Author's Note: Reaching this point is always bittersweet for me. The very last thing I finish in my stories is the Author's Note, and by finishing the last of this I've reached the end of this story for me. I've had a blast writing it, and I hope that all of you have had just as much fun reading it. Be warned, this is going to be a long chapter. I mean, a really long chapter. There's quite a bit that needs to told in this chapter, but I know this is the right chapter to end the story on because it's what the story wants. Now, there are a few people I want to thank and recognize at the terminus of this story.

First, to LaughLoveLive, my best friend in the Liley community, I have to say thanks. You've given me inspiration, support, laughter, and happiness through your stories, your letters and your reviews. You are the reason that I'm here, because of your beautiful story "Requited" that I stumbled across a year and a half ago, and I like it so much here that I'm not leaving. You manage to treat all your couples with passion and romance, whether it be Miley and Lilly, London and Maddie, or your own champions, Raven and Chelsea. You'll always have a reader in me, even if I sometimes get behind. Thanks for everything.

To xTexasGalx, you've been a faithful reader, and you champion the love between Miley and Lilly as strongly as anyone here. If I can capture even a fraction of the love that exists between the two of them and present it to readers of this story, then I've done my job. If I've done it well enough to make you happy, then I've done that job well. Keep reading!

To MrFishy, you can see the relationship between Miley and Lilly from a viewpoint that I simply can't, and you can also express it with such poignant beauty that it takes my breath away, both from the pain and the pleasure that are intertwined in the relationship between your Miley and Lilly. I miss your elegant stories, and I hope that life begins to treat you better so that you can once again share your gifted writing with us all.

To cutflowers, you also have a vision of Miley and Lilly that I never could have envisioned, and I never would have even glimpsed it without your deeply beautiful stories. You have spun an entire universe unlike any other, rich with history and backstory that resonates with every new chapter of your Miley's and Lilly's lives. And in that universe, your Amissverse, you give us a Miley and Lilly that share a bond that no other characters can ever even fathom, let alone experience. They're mortal, flawed, selfish and utterly realistic, and because of that we are able to relate to them in ways that are not only empathic but darn near spiritual. And I love them for that. For them, what has been lost has somehow made them even more in love than they were before, and you deserve the deepest praise for that.

To DataAndrd, you come up with different spins on Miley and Lilly so often that it amazes me. My personal favorite version of your Miley and Lilly is in your "Two Hearts" story, and the simple, sweet, honest love in it brings tears to my eyes whenever I visit them. Please keep that story going for a long, long time.

To Initiate Six, you're one of the newest writers to join the Liley community, but you bring a true talent that shines in your stories. You also possess a love of Miley and Lilly that permeates your stories that you've shared with us so far, and that love gives them a weight that suggests the best is yet to come from you and your vision of Miley and Lilly. I look forward to what is yet to come from you, and I'm honored that my stories resonate with you.

I have to say to coffeeandcommunity, I'm really glad you've enjoyed this story. You've really hit the nail on the head with your analysis of the powerful love between the two of them. For me, the love that courses between Miley and Lilly is the single most important part of them and their relationship, and I think it would only be natural for that love to be the main motivation for most things they do. You've also recognized the two distinct classes of Opry members and described them eloquently. For Hannah, her respect and love for the Opry is genuine, and so is her commitment to helping others. And for Lilly, she might have never heard of the Opry before, but she's going to immediately love and respect it simply because Miley does.

And to all my other readers, thank you for reading along and giving me your feedback on my stories. I hope to keep entertaining you with stories about Miley and Lilly for a long time.

Please see chapter 1 for my Standard Disclaimers! If you'd like a refresher on Miley's family in Tennessee, please take a look at the Tennessee Cast of Characters at the beginning of Chapter 21.

This Is Our Life

by Jo P.

Chapter 25: A Drop in the Ocean

Take these shoes

Click-clacking down some dead-end street

Take these shoes and make them fit

Take this shirt

Polyester white trash made in nowhere

Take this shirt and make it clean

Take this soul

Stranded in some skin and bones

Take this soul and make it sing

-U2; "Yahweh"

"Go 'way!" yelled Miley, more than a bit rudely. But the annoying knocking at the door of her and Lilly's hotel room started again. She was lying on her stomach with her face snugly against Lilly's, their noses nearly touching in their tight embrace. Miley used her free left arm to grope behind Lilly, finally feeling a weighty pillow beneath her fingers. She smiled as she gripped the pillow and then flung it with a backhanded throwing motion at the door. However, since she didn't turn her head or really even open her eyes, she had no way of seeing the makeshift missile flop to the ground about ten feet away, well short of the door. Instead Miley just imagined the pillow smacking soundly against the door, frightening away whomever was disturbing her and her wife's cuddle time.

The beep of the electronic lock followed immediately by the clicking of the door latch turning dissipated that fantasy like so much smoke, sadly. "HEY!" yelled Miley, this time louder, as she pulled the covers up to cover both her and her wife and rolled over to look at whomever it was that had just come into their room. Only one other person had a key, so Miley knew who it had to be. "Roxy! We're still in bed, and we're naked!"

"Don't you worry your pretty heads about that, Roxy won't see a thing! Just comin' in to make sure you two are up and to get your shower started."

Before Miley could say anything else she felt Lilly roll over underneath her, and the feeling of her wife's breasts brushing against her chest immediately tore her attention away from their bodyguard's actions in the bathroom. "Good mornin'," Miley said tenderly as she looked down at Lilly, still wearing Lola's orange wig.

"Mmmm, morning," said Lilly with a smile on her face. She reached up and gently took a lock of Hannah's long, straight blonde hair and began working it between her fingers. "We did tell her to make sure we were up early this morning, remember?" Lilly said quietly. "So we could eat and get back on the road first thing?"

Miley looked over at the foyer to the bathroom. She had totally forgotten about that, and it had even been her idea to get an early start. As wonderful as last night had been—in many ways—Miley wanted Lilly to herself for the rest of their vacation, and that meant getting back to Misty Hollow and being themselves again.

"Shower's nice and warm for you two lovebirds!" called out Roxy as she hustled back to the door. "I'll be back in twenty minutes, so you ladies better hurry up."

"Hey Roxy!" Miley said in reply. She didn't look at her bodyguard, but she hadn't heard the door to the suite close yet, so she knew Roxy was still there. Miley looked back down at Lilly, who winked and gave her a cute grin that made Miley's heart do a little flip in her chest. Now Miley turned to look at Roxy, and then she said, "Better make it thirty minutes." Roxy rolled her eyes but didn't argue, and as her bodyguard walked out the door Hannah turned her attention once again to the very attractive orange-haired actress lying beneath her.

"So what are we going to do with those extra ten minutes?" Lola asked, her cocky smirk firmly in place.

Hannah could feel her lover's hands glide down her sides until they reached her hips, where they firmly gripped her pelvis and held her tightly. "We can do a lot in ten minutes," she said, her voice quavering as Lola's fingers delicately traced their way around her body, one onto her belly and the other onto her lower back.

Lola lifted her head up to kiss her rock star wife, who leaned down to meet her with a kiss. As they pulled their faces apart after several seconds, Lola whispered, "Show me," which Hannah was more than happy to do.

As the airplane powered its frame off and away from the runway racing underneath it, Luanne again checked her cellphone before turning it off. This is crazy. I mean, even for me. Well, for the real me, not the sociopathic mess I was for so long. But crazy or not, she couldn't help but smile.

Her flight from Knoxville was leaving on time, but the long layover in Memphis meant that she wouldn't be landing in Los Angeles until after 1 pm California time, but that was okay. This was the best she had been able to do on short notice, and she was okay with that. Plus the layover gave her some time to try and make some more arrangements before she got there, assuming she could find some decent Wi-Fi in the Memphis airport. Yeah, this is crazy. But oh man, is it gonna be fun.

She still felt a bit guilty about not telling Miley or Lilly where she was going, but she was going to. Once the plane landed in California, of course. She smiled as she settled her head back against the seat rest and turned on her powder blue Samsung MP3 player. When the first track came up with her sister's song "When I'm With You," she grinned even more broadly. Sometimes this world is just plain crazy as hell, and sometimes that just makes it even better.

"Mamaw! We're back!" yelled Miley as she opened the door to let Lilly and her rather large suitcase through the door first. "Oh my gosh, that smells so good," Miley added as the aroma of fresh-baked cornbread danced around her nose. It was just after noon, and thoughts of lunch had been dancing through the girls' heads for the last hour on the road.

"Mmmm," Lilly said in agreement, closing her eyes and sniffing deeply. "We have got to have her teach us how to make cornbread just like hers." Lilly heard a thump as Miley dropped her suitcase, then she felt Miley wrap her arms around her stomach. Lilly turned around, pleased and slightly turned on by the unexpected gesture of affection. As she looked into Miley's bright blue eyes, staring deeply into her own, Lilly couldn't help but smile. "What?"

Miley grinned and said, "If you learn to cook cornbread like Mamaw does, I think you'll be the perfect wife." She lightly kissed Lilly on the forehead and added softly, "Because you're already the sexiest woman I could ever imagine." Lilly smiled and lightly squirmed from the compliment, but Miley wasn't letting her go. Instead she placed another gentle kiss on her wife, this time on Lilly's nose. "And the most loving and caring woman I've ever known."

Lilly stopped squirming and instead settled into Miley's embrace. She tilted her head slightly to look into her best friend's sapphire eyes and said, "Thank you. And you know I feel exactly the same way about you, don't you?"

Miley's eyes sparkled as she smiled and softly said, "Yeah, I sure do." She closed her eyes and rested her head against Lilly's as she said, "We've got it pretty good, don't we?"

"The best," Lilly answered, her own eyes closed as she hugged Miley back. "The best anyone ever could have."

Ruthie came back into the main part of the living room, passing through it briefly as she continued on into the kitchen. "Well, hey there, doodlebugs," she said pleasantly as she hurried back over to the stove. "How was your trip to Nashville?"

Miley and Lilly let each other go so they could hurry into the kitchen. "Oh Mamaw, it was SO good!" Miley said excitedly. "We got to see the shelter that Hannah and Lola's foundation rebuilt, and it was amazing to see how many kids they've helped!"

Lilly nodded as she hopped up onto the counter, turning to face Miley and Ruthie. "Getting a chance to meet those boys and girls, I mean... It was really..." She turned to look at Miley. "Help me out here, Miles. What's the word for it?"

Miley squinted briefly, then she offered, "Uplifting?"

"Yeah! Uplifting!" Lilly beamed at her girlfriend. "That's exactly the word I was looking for." A single beep on Miley's phone drew both girls' attention. "Who's that?" Lilly asked curiously.

