Willow didn't bother to go home to the flat she shared with Buffy to see if she was home. She almost never was nowadays. She would probably be out having dinner with Riley, her kind but wooden banker boyfriend. Buffy was going through a phase, or at least Willow hoped it was just a phase, where she was trying to be "normal".
Since she had been a wunderkind singer from early childhood, she hadn't really had much in the way of normal life so far. Riley was a sweetie, but he had no clue about who Buffy really was, in Willows opinion. He genuinely seemed not to realise that Buffy was uniquely talented and possibly one of the greatest singers of her generation, and god only knew that heroic sopranos where hard enough to come by these days. He also didn't realise that Buffy was quite famous, since he had the same surprised expression on his face whenever a fan asked her for an autograph.
'Poor Riley, he's not going to last,' Willow thought to herself on the train to Lewes, where she was going to have dinner at her singing teacher's house.
She didn't like to waste time. She would always bring a score or a book and spend the train ride studying. But not today... Today she just closed her eyes, emptied her mind of impressions and thought of the feeling of Tara's silken, reassuringly warm hand in her own and the sound of her voice flowing through the great halls of the opera house like a promise and a prayer. Had she ever experienced something so soft in her life? And that went for both the hand and the voice. She couldn't stop smiling.
'My ears are in love,' she thought to herself.
"You seem cheerful today, dear!" her singing teacher, said sounding amused at Willow's elated babble.
"Oh, yes, Laura, I am!" Willow beamed at the old lady.
"Because of Butterfly, Laura!" Willow said emphatically and took the other woman's hand in hers.
"Excellent! We will celebrate with some grappa with dessert!"
The following day was the day of the first drama rehearsal. Willow entered the larger rehearsal room with a yawn. She hadn't left her teacher's home until late and had made it home even later. Her body felt heavy and she hadn't made it far enough into her mocha to feel awake yet. Tara was already there, sitting alone in one of the seats almost at the end of the row. She turned as the soprano walked in and gave her a half-smile, which was just about the most contagious thing Willow had ever seen, and an exited little wave. Willow answered with a huge grin and suddenly looked immensely forward to the day's rehearsal. Her view of Tara's smile was suddenly blocked by William Bloodsworth.
"Looking worn there, Red! Hard night with the boyfriend?"
"None of your business what I do on my spare time," Willow said coolly, her bad morning temper returning.
"Actually, it is," he said with an annoying smirk on his face.
"I expect my performers to be on good form for my rehearsals. I pay to have you here in ship shape, love".
"Actually, you don't pay me at all, Bloodsworth. The Royal Opera House pays me, and they don't really care what I do at night."
She turned her eyes back to Tara, but she was busy studying her score and had stopped looking in Willow's direction.
Sandro patted the seat next to him. Willow had been looking forward to sitting with Tara, but she saw that Giles was beating her to it. With a sense of disproportionate disappointment she sat down next to Sandro. Giles was chatting pleasantly to Tara about her previous career, but Willow felt a little concerned when she heard the mezzo soprano stutter when she answered him.
'I have to remember to tell her what a sweetheart Giles is. She shouldn't have to feel nervous around him.' She suddenly realised that Sandro was looking questioningly at her.
"Boyfriend? Have you been holding out on me, Will?"
"NO!" She said emphatically. "It's just Bloodsworth being as annoying as possible... Maybe he should be marrying Anja. They could be irritating and produce hell spawn together."
"Come on Will, Anja's not bad once you get to know her!"
"Yeah, right," Willow said rolling her eyes.
Suddenly, she noticed in the corner of her eye that Tara was looking at her, with a huge, enchanting smile like a burst of sunshine on her face. Willow turned to her and mouthed "what?" curiously. The smile vanished and she just shook her head, looked down and wouldn't face her again.
