Author: Chris Cook
The clash of blades echoed around the gymnasium. Faith gritted her teeth and let out a hiss as the tip of Willow's foil jabbed into her abdomen, followed a second later by the redhead herself rushing past in the conclusion of her charge.
"En garde," Willow said, resuming her posture quickly as Faith turned to face her again.
"Oh come on Red," Faith complained, raising a hand as she ducked her head and pulled off her mask. "That's what, seventy or something? If you really need more practice, get it against something that won't ache the next morning..."
"Ten more?" Willow offered, lowering her foil.
"That's what you said twenty ago," Faith grumbled. "C'mon, let's take a break." Willow gave an exasperated sigh, then slid off her mask and followed the brunette over to the side of the gym.
"Are you still with whatsername?" she asked, as Faith stripped off her padded jacket and began doing her warm-down stretches on the bar.
"The one with the pink hair, from Berlin."
"Oh," Faith grinned. "Nah, that was just a-"
"-bit of fun," Willow echoed her, joining her in stretching her legs. "Do you ever actually have serious relationships?"
"What," Faith frowned, "and deprive you of the opportunity to give me that 'you shameless horn-dog' look every time I have a fling with some hot chick?"
"'Horn-dog'?" Willow queried.
"Anyway, what about you?" Faith countered. "Are you ever going to have any kind of relationship? Not counting the occasional moments of illicit sexual gratification you get from walking in on me when I've got some sweet-ass babe and we're-"
"No, and ick," Willow interrupted her. "I try to avoid those moments, thank you very much."
"Sure you do. Come on, what's up?"
"What makes you think something's up?!" Willow protested vehemently. Faith chuckled and swatted her on the ass as she walked over to the benches.
"Well, that tells me something is up," she grinned. "C'mon, tell auntie Faith what's got your panties in a bunch." Willow followed her, and sat down heavily beside her, watching the pairs of fencers sparring or practising moves.
"It's nothing," she said uneasily. "I mean, nothing important, it's just a... thing."
"A thing," Faith repeated. "A boy-thing? Don't tell me you're switching sides, I'd have no-one to go girl-spotting with."
"Okay," Faith sighed in relief, "tell me about your 'thing'." Willow choked on her sports drink.
"Sorry," Faith said, patting her on the back as she regained the ability to breathe. "Bad phrasing. Unless... you haven't taken steroids and grown a penis, have you?"
"What the hell?!" Willow exclaimed.
"Well that's a relief," Faith snickered. "Talk, will ya? Willow talking means Faith silent, hence no more dirty jokes."
"It's worth a shot," Willow muttered. "Okay, I was... last week, you remember that tournament I went to in France, while you were off in Italy doing whatever you were doing-"
"Francesca, yeah," Faith nodded.
"...right," Willow glared. "Well, this one time I was on a train back to the hotel, and there was this guy and this girl sitting there."
"Making out?" Faith asked.
"No! The girl was, well, cute I guess, not exactly my type-"
"But you had a sudden, irresistible urge to do her, and now you're cursing the world for making straight girls hot too?"
"What happened to 'Faith silent'?"
"Sorry. Guy and girl, sitting, girl cute. Go."
"Okay. No, I didn't have a sudden irresistible urge to... anyway. No, she was just cute, and the guy was, you know, just some guy. Nothing out of the ordinary. But she was kind of dozing, with her head in his lap..."
Faith opened her mouth to interrupt, but closed it again at a glare from Willow.
"She was dozing," Willow resumed, "and he was just stroking her hair, really lightly and gently, and looking down at her like she was the most wonderful thing in the world, and being there, just stroking her hair, was the best possible thing he could ever be doing with his life just then."
"...and?" Faith asked, as Willow sighed morosely.
"...and then I went back to my hotel room, alone, and went to bed," Willow finished.
"Ah," Faith nodded sagely. "Auntie Faith has the answer - you need a girlfriend."
"I don't have time for dating and all that," Willow protested.
"Sure you do - I manage."
"Your 'dates' consist of asking a girl if she wants to fuck," Willow pointed out. "That's not really difficult to fit around a training schedule."
"I'd be deeply offended if that weren't quite accurate," Faith shrugged. "But seriously, I could set you up-"
"No, seriously," Willow countered, "I don't have the time. I have to keep up my training and competing if I want to be anywhere near ready for '08, and I need to work on my program too, so taking evenings off to go looking for the love of my life isn't an option, even if it weren't for the fact that I'm not exactly turning heads."