Miley pulled her phone out of the pocket of her shorts. "Wasn't expectin' anybody to call," she said as she opened her phone and looked at the message. As she did, her eyes got huge. She looked up to Lilly, then she covertly pointed to their bedroom.

"We're gonna go take a quick nap, Mamaw," Lilly said. "Couldn't sleep on the road." Miley had a firm grip on Lilly's right hand and was tugging her down the hall. "Oh, and once we wake up, we'll tell you what Robbie Ray's big surprise was!"

Miley turned and gave Lilly one last sharp tug, yanking her cleanly into the bedroom before she closed the door.

"Ow, Miley!" Lilly said, cradling her right wrist as she carefully flexed it. "That hurt!" Miley still hadn't spoken, and the look on her face was still one of surprise. Lilly felt her own heart skip a single beat in sympathy with her partner's concern. "What is it, sweetie?" she said as she sat down on the bed.

Without a word, Miley handed her phone to Lilly so she could read the text message.

M+L

flew to malibu to see ron

really had to talk 2 him

b back early am

cover 4 me if u can

yeah Im crazy

but u still luv me

luv u both

Lu

"Holy cow," Lilly said softly. "That must be some kind of talk she's got in mind."

"Yeah," Miley said, just as quietly. "I can only think of a few things important enough that she'd have to tell him face to face."

Lilly instantly looked up at Miley. "She wouldn't tell him about us, Miley. Not about Hannah and Lola. She'd leave that for us to tell him, when and if we felt he was ready to hear it."

Miley nodded her head as she sat down beside Lilly on the bed, then she stretched out across the bed sideways. "I agree with you there," she said as she stared at the ceiling. "So that leaves two things that I can think of. What she went through growin' up... and how she's really related to me."

Lilly considered that as she turned and assumed a prone position on the bed parallel to her wife. "There's another possibility, Miles." As Miley turned her head to look at her, Lilly said, "She might be ready." Seeing Miley's lack of comprehension, Lilly waved her hand in the air as she added, "You know, ready. To be with him."

Now understanding spread across Miley's face. "Ohhh, I hadn't thought of that," she said. "I mean, for us it was just—"

"As natural as breathing?" Lilly helpfully added, with a smirk on her face. "I agree, it was. Because we were already so close that all we hadn't done with each other was kiss and make love, and once we kissed, well, that only left one thing."

Miley raised an eyebrow as she added, "One really, really good thing."

"One amazing thing," Lilly agreed as she leaned over and kissed Miley tenderly. "And for us there was no sane reason to wait, not once we had kissed. That was how I told you that I loved you, and it was how you told me that you loved me too, and we had both waited so long to build up the nerve to take that step. Once I knew that you loved me too, there was no way I was gonna let another minute pass without me giving everything I had to you."

"You took the words right outta my mouth, Lilly Bear," Miley said as she reached up to take Lilly's hand. "As soon as you kissed me, you answered every question that had been floating through my mind for months. I knew then that we were gonna be together for the rest of our lives." She shifted to lie closer to Lilly, and they kissed again, this time a bit longer. "But Lu has had so much more to work through than what we did. I think it's been really smart for her and Ron to wait."

"I just hope they don't rush into things," Lilly said, and Miley could detect the note of sisterly concern in her voice.

"Lilly," Miley said, with a hint of humor in her voice. "We saw them together in our dream. They were married and had a son, and they were happy. Somehow I don't think they're gonna be makin' a mistake here."

"Maybe not, but they're the only ones who know when the right time for them is, Miles. And they shouldn't rush things until they're ready. That's where we were so far ahead of all the other couples we know. We were ready. We were totally sure about each other, and we knew that we wanted to be with each other from then on. They might still be figuring that out."

Miley smiled as she ran her fingertips over Lilly's cheek, watching her lover's eyes flutter closed in happy response. "You're beautiful and you're smart," she said proudly.

"Smart enough to hang on to you," Lilly added with a faint smirk.

"Eventually. After how many boyfriends on our parts?"

"Too many!" Lilly giggled as she gave into the desire building up deep inside her chest and wrapped both her arms around Miley. She pulled her wife closer, closer, until she could feel their hearts beat together, always in tune somehow. "They're playing our song," she whispered to Miley, who giggled at the private joke between them before Lilly's mouth on hers cut off any further action except kissing and being kissed.

In actions that had become reflex to them long ago, the two young women shed their clothes without truly breaking their heated embrace, managing to get the covers turned down on the bed to reveal the soft, cool sheets underneath. Lilly gasped as Miley began to work her way down her wife's body, leaving chills along her mouth's path. "How..." gasped Lilly, "...how can I love you more... each time we make love?"

Miley paused and crawled back up along Lilly's body to hover directly over her face. "The same way I love you more each time I touch you," she said tenderly.

Lilly smiled up at Miley, then she put her hands on Miley's shoulders and pushed her back down her body. "Now get back down there, woman, and finish what you've started!" she growled firmly, twisting on the bed to bring her hips up to meet Miley's lips and tongue.

Miley grinned as she did what her wife said. "Yes ma'am," were the last coherent words spoken for many minutes in the bedroom.

Some time later, a soft knocking at the bedroom door stirred Miley from sleep. "Aunt Miley?" said a soft voice from the vicinity of the door.

Miley's eyes blinked open as she looked at the two not-so-small faces of Peyton and Melody Burns, Miley's second cousins, looking quite pointedly at how closely she and Lilly were holding each other in the bed. They did have a sheet and thin blanket pulled up to their shoulders, but the way Lilly's head was resting on Miley's left shoulder as well as how her left arm was draped across Miley's chest and her fingers tangled in Miley's long, dark hair in a possessive display left little doubt as to how intimately the two young women held each other. I thought we had locked that door! But as Miley looked at the faces of the ten- and nine-year-old girls standing next to the bed, she noticed that they didn't appear shocked in the least. In fact, it looked like they were... grinning.

"You two little varmits make a habit of sneakin' into other peoples' rooms?" Miley said, giving both young girls a wary look combined with a raised eyebrow. Long ago she had consciously decided to never be embarrassed at loving Lilly, no matter what, and she wasn't close to embarrassed now. She and Lilly maintained their modesty, certainly, but by now all of her family was aware that she and Lilly were married, including her young cousins.

"Just our aunts," countered Melody, with her own quite passable version of the Stewart raised eyebrow. "You not takin' us into town today?"

"Course we're taking you two into town," mumbled Lilly sleepily against Miley's chest. She lifted her head up, gave the girls a long glance that screamed Nice try, and then smiled as she found Miley's lips and tenderly kissed her.

"EWW!!" Peyton and Melody both uttered at the same time. "Grown-ups kissing! Yuck!" added Peyton.

Lilly smiled pleasantly at the girls and said, "Sorry girls, but that's what you do when you fall completely in love with somebody special."

"After you get married," Miley added hastily. She certainly didn't want her Mamaw blaming her or Lilly when either of Mamaw's current "little angels" inevitably discovered boys. Or girls. "Now scootie your little booties outta this room, so we can get up and get dressed!"

"C'mon sissie," said Peyton to her little sister. "Let's give Aunt Miley and Aunt Lilly some pri-va-cy," stressing each syllable of the last word as if it were something naughty. The two of them giggled as they hustled out of the room, loudly slamming the door behind them.

Immediately after the door had closed, Miley and Lilly erupted in laughter, clutching each other tightly as they shook the bed with their laughing. "They are so adorable!" squealed Lilly. "I swear, they both have attitudes exactly like yours!"

Miley ran her hand over her face, trying to still her shaking. "I think they've picked up some a' that sassiness from you too, hon," she managed to get out. "But it's just as cute in them as it is in you."

"Aww, nice save, Mrs. Truscott," Lilly said as she pushed Miley to the edge of the bed. "But we need to get up. We need to get ready, because we did promise we'd take them shopping and to get their hair done today."

On the other side of the country, Luanne used her key to unlock the front door at Miley's and Lilly's house. They had given her the key only a few months ago, and this was the first time she had ever used it. But she needed to think for a bit, and the silence of the house was a good place to rebuild her composure. She was nervous, incredibly nervous, but excited nonetheless. The more she thought about things, the more she knew this was the next step she had to take in her relationship with Ron, and she wasn't going to put it off any longer.

She pulled her phone out and checked her messages. Miley had sent a text message back, telling Luanne that she and Lilly would do what they could to cover for her, which is what Luanne had hoped for. Tomorrow she could deal with the fallout of her taking off on the spur of the moment, but she had reserved today for a different purpose. She scrolled down her list of numbers, hitting dial when she came to the one for Ron's house. "Meredith?" she asked when a female voice answered. "This is Luanne. Hey." She paused, then she said, "Well, I'm in town, actually. I came out to talk to Ron today, but would you mind if I came over there and talked to you for a bit until he gets home from work?" She smiled at Meredith Truscott's happy affirmative reply, then she said, "Okay, great! Is a few minutes okay for me to come on over?"

By the time Miley, Lilly, Peyton and Melody left West Town Mall in Knoxville, all four girls were shopped out. After taking the little girls to get their hair done, they had met up with Kaela Stewart, Jackson's wife, and hit the town of Knoxville. Lilly had found several outfits for Lola at a store called Wet Seal, although her vision of what the outfits could be didn't quite match what the store's salespeople had in mind. The youngest girls in the Stewart clan were in seventh heaven by the time they left the mall, and both of them had a few shopping bags with things that had been picked out for them by their "aunts."

"So is Jackson bringing the stuff for camping straight to Mamaw's?" asked Miley as they made their way to the rental car. She and Lilly were taking Peyton and Melody camping in the woods behind Ruthie's house later that evening, and Kaela had offered to join them. Jackson wasn't as keen on camping, but he had gamely agreed.

"Yep," Kaela said, her red hair bobbing neatly as she nodded. It had grown as long as it had been before, falling nearly as long as Miley's own chestnut brown hair although not as thick as her sister-in-law's. "I told him I had a surprise for him, and I wasn't going to tell him unless he came along with us."

"Nice," said Miley, the tone of her voice clearly indicating her approval. "So when are you two gonna get around to startin' a family?" Lilly smacked Miley's shoulder almost instantly. "Ow!"

"Nosy," said Lilly bluntly. "I think that's up to them, don't you think?"

"Actually," Kaela said with a twinkle in her eyes, "I was just about to ask you two the same thing."

Everyone stopped, with Miley looking back and forth between Lilly and Kaela. "What?" asked Lilly as she noticed Miley observing them.

"Oh, I was just wantin' to see if you were gonna smack her like you did me." Miley smiled sweetly as she finished, and that most likely saved her from another playful swat.

Lilly smiled and pleasantly said, "No, honey, I just do that for you." She turned to Kaela and said, "For Kae I'll just put rocks in her shoes while she's asleep tonight."

The little girls giggled at the light-hearted threats passing in front of them, and they secretly made notes for future prank material. Being around their "aunts" was enlightening in more ways than one.

