John Maclay's voice bounced off the walls of the apartment, "Very nice, Tara. You look very nice."
Tara wanted nothing more than a thick shawl to cover her chest. Her father seemed satisfied with her appearance, yet she suddenly craved the awkward clothing of her childhood. Her mother was never a particularly devout Catholic, yet she still insisted that Tara dress with modesty.
Lilah emerged from her room and caught sight of Tara on her way to the kitchen. "Well, looks like someone is changing professions. I never thought that factory thing was for you, Tara. I take it some theater has come to appreciate your, shall we say, talent?"
"Frank, why don't you get your daughter into the kitchen where she belongs. She must have chores," John blared.
The tall man in the corner lifted his head and replied, "I don't meddle in your affairs, John. Now stay out of mine. Lilah, don't you have somewhere to be?"
The tall brunette rolled her eyes, "Yeah, yeah. Gee, if I didn't have a prior engagement, I would love to catch your act. 'Cept, wait... would they let little ole me in?"
As Lilah left the apartment, Tara could feel her grin all the way out the door and down the dark stairwell. Her chest tightened at the thought of what awaited her at Harry Hill's, yet she shuddered to think of how her father would react to disobedience. As her father and Frank Morgan continued to squabble in the dim light of their dwelling, she stared into the flame of a nearby candle.
Willow looked down at the clothing on her bed. A pair of brown slacks seemed to threaten the pale green dress that lay across the spread. She hoped her parents would not return before she left the apartment for the evening. If they caught her in male clothing, she would surely receive a severe punishment.
She marveled at her parents' easy concession. Her father barely glanced up from his book to give permission to go out with Buffy that evening. He ensured that her assignments were complete and reminded her that the Radcliffe application had arrived in the mail. Of course, her father did not know that she had no plans to meet Buffy, William, Daniel, or anyone else except Tara.
Tara. She could not help thinking about the blonde from the park. The girl fascinated Willow, and it was not until her studies barely held her attention that she realized she simply had to go see Tara sing again. She remembered Anya's mention of the clientele, and Daniel confirmed that Harry Hill's was not an establishment for unattached young ladies.
She furrowed her brow and exhaled loudly as she threw her legs into the pants. She closed the last button on her shirt, tightened the tie, and threw on the jacket. Her red hair was folded up into the cap Daniel had loaned her.
Willow took a last glance at herself in the mirror. She felt strangely comfortable as her male visage looked back at her. She turned off the lights, locked the door, and made her way to the show.
The blonde tightened her garter belt and straightened her hat. Purple feathers billowed from the top of her head. She applied the last touches on her make-up before she rose from her dressing table and waited in the wings.
Tara ducked her head through a slit in the curtain. The comedian onstage seemed like a walrus in a tuxedo, yet the crowd laughed uproariously at every prank. According to the manager, she was to sing next. It was all part of the rouse, a way to get the men on the floor to welcome her to their table. She recalled her father's saying, "Pretty girls with pretty voices catch the best men."
Her eye caught the familiar shape of her father as he sat at the bar. She shivered at the thought of the night before her. She did not like the idea of men touching her under any circumstance, and she hoped that her father would quickly end the evening's business. At least, she could still sing.
The redhead held her breath as she walked into the Men's entrance. Not a single person stopped her, and she shoved her shaking hands into her jacket pockets as she noted her surroundings. Hundreds of candles hung from iron chandeliers, their dust clearly visible from her position on the floor. Three bartenders stood behind the bar, their shirts dirty with grease and beer. The clientele was an odd mix of well-dressed men laughing around tables and lonely grey men staring into their glasses of beer.
Willow saw an empty table along the wall. She wove through the crowd and took a seat as a heavy comedian took a bow and ducked behind the curtain. In an effort to fit in with the men in the hall, she motioned to a waitress and ordered a beer. She hoped to see the stage from her position, and as she craned her neck the stage lights began to glow.
A man walked out onto the stage, and the audience fell into a dull roar. He cleared his throat and declared, "Your attention, please! Hullo... mates, quiet down now! We've got a special treat for ya tonight, all the way from the Haymarket. Let's have it for Tara, the Irish Rose!"
