'Tis the Season
Lighting the Flame

Author: thiswomanswork
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: Willow, Tara, and the rest of the gang (and this one has a sizeable cast!) belong to Mutant Enemy, not me. For the world is a cruel, cruel place.
Feedback: Yes, please! Kudos, Criticism, whatever, I like it. Please leave feedback on the 'Tis the Season Challenge thread on the Kitten Board.
Summary: It's a time of magic, a time of fighting. It's a time of predestined meetings, in which two holy flames will be lit. In short, it's a LARPing event in December.
Note: The tourney in the story is loosely based around Battle for the Cure, a charity tourney I participated in some years ago (unlike Willow, I only came in 4th... or was it 5th, I don't recall), which raised money for the Cystic Fibrosis foundation. Although all the characters in the fic are familiar faces, their real-life counterparts, I assure you, are just as awesome. Though alas, there was no Tara-counterpart present at the real life tourney. As I said, the world is a cruel, cruel place.

The demon was coming right for her. Her sword was at the ready, and she was pretty sure she could strike him before he got to her. The problem, though, was that the thing would just keep on coming. It was strong, and if it managed to get its claws on her, she was as good as finished. Time for a different tactic.

"Halt!" she shouted, keeping her sword at the ready but assuming an imperious stance. "I am Lady Salix, Baroness of Ryesee, and I demand to know what business you have in this realm!"

Her words had the intended effect; a look of consternation on his face, the demon came to a halt perhaps fifteen feet away. After a second or two of confusion, he bellowed, "The Infernal Korzak goes where he pleases, and answers to no mortal! This land is to become the playground of my hellish masters, and I have been sent to clear the--" he was cut short as a fireball hit him from behind, and he shouted in surprise.

Having come stealthily up the forest path behind the demon, Lady Salix's ally the wizard Corellan stood grinning triumphantly. Salix smiled in response, far more confident now. The demon turned his head to face the wizard, a look of fury on his face.

"You have to charge that first!" the demon shouted angrily.

"Uhhh..." Corellan responded, taken aback, "I did?"

"You totally didn't! You have to say the incantation loud enough to be heard 20 feet away!"

Lady Salix sighed and rolled her eyes. "Okay guys, I don't have the patience to listen to you two argue, and there aren't any reeves nearby. Let's just start over. Andrew, toss him back the fireball. Xander, back up down the path a little and charge your fireball."

Andrew looked smug as he tossed the cloth-wrapped red padded ball back to Xander, who seemed less than pleased with this solution. Nevertheless, he walked back up the trail and waited.

"Okay boys... Lay on!"

Okay, that was a pretty fun quest, overall, she thought as she headed back across the field toward her tent. Better than some, anyway. And I managed to head off a bout of rules-squabbling, which is a very good thing if I do say so myself. And I guess I do, 'cause I just did. To myself.

Arriving at the tent, she dropped her sword into the small pile of other boffer weapons her small group of friends had brought with them to the event, and plopped down into her camp chair. The campfire was burning nicely, which was a great comfort given the chill in the air. By the time night fell, the chairs would be moved much closer to that little fire. For now, it was simply a nice comfy place to relax.

"Willow!" a voice called from a short distance off. She turned her head and saw her best friend Buffy--known here as Mistress Anne of Rysee--approaching the camp. Buffy was looking nice as usual in her bodice and chemise, and was busy pinning up her hair as she walked with what looked like chopsticks. By the time she arrived, the little bells on her skirt tinkling as she stepped around the firewood pile, her hair was neatly arranged and looking very fetchiing. Making herself look pretty had always been a mysterious and arcane concept for Willow, but Buffy always made it look so easy.

"How was the quest?" she asked as she sat down in a chair across from Willow's, brushing grass and twigs from her skirt.

"It was good, really. The questors managed to work together fairly well, and we stopped the demons from waylaying the travelling magi. Then we were told that the demons had stolen their frankincense and myrhh, and we had to recover it and get it back to the magi in time for them to make their appointment. Flowed pretty smoothly, not a lot of having to wait around. Good quest. I mean, you know, it was a quest, so lots of walking around aimlessly, lots of magic... but for a quest it was good."

"What is your issue with magic, anyway? Why don't you like it?"

"It's not that I don't like it. It just unbalances the game. A class-based game is difficult enough to balance when it's kept simple, but when you add in all those incantations, spellballs, ranges, enchantments, etcetera, it's just impossible. Honestly, there are some classes that just aren't worth--" she broke off as she noticed Buffy's badly-hidden grin. "--and I've talked about this before, haven't I?"

