Willow Rosenberg held down her hat as a gust of wind blew up Sixth Avenue. She briskly trailed her classmate Buffy Summers as they hopped mud puddles on the way to the Haymarket Dance Hall just below West 30th Street. They were late for their rendezvous with their escorts William Blythe and Daniel Osborne, and as they weaved past the omnibuses, Willow did her best to hold her petticoat above the splashing water.
Her thoughts turned from the events of the school day to the reason they called this area the Tenderloin. It certainly didn't seem very tender, quite the opposite. Women in garishly colored dresses walked on the arms of men that left little ambiguity about their intentions. Saloons with Ladies Entrances dotted the avenue, and it appeared that the less scandalous establishments, like the groceries, were closing up for the night.
Willow was very excited to attend the dance hall. She had heard tales from her classmates about the humorous comedians, the spectacular jugglers, and the beautiful songs. She also heard about the scandalous activities that went on. Her parents had finally relented and agreed to let her go to the variety show with her friend and escorts as chaperone. Fortunately, her parents thought she was going to Tony Pastor's in the Bowery. He offered "good, clean" entertainment that was much more appropriate for a girl her age.
The exterior of the Haymarket intimidated her. The bright lights, the beautiful women with even more beautiful dresses lined up to gain admission. There were handsome men with money to spend, the bargirls looking for a dime. Daniel had paid for their admission and took her arm. She felt oddly comfortable with him. He didn't push for anything, and he knew how to put people at ease.
The four made their way through the throngs to a group of seats on the balcony. William had been very attentive to Buffy from the start. He took care of their coats and pulled out her chair and gave decidedly angry looks at any man that glared at her. William placed a possessive arm across the back of her chair, while Willow sat down next to her. Daniel took the remaining chair and gestured to the barmaid for four beers.
Willow decided to chat up the reticent man to her left. "So, is this your first time here? I guess you may not come her too often, but you do seem to know your way around."
He shrugged and replied, "I know people. It's not so hard."
'Okay, so much for enlightened conversation,' she thought as the first act went onstage. A pair of jugglers received applause as they got into their places. Their polished tuxedos were only slightly mussed as they tossed balls and pins into the air. They lit the tips and juggled them back and forth as the audience clapped louder. The jugglers took their bows and exited the stage.
Buffy hands clapped and returned to her lap. She found William's hands on her knee, and though it was not entirely unpleasant, she did not want him to get the wrong idea. She turned her attention to Willow, who was sitting motionless next to Daniel. "Aren't you glad we decided to sneak here? This is so wild!"
"Uh, yeah. This is a lot of fun. I just hope my parents don't find out we came here. I'm very seldom naughty," the redhead responded.
"Relax, Will. Your reputation as a nun is safe with me. It's not like you're going to coax a gentleman into one of those cubicles down there. We're just here to taste a little bit of the nightlife. Now, let's see what they have to offer next!"
Willow shrugged and acknowledged that her friend was correct. As long as she got home at a decent hour, her parents would have no way to know she had decided to go to the Haymarket.
The next performer was a singer, a woman. Willow noticed her long blonde hair, her sparkling blue eyes, and her beautiful voice. Notes bled into melodies, which floated up to the balcony where Willow sat in rapt attention. She did not know the name of the song, and she did not care. The woman had a graceful demeanor as she walked around the stage, singing about her home.
The redhead absently wonder where her home was, assuming that it must be some magical place. The blonde gestured up to the balcony with a handkerchief. Her eyes followed, taking in the faces that looked back at her.
Willow noticed that the rest of the audience held their breath as the last notes of the song filtered through the hall. Thunderous applause greeted the singer as she bowed. She smiled once, and Willow could have sworn she was smiling at her. The singer bowed once more and made her exit.
The next performer rolled a cart onstage as his assistant curtsied. The crowd bustled with waitresses, some of them serving drinks and some of them serving something else. Willow looked down at the beer that had been given to her. She had taken one sip and did not know how she could possibly finish the drink.
Her thoughts turned to the singer, and how wonderful she was. She seemed so out of place at this dance hall. Her gentle voice, her lovely face, her smile. Her smile seemed a bit uneven, but nonetheless beautiful.