"No, I'm serious!" said Kaela, stopping the little girls' laughter. "I mean, come on! You two are so much in love that it makes me feel inadequate!" Her smile crept back out as she added, "I couldn't imagine any better mothers than you two would be."

"Well, you know how crazy our lives can get, Kaela," Miley said hesitantly. Peyton and Melody didn't know about the Hannah and Lola secret and probably never would.

"And we're starting college in a few months, too," said Lilly. But then she looked warmly at the love of her life and took her hand. "But I swear that one day I will have this woman's baby. I promise you that."

The honest love in her best friend's words made Miley's eyes water. "Not before I have yours," she said, her mouth dry. "You remember that, woman. I get to have your baby first, then you can have mine."

"I remember, Miles," Lilly said, squeezing her best friend's hand. "And we've started the ball rolling on that, Kae. It's just going to take a long time, I bet."

Hearing the sadness in Lilly's voice, Miley turned to look directly into her eyes. "Hey," she said. "We knew it was going to take a while, sweetheart. In the meantime, we're going to enjoy our time together with it just being the two of us." She smiled, and that coaxed a smile back onto Lilly's face. "I think we can keep ourselves busy for a few years, huh?"

Lilly's smile grew brighter and brighter as she thought about all that lay ahead for them in their lives together. "Yeah, I think we can manage that, Miles," she said.

"How are you two going to have babies?" asked Peyton. "Don't you need a mommy and a daddy for that?"

"We're working on that, Peyton," Miley said, looking down at her little cousin. "Out in California they're doing research to help us make our babies. It's gonna take a long time, but I'm not settling for anything less than carrying this woman's baby," she said, pulling Lilly close for a kiss on the cheek. "No sperm donors for us!"

"What's a sperm donor?" asked Melody, carefully sounding out the funny phrase.

Miley's face assumed a shade of white that Lilly had only seen on rare occasions, and she couldn't help but laugh. "Glad I'm not gonna have to explain that one to her parents!" she said gleefully.

"Um, let's just forget that your Aunt Miley said that, okay?" Miley asked her nine-year-old cousin. "We can talk about it when you're a bit older." Seeing the lack of agreement on Melody's face, Miley leaned forward and cheerfully said, "And if that's not good enough, then I can roll you up in your sleeping bag tonight and toss you into the creek."

"You better not!" said Melody, but Miley was unmoved.

"We're not going to get each other into trouble now, are we?" Miley asked in that same sweet voice.

"No," pouted Melody, knowing when she was beaten.

"Good girl," said Miley, patting Melody on the head. "Now we need to head back to Mamaw's because she wanted us back before six for some reason."

As they climbed into the car, Lilly asked, "Did you girls bring your tent for tonight?"

"No," said Peyton. "We're staying in your tent. You have the air mattress!"

"Um..." Lilly mumbled softly. She had some plans for Miley tonight, and they didn't involve having Peyton and Melody in the tent with them.

"I already have a surprise for Jackson tonight, so don't even think about it!" said Kaela. With a smirk she added, "Plus the girls like hanging out with you two more, anyway." That was true; ever since that first Christmas Lilly had spent with the Stewart family, all the younger Stewarts had adored the playful, outgoing blonde tomboy. The subsequent years had only solidified that adoration, particularly with Peyton and Melody, who readily looked up to the young women as positive role models who embodied the virtues of love and compassion.

After dropping Kaela off at her car, the remaining four girls made a beeline for Misty Hollow, making it back just before six o'clock. As they carried their bags inside, Miley saw that Ruthie was apparently waiting for them.

"Lord have mercy, ya'll leave anything left at the stores for other people to buy?" she said loudly as Peyton and Melody rushed past her to deposit their items in their own bedroom that Mamaw kept for the great-grandchildren. She grinned at the effect having Miley and Lilly around seemed to have on everyone, particularly those two little girls who could use more good role models closer to their age than their parents. Ruthie walked over to Miley and patted her on the cheek. "I'm proud of you, little Miley," she said. "And I'm proud of your little Lilly, too." She opened her arms to hug both young women, squeezing them tightly once she had them in her grasp. "Now, you two need to put those bags up and head up to the church. There's a business meetin' tonight, and this is as good a time as any for everybody up there to meet you two as a couple."

"The church?" Miley and Lilly asked simultaneously. "Mamaw," added Miley with a plaintive tone in her voice, "don't you think that might be pushin' our luck just a little bit? And why the heck would we want to go to a business meetin', anyway? Those things are just plain boring!"

"I think your wife has somethin' she's wantin' to take care of," Ruthie said. "And while I know she wanted it to be a surprise, I think she should fill you in now." As Miley turned to look at Lilly, her thoughts racing, Ruthie moved out of the living room. "I'll go take a look at what those little heathens picked up, so's you two can have some privacy for a bit."

"Thanks, Mamaw," Lilly said quietly. She looked into Miley's eyes and saw questions written deep in those beautiful blue eyes she loved so much. "C'mere," she said, guiding Miley over to the sofa where they sat, Miley practically in Lilly's lap. "I..." she started, then had to stop. "I might cry telling you this, so don't freak out, okay? It's nothing bad, I swear."

"Okay," said Miley, taking Lilly's hands. "What is it, Lil?" She truthfully had no idea what Lilly wanted to do that would involve the church. They were already married, twice no less, so they didn't need a ceremony performed here. All her family already knew they were married, but the rest of the Hollow didn't, so maybe Lilly wanted to announce it to everyone. If that was the case, then of course Miley was willing to do it, but the church might not be the best—

"I'm going to buy six plots in the cemetery for our family," Lilly blurted out suddenly. "Next to your mom and your family plot. That way we can be buried there when we die, and we'll have space for our children and their husbands or wives." Lilly looked into Miley's eyes for any sign of emotion, but all she was seeing was total, utter surprise. "Miley, I know we try to make big decisions together, but I know that this is where you need to be buried, with your family, and I'm going to be buried with you no matter where it is. I wanted this to be a surprise, but maybe I should have told you about it when I first thought of it a few days ago. I had talked to Ruthie about it, and she had told me that she'd talk to somebody on the church's cemetery committee, and then—" Lilly's words were cut off by Miley surging forward and pushing Lilly backward onto the couch. Miley pinned Lilly down and kissed her deeply, pressing their lips together with enough intensity that Lilly could hear the blood rushing through her head. Lilly could feel hot tears drip onto her cheeks, and she knew those tears weren't her own, not yet.

"You are the best thing that has ever come into my life," Miley whispered as she let Lilly catch her breath. "And I love you so much more every day that we have together. Nobody else would ever have thought of something like this. Nobody but you." Miley blinked a few more tears out of her eyes, then she smiled down at the woman she would spend the rest of eternity with. "I love you, Lillian Jessica Truscott. Thank you for everything you do for me. For us."

"You're welcome, Miley May Truscott," Lilly said in reply as she reached up and ran her fingers through her wife's luxuriant mane of chestnut brown hair, falling around her head like a protective canopy and making it seem as if only the two of them existed at that moment. "And I love you too."

A knock at the door broke the spell that held both Miley and Lilly fast. "Hang on!" Miley called out after she tilted her head up so that she wouldn't be yelling into Lilly's face, but Lilly took advantage of her lifting her head to take a strand of Miley's hair and tickle her lover under the chin. "Lilly!" Miley squealed, tossing about on the couch as she heard the front door open. Miley rolled off of Lilly and onto her side, letting both girls see Miley's aunt Vicky step inside.

Of Miley's family, Vicky had given Miley and Lilly the most initial hostility about their relationship, but she had slowly warmed to the bond between the two young women. She had no doubt as to the devotion the two of them had for each other, but what had truly shifted her from tolerance of their relationship to tacit approval had been the effect the two of them had wrought on her own granddaughters, Peyton and Melody. The generation gap between Vicky and her grandchildren was brutal at times, and when Peyton had turned eight she had entered a turbulent period that saw her behavior both at school and at home worsen dramatically. Naturally, Melody had begun to follow her big sister's lead, giving their parents and grandmother twice the grief. It wasn't until Christmas of that year that things had begun to look up, and to Vicky's initial shock it was Miley and Lilly who were able to spend enough time with the two young girls to turn their behavior around.

From that Christmas on, Peyton and Melody had commissioned Miley and Lilly as their "aunts," and the older girls had happily accepted the responsibility of being role models and confidantes for their "nieces." As would be expected, Vicky's concern about such a mentoring relationship was that somehow Miley and Lilly would influence her granddaughters toward relationships with other girls rather than boys, but the one time she had brought that concern up, Miley had shut her down quickly.

"Aunt Vicky, they're growin' up fast enough as it is!" Miley had heatedly said. "They just need some other girls to spend time with that aren't their mom or their grandma. There's lots of things they could learn from Lilly, like how to be brave and be confident in what they do, how to tell the truth and stick up for their friends, and how to care for other people more than they do for themselves. I am so proud of my wonderful wife that I could talk about how terrific she is 'til the cows come home, and still not cover half of what makes her so great. But some of that stuff they don't need to talk about just yet, because they're just now startin' to grow up, and that's why they're havin' so much trouble. If they want to talk about stuff like boys or girls when they're older, then Lilly and I'll talk to them about it. But right now, they just need some family to look out for 'em, and we're gonna be the best aunts those little girls could ever imagine!"

It was an irony that as much as Vicky had been concerned about the possible influence of Miley's and Lilly's relationship on her granddaughters, Peyton and Melody seemed oblivious to any difference between Miley and Lilly and any other married couple in the family. They had seen the two older girls together from the very beginning, and that was simply how they had accepted them. Two Christmases ago when they had asked Ruthie why Miley and Lilly shared a bed in their guest room at Christmas, Ruthie had plainly told them because Miley and Lilly were married and were thus expected to sleep in a bed together. That was all the explanation the two young sisters had needed.

By now, after more than three years of her niece Miley being with Lilly, Vicky had learned to expect simple displays of affection between the two young women. It had taken her some time, but she had finally reached a spiritual peace regarding her niece's relationship. Lilly was good to Miley, and Miley was happy when she was with Lilly; as Miley's aunt that was all Vicky could hope for. After all, God had given humanity the ability to love as a blessing; if Miley and Lilly found their true love and happiness in each other, who could say that God was wrong for putting them together?

As she regarded Miley and Lilly lying on the couch together, she said, "Hello Miley, Lilly," as a greeting. She still wasn't as comfortable with their publicly shared intimacy as the other members of the family, but she was trying. "Are my granddaughters around here somewhere?"

"I think they're in their little room with Mamaw," Miley said, turning her attention back to the extremely attractive blonde lying underneath her on the couch. "We kinda bought them some stuff while we were out today."

