Part 17

"I don't know, Tony," the dean answered as she looked hard at her

computer monitor. Unconsciously she reached a hand up to rub her

eye, the gesture one of fatigue and stress. She didn't turn to look at the principal, instead concentrating on her work.

Tony leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed over his broad chest. "Is she doing okay, though?" he repeated, rephrasing the question he had just asked. He worried about his English teacher.

It was 3 days since Mary's funeral, and Noelle hadn't called anyone, she hadn't seen anyone. The only way Tony knew to check on her was through Molly. He knew they were friends, so he brought his concern to her.

He took a closer look at the dark woman seated in front of the

computer. Although she held herself as she did every other day, he could tell she was absolutely exhausted, the fatigue dulling her eyes somewhat.

"Go home," he said suddenly, coming to a decision about the situation.

At the unexpected words, Molly finally turned to look at her

colleague. "Excuse me?" she asked unnecessarily.

"Go home, Molly," Tony repeated. "You look wiped. Take the rest of the week off."

The woman shook her head, the dark hair swirling gently around her shoulders. "That's not possible, and we both know it." She gestured toward her computer. "I have too much paperwork, Kline's coming back any day, and I cannot possibly leave now."

"Yes you can." There was a short pause as he looked at her

steadily. Then he spoke again, this time softer, his tone one of a friend rather than a boss. "Look, I know Noelle is a friend of yours. I know that. And I also know that Mary Potter was a friend." He smiled gently at his dean. "Go grieve your friend, Molly. You need to."

"Tony, really. I'm fine. There is no need for any of that. I can't leave now."

Tony straightened from the door. "You can, and you will. Boss's orders." He grinned at her. "Go."

Molly sighed deeply and leaned back in her chair, her blue eyes regarding the man in her doorway. Finally she nodded. "All right. I'll go. But I need to be back for tomorrow night's game."

"That's fine," he agreed. "Just go get some rest. I'll get Tim White to cover the discipline that I can't do and we'll handle Tom if he comes back. We can handle things. I promise." He smiled at her. "Now go on."

Molly sighed heavily, wanting more than anything to be home with Noelle right now. But she had a role to fill, a job to perform at the school, and it went against all of her work ethic to simply leave. The tasks were far from completed, and she hated leaving them undone. Or for someone else to do.

But she wanted to be with Noelle.

"Okay, Tony," she finally said. "I'll go, but I'm doing it under duress."

Tony nodded. "Good. I don't want to see you back in this building until Monday morning."

"The game…" Molly began to protest.

Tony raised a hand to stop the woman. "Yes, you can come back for the game. Someone's got to coach those girls. And see if you can get Noelle to be there, too."

Molly looked at him, and he could see the sadness in the deepest parts of her eyes.

"That's not likely," she answered him. Then, without another word, she shut down her computer, put her coat on, and left the office.

Tony stared after her. I hope things go better for her. And Noelle.

As Molly drove home, she realized she wanted to be with Noelle. The blond woman had not made any attempt to speak with her since the burial. It was Molly that had made all the contact with Noelle.

And she wanted to just be with her right then, sharing the sorrow and grief, working through the pain together. She sensed that Noelle needed her even if she didn't want her. And she also sensed that they had a tough road ahead of them the next couple of days.

Blue eyes blinked suddenly when she found herself in front of Mary's house. I guess this is where I'm supposed to be. Seeing Noelle's SUV in the driveway just cemented the thought. With that thought lingering in her head, the tall woman shut down the Rover and got out of the vehicle, making the short walk to the front door.

She knocked, but somehow knew she wouldn't get an answer. When she didn't, she simply opened the door and let herself in. After quickly shedding her outerwear and shoes, she strode into the living room and found what she knew she would.

Noelle was just sitting in Mary's rocking chair, the lap quilt in her hands. The TV was on, but it was painfully obvious that Noelle wasn't watching it. She was lost in her own world, a world of pain and grief.

Molly stood there, her eyes narrowed, her hands on her hips. "Okay," she said to Noelle. "That's enough of this. You're coming to my house and you're going to eat something, take a shower, and sleep." She stood in front of Noelle and held out her hand.

When Noelle didn't take the proffered hand, Molly said sarcastically, "It's customary, not to mention polite, to take a hand when it's offered. Now let's go," she demanded. After a short pause, Molly grabbed Noelle's hand, slapped it into her own, and yanked her to her feet. "I've had it with this feeling sorry for yourself crap, Potter. You're coming home with me right now, damn it."

Molly led the small woman to the foyer, helped her into her coat and boots, and threw on her own. The listlessness with which Noelle did things worried her. And the worry was manifesting itself in anger. Molly didn't know what else to do except force the issue, force Noelle to face her grief and work through it.

She hustled Noelle to her Rover before she could protest. The drive to Molly's was made in complete silence, Noelle staring out the window sightlessly and Molly concentrated on the road. And her next course of action.

