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Willtaralympics 2007: The Hoop and the Harm

Author: AntigoneUnbound
Rating: NC-17
Setting: The women's college basketball Final Four, 2008
Disclaimers: These are fictional games between actual teams. While I use the coaches' first names, all other characters are either the property of that wanker Joss Whedon and ME or my own creation. I make no money off of this, or much else, for that matter.
Distribution: Avec acknowledgement, please.

(By the way, this story just sorta grew on me. It was supposed to be a cute little 10-page ditty. God alone knows where I lost it, but I hope you enjoy.)

Many thanks to Car, for helping me flesh out this story, navigate the technological side of posting (yes, it does exist!), and basically be an incredibly supportive woman who helps me believe that it's OK to take time to write. You're a goddess-send, girlfriend! Thanks also to Chris for the wonderful graphics and to the RKT group for their ingenuity and dedication. 'tis an honor, good scribes.

Feedback: Please leave feedback on the Willtaralympics 2007 thread on the Kitten Board.


OK, if you're familiar with women's basketball, and US women's college hoops in general, you can just skip over this little primer. If you're not, the following would fall under the heading of Useful Information:

1) The Final Four is the culmination of the women's season. It consists of the winners of each of four regionals. Each regional has 16 teams for a total of 64 teams in the field. Note: In actuality, the national semi-finals are on Sunday afternoon while the final is on Tuesday night. For the purposes of this story, however, I reverted to the original schedule of Friday semi-finals and a Sunday afternoon final.

2)The two strongest teams over the last decade have been the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers (or Vols) and the University of Connecticut (or UConn) Huskies. They're coached by Pat Summit and Geno Auriemma, respectively. Their rivalry is fierce, fueled by different styles and the coaches' widely rumored animosity. Think Red Sox and Yankees; think Ohio State and Michigan; think Manchester United and whatever team they hate. (Sorry, I'm not so much with the soccer knowledge.)

3) Rebound are called "boards."

4) The Tennessee mascot is "Smoky," this old hound dog brought to life by a student in a big furry costume. Vols' games feature the song "Rocky Top" approximately 5000 times per contest, or at least it seems that way. The Connecticut mascot is the Husky, also embodied by a student.

5) The WNBA is the Women's National Basketball Association, now in--I believe--its 11th year.

And by the way: I don't really pull for either of these teams, nor do I hold either one in sneering disdain. I think both programs have put out some incredible athletes over the years, and their rivalry has led to some fantastic games.

And now...on with our story.


I'll believe it when the final horn sounds...

It was physically impossible for them to lose this game. Tara knew that. No team could score ten points in eight seconds...


...unless the opposition did something of such gargantuan stupidity that the entire team would be taken for CAT scans or suspected of throwing the game...


...they're not stupid, but God, their luck...


Please oh please just fucking end...

And then it came, the final, beautiful blare of the buzzer and all manner of hoops hell broke loose and Tara was grabbing some random woman (Nice delts!) and then another random woman because that's what these moments were for--deep emotional connections with total strangers. In one of her few bursts of technological cravings, she wished she had a recorder of sorts implanted within her, something that would let her play every moment of this over and over, from this exact perspective. Eventually, she turned to fight her way down to the court to tell her best friend that she knew this would happen, she always knew this would happen, even when Faith herself wasn't sure. UConn was going to the Final Four.

She paused for a moment to take in the scene on the floor. Faith was hugging anyone within a 10-foot radius while camera crews circled 'round and the ESPN sideline reporter elbowed her way into Faith's personal space. Snyder, UConn's media relations liaison, hovered nearby, doing his own personal two-step of dithering and posturing.

I bet he still has nightmares about the Jam...

Paradise Jam was an early-season invitational tournament played in the Virgin Islands; hence the "Paradise." UConn had been a participant their freshman year. Faith was the Number 2-ranked player in the nation coming out of high school, and she already had a reputation for being flashy--the brash kid from the Bronx. The press swarmed to her after their first game, wherein Faith had dropped 22 points on Temple and pulled down 12 boards.

"How do you like the Virgin Islands?" asked a reporter from Sports Illustrated.

"What's not to like?" Faith replied with a grin. "The water is warm, the breeze is cool, and the women are smokin'."

Snyder almost died on the spot. At Geno's request, she refrained from non-athletic commentary thereafter--provided the straight girls had the same rule. The comment got a lot of coverage, though, and to this day Snyder had the look of a man opening the results of a paternity test whenever anyone approached Faith with a microphone.

Finally she pushed her way to the court, where Faith had just finished spouting the usual sports clichés. ("We knew this would be a battle; everybody really stepped up; we just wanted to leave it all out there on the floor.") "Tarmac!" she bellowed, pulling Tara into a pulmonary incident-inducing hug until the blond managed to wheeze, "Air becoming a problem."

Faith put her down and flashed a grin that was at once cocky and child-like. "Can you believe it, T? We're going to St. Pete!"

Tara Maclay had been Tarmac since their first semester as suite mates. Faith gave everyone some kind of alternative handle, whether the person wanted it or not. Cassie Litwell was C-lit from the first day of practice. "What?" Faith tried to calm the spluttering point guard. "It's two syllables: Cee-lit. I mean, I'm not gonna go writing it down or anything."

"Can't I have a cooler nickname?" Tara pleaded. "This is airport concrete you're sticking me with."

Faith gave her the sad, loving look of a parent about to Break The News About Santa Claus. "Tarmac, I don't know how to tell you this--kinda surprised I have to, actually--but...You're not cool."

"What? I'm--"

"Listen to me, OK? You're smart, funny, way nicer than me or anybody I routinely associate with...and you have a great rack," she added earnestly. "But you are not cool. Giving you a cool nickname would be...It would be like giving Barbara Bush a strap-on: just an egregious waste of resources."

"Bite me," Tara muttered, simultaneously deciding that nice was over-rated and fervently hoping that she never encountered those two nouns in the same sentence ever again.

"T, wait--I just used the word 'egregiously.' I used it correctly. You taught me that. Doesn't that count for something?"

"It counts toward making you a slightly less sub-literate wench." But she couldn't stay mad at Faith; not then, not ever during the next three and a half years. Two women whose paths might never have crossed if not for the computer-generated randomness of freshman housing met; became friends; stayed friends. Even when Faith opted to live off campus with some of her teammates; even when her life was non-stop basketball--UConn; Pan-Ams; Junior Nationals--Faith had held onto their improbable connection. She attended every recital Tara gave if she was physically able to do so; she showed unexpected gentleness when Tara's mother suffered a stroke their sophomore year that left her partially paralyzed. And when a high ankle sprain forced her out of the regional finals last year, a game they'd been winning but went on to lose while Faith watched from the bench, Tara was the one person who saw her cry.

Tara wasn't entirely sure what made them so close; they were both gay, but there was no shortage of lesbians on campus. She suspected that both of them felt like outsiders compared to their more moneyed peers. They attended college only by virtue of their gifts: Faith's, to take a defender off the dribble and hit the pull-up jumper in the lane; Tara's, to sit down at a piano and turn a sheet of dots and lines into something almost achingly beautiful.

Whatever its source, their friendship was deep and unshakable. So Tara became a Huskies fan, with all rights and responsibilities appertaining thereunto. And foremost among those was hating Tennessee.

"Eight in '08!"

The cheer rolled through the Delta Center, wave after wave pouring out of and over a sea of orange. Tennessee was going to the Final Four--again--where they would try to win the eighth national championship in the program's history; the second in as many years.

Willow screamed with everyone around her, waiting for the band to strike up the inevitable "Rocky Top." "Do you think they ever get tired of playing that song?" she once asked Buffy.

