part 7

by SX Meagher

Please see part 1 for all disclaimers.

Chapter 14

Thursday morning found them bundling Caitlin into a thick jacket for a walk to the playground. Annie was home, but she appreciated the little break and jumped at the chance to do some grocery shopping alone for a change.

Rather than take the stroller, Ryan strapped the baby in a sturdy backpack for the six-block walk. Jamie entertained their passenger, walking behind her partner and making faces at the baby. The park was rather full despite the cold foggy morning, and Caitlin immediately found some likely-looking playmates.

When Ryan was a child, the neighborhood was filled with working-class people and lots of stay-at-home moms, but the Internet boom had brought many young professionals and their families into the Noe Valley. Many of them hired babysitters or nannies—often Spanish speaking immigrants--to watch their children. Ryan mused about this phenomenon while she watched Caitlin make some tentative overtures to another baby about her age. That's exactly how young Irish women started out in this country in the late 19th century—minding people's children and cleaning their houses. I wonder if Latinos will one day be as welcome here as the Irish are now? There were ads in the local paper every week for agencies that promised au pairs from the British Isles, but she didn't see many young colleens from the Emerald Isle at the park this morning. A group of about six young Latina women chatted while they sipped cups of coffee and ate sweet rolls.

The kids at the park were all playing nicely, and everything was calm and peaceful in the cold morning. "That coffee looks delicious," Ryan said, looking longingly at the steam rising from the cups.

"You had your coffee, young lady," Jamie said pointedly.

"I can dream, can't I?" Ryan asked sweetly as she batted her eyes at her partner.

Her companion stood and held out a hand. "Gimme some money," she said with a mock scowl as she shook her head.

"You don't have to go," Ryan said unconvincingly.

"I don't mind, Love. I can get a cocoa and pick up a biscotti for the baby. She's nuts for the almond ones."

"Well if you're sure you don't mind…"

"I'd do anything to please you, and you know it," Jamie teased. "You and the little blonde one both have me wrapped around your little fingers."

"You're just a sucker for the Irish lassies," Ryan chided. "I'm just lucky I claimed you before some Kelly or O'Reilly or Shaunessy got their paws on you."

"Not a chance, Babe. I'm a sucker for O'Flahertys only." A little kiss on the forehead and she was gone, leaving Ryan to her musings.

Ryan generally tried to hang back and let Caitlin play with the other kids when they went to the park. She knew it was the right thing to do, but she still felt a little left out when the baby would spend ten or fifteen minutes totally ignoring her. Guess I'd better get used to that, she considered. Someday she'll be a teenager and have no use whatsoever for her old cousin.

While she was considering her cousin's adolescence, an older woman appeared with a baby about Caitlin's age. The baby was cranky and out of sorts, and the woman looked like she'd had more than her fill of the child for the day. She dumped her onto the sand right next to Caitlin and plopped down on a bench about ten feet away. Ryan observed both of the newcomers, paying particular attention to the babysitter. The woman seemingly had no connection to the child. She barely looked in her direction and just seemed glad to be a few feet away from the wailing infant. The baby looked like she was having a bad day, but she obviously was not bonded in any way with the woman. Ryan sat down in the sand and tried to comfort the baby. The sitter certainly didn't seem to mind Ryan's attempt, but it was largely unsuccessful also. The baby was crying so loudly that the other kids seemed bothered by it. The other nannies cast a disapproving glance at the woman, but she was not paying enough attention to even notice their stares.

Some of the other kids now started to cry and, one by one, the other nannies buckled their charges into their strollers and took off for quieter playgrounds. Only Ryan, the seemingly deaf babysitter, and the two babies were left at the park after the others departed, and Ryan would have left if she weren't waiting for Jamie. The crying baby, while probably about nine months old, didn't have the motor skills that Caitlin had, and she kept falling over, getting sand in her face time and again. Ryan propped her up a few times, then finally held the baby on her lap. Still she cried, actually managing to increase the volume and the incessant sobs and gasps for breath.

After a while, she couldn't take it any more. Caitlin was getting annoyed and looked like she might cry at any minute. Actually, Ryan herself felt a little weepy, and she decided to ask the babysitter to take over. She carried the baby over to the woman and placed her on the bench next to her. "Maybe she needs a bottle or something," she lamely suggested.

The woman looked up at her with a look of total shock. "Pardon?" she asked in a clipped British accent, unaware that Ryan had even been holding the child.

"Your baby seems to be having a tough time today. Do you have anything that might calm her down?"

"Thank you for your concern," she said briefly, as she turned away from Ryan's gaze.

But the nanny made no move to provide comfort for the infant so Ryan persisted, "Don't you have a bottle for her? She seems hungry."

"Listen to me young lady," she said in a very sharp tone. "I'm trying to put this child on a schedule, and that schedule does not call for feeding at this time. Now if you have no further business with us, I'd prefer that you entertain your own child."

Ryan knew that this was truly none of her business, but she had a hard time allowing this woman to treat the poor little girl with such rigid disregard. She began to make another point, but as she did so, the baby started to teeter on the bench. Ryan made a grab for her, but the babysitter grabbed her first. She grasped her arm and yanked sharply, making the baby stop her crying for a few seconds. But when she started again, the sound that came out was unlike any Ryan had ever heard from an infant. She was nearly hysterical in a matter of seconds, and Ryan quickly realized that this time she was crying from pain. The babysitter just sat and stared as she wrung her hands in a helpless gesture. So Ryan quickly unzipped the little jacket and immediately realized that the baby's arm had come out of the socket.

The two women seemed to understand the severity of the injury at exactly the same time. The nanny looked at Ryan with very wide, terror-filled eyes, got to her feet and started running, covering ground at a surprising clip for one her age. Ryan's mouth dropped as her eyes bugged, but the screaming quickly brought her back to focus on her task. She now had two babies, one with a dislocated arm, the other crying from lack of attention. "I'll be right there, Caitlin," she soothed as she tried to focus completely on the child in her arms.

"What in the hell?" she heard over her shoulder and almost cried with relief at the sound of her lover's voice.

"Can you get Caitlin?" Ryan cried over the shrieks.

Jamie hustled over and did just that, setting the drinks on the concrete surround of the sand pit. "What in the hell is going on?" she repeated, shouting to make herself heard.

"Long story," Ryan said in a more normal tone as Jamie carried the Caitlin around to face Ryan. "Her arm is out of the socket." Ryan was bent over, carefully examining the little arm, seemingly determined to take some action on her own.

"What are you going to do?" Jamie asked, astounded that her partner would try such a thing.

"I'm gonna try to put it back into place," she muttered, not very happy to be interrupted.

"You can't do that!!" she cried.

Ryan gave her one of her best no-nonsense looks and declared, "Of course I can. If I do it, this baby will be spared at least an hour of terrible pain. It's worth the risk." With that, she placed her left hand on the baby's tiny chest, holding her firmly against the back of the bench. With her right, she grasped the little arm and slowly rotated it back and across the child's chest. She could feel a small pop as the bone slid back into place. The child's hysterical crying ceased immediately, though she still cried at a more moderate pace.

The dark head lifted, and the dancing blue eyes blinked up at Jamie. "I think I did it," she said, slightly amazed that she had even tried.

Jamie let out the breath she didn't know she had been holding and flopped down next to her partner. "Do you mind filling me in here?" she asked weakly. "Who is she, and why do you have her?"

"Don't know who she is, and I have her because her sitter yanked her arm out of the socket, got scared and ran!" Ryan said, just now grasping the entirety of the events.

"She ran?!"

"Yep. Like a sprinter," she muttered, turning her attention once again to the slightly quieter baby. "Wonder if she'd like half of a biscotti," she mused.

"I bought more than one, you know," her partner said with a laugh. "I knew there was a chance you'd steal Caitlin's!"

"Ha, Ha," Ryan smirked. She offered each baby a cookie and within minutes they were both contentedly gnawing away. "Now what?" she asked. "I hate to take her to the police station, but we have to report this."

"Let's go to Annie's and see what she thinks," Jamie suggested.

They did just that, and luckily Annie was home from shopping. "I think we should call the Department of Children and Family Services," she advised. "The police will get them involved anyway, and if we go direct she might not have to spend time in the station house. Let me call someone at the hospital and see if we have any good contacts."

She made a few phone calls and finally got hold of a very nice social worker. When Annie identified herself, the woman said they could keep the baby while the paperwork was being written up. Ryan got on the phone and made a complete report, mentioning every detail she could remember. The social worker promised to call back after she had notified the local police station, since that was likely where the parents would begin their search.

When Ryan hung up Annie mused, "I've seen this baby at the park before. I think she lives really close." As she was talking, she sat down at the small desk they had wedged into the corner of the kitchen. She turned on her computer and printer and quickly drew up a notice stating that they had found a brown-haired, brown-eyed baby girl, about nine months old, at Douglas Playground. She listed the number of the police station and her contact at DCFS, and after playing around with the font size, she printed off 30 copies and sent Jamie to ring every doorbell on the two main streets near the park.

An hour later, the messenger returned. "I'm pretty sure she lives on Diamond, right by the park," she related. "A neighbor said there's a baby that fits that description there, and she thinks the mother just went back to work a week or so ago. I handed the flyers out to everyone who was home and taped them to the doors of the houses where I didn't get an answer."

"Good girl," Ryan praised her as she bent to kiss her on the head. The babies were both in Caitlin's playpen, mostly ignoring each other--as babies that age tend to do. The visitor had stopped crying, however, and Ryan was terribly happy about that.

By the time Ryan had to get ready for work, both babies were down for a nap. Jamie decided to stay and help Annie with them, but they promised to call Ryan with any news.

"If the parents don't want her we, could always keep her," she reminded Jamie as she batted her big blue eyes at her.

