Disclaimers: None. If youíre still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what youíre getting into. If you donít have an open mind, why exactly are you still reading this far into the series? However, if you do read it and you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It wonít change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Thanks: To Phil for sticking around to beta read for me. Sheís picked up all kinds of dropped letters because Pink and Fluffy tend to leave a trail of them. All errors belong strictly to me.

Special Thanks: To the many of you that have taken the time to send your kind words about the Valiant Series thus far. I greatly appreciate your feedback and your patience in waiting for this installment. It took a lot of doing to convince Randi and Gwen theyíd had a long enough honeymoon.

Authorís Note: The Storytellerís Cardinal Rule has been suspended for the telling of this tale!!! Thatís right Ė the ending of this story is not a happy every after... yet. So if you want the happy ever after ending, please wait to read this. It will happen eventually Ė just not here. Consider yourself forewarned. This does pick up where A Valiant Life left off.

 

A Valiant Mind

By D

 

Prologue

A rasp of air and the click of a lock in place were the only sounds the door made as it shut then stillness was all that was left in the room, save the occasionally popping from the fireplace. A flick of a wrist and even that comforting sound disappeared, leaving the tense figure alone in the abrupt silence.

For long moments, the woman stood ramrod straight, clenched hands at her side the only testament to the frustration running through her body. Without warning, she brought both fists down on the low table in front of her, watching dispassionately as it splintered. Then her body sagged in defeat, and she slumped into a chair and stared unseeingly at the silent flames as the coldness in her soul became unbearable.

When the torment grew to be too much, she brought her clenched fist up into her lap and slowly opened her hand, revealing a ring sheíd never expected to hold like this again in this lifetime. The Soulmateís Ring. Her mind turned to the last words that had been spoken between them before Gwen walked out of her life.

"I never thought I would do this Randi," she said, slipping the platinum band from her finger. "What we had together.... It doesnít seem to mean anything to you anymore." She held up her hand when Randi opened her lips to speak. "Let me finish. I know what this means to me... what it symbolizes for me, for us. However, I donít want to hold you to a promise you are no longer capable of keeping." She took Randiís hand in her own and placed the ring in the center of her palm, closing it gently and watching as the fist clenched reflexively around it. "You decide what it means to you, if anything, and you let me know." Gwen kissed the balled fist then slipped from the room without another word.

The sound of a shuttle preparing for take off interrupted her reverie, and Randi closed her hand protectively over the ring she still held. Then she rose and turned off the fire completely, moving out the door without a backward glance. The door closed with definite purpose and the room was left in cold, dark silence.

The Marine made her way to the bedroom they had shared together for such a brief time here, finally understanding instinctively that there was no happiness in this house... not then and certainly not now. Blue eyes stared out the window, tracking the progress of the small blonde woman towards the shuttle. The grief was almost overwhelming now, and the warrior couldnít stop the lone tear that slowly, silently rolled down her planed cheek. She leaned her head against the cold glass, wondering what had gone so wrong that theyíd come to this place.

The shuttle rose, and the Sabre felt her heart break. Randi couldnít see the corresponding tears slip from green eyes as Gwen left her behind, and headed for home... alone.

The Marine watched the craft fade out of sight, and still stood staring sightlessly into the void into which it had disappeared. She cast her mind back, trying desperately to find the compelling cause that had brought them to this point in time.

It had all started out so wonderfully....

 

 

Chapter I

The slight warmth of the waning sun was decidedly welcome against the sharp cold of the wind that blew against them, even as they slowed upon reaching the bridge. Randi absently keyed in the codes and lifted her helmet, then yelped when icy, gloved hands slid under her jacket and shirt and hit bare, warm skin. She turned her head slightly and cut her eyes in Gwenís direction, getting an innocent smile and batting eyelashes in return.

"Ya know, Little One," she growled low in her throat, though the twinkle in her blue eyes could be readily seen. "Iím sure I can find a payback for this when we get home."

Gwen squeezed the firm abdomen under her hands lightly before beginning to stroke the soft skin in random patterns. "Oh, I hope so, Stud," Gwen whispered in the ear closest to her lips. She was thankful they had removed their helmets as they waited for the bridge to extend. While she understood and agreed with their purpose, they really got in the way of teasing sometimes. She smiled when she felt the ripple of excitement course through Randiís body, feeling its twin echo in her own.

"Itís different this time, isnít it?" Gwen continued softly.

"Yeah," came the quiet reply. "It really is. I donít understand it. Weíre still the same people we were when we left. How do a few words spoken in front of our friends make such a difference?"

Gwen pinched the warriorís muscled belly lightly, earning her another squawk and an outraged glare. "Iím a bard and youíre asking me about the difference words can make?"

Randi shrugged. "Well, yeah," she said seriously. "Weíre the same people. Nothing really changed between us and yet...."

"And yet everything changed. Itís real now. Not a dream or wishful thinking or private hopes. This is real, and the reality of us together is simply beyond anything we had imagined. What we have is...."

"What we have is a gift beyond price that no one can take away from us, and now everyone knows that."

"Exactly. Thatís what makes it real." She let her hands drift upwards, eliciting a soft moan. "I love you, Randi. Now take me home so I can show you how much."

"Helmet," the Sabre commanded gruffly before revving the bike and shooting across the bridge.

 

 

"Guess whoís home?" Tommy said to Ella as he came out of his office. "The bridge extension codes just came through."

Ella smiled back at him. "Itíll be good to have them home again. But itís gonna be so different now."

"How do you figure, hon? Thingsíll be back to normal finally."

Ella gazed at her husband with something akin to pity in her eyes. "Sweetheart, have we been married so long that you donít remember how things changed for us when we got married?" He stared at her blankly and she rolled her eyes. "Nevermind. I love you anyway. Iím sure itíll dawn on you eventually."

"I... but...."

Ella chuckled and shook her curly head. "Címon. Lemme go get Randall and we can go invite Geoff and Jill for dinner Ė give Randi and Gwen a little privacy to settle into tonight."

Tommy looked at her with a funny expression on his face. "Why? Itís not like we donít know theyíre married."

Ella cuffed the back of his head. "Will you come on?" grabbing a jacket and stomping out the door that led to the shortcut between their property and Randiís. She kept mumbling under her breath, and though Tommy couldnít understand the words, he realized by her looks in his direction that he was going to be in the doghouse for a while.

 

 

Jill was curled up on the couch reading, grateful for the peace that had finally fallen over the boathouse. At her feet lay three shepherds Ė Ditto, who went everywhere Randall did, and the two pups that Geoff was training. Jill shook her head and smile reflectively. She wasnít sure Randi was going to appreciate some of the tricks her husband had patiently been teaching Carbon.

Her expression became pensive. Although truth to tell, she wasnít altogether sure they were going to be able to give the puppy up when Randi and Gwen returned. Carbon had been such a motivating force for Geoff and she hated to take that away from him. On the other hand, she wasnít sure either daughter would forgive them if they took Carbon away. Well, Randi might, but she was willing to bet Gwen wouldnít.

Carbon opened an eye at her and let out a long yawn, then looked at her reproachfully before returning to his slumber. Jill had to chuckle Ė they had totally worn one another out.

She cast her eyes in the direction of their bed where Geoff and Randall were both safely ensconced sound asleep. It had been a long time since sheíd and Geoff had had quite so active an afternoon and coming on top of his regular exercises....

She smiled again. It was a pleasant exhaustion for a change though, and one they were both happy to have. She was hoping the memories of their time here would help Geoff once they returned to the capital city to continue his regimented therapy.

Her mind continued to wander freely from subject to subject as she rested, her eyes unfocused on the vista before her until a movement from the direction of the Steele house caught her attention. She wondered if Ella was still angry over her unwilling participation in Tommy and Geoffís post-nuptial practical joke on Randi and Gwen. She didnít think so, but something was up. That much was evident from her body language.

Jill got up and went to the door, motioning them for quiet before they could knock.

"Come in," she said. "Sorry... they just fell asleep about twenty minutes ago. Itís been wild around here today."

Ella took off her coat and handed it to Tommy who hung them both by the door. "Iím sorry, Jill. You should have called me if he was giving you problems." She stopped speaking when the older woman held up a hand.

"Are you kidding?" Jill asked with a light laugh. "I havenít seen Geoff this happy in months. They wore each other out. This was great for him, so thank you. Now, whatís up?" directing them to a seat on the couch.

"Well, Randi and Gwen should be driving up in a minute. I thought Iíd see if yaíll wanted to come over for supper and give them some time to settle in."

"A little privacy for their first night home, huh?"

Ella cut her eyes at Tommy. "Yeah. Some of us can actually remember being newlyweds."

Jill laughed at Tommyís blush and patted his leg. "Donít worry, Tommy. Iím sure youíll remember eventually."

"I think Iím being pandered to," he said with a scowl, crossing his arms over his chest. "I just donít see...."

A chuckle from the bed made three heads swivel towards it. "Tommy, my boy... do yourself a favor and let it lie," Geoff said in a voice still rough from sleep as he eased himself out from under Randallís small body and scooted to sit upright. "Youíll be farther ahead."

"But...."

"So, Ella, whatís for dinner?" Geoff cut in before Tommy could protest further.

 

 

Randi and Gwen pulled into the garage just as the sun touched the horizon. Together they wiped down the bike and tarped it before joining hands and making their way towards the beach house.

"So do you think the folks will be offended if we skip the hellos this evening?" Randi asked. "I mean, Tommy and Ella wonít care, but...."

Gwen chuckled. "Randi, I think if we show up at the boathouse tonight, my mother will chase us out with a broom. In case you havenít noticed, my folks still act like newlyweds after nearly thirty-five years of marriage. Somehow, I think theyíll forgive us for wanting whatever time we can spend alone together."

Randi smiled, noting a bit of movement at the boathouse windows. "Good," she said, scooping Gwen up into her arms and angling them towards the front door.

"RANDI!" Gwen squealed, having been startled by Randiís unexpected move. "Put me down."

Randi stopped and gazed at her bard with soulful eyes, but she didnít move otherwise.

"Randi! Donít look at me like that. Címon... you carried me over the threshold at the cabin. You donít need to do it here too."

The eyes widened slightly and the bottom lip stuck out just the tiniest little bit.

"AUGH!! Randi...." Gwen bit her lip and closed her eyes in defeat, then she tightened her arms around the warriorís neck. "You better not make this a habit, or Iíll have to do it to you just to be fair."

She missed the almost comic look that crossed Randiís face from the visual Gwenís words painted for her. She could just see the bard hefting her into a firemanís hold or dragging her into the house like a cavewoman because she just couldnít picture herself being cradled like she held Gwen now. The visuals made her want to giggle and she covered her exuberance by swinging around in a circle, causing Gwen to shriek before dissolving into laughter.

Randi forgot about the audience they might have as she keyed in the codes and pushed the door open. She leaned down and caught Gwenís lips in a fiery kiss before kicking the door closed behind them.

 

 

"Well," Ella said as Randi cradled Gwen in her arms and moved out of sight. "I think the coast may be clear. Shall we try to head home for dinner?" A squeal and laughter answered her question, followed by the distinct slamming of the beach houseís front door.

The four adults looked at one another, then Tommy said with a look of enlightenment, "It should be safe now," he muttered, causing a tittering among the other three. A small voice stopped ant further comment.

"Mama?"

Ella walked over to the bed and Randall held his arms up, still blinking the sleep from his eyes. "Ready to go home, little stud muffin? Weíll take Auntie Jill and Uncle Geoff and have some dinner?"

"O go too?"

"O go too," Ella confirmed as she lifted him up. "Oof! My goodness, youíre getting to be a big boy." She handed him to his father. "You can carry him back, my love." She turned to Jill and Geoff. "Now, if yaíll think we can make it over with just Geoffís chair and no transport, we will head on over before it gets dark. Otherwise...."

The older couple exchanged glances and nodded without words. "Weíll try. Worst that happens is we wait on the path through the woods, right?" Jill asked.

"Absolutely," Ella replied. "And weíll bring you back tonight regardless."

"Good," Geoff said. "Letís make tracks... or not, in my case," gesturing to his hover chair. They moved forward in parade fashion, taking care not to be noisy, though no one for a moment believed Gwen and Randi were even aware of their presence. Geoff didnít see the grateful smile Jill donned at his light reference to his handicap, but Tommy did and he returned the smile with a wink.

Then the troupe slowly made their way to the Steele manse, unnoticed by the couple inside the beach house.

 

 

They separated just slightly, eyes still closed and breathing one anotherís air as they absorbed the sensations of being together for the first time as a married couple in their home. Slowly their eyes opened and they gazed at one another, smiles crossing both faces before Gwen curled up and hugged Randi tightly.

"I love you, Randi. Always."

"I love you too, Gwen. Forever."

"Now, you wanna put me down before you hurt yourself?" Gwen asked, pulling back enough to look Randi in the eye. Randi returned the look thoughtfully, giving the question the serious consideration she felt it merited.

"I think you overestimate yourself there, bard. Youíre no heavyweight, ya know," said with a big, teasing grin and a twinkle. Gwen looked back at her in mock outrage and withdrew one arm from the warriorís neck, poking her in the chest to emphasize her words.

"Are you calling me a lightweight there, gunny? Huh? Are ya??" She bit her lips to contain the laughter she felt bubbling up. "Why Iíll have you know...." Then she clutched at Randiís shoulders as her world tilted and she found herself nose to nose with the Sabre.

"Yeeeessss?" the warrior drawled, pecking Gwenís lips lightly. "You were saying?" stealing another quick kiss.

Gwen wrapped her legs around Randiís waist which gave them enough stability to allow Randi to brush her lips against the bardís again. Gwen tightened her hold and deepened the kiss for a long moment. Then she unlocked her legs and slid down the tall body until she was standing once more. Gwen tucked her head under Randiís chin and mumbled, "What was the question?"

"Um, there was a question?" Randi muttered. She blinked her eyes and then let them flutter closed when Gwen tightened her hold into a hug once more. She smiled, captivated by the feeling of completeness that washed through her by simply holding Gwen in her arms.

They held each other in the same position for some moments before Randi pulled away slightly and extended her hand to the bard. "Címon, Little One. I hear a nice hot shower and a bottle of wine calling our names."

 

 

Gwen had surprised her Ė insisting on separate showers and a little preparation time as well. When the bard knocked on their bedroom door half an hour later, Randi almost forgot to breathe at the vision the blonde woman presented to her.

The gown was sheer almost to the point of translucent, leaving only teasing glimpses of the assets it protected. The warrior felt almost overdressed in the royal blue silk robe she had donned until she caught the look of lust and desire shining from the verdant eyes now locked on her own.

Gwen reached out a hand and ran it from Randiís waist to her collar and easing her hand into the raven tresses that hung loosely down the Sabreís back. She kneaded the muscles gently, causing Randi to momentarily close her eyes.

"You look wonderful," Gwen whispered. She felt Randiís hands come up and rest lightly on her waist, clenching convulsively as the bardís touch continued to massage away aches and anxieties she hadnít realized were there. It was all the warrior could do not to moan aloud at the sensations Gwenís touch was sending cascading through her body. Instead, she bent her head and let her lips and tongue speak for her without words.

Finally, they pulled apart a little winded. Gwen smiled up into Randiís eyes which caused a reciprocal smile to light the warriorís face.

"Címon, beautiful. I wanna dance with you tonight."

Randi grinned and allowed herself to be led into the living area where Gwen had obviously been hard at work. A nest of throw pillows and rugs was prepared on the floor in front of the fireplace and a bottle of... something... was chilling in the bucket to the far side. A tray of finger food resided nearby and scented candles had been lit around the room.

"Music," Randi called out, not surprised to hear the soft strains of their favorite jazz artist stream from the recessed speakers strategically hidden throughout the room. Then she pulled the bard into her body and they began to sway gently together, allowing the music to cocoon them in their own private world, not even cognizant of when their dancing became something more passionate and private between them.

 

 

"Welcome home, Reed," Chief Screaming Sky beamed, giving the Sabre a careful embrace. The tribe had spent the few days since Randi and Gwenís departure from the tiny town preparing for Reedís arrival. The people knew how crucial it was to have the shields in place for the seer, having been exposed to the energy the couple had generated during their brief visit, and they had worked tirelessly to ensure that everything was ready for her arrival.

Reed stepped into the chiefís embrace, feeling the welcome of home surrounding her and the comfort of the barrier they had erected for her shielding her. Even through the barrier though, she could feel odd strains in the flowing currents and briefly wondered how strong the force was behind them that caused them to be felt through the shielding. Then she stepped back to allow the chief to greet her lover.

"Hello, Tiny. Welcome back," he offered, extending a hand for the big man to grasp. Tiny did so gladly, happy to be in a place that looked out so well for his beloved.

"Hi, Chief. Itís good to be back here, regardless of the reason."