Okay, now what the hell do I do with her? She's here, I have her out of that house, but now what? Force her to eat? Take a shower? What? Molly stole a glance at Noelle. She's going to damn near flip her lid. Oh yeah, she's going to flip. But it's better than this. Molly sighed as she pulled into her driveway. "This isn't going to be easy," she muttered to herself as she got out and walked around to the passenger side.

When they got inside and discarded their garments, Molly turned to Noelle. "Get your ass in the shower," she commanded.

Haunted green eyes swung slowly to her. There was no life in them. The woman that Molly had come to love and cherish was no longer open to her. Noelle was gone.

And Molly was going to fight tooth and nail to get her back.

"What are you waiting for, Potter? Get in the damned shower," she said as she turned her and pushed her toward the gold and black bathroom.

Noelle stopped suddenly, her back still to the taller woman. "Don't."

The word was spoken so softly that Molly barely heard it. "What did you say?"

Noelle turned back to face her. "Don't push me," she said in a

hollow voice.

The dark woman folded her arms across her chest. "Why the hell not?" she asked belligerently. Her posture, her whole demeanor was aggressive, it spoke of arguing and arrogance.

"Just don't."

"Oh? You'd rather sit and pity yourself, is that it? You'd rather starve yourself, wear the same damned clothes everyday for the rest of your life, and never leave your dead mother's house, right?" Molly asked, the sarcasm dripping from her voice.

"Don't talk about my mother like that," Noelle warned softly.

"Don't tell the truth? Face it, Noelle, she's dead and she's not coming back to us."

Small hands wadded into fists. "I'm not telling you again, Molly. Do not talk about my mother like that." Noelle's voice was stronger and her eyes snapped dangerously. "You'd be wise to watch your mouth about my mother."

Molly stepped closer to the woman, invading her personal space. Then she cupped her cheeks and got nose to nose with her.

"She's dead. Gone. Never coming back. Dead, goddamn it!" Molly's voice rose steadily until she was practically yelling at Noelle by the end.

Noelle pushed her away. "I oughta kick your ass, Cartwright. And if you don't shut that big hole in your face, I just might!"

Molly stared into green eyes filled with anger. "She's D-E-A-D. And there's nothing, not a damned thing, you can do to bring her back, hon," she finished, her words a harsh whisper.

In the blink of an eye, Noelle's hand came up to slap Molly, but the tall woman caught it and pushed her against the wall, holding both hands above her head. "You won't slap me again and get away with it this time," she hissed.

Molly watched the battle for control wage in the green eyes.

"Let me go, Molly," Noelle said, her voice deceptively calm. "Let me go and take me home. Now."


"No," the dark woman growled in response.

That one word was spoken with such conviction, such strength, that, for one moment, Noelle was taken aback. But she quickly found her voice.  "Take me home now!"

Molly looked at her with eyes filled with anger and pain.  "What the hell would Mary think?" she hissed as she stepped away from Noelle.  "What would she say to you while you sat there drowning in self-pity and all the rest of that useless crap?" Without waiting for Noelle, Molly answered her own question.  "If she didn't kick your ass, she'd at least tell you to get over it now! Stop wallowing!"

The smaller woman stepped into the other woman's personal space.   She   pointed a finger at her in rage. "Don't you dare tell me what my mother would do or say!  She's my mother, not yours!  Mine! So don't presume to know what she would do."   Noelle paused to catch her breath before continuing.  "You have some nerve, Molly. Some nerve to act like you know her.  You don't!"

"And you're pathetic and selfish to think you're the only one who hurts!"

The words caught both women by complete surprise. Green eyes and blue stared at each other in shocked silence.

The contact was broken when Molly turned away and walked into the living room.

Noelle watched her walk away, something deep inside of her telling her that if she let this happen, it would irreversibly damage their relationship.  And she desperately wanted to stop that from happening.

The blond woman followed Molly but instead of entering the room, she just stood in the doorway.  She gazed sadly at Molly sitting on the couch.  She had her elbows on her knees, her face tiredly resting in her hands.

Go to her.  She needs you now.  Noelle heard the words, but they weren't in her own voice.  It was Mary's voice she heard; it was the gentle sound of Mary's voice in her ear, and Mary's soft touch on her heart that did it, and she found herself kneeling in front of the dark woman, tugging her hands from her face.

"Mol?" she asked softly, her voice barely above a whisper.  She searched the face intently, and, seeing the pain and sorrow there, she forgot her own grief for the time.

Gently, so very gently, Noelle cupped the face of the woman she cared about above all others.

My God, even Mary, she realized suddenly.  With that realization came the dawning knowledge that she cared for Molly Cartwright more, so much more, than she'd ever cared for another person in her life.

But all thought was chased from her mind when tear-filled blue eyes finally opened to her.  What she saw there, the depth of the grief, made her heart clench painfully for the other woman.

"Talk to me, Molly," she encouraged, her voice still soft and gentle.   "Let me-" Noelle stopped.  She wasn't exactly sure where she was going with that statement.  Although she looked directly at the woman on the couch, her mind was a thousand miles away.  Let me what?   Hold you?  She already does. Help you?  I think… I think I do.  Let me in?  She has.  God in heaven, Molly Cartwright has let me in.  She's opened herself to me… and I've not done the same.

