I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

By: S X Meagher



Part 1

Damn! How much did I have to drink last night?

Head pounding, muscles screaming in outrage, eyes filled with grit, and a tongue swollen to twice its normal size led the confused woman to the obvious conclusion. I obviously got massively shit-faced last night. Trying to roll out of bed was a huge mistake, she immediately learned, falling back to lie flat on the mattress while trying to keep her stomach from rebelling.

Time to assess the damage, she thought, her brain still muddled. Well, one thing’s for sure. I’ve never been so dehydrated. She wasn’t sure what day of the week it was, or what bed they were in, so she forced an eye open, nearly screaming when the sun’s incredible brightness flooded her retina. Very bad idea … very, very bad idea. Damn! Was I drinking grain alcohol? I’ve never had a headache this bad. I feel like I was run over by a …

Suddenly, her heart started to pound in her chest and snippets of memories began to assault her with astounding force and rapidity. Blindly, she reached out and felt for her lover, nearly crying out in relief when she touched her warm body. Thank God!

Like a marsupial crawling blindly into its mother’s pouch, she slid across the bed and sighed heavily when Jamie automatically wrapped her arms around her. Judging from the steady, slow rhythm of her breathing, it was clear that the smaller woman wasn’t going to wake, and Ryan nestled her head against her neck, breathing in her usual morning scent. That simple act calmed her enough for her to allow some of the awful memories of the night before to surface. As the images flooded her brain, her heart felt like it would explode in her chest, and her headache somehow managed to worsen as the gut-churning fear coursed through her body.

You have to stop this! You promised Jamie you’d focus on being grateful to be alive! She lay still for a moment, then forced herself to scoot to the edge of the bed and sit up – feeling each and every overstressed muscle complain vigorously. Damn! Maybe I did tear a muscle … or fifty. Shaking her head, then cursing herself for having voluntarily increased the pain by doing so, she got up and stumbled into the bathroom. A fifteen-minute shower, with the water as hot as she could stand, helped her stiffness significantly and she began to believe that she could get through the day. Be grateful you’re alive … be grateful Jamie’s alive … be grateful Caitlin’s alive … She repeated the mantra while she got dressed; then, just as she started for the stairs, she stopped abruptly and crossed back over to the bed.

Gazing at her sleeping partner made the words of gratitude resonate within her, and she felt her headache ease just a bit. "Thank you, God," she whispered, then kissed the tips of her fingers and gently brushed her partner’s cheek. "Thank you."

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was after nine when she shuffled into the dining room to find Martin, Maeve, Brendan, Conor, Kevin, and a very wide-awake looking Mia enjoying a leisurely breakfast together. "Well, well, well," she said with a reasonably lifelike smile, "what do we have here?"

"There’s my precious one," Martin said, rising to greet her. He wrapped her in a hug that threatened to last the better part of the day, finally pulling away only to draw her close again and place a flurry of kisses on her still-wet hair. "Where’s Jamie, love?"

"I let her stay in bed. Every time I woke up, those big, green eyes were staring at me. I bet she didn’t get two hours of sleep."

"I imagine Caitlin’s the only one who had a good night’s rest," he said. "Sometimes it pays to be largely unaware of the ways of the world."

"I’m all for that," Ryan sighed. She slowly made her way around the table, giving a kiss on the head to all. Then she sat down, trying not to wince when she did so, but every pair of eyes was intently focused on her and she was unable to hide her discomfort. "Anybody know where I put those muscle relaxants?" she asked, deciding she was wasting her energies in trying to put up a front. She dropped her head into her hands and muttered, "Thank God Coach Hayes gave us two days off. I don’t think I could run 25 laps for missing practice today."

"How bad is it?" Maeve asked, reaching out to brush her fingers across Ryan’s cheek.

She shrugged her shoulders, flinching as she did so. "I’ll be okay," she said. "I’m just stiff and sore. Nothing permanent."

"Headache?" Maeve persisted.

"Mmm … more than that," she said, smiling thinly. "This one needs its own title. What’s bigger than an ache?"

Mia got up from her chair and stood behind Ryan. "Close your eyes," she said, then began to work at the rigid muscles in her neck. She looked up at Martin while she worked, and asked, "Do you have an ice bag?"

"Of course." He got up and poked around looking for his daughter’s medication and returned a few moments later with the bottle of pills and the ice.

In a matter of minutes, Ryan’s head had dropped and she began to moan with pleasure. "You’re good at this. It’s really helping."

"Take your pill," Mia said, pausing in her ministrations while Ryan did so.

As soon as she placed her glass back on the table, Mia started in again, working gently until Ryan said, "It’s better now, thanks." Mia stopped her massage and took the ice bag, using it to give Ryan’s head and neck a rather vigorous rub. "That feels so much better," Ryan said, her voice a little brighter.

The curly-haired woman leaned over and kissed the top of her head and Ryan slowly opened her eyes, only to see her brothers and her cousin all gazing at Mia like a trio of does.

"Now I see why you like living in Berkeley," Martin said. "You have two women to tend to you."

"It takes at least two, Martin," Mia said seriously. "She’s very high maintenance. Jordan used to take a shift too, and since she’s gone Jamie and I have to work doubly hard."

Ordinarily, Ryan would have risen to the bait and lobbed a comment back, but she didn’t have the energy this morning, so she just smiled placidly. "I’m so out of it, I barely noticed what time it is," she said. "What got you up so early on Christmas Eve morning, Mia?"

"It must be the aura of the house," she said with a laugh. "I was wide awake at 8:30. Of course, it might have been that your dog was hogging the entire bed. I only got about two inches of mattress to sleep on."

Ryan gave her a sheepish look and said, "We should have left our door open. Sorry about that."

"I didn’t mind," she said. "He’s really very sweet. So what’s on the agenda for today? I’m happy to help out in any way I can."

"Hmm … we need a lot," Ryan began thoughtfully, but the ringing phone interrupted her. Still in her press secretary mode, Mia hopped up and spoke just a few words into the receiver before she got an absolutely stunned look on her face. She looked like she might drop the phone, so Ryan walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder.

Mia extended the phone like it was a snake, and gasped out, "It’s the President!"

Ryan scowled at the phone, and lifted it from Mia’s weak grasp. "Yes?"

"Ms. O’Flaherty?’


"This is Joe Lockhart, President Clinton’s press secretary."

"Go on," she said, suspicious of the authenticity of the call.

"President Clinton wants to say a few words to you and Ms. Evans, congratulating you on your heroic deeds of last night."

"Okay …" she drawled. "Put him on."

"All right. It’ll take a minute, we need to make sure all of the hook-ups are in place …"


"Yes, CNN wants to run the audio …"

"No thanks," she said quickly. "If he wants to talk to us, that’s fine; but I have no intention of your using this call for political purposes."

There was a rather stunned silence before he managed to get out, "I’m sorry, Ms. O’Flaherty. I just assumed that Senator Evans would want you to …"

"Are you calling Senator Evans?" she asked. "Because if you are, you’ve got the wrong number …"

"No! The President sincerely wants to congratulate you both, Ms. O’Flaherty. I know you and Ms. Evans are registered Democrats, and …"

"Don’t make assumptions about me, Mr. Lockhart. I’d be happy to talk to the President, but I will not allow our conversation to be broadcast. Period."

"But surely it couldn’t hurt …"

"Look, Mr. Lockhart, I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but you’re pushing my buttons. I was in high school when Mr. Clinton ran for office. I worked my tail off canvassing and volunteering in his San Francisco office. The gay community up here supported him unequivocally, mainly because of his promise to support gay rights, and repeal the ban on gays in military service. And after all of our efforts in providing seed money to get his campaign moving, his first major act is to come up with that bullshit ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ crap. Are you aware that there are more cases of dishonorable discharge for consensual gay acts now than there were during the Bush Administration?"

"Ahh … let me get back to you, Ms. O’Flaherty. Maybe a nice letter of commendation would be more to your liking."

"That’s fine; but I’m warning you, don’t sent it to CNN first, or I’ll give them my opinion of a man who uses his power to have sex with an employee on government property during a working day!"

"Congratulations again, Ms. O’Flaherty. Nice talking to you."

"I just bet it was," she smirked as she placed the phone down and stared at the six sets of eyes that were staring back at her. "He pisses me off!" she said as she sat down to eat.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The rest of the family was not nearly so cavalier about the President’s call, and it took quite a while for the buzz of excitement to die down. "Well, that was one way to get the heart racing," Martin said. "Not that we’ve been in need of that type of thing recently. We’ve got some practical matters to take care of, now. Which one of you will go pick up Rory at the airport?"

"No can do," Conor replied. "The three of us," he said, pointing to Kevin and Brendan, "are going to Sacred Heart to install those lights."

