part 9

by SX Meagher

Please see part 1 for all disclaimers.

Chapter Twenty-One

A sharp, tingling sensation woke Ryan just a bit after dawn. She groggily tried to focus but quickly gave up, and settled back into sleep. "Ouch," she said moments later, as her eyes flew open, and she found the source of her discomfort.

Jamie's hand was lying on her breast, thumb and index finger curled around a very hard nipple. As her hand twitched reflexively in sleep her fingers compressed, sending a wave of sensation through the tender nub.

Ryan was about to remove the offending appendage when the hand flattened out, changing the sensation from pain to comfort. Jamie was sprawled across her body, her golden head resting on her chest. Ryan did a quick inventory and found that one of her own hands had strayed into forbidden territory, and she slowly extracted it from its resting place inside the back of Jamie's panties. Just as she slid out green eyes locked onto her "Caught ya," she said mischievously.

"You'd better check on your own hands before you go throwing stones," was the gentle reply.

Jamie did so, blushing deeply as she removed her hand from its soft pillow. "Sorry," she said sheepishly.

Ryan lifted her chin with two fingers. "Jamie, you never have to apologize for touching me. Don't ever be sorry for expressing your love, or your desire," she said fervently.

"I...I...I'm not sorry that I touch you, I'm just sorry that I tease you. I know this is hard for you, Ryan. God knows it's hard for me, too," she added with a laugh. "I had no idea how hard it was going to be, though. I almost exploded yesterday afternoon."

"I hate to admit it, but this is one thing the nuns were absolutely correct about."

"What's that?" Jamie asked, wondering how nuns figured into this discussion.

"They said that the easiest way to get into trouble was to be in a compromising position with someone. They said it was just too easy to go that next step. They called it 'avoiding the near occasion of sin.' "

"I don't think there is anything sinful about how I feel for you," Jamie said sincerely.

"I couldn't agree more," Ryan said as she gave her a tender good-morning kiss. "Although some of the things I want to do to you are positively wicked," she added with a leer.

After they had packed up they sat down to breakfast, where Jamie was quite surprised that Ryan ate only a bowl of oatmeal. "Are you feeling okay?" she asked solicitously, as she gently placed her hand on Ryan's tummy.

"I feel marvelous," she replied brightly. "I'm just saving room for something," she added mysteriously.

"Well, if you're saving room for something, I know it's gotta be good," Jamie replied confidently.

Minutes later they left Lake Cachuma, and enjoyed a relatively flat, quick pace. They had not even reached the first pit stop when Ryan signaled that they had reached their destination. They had just entered Solvang, a terribly cute little Danish-style village. Nearly every shop was open, even though it was just after six. There was a constant stream of riders going into a sporting goods shop, and Ryan pulled up in front. "Watch my bike for a minute, okay?" she said over her shoulder as she walked inside.

She emerged moments later, carrying an aerosol can of bike polish. Jamie looked at her quizzically and said, "This is what you saved room for? Petroleum-based solvents aren't really good for you, Honey," she joked.

Ryan shook her head solemnly and said," No," as she pointed at a little bakery with a faux windmill on the roof. "That's what I saved room for."

Jamie's eyes lit up as they walked their bikes over to the little shop. The aroma was overpoweringly good, a mix of coffee, cinnamon, sugar and just about everything else Jamie loved. The display case was packed with freshly-baked goods of all varieties. Most were familiar to Jamie, who had spent some time in Denmark two years ago. She searched her memory for which of the pastries had been her favorites, finally deciding that, judging from the aroma, she couldn't go wrong no matter what she chose.

Ryan was leaning over the case and Jamie was actually afraid that she would drool on the clean glass. She sidled up to her and said admiringly, "You manage to top yourself almost daily in the surprise department, Ms. O'Flaherty."

"Shhh, I'm concentrating," Ryan said with mock severity. "I've only got ten bucks on me, and I don't want to make a mistake."

"Ten bucks! Ryan, most of these pastries are only a dollar! Are you really going to eat ten of them?"

"Unless I can get you to create a distraction while I grab an armful, yes, I'm only able to eat ten of them," she said dejectedly.

"You know, I can never tell when you're kidding about things like this," she said good-naturedly. "But if you are serious, I've got some major cash on me, so have at it."

As it turned out, Ryan was kidding, but not by much. She ate a cheese and a cherry Danish, two cinnamon crisps and a light little cream puff, while Jamie limited herself to a cherry Danish and a cinnamon crisp. They each had a delicious cup of coffee, their first of the trip. After they had finished, Ryan jogged off in search of a bathroom; Jamie got back in line and bought three more pastries for her lover to snack on later in the day. She was hiding them in her bike bag when Ryan returned, energized and ready for the day.

They rode only a few more miles until the first pit stop. They spent a few minutes drinking water, as Ryan advised Jamie of the impending problems climbing the Gaviota Pass.

"This next one is kind of tough," she warned. "It's a long seven miles with anywhere from a two to a five percent grade. But the real problem is the narrow shoulders on a couple of bridges. I get off the bike, turn around, and make sure that no trucks are coming. If it's clear, I ride across if it's a long bridge, or I sprint across if it's short. Promise me that you'll be careful, okay?" she asked seriously, placing her hands on Jamie's shoulders and looking intently into her eyes.

"I promise I'll be careful. I don't have the thrill-seeking gene like somebody I know," she replied, as she found her favorite tickling spot and gave it a few good twitches.

Ryan's prediction was accurate. The climb was not really all that bad, but Highway 101 is terribly busy, every hour of the day. Jamie hated having the semi's fly past her on the narrow road, but she summoned all of her concentration to focus just ahead of her, knowing that Ryan would keep an eye out for the road ahead.

They dismounted and walked their bikes across two of the small bridges, then rode across a longer one, after waiting for traffic to break. When they reached the top of the pass, there was a brake test area for trucks, so they knew that a big downhill was coming. For a change, Ryan didn't go down at breakneck speed. She stayed just in front of Jamie, all the way down the four-mile drop.

They reached the second pit stop at mile 44. Today's theme was Bath Time, and all of the crew wore shower caps, towels and slippers. They rested for a while, since the stop was later than normal because of the pass. They were now right on the ocean, and they would stay close to it for the rest of the ride. The cool ocean breeze and cooler temperatures were terribly refreshing, but Jamie knew that they came with a price--they would be riding into that breeze for most of the rest of the ride.

They pedaled through the wind, and finally arrived at their lunch stop--the University of California at Santa Barbara. As they rode along the beautiful eucalyptus-lined streets of the campus, they were greeted by dozens and dozens of elementary school kids, college students and local residents who came out with signs and banners welcoming them to Santa Barbara. Jamie fought tears every time they encountered a spontaneous display like this. She knew that Ryan really appreciated it too, from the adorable little grin that she always had when she waved back.

