Cat made her way to center court wondering, not for the first time, if what she was about to do was all that good of an idea. Needing to keep her senses and wits about her, sheíd eschewed even the aspirin offered up by the kindly Doc Norton, and now she was paying the price. Her head was ringing like a bell, but she could deal with that, having played through headaches before. It was her belly and ribs, however, that made taking a shot or making a pass an exercise in exquisite pain. Sheíd even caught herself flinching when one of her teammates had rifled a pass to her. Thank God Dylan hadnít come out on the court yet. Cat knew sheíd have been benched before the first whistle blew.

She met with yet another obstacle as she took her place on the court. Her old nemesis, Keisha Brown, drafted an ignoble fifth and starting for the LA Quake, took up a position beside her, sneering as she gave Cat a slow, head to toe glance. "So, butchie, what happened? Your girlfriend didnít like the way you fucked her last night?"

Brownís words caused a surge of anger to rise up in Cat, a surge she was hard-pressed to push down. She wanted to lash out, to hurt someone as she had been hurt, to make the pain go away by forcing it upon someone else. And Brown was there, in her face, all but asking for it, bringing back the memories of the night before with crystal clarity.

Then, as if a switch had been flipped inside her, she felt the anger recede behind a wall as cold and hard as the winterís ground. Some of that coldness must have reached her eyes, because Brown took a half step backward, uncertainly flashing briefly across her features.

The whistle blew, and it was time to get down to business.

Cat played like a machine, as if the seeds of her talent had burst into full bloom all at once. The basket seemed to her the size of a swimming pool; her teammates, ten feet tall. She made passes without looking and shots without aiming, hitting the mark time and time again. It looked effortless, and to Cat, it was.

Her teammates, and even the opposition, watched with awe as she blazed through the court like a comet. Brown couldnít touch her. No one could. She was, as they say, "in the zone", and nothing, short of a natural disaster, could get her out of it.

It never came. The Badgers won by 19 points, and Cat finished the game with a career high 28 points and 17 assists. She was carried from the court on the shoulders of her teammates as they jostled and fought for the right to bear her up.

When they arrived in the locker-room, the women set Cat gently down and continued their celebration with handslaps and loud cheers. Though in the center of the melee, Cat felt strangely detached, almost as if she were watching what was going on from somewhere outside of herself.

The feeling worried her, but was quickly swept away under the tide of enthusiastic congratulations directed her way.

Dylan pushed her way through the celebrants, accepting congratulations of her own for the game plan sheíd put into place. She wasnít ashamed to admit that it had felt damn good to trounce her old nemesis like that. Said trouncing was a long time in coming, and it tasted sweet.

As she made her way to the center of the crowd, she laid a gentle hand on Catís sweat-soaked shoulder, smiling when the younger woman spun to face her. "Good game," she said softly, knowing Cat could hear her.

"Thanks, Coach. Thanks for believing in me and letting me do this."

"No problem."

Dylan was about to turn away, but something stopped her. Something about the look in Catís vibrant eyes. It was a look she hadnít seen from the young woman before, and had doubted she ever would. There seemed to be some sort of hard, savage joy there mixing with the honest pleasure of a job well done. It gave Dylan pause.

"Are you alright?" she asked, tone still soft.

Cat blinked, then smiled. "Sure. I feel great!"

Still, Dylan paused, unsure of what she thought sheíd seen was a figment of her imagination or actually there. She wanted to say something, but wasnít sure what. It left her uncharacteristically tongue tied.

As if sensing Dylanís discomfiture, Cat broadened her grin and laid a hand atop the one on her shoulder. "I promise, Coach. Iím fine. I canít even feel my bruises and I think Iíll be riding high for the rest of the night. Some game, huh?"

"Yeah," Dylan replied, giving a half-hearted smile. "Some game."

The moment was interrupted by Mac entering in to congratulate them both, and by the time Dylan knew what was happening, Cat had been swept away to the showers and she was on her way to meet Johnson for what she was sure would be falsely offered praise. Her gut twisted with worry for a brief moment, then she let it go as she allowed Mac to lead her to the skybox suite where Johnson was waiting.

*******

The next several days went quickly and quietly, though not without note. Catís injuries had begun to heal, and she seemed none the worse for wear. She followed instruction precisely as ever and was sharp as the edge of a razor in practice. If anything, at least outwardly, the assault that had tested Catís resolve had left her stronger than ever before.

Still, Dylan was concerned, and watched her with a hawkís eye. It was nothing she could point to and say "There! This is whatís wrong!" It was more of a feeling; a nebulous thing that told Dylan that things werenít exactly as they seemed. Every time she asked Catherine how things were going she was put offónicely, but put off nonethelessówith a smiling, polite "Everythingís great, Coach! Couldnít be better!"

The look in those green eyes was sincerity itself.

Why, then, did she know, deep in her gut, that Cat was lying?

She spent her days frustrated, caught between the rock of wanting to know if everything was okay with her star player, and the hard place of not wishing to intrude upon Catís private life. Divining emotions from subtle hints was never her strong suit, and her frustration left her snappish and tense. Sheíd all but bitten Macís head off when heíd had the temerity of asking her to go with him for some lunch, scaring the big man out of a few years of life. Heíd left her alone to stew then, taking great pains to keep from darkening her doorstep any more than he had to.

Luckily for Dylan, her dealings with Johnson and the advertisers had come off much better than expected. A large group of lesbians, gay men, and open minded individuals had heard about the threatened pull-out and had made it clear that they would boycott the boycotters, thereby proving once again that in the business world, capitalism won out over bigoted morality every time.

With that piece of desiccated meat swept clean from her overfull plate, Dylan was left once again to ponder.

*******

By the end of the second week, Dylan had had enough. The worry in her gut wouldnít go away no matter how she tried to subdue it. She knew her mood would remain miserable until she was finally able to put away any doubts she harbored over Catherineís emotional state. And those doubts could only be put away by talking to the young woman herself.


Privately.

Her mind made up, she waited until after practice on Friday evening, staying away until she was reasonably sure the rest of the team and coaches had left for the day before slowly walking toward the arena proper, running over opening gambits in her head.

She was surprised when entering the arena to find the lights already dimmed. The place was empty save for the ready-to-retire janitor who was pushing his broom along the side of the court nearest the benches.

"Lo, Miss Dylan," he said politely, doffing the baseball cap that covered his cotton-wool head.

"Hello, Jerome," Dylan replied, distracted. She looked down at her watch, then back at the court, blinking dumbly. Even if Catherine had started the minute practice ended and hit all of her freethrows in a row on the first try, she still should have been in the arena.

But she wasnít.

Dylan sighed.

"Sure is quiet without the little sprout out here keepiní me company," Jerome commented, almost to himself, as he continued working his push broom.

Dylan turned to him slowly, eyebrow elevated. "íLittle sproutí?"

Jeromeís dark skin darkened further. He broke out into a somewhat bashful smile. "Miss Cat, Maíam. She was always out here after practice, makiní her shots. Sweet lady she is, always askiní after me and my family and telliní silly stories." The janitor shook his head. "Nice lady. Real nice lady."

"How long has it been since you saw her last?" Dylan asked, trying to sound casual when she was anything but.

Doffing his cap, Jerome scratched the back of his head. "Since her accident." His seamed face hardened into a scowl. "Begginí your pardon, Miss Dylan, but I hope them that hurt her burn. I do indeed."

Dylan nodded, agreeing with the man, even as her mind whirled with the implications of this new information. "Thank you, Jerome. You might have just given me the answers I was looking for."

The smile the janitor gave took two decades off his age. "I did? Well, Iím glad to help, Miss Dylan. Always glad to help."

*******

"Are you sure youíre okay?"

"Sure I am!" Cat pulled away from Shaniquaís helpful hold, almost dropping the keys in her hand. "Damnit! They went and changed the locks on me! Iíll kill em!"

"You have to put the key in right side up, shortchange."

"Oh. Right. Thanks!" Flipping the key, Cat inserted it into the lock and grinned when it twisted, allowing the door to open. "Cool! You wanna come in? I got a new bottle of SoCo with your name on it."

"No, man. We got early practice tomorrow. Did you forget already?"

Catís motions were exaggerated as she turned to face her teammate. "Forget? Me?"

Chaney laughed. "Yeah, shortchange. You."

Cat scowled. "No, I didnít forget. Iím just not ready to go to sleep yet."

"Better you than me, girl. Iím beat. You sure youíre gonna be alright?"

"Just fine and dandy! You gíwan home and go to sleep, party pooper. Colonel SoCo and I will do just fine alone."

Chaney laughed again, slapping Hodge on the shoulder. "Youíre alright for a white girl, shortchange."

"Thanks. I think."

"See you tomorrow. Donít come in hung over or Fraulein Caulley will whip your ass."

Cat giggled at the mental image. "I wonít be hung over. See ya tomorrow, Shan."

"Later, shortchange."

Feeling a bit more sober, Cat carefully locked the door, threw the deadbolt, and switched on the new alarm system she had had installed the week before. "Takes care of that," she announced, walking into the apartment and turning on all the lights as she went. The kitchen was her last stop, and she picked up the unopened bottle of Southern Comfort from the counter top and cracked the seal.

