Return to The Game of Love Chapter Seventy-Nine

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 walked out of the changing rooms, fishing into her gym bag for her cell phone and glasses. She walked slowly since her right ankle was a little sore after Coach Giles had pushed her a little harder than the rest during the pre-game warm up and post-game warm down. The blonde knew that he was doing it to come to his own conclusion on the endurance level of her injured foot, so she didn't mind going the extra mile to prove herself to the coach. That being said, she'd decided to wrap the crepe-bandage back around her ankle after her shower, since it felt like her foot could use the extra support after being pushed to the limit. Besides, she didn't want to risk having to limp around again.

Phone and sunnies in hand, Tara walked up to Anya and Cordelia, who were already changed and talking to Coach Giles. The trio looked up as she approached, and it was the coach who spoke, "I think we should try out some jump shots tomorrow. How does that sound?"

Tara positively beamed, "Absolutely!" as Anya groaned, "There go my hands..."

Coach Giles was smiling as well, but insisted again, "We take it as slow as you need, ok?"

Tara nodded and repeated, in a more somber tone, "Absolutely."

"Alright then, girls," Coach Giles spoke, walking over to his own gym bag, "Till tomorrow then?"

All three women nodded, and said their bye's as they turned to walk away. Xander, who had been sitting on a bench while Anya and Cordelia had chatted to Coach Giles about that day's session and waited for Tara to emerge from the changing rooms, joined them half-way to the doors. "Get any reading done?" Anya asked him, as Xander wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

The brown-haired boy shook his head, "Nope, you're too much of a distraction!"

Anya tsked, "Well, I guess someone can't come watch practice tomorrow then..."

Tara smiled, but tuned out their good-natured bickering as her gaze fell on her cell phone, which was saying that she had two text messages. She clicked the "Read" button, and the first one turned out to be from Gabby, who was informing her that their meeting with a prospective sponsor had been brought back from 4 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. The blonde wore her sunglasses and quickly sent Gabby a reply confirming that she would be there, and then deleted her colleague's text. Cordelia was the first to reach the doors of the stadium, and had just pushed one open when Tara's inbox opened again, and her heart did a little skip when she saw the second message was from Willow Rosenberg.

Her heart followed up the skip by picking up pace, and she realized that her thumb was trembling slightly as it inched its way to the 'Read' button. After what seemed like ages, she clicked.

"I've met some really boring English men in my short lifetime, but this guy from Frank O. Gehry takes the cake. I think they only promoted him to a Senior Achitect so they could give him his own cabin, and not have him bore the other architects to death. Anyway, what are you doing? How was practice. Uh, is?"

As Tara stared down at the text, she felt a smile start to form on her lips. She scrolled back up to the top of the message, and began to reread it from the beginning. She'd just gotten to the end, when she heard someone distinctly clear their throat. Looking up, Tara realized that without any real thinking on her part, her legs had followed her friends all the way to her jeep. She guessed that Cordelia must have been the one who'd cleared her throat, since she was looking at her quite expectantly with one eyebrow arched. Feeling like a deer caught in headlights, Tara meekly half-lifted the hand holding her cellphone and said "Text."

"Important enough to tune-out the physically present population?" Cordelia asked, and received a nod from the blushing blonde. Tara watched as her two-best friends shared knowing looks, and was thankful when Xander spoke up, "So, ready to drive us then?"

Tara could have kissed Xander right then, "Yup yup". She glanced at her phone one last time before putting it in the left pocket of her jeans, and climbed into the drivers seat of her jeep. Cordelia sat beside her while she started the engine, and Anya and Xander chose to stick together at the back. Turning the radio on, Tara began the drive to the mall with her friends. She knew that Anya and Cordelia had figured out who the text was from, and from the corner of her eye, she could tell that Cordy was dying to ask her about it. Anya was too occupied with holding Xander's hand to be too concerned at the moment, and once again, the blonde was thankful that Willow's best friend was there to keep both of her's quiet!

