"Blonde over there across the room."
"Brunette by the table of books."
"The one next to her with the short hair and glasses."
"That's a boy."
Anya paused from their game of 'Let's guess who amazon_hacker might be' and leaned back on the bench they were sitting on. "Is this a case of you being picky?"
Tara laughed. "I think it's a case of you not having any gaydar."
"Maybe so," said Anya, "But I can definitely spot the straight men. Yowza!" She pointed across the room to a tall dark-haired man with sideburns, who was crossing the atrium with two girls - a brunette and a redhead.
Tara looked. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the redhead. Oh, wow, she thought to herself. So cute. Her gaze traveled over the girl's slim body, clad in jeans and a simple green pullover. The redhead wore a bright smile as she talked animatedly to her friends. Tara watched her as she walked the entire way across the atrium and down the hallway to where the roundtable discussion groups were being held.
"Helloooo, Tara! Yoo hoo!" Anya waved a hand across Tara's field of vision.
Tara shook her head with a start. "Sorry about that, Anya. Um..."
"Don't tell me you're suddenly straight and now you're crushing on my boy?"
Instead of answering with her own smart remark, Tara seemed flustered. "Um, n-no. Of course not..."
Anya left off the teasing and gave Tara a considering glance. "No, my dear, I don't think you were. In fact, I think you've been smitten with someone entirely other. Let me just take one wild guess. Is it the redhead?"
Tara flushed slightly, but had regained her composure. "You caught me."
"Well, you certainly do have good taste. If I were a lesbian, I'd find her attractive as well. Maybe she's your amazon_hacker, what do you think?"
Tara bit her lip. "I'm not sure if the universe could stand it if I were that lucky. But here's hoping."
Anya stood up. "Well, come on. After that dreadful workshop this morning, I really need a good discussion. What are we attending next?"
Tara consulted the convention schedule in her hand. "Make it Hurt - Hurt/Comfort and Angst as Plot Devices."
The two friends began walking toward the discussion group rooms. "Because what the world definitely needs is more angst in it," Anya said.
"Xander!" Willow waved at him from across the crowded hallway.
"Hey, Will," he said. "So how was the Rated R discussion?"
"Pretty steamy," she said. "And interesting. I'll tell you more about it over dinner - but suffice it to say for now that I have some ideas for my new fic."
Xander flashed a toothy grin. "I can't wait. Can I be your beta? And your alpha? And omega?"
"Don't be a nerd. That's my department." Willow punched him in the arm. "C'mon, let's go find Buffy and get some dinner. According to the schedule, she should just be finishing up in the Hurt/Comfort/Angst discussion." They walked down the hallway to Sunrise Room B, where people were just starting to exit the room.
As they approached, two blonde girls left the room. Willow observed first the one with the shorter curly hair. Just as she shifted her gaze to the taller girl with longer hair, the girl looked up and their eyes met. Willow felt a thrill race through her body at the unexpected eye contact. Wow, her eyes are so blue, she thought.
The curly-haired girl noticed Willow and Xander, and then strode over to them. A momentary look of panic crossed her companion's face, but she followed.
"Hello," Anya addressed herself to Xander. "My name is Anya. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Uhhhh, likewise. Hi. I'm Xander," he replied, befuddled but friendly.
"I just wanted to tell you that I saw you earlier today in the lobby and I find you very attractive. I'll be reading one of my stories tonight at the fanfic gathering for the message board 'The Warrior, the Bard, and the Bad Wardrobe.' It's rated NC-17. I hope to see you there." With that, she flashed him a smile, turned around, and strode away.
Tara stood there and looked at Willow and Xander. Should I say something? They're probably totally freaked out right now. Little do they know, it's just Anya being Anya. What should I do? Oh god. The longer I stand here, the weirder it is. Finally, she half-smiled at the two and turned around to follow her friend.
Buffy came out of the room. "Hey guys." She looked at both of them. "Something wrong?"
Xander shook his head. "Not wrong, no. We just met some interesting, although strange and maybe overly friendly people."
"Person," Willow corrected. "The other one didn't say anything at all, so I don't think we can really say we met her."