Sky nodded with a smile, though his eyes turned somber. "It is always nice to have you both here, though I wish it was just for a visit and not...." He glanced around, noting the unobtrusive looks they were garnering among the clansmen. "Come," he said quietly. "Let us go to my home. There is much for us to discuss, and I think you would prefer to see what I need to show you in private."

Reed nodded. "Itís that bad?" she asked, the feeling of foreboding growing in the pit of her stomach.

His hesitation was answer enough.

Reed looked plaintively at Tiny and he nodded. "Right. Iíll get the bags and take them...."

"Bring them to my house," Sky cut in. "I thought it best for you to stay with me this trip."

"Oookay," Tiny drawled. "You two go ahead. Iíll be there as soon as I get the bags from the shuttle," assuming they would like a little time alone to discuss what had happened. He was surprised when Sky shook his head.

"I will give you a hand and then we will all go together. I would prefer to only have to do this once."

"But I thought...."

Tinyís flow of words was halted by Reedís hand on his arm. "Sweetheart, trust Sky. If he thinks you need to be there, then there is a reason for it. He wouldnít ask otherwise."

"All right. I just didnít expect... I mean usually...."

"Itís all right, my friend," Sky commented as they began their short trek back to the shuttle Reed had piloted in to the small landing area just outside the town. "Youíre correct Ė usually I would prefer to show Reed privately, but I think she will need your strength for this. Ravenhawk desperately needed Little Doveís."

"Randi and Gwen," Reed said to the unspoken question Tiny threw at her in a glance.

"Oookay," he drawled again. "Are they part of the tribe that theyíve been given names, or...?"

"That is part of the long story," Sky replied. "I promise things will make a lot more sense for you both very shortly. Even if you donít like the picture they make," he added with dark intent. The two Sabres exchanged glances and followed the chief towards the shuttle.

 

 

"On the day that Nanny died," Sky started, handing them each a cup of herbal tea before seating himself. Then he shook his head. "No, thatís not right... on the day Nanny was killed, I saw a darkness I had never seen before."

"You mean Randi? When she went into Sabre mode?"

"Well, yes, sort of, but not exactly. I mean," Sky continued rapidly at their confused looks. "Seeing her function in the capacity of a Sabre was almost... frightening. She has a darkness within that she calls upon to become the person she needs to be to do the job sheís been tasked with. But no," he said shaking his head again. "It wasnít that, though that experience was enlightening."

Sky set his cup on the table and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

"Before the incident... before those animals came in and tried to destroy our home, I chanced to touch Ravenhawk very briefly. The flashes of images I saw... well, see for yourself."

He extended his hands, palms up and waited for Reed to place hers on top of his. She reached forward hesitantly, knowing that what was coming was going to be painful. Skyís words made her halt her efforts.

"Wait. Tiny, sit behind Reed and place your hands on top of hers. She will need your strength."

The big man nodded and hastened to do the chiefís bidding. Momentarily, they were arranged to Skyís satisfaction and the chieftain proffered his hands once more. With Tinyís support, Reed felt more comfortable in allowing Sky to share his vision with her, and she tendered their hands to meet his.

Time slowed for Reed as her hands touched Skyís and she was able to see the same images he had seen with much more clarity. The darkness she felt engulfing her was almost overwhelming, and she spared a momentary thought of thankfulness for the stability and strength that Tiny surrounded her with.

For the two men the encounter was mercifully brief and they opened their eyes slowly, Sky looking exhausted and Tiny was more than slightly confused by the impressions the images had left him. But what was shocking was the look of pain so evident on Reedís frozen features.

Sky removed his hands from hers and Tiny wrapped himself carefully around his partner, surrounding and shielding her as much as was physically possible. Without warning, Reed collapsed in his arms and the big man looked at Sky in alarm. The chief placed a comforting hand on Tinyís shoulder.

"It is to be expected, my friend. She has absorbed much, and she sees and understands more than most. She needs to rest now. When she awakens, we will talk. Come," he continued as he rose and waited for Tiny to lift his burden into his arms. "Let me show you where you can rest." And he led the way to the same room Randi and Gwen had shared mere days before.

They mounted the stairs slowly, and Tiny was reassured by Reedís deep, even breathing. He understood more than most outside the tribe and even by many within it just how draining these episodes were for Reed. And given how tired he felt from his transitory impressions, he could only imagine the bone-deep exhaustion she was now experiencing.

Sky pulled back the covers and Tiny gently deposited Reed onto the soft cotton and turned to tug the bedding over her form. A hand on his arm stopped his motion, and he looked up into Skyís dark brown eyes.

"No, my friend. Stay with her. It is time to rest... for all of us," and he allowed Tiny to see the sheer weariness he felt in his very being. "A few hours will make no difference in the outcome of things at this point, and we would all do better to start fresh."

Tiny nodded, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the extreme lethargy in his mind and body.

"Thanks, Sky. Weíll come find you."

Then the house settled into silence.

 

 

"But, Master... I donít understand. Usher was my right hand and my best friend. I donít see what letting him die... letting that she-demon kill him, accomplished. Iím going to need him...."

"ENOUGH!" Ares roared, wrapping a strong hand around the young manís throat and lifting him up negligently. "You donít question me. You do as I command."

Bramble nodded, swallowing hard as he realized his allegiance to this god might be more costly than he had initially planned. The war god was simply supposed to give him the means to defeat the woman who had cost Bramble the mother whoíd been indoctrinating him from his birth. Instead, Bramble was beginning to feel more and more like a pawn in a game he hardly understood.

He cast his mind back to his motherís words when theyíd discussed religion and gods.

"Remember son, there is always a price to pay. Religion is a power base, and the gods take advantage of manís greed and desire for that power. But there will come a time, maybe sooner, maybe later, when payment will come due, and it never comes cheaply."

Her words rang truer in that moment than they ever had, but Bramble had decided long ago any price was worth Randi Valiantís demise Ė even his own life. He would die happy if he knew he could take her with him. He reaffirmed that belief within himself, then refocused his attention on the war god that stood before him, angry brown eyes locked with his own.

Bramble lifted his hands to the one around his neck and gently removed the tight clasp, trying not to gag as he found himself suddenly able to breathe again.

"My apologies, Master. I did not mean to question; Usherís death was just an unexpected development for me. But itís nothing I canít work around. We will still have Miranda Valiant when all is said and done."

Ares gave the young man a cold smile. "Yes, we certainly will," the ice in the words sending chills skittering up and down Brambleís spine. The young man had no way of knowing what having Miranda Valiant was going to cost... everyone.

 

 

Ares stood in his dark domain, handsome face distorted into a hideous snarl. He was looking in his scrying bowl, watching with malice the loving interaction between Miranda Valiant and Gwenivere Goldman. He was unmoved by the love and passion they shared, except for the anger it produced in the depths of his heart. He embraced the burning in his guts, knowing that his time had finally arrived Ė that soon the world and Randi would be his for the taking. He twisted his features into an evil smirk.

"Eat, drink and be merry tonight, my dears, for tomorrow, you shall surely die... or at least be MINE!!!"

His laughter rang throughout the halls of Olympus causing a cold, unreasoning fear to follow in its wake. Randi and Gwen continued their silent dance to the music of their heartbeats, blissfully unaware of what lay on their horizon.

 

 

Chapter II

Few things in life were worth waking up before daylight for, Randi mused idly to herself in the gray dawn. She closed her eyes as the touch that had awakened her from such pleasant dreams became a reality that skimmed over her eyes, nose and lips. The Marine felt Gwen smile when she puckered up at the touch and kissed the bardís fingers as they brushed over her lips. Blue eyes blinked open to meet sparkling green and they smiled at one another.

"Good morning," Randi said hoarsely, voice burred with sleep.

Gwen didnít answer verbally; she simply let her lips replace her fingers for a long moment. Then she curled back down into Randiís side and gave the warrior a full body hug before she resumed the tracing over Randiís features.

It wasnít sexual in nature, but at once both sensual and comforting in a way that so few things in their lives had been, and they sighed in unison at the feelings the exchange evoked in them. Finally the sunlight began to creep over the horizon and Gwen slowed her fingers, letting them follow the curves and hollows of Randiís body and sliding around and on top of the Sabre until she was in perfect tickling position.

"Iíd think real hard about that, bard," the warrior growled giving Gwen a mock-glare but unable to completely hide the twinkle in her eyes.

"Oh yeah?" Gwen challenged with a mischievous grin. "Whatcha gonna do about it, Stud Muffin? Hmm? I pretty much got ya where I want ya."

Randi tucked her hands behind her head and crossed her ankles, biting her bottom lip when Gwen used her location to good advantage. She just managing to swallow the laugh that wanted to erupt at the touch. She cleared her throat.

"You um... you think so, huh?"

"Yeah, I do," Gwen said, tilting her head to one side and surveying the long body beneath her own.

"Well, Iím glad we decided to come to bed last night," the Sabre said conversationally. Gwen scrunched up her face in thoughtful confusion. The change of subject was somewhat baffling, but she couldnít help returning the frank grin Randi was bestowing on her from her fairly vulnerable position.

"Me too," the bard agreed. "Making love with you just about anywhere is a wonderful experience, but I prefer waking up in your arms in our bed. Besides, every time weíve fallen asleep in front of the fireplace, one of us ends up walking funny."

Randi laughed silently, shaking the body perched above her and causing Gwen to review her words before blushing a deep red. The blonde smacked the muscular belly beneath her lightly.

"Smart ass! You know what I meant," Gwen huffed but couldnít keep the smile from her face. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked down at Randi haughtily. "Just *why* are you glad we came to bed?"

The world moved and tilted so quickly that Gwen barely had time to realize what was happening before she found herself wrapped snugly in Randiís arms securely cradled beneath the Sabreís firm body. Randi just smiled at the bard.

"Because it is much more comfortable for me to do things like that."

"Hmm... good point." Gwen draped her arms around Randiís neck and urged her down until their noses were touching, hoping the warrior would conveniently forget the incident that had brought them to this latest entanglement. "So now what?" she asked, realizing her error a moment too late when a expression she characterized as pure evil looked back at her from beneath dark lashes.

"Well," Randi drawled, slipping down just enough to reach Gwenís neck with her lips. "I thought...." nipping the skin at the bardís shoulder juncture. "We should...." licking along her collarbone. "Finish...." moving her lips up Gwenís neck and across her jawbone to her ear. "What...." tracing the shell of the bardís ear and smiling at the muffled moan it elicited. "You...." biting lightly on Gwenís earlobe and feeling the smaller body squirm beneath her. "Started...." leaning over and licking Gwenís pert nose before launching an all-out tickle assault.

Gwenís focus was somewhere else entirely and Randi caught her completely by surprise. Squirming and squealing, she struggled to fight back, to get away... anything to get an edge in the tickle war, but her laughter was severely hampering her retaliatory efforts. Fortunately, Randi was plagued by the same malady and it wasnít long before they were comfortably tangled up together still giggling softly and trying to catch their breaths.

"Whoo," Gwen said as she fanned herself. "That was a great way to wake up."

Randi chuckled and ran a hand over her face. "Yeah, it was. But it always is when I wake up next to you."

The bard turned on her side to face the warrior and cocked an eyebrow. "You think so?"

Randi turned on her side facing Gwen but let her eyes drop to the bedding, a little stung. "Well, yeah," she said slowly before lifting wide blue eyes to Gwenís. The bard gasped at the hurt she could see peering back at her from them. "Donít you?" continued in a whisper.

Gwen took the large hands in her own, chaffing them lightly to restore the warmth that had fled from them. She wondered idly where the bout of insecurity had come from in light of everything they had been through to be together. She shook her head.

"No, love. I *KNOW* it is. Enough to know I never, ever wanna wake up again anywhere other than in your arms."

Randi didnít answer. She merely wrapped herself around Gwen and held on, burying her nose in the blonde hair. Gwen didnít understand the vulnerability she felt coming from the warrior, but she knew it was there, so she simply returned the embrace until she felt Randiís grip loosen.

"Better?" she asked.

The Sabre dropped a kiss on Gwenís head before she pulled back completely. "Yeah," she replied softly. "Iím, uh... Iím not sure where that came from... but thanks."

Gwen smiled so brightly Randi returned it reflexively. "Anytime, Stud. I have an unlimited lifetime supply just for you."

"A lifetime supply, huh?"

"Yeah, an eternal lifetime."

Randiís grin turned rakish. "I like that idea." She rose from the bed, pulling Gwen up with her. "Now címon. Enough mushy stuff. Iím going running. You wanna come?" She moved away from the bard and walked over to the dresser, pulling out her workout clothes. Gwen just watched the play of light over muscle, completely losing the thread of conversation in lieu of focusing her attention on the very real body in front of her.

Randi looked back over her shoulder, noting the unconscious clenching and unclenching of the bardís hands, the flared nostrils and the uneven breathing she could hear. Then she realized where Gwenís attention was concentrated and felt the blush rise up her body even as the smirk crossed her face.

"Gwen?"

"Huh? Uh... oh... um...." realizing sheíd been caught staring. Then she straightened and smiled. Suddenly, being married took on a whole new meaning. She sauntered up to Randi and wrapped her arms around the warriorís neck, bringing them into skin on skin contact all along their length. Gwen pulled Randiís head to hers and claimed her lips with a possessive passion, not releasing them until they were both a bit breathless and then only letting go with small nips and kisses when they finally pulled away.

"Mine," Gwen growled.

"Yep," Randi replied, running her hands lightly up and down Gwenís bare skin. "Always have been."

Randi found the blush that traveled over Gwenís body at her words charming, but the blaze of possessiveness in the green eyes started a burn in her belly that had her seriously rethinking the need to go running. Surely there were other ways to expand the energy she now felt beating a pulse through her body. She jumped when Gwenís nails raked her ass, ending with a light pinch to the firm muscles.

"Go for your run, love. Iíll clean up here and start breakfast." She looked around the scrupulously neat room, seeing their bags still packed on one side. "Not that it should take much effort," she noted with a smile, "so donít be too long."

"Waffles, maybe?" Randi asked, eyes wide with only the tiniest hint of pleading.

Gwen grinned. "I imagine I could do that." She smacked Randiís bare behind. "But if youíre going, youíd best go on. Itís not gonna take me that long, and I like my waffles hot, ya know."

Randi finished dressing and was putting on her shoes before Gwen was done speaking. "Once around," she promised. "I just need to shake the cobwebs loose." She headed out the French doors and down into the sand. "Be right back."

Gwen stood at the door and watched Randi stretch before she took off at a good clip down the beach. Then the bard went back inside, and started preparations for what she considered to be their first real day of married life together.

 

 

There was something soothing about the rhythmic sound of the waves rushing to meet the shore. Unconsciously, Randiís footsteps joined that rhythm, keeping pace double-time as she began running. Her focus was broad this morning, not concentrated on anything except how good she felt, and how wonderful simply being alive and part of Gwenís life again truly was.

She felt the presence before she saw anything, and it brought every defensive instinct she had to the fore. A low chuckle rewarded her reaction.

"Some things never change," the deep voice said before a good-looking masculine figure formed around it. He reached out a hand towards Randi, only to find himself flat on his back, squinting up into the early morning sunshine.

"I donít know who you are or how you got onto this island," Randi said darkly as she knelt on his chest, "but I can fix that little problem. Get up," she added, grabbing him by his ear and pulling.

He winced at the pain that caused, then simply disappeared from her grip to rematerialize right behind her. She whirled and glared at him, her eyes boring into him. He grinned sinisterly to himself. He couldnít have chosen better and to know that her darkness finally, finally lay within his grasp made him shiver with excitement.

"Allow me to introduce myself," he said, folding his hands together and giving her the minutest of bows. "I am Ares, god of war."

He wasnít sure what reaction he was expecting, but it was a sure bet it wasnít the one he got.

Randi raised an eyebrow at him and gave him the most skeptical look he had ever had the misfortune of being the recipient of.

"And?"

Ares cleared his throat, visibly thrown of stride by the obvious disdain she felt for him.

"Hey, a little respect here would be nice. I am a god, ya know."

The Sabre actually looked at him a long moment before snorting and shaking her head. Then she turned and continued her run down the beach.

Ares raised his hand.

"I wouldnít," the warrior commented loud enough for him to hear as she continued to run, increasing the distance between them.

"Whatís to stop me?" he asked, a little frustrated at the way the encounter was going so far. It wasnít at all like he had envisioned it. He tried to pop in beside her, but found he had to run to keep up, a fact he wasnít entirely happy with.

"I will," Randi said matter-of-factly.

Ares laughed. He had to. He was simply overwhelmed by the brash impertinence of this mortal, and it reminded him of her ancestor that he had coveted for his own so long ago. In his desire to have her, he had forgotten the utter aggravation she presented to him because of her strength of mind and will. She may belong to him now by virtue of his efforts and deviousness, but she had to come to him of her own free will. Otherwise, his victory would be hollow and incomplete.

"You probably could, too," he noted with a hint of satisfaction and pride coloring his voice. "Look, Iím not here to cause you trouble. I, uh... I need a... favor."