"Entirely not true, but how about this, I met this girl at the Rome training camp, and she's here for the tournament-"
"No," Willow shook her head. "I appreciate the effort, but... this is just how it has to be. There's fencing, and there's having a love life, and right now I have to choose one or the other. Some time down the track, sure, once I'm not busy with training and competing and mathematically modelling the foil fencing style, and once I'm actually confident enough to talk to an attractive woman I like without making a complete idiot out of myself, but that day is most definitely not today."
"You don't... okay," Faith stopped herself, as Willow shook her head again.
"Okay," the brunette conceded, "no more trying to set Willow up on a date."
"Thanks," Willow sighed.
"Anyway, I've got something else in mind," Faith said slyly. "There's this girl-"
"No, not for you," Faith insisted. "See, I've seen her around, and chatted a couple of times, but... I don't really know how to make the next move."
"You?" Willow asked in disbelief. "Since when have you had trouble talking to women?"
"This is different," Faith shook her head. "This one, she's not just 'one night of fun' stuff, I kind of... I want to actually date her, you know? Conversation that doesn't revolve around which body part we're putting where, that kind of thing."
"Never thought I'd see the day," Willow blinked in surprise.
"I know, me too," Faith laughed. "But seriously, this is the thing - I'm not good at all that stuff. You know, talking, and romance, and..."
"Don't tell me you want my help," Willow snorted. "Does the blind leading the blind ring a bell?"
"No, not that - just talk to her a bit," Faith suggested. "Look, you won't be all twisted up in knots when you see her, so you can just wander over between bouts and, you know, strike up a conversation, or whatever. Find out what she likes, and what she's interested in... give me something to hang onto when I actually ask her out on a date, so I won't make a complete fool out of myself...?"
"I don't believe this," Willow said bluntly.
"Hey, I wouldn't have bet on being bit by the love bug either," Faith shook her head ruefully. "But here I am, and... this is important. I know I annoy the shit out of you, but you're the closest thing I've got to a friend, so... would you? It'll just take a few minutes, maybe chat to her once or twice, that's all I'm asking."
Willow looked intently at Faith for a moment, the nodded.
"I'd love to know why it is I can't refuse you anything," she muttered, with a grin sneaking through her mock-scowl.
"Because you love me madly," Faith chuckled.
"'Mad' is right."
"That's her," Faith said, glancing over Willow's shoulder. It was an hour later, and the gym was full to capacity with fencers doing last-minute training for the next day's first round of eliminations. Willow tried to look where Faith was looking.
"Isn't that Buffy?" she asked. "I thought you knew Buffy already."
"No, not... is it?" Faith asked. With everyone in white padded outfits and full face masks, telling one another apart was something of an issue.
"Damn it, this is why I wear black," Faith grumbled. "Wish they'd let me do that in actual tournament bouts... Wait, I see her - there, on the piste just past where Buffy is. The blonde ponytail, with the blue pistol grip. She's just finishing up."
Willow peered through the fencers, to where Faith was pointing. A pair were indeed saluting and removing their masks - one was a slim Russian Willow knew vaguely, the other she didn't recall having seen before.
"Is she new?" she wondered, trying to study the blonde without being too obvious about it. The woman's features were striking, until she reached back to undo her ponytail and her face was half-hidden behind a curtain of honey-gold hair.
"Go talk to her," Faith whispered, subtly shoving Willow forward.
"Just go! Gossip, gather intel, tell her about your program if you have to. Don't mention me, I don't want to tip her off until I'm ready..."
Willow frowned over her shoulder, but composed herself and strolled over to where the blonde was packing up her mask. Faith overheard her casual "Hi, I'm Willow," then the pair were close enough not to need to raise their voices, and she simply watched.
"Crap, crap crap, I'm late," Willow muttered to herself, striding briskly through the corridors surrounding the gym.
"Red!" Faith called out. Willow drew up and turned, then waited for Faith to catch up to her.
"So?" she asked, as Willow resumed her quick pace.
"So, I was meant to be back at the hotel half an hour ago," Willow complained. "I've got a call scheduled in ten minutes with the motion capture guy for my program, and calling his cellphone on the other side of the planet to say I'll be late kind of defeats the point of using the internet as a cheap phone in the first place, although of course two minutes on a cell is still cost-effective to facilitate an hour-long conversation over the net, but it's the principle of the thing..."
"What kept you?" Faith asked, grinning. "Did you talk to Tara?"
"In reverse order, yes, and that," Willow nodded. "I shouldn't have stayed so long, but I forgot to check my watch, and I guess I got kind of caught up in it..."