"I… I should have… maybe I could have… done something…"

The words were whispered so quietly that Noelle almost didn't hear them.  But she did, and the words tore at her heart.  "Oh, Molly.  Look at me.  Please, look at me for a minute."  She waited until the other woman opened her eyes again and looked at her.  "There was nothing we could have done.  Yes, we could have called an ambulance and brought her to the hospital, but… but I don't think Mary would have wanted that."

Noelle could feel the tears filling her own eyes, she could hear the tremor in her voice, but all she knew was the desire, the need, to comfort Molly.  "It was her time, Molly.  God wanted her back, and there was nothing we could have done to prevent that.   She's with my dad now, and I bet, like you said, that she's looking at us, shaking her head, wishing she could kick our   asses right now."

"My ass? Why me?" Molly asked, then she burst out in laughter that ended on a sob.

At the sound, Noelle gathered the bigger woman in her arms, sitting on the couch next to her, holding her for all she was worth.  Without knowing how Molly did it, Noelle found herself in Molly's lap, Molly's head buried in the crook of her neck, her body shaking slightly with the force of her tears.

Noelle wrapped her arms around Molly again, pulling her even closer.  One hand rhythmically stroked the dark hair as she whispered nonsense words, words meant to soothe, words meant to comfort.

"It's okay to cry, Molly.  It'll make you feel better.  Go 'head and cry.  You need to do it.  I'm right here.  I'm not going anywhere…" Noelle was unaware of the tears that streaked her own face, so focused was she on Molly.

All sense of time was lost as the two women mourned mother and friend.  They held each other until night had blanketed the world, their world, with her soothing, quiet darkness.

Finally, after what seemed like hours but could have been only minutes, Molly sighed deeply and picked her head up.  She looked at Noelle and smiled.

"I bet my mascara is all runny and smeared, isn't it?"  When the only response she got was a look of total disbelief from Noelle, she sighed  again, this time rather dramatically.  "Go on, you can tell me.  I can take it, I swear."  When she felt the small body on her lap start to shake, she gasped in mock horror.  "It's that bad?"

Noelle threw her arms around Molly and hugged her as she laughed helplessly.  And when Molly joined her, each fed the other's laughter with her own.  The laughter was as needed as the tears were, it was just as cathartic and healing as the tears from a moment ago were.

When they sobered enough to think coherently, Molly buried her hands in Noelle's soft hair and kissed her gently.

Noelle closed her eyes and accepted the kiss, giving as much as she was taking.  Her eyes remained closed after Molly broke the kiss, her soul drinking in the balm that was Molly's kiss.   Without opening her eyes, she whispered a request.

"Make love with me. Please."

Molly cupped the small face and waited for Noelle to open her eyes before speaking.

"Are you sure?"

"I… I need you, Molly," she responded.  "Please."

"Yes," came the unhesitant reply.  "Yes."

Molly led them into the bedroom, not bothering to turn on any lights.  The only sound from that time on was the soft murmuring of one soul loving another.  The love that they made that night was a reaffirmation of the bond they had with life.  And the bond they had with each other.

*****                  *****                    *****

Hey, I did it, Noelle thought sleepily.  I'm awake before she is.  Noelle chuckled, but she was interrupted by a big yawn that threatened to split her skull in two.  She so very badly wanted to stretch, but she didn't want to wake the woman sleeping so peacefully beside her.

Green eyes turned to take in the form of the other woman.  Her face, which was normally so stoic and determined at school, looked so much more open and relaxed in sleep.

The night before had been, in a word, amazing.  Yes, the two women had made love, but it was so much more than two bodies coming together in sex.   It was two souls coming together for support and respite from the reality that was their lives.   Noelle and Molly needed that.  They needed to be with each   other in love, and in grief.  The loving was necessary for them to reconnect at a level much deeper than the physical.  The grieving was necessary for both of them to start on the road to saying their final goodbyes to Mary.

Noelle drew in a deep breath.  Then deciding that she could use a bit more sleep, she snuggled in close to the warm body next to her and closed her eyes.  It wasn't long before sleep claimed her for its own.

Sometime later, Molly woke to the awareness of a small body intertwined with her own.  She smiled when she realized that Noelle was behind her, both of them on their sides facing the same way.  The blond woman had an arm across Molly's side and curled on her stomach.  Her top knee was thrown over Molly's hip, and the blond head was tilted down so it was buried between her   shoulder blades.

Molly laced her fingers with Noelle's smiling again when she felt the smaller ones curling instinctively against hers.

Molly's thoughts turned to the woman they both grieved.  Oh, Mary, I don't know if I'm enough for her.  I don't know if she'll let me inside any further.  I don't know what to do except… except what I'm doing.   Molly's eyes snapped open.  Is that what I'm supposed to do?  Just love her, no matter what?  Is it really that simple?  Will she really… she will, won't she?  Is that what you're telling me, Mare?  That Noelle will someday love me like I love her?  Well hot damn.  Now, if only I can find the words and actions…

The dark woman was drawn back to the present when a tiny noise came from the woman behind her.  She felt the arm tighten around her briefly before it slid slowly from her body.  Molly knew, without a doubt, that if she rolled over, she'd see Noelle's hand tucked under her pillow.  Noelle's leg was still across her hip, so she decided to stay as she was for the time being so she wouldn't disturb her.

