Half an hour later, Gwen and Randi climbed into the transport, and the bard headed them in the direction of Tommy and Ellaís home. The Marine looked at her with confusion when the blonde got out and indicated the Sabre should do the same.

"What are we doing here, Gwen? I thought we were going into Midas together."

"Slight change of plans." An arched brow made her smile, and continue speaking. "We are gonna pick up Randall, and I will drop you two off at the park. But Iíll be back shortly before midday to pick you up for lunch at Midas."

"But.... " She smiled into the hand that covered her lips.

"But nothing. You are really uncomfortable about being there, and I know you would be happier spending the time with Randall. It will give you a bit more time to adjust. Tommy will make an announcement to the company when we arrive, and after lunch, we can just go home."

"Oh, Little One," taking the smaller woman in her arms and just holding on for a long time. The truth was, she *was* scared about facing these people, her friends again. It wasnít something she would ever admit to out loud, or ever be able to even put into words to herself, but the feeling was there nonetheless. Her heart overflowed with appreciation at Gwenís sensitivity in understanding something the Marine didnít even fully comprehend. Randi placed a kiss on the top of the blonde head tucked under her chin, and rocked gently back and forth. How long they stood together that way was unknown, and how much longer they would have remained that way is also unclear. But at that moment....

"WUV!!" A childish exclamation from the door caused them to look up, and a fast moving toddler body hurtling toward them caused them to separate so the Marine could intercept him.

"Hey there, love muffin! Whatís your hurry?" She scooped him up in her arms, cradling him on one side, while enveloping the bard on the other. He began chattering his still mostly nonsensical words at her, as they moved slowly as one unit toward the front door where Ella stood leaning against the doorframe, watching with a smile and waiting.

"Well, you wanna go to the park with me?" The light in the childís eyes was answer enough. "Hi, Ella."

"Hey, stud. Hey, Gwen. Yaíll címon inside while I get the rest of the boyís things together." She turned and headed back into the house without a backwards glance.

Randi froze in her tracks at Ellaís use of Gwenís nickname for her. "Whereís she get *that* from?" she growled sotto voce while glaring at the bard.

"Donít look at me," Gwen replied with a slightly raised brow. "Youíve heard every word weíve said to each other since you got back." She smirked. "Probably has something to do with that strut of yours."

Two dark brows flew to an equally dark hairline. "I DO NOT STRUT!!"

Gwen just smirked harder. "Whatever you say, stud. Whatever you say." Then in a sotto voce undertone, muttered, "Itís more like stalking."

Randall broke in here, deciding attention had moved away from him for long enough. "Wuv, go." They resumed their walk to the house.

"Weíll talk about this later, bard." Here Gwen couldnít help but chuckle slightly, and Randiís blue eyes twinkled in return. Nothing, not even Ellaís teasing could make her feel less happy about her return to life, and Gwen. Secretly, she relished the teasing, knowing it indicated their love and acceptance of her and her remarkable journey back to them.

"So tell me, Randi," as the two women and the child crossed the threshold into the house, "where did the nickname come from?"

The Marine and the bard glanced at each other, unsure what Ella was referring to. Both knew it was happenstance that their friend had accidentally hit upon Gwenís pet name for the warrior. They looked at the curly headed woman in confusion.

"Wuv," she responded to their bewildered expressions. "I was just wondering where it came from, since it sounds nothing like ĎRandií.

"Oh," enlightenment crossing the Sabreís features. "Iím not really sure. I know I always called him Ďloveí whenever I talked to him, and told him I loved him before I left. Maybe he picked up on that."

The three women looked thoughtful, then turned their attention to the young child nestled contentedly in Randiís arms. "Itís certainly possible," the bard spoke up. "I know I reminded him of how much you loved him every time I talked to him in the last few months."

"Hmm, and Tommy and I did the same thing. Children understand and remember far more than they are given credit for. Well," Ella continued, dismissing the reason, "I like it. Now," not even pausing for breath," yaíll need to get going. Gwen is gonna be late for work." Handing them Randallís bag, she shooed them out the door. "Iíll see ya both before lunch."

Words were not really necessary between them on the rest of the trip in. Randi reached over and took hold of Gwenís hand, and the bard was content to return the clutch, absently running her thumb over the Marineís soft skin. Randall sat quietly, happy to be where he was for the moment. It didnít take long for them to reach the park, and Gwen moved to help Randi get them out of the transport.

"Wen come?" He cocked his head to one side, and smiled up adorably at her.

"Not today, tiger. This time is for you and Randi." He nodded as though in understanding, and she kissed his dark head. Then she moved her attention to the tall Marine waiting patiently. "I love you, Randi." She moved one hand behind the Marineís head, and pulled full lips down to meet her own. She smiled into the kiss when not only did the Marineís long arm encircle her waist, but a tiny hand also found it way to her head, patting gently. The three stayed that way for a very long moment, til Gwen slowly pulled herself away.

"Well," clearing her throat slightly to remove the huskiness that remained. "I love you too, my bard," and drew the younger woman in for a second, lingering kiss. They finally separated at Randallís impatient insistence, with a series of small kisses. Hand in hand they walked over toward the childrenís play area, making a beeline for the swings. Randall chortled with delight. The swings were his favorite.

"Iíll see you in a few hours. Meet you right here?"

"Weíll be waiting." Randi gently stroked the blondeís soft cheek, as they continued to hold each otherís gaze. Suddenly, green eyes filled with tears. "Whatís the matter, Little One?"

"I donít know if I can do this."

The Sabre transferred the child in her arms into Gwenís, and then proceeded to wrap her strong arms about them both. "Iíll be right here, I promise."

"You promise?"

"I promise."

"Well, then," holding on tight for another minute before releasing her grip and stepping back a pace. "Iíll go, and be back shortly." She started to step completely away, before she felt the Marineís hold tighten, and warmth enveloped her whole being. The world disappeared for another long moment, and Randi became the sole focus of her universe.

Reluctantly, Gwen finally pulled herself away. The blonde slowly unraveled herself from the tall figure, and then set the boy gently into a nearby swing, and moved toward the transport. She kept the woman and child in her sights, until they completely disappeared from view. She chided herself inwardly at her weakness, but had been unable to control the urge to keep them in sight. The bard sighed, wondering how she would make it through the morning. She had no way of knowing the rumors had already started raging like wildfire.

 

 

"Ya got a minute, boss?" Scott stuck his head in Tommyís open office door, even as he knocked on it.

"Sure, Scott. Címon in." His brow arched in surprise when the bard closed the door carefully behind him. For the most part, business at Midas was conducted under an Ďopen doorí policy. Only very serious discussions warranted the need for a closed door. "Whatís up?" T leaned back in his chair and motioned the younger man to a seat, giving him his undivided attention.

"Have you heard the latest gossip?"

Now, both brows rose, and it was all he could do not to lose his patience. Only the exceedingly welcome good news he had gotten the day before kept him from jumping out of his chair. That and the fact that Scott did not have a tendency to stir up trouble. He decided to hear him out first.

"Apparently not. Is there a problem?"

"I dunno. Iíve been hearing some things about Gwen this morning, and I thought you might like to be prepared."

"I see. Why didnít you go to her first?"

"I would have. I mean, I did try, but sheís not here yet. That seems to be a big part of the problem."

"Oh? How so?"

The young man blushed a deep, furious red, terribly uncomfortable, but feeling that his boss and his friend deserved to know what was being said. Especially given as how Gwen, no matter how gracious she was about it, hated the attention. He cleared his throat self-consciously.

"You know how broken up she was over Randiís death." He paused and waited for T to nod his understanding. "And you know that only within the last few months, since the memorial service and the viewing of that holo-chip from Randi has she shown any sign of coming out of that funk." Another glance and another nod. "Well, apparently, sheís over it." He hurried on at the raised brow. "Someone, and I am still working on pinning down where this started," he added in almost an aside, "supposedly saw her on Randiís bike this weekend, with another woman wrapped around her like an octopus. No word on who the love interest is."

"Then how are they so sure it was Gwen?"

"I asked the same question. The answer íBecause no one had a bike that looks like Randiís Amazon Warrior, and there is no way Gwen would let anyone else have it.í It made a lot of sense to me, put that way."

Tommy nodded. He had to agree. And now he was hard pressed to keep his news under wraps for another few hours.

"It gets more complicated," Scott continued. "It seems she was seen in the park this morning making out with this woman, and the woman had a child."

The boss passed a hand over his face, as much to bring his grin under control as anything else. Then a thought occurred to him, and he lost the impulse to smile very quickly.

"Why is this a problem? Doesnít Gwen deserve to be happy? Sheís been in mourning for well over a year."

"Honestly, T, I think it is more concern for her than anything else. I mean," the male bard stood, and started pacing the floor, scratching the back of his neck in an effort to organize his thoughts. "Weíve watched Gwen suffer and agonize over Randiís death. Up until Thursday, as a matter of fact, she was still quite melancholy, and regardless of what she said, there were a lot of us convinced she was putting on a good face when she turned down everyoneís invitations for the weekend. We guessed she wanted to be alone. Now," he shrugged his shoulders in an act of confusion, "now all of a sudden she apparently has a new love interest." He turned his attention to his boss fully, and leaned across his desk to drive his point home. "We donít want to see her hurt again, Tommy, or taken advantage of. Sheís been through enough."

Tommy managed to contain his grin, barely. This is gonna be so awesome. "Let me talk to her when she comes in. Iíll make sure I have the answers to announce at the lunch meeting."

Scott nodded his understanding. "Thanks, boss. Gotta get to work." And he excused himself and opened the door. Just as he reached the outer door, Tommy heard him greet the blonde. "Morning, Gwen." The unintelligible murmur of conversation buzzed for a moment, then Gwen was sticking her head in the door.

"Come in and shut the door, Gwen." Blonde brows rose, but she did as she was bade, and took a seat in the chair Scott had so recently vacated.

"Do me a favor," the man sitting behind the desk began without preamble. "Next time you and Randi decide to neck, do it somewhere a little more privately than the back of her bike or the park down the road, huh? Yaíll have started all kinds of rumors flying."

He looked up when he didnít get any kind of retort back from her, and immediately crossed to the front of his desk to kneel at her side. "Gwen?" She was sitting in the chair, arms wrapped around herself, shaking lightly. Tears welled up in her eyes, and fell silently down her face. "Oh, honey," he muttered, and took the sobbing bard into his arms. He cradled her, and stood, gently lifting and carrying her over to the couch. And he held her while she cried.

Finally, the only sound in the room was the sound of harsh breathing being slowly brought under control as Gwenís sobs lessened. Tommy continued to gently stroke her back calming and soothing her with the motion. She eventually patted his chest and pulled away from him, moving to sit next to him on the sofa.

"Thanks, T. I needed that."

"Apparently so. Feel better?" he asked, looking at red-rimmed eyes and blotchy cheeks.

She nodded. "Yeah, I do. It just seems so unreal. Like Iím gonna wake up and find out it is all a dream, and sheís not really alive again. I canít stand being away from her, T. Not now."

He scratched his jaw, and she smiled at the rasping sound it made. He had obviously been too excited this morning himself, if his lack of shaving was any indication. He noticed her reaction, and grinned in response. "I was shaking a little too much to make shaving a good idea this morning." The spontaneous chuckle warmed his heart, and gave him an unexpected degree of comfort.

