Driven - Part 2
Written by: Susanne Beck and TNovan
Disclaimers: Nothing really to disclaim. These characters and the story surrounding them are owned by the authors and may not be reproduced without their express written consent. There are bits of naughty language scattered here and there, as well as several tasteful, yet graphic, scenes of love between two consenting human beings of the same gender. Those offended by any of the above are welcomed to click the little red "X" at the top of their viewscreen and shut themselves of this story forever.
For those of you who are intrigued, we invite you to read further.
This story is complete (though it took over three years to write) and will be posted in four large parts over the succeeding days. We hope that you will enjoy.
This story is dedicated to all the fans on the swordnquil message list. Without your constant and heartfelt requests for more, this novel might never have been finished. You all rock to the nth degree. Thank you. And to MaryD, the Pallas Dylan "The Goddess" Lambert of the Xenaverse Website world. Thanks!!
Hodge looked at the key in her hand and at the door in front of her, smiling like the cat that ate the canary. Unlocking the door to her new apartment, she stuck her head inside as if she was expecting someone to be home. Too many years of living with family, friends and roommates had conditioned her to be cautious.
Once inside she looked at the bare dwelling. By her standards it was huge. She had gone for a loft apartment because the open feeling appealed to her; she had spent way too much time in dorm rooms and she liked the idea of spreading out. The down stairs was basically one large room with a living room and kitchen that could be set up any way she desired. The floor to ceiling windows on one wall made it bright and seem even larger.
There was a set of iron steps in the center of the room that curved up to the open second floor, where her bedroom and bathroom were. Of course right now the place was empty. Cat looked over at the small pile of her things in one corner. It consisted of five medium moving boxes, three suitcases and two duffle bags.
"Pathetic Hodge, just pathetic. You need stuff." She spun around in the center of the floor. "Lots of stuff."
Like the child she wasn’t that far removed from being, Hodge took off her shoes, leaving her in her socks, and took off running, skidding and sliding around on the freshly waxed hardwood floors.
Sliding into the kitchen, she grabbed hold of the counter to stop before she slid into the opposite wall. She opened the door to the fridge, opened the oven door, realizing that she couldn’t use it if she tried. Cooking was not her thing. Then she noticed the dishwasher and the microwave.
"This is good. Nuking I can do." Catherine Hodges didn’t have a clue that she was standing in a state of the art chef’s kitchen and it was possible than unless she got involved with a state of the art chef, she never would.
Climbing the steps to the second level she looked at the space that would eventually become her bedroom. Again, it was an open space with an iron rail to keep her from falling into the open floor below. One wall was outfitted with monstrous closets, more closets that Cat would ever require. When it came to clothes, she always looked great, but she was a minimalist.
The bathroom was well appointed and she nearly drooled when she saw the Jacuzzi tub in the center of the room. "Oh that’s going to be nice after a game."
Taking a deep breath she went back downstairs and simply laid in the center of the floor, giggling like a kid who had just been given the best Christmas present ever.
Three days later, Cat pulled opened the door to find a delivery guy leaning on a box and chomping on a piece of gum.
"Delivery for Catherine Hodges."
"Got yer furniture, lady."
"Great! I was getting a little tired of my sleeping bag. Great for camping, but on wood floors…." Putting her hands on her hips, she arched her back, groaning as the abused muscles along her spine forked out their protest. "You guys were supposed to be here yesterday."
"We got caught in traffic," the man replied drolly. "We tried to call but ya’ ain’t got no phone."
"Yeah, well the phone company didn’t show up either."
"Ever here of a cell phone?"
Hodge leveled a look at him, green eyes darkening a shade. "Just bring the furniture in, huh?"
The guy keyed the microphone on his lapel. "This is the place, bring the rest of it up." He tipped the handcart back and brought the boxes into the apartment. "Where do ya want these?"
"Pick an spot, any spot."
After about thirty-five minutes the apartment was furnished. Now all Cat had to do was move the stuff were she wanted it. She had managed to convince the guys to carry the bedroom furniture upstairs. They looked like she had asked them to fly to the moon and back, but they did it.
Now her once empty apartment was filled with nice, new furniture. Her signing bonus had been a rather tidy sum, and while she was always careful with her money, she couldn’t resist the urge to splurge, just this once. The furniture she’d purchased was top of the line. Beautiful to look at, it would last her for a good long time.
As she moved the TV and stand into place against one wall she lovingly patted the 27 inch color set. "One of these days you’ll be a big screen with surround sound."
She was placing a few of her books on the bookcase when there was another knock on the door. Blowing a frustrated breath she opened the door once again the find the telephone guy.
"Hook up for Hodges."
"Finally! Come in."
The guy stepped inside and looked at his clipboard. "Okay it says here one jack in the living room one jack in the bedroom and you’re gonna buy your own phones."
"Right. Just as soon as all the people who are suppose to hook shit up arrive so I don’t have to stay here trapped like a rat all damn day."
"’Kay." He answered, obviously oblivious to her mini rant. "Where to you want it?"
She pointed to that wall by the counter that separated the kitchen and the living room. "Right there."
She went back to unpacking and moving furniture while the telephone guy did his thing.
"You aren’t by chance the Hodges that was drafted by the Badgers are ya?"
"Yeah I am. You a fan?"
"Nah, but my sister loves that shit. Her and her girlfriend have season tickets."
"Lovely." Hodge mumbled while shoving the couch into place.
"S’ppose I could get an autograph?" he asked when he was through, handing her an invoice for her signature.
Looking up into the man’s eyes, she noticed that he was completely serious. It was a surreal moment. "Um…sure…I guess."
"Cool," the man remarked, handing her a business card with the name of the furniture store on it as soon as she returned the signed invoice to him. "My sister’s gonna shit herself blind when she sees this."
Wrinkling her nose at the unappetizing sentiment, Hodge hurriedly signed the card and pushed it across to the grinning man. "There ya go."
"Right on!" He looked hurriedly around the apartment, then back to Hodge. "Say, you don’t happen to have anything with that coach of yours’ autograph on it, do ya? Man, talk about stacked!"
The growling sound coming from his throat caused Hodge’s nose to wrinkle again. "Uh..no. Sorry."
"Damn," the man sighed. "Oh well, if ya ever do, let me know, will ya? Name’s on the invoice."
Hodge plastered a bright, if totally false, smile on her face. "I’ll do that," she said, taking his arm and leading him to the door.
An hour later, the cable guy, who actually turned out to be a very nice looking woman, showed up. Hodge grinned happily as she lead the woman into the living room.
"You know, you’re the only on who’s been on time," she commented, eyeing the attractive young woman.
"Sorry, utilities. Everyone else has been a day late."
"Figures." She stripped a wire and then crimped and end into place. "We have a policy that if we’re not here when we say, your first month’s service is free. Boss hates giving away free things."
Cat chuckled and leaned on the kitchen side of the bar, looking at the nice view the installer presented her as she bent over to make the connection. "I’ll bet."
The installer smiled to herself, well aware she was being watched. She fiddled with the connection a little longer than she needed to, then slowly straightened and turned, bestowing her very attractive customer with a rakish grin. Walking over, she gave Hodge the new remote and a business card. "You should be all set. If you ever need…anything…call the number on this card and I’ll be happy to help you out."
"I’m sure you will," Hodge replied, treating the woman to a flirtatious grin and deliberately brushing her fingers against those which held the business card.
The cable installer flushed a brilliant red and Hodge pulled back, a bit chagrinned to have flustered the other woman. Clearing her throat, she gave a more genuine, friendly smile. "Thank you," she said warmly. "I really appreciate your assistance."
"N-no problem," the installer all but squeaked. She edged toward the door. "I’ve…uh…gotta run. Another appointment, don’t wanna be late."
"Boss hates giving away free stuff. I remember."
"Yeah. Well..um…see you around."
"See you," Hodge replied, grinning as the slightly older woman slipped quickly out of the apartment.
The door closed, and Hodge put her hands on her hips, laughing. "I feel like I just woke up in the Twilight Zone."
Dressed in her practice jersey and a pair of long black shorts, her duffle bag over her shoulder, Hodge walked into the Horace T. Johnson Arena. The venue was only three years old, and sparkled with newness. Showing Johnson’s ambition, it had seats for forty thousand, even though the average home attendance was usually five to ten thousand fewer per game. Mirrored plexiglass fronted several exclusive—and expensive—skyboxes put there for the enjoyment of the rich and famous.
The court itself was varnished to a high, glossy shine. The butter colored wood was pleasing to the eye, though it contrasted less than wonderfully with the giant purple and black badger logo in the direct center.
The key, end and sidelines were a deep black stripe, while the three point arc was a deep purple. The nets were stiff and brilliant in their virgin whiteness, hung around deep red rims attached to clear plexiglass backboards.
The soles of Hodge’s basketball shoes squeaked loudly in the almost oppressive silence, and she spared a moment to wipe off the excess moisture with her hands before moving toward the brightly lit locker room.
"Oh, I can see I’m gonna be hating this color scheme in about a week," she remarked softly as she entered the huge purple and black locker room. "God, this looks like a bad LSD trip!"
The floor was black tile, the ceiling purple cork. The lockers stood at silent attention, like soldiers dressed, alternately, in black and purple uniforms, ready for war. Near the far corner, Hodge spied her locker, painted a gleaming black. Her name was at eye level, printed carefully on a blinding white strip of con-tac paper with her jersey number beneath it. Setting her duffle on the bench, she opened the good-sized locker and saw the rest of her uniforms waiting complacently.
"Not bad," she murmured, running her fingers across the soft fabric and imagining the day—not so far away now—when she’d have the pleasure of donning one for real. For just a moment, the noise of an excited crowd floated into her mind, interspersed with the sounds of basketballs being bounced on varnished courts and slipping through stiffened nets. A beautiful smile curved her lips—the smile of a child on Christmas morning.
Her daydream was interrupted by a soft clearing of the throat, and when she turned, she saw a tall woman, perhaps two or three years older than her, looking at her with a shy smile. "Hello," the woman said in heavily accented, though easily understood, English.
"Hello," Cat replied, smiling.
The woman took a step forward, long fingers fumbling with the straps to her duffel. "You are… Ecaterina Hodges, yes?"