She conceded to allowing her hand to softly stroke the skin on the firm thigh.  Molly closed her eyes and just enjoyed the quiet time with the woman she loved.  She didn't stop rubbing Noelle's thigh when she felt her shift; she simply continued the contact, needing it, wanting it, loving it.

"Yow!" she yelped when she felt sharp teeth sink gently into her shoulder.

Noelle started to laugh softly, applying more pressure to the skin between her teeth.

In the blink of an eye, Molly rolled over, pinning Noelle beneath her bigger body. "So you want to play, huh?" she asked wickedly.

A slow smile broke out on Noelle's face. "Play?" she purred sexily. "Not exactly."

She's smiling, Molly thought happily. Seeing the smile change, Molly's thoughts changed as well. She bent her head to kiss the blond, feeling the softness of her lips. She pulled back briefly, taking in the sight of the beautiful face below her.

Molly waited for the green eyes, soft with emotion and gentle humor, opened to her. Then again she leaned in to kiss Noelle. As her lips were about to brush Noelle's, her eyes closed. But they snapped open at Noelle's next words.

"Hey! Is that…" Noelle turned her head to sniff the air loudly. "…bacon I smell?" She continued to sniff, not unlike a bloodhound hot on the trail of a fox. Or something.

Molly gaped at her dumbfounded. "Bacon?" she asked incredulously. "You smell bacon?" The tall woman shook her head, her long hair tickling Noelle's face.

"ACK!" she squeaked, turning her head side to side. "That tickles! Stop!" she laughed.

Molly chuckled and stopped moving her head. She rolled to one side but kept a knee across Noelle's thighs. She reached up to trace a finger down Noelle's cheek. "You hungry?" she asked, hoping the blond really was, and wasn’t just saying that.

Noelle nodded solemnly, her eyes wide and serious. "Do birds fly?"

Molly shouted with laughter. "I really like you, Noelle Potter." She patted the soft belly under her hand before getting out of bed and donning red shorts and a red t-shirt.

Noelle snuggled deeper under the covers in the big bed and watched the activity at the dresser.

"You are so butch," she informed Molly.

Molly just looked at her strangely for a moment. "Me?"

"Yes you."

"I am not," came the indignant reply.

"Ooooh, you are too."

"Okay, pal," Molly answered, her blue eyes narrowing and her arms folding across her chest. "How do you figure?"

Noelle put her hands behind her head and turned an appraising eye to Molly.

"You never wear a dress. You hold the door and pull out chairs for me. You strut around like you have a big old d… you know. You like to think you're the dominant one here. And you're handy with tools," Noelle ticked off her reasons. "Face it. You're butch."

"But how did you know about the tools?"

Noelle laughed. "You just proved my point."

"I AM NOT BUTCH!" Molly yelled.

"Okay, then you’re femme," Noelle said with a nonchalant shrug.


Suddenly Noelle sat up in the bed, the cover sliding down and catching on her small breasts. "You are butch," she whispered intently. Then she fell back onto the pillow, laughing delightedly at the look on Molly's face. "I'm funny."

"Har har. A real laugh a minute. Now what do you want to eat?" Molly asked, changing the subject.

"Bacon. And don't think I don't know you're deliberately changing the subject," Noelle answered smugly.

"Brat," Molly teased. She turned to go to the kitchen, but a soft sound from the bed made her turn back. When she saw the tears leaking from the sad green eyes, she found herself back on the bed gathering Noelle in her arms.

She pulled Noelle back against her and stroked her hair gently. "Shh, Noe. I've got you. I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere." Unconsciously, Molly was repeating the words that Noelle had said to her the night before, unaware of just how important those words would become to the woman in her arms in the coming weeks.

"I miss… her," Noelle whispered brokenly. "She used to… she called me that. I miss her so much."

"I know. I know you miss Mary, sweetness."

A few minutes later, Noelle rolled over to face Molly. She didn't look into the blue eyes, instead focusing on a point just below her chin. "It aches inside. Will it ever go away?" she asked, her voice trembling and soft.

Molly sighed deeply and shook her head. "I don't know, Noelle. I don't know if it ever will. It'll lessen, yes, but go away? I don't know."

They stayed like that for some time before Noelle pushed Molly away and smiled, the sadness lingering. "I'm still hungry," she informed Molly softly.

Not wanting to leave her, but knowing she probably wanted a few minutes alone, Molly kissed Noelle's forehead and got out of bed. "Okay. I'll come get you when it's ready."

After the tall woman left, Noelle rolled on to her side, tugging Molly's pillow closer to her body. Her thoughts turned to her mother as she snuggled into the pillow.

Oh, Mom. Are you with Dad now? Are you happy? You're with God, right? I know you are. You have to be. You're the closest person to perfect I've ever, ever met. I know you're with God.