Randi finally stopped running, a fact Ares was devoutly grateful for. The passage of time had made the Olympians more susceptible to physical exertion. Despite his outstanding physique, physical activity wasnít something the gods were entirely suited for, and he felt the pull in his legs and the windedness in his breathing. It wasnít a pleasant sensation, especially in light if the fact that the warrior stood before him apparently untouched by the exercise at all. Her breathing and heart rate were only slightly elevated and her muscles stood out in stark relief.

Now she regarded him from wide, blue eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. "You?" she said incredulously. "Need a favor from me?" pointing to her own chest and watching as the war god bent over at the waist trying desperately to catch his breath.

"Look, Ares... or whoever you are. The war god is not my patron. I have no desire to make life on this planet harder than it already is. So why donít you go back to whatever rock you crawled out from under, and weíll just forget this whole exchange ever happened, capice?"

She turned and headed back down the beach.

"But this would make things better," he muttered, sure that she heard when he saw her shoulders stiffen. She didnít stop running though, but Ares didnít care. He had planted the seed Ė now all he had to do was wait for it to take root. He watched her run until she disappeared from sight, enjoying the play of muscle and form. He could be patient. The outcome of this battle was a foregone conclusion.

With a wicked laugh, he dissolved from sight, not even leaving footprints to mark his place on the mortal plane.

 

 

Randi was troubled by the odd appearance of the supposed god of war. Not that she didnít think it that it hadnít been Ares. Sheíd had enough godly interaction in her life during the last year or so to make practically anything a believable possibility, and he did do that weird popping in and out thing after all. But there was something beyond that here; something that set off every hazard meter she had.

The Marine shook her head, wanting to clear the encounter from her mind. Her return from the dead had given her a second chance at life and her marriage to Gwen felt like a new beginning. She wasnít going to allow anything to mar that.

Randi picked up speed, allowing the cold wind to cleanse her thoughts and the rhythm of the waves to become her focus once more.

 

 

It didnít take Gwen long to put things away. More and more the house had taken on an air of being theirs until now it was impossible to tell what belonged to who. So she put their clothing away and moved to take a shower before preparing the waffles for breakfast.

The water was warm and Gwen stepped under the spray with a sigh, closing her eyes and letting it run over her before turning and grabbing the soap. Then she nearly screamed when she came face to face with Aphrodite.

"Jesus!" the bard exclaimed. "What the hell?!?"

Her first instinct was to cover up, then she gave a mental shrug. It wasnít anything the goddess hadnít seen before, and since Aphrodite had never appeared to her like that before, she figured it must be fairly important. So Gwen girded her mental loins and continued to bathe.

"Sorry to drop in on ya like this, babe... though youíve totally got nothing to like, be ashamed of." She held up a hand to stop Gwenís protest. "Chill. That is so not why I am here, though like I said.... Be glad the warrior babe finds you so luscious. We have a problem," Dite continued, her demeanor suddenly turning serious.

Gwenís head whipped around so quickly that Dite ducked instinctively to avoid the water that flew in her direction from the action.

"Whatís wrong?? Is it Randi? Is she hurt?? I need...."

"Whoa, Cutie. Take a chill pill, wouldja? Sheís not hurt. Sheís...."

Gwen finished rinsing and grabbed her towel, wrapping it around her with determined focus and stepping from the shower. She methodically began drying off and Aphrodite watched with bemusement as the bard began to dress.

"Gwen," she said softly, gaining the blondeís attention easily by addressing her by name. "Sheís all right. Sheís just had a visit from Ares."

Gwenís eyes met the goddessís with a slight look of panic. "Ares... as in the god of war Ares?"

"Yep. Heís the only one I know of."

"Why?"

"Why what?" Dite asked.

"Why? What does he want with her? "

Dite shrugged, her eyes not giving away anything, except.... Gwen wasnít sure, but for a moment there, it almost looked like pain flashed in the goddessís eyes.

"I dunno," Dite answered. "But I thought you deserved a warning."

Gwen stared at Aphrodite, suddenly understanding what was not being said and wondering why the deity was being deliberately vague. A chill skittered over her spine as a foreboding premonition flashed through her consciousness. And then it was gone, leaving only a determination to win at whatever game was being played upon them.

The bard nodded slowly at Aphrodite, watching as the relief flooded her being.

"Thank you, Aphrodite. Iím glad youíre on our side."

The goddess smiled. "Oh, babe. Youíd be so totally amazed at the absolute throng of bodacious immortals on your side. But we have to be very careful. Itís...." She tilted her curly head in a listening pose for a moment, then turned back to the bard.

"Listen, I gotta jet. But Iíll be back to check on ya later. Bye now." And she was gone before Gwen could even take a breath to answer.

Footsteps pounding up the deck drew her attention, and Gwen smiled in pure reflex. Randi ran across the flooring and through the open door that Gwen held, sweeping the smaller woman into her arms and laughing when Gwen squealed.

"Randi!! Put me down!! Iím all clean and youíre...."

The Sabre pulled her head back slightly and cocked an eyebrow at Gwen. "Yeeeesssss? Iím *what*, exactly?"

Gwen looked up into the face she had grown to love more than life itself. She gently stroked the area that no longer had the horrendous scar, the touch on the smooth skin making both of them tremble. She allowed her fingers to trace over Randiís features, watching as the blue eyes closed in primal enjoyment.

"Youíre beautiful," the bard whispered, enjoying the look of wonder that crossed the warriorís face as their eyes slowly met again. "Iíve always thought so."

"Even now, sweaty and smelly?" asked with a chuckle.

Gwen made a show of taking a deep breath. "I happen to like the way you smell, even all sweaty. I just donít want you sweating all over me." She watched as the brow climbed back up into the dark hairline and reviewed her words. A blush rose over her face.

"I mean, I do like you sweating all over me... just not right now. I mean I...."

The body cradling her began to quake with laughter and Gwen swatted at the strong shoulder. "Itís not funny. You know what I mean. Iím gonna stop talking now."

Randi leaned down and captured her lips for a timeless moment before releasing them and setting Gwen on her feet. Then she leaned her forehead on Gwenís.

"I love you, Little One."

"I love you back, Stud."

"Always?"

Gwen smiled up into the blue eyes just above her own and cupped Randiís face in her hands. "Forever," she answered with such conviction that the Sabre smiled in pure reflex.

Randi let her lips brush the bardís forehead before she pulled away. "Iím gonna go shower," she said, patting the bard on the butt and stepping back.

Gwen caught her hand. "íKay... Iíll go get the waffles started. You want bacon or sausage?"

Randi turned and waggled her eyebrows before disappearing into the bedroom.

"Brat," the blonde commented to herself with a smile and then walked into the kitchen to start working on breakfast.

 

 

"How long do you think it will take before someone starts knocking on our door?" Gwen asked as they sat down to eat.

Randi shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno. To be honest with you, I was expecting a knock about daybreak. Tommyís never been known for his patience."

Gwen chuckled. "Yeah, but Ella is, and I get the feeling she keeps him on a tight leash about things like that."

"Heh heh heh. I think youíre right, though she generally makes him think it out for himself so he thinks it was all his idea. What about your folks?"

"Theyíll wait. Especially knowing we are newlyweds. Do you REALLY think they wanna take the chance of interrupting something?"

"Guess theyíll never be coming over again then, Ďcause I see us being newlyweds for the next fifty or sixty years."

"Is that all?"

"Well, I figure weíll need to slow down a little bit then, just in deference to our age."

Gwen blushed and Randi just smiled. It was quiet for a bit while they consumed their breakfast. Then Randi spoke up again.

"Do you wanna do the polite thing or the just married thing?"

Gwen answered thoughtfully. "Well, the good girl in me says we should do the polite thing."

"And do you feel like a good girl today?"

Now the thoughtfulness turned to a rakish smile. "No. I feel selfish. I want as much time alone with you as I can get. I have plans for you."

Dark brows hiked up into an equally dark hairline. "Do you now?"

"Um hmm. I certainly do. Itís one of those just married things."

"I see. And what exactly does this just married thing entail?"

Gwen waggled her eyebrows. "That is for me to know and you to find out after a nice long ride on the bike. I will tell you it involves you, me, a blanket, a bottle of wine and our meadow. Other than that, you will just have to wait and see."

Randi leaned back, stroking her chin with a contemplative and introspective air. "Hmm... so I can spend the day alone with you engaging in all sorts of fun, newlywed type activities or I can stay here and have to be polite to the family." She cut her eyes at Gwen. "Tough decision."

It was silent a moment longer as Randi waited for Gwen to comment.

"Iím sure youíll make the right one."

"Well, I do have one rather pertinent question."

"Yeeeessss?"

"Why exactly are we still sitting here when we could be riding?" Randi rose and extended her hand out to Gwen. "Go get ready. Iíll clean up here and be in right behind you."

The bard planted a kiss on the warriorís face and ran off towards the bedroom. Randi just chuckled and shook her head, then removed the dishes to the kitchen.

 

 

Tommy laughed as he saw the bike shoot across the access bridge. Heíd wondered if Randi and Gwen would manage to sneak off on this, their last official day of honeymooning before having to return to the real world. He was glad that his instincts had been right on about that at least; he was going to hear about his gaffe in expecting them to be social right away for quite some time to come.

"They get away all right?" Ella asked as he came into the kitchen. She was preparing breakfast and Randall was sitting in his chair throwing cereal to the shepherd, who sat with stately dignity catching every bit that was thrown his way. "Randall!!"

The child giggled and threw a double handful in Dittoís direction. The dog barked obediently and snapped up the food bits as quickly as she could manage. Tommy tried to hold a stern visage, as did Ella, but they caught one anotherís eyes and burst into laughter. The canine contributed her own vocal efforts, and Randall shrilled in sheer delight.

Finally, Tommy brought his mirth under control and took a deep breath. "Whoo! Oh my God, that was funny. Yeah, they just left. How did you... scratch that. You remembered better than I did, and I distinctly remember hating having to return to the real world."

Ella smiled. "There is hope for you yet, love. There is hope for you yet." She ruffled his hair affectionately. "Why donít you take Geoff to Midas today? I wanna take Jill shopping before they have to go back to the capital city. And I think weíll make something special for dinner tonight and coax Gwen and Randi to join us. It shouldnít be too difficult since Geoff and Jill are supposed to head back tomorrow."

Tommy nodded his agreement. "I can do that. I get some of the most interesting scoop from Geoff when itís just the two of us."

Ellaís ears perked up and her eyebrows rose. "Scoop?!? And youíre not sharing with me?" She reached for his ears and he shimmied out of her grasp, heading for the door at almost a run.

"Gotta go, babe. See ya later." Tommy took off across the beach at a near run.

Ella stood in the doorway chortling under her breath. "Wonder how long it will take him to realize he left his jacket here." She turned back to Randall who was now content to eat his cereal. "Címon, little man. Letís get you cleaned up and go find Auntie Jill. We have shopping to do."

Randall simply dropped his head on the tray and Ella burst into laughter.

 

 

Chapter III

The ride out was smooth and almost silent Ė the only sound being that of the wind that whipped around them and the slight purr of the engine. Talk wasnít necessary between them. They were in tune enough to simply relish the joys of being alone together. Randi rode along the ocean for a while and let the wash of the waves accompany them as well before heading inland and allowing the relative peace total reign.

Gwen tugged on Randiís jacket eventually, and without comment the bike turned towards the meadow. The weather, while warmer than it had been at the cabin in the mountains, was still cool enough to have a distinct chill in the moving air as they rode on the bike. So they were both more than glad to see the outlines of their favorite grotto come into view. Though not their ostensible reason for stopping, they were glad for the chance to warm themselves away from the brisk wind said movement created.

With very little fanfare, Randi parked the bike and shut it down, curious to see what exactly Gwen had in mind. Creativity was something the bard possessed in abundance.

Gwen took the blanket and spread it beneath their favorite oak, then placed the chilled bottle of honey mead down beside it, sparing a momentís thanks for the insulated wrap that had kept it cold. She also withdrew a wrapped package from the saddle bags theyíd carried and Randi wondered when sheíd had the time to put anything together. Then the sound of soft music wafted into her hearing and she smiled, recognizing an orchestral version of what they considered to be Ďtheir songí. She saw a matching smile on Gwenís face and took the hand the blonde extended to her without thought.

"Dance with me," Gwen whispered huskily, and the warrior gladly complied.

They wrapped themselves around one another, barely moving, each giving a sigh at the completion they felt simply being together.

Gwen kept one arm around Randiís neck, and let the other drift to her collar, almost casually undoing the buttons of the oxford shirt she wore until more than a hint of cleavage was showing. The bard took a deep breath, absorbing the warriorís scent and laid her head on the warm, bare expanse of skin that was now exposed.

For her part, Randi enjoyed the goosebumps that now trailed up and down her skin, knowing the effect was caused by Gwenís nearness more than the cool air that surrounded them. Though, if she was completely honest with herself, sheíd admit to feeling very little chill.

The Sabre let herself sink into the sensations caused by Gwenís warm breath. The light touches the bard was absently patterning on Randiís neck and back created ripples of awareness in the warriorís strong body. She started humming softly, gratified when she felt the bard smile into her skin.

"I love listening to you sing to me."

Randi kissed the blonde head tucked beneath her chin and smiled. "You are the reason I sing, love."

Gwen pulled back just slightly, enough that she could look into Randiís eyes. "Really?"

Randi nodded. "Yep. Wasnít something I ever did much of even when I was alone, and certainly not something I did for anyone else, except when I sang for Tommy and Ellaís wedding ceremony. You are the only one I have ever sung to, though."

Gwen blinked. "Oh, um... wow. So the singing with the band was... um...."

"Just for you."

"Oh," Gwen said breathlessly, her eyes reflecting her pleasure in the knowledge Randi had just handed her. Without another word, she laid her head down on the warriorís chest once more, absently kissing the smooth skin.

It only took a moment to notice the hitch in Randiís breathing pattern and the kissing became something much more deliberate.

Gwen brought her hand from behind Randiís back and gradually loosened all the buttons of the warriorís shirt, not even realizing they had stopped moving. She allowed her hand to slip inside the open fabric, stroking the soft skin while continuing to nuzzle Randiís chest and neck. Gwen was so engrossed in the sensations she was experiencing that she was surprised to feel firm, gentle fingers guiding her chin up and away from the Sabreís chest.

The burning look in Randiís blue gaze when their eyes met made her catch her breath... just as her lips were consumed in a fiery, ardent kiss. Gwen was never quite sure how they made it to the blanket or how she ended up half-clothed without realizing it, but she didnít have time to give it much thought before she was swept away by the passion that flowed between them. And by then, she didnít much care.

 

 

They were laying on less than one half of the blanket, the other half pulled over them to ward off the chill the cool breeze wanted to bring to their damp, overheated skin. Their clothing served as a pillow of sorts for Randiís head while the warriorís body served as a full length pillow for the bard to wrap herself around like an octopus. Not that either of them were complaining about the situation. On the contrary, they both wore the contented smiles of two completely relaxed, well-loved individuals.

Randiís hands moved up and down the bardís arm and back in random patterns while Gwen gently traced the features so well-known and loved to her now. Even when she was completely at ease, wrapped in the surety of their love for one another as she was now, it was so comforting to sketch Randiís face and body with her hands... a reminder of how precious what they shared really was.

"Ya know something?" Gwen breathed out lightly, watching the goosebumps skitter across the tanned skin under her cheek.

"Hmm?" Randi replied lazily, not anxious at all to have to stir herself from the delicious twilight her senses had settled into.

"I like being here with you."

Randi raised an eyebrow as she raised the blanket just slightly, taking in their naked, tangled bodies. "Well, thatís probably a good thing Ė oof! What was that for?" the warrior mock-growled, a sound which became a purr when Gwen began rubbing the spot she had just smacked.

"Not like that, you goof... well, not *only* like that," watching the eyebrow that had shot up to join its mate in Randiís hairline slowly lower. "Iíve never not enjoyed being with you, especially when we make love together, but thatís not what I meant. I like being here, in this place, with you. It is the one place, aside from the cabin, that I have always felt is just ours. No one knows where we are, and no one can take you away from me here."

Randi sat up heedless of her nakedness, bringing Gwen with her so she could look the bard directly in the eyes. The warrior placed either side of the bardís face and held her gaze intently for an eternal moment. When she finally spoke, it was in a mere whisper, but intensity behind her words could not be misconstrued.

"I want you to understand something... to believe this if you never believe anything else, all right?" Randi waited for a nod from the blonde head, their eyes never breaking contact with one another. "As long as I am still breathing and in my right mind, nothing - *NOTHING* - will ever take me away from you again. Death could not keep us apart, memory loss could not destroy what we shared, and I would fight madness with every fiber of my being to stay at your side, all right?"

Gwen held Randiís gaze for another long, silent minute. Then she nodded her head and drew the Sabreís lips down to meet her own passionately for a breathless moment, reaffirming the connections they shared together Ė physically, emotionally and spiritually.