The redhead's heart beat with every step the blonde took to the center of the stage. Her eyes traveled up and down Tara's figure, enchanted by the beauty on the stage. A guffaw broke through the crowd as a man shouted, "Ay! Ay, there! Give us a song, then!"
The redhead feared a repeat of the brawl that halted Tara's prior performance and noticed her steel her expression. Apparently, she decided the best way to assuage the audience was to begin her song.
Tara cleared her throat and sent the first note through the air. The Harrigan song "Just Across from Jersey" always pleased crowds, and this audience was no exception. Smiles broke across the faces of gentlemen throughout the hall.
Willow could not help the feelings that arose as Tara sang. The blonde's clear voice cut right through her, and she sat hypnotized. Suddenly, the stage lights went out, and she noticed that the waitress was standing above her, impatiently waiting for her to pay for the beer that had been placed on the table. She pulled out her wallet and handed a bill to the waitress. She took a sip of the beer and put the wallet back in her pocket, hoping that Tara's song was not the last.
"Great song, miss! You might just make this joint respectable with that pretty voice o' yer's," the manager said as Tara removed the pins that held her hat in place. She replied, "Thanks. I'll try to do it again some time."
She took the hat from her head and straightened her hair, all too aware that her father was eager to see her out in the bar. She took a single look in the mirror before she stood, made her way past a pair of women tightening their corsets, and walked to the saloon entrance.
The light seemed dim, even though she knew they had turned the lamps up for the next performer. A magician had taken the stage after her performance, and it almost felt as if her song had never floated through the hall. Her eyes connected with her father, who nodded to her. His face told her to start working the crowd, and as she began to circle the tables, she noticed a familiar pair of green eyes along the far wall.
'It can't be! No, she wouldn't,' Tara thought as she moved to get a closer look at the figure. Her feet took her closer to the table, and she soon realized it was indeed Willow, her face in an adorable wince after a sip of beer. Tara smiled, though she immediately worried that Willow had endangered herself. If she were not discovered as a female, it would only have been because no one had tried to swipe her money. She formulated a plan, and decided that she was the only one who could protect Willow. 'Plus,' she thought, 'Willow is looking very nice.'
The redhead glanced up when she noticed the woman sit down across from her. She was immediately taken by how much more beautiful Tara was at this moment than when she stood upon the stage. She sat speechless when Tara asked, "Is this seat taken?"
Tara waved her hand before Willow's face, her voice filled with mirth as she asked again, "I said, is this seat taken?"
Willow shook her head and answered, "Um, no. Er, I mean, I had hoped you would sit with me. I know you must be busy, and there must be lots of people who want you to sit with them, so you don't have to stay. I just wanted to see you perform again. Sorry if I surprised you, and all, I just-"
"Willow, it's fine." The blonde grinned before she ventured, "Though, I must admit, I am shocked to see you here. This isn't really your type of place."
"My type of place? I just wanted to see you, that's all," the redhead responded defensively.
Tara noticed her father hovering in the background. She realized she would have to pretend to con the redhead if she was to keep her father from harassing her later. Begrudgingly, she motioned to a waitress and ordered a whiskey. She turned back to Willow and stated matter-of-factly, "Trust me. This isn't your type of place, and I am going to have to move to that chair next to you. Is that alright?"
Willow was confused. She also wondered if her ears deceived her when Tara ordered a whiskey. She was brought out of her contemplation by the proximity of the blonde.
Tara had moved to sit next to her, and had moved her arm around the back of her chair. She was acting different, and she couldn't seem to make up her mind about whether she wanted Willow to stay or go.
Willow hesitated, but needed to know, "What is going on? Do you want me to leave? I'm sorry I bothered you at work, I just... ugh, I don't even know anymore. And was that whiskey you just ordered? Because you didn't strike me as someone who would drink alcohol."
"And you're some naughty booze-hound with your beer?"
Willow pursed her lips before she replied, "I just wanted to fit in with the other men around here. You don't need to fit in, you're perfect."
A blush spread through Tara's face, yet she could barely handle her warring emotions. The redhead made her smile, and she could not wrap her mind around the fact that she had dressed as a man to sneak into the saloon just to see her sing. Yet, she could feel the stare of her father from the bar. It was only a matter of time before she would be expected to get Willow drunk, watch as her father stole her wallet, and push her out onto the street. She hated her circumstance but did not want to be anywhere but sitting next to Willow.
