Swordpoint — Part 2

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Foreword: This is a sequel to Swordpoint — Part 1Now, this one’s a little… different, than my usual stuff. I don’t know what came over me, but I had so much fun writing the characters in this one that I didn’t just want to wrap it up after the hair stuff like I typically do. The initial part of this is the long-awaited haircut, but afterwards it’s just lots of self-indulgent rivals-to-lovers type of deal. I’ve been trying to improve my writing in general, so I’ve tried to expand a bit of my usual repertoire. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to click away after the haircut scene. Regardless, hope y’all enjoy this one. 

Carla’s heart stopped as she came back to earth, remembering why she was even here in the first place. Watching Zoe’s haircut had definitely served its purpose as a distraction, but now she had to face the music. 

“Come, I’ll hang on to your jacket,” Zoe offered smirkingly after taking back hers. There was something about Zoe’s new hair that just seemed to complement the smugness she exuded. Carla begrudgingly slid out of her duelist jacket, handing it to her captain. “Good. Now go on, the chair’s waiting for you,” Zoe instructed with a nudge of her head.

Carla sighed before she rose to her feet, eyeing the barber chair that Zoe was just shorn in a while ago. Reese was sweeping up the mess of black hair on the floor that was just on Zoe’s head not too long ago, and Carla knew that floor was soon going to be filled with her own wavy, brown tresses. 

“Haircut for you too, yeah?” Reese called out to her next customer, patting the back of the chair invitingly.

Carla forced a smile as she ambled forward, taking a last glance at her devilishly grinning captain. Carla was loathing this every bit, but a deal was a deal. There was no honour in trying to run from it. She sank herself in the chair, trying to take in its comfort as her nerves were going absolutely bonkers. 

“I’m sorry, I never caught your name,” Reese embarrassingly confessed. 

“Carla,” she introduced, “Flores.”

“Flores… Flores… oh! Your mother works at the Vault of Archives, doesn’t she?” Reese excitedly asked.

“Yeah,” Carla couldn’t help but smile, feeling warm knowing that some people at least knew her mother’s role in the community. 

“Does she? I never knew,” Carla heard Zoe call out from the waiting bench. 

“She’s an absolute doll. You have no idea how big of a help she was when I was still studying. Always knew the volumes I needed for my research,” Reese narrated as she gathered up Carla’s hair and clipped it onto her head to keep it off her neck for the prep. “I mean, I never was planning to pick up a very intellectual job, but she definitely helped get me through the school days,” Reese continued as she tore off a strip of neck tissue from the roll.

“I’m sure she’d still remember you. She always loved it when students weren’t afraid to ask for help even if the Vault did seem like a very intimidating place,” Carla said as she felt Reese tying the strip of tissue snugly around her neck.

“She did a way better job than most of the tutors I had,” Reese remarked as she shook out the red pinstriped cape. She elegantly flung it above Carla, letting it settle on her shoulders as the cape enveloped her body save for her feet that were on the footrest. After smoothing out the cape, she secured the ends of the cape snugly behind Carla’s neck. “So what’re we doing for you today? Just a trim?” Reese asked the fateful question as she unclipped Carla’s locks, letting her wavy tresses spill freely behind her.

“Uhh,” Carla stammered, looking through the mirror to glance at Zoe— who she expected was going to step forward.

“I’ll be deciding that, actually,” Zoe announced a little gleefully on cue, getting on her feet to move towards the two. “Somebody here has been getting distracted by their hair in training and needs something that’ll be easier to take care of. She said she’d let me choose a style for her, no questions asked,” Zoe half-lied about the terms. Carla glanced at Zoe through the mirror with a curious look, and Zoe gave a “just play along with it” sort of face. 

“Yeah, uhm, my hair’s been quite a hassle when dueling. It’s gotten in the way more times than I can remember, and it’s actually lost me some matches,” Carla began trying to add on to the fake little story, even though there were still hints of truth to it. 

“Ooh, a change for you too? That’s exciting, two makeovers in a day,” there was a part of Reese that sounded elated— like a barber’s dream come true to be cutting off so much hair in a day. “How short were you thinking?” She directed the question to Zoe.

“I was thinking you could probably do the same as mine for her,” Zoe smugly requested.

Oh,” there was a gigantic shift in Reese’s tone. Carla’s eyes widened as well, though at this point she didn’t know why she was surprised that Zoe would have suggested the same thing. “You sure about that? It’s gonna be a huge change,” Reese was taken aback, a hand now on Carla’s shoulder.

Carla took a moment to regard her captain, then to face herself in the mirror. This was the first time she was ever going to go short in her life, and she was being thrown right into the deepest end of the pool. She only had herself to blame for getting into this position— for getting overconfident and paying the price. But also for being played in battle by a rather dirty trick that lost her the bet. It was embarrassing, but she knew she had to take this, and she was going to take it while keeping her dignity in some way.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Carla heavy-heartedly agreed.

“Although, I was thinking…” Zoe stopped to muse for a second. “No need to make the top spiky for her. I kinda like her natural waviness. Make sure it’s short enough that it doesn’t get in her eyes, but keep it long enough that it still shows that waviness— I like her style that way,” Zoe added before Reese could collect her equipment. 

Carla felt herself blush a little out of nowhere when she heard those words. She turned to see her captain with a warm smile, not knowing what to make of such a gesture. Was it a kind of mercy she was showing? Or was she actually telling the truth— did Zoe just compliment her hair?

“Ooh yes, that’s a great idea. A little wavy texture will make it more exciting. You’ll definitely not have to worry about the hair during training anymore, that’s for sure,” Reese cheekily remarked before going to pick up her equipment.

Part of Carla couldn’t believe she was going down this road, but she had to accept it. She was going to go through the loss of a bet, and she was going to try and deny Zoe as much satisfaction from it as possible. But it also meant she had to be stronger than Zoe was in the char. 

Carla stared at herself in the mirror, taking that last look at her bountiful locks. Her waves were always sort of her crowning glory— she always took great care of them. And now she was about to watch it all be chopped off, and she had to pretend she wanted every bit of it. She heaved a sigh, steeling herself when Reese pulled out her pair of scissors once more.

“I’ll just get rid of the bulk first,” Reese said as she ran a hand through Carla’s wavy tresses. 

“Mhm,” Carla forced a smile in return.

Starting from the right side, she pulled out a sizeable chunk of Carla’s hair with her two fingers. Without much hesitation, she dove right in with the scissors.

Snip snip snip

Carla bit her tongue as she watched her brown locks unceremoniously plunging onto the cape, leaving behind a layer of her wavy hair that ended around her earlobes. Reese kept going, lifting up a new section on the right side with her two fingers before shearing away.

Snip snip snip. Snip snip snip. Snip snip snip.

It didn’t take much before the entire right side was shorn roughly to around Carla’s ears. It was such an odd sight to Carla— seeing such little hair on one side with her ear jutting out while the rest of her head still boasted so much of her mane. But Reese didn’t take more than a moment to pause— she had already started work on the back layers. 

Carla sat quietly as Reese kept cutting. She felt her head getting lighter with each snip— a curious thought as she realised how much of her head weight she was going to be relieved of at the end of this. All those years of keeping her long, chestnut brown tresses were coming to such an abrupt end, and she had to toughen herself no matter how petrifying it was going to seem.

She had to hold herself back from squinting out of instinct when Reese was working on the left side. She could only observe in an unemotive silence as the scissors sliced through the last remaining bit of long hair— plunging onto the cape helplessly, joining the other severed tresses that were on her head less than five minutes ago.

Carla slightly turned her head from side to side as the rough cut was done— inspecting the rough wavy bob that she was left with. It was unevenly cut around the ears— a sort of half-rugged look that Carla thought didn’t look too bad. Maybe she might experiment with a bob when she was growing it out. In the corner of her eye she saw Reese pick up the comb from the counter, and she knew the next part of her haircut was to come. 

Like clockwork she started on the right side, lifting up the bottom layers with the comb. Just like she did with Zoe, she went straight in to snip off any waves that poked right through the comb. The hair falling this time was definitely a lot less, but Carla knew it was a slow, methodical process towards a much more drastic look to her.

Snip snip snip. Snip snip snip .

Reese did her upwards scissors-over-comb motion confidently, still looking chipper as ever as she shore her second sheep of the day. She was certainly a woman that seemed proud of her craft— nothing could take away the determination and vigour she had even when taking off so much length. 

“You wanted the length short like this yeah? Just like Zoe’s?”  Reese asked as she rubbed the freshly shorn section on the right— the cool sensation of the fingers so close to Carla’s skin was so odd.

