Ruby raised her foil to the guard position, nerves singing as she stared down the strip at her opponent. The taller fencer was perfectly still, looking calm and relaxed as she stood at her line, foil held loosely by her side. She was slim and lean, a fact that even the bulky padding of their protective gear couldn't hide. Toned legs tensed as she stretched, bouncing on her heels, short little hops meant to keep her muscles loose and limber.
And boy is she limber, Ruby thought, absently fixing the Velcro on her glove.
She hadn't really expected this. Okay, maybe something like it – it was the last practice of the quarter, and she knew the club's traditions as well as anybody else. She knew the club always set aside some time at the end of practice for an end-of-year bout, and that they always paired the newer club members against someone on the actual University team. She'd even made sure to prep her lucky red blade specifically because she knew this match was coming. The one with the older handle and the horribly scratched-up guard, scarred by the many tips and blades that glanced of it. The one that, no matter how dinged it got, she'd never replace. Blades might bend too far or break sometimes, and she'd accepted that. But she'd never change the hilt.
It was her first. The one Weiss had given her almost a year ago. Until the damn thing disintegrated in her hand, she wouldn't change a thing about it.
Plus, she got both of her last two ratings using that blade. She wasn't about to stop now.
Flexing her legs, Ruby took a breath, and plugged the body cord into the port at the base of her foil. Everything was fine. Well, not fine – there was a nine in ten chance she was about to get her ass handed to her on a silver platter – but apart from her pride, there really wasn't anything on the line. This wasn't a tournament, or some direct elimination match. This was just for practice. To see how her skills had improved. How far she'd come. It was just a chance to prove herself ... in front of Coach Nikos ... and the rest of the club ... and most intimidating of all, Weiss.
So, no pressure really. None at all.
Jaw tight, Ruby stepped towards her opponent, flicking the tip of her weapon up towards the ceiling. Once she was sure she had the other girl's attention, she bowed, sweeping the weapon out and to the side, the movement as elaborate and fanciful as she could make it.
"My name is Ruby Rose," she said, throwing as much gravel into her voice as she could. "You killed my father. Prepare to die."
Weiss' tip fell as she dropped the return salute, looking over at her girlfriend in utter exasperation. "Seriously?"
Ruby shrugged, grinning behind her mask. "Blake would never forgive me if I didn't say it once."
"She's a bad influence on you." Weiss' voice was dry, but Ruby could see the smile behind the fencing mask. "And I actually am left-handed, so no switching halfway through."
"If you're both ready?" Coach Nikos asked, crows-feet at the corner of her eyes crinkling as she tried to hide a smile.
Taking a breath, Ruby steadied her nerves as best she could, and stared through the mesh of her mask. Piercing ice-blue eyes glinted back, seeing every flicker of movement, every nervous twitch. Every motion was analyzed and set aside, judged for any sign of weakness or vulnerability.
Hoping Weiss couldn't see her swallowing, Ruby stepped forward. She stopped just behind the starting line, the muscles in her legs already itching to go, waiting for Coach Nikos to take the referee position and start the bout. She had this. She wasn't the complete novice that showed up a year ago. She'd been trained by one of the club's best, and for all Weiss knew her tells and bad habits, Ruby knew hers too. Some of them, anyway. She might not win, but she could make Weiss work for it. Show the heiress how hard she'd worked.
She didn't have to wait long. Ruby only half-heard their ref call out, her body going through the motions automatically. She followed along as Weiss raised her blade in a quick salute, waited for Pyrrha to call the start, and moved.
Growling under her breath, Ruby forced herself back to the starting line. She should have seen that trick coming. She shouldhave seen Weiss going for the flick to her shoulder, should have known the white-haired girl would pull that. Weiss was the one who'd shown her how to do it, told her that it was one of her favorite touches, that she loved hitting there on the rare occasion she could actually set it up. And Ruby had fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker.
Now Weiss was up four-to-nothing. Great. Just great.
Taking a breath, Ruby tried to calm down. The nerves weren't helping. She needed to relax, get some of the tension out of her bones.
Don't get fancy, she thought, the voice in her head almost sounding like Weiss. Don't get cute. She knows all the tricks you know. She taught most of them to you.
It didn't help that Weiss was a lefty. Most fencers, like most people, were right-handed. Which meant that, like everyone else, the heiress had spent most of her time fencing other right-handed people. For her, fencing someone using the opposite hand was normal, while Ruby had to deal with fencing someone who did everything backwards. She'd trained enough with Weiss that it wasn't a surprise – at least she was somewhat used to it – but it was still one more thing to deal with. As if this wasn't already hard enough.