The cycling team from the college was on hand to welcome them at the lunch site. "Jeez, look at the thighs on that woman," Jamie said in awe as they sat on the grass eating lunch.

"Her calves aren't bad either," Ryan said with an appraising glance that began at the woman's head and slowly traveled all the way down to her feet.

"Hey," Jamie said as she poked her in the ribs. "Keep those looks for me, kiddo."

"Everything I have is for you, Jamie," she said sweetly. "My interest is purely professional."

After a moment Jamie turned and faced Ryan squarely, "Do you really think I'm going to be enough to keep you interested for the rest of your life?"

"Where did that question come from?" Ryan asked, slightly perplexed by the unexpected query.

"I don't know," Jamie replied a little defensively. "I just didn't like the way you looked at that woman."

"Then we need to talk about this," Ryan declared. She sat up straight and put her hands on Jamie's knees. She closed her eyes for a moment, to compose her thoughts, and when she opened them she gazed deeply into Jamie's eyes. "I pledge my fidelity to you alone, Jamie. I will never touch another woman in a sexual way. I swear to that, and I would never make such an important promise that I couldn't keep."

"I know, Ryan," she said as she wrapped her arms around her neck. "I'm sorry. I'm just feeling a little sensitive today."

"No, don't brush this aside, Jamie," she insisted. "I really want you to understand this. I think you and I are different in this area, and I want you to understand me." She pulled back from Jamie's embrace and held both of her hands. "I love women. I love just about everything about women. I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing a beautifully built woman. But I look at other women like works of art. My pleasure comes from seeing their bodies, and the way they carry themselves. I don't objectify them or think about having sex with them any more though. I just admire the female form. I don't think I can stop doing that, Jamie. And I'm not sure that I would, even if I could," she said resolutely. "But you're the woman I want to be with. You're the woman I want to touch intimately. You are more than enough woman for me, and you always will be," she said fervently. "I find everything about you beautiful. Not just your face or your body. It's your spirit that I love, and that will always be the same, even as we grow old," she slid her arms around her partner and kissed the tears coursing down her face. "You're the last woman in my life," she whispered as she bent to kiss her tenderly.

"Oh Ryan, you are so sweet to me," she said through her tears. "Thank you for putting up with my insecurities."

"I don't understand why a jewel like you is insecure, but I don't consider talking about things like this 'putting up' with you. We're still getting to know each other, Jamie. And I want to spend the rest of my life getting to know the cellular level," she said with a crooked little grin.

"Only you could weave biology into an expression of love," Jamie said teasingly, kissing Ryan on the nose. "And I hope you know that I don't doubt your love. I just get insecure when I think of the other women you've been with. I just worry that I won't measure up," she added with an embarrassed little look.

"Jamie, Jamie, Jamie," Ryan said, hugging her close. "I've been eating from McDonalds and Burger King for all these years. You're the finest five-star restaurant in the world compared to those other women. I could never miss those empty calories. Each meal was indistinguishable from the next." She rocked her slowly in her arms and added, "You, and only you, are what gives me true sustenance."

Jamie fought back the tears again as she kissed Ryan's face, "I truly think that you are the sweetest woman on earth," she said adoringly.

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

After lunch, they rode on the lovely system of bike paths that traversed Santa Barbara. Ryan explained how far the system went, and showed Jamie some of the spurs that cyclists could take to cross town. "How do you know so much about the system?" Jamie finally asked.

"I was down here a couple of years ago for a tournament, and I stayed on campus. I borrowed a bike, and rode all over when we weren't playing."

"What kind of tournament were you in?" Jamie inquired.

"Basketball," she replied simply.

"I didn't know you played basketball," she said with surprise.

"Sure you did. I told you one of my concussions was during a game."

"But I didn't understand that you played on a real team. I thought you were just fooling around. Was this in high school?"

"Nope. College."

"You played college-level basketball?" she said suspiciously. "And you've never mentioned that you play?"

"Guess not," she said over her shoulder as she took off with a laugh.

It's gonna take me years to get all of her secrets out, Jamie thought. But I'll get 'em eventually.

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

Their next stop was the town of Carpinteria. The Rotary Club, the City Council, several hundred residents, a radio station and a large group of local merchants were there to greet them. Big boom boxes provided loud music, and as people milled about waiting for massages and food, a number of people danced energetically to the booming sounds of the music. They were right on the beach, and they watched paragliders, surfers and body boarders work the waves. Jamie was happy to just plop down and take a rest, but Ryan was buzzing with energy. She spotted her old friend Karen, and motioned her over. They chatted for a while; when it became obvious that Ryan was wired, Karen asked, "Hey Jamie, do you mind if I work some excess energy off your girlfriend?"

"I guess that depends on how you plan on doing that," was the dry reply.

"Just a little dancing is all," she replied innocently.

"Be my guest," Jamie said with a flourish.

"Do I get a vote?" Ryan asked

"Nope," Jamie and Karen replied simultaneously.

Karen took her hand and led her over to the largest boom box. They started to jump around energetically, bleeding off energy. Jamie watched with fascination thinking, I don't know what's better, dancing with her or watching her dance.

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

After they were back on their bikes, Jamie said, "You know, it was fun watching you dance. You and Karen really look cute together."

Ryan cocked her head at her as she replied, "It didn't bother you to see me with her, did it?"

"Not at all. I meant what I said. It was cute." After a beat she added, "Why didn't you want to date her seriously? She really looks like your type, now that I've been around her."

"She's too much my type," she admitted wryly. "We would've driven each other crazy. She has more energy than I do in some areas, and she had even less interest than I did in settling down with one person. She slept with someone else on the ride!" she said indignantly.

"Why did that bother you?" Jamie asked, really curious.

"Because we were having sex every night! I'm not used to people looking elsewhere while I'm actively bedding them," she said with a twinkle. "And it was in our tent! I had to go sit on a picnic bench, and wait for them to finish so I could go to bed. Then, to add insult to injury, she still wanted to do it with me later that night!"

"And you, of course, said no, right?" Jamie asked innocently, as she batted her big green eyes.

"Well, she obviously wasn't satisfied, so I had to show her what she had missed," Ryan explained with a wry chuckle.

"It doesn't bother you to talk about your old flames, does it?" Jamie asked.

"No. Does it bother you to hear about them?"

"No, it doesn't," she said reflectively. "I like thinking about what a player you used to be. And I stress the 'used to be' part of that statement," she warned.

"My membership in that group has been voluntarily and irrevocably terminated," she replied, in complete agreement.