"Thank you," Gwen whispered, pulling away and burrowing her face into Randiís neck, taking comfort in the scent that surrounded her and the arms that held her tightly.

Randi exhaled, kissing the top of the bardís head before raising her chin to allow their eyes to meet once more.

"Anytime, Little One." She let her lips brush lightly over Gwenís, smiling in response to the smile she felt there. "Iím here to provide whatever reassurance you need." The Sabre hesitated then continued more softly. "I know there are still things that haunt you."

"How...?" the word its own confession and Gwen hid her face again in Randiís smooth neck.

"Look at me, love," Randi said, waiting until hesitant green eyes met her own. "You talk in your sleep. And to be quite honest," the warrior continued without pausing, "Iíd be more concerned if there werenít. There are things that still haunt me as well, and probably always will."

"Really?"

"Really."

"In a totally selfish way, it makes me feel better to hear that, but it also makes me sad. I donít want you to have regrets, love."

"Not about us. Never about us."

Gwen smiled at that, a full-blown genuine grin that lit up her entire visage. "Me either. Youíre the best thing in my life. But I want you to know anytime you want or need to talk about those things that still bother you, Iím ready to listen, all right?" She held up a hand before Randi could speak. "Not that you have to share with me if you are uncomfortable, but Iím here."

Randi squeezed Gwen in a fierce hug before she laid them back down again and recovered their naked bodies. "Thank you, Little One. Just the offer means a lot to me, but that darkness isnít meant for the light of day," she finished firmly.

Gwen returned the hug, hearing the finality in Randiís words. She stroked the body beneath her fingertips, warming the chilled flesh with her touch. The silence wasnít uncomfortable, just slightly awkward, and after a bit of it, Gwen leaned up on an elbow so she could look into Randiís face.

"Yes?" the warrior drawled, seeing the hesitation in the bardís expression.

"Promise me something?"

The Sabre leaned up on her own elbow and faced Gwen. "Anything, sweetheart. You know that."

Gwen smiled shyly, a faint flush crossing her cheeks. "Promise me when summer comes and we start getting those warm afternoon showers... promise me we can come back here and dance naked in the rain."

Twin dark brows rose into an equally dark hairline before a rakish grin appeared on Randiís face. "What a decadent idea. Youíve got yourself a promise, Little One."

 

 

The rolling sound of thunder brought Randi out of her reverie and the smile that her memories had brought her was wiped out as the reality of her situation crashed down around her with stunning force.

"You promised me forever, Gwen," she muttered fiercely, pounding her fists on the windowpane. "What happened to forever?"

But there was no answer save the rain as it fell from the heavens and lashed at the window Randi gazed out of sightlessly. The silence let her mind drift back again to a time her mind remembered as happy Ė before she had become what she was now.

 

 

"Now, no teasing them, Geoff," Jill said as she straightened his collar, scrubbing her hand through his short, graying hair. "Theyíre still newlyweds, and you know how we were."

The weapons smith wrapped his hands around Jillís waist and swung her into his hover chair. The device barely registered her added weight, and it adjusted automatically to compensate for it.

"GEOFF!" she squealed, draping herself over him with a squeeze and giving him an almost girlish giggle.

He waggled his eyebrows and cleared his throat rather loudly. "AHEM! How we *were*? I beg to differ with you, Mrs. Goldman. We never got past that stage, you know."

Jillís embrace turned into something more of a caress and she met his lips in an ardent kiss. "I know, lover, and I am so very glad about that fact," she said when they separated. Then she poked him in the chest. "But I still donít want you teasing them Ė not yet, anyway. Give them a chance to settle in. *Then* you can tease... just a little bit."

"Youíre taking all the fun out of this."

"I know," she answered soberly, sliding from his lap. "But...." She moved away from him to stand at the window that overlooked the beach house, staring sightlessly at the empty shell. She didnít even notice when Geoff moved his hover chair next to her to join her observation of Randi and Gwenís home.

"Jill? Sweetheart?" He placed a warm hand on his wifeís arm, patiently waiting for her attention to return to him.

She turned, finally, gazing at him with tears just evident in her eyes.

"Oh honey... whatís wrong?" he asked with evident concern.

Jill shook her head, giving him a sad smile. "Just being a hormonal mom, I think. Sheís been an adult for a long time, but this makes it official, you know. She belongs to somebody else now," she said, unable to shake the uneasiness that had swept through her moments before. Jill shrugged slightly.

Geoff sat quietly for a moment, stroking the shepherd puppy that had unceremoniously jumped into his lap without invitation.

"I thought you liked Randi...."

"Oh sweetheart, you know I do. Sheís a wonderful daughter, and absolutely perfect for Gwen. Itís just...."

"Itís just Gwen is now her responsibility, just like Randi is Gwenís."

Jill nodded. "Something like that, I guess, yeah." She paused and visibly took herself in hand, taking a deep breath and shaking her head to clear it. Then she patted his arm. "I told you it was hormones."

Geoff took Jillís hand in his own, smiling at how well they fit together and how her fingers curled right into his. "I think all good mamas have those kinds of hormones, hon. Itís what makes them good mamas. And Gwen had the best."

Jill leaned down and kissed the top of his head. "She did pretty well in the dad department too." Geoff would have replied, but Carbon decided heíd given up enough attention and started licking their linked hands. Jill squeaked in surprise and Geoff chuckled. The little dog was tickling him. But the laugh was good for both of them, and soon they were gasping for breath while Carbon sat on Geoff lap, tongue lolling from his mouth looking insufferably pleased with himself.

"You going talk to Randi about him?" Jill asked, motioning to the dog.

Now it was Geoffís turn to shrug lightly. "Weíll see how it goes. Iíd like to keep him, but is that fair to her? Or to him for that matter? Itís not like I can run with him and we donít have a lot of space." He blew out an impatient breath. "On the other hand...."

"Heís been a big help in your recovery and they are newlyweds after all."

"Exactly. Now címon, my dear. Iíd like to be to Tommy and Ellaís before Randi and Gwen get back."

"Let me grab a sweater and we can be on our way." She was only gone a moment before returning with the garment around her shoulders. "How was your day at Midas?" Jill asked. "We havenít even talked about that since we got home."

Geoff laughed, a full-bodied sound, as he motioned her out the door ahead of him. "Poor Scott," he said still chuckling. "I donít think heís getting any sleep now that the babyís been born." The door closed on the rest of their conversation, and they made their way to the Steele home.

 

 

"Now, no teasing them, Tommy Steele," Ella said with a tug on his ear, "or I will just have to share your little... um... assumption with them."

"Aw, honey," the man whined. "Not even a little bit? Címon, theyíre newlyweds. Itís tradition."

"Yes, they are; yes, it is; and no, you canít." Ella held up her hand when Tommy would have spoken, giving credence to the seriousness of her words and tone. "Tommy, love... think about this for a minute. Given the trouble the two of them have had getting together, do you really wanna tease Randi about them wanting to spend every minute they can together?"

He shrugged. "I donít see why not," he muttered. "She sure did tease me a lot about us."

"Itís not the same thing and you know it," Ella replied sternly, though her eyes twinkled in mirth over the picture of childish defiance her husband made trying to win a point he knew was a lost cause.

"I know," Tommy whined, "but itís not fair."

"Well, tell ya what Ė weíll go through what they have and then you can tease to your heartís content." She smiled at the bulging brown eyes and the gaping mouth, realizing sheíd just struck pay dirt in making him understand.

"Nope, thatís all right. Iím quite happy living without that kind of drama in my personal life, thanks."

"So no teasing?"

"No teasing," he mumbled. "But you canít tell about me expecting them to be sociable last night either, deal?" licking his thumb and sticking it out.

Ella rolled her eyes, but licked her thumb and met his. They rubbed them together for a moment before she reached over and scrubbed her hand through his thick hair.

"Youíre a nutcase, you know that?"

Tommy chuckled and wrapped his free hand in her curls, gently tugging her until they were merely a breath apart. "Yep, but Iím *your* nutcase, and that makes all the difference," he said softly before capturing her lips with his own.

How long the kiss would have lasted was anyoneís guess... had it not been interrupted by a childish call. "MA!"

The couple broke apart laughing. "Hold that thought til later?" Ella asked.

"Oh yeah... you betcha," Tommy confirmed, even as the call came a second time, louder and more impatient than the first.

"MA!!"

"Weíre gonna have to teach that boy some patience. Heís gotta have the worldís worst timing," the man muttered as he slid from the seat to go gather up his offspring. A light touch on his arm halted his actions and caused him to look at his wife with an eyebrow raised.

"Iíll go," Ella said as she took the hand he proffered to her to help her stand. "Heís calling for me and he needs a bath anyway. Geoff and Jill should be here shortly so you wanna fire up the grill?"

"Yep, I can do that." Tommy leaned over and pecked Ella on the lips. "Holler if you need me."

Ella nodded and headed inside. Tommy turned towards the deck with a whistle, glad for the unseasonably warm weather, and looking forward to seeing his family again.

 

 

Gwen shut off the bike, then turned around as far as she could manage still seated and grabbed Randi by the ears, cutting off her protest with a hard, fast kiss. When she let them up for air she panted, "Next time, YOU drive home and Iíll drive you to distraction! Do you realize how close we came to running off the road? Not once, but several times??"

Randi smirked, looking infernally pleased with herself, despite the fact that Gwen still had a rather intense grip on her ears. "Paybacks are a bitch, arenít they?" she replied, reaching up to gently loosen Gwenís hold before sliding from her grasp and swinging herself off the motorcycle with ease. For her part, Gwen sat there stunned. Finally she turned back to face Randi who was calmly unloading the saddlebags before she wiped down the bike.

Without warning, she jumped up and grabbed Randi by the arm, turning the warrior around to face her, scowling with mock-ferocity. "I have never... not there... I mean not like that!!" she finished with an awkward squawk when she found herself lifted nose to nose with the Sabre. "RANDI!!" she squealed for good measure, loving the feeling of strength and power she could feel flowing beneath the hands she had clasped around Randiís biceps. She drew back just slightly, trying to keep her eyes from crossing Ė a futile effort considering Randi simply followed her motion. So she pushed on the warriorís forehead slightly until they were both upright once more.

"Yes, you have," Randi said, deliberately dropping her voice into an octave set to give the bard chills. "You do, every single time you ride behind me. I just have a better ability to stay focused than you do, huh?"

"Oh you do, huh?"

"Yep," a teasing glint sparkling out of very blue eyes.

"Hmm... I sense a distinct challenge there, Valiant."

"Oh you do, huh?"

"Yep," an answering twinkle illuminating green eyes now.

"Well then," Randi said with a slight drawl. "I reckon youíll just have to see what you can do about it there, my bard."

"Oh, donít you worry, warrior mine. I will... and when you least expect it too." Gwen retrieved the items Randi had removed from the saddle bags and moved towards the house. "Iíll go take care of this stuff."

"All right, love. Iíll be inside in a few minutes."

Gwen nodded and Randi smiled, already looking forward to the many and varied ways she and Gwen could test one anotherís ability to focus.

By the time she finished wiping down the bike and tarping it, Gwen was finished putting their picnic supplies away and had moved to the message center. She shook her head with a smile and turned to go let Randi know about their apparent supper plans when the warrior crossed the threshold and caught her around the waist, wrapping her arms fully around Gwen in a full body hug before leaning down and seizing her lips in an ardent embrace.

Gwen melted against her, returning the hug fiercely and letting the intensity of their passion engulf her for several long moments, before pulling away just enough to gulp in some much needed air.

"What say you and I go practice focusing?" Randi asked as she nibbled her way down Gwenís neck. "God, youíre like a narcotic, my drug of choice, because I sure canít seem to get enough of you."

The bard sucked in a deep breath. The sensations Randi was causing to ripple through her body were fast making any resolve to mention dinner with the family fly right out the window. Then she remembered the warriorís comment about focusing and realized she honestly wanted to say good-bye to her folks before they headed back to the capital city for more of Geoffís intensive rehabilitation. She pulled away slightly.

"Sorry, Stud. Your next fix is gonna have to wait a bit." Gwen bit back a chuckle at the petulant expression the settled on the Sabreís face. "Seems we have a dinner date with the family," she teased before becoming more serious, "and Iíd like the chance to say bye to Mother and Daddy before they leave in the morning."

Randi scowled a moment longer before she relented. "You know Iím only doing this for you, Ďcause Tommyís gonna tease me to death."

Gwen snuck a brief kiss before sauntering off in the direction of the bedroom. "I know, but Iíll bet he thinks twice before doing anything drastic. He knows heíll never win with this bard on the loose."

Randi chuckled, but the glance she gave Gwen was one of unadulterated affection. "My protector," she murmured into Gwenís hair and she squeezed her again.

"Always, love."

Then they moved into the bedroom and set about preparing themselves for a night with the family.

 

 

There was something to be said for having all the family gathered together, Randi thought as they were greeted at the door with shouts and laughter. It was loud and noisy, for one thing. It was also warm and comforting in a way so many things simply couldnít be.

The whole family was there Ė Tommyís dad, Ellaís folks, and of course Geoff and Jill. Randi spared a wistful thought for her own parents, wishing they could have know the group of people now clustered together in the Steele living room. She was sure they would have been welcome and happy with being part of this family.

Then a shrill voice took her thoughts from her musings and placed them squarely on the present and Randall.

"WUV!!!"

He scrambled from his grandfatherís arms as quickly as he could manage to climb down, then he ran across the floor before running straight into the warriorís knees. Randi spared a moment to be thankful for both her good balance and Gwenís hand at her back before she swooped down and scooped the child up in her arms, blowing raspberries on his tummy until the entire room shook with sympathetic laughter to his squeals.

"Hey, boy! How are ya?" Randi asked with a smile when she stopped to take a breath. "Have you been good while I was gone?"

He nodded his head affirmatively. "Yes. Raníall goo-dah boy. O goo-dah too."

"Oh really?" Randi said.

"Yes. Play frow. O go up... catch goo-dah!"

"Oh you did, huh?" Randi said seriously. "And how does Mama like that?"

"Goo-dah! Ma laff," the boy intoned solemnly.

"Uh huh," Randi replied just as seriously. "Well let me tell ya a little secret Ďbout Mas, okay?" Randi asked in a stage whisper, knowing everyone else was listening intently to her words. Fortunately, Randall was totally focused on her, not realizing they were the center of attention.

"Sometimes, Maís laugh so they donít cry or get angry. You may wanna remember that next time you and O decide to play catch in the house, all right?"

"Wuv goo-dah!" he answered. "Aww wite," he agreed before reaching for Gwen over her shoulder.

Randi looked back a caught the barest traces of tears in Gwen's lashes and raised an eyebrow in concern. The bard gave the merest flicker of her head to indicate she was all right as she took Randall from the warrior's arms.

"My goodness, you're getting to be such a big boy, aren't you?" Gwen asked the child as he clasped his arms around her neck and gave her a sloppy kiss.

"Ran'all big boy!" he said proudly with a big grin.

"Oh yeah, you're a big boy, all right," Ella answered, tweaking his toe as she walked by and almost causing Gwen to fall when Randall jerked in her arms. "Sorry 'bout that," Ella muttered, taking the child from Gwen easily. "I forget others arenít used to handling him like I do."

"No harm, no foul," Gwen said a smile. "I canít get over how much he grew in the two weeks we were gone. Youíd think weíd been gone months instead."

Ella laughed. "Tell me about it," she said, motioning them towards the dining room with a nod of her head. "I had to practically go out and buy him a new wardrobe last week. He keeps growing like this, heíll be taller than I am before he turns five."

Gwen shook her head with a chuckle. "Thereís a scary thought Ė youíre taller than I am!" She paused a brief moment waiting for someone else to make the comment, then added with a wry laugh. "I know... itís not like thatís saying a whole lot!"

There was a ripple of laughter as everyone filed into the room after her. Strong arms wrapped around her from behind, and she automatically leaned back into the firm body they were attached to, laying her arms on top and closing her eyes in contentment.

"I dunno," Randi offered quietly. "I think youíre just about the perfect height."

"Hmm," Gwen mumbled before realizing that total silence had fallen in the room. She opened her eyes to see seven pairs of eyes watching them with undisguised amused indulgence.

"What??" she asked innocently, not moving out of Randiís embrace though she blushed beautifully under the scrutiny.

"Yeah," the warrior agreed. "Nothing to see here. Move along," she said, hoping her darker skin hid the flush she could feel climbing up her face. She waved an arm for emphasis, then kissed the blonde head before easing Gwenís chair out.

Ellaís mother Monica looked at Jill with a distinct twinkle in her eyes. "Ah... young love."

"Yeah, I remember those days."

"You should," Geoff quipped before anyone else could speak. "Itís not like we ever outgrew it. Remember yesterday?"

Jill flushed so dark her skin glowed. "Well, our love may be young, old man, but we still qualify as old marrieds."

