The laughter from Xander's quip had barely died down when Tara spotted an unwelcome presence stalk into the dining room. "I, um, think I'll excuse myself..."
"Don't move, Darla," Warren barked, turning Tara's heart and stomach to ice. "I wanna talk to you."
"Warren!" Willow said with false brightness. "What a delightful...shock."
"I'm not talking to you," the sheriff sneered back. He dropped down to his haunches to talk to Anya, who was lingering over her strawberry shortcake. "Did you get that camera out of the Dusenberg?"
"Sure," Anya replied, her voice unabashedly blurred by fruit and angel-food cake. "The film's in the lab right now."
"Well, as soon as it's done, I wanna see it."
"Tell Warren that we'll be happy to let him see the film," Willow intoned, addressing Anya, "then ask him: why?"
Warren was about to answer Willow directly, then remembered "he wasn't talking to her." "You may tell your Ms. Rosenberg that this request comes from a source so high, that Hers Is Not To Question Why, Hers Is To Do It Or Else. Y'see, there's this fugitive that was heading in this direction," he continued, now addressing Tara as well, "and we think you might have spotted this Maclay girl while you were on the bridge." He took a manila folder from under his arm and handed it to Tara. "D'ya think you might've seen this girl, Darla?"
Tara tried to still her heart, under cover of looking at the file. There were two pictures - of her. One she recognized as a snapshot her dad had taken in front of their house, just before she had gone to Viet Nam. It showed her in her Red Cross volunteer uniform, squinting into the sun, her mousy brown hair tied back into a pony-tail. The other picture was from a hospital near Nha Trang, after she and the remnants of the squad had crawled their way out of the jungle. It showed a malnourished, dirty girl with a haunted expression on her face, with long stringy hair that looked as if it had been washed with mud.
Neither picture was terribly flattering, but Tara was simultaneously thankful and amazed that Warren hadn't picked up the resemblance between this fugitive and "Darla."
Before Tara could think of something convincing to say to Warren's question, Willow piped up. "Anya, tell Warren that Darla was so busy being brilliant that she wouldn't have noticed the Carpenter of Nazareth doing the Stroll across the water."
Dutifully, Anya looked up and said, "She wouldn't have noticed."
Tara gave a meek smile and shook her head in accord as she handed the file across the table. Various people gave it a look (surreptiously sneaking a look at Tara as well) before finally handing the file to Willow.
Warren, meanwhile, had a question for Tara: "Your hair always that color?"
This time, Tara had a explanation: "She sprays it everyday," pointing at Cordelia, "so it looks like Buffy's," pointing at the movie star.
Willow was perusing the file. "Looks like an All-American girl."
"Yeah, well, there's a lot of weary, angry people who don't think so," Warren said, forgetting himself and addressing Willow directly. "In fact, this girl is wanted for - gimme that!" he snarled as he yanked the file right of Willow's bemused hands. He turned back to Anya. "Soon as that film is out of the lab, call me. G'nite, everybody...not you, Rosenberg."
As soon as Warren left, Buffy and Cordelia wanted to go dancing in the hotel bar, with Riley and some of the crew. "All right, but remember, children, it's a school night," Willow muttered, as she watched Tara shuffle out of the dining room.
Tara stuffed clothes into a small duffel bag that she found in Faith's things. She didn't like stealing, and hoped to someday make some kind of restitution, but she knew it was time to get out of town. She put on a down jacket and moved off, not really wanting to leave (for reasons she couldn't quite articulate as yet) but feeling she had no choice.
Unfortunately, her stealthy exit from the hotel was marred by the film crew that was already set up outside the front entrance. Similarly, Buffy and Riley's plan to indulge their backstage infatuation with some discreet smoochies up in the hotel tower's balcony came a cropper with the searchlights set up by the crew.
Willow was having a discussion with her cinematographer, Andrew. "I can kill the supers, light it from the back and give you a nice halo effect," he was saying, perched on the camera dolly.