"Tell ya what... " he said. "I really donít think youíre gonna be much good around here this week. Why donít yaíll take some time to be together?"

The slow blush that crept up her face, and the way she ducked her head as if to hide it, made her adorable, and Tommy couldnít help but smile. She reminded him of Randi, when the Marine had still been growing up, and put on the spot about something she would have preferred been kept private. It was then that he finally noticed the flash of gems on her left hand. He reached forward, and clasped the now cold hand in his much larger warm ones.

"The Soulmatesí Ring?"

She nodded, head still bent.

"Does this mean what I hope it does?"

She looked up now, gauging the sincerity of his question. Though she didnít doubt that he loved and cared about them both, and wanted to see them married and settled down together, the admission that they were the soulmates of legend and lore reunited again was a bit of a step. Especially in light of their mind-boggling reality that had so recently been altered to allow it. She studied him for a moment, taking in the fine lines and gray hair that had emerged over the past fifteen months of Randiís absence. Then she looked deep in his eyes, and found nothing but love, and acceptance, and hope.

She nodded again, smiling up at him brightly, trying to convey everything the lump in her throat wouldnít allow her to voice. The next instant she found herself locked in a bear hug.

"I am so happy for you both, Gwen. So very happy. Weíve waited a long time for this."

She smiled again. She wasnít sure if he was referring to the soulmates reuniting, or she and Randi finally admitting the truth to one another. Not that it really mattered. The statement was true on many levels, in both instances.

"So, when is the happy occasion? I *KNOW* weíre gonna get a nice wedding out of this, right?" He raised his eyebrow at her.

EEK!! "We havenít really talked about what weíd like to do, but it will be in about two months, probably. We want Ditto to be back from Reedís first. Sheís as much family as anyone."

"Oh, thatís true," releasing the bard to sit, and moving back to perch on the edge of his desk. "Thatís good, though. Itíll give us time to plan something really nice."

"Tommy.... "

"Gwen, thereís gonna be no way around it. Youíll either end up with a large service, a larger reception, or both. So many people are gonna want to celebrate with yaíll."

The bard sighed. "If we have to, weíll have a big reception. I want a small, private ceremony, and Iím pretty sure Randi will feel the same. Weíve had so little time together."

"Which brings me back to my original suggestion. Why donít you take some time off?"

She scrunched up her eyebrows, aware that she was not making herself clear. "T, when I take some time off, itís gonna be so Randi and I can go away and be alone together for a while." He shrugged his shoulders, obviously not seeing her point.

"Yeah, and...."

"And, we are going to reintroduce her back into our community here at Midas today. How fair is it if we just take off into the unknown again immediately afterwards? People are gonna want to see her and talk her. We canít just up and leave." She almost snickered as the light of comprehension dawned in his eyes. "Besides," another faint blush traced up her features, "I want the time for our honeymoon."

Now the manís face suffused with color, as the implications of what Gwen was so delicately trying not to say became obvious to him. He cleared his throat awkwardly.

"First of all, let me say that giving you two some time to be together is purely selfish on my part. By your own admission, she took your muse when she left. Perhaps sheíll be gracious enough to return it now that sheís back." He smiled in tandem to the twinkle he saw peeking out of clear green eyes. "Besides, I know good and well youíre not going to accomplish the least little thing around here for a while. Not when youíd much rather be by her side. And I donít blame you for that. Thatís why I rearranged the schedule to cover your classes. Maybe by the time you get back, youíll have stories to tell again."

She had never really realized others had missed her muse almost as much as she had. But it was heartwarming to hear the concern Tommy had for she and Randi, and the faith he had in her bardic abilities. "Thank you, Tommy. Thank you for understanding. I.... " She trailed off, unable to finish. But Tommy understood, and rose, reaching down and giving her a hand up.

"Go to her. And bring her in the back way a few minutes before lunch, huh? Iíd like to have a word with her." He smiled as he spoke, but the blonde could tell that he, too, still had a lot of things to work out. Impulsively, she gave him a quick hug, and brushed a light kiss near his mouth.

"Weíll be back before Ella gets here, I imagine." She smirked. "Depends on what it takes to get the child to leave the park."

"Randall will be no problem, if he knows heís coming here."

She flashed a wicked grin at him as she opened the door to leave. "I was speaking of the other child." The sound of his laughter kept her company all the way out of the office.

 

 

Randi knew the minute eyes landed on her, and discretely looked around as she walked herself and Randall up the slide once more. She couldnít see anything offhand, but since her senses werenít prickling with danger, she was content to enjoy the moment with the boy. He squealed as they started down, and laughter bubbled up within her. They landed at the bottom, and she took a moment to swing him around, taking a good look at her surroundings. With a startled squawk, she headed toward the still figure perched in the low, low branches of the ancient oak tree watching them.

"Gwen? Love, whatís the problem? Whyíre you.... ?" She didnít get a chance to finish as the bard stepped the short distance to the ground, landing in front of her and covering her mouth with her hand.

"Tommy sent me. He knew I was gonna be useless." She grinned. "Iím not sure *heís* not gonna be useless for a while. He did ask that we come in the back way a little early so he can have a minute or two with you." They walked over to the toddlerís area, and set Randall down, taking a seat on a nearby bench. He immediately found some new playmates, and Randi kept an eye on him as she and Gwen sat in comfortable silence.

Finally, lunchtime approached, and the two gathered up boy and baggage, and left the park for Midas Enterprises.

 

Chapter V

Randi was content to let Gwen guide the transport into Midas. Truth was, her guts were churning so badly, she felt the urge to be sick almost overwhelming. To take her mind off things, she studied her surroundings, noticing with some interest the changes the time she had been gone had wrought.

The Marine frowned a bit as the security at the gate waved them through upon recognizing Gwen and her transport. She had put a halt to that, insisting that each vehicle and its occupants be checked personally. The bard smiled at the almost inaudible growl that came from her companion. She had a feeling Randi was gonna slip back into her role here just fine.

The blonde had notified Tommy of their departure from the park, so he was not overly surprised when two women and a tired toddler stepped in the back entrance to his office. He had sent Beth out on an errand, just in case. But he knew by the look his assistant had given him that she knew something was up. He smirked. Sheíll know what it is soon enough. This was one time he was glad to have to make a general announcement. Good news, especially like this, was rare, and he was thrilled to be the bearer of such glad tidings.

She hasnít really changed much was his first idle thought. She still had the same striking features, the same determination present in the set of broad shoulders and firmly closed jaw. And then he started to look a little closer. She was glowing, radiating an inner sense of peace and well-being he had never seen in her before, not even as a child. His attention turned to the small blonde standing contentedly beside her Marine. There was no personal space between them, and even as he watched, they unconsciously moved closer together in what seemed to be an effort to provide the other with protection and support. The tableau was broken by his squirming son, eager to be put down so he could run amuck in the office.

The Marine grinned at him, and set him on his feet. Randall took three running steps away from her, before heading back, and colliding rather hard with her knees. The bard put a rather discreet arm around Randiís waist to help her maintain her balance, and let go of her hold when the tall woman bent back down to unravel the boy from her legs and lift him back up to her.

"Whatís up, squirt?"

"Wuv," was all he said, but he flung his arms around her neck and gave her a sloppy kiss. The she set him down, and he ran right to Gwen, repeating the procedure, though she was "Wen". Finally, he ran to his father, and tugged on his pants. "Pa," was all he said, but it got a huge smile out of Tommy. Just as the man picked his son up, his wife came through the door. "Ma!" the boy squealed. The sound brought tears to Ellaís eyes.

She looked at the two women now standing comfortably wrapped together. Such a difference theyíve made already, together. Iím so glad they finally found each other.

She scooped up her son in her arms, and he rested his head happily on her shoulder. Randi had worn him out, and he was glad for the chance to take a break. The four adults stood in an odd silence that while not completely awkward, was difficult to breach. There was so much to talk about and tell and discuss. Randi, surprisingly, was the one to speak up.

"I know you still have questions, both of you. And Iíll answer as much as I can tonight, I promise. For right now, though, can we go get this over with before I get sick?"

Gwen, whoíd sensed the distress flowing from her partner in waves, had been rubbing soothingly on Randiís strong back. Now she gently turned the Marine toward her, ignoring the others in the room, and focusing solely on her lover.

"Randi, love?" She turned the tall woman to face her and captured her eyes. "Look at me, thatís right. Now breathe... slowly, deeply... címon, you can do this. Breathe. Focus on the sound of my voice. Thatís good." The litany continued for quite a few minutes, until Gwen felt the Marine relax. Tommy and Ella stood in awe. Randall simply fell asleep.

"Now remember, these are our friends. Theyíve mourned you and missed you. Theyíre gonna welcome you back."

"Promise?" A bare whisper.

"Promise." And just about that time the lunch bell chimed, and the entire company swarmed to the mess hall. The noise woke the toddler who immediately became fussy. Ella spoke soothingly to calm him, and Tommy moved toward Randi and Gwen.

"Weíre gonna go ahead and go over. Maybe Randall will calm down with some food in him. When things have settled down, Iíll let you know. Then weíll tell the folks about this, and give yaíll an opportunity to say something, or whatever you feel comfortable with. All right?"

The two women nodded their agreement, and sank to the couch in the silence that was left behind by the Steeleís departure. For a change, the bard cradled the warrior, stroking the dark head that lay upon her shoulder. Randi took great comfort in the soul healing strokes, as did Gwen. Almost before they were ready, Tommy signaled them to join the rest of the company at lunch.

"I think Iím gonna be sick," muttered the Marine.

"No, youíre gonna be fine. I love you."

Randi smiled at the sweet sincerity of those words, and realized suddenly that nothing else mattered. She had the love of the one she loved, and with that, she could do anything. She gave her bard a beaming smile and answered, "I love you too, Little One. Always"

"Forever," came the expected response. And then they were almost late to the lunchroom, having gotten lost together in their kiss.

 

 

"Over the years since we have been a family, we have always used this venue to announce any news of importance to us." Tommy had risen and was now standing on the makeshift stage area at the front of the room. "Weíve heard about engagements, pregnancies, accidents, illness and death. Good and bad news had always been shared here among us. Sometimes it had been exhilarating and uplifting, others it has been completely devastating." His hands shook, and each and every person in the room was well aware of his thoughts right then. It had been the only time they had ever seen the boss break down. He drew a deep breath, gave them a tremulous smile, and continued. "But today, today I have miraculous news. Something so wonderful, so truly amazing.... " He trailed off, casting his eyes toward the door, and noticing that Gwen and Randi had not yet responded to his summons.

"But first, I have heard some of the gossip going around about Gwen today." A few people had the decency to look away in embarrassment. "I know many of you have been, are still truly concerned about her. Please donít begrudge her the opportunity for happiness she has found." A movement caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he grinned brightly. "Especially with the person she has found it with. Ladies and Gentlemen, our newly engaged bard, Gwen Goldman, with her fiancée, Randi Valiant."

The silence that greeted them was stunning, and they walked into the room together holding hands tightly. People stared as though unable to believe their eyes, which was entirely true. Even in their world of make-believe, dead people didnít just waltz back to life after being gone so long. Voices rose in murmured question, all contemplating the validity of the reality that now stood before them.

Just as they arrived on the stage, a voice from the back called out, "Is it true?"