The waitress placed a glass on the table. Tara frowned as she took a sip of the brown liquid. Her father had ensured that it would be watered down, and he did not fail. She remembered Willow's words and replied, "I am hardly p-perfect. I work in a factory and I sing in this... place. You've got a future, Willow, and I hope you can forgive me for what I have to do. Cheers." The blonde clinked her glass against the redhead's before draining the whiskey.
Willow's eyes bulged at the sight of Tara's feat. She did not want to seem weak, but she was confused at the blonde's conduct. She took two large gulps and decided to persevere. She finished the beer and heard the glass pound on the table as she winced. Before she could ask Tara why she felt guilty, two more drinks appeared before them. She paid the waitress and suddenly felt very pleasant.
Her body hummed, and she noticed that Tara had placed her hand on her leg. Tara's other hand moved from behind her chair to stroke her back. She reached for the glass before her and felt Tara lean close. As she took a sip she heard Tara's insistent whisper, "Stop drinking. You need to leave. Now."
Willow swallowed the beer and asked, "What! Why?"
"Just believe me. You need to go."
The redhead did not know if her wince was from Tara's words or from the burning liquid that traveled down her throat. The blonde's hands never left her body, yet she told her to go. Her confusion turned to hurt, and she decided that if Tara was not going to explain anything, she might as well leave Harry's. Through her blurred vision, she noticed Tara remove her hand and drink the second glass of whiskey. It was too much. She shot up and looked back at the blonde.
Tara pleaded with her eyes. She begged Willow to leave, yet she wanted her to stay. She hoped Willow could forgive her. She had to do what she had done. Her eyes brimmed with tears as Willow shook her head and stumbled out the door.
Graceful lamps hung from the ornate ceiling. The light reflected off the white tablecloths and mirrored walls, and the illuminated room fell into a hushed silence as a man took his place at the podium.
"Ladies, gentlemen, Miss Burkle, Lieutenant Finn, Reverend Giles, thank you for your warm welcome. I am honored to speak before this august congregation about a matter that is at the heart of the problems that plague this city. When I began my tenure on the city council, I felt a spark inside. Now, the fire has consumed me. I am fully committed to ridding this town of the behavior that leads to crime and degradation."
Lindsey McDonald let his eyes float over the sea of faces. His voiced boomed, "Some may wonder if I have some secret plan, or if we are doomed to battle these vices forever. To you I offer this pledge: we will not rest until the last soul has been saved; the last child clothed; the last beggar fed. The solutions lie within all of us. You and I, together, we can make a plan and make our city a better place for our children and our children's children. We have no option but to take up this fight and cleanse the soul of this city."
The councilman glanced at the brown eyes of Winifred Burkle, "I thank you for your support, and I look forward to working closely with the Church subcommittee. I will return the floor to Reverend Giles. Thank you."
Reverend Giles reclaimed the podium and declared, "Thank you very much, Councilman McDonald. We are honored that you will help take up our fight. You are but one soldier in an army that will blot out the corruption and sin, which has infested this city. We are so glad that you could come to our banquet."
The audience applauded and the man continued with a smile, "And, I think you've heard enough from me for this evening. Enjoy your dinners, everybody!"
The man made his way to his table and took a seat. He took a look at the people surrounding him. Miss Burkle and Councilman McDonald seemed to be engaged in close conversation, and Harmony Kendall, Miss Burkle's friend, was chatting with the man next to her. He noticed the policeman eating across the table, and spoke up, "Lieutenant Finn, I'm so glad you could attend."
The officer looked up from his plate and replied, "Thank you for the invitation, Mr. Giles. It is an honor to be in the company of so many individuals that seek the same change as myself."
"Indeed, Mr. Finn. How are you finding the campaign? I do so want to hear about how our efforts are working out on the streets."
"To be entirely honest, Mr. Giles, it is a tough struggle. A noble struggle, but a struggle nonetheless. Certain organizations are determined to see us fail. They know how to control people, and they know how to fight. The men at Tammany must be stopped."
Rupert smiled, "It seems we have a common foe, Mr. Finn. I assure you, Mr. O'Shaughnessy will regret the day he stepped off the boat. By the time we are through, he will wish he had stayed in Ireland." The preacher paused before he suggested, "I want to make a proposition. We will work together to defeat these filth. You have control over hundreds of police, and Councilman McDonald and I can handle the newspapers and the clergy. Is that agreeable?"