Grabbing a glass from the cabinet, she walked over to the couch, flipped on the television, and poured herself a healthy shot. She took a generous sip, then almost choked the sweet whiskey out her nose when there was a sudden knock on her door.

Grinning, she jumped to her feet, glass still in hand. "Shan, you dog! I knew you werenít ready to stop yet! Hang on a second and let me get theÖouch!ÖdamnÖcrap! Stupid thingÖdoor open."

In quick succession, the alarm was switched off, and deadbolt released, and the lock opened. Throwing open the door, Cat greeted her late night visitor with a beaming grin.

Which quickly faded upon the realization that not only wasnít Shaniqua Chaney standing outside, Dylan Lambert was.

"Oh. UmÖHi, Coach!" The grin returned, glaring in its insincerity.

"Catherine."

The false smile left as quickly as the real one did. "IsÖsomething wrong?"

"Nope. Just checking to see how youíre doing."

Catís eyes narrowed. "And that requires a house call?"

Dylan gave a casual shrug. "Sometimes."

Cat sighed. "WellÖif you went through all the trouble of coming out here to check up on me, the least I can do is let you in." Stepping back, she gestured Dylan inside with a tilt of her head.

Dylan followed, taking careful note of the apartmentís interior. It seemed a different place from the one she had left the morning after Catís assault. Though hardly slovenly, the normally immaculate living space was cluttered with newspapers, books, old clothes, and beer bottles. The beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows were all covered over by heavy black draperies pulled tight enough not to let even the faintest sliver of light through. The windows on the top floor showed a similar treatment. And Dylan knew without looking closely that the alarm system was both new and top-of-the-line.

Feeling eyes upon her, Dylan turned her attention to the couch where Cat was sitting. The younger woman was sipping from her glass, and the gaze she leveled at Dylan was equal parts curiosity and challenge.

"SoÖis there anything I can help you with?" Cat asked in a deceptively mild voice.

"Like I said," Dylan replied, "Iím just checking to make sure everythingís okay with you." Her gaze darted around the room, once again noting the changes.

Cat felt her jaw clench at the cataloguing. She knew exactly what Dylan was doing; what she was thinking, and it made her guts burn. Maybe it was the alcohol lubricating her emotions, but she didnít feel inclined to halt her words. "Begging your pardon, Coach, but I already have a mother. I donít need another one."

Dylanís eyes widened for a second, then she tipped her head. Touché. She cleared her throat. "I tried to see you after practice today, but youíd already left."

Catís face colored slightly, and she looked down at the drink in her hand. A drink she no longer wanted. "ItísÖjust a stupid superstition anyway. Iím making my foul shots just fine in the games."

Dylan nodded, even though she didnít believe a word of the excuse. "True."

"Well, is it something else? Am I not doing my job in some way? Screwing up in practice? Screwing up in the games?"

"No, no. Itís none of that. Youíve been exemplary. In practice and during the games."

At any other time, Cat might have glowed in pleasure over the compliments. Now, however, wasnít one of those times. Her anger continued to grow. The sane, sober part of her knew that Dylan was reaching out, trying to help. The irrational side of her slapped those thoughts away. "Then Iíll ask you again. Why are you here? Youíre my coach. You have say over what goes on in my professional life. But this, here, where we are now, is my personal life. And unless thereís a problem that youíre not telling me, I donít see that what I do in my personal life is anyoneís business but my own."

Dylan was quiet for a moment, absorbing the words thrust at her. Then she nodded. "Youíre right. Your professional conduct has been above board and without complaint." She nodded again. "Iím sorry for having disturbed you. Iíll see you at practice tomorrow."

With that, Dylan turned, all the while cursing herself for seven kinds of fool.

"Coach?"

Reaching the door, Dylan grasped the knob, but the tone of the soft call stopped any further action. She turned her head and was met with a look of such pride and such pain that her chest tightened against it. Her hand slipped from the knob as she gathered her thoughts, determined to make one more try.

"Catherine." She began slowly, softly. "CatÖitís okay to be afraid."

Cat laughed. It sounded more like a sob, but her eyes were dry.

"Itís okay to hurt."

Cat laughed again, rubbing at her face. "How would you know?" she spat. "How would you know what itís like to be so angry all the time you feel like youíre going to explode? How would you know what itís like to go to sleep afraid, and to wake up the same way?" She shook her head. "I mean, look at you! Youíre an Amazon, for godís sake! How would you even begin to know what I feel?"

Dylan took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. An extremely private woman, she knew she had a difficult choice. To say nothing, and let this escalate, or to share a bit of herself and take the chance that maybe it would help.

The decision was easier than she thought. Turning fully, she retraced her steps back into the apartment, stopping when she came level with the couch. "Iím not invincible, Catherine."

Cat snorted. "No?"

"No. I know what itís like to have anger eating away at me, and I know what itís like to be afraid."

"How? How do you know?"

"May I?" Dylan asked, gesturing to the couch.

"Oh. Sure." Scooting over to one end, Cat made room for Dylan to sit.

"Thanks."

A long silence fell between them.

"So?" Cat asked after clearing her throat. "How do you know?"

Dylan loosely clasped her hands, and stared down into them, as if divining the secrets of life from the lines in her palm. She kept her gaze focused there as she began to speak. "I was sixteen and had just graduated High School. Iíd been given a full athletic scholarship to UCLA and I thought I was the baddest thing on two legs."

Cat responded with a genuine laugh at that. She hadnít been too different upon her own graduation.

"I shouldnít have been walking out alone so late at night, but I wasnít thinking about that at the time." Dylan laughed bitterly. "I wasnít thinking at all, really."

"What happened?" Cat was sitting forward now, elbows on her knees, drink forgotten.

"There were six of them. Big pot-bellied redneck assholes out in sunny California to do god knows what. They decided that a gang bang was the best way to end a night of boozing, and they picked me as the bangee."

"Oh noÖ" Cat whispered.

"I hadnít finished growing yet. I was tall, but still pretty skinny." She clenched her hands tighter, watching as the skin turned white from the pressure. "I fought like hell, but together, they were a lot stronger than I was, and it wasnít long before theyíd beaten me down to the sidewalk. If I let myself remember, I can still feel their hands on me, ripping at my clothes as I tried to fight them off. Even after theyíd blackened my eyes and broken my jaw to shut me up, I didnít stop fighting."

If Dylan would have looked up at that moment, she would have seen large tears rolling silently down Catís cheeks. She didnít, however, as she continued to stare down into her hands, clenched to tight fists now. "I couldnítÖ." She shook her head. "Anyway, before they got much further, I suddenly felt their weight lifted off of me. When I looked up, I saw theseÖkidsÖnot any older than me. They were wearing gang colors and had guns, every single one of them. And they were beating the crap out of my intended rapists."

"Jesus!" Cat swore.

"Yeah. I thought, for a moment there, that I was just trading one set of attackers for another, but then a couple of the guys helped me up and held me steady as I puked my guts up all over the sidewalk. Another one gave me his shirt, if you can believe that. Mine was ripped to shreds. They even offered to drive me home, but IÖI needed to be alone right then."

Dylan sighed, winding down like a toy soldier on Christmas morning. She seemed deflated somehow, as if she was still that girl sheíd stopped being so many years ago.

Then, into her field of vision came a hand, small and almost delicate. It laid itself atop her fists like a blanket, or a balm. It soothed something in her soul she wasnít aware was still so raw, and for the first time in years, she felt tears well up.

"Iím so sorry that happened to you," Cat whispered.

Dylan gave a twisted smile, but didnít raise her eyes. "Yeah, wellÖ . I told myself I could deal with it. No big deal, right?" She laughed again. Bitterly. "So I buried it deep down inside and covered it with a layer of cement and built walls around it so that it would never see the light of day. When my coach asked me what had happened, I lied and told her that Iíd fallen down a set of stairs in the dorm. I donít think she ever bought that excuse."

She took in a deep breath. "Then I started drinking. Not much at first. Just enough to stop the nightmares. But then the nightmares started happening during the day, so I started drinking then, too. I had periods of rage so intense that Iíd lash out at anyone and anything. At first, Iíd use those periods to my advantage during the games. No one could beat me there. No one. But then I started taking my anger out on my teammates and my coaches." The twisted smile came again. "It got so bad that I got benched. My coach told me that she didnít care if we lost every single game the rest of the season. If I didnít get the stick out of my ass, that ass was going to be riding the bench until I was old and gray."

"What did you do?"

"I thought about quitting, of course. After all, I was Dylan Lambert, the Goddess! Who was she to tell me I couldnít play!"

"But you didnít."

"No. I didnít. I realized that I needed some help. Needed someone to turn to who would understand what I had been through, what I was still going through. It turned out to be one of the assistant coaches, whoíd been through something similar. And when I finally let out all the anger and the hatred and the fear that had been eating me up for months, godÖI felt like the world had been lifted off my guts and I could breath again. I feltÖfree. Clean. I reclaimed my strength. My true strength, not a strength born of rage. And I never looked back."