Monica laughed and turned to her husband. "Ya know, babe... they sound a lot like us."

"And us," Tommy chimed in with a grin at Ella."

Randi looked at Gwen seriously. "We are not becoming old marrieds. We will stay newlyweds for the rest of our lives."

Tom Sr. piped up. "You donít know what youíre missing, Randi."

"Neither do you," she responded without thought, causing Gwen to bury her face in the warriorís neck and the room to howl with laughter. Dinner was off to a great start.

 

 

Chapter IV

"Well, that turned out a lot better than I thought it would." Randi commented as she kicked off her shoes and eased out of her pants. "I expected a lot more teasing from all comers... especially Tommy."

"And Daddy. I wonder if Mother and Ella put a halt to it," Gwen said, slipping her shirt and bra off and sliding into flannel pajamas. The weather had turned cold again and the walk back from Tommyís had been bone-chilling. But theyíd been more comfortable walking than riding home with Geoff and Jill after Geoffís awkward request.

"Iím thinking probably yes," Randi said, wrapping a robe around her and stepping into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Gwen followed right behind her.

"Well, I for one am glad," Gwen stated unequivocally before sticking the toothbrush in her mouth and scrubbing industriously. Randi rinsed and spit then washed her face before hiking an eyebrow in the bardís direction.

"You wanna share there, or are you just gonna keep me in suspense?"

"Huh?" Gwen asked before finishing her own ablutions and following Randi back to their big bed. "Oh, you mean why am I glad they didnít tease us?" she continued when she realized what Randi was referring to.

Randi nodded as she slid into the bed and waited for Gwen to settle into her place wrapped around the warrior before calling out, "Lights."

Gwen sighed. "This is so nice. My favorite spot in the whole world. As for my reasons," she continued before Randi could ask again. "I think we have suffered too much to be together for anyone to make light or poke fun Ė even in teasing. Despite the fact that I know it would be done in love coming from them... I dunno." Randi felt the slight shrug Gwen gave. "It just seems wrong for it to make light of it."

Randi gently stroked the skin beneath the flannel as she thought about the words, absorbing the tone and inflection of Gwenís voice.

"No argument from me, love," she said finally. "But I think, to be fair, they really only understand what we have endured here," touching the bardís forehead. "They have no concept of what we have suffered here," placing her hand over Gwenís solidly beating heart which picked up its pace at Randiís words. "They canít know what soul-sundering feels like."

Gwen couldnít stop the flinch that rippled through her body. "If it meant us being together like we are now," she whispered, "Iíd go through it all again. But I sure donít wanna."

"Me either, Little One. Weíve had it happen more than our share it seems like... in this lifetime especially." Randiís brows creased as she processed that thought. She was silent so long, Gwen began to wonder if she had fallen asleep. Only the light caress the warrior kept up on her skin gave Gwen any clue otherwise. Finally, she spoke up.

"You thinking about what Daddy asked? Does it bother you that he did?"

"Hmm?" Randi murmured, bringing her mind back from where it had wandered. "Yeah, maybe a little. I mean, I understand why he asked, and I can even agree with his reasoning to a point. Itís just... I dunno. Why Carbon? Wasnít giving up Ditto to Randall enough? Am I being selfish because I want to keep him?"

Gwen shifted them slightly until she was pillowing Randiís head on her chest and cradling the warriorís body in her arms. Randi sighed in contentment and moved her hands from Gwenís skin to the buttons on her pajama top.

"I donít think so, love. But I honestly donít think Daddy meant to put you on the spot either. I mean... I really donít think... hell, Iím not sure what I mean at this point." She cast her mind back to earlier in the evening, recalling the quiet conversation she had overheard between her father and Randi.

"Randi?"

"Yes, Geoff?" the Sabre returned, wondering what the older man had on his mind. Heíd been fidgeting and cutting looks in her direction most of the night, and now that they had a moment alone, he appeared to be trying to beard the lion in its den. Her curiosity was piqued as much as anything.

He cocked and eyebrow at her address of him. Whatever else, heíd hoped that had been straightened out before she and Gwen had left for their honeymoon. Above and beyond almost everything else, he wanted Randi to accept him and Jill as family. "I thought weíd settled that already."

Randi shook her head and blushed slightly. "Iím sorry... Dad. Itís still a little, um... awkward for me."

Now it was Geoff turn to shake his head. "No, Iím sorry. I shouldnít push like that. Itís just... Iíd love for you to call me Dad, but I donít want it to be a problem for you either. Weíre both still kind of adjusting to this, I guess. As long as you realize weíre family...."

Randi nodded and turned her attention to the flames in the fireplace. "I do. Iím pretty sure thatís not whatís bothering you though. Care to share?"

Geoff chuckled, a little embarrassed. "That obvious, huh?"

"Yeah. Itís my job to know things like that, ya know?"

"Yeah, I know. I just feel a little... well, thereís no good way to do this."

"Do what?"

"Jill and I would like to keep Carbon." At her stunned look, he held up his hands and hurried on. "I know we said we didnít have room for a dog, but.... You see, I know how busy youíve been since you got him and being a newlywed will just take up that much more of your time. Not that he hasnít been well-taken care of, and God knows Iíd never have been able to train him like you have. But the truth is, weíve become really attached to him in the past couple weeks and he has done a lot to help my therapy progress." He paused for breath, knowing if he looked up into his daughterís eyes as she walked into the room and put her hands on Randiís shoulders that he would see green fire blazing back at him.

"I know it sounds selfish of me. Maybe it is, though I didnít mean for it to be that way. Look, you donít have to decide now - just think about it, all right? Please? I think it might be best for all concerned."

Heíd moved his hover chair away before either of them could respond Ė not that they had a clue what theyíd have said if he hadnít. They had left the get-together shortly thereafter.

"I wonder what he meant by that," Gwen pondered aloud as her thoughts returned to the present, not realizing Randi had completely unbuttoned her top until a warm hand began a slow teasing pattern across her skin.

"Wonder what who meant about what, love?" Randi replied before allowing her lips to nuzzle the skin in much the same pattern as her hands were mapping.

"What was the question?" Gwen asked a few minutes later as her lips were released.

"No question," Randi answered. "Time to practice focusing. You promised me a fix," muttered into warm skin before teasing became an all-out assault and words turned to actions.

 

 

"So what do ya wanna do?" Gwen asked a good while later. She and Randi lay tangled together comfortably under the covers, the moonlight providing their only source of illumination. The bard was gently tracing the features that were outlined in shadows, relishing the light touches she was receiving in return. She felt the shrug in the body beneath her own.

"I dunno... pretend he didnít ask?" the warrior replied half-jokingly. "He made some valid points, Gwen, and if Carbon can help in his recovery, who I am to get in the way of that?"

"But what do you WANT to do, love? Not what do you think is right; not what do you think you *should* do... what do you *want* to do?"

"Honestly, Iím really not sure. On the one hand, I really want to be selfish. I love Carbon Ė heís been a lot of fun to play with and train and go on my runs with. On the other hand, Geoff is right Ė I donít have the time to devote to him that Iíd like to and probably should to be fair to him. And after tonight, it is back to work for us, and I certainly donít want to lose our time together. God knows weíve lost enough of that already. But still, heís part of the family."

It was quiet for a few minutes while they both processed that. A thought occurred to Gwen but she hesitated to voice it, not wanting to force a decision that Randi really didnít want. Randi took a deep breath before speaking.

"On the other hand, Geoff and Jill are family too, and if heís helping Geoff recover...." Gwen could tell by Randiís tone that there was still some lingering guilt over the accident that had taken Geoffís mobility so suddenly. She started to speak, but Randi continued thinking out loud. "It wouldnít be like Iíd be giving him up completely, would it? And if he was unhappy, he could always come back."

She looked down into Gwenís eyes which had turned dark in the faint moonlight. She saw love and understanding reflected back to her and she smiled in reflex. Whatever else, this was hers and nothing... no one... was going to take it away from her again. Randi hugged the bard to her tightly, pleased when it was returned in full measure.

"Geoff would bring Carbon back if he was unhappy, wouldnít he?"

"Yes, love. You know he would. I think he is trying to be considerate of us as much as he is being selfish. Does that make sense?"

Randi nodded. "Strangely enough, it does."

"Of course," Gwen mumbled into Randiís chest. "I havenít decided whether he needs to be kissed or smacked yet. Juryís still out."

She smiled at the low rumble she felt traverse the smooth body beneath her and the lips she felt brush her head.

"Címon, Bruiser. Real life bites tomorrow, and itís liable to come earlier than weíd like it to."

Gwen moved her hands from Randiís face to her stomach, yawning broadly as she wrapped her arm around the warriorís middle and settling more firmly into place. "Real life bites me tomorrow, Iím gonna get you to sic it for me, Ďkay?"

Randi gave a full out belly laugh and Gwen couldnít help the smile that formed, though she mock-scowled and lightly smacked the rippling muscles that moved with each vibration from Randiís laughter.

"Bad mattress. Iím trying to sleep here, ya know," she muttered clearly enough for the warrior to hear, snuggling in deeper and delighting in Randiís reaction.

Finally, Randiís amusement wound down and she cleared her throat before she spoke, though her smile was evident in her tone.

"Sorry, Little One. Iíll sic real life for ya tomorrow as long as we get some sleep tonight," noting the bardís already deep, even breathing. "Goodnight, love," Randi whispered, before following Gwen into the land of Morpheus.

 

 

The knock was unexpected as early as it came the next morning, but Randi wasnít totally surprised to see Geoff in his chair just outside the French doors. She beckoned him in even as she moved to open the door for him.

"Good morning, Geoff."

"Morning. Um...."

"Gwen just stepped into the shower and I was getting ready to go run. Let me go hurry her up," Randi said as she turned towards their room.

"Um, no. Please," Geoff cut in. "I came to speak to you... to apologize for last night."

"Uh...."

"I had no right to do that to you, especially like that, and I apologize. Iím not sure what I was thinking, but it was pretty damned selfish of me."

Randi held up a hand, and Geoff fell into immediate silence. Some training just stuck with you, and that was one of the first rules a Sabre learned.

"Geoff, itís okay. Iíll admit you kind of blindsided me with the request, but um... I do understand your reasoning behind it and your motives."

The weapons smith had the grace to flush slightly, though her tone was neutral enough as to be non-accusatory. He couldnít think of a thing to say that didnít sound patronizing so he simply sat quietly.

Randi let him sit for a few minutes before she stood. "Wanna go running with me?" she finally asked. Geoffís head snapped up. He knew better than to think she would make fun Ė Randi had never been a cruel woman. But now he looked at her as though she were a little daft.

She chuckled. "Címon Geoff. You canít tell me that thing doesnít have some speed to it. You mean to tell me you canít keep up with a broken-down ex-Sabre? We may need to rethink your transportation in that case."

His mouth dropped open slightly and he caught the teasing glint in her eyes. He recognized whatever gaffe he had committed the night before had been forgiven, and he knew this was her way of letting him know. He made racing noises.

"Outta my way, slowpoke! Youíll never be able to keep up with me," he said laughing maniacally as he headed for the door Ė only to turn and cock his eyebrow in her direction. "You coming? Or you just gonna stand there and eat my dust?"

Randi gave him and evil grin and opened the door, motioning him out before taking off like a shot. He watched slack-jawed for a moment as she disappeared down the beach. Then his laughter rang out across the island.

Neither of them saw Gwen move away from the bedroom door and into the bathroom to take her shower.

 

 

Carbon joined them on this morning, bringing sharply into focus the fact that he hadnít joined Randi the day before. Now he alternated running along side them, and jumping into Geoffís lap for a ride in the hover chair. The shepherd didnít growl at her, but she could sense a distinct change in his attitude towards her even from two weeks ago. It brought to mind Dittoís reaction to her since Gwen had been taken from her months before, and she wondered what exactly was going on that she seemed to have lost her touch with animals. Then they were approaching the beach house again, and she put those thoughts out of her mind to concentrate on what she wanted to say to Geoff.

She slowed down and began her stretching exercises, and Carbon sat in Geoffís lap, head tilted and tongue lolling at her funny antics. The weapons smith stroked the fur under his touch, observing the precise movements with an experienced eye and recognizing almost instantly that not only had the Sabre not lost a step, she was even sharper than the last time heíd seen her in action. He was so lost in his thoughts that it took him a moment or two to come back to himself when she waved a hand in front of her eyes.

"You all right there, Geoff? You kinda went out on me there."

He shook his head. "Yeah, yeah... Iím fine. I was just noticing how focused your workout was. Is everything okay?"

Randi shrugged, wrapping a towel around her neck. "Yeah, why wouldnít it be?"

"No reason," he said amiably, but wondered in the back of his mind why her proficiency seemed to have improved. There was no logical reason for her to maintain her skill level now... to say nothing of improving it. Something niggled at his consciousness, just out of reach. He gave a mental shrug. It would work itself out. It always did.

For her part, Randi saw no reason to tell him about the little experience in the mountains. It was over and done with, and really did not concern him anyway. That was something she was going to take care of personally. It was time to end things once and for all, and they had made it personal when theyíd come after her and her clan.

When they reached the deck, Randi turned to face Geoff. "Take him with you, Geoff. You need him worse than I do. BUT," she added, holding up a hand to keep him from interrupting. "But if at anytime it doesnít look like you can handle him, you send him here. Heíll always have a home with us."

She walked to the door and opened it, then turned to face Geoff once more. "OH! And you better be running with him soon. I expect the two of you to perform miracles." Then she stepped inside and closed the door behind her, shutting off any words he might have said to her. Geoff sat still a minute longer, blinking and swallowing before he turned and headed back to the boathouse to finish up their last-minute preparations to return to the capital city.

Gwen met Randi at the door, handing her a bottle of water before snuggling into her body with abandon.

"Sweetheart, Iím hot and sweaty. You really donít wanna be that close to me right now," Randi said trying to keep from wrapping herself around the bard. She took a long pull of water. "Címon now. I need a shower and youíve already had yours."

"I donít mind getting wet again with you," Gwen said with a mischievous smile, kissing the sweat-soaked chest before moving back to look into Randiís eyes. "You are an awesome human being, you know that?"

"Nah," Randi said, slowly propelling them in the direction of their room. "Iím just a tired, smelly, ex-Sabre who needs a shower before we go to work." She drained the last of her water and handed the bottle back to Gwen. "You coming?" waggling her eyebrows and giving Gwen a rakish grin.

Gwen deliberately lifted her shirt to her nose and took a big whiff. "Nope. I am surrounded by your pheromones and I plan on keeping it that way for the remainder of the day. Besides," she added, slapping Randi on the butt before she wiggled out the door towards the kitchen. "Weíd never make it to work today if I did."

Randi had a completely gobsmacked expression on her face, though she wasnít sure if it was from Gwenís actions or her words. "We still may not," she muttered under her breath, replaying the little hip shimmy the bard had done for her benefit. The warrior took two steps towards the door before Gwenís head popped back around the doorframe.

Whatever she had been going to say flew right out the window as she observed the intense, smoldering look coming from the blue eyes that burned in her direction. She pointed a finger at the warrior.

"Save it for when we get home, Stud. Work first Ė play later. Now be quick in the shower. Breakfast is nearly ready."

Randi ignored the warning look and took the few steps necessary to close the gap between them. Without a word, she claimed Gwenís lips possessively and thoroughly, holding them until they were both dizzy from lack of air. Then she turned still silent and walked on unsteady legs to the bathroom, leaving the door open and stepping into the shower still fully clothed. The warrior didnít even flinch when the cold water hit her skin.

Gwen simply leaned her head against the doorframe breathing for a minute. Then she had to chuckle at Randiís solution to being overheated. "Damn," she mumbled to herself. "That womanís gonna be the death of me one day, and then science will have proof positive of spontaneous combustion in human beings!"

The bard turned her attention briefly back to the bathroom where she could see Randi had stripped out of her soggy clothing and was now standing under what Gwen hoped was at least a lukewarm spray. She couldnít stop the grin that crossed her face and had walked halfway to the bathroom door before she realized where she was headed.

"Ah, but what a way to go!" she said before her nose reminded her that some things couldnít be left unattended, no matter what other fires were burning.

"BREAKFAST!" she screamed, running out of the room to the kitchen, hoping she could keep things from catching fire. Randi just leaned against the shower wall, the tears from her laughter blending with the warm water that cascaded down her face. Married life was shaping up to be a hell of a ride.

 

 

"Walk you to your classroom?" Randi asked Gwen as they exited the transport once they reached Midas. It had been something of a ritual between them since Gwenís kidnapping, though now it was because they simply enjoyed the comfortable routine between them more than the sense of security it had first provided for Randi. For answer, Gwen simply extended her hand and waited for the warrior to take it.

"I need to talk to Tommy first. Can I come get you when weíre done?"

Randi opened the door and Gwen walked in still holding her hand. They walked together to Tommyís door before Randi drew Gwenís hand to her lips.