Cat’s smile broadened. "Yes, I am."
The woman looked relieved. "I thought so. I…saw you on television. You are very good."
There was a moment of silence before the woman’s head ducked, and she blushed. "I am sorry. My manners…." One hand came away from the duffel and extended as the woman approached. "I am Anya Seletskaya. From Belarus. I am here to try out for a place on the Badgers."
Hodge immediately gripped the young woman’s hand, giving it a firm shake. "It’s very good to meet you, Anya."
"And is good to meet you as well." Anya looked around, as if for the first time. Her lips pinched inward as her eyes widened. "This is…."
"Dead ugly," Cat finished for her, grinning.
Anya looked at her, surprised, then laughed. "I’ve seen uglier," she commented, "but never on purpose!"
Noises from behind them stirred the two women into action, and they packed their gear in their lockers, then turned and eased their way through the small crowd of chattering young woman entering the locker room, arms spilling with gear.
A moment later, they were both on the court and, with the ease of long habit, Hodge moved to one sideline and began her stretching routine, smiling as Anya joined her. Her body submitted to the gentle stretching without complaint, despite the enforced break in her usual routine. She’d taken Dylan’s words to heart, however, and no matter the details of her day, managed to put in at least three miles worth of running each morning. She knew the extra effort would be worth the annoyance endured. She’d never been that fond of distance running.
As she stretched, her eyes idly captured her teammates as they streamed onto the court, laughing and jesting with one another without a seeming care in the world. Part of her envied them their lightheartedness. Her breakfast of dry toast and juice was sitting leaden in her belly as skitters of nervous anticipation danced over her slowly warming muscles.
The laughter and talk that echoed through the massive arena slowly faded away as two women, both in their early thirties and dressed identically in black nylon sweats and golf shirts, entered the venue, whistles around their necks and basketballs under their arms. Hodge recognized the first woman easily, having seen her on television any number of times over the years.
Diana Caulley was the first assistant coach of the Birmingham Badgers. Standing five feet, eleven inches tall, she was fit and well formed, with sandy hair that curled around her collar and deep set, intelligent gray eyes that missed very little. A shoulder injury had ended a promising career in her rookie year, but she’d parlayed her love of basketball and a keen intelligence into a coaching job and never looked back.
The woman standing beside her was one that Hodge didn’t recognize, but to judge by the woman’s body-builder’s stature and the chiseled, no nonsense expression on her face, she had a feeling that a less than pleasant acquaintance would be drawn up in the not-too-distant future.
So thinking, she slowly rose from her place on the varnished court and moved to join her fellows in a rough semi-circle before the two women, waiting for the fun to begin.
Diana’s eyes narrowed as she took in the nine women standing before her. She recognized them all, of course, having been instrumental in bringing almost half into the sites of one Dylan Lambert and setting up this opportunity for them to show what they could do. They were veterans, cut from other teams, or in the case of Anya Seletskaya, lured away from less than lucrative foreign contracts and into the bright lights of a new opportunity.
The rest were draft picks, fresh from college and chosen by Dylan’s own hand. Of the nine, only four would emerge to fill the vacant slots on an already established team. It was Diana’s job to help cull the wheat from the chaff and to put forward only those worthy of their contracts. It was duty she considered almost a sacred rite, and she was very, very good at her job.
Each pair of eyes met hers, then darted away, message received.
Satisfied, Diana smiled. "Welcome to the Badgers."
There was a soft murmur as the women returned her greeting.
"I’m Diana Caulley, first assistant coach, and this," she said, indicating the 5’9" mass of muscle to her left, "is TJ Barnes, strength and conditioning coach. For the next three weeks, we are all going to get to know one another very well indeed." Her smile broadened, thin lips curling into more than the hint of a smirk. "And in order for us to do that with as much ease as possible, here are a few, non-negotiable, ground-rules."
One hand uncurled from her hip, long fingers splaying to tick off the pertinent points. "First…this is called ‘rookie camp’ for a reason. I don’t care if you’ve been playing in the league for years or if the ink’s still wet on your sheepskin. You’re all rookies here, and you’ll be treated that way until I say differently. Is that understood?"
More quiet murmuring.
"Good. It’s best to get that out of the way first. There aren’t any prima donnas here. First round draft pick," and this was said with a long, hard, significant look in Hodge’s direction, "or walk on, everyone is at the bottom rung of the ladder until they prove otherwise. Leave your egos at the door, ladies."
Good God, Hodge thought, this woman is a walking cliché.
Gray eyes met hers again and Hodge resisted the urge to swallow hard. She knew her sentiment, at least in part, had been read and the battle lines drawn.
Great. Just what I need. The drill sergeant from Hell on my ass my first day. What is it with me and lousy first impressions anyway?
The assistant coach continued on. "From Monday through Saturday, seven am until seven pm, you all belong to me. You will eat, breathe and sleep Badgers’ basketball. When you’re not here, you’ll be home, studying the playbook until every single punctuation mark is stored in your brains. You will not drink, smoke, party or otherwise get yourselves into trouble or you’re out the door, contract or no. Am I making myself clear?"
Nods all around.
"Alright then. Let’s see what you ladies are made of." The smirk fully bloomed as Diana turned and gestured to the large arena. "Four times around, if you please, and make sure you hit every step." A sharp blast of her whistle punctuated Caulley’s order, and the women were off and running into the stands.
Hodge might not have cared for running, but she did it well, easily pacing herself as she hit the first set of stairs and started upward. Her father had long been a proponent of "slow and steady wins the race", and she’d never seen the need to separate herself from his apt philosophy.
Slipping into an easy rhythm, she allowed her body to carry her along mindlessly as she concentrated on the rest of the group. Two young women, tall, thin, and looking enough alike to be twins, were far ahead of the rest, playing rabbit. They’d tire soon enough, Hodge predicted, confident in her own abilities.
The rest of the small group strung along in a line, one behind the other, each slipping into her own favored stride. Anya was close behind Hodge, very light on her feet despite her stocky size.
By the end of the second lap, the rabbits were slowing and, setting her jaw, Hodge began to reel them in like fish on the line.
She led them out of the stands and onto the court, her lungs and legs burning in equal measure. On the whole, however, she was satisfied with her performance.
Caulley, on the other hand, looked as if she’d bitten into a particularly sour lemon as she stared down at the stopwatch clutched tightly in one hand.
"Abysmal, ladies," she stated flatly, walking over to the gasping group. "Just abysmal." Several blank faces staring back at her caused the pinched look to deepen. "That means ‘bad’, Coles."
Coles, a rangy forward who’d been drafted in the third round, flushed and looked away.
Caulley shook her head, and turned to her conditioning coach, speaking in a loud stage whisper. "Remind me to steer my nieces away from UC Berkley."
Coles’ flush deepened, now tinged with anger as well as embarrassment.
Caulley smirked. "Don’t sweat it, pumpkin. I’m sure those underwater basket weaving classes taxed you to your limit, hmm?"
Coles’ mouth opened, then closed, and her throat worked as she swallowed her words.
Caulley smiled. "So, you have some brains up there after all. Good." She gave each member of the group a pointed look, stopwatch dangling loosely by its strap. "I should make you run the arena again until you take at least twenty seconds off this crappy time, but I’m in a good mood today."
Nine sets of shoulders sagged in relief.
"So we’ll do windsprints instead."
Nine groans echoed through the empty building.
Caulley smirked again. "Two lines, ladies. Get ready to go on my whistle. Ready? Go."
Hodge groaned with pleasure as she slid down in the tub until her chin touched the swirling water. Though she would have rather had her eyes plucked out with rusty spoons than admit it aloud, her body ached from the day’s labors. Caulley and her partner-of-few-words were true taskmasters, though she had to admit they were very good at their jobs. In one day of practice, she’d come close to learning more than during the four years she’d spend at UCONN.
"You’re not in Kansas anymore, Cat," she muttered to herself as one slightly wet hand reached out to grab the thick playbook resting on the tiled floor.
She’d already leafed through the book half a dozen times, looking at the plays and their attendant diagrams with interest. What she saw both surprised and pleased her.
"Dylan drew up these plays, you dolt," she chastised herself. "That alone should tell you they’d be anything but run-of-the-mill."
With a bit of chagrin, she admitted to herself that, given the relative youth of the team, and the attendant lack of wide ranging experience, she had expected an offense heavy with plays that emphasized a ball-control, clock-eating, half-court scheme.
Low scoring, perhaps, but usually effective against bigger and more experienced teams.
Instead, she found herself looking at plays that emphasized what was sometimes called a "run and gun" offense; an offense which was very much like what many, if not most, professional men’s teams used—heavy in transition, all motion, utilizing the full court instead of just half of it.
Discovering this, she came to realize exactly why it was that she, of all players in the draft, had been chosen to lead this team.
A point guard in a run and gun offense didn’t have to be the best athlete on the court, just the smartest and the most unselfish. And Catherine Hodges had legitimate claim to both of those attributes.
She’d led just such an offense for four years running, and while she was never the points leader, she’d led the conference in assists for three of those four years. She thought well on her feet, was quick, and an expert passer who could read defenses as well as anyone in the conference. Her three point and foul shooting abilities didn’t hurt either.
With a happy sigh, she closed the book, laid it back down on the floor, and sunk deep in the hottub, allowing the jets of water to work their magic on her aching muscles.
The phone rang for the fourth time and Cat’s face dropped. "Come on, come on," she softly pled, needing to hear the sound of her mother’s voice. It wasn’t an urge that hit her often, but when it did, obstacles be damned.
"Hodge residence." The voice of her youngest brother croaked out against her ear.
"Hey butthead." She plopped down in the overstuffed armchair and proceeded to get comfortable.
"Hey Beavis. Whatcha doing?"
"Calling to see how ya’ll are surviving without me?"
"Eh, you know, the dork level in the house went down ten points when you left." He giggled, having ‘gotten off a good one’ as the household was fond of saying. Cat could tell one of her other brothers had used the line previously and he willingly repeated it, passing it off as his own.
"Love you to brat. Mom home?"
"Of course. She baking pies for the PTA bake sale Friday."
"Peach or apple?"
Hodge’s stomach growled at the mention of her mother’s pies. "Has she got time to talk to me?"
"I dunno let me ask her."