This was a milestone Carla knew she could use to win back some of her dignity— to show Zoe how she wasn’t going to just crumble from a haircut. She steeled herself as she deftly got a hand out from under the cape, bracing herself for how it was going to feel. She bit down her tongue as she placed a hand on that oh-so-short hair that was left to inspect it.

“Yep, it’s perfect,” Carla plainly said as she forced out her best smile, then swiftly placed her hand back under the cape. 

“Alrighty,” was all Reese said as she transitioned over to the back. 

With the sight of Zoe partially blocked in the mirror, Carla took a moment to huff out a sigh. Holy shit was all she could think of when she had felt that section of her shorn hair. Nothing could ever prepare her for how short it felt. It was a wonder she didn’t break her facade. But the haircut was really just beginning, and she knew she had to get back into this little struggle for dominance again.

Snip snip snip. Snip snip snip .

Reese worked quickly in the back, and Carla could start feeling those wavy locks litter her shoulders. In that moment she was thankful for the roll of tissue that held tightly around her neck, its utility suddenly making sense to her. God knows how itchy and ticklish she would’ve been feeling by then already. 

Reese soon moved over to the left side, and Carla held her head straight up with the best look of nonchalance she could master. There was no need to worry about the cut, she tried to tell herself, it was all decided already. She just needed to take as much satisfaction away. She spared a glance at her captain who was on the bench, with her head resting on a palm as she seemed to be enjoying the scene.

And why shouldn’t she? After all, this was probably the first time she could happily collect on a bet that didn’t involve someone bailing out of the club. She was finally getting the full package— her own little show to please herself with.

Carla returned her attention to herself as Reese shaped up the last side, trying to accept that image of her in the mirror that was gradually forming into what it was meant to be. After a steady stream of melodious snips, the sides and back were about done, and Carla had to contend with that jarring sight of her ears being so exposed for once in her life. 

“So we leaving it a little longer and wavy on top, yeah?” Reese broached the question as she combed through the last of her customer’s wavy mane.

Carla was about to open her mouth to agree, then stopped short to look at her captain. Zoe was clearly savouring the process— maybe a bit too much. And Carla didn’t like that. This was her moment to one-up her captain in a way, and being confident in the face of her haircut didn’t seem to be enough. She had to rebel. 

“Actually,” Carla started, ensuring her eye contact with her captain wasn’t faltering, “I was just thinking, just cut it really short like Zoe’s. Short and spiky. Wouldn’t want it growing out too quickly. It’ll save me a trip.”

Zoe’s face turned to one of horror when she heard the words. Carla didn’t quite know what to make of it— was it Zoe feeling betrayed that her request was going to be overridden? Or was it because deep down, she was telling the truth when she said she complimented her— that she was going to be robbed of Carla’s wavy hair that she admired. 

Regardless, Carla took joy in seeing her captain so fazed.

“Ah, fair enough. I guess you’ll get to play around with the waviness as it grows out, anyway. Short and spiky it is,” Reese cheerily acknowledged.

Without much ado, she combed up that front section of Carla’s wavy tresses, leaving that minuscule distance between the comb and the scalp.

Snip snip snip .

It was a heck of a chop, but Carla wasn’t worried about it for now. Her focus was still on her captain, who seemed to be the one wincing the most at the sight of her waves giving way to a brutish spikiness left behind.

Snip snip snip. Snip snip snip.

It became music to Carla’s ears as Reese worked her way ruthlessly across the top section, sculpting the hair to make her look almost identical to her captain’s. It almost seemed like Zoe was pouting now— mourning Carla’s hair much more than she was. No matter how much of her wavy locks were simply raining down in front of her face in torrents— this was the money shot that Carla had wanted. Maybe she had lost the bet, and her hair, but she could at least collect the pricelessness of her captain losing some part of it. 

Snip snip snip. Snip snip snip.

It didn’t take long for Reese to start adding the finishing touches, and Carla had to make sure her tongue was held down firmly to ensure no sudden reactions. It was short, to say the least— truly the shortest she’d ever had her hair. All that was left towards the front were just tiny, spiky tufts— only the severed hair all over the cape could tell you her hair was naturally wavy. It was definitely going to be her most practical haircut— she wasn’t going to have to contend with her waves for a long time. 

When she was satisfied, she put down the scissors and comb, then fetched the same straight razor she used for Zoe. She sprayed out some shaving cream from the can as she began applying it to the hairline on the sides and back. She started with the back, lightly scraping the neckline to shape into a neat line as the baby hairs were cleaned off. 

She slowly moved towards the right side, aiming the razor high as she swiped Carla’s sideburns off to align it with the middle of her ear. She did the same with the left side, artfully manoeuvring the razor to form a sleek line that helped to define the cut. When it was shaped to her liking, she set aside the razor and picked up the towel to wipe off any excess cream that was left behind.

Reese then unhooked the hairdryer. She kept it at its low setting as she whirred it to life, letting that warm gust of air wash over Carla’s nearly bare head. She couldn’t help but close her eyes, biting down her tongue as it felt so so weird feeling so much air just breezing across her scalp. 

At least the wind couldn’t mess her hair in combat now.

“All done!” Reese gleefully announced as she powered down the hairdryer, returning back onto its hook. “How does it look?” She asked as she got out the hand mirror to show the back.

Carla shifted her focus away from reeling captain to squarely look at herself. It looked exactly like Zoe’s— neatly tapered on the sides and back as it gradually got a little longer to the top, but still short enough that it stayed upright.

She got her hands out from under the cape, steeling herself as she began feeling her hair. It was all so short and weird— the way her hair simply pricked her skin. No matter which way she ran her fingers, it all remained completely still— just standing up at attention without ever being messed up. Perhaps it was a welcome change from how unruly her wavy hair got sometimes.

It was a look she was going to have to take a while to get used to, but it honestly didn’t seem half-bad to her. Seeing her eyes and features just popping out was something she wasn’t quite familiar with, but she probably could work something out with a bit of makeup.

“It’s perfect. You’re really good, Reese,” Carla tried to redirect the attention away from herself as she placed her hands back under the cape. 

“Aww, you’re too kind,” Reese said as she put down the mirror. “Now you’re all ready to work towards being our next champion,” she teased Carla a little with a head rub, which Carla had to admit felt good. “Who knows, maybe next year’s your turn,” Reese encouraged as she undid the neck strip and cape.

“Maybe,” was all Carla could really say, hopeful given that she technically still had one more year to try for the under-25 bracket. 

Reese whisked off the cape in a flash, and the mounds of wavy hair unceremoniously rained onto the floor. Carla slowly got out of the chair, that lightheadedness almost taking over her as she held onto the seat handle for stability. 

She gave herself one last look in the mirror, then turned to face her captain.

There was a slightly wistful look on Zoe’s face as she regarded the new Carla. “Do you like it?” it was Carla’s turn to ask, but this time with a confidence that suggested she didn’t need the validation. She knew exactly how it felt to her.

“I do,” Zoe said with a soft smile. “Now all that hair won’t be distracting you when you’re dueling,” she added.

She stood up to return Carla her duelist jacket, then headed over to Reese to pay her. “Thank you so much, Reese,” Zoe expressed.

“Anytime, Zoe. I’ll be rooting for you out there,” Reese said with excitement.

Zoe and Carla waved their goodbyes as they left— two newly-shorn witches that were ready to face the world. Feeling the natural wind on her scalp was definitely something she wasn’t expecting, but Carla couldn’t deny how amazingly cooling it felt.

“I guess… this is goodbye?” Carla awkwardly asked now that the bet had been collected, fiddling her thumbs. All she wanted to do was go home and lie down from such a perilous day.

“Oh come on, no need to be a stranger. I’ll drive you home. Least I could do,” that odd kindness to Zoe returned. Before Carla could even accept or reject, Zoe had already started walking to the car, and all Carla could do was just awkwardly catch up to follow.

**

The drive back to her place was awfully quiet, and Zoe seemed to have recovered from her wistfulness from the shop. It was all back to smug, confident Zoe now, just like Carla was used to seeing her. At least she got a bit of a kick seeing her facade falter during the cut. Getting a lift home was probably a blessing in disguise— the last thing Carla needed right now was for people recognising her out on the street without her being prepared. She couldn’t remember the number of times her gaze ended up back at the side mirror, trying to catch the smallest of glances of herself. 

“Feels good, doesn’t it?” Zoe broke the silence after they had been driving for a while.

“Yeah,” Carla replied, remembering she had to keep up her front for a little longer.

“You’ll get used to it. Should last us the whole tournament,” she simply said.