"You know where to find me," she said softly, brushing a light kiss over the bardís knuckles, then waved at Tommyís personal assistant before crossing the hall to her own office.

"Hey Beth," Gwen said to the smiling woman. "Is Tommy available?"

"For you, hon? Always. And can I just say how well love looks on the two of you?" Beth added, motioning in the direction Randi had gone. "That was a beautiful reception."

"Thanks, Beth. I donít know how it looks, but it feels pretty damn good."

Beth returned Gwenís smile and nodded towards Tommyís office. "Gíwan. Heís got a busy morning scheduled, but I know heíll take some time for you."

"Thanks," Gwen answered before knocking lightly on the partially open door and sticking her head inside. "Hey, Boss!" she said with a grin, stepping into the room when he waved her in.

"Gwen, come in," he said motioning her to a chair. She closed the door and took a seat. Tommy waited until she was comfortable before standing and walking around to lean on the desk in front of the bard. "So, what can I do for ya?"

Now that the moment was actually here, Gwen felt more than a little nervous. Sheíd never been in this position before, and Tommy was family, which made asking even more awkward. "I, um... I, uh... how is Tonocca doing in the classroom? Has she reported any problems with the kids?"

Tommyís eyebrows flew into his hairline. Whatever heíd expected her to say, that hadnít been part of his thought process. "Um... sheís doing fine. Sheís really enjoyed this teaching stint; in fact she commented to me last week how much she liked what you had done with the curriculum. And the kids havenít had any problems. Why?"

Gwen stood up and walked to the window eyeing the classroom that had been hers for almost a year. "Do you think she might be interested in a more permanent teaching position?" she asked quietly, keeping her back to him. She felt Tommyís start of surprise as he realized the implications of her words. She watched in the window as he slowly walked around the desk and sank into his chair, his eyes never leaving her back. Finally he cleared his throat.

"I imagine sheíd be amenable to the idea, especially with her son in school now. Am I gonna have one to offer her?"

"I... I think so, yes. Iíd like the opportunity to... Iíd like to try to get back into storytelling."

Tommy rose and moved from behind his desk. He approached Gwen but waited until she turned from the window to face him before he reached for her hands.

"Gwen?"

Her smile was dazzling, almost blinding in its intensity. "My muse is back, Tommy. Randi gave me back my muse!"

Tommy opened his arms and Gwen closed the gap until they were embracing. "That is so wonderful, Gwen," he whispered into her hair. "I couldnít be happier for you." He pulled back a little so he could look down into her shining face. "When you get your feet under you again, Iíd like to try a couple new formats with you. I have some ideas that I think may give your work a whole new outlook."

Gwen cocked an eyebrow at him in a manner that was so familiar it was funny, and Tommy laughed in sheer emotional release. He hugged her again. "This is so exciting, I just canít tell you."

Now it was Gwenís turn to laugh. "You donít have to, T. Iím pretty sure I understand."

"Yeah," he said and smiled sheepishly at her. "I guess you do, huh?"

"Uh huh. Now Iíve gotta get to class before the boss finds out Iím late, but weíll talk about those ideas later, right?"

"You bet we will." He walked over to the door and opened it. "I'll give Tonocca a call and see if we can work out the details to get you out of the classroom and into the studio as quickly as we can."

Gwen grasped his arm and stretched up to plant a kiss on his cheek. "Thanks, Tommy. We'll see you at lunch." Then she stepped out of the office and crossed the hall to knock on Randi's door before opening it and sticking her head around the corner.

Randi stood from her desk when Gwen's head popped in, a welcoming smile on her face. "Hey, Little One. Everything all right?"

Gwen returned the smile and extended her hand, clasping Randi's firmly when it was offered. "Everything is just perfect. Thank you for asking. Still wanna walk me to my class?"

"I never turn down an opportunity to be seen with my best girl," Randi replied. They walked out of the office giving Beth a wave and headed towards Gwen's classroom. "Shall I bring Excalibur out for a ride at lunch or would you like to join the masses today?"

Gwen gave it a moment's serious thought. "I think we should probably join the masses today. It is our first day back and we don't wanna be seen as totally unsociable, regardless." She paused briefly and the warrior remained silent waiting for her to continue, seeing the wheels turning plainly in the bard's mind. "However, I think we should establish a pattern... one day a week where we do go out and ride and picnic alone together." She turned her green gaze to Randi and asked earnestly, "What do you think?"

Randi gave Gwen an indulgent grin. "I think I answered that already, so you pick the day and Excalibur and I will be there."

"Thursday, then," Gwen said promptly. "It is something to look forward to and a way to kick start the weekend a little early."

By now they had reached Gwen's classroom, which was oddly silent. "Thursday it is, love. We'll work out the details at lunch. I'll be by to get you when the bell sounds. "Now, have a good morning, and I'll see you shortly."

Randi brushed her lips lightly across Gwen's, feeling the bard's hands tighten in reflex before the separated. "I love you, warrior mine."

Randi smiled. "I love you too, my bard." She held the door open. "See you in a bit."

Gwen didn't even realize she'd forgotten to tell Randi about her talk with Tommy until she crossed into the classroom and her students cheered her return. Guess I'll tell her at lunch, she thought with a shrug before allowing her students to welcome her back with eager enthusiasm.

 

 

Randi stepped into her office and refocused her mind on the communication she'd found upon her arrival that morning.

Perverted Scum, (it read)

Your days are numbered. Soon you and all your kind will be eliminated and the planet will be cleansed of the scourge you truly are. The time has come for the just to rule the world.

The Faction will reclaim its own and the chaff will fall to the wayside. Then all will surely know the Way.

There was no signature, and normally, Randi would have simply dismissed it out of hand. But this time... there was something about this Ė something deep in her gut that told her this was a genuine threat. This was no child's prank nor was it idle rhetoric. There was a deep-seated hatred here, and her first order of business was to determine if the threat was specifically aimed at her or if its target was broader than that. And that meant going to resources she hoped she'd never have to use again.

With a deep sigh, she tapped the vid-phone, keying in the number and waiting for Tiny to pick up.

 

 

Chapter V

"So how was it being back in the classroom again, love?" Randi asked as they made their way to the mess hall together. "Are you glad to be back? Were the kids glad to see you?"

Gwen cut her eyes at Randi, wondering where the verboseness was coming from. Then she just figured that Randi was making an effort to ensure the bard knew she was interested in anything and everything Gwen wanted to share. She smiled, squeezing Randi's hand, glad they had tactile contact. She realized suddenly that when they were together, they were rarely out of touch for any significant amount of time, and she wondered if it could be traced to the traumas they had suffered together in this lifetime or if it was just a part of who they were Ė who they had always been. She jumped when Randi waved a hand in front of her face.

"You okay there, Little One? You went out on me there for a minute."

Gwen chuckled. "Yeah, I was just thinking and you know where that gets me most days."

"About the same place it gets me," Randi answered solemnly. "Deep trouble. Wanna share?"

"Hmm? Oh, I was just curious where your chattiness was coming from." She reached up a hand to wipe the frown from between Randi's brows. "Not that I don't appreciate it; I do... more than you know. And I was thinking about us touching."

Now Randi's brows jerked into her hairline, and the expression she gave Gwen made the blonde woman flush a deep red.

"RANDI! Not that... I mean... I was...." She turned and buried her face in the warrior's chest. "I walked right into that, didn't I?"

"Yep. Face first with both feet."

"Argh!" Gwen growled before pulling back to look into the amused blue eyes above her. "C'mon." she said, pulling Randi by the hand. "I'm starving. Then we can talk about our day so far."

Randi waggled her eyebrows. "I'd rather talk about us touching."

"I am never gonna live that down, am I?"

"Nope. Not for a while."

Gwen merely groaned and chose her food before retiring to their table. Randi grinned and put her late unpleasantness out of her mind. It wasn't something she wanted to share with Gwen now. There was no point, she rationalized, until she had something definite to relay. The implications of what it meant having come directly to her was not something she wanted to contemplate at the present, though it was something she was going to have to deal with in the near future. Fortunately, she had a little time. It would take Tiny at least a few days to research the problem and with a little luck, she would just be able to hand it over to him and the rest of the Sabre team to handle without having to become directly involved. She wasn't sure how Gwen would take that sort of news, and she honestly didn't want to find out if she did not have to. They had suffered enough in this lifetime to last them well into the next.

"Sweetheart?" Gwen questioned when Randi stopped at their table but didn't put her tray on its surface. She stood and put her hand on Randi's arm. "Love, are you all right?"

So deep in her own thoughts, it took a full minute before the warrior came out of her brown study. She looked down into anxious, concerned green eyes.

"What's wrong, Gwen?"

"I'm not sure. It felt like I lost you there for a moment. Where'd you go?"

Randi motioned her to her seat before she took her own chair, reaching across the table and wrapping Gwen's hand in her own larger one. She gently stroked the bard's wrist, pleased when Gwen's hand tightened against hers in response.

"Nowhere." Randi smiled at the bard reassuringly. "Maybe we're both still in that newlywed haze stage of our marriage. I kinda like it, but I'd rather we go somewhere together if we're gonna go out like that."

"Agreed. But then anything we do is more fun if we do it together."

"Always, my bard. Now tell me about your day."

Gwen's green eyes took on a shine. "The kids are doing so well. Tonocca did such a great job while I was gone." She hesitated. "In fact, I think Tommy may be thinking about offering her a full time position now that her son is in school full time."

"Really?" Randi answered. "I didn't realized he had anything coming open on the teaching side," shrugging her shoulders slightly. "Not that I usually know what's going on with that side of the business anyway. Who's leaving?" She took a bite of bread and chewed slowly.

"I am," Gwen said calmly, waiting for Randi's reaction. It wasn't long in coming though it wasn't what she expected it to be.

The warrior coughed and sputtered as she tried to swallow her bread and speak simultaneously. "Mmph... pfft... bah." She swallowed and took a deep draught of her water before continuing. "Excuse me? I mean, not that I'm not thrilled with the news... I am. I think it's wonderful you have your muse back and are ready to start telling stories again. I've missed you doing it, and I've been able to hear you work on bits. I can't imagine how the rest of the world feels about your being gone from the stage, as it were. But...."

"Randi, love. Slow down and take a breath and I'll tell you about it. I didn't mean to knock you for a loop. I meant to tell you this morning before we left the house, but I got kinda sidetracked with burning breakfast and everything." They shared a smile. "Then I just decided to wait until I spoke to Tommy. He could have easily put a kibosh on the whole thing if Tonocca hadn't been available to take over. Actually, he still could come to think of it. I haven't heard from him since this morning."

Randi gave Gwen a big grin holding onto both of her hands. "You and I both know even if Tommy has to teach that class himself, he'll get you back to work as fast as he can. I wish I had seen his reaction to your news."

The bard laughed. "Well, I think it's safe to say he was excited about it."

At that moment, the door opened and Tommy stepped in, ushering Tonocca inside the mess hall. Everyone quieted down, easily reading the man's excitement by the smile that he wore and the bounce in his step. He stepped up onto the makeshift stage area that was set aside for announcements and impromptu performances. He didn't need to signal for silence and it made him smile more than he already was. The folks at Midas knew him well and they looked at him now with a mixture of excitement and expectancy.

"Many of you know Tonocca Menendez; she was part of the teaching staff for several years and has substituted here many times since her son was born. I am happy today to announce she has agreed to come back to Midas in a full-time capacity. So please make her feel welcome."

The assembly rose as one body and began clapping and cheering. Gwen's eyes held happy tears and Randi simply stood behind the bard and wrapped her arms around Gwen, surrounding her in a living, breathing cocoon of love and support.

Tonocca accepted the congratulations of the gathered artists and took a brief moment to thank them for their welcome before stepping off the stage. Before Tommy could follow, however, a voice rang out of the crowd.

"Hey boss... who's getting the boot? Or are we expanding?"

Tommy sighed. He'd hoped to avoid this particular question for now, but as usually Leona had zeroed in on the pertinent things. He raked his hands through his hair.

"No one is getting the boot, and we aren't expanding." He looked at Gwen and caught her almost invisible nod. "Gwen has asked to get back into the studio to work on some projects."

This time the applause was so thunderous the noise level was simply overwhelming.

 

 

"I think everyone is excited about your return, love. Even I could feel the energy flowing after Tommy made his announcement this afternoon."

Randi smiled at Gwen, who hadn't stopped smiling since lunch. Tommy's announcement had thrown everyone into a dither, and not much had gotten done for the remainder of the day. Gwen had spent much of her time accepting congratulations and in between had endeavored to transfer the day-to-day classroom procedures over to Tonocca. Fortunately, the dark woman was very familiar with the inner workings of both Midas and Gwen's classroom and she was very understanding of all the fuss and furor involved in Gwen's return to performing. In fact, Gwen got the distinct impression that Tonocca found a good deal of humor in the whole episode.

Now Gwen chuckled. "I think so too. I can't tell you how good I feel about this decision." She reached up and pulled the plates from the cabinet as Randi removed the skillet from the stove. The warrior dished the food directly onto the plates and Gwen took them to the table. Then Randi grabbed the wine and glasses and they took their seats.

"You don't have to, Little One. It's clearly written on your face and in your eyes. I for one am looking forward to it."

Gwen laughed. "I hope so. It's your fault, ya know. And you're gonna be the one stuck listening to me over and over and over again."

"That's okay," Randi affirmed with a grin. "I get all the best bits that way."

A bit of time was spent in silence while they ate. Then Gwen turned to Randi with an earnest, slightly confused expression on her face.

"Do you really think so?"

Randi swallowed and cocked an eyebrow in the bard's direction. "I'm sorry, love. Do I really think so what?"

"Do you really think you get the best bits?"

The warrior grinned broadly. "Oh yeah. I get things no one else does," lightly stroking her fingers over Gwen's arm and watching the goosebumps follow in the wake of her touch. "I get all the Soulmates' stories and every single impromptu story idea you get. But most of all, I get you."

Gwen flushed and couldn't stop the silly grin that flitted across her face. "That was a done deal, sweetheart... written in the stars." She laughed softly. "Will you listen to us? We sound like a couple of mush bunnies."

A dark eyebrow rose at the description. "Mush bunny?? Well, c'mon then, my fellow mush bunny," mentally wincing and shaking her head at the picture the words painted in her mind. "I think we have a date with the holosuite. I found a new program in there I'd like to try."

"Oh? Do tell."

"Uh uh," Randi answered. "I'd rather us go experience it together."

Gwen looked at the Sabre suspiciously. "Why do I get the feeling I am walking into a boatload of trouble?"

"Cause you have been since the day we met," Randi said. "C'mon... it'll be fun. Trust me."

"Not fair," Gwen answered, accepting the extended hand with a smiling mock-pout. "You know I do Ė with my life."

"I know," the warrior returned seriously now. "I'd never do anything to put you in danger," considering the reality of the implications behind her earlier words. Randi didn't like the truth she felt in them. She dropped Gwen's hand.

"Never mind," she said. "Maybe this wasn't a good idea."

Gwen looked at her astonished. She didn't know what was going on in the warrior's head, but judging by the darkening of her expression, it wasn't anything good.

"Oh no, love," she said, grasping the large hand and holding on tightly. "You're not getting out of this that easily. You promised me something fun and new. You know I was just teasing you earlier."

"Doesn't change the facts of the matter though, does it? I have been nothing but trouble for you since we met."

Gwen grabbed Randi's face in her hands so quickly they were both surprised. But the bard held on until the blue eyes tracked to hers, and then she let Randi see just exactly what was in her heart.

"I'm not sure where this little bout of insecurity popped up from, warrior mine, but let me assure you that you are... you have *always* been the best thing in my life. And if it takes me saying so to you every day for the rest of our time in this life for you to believe it, I'll make sure you hear it."

Randi sat for a moment considering the words and the tone behind them. She knew for a fact in both her heart and her head that Gwen meant what she said, and she believed it for the truth. It was just sometimes it felt like this lifetime had been riddled with hurdles that surpassed anything they had faced before. And she had cause to wonder why it was suddenly weighing on her Ė why it seemed that she was unexpectedly aware of what they had been through... what they had suffered to be together. Was it an acknowledgement of themselves as the Soulmates of legend? Had that brought everything to the fore? Or was it something beyond Ė something she had yet to figure out?

The warrior became aware of the fact that Gwen was staring at her in concern and visibly shook herself from her reverie. Time enough to think about the repercussions of her thoughts tomorrow. Tonight was their time, and she was determined not to spend it brooding.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm being stupid. I do know better. I just...."

"You just need to chill out. I know it's been topsy turvy around here, especially since your return, but I firmly believe the worst is behind us. I have to."

There was a long pause before Randi smiled. "You're right, Little One. Most of our time together in this life has been full of good memories. And it's only gonna get better for us." She took Gwen's hands from her face and held them in her own. "C'mon. You've gotta see this program I found the other day."