Cat pulled the phone from her ear when he let loose a blood-curdling yell into the speaker. Wincing, she scowled at the phone, silently vowing to Indian rope burn her brother to within an inch of his life the next time she saw him.
"Catherine? Honey are you all right?"
Putting the phone back to her ear, Cat swallowed the knot that had formed in her throat and smiled as she answered quietly. "Hi Mom."
"Honey what’s wrong?"
"Nothing’s wrong Mom. I just wanted to call and see how you guys were doing."
"Well, we do miss you a lot. Your father has done nothing but grumble about the boys beating him at basketball ever since you left."
Cat grinned and settled into the chair, throwing a blanket over her legs. "I’m sure he’s fine. He always grumbles."
"This is true. How are things going for you?"
The sound of her mother piddling around the kitchen brought a smile to Cat’s face. It was the sound of home that she found herself missing very much. "Okay. I mean great, but they’re working my butt off and I came home from practice the other night feeling like I was going to die. Coach is fantastic, but damn she doesn’t let up for even one minute. One of the girls puked."
"Catherine! I’m fixing pies here, if you don’t mind."
"Sorry." Hodge held the phone closer, trying to get as close to her mom as possible. "I miss you guys."
"And we miss you too. You know you can always come home honey. We won’t think any less of you for it."
"I know, but I won’t. I’m doing something important here and I intend to stick with it. It’s just hard being away from home right now. It feels permanent, ya know?"
"It’s the first time you’ve ever been away from home and truly on your own honey. Even in college you came home once a month."
"I know and this feels different."
"But this is always your home and you can come back anytime."
"Thanks. I think that’s what I needed to hear."
"I love you."
"I love you too, Mom. Talk to you soon."
Hodge placed the receiver in the cradle then curled up in the chair, pulling the blanket over her body and staring out the window of her apartment at the lights of the city. "I love you, Mom."
The sound of the whistle’s sharp blast echoed through the cavernous arena.
"Damnit, Hodges," Caulley screamed from inches away, "is this a new development or were you just born stupid?!?"
Gritting her teeth, Hodge resisted the urge to heft the ball in her hands and stick it where the sun never dared to shine. Instead, she concentrated on keeping her body relaxed and her thoughts clear. "Sorry coach," she said finally, once she could be sure her anger wouldn’t come through in her voice.
"Sorry? We’ve been at this now for two hours and all you can say is ‘sorry’??" Turning in a circle, Caulley addressed the rest of the team, her eyes wide with mock surprise. "Did you hear that, ladies? Catherine Hodges is sorry! Isn’t that special?" Hands on hips, she shook her head. "I hope you’re all in a forgiving mood at three am tomorrow morning when we’re still trying to get through this simple little drill."
The others shuffled their feet, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
With a noiseless sigh, Hodge dribbled the ball back to the endline and awaited Caulley’s next order.
In truth, it was a simple drill; one that Cat had run through a thousand times in the past. It was a drill that attempted to break a full-court press; something that Cat could normally do in her sleep.
The added wrinkle to this particular drill, however, was that Cat wasn’t allowed to use her natural quickness to avoid the trap block. Instead, she was required to dribble right into it, pull up, and look for an open teammate to pass to, while two hulking behemoths dressed like coaches waved their arms in her face. An additional problem was that the only teammates she could pass to were short guards who were guarded by very tall forwards every step of the way.
It made the situation difficult, to say the least.
The whistle blew, bringing Hodge back into the present, and she dribbled the ball toward the trap block, everything in her resisting the urge to exploit the space between her two defenders that one could have driven an entire herd of elephants through, were one so inclined.
Pulling up as ordered, she attempted to ignore the hands waving in her face. Out of the corner of one eye, she spied a fast moving blur moving to her right. In a move more instinctual than premeditated, she rifled a sharp blast toward the blur, all the while praying it was one of her own teammates.
Still blinded, she could only listen as the sounds of the ball being rapidly dribbled toward her goal reached her ears, followed by a long moment of silence, and then a noise which could only be the ball swishing sweetly through the net.
Then more silence, dragging on until it was broken by the deep velvet voice of one Dylan Lambert. "And that, ladies, is how you break a full court press."
Applause erupted, and Hodge stepped around her erstwhile defenders in time to catch both the smirk and the wink aimed her way. Helpless to do anything but, she grinned back and mouthed a heartfelt "thank you" to her savior.
One eyebrow raised, and the ball was launched back to her, hitting her hands hard enough to sting. As she gathered it in, her grin broadened and her heart felt lighter than it had in days.
A slap on her back raised Hodge from her pleasant thoughts, and she turned to see Anya standing behind her, grinning like the cat who’d eaten the canary.
"Did you see the look on Caulley’s face when you made that pass? I thought she was about to birth an elephant!"
After checking over her shoulder to be see the woman in question deep in conversation with Dylan, Hodge allowed herself a broad grin and a laugh. "Serves her right."
"She’s a dragon lady alright," Anya agreed, chuckling. "So tell me, how did you know Coach Lambert was going to be there to receive that rocket you call a pass?"
"I didn’t. I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye and reacted." Hodge laughed. "Then I prayed."
"Somebody up there must like you, then."
Hodge looked over at Dylan, who was deep in conversation with her assistant coach. Caulley was red-faced, her arms gesticulating wildly over some point Dylan was making. After a moment, Dylan turned and walked off without so much as a backward glance. Hodge felt something in her belly shift. "I sure hope so," she murmured.
Caulley chose that moment to turn—still red-faced—in Cat’s direction, her eyes piercing and stormy. "Hodge, pack up your gear!" she yelled across the court.
Cat’s heart stopped, then fluttered several times. "Coach?"
"You heard me. Pack up your gear. You’re outta here!"
Hodge clenched her jaw and turned on her heel toward the bench where her towel lay. The scrimmage had stopped and everyone was watching as Hodge wiped her face with the towel before tossing it into the basket with the others. Two points. Fat lotta good that does me now.
"Everybody back to work." Caulley called to the others. "Go on, or I’ll have you doing windsprints till you’re eighty!"
The rest of the rookies quickly snapped to, though several gave Hodge pitying looks as they did so.
Cat took a deep breath and mentally ordered herself not to cry until she was well away from everyone. She had known it could end at anytime, that nothing in life was permanent. She had just hoped it would have taken a little longer.
Stupid, she whispered to herself as she crossed the court. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should have known what was up three days ago, Cat. You obviously don’t have what they’re looking for.
She didn’t even bother trying to read the look on Caulley’s face as she headed for the locker room, already knowing what she’d find there.
The locker room was empty and cold as she opened her locker and grabbed her duffel. The cursed tears escaped their confinement and rolled silently down her cheeks as she fingered one of the uniform tops waiting so patiently for her to don it.
"Maybe next year, huh?" she whispered, causing more tears to fall.
With one last, long look, she quietly closed the locker, and trailed the tips of her fingers over the plate bearing her name which hung on the outside.
Using those same fingers to wipe away her tears, Cat turned and headed toward the door, only stopping when she pulled it open to find Dylan Lambert standing on the other side, striking and a bit intimidating in a uniform Hodge was sure she herself would never get the opportunity to wear.
Tears sprung up in her eyes again, and she wiped them away with a savage swipe of her hand. "Sorry Coach," she murmured, not able to meet the clear blue eyes that looked down at her. "I gave it my best shot, but I guess it wasn’t good enough."
Dylan’s eyes narrowed, then cleared as she put two and two together and immediately came up with four. Ah, Diana, my friend, I love you, but we’re going to have a long talk, you and I. Very soon.
Stepping away from the door, Dylan gestured toward the arena’s exit with a tilt of her head. "Follow me," she commanded softly.
Hodge followed numbly behind Dylan as the taller woman led them into the sunny warmth of the late afternoon and over to a smaller building several hundred feet away from the main arena. When they stepped inside, Hodge’s ears perked to the sounds of bouncing basketballs, squeaky sneakers, and the cheerful shouts of several women. She looked curiously at Dylan, but the smirk on the Coach’s face gave no clues.
Several steps later, and they were standing on the sidelines of yet another basketball court which was ringed on all sides by simple wooden benches and not much else. Cat’s eyes widened as she came to the realization that she recognized each and every single one of the women currently practicing on the court.
Angela Tippens, the six foot six inch center with the bleach blond hair and androgynous features, had been drafted from Australia two years back. With her ability to jump like a pogo stick coupled with her Australian heritage, she was immediately nicknamed ‘Roo’.
Shaniqua Chaney, six feet of cornrows, tattoos, piercings and attitude, had been drafted from Temple the year prior and had the makings of the best shooting guard in the league, taking a great number of cues from her idol, Allen Iverson.
Rosalie King and Marcette LeRoy were two potential-filled forwards from North Carolina, and Nanette Mackey, point guard and Tamara Stern, center/forward were two crafty veterans who’d played for several teams during their long tenure with the WBA.
Realizing she was looking at the starting lineup of the Birmingham Badgers, Hodge stared up at her Coach, her face one large question mark.
Dylan’s smirk became more pronounced. "Think you’re ready to swim in the deep end of the pool, Catherine?"
Hodge blinked once, then cleared her throat. "Excuse me?"
Dylan took a significant glance at the court, then back to her newest star in the making. Her eyebrow rose.
Hodge flushed, then paled as the realization stole over her. "You…you mean I’m not fired?"
Dylan snorted. "Hardly."
"But I thought…."
"I know," Dylan replied, her eyes warming. "And I’m going to talk to dear Diana about that this evening before she leaves for home. I pay her to be a bitch, but sometimes she goes a bit too far."
"So, does this mean…?"
"Yes it does." Dylan grinned. "Welcome to the Badgers, Starting Point Guard Catherine Hodges."
Scarcely aware of what she was doing, Hodge opened her arms and closed the small distance between them, clasping Dylan in a fervent, effusive hug. "Thank you so much!" Hodge’s voice was muffled against the fabric of Dylan’s jersey.
Dylan stiffened, stunned at the very unexpected action, then slowly returned the hug, albeit a bit awkwardly. "You’re very welcome."
The moment was interrupted by laughter and catcalls. Immediately mortified, Hodge pulled away, only now fully aware of her actions. Her face flushed a color that would have done an overripe tomato proud. "Oh my god," she moaned, dropping her head into her hands. "I did it again, didn’t I."