The grin came out of hiding. "Uh huh."

"Then why'd you ask?"

"I just think it's cute when you geek out about it."

"Willow's geeking out again?" Xander's voice came from behind Willow. Moments later, he walked into her field of vision, now out of his wizard robes and in just his jeans and ECPI sweater. "I want to geek out! Why didn't anyone call me?" He tossed the black bundle of his wadded up robes into the open flap of his tent and flopped down in his own camp chair. "Alright. Let's make with the geeking!"

"No!" Willow was wide-eyed and embarrased. "There was no geeking! Well, a little, maybe, but I was tricked!" She squinted menacingly at Buffy. "A dirty trick, too."

Buffy laughed. "Wil, you're at an Amtgard event. You came to Maryland to camp out for the weekend--in December, I might add--all so you could get dressed up and pretend you're a noble elven warrior-woman. If ever there was a place to freely express your geekiness, this is it!"

"And hitting people," Xander pointedly interjected, looking uncomfortable. "It's not just dressing up. There's also lots of hitting people. That makes it manly... right?"

The giggles this elicited from both young women made him duck his head a bit. "I'm just saying... the soft, satiny wizard's robes... not gay. That's all I'm saying."

A call from nearby headed off Willow's response before it started. "Hail and well-met, dear friends!" Willow recognised the familiar voice of Queen Dee, and grinned. The queen had a habit of finding people who looked uncomfortable or out of place at her events, and taking them around to meet people she knew they would 'click' with. Somehow she always got it right, and Willow had made some good friends that way. She turned in her chair to see what newbie or traveler-from-afar the queen thought would feel at home with the Rysee contingent--

And froze. Because it was one of those moments, one of those time-slowing moments where she experienced something so profound, or so breathtaking, that it would stay with her forever. The experience in question was both.

The girl was amazing. From the sunlight on her shining wheat-coloured hair, to the way her simple corset dress showed off her gorgeous figure, to the little nervous motions that showed up in her body language, to that tiny smile that promised so much more than it showed, the young woman trailing behind the queen was... simply unforgettable. Willow found herself unable to take her eyes off of her.

Buffy, fortunately, was not similarly mesmerised. "Your majesty," she responded in welcome. "How goes the day?"

"It goes well. Can you believe how not-freezing it is? Who knows, with a little luck we might even get this tourney started on time!" Dee was dressed fabulously as usual; Willow couldn't recall a time when she'd seen the woman looking anything less than fantastic, even when she was fighting, but today she barely registered the velvet dress or fur-trimmed mantle. Her eyes were busy elsewhere.

"This," Dee continued, "is Dame Astra of Herneshire. Astra, these are my friends from the land of Rysee, down in Virginia. Mistress Anne, Corellan, and of course Baroness Squire Lady Salix, who will be fighting in the Triple-T Tourney today."

And then those lovely blue eyes were meeting hers, and the little smile was bigger and fulfilling all its promises, and Willow could only grin back like an idiot.

"Salix is the genus of w-willow trees, isn't it?" Astra's voice was timid, but Willow was drinking it in.

Smart! Oh, could she be any more perfect? And that stutter is adorable! Outwardly, though, she only managed a "Yeah..."

Fortunately, Buffy (who was hiding a grin again, not that Willow had a chance of noticing) was not similarly dumbstruck, and swept in to continue the conversation. "So, you're a bard?"

Willow's brain rushed to catch up, finally spotting the details she'd missed before; the embroidered harp belt favour, the bamboo flute dangling from Astra's belt by a leather cord, the blue sash... so many details washed away by those eyes, that smile... Okay, and the cleavage, admit it, her breasts definitely... distract.

Astra turned her head to answer Buffy--Was it my imagination, or did she hesitate? Oh, tell me she hesitated! God, please don't let her be straight, or worse, taken! You wouldn't do that to me, would you, God? I'm sorry about missing a couple of days of Chanukah, I really am! I'm even lighting the Chanukkiyah tonight... ok, so it's not really a lamp, it's got LEDs and buttons, but I'm lighting it! Please don't let this girl be unavailable and ohmygodshestalkingnow!--and was saying, "--really think it's one of the most balanced classes. Bard magic is really limited and unique, which puts it more on a level with the non-magic classes... sorry, I go on about that sort of thing at the drop of a hat; I'm on the interkingdom rules committee."

