RANDI!!! No, gods, no!!! Please dont have taken her away from me again!
Gwen had no way of knowing that the precise moment the sickening panic flooded her system, Randi was reacting to its gut wrenching intensity. She closed her eyes again, willing herself to calm down. The bard also had hoped this would alleviate some of the lancing pain splitting her head.
It seemed to help, and as the throbbing settled into a dull ache, she tried to take stock of her current situation. The last thing I remember is...
Ow! Ow! Damn, that was stupid! She eased back down on the pallet, thankful she hadnt actually opened her eyes when she shot up so abruptly. Okay, I can think just as easily laying down with my eyes closed. All right, Gwen... lets see if you can figure out what is going on here.
She remembered saying goodbye to Randi before the Sabre left for headquarters. She smiled in memory. Then she had been waiting for... "Uncle Ben?" The voice was a mere whisper, as realization came rushing back to her. What the hell?? But the pain in her head was growing too strong to ignore, and she decided to rest a bit longer before trying to sort things out. She was fairly certain that whatever had happened was serious, and would take quite some mulling to overcome. So her first matter of business was more rest so her head would hopefully stop pounding,.
The next time the green eyes opened, the bright light wasnt nearly so blinding. It still forced her eyes to shut again, but was not accompanied by the intense pain shed experienced the first time shed tried it. Oh, yeah. Thats much better. All right, Love. Im gonna hold on until you get here. Just hurry, will ya? She took a deep breath. Time to take stock.
The bard slowly opened her eyes a second time, taking stock of the world around her. Hmm, bright lights, yep... gray walls, okay... what else? The blonde head turned to survey the room.
Very... functional. Aside from the couch she was laying on (not the pallet shed originally thought it to be), the room had gray carpet, a stark table and chairs, and a functional kitchenette. There were no wall coverings or pictures. Two doors on one wall led to what she presumed to be a sleeping area, and a bathroom. Shed check that out to be sure.
Slowly she sat up, not wanting to encounter the rush of pain or any dizziness. Happy that everything seemed o be functioning properly, the bard rose from the couch. It was then that a reality hit her squarely in the face. This room is old. The furnishings... the doors.... She stopped to inspect the solid wood that surrounded her. Hmm, well, it looks like the real stuff, and if it is, that makes this place at least a couple hundred years old.
She walked over to the nearest door, amazed by its heaviness when she pushed it open. Guess it is the real thing. Wonder where we are. Gwen squared her shoulders. Think Ill finish my tour, and then go see what I can see. She was rather amazed at her own calm. She was fairly certain it would take a while for Randi to get to them, even with the tracer chip. And it was apparent for the moment anyway that Ben had no intention of doing her any great harm, aside from keeping me apart from Randi, that is.
Now curiosity about why she had been brought here, and the manner in which it had been accomplished, got the better of her. She decided to seek out the man in question, and ask him directly. The blonde turned away from the door that had given her a glance into a neat, if stark, bedroom, and walked to the door opposite. As she suspected, it was a door leading to a hallway. She closed the door behind her, and stood listening for a minute. Then she turned to the left, and headed down the corridor toward the sounds coming from that direction.
"Did you locate the chip?" Randi was speaking as they loaded their gear and themselves onto the shuttle. Reed was doing her pre-flight checks. Jerry was the last to enter, and he closed the bay door behind himself, settling into a seat.
"Yeah, pretty much what we expected. His transport was found in a field not far from here. The chip was inside." He noticed the white knuckles of her clenched hands. "There was no blood or other evidence to show she had been hurt in any way."
"And we have no reason to believe he would harm her." Geoffs hands were almost the color of hers. It was as if speaking the words aloud would make them true in his mind. "Weve been friends for years, and he always adored Gwen."
"Yeah, right up til now. Amazing how I continue to screw up Gwens life." The bitterness in Randis voice was a surprise to all of them, but only Geoff answered her.
"No, Randi. You complete Gwens life, just as she completes yours. And when we get back from this, we will all be at your... um, reception with bells on. What Ben did... what he is doing, is his own choice." The mans voice broke for a second, before he steadied it and resumed. "He will be the one who has to live with the consequences."
The Marine realized he was suffering as well, and addressed the unspoken part of his speech. "He will be the only one to pay for this."
It was silent for a time after that, before Jerry spoke again. "By the way, Randi. I heard back from the Sabre who visited Bens home. Its clean. And the boat is still in the dock. So everything points to this being the right destination."
Itd better be. There are no points for second place. And were not gonna get a second chance at this.
"ARES!!! You self-righteous little bastard!! What in Tartarus do you think youre doing???"
The dark god stepped from his domain, and met his sister with a smug smile on his face. "Problems, Aphrodite?"
"You know good and damned well Ive got problems. Youre the one causing them!!" She poked him periodically, emphasizing her words.
"Excuse me?" He grasped her fingers none too gently, and pushed her slightly away from him.
The blonde goddess narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips. She was immediately joined by her two sisters, who stood in precisely the same positions slightly behind and to either side of her. "Dont fuck with me Ares. You know the rules. And I claimed them millennia ago. So stay away from them." The three women didnt wait for his response. They simply disappeared, headed to chambers to find a solution for the misery the unforeseen interference was causing.
"Too little, too late, Little Sister."
Gwen was quick to realize that finding her way through the maze this place was would take weeks without a map to guide her. She could find no identifying marks anywhere that were helpful. Well, hopefully, I wont be here long enough for it to matter. It did disconcert her more than a little though, that after all the trouble Ben had taken to get her to... wherever *here* was, that there wasnt some sort of security that she could identify. Though, given the fact that I have no idea where I am or where I am going makes it pretty secure, I guess. Oh, Randi, please hurry. This is more than a little creepy. The bard rubbed her ring in reassurance. She looked down at it for a long moment, then slipped it from her finger. The pain that act caused was palpable, and she drew in a deep breath to try to alleviate the worst of it. When it had passed to a tolerable level, she untucked and removed the chain she always wore around her neck. She slid the ring onto it, and clasped it again, securely tucking it under her shirt. Im sorry, love. Youll put it on me again, but for now....
She couldnt have explained the urge that had compelled her to take such drastic action, but for now, she had to go with her gut. With another deep breath, she once again headed toward the only sounds of human occupation shed heard in this place.
Another couple minutes, and she stood outside a door that did not slide open at her approach. How decidedly odd, she thought and proceeded to knock. She heard the scan rather than felt it, and seconds later the open door granted her admittance into the inner sanctuary.
The bard halted in her tracks, just inside the door. She looked around with mouth agape and eyes wide. What the hell?? Unconsciously, she put a hand to her chest to slow her now rapid heartbeat. The reassurance of the ring was calming, and she took another step inside. And stopped, as she felt, saw and heard the second scan take place.
The room she had entered was huge. Easily high enough to be a legitimate theatre, and long enough to host several sporting games simultaneously. One wall held a bank of monitors; another had a large holo field in play. The front wall was a huge holo map of the entire globe. She actually found that to be quite fascinating. There were several banks of computers. All the chairs sat empty.
Ben stood up in the corner, where he had been crouched tinkering with some of the new equipment. "Ah, my dear. You found your way here. Excellent! Come, let me show you around."
His manner baffled her. Gwen was certain he was a threat to her and Randi, yet now he was the same cordial man she had known for years. She decided to play it cool. Any information she could gather could only be useful. Right?
"Impressive, isnt it?" He motioned to the holo map. "I have brought the technology up to date, but many of the original concepts are still in place." He waved to the holo wall. "This was not here, of course. They werent capable of this sort of thing when this fortress was created. But it really wasnt that difficult to add."
"What does it do?"
"It gives me a three dimensional view of the perimeter here."
"Is that necessary?" The bard felt a sinking feeling hit her in the guts. It was apparent he was ready to intercept anything that interfered with whatever his plans were. And the fact that he referred to this place as a fortress didnt bode well either.
"Oh, yes. You see, though I dont know how she could figure it out, I actually expect your friend Randi to come after you. Shes shown herself to be incredibly gifted, and very, very lucky. And while I do want her to eventually find you, I dont want it to happen too soon." His eyes darkened. "You see, I owe her, and youre going to be my payback."
Gwen slowly backed away from him, careful to stay out of his reach. He laughed, a chilling sound that skittered up and down the bards spine. "Do you really think running away from me will help you, Gwen? This place is impenetrable. There is no escape for you, my dear."
"Why, Uncle? What did I ever do to you?" She felt her back hit solid wall, and she shuddered as he drew nearer. The bard continued to hold his gaze, however, and he felt a brief moment of regret for what she was going to have to endure.
He gently caressed her face, and she made a visible effort not to flinch away from him. "Honestly, Gwen. This is not personal, and has nothing to do with you directly. You simply made a poor choice in love, and there is now a price to be paid. For what its worth, I am sorry you have to be involved."
"So am I." She pushed away from him and ran to the door, only to be held up by the scanner. It concerned her more than a little that he did not attempt to stop her. Then the door slid open, and she left room.
The blonde wandered the hallways for a while. She found that this level was mostly the Command and Control Center, and what appeared to be Senior Officer quarters. She found several elevators, but none of them seemed to be working. It did show her however, that they were at the bottom level of whatever place they were at. Finally, she managed to arrive back in the quarters shed vacated earlier. To her surprise, now that shed been around the complex a bit, she found that she was actually quite close to the control room. She wasnt sure whether or not to be relieved by that prospect.
She moseyed into the kitchen area, not really hungry, but quite curious. The cabinets were fully stocked, as was the refrigerator. The bard took out a bottle of water, and moved to continue her search. Something occurred to her right about then, and she took a seat on the couch. She assumed a meditation pose, closed her eyes and focused, trying to recall the details of the Command & Control. The truth of the situation was clear to her within two minutes, but she remained still for almost half an hour. Besides not giving her discovery away, it allowed her to concentrate on Randi. These thoughts brought a small smile to her lips, and she was more relaxed when she stood and retrieved her water.
She looked around carefully now, noting each spot where a vid cam was recording. She walked to the bathroom, pleased with the large tub, and glad that Ben was decent enough to allow her privacy here. She started the water running, and moved to the bedroom. The vid cam in this room was slightly different, allowing her to be monitored in the dark clearly. It was also in a place that could be easily covered. Bad move, Uncle. I dont know what your game is yet, but youre not gonna win. I have a wedding date coming up that Im not about to miss. Especially considering what it took to get us there.
The bard took a robe from the closet, and walked back into the bathroom. May as well be comfortable. Its gonna take a little time to figure all of this out. Her thoughts turned toward Randi. Be safe, my love. And be careful. I love you. Well get through this, and be stronger together for it. She closed the door and stripped, settling down for a long soak.
Far sooner than she expected, Randi felt the shuttle drop and come to a halt. She rose and moved to the cockpit, lifting her brow in inquiry at Reed. "Problem?"
"Possibly. I think we may have triggered some sort of security alarm."
"This far out? What makes you think so?"
"I got a brief blip on the console. I need to run a diagnostic to see what were dealing with."
"Depends on what I find." She held up a hand to forestall the argument she knew was coming. "I know, I know. Ill be quick." The seer reached out and took the Marines large hand in her own strong grasp. "Were gonna get her back, Randi. I promise."
The tall woman smiled through the tears that had pooled in her blue eyes. She clenched her jaw tightly for a very long moment. She swallowed, willing the tears away, then spoke. "You promise, huh?"
"Yeah, I do. Cause this is important to all of us. More than you know."
Randi sensed the serious intent behind the pilots words, but now was not the time to get into it. She simply nodded her head. "Let me know what you find out."
"Youll know as soon as I do, my friend."
The Marine nodded again and left the cockpit. Tiny took her place. "What are we looking at?"
"Im not sure yet," Reed answered, "but stay here. I could use an extra pair of eyes."
"How are you doing, Geoff?" With Tiny and Reed up front, Jerry and Kene had moved to the rear of the shuttle, ostensibly rechecking their weapons and supplies. This put Randi and this weapons smith alone together in the middle of the vehicle, and the Marine took advantage of their relative privacy to check on her soon-to-be father-in-law.
He smiled sadly at her. "I was just going to ask you the same thing."
She looked away from his gaze, unwilling for him to see the depth of her pain. "She is my source, Geoff. If he so much as harms a hair on her head...." She paused and shook her head, looking down at the floor before refocusing her sights on him. "I know the best way to devastate a person is to take away what they love the most, but... Geoff, do you think hell...." An audible swallow before she looked away again. "Do you think hell destroy her?" Unable or unwilling to mention the variety of ways he could accomplish such a feat.