A silence as deep as the bottom of a grave slipped between them, and after a long moment, Dylan chanced to look up. What she saw made her chest tighten again.

Large, silent tears rolled one after the other down Catís cheeks. Her expression was that of a lost child desperately looking for a way home.

Quite without her conscious permission, Dylan found herself moving forward and grasping the smaller woman in a gentle embrace. An embrace which Cat accepted willingly, clutching Dylanís shirt in an iron grip.

"Itís alright," Dylan soothed, rubbing Catís back. "Let it out. Iím here. Itís okay. I wonít let go."

********

Several days later, after practice, Cat stood wiping her face with a towel when she felt a presence next to her. Drawing the towel away, she looked up, smiling, into the face of her coach. "Whatís up?" she asked, relaxed and happy for the first time in weeks. The impromptu meeting with Dylan had done her more good than even she was willing, or able, to admit.

Dylan returned the smile, blue eyes sparkling in the harsh lighting of the arena.

God youíre beautiful.

It wasnít the first time that particular thought ran through Catís head. In fact, it was becoming more repetitive as the days and weeks passed.

I think this is going beyond the ĎI have a crush on my coachí stage, Cat. Better rein it in, girl. You are so not ready for that.

So deep in her own thoughts was she that she almost missed the next words out of Dylanís mouth.

"If youíre not doing anything after practice, would you like to go for a drive with me? I have something that Iíd like you to see."

In her current state, Cat could have easily mistaken Dylanís question for a propositionóheck, her body was responding already. Pleasantly, at that. But one look in those clear, magnificent eyes told her it was friendship, not intimacy, that was to be on the agenda for the afternoon.

Her hormones got a kick in the shins as she screwed on her best smile. "Sure! What did you have in mind?"

"Itíll explain itself when you see it."

"Hmm. Going all mysterious on me, are you?"

Dylanís smirk was her only answer.

*******

"Wow," Cat groaned as she sunk into the padded leather luxury of Dylanís 427SC Cobra. "Maybe Iíll skip playing altogether and move right into coaching, if this is how the other half lives."

"The Ďother halfí got this while she was still playing," Dylan remarked, eyes shifting rapidly from her rearview mirror to the windshield and back again as she maneuvered the sports car into thick, rush hour traffic.

"Oh. Guess that means Iíve gotta stick around a few more years, then, huh?"

Dylan smiled slightly. "That would be best, yes."

The two settled quickly into a comfortable silence; a silence broken only by the wind as it rushed through their hair, whipping it back in flying streamers of black and gold. Soon, rush hour traffic was a thing of the past as Dylan took an exit off the main freeway and headed north. City congestion dwindled into rural complacency, and greenery began to make a reappearance. Further on, ranches, farmlands, and large estates dotted the landscape here and there; the dark, straight ribbon of highway cutting through like a plumb line.

Cat took in several deep breaths of clean, country air and grinned. A city girl by nature, sheíd always loved trips into the country, especially when she was young. Her father would get it into his head that the family "needed air", and off theyíd go, half in the old VW bus they named "Stinky", and the other half in the wood-paneled station wagon.

God, Cat thought, we were the Brady Bunch come to life!

Shuddering at the thought, she pushed it down and away, instead concentrating on the beautiful scenery passing quickly by.

At last, after almost an hour of travel, Dylan pulled into a long driveway and came to a stop in front of a large ranch house. When Dylan shut the engine off, Cat could hear the barking of dogs and the whinnying of horses. Bemused, she levered herself out of the car and watched as the front door opened and a tall, handsome woman appeared. In her early forties, she wore her long, blonde hair tightly braided. Her eyes, a deep amber, were very intelligent, and her smile was radiant as she spied Dylan unfolding herself from the car.

The two women met midway between the house and the car, and embraced tightly. Watching the reunion from her place by the car, Cat felt a spark of something she refused to identify as jealousy move through her. She shook the feeling off and approached the duo as they broke apart, turning their smiles on her.

"Catherine, Iíd like you to meet Tamara, an old friend. Tam, this is Cat."

The two exchanged warm handshakes. "Címon then," Tam said, gesturing with her chin. "Letís go see what you came for."

As the tall blonde strode away, Cat was left to look up at Dylan. "Coach?"

"Mm?"

"What did we come for?"

Dylan smirked. "Youíll see."

The pair walked down a winding brick path that rounded the corner of the large house. A huge, fenced corral became immediately visible, as did several striking horses who frolicked and danced in the warm sun. Tam opened a small gate and a group of large, sleek, black dogs came bolting out, barking wildly.

Cat stiffened in fear, instantly transported back to age seven, when she had been walking home from school and a German Shepherd had chased her down the block, snapping and slathering. Sheíd been scared to walk home for a week after that incident. It had taken twice that long for the nightmares to go away.

"Shit," she managed to get out of a suddenly closed throat, before noticing that the dogs werenít headed for her, but for Dylan, who stood directly in their path. An instinctive reaction broke through her temporary paralysis and she jumped forward, pushing Dylan just as the dogs collided with the tall woman.

The entire group went down in a jumbled heap. Intuitively, Cat brought her arms up around her head, waiting for the sharp white teeth to puncture and rend and tear at her flesh and bone. She could hear Dylan groan and feel her body shake.

No! she silently screamed, trying her hardest to push up from the pile. But Dylanís body was too heavy, especially with the dogs on top of it. She might as well have been trying to move a mountain.

As she took a deep breath to try again, she was stilled by sounds ofÖ.laughter?

What theÖ.?

Suddenly, as if a cork had been released from a bottle, the pressure eased and Cat was able to roll away. As she sat up, muscles tense, she realized that she really had heard what she thought she did. Dylan was laughing!

And the dogs, far from attacking her coach, were fighting to lick each and every inch of skin they could find; and on Dylan, that was a lot of skin.

"Anschlag!"

The dogs, six in all, immediately dropped to their bellies, looking guilty as only scolded puppies can. Tamara strode toward them, biting the inside of her cheeks to keep from laughing. Dylan, under no such pretense, was still laughing as she rose to her feet and reached down to haul Cat up as well. She easily caught the towel Tam tossed her way and set to wiping off a gallon of dog drool that covered her face, arms, and hands.

The pack looked on.

Cat looked bewildered.

Dylan rolled her eyes and tossed the towel back to Tam. Then she turned to Cat. "Iíd like you to meet Frigga, Odin, Thor, Beowulf, Syn, and Hamlet."

Cat turned her bemused look from Dylan, to the dogs, to Tamara, and back again.

The dogs whined.

Tamara laughed.

Dylan sighed. "I have two Dobies of my own at home, Brunhilde and Siegfried. Theyíre brother and sister. Siegfried got snipped, and this is Brunhildeís first, and only, litter. Tamara trains guard dogs, and thatís what this motley group is supposed to be."

"Oh, they are, never fear," Tam replied, smirking. "They just know better than to attack the big chief."

"Theyíre beautiful," Cat said once she found her voice.

And they were. Sleek, shiny and well muscled, each black and tan dog was a model of its breed. Their eyes were intelligent and lively, and their teeth, Cat noticed, were wickedly long, white and sharp.

"Yes, they are," Dylan agreed. "The sire is over there."

Cat looked in the direction of Dylanís pointing finger, easily spying a huge black Doberman sitting just inside the fence, eyeing the scene with proprietary interest.

"Iíd like you to have one."

The bewildered look reappeared on Catís face. "Me?"

"Yes, you. I know your complex allows pets, and you look like a dog lover."

"Oh, I am, butÖ."

"Theyíre well trained," Tamara interjected, walking over to the group. "Except when Dylanís around."

Dylan snorted.

"Completely housebroken," Tam continued, shooting Dylan a look, "very devoted, and extremely protective of their master."

"Itís nice to have someone around to talk to who wonít argue with you. AndÖ." Dylan paused, looking directly at Cat, "they can help make nightmares go away."

Understanding dawned, and Cat felt a warmth steal into her. She smiled. "They can, huh?"

Dylan returned the smile, her eyes warm and affectionate. "Guaranteed."

Cat took a long look at the dogs again, smiling at their inquisitive expressions. "I bet raising and training these beauties costs a lot of money," she said as casually as she could. "How much would one of them go for?"

Tamara grinned. "Oh, usually about twelve to fifteen hundred."

"Dollars?!" Cat half-choked.

Tamís grin broadened. "Thatíd be it, yes." She crossed her arms over her chest. "However, as trainer and owner of the sire, Iím authorized to give you a veryÖdeeply discountedÖprice."

"How deep."

"Howís Ďfreeí sound?"

Dylan chuckled at Catís speechlessness. "I didnít bring you up here to sell you a dog, Cat. I brought you up here to give you one."

"ButÖI couldnítÖ."

"Sure you can. Just say Ďyesí. Unless youíre not a dog person."

"I am, butÖ."

"Or just donít want one."

"I do, butÖ."

"Good. Itís a deal, then. Pick your poison."

"Youíre serious, arenít you."

"As a heart attack."

"Wow." She looked over the dogs, then back at Dylan. "Youíre sure?"

Dylan grinned. "Iím sure."