"I guess that leaves me," Ryan said, realizing as the words came out of her mouth that she had planned on tricking Mia into going to the airport to pick up Jordan.

"Nonsense," Martin said. "You’re not in any shape to even think about it."

"Let me go," Mia said.

"Sure you don’t mind?" Ryan asked.

"Not a bit. I’m really happy to help out."

"Superb," Ryan said, the plans falling into place neatly, although inadvertently. "Hey, you can forge Jamie’s signature, can’t you?"

"Sure can," Mia said, giving her a sly smile. "I haven’t gotten yours down yet, but we can both do each other’s. Why?"

"Don’t bother learning mine," Ryan said. "I’m proprietary over it."

Mia wrinkled up her nose and Ryan continued, "Jamie’s so tied to her phone that she’s gonna stress without it. Would you be willing to go pick us up a couple of replacements? You know our numbers, and I’d really like to be able to keep them, so make sure you go to our current provider. I’ll write down all the details for you."

"Okay, but why do I need to forge Jamie’s signature?"

"Because I’m going to give you her charge card to pay for them. Is that cool?"

"Sure. No problem. I’ll run by the house and get some clothes for tonight, get the phones and then go pick up your brother. Let me just sneak downstairs and swipe some clean clothes from Jamie, and I’ll be off."

She got up and started to leave, but Ryan caught her by the sleeve, tugging her over to wrap her in a hug. "Thanks. I’m just not up to driving today."

Mia kissed her head and leaned over to whisper, "I really appreciate that you’re letting me help out, Ryan. It makes me feel like part of the family."

"You are," she said, giving her a warm smile and another hug.

As soon as Mia was out of earshot, Ryan turned to her brothers and said, "Thanks for the set-up, guys. Now Mia will really be surprised when she gets to the airport and finds out that she’s picking up Jordan. Problem is, we still have to go get Rory. Any takers?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Mia entered the Berkeley house, she saw that messages filled the answering machine to capacity so that it had stopped accepting new ones. She called the O’Flaherty house and asked Ryan if she’d like to hear them all. Surprisingly, Ryan declined. "I’ll call back and change the greeting. I’m gonna turn it off if you don’t mind. I’ll ask people we know to call all of us on our cells."

"That’s fine," Mia said.

Ryan dialed the number, cleared her throat, and changed the greeting. "Hi, this is Ryan. Thanks for all of the nice wishes we’ve received. Feel free to call any of us on our cell phones. If you don’t have those numbers, please call back in a couple of weeks. You can’t leave a message, so don’t try. Have a good day."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After she hung up, Ryan started to go back downstairs, but her father stopped her. "What do you need from us today, love?"

She gazed at him for a moment and said, "I think we need some time to rest. Neither of us slept well at all. Thankfully, Jamie’s making up for that now," she said, noting that it was after 10.

"How’s the head?"

"It’s better. I guess you can’t cry that much in a single day and not get a headache. Getting some fluids down seems to have helped."

"I’ll clear the house if you want quiet, Siobhán. We can take Duffy back with us."

"No." She shook her head and slipped her arms around her father. "I’d like you and Aunt Maeve to stay, to be honest. I feel better when you’re close."

He kissed her forehead and said, "I feel better when you’re close to me, too. We’ll make some cookies." With a frown furrowing his brow, he asked, "Do you want to go ahead and have the family over for Christmas Eve? We can cancel if it’s too much."

"No! I’d like things to stay as normal as possible, Da. Keeping everything familiar will really help."

"Familiar it is," he said. He reached down and swatted her rather hard on the seat, chuckling at her outraged squawk. "As long as I’m acting normal, I can’t let you go unpunished for disrespecting the President!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Merely eating a light breakfast had thoroughly worn Ryan out, and she went back downstairs, hoping for a long nap. Jamie hadn’t moved, still curled up on her right side with her open hand resting under her cheek. Ryan felt a need to watch her for a bit, and since she was so stiff herself, she rolled her desk chair over so she didn’t have to bend.

She observed her partner for a long time, watching the slow, steady rise and fall of her chest, noting how her eyes darted rapidly under her eyelids. There were faint smudges of blue beneath her eyes, and her color was on the pale side, but other than that, she looked remarkably well. Ryan let her mind wander, and she recalled that it was only 24 hours ago that she’d come home to surprise her lover in the middle of a mesmerizing dance. That could have been the last time we ever made love, she sighed to herself. The last time we ever held each other while we slept. Shivering roughly, she reached out and let the backs of her fingers barely graze the soft cheek, gasping when Jamie’s eyes flew open and she sat up abruptly. Bloodshot green eyes darted around the room while she tried to orient herself. "What happened?" she panted, out of breath.

Ryan placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and soothed, "It’s okay, love. I’m sorry for waking you."

"What …?"

"I touched your cheek," Ryan said. "Really softly … just the way I always do. But it frightened you and you woke up."

"Oh." Jamie lowered herself onto the mattress, taking in a sharp breath when her bruised ribs reminded her of the unkind treatment they had suffered the night before. "S’okay." Her eyes closed again and she murmured, "Hold me?"

Ryan slipped off her clothing and got into bed, wrapping both arms around her lover, while whispering endearments to her. "Sleep now, sweetheart. You’re safe." Her soothing words also calmed her own racing heart, and soon they were both asleep again, wrapped around each other tightly.

* * * * * * * * * * *

A horrifically realistic dream woke Ryan not long after they had dozed off. She held her partner so tightly that Jamie was unable to take a deep breath, and she only released her frantic grasp when the smaller woman began to struggle. Burying her wet face against her lover’s neck, Ryan started to cry softly. "I’m sorry," she rasped out. "I’m so sorry I hurt you."

"It’s okay, sweetheart," Jamie soothed, turning to hold her. "You had a bad dream. It’s okay now." She trailed her hand through Ryan’s hair, whispering to her the whole while. "Go back to sleep now."

"No," Ryan mumbled. "I don’t wanna. I’m afraid I’ll have the dream again."

The smaller woman stroked Ryan’s hair for a few minutes, trying to wake up. From the tense set of Ryan’s posture, it was clear she was unable to relax again, so Jamie finally sighed, "Okay, we should get up anyway. I’m sure there are things we should be doing."

"No, everything’s taken care of," Ryan said. "Mia’s out running some errands for us. I told Da we needed to sleep today."

"I should call my parents," Jamie said. "I need to make sure Mother’s all right." She sat up and looked up at the dresser, a puzzled look on her face.

"Mia’s going to get us new cell phones," Ryan said, noting her puzzlement.

"Damn! That thing’s a part of me. I guess I remember how to use a land line." She got up and called her mother’s home, frowning when no one answered. "She’s not home," she said. "I’ll call my dad and see if he knows what’s up." His phone also rang for a while until the answering machine picked up. "I don’t remember his cell phone number," she said, scowling. "I had it programmed in my cell phone."

"Maybe they called here," Ryan said. "Let me go check."

"No, let me. I should get a little something in my stomach, anyway."

"I’ll make you breakfast," Ryan said. "It’ll do me good to stretch a little."

"Is your father still here?"


"No way you’re taking his spot in the kitchen, love. That’s his domain."

* * * * * * * * * * *

As expected, Martin insisted on cooking for them, after informing Jamie that Ryan had only eaten a little toast for her first breakfast. "My stomach’s upset," she grumbled. "Those drugs are really strong."

"Are they helping?" Jamie asked.

"Yeah. I’m still stiff, but I moved like a mannequin when I woke up this morning. I think they’ve helped a lot."

"How about a vanilla shake?" Martin asked. "Ice cream might go down easier."

"Make it banana and you’ve got a deal," his daughter said, giving him a grateful smile.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan tried to avert her eyes, unable to watch Jamie eat her omelet, the sight of cooked food making her queasy. To distract herself, she updated her partner on the morning phone calls. "We got a message that we probably have to return."

"What’s that, babe?"

"Well, two actually. I blew off President Clinton this morning. I hope you don’t mind." She had such a cute, sheepish grin on her face that Jamie had to laugh at her expression.

"The President, huh?" She looked thoughtful for a moment and asked, "Why would he call?" Her brow scrunched up and she tilted her head. "He would only call if it benefited him somehow …"

Ryan tapped her nose. "You hit it."

"I’m gonna guess that he wanted to let everybody know that you and I are big supporters of his."

"In a roundabout way," Ryan said. "He wanted to congratulate us for being so heroic; but he wanted CNN to record his message. I’m assuming they hoped we’d gush about how wonderful it was that such an important man could take a moment off to call us." She scowled and grumbled, "Given how he acts, he’s got nothing but free time – especially for young women."