The man sat there silently for a long time, unsure of the right thing to say. Finally, he spoke from his heart. "Ya know, Randi, Id like to think Ben has retained some of his natural affection for Gwen. But regardless of what he plans to do... our job is not to speculate on his intentions, but simply stop them." He stopped, gathering his thoughts. "And we will stop him, Randi. Gwen is a very strong young woman. I saw that strength grow in her after you died. She will be all right until we get there."
"I hope youre right, Geoff." The Marine struggled from her seat, and moved to the hatch. "Because I dont have her strength. I wont make it without her."
Randi stepped outside and moved away from the shuttle. A little space and some fresh air would be a welcome respite right now. And the peace of the surrounding countryside might be a soothing balm to her aching soul.
"Its very soothing out here, isnt it?" Kene questioned as she walked toward the Marine. Randi had heard her approach, but had hoped the other woman would simply leave her alone. For her part, Kene debated a long time about disturbing her fellow Sabre. Randi had made it quite clear her desire to be left alone. And the colonel had respected that for a while. But there were still some issues to be worked out between them if they were going to work together as a team. So the dark woman took her courage in her hands, and went searching for Randi.
She wasnt surprised that the Marine ignored her until she had spoken directly to her. The colonel watched the minute struggle warring in Randis body and soul before good manners took hold and forced the gunnery sergeant around to face her.
"Something I can help you with?" Kene noticed the lack of name or title anytime the younger woman was forced to interact with her. It rankled a bit, but she chose to let it lie for the moment. Randi had enough issues to deal with right now.
"No." The colonel moved closer to Randi. "I just wanted to check on you." She paused, contemplating her words before continuing. "In a very different way, I understand exactly how you feel."
The Marine didnt make a verbal response, but it was clear from her body language that she really didnt believe Kenes words. "You see, for a very long time, I thought that Jerry took Grace away from me. So I know what it feels like to have the one you care about...."
"NO!" Randi whirled on the colonel, forcing her to take a step back. "No, you dont understand. Grace and Gwen are nothing alike! Dont you dare begin to compare them." She turned her back to the other woman, refusing to look at her any longer. Kene sighed, and took a seat some distance from the Marine, keeping her eyes on the vista in front of her.
"You misunderstood me. I wouldnt presume to compare them, as I really dont know Gwen. I was comparing us." She didnt flinch when Randi turned her forceful gaze back to her. The dark woman merely kept her eyes focused in the distance. "I know I dont understand everything youre going through right now, but I do understand a little of it, and I can sympathize completely. Were going to get her back." She paused, then continued in an almost whisper. "Im sorry." Now it was her turn to turn her back. "I feel responsible for this, and I never would have had anything like this happen to anyone in a million years."
"Yeah, well it did," the Marine snarled.
"I know, but we will do whatever it takes to finish this." She paused, debating internally before she finally decided to continue. "You will probably never forgive me for this... I doubt I will ever forgive myself. Its time Jerry and I cleaned up a mess we apparently left undone years ago. Thank you for giving us the opportunity." She didnt give the tall woman a chance to respond to this. Instead, Kene turned and walked back toward the shuttle, leaving Randi to her solitude once more.
"Hang on, Little One. Im coming."
She dressed slowly after her bath. It was actually a bit unnerving to find a closet full of clothes that had obviously been put there for her benefit. Wonder how long hes been planning this. She yawned, suddenly overcome with exhaustion. Think Ill take a short nap. Ill figure out what to do next when I get up. She crawled in bed and pulled the covers up, asleep before her head hit the pillow. She had no way of knowing that Ben had laced her water to induce sleep, thus making it easier for him to begin his work with her. And her fatigue fogged brain forgot to cover the vid cam.
He smiled gleefully as he watched her breathing slow and deepen. It was time.
Randi knew by her stride that Reed wasnt coming out with good news. The fact that Tiny kept a supporting hand on the seers shoulder was even less comforting.
"We have a problem." Reed spoke with no preamble. "We are grounded."
The Marine looked at the pilot, and then at the huge man standing behind her, disbelief clear on her features. "Excuse me? I KNOW I didnt just understand you to say what I think I heard come out of your mouth."
"Its true, Randi. We cant take off again." He heaved a deep sigh. "The blip? It was a virus. Technically, we should have crashed... would have had not Reed caught the blip. It is designed to detonate 10 seconds after its introduction into the system. It takes it that long to spread through the entire network."
"Then....?" motioning to the still intact shuttle.
"When we shut down immediately, it stopped the spread. But restarting the shuttle...."
"... would cause the virus to resume its journey, and would cause a very messy explosion." Randi blew out a breath and scratched the back of her neck as she turned away. "DAMMIT!!" flinging her arm in frustration. She sighed again and her shoulders sagged. "How far?"
"Best possible speed? Three days."
"FUCK!!" The Sabre stood stock still for a moment, gathering her strength. Then she turned around and faced her two compatriots. "All right then. Weve got no time to waste. Lets move." She led the way back to the vehicle with long, precise steps. "All right, people. Get your gear together. We move out in five minutes."
She moved away to her own equipment, and began to don everything she would need for the coming journey. The others, though they had questions, followed her lead in silence. They knew they would find out what they needed to know in due time. In the meantime, it was obvious the game plan had changed, and they just needed to go with the flow. No one said a thing about the fact that it was only a couple hours until sundown. This was urging Randi on, and most of them had learned to respect her gut instincts. Even now, when they knew what was driving those instincts, they responded to her leadership.
It took three minutes for each individual to be suited up and ready. Holo map in hand, Randi motioned for them to fall in and move out. "Keep your eyes open," she cautioned. "I dont want anyone getting hurt on my watch, and we all know hes gonna be ready for us."
The group nodded its collective heads in agreement, and dropped into Sabre formation. It was going to be a long three days.
They hadnt been gone more than an hour from the shuttle when they heard the muted explosion in the distance.
"So, it is a good thing we didnt argue her decision to push on," Tiny commented sotto voce to his lover. "We would all be dead now if we had stayed there."
Reed looked square into his face. "*We* would be, but I think he knows *she* wouldnt."
"Think about it, Tiny. He hasnt advertised his whereabouts, but he has done nothing to hide them, either. I think its safe to say at this point, that his agenda calls for her to find them, eventually."
"Im not following you here, hon."
The seer sighed. "Youre right. This probably isnt making too much sense. But...." She paused. "What little bit I can sense, added to what we know about Haamaen, points to one thing. He wants Randi to find them eventually, so he can take his revenge personally. Hes not gonna make it easy, but he fully expects her to survive."
"And does he realize she will kill him when she finds them?"
The Sabre scrunched up her brows in thought. "That doesnt seem to be a concern. He wants revenge... he wants justice, to his mind. I...." She trailed off. "I cant shake the feelings of dread. This could go badly so easily, and in so many ways."
"Then well just do our best to keep that from happening."
"I hope we can, lover. I truly hope we can."
Conversation dried up then, as they each fell into their own contemplative thoughts.
The man leaned back, the pressure points in place. He would wait for the bard to awaken, and then would begin the slow methodical process of taking her memories of Randi away.
Darkness had fallen completely before Randi called a halt. She was loathe to do so, but couldnt justify the risk to her team. With swift efficiency, the six set up camp. Randi was set to take the first watch when....
"I dont think so, Gunny. We all know what youll do, and no one here is prepared to let you risk it. Well keep watch. You go get some rest."
"I thought I was in command here," the Marine growled, furious at their presumption.
"You are, but it is our job to protect you, especially from yourself. Gwen is gonna need you when we reach her, and by God, Im gonna make sure youre there for her." Geoff was the one speaking, and Randi couldnt help but cave-in to his wishes on the matter. She looked deep into his eyes for a long moment, their souls speaking of shared agony. She nodded once to him, acceding to his request, both spoken and otherwise.
"Thanks, Geoff." She moved off to the tent and crawled inside, knowing sleep would be an elusive thing until Gwen was safe in her arms once again.
"I said, NO. What part of that did you not understand? I want her to remember Randi. I just dont want her to remember what they had together. She spent years not understanding the truth in her heart. I want that for her again."
"Why dont you just do a god thing then? Wouldnt that be easier?"
The dark god whirled on the man, stopping a hairsbreadth from knocking him across the room. Anger had no place here... not right now anyway. Besides, the former Sabre had a valid point.
"Of course it would be easier. It would also be breaking the rules, and believe me, the punishment for that is not worth the ease of doing a god thing, as you so aptly describe it." He shuddered in memory at the price he had paid for breaking the rules with these two particular souls before. "Once you make her forget, shrouding her heart again will be childs play."
Ben shook his head in confusion. There were too many rules and nuances to those rules that he didnt even begin to understand. But he had felt the shudder that had run through Ares form, and knew that whatever else, the god would protect himself from retribution.
"So, as long as she doesnt remember, keeping her feelings hidden is okay?"
"No one knows theyre being hidden. Thats the best part. All anyone will know is that she no longer remembers Randi as her soulmate."
"Very well, Master. It will be almost more painful for Valiant to have her as a friend, but unable to claim her as a lover." Ben mused aloud to himself. "Oh yes. This could work out even better than I hoped. Very well Master," he repeated. "Thy will be done."
Ares nodded his head once, and disappeared in a shimmer of light. The man moved back into the bards bedroom where she remained in a deep, drug-induced sleep. "Tomorrow, my dear. Everything will change for you tomorrow.
In his excitement over the near completion of his revenge, he failed to notice the hand she had clenched up near her neck. Its significance would have been missed by him completely anyway. He had no way of knowing the outcome of the fray he had just entered rested in the palm of Gwens hand.
An hour before dawn Randi rose, unable to continue the farce of pretending to sleep any longer. She crawled out of the tent quietly, careful not to disturb those around her who might actually be getting a little sleep. Not that she really thought anyone was, but still, they all need rest for the long day ahead.
Tiny was on guard duty, and he raised a cup at her in silent question when she emerged. She nodded, and he poured her some. She smiled her thanks, cupping her hands around the mug for warmth. Even in the dog days of late summer, morning in the foothills of the mountains tended to be chilly.
Time passed between them silently for a while. He moved to start breakfast, knowing the sounds and smells would bring the others.
By the time the sun was reaching tentative fingers across the horizon, the camp was packed and ready to go. Randi smiled grimly, and the troupe took up their march once more.
"Come, my dear. Rise and shine."
The voice that tickled her back to awareness wasnt the one that shed grown to love and trust. She hesitated to open her eyes, knowing the truth would come home harshly to nest the moment she did. Instead, she kept them firmly closed, her minds eye tracing the features she had come to know so well. He cant take this away from me. I wont let him.
Gwen turned onto her side, away from the vid cam she suddenly remembered she hadnt covered. She clutched the pillow to her more tightly, physically tracing the lines she could only feel in her memories. She clasped the ring in her hand, reminding herself of their history.
After half an hour, she turned onto her back and stretched. She felt stronger for the time she had spent focused on Randi and their love for one another. Amazingly, Ben had not bothered her again once she had pointedly turned away from his voice. Its almost as though he knows hes gonna win, so theres no real rush to do... whatever it is he is planning. She felt a tendril of true fear creep up her spine. But were not gonna let him win, are we, love? I love you, Randi. Im gonna be strong til you get here. Just get here soon, okay? She scooped up the robe and moved to take a shower. It was time to meet the day head on.
It was slow going, and tensions were running high. More than once they had been forced to slow to a crawl or stop altogether to work through some clever little trap the former Sabre had laid against intruders. Tiny had a nice slice cutting a path down the length of one thigh, and Kene had a deep gash across one shoulder. The rest were tired, bruised, and decidedly cranky.
When darkness fell completely, it found them camped in a well-hidden dell. It was comfortably silent, given the circumstances, and dinner had been companionable. The single regen unit they had was already working its magic on Tinys leg, but it was going to take the small unit far longer than they had to erase the wound. For now, they would have to settle for mostly healed.
Randi now sat somewhat apart from the rest, going over in her mind again and again what she could have done, should have done to prevent this. And what she was going to do when Gwen was out of the madmans clutches, and safe in her arms again.
"All the remorse in the world isnt going to change things, you know." Jerrys voice startled her out of her reverie, and though she made no effort to welcome him, she didnt send him away either. "You cant worry about the should haves, what ifs, or if onlys. And you cant let revenge become your focus either. You need to concentrate on the here and now, and keeping Gwen safe. The rest will take care of itself."