Faith pushed the sports centre's front door open for Willow, and followed her towards the street.
"I'll pay for a taxi," she offered. "Seeing as you were doing my bidding and all."
"'Doing your bidding'?"
"It sounds cool, don't burst my bubble," Faith warned. "I'm going back anyway, you can tell me all about Tara on the way." She raised a hand and let fly with an ear-piercing whistle.
"Okay, well, she's... you know her name?"
"Overheard it in Rome," Faith said quickly, as a taxi pulled up. "Get in and keep talking."
"Right, well... I don't know what to say, I wasn't really quizzing her on her life story, we just talked, you know? Okay, let's see... She started out in epée but switched because she likes the lighter blade, heh, funny thing, she avoided sabre for the same reason as me-" Faith finished telling the driver where to go and glanced over at her.
"You chickened out the first time you saw a sword heading towards your face?"
"I didn't quite phrase it like that," Willow frowned, as the taxi moved off. "But yeah, we're pretty much in agreement vis-à-vis the head not being a target area... I'm not really sure how that'll help you talk to her, Miss Triple-Discipline."
"Can I help it that I'm awesome at everything I try?" Faith grinned winningly.
"Except having actual conversations with gorgeous women, apparently," Willow said slyly.
"You'd say 'gorgeous'?" Faith asked.
"Well, yeah - you've seen her. This is the woman you wanted me to quiz so you can ask out, remember?"
"Yeah, sure," Faith nodded quickly, "I just meant 'gorgeous', from you... high praise, and all that."
"I... suppose it is," Willow shrugged. "She is really attractive... and this thing she does when she smiles, she sort of does it lop-sided, it's really cute. Don't ask, I can't do it - I actually caught myself trying to do it back to her, just to sort of, you know, but I didn't want her to think I was making fun of it, which would've been totally wrong, I just wanted to smile at her like that, when she said something funny, seeing as she did it for me... which sounds kind of weird-"
"Yep, you're a nut," Faith snorted. "Go on?"
"Uh... oh, she acts, just in amateur productions, in between travelling for tournaments and stuff. This is funny - coincidental funny, not ha-ha funny, well, actually kind of both, but you know what I mean - it's because of 'The Princess Bride', that's what started her fencing-"
"No kidding?" Faith asked, eyes wide. "Did you tell her you too?"
"Ah, no, not really," Willow admitted. "And yes, no kidding, hence the 'it's funny' line. It didn't start me fencing, I just happened to see it at a formative stage..."
"Yeah, and your mom couldn't get your first foil out of your hand after that, and you got a huge crush on Robin Wright, that's what I call 'formative'. You should've told her, you could've compared notes on swashbuckling."
"I don't swashbuckle," Willow insisted. "And anyway, we weren't talking about me - I'm not the one head over heels about Tara, remember? Anyway, where was I...?"
"Oh, yeah, right. Yeah, well she said it's just because it looked like so much fun in the movie, this one time a couple of years later a children's theatre group near where she lived was staging it... I wonder how they did the quicksand, it's not like they'd have had much of a budget to work with... doesn't matter, anyway, she tried out, and ended up being Westley, and..."
Willow narrowed her eyes, keeping Amy's foil in her field of vision, but concentrating on her left hand, just visible behind the edge of her mask. Some kind of weird predestination had put Willow against Amy in the opening bout of nearly every tournament they two had entered over the past few years - so much so that Faith liked to refer to the Frenchwoman as Willow's 'arch-nemesis' - but Willow's obsession with studying details had shown her the way to win early on, and since then she had never lost a bout.
Amy's left forefinger curled inwards slightly, and Willow held herself carefully still, recognising the unconscious tell signalling an immanent lunge. True to form, just a fraction over a second later Amy swiped her foil at Willow's and followed it up with a quick lunge at her chest. She was one of the faster women in the tournament circuit, and often scored with a lighting-quick parry/lunge, but forewarned Willow had no trouble dipping her blade beneath the parry, giving Amy's foil the slightest tap in return to steal priority from her, and straightening her arm to let Amy knock herself out of the competition by lunging into her. She heard the muttered curse from behind her opponent's mask, and allowed herself a satisfied smile as the hits registered on the electronic scoreboard and the referee called the point for her.
After the salutes and disconnecting her wire from the scoreboard Willow skirted the edge of the gymnasium, glancing at the other bouts in progress. Faith's lucky mask, with its neon blue stripe across the face, was distinctive, whenever she was allowed to wear it by the tournament officials, and Willow picked her out in no time, trouncing an opponent she didn't recognise. A blonde ponytail whom Willow guessed to be Buffy, based on her habit of tracing figure eights in the air with the tip of her foil between parries, was guardedly testing the measure of a tall woman who kept her unarmed hand down low, almost behind her back, as she moved.