"Ok. SoÖhow does one go about picking their poison?" Cat grinned, wrinkling her nose. "I mean, my dad always picked out our dogs from the pound. With ten kids all shouting different preferences to him, he always decided to just go it alone. I couldnít tell a good dog from a bad one if you paid me."

"Ah, but thatís where youíre lucky," Tamara replied. "I can tell, and these are all Ďgood onesí. And Iím not just saying that because my male is their sire. Iíve had them since birth, and Iíll guarantee that thereís not a bad one in the bunch."

"So how do I choose?"

"Hut." At the soft command, the dogs rose to their haunches in unison. At a nod from Tamara, they stood and walked over to Cat, greeting her with wagging tails and playful nudges.

Cat laughed and pet the mass of fur wiggling around her until she heard a soft growl. She pulled her hand away quickly, and straightened, looking over at Dylan.

Tamara laughed. "Well, well, well, that makes it easier, doesnít it."

Cat turned her questioning gaze to Tam.

"Looks like instead of choosing, you got chosen." Following Tamís gaze, Cat noticed one dog sitting proudly at her side. The rest of the pack had moved off in response to the growl. "Cat, meet Hamlet. Heís decided youíre going to be his human and it doesnít look like heís going to take Ďnoí for an answer."

As Cat looked down into the golden brown eyes of her new dog, she instantly fell head over heels in love. "Hello, Hamlet," she said softly, scratching him behind the ears. Hamlet gave a soft "wuf!" and licked her hand. "Itís nice to meet you too," she replied, laughing.

*******

Cat walked into the pet store, not really knowing what she wanted for her new best buddy, but knowing that it had to be something special. She had already loaded him up on the Ďrightí food and treats. And since he was sleeping at the foot of her bed, she wasnít particularly concerned with finding him a bed. She liked him right were he was.

"Toys." She nodded and headed down the isle. "Thatís what my boy needs, toys." She didnít like the way he had been eyeing her sneakers. Even though he was older and a fully trained guard dog, he still got that mischievous puppy glint in his eyes, especially when she rubbed his belly at night when they watched TV.

She was looking at a large rawhide bone when a very familiar voice got her attention. "Donít buy him rawhide."

She looked up to find the coach standing on the other side of the isle. "No?"

"No." Dylan shook her head. "Itís bad for them." The woman walked around and handed Cat a large black object looked like a cross between hard rubber snowman and something vaguely obscene. "Itís called a Kong. Itís nearly indestructible against those teeth."

Cat smiled and took the toy. "Ugly thing."

"No uglier than the shredded remains of your lucky playing shoes."

"Mm. Youíve got a point there." She tossed the toy in her basket. "Thanks."

"Not a problem. I was getting food for my beasts and saw your truck in the lot. Nice one, by the way."

Cat grinned. "Thanks. Itís the first new car Iíve owned. Of course, itís nothing like yours, butÖ"

"Youíll get there."

"Someday." She looked down to her shoes as a blush crept up her cheeks. "Thanks by the way."

"For?"

"Everything. The talk. Taking me to get Hamlet. Being my friend."

Dylan sighed and handed her yet another toy for what she knew was going to be a rambunctious Doberman. "Itís easy being your friend Cat. I hate it that you got hurt, the least I can do it try to help a little."

"Youíve helped a lot."

"Iím glad to hear it."

"Hey," Cat fingered the toys in her hands. "Can I buy you lunch?"

"Do you promise not to eat something that looks like itís going to crawl off the plate?"

The blonde chuckled. "I promise. No rare steaks."

"Thank you."

*******

Sitting across from each other, Catís thoughts were in a whirl, and spent the first twenty minutes at the table running her finger over the rim of the glass. Dylan sipped her tea and finally broke the silence.

"Are the bad dreams easing up?"

Yeah," she nodded. "I still have them but I wake myself up before it gets too bad." She smiled. "And Hamletís a big help. Just knowing heís thereÖwellÖit helps a lot."

"Told ya."

"Yeah, you did." She took in a breath and blew it out slowly. "So, have you been having problems with the head office over this?"

"Nothing I canít handle Cat. Donít worry about it. Mac and I have it under total control."

"If there is anything I can do, let me know."

"You just keep on your game and Iím happy."

"Iím doing my best."

"I know." Dylan picked at her salad and finally sighed. "Look. Johnson is a bigoted, small minded son of a bitch, itís true. But heís also a slave to the almighty dollar. As long as we keep pulling money in, heíll back off." Her tone softened. "I just donít want to see you get hurt again."

Cat smiled. "Thanks, Coach."

Dylan looked vaguely embarrassed, and she took a moment to sip her tea. "Have you always been Ďoutí?"

Cat blinked at the unexpected question. "UmÖyeah. Pretty much. I mean I always knew, there was just something different. It took me years to figure it out, but once I did there was no hiding."

"And your folks have always been supportive?"

"Well my Dad was a little wigged at first, but he came around pretty quickly. My mom gave me the, Ďitís not what I would choose for you, but if youíre happyí lecture and we just went from there. My oldest brother told me I wasnít allowed to scope out his girl friends."

Dylan nearly choked on her tea at the mental picture that went through her mind. She grabbed her napkin, managing to keep it in and swallow, with some effort. "Thatís priceless."

"Thatís my brother." Cat sighed. "Iíve had small run ins with a few small minded people before, but nothing like this. For me itís just never been an issue. I didnít make it an issue, so it wasnít. Any particular reason why you asked?"

Dylan shrugged. "Just curious, I guess. If I stepped over the line, I apologize."

"Hey.," Cat reached over and patted Dylanís hand. "Itís okay, you didnít pry. Itís always better to ask rather than carrying around a lot of misconceived notions."

"Oh I donít think you have to worry about that. Iím pretty worldly you know. Been around the block a few times," Dylan teased, smirking.

Cat returned the smirk. "Iím sure you have."

The two locked glances for a long moment, and the air between them grew almost palpable. Cat finally cleared her throat and took a sip of water. "SoÖ.my turn. Answer a question?"

"Sure. Turn about is fair play."

Caught out, Cat asked the first question that came into her mind. "Why are you alone?"

Oh, dear god, I canít believe I said that!!!

Dylanís eyebrow crawled slowly up her forehead and stayed there. "What makes you think Iím alone?"

Oh well, in for a pennyÖ "Well, Hunter just doesnít seem to be your type."

"And why not? Heís a good guy."

Because heís a good guy, you stinker. "Iím sure he is. But heís so, soÖ"

"Tall?" Dylan smirked.

"Yeah, tall. Come on."

"Tan?"

Cat just bit her lip and shook her head. "Now youíre just being mean. Heís just not your type."

Dylan licked her lips and smiled. "And what, exactly, is my Ďtypeí?"

Aww shit. Hoist by my own petard. Par for the course around her, actually. "UmÖnot him?"

Dylan laughed, deciding to let her young friend off the hook. "Heís not really, and to answer your first question, I guess I donít really see myself as being Ďaloneí. I mean, I have my team, and my work. It takes up a great deal of my time and energy. Iím not really social by nature soÖ." She shrugged. "It works out for the best." Then she smiled. "Besides, I havenít found anyone who can put up with me yet."

"I find that very hard to believe."

"Iím hard to live with. I have a certain way I like everything."

"You fold your socks donít you?" Cat teased and leaned forward. "Go on, you can admit it. Youíre a sock folder."

"I also squeeze toothpaste from the bottom of the tube."

"Oh youíre one of those." She giggled when Dylan nodded.

"Guilty." The coach looked up from her glass. "I guess I just havenít found the right," she paused and decided that it wasnít worth hiding from Cat anymore. The young woman had been totally honest with her she owed her the same. "Woman."

Cat nearly choked on the ice she had started crunching. "Wow."

"What?"

"I didnít expect you to say that."

"I didnít expect to say that either, but, well I think I can trust you."

"You can."

"I know."

The silence fell between them again; the pregnant kind that you could slice with a knife.

They are so blue. Itís a pool I think I could dive into and never want to leave.

The waitress approached and slid Catís dessert, a thick slice of warm apple pie with a large scoop of slowly melting vanilla perched atop it, in front of the young woman, breaking the moment.

Cat took a large bite and moaned with gastronomic ecstasy.

Dylan swallowed hard through a bone dry throat. Then quaffed her entire glass of tea in one gulp. She thought about rolling the glass over her suddenly hot forehead, but decided against it.

"So, tell me," Cat continued casually, "who is the perfect woman? For you, I mean."

Sheís doing this on purpose. I know she is.

Dylan thought it over for a moment. "I guess sheíd have to be able to keep up with me. Find my job as exciting as I do, but be able to have her own life so when Iím on the road I donít feel like Iím being neglectful."

"How about a woman who would like to travel with you?"

"That could be nice." Dylanís head wobbled a bit, as she seemed to be considering it. "Tricky, but fun."

"Nah," Cat waved her hand at the coach. "Just give her a job with the team. Chief Towel Girl or something."

"Towel Woman."

"Right."

Dylan sobered a bit. "I guess Iíd just have to find someone who enjoys life as much as I do. Iím a fairly quiet person, but I enjoy the finer things and Iíd like someone who could share that with me."