Jamie’s head dropped into her hands. "Don’t tell me you gave him the lecture about exploiting his power to get blow jobs at work!" She leaned over to whisper "blow jobs" concerned that Martin or Maeve might hear.

"Kinda, but that wasn’t my first complaint. I started out with the gays in the military thing. I would have gotten to the blow jobs, but his press secretary had blown me off by then."

"You are incorrigible," Jamie said with a fond smile as she patted Ryan’s cheek.

"Do you mind that I did that, honey? I don’t want to embarrass your family. I mean, he was behind getting your father appointed to the Senate …"

"No, babe. I’m a bigger fan of the President than you are, but I fully recognize that politicians do this kind of thing for publicity. I’m sure my father wouldn’t want us to play along just for his sake. Besides, neither my dad nor the President is running for re-election."

"I’m sorry if I went too far," Ryan said. "Da wasn’t very happy with me, either."

Jamie cocked her head and said, "It’s always puzzled me a little that you’re so angry with him. You’re certainly not a sexual prude, and you seem awfully jaded about every other politician."

Ryan nodded her head briskly. "I’m jaded all right." She mulled the issue over for a moment and said, "I think I’m angry with him because he could have been so good, but the guy doesn’t have a strongly held conviction in his whole body. I think he had the desire to be a leader, but he’s the most political of all politicians. He runs every issue up the flagpole and sees how many people salute – rather than doing what he thinks is right. It doesn’t do much good to finally have a President that isn’t afraid of gay people – only to have him screw us just as badly as Bush did. At least Bush thought we sucked!"

"Okay, that makes sense, but why does the sex stuff bother you?"

"It was just the power imbalance, Jamers. He was the President, and she was an unpaid intern. I believe she wanted to do it, but what if she hadn’t? How do you say no to the leader of the Free World, when you’re just 22 years old? I just hate it when people use their power to get what they want."

"You’re always looking out for the little guy, aren’t ya, sport?" Jamie smiled fondly at her partner and said, "I’m afraid to ask who the second call was. You didn’t insult the Pope, did you?"

"No," Ryan said, "but I could give him an earful, too!"

"Siobhán!" Martin’s warning tone floated out from the kitchen.

"Sorry, Da," she called back, snickering softly. "No, the other call was from Willie Brown’s office."

"Well, you like him better than you like the President," Jamie said. "Did he want publicity, too?"

"Probably," she said, shrugging. "They want to honor us with some ceremony, and give us a medal."

Ryan looked like she had just learned the mayor was going to perform oral surgery on her without anesthesia, and Jamie immediately said, "We don’t have to do it, baby."

"You really don’t mind if I say no?" she asked, tentative about her instinct.

"If it were you alone, would you go?" Jamie asked, knowing the answer.

"Absolutely not!"

"Then we won’t go together," she said, surprised that Ryan would even think she would be interested in participating if they weren’t in agreement.

"You sure you don’t mind, honey? I’d hate to get in the way if you’d like a little stroking from society at large, but I just can’t stand it!"

"I only need to be stroked by you," Jamie said.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Just after noon, Catherine and Jim popped in unexpectedly. "Hello all," she called out brightly, not bothering to knock.

"We’re in the dining room," Jamie replied.

"Breakfast?" the older woman asked in surprise.

"Yep," her daughter mumbled around a mouthful of eggs.

First Catherine and then Jim kissed her head and hugged her gently. "Did you just get up, honey?"

"No, I’ve been up for a little while. Actually, a very little while," she admitted. "Tough night."

"Well, no wonder," Catherine said. "It will be a while before any of us sleep well, honey. You need to be gentle with yourself."

"I know," she said. "I’m trying not to feel guilty about my bed slug tendencies."

Catherine greeted Ryan in exactly the same way she had Jamie, but Jim was satisfied to just squeeze her shoulder. "How are you?" he asked.

"Not bad," she said, shrugging. She smiled at her partner and said, "I’m counting my blessings."

Martin and Maeve came out of the kitchen, and the group sat down at the table and shared another cup of coffee, snacking on some of the sugar cookies they had just taken from the oven. "I can’t imagine either of you feel like going with us," Catherine said.


"I told you last night that I wanted to replace the gifts you purchased for the girls," she said.

"Oh, Mom, you don’t have to do that!"

"But I want to," Catherine said. "We came by to get a list."

"I spoke to Jen this morning," Ryan said. "I told her about the gifts, but said that we wouldn’t be able to replace them until we got back from our trip, so the girls aren’t expecting anything."

"Nonsense, Ryan. It’s Christmas." Looking pensive for a moment she said, "Actually, since she knows about them, I think we’ll go pick her up and take her with us. She’ll know what everyone would like. She’d enjoy that, wouldn’t she?"

"Of course she would," Ryan said. "But it’s a zoo at the mall today, Catherine."

"I’m not much of a mall shopper," Catherine said. "I’m sure we can find a few places that aren’t overrun with shoppers."

"Be gentle with her," Ryan said. "She’s not used to running with the big dogs."

"I realize that, sweetheart," Catherine said. "She acted like Nordstrom’s was the most fantastic place she’d ever seen. Don’t you worry. We’ll be fine."

Ryan watched the pair get ready to leave, musing that Catherine looked completely normal. God, if I’d been that drunk, I’d still be in bed. She’s got some constitution!

* * * * * * * * * * *

They went downstairs together, and Jamie got into the shower while Ryan returned a few phone calls. When the blonde emerged she said, "I was thinking, honey. What do you say to doing some short-term therapy?"

"Mmm … we’ll see," Ryan said. "Once we get back from the Bahamas, we might feel fine."

"Ryan …"


"This isn’t going to go away like a bruise or a sprain. This is a big deal, honey."

"I know that," she acknowledged. "I said I’d consider it, didn’t I?" With an obviously forced smile, the brunette said, "I’m gonna go upstairs for a minute. Want anything?"

"No. No, thanks." Jamie watched her leave, shaking her head at the retreating form.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Ryan came back down, Jamie was on the phone, but she hung up after just a minute. "I left a message for Anna. I really need to vent a little today, and I’m getting the impression you’re not the right person to do that with."

Looking trapped, Ryan nodded briefly. "I don’t want to talk about it," she said. "Maybe in a few days … but not now."

"All right," Jamie said soothingly. "When you feel ready, love."

"Right. As soon as I’m ready." She stretched and looked around the room briefly. "I guess I’ll go back upstairs," she said. Before Jamie could say a word, she was gone once again.

I guess I’d better stop pushing this, or I’ll never see her again!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Hmm, it’s not so bad here, Mia thought as she approached the Arrivals section of the airport. I guess most people have already gotten to where they’re going for Christmas.

She pulled over to the curb in front of the huge United terminal and gazed out the passenger window to try and locate the smallest of the O’Flaherty brothers. Jordan was eagerly waiting just inside the wide sliding doors, and she ran out of the one located just behind Mia’s car, then snuck around the back of the little coupe and crouched down next to the driver’s door. She lifted her hand and tapped lightly on the window, very glad that the glass was up when Mia let out an ear piercing scream of delight upon seeing her face. The smaller woman was so stunned that for several moments she fumbled to find the switch to lower the window. Jordan just smiled as she heard the string of curses that flew from the cherubic looking face, but the window finally slid down. Mia reached out with both hands, pulled Jordan’s head and shoulders into the car, and immediately set upon her lips with a vengeance.

"Whoa," Jordan finally murmured as she tried to extract herself from Mia’s torrid embrace.

"Get in here," the smaller woman growled with a suggestive smile on her face. Jordan was only too happy to comply. She dashed back around, and tossed her small duffel bag into the back as her long legs slid into the front seat. She gave Mia a jubilant smile, but it was knocked off her face by the very determined brunette as she hurled herself against her taller lover, nearly squeezing the breath out of Jordan’s lungs.

They both lost all sense of time as they rained kisses onto each other’s mouth and face, but they were jarred from their passionate reunion by a sharp rap on the driver’s window. "Move along, lovebirds," the scowling police officer warned them sternly.

Mia shot upright and flashed the officer her most adorable grin. "I missed her," she said simply as she shrugged her shoulders while batting her eyes.

Even the stern police officer couldn’t help but smile back at her. He cast an appraising look at the two of them and said, "I’d miss either one of you, but you still can’t use this lane as a motel!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

When the giddy young lovers came running in, Mia dashed right over to Ryan and gave her a big kiss and an even bigger hug. "This is the best present anyone ever got for me," she said.