Carla raised a brow, wondering what that ‘us’ meant. Before she could even say anything, Zoe had already pulled up, and they were right in front of Carla’s house.

“This your place, yeah?” She asked to be sure.

“Yeah,” Carla affirmed as she undid her seatbelt. “Thanks for the lift.”

“Anytime, Flores,” Zoe gave her usual grin as the other woman left the car. 

Carla gave the barest of waves as she went straight for her house door, hearing the car drive away behind her. She swiftly unlocked the door and went straight up the stairs, hoping she wasn’t going to have to see-

“Is that you, Carla?”

Carla stopped just at the top of the stairs when she heard the pleasant melody of her mother’s voice from the living room. Of course it had to be the rare day her mother was home early from work— everything was just going amazing for her that day. 

“Yeah mom,” she tried her best to hide the exasperation from her voice just as she was about to continue her march to her room.

“Oh my goodness, Carla?” 

Carla’s heart stopped when she heard her mother’s voice so close now— just at the bottom of the stairs if she had to guess. There wasn’t an easy way out now— she just had to face her mother to let her know. She turned on her heel, working up the courage to face her mother with that new drastic look that she technically had a part to play in. 

“Hey, mom. I… got a haircut,” she started with the most obvious thing, giving a dumb smile to see if it could just easily wash away the topic.

“Clearly,” her mother said as her lithe figure slowly stepped up towards her daughter, her eyes filled with worry. “I mean, it looks good on you, but… did you mean for it to be this short?” 

Carla heaved in a deep breath, preparing to come clean. “I challenged Zoe Wong.” The words struck horror in her mother’s face as her mouth went agape. “And… well, clearly I lost,” she admitted through gritted teeth.

“Oh no, dear,” her mother immediately pulled her into an embrace, and Carla sank into it. Of all the people in her life, her mother was probably the most supportive of her pursuing to be an Enchanter-Duelist. She was always there for every single one of her official duels, regardless of how small or big they were. She used to think it was embarrassing, how her mom was her biggest cheerleader. But today it didn’t matter— she was just glad someone was there to understand. “She made you cut off all your hair when you lost?”

“It was either that, or leave the club,” Carla restated the terms.

“Oh, what a cruel condition,” her mother slowly retracted to look at her glassy-eyed daughter. “You are so brave, Carla. Even with such terrible terms you persevered to try. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

“Thanks, mom,” she sniffled as she regarded her mother— that warm smile always gracing her face. Carla couldn’t help but admire her mother’s hair now— how it was so long and beautifully wavy just like how hers was. It was all waviness that she’d inherited, and waviness that she wasn’t going to see on her own head for a few months at least. 

“There’s always next year. I’m sure you’ll get it,” her mother spurred her on with a gentle squeeze on the arm.

“Hopefully,” she could only say. “I think I wanna be alone in my room for a bit.”

“I understand,” her mom gave her a peck on the head, the chills from her scalp being so exposed reverberating through her. “Let me know if you need anything.”

*

Carla sank into her desk chair, letting out the raspiest groan. Every bit of catharsis helped, and she was going to need every bit to feel better about failing so hard. It only made it worse knowing she was close— just one false move separated her from victory. She gazed despondently at the tackboard she had made earlier in the year— an almost comprehensive chart of every potential contender she was to face in the tournament. Every entry was nicely fitted with a photo of the contender, followed by a sizeable list of their fighting styles, weapons of choice, and magic disciplines. 

All gone to waste now. 

She lifted up the tackboard, ready to just dump it all in the bin and forget it ever hap-

Ding

She halted, turning to look at her phone that lit up. She placed the tackboard back on her desk as she picked up the phone, a sharp ‘tsk’ escaping her lips when she recognised the name.

 

Zoe

Check your jacket pocket

 

What in the world was Zoe playing at now? Hadn’t she had enough of making her life miserable already? And now she wanted to keep rubbing the salt in somehow? Carla dragged her feet to her bed where she had left her jacket, grudgingly picking it up to check.

And then she felt it.

She pulled it out of the inner pocket, revealing an envelope with the official Hurza Alliance seal keeping the lid together. Her curiosity was piqued now— no one ever receives mail from a power so high up unless you were so important. What was Zoe up to? She carefully undid the seal, making sure she didn’t tear any part of the envelope. A part of her was afraid she was gonna have to reseal it if the message wasn’t for her. She gently slipped the letter out, unfolding it with as much care as she could muster.

 

“To whom it may concern,

You are cordially invited to the grand ball for this year’s Enchanter-Duelist Tournament given your role as ‘Sparring Partner’ for Clan Scilla.

We look forward to your presence, and wish you well for the upcoming tournament.

omni hominum generi fiat

 

Carla’s eyes blankly stared for the longest time. All the thoughts in her head were racing trying to piece it all together. Did Zoe just choose her as her Sparring Partner? Did Zoe just appoint Carla the second most prestigious role for the tournament— a position that usually follows through to represent the clan the next year? 

“Should last us the whole tournament,” Zoe’s words from the car rang back in her head. Us. Was she always planning to ask Carla the whole time, and had snuck in the invitation when she was getting her haircut?

Joy was filling Carla’s heart, relieved that maybe her efforts weren’t going to be put to waste, and that she still had a fighting chance to fulfill her dream. It was probably the best thing she could’ve asked for— a chance to represent her clan for two years straight. Perhaps this was what was meant for her all along, to have a stepping stone towards glory.

But she also realised the anger that was slowly building up in her. After all she had been through, she just couldn’t ignore the shit that Zoe made her go through that day. Was it all some fucked up rite of passage she wanted to make her go through to even be considered a sparring partner?

She needed answers.

 

Carla

What the hell is this supposed to be?

 

She didn’t care for much politeness now— she’d been pushed to the brink of her dignity for the day already. She paced around her room, waiting for a reply. But nothing ever came back. Impatient, she picked up the phone and viciously dialed the number. All she got was voicemail over and over, and she let out the most irritated noise after trying five times. 

She needed answers. And she was going to get them.

 

*

Thankfully for her, Zoe’s house wasn’t exactly far away— nothing an anger-driven brisk walk would consider ‘far’, at least. She remembered the times she had gone to her place whenever the club threw parties to celebrate wins. Zoe always organised them— mostly because she had the biggest house, being related to the clan’s leader and all.

When she reached the large oak door of the house, she tried to compose herself. She remembered that she had to save her frustration for Zoe and Zoe only— no one else had to see her go berserk. She resisted the temptation to slam the doorbell multiple times, and instead pressed it once as gently as she could. It only took a moment for her to hear the shuffling of footsteps behind the door, and it soon opened to reveal an older man who she remembered to be Zoe’s father. “Good evening, Mr Wong,” she made sure her pleasantries were intact.

“Hello,” he did a double take as he tried to register the woman in front of him. “Ah, Carla, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It’s nice to meet you, sir. I was wondering if Zoe was in?” She politely asked even though she knew the answer— Zoe’s car was parked right out in their outdoor garage, and Zoe never went anywhere without her car. “Just Enchanter-Duelist things to discuss with her, me being her sparring partner and all,” Carla was glad she could use that information to her advantage, even if it wasn’t something she was gracefully taking.

“Oh definitely, come in, come in. She’s just in the training room,” he welcomed as he opened the door wider to let Carla in. “Just down that hall, third door to the right,” he said as he gestured towards the way.

“Thank you, Mr Wong,” Carla gave her sincerest smile before she continued her relentless march towards the culprit of it all. 

The door to the training room was open, with its white light emanating from inside. Carla took one last deep breath, recalling the little script she had in her head for her upcoming tirade. Then she stomped in. Zoe was by the pull-up bar— of course she was by the pull-up bar. It seemed like Carla just had every opportunity today to see how absolutely toned her captain’s biceps were as she steadily rocked up and down the bar with absolute control. And by golly they were a sight to behold.

Carla slammed the training room door behind her.

“What the fuck is this?!” Carla started as she flashed the envelope to her captain, trying her goddamn best to not be distracted by those arms.

Zoe cocked her head to the side when she heard the violent entry. She heaved a sigh before carefully dropping, landing graciously on her feet as she turned to face her guest. “I thought it was quite clear— it’s your invitation to the ball this weekend. You’re my choice for sparring partner,” Zoe raised a brow, wondering if Carla genuinely was not getting something.

“Yeah, no shit! And thanks for actually taking the time to formally ask, by the way,” Carla barked back, the bitter sarcasm oozing. “Sure, just slip the invitation in Carla’s pocket, she’ll agree to come.”

“I don’t understand,” Zoe shook her head. “I thought you wanted to be a part of this? Sure you don’t get to be champion this year, but you’ll get a hell of a chance for next year, no? You still have another year, last I checked.”

