I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 11: Karma

by S X Meagher


Part 5

As soon as she dropped Jennie off, Catherine drove to Jamie's to apprise her of the events of the afternoon. Luckily, Jamie had come home before her last class, but she was on her way out when Catherine pulled up. “Mom, I've got to go,” she said regretfully.

“That's all right, dear. I have quite a few phone calls to make. Do you mind if I make them from here?”

“No, not at all. I'll be home by 6:15. Do you want to stay that late? If you do, we could have dinner.”

“I'll take you out to dinner, honey. Maybe Mia will join us. I haven't spent any time with her in an age.”

“She usually has a date, but if you see her, ask her, okay?”

“I thought her boyfriend went to U.C.L.A,” Catherine commented.

“Long story,” she said as she kissed her mother goodbye, “but he's history.”

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

Catherine went into the kitchen to make her calls from the kitchen table so she could make notes while she talked.

After calls to Kevin about the electrical work, a friend whose husband ran the department in City Hall that approved building permits, her lighting designer, and Ryan, she was absolutely talked out. It was just after six when she heard the front door open, but instead of Jamie's voice, she heard Mia giggling as she ran across the parlor. “No!” she screamed. “Stop it! Stop it!” It sounded as if she was running away from someone, but her voice was giddy and playful, so Catherine didn't worry. “At least let me get a soda before you ravage me!” she cried.

Oh, Lord! I think I'd better announce my presence before we're all embarrassed. But just as she started to speak, Mia came sliding across the kitchen floor followed by a wildly grinning Jordan. Catherine was shocked into silence as Jordan backed her prey up against the sink, and started to kiss her passionately as she ground her hips against her. Mia threw her arms around the strong neck and returned her heated kisses as a low moan escaped her. “I guess I don't really need a soda,” she murmured sexily as she tried to catch her breath. Her shrieks resumed as Jordan picked her up, and tossed her over her shoulder to start to make her way back to the parlor. Mia's head was facing away from the kitchen table now, and since Jordan was so focused on her captive, she didn't notice Catherine, either. As they made their way up the stairs, Catherine mused, Well, that makes a long story short. Mia's old boyfriend is obviously history!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan lined up with the other players waiting to board the bus to Fresno on Friday afternoon. Since most of the players' legs were too long to fit into a bus seat in the traditional fashion, most of them took a seat alone and sat sideways. Ryan was one of the last to board, and as she passed row after row of solitary women she thought, Good thing I brought my laptop with me. She nodded to Janae, but the large woman would never be able to share a seat — even if she wanted to, so Ryan kept going until she found a vacant one. The trip was expected to take about four and a half hours; she knew they could shave an hour off if they flew, but the athletic department tried to cut corners wherever possible, and bus trips were one way to do so.

Since she was blessed with the ability to be able to concentrate fully for long time periods, she hardly noticed the passing hours. A gentle hand on her shoulder caused her to look up with a start into the eyes of Lynette Dix. “Do you want to sleep on the bus?” she asked with a smile.

“We're here?” Ryan asked in amazement. “I had no idea.”

“Studying for your test?” Lynette asked, as she craned her neck to get a look at the laptop.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “I'm not sure how much help it is at this point, but it keeps my mind occupied and makes the trip go faster.”

“Well you'd better get moving or they won't save a room for you.”

“Don't we have assignments?”

“Nope. First come, first served.”

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

“Oh, there you are,” Shelly, the student manager said when she spotted Ryan in the lobby. “I guess it pays to be last. You get the single,” she informed her as she held out the key. Before Ryan's hand reached hers, Janet Vidal, the senior point guard, and one of the pair that seemed most antagonistic to Ryan, grasped Shelly by the arm and hissed, “May I speak with you, in private?”

The look on her face did not indicate flexibility, so Shelly withdrew her arm and allowed Janet to lead her a few feet away. Ryan cooled her heels while the discussion continued, but she could not help overhearing words like 'newcomer', 'paying her dues', and 'playing favorites' coming from Janet's mouth. Ryan felt bad for Shelly, but she decided to let them work it out however they saw fit. A few minutes later, the red-faced manager approached Ryan tentatively and opened her mouth to speak, but Ryan graciously cut her off. “I don't care where I sleep, or how many people I share a room with. I could actually be okay on the bus,” she said with a smile.

Her face relaxed into a grateful smile as she whispered, “Thank you, Ryan. They're just not paying me enough to take this crap.”

“They don't pay you at all, do they?”

“Not a dime,” she admitted with another grin. “Be right back with your key.”

She walked over to Janet and handed her the key to the single and accepted the previously allotted key in return. As she started back towards Ryan, Janet's friend and starting forward, Wendy Dakin, grabbed her and pulled her back next to Janet. Wendy was much more animated than Janet had been, and it quickly became obvious that she was incensed — not only at being dumped by Janet, but also at the thought of sharing with Ryan. Her face was clouded with anger, and she had the temerity to actually point at Ryan several times. Once again, Ryan tried to let Shelly do her job, but when she heard Wendy spit out the word “lesbian”, she decided that she'd had enough.

She marched over to the front desk and quickly secured an available room for herself. Strolling back over to Shelly, she dangled her key and said, “I got my own room, Shelly.”

The team manager looked like she wanted to kiss her, but her professional ethics reasserted themselves immediately as she said, “That's not necessary, Ryan. I can work this out.”

“I'm sure you can, Shelly. I'll just feel more comfortable if I don't have to worry about my ostensibly straight roommate 'accidentally' climbing into bed with me. I've always found that the people who act like they hate it the most are dying to try it.” She gave both Wendy and Janet a big smile as she turned on her heel and strode off in her supremely confident style. An even wider grin graced her face when she heard the sputtering women unsuccessfully trying to form their outrage into words.

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

The next afternoon Cal and Fresno State were knotted at 60 points when Wendy was called for her fourth foul. Ryan was itching to get out there and help, but with eight minutes left, she had not yet been called on. She knew they should be beating Fresno State by 20 points, and having no opportunity to contribute was about to drive her wild. She had been staring a hole in the back of Coach Hayes' head as the coach paced in front of the bench, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. As a matter of fact, it seemed that the more she indicated her eagerness to play, the less she was called on. As the coach turned around, she forced herself to look bored and, to her amazement, the woman knelt down in front of her and said, “We need offense, Ryan. I know that defense is your specialty, but they've been double-teaming Drzislava all afternoon. Do you think you can knock down some jumpers?”

“I'll do my best,” she said as she ripped off her warm ups. She ran over to the scorer's table and announced herself, indicating that she was to replace Wendy. It was the practice to take a towel with you and hand it off to the person you replaced, as a token of appreciation for their contribution. But when the whistle blew and Ryan pointed at Wendy, she watched in amazement as the player deliberately cut across the court to avoid Ryan's outstretched hand. She was forced to dash back to the sideline to deposit the towel she had carried, but as she ran back to her position, she thought determinedly, Wendy, you've just dissed the wrong woman !