"You girls are going to spoil them!" Vicky said, acting like she was offended when in truth she most certainly wasn't. She looked back down at the couch to see Miley wrestling with Lilly, playfully trying to pin the California beauty's arms over her head.

"She's just upset because it's her job to spoil them, Miles," Lilly said, laughing. "We're cutting in on her territory."

Miley laughed heartily and turned to look at Vicky right as Lilly took advantage of the opportunity and tossed Miley off of her. However, Lilly misjudged the width of the couch and wound up tumbling off the couch and onto the carpeted floor, pulling Miley off the couch with her as they fell to the floor with a resounding thump.

"Heavens' sake, are you girls alright?" Vicky said as she hustled over to where Miley and Lilly were tangled up on the floor, still laughing.

"Yeah, we're okay," said Miley as she shifted to sit up. However, her tactical position had suffered with the tumble, as Lilly now had both of her arms pinned as she looked coolly into Miley's glittering sapphire blue eyes. "Remember, you love me," Miley said with a pleading voice as Lilly tried to decide just what to do with her wife.

Upon hearing Miley's words, Lilly's expression softened. "Sweetheart, that's one thing I'll never forget," she said before she leaned in and gave Miley a quick kiss on the lips.

In Malibu, Luanne was having afternoon coffee with Meredith Truscott. The two had spent a very enjoyable afternoon together, and Luanne found herself again realizing how fortunate she was to have been given a second chance at life. I'm not going to screw this one up, she thought fiercely.

"I must say, Luanne, when I first met you I wasn't sure what to think of you," Meredith said, her eyes suddenly piercing and inquisitive.

"Um, what do you mean by that, Mrs. Truscott?" Luanne asked, all at once on her guard. It remained a deeply ingrained reflex, that sudden defensiveness, and it had an annoying tendency to pop up when Luanne least expected it.

"Well..." Meredith said, hesitantly. "When I first heard Lilly talk about you, she said some fairly unflattering things."

"Like how I was a total bitch?" Luanne offered, smiling. "She was right... then." Her smile faded as she tried to indicate how serious her past had been. "I used to be a really, really mean person, Meredith. I'm not very proud of that. I really don't like to talk about it much at all, but I think... that you need to hear some of this." Luanne felt her emotions start to seethe inside, because she wanted this so much, this chance at love with Ron Truscott, and she was horrified that the demons of her past could still wreck it all. But she couldn't sit here and lie to Meredith, not now. Not after what she had steeled herself to do, tonight. "My... mom died while I was being born. And right after that my daddy, Robbie Ray's brother Bobby Ray, started drinking really, really heavy. He never molested me, thank God, but he used to hit me. It started out just hard spankings, then over time it got a lot worse. And I put up with it because he had lost someone special to him, someone he had fallen in love with and wanted to have a family with. I mean, losing her hurt me my whole life, and I had never even known her. How bad was Daddy hurting for losing her?"

Luanne looked over at Meredith, who was silently listening very closely to what the young woman sitting across from her was saying. "I'm not telling you this asking for any sympathy, Meredith. I'm telling you this because it shaped me into what I had become, an angry, spiteful young woman. Someone who resented my family and especially Miley for what she still had, a family that obviously loved her. So I started lashing out at everyone I could. I stole things. I broke things and got other kids blamed for it. I lied. I hit people, and did other things to hurt them. Sometimes I'd get started hitting someone, like this one girl Amy that we grew up with, and I'd feel so in control doing it that I just wouldn't stop, not until—" Now the tears started, and Luanne paused a moment to wipe them away with a paper towel. "I was a monster," she said, struggling not to cry outright. "I was evil. And, oh God, I HATED myself! I hated myself so, so much. I couldn't care less if I lived or died, back then, and I think things would have been better for so many others if I'd just killed myself like I had thought about so many times. But I couldn't, for whatever reason."

Meredith found her mind reeling, trying to believe what she was hearing from this young woman whom she knew was a good, caring person who adored her son. But what Luanne was saying was so diametrically opposite of what she had seen in Luanne's personality and behavior over the last three years that it was hard to accept. "But..." Meredith said, haltingly, "But that's not you, Luanne. That's not the person I know you are."

"No, it's not, thank the good Lord," Luanne said, shaking her head, "but it's who I used to be. That was the Luanne that Lilly met that first time, and then the second time at Christmas. And it was that Christmas that I tried so badly to hurt Miley and Lilly. I was so horrible to them, Meredith, that I honestly hope they never tell you everything that I did to them, because I don't think you'd ever want me back in your house again. But even after all that, they—"

She couldn't hold the emotions back any more, and Luanne finally melted down, collapsing in sobs as she buried her face in her hands. She cried for long minutes, her chest heaving and her head spinning as she sat on the couch. But when the sobs began to fade, she felt herself leaning against someone, someone holding her and pressing a cool washcloth against her forehead. As she opened her eyes, her sight still blurred, she saw Meredith looking at her, her face full of motherly concern and her own eyes red. "I'm sorry," Luanne sniffed. "And thanks."

"You're welcome," said Meredith, still looking quite concerned.

"That Christmas, Miley and Lilly stopped me from killing myself. I had a knife, and I was going to..." Her voice trailed off as she thought back to that cold, dark night in the hayloft of her Mamaw's barn, to when she lifted the knife up to her throat, ready to end the pain and hate for everyone once and for all. But then Lilly, bless her heart, had realized what Luanne planned to do, and she had knocked the knife out of her hand. Then, after Lilly had saved both Luanne's and Miley's lives, she had told them the secret that had saved Luanne's very soul: that she wasn't alone, because she had a twin sister—Miley. That secret had bound the three of them together in a way that Luanne still marveled at. It had given her a family again. It wasn't exactly the family she had always dreamed about, but it was a real family that loved her and forgave her despite everything she had done. And she had finally realized that she didn't need hate to sustain her after all.

"Your daughter stopped me," Luanne said, looking back up at Meredith. "And then she and Miley did the most incredible thing ever. Instead of hating me, they forgave me. They gave me the strength to face my past and deal with this blackness that's been part of me as long as I can remember. They helped me get some treatment, and with several months of therapy and counseling plus finding the right medications, I was able to regain control of my life." Luanne looked back up into Meredith's eyes. That's where Ron's and Lilly's blue eyes come from. Funny that I never noticed that before. "You know, Miley and Lilly paid for every bit of my treatment. I tried to pay them back, to work out some way to repay them, but they refused."

"That doesn't surprise me," Meredith said, a wistful smile on her face. "They love you, Luanne. You're their family."

"And they're mine. More than my father, even though we have managed to patch up our relationship some. I still can't set foot inside that house though. The one I grew up in, I mean. Even today it scares the hell out of me just looking at it." Luanne fiddled with what remained of the paper towel she had been using as a makeshift Kleenex. "The reason I'm telling you all this, Meredith, is because I really care about Ron. I'm going to tell him all this tonight, plus some more. And if he decides that my past is too much for him—or for you—then I'll accept that and settle for just being friends with you and him."

"Oh Luanne," Meredith said, reaching across the space between the two of them and taking the younger woman's hand. "Ron adores you. You've accepted him for who he is, for what he enjoys, and you've never tried to change him into anything else."

"Because I love him the way he is," Luanne said, a shy smile on her lips. "And I love how honest he is, with me and with himself. I don't want to hurt him, and I'm so afraid that something in my past is going to jump up and scare him away..." Sensing a need to change the subject, Luanne asked, "Have you ever seen two people any more in love than Miley and Lilly?"

Meredith slowly shook her head. "Never. I've never even heard of two people any more in love than the two of them."

Luanne looked back down. "I want that. Not that powerful a love exactly, because I don't think any of us will ever see that again, but someone who loves me for who I am. Someone who can take my whole screwed-up past, the daily fight I have with that blackness inside my mind, and still somehow care about me. But I don't think that it's fair to ask Ron to feel that way about me. I mean, it'd be saddling him with all the horrible things that I've done, and that's not fair! He's a good man, and he needs someone who's perfect." Luanne looked back up, and the anguish in her expression nearly took Meredith's breath away. "But as selfish as it is, I still love him and want him to love me," Luanne said in a soft voice. "Is it fair to him for me to keep seeing him, Meredith? Do I have the right to be that selfish?"

"I think you need to ask him," Meredith said, and the flicker of her eyes glancing at something behind Luanne sent a surge of panic through Luanne's entire body.

Oh fuck, no! No no no. Not like this! But even as her mind went into a frenzy, Luanne knew she had to face this now. She gathered her composure, something she was quite good at by this time, and said in a louder voice, "How long have you been listening?"

"Long enough," said Ron from the other room. He slowly walked into the living room and sat down next to the young woman he had fallen in love with over the last two years, imperfections and all. "And nothing I've heard has changed how I feel about you." He took Luanne's hands and gently held them as he looked into her blue eyes, a match for Miley's. "I love you, Luanne. Hearing that you've had to deal with so much bad stuff in your life hurts, because you didn't deserve any of it."

"Yes I did, Ron, I—"

"Stop," he said, gently but firmly. "No, you didn't. You couldn't help your mom dying when you were born. You couldn't stop your daddy from drinking. And you were out of control when you were doing all those bad things growing up."

Luanne felt a glimmer of hope begin to flare inside of her chest. "But it doesn't change the fact that I hurt so many people."

"No, it doesn't, but I bet you're going to spend the rest of your life trying to make up for that in some way. Aren't you?"

Luanne nodded, not trusting her voice to speak. Part of her mind was cursing her for being so weak, so helpless in the tempest of her emotions right now, but another part was telling her to shut up and listen, to let him say what she needed to hear—that he loved her regardless. As she listened, she felt the flicker of hope inside her chest grow slowly into a steady flame, a light bright enough to push the shadows that lurked deep in her mind into the furthest corners of her consciousness. And when she realized that this declaration of love for her was no fantasy, no dream ready to fade upon waking, she felt the thoughts of self-loathing and worthlessness, the last fetters holding her precious spirit in chains, finally yield.

She looked into Ron's eyes, and now she didn't feel unworthy when she told him, "I love you."

"I love you too, Luanne," he replied, but something in his eyes told her that there was more that he wanted to say.

"You want to go for a walk down the beach?" Luanne asked. "I haven't even peeked at the ocean since I got here." He nodded, and the two of them carefully stood, hovering next to each other.

"When are you flying back, Luanne?" asked Meredith.

"Probably early in the morning," Luanne said, noticing that Meredith froze in place, obviously staring at her. "Yeah, I know, it was crazy and expensive to fly out here then turn around and fly back the next day, but I just felt like I needed to talk to Ron. I had some money saved up that I been saving for emergencies, and this qualified." She reached back and took her boyfriend's hand. "You ready for a walk, big boy?" she asked with a smug grin. Ron's idea of a walk was from the house to his car, but he gamely smiled and nodded his head.