Dylan’s answering laughter was music to her burning ears.
"Good afternoon and welcome to the Southern Sports Network ,television home of the Birmingham Badgers. I’m Todd Black and this is my co-host, the lovely Melinda Morton. We’re coming to you live tonight from inside the beautiful Horace Johnson Arena where the Badgers are set to open their season against last year’s WBA Champions, the New York Thunder. The house is pretty packed, Melinda."
"You’re right about that, Todd. A nice sized crowd has shown up tonight to see if Coach Dylan Lambert’s offseason wrangling has paid off."
"That’s true, Melinda. She’s made a lot of changes this year, including the shocker of the decade, her choice for first pick of the draft, the diminutive Catherine Hodges."
"Well, Ms. Hodges may be small, but she has heart, and she knows her way around a basketball court, leading her college team, the UCONN Huskies to an NCAA championship. It’ll be interesting to see how she fits into the new offensive scheme sources say Coach Lambert has spent the entire offseason developing and perfecting."
"Sounds interesting, Melinda. Anything else your sources have to tell you?"
"Not really, Todd. Just that this is an entirely new Badgers team, and that we should look forward to seeing some things we haven’t before from them."
"I’m sure we’ll all be keeping our eyes and ears open, then. And now, let’s get courtside and listen to the team introductions."
Hodge stood on the sideline, shifting back and forth on her feet and shaking her hands.
"You doin’ alright, Shortchange?"
Rolling her eyes at her new nickname, Hodge turned toward Shaniqua Chaney, who was standing beside her. "My stomach is a cave and the bats are rebelling."
Chaney laughed, making the black and purple beads at the ends of her cornrows click together. Hodge found the sound oddly comforting. "Don’t sweat it, Shortchange. Those bats’ll always be there. You just gotta use em in your favor." A careless hand swept forward to the entire arena. "Look at all them people up there. All of em’s waitin to see you fly or fall. You just tell yourself them bats are gonna help you fly."
Hodge couldn’t help laughing at the analogy, and the action caused her stomach to settle somewhat. "Thanks, Chane."
"Hey, no problem, girl. Let’s do ‘em."
The cheering crowd became silent as the public address announcer’s voice came over the speakers. Hodge’s stomach began to churn again.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Horace Johnson Arena, the home of your Birmingham Badgers!"
Jumping to its feet, the crowd went wild, cheering and throwing purple and black streamers which littered the court.
"And here are your starters. A five foot six inch point guard from the University of Connecticut, number 33, Catherine Hodges!"
Hodge ran onto center court in a daze, barely hearing the cheering of the crowd. Though it was something she’d done more times than she could count during the past eight years of her life, and often in front of crowds much larger than this one, something about this night was different. It seemed almost magical somehow, dreamlike in a way that even the NCAA Championship hadn’t felt.
Before she knew it, she was surrounded by her teammates and was being escorted to the sidelines, watching as Dylan, dressed in a black suit with a blinding white shirt beneath, shook the hand of the opposing coach.
Cat blinked, then shook herself out of her daze when she realized that Dylan had joined the group and was imparting some last minute instructions.
"Alright guys," Dylan said, looking each player directly in the eyes, "play aggressive, play smart. Back each other up, and remember what we’ve been practicing." Looking around the circle, Dylan finally smiled as she saw the sea of determined heads nodding. "Alright. Let’s do it."
The butterflies came back with a vengeance as Hodge returned to center court and waited for the game to begin. The running sweat of her palms dampened the fabric of her jersey as she wiped her hands in a nervous gesture.
The referee’s whistle blew, and the game was on.
Roo tipped the jump into Chaney’s hands. Chaney passed the ball to Hodge, who dribbled past half court and waited for the play to set up around her. The defense was easily read as man-to-man, and faced off against her was Tarma McKinney, the best point guard in the league.
Chaney broke free of her coverage and Hodge rifled a pass, which was immediately intercepted by McKinney, who took off down the court like a rocket and scored the game’s first two points with an easy, uncontested lay-up.
Cursing herself, Hodge stepped beyond the endline and took the ball, passing it to Chaney, then receiving it back and dribbling quickly past center court. A lane to the basket opened like Moses parting the Red Sea, and she went for it, managing to dribble into the paint before a dark hand shot through and relieved her of the ball neatly as you please.
Gritting her teeth, Hodge turned and ran after the thief, but McKinney’s speed was greater and again she was forced to watch as the veteran point guard scored an easy lay-up to make the score 4-0.
McKinney placed the ball on the endline, then turned, brushing Hodge’s shoulder with her own as she ran by. "Go back to the sandbox, scrub. You got no game."
"Don’t listen to her, Shortchange," Chaney advised as she handed the ball to Cat. "Bullshit’s the only thing that comes outta that mouth."
"I’ll try, Chane," Hodge sighed as she started back upcourt.
"You don’t try, girl. You do. This shit ain’t no different from what you’ve been through already. Suck it up and play."
Standing on the sideline, Dylan resisted the urge to turn away as the approach of Diana Caulley registered in the periphery of her vision. "Save it," she snapped when Caulley got within range.
"That’s not why you pay me, Dylan," Caulley interjected softly. "You need to bench her. Now, before she becomes even more of a liability."
"I told you to save it," Dylan replied, turning and pinning her assistant coach to the floor with her glare. "She just needs a little time to get settled."
"How much time are you gonna give her, Dylan? Are you gonna wait until we’re so damn deep in a hole that we’ll never get out?"
"Enough," Dylan snapped, and turned away, putting an end to the conversation. She kept her gaze focused on Hodge as the young woman drove up and down the court, always in constant motion. To Dylan’s experienced eye, Cat had settled somewhat, but Dylan frowned as she realized the reason behind it.
As the point guard, Hodge chose the plays the team would use, and Dylan could tell that the young woman was choosing plays that kept her as far away from the action as possible.
She doesn’t trust herself, Dylan thought, gritting her teeth. Shit.
Her jaw clenched harder as she watched Hodge try a courageous block which, unfortunately, wound up in a shooting foul. That was followed up almost immediately by a second foul as Hodge pushed off on McKinney in order to get herself free to receive the inbounds pass from Chaney.
Two fouls in two minutes.
Her reluctant decision made, Dylan called out over her shoulder without ever taking her eyes from the action on the court. "Mackey!"
"You’re in for Hodge."
Dylan watched as Hodge jogged from the court, sat on the bench, and covered her bowed face with a towel. She sighed softly and allowed the young woman to stew for a moment as she made sure Mackey was able to pick up the slack.
Assured, Dylan walked back down the sideline and squatted down in front of Hodge, laying a hand atop the point guard’s knee. "Hey."
Hodge looked up, an expression of abject misery darkening her eyes. "Hey, Coach." Her voice was little more than a whisper.
Hodge laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. "I choked."
"Not yet, you haven’t," Dylan countered.
"Sure I have." She laughed again, a hopeless sound. "First round draft pick, next big star…."
Dylan’s eyes softened. "You can’t be a star unless you give yourself the chance to shine." She squeezed the knee under her hand. "You can do this, Catherine. I know you can. You know that too."
The naked plea went straight to Dylan’s heart. Turning, she gestured to the action on the court. "Look at them, Catherine. Do you see anything going on there that you haven’t done a thousand times before?"
Hodge looked. After a long moment, she shook her head. "No."
Dylan smiled. "Exactly. You just need to take the confidence we both know you have in yourself and let it out. Just like every other time you’ve stepped on the basketball court."
"But this is different."
"Not really. It isn’t, Catherine. The only thing you’re lacking is professional experience, but that’ll come with every play, and every game. You have the skills. You have the heart. Now let’s see you use ‘em, alright?"
Not breaking Dylan’s gaze, Hodge took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She felt something within herself center and become calm. A smile came up from somewhere and she let it bloom on her face. "Okay."
Dylan allowed her own smile to broaden, and she slowly rose to her feet. "Go back in for Mackay. And when you do, I want you to use 43 Block 27."
Hodge’s eyes widened. "Coach?"
"Just do it."
The whistle blew, and Hodge ran back onto the court, wiping her hands on her jersey. Chaney greeted her with a grin and a slap on the behind. "Get ‘em, Shortchange."
Hodge nodded, then took her place behind the endline. With a sure pass, she rifled the ball to Chaney, who tossed it back to her on the run. Side by side they made it past half court. McKinney came in for a lazy steal, but Hodge drew the ball between her legs in a scissors dribble and easily evaded the other woman’s attempt.
She passed the ball to her left to her small forward, allowing King to use her body in a pick as Hodge eased behind her and onto an open spot in the corner, unguarded. The ball flew into her hands and left just as quickly, arcing through the air and through the net for a three point play.
The crowd cheered and Hodge pumped her fist as she backpedaled, then stepped in, returning a favor by stealing the ball from McKinney and dishing it off to a speeding Chaney for an easy lay-up.
The crowd cheered again, and Hodge shouted happily.
She was back.
"And that wraps up our coverage of the Birmingham Badger’s opening game, with the Badgers loosing a hard fought battle, 94 – 88. Any parting thoughts, Melinda?"
"Well, Todd, after a somewhat rocky start, Catherine Hodges showed flashes of why she was chosen by Coach Lambert as the first pick in the draft. With twelve points and nine assists, she was responsible for almost half of the Badgers’ offence, and she was a defensive dynamo as well, managing three steals against McKinney, arguably the best point guard in the league."
"I agree, Melinda. Her teammate Shaniqua Chaney, who led all scorers with twenty two points is also going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming weeks. If they can just work on their defensive scheme and foul-shooting, I think Badgers fans could be in for quite a ride this season."
"Can’t say much more than that, Todd."
"Then I guess that about wraps it up. From all of us here at Southern Sports Network, here’s bidding you goodnight from Horace Johnson Arena where the Birmingham Badgers lose to the New York Thunder 94 - 88."
Cat stood at the top of the key bouncing the ball slowly, back and forth between her hands. She looked around the mostly dark arena. Everyone was gone now, and the only sound in Cat’s ears was the roar of a ghostly crowd that did its best to cheer the team to a victory.