The bard chuckled nervously. Randi just tightened her grip on Gwenís hand. The blonde winced, and immediately turned her attention back to the Marine standing beside her, gently loosening the hand clutching hers so tightly. She placed the large hands lightly on either side of her waist, and reached up to cup the face she so dearly loved. Her entire focus became the two bright blue eyes staring back at her, and everything else faded into the background, dismissed as unimportant for the moment. The only thing that mattered was the two of them: Gwen, as Randiís support and stability; Randi, as Gwenís support and protector.

The crowd still observing them watched in awe at the tangible love that shimmered between them. It was this, more than any words that could be spoken, that convinced them of the truth of Randiís astounding return to life. Voices rose again in tandem, until above the din the question rang out, "How?"

The lovers continued to gaze at one another for a long moment, garnering strength from their love for the coming ordeal. Their friends respected their need, and sat silently, waiting for the tableau to end. By mutual accord, the warrior and bard separated, but remained touching as they faced their patiently expectant colleagues. In fact, they resumed what was a familiar stance to most in the room, with the Marine standing behind Gwen. The difference now, however, was that there was no space between them, and Randi was literally wrapped around her bard as she cradled her carefully. Gwen returned the contact as fully as she was able, leaning back into the body behind her, and loosely clasping her hands over the arms wrapped around her mid-section.

If the people watching them were surprised by the public display from two very private individuals, they didnít show it. Most accepted it for necessary support it was, and took great pleasure at seeing the happiness and love that flowed between them. It was incredible to see the fulfillment, even in a small way, of something theyíd waited to see for a very long time. And the folks at Midas finally smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. This was gonna be a wonderful story.

"Thereís really not a lot I can tell you," Randi began, and most were surprised to hear her voice and not the bardís. People had just expected Gwen to do the story telling. It was what she did, after all. But then again, it was not unreasonable for the Marine to have something to say about her own return. They settled back to listen.

"When I left here, fifteen months ago, I really did die. Suffice it to say it is not an experience Iíd like to repeat in the near future," Gwenís hands tightened convulsively, and now it was the Marineís turn to do some reassuring. She whispered almost inaudibly directly into the bardís ear, "I love you," and felt the smaller woman relax under her hands. "When I reached the... um, well," scratching the back of her neck in an all too familiar gesture that caused the room to smile, "um, anyway, when I got there, I was offered a choice. Stay or come back to Gwen." Here her arms tightened convulsively around her partner. "I chose to come home."

When is became obvious by her silence that Randi was not going to give them any more details, Beth stood up to ask a question. It wasnít at all what the two women were expecting.

"So, whenís the wedding?"

The blush on the soulmates faces caused a round of laughter, applause and cheers, a release of emotion precipitated by other things. Randi hid her face in the bardís short blonde hair, muttering invectives that cause an even deeper blush on Gwenís face. The deeper blush incited more cheers from the crowd, who imagined far worse than was really true. Tommy decided to step in before things got too far out of hand.

"Folks, folks," he said, raising his hands for quiet, and waiting for the room to settle down. "Folks, Randi has only been back for just a few days. Letís give them a little time here, okay? Nothing has been decided about anything much, and itís probably best to give us all a little time to adjust to the newness of this situation before making any major decisions. The getting married one, though----it was about damned time!!"

The crowd whooped and hollered again, and slowly rose to filter out past the bard and warrior. Scott stood for a long moment in front of the two of them. "This is so awesome! I canít wait to tell Tori. We will have to have yaíll over to dinner soon. Congratulations!" Everyone there wanted to welcome Randi back, and congratulate them, so it was nigh unto dinnertime before they were able to finally leave Midas.

Tommy had called Ella, whoíd left with Randall as the meeting broke up, to let her know that they were going to be a few minutes later than originally planned. The tall woman had promised her godson that Ditto would be coming to dinner, and they wanted to freshen up just a bit. A quick shower, some clean clothes, and they both felt ready to face the inquisition. Unlike the people at Midas, Tommy and Ella deserved a much more detailed explanation rather than the bumbling basic explanation they had been put off with the night before. Even so, they would be getting an abridged version. Some of it was much too private and personal to share with anyone but each other.

The walk to the Steele manse was peaceful. Ditto was happy to walk along sedately beside them, while they held hands, and remarked about the beauty of the evening and their surroundings. Mostly, they were content to walk in silence.

When they reached the door, Randall greeted them with his father. He immediately reached out his arms toward the tall brunette, who accepted his hug and kiss. Gwen took her turn next, then flinched slightly when the child shrilled directly in her ear. "O!!" The dog barked once, loudly, and Randall squirmed to get down. Once on the ground, he and the shepherd carried on quite a conversation, to the amusement of the three adults observing them.

"Yaíll címon in," Tommy beckoned, knowing the dog would follow, and the boy would follow her. The two had become fast playmates after a fashion, when Randi had left, and the canine took her responsibility of watching out for the child very seriously.

"I wondered if yaíll were gonna come in, or just stand at the door all night," Ella teased as she came in from the kitchen. "Címon in and sit down. You want something to drink?"

Both women shook their heads no, and offered to help. Ella refused, as theyíd known she would. She was proprietorial about her cooking space, but they always offered. It would be bad manners not to.

They sat making small talk for five minutes or so, when the curly-haired woman called them to the table. Randall was in his chair, and everyone, save Randi, was seated when a knock came to the door. The Marine glanced at Tommy, who had a blank look on his face. She grimly vowed to herself to update the security for the entire island first thing the next morning. Then she growled out, "Iíll take care of this."

She didnít notice the bard follow right behind her, though she was very thankful she had shortly thereafter.

 

 

Not since the memorial service had Geoff and Jill Goldman been to the island. Things hadnít been as strained between them and their daughter then, but they had found it difficult to return. Gwen had made it clear she needed a bit of space still to work out the grief on her own, and her parents had respected her decision. Tommy and Ella were good to keep an eye on her, and inform the Goldmans of the bardís state of mind and health. Several times they had visited while Gwen was on her walkabout, and twice since sheíd returned, and Tommy made it clear they were always more than welcome to come down. The awkwardness between them at Spring Equinox had kept them away, but the refreshing Celebration holiday over Summer Solstice had convinced them it was time to try again.

"Do you think weíre doing the right thing, Geoff?" Jill asked as the shuttle landed at the hub. "You donít think sheíll be mad or upset with us, do you?"

The weapons smith wrapped a strong arm around his wifeís shoulders. "Hon, I think sheíll know that weíre here out of love and concern for her." They had been unable to reach their daughter the entire weekend, giving a bit of validity to her claim of having other plans, but still there was a niggling worry in the back of their minds that she had simply put them off to be alone once again. Geoff had nearly asked for a trace to be run on her, but thought better of it. There was no real reason to invade her privacy. So now they were in a transport on their way to see Tommy, hoping he could give them some of peace of mind about the bardís recent activities.

"Címon, sweetheart," he said as he helped the woman out of the transport, "letís let Ella and Tommy know weíre here." He was thankful the man had given him the codes to extend the bridge. It made things so much easier for all involved. "Maybe while weíre here, weíll get a chance to meet Ellaís parents, and Tommyís father." He raised his hand and knocked on the door.

"That would be nice," Jill replied, smiling into her husbandís eyes. He always managed to see a bright side. Then the door opened, and she felt him freeze even as she saw his eyes widen in shock. She turned to see what had caused such a consequence. Then she reacted, without thought to the backlash involved.

 

 

When Randi reached the door, she saw immediately who stood there and hesitated. She almost called Tommy to come answer it, but knew she was going to have to face them sooner or later. Best to get it over and done with now, she thought, and opened the door.

She saw Geoff stiffen, and his eyes widen with disbelief before Jill turned and rocked her world.

**SMACK!!!!**

"YOU BITCH!!!" The connection of palm to cheek managed to turn Randiís head a full ninety degrees. Almost immediately, a vibrant red handprint began to appear on the side of the Marineís face. "HOW DA.... " But that was all she managed before Gwen stood between them, green eyes blazing.

"Donít you dare presume to lay your hands on her again, Mother." The bardís low modulated, well-controlled voice was in stark contrast to Jillís. "You have no right."

"I have EVERY.... "

"NO. MOTHER. YOU. DO. NOT." Each word was clearly enunciated, and Jill realized she had gravely miscalculated a great many things. "What happens between Randi and myself is no oneís business but our own, and Iíll thank you to remember that in the future."

Gwen turned toward the Sabre, who had frozen in place when Jill Goldman raised her hand. Randi had been prepared to suffer whatever wrath her bardís parents deemed appropriate. She had never expected Gwen to halt it so effectively and instantaneously. That, as much as anything else, still held her in place. Now, she found her gaze captured by eyes that had lost their fury, and held only love and concern. Cool hands found a place on either side of her face. Randi heard the motherís stifled gasp, but her focus was too intent on her bard to pay it much immediate mind. She gently rested her hands lightly on Gwenís hips.

"Are you all right, love?"

"Iím fine, Little One. It is no more than I deserved." Green eyes blazed again.

"It is *far* more than you deserved," and here she turned to look her mother straight in the eye. "And I will not tolerate it ever again."

Jill nodded her head in acceptance and understanding, but her eyes remain locked on Gwenís left hand. The bard finally noticed the peculiar expression the other woman wore. "Mother?" The tone and tenor of the word were completely different from before, showing genuine concern.

Covering her mouth to half-stifle a sob, Jill raised the other hand toward the ring her daughter wore. She took the bardís left hand into her own for a long minute, then looked past the blonde to the silent sentinel still standing behind her. "The Soulmatesí Ring?" she questioned. At Randiís nod, she crumpled, and Geoff moved for the first time since the door opened to take his wife into his arms and comfort her. He and Gwen exchanged puzzled glances, but a look at Randiís faces told him she understood.

"Why donít yaíll come on in, instead of standing out here all night? We were fixing to sit down to the table, and I know Ella has plenty."

Ella did indeed have plenty, and had already set the table for her two impromptu guests. She had gotten used to this in the last few months, since Gwenís folks, her own, and Tommyís father all had a knack for showing up unannounced, though this was only the second time the Goldmans had done it.

Tommy had risen from his place as soon as he heard the slap, but just as quickly the decided that interfering in what was essentially a family matter was a bad idea. It needed to be worked out, and, he smiled... Gwen seemed to have quite a handle on things. Instead, he helped Ella set two more places, and they were all seated at the table when the four walked into the dining room.

Randallís happy noise was in marked contrast to the almost stillness that surrounded the adults as they seated themselves at the table. Randi had seated Gwen, then taken the one beside her, ever solicitous of her needs. Geoff did the same for Jill, who had yet to raise her head. Tommy and Ella had no idea how to splinter the silence, especially in view of the ire they both felt at the glowing mark on the Marineís face.

So dinner started in an awkward silence everyone seemed hesitant to break. The only sounds were the tinkling of silverware on china, the clink of glasses, and the muted whispers of conversation between the warrior and the bard. Finally, Jill raised her head, and looked Randi in the eye. She smiled sadly at the subtly protective gesture Gwen made toward her Marine in response to the contact.

"Iím sorry, Randi. I ... I donít know, um, what, uh, came over me. But you didnít deserve my wrath and I apologize."

Even the child was quiet as Randi sat there, absorbing the womanís words. Then she set her napkin on the table, and slid her chair back. The bard reached out and took her hand, and she and Randi exchanged a few whispered words. Then the Sabre lifted the hand to her lips and brushed the fingers lightly in a kiss. Gwen did the same in return, then released the fingers with a smile. Randi grazed the blondeís cheek with the back of her hand, and rose.

