Willow stared at Tara, her mind still putting all the pieces into place as she processed this new information. The seconds ticked by, and Willow gradually realized that she was staring, while Tara continued to smile at her tentatively.
"Um, hi, again. I mean..." Willow trailed off as she stood up from the couch.
Tara smiled. "I guess we haven't talked face to face very much, but based on our chats I'd say that this is a pretty rare occurrence."
Willow's mind whirled. "Finding out that the girl I hoped would be the girl I like is actually the girl I like instead of being the girlfriend of someone who was apparently lying to both of us is a rare occurrence?"
Tara frowned in concentration as she worked that out. "Well, I'd guess that's a rare occurrence too. But I meant your being speechless."
Willow smiled. "Oh, you're right. It is pretty rare - but it already seems to have passed. Um, hi. Wait, I've already said that three times. Four, now, so you probably feel properly greeted. I'm Willow, which you already know because we've met, and you're Tara - wiccanbard. I'm amazon_hacker, which I guess you already know - but how did you know that?"
Instead of answering her question, Tara smiled. "You're pretty much exactly like I imagined you would be."
Willow absorbed these words, and her eyes softened as her gaze roamed over Tara's face, stopping when her eyes locked with Tara's and she found answering tenderness there.
"Um, what?" she finally said, as a blush crept up her neck and settled in her cheeks.
Willow was both saved from and subjected to further embarrassment as Anya and Xander, who had been furtively whispering with Buffy and Angel across the room, chose that moment to join the girls.
"So, Tara, it looks like the redhead you've had your eye on all weekend is your internet paramour after all!" Anya chortled, much to Tara's chagrin.
"I'd introduce you, but I know you two have already met," Tara said, trying to ignore Anya's statement.
Anya was having none of it. "Didn't I tell you that there was no way that Faith girl was amazon_hacker? Thank god you didn't do it with her."
Tara bristled at the mention of Faith - as did Willow, once she turned her attention from Anya's comment about Tara not "doing it" with Faith - did they get that far?
"Where is she, anyway?" Willow asked. "I want to give her a piece of my mind."
Xander held up a restraining hand. "You just leave that to us."
"What do you mean?"
Anya jumped in. "What Xander means to say is, he, Buffy, and I just had a tete a tete, and we decided that you girls have had a rough time this weekend, what with the mistaken identity and all. We feel compelled to make sure that someone takes vengeance on Faith, but you two shouldn't have to worry about that."
"Where is Buffy?" Willow asked. "I want to introduce Tara to her."
Xander looked furtively across the room. "She's over there, but don't talk to her right now, or you'll blow her cover. She can meet Tara later."
Willow gave him a confused look, but acquiesced and turned her attention back to Anya, who was continuing.
"Anyway, so we decided that you two need some time to get to know each other after all the hijinks, so we're making a few changes in the room assignments for tonight. You two will stay in our room, I'm going to stay with Xander, and Buffy," Anya lowered her voice as she said the name, "is going to stay in Angel's room tonight."
Tara blushed to the roots of her hair. "That's, um, really thoughtful of you guys and all, but, um, don't you think that we should at least ask Willow..."
"Sounds great!" Willow interjected, fearing that Tara was going to decline the offer outright.
Tara shot a shy smile at Willow. "You mean?"
"And you don't even have to have sex," Anya said.
"Not that any of us would judge you if you did, glass houses and all. But that reminds me, Tara, if you do, then you could wear..."
"ANYA! Thank you," Tara interrupted. "I think we're good."
Xander smothered a smile with his hand as Willow grinned.
"So you two just run along!" Anya finished.
"Thank you, guys," Willow said, giving first Xander and then Anya a hug, followed by Tara.
"I'll just go get my things," Tara said. Willow nodded and went to gather up her own papers and bag.
A hint of mirth played around the corners of Anya's lips.
"Do you think that broke the ice enough for them?" she asked Xander.
"I think the ice was pulverized," he replied.
She grinned. "Speaking of pulverizing things, I'm going to go have a word with Faith. Be right back."
Anya crossed the room to where Faith was lounging near the door, casually ogling some of the girls. She crossed her arms as she reached the brunette, stopping when she was just inside the girl's personal space and impossible to ignore.
Faith looked up.
"My name is Anya, and I'm Tara's best friend. No, don't even say anything," Anya held up her hand as Faith began to speak. "This won't take long.
"I just came over here to tell you that what you did was probably the lowest, meanest, most low-down thing I've ever heard of. And I don't even care why you did it, so don't bother trying to explain. Just look at them." Anya gestured toward Willow and Tara, who were shyly holding hands as they bid Xander another goodnight.