Lieutenant Finn extended his hand across the table, "Absolutely. Let us shake hands on it."
"I thank you, Mr. Finn. Shall we meet in my office next week to discuss the details?"
"Yes. And please, you can call me Riley, Reverend Giles."
Tara felt her father draw closer through the crowd. She heard him press, "Well?"
She tore her stare from the door and revealed the wallet in her purse. "I'm going to go backstage for a moment. I will put the purse in the dressing room, so we won't have the item on us if that guy gets a cop."
"Alright, but we need to stick this out. Be back soon."
The blonde rose and quickly made her way to the back door. She ran to the street and desperately sought the redhead, who she hoped had not gotten very far. She hustled down the block and noticed a boy with red locks slowly walking. She jogged further and shouted, "Willow, wait!" Tara ran down the block, ignoring the eyes that peered from the shadows.
The redhead slowed her pace, wishing she had more time to figure out what to do. Before she could make sense of her feelings, Tara's hand spun her shoulder around. Words flew out of her mouth before she could control herself, "Just leave me alone, Tara."
Tara withdrew her hand and said, "Will, I was trying to protect you! If it hadn't been me, some other w-woman would have done the same. You don't know what kind of place that is, and you should never have come. Here," Tara chided before offering cash from the leather fold to the redhead. "I have to keep the wallet for my father, sorry."
"How did you...?"
"Remember when my hands were, uh, more than friendly?"
Willow blushed at the memory as well as her vulnerability, accepting the wallet and casting her eyes to the ground in shame. She meekly answered, "Thanks. I better be going."
"Don't go, please. Willow, I need to know that you can forgive me. Do you at least understand why I pushed you away?"
"I suppose," Willow replied. "You were doing a job. I just feel like a fool for coming here."
"I'm glad you came," the blonde insisted. "Really, I just wish you hadn't seen me like that. It was certainly not my finest hour, Willow." She paused before shyly pressing, "Why, um, did you come?"
"I don't even know anymore. I was sick of my parents, and I wanted to see you sing. I thought you were there to sing, and nothing else. I'm such a fool," Willow declared.
Tara reached her hand out again and touched the redhead's shoulder, "You're hardly a fool. You're smart, and kind, and," she smiled before she continued, "you look quite handsome in those pants. I'm, um, flattered that you came. This was all my father's plan, and I hate that you saw me like that."
Willow's head was spinning. Every word that came out of the blonde's mouth made sense, yet the beer had made her light-headed. Even more, she felt a strange comfort with Tara, a serenity that came with no other person. She thought back to their meeting in Central Park and inquired, "So that's what Anya was talking about in the park? Can't you just say 'no' to your father?"
The blonde grimaced. She chose her words carefully, "I'm not sure what your relationship with your parents is like, but my father doesn't like the word 'no,' which is why I have to keep the wallet. I'll just have to tell him that it was empty. Besides, if this works, and Donnie comes back, I won't have to do it anymore."
Willow smiled. "Well good, because you should not have to lift a girl's, er, I mean, a man's wallet."
"I should think so, and I'm sorry I was touching you. It's just, I had to make my father happy."
"Oh it was fine. More than fine! Don't worry at all, you can do it any time," Willow replied with gusto.
Tara tilted her head and set her eyes on the woman before her. Confused, she wondered, 'What did she just say?'
Willow realized what she had said and all but echoed Tara's thoughts, "I should, uh, go home and leave you to your job, such as it is. Not that you're all excited about going back, but, uh, don't you have to go back?"
The blonde nodded. "Unfortunately, yes. My father is expecting me, and you should probably get home. Are you going to be alright?"
"I suppose. My parents are out for the evening, so I will just crawl into bed and try to forget that this whole night happened. I'm sorry I came, I'll not bother you again," she said with a waver.
Tara put her hands on Willow's arms to steady her. "I already told you: I'm glad you came. I would love to see you some other time. I'll be at the Haymarket on Fridays. Maybe you can stop by my dressing room afterwards. Is that, um, okay?"
Willow could not contain her grin, hoping that perhaps she had not made a total fool of herself. She answered, "Count on it."