She didnt deign to answer him, not really sure what response to make. Instead, she kept her eyes on the tiny glow sticks that had been placed around their perimeter for warmth and a bit of light.
He sat down near, though not next to her. "That sounds ridiculous, coming from me especially, Im sure. It is probably the one lesson I have had pounded into my brain in the last eighteen months. I cant continue to retrace and regret the choices I made. I can only go on from here and hopefully learn from the mistakes Ive made." He hesitated. "This is my responsibility to clean up. Im not going to let others suffer from it or because of it any longer."
Randi saw no reason to comment, and they continued to sit in silence together for a few minutes before he rose. "Ive got second watch, so Im gonna turn in." He looked at her. "You should probably do the same."
She looked at him then, and nodded minutely. "Good night, sir."
He took her dismissal for what is was, and moved away to the tent. Geoff noticed the vacant seat next to the Marine. He walked over and took a seat, keeping a vigilant eye on the perimeter. They sat quietly for a time, before the weapons smith looked at her, then looked away.
"Howre you doing?"
"Ive been better, Geoff. You?"
"Were gonna get through this, Randi. Youll see."
She whirled on him in a display of fear and rage. "Will we, Geoff? Will we? How can you be sure? How do you know everything is gonna be all right? My God, how can you stand to be near me, knowing I am the cause of all this. *Im* the one who put Gwens life in danger, Geoff! Me!"
The Marine stomped off into the darkness before he could utter a word in reply. He sat debating for a long moment over his options.
"Best to leave her alone, I think." Reeds voice preceded her body by scant seconds. "Shes teetering on the edge of her self-control."
"Trust me on this one, Geoff. Let her be." She looked at him hard with eyes burning silver in the night. He nodded his head in agreement, and moved away to do a perimeter check.
"Be safe, my friend," the seer muttered to the darkness.
Gwens day started incongruously enough. After her shower, she wandered to the kitchen, fixing herself a bit of breakfast and cleaning up. Finally, unable to stand the closeness of her room, she meandered down the hallway, still looking for a way out. Though she knew that Randi was coming, it did not lessen her desire to escape. She didnt want to endure whatever it was that Ben had in store for her, and quite frankly, the suspense was killing her.
He waited for her to near the clinic before he beckoned her, his voice pitched to draw her in like a sirens song. Helplessly, her body responded, while her mind screamed silently in denial. No! NO! I dont want to do this. Hes going to hurt me! NO! But even as these thoughts crossed her mind, her feet carried her over the threshold into his waiting arms.
"Very well, my dear. It is time to make you forget."
"Forget? Forget what? She struggled over the words, as though her body was no longer her own to control, and her mind had taken a leave of absence. What is happening to me?
"What Randi means to you, of course." He spoke to her as though she was a child, asking a question whose answer was obvious.
"No! NO! You cant do that!" She tried to fight against him, but her body failed to obey her commands. The pressure points he had put into place were doing their job admirably. "You cant do that," she repeated. "She is everything to me!!"
"Now, dont you worry, my dear. This wont hurt a bit." He grinned evilly. "Well, it wont hurt you. You wont remember it." The sneer became a grimace. "But it will be a down payment to your lover as payback for the grief and pain she has caused my son and I."
"Your son? You have a son?" Her voice sounded thin and far away to her own ears.
"Yes, and he is poised to take his mothers place, since Miranda Valiant destroyed her."
The bard shook her head uncomprehendingly, the pieces of the puzzle making no sense to her fogged mind. "But what about Sam? I thought he was your partner."
"Sam is my partner as well as my very dear friend. Grace was also my lover as well as the mother of my child."
"Sam and I have a very open relationship, Gwen. And Grace and I gave something to each other we would never have had otherwise. Now," abruptly and effectively ending the conversation, "close your eyes and relax. This will be over relatively quickly, and will be painless for you."
Against her conscious will, Gwen felt her eyes close, and she relaxed into his tender ministrations. Ben spared her a brief glance of remorse, then quickly got down to business. This was going to be more satisfying than his original plan in more ways then he could fathom.
The walls had been put in place very effectively the night before, and as the team gathered itself together for its second day of travel, they noticed the change. Randi spoke to no one, and her eyes had taken on a slate hardness that none of them could penetrate. With a brief nod to the assembly, she turned and started out toward the mountain they could barely see outlined in the distance.
She pushed them hard, the roiling in her gut sending spasms through her body in aching cramps. Her jaw clamped firmly shut, she tried desperately to ignore the pain in her heart. Something was terribly wrong. And her anxiousness to get to Gwen was going to cost her, and her team, dearly.
On towards afternoon, shortly after a rushed lunch that barely allowed them a pit stop, all hell broke loose.
It started simply. Reed, in the lead for the moment, stepped carefully around one trap, only to be caught firmly in the second, more agonizing one. Sharp tines flew at her, and given her height, hit her squarely in the eyes. She screamed in agony as she went down.
In his haste to get to her, Geoff, who had been right behind her, triggered the trap she had avoided. With blinding speed, a crude mace slammed into his back. His spine shattering echoed eerily in the sudden stillness, and he crumpled in an unconscious heap.
The remainder of the team, frozen as the events played out in slow motion in front of them, came to life. Even more cautiously now, they still moved forward quickly to come to the aid of their fallen comrades.
Tiny reached his lovers side, gently prying her hands away from her eyes. She was curled into a tight fetal position, and it made his task doubly difficult. With infinite patience, the large man drew her hands back, unable to contain the gasp that escaped his lips at the sight that met his gaze. Diminutive, sharpened quills, dozens of them, were embedded in her eyes and upper face. Blood oozed from each and every one, creating a puddle beneath her head. Gently, the large man hit several pressure points, easing the woman into a deeply unconscious state.
Randi went straight to Geoffs side, giving a prayer of silent thanks for his already comatose condition. A quick scan indicated several fractures along his spine, and the Marine cursed roundly for a long moment. She beckoned Kene and Jerry to her.
"Which of you has the med kit?" The colonel moved to pull it from her pack. "Jerry, you stay here with Geoff. If he shows signs of coming to, give us a call." Randi looked to the other woman and motioned with her head. "Cmon. Reed needs immediate attention."
Kene didnt say anything, but moved to kneel beside the seer. It was only because of sheer willpower and biting her lip almost through that the small, dark woman managed to contain her gasp of horror. Instead, she withdrew a bottle, water tablet and saline pills, and mixed them together efficiently. Gently, she began to wash away the blood.
Randi looked into Tinys eyes, which were filled with unshed tears. "Im sorry, Tiny. I wouldnt have had this happen for anything."
"I know, Randi. No guilt, my friend. We knew the risks. Shell be all right." He said it aloud as though to convince himself and Reed of that reality as much as to reassure his Marine friend of it.
Kene had finished her first rinsing, and looked toward them. "We need to make her more comfortable. And I need her head turned so I can remove the spines. Tiny, youll need to hold her still. Even unconscious, she may struggle against us."
Randi cut in. "Do you need me for anything?
Kene was stunned by the question. "Um, no. Not right now I dont think."
"Good, I got work to do."
"Huh?" Kene couldnt see what was more important than what they were doing.
The Marine pointed toward a bank of dark, low clouds in the near distance. "I need to get the shelter built. It looks like we may need it soon."
"Yeah." With a squeeze of encouragement to Tinys shoulder, Randi moved to get started.
Thunder was rumbling ominously close by the time Randi had things set up. She brought out the collapsible hover bed they carried, and moved it over to Geoff. "I hate to do this, but weve got no choice." Slowly and carefully, they eased the bed beneath the weapons smiths broken and twisted frame. Still in a deep coma, the man never felt the action taking place around him.
Meanwhile, Kene had finished pulling out the small spikes, and was once more cleaning Reeds eyes and face. Satisfied she had done what she could, she nodded to the large man still maintaining his hold on his lover. He tenderly scooped the seer up into his arms, and moved to put her into the tent.
The first fat drops of rain started falling just as Randi and Jerry finished easing Geoffs body onto the hover bed. With activation, the device started humming, and rose slightly from the ground. Just as the pallet rose to waist level, the bottom dropped out of the sky.
"Perfect," Randi muttered. "Just fucking perfect."
They moved quickly over the ground, but were still drenched by the time they reached the tent flap. The colonel ushered them inside, giving them each a dryer unit while she went to look at Geoff. She closed her eyes and breathed a silent prayer for him when she saw the damage that had been done to his spinal column. Then she set to drying his clothes to keep him from catching a chill. Her still damaged shoulder ached from the strain, but she finished, and pulled a light blanket up over him.
"Rest, my friend."
Satisfied that her two patients were as comfortable as they could be at the present moment, given the circumstances, Kene moved to the opposite corner of the enclosure, and motioned the rest to join her.
"We have a problem."
At this statement, the rest looked at her as though a gorgon had grown out of her head and was sticking its tongue out at them. She realized what the looks were for almost immediately, and held up a hand to stop the obvious comments.
"No, I mean beyond the noticeable one," gesturing at their two fallen comrades.
"Shes right," Randi replied. "We have one very small regen unit, and presently no way to get a shuttle to our location. Even if we call for help, were a good two days walk to the closest perimeter where transportation can land. Added to all this, Ben still has Gwen, and thats easily another day and a half of travel from this location. And thats only if we dont run into anymore trouble."
"Our best bet is gonna be to split up. One of you can go with me, the other two can stay here."
"Now wait just a damn minute...."
"Hold on a second...."
"Are you out of your mind?"
Randi held up a hand, her blue gaze burning a hole in each of them until they sat quietly. "I dont see the need for discussion or debate here, except to decide who goes and who stays. Im going to get Gwen out, and Ill do it alone if I have to."
"No, theres no need for discussion." Kene was quick to break into the debate before it got rolling. "I am the qualified medic. I will stay. However, I dont see a need for either of these two to hang around waiting for you to get back. Take them both with you. Well be all right here."
"And how do you propose to stand watch, hmm?" The softly spoken words were biting nonetheless.
"I dont." The colonel was frank in her answer. "No one has come after us. And I dont think he knows or cares about the rest of us being out here with you anyway, so Im fairly certain that hes not gonna send anyone or anything after us. Besides which, everything hes done so far points to this being about you and him, and that hes working alone. I dont think were in that much danger of him coming after us."
"And I suppose Reed and Geoff laying unconscious over there is just a figment of my over-active imagination, huh? When did you decide to start thinking?"
"Thats enough, Sergeant." Jerrys voice broke in firmly. "There is no reason for you to be this way with any of us. Were on your side after all, remember? Besides, Kene could always trigger a medical containment field if danger was threatening. A temporary solution, but one that would work."
The Marine made no verbal answer, though the look she gave him could have seared his skin with its heat. Instead, she walked over and picked up her pack, hoisted it, and paced to the door. The weight of guilt was heavy in her eyes now, and it gave her the appearance of profound sadness. "The fact is, Jerry, that I should have done this alone. No one would have gotten hurt then."
She made a move to exit the shelter, but was held up by Tinys large hand on her arm. "Not this time, my friend. We all volunteered for this assignment. Each for our own reasons to be sure, but you need us as much as we need to be here. Now let us help... let us do our part."
She looked at him then, his eyes dark in the dim light of the interior. The sound of the rain cascading down in sheets was the only sound that could be heard while the two of them communicated silently. Though she didnt understand the exact reasoning behind the thoughts he was sharing, Randi felt that Tiny was the guardian to secrets that she would find out later. She nodded her acceptance, and set the pack down, moving away from where the Army officers sat.
"Yall decide whatever. Im leaving out at daylight or when the rain stops, whichever comes first." She deliberately turned her back on all of them, and settled down to rest.
Tiny looked at her sadly for a long moment before returning to sit with Jerry and Kene. He opened his mouth to make an excuse for her behavior until he felt a hand on his arm. He looked to the colonel, whose dark eyes held warm understanding. "Its all right, Tiny. I was wondering how long it was gonna take for her to crack. Shes holding herself together by sheer grit. Shes a remarkable individual put under an enormous amount of stress. Most of us would have snapped long before now."
"Thank you for understanding."
"Oh, understanding her losing it was easy. Trying to comprehend how shes managed to hold it all together for so long was the hard part." She smiled. "Were gonna get Gwen back, and you are both gonna go with her to ensure that happens."
Tiny looked over at the general, noting he did not dispute nor argue with his subordinates words. He cast a glance toward Randis stiff back, then shifted his gaze to his still unconscious lover. He leaned in toward the other two, and lowered his voice. "Reed told me something I think you are both entitled to know." Twin heads moved nearer, so as not to miss his low-spoken words.