"So," Cat leaned in again, "do you like to curl up in front of a fire with a good book or an old movie and listen to the rain on the roof?"

"Yeah, yeah I do."

"Me too." Catís watch beeped, and she looked down. "Damn."

"Whatís the matter?"

"Oh, itís nothing, really. Itís my Momís birthday and I promised Iíd call her before my dad takes her away for the weekend." She sighed. "I donít think Iíll be able to get home in enough time."

"No worries," Dylan replied, retrieving her phone from her belt. "Use mine."

"Thanks!"

*******

Cat closed and locked the door of her apartment behind her, as it had become her routine since the attack. Before she could open her mouth, Hamlet came bounding into the room and pranced at her feet waiting to be acknowledged. Cat dropped to her knees and gave him a hug and a good scratch behind the ears. "Howís my new baby?"

She was rewarded with a long wet dog kiss, which tickled her nose and caused her to fall back on the floor. This was an open invitation to Hamlet to play with his new mistress and they soon were involved in a wrestling match. Cat paused when the phone rang, but she decided to let the machine get it and she continued playing with the dog.

"Cat? Are you home?"

She stopped again when Dylanís voice came across the room. She started to get up but decided against it when Hamlet threw himself unceremoniously into her lap and flopped over to get his stomach scratched.

"Ok, well I seem to have left my cellphone with you, so if you could bring it to practice tomorrow thatíd be great. Oh, and thank you for buying me lunch. You really didnít have to do that, but it was very nice of you."

Cat smiled. Hamlet seemed to kind of purr.

"So, um, wellÖthanks. And Iíll see you tomorrow at practice. Get some rest." There was a long pause and she added, "If you need anything you have my number."

"Unless youíll come over and give me a long massage, Iím not calling." She looked down at her dog. "God Iím losing it."

"Bye."

There was a click and then Dylanís vocal presence was gone and Cat missed it.

"Yup, Iím losing it."

She gave the dog one last scratch and then gave him the toy she had bought. Then she went for a shower, a cold shower. Dylan Lambert was really starting to have some effects that she wished she had some better control over.

Such as the smile that was threatening to become permanently etched on her face.

******

The fans let out yet another long groan when the ball failed to go in. For whatever reason, the Badgers where playing ball like a freshman high school team; their passing game was off, their shooting game was horrible and their defense seemed to be non-existent. It was as if they were playing under water.

On the other hand, the Pistols were hot with a capital H and they were making the Badgers work and sweat. Within the first ten minutes of the first period they led by ten points and showed no signs of letting up.

The Pistols hailed from the mean streets of Camden, and their lineup looked like it had come fresh from the pages of the now defunct XFL. Full of cast-offs and rejects, what they lacked in talent, they more than made up for in intimidation. They were a roller derby team gone mad, and they thrived on the image that had taken them all the way to the second round of the playoffs last year.

To make matters worse, the referees seemed to be living in the Pistolsí back pocket. Either that, or they were affected with a sort of selective blindness. Half of the players on the Badgers were sporting some injury or other from vicious blocks and charges, and the Refs hadnít seen a thing. Or if they had, the Badgers were called for the foul. Barely through the first quarter, the first Badger had already fouled out, and several others were on their third.

One look at Dylan and Hodge knew they were in for it during the half. The coach was not amused, and she spent half her time pacing back and forth, and the other half with her arms crossed over her chest, shooting dirty looks onto the court. Cat got caught in that laser-like glare and resolved not to look to the sideline for the rest of the half for fear of being incinerated on the spot.

She took the inbounds pass and dribbled it to half court. Things were looking good until she bounced passed the ball to where Coles was supposed to be. Instead, a hulking mass received the pass pretty as you please and rifled it off to her point guard. "Shit!" Cat yelled, backpedaling in an effort to keep up with the Pistolsí point guard. It was a useless effort, and Cat flung her hands outward as the player she was guarding hit a three point shot with no effort at all.

The buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the half. The Badgers hustled off the court to their locker room. Cat looked up into the crowd. It was clear they were disappointed by the fact that their team was now sixteen points behind, but she was relieved to see that they werenít leaving en masse.

In the locker room, everyone took a seat on the long benches, wiping their necks and heads with towels as they waited for the appearance of their coach. Cat looked around, seeing the dismal expressions on the faces of her teammates. It was as if they were awaiting execution.

A moment later, Dylan strode in, her face an angry mask. "Somebody want to explain to me exactly what was going on out there? I thought I came to coach a basketball game, but obviously, I was mistaken"

Cat couldnít even look at her coach. She figured it was in her best interest just to listen, because if she looked up and saw disappointment in Dylanís face it would kill her.

"Did you guys not get enough rest last night? Youíre playing like crap. Youíre letting a second rate team beat you on your own turf. I know you guys are better than this. Whatís the problem?"

No one was brave enough to answer so Dylan continued. "Youíre playing like a high school team!" Her lancing gaze zeroed in on one particular player. "You decided to join the WWF, Chaney? Jesus! Theyíre not scoring enough points on their own, so you decided to give them a couple for free??"

"You saw that charge, Coach!" the guard responded, nursing her rapidly blackening left eye. "Hell, everyone in the stands saw it!"

"And that gave you the right to make like Mike Tyson and clean her clock?"

"Damn straight," Chaney agreed. "Bitch had it coming."

"So, you thought it was worth a Technical."

"WellÖ"

"Good answer, Chaney. Did your self-promotion to team thug come with a decrease in IQ?"

"Címon, Coach. The refs are killing us out there!"

The rest of the team muttered their assent.

"Oh, so thatís it, huh?" Dylan asked, continuing to pace. "The refs are playing favorites, and youíve decided to just give up. Is that the way weíre playing it now?"

There was some muted grumbling, but no one had the guts to answer outright.

"Fine. Well then, hit the showers. Iíll go tell the refs that weíre forfeiting the game. Our fans donít deserve the torture of a second half of this shit you call playing." She stared at them all. "Well? Go on. Get changed."

As she turned, Catís voice broke the silence. "CoachÖ."

Dylan turned back, pinning Cat with her glare. "You have something to add, Catherine? You havenít added much during the game."

Cat flushed at the rebuke, but held her ground. "I know coach. Iíll be the first to admit that Iím not playing worth a damn. ButÖIím not ready to give up yet. I think we can win. I know we can. Iím asking for another chance to prove ourselves."

Dylanís eyes narrowed in challenge. "And how do you intend to do that?"

Cat took in a deep breath as she thought about her answer. "Look. I know Iíve got the least amount of professional experience here, but I also know what itís like to go up against a team of bruisers whose only skill is intimidation. Iíve been through my share of those games in high school and college. We probably all have."

Most of the players nodded.

"I canít speak for anyone but myself, but I know that Iím playing the way I am because Iím frustrated. And I also know that that is exactly what they want. Itís why theyíre doing it. And I think that they think of us as some second rate loser team that they can just bowl over with their tactics and weíll run home with our tails tucked between our legs." Her eyes scanned the team, seeing grudging agreement in most of their faces. She smiled a little. "Face it, the Badgers havenít always had the best reputation." Her face became serious. "But weíre not those Badgers anymore. Weíre a different team with a different attitude, and Iím going to try my best to play with that attitude for the rest of this game."

An assortment of cheers came from the ranks.

"I think that weíll all play better if we accept these two basic facts. The referees are blind, and our opponents are bullies. Accept those facts, deal with them, and move past them. If we stick to our own game plan and donít let their tactics affect us, theyíll be the ones getting frustrated before long."

Dylan looked on, keeping a smile of pride from creeping onto her face by determination alone. Before her eyes, Catherine was fully becoming the leader Dylan had known she would be. It was a wonderful sight.

When one of the timekeepers stuck her head in the room and told Dylan that it was time to return to the court, the coach stepped back and allowed a much more enthusiastic team stream past.

Only then did a smile fully bloom on her face.

*******

Back on the court, Cat was pleased to see that most of the crowd had remained despite the teamís horrible effort, and she vowed right then and there if there was any way to pull this game out, she was going to do it for her team mates, her coaches and the fans.

She took the time to offer words of encouragement to other members of her team, and was pleased with the intent, confident looks she in turn received.

The second half began. It was blistering from the start. The Pistols started in with their old tactics of slash and burn, and the Badgers did their best to ignore them.

There was a new sense of purpose and determination in the Badgers, and it was manifesting itself rather quickly. With Cat firmly manning the helm, they managed to close the gap down to two points in the first seven minutes, though Coles, their best forward, picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out the rest of the game.

Anya, the Ukrainian walk on, took over. She was used to the more physical play from her days in the World Leagues, and she handled the attacks on her with grace and flair, quickly scoring a sweet three-pointer on a no-look pass from Cat that finally put the Badgers up by a point.

The crowd was on their feet when their team took the lead. The energy was crackling through the arena like small bolts of lightening and Cat could feel the hair on her arms stand on end.

The Pistols however, werenít quite ready to give up. One of their forwards became free on a fast break, and with an uncontested lay-up, the lead was theirs once again.