Her intense focus and well-contained rage allowed Ryan to put on a show that amazed everyone — herself included. The first time she touched the ball, she dropped back and canned a trey, grinning and pointing at Franny Sumitomo who had fed her. As Fresno brought the ball down court, she easily stripped it, and was waiting under the basket to bank it in when Franny fed her again. During the next seven minutes, the double team switched from Drzislava to Ryan; but even with two defenders on her, she readily head faked both of them out of their shoes for one bucket after another. She noticed that Janet did not throw the ball her way once in the entire seven minutes, but every other player focused on her exclusively. At the end of the game, she had racked up 16 points, and was the high scorer of the afternoon. In a somewhat surprising display of unity, every player except Janet and Wendy congratulated her enthusiastically as they made their way to the visitors' locker room. Janae draped her massive arm around her shoulders and said, “I've never seen a performance like that. Especially when the point guard won't throw you the damn ball!”

“She's not a fan,” Ryan admitted.

“Well, I am,” Janae drawled as she gave her a squeeze.

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

She had stripped off her uniform and was toweling off when Coach Hayes walked by and said, “Sleep well on Sunday night, Ryan. You're starting Monday.”

I guess that's code for ”good job”, she thought wryly as the enigmatic woman walked away.

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

This time Ryan rushed to be the first on the bus. She scrambled down the aisle until she reached the back row, and waited until she had Janae's eye to signal her to join her. The massive woman smiled back and took the seat across the aisle from Ryan's. They watched in amusement, as the three rows in front of theirs remained empty. But this fit Ryan's plans perfectly, because now they could talk without being heard.

“Well, partner, got any ideas about how to approach our reluctant teammates?”

Janae shrugged and said, “Not really, to tell you the truth. I know we've got to start somewhere, but it's going to be an uphill climb.”

“I take it that approaching Wendy and Janet is futile,” Ryan commented wryly.

“Oh, please! I've been with those two bitches since freshman year, Ryan. It wasn't too bad then, but it's gotten worse every year. This year they think they run the team, and so far they've been right.”

“Are they as homophobic as they seem?”

“I'm not sure. Part of me thinks it's not the gay thing as much as it is any difference. They treat the women from Europe like shit too, and they're straight. They don't even like Lily, Hilary and Ella, and I don't get that at all. All five of them are suburban, white, upper middle class women, and they're all straight. I think they just look for something to dislike and focus on that.”

“Maybe we should approach Hilary and Lily and Ella,” Ryan suggested. “They've been around for a while, and they don't seem like complete assholes.”

“Okay. How about Tuesday after practice?”

“Oh, right, we're at U.S.F. on Monday. Coach says I'll finally get to start.”

“Wow, maybe she isn't as stupid as she looks,” Janae grinned at her friend. “But I doubt it.”

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

Jamie had driven down to Hillsborough on Friday evening, rising early on Saturday morning to start her studying. Aside from a two-hour break to listen to Ryan's game on the Internet, she had been concentrating since 8. At around 5, she looked up from the world's most boring accounting textbook to find her mother approaching her with a small tray that held a pair of mugs. “Are you here on a humanitarian mission?” she asked.


“I thought the Red Cross had sent you to ease my suffering,” she joked. “You know, I am interested in knowing the concepts in this book, but getting there is not pleasant.”

“I wish you were enjoying yourself more,” Catherine offered. She sat down on the chaise next to her daughter and handed her a mug of cocoa. “I appreciate that you're trying to make yourself more business savvy, but you could always hire a talented accountant, you know. You don't have to be able to do the work yourself.”

“I know that, Mom. But I need to know enough to know if my financial advisors are just blowing smoke at me.” She looked at her mother thoughtfully and said, “I learned a lot from the skirmishes Daddy and I had this fall. One thing that I'll never forget is that it's dangerous to trust someone to make all of your decisions for you. I won't do that again.”

Catherine smiled warmly at her and commented. “You've learned quickly how to deal with your father. If I could have been more like you, we'd probably still be together.”

“Huh? What do you mean by that?”

“You quickly learned that confronting him and giving him an ultimatum is the only way to reach him. He's used to wielding his power, Jamie, and sometimes the only thing he responds to is a threat from an equally powerful opponent.”

The younger woman nodded, acknowledging that her father always tried to exploit weakness — in all of his relationships.

“I should have laid down the law and stuck to it. If I had thrown him out of the house after his first affair, it well might have been his last.”

“Why didn't you?” Jamie asked. “Did you consider it?”

“Of course I did,” she admitted. “I just … I just didn't have the self-confidence, Jamie. I was a very confused young woman at the time. I let his affair erode my already shaky self-esteem to the point that he would have known I was bluffing if I'd threatened to leave.” She shook her head and added, “From then on I didn't trust him. He knew it, but he also knew that I wouldn't do anything about it. Once you lose that trust, you no longer have a marriage.” Patting Jamie on the leg she said, “That's one of the things I most admire about you and Ryan.”

“What's that, Mom?”

“I admire how much confidence you have in her and in your relationship.” She smiled at her and admitted, “The way you welcome her former lovers into your life just speaks volumes about the trust you place in her.”

The younger woman shifted in her seat and gave her mother a sheepish look. “Don't put too much stock in the way I treat Sara and Ally,” she warned.

“What do you mean, honey?”

“Well, uhm … let's just say that my reasons for welcoming them aren't exactly noble.”

Furrowing her brow, Catherine asked, “What are they, if not noble?”

“Practical,” she said firmly. “They're purely practical.”

“You've lost me, honey. How can having Ryan's ex-lovers in your life be a practical move?”

She looked thoughtful and took another sip of her cocoa. “It's like this, Mom. I know my Ryan well. Spending as much time together and learning so much about her before we became lovers was the best thing that could have possibly happened. During that time I watched her try to start a relationship with another woman, and I also saw how she was with her more casual liaisons. One thing I learned was that she can't stand to be dictated to. She needs a lot of autonomy, and she needs to make her own decisions.”

“Yes," Catherine smiled, "that sounds like Ryan.”

“So, when her ex-lovers started popping up, I let her set the tone. She acted like it made her happy to maintain relationships with them, so I encouraged her to do so.”

“Encouraged her?”

“Yes. I wanted to make it clear that I fully supported her choice to have an ongoing relationship with each of them — if that's what she wanted.”

“But you wouldn't have chosen to have them be in your circle, if not for Ryan?”

“Hell no!” she laughed. “Nobody wants to be reminded of her partner's past. I hate to recognize how much Sara shares with her. They went through so many things together, Mom, so many things that helped form Ryan. I despise that she knew the completely innocent young girl that will never reappear. I desperately wish I knew Ryan then — but I never can. I can just hear Sara talk about her at that point in her life. It really sucks!” she said, shaking her head.

“What about Ally?” Catherine asked.

Rolling her eyes, Jamie said, “She's even worse! I know full well that half of Ryan's sexual repertoire comes from her. Every once in a while Ryan will do something to me and I think, 'Thank you, Ally!'” She started to laugh and said, “It's silly, because she's as marvelous a lover as she is partially because of the time they spent together. But I hate the fact that she was there first! That naïve young woman is also gone forever, and even though I love who she's become, it bugs the hell out of me that Ally's the one who made her who she is — in the sexual arena, at least.”

