"Your serve improved a lot in the later stages of the tournament. What do you attribute that to?"
Maria gave the journalist a cheeky grin. "Hitting that lines umpire. It was a good lesson on how not to serve."
The room laughed with her, but the journalist had a follow-up. "Have you spoken to the lines umpire you hit?"
"Yes." She nodded. "I apologized. There's no hard feelings between us."
"You didn't say sorry."
Debbie sat on the sofa in Maria's hotel room, watching her pack. It was slow going because Maria's eye was often drawn to the trophy, a replica of the one she'd held up to the crowd earlier today.
Maria turned her attention away from the trophy, looking for a moment like she wasn't listening, but then said, "I did." She sniffed the sneakers in her hand and made a face, but put them in her suitcase anyway.
Debbie shook her head. "Actually you just said I should have moved and blamed it all on your serve."
"It was. My serve was terrible." Maria smiled as she came across the room to pick up one of her tennis dresses, which was draped over the back of the couch. She bent to kiss Debbie's forehead. "I'm not sorry. If I hadn't hit you we'd never have met."
Debbie could only smile in agreement.
"We saw you on TV," the receptionist greeted Debbie when she returned to work on Monday. Going back to work after a week spent at a tennis tournament was always hard, but it was worse this time. More people had recognized her on the bus and wondered why she was still here when the tennis had moved on. She'd managed a fixed smile, but it was making her cheeks hurt. Although she made herself inconspicuous as she made her way to her desk, it looked like she couldn't relax that smile any time soon: one of her colleagues, who was always a little obnoxious, hadn't had one of her memes as his desktop wallpaper.
"Bobby," she complained, as she sat at her desk.
He just gave her a shrug and an apologetic smile. "I've never known someone on a meme before."
She sighed and turned her attention to her computer, with the four hundred emails she'd have to wade through before she could start the day's work. It felt like half of them were asking her about being knocked out by Maria's serve - and only half of those were concerned that she was all right.
She should have been Skyping Maria when she got home, but it had been raining in New York and Maria was still on court. Debbie thought that watching her play would take her mind off the miserable day she'd had at work, avoiding everyone, but she just missed Maria more. By the time Maria won, despite dropping the second set, Debbie was yawning and she took herself off to bed.
Maria called while she was cleaning her teeth.
Debbie ran to her bedroom to get her phone and had already pressed answer before she remembered her mouthful of toothpaste.
"What are you doing?" Maria asked, as Debbie spat it out.
She propped the phone up at the back of the sink as she rinsed her toothbrush. "Going to bed."
Maria frowned. "But it's still early."
"I have to be at work at nine." Now she was done, Debbie could sit cross-legged on the end of her bed and see Maria properly. "I saw the end of your match."
Maria beamed. "Twenty one aces!"
"You don't even need me any more," Debbie said, but smiled. Maria's good mood was infectious. Although just speaking to her helped a lot too.
"But I do." Maria moved her phone closer to herself, so her face filled the whole screen. "You should come to New York."
Debbie shook her head. They'd already had this discussion last week. "I wish I could, but I used up most of my vacation time."
It didn't help that Debbie wanted to go. She wanted to see Maria in person; to be around tennis again; to see the city. So that was all it took to get her to give in. "If you make it to the finals, then I'll come," she promised. She could fit in a flying visit and she had just enough air miles saved up.
"I will." She smiled. "You wait and see."
On Friday, Maria Skyped while Debbie was still looking for her boots. Well, one boot. The other one had mysteriously disappeared in the way that boots sometimes did.
"You are never still," Maria complained.
"I'm going out in five minutes." Debbie finally found the boot under her bed. She must have kicked it under there after her last night out, before the tournament. "I told my friends my new girlfriend was in New York without me and they decided I needed cheering up."
"You told them about me?" Maria looked surprised.
"I didn't tell them you were Maria Fernandez, tennis star." She set the phone down next to her while she pulled her boots on. "I just told them your name was Maria and we met at the tournament." No one would ever put the two names together - they'd all just assumed her girlfriend Maria was another lines umpire. The idea of Debbie dating a tennis star was even more crazy than Debbie being famous, even if it was only her fifteen minutes.
Debbie was concentrated on lacing her boots, so it took her a moment to realize Maria hadn't said anything. When she paused to check the screen she saw Maria was staring at something to the side of the screen, an expression similar to when Debbie had told her she couldn't go to New York.
"What's wrong?" Debbie asked, finally.
"I wish you were here." She sighed. Although she turned back to her phone, she kept her eyes down. "I don't really have friends, not properly. And my family, they don't know."
"About me?" And then at Maria's expression, she realized there was more to it than that. "About you liking girls?"
Maria shrugged. "They know I like tennis."
"That's more important." Debbie laughed. At least Maria managed a smile. She wanted to talk longer, but the doorbell rang. "I have to go." But she took her phone with her to the door, so she could have a little more time before she had to hang up. "I'll see you in a week."
But Maria was knocked out in the semi-finals. It was further than she'd ever been at the US Open, but Debbie was learning that Maria wanted to win every match. She wished she could do more than just commiserate with her over Skype.