Jordan was right behind her, giving her friend a similar greeting. "I’m so glad you’re both all right," she said as she released Ryan and wrapped Jamie in a hug. "I was sitting in my room last night, channel surfing just before I went to sleep, and I saw this remarkable chase. I said to myself, ‘That guy really loves that damned car.’ Then they came on and said the car was registered to Jamie Evans and Si’-ob-han O’Flaherty. I yelled so loud all of my roommates came running in, and we all got on the bed and watched until it was over. I must have been wild, because one of the girls showed me the bruises I made on her shoulders when you flew into the bay!" She shook her head slowly as she said, "I don’t think I’ve ever been that frightened."

"It was a bitch," Ryan said, then she got up and started to walk into the kitchen. "Can I get you guys something to eat?"

Jordan gave her a puzzled look, and Jamie whispered, "She doesn’t like to talk about it."

"Oh," she said, nodding her head. "Yeah, I’ll take some water or juice," she called out to Ryan.

When Ryan came back in quite a few minutes later, she carried steaming mugs of apple cider. "I’m still cold," she muttered.

Jordan was sitting on the loveseat, and after Mia got up to fetch two mugs, she sat on the larger woman’s lap.

Martin came in with a tray of cookies, and Jamie saw his eyes widen when he caught sight of the pair. Maeve followed close behind him and gave them a startled glance herself. The older couple joined them when Ryan invited them to, and they all chatted for a while, sticking to safe topics like the Olympic tryouts. Eventually, Mia looked at Ryan quizzically and asked, "I wasn’t really supposed to wait for your brother, was I? It just dawned on me that I had a job to do!"

"No, he’s not coming in until this afternoon. You were only supposed to pick up Jordan."

"That I did," she said, leaning over to give her a tiny kiss. "Actually, I think Jordan needs a little nap. Borrow your room?"

"Sure," Ryan said. "Be my guests."

Martin had a hard time keeping up with the convoluted love lives of his own children, much less their friends, but he tried to understand this permutation. "Have I missed something here?" he asked with a puzzled look on his face after the pair had departed. "I thought Conor was interested in the lass."

"Oh, he is," Ryan said. "But Mia seems to have chosen a different path lately."

"Hmm, I can’t fault her taste," he said. "Conor’s not bad, but that’s the way I’d go!" He let out a laugh that turned into a giggle when Maeve gave him a good tickle. With a fond smile on her face, Jamie watched the pair tussle, thinking that her little apple had landed very, very close to the tree.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Conor got home a short time later, dusty and tired from a long day of playing electrician’s helper. "Hi, bro," Ryan said as she gave him a quick hug. "Did Brendan go to the airport?"

"No, we roped Dermot into going since he was the last to come over to the school. They should be here in an hour or so." He looked around the room and asked, "Did Mia get back with Jordan?"

"Yeah, about a half hour ago," Jamie said.

"Where are they?" he asked, then paused and answered his own question. "I assume they’re … reconnecting?"

He received a nod in confirmation, and shook his head as he climbed the stairs to take a shower. He was grumbling to himself as he walked, and Ryan didn’t catch most of it, though she was fairly certain that she heard the words "rubbing my face in it."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Dermot dropped Rory off, the last brother followed the O’Flaherty tradition of saying little, but offering a lavish degree of physical affection to both his sister and Jamie. "Why don’t you come upstairs and help me unpack?" he asked Ryan after a while.

She inclined her head and gave him a diffident shrug, "Okay."

As the pair walked upstairs, Jamie quietly commented to Martin, "I’m worried about her. She won’t talk about it at all today, and I’m afraid she’s gonna explode!"

"She’ll talk to Rory," Martin said, and Maeve echoed her agreement.

"Are you sure?" Jamie asked. "It’s not healthy for her to keep everything bottled up inside."

"Count on it," Martin said. "He’s always been the one who could make her talk about anything."

* * * * * * * * * * *

She sat on her brother’s bed, watching him put his things away. He’d only been gone four days, so he didn’t have much, but it was taking him quite a while to finish. "I thought you’d start talking if I gave you the opportunity," he finally said, grinning slyly as he turned to her. "But I can only fuss with my clothes for so long."

"I don’t much feel like talking," she said. "I’m probably still a little bit in shock."

He sat backwards on his rolling desk chair, crossing his arms over the back of the piece. Rolling the chair right next to the bed he commented, "You don’t look like you’re in shock. You do look like something’s bothering you, though. Wanna tell me?"

"Uhm … let’s see … the three of us were almost killed, we went swimming in the freezing bay in December, I shot a guy, Jamie almost drowned trying to save my stupid ass …" She scowled slightly and said, "Pick one, Rory. Most folks would be bothered by any one of ‘em."

Gazing at her speculatively he said, "Okay, I’ll pick one. I pick the one where you shot the guy. Tell me about that."

Her scowl deepened and she grumbled, "Nothing to talk about. I winged the asshole, and probably caused him to drive into the bay."

"I don’t know half of what happened, sis, but why did you have a gun? You’re not packin’ as a routine matter, are ya?"

"No," she said, failing to recognize his question as a joke. "I uhm … took it away from one of the carjackers."

"You took it away …? How?"

"He stuck it out of the passenger window and fired it blind, thinking he’d hit me. I managed to twist it out of his hand and break … something … either his arm or wrist … in the process."

"Wow," he said, closing his eyes as he considered how horrible the night must have been for his baby sister. "So then you shot him?"

"No." She didn’t say another word, just glumly stared at her feet.

Having a feeling that he was on the right track, he followed up, "What happened after you got the gun away?"

"We drove around for another twenty minutes while the other guy tried to kill me. They shot at me through the roof until they were almost out of ammo, then Jamie warned me that the driver was going to get out at the bottom of the hill and kill me. I winged him so he couldn’t."

He let her words sink in, then nodded slowly. "Even though you haven’t been to the shooting range in a while, I bet you’re still a very good marksman, Ryan. I’ve got to assume you meant to wing him – especially at that range." He’d been watching her carefully, noting that she seemed to grow more and more agitated while talking about this element of her ordeal. He really had no idea why she was so bothered by merely wounding one of her attackers, but he knew her well enough to know that she was very upset by something she’d done.

"Yeah. I intended to wing him." Again, she didn’t elaborate, just gazed blankly at a spot somewhere above the toes of her shoes.

He cocked his head, and asked the question that had been niggling at the back of his brain. "Why didn’t you kill the driver as soon as you got the gun? Did you think they’d chicken out or give up if you gave them a little time?"

Her dark head shook, and her eyes closed tightly. "No."

Tears were leaking out of her eyes, and he reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. "Tell me, Ryan. Come on, tell me why you’re hurting."

She was squeezing her eyes so tightly closed that her long eyelashes were fully hidden. "I was afraid," she gasped out, starting to cry hysterically.

He hopped out of his chair and sat on the edge of his bed, drawing her tightly against his chest. Holding her, he soothed her as best he could. "Of course you were afraid. Only a psychopath wouldn’t be afraid in a situation like that. I would have wet my pants."

"No," she croaked. "I was afraid to kill him. I knew it was the best solution, Rory, but I couldn’t make myself do it."

"Oh, Ryan," he sighed, "You can’t feel bad about that! I don’t think I could have done it, either. But that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is that you’re all alive!"

"No, no, no, no," she said, her voice growing progressively louder. "That’s not all that matters! They were trying to kill us, and instead of making sure they couldn’t, I let them terrorize my lover for another twenty minutes." She took in a shuddering breath and said, "One of them almost killed her right before it was all over. He had the gun aimed at her head, and his finger was on the trigger. But he wanted to kill me just a little more than he wanted to kill her. If there had been another round in that weapon, she’d be dead today, Rory. We’d be at the mortuary right now, picking out her fucking casket! And it would be all my fault!" Her hands went to her head and she grabbed handfuls of her hair and gave them a rough yank, trying to physically rip the gruesome image from her head. "I swear I would have turned that gun on myself if she had died. My life would be nothing without her, Rory!"

"Ryan, Ryan," he soothed, "I know how you feel about her, and I know you’d do anything to keep her safe. For God’s sake, sis, you practically volunteered for death last night just to protect her and Caitie!"

"I should have killed him! I should have killed both of them!"

"Now just stop it!" he said, giving her a good shake. "Stop it right now, Ryan." He held her by her shoulders so that he could look into her eyes. "You don’t get second chances in a situation like that. You made your choice, and it worked out beautifully. Shit, Ryan, what if you had killed him and the car had swerved and been hit by a MUNI bus or a cable car. You’d all be dead! Would you feel better in your last moments for having killed him first?"

"Of course not," she grumbled.

"Ryan, I’m not just blowing smoke at you! You thought the right choice was to kill them, but you could have been horribly wrong. You claim that you were just too afraid to kill them, but maybe something inside told you to take a more moderate course. Those assholes made their choices, you each made yours. You’re all bound by your choices now, Ryan. And from my perspective, you made the perfect choice – for whatever reasons. It’s the result that matters."

