Tomi waited a long second before she pulled her staff back, letting Rhian relax into a steadier stance. They both spun their weapons on one hand, first one way than the other, and Tomi watched the ground while she stepped a quarter circle around Rhian. She scuffed her toes into the dirt, turned and settled her heels as she faced Rhian, then finally looked up again.
Anie glanced at Cidra. She felt like she should take a step back and drag the others back too, to give them space. When she moved her feet though, both she and Cidra were stepping forward. Anie brushed her hand over her hair, held the warmth of her palm against her skull for half a moment, and dropped her hand to her side again.
Tomi nodded to Rhian. Rhian nodded in return, and set both hands on her staff. Another breath and Tomi swung. Their staffs cracked together as if they were trying to break them, loud as lightning touching down. Anie flinched at the sound, blinked, but didn’t miss the way Rhian pushed her staff just over her head, or straightness of Tomi’s arm.
Another breath, and their staffs cracked together again in front of Rhian’s chest. A brief pause and Tomi swung at Rhian’s thighs while Rhian stopped the strike on a low block.
In the same easy timing, they switched so that Rhian struck at Tomi, and the woman formed every block perfectly. Loud as stone cracking.
Rhian nodded at Tomi again. Tomi returned the motion. They settled their heels again, and Anie realized they had only been testing each other’s range, remembering how they moved together.
“Hey!” Tomi yelled, sharp and fast, and Rhian swung at her so fast her staff turned into a blur. Quieter, but not by much, some of her strength traded for speed. High, middle, low.
“Hey!” Rhian shouted as they switched, and she blocked each of Tomi’s strikes as if she were only dragging her staff in a slow line down.
On Anie’s other side, Vetlynn was leaning forward, eyebrows slowly rising. Nessim watched over his own shoulder, maybe too stunned to turn all the way around. Denna held onto Anie’s hand tightly.
“Hey!” Tomi yelled. And they moved faster. Rhian echoed the call only a few seconds later. Anie watched closely, focusing on their arms when she couldn’t follow the ends of their staffs anymore.
Tomi turned her shoulder on her next high block. The clack of their collision wasn’t as loud, and wood ground against wood. Rhian pulled back instantly, bringing her staff back to her own chest to block an opportunistic strike from Tomi. She grinned across at her opponent. Anie thought she had known what was coming, though the pattern of their fight was breaking apart.
Immediately, Tomi moved back into the middle block, but Rhian ducked her own shoulder and swung for the outside of her thigh, just above her knee instead. Tomi dropped one side of her staff, caught it against her knee. Clack.
Faster, and Anie was breathing with them, watching every motion of their hands, their arms, their shoulders and spines. She recognizes half of it, things that she had already been told to do, and envied the rest. The slide of Rhian’s shoulder than spun the staff a little higher. The sudden shift of Tomi’s spine that moved her out of the way, rather than waste time on a block at all, while she swung for Rhian’s exposed ribs.
And then Rhian shifted back.
There was a fast pause as they looked at each other. It took Anie a second to realize that was the first time either of them had moved their feet, and that it meant something that Rhian had moved first. Tomi tilted her head at the younger girl like she might chide her, though she hadn’t lost any of the brightness in her eyes. Rhian’s grin only faded momentarily. Then they each stepped lightly to opposite sides, one foot crossed in front of the other, and faced each other in a moment of silence.
Then Tomi lunged.
Rhian waited, and stuck fast behind Tomi’s swing. The staffs clattered together. Two solid cracks, then a third, and Tomi took a single step back while Rhian leaned forward. She leaned low to keep out of Tomi’s next defensive turn and came up with her staff aimed toward Tomi’s knee. Tomi jumped it, and kicked Rhian’s staff down into the dirt. Rhian fell with it, but rolled, stood, and swung as if this new angle had been the one she wanted all along.
Anie thought they had been moving before, but this…
This was a dance. She would have called it something else if she had any word for it, but that was what it was called when two people moved around each other like that. There should have been a drumbeat, the way they always seemed to understand the timing of what would come next. If they surprised each other, it was the happy sort of surprise that arrived after coming out of a breathless spin, except they never took their eyes off each other.
They knew each other. They had memorized each other’s tricks, and so long ago that it seemed they had either taught themselves the same maneuvers by watching or just taught themselves how to cheat them.
Anie remembered the way Seryn’s folk ran together, and she knew this was the same thing. It was the practiced grace that Thea loved. It was Mel’s brilliance a hundred times faster. It was what happened when two deadly things lived at eachothers’ shoulders.
Anie almost surprised herself into a laugh at the thought. Tomi and Rhian were deadly. As much as her head hurt after Cidra’s hit, she knew none of her friends could swing that fast or that hard yet. The way Tomi and Rhian swung at each other, they would crack bone. But Anie couldn’t take her eyes away.
None of them could. They leaned in, none of them afraid of the next moment, holding their breath for other reasons. Anie smiled and just tried to catch the next turn that would declare a winner.
It came faster than Anie realized it would. Tomi twisted a little too far in the attempt to hit Rhian. Rhian swung in behind it. Tomi fell onto one hand, rolling away from the strike, but it landed. Rhian pulled back at the last moment, and it hit silently, just a tap. Tomi put a hand over her side like it stung, but smiled up at Rhian when the younger girl offered her a hand up.
Tomi murmured something that made Rhian’s grin widen farther. Then they both stood still, catching their breath.
“Are you going to teach us that?” Sevi asked, awed.
Rhian turned to him quickly as she had forgotten he was there. She surveyed them all, every faced turned toward her a gentle surprise. Then she nodded. “If you want…”
Anie nodded fast. It made her head hurt a little, but it wasn’t too bad. The others were nodding too.
Rhian heaved in another breath. She looked at them a little apologetically. “It takes work…”
“Show us,” Nessim demanded.
Rhian laughed at him, quick and sweet. “All right,” she said. “Now?” She waited for them all to agree that they were ready, then spun her finger in a lazy circle. “Form up.”