Tara had been looking for Willow all morning. Much to her chagrin, she hadn't been able to spot her before lunch. At 1:00 p.m., she had gone to the "Xena as Mafia Kingpin" workshop, certain that as big a fan of Xena's as Willow was would be sure to attend. When Willow wasn't there, Tara had slipped out the door.
She joined Anya in the the "Smut: Come One, Come All" workshop, who was busily taking notes and adding her insights to the discussion, but there was no Willow. Tara thought about leaving and checking the other two workshops, but decided against it.
Play it cool. You'll run into her.
Tara and Anya left the smut workshop together, Anya loaded down with handouts and her own notes. Tara looked wryly at her roommate's heavy load.
"That's a whole lotta smut," she commented.
Anya beamed. "Isn't it great?" she said. "I'm glad they included my handout."
"Just don't leave that pile anywhere where someone could pick it up by mistake. You could give some unsuspecting person a heart attack," Tara said.
"No kidding - although that would be more of a concern if..."
"Be right back!" Tara said, catching sight of Willow further down the hall. She weaved her way through the crush of bodies, people milling around after the workshops let out. A few people got in her way, but she skirted around them.
Just as she got to the far end of the hall, she saw Willow take off running in the opposite direction toward the exhibit hall. The redhead was soon out of sight.
"Damn!" Tara uncharacteristically swore.
"Faith!" Willow called out as she caught up.
Faith turned around. "Hey."
"Have you seen her?" Willow asked, out of breath.
"I just saw her across the room," Faith indicated the other side of the exhibit hall. "She looked like she was heading upstairs."
Willow grimaced. "Do you think I could catch her if I ran to the elevators?"
Faith shrugged. "Maybe. She was pretty far ahead of you. But it's worth a try."
"What does she look like?"
"Pink fuzzy sweater, long orange and purple plaid skirt. You really can't miss her."
Willow sprinted off toward the elevators.
Tara sat in the Xena fight scenes roundtable, debating with herself about whether it would cause a ruckus if she got up and left so soon after the start. She had been sure that Willow would show up, but now it was fifteen minutes into the discussion and Tara hadn't seen anyone she recognized. Plus, the discussion was boring her to tears.
"There's definitely a bit of tae kwon do in Xena's moves, but I've also noticed a touch of the barroom brawler in her."
"Oh, definitely, but I there's a hint of kung fu influence on her side kicks rather than tae kwon do. Just look at the angle at which her foot impacted Borias' cheek in the 'Debt' episodes."
"But presumably Lao Ma taught Xena other fighting philosophies during that time, so we can't take her fighting style from Season 2 as representative of her entire approach."
Tara visually worked out a route to the door, calculating how many people she would be likely to trip over along the way.
Sure would be nice if I could just leap up and flip over everyone, like Xena does.
"They definitely started doing it after 'Altared States'."
"No, the fact that subtext existed in 'Altared States' at all means they must have started doing it BEFORE then."
"Come on, people - the subtext in Season 1 can just be taken as flirting, or the expression of their unconscious desires. I think we can safely assume they were doing it during 'A Day in the Life'."
"Hellooooo, people, you are forgetting about 'The Quest'!"
Willow leaned over to Buffy and whispered "Isn't this great?"
Buffy jerked awake and looked at Willow, blinking rapidly. "Um, yeah! Great!"
Willow nudged Buffy. "You were nice to come to this workshop with me. I know it's not what you're most interested in."
Buffy smiled. "No problem. I'm all for the moral support when it comes to fixing crossed wires. Like an electrician's sidekick, that's me."
"So after this is over, we'll go to the exhibit hall and look for Faith?"
Buffy nodded. "I think you described her well enough that I'll recognize her, although I don't remember seeing her at the dance."
"Well, just remember to look for the lipstick."
"And a person in a pink sweater and an orange and purple skirt? Will, I don't mean to sound skeptical, but are you sure you can trust this Faith?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, that outfit doesn't sound like anything that anyone would wear voluntarily."
Willow pursed her mouth. "Maybe she's got a unique sense of style. Besides, why would Faith make up something like that?"
"I don't know," said Buffy. "All I'm saying is, beware Greeks bearing gifts."
Willow frowned. "I don't think Faith is Greek."
"Well, then, don't forget to look a Trojan gift horse in the mouth. Or something. I just don't know if you should trust her."