As Cat charged back down the court, dribbling easily and flashing the play to her teammates, she easily avoided a hand that tried to clothesline her. A quick head duck, and a left-right juke, and she crossed over half court, waiting for the play to develop around her.

The defense was a simple man-to-man, and Chaney executed a perfect pick, allowing Cat to come free. Then the shooting guard took a step back off her defender, received Catís bullet pass, and sunk a shot from just inside the key. Pumping her fist in the air, she then swatted Cat a good one on the rump as they both ran down the court to take up their defensive positions.

Cat spared a quick glance at the play clock and, seeing four minutes proudly displayed, realized for the first time in her professional basketball career, that these were going to be the longest four minutes of her life.

She wasnít wrong.

The Pistols took their time, slowing their game, and watching as the clock ticked down its final minutes. Try as they might, the Badgers couldnít come up with a steal, and Cat watched in disgust as their defensive scheme broke down and an easy shot was scored.

The return charge didnít make it to the basket, aborted by a steal. The Pistolsí point guard dribbled the ball and headed back down court with the Badgers hot on her heels.

Two minutes on the clock and the crowd was nearly crazed at this point. Watching their team come back from what should have been a thrashing and then watching them work to get and keep the lead had the crowd constantly one their feet.

Cat watched as the shot was attempted and missed. The ball practically fell into her hands and the reverse was made. She headed back down court. Looking up, she saw a wall of Pistols running up on her, looking huge and hungry as they approached. Staring toward the basket, she realized she had only one option. Taking the shot, she waited as it seemed time slowed down. For her it was like a scene out of a bad sports movie. She could see, hear and feel the breath leaving her body as she willed the ball to go in.

"YES!" She took a split second to thank God or whatever Supreme Being watched out for basketball players, off after the opposition.

She knew with ten seconds left on the clock this was going to be the Pistolsí last chance, and she was prepared for it. She did her job and made it impossible for their point guard to get a clean shot. She managed to hold her off for four full seconds until a pass was made to one of the forwards.

The shot went up, arcing into the air as if riding on the tails of a rainbow.

It got nearly deathly quiet in the arena, as every single eye followed the ball. Watching it approach the net, Cat heard the buzzer and prayed.

Those prayers were answered when the ball hit the rim and bounced back, striking the court and rolling harmlessly out of bounds. Her shout of victory was drowned out by the screaming of the frenzied crowd and the cheering of her teammates as they surrounded her in a happy jumble.

But the thing she noticed most was the wink and nod from the sidelines before Dylan's attention was intercepted by the Pistols' coach, coming to eat crow.

Sometimes, she thought, holding that small bit of praise tight to her soul, life can be good.

********

The celebration in the locker room turned into an impromptu party befitting the winning of a championship instead of simply triumphing in a game they had been expected to win. Still, the coaches allowed the frivolity, knowing there was a good deal of pent up energy needing to be expended, and further knowing that a release was better here than out in public where fights tended to get started.

It wasnít until well after midnight when the group finally headed out of the locker room and through the now empty arena, ready for a well-earned nightís sleep. Cat stepped into the cool darkness of the night with Shaniqua on her left and Anya on her right. Above the sounds of their laughter, she heard a peculiar chirping noise that came up from the duffle slung over her shoulder. Unzipping the bag, she reached inside and came out with a tiny cellphone belonging to Dylan. And it was telling her that someone had called and left a message.

"Oohhh," Chaney ribbed, making a fake grab for the phone. "Hot date tonight, Shortchange?"

"Very funny," Cat replied, hastily hiding the phone behind her back. "It isnít mine."

Chaneyís eyes widened. "Ya donít sayÖ ." Her grin deepened into a leer. "Been holding out on us, tiny?"

Cat was thankful the darkness hid her blush as she realized that she had just opened a can of worms best left closed. "UmÖlistenÖI gotta go back inside. Thereís a message. You knowÖ."

"Privacy. Gotcha, Shortchange. You sure youíre gonna be alright walkiní out here by yourself?"

Cat had to smile. Ever since the attack, her teammatesóand Shaniqua in particularóhad taken it upon themselves to be her personal bodyguard cum escort. "Yeah, Iím sure. Iíll be fine. The coaches are still inside, so if I need to, Iíll walk out with them."

"Alright, then. You have a good time with yourÖdate." A flash of white teeth, and Shaniqua was swallowed up by the darkness.

Shaking her head and laughing a little, Cat turned on her heel and jogged back into the building. Sheíd made it to the stands when Coach Caulley stepped out and grabbed her elbow. "Woah. Whereís the fire, Hodges?"

"Sorry Coach," Cat replied, slightly winded. "I justÖ.is Coach Lambert around?"

Caulleyís eyes immediately narrowed. "Is something wrong?"

"No, not at all. I just need to talk to her for a minute. Do you know if sheís still here?"

"I think she went up to her office, butÖ."

"Thanks!" With that, Cat took off running again. She ran through the locker room, out the back, and down the hall past the infirmary until she got to an old, less than reliable freight elevator. Jamming on the ancient button set it creakily on its way, and she drummed her fingers against the peeling paint as she waited.

"Come on! Jesus, what are the monkeys that lower the cables on strike for more bananas or something? God!"

Several minutes later, the doors slid open with a grudging sigh, and Cat stepped in, praying yet again that she wouldnít get stuck in the damn thing.

She didnít, and when the doors finally opened, she stepped out into another narrow hallway. Unlike the grand corporate offices, the offices in the arena were small, cramped, and dark. Cat walked down the hall humming idly to herself until she came to the door she knew was Dylanís. It was closed, but she could see a sliver of light spilling through the bottom, so she knocked.

After the second knock, when there was no answer, she tried the door handle. It was unlocked, and with tentative force, she opened the door and stepped inside.

The office was stark, with a battered desk, computer, and chair, and very little else. It was also empty.

There was another door directly opposite her, and Cat saw light from beneath that one as well. She cleared her throat. "UmÖCoach? Coach Lambert? Itís Cat. Iíve brought you back yourÖ."

Before Cat could finish, the second door opened, and Dylan strode out, wet from the shower sheíd just taken, and completely naked save for the towel casually wrapped around her lean hips.

"Ö.phone?" Cat squeaked as every muscle in her body locked. Except for her heart, which seemed to beat double time. A sudden influx of hormones caused a full, head-to-toe flush to break across her body, and although her brain was sending urgent messages to her eyes, they wereóthank you very muchóquite content to remain where they were; on Dylanís magnificent breasts.

Dear God, get a grip! Her brain shouted, trying to urge locked muscles into action. Youíve seen naked women before! Hell, you even showered with a whole group of them not more than a half hour ago!

Yeah, but none of those were Dylan Lambert.

The rest of her body happily agreed with this statement; her eyes most of all as they finally allowed slight movement and traced the tight, banded muscles of Dylanís belly, then swept up and across impossibly broad shoulders and along a wonderful neck, before coming back down to their favorite targets and remaining there.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner now andÖ.oh manÖjust now, please.

In reality, this entire internal dialogue had taken up less than two seconds, but to Cat, it seemed like an eternity. A very blissful eternity, but an eternity nonetheless.

Dylan didnít appear to notice the rapt perusal as she smiled a greeting to Cat while walking over to the desk upon which her clothes were stacked.

"I donít know whether I should thank you or curse you for bringing that back," Dylan remarked as she picked up a black T that sat on top of the stack. "I havenít missed the damn thing all weekend."

The towel dropped away and Catís brain turned into hissing white static as the most beautiful posterior sheíd ever seen in her life came fully into view.

"Youíre awfully quiet this evening," Dylan remarked, glancing quickly over her shoulder before shaking out her jeans. "Something wrong?"

The words, finally loosed, came in a rush. "Who me? No, nothingís wrong. Not at all, no. Just came by to drop of your phone. Thanks, by the way."

Dylan, now fully clothed save for her bare feet, turned and gave Cat a curious look. "For?"

Cat gave an embarrassed laugh. "For, you know, letting me use your phone. I was able to get to my mom before she left for the weekend. SoÖthanks."

"Youíre welcome," Dylan replied, reaching for her socks and boots.

Cat found herself at a rare loss for words, but her body was telling her, in no uncertain terms, that it wasnít about to leave the room just yet. She scratched the back of her neck, trying to order her thoughts. The task was, of course, impossible.

"So," she finally got out. "Some game, huh?"

Dylan snorted. "Oh yeah. The Rolaids company called and asked me to be their CEO. Seems I made them more money tonight than the rest of the country put together."

Cat winced. "Sorry."

Dylan shrugged. "Comes with the territory."

"Yeah, well, Iíd prefer it if we didnít visit that territory too often, if itís all the same to you."

"I can live with that," Dylan replied, chuckling. Now fully clad, Dylan retrieved the phone Cat had brought and stuffed it into her own duffel, which she then slung over her shoulder. "Everything else going okay with you?"

Cat smiled brightly. "Oh yeah, just fine." And she meant it, too.

"Good." Dylan yawned. "Well, Iím ready to hit the bed. How Ďbout you?"

"Definitely! Bed sounds great!" She paused, then flushed again. "Mine, I mean. My bed. You know. SleepÖ.bedÖ." Her voice trailed off miserably as she gave herself a sharp internal kick.