Her eye fell on a pair of fencers on a nearby piste, in the process of saluting each other and the referee before beginning their bout. One was a woman she remembered seeing at a tournament some time ago - she made a mental note to check her competition notes, in case they met in the next round - and the other, glimpsed in the instant before she put her mask on, was Tara. Willow blinked and peered at her, not quite sure she had seen her - yes, she realised, there was the streamlined blue grip in her hand as she raised her foil. She hadn't had a chance to see the blonde fence before, and she sidled closer to watch.
Tara's opponent was good - seeing her in action jogged Willow's memory of a competitive, technical fencer, with perhaps no great style, but a deep reserve of manoeuvres that could reliably expose any weakness. The first touch went against Tara after a flurry of parries, but Willow made a shrewd guess that this was just the blonde gauging her enemy - afterwards she went on the offensive more, and was quicker to parry and counterattack when her opponent ventured a move. Willow found herself enjoying watching Tara move - she was so used to watching fencers at work that it was refreshing to see one who sparked memories of earlier times, when swift footwork and deft parries seemed magically choreographed.
Tara's legs were powerful, she noticed - the blonde didn't rush, or stamp the way Faith did to unnerve opponents, but she never let her stance become lazy, not even for a second, and Willow knew how difficult it could be to maintain that level of tension in her legs. Tara was always ready to strike, yet her attacks were fluid rather than opportunistic - she didn't snatch at chances, she just made sure she was ready when they presented themselves. Having equalised, Tara pulled ahead when her opponent drove her back a few paces and paused to decide on her next attack - far from being on the back foot, metaphorically or literally, Tara's foil snuck under her defences before she knew what was happening.
"Morning, sunshine," Faith said from behind her. "She's something, huh?"
"Hmm," Willow nodded absently. "I saw you winning."
"Yeah, no sweat," Faith grinned. "Took a shot at her face on the first attack, and she was peeing her pants the rest of the bout."
"You what?" Willow frowned, turning to Faith.
"I didn't actually get her," Faith insisted. "But she knew I did sabre and epée, so I just lunged high and let her freak herself out thinking I was going for her head. I got the point down before the touch. You won too, yeah?"
"Nah, you just get this little pissed-off furrow in your forehead when you lose," Faith quipped. "Kind of 'how could my meticulous battle plan not have worked?' - supervillain lite, I guess."
"Thanks," Willow deadpanned, concentrating on Tara. The score was four to one in the blonde's favour now - one more to go.
"You see the legs?" Faith asked.
"Uh-huh," Willow nodded.
"Bet she's got a great butt," Faith mused.
"What happened to true romance?"
"Hey, just because I'm genuinely affectionate doesn't mean I don't appreciate a smokin' hot ass," Faith protested, nudging Willow. "Hey, I got an idea."
"I'm not taking your camera phone into the showers after her," Willow warned.
"You've got a wonderful opinion of me, you know that?" Faith griped. "Nah, look, Buffy's heading out to some café or something for lunch, and I invited us along just to pass the time before the afternoon bouts..."
"That's time I could be using to prepare," Willow complained.
"Prepare shmapere," Faith grinned. "It's not the Olympics yet, chill out a bit - besides, you can hand these girls their asses any day. No, what I was thinking was, maybe you could, you know... ask Tara? To come with us? Then it's not like a date date, or anything, just friends having lunch, and you know... maybe I could talk to her a bit... just casually, or something... Please?"
"Okay, okay," Willow shrugged. "Seriously, nervous Faith gives me the willies, you've got to stop doing that."
"Can't be helped," Faith said cheerfully. Tara scored the final touch - swaying elegantly sideways so that her opponent's foil sailed half an inch past her body, and tapping her stomach in return for the point - and Faith gave Willow a pat on the butt, which she presumably thought was reassuring, and shoved her forward before making her escape.
"I do not believe you," Willow complained, after Buffy and Tara had gone their separate ways, leaving her and Faith alone in the corridor.
"Uh, would saying 'sorry' help?" Faith cringed.
"You talked to Buffy! All the time! Are you even trying to get Tara interested in you?"
"Of course I am!" Faith protested. "It's just..."
"Because normally you're about as circumspect as a meteor strike," Willow went on, "so I can only assume this is some kind of brain trauma at work, or you've been replaced by a duplicate Faith from a parallel universe..."