"EXCUSE ME," said one of the discussion attendees. "Do you mind keeping it down? We're having a discussion here." She looked at Buffy. "When do YOU think they started doing it?"
Buffy blinked. "Um. In Sickness and in Hell."
Tara was frustrated. The plenary session was about to start and she hadn't been able to find Willow all day. She had only had one glimpse of Willow, who had then inexplicably run in the opposite direction. She looked around the crowded ballroom, but didn't see the redhead - although the lines of sight were not clear since the ballroom had several pillars throughout.
"Anya," she whispered, "Were you planning on seeing Xander for dinner tonight?"
Anya looked up from her notebook. "I hadn't planned on it. I was going to meet up with him after tonight. Why?"
Tara bit her lip. "I've been looking for Willow and haven't run into her, so I was wondering if you were going to see Xander, and then I could ask him where she is."
"I hadn't planned on it, but we'll look for him after this is over. If we don't find him, we'll call his room, okay?"
Tara wasn't the only one who was frustrated. Willow's mood had taken a turn for the worse. After talking to Faith in the afternoon, she had been unable to find a person wearing a pink fuzzy sweater and orange and purple plaid skirt, nor Faith herself between the break in the discussion roundtable and the beginning of the plenary session. She was waiting outside the ballroom in hopes of catching Faith on the way in while Buffy and Xander saved her a seat. It was possible that wiccanbard had changed her outfit, and Willow wanted to get more details about her looks if that was the case.
They were a little late arriving, so they had to settle for seats in the back with their view partially obstructed by a pillar, but Willow didn't care about having a good view. Unfortunately, there were two entrances to the Grand Ballroom, and Willow couldn't be in two places at once. She heard the opening sentences of the plenary session begin, and still no Faith. Sighing, she went inside to join Buffy and Xander.
She's like a...a safety pin, or a band-aid. Cluttering up the place when you don't want or need one, but the minute you do, it's as if she never existed.
Tara settled into the couch next to Anya, thoroughly disgruntled. She hadn't been able to find Willow after the plenary, or around dinnertime either. Their call to Xander's room had gone unanswered. If she had had any reason to suspect, she would have thought that Willow was avoiding her. As it was, she was simply discouraged.
"I wonder if we'll hear any smutty stories tonight," Anya said.
Tara rubbed her eyes. "I'm sure we will - with all these smut workshops, I'm sure people have been inspired."
"Well, that's good, because..."
Tara jumped up. "Save my seat!" she called to Anya as she weaved her way around the people sitting on the floor toward the door, where she had spotted Willow.
Willow was standing with her back to the door, looking as if she were waiting for someone. As Tara moved closer, Willow left the doorway and moved out of her line of sight.
She closed the distance to the doorway and looked around the corner, intending to follow Willow wherever it was that she was going, but she didn't have far to look. Willow was talking to Faith. Faith?!!
Tara's expression soured and she turned around to go back to her seat.
"Have you seen her?" Willow asked Faith.
Faith assumed an expression of regret. "Not since early afternoon. I've been keeping an eye out all day. Haven't seen hide nor hair."
Willow's face fell. "Do you think she's gone?"
"I hate to say it, Red, but I think she's probably left the con. But cheer up - you can send her a private message when you get home, and explain the whole thing."
"I guess you're right. Thanks for trying," Willow said. She tried to smile at Faith, but she was so disappointed that she was sure her smile didn't look sincere.
"No problem. Going in?"
"Yes," Willow replied. "I'm reading tonight, I think."
The girls entered the Sunset Lounge, where Cordelia was calling the room to order.
"Attention, people! This is the last night of the fan fiction reading for the Warrior, the Bard, and the Bad Wardrobe. Andrew and I want to thank you all so much for coming to these readings, and for continuing to be active participants on the warriorboard. Even though the show is over, we can keep Xena and Gabrielle alive and having adventures together."
Applause broke out throughout the room, which Cordelia acknowledged with a modest grin and applause of her own.
"Okay - so far we only have one person signed up to read." Cordelia gestured toward Willow, who was making her way back to her seat.
Tara sat on the couch, by now thoroughly confused. Willow was talking to Faith? Now she's going to read? xenarulz hasn't written anything that I know of.
Willow reached her seat and Buffy handed her a stack of papers. She turned and walked to the front of the room.
"Hi, everybody," she said. She seemed as if she wanted to say something else, but instead cleared her throat and shuffled her papers.