Jill stood as well, determined to face Randiís retribution on her feet. She signaled Geoff to remain seated, and waited as the Marine came around the table and stood directly in front of her. She held the intense blue gaze for as long as she was able, then Jill dropped her eyes to the table, knowing she had screwed up horribly. It might not be fixable, and this error in judgment could cost her her daughter.

Long fingers gently raised her chin, and Jill found herself again staring into intense blue eyes. Now, though, that look was filled with compassion and understanding, and the mother collapsed into the strong arms of her soon-to-be daughter-in-law.

"Iím sorry, Randi. Iím so sorry. I just.... " and she cried for many things. The Marine just held on, knowing this would heal more than any words she could say. She glanced at her beloved, whose eyes now shimmered with unshed happy tears, and whose lips turned up in a small smile.

Randall inadvertently broke the strain and awkwardness of the moment by screaming out, "WUV!" That brought chuckles from the entire table, and caused Geoff and Jill to start in surprise.

"He speaks?" Jill questioned. Too many startling revelations in too short a span of time were causing her synapses to overload badly. She was starting to develop a serious headache.

Now Ella smiled warmly. She, more than anyone else at the table, could understand and sympathize with Jillís reaction to Randi from a motherís point of view. It had been an instinctive response. "Yes, he saw Randi last night, and we havenít had a moment of quiet since."

Jill pulled away from the Marine who still gently cradled her, stepping back to look into the taller womanís face. "Youíve made such a difference already." She looked around at the chatting Randall, the relaxed and happy Steeles, and the shining happiness that radiated from her daughter. Now she raised a hand to the still red mark on the Marineís face. Randi did not flinch or back away. "Thank you," Jill said simply. The Sabre nodded her acceptance and forgiveness before moving back to sit with Gwen.

Geoff had sat quietly through the exchange. He was once again impressed with the young woman his daughter had fallen in love with, and thankful for her generous heart and maturity that allowed her to forgive. He was looking forward to getting a chance to talk to her. Judging from the expression on Gwenís face, and the ring on her finger, there was gonna be a lot to talk about.

 

 

"... and so I got the chance to spend a little time with Mama and Papa." Randi was nearing the end of her hour-long narrative about the fifteen months she had been gone from them. She had left out the more personal details, but her tale had been sufficient in and of itself. It had answered all their questions, and then some. They had cringed, laughed and cried with her. Gwen moved from her embrace to get some water for her parched throat. The Marine accepted it with a smile, and the bard returned to her place in Randiís arms. Everyone noticed that there was no space between them, and that they seemed loathe to be apart from one another. The six adults sat quietly for several minutes, four of them contemplating the amazing story they had just heard... two simply basking in each otherís nearness. Tommy broke the silence.

"Can you tell us about the Soulmatesí Ring?"

"Let me get us some drinks first, and check on Randall." The child had been put to bed shortly after dinner. Ditto had followed, and there hadnít, strangely enough, been a sound from the room since Randi shut off the light. The entire group took that as their signal to move around and stretch briefly. Gwen whispered something to Randi and moved toward the bathroom. Jill accompanied Ella to the boyís room, while Tommy moved to the bar. Geoff saw this as a perfect opportunity to speak privately with the Sabre.

"Hello, Randi," said in a quiet voice.

She looked up at him, a mixture of respect, liking, hesitancy and genuine fear in her eyes. He opened his arms, and she moved into them, accepting the gesture as she would have from her own father. She again wished the two men had had a chance to know one another and be friends, but for now she accepted the regard and affection she knew Geoff had for her.

"I canít tell you how much we all missed you, and how glad we are to have you back." She smiled at him grateful for the acceptance he welcomed her with. "Perhaps later we can talk?"

"Iíd like that," she answered honestly. And Iíd like to talk to you about Gwen and I."

"What about you and Gwen?" the bard questioned as she slipped into the space on Randiís lap. Her motherís earlier attack had put Gwen on the defensive, and she was not going to allow her father to do the same.

"Gwen," long fingers gently turned the blonde until blue eyes captured green and the rest of the world faded away. "Itís okay." She hesitated. "Your dad and I understand each other, and itís only fair. I am taking his only daughter."

Gwen smiled rakishly. "His only daughter is coming to you willingly, love."

The Marine returned the grin in kind. "As willingly as I come to you, Little One. But it is a little different. I... I, um.... " She blushed. "I donít know how to say this."

The bard stroked the nearby cheek. "Itís okay, warrior. I understand. And I think itís precious." she smiled. "I love you, ya know." She slowly laced her hands through the thick black tresses and gently tugged the Sabre towards her. Long arms tightened as Randi ducked her head.

"I love you, too," she murmured, before capturing Gwenís lips in a long kiss.

Geoff couldnít explain the gamut of emotions running through him, but he finally settled for pleased embarrassment. Pleased that they loved each other so deeply, and embarrassment that they had seemingly forgotten his presence. He moved away to give them a bit of privacy.

The entire group had rejoined him in the great room, with Tommy bringing drinks, before the weapons smith felt compelled to clear his throat for their attention. Slowly, ever so slowly, they parted, staying lost in one anotherís eyes for a very long moment, before realizing they had a full audience. The bard buried her now flushed face in Randiís neck, while the Marine tried to appear nonchalant about the whole incident. The color in her face was telling, however.

She picked up the water bottle Gwen had given her, and managed to take a couple swallows before the bard swiped it from her and drained it dry. Tommy didnít say a word as he passed them each a soda, but the smirk on his face was priceless.

"Something amusing, Thomas?" though the flush she sported undermined the threat she conveyed with her arched brows.

"Nothing at all, Miranda. Nothing at all. I didnít realize it was so warm in here, though," he teased.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Ya know, Tommy, paybacks are a bitch." He gulped audibly at the cool tone. It was always so difficult to tell when her sense of humor kicked in, and he found himself wondering if this was one of those rare times it hadnít. She really wasnít big on public embarrassment or humiliation of any kind.

Unknowingly, Ella came to his rescue, as she turned from her conversation with Geoff and Jill. She walked to Gwen, still snugly cuddled on Randiís lap. She reached out and took the younger womanís hand, garnering a mildly questioning look from the bard. Then Ella lifted the hand up for a closer inspection of the ring Gwen wore.

"This is absolutely gorgeous. Will you explain why it is called the Soulmatesí Ring?"

To everyoneís surprise, it was Jill who said, "She canít tell you, but I can." Her eyes made a plea with Randiís, silently asking for permission to tell her side to the tale. The tall woman nodded acceptance. She was very interested in hearing what Jill had to say.

She felt Gwen stiffen in her embrace. She held the bard a little closer to herself, gently rubbing a hand up and down the muscled back. "Forever, love. No matter what," whispered directly into Gwenís ear. The Sabre felt the blonde begin to relax again in her arms, and made a mental note to ask her what troubled her so badly. Then they both turned their attention to Jill, who took a deep breath, ready to begin her story.

"You have to realize," Jill said, pacing in a small area in front of the group of avid listeners, "that most of my side of this story has been documented by the story tellers that have graced our lineage down through the ages." She gestured toward her daughter and smiled, pleased at the small smile she got in return. "I believe it to be as accurate as any account of something this long past can possibly be."

 

 

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

When the original soulmates went on to their rest, their descendants knew it would be at least a full generation before the soulmates returned to claim the tokens, and the rings were put away for safekeeping. No one spared a thought, nor would they for several centuries, that time in eternity is completely different than mortal time. And so, several mortal lifetimes passed before the soulmates were reborn.

Eventually, the guardians understood that the soulmates would not be reunited in every generation, but only in every *lifetime* they were born into. And there was no set pattern for their return. Sometimes it seemed almost immediate, while others it was almost an eternity in itself. The guardians, however, took their responsibility very seriously, and passed the tokens and tales down through their lines.

For hundreds, and even thousands of years, the system had worked perfectly. One of the warriorís line was chosen to be the guardian of the rings, one of the bardís ancestry was chosen to record their lifetimes together, and pass those stories down in the interim.

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

 

Here, Jillís face lit with an inner glow, and years seemed to drop away from her face. "They have always been such interesting people, and led such varied lives. And then.... "

 

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

One hundred and eighty-seven years prior to what was now the present, two guardians, one from the warriorís line, and one from the bardís, had met and fallen in love. These were not the soulmates, and in fact, it was a second marriage for both parties. One brought a young son into the family unit, and the other brought a small daughter. And together they formed a new family.

Years passed, and the children became adults, having grown up hearing the soulmatesí stories. The daughter, being something of a romantic, had found them wonderful, compelling. But the son had grown hard and bitter, lamenting the fact that he was not one of the blessed soulmates, and furious that it was his duty to keep the stories, and not the rings.

Finally, one moonless night, he snuck away, stealing the warriorís ring, and disappearing into the darkness. His sister never heard from him again.

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

 

"The daughter, taking the responsibilities left to her very seriously, went to her fatherís closest living relative, and explained the situation to her. She placed the copies of the bardís stories in my great-grandmotherís care."

The silence was deafening when it fell, as the listenerís absorbed the impact of the words they had heard.

"Thereís more to the story, isnít there?" Randi asked, knowingly.

"Yes, and a few answers too, I think."

 

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

Time moved on, and the old woman was on her deathbed. She called her elder daughter, herself a grown woman, in to her bedside, and took the leather bound stories out from their hiding place.

"You are the guardian, now," she said on her last whispered breath.

"Iíll take care of them, Mama." And she kissed the still cheek.

When the woman had read through the journal, reviewing the stories she had grown up with, and wanted to share with her baby girl, she found an electronically printed note from her mother folded and stuck at the very end. A heavy object fell from the envelope with the single sheet of paper, and the woman gasped in perception. She opened the note and began reading.

For the Record.... (it stated)

Twelve years ago, a strange and sickly man approached me begging a favor.

I didnít know him, for time and disease and a hard life had beaten him beyond

recognition. It was only when he showed me this token, the Soulmatesí Ring,

that I realized who he was.

"I brought disgrace and dishonour to our family because of my greed and

discontent, and it has cost me everything I ever held dear. Hold this in

trust, as you do the stories, for one day, the warrior and the bard will be

one again, and the rings will be reunited by them."

He melted off again into the night, and was never seen nor heard from again.

It is suspected he died and was buried in an unmarked tomb by the love goddess.

One last thing... until the soulmates are reunited, this story is only to be told,

passed from mother to daughter, upon the death of the guardian.

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

 

Jill smiled, seeing the acceptance and understanding in the bardís eyes. The question in them, however made her speak to her daughter alone.

"When you were little, your grandmother shared all the soulmate stories with you." Randiís eyebrows rose into her hairline, but otherwise, she remained Gwenís silent, stoic anchor. "Soon you could tell them better than she could read them to you, and you were telling us more than we had ever gotten from the journals." The mother swallowed, suddenly weary. It had been a very long, emotional night for her, and it wasnít quite over yet.

"Just before your Gramma died," using the bardís loving address for Jillís mother, "she took me aside and gave me the journals and the ring. Then she told me something I never understood until tonight."

Gwen swallowed hard, and asked softly, "What was that?"