Weiss stepped forward, blade flicking back and forth as she advanced. Eyes flicking back and forth, Ruby danced back, waiting for some sign of what Weiss was about to do. Doing her best to keep the distance between then, she nudged the tip of Weiss' blade to the side, teasing for an opening. She stayed light on her feet, anticipating Weiss' movement as best she could. It was really all she could do: dart in and out to threaten Weiss' defenses while keeping herself on guard.
Weiss' tip flicked beneath hers as the two dueled for supremacy. Ruby grimaced, and soon the air was filled with the squeaking of sneakers on the floor and the ting of steel tips dueling for the inside line.
Not that this is getting me anywhere, Ruby thought, leaping back as Weiss tried to close the distance.
You over-commit, that voice that sounded too much like Weiss whispered in the back of her mind. She always says you over-commit. You put too much into a lunge and can't get back out of it.
Okay – that was a valid point. Not an incredibly useful one, but still ... it was a bad habit of hers. Something she'd picked up over the past year that Weiss was determined to train out of her. Which means that she'll expect it, Ruby thought, mind racing as she tried to hold Weiss back. She'll see it as another mistake, another point she can make to try and help me get better.
Ruby couldn't help but grin. And if she's expecting it, she might not see the trick coming.
Well, it was better than any other idea she had. Now she just had to set it up. Wait for just the right moment, when they were at the right distance. She just needed enough room to – there!
Stepping forward with her back foot, Ruby lunged towards the other girl, the momentum carrying her body out and down. It wasn't the longest, or the lowest lunge she'd ever done – that was the whole point – but it still closed the gap between them, her weapon spearing towards the center of Weiss' lamé. Doesn't matter if it doesn't hit, she reminded herself. It just has to look like a real try.
Retreating a half-step, Weiss moved just out of distance, leaving Ruby's tip hovering in midair when her chest had been a second before. Then, not missing a beat, she advanced, ready to take advantage while Ruby struggled out of too deep a lunge.
Man, I really hope this works.
Even as her front foot landed, Ruby pulled her back foot forward. Legs tempered by years of kung-fu and months of training with Weiss coiled and sprung, all the tension in her muscles exploding out in one last hail-Mary of a thrust. Crossing her left foot over her right, Ruby kicked off with the ball of her front foot, and barreled right for Weiss' chest.
Ruby thought she saw ice-blue eyes narrow behind black mesh as the fleché carried her forward. Switching to a retreat, Weiss brought her blade up in a parry, lightly dinging off Ruby's foil, and riposting out towards the younger girl.
She was half a second too late. Ruby's left foot landed just as her foil snagged the light-grey jacket Weiss wore. It wasn't a perfect hit – catching a bit of fabric over her shoulder rather than the center of her chest – but the pressure was enough to press the tip down, clicking softly as she charged by, hoping against hope she could make it past Weiss before the other girl landed her riposte.
She never knew if it was panic or adrenaline, but she'd have sworn she felt Weiss' tip just barely whistle past her as she rushed past, running off the strip to get to safety.
The world came back with the sound of the buzzer and Coach Nikos' voice calling out the hit behind her. She couldn't hear what the older woman was saying – her heart was hammering too loudly in her ears. Turning back to the scoreboard, she looked at the little glowing lights, trying to swallow around a lump sticking in her throat.
Please let me get the touch, please let me get the touch ...
One red light blinked back at her. She could have cheered with joy.
The rest of the bout went as quickly as she'd expected. Weiss barreled down the strip for the last point, finishing it at a solid five-to-one against the brunette. Pulling her mask off by the bib, Ruby swept red-tipped locks out of her eyes and tucked her mask under her arm. With a grin, she flicked her blade up in a salute at the significantly less sweaty fencer across from her and waited while someone she couldn't see unhooked her from the strip. Someone else clapped her on the back while another wished her happy holidays – kind gestures that she barely noticed, eyes locked on Weiss.
One of the other fencers tapped her on the shoulder and said she was done, the end of Ruby's body cord bumping against her leg as it fell free. Thanking whoever it was – Penny probably, from the flash of ginger hair – she walked towards Weiss, sword and mask dangling loosely from her hands. Her heart was still beating wildly in her chest, pounding from the sheer adrenaline rush and the joy of actually landing one on Weiss.
"I'll admit," the white-haired girl said, her end-of-bout handshake lingering a little too long to be strictly proper. "I did not expect a fleché. Who's been teaching you bad habits?"