"It's almost like they were meant for each other. And you can tell from just looking that they really like each other. Look at how excited they are.
"You got in the way of that. What kind of person are you that you had to pretend to be someone else? What's missing from your life that you had to horn in on somebody else's?"
Anya's eyes bored into Faith's as she saw her point sink in. The dark girl seemed about to say something, but decided against it.
"They're going to walk out of this room soon, and you'd better not still be here when they do. I think they've had enough of you this weekend. Capisce?"
Without a word, Faith stood up, holding her leather jacket over her shoulder. She sneered at Anya, then turned and left the Sunset Lounge.
"Good riddance," Anya said as she turned to rejoin Xander.
"What were you talking to Faith about?" Willow inquired.
"Oh, just convincing her she'd rather not be where she was right now," Anya said with a wave of her hand.
Tara smiled gratefully at her roommate and gave her a final hug.
"Thanks," she whispered in Anya's ear. "Are you going to want to pick up your toothbrush or anything?"
"No," Anya whispered back. "I don't mind using Xander's. And don't forget that blue underwear!"
Tara laughed as she released her friend.
"Okay, goodnight you two," Anya said. "Shoo!"
Willow gave Tara a sidelong glance as they began to walk away. "So you've had your eye on me all weekend?"
Xander looked fondly at the couple as they left the room.
"So is Operation Con the Conner underway?" he asked.
"Should be," Anya replied.
Faith strode off down the hallway, fuming. Who was that blonde stick to tell her anything about who she was? She had half a mind to turn around and let her have it. She was on the verge of going back when she walked by a darkened side hallway that led to the meeting rooms. It was empty and deserted at this time of night - except for a blonde girl leaning back against the wall with her shirt open one button lower than good taste would dictate.
She was giving Faith a smoky look.
"What are you looking at?" Faith snapped.
The girl's eyes roamed over Faith's body, lingering on the curve of her hips and breasts before coming to rest on her face.
"Nothing?" Faith retorted, her tone softening somewhat. Maybe tonight didn't have to be a total bust.
The blonde pushed off from the wall and sauntered over to Faith. Again, she gave Faith a thorough up-and-down look.
Faith grinned. "Like what you see?"
The girl considered this question carefully before answering.
"Hard to say."
A pink tongue emerged from the blonde's lips and wetted them before she replied.
"Too many clothes."
Faith felt her annoyance at Anya fade away as it was replaced with bravado and a resurgence of her confidence.
"Maybe we should do something about that," the blonde girl said.
"Maybe we should," Faith replied. She reached for the girl's waist, but the girl took a step back.
"Uh-uh," she said. "Don't get grabby." She reached into her pocket and produced a key card, which she handed to Faith.
Faith looked at the piece of plastic. "This come with a room number?"
The blonde smiled a sultry smile. "429," she said. "Why don't you join me in, say, 20 minutes after I've had a chance to freshen up and slip into something a little more...comfortable."
Faith raised an eyebrow. "All right. Maybe I'll pick up some party favors."
The blonde nodded. "Sounds nice. Don't be late."
"What's your name?" Faith called to the retreating figure.
Buffy turned around. "It's Anne," she said.
"Get ready for me to rock your world, Anne," Faith replied.
"So she tried to undo the tie on my shirt, and that was really just it for me. I told her off, and left the dance. So no, there was definitely no 'doing it.'"
"I should have known something was up when she was so rude to me when you and I were talking. Or hello! I should have known when she told me that the real wiccanbard was wearing a pink fuzzy sweater with an orange and purple plaid skirt."
"You believed that somebody would actually wear that? I mean, if they weren't colorblind?"
Willow grinned. "Well, I wanted to reserve judgment. The clothes don't matter as much as the person who's inside them."
Tara laughed. "But that color combination! My head hurts just thinking about it." She shook her head as she unlocked the door of her hotel room, and the door swung inward. She flipped on the light switch and entered. Willow followed, clutching the small bag that held her toiletries and pajamas.
The door swung closed behind them with a clunk and a snick as the latch engaged.
Tara cleared her throat as she gathered up some of the clothes that were lying on the bed and put them on top of her suitcase. She felt unaccountably shy now that she and Willow were alone, though they had talked easily - mostly about Faith's methods of deceiving them both - while they had picked up Willow's things from her room.
"Your room smells better than ours," Willow commented. "Ours had that musty hotel-room smell."
"I brought a candle," Tara said. "I usually bring one when I go to h-hotels."
Willow crossed the room to where the candle sat on the table and leaned over.