Noelle drew in a tremulous breath and closed her eyes against the tears that threatened to start falling again.

I miss you so much. There are so many things I didn't get to tell you, so many things we didn't get to do. Who am I going to talk to about… stuff? We never took that sailing trip we talked about. We never went to Disney World like we wanted to. We were supposed to-

'You have Molly now.'

Noelle's eyes snapped open at the words. Like the night before, she didn't hear them in her own voice, but in Mary's. At the words, the warmth that had started to sneak into her heart when she first met Molly crept back in. It had felt so bleak and desolate inside since Mary died. But it didn't feel like that quite as much or quite as often.

She closed her eyes and stayed curled up like she was until she felt the mattress depressed by the weight of another person. Knowing who it was, Noelle snuggled back further into Molly and smiled slightly when she felt strong arms go around her.

"Okay?" a deep voice whispered in her ear.

She nodded. "Will be, yeah."

A large hand patted her hip, then she felt Molly roll from the bed and stride to the dresser to pull out a sweatshirt and sweatpants. The big woman tossed them on the bed and Noelle smiled at her. "For me?" she asked, batting her eyelashes.

Molly chuckled. "Mmhm. Come on, breakfast is ready."

The words spurred Noelle into action. "WooHOO! I love breakfast. I just love to eat. Yum!" she said, quickly shimmying into the sweatpants.

Molly snorted. "Yeah, well, at least I don’t have to wrestle with the menu; you’ll eat just about anything."

"Yeah, but not just anyone," Noelle quipped automatically, tugging the sweatshirt over her head.

It took all of 6 seconds for Noelle to realize what she just said, and when she did, her eyes flew to Molly's face. "I didn’t… I mean… I don’t… oh my."

Molly watched in amusement as the bright red blush washed over the heart-shaped face and Noelle fumbled for words. Deciding she wouldn’t make the poor woman squirm too badly, Molly let her off the hook. She shook her head and laughed. "Come on, babe. Let’s go eat."

It was during the rush of shoveling food into her mouth that Noelle stopped mid-motion. "The game!" she shouted. "The damned game’s tonight! Shit!" She dropped her fork, the clattering against the plate loud in the kitchen.

Molly chuckled at the coach's words. "Finish eating," she admonished. "Yes, the game is tonight," she continued as Noelle resumed eating, "but I've been running practice this week, so we should be good to go." Blue eyes stared intently into Noelle's green ones. "I bet the girls would love to have you there, Noe. They've been asking about you," Molly finished quietly.

Noelle swallowed, the emotion clogging her throat. She heard the hope, the fear in the words. She knew the hope for what it was… Molly wanted her at the game, wanted her to get on with life. And she also knew the fear that Molly felt. Maybe she was treading where she didn't belong. But… but she does belong there. She belongs with me. Noelle's heart clenched as the realization washed through her.

"I need to go sailing," she whispered, not meeting Molly's eyes.

"'Scuse me?" Molly asked, not sure she heard the woman correctly.

The blond cleared her throat. "Nothing. I don't know… I don't know if…" She sighed. "Mary used to come to all our home games." She paused again, trying desperately to ward off the tears that threatened.

Molly reached across the table and put her hand over Noelle's smaller one, her thumb rubbing the soft skin there soothingly. "It's okay, Noe. We can go a couple without you," Molly responded, knowing that Noelle still needed time. "But only a two or three," she qualified. "I'm not their coach. You are."

Noelle nodded, grasping the other hand tightly for a moment before letting go. Then she carried her plate to the sink, washing it quickly and setting it in the rack to dry.

It wasn't long before the two women were ensconced on the couch. Molly's long legs were stretched out, her feet on the coffee table, and Noelle was sitting next to her, her legs curled up underneath her and her fair head resting on a convenient shoulder. They stayed that way through lunch, Molly only getting up to get the subs she had ordered from the delivery boy.

After lunch, Molly watched CNN while Noelle dozed next to her. The tall woman held off as long as possible before slipping out from next to Noelle and getting ready for the game. When she was ready, she knelt by the couch and stroked the satiny soft cheek of the sleeping woman.

"Hey, Noe. Honey? Come on, babe. It's time for me to head over to the high school now," Molly said softly. She placed tiny kisses all over Noelle's face until the green eyes fluttered open sleepily.

"Mmm… going now?" she asked drowsily, her eyes not really focusing.

Molly smiled gently and nodded. "Yeah. I told the girls to be in the locker room by 4:30 for tip-off at 5:30. It's almost 4:00 now, so I need to get going."

Noelle's eyes cleared quickly and she sat up. "Who're you starting?" she questioned. "What defense are you running against Park City? What offense? They hit us with a full-court press right from tip-off. You have to… who're you starting?

Listening to Noelle fire off questions like a field sergeant in a war zone. She shook her head and sat back on her heels. "Settle down, Noe," she finally laughed. "We'll be okay."