“I had no idea,” Catherine said slowly. “You acted so cordial to them both on Thanksgiving.”

“Oh, don't get me wrong, Mom. I like them both. I don't think I could put that on. I'm just resentful of the place they hold in Ryan's life and her development. It often bothers me to be reminded of it.”

“But honey, if it bothers you, maybe it's not a good idea to try to form a friendship with them. You might start resenting them — and Ryan — because of it.”

“No, I don't think so, Mom. I'm willing to tolerate my discomfort to give Ryan the autonomy she needs.” She gave her mother another thoughtful look and said, “I knew who Ryan was when I fell in love with her. I knew she'd been deeply in love with Sara, and I knew that it tore at her to be estranged from her. How could I be the one to stand in the way of her having a connection with her again?”

Catherine nodded. “I see your point.”

“But even though I know it's the right thing to do, I don't have to like it,” she chuckled. “I'm trying to be generous, but sometimes I just wish we could move to France. I'm sure she doesn't have any French ex-lovers!”

“Well, at least you know who hers are,” Catherine said, looking tired.

“Yes, I do. I know who each and every one is if they meant anything to her.” She reached across to capture her mother's hand. “I think you probably do too, Mom. I don't think Daddy was ever in love with anyone other than you.”

She gave her a wan smile and said, “You might be right. But I think the last one on his long list might have changed that. I think he really cares for her.” Sparing a small smile, she added, “I should send her my condolences.”

Jamie nodded and said, “I rather doubt she's the last woman in his life.”

“I just hope she knows that,” Catherine sighed. She rose and said, “I'll leave you to your work. Hope the little jolt of caffeine will help.”

“Thanks, Mom.” She grasped her hand and brought it to her lips, giving it a kiss. “Thanks for being there for me. It feels good to be able to talk about Sara and Ally with you.”

“Anytime, sweetheart. I've always wanted to be your confidant.” She gave her a wistful sigh and squeezed her hand, then turned and went back into the house, Jamie staring after her with a pensive gaze.

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

After chatting with Janae, Ryan managed to snag a nearly three-hour nap, not waking until they hit a pothole in Berkeley. Since the bus passed just a block from her house, Ryan walked up to Lynette and asked, “Would you be willing to get off and go to my house for just a second before we head back to school? I'm dying for a shower and a little something to eat, but I have to be supervised at all times.”

“Sure. No problem,” she smiled. “I can't imagine that you'll be able to stay awake through the darned thing at this point, so you'd better get some coffee, too.”

She walked up to the front and asked the driver if he could let her out when they passed the street. Coach Hayes heard the request, and her low voice floated up to Ryan over the noise of the engine, “This isn't a city bus, Ryan, we don't make intermediate stops; and frankly I'm getting tired of you trying to manipulate things for your own convenience.”

Ryan turned to face her in shocked silence. With all of the trouble and dissension on the team, she was absolutely amazed to have the coach single her out for criticism for just wanting to get off a bus! The pragmatic part of her knew she should ignore the comment and go back to her seat, but she was sick of the coach's attitude, and she was not in the mood to suffer in silence.

Sliding into the seat beside her, she cocked her head and asked, “Would you care to expand on your statement?”

The older woman looked slightly surprised to have a player confront her, but she quickly leveled her gaze and said, “We've taken two road trips, and you had to have a private room both times. Then you try to get permission to fly back from Fresno so you can take a test. It doesn't help morale when you insist on special favors,” she scowled. “Especially when you flaunt your money to get what you want.”

“Flaunt?” Ryan blinked slowly, her mind refusing to comprehend the ridiculous statement that had come from the coach. “Did you say flaunt?”

“This is a team, Ryan. Obviously you can afford to have your girlfriend travel with us, and you can afford to turn up your nose at the team buffet and eat in the dining room. You can apparently pay for a private room without blinking an eye. But no one else around here can do that — and it's very divisive. You're clearly used to traveling in style, but you're going to have to lower your standards to fit in.”

“There was a problem with room assignments,” Ryan snarled, her anger at the boiling point. “I was trying to make things easy. I do not like to throw my money away on a room … and I don't flaunt it!”

“Don't you ever raise your voice to me, Ryan O'Flaherty,” the coach growled, her anger flaring. “If you want to get your hands on a ball again, you'll calm down and take your seat.” Her steel-gray eyes were boring into Ryan, and the younger woman had to force herself to get up and put some distance between them.

She slunk back to her seat and pulled her knees up to her chin, cursing under her breath, refusing to even respond to Janae's curious inquiry about her discussion with the coach. Grabbing her cell phone, she called Jamie and growled, “Will you bring me a sandwich and a gallon of coffee?”

“Ryan,” she said with concern, “what's up? You sound furious.”

“I am. Please just bring me something — anything — to eat, and some form of caffeine, Jamie. I'm about to blow months of work here, and I'd like a fighting chance. I'll be in front of Haas … trying to cool off.” She disconnected without another word, leaving Jamie to stare at the receiver for a moment before she ran downstairs to rustle up something for her fuming partner to eat.

When Jamie arrived, Ryan was sitting on the steps near the main entrance of Haas Pavilion, a somber Coach Hayes standing a few feet away. Leaving the car running, Jamie jumped out and handed her partner a bag with two sandwiches, two bananas, and two peeled, sectioned oranges. A giant latté from Starbucks was in her other hand, and Ryan grabbed it and started chugging it, something Jamie had never seen a human do. “Ryan?” she said softly, placing a hand on her arm, “do you want to tell me what's going on?”

“Let's go, Ryan,” the coach said brusquely. “My family's waiting for me.”

Not uttering a word, Ryan gave her partner a squeeze and turned to follow the taciturn woman, shoveling bites of her sandwich into her mouth, washing it down with the coffee as she walked.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan's extreme anger at Coach Hayes merged with the rancor she still held towards the math professor who had refused to let her join Cal's team, and she let it grow, knowing that she didn't have enough reserves to get through the test on her own. Deciding to harness the anger for motivation, she took her seat, after thanking Professor Berkowitz for agreeing to proctor the exam for her at the ridiculous hour of 9 p.m.

Concentrating with every available bit of focus she could summon, Ryan took a deep breath and opened the test booklet, keeping her inner fires stoked with the mental image of pummeling her two main adversaries with her bare hands.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Five minutes,” Professor Berkowitz mumbled as her watch alarm roused her from the nap she had been taking. The woman had arranged for a couch from a nearby office to be brought into the classroom, and she had been sleeping for nearly an hour. The professor was duty-bound to keep an eye on Ryan, but the younger woman didn't have a car to hide things in, or any books available to her, so the professor figured a nap was acceptable since the odds of Ryan cheating were infinitesimal.

As much as Ryan appreciated that the professor had readily agreed to proctor for her, she had to admit that hearing her snore softly was not really helping her stay awake, but it was merely one more annoyance that demanded she sink into a deeper level of concentration.