"Mmmmm," she said. "It smells nice."
Tara gazed at Willow as the girl looked around the room, taking in the marvel of the redhead actually being here, in her room, after the events of the weekend. She started suddenly out of her reverie.
"Oh!" she said. "Let me take your bag."
Willow handed her bag to Tara, who set it on the bed.
I put it on my bed. Willow doesn't know that it's my bed, though. Will she want to sleep in the bed with me? Do I want her to? How do I find out? Tara's forehead creased in worry.
Willow noticed her distress, and although she didn't fathom the exact cause, she was perceptive enough to figure out the general source.
"Hey," she said. Tara's eyes found hers, and her forehead smoothed.
"This is kind of unfamiliar territory for both of us, I think," Willow continued. "And with everything that happened this weekend we're probably both feeling a little off-balancey. Right?"
"Our friends were sweet to arrange things so we can stay together tonight, but I'm guessing that neither of us is really in the habit of, um, spending the night with people we've only just sort of met. So maybe it's best to start off just by saying that I don't have any expectations."
"Me either," Tara replied. She nerved herself and added softly, "I do have hopes, though."
Willow's eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face at these words.
Tara felt a thrill steal through her body as she watched Willow's bright smile.
I'd like to spend the rest of my life making her smile like that.
She felt transfixed as she ran her gaze over the contours of Willow's lips, and her own eyes sought Willow's green ones. She saw affection and tenderness there, as well as a bit of her own nervousness reflected at her. So fixed was her attention that she was unconscious was the movement of her feet, and she found herself approaching Willow.
Heart hammering in her chest, she reached for Willow's hands. The girl's hands were smooth and warm in her own cooler ones. Willing the slight tremor of her nervousness to subside, she held Willow's hands and regarded their entwined fingers.
"Gonna tell my fortune?" Willow asked, a little shakily.
Tara smiled a half-smile, and grasped Willow's right hand, turning it gently so the palm faced up. She traced the lines on the redhead's palm with her index finger, caressing the topmost line from under the little finger to where it petered out under the middle finger.
"Well, this is the head line, which has to do with intelligence and according to your palm, you're, um..."
"What?" Willow asked, curious at Tara's hesitation.
"Not very bright," she finished. She flashed Willow a grin. "I'm not an expert at reading palms, though."
Willow grinned. "What do the other lines mean?"
Tara traced the path of another line that cut a diagonal swath through Willow's palm. "This is your life line, and it says...oh dear..."
Tara looked up at Willow in mock sadness. "It's a wonder you're still alive," she said.
"I'll schedule an appointment with my doctor when I get home," Willow said.
"Yes, that would probably be a very good idea," Tara said. She cupped Willow's hand in her left hand, trailing her fingertips back and forth across Willow's wrist. "I'd hate for anything to happen to you."
Willow shivered as Tara's fingers strayed further up her arm for a moment, and then returned back to her palm.
"Now this is your heart line, and it tells you about your love life," Tara said, running her fingertip along the crease that began underneath the knuckle of Willow's index finger.
"What does it say?"
Tara gazed at the line, and cleared her throat. "Um, it says that you're going to be pretty unlucky in love, actually."
Willow's eyebrows rose in disbelief.
"I've never seen a love line that short," Tara said apologetically.
"So according to my hands, I'm a dumb, lonely person who's going to die young?"
Tara bit her lip through a smile. "If you believe in that sort of thing."
Willow raised her hand to Tara's face, cupping her cheek in her hand and softly running her thumb over her cheekbone. Tara inhaled sharply as Willow's hand made contact with her face, closed her eyes, and leaned into the touch.
"Do you believe in palmistry?" Willow asked softly.
Tara opened her eyes halfway.
"No," she replied. Willow's hand stilled its motion as Tara opened her eyes fully.
Tara raised her hands to Willow's face and cupped the redhead's cheeks in an answering caress.
"I think that you're a smart person who is going to live a long life," she said.
Willow felt her eyes wanting to close as Tara ran her fingers along her cheekbones, around her ears, and traced a path down her neck, and back up to her face.
"And what about love?" she asked.
"At the risk of sounding, um, like I have an overly high opinion of myself," Tara began, "I think you're going to be very lucky in love."
Tara dropped her hands from Willow's face and took a breath. She gazed deeply into Willow's expressive eyes, which seemed to simultaneously hold amusement, trust, and desire. She moved closer to Willow's face, inexorably, until the barest millimeters separated their lips. She closed her eyes, as did Willow. And then, with the lightest feather-brushing of lips, they kissed.