Back in Tennessee, Miley and Lilly had just dropped Peyton and Melody off at their house, saying a quick hello and goodbye to the girls' parents before getting back into the car and heading to the church in Misty Hollow.

"I'm still pretty nervous, Miles," Lilly said, reaching over to take Miley's right hand.

"It'll be okay, Lilly," Miley said optimistically. "I mean, the worst that can happen is if they say no to us buying those plots, right?"

Lilly looked at Miley, her face uncertain. "And stir up all kinds of trouble for you and your family because of us being together."

Miley spared a quick glance for her wife. "Oh, please," she said dismissively. "Nobody's gonna stir up any kind of trouble for my family or for me because of us, sweetheart. My family won't take any of it, and neither will I. If it gets really ugly, then we'll just get up and walk out."

Lilly hesitated for a second or two before cautiously saying, "No, we won't."

"What?" Miley asked, definitely not expecting that reply.

"I said, we won't just get up and walk out if things go bad," Lilly said, her voice gaining determination as she went. "This means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to you, even if you don't want to admit it. We're not going to just give up and walk away if there's some people against us being buried there. That is your family plot, Miley, in that cemetery, and so help me we ARE going to be buried there so you can be with your mother and father when it's our time to die!"

There was silence in the car for a moment, then Miley said, "You know, you're really cute when you get angry."

"Stop that," Lilly said, trying to stay worked up but sputtering with laughter before she could get the two simple words out of her mouth. "You suck," she finally said amongst laughs and giggles.

"Only for you, sweetheart," Miley replied, giggling herself. "And for that church's sake, I hope they don't put up too much of a fight tonight. Don't think they're ready for you."

Lilly smiled and leaned back in her seat. "Like you said, don't get between a wildcat and her family," Lilly said smugly, shaping her hand into a makeshift claw and swiping at the air in front of her.

As they pulled into the parking lot of Misty Hollow Church, Lilly noted that there was no one milling around outside. "They already start?" she asked Miley as they got out of the car.

"Yeah, nobody much likes business meetings, so they always start on time and hurry to get done."

"Makes sense," Lilly said. She looked down at her shorts and wondered yet again if they weren't dressed a bit too casually. "You sure we're dressed okay? I mean, don't they have something about making women wear dresses or something?"

Miley looked at Lilly like she'd grown wings. "Pretty little wife of mine say what?" she said. "Lilly, first, this is a business meeting, not a church service. Heck, some of the church officers'll be wearin' shorts! Second, there are some churches where they don't let women wear pants or shorts, but this ain't one of 'em. We'll be fine."

"Okay..." Lilly said as they reached the door. "Can I even hold your hand in there?" she asked, and the faint pleading that Miley could detect in her wife's voice clutched at her heart.

Miley turned to look at Lilly, and now she could see that even as determined as Lilly was, she was scared. Scared of how people were going react to Miley's relationship. Scared of how they were going to be treated. Lilly wouldn't be scared for herself, Miley knew that. She'd be scared for Miley. "Sweetheart," Miley said tenderly, opening her arms to hold her best friend tightly, "if you wanted to kiss me right in the middle of that church, I'd pucker up for you without battin' an eye. It might not be the best idea if we're gonna be askin' them for somethin', but I'd do it without any regrets."

Lilly smiled as she looked into Miley's bright blue eyes. "I'll settle for holding your hand," she said.

"Okay." Miley opened the door, letting Lilly step in first, then she followed her wife and closed the door behind them. Lilly crossed the entry foyer and paused at the large door to the main church auditorium. It was bigger than it had looked from outside, but Lilly doubted the room could hold much over two hundred people, even packing them in tightly. Still, the turnout for the business meeting looked sparse, with maybe thirty or forty people present. "Aunt Dolly's up there," Miley said, pointing ahead of them to a pew on the left side of the auditorium. "Want to sit with her?"

Lilly nodded. It might be good to have some friendly support tonight. She quietly walked forward, trying not to notice the eyes shifting to regard these two new people in their midst. When she reached the pew with Dolly Lilly tried to duck in, but as soon as Dolly saw her she moved further in, letting Lilly sit beside her and then Miley sit at the end next to Lilly.

"Hey Lilly girl," Dolly said cheerily, her voice low. "Momma said you two might need to see a friendly face tonight."

"Thanks," Lilly said, meaning every bit of it. "Is she coming?"

"Oh, Mamaw don't like to come to business meetin's any more. The church kinda feels the same way, ever since that whole business meetin' after the Easter egg hunt a few years back, and what she did to poor old Doyle Flagler."

Lilly turned to Miley, but Miley just mouthed Don't ask to her. Lilly nodded and let it go.

Just as it had been portrayed, the business meeting was rather boring. It seemed to consist of different church officers and committees reporting attendance numbers, income and expenses, and other equally uninteresting items as far as Lilly was concerned. However, when the topic of new business was brought up, Lilly felt Miley sit up a bit straighter and take her hand. Lilly likewise sat up straight and began to listen as an older man on the other side of the church stood up and began to speak.

"Brother moderator, the cemetery committee has some new business to bring before the church," the tall, thin man said in a drawl significantly more pronounced than Miley's.

"Go ahead, Norman," said the preacher, who was serving as the moderator for the business meeting. Miley had told Lilly on the drive to the church that this particular preacher, Frederick O'Neal, had been at the church for nearly thirty years; he had even been the one to marry Miley's parents in this very church. He had some difficulties with his eyesight over the last few years, becoming essentially blind but continuing to preach thanks to his extensive knowledge of the Bible and thorough theological background.

"Preacher Fred looks like he's lookin' at people," Miley whispered to Dolly, leaning across Lilly's body close enough for Lilly to feel the comfort of her body heat.

"He is," Dolly whispered back. "He had some kind a' experimental eye surgery a while back and got a bunch a' his eyesight back. He's been happy as a bug in a rug ever since."

"Well, the cemetery committee has been contacted by a young lady who's interested in purchasing six plots in the cemetery," the man referred to as Norman continued, oblivious to the whispers from Miley and Dolly on the other side of the church. "Six specific plots." Norman thought for a moment, apparently choosing his words carefully, then he continued, "She's married into the Stewart family, and she wants to make sure that their family'll be located next to where Brooke and Robbie Ray's plot is."

"Is there enough room in the cemetery where she's askin' for?" asked the preacher.

"Yep, there's a powerful sight of open space in that part of the cemetery. You know, over there where Brooke Stewart's buried, there's hardly anybody with plots that far out, so it's wide open."

A woman in the pews about halfway back raised her hand. When she was recognized by the moderator, she asked, "What's the goin' price for cemetery plots now?"

Norman turned to look at her and nonchalantly said, "Five thousand for a single plot, eight for a double, and fifteen for four. For six, oh, I reckon we'd ask twenty-two or twenty-three for all a' them."

"And she's alright with that amount?" asked the preacher.

"Well, to be right honest about it, I hadn't had the chance to talk to the young lady about it herself, but she's supposed to be here tonight, so I suppose she could answer for herself."

"Is this young lady present tonight?" asked Preacher O'Neal. "What's her name?"

Lilly felt Miley squeeze her hand in support, then she stood up. "Lilly Truscott, and yes, I'm here tonight."

"Well, aren't you a pretty little thing!" said the preacher with a broad grin, and Lilly could tell by the tone in his voice that he meant it as an honest compliment.

"Thanks," Lilly said shyly. "The price for the plots is fine with me. Twenty-three thousand for six of them together next to Mrs. Stewart and the rest of the Stewart family plot is great. I could write a personal check tonight or have the money wired into the church's account tomorrow if you'd feel more comfortable doing that."

"Is the Stewart family comfortable with you buying these plots next to them, young lady?" asked the preacher. "I'd sure assume they are, with you marryin' into the family an' all, but—"

Lilly opened her mouth to say yes, but the cemetery committee chairman spoke before she could. "They're just fine with it, preacher; I spoke with Ruthie and Robbie Ray both this week, and they both said they'd rather have Miss Lilly here buy those plots than anybody else they could think of."

Lilly couldn't help but smile at the sound of this. Ruthie had definitely come through, just like she had told Lilly she would. That woman knew how to get things done, even if sometimes she had to step on a few toes along the way. Lilly was so happy that she didn't even bother to correct being incorrectly addressed as "Miss" rather than as "Mrs."

But then a new voice, a woman's voice, came from the rear of the church. "I think some of the church members are going to have a real problem with her being buried in the church cemetery, Brother O'Neal," the woman said in a rather nasal voice.

Lilly felt her heart sink instantly to her stomach, and when she turned around to look at the woman it felt like it fell even further, from her stomach down to the floor. Sitting next to the woman now standing up and talking was none other than Kristy. As Lilly looked at the two of them, she saw a smug little smirk spread across Kristy's face, and she suddenly felt like she was going to throw up.

"Why's that, Nelda?" asked the preacher.

"Because a' some of the immoral and sinful things that little girl has done. Is doing," she corrected. "She's a lesbian!"

The silence that filled the church was palpable, and Lilly could hear every pounding beat of her heart resound in that vacuum before she spoke. "I married Miley Stewart almost two years ago, but absolutely nothing about that was immoral or sinful. I've known Miley for over six years, and I fell in love with her not long after I met her. We got married because we wanted to make our relationship official legally and before God, although He sure knew about us being in love a long time before we ever figured it out."

"Don't you dare try to say that the Almighty sent such sinful urges into your hearts, young lady!" screeched the woman, whom Lilly decided must be Kristy's mother.

"I'm not trying to say anything," Lilly said calmly. "I am saying that God made Miley and me the way he did, and we fell in love. We're spending the rest of our lives together here on earth, and then we're spending the rest of time together after that." Lilly held up a hand to forestall the inevitable retort, adding, "If God decides we're going to Hell when we die, then that's where we'll go. But we'll be together." Lilly reached down and instantly felt Miley's hand curl around her own. She drew strength from that simple contact, and she made up her mind to not lose her temper tonight. Not in this holy place. God deserved more respect than that. "Now, all I'm asking is that my wife, the Miley Stewart that grew up in this church that I bet most of you know and remember, have the right to be buried with the woman she loves—and to whom she's sworn to faithfully spend her life with before God Himself—in the same cemetery with the rest of her family." Lilly looked around at the faces in the church, every one looking steadily at her.