Her best friend, who was currently cutting down a section of the net, had looked skeptical. "If they do, it's a safe bet they'd never tell anyone. They'd get a reed shoved down their throats and a drumstick shoved...well, elsewhere."

Willow and Buffy had met at freshman orientation, where Willow--who had never watched a basketball game in her life--looked at the blonde, beautiful girl easily chatting up an upper-class assistant and thought, "Southern belle, here for her MRS degree." Then she overheard the resoundingly gay woman to her right mutter excitedly to her equally gay friend, "Hey, that's Summers! I can't believe the top hoops recruit in the freakin' country has to sit through this stuff like us mortals."

OK...Southern belle and dumb jock. How nice--she's double-majoring. Only later would Willow learn that Buffy was neither Southern ("Ever hear of Sunnydale, California? It's a real hell hole.") nor dumb, though she was indeed a jock of the highest order. They met in World Religions their first semester, when they were paired for a group project and learned that they both lived in MacAllister Hall. Willow expected Buffy to try to cut as many corners as possible, if not openly ditch her part of the assignment. To her surprise, Buffy was not only diligent, but showed an unexpectedly agile, if unorthodox, mind.

"Do you suppose organized religion has saved more lives or taken more lives?" she mused as they walked to the library that first night. "I mean, all religions, over the entire course of the species." Willow's shock must have shown on her face, because Buffy gave her a wry look and added, "I'm sorry; I'll try to conform to stereotype. I'll be over here batting my eyes and lifting weights until the shock passes."

Willow soon learned that Buffy needed a life outside of basketball, because in Knoxville, Tennessee, women's hoops generated something just this side of cultish devotion. "God, it's like I'm the Chosen One," she sighed after a pre-season editorial their sophomore year touted her as a candidate for Player of the Year. Willow, whose total athletic inclinations consisted of dashing from her laptop to the Starbucks countertop for another cran-orange muffin, watched in first curiosity and then respect as Buffy made one sacrifice after another for her sport. She could go pro after graduation, a relatively recent option in the US. But to make any real money she would have to play in Europe in the WNBA off-season. Besides the common homesickness, the year-round play would take a toll on her body and probably shorten her career. Willow had already received more lucrative offers than she could count.

But Buffy, for all of the stress, loved basketball. So Willow, her best friend, became a Lady Vols fan, with all the rights and responsibilities appertaining thereunto. And foremost among these was hating UConn.

The teams arrived in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. The national semifinals were Friday, with the final on Sunday afternoon.

Tara had saved every penny since their freshman year in anticipation of this event. "What if we don't make it?" Faith asked after the regional final loss. "I have exactly one more year to do this."

"Then we throw the biggest lesbian bash that Storrs, Connecticut has ever seen," Tara replied, aching for her best friend and trying to instill the confidence she felt into the demoralized figure before her. "Or give the money to charity." Faith was silent for a moment, then mumbled, "I vote for the bash. With naked dancing women."

"Voyeuristic exploitation. Check."

But instead of that bash they were here instead at the Final Four. Tara had snatched up the travel package, with the reduced rate for students, crammed as many packages of Ramen noodles as she could fit into her bag, and taken off for Florida. She checked into her hotel on Thursday afternoon, along with two fellow UConn fanatics she'd come to be friends with over the years.

Maybe I'll get lucky and meet some hot little hoops groupie. Why not? She wasn't in a relationship. She and Cordelia had broken up six months ago. Great hair; high maintenance. There was nothing to stop her from taking full advantage of the veritable sea o' lesbians around her. Behold, a child in a store that sells, among other things, candy. She chuckled to herself as she thought of the camera crews that would desperately seek out families, children, and boyfriends as they panned the crowd, all the while trying to skim over the groups of athletic, sometimes androgynous women who pretty clearly did not date boys. Tara hoped she'd live to see the day that a national championship game ended with a stampede of lesbians pouring out onto the floor to kiss their sweaty, victorious girlfriends.

On this Thursday afternoon, though, she contented herself with strolling through the various festivities and soaking up the energy. All these wonderful women that the camera would try to pretend weren't there...Women of all shapes and sizes and hair colors--like that cute, diminutive redhead in the black windbreaker over there in the pretzel line, the one with the upturned nose and the animated way of talking with the older gentleman beside her.

"So why do they call it a skip pass, anyway, when the ball actually never touches the court? I mean, when you skip, your feet definitely touch the ground...not that you personally do much in the way of skipping--or maybe you do. In which case, whoo hoo for you! Skip away!" Her companion seemed to be trying to edge his way away from her toward a Stanford vendor selling pennants.

Tara was utterly captivated. Does her mind always work like that, or did she snort espresso this morning? She decided to get a better look, angling toward the exchange.

The girl had a fantastic smile, and even from a distance Tara could see the green eyes sparkling with energy. She had what looked like a nice figure, too, from what she could see as the redhead started to shuck off the windbreaker under the Florida sun--flat tummy and that delicious curve of--

Oh God, no. Not that. Anything but that...

That beautiful body was housed in the most abominable thing imaginable: a Lady Vols t-shirt.

I wonder if he skips? I bet he belongs to some professional skipping club, or maybe a self-help group for people who skip. I really should learn to-- Suddenly she felt eyes upon her and while it wasn't the first time it had happened since she arrived in St. Pete, this time felt different even before she turned. She looked around in confusion before spotting the statuesque, curvaceous blond a few feet away. She registered the blue eyes, filled with a dawning horror, a split second before she registered the blue Huskies shirt.

And she inwardly questioned all that she had once believed about a God who loved her.

How can such beauty dwell within a thing of such ugliness?

Their eyes held, locked for one moment. And then, as if by mutual consent, each turned and walked away. The Hoop and the Harm Part 2

Of all the tournaments of all the sports in all the world, she has to walk into my Final Four. Tara took another deliberate sip of her gin and tonic, staring moodily out over her hotel balcony. She rubbed her arms absently over the violet long-sleeved shirt she'd thrown on against the chill.

The city was practically crawling with lesbians, and she had to go and get frothy over a freakin' Tennessee fan.

I'll bet she sings that fucking 'Rocky Top' song a thousand fucking times a season. Her inner dialogue usually tended toward the philosophical, but tonight she just felt grumpy. How dare the girl disguise her true form with that deceitful outer garment. Perhaps she knew that she wore the raiment of the Beast...

This was ridiculous. It was a 10-second experience, for Sappho's sake. She needed to get out of her hotel room and meet up with her roommates at the bar. There were lots of women out there, cute women, non-Tennessee women, women like the one she'd just spotted, standing on her own balcony on the floor below, one room to the left, who was glancing up now as if she could see Tara gazing at her and--

No. No fucking way.

Willow stared back, not wanting to notice how the blonde hair shimmered in the dim light from her room. Say something, Rosenberg. Don't just stand there and gawk some idiot Husky. She put her hands on her hips and did her best imitation of cocky.

"Glad to see you took your shirt off!" she practically bellowed into the night.

I did not just say that...

The blonde looked startled for a moment, then shot back, "You'd like that, wouldn't you!"

OK, she asked for it...Game on. Take her down, Rosenberg. "Yes I would, but not because I'm some over-heated pervert--I mean, it's not even hot, so how could a person get over-heated--so that's not why I said that. I said that because it shows you have some decency because any decent person knows that Huskies are terrible creatures. I mean, not the actual husky dog, 'cuz they're actually really cute and I would never, ever want anything bad to happen to any of them and--well, I wouldn't want anything really bad to happen to a Husky-type person because hello, inviting bad karma here, but you know what I mean yeah, that's right. I would like that, but not how you obviously intended in that naughty double-entendre kinda way."