Okay. So, she could get more perfect. And did. Wow.

"Astra here isn't just a bard on the field, either," Dee put in, causing the girl to blush and drop her eyes. "She's a fabulous singer, and she plays the harp. She'll be performing tonight, I've insisted upon it!" The queen's warm grin was full of satisfaction, as it always was when she was doing what she did best (that being sticking her nose in, helping people, and occasionally matchmaking). "But now I must drag her away. I've a few other people to introduce to her, and you," here looking with a knowing smile at Willow, "need to warm up for the tourney without further distraction." So saying, she took Astra by the arm and led her off.

OK, look back. Just once. Just one glance over your shoulder is all I ask. OK God, here's the deal. Have her glance back and I promise I will attend cousin Shelly's Bat Mitzvah instead of making an excuse like I'd planned. Cross my heart I will.

Possibly God found the offer acceptable, because when they were perhaps twenty feet off Astra's head turned back toward them. It was just for a second, maybe less, a furtive glace at best, but the shy smile Willow thought she'd seen made her resolve not only to attend the Bat Mitzvah, but also to bring a really good gift. And possibly even pay attention during the Torah reading, to boot.

Andrew made it back to the camp just then, wiping at his face with a rag. "Who was that with her majesty?"

"That was Dame Astra." Buffy's voice carried more than a hint of amusement.

"She was pretty." Andrew had accidentally left his chair at home, so he sat instead on a largish rock across the fire from Willow.

"Don't go getting any ideas, my young padawan," Xander responded in a patient voice. "Remember the mantra."

"It's no good trying to pick up girls at Amtgard, because all the good-looking ones already have girlfriends." Andrew sounded almost bored, which given they'd never seen him show any interest in a woman, was no real surprise. "You know, this demon makeup was way easier to put on than it is to take off. Does anyone have any cold cream?"

"I do," Buffy responded. "I'll get it for you." She ducked into her tent.

Xander, quickly writing off his tentative attempts at male bonding, instead got a teasing look on his face. "I wonder why Cordy brought that girl by here. She's not really the usual type we hang out with. You know. Kind of dull."

"She wasn't dull!" Willow was scandalised. Dull? Her? Not in a million years! "I thought she was really interesting, actually... and what are you laughing about?"

The last was directed at Buffy, who was coming out of her tent with the pot of cold cream and had nearly tripped as she started to giggle. "Wil, he's pulling your leg. She was obviously nice, and very pretty, and I don't blame you at all for being smitten."

"That's right," Xander quickly agreed. "Sorry about the fun-poking, Willster, it's just that's the fastest I've seen you go all weak-kneed in just about ever. Well, there was Suzie Deacon in first grade, but I always suspected that was really about her My Little Pony collection."

"Ooh, did she have flutter ponies?" Andrew suddenly seemed far less bored. "I loved those... ummm... you know, because they were highly collectible... umm. Thanks for the cold cream, Mistress Anne!"

"Yeah, she did, and they--hey! Wait, me, smitten? I'm not..." Willow stopped before she could finish her sentence. She could already feel her face warming with the blush, and it wasn't like her friends would believe her protests anyway. "I'm... I'm gonna go warm up for the tourney!"

And, grabbing a pair of swords from her pile, she dashed off to do just that.

The waiting was always the toughest part. She was warmed up, she was ready, but of course the tourney wasn't ready to go yet. In all the events Willow had ever attended, there was one single commonality: nothing ever ran to schedule.

This time it was worse, because of the crowd. The Triple-T Tourney was no ordinary tourney; it was a special charity bout. The kingdom of Diamond Glen was known for its charity events; in this case, they'd held qualifying tourneys at every land in the northeastern U.S. Each contestant had to donate a toy to participate, and the winners of the qualifying tourneys got to compete in the final tourney here, today. As a result, the kingdom had collected literally thousands of dollars worth of new toys to donate to Toys for Tots this year, and with contestants from so many different lands there were also a lot of people here to cheer them on. The tourney hadn't started yet, and already there were at least a hundred onlookers, lounging and chatting in chairs they'd brought over from their respective camps. Her friends were probably out there, but she hadn't had the guts to really look.

"Stage fright getting to ya, Red?" It was Sir Spike, her patron knight, approaching with his usual cocky grin.