Buffy nodded knowingly. "It's like I was telling Willow this afternoon," she said. "You meet some odd people at these things. C'mon, let's go get some food. I'm starving, and I know both of you don't want to miss the opening plenary tonight."
"Mmmm, cleavage," Xander said dreamily as they walked toward the parking lot.
Mmmmmm, blonde... Willow's thoughts echoed Xander's although for a very different reason. Strange friends or not, I'd like to get to know her...Wait! No I wouldn't. I'm meeting wiccanbard tomorrow. Although - what if this girl IS wiccanbard? That would be almost too good to be true. That smile!
Tara and Anya picked up their folders and joined the press of people exiting the Grand Ballroom.
"Her speech was soooo good, didn't you think?"
"Absolutely. And she's got a point - a show like Xena, which gets pigeonholed as a 'cult' TV hit, needs to maintain a loyal fan base to keep it going."
Tara nodded. "And she's one of the few actors I've heard speak who really gets it about fan fiction - that it doesn't take anything away from the show, and actually helps keep the fans interested. Especially in the summer when the reruns are on."
"Frankly, I think that at least some of the show's writers lurked on the message board when they were stumped for ideas. I mean, there's plenty of episodes I've seen that have similar plotlines as some fics I've read. Or written, for that matter."
"Right, except for the sex scenes." Tara consulted her schedule. "Where is this fanfic gathering? It's not written on the schedule."
"It's in the Sunset Lounge," Anya answered. "I think that these readings are more informal, so they didn't put them in the official schedule. It's just through the lobby and across from the bar."
The two girls made their way through the throngs of people and entered the Sunset Lounge, a cozy space that appeared able to hold about 150 people and was filled with couches, overstuffed chairs, and a TV which had been pushed to one side. As the room began to fill up, Anya and Tara secured themselves a spot on one of the loveseats.
"Okay, people, let's pay attention here," Cordelia said after most of the people had trickled in. She clapped her hands to attract everyone's attention.
The conversations in the room quickly quieted down as everyone focused on Cordelia. The seats were overflowing, with people wedged in four to a couch and every seat occupied. More than 3/4 of the floor space was occupied by those who arrived too late for a couch, including Willow, Buffy, and Xander.
Cordelia stood at the front of the room with a welcoming smile, holding a sheet of paper.
"Welcome, everybody, to the Warrior, the Bard, and the Bad Wardrobe's first fan fiction reading night. I'm so glad that so many of you showed up. I'm the moderator of the board, cordy_princess, and this is Andrew, aka aresisagod, who is our technical whiz."
A smattering of spontaneous applause broke out, which Cordelia acknowledged with a smile. Andrew, a short man with gelled-up blonde hair, half-rose from his seat and waved at the crowd.
"I just want to go over the ground rules for our fanfic gatherings, which will happen every night here at the con. First - all fics that people read must be uber. In the interests of time, you should keep what you read to 5,000 words or less. You are free to introduce yourself by your handle on the board, your name, both, or neither. And we want to make sure as many people have a chance to read as want to, so if you want to ask an author something, make sure you grab them after we're done - no questions and answers while we still have the lounge. We'll read as many fics as we have time for before we have to vacate at 11pm.
"To volunteer to read a story, you can just raise your hand. If a lot of people all volunteer, we'll do names in a hat. To break the ice, I brought a new fic that I'll kick off tonight with. And again - welcome!"
Cordelia put away her paper and picked up a sheaf of papers which she riffled through before beginning.
"This is called 'Makeover at the Top of the Mitten.' The setting is northern Michigan, and Xena and Gabrielle are camp counselors at a summer camp for high schoolers." Cordelia cleared her throat and began reading.
"Dawn broke over the cabins and tents that surrounded Douglas Lake. The campground was quiet, the stillness only broken by the far-off call of a crow. The surface of the lake was smooth as glass. It seemed like the wind was holding its breath in anticipation.
"A rustling sound arose from one of the cabins, and the front door opened. A blonde woman of about 19 emerged, inhaling the fresh morning air.