At midnight, the professor took the papers away. “You're allowed a two hour break, you know, but it's optional. How long do you want?”

“I just need to go to the bathroom and throw some water on my face,” Ryan said.

They walked out together, since she wasn't allowed to be alone for any reason. As the door swung open, it hit a wicker picnic basket that had been placed right in their path. “What in the heck?” the professor wondered, but Ryan immediately knew the source of the gift.

“You might want to check it out,” she said, “but I'm sure there aren't any test answers in there, just food.”

The professor gave her a smile and picked it up, taking a note from the top. She read it quickly and handed it to Ryan, a big smile covering her face as she said, “Somebody loves you.”

Hi sweetheart,

I didn't know what you might need, so I've included a thermos of coffee, another of Pepsi, some sandwiches, cookies, fruit and some raw veggies. There's plenty for your professor too, so don't be greedy.

I love you madly,


Ryan smiled back, and nodded agreeably. “Someone does indeed.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Time's up,” Professor Berkowitz said through a yawn as the alarm chimed 3:15 a.m.

Ryan's head dropped to the desk as her arm shot out, extending the test and her blue books dramatically.

After gathering up her supplies, the woman patted Ryan on the back and said, “Need a ride home?”

“Thanks for asking, but I have a feeling that a certain someone is going to be right outside,” Ryan said, fatigue etching her face.

The professor laughed and said, “My certain someone's likely been asleep for five hours by now. After you're married for a couple of years, the picnic baskets don't show up with any regularity.”

“We're gonna try to keep the magic going,” Ryan said with a tired, but confident smile on her face.

“With your determination, I wouldn't put anything past you, Ryan. I hope you're pampering each other into your dotage.”

They walked out of the building together, and were immediately hit with a set of flashing headlights. The professor just gave Ryan a smirk, which was returned. “Like clockwork,” she said as she shook the woman's hand to thank her one last time.

To Ryan's surprise, Jamie, Jordan and Mia were all in the Lexus, and from the aroma that hit her when she entered, they had been at a bar. “Well, well, well, where were you girls while I was draining years of information from my poor brain?”

Jamie kissed her and gave her a squeeze. “We closed up the White Horse, then we went out for pancakes. We figured that if you had to stay up all night — we did too.”

“I love you all,” Ryan said, feeling all of the tension and anger leave her body. “One of you in particular,” she added, giving her partner a fond pat.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When they reached the house, Jamie said, “Mom and I listened to the whole game on Broadcast.com. I was soooo proud of you, baby! I called your father every 15 minutes or so to give him an update for the first half, then he went over to Brendan's, and they logged on to the Internet and listened too. He called me when it was over, and he was just crowing with pride about how well you played!”

“That really makes me feel good,” she mumbled as she started to climb the stairs. “Coach told me that I can start on Monday,” she said with a small smile.

“That's wonderful! Aren't you excited?”

“Maybe I will be tomorrow,” she said as she yawned widely.

“Great game, slugger,” Jordan said as she ruffled Ryan's hair. “We'll all be there to root you on at U.S.F. on Monday night.”

“Thanks,” she said, stifling another yawn. “I'll see you there, if I get up in time.” Jamie shot a concerned glance at her and shared another with Jordan, as Ryan climbed the rest of the stairs with an uncharacteristic slump to her shoulders.

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

It was nearly 10 a.m. when Jamie looked up from her income tax textbook to see Ryan begin to stir. “Hi,” she said quietly as she got up and went to sit on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling?”

Ryan blinked and rubbed her eyes while she made little mewing noises for a few moments. This persona was one of Jamie's favorites, and she looked forward to the rare occasions that she saw this childlike behavior. As expected, Ryan's voice was small and rather high pitched as she squeaked out, “I feel gooder.”

“Ohh, my little cuddle bear looks like she needs some hugs. Does she?”

“Unh-huh,” she said as she happily nodded her dark head and extended her arms. Jamie got back into bed, and cuddled with her partner's warm body as she could feel her begin to wake fully. It was just like watching a complex mechanical system warming up; she could feel muscular tension move up the long body from her toes to her head. By the time Ryan launched into her stretching routine, her mind was fully functioning, and she looked at the clock in amazement. “God, I'm setting some new records for laziness here.”

“Not laziness — sanity,” Jamie reminded her. “When your body conks out like that, it's because it needs it, honey. It's really not optional.”

“I've gotten better at seeing that,” she said thoughtfully, “but it's still hard to get the guilt feelings to go away.”

“I know, but it's important to sleep when you need it, even if it does make you feel guilty.”

“I guess things could be worse,” she teased her partner as she snuggled her nose against her chest. “Being forced to be in bed with a beautiful creature like you is not such a bad thing.”

“Hey, if you want to spend any time with your beautiful family, it's time to put your sweet little butt in gear,” she admonished as she patted the bare bottom.

“Be ready in ten,” Ryan promised as her feet hit the floor.

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

Even though they spent the afternoon and evening with the family, it wasn't quality time, since Ryan spent much of the day dozing in front of the television in Conor's room. After dinner they retired to the bedroom so that Jamie could get a little studying done. Ryan was still so fatigued that she didn't even pretend to study. She put some soft music on, and lay down on her bed next to her lover. Jamie was determined to get in a few solid hours of work for her income tax final, since it was scheduled for bright and early Wednesday morning. It took all of her powers of concentration to be able to study with her partner dozing lightly and curled up next to her, but by 10 o'clock she'd managed to make a sizeable dent in her preparations. She had been idly running her fingers through Ryan's dark hair for the last half hour or so, but she wasn't actually paying much attention to her. “Well, I guess we should get going,” she stated as she stretched the kinks out.

A look down at her partner's peaceful face brought a smile to her own. Oh, she's so pretty when she's asleep, she thought fondly. I hate to wake her, but I know she'll be wide-awake as soon as I move. She scooted over and slid off the bed, fairly amazed when Ryan did not flinch. Boy, that doesn't happen very often, she mused. Well, since we don't have class in the morning, I guess we should just stay here. She walked into the bath and got ready for bed, a bit stunned to see that Ryan was still out cold. She went upstairs to tell Rory they'd stay the night, and she made a quick call to Mia so she didn't worry. When she went back down she pondered the situation for a moment. Gosh, I hate to wake her just to undress. She reached over and felt her partner's back. Hmm, she's wearing a sports bra … that shouldn't bother her too much if she wears it all night. Making a decision, she went to the closet and took out a heavy wool blanket and a top sheet. She settled the sheet over her lover, and drew the blanket up as she crawled back into bed. Ryan remained asleep, but her body unconsciously reached for Jamie when she sensed her presence. That's such a nice way to tell me she loves me, she thought happily as she snuggled up to the warm body.

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

Even though they were in finals week Scott wanted the team to meet for practice, so Jamie dutifully drove over to Berkeley early on Monday morning, then went back to Noe Valley. Upon her orders, Ryan had reluctantly agreed to sleep in, and Jamie was pleased to find the dark beauty still horizontal when she returned. “You can get up now, princess,” she announced, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I'm awake,” Ryan assured her. “I've just been dawdling.”