"I don't know most of you," she said, "but I plan on changing that. Miley and I are living in California right now because that's where we're going to school and where we're working, but the times I've come back here with her have shown me just how beautiful and special a place Tennessee is. I promise that we'll come back here as often as we can, because I want to get to know this place where the woman I love grew up. This was her home for a long time, and that would be enough for me to love this place. But I want to get to know all of you, because you're always going to be a part of her life, and that means you're a part of my life too. When we start our own family, I want—" Lilly stopped for a minute to swipe at her eye, where an errant tear was about to escape. "I want to be able to bring our children here and watch them stand up there and sing with all the other kids here. I want to be able to watch them in Christmas pageants, and plays, and musicals, just like every other parent does. I want to help with the Easter egg hunts, and watch our children run around with their little baskets. I want to be proud of my family, just like everyone else here." Dolly handed Lilly a tissue, and she gratefully took it, taking a minute to wipe her eyes.

"If twenty-three thousand dollars isn't enough, then I'll gladly pay more for this, because Miley deserves to be buried with her mother when it's our time to go. She's been separated from her long enough, and trying to keep them apart even more just because Miley fell in love with me is wrong!" Lilly looked down at Miley, who was gazing up at her with a warm, loving smile on her face. I love you, Miley mouthed to Lilly, and those three words energized Lilly like nothing else. "I was scared tonight, because I didn't know how everyone was going to react to this. To us. But I'm not scared any more, because I have my wife with me. God made Miley and me for each other, and we know that. Please give us a chance and get to know us before you cast judgment on us."

Before Lilly could sit down, Miley suddenly stood. "Hey everybody," she said as she put her arm around Lilly, supporting her best friend. "I know it's been a while since most of you saw me, and I've grown up since then, obviously. Losing my mom made me grow up kinda fast, even though my daddy did a great job taking care of me and Jackson. Aunt Dolly was a huge help too, and she taught me to follow my heart... no matter where it took me." Miley smiled down at Dolly, who was fighting tears of own in an attempt to save her mascara. "That was the best advice I ever got, I think," Miley said, looking back up. "Today my life is really terrific, and most of that is because of this woman who started out as my only friend in the whole state of California and became the best friend anyone could ever ask for. When I realized that I was fallin' in love with her, I was scared. So I did a lot of thinkin' and a lot of prayin'. And finally I saw that out of that whole huge state of California, out of the whole country, God had put Lilly and me together. He wanted us to be together. And Lilly had figured out the same thing."

"I was against their being together at first," said a loud voice at the rear of the church. Heads swiveled to see none other than Miley's aunt Vickie, standing at one of the rear pews. "And I was against having my grandchildren around them, too. But..." Vickie smiled and held a hand out, pointed toward Miley and Lilly. "They're in love," she said simply with a smile. "And they're both good young women. They've been better for my granddaughters than I ever could have hoped for, because they can talk to them about iPods, and text messages, and computers, and just being girls today much better than I could ever hope to." Vickie paused for a moment, then she added, "And they have so much love and goodness in their hearts that it makes me feel ashamed, because I don't have that much inside me." Her voice broke at the end of that sentence, but she quickly regained her composure. "A love like theirs could only come from the Almighty," Vickie said with a serious voice, "because no imperfect creatures like us could create something that amazing and powerful."

Miley and Lilly both had tears running down their cheeks when Vickie finished. "Thank you," they both said together to Miley's older aunt, unable to express their gratitude any more eloquently.

Everyone turned to the preacher, still standing in the pulpit at the front of the church. After long moments he said, "The apostle Paul said, 'There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.' I think that reflects God's position fairly well." He looked at Miley and Lilly and smiled. "What is the favor of the church regarding the sale of these cemetery plots?"

"I move that we proceed with the sale," said Dolly, raising her hand.

"Seconded," said several voices from around the church.

The preacher said, "All in favor..." then he paused. "Raise your hands," he said, sending a small ripple of surprise through the church.

Miley raised her hand, as did Dolly and Lilly. As they did so, Miley tugged down Lilly's arm and whispered in her ear, "Only church members can vote, sweetheart. But normally they call for a voice vote, so I'm not sure why he's wantin' everybody to raise their hands."

Dolly leaned over and whispered back, "He knows it's probably goin' to come down to a close vote, for one thing. But he also knows it's harder to be a bigot when you have to account for it in front of your friends and neighbors."

Sure enough, the vote was close. Lilly tried to not be nervous, but she could feel a trickle of sweat sliding its way down the small of her back as the votes were quickly counted, first the affirmatives—nineteen in total—then the negatives. Lilly squeezed Miley's hand as she finished counting the votes against just ahead of the moderator. Twelve. The church had voted in their favor.

"The church approves the sale of six cemetery plots adjoining the Robbie Ray and Brooke Stewart plots," said the preacher. "Miss... Trescott, was it?"

"Truscott," Lilly said happily. "And it's Mrs. Truscott, please."

"Mrs. Truscott, then," the older man said. "Congratulations. And we expect to be seeing more of you and little Miley when you come visit." He smiled at the two young women, then he said, "I seem to remember Miley had a one-of-a-kind singin' voice when she was just a little thing. You still sing any, Miley?"

Miley blushed slightly, but she clearly said, "A little bit. Every now and then."

"Well, maybe you'd share a song with us one Sunday," said Preacher O'Neal.

Miley grinned and said, "I'll see what I can do."

"I look forward to hearin' it, then," he said. "And Mrs. Lilly, I'll have the church treasurer talk to you after the business meetin', so you can work out the arrangements for payin'."

"Thank you," Lilly said, clutching her hands—with Miley's poor hand still sandwiched in between them—to her chest. She turned to look at the rest of the church and said, "Thank you. If you voted against this, please just... give us the chance to get to know us. I just want the woman I love to be buried with the rest of her family, and I want to be with her, too. And our children with us, if that's what they want."

Miley looked around the church, and she noted that the few people she had seen voting against them couldn't bring themselves to look Lilly in the eyes as she spoke. That said enough, as far as Miley was concerned.

"Do we have any further new business?" asked Preacher O'Neal, and when nothing further was said, he said, "Then do we have a motion to adjourn?"

Almost immediately someone spoke up with, "So moved," followed just as swiftly with three or four people saying, "Seconded!" The preacher smiled and said, "Then if there's no objection..." He paused for a few seconds, then declared, "So adjourned."

Dolly stood and hugged Miley and Lilly so tightly that Miley started flailing around. "Sorry, Miley," Dolly said, releasing them from her strong embrace.

"S'ok," Miley said, rubbing her throat. "Your boobs were just kinda cuttin' off my airway!"

Lilly giggled. She had been lucky enough to have Miley take the brunt of Dolly's breast assault. "Thanks for being here for us tonight, Dolly," Lilly said, rubbing Miley's back.

"Aw shucks, darlin', I wouldn't have missed this for nothin'!" Dolly got her purse, and the three of them stepped into the aisle to walk out when Dolly turned and said, "And if you two talk to that other niece of mine, tell her that I hope that whatever foolishness she's up to tonight works out good for her."

Miley and Lilly looked at each other, both knowing that Luanne was caught. "I don't think it's foolishness, Aunt Dolly," Miley said. "I think it's pretty serious."

"And we hope it goes well for her, too," Lilly added. "We'll let you know as soon as we hear anything, okay?"

"You just keep an eye on her, you hear? She's always been a little too smart for her own good," Dolly added with a knowing smile. "But she sure seems to be gettin' better."

"Yeah, she sure is," Miley said, and then she and Lilly were surrounded by members of the church who were interested in getting to know the now grown-up Miley and her wife. As Miley handled introductions, she noticed that Lilly was beaming at being accepted by so many of the church members. Sure, there were going to be some people upset about this, like Kristy and her mother who sulked out without further fireworks, but by and large the Misty Hollow community was an accepting place.

In Malibu, the sun was beginning its slow descent toward the horizon as Luanne and Ron strolled along the beach, the surf splashing across their bare feet in a soothing caress. "So you're not wanting to run away from me and my psycho past?" Luanne asked Ron, a smile on her face.

"Apparently not," he said with a straight face. "Luanne, I can't change your past, and neither can you. But that's not the Luanne that I've fallen in love with. That's not the woman I'm walking along the beach with. And that's not the woman that I'm giving this to." He stopped and held out a small box.

The sun illuminated the small burgundy box as Luanne simply stared at it for a few seconds. Slowly she reached for it, her hands trembling ever so slightly as they finally reached it, touching the velveteen surface. She fumbled with the stiff lid, but she managed to get it open. The brilliance of the sun's rays instantly reflected and refracted from the white gold band and single diamond in a plain radiant cut.

"It's not much, but I wanted to make sure I got a good one for you. I figured that it was better to get a smaller diamond that was a better quality than to get a bigger one with lots of flaws. I mean, that'd kinda be setting a bad tone for our future, wouldn't it?"

Luanne looked up at Ron and said, "You are so goofy sometimes, Ron, but I swear I love you."

Ron grinned, then he dropped to one knee, right into the pounding of the surf. He made sure to keep the box well out of the reach of the waves as he said, "Luanne Stewart, will you marry me?"

On the rare occasions when she had dared to think about a moment like this, Luanne had always made sure to coyly take her time in answering that very question, drawing things out for a laugh or a joke. But now that this particular fantasy of hers had come true, she realized that she didn't want to do a damn thing to drag this out any longer. "Yes, I'll marry you, Ron," she said simply as she took the ring out of the box and slid it onto her left ring finger. It fit perfectly, and she suspected that Ron had probably quizzed his sister for information regarding ring sizes at some point.

Ron grinned and stood up, then he grabbed Luanne and held her tightly as the two of them kissed, the waves rushing against their legs as the sun began to set behind Luanne. As soon as they pulled their lips apart, Luanne looked up into Ron's bright blue eyes and said, "Something about those eyes... They show so much of your heart and your feelings if you look into them long enough."

Ron looked back and turned their bodies slightly, just enough for a small bit of sunlight to illuminate Luanne's face. He smiled and said, "Funny, I was thinking the same thing about yours."

Luanne kissed him again, this time not holding back any of the passion, the joy, the relief that was dancing throughout her heart at that moment. "I love you," she whispered, and only her proximity to his ear made her words audible over the roar of the ocean.

He smiled as he looked at her, then he said in a normal voice, "I sort of figured that out when you said yes." He braced himself for the smack on the arm he expected, but instead Luanne just stared at him with her own deep blue eyes.

"Come with me," she said, tugging him by the hand toward Miley's and Lilly's house. "There's something else I need to tell you."

As they walked, Ron playfully tried to guess what secret Luanne was going to share with him.

"You're really an assassin for the CIA!"

"No, goofy."

"Um, you're on a reality show, and this is all going to be a big joke played on me? Because that wouldn't be very funny, since—"

"No, this is for real. You're stuck with me now."

"You're really a man!"

"Ew, no! All Southern lady here, big boy."

"You're taking me to a motel to have wild crazy sex with me!"

Luanne looked over her shoulder and casually said, "We're not going to a motel." She smiled a slick smile that sent shivers up his back and then down again, leaving him momentarily speechless. "But I really do have something that I have to tell you first, and it's super important."