“Well I don’t understand you ,” Carla moved in, now within an arm’s length of her captain. “You make five other contenders fucking quit the club, and me being the first sucker that actually agrees to your cruel little game, I somehow just get to be your sparring partner? What was this, some rite of humiliation you wanted someone to go through so you can parade them as your sparring partner?” 

Carla spared no expense. She couldn’t remember the last time she blew up— let alone to someone as high and mighty as Zoe Wong— but she couldn’t help it. Nothing about that day sat right with her, and she just had to unleash it. Her fists were balled up in a temper that was just a tick away from exploding into violence. Oh, she would’ve wanted to just pick up one of those swords by the rack and go back at it with Zoe. She had nothing to lose now, and she knew she could take her on.

“Wait, what? You think I chose you just because you chose to cut your hair?” Zoe’s face was incredulous, unsure if it was some odd attempt at a joke. 

Carla had had enough. Clearly, there was just no getting to Zoe about this, and she just didn’t want to have to put up with it anymore. “ I think,” Carla started, staring murderously right into her captain’s eyes, “I don’t want to play your stupid game anymore. You can find someone else to be your little puppet to play with.” She pressed the envelope into her captain’s hand, then immediately turned to leave the room. 

She stormed down the hallway, her hands still shaking from screaming at her captain. She was done being at the mercy of Zoe— done being a pawn in Ms Perfect’s little ploys and schemes when she was already given everything. As much as it pained her to have to walk away from the best opportunity she could get this year, she knew it was the right thing to do to spare what remained of her dignity. Zoe had the world at her fingertips, but Carla was going to deny her having everything she wanted.

“Hey, wait up!” She heard Zoe call out to her, but she didn’t stop. The only way forward was out of this house, and far away from her captain. 

“Carla!”

She faltered.

Was that the first time Zoe ever called her by her first name? For so long her captain was such a smug prick, calling everyone by their family names like it’s all some game of politics to her. No. She shouldn’t be stopping. She should be walking away. 

Carla felt Zoe tug at her hand, and she knew she’d lost to her instinct. She turned, facing her captain with the sourest face. 

“Carla…” Zoe called to her softly, slowly— almost like a plea. There was something about the way it rolled off her captain’s tongue that she felt almost compelled to stay— to listen. “You don’t think I ever pay attention to you when you duel? You think I don’t see the potential that you have as a duelist? Like I told you, you were literally the closest one to beating me. 

“I chose you because I know you have what it takes. I chose you because I know you’re always the last one leaving the grounds every training day, practising like your life depends on it. And don’t get me started on that board you made studying every single potential contender from each clan.”

Carla’s brows furrowed, wondering how she knew. “How did you-“

“Because I listen, Carla. Even if it’s you talking so excitedly to the others in the locker room, I hear it.” She could sense the hint of desperation in her captain’s voice, and her eyes almost seemed like they were pleading. “Because I know of all the duelists we have, you’re the one that puts your entire heart into this.”

“You’re trying to tell me that you would’ve chosen me, even if I didn’t challenge you?” Carla was finding it hard to believe, but she entertained the possibility. 

“Probably,” Zoe answered plainly. “But I know you, Carla. I knew you would’ve challenged me no matter what. Even if I set the most ridiculous terms, you just couldn’t resist.” Zoe reached up, gently placing a hand onto Carla’s head.

Carla wanted to pull away, to just let go of Zoe’s hand and not give her the chance to try anymore. She had done enough. Why did she still want to believe her? But Zoe’s soft touch on her scalp could only keep her rooted. Who knew someone who fought so powerfully could have such dainty hands. “You choosing to cut your hair only convinced me even more— that you still wanted to be a part of this, even if it isn’t going to be your year. You weren’t going to just take the shameful, easy way out and shut out the future. Deep down, you still wanted another chance. You have conviction, Carla, and that’s why I admire you,” Zoe complimented, her thumb slowly rubbing the spiky tufts on her comrade’s head. 

Carla gritted through her breaths, conflicted. It was a lot to take in from Zoe— words she knew could’ve helped if they were all said so much sooner. Why did Zoe wait all this time just to say it? Surely this shouldn’t have changed anything— it didn’t change how much Carla had to stoop that day, how she had to give up so much. Why did this have to be so hard to decide?

“Come,” Zoe eventually said, tugging a little at her comrade’s hand. “I want to show you something.”

**

Never in Carla’s life did she ever think she was going to see the prestigious Zoe Wong’s room, and no matter how much she imagined it it somehow seemed to be much better than it was in her head. It was as pretty as it could be, with its baby pink walls and crisp white bed sheets that seemed to be ironed neatly into place. There were a variety of different swords hung on the walls as decorations— she wondered if those were potentially her ‘conquests’, in some way. She had been dragged in rather limply the whole time, but Zoe was determined to have Carla see something. She reached for a photo frame that stood atop one of her shelves, then pressed it into her comrade’s hand.

It was a large family photo— probably one from a much more bygone era given its faded colours. There was something familiar about some of the faces, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on it. What truly stood out, however, was everyone’s hair. Not a single person had their hair past their ears. They were all in different styles, but all neatly cropped. It almost seemed cultish.

“Why are you showing me this?” Carla asked impatiently.

“This is the Dahlia family. You’ve probably heard stories of them— the most successful Scillan family in all of Enchanter-Duelist history. Any year they sent in a contender, they always won. They prided themselves on their sword skills. The thing is, they lived during a time when vampires and wolves weren’t all friendly. There was still a lot to look out for. Thus, the hair,” Zoe narrated. “It was a Dahlia tradition to keep their hair short— short enough that it would never become a distraction or nuisance in a fight, be it in tournament or to the death. Anyone can tell you they were unstoppable.”

“So what, you want to bring back some old tradition as your secret strategy to win the tournament?” Carla was still not understanding the point of it.

Zoe sighed, then pointed to a woman who was in the second row of the picture. Her hair was probably the shortest of the lot— cut so close to the scalp on the side that she could practically see skin, and left just a little longer on top. Just like how Carla and Zoe had it right now. “That’s Gwen Dahlia. My grandmother. Well, adoptive, if we’re being technical. She adopted and raised my dad and his sister.”

The realisation struck Carla like a train. “So… you’re a Dahlia?” 

“If we’re talking by blood, not exactly. By familial lines, yes. But grandma didn’t want to carry on the pressure the name carried, so she let my dad make his own choice on whether to keep his family name,” Zoe clarified.

“But you want to bring it back?” Carla was starting to get it now. She tried to say the name a few times in her head: ‘Zoe Dahlia’. It didn’t really ring as well as her ‘Wong’, and a small part of her silently wished she was still keeping her name.

“Not exactly,” Zoe denied, then sighed. “You and I both know Scilla has been terrible in the Tournament these past years. It’s embarrassing, to say the least. But now that I have the chance to bring back glory, I need to pull out all the stops. Even if it means bringing back old history.”

Zoe went over to the wall, deftly picking up one of the silver rapiers. “I never knew you were one for formality, and I’m sorry I wasn’t very forthcoming about this at the start.” Zoe turned to face Carla, who stood perplexed in the middle of her bedroom. The captain marched to her comrade, then took a knee. She lay the blade out flat across both her palms, following the formal custom to the letter. “I need someone who wants to win this as badly as I do. Someone who’s committed— and that’s you. I need you.”

Carla looked down, upon her captain’s face that had a determination she hadn’t seen before. This wasn’t the cocky, arrogant duelist she had fought and grown to know—  this was a resolve worthy of a captain and of a champion. “I, Zoe Wong, would like to ask you, Carla Flores, to be my sparring partner for Clan Scilla.”

**

“How do I look?” Carla gave a twirl, showing off the dark blue suit adorned with white and pink floral patterns, paired with a silk grey shirt that went with it underneath.

“Radiant,” her mother complimented, a soft smile on her lips watching her daughter get so excited. “Wait, I think I might have just the thing for you,” she suggested before going up to her room.

Carla stared at her reflection in the living room mirror, still getting used to the stark lack of her waves above. She tried to focus on her pretty suit, recalling when she shopped for it some time ago. It was an impulse buy more than anything, and she loved the way it felt on her skin. There was a small voice back in her head then— telling her this could’ve been an amazing outfit to wear to a ball, perhaps one where she was to represent her clan. 

Well, it did come true— though just not as exactly as how she imagined it to be.

“Here,” her mother eventually returned, approaching her from the back. She carefully reached up to her daughter’s ears, fixing the final bit of flair for Carla. “I thought they’d fit the occasion.” From Carla’s ears now dangled a pair of shiny silver earrings that were in the shape of dazzling swords. 