Tara could only stare. As a music performance major, she'd heard some wild sounds in her time, but this was the most random collection of noises she'd ever encountered. The die-hard fan in her wanted to snap, "So you must be enrolled in Tennessee's illustrious debate and rhetoric program," but even as every rational part of her recoiled in horror she couldn't help thinking that this woman was just the cutest damn thing she'd ever seen.

Get a hold of yourself, Tara. Better yet, get hold of her. No, not her. She's the enemy, all orange and self-righteous and hot and pouty and I wish my hands were on her hips right now...

Stop it! Say something! Don't just stand there gawking some idiot Volunteer.

"OK. You and me. In my room. Now."

Very nice, Maclay. Why not just shout, "Wanna fuck?"

Willow glared up at her. Look at those breasts, even under a jacket...

"I'm coming!"

Oh God, somebody shut me up.

Sixty seconds later--enough time for both women to brush their teeth while telling themselves that it was just basic hygiene--Willow rapped nervously on the door of Room 762.

Once I look at her, face to face, and tell her exactly what I think of her snotty little Huskies and the grease ball who coaches them, I'll--

The door swung open to a blue-eyed goddess.

--bury my face in her breasts and never, ever leave.

Tara looked at her with a gaze blurred somewhat by lust, then folded her arms across her chest. "So. You're a Vols fan."

"Darn tootin'. And you're a Huskies fan." She suddenly wished she were just a little bit taller.

"So actually, I guess there's really not much for us to talk about, is there?" Then why did I call her up here?

As if you don't know...

"Nope. No use talking. Nothing to talk about." Then why did I come up here?

As if you don't know...



They stared at each other for what Willow would later calculate to be 3.56 seconds. And then she was hurtling through the door, pulling Tara tight against her, and crushing her mouth into what had to be the softest lips that had ever graced any human face.

Every semblance of regional pride was forgotten as the two women swayed together, lips and tongues parting and dancing. Willow heard a soft moan echoing into her own body and felt her knees go shaky. Tara pulled back slightly, just enough to press her lips into Willow's warm, sweet neck and then along her jaw to her ear.

"This is insane," she muttered thickly.

"Absolutely," Willow agreed, twining her fingers into that soft, lustrous hair. "Completely certifiable." She could feel Tara's nipples hardening under her shirt.

Tara pulled back slightly. "I don't even know your name," she gasped as Willow's tongue traced the hollow at the base of her neck.

"Under the circumstances that might be for the best," Willow countered, sliding her hands down Tara's sides and under her shirt, feeling the warmth of her belly. So soft... This was no time for subtlety, she decided, and pushed the blonde's shirt up over her head. Tara herself reached back and undid the clasp of her black bra and Willow drew a long, halting breath.

"You now," Tara whispered, and her voice seemed to have lowered a half-register. As Willow moved to pull off her own shirt, Tara's hands wandered down over the soft curve of her ass. Oh my...

They half-walked, half-stumbled over to the bed.

May Smoky forgive me for what I am about to do, Willow thought while Tara realized dimly that if her roommates came home early and found a Lady Vol in her bed, she was well and truly fucked.

It was approximately two hours later that Tara gave a final, shuddering groan and let her legs fall uselessly over the shoulders of the woman kneeling on the floor beside the bed. A gorgeous and very satisfied face appeared with a slow smile, taking a deliberate lick of her lips before pulling herself up onto the bed and collapsing beside her. "You're really, really good at that," Tara managed. The redhead gave a low chuckle that she found delightful. "It helps to like what you're doing. Speaking of which--kudos on that amazing penetration thing you have going."

Tara blushed, at once suddenly self-conscious and very proud. Part of her wanted to crawl back up to the head of the bed, dragging this woman with her, and sink into the deepest fuck-induced sleep she'd ever had. But it was getting late...

...and her roommates could walk in at any moment, Willow thought, grimly dismissing her half-formed idea of falling asleep beside the woman who had buried three fingers so deep inside her, mouth fastened hungrily to her nipple, that she'd reached spots Willow hadn't fully realized could feel so good; feel that good.

She heard Tara cleared her throat nervously. "And that would be the awkward throat-clearing noise that usually precedes some phrase along the lines of, 'Uh, listen, I have to get up early in the morning,'" Willow mumbled, without resentment.

Tara grinned into the red hair. "Actually, this phrase was more like, 'If my roommates walk in on us, they'll kill us both and if I know Anya, they'll never find the body.'"

After a long, delectable kiss, they both shifted, each silently wishing they could settle back into the warmth of the bed and everything it had offered that night. As they began to get dressed, though, reality crept back in, gaining a foothold with every article of clothing. An uncomfortable quiet filled the room. Tara, her back turned, heard a muttering behind her. She froze in mid-zip. "Did you just say, 'Buffy's gonna kill me'?"

Willow looked up guiltily. "No! No, I said...I said, 'Stuffy but sorta chilly.' I was making a meteorological observation." She gave a weak smile under Tara's unblinking gaze, then felt her back stiffen. What am I doing? Grow a pair, Rosenberg! "That's right," she said defiantly. "Buffy Summers--leading contender for Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player of last year's Final Four , two-time SEC Player of the Year. We're friends. Good friends. Best friends." She had a strange and sudden desire to add, "Girlfriends, actually," which made no sense because Buffy and she had never been romantically involved. Felt like a line in a script somewhere...

Tara folded her arms across her chest. "Pleased to meet you. And perhaps you've heard of Faith Lehane? Boston Regional MVP? All-American? Leading scorer at the Pan-Ams last summer? Yeah--she's my best friend."

Oh my God, we're like two kids saying that our fathers could beat each other up.

They stared at each other, trying to regain some equilibrium after having fucked someone like that. It wasn't easy.

"Well. Thank you for a lovely time," Willow managed, trying not to think of Tara's soft breasts and the way her nipples swelled, hardened under her tongue.

Tara gave a strained nod in return, and stepped aside as Willow headed toward the door. A kiss seemed out of the question--but that didn't stop her from watching her ass.

Her roommates' return, a little over half an hour later, was a noisy affair, but Tara was still awake anyway. She decided to feign sleep, though--the better to avoid all questions about her evening.

"Wait, wait--she wanted you to drink shots off of her what?" Amy's voice was that blend of drunk and animated that anyone who has spent a weekend on a college campus recognizes.

"That's what I asked," Anya replied, "and then--" She stopped abruptly; Tara could feel her eyes burning into her back.

"Tara Maclay, this room reeks of sex. Unless I am mistaken, you have both given and received cunnilingus tonight." And with that, Anya piled onto her bed and shook her mercilessly.

It was almost an hour before Tara was allowed to go to sleep, but she did so having divulged only that it was a wonderful night with a woman from Duke whom she never expected to see again.

"You did a one-night stand?" Amy practically squealed.

"That's like Faith having a commitment ceremony. With an Amish girl. In a dress. From Laura Ashley." Anya was beyond stupefied.

"Yes," Tara concurred with her third heavy sigh of the conversation. "It's amazing the planet still spins upon its axis. Let us sleep now, so that I might regain my strength and perhaps meet another wanton woman and do the same tomorrow."

"You mean after we kick Duke's ass in the semis," Amy added.

"God, I'd love to see Tennessee go down," Anya said darkly.

"I already have," Tara muttered into her pillow.

"What did you say?" Anya asked, but Tara feigned sleep again, and this time more convincingly.

Willow tried to focus on the game in front of her. Tennessee was up by eight at the half, but Stanford was putting up a fight. Buffy was the game's leading scorer with 16. Like most of the great ones, she played some of her best ball on the biggest stages.