"It is imperative that we get the two of them together soon. The feelings she has been getting are, um... well...." He pulled on his ear slightly, trying to figure out a way to explain something he had difficulty understanding. "You both know that Reed sees emotions, feelings. She can also sense emotions connected with the future, if they are exceptionally strong." He sighed, gathering his thoughts again. "Gwen and Randi, to use her words, are two parts to a single whole. They balance one another, and that, believe it or not, affects much of the world around us. Shes, well, lets just say that shes more than a little concerned over what the results would be if that balance is lost."
They each sat silently for a time after that, contemplating his words. Jerry broke the silence. "Then I guess we need to make sure that the balance stays in place then, dont we?"
Kene nodded her agreement, then rose. "Right now, though, my immediate consideration is for my patients. I already placed a vid call requesting assistance as soon as possible, but like Randi pointed out, that help is a good two days away minimum. I am going to set the regen unit to working on Geoffs back. I wont let it fuse the bones, but I will set it to start strengthening them. He needs a doctor to do the fusing."
She looked at Tiny then, reading the unasked question in his eyes. "Reeds eyes need to be examined with more delicate equipment than we have here. I would hate to have them heal, only to find out they were destroyed by something I missed. I *think* I got it all, but we want to be sure. I have enough saline tablets and water pills to insure more than a weeks supply of solution. We should be back to a treatment facility long before then. I will keep them both sedated, so they will be as comfortable as possible." Now she looked at both of them, catching their eyes to insure she had their attention.
"Regardless, you both should go with Randi. She is walking a very thin line, right on a razors edge, and shes going to need your support. Well be fine here until you get back or the rescue team arrives."
A thought occurred to Jerry then, and he voiced his concern immediately. "A moot point, perhaps, but did you contact the team?"
The colonel nodded. "I had too. This is an unofficial expedition, and I dont think we can afford to leave their health," indicating Geoff and Reed, "to chance."
Tiny spoke. "We set this up so that every communication that leaves is scrambled to sound like any of the natural sounds youd find here. If he catches it, and takes the time to decode it, all he will get is a garbled audio message that will sound like Randi sent it. If he does, he will either think her alone and in trouble, in which case he will probably relax. Or he will think she came with a team that is now in trouble, and will still relax. Either way, it works in our favor." He paused. "Odds are, though, he wont even notice."
"Reed and I have had several opportunities to speak at length. We are both of a mind that Ben is not interested in the team, only Randi. We dont figure into his thinking at all."
"Well, in any case, we need to get some rest if were gonna head out with the maverick over there." Jerry nodded in Randis direction. "Why not put the field on and get some rest too? Its gonna be a while until youll be able to sleep so well again."
Kene nodded her head in agreement, and moved to set the boundaries. A low hum began, and it wasnt long before six sets of deep, even breathing filled the tent.
Ben was in fact monitoring them, and was well aware of the number remaining in their contingent. He was surprised they had stumbled upon his hideout so quickly, but he could adjust. He was actually ahead of the game at this juncture. His greatest drawback was that his surveillance did not extend to where the shuttle had landed, and though the explosion had registered on his screen, he had no way of knowing how many Sabres had started out from that point. It wouldnt be unsafe to assume that the normal unit of nine had begun the journey. The six he was now tracking had only come into range that morning.
His sensors showed them halted, and that made him wonder, but he decided they were simply following standard Sabre operating procedure in enemy territory and waiting out the weather. He felt a niggling concern about the missing three Sabres, then shrugged it off. There was no way a single team of Sabres could catch him, even with Miranda Valiant. Oh, he acknowledged to himself, shes good, but no one is as good as they say she is. Besides, caressing the vial he carried, this will solve that little problem quite nicely, eventually. He chuckled silently. No matter, though. Ive already taken away from her far more than she ever thought of taking from me. Now he laughed aloud. Time to meet Gwen for tea. He laughed again. And this time he heard a counterpoint of dark laughter in the far distance.
Dark was just coming on when the downpour turned to drizzle. Randi woke at the change in sound outdoors, and sat up, looking around. Without a sound she moved to check on both Geoff and Reed, noting their deep, even breathing. She checked for fever, happy to note that they were both relatively cool to the touch.
She walked back over to her cot, and sat down to don her boots. A large hand on her arm stopped her.
"I dont think so, my friend. It is too dangerous to go out there in the dark."
The Marine tried to jerk her arm from Tinys grasp. "And its not dangerous for Gwen to be out there with that lunatic?? Let go of me, Tiny."
"No, Randi. You are of no use to her if you are dead." He paused, thinking about what Read had shared with him, then continued. "He wants you to come after them. Whatever he has planned for her, he wants you to see it. He wants you both alive."
"I see. And you know this *how* exactly, Dr. Freud?"
"Randi, take a step back, and look at this dispassionately for a minute, will ya?" His anger and exasperation was clear in his tone and manner. "He didnt kill her immediately. Except for removing her chip, hes made no effort to hide himself. And if you look around, the traps he set were made to maim, not kill." He motioned to his own wound, as well as those of the seer and weapons smith. "It doesnt take a genius to figure out youre the target, and Gwen is the bait. Now, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and start using that fine mind to figure out a way to win here. Weve all paid a high price... make it worth it."
She pulled away from his grip, and this time he let her go. She walked to the tent opening, wondering when she had lost focus. She stared unseeingly out into the blackness before her head dropped. Cmon, Valiant, your team deserves your very best effort. They have given of themselves to be here. What would Gwen think if she knew how you were treating friends because of her?
The Marine squared her shoulders, coming to a decision. She moved to her kit, reaching in and taking out her stash of chocolates. Tiny couldnt help the grin that formed when he saw them. Randi smiled in response.
"And what are you looking so smug about?" Jerrys voice was rough with sleep. "What is the joke?" He flinched reactively, but instinctively reached out a hand and caught the object flung at his head. His frown turned to a grin when he saw the miniature chocolate. He chuckled, a sound that turned to genuine laughter when two sets of questioning eyes swung his way. "I dont suppose you realize you created quite a ruckus, Valiant." Her eyebrow rose in mute question, and he continued. "We all know what emergency rations are like." He scrunched up his face in reaction, and noticed they had both involuntarily done the same. "Right... exactly. Well, I think every team you served with more than once noticed you didnt have near the problem with emergency rations that most everyone else did. I cant tell you how many Sabres stood in my office *demanding* they get whatever rations you had."
Here Randi snorted. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Not at all. I assured everyone you got the same thing as they did. We just figured your taste buds had shut down in self-defense, since you went out so often." She chuckled wryly, and he joined her in sympathy. "However, I will thank you for finally sharing your secret." The general opened the small treat and moaned in appreciation. "No wonder you could tolerate the protein bars."
The Marine shared another bar with each of the men, then put her chocolates away. "I have come to a decision. You will both abide by it. Is that clear?"
Both men nodded. Jerry had to wonder in passing why she had never taken his job. People followed where she led without questioning. And until now, when her heart was involved in her decisions, her leadership had been almost impeccable. The Sabres were a stronger unit because of her.
"Tiny, you will stay here." A look silenced him before he could even open his mouth. "You are still healing, and I am not prepared to risk further injury to you. Besides, I am also not prepared to leave the camp unguarded. The colonel cannot do everything by herself. Therefore, you will stay and help her. Understood?"
Dark, stormy eyes glared into baleful blue for a full minute before he dropped his head in defeat. "Very well," she said, finally looking away from the Navy man. "General, you can accompany me if you wish. I am leaving at first light."
Without another word, she moved back to her cot. Hang on, love. Im coming. Aphrodite, watch over her, please. And on that thought, she turned over and fell into a restless doze.
Tears of diamonds fell from the goddess face at Randis whispered prayer. "I will stand beside you both, but its going to be another uphill battle, Im afraid." The sisters gathered around her, providing what comfort they could, and beginning to plan for the inevitable confrontation with an irate Marine.
"Uncle?" The two were enjoying dinner, though Gwen was experiencing a vague uneasiness. Something was just not right here. She was having trouble remembering things, and her head was killing her. The storm outside made the holo-image useless, and they had taken to the kitchen to experiment with new recipes instead. They were now supping from the fruits of their labors.
"Yes, my dear?" The man noticed Gwen was almost docile, and wondered if something had gone wrong in the processing. He had followed to the letter the steps his master had given him, but no mention was ever made of it changing the womans personality. He would have to look into this further.
"Why are we here?" Gwen was struggling. Her brain hurt. Images that made no sense floated in and out of her mind, conflicting with things she was sure she remembered. She was getting to the point where sleep seemed like the best idea shed ever heard. She felt like she would sleep for days once she closed her eyes.
"We are here because you needed a place of serenity to work. Hows your chicken?"
She considered his response before answering. "Okay. And the chicken is wonderful. I think we did the right thing adding the pesto to the sauce." Conversation easily turned to the various dishes they had created, and Ben heaved a silent sigh of relief. This was much harder than he had anticipated it being. He was quite happy to excuse her to her room.
When Gwen arrived in her room, she looked around. It was nice enough, but something just didnt make sense. However, at the moment, all she could think of was laying down. It would be weeks before she realized there was no desk or writing area in the place, and there was no sign of a computer or her glasses.
There were no windows in her room of course, so she was only ably to tell it was the middle of the night by looking at the clock by her bedside. Gwen sat up abruptly, wondering what had pulled her out of such a sound sleep and caused her heart to pound like a war drum. Or like Randi during band practice. She smiled then frowned. Have we been to band practice lately? A searing pain lanced through her skull, and she groaned softly. Lying back down, her hand unconsciously began to trace the pillow she clutched, willing her mind to remember. She fell back to sleep with a tiny smile gracing her lips.
By the time the sun was peeking over the horizon, Randi and Jerry were well underway. The day was already unbearably muggy, and it only promised to get worse as the day went on. She wondered silently if the heat would be overwhelming as well. Geoff had come to briefly before they had left the temporary hospice. The Marine thought back briefly to his commission of her.
"You do whatever it takes, Randi. You get my little girl out of this
mad mans clutches and back into your arms where she belongs."
He looked at her with an innate knowledge shining through his pain-
glazed eyes, and she again had to wonder at his faith in her.
She thought seriously of asking him if he knew just who the mad
man was. Surely he did. But....
She shook her head. Not that it mattered. Friend or not, Ben Haamaen was a walking dead man. And he was going to die a very painful death at her hands.
The two walked in silence for hours. Surprisingly, the closer they got to the mountain, the fewer traps they found. By mutual unspoken consent, they stopped when darkness fell. There was no reason to tempt fate, especially since they both wanted to survive the remaining journey to assure Gwens safe recovery. Though they had encountered no trouble, going on in the darkness was asking for it in a big way. It had now been three days since the kidnapping.
The rumble of thunder sounded the same instant that the rain started to fall. It wasnt the most pleasant of ways to wake up, but judging from the darkness of the sky around them, Randi didnt see it getting much better for them anytime soon. So they got up, soaked to the bone before the camp was even packed up. It took them the better part of the day to reach the tree line. Before them stretched the meadow, and beyond that was their objective.
The mountain stood tall, though it blended in with the range it resided in quite nicely. The ancients had made a very wise choice. Unless you knew, you couldnt pick it out from any of the ones surrounding it.
The rain had continued to fall unabated all day, and now they halted to take a short break. Jerry could feel the restlessness rolling from Randi, and knew stopping her this close to their goal was going to be almost impossible.
"Lets get a bite to eat, and rest for a few, huh? The mountains not going anywhere, and we need to fortify a bit."
The Marine stood staring at the broad vista for a moment longer, before turning her attention back to the man who had once been her commanding officer. She considered him silently for a bit, wondering briefly how he had managed to retain his status for so long. Surely the Sabre Commandant should have more backbone, more honor, more... something. Randi hitched her shoulders slightly, pushing those thoughts away from her. She suddenly realized he had been busy.
"I thought we could use a bit of a break, and maybe dry out a bit before continuing." She looked closer at him now, and noticed the slight blue tinge to his lips. He already had a rough covering up, and she moved now to help him finish it. Soon, they were underneath the shelter, heat sticks doing their job of both heating and drying the immediate area. After several minutes, Jerry sighed in relief.
"Better?" came the low murmured question.
"Much," he answered. "Thanks." He sat for a few more minutes, before moving to his pack. "We have a few minutes?"
The Marine nodded, still a little surprised at his willingness to relinquish his command to her.