They stopped and rinsed off their feet at the sprayer next to the back porch, finally stepping on the deck and wiping their feet on the mat placed there for just such a purpose. Luanne unlocked the door and stepped inside, relishing the cool air inside the house. It was still hotter than she was used to, but it was a lovely contrast to the heat still sweltering outside. "Sit down," she said gently, lightly pushing Ron toward the couch. As he sat, Luanne did as well, their knees just barely touching as they looked at each other.

Luanne gathered her courage as she looked into his eyes. "What I'm about to tell you is something so secret that only five people in this whole world know it. For you, it shouldn't change much of anything, but for some others it could turn their world upside down. I need you to promise me that you won't reveal this to anyone else. Please."

Ron thought for a few seconds, but there really wasn't anything to ponder. She was trusting him with this knowledge, whatever it was, and the least he could do was to respect her trust. "I promise I won't tell anyone else."

A smile crept back across Luanne's face, and she felt a weight fall from her shoulders. "Okay." She took Ron's hands and held them in her own. "Ron, Miley's not really my cousin. She's..." Luanne swallowed. "She's my twin sister." She saw a look of confusion flash across his face, and she smiled again to try to soothe his thoughts. "We tell people that we're cousins, because we thought that's what we were for a really, really long time. It wasn't until Christmas two and a half years ago that we learned the truth.

"When... our mom was in labor with us, Bobby Ray's—Robbie Ray's twin brother—wife was also in labor. They were in the same delivery room, and the only family present was my Mamaw Ruthie. Now, everybody thought that our mom was only carrying one baby, because an early ultrasound showed us both, but the second one missed me for some reason. Anyway, Bobby Ray's wife had some complications, and both she and the baby died. At the same time, Miley was born, then I kinda surprised everyone and came on out right after her.

"So Mamaw felt like God had given her a chance to spare her son from losing both his wife and his daughter on the same day. She talked everyone in the delivery room into saying that his daughter had survived, and that I was her. The nurses and doctor were really torn up from what had happened, and so they agreed to it. After all, my birth parents were only expecting one baby, not two, so it wouldn't be changing what they were expecting to happen. What Mamaw didn't think about was how Bobby Ray would react to losing his wife. He started drinking, and when he started hitting me I just took it. I had grown up thinking that I had killed my momma when I born, and I didn't want to do anything that would take my daddy away too."

"Oh Lu..." Ron said, reaching up to gently cup her left cheek with his hand. "Did you carry that guilt your whole childhood?"

Luanne nodded. It was still difficult to talk about this, but it had to come out. The really hard part was over, at least. "It twisted me. It made me into someone cruel and angry, who lashed out at others to try and make them feel some of the pain that I carried around, like I was telling your mom. It was your sister who found out the truth and told Miley and me, and the two of them forgave me for everything I had done to them. They forgave me, Ron, when I had been so horrible to them, because..." Luanne closed her eyes against the tears. "Because I was family, and they loved me." She opened her eyes again, glistening with unshed tears. "They saved my life, and my mind, and my soul, Ron. They got me into some psychiatric treatment, and I spent almost a year in a really great place in Nashville getting my mind back together. I'm pretty good now, and I make sure that I take my medicines and see my counselor regularly. I'll do anything to keep that darkness inside me from controlling me again."

"So what does that mean for us?" Ron asked. "I mean, is it going to be weird for us to get married since you being Miley's sister makes you, like, my sister-in-law?"

Luanne laughed. "Loving you doesn't feel weird at all to me," she said. "Does it to you?"

"No," Ron said, shaking his head slowly as he smiled. "It feels just right."

"There's your answer," she said, running her fingers through his sandy blonde hair. "Anyway, the only people who know are Miley, Lilly, Mamaw, Kaela and me. And now you. We still tell everybody that we're cousins, because the truth would totally fuck up way too many lives in my family. I mean, I still call Bobby Ray my daddy, because he was my daddy growing up. And he got off the booze several years ago. We're slowly rebuilding a relationship, and my stepmom Noel has been really great to me. I don't want to suddenly lose all that. And finding out that he'd had another daughter all this time that he had never known about would probably hurt Robbie Ray pretty bad, and I can't do that to him. As far as I'm concerned, as long as Miley, Lilly, and Kae know, I'm perfectly happy with it staying between us. But I wanted you to know, because I have to be honest with you."

Ron smiled and asked, "So, any other big huge secrets I should know about?"

Luanne felt her breath stick in her chest for just a second. "Not for me," she said, "but there is one other secret in the family. That one isn't for me to tell, though, and there's a really good reason it stays a secret. When it's time for you to find out about it, then someone else will have to be the one to tell you. It's nothing like a psycho killer in the family or anything like that, I promise you." Luanne leaned forward and kissed Ron lightly. "Let's see how you do with this secret, and then maybe I can get them to tell you the other one."

Ron kissed Luanne again, and again. "I can live with that," he said, his heart pounding.

Luanne stood and took his hand. "Come on," she said, tugging him to his feet. "There's a guest room upstairs that I use when I'm here, and it's time that we share this." As they reached the foot of the stairs, Luanne turned to look at Ron. She could see he was slightly pale, so she put her arms around him and said, "I know this is going to be your first time, Ron, so I need you to just relax. I'm not going anywhere, even if we do nothing but just lay in the bed and hold each other, okay?"

He nodded. His nerves were on fire, because he was so afraid he was going to screw this up. He felt he was about to bust out of his shorts already, and they weren't even in the bedroom yet.

Luanne gently ran her fingers across his cheek and gently said, "Relax. Take some deep breaths. I want you to know that no matter what happens, whether we make love for thirty seconds or three hours, I'm going to love it because it's you and me. No one else. Nothing between us. Just us, touching each other. Connecting with each other. I'm on the pill, so you don't have to worry about getting me pregnant. It's too soon for that, anyway."

Ron's heart was still racing, but he managed to say with a shaky voice, "Thanks. I really am nervous." And she could tell that he was being painfully honest with her by his face.

"I know," she said. Then she smiled and said, "To tell you the truth, I'm nervous too. I've never made love to anyone before. I've had sex a few times, but I've never ever cared about anyone I was with until now." She took the first step up the stairs, gently pulling him along. "I want to feel this with you," she said as they climbed the stairs into the next phase of their relationship.

Back in Misty Hollow, Miley carefully blew on the base of the fire, trying to get the kindling to catch. As the flames happily lapped up the length of the sticks banked against each other, Miley smiled and sat back on the quilt next to Lilly, who immediately wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. "And that's how you build and start a fire," Miley said to Peyton and Melody.

The camping spot that they liked to use was a small clearing in the woods behind Ruthie's house, fairly level but still surrounded by trees and dense woods all around it. The trees around here were mostly pines, so even in winter there was always a pleasant wall of green encircling the campsite. A semi-permanent fire ring had been built here long ago, long before Miley and Jackson had started camping up here, and generally all it took to get the campsite ready was to clear any fallen tree limbs, check the fire ring, and set up any tents. A small but substantial river was less than a quarter of a mile away, but all the Stewarts had been taught to either bring their own water or something to purify any water from the river that they planned on drinking.

"So why are we having a fire anyway?" asked Melody. "I mean, it's almost summer. It's, like, ninety degrees out here, even with night falling."

"It'll get cool after it gets dark. And it's part of camping," Miley said, giving her younger "niece" a Look. "So just enjoy it."

"And how are we supposed to roast marshmallows without a campfire?" added Lilly cheerily.

"Oh yeah!" said Melody, with Peyton happily clapping as well. "Thanks for taking us camping, Aunt Miley and Aunt Lilly."

"You're welcome, girls," said Miley and Lilly at the same time, sending the little girls into a tittering fit.

"How do you two do that so much?" asked Peyton.

Lilly and Miley looked at each other, then Lilly said, "Because we understand each other. That's why."

The sounds of snapping branches drew all four girls' attention to the woods to their left. After a few seconds, a bright blue shirt could clearly be seen through the trees, with Jackson's face visible right before he stepped into the clearing. Just steps behind was Kaela, wearing a camouflage t-shirt and jeans. Both of them had backpacks, with Jackson carrying a longer case slung over his shoulder.

"'Bout time you showed up," Miley said to her brother. "It's gettin' dark. You get lost again?"

"No!" said Jackson hastily. "I most certainly did not get lost. I wanted to show Kaela some a' the flowers that grow around the woods here, and I wanted her to get to see the river."

Kaela dropped her backpack as she joined the four girls on the large quilt spread out along the ground. "We got lost," she said simply. "Well, my husband got lost. Since I've never been here, I'm not sure I could actually 'get' lost, because I didn't have a clue where we were supposed to be going anyway."

"Well, the little Stewarts here can take you down to the river and show you where the bathroom is," Miley said. "We'll help Jackson put up the tent."

"You have a real bathroom up here?" Kaela asked, surprised.

"Uh..." said Miley, with Lilly finishing, "...no."

"Ah. Gotcha," said Kaela. "Do we at least have some toilet paper?"

"That we got covered," Lilly said with a smile. "Inside our tent, in the blue bag on the floor."

"Kae?" said Miley as the three girls started toward the river.

"Yeah?"

Miley smiled. "We're really glad you could make it. We love you two."

Kaela smiled back. "Wouldn't miss it for the world, Miles."

Several hours later, the camp was quiet. The night sky was glittering with countless stars as two dark shadows quietly slipped out of the larger of the two tents set up along the campsite, trying not to wake the two smaller figures still asleep inside the tent. The flickering light from the fire painted the faces of Miley and Lilly, revealing girlish grins as they stole out of their tent. They carried a large quilt and a smaller blanket with them, as well as a small pack that Miley carried. Miley silently placed a few more limbs on the fire, carefully arranging them so there would be no chance of them falling beyond the boundary of the large fire ring, then she joined Lilly as they slipped out of the camp. They used a flashlight to find their way to the river, where the woods opened back up and revealed the moon and stars in all their brilliant glory.

Without a word, they went to work, Miley finding a grassy patch and removing any sticks or pine cones and then Lilly spreading the quilt over the ground just a few feet from the river. Miley switched off the flashlight, dropping it on the quilt next to her pack as she saw Lilly take off her nightshirt. Miley smiled as she did the same, and in seconds the two girls were naked and holding each other as closely as possible, their hot skin sending tingles over each other's body. Miley reached back for the blanket, making sure it was where she had left it, then she felt Lilly gently enter her as they kissed. "Lilly..." Miley whispered as her hands slid over her wife's body, touching, sensing, feeling. Loving, as they also slid into Lilly tenderly. "I love you."