She looked at Cordelia out of the corner of her eye again, and saw that the brunette was still studying her with a thoughtful look on her face. Finally the taller woman spoke, "Soooooooo...." Cordy started, still looking straight at Tara, and then unexpectedly turning to look at the couple at the back, "Xander!"

Tara frowned slightly, wondering where this was going, and heard Xander absent-mindedly ask "Hmm?"

"You're best friends with Buffy and Willow huh?"

Now Tara knew exactly where this conversation was going, and wanted to put an end to it right then and there. To be honest though, there was another part of her that was more than happy to go along with whatever Cordelia was doing. Tara decided that she'd figure out whether she loved or hated her two girls later on, and tuned back into the concentration, keeping her eyes on the road. "Yup", Xander smiled. "Ever since we were old enough to understand what best friends are really supposed to be like."

"Awww" Anya cooed, snuggling closer into her boyfriend's shoulder. Cordelia persisted, "What's it like? Having two girls as your closest friends I mean."

The brown-haired boy seemed to consider this for a moment, "Hmm, it's the only thing I've ever known, so I don't really have anything else to compare it to... if you understand what I mean?" All three women nodded, so he continued, "I've known Will since we were in grade school. We started off sitting next to eachother in the 3rd grade, but barely spoke, until one day some kids were picking on me because I'm, uh, dyslexic, and that was the day our teacher had figured it out." He looked at Anya as he said the last bit, revealing a part of him she didn't know about yet. His girlfriend merely smiled softly and encouraged him to go on, "So yeah, they were calling me a retard, when Willow Rosenberg walks up to my side and launches into a rant about how the politically correct word is 'Mentally Challenged', and how I wasn't mentally challenged anyway, and just had a learning disability. I remember standing right next to her wondering if she'd stop to take a breath at any point, and I swear she didn't till she stopped a good 3 minutes later." He smiled foldly at the memory, "Of course by then there was a stunned silence all around us, so Willow grabbed me by the arm to pull me away with her, and that's how it's been ever since."

The three women sat processing the story in their minds, Tara deciding again that Willow was positively the nicest person she'd ever met, and nothing and noone could compare to her. Xander could swear he heard a hint of...something... in Tara's voice as she spoke, "She really is something huh?" He caught her gaze in the rearview mirror, and smiled his agreement. The jeep pulled up at a traffic light, and Anya asked, "What about Buffy?"

"Buffy joined our group of two when we were 13. She just came and sat down with Will and me during lunch, and that was that. Umm, I did have a teeny-tiny really massive crush on her in the beginning," he smiled sheepishly at his girlfriend, who looked amused at this latest confession, "but that kind of passed when I sat through lunch after lunch listening to her running commentary on the other guys at school!" Everyone laughed at that, "People even had a name for us, The Misfits. I think it was because all three of us were so different from one another. I mean, there was Buffy the soccer star, the Queen of the Geeks Willow and me, the, uh, boy?" he smiled again. There was a comfortable silence as the jeep began to move again, till Cordelia asked, "Didn't Willow check out the boys with Buffy?"

Xander quickly glanced at Tara, who's gaze was firmly fixed on the road ahead, "No, not really. She actually spent more time than Buffy did with the cool jocks, who always needed her help with school, but I don't really remember her talking about them much. Now that I think of it, even Oz just kinda appeared out of nowhere." He reflected on this for a few seconds, and sounded like he'd just realized what he would say next, "They were actually really different, those two. Looking back, it was doomed from the start, with their different outlooks and hobbies and everything..."

"It's ok to like different things though. You yourself just said that the three of you'll are different and still best friends", Tara commented matter-of-factly, turning into the parking lot at the mall.

"Oh, I completely agree," Xander nodded, "but you have to do things together too, and try and involve each other in your individual interests. I only remember Oz going off to band-practice and gigs, and Willow hanging out with, well, me and Buff. They only went to the movies or a meal every-so-often, but that's gotta get monotonous. Wait, I have a better way to explain what I mean...they were fundamentally different, which isn't so great in a relationship."