"Good. Im gonna fix us something hot to eat." She didnt comment, but he could see the twinkle of agreement in her eyes. Trail rations got old in a hurry, and the body welcomed any opportunity to indulge in hot food. In just a very few minutes, the Commandant had a hearty stew ready, and the two Sabres sat down to share a silent repast.
It didnt take them long, but darkness had fallen before they were done eating. The rain gradually tapered off, and when they were finished, Randi rose and stretched. Without a word, she packed up her gear, and walked to the door. He stopped her with hand on her arm... a hand that he removed at her look.
"Are you sure this is prudent?"
"No, Im fairly certain its not, Jerry, but I dont seem to have much choice in the matter. I have to go. I have done my best for the team, poor as that seems to have been this trip. Now it is time for me to do the best thing for me."
"And that means walking into the lions den?"
"It means taking back what is mine." She turned, and again he halted her with a hand on her arm. This time, though, he left it there, ignoring her pointed look.
"Then you can wait five more minutes, and let me get packed up. Im not letting you go in there alone."
Her eyebrow rose at his pronouncement, but she nodded calmly. He stood still a moment longer reading her acceptance, then quickly gathered his things together. Soon, they were moving through the darkness together slowly in silence.
Eventually, a curiosity he had long held became too much, and he decided to voice his question. "Randi? Why did you never accept a commission? Surely you know that you were being groomed to become Commandant one day."
The Marine stopped dead and looked at him hard for a long moment, before she looked away, and resumed her walk. They were being quite bold... walking defiantly through the meadow toward the mountain. The roiling in her guts had turned to a painful chill, and she was very afraid they were going to be too late. She figured at this point, Haamaen was expecting her, and would let them proceed unmolested toward their goal.
She was silent so long that Jerry figured she wasnt going to answer him. He fairly jumped out of his skin when her low voice reached his ears. "I didnt want to be Commandant, Jerry. Ten years in this business was almost more than I could bear." She paused, and the silence grew lengthy. The general kept still, sensing she had more too say. Finally Randi rewarded his patience.
"I dont really like who I was, what I had to do. I will have issues with that until the day I die again, I suppose. But to assume responsibility for it all---no. I tried that. It destroyed me, and the one I love most. It has cost far too much on many levels. So, yeah, I knew. I didnt want it... not the responsibility, and not the commitment. I wanted a normal life." She paused again. "I still do, and this lifetime, I have a real shot at it."
He understood the truth of her words, and accepted the fact that she was gone from them for good. And in a way, he envied her the opportunity she now had to make a life with Gwen. In another, he was thankful to be able to see it.
The stillness between them resumed, and they continued to make their way toward the stronghold. Suddenly, the quiet was shattered by a hideous screech, as it became clear that they were being hunted. It didnt take long for them to determine that Jerry was the specific target. Without warning, he found himself taken down by the largest mountain cat he had ever been witness to. He screamed in agony as the lions fangs sank deeply into his leg. Seconds that seemed like eons passed, before the cat became dead weight, and he felt the beast loosen its hold. When Randi rolled the weight off him, he took a deep breath, then bit his lip against the searing pain.
"Lay still. Ive got to stop the bleeding." With the med kit and regen unit back at the camp, Randi had only the very basics in first aid supplies with her. She rinsed the wounds carefully, knowing well the danger of infection. A couple pressure points, and she was able to slow the bleeding considerably. Still, she winced at the damage the animal had managed to do.
"Bad, huh?" he rasped, biting back a groan.
"Not good, no." She looked at the mountain, the longing clear in her eyes.
"You need to go. Its obvious he wants you alone."
"I have to take care of you first. I have a feeling he has already done whatever he was planning for her. A few more minutes wont matter."
He looked ready to debate the issue, but a wave of pain made him dizzy, and he passed out. When he came to, a temporary shelter had been built, and his leg was neatly stitched and bandaged. He also immediately noticed that he was alone.
"Good luck, Sergeant." Then sleep took him again, and his last thought was a prayer for the members of the team.
Randi could not shake the feeling of dread that filled her entire being. It was as though the warmth that was Gwen, their bond, was completely gone. She had felt it dissolve on their second day out, but knowing there was nothing that could be done until she reached her bard, managed to put the feeling aside. The series of crises had put it out of her mind and heart briefly, but now the chill assaulted her full force. Something was dreadfully wrong.
It took her a while, in the darkness, to find the release mechanism that allowed her to access the interior of the mountain. Oddly, the only thing it allowed her to use was a set of stairs leading up. Up? I thought this compound was underground. But knowing not to look a gift horse in the mouth, she sighed, and started climbing.
Four stories later, she heaved a deep breath. Gotta take up running again. She wasnt really winded, but she could feel the pull in muscles that hadnt had to stretch like that in quite a while. She gently opened the door, half expecting an attack now that she was closing in on her goal. The only thing that greeted her was silence and emptiness. She edged out the door, noting the open hatch on the shuttle. A cursory glance told her he had removed the key flight components, and she made a mental note to search for them once Gwen was back at her side.
She spotted the elevator, and continued past it, looking for the other stairwell. It was clear that he intended her to use the elevator, but she couldnt resist the urge to foil his plans. That defiance would cost her dearly... both now, and in the future.
The locks were fairly easy to break, and disarming the alarm was a piece of cake. What she didnt expect was the face full of nettles or the sudden drop off. Ben had removed the entire first two flights of steps, and the hole she was gaping at through her bleeding face was quite large.
She stepped back and let the door close, sinking to the floor. The Marine had left her meager first aid supplies with Jerry, so she didnt have so much as a spare cloth to wipe her face. Just as well, she thought, gingerly trying to blot the blood. Without a way to remove the tiny barbs, there really wasnt much she could do at the moment.
She had to wonder at the copious amount of blood she was losing from such little irritants, until she got a look at her reflection in the mirrored wall of the elevator she now occupied. There was a scratch running almost the length of her face from temple to jawbone. She wiped the blood on her sleeve, noticing it caught roughly along the cut. She wondered how she had missed feeling that, though the tiny little quills sticking in her skin along that side pretty much answered the question. They were burning, but she had little time to contemplate that, as the lift came to a halt.
She waited a moment, not noticing the burning had stopped and the barbs had dissolved into her skin. Even the bleeding had all but stopped. The Marine stepped out cautiously, listening intently. She heard Gwens soft laughter, and her heart fluttered. Her feet developed a mind of their own, and she was moving toward the sound before she realized her intentions.
Randi stood in the doorway for a moment, drinking in the sight of the blonde. She crossed the threshold... an action that drew the bards attention to her. Pointedly ignoring the smirking man seated nearby, the warrior walked toward Gwen. With a happy squeal, the blonde jumped into Randis arms, squeezing for all she was worth. They pulled away simultaneously, and Randi slowly lowered her head to kiss the lips she hadnt tasted in far too long. She felt she had barely brushed their softness when small hands pushing on her chest made her halt, and she looked in green eyes that reflected the confusion in her own.
"Randi? What are you doing? I mean, Ive missed you too, but why are you kissing me like that?"
"Gwen?" She gazed into the bards eyes, looking deep into her soul, and realized what they had lost. Her ire burned hot. She turned suddenly toward the man who had cost her everything.
"You fucking son of a bitch," in a whisper so filled with venom, it should have dropped him on the spot. "What did you do to her?"
"Nothing much." He laughed. "But things will never be the same between you ever again."
The speed that she approached him rivaled that of a striking snake, and she lifted him bodily from the floor with one hand. Gwen stared at the tableau in horrified fascination, unable to will her feet to move.
"What. Did. You. Do. To. Her. ?" She didnt acknowledge the bard or her words at all.
Reflexively, his hands wrapped around hers, clawing at them as he fought for air. "No... thing... much... real...ly.... She...." He chuckled as much as his gasping would allow. "She...." he coughed. "Can no... long...er feel her... love fo...r... " He coughed again. "You... nor yours... for... her." He gasped again, his face turning purple. "Its... like it w... was... before."
In that moment, the warriors soul turned to ice, and without batting an eyelash, she drew her dagger, and plunged it into the mans belly. A warm shower of blood coated her hand, and he gasped again as pain seared from his gullet through his entire body. She jerked the blade upwards through his chest as she let him fall to the floor.
"No more living for you."
At the bards frantic scream, her shoulders slumped, the fire and fight drained from her. She looked to the corpse, avoiding the green eyes she knew would never hold love for her again. "I need to dispose of this, then we can leave."
Gwen approached her slowly. Tears slid down her face. Though they were no longer close, Ben still held a special place in her heart from childhood. And what she had just witnessed.... "What did he do to deserve to die?" Randi noticed the blonde stayed outside of touching distance.
"It no longer matters. It was military business, and its done now." The words and dead tone struck a chord in the bard, and she set them aside for further study. There was a piece missing to this puzzle. She reached a hand up to her head, struggling with her confusion, and a suddenly blinding headache.
"Youre hurt," motioning to the oozing facial wound. "Lets get you taken care of."
"No. Let me take care of this mess, and well get out of here." Randis tone now was brusque, businesslike, and Gwen was unexplainably hurt by her refusal. And unable to reconcile her best friend with the Sabre that stood before her, she began to distance herself from the Marine, both physically and emotionally.
It didnt take long to dispose of the body and find the chips. In short order, they were in the shuttle closing in on Jerrys position. The silence between them was palpable, and acutely uncomfortable.
It only took the Sabre a few moments to load the wounded general onto the transport. She had curtly refused Gwens offer of help, and the bard retreated further within herself. Randi felt the withdrawal, and began putting up walls of her own.
Mere minutes, it seemed, and she was maneuvering a landing. The trees in this area were particularly dense, and she broke more than one branch trying to land. Randi did manage to finally set the transport down safely. Tiny stood waiting at the shelter entrance, bow cocked and laser drawn. He smiled when he saw her emerge, then frowned at her expression and her bloody condition. The next instant, Reed screamed. The big man ducked into the shelter.
"Too late," the semi-conscious seer murmured. "Too late."
Randi didnt seem to hear Reeds words. Instead she turned her attention to the large man now cradling his lover. "Tiny, take her to the shuttle and get her settled. Its gonna be a tight squeeze, but we should all fit." She looked around, seeing Geoff was again sedated. "Where is the colonel?"
"She went out. Said she had an idea."
A vague thrill of alarm crept up her spine. "Which way did she head?"
They stepped out, and Tiny nodded. "North. She was looking for some sort of herb."
"All right. Can you get these guys loaded up? She should have heard us coming in, and headed back. Ill go meet her and hurry her along."
"Can do, boss. But be careful, huh?"
She nodded before she disappeared, following an almost invisible trail. She hadnt gone very far since she was having to move slowly and carefully to avoid the traps. Suddenly, the smell of blood wafted past her nose, and she felt another chill skitter up her spine. Following her nose now, and watching her step, she closed in on a terrible site. Twenty yards in front of her stood Kene. She was actually pinned in place to a tree by three long skewers through her neck, torso and abdomen. Randi steeled herself, and made her way over. She gently lowered the body to the ground.
Though the woman had caused untold problems, she had died a Sabres honorable death in the service of others. Randi took a moment to ask Artemis to watch over the womans soul, and quickly cremated her remains. Then she made her way back to the waiting shuttle.
Jerry came to while they were waiting, and Tiny moved to check on him. Hed had to put Reed into a deep coma, afraid her thrashing and moaning would cause her to hurt herself. He spared a glance at Gwen, who sat apart from the rest, eyes unfocused and arms wrapped around herself. Other than a quiet hello, and an inquiry about her father, she had sat silently. He was sure she was in shock, but he needed to tend to Jerry first.
"How are you doing, sir?"
"She saved my life, you know."
"Shes good at that. Shes done it to me a time or two as well." There was silence for a moment while the big man checked the generals stitches. Randi had done a neat job, but they were starting to swell and get red and puffy looking.
"General, Im gonna have to open these up. It looks like there may be an infection."
"God," the older man moaned. "Do what you have to do." He bit his lip til it bled, holding back the screams that wanted to come. He forced himself to focus on something else instead. "We had quite a conversation out there."
"Did you now?" Tiny responded distractedly. He was too busy popping the stitches and watching them begin to drain.
"Um hmm," Jerry groaned. "I asked her why she didnt want my job."
This got the chiefs attention. "And what did she tell you?" He had always felt that Randi would have made an excellent Commandant, and was fairly certain she could have had it had she been an officer.
"She didnt want the responsibility or commitment." He paused to breathe for a bit. "She wanted a life." He paused again. "But it was hers for the taking."