They walked hand in hand to the corner of the living room that held the holo program. Randi keyed in her security measures and the door opened, then they waited for the program she had chosen to boot itself. Gwen looked over Randi's shoulder and her forehead scrunched up in confusion at the string of letters that appeared on the screen.

"Um, Randi? What is all this stuff?" The letters made no sense that Gwen could see and they certainly didn't form words on their own Ė BJ, THG, BWR, WWR, TSD, ATV, VRB, JB, VS. The bard shook her head in confusion.

Randi grinned, her earlier insecurities forcefully put to the wayside in light of the new experiences she was looking forward to sharing with Gwen.

"I was going through some old files today, and came across a program marked 'EXTREME'. Way back when, humans apparently used to do these sorts of things for fun. I thought if you were game we could give it a try." She paused. "We can keep the safety feature on for now if you want, though if I researched everything correctly, they were pretty keen on making things as safe as possible. If you feel comfortable enough with it, we can eventually take the safeties off in here."

"All right," Gwen nodded in agreement. "Now tell me what each of these... um, words means."

"Pick one."

"Hmmm..." Gwen considered, recognizing that Randi wanted to make this an adventure. "What about... this one?" pointing to the BWR label.

Randi nodded. "All righty. Computer, we need a configuration for...." She turned back to Gwen. "Do you want beginner, advanced or professional level?" The warrior tried not to influence the bard's decision, but Gwen could easily read Randi's desire for a real challenge.

"We can leave the safeties on, right?" knowing the answer but wanting the vocal reassurance anyway.

"For as long as you need them to feel comfortable, love."

"Then let's go pro."

"I love you," Randi answered with a smile before turning back to the console. "Computer, prepare gear for two people on the professional course."

"Scanning for data," the computer voice intoned. "Scan complete. Enter course parameters." Randi's fingers flew over the keypad. "Parameters set. Enter when ready."

Gwen reached out and hit the enter button, then watched as the room transformed itself into something beyond what she had ever tried to imagine.

They were standing on a platform over what appeared to be a large hole in the ground. There were mountains and hills surrounding the area and the foliage in the immediate vicinity was lush and green. Stacked beside them on the platform was all manner of interesting equipment. The couple moved over to it and began to separate their individual pieces. Randi had a good working knowledge of each bit; Gwen held each part up to inspect it, eyeing it with wary trepidation. She watched what Randi did, then mimicked her motions.

First came the neoprene wetsuits, and they shimmied and wiggled to don the confining material. Then they slid into booties and rubber overboots and added a pair of shorts to the outfit. Next came the harness which they stepped into before pulling up over their shoulders and locking it into place. Gwen looked down at herself and then over at Randi, unable to completely stifle a giggle.

Randi merely raised an eyebrow and waited for the storm to pass. "Yeeessss??" she drawled, sending the bard into another fit of laughter.

Eventually the laughter slowed, then stopped. Gwen motioned back and forth between them. "I was just thinking... I am so glad Sal can't see us now. Can you imagine the picture this would make?"

Randi looked between them and had to chuckle. "Hmmm... I see your point. It could make for some interesting press Ė especially given your return to a performance setting."

"Oh God! I'm not sure I could survive the fallout," Gwen said with a laugh. "I'd never be able to live it down."

"It'd give you some sort of reputation all right."

Gwen reached out a hand and smacked Randi on the belly. "Don't think I'd be going down alone there, Stud. We'd qualify as the goofy couple of the year."

Randi laughed. "C'mon. We've gotta abseil down before we can start black water rafting."

"Black water rafting?? What is black water rafting??"

For answer, Randi picked up a helmet and secured it to Gwen's head, then placed one on her own and tightened the straps. Then she flipped on the switches that turned on the lights and grabbed the ropes that hung from pulleys attached to the platform's ledge. She ran one set of ropes through Gwen's harness and the second set through her own. Then she handed a pair of gloves to the bard and slipped into another.

"You ready?" she asked, extending a hand to Gwen.

"Let's rock and roll, Stud," she replied, clasping the warrior's hand.

 

 

"Oh wow!" the bard exclaimed as they stepped from the holosuite. "That was so absolutely amazing. The waterfall and shooting through the rapids and the glow worms and... just wow! What a remarkable experience!"

Randi couldn't stop the pleased grin that took possession of her expression. "I guess you enjoyed it then, huh?"

"Oh yeah, you bet I did. I was terribly glad for those nose plugs though. Somehow having water that cold up my nose just isn't that appealing."

Now the warrior laughed full out. "Sweetheart, having *any* water up the nose isn't very appealing... water that cold just tends to take your breath away."

"I have you for that," Gwen responded without missing a beat, glad to see a flush start a slow crawl up Randi's skin.

"Ahem... well, does that mean you'll wanna try some more extreme things another time?"

Gwen gave Randi a million-watt smile. "Oh, you bet it does, lover. I can't wait to see what all these different initials stand for. If they are anywhere nearly as much fun as this was, you may have a hard time getting me to leave the holosuite."

Randi couldn't help but feel insufferably pleased with herself. It had taken quite a bit of research to find this program Ė it had been something she'd put together in her much younger days, always intending to take the time to experience the adventures that had been a part of life in the past. But she had never found the time for it; never had someone she'd wanted to share it with until now. Gwen's reaction though, and the obvious pleasure she'd derived from the experience they'd just shared made it all well worth it.

"I hope I could provide *some* incentive for you to leave once in a while."

The look the bard bestowed on the warrior was incendiary and Randi felt a slow burn curl out from her belly. "Oh, I'd say not only do you provide incentive, but inspiration as well." A big yawn caught her by surprise. "However," Gwen continued with a sheepish smile, gladly accepting the arm Randi curved around her shoulders as she began steering them towards the bedroom. "Right now I am looking forward to your providing me with a warm, warrior body pillow."

Said body pillow chuckled low in her throat, and Gwen felt the rumble all throughout her body. "No worries there, Little One. You make a pretty good blanket yourself."

They settled into bed fairly quickly, Gwen assuming her normal place wrapped around and over Randi. "Sometime," she murmured into the warrior's warm neck. "I am gonna have to do something about this blanket image I seem to have acquired... but not tonight," she added with another yawn before snuggling down to sleep. "'Night, Randi."

The bard's breathing was deep and even before she finished speaking, and Randi smiled in the darkness. "Goodnight, my love."

 

 

"Holy Mother... what the hell?? Did we move last night?"

Randi was muttering quietly to herself, but Gwen was in tune enough to catch all the mumbling and grumbling coming from across the room. She stretched and sat up, wondering what had rocked Randi's world so badly and trying to figure out how she'd managed to not only sleep in so late, but totally miss Randi's emergence from their bed.

"Sweetheart?"

Randi realized she'd woken Gwen with her aggravation and she crossed the room in two strides. "I'm sorry, love. It's still early. Go back to sleep." Randi eased her back towards the bed, gently stroking Gwen's face.

Gwen grabbed her arms and held on to keep herself upright, smiling when Randi just followed her over. "C'mon, love. It's late. I need to get up," using her grip on Randi to ease back up into a sitting position. She pushed her hair back off her face. "Time for a cut, I think."

Randi ran her hands through the thick tresses. "Whatever makes you happy, love. You're beautiful to me regardless."

"Ooh, Miranda Valiant. Who knew such a strong, stoic warrior could be such a sweet talker? And first thing in the morning too. I love you."

Randi smiled, something she suddenly realized she had been doing an awful lot of recently. "I love you too, Gwen. You make my life worth living."

"That's a mutual thing, warrior mine. Now, you wanna tell me what upset you so this morning? I know it wasn't me."

"Nope, it wasn't you. I got up to go run - you know... clear my head a little." Randi walked over to the large window that faced the water and pulled them back to give Gwen a clear view of the outdoors. What she saw caused her jaw to drop and her eyes to blink repeatedly.

"Um... buh... um...." She turned her head to look at Randi. "Did we move last night?"

Randi gave her a rueful chuckle. "That was my question. I can't tell you when the last time was that we had ice and snow here. But it's a good bet we're not going into work. Crossing the bridge is just too risky Ė if we could even get it to extend properly. Damn joints might be frozen in place."

Gwen smiled impishly. "Well, I can certainly think of far worse scenarios than being stuck inside with you all day. We have power, so we have heat and hot water. And there is always the fireplace for ambiance if we want it."

"Ambiance, huh?"

"Well, yeah. Who knows? Maybe I'll get inspired Ė tell campfire tales."

"I could live with that."

For the first time Gwen looked at the clock and realized she hadn't slept in. It was, in fact, still quite early. "You could, huh? Well, why don't you try living with it over here in this nice warm, comfortable bed?" easing the covers off Randi's side just slightly. "Itís too early to be up if we're not going anywhere."

Randi shed her running shoes and workout clothes as she approached the bed. "Oh, you think so?" she purred, jerking the cover off the bard and exposing her to the chillier air of the room.

"Brrr... Randi! Itís cold out there!"

The warrior slowed to what could only be described as a stalking crawl. Gwen scrambled for the cover that was now completely off the bed, not recognizing the precarious position it left her in. Randi smiled diabolically and pounced.

"RANDI!!!" the bard squealed when ice cold hands hit her bare skin and started tickling. She squirmed uselessly, unable to get away due to both Randiís hold on her and her own laughter.

"Heehee... stop! Hee... Ran-di... heheheheheh," gasp, giggle. "Randi, stop! You... youíre... kill-ing me... hee hee hee! Whoo!" Gwen finally exhaled as the searching hands left her body and Randi fell to the bed beside her, smiling as they struggled to recover the breath stolen during their tickle fight.

"Well, that was a lot more fun than trying to run in that mess," Randi finally commented as she leaned forward to snatch the cover up off the floor. "At lea... YEOW!!!" reaching behind her to run her hand over the spot on her butt that Gwen had just pinched, cheerfully if Randi were to judge by the mischievous expression on the bardís face. "Why you little...." Randi growled before pouncing on the smaller woman.

"RANDI!!!!"

This time the Sabre gave no quarter.

 

 

They lay tangled in the middle of the bed, the sheet pulled up over them to keep them from catching a chill after their earlier exertion. Gwen was gently tracing the warriorís relaxed features, smiling when she felt the facial muscles beneath her fingertips do the same.

"At least your hands are warm now," Gwen commented as Randi lazily stroked up and down her back. "Why were they so cold before?" She arched her neck to look directly into the sparkling blue of her reckless half. The twinkle in them was its own answer, and she buried her face between Randiís breasts. "Please tell me you did not go out in this storm."

"I did not go out in this storm," Randi repeated dutifully.

"Now tell me the truth," Gwen mumbled, barely understandable from Randiís position, though her tone said as much as her words did.

"Well," the warrior hedged, "I didnít stay out in it very long. Once I realized it was mostly ice and sleet, I hightailed it back inside."

"Hmph," Gwen answered crossly. "And how did you manage to get up and away without me noticing? Weíve been waking up close together since before we were married Ė even when my memory was gone we still woke up in bed together. What gives?"

Randi shrugged and subtly tightened her hold around Gwenís body. The bard noticed and snuggled perceptibly closer in a gesture of comfort. "I dunno... weird dreams. I woke up and couldnít go back to sleep, so I decided to do a couple extra laps around the island hoping to tire myself out. I barely made it around once before it turned nasty and I came back in." Her brow furrowed in thought. "Strange weather. I donít recall any mention of it being made in the news."

Gwen chuckled. "Sweetheart, we havenít actually *seen* the news in <ahem> a while."

Randi flushed slightly and gave the bard a sheepish grin. "Oh, um... good point."

Gwenís expression turned serious. "Do you remember what your dreams were about... why they woke you up?"

Randi shook her head. "No, not really. Just that they were odd... uncomfortable." She shrugged. "I donít even have visuals Ė just vague feelings."

The bard reached up and smoothed the wrinkles from Randiís forehead before she resituated her head on Randiís shoulder. "Not to worry, love. Weíll figure it out."

 

 

"Well, itís not much," Aphrodite muttered to the two sisters that flanked her at the scrying bowl. "But at least itís a start."

 

 

Chapter VI

It wasnít too much later when they climbed from the bed, and after a hot shower, they moved to the kitchen to fix something to eat. The storm had increased in intensity and the sheer ferocity it exhibited made Randi shake her head as she sliced tomatoes to go with their steak and eggs.

"This is just beyond bizarre. If I hadnít been outside earlier, I wouldnít believe we were on the island. I surely wouldnít believe the sun had come up itís so dark out right now."

Gwen looked up from where she was putting eggs and steaks onto individual plates. "I know it feels... threatening, almost. Iím glad the folks got away safely yesterday."

"Me too," Randi answered as she moved things to the table. "Did I tell you Geo... Dadís physical therapist called me at work yesterday? Said giving him Carbon to exercise with was a stroke of genius on my part. I told him that was all Geoffís idea."

Gwen set the plates on the table, and wrapped her arms around Randiís waist when she set the tomatoes down. "Uh huh... and what did he say to that?"

The warrior returned the embrace. "He laughed. Said heíd already gotten the whole story from Geoff, and he was taking his word over mine, given the enthusiasm Geoff was sporting for his therapy yesterday."

"Well, love," the bard said as she brushed a light kiss on Randiís collarbone. "Maybe you shouldnít keep trying to downplay the good you do. You really have changed so much for so many. In fact...."

Gwen was quiet for so long that Randi pulled back to look into her face.

"In fact what, Little One?"

"Iíd like to share your story." She stepped back out of their hug and held up a hand before Randi could open her mouth to draw breath. Automatically, she fell into her bard mode, pacing and gesturing as she spoke. "I know Ė so much of it is classified, and other parts of it are private, just like parts of the Soulmate stories are only for us. But there is still so much there to tell, such a rich, vibrant recording of our history that most of the world in unaware of. They deserve to know. *You* deserve the opportunity to been seen for the hero you truly are."

Randi was silent so long, Gwenís shoulders dropped and she motioned to the table.

"I guess weíd better sit down and eat." She dropped into her chair and kept her eyes on the table.

"Gwen...." Randi began, reaching a hand for the bardís, reassured when she did not pull away.

"Itís okay, Randi. I understand. I just want the world to see you like I do. I want YOU to see what I see when I look at you."

"No, sweetheart. You donít understand. Will you let me have my say now?"

Gwen nodded and picked up her fork, glad for the warming plates that kept the food warm without cooking it further. She kept her other hand in Randiís clasp, forgoing her steak for the moment and caressing the warriorís tangible strength with her thumb.

Randi took a deep breath. "I do understand your desire, love, and a part of me would love to hear your take on my life... on the Sabres and the incredible job done by so few for so many to keep the world safe and at peace. But, Gwen... think about it a minute. What I did... what the Sabres have done for their entire history, and still do today is classified top secret for a reason. Humanity, for the most part, is happy to live in ignorance Ė believing that nothing can upset the peace it cost us so dearly to achieve."

She paused and took a drink of milk, then had to clear her throat when the milk coated it instead of loosening her vocal chords. "We nearly destroyed ourselves to obtain peace. How do you think mankind in general would react if they knew how tenuous that peace really was sometimes? If they knew that there are forces still at work today that despise themselves and each other so much they would destroy everything we as a race have achieved?"

"Iíd like to think we would step up to the challenge."

"And are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to watch the peace dissolve into another world war over things that no longer matter if youíre wrong? Because that is exactly what would happen if you brought light to the rebelís activities. They function in the shadows because we keep them from operating in the light of day. Slowly, surely we are once again bringing them under control. Eliminating Ghost Rider was a big step in erasing them from the planet once and for all. Exposing us now would do irreparable harm to the unit and allow the rebels an edge we canít afford to give them."

Gwen felt a coldness wash through her veins at Randiís use of present tense when describing herself as a Sabre and it was reflected in her eyes in the form of hurt bewilderment. Then more than a tinge of anger cut through the sadness as she processed Randiís words and it burned out the hurt she felt. The bard pulled her hand out from under Randiís and sat back in her seat, eyes blazing.

"Wait just a goddamn minute," Gwen swore and Randiís eyebrows flew into her hairline. She rarely heard the bard curse and such a harsh epithet was indicative of some serious upset. The warrior began to mentally review her words before being thrown completely off track by Gwen standing and leaning into her, poking a finger into her chest.

"Wait just a GOD DAMN MINUTE," Gwen repeated with more force. "Just who do you think you are to make a decision like that?? Huh??? Youíre not a god, Randi, despite your miraculous return from the dead. No matter what you do... scratch that Ė no matter what you have done or what the Sabres continue to do, there will always be an element of the population that is unhappy with the way the world is and will try to change it for what THEY deem the greater good. Who the hell set you up as judge, jury and executioner?? What makes your ideas right and everyone elseís wrong?? And where the FUCK do you get off thinking this is your responsibility anymore anyway?? You donít belong to them anymore, Randi! You DONíT!!"

Randi sat quietly and let Gwen rant because she had seen more than hurt and anger mirrored in the green eyes that blazed at her. She had seen the fear that lay back of Gwenís words, and she simply sat and let the bard have her say.