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

The next 12 miles were torturously slow ones. The wind had freshened and blew in their faces the entire time. It seemed as though they had done the entire ride in one day rather than six, and the remaining miles loomed ahead of them like an unbreachable wall. Ryan rode directly in front of Jamie, trying to be a foil, but it really did not help much. Several times during the worst of it, Jamie rued her decision to take on this adventure, but after a few minutes of grousing she would look up ahead and see her determined partner, grinding away, and her mood would improve immediately. They rested much longer than normal at the last pit stop, dropping to the ground under the shade of a small tree after they had consumed two bottles of sports drink. Neither spoke for the entire time they lay there, and after a good half-hour's rest, Ryan stood and extended her hand, pulling Jamie to her feet. They headed out for the last ten miles of the day with grimly determined faces.

They arrived at Buenaventura State Beach significantly later than normal. Both felt more tired than sweaty, so they skipped their evening shower and took a quick nap. The nap was actually more like a quick coma than anything else, since neither heard their boisterous neighbors setting up camp, singing Barbra Streisand tunes at full volume.

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

Almost as soon as they left the tent, Jamie could sense that the mood over the camp had a different feeling than every other night. They stood in the longish line observing the assembled riders; after a few minutes Jamie tilted her head up and said, "I've been trying to think of what this reminds me of. I think I've got it."

"What's that, Hon?"

"It feels like the last days of high school," she decided. "You know, you're all aware that it's almost over, and you know that even though you claim you'll stay close, it will be the last time you will see some of your acquaintances."

"Yeah, I guess it does," she agreed halfheartedly.

"It's not like that for you?"

"I didn't have any friends by the time I graduated from high school," she said flatly. "And the thought of never seeing most of my classmates again was pure bliss."

Turning in her direction, Jamie placed her hands flat against Ryan's chest. The look on her face was one of sheer incredulity. "Ryan, everyone loves you!" she insisted. "I know you had troubles, but surely…"

"No. No one," she declared, her face impassive, but her eyes reflecting the lingering hurt.

"But how…"

"Not now, Jamie," she said firmly. "This night is hard enough for me without dredging that stuff up."

For the hundredth time, Jamie mentally rebuked herself for her unerring ability to find topics that greatly upset her partner. Quit prying into her past so much! she chided herself. She tells you plenty, but she only does it when she's ready. Leave the poor thing alone!

Trying one of the two things that always seemed to brighten Ryan's mood, she peeked down the table and commented. "Mmm, brownies for dessert."

"Where?" Ryan asked sharply.

"Right over there," she pointed, indicating a large platter nearly filled with the treats. "I'm not really in the mood for chocolate tonight," she said with a casual dismissal. "You can have mine."

A sweet smile and a little squeeze of her hand greeted her offer. "It's okay, Hon. I'm not mad at you for asking about my life. You don't have to give me cookie reparations."

"Would you like my brownie?" Jamie asked with her own smile.

"Mmm, let's just say this for the record. When I turn down a brownie, it's time to take me to the emergency room."

"It makes me happy to make you happy, Sweetie. So do us both a favor, and accept my peace offering, okay?"

"Hrumph! The lengths I have to go to please you!" she muttered, trying to hide a grin.

"St. Ryan of Mayo," Jamie decreed. "It's got a ring to it."

"Mmm, I think I prefer St. Ryan of Killala," she decided. "The town could use the tourist business my shrine would bring in."

"Yet another saintly act," Jamie insisted. "Always thinking of others."

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

After they received their food, they were searching around for a place to sit when a voice called out, "Hey, 'O' ".

Ryan looked around and identified the speaker, then turned to Jamie to ask, "Mind if we sit with the wild girls?"

"Ahh, no, I think I've shown that I have a soft spot for wild girls," she grinned.

They walked over to a table of six women. Jamie guessed they were a little older--in their late 20's to early 30's-- and they clearly knew Ryan well. She went from woman to woman, kissing each on the lips, before she began to introduce her partner. "Jamie, this motley crew is a small part of The Lavender Menace, one of the teams I trained with a couple of years ago. Everybody, this is Jamie Evans, my…" she cast a devilish grin at her partner before decreeing, "fiancée."

"What?" the women responded, almost in unison.

"Yep. We're tying the knot on Monday," she related. Ryan caught the shocked look on Jamie's face, but she just beamed a smile at her and gave her shoulder a little squeeze.

The assembled women spent quite a while dragging the whole story out of Ryan. Jamie sat at her side, responding to direct questions, but finding herself very happy just to watch her partner interact with the group. She recognized at least one of them from the off-road ride Ryan had taken her to up on Mt. Tam, and as she regarded each of them, she had to admit that they were the most stereotypical looking lesbians that she had seen Ryan with. They all had very short hair, much shorter than her own, and two of them had hair of a color rarely found in nature. Their casual poses allowed her to detect that at least three of them didn't shave their legs, and all of them had some type of body ornament, either tattoos or a visible piercing.

Even though she hadn't met a lot of Ryan's friends, she decided that, based on looks, her partner would not have a lot in common with these women, but there was some deep bond that reflected her connection to them. She was a little more boisterous and a lot more full of herself—boasting about her conditioning, and her preparedness for the ride--but it was all done with such a teasing, playful sense that it was very well received. It took a minute for the realization to dawn on Jamie, but she finally recalled what it reminded her of. It's like any group of jocks, she mused. They build themselves up and tear each other down, but it's done with an affectionate teasing that's really cute, she decided. Yet another side of the enigmatic Ms. O'Flaherty, she thought affectionately as she watched her perform.

"So, Ryan," a woman named Cathy said. "I hear Tiffany's been looking for you. Hey!" she cried when her neighbor poked her in the ribs. "O's cool with it, aren't you?"

"Yeah, it's fine," she agreed with a bemused chuckle as she slung an arm around her partner. "Jamie already told her to take a hike."

"Good for you, Jamie," a woman named Brenda opined. "She's trash!"

"Oh, she's not that bad," Ryan said, always trying to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Six pairs of eyes rolled at that comment. The women struggled to their feet, patting Ryan and Jamie on the back as they passed. "We'll see you two over at the stage," Brenda said. "We want to catch all the announcements about tomorrow."

"Okay, see ya," Ryan said as they departed.

"Tying the knot?" the amused voice at her side softly wafted up to Ryan's ear.

"Yep. That's exactly how I think of it," Ryan said confidently.

Jamie snuggled close and snuck her arm around her partner's waist. "Why haven't you told me that?" she asked. "I mean, I know we've both been looking forward to next week, but I didn't know…"

"You didn't know how much it means to me emotionally?" Ryan asked as she turned to look at her.

"No, no…I guess I do know that," Jamie mused. "I'm not sure what I mean. Maybe it just surprised me to hear you talk about it in those terms."