"Hi Randy. Nah, me, stage fright? Only... a lot. A lot. Yes, actually." She held up her left hand; it was shaking like a leaf. "There's just... a lot of them, you know? And that's plus all the usual tourney jitters. I don't even know who I'll be up against today!"

"Well, me, for one. And I won't have you facing me at anything less than your best, so come on. I've got the cure for your shakes right here. Pick up a shield, girlie, and get ready for a beatdown!"

Willow grinned. Not many people saw past her knight's gruff, cock-of-the-walk exterior, but Willow did. And when you did see past it, he was actually really a sweet guy. Still a rude bastard, mind, but a sweet one. And he was right, sparring with someone really good was just what she needed to calm her nerves and get her back into focus.

She got so focused, in fact, that before she knew it the tourney was starting.

Willow's first opponent was someone she'd never heard of; a guy named Gunn. She read him as aggressive but inexperienced, someone she could probably take. But she was off her game; from the second she walked out on the field she felt the weight of the onlookers' gaze pressing on her, and she couldn't shake that feeling. It made her slow to react, and that was all the edge her opponent needed. She walked off the field deflated. She'd lost her first bout, and in front of all those people, too!

Randy tried to cheer her up as best he could, but Willow was inconsolable. The tourney was double-elimination, she wasn't out of the running yet, but there was no doubt in her mind she was going to lose miserably. She waited, barely noticing as the other fighters went up for their bouts. She was too wrapped up in self-pity to pay much attention. Why did I even sign up for this in the first place? I mean, the charity, yeah, but I could have just donated without participating, lots of people did. But no, I decide to go for it, to humiliate myself in front of hundreds of people.

"Look lively, Red, you're up again. Don't worry, this bird looks like a pushover to me."

Reluctantly Willow looked up, grabbing her sword and shield automatically--and froze.

It's her. Of course. Of course it would be her! My humiliation wouldn't be complete without actually being knocked out of the tourney by the girl I most want to be cheering me on. Great, just great!

She walked onto the field at her lowest mood ever. She didn't want to look Astra in they eye, didn't want to be seen at all, but it would have been rude, insulting even, to touch swords without meeting the girl's eyes, so she reluctantly looked up--

--into what had to rank as the most dazzling smile ever seen by a human being. And eyes so blue that... well, Willow couldn't think of an appropriate ending to that sentence, but they were definitely so blue!

And then the girl said the five words that changed everything:

"Will you dance with me?"

And Willow, a big goofy grin suddenly plastered on her face, could only respond, "Sure."

And then they were dancing. Willow had heard a few people refer to swordplay as 'dancing' before, and had always figured it for a flowery metaphor. But this was no metaphor. She and Astra were dancing. It was a dance of relation, of position, of discovery. Sometimes she led, sometimes the other girl did. Either way, it was an entirely different experience. She was conscious of herself, of Astra, the space between them, everything about what they were doing. And it was beautiful! She found herself thinking far less, but being aware of far more than she'd ever experienced. And as the fight progressed, Willow realised that even though she was stronger, quicker, and even more skilled than Astra, she could never have beaten her. Leastways not before this... whatever this was. This shift. Rebirth. Quantum leap. Whatever you called it, everything was different now. And as she scored the killing blow by spinning backwards and wrapping around the girl's shield to strike her in the back, she laughed with the joy of it. And then they were both laughing and their weapons were on the ground and they were embracing, and the crowd was exploding with applause. And then they turned to the crowd and Willow found herself smiling, grinning even, as she saw all those people cheering them on and realised they'd been part of the dance, too, in their way. It had been at the same time intensely personal and completely public, and somehow those two aspects didn't negate each other at all. She walked off the field grinning like a fool. Just before they parted, Astra leaned in and quietly said, "I think you're going to win. The tourney, I mean. I'll be rooting for you."

"Thanks," Willow replied. "But you know what? Either way, I'm good. Hey, what's your name? Your real name, I mean."


"Tara. Umm. Will you meet me outside the feast hall after court?" She'd never done that before, made the first move like that. Before that fight, she'd never have been able to. Everything was different now. She didn't even understand how or why, but it was.

Tara looked down and blushed, and it was just the most adorable thing. "I'd l-like that." Despite the blush and the stutter, the smile she turned on Willow when she looked back up was anything but shy. If she'd had to choose a term, Willow would have said 'electric'.