"She stood about 5' 4", with healthy long blonde hair that was marred only by tragically split ends. She was dressed in sweat-stained brown running shorts and a green sports bra the color of vomit. As she stood on the cabin's porch, she casually twisted up her hair into a ponytail, using a worn-out scrunchie that had seen better days. She swept back her bangs off her forehead, and they promptly fell right back over her eyes. This didn't seem to bother her, though, and she walked the three steps down to the worn dirt track of the campground's path.
"Across the path, another cabin door opened. A taller woman who was probably in her early twenties looked out and jumped over the three steps to land on the ground. Her hair was in much the same shape as her friend's, whom she acknowledged with a nod and a wave."
Willow glanced around the room, half-listening as Cordelia continued to describe the two women's bad hair, bad outfits, and how they both seemed cheerfully oblivious to the heartbreaking state of both. She was familiar with Cordelia's stories, having been a member of the message board for three months now, and knew that soon a chic young camper with brown eyes and perfectly coiffed hair would take her camp counselors in hand off to a day spa for makeovers and shopping. At the end, they would be manicured, moisturized, sans bangs, and dressed in the latest fashions - and they would thank their young counselor for opening their eyes and showing them the error of their ways.
Willow wondered who was who on the message board. Cordelia and Andrew had already introduced themselves, and she knew who Buffy and Xander were. That might be the sum total of who she could pick out of the crowd, she realized - without talking, there were no clues about whose handle matched up to their identity.
As she continued to look at people out of the corner of her eyes, her glance happened to fall on the same blonde girl they had met in the hallway earlier. She sat next to her outspoken blonde friend who had propositioned Xander, with her full attention seemingly on Cordelia. But when Willow's gaze fell upon her, she looked up as if sensing the attention.
Willow immediately shot her eyes back to Cordelia. Caught! she thought to herself, as a small blush crept up on her cheeks. She sneaked another look. The girl was still looking at her, and when Willow's eyes met hers, she gave her a little half-smile.
Willow smiled back, her heart hammering in her chest. Wow oh wow oh wow, she thought to herself. Their shared glance only lasted for a half-second, but it seemed to Willow that the effects would last much longer than that. I can't believe it, she smiled at me! Those eyes. I wonder if she saw me blush and thinks I'm a total spaz?
Tara grinned to herself as she elicited a smile from the redhead across the room. Somehow the girl's embarrassment at being caught had made her feel braver, so instead of looking away when she had first caught the redhead's eyes, she watched and waited for her to look again. She wasn't usually so forward - not that smiling at someone across a room would be considered forward in anyone else's book - but the stimulation of the day's workshops and the plenary speech combined with the other girl's discomfiture had emboldened her.
"And so Xena and Gabrielle returned to camp carrying their day's purchases - stylish activewear, waterproof mascara, and long-lasting hair conditioner. They ended the day a little less innocent than they had begun, but both knew that they would carry the tips they had learned from Hayley through the rest of their days at camp - and beyond." Applause broke out throughout the room as Cordelia spoke the last words of her story.
"Say what you will about the subject matter, the girl knows how to pace her story and wind it all up," Anya whispered to Tara.
With a bright smile, Cordelia acknowledged the applause. "Thank you so much, everyone. Okay. Now who's next?"
Anya's hand shot up.
"Okay, we have a volunteer!" Cordelia ceded the floor to Anya, who walked up to the front of the room.
"Good evening," she told the crowd. "My name is Anya, and I'm aphrodite on the message board." Several people hooted in appreciation, and Anya acknowledged them with a little bow.
"The story I'm going to read tonight is called 'Village Voluptuosa' I feel like I should have a disclaimer or something - folks, this is NC-17. Leave now if you're not up for it."
Nobody moved, so Anya began reading.
"Xena and Gabrielle approached the village they had spotted some days earlier as they crossed the foothills of the Voluptuosa mountain range. The village was nestled in a valley that lay between the V made by two hills that sloped downward to meet on the valley floor. A tightly packed bundle of buildings in the north-central part of the valley was clearly the nerve center for the community, with gardens and farmland accompanied by occasional cottages covering most of the rest of the available flat land. A small pond lay directly south of the village center.