Buffy's laugh brought Willow out of her reverie. William had just whispered some joke in her ear, and she couldn't help but think that both their parents would not approve if they knew what actually happened in these establishments. She glanced over at Daniel, who was casting a suspicious eye at the magician onstage. She sighed, thinking that she might as well try to enjoy herself, and turned her attention back to the performers.
"Tara, no more of this 'hard act to follow' business! I mean it. You know, some of us have to make a living, too." Anya's annoyed tone cut through the din of showgirls preparing for their act.
The blonde smiled as she removed her dress and reached for her next costume. "Sorry, Anya. Besides, I'm sure they'll be clamoring for more after you show off those legs. Will you fasten my dress?"
Anya exhaled loudly and walked over to her friend. She began fastening the buttons down the back of Tara's dress and said, "Fine, but only because you do the same for me. I believe in reciprocation and geez lady, you're tense. what's up?"
"Uh, nothing. I just, I'm worried about the next number, and I had a long day at the factory. How was your day, anyway?"
"Oh fine, same profits, different day. I swear Xander just isn't trying to nab the best fish anymore. I sold some real runts today. Either that or getting up at 4:00 a.m. is finally getting to his head. As long as he performs his nightly duty in bed, I suppose I'll forgive him. Maybe that's what you need? I could get Xander to find a friend from the fish market. Of course, I couldn't promise that he wouldn't smell like oysters."
Tara smiled and replied, "Thanks, but no thanks. I think I just need to get a good night's sleep. Now get out there and break a leg!"
The dancer left in a line of girls, and Tara was left alone with her thoughts. She couldn't wait until the weekend was over and she could have a night off. Her feet were killing her, and she could swear that her hands might never move again. Her fingers ached from her day at the textile factory, and truth be told, that was why she needed help fastening the buttons on her dress.
As tired as she was, she enjoyed this part of her day. She could perform, and be alone with her music for a few minutes, even if hundreds of people were looking. Her thoughts turned to the crowd, and that beautiful redhead in the balcony. She seemed to be with an escort, of course no woman would be in the Haymarket without one. This was one of the venues that allowed women, even though there was much for the moralists to criticize. Tara was glad that she did not need to offer more to the clientele to maintain her employment with the theater.
The dancers had finished their act and returned to the dressing room, and Tara realized she had to go on after the fiddler and his pet monkey. She had decided that a song about Ireland might not be the best thing to do, even though it brought her back to happier times. 'Perhaps a love song, to keep me company when I get out of this hole,' she thought. She grabbed the flower prop and made her way to the wings of the stage.
The crowd had become more excited as the night wore on. The comedians had created a deafening roar from the audience, and Willow could not help but wish that the blonde singer would come back out and sing another song. Daniel was a perfect gentleman, to a boring degree, and she had finally managed to finish her drink. Buffy and William were playing cat and mouse, and her eyes wandered past the smoke that glowed in the light from the oil lamps.
She had enjoyed the dancers a bit, but she was not having as good a time as Buffy. The redhead noticed a heavily trafficked hallway, with gaudy women and wealthy men filing in and out with satisfied grins on their faces.
The theater owner made a sudden appearance on the stage and cleared his throat. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Back by popular demand, please welcome Tara, the Irish Rose!"
The audience, especially the men, clapped and hollered. Willow's ears perked up and her attention shifted, from Buffy playing coy and William playing cool, to the woman that graced the stage with her presence. 'She's back! And her name is Tara,' she thought as the blonde took her place on the stage.
The blonde began to sing "Oh Say Can This Be Love," and the audience fell into a hushed silence. Willow took in the soft curves of the blonde's dress, and noticed the gentle way her fingers curled around the flower. Tara's voice danced through the hall, and the redhead shifted her focus to the blonde's deep blue eyes.
The singer sauntered across the stage, singing about her dreams of love, and she glanced up toward the redhead in the balcony. For a moment, she thought she was flying. The redhead was looking directly at Tara, and her sparkling green eyes pierced through her.
"Hey! Irish... Rose was it? You sing real pretty. Why don't you throw that flower over this way, beautiful! Hey! Over here!"