Nothing else was said, as Randi chose that moment to board the shuttle. She handed him some leaves, as she moved to the cockpit. "This is what she what looking for. Put it on Reeds eyes... it will help ward off infection."
He knew without asking the Kene was dead. He figured hed get the details later. "Im gonna put some of these on the Commandants leg as well. I had to open it up to drain the infection that was starting."
"Damn! I was afraid of that. Hows everything else otherwise?"
He swallowed. Seeing the dead look in her eyes, he suddenly understood Reeds cries with blinding clarity. "Um, Geoff is still out, as is Reed." He lowered his voice and took a shot in the dark. "I think Gwen is in shock. Maybe you should...."
"No. Wrap a blanket around her. We need to get back now." No need to explain that the younger woman flinched the only time Randi had reached out to her. She didnt want to inflict any more pain on Gwen than she already had. Maybe with time, they could be friends again. Right now, she held out little hope for anything more.
It didnt take but a few seconds, before they lifted off, and were headed toward the capital.
"ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!! Somebody better remind me pretty damned quick why I cant send Ares to Tartarus for this." The blonde love goddess stomped away from her scrying bowl.
"You mean aside from the fact that he broke no rules, and would probably enjoy it?" Artemis smirked briefly.
"Dont worry, sister. We actually hold all the cards this time. Wait until Randi comes to you. And when she does, we will fire our first volley." This from Athena. "Remember, *everyone* wants to see them as a couple. We have lots of allies on this now, both mortal and immortal."
"Youd better not be yankin my chain, you guys. Too much depends on this, and well you know it." Their looks became solemn, and they nodded in agreement.
Randi set the shuttle down as gently as possible on the medifac pad. A Sabre emergency med team was standing by, with hover beds, and other emergency medical equipment. She motioned Tiny to stay seated, and she stepped off first. "Its ugly. One with a broken back, two with possible infections, and one in shock."
The doctor tried to look at her face, but Randi shooed her away. "Go take care of those that need it. I can handle this myself." The woman looked doubtful... there was something about the cut that just didnt look right, but the sergeant was correct. The others were much higher priorities right now. The medic made a mental note to check it out later.
The team moved swiftly now, and unloaded the much-damaged team. They moved Geoff out, and into a regen trauma unit they had set up as soon as they had received Randis emergency call. Reed was moved next, into a laser surgery room with an optical scanner. Jerry came next, accompanied by a walking but grumbling Tiny. The doctor had seen his wounded leg, and demanded he move inside for treatment.
The Marine waited for a few more minutes, concerned when neither the medic nor the bard emerged from the shuttles interior. She moved closer to the door, only to be met there by a frustrated looking doctor. "Shes asking for you, and she wont let any of us near her." The Sabre looked closer, and noticed a bruise forming underneath the doctors eye.
"Let me talk to her. You got take care of the rest of the team, and Ill get her inside."
The woman nodded, and motioned the rest of the medical personnel in. She followed them into the facility, with a single backwards glance, watching as Randi disappear inside the craft.
Randi stood for a moment, simply looking at Gwen, who was curled up in an almost fetal position. She offered up a small prayer of thanks for her foresight in washing up at the fortress. She slowly moved toward the bard, allowing her voice to precede her. She didnt think she could bear the bard flinching away from her again.
"Gwen, love. Its Randi. Can you look at me?"
The bard lay so still and silent that the Marine was afraid for a minute she had simply passed out... or worse. Randi kept up her murmuring, not reaching out to touch Gwen until the smaller woman finally looked at her and held out a hand.
The Marine muffled a strangled cry, and took the proffered hand. With a strength she didnt know the bard possessed, she found herself pulled towards Gwen. She scooped the woman into her arms.
"Oh, Little One, were gonna be all right. Aphrodite, please. Help us. We have to be all right."
The bard, feeling safe and protected, snuggled into her arms and fell promptly into a deep sleep. Randi moved into the medifac. She had some vid calls to make.
"Thanks, Morph. This will be the easiest place to help her remember," watching as the blondes past began to unfold in her dreamscape. "Ive got work to do."
The dream god nodded then blushed when Dite kissed him softly before leaving. "Youre welcome," he muttered, though she was no longer present to hear it.
Jill reached the facility quickly. She had been expecting... something. Her first sight upon entering this unusual place was Gwen cuddled close in a sleeping Randis arms. She was loathe to awaken the woman, whose disheveled appearance gave quite a testimonial to what they had been through. But she needed some answers, and the Marine was going to be her best source.
A mere touch on her arm brought the Sabre to full alertness, though she looked at Jill in confusion for a split second. "Hi, Jill. Um, let me put her down," indicating the sleeping bard," and we can talk."
"Only if you need to, dear. It certainly doesnt bother me to see her where she belongs."
The blue eyes teared up at that statement, though Randi blinked them away immediately. Jill noticed, of course, and knew this was gonna be complicated. It always has been with these two though, hasnt it? Why should this be any different? Oh, Sweet Hestia, be good to them. They deserve it.
"Whats wrong? And what can I do to help?"
The doctor stepped out into the waiting area just then, and indicated she needed to examine the bard. Randi stood to move the blonde to a gurney, but Gwen clutched at her convulsively when she tried to move away. The warrior smiled sadly, allowing the small woman to maintain a hold on her hand. The doctor nodded, and allowed both women to accompany them to the back.
A cursory glance told the medic quite a bit. She touched a couple pressure points, and the blonde fell into a deeper slumber, never relaxing her grip on Randis hand. She cocked her head in question, then adjusted the spots that were out of alignment. Odd, that. She shrugged. "She should be all right when she wakes up. You will need to schedule a follow-up with psych, though. Shes gonna need to work through whatever put her in this state." She hesitated, then continued. "I dont see any physical damage, but it looks as though some manipulation had been done to make her more susceptible to suggestion. I have readjusted the points. It will help her recovery in the long run."
Jill looked to Randi to respond, but her eyes never left Gwen and their still linked hands. The woman glanced at her daughters peaceful face and nodded. "Thank you, doctor. Well take good care of her." The medic shook Jills hand and patted Randis shoulder. Then she crossed the room without another word, and left them alone.
The older woman sighed and took a seat opposite the Marine. She gently held her daughters other hand, not surprised when the younger woman didnt respond to her touch. "Now, you want to tell me whats going on here? I get a vid call from you in the middle of the night telling me Geoff and Gwen have been hurt, and rush over. And once I get here, no one will tell me anything." Her eyes sparked with angry fire. "I think I have a right to know."
Randi looked at her directly then, and Jill gasped in reflex at the pain she saw reflected back at her. She eased the bards hand back onto the pallet, and moved to sit at Randis side. "Talk to me, Randi." She put her hand on their joined hands, and turned a gaze full of unwavering love and support on the Sabre. The Marine swallowed hard, and started talking.
"Its very complicated, and starts a long, long time ago." Her hushed voice was a mere whisper, and Jill had to lean in close to hear her words. "Suffice it to say for now that this whole incident was brought on by a myriad of things. The straw that broke this particular camels back, though, was my death. Or at least, the events surrounding my death. When I died, I took some very bad people with me. This was revenge for one of them." She held up a hand. "Please dont ask. Just go with it."
The older woman nodded, and motioned for her to continue. "Geoff was hurt when he triggered a trap trying to rush to Reeds aid. They were our point people at the time." She waited a beat, swallowing hard. "His back was broken in three places. Even once hes regenerated, it will be a problem for him. The damage was too great."
Randi kept her eyes down, unwilling to see the love and support fade from the older womans eyes. Jill lifted her free hand and cupped the Marines chin til the blue eyes focused on her own. The understanding was overwhelming, and it was almost her undoing. She swallowed and looked away again until Jill spoke.
"Randi, no matter what else, I want you to know something. Even if Geoff had known what the outcome was going to be, he still would have gone. He loves you both that much."
Now the tears that Randi had been so valiantly been holding in slid silently down her face. "She doesnt love me anymore, Jill. He took that away. He took her memories of us away." And now she broke down sobbing, as the reality of her statement sank into her conscious heart and mind. She swore she felt the shards ripping her guts out.
With a muffled exclamation, Jill took the Sabre into her arms, and cradled her like a child. She hummed softly to her, hoping to calm her. Finally, the sobs seemed to lessen, and she lifted Randis face. Without a word, she dried the tears tracks left on the Marines face, and lay the younger womans head back down on her shoulder.
"Now, you want to start from the beginning? Who did this?"
"Ben? BEN is the cause of all this trouble??"
She felt the Sabres answer when the dark head bobbed up and down in the affirmative. She swiped a hand across her eyes. "Can we start this over? I think I lost a few pieces somewhere."
Randi moved to sit up, and Jill released her, though she kept a hand on her arm. "Ill tell you what I know, though it is precious little."
She told her mother-in-law the story then. How Gwen had pulled away from her kiss. How the connection their souls had shared had been severed. And how her heart had shattered when the bard had flinched away from her touch.
"That bastard," Jill hissed vehemently. "Ill kill him."
"I already did... right in front of her. God, no wonder she doesnt want me to be near her."
The older woman looked significantly at their tightly linked hands. She thought for a moment before she spoke. "I dont think that is the case at all. I think it is more a case of her heart being hidden from her."
The Marines eyebrow rose, and she cocked her head questioningly at Jill. There was something familiar in the phrasing, and she wanted to hear what Jill had to say on the matter. She couldnt help the tiny grain of hope that had sprouted at those words.
"After you... um, died.... There came a time when Gwen and I were able to talk about her love for you. About the fact that the whole world had been aware of her feelings for you, while she was completely blind. And she mentioned the fact that her gradual realization was like stepping out of a fog into sunlight. She felt like shed been kept in the dark... a deliberate manipulation by someone or something determined to keep you apart."
"Listen to your mother-in-law there, warrior babe. Shes telling more truth than you know."
Both women jumped when the voice spoke out of nowhere, but only Randi answered it. "Aphrodite?"
"In the flesh, babe," as she shimmered into existence. "Howre you doing?" She gently brushed dark bangs, and the Sabre leaned into the comforting touch. Jill felt a thrill of jealousy on Gwens behalf shoot through her. "Cool it, little mama. Im not here to ruin the best match Ive had in millennia. Im here to get it back on track."
"Mom here is right, though. This was a deliberate manipulation to rip the two of you apart. Her memories, like her feelings, arent gone. Just dormant. It will be up to you to awaken them again... to bring her back into the sunlight."
The love goddess cradled the lost face of the Marine, the forlorn look in her eyes causing tears to form unbidden. Dite blinked, and smiled crookedly. "Hon, you courted her before, without even being aware. Imagine what you can do *knowing* what the score is. Have a little faith in yourself, and in the two of you and the bond you share. There are a lot of people, both mortals and gods on your side."
"Goddess," Jill spoke up hesitantly. "May I ask who is behind this?"
Aphrodite paused so long, they were sure she wasnt going to speak. "Ares. Because of a stupid bet whose time has long since passed."
Electric blue eyes sparked fire. "Excuse me? I KNOW I didnt just understand you to say what it is I think you said."
Now the goddess took a seat. She squirmed a minute trying to get comfortable. "Grody!" With a snap of her fingers, the sturdy, functional chair became a cushy, pink chaise lounge. She felt the fierce stare burning a hole right through her and sighed.
"Millennia ago, when the original soulmates of these lines united, Ares insisted he be given an opportunity to reclaim the warrior who had been his chosen. He lost, needless to say. The bond that runs between the two souls is strong. But he continues to try. The new rules make it harder for him, but...."
"But. Isnt youre being here breaking the rules?"
"Not this time. You see, I claimed you as chosen when your bond held against him. To find he had Gwen under some sort of spell, well... lets just say Daddy wasnt pleased. Its one reason we were allowed to return you to life. And this, this has crossed the line." She looked like she wanted to say more, then stopped. The love goddess rose, and the chaise disappeared. "Look, babe, well work this out. You do your part, and the rest will just slip into place."
Dite shimmered out of existence, and Jill spoke softly. "Youve got good friends in high places. I think shes right, too."
"I hope so, Jill," looking at the still sleeping bard and the co-joined hands. "I really cannot survive without her."
And then it grew quiet, as they each considered the trying days ahead of them.
The doctor was kind enough to let Jill know when Geoff was moved into the regen unit. He had spent several hours sedated while the medical personnel did their best to align his spine properly. It was Jills turn to hold tightly to the Marine, who provides her with strength and unwavering support.
"I want you to understand something first, Mrs. Goldman. Given the severity of this injury, and having seen how extensive the previous one was, there is a very good possibility that your husband may never walk again."