"It's an establishing shot, Andrew," Willow replied, lounging on the crane seat, "it'll be on the screen all of two seconds. You can shoot for six minutes."
"I need seven."
"Six and a half."
"Done." Andrew turned and called out to the assistant director. "Jonathan!"
Willow turned towards the tower and, raising her voice, addressed the actors, who were crouching behind the balcony railing. "Children! We are lighting! If you have noticed this, then you can be of use to us! Would you stand up and face the sea, so we can see those glorious profiles!"
Tara had to chuckle when Buffy raised her ram up, middle finger extended, and thundered back. "Liiiigght thiiisss, Willoowww!" Then she turned and walked towards the main road.
Unfortunately, Willow's Killer Crane intercepted her. "Oh, now, where are you off to? Only in town for one day? What's the hurry?"
Exasperated, Tara fixed her gaze on Willow, trying to ignore how cute the director really was. "No offense, but I'd like to leave before you show the cops that film." She turned and stalked away...
...but not fast enough to avoid Willow grabbing her from behind, pulling her in beside her, and lifting them both from the ground. Before Tara could move, she was ten feet off the ground and rising fast.
"Y'know, you astonish me; you've never been to movies, apparently, in your life. What, were you raised by Amish wolves? Never heard of Movie Magic? Why, did you know that the original King Kong was only three feet, six inches tall? He couldn't have gotten to second base with Faye Wray! If God could do the tricks I could do, she'd be a happy woman! What the hell are you worried about the police and the film for?" she concluded as the crane stabilized about fifty feet in the air.
"'What am I worried about the police for'?" Tara monotoned back.
Willow pursed her lips, then unhooked the camera from its mount, looked through the viewer for a second, then beckoned, "Look through there a minute."
Tara looked. Lit by a dozen or so road flares were several police cruisers, forming a roadblock... "...lookin' for Mad Dog Maclay," she concluded dully. The full import of the trap she was in hit her at once. She might be able to evade the police...and she might not. She did not like her chances.
"You're getting that look again, like you're about to do the hundred-yard dash," Willow said quietly. "You look like one of the serial killers out for a spree, ready to chop someone up with a chainsaw. God, that's such a sexy look. Can I give you some advice?"
"Why not?" Tara muttered, deliberately choosing not to comment on the pass she made.
"Leave the chainsaw and be at the airport on Sunday. We'll all fly off to L.A., where the setting sun bleeds into a million swimming pools that a girl can hide in. You can swim, can't you?"
"I can swim like a fish." Tara locked eyes with Willow. "Why are you trying to save my ass?" she asked, although she suspected the answer had little to do with altruism.
Willow returned the gaze with equal fortitude. "Because you're as crazy as the young lady I'm making this film about," she answered quietly. In a breezier tone she added, "Not to mention the fact that I'm falling madly in love with the dark side of your nature!"
Tara took off across the tower's balcony before the echoes from the assistant- and second-assistant director's shouts had a chance to die. Dressed in an (deliberately) ill-fitting German soldier's uniform, she outraced the "bullets" (actually just mildly-explosive squibs) that splittered the wood of the railing.
Right on cue, the door to the tower room fell outwards, crushing the section of railing beneath it, forming a ramp from which Tara could jump to the section of roof that Faith had outlined to her earlier. Taking a deep breath, Tara launched herself into space, clearing the distance handily and landing on the padding that would be out of camera range. Coming out of the tuck-and-roll, Tara ran along the prescribed line, while "enemy soldiers" took up the chase, climbing over gables and sliding down the eaves toward her.
Faith had gone over the route once more that morning, before disappearing with a "See ya later" tossed over her shoulder with an oddly lascivious wink. Tara had shrugged internally before getting fitted for the uniform, a close copy of the one Buffy would be wearing in her scenes; supposedly, her character was trying to disguise herself as a German soldier, with the expected unsuccessful results. Apparently, after this scene, her character was thrown into an asylum...or something. Tara was not exactly sure what was going to happen, as Xander was re-writing scenes at Willow's direction.