"First comes love, then comes marriage," Jamie teased in a sing-song voice. "Then comes a long period of nothing but hot sex, then comes Ryan with a baby carriage," she added, spicing up the nursery rhyme a little bit.

"Spoilsport," Ryan mumbled as she walked down the street to pick up her motorcycle.

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

When Ryan returned from work, the baby's parents had just arrived to claim her after a trip to the police station to file charges against their erstwhile nanny. The mother, Michelle, told Jamie and Annie that she had just gone back to work after seven months of maternity leave. She claimed that they had thoroughly checked the references of the nanny, but it was obvious that she was too distraught to discuss the matter at much length.

The baby, Taylor, was overjoyed at her mother's return, but everyone in the room knew the joy was short lived. Robert, the father, grasped the tiny child in a tight embrace and spoke softly to her while the women briefly discussed the immediate future. "What will you do until you find another nanny?" Annie asked.

Michelle lifted her hands and covered her face as she shook her head roughly a few times. A deep sigh preceded her answer. "I…I guess I'll just have to stay home," she mumbled.

Robert gave her an incredulous look as he said, "Honey, you have your first trial starting tomorrow! You can't miss that!"

She looked at him with a face full of angst. "What else can we do? You have to go to L.A. for that meeting—they'll have your hide if you skip that."

"No family in the neighborhood?" Annie asked.

"None in the state," Robert informed her as he bounced the baby in his arms. "I work for Bank of America. We were transferred here from North Carolina right after Michelle graduated from the University of North Carolina Law School. She got a job with Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and things were going great, but we kind of unexpectedly got pregnant and they weren't very happy about that. She wants to be a litigator, and they put her on this important case with some senior attorneys. All she has to do is make the appearances just to get some experience, but if she isn't reliable, I'm afraid they'll pull her off."

"Let me watch her tomorrow," Annie volunteered. "I don't go to work until four p.m."

"We couldn't do that!" Michelle cried, but it was obvious she wished that they could, judging from the hope in her eyes.

"Nonsense," Annie stated in her most nurse-like voice. "Two aren't much worse than one at this age and, since neither can walk, it won't be bad at all."

"We've got nothing planned tomorrow," Jamie piped up. "We'd love to help."

"Oh, I don't know," Michelle wavered.

"Look," Annie said. "We don't mind, it's no trouble, and you need the help. We're all neighbors here and we need to watch out for each other. Give it up, Michelle."

The small, thin, overly stressed woman gratefully agreed. "You're quite persuasive," she laughed. "Maybe you should be the lawyer."

"Nope. I'm an anesthetist at San Francisco General. I only convince people to go to sleep!"

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

Martin had held dinner for the girls after Jamie called to tell him of their exciting day. When they arrived, he sat at the table with them as they recounted all of the events.

"I'm proud of the lot of you," he beamed with pride. "It's a rare thing to get involved in other people's troubles, and I'm very happy that you three understand what it means to be neighbors."

"I just feel so bad for little Taylor," Jamie mused. "It's hard enough to have your mommy leave you all day long. But to hear Ryan tell it, that babysitter should be found and arrested!"

"Yeah, it wasn't so bad that she yanked on her arm like that, but her indifference was just astonishing! The dog walkers at the park are much more concerned about the pets they watch than she was. To get up and run after the baby was hurt was truly criminal. My guess is that she's in the country illegally, and that's why she ran. She was probably afraid that the authorities would get involved."

"Did the parents take the baby to the doctor?" Martin asked.

"Not yet. She really seemed fine, and her arm didn't seem to bother her at all. Annie said she'd take her with her to the hospital tomorrow and have one of the bone doctors look at it if she acted like it bothered her at all. I didn't know this, but Annie says that's a common thing for some kids. Their ligaments are very stretchy, and a sharp tug can easily yank the arm from the socket," Ryan related.

"Don't forget to tell your father that Annie said you did a perfect job when you popped it back in," Jamie urged.

"She should know how!" Martin laughed. "She's dislocated her right arm twice and her left once. She's such a tough little thing that she watched the doctor when he put it back in every time!"

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

Sunday morning found Ryan standing in front of her closet, hands on hips, scowl firmly etched on her face. She was grumbling under her breath, but the tone was so low that Jamie had no idea of the content of her quiet diatribe. "Need some help?" she finally offered.

"Love some," Ryan said with a disgusted shrug. "But the department stores aren't open yet."

Jamie got up from her perch on the bed and went to stand behind her partner. "You have some perfectly nice things in there," she reminded her. Turning Ryan around a little, she captured her chin and tilted it until they were gazing into each other's eyes. "Maybe you're just a little nervous," she ventured.

"A little," Ryan muttered softly as she rolled her eyes. "It's worse than meeting the in-laws for the first time."

"Why, Honey? I'm certain my grandfather will love you!"

"Because you love him so much," Ryan explained. "I know his opinion means more to you than your parents', so it's even more important that he like me." She looked so fragile and unsure of herself that Jamie just wanted to wrap her up in her arms and cradle her until she was her normal confident self. She also knew that wasn't what Ryan needed at the moment. So she helped in the way she thought would be most effective.

"Let me help you pick out an outfit, okay?"

"Okay, but I'd really rather not wear that stupid skirt if I don't have to," she insisted with her lower lip sticking out like a five-year-olds.

"All right, Love, no skirt," Jamie soothed as she started assessing the modest wardrobe. "You go brush your teeth, and I'll be ready for you when you're done." As Ryan compliantly walked away, Jamie re-thought her earlier assessment. It wasn't that Ryan didn't have a lot of clothes; she actually had more clothes than Jamie did. Ninety-five percent of them were shorts, t-shirts, Lycra leggings, and sweats--none of which were appropriate for mass at a conservative Episcopal church. Plus, since Jamie was wearing a dress, she knew that Ryan would want to look like she was going to the same event. She quickly pulled out several perfectly acceptable selections and waited for Ryan to return.

"Hmm," her slightly grumpy partner mused when she viewed her choices. "You'll look lots better than me."

"Not at all, Babe. I want you to look like yourself, Honey. Your own personality and your style are part of what makes you unique. I want my grandfather to meet the real you, and these outfits reflect that."

"Oh, all right," Ryan agreed. "Pick one out. I really don't care."

Jamie had on a bright blue and beige cotton print dress that looked very summery and casual.

She chose khaki pants, a white knit shell and a light blue chambray shirt for her partner. Ryan raised an eyebrow but started to drop her sweats and put on the outfit. Jamie studied the pictures on the bookshelves to distract herself, and a few moments later Ryan asked, "Okay?"

Turning around, Jamie gave her a very big smile and said, "Almost perfect." She went to the closet and added a black leather belt and a pair of shiny black loafers that Ryan dutifully slipped on. Then, in one final touch, she rolled Ryan's sleeves up three turns, leaving them at mid-forearm.

"Really?" Ryan asked, doubtful that the casual look was appropriate.

"You always roll your sleeves up," she reminded her; aware of the fact that few blouses in Ryan's size had sleeves that were long enough for her arms.

"I know but…" she muttered as she pursed her lips.

"But nothing, Honey. You don't have to put on a show for my grandfather. You'll feel more comfortable if you're dressed in a way that makes you comfortable."

"Aw, Jamie…" she groused.

"Okay," she said quickly. "I'll tell you the real reason." She bent over and kissed each exposed forearm and traced the protuberant muscles with her index finger. "Your arms make me drool." As she tossed her arms around Ryan's neck, she caught the barest hint of a grin start to peek out of her grumpy face.

"Drool, huh?" she murmured into her nearby ear.

"Definitely drool," Jamie pronounced, thoroughly satisfied with another job well done. Now I have three weapons to fight bad moods: talk about food, sex or her muscles. A smile curled up the corners of her own mouth as she considered, Why shouldn't that work with her? It works for me!

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

This service on the last weekend of May was notable for two reasons. It was not only the first time Ryan would meet Rev. Evans, it was also the beginning of the priest's summer vacation.

Charles Evans spent every summer on some type of sabbatical, and this year was no exception. Instead of journeying to another country this year, he was taking an intensive course in Spanish at Cal. He was looking forward to the time away from tending to the needs of his congregation and equally happy to be able to sleep in his own bed while expanding his mind.

When the young women arrived at the small, but lavishly decorated church, they sat close to the aisle, but positioned themselves further back than the bulk of the other congregants. Jamie wanted to be able to offer commentary to her partner, and she wanted to be careful not to annoy any of the others.

When the service began, Ryan was able to pick out Rev. Evans immediately. It helped that he was the only man among the three priests, and his position at the rear of the procession certainly didn't hurt, but even in a crowd of similarly attired men she thought she would have been able to spot him. There was just something so 'Jamie-ish' about the man, even though Ryan couldn't quite put her finger on the resemblance as the procession moved down the center aisle. When the minister reached their pew he broke ranks and threw an arm around his only granddaughter and gave her a kiss on the cheek as well as a generous hug. Looking up at Ryan, he smiled and added a wink for her benefit as he released Jamie and scurried to catch up with the rest of his staff. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Ryan whispered as she leaned over her partner. "He's as cute as you are!"

"I wish I was half as cute as he is," Jamie smiled, enormously pleased by the comparison.

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

Forty-five minutes later they were walking down a stone path to the small house on the property that his position afforded him. "So, Ryan, what did you think?" he asked with a twinkle in his dancing green eyes.

"It was very nice, Rev. Evans," she said honestly. "Very much like what I'm used to, but a little more formal in some areas like the music. Parts of the service were much more progressive than my church."

"Like what?" Jamie asked.

"Oh, like women priests, for one tiny thing," Ryan said with a smirk. "More subtle things too, like the entire congregation being welcomed to receive the Eucharist. That was really nice."