“Thanks, mom,” Carla reached out to touch them, realising how much they stood out now without her hair to distract from it. 

“Are you and Zoe coordinating outfits?” Her mother wondered.

Carla had to stop herself from wincing at the name, still in a bit of a shell shock from the past week. “Well, sort of. We’ve got to wear Scillan colours, so blue’s mandatory,” Carla replied. “She almost dragged me to her tailor to get a rush job done, but I dug my heels in. Besides, I needed an excuse to wear this for once. But yeah, other than the colour, I’ve no idea what she’s gonna wear.”

“Will she be picking you up?” Her mother was getting a little more invested now.

“She insisted,” Carla sighed, checking the time on her phone. “She should be here anytime soon.”

Carla noticed her mother’s eyes were glistening now, as if she’d been waiting for a night like this. “Does this mean I get to be like the gatekeeper by the door? Like a prom?” 

“You watch too many human shows, mom. It’s not a prom, it’s just a ball,” Carla tried to shut her down. “Besides, this really isn’t a date or anything. It’s just formality.”

“Oh Carla, please? Just humour me this one time? It always seems so fun when they do it in the movies,” her mother was pleading now with a pout on her face.

Ding dong

Both their heads turned to face the door instinctively, then turned back to face each other. Her mother was insistent, and Carla knew her mother would always get her way. Pleaaase, her mother mouthed silently.

Carla sighed. Then nodded defeatedly.

“Yes!” Her mother half-whispered in excitement, then quickly shooed her daughter to wait by the side— out of sight of their visitor. Her mother went straight for the door, straightening up her posture as she reached for the door handle.

“Good evening, Zoe,” her mother mustered her most formal tone.

“Good evening, Madam Flores— esteemed Guardian of our Vault of Archives,” Zoe returned the formalities.

Carla held back a scoff. Zoe wouldn’t have known that last bit of information if it wasn’t for Carla. 

“How may I help you this evening?” Her mother played the dumb card, clearly trying to make Zoe work for it. A small part of Carla was maybe glad Zoe was going to have to show a little more effort.

“Madam Flores, I would like to escort your daughter— who will be my sparring partner for the tournament— to the Duelist Ball tonight, and to spend the night of merriment with her,” Zoe confidently requested. “With your permission, of course,” she hastily added at the end, a hint of hesitation.

Her mother stood by the door for a moment, seemingly scanning her guest for a moment. Then turned to her daughter. “Carla?” She smiled as she summoned her. Carla took a deep breath, preparing herself for a night of having to be at the side of her captain. She ambled forward towards the door, joining her mother by the entrance. 

Carla went breathless when she saw her captain— nothing in the world could’ve prepared her for how awestruck she was going to be. Zoe had a stunning dark blue cheongsam dress on, and of course it was sleeveless— why wouldn’t Zoe take the opportunity to flash her biceps? With a dashing touch of sparkly eyeshadow and eyeliner, Zoe’s features just seem to pop out, especially without her hair being a distraction now. 

“Carla,” Zoe greeted a little weakly, then gave a curtsy. She gently reached out for her comrade’s hand, planting the softest kiss on her knuckle. “You look great.”

“Thank you,” Carla was still a little dazed. “You clean up well yourself.”

“You’re too kind,” the smug smile Carla was familiar with returned to Zoe’s face. “Shall we?” She gestured to her car with her head. 

“You two kids have fun,” Carla’s mother said as they walked over towards the car, a warm feeling bubbling in her heart watching them so excitedly leave for the ball.

**

“Are you scared, Flores?” Zoe asked the too familiar question as they stopped before the ballroom door. It didn’t take long for Zoe to go back to her usual naming convention of regarding her by her family name, but a small part of Carla indulged in the familiarity of it. Hearing Zoe call her first name so suddenly that fateful day was a little disorienting, to say the least.

“A little,” she was honest this time, spending almost every moment trying to smoothen out or fix a part of her outfit that seemed the littlest bit out of place. 

“Don’t worry, I’ve been to plenty of these hoity-toity balls. They all get really boring really fast. It’s just all just pompous pricks flaunting, really. Surely, you’ve-” Zoe froze, the realisation setting in. She turned to her sparring partner, the look of nervousness on her face only growing. “This is your first ball, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Carla softly admitted, lowering her gaze. It was practically her first time being able to play the high life in witch society— her first chance to ‘flaunt’ at a fancy event, to perhaps make a name for herself and her family. She had to look just right for everyone— the last thing she needed was to embarrass herself in front of the important, prying eyes of the Witch Alliance during her one and only chance to prove herself.  

“It’s gonna be okay,” Zoe reassured. Carla turned to her captain, greeted with that odd kindness she had seen before. This side of Zoe was still so foreign to her, but at this point she was taking whatever she could. Zoe raised her elbow invitingly. “Stick close. Some nasty characters here tonight.” 

Carla wrapped a hand cautiously around Zoe’s arm, biting down her lip as she felt her captain’s biceps. It was everything she imagined it to me— so well-defined and firm to the touch. She didn’t know if she could last the whole night without going mental, having to walk hand-in-hand with her captain. She felt a little small— but protected. Together they ambled into the venue, proudly entering as representatives of Clan Scilla.

The golden chandelier above illuminated the ballroom, which was already alive in festivities and chatter. A string ensemble filled the room with their glorious melodies, lifting the already bright mood that the air seemed to carry. The common areas where people mingled were on the outer circumference of the ballroom, and there was a small set of stairs near the inner circumference that led to the dancefloor, which was on a slightly lower level. It was clearly the centrepiece of the ballroom, with the regal crest of the Hurza Alliance emblazoned on the floor. It was empty now, but Carla knew there was a point in the night when she would have to be there, with Zoe. What’s a Tournament Ball without a round of dancing for its competitors? 

“It’s cute when you try to twirl your hair,” Zoe casually remarked. Carla’s cheeks coloured as she embarrassingly lowered her hand, realising how dumb she must’ve looked. Cute. That was… a new adjective. “Especially before you duel. It’s like a thing you do when you’re nervous, right?” Zoe continued, sounding as smart as ever. 

“Well, it was. Can’t do it now,” Carla simply replied.

“Alright, game plan: we need to socialise. It’s more than important to always be seen talking, and not huddled in a corner like a hermit. Gives a bad image in this setting. The key is to find ‘easy’ people to talk to— people that you’re probably going to have simple, vapid conversation with that can pass the time. Sounds good?” Zoe gave her little briefing to her comrade.

“So just keep talking, and find easy-going people. Got it,” Carla rehashed the instructions. “So who’s easy? By your standards at least.”

“Someone familiar. Maybe a family member or something…” Zoe trailed off as her eyes searched the crowed. 

“What about your vigorously waving aunt? Is she familiar enough?” Carla pointed out to one of the standing tables, where a regally-dressed woman stood along with two other suited individuals. 

“Wait, what?” Zoe pivoted to see, then let out a not so visible sigh. “Fuck,” her smiling face belied the profanity that escaped her lips. 

“Are we just going to stand here awkwardly while she beckons us to her?” Carla joined the smiling charade, still rooted and unsure. 

“Does it look like we have a choice?” Zoe’s face was starting to hurt from forcing the emotion. “Just follow my lead. Don’t talk unless she speaks to you.” 

Together they marched towards the table, with Carla’s arms still clasped to her captain’s rock-solid arms. Of all the important faces present that night, the thought of her meeting her clan leader was practically the most nerve-wracking. This was a figure that practically had jurisdiction over her, in a sense.

“Aunt Judith,” Zoe greeted the benevolently dressed woman in the most polite way she could.

“My champion, Zoe! Oh, it’s just delightful to see you,” Judith half-exclaimed, raising her glass. She turned to the other two by her table. “We’ll have to continue this matter some other time, you two. I must tend to our champions for the evening,” she said, dismissing them. They gracefully bowed, then scurried along to bother themselves with the rest of the night’s festivities. “And you— are you who I think you are?” Judith turned to Carla now, a look of suspicious curiosity on her face.

“Aunt Judith, this is Carla Flores. My sparring partner for the tournament. Carla, this is my aunt Judith, though I’m sure you already know that,” Zoe made the introductions.

“It’s an honour to meet you, my lady,” Carla shook her coven leader’s hand, feeling so tiny in the midst of such power and authority in front of her.