"Well, I know it's against the rules to cross your feet when you fence saber, and since that's the weapon you like most ..."
"You guessed it might catch me a little off-guard." Bright eyes twinkled as a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Good call, Ruby."
Reluctantly letting go of Weiss' hand, Ruby followed the older girl back towards their bags. Laying her mask down on the floor, she slumped against the wall, watching as the other club members started to gather up their own gear and get ready to leave. She closed her eyes and let her head thump back against the plastered wall, taking a second to just let her heart stop racing. It had been a long night – the last practice before fall quarter finals always was – and the rest of the club looked as tired as she felt.
Still, it had been a good night. Especially considering how hard it was to score against Weiss. That made it all worth it. The time spent training, conditioning, listening to Weiss correct her footwork or tactics, all the effort was worth seeing the look on her girlfriend's face when she succeeded.
"You sure you didn't let me have that one?" she said quietly, half-teasing as she looked over at Weiss. She was pretty sure Weiss hadn't, not with the surprise she'd seen in the heiress' eyes, but still ...
"Absolutely not," Weiss said firmly, sitting down beside her. "You earned it, Ruby."
"Thanks." Ruby knew she was blushing – Weiss always had that effect on her. Especially when she knew the other girl was proud of her. "I had a good teacher."
Weiss snorted in derision. "Hardly. It helps that you're the best beginner I've ever worked with."
"Now you're just being nice."
"Never." Edging closer until their shoulders touched, Weiss leaned in and pressed her lips to Ruby's cheek.
"I thought you didn't like displays of affection in front of the club," Ruby said, grinning in spite of herself. "All that stuff about not showing favoritism during practice."
"I'm making an exception," Weiss whispered, leaning in to kiss her again. "You deserve it."
Pyrrha's breath formed little puffs of steam as she stepped out of the gym and into the winter air. Something cold landed in her hair. Looking up, she watched as the first snowfall of the season slowly drifted down, little specks of white falling on the students and faculty just now starting to head home. One flake hit her nose, swiftly joined by others as they landed on her hair and face. She let them linger for a second, enjoying the cold feeling on her skin, before wiping them away. Then reality reasserted itself and a shiver ran through her, the chill weather twice as biting after the heated gym and the warm shower in the locker rooms. Pulling her tawny woolen coat tighter around her shoulders, she started walking towards the parking lot, moving quickly to hold back the cold.
Breathing on her hands to warm them, the redhead dug her coffee-colored leather gloves from her bag. A few quick tugs and they were snug over fingers, already warming as she shoved them back into the pockets of her coat. She shivered again, and wished devoutly that she'd found a parking space closer to the door. It couldn't be below freezing – the snow wasn't even sticking to the ground – but somehow it just felt worse. In hindsight, perhaps it hadn't been the best idea to wear a sleeveless top that day, even if Nora had been pestering her lately to 'let the guns out.'
Someone called her name, and she looked back over her shoulder to find the rest of the fencing club having just left the athletics building themselves, waving goodbye as they trudged back up the hill towards campus. She smiled and waved back, watching absently as a girl in a red hoodie slid towards the back of the pack, sidling up to the team captain before laying her head on the older girl's shoulder.
Pyrrha stopped waving, the warmth of her smile fading, and let her arm fall back to her side. Sighing, she turned and crossed the road, hopping over the lip of the curb. Breath coming in short huffs, she made her way across the crowded parking lot to the wine-red sedan parked beneath the street lamp. Every few steps, something small twisted in the pit of her stomach, bringing on another surge of annoyance.
Why, though? she asked herself, tugging her right hand out of the glove to rummage in her pocket for her car keys. That wasn't right. Practice had gone great; the team was well on their way to being ready for the next North American Cup in January. None of the team members were slacking off on their conditioning, and with Schnee cracking a hopefully metaphorical whip, Pyrrha was confident they would be ready in time. Even the little 'Year-End Bout' the club liked to do every so often had gone well. Despite being severely outmatched, the Rose girl had managed to land a good hit on Schnee – a difficult task for even some of the team to accomplish, much less one of the regular club members. Then again, maybe she shouldn't be surprised. It looked like Weiss had grown close to the dark-haired girl with the red highlights ... oh, what was her first name?
Sighing, Pyrrha climbed into her car and snapped the door shut behind her. She used to be better about remembering all of the club members' names, but with the World Championships coming up next year and the Olympics soon after, she'd been distracted with her own training. It didn't help that she only worked with the club members once every other month – most of her time with the group was spent on getting the team ready for their competitions.