"Just because we've not planned a formal ceremony doesn't mean that it's any less meaningful for me, Jamie," Ryan insisted as she grasped her hands. "This is our honeymoon, Honey. I'll admit that I didn't spend much time thinking about my wedding day when I was young, but the commitment still means a lot to me. You've held my heart for a very long time. But on Monday I'm giving you my body also. This means more to me than I can say."

Once again her partner's ability to take her breath away had Jamie struggling to calm her heart. She found herself unable to answer at the moment, her words uncharacteristically abandoning her. So she turned her head and leaned heavily against Ryan, letting the emotion pass between them for a long time.

She jerked into an upright position, however, when Tiffany passed right in front of them, chortling with some comrades as she did so.

Jamie smoothed her hair into place and passed her brownie over to her partner along with a kiss on the cheek. "I think it's so sweet that you don't trash people," she said, very pleased that Ryan had not even commented on the woman's presence.

"Oh, I do," Ryan laughed. "I can be positively wicked. They just have to hit a hot button. Tiffany didn't ever do that."

"Do you have any idea why she's so angry with you?"

"Yeah, a pretty good idea," Ryan mused, as she nibbled on her gooey brownie. "Part of it is that's just her personality. She's very confrontational—always ready to pick a fight. She works at San Francisco General now, with a lot of the people we met the other night, and she's never been well liked there. I met her on one of the bike rides up in Marin. She wasn't at the hospital when I trained that group."

"So she hangs out with the women we met tonight?" Jamie asked, trying to fit the snotty woman into the friendly, relaxed group that she had just been introduced to.

"Kinda. She doesn't really fit in with this crowd, but she was in the group when I volunteered to train them for the ride."

"You trained the whole group?"

"Yeah. Nothing like I did with you, though. I just helped them with the actual riding part. Many of them were mountain bikers, and they were unfamiliar with road bikes and how to get ready to do a long trek like this. We used to go on long rides on Saturday and Sunday, and then get dinner together. Tiffany knew how I was—without a doubt," she insisted. "Everybody knew that I was sleeping with Alisa. Remember her?"

"Yeah," Jamie smirked, the image of the lovely Latina kissing Ryan after the off-road ride on Mt. Tam still burned into her brain.

"Right. Anyway, Tiffany knew that, but she still tried to get me to go to her apartment after almost every dinner. I went a few times—really—just a few times," she insisted. "I was still seeing Alisa, and she knew that, and everything seemed fine. When we got our registration packets for the Ride she asked if we could bunk together. That seemed fine with me; I actually didn't care who I slept with. Well..." she blushed a little and added, "You know what I mean. But she obviously thought it meant something. The night before the ride ended she told me that she wanted to be exclusive with me. I didn't feel the same way at all, and I tried to explain that in a gentle way, but she was furious! I actually thought she was going to hit me! I went to watch the entertainment, hoping she'd cool down, but when I got back to the tent all my stuff was lying in a heap outside the flap. Luckily, they let me sleep in the medical trailer, or I would have had to sleep on a picnic table!"

"Wow, she was furious," Jamie agreed, her brow furrowed slightly. "Did you ever talk to her again?"

"I tried to," Ryan explained. "When we got home, I called her several times, but she never picked up, and she never returned my calls."

"Her loss, Sweetie," Jamie decided. "If you didn't love me, I'd still want to be your friend. I'd take whatever little piece of yourself you'd give me."

"I give you everything, Jamie," she said with a very serious look on her face.

"I know you do, Love," she agreed completely. "And it's the best gift I've ever received. Someday I hope I'm worthy of it," she added, leaning in for a gentle kiss.

"I don't give myself away to someone who I don't think is worthy of my love," Ryan assured her. "You're the woman I want…heart and soul."

"That's just what you've got," Jamie agreed, tasting the rich chocolate that lingered on her partner's smiling lips.

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

They began to make the rounds, saying goodbye to everyone they recognized. Each stop took a few minutes, as Jamie snapped photos of people she hadn't yet captured. They had all obtained their commemorative booklets for the closing ceremonies, and they had their new friends sign the booklets as a keepsake. The stop at Karen Joncas' table took quite a while as they chatted companionably. Jamie got a particularly cute shot of Karen sitting on Ryan's lap, giving her a big kiss on the cheek, as her grinning lover smiled right into the lens.

When they got up to leave, Karen said, "I hope you can cook, Jamie, because 'slim' here is down about 15 pounds by my estimate." She gave her friend a pat on the butt to test her theory. Grabbing a handful she amended her estimate, "Maybe 20!"

Ryan laughed and admitted, "I am a little low. I've been having a tough time getting filled up, especially in the mornings." She was about to add something to her statement when she caught the glint in her former lover's eyes. "Don't even go there!" Ryan ordered, playfully cuffing her on the head.

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

When they had spoken to everyone around the dining area they made their way to the stage. Ryan loved this night, as they were all able to say thank you to the volunteers and organizers of the ride. But it was always very bittersweet, and she knew this year would be worse than most, since she had been so emotionally vulnerable throughout the week. The tears flowed freely when the various crews were introduced for a rousing thank you. Jamie's hands were sore when they had finally thanked the hundreds of men and women who had made the ride the wonderful experience that it had been.

They walked around the camp perimeter one last time, hand in hand, silently soaking up the experience. When they returned to their tent, the emotion was still too high to speak, so they held each other for a long while, each reflecting on the experience. Finally, Ryan gave her partner a chaste kiss on the cheek, mumbling, "It's too tempting tonight," before she rolled over with her back to her Jamie and went to sleep.

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

Chapter Twenty-Two

Her eyes opened slowly as dawn broke over the mountains. Disoriented, she shook her head to try to get her bearings; nothing felt familiar as she tried to fully open her eyes in the still-dark tent. Her face was resting on something smooth and warm, but it didn't feel quite right. She knew she was intertwined with her lover, but the parts didn't seem to be in the right order. Finally adjusting to the light, she could begin to make out where her head lay-- on a firmly muscled thigh--and she felt with her hands until she could discern that Jamie was indeed facing in a different direction, with her head resting on Ryan's abdomen. That's why I have to pee so badly, she thought absently.

As soon as this thought hit her cerebral cortex she shot straight up, causing Jamie to do the same. They sat, wide eyed, facing each other for a few seconds, trying to make sense of their strange positions. Finally, Ryan just shook her head, as she struggled to find her shower gear. "I need a honeymoon," she grumbled, as she crawled out of the tent into the misty dawn.

When Jamie had packed up the tent for the last time, she stood in line to put their gear on the correct truck. They were going to the closing ceremonies, but a number of people were not, so there were different trucks for the different destinations. Since their things would be delivered based on last names, they decided to put Jamie's name on everything. That way, when Mia came to find them, their gear would be together.