Then suddenly something occurred to the tall woman. "Listen, love. Don't tax yourself worrying about the game. I know it's kind of tough for you, this being the first game without Mary. So don't worry your pretty little head about it, okay?" She leaned in and kissed the other woman, lingering just a second longer than she had to. "Wish us luck."


And with that, Molly was gone. She strode out into the foyer and slipped into her shoes, chuckling very quietly the whole time. That ought to do it, she thought wickedly. Then she was out the door into the cold night air.

Noelle leaned back on the couch and automatically reached for the remote. She scooched down further into the cushions, her thumb pressing the channel button repeatedly.

It was almost 5:30 when Noelle bolted upright. "Ah shit! She doesn't know about their center. I should have told her… damn, damn, damn!" Noelle was halfway to the bedroom to grab her keys.

"Sonofabitch!" she yelped. "My keys, my truck are at Mary's. SONAFABITCH!" She stopped to gather her thoughts and come up with another course of action.

She snapped her fingers. "Got it!"

***** ***** *****

Molly grinned at the girls gathered around her in the locker room. "Okay then, let's do it."

With that, the team burst through the locker room door into the gym. Six of the 15 girls dribbled balls as the girls made a lap around the gym, beginning their pre-game warm-up. The ended at half-court and immediately formed into three lines to do a weaving and passing drill.

Molly strode purposefully to the bench, dropping the clipboard onto the wood and folding her arms to watch her girls. My girls. That's right, she thought, pride in the girls filling her. She quickly surveyed the crowd, momentarily surprised at the size of it. The bleachers were almost completely full, and the noise was nearly deafening.

Her attention was brought back to the floor when the other team made their entrance. The first thing she noticed was that, overall, they looked a lot taller than her girls. But that won't make a difference. I'd bet we're faster.

When the big man who was their coach followed the girls out of the other locker room, Molly walked over to greet him.

She held out her hand to him. "Molly Cartwright." Her demeanor, her words, were serious and closed, just as she was at school.

"Andy Owen." The handshake was firm, but not overpowering. His eyes wandered briefly to her bench then turned back to her. He smiled slightly. "Tell Noelle we're thinking about her, okay?"

Molly was taken aback for a second but quickly regained her composure. It amazed her that Noelle touched so many people around her. "I will. Thank you," she answered softly.

Then his friendly face broke out into a big grin. "Don't think we're going easy on you because of your coach's loss, though."

Despite herself, Molly burst into laughter. She liked this man. "I didn't expect you to. And don't think our loss is going to affect our game. It won't."

"Fair enough," he boomed. "Good luck, coach."

"And to you." Then Molly pivoted on her heel and walked back to the bench, grabbing up the clipboard and looking at the clock. Three minutes left. Better call 'em in. She put her fingers to her lips and let go with a loud, piercing whistle.

Knowing what it was, the girls immediately ran over to the bench, the starters sitting and the rest of the team gathering around their coach.

The tall woman crouched down in the middle of the group. "Okay, this is it. Remember what I told you… they're taller, but I'm betting we're faster. Go easy on the inside shots because they'll just cram it right back down our throats. Keep it wide, keep it strong. Let's start with a 3-2 until we see what they're running." Molly paused for a second before she continued. "I know Coach Potter would be here if she could. Let's do this for her."

Heads nodded and determined looks fell over the faces around her. She stood up and put her hand out, palm up. The girls gathered even closer, bodies jostling for position.

Molly brought another hand up to support the added weight of all the other hands. "Win."

On three, the team yelled "WIN!", their voices drowning out the buzz of the crowd for that brief second.

There was another shuffle of bodies as the starters hustled out to center court and the reserve players took a seat on the bench. Molly sat at the end closest to the statisticians and watched as the other team ran onto the court. The eight girls took their places around the small circle for the tip-off while the two centers faced off.

Molly could feel the palpable tension in the air as the hush descended over the crowd as they, too, waited for the ref to toss the ball into the air. When it happened, the crowd erupted when her girls took possession of the ball first.

"All right, let's set it up and run a scramble!" Molly yelled, her commanding voice easily carrying to her team. She watched as Jilly put a fist briefly in the air, signaling to her coach that she had heard her instructions and telling her team what play to run.

Quickly, the young girl feinted left then shot right, scooting around her defender and shucking the ball off to an inside player. Instead of shooting, however, Megan, the other ball handler, drilled the ball back to Jilly who passed it to Alyssa.

The tall girl was just inside the three point line, the way was clear, so she put the shot up. Molly held her breath as the ball lobbed through the air… then sank into the hoop. The girls whooped it up and gave each other high fives as they jogged back down the court.

"Get back, get back!" she yelled as the other team retrieved the ball and ran it hard down the court. "Look alive! Let's get a 3-2 set up!" Molly shook her head at what was clearly an uncalled offensive foul. Alyssa, one of the forwards down low, had been standing perfectly still when a player from the other team rammed into her and almost knocked her off her feet as she drove to the basket. Then, on the rebound, one of her girls was elbowed in the gut, again, no foul called.

And that early into the game, Molly could tell there were going to be very few fouls called. Oh boy, she thought wryly. This is going to be fun.