When they started to rehearse the first act, Willow and Sandro had all the trouble in the world not to laugh out loud when Liam Brody started to pontificate on how his sets were a "post-structuralist statement". Willow started to feel a little of the old panic coming back at the thought of singing Un bel di in front of all these people without Tara's comforting hand to hold. She was infinitely pleased that that Suzuki and Butterfly was on stage together during that scene. Bloodsworth was pacing the rehearsal room, gesturing with his trademark big motions and as always wearing his perpetual leather coat, although the room was quite warm.
"Ok, after telling her to listen, I want you to walk to the front of the stage for the aria and look towards the horizon, as if searching with your eyes for the ship. For the second verse, I want you on your knees, like you're broken and don't quite believe in what you're singing. I want Suzuki to the back of the stage, kneeling from the start, looking uncomfortable and troubled. I want you very still, almost frozen, like you're chocked by Butterfly's behaviour. I want you to actually half-hide behind the grey screen."
"I think that's a bad idea."
William Bloodsworth stared at Willow with eyebrows almost touching his hairline. She was known for not having even a hint of the diva about her, and he was rather taken aback by her blunt contradiction.
"Walking to the front of the stage? Isn't that a little too conservative for your style?"
Willow knew that it was very rude to question him like this in front of all the others, but it was her peace of mind or his. She knew she could get through this if she could be close to Tara, but she just hated the idea of standing on her own at the edge of the stage. Besides, it was rather antiquated, she thought, trying to justify her actions to herself. She knew she had pushed the right button. Bloodsworth despised nothing as much as he did the old style of opera production.
"Eh, actually, I think she's right..."
Tara looked intensely uncomfortable as all eyes landed on her, but she bravely met Bloodsworth's annoyed look. Willow's heart swelled with gratitude towards her. Her new colleague was really taking a chance speaking up like this on her first day of rehearsals. The soprano suddenly felt terribly guilty.
'This is all because of my stupid paranoia. She shouldn't have to suffer because of me. I'm going to find a way to make it up to her,' she promised herself.
"Since Suzuki actually repeats Butterfly's words back to her at the end, shouldn't they, you know, interact instead?"
"Ok, then Newbie, let's see what you've got then. Sell it too me..."
Bloodsworth sat down behind his table and made a big show of looking bored.
"Thank you!" Willow whispered, looking into Tara's eyes.
Tara flashed a beautiful half-smile at her. Butterfly started on the aria, looking at Suzuki all the time, telling her chambermaid how she imagined the return of the American husband who had left her:
One fine day, we shall see a thread of smoke rising, over the horizon...
Tara looked comfortingly into her eyes, listening intently, as she was hearing these well known words for the first time. Willows hands sought out hers and entwined her fingers with the mezzo's, almost unconsciously. She felt her nerves break and her voice soar into the glittering perfection that she was known for. During the second part, they both knelt down at the front of the stage, perfectly synchronised. This was the first of many times Willow would marvel at the synchronisation that seemed to occur naturally when they performed together. She sang the entire aria with the same brilliance she had during yesterday's rehearsal. She drew a deep breath of relief when she was finished. A great weight had left her shoulders...
"Aah, that was sweet, Red... Maybe Butterfly should have married Suzuki instead?"
Bloodsworth smirked at her, but she could tell that he had liked the way they did it, despite him yawning demonstratively. She and Tara were still holding hands.
"Butterfly, the politically correct version? Hardly, we'd have to do Strauss for that!" She said haughtily, but let him poke fun at her.
She reluctantly let go of Tara's hand and whispered:
"Ignore him. He's got a reputation as a bastard to maintain..."
Tara nodded, but looked uncomfortable. Willow felt a little concerned about this. She really hoped Tara would learn not to take Bloodsworth seriously.
An hour and a half of hard work later, the demon producer gave them a twenty minute coffee break.
"What plans do you have for the rest of the week?" Willow asked Tara as they leisurely made their way to get coffee.
"Nothing, really..." Tara looked at her expectantly.
"Do you want to rehearse a little on our own?"