She shook her head slowly and muttered, "I’m doubting who I am, Rory. I’ve always said that I could kill to protect my family – I was certain of that! I’ve told Jamie that a number of times. But when I was faced with the choice, I put the same value on those motherfucker’s lives as I did on Jamie's and Caitlin’s. I feel so guilty about it that I can hardly look Jamie in the eye today."

He looked at her carefully for a few moments, then said, "You have nothing to feel guilty about. You voluntarily put your life at risk to protect Jamie and Caitlin as best you could. You did your very best to make sure that all of you survived. There’s no disgrace in that, Ryan. How can trying to avoid killing a person be a source of shame? That’s just nuts, and you’re not the kind of woman who thinks irrational thoughts."

"I’m exactly that kind of woman," she sighed. "I feel like I’m going insane, Ror. I haven’t had one rational thought since it happened." She shook her head and revealed, "I absolutely lost it at the hospital last night. The doctor called in a security guard because he was afraid of me." Looking at him with a face full of stark confusion, she repeated, "He was afraid of me."

"Oh, Ryan," he sighed. He clutched her tighter and gave her a hearty squeeze. "You’ve been through a horrible, horrible experience. You’re not going to be thinking straight for some time. All sorts of things are going to go through your mind, but only one thing matters," he said. "Because of you and because of Jamie, we’re not at the funeral home today. We’re celebrating Christmas Eve with every member of our family healthy and whole." He bent and kissed her forehead, lingering for a moment while he tried to stop his tears. "I have never been prouder of you."

"I love you, Rory," she said, sobbing. "Thanks for being my brother."

"Best job in town," he said, giving her another hearty embrace.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan had been upstairs for well over an hour, and when she returned her eyes were red and swollen, as were Rory’s. Even though she looked extremely upset, her mood somehow seemed lighter, and Jamie once again mused that Martin knew his children very, very well.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Not long after Rory and Ryan had returned to the group, Tommy dropped Caitlin off so he and Annie could catch a nap – their sleep having been terribly fitful as well. The toddler’s arrival seemed to cheer Ryan even more. She was too stiff to play their usual games, so Rory took over for her, carrying the laughing baby around on his shoulders and holding her upside down until her face turned pink.

Conor came down after he had showered and had a quick nap, and he was in much brighter spirits than he had been in when he'd first returned home. He and Rory got down on the floor with the baby, and created a human playpen by sitting opposite each other with their legs spread wide and their feet touching. Every time Cait tried to escape one or the other would grab her and tickle her tummy, making her laugh so hard that Maeve kept warning that someone would soon be receiving her lunch in his lap.

Watching her brothers and the baby laugh loud and long, Ryan started to relax a little, and she soon forced herself to ignore her stiff muscles and join the boys, expanding the dimensions of the playpen significantly with the addition of her long legs. Jamie was feeling pretty spry, having taken some pain relievers for her ribs; so she assisted her partner, crawling around the outside of the playpen, making threatening gestures at the shrieking baby, warning her not to even try to escape from their side.

Mia and Jordan came upstairs after their "nap," and they got into the game, also. Soon the walls were nearly shaking with laughter, and Martin leaned over and commented to his wife, "I thought the house would quiet down once they were grown."

"No, Marty, they just get louder," she said, raising her voice to be heard.

"I wouldn’t change it for the world," he said, tucking an arm around her shoulders and hugging her firmly.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Jim, Catherine and Jennie arrived just before four, they were so loaded down with boxes and bags that Conor and Rory were recruited to help carry the excess.

The boys went outside with Jim, and as soon as they cleared the door Jim asked, "Do the girls know how bad it is out here?"

Conor stood on the deck and looked down at the street. The narrow roadway was almost completely blocked by news vans, satellite trucks, huge SUV’s loaded with cameras and other equipment, and a raft of cars belonging to the phalanx of reporters. "No, they don’t know," Conor said. "We decided this morning to try to keep them in the dark. I know my sis, and she’d freak if she knew they were surrounded like this."

"She’s not in good shape," Rory said. "I spoke to her for a long time this afternoon, and she’s very, very shaky. Isn’t there anything we can do to get rid of these vultures?"

Jim nodded, his eyes narrowing. "I’m gonna call in a favor, fellas." He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number, then waited for his secretary in Washington to answer. "Merry Christmas," he said brightly. "Now, don’t worry. No big crisis, I just want a phone number." He waited patiently until she turned on her laptop, then made his request. "I need the private cell phone number for Willie Brown." Conor and Rory’s eyes widened, and a moment later Jim switched off. "He’s a very creative guy," he said confidently, dialing the number. "Willie? Jim Evans. Merry Christmas, Mayor! How would you like to give your favorite senator a nice, big present?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

"My God!" Martin cried as the loot was taken down to the basement. "What on earth did you buy?"

"We bought just enough to give each of the girls a couple of nice outfits, some underwear, a few casual blouses, some jeans and a few computers so they can get their schoolwork done more efficiently," Catherine informed him. "We just replicated the things the girls had in the Lexus."

Jennie’s eyes were glazed as Ryan helped carry the last of the bags down to her room. "Kinda hard to get used to isn’t it?" Ryan asked gently as she placed her hand on Jennie’s shoulder.

"I … I … I’ve never seen anything like it," she mumbled, her eyes wide and unfocused.

"We wanted to make sure that you had all the help you need at Sacred Heart," Ryan said.

"I’ve never seen a computer like the one you bought me," she said. "It weighs less than two pounds and it’s actually got a little digital camera built right in. Catherine said I can take it to school and take my notes right on it! And buying me Corel Draw was just too much!" she enthused. "I never, ever thought I’d have anything that cool, Ryan! I just don’t know what to say!"

You can say, ‘Thank you, Catherine,’ because that was clearly not the Costco special!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Later that afternoon, Jamie was downstairs dressing when she heard a quiet knock on the door. "Yeah?"

The door opened slightly, then Catherine’s voice asked, "Would you mind some company?"

"No, of course not. Come on in, Mom. I’m just getting dressed."

The older woman entered, and stood close to the door, looking a little uncomfortable.

"Have a seat," Jamie said, indicating the loveseat. She saw her mother hesitate, and she said, "I really don’t mind having you here when I’m getting ready. I’m much less shy than I used to be."

"No, it’s not that," Catherine said. "I’m just a little nervous."

"Why?" The younger woman slipped her slacks on and zipped them, then went over to sit next to her mother. "What are you nervous about?"

"I don’t … I don’t handle shame well," she said quietly. "And I’m deeply ashamed of myself for how I behaved last night."

Giving her a robust hug, Jamie murmured, "You have nothing to be ashamed of. It was a horrible night for all of us, Mom, and you were just … you did what you needed to do to get through it."

"I owe you an apology, honey," she said. "I hope … I hope I didn’t embarrass you."

"Oh, Mom, don’t think like that. Last night was so out-of-control – on every front. You’ve never embarrassed me, and you never will."

"I’m glad that one of us thinks that," Catherine said softly. "I’m not so confident."

"Well, I am," Jamie said. She got up and finished getting dressed, her mother quietly watching her.

"I’m afraid of making another promise, Jamie, but I’m going to try, with all of my heart, to be available to you while you recover from this trauma. I’m not sure I know how to help, but I’ll certainly try."

Sitting down next to her again, Jamie patted her leg and said, "I know you will."

"Is there anything you want to talk about now? You seem to be doing remarkably well, honey."

"I’m okay," she said. "I spoke to my therapist today, and she thinks I’m still in shock. She says that things will start to break through over the next few days or weeks – probably when I’m sleeping, unfortunately. I don’t look forward to that, but knowing that it is likely to happen is strangely reassuring. She says my psyche will let things in a little bit at a time, and we’ll just deal with them as they come up."

"You like her very much, don’t you, honey," Catherine said.

"Oh, yeah, she’s just perfect for me. She’s always very up-front with me, and she warns me about things before they happen. Some people might not like that, but it’s great for me."

"I’m very glad you have her. Of course, with the way you and Ryan talk about everything … it’s like you have two therapists."

"Sometimes," Jamie said, "but not this time. Ryan’s very closed-off about the whole thing. It worries me, Mom."

"Give her some time, honey, I’m sure she’s in shock, too. She’ll probably be ready to talk in a day or two."

"I hope so," she said, a worried look on her face. "It’s never good when she clams up. She’s always happier when she’s able to talk."

"That’s why you’re such a good pair," Catherine said, smiling at her.

"One of the main reasons," Jamie said. "We have more sensitive chats in a month than most people have in their whole lives." She chuckled softly and said, "But it works for us."