Lilly paused to kiss Miley before they resumed making love, not stopping until long minutes had passed and both girls were satisfied for now. Lilly curled her body against Miley's, ignoring the rough contour of the ground underneath them for now. Soon they would be back in the tent with their nieces, resting on the large inflatable air mattress they had brought with them. But for now, it was only the two of them, under the night sky in the middle of the woods. As Lilly listened to the sounds of the woods around them, the burbling of the river as it flowed steadily by them, the hooting and whistling of birds and insects, she found her ears focusing on one sound that she was sure she could recognize anywhere: a heartbeat that always kept time with her own. She smiled as she hugged Miley more tightly, and she whispered, "Love you, Miles. Thank you for sharing this with me."

Miley opened her eyes and looked into Lilly's eyes, pupils as wide as she had ever seen them in the soft glow of the moonlight. "I wouldn't have ever shared this with anyone else, Lilly. Not ever." She kissed Lilly tenderly, then she said, "I love you."

Back at the camp, Kaela and Jackson were stretched out on a foam sleeping mat, covered with only a light blanket. Jackson still held Kaela's surprise for him, which she had given to him after everyone had gone to bed. Although faded, the faint shape of a plus sign could still be seen in the window of the home pregnancy test wand. Kaela smiled in her sleep as she pulled her husband's arms around her more closely, content with telling the rest of their family tomorrow.

Across the country, Oliver slowly rose from Ashley's bed and put on his shirt. "What time is your mom getting home again?" he asked.

"In about thirty minutes," Ashley said as she stretched out in her bed. Her shimmering blue silk nightshirt clung to her body, making Oliver pause in his dressing. "See something you like?" Ashley asked, her arms raised over her head in a way that she knew threw her lithe chest into stark relief, particularly with her sheer nightshirt.

"I see a lot that I like," Oliver said with a grin, "but I'd sorta like to live long enough to marry you, and if your mom catches me here when I'm supposed to be working, that might not happen."

Ashley laughed, then she motioned for him to come back over to her. As Oliver bent over for her to kiss him, Ashley softly said, "Be careful going home. I love you."

They kissed briefly, then Oliver replied with, "Love you too, Ash. I'll give you a call when I get home."

"You better."

Oliver smiled as he hurried out of the bedroom and downstairs. He made it to his car and was back out on the road long before Kimiyo DeWitt pulled into her driveway, and true to his word he called Ashley when he got back home.

Several miles away but still in Malibu, Cassie Hughes stepped into her apartment. "I had a great time tonight, Pete," she said to Peter Corelli, who had walked her to her door.

"So," asked Mr. Corelli, "what in the world made a woman who looks as amazing as you ask me out?"

"Because," Cassie said as she smoothed out his shirt, "some very smart friends of mine showed me that we should never be too quick to judge whether or not someone is right for us because of what's on the outside."

Peter smiled, the honest, intelligent smile that Cassie had grown to love, and he asked, "Or because they might both happen to be girls?"

Cassie smiled. "What can I say? The two of them are poster children for love." Cassie stretched up to kiss Peter, a long kiss goodnight. As she pulled away, her heart tingling, she said, "They inspired me to listen to what my heart was telling me."

"Then I'm glad I was nice to them while I had them in class."

Cassie laughed and playfully pushed Peter in the chest. "You're nice to everybody, because that's who you are. And that's one of the things I love about you, Pete."

"I had a terrific time tonight, Cass. Like always."

"Same here." Cassie kissed him again, then she stepped back inside her apartment. "Goodnight, Pete. You up for something tomorrow once I get my laundry done?"

"Always. Night, Cass. Sleep well." He made sure she got her door closed and locked, then he walked to his car. He had some time before the gym closed, and he needed to cool down before he could ever hope to sleep, anyway. He looked up at the night sky. It had been a beautiful night.

A little over a mile away, two teenagers curled together in a bed, holding each other chastely but warmly. Sarah leaned back into Dani's long arms, holding her tightly as they slept in their first sleepover since they had secretly resumed dating last month. Sarah's family had indeed calmed down some over her coming out, but they had adamantly refused to let the two girls have a sleepover with just the two of them. Instead they had insisted that each girl bring at least one friend, to prevent any amorous encounters during the night. So stretched out on the floor next to the bed were Sarah's "friend" Jaime Escante and Dani's "friend" Gina Giles, spooned together in a loving embrace much like Sarah and Dani. Eventually Sarah's parents would figure out the ruse, but it wouldn't be tonight.

And back at the beach house that was home to Miley, Lilly and Robby Ray Stewart, Luanne ran her fingers through Ron's soft hair as they lay in bed together. They had gone back to his house, where they had shared the news of their engagement with Phil and Meredith Truscott. Luanne had also asked for Ron to stay with her that night, since she would otherwise be in her sister's and sister-in-law's house by herself. After only a second's pause Meredith had agreed, surprising both Luanne and Ron. "Your cousin has been wonderful to my daughter, Luanne," Meredith had said. "And I expect you to do the same for my son."

"I swear I will, Meredith," Luanne had replied. "And I swear it to you, too, Mr. Truscott." Luanne still couldn't bring herself to address her future father-in-law by his first name, despite the comfortable rapport she had established with Meredith. Hopefully, she could overcome that with time.

As she listened to the sound of the ocean rushing in and out through the open window in the bedroom, Luanne closed her eyes, at peace with her world.

As Luanne emerged from the comfort of a good night's sleep, something was wrong. No, not exactly wrong, but... different. She sat up straight in the bed, feeling beside her for Ron. He was still there, which relieved her first fear, that of him leaving her. Ah. The noise of the ocean. That was what was missing. She had gone to bed with the window open, because the sound of the waves was soothing to her. She walked over to the window and opened it again, smiling as she heard the surging sounds of the tides once again.

A small cry, almost like a squeak came from behind her, and she nearly jumped out of her skin as she turned to find the source of that odd noise. In the shadows across the guest room, she suddenly became aware that someone else was in the room with her and Ron, and her blood ran cold as old instincts surged back to the surface. The intruder was calmly sitting in a rocking chair next to what looked like a...

A crib. Luanne felt her breath catch in her chest as her mind now placed what that unusual cry was. It was a baby.

Carefully Luanne walked over to the crib, but the intruder continued to sit in the chair, rocking slowly. As Luanne looked into the corner, her eyes adjusted enough to make out that the intruder was a woman, with long hair, but before Luanne could discern any more details, she clearly heard a whimper from the crib that sounded much like, "Mama."

She looked into the crib, and she saw a blonde-headed little boy, somewhere around eighteen months old. He had kicked his blanket off and was starting to fuss when Luanne heard the woman in the rocking chair speak.

"He's wantin' his momma, you know." The voice was kind and calm, and strangely it seemed to soothe Luanne's jangled nerves. She reached into the crib, and carefully lifted the little boy out. He was heavier than he looked, but Luanne was stronger than she looked, too. As she settled him into her arms, his fussing stopped. A tiny smile appeared on his face, and Luanne felt herself start to breathe again as he relaxed.

"Sit and rock with him," said the woman, who stood to let Luanne sit in the chair. "He likes that."

Luanne sat, and then she spared another look at this woman who had been just sitting in the bedroom, watching her and Ron sleep. "Who are you?" Luanne asked. "Are you his mother?"

The woman smiled, and the smile looked familiar, somehow. "No, Luanne," the woman said. "You are."

"I... am?" Luanne asked, looking back down at the sleeping form she was carefully cradling in her arms. As she looked, she could see that the boy's fine blonde hair was much like Ron's, and the cheeks did have a strong resemblance to baby pictures of her and Miley. But how could she— "A dream," Luanne said, flatly. "This is a dream."

"Yes," said the strange woman, who sat on the settee in front of the rocking chair. "But not a dream like you had several months ago."

"How did you know about that?" Luanne asked, remembering to keep her voice low so as not to wake the baby or Ron.

Instead of answering her question, the woman just smiled as she reached out and gently placed her index finger in the baby's right hand. His tiny fingers instantly curled around the much larger finger, gripping it as tightly as he could. As the woman looked up into Luanne's eyes, eyes as blue as her own stared at her, and suddenly Luanne knew who she was.

"I've been waiting a long time to talk to you, Luanne," her mother said. "But while your heart was so troubled, I couldn't reach you. But now your heart's free, baby girl, and I can finally tell you that I love you, and I'm proud of the brave young woman you've become."

Luanne couldn't help but cry as she shifted her grip to hold her son with one arm and flung her other arm around her mother, hugging her tightly for the first time ever. "I love you, Momma," she whispered through her tears.

Back in Tennessee, Miley and Lilly sat in front of the fire, a light blanket wrapped around them as they leaned against each other. Lilly looked up at the stars, watching one in particular as it seemed to wink at her. "You ever have one of those nights where it just feels like everything's right with the world, Miley?" she asked.

Miley looked at her best friend, her face lit by the orange glow of the campfire. "Only since I've been with you," she replied truthfully. "And don't you even think about wishin' on a star, girlfriend!" she added more forcefully, getting a laugh out of Lilly.

"Why would I?" Lilly asked as she kissed Miley on the lips and then rested her head on Miley's shoulder. "I already have everything I need in you, and in our future together."

"Love you, Lilly Bear."

"Love you too, Miley Pie."

END

I'm gonna follow my own lead, yeah

Kick back and feel the breeze

Nothing but the blue sky as far as I can see

This is the life

Hold on tight

And this is the dream

It's all I need

You never know where you'll find it

And I'm gonna take my time, yeah

I'm still getting it right

This is the life.

Hannah Montana; "This Is the Life"

Author's Note:

Wow. Lots to cover in this final chapter, but we made it. I hope you enjoyed it, because I love chronicling the lives of our heroines. I'd like to leave you with a few lines from a beautiful article called "Our Mutual Joy" that ran in the December 15th, 2008, issue of Newsweek. Preacher O'Neal's quotation of the apostle Paul in the chapter above was taken directly from that article, and I have to credit the author Lisa Miller for it as such. In her article, Miller presents an very eye-opening look at scripture and what exactly it has to say about gay marriage (hint: it's not what those who often cite the Bible against gay marriage think). I personally love this section from the article: "We want, as Abraham did, to grow old surrounded by friends and family and to be buried at last peacefully among them. We want, as Jesus taught, to love one another for our own good—and, not to be too grandiose about it, for the good of the world. We want our children to grow up in stable homes. What happens in the bedroom, really, has nothing to do with any of this." Eloquently said. I can only hope that more people read this article. Go to your library or find it online, because it's very illuminating.

Thank you for reading this story, and I hope it's brought a little more joy and happiness into your life than you had when you first started reading it. Remember to put more love and happiness into the world every day, and I'll see you soon.

Oh, the next story? Well, it's going to pick up a little over three years after the end of this one, and there's going to be all sorts of excitement in it for Miley and Lilly. There's even going to be a rather big surprise at the end of the very first chapter, too, so don't miss it! I'll see all of you very, very soon with "We Got Nerve."

Jo