“The honour’s all mine, really. I get to meet the famed Carla Flores,” Judith said— much to Carla’s confusion. Last she checked she was literally only appointed sparring partner a couple days ago. Surely word didn’t spread so fast that she was something so big all of a sudden? “Oh dear, you’re at the ball and you don’t have a drink in your hand yet? That certainly won’t do! Zoe, dear, you haven’t fetched a drink for your date yet? Have I not taught you well in the way of decorum?” She chided, a look of offence on her face. 

“We literally just arr-”

“Go go, get her a drink already! Lest her throat runs parched and she can’t dance well later!” She shooed her niece away with a hand, and Zoe resignedly unclasped from her comrade. She gave a look of warning to her before she left, as if telling her “be careful”. 

“Now now, Carla— oh, I’ve heard so much about you. When I asked Zoe after the nomination about who she might want as her sparring partner you seemed to be the cherry of the topic,” Judith explained, her tone as cheerful as ever. 

“Did she, now?” Carla tried to keep her surprise as mild as she could, despite this all being news to her. 

“She simply couldn’t shut up about you— talking about how well you fought and how you determined you always were. If I didn’t know any better I would’ve thought she was crushing on you, dear!” Judith recounted.

“That would certainly be news,” Carla simply replied, keeping her most formal tone amidst the wild ‘revelations’ that she didn’t even know were to be believed. 

“Here you go, Carla,” she was snapped back as she heard Zoe creep up on the two, handing a glass to her comrade. “I hope my aunt hasn’t terrorised you too much while I was gone?” 

“Oh, vilifying me already! You’re as cruel as ever, dear niece,” Judith seemed delighted to be partaking in such lunges of words. “Though I must say you two look absolutely divine tonight. Oh, and don’t get me started with the matching haircuts! There’s just something about it that makes you two sparkle, doesn’t it? Reminds me of your grandmother, more than anything. Alas, I never did have the face to pull off something so bold, unlike the two of you,” she complimented, and Carla realised that perhaps it was her coven leader that didn’t know how to shut up. “I assume it was Zoe’s idea to make you chop it all off? She’s a devious little vixen, isn’t she? Oh, I could only imagine how beautiful your hair must’ve been,” she seemed to lunge back to provoke.

Zoe was about to speak up, but Carla beat her to it— much to her surprise. “It was my idea, actually,” Carla cut in, and she supposed it wasn’t really much of a lie. It was her idea to go through with the challenge despite the harsh terms, and it was her choice to go through with the haircut rather than leave. Most of all, it was her idea to have it that brutally short, even when the chance at mercy was presented to her. “Needed something more practical to duel with, and Zoe wanted to tag along.” This part she definitely was making things up, though she wasn’t quite sure what took over her. “Parted ways with my long, wavy tresses just so I could focus on the tournament. Wanted to make sure Zoe had the best sparring partner there could be.” 

Zoe’s eyes widened hearing Carla spin the tale in an odd web that somehow favoured them all, rather than end up painting her as the villain— which she knew she still was, to some degree. “She seemed so determined, so I got inspired. Besides, it’ll grow back,” Zoe added on with a shrug, playing along. “I only get to be champion once in my life— best to pull out all the stops.”

“My my, such dedication. I can safely say this is the most confident I’ve felt about Scilla’s chance to win it all ever since I took up the mantle as head of the clan. Oh, I fear every other clan might just be wasting their time trying to compete now,” Judith placed a hand to her heart as dramatically as she could. “A toast then,” she raised her glass forward, “to the future champions of this year’s Tournament.” 

The two competitors clinked their glasses with Judith’s, then each took a swig. It was sparkling, and tasted almost fruity to Carla. Hell if she’d known what kind of pompous concoction it must’ve been. “Now, I must attend to some important characters from the other clans. Can’t be a stranger to them in my own ballroom, of course. You two lovelies enjoy the Ball— and I simply cannot wait to see you two on the dancefloor later.” 

With a light wave of a hand she departed, and the two waited till she was safely out of sight before they could drop the pretense. Carla huffed, finally being able to relax after such posturing. “Well, your aunt is… a character,” she tried to be as polite as possible commenting on her own clan leader. 

“She’s more than a handful,” Zoe bluntly remarked, then turned to her comrade. “By the way… you didn’t have to defend me there, y’know,” Zoe gave a confused look. “But… thanks.”

“It’s no biggie,” Carla shook it off as she took a sip from her glass, realising the drink was growing on her. “Besides, isn’t that what these parties are all about? Just spinning the yarn till the cows come home? I think I might be a natural at this.” 

“Then remind me to invite you to more of these awful parties I have to attend.” 

“Oh my, Zoe Wong, if I didn’t know any better it sounds like you’re asking me out” Carla tried to prod at her captain, eager to test the little theory she’d gotten from Judith. She could’ve sworn she saw her captain’s cheek colour, which Zoe quickly tried to hide with a huge swig from her glass. 

“I mean, you don’t have to come along if you don’t want to,” Zoe tried to act nonchalant about it.

“Relax, I’m joking.” Or was she? “Hey look, isn’t that one of the Council members? Should be an easy conversation, no?” Carla shifted the focus away. “Shall we?” It was her turn to invite with a raised arm.

“After you,” Zoe accepted, glad the attention was at least not on her now.

The two spent the next hour mingling, walking hand-in-hand as they traversed the intricately haughty webs of high society. They took turns initiating the conversations, and Zoe was rather impressed at Carla’s penchant for stirring up quite the tales— even if some of them did involve belittling her own captain. Maybe she really was a natural at this. For the first time in a while, Zoe was actually enjoying one of these masquerades. 

Before long the palace bell tolled, marking the start of the most thrilling part of the night. “Dear guests! We are honoured to gather here tonight in celebration of the upcoming Enchanter-Duelist Tournament,” the two heard the familiar voice call out from the podium at the head of the room. “Once more, our clans shall collide in glorious battle to decide who shall prevail and be this year’s Grand Champions,” Judith continued, holding the rapt attention of the crowd that had gone silent. “And now, without further ado, I would like to invite the representatives and their sparring partners to the dancefloor— to enthrall and charm us with their grace and poise,” she called out. 

There were murmurs and shuffles in the crowd as representatives started coming forward, readying themselves for the ensuing show. This was it. This was Carla’s chance to truly show what she was made of— to at least let the onlookers of society know her before she potentially made her proper debut the next year. It was always about leaving a lasting impression, and now she had to take the advantage.

“Zoe,” she started, mustering the courage as she looked her captain in the eyes, “may I have this dance?” 

Zoe saw the outstretched hand from her sparring partner, and she knew exactly what it meant. This wasn’t just an invitiation to dance— this was Carla assuming control. The one that asks is always given the rite to lead, to be the anchor of the dance. It was a foreign feeling, considering she was always the one in control.

Zoe beamed.

“It would be my honour, Carla,” she accepted, taking her comrade’s hand as they sauntered onto the dancefloor.

With six clans and three separate age categories, there were a total of thirty-six dancers— a large number, but never an issue for the humongous dancefloor that the ballroom had. But with many pairs came many distractions. It was now a game of catching the eyes of the crowd— to be the pair that stood out amongst the throngs of competitors. The centre was saved for the previous year’s champions— which Clan Lyth somehow managed to scoop all three of. Zoe and Carla managed to snag a position just off-centre— not too far to the side that their attention would be relegated.

The two witches took their position, clasping one of their hands together while Carla placed the other on the small of her captain’s back, and Zoe’s on her partner’s shoulder. This was new to her— playing the role of the ‘follower’ in the dance. She’d practised it before a few times before , but never really did have the chance to try it in a proper dance.

“You know what you’re doing, right?” She suddenly broached the question, furrowing her brows slightly as she remembered this was literally Carla’s first hall.

“Relax, I know what I’m doing,” Carla reassured, giving her captain her idea of a smug wink. Zoe bit down her tongue, unsure what that feeling that lit up in her was just seeing her comrade take charge like that. 

“Okay. I trust you,” Zoe whispered just loud enough, and she knew she did. 

The string ensemble took their positions and began— a slow, harmonic melody to start off the dance as the competitors began their swaying on the dance floor. Carla kept up with the rhythm, doing her best to be the reliable anchor for her captain as Zoe followed in sync. The captain had to admit— for a perhaps first-time ballroom dance, Carla was doing well. A little bit stiff at times, but she couldn’t blame her. 

The truth is, she’d been practising. It may have been such a naive thing to do before she even landed the role as representative for her clan, but there was a time when she was so sure of herself she wanted to make sure she was prepared for the responsibility. Carla remembered the nights when her mother had moved aside the furniture in the living room, giving them just enough space as they spun around awkwardly while Carla was still learning everything there was to this important tradition. She was just glad those weren’t wasted hours. And if luck somehow shone on her, maybe she might just take up that offer to attend more balls with Zoe, and perhaps have more opportunities to dance. Maybe with Zoe too. There was something about the thought of it that was comforting.