“It's 9:30,” Jamie told her. “Take your shower and I'll get us a little snack. Then I've got to start working on that income tax stuff again.”

They both worked for a couple of hours, and after a quick lunch, the determined blonde pushed her partner back towards the bed. “But I don't want to take a nap,” Ryan's childlike voice protested.

“I don't remember asking you if you wanted a nap, sweetheart. I'm ordering you. So just lay your little sweet self down, and rest your head on my lap.”

“Do I get a head rub?” she asked, as she looked up at her partner through her half lidded eyes.

“Yes, you do,” Jamie replied indulgently. “But only if you stick that pouty little lip in,” she threatened as she kissed the protuberant lower lip.

“Okay,” she sulked. “But why do I hafta lie down? It's only one o'clock.”

“I know. But you need to be at the gym by five, and I want you to have a good long nap and a good meal before you leave. I don't want you collapsing again tonight, love.”

“Okay,” Ryan agreed as she got into bed. She shuffled around in the big bed for a moment before she looked up at her partner with a sexy grin. “I think I need a sedative,” she drawled in a deep voice.

Jamie smiled and spent just a moment regarding the child/woman who gazed up at her. When Ryan was in this mood, she tended to skitter between pouty five-year-old and horny 24-year-old with startling frequency. “I'll make you a deal,” she promised as she leaned over and kissed her lightly. “I'll make dinner for you at four. If you go to sleep right away, I'll please you in any way that you wish if you wake up before then.”

“Any way?” the very sexy 24-year-old asked with a devastating leer.

Jamie gulped audibly and nodded slowly, hoping that she could handle whatever she was getting into.

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

She never got to find out what Ryan's sexy leer represented, since she almost had to throw cold water on her partner to get her out of bed at four. “I don't wanna get up,” she groaned as Jamie grasped her hands and tried to pull her into a sitting position.

“If you don't get up, you won't have time to eat. You haven't had much fuel today,” she reminded her.

“I've been asleep the whole time,” she complained. “When did I have time to eat?”

“Come on,” Jamie cajoled. “I have something good for you …”

“What?” she grumbled.

“Italian comb …” she began; but before she could finish the word, Ryan was scooting across the bed and running for the bath.

Well, I guess she's in favor of that!

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

Ryan had not actually spoken to Coach Hayes, but she had left a message for her as soon as her brain was functioning that morning. She left her home number, and her pager, and asked the coach to call her if she had a problem with Ryan getting to the game on her own. Her message was quite detailed, explaining that her family's home was just minutes from U.S.F., and that she was still fighting a serious bout of fatigue brought on by her having to stay up all night to take her math test. She didn't hear from the coach, so she assumed that the woman realized the folly of traveling to Berkeley just to ride on a bus to return to where she had started from.

The team bus was leaving Cal at four, so they left shortly thereafter to make sure they arrived before the rest of the team. Jamie had never seen U.S.F., so she decided to accompany Ryan to the game and wander around the campus while they did their warm-ups. The gym wasn't even open when they arrived, so they walked over to a campus map where Ryan explained the layout of the plant. At a few minutes to five the Cal bus pulled up, and they walked back to the players' entrance to wait for the team. Most of the players were polite, and a few were even friendly as they milled around to wait for entrance. Jamie was just about to kiss her goodbye when Coach Hayes walked up. “25 lengths of the gym, Ryan,” she said conversationally. “You can do them before or after the game.”

“P … Pardon me?” she asked.

“You missed the bus. You know the rules,” she replied flatly.

“But I called you …” she started to say, but the coach held her hand up to cut her off.

“Everyone rides the bus. That's the rule. Calling me to tell me you're going to break a rule is no excuse, Ryan. I expect better behavior from a senior,” she said dismissively.

Ryan shot a look at Jamie and, with a second to spare, firmly clamped her hand over her fuming partner's mouth. “Am I still starting?” she asked while Jamie squirmed under her grip.


“I'll do the laps after the game,” she said with a thin smile. “I don't want to wear my legs out.”

“Fine,” Coach Hayes replied. “But you'd better make them quick. The other players hate to wait.” She turned on her heel, and strode into the entrance, leaving them standing right where they were.

“Of all the bone headed …” Jamie started, but Ryan just leaned over and kissed her lightly.

“I can take care of myself, babe. I knew she had a bug up her ass about the bus. I just figured she'd be decent enough to call me back if there was a problem.”

“Stupid fu …” she began again, but Ryan bent once more to cover her lips with a kiss.

“If I don't get in there, it's going to be 50,” she warned. “Let me get out while I'm ahead.”

“So you can't even ride home with me?” Jamie asked petulantly.

“Babe, she has a rule about us making eye contact with people in the stands. This is all part of her odd ideas about discipline. I'll see you when I get home,” she said softly, giving her a tender kiss. Jamie's eyes were burning with anger, but Ryan gently reminded her, “This is my first time starting, honey. I don't want to screw it up.”

Reluctantly, Jamie's expression softened, and she nodded. “You'll do great. I'm proud of you, Tiger.”

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

The largest rooting section of the season was on hand for the tip off. Since the game was so close to home, all of the uncles, aunts and cousins were in attendance, as well as Catherine. Nearly the entire volleyball team also made the short drive, after stopping to pick up a delighted Jennie. When everyone had arrived, they comprised at least a quarter of the total crowd, and the buzz was audible.

Jamie sat with Conor on her left and her mother on her right. Jordan and Mia were right in front of her, along with the rest of the volleyball team. Catherine placed her hand on Jordan's shoulder and said, “I was so pleased to hear that you were given the chance to try out for the national team, Jordan.”

“Thanks, Catherine,” she said with a big smile as she turned in her seat. “I'm pretty excited about it.”

“When do you leave?”

“I'm taking off next Monday morning. I got permission to take two of my finals early, so I'll be finished with school as of Friday.”

“Oh my, that's so soon,” Catherine said.

“You're telling me,” she heard Mia mutter glumly. Catherine bit back a smile and refrained from commenting. She knew the young women were physically intimate, but she didn't feel comfortable revealing her knowledge to either of them.

“It's exciting to see Ryan finally start isn't it, honey?” Catherine asked, turning to her daughter.

Conor poked his head out to comment. “This might be her first start, but it won't be her last. I don't know what the normal starting forward did to her, but Ryan's made it a personal vendetta to keep her butt on the bench.”

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

Jamie and Catherine were taking Caitlin for a spin around the gym when the teams came back out for their short warm up before the opening tip-off. Jennie had not seen Ryan since she got the good news about Sacred Heart, and her childish enthusiasm got the best of her as she scampered down the stands just as the players went to their benches for final instructions. The starting players sat down, with the rest of the team and the coaches all gathered around them. The band was playing very loudly, and Coach Hayes paused impatiently to let them finish their number. Jennie came bounding up behind Ryan's seated form and poked her head around to give her an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. As Ryan turned around she graced her with a wide smile, and patted her hand. She was still wiping the grin off her face as she watched the young woman turn and run back to her seat. Coach was still waiting for the band, but as Ryan turned around to face her she encountered a fierce scowl leveled at her. The coach made a hand signal that was punctuated by one word that she mouthed. “Fifty.”