"She told me to always keep the ring with me, because you would need it someday." Tears welled up in her eyes and poised on the verge of falling. "Looks like she was right." She paused and looked right at Randi. "And Iím so glad she was."

Jill pulled a small pouch from her pocket, and passed it to her daughter. "This is yours to take care of, I think." And without another word, strode out into the darkness of the night.

 

Chapter VI

It hadnít taken Geoff long to join her. He, Tommy and Ella had scattered willingly and quickly when Jill had stepped outside. They were all quite aware of what the tiny packet contained, and were each anxious to insure the lovers had a bit of privacy.

"Things are changing... so much is happening so fast. Iím not sure I can cope with all this, Geoff. Itís a little overwhelming."

He made a mental note of the sound of a door closing in the distance, but at the moment, his attention was entirely focused on the woman who stood in front of him. The weapons smith closed the scant inches of space between them, resting his hands on her shoulders, and pulling her back against his still muscular body. He smiled when she relaxed against him, and wrapped his arms neatly around her waist. He put his chin on her shoulder before he spoke.

"Youíre doing fine, love. Itís a lot to adjust to in the course of a couple hours."

"Yeah, well, I didnít see you slapping our daughterís fiancée across the face on first sight."

"Sweetheart, in the first place, you were between us. And in the second, well, there are some things I come at from a different point of view than you do, even when I understand and accept your reasoning. Besides, Randi could have stopped you. She obviously felt it was your due."

Jill looked at her husband in puzzlement over the sureness of his words, but he didnít explain any farther, and she was unwilling to press him on it. She knew herself that there were some secrets that had to be kept, regardless of personal convictions or feelings.

"It could have cost me our daughter, Geoff!!" Her voice rose in a mixture pf pain, anger and frustration. She didnít know whether to pull away from him or cuddle closer. He solved her dilemma by pulling her to him and holding on tightly.

"It didnít, love. And it wonít."

Tear filled eyes looked up at him. "Do you really believe that?"

Remembering the expression in Randiís eyes, and the same later reflected in Gwenís, he nodded. "Yeah, I do." And they stood there in silence while thunder rolled in the distance.

 

 

Gwen and Randi sat frozen when the weight of the little package settled in the bardís hand. They never noticed when the room cleared... only that they were alone. The small blonde hesitated, hefting the heavy object in her hand without taking it out of its holder. Randi felt the shaking start, and held on to her companion for dear life. Her head was still spinning with all the implications the day and evening had held. She could only imagine how it was affecting Gwen.

Words whispered so low she could hardly make them out, even in the stillness. "Love, do you think anyone would be terribly offended if we left? I need to be alone with just you for a while."

In answer, the Sabre rose, carrying the smaller woman up with her. They didnít stop to speak to anyone, but simply left quietly together. Tommy and Ella, watching from a shadowed doorway, smiled at each other and walked to the kitchen to prepare a light snack for their impromptu company.

The walk home was quiet, the stillness only broken by the night sounds and the surf crashing upon the nearby shore. The two held hands, needing the physical connection to one another. With a tug, Randi led them down the dock to the end of the boathouse deck. She was fairly certain that Gwenís parents would stay with Tommy, at least for tonight. Tomorrow, well, theyíd see about tomorrow when it came. For now, though, they were alone together... with nothing but the sound of the wind and water, the stars, and the darkness.

For a very long time, they sat wrapped together, staring into the blackness, absorbing the peace. Finally, Gwen cleared her throat to speak. "This has been a very emotional day, hasnít it?"

"Mmm," the Marine agreed, drained from the dayís events, and content to have the bard wrapped in her arms. She figured Gwen was working through some things aloud, and was glad to provide her lover support and a listening ear until she needed more. The blonde turned in the Sabreís arms, until she sat straddled across Randiís lap, and could capture those blue eyes in her own gaze

"She knew, Randi. My Gramma knew." She tilted her head slightly, and the Marine could see the glistening of tears forming in the green eyes. "How did she know? And why didnít she tell me? Such a waste. We could have lost each other never knowing the truth." And here the tears fell in earnest, tumbling from her eyes and rolling down planed cheeks. Randi smiled a gentle smile of understanding, and let the woman cry. Finally, as the tears abated, she removed one arm from around the bard, and softly wiped away the wetness. Then she spoke slowly, considering her words.

"Love, this was something we had to discover and acknowledge for ourselves. You know that. We might never have found each other otherwise. You would not have fulfilled your potential as a bard, because you would have been too busy looking for something that wasnít even in place yet." She took a deep breath, choosing her words with even greater care now. "None of our time together has been wasted, and the time we spent apart only strengthened the bond of our hearts and souls." The warrior looked like there was more she wanted to say, but fell silent, unsure of how to convey what she wanted.

I thought *I* was the bard here, was Gwenís first thought when Randi stopped speaking. She smiled as the truth of the warriorís statements sank in. Sheís right. The bard didnít speak for a while, but raised a hand to trace the now familiar lines of the face she held so dear. Randi relaxed, and allowed the exploration, knowing the bard was using the ritual to relax and focus herself. The Marine waited for the smaller woman to speak when one hand began caressing her neck and collarbones, and the other wove itself into her raven hair. With a gentle tug, Gwen brought their lips to almost touching, and whispered, "Youíre right," before bringing their mouths together passionately for a long kiss.

It was the rumble of thunder that pulled them apart after a few breathless moments. Randi made a move to rise. "Címon, love. Letís get in the house before it starts raining and we get caught in the flood again." She smiled, and was surprised by the seriousness of the blondeís gaze, and her refusal to budge. "Gwen?" Then she felt her left hand grasped and held.

The once loquacious bard remained silent as she slowly raised Randiís hand to her lips, green eyes locked onto blue. She softly kissed each knuckle, before focusing on the third finger. She kissed the empty spot, then slid the coolness of the ring into place, filling it. She placed another kiss on the token as a sacrament, and whispered, "Always."

A flash of lightening illuminated the silent tears falling from the Marineís eyes, and reflected the joy shining from them. "Forever," she whispered back, before bringing their lips together again to seal the vow. Neither one even noticed when the rain began to fall.

 

 

Geoff and Jill walked back into the house just as the downpour started. "We owe you two an apology," Geoff said slowly, as Tommy ushered them into the kitchen. Ella was putting the finishing touches on a snack, and motioned them to take a seat.

"How so?" The curly headed woman cocked her head to the side in a listening attitude, while placing their ice cream in front of them. Then she set a multitude of toppings in front of them, gesturing. "I *never* dress anyone elseís ice cream."

She saw them visibly relax, and she smiled. That had been her aim. Ella knew they were gonna be embarrassed and uncomfortable now, given what had happened earlier, and the fact that the "girls" had left without so much as a goodbye.

"We should have called you first. We have no right to be dropping in on you unannounced. My mother would roll in her grave if she knew how rude...."

"As I recall," Tommy broke in on the explanation, "weíve told you both on numerous occasions you are always welcome here anytime." He paused, then continued. "Yaíll are part of the family, and weíre glad youíre here." He looked into Jillís eyes, and clasped her hand. "Weíll get through this, Jill. We all will."

She looked at the man who she considered a dear friend and smiled at his faith. "Thanks, Tommy. I think we will." She took a deep breath, squeezed his hand before they released. Then she reached for the colored sprinkles and asked, "So, when do we get to meet the rest of the family?" And talked turned to less intensive matters for the remainder of the evening.

 

 

A hot shower had gone a long way toward warming them up after the chill of the storm had soaked into their bones. Now they sat curled up together in front of the fireplace, with mugs of hot tea.

"I thought summer storms were supposed to be warm."

"Hmm. Apparently not always." The Marine smiled. "But it was worth it," she added, smiling into Gwenís eyes.

"Yeah, it was," after a soul-sharing pause. Then the blonde lay her head on Randiís shoulder, and together they tranquilly watched the flames dance and crackle.

 

 

The following morning found them wrapped around one another in the middle of the big bed. Gwen lay there, ear plastered to the Marineís chest, listening to the strong heartbeat. She tilted her head up to look at Randiís features in repose. It still surprised her to be awake first. Always before, the Marine had been up running before the break of dawn. Absently, the bard began tracing the lines and planes of the beloved face. She smiled as the muscles twitched, and the arms tightened, just before sleepy blue eyes appeared and returned her smile.

"Good morning, beautiful." The low voice was husky with sleep. The Sabre closed her eyes again as the small fingers continued to softly follow the contours of her face.

"Good morning, love." Gwen moved up until she was nose to nose with Randi, which she quickly licked. Outraged blue eyes flew open, and the giggling bard leaped from the bed heading for the bathroom. She wasnít quite quick enough, though, and the Marine caught her round the waist before she could close the door. Randi hefted the blonde off her feet, and took the wiggling, squirming mass of humanity back to the big bed, throwing her in the middle and pouncing on top of her before Gwen could even think about moving. The tickle fight that ensued caused the smaller woman to plead for mercy.

"So, you wanna start something, hmm?" The tickling had slowed to a slow caress, and Randi licked up one side of the bardís neck, nipping at the conveniently placed ear.

"No! Yes! Oh, um.... " Gwen voice trailed off, and her breath caught in a gasp as she felt Randiís tongue trace up the other side of her neck. That was the last of the discussion for the better part of the morning.

 

 

"Címon, love. We canít avoid them forever." They had finally gotten out of bed and showered, and were just now sitting down to what could technically be termed "brunch." Geoff and Jill had called much earlier, though theyíd been far too engrossed in other things to pay the vid center any mind. Randi did remember being thankful to have turned of the bedroom connection, before she was swept away into a world of sensation. Now, however, they had seen the vid message, and Gwen was showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for calling them back. "You knew they were gonna have to know."

The bard sighed deeply. "Iím not avoiding them, love." She clasped Randiís hand across the table. "Okay, I *am* avoiding them a little bit. I would have preferred to have told them in my own time and way, but I canít fault them for their concern." Another breath and exhalation. "Iím still furious with my mother, though. How dare she.... "

Randi rose, and came around the table, kneeling at the blondeís feet. "Gwen," she placed her hands on the bardís knees and changed tactics. "Why donít you ask her?" The simplicity of the question was almost overwhelming, and Gwen blinked in surprise. "Donít you think you owe her the courtesy?"

The bard cupped her hands around the older womanís cheeks. Then she drew their faces close, and rubbed their noses together, before depositing a gentle kiss on said appendage. "I love you, ya know," looking deep into soft blue eyes.

"I know," came the soft answer. "Ditto, Little One."

"Címon, Stud," rising and pulling the warrior to her feet. "Letís go talk to the folks."

 

 

Randi and Geoff decided to go for a walk around the island. They needed a bit of private time to talk, and both had the distinct feeling Jill and Gwenís discussion was not for their ears. Ditto, who had accompanied the Goldmans back to the beach house, decided that outdoors was infinitely better than in, and dashed out toward the beach as soon as Randi opened the French door.

They walked along together in silence for a while. The Marine absorbed the sights, sounds and smells that assaulted her senses, while the man studied her and her reaction to the world newly returned to her. Finally, they paused to rest on a small dune. Randi had seen the toll the walk was taking on Geoff, and took a seat. He followed her lead, secretly grateful for the break. She scooped up a piece of driftwood and threw it for Ditto, happy to stay silent until the weapons smith was ready to talk.

"A lot has changed." He spoke at last.