"I got cold feet," Faith shrugged. "Besides, you were talking to her-"
"Someone had to," Willow pointed out. "What was I supposed to do, invite the poor woman to lunch and then have her sit there being ignored while you and Buffy compare sabre plays? You could at least have talked about a style Tara actually does so she could join in without feeling like a novice when you start going on about slashes."
"I'll make it up to you," Faith promised. "Buffy said Cordelia beat Sam, so you've got Cordy next, right? And your quarter final will come out of Anya or Harmony-"
"Anya, then," Willow nodded.
"Right, and you can take her in twenty seconds, so-"
"She's kind of tough," Willow noted. "Persistent, you know?"
"Nah, I saw her doing some moves yesterday, she's not doing anything different to last month in Hamburg, and you wiped the floor with her then. So you'll be through your bouts in no time, I'll apply my usual combative genius and get through mine, then we'll go find a video store, rent 'The Princess Bride', and have ourselves a movie night, huh?"
Willow shot a glare at Faith, then sighed.
"I wish I'd never told you about that movie," she complained. "Every time I have a very valid reason to be annoyed at you, you just wave Robin Wright at me, and-"
"You give in, who wouldn't?" Faith grinned. "There's no better Buttercup... but y'know what, I'm kind of liking the idea of Tara as Westley. 'As you wish' indeed..."
"Well how about you try taking this crush of yours seriously?" Willow sniped. "She doesn't deserve to have you messing around like this."
"You like her?" Faith asked slyly.
"Yes I do," Willow nodded. "Aside from the novelty of actually being able to talk to one of your girlfriends, yeah. So... don't screw this up, okay?"
"I'll do better, I promise," Faith said, hand on heart. She held open the gymnasium door for Willow. "Now go kick Cordy's butt so we can get on with things."
"As you wish," Willow sighed wearily, offering Faith a slight smile by way of forgiveness.
Willow pressed her opponent against the rocky parapet, rapiers locked between them.
"I ought to be after twenty years," she quipped. She gave a little extra shove for emphasis, sending some loose stones toppling over the edge, clattering down the face of the Cliffs of Insanity.
'Oh, the Princess Bride dream again,' her inner monologue realised, while her surface played out the familiar role.
"There's something... I ought to tell you," the woman in black hissed.
"Tell me," Willow replied casually. She was unprepared for the sudden shove that sent her staggering back - she had thought she had gauged the measure of the woman's strength, and bested it. Apparently not.
"I'm not left handed either," the woman said, grinning a teasing lop-sided grin. She tossed her rapier from her left hand to her right and flourished it, with an accompanying heroic fanfare.
'Hang on,' Inner Willow frowned, while Outer Willow had her sword jolted out of her hand, and backed down the steps from the parapet, with her opponent courteously gesturing her to retrieve her blade. 'Since when am I Inigo? Faith's Inigo, that's how the dream always goes after a Princess Bride night.'
She watched as the woman in black followed her, planting her sword in the ground with an overhand flip, then swinging down, with a backflip off the convenient horizontal beam, and landing next to it. She knew Faith's style, and though she didn't have any particular romantic ambitions towards her, travelling and training - and occasionally showering - together meant she knew the brunette's body passably well too. The woman in black wasn't Faith.
"Who are you?" Inner and Outer Willows asked at once.
"No-one of consequence," the woman in black predictably replied.
"I must know."
"Get used to disappointment."
'That's not right, it's supposed to be 'okay', and then advance, retreat, turn, parry between the legs, jump the low swipe...' Willow raised her blade, but the woman in black had skipped ahead, and was already circling the tip of her rapier in front of her face, dazzlingly, confusingly fast. Before she knew it, Willow was disarmed.
'Wait, don't I at least get to do the cool bit where I catch my sword out of the air?'
She knelt and looked up at the woman in black, who was advancing slowly, smiling at her with a mix of regret and affection. The scripted 'kill me quickly' was on her lips, but instead she heard herself repeat: "Who are you?"
"No-one of consequence," her opponent replied, leaning down, taking Willow's chin in her hand, guiding the redhead's lips to hers.
'Wow... lucky Buttercup,' Inner Willow panted, as the mesmerising lips tasted her, then retreated. Willow lifted a hand to the mask covering the woman's face, and slowly drew it off, releasing a wave of honey-blonde hair, and revealing her face-
Willow rummaged inside her equipment bag for the twentieth time, moodily rearranging the contents of the various inner pockets. The sounds of sneakers squeaking across the wooden gym floors and the clatter of blades did little to soothe her frazzled spirits.
