Return to The Game of Love Chapter Seventy-Six

The Game of Love

Author: Shai
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Unfortunately neither Tara nor Willow are mine. Neither's anyone else in this fic for that matter!

Tara pulled the keys out of the ignition, picked up her gym bag from the passenger seat, and gingerly stepped down from the driver's seat of her jeep. She hated her fear of small heights, but figured it was only normal given the fact that she'd managed to sprain her ankle at least half a dozen times doing dangerous things like walking down the stairs.

The blonde made her way up to the stadium's double doors, and was surprised to see Emily and Faith already standing there 5 minutes early, obviously waiting for their friends to arrive. "Hey guys" she smiled, making her way up to them. She received hugs and "hey's" from both the girls and the three of them quickly started an excited conversation about the upcoming National's camp. A couple of minutes later they were joined by Anya and Cordelia, who came together from uni, and all five women walked through the double doors towards the indoor handball court.

The five women reached the court, and saw Coach Giles standing in the middle of the court, talking to some of the guys from various universities across Sunnydale. Tara spotted Zak and two of his friends amongst the group, and realized that they were probably amongst the 25 boys from across California who had been short listed for the men's squad. Without having to even discuss it, the girls made their way as one towards Coach Giles, and also spotted two other girls in shorts, who had so far been hidden from view by the taller guys.

"Anyone know who they are?" Anya asked, and without breaking their stride, the others responded with "nope's". Coach Giles looked up when the girl's almost reached the group around him, and smiled in recognition, "Hello girls". Zak also came around to hug the five women he knew so well, and then looked back at the coach "Alright Coach...we'll get changed". Coach Giles nodded, and the boys who were still in their day clothes went to change, while the one's already wearing shorts moved away, leaving the coach to talk to the girls. Tara watched the boys walk towards the changing rooms, and smiled at how easily Zak took the position of leader. In her mind, Tara knew that Zak was the most accomplished of the group, with two National's camps and one call up under his belt, so she had no doubt that he deserved the respect the other men so obviously gave him.

Turning her attention back to Coach Giles, she saw him motioning the two strangers towards them, "Girls, this is Anne", he indicated towards the girl whose stand out feature was short blonde hair with a bright pink streak running through a chunk of strands on one side, "and this is Reese", he motioned to the African-American girl with the body of an athlete. "They're only 16, but have performed well enough at the school level tournaments to receive a well-deserved call-up to the camp." Coach Giles smiled kindly at the two youngsters, and said "These are Tara, Faith, Cordelia, Emily and Anya", and each girl smiled or gave a short wave to the newbies as their names were said. Anne and Reese's faces had registered some form of recognition at some of the names, which hadn't been missed by Coach Giles. Looking at the older women, he said "I trust you will all take these two under your wings, seeing as you have all been to this stage before". His tone was kind but left no room for argument, and he received five nods. The coach nodded his own head in return, then looked at the chunky black sports watch on his left wrist "Right, so it's 11:10. You girls want to change and be back in 5 minutes to start with your warm up?" The five older women nodded and walked to the changing rooms, as Coach Giles and the already kitted up Anne and Reese walked over to the bags with the handballs in them.

They were back out in under 5 minutes, and saw that Coach Giles had already got the boys warming up on one side of the court. Tara put her gym bag down on one of the player benches, and then sat down herself to wrap her right ankle in her trusty crepe bandage. She was just pinning it up in place when Coach Giles walked over to her, and said "You're to go easy on your foot, alright? If I see as much as a half attempt at taking a 9, I'll have you off there in a second."

"But Coach..." Tara began to argue, but was silenced when Coach Giles put his right hand up in the air "That's the best I have to offer Tara. I know you're a brilliant player, but you are not Superwoman, and your ankle needs the rest. Maybe Thursday, but definitely not today."

Tara realized she had no choice, and nodding glumly slipped her shoe back on, then followed the coach to the other side of the court where the women were standing together.