Ryan came back from the shower looking a little grumpy. Jamie pulled her aside and sat down with her at a picnic table. "You know, I think Mia would understand if we just went home tonight. We could be in Pebble Beach by midnight," she said optimistically.

Ryan just shook her head, still wearing a little frown.

"We could go to a really nice hotel in L.A. We could stay for a couple of days if you want," she offered. "That would be a perfectly acceptable compromise."

The frown remained, as the head shook again.

"Tell me what you want, Sweetheart," she cooed, running her fingers through the dark tresses.

That brought a smile to the grumpy-looking face. "You've never called me that before," Ryan said shyly as she looked up, blue eyes twinkling through dark bangs.

"Well you are my sweetheart," she soothed as she pulled Ryan's head down to kiss her thoroughly. "Now tell me what you want, and I'll do my best to give it to you."

"I want to be with you, and I want to wait," she moaned as she leaned into the contact. "My head's all clouded. I don't think very well when I'm turned on all the time. I don't have enough blood going to my brain," she pouted.

"You poor baby," she murmured softly. "Your head's all cloudy and confused, huh?" she asked, gently kissed the cloudy head.

Ryan just nodded slowly, still refusing to meet Jamie's eyes.

"Are you all grouchy 'cause you're horny?"

Another little head nod.

"How can I help you? I'll do anything you want," she soothed into her ear.

"Anything?" she said as she pulled back and allowed her blue eyes to search Jamie's carefully to determine her sincerity.


"You'd go back in the tent and have sex until they threw us out?"

"Absolutely," she said sincerely. "And when they threw us out, I'd take you to the first motel we passed and do you until you begged for mercy."

"Okay, you don't have to do anything," she said rather happily as she stood and stretched.

"What?" Jamie asked, truly confused.

"I feel better knowing that you take me seriously. As long as I know you would go out of your way to make me feel better, you don't have to," she said, as though this was an obvious answer.

"Has anyone ever told you that you were a little quirky?" Jamie teased.

"Get in line," Ryan said as she narrowed her eyes in a playful glower.

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

They left the campground later than they would have liked. Today's ride was only 70 miles, but it was fairly hilly, through lots of traffic, and they expected the wind to be in their faces the whole day. Ryan was still feeling a little out of sorts, and her demeanor was off enough to cause Jamie some serious concern.

When they approached the first pit stop, Jamie came over and put her hands on the broad shoulders. "Ryan, tell me what's wrong," she demanded.

She looked down at the ground for several minutes. Jamie wasn't sure if she would answer her at all, but she finally looked up. "I don't know," she said as she shook her head.

"Something must be wrong, Ryan. You've barely said a word to me since we left camp. Now tell me how you're feeling."

"I really don't know what's wrong," she replied with just a hint of an edge in her voice. "But I don't like to feel like I'm under a microscope, so just give me some space, will you?" Jamie's head jerked back at this totally unexpected rebuke. Her feet didn't want to move, so she stayed right where she was, still grasping Ryan's shoulders. But her grouchy lover shrugged out of her hold and stalked over to a group of trees, dropping to the ground dejectedly.

Jamie sighed heavily, shook her head just a bit and walked over to the line for the Porta-Potties. Ryan stayed where she was, just looking miserable. After she was finished, Jamie hopped on her bike and took off without even looking for Ryan. I really don't want to snap at her, she thought as she pedaled along, and I'm afraid I will if I stay close. It's obvious she's cranky about the ride ending…I guess she just doesn't deal with this much emotion too well. She had gone about two miles when she paused at the top of a small rise and saw Ryan, back in the distance, riding alone. She must just need to have some time alone to get a handle on how she feels, she thought. She'll probably be better by the next rest stop. And by then I can give myself a little pep talk so I don't get angry with her if she's not.

She didn't see her partner for the rest of the 16-mile trip to pit stop two. After getting a power bar and some Gatorade, Jamie sat down to wait. She felt a lot better than when she had left the earlier stop. She knew that Ryan was just having an off day, and she felt much more able to be supportive after giving herself a little talk.

After twenty minutes she began to worry. She looked all around the incoming riders, finally spotting the one familiar face that she would have preferred not to see. Nonetheless, she approached the woman who had taunted her about Ryan at the opening ceremonies. "Hi um…Carly, isn't it?"

"Yeah, hi…"


"Right, hi, Jamie," she replied pleasantly.

"Did you happen to see Ryan on your way in?" she asked, trying to sound casual.

"You know, I think I did," she admitted. "I saw someone off the side of the road by that hill by Point Mugu. I kinda thought it was Ryan, but that just didn't make sense for her to be taking a break there, so I didn't stop. Do you think she's okay?" she asked with real concern.

"Yeah, I'm sure she's fine," Jamie said with much more confidence than she felt. "Thanks for the info, Carly."

"I'm feeling really good today," Carly offered. "I'd be glad to ride back there and check on her."

Jamie was touched by this generous offer. "That's totally sweet of you, Carly, but if she really needs it she can catch the SAG van."

"They'd have to hog tie her to get her in that van, Jamie. If she's not here in a few minutes, I'll go back."

"Thanks," she said, as she let out a relieved sigh. "That's very generous of you."

"Hey, no big deal," she brushed off the compliment. "I should apologize to you for being bitchy on the first day. I was just jealous that you nabbed her."

"I understand," she said sincerely, as she grasped Carly's arm. "No hard feelings. I'll go look for her and let you know if I can't find her."

Ten minutes later Jamie spotted her in the distance. Carly was just getting on her bike to go back, so she thanked her again and sent her on her way. Ryan pulled in looking worse than Jamie had ever seen her. She was the color of chalk, her skin was sweaty and cold and she was shaking so badly that she could hardly stay upright.

"My God, Ryan!" she gasped as she helped her off her bike. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," she moaned. "I just don't feel good."

"Let me help you sit down," she offered, placing her hand on her waist.

"I don't want any help," she snapped, her temper in good shape even though nothing else was.

"Ryan, we need to go over to the medical trailer," Jamie said as she tried to drag her along.

"Uh-uh," she said firmly as she stopped walking and dug her heels in to the dirt.

"What do you mean 'uh-uh'?" Jamie cried, incredulous that her normally reasonable partner was being so unreasonable. "You're going over there Ryan, and then we're gonna get SAG'd the rest of the way."

"Uh-uh!" Ryan said, sounding much more like Caitlin than herself. "I'm riding, and that's final."

With a heavy sigh the smaller woman sat down on the ground and looked up at her wobbling partner. "Sit down right here and tell me exactly how you feel," Jamie ordered, her patience beginning to flag.