"They don't do that at Catholic church?" she asked, shocked by the news.

"Nope. Catholics only. It seems that Jesus was very specific in his instructions," she said with her tongue in cheek. "He said 'Do this in remembrance of me if you're a Catholic. If not, convert before you're damned to hell.' Not many people know the whole story," she added with a wink.

Rev. Evans tossed his head back and laughed at that comment, causing Jamie to join him. "Isn't she cute?" Jamie asked as she grasped Ryan's arm and pulled her close for a hug.

"You both are," he replied with a fond smile at both young women.

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

Over a simple but delicious lunch served by his housekeeper, Rev. Evans turned to Ryan and asked with mock seriousness, "So, Ryan, what are your intentions toward my granddaughter?"

"Poppa!" Jamie cried, amazed that he would even tease Ryan that way.

"It's okay, Jamie," Ryan said easily. "I know exactly what my intentions are, and I think your grandfather should know too." Jamie gave her a wide-eyed stare as she thought about Ryan's often felt, but not yet expressed intentions. Her partner merely reached across the table and lightly grasped her hand, gazing into her eyes with a somber look.

"My intention is to love, honor and cherish her for the rest of my life," Ryan said slowly, smiling at Jamie as she spoke. "I want to build a life with her, and have children with her, and grow old with her. I'll consider my life well lived if I can die in her arms," she concluded, her smile dimming as she let the words sink in.

"You are so incredibly sweet," Jamie murmured, her attention fully engaged.

Rev. Evans gazed at the two young lovers and thought to himself, There's the spark that was always missing with Jack! This is exactly how a young couple should behave. As the intense gaze continued, he added with an internal chuckle, But that's also why I feel like excess baggage at the moment!

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

The babysitting worked out so well that they offered to watch Taylor for the entire next week. Michelle set about interviewing every domestic agency in the city, but Annie stepped in and found an ideal situation for the baby. A lesbian couple at work had a baby just a little older than Taylor; the moms were both nurses, and they worked split shifts so that one was always at home. They were trying to move to a bigger apartment and some extra cash was badly needed. Annie vouched for both of them and assured Michelle that she couldn't do much better than to have a pediatric nurse and an emergency room specialist caring for her child.

Michelle and Robert were very excited about having Taylor spend the day with a slightly older child, and they quickly agreed to the arrangement.

The Friday before the ride was spent with two babies who seemed to enjoy each other's company quite a bit. They paid attention to each other in spurts, but their temperaments were similar and they seemed to like to sleep at the same time. In a way it was easier to watch two of them, since they did entertain each other a little bit.

Tommy was at home and, even though he loved his child deeply, he was always happy to have someone take her for a day. Since they had Taylor's jogger stroller, they each put a baby in a stroller and took off for a long run/walk. Helping Annie and Tommy with the kids had actually proved fortuitous for Ryan and Jamie. They didn't want to ride their bikes this week, but running up and down the hills with their young charges gave them a cardiovascular workout that easily topped a long bike ride. They both felt like they had not only kept up their fitness level, but they had actually increased it a bit while saving their butts completely.

After almost two hours playing at the playground in the Castro, both babies were ready for their naps. Rather than take them home, though, they settled them into the joggers and rocked them a little while they rested against a big tree. Once the babies were quiet, Ryan ran over to Hot 'n Hunky for some nice sloppy cheeseburgers and malts. They decided to splurge on calories since they would expend so many in the next week, but Jamie had to laugh when she saw her lover carrying two huge bags of food with her. "What did you buy?" she gasped as Ryan started to pull the food from the bags.

"A single for you, a double for me, chili fries, and malts," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"How many malts are in that bag?" Jamie asked pointedly.


"You're gonna eat two malts?" she gasped.

"Well…I kinda thought I'd get two and a half," she admitted with a grin. "You never finish yours."

"You have the metabolism of a hummingbird!" Jamie laughed as her lover sat down to demolish the meal.

"Yep and in ten days I'm gonna have my beak in your nectar for hours at a time!" she leered with one wildly wiggling eyebrow.

"Gulp!" the smaller woman said as she audibly mimicked the word.

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

Chapter Fifteen

Seven a.m. Saturday found Jamie and Ryan packing up their bikes in Conor's truck for the trip to Fort Mason. They had checked and double-checked that they had all of the necessary papers and forms, and when they were confident that all was in order, they took off.

Jamie was once again thankful that Ryan had done the ride so many times. She knew all of the shortcuts and all of the little tricks that would make the experience more enjoyable. Today, for instance, she parked a good half-mile away from the Pavilion at Fort Mason. Since they had their bikes, it was just a five-minute ride to their destination, with none of the attendant traffic.

The Pavilion was fully staffed with volunteers, but the riders were just starting to trickle in. Day Zero was the last day to complete all the required paperwork, attend a safety class, and drop off bikes. Ryan was pleased to learn that the first safety meeting would be held at eight a.m. They walked their bikes to the designated area and waited for the class to begin.

This experience was pro forma for Ryan, who had attended five of them, but Jamie paid such rapt attention that Ryan actually had to laugh at her. The main theme of the meeting was the inherent danger of the ride. They would be using heavily traveled highways and roads that would remain open to vehicular traffic. The riders received tips on how to safely cross the narrow bridges—some barely wide enough to accommodate two trucks—that were on their route.

After the meeting, they zoomed back to the Pavilion to pick up their packets, and found the hall pass that enabled them to go directly to registration. Once there, they picked up their registration materials and went directly to the tent assignment station. The line was still quite short, and they were processed in just a few minutes. Next they took their bikes over to the parking area. They affixed their numbers to the frames and handed them over to the very friendly volunteers.

Next stop was the merchandise area. Jamie bought a long sleeved t-shirt in each of the colors available. "I want to sleep in these all year to remind me of how we got to know each other," she said sweetly when Ryan expressed surprise at her purchases. Ryan had to buy a tiny little t-shirt in bright yellow for Caitlin, but that was her only purchase.

As they started to walk away from the merchandise area, Ryan spotted her partner trying to stuff another couple of items in her backpack. "What'cha got there?" she asked, knowing Jamie's tendencies all too well.

"Never you mind, Sweet Cheeks," she replied airily.

It was now only ten a.m., and they were finished. They walked around for a while just checking out all the people, but after a bit Ryan casually remarked, "Do you know what I would really love to do today?"

Jamie pursed her lips in thought. She looked up at the sky as if seeking the answer and finally replied, "Whatever it is, I bet it involves another blonde."

"You already know me too well," Ryan replied. "You're my favorite blonde, but Caitlin is a close second," she teased.

"Here's my phone, call and see if her busy schedule will permit a visit."

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

Their young playmate was indeed available. Tommy was at home alone with her, and he willingly relinquished possession of his daughter. They arrived at around eleven and whisked the giggling baby away moments later.

When they returned to the house, they decided to just stay close to home. They needed to pack and take care of any last-minute details and, even though Caitlin couldn't help, she was certainly entertaining. When they got into the house, Conor immediately snatched the baby away, tossing her in the air and carrying her all over the house as he sang one of her favorite songs. The girls took the opportunity to head downstairs and start to get organized.

Ryan had stressed the importance of taking as little as possible with them. Although their belongings would be carried for them, they still had to fetch them from the trucks each night and return them in the morning. Ryan warned that sometimes the truck was a very long ways away. They decided to take four day's worth of biking gear. They each brought one pair of padded ankle length pants. Jamie brought three pairs of knee-length padded shorts and four quick-drying jerseys, one long-sleeved and three short. Ryan wore padded cotton under shorts, so she brought three pairs of those and just two pairs of unlined bike shorts. She also carried four jerseys, one long-sleeved, two short and her new sleeveless jersey. Next came their thin sleeveless gore-tex vests and lightweight nylon shells. They each added a few pairs of underwear and four sports bras. They had purchased some new quick-drying thin socks, and these were added to the pile. Ryan had suggested that Jamie bring a swimsuit for the beach in Los Angeles, which she dutifully did.

They also needed some regular clothes for the time spent hanging around off the bikes. The weather was very unpredictable, so they each brought their fleece jacket and a pair of heavy sweats. Ryan packed two pairs of her baggy nylon shorts and a couple of tank tops. She added two t-shirts and a pair of Teva sandals, and she was set. Jamie had a harder time deciding, but she finally settled on a couple of pairs of shorts and four t-shirts. She agreed that the Teva sandals were a good choice, so she added hers to the pile. She packed an additional extra-large t-shirt to sleep in. She asked Ryan suspiciously, "What do you have to sleep in?"

"This is my last week wearing my underwear to bed," she intoned solemnly. "After this week, it's all nude all the time," she teased as she grabbed Jamie for a vigorous bout of tickling.

They decided to pack most things in heavy-duty trash bags first to insure that they wouldn't get wet. "I don't know how it happens, but the first two years, half of my clothes were wet when I put them on," Ryan said. "Nothing feels worse than clammy nylon on a cold morning."

Ryan had a checklist from previous years that she amended as needed. They carefully ticked off additional items one by one until she was satisfied that they would have everything they required. Finally they got out their gear bags and began to load them up. Jamie had a ton of experience in packing for long trips, and she even gave Ryan a few pointers. They were finished packing by the time Conor brought the sleeping baby downstairs. "Do you guys want some lunch? I was going to go down to the Italian deli to get a combo; how about you?"

"I'm in!" Ryan replied immediately.

"What's a combo?" Jamie asked.

Ryan slid her arms around her friend as she said to Conor, "She's been all around the world, but the poor little thing has never had a combo." They both shook their heads sadly.

"We'll remedy that oversight right now," Conor said as he handed her the baby. "I'll be back in half an hour."