"Hey Red, get your gear on!" Faith said breezily, sitting down beside her. Willow jumped guiltily and looked sidelong at her.
"Why?" she asked. "My semi isn't until after lunch..."
"I thought you knew?"
"I thought that's why you bugged out of the hotel room early this morning," Faith said, frowning. "They rearranged the whole schedule for today 'cuz... actually I have no idea, some crazy official reason. You and me are in the semi-final together!"
"I thought you and Tara were on now...?" Willow muttered, trying to piece things together from Faith's haphazard explanation.
"I wish!" Faith chortled, eliciting a guilty cringe from Willow. "Nah, she's taking on Buffy, and you and me have a date in five minutes - get your gear on, there's a semi-final waiting for us!" She gave Willow a friendly slap on the shoulder and sauntered off, leaving the redhead even more confused.
Willow and Faith saluted and pulled on their masks. The tournament wasn't a large one - the real professionals among the field had attended just to pass the time between big tournaments with something more interesting than repetitive training - but the finals day had attracted a small crowd of locals, and a handful of tired-looking sports journalists with notepads and flashless digital cameras, arrayed around the edge of the gym hall and packed into the two tiers of seats against the far wall.
"En garde!" the referee called. Willow came to her ready stance and held her foil loosely.
Faith made the first move, as always, but Willow knew her too well to be startled by her aggressive stamp-and-lunge opener. Normally she would have been horrified at the prospect of going into a bout without having done her 'homework' - studying the video clips stored on one of the collection of external hard drives she hauled around with her laptop, and using her prototype modelling program to break each fencer's moves down into mathematical patterns she could analyse to her detail-obsessed heart's content - but she and Faith had trained together so long, and faced each other in bouts so many times, that there was really no need to prepare. Which was just as well, as Willow was quite unsettled enough by matters that had little to do with fencing.
'So Tara versus Buffy... Buffy's been a bit down in the doldrums this week, and she hates having her schedule messed around with almost as much as I do. And Tara's good, and a different kind of good to what Buffy's used to. She could win. Which means whoever wins this bout goes into the final with Tara.' Her dream replayed itself in her mind - fencing against Tara took on a whole new level of desirability. Willow noticed Faith had left an opening low, and used an attack she knew had a way of drawing Faith out - sure enough, she drew the high parry, and snuck underneath it to score. One-nil.
'Four more, and then Tara! Wait, that's ridiculous, it's a bout with her, not a dinner date. Get a grip. Besides, it's not like I could date her anyway, hello, klutz at talking to women, remember-' Willow's train of thought derailed as Faith used a punching parry against her, rattling the foil in her hand before she could tighten her grip - she had never quite gotten fast enough to keep the brunette from using that trick every now and then. One all.
'Besides, Faith's the one with the crush on Tara, not me. She'd just love me putting the moves on the one woman she's actually got a genuine crush on... crap!' The bout had barely restarted when Faith put all her strength and speed into a rush, catching Willow a fraction of a second off guard and scoring again. One-two.
'I have a crush on Tara,' Willow admitted as the bout restarted. 'When the frilly heck did that happen? How, I mean, I barely know her, we... spent all of lunch yesterday talking. And the day before, we just went on and on, and... it was good. Better than good. Great. I could've kept talking and listening to her until I fell asleep in her lap. Mmm.' Knowing Faith liked to wallow in the afterglow of an aggressive victory, Willow exposed her side to draw another rush, and this time retreated just in time to parry and regain priority for the hit. Two all.
'Oh come on, I don't know anything about her, not really! I... well, I know she does amateur theatre on the side. And she loves 'The Princess Bride' as much as I do. And she likes to imagine her moves being set to music, it helps her move smoothly. And she's allergic to shrimp, which is fine, I never liked them anyway. And she likes horse-riding, which... I can cope with, I'm a big girl. And she laughs, and smiles, and it feels so good, and why the heck didn't I notice that before?' Out of sheer surprise Willow missed evading a tentative parry from Faith, and got a foil tip in her stomach half a second later as a result. Two-three.
'Okay, that's it! I am winning this bout, and that's that. And I'm asking Tara out, and that's that too.' Willow surprised Faith with a decisive attack as soon as they restarted, lunging high and swirling her foil down low to evade the parry and score. Three all.