Willow's agitation had two sources. First, no lead was ever big enough for her. She was always envisioning scenarios in which the opposition could get back into it: X number of Tennessee turnovers at Y rate of the other team converting those turnovers into points, with Z number of the opposing team's successful possessions, all as a function of time. It made her life difficult; it made other people avoid her late in the second half of close games.

That stress was joined this afternoon by her angst over last night's unexpected developments. Everyone wants a Tennessee-UConn throw down. We just started sorta early, and sorta literally. It didn't help that she kept scanning the crowd looking for her. The second national semi wouldn't start for at least another hour and a half, but perhaps she'd come early, to root against the Vols...or maybe to look for her?

Maybe they'll lose, and then I can be all gracious about it--I mean, at least to her face--and I can comfort her and she'll let me touch her breasts again. Because in spite of everything, Willow really, really wanted to roll around with that naked body one more time. Ooh, maybe from behind this time... She shook her head, realizing that she didn't even know the girl's name.

I don't even know her name... Tara shifted anxiously in her seat as she watched UConn take the court for the pre-game warm-up. Even if she wanted to see her again--and I'm not saying I do--would she really be willing to march down to Willow's hotel room and pray that the right person answered the door?

Maybe I could page her... "Would the Tennessee fan with the red hair and great ass who fucked the blonde Husky fan into a state of absolute delirium please to go the nacho stand on the southwest side of the concourse."

Tennessee won the first game, as expected. Stanford made a game of it with a 14-2 run in the second half. They were down 8 with just under ten minutes to go; Tennessee had the ball. The shot clock was running down with no good opportunities in sight when Buffy ran off a double screen, caught the ball on the run, stepped out behind the arc and calmly sank a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. Stanford never got closer than 10 after that.

Buffy...Her friend was one of the top two players in the country, and Faith was the other. "What the hell kind of name is 'Buffy Summers' anyway?" Faith had asked on more than one occasion. "Who looks at a baby and says, 'Howzabout we go with Buffy'? I bet she has friends named Barbie and Tiffany." Tara knew that her best friend was tired of the constant comparisons; hell, Buffy might be, too. But they had been 1-2 coming out of high school; they would go 1-2 in the WNBA draft in three days. And that gorgeous, as-yet anonymous woman was Buffy's best friend--as she was Faith's.

She watched as Connecticut went back and forth with a surprisingly tenacious Duke team. Tara usually felt more anxious during Faith's games then she did before her own recitals. Maybe it had to do with her utter lack of control in the former case. She just knew that Faith had worked harder than anyone truly realized to get this far.

In the second half Connecticut started pressing--full court, man-to-man--and their superior conditioning began to show. Faith had picked up two early fouls that sent the Tennessee fans into a frenzy but with less than ten minutes to go in the game she only had three and her defense grew more aggressive as a result. Tara watched with a kind of sibling pride--because Faith had no blood siblings and her single mother might or might not be here; might or might not be sober--as Faith read a pass intended for the cutter, swiped it neatly, and made a crisp outlet pass. She sprinted the length of the floor and was rewarded by a bounce pass at the foul line. She scooped it up without ever breaking stride and put in the lay-up that sent UConn up by twelve.

ESPN, the media, and most national fans were going to get what they wanted: a match-up between the top two teams in the nation, with Faith Lehane and Buffy Summers going at it one more time.

That settles it. We cannot do that again. I have a rich, full life and a promising future. I will enjoy this tournament and then go back to school and prepare to graduate. I do not need her tongue on my clit to be happy.

Really. I don't.

"We're playing for the title!" Amy's voice whacked into her reverie like a cudgel. "We're actually going for the national championship!"

"On Sunday!" Anya shouted above the din. "But tonight--tonight we party!"

Two hours later--they'd managed to see Faith for a few minutes on the court before Snyder hustled her off to the post-game press conference--the three of them were crowded into GG's, a popular St. Pete lesbian bar that was even more popular on this particular weekend. Orange, blue, and red rippled throughout the crowd--sometimes in small, separate pockets; sometimes mingling in taunts that were, for the most part, good-natured.

The baiting between UConn and Tennessee fans, however, was markedly less civil. Tara didn't typically join in the shout fests, but she did find it amusing. She suspected that half the people here would refuse a kidney if it came from someone who had the wrong name on her diploma.

It was better than being at the hotel, she kept telling herself, where she might risk running into her, or running down to her, or going down on her.

Who knew prepositions could be so naughty?

No, better to be here, where she didn't even have the temptation. Nothing to remind her of the redhead who made her body sing; who slid her tongue into her and curled it; who cried out in her own climax with a voice that--

"Smoky rules; UConn drools!"

--sounded a lot like that one.

You are fucking kidding me.

She wheeled around to see the dark red hair bobbing up and down in a sea of orange. Seized with the kind of bravado that had never, ever marked her social demeanor, Tara edged her way through the line of Vols fans until she was standing right behind the offender. "Who was drooling last night?" she whispered furiously.

If Willow had jumped any higher, five different sports would have wanted her on their Olympic team. "What are you doing here?" she squealed.

"Same thing you are, though with considerably more class. I guess I shouldn't be surprised." Tara noticed a pouty-looking brunette making her way toward them. Probably her girlfriend...

"Everything OK here, Willow?" she asked suspiciously.

"Oh--it's fine, Dawn. Just a friendly discussion between friends, chock full of amicable amity." Willow's voice had the artificial brightness of a Christmas display in a discount store at the south end of a strip mall.

"Doesn't look like any friend I've ever met," the snippy little thing countered, crossing her arms and giving Tara the once, twice, and third over.

"Really--everything's great. We were just discussing the, uh...the..."

"The relative merits of essentialism versus constructionism in gender identity," Tara supplied with a large, blindingly insincere smile. Let's see if either of you even know--

"Right. I'm more of a Foucault girl while she has a hard time dismissing the role of biology, especially when considering studies of twins raised apart."

Son of a...

"Fine. I'll see you back at the hotel." And with that, she flounced off.

"Let me guess--you woke up this morning at the crack of Dawn," Tara said scathingly. Willow's expression was a cross between a grimace and shudder.

"Think of me what you will--except that." She shook her head. "Dawn's my roommate, and she just finds a lot to whine about."

The few on-lookers who had been following this exchange shifted their attention dramatically when Anya's voice rolled out over the crowd, "I bet I can drink any red-state bozo here under the table. Who wants a piece of me?"

"Who hasn't already had a piece of you?" came the rejoinder from somewhere in the orange mass, and the battle was on. Willow and Tara were left standing toe to toe--eyes blazing, hearts pounding, nipples hardening.

Finally, Tara grabbed her elbow and steered over to the corner beside the bar. "Just so we're clear," she muttered, "there will be no repeat of last night."

Willow couldn't have looked any more offended if Tara had called her a Bush supporter. "You should be so lucky," she countered.

"You're the one who got lucky last night," Tara shot back. "Every cent I have says that was the best night of your life."

"I seem to recall someone commending me on my particular skills," Willow retorted. "Remember that part where your came in my mouth? You were grinding yourself so hard against me that my lips hurt. You take me for the lucky one?"

"I took you, that's for sure," Tara hissed. "Seems to me you liked being taken, just the way I did it. You remember--you were stretched out on your back, with your legs spr--"

"I remember!"

And I'm gonna come right here...

They stared at each other until Willow said through gritted teeth, "Listen, whatever bizarro-world chemistry is going on here, it stops tonight. No way am I further damning my soul by fucking someone from UConn."