Ryan heeded her wishes and allowed herself to collapse right at Jamie's feet. She hit the ground with a thump and immediately stuck her head between her raised knees, obviously struggling not to vomit. Jamie began to lightly run her fingers down her spine, trying to reassure her. It took quite a few minutes, but Ryan finally gathered herself enough to begin her story. "I just didn't feel right from the time I woke up. I'm tired and listless, and my stomach is upset. I threw up everything I had for breakfast just after the first pit stop." She paused to stare at the ground, "When you ditched me," she added quietly.

"Oh, Sweetheart, I didn't ditch you!" Jamie cried. "I felt like I was irritating you, so I just tried to give us both some space. You didn't act like you wanted me there, Ryan, but I'm so sorry you felt like I had left you."

"I was sick, and you didn't even care that I was sitting on the side of the road barfing my guts out," she said with a pout weighing down her lower lip.

"I couldn't be sorrier, Ryan," she soothed as she cradled her face with her hands. "I hope you can forgive me," she said. "I feel so bad that I wasn't there for you the one time that you needed me."

"I need you all the time, Jamie. I just needed you a little more than normal today," she said, her lower lip starting to quiver.

It felt like a vise was tightening around her heart, and Jamie struggled not to burst into tears. Her normally stoic partner was so terribly fragile and vulnerable that she just wanted to cradle her like a child and rock her until she felt better. "What can we do now?" she finally asked.

The fragile child remained for just another moment or two. Then Ryan's analytical mind kicked in, and she began to try to identify the needs of her usually responsive body. "I need a pretty long rest, and I need to force as much fluid down as possible. I really screwed up my electrolyte balance when I threw everything up and then had to ride without any fuel," she admitted glumly. "But if I can suck down some GU and keep it down I should be okay in a half-hour or so."

"What do you think happened?" Jamie asked as Ryan leaned back on one arm and sucked deeply on a bottle of Gatorade.

"I think I just woke up on the wrong side of the tent," she said with a wan smile. "The last day of the ride is usually hard, and I think I just let it get to me. I was feeling out of sorts, and I didn't pay close attention to what I was doing. But I think my big mistake of the day was drinking that energy drink they had at breakfast. I should have checked the carbohydrate level, but I'm guessing it was over the maximum I can tolerate, which is eight percent. If I drink anything higher than that, I always get sick to my stomach." Jamie checked her skin again and found that it now felt normal to her touch. "So I think I'm kinda bonking from not getting enough calories, plus add the too-sweet drink and you've got trouble."

"Well, you're looking a lot better now. How do you feel?"

"I feel better. I don't feel sweaty and clammy any more. But I knew I was in trouble when my bike shorts felt too big today. I don't know how much weight I've lost, but I couldn't really afford to lose any. I know that's the biggest problem."

Jamie put her arms around her and hugged her tight. "Are you mad at me for not being there for you?"

"No, I was being kind of a jerk. I don't blame you for wanting to be alone," she said as she stared down at the ground.

"Please don't think that Ryan. I thought you were right behind me. I just assumed that we needed a little break from each other. I would never leave you if I thought there was a chance that you needed me."

"Okay, let's just put this behind us and try to get through the rest of the day. I think I can go again."

"No, not yet," she insisted. "I want to make sure that drink settles in your tummy before you try again. I screwed up once today, and I'm not going to let that happen again."

Ryan leaned her head back and gazed at her lover with an appreciative glance. "You didn't screw up, Jamie. I'm kinda hard to be around when I don't feel well. It's really not your fault."

"You're never hard to be around, Sweetie. I just have to learn your cues a little better," she declared confidently.

"Well if you figure me out, be sure to tell my father," Ryan said with a small smile. "He's been trying for 23 years."

After another 20 minutes, they decided to give it another go. "I'm going in front of you to try to block a little wind," Jamie declared. "We'll get through this, Ryan. You and I.... together."

Ryan looked up at her with her first real smile of the day. "I know we will, Jamie."

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

The pace they kept was much slower than normal, but Ryan stayed right on her tail all the way to lunch. When they pulled off, she dropped right to the ground and stayed there until Jamie brought her lunch back. Jamie pulled her up just enough to be able to eat, and propped her up against her outstretched legs. Ryan got all of her lunch down, albeit slowly, and then she drank her own sports drink mix, getting down two full bottles before she announced that she was ready.

As they left lunch, Jamie looked around at the assembled crowd. This was their last meal together, and she felt a lump in her throat just thinking about it. Ryan noticed her expression, and she leaned over and said, "I'll miss this too," hugging her firmly.

"It's like the world's biggest family," she said as a few tears escaped. "There are the relatives you love, the ones you're not so crazy about, and the ones from out of state, who you don't see much, but you're all connected in a deep way. I never want to lose this feeling, Ryan," she said helplessly.

"You don't have to," Ryan insisted. "Some of these people are my closest friends even though I only see them once a year. Your family will be here next year and the year after that. There will be some new faces and some will be absent, but the feeling remains, Jamie, I promise you that."

She closed her eyes for a minute, reflecting on Ryan's words. "Thanks," she murmured. "That helped."

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

They only had 30 miles to cover after lunch. On a normal day Ryan could do that in an hour and a half—max, but they stopped frequently—very frequently--along the way to drink from their water bottles and eat a power bar. Jamie was nearly obsessed with making sure her partner was well, checking her temperature at every stop and forcing her to drink until she needed to use the facilities. She was so focused on checking her mirror to make sure Ryan was following that she nearly gasped in amazement when she realized they were cruising down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. Turning away from the beach they headed towards Brentwood. Jamie had been to this area several times with her parents since they normally stayed in Bel Air when they visited Los Angeles, but she had always been in a car or an airport limo when they had traversed the winding, tree-lined streets on those trips. This was an altogether different experience, and she found herself smiling widely as they powered down the street.

Since the distance to be covered was short, the riders were bunched closer together than normal. A steady stream of riders passed them, quite a few turning in the saddle to give them questioning glances at the slow pace they were maintaining. But Jamie responded to each look with a smile and a thumbs up sign and the riders continued on their way. As they followed the pack her heart started to beat a little faster as they approached Century City.

This small, neat section of Los Angeles boasted a dozen high-rise office buildings, many restaurants, and a nice outdoor shopping mall—but that was all. It was really quite tiny, not more than four blocks square. Nearly every major law firm was either headquartered here or had an office in one of the high rises, and she could see the tower where her father's L.A. office was housed. She had learned on an earlier visit that the neighborhood used to be a part of the 20th Century Fox back lot. Many productions had been filmed on the property, but when Fox overspent on Cleopatra, the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film, they found themselves in such a cash crunch that they had to sell the lot to developers just to stay solvent. The lot was cleared and the buildings went up quickly, transforming a quiet little tree-lined neighborhood into a bustling business district filled with BMWs and Mercedes.

Just shy of Century City they took a quick turn and headed towards the staging area—Beverly Hills High School. So here we are in 90210, she smiled to herself.

