Tara shifted in her chair as she curled her hands around the cooling mug of tea. She was curled up under a blanket in the armchair with her legs tucked under her, staring off into space - what would have been out the window if the curtains had been open. It was early and she had been awake since six o'clock. Unable to sleep any longer and tired of tossing and turning, she had finally got out of bed and made herself some tea, moving quietly so as not to wake Anya.
Pensive didn't even begin to describe her mood. She felt exhausted from her night of anxious dreams. Being both the chaser and the chased had given way to dreaming of message boards and chat rooms. The amazon_hacker she chatted was different, though - uncommunicative, sarcastic, and a little cruel. In her dream, Tara kept typing away, hoping for a different response, but was continually met with the same sardonic replies.
She took one last sip of the lukewarm beverage and set it quietly on the edge of the table. The mug made the quietest of clinks on the polished wooden surface, but in the quiet of the room it sounded loud to Tara and she winced. She had fallen asleep long before Anya returned to the room, and knew that her friend probably hadn't had a lot of sleep.
Anya stirred and turned over in her bed to face the window, pulling the covers up securely under her chin. She opened her eyes and took in the sight of Tara in the armchair.
Tara looked over. "I didn't mean to wake you, An - I'm sorry. Go back to sleep - you don't have to be up for at least another couple of hours."
Anya rubbed her eyes and craned her neck to look at the digital clock. The neon numerals read 7:07 a.m.
"You've got that right." She yawned, but didn't close her eyes. "Is that coffee?"
"Where did you get tea?"
"I brought a couple of teabags with me and made hot water in the coffee pot."
"Clever." Anya stretched underneath the covers. "All right, Maclay, we both know I won't be going back to sleep anytime soon, so why don't you brew yourself another cup of tea and I'll make coffee, and we can talk."
Tara didn't budge. "I'm sure you were up late - you should go back to sleep while you still can."
"Too late!" Anya threw the covers off in one dramatic motion and sat up. "Don't you play the martyr with me, I know you too well. You want to talk."
Tara smiled as Anya walked over, took her mug from the table, and carried it over to the coffee pot where she emptied the rest of the hot water from the carafe into the mug. She selected a teabag from the box Tara has left near the coffeemaker, plopped it into the mug, and returned it to Tara.
"I would say thank you, but I know that was all about freeing up the coffee pot so you can make coffee," Tara said.
Anya busied herself with the filter pack of coffee grounds that the hotel provided, and carried the now-empty carafe into the bathroom to refill it. "Correct, so thank you for omitting the customary pleasantries." She pushed the on button and plopped down on Tara's bed while she waited for the coffee to brew.
"So what's got you all can't-sleep-thinky?" Anya asked. "I mean, obviously it's whatever happened last night, right?"
"Yes and no. In a nutshell, last night Faith was a jerk and I told her off and she and I are through."
"A jerk how?"
Tara sighed. "It was ridiculous. I mean, it would have been laughable if it wasn't so horrendously uncomfortable. She was grinding all over me on the dance floor, she was really rude to Willow and to this other girl, and she spiked my punch with whiskey."
Anya raised her eyebrows. "This sounds like a train wreck."
Tara nodded. "And that's not even the most shocking part. An, she was dressed as Callisto!"
"That's the most shocking part?"
"I know, it sounds stupid. But it's just like she's not even the same person that I got to know over the past three months. A couple of months ago when we were talking about some of the earlier episodes, she really seemed to take it personally, everything that Callisto put Gabrielle and the Amazons through. I was floored when she showed up dressed like her."
The coffee pot made gurgling noises as it finished percolating. Anya rose to pour herself a cup of the brew. She stirred in creamer and sugar, and tapped the stirrer against the side of the mug as she considered this.
"Okay, let's look at this from a different angle. If this were a fan fiction story, and you were reading it and a character who had been so much one way suddenly changed and was really different, what do you think the cause would be?"
Tara frowned at Anya, not understanding the reason for the question, but played along. "Well, I would guess that maybe someone, a god or some magical device, had switched the person with someone else. That's been done a lot."
"So doesn't it seem logical that something like that is at work here?"
Tara snorted. "Yeah, except that demonic possession and Greek gods don't really exist."
Anya lifted a remonstrating finger and took a sip of her coffee, warming to her subject. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. But real-world prejudices aside, talk this through with me. You've been talking to this girl for three months, yeah?"
"She's been funny, quirky, and really talkative, from what you've told me."
"And all of a sudden you meet her in person and she's totally different."
"Yeah - she was quieter than I would have expected."
"And you thought this could have been due to nerves."
"At first, yeah, but the more time I spent with her, the more time I thought she was just a jerk."
"Possibly. But answer me this - have you two talked about any of the things that you've chatted about online? Three months, it can't be all about Xena and Gabrielle - you must have had other topics."
