The second night of fan fiction reading was almost as crowded as the first. "Lucky this only lasts for an hour tonight or else I might have an attack of claustrophobia," Willow whispered to Buffy.
Buffy nodded her agreement. The two were sitting on a loveseat, with Xander perched on one of the arms. Xander clutched a packet of papers in his hand and cleared his throat. He shifted his position, and wiped his palms on his jeans.
Buffy and Xander's encouragement and constant attempts to cheer her up over pizza had lifted Willow out of the self-recriminating depression she had slipped into, though she was not her usual cheerful self. When she thought about that afternoon, she still felt like crying, but she had stopped actually bursting into tears. However, being around so many people was making her feel vulnerable. Buffy looked over at her and instantly snaked an arm around Willow's shoulders, providing a much-needed comforting touch.
Cordelia raised her voice to the room. "Okay, everyone, we're going to get started with our second night of all fan fiction, all the time. Tonight's session will be just one hour to give you all time to get ready for the dance tonight. And our first reader tonight will be Xander Harris."
Xander stood up and walked to the front of the room. Eyes down, he said "Hi folks. I'm joxx on the Warrior Board." His voice shook a little, but he cleared his throat and began to read.
"Joxer sprinted down the forest path with the assassin close on his heels. The strain of the run was beginning to wear on his muscles, but he pushed on. He knew that if he broke through the initial pain, his body would adjust to the exertion and he could keep up the pace indefinitely.
"Only one thought was on his mind - reaching the priestess of Athena's temple before sundown so she could reverse the enchantment. The assassin was too close for comfort, however - he'd have to deal with him first.
"He assessed the terrain that lay ahead. There - there it was, a low-hanging branch. He increased his speed slightly, his calf muscles screaming in protest. Three, two one - and plant the right foot, bend the knees, and thrust upward with both legs.
"'Ay yi yi yi yi!' The war cry tore free from his lips inadvertently as he sailed through the air, somersaulting to land on the tree branch overhead.
"The assassin skidded to a halt underneath the branch, looking upward in surprise. Joxer didn't allow him time to react - he leapt down, spinning in the air so his foot connected in a roundhouse kick with the man's temple.
"Thud. The assassin slumped to the ground. Joxer's steel-toed boots had provided the extra mass needed to knock the man out. Joxer narrowed his eyes - killing the man in cold blood didn't appeal to him. 'But I can't have you following me, either,' he said.
"He looped a length of rope around the man's wrists and ankle, securing a tight knot with one end of the rope, and lashing the other end to a tree trunk with a slipknot. 'That'll hold you for long enough till I can get Athena to switch me and Xena back - and then she can deal with you.' he told the unconscious form.
Willow looked around the room, noticing with satisfaction that most of the people seemed to be engrossed in Xander's story. Xander's stories featured Joxer as the protagonist, which wasn't always popular on the Warrior Board. Many fans of the show viewed Joxer's character as comic relief at best, and as an annoyance at worse. Willow had helped Xander with the premise for this story - Athena had exchanged Joxer and Xena's fighting skills and personality traits, hoping they would both gain some wisdom about each other, and maybe some understanding - knowing that this scenario would intrinsically be more interesting to the audience at the convention. And from the looks on the faces of the people in the room, she had been right.
"Meanwhile, back at the campsite, Gabrielle had her hands full with Xena.
"'C'mon, Gabby, sing it with me.'
"'C'mon, just one more time. She's Xena the mighty, her breastplate is tight-y, everybody loves her, and even you must concur...'
"Gabrielle sighed in exasperation, her hands on her hips. 'Xena, how many times do I have to tell you, we have to keep quiet here. You're not yourself, and the forest is full of outlaws, and I can't fight them all off and keep you safe at the same time. We are hiding.'
"Xena's eyes sparkled. 'I can fight them!' She reached around and took her sword from its scabbard, swinging it in a wide arc and narrowly missing Gabrielle's head. She struck a pose. 'Just bring them on!'
"Gabrielle reached for Xena's sword and took it out of her hands. 'Just come over here and sit with me a while, okay?' she said. 'I'll tell you a story while we wait for Joxer to come back.'
Willow's gaze traveled around the room and lit on the blonde girl - Tara - that she had met last night in the coffee shop last night. At yesterday's fan fiction reading, Tara had been in the company of aphrodite - Anya, that was her name, the girl that Xander had met. Tonight she was sitting next to Anya, but there was a new girl on Tara's other side.
Willow looked at the girl sitting next to Tara. She was dressed entirely in black, in jeans and a pullover. Her expression was neutral, but Willow thought she detected a hint of impatience. Guess some people won't like a story with Joxer in it no matter what. She sat close to Tara, resting her head on her right hand, with her elbow up on the back of the couch they sat on. The effect was that she was leaning close to Tara without actually having her arm around the girl. As Willow watched, the dark girl's eyes flicked over Tara's profile and briefly downward before settling back on Xander. She just totally looked down her shirt. Willow felt a surge of indignation.
Tara herself sat ramrod straight, not leaning toward her dark-haired companion, but not leaning away, either. She seemed unaware of her neighbor's visual intrusion, paying close attention to Xander's story instead. At least there's one person over there that can recognize a good story when she hears it.
Tara looked up, and caught Willow's glance. Caught again! Unlike last night, however, she didn't look away, but instead gave Tara a tiny smile, which Tara returned.