She nodded in agreement. "Yes, it has." She was actually much more apprehensive about this conversation than she was letting on. She had turned Gwen back over into his care when she had left. He could, by right, deny her the bardís hand. While it wouldnít stop their marriage, as they were both well over age, it would put a damper on things. They wanted the Goldmanís blessing, much as they had her own parents. Hence her presence her with Geoff, and Gwenís with her mother. The tenor of the rest of their relationship with Gwenís folks depended heavily on the outcome of the talks they were now having.

"You gave my daughter back into my care, though she was never formally in yours to start with. Why was that?"

The question caught the Marine somewhat flatfooted. She had expected him to ask about the mission, or her death, or why she thought he would trust her with the precious commodity that Gwen was. He had blind-sided her, and it took her a moment to recover. Still, she swallowed audibly, and met his gaze briefly, before turning to look out across the endless ocean vista.

"Because I was selfish," was her soft reply.

Now it was Geoffís turn to look somewhat stunned. That hadnít been close to the things he had supposed she would say.

"Oh? How so?" He had mixed emotions about her decision to leave, and she wasnít, he felt, solely responsible for her choice. But that was something they could talk about later. For now, he refocused himself, and listened to her whispered answer.

"When I first met your daughter, four years ago, I accepted a responsibility to protect and keep her safe. I was the head of Midas security, and it was my job. As she became my friend, it became less my job and more my pleasure. And as I fell in love with her, her safety and security became paramount to me," the tears rolled silently down her face, "as did her happiness." There was silence for a time as she tried to recover herself. Geoff respected her privacy, and kept his eyes riveted on the horizon stretched out in front of him. When she was able to continue, he glanced at her, then looked away again, seeing that she was holding it together by sheer grit.

"When it was obvious there was no way to accomplish that last mission without dying, I wanted the peace of mind of knowing she would be taken care of. I knew you would understand that."

Her eyes never left the blue water, and he found it easier to speak to her without looking at the gut-wrenching expression writ large across her face. There were still some things he needed to know.

"What was it like to die, Randi?" And she heaved a sigh. Here was a question she could answer easily, though she was still hanging as to his decision in regards to the marriage.

"I donít actually remember dying. There was a silent explosion. I saw the walls begin to collapse around me, and then I woke up in this large," she gestured with her hands, "hmm, I dunno... waiting room." He tilted his head in question, and she answered. "Itís the reason I was given the choice to come back." Her flat tone indicated a reluctance to say anymore, and he didnít push. Instead, he quietly waited, and she offered a little more. "I will tell you this, Geoff. Coming back was far, far harder than dying, but Iíd do it again for Gwen in a heartbeat if I had to."

"Would you make the decision to die again?"

"There are a lot of things I would change if I could go back and redo them, that not being the greatest among them. But I canít. We have to pick up from here and go on." She paused. "I have already promised to live for her from now on." She looked him dead in the eyes when she said the last part, and he felt the commitment flow from her. He stood, and held out his hand to her. She rose and stood, awaiting his verdict.

"Then you have my blessing. Címon," he continued as they started walking once again. "Letís go tell the girls they have a wedding to plan."

Ditto shook herself dry next to both of them, and took off running at their indignant cries. There were times when having four legs to run on was a definite asset.

 

 

The silence in the house was awkward, but neither woman was sure how to pierce it. Gwen had her back to the room, and her mother, as she stood at the French doors watching her lover and her father disappear from sight. She kept her eyes glued to them, all but unaware of her motherís return scrutiny.

Jill took the opportunity to study her daughter. She knew Gwen was avoiding her, but she could also feel the concern for Randi flowing from Gwen. Even in profile, she could see the difference the few days the Marineís return had made. Light color infused her face, green eyes sparkled, and there was a hint of a smile on full lips. Even her posture reflected a change. Jill shook her head sadly. Had she thought *before* she struck Randi, they wouldnít be in this situation. Now, instead of the happiness of planning a wedding, they were struggling to find words to bridge the chasm that now divided them.

"Why, Mother?" Gwen never moved, and Jill had to strain to catch the words whispered away from her hearing. "What did you hope to accomplish?"

"Oh, baby girl." The older woman moved closer to the younger, but not touching, not willing to see her daughter flinch away from her. "It was a reaction, plain and simple. Not a very good one, and not one Iíd have had if I had stopped and thought about it." She paused, and Gwen waited quietly. "But I didnít think... I felt. All I saw was this person who caused you untold agony and grief, and I lashed out."

Now Gwen turned from the door and looked into Jillís eyes. "Mama, I love her. She is my life."

"I know that, Gwen. I suspect your father and I were aware of that fact long before you acknowledged it to yourself. But when I saw her standing there, I didnít register her as your lover... only as the object of your pain."

"Iím a grown woman, Mother."

"I know that, Gwen. But you are still my daughter, and will always be, to some extent, my little girl. And a mother is supposed to protect her children." She paused, collecting her thoughts before continuing. "I want you to know something." Finally she reached out a hand and cupped the bardís cheek, pleased when Gwen did not move away from her. "Words cannot possibly convey how happy I am that the two of you have been given a second chance at being together. Iíve always like Randi, and we were prepared to welcome her into our family years ago. Iím glad weíre finally getting the chance to do so."

At these words, tears fell from both eyes in earnest, and the Goldman women came together mutually for an embrace. "Thank you, Mama."

"Youíre welcome, little girl. I love you," kissing the blonde head.

"I love you, too."

Both women felt better after the talk, and a good cry together. After refreshing themselves, and grabbing some drinks, they moved out into the sunshine of the deck, and the conversation turned to more pleasant and interesting topics.

"So have you discussed your wedding at all yet?" reaching out a finger and lightly touching the band on Gwenís. "Iím guessing that weíre not going to have to wait very long for this occasion."

The bard shook her head, a smile on her lips as she replayed their conversation from earlier that morning over in her mind again.

 

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

"Randi, any ideas about our wedding?" She caressed the ring she had placed on the Marineís finger the previous evening, and looked up into sky blue eyes. Those same eyes crinkled up as Randi smiled down at her bard, and answered slowly.

"I want you, me and a priest or priestess. Thatís all we really need."

Gwen smiled at the truth in that statement, even as she rolled to her back and groaned. "Youíre gonna make me do this myself, arenít you?" Her breath caught when the large body hovered over her, eyes bare inches from her own.

"Love, we can do whatever you want." She swallowed hard. "In my line of work, it was not prudent to dwell on situations like that, so itís not something I had dreams about." She held up a hand when the bard opened her mouth to speak. "I know some do, most to their extreme regret later, because they lose focus. But I never had a reason to dream until I met you, and then I wouldnít allow myself the distraction, as badly as I wanted to." She swallowed hard again. "So you plan whatever will make you happy. Just having it happen at all is enough for me."

Gwen lay there silently for a time, looking up into blue that reflected only love back to her. It made her angry beyond words that Randi had never really been given the chance to dream in her adult life, thrust into a role whose repercussions would haunt them both forever. She gently reached up to stroke the smooth face, returning the smile reflexively. Weíll do what makes us both happy.

"I have one question." Her smile grew broader as the brow crept up. "Will you wear your uniform for me?"

The Sabre gave an almost inaudible sigh of relief. "Thank you, love... for understanding how much that really is a part of me."

Gwen acknowledged the seriousness of the statement, before her eyes began to twinkle mischievously. Her voice took on a teasing tone when she spoke. "Stud, it just makes me hot!" And she squealed aloud when the tickle fight resumed.

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

 

Jill wondered what had caused the mysterious smile, but knew better than to ask. Considering what their discussion had been about before Gwen fell into her current trance, she felt it better not to even think about it. There were just some things parents didnít need to know about their children. The bard came back to the present with a start.

"Yeah, we talked about it a bit this morning, but she was a little less than helpful." A sad look entered Gwenís eyes, long enough for Jill to question its origin. Then it was gone, and the younger woman looked at her mother with a smile. "I want to make it special for her... for both of us."

The mother reached over and covered the hand nearest her. "Well, you both deserve that much. Hang on a second." She got up an retrieved something from indoors, returning with her pocket secretary. "Letís see.... " She began musing aloud. "Weíll need a wedding coordinator, definitely. They can take care of the details like invitations, chairs, flowers... hmm, and weíll need a caterer and.... "

Gwenís eyes grew big and round as her mother started speaking to the secretary, rattling of things at an alarming rate. "Whoa! Whoa! Mother, stop! Hold on a minute, please."

"Whatís wrong, dear? Would you really rather us handle everything ourselves? A coordinator will just ease the burden."

"Mother!!" Jill grew quiet, trying to figure out her misstep this time. "Mother," in a much softer tone. "We can plan a fancy reception, invite everyone we know, and do all that. But the ceremony itself is going to be a very private, intimate affair."

"Um, *how* private?"

"A little larger than Randi wants, but not much. Probably you and Daddy, Tommy and Ella, Randi, me and the priest."

"Thatís it??"

"Well, all she wanted were the two of us and the minister. I imagine sheíll concede that the four of you should be there, but no one else."

Jill was silent for a bit after that, thinking. Gwen was happy to let her be. The morning had been very draining already, and she was concerned about how her lover and her father were getting along. He and Randi had always had an interesting relationship... almost a kinship that went beyond the bardís understanding. She truly hoped the time and circumstances would not alter that.

So the two women were sitting quietly, each lost in her own thoughts, as Geoff and Randi approached the beach house. Ditto had left them at Tommyís, having spotted her favorite young playmate at the edge of the water with his mother. The Sabre had been surprised to see Ella still at home instead of at the restaurant. The other woman smiled and said they would be going in shortly. The two warriors continued on toward home without speaking. They had settled things between them, and words were not necessary to bridge the silence. It was a state of being they were both comfortable to share.

As they came over the last dune near the house, the bard spotted them, and jumped up. She raced toward the two, leaping into the Marineís arms, and nearly landing them both in the sand. Gwen was so relieved about having straightened things out with her mother that she momentarily forgot about her lover having the same concerns with Geoff.

She realized her possible mistake, just as she landed in Randiís embrace. If her father had not given them his blessing, this could be very awkward. She was almost immediately reassured by the Sabreís wide grin, her fatherís laughter, and the dizziness she felt as Randi twirled the two of the around together.

"He said yes?" Gwen whispered, eyes lighting joyfully.

"He said yes." Their lips came together, and Geoff walked on toward his wife, as anxious to give the two a few minutes of privacy as he was to talk to Jill.

"They make a beautiful couple, donít they?" the woman asked as her husband grew nearer.

"Yes, they do, and they make each other happy." He paused. "Are you okay with that?"

"Oh, Geoff. All I ever wanted for Gwen was her happiness. Iím so thankful Randiís return was able to fulfill that wish."

They watched in silence as the two women finally separated enough to walk the short distance up to the beach house deck.

"Randi," Jill began without preamble. "Iíd like to take care of your wedding and reception arrangements for you." She held up a hand to forestall Gwenís speech. "I understand youíd like the ceremony to be an intimate affair, and we all know the reception, by necessity, will be quite large. I would like a chance to make up for my behavior last night. This is the best way I can think of. You two deserve a little time together without having to worry about arrangements and details. Let me do this for you, please."

The Sabre was a little surprised. She certainly had no objections, but felt the decision actually lay with Gwen. She looked down at her smaller partner. "Itís up to you, love."