"Xena, that's odd," Gabrielle said. "I see a pond, but there's no river or creek that feeds it."
"Must be an underground spring," Xena commented, urging Argo forward. "Not uncommon when you're so close to a mountain range."
Xander leaned over to Buffy. "What's with all the description of the surroundings? Normally aphrodite just jumps right into the smutty goodness and only describes the scenery when somebody's naked body falls down onto it in the throes of passion."
Buffy gave him a look. "If you don't know, then I'm not going to tell you."
While Anya described Xena and Gabrielle's surprised and salacious discovery of the inhabitants of Voluptuosa Village and their particular proclivities, Willow's mind was wandering. Is it cheating on wiccanbard to have smiled at some other girl? I mean, people smile at each other all the time. And wiccanbard and I are not even a couple. Heck, we haven't even really discussed anything beyond just meeting in person as a thing unto itself. Everything else has been pretty much unspoken. But there's definite implications of more, assuming that we like each other as well in person as we do online. I think. Don't want to assume anything here. Anyway. No more smiles until this is all worked out tomorrow.
Having resolved this, Willow sneaked another glance at the blonde girl. Again, as if sensing the regard, the girl looked back at Willow. They shared another smile.
Okay, that was really the last time.
"And sated, they fell backward onto the soft and slightly sticky bed, where their subsequent dreams were filled with images of all they had done today, and promises of what else they would do tomorrow," Anya finished.
The room erupted into applause, and Anya half-curtsied as she returned to her seat.
"Bra-VO!" Xander shouted, clapping enthusiastically from his seat on the floor.
"No standing ovation?" Willow asked.
"Standing is not a good idea for me right now," Xander replied, still clapping.
The rest of the two hours passed quickly, with various authors volunteering to read stories from all genres. Some authors, like Andrew, were well-known to the entire room, while others were newer. Willow became absorbed in several of the stories, and almost before she knew it, 11pm had come and the gathering was beginning to break up.
The three friends stood up and stretched from their uncomfortable positions on the floor. Buffy yawned.
"Tired, Buff?" Xander asked, looking across the room.
"Yep," she replied. "I'm going to go upstairs and get some shuteye. Come with?"
"I'll come," Willow said. Xander shook his head, however.
"I'm going to go to talk to aphrodite - I mean, Anya. I want to tell her how much I liked her story. I'll catch up with you girls later."
"Yes, it certainly seemed to have an effect on you," Buffy deadpanned. Xander acknowledged the teasing with a wink and walked across the room to where Anya stood, surrounded by a small knot of admirers.
Willow watched him go, noticing the blonde girl she had shared smiles with hanging around near Anya, seeming to wait in the background. They must be together, Willow thought to herself. Friends, at least. Maybe more? Dunno.
Buffy interrupted her train of thought. "Coming?" Willow nodded, and the two left the room, heading for the bank of elevators.
Tara quickly tired of waiting for Anya to finish talking with the many people who wanted to speak to her about writing, writing smut, and plain old smut. She noticed the redhead leaving the room with the petite blonde she had sat next to, and felt a little twinge of regret at not talking with her. Maybe that's for the best. No need to complicate tomorrow's meeting with amazon_hacker by meeting someone else beforehand, she rationalized.
Catching Anya's eye, she indicated with a motion of her head that she was heading out. Anya blew her a kiss, and she exited the room, unaware of the jealous glances aimed her way from a few of Anya's admirers.
Tara felt restless. Sitting for so long had made her a little stiff, and she thought she'd go walk in the hotel's courtyard for a bit before heading up to bed. She let herself out through the double doors and stepped into the night.
The courtyard was deserted, and the night was cool. The stars were scattered across the sky like cracker crumbs on a carpet. Tara inhaled the air as she walked aimlessly around the courtyard. Today had been such a busy day, filled with so many people and exciting ideas, she was glad of the chance to be alone and relax from the stimulation of so many people.
She sat down by the side of the courtyard path on a bench, and gazed off into space. Truth be told, she mused, she was more than a little nervous about tomorrow's proposed meeting with amazon_hacker.