Tara couldn't argue with that statement, and nodded her agreement as the car slowly pulled to a stop in a parking space. Leaving the other three behind, she hopped out and walked over to get her ticket, and a few seconds later caught up with them as they walked to the mall's doors. The quartet entered, and as they got on the escalator Tara pulled out her cellphone and went straight to the messages. Opening up Willow's text, she quickly punched in a reply, "WAS at practice, AM at the mall with Ahn and Cordy now. There's a brown-haired boy called Xander with us. Know him?" Clicking on 'Send', she watched the envelope disappear, then pocketed her phone again.

Anya was telling Xander how she needed to get a new pair of indoor shoes for handball, so when the group got off the escalator on the first floor, they made their way towards the mega sports store 'Athlete'. They'd just walked into the store when Tara's phone beeped again, and she checked it. "Yes, for far too long really. Haha! I wish I was at the mall with you guys too! Anyway, I shan't depress myself with thoughts like that whilst stuck in Guest Lecture Hell. How's your foot?"

Tara grinned and hit 'Reply', "Good! Coach says I can try some jump shots tomorrow, woo hoo!" She heard Anya call out to her, and looked up to see her friend beckoning her over. She quickly hit 'Send', and held the phone in her hand as she walked over to Anya. The goalkeeper was inspecting an Adidas shoe, and wanted Cordelia and Tara to tell her what they thought of it. Xander, who didn't have much knowledge on the working's of sports shoes had walked away to browse through the men's shoes. Tara was running her fingers over the sole when her phone beeped again. Without looking up, Cordelia commented, "Text flirting?"

Tara turned red, "Uhh, no, Willow's just bored in class and was asking me about practice."

"Mmm hmm..." Anya commented, and Tara was amazed at how her friends managed to convey exactly what they were thinking without even having to form actual words. She made sure to give her friends her opinion on the shoe before checking the text. "A woo and a hoo for the jump shots! Ok, dying here! Entertain me! Tell me something I don't know about you." Once again, the blonde was left staring at her phone, and couldn't help but hope that more than simple boredom had prompted the redhead to ask her that question.

She felt a pull on her arm, and looked up to see Anya gently guiding her by the arm. "Sit. Flirt. Just make sure to give me your proper opinion when I bring a shoe to you!", and with that, she indicated an empty chair beside where they'd stopped and walked back to the shoe section. 'Ok, definitely love my girls' Tara decided, and promptly sat down to send a reply.

"I used to have a pretty bad stutter as a child. I still do, but it only shows up when I'm really nervous or scared. Thankfully though, I've learned how to bring it under control pretty quick. Your turn." She sent the message, and looked around for her friends. Anya was still browsing the women's shoes section, and had obviously shortlisted the Adidas shoe since she was holding on to it while she checked other ones. Cordelia and Xander seemed to have wandered off, and despite craning her neck every which way, Tara couldn't spot them from where she was seated.

Her phone beeped again, and Tara looked down to check the text, which by now she knew would be from Willow. "I hate Barbie dolls, and can't understand why anyone would want to play with them. When I'd get them as birthday presents, I'd take them apart, and then group them according to body parts. Ok, that sounds scarier written than it does in my head! Uhh, you still there?!"

Despite herself, Tara let out a giggle at that, and looked up to see Anya looking over at her. When they made eye contact, Anya rolled her eyes but couldn't hide her smile before turning back to the shoes. Tara typed, "*cough*Psychopath*cough* I was never death to all Barbie's, but preferred physical sport to staying indoors. One of my happiest memories is from when I was 7, and managed to score a touchdown while playing football with Donny and his fellow 'big guys'." She sent the message on it's way, and briefly wished she was an airwave.

"Great, I'm officially going crazy now" she muttered to herself.

"Oh, that's a given" Anya said drily, walking up to her with 2 new shoes in her hands. She handed one over to Tara, who flexed is this way and that before turning it over to run her fingers over the sole. "Hmm, this one seems pretty good" Tara murmured, and took the other shoe from Anya's grasp. Neither girl commented when Tara's phone beeped again, and after giving it a thorough inspection, Tara passed the second shoe back to Anya, "This one's the best so far. It's flexible, and the sole looks good. Try it on?"