The music began to shift— picking up its pace as Carla readied herself for the electrifying part of the dance. She gave her partner her best look of determination, and Zoe returned with one as well. They were ready. 

In a heartbeat, the entire dancefloor exploded in a flurry as the ensemble began the dramatic sequence of the tournament symphony. Carla followed it beat for beat, still the solid anchor that Zoe could hang onto as she swayed so gracefully. It was vigorous, but the two flowed with ease— like they were born to dance. 

In that moment they were one— a fierce pair leaving their mark in that dazzling ballroom amidst the dozens. As focused as they were, they couldn’t but smile at each other as they moved. Carla couldn’t help but laugh a little, realising this had been the most fun she was having in so long— along with seeing how much fun her captain seemed to be having.

Carla was in awe. She didn’t think her first ever dance in a ball could be going so well, but Zoe just seemed like the most perfect other half that night. They moved like they’d been dancing together since forever. Synchronising with someone so perfectly was intoxicating. Whatever worries she had just seemed to melt away as Zoe was in her arms, swaying with her. With every twirl their smiles grew bigger, and that feeling in Carla’s chest just grew warmer. What was it: the night? The dance? Or her?

The big finish was nigh, and so they spun, and they twirled. Then with all her strength, Carla bent forward and held her captain’s body as Zoe dove backwards— complete faith in her partner as her head sunk backwards towards the floor. The coda came to a close, and in that moment it was the captain and her comrade locked in a final stare down, their faces mere millimetres from each other. Everything about this night just felt more right to Carla, and maybe she knew why. 

Before she could even make her move, the crowd erupted into a thunderous applause. The two instinctively got back upright, then gave their bows to each corner of the ballroom, still hand-in-hand. Maybe this was good— maybe Carla needed that applause to stop her from doing something she was about to regret. She turned to her partner, who seemed to be none the wiser about what may have transpired. 

“You’re a great dance partner,” Carla complimented as they started walking back up to the main area of the ballroom.

“And you’re a fucking natural, holy shit,” Zoe seemed to be genuinely surprised. “Where’d you learn to dance like that?”

“Sort of self-taught. You can thank my mom for helping practise with me,” Carla tooted her horn a little.

“I might be thanking her for much more than that. It was Zoe’s turn to wink as she got herself another glass, slowly taking a few sips as she kept her gaze to her sparring partner.

Carla could feel cheeks flushing, and that feeling started to return. It was stronger than ever— now with the two of them so alone together. It was getting hard to breathe.

“I’m… going to the bathroom. Won’t be long,” she excused herself, then skittered along while her captain could only look on perplexed.

**

The bathrooms were about as grand as they come, with its gargantuan size making Carla feel as small as ever in such a simple space. She was surprised there wasn’t anyone else in there with her— maybe there were just too many bathrooms in the palace that everyone could have one.

Carla was staring at herself in the mirror, trying to calm that feeling in her chest as her hands were planted on the cold marble sink top. Deep breath after deep breath she felt herself stabilising, but she couldn’t ignore what the feeling might’ve meant. 

Zoe was the captain. Zoe was the champion. Zoe was… a friend? This past week with her had been tenuous at best, but tonight was different for once. No screaming, no sly bets, no going at each other’s throats. It was them getting along for once, and Carla hated to admit that she liked it. For so long she was so hellbent on breaking Zoe— to make her pay for every ounce of pride she flaunted, and to expose her for the cruel, pompous prick she always was.

But tonight it was a different Zoe— a Zoe that had seemed to peel away the facade for once. They danced like never before on the ballroom floor, and in the heat of that moment it was as if Carla could feel the true Zoe. The real, genuine Zoe. Royalty or no, she was just a witch. They both wanted the same thing— to win the tournament for their clan and to prove themselves.

She snapped out of her reverie as she heard the bathroom door creak open, and Carla quickly turned on the tap to wash her hands. Can’t have someone finding out she was in a personal crisis in the middle of a ball. She kept her head down, but from the corner of her eye she caught the reflection of two gorgeously- dressed witches walking in with its familiar dark red colours. Kamere.

“Hey, wait a minute, you’re that Scillan girl,” the taller of the two stopped in her tracks, turning to regard Carla. “Zoe found someone willing to humiliate herself with at the Tournament this year?”

Carla bit her lip, holding down the annoyance that bubbled as the witch took a jab at her. Bathroom or not, this was still a masquerade she had to play. The last thing she needed was to embarrass herself in front of a competitor. 

“As far as I’m aware, it’s Zoe that’ll be doing the humiliating this year. But don’t worry, you’ll have four other champions to weep with as she claims the trophy,” Carla gave a mild attack back as she turned off the tap, pulling out a paper towel to pat her hands dry.

“Ah, a talker— coming from some nobody in Clan Scilla, no doubt,” the witch was suddenly right beside Carla, leaning against the sink counter with an arrogant look on her face. But this wasn’t like Zoe’s comfortable smugness— this was clear aggression on the woman’s face. The other witch that accompanied her trailed just beside her, standing a little awkwardly like some sidekick with no lines. “Cute haircuts, by the way. It’s almost like you two formed your little cult of losers already,” she took another stab with a cruel smirk playing on her lips. 

Carla scanned the faces of the witches, searching her brain as she tried to identify them. Penelope Richer— that was the quiet one. Decent skill, has an older brother that competed before, but he fell short in the semis. 

Madhuri Gupta— that was the arrogant one talking. Probably the biggest threat at the tournament this year. Her father had a seat at the Council which easily helped her seize the nomination for Clan Kamere, but her skill wasn’t to be scoffed at either. But by all accounts, she knew Zoe’s skill still outmatched hers. 

“Aw, jealous you can’t pull it off?” Carla was facing them directly now. “It’s okay, the long curls suit you. They’ll be your crowning glory after you’ve lost to Zoe— oh, so help me, please draw Zoe in the bracket stage, if you even make it there. She’ll make you regret ever keeping your hair long while fighting,” Carla provoked, matching the smirk Madhuri had. 

“Is that what’s gonna happen now?” Madhuri straightened herself now, seemingly perturbed as she tried to tower over the Scillan. As far as Carla was aware, she was clearly winning this tussle. Imagine ever having to use your physique to contend in a masquerade. “Y’know, I’ve been curious— how weird does hair that short feel?” Madhuri started edging closer now, her sparring partner following along to almost corner Carla. “It must be the oddest feeling, having something so embarrassingly short.” Madhuri’s hand reached out, and Carla could only back up so much as the other woman’s grabby fingers got so close. 

Then a hand appeared out of the blue, catching Madhuri’s arm just as it almost reached Carla’s scalp.

“Don’t you fucking touch her.” Carla heard the familiar voice as Zoe threw Madhuri’s arm aside, slotting herself in to stand between the two. 

“Ah, the famed Zoe decides to show herself,” Madhuri stepped back, rubbing her thrown arm with her other palm. “I hear your aunt has been having some trouble with the Council, no? Quite a shame that her first term already seems so… tenuous.”

“Well if some of the Council members knew how to do their job, maybe she wouldn’t have to pick up the weight of desk sitters like your father who only know how to sit at a table and be pretty.” Carla hadn’t seen Zoe be this curt before— but she liked it. 

Madhuri made a face— one that had its pinch of defeat and annoyance on it. “Come, Penelope. It seems this bathroom is already occupied by the losers, and we wouldn’t want to be influenced, do we?” Penelope nervously followed as Madhuri led the way out, slamming the bathroom door for good measure as they left earshot.

“Are you okay? Did she touch you?” Zoe faced her sparring partner now, a furious look of concern across her face. “She did, didn’t she? God, I’m gonna fucking rip her apart when I duel her— she’s gonna wish she never laid a finger on yo-”

“Zoe, relax,” Carla placed a hand on her captain’s arm to calm her. “I’m okay. She didn’t touch me. Well, she tried to when we both realised she wasn’t very good at insulting at me, and then you swooped in,” she looked up at her captain who was still tense from the encounter, “like a knight in shining armour.”

Her face immediately loosened up, and her guard dropped as the colour flooded her face. Carla found themselves stuck in that moment again— that familiar predicament of just being a little too close to her captain, where she could see every discrete detail on her face. Zoe was beautiful— that much Carla knew she couldn’t deny. There was much to behold about her captain, and heart didn’t know what to do.