With Ryan's help, Jamie sat back against the headboard with Caitlin nestled into her chest. Ryan lay down on her side, facing Jamie. She patted the soft little terry cloth covered back as she slowly said, "Lucky, lucky baby," while casting a sly smile up at Jamie.

"You're not treated so badly either, Ryan," she chided as she pushed her dark head down onto her lap. She stroked the raven locks as Ryan closed her eyes and let the contentment just seep into her. Seconds later Ryan joined her cousin in sleep.

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

Conor stopped abruptly in the doorway as he caught sight of the happy little group. "Should I come back later?" he asked in a whisper. Jamie just smiled and shook her head. "The big one will be up in a second, and the little one won't hear a thing," she said knowledgeably. As predicted, Ryan stirred as soon as she heard voices. She gazed up at Jamie with a look of pure love on her face, sat up and gave her a very tender, heart-felt kiss. Jamie looked a little surprised as she said quietly, "Conor's here."

Ryan turned around and caught sight of her somewhat embarrassed brother. "Get used to it, Conor, you're gonna see a lot of smooching around here from now on," she predicted.

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

Conor had brought plates, knives, napkins and sodas as well as the promised sandwiches. Ryan removed the wrappings from both of their combos as Jamie supervised. "You're dripping on your desk," she observed.

"It's worth it," Ryan replied. As she brought the huge tomato sauce-covered sandwich up to Jamie's mouth, she instructed, "Bite." Jamie did so and seconds later a pleasure-suffused smile covered her face. "Meatball and sausage together?" she asked with her mouth still half full.

"Don't forget the mozzarella," Ryan chided her as she took a big bite herself. They alternated bites of the same sandwich until Ryan popped the last bite into her partner's mouth. She then started on the second sandwich, very pleased when Jamie declined any more.

"I finally figured it out," Conor said with satisfaction as he watched Ryan eat.

"What's that?" Jamie asked.

"I figured out why Ryan's a lesbian," he said proudly.

"This I gotta hear," Ryan laughed.

"It's a clever ploy to get more than half of any meal. If you were with a guy, he'd want some of your food, just like you do with Jamie," he replied with a big smile.

"Okay, wise guy. That explains me, but why is Jamie gay?"

He looked perplexed, as he answered. "That one I'll never figure out," he said sadly. "But she clearly is, because if she was straight she could have had me!" he laughed as he successfully ducked a quick backhand from his sister.

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

Caitlin woke up shortly after lunch was finished. She was all hot and sweaty from her nap, and she cried and fussed as they quickly changed her diaper. Conor got up to fetch a bottle and warm it, as Jamie tried to calm her down. She stood up and bounced her on her hip, talking soothingly into her little pink ear. Ryan just watched with pleasure as she slowly quieted and began to play with Jamie's face with her tiny little hands. She was trying to insert her fist into Jamie's mouth when Conor returned. He gently removed her from Jamie's grasp and lay her back in his strong arm as he fed her the bottle. Caitlin crossed her little feet as she rested her head against Conor's chest and sucked lustily.

"You do have a way with women," Jamie observed as Caitlin gazed up at him adoringly.

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

Around five o'clock Ryan called Tommy to see when he wanted the baby back. "Oh, don't bother, Ryan. Annie can stop by on her way home from work. She can be there by 6. Is that okay?"

Ryan agreed, and she and Jamie took her out for a little walk. Rather, Jamie had a little walk. Ryan strapped Caitlin into her three-wheeled jogger stroller and ran up and down the hills of the Noe Valley with maniacal glee. As they passed her again and again, Jamie heard the wild giggles of the baby and the equally wild laughter of her partner. After a half-hour, Ryan was more winded than Jamie had ever seen her. She was forced to bend over at the waist for a long while, trying to suck air into her lungs. Jamie put a hand on her back and grasped the stroller with her other hand. Ryan was covered in sweat, and the heat radiated off her in waves. Caitlin was ready for more as she bounced in her seat trying to scoot the stroller forward.

Ryan finally stood up and raised her hands in surrender. "That's it, Caitlin. The express train is through for the day. We're taking the local from now on." She took the stroller handle from Jamie and started to walk down the hill in a more sedate fashion. Caitlin would have none of it. She continued to thrust herself forward, craving speed. Her little grunts turned to whines as she demanded that her needs be recognized. Ryan finally rolled her eyes and took off again. "You're turning her into a thrill seeker, just like you!" Jamie warned as they flew by once again.

After another fifteen minutes of frantic activity, they arrived back at the house. Ryan was surprised to see her Aunt Maeve's car as well as Tommy's. Jamie carried the baby as they entered the house, where they were all surprised to see Maeve, Tommy, Annie and Kevin. "Surprise!" they all yelled. Conor, Brendan and Martin all came out of the kitchen to join in the greeting.

Jamie looked at Ryan in puzzlement. Martin finally spoke up, "It's a send-off party for you two. We wanted to make sure you had a good meal before you start." After he got a better look at Ryan he asked in alarm, "What have you been doing, Siobhán?"

She did look a sight. Her face was a deep pink, her bangs were plastered against her forehead and her marine blue t-shirt was drenched with sweat. All eyes turned to Jamie, who looked like she had just been sitting in a chair. Ryan finally piped up, "Caitlin and I were doing wind sprints on the hills. She's obviously in better shape than I am, because she's as cool as a cucumber," she teased as she pinched her little pink cheek.

"You go take a shower, young lady, or you'll catch your death," he ordered.

Ryan happily nodded and went downstairs. Jamie entertained questions about their training and her nerves until Ryan returned, looking much refreshed. She wore a navy blue polo and a pair of khakis along with a well-worn pair of penny loafers. As soon as she entered the room she snatched the baby from Jamie and put her on her shoulders for a quick little horsy ride.

"You know, Ryan, you get her used to a level of activity that none of the rest of us can duplicate," Annie chided her.

"That's all part of my evil plan," she agreed. "She needs to come to me for her adrenaline rush," she said as she took off even faster around the house spurred on by Caitlin's giggles.

"Has she always been like that?" Jamie asked Martin incredulously.

"From the day of her birth," he admitted. "We were lulled into complacency by Brendan here. He was a perfectly lovely little baby, content to be cuddled and carried and cooed to. Then Conor came along and we thought we would lose our minds," he said as he shook his head. "He was in constant motion, every minute. Rory made us think that Conor was just a fluke. He was so much like Brendan, so calm and peaceful." He smiled at the memory. "Then we finally got our little girl. I assumed she would sit on the front porch in a little white dress playing with her dolls," he sighed heavily. "But I swear she was twice as bad as Conor ever was. She never showed fear of anything in her life, Jamie. I used to take her to the station when she was just Caitlin's age. All the guys would take turns sliding down the pole with her just laughing her head off. They'd all be tired, and she'd be begging for more."

They all shared a few more memories of the young Ryan, causing Jamie to smile broadly at her from across the room. Ryan came and stood next to her, putting an arm around her shoulders. Jamie leaned over and quietly whispered, "We're going to adopt. I can't take the risk that your energy level could be genetic."

Ryan just laughed as she gave her a little squeeze.

Conor had picked up some delicious homemade pasta sauce at the deli that afternoon as well as some fabulous crusty Italian bread. Dinner was pasta with meat sauce, a big green salad and the bread. As usual, Ryan cleaned Jamie's plate after she was finished with her own. "Do you do that in restaurants?" Conor asked out of curiosity.

"Yep," Ryan replied happily.

"Not always," Jamie corrected. "When we had lunch with my grandfather not only did she not eat off of my plate, she also carried on a lucid conversation. And she didn't once close her eyes and moan like she usually does when she eats something really tasty."

That brought a laugh from everyone, as Martin said, "I'm glad you can put on manners when you're out in public, Darlin'."

"Thanks, I think," she replied slowly.

Before all of the guests left, Jamie saw Ryan huddled in the corner with her aunt. She had a serious expression on her face, and she was nodding intently. After a minute, Maeve patted her on the cheek and leaned up to kiss her. Ryan reminded them all of the spot where they would meet, and everyone promised to be at The Fort the next day to see them off.

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

It was almost nine by the time everyone was gone and the kitchen was properly cleaned. Jamie had taken on Rory's tasks in his absence, and she found that within a day or two her little jobs seemed like they had been hers for years. As they made their way downstairs, Jamie heard her cell phone ringing from its resting place in her purse. She extracted it and hit the talk button on the fourth ring. "Hello," she said a little breathlessly.

"Hi, Jamie," responded the deep voice on the other end.

"Jack!" she said with surprise. "How are you?"

"I'm fine. Is this a good time to talk?"

"Um…sure, Jack. What do you want to talk about?" She made eye contact with Ryan, who went back upstairs to give her some privacy.

"Are you at home? I could call you on that line if you'd rather."

"No, I'm not at home. Let me call you right back," she said. He quickly agreed.

She took several deep breaths as she sat down on the bed and dialed the still-memorized number. He picked up on the first ring. "Are you at Ryan's?" he asked tentatively.

"Yes, I am," she replied, no longer concerned with his reaction.

"Are you living with her?" he asked quietly.

"Just this week, to get ready for the ride. I couldn't stand to be around Cassie another minute, so I came over here," she replied, knowing that wasn't his real question.

"Yeah, Cassie called me a few weeks ago," he admitted. "Ever since then I've been wanting to call you, but I've been kind of afraid to."

"What did she say?" Jamie asked, knowing the answer.

"The details aren't important," he said graciously. "But the bottom line was that you were with Ryan now." After a quiet pause he asked, "Is that true?"

"Jack, I'm happy to talk about my life with you, but I hope that you'll keep anything I tell you in confidence," she said after a moment's hesitation.