As they drew near, they were greeted by hundreds of family members and local residents, but the people were spread out over a very large area, and she struggled with her disappointment for a while. I thought it would be more special, she thought with a mental pout. It's really nice that some people came out though…I guess it's just to hard to get jaded Angelenos out of their own swimming pools on a lovely June day. Looking into her mirror she saw that Ryan looked pretty normal, although her fatigue was evident. This must be what she expected, she reminded herself. This is her sixth ride after all.

As they rolled into the athletic fields to park their bikes she did her best to put her disappointment aside and focus on Ryan. She never mentioned what the last few miles were like, Jamie recalled. And if it were going to be special, she would have teased me with it—just to keep me going.

Ryan actually allowed her to help get her off the bike, and it was evident that even the act of swinging her leg over the frame was an effort. They parked their bikes with all of the others and found a quiet grassy spot to lie down. It was only two; they were not due to begin organizing until three, so Jamie propped herself up next to the bleachers on the football field and Ryan put her head in her lap. She ran her fingers though the shiny tresses for just a few minutes before Ryan was sound asleep.

She studied her lover like a precious work of art, watching her steady intake of breath, seeing the little twitch of her eyelids, the slight pursing of her lips. She watched in annoyance as her dark eyebrows furrowed when a passerby was speaking too loudly and nearly woke her. Quiet! She wanted to yell, but that seemed a little counterproductive, so she held her tongue and just gave a small scowl to people who had the nerve to come too close.

Continuing to run her fingers through the dark hair, Jamie thought of how sad Ryan had looked when she felt that she had been deserted. If I've learned one thing on this ride, it's that my sweetheart needs a lot more care than she'll ever let on. I swear that I'll never ignore her again if she seems under the weather. She had learned a valuable lesson, and even though it was painful for both of them, she was grateful that she had been shown this vulnerable side of her stoic partner. She had learned that Ryan was truly a terrible patient. She knew her body better than anyone Jamie had ever met, but when it started to fail her she fell into an intense state of denial. Jamie vowed that she would pay better attention to the small signals and not let Ryan's brusqueness cause her to turn away.

Glancing around idly, a shiny object hidden inside Ryan's helmet caught her eye. She pulled the helmet over and tilted it to get a look as a laminated photo fell out. Jamie reached down and turned the small, concave photo right side up. Gazing back at her was a very attractive young man who looked to be in his mid-teens. A broad smile graced his friendly, open face. He looked fit and strong, and appeared to be on the verge of growing into a powerful body. His hair was a deep auburn, and the sun showed deep red highlights in the straight, medium length locks. His muscular arms were raised in a classic weight-lifter's pose; fists clenched, biceps tensed. He was standing with his legs slightly spread to support the weight that he carried upon his shoulders. That beaming weight was a young Ryan, no more than five or six years old. She mimicked the young man's pose, showing off her smooth, thin arms. They looked like they were having a marvelous time, and both wore the untroubled, carefree faces of youthful innocence.

Jamie stared at the photo for a long time, realizing immediately that the young man in the picture was Ryan's cousin, Michael. This must have been taken before Ryan's mother died, Jamie mused. And before Michael contracted AIDS, she added grimly.

There was something so terribly appealing about the twosome, that Jamie could not stop looking at the photo. It was hard to pin it down, but it was obvious that these two were more than cousins, more than friends. I don't think I'll ever really understand what this young man meant to her, she thought. But I know that he was one of the biggest influences in her life. Looking down at her sleeping partner she thought, I'm so sorry you had so much pain at such a young age, Sweetheart. She continued to run her fingers through the dark hair, wishing for nothing but peace and joy and love for the precious woman lying in her lap.

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

Ryan did not move from her position for a solid hour. At a little after three, they began to hand out special long sleeved t-shirts. The riders would parade down the street in groups, separated by color, so Jamie had to extricate herself from Ryan to fetch the same color t-shirts for them both. She lifted her head to wake her, but not a muscle in the tanned face flinched, so Jamie placed the dark head on the ground, jogged off to grab the shirts, and was back before she stirred.

She looked down at her and decided to do the one last thing that Ryan was obviously too ill to do for herself. Struggling through the assembled bikes, she found Ryan's and performed the simple task with love.

There was a lot of noise from the nearly three thousand people assembled and the plethora of announcements over the public address system, but still Ryan did not move. Jamie was beginning to worry when she finally stretched and groaned at 3:30 on the dot.

Jamie had replaced Ryan's head on her lap, and the blue eyes finally looked up at her groggily. "Where are we?" she asked through a parched throat.

"We're at the high school. Don't you remember?" she asked with concern.

"Oh, yeah, I remember," Ryan said as she closed her eyes again.

"We're going to be moving in a few minutes, Ryan. Can you get up?"

"Yeah. I just need another drink," she said as she smacked her lips together audibly.

Jamie scrambled up and fetched a water bottle for her. She sat up and drank the entire thing down without stopping. "I feel better now," she said sweetly. "Thanks for taking care of me," she added as she rested her head on Jamie's shoulder. "Last year's tent-mate would have kicked me as she walked over my unconscious body."

"Well your current and future tent-mate loves you completely," she vowed.

The ever-cheerful crew called them to order and organized them by t-shirt color. There were about 450 people in each color of the rainbow flag: blue, red, green, yellow, purple and orange. They had been assigned purple, and they lined up on their bikes with the others. "I've never been part of a flag before," Jamie said with a grin.

"I think you look adorable as a little rainbow stripe," Ryan pronounced, bending to kiss her. Her eyes were twinkling again, and her color was completely normal by the time they hopped back on their bikes.

They rode slowly--extremely slowly--until they reached the Avenue of the Stars. "What's the holdup?" Jamie asked, as the crush of riders around them became a little claustrophobic.

"Can't say from here," Ryan remarked casually. "I guess we'll find out when we round this corner."

As they negotiated the last turn of the ride, Jamie nearly fell from her bike at the sight before her. Their slightly elevated position at the crest of the street showed the massive throng below them, and as soon as they saw the crowd, the cheering and applause assaulted them. The six-lane major thoroughfare was the main road through Century City, and the nearly three thousand riders filled the massive street from curb to curb. The wide sidewalks were absolutely packed with well-wishers and family members. They were about three-quarters of the way back in the procession, and Jamie could see all of their fellow riders slowly pedaling up the street with the cheering crowd waving and clapping. The noise was overwhelming, and the emotion from the crowd fed the weary riders and brightened the spirits of every single one of them.

Turning to her partner with her heart thumping in her chest she cried, "You knew!"

"Yep. I knew," she replied with a blinding white smile. "But I wanted you to savor it for yourself."

"I love you, Ryan O'Flaherty!" she cried out as she threw her head back and howled with delight.