Chuckling, Dylan laid a casual arm around Catís shoulders and steered her in the direction of the door. "Címon, Shortchange. Time to go home."

*******

Two days later, after a thankful weekend break, the Badgers were back at it, practicing hard to ensure that there would be no more "Pistols problems" as they dubbed the last game. Each put in their best efforts, and when the practice was over, the coaches were well satisfied. Even Caulley, who wouldnít be satisfied with a Championship trophy.

Disgusted by her forty percent foul shooting during the last game, Cat opted to resume her habitual drills after practice.

Unlike during the game, she sunk her foul shots with ease, so she moved back and tried threes from the perimeter. Those went in easily as well. Layups came next, and those were a bit harder because of her stature. She was always more comfortable shooting from the outside, but also knew that if the opportunity presented itself, she would need to be confident enough to drive to the hoop and take the shot, no matter who stood in her way.

Dylan walked silently into the empty arena, guided by the rhythmic thumping of a basketball. She leaned against the wall and watched for a couple of minutes before strolling further onto the court. Cat caught the ball and turned to face her coach

"Hi," she gasped, breathing hard and blowing out long, slow breaths to calm her racing pulse.

"Hi yourself," Dylan replied, gesturing toward the basket. "That was more than foul shooting. You were really working it."

"Yeah, well I need to get stronger driving into the paint. I donít do it often, but I canít be wary when I do."

"True." Dylan scratched above her brow. "Your game is good."

"Not good enough."

"Well, we can always get better." Smiling, she swatted the ball out of Catís hands and spun it on one finger. "Just donít be too hard on yourself, ok?"

"Yeah," Cat chuckled. "Like youíre not."

"Hey! Iím the coach. Itís my job to be hard on myself."

"Hmmph." With a wicked grin, Cat reached out and grabbed the ball back. "Heh. How Ďbout a game? The Goddess against the mortal? First to eleven wins? Huh?"

Dylanís grin was even more wicked. "Sure ya wouldnít rather play shirts vs. skins?"

Cat actually heard her jaw click as it dropped open and hung there. Normally, she wouldnít have been so wide-eyed, but the unexpected flirtation, coupled with the vision of last night, conspired together to force the expression onto Catís face.

Chuckling, Dylan grabbed the ball from Catís stunned hands, turned, and arced the ball through the net. She spun on her player, eyes twinkling. "First rule of immortal combat. Create opportunities and take advantage of them."

Cat gave a little grunt as the ball impacted lightly with her flat abdomen. She caught it reflexively and blinked. "You gonna flash me now?"

"Would it work?"

Catís look said it all, and Dylan laughed. "Iíll keep that in mind for later, then." She tapped the ball in Catís hands. "Címon. Letís see what you got."

What Cat had was a move that went exactly two steps into the paint before she was again summarily stripped of the ball and forced to calculate the angle of the curve made by Dylanís body as she jammed the ball through the hoop.

"I hate you," she groaned, receiving the ball back.

"Hey. You challenged me, remember?"

"Okay, then. I hate myself."

Dylan laughed softly. "Címon now. Two-zip. Your ball."

Cat tried. She really did. She tried as hard as sheíd ever tried anything in her life. She pulled out every move in the book, invented some on the spot, and none of them worked. Her offense was useless, and her defense was even worse. Of course, they both acknowledged the inherent disparity between a small point guard and a towering forward with the wingspan of a condor, but still, Cat was determined to prove something.

Whether it was to herself or Dylan, she wasnít sure.

The more she failed, the more frustrated she became, and the more frustrated she got, the sloppier her game became.

Until she remembered her own words of two nights before. How frustration plays right into the hands of an opponent and is something to be avoided at all costs.

Remembering this, she tried to relax, deliberately slowing her movements and running the plays through her head instead of relying on brute force and instinct. She also realized a fundamental truth. No matter how poorly she was playing, even at her best, there was no woman in the world who could do better against Dylan Lambert. And the only thing she could possibly do, faced with this fantastic opportunity, was play on, knowing she would only get better.

So intent was she on this new revelation, she completely missed the knowingóand slightly proudósmile on Dylanís face.

Still, Dylan couldnít pass up an attempt to razz her player. "Timeclockís ticking down, shorty. You gonna dribble that ball or are you taking it home for a souvenir?"

Shaken from her reverie, Cat looked up, and grinned at the mirthful eyes gazing at her. Then, taking a deep breath, she made a quick step to her left, watching Dylanís feet as she followed. Faking another step, she then executed a perfect spin move, and, spying the backboard in the "V" between Dylanís head and her outstretched arm, launched an off-balance shot that, miracle of miracles, hit the rim and bounced on through.

"Yes!" Cat huffed, finally scoring her first point.

"Very impressive."

"Thanks!" Then she looked up at Dylan as the ball landed in her hands once again. "Itís your ball."

"Donít wanna win yet," Dylan remarked, offhand.

Cat chuckled. "Cocky, arenít ya."

Dylan shrugged. "Confident."

"Hm. Ok, I can go with that."

She tried the same move again, only from the opposite side. As expected, Dylan didnít fall for the bait. Instead she backed up some, giving Cat a bit more room to maneuver, but also knowing her greater quickness and longer stride could close the gap when needed.

Cat took her time, eyes switching between the basket and Dylan as she calculated angles and her best chance of scoring. Knowing that Dylanís weaker (if it could truly be termed that) side was her right, because of her knee, Cat exploited it, making Dylan put constant pressure on the joint in order to move with her as she guarded. Then she crossed over, then crossed over again, and charged toward the basket, full steam ahead.

Dylan managed to slip into a perfect stance a second before Cat hit the mark. She also knew that Cat had no chance of stopping, and that, further, her knee was straining past the limits she felt comfortable with.

Taking in a breath, she allowed Cat to run into her, but instead of bracing herself and chancing the knee, she grabbed Cat around the waist and fell back, hitting the ground hard with her player landing full atop her, nearly driving the breath from her lungs. The basketball skittered by and rolled harmlessly over the endline.

The kiss started slowly, naturally, given the close proximity of their lips, and grew from there into something quickly more heated. The passion, and the challenge, of the game theyíd just played transferred itself into another contest, of sorts, as their bodies melded together in the sweat of their labors, each advancing, and giving way, in turn.

Soft moans drifted through the empty arena as each woman lost herself and her will in the taste of the other, in her softness and her heat. What they shared was raw, urgent, flaring to life between them and within them, leaving no space for softness or for gentleness.

And when it finally ended, they pulled away, breathing heavily, and lay blinking at one another, unable to believe what they had just shared.

"IÖumÖ." Cat choked out, voice rough, cheeks flushed deep with passion.

"Yeah," Dylan returned, not having the breath for anything else.

*******

Cat stepped out of the shower in her apartment, still mumbling Ďoh shit, oh shit, oh shití. Hamlet lifted his head from the foot of the bed where he was currently camped out keeping a watchful eye over his mistress. She looked at him as she slipped in her robe and roughly tied the belt into a tight knot. "How could I be so stupid?"

Hamlet yawned and laid his head back down.

She sat on the edge of her bed, fingers tapping and twitching nervously on her knees. "I need to talk to someone. Mom? No, no, no, bad idea." She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and let it out slowly. When she opened them she reached for the phone be the bed. Biting her lip she slowly dialed a number she knew by heart and then put the receiver to her ear.

On the third ring a familiar and very friendly voice answered. "Hello?"

"Lee, itís Cat."

The voice on the other end was warm and sweet as honey. "Hiya darling. Itís been a while."

"Yeah, it has, and Iím sorry about that."

"Itís okay. I attribute it to the life of the newest star in the world of womenís b-ball."

"Well, sort of. Itís been hectic, but I should have called before now. Iím sorry."

"Hey, this is me remember. No apology necessary."

Cat smiled, Lee Carol had been the closest thing to a serious relationship Cat had ever engaged in. They had dated for their last two years in college, rather steadily, but it had never grown into the ĎI love you, can live my life without youí kind of relationship many couples found themselves in after that length of time. Lee and Cat had always remained casual and it was good for both of them. When they graduated and went their separate ways, and they did so as very good friends.

"Lee I have a problem, and I need your advice."

"Anything, Cat. You know that."

"Well, you know who Dylan Lambert is, right?"

"How could I not know? She was always staring at us when we made love."

Cat chuckled. "Right. Well, the problem I have is with her."

"OkayÖ" Lee drew the word out, waiting for Cat to continue. When nothing was forthcoming, she sighed and prodded. "Are you having problems with your game? I caught the one on ESPN the other night. You looked pretty good."

"Oh you mean the Pistols fiasco? God what a game. Thatís sortaÖkindaÖhow my problem started."

"Cat, dear, I love you to death but if you donít get to the point I will be forced to come over there and tickle it out of you."

Catís ribs twitched automatically at the remembrance of the many nights they had spent goofing off together, which usually resulted in Lee tickling Cat until she felt like sheíd puke or pee herself. Many was the time she found herself begging for mercy. It was a mercy of the sweetest kind.