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

Her play left little doubt that Ryan was not only trying to secure a starting job, but was also making an emphatic point. She was not only a human scoring machine, she played defense with an intensity that was truly stunning. Conor and Brendan had been keeping up such a running commentary on her game that after ten minutes had passed, Jamie and Catherine got up and put Conor right next to Brendan so they could converse without leaning over them. “One thing I love about Ryan's game is that she's the only woman I've ever seen who uses head fakes on defense,” Conor laughed.

Maggie had watched more basketball games than she could count, and she joined in on the conversation. “Her defensive skills are head and shoulders superior to any other woman on the court,” she said. “How did she develop them?”

“It helps to have twelve older cousins and three older brothers,” Conor said with a chuckle. “We all played basketball, and since she was always the shortest player she had to develop her ball handling skills and learn to play very aggressive defense. She played at the point in all of our pick up games, so even though she plays forward at Cal, she still has the instincts of a point guard.”

“My favorite part of her game is when she gets her volleyball and basketball skills mixed up,” Maggie chucked. “I thought the woman she was guarding was going to swallow her tongue when Ryan slapped the ball back at her like she was serving a volleyball. There's nothing I like more than watching a single player disrupt the rhythm of a whole team, and Ryan does that just beautifully,” she said with admiration. “Too bad she doesn't want to go to law school. She could be a lethal trial attorney.”

Conor bit his tongue before he was tempted to tell Maggie just where on her list of potential careers his baby sister would place “attorney”. Instead he forced a smile onto his face and just nodded.

As the halftime buzzer sounded, Catherine stood and stretched for a moment, then turned to Jamie as if she had just had a thought strike her. “Would you girls like to go to a football game on Sunday?” She reached into her purse and pulled out some tickets.

“Uhm … sure. Are the 49ers home?”

“No, but your father left his Raider's tickets with me. He has eight of them. Would you like them, dear?”

“Sure,” Jamie said.

“Conor?” the younger woman teased as she held out the tickets and tickled his nose.

“Yeah, I'd like to go,” he said.

“Go where?” Mia asked as she turned around. “I want to go, too!”

“Mia, you don't know where we're going,” Jamie reminded her.

“No, but you only go cool places, so I want to go, too,” she said logically.

“We've got eight tickets,” Jamie informed them. “Jordan? Would you like to spend your last day in town at a Raider game?”

“Yeah,” she said after a moment's consideration. “It'll help me not miss the Bay Area so much,” she said with a chuckle.

Jamie turned to Conor and asked, “Do the other boys like football?”

“Yep. Rory, more so than Brendan, but Brendan likes it well enough.”

“Works for me,” she said as she scampered down the row to propose the event to Rory, Brendan and Maggie.

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

The second half quickly turned into a rout, and the subs got into the game with almost ten minutes left. Ryan was replaced by Wendy — who, as expected, did not offer Ryan a towel or acknowledge her in any way. Jamie noticed the tiny smirk that crossed her lover's face as she went to take her seat and thought, Got a news flash for you, Wendy, if you're not nice to her, you'll never play again, you jerk!

Jamie had told the family about Ryan's punishment, and the news was not received in a very enthusiastic fashion. “She what?” Martin shouted.

“She has to run 25 laps of the gym after the game,” Jamie repeated tentatively.

“That is the stupidest, most asinine, imbecilic …”

“I know, Martin,” she soothed. “But she wants to play, and she wants to be able to start, so she needs to go along — no matter how stupid it is.”

“Where did this idiot learn to coach?” he continued, “In reform school?”

The family was getting antsy, waiting for the end of the game to watch Ryan run her laps. By now Janae was the only starter playing, and that was mostly because they didn't really have an adequate backup center.

Play was getting sloppy this late in the rout, and the players seemed less focused than normal. Cal had Janae, Wendy, Lily, Hilary, and La Trice on the court, a team that had never played as a group. They looked pretty ragged on their first possession, and La Trice threw the ball out of bounds on a fairly simple pass to Wendy. As usual, Wendy was the soul of graciousness, barking out a loud criticism at La Trice as they ran back down the court to defend their goal.

Ryan didn't know much about La Trice, but the woman seemed very ruffled by the incident. La Trice was a senior, and she just didn't seem to have the fire that a good point guard needed. Ryan had noticed that she played tentatively, even in practice, and this evening's production didn't do much to change Ryan's opinion.

On the next trip down the floor, the guard tried to thread a pass through some traffic and hit Janae for a shot from the post. Ryan could see her friend's eyes widen as the ball came to her. The pass was a good two feet too high, and Janae jumped as high as she could to snare it. Her defender went up with her, while another player cut behind them to guard Wendy. There was a lot of traffic under the basket, and somehow Janae caught her foot on someone as she came down. Ryan felt all of the moisture leave her mouth as she saw the inevitable collision play out in front of her eyes. Janae landed on her butt at the same time the other player hit the floor, and their heads banged together so hard that the crack was audible throughout the gym.

The student trainer was on her feet, running across the court before the two women slumped onto the unyielding floor. Coach Hayes was right behind her, while Lynette got to her feet and tried to keep the rest of the team on the bench. The anxious players strained against her, but she wanted to make sure that the medical staff could assess the situation without distraction.

Ryan turned and caught Jamie's eye, and the smaller woman's heart immediately clutched in pain for her partner. Ryan looked both frightened and powerless — two emotions that she didn't handle particularly well. She mouthed just two words. “It's bad.” Jamie nodded somberly, watching Ryan turn around stiffly to watch the scene unfold.

It was obvious that both players were unconscious, since neither had moved a muscle in the moments that passed like weeks. Jaleesa turned to the women on the bench and said, “We have to pray for them.” She reached out, and every player except for Janet joined hands and bowed their heads, letting Jaleesa's words of praise and blessing calm their souls, if not their emotions. Janet broke away from the group and stood on the court with Wendy. The pair looked concerned, even frightened, but neither had any interest in sharing their feelings with the rest of their teammates.

Two rolling gurneys were brought out, and cervical collars were carefully attached to both women to circumvent any additional spinal damage. Ryan was beside herself with worry — mostly because she had been the recipient of so many similar injuries and she knew it was a very bad sign to be out for this long.

Everyone on the Cal sideline breathed a collective sigh of relief when Janae's fingers began to move as she was wheeled away. She was having a tough time, but Ryan realized that she wasn't just twitching — she was trying to wave — and the gesture became even clearer a moment later. “She's awake!” Jaleesa cried. “Thank you, God!”

Coach Hayes came back to the bench and said, “She's awake, and she can move her hands and feet. The other girl looks like she's coming around, too. I think she'll be okay — probably a concussion, but nothing too serious.”

Ryan gave her a look — knowing just how serious a concussion could be. She was surprised when the coach returned her glance and said, “Go in for Janae.”