"Sure, we talked about a lot of stuff. Karma, the nature of forgiveness and redemption, comparative religion, writing, computer science - she spent quite a bit of time explaining computer stuff to me."
"Did you revisit any of those subjects yesterday?"
Tara frowned again. "Well, no. I brought up a few of them - asked her how her new story was going - she's writing something that's like Dracula meets Charmed, by the way - not a crossover, but a vampire story with witches, doesn't that sound funny? - some stuff about computers - and every time I brought something like that up, she'd change the subject. She said she didn't want to rehash old topics, but to talk about new ones, or something like that."
"Aha." Anya nodded sagely and swallowed a large mouthful of coffee. "I submit to you, Tara Maclay, that Faith is not your amazon_hacker at all, but an imposter."
Tara grasped the teabag from her steaming cup and laid it aside. "You're saying that she's acting so different, that there's no way she's the same person."
Anya nodded. "All the evidence adds up. She avoids past topics, she acts totally different than she has before, and here's the most damning piece of evidence - you said she was a computer geek, right?"
"Well, in my experience the true computer geeks don't ever shut up about computers - routers, security patches, wireless networks, and god knows what else. Answer me this: did she talk at all about version 1.0.7 of Firefox?"
"That's the clincher. The computer geeks in my accounting class couldn't stop talking about it this week - they're practically wetting their polyester pants about all the new features. Tara, she's not who she says she is."
Tara bit her lip and took a sip of her tea. "You should be a lawyer."
Anya laughed as she finished her coffee and refilled her cup. "The real money's in commerce and finance. I'm going to have armies of lawyers for my lackeys."
Tara smiled at this, but her expression quickly returned to one of consideration. "I've been thinking a lot this morning - I got up early and have been sitting here wondering about the past three months. Whether Faith is or isn't amazon_hacker, and I'm not convinced she isn't - she had the pin, after all, and that was something we worked out in a private chat - I was thinking about my life, and meeting people on the internet, and just all of it. It's a big mishmash in my head right now, but I was kind of thinking that I should start spending less time on the internet and the Warrior board, and more time in...real life."
Anya smiled sympathetically and waited for Tara to finish.
"It's just that, I keep going over this - maybe I was so wrapped up in my idea of who amazon_hacker was, that I was blind to all of this other stuff. Maybe it was right there for me to see, and I missed it because I had built up this perfect idea of who I wanted her to be. And what do I do now? Go back to the Warrior board and try to meet someone else?"
Anya broke in. "If how people appear online is really different from their real personalities, that must mean that Cordelia is a really deep person, and the obsession with fashion is just a front to mask her pain at being misunderstood."
"Well, maybe some people are who they appear to be. But the point is, I won't know until I actually meet them, and anyway - I'm talking in circles here. I just mean, overall, that I think that maybe it's time for me to start being a little braver."
"Well, sweetie, if that's what you want to do, then I fully support you. I'll accompany you out to all the hottest lesbian clubs when we get home."
Tara laughed. "It's a deal. But I kind of thought that I might start today."
She blushed and said, "You know Willow, Xander's friend?"
"The one you had coffee with? xenarulz?"
"Yes. I spent some time talking to her last night, and I really like her. But then Faith came back from her whiskey run and broke it up. Anyway, I'm going to find her today and talk to her. Maybe ask her to lunch."
Anya grinned. "I think that's a great idea. Xander and I talked with her a little bit last night and she seems very nice. And you can expand your horizons a little bit. Maybe she'll lead you to new depths of appreciation of the finer points of fighting."
Tara spread her hands and said, "Anything's possible."
"Now, my precociously conscious roommate, as long as we're both up so early, how about we get ready and go get some real breakfast? There's plenty of time before the first panel discussions."
Tara's stomach rumbled at the thought of breakfast, and she nodded instantly. "First shower, or second?"
"You go ahead, I'll polish off this coffee."
Tara rose and headed for the bathroom, feeling better than she had this morning. Could Faith really be an imposter? Well, it doesn't matter - I'm done with all that internet stuff.
Willow awakened before her friends around 8:30 and decided to take a shower while they were still asleep. Before showering, she looked at the convention schedule and scribbled a note by the closing plenary session.
Can we leave after this?
They had paid for their room through Monday morning, but Willow wasn't sure if she could face another night in the hotel, at the convention. It was a two-hour drive back to Sunnydale and she figured that they'd get home by 8pm if they left right after the plenary, and Buffy wouldn't have to drive in the dark.
When she came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, Buffy and Xander were still in bed. She stopped by the convention schedule on the desk, and noted the reply to her question, written in the same purple ink that she used to indicate Buffy's suggested workshops on the schedule.
No! You are reading tonight.
She picked up the schedule and noted the two other additions - the chakram pizza, which was signed by Xander, and the notation by the "Mary Sue" panel discussion that Cordelia should attend.
"You guys aren't really asleep, are you?" she asked.