Anya smiled, "Thanks Tare", and went off to ask a member of the staff for the shoe's pair, so she could try both on. The blonde checked the message, "Why Ms. Maclay, you should get that nasty cough checked out! And awww at the cute memory! I was never one for competitive sports, but I do enjoy kicking a ball around every now and then, or spending some quality time in a swimming pool. So, what are you guys doing at the mall sans moi?"

Tara heard Cordelia's voice, and looked up to see her sharing a laugh with Anya over something. The brunette was holding on to at least half a dozen item's of clothing, and Tara couldn't stop herself from smiling at how predictable her shopoholic friend was before turning her attention back to her own reply, "We're at Athlete, where Anya's shopping for a new pair of handball shoes that she wants to break in before National's. Cordelia looks like she's buying one piece of everything this store owns, and Xander's disappeared in here."

Tara sent the text, and saw Anya trying on the pair of shoes. Standing up, she made her way over to her friends just as Anya stood up, and walked a few paces up and down in the shoes. "Feel good?" Cordelia asked, and Anya took a few more steps before nodding, "Yup. They're really comfortable, and fit well." She continued to walk in them, moving her foot this way and that, when Tara's phone beeped again. Cordelia gave her another knowing look, and then walked off in the direction of the changing rooms to try on all the stuff she was currently holding in her arms. The blonde checked her message as she walked back to the chair she'd been sitting in, "Xander's disappeared eh? Does Athlete happen to have any issues of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition lying around?! And why aren't you buying anything?"

Tara physically shrugged at the text question, and replied "There's nothing I really want." She paused a second, and then typed slowly, "Besides, this is more fun." The blonde stared at the message for a few moments, before hitting send. She sat there with her cellphone in her lap, drumming her fingers on the chairs arms as she waited for Willow's reply. When the message arrived, she clicked on 'Read' before the phone had even stopped beeping, "I hear ya Tare. How long are you going to be at the mall for? Maybe I can run screaming from here and see you there?"

Tara looked at the time on her phone and sighed as she clicked 'Reply', "Unfortunately I have to leave for work in 20 minutes. I think the other three are going to be around though, if you wanted to hang out with them?"

Anya walked up to her while she sat there waiting for a reply, and told her she was buying the pair she'd tried on. Tara had opted to stay where she was while her friend went to pay for the shoes and try and hunt down her boyfriend, and was willing her phone to beep when it did, "Nah, I'll just stay here if you aren't going to be there. I'll see you at your practice session tomorrow? Maybe after I could take you to this cool little place I know that serves the greatest hot chocolate in the world!?"

Tara's heart practically swelled as the realization dawned on her that Willow was clearly impying that she liked spending time with her, and was not willing to make the effort to come if she wasn't going to be there. This time the blonde didn't even bother to hide the full-blown smile that had taken over her face as she typed out, "Smarty-pants! Definitely practice. But I have a paper due Friday, and need to get cracking on it after practice. Would you like to come over instead or something?" She sent the message on to Willow-land.

Tara looked up in time to see Cordelia make her way back from the changing rooms, and head to join Anya in line. The shorter woman seemed to have spptted Xander somewhere, and was waving him over when Tara's phone beeped again, "Sounds like a plan. I'm sure I could catch up on some reading while you work on your paper. Ok, so, I finish class at 12:45, and will see you straight at the stadium! Uh-oh, he's coming this way! Over and out!"

The blonde grinned and her fingers moved of their own accord, "Aye aye! Have a good day Will!" Standing up, she pocketed her phone and walked towards the trio who were almost at the front of the line by then. She knew the two women would know the vague reason for her joyous expression and want to know the exact reason, but was sure they wouldn't ask around Xander. As it turned out, she was right, and although she received smirks from Anya and Cordelia, they didn't make any other coments. In fact, Tara was the first to speak, "Anyone else feel like a chocolate milkshake before I leave to earn my keep at work?!"

Continue to The Game of Love Chapter Eighty-One

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