Willow and Xander walked into the handball area a little after noon to the sound of heavy running, yelling, screeching shoes and a blowing whistle. The lights were on, illuminating the court but leaving its surroundings in relative darkness. The two friends walked to a row of bleachers, and quietly sat down to watch the action. Willow's eyes immediately sought out Tara's form, and saw her in conversation with Anya and Cordelia, while Coach Giles explained something to two younger girls the redhead had never seen before. She also spotted Faith standing near a bunch of gym bags, taking a sip from a water bottle.

Xander tapped his best friend and said "There they are", just in case she hadn't spotted Tara standing in conversation with his girlfriend. Willow nodded without looking in his direction, and he said "I wonder what they're talking about."

Willow shrugged, "Probably shop-talk?" She felt more than saw Xander nod in agreement.

"So you kissed her cheek? Anya said, clearly interested in that bit of information. Tara nodded, so she asked, "Did you mean to?"

Tara shook her head, and checked to see that Coach Giles was still talking to Anne and Reese, before saying, "No...I just...did? I mean, I'd started to walk away, and then just turned around without really thinking about what I was doing, and gave her a goodnight kiss on the cheek...". Tara thought of how soft Willow's cheek had felt under her lips, and blushed at the memory. Her friends didn't seem to notice, as Cordelia asked, "And then she asked you to kiss her forehead?"

Tara nodded again, but added with emphasis "Later, when it was hurt", as if that made it more logical. Anya quickly added "But hey, she was also drunk!", and Cordelia nodded in a sagely manner. "Yup...drunk Willow asked for a kiss. That's got to mean something..." she said, continuing to nod in that wiser-than-thou way.

Coach Giles blew his whistle, indicating that he wanted the girls back around him.

Willow heard the whistle being blown, and spotted Emily jogging back from the direction of what she remembered to be the changing rooms. She watched Coach Giles explain something to seven nodding women, and then walk over to where the boys were practicing. Her gaze followed him till he was amongst the huddle of boys, and then went back to the women's side, where Anya had taken up her position guarding the goal from its enemies.

She saw that the six other women had formed a line which started at the penalty-taking spot, and Faith was at the front. Emily, who was standing at the back of the line, clapped once, and Faith launched herself into a shot. Her attempt went wide though, and Willow saw Anya say something to Faith out loud. Unfortunately, even though Willow and Xander could hear her voice, they couldn't make out what she'd said. They presumed it was something cocky though, because Faith poked her tongue out at the goalkeeper before going to retrieve the ball she'd chucked off court.

Willow glanced over at Xander, to see him sitting there with a fond smile on his face. "Awww" she said, smiling at the obvious affection her best friend felt for his girlfriend, and patted his arm. He looked down at Willow, returning her smile, before both looked back at the court. Cordelia was next in line, and once again, Emily gave a single clap. Cordelia reared back on one foot, then released with all her might, but Anya was there to stop the ball from getting into the top left corner. "Woo hoo!" Anya yelled, and this time Xander and Willow could clearly hear her. The goalkeeper threw the collected ball back to Cordelia, who went and stood behind the goal beside Faith.

Tara was now at the front, and Willow felt her heartbeat pick up at the simple prospect of watching Tara play handball. What surprised the redhead the most was the fact that big ball sports had never really been her thing, and yet here she was, watching Tara in absolute fascination. She watched as Emily clapped again, and Tara raised her right arm in all its grace. The hand reared back, and released the ball with amazing speed towards the right hand bottom corner...but Anya's foot was there to deflect it!

"It looks like mine topped yours Willster!" Xander grinned, as Anya let out another yelping sound and Willow initially thought she was going to give Tara the finger, till she realized that Anya actually had three fingers held up. ‘Three for three' she thought, and saw Tara grin at her before taking off in a slow trot behind the ball. Her eyes were still on the blonde when everyone's attention was drawn to a loud cheer from the boys' side of the court. Three guys were standing celebrating a goal, and looked a bit embarrassed when they realized all eyes were on them. "Sorry! Got a little carried away!" one said out loud, to no one in particular, and walked back to his position.