"Damning your soul?" Tara scoffed. "Last night was your biggest step up since you climbed onto the bus for kindergarten. And may I just add, it would be fucking someone from UConn again."

"Step up?" Willow snorted. "Living in Storrs has frozen your brain. You've probably been on the phone all day to your advisor, reading the tournament program and asking her to help you sound out the big words."

Tara glared at her. "Oh, you mean big words like 'Buffy' and 'Smoky'? I'll bet you guys spend your entire first semester figuring out how to plug in your computers. Or do you have computers up there on ol' Rocky Top?"

Willow hadn't been this furious since that jackass Xander Harris broke her yellow highlighter and ruined the biology text he'd borrowed. "If we weren't in a crowded bar right now--"

"You'd what? Teach me a lesson?"

"I'd...I'd..." Willow gulped. Tara's face was scant inches away from her own, blue eyes glittering; chest heaving. "I would rip your shirt off, push my hand down your pants, and stroke your cunt until you came so hard your knees buckled." Did I just say that?

Did she just say that?

Tara fought to catch her breath. Are you really gonna do this? "Yeah, well...If we weren't in a crowded bar I'd lay you down, spread your legs wide, and push so deep into you your eyes would roll back." Apparently you are.

Willow stared back, trying not to pass out. "If we weren't in a crowded bar, I'd unbutton your shirt, push your bra strap down, and suck your nipple into my mouth just to hear you groan."

The entire place could have caught fire unnoticed as Tara managed to choke out, "If we weren't in a crowded bar, I'd strip off your pants, bend you over a table, and--

"Room 762?"

"That's the one."

"Half an hour."

They left separately so as not to arouse suspicion. "We've already aroused enough other stuff," Willow pointed out, and Tara had to agree.

Tara told Anya and Amy that she had developed the worst case of menstrual cramps ever visited upon the female side of town. Willow saw Dawn making serious time with a blonde who, if such a thing was possible, looked even more petulant than Dawn herself.

I'll text her. Tell her I've met someone from Stanford. She knows I like the smart girls.

I wonder if she's smart...

Willow wasn't entirely sure how she made it back to the hotel without stopping to masturbate. She had never been this turned on in her life. When a random Lady Vols fan on the corner of Bradley and Evergreen yelled out, "Fuck UConn!" Willow could only silently promise to do just that.

"How long do we have?" Willow asked without preamble when Tara opened the door.

"At least a couple of hours," Tara replied impatiently, pulling Willow into the room. She absently grabbed the "Do Not Disturb" sign and fumbled it onto the door handle. Then she slammed the door shut, grabbed Willow by the wrist, and pressed her against the wall.

"It's Tara," she murmured into Willow's ear. "My name is Tara."

"Why tell me now?" Willow managed, stifling a groan as Tara slid her hand down to the button of her jeans and popped it open.

"I want you to know it because I want to hear you scream it tonight. When you come--and you're going to come so hard--you're going to call out my name."

Willow pulled the blonde's face close to her and ran her hand down over the curved belly, then lower, and pressed hard against swollen flesh. "I'm not the only one who's going to come hard tonight," she muttered. "You're already so wet I can feel it." She was dizzy with heat. "I'm going to fuck you so hard. Deep, and slow, until you're so crazy you'll beg me to give you even more."

Tara knew she couldn't answer; not coherently, anyway. So all she said was, "Stop talking, then, and do it."

Clothing was gone in a matter of seconds. There was nothing romantic in it; no slow undressing. Anything that stood between flesh on heated flesh was an obstacle, not a prop.

Willow cupped the full breasts in her hands; rolled the nipples under her fingers. She squeezed them slowly, and then lowered her head to one hardened nub, lips poised just above the swollen flesh. She felt Tara's hands pressing on the back of her head; heard the frustrated groan. "C'mon, dammit." Willow resisted, instead sliding her tongue out just enough to graze over Tara's swollen nipple. "You want it?" she asked softly, darkly.

"Yes...You know I do."

"Then tell me. Tell me what you want me to do."

Tara was rocking against Willow in near desperation. She had never wanted someone's mouth on her as badly as she did Willow's right now.

"Say it. Tell me what you want me to do."

If it was a battle of wills, she was glad to lose it. "I want you to suck my nipple into your mouth. Suck it as hard as you can."

And she did. She sank her nails into Tara's back, arching that succulent flesh toward her waiting lips. So good... She sucked one rock-hard nub into her mouth and then the next, all the while kneading each full breast, squeezing them tight, pressing them together.

She dimly heard Tara murmur, "Bed. Now." She pulled away just long enough to drag the blonde over to the mattress and press her down. Tara's legs fell open, cradled Willow tightly against her. They rocked together for several minutes, Willow devouring Tara's soft, taut flesh.

Suddenly she shifted her weight, pulling back and resting on her knees between Tara's legs. She brought her hands down to the heat, one hand lightly stroking her lips while the fingers of her other hand just brushed against Tara's opening. She curled three fingers, gave the barest hint of pressure.

"What now?" she whispered. "What do you want me to do?"

"You know." Tara's voice was almost inaudible.

"Tell me. I want to hear you say the words."

Tara rocked her hips against Willow, but still the redhead teased her. "Say the words. Tell me what you want me to do."

Tara ran a dry tongue over her lips, eyes heavy-lidded and locked on Willow's. Again the slightest push; the barest pressure.

"Say it." Say it, please, I need to be in you before I--

"Fuck me." Please. "Push into me; open me wide. Stroke my cunt and pump into me until I come."

I might come first. "Maybe I should wait. Maybe you're not wet enough yet."

Tara's eyes bore into her. "I'm as wet as you are, and I can feel you soaking into me."

Oh God... Willow rocked forward and parted Tara with one smooth thrust. The blonde cried out, her head falling back helplessly against the pillow. Willow arched over her, curling her fingers as she dragged back toward Tara's opening before plunging back, finding an even deeper, sweeter spot. She had never felt such a desperation to be buried within another woman. When Tara clenched against her, she felt herself contracting in response. She was arched over her, propped up on her left arm, and with every thrust her nipple grazed against Tara's. She grew slick with sweat as she pushed as deep into Tara as she could reach. There was a grazing against her ass, and she realized that Tara had locked her legs around her, pulling her close, pinning her. As if I want to leave.

They soon found a rhythm, moving almost silently in the dark room, moonlight knifing in through a slit in the curtains and illuminating flashes of breast and belly and mouth. The two of them pushed and thrust and strained against each other, hair growing damp with sweat. Willow had never experienced anything so completely, primitively, sexual before in her life.

Don't come too soon. Let me stroke you, over and over... But Tara was already breathing in shallower and shallower gasps, her gasps more helpless and pleading. As if by instinct, Willow made one last thrust and then held there, just one more moment and then two--and then she dragged her fingers back and found that ridged spot and she stroked it, fiercely, until she heard Tara cry out; until she felt Tara clench against her, shuddering. She held there, gazing into blue eyes that seemed like midnight in the darkness.

Finally she lowered herself fully to Tara's warmth, listening to the wild heartbeat that gradually slowed. She wondered if hers were doing the same. After a moment she felt Tara's hand at her wrist, subtly but insistently prompting her to withdraw her fingers.

She felt a kind of grief as she slid out, the warmth and the wetness retreating away from her. And then Tara's fingers were cupping her chin, tilting her face upward. "I need to taste you," she said simply, and Willow could not have declined if she wanted to--which she didn't.

She started to shift her weight, pull Tara over onto her but the blonde shook her head. "I want to see you above me," she whispered. "I want to see your face when you come."

Willow could only nod, and then she rose to her knees once more, this time edging forward until she was poised above that beautiful face, those sensuous lips. You're going to make me come with that mouth... She gave herself one last moment to savor the anticipation, and then she lowered herself.