'But... this is the only woman Faith's ever actually told me she's interested in for more than a one night stand... or a two-week stand, that time in New York... Actually personally attracted to, not just physically. And I'm going to move in on her? I know she mostly just annoys me, but she's...' Willow frowned, retreating a couple of paces to buy a moment to sort out her thoughts as Faith made a tentative advance. Faith had been with her for years. Faith had sat through endless lectures on Willow's geek project-of-the-month, which - Willow realised - were probably utterly boring to her, but she'd never complained... 'Well, okay she complains, but always smiling. Never really.' She tried to think of one instance, in all the time she had known Faith, where the brunette had refused her anything - first use of the shower in the morning, coffee instead of coke, using the only phone line in the hotel room... she couldn't think of one time. Not one.
'She's my friend,' Willow realised. 'She really is. I can count on her. And now I'm going to mess up the one time she's ever had a real crush? What kind of miserable friend am I?' As if to underscore the point, Faith dodged a probing parry and snuck through the redhead's defences to plant the tip of her foil lightly over her heart, thudding against the rigid chest protector beneath her jacket.
'Get it together, Rosenberg!' Willow chided herself. 'She's been, okay, mildly annoying all the time, but she's never been a bad friend to me, and gosh darnit I am going to be a good friend for her. I'm going to... I won't get in her way. She can ask Tara out, and... and that's that.' She felt a pang of guilty jealousy, which she quickly suppressed, her expression hardening with resolve behind her mask. 'So just let her win the bout, and... wait a minute, she doesn't need to win the bout to ask Tara out-'
Too late Willow realised she had been letting her foil drift off to the side, presenting her body as an easy target, and before she could recover Faith had taken the opportunity, and won the bout with a clean lunge.
'Oh... crap,' Willow winced, as Faith recovered, and the modest crowd gave polite applause as the referee called the score.
To The Victor Go The Spoils
Willow leaned against the wall beside the spectator seats, trying not to look too glum, in case Faith happened to glance her way. There had never been any real rivalry between them, but she hated to have lost out of carelessness, and after their bout Faith had been more concerned at Willow's momentary lapse than she was pleased with her entry to the final. Willow had shrugged it off, knowing Faith needed to be paying attention to the second semi-final that would determine her opponent, not worrying about her friend.
'I'll tell her later,' Willow promised herself. 'Not about Tara, though, she doesn't need to know that. Heck, she'd probably tell me to go for it, and... I couldn't.' She wondered for a moment if she could, but shook her head. 'I'm a better friend than that. Dammit, I should be, anyway. I did the right thing.' The thought didn't help the knotted feeling in her stomach. It wasn't the thought of Tara and Faith as such - though the phrase 'not her type' drifted across Willow's mind, she guiltily admitted that she had tended to take Faith's unswerving, if eccentric, friendship for granted, and that there was a lot more to her than Willow had given her credit for in the past. Enough to make Tara happy, perhaps. But she couldn't help thinking what might be. Faith was practically inseparable from her - would she see Tara that often too? Would the idea of being around Tara so much, knowing she'd never be more than a friend, always be so gut-wrenching?
The final bout was playing out in front of her, but she steadfastly avoided looking at the fencer with the blonde ponytail opposite Faith. 'And it just so happens the right thing is the sucky-feeling thing. Look on the bright side, 'Red', this has got to be worth some karma, right?' Absorbed in her thoughts, she didn't notice someone approaching and leaning against the wall beside her.
She looked up, into Tara's blue eyes. The blonde gave a hesitant smile, which gave way to perplexity as Willow frowned in confusion and looked at the woman fencing Faith.
"You're not in the final?" she asked.
"No," Tara shook her head with a rueful grin. "I wasn't concentrating on my music - I guess I was nervous," she chuckled.
"Nervous?" Willow wondered. She'd gathered enough to know Tara shouldn't have gotten butterflies just from the semi-final of a regional tournament. 'Because she's not a spaz, unlike Exhibit A standing next to her...
"...Can I make a confession?" Tara asked, giving a shy, adorable smile. Willow nodded, trying not to grimace at the thought of how that smile would feel when she saw the blonde smiling it at Faith.
"I was actually thinking about asking you out to dinner," Tara admitted, as a blush bloomed on her cheeks. "After the final... but I-I guess, I don't have to wait that long..."
"I... had a concentration lapse," Willow said, buying time to gather her wits. 'Hoo boy, this is going to be one of those oh-god-why-me moments...'
"Uh," Tara said in the ensuing pause, fidgeting anxiously, "I know I used the indirect 'thinking about' line, but that, um, was me, asking you out... if you want?"