"I played terribly," Maria said, her face a picture of disappointment, even though she'd only been the thirteenth seed. From the background it looked like she was in a hotel bathroom. "I needed you there. I win when you watch."
"I had to work." Debbie tried not to feel guilty. She couldn't give up her job for someone she'd known less than a month. "And it wouldn't have mattered. It's how you play, not who is watching."
Maria shook her head. "I play better when you watch."
"Superstition." She knew tennis players were superstitious, but hadn't learned any of Maria's yet. Until now. Although Maria was going to have to get over that one. "I was thinking of you, though."
"You were?" Maria perked up a little at that.
Debbie shrugged. "You're much more interesting than my work emails." Which wasn't saying much.
"Tell me what they said," Maria asked, resting her cheek on one hand. "I'd love to hear what people email you about."
To Debbie it was boring, but if it took Maria's mind off her loss, Debbie would give it a go. "One of the directors complained that us leaving our coffee mugs on our desks and in the sink made the office look untidy."
Maria was rapt. "They really care about that?"
Debbie nodded, and put a hand over her mouth to hide a smile. Sometimes it was easy to forget that Maria had never had an ordinary job in an office. Debbie thought back for some more mundane details that she wouldn't think to relate to anyone else. "Someone had a birthday. They brought in cake for everyone. I only had a small piece." She held up her finger and thumb, not far apart, to indicate how small a piece it was."
"Cake?" Maria looked excited about that. "My last birthday I was at Roland Garros. I lost my match in straight sets to someone ranked fifty places below me."
"I'll send you some cake for your next birthday," Debbie promised. She'd had bad days on her birthday before, but it must be harder being away from home for it.
"Will you jump out of it?" Maria grinned.
Debbie laughed. "Maybe if you're good."
Debbie cracked her eyes open as she picked her phone up. Then closed them again as she was blinded by the light it gave off. She found the answer button by instinct. "This better be important."
There was a pause and Debbie squinted at the screen to check there really was someone there and she hadn't dreamed it was ringing.
"I'm so sorry I woke you," Maria said. "But you're cute when you're sleepy."
Debbie smiled shyly and reached out to turn her bedside light on. Maria looked far more awake, but sweaty - she must have just come off court. The time difference while Maria was playing the Asian swing was making it really hard for them to talk. "I tried to wait up, but the matches before yours were so long..."
Maria waved a hand. "I won anyway."
Debbie smiled. "See, you don't need me."
"I do still need you," Maria said softly. "And you're so far away."
Debbie hated that too, but much of a tennis player's life was spent away from home. They'd both known that, even if they hadn't realized quite how hard it made a relationship. "I'll watch your next match." Perhaps a nap after work would make it easier to stay up late. "And I'll text you before it. It'll be just like I'm there."
Maria smiled. "You are a good girlfriend."
"The best," Debbie agreed. "Shouldn't you shower before your press conference?"
"Yes, Miss Bossy Boots," Maria grumbled, but the smile stayed.
"Where are you?" Maria frowned into the screen.
"Junior tournament." She must have heard the sound of balls being struck and subsequent calls of 'out'. "I like it - they don't argue with us as much as you do." Debbie grinned.
"Papa did most of the arguing for me when I was a junior." Maria looked a little wistful. "He still would, if he could."
Debbie was glad he couldn't - when her serve hadn't been going well Maria had been bad enough on her own, without any encouragement. "He just wants you to be your best."
"I know." She nodded. "I try hard for him. And he works hard for me. But you - you don't care if I win or lose."
"I do," Debbie sat up straighter. "Of course I want you to win."
Maria shook her head. "No, I mean if I win you are happy, if I lose you cheer me up."
"I like you for who you are, not how well you play." Debbie frowned, hoping Maria wouldn't take that as a criticism about her father.
"It has been a long season," Maria said with a sigh.
"You'll miss playing in tournaments during the off season." She hadn't known Maria long before she found that Maria itched to play every day.
Maria smiled. "At least, if I don't play I can visit see you. And maybe you can visit me too."
"I'd like that." Debbie gave a shy smile. But as much as she wanted to see Maria, the thought of meeting her father properly was a little more daunting. "Would you tell your family about us?"
Maria glanced away for a moment before admitting, "I don't know what they'd say."
Debbie was sympathetic. She had been nervous about telling her parents too, but it had gone better than she'd expected. "If they love you, they'll accept you for who you are."
Maria still didn't look sure. "Perhaps. But if the media find out everyone will know who you are."
"Everyone already knows who I am. I'm the lines umpire you knocked out with your terrible serve." There had to be some advantage to her fame, after all.
"I qualified for Singapore. Eighth, but who cares about the position."
"Congratulations." Maria had, to Debbie's knowledge, never made the season ending championship before. Given that her results hadn't been that great in the first half of the season, it was all the more amazing.
"Now you come and see me play," Maria continued, before Debbie could say any more. "I know you don't have vacation time, but I'll speak to your boss, she'll understand."