"Need your hand held again?" Tara said, teasingly. She suddenly stopped and turned to Willow. "I'm so sorry, I don't know why I s-said that, it was totally mean, I don't really think you sing better just because I'm there or anything, and..."
"It's ok," Willow gently interrupted. "You are well within your rights. You do make me sing better, and yes, I will probably need to have my hand held again," she said chuckling softly.
She slid her own arm through Tara's to emphasize that she wasn't upset and gently nudged her along. She noticed that the skin on Tara's arm was just as soft as her hand...
"I've been thinking... You know the benefit concert, where you're doing the Dalila? I have two spots to fill and I haven't quite decided on what to do yet, and I was wondering... How would you feel about doing something together? A duet? Maybe the Flower duet from Lakmé?"
"T-together? I'd love to!"
Tara once again graced her with a beautiful smile.
"How would you feel about the presentation of the rose from Rosenkavalier?"
"The love duet, you mean," Willow said thoughtfully.
"Not just the, erm... eh love duet, but the whole scene?" Tara continued.
"Hmmm, it's quite difficult... I've never sung Sophie before..."
She noticed the disappointed look on Tara's face and realised that the mezzo had assumed that her thinking out loud was a rejection of the idea.
"Actually, I think it's a great idea! I'll just need a few days to go over the music," she said decisively. "How large are you with the butch?" She continued in a mock serious tone.
"Eh, not very, but I hardly think that whole silver getup that my character wears for the second act is very butch, do you?" Tara chuckled and raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"Not so much, so you're probably in the clear!" Willow agreed happily.
Tara's voice would be great for the part of the young lover Octavian in Rosenkavalier, Willow was sure, but she couldn't help being amused at the thought of this the most feminine of creatures playing a boy. Everything about Tara was soft and fair.
"Next week? It will give me enough time to go through the music?" She said out loudly. Tara nodded her assent contentedly.
Willow couldn't remember the last time she enjoyed her singing this much. Actually, she couldn't remember the last time she had enjoyed anything this much...
They rounded a corner and almost walked straight into Gloria van Neederwelt, shivering with rage.
"I am so not wearing this!!"
The French soprano Cordelié LaChasse looked with distaste at a costume sketch for her next performance.
"It just totally covers up all of my cleavage."
"Well, duh, YEAH! You're in dull-as-dirt Dialogues of the Carmelites! You're playing a nun, Miss Oups-did-I-overuse-my-lip-contour-pen-again! What did you expect, a dominatrix outfit!?" Van Neederwelt snarled at the soprano.
"Eh, hello, yes! That's what I wore last year for the Stein Winge production at the Opera Bastille."
"Well, I could crap a better costume than that! Ok, so let's talk about my problems for a while, if that's ok with you, like why ALL OPERA SINGERS ARE IDIOTS, ESPECIALLY THE FRENCH!! Who would want to look at your scrawny cleavage anyway?"
"Hey, who are you calling scrawny, brillo-pad-peroxide-hair queen!? Hello!? There's such a thing as conditioning treatment for split ends, you know!!"
"Oh yeah? Well, your recording of Lascia chio pianga sounded like Sara Brightman!!"
Silently, LaChasse got a lip stick out of her hand bag and drew a long red line down the front of Van Neederwelts pink dress.
"THAT'S A PRADA!!"
"Mmmhm. LAST SEASONS PRADA!!"
"Eh, hi there... Did I come in the middle of something?" The Italian coloratura Harmonia Biondi had just turned the corner and looked on the scene in confusion. "I just wanted to talk to you about my costume? It's, like, a bit last season, if you know what I mean?"
Willow and Tara ducked in perfect synchronisation as Van Neederwelt picked up a small bust of Dame Eva Turner and threw it at LaChasse and Biondi, who also ducked in synchronisation. It whistled past the right ear of LaChasse, leaving a Dame Eva Turner-shaped dent in the door of Anja Johnssons dressing room.
Willow and Tara kept their heads down and ran around the corner.