Tara studied Willow. Something definitely seemed wrong. Her affect was flat, her shoulders were slumped, and her green eyes were not sparkling as they usually did. She leaned over toward Anya to ask if she noticed it too, but lost all thought of asking as she focused on what Willow was saying.
"Xena took her usual path through the cemetery, first completing a circuit of the perimeter and then walking the paths that led to the center of the graveyard. She had patrolled this route several times in the past few months since coming to Sunnydale in the fall. She concentrated on the freshly dug graves from this week's funerals - which never were in short supply in Sunnydale.
The room erupted into laughter, but Tara sat rooted to her seat in shock.
What is going on?
The plot of this story so far seemed to be exactly what amazon_hacker had described to Tara in one of their recent chats before UberCon. A Charmed/Dracula crossover in concept, it was a story about a vampire slayer who was teamed up with a witch. Together, they patrolled the cemeteries, crypts, and abandoned warehouses of the town they lived in - is it Sunnydale? You've got to be kidding me - to kill vampires and demons. With frequent breaks for kisses and gay love, so it seemed.
Tara leaned in and gave Willow her undivided attention. As Willow warmed to her story, her flat affect was yielding to a more animated voice and manner.
"Xena and Gabrielle left the cemetery hand in hand and headed downtown.
Angel leaned over to Buffy and whispered "A vampire with a soul? Come on."
Buffy elbowed him. "Willing suspension of disbelief here, Cupid."
Tara's thoughts were in turmoil. This story was almost exactly what amazon_hacker had described to her in chat and had said she would be reading at the convention. She tried to calm down and think through things logically.
Pretend you're Anya. Okay, three possibilities here. First, this could be a complete coincidence. Maybe Willow had the same story idea as Faith. Second, maybe Willow talks to Faith online and stole her story idea. Third, maybe they're co-writing it.
Tara shook her head. Coincidence was possible, but not likely. From what she knew of Willow, she wasn't the type to steal anyone's idea. And from the hostile interaction the two had had at the dance, Tara didn't think they would be likely collaborators on a piece of fiction.
Okay, that leaves option four. Oh my god.
Tara looked across the room at Faith, who was sitting on the floor near the door. Faith looked back, and her innocent look gradually faded under the weight of Tara's accusatory stare. Finally, Faith shrugged.
Tara's head spun as she put the pieces together.
Faith isn't amazon_hacker. I don't know how or why, but she tricked me.
Tara turned her attention back to Willow, who was finishing up her story. After trying unsuccessfully to get rid of Joxer, the three had proceeded to the Bronze, which was under attack from a gang of vampires. The gang made short work of dusting them all, with an especially drawn-out and violent death scene for uncharacteristically brunette vampire named Callisto.
"Xena and Gabrielle surveyed the room, which was littered with broken chairs, smashed mirrors, and piles of dust. Joxer stood by proudly.
As Willow wound up the end of her story, Tara pondered what to do. She could wait until the fan fiction reading was over and go explain what had happened. Or she could go get Willow right away and pull her out into the hallway, to be sure she wouldn't leave.
As she considered these options, Tara discarded them both. She didn't want to make a scene in the middle of the fan fiction reading. And with her lack of luck catching Willow today, the redhead would slip out of the room if she waited until that night's reading was over, and Tara wouldn't see her again for the rest of the night.
Truth be told, there was something anticlimactic in both of those options, and Tara's sense of pacing and drama from writing her own stories rejected such a mundane method of revealing the mix-up, deception, whatever it was, to Willow. Plus, she had been able to enjoy the excitement of figuring out that Willow was amazon_hacker. If it was within her power, she wanted to give that same experience to Willow.
Also, didn't I vow this morning to be braver, and to stop hiding behind everything? All right, then. This is my chance.
The people in the room broke into applause as Willow said "The end." With a nod, Willow grinned and walked over to reclaim her seat next to Buffy.
Cordelia, also clapping, stood up and walked to the front of the room. "That was fantastic. A little farfetched, but hey - that's what uber is all about, right? Okay, we don't have anyone else signed up to read yet, so are there any volunteers?"
Tara's heart began to thump in her chest. She nerved herself, and then raised her hand.
Cordelia pointed to Tara. "You there, okay! You're up."
Anya looked at Tara in surprise. "I thought you were blocked?"
"I just figured out how to end it," said Tara as she stood up. She walked to the front of the room, hyperventilating slightly. Please don't let me stutter too much.