When they were no longer able to move forward, the street was filled with the multicolor jerseys looking very much like the world's largest rainbow flag. The announcer asked the crowd to welcome them home, and the noise grew even louder as Ryan turned to her and said, "Remember all those exercises I made you do on your pecs?"

Jamie nodded, a bit confused.

"Well, here's why!" she cried as she and every other rider picked up their bikes and held them high over their heads. Jamie fought back the tears as she grabbed her bike by the frame and powered it over her head. The emotion that flowed through the crowd was so strong that it was almost palpable. Ryan gave her a luminous smile, leaning forward just a bit, kissing her soundly, bicycles held high over their heads. "I'm so proud of you, Jamie," she said as the tears rolled down her beautiful cheeks.

Jamie just had to lower her bike to the ground. She had to wrap her arms around this wonderful woman right this moment. She hugged her with every ounce of her strength as she murmured, "You're my hero, Ryan," as she kissed her again and again.

Moments later they were drenched by all of the riders squirting their filled water bottles up into the air. Jamie had wondered why Ryan had insisted on throwing away their energy drink and filling their bottles with water, but once again she was glad for her preparedness. They squirted each other and shot their extra bottles high into the air, blowing off some of their excitement in the process. The cheers of the crowd were almost deafening as the sound reverberated off the towering high rises that surrounded them on every side. The applause seemed to rise in waves, flowing over the now energized throng like a gentle caress.

Ryan looked at Jamie with tears in her eyes as the speakers began to address the crowd. "You polished my bike," she choked out in a mixture of delight and gratitude.

"Of course I did. It was important to you," she assured her. "And anything that's important to you is important to me."

The crowd grew quiet, and Jamie saw the riderless bike being led forward by representatives from the various crews. She did not want Ryan to have to watch or listen to this in her weakened state, so she wrapped her arms around her and whispered right into her ear the entire time that the tribute was being read. She whispered how proud she was of Ryan for struggling through a very, very hard day. She thanked her for all of her help and encouragement in getting her ready for the ride. She thanked her for all of the tips she had given her on the way. She thanked her for the nightly massages that she had received. She thanked her for being such a good friend, and most of all, she thanked her for just being herself.

She pulled away as the speech ended. Ryan was crying hard, her shoulders shaking from the effort, but she perked up as they joined together to thank the crew who had made this ride happen. They all chanted "Crew, Crew, Crew," as the smiling men and women ran down the raised center platform, filling it for nearly two blocks.

A few more quick speeches, and they all joined together to sing 'America the Beautiful'. Jamie was sure that some people were not crying, but she did not see any of them. When the song was finished, everyone struggled to regain their composure for a few minutes, and then they started to mingle, trying to find friends and relatives who had come to welcome them.

Ryan was struggling to get her emotional bearings but as friends and former teammates approached them from all sides Jamie could actually see her normal mood return. After just a few minutes, Ryan was joking and laughing with the near-constant stream of people who stopped to wish them well and pledge to see them again next year.

They moved forward very slowly in the crowd, finally finding themselves about 100 feet from the huge stage that stretched across the wide street. Out of the corner of her eye Jamie saw a woman dash across the stage and yank the microphone from its stand. Tugging on Ryan's sleeve, she asked, "Isn't that your friend?…"

Ryan turned her attention away from the man she was speaking with and looked up to where Jamie pointed. "Yeah, that's Brenda all right. I wonder what she's up to?"

The impish-looking woman was hard to ignore even among all of the distractions. She had followed the style for the last day, decorating her bike helmet as many others had. But Brenda's look was quite distinctive. She had two Barbie dolls attached to her shiny black helmet, engaged in an act that Mattel clearly had not intended for the little plastic figures. Jamie had a hard time prying her eyes away from the happy-looking identical lesbian twins on Brenda's head, but her amplified words finally yanked Jamie from her musings.

"HEY!" she yelled at full volume. "Is this on?"

The bemused crowd yelled back, "YES!"

"Okay! Most of you don't know me, but there's a very special pair of women out here today. One of these girls has been a tremendous inspiration to me and to dozens of other people who are here today. She and her partner are tying the knot on Monday, and I want you all to join me in wishing Ryan O'Flaherty and her lover Jamie the very best from everybody connected with AIDS Ride 6. Come on guys, let's show 'em that we love them!!"

As Jamie stared at Ryan in amazed silence the rest of the Lavender Menace ran onto the stage. Seconds later they were joined by each of the teams Ryan had trained over the years. By the time two women from the crowd grabbed the stunned lovers and dragged them up to the stage, there were at least 75 people packed onto the platform.

Jamie had never seen her partner so overcome with surprise. Ryan actually looked frozen as she was pushed along the group, receiving a hug and a kiss from each of her friends and training partners, but as the minutes wore on she loosened up a bit and started to enjoy herself.

The crowd still packing the street was thoroughly taken with this spectacle, and even though most of them did not know anyone on the stage they quickly joined in the fun, clapping and yelling out their congratulations.

Someone found the musicians that had played 'America the Beautiful' and convinced them to come back up on stage, instruments in hand. A few instructions from Brenda, and they launched into the requested song. As the crowd heard the opening chords, they began to join in until everyone was singing:

Going to the chapel and they're gonna get married

Going to the chapel and they're gonna get married.

They're in love now and they're gonna get married. Going to the chapel of love.

Brenda knew Ryan rather well, and she shoved the microphone into her hand, urging her to sing the lead. Ryan hesitated for just a moment, but when she saw Jamie's dancing green eyes looking up at her she accepted the microphone and sang:

Birds will sing…sun will shine…I'll be yours and you'll be mine.

Monday's the day, we'll say 'I do' and we'll never be lonely any more.

The crowd joined in for the chorus once more, the ranks of singers swelling as more and more people got in on the fun.

Going to the chapel and they're gonna get married.

Going to the chapel and they're gonna get married.

They're in love now and they're gonna get married.

Going to the chapel of love.

"Yeah…yeah…one more time," Ryan sang soulfully, sinking to one knee in front of her blushing lover.

Going to the chapel of love!

Jamie dropped onto Ryan's leg and tossed her arms around her neck, leaning in for a very public, very enthusiastic kiss. The crowd cheered loudly, demanding more. As Jamie pulled back slightly, Ryan's dancing blue eyes twinkled impishly as she said, "Can't disappoint the crowd now, can we?"

The beaming smile and little head shake were precisely the answer Ryan wished for. Several more joyous kisses followed, with Jamie finally leaning against her partner as she vowed, "I've never been happier in my life."

"You ain't seen nothing yet, Love!" Ryan promised as she wrapped Jamie in her arms and gave her a kiss that satisfied both the cheering crowd and her beaming lover.


That's all for now, folks. Book Three to follow...

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