There was total silence for a long minute, then he said sadly, "I'm sorry you think you have to ask that, Jamie."

She sighed heavily as she acknowledged her paranoia. "I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. It's just that I'm going through kind of a difficult time, and people who I thought were friends have betrayed me. But you're right, I never should have assumed that you would hurt me."

"I never would, Jamie," he said quietly.

"I'm sorry, Jack. I would give anything to have avoided hurting you. I swear that as soon as I started to get a handle on my feelings, I was honest with you." She paused to gather her courage. "The answer to your question is that I am with Ryan now. And I hope I always will be," she said firmly.

"Are you happy with your choice?" he asked after a short, uncomfortable silence.

"You know…I feel like I'm beginning to be completely comfortable with myself for the first time in my life, Jack," she replied. "I'm just so sorry that I didn't know myself better before I met you. It would have saved us both a lot of pain."

"Did you know when we were together?" he asked a bit hesitantly.

"I didn't have a clue in my conscious mind, Jack. I must have had some pretty big subconscious clues. I mean, I was drawn to take that class, even though I told myself it was because of the time it was offered." After a beat she added, "That's another thing I'm sorry about. You knew something was going on, but I refused to acknowledge it. If I had, I think it would have saved both of us a lot of pain."

"I just had a cold terror in my gut the night Cassie told me about that class. I think I had some suspicions even before that happened, but I was afraid to admit them to myself."

"Why do you think you were suspicious?" Jamie asked, amazed that he was admitting his own doubts.

"Well, I'm certainly not the world's greatest lover," he said with a self-effacing laugh, "but you just didn't respond to me in the way that I was used to. I kept telling myself that you were just inexperienced, but you were just not passionate for me. That never made sense to me, because you were so passionate in everything else that you did." There was another silence as he added, "I hope you find your passion with Ryan, Jamie. I really do."

She fought back the tears as she replied, "I think that's the nicest, most generous thing anyone has ever said to me. Thank you for that, Jack. You don't know how much that means to me."

"I wish it could have been me, Jamie. No matter who you're with, I want you to be happy. I truly mean that," he said sincerely.

"If I was going to be with a man, it would still be you, Jack. I hope you know how much I did love you. But I couldn't commit my life to you and not feel that physical connection that people in love need to have."

"Do you have that with Ryan?" he asked tentatively, needing to know the answer even though he feared it.

She considered telling him that the question was too personal, but she felt that he deserved the truth. "I do, Jack. I really do."

"It's funny, Jamie," he said reflectively. "After I talked to Cassie, I spent a couple of days letting her get to me. I don't want to repeat what she said, but she's under the impression that Ryan has some kind of unnatural hold over you." As Jamie tried to interrupt, he continued, "But after a few days, I let reality in and really thought about who you were. Jamie, you couldn't be talked into ordering a dinner that you didn't want. You're nobody's fool, and I don't believe that even someone as appealing as Ryan could get you to do one thing that you didn't want to do."

"Thanks for acknowledging who I really am, Jack. Not only didn't Ryan push me, I really had to convince her that this was right for me. We're both really happy now, Jack. I just hope you find someone who loves you as much as she loves me."

"I do too, Jamie. And I hope I can find someone that I love as much as I did you."

"I hope so too, Jack. More than anything," she said fervently.

"I'll let you go, Jamie. The reason I called tonight was to wish you the best of luck on your ride. I just want you to know that I'll be thinking of you every day and sending you good thoughts."

Jamie lost her battle with her emotions this time. "Thank you, Jack. That means a lot to me," she said through her tears. "Thanks so much for calling."

"Anytime, Jamie. You tell Ryan to take good care of you next week."

"I will, Jack. Bye," she said as she hung up.

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

At 9:30 Ryan poked her head into her room and saw Jamie lying on the bed on her back, staring up at the ceiling. She approached her gently and sat on the edge of the bed. "Are you okay?" she asked as she lightly grasped her hand.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'll tell you about it tomorrow. Now I just want to go to sleep," she said with a tired little sigh.

"Do you want me to go upstairs, and you can just stay here?"

"Okay, if you really don't mind," she replied sleepily. "I want to smell you on the sheets all night long," she said as she squeezed a pillow and was rewarded with the familiar scent.

"Sleep tight," Ryan said as she kissed her tenderly and rubbed her back. "I'll wake you up at 4:30, okay?"

"Is it just me, or does that seem a little early?" she asked as she sat up and started to strip out of her clothes.

"It is a little early, so you go to sleep quickly," Ryan ordered as she turned her head while Jamie slipped into a t-shirt.

"Would you lie down with me and hold me for a few minutes?" Jamie asked hopefully. "You always calm me down so fast."

"Of course I will," Ryan said as she climbed into bed and wrapped her in her arms. In less than five minutes, Jamie was limp and breathing rhythmically. She carefully extracted herself from the dangerously tempting spot and climbed the stairs to Rory's room.

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

At 4:35 a.m. Jamie felt a warm body slide into bed next to her. She scooted backwards until she was plastered up against the comforting form. "That was your last night of sleeping alone," Ryan said softly, "did you enjoy it?"

"No. I missed you all night," Jamie muttered. "I want you next to me for the rest of my life."

"That's a request that I'm only too happy to fulfill," Ryan said as she rolled her friend over and started to give her a brisk rub to get her blood moving. After a minute or so Jamie reluctantly struggled to her feet. She got into the shower while Ryan carried their bags upstairs. Fifteen minutes later, they were ready to go. They both wore the California AIDS Ride 6 official jerseys with the sponsor's logo brandished across their chests. Ryan was both pleased and slightly disapproving as Jamie handed her the jersey while they were getting dressed, but she swallowed her reticence about accepting the near-constant presents and thanked her sincerely. Martin and Conor were just finishing up their coffee as Brendan came in the front door. He gave Ryan a hug as he sleepily asked, "Could you guys take off at around nine, just once?"

Ryan laughed and hugged him back. "I know it's early, but it really means a lot to me that you come to see us off."

"You have to drag that bike 560 miles; getting up early isn't really much of a sacrifice," Brendan said, as he gave her another little squeeze.

Ryan got down on the floor to give Duffy a firm hug, "You take care of Da and Conor while I'm gone, Duff. It's gonna be just you boys all week, so try to stay out of trouble." Duffy looked up at her sadly, recognizing the signs of her departure. Jamie joined her, getting a lick on the face in the bargain.

They tossed their gear into the bed of the truck, and they all climbed in. "I'm glad I bought the crew cab," Conor said as Brendan climbed into the back with the girls.

"You know, I don't remember ever having a normal car. Did we Da?" Ryan asked.

"No, not during your lifetime," Martin said. "Your mother and I had a nice little normal Ford when we were married, but by the time you arrived, it was clear we had to switch to a bigger vehicle. We've had either a van or a truck ever since."

"Have you ever owned a car, Ryan?" Jamie inquired.

"Nope. All I've ever had were bikes. I got my first one when I was sixteen, and Da almost had a fit!"

"Yes, and I still blame you for that," Martin said as he poked Conor in the arm. "You're the one who had to start with the blasted things."

"It's not my fault that Ryan had to imitate everything that I did," Conor replied defensively. "Besides, she should thank me. I think she gets half her dates because of that bike."

"Then maybe we had better get rid of it," Jamie laughed, "because your dating days are over," she added as she squeezed a firm thigh.

"I've never given up anything so willingly," Ryan replied as she gazed down at her partner with a sweet look on her face.

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

Chapter 16

They arrived at Fort Mason at around 5:15. Even though Jamie usually got up early, and considered morning her favorite time of day, she had never claimed to be a morning person. Today was a perfect example of that dichotomy. What she loved about mornings were periods of quiet contemplation while watching the sunrise or writing in her journal, but the scene that greeted them when they disembarked from the truck did not in any way remind her of the thing she most liked in the morning—stillness. She was completely unprepared for the overwhelming number of riders, bikes, families, volunteers, news trucks, police officers, and spectators that greeted them. The noise level and general anxiety that flowed from the crowd was actually a little overpowering for the inexperienced woman, and she found herself gripping Ryan's hand much harder than normal.

"Nervous?" a calm voice whispered in her ear.

She managed a quick nod, a little embarrassed that such was the case.

"It is a big deal, Jamie," she assured her. "We've worked really hard to be able to do this and it's only natural that you have butterflies in your tummy." Looking around she added, "It is pretty overpowering, isn't it?"

"I was in St. Peter's Square in Rome on Easter morning once," she replied thoughtfully, feeling a little better since Ryan agreed that her anxiety was expected, "but this is a close second."

They finally found the gear drop off point. After they checked that the bags were properly tagged, they went to their designated meeting place to say hello to the rest of the family. Maeve and Kevin were already there, but Tommy had yet to arrive. "Do you think you can eat yet?" Ryan asked Jamie solicitously. "I know you don't like to eat very early, but you have to today."

"Yeah, I could get some cereal down," she agreed. "Let's go get some now, so we can watch the opening ceremonies with everyone." They found the breakfast line and settled on oatmeal, bananas and raisins. Jamie agreed to forego coffee and settled for apple juice. Ryan added two bagels and some cream cheese to her selections. They sat at a long table, chatting with the other riders. Ryan knew a lot of the participants, and her meal was continually interrupted by people stopping by to greet her.

"Do you know most of these people from before the ride?" Jamie asked when they had a minute alone.

"No. I met them all on one of the previous rides," she replied.

"I can't believe how you can remember all of their names," Jamie marveled. "How do you do that?"

Ryan looked thoughtful for a few minutes. While she thought, Jamie mused about how she loved the fact that her partner took even a simple question so seriously. "I only know the names of people that I bonded with for some reason. I've had five different tent mates, and I've ridden with different teams through the years. This is actually the first time that I'm not with a team."