Coming up to a gable on the hotel's west side, Tara nearly bumped into two other stuntmen coming from the other side. Remembering at the last second her directions, she ducked flat to the roof, letting both men fly right over here in failed flying tackles.
Tara relished the chase, the adrenaline surge of running hell-for-leather over the rooftops, the pop and whine of faux bullets adding drama to the morning air. She had never told anyone how even in the midst of stark terror and steamy jungle she felt the thrill that few people outside combat or extreme risk can ever know: that the next moment may be the last. Here, even where much of the battleground was artifice and illusion, she found the dark ecstasy returning like an old disreputable friend.
Now she felt a slight disappointment as the end of the "gag" came near. Tara, still pursued by fellow stuntmen in wool soldier suits, grabbed the drainpipe and swung around it, away from the roof and the "soldier" who precariously reached out, trying to grab her sleeve. Right on cue, a small squib, triggered by one of the effects crew, cut the supporting wire around the drainpipe. With Tara's weight unbalancing it on one side, the pipe, slowly at first, started tilting toward the other wing of the hotel, accelerating faster the further over it tipped. As the top of the drainpipe hit the wall, Tara let go of the pipe, letting herself fall into the awning that, due to meticulous planning, was right below.
The awning suddenly parted beneath her. Faith said this thing would hold me! she thought frantically. Screaming now in genuine terror, Tara crashed through the skylight.
As she plunged through the glass, trying not to get cut to shreds in the process, Tara sensed rather than saw someone, or rather two someones, beneath her. She barely had time to feel mortified and fearful of injuring them when she impacted squarely on the bed that the two people had vacated a bare second ago. Her momentum bounced her off the bed, onto the floor with the couple who were...
Oh, hell no, Tara thought as she did a face-plant right between two ample breasts, just before another flesh-colored body impacted right on top of her. Were they doing it? Oh, gross, oh God, how can this get any worse? Her attempts to wriggle away from the couple were futile as the two of them, with Tara as the filling in a very sexy sandwich, rolled across the floor and through the double door of the room, right into...
...a scene right out of Dante-meets-Hugh-Hefner, as Tara was hoisted bodily away from the couple, into a large opulent parlor apparently filled with naked and semi-naked people. Most of those who still had some semblance of clothing appeared to be in (or rather, almost out of) uniform. One older soldier looked at Tara indignantly and cried out, as near as she could make out, "What, are you mad? Take a number like everyone else!"
Like a crowd-surfer at a Led Zeppelin concert, Tara sailed into the center of the room, as a multitude of hands tore the uniform from her body. Screaming, she tried to kick out with her legs or throw an elbow back into a face, but the press of bodies was too much for her. Several of the hands, not all of them male, seemed to be copping a feel, and somebody seemed intent on tearing her bra off. She struggled to maintain what little modesty she had left, the shouts of the crazed whoremongers seeming to drown out her very thoughts...
"CUT!" came the sharp command above all the other noise, and the mood in the parlor changed instantly. The hands that had been holding Tara down and fondling her now helped her up on her feet and patted her on the back. A robe was thrown over her shoulders; it took her a second to find the presence of mind to put her arms in the sleeves. The roaring of blood in her ears was starting to subside; she could hear herself gasping for breath. When she was finally able to raise her head, she saw Willow and a camera crew checking the equipment and finalizing the scene that had just been shot.
"Pretty smooth for a first-timer," came an unexpected voice just to her left, just as one arm draped across her shoulders and a can of Coke was pressed into her hand. "What do you do for an encore?" Tara didn't have to look at Faith to know that there was a sardonic grin on her face.
Chugging a healthy amount of soda, Tara felt the post-adrenaline shakes start to hit her. Glaring at Faith, she muttered, "Why the hell didn't you tell me about the awning? I could'a been killed!"