They were halfway through the second quarter, the score 24-28 with her team down and taking a beating, when Molly called a time-out. She was kneeling on one knee with the girls huddled around her when another body pushed its way into the middle of the throng.

"What in the HELL is going on?" a very familiar voice demanded. "Jesus, Coach, can't you see the screen they keep running on you?"

The tall woman stood up, a head taller than everyone in the group except Alyssa, and turned to glare at the speaker.

But the grin suffusing the heart-shaped face stopped her cold.

"Hi," Noelle said cheerily.

Molly just shook her head and smiled at the other woman. "Glad you could make it."

Noelle snorted, a rather unladylike sound. "I've got a few choice words for you after the game, Coach." She started to turn to the girls, but stopped and smiled ever so sweetly at her assistant. "Nice bike, by the way."

Nice bike? Molly thought in confusion. "What are you ta- Never mind. I know," she answered herself sheepishly. "Sorry?"

"Whatever," she dismissed the other woman. But Molly didn't worry. She knew, by the sparkle in those green eyes, that Noelle was wonderfully happy.

"Okay, listen up, here's what we're gonna do…" Noelle began instructing the team, the nods of understanding and the serious looks telling the blond that they were indeed paying attention.

For the rest of the half, Molly was torn between doing her job, watching and recording the other team's defense and offense, and watching Noelle. Where she was quiet and more reserved, content to let the girls run the plays they knew as they saw fit, Noelle coached the team with an iron fist, going so far as to yank a player out who didn't do what she instructed.

But she was as quick, perhaps even quicker, to dispense praise and encouragement as she was to discipline her team.

"Nice shot, Reeny! You'll sink it next time!" Noelle sat back down at the end of the bench. "Jesus, we're getting killed out there," she mumbled a split second before Jilly was knocked on her tail by a much larger player from the other team.

"Time out! Time out!" Noelle screamed at the nearest ref, pacing after him. Just as he was blowing his whistle, she turned to Molly, the agitation evident on her face and in her posture.

"Settle 'em down. I'll be right back," she hissed.

She sprinted past the girls who were running toward the bench.

Molly sat the players down, the rest of the girls handing water bottles and towels to them. "Take a deep breath and settle down. You're doing great. No need to get all riled out there."

That's when she heard it. Simultaneously she heard a chorus of "uh ohs" from the girls crowded around her and Noelle's screaming at the ref.

"Jesus Christ, Jerry! We're getting hammered out there!" Small hands were waving wildly as Noelle followed after the ref she was yelling at. "Why the hell aren't you calling any fouls? You're killing my team!"

Molly stood up to better assess the situation when the other ref jogged over to her.

"You better get her out of there before Jerry throws a technical on her. They don't get along very well," he grinned good-naturedly.

Molly looked at him curiously. So another one bites the dust, hmm?

"I'm there." She strode to the two people facing off like pitbulls getting ready to do battle to the death. Not an inaccurate analogy, Molly thought with a quick grin.

"Coach… Coach, we need you over here." Not wanting to create a scene in front of a gym full of people, Molly simply tapped Noelle on the shoulder and raised an eyebrow when Noelle swung around to face her. Then she casually tossed her head back to the bench and the waiting players.

Noelle opened her mouth to argue but thought better of it. "Fine! But I'm not kidding, Jerry!" she yelled, throwing her hands up in the air and stomping back to the girls.

Molly looked at the referee, a big, burly man with beefy hands. Revolting. Her skin crawled at the thought of those hands touc- Don't even go there.

"Jerry? I think what Coach Potter was saying was that we'd really appreciate it if you would be a little more observant under the boards." Although the words were friendly and open, the tone of Molly's voice was dangerous, almost aggressive. Before the man could answer, Molly thanked him and returned to the bench.

"Remember, settle down," she called to the girls running past her. She sat next to the other coach, mimicking her position. She leaned forward, feet spread wide, elbows resting on her knees. She clasped a clipboard loaded with copies of a blank key between her hands.

The beginnings of a new play began to roll around in her head, and she let them flow. "They're taller than us but we're faster. They've got the entire key blocked… how do we get around them?" she mused quietly.

She was aware of the woman next to her yelling instructions, and she kept one eye on the other team's playing, but her focus was on the new play.

"Bingo! Call a time out," she urged Noelle, quickly scribbling the play on the paper.

"What?" Noelle asked in disbelief. "Call a time out?"

"Yes," Molly answered, standing up and doing it herself. She waved the girls over, sat them on the bench, and quickly showed them the new play.

Noelle just stood by, not knowing what else to do. What the hell is she doing? She repeated the question aloud to Molly when they sat back on the bench.

"Just watch," Molly said, her voice low and intense.

The two women watched as the girls executed the new play three times in a row, bagging an easy 6 points, bringing them back into the game. Before they could run it again, however, the buzzer for halftime sounded. They stood up clapping and started walking to the locker room, the team following them closely. The score at the half was 36-32, her girls down.

"Hell of a play. Where'd you get it?" Noelle asked conversationally as they marched into the locker room.