"Well, I’m no Ryan, but I’m always available to chat," Catherine said. "Actually, that’s the other reason I came down here. I want you to think about something and give me your honest opinion."

"Sure. What is it, Mom?"

"I think I should cancel my trip to Italy. I think I’d feel much better if I was close by."

Jamie nodded, then contemplated the issue for a few minutes. "I think you should go," she said. "We’re going to be down in North Carolina, then in the Bahamas, so we won’t even be around for most of your trip. I think it would be good for you to get away for a while, to be honest, Mom. I know you’ve been looking forward to the trip, and to seeing Giacomo – so I honestly think you should go."

"Are you sure, honey? I worry about being so far away. What if you need me?"

"I always need you, Mom," she said. "But I can always reach you on the phone – and if some emergency arose, you could be on the next flight home. I really want you to go. I want you to have a nice New Year’s."

Catherine sighed, then nodded. "All right. It might be best for all of us to get away for a while."

"I agree. And by the time we all get home, this mess will be just a memory. A really horrible memory."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Martin had invited the crowd for seven o’clock so, as expected, nearly everyone was there by five. As the room got more crowded, Jim went out onto the deck to get some fresh air. Conor saw him leave and followed him out, quietly surveying the near-silent street. "Nice job," he said.

"I have no idea how the mayor did it," Jim said, "but he said it was a one-day-only proposition."

"I just couldn’t stand to have her Christmas Eve ruined," Conor sighed, his voice catching as a few tears slid down his cheeks. "She loves Christmas."

"So does Jamie," Jim said. "They’re coming back to our house after the midnight church service. Things should be calm down there."

Conor wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. "You’re going to church with us? Not with your father?"

"First time for everything," Jim said. "I’d go to a Republican fund-raiser with her at this point, Conor. I can hardly bear to be away from her."

"I know what you mean," the younger man said. "I had to go do a job today, and I spent every minute wishing I were at home."

Jim chuckled quietly. "We’re a pair, aren’t we?"

Conor shrugged agreeably. "So are they, Jim. So are they."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan looked quite elegant in her black silk pants and a snug black wool turtleneck. A thin, silver chain belt rode low on her hips, and her platinum necklace, as well as both of the blue diamond earrings, gave her a little sparkle.

Since they’d gotten dressed separately, Ryan hadn’t seen her partner yet, and she cornered Jamie in the dining room as soon as she appeared, spending a few minutes showing her just how lovely the smaller woman looked in her navy blue velvet slacks and short jacket, with the ivory satin chemise underneath. "One of the things I love about the way you dress is that your clothes always feel great," Ryan whispered as she ran her hands all over the soft garments that covered her lover’s body. "Sometimes we’re in a room with other people, and I just want to lean over and touch your soft clothing." Her eyes closed as she continued to touch her. "Mmm, I’ll think about the way you feel all night," she said.

"Knock it off you two," Conor said as he stood in the doorway, nearly filling it with his substantial body.

Patting her partner, Jamie reluctantly shifted her eyes away from her to turn to her brother-in-law. "You look very nice tonight, Conor," she said appreciatively as she took in his monochromatic steel gray shirt and tie, and the slightly darker gray suit.

"Thanks. Lot of good it’ll do me though. A house full of great looking women, and every one is allergic to testosterone!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

The party was in full swing when Sara arrived at eight, having put in a full day of work. Jamie answered the door, and the taller woman gently wrapped her arms around her and held on for a long while, sniffing her tears away while her shoulders shook. "I’m so grateful that you’re both safe."

Ryan caught sight of the display and dashed over to the door, urging both her partner and Sara outside so they could have a little privacy. Sara gave Ryan a hug as well, but it was much briefer than the one she had bestowed on Jamie. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and said, "I must be the only person in San Francisco who didn’t know about your … adventure," she said, not having a better word for it. "I was at work so late last night that I didn’t watch the news when I got home, and I was running late today so I didn’t even glance at the morning paper."

"When did you hear?" Ryan asked.

"Well, actually, while I was on the bus going in I heard people talking about the woman who rode all over the city on the roof of a car, and then dove into the bay to save her attacker, but of course I didn’t know it was you."

"You should always assume that news reports of a crazy woman doing something wild are very likely about me," Ryan said, trying to lighten the mood.

"Ally called me from San Diego and she’s the one who told me it was you two," Sara said. "She said to give you each a big hug for her."

"We spoke to her earlier," Ryan nodded. Once again, she tried to shift the topic. "I’m a little jealous of her being able to go surfing today."

Sara’s face grew serious as she placed her hands lightly on Ryan’s crossed arms. "I’m very glad that you’re safe." Her dark brown eyes blinked slowly as she said, "I’m also very glad I didn’t know it was happening at the time. I don’t know how your family survived the anxiety."

Ryan had been fidgeting the entire time, but now she looked like she wanted to climb off the deck to get away from the distressing topic. "You just do what you have to," she said. "Uhm … let’s go in, huh? It’s kinda cold out here."

Giving her a puzzled look, Sara followed her in, but as soon as they were inside, Jamie tugged on her sleeve. "She can’t talk about it, Sara. It’s still too fresh in her mind."

Her face fell and she sighed. "Is there anything I can do?"

"No, I don’t think so," Jamie said. "Just try to act as normally as you can. I know it’s hard, but it’s what she needs."

Sara nodded and said softly, "She was like this when Michael died."

Jamie blinked, having it once again hit her that Sara knew Ryan so well. "Would you come downstairs with me?" she asked. "I need some help."

"Sure." Duffy saw they were heading downstairs, so he came along, much preferring to be away from the crowd, if possible. Jamie sat on Ryan’s desk chair, with Sara claiming the loveseat. Duffy lay at Jamie’s feet, shifting around until he was pressed up against her leg.

"I don’t know much about how Ryan handled Michael’s death," Jamie said. "But it just occurred to me that she might have some of the same reactions to this trauma that she did then. Can you think of anything that might help me get her through this?"

Sara gave her a puzzled look and asked, "You make it sound like this was something that Ryan did alone. Aren’t you just as upset as she is?"

"No," she said, shaking her head. "I’m not sure why, but she’s not dealing with this well at all, Sara. She seems so bottled up. It’s beginning to frighten me."

The brunette sighed and nodded briefly, "To be honest, she was exactly the same when Michael died. She couldn’t talk about it at all – with anyone. Her father was so worried about her he was just sick. Finally, he and Maeve forced her to go to a grief support group." She shivered and said, "It was a horrible time for the whole family."

"They went with her?" Jamie asked.

"Oh, no," she said. "This was a group for kids. But one of them had to take her to make her stay in the room. For the first few weeks, they dropped her off, and she’d run out of the room as soon as they left. They only found out because Martin was driving home after he'd dropped her off one day, and he passed her running down the street."

The smaller woman shook her head. "She’s told me before about being in therapy. I got the impression that she thought she benefited from it."

"Oh, she did," Sara said. "She was about to go mad, Jamie. It was a terrible time for her. All she did was bang on that boxing stuff that Conor had, and play Michael’s guitar. She played so long and so hard that her fingertips bled. She had calluses like I’ve never seen." She shook her head slowly. "It was so hard to reach her," she said. "It was like all of the joy was just sucked out of her. But once her father made her start talking about it, she started to let some of her anger out, and she finally got back to her old self."

"Why was it so hard for her to talk about it with her family?" Jamie asked. "Didn’t they want to?"

"Oh, yeah, they did. But they were as sad as she was, Jamie. I think she was afraid of making it worse for them. You know how she hates causing anyone pain." Her brow furrowed and she said, "I think Michael’s death was so awful for her because of her anger. You know how hard it is for her to express that."

The blonde nodded, thinking that her lover hadn’t changed much at all in the intervening years. She got up and hugged Sara impulsively, saying, "Thank you. It’s really helpful to know things like this. I’ll know what to look for this time out."

"You’re welcome," she said. "I’ll do anything to help, Jamie. Anything."

"You’ve helped a lot," Jamie said. "Just having you here helps make things seem more normal for both of us."

They went back upstairs, and Caitlin came toddling over. Sara stooped to swoop her into her arms, asking, "Who’s my favorite baby?"

"Tanna!" she gurgled, her eyes bright.

"Tanna?" Sara asked, looking to Jamie for interpretation.

"New word," she said, winking. Turning to Caitlin, she asked in an excited voice, "Who comes down the chimney tonight?"

The brunette caught on quickly, and she and Caitlin cried in unison, "Tanna!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Aren’t they cute together?" Ryan commented to Jamie from their perch on the second floor looking down on the crowd.

"Totally," she said fondly. They had been sitting together for quite a while, the crowd having grown too loud and the room too warm for Ryan. At the moment they were watching Mia and Jordan attempt to eat dinner. For some reason, both women had decided that the other was unable to feed herself; though the crowded room, the paper plates, and the tiny plastic knife and fork made the task a challenging one, they seemed to be having a good time, nonetheless. "I think the present was a success, babe."