"Okay." Cat paused, then let her words go in a rush. "I kissed her."

"So?"

"So!? Jesus Christ, Lee! Sheís my coach. My hero! My boss! I canít kiss the boss."

"Sounds like you already did."

Cat sighed. "Yeah, I did," she admitted quietly. "What am I gonna do?"

"What do you want to do?"

"I want to crawl under a rock and stay there until Pallas Dylan Lambert retires to some ski resort somewhere."

"No an option. Next."

Cat twirled the phone cord in her fingers. "I could apologize, I guess."

"Are you sorry it happened?"

"No," she answered quickly and then changed it. "Yes, I meanÖ" She paused and picked the comforter. "I donít know exactly. I meanÖ.Iím really attracted to her."

"There ya go then. Is she attracted to you?"

Cat blinked and looked at the phone. Replacing it to her ear, she licked her lips before answering. "I donít know."

"Have you ever though aboutÖoh, I donít knowÖasking her?"

"Are you insane?"

"Probably, but thatís besides the point. If you think sheís attracted to you, then ask her and figure out where to go from there. How did this kiss happen?"

"We were playing ball and I charged her, instead of moving she stayed there. I crashed into her and when we fell, I was on top of her and then IÖIÖwellÖ"

"You kissed her."

"Uh-huh."

"Did she kiss you back?"

"Uh-huh." Cat felt oddly adolescent.

"Ask her."

"Youíre not helping me here."

"What do you want me to say Cat? Send her a dozen roses and an apology note? Iím not going to give you bad advice. Iím giving you honest advice. Ask her how she feels."

"Lee, Iím not like you. I canít ask that."

"All right. Then just let it drop and see how sheís acting. If she pulls back then accept her friendship. If she moves forward, jump her."

Cat laughed, feeling better than she had in the last few hours. "You know, I knew there was a really good reason I called you."

"Because I give great advice?"

"Because youíre full of shit and I really needed that tonight. I needed to get calmed down."

"Anytime, darling. You know you can call me anytime. Iím always gonna be here for you."

Cat smiled. "Thanks Lee."

There was a moment of comfortable silence between them.

"Catherine?"

"Yeah?"

"Donít be a chicken shit. Youíll never know unless you go for it."

"Right. Bye Lee."

"Bye Cat."

She hung up the phone and then stripped of her robe and climbed into bed. "Weíll see how things go, huh buddy?" She scratched Hamlet behind the ears as he turned and stretched out next to her.

*******

Mac stepped out of his car, resisting the urge to jump right back in again as a huge, snarling beast lunged at him from the shadows of Dylanís front porch.

"Itís okay, Brunhilde," he said, trying to keep his voice as steady as possible, and his bladder from letting go all over his trousers. "Itís Mac. Remember me?" The snarling continued. "Oh god, please remember me."

Coming into the light, Brunhilde slowed, stopped, and sat on her haunches, still growling at the man she knew very well.

"Nice puppy. Niiiiice puppy." He chanced a step away from the car.

Brunhilde barked.

He stepped back, and sighed.

"Look, girl, I know youíre just doing your job and all, but so am I. If I donít get these papers signed by Dylan tonight, Johnsonís gonna have my ass." He sighed again. "And if I do get these papers to Dylan, youíre gonna have my ass."

Brunhilde whined.

"Great," he muttered. "Itís one in the morning and Iím talking to a damn dog." He looked down at the bristling canine. "Ok, look, hereís what Iíll do. If you let me go down so see your Mistress, the next time I come over, Iíll bring you the biggest, juiciest ham bone youíve ever seen in your life. I wonít even bring one for your brother. You can lord it over him all you want. Howís that sound, huh? Pretty good, right?"

Brunhilde cocked her head, appearing to consider the situation. Then, with a soft, chuffing bark, she stood down and allowed Mac to move away from the car, though she glued herself to his side as he began to walk down the drive.

Knowing his friend well, Mac walked past the front door and around the side of the rambling house. Sure enough, the court at the bottom of the long hill was brightly lit by the floodlights surrounding it, and Mac could hear the rhythmic sound of the basketball hitting the clay.

Siegfried, trashed out after a long day of play, didnít even bother to get up as Mac strode onto the court. Dylan finished the shot she was making, then turned to greet her visitor. Despite the late hour, she was covered with sweat, her jersey sticking to her in ways that made Macóthe most faithful of husbandsóacutely uncomfortable.

"Hey," Dylan greeted, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand.

"Hey yourself. Whatís up? Youíre not usually going this full out, especially this time of the night."

Dylan shrugged as she bent to retrieve the ball. "Got some things on my mind, I guess." She looked over at the sheaf of papers in Macís hand. "Those for me?"

"Yeah. Johnsonís scored this hot new Benz dealership for advertising bucks. He wants you to show up in two or three commercials with the ownerís pretty boy son, kiss up to your adoring public, and make him megabucks."

"Ah. The usual."

Mac chuckled, then grunted as Dylan grabbed the papers and pen, turned him around, bent him over slightly, and used his back to sign on the dotted line. When she handed the papers back, Mac took a good long look at her expression.

"You seemÖpretty preoccupied, D. Everything alright?"

"Sure. Everythingís fine."

Mac laughed softly and lightly punched her shoulder. "Iíve heard cheerier executees, my friend. Whatís up?"

Dylan looked at Mac for a long moment. Though it was true that she guarded her privacy more jealously than her faithful dogs guarded her, Mac was a dear and longtime friend. And she thought, just maybe, it would be good to open up.

"I kissed her," she said softly, as if that explained it all.

"Excuse me?" Mac asked, bringing a hand up to his ear. "Did I hear you say you kissed someone?"

Dylan shot him a look. "Catherine."

"Deneuve? Isnít she a little old for you?"

"Hodges, you idiot."

"CathóohhhÖ.ohhhhÖ.oh no. Oh no, you did not just say you kissed your star player. I didnít just hear that. I didnít hear that at all." When Dylan didnít respond, Mac spun on her. "Damnit, D, what were you thinking?!?"

"There wasnít much thinking going on," Dylan admitted ruefully.

"Oh, this is bad." Mac began to pace, his boot heels striking the court hard as he stepped. "Oh, this is worse than bad. Awwww Christ."

"Calm down, Mac. Youíre gonna give yourself a stroke."

Mac whirled again, eyes wide, temple vein standing out, throbbing. "Stroke? Good! If Iím lucky, Iíll be too out of it to see your career explode all over the front page news!!"

"Mac," Dylan replied with some heat, "it was a kiss, for godís sake! Itís not like weíre getting married. Hell, weíre not even sleeping together."

Mac stopped. "Youíre not?"

"No."

"ButÖyou want to, right?"

"Jesus, Mac!" Dylan exploded. "Give me a little more credit than that! Give Catherine a little more credit!"

"So you donít want to?"

Dylan threw her hands up in the air and walked off, leaving Mac to stare after her.

After a moment, Mac trotted after her. "DylanÖDylan wait up. Iím sorry. I acted like an ass. Iím sorry."

Dylan slowed, but didnít turn.

Mac sighed. "ListenÖitís justÖ. Aside from the fact that weíve got a bigot for a boss, D, fraternization with one of your players goes against everything in your contract, from the morals clause on down. Itís not that sheís a woman. Itís that youíre her boss. Her being a woman is just icing on the cake."

He studied the tense and silent lines of her back. "Look, I know you already know all this. Hell, you probably know it better than me, but itísÖ.damnit, D, itís my job to tell you."

"I know," Dylan said quietly, still facing away from him.

Mac relaxed a little. "And Iím your friend too, D. And I donít want you in the position of having to defend your actions if Catherine wants to pursue a sexual harassment suit against you."

Dylan slowly turned. Her eyes were flaring, though outwardly, she appeared composed. "She wonít."

"But how do you know? I mean, donít get me wrong, D, I like Cat. Sheís a good kid. A helluva player. ButÖitís happened before, with good people and good players. I donít want it to happen to you this time."

"It wonít."

"How can you be so sure?"

Dylan sighed. "She initiated it, Mac."

Mac felt as if the weight of the world had rolled off his shoulders. "She initiated it?"

"Thatís what I said."

"Thank God! Why didnít you tell me that in the first place?"

"She wasnít alone in it, Mac. I responded. I enjoyed it. IÖ.god." Her shoulders slumped and she stared down at the ground. "Itís something I was thinking about before it even happened."

"Awww, D."

"I know. I know. Iím attracted to her, Mac. Nothing I can do about that."

"Youíve been attracted to women before, D. You donít alwaysÖ."

"Kiss them?"

"Yeah."

"It just happened. It justÖ."

"Will it happen again?"

Dylan shook her head. "I donít know."

Mac gentled his tone. "Do you want it to happen again?"

And that was the million dollar question. Part of her, a very large part, did want it. Another part, smaller but just as strident, wanted to run away screaming, for the exact reasons Mac had so succinctly spelled out to her. In the end, she answered the only way she could.

"I donít know."

******

End of part two. If you're enjoying and want to drop us a line, please feel free to at swordnquil@aol.com  and TNovan@aol.com

Continued - Part 3

 


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