Her surprise was so great that Ryan actually looked over her shoulder to make sure that one of the centers wasn't standing behind her. “Me?” she asked weakly.

“Yes, you,” the coach said sharply.

With more than a little trepidation, Ryan walked over to the scorer's table and checked in. She shot a glance at her family and met Conor and Brendan's puzzled looks, adding one of her own. “Is she going in for Janae?” Jamie asked the boys.

“I hope not,” Conor said. “She can't play center — especially in this league.”

“Uhm … why not?” Jamie asked. Ryan was as tall as anyone on the court, and that seemed like the main requirement for a center in Jamie's mind.

“That's just not her style,” Conor said. “Especially with the way Cal runs their offense. They want a true low-post player — and that's not what Ryan's built for.”

Jamie gave him a suspicious look, having a feeling that her partner could play quarterback for the football team if she had a mind to. The game finally resumed, and it wasn't pretty. The team was even more disordered with Ryan's addition, and everything seemed to fall apart. Cal still won, but their last few minutes were such a mess that everyone realized the outcome would have been very different if much more time had remained.

The team sat in the locker room, heads down, and their spirits just as low. Coach Hayes tried to rally them, but her words fell flat. Jaleesa looked up at her and asked the only question that anyone cared about. “Any word on Janae?”

“She's at the hospital, and they're going to do a CAT scan on her to make sure there's no significant damage. I really think she'll be fine, people. Let's just keep a good thought, and go on.”

“Ryan,” she said, “can I have a word?”

Ryan stood and waited for her to indicate where she wanted her. Coach led her back out onto the court and said, “This had been a tough night for all of us. You can do your laps after practice tomorrow if you wish.”

Surprised at this largesse, Ryan thought about it for a minute and said, “I'm so wiped after practice that I don't think I could do 50, Coach. If that's my only option, I'd better do them now.”

“Your choice,” she replied with a shrug. “Did you weigh in before warm-ups?”

“Yeah,” Ryan nodded.

“Go weigh in again,” the coach demanded. “If you've lost more than a pound I won't allow you to do them tonight.”

Ryan jogged to the locker room and weighed herself, noting that she hadn't lost any weight during the game. Trotting back out, she announced, “No loss. I was very careful to keep drinking.”

“Okay, then let's go. We don't have all night,” the coach said.

Ryan ran over to the cart that the student trainer carried water and sports drink in. She took a big gulp from a fresh bottle, and set it down on the floor near the end line and took off. Her pace was quick, what Jamie would call a fast jog — but that wasn't good enough for Coach Hayes. “I said sprints, Ryan,” she reminded her loudly. “Start over!”

The tension around Ryan's grim mouth became more pronounced, but she walked to the other end line and took off at full speed. She was moving so quickly that she had to put both hands out to stop herself against the other wall, and when she got there the coach called out loudly, “That's one!”

The torture went on until all of the O'Flaherty's were staring holes in the back of Coach Hayes' head. Ryan was sweating so profusely that Jamie could actually see the fluid running into her eyes. But she didn't stop once during the entire 25 lengths. On the last one the Coach yelled. “That's 25. Take a break!”

“Break?” Martin shouted so loudly that both Ryan and the coach heard him. The older woman looked up into the stands, seemingly for the first time, and blinked her eyes – obviously a little nonplussed at the large crowd. With a pleading look on her face, Ryan lifted her eyes for the first time, and shook her head. Martin met her gaze and nodded, silently agreeing to stay out of it.

The first 25 laps had taken less than ten minutes, but the entire time was spent in full out sprinting — and it had taken an obvious toll on Ryan. When the water bottle was drained, she leaned over at the waist and grasped the hems of her shorts, pulling hard on them as she tried to suck in air. “This is torture!” Jordan hissed as she watched her friend struggle. “What the hell is wrong with that woman?”

“I don't know,” Jamie answered slowly. “She has very odd notions about discipline.”

“I don't care what her notions are!” Jordan maintained. “You don't do something like this to a player who has just played a full game!”

Ryan lifted her head after her one-minute break and asked loudly, “Can I take off my uniform?”

The coach just nodded briefly, but Jamie knew that for Ryan to ask for a concession like that, she must just be dying. Ryan jerked the navy blue road shorts off to reveal navy blue compression shorts underneath, then removed her jersey. Jamie actually felt sick to her stomach as she watched the pained expression on her lover's face as she braced for another round.

“Hold up,” the coach called out, then grabbed a towel and walked briskly over to Ryan. When she reached her she asked, “Can you continue?” Ryan nodded, not willing to risk the energy to speak. Sweat was running down her face in rivulets and she accepted the towel to wipe herself down. “You're obviously still sweating,” the coach observed. “If you stop, that means you're getting overheated. Can I trust you to monitor yourself?”


“Okay, let's go,” Coach Hayes said grimly.

By the time Ryan was on lap 30, a few of the players had sauntered back into the gym. It was obvious from the surprised looks on their faces that Ryan hadn't mentioned her punishment to anyone. They gathered in a small knot and spoke quietly for a few minutes, and it was apparent from their expressions that they felt empathy for their teammate.

Martin was standing in front of Jamie, and she could feel the coiled tension radiating from his body as he glared menacingly at the coach. She was going to ask one of the boys to make sure he didn't go down onto the court to give the coach a tongue-lashing, but when she looked at their faces they looked easily as outraged as he did. Scanning the crowd, she failed to find a calm looking face, and she prayed that no one would mouth off and make it worse for her partner. Even Mia looked irate, and Jamie knew that it was very hard to make Mia angry when watching Ryan run around in her skintight underwear.

At her thirty-second lap, Ryan paused at the end line, and Jamie immediately recognized the signal of imminent vomiting. “Don't look,” she warned loudly, but most of the crowd was not quick enough. Ryan tried to get to the large plastic trashcan by the entrance, but she missed it by about two feet. Luckily she didn't hit her own shoes, and she stood slowly when she was done heaving, a disgusted look on her face.

The student trainer ran over to her and spoke to her for a few minutes, every eye in the gym watching the pair. Ryan was nodding her head forcefully, and Jamie knew she was determined to make it through, no matter how sick she felt. She had to put her hands on Martin's shoulders to stop him from rushing the court, and when she leaned over and said, “Martin, don't make it worse for her,” she felt him lean against her in frustration.

“She's torturing her, Jamie!” he moaned.

“I know, Martin,” she said softly. “But Ryan's an adult. She can take care of herself.”

He blinked slowly a few times and finally said, “I don't know if that's true.”

The trainer had placed a probe in Ryan's ear, and the coach came over to consult with her. Ryan's temperature was found to be only slightly elevated, and the trainer commented, “If you can get two bottles of sports drink down and keep them down, you should be okay.”

“Ryan?” the coach asked, raising her eyebrow. “Do you need to quit, or can you gut it out?”

Now that the coach had called her fortitude into question, the determined woman didn't give a second thought to how she felt. She glared at her, taking a bottle of sports drink and draining it in seconds, forcing her stomach to obey her command to behave. She gagged the second bottle down, and actually began to feel a little better when it settled in her stomach. “I can go on.”