"Yeah, I even guessed the right size," Ryan noted. "When do you want to give them their tickets for New Years?"

"Let’s do it tonight before we leave for Mass," Jamie said. "Why don’t you give Jordan hers first, just to make sure her schedule hasn’t changed. Then give me the high sign, and I’ll give Mia hers."

"Deal," Ryan replied amiably. Her stomach had acclimated to the muscle relaxant, and her appetite had partially returned. It seemed the only thing she was interested in was cookies and ice cream, but at least she was getting some calories. They had both been munching on the assortment of desserts that the aunts had baked, and Ryan gallantly finished everything that Jamie could not handle. She put the plates aside and scooted up against the wall, pulling Jamie up against her side. As her arm wrapped around velvet-covered shoulders, Ryan leaned her head against Jamie’s. "I was just thinking about last Christmas," she said softly.

"I’ve been thinking about that all night," Jamie said with a shy laugh. "It was so vitally important that I come to see you, I honestly didn’t care how mad Jack got if he found out. But that’s the first time I can ever remember intentionally deceiving him," she said with a quick shake of her head.

"That must have been hard for you," Ryan said. "I know that period was particularly difficult for you and Jack."

"You know," Jamie said thoughtfully, "I don’t think I’ve ever properly thanked you for helping to keep me sane during those months. I swear, Ryan, if it wasn’t for you I would have been profoundly depressed … at best."

Ryan squeezed her tight and murmured right into her ear," You don’t have to thank me for being your friend. It was an intensely pleasurable experience." She leaned over a tiny bit and placed a soft kiss on her partner’s cheek. "I don’t think I’ve ever expressed just how much your Christmas presents meant to me. At the time, I didn’t know exactly how much money you had, but I knew it was a lot," she said, chuckling. "I was really kinda worried that you would buy me some extravagant gift that would make me feel uncomfortable. I was so amazed when you gave me the tickets for all of the kid-oriented attractions in the city." She shook her head slowly, still savoring the memory.

"Why was that so meaningful for you?" Jamie asked curiously.

"A couple of reasons. First, it showed that you understood that buying me something expensive would offend me. It showed that you understood who I was, and that always makes me feel special. Secondly, it showed that you understood how important Caitlin was to me. Tracy had just hurt my feelings pretty badly when she made it clear that she didn’t want to spend time with the baby. You not only understood she was important to me, you wanted to come along with us, which really made me feel good."

Jamie snuggled up a little closer, tickling Ryan’s nose with her hair as she did so. She chuckled briefly as she admitted, "You have no idea how much time I spent thinking about a gift for you. But you know, I never considered a gift that didn’t include me!" She laughed wryly as she added, "God! I was clueless!"

"I think you’re being a little harsh with yourself," Ryan said. "We’d only known each other four months at the time, Jamie. You processed things as quickly as you could."

"I guess, but my behavior still amazes me. Wanna hear about the gift that I really wanted to give you?"


"I actually used to dream about this one," she said, chuckling softly.

"Dream about it?"

"Yeah. I was so grateful for all of the time and energy that you had already expended helping me get ready for the ride. I thought, and I thought, and finally I came upon an idea that seemed just perfect. So perfect that I had several very … pleasant dreams about it."

"This I gotta hear," Ryan said.

"I thought that since you were teaching me to ride your way, I’d pay you back by teaching you to ride my way."

Ryan tilted her head back and closed her eyes halfway. "I’m thinking sherpas to carry our stuff and motors on the bikes."

Slapping at her partner's thigh, Jamie said, "Not at all! We were going to ride in the traditional way – we were just going to be riding in Tuscany," she said, her eyes glimmering with the fantasy. "I wanted to rent a couple of road bikes and ride from town to town, stopping at elegant little spots along the way."

"Tuscany?" Ryan asked, her eyes wide.

"Definitely," Jamie said, sighing deeply. "I’d put myself to sleep at night thinking of sitting on a broad terrace, overlooking a slope filled with lavender, the sun warming our bodies. We’d be sipping a crisp wine, eating a big slice of melon – so fresh from the fields that it was still warm. A little strip of salty prosciutto would be wrapped around the melon, and I could almost taste the contrast of the salt with the incredible sweetness of that melon." Her eyes fluttered closed, and she purred softly.

"I can taste it now," Ryan murmured, feeling like purring herself. "What a nice thought."

"Oh, yeah," Jamie moaned. "I’d lie in bed and think about popping that last bite of melon into your mouth … and having your teeth rake across my finger." She shivered a bit and said, "But then I’d force myself to stop thinking like that. Waaaay too dangerous. The next night though, I’d imagine feeding you an herb-flecked olive, and I’d think about your tongue sliding down my finger … and I’d have to stop for the night." She fanned herself with her open hand. "You sucked on my fingers all across Tuscany in my fantasy."

"Did I ever feed myself?" Ryan asked, just a hint of teasing in her voice.

"Oh, sure. And of course, sometimes you fed me," she said. "Then I’d imagine staring into your eyes while sucking on your fingers when you placed a bite of a big juicy peach in my mouth … and I’d have to stop for the night."

"We sure would have had clean fingers," Ryan said.

"Okay, wise guy. Do you still think I wasn’t clueless?"

"Maybe just a tiny bit," Ryan admitted. "It’s really tough on your psyche when you’re trying to deny something that desperately wants to get out."

"I know," she sighed. "It was wonderful to dream about, though. I knew we’d have a marvelous time."

"Without question," Ryan said. "But I’m glad you didn’t try to give me that trip, honey. It wasn’t the right time. Now we can do something like that and suck on each other’s fingers with a consciously salacious intent."

"Some day," Jamie said, "I’m gonna get you to Tuscany by hook or by crook. I know you’ll love it so much you won’t want to come home."

"I look forward to it," Ryan sighed. "I can’t wait to get away from home for a while. Our trip can’t start soon enough for me."

They were quiet for a moment, each of them thinking idly of the previous year. "I have to tell you again how much the gift you made for me meant," Jamie said. She turned slightly and regarded Ryan for a moment. "People have given me things my whole life. But I’d been given so much that things started to mean less and less to me. That little homemade training journal really made an impact on me because you made it with your own hands, and I could see how much of yourself you put into it." She chuckled once again as she admitted, "I sometimes used to read the little sayings and poems that you had written, and trace the words with my finger, imagining your hand as you wrote them. It made me feel close to you when I was lonely," she said softly.

"I spent a lot of time making that book for you," Ryan said. "I felt like I was giving you a part of myself, and I needed it to be perfect." Ryan laughed deep in her chest, and Jamie lifted her head a bit to look up at her. "I remember getting dressed on Christmas Eve," she said. "I think I put on every sweater that I owned before I finally decided on what to wear. And as you now know, obsessing about my wardrobe was pretty unusual for me. After I fussed with myself in the mirror for 20 minutes, I finally said, ‘What’s up with you today?’ It didn’t dawn on me then that I wanted to look nice for you, but that must have been it."

"It worked," Jamie said softly. "I remember seeing you standing there in the doorway in that deep red sweater, with your glossy black hair, and thinking that you were the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen." She turned slightly and rested her hands flat against Ryan’s chest. "I haven’t changed my mind," she said as she dipped her head and started to place sweet, gentle kisses on Ryan’s dark pink lips.

The kisses quickly deepened in their intensity as Ryan slowly opened her mouth to allow Jamie’s questing tongue to enter. A guttural groan came from the larger woman as Jamie grasped her face with both hands and taunted her mercilessly by running her tongue all over Ryan’s lips, tracing the outlines with a maddeningly slow pace. With a growl, she leaned heavily against Ryan’s body to kiss her more deeply, feeling her quickening heartbeat against her breast. After a few moments Ryan pulled away forcefully and gasped, "I … I can’t ... it’s too much."

"Shh …" Jamie soothed, seeing the fine glow of perspiration that had begun to form on Ryan’s skin. "I don’t mean to push you, sweetheart. I know things are intense for you right now."

She looked absolutely helpless, her eyes wide and glassy. "I want to be close … I really want to! But it feels like I’m suffocating …"

"We are close," Jamie reassured her. "We’ve very close, sweetheart. We’ll get through this, Ryan. I promise we’ll get through this."

Ryan held her tight, squeezing a little harder than Jamie would have chosen, given her sore ribs, but she didn’t say a word. "Are you sure?" she rasped out.

Pulling back, Jamie stared directly into her eyes and enunciated clearly. "I promise you that we’ll both be fine, Ryan. There isn’t a doubt in my mind."