“I told you these parties start to suck really quickly. Can’t even go to the bathroom in peace without something trying to stab you,” Zoe snapped Carla out of her reverie. “Y’know what… why don’t we go someplace quiet?” Zoe invited with a bright look in her eyes. “I mean, the dance is over. There’s nothing else we really have to be here for anymore. No one’ll really give a shit if we’re not seen at this point, and I know a nice little spot in the palace.”

Carla was starting to get weary from the night— maybe this was the best thing to do next. Playing high society for one night had been thrilling, but it had to come to an end eventually. And Zoe seemed to be providing the way out of the night. “Sure,” she accepted, taking her captain’s hand as they left. 

**

The stars were in a full shine that night, enamouring the dark blue sky as the two girls watched from the balcony of the clocktower. “Before my aunt was coven leader she served on the Council for quite a while. She used to show me around the secret little places she discovered. This one was always my favourite,” Zoe narrated when they had reached. There was a special set of stairways they had taken to get to the clocktower— one that had to be unlocked with a special glyph pattern that Zoe seemed to have mémorised like it was the back of her hand. 

Below them was their town— with its lamps adorning the lively streets and alleyways. Little figures of people bustled about, going about their busy night as the town was still alive even during dusk. It was the most breathtaking sight she’d ever seen of her home.

“Do you bring all your dates up here?” Carla teased, still trying to poke fun from her captain after hearing Judith’s claims.

“Nah,” Zoe confessed. “I usually just ditch them and come sit here on my own. It’s quiet and peaceful.”

“So… I’m special?” Carla was connecting the dots.

“Well, uh,” Zoe stammered. “I don’t know, I just thought you might want some peace and quiet too. Besides, it’s your first ball. You might not get many other chances, so better make your first worth it,” Zoe tried to push out, giving a nervous smile.

Carla studied her captain’s face, sensing nothing but kindness from her. This truly wasn’t the Zoe she was familiar with. But she didn’t mind getting used to it. “I appreciate it, Zoe. This place is lovely.”

And so the two sat by the balcony’s railings, taking in the gentle night breeze as the stars glimmered overhead. Not a word was spoken between them— in that moment they simply existed, cherishing every moment of peace that dusk could give.

“Did you mean it?” Carla broke the silence eventually.

“Hm?” Zoe turned. “Mean what?”

“At the barber. When you said you liked my hair wavy,” Carla faced her captain, wanting to know. “Did you mean it?”

Zoe took a moment to understand, then chuckled. “I did. I always thought it framed your face really well,” Zoe admitted, a soft smile playing on her lips. “But it’s too bad someone decided it was better to just cut it right off and have it just like mine,” she teased as she gave Carla a cheeky head rub. 

Carla laughed, leaning her head back a little as she felt herself surrendering to her captain’s touch. “Oh, that feels so good,” she ended up saying a little too loudly.

“You like that, do you?” Zoe seemed to be perking up. All Carla could do was reply with an ‘mhm’. Zoe got on her knees, repositioning herself. Carla watched as her captain inched closer, her hands moving closer to her scalp. 

Carla sucked in a gasp as she felt those warm hands beginning to caress her head. Never in her life did she ever think a head rub from her captain was going to be the best feeling in the world— sometimes fate really surprised Carla. It’s like she was just good at it— knowing just the right spots that hit so perfectly as she scratched occasionally. “You’re like an expert at this,” Carla whispered, watching her captain that seemed to be enjoying it.

“What can I say— I give people what they want,” that smugness was back. And for once, Carla found it… charming. Everything just seemed to be aligning now— to Carla it just seemed like a matter of ‘when’ instead of ‘if’. She couldn’t control what she felt, and maybe it was time to finally give in.

She closed her eyes, then leant in.

Zoe was startled at first, caught completely off-guard as their lips first met so scarcely. Carla waited a moment, knowing she could reverse this. She could move away now— pretend it was all just a mistake. Then Zoe dove in. 

Zoe tasted like mint— the freshest kind that always perked you up no matter what. Carla was more than alive as their tongues danced, the realisation hitting. She was kissing fucking Zoe Wong. Her captain. Her champion. Her obsession. 

Zoe was no amateur to this— Carla could tell she’d had her fair share. Maybe Carla was just going to be another to Zoe, but she didn’t care. In that moment they were one, and nothing could change how she felt melting into her captain. 

Carla soon gently pulled away, frozen in time as she started longingly into her captain’s eyes. They were soft and pretty, gazing with a certain desire that she’d never seen on Zoe’s face before. “Was that too sudden?” Carla asked, throwing in a cautious look.

“Nah. If anything, I was just wondering when the fuck you were gonna kiss me tonight— you’ve been staring a lot,” Zoe observed, booping her sparring partner on the nose.

“As if you haven’t been either!” Carla retorted.

Before she could even continue, it was Zoe’s turn to dive head-first. Carla grabbed onto her captain’s arms, hanging onto those polished guns for dear life as Zoe made her mark. The feeling was simply electrifying— nothing could come close to being in Zoe’s arms as they kissed. God, what would her mother say if she found out tonight had actually been a date?

“Why don’t,” Zoe whispered as she pulled away for a moment, much to Carla’s dismay, “we go someplace else? Someplace much quieter.”

Carla’s insides were bursting in joy as she attempted to temper her excitement. “Lead the way, captain.”

**

“Wow,” Zoe whispered as her body crashed back onto the pillow, still shuddering. 

“Aw, don’t tell me you’re done already?” Carla cocked up her head, licking the juice off of her lips. “I thought the mighty Zoe Wong would’ve lasted a lot longer.” 

Oh, no no, I still can!” Zoe perked up, grabbing onto Carla’s bare arms in desperation. “Don’t stop.” 

Carla giggled, savouring the sight of her captain beneath her. “You’re so cute when you beg,” she teased, planting a little kiss on Zoe’s exposed thigh. She didn’t think it was that easy to take control of her captain in bed— but gosh did it feel so good seeing Zoe submit to her. “What’s the magic word?” She continued, tracing her fingers along her prey’s deliciously toned midriff.

Please, Carla,” she whispered, her eyes now pleading. From the moment Carla had crawled into bed with her, she could sense the shift in her— how this vigour just erupted within her as she took charge almost immediately. But she didn’t say anything. She simply let her. It was definitely a good change of pace from all the times she had to be the one directing things— this seemed to a common theme that night.

“As you wish, captain.” Carla went down on her, once more exploring with her devilish tongue as Zoe convulsed, digging her nails into her comrade’s skin. At least there was an arena she knew she could dominate Zoe in.

“Carla…” Zoe moaned, her eyes completely shut as she surrendered to the whims of the other woman. She shivered again as she felt it coming once more— the hot flash running through her system as Carla just seemed to just flick her on like a switch. 

Neither of them certainly expected things to escalate this fast— but the moment their clothes lay crumpled on Zoe’s bedroom floor, nothing could stop them. 

“Fuck, Carla,” she could only exclaim, still in shock over how much of a devil her sparring partner could be under the sheets. “How are you… so…” 

“Good?” Carla cheekily finished, swiping a finger across her damp lips. “Just cos you know me in the arena doesn’t mean you know everything about me,” she said as she crept forward, her body now directly above her captain’s chest. She playfully rubbed the finger across Zoe’s lips, slowly sliding it in to let her captain taste herself. 

“Mm,” Zoe muffled, licking her comrade’s delicate finger. 

“You may be the better one with a sword. But in here,” Carla sternly grabbed onto Zoe’s chin, forcing her to look up at her predator, “I fucking own you.” Carla leant in, meeting Zoe’s delectable lips so furiously as she started into those gorgeous eyes. “Do you understand?” She whispered between kisses.

Zoe sunk into her partner’s power, realising how much she was enjoying this. Authority looked good on Carla— she had to admit. “Yes, ma’am,” Zoe relented, the smile on her lips only growing. 

“Good girl,” Carla said as she pulled her leg up. Zoe gasped as she felt it— the knee rubbing against the wet folds between her legs. She reached out to grip onto Carla— but was stopped when she felt wrists being grabbed mid-air. “The arms of a goddess,” Carla mused, shifting her head as she ran her tongue across those chiseled biceps that she’d been eyeing since forever. She whispered an incantation, and suddenly Zoe felt her wrists being chained together— an invisible force holding them in place. “Now, they’re mine.”

Never in her life did she expect to be atop Ms Perfect— to be the one taking charge of Zoe fucking Wong. To say she never dreamed of this would be lying, and somehow she could see it in Zoe’s eyes too— how secretly, she had been wanting this all this time. Now, her royal smugness belonged to Carla— and she had a way of making sure what was hers bent to her will.

Because in that bed, Carla was the queen— and she ruled with a velvet tongue.

 

 

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