Willow looked back at the women, and saw that Tara, Willow and Cordelia were having a laugh behind Anya's net. Whatever they were talking about was funny enough for Tara to be bent over, holding on to her own knees and laughing with abandon. It struck Willow that this was the first time that she'd seen Tara laugh like that. She began to replay the moments she'd shared with Tara so far, and realized that she'd only seen Tara behave as a responsible young lady, whether it came to her relationship with her coworkers at the concert, back in LA or even around uni. She thought back to the night out with the Sunnydale handball team to celebrate their victory, and acknowledged that even an intoxicated Tara had been better behaved that the others. What Willow was now seeing was almost child-like glee on the face of the beautiful blonde woman.

Tara was now standing upright watching Reese attempt a penalty shot, and when the youngster managed to become the first one to beat Anya, the three women at the back dissolved into what could only be described as hysterical laughter. Willow didn't know what was so funny, but found her own face breaking into a smile as she watched Tara. Apparently Anne converting her goal didn't help the three women either, since Faith actually sat down and continued to giggle. ‘I wonder what's so funny...' Willow wondered, still smiling at a blonde who was now wiping tears away from her cheeks.

"So, according to Coach Giles' logic...only Reese and Anne will make it into the side?" Emily said, as she too joined the party at the back of the net, and dissolved into laughter.

"And me!" Anya said, walking over to her friends with a smile on her face. The girls were referring to the talk Coach Giles had given them before setting them the task of penalty practice, and said that from past experience he knew that only girls who were good with penalties usually made the first team. Tara, Faith, Cordelia and Emily meant no offense to the two newbies, but couldn't help but feel amused at the fact that the youngsters had outshone them. In fact, Faith had even suggested that they all give up on handball, which is what had set them all off in the first place.

Coach Giles walked over to the girls' side again, and beckoned for the seven women to join him. He smiled at them as they gathered around him, and said kindly "Don't think I haven't been watching!" This made the senior's beam at him, and he continued in a more sober tone "Ok, let's get a little serious now ? I'd like you all to do this one more time, but this time, anyone who misses doesn't get to shoot again till theres only one person left who hasn't missed. Ok?" They nodded their understanding at hime, "And Anya? You need to try and make sure no player passes you more than thrice." The goalkeeper nodded, and the girls went back to their original formation.

Coach Giles walked to the side with a small smile on his face, ready to observe the girls and their technique. He knew the senior's well enough to know that even though they were the best of friends, they were fiercely competitive in the best possible sense, and each one would want to best the others. He also thought this would be a good attitude for Reese and Anne to be exposed to early on at this level. Coach Giles blew his whistle and watched as Faith took her shot, and converted with ease. She winked at Anya, and went to the back of the line with her ball. Cordelia, Tara, Reese, Anne and Emily also converted their first attempts, so Faith took her second turn. Anya missed, so Coach Giles yelled out "C'mon Anya! Watch your center!"

Anya nodded without looking at him, and slightly slouched, waiting for Cordelia to take her turn. The tall brunette released the ball, but Anya made a brilliant stop by flinging herself at it before it made it to the left top corner. The other girls clapped, as a visibly dejected Cordelia gave Anya an appreciative nod and began to make her way back to her coach.

Willow clearly heard Coach Giles say, "Cordelia, start running!". She watched as the brunette nodded her head, and made her way to the side of the court, where she deposited her handball, and started jogging around the court.

"I now understand why these women are so fit..." Xander said, and it struck Willow that this was the first time he was watching people play handball. "Of course!" she said, looking over at him. "You met Anya at the Bronze!!!" She looked back at the court, and watched Tara convert her penalty and blow a mock kiss towards Anya. Anya's voice carried to them, "Oh! Shoo you!". The blonde grinned and walked to the back of the line, and Willow once again thought about how much she was enjoying watching this side of Tara.

Anya blocked Reese's shot, and the youngster was made to run around the court too. Anne completely missed the goal at all, and after retrieving the ball she joined Cordelia and Reese. Willow watched Cordelia for a few moments, and was amazed at how she was still jogging at the same steady pace, even as she kept an eye on the penalty shootout that was taking place on the girls' side of the court.

Faith, Tara and Emily continued converting their shots for the next three rounds, and Anya was visibly agitated at herself. Xander and Willow could hear her muttering aloud to herself every time she missed a ball that she clearly thought she should have stopped, and looking over at her best friend, Willow was amused to see him smiling at Anya with the same affection as when she was being all Wonder-Keeper-y! Faith cracked on her 6th shot, and took off running around the court without even waiting for Coach Giles to ask.

Tara asked Emily a question which Willow couldn't hear, and then jogged up to where the gym bags were. She pulled what to Willow looked like two red bandanas out of a bag, which Willow again presumed belonged to the blonde. She also grabbed two water bottles, and jogged back onto the court, but this time went all the way to Anya at the goal. She said something to the goalie, who seemed to consider it for a split-second before nodding her head, and then placed one water bottle each a few centimeters from the left and right goalpost. Then she quickly tied one red bandana each on of each side of the top bar of the goal, and went back to Emily. It dawned on Willow that each of the goals corners now had an object there, and it dawned on the redhead what Tara was doing.

She leaned forward in her seat, and watched with heightened interest as Emily and Tara continued converting their shots, but this time, the ball connected with either a bandana or a bottle. Willow marvelled at the precision with which the two were shooting, and the fact that even though Anya knew what she had to protect, the shooters had the game to continue beating her. What Willow found most intriguing though was the fact that even though you could tell both girls were still chatting amongst themselves and applauding particularly good shots the other made, they were obviously also issuing silent challenges to one another. Emily tended to turn around, look at Tara and say "Yours then", while the blonde seemed to prefer looking at her dark-haired friend with a raised eyebrow that screamed "Top that!"

Emily had converted her 12th goal by knocking down the water bottle in the bottom left corner, and was stepping aside for Tara to take position when Coach Giles blew his whistle. Both women watched him walk up to them, and gesture for the running girls to come to him. "What's going on?" Willow asked. She had thought he'd been waiting for Emily or Tara to miss, but it was looking like she'd presumed wrong.

"Beats me" Xander said, shrugging.

"Well done, Tara and Emily" Coach Giles smiled, walking up to the two women. "Unfortunately, we don't have all day here, and it didn't look like either of you were going to miss anytime soon" he continued, as the other girls gathered around them. We're taking a 15 minute break, but you three", he said, pointing to the two ‘finalists' of the penalty shootout and Anya, "will run for 10 of those." With that, he went over to the boys' side of the court, and Emily rolled her eyes at Tara "Winning sure has its perks, doesn't it?!"

Tara laughed at the sarcasm in her friend's voice, and the trio moved to drop their balls off where the other girls had left theirs. Emily set the timer on her stopwatch to 10 minutes, and they took off jogging.

They'd been running for a few minutes when Anya said between paces "Hey's...Xander and...Willow". Tara's heart was already beating a little bit faster due to the act of jogging, but it sped up when she looked in the direction her friend was staring at, and saw a flash of red hair in the darkness. The trio passed a bend in the lines, and now had their backs to Xander and Willow. "Think" Anya asked.

"What?" Emily asked, who was running alongside the two and not following their conversation at all. Anya looked at Tara, who ignored the first question and chose to respond to Emily instead, "Long...story...Later". The group of runners watched a boy begin to run around the court, and saw that Coach Giles now had the boys in a penalty shoot out contest too. They passed another bend, and were again facing Xander and Willow, who had now made their way down from the bleachers to courtside. The trio slowed as they passed the duo, and Anya said "Five minutes" to her waiting boyfriend. They exchanged huge smiles, and each also noticed their best friend smile at the object of her affections.

The three women continued their run, and every now and then Tara and Willow would find themselves looking at each other at the same time, and exchanged smiles each time. The redhead made sure to breathe in extra long through her nose each time Tara passed by her, and silently swore she could distinctly make out Tara's vanilla scent every time. She was just saying that to herself again when she heard a familiar voice say "Hey Red!"

"Faith" she smiled, even before turning to face the brunette, who was sipping from a water bottle. "How are you?"

"Good" Faith smiled, and Willow turned to introduce the handball player to her best friend. Tara was watching the interaction when Emily's timer went off. She reached to switch it off even as she continued to run, and the girls silently completed the whole lap before stopping. They stood there a few moments catching their breath, before making their way to their own water bottles. Emily chose to join Cordelia, who was watching the guys' penalty shootout, while Anya and Tara walked up to Faith, Willow and Xander.

Faith quickly leaned close to Willow's ear and tried to look at normal as possible as she quickly whispered "I'll leave you to it then", and took off behind Emily. Anya made her way to Xander, and wrapping her arms around his neck planted a quick but firm kiss on his lips. "Hello handsome" she beamed, and holding his hand started to lead him away for some alone time. Xander looked over at Willow even as his feet began to move, and she gave him a reassuring smile that conveyed that it was ok. Looking up, she saw Tara standing before her, and without having to think about it, leaned in to give the sweaty blonde a hug.

She felt Tara return the hug, and each girl wrapped their arms around the other for a few seconds, before they pulled back with matching grins. "So..." Willow started, as they moved as one to sit on the closest bench, "Who're they?" she asked, pointing towards Reese and Anne, who had obviously decided to stick together.

"High-school kids" Tara said matter-of-factly, before tilting her head back to take a swig of her water. Willow watched mesmerized as Tara's neck curved, and then visibly moved as she swallowed. The redhead had to swallow herself when she saw a bead of sweat make it's way down Tara's neck and disappear somewhere down her tee-shirt, and forced her gaze back to the youngsters, "They're good though" Tara continued. She was just aout to launch into an explanation of that morning's session when she stopped "Wait, how long have you been here?"

Willow's green eyes looked at her own wristwatch, and she said, "Just over 40 minutes now...ummm", Tara watched her intently, "you, Anya and Cordelia were standing there", she pointed to the back of the goal, "and talking about something?"

Tara blushed, remembering what they'd been talking about. Luckily, she was already red from the exertion of the last hour and forty-five minutes, so Willow didn't really see the extra colour her innocent statement brought to Tara's cheeks. She nodded, "So yeah, Coach Giles was working on our moves earlier this morning, and they're very good at faking. Reese even beat Faith five times in a row, and trust me, that's an achievement on it's own", she said, sounding impressed. "Anyway," her brow creased slightly, and she turned to give Willow her full attention, "You? Here?" Her eyes went wide as she realized how that might sound bad, so she rushed to add "Not that that's a bad thing! Really! I'm just, curious?"

Willow instinctively reached out her hand and placed it on the blonde's arm, to reassure her that she wasn't offended, "Xander was coming to watch Anya, and my classes were done too,'s always nice to see you" she ended, in a more quiet tone than she'd mentioned the other things.

Tara still heard her, and the blondes face broke out into a smile at the redhead's admission. Willow had averted her gaze as she'd said the last part of her sentence, but looking up she saw genuine pleasure in the blue eye's that were looking straight at her. The two women just sat there smiling at each other for a few moments, when they heard Coach Giles blow his whistle and call for the girls.

Tara looked at him, then back at the redhead, who still had her hand on the blondes arm. She realized that as much as she loved being on the handball court and playing the sport, in an ideal world, that isn't what she'd be doing right now.

"I guess you have to go back" Willow said, removing her hand from Tara's arm. Tara nodded her head and looked at the green eyed girl who had so captivated her heart, and heard herself asking "Wanna stick around?"

Willow looked at her with her eyebrows raised in a silent question, so Tara added "We should be done with practice in about 45 minutes? Wanna do coffee afterwards? Unless you have something else planned..." she trailed off, unsure that her offer would be accepted, and believing that someone like Willow would have something better to do with her time.

"I'll be right here Tara" Willow said happily, and was rewarded with a joyous expression which she knew mirrored her own before the blonde stood up and went back on court. Tara could feel Willow's eyes on her, and even while she still had no clue what the redhead felt for her, she had to admit that she loved that Willow was there at all.

Continue to The Game of Love Chapter Seventy-Eight

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