"Modified a play from college. We played this one team where the shortest player was taller than me," Molly grinned.

Noelle whistled in appreciation. "Wow. Must've been some team."

"They were good, all right. But we were better," Molly stated quietly.

Noelle started her talk by telling the girls they were doing wonderfully. "They're not playing by our standards, I know that. But there's not a damned thing we can do about it except do the best we know how under the circumstances."

"Coach," Molly interrupted. "Might I have a little chat with Alyssa, Reeny, and JoAnne?" she asked.

Noelle looked at her curiously but nodded her permission. She turned back to the other players as the four went into the office and closed the door.

They had just enough time to get out and shoot around before the start of the second half when Molly came out.

"You look positively evil," Noelle said as they gathered their clipboards.

Molly turned blazing blue eyes to her.   "It's time to play a little street ball," she said with wicked glee.

Noelle laughed loudly.   "I just hope they don't get in any trouble."

"Nah.   That's why I only spoke with those three.   They can handle it; they've seen enough, played enough to know how to do it."

The blond head nodded.   "Well, let's go see what happens, shall we?"

Molly followed Noelle out into the gym, stopping next to her when she did.   She noted that Noelle was looking into the crowd.

"She's here, Noe," she said quietly.   "You just can't see her.   But she's here."

"I know."   And Noelle drew in a deep breath, smiled, and walked to their   bench.

When the girls assembled for the start of the second half, Noelle looked at them sternly.   "Just play your hardest.   Give me 110%, you got it?"

Noelle was awed at the change in the girls after Molly's talk with them.   While they didn't cheat or hurt anyone, the three girls definitely gave as good as they got.   Noelle winced when Alyssa jabbed an elbow hard into the player behind her, sure that it would garner them a foul.   But apparently the baseline ref didn't see it.   Or chose not to see it.

Noelle mentally shrugged.   That's how it's going to be then, I guess.

The calm determination that came over her girls was a sight to see.   They   played hard, they played rough at times, but they played with a maturity that she didn't see often.   Yes, her team was good, damned good, but this was different.   She turned a new eye to Molly, knowing that the tall woman had a lot to do with that difference.

"Thank you," she said suddenly to the woman seated next to her.

"You're welcome," Molly answered without looking at her.

Noelle's attention swung back to the game when Molly stood up suddenly.   The   only thing she could see was a lot of commotion under their basket.

"Damn," she cursed her height-challenge.   Noelle stood up on the bench.   Heh.   Finally I'm taller than she is.   But she didn't gloat long because she saw what the commotion was.

"Damn!" she yelled, hitting the floor at a dead run.

The two teams were scuffling after a particularly bad rebound.   Noelle waded   into the mix, yanking any white shirt she came across and shoving it toward their bench.

"Knock it off!" a loud, deep voiced demanded.   The voice carried over the   pandemonium that reigned in the gym.   And it was commanding enough to get the attention of the players.

Noelle turned just in time to see Molly physically pick a player up off the floor and shove her toward Andy Owen.

"Are we playing ball or are we boxing?" she hollered, her words, as well as her tone, stopping the activity on the court.   "Let's act like the   basketball players we are!   Coach Owen, get your girls off the court.   Coach Cartwright, get our players", the word spoken sarcastically, "to the bench.   NOW!"

At the words, the coaches didn't have to do a thing to get the girls off the   court.   They hustled to their respective benches without being told again.

As soon as she reached the bench, Noelle lit into her girls like a house on fire. "I have no idea what you were thinking, but it stunk!   If I ever have to do that again because my girls, my players are acting like a bunch of ruffians, heads are going to roll!"  She began pacing back and forth, her words growing steadily louder as she moved.   "If you think I'm going to forgive and forget, you have got another thing coming to you!   I cannot believe you behaved like that!"

She paused then, her back to her team.   When she turned back to then, the   disappointment she felt was there on her face for everyone to read.   "I thought you were better than that."   Her words were quiet but they cut deeper than any yelling could have.   The girls felt their coach's disappointment keenly, and, to a player, they silently vowed to not let it happen again.

By that time, Molly had stalked back to the bench, her expression grim and   tight. "I don't like what just happened," she ground out.   "Do not let it happen   again."

"But you told us-"

Molly stopped Alyssa with a look.   "I did not, at any time, give you my blessing to act like hockey players instead of basketball players.   Not once."

Alyssa nodded, her eyes on her high-tops.

The game ended that night with their girls pulling out a win, the score 48-44.   But the victory was clouded by the events that transpired in the second half.

Noelle was the last one out of the locker room later that night.   Molly had gone ahead to warm up the Rover, and Noelle waited to make sure everyone was   out of the room.

As she walked down the hall, her footsteps echoed eerily in the empty hallway. She turned the corner and almost ran into a big body.

"Oh!" she yelped, looking up into eyes that were so young… and so hate-filled.

"Tom!   I didn't know you were here," she said, her voice sounding a bit out of breath.

"Ms. Potter."   Her name was spoken with such venom, such rancor, that the   words sent an ice cold chill down her spine.

"I wanted to talk to you, Ms. Potter."



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