A muffled laugh from Buffy's pillow was her answer. "You caught us," she said.
Xander sat up. "Normally you have our whole schedules planned out the night before, but we noticed today that you hadn't, so we thought we'd lend a hand."
"And you've worked so hard on that story, you are definitely reading it tonight," Buffy added.
Willow traced her finger on the part of the schedule that noted the fan fiction reading. "I guess you're right. If we left and I didn't read this story, I'd probably regret it later. Even though I don't really feel like doing it now."
She picked up her green pen and added a reply of her own to Buffy's comment.
Willow had been waiting in the exhibit hall for Buffy and Xander for more than an hour. She had planned on attending the panel discussion about "The Writing Process," but at the last minute decided to skip it. She was tired from the late night spent revising her story, and both Buffy and Xander had come in around 1:00 a.m., so they had stayed up even later talking. Buffy was excited about having met Angel and Xander was head-over-heels about Anya.
"And get this - he's only about an hour away from Sunnydale! He lives in L.A. and manages a hotel," Buffy had said. "So we'll get to see each other again."
Willow leaned against the wall. She had been leafing idly through one of the free newspapers the hotel provided in the lobby, but focusing on the tiny print took more effort than she wanted to put forth. She leaned her head back against the wall and watched the people through lidded eyes.
Most people were in the morning panel discussions, but a few stragglers meandered around and browsed through the Xena merchandise. Willow's eyes lit on a familiar figure.
Faith stood near the table with her hands in the two back pockets of her black jeans, looking at an assortment of chakram and sword jewelry. She wore a black tank top and carried a leather jacket under one arm. As the air conditioning in the room kicked on, she shook out the jacket. A small purple object fell out of one of the pockets as pulled it onto her arms. It bounced once and lay on the floor near her feet.
Willow's eyes narrowed. From a distance, the object looked familiar. She stood and walked the short distance over to Faith. She reached down and picked up her purple kitten pin.
"What are you doing with this?" she demanded of Faith.
Faith looked at the pin in Willow's hand, and at Willow's accusing expression. "And a good morning to you too, Red."
"This is mine. Where did you get it?"
Faith adjusted the collar of her jacket. "Don't blow a gasket, Red. I found it."
"Found it where? When?"
Faith inspected her fingernails. "Yesterday, here in the exhibit hall. It was lying on the floor over by the Creation booth. Caused me a world of trouble, too."
Willow put the pin in her pocket and looked at Faith suspiciously. "What do you mean?"
Faith shrugged. "Not twenty seconds after I picked it up, this girl came up to me and was talking to me, really friendly and familiar-like, and wanted to go to lunch. She kept going on and on about the pin, and how it was exactly like I had described it. I couldn't get a word in edgewise."
"Tara thought you were me?" Willow's eyes opened wide.
"Tara?" Faith's eyes narrowed. "No. Tara's...my girlfriend. She saw this girl all over me, and got mad."
Willow deflated. "Mad?"
"Yeah, she has a real insecure streak. Anyway, I figured it must have been something about the pin but Tara dragged me away before I could explain it to this girl. So I stuck it in my pocket and just forgot about it till now, honestly."
Willow's mind was racing. She had sensed the tension between Faith and Tara. And if wiccanbard really had thought Faith was amazon_hacker, that would explain why she hadn't stayed around the exhibit hall for very long. It must have been confusing for her, thinking that amazon_hacker had a jealous girlfriend in tow. Having crossed paths with Faith herself, Willow wasn't surprised that wiccanbard had beat a hasty retreat.
"What was her name? I was supposed to be meeting her."
Faith sighed. "I didn't even have a chance get her name. I'm really sorry."
Willow was crushed, and it showed.
Faith put a hand on Willow's shoulder. "Look, Red. I'm really sorry. Didn't mean to mess up whatever angle you were working. Listen - if I see her again, I'll recognize her for sure. Tell you what - if I see her, I'll tell her you're looking for her. And if you're around, I'll grab you. How about that?"
Willow fairly bounced with excitement. "Yes! Please! I really need to find her and explain."
Faith grinned. "You can count on me."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Willow impulsively hugged Faith.
A mass of people started to pour through the entrance that connected the exhibit hall to the meeting rooms. Willow caught sight of Buffy and Xander and with a parting wave at Faith, sprinted over to meet them.
"Guys, guess what? You'll never guess," Willow spouted excitedly to her friends as she hooked arms with them and dragged them towards the front doors. "Lunch is on me! So exciting..."
Tara arrived in the exhibit hall a few moments later, looking around for Willow. She had hoped she'd run into the redhead at the panel discussion about the writing process, but she had had no such luck. She hadn't been able to find her outside of the Mary Sue workshop either, so she had come to the exhibit hall. However, Willow was nowhere to be found. Tara compressed her lips into a thin line with frustration.
Oh well. I can find her this afternoon. I'm sure she'll be at that fight scenes workshop.