“You can take it slow if you have to,” Coach Hayes told her. “I'm sure you're not used to this kind of stress.”

The words “fuck” and “you” were poised on her tongue, but she didn't let her temper control her. Instead, she narrowed her eyes and growled, “You know no such thing.” She turned and jumped up and down a few times, just to make sure she didn't feel nauseous again, and when she felt confident, she went back to the end line and inclined her head in the coach's direction.

When the older woman gave Ryan the signal to continue, Jamie saw the rest of the team remove their warm-ups without a word. As Ryan took off for lap 33, every other member of the team — except for Janet and Wendy — went right along with her. Shaking her head to clear the sweat from her eyes, Ryan's mouth curled up into a small smile at the generous act of solidarity. Even the O'Flaherty clan was somewhat comforted by the gesture, but Jordan was muttering to herself, “What took them so damned long?”

Both Janet and Wendy looked like they'd eaten a large bunch of sour grapes, but the rest of the team seemed more cohesive than Jamie had ever seen them. Most were actually smiling as they did their laps, and she could hear a few of them quietly urging Ryan on as she stumbled through her final ten.

Jamie had seen her lover put her body through many difficult trials, but she mused that this was the most debilitated she had ever seen her, beating out her exhausted state on the final day of the AIDS Ride. She was huffing and gasping for air with every agonizing lap, but she still managing to beat a few of her slower teammates down the court. When the coach finally called out “50!” in a strong voice, most of the team bent over at the waist to catch their breath; but Ryan sank to the floor in a heap, collapsing so quickly that she looked absolutely boneless. Once again, Martin tried to make a run for her, but Jamie held him back. “It will embarrass her if we go out there, Martin. Let her handle it. I'm sure she'll be fine,” she said as calmly as she could manage. But even though her words were calm, she was seething with an anger so intense that it actually shocked her. She had only managed to remain in her seat during the last 25 laps by picturing various forms of medieval torture being performed on the lanky coach, and she was amazed at the pleasure she got from picturing the woman stretched out on the rack, with tendons and bones breaking with gruesomely loud snaps.

Ryan was lying flat on her back with her arms and legs spread out limply when Angela, the student trainer, approached her. “Ryan,” she said softly as she squatted beside her and touched her clammy leg, “can you hear me?”

That brought a chuckle from the panting woman as she gasped out, “I'm exhausted, Angela, not deaf.”

She gathered herself and managed to sit up after Angela extended a hand to aid her. In all this time she had not looked into the stands, and Jamie guessed that she was afraid of another rules infraction if she did so. She allowed the trainer to rub her body with a towel filled with ice, then got to her shaky legs and gulped down another two full bottles of Gatorade. Angela patted her on the back and handed her the navy blue warm-up suit that she had fetched from the locker room, but instead of putting it on Ryan started to walk slowly back into the locker room. Suddenly she took off again, covering the last 25 feet in moments.

“Where's she off to so quickly?” Catherine asked.

“Given how she looks, she's gonna barf that Gatorade right back up,” Jamie predicted. “She absolutely hates to throw up in public.”

“I should think that's a universal reaction,” Catherine mused worriedly.

Ryan came shuffling out just moments later with her warm ups on, and a towel draped around her neck. She looked very flushed, very tired and very wet, but there was still a proud grace to her walk that commanded both attention and respect. Once again she did not lift her head, quietly following the rest of the team out to the bus.

Angry rumblings from the O'Flahertys eventually gave way to goodbye kisses and hugs, as the volleyball team, Jennie, Mia and Jamie got ready to leave. As they made their way out to the parking lot, each of the drivers announced, “See you at the parking lot by the gym,” as they got into their cars.

“What did they mean by that?” Jamie asked Jordan.

A delighted grin and an exaggerated shrugging of shoulders was her only reply as she closed the door to Mia's car. Only one way to find out, Jamie mused as she drove off into the night.

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

When she arrived at the parking lot, Jamie was enormously pleased to find all of the members of the volleyball team huddled together in the damp, cold fog, waiting for the bus to arrive. “You guys are just too sweet,” she said fondly as she joined them.

“We just want Ryan to know that we're proud of her for not letting that asshole break her,” Amy said.

“She'll appreciate it,” Jamie said confidently. True to her prediction, when the bus pulled up a few minutes later, Ryan smiled as broadly as her tired muscles would allow. She chuckled as the group pulled her into the middle of their huddle, and patted her roughly on the back in a show of support.

“You guys rock,” she said as she popped out of the huddle to wrap her arms around Jamie. “Hey, we need to get together this weekend to give Jordan a send off,” she added. “What do you say?”

An enthusiastic round of affirmative nods was the unanimous answer, and they quickly agreed that Saturday night was the best choice. Since Ryan had the only home, hers was the obvious choice; and seven o'clock was settled on as the time.

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

The foursome walked into the house almost simultaneously. Ryan chuckled at the sight of her friend walking along the sidewalk, affectionately holding Mia's hand. “Have you moved in?” she asked when she noticed Jordan's big gym bag.

“I wish I could,” she said wistfully. “But I get to move into a dorm with five other women,” she groused. “Oops, I forgot to add that I'll be freezing my sweet little ass off.”

“I'll miss your sweet little ass,” Mia said softly as she faced her and palmed the body part in question.

Jordan turned her head to smirk at her friends, “Wish we could stay and chat girls, but duty calls and time's a wasting.” Mia gave her an indulgent grin as she forcefully pulled Jordan up the stairs.

“Ahh, I recall my younger days when I was able to make love all night long,” Ryan mused.

Jamie chuckled as she teased, “I remember when you used to be able to make love after 6 p.m.”

“Those days are over, babe,” she said regretfully. “Now a couple of hours of basketball and 50 laps of the gym, and I'm inexplicably exhausted!”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan was lying in bed stark naked when Jamie came out of the bath. The long body was uncovered, and Jamie noted some blotchiness on her sides. “What's this?” she asked, trailing her fingers over the spots.

“Mmm, probably a little heat rash,” Ryan ventured, not bothering to look.

Placing her hand on Ryan's belly, Jamie commented, “This feels like touching an oven!”

“My core temperature gets elevated when I run that much. It takes quite a while to bring it down.”

“Should I give you an ice bath?” she asked worriedly. “Maybe we should call the doctor.”

“I'm fine, sweetheart,” Ryan insisted. “Really. I'm just hot.”

“How about a massage?” Jamie asked. “I have some nice aloe based lotion.”

“You really don't have to, babe …”

She smiled at her partner and said, “I know, I don't.” Placing her hand on Ryan's leg, she looked down at it while she drew patterns on her skin. “I want to be close to you. I was so worried about you tonight.”

Ryan grasped her hand and squeezed it. “I'd love a massage. Being close to you might make me stop wishing I could go kick Coach Hayes' ass.”

“If there's a line forming, I'd really like to be first,” Jamie insisted.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Part 6

original fiction index | xena homepage | what's new | amazontrails.com