Seeing her confidence, Ryan nodded slowly. "I believe you," she whispered.

"A minute ago you reminded me how tough it is on your psyche to try to hold things in. That’s why I want you to have a little therapy. You’ve got things that are trying to get out of that pretty head, and you’re trying not to let them."

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, and Jamie could feel her start to shake. "Not now, Jamie, not now … please."

"I’m sorry for bringing it up again," she sighed, wrapping her lover in a snug hold. "Don’t think about it now, Ryan. Let’s just try to have as nice a Christmas as we possibly can."

"I’ll try," Ryan said, her voice tight with the tension she was unable to express.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Late in the evening, Jordan spied her friend sitting on the second floor overhang, looking down at the crowd. She excused herself from the conversation she and Mia were having with Catherine to spend a few moments alone with her. "Hey, buddy," she said as she wrapped her arm around Ryan’s waist. "You look like you’re a million miles away."

Ryan nodded. "That feels about right."

"So how are you … really?" she asked, locking eyes with her. "No bullshit."

Ryan tilted her head back, and allowed herself to think for a moment. "You’re one of the first to ask that," she admitted.

"That’s understandable." Jordan said as she leaned back and dropped her head against her friend’s shoulder. "It’s hard to know what to say."

"It’s so odd, Jordan. I was nearly killed, and then I nearly killed someone, and the President called to congratulate me. I just can’t wrap my mind around it."

"I truly can’t imagine," she said. "But I’m here if you want to talk about it. I mean, I’m no Jamie, but I’m a good listener."

"Things are weird between us," Ryan said. "I don’t feel like I can vent to her, since she has her own fears and I don’t want to hear them. She was in the car with them, Jordan, and I know they said some things and did some things that scared the piss out of her, but I don’t want to know about it. This is the first time that I’ve ever been unable to be there for her."

"Are you okay being with her if you don’t talk about it?"

"Yeah. Off and on. We’ve actually been pretty physical with each other, holding each other and things like that." She shook her head and revealed, "I freaked out a few minutes ago, though. She started to kiss me and when she pressed her weight against me, I felt like I was being strangled." She shivered roughly and said, "I hope to God that doesn’t continue, or I’ll lose my mind. Having her close is the only thing keeping me sane."

"Just take it slow," Jordan said. "Talk about it in little bits --just until you start to feel uncomfortable."

"I can’t," Ryan said, her color beginning to drain from her face. "I just can’t talk to her, Jordan."

"Are you okay talking about it with me?"

"Uhm … not okay," she admitted, "but it’s definitely easier. You weren’t involved," Ryan said. "That’s the key. She knows what it was like – she knows how it felt to plunge into the bay – she knows how terrifying it was to try to save Caitlin – it’s just too much. It’s like her fear makes mine exponentially greater."

"Maybe you’d do better if you both agreed not to talk about it for a while. I mean, I know you’ve got stuff to get off your chest, and she does too. Maybe you just shouldn’t do it together."

Ryan slid her arm around her friend and said, "Not a bad idea. Maybe we should just offer each other physical comfort for a few days."

"Speaking of your mate, where is she?"

Ryan shook her head slightly and pointed. "She’s talking to Sara. Actually, I was just sitting here thinking of how odd it is that Sara is still in my life."

Chuckling mildly, Jordan said, "I don’t know how you two do it. I sure wouldn’t want Mia’s old boyfriend celebrating the holidays with us."

Ryan’s eyes narrowed and Jordan wished she could pull her opinion back into her mouth and swallow it. Enunciating crisply, Ryan said, "Jamie asked me to invite her."

"I wasn’t criticizing, buddy. I was actually trying to pay Jamie a compliment, but it didn’t come out like that. All I meant to say was that she’s a special woman to be able to welcome someone like Sara into your home."

"She’s beyond special, Jordan," she said, some of the tension leaving her body. "She’s … she’s ... " Her head dropped down, and she sat completely still for a moment. "I don’t have words for what she means to me. I’m sorry I got pissed when you brought up Sara's being here, but when I think of how I feel for Jamie, compared to how I felt for her … it’s not even in the same ball park. Yes, I loved Sara, but Jamie’s my very life."

"That’s how you treat her, too," the blonde assured her.

"Sometimes," Ryan mumbled softly. "Not often enough."

"We’re all guilty of that," Jordan said. "It’s when you come close to losing someone that you stand back and think of how you sometimes fail to appreciate people like you should." She smiled gently at Ryan and said, "I spend a lot of time thinking about Mia. There have been so many opportunities that I’ve let pass me by. Damn, Ryan, I’ve been in love with her almost from the start." She lifted her head and gazed at her friend sadly. "Why haven’t I told her?"

"I can’t answer that," Ryan said. "But you can remedy your oversight at any time, buddy."

"I’m just … I’m just chicken," she muttered.

"I think she loves you too, Jordan."

Jordan blushed deeply as she admitted, "I think she’s leaning in that direction. God! I’ve never had anyone in my life act that happy to see me! It just made my heart ache, Ryan," she said as she shook her head. "I find out on Friday if I make the team. Maybe once I know what my status is, I’ll feel more confident about talking to her about a commitment."

"Are you planning on coming home to see her if you make the team?"

Jordan shook her head glumly, "No, I just can’t swing it. I’ll get paid if I make the team, but this is all gratis now. I’ve been running through my money really quickly since I can’t stand to eat in the dorm. It’s not bad food, but it’s dorm food, you know? We’ve been eating out almost every meal, and Colorado Springs is expensive," she said. "We’re planning on spending New Year's Eve talking on the phone," she said with a wry chuckle. "Mia was thinking about coming over, but I can’t have her stay with me in the dorm. We’d have to get a hotel room, and they’re really expensive because of this millennium nonsense. So we decided that she’d wait and come visit me if I make the team. Then I’ll have an apartment where we can have some privacy."

"That sounds like a pretty grim way to see in the New Year," Ryan murmured, her math conscience unwilling to incorrectly call it the new millennium.

"Well, the good news is that if I get cut, I can take the last plane out and be home for New Year's Eve. Of course, I’ll be so depressed, I’ll feel like killing myself!"

"I don’t think that’s a very good plan," Ryan said as she shook her head. "I think you should plan to do something that you would enjoy -- no matter what happens." She reached into her side pocket and pulled out a slightly rumpled envelope, handing it to Jordan with a smile.

"What’s this …?" she began, but quickly stared at Ryan in slack jawed surprise. "Miami?" she asked slowly. "But why …?"

"That’s just the first stop," Ryan said. "Jamie’s mom found us a great hotel in the Bahamas, and we want you and Mia to join us. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see the New Year in with than you two."

"But, Ryan," she said weakly, "this is just so … so incredibly generous …"

"Would you like to come?" Ryan asked as she lowered her gaze and stared into Jordan’s eyes.

"Of course!"

"That’s all that matters," Ryan said. "It will really make it special for us to have our best friends with us." She smiled up at her friend, and gasped a bit as Jordan threw her arms around her and squeezed her tight.

"This means more than I can ever tell you," she said. "Not just the trip, and not just the chance to be with Mia, but to be one of your close friends." She couldn’t stop the tears from falling as Ryan wrapped her in a gentle embrace. They held each other close for a few minutes until Jordan pulled back and let out a soft sob. "I was so fucking scared for you guys last night," she said as a shiver ran down her body. "You both mean so much to me."

"You mean a lot to us too, Jordan, and we’re both going to try to be around for a very long time."

"That’s my Christmas wish," she said softly, squeezing Ryan until her ribs ached.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan caught Jamie’s eye and gave her a ‘thumbs up’ sign that was really unnecessary once the smaller woman caught sight of Jordan’s beaming face.

They watched together as Jamie pulled Mia aside and broke the news to her. The scream that the brunette let out shocked the entire room into momentary silence, and every eye watched her scramble up the stairs to throw her arms around each of the tall women on the second floor. By the time Jamie got upstairs, they all shared a group hug for a few moments as the assembled audience returned to their conversations.

Jumping up and down, Mia cried, "We’re gonna have so much fun!"

"Lying on the beach, swimming in the ocean … What’s not to love?" Jordan asked.

"I don’t care if we have to make love in shifts to have some privacy," Mia said.

"No need, pal," Jamie said. "We rented a little cottage with two bedrooms and two baths. You two can howl all night long."

Mia grasped Jamie’s face with both hands and vowed, "You are my permanently enshrined best friend!"

The curly-haired woman leaned in and gave Jamie a very enthusiastic kiss right on the mouth, and as she pulled back Jamie blinked her eyes to focus while she murmured, "Why didn’t you do that in high school? I would have seen the light years earlier!"

* * * * * * * * * * *


Continued in Part 2

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