And Tara devoured her. Hands on Willow's ass, she pulled the redhead deeper to her, tongue probing each fold and hidden spot. No lover had ever tasted better to her--she was like almonds, or peach juice. After a moment, she brought her hands to Willow's cunt, resting her arms against the firm thighs and spreading her gently so as to have even more of the sweet flesh pressed against her lips. She looked up and saw the curving jaw line, the full lips, the eyes closed in pleasure.

I will drink you until you think you have nothing left, and then I'll pull one more drop of cream from you. Her tongue swirled, stroked, plunged. It was sweet--it was beyond sweet--this slick warmth that spilled out over her lips. So have so much... Willow was grinding down into her, pressing her lips fully into Tara's mouth and then arching back just slightly until the force of Tara's arms brought her back.

Tara sucked her clit into her mouth, just lightly, and then took it between her tongue and upper lip. Willow whimpered, twisting above her as if trying to pour all of herself into the warmth of Tara's mouth. After a moment, Tara released the clit and stroked back toward Willow's opening, gulping down the sweet cream. She felt the redhead start to rock more feverishly.

Don't come too soon. I want to drink you at my pace, leave you begging for more... But it was already happening. Willow slid her hands to her breasts, tweaked and pulled her nipples as she felt her climax getting closer.

I come so hard with her... She squeezed one nipple almost desperately, twining the other deep into Tara's hair.

Oh my God...It's happening...She's making me come. Tara's making me--

"Tara...Oh God, drink me, Tara. Take all of me..."

Two ravenous strokes of her clit, and then that sweet tongue had plunged as far as it could reach into Willow's cunt.

"Tara..." Her name...

She's calling my name... And she drank--hungrily, greedily--every drop of that release.

When Willow's spasms finally ebbed, she found herself shaking. She wasn't even sure why. But she was unable to stop the shuddering until Tara reached up and stroked her jaw. "Come here," she said simply, and Willow let herself be guided down, down against Tara's warmth. She felt strong arms encircling her, felt the world receding and although she knew that she should get up and leave, she sank into that warmth.

"It's Willow," she managed. "My name is Willow." And then they slept.

Much of the carnage of the next few hours could have been avoided had Willow thought to change out of her orange "The Dynasty Continues" t-shirt before bolting up to Tara's room. But she hadn't--partly from pride, and partly from knowledge that the shirt wouldn't be on much longer anyway.

Anya and Amy weren't demure creatures to begin with. Throw a lot of vodka and ramped-up school spirit into the mix, and the two women who stumbled through the door of Room 762 at 2:30 in the morning were making enough noise to wake the dead. They were certainly making enough noise to wake the lesbians a few feet away.

"Oh my God--you ho!" Anya shouted gleefully as she threw on the light. "Tara Maclay, you ivory-tickling tramp!"

Tara could barely form a thought. Mortification surged through her with just slightly less force than her orgasm earlier that night. "Uh, guys...could you give us a moment?" she finally asked, even as she spotted the orange t-shirt half-hidden under the luggage stand. If I can just get her out of here, no one needs to know.

Anya flopped down onto the bed with a companionable smile. "Tara tells us you're from Duke. That must mean you're very smart. Are all Duke girls as easy as you?"

Well at least she didn't tell her I was from UConn...

"Anya, we don't even know if this is the same woman from last night. Tara could be branching out into a whole new level of skankdom." Amy, who studied biology, loved classifying things.

"Guys, really--we'd like to get dressed." Tara knew her voice was growing desperate and she didn't care. Damn orange shirt. They couldn't have beige for a school color...

Anya leaned up against the head board and patted Tara's shoulder. "Look who's suddenly all shy. You know--wait, what's your name?"


"You know, Willow, we've been trying to get Tara to go out more for years now. Always practicing; always studying. And now here she is--banging one if not two total strangers in the space of twenty-four hours!" Her eyes lit up with a conspiratorial glint. "Tell me--are her fingers as strong as they look? You know what they say about pianists."

"Anya, please--a little privacy." Any moment now she'll be suggesting a foursome. Actually, she would probably suggest a threesome and send Amy, who had notoriously bad breath, out for pizza.

"Oh fine, we'll go. C'mon Amy. " Anya hopped out of bed and started for the door. Keep walking. Just keep walking. "You two exchange the standard goodbyes and a few more full-body embraces, and we'll--" She froze, and then let out a cry that woke other lesbians a few more feet away as well as four of the more recently deceased denizens of Fairhaven Cemetery across the street.

"What is it?" Amy asked, jumping back. "A mouse? A rabbit?"

But Tara knew what she'd found, and from the stiffening of the redhead next to her, so did Willow. Anya bent down and picked up the t-shirt, holding it as far from her body as possible, pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Her expression suggested that she was holding plutonium covered in dog shit.

"Oh my God." Amy's voice was barely a whisper.

Tara decided it was time to get her butch on. "That's it. You two out, now." Anya dropped the shirt and peered at Willow.

"You've been virtually silent the whole time. At first I figured it was East Coast reserve, but now I'm assuming you're impaired."

"Out--now!" The door slammed behind them. Tara turned and gave Willow a torn look. She felt guilty on about five different levels. There was a moment's silence, and then Willow murmured, "Nice friends. Think they'll throw us a shower?"

"Maybe they'll serve cold-cuts after the funeral," Tara replied, shaking her head. Then she turned to Willow. "That's it. We can't do this anymore."

"But I want to," Willow said simply.

Tara gave her an exasperated stare. "Look, we obviously have some truly amazing chemistry. That's not in question. But I'm already going to catch enough grief from them as it is. I mean, would you want Buffy to know about this?"

Willow shrugged. "I'm not sure. But I do know we're big girls and we should be able to see who we want. And I want to see you. Again." She hadn't even realized how strongly she felt about it until she said the words.

Tara sighed. "Look, Willow--and by the way, that's a lovely name and I'm glad I know it--look, this is the most we've actually talked since we laid eyes on each other. Our time together has consisted of trading insults and fucking each other senseless."

"And you play the piano."

"What?" Maybe she was dreaming, because the conversation was turning surreal.

"You play the piano. Anya said so. And...And I realized that I liked knowing that. I liked knowing something about you."

Tara just looked at her helplessly. "Willow, aside from the fact that we're sworn enemies--and yes, I actually do agree that big girls are free to date whomever they want unless it's Anne Heche, in which case you should probably be careful. But aside from that fact, this whole thing--the Final Four--ends the day after tomorrow. We both go home. You live in Tennessee and I live in Connecticut. What exactly can come of this?"

"I don't know," Willow said stubbornly. "But I want to find out. And I think we should see if there's anything here besides sex. Do you see how determined I am?"

"Yeah, I do," Tara said, frowning. "What is that, some kind of resolve face?"

Willow beamed excitedly. "That's what I call it! No one else has ever called it that before!"

Tara wasn't exactly sure that sharing the redhead's singular style of nomenclature was a good thing, but she was also having a hard time letting go of the chance to see her again.

Willow, perhaps sensing that Tara was wavering, leaned in and stroked her cheek. "Look, your friends will be back soon, and--wait, they won't kill me when I leave the room and dump the body in the laundry chute will they?"

"Uh, no, I don't think so," Tara replied. "If they get too close, just start singing 'Rocky Top.' That'll stop them long enough for you to make your escape."

"OK, good. So--I have a proposition."

"Going to proposition me again, are you? I thought you wanted to see if there was more here than sex." But Tara couldn't keep a slight grin off her face.