Tara had been a member of the message board for a couple of years now, ever since going to college, getting regular access to the internet, and meeting Anya. Anya had been on the board slightly longer than Tara, and had introduced her new roommate to the community after the two had discovered their mutual interest in the TV show.
Tara had enjoyed reading the stories that various authors posted to the board, reveling in the ideas that people came up with. Some authors wrote about what was presumably happening between Xena and Gabrielle between episodes while sticking closely to the show's existing plotline. Others took a different tack, writing in the 'What If' genre - what if this or that hadn't happened, what if so-and-so had made a different choice, how would events have transpired differently. After the season's disastrous finale, those authors who didn't swear off the show entirely coped with the loss by writing different endings (and by posting a spate of non-complimentary comments about the show's creator who had conceived of the final episodes as fitting).
The variety of stories that Tara read on the message board delighted her, and finally she decided to try her hand at writing. Much to her surprise (but not to Anya's), she found that she had a real knack for it. She mostly wrote in the uber genre, feeling more freedom to experiment with characters and situations, and more competent to discuss aspects of Wicca than mythological monsters. But she worked hard to keep the essential character traits of Xena and Gabrielle alive, even if she did put them in different situations. And the fans on the board seemed to enjoy her work also.
Some of them enjoyed it too much. Halfway through her freshman year, after she had posted a few stories and had amassed something of a following, she began to receive a spate of private messages from a few overzealous fans, one in particular who seemed determined to meet her. A private person by nature, Tara had never posted any of her contact information online, but that didn't stop this particular user from messaging her endlessly. Finally, the board's moderators had enabled a 'block' on the user, but the experience had shaken Tara and she had resolved not to engage with anyone online and just to use the message board as a creative outlet. She still responded to comments and feedback about her stories, offered feedback to others, and participated in some of the board's other forums, but she steadily rebuffed anyone who wanted to chat with her one-on-one. That's how it had been for the rest of her freshman year and most of her sophomore year as well.
Until amazon_hacker, that is. The girl had joined the message board about three months ago, and had quickly caught Tara's attention with her own fiction, and her enthusiastic comments about Tara's and other authors' work. amazon_hacker's stories usually featured a Xena who was a reformed computer hacker who used her skills to help catch criminals who authored viruses and worms. Usually Gabrielle was a private investigator or other law enforcement type who had to overcome a grudging mistrust of the former hacker, which eventually blossomed into romance. She had a knack for explaining the complicated world of port scanning, nmap, and system vulnerability analysis in a way that anyone could understand - and her exploration of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle especially caught Tara's attention.
It wasn't that amazon_hacker's portrayal of their relationship as lesbian was unusual - actually, having them not be lesbians was more out of the norm, at least for their message board. No, it was something about how she described their day-to-day interactions. Tara couldn't quite put her finger on it. Something about how the two would feel a pull toward each other that they tried to resist, and how they gradually overcame mistrust to discover that the other was her soul mate.
Perhaps it was that that convinced Tara to start talking one-on-one with amazon_hacker, she thought. The subconscious thought that if she could just transcend her wariness, that she, too, might find her soul mate. Although she had no such grand plans in mind when she began to chat with amazon_hacker - she just enjoyed talking to the person who left such insightful feedback about her stories, and who intrigued her so much with her descriptions of a world Tara didn't know much about. And over the last three months, she was surprised and gratified to find that amazon_hacker was a very funny, caring person who was extremely engaging. Tara looked forward to their daily chats and felt a pang when some life circumstance or other would keep them from their regular dose of talking. The two didn't discuss personal details - and not really impersonal details either. But when cordy had announced UberCon '05 and both girls planned on going, amazon_hacker had suggested that they meet up there.
Tara was apprehensive, but not terrified - which surprised her. She felt like enough of amazon_hacker's personality had come across during their months of chatting that she had developed a level of trust. And - she thought this was silly, but it was still true - she thought that the type of sweet relationship Xena and Gabrielle had in amazon_hacker's fic boded well for how the author might approach her real-life relationships.
But that's really putting the cart before the horse, she thought. She looked down at her watch and was startled to realize that thirty minutes had passed while she was reminiscing. She stood up and headed back into the hotel to get some sleep.