As the tourney continued, Willow found that this new way of looking at things wasn't limited to sparring with Tara. Every bout was suddenly fun. More than fun, joyous! It really was a dance, a dance in which she moved both with and against her opponent/partner, a dance in which she learned both about herself and the other. Each new bout brought new experiences, a new partner to dance with. Willow found herself playing to the crowd, intentionally being silly and dramatic, calling for applause when her opponent did well, bowing low when she won. In her bout with Randy, she began by running out onto the field and hugging him, shield and all, to his great chagrin and to the great amusement of the audience (not to mention Randy's father, Sir Ripper, who was reeving the tourney.)

The time just flew by. When Willow wasn't fighting, or watching the bouts her friends were in, she was busy sparring with Randy. He was dumbstruck by the change in her. "I don't know what that bird did for you, Red, but you oughta thank her for it. It's like somebodylit a fire inside of ya, or turned on a bloody light or something!"

"I fully intend to," was all she said in response.

Before Willow knew it, it was down to the final battle. Despite her new perspective, she found herself still getting nervous. Her opponent was someone she'd never fought, a woman from Texas that was rumored to be an amazing fighter. Of course, in Amtgard mentioning that anyone is from Texas is immediately intimidating--the game started there, and it has the highest and most experienced concentration of fighters, resulting in a much higher average fighting ability--but this woman had a reputation above that. Willow hadn't been paying attention in the woman's previous bouts, but it seemed she was really skilled and fast, taking out most of her opponents quickly and agressively.

Well, I don't know about that, Willow pondered as she took the field, but that garb is certainly distracting enough to give her an advantage. That the leather outfit showed almost nothing of the woman's body was irrelevant; it was so tight and form-fitting that it didn't need to. And the blue dye staining the woman's long hair complimented rather than detracted from her beauty. Face it, Rosenberg; she's a hottie. A hottie with a heck of an intimidating glare. That she's turning on me. Eep!

Then the woman smiled, and the effect was broken. She actually had a very warm smile, and she held out her hand to Willow. "Lady Illyria," she said by way of introduction, her voice light and pleasant and touched by a very charming texas accent. "But you can call me Fred. I've been watching you fight, you're very good. And very entertaining."

Willow shook the offered hand. "Lady Salix. Willow to my friends." She grinned mischievously. "Want to blow kisses to the crowd? They'll love it."

Fred's answering grin was absolutely sparkling, and Willow wondered how she'd ever been intimidated by her. As one, they turned and blew kisses. The audience, as Willow had predicted, cheered and laughed merrily, and many blew kisses back.

The two fighters picked up their swords and shields. Willow smiled at the symbol painted on Fred's shield - a menacing looking armadillo with glowing eyes. Fred caught the glance and nodded. "It reminds me of where I came from. Plus, when I was little and the kids used to beat on me 'cause I was such a big ol' nerd, I'd curl up like an armadillo to protect myself, and the nickname kinda stuck." She shrugged, a little 'what can you do?' sort of shrug, and they shared a moment of sympatico, Willow having had similar experiences in grade school.

"Well, I guess we should get started.", Willow said.

Fred nodded, and suddenly all the amiability was gone and Willow found herself the target of that stare again. I feel like a bug. A tiny, tiny bug that has somehow offended enough to earn a good stomping.

They touched swords. Okay, Fred, if that's the way you want to dance... let's dance!

But she didn't get to. The attacks came too swiftly, too agressively. Willow had no time to do or think anything except defending herself. One strike after another, some very tricky, never letting her find her balance. Got to... oh, watch out! Okay, now if... that's a feint, don't go for it, there, no, whoa! That was too close... maybe if I... damn, she's fast! I can't do this, she's too good. Maybe if I'm lucky--block that! And that! Maybe... But no. There was nothing for it. She was losing, it was just a matter of time.

The change didn't come at the last possible moment. It didn't come dramatically. She didn't catch sight of the gorgeous blonde there in the audience calling out her name and suddenly find what she needed. No, the change didn't happen in any way you'd see in a movie or show.

But it did happen. She kept up her defenses long enough that the other girl tired a bit and slowed down. Slowed down just enough for Willow to recover her center. And that was all she needed. She could dance this dance. She knew the steps. And it was gonna be fun!

She circled the girl, moving back and forth just in and out of range, inviting those rapid strikes and charges and feints--but only when Willow was ready for them, able to dodge them or take them solidly on her shield. It was her turn to lead, now. When the moment was right, they struck as one--Illyria onto Willow's turning shield, Willow high onto the shoulder of the girl's striking arm. A killing blow.