Debbie smiled, picturing the scene. With Maria at her most persuasive, Catherine wouldn't have a chance. Not that she was going to let Maria try.
"It's been two months. I want to see you," Maria continued.
"I have the time," she said quickly, before Maria could put forward any more arguments in favor of her going. Thank goodness for Catherine's understanding when Debbie had told her that her girlfriend was a famous tennis player and Catherine couldn't tell anyone because she wasn't out yet. Catherine had agreed to let her work overtime so she could get a few more days off at the end of the season.
Maria beamed. "Then you'll come?"
Debbie but her lip.
Maria frowned. "Don't you want to?"
She sounded a little insecure, so Debbie quickly said, "I do want to."
"Then why?" Maria repeated.
Debbie hesitated before she said, "I can't afford the flights. I looked and the cheapest is so much--"
Maria cut her off. "I'll pay."
"No." Debbie shook her head. "I couldn't--"
"I want you to come. I'll buy your flights. And your hotel room. Don't worry," she added, seeing Debbie open her mouth to protest. "I just won enough money to cover it. And you're coming for me."
"I'm coming for me too." She smiled as she gave in. "I'll see you in Singapore."
Her hotel room was huge. The bed was big enough for her to lie sideways. You could get four people in it, easily. The big window along one wall gave her an amazing view of the Singapore skyline. She'd spent a few minutes just looking out before unpacking.
She wasn't sure how Maria had got the room at the last minute, but Maria had just waved it away as something she did every day. Perhaps she did, if a friend or relative came to see a match without much warning.
Debbie was still wondering what to do with all that space, given that her clothes only took up one drawer and a couple of hangers in the wardrobe, when there was a knock on the door. When she opened it, Maria nearly bowled her over with her hug, followed by a kiss when the door swung had shut behind them.
"I missed you," Maria said when they parted. Although she only let go of Debbie long enough to take her hands. "I told Papa about you."
Debbie's eyes widened. She hadn't expected that. "What did he say?" Although given Maria's joy, Debbie had an idea he hadn't been too unhappy about her revelation.
She shrugged. "You are good for my tennis, so of course he likes you."
"I knew he would." Debbie smiled and squeezed Maria's hands.
Maria let go at the sound of her phone ringing, then had a short conversation in Spanish. Debbie wished she'd paid more attention in Spanish class.
"I have a press conference now," Maria said, when the call ended. "Watch on TV. I'll tell them you're here." More familiar with the hotel room than Debbie was, she found the remote control hiding in a shallow drawer Debbie hadn't even noticed, and turned the TV on. A few button presses and she'd found the station where they were currently showing the press conference for one of the other players.
Another kiss and Maria was gone. Debbie settled back on the big, white, bed, propping a couple of pillows behind her, and waited for Maria's turn. She'd heard snatches of other press conferences before and Maria's was no different. Until then there was a question about "that lines umpire."
Maria sat up straight. "I was reminded, I never properly apologized to her. It is terrible of me that I left it so long, so I brought her here. With her in my box I won't hit any more lines umpires."
The room laughed and Debbie smiled at Maria's ability to charm the crowd.
Despite being in the same city, Debbie didn't feel like she saw much more of Maria than she did normally. While Maria was practicing, she encouraged Debbie to see some of the city. Which she did, having never been to Singapore before, and brought Maria back souvenirs every day. Which made a good excuse to see her and steal kisses for the short time they managed to be alone each day. There were more tennis-related activities Maria had to do each day than Debbie had realized.
Everything was easier when Maria won. Then she'd cheerfully, agree to any request and make everyone around her laugh. When she lost her third round robin match, narrowly missing out on a semi-final place, Debbie looked for her, worried, but glad she could be here for Maria in person. But Maria had shut herself in the locker room and Debbie wasn't allowed in. Eventually she ended up watching the ensuing press conference from a TV in the lines umpires office. It turned out that being famous had some advantages she hadn't anticipated.
"I am not so sorry I lost," Maria said, much to Debbie's surprise. "Now I have more time to train, to come back next year even better. And see more of my girlfriend. She is so good to me, I don't deserve her."
Debbie didn't wait to hear any more. She ran round to the press room and was waiting in the corridor when Maria came out. "I'm so proud of you," she said. "More than if you'd won the tournament."
Maria smiled back, but was distracted by her phone dinging to announce a text message. Her eyes widened and she showed it to Debbie.
"She's gay too?" Despite spending time around them once a year, Debbie didn't know much about the other players lives. And she hadn't thought too much about who was straight and who was gay.
"I always thought it," Maria said, putting her phone away. "But everyone's too scared to speak out."
"Except you." Debbie laughed and hugged her.
"I think I found something I love almost as much as tennis," Maria said, into Debbie's ear.
Debbie eased her grip on Maria, smiling at that revelation, but worried Maria would expect to hear the same. But it turned out Maria didn't care and just kissed her, in full view of everyone. Including a few cameras, judging by the clicks. But it didn't matter who knew any more. And Debbie would much rather be a famous tennis player's girlfriend than the lines umpire she'd knocked out.