'Oh baby, I want alright.' "The thing is... I can't," Willow blurted out, ignoring the pang which she was far too un-melodramatic to call a breaking heart.
"Can't?" Tara frowned forlornly - Willow nearly gave in right then. "A-are you already seeing someone...? I thought, yesterdy you said-"
"No, no that's not it, single Willow," Willow hastily assured her. "No it's not that, it's... oh, hell. I shouldn't... okay," she lowered her voice, "she'll probably kill me for telling you, but the thing is, my friend Faith, from yesterday, she's really, well, smitten, I guess the word is, with you, and it's not that a) you're not capable of making your own decision, which you totally are, or b) I'm not really flattered, and already so, so regretting saying no, but Faith's really a wonderful person, um, if you get to know her, and I don't mean 'get to know her' in the sense that she's actually a cow and I'm being polite, she's got a few weird quirks but just today I realised what a really wonderful friend she's been to me, and you know what, if I was interested in her, you know, that way, I'd be lucky to have her, if she wanted me, so I think... I don't know what I think. I mean, it's your decision, but she's... you should give her a chance, you really should, and it's making me feel all ooky inside not to just jump into your arms, but I, you know, I've gotten kind of, I guess you'd say attached, um, to you, which I know, short notice, but I want you to be happy, and Faith's really great, and I think you two would be-" 'Ugh, why can't this be easier?' "-you two would be really great together, and I think you should see if, if you feel the same way, about her." She finally ran out of thing to say, felt a rough constriction in her chest which she abruptly realised was oncoming asphyxiation, and sucked in a huge lungful of air to keep herself from passing out.
"W-wow," Tara said quietly.
"Sorry. I babble, I know," Willow shrugged. "But did you get what I meant? Please tell me I made sense, and didn't just make a complete fool out of myself?"
"I, uh, no, no foolishness," Tara replied. "Complete or partial, but I-I'm not so sure on the making sense part... Faith is... 'smitten', with me? Are you sure?"
"She told me so," Willow nodded. "I'm really sorry for telling you... uh, I guess I should actually be apologising to her, seeing as she's the one who told me, but I just... I didn't want things to get awkward, so I figured, better just to tell all and let everything sort itself out. You know? But yes, she's smitten, and it's not just a casual attraction, she said she's really, sincerely-"
"But why did she set us up on a date then?" Tara asked.
"She what? When?"
"Uh, three days ago," Tara explained, bemused. "Well, I guess it was in Rome initially, she told me she had a friend she thought I'd like meeting, but I didn't agree until I saw you training, and I..." she shrugged and blushed again, "...I guess 'smitten' does kind of cover it. So I told her yes, and she said she'd... didn't she tell you?"
"That you... no?" Willow said. "No, I didn't... I had no idea."
"But, you came over and introduced yourself," Tara persisted. "You remember, two days ago? And then asked me out to lunch yesterday..."
"Huh? Oh, no," Willow shook her head. "No, that was... I mean, I wasn't... asking you out? God, no - I mean, not that I wouldn't, because- but, I mean, I couldn't have, I'd have been a total spaz, trust me, I have no idea how to... talk to... let alone... ask... out..."
"But, you did..." Tara pointed out, confused.
Willow lapsed into silence, then began to chuckle - then laugh out loud, clamping a hand over her mouth to keep from disrupting the bout in progress, leaving Tara looking on in rising panic.
"A-are you okay?" she ventured, patting Willow hesitantly on the back as she began to shake with stifled laughter.
"That crafty little minx," Willow gasped, "just wait until I get my hands on her, I'm going to... you know what, I'm going to plant the biggest kiss right on her mouth..."
"I, uh, thought you are she weren't...?" Tara queried.
"We're not," Willow said, trying to breathe deeply. "Just the best of friends."
"Well, good," Tara smiled tentatively. "Because if there's big kisses being planted, I was kind of hoping...?" She left the sentence, and the invitation, dangling.
"Get used to not being disappointed," Willow said, and in a euphoric burst closed the distance between Tara and herself and kissed her fully on the lips. The small crowd gave a cheer, starting the blonde, but Willow simply ignored them.
"Uh... wow," Tara breathed, when the kiss finally ended. "I think somebody won..."
"Uh-huh," Willow grinned. Suddenly the reality of what she had just done hit her, and her eyes opened wide.
"O-oh, uh, was that-" she stammered.
"That," Tara said firmly, "was you agreeing to go to dinner with me." Her grin tilted, becoming questioning. "Wasn't it?"
"Yes," Willow agreed. "Yes, it was."
"Good," Tara sighed happily.