"Sorry, guys," she offered to the net as she shot the ball at it like a missile. "Guess I blew it this time."
Her teeth bared in an expression that was half growl, half grimace as she caught the ball on the rebound. She hated losing. Hated it with every fiber of her being. And to know that the loss rested on her shoulders made an intolerable situation even worse.
"Shit. What a joke."
"What makes you say that?"
Cat’s head dropped when she heard the voice behind her.
"Well." Coach Lambert drew steadily closer, her steps resounding softly on the court floor. "What makes you think you’re a joke, Catherine?"
"Come on Coach." Hodge turned around to face the tall woman. "We should have won that game."
"Why? Those were last year’s champions. What makes you think we could have beaten them?"
"We’re better than they are."
"Yes," Cat shifted on her foot. "Well the team is better than they are. I’m not sure I am. I choked."
"We already had this conversation. You did not choke. You lost your stride." A corner of Dylan’s mouth curved up. "Actually you didn’t lose it; you just had a hard time finding it." Dylan moved to where the ball had come to rest near the wall. She bounced it a couple times, enjoying the feel of it against her hand. She pulled it to her chest and fired it at Cat, who caught it smoothly.
"Why were you staying away from the ball, Cat?"
"Yes, you were. Every play you called, put you as far away from the ball as humanly possible without you playing in another arena. Why?"
Hodge narrowed her eyes. "I’m the point guard. It’s my job to create opportunities for my teammates."
"Mm." Dylan pretended to consider Cat’s statement.
Hodge tried again. "The other players have more experience."
"And you’re going to get your own experience….how, again?"
Sighing, Hodge bowed her head, well and truly caught out.
"So, can I count on you being in the game and giving it one hundred percent next time around?"
Hodge felt her cheeks flush at the gentle reprimand. She nodded. "I promise."
Cat passed the ball back to Dylan who stepped back to the perimeter and sunk a three pointer that seemed as effortless as breathing.
"How did you know I’d be here?" Hodge asked, curious.
"Because," Dylan passed the ball back and pointed at the net, indicating Cat should shoot, "when I was a rookie and a game didn’t end the way I wanted, this is always where I ended up. Running it through my mind and trying to figure out what I did wrong."
Cat shot the ball; it bounced off the rim and landed directly in Dylan’s hands. The Coach sent it back to the blonde. "Do it again."
"So when you were running it through, did you ever find the spot were you screwed up?" Cat inquired as she fingered the ball, twisting it in her hands.
"No." Dylan shrugged. "I found spots where I could have been a stronger player, but never where I messed up so much it cost us the game."
"So my little imitation of an ice cube in the first half didn’t cost us the game?"
"Do you think it did?"
Hodge sighed and shot the ball, rattling the rim several times before it slipped through. "That’s just the point, Coach. I don’t know."
Dylan’s gaze softened. "Trust me. If you had cost this team the game, I would have been the first to tell you. You had first game jitters, it happens. Hell it may happen again. Just don’t let it get you next time."
"Yes, Coach." Cat smiled and took another shot. The ball went in with the sweet sound of nothing but net.
"That’s more like it. So are you exhausted?"
"Actually believe it or not, I’m not. I’m kinda charged."
"Little one on one?"
"Against you?" Cat grinned and shrugged. "Sure why not, I’ve already had once ass whipping tonight, another one won’t kill me."
Dylan chuckled as she stripped off her sweat jacket. Cat noticed for the very first time, now that she was coming out of her funk, that the Coach had changed clothes. She swallowed hard when she got a good look at well-toned arms under the tank top.
Oh shit! Cat, don’t go there. Don’t do this to yourself. This is your coach, your hero. Your basketball idol. You cannot have those thoughts about her. Stop it!
"Earth to Catherine. Head out of the clouds please. Let’s go." She fired the ball at Cat and took up a defensive position under the net. "Come on Shortchange. Let’s see what you got against this old war horse."
"That’s it! Game point." Dylan pulled the ball to her body and watched as Cat bent at the waist, trying to catch her breath. "You okay?"
"I’m…I’m…" She gulped. "Great. Damn." She wiped the sweat from her forehead as she looked up at Dylan who didn’t even appear to have broken a sweat. "Tell me again why you don’t play anymore?"
Dylan smirked and waggled her hand. "Eh, the knee still has its limitations."
"Excuse me?" Dylan’s brow rose as she tossed a towel to the rookie. "What did you just say?"
"I said," Cat paused to wipe off her face and neck, before looking at Dylan once again. "Bullshit. You’ve got more game in your little finger than the rest of us have in our entire bodies." She gestured to herself. "Look at me, I’m drenched. You ran me ragged out there and you never broke a sweat. I don’t know why you’re not playing Coach, but it ain’t because of that knee."
Dylan watched, slightly amazed as Cat gathered up her gear and the ball and headed for the locker room. "Well, well, looks like my little spitfire has gotten her spark back."
With Cat well out of sight, Dylan sat down on the bench and pulled up her sweat pant leg to look at her knee, which was just a little swollen, but not hurting too bad. "She may also have your number, Pallas. This could be bad."
The Coach rose from the bench and gathered her own gear before heading from the court. "Shit," she mumbled.
"Alright, that’s a wrap ladies." Dylan tossed her whistle onto the bench and eyed each of her players in turn. "I want you showered, changed, and home in bed early. Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day."
Groans mixed with cheers as the players started for the locker room. Dylan shook her head and led her assistant coaches to her arena office, to ready the plays they would use for tomorrow’s game.
Two weeks had passed since their first game, and Dylan was well pleased with the progress the team was making. It was a slow process, but they were finally beginning to jell. Cat, in particular, had taken her advice to heart and was showing flashes of brilliance on the court.
They’d played another game in the interim, against the Seattle Charge who’d shared the cellar with them the year prior. The Badgers had won the game handily, by over twenty points, and Cat had earned herself a double-double with sixteen points and twelve assists. She’d shown absolutely none of the tentative play she’d displayed in the first game, and was beginning to become a true leader on the court. And off it, as well.
Tomorrow’s game would be a true test as they went up against Los Angeles, the best team in their division. To make matters worse, Dylan and the Los Angeles coach shared a long history, and none of it was pleasant.
Marcia Blanks had been a junior at Stanford when Dylan burst onto the scene. Once considered the best power forward in the game, bar none, Marcia’s thunder was quite easily stolen by the young hotshot from UCLA, who eclipsed Blanks’ records without much of an effort at all. She’d done the same once turning pro, and the relationship between them had gone downhill from there.
Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind, Dylan concentrated on putting the finishing touches to the structure of the next game, then dismissed her assistants, intending to follow her own advice and get a good night’s sleep.
Dylan left her office and crossed back toward the arena proper. While still some distance away from the court, her keen hearing picked up the sound of a basketball hitting varnished wood, and she quickened her steps, a bit irked that someone obviously hadn’t understood her orders for an early night.
And yet it was with somewhat less than total surprise when she entered the arena itself to see the profile of Catherine Hodges, standing on the foul-line with a rack of balls at her side, sinking foul shots, one after the other.
When the rack was empty, Hodge stopped and turned toward Dylan, whom she’d heard enter moments before. A slight redness suffused her cheeks as she met her coach’s eyes, then disappeared as she lowered her head. "Hey, Coach."
"Mm," Dylan answered through pursed lips, left eyebrow slightly arched.
"I know…I know. I should be home now getting ready for bed. But I…um…." A sweeping gesture of her arm encompassed the rack and basket. Her blush deepened.
With that, the puzzle pieces came together and Dylan understood. Athletes, like actors, were on the whole a superstitious lot. Dylan herself had had her share of superstitions during her playing days, though none had, to date, moved on to her coaching career. "How many?"
The blonde head lifted, and Hodge smiled with relief at being understood. "Twenty."
"In a row?"
Dylan nodded, impressed. "And you did it?"
"Just now, yes."
"Good. So you’re ready to head home?"
"Alright. I’ll walk you to your car."
As they turned to leave, Dylan was stopped by a call from Mac, who entered the arena at a trot. Suppressing a sigh, Dylan turned. "Yes?"
"Can I talk to you for a minute? It won’t take long, but I’ve got a message from Johnson."
This time, Dylan did sigh, and turned back to Hodge, who smiled in commiseration. "I’ll be ok," Cat replied softly. "See you tomorrow?"
Dylan nodded. "Get a good night’s rest."
"I will. Night, Coach. Night, Mac."
With a final smile at them both, she turned and left through the main doors.
When the doors closed, Dylan rounded on Mac. "Alright, what was so important that you had to run down and find me at," she checked her watch, "nine thirty?"
Mac grimaced. "Johnson’s a prick."
Dylan’s eyes widened in faux amazement. "And this is a newsflash??"
"I’m serious, D. He wants you with him Friday night at a meeting of our corporate sponsors."
"No way. I handle the team, not the finances, Mac. You go hold his hand for him. Leave me out of it."
"No can do, I’m afraid. Boss man wants you."
"Why, for Christ’s sake?! Is the world ending??"
"You’d think so, the way he’s bitching." Mac sighed, and spread his hands. "Look, the sponsors are meeting over the gay thing."
Dylan’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. "The…gay…thing?"
Mac had the good grace to look embarrassed. "Yeah. Did you see the ‘Out and About’ this month?"
"Sorry, Mac, I’ve been a little busy. Reading trashy magazines right at the top of my to-do list, though." Her voice was heavy with sarcasm.
"Yeah, well, take a look at this." Reaching into his back pocket, Mac retrieved a rolled magazine and handed it to Dylan.
On the front cover was a woman in a Badger’s uniform, face blacked out. By the silhouette, it was obviously Catherine Hodges. In place of her face was a large white question mark. The blaring print over the picture read "WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: GAY MECCA?"
Dylan’s expression became granite. Only her eyes, which she raised to Mac, were blazing. "Tell me this is a joke."
"Wish I could D. It came out yesterday. Johnson’s been fielding panicked calls all day. The sponsors are threatening to pull out. He’s freaking."
The expletives that echoed through the large, empty arena would have done a sailor proud.
Mac’s ears were ringing by the time Dylan wound down, and he shook his head, knowing his friend was right. Still….
"I still think this meeting is a good thing, D. We need to nip this shit in the bud before it escalates. The threats have been bad enough."