Gwen stood quietly in the circle of the Marineís embrace for a long moment. She nodded at Randi, and the taller woman smiled at her in return.

"Thanks, Jill. Thatís very kind of you."

"Oh no, my dear. Kindness has nothing to do with it. My reasons are totally selfish." She chuckled at the twin eyebrow raises she got from the two younger women. "I have always dreamed of my daughterís wedding. It will be nice to make some of those dreams come true. Besides," she continued in a much softer tone, "I owe you both something for my reaction last night."

Gwen started to pull away from the Sabreís arms, when she felt them tighten around her. She gazed into the blue eyes looking back at her, and gave in to the unspoken request. Randi disengaged herself from the bard, and moved to kneel in front of the still-seated Jill.

"Jill, weíd be happy for you to plan our wedding, and make a few of your dreams come true. But you donít owe us anything. What happened is over, and I donít want any more guilt about it." She let loose a bit of the formidable Sabre personality, and the other woman just sat there, stunned. "Understand?"

Jill Goldman simply nodded, unable to speak with her suddenly parched throat. Geoff seemed to comprehend the problem. He simply passed his wife the water, and waited while she gulped it down. "Better?" he whispered. She nodded, then turned back to Randi who still waited.

"Thank you, Randi. Your trust and forgiveness is more than I deserve."

"Jill, can I tell you something?" She waited until the woman nodded before continuing. "If Iíd have been in your place, I doubt I would have gotten off quite so easily." She rose and moved back to Gwenís side before Jill had the opportunity to even think about a response.

The elder Goldman woman shook her head as if to clear it. She looked to the younger and said, "Gwen, I will of course keep you appraised on the situation. Yaíll can veto anything you donít like. Now," readying her pocket secretary, " there are a few things I will need to know before I get started."

Geoff and Randi were content to sit back in silence while Gwen and her mother started discussing some of the particulars for the upcoming nuptials. As the conversation dragged on, however, one warrior looked to the other and proposed a bit of sparring. The two excused themselves from the talk, and went to prepare.

Several minutes later they returned and bowed to one another before beginning a rapid-fire set of warm-up drills. Jill and Gwenís dialogue came to a grinding halt as the staff play became more intense. They watched, fascinated, at the display of skill the two Sabres exhibited.

Gwen knew, in their practices together, that Randi never went full out. She had wondered why, a little confused at why the Marine didnít give her full effort. Watching her now with Geoff, the bard understood so much better. It was apparent, even as good as the weapons smith was, that Randi was still holding back. The blonde sat enthralled by the grace and power demonstrated by her lover.

Randi, for her part, could see the strain the effort was taking on her soon-to-be father-in-law. He was obviously in some serious pain, judging by the grimace that remained in his eyes. Rather abruptly, she withdrew and saluted him, leaving him looking after her in mute question. She placed her weapon on the table set there for just that purpose, and moved back beside him. A raised eyebrow caused him to follow her lead, and when he was next to her again, they began some slow, free form exercises. The relief on his face was palpable, and she mentioned quietly, "You should have said something, Geoff. You know better then to do some of this sparring while youíre hurt."

He looked her in the eye as they turned to face off. "I am almost continually in pain now, to some degree, Randi. I wasnít going to give up this opportunity, or stop doing other things I enjoy because of it. I canít, because the day I do will be the day I stop living."

She gave his words some thought, then nodded her acceptance of the truth of them. They finished their workout, oblivious to the stares of their respective partners. Done, they each took a towel and wiped away the rivulets of sweat pouring from them. Randi plucked at her now soaked tunic.

"You up for a swim?"

The weapons smith glanced down at himself, and grimaced. "Yeah," he smiled at the Sabre. "That sounds like a great idea. Meet ya on the dock in ten." He turned and headed for the boathouse, thankful Randi had insisted they keep some things there.

The Marine scooped up the staves and used towels, and walked the short distance to the beach house deck, noticing for the first time the two sets of eyes glued on her. "What?" looking around herself carefully. "Is there a problem?"

Seeing as her daughter appeared to be momentarily struck mute, Jill shook her head and replied. "No, no problem. That was... fascinating."

Randi, flustered now, bowed her head as they blush made its slow way up her face. "If youíll excuse me," she said, pulling at her wet top, " weíre gonna go swimming to cool off for a bit. Yaíll can.... "

".... join you." The bard, suddenly animated, jumped up and took the surprised Sabre by the arm. "Mother, weíll meet you both shortly." And without another word turned toward the house, dragging Randi inside with her. Jill just chuckled, and headed for the boathouse.

 

 

Chapter VII

 

It was coming on to sundown when the four of them pulled themselves out of the warm water. It had been a relaxing and enjoyable afternoon, which had been just the kind of day they needed to sweep away most of the awkwardness that threatened them. Pilot and Peanut had come to play for a while, and that had been a lot of fun. The four climbed back onto the deck, discussing dinner plans, when a hail from the shore caught their attention.

"Hey, you guys up for some dinner?"

Randi waved Ella down to join them, since she had no real desire to move yet, and wasnít about to carry on any kind of conversation yelling back and forth. She watched as Ditto stayed by Ellaís side as she carried Randall down the dock, and noticed how attentive to the child the dog was. There was a niggling at the back of her neck, but she put it aside for the present.

It wasnít long before good-natured laughter and teasing could be heard on the deck. Steaks had been put on the grill that Randi was currently manning, and Jill, Ella and Gwen had gone up to the beach house to see what they go find to go with them. Geoff and Tommy sat on the boathouse dock, casting the occasional glance toward the Marine, and talking. Randall got tired of playing with Ditto, and ran over right into Randi knees.

"Hey there, love muffin! Whatcha got going on, huh? She reached down and pulled him up to her, and she let him "help" her turn the steaks. Content, he kissed her and asked to be put down. The child proceeded to wander over to his father. Geoff excused himself from their conversation and walked over to Randi, still in her somewhat damp swimsuit.

"Iíll keep and eye on these, if you wanna go change."

She smiled, appreciating the offer. "You sure you donít mind? I hate to ask guests... "

"Randi," seriously, looking her in the eyes. "Weíre not guests. Weíre family."

She looked at him wide-eyed and swallowed hard. " Wonít take me but a couple minutes." She scampered of as though being chased by fire. Tommyís eyes followed her, concerned, then came back to meet Geoffís.

"I think I threw her off stride." The man from Midas let it go.

Randi, on the other hand, was repeating the words to herself. She nearly ran into Ella, coming down the deck steps with a platter of corn.

"Sorry, Ella. Wasnít watching where I was going."

The curly headed woman peered into the Sabreís still wide eyes. "Randi? You okay?"

The Marine nodded her head absently, and answered, "Yeah, I just need to change. Iíll be down there in a minute." She continued on into the house where she almost knocked Jill over coming out the door. The salad was saved by skill and a bit of luck.

"Sorry, Jill," coming out of her trance. "You okay?"

"Yes, dear. Thank you for asking. You?"

"Yeah," distracted. "Iím just gonna go change. Iíll meet yaíll down there in a few minutes." Jill nodded her head, wondering what could have put the dazed look in the taller womanís eye. Then she proceeded to join the rest of the party on the dock deck.

She found the bard in the kitchen, having just pulled warm rolls out of the oven, and set them down on the counter. The Marine walked up behind Gwen, and engulfed her in an enormous hug. The younger woman relaxed into the embrace, until she felt the confusion emanating from the tall form holding her. She turned in Randiís arms, looking into her eyes.

"Love?"

The Sabre raised her head, and Gwen held her breath at the startled wonder she saw reflected back to her in big blue eyes. "He called us family, Gwen."

It took a brief moment before the implication sank in, and then a smile lit up the bardís features. "We *are* family, Randi. All of us. Together." She wrapped her arms around the Marineís waist, and laid an ear over her heart. Then she squeezed gently, reassured when Randi returned the hug and held on tight. "Now," after another long moment, "go change. Weíll be waiting dinner for ya." Gwen smile tremulously, trying not to let the overwhelming emotions assaulting her senses get the best of her. Theyíd have time later for that.

Dinner was a pleasant affair, though Randi and Gwen were taken off guard by Geoffís casual announcement, as the Steeles made ready to leave.

"You two will come up and see us, soon?" gathering things together, and offering his hand to Jill. She stood as well, and moved over to say goodbye to Ella and Randall.

"Daddy?" Confusion echoed from the bardís being.

"Little girl, you and Randi deserve some time alone. Weíre gonna go on back home. You can come visit when youíre ready."

"Besides," Jill cut in, "Youíll need to come up to talk to Sal. You know how he feels about personal interaction, and heíll be devastated if you donít have him do the holos and pictures." Gwen stifled a chuckle at the silent groan she felt rumble through Randiís chest. She couldnít stop the grin that emerged as the hands at her waist tightened, though. Jill laughed aloud at the chagrined expression on the Marineís face.

"Weíll be there, Mother. We are taking Ditto to Reed this weekend, to get her settled in to stay there for the next couple months. So we have a little bit of time." She looked up to see blue eyes gazing down at her, and they answered her unspoken question. "But weíll probably come up in the next weekend or two after that."

"Thatís fine, dear. Whenever is good for you both." Hugs, kisses and goodbyes were exchanged, then Randi and Gwen were left to peace and quiet.

 

 

It was some time later, and the warrior and the bard lay curled up in bed together.

"Randi?"

"Hmm?" came the somewhat sleepy response. The day had been another emotionally stressful one, and the Marine was exhausted. She unconsciously tightened her arms around the woman who lay in them, and waited. Gwen shifted so she could look into the blue eyes that were, at the moment, closed to her. She ran her hands lightly up the sides of the torso she was sprawled on top of. The body beneath her jerked, and one blue eye opened to glare menacingly at her. She chuckled in response, then drew in a shaky breath as the large hands on her back returned the favor in kind, and kept up the action.

"Yeeeesss??" Randi drawled, fiendishly aware of the reaction the storyteller was having to her touch. Gwen shook her head to try and refocus her thoughts on the subject at hand. She clenched her fists and dropped her head down onto Randiís chest.

"Please," she whispered, unsure herself what exactly she was asking for.

The Marine smiled down in amused affection at the blonde head now resting on her chest. She dropped a kiss onto the top of Gwenís head and changed her stroking motion. The bard sighed, and drew a deep breath. "I know better. One of these days Iíll learn."

Randi laughed and kissed the blonde head again. "Nah, youíll keep trying," thinking of all the times the bard had tried playing practical jokes to get one over on the warrior. "Itís in your nature." She paused as she felt the smaller body relax against her. "Now, what did you want to ask me?"

The gentle motion of Randiís hands was coaxing Gwen into a doze, and she had to pull her thoughts from the twilight zone they were slipping into.

"I, um, I wanted to... uh, well, ask you to, um, do something... for me."

The Marineís brow rose into her hairline at the bardís hemming and hawing around. Gwen wasnít known to stutter and stumble over words. Intrigued, she asked, "Oh, whatís that?"

The bard took a deep breath. "Iíd like you to... would you mind... do you think you could... oh, damn!"

Now Randi chuckled, and Gwen rose up from the Sabreís rocking chest to glare at her. "Itís not funny!"

"Iím sorry, love," though it took another moment or two for her to still her chestís movements. She smiled. "Just spit it out. Whatever it is, it canít be that bad."