Willow sat back on the couch on Buffy's other side. Reading her story had felt good - she had wanted to simply bow out tonight, but Buffy's and Xander's encouragement throughout the day had convinced her. And now she felt like she had accomplished something, and it buoyed up her mood. Despite having missed wiccanbard today, she felt optimistic - she could send her a private message tomorrow, and work out a different time and place to meet her.
Her eyes focused on Tara at the front of the room. The blonde girl seemed both nervous but confident, tucking her hair behind her ears and clearing her throat as she prepared to read. Well, maybe confident wasn't exactly the right word, Willow reflected - she seemed determined. Resolute. Certain of something.
Where is a thesaurus when you need one?
"H-hi, everyone," Tara said. "This story is set, well, sort of online, and also in the real world. The online portions take place on a message board that's a lot like the Warrior Board, called Sands of Time. It's set up for fans of the show Hourglass, a show that hasn't actually been made yet, but has been proposed by Alex Tydings and Claudia Christian. The basic plot of the show is, Aeysha Blackthorne and Chris Michaels are present-day women who want to go to the future, but end up in the past by accident and travel through real moments in history where women are coming into power. My story assumes that the show is actually in production, and that Xena and Gabrielle are fans of the show, and also write fan fiction."
The audience shifted restlessly at this long exposition. Tara noted the mood of the crowd, and decided just to start reading rather than explain further.
"Gabrielle unlocked the door of her apartment and set down her backpack in a rush. Her pottery class had run late due to a malfunction with the kiln, and she had hurried home through rush-hour traffic with just minutes to spare. She pressed the 'on' button on her computer and then poured herself a glass of milk as the machine booted up. As she took her customary seat at the desk, she double-clicked on the Firefox icon.
Willow felt stunned as she listened to Tara's story unfold. She was familiar with the proposed TV series Hourglass, as were most Xena fans. The prospect of another woman-centered TV show with two female main characters and lots of subtext was appealing to most of the Xena fan base. The Xena parallels in Tara's story were evident - Blackthorne, the Gabrielle character, was helping to redeem Hacker_Chris from her dark past of writing bad Kirk/Spock Star Trek fan fiction.
But it wasn't the setting or premise of Tara's story that stunned Willow - it was the plotline between Blackthorne and Hacker_Chris. They had apparently been friends when they were younger, but had been separated when Xena's parents had moved the family to Europe when the girls were 13 years old. They had drifted apart and lost contact with each other, but had coincidentally met each other again on the Sands of Time message board three months earlier.
Hacker_Chris had coaxed the shy Blackthorne into a correspondence and eventually a chatting relationship, through which they discovered that they were each others' long-lost friend. And now, after graduating college in Europe, Hacker_Chris was headed back to the U.S. and the two planned to meet again in a park under "their" tree. Both were excited and apprehensive about the meeting since each had carried a torch for the other over the years.
This is so similar to me and wiccanbard. Well, except for the childhood friends and eight years of separation and tree part. But the online part is almost us to a tee. How does she know all this?
"Gabrielle sat beneath the tree, lost in thought as the breeze swirled around her. After all this time, would Xena reciprocate her feelings? How real were her feelings, anyway, based as they were in the memory of a teenage friendship, and grown in recent months through an exclusively online relationship? What if Xena wasn't the same person she had been, and her impressions of Xena online were mistaken?
A willow tree?
Tara looked up from her papers and shifted. "That's actually all I have so far - I'm planning to continue this story on the Warrior board." She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "So look for an update from wiccanbard - that's me." She looked at Willow as she said it.
Willow sat perfectly still as the room broke into another round of applause. She gazed back at Tara, who returned the look with a half-smile before breaking eye contact and making her way back to her seat.
As comprehension dawned, Willow looked accusingly over at Faith. Faith returned her look with a shrug, and rolled her eyes.
Cordelia walked back to the front of the room. "Thank you, wiccanbard, for that. That message board, Sands of Time, sounds oddly familiar." She laughed. "Does anyone else want to read? We have another hour."
Nobody raised their hand. The crowd was smaller tonight, many people having chosen not to stay for Sunday night and having left.
Cordelia said "Okay, then - everyone, enjoy your evenings!"
People began getting up, gathering belongings, and started to empty out of the room. Willow, however, sat on the couch, still overwhelmed by the revelation. A shadow fell across her as a figure approached, and she looked up.
It was Tara, standing before her with that same combination of nervousness and certainty, looking at the floor, and then at Willow's face with a tentative, yet warm smile.