Dylan froze. "Threats? What kind of threats?"
"Oh, you know. The usual ‘ride the lesbo bitch out of town on a rail or we’ll do it for you’ threats." Mac shrugged. "No big deal."
Dylan’s stomach twisted slowly, as her heart stuttered its way through several beats. "How long?" she demanded, trapping Mac’s wrist in an iron grip.
"Wha-? Ow, Dylan, damnit, you’re hurting me!"
"Since Catherine got drafted," Mac admitted, hanging his head, the pain in his wrist forgotten in his chagrin.
"What? And you didn’t think to tell me?!? What the fuck were you thinking, Mac? What the—shit!" Dylan stiffened. The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. "Shit. Oh, goddamn it!"
Releasing Mac, Dylan turned and broke into a run, plowing through the front doors like a running back through a defensive line.
"D?" Mac shouted after, confused. "Dylan? What’s going on?"
There was, of course, no answer save for the echo of the doors as they slammed closed.
Groaning and rubbing his sore wrist, Mac started after her.
Dylan pounded out the door, then stopped as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness surrounding her. Darkness that was broken only by a few sodium arc lamps buzzing complacently throughout the massive parking lot, mute witnesses all.
A soft sound carried on the night breeze. Dylan tensed and cocked her head, trying to determine both the sound and its location. When it came again, she was moving before it even fully registered within her brain. Forward several yards, then to the left, to the second row of cars, and down to her own, parked under one of the few lights still on.
Looking down, she felt her heart stutter briefly in her chest.
"Oh, Catherine," she whispered, coming down to her knees and gently cradling the red-streaked head. Cat’s face was a mask of blood, most of it from a small cut above her left eye—an eye that was already beginning to swell and blacken. Her nose, and a split lower lip added their own hues to the mix.
Her polo shirt had been torn from the back, as if she’d attempted to flee and had been grabbed by the collar from behind. The knuckles of her left hand were scraped, bruised and swollen, and the way she lay in a fetal position, guarding her midsection even while unconscious, caused Dylan to believe she’d been beaten there as well.
Dylan blinked unaccustomed sting of tears away, turning her head in a savage gesture as she heard Mac’s belated arrival.
"Jesus Christ," Mac breathed, clamping a hand over his mouth and paling. The sight of blood had never been his strong suit.
"Puke and I’ll kill you where you stand," Dylan snarled.
"Wha…" Mac swallowed heavily. "What happened?"
"She got the shit beaten out of her. Where the fuck is security?!"
His voice was cut off by the sound of falling glass.
Dylan stiffened, then stood, quickly, after laying Hodge’s head gently back on the pavement.
"Stay with her," Dylan ordered as she began to turn in the direction of the sound.
"You heard me. Stay with her."
With that, Dylan took off, her form immediately surrounded by the darkness of the Alabama night. With a shaky breath, Mac slowly lowered himself to the ground and cradled Cat’s bloody head on his lap. "Hang on kid," he whispered as he listened to her steady, if rasping breaths. "You’re gonna be ok."
Dylan padded quickly, softly, along the blacktop parking lot, keeping to the pooling shadows as she headed toward the sound she’d heard. The source of the sound soon became readily apparent as Hodge’s desecrated truck came into full view. Dylan’s fists clenched; the muscles in her jaw bunched and jumped in anger.
Cat’s old and much-beloved truck had been reduced to a forlorn and hulking wreck of metal sitting on four macerated tires. Shattered glass lay like glittering diamonds strewn across the lot, winking under the sputtering lamp illuminating the horrific scene. Spray painted in jagged neon letters across the passenger’s side, and shot through with gaping holes from a tire iron, were the slogans "GOD HATES QUEERS!!" and "KILL ALL DYKES!!"
Her blood boiling with rage, Dylan carefully stepped over the remains of the truck’s headlights as she circled the vehicle. Other slurs were painted and scored into the metal.
"Motherfucker," Dylan growled, shaking her head as she continued to circle the truck. "Stupid fucking bastards!" Her fist came down on the truck’s tailgate. A shrieking of metal, and the ruined bumper finally gave up the ghost, clattering to the ground, barely missing Dylan’s feet. "Fuck!!"
Spinning quickly, she nearly flattened the face of an overweight security guard lumbering belatedly toward the scene. Dropping her arm slightly, she grabbed the collar of his shirt instead, and dragged him forward and up until their faces were less than inches apart. "How’d this happen, Tommy? Where the fuck were you, huh? Sleeping? Jerking off? What?!?"
"T—takin’ a leak!" the security guard gasped against the choking hold.
"Awfully fortuitous time for you to be emptying your bladder, maggot," Dylan snarled, baring her teeth at him and giving him a shake that rattled his bones.
"It’s the truth! I swear!"
Dylan looked hard into his rheumy eyes and saw only terror staring back at her. After a moment, she released her hold on his shirt and shoved him away. "Call the police."
Mumbling under his breath, the guard finally walked back toward his office. Dylan considered giving him a kick to the ass to aid him on his way, quickly discarded the thought as she ran back to Cat and Mac.
Dropping to her knees, she took hold of Hodge and pushed Mac out of the way. "Go inside and tell Kelly not to close up shop. She’s got a customer."
Mac stood slowly, looking down at Dylan, concerned. "Are you sure? Shouldn’t I call an ambulance?"
"Just do as I say, Mac," Dylan replied, distracted as she gathered Cat close and slipped an arm under her knees. "G’wan. I’ll be right there."
Chewing his bottom lip, Mac nodded. "She’ll be okay."
"She better be, Mac. She’d just better be."
As Mac walked away, Dylan gathered her strength and lifted Cat up in her arms. Her powerful legs surged and burned with the burden. Catherine carried more weight than her lithe and compact frame would indicate. The thick muscle overlaying her bones was dense and heavy. Dylan gritted her teeth and began her walk back to the arena.
Kelly Norton, MD, had two very important things going for her as the chief physician of the Birmingham Badgers. The first was that she was a former Olympian who sported a gold medal as part of the USA women’s basketball team. The second, undeniably more important, was that she was regarded as one of the best orthopaedic surgeons in the nation. She had a huge and thriving practice that she left, willingly, to her partners for four months out of the year while she followed the Badgers from state to state, tending to their injuries and attempting to prevent more.
The Johnson Arena’s medical facilities were first rate, combining a mini urgent care center, minor surgery suite and several pieces of expensive X-ray and diagnostic equipment, along with a full physical therapy department. Staffed by Norton, her Nurse Practitioner, two Registered Nurses, and one Physical Therapist, it was truly state-of-the-art.
Norton, short, spry, and pushing fifty, was just putting the finishing touches on her day when the doors burst open to admit a panting Mac. Straightening quickly, she walked to the other side of the examination table and laid a concerned hand on Mac’s thick wrist. "What’s wrong?"
"Cat…." Mac paused to take a deep breath. "Catherine Hodges. She was badly beaten. Dylan is bringing her in now."
"Beaten how?" Norton asked, springing into action and flipping on the overhead lights. "By whom?"
"Assholes," Dylan snarled, entering with Cat in her arms and placing her tenderly on the table. "They beat the shit out of her."
"Okay, okay, let me take a look at her. Move away, Dylan, you’re blocking my light."
As Dylan stepped back, Mac touched her arm. "I’ll call the police," he said in a voice heavy with guilt.
"They’re already on their way. I had Tommy call them."
Mac lowered his gaze to the floor. "Dylan, I…."
"Just…go outside and wait for them, Mac. Let us know when they’re here."
After a moment, Mac nodded and, eyes still downcast, left the room.
"How is she?" Dylan asked, turning back to the table.
"Difficult to say yet," Norton answered in a distracted tone as she gently probed Cat’s facial injuries. "Most of the bleeding’s stopped but I’m worried about a concussion. Doesn’t feel like anything’s fractured." Piercing hazel eyes locked into Dylan’s. "How long has she been unconscious?"
Dylan shook her head. "I’m not sure. I found her like this…by my car. I don’t think it could have been any more than five minutes."
Nodding, Norton removed a small penlight from her labcoat and gently pried Hodge’s eyelids open, one at a time. "Her pupils are responding equally. That makes me feel a lot better about things." This time, when she looked up at Dylan, Norton smiled slightly. "I let my staff go for the evening, so I’ll need your help. You don’t faint at the sight of blood, do you?"
Dylan gave her a look.
Norton laughed softly. "Didn’t think so. In that bin in back of you there are some sterile dressings and saline. Get them down for me, will you?"
By the time Dylan returned with the requested items, Norton had stripped Cat of her shirt and bra and was gingerly palpating her abdomen and ribs.
Dylan felt a heat rise to her face at the sight of Cat’s body, and her eyes darted quickly away. Deal with this later, she told herself in a stern mental voice. Taking in a deep breath, she turned back to the examination table, holding up the gauze and saline.
Looking up from her exam, Norton nodded briskly. "Uncap the saline and pour it over the gauze. We’ll need to wipe the blood from her face so I can see how bad her cuts are."
"Her…." Dylan cleared her throat and gestured toward Cat’s torso.
Norton bit off a smile at Dylan’s uncharacteristic flustered state. "Her ribs are bruised, but I don’t think any are broken. X-rays will tell us for sure. I don’t think there are any internal injuries, but she’s gonna be sore as hell tomorrow." The doctor lifted Cat’s left arm, displaying the young woman’s bruised, swollen, and cut knuckles. "And as for this, I’d say she gave as good as she got. Tough kid."
"Yes," Dylan replied softly. "She is."
"Alright then. Let’s get to work. I’ll clean off her face, then we’ll take her into X-ray. Find out what we have to work with here."
They worked in silence for the next several minutes, tenderly cleaning away the dried blood that had accumulated on Cat’s face and neck. With the application of a local anesthetic, Norton sunk three sutures into the cut above the young woman’s brow, then covered the area with a bandage.
"Ok, that’s all I can do for right now. She’s gonna have a nice shiner, but the eye itself isn’t injured, and her nose is going to be sore for a few days, but it should heal just fine on its own. I’ll wheel her into X-ray and get a look at those ribs."