"How does that work?" Jamie asked.

"There are a lot of different groups that train together, and are sometimes sponsored together. Bike shops, hospitals, small businesses and even schools sponsor teams. I don't like to stick with a team for more than one year though," she admitted. "I like to get to know a lot of people, and that's harder to do if you're with the same group all of the time."

Just then a very attractive woman, who looked like she knew Ryan rather well, approached and straddled the bench, facing her. "Hi, Ryan," she said in a very friendly tone. "Long time, no see."

Ryan smiled easily and greeted the woman. "Hi, Carly" she said. "It has been a long time. How did your training go this year?"

"Not nearly as well as last year. You brought out the best in me on those training rides," she said with a suggestive smile. "So what have you been up to?"

Ryan gave her a brilliant smile and put her arm around Jamie's shoulders. "I've been busy falling in love," she said proudly. "Carly, this is Jamie."

Carly looked a bit taken aback, but she rallied and extended her hand to Jamie. "I've got to admit, I'm a little surprised to meet the woman who actually tamed this little cat," she said as she patted Ryan's leg.

"Oh, she isn't that wild," Jamie said with a forced smile.

"That's what you think," Carly purred as she got up, pausing just a second to pat Ryan's cheek in a familiar fashion. "Take care, girls," she said airily as she walked away.

"You don't know everyone you've introduced me to as well as you know Carly, do you?" Jamie asked suspiciously, as they both watched the attractive woman saunter away.

Ryan blushed deeply as she replied, "Um, not all of them."

Jamie just laughed as she shook her head, "I don't know how I'm going to keep you interested in me after all of the other women you've known."

Ryan slipped her arms around her waist and kissed her deeply for several minutes. "I don't even notice other women any more," she said sincerely. "You're more than enough woman to satisfy me for the rest of my life," she added emphatically.

Jamie's blush rivaled Ryan's as she whispered, "We're in a pretty public place, you know."

"I know. I'm just trying to stop any more old flames from disturbing us," she grinned as Jamie pinched her hard on the side.

"So you just kiss me to keep people away?" she asked with a mock glower.

"No, I kiss you to make my knees weak," she replied as she gave her another series of knee-weakening kisses. "What people do with this informative display is their choice," she said with a satisfied smile.

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

When they returned to the meeting spot, everyone was there. Caitlin immediately reached for Ryan, who gladly accepted her. The baby was wearing her new t-shirt, and she looked positively adorable. She had on a little baseball cap that Ryan had bought her not long ago, and after she gave Jamie a sloppy kiss, she happily sat on Ryan's shoulders to watch the parade of people.

Another ex-lover happened by, this one much more polite. Ryan introduced Jamie and, as the woman looked from Caitlin to Jamie, she finally asked in surprise, "Is this your baby?"

Ryan laughed as she introduced the rest of her family and indicated Caitlin's parents. The woman finally wished them well and went to find her riding partners. "Well, that went better than the last one," Jamie decided.

"I really tried to date nice women, but once in a while I didn't screen them properly," she admitted sheepishly.

"I've seen you in action, Ryan. I think your screening process was a little lax," she said as she playfully jabbed her riding partner in the stomach. "Unless you think an eyebrow wiggle really is a sufficient screening tool."

"Ohhh, you really do have my number, don't you?'

"I most certainly do. So don't try any funny business," she said, poking Ryan in the chest for good measure.

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

At 6:30 the Opening Ceremonies got underway. Willie Brown, the Mayor of San Francisco, and a large number of the Board of Supervisors were in attendance. The gay and lesbian community was a big supporter of the mayor, and the elegant, handsome African-American man genuinely returned the affection. He spoke extemporaneously for a few minutes, then various members of the ride team and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation said a few words. After the speeches were finished, a hush settled over the crowd as the directors of both the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Gay and Lesbian Center of Los Angeles came onto the stage. Six volunteers somberly guided a riderless bike up the center aisle through the throng. The quiet grew heavier as the assembled crowd paused to remember exactly why they had dedicated themselves to participate in the ride.

The speaker began, "This morning we begin a magical journey. A journey of exploration, a journey of wonder, a journey of commitment. A journey we make together. To see what exists beyond what we thought we could accomplish as individuals. To see what exists beyond the limits commonly ascribed to humankind.

"To open the treasure chest that is ours when we meet on common ground.

To find a new horizon that will give the world a glimpse of a different, kinder, magical way to live.

"Please turn your eyes to the center lane, and witness the bicycle being led down the path. This bicycle has no rider. See the empty space above the seat and the pedals. See the empty space behind the handlebars.

"The empty space inside the helmet that hangs at the side. See that empty space, and remember.

"Let us together remember the friends, and the loved ones, that we have lost to AIDS. This year, last year. Years ago. All of them, still in our hearts and our minds. Remember their faces. Remember their laughter. Remember their lives, their hopes, and their dreams."

Jamie looked up sharply when she heard a small quiet cry, almost like a wounded animal. Turning quickly she saw her partner bent over, obviously trying to compose herself, but having absolutely no success. Before she could move toward her, Maeve put both of her arms around the crumpling body and pulled Ryan's head up to her shoulder. Her body shook with deep, wracking sobs as she allowed herself to be comforted like a small child.

As much as she wanted to reach out to Ryan at that moment, something stopped her. She took a few deep breaths feeling Annie's arm drape around her waist, and in that moment, she knew what it was. She hadn't known Michael and neither had Annie. As much as the two women might empathize with the pain of losing a beloved young man, neither of them could know how that loss had felt to their loved ones. This was a pain that could only truly be shared by those who had experienced it.

The speaker continued; "Remember their love. Let us feel all of them with us right now. Among us. Looking over us. Their hearts overflowing with joy this morning, and proud that we were their friends; as we embark on this courageous endeavor, let us use this moment to invite them to come with us, to keep us safe, to carry us up the difficult hills. Through the rain. And against the wind. To be there with us when the road is difficult.

"To be there with us, when we feel like giving up. Let them give us strength, let them give us joy, and let them give us the courage to continue. Their spirit is here to ride with us. Let us carry it, keep it, and let it fill up the empty space, until there is no empty space.

"It's time, everyone; the moment is here. Make this everything you have ever hoped it could be. With our brothers and sisters who have been lost to AIDS, together, we begin California AIDS Ride 6."

As Jamie stood in the throng, she felt a swelling of emotion in her chest that became almost painful as these last words were uttered. In that moment, she felt prouder of herself than she ever had in her life. Not just because she had worked so hard, although that was part of it. Rather, she was proud that, for once in her family's history, someone had tried to make a difference in someone else's life. Not with money, since that was no sacrifice at all for a family such as hers; this was a sacrifice of her time and her effort and her safety and her will. She was about to challenge herself to do something that was going to be terribly difficult, and she was doing it out of love for people that she did not, and probably never would, know. She was doing it for the tens of thousands of people in California who were affected by this deadly disease. Yes, she was doing it for Ryan and the rest of the O'Flahertys, to show her support for their loss, but she was primarily doing it to show that people with AIDS mattered, and would continue to matter, until the scourge was completely and irrevocably destroyed.

There was not a dry eye amongst the O'Flahertys, as each of them focused their thoughts on their beloved Michael. Ryan lifted her head as Maeve fished out tissues from her purse, and they all spent a few moments composing themselves. Ryan leaned in close to her aunt and whispered something that was greeted by a smile and a kiss on her cheek as the smaller woman reached up and captured the last few tears with her fingertips.

Ryan indicated with a nod of her head that it was time to get in line to retrieve their bikes. Another round of tears accompanied their departure, and this time Jamie was a full participant. When Martin hugged Jamie, he leaned over and whispered, "Take care of my little one, Jamie. This is very hard on her."

"I will, Martin," she promised fervently.

They were just about to sneak away to join their assigned group when they heard a pathetic "Nooooooo," come from Caitlin's little mouth. Ryan dashed back to kiss her soundly and give her a firm squeeze, and then she jogged back to Jamie's side. "God, that's hard to do," she muttered as she looked back to see a screaming Caitlin frantically trying to extricate herself from Tommy's grip. Jamie was still too choked up to reply, so she merely gripped Ryan's hand more firmly.

After they retrieved their bikes, they checked their tires, made sure all of their tools and supplies were in their packs, and put on their helmets. Ryan actually did most of the work since Jamie's hands were shaking too badly to be of much use. Ryan made her stand still as she applied another layer of sunblock to her face and neck, Jamie felt a little like she was receiving final inspection from her commanding officer before the big battle began.

At 7:15 the first riders pulled out to the strains of blaring, inspirational music and the cheers of the assembled throng. Because of the huge number of riders, it took quite a while before they could move. Ryan kept giving her encouraging glances, but she knew her body would not calm down until they were underway. Jamie's heart was nearly beating out of her chest by the time they started, but once they started riding, she began to feel better when her rubbery legs could actually propel the bike. Hundreds and hundreds of people lined the street leading out of Fort Mason, all of them waving and cheering the riders on. The thought crossed Jamie's mind that riding a bike in a huge crowd was not really easy to do in the best of circumstances, but with her eyes continually filled with tears in an outpouring of emotion, it was nearly impossible. Luckily, they were going quite slowly and no decisions had to be made. They just moved with the crowd and let the energy and the positive vibrations carry them along.

After a few minutes, the riders started to separate, and it became easier to concentrate on maintaining proper position and pedal cadence. Jamie lost herself in the process of riding, letting her mind go blank except for the sensation of pedaling. She kept a low level of awareness for the condition of the street and the distance she was from other riders, but for the first time that she could recall she was in a deep level of concentration, where everything just flowed. Every fifteen minutes her watch alarm buzzed, and she grabbed a water bottle and guzzled as much as she could get down; even this interruption didn't disturb her focus. As they left the city, her concentration started to flag, and she spent some time just looking around.