Jill gasped and covered her mouth with one hand. The other clenched Randis hand in a death-breaking grip. The Sabre didnt even flinch.
"However, there is also a possibility that he will. A lot is going to depend on both the regen and his attitude. Hes gonna have to want it badly enough."
"No problem there," Jill smiled through the tears. "Hes gonna want to be on his feet to give his little girl away." Randi squeezed her fingers slightly in both support and appreciation.
"Well then," the doctor rose. "Ill let you know when he is moved from regen to a regular room. When your daughter wakes up, yall will be free to leave." She set the release chip on the nearby stand. "Remember what I told you about a psych. I made a couple recommendations that should be able to help her." She turned her attention to the Marine. "I need to check you out, Sergeant."
"Later," Randi replied absently. "Right now she needs me."
The woman knew the Marine was no longer active military, and she had no grounds to insist. But she was concerned by the look of the wound itself. She would keep an eye out, and try to catch the Sabre before the trio left. By the slight stirring coming from the bed, she was fairly certain they would be ready to leave soon.
Meanwhile, Gwen was slowly coming to. Her hand clenched reflexively around the comforting strength she clasped, and she moaned a little. She squirmed, drawing the hand to her chest, smiling in her sleep. Randi couldnt help the smile that crossed her lips, nor the hope that flared in heart. It was shattered in the next instant.
Gwen opened her eyes, and the first sight she saw was Randis face. She flinched and pulled away, rolling away so her back was to the warrior. Jill squeezed the Marines shoulder, and moved to take her daughter in her arms. It hurt her to see the pain reflected in Randis eyes, but even as she watched, the face became a mask. The Sabre stood, and walked out the door without a word.
The doctor saw the tall woman exit, and stopped her. "Please, Sergeant. This wont take but a minute. Your Navy buddy is just about done with his regen." Randi nodded, not really caring, but needing something to do to pass the time until Jill needed her to take them back to the hotel. Then she was going home. Regardless of what Aphrodite had said, she needed some space from the bard. She wouldnt force her affection.
"Hey, you listening to me?" The medicos words brought her out of her haze, and she just looked at the woman numbly. "I asked you how this happened," softly fingering the cut. The warrior flinched away from her touch. The doctor picked up the regen unit, and her tools, deadening the area before she started to work.
"And the barbs?"
"Mace," wondering why the woman wasnt paying attention.
"But theyre embedded."
"Look, doc, it doesnt matter. Are you done?"
"Well, yes and no. Ive done all I can without admitting you for a while. But you need to have someone take a look. Those barbs are embedded pretty deep. Youre not gonna be able to just pull them out and let them go."
"Fine. Ill go see my doctor when I get home." She slid off the bed and stood up. "Now, are we all done? I need to check on the rest of my team before taking Mrs. and Ms. Goldman back to their hotel."
"Yes, Sergeant. Were finished." She hated to let the other woman go, but she really had no authority to stop her, even though she knew in her heart that about this, Randi was lying. She shook her head. Warriors hated to admit weakness, and that almost makes them view us as the enemy. She sighed, and moved to check on her other patients.
Tiny was fairly easy to find. His good-natured grumbling caused Randi to chuckle despite her pain. She knocked at the doorway to his regen cubicle. His face lit up in response.
"Randi! Come in! No, wait. Let me get my pants on and Ill join you." She politely turned her back, and waited for him to join her at the door before she looked at him.
"Any word on Reed?"
He shook his head. "Thats why Ive been griping. No one is telling me anything about anyone."
"Well, lets go get some answers, my friend."
It was a small facility, used exclusively by Sabre team members. So it didnt take them long to find the other members of their unit. Reed had been moved to one of the regen body chambers the facility had. Geoff was in the other. Reeds prospects for regaining her sight were quite good, and several comments were made praising the actions that saved her eyes. Randi made a mental note to see that a posthumous award was made to Kene for her outstanding fieldwork.
Geoffs prognosis wasnt nearly as good. The doctors gave him a less than twenty-five percent rating for a complete recovery. However, they had high hopes for him regaining the use of his entire upper body region. With those words, she decided to stick around for a day or two, until he regained consciousness. She wanted to be the one to insure he knew the truth. She wouldnt ask Jill to bear that burden.
Jerry was in the next room, with a portable regen unit set over his thigh. He beckoned them in at their knock.
"Hey, guys! Come on in." He grimaced as the movement shot pain through his body. Amazing how his whole body hurt in sympathy with his damaged limb. "Whats the word?"
They told him about the team. He expressed sincere regret for Geoff, and smiled at Reeds excellent prognosis. He teared up at the mention of Kenes passing, though Randi refrained from detailing the gruesomeness of her death. She did mention awarding her a posthumous medal for her actions, and the general nodded his agreement.
"For all our bickering and fighting, for all the mistakes, she was an excellent Sabre, and she died in the service of her comrades. She deserves to be remembered well."
There was a respectful silence for a minute, the Jerry asked, "Randi, are you all right? What happened to your face?"
"Its just a cut, sir. I ran into a mace unexpectedly. Guess I zigged when I shouldve zagged."
"Well, see that it you take care of it. You cant let these things go." She didnt answer, and he realized hed overstepped his bounds. "Im sorry, Randi. I meant that as a friend, and not an officer. It was honest concern."
"Well, sir I appreciate the concern. I will have my doctor look at it when I get home."
"Are you sure its wise to wait that long? Why not just let them go ahead and take care of it now?" He flinched as her eyes grew hard and cold, but continued. "Tiny, help me sit up." The large man eased him up gently, and held him steady by the shoulders. He pulled up his shirt on one side, and motioned her closer. "Let me show you something." He raised an arm slightly. "Do you see the lump?"
She looked, and nodded, wondering where all this was leading.
"When Grace... Ghost Rider committed her first act of terrorism, I ended up with a shard of polymer through the ribs. At the time, my team was in much more dire straits, and I put the thoughts of it out of my mind." He paused for a moment, lost in thought as he relived those first few terrifying minutes. "It took us the better part of the day to get through the rubble to our comrades, only to discover five of them were dead. And two of them... God, Geoff was bent at such an angle, we thought he was dead at first too." His eyes were distant, and Randi got the distinct feeling he no longer remembered they were in the room. A tear slipped unbidden down his face.
"It took us two days to get back to reach help, and twice I thought we had lost Geoff. Poor Kene... trying to be a medic with one arm. We were lucky to have been out with the experimental collapsible hover beds. Geoff and Ben wouldnt have survived otherwise." He shook his head. "Anyway," he looked up and captured her eyes, " all told, it took almost five days before I got it looked at. By then, the polymer had melded with the bone and muscle. They tried to remove it, but it was going to cause too much damage. So I have had a lump there for a very long time, and every time it gets cold, or is going to rain, I know about it days in advance. It can be quite unpleasant."
"Look, Randi," lowering his shirt, and allowing the silent man still supporting him to ease him back down onto the bed. "Youre a grown woman, and no longer someone under my command. I just want you... be aware of the risks, okay? Take care of yourself."
She nodded again, but didnt answer. Instead she rose, and moved to the doorway. "Ill be back tomorrow to check on yall before I head home. I need to get back. Rest well, Jerry."
The two men glanced at each other. "Ill keep an eye on her, sir."
"You do that, chief. Thank you." And the general closed his eyes.
"Tiny, did you need a lift back... anywhere?" Randi had waited outside the door for her friend. She looked at him closely as he exited, noting with alarm for the first time his haggard appearance. She didnt realize he simply mirrored her own.
"No, thanks, Randi. The doc in charge of the regen offered me a bed next to Reed, and Im gonna take him up on it. I need to be near her right now."
The Marine nodded her understanding and acceptance, realizing what the whispered conversation between himself and the doctor had been about. She walked her exhausted friend back to the regen chamber. A cot had been set up for him to use, and he dropped into it rather haphazardly. He closed his eyes, only to have them pop back wide open when he felt the covers being drawn up to his chin. He smiled lazily into the blue eyes staring back at him.
"Go get some rest, my friend. This has been a rough one."
The Marine touched her face. "Indeed it has, Tiny. Rest well." His eyes closed and almost immediately his chest rose and fell in the rhythmic breathing of deep sleep. Randi took a deep breath, steeling herself for her next ordeal, and dropped the stoic mask into place. Then she moved down the hall to Gwens room.
Jills touch on her shoulder had caused the bard to burst into tears, and the woman took her daughter in her arms and comforted her in much they same way she had just done with the Marine. "Why, Mama? Why did she kill him? He didnt do anything." Then the younger woman sobbed, and Jill just held on tightly.
When the tears had abated, and the breathing was calm, Jill sat her daughter up, and cupped Gwens face. She waited until the younger woman made eye contact, then spoke.
"Gwen, apparently Ben was into some very bad things, things that hurt a lot of people." She held up her hand, asking the bard to wait. "I dont know all the details yet, but your daddy does, and it meant so much to him, that he insisted he be part of the team that brought him to justice."
"But she just murdered him... killed him in cold blood!"
"Did she? Or did he have the chance to defend himself? I know this is hard, especially having had to witness it first hand, but daughter, think about something for a minute. Why were you there in the first place? Its not like you and Ben have been particularly close in the last few years. Were you perhaps being used as a pawn to draw Randi out for some reason, do you think... a pawn in a larger game?"
"No, thats not true. I was there for the solitude. I was there to write." Her brows scrunched up in furrowed thought. "At least, thats what Uncle said."
"And did you? Write, I mean?"
"I think... I mean...." She rubbed her forehead. "I dont remember."
"Gwen, I want you to think about something for me. In all the years you have known Randi, has she ever lied to you? I know she hasnt always told you everything, but has she ever lied? Has she ever set out to hurt or betray you? Or has she watched over you, and taken care of you?"
"Shes always been my best friend, Mama, you know that. She looks out for me."
"Do you remember being brought here? The blonde shook her head. "You were in shock," Jill stated. "You were in shock and refused to allow any of the medical personnel to touch you. But you let Randi take you in her arms and bring you in here." She paused a moment. "Why is that, do you think?"
The bard concentrated on her answer. There seemed to be so many holes in her memories, so many things that suddenly made no sense. "I trust her to take the best care of me, Mama. She always has."
"Then cut her a bit of slack here, daughter. She needs your faith now more than ever. If you want to remain friends, youre gonna have to continue to trust her all the time."
"... had her reasons. Give her a chance to explain. She doesnt deserve your withdrawal, and youre not in a position to pass judgment on her actions."
"But I would nev...." She thought about her reactions. Her head dropped. "Damn! I did, didnt I? What the hell kind of friend am I anyway? I owe her an apology." Tears slowly slid down her face. "What if she doesnt forgive me for my lack of faith and trust?"
"Give her a chance, Little Girl. Ill bet shell be glad to give you another one."
Randi took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. She waited then raised her hand to knock again, when the door opened and Jill stepped outside.
"Im going to stay with Geoff. You girls have some things to work out, I think." And without another word or a backward glance, she moved to be by her husbands side.
The Marine thought about knocking again, then she considered walking away, then shrugged. She knows Im here. Might as well get this over with. She squared her shoulders, and opened the door, stepping in softly and closing it behind her. Only to turn around and find herself with an armful of flying bard. Her strong arms closed reflexively on the familiar body, and she held on tightly for a long moment, before the smaller womans words became clear to her ears. She drew back slightly, trying to catch the green, tear-filled eyes.
"Whoa, Gwen. Slow down a minute, huh?" She lifted the bards chin with her fingers, keeping the other arm firmly around the blondes waist. Her mind screamed against the pain she was setting herself up for again in being this close, but her heart and body made her mind go sit down and shut up for now. Because right now, for whatever reason, Gwen was back where she belonged. And her mind had no way to fight the feelings that brought.
Randis kindness brought a fresh wave of tears to her eyes, and Gwen just stood there for a very long moment, looking into those incredible blue eyes. Then she buried her head into the Marines chest, and proceeded to sob all over again. Randi simply picked her up, and moved them over to the bed, holding her and waiting out the storm. Finally, it seemed to slow, and she gently dried the tears. Her gentleness brought another wave of tears.
"Hey, hey now. Whats all this? You cant keep crying like this. Im running out of dry spots," said with a rakish grin, hoping to get a smile out of Gwen. All the tears were becoming alarming.
It wasnt much, but she did get the smallest little quirk of lips from the younger woman, and that was enough for now. Gwen brushed at her own eyes, then smiled again, a little better this time. "Can we get out of here? I think we need to talk."
