhaps I should go first," Hans suggested lightly. "You tend to … take some getting used to," which was a stupid thing to say when Rosa was within reach and armed with a lot of sudsy water and wet clothes. He got yelled at, and slapped, and soaked, and even kissed, though that took some earning.

Hans Hubermann's nicest vest came from the Steiners -- a gift given to him in exchange for painting their nursery.

The giving streak, she finds, runs in that whole family.


-


On mornings on which there's no work, Hans goes down into the basement to sit on a paintcan and talk to Max once Liesel's been seen safely off to school.

He's setting up a pattern, the way he did with their foster children, Rosa realizes, albeit one who comes to them a little older than the rest. He started with Peter when Peter was new on Himmel Street, and continued with the others, including Liesel and her midnight classes -- it's a time of day in which Hans Hubermann's time and attention belongs to nothing else, should it ever be needed. It's a way of saying, I am reliable, I am here.

On mornings in which Hans does have work, Rosa substitutes.

Max doesn't have much to say at first that isn't a direct answer to her questions about the food ("more than enough, Frau Hubermann, thank you,") or the blanket ("more than enough, Frau Hubermann, thank you,") or the cold, dark space ("I'm sorry, I shouldn't be here, I shouldn't have put you at risk, I --"), so she develops a habit of bringing some easily portable chore or another down with her, to work in proximity. Same time, every day.

I am reliable, I am here.

Max Vandenburg, she finds, is an excellent listener, and there's nothing Rosa likes more than venting at great length to an audience that can't easily escape.

"Tune in every fifth word or so," Hans advises him cheerily. "You aren't missing much," and, "ow!" when Rosa's wooden spoon immediately cracks down onto his knuckles. He makes a show of hissing and sucking on them to relieve the sting, then winks when he thinks Rosa's turned her back. Liesel winks back, and even Max offers a starved, exposed rib of a smile.

Once, when Rosa's in the basement and she glances over mid-complaint, she doesn't see the casual mess of drop sheets and silence she's used to.

It takes her a moment to reconcile what she's looking at -- a hand, suspended atop a thin wrist, has emerged from the drop sheets. Max has taken one of her husband's old painter's pencils and drawn on the inside of his hand, creating dark eyes, serious eyebrows, and a mouth skewed in a bizarre frown around his thumb.

It's a hand puppet, the kind Rosa hasn't seen since her own children were small and fond of mocking their teachers (and each other.)

The silence stretches, settling itself on the stones between them, and the puppet's nose scrunches up.

"What is that?" she asks.

The head swivels around on the end of Max's wrist, checking behind it like there's anything else she might be referring to.

Then Max's voice emerges; a patter of sound amidst the plastic.

"It's Frau Holtzapfel," he tells her. "If you're going to rail at her so, she'd best be present." The puppet's nose scrunches again. It does, actually, look a little womanly. "Is it not a good likeness? I'm afraid I had to guess -- I haven't had the pleasure of meeting the woman personally."

"Well, aren't you lucky," Rosa grumbles.

The puppet works its mouth back at her mockingly, haughty, and Max might never have met the woman, but he sure can capture her expression. She laughs, and since nothing endears someone to her faster than a mutual derision for a third party, Max Vandenburg is her friend from that moment on.


-


"Rosa," Max's voice darts out in front of her. "The door."

She claps her mouth shut, and there it is, the sound of it distant: a knock, firing against the front of Number 33.

She looks at Max. He looks at her. They move in the same instant -- Max sliding sideways, off the bottom step, disappearing underneath his tarps like a rat darting into a hole, and Rosa gathering up his bowl and the utensils she was polishing and ascending the steps, fast. The bowl she discards into the sink, before she hauls the door open out from underneath the knocker's fist.

"Frau Hubermann?" It's Agnes, Rolf Fischer's daughter, and she seems derailed by her appearance. Her eyes tag the spoons, the polishing rag, and the open basement door. "Were you … working in the basement? Didn't you hear me knocking?"

Fear flares like a struck match in Rosa's throat, but fortunately, her mouth opens with the ease of long practice and replies for her, "I did not. Maybe I'll do all my chores in the basement from now on, just to get some peace from the stupid creatures always harassing me."

Three years ago, Agnes Fischer's father reported Hans Hubermann to the NSDAP. They suspended his application. They searched their home, top to bottom. They gave him the nickname of "the Jew painter" so that their children could taunt their own until they drove them right out of Molching.

Bless her heart, the insult goes right over Agnes's head.

"But isn't it usually just the Steiners visiting you?" she asks with some confusion. "Or Frau Holtzapfel?"

Rosa says, "Exactly, you see my point."

And this time, Agnes's mouth twitches with a smile, and Rosa is safe.





continue on to the next part -->


Tags: character: max vandenburg, character: rosa hubermann, fandom: the book thief, pairing: hans/rosa, rating: pg
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