When Gwen finished speaking, Randi reached for the hand that was still poking her in the chest and pulled the smaller woman into her lap. She didnít say a word, merely holding onto Gwen as the fire raged. Gradually the fire burned out and the bard turned sad, hesitant eyes to Randi, finding only love and an equally sad understanding in the blue that looked back at her.

"Iím sorry, Randi. You know I really donít think that way about what you did as a Sabre, and I more than most understand why they are so necessary in this world. God knows I donít want the rebels to gain any quarter." She swallowed hard. "I just... why does it have to be you?"

"It doesnít, love, and it isnít... at least not now," thinking of the note sheíd received the previous day. She pushed aside the hurt and anguish that had sliced through her own soul at the bardís words. She knew they came mostly from fear, and she didnít really blame Gwen for lashing out like she had. She just hoped they could reach a mutual understanding of the situation so it could be put behind them once and for all.

"I wish I could believe that if all of humanity knew of the rebelís activities theyíd want to do something to stop it. I do think theyíd be against the ideas and ideals most of these radicals are trying to institute as accepted doctrine by force. But human nature is what it is, and itís easier for a majority of mankind to lay the responsibility for things like that at someone elseís feet."

Gwen placed a hand over Randiís heart, wincing when she realized that the rapid pounding she felt was entirely her fault. Sheíd love to know where her reaction came from, and promised herself that she would sit down later and try to figure out why she had been so harsh, but for now, Gwenís sole focus was on calming and soothing her warriorís troubled spirit Ė upset she was directly responsible for.

"Iím sorry, sweetheart Ė God, so sorry. Iím not sure where my reaction came from or why you caught the brunt of it, but...."

"Hush, love. We both know weíve still got scars and some deep wounds that are gonna take time to heal. We just have to work through things as they come up, which will hopefully be less and less often as time passes."

Gwen smiled tremulously. "I can agree with that. Would be nice to have a little warning that it was coming next time, instead of being blindsided by it."

Randi blew out a deep breath and hugged Gwen to her, thrilled when the pressure was returned with almost excruciating force. "Oh, yeah. Absolutely."

They were quiet for a time after that, simply accepting the warmth and healing their proximity provided them. Finally Gwen took a shuddering breath and snuggled in even closer to Randi, as though trying to crawl inside her skin. Randi chuckled, the movement tickling her unexpectedly. Gwen looked up, reveling in the feeling and sound of Randiís laughter.

"I love you," she whispered, cupping Randiís face tenderly smiling into the kiss Randi leaned down to share with her.

"I love you back," the warrior reassured.

"Always?"

"Forever, Little One."

More silence Ė Gwen was gathering her courage and Randi could feel the slight tension slowly collecting in the bardís form, so she waited, knowing that Gwen was still uneasy about something.

"Randi?" Gwen finally asked. The Sabre cocked her head in a listening manner but kept her eyes focused on Gwenís. The bard simply stared back for a long moment, lost in the look of love that was being bestowed on her. It was only when she noticed Randiís brow sliding into her hairline that she realized sheíd completely lost her train of thought. She giggled softly and blushed.

"Heh... sorry. I um... I... hmm... anyway, I was wondering something, and Iíd like for you to hear me out completely before you answer, Ďkay?"

"Alllll riiight," Randi drawled with a smile.

"Iíd still like to work on your story... just between the two of us. IF and only IF I can tell it so that you donít recognize the key players, Iíd like you to consider allowing me to share it with the world."

"But... how can you... Gwen, how can you tell my story without me recognizing it?"

"Iíll change the settings, the names, anything that would make people wonder, but not the true nature of the story itself. It would be a fictionalized accounting, if that is all I can tell, told historically so as to seem like something from long ago."

"You can do that?" Randi questioned, her gaze going inward. "Of course you can," she continued as though to herself. "But why...?"

Gwen shifted until she was facing the warrior, straddling her across the hips. Randiís hand automatically came to rest at her waist and she laid her arms on Randiís broad shoulders.

"I told you... I have many skills," she said with a smirk. "And I think yours is a story that needs to be shared, even if it is clothed in window dressing to protect the innocent."

"And the guilty."

"And the guilty," Gwen agreed solemnly. Then she sat silently waiting for Randiís decision. She knew that whatever the outcome, it would be Randiís final verdict. If Randi said no now, it would be one story sheíd never be able to share with anyone. It would probably still be written in her journal, however. There were simply too many thoughts rolling around in her head at this point and the only way she would be able to exorcise them would be through her writing.

Long heartbeats passed as Randi contemplated the gravity of the situation. On the one hand, it would be gratifying to have her tale told by the most renowned bard on the planet Ė not only that, but by someone who knew the truth and loved her in spite of it. On the other hand though, it was risky. What if...?

Then suddenly, Randi was struck by an epiphany. Gwen would never do anything to put either of them or their marriage in danger, and she wondered why it had taken her so long to realize that. God knew she believed it in her heart of hearts. What had made her forget such a fundamental truth?

She shook her head and Gwen took that for her answer, not knowing that Randi was in the midst of internal dialogue. Her shoulders slumped and she bit her bottom lip in disappointment.

"I think that is an arrangement I can live with. Iím betting on you to do something absolutely incredible with it." She cleared her throat. "Iím sorry for doubting you."

Gwen straightened in surprise, unable to control the grin she felt sliding into place. "Donít be," she answered. "Sometimes I doubt myself."

"Still, it is my privilege to support you, and I didnít do that very well."

"Sure ya did," the bard replies with a light kiss on Randiís nose. "It just took you a couple minutes and some serious deliberation." She slid off Randiís lap and slid back into her chair to start eating her still-warm breakfast. Randi picked up her own fork and began methodically consuming her own food.

"Actually," Gwen continued after a few moments strictly dedicated to eating. "Iím glad you did take the time to voice your concerns to me, regardless of the conflict it initially stirred up between us. And Iím really glad you took the time to consider everything. It means that you are really okay with me doing this."

"Yep, I really am. I know if anyone could do something like this, itíd be you." She scowled. "What bothers me is the fact that I didnít remember that to start with. You, more than anyone else in the world, are qualified to tell this story both on a personal and a professional level. And no one, NO ONE has as much to lose if something goes wrong. Youíd never risk it, and I KNOW that."

"I think maybe the weird weather is making us both a little nuts. What do you say to a bit of relaxation therapy by a roaring fire once we get the kitchen cleaned up?"

Randi grabbed her glass and drained the last of her milk, then rose and picked up her plate to take it to the kitchen.

"Iím there," she said with a rakish grin and Gwen smiled, glad that the balance had returned between them.

 

 

Noontime found them stretched out decadently in front of the fireplace. They were both naked and covered in massage oil, though their foreplay hadnít passed that particular stage Ė yet. For the moment, they were content to simply spend time exchanging kisses and teasing touches. The storm had finally stopped and the sun had emerged, but neither woman had taken the time to notice. Making up was much more fulfilling... and entertaining... than any storm could ever hope to be.

Or it was until a knock sounded on the door.

After some extensive possession, Randi had ultimately released Gwenís lips in favor of finding new territories to conquer. She had just reached the juncture between the bardís neck and shoulder and bitten down lightly when the first knock came. Gwenís low moan caused her to easily ignore the quiet, steady tapping in favor of moving her touch slowly downward.

Randi savored the taste of the flavored oil and Gwenís skin, reaching the valley between Gwenís breasts just as the tapping become a banging and Tommyís raised voice was heard yelling through the closed portal.

"RANDI?!? Címon now... open up. Otherwise Iím gonna let myself in. I need to know you two are all right! Randi?? Gwen??"

At the first frantic sound of his voice, Randi pulled her lips away from Gwenís skin, and dropped her head onto the bardís chest, a muffled moan coming from both of them at the contact.

"Iím gonna kill him," she mumbled, eliciting a frustrated chuckle from Gwen. Randi glared up at the bard, blue eyes sparking with thwarted desire.

"Oh, you think this is funny, huh?" unable to hold a severe look in light of the beautifully rumpled picture Gwen made.

"No, I think this is as aggravating as hell, and if it wasnít for the fact that heís doing it out of genuine love and concern, *Iíd* kill him."

"Then why were you laughing?" asked with a raised brow mock glare.

"Because you were tickling me."

Randi looked down at her hands which had been stroking Gwenís sides tenderly just moments before. She didnít think they had been tickling Ė it surely hadnít been the intimate touch sheíd intended at any rate. She looked up at Gwen again at the bardís soft laugh.

"Not your hands, Stud," reaching up and tracing the warriorís kiss-swollen lips. The lips creased into a smile, and just as abruptly opened to speak.

"Stop right there, Tommy! Not another step, ya got me?"

"I... I gotcha," the man answered with a nervous gulp. He rarely heard that tone from Randi directed at him, but on the uncommon occasion that it did happen, he always heeded the subtle warning.

He had knocked and called out, but when he received no answer to the commotion he was causing, he feared the worst and opened the door with his key code. Now he waited in the shadows of the foyer, unable to see into the rest of the house, but well aware that Randi at least was nearby and unharmed. He figured, judging by the faint whispering he could just make out, that Gwen was probably wherever Randi was and with his luck, he had stepped into something he REALLY didnít want to interrupt. So he busied himself with looking at the bank of monitors, noting that they were still functioning for the most part, though many of them seemed to have at least a thin coating of ice.

"I really should have let him walk on in here."

Randi!" Gwen hissed. "It would have embarrassed the bejesus out of him!"

"Woulda served him right for his lousy sense of timing!!"

"You donít mean that," Gwen chided with a gentle teasing glint.

"Well," Randi hedged, "maybe not. But... oh for crying out loud!" She rose from their comfortable nest and stomped to the bedroom to retrieve their robes. She slipped into hers, then held Gwenís for the bard to slide into. She fastened Gwenís securely and felt her own tied in return as she leaned down to steal a kiss from the bard.

"Weíll continue this later."

"Oh, absolutely, Stud. This is one of those private parts of your story that no one shares but me," Gwen replied, pulling the sides of Randiís robe more firmly closed.

Randi captured her hand and pulled the bard around to stand in front of her, back to front. The warrior wrapped her strong arms around Gwenís middle and leaned back against one couch, then called out to Tommy.

"All right, Thomas. Itís safe for you to come out now."

The man stepped forward hesitantly, fairly certain at this point just exactly what he had interrupted, and flushing a beet red when everything in the room including their appearance confirmed his suspicions.

"I, uh...." He cleared his throat and ran a hand across his suddenly very warm face, running it through his hair and rubbing the back of his neck in nervous embarrassment. "Sorry, guys. I was just concerned, ya know? This storm came up out of nowhere and I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

"Thatís sweet, Tommy. Really," Gwen assured him. Randi just smirked, knowing the teasing factor for this little episode could go either way if she didnít get in the first good lick. She didnít have to say a word, though Ė the setting surrounding them was enough.

"Why didnít you call?"

"I tried," Tommy answered plaintively. "Either the signal is screwed or you didnít pick up. I couldnít tell, because we have sporadic service at best to the mainland and that is so weird, I thought Iíd come check."

"Remind me to teach you how to read the heat sensor monitors in the security system," Randi said dryly.

"Yes, please!" Tommy agreed with eagerness. "I know I sometimes miss things in my enthusiasm to get things done, and God knows I sometimes miss stuff just because I donít think things as far through as I should. But I still remember what it was like to be a newlywed - and to have unexpected time alone together." He chuckled. "Hell, I know what itís like to be an old married and have unexpected time alone together."

"TMI, Tommy."

His chuckle turned to a laugh at Randiís words and the joint flush that rose up both faces that now regarded him a little less smugly. Score one for the visiting team, I think, he thought, though he managed to keep that notion out of his expression.

Randi leaned down and kissed the side of Gwenís neck, then whispered in her ear. "Be right back, love." She unwrapped herself from their embrace and moved over to Tommy, knowing he would walk back to the door without direction.

When they reached the monitor bank, he halted, motioning to the wall.

"You wanna show me how to read that heat sensor thing?"

"Nope. Not today. I have something more... pressing to finish," smirking when he blushed again. Got my own back there, I think.

"Ya know," he muttered, "you really donít play fair at all."

"Of course not," Randi agreed with a smile. "I couldnít win all the time if I did that. I do appreciate your coming over to check on us though, no matter how much I razz you about your timing Ė which really does suck, by the way."

He laughed. "I know. I think Iíll send up flares or something next time."

Randi leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Tommy. You really are the best brother a girl could have, and Iím glad youíre mine."

He nodded his acceptance of her words. "Works both ways, sis. And we always look out for family." The sounds of soft jazz wafted through the house with an easy sensuality that brought a smile to Tommyís face. "Now go be with your bride. This is the best kind of alone time. Donít waste it talking to me, all right? But you let us know if yaíll need anything."

"Back atcha, T. Weíll be in touch."

Tommy opened and closed the door quickly when he left so as not to let the cold seep into the house. Randi turned back towards the living room, untying her belt and stopping all motor activities, including breathing, when she came within sight of a now naked Gwen backlit by the sunshine that streamed through the ice-glazed windows.

Neither said a word, though Randiís thoughts were clearly reflected in her burning eyes. The warrior dropped her robe before walking into the bardís open arms. Then they sank back into the nest they had created and resumed their relaxation therapy for a good portion of the early afternoon.

 

 

Down the road, in the house behind their favorite barbeque joint, a ritual of another kind was unfolding. The weather was so out of character to anything she had ever experienced, Rosie had decided to use the time to meditate and pray. She was hoping Athena would appear to her and answer some questions, though she got the distinct impression from some of the research the goddess had had her do that she was as clueless as to everything that was going on as the rest of the world.

Rosie shook her head, wondering not for the first time why the deities seemed to be so far removed from what was happening in the world. Was it by choice or design or something completely beyond their control? As far as she could ascertain, they were in less control of their destinies than most of mankind appeared to be. And that, of course led to far less productive thoughts than she needed to dwell on today.

With a sigh, she set up her meditation area carefully, lighting candles and incense and locating the chant music she preferred. Then she began a ritual cleansing that left her red from the scrubbing, but strangely energized at the same time. She donned her robe and hit the play button on her stereo, then focused her energies on simply breathing.

How long she sat, Rosie couldn't have said Ė time ceased to have meaning for her. But when she opened her eyes, her mind and spirit had attained a different plane of awareness than her body. She looked around, noting with interest the clear blue of the sky above her, the green of the soft grass she now sat upon and the warmth of the fresh breeze that blew across her face. She was more than a bit surprised to see not only Athena, but Artemis and Aphrodite as well, but she managed to keep any indication of such out of her noncommittal expression.

"Hello, Rosie," Athena said in a low voice. "I'm glad you're here. It's time you understood what we know, and what we don't. And why things are what they are."

The only visible reaction the shamaness made was a jerking of her eyebrows. She rose and walked over to the tree where the three goddesses sat at what was the most ornate picnic table Rosie had ever seen. She remained standing until all three women gestured an invitation before assuming a seat. Then she folded her hands and waited for someone to speak.

Athena poured her a glass of sparkling water and sat back in her cushioned chair. Rosie looked at her questioningly, and the goddess had to smile ruefully. Even now, millennia after their dominance over mankind, humanity still had little reason to trust, it seemed. And even less to believe, Athena thought wryly, knowing her sisters shared her musings. So many things they would have done differently if only they'd known what would happen Ė if only they seen what was coming while they toyed with humanity, meddling and playing instead of caring and safeguarding.

The goddess shrugged her mental shoulders. Nothing to be done for it now except to move forward and hope they could salvage some sort of relationship with mankind when all was said and done.

"It's safe enough, Rosie. You do far too much good in the real world for us to subject you to an eternity here on Olympus."

Rosie chuckled contritely. "I apologize, goddess," but she stopped when Athena held up a hand.

"Donít," she said succinctly. "It has taken us millennia to realize a good many things, though with a little luck it wonít take us nearly so long to correct them."

Intrigued, Rosie waited silently, hoping Athena would elaborate. Maybe she would then get some answers.

"You know that the gods caused their own downfall and nearly their own complete elimination from existence. Because of our meddling in some regards and our lack of action in others, mankind ceased to believe and worship and it nearly killed all of us." Athena waited for Rosie to nod. "As a result of that, rules were put into place that prevent us from knowing too much too soon, or interfering too much in the lives of humanity. To break the rules brings the severest form of punishment from the tribunal Ė the removal of all godly power and elimination."

Rosie nodded again and Athens took a deep breath. "No one knows if elimination means death or banishment Ė no one has actually broken any rules outright, though Ares has skirted them many, many times. Frankly the rest of us are ready for him to be called to judgment. And it looks as though the time for that may finally be here."

"Okay, so...?"

"We took the information you gave us about the drug he used on Randi," Artemis picked up the ball and started speaking. "The Amazons are doing some research on it, but the gist of what we have found out points to the fact that she has to *want * the effects reversed before we can do anything without risking her life."

"And thatís so not even a possibility right now," