Return to The Game of Love Chapter Seventy-Seven

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!

Willow had returned to her previous spot in the bleachers, where Xander joined her a few moments later. The dark haired boy had given her a cheeky grin when she told him of her post-practice coffee plans with Tara, but the redhead thankfully noticed that he didn't press the issue any more than that. They'd sat together watching the second half of the session, and Willow noticed that this time Tara kept glancing in their direction. Even though she was quite sure there was no way Tara could see herself and Xander in the relative darkness surrounding the court, Willow was warmed by the idea that the blonde was still trying.

The redhead also realized that she had more knowledge than Xander on the sport they were watching, so she took it upon herself to explain it to the best of her abilities when some fifteen minutes into the second session, Coach Giles made mixed teams with the boys and girls, and had them play a practice game. Willow had told Xander to watch out for Tara's jump shots, and was most surprised when the final buzzer went off and the blonde hadn't even attempted one. In fact, more often than not Tara would get into position and attempt a fake, or drag a player onto her and then pass the ball to someone else who'd had the sense to run into the now clear spot. Her best friend didn't seem to have noticed, because Anya was having a great game keeping, and Xander couldn't stop grinning at his girl. Even though her vision couldn't have been any better than Tara's, the goalie kept looking up in their direction too, and once again Willow found herself smiling at the obvious affection Anya and Xander felt for each another.

She had glanced at her watch when the final buzzer rang, and saw that Tara's assumption of practice ending in 45 minutes was more or less correct. She and Xander had risen and gone down towards the group of girls who by then were standing around sipping from their water bottles, listening as the coach pointed out flaws and strengths in each one's game. As they drew closer, Willow heard Coach Giles finishing off his talk aimed at Tara "...I'm sure it feels fine, but I'd like you to take it easy for one more day. Don't forget that the California coach and his team of professionals are going to want to look at it, so let's not take anymore risks than we already are?"

Willow wondered what the coach was talking about as her eyes watched Tara slowly nod her head with the hint of... "A pout?". The redhead stopped in her tracks and stared as if under a spell as the blonde's bottom lip jutted out a little more than usual while her head bobbed up and down. Coach Giles nodded his head in turn at Tara, and then turned his attention to Cordelia. "Uhh Will?" Xander whispered right into the redhead's ear, breaking her out of the mini trance the Tara-pout had brought on, "It's kind've stalker-ish to stand and stare you know?" Even in a whisper his voice held an undercurrent of amusement, and he was awarded with a mock glare from his best friend.

The words did succeed in bringing motion back to her legs though, and the two friends continued to walk towards their target. Tara looked up as Willow and Xander emerged from the shadows, and her pout was immediately replaced by a soft smile when she saw them. She took another sip from her bottle, but her eyes never left the approaching duo. When they were finally standing right before her, she stopped sipping, swallowed the water in her mouth, and reached her hand out to Xander. "Hey" she smiled.

The brown-haired boy met her hand with his own, and smiled back "How are you?"

Tara grinned and rolled her eyes "Sweaty!"

'Oooh...' Willow thought deliciously, as her body reacted in the most unexpected way to that one uttered word. 'I know another way to get sweaty' she thought, and then visibly shook her head to clear it as a current seemed to pass straight from her brain, where the thought was generated, through her neck, coursed through her chest and ended up in the pit of her belly. 'Where did that thought come from?! Bad thought! Ok, not bad, but...' The redhead could feel herself blush, and was sure her face looked obviously red to anyone who was looking at her. She looked up to see Tara staring at her shaking head with a slightly concerned look, and did the only thing she could think of - she coughed.

Willow coughed like there was no tomorrow, and seconds later Tara was at her side, rubbing slow circles on her back in an effort to calm her down. Willow continued to fake-cough, and stopped about 15 seconds later, when she felt she'd put on enough of a show. She sheepishly looked around to see all the girls, and even some of the guys on the far side of the court, looking at her to see if she was ok. Looking at Xander, she saw that his concern seemed to be mixed with a look that told her he knew what she was doing, and she quickly looked away before he read her mind with that weird power he'd always possessed. Willow's body almost protested when she felt Tara's hand stop its movements on her back, but she was soothed by the blonde's voice, which was asking her if she was alright. She nodded her head, and realized that the fake-coughing had actually left her throat a wee bit sore. When Tara held up her water bottle in silent offering, she gladly accepted it and took a few slow sips to sooth the itchiness away.

Anya, who by then had joined the three of them and was standing with her head resting on Xander's arm was the first to speak. "You ok?" Willow cleared her throat before speaking, "Yeah...I think I just breathed in the wrong way". 'Breathed in the wrong way????' her conscious yelled at her. 'Is that even possible?' The redhead was about to frown and consider the actual possibilities there when she heard Tara say "Are you sure you want to go to coffee after this? I can drop you home if you..."

"No!" Willow said, 'A tad too vehemently, might I add' her conscious added, so she repeated in a pitch closer to her normal one, "no...really, it was just a momentary thing." This time she did chance a quick look at Xander, and his look confirmed her belief that he knew exactly what was going on. Quickly looking back at Tara, she said "I'm definitely up for coffee".

Tara studied her for a moment, and then smiled that soft smile, "Alright...I'll just shower really quick?"

Willow nodded as Anya told Xander, "Me too!", and pecked him on the lips before the two girls gathered their kits and walked to the changing rooms. "You sure you're breathing alright this time Willster?"

"Oh, hush you!" Willow admonished in an amused tone, swatting her best friend on the arm and rolling her eyes at one of his famous giggles.

She was now seated at a small coffee house 15 minutes away from campus called 'Brito', which Tara insisted had the best hot chocolate in the world. The blonde looked like she couldn't believe that Willow had lived in Sunnydale all her life and had never heard of the place. When they had pulled up to it and the redhead had seen that it was a quaint little café tucked almost out of sight between a dentist's practice and a photograph processing lab, she'd looked over at the blond and said drily, "Yeah, I wonder how I missed this".

Tara had pulled the key out of the ignition, thrown a "Smartass" over her shoulder, hopped out of the jeep, and waited for a grinning Willow to join her. The two girls had walked into the little café, whose only furniture apart from the coffee bar was five tables and a small shelf stacked with books. Four of the tables were taken, so Tara quickly asked Willow to claim it while she ordered the hot chocolate. The redhead wanted to protest to the retreating blonde, but noticed two guys about to enter the café, and quickly went to sit down at the unoccupied table. She made a mental note to buy the next round, and then focused her attention on Tara, who was standing behind another customer at the bar. Willow allowed her eyes to appreciatively skim over the blonde from behind, noting how she wore her jeans just loose enough to be comfortable, but not so loose that they made her bottom look like a shapeless lump. In fact, in Willow's eyes, the faded denims accentuated just the right spots. Green eyes watched the blonde move to the front of the counter, and guiltily realized that technically she was being a pervert, so she allowed her gaze to drift upwards, to the back of the simple white button down three-fourth sleeved shirt Tara had emerged in from the changing rooms post handball practice. Willow's first thought when she'd seen Tara walk her way was how this woman looked gorgeous no matter what she was wearing.

Tara was currently making easy conversation with the girl behind the bar, and from where Willow was sitting, it looked like they already knew one another. The redhead figured that Tara must be a regular here, as Tara smiled at the waitress one last time before walking in Willow's direction carrying a tray with two large white cups. She took the spare chair across the redhead, and proceeded to place one of the large hot chocolate filled cups before the other girl. Willow looked down at what to her looked like a swimming pool worth of hot chocolate, and when she looked up she saw that Tara had put her own cup before herself, and was now looking at her with an expectant expression. The redhead arched her own eyebrows at Tara, and said "It's too hot to try yet!"

"Fine!" Tara huffed, and relaxed back into her chair, obviously waiting for her own cup to cool too. The two smiled at one another in a comfortable silence for a few moments, before Willow remembered something she'd been meaning to ask the blonde. "Hey?" she began, "what was Coach Giles talking about when he said he wanted you to continue to take it easy tomorrow?"

"Oh that? Umm, he wants me to take it easy on my ankle," Tara slightly lifted her right foot and jiggled it for emphasis, "and says I can only attempt jump shots Thursday onwards...IF he gives me the go ahead that is."

"Ah", Willow nodded in understanding, "so that's why you didn't attempt any today. I was wondering why you weren't. I mean, at the tournament you'd get the ball in spots you received it in today, and scored some great jump shots, so I did notice that you weren't doing the same today". The redhead reached for her cup, and lifted it to her lips, sticking the tip of her tongue out to check its temperature. Putting it back down, she looked back at Tara to see the blonde watching her with a smile on her face, and shrugged matter-of-factly, "Still too hot."

"Mmm hmm" Tara said, still smiling slowly at her, till she seemed to shake herself out of it and said "So yeah, Coach Giles just wants me to be careful, since the state coach and his team are going to want to check everyone's fitness levels at next week's camp. That means that they're going to want to get a new x-ray of my ankle and make sure I'm a hundred percent fit to be a part of the final squad. He's right, it's just...frustrating to not be able to play my natural game." She paused for a breath, and then added, "Then again, it's helping me understand assist's better, and I'm working on my fakes, which is not something I'd necessarily do too much of if I was physically able to leap-frog everyone!"

Willow bobbed her head in understanding, "Does California always have the same coach?"

Tara shook her head, wrapping her fingers around her cup of hot chocolate at the same time, "Umm, no. The state used to be under this guy called Stephen Roberts until two years ago, but Coach Roberts got offered a really good coaching job in Scotland, so he was replaced by Richard Wilkins last year."

"Is he any good?" Willow watched as Tara slowly lifted the cup to her lips, and gently blew on the liquid before taking a tentative sip.

"Mmmmm" she moaned softly in pleasure, and closed her eyes to savour the taste of the drink. The vision before her caused Willow to gulp, and she prayed the woman across her hadn't heard the sound. Some part of her mind advised her that it might be a smart idea to start wearing panty-liner around Tara, but she quickly tried to clear her mind as Tara slowly opened her eyes. "So good" she said happily, and Willow could only nod in agreement.

"What are you nodding at?" Tara said, rolling her eyes at Willow. "You haven't even tried yours yet!"

Still unsure of whether she had control over her vocal chords after that brief Tara-show, Willow just nodded again and reached for her cup of hot chocolate. Mimicking Tara's earlier movements, she blew on the thick brown liquid before taking a slow sip. She allowed it to stay on her tongue for a few moments before finally finding the courage to look the blonde in the eyes as she let the chocolate run filter down her throat. Willow ran the tip of her tongue over her lips, hoping to wipe away any chocolate that might still be there, before taking a deep breath, "Yes, this is the best hot chocolate in the world" she said, in a mock-defeated tone.

Tara was looking slightly more pink than usual, but before Willow had time to reflect on that, the blonde's face had broken into a wide smile, "I told you so!" Willow took another sip, "This really IS good" she said again, "How come I've ever heard of this place before?"

Tara's eyes seemed to sparkle as she shot back, "You just haven't been hanging out with the right people". Still smiling, she took another sip of her own hot chocolate before sitting back in her chair, "But yes, to answer your question which was left unanswered thanks to the goodness of Brito's hot chocolate," she tucked a strand of hair which had fallen across her cheek back behind her ear, "Coach Wilkin's is what you would call a 'moron', in simple terms that is. It was his way or the highway, which is why we made complete fools of ourselves at last year's tournament in Denver. It's not just that we failed to qualify for the quarters, but it was more about how badly we lost the games that we did play. He'd give us fixed plans to follow, and if a player tried something different she was substituted immediately. I hear he's being replaced this year, and I really hope that's true. Oh, and somehow only the really pretty girls ended up starting". Tara looked pretty mad by the end of her rant, and Willow realized that she was witnessing another side to Tara's personality that she hadn't seen before.

Without thinking, she blurted out, "Well, you must have started every game then". Willow's eyes went wide at her own admission, but she didn't regret her slip when she saw Tara's frown being replaced by one of the blonde's lop-sided smiles, which the redhead didn't believe she saw enough of. She slowly smiled back in return, still watching Tara's reaction.

Tara chose not to comment on Willow's statement, and said, "So, I realized yesterday that I don't know what your chosen major is". The way Tara phrased it made it sound like the question it was meant as. Willow readjusted herself in her chair, "Art" she said simply. When she noticed Tara's still enquiring look, she elaborated, "I'm basically studying art and math subjects, for architecture."

"Wow" the blonde said, slowly nodding her head, and Willow thought that if she looked hard enough, she'd be able to see the wheels turning in Tara's head. "What kind of architecture are you interested in?"

"I'd like to build homes. I mean, with my parents being in the airline business, I've gotten to see a lot of the world, and with that, a lot of beautiful houses around the world." Tara smiled at that, and Willow continued, "And I think the home is such an important place, you know? For every member of the family. So I'd like to, well, make sure that family's have a perfect place to share and call home."

Tara blinked at Willow, and looked at her with an intent expression. A few seconds later she spoke, "You know, that's a really nice thought you have there. And I think it's the best reason I've ever heard for someone wanting to pursue a line of work."

Willow blushed at Tara's compliment, and quickly reached for another sip of her drink, which by now had cooled enough for her to take larger gulps. Putting her cup down, she realized that Tara was still sitting there watching her, so asked "What about you? Writing?"

Tara took a deep breath and shook her head slowly, "Nope. Psychology."

It was Willow's turn to look impressed, "Whoa, nice. What kind?"

"Sports Psych." The blonde said, "Especially with athletes returning to a sport post an injury time off, or ban. I've always been interested in the mental aspect of being a professional athlete, which is mainly why I made the choice.

"Interesting" Willow said. "So will you give up the writing once you've got your degree?"

"Honestly, I don't know. I mean, writing comes easily to me, and I'm sure you've noticed that the station's pretty flexible with my hours. So I guess it's just going to boil down to whether I want to devote my life to studying athletes and writing paper after paper on different aspects of sports psychology, or if I actually want to counsel athletes."

"Can't you do both?"

"Probably" Tara agreed, "but then again, it comes down to whether I enjoy one more than the other, or both stimulate me equally." She waved her hand next to her ear, "Too many options!"

Willow downed the last of her cup of hot chocolate, "True, but there's one thing you have no say in." Willow waited for a reaction from Tara, and when the blonde arched an eyebrow, she delivered her punch line in the smuggest of tones, "The next rounds on me!"

Forty-five minutes and one more cup of hot chocolate each later, two very stuffed women climbed back into the blonde's jeep. They'd spent the last three quarters of an hour making lighthearted and random chit-chat, covering safe topics like Susanna's reply to the thank you message Willow had sent her, the future of Buffy and Zak and Anya and Xander, and the feedback to the concert in LA, which seemed to have reminded Tara that she needed to go into work that afternoon. Even to Willow the blonde had seemed reluctant to actually get up after they'd finished their drinks, and the redhead felt a secret thrill at the knowledge that Tara was enjoying their shared time as much as she was.

Now as the blonde started the engine, she asked Willow "The kids are coming over after school tomorrow. Would you like to join us?"

Out of the corner of her eye she saw the redhead regrettably shake her head, "I can't. There's some big shot coming in from Frank O. Gehry & Associates, uhh, the architecture firm?" With her eyes on the road Tara nodded her head, so Willow continued, "Yeah, so this guy's coming in for a guest lecture, and since he'll be visiting from noon to 6 p.m, I doubt I'll be able to make it. Trust me, these big shots never leave when they're supposed to!"

Even though she felt slightly disappointed, Tara couldn't help but smile at the child-like displeasure in Willow's voice. When they pulled up at a redlight, she turned her full attention to the woman in her passenger seat, "Ok, do you have any plans for the weekend?"

Willow's heart began to race as a sense of optimism filled her soul, "Nope..."

"Well" Tara said, glancing at the steering wheel as she spoke, "Um, I was thinking of taking the kids to the beach this Sunday?" This time Willow was sure Tara was once again looking pinker than usual, but didn't interrupt the blonde. "I've already asked Ahn, and she's going to ask Xander, and well, I'd like to invite you too."

When Tara glanced up at Willow the redhead noticed a sense of vulnerablility about the blonde, and couldn't help but reach out a hand to reassure the other woman. She rested her hand on top of the blonde's on the gear stick, and giving it a gentle squeeze, said softly, "Sounds like a plan".

She withdrew her hand as the lights turned green, and Tara cleared her throat before saying, "Good". She quickly smiled at Willow, "You can ask Buffy and Zak too? I'm sure Cordelia will come along as well, and you can invite anyone else you want?"

Willow shook her head, "Nope, no one else". Only she knew the truth of her statement.

A few moments of comfortable silence later, Tara pulled up outside Willow's dorm, and cut the engine. "Well, thanks again for introducing me to the best hot chocolate ever" Willow smiled, not wanting to get out of the jeep.

"Thanks for buying the second round" Tara beamed back.

"So...uhh" Willow searched frantically for something to say, delaying her Tara-jeep time. "I might drop into practice on Thursday?"

She was treated to a lop-sided smile, "I'd like that. Umm, I'll let you know if there's a change in practice time?" Willow nodded her head, just as Tara's phone began to ring. The blonde answered it, "Hey Gabby...yeah, I'll be there in 15? Ok, see you then...bye."

Willow took a deep breath, and was about to say her good-bye for the day, when Tara leaned over and wrapped her in a hug. The redhead allowed her own arms to wrap around the blonde's shoulders, and as she pulled back, her mind was suddenly filled with the memory of Tara walking back to kiss her on the cheek at Susanna's house in LA. After considering it for the briefest second, Willow paused mid-pulling back from the embrace, and placed a soft kiss on Tara's cheek. With that, she extracted herself from the car, and turned to looked at the blonde one more time. The smile on Tara's face nearly took Willow's breath away, and she just about managed a clumsy wave of her hand, "Bye".

The blonde turned the key in the ignition, not taking her eyes off Willow. "See you Will..." The redhead watched Tara's jeep start to roll away, and watched till it was out of sight. "There goes my heart again" she muttered under her breath, turning and walking to her room.

Continue to The Game of Love Chapter Seventy-Nine

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