Randis heart seized at this, but she nodded. "The doc said you were free to go whenever." She made to get off the bed, but looked down to find herself held by a glaring bard. Her brow rose in question.
"Were not going anywhere until the doctor takes care of you. Im not going to let you suffer unaccountably for days because of me." Before the Marine realized what was happening, she was in the bed with the doctor standing over her, and the bard at her side.
"I dont need...."
"What you need to do is let the good doctor work, so we can get out of here." Randi felt her eyelids grow heavy. The emotional roller coaster shed been on, coupled with Gwens extreme attitude swings, and the stress of the mission were finally taking their toll. "Rest. Let the doctor take care of you. Ill be right here when you wake up. Promise."
That had been what shed needed to hear, and the words let her body sink down into oblivion. Gwen looked at the doctor. "How long will she be out?"
"The meds will keep her out for the next several hours, but I imagine her body will demand more, so my best guess would be until tomorrow morning at the earliest."
The bard stood, and unclasped her hand from the Marine, who frowned in her sleep at this action. "All right. Im going to go check on my father, and I will be right back."
"Ill still be here," the woman answered, indicating the scarred face. "This is going to take a little while."
Gwen made her way down the hall to the large regen chamber where her father was currently ensconced. Her fathers doctor was speaking to both her father and mother in low tones, and the bard smiled briefly, knowing Geoff was for the moment at least, conscious. Then tears filled her eyes, and she rushed headlong into the room, flying into her fathers outstretched arms.
He breathed a brief prayer of thanks that his upper body was still functioning properly, as he clasped his daughter in a comforting embrace. The doctor stepped up to move the young woman, afraid for both his patients well-being as well as fearful of any adverse affects the regen unit might cause the bard. Geoff motioned him back, and Jill moved the two of them away to allow the weapons smith and Gwen a moment of privacy.
Geoff allowed his daughter to cling to him, for a long minute, then he eased back, still holding her hands. "Whats wrong, baby girl?" He could see the tear tracks, and the redness of her eyes indicated some serious crying recently.
"Oh, Daddy." The tears started fresh, and she began to wonder if she would ever run out of them. In the meantime, she seemed unable to stop them. She rested her head on his chest, unable to look into his eyes. "She killed him. Just... she took a knife and...."
He looked at Jill who regarded him with an even stare. Apparently she knew more of what had happened in that fortress than he did. The short time they had been together had been spent with Jill crying in his arms. Shed managed to convey the loss Gwen and Randi had suffered, but that was about it. Well, no time like the present.
"It was Uncle Ben, Daddy." He was thankful her head was resting on his chest, because his eyes flew to his wife in shock. He read the confirmation in them, and closed his own in regret. Even though hed been told that his old comrade was the villain, hed been hoping against hope that the information was incorrect. Ben had been his best friend for many years, and though they had grown apart, he had still held the man in his thoughts with some affection. He would be very interested to get the whole story from Randi. Meanwhile, he brought his attention back to his daughters words. "She just marched in, and...." Here she broke off. The feelings her memories of Randis lips on her own created confusion, and she wasnt ready to share that with anyone yet.
"They had some words... nothing that I understood, and then she just... she.... It was horrible, Daddy. Blood and.... he just let her...."
"And do you think she enjoyed it? Did she seem to relish it in any way?"
Horrified green eyes met his own as she abruptly raised her head. "No, Daddy! How could you think that?"
"Im not the one thinking here, Gwen. You are."
His words froze her, and she paused. "No," she whispered. "She didnt get any joy from it." She thought about the myriad of emotions she had seen float through the expressive blue eyes before they had shuttered against her. "It seemed to make her very sad."
"Then maybe you should spend some time thinking about why she was willing to let you see that side of her. This is something she had to do for many years, daughter. And she has had to live with the consequences and the self-loathing. You need to decide if you can. Because if cant support her... ALL of her... then perhaps you dont love her like you should."
Her brows scrunched in puzzlement over his choice of words, but she nodded her understanding.
"One thing though, Gwen. She wouldnt have done it if it hadnt been necessary. Ben had turned his back on the things he believed in, and became... well, he chose a bad course, and paid the price for thinking he was above the rules. Randi was an instrument of justice."
"Thank you, Daddy. For reminding what is important."
"Youre welcome, little girl. I love you, ya know."
"I know. I love you, too. Now," stepping back, but leaning in to whisper conspiratorially, "Id better go before your doctor has a conniption." She smiled at her father. "You get some rest, and Ill be back to see you later, okay?"
He simply nodded, eyes closed, his body already giving in to its need for more rest. Gwen walked to her mother and gave her a long hug. "Thanks, Mama. I love you." Then she turned and walked out if the chamber. Jill simply stared after her daughter, hoping her husbands words would help. She had a feeling this was going to be a long, bumpy road before all was said and done.
Gwen didnt head directly back to what had become Randis room. Instead she wandered out to a tiny, enclosed garden area at the back of the unassuming, small building. She sat down on the lone bench, watching as the sun began to peek over the horizon.
There were so many pieces missing, so many things that didnt make sense. She found it odd that she had no clear memories of her time spent with Ben. Pain lanced through her head again. Oh Artemis! What is happening to me? She continued to stare out at the horizon, hoping to find some answers.
The goddess in question looked down at her favored, wishing she could give her the answers.
The bard wondered why she didnt feel tired enough to sleep as she made her way back inside. In truth, she was exhausted, but too wired, her mind seemed to be racing at the speed of light. That in itself was frustrating, but the images... well, a lot of them just made no sense. She wondered if shed ever figure out what had really happened while shed been gone.
She opened the door to the room silently, the frown on the doctors face causing her immediate concern. "Is there a problem, doctor?"
The woman whirled at the sound, having been surprised by the bards entrance. She looked at her a long moment, before turning back to study her patient. "Im not really sure. Ive never seen anything quite like this before."
"What do you mean? I would think in your line of work, you would have seen it all by now." Gwen smiled slightly.
A tiny smile graced the other womans features. "Yeah, youd think so, wouldnt you? These guys have come back with just about every conceivable wound or illness imaginable. But this," motioning to Randis face. "This is something new." She moved to re-examine the wounds. "The barbs were deep, penetrating almost to her bones. And they were moving deeper when I pulled them out. And the cut... it doesnt want to regenerate.
The unit keeps cutting out."
"That is odd," stroking the uninjured side, and smiling a bit when Randi unconsciously turned into her touch. "Are you sure its not the unit?"
"Pretty. This is the third one Ive tried." She paused. "This redness is causing me some concern too." She pointed out the inflamed area. "It should have been readily healed by the regen unit." She shook her head, trying to understand what the problem was and failing miserably. The doctor looked at Gwen. "Are you going to be here a while?"
"Because she seems to rest better with you here. And right now, more than anything, she needs rest." The doctor did not mention the struggle shed had with the Sabre after Gwen had left the room. The bards brows rose at the first comment, and frowned at the second. She could see now the dark circles and haggard appearance more clearly, and wondered what had happened to the Marine in the time they had been apart.
She sat down in the comfortable reclining chair Randi had been using earlier, though contrary to her friend, the bard did not sit up ramrod straight perched on the edge. Instead, Gwen moved the chair as close to the bed as possible, and leaned back comfortably. The bard could see most of the warrior from this position, and it was somehow reassuring. She took one of the larger hands into her own, smiling reflexively when the hand clasped hers firmly, and the warrior gave a little sigh. She noticed there were no traces of blood on Randis hands, but her minds eye clearly saw what had been there, and she sat back to think about what had happened.
She must have fallen asleep, she realized some time later, as her eyes opened, and she spent a moment trying to focus. The after images of her dreams were confusing, and she wondered what had happened to awaken her. She looked around here, realizing where they were. She was stiff and sore, and she grimaced at having to move. A whimper from the bed drew her attention, and she hesitatingly rose up slightly to be able to see Randis entire face. What she saw surprised her.
The Sabre had curled up into a tiny ball, and her hands were moving, as though searching for something. Gwen noticed immediately that their hands were no longer joined. She cocked her head and listened to the whispered words, hearing her own name called out pleadingly by the still soundly sleeping Marine. Her mind went back to another time and place, and with only a moments hesitation, she crawled into Randis bed. Instantly, the warrior curled around her. She held the older woman close, whispering words of comfort and reassurance until the tears and cries stopped.
Gwen heard the Marine sigh again, then the five-year-old voice emerged from the still sleeping woman. "Gwenie?"
The bard stroked the soft hair underneath her cheek, wondering if the child was a defense mechanism that allowed the Sabre to cope with the many atrocities she had to deal with, without completely losing her mind. She put it aside for further study when the voice rang out again in mild alarm.
"Gwenie?! Gwenie, where are ya?"
"Im right here," the blonde answered soothingly, continuing to caress the dark locks.
"Im sorry, Gwenie. Im sorry I hurt your friend. He was a bad man, Gwenie. I had to make him go away."
The bard was silent a long time, and she felt the warmth of tears flow from Randis eyes onto her chest. "Im sorry, Gwenie. Really I am," the Sabre whispered. "Please dont leave me."
"I wont leave you, Randi. Ill always be here." And surprised herself by the fundamental truth of that statement. She still had some serious issues, both with the holes in her memories, and with Randis actions. But nothing was going to change the fact that they were best friends. They loved and cared for one each other, and one way or another, they would make it through this intact.
The older woman sighed a third time, and curled up closer into her. "I love you, Gwenie."
Gwen kissed the top of the warriors head. "I love you too, Randi. Happy dreams, now." And she smiled when the Marine nestled down into her, and drifted back into a deeper sleep. She watched as darkness fell, her thoughts keeping pace with her heartbeat. It was a long time before her eyes closed in sleep again.
Randi woke up vaguely disoriented, confused by the feeling of emptiness and loss. She would have sworn.... With a sigh, she turned over onto her side, noticing for the first time the bard curled up in the recliner pulled very near her. A small hand rested on the bed, and she reached out to touch it. She hesitated, withdrawing before she felt the softness of the skin she missed so much. The last day or so was blurry, and she was no longer sure what was reality, what was dream, and what was simply wishful thinking. She wasnt ready to risk the truce they seemed to have reached. She moved to sit up, and her stirring caused Gwens hand to unconsciously start tracing on the bed.
The Marine watched in fascination for many minutes, trying to figure out what was so familiar in the pattern. So lost in though was she that she never realized when it stopped. Only when a throat cleared, and sleepy green eyes twinkled back at her did she notice that shes been staring. A light blush traveled up her features.
"Good morning." Her sleep-hoarse voice came out as a bare whisper, and she cleared her throat. The bard saved her further speech by speaking.
"Good morning," just a bit shyly. "How do you feel?"
"Honestly? Like I slept all day. But better. I guess I needed to rest. Hows your dad?"
"I dont know. I havent been back to check on him since early yesterday, and Mothers been with him since she left us here alone." She paused, then continued, "Randi, we need to talk."
The Sabre cut her off. "Yeah, but I think you need to stay here with your folks for now." The blonde drew a breath to speak, but Randi held up a hand to forestall her. "They need you here right now... need your love and support."
"What about you?"
"What about me? Theyre your family. You know where to find me when the crisis is over. We still share an address, ya know." Not a home, not now. She tried to make light of the pain that caused, but she didnt quite succeed. The bard could read clearly the agony in the blue eyes, though she did not understand the meaning behind it all. "Ill still be there if you want to talk when this is all over."
She slid down from the bed, ignoring the tears she felt forming in her own eyes. She couldnt see the reciprocal ones forming in the green eyes she loved. Randi couldnt bring herself to look into them. "Im gonna get dressed, and say bye to your folks. Then Im gonna head out."
Gwen sat in the chair, stunned and hurt. This was the last thing she expected from Randi, after the discussion theyd just had the night before. What happened? What did I miss? She mentally reviewed their conversation of the previous evening. She almost missed the Marines voice, as she stopped on her way out the door.
"You take your time, Gwen. I know Im not what you thought I was, and if you cant live with what I really am, Ill understand. Ill always love you." The door closed behind her silently, and it took the bard a moment to realize that she was alone in the room. She sat there another minute, reexamining Randis words. Now wait just a damn minute... She thought about it, until her train of thought brought her upright in the chair. She doesnt remember... she thinks... Oh shit!
She got up in such a hurry that she got tangled in the blanket shed been covered with. With a frustrated cry, she threw it on the chair, scrambling across the room and out the door as quickly as she could. She rushed into the regen chamber, only to hear the whoosh of a shuttle outside. Her shoulders slumped. This day was not starting out very well.
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