"Iíd like you design my wedding dress." Green eyes dropped to the suddenly still surface underneath her, not catching the widening of the blue ones now locked on the top of her head. The bard felt the deep breath that shuddered through Randiís body, and waited for the Marine to speak. The warrior cleared her throat twice before she managed to get more than a squeak out.

"Gwen, are you sure? Your mother probably knows dozens more qualif...." Slim fingers over her lips caused Randiís words to stop flowing. She kissed them, and waited patiently for the bard to speak.

"Iím sure. I have never felt more beautiful, or more loved than when I found out that you created those two dresses just for me. Iíd like for it to be the same on our wedding day."

There was nothing Randi could say to the logic or the feeling behind those words. "Then that is how it will be," she answered with a smile. "I know Marie will be thrilled to craft another dress, and actually get to have you there for fittings this time." The Marine laughed in memory.

"What??"

"Oh, I was just remembering her griping about having to use measurements without a body attached to them. It was hard for her. And still, she did a flawless job."

"She certainly did."

"Itíll be beautiful, love. I promise."

"I know it will," giving the tall woman beneath her a long leisurely kiss. "Good night, warrior. I love you."

"I love you too, Little One. Good night."

 

 

The pair spent a quiet few days together, pleasantly surprised that their friends gave them a bit of time to themselves. Unbeknownst to them, Tommy asked their friends to give them a bit of space, and though anxious to reacquaint themselves with Randi, and celebrate the coupleís newfound happiness, they were glad to respect their need for a bit of private time.

As the weekend approached, Gwen noticed the Marine getting more and more nervous. Even a daylong ride on the bike together with a stop by Rosieís hadnít helped relax her, and the bard decided to broach the problem that night. They were curled around each other comfortably. Randiís hand absently slid up and down the muscular back, her mind obviously miles away.

"Randi?" Gwen got no answer. She reached up and touched the face just above her head, leaning back to catch the blue eyes. "Love?" she tried the second time, glad when the eyes focused on her.

"Hmm?"

"Itís gonna be all right," getting to the heart of the matter. "Theyíre gonna be thrilled to see you, to know that youíre alive." They had tried for several days to contact Reed and Tiny. When they had finally reached the ranch caretaker, they had been informed that Reed was expected home the day before Gwen was scheduled to arrive. No mention was made of Tiny, and Randi knew better than to even ask.

"I know. I just feel really bad about springing this on them. It seems really unfair.... " She trailed off when she realized that had been exactly what she had done to both Gwen and Tommy. But then, she reasoned, those had been completely different situations. "Iím sorry, love. I think Iím still just a little overwhelmed."

"Itís okay, Randi. Sometimes I am too. But itís a nice kind of overwhelmed." The conversation would have gone on longer had not the both bard and warrior yawned monstrously together. They chuckled, and closed their eyes in sleep, anticipating the reunion the morrow would bring.

 

 

Friday morning found the Steele family at the beach house ostensibly to see them off, but mostly so Randall could say goodbye to his favorite pillow/playmate.

"O go bye-bye." He shook his head sadly at the fact.

Randi picked him up in her arms and he put his own arms around her neck. They stood thus for a long moment, and the Marine tickled his neck by blowing raspberries on it. He squealed in childish laughter, and Ditto came running over, barking. This little pandemonium caused an outbreak of hilarity to burst forth from the three remaining adults. It was a nice tension release.

"Iíll tell ya what, love muffin. O will be back home in a couple months, okay? And maybe weíll even bring home a new playmate."

Randallís eyes took on a shine at the prospect of having another dog around to play with, and he gestured for the warrior to release him. When him feet were settled on the ground, Ditto nosed him in the chest and promptly caused him to sit down. The boy wrapped his arms around the dogís neck, and the shepherd proceeded to give the child a thorough face washing. Randall giggled. "Doggy tickles. Bye-bye, O. Good doggy"

And it was to this send off that the trio departed.

 

 

 

When they arrived a short transport trip later at Reedís dog ranch, Reed came out to meet them. Ditto was the first off the private transport, and Reed greeted the canine with enthusiasm. She expected to get some beautiful puppies in this litter. The male, Phil, came from a line of wolves, and he tended to have a throwback in some of the litters he sired. Reed had a feeling this might be one of those litters.

When Gwen emerged from the transport, Reed stepped back in sudden shock, her senses flooded by the aura the bard was emitting. She stood still, her hand on her chest, trying to catch her breath. Gwen rushed to her side, startled when Reed flinched violently at her touch. Hurt by the reaction, the blonde stepped quietly out of reach, but not so far from the other woman that she couldnít lend a hand if aid became necessary. Finally, Reed recovered her breath and looked Gwen squarely in the eyes.

"Where is she, Gwen? Is she here?"

Now it was the bardís turn to step back a pace and look shocked. Gwen had gotten off the transport first, to cushion the blow, but Reedís reaction to her had halted everything. The breeder had turned her back to the door of the transport when the aura had hit, and Gwen had walked around to face her. So she simply pointed over her shoulder where Randi now stood in the doorway waiting.

Reed turned slowly, allowing her heart and mind to slowly accept what her eyes told her to be true. She was better prepared for the force of the aura this time, but the sensation was still overwhelming. Slowly, Randi made her way to stand in front of the other woman, careful not to initiate physical contact. She had seen Reedís reaction to Gwenís touch. Instead, she held out her hand to the bard, who took it without a word, and moved to stand beside the Marine.

The breeder shut her eyes as their physical link caused the aura around them to burn so brightly, she feared for her eyesight. Several seconds passed while Reed meditated, bringing her breathing and reaction under better control. When she opened her eyes, they were bright with unshed tears.

"What happened? How....?" She trailed off as they moved a step closer. "No, please." At their puzzled looks, she continued. "Your aura, your essence," they nodded their understanding before she continued. "While it was strong before, it is simply overwhelming now. I can feel it manifested physically," she looked directly at Gwen, "and itís like an electric shock."

"Oh, God, Reed!" horrified. "Are you all right?" The bard was quite upset to know she had caused the other woman discomfort, and perhaps even real pain. "Iím sorry."

"Itís all right, Gwen. You had no way of knowing, and frankly, neither did I. That has never happened to me before, though in truth Iíve never seen so strong a bond before either. I will have to do a bit of research into this." The last was muttered mostly to herself, but Randi heard it. She hoped to hear more about this later, but for now, there were other things to talk about.

"Forgive my manners. Please, come in. Let me get Ditto settled in, and then weíll have time for a nice long chat to catch up. Yaíll make yourselves at home, and Iíll be back shortly."

"Iím gonna take Randi over to meet Phil, if thatís okay?" The bard raised her voice in question. She suspected Reed needed a bit of space to recover a little bit of her still badly shaken composure. She took the Marineís arm when the breeder nodded, and they went to separate buildings.

The big shepherd was a bit of an anomaly, being most black with only occasional spots of brown. He thought to have a staring contest with the Marine, but she held her own, until the dog capitulated. Finding her acceptable, he then jumped up on her in delighted welcome.

"Oof!" came the whooshing sound of air leaving Randiís lungs. Sheíd never thought the big dog would have jumped up on her and had not really been ready for the movement. She staggered under his weight, but managed to keep her balance, barely. Dodging the doggy kisses was a little harder, and it sent Gwen into a fit of giggles.

"Would... you mind... ex...plaining... to me, uh, um... UGH!.... God!... get down!.... Get.... "

Suddenly Phil seemed to understand, and stood back on all fours, with a ludicrously contented look on his face. He barked sharply once, and stood grinning at her with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, as though privy to some private joke.

"Now," moving to the small bathroom to wash her face and hands. "Would you be kind enough to tell me why that *always* happens to me, and never to you?" She was glaring at the still chuckling bard, but her blue eyes twinkled with merriment.

"I dunno, Stud. Maybe itís just pheromones." Randi growled playfully. Phil growled for real.

"Actually, sheís not that far off." Reedís voice came from the doorway. "You are apparently the Alpha, obviously the leader of your pack. The dogs simply respond to that."

"I... but... I.... " the Marine sputtered to her fellow Sabre. "Ah, hell."

Now both the other woman just looked at each other and smiled. They didnít want to embarrass Randi any further, but the look on her face was impossibly cute. The breeder smoothed over the moment with an invitation.

"Címon up to the house, guys. Weíll have some talk, and a bite of lunch, and then Iíll give you both the tour. Weíve added a few new things since you were here last."

The walk up to the house was a quiet one. Reed noticed that her friends stayed in constant physical contact, and had to smile. The sweetness of the action, and the strength of their bond was a wonderful, unsought-for memory she would come to treasure and guard dearly in the weeks and months to come.

 

 

Reed listened amazed and open-mouthed as Randi once again explained her miraculous restoration to life. She was making a holo-recording for Tiny, as it was a fairly sure prospect he would not be home before they left.

"How are things going?" The Marine finally asked. Reed knew exactly what Randi was referring to, and cast a covert glance in Gwenís direction. She knew Tiny had had a talk with the bard, but they had never discussed the details of that conversation between them. Tinyís only comment about the matter had been, "I gave her a bit of peace." The breeder had asked no questions, and the big man had volunteered nothing else.

"She knows everything, Reed."

"And Iím not letting her go back to that life." Gwen wrapped her hands firmly around the larger ones of her partner. "Ever."

"Do you think you can stop it?"

"No. I *KNOW* I can. She doesnít belong to them anymore. She did her duty and DIED for them. I wonít let that happen again!!" By this point, Gwen was on her feet and yelling, and Reed was once again hit with an outpouring of emotional energy that was staggering. Randi stood and enveloped the bard in a hug. Gwen couldnít stop the tears that ran down her face. "Sheís mine now, Reed. She lives for me," she whispered, reaching up a hand and stroking a smooth cheekbone, "for us." Their eyes locked, and for a moment there was no one else in the world as their souls communicated.

"Always," the Marine vowed. Finally they sat back down next to each other, touching along their lengths.

"Well," Reed croaked out, as she tried to catch her breath at the flood of energy flowing, "I, for one, believe you. And quite frankly, I agree. Youíve done enough. And it really hasnít been nearly as bad since.... "

"Since I died?" A brief pause as the breeder hesitantly nodded. "Reed, itís okay. Itís a fact of our lives, and something we will be working through for a long time."

"I can only imagine," the woman half muttered to herself. "This is only the third trip heís made since then." Randiís brows rose into her forehead, remembering the frenetic pace they had been going in those last few months. Reed noticed and continued. "Itís mostly just little pockets of resistance. Or so it seems. This trip was a fact finding trip." She paused again, gathering her thoughts. "Rumor is that there may be a new leader."

Gwen saw Randiís jaw lock, and her gaze turn inward. She reached a hand over to turn the beloved face toward her. "Itís not your fight, love. Not anymore."

"I know, Gwen. Itís just.... "

She rose from her place, and moved toward the window. Reed subtly moved to the kitchen. This was between the two of them. Besides, all the energy floating around in there was starting to make her muscles cramp, and she needed a break from it. She quietly did her clean up, thankful to be out of hearing of the discussion in the next room.

"What, Randi?" The bard wasnít sure whether she was hurt, stunned or angry by the turn in the conversation.

"It was just a part of me for so long. I... I dunno. I think itís just an instinctive reaction, knowing what I do about the world and the Sabres. I canít help it."

 

 

And somewhere, in the recesses of the heavens, a dark god laughed.

 

 

 

Continued - Part 3


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