The police arrived just as Norton was wheeling Hodge into the X-ray suite. Dylan stepped out of the exam room to speak with the two uniformed officers. It only took minutes to tell them what little she knew, and to secure a promise that the media would not be informed of this attack at this time. She also told them she would take the responsibility of notifying Catherine’s family, which the men agreed to.
The officers were ones Dylan had met before, and she knew that if anyone could find out who committed the assault, it would be them. The taller one, Sergeant Tony Moore, was a deeply closeted gay man, and his partner was an outstanding, open-minded police officer.
After shaking hands with the officers, Dylan returned to the examination room in time to see a very groggy, but awake, Cat wheeled back in. Dylan smiled in relief and crossed the room to stand beside the stretcher. "How are you doing?" she asked, clasping her hands behind her back in order to resist the urge to reach out and stroke the young woman’s hair.
"Feel like I got run over by an elephant," Cat replied, her voice slightly muffled from her swollen nose and upper lip.
Blue eyes darted up to the physician. "Is there anything you can give her for pain?"
Norton smiled. "Getting to that right now, Coach." Crossing the room, the doctor retrieved a medication vial and a wrapped syringe. "Catherine, I’m going to give you some medicine to help with your pain. It’s going to make you pretty sleepy."
"Sleepy is good," Cat replied, wincing as she shifted in the bed. "Sleepy is real good."
Norton returned with the filled syringe. "You’re going to need to be watched over for a couple of hours. Do you live with a roommate? Family?"
"No," Cat whispered, eyes forlorn.
"It’s ok," Dylan replied, stepping forward. "I’ll take her home and keep an eye on her." She looked down at Hodge. "If that’s okay with you."
"I don’t want to be a bother."
Dylan didn’t miss the faint blush that suffused Cat’s face as the younger woman’s eyes darted away from her own.
"It’s settled then." Picking up Cat’s housekeys where they lay on the table next to the stretcher, Dylan jiggled them in one fist. "Home it is."
"Ok, let’s get this shot over with then, Cat, and you can be on your way. Nothing broken, just banged up. You should be as good as new in a week or so."
"Hate shots," Cat mumbled, but didn’t make a sound when the drug was injected into her hip. Her eyelids soon grew very heavy, and, allowing them to slip closed, she was soon deeply asleep.
"Are you sure she’s going to be okay?" Dylan asked, concerned.
"Yes. She’s a very lucky woman. Just keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t try to get up on her own in the middle of the night. The drug I just gave her is pretty potent stuff." From the pocket of her lab coat, Norton retrieved a bottle of pills. "Give her one of these with water no sooner than every four hours if she complains of pain."
Dylan took the pills and pocketed them. "Will do. Anything else?"
"No. You have my number in case anything comes up, but it shouldn’t. As I said, she’s very lucky."
"I don’t know if I’d call what happened to her ‘lucky’, my friend," Dylan softly commented, looking down at Catherine’s bruised and swollen face. Rage once again flared through her, but she clamped down on it with savage intent.
Time enough for anger later, when it would do some good.
Dylan unlocked the door with one hand while holding Cat up with the other arm securely wrapped around the young woman’s waist. "You might be small, but you’re packed," she grumbled as she attempted to move the heavily sedated woman inside.
Hodge roused a bit at the sound of Dylan’s voice, and giggled at what she thought—in her drugged stupor—she’d heard. "Stacked?" She giggled again. "I didn’t think you’d noticed." She tried to get a peek down her own cleavage, but for some reason, her arms weren’t cooperating. Nor were her eyes, which seemed to be content right where they were, staring at Dylan’s beautiful face in profile.
"Oh believe me," Dylan mumbled, half under her breath, "I noticed." The words came out without her permission, but strangely, it didn’t feel as out of place as it should. She’d have to think about that later, too.
"I heard that," Cat replied in a sing-song voice. "Pallas Dylan The Goddess Lambert thinks I’m stacked." That came out a little louder than Dylan expected. A lot louder, actually, and she found herself looking up and down the hallway, praying she was the only one who’d overheard the declaration.
An empty hallway answered her prayers, and she looked down at the young woman again, finding her deeply asleep and all but lounging on Dylan’s tall, strong form. "Oh boy," Dylan breathed, shifting her body and pulling the limp young woman into her arms once again.
Flipping a switch right next to the door, Dylan prayed for light and was rewarded. It was just an entry light but it was enough so she could see into the loft apartment. If the situation hadn’t been so serious Dylan probably would have been impressed with Cat’s taste and her level of organization. As it was, all she wanted to do was get the young woman to bed.
She took a better hold on Cat, who groaned at the stronger contact. "Sorry," she whispered as they made their way into the large living room. Very gingerly she lowered her battered player to the sofa, taking care to arrange her position as gently as possible.
Reaching over to the end table she clicked on the lamp that sent more soft light into the well-kept living space. She noticed the bedroom on the second floor, seen easily through the loft railing, and trudged up the steps. Approaching the large bed, she stripped back the comforter and took the blanket underneath and grabbed a pillow before heading back down the stairs and into the living room.
Returning to Cat, she placed the items on the back of the couch and then took a deep breath as she prepared for what she knew she had to do next. First she removed the player’s sneakers and tossed them to the floor. Then she reached for the snap of her jeans. Slowly and very carefully she undressed the young woman, leaving her clad in her panties, sports bra and socks. Once Cat was covered with the blanket, Dylan released a breath she wasn’t aware she had been holding.
"I don’t think you’re gonna want these anymore," she whispered, holding the ripped and bloodied clothes in her hands. Looking around, she spied a tall garbage can in the kitchen and disposed of the clothing promptly, shoving it down far so that it wouldn’t be the first thing Cat saw when she entered.
She leaned against the counter, wondering what she should do next. It had been a long time since she’d had to care for anyone but herself. The rustiness showed itself as indecision.
Long fingers taped repeatedly against the Formica counter top as she pondered. Calling Cat’s parents seemed to be the next logical step, but she had the feeling that Catherine wouldn’t appreciate that.
She’s an adult, Dylan. Let her make up her own mind about it. No sense butting in where you’re not needed. If she wants to call, she’ll call.
That settled, at least for the time being, Dylan opened the fridge door, pleased to find both water and various juices. She also grinned when she saw a bag of Oreo’s tucked lovingly in a zip lock bag. Apparently Cat had one or two bad habits and a few weaknesses for junk food. Dylan smiled at that as she grabbed a bottle of water and went back into the living room. She looked at the young woman, who appeared to be in pain even as she slept. "I’m so sorry Cat," she whispered as she knelt near Cat’s head and gently brushed her hair from her forehead. "If I could make it go away, I would."
The gentle touch felt nice; more soothing to her, she suspected, than to the pain-wracked woman lying so small and so fragile on the large couch. She smiled, then, as she noticed the tense muscles of Cat’s face relax just slightly under her gently stroking fingers. "I’m here," she whispered, knowing it for the promise it was.
Tearing her gaze, and her fingers, away, she lowered herself to the floor beside the couch and picked up the remote to the television. The TV flickered to life, and she changed the channel from ESPN to the local news to see if the attack had been able to avoid publicity. She kept the volume low, took a drink of the water, and closed her eyes, allowing her head to rest back against the couch. She listened to the news with one ear and Cat with the other. A long groan made her sit up and turn quickly toward the couch.
"Coach. . . ."
"I’m right here."
Green eyes opened slowly and she tried to smile, but it hurt too much. "This sucks."
"I know. How do you feel?"
"Like every team in the league has run over my butt." She licked her lips, grimacing at the action. "Twice."
Dylan chuckled. The night’s stress had just about gotten to her and she was glad to see that Cat still managed to joke. "Bet the other guys don’t look too good either," she commented, looking down at the swollen hand lying atop Cat’s abdomen.
Cat curled her fist reflexively, then winced. "Bastards."
Dylan sat quietly for a moment, unsure what to say. Words of sorrow mixed with feelings of rage against the so-called "men" who did this, and she wasn’t sure how to express herself without it all boiling over and scaring her younger charge.
Cat seemed to understand, though, and smiled. "Thanks for being here. With me."
Dylan returned the smile. "Anytime."
Green eyes slid closed again, and within moments, Cat was asleep.
Sighing softly, Dylan turned back toward the television and pulled her cell phone from her pocket pressing the button that would connect her to Mac.
"Hey, D," Mac’s soft, sleepy voice comes over the phone. "How’s Cat?"
"Sleeping. Listen we’re gonna have to take her off the roster for awhile. Put her on injured reserve. It probably won’t be any longer than a game."
"No problem," Mac replied. "What are we going tell the press when they ask why?"
"That’s your job, Mac."
"I know that, D, but this is….delicate, ya know?"
Dylan sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "I haven’t thought that far ahead. I’ll let you know in the morning."
"Where are you?"
"With Catherine. I’m staying until morning. She shouldn’t be alone. If you need me you can call the cell."
"I’ll keep you posted, but let’s keep this as quiet as possible. The last thing I need is for Johnson to find out that his star player was gay bashed. He’d find a way to make it her fault."
"Okay." Silence, as Mac tried to think up something suitable to say. "Dylan, is she going to be all right?"
"I hope so. I’ll call later, Mac. Good night."
"Night. Try and get some rest will ya’?"
"I’ll think about it."
"Just this one time, listen to old Mac. Don’t think, do."
"Night Mac." Dylan growled.
She snapped the phone shut and her attention was drawn to the TV where a shot of two men being led away by police was on the screen. She turned the volume up a bit and listened.
"Police were called to the home of a local business woman this evening after she reported that there were several men in her back yard. Upon arrival the police found two of the men trying to make entry into the residence and the arrested them. Four other suspects fled the scene and have not been apprehended. Leslie Tyson is a well known lesbian business woman and the police are looking into the possibility that this was an attempted hate crime."
Dylan smiled and opened her phone to call the officers who had responded to the assault.
Cat blinked in that drowsy state halfway between sleep and wakefulness. Groaning softly, she tried to move, but the bright spikes of pain shooting through her head arrested the attempt.
Her eyes opened enough to see daylight streaming in through the large windows. She tracked the rays to where they bathed the woman sleeping on the floor near the couch in a golden, almost heroic, glow.
Like a goddess, Cat thought, still groggy from the drugs she’d been given. A thrill went through her, centering in her abdomen and giving off an almost palpable warmth. The Goddess is sleeping in my living room!