"Aw, well, Willow likes to keep things spontaneous," the stunt coordinator replied. "What are you worried about? You were in your mother's arms from the time you hit that breakway skylight. The two of us could've gotten you out of anything."
"What 'two of us?'" Tara asked, confused...then realized with embarrassed horror as, having finally gotten her wits back, she realized that Faith was wearing a bathrobe - probably over nothing. "Ohhhh, my God - that was you? I-I mean, in the room, with the - Ohhhhhh."
"Yeah, and just so ya know: next time, it's dinner and a movie first."
Willow, meanwhile, was kept occupied with the thousand technical details, while still keeping one eye on Tara. I knew she looked yummy, but man, what a body. Ah, work first. Spotting Xander, she waved him over. "So, whaddaya think?"
The brown-haired, brown-eyed screenwriter sighed heavily; seeing the customary signal starting The Willow and Xander Show, the crew turned a not-so-surreptitious collective ear to the conversation. "Willow, do you know that when I read the Madhouse Scene to my family, my father stood up and shook my hand for the first time in my life? So, how is it, that your filthy little whorehouse scene is so much more moving, so much more interesting, and just all around better?"
With a cheeky yet wise grin, Willow replied, "Because it shows us that Our Friend The Enemy is a horny slob, like yourself, hopping into the nearest bed. Isn't that right, Magic?" Turning towards Tara, Willow put the still-shaken girl into the spotlight. "Tell me something: when Faith's boob came up and hit you in the mouth, was it just any other boob or did it taste German?"
The crew laughed heartily and, to a neutral observer, not unkindly, but Tara was nowhere near neutral at that moment. Summoning up her intestinal fortitude, she smirked back at Willow. "Um, I don't really know German boobs that well. Why don't you try it, Willow? After all, you're the expert on bad taste." Turning on her heel, Tara stormed off the set.
An uncomfortable silence descended like killer fog. Willow, chagrined, met Faith's eyes, silently imploring her to go after Tara. After a second or two of returning the gaze stonily, Faith walked in the direction Tara took off.
The crew by now had resumed their set-up procedure for the close-ups. Buffy, dressed in the tattered remains of a German uniform, stood at the sidelines. Willow caught her eye. "So? Did you see that? You like? What do you think?"
Buffy shook her head in amazement. "What can I tell ya? I'm a brave sonofabitch."
Tara slammed the door of her room, wondering whether she should change clothes, take a shower first, or just shoot herself. The blood pounded in her ears anew, so hard she didn't hear Faith come in after her. When she realized she wasn't alone, she glared at Faith. "Leave me alone," she growled.
Faith fought to keep a smile off her face. "Boy, she really got to you, didn't she? C'mon, Willow messes with everybody, don't take it personally!" She stepped closer to Tara, staring hard into a reddened face, into eyes that swam with unshed tears. "You're okay; whaddaya want?"
"I wanna feel like I'm not going crazy!" Tara blurted out, moisture leaking unbidden out of one eye. She wiped it absently with the sleeve of her robe.
Faith snorted. "You came to the wrong place for that. C'mon, something else is bugging you; I can tell."
Taking a deep breath, letting it out slowly, the apprentice stuntwoman muttered, "I keep feeling like I...wanna thank her, for falling on my ass. Stupid."
Faith shrugged. "It's just a crush." She chuckled, then continued: "And y'know, sometimes we mess with Willow, too. We might just be able to get her back for this."
Tara felt herself smile, even as she felt her insides loosen up several notches. "How might we do that?"
The production crew had commandeered one of the hotel's meeting rooms for a make-shift screening theatre for the purpose of watching the 'dailies' shot at the location. Tara had found the screening room a couple of hours after her big debut as a stuntwoman and sidled in, looking for an empty seat.