The dark girl sitting next to Tara caught the motion, and looked over at Willow. Annoyed, she shifted her body so she was sitting even closer to Tara. Tara hugged her arms around her torso at her companion's motion, and gave her attention back to Xander's story.
Looks like everyone's found someone but me, Willow thought sadly. And Buffy. She was extra-glad of her friend's comforting arm around her, and she rested her head on Buffy's shoulder, suddenly weary.
Tara shifted slightly on the couch, trying to put a little more distance between herself and Faith without being obvious. She didn't have much room - three more inches and she'd be sitting in Anya's lap. Not normally claustrophobic, Tara felt hyper-aware of her body and its proximity to Faith's. Faith was slouching and leaning on the couch, which meant she took up more space than was strictly necessary, and put her closer to Tara as a result. Tara couldn't decide if it was deliberate or accidental.
At lunch, Tara had agreed to attend the dance tonight with Faith, but they hadn't made any solid plans to meet beforehand. But when Faith entered the Sunset Lounge, she had made a beeline for the empty space on the couch beside Tara, to her chagrin.
It wasn't that Tara was opposed to sitting next to Faith - it was more that she would have preferred to have had more time to mull things over and to psych herself up for the dance tonight. Faith wasn't unpleasant to be around - there were just several things that were nagging at the corners of Tara's mind about their lunch and their interactions and she didn't feel like she'd had much mental space to process them with the constant activity of the convention.
Speaking of which, she was enjoying Xander's story tonight. She occasionally read the stories that joxx posted on the Warrior Board, although she normally preferred stories that featured Xena and Gabrielle as more central characters. But she had noticed that the Joxer in joxx's stories seemed a little deeper than the canon character - mostly because Xander filled in a great deal of Joxer's backstory and inner monologue.
And tonight's story was a cut above. The conflict was that Athena, tired of Xena and Joxer's constant bickering, had switched their personality traits and fighting skills with each other. By living a day in each other's shoes, so to speak, the idea was that the warrior and the warrior-wannabe would understand each other better. The catch was that one of them would have to reach a priestess of Athena's temple before sundown, or else the switch would be permanent.
Xander was in the middle of describing Joxer's defeat of a group of brigands who tried to waylay him, and the cut back to another scene of comic relief with Xena and Gabrielle. Tara glanced at Anya, sitting on her right, who was absorbed in the story. She had a proud smile on her face as well. Tara cracked a smile of her own, happy that Anya appeared to have found someone that she was truly interested in for himself and not just as a warm body.
She looked again at Willow, sitting across the room. Last night their tea had been relaxed and easy. Though their conversation had been short, Tara had simultaneously felt comfortable talking to her, and had had butterflies in her stomach the whole time. That's what I thought I would feel like with Faith - with amazon_hacker - but I don't.
The girl sitting with Willow had her arm around the redhead, and Willow was resting her head on her shoulder. Tara felt a twinge of jealousy. Although I suppose I have no right - I'm sitting here with the long-awaited and much-anticipated amazon_hacker. Who is nothing like I expected. Tara let out a tiny sigh. Faith gave her a questioning glance, and Tara shook her head and gave her a smile that she hoped didn't look as fake as it felt.
So I got what I wanted, and I'm not even sure if I want it anymore. What if what I want is sitting on the other side of the room with her girlfriend?
She reached down to secure the buckle on her boot, and tugged it up more fully around her calf. She made sure the chakram was snug at her side, and then reached for the strap that fastened her breastplate over the shoulder. Satisfied that everything was in place, she held the sword above her head in a fierce pose.
"Your courage will change the world," Buffy said.
Willow lowered the sword. "I dunno, Buffy. It's very nice of you to loan me your costume - I mean, hello, look at these!" She indicated her bosom, which appeared larger than ever before thanks to the breastplate. "But honestly, I think I'd rather just stay in the room tonight."
"That's exactly why you're wearing my costume, Will. You need the strength of a warrior tonight."
"But my Ephiny costume is a warrior costume."
Buffy nodded. She was wearing Willow's costume, and it was indeed a warrior's costume. She had on a leather skirt and halter top, and had donned the matching Amazon headdress.
"True. But two things - first, I kind of thought with the way you're feeling tonight, you might not want to be this exposed." Buffy indicated her bare midriff and the expanse of her upper torso, only marginally covered by the skimpy halter top. "And second, Xena is a strong and powerful warrior. Some say with magical powers. Some people even think she's half-god."
Buffy smiled. "I thought you could use a little of that tonight. But we can totally change back - whatever you want, Will."
Willow impulsively hugged Buffy. "You are a great friend, you know that? No, I'm totally wearing this costume."
"Now to really get empowered, do the warrior cry with me."
"I think I'll pass, Buff."
"No, seriously! I learned how to really use my diaphragm at the workshop today, and it's so much better. Louder, too. Give it a try. C'mon, we'll do it together."
Buffy drew a deep breath and let out an "Ay yi yi yi yi yi yi yi yi!" Willow joined in halfheartedly.
"One more time - and you have to try."
Willow assented, and drew in a deep breath of her own. The two friends both let out a loud "Ay yi yi yi yi yi yi yi yi!" The echoes seemed to reverberate in the room. Willow and Buffy burst out laughing together - the first real laugh Willow had had all day.
"Is Xander meeting us here or downstairs?" Willow asked.
"He'll meet us at the dance after he goes and picks up Anya," Buffy replied. "You ready?"
Willow exhaled. "Yep."
Buffy took Willow's arm in hers and together they left the room on their way to the dance.