If she didn’t hurt so badly, she would have laughed at the absurd irony of it all. As it was, she was tired, and aching, and needed to pee in the worst way.
Startled, Dylan yawned and stretched, her muscles voicing great displeasure at a night spent on the floor.
She opened her eyes and sat up slowly, running long fingers through her disheveled hair. "Morning." Her voice was thick, and husky with sleep. "How do you feel?"
Cat groaned as she attempted to copy Dylan’s actions, stopping when her abused belly and ribs shrieked. "Kill me?"
"Sorry, I think we’ll keep you around for awhile."
"Not even if I beg?"
"Not even then."
Scowling, Cat slumped against the arm of the couch, her head spinning. "Help me sit up, will ya?"
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Dylan quickly rose to her feet. "It’s probably best if you just stay here for now. I can bring you anything you need."
"Alright, but the toilet’s gonna be a bitch to move."
Cat smiled. "I think it’s probably better if you help me up."
"I…think you’re right." Moving in, Dylan slid one long arm around Cat’s shoulders and helped the young woman to a sitting position.
"Oh shit that hurts!" Cat grabbed her tender ribs and took a deep breath, which also hurt. She refrained from crying though she really wanted to. The only thing that kept her from it was the fact that she didn’t want to look weak in front of her coach.
"Easy. Would you like some pain pills?"
"A dozen please. The best you have."
"You can have one." Dylan fished the bottle from her pocket and uncapped it. "Juice?"
Cat didn’t move a muscle while Dylan went to the kitchen for juice. "Anything broken?" she asked, wincing as she awaited the verdict.
"No. Just a few bumps and bruises." Returning to the living room, Dylan handed a glass of OJ and one pain pill to Cat, then gently took a seat next to her as the blonde quickly swallowed the medicine. "Do you want to call your folks?"
Cat’s eyes went wide. "Oh, God. You didn’t call them, did you?"
"No. I figured that’s your decision to make."
Cat nodded fervently, relieved. "Thanks, Coach. My mother would freak and my father would be on the next plane. I don’t think I could deal with that right now."
Dylan took in a deep breath, aware that she was treading in dangerous waters. "I know this is none of my business, but if I were you, I’d probably call." At Cat’s look, Dylan rushed on. "You’re a public figure now, Catherine. And you’ve got a great family. Do you really want them to find out what happened to you on the evening news? Or while they’re watching you play?"
Dylan smiled, laying a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. "Think about it, okay?"
"Okay, I will."
Upon entering her home, Dylan was greeted by two yellow-eyed dogs who scampered around her with rear legs just about crossed. Rolling her eyes, she led the pair toward the back door, chuckling as Siegfried elected to forgo his usual sniffing and headed for the first tree he could find, practically drowning the poor Dogwood he’d hiked his leg against.
"Idiots," she said with great affection. "Why don’t you just use the pet door?"
Having finished her business, Brunhilde strolled over and sat at Dylan’s foot, giving the tall human a pointed look. Dylan chuckled again, scratching Brunhilde behind the ears. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Your big, mean, trained to attack and kill brother is afraid of the damn pet door. And you won’t go out without him. God, you’re like an old married couple, sometimes."
Brunhilde nudged her once, then went to romp with her sibling. Dylan stood, face tilted up to the cloudless sky. The sun felt good on her face, but was making her more drowsy than she already was. She hadn’t slept much the night before, tossing and turning and awakening every two minutes to check on Catherine. Not that she’d admit that to anyone but herself, of course.
Still, her nerves had eased considerably as she’d helped Catherine bathe and change her bandages, and by the time the young woman had slipped off to sleep, comfortable in her own bed, Dylan was feeling a sense of satisfaction rare for her.
A cold nose shoved into her belly drew her from her reverie. "Alright, guys. I’ve got a game tonight, and if I don’t get some sleep, it’s not gonna be pretty, so let’s go back inside, alright?"
She was left alone, laughing, as two dogs bolted back inside as if their tails were on fire.
Cat stared at the phone, not wanting to pick it up. Dylan’s words echoed in her head, and she winced at the remembering of them.
Sometimes she hated The Goddess.
Sighing, she picked up the phone and the button that dialed her folks. "Please don’t be home," she mumbled when it rang for the third time. Please, please, please.
Shit. "Um, hi Dad."
"Cat? Hey baby, what graces us with your lovely voice?"
Cat smiled through the pain; just hearing her dad’s voice made it hurt a little less. "I’m okay, but…I need to tell you something Dad."
"Cat, sweetheart what’s wrong?"
"Dad… I had an accident."
She heard her father yell for her mother to pick up the phone in the kitchen. "Catherine what’s wrong?"
"Honey," her father soothed. "Are you okay? What happened?"
"Nothing is wrong. I just wanted to let you know that I got banged up a little…."
"Cat…?" her father asked.
"Banged up?" her mother interjected. "Where? How??"
"Mom." Cat stopped her mother before it became a full fledged rant. "I’m okay, really. I went to the doctor and got checked out. Nothing broken, nothing sprained. Just a couple bumps and bruises is all. My face looks like I went ten rounds with Lewis, but I’m really okay."
"Are you sure?" The worried tone in her mother’s voice told Cat the older woman was already trying to calculate the next flight to Birmingham.
"Perfectly sure, Mom. I mean, doctors don’t lie, you know? At least, this one doesn’t. She said I’m fine, and I am."
"You’re sitting out the game tonight, right?" Her father asked in that tone that told her he’d better get the answer he wanted.
"I…don’t know yet. I’m gonna go in early and see what the doctor has to say."
"Cat, you need time to heal."
"I know, and if Doc says no then I won’t, but if she okays me then I’m going to play."
"Do you want me to come and take care of you?"
"No Mom. I’m a grown woman now I don’t think that will be necessary."
"Mom, I’m okay. I promise you. Okay?"
"If you need us, you promise to call?"
Thank you, Dad!
"I’ll do one better than that Dad. If I need you I’ll have Coach Lambert call you. And you know she would."
"This is true," her mother sighed. "I do like that woman. She takes good care of you."
"Yes, she does. Listen guys I need to go, but I wanted to let you know I love you both."
"We love you too, honey. Take care.
"I will. Bye."
She hung up the phone and grabbed her bag with her good hand. "Well that went better than I thought."
Dylan stepped into the locker room, fielding greetings and expressions of concern from the team. The news of Catherine’s assault had been quietly shared with the women, though the motive, for now, had been left as "unknown". Dylan answered the questions as best she could, all the while noticing another undercurrent that hadn’t been there before.
It was an undercurrent of defeat in a group of previously confident women. She looked around, noting the slumped shoulders and dejected expressions. Sighing, she stepped quietly in front of the group and waited patiently until every eye was on her. Though there were two women in the room that topped her in height and weight, Dylan was easily the biggest person there. She was The Goddess, the player, the star. Hers was the face that graced innumerable magazine covers, and hers were the skills that snatched victory out of the hands of defeat.
"Most of the people out there expect us to lose." Dylan met each gaze and held it for a long moment. The silence between her words allowed the sounds of the crowd outside to filter into the locker room. "The press. Our fans. The Quake." Her shoulders squared, making her appear even larger and more formidable than before. "I don’t."
She looked at each of them again, infusing them with her confidence, her determination, her strength. "We’re a damn good team. You know it. And I know it. And the people who don’t?" Broad shoulders shrugged. "Fuck ‘em."
A relieved chuckle, more a release of nervous tension than anything else, filled the small room. The women looked back at their coach, a new confidence in their eyes.
Dylan grinned. "Alright then. Go out and start warming up. I’ll be out in a few."
As the newly excited women pressed out of the locker room by the main entrance, Dylan let herself out via a smaller door which opened into a narrow hallway connecting her to the on-site offices and medical area. She’d gotten no more than five steps toward her office when the door to the medical clinic opened and she found herself narrowly missing a head-on collision with none other than her up and coming star player.
Startled, Cat pulled up short, her battered face breaking out into a smile of recognition. "Hi, Coach."
"What are you doing here? You should be in bed."
"Well I was. Then I got up. Now I’m here."
A raised eyebrow showed Cat plainly what her coach thought of that particular explanation.
"It’s game night," she said softly.
"I’m aware of that," Dylan commented, folding her arms across her chest. "That’s why I’m here. Why are you here?"
Catherine sighed. She’d known going in that this wouldn’t be easy. Still, for her own sake, she had to try. "I came early to see if Doc Norton would release me to play."
Dylan scowled. "Catherine…."
"Coach, please. Hear me out. I…I know you’re not too keen on me playing tonight…."
Dylan’s low growl was the answer she expected.
"…but…I need to do this. I can’t let those bastards win. And if I don’t play, they do."
"And if you hurt yourself worse?" Dylan asked, eyes blazing chips of ice. "Who wins then?"
Cat fought the urge to look away. It wasn’t easy, but she had something to prove. To them both. "That’s why I saw the doctor," she stated firmly. "If she would have said ‘no’, that would have been it. But she didn’t. She even gave me this." Hodge held up a clear facemask, the kind basketball players used when they’d suffered facial injuries during a game. "She said as long as I’m careful and wear this, I should be okay."
"’Should’ being the operative word."
"Catherine, we’re not talking about some street corner blacktop game here." Dylan’s hands gestured wildly, mimicking the turmoil of her emotions. "We’re talking about your career. Your life."
"I know." Reaching out, she clamped a firm hand on Dylan’s wrist. "And for both of those things, I need to do this. Not for Johnson, not even for you, but for me. I have to prove to myself that I can do this. That those bastards haven’t won."
Their gazes met and locked for a long, intense moment.
"If I hurt the team, make even one tiny mistake, bench me. Hell, I’ll bench myself. But this…this I need."
Though it went against every instinct that Dylan possessed, she finally nodded.
Cat’s face lit up like the sun. "Thanks, Coach!"
"Don’t thank me yet," Dylan growled, mentally slapping herself silly for giving in to big green eyes and a pleading voice. "Just remember your word. If I see you playing just a hair off, I’ll bench you faster than shit through a goose. Understand?"
Cat’s nose wrinkled at the analogy, but she nodded. "I understand."
"Alright then. Get out with the others and warm up."
Cat grinned all the way to the court.
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