Plus, with Weiss as the club captain, the less experienced students were in good hands. The girl was relentless, running the club with as much focus as she dedicated to her own training. Still, since last year, it seemed she had taken a particular interest in the young brunette ... Ruby! That was it. She'd brought Ruby under her wing, and apparently in more ways than one.
The little knot in her stomach squeezed again. She stopped, her hand on the ignition. Was that why she was annoyed? That they were together? There was no real reason to be. There were no rules about club members dating, and Weiss was diligent enough that any personal drama wouldn't affect her training. On top of that, it was obvious how well things were going for the two of them. Pyrrha wasn't sure, but she had a sneaking suspicion they had started dating soon after Ruby joined the club. Plus, apart from a few quiet moments of affection and the general club gossip, she hadn't really heard much about them, unlike some of the other relationships that had happened between club members over the last three years. Frankly, in her experience, no news almost always meant good news. And less drama, which made managing the team a whole lot easier.
Then why did she feel so ... off?
Gunning the engine, she glanced over her shoulder and pulled out of the parking spot. Her headlights cut through the night as she rounded the line of cars and made her way towards the gate, illuminating a group of basketball players still tossing a ball back and forth between them.
Sighing, she turned onto the street and headed for the main road out of campus. If it wasn't the worry that the relationship might distract her best fencer, why had it bothered her like that? Why would she ...
Blowing a stray lock of hair out of her face, Pyrrha stared out at the road and furrowed her brow. That was ridiculous. There was nothing to be jealous of. Just two young women who, to all appearances, seemed to have fallen in love.
Which is exactly the problem, Pyrrha realized, letting out a long breath as she sagged in the leather seat. Not jealousy then. Envy. Or just general wistfulness. Right, 'wistful' sounded better. After all, she was genuinely happy for the two girls. Schnee was a hard worker and great team captain. She deserved someone who made her happy, and from what Pyrrha had seen of Ruby, they seemed perfect together. It was just another reminder of how dull her own love life had been recently.
How long had it been since she was last on a date? Six months? Seven? Granted, training kept her fairly busy. Getting ready for the next championships was her focus right now, and she wouldn't give up her career or let her international ranking slide just for the chance to meet someone. Plus, serving as the club's advisor took up a good bit of her time.
Just not that much time.
To be fair, she had tried to meet people. She'd even let Nora badger her into going to a few of speed-dating events run out of the Italian restaurant three blocks from her apartment. In the end, it hadn't been awful, not exactly. And she wouldn't call it 'pointless.' Just ... fruitless.
At least the food was good.
Maybe it was just generally hard to find someone. That had to be why there were so many services these days. Dating to match your occupation, your religion, your interests ... to keep all those sites alive, there had to be tons of people out there looking for romance, love, intimacy ... or even someone to spend the night. It was just plain hard finding someone you clicked with, wanted to spend time with, not to mention someone who didn't get hung up on the idea of her being an Olympic athlete. Even the most basic conversation starters – what are your interests, what do you do for a living – eventually turned to fencing. Then came the inevitable question of if she still competed, leading to a rather sheepish admission of the multiple medals she had mounted on her wall.
The bicep-baring top Nora insisted she wear that night probably hadn't helped. The second time she'd tried the service out, she downplayed the competition stuff as much as she could, and wore something that didn't show off her muscle tone every time she reached for the salt. Not that it had helped much. All she got in return was her 'dates' asking what she did for a real job. As if being an athlete somehow didn't count.
Fifty different people, and none of them had been any different. Either they were intimidated by her success, or saw what she did as some fanciful pipe dream. Apparently it was rare for people her age to actually be doing something they loved. The closer she got to forty, the more dream jobs had given way to mortgages and car payments and school fees. For most of her potential dating pool – the ones looking for a real relationship, at least – being a professional athlete, even a successful one, just wasn't 'settled' enough. It wasn't stable enough for them.
She hadn't bothered to go back a third time.
Turning onto the freeway, Pyrrha shook her head, trying to kick the mood she'd gotten herself into. Tonight was supposed to be happy. It was the end of the fall quarter at the university, the holidays were coming up, snow was falling, and in about twenty minutes she was seeing two of her oldest friends for the first time in months. Nora and Ren had just returned after a long trip overseas, and Nora wanted to have their 'welcome home' ceremony in style. Pyrrha couldn't blame her – at their age, any excuse for a night out among friends was a good one.
Plus, right now, she could really use a drink.