"Fine, Smarty McSmartstein. Here's my invitation." She took a deep breath. "We meet for dinner tonight. I mean, tomorrow night. Saturday night. Someplace public, where we won't end up fucking each other's brains out within the first five minutes. In fact, we make a vow not to have sex. We have a regular old dinner and talk. We don't discuss Tennessee or UConn aside from talking about our majors and our friends. And if we find out that we really don't have anything to talk about--that it's just a physical connection--then we shake hands and wrap up early. You go your way; I go mine."

Tara looked doubtful. "God, Willow, I just keep thinking how pointless it would be. So what if we do like each other? We're still leaving in two days. What--we just find this connection and then say goodbye? Try to make something work across, oh, about five different states?"

"I don't know," Willow answered truthfully. "I just feel like I've played it safe my whole life and from what it sounds like, you have, too. And I don't want to. At the very least, I want to look back when I'm older and say, 'You know, I took a wild chance with this beautiful woman at the 2008 Final Four. It was crazy and totally senseless and I did it.'" She leaned over suddenly and kissed Tara softly. It was the first time they had kissed without expecting to have sex immediately afterward, and both of them were a little thrown by how much they liked it.

"So what say you, Tara Maclay? Will you do this humble redhead the honor of joining her for dinner tonight? At the local eatery of your choice?"

Tara gazed at her for a long moment. This is absolutely ridiculous. And I'm going to say yes.


Willow left a few minutes later, after they agreed to meet at 7:00 at the Zydeco Grill. "See? We both like Cajun," Willow chortled. Anya and Amy returned barely two minutes after her departure.

"Guys, I'm not in the mood," Tara said preemptively. "I know she's from Tennessee and I know that it violates all known laws of nature and women's basketball and I know that Faith would have a coronary but we're not going to tell her and it's my choice and we are not going to discuss this." She expected a greater outcry, certainly from Anya, but her friend just gazed at her in concern. Finally she came over and sat beside Tara on the bed; reaching over, she took Tara's hand in her own.

"Tara, sweetie...You...You know she wears orange, right? And with that red hair. I mean, you see how unnatural this is, don't you?"

Tara drew back defiantly. "Dammit, Anya, I'm not a child. I can do what I like. And by the way, I know this shouldn't be possible but...but...she looks good in orange! There--I said it!"

Anya recoiled in horror, and then leaned in, peering at her closely. "So tell me, Tara--when you said that just now, could you actually feel Satan entering your body? Or is it more subtle than that?"

It was almost four o'clock before they finally went to bed--Tara insisting one last time that sleeping with Willow did not make her a traitor to the Husky nation, and her roommates wondering if perhaps an intervention might help.

When Tara walked into Zydeco's that Saturday night, wearing not Husky blue but a lavender sweater that fit her snugly, Willow was willing to throw out the "No public sex" vow. She herself was sporting a tailored green shirt over a black camisole and was suddenly insanely glad she'd chosen to pack it.

As Tara approached their table, she saw the blue eyes darken. Either she's regretting she came, or she's ready to come again. She greeted the blonde with a nervous smile.

"You look really nice," she said, feeling suddenly shy.

"So do you," Tara murmured, then leaned in and placed an unexpected kiss on Willow's cheek. "And you smell good, too." Lingering just a moment, she added, "Do we have to observe the 'No sex' policy?" Willow felt herself growing a little dizzy, and a lot wet. But she pulled back.

"I think that for now, yes--we abstain." They took their seats, each independently grateful for the dim lighting that was already creating a different sort of ambience than they'd known. The restaurant was fairly quiet, and Willow wondered if Tara had chosen it because it wasn't a sports bar where they would be surrounded by rowdy fans.

"So, Tara Maclay, tell me a little about yourself." Willow smiled as Tara gave her a quirky grin.

"Is this an interview?" she asked wryly.

"Yes, for both of us. Each of us will present herself as well but as truthfully as possible and we shall see what kind of fit we have."

"I already know how you fit me," Tara said, her voice suddenly quiet. "I know how you fit in me."

Willow felt her breath leave her body and head to the Gulf Coast. But then she squared her shoulders. "Such commentary, while...evocative, does not further the aims of tonight's tete-a-tete. Although, let me add, it just took me to a wonderful place." They gazed at each other across a table lit by a single candle, the other patrons oblivious to their energy.

Just then the waiter appeared with water and menus. "Can I get you ladies something to drink?" asked the slender young man whose name tag identified him as Jason.

How about her? Willow thought, but shook her head and instead just asked for a Diet Coke. Tara ordered an iced tea.

"Great," Jason said with apparent sincerity. "So--you two here for the Final Four?"

Tara and Willow glanced at each other. Some kind of understanding of this night led them to say in unison, "No."

As Jason walked away, Willow leaned in a smiled. "So...You're studying piano for school? Are you a performance major? What does a music performance major do after graduation? And when do you graduate, anyway? And you'll probably need to stop me at some point because I tend to build up a head of steam and I don't want to frighten you off in case you are someone that I don't want to be...frightened of me."

Why does she have to be so damn cute? This would be easier if she were just a great fuck and nothing else. But that, apparently, wasn't the case.

"Well, this pianist is indeed a music performance major and she graduates in May and she's going to graduate school."

Jason had reappeared with their drinks; Willow waited until he had left before asking, "Where?"

"Boston University." There. That should put an end to it. It's not like I'm moving to the Midwest. But Willow had choked on her soda. She held up her hand to indicate she was fine, and then grinned at Tara with eyes slightly red-rimmed from coughing.

"Of course you are," she laughed, shaking her head. At Tara's questioning gaze, she said, "I'm graduating in May, too. I've been recruited as a software developer for Eco-Tech." Tara had heard of the firm, even being as techno-illiterate as she was. From her understanding, it was one of the up-and-coming businesses devoted to finding viable solutions to such problems as carbon emissions and waste management.

"And this is amusing because...?" Tara asked.

"Because the home office is in Boston."

When their very, very long dinner ended a few minutes before eleven, Jason having progressed from solicitous to patient to slightly impatient to just this side of actively rude, Tara still wasn't sure how she felt about what was happening between them. But she realized somewhere between the red beans and rice and the shrimp etouffe that she had a helluva decision on her hands. She had never been so attracted to anyone in her life, and she had never enjoyed anyone's company so much.

But it would be a risk; it would be difficult; it would take compromise from both parties. Even with Willow moving to Boston, there were no guarantees.

Can I do this? Willow's words the night before, about living the safe life, had rung truer to her than she admitted. If she really did want to live a full life--if she wanted to take the same risks in her life that she did in her music--didn't she have to explore this?

But was that crazy? What if they got to Boston and discovered that really, their connection had been a function of a particular place and circumstance; an energy that was singular this time?

Sex wasn't an option that night. Amy and Anya had announced that they would be in the room by midnight, knowing that Tara was meeting Willow and apparently deciding that this was the best they could manage in the way of prevention. Dawn had enjoyed some nice early flirtation at the bar, but left when Veruca got too animal for her. "God, it was like she was trying to devour me," she complained. So Willow's room was out, too.

Willow had decided within the first fifteen minutes that she wanted to try this. Maybe it was the atmosphere; maybe she was just ripe for an adventure. But she'd come to St. Pete never expecting to have a fling in the first place. If I'm gonna go busting out a new philosophy, might as well do it all the way. Tara, though...She could tell that the other woman was hesitant.

As they finally left the restaurant, Willow took her hands. "Will I see you again? I mean, the game's at noon and my flight leaves at seven."

"I have the red-eye," Tara replied softly. "I head out at midnight tomorrow."

"So then...Will I see you again?" Willow asked, and this time her voice held something soft and plaintive in it.