The projector was currently running the scene shot at the beach shot the day before, the one that Tara had watched being filmed seemingly a thousand years ago. Several crewmembers noticed her coming in and favored her with a smile. She had already received numerous congratulations on her stuntwork earlier; Tara was surprised how readily she was accepted by these people on such short acquaintance. Maybe because Willow would kill them otherwise, she thought ruefully.
Speaking of the devil, the director sat in the furthest row from the movie screen, watching the filmed scenes and possibly gauging the reactions of her crew to the sequences. Tara studiously avoided looking at Willow as she took her seat, wishing there were some way to confirm the itch-between-the-shoulder-blades suspicion that Willow was looking at her...without looking at Willow. My kingdom for a compact mirror!
Spontaneous applause interrupted her thoughts and turned her attention back to the screen. The wounded and dead rose up from the sand and took a bow, a gag that no doubt would end up on the editing-room floor but brought smiles from the crew and stuntmen. Tara smiled, rather pleased that she was "on the other side" from when she was a mere spectator.
A new scene was being shown: an airfield with an old biplane running slowly down the strip. Tara recalled, from a brief perusal of the script, that this was where Buffy's character had to hitch a ride on a plane in order to escape more soldiers. The plane stopped and tipped over...
...revealing a poorly-made dummy bouncing in and out of the cockpit like a drunken jack-in-the-box. Groans and laughter filled the screening room as the shot played out, continuing as the lights in the room came up.
Faith was chuckling ruefully, as she had been directing the unit that had shot that catastrophe. She turned back towards the director. "Jesus, Willow, I'm sorry! We'll do that again."
Willow seemed more exasperated than truly angry. "It's so awful it's beautiful. I do wish I could use it."
Xander rolled his eyes in his patented here-we-go-again manner. "So what do you want, Willow?"
"We need something...crazy."
"A dead man's boots dropped over his own airfield," Xander scoffed, "that's not crazy enough for you?"
"They did it in a film called Wings, Xander," Willow replied evenly. "Even the dummy was bored."
Anya shook her head. "Willow, you just will not accept the fact that we are living on borrowed time."
"'Borrowed time'...We're shaking a finger at them, Xander, and we shouldn't be! If we going to slip something in, we should do it while they're all laughing and crying and...jerking off at all the sex and violence! We need something outrageous!" she shouted.
"Like what?" Xander shouted back.
"Like...! Capturing an authentic stench of madness beneath all that good clean fun. I mean," she continued in a lower tone, "why did we pick World War I, anyway? The last really romantic insanity. War was still a gentleman's game and all that. Maybe what we need is a dose of reality to puncture that balloon..."
"Oh, now you want 'reality', Willow, I thought you wanted to be outrageous!"
"Reality can be pretty outrageous, Xander." Willow scanned the numerous faces turned towards her, gravitating on one particular face, possibly against her own will. "Don't believe me, ask Magic over here. A day ago, she was a young girl on the run; now she hurtling off building and doing things she can't have dreamed of!" She moved a couple of steps closer to where Tara sat. "Tell me, Magic: what would you do if you were on the wing of that airplane, certain you were about to die?"
Tara lifted her chin defiantly, her blue eyes never leaving Willow's green orbs. With a crooked smirk that made Willow's knees feel suddenly weak, she said quietly, "I think I'd dance for joy. I might even do a jig."
"A jig," Willow replied, nodding, the thoughtful expression that Xander and a number of the crew had come to dread blossoming on her face.
Xander shook his head. "You can't do a jig on the wing-"
"You're right, a jig's too- A Charleston!" Willow crowed, demonstrating in the aisle between chairs. "A Charleston on the wing of the airplane!"
"A Charleston is crazy."
Willow pointed to Xander in reply. "Exactly."
"You'll get a laugh..."
"Only when I want them to laugh. Right, Magic?"
In reply, Tara stood up, strode over next to Willow, and counted off. "A one, a two, a three, a four." The two women began to dance the Charleston in the middle of the screening room, while the production crew counted and clapped in time.