And then, after a moment of frozen time, it was over. Sir Ripper was announcing her the winner. Fred was hugging her enthusiastically, Buffy, Xander and Andrew were rushing up to do the same, hundreds of people were applauding and shouting 'Huzzah!' Willow was elated, and never more than when she did finally catch sight of Tara, who was grinning ear to ear and clapping, jumping up and down. Then their eyes met, and Tara blew her a kiss. Willow was fairly sure she turned bright red, but she didn't care. She didn't care at all.

Feast was good, as it always was at Diamond Glen events, they having a master chef on hand with a passion for cooking medieval dishes. Willow sat with her friends as usual, though her eating was frequently interrupted by people coming by their table to congratulate her, and she frequently had to fight the urge to glance over her shoulder at the table where she knew Tara was eating. Nevertheless, she managed to enjoy the meal and even participate in conversation. The feast hall was decorated with candles and holly, with many tapestries hanging on the walls with various winter holiday symbols. The people, too, were decked out in finery; all the court garb that Willow saw was gorgeous. Some was just people's best garb, others had especially chosen winter colours and christmas-y-type-accessories for the occasion. Lord Flutie had even brought his (well-behaved and housebroken, Willow was pleased to find) dog into the feast hall, with what appeared to be a small reindeer antler tied to its head. Willow thought it looked uncomfortable, but the dog didn't seem to mind.

After the eating had slowed down and the conversation picked up to a loud rumble, there was a loud clinking noise that quickly got everyone's attention. It came from the head table, where King Liam was tapping his soup spoon against his goblet. As soon as the rumble had died down a bit, he stood.

"Now I know some of you are still lingering over your food," he began, "but as the sun's setting and it is a special occasion, we're going to start court a little early today. That said, I'll turn the floor over to Queen Dee." Willow smiled fondly. Liam was a really great guy, and a good king, but not really one for the speeches.

Cordy stood as Liam (her husband in real life as well as in the game) sat down. "I just want to start by thanking you all for being here, especially those of you who came in from far off, and most especially those of you who are Jewish. As most of you should already know, tonight begins the first night of Hanukkah; holding the event this weekend was therefore an unfortunate scheduling error that we weren't able to correct once we realised. But for those of us that did come for the festivities that do celebrate this holiday, we'd like to take some time now to honour it with you."

She nodded to one of her royal guards, who went to the front of the room and unveiled a large, gorgeous Chanukkiyah. It was golden, and ornate, with tall white candles. There was some brief ooh-ing and ahh-ing, but it shushed quickly when the queen cleared her throat. "And now on behalf of the Diamond Glen, I would like to ask the winner of our Triple-T Tourney, Baroness Squire Lady Salix of Rysee, to please light the menorah. Milady, would you?

Hastily wiping the tears that had crept unbidden to the corners of her eyes, Willow stood. "I would be honoured, your majesty." Guess I don't need those LEDs and buttons after all, God. Aren't these people great? Climbing off of her bench, she made her way to the candelabra. It was even more impressive up close. There was a lighter laying there next to the base, and she used it to light the shamash candle. Then she sat the lighter down and used the shamash to reverently light the candle of the first night. After replacing the shamash, she turned to face the hall.

"Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav vetzivanu l'hadlik ner chanuka," she recited, remembering many years past, with her father lighting the Chanukkiyah and reciting the prayers in his warm, rich voice. I'm not as devout as you, Dad, and I might fumble the words a little, but I'm gonna do my best! "Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-asa nisim la-avoteinu ba-yamim ha-heim ba-z'man ha-ze. Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-hehiyanu v'kiy'manu v'higi'anu la-z'man ha-ze." She found that her voice was strong, carrying across the hall, and when her words ceased there was a respectful silence.

"Now there's supposed to be singing," she said with a trace of embarrassment, "but I'm no good at that part."

"Got you covered, hon," the queen responded fondly. "Go sit and rest your feet, we'll take care of the singing." She turned back to the assembled feasters as Willow made her way back to her table. "We have a treat for you now. A trio of master bards from Herneshire have agreed to sing the traditional Hanukkah hymn for us. It is therefore my honour to present to you Dame Astra, Mistress Anyanka, and Lord Krevlornswath."

The three were dressed in garb of matching colours; cobalt blue and white. And while Willow certainly thought that Tara looked the best, Anyanka was definitely filling her dress out nicely as well, and Krevlornswath's makeup and prosthetics job was simply amazing.