Ryan was just ahead of her, and she focused on her for a few long minutes. She quickly learned that watching Ryan from this vantage point was not a good idea. She found herself being nearly hypnotized by the twitching of Ryan's butt when she stood on her pedals, and she was forced to jerk her attention away. Are you suicidal? she chided herself, as she focused on the other riders and passing scenery.

They stopped at the first pit stop about thirteen miles out. It was terribly crowded, but Ryan assured her that this was an anomaly, and that subsequent stops would be less hectic. The crowds didn't dampen the cheerfulness of the volunteers who handed out snacks and water. They greeted each rider with a smile and offered encouraging words. Ryan methodically took the water bottles and added powdered drink mix from her pack. After she was satisfied with the mix, she poured them into the three bottles that each of them carried on their bikes. "You're going to be a fanatic about that stuff, aren't you," Jamie smirked as she watched her little scientist work away.

"You betcha," Ryan agreed, her mouth curling into a tiny smile as she concentrated on pouring. "And as proof, we're not leaving until you drink every little drop of this down." She handed her partner the bottle and supervised her consumption with a smile at her compliance. The day was still very cool, but Ryan knew that dehydration could occur during the coolest weather, and she was not going to let that happen to her partner on her watch.

Jamie started to get onto her bike, but Ryan insisted that they move away from the crowd and take a few minutes to rest. "But it's only thirteen miles," Jamie complained. "We've done lots more than that without a break."

"I know. But this is different. Now sit down here and let me massage your thighs for a minute."

The little orange bike was dropped like a hot rock. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" she laughingly asked, as she dropped to the ground.

Ryan started to work on her thighs, smiling to herself when Jamie's lids started to droop almost immediately. "Boy, you're easy," she grinned as she picked up the pace, trying to invigorate her.

"I know," she moaned. "You start rubbing me, and I'm powerless to stay awake. It's just so calming."

"It's good to be calm when you're riding in a huge pack like this," Ryan observed. "How are you doing with the traffic?"

"Umm, pretty good," she decided. "It was a little dicey coming out of the city, but once the road started to open up a little I kinda got into it. It just makes you feel like you're part of something, you know?"

"I do indeed," Ryan agreed as she gave her a little slap on each leg. "Let's rock!"

They took off again, riding in a fairly large group until they reached the second pit stop. The first thirty miles of the ride was through dense urban clutter, but as they arrived at Stop Two they could see more rolling, open scenery before them. Jamie knew that one of the worst hills of the ride was coming up, and she wanted to ask for a little reassurance, but she would feel childish doing so. Ryan went to wait in the long line for the Porta-Potty, giving Jamie a stern glance when she said she did not need to join her. When she returned, Jamie was working on her second bottle of her drink mix. Ryan began her lecture, but Jamie held up her hand to stop her, "If you don't have to go to the bathroom at every pit stop, you're not drinking enough!" she said sternly. They both laughed as she forced herself to drink three bottles of her drink mix and eat a banana and some trail mix. When she had finished, she trotted over to get in line for the Porta-Potty.

When Jamie returned, she gave Ryan a kiss and said, "Thanks for taking care of me."

"I've never had a more pleasurable job," Ryan assured her as she began to rub the tension from her shoulders. "Big hill coming up, huh?" Ryan asked softly as she continued to rub.

"Yeah," Jamie replied noncommittally.


"Umm…a little."

"No need to be," Ryan said firmly as she leaned over and kissed her cheek. "It's strenuous, but not nearly as bad as some of our training up in the hills. Guaranteed," she assured her.

"Thanks," Jamie murmured as she turned and wrapped her arms around Ryan's damp waist. "You can always tell when I'm nervous, can't you?"

"Ohh, I don't know if 'always' is the right word. You give off some physical cues that are pretty telling?"

"Really?" she asked in surprise. "Like what?"

"One big one," Ryan said as she hopped back on her bike, "you stop talking!" Her laughter flowed back over her shoulder as she stomped on her pedals trying to avoid the dreaded pinch.

The four-mile climb up Highway 92 was tough going for almost everyone. The day was beginning to heat up, and the highway was quite narrow. As they labored up the hill, Ryan dropped back to ask if Jamie minded if she let out a little speed on the way down. "You go right ahead, Speedy," she panted. "I'll catch you later." As she gave her a smile she added, "I want you to have fun today, Ryan. So you do what you need to do to get your juices flowing."

"Well then I'd better hold back, because the quickest way to get my juices flowing is to stay very close to you." The flashing white smile that accompanied this sentiment made Jamie wish they could stop for a moment and share a kiss, but she didn't want to interrupt her momentum, so she satisfied herself with blowing a kiss to her grinning partner.

Following Ryan up the long, steep grade, she gave silent thanks for all of the hours of hard training that they had put in. She was actually quite proud of herself and spent a few minutes just feeling the power of her legs as they propelled her continually uphill.

They reached the crest after what seemed like an hour. Jamie heard her partner let out a whoop of pure excitement as she stomped on her pedals, hurling herself down the steep hill. She followed at a much saner rate of speed; nonetheless, she was flying down the hill at 38 m.p.h.

After they had leveled out a bit, they turned onto Highway 1. Ryan pulled over and stood just off the wide bike lane, waiting for Jamie with a huge grin on her face. Jamie pulled up next to her and watched her grin turn to a smug little smile as she wiggled one eyebrow at her. "You're the fastest, you're the coolest," Jamie opined in a sing-song fashion.

"I'm glad you think so," Ryan said smugly as she gave her a hug.

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

After the successful scaling of the big hill, Jamie was more than ready for the next twelve miles before lunch. As she quickly found out, the seemingly flat terrain was deceptively hilly. She began to dread every dip since she knew that a hill would quickly follow, but she concentrated on her cadence and let herself enjoy the lovely scenery, trying to take her mind off the effort she was expending. They arrived at the lunch stop and practically wrestled to be first in line. For the very first time in their relationship, Jamie ate everything on her plate and was actually looking around for more. Ryan stared at her as she finished off her second apple with a flourish. "I've created a monster," she said sadly.

There were still plenty of snacks available, and Ryan grabbed a couple of energy bars to tide her over. After three more bottles of water, a short thigh massage, and a few kisses, they were ready to go again.

The ride down the homestretch was aided by a nice tailwind the entire way; even though they had to cover 50 miles, the distance seemed much shorter. Nonetheless, it was 3:30 by the time they rode into the large city park in Santa Cruz, their home for the night. The volunteers had prepared the area beautifully, clearly marking every area.

Their first task was to find the security area for the bikes. Jamie was impressed by the system they had installed to keep track of all 3,000 bikes, obviously not an easy task. The area was segmented into large sections, with each one named after an international city. They picked Madrid, one of Jamie's favorite spots, and quickly hung their bikes from the tall saw horses placed there for that purpose. Actually, Ryan hung both bikes, as the sawhorses were really quite tall.

Jamie was ready for a long nap, a hot Jacuzzi and an hour-long massage; however, before she could partake in two out of three, they had to find their assigned camping spot. They were given #J-22, and Ryan showed Jamie how to find the spot by using the small markers placed near the ground. After locating their spot, Ryan generously offered to go wait in line and get a tent and all of their gear. Jamie considered the offer for less than a second before she gratefully accepted. She wandered off to look for the shower trucks as Ryan gamely stood in line for a tent.

She finally found the shower truck after spotting a number of people with wet hair and scrubbed skin coming from one direction. Regrettably, the line was long, but she knew that she would feel better once she got the road grime off so she stayed in line. It moved rather slowly, and there were still five people in front of her when Ryan jogged up carrying her toiletries, a swimmer's towel and a change of clothes. Jamie smiled brightly at her thoughtfulness. "I was just standing here knowing I should leave to get my stuff, but I was too tired to move," she admitted.

Ryan helped her pull off her bike shoes and socks, when it became obvious that Jamie's legs were too weak to support her in an off-balance position. With a kiss, Ryan went to the rear of the now very long line and waited patiently while Jamie neared the front. Luckily, moments after she gained her spot, a buddy from the first ride got in line behind her.

"Pretty early to already be waiting on your tent mate hand and foot, isn't it?"

Ryan turned and barked out a laugh, hugging the grinning woman who stood behind her. "Melinda!" she cried. "I haven't seen you since the last ride! How have you been?"

"Good, very good in fact," she admitted. "Jared started school this year, so Stacy and I have been able to start working the same shift."

"Wow, I can't believe that," Ryan mused. "I still remember how anxious you were on the first ride. I've never seen someone search out public phones like you did."

"Well, waiting for your lover to have your first child was a pretty big deal," she reminded her with a grin.

"Is Stacy here?" Ryan asked.

"Oh yeah, she's around here somewhere. Jared is with my mom for the week, back home in San Jose. I'm sure he'll come back thoroughly spoiled, as usual," she conceded good-naturedly. "So, who's the cutie you were waiting on?" she asked.

"I can't disagree with the description, but she's a lot more than my tent mate," Ryan said rather proudly. "She's my," Ryan paused for a moment, trying to decide on the proper term, "partner," she decided. "Jamie is my life partner."

"YOU! You're in a relationship?!"

"Hey," Ryan objected, a little hurt by the amazement in her voice, "I need love too, you know."

"Umm hmm," she said suspiciously. "You've never seemed to be lacking in that department, Ryan."

"Oh yes, I have," Ryan assured her seriously. "I've been starved for love, Melinda, but I tried to satisfy that need by having sex. There's no comparison," she stated firmly.