"God, Willow--I want to. I really do. I want to say yes and then stay in contact over the next few months and make plans to meet you for dinner at the funkiest little place in Boston. But...I'm afraid. And when I'm afraid I tend to run. Not well, mind you...It's more of a lurch." Her grin was strained.

"I'm scared too," Willow said simply, and they stood gazing at each other. Finally they hailed a cab and headed back to the hotel. The ride was a silent one, but they held hands all the way.

At the hotel, they loitered outside, neither wanting to say goodbye in the bustle of fans rushing around them. Willow raised Tara's hand to her lips, pressed a kiss into the tapered fingers.

"Let me give you my number," Tara began, but Willow stopped her.

"No. We don't part like that. I have one last proposition for you, beautiful woman." She drew a deep breath. "The game starts at noon. It should be over by 2:15; 2:30 at the latest. If you're interested in at least giving this a shot, meet me in the park across from the arena, by that big sculpture of the birds, at 3:00. Give me your answer then, and I promise that whatever it is, I'll respect you. If you don't show , I'll take that to mean that you had a great time and under different circumstances you'd give it a shot but the fall is too far away and there are too many question marks and you'd rather this be a great memory. If we run into each other in Boston..." She trailed off, knowing that in a city of that size, such a meeting might well never occur. Then she shook her head. "If we run into each other in Boston, we say hi and if there's anything between us, we take it from there."

Tara could only nod. After a moment, she leaned forward and pressed a kiss against Willow's forehead, and then another against her lips. "You are a remarkable woman, Willow Rosenberg."

"And you are the best time I've ever had, Tara Maclay," she whispered. Finally she pulled away with a tiny smile. "You go on ahead," she nodded toward the door. "I'm going to stay out here and get some air for a while."

Tara gazed at her for a long moment, and then turned and walked through the sliding glass doors of the St. Petersburg Marriott. She didn't look back.

Of course. Of course it's going to go down like this.

Tara stared at the scoreboard. The game was tied at 72 apiece, with .5 seconds left on the clock. Unless Faith managed to connect on a desperation heave, it would go into overtime.

Buffy and Faith were each performing as expected. Every time they met, each woman stepped it up a little. Sportswriters compared them to the great tennis duels between Chris and Martina in the 1980's. Faith had 26 points and 14 rebounds; Buffy had 25 and 9, with 8 assists. It was a classic.

After using its last time-out of regulation, UConn broke huddle. Everyone in the gym knew who would be attempting the shot and sure enough, Tennessee put two defenders on Faith. She ran off the screen and broke to the middle of the court but when she went up for the in-bounds pass, one of the defenders came with her. The pass glanced off her fingers and fell harmlessly to the court as the buzzer sounded.

They were going to overtime. Tara glanced at her watch. It was 2:19.

There were five ticks on the clock as Faith took her spot at the free-throw line. Tennessee was up by two, and if there was one knock on Lehane, it was that she could stand to work on her foul shots. When Tennessee fouled her in the act of shooting, there was a general sense among Vols fans that that wasn't necessarily the worst thing in the world. And here she was, facing the two biggest free throws of her life at the end of overtime, down two in the national championship.

She's Tara's best friend. If she doesn't make this, it'll crush her. She must be crazy right now. She tried to remember that Buffy was her best friend. And she wouldn't lie to herself--she didn't want Faith to make these shots. She wanted Tennessee to win; wanted to celebrate with the friend who had stood by her when being an out lesbian in Knoxville wasn't the easiest thing to do.

But Tara must be almost sick right now...

She could barely watch as Faith, who to all appearances was the least nervous person in the building right now, calmly gave the ball one bounce, then another. She set, eyed the hoop, and released, her motion practiced and smooth.

That crazy orange sphere seemed determined to visit every square centimeter of the hoop...before finally dropping through the net.

Oh shit...

Faith had apparently left her free-throw shooting concerns on the plane. The second shot had none of the commitment issues of the first. If it touched iron, Willow couldn't see it. It swished through and as Tennessee called their last time-out of this overtime period, Faith trotted casually toward the Husky bench as if she'd just played a game of H-O-R-S-E with the neighbor kid.

Pat drew up the play that everyone knew would ask for Buffy to pull off a miracle, one more for the team she'd carried for four years. Connecticut put pressure on the in-bounds play, and finally Tennessee had to dump it off to Morgan, their point guard. Morgan got the ball to Buffy but she had no good angle and her shot clanged off the rim and bounced up over the backboard as time expired.

They were going to double overtime.

Willow glanced at her watch. It was 2:37.

Tara stared miserably at the court, then back at her watch.

This is ridiculous. I'm sitting in the middle of the all-time greatest championship game in women's basketball, and I'm looking at the clock...And I don't even know what I'm going to do yet.

There's no way she'd leave this now, not with the score tied and the game heading into its third overtime...She doesn't think I'll leave, either.

It was 2:48. If she was going to make it to the park, she had to leave in the next five minutes. But there were less than four minutes to go, and the score was dead even.

Willow knew, though, just how slowly four minutes could go. Dead balls; time-outs; TV time-outs...It would almost certainly be at least 3:10 before the game was over--if this OT even decided it. The way it looked, the two teams might just play until one team's entire roster fouled out.

You don't even know if she'll show up. If only she'd given Tara her cell phone number. Tara could at least call her if she intended to meet her; say that obviously they'd wait until the end of the game.

But she had wanted to make it definite. If Tara were interested, she'd be there. If not, Willow would leave and try not to think about her.

Good luck with that.

And now she was frantic with indecision--on the one hand knowing that she had to go if she wanted to be there by 3:00; on the other, telling herself she was crazy to even think about leaving this game at this moment, especially in pursuit of a woman who may or may not show up herself.

Maybe they would both wait until the end of the game, and then head to the park...But if Tara made that sacrifice and went, only to find that Willow hadn't, how could she ask her to take this seriously?

Don't be crazy, Rosenberg. This is the national championship. Of course she's gonna wait it out. Her best friend's playing. Wait till it's over and then run like hell to the park...where she may not even show up.

Or perhaps would have shown up, only to leave when she realized Willow hadn't been as serious as she was; Willow, who had pleaded her case and then put Tara, put this connection on hold until it was convenient.

She gritted her teeth, desperate for clarity.

And that's when it hit her: no guarantees; no promises that it would end how she wanted it. You're the one who said you wanted to take more risks. And hell, at least she had seen Tennessee win a national championship in her time at Knoxville. UConn--and Faith, and Tara--hadn't been this close to the brass ring in years. If Tara left, it would be an even greater sacrifice.

She glanced at her watch: 2:52. Last call for Grand Romantic Gesture Junction, now boarding in the park across the street. She grabbed her jacket, pushed past an incredulous Dawn, and sprinted up the stairs.

So here I am, standing in the middle of a park in a strange city, having left the best women's basketball game of all time. If Tara didn't show up, she'd have done it for nothing.

Nothing except knowing I could take a risk.

And then she saw her, a woman that she hadn't even known existed three days ago, walking toward her. Saw the lopsided grin curving across the beautiful face as she spotted Willow sitting there--waiting for her.

They reached each other and smiled like kids on their birthdays until Willow reached out and pulled Tara close to her.

"We are certifiable," Tara whispered, shaking her head.

"I think you mentioned that the night we met."

Suddenly there was a huge roar from the arena. They pulled apart slightly, gazing at the source of all of that frenzy, then turned to look at each other.

"Someone's very happy right now," Tara murmured.

Willow cupped Tara's face in her hands, and then kissed her with a most singular combination of gentleness and hunger.

"We can check out the highlights later."


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