Willow felt a thrill steal through her body as their lips met. A tiny part of her couldn't believe this was happening, while the rest of her brain was uncharacteristically silent as it focused solely on the electrifying touch of Tara's lips on her own.
The kiss was gentle and tentative at first. Then, almost as one, both girls began to deepen the kiss, adjusting their lips to each others' so Willow's bottom lip fit snugly in between Tara's.
Willow's hands stole around Tara's waist, and she felt an answering embrace from the blonde.
They broke the kiss, both breathing more heavily than before. Neither girl moved to break their embrace, however. Tara leaned forward and rested her forehead against Willow's.
"Wow," she said.
"I definitely echo that sentiment," Willow said.
"I didn't plan that," Tara said.
"So the seductive palm reading was really an attempt to tell me my fortune, and not a ruse?" Willow teased gently.
Tara smiled. "Well, it wasn't an attempt to tell your fortune. It was a nice excuse to hold your hand."
Willow closed her eyes. "I liked that."
Willow opened her eyes. "I feel so conflicted."
"Well, on the one hand all I really want to do right now is kiss you again, and feel these amazing feelings. But on the other hand, I want to stay up late and talk all night and get to know you, because we haven't had much time this weekend, what with all the mistaken identities and all."
"I know how you feel," Tara responded. "Especially because tomorrow..." she trailed off as a thought struck her.
Willow pulled back and looked at her. "Tomorrow?"
"I just remembered a question I wanted to ask you. Your story about the vampires - which was great, by the way - why did you set it in Sunnydale?"
Willow quirked an eyebrow. "Well, because I live there."
Tara's eyebrows shot up. "You live in Sunnydale?"
"Yes," Willow said. "How come? Oh my gosh, do you live there too?"
"No," Tara responded. Willow's face fell. "Near there!" she quickly amended. "About 20 minutes away."
Willow's eyes widened. "Wow." She seemed speechless, and stared at Tara.
Tara threw her arms around Willow in a fierce hug.
Willow returned the hug with equal fervor. "I don't feel conflicted anymore."
Tara didn't let her go. "How come?"
Willow brushed Tara's cheek with hers. "I was feeling conflicted because I thought tomorrow that we were probably going to drive home away from each other, and be far apart and have to have a long-distance relat- um, correspondence, and now I know that we're going to be able to spend time together and get to know each other, and well, that's great."
Tara grinned into Willow's neck.
"So you were conflicted before about kissing all night, or talking all night. Which one do you want to do?" she asked casually.
Willow pulled back and gazed into Tara's eyes before replying "Definitely more kisses."
Tara covered Willow's lips with her own with a passion that belied her casual tone.
Faith strutted down the hall to room 429, clutching a bottle of wine by the neck in one hand. As she arrived, she whistled appreciatively.
"Corner room. Nice."
She reached into her pocket for the piece of plastic Anne had given her. She inserted and removed it from the door lock with a flourish, and grinned wickedly as the green light came on. She pushed the door open.
The room was dark, lit dimly only by a table lamp that cast a weak pool of light onto the table. The sole object on the table was an ice bucket.
Faith advanced into the room, looking around in the dim light. The room was empty.
"Huh. Maybe she went to get some party favors too," Faith muttered.
She reached for the light switch, liking the mood lighting but not wanting to wait for Anne in the dark. As she snapped on the overhead light, the room was lit up brightly.
It appeared to be empty - there were no signs of anyone staying in the room. The beds were snugly made, and there was no suitcase in sight, not any visible signs of an occupant. No books, toiletries, glasses of water were visible. Even the remote control was neatly positioned on top of the television.
Faith frowned. Something didn't seem right. As she looked more carefully around the room, she noticed some details she had missed in the dark. The ice bucket was filled to the brim with ice, and a piece of paper was taped to it.
With a flick of her wrist she snapped the paper off the ice bucket and read it.
Faith growled in frustration and crumpled up the note. She flipped the plastic key card across the room.
She reached for the ice bucket, intending to upend its contents all over the room - she didn't know if "Anne" would be back or if the room was truly unoccupied, but she wanted seek some release for the frustration she was feeling.
As she gripped the handle on the ice bucket, though, she stilled her hand. Anya's words echoed in her mind.
What kind of person are you that you need to pretend to be someone else? What's missing from your life that you had to horn in on somebody else's?
Faith shook her head, trying to forget the words, but they persisted, replaying themselves over and over again in her head.
"Losers," she said. The words rang hollow in her ears. She stalked out of the room, Anya's words stubbornly accompanying her no matter how fast she walked down the hallway.