"You really are in love," she said slowly, still slightly amazed.

As she was considering this unexpected development, Jamie came back and gave Ryan a tiny kiss. "I feel so much better," she said wanly.

"Hon, this is an old friend," Ryan said as she indicated Melinda. "Melinda, this is Jamie Evans. Jamie, Melinda Stone."

"Good to meet you," Jamie said as she extended her clean hand.

"Amazed to meet you," Melinda murmured, still astonished that Ryan had entered into a committed relationship.

Ryan shot Jamie a glance and said, "Melinda has known me for six years. She's seen the annual changing of the guard."

"I see," Jamie drawled good naturedly. "Did she ever introduce any of them as her lover?" she asked Melinda.

"Nope," she replied immediately. "It was always more like, 'This is…what was your name again, Honey?'"

Ryan gave her a playful cuff for that comment. "I have never, in my entire life, referred to a woman like that," she insisted.

"Just kidding, Sport," Melinda agreed. "But it was always obvious that they were just passing through. I get a completely different feeling from this one, though," she conceded as she smiled at Jamie's proprietary hold on Ryan's dirty, sweaty body. "If she can hug you when you're that grimy, she must be in for the long haul."

"The longest," Jamie heartily agreed as she kissed the dirt-flecked lips smiling down at her.

After a brief chat Ryan asked Jamie for her dirty clothes, which she dutifully handed over. "I'm going to do laundry when I'm finished," she said with a smile. "Do you remember where our tent is?"

"J-22," she replied decisively.

"Very good," Ryan said as she patted her on the head. "Go take a nap after you drink another bottle of water," she ordered.

After her showering and laundry duties were done, Ryan headed back to the tent. She found Jamie sprawled across both sleeping bags right in the middle of the floor. She didn't have the heart to wake her, so she went in search of something to do, or, even better, something to eat. An hour later she opened the tent flap and crawled in next to her sleeping partner, cradling her close. After a few moments Jamie started to awaken. She sniffed a few times, then she rolled over and sniffed again. "I smell..." she licked around Ryan's mouth for a moment as she pronounced, "Mexican food," she said proudly. After a moment she sat up in surprise, "Hey! Did you eat dinner without me?"

"Only my first course," Ryan replied happily. "I've got plenty of room for seconds," she said as she patted her flat tummy.

"C'mon," Jamie said as she crawled out of the tent. "I'm starved!"

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

The long dinner line snaked along all too slowly for Ryan's unsated stomach. Jamie smoothly diverted her attention when she asked, "How do you think today went, Babe?"

As was her fashion, Ryan paused and considered the question, and her answer, thoroughly before she replied. "I was very, very pleased with how today went," she pronounced. "The day just flew by, mostly because I was so focused on you. I've had a lot of friends and a few bedmates that I cared about on the ride, you know. But none of them captured my attention like you did today. It was a very, very pleasant diversion," she decided with a big grin.

"You're too sweet," Jamie beamed as she stood on her tip toes for a kiss. "But I don't like the inequity of attention you've been lavishing on me. I want to make you feel better, too."

"But I feel fine," Ryan assured her. "I'm used to this kind of pace, so it's really not that big of a deal for me."

"Nonetheless," Jamie insisted, "tomorrow we share shoulder rubs and leg rubs. You're not getting out of here without some pampering."

"Oh, all right," Ryan muttered in mock disgust. "You are so hard to live with!"

"I know," Jamie soothed. "And you're such a saint to put up with me."

"It's just an act of mercy," she innocently replied. "You're like the little dog who followed me home. If I don't take you in, no one will."

"Ggrrrrr," the feisty little stray replied.

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

"Was today like you expected?" Ryan asked, as they worked on their desserts.

"Yeah, I'd have to say that you prepared me beautifully for the physical aspects," Jamie replied, after taking a minute to consider her answer. "But you didn't give me any idea of it was," she said with a chuckle.

"You didn't know most of the people would be gay?" Ryan asked, having assumed that Jamie would guess the event would be largely gay.

"No, no," the smaller woman laughed. "I mean gay! Like festive!"

"Ohhh," Ryan laughed. "Well, it is pretty darned festive."

"Yeah," Jamie agreed. "I didn't realize that so many people would decorate their helmets, and wear costumes. I swear I saw a bunch of guys dressed like flamingos!"

"Yeah, that's pretty common on the ride. That's one of the nicest things for me. People can really be creative. A lot of guys even dress in drag."

"I can't imagine doing this in full make-up," Jamie laughed. "But whatever floats your boat!"

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

They finished dinner by seven o'clock and spent a little time wandering around the tent city, Jamie marveling at all of the amenities. People were diligently working on ailing bikes in the repair area, every available masseuse was hard at work, and the medical trailers had a long line of people seeking relief from various minor injuries. There was even a small general store selling necessities. The entertainment started just as it was getting dark. Jamie was interested, but also very willing to go to bed right then. So they compromised by deciding to watch for half an hour, and then go to sleep.

After only a few minutes, Ryan excused herself. "I've got to go do something. Can you find the tent?"

Jamie nodded her assent as Ryan took off. After twenty minutes she made her way back to their temporary home. It was just 8:30 when she crawled in to find Ryan lying on her side in a fetal position. "Ryan, what's wrong?" she asked in alarm as she crawled up right next to her.

"Cramps," was her monosyllabic reply.

"Oh, you poor baby," she replied solicitously. "Did you take anything?"

"Yeah, I just took some ibuprofen. I'll be okay in a while."

"Do you usually hurt like this?" she inquired.

"No, not very often. I felt a little twitchy earlier, and I should have paid attention and taken some pills then. If I knock them out right away, I don't have any trouble. When I let them really get to me, it's much harder to get rid of them."

"Isn't there anything I can do?" she inquired, feeling helpless. "How about a massage?"

Ryan rolled over onto her back as she smiled up at her partner. "You'd really like to help, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah, it's hard to see you in pain and not be able to do anything," she admitted.

"Well, sometimes it helps if you can just put your hand here," she said as she placed Jamie's hand right above her pubic bone. "And then kind of rock me."

Jamie did as instructed, rocking her very gently as she put firm pressure over her uterus. Ryan let out a deep sigh as the pressure began to relieve her cramping. After a long while Jamie asked, "Does one of your ovaries hurt more than the other?"

Ryan nodded, "Yeah, the right one." Jamie moved her hand over to the right side of her abdomen. She probed with her fingers for a moment until Ryan let out a little gasp. She then applied pressure to this area and kneaded until Ryan's face relaxed and she looked much more peaceful. "Boy, you have a great pair of hands there," Ryan said gratefully as Jamie climbed into her outstretched arms.

"Do you feel better?" Jamie inquired.

"Much," Ryan said as she kissed her tenderly. Jamie responded to the kiss, and slowly the intensity began to escalate.

"I thought about sleeping with you all day," Jamie murmured into her ear as they took a break.

"I thought about you too, but sleeping wasn't involved," Ryan replied with a leer as she placed more searing kisses on Jamie's smooth lips.

"For a sick girl, you sure do kiss good," she observed with admiration. After the passion between them rose another notch, Jamie began to notice that Ryan's body was relaxing in direct proportion to the increased beating of her heart.

Jamie wrestled the sleeping bags from under her now limp body and tossed the joined bags over the two of them. Placing one last tender kiss on her moist lips, she wrapped her arms around her. "Good night, Ryan," she whispered into her ear.

Ryan forced one eye open and looked at Jamie with a questioning glance and a little tilt of her head. "That's enough playtime, Sweetie. We both need to get to sleep. We've got a long day tomorrow."

"Okay," Ryan sleepily agreed, "But I don't think I can sleep before it's even fully dark out."

"Okay," Jamie soothed, whispering into her clean pink ear. "Just relax for a little while." Moments later she felt Ryan fall into a deep sleep in her arms.

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

Just after two a.m. Ryan woke from an insistent pressure in her bladder. She struggled out of Jamie's embrace, as well as the sleeping bag, and searched for her sweats with her hands. When she found them, she slid out the tent opening and fumbled her way into her clothes. She had left her sandals outside the tent, and she stepped into them on the way to the bathroom. It was quiet at the campsite, but the ever-present security personnel were on duty. She made it a point to walk by each person she saw to say hello and thank them for their vigilance.

As she approached the medical trailer, she realized that more than her bladder was causing her pain, so she stopped in to request some more ibuprofen. The woman on duty gladly fulfilled her request, also giving her a tampon. When she was finished she made her way back to the tent, realizing that she had not put her normal beacon on the top. She had learned through experience that finding your tent out of 1,500 identical ones on a dark night was no picnic. She usually put a light stick on the top of the tent when she left, but she'd been so groggy this morning that she had forgotten. She used her innate sense of direction and eventually found the 'J' section. To her relief, finding #22 was not too hard. She undressed outside and kicked her shoes off before climbing back in and settling down next to her lover.

She was moments from sleep when she heard a soft voice grumble, "I have to pee."

Using every bit of her self-control, she took a deep, even breath and asked, "Do you want me to go with you?"

"Do you have to go, too?" Jamie asked hopefully.

"Yeah, I have to go too," she replied, out of nothing but love.

After they completed their pit stop, Ryan stopped at the medical trailer again to snag an energy bar. The ibuprofen wasn't sitting well on her empty stomach, so she munched on the bar on the way back. This time the light stick was clearly in place, signaling them home.

As they climbed back into their little nest, Jamie automatically put her hand over Ryan's uterus and began to rock her gently. Ryan gazed at her sleepy green eyes in appreciation as Jamie mumbled, "You don't look like you feel so good." Ryan just nodded and closed her eyes, willing herself to focus only on her partner's healing touch. Within minutes she was sound asleep.

Continue to part 8

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