Once the applause died down, the three smiled at each other, and without introduction launched into a beautiful rendition of Hanerot Hallalu. Their voices joined together wonderfully, and the words washed over the hall like a wave, gentle but powerful.

It's not exactly the traditional hymn, Willow considered, but I doubt God minds. Such a beautiful sound raised up to Him, how could he?

The song finished to more thunderous applause, which seemed to embarrass Tara and please the other two.

"We can't let you go after singing just one song for us," King Liam told the group. "Please do us the honour of an encore?"

The three exchanged a look that told Willow they'd been expecting this. Krevlornswath spoke up. "We don't know any other Hanukkah songs, but we have practiced a little holiday ditty you might enjoy."

"Oh, you'll definitely enjoy it," Anyanka interjected. "We're very good. And we'd like to invite Master Wolfram to play for us on this one. Come on up, Wolfram."

Master Wolfram turned out to be a young looking country boy type with stubble and wearing a simple T-tunic. He had a beaten up old acoustic guitar, and he stood beside the singers and started picking out a melody. The three bards began a very simple round, almost a chant, their voices blending together magically. Soon, though, more lyrics joined the simple chant; it was, Willow realised, a solstice carol, and she found it quite lovely.

All too soon, the music was over, and the usual court business began. There were announcements, acknowledgements, awards, and plenty of speeches. The biggest deal, of course, was the tourney, and much was said about all the toys that were donated and all the people that had participated. Then, of course, they called Willow up, along with Fred and Randy, the 2nd and 3rd place winners, and gave them all trophies. Willow's was made from a bronzed Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, Fred's was a bronzed Elmo toy, and Randy got a bronzed Furby. Pictures were taken and hugs were given and huzzahs! were shouted, but Willow's heart wasn't in it; she was impatient for court to be over, and time seemed to be stretching on, every speech longer and more boring than the last....

The sky was clear, the moon shining high in the sky a stark contrast against the black curtain of night. The chill in the air had settled into a distinct cold, and Willow's breath was coming out white fog. She wrapped her velvet cloak tightly around herself and shiverered. Where is she? She said she'd meet me here after court... she didn't forget, did she? Or worse, change her mind about showing up? No. No, she wouldn't do that...

...would she?

"Sorry I'm late; I had to run to camp for blankets!" Willow spun at the sound. Tara was there, out of breath from running. She was wrapped in some sort of cloak made of fur and had her hands full with a bundle of blankets.

Willow grinned and took some of the blankets. "C'mon, let's go sit at the pavillion."

They walked together towards the mentioned pavilion, a side benefit of Diamond Glen's choice to hold their events at a Ruritan club. The two walked shoulder-to-shoulder, not quite touching but very close. When they arrived, they put a few blankets on the bench and wrapped the others around themselves.

For awhile they just sat there, saying nothing, a quiet bundle of blankets cocooning two young women. Unseen, though, Willow's hand reached out just a few inches, and found Tara's hand reaching out to intercept her. For some time, perhaps minutes or hours, those interlaced fingers were all the communication Willow needed. In a way, she reflected, it was another sort of dance. A still, silent dance, at least on the outside. On the inside it felt like everything she was was in motion somehow.

Finally Tara broke the silence. "It was really beautiful, when you lit the flame."

"Yeah," Willow considered. "It really was, wasn't it? And I was just thinking the same thing about you."

Another significant silence followed. She didn't ask what I meant. She didn't need to. Just knew. Of course.

"I want to thank you," she continued. "For showing me... exactly what I needed. Not just for the tourney. For life."

"You're welcome. And I was just thinking the same thing about you."

Wait, does she really mean what I think she means? Oh God, she does! She gently squeezed Tara's hand, and felt the girl's fingers squeeze hers in response. Her stomach was doing flip-flops, but the rest of her was just speaking one long, silent 'yes'.

"When I next see Cordelia," she said eventually, "I think I'm going to kiss her."

"Better watch who you're kissing," Tara responded playfully. They both giggled about that for a moment. "But I know what you mean. She told me she had a sort of a vision about us, just knew it was important to bring us together."

"Maybe God wanted us to meet."

"Or the Goddess."

They both grinned at once, and turned to face one another. All huddled up like that, their faces were very close. Willow found herself immersed in crystal blue eyes.

"O holy night," she whispered, and leaned in.

"O night divine," Tara agreed, and their lips met at last.


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