Tara looked down to the audience to see a man stumbling toward the stage. The muscular guard came out from the wings as the bartender hopped across the bar toward the man. They struggled to get him to the ground as he shouted, "Hey! C'mon, why don't you take off your dress!? I'm sure I could make you real happy, how much would it cost?! Hey, let go of me! Get your hands off!"
Tara had backed to the far corner of the stage and the piano player had stopped the song. Gasps rose from the crowd as the drunk man was ejected from the hall. Amid the disruption, another man shouted, "Hey, bring that magician back out here!" Another man responded, "No! Let the lady finish. Why don't you shut up!"
A brawl erupted. Tara escaped to her dressing room as William and Daniel led Buffy and Willow out of the Haymarket. The owner was grateful that he had hired several burly men to guard the doors. They set to work quelling the hostile customers.
Willow had not realized that the beer had so effected her until she was forced to stand up and exit the theater. She was surprised that her feet carried her all the way out to the street. She clung to Daniel's arm and asked, "Whoa, can you help me get home? I don't think I should have had so much beer. How do you keep a steady head? Especially after that singer! Tara! She was wonderful. Like sunshine. Will you help get me home, I don't think I should have drunken so much beer."
Daniel threw one arm around her waist to hold her up. He answered, "No problem. You're on the east side?"
The redhead nodded and draped her arm around his shoulder to keep steady. She noticed that Buffy was not faring much better, but that William was not as courteous as Daniel. The blonde man asked her, "Hey there Buffy, I thought we were going to have a night out on the town? What do we do now? This isn't right... I guess it wouldn't be such a good idea to introduce you to mother."
"Oh William, you seemed so independent and street-smart. Who knew you were such a momma's boy? Look, I'll just follow Willow and Daniel back if you're not going to make sure I get home safe. I wouldn't want to tarnish your chic bohemian suit," Buffy replied.
William huffed, "Fine, I mean, of course I'll get you home, but can we go out some other time? This evening was sort of a bust."
"How about we go to the park sometime? Next weekend perhaps? I've heard it's beautiful," Buffy suggested.
William smiled, took her arm and the group started east.
Tara tossed the flower on the prop table and raced to the dressing room. Anya shot up from her seat and said, "I told you to quit it! How are we supposed to compare? I haven't started a fight since 1876, when I got out of Russia."
The blonde's smile hid her disappointment. She missed the serene feeling that swept over her when she sang to the redhead in the balcony, and that is exactly what she was doing. She had trained her attention on members of the audience, to be sure, but it had never resonated in such a direct manner. She wanted to connect with that redhead and hear the sound of her voice.
"Sorry, Anya. I'm just as upset than you are. I wish I could have finished that song, it's one of my favorites. Besides, you had quite a few men worked up after your act," Tara replied.
The owner burst in and said, "Ugh! No more loves songs from you, Miss Maclay. We'll have to start calling you "The Voice That Launched a Thousand Bar Brawls!" Now, as much as I like the attention, could you stick to songs about Ireland and our fair city? Thank you, now, I'll have one of my men make sure you're not injured on your way out. See you tomorrow night."
Tara shrugged and said, "Thanks Mike, I'm really sorry about this. I'll keep it simple from now on."
"Don't be sorry, just keep it mellow. Get out of here before they burn this place to the ground," Mike responded before he walked out of the dressing room.
Anya smacked the blonde on the arm and interjected, "Ha! Maybe I'll start a brawl next time. You'll have no recourse but to return to the factory on Orchard Street and marry Richard."
"I don't know that I will ever do that, Anya."
"Like you have a choice? Your hard-to-get attitude may not keep him from getting what he wants. He's the best manager in the city, and he has his eye on you," Anya answered.
"He probably has his eye on dozens of women, and I'd be happy to do just what I'm doing now, as long as I can keep a roof over my head," the blonde said as she wriggled in her costume. "Can you help me out of this dress?"
Anya dragged herself around Tara and began undoing the buttons up the back of the dress. "Well maybe if you let Richard help, you could get a girl to help you with this. Just think about it, Tara. You're not going to be young and beautiful forever, and this city eats innocence for breakfast. There, all done. Now get out of here before I put you in that thing inside-out."
Tara smiled and said, "Thanks Anya, I'll see you tomorrow."
As Tara put one foot out the door Anya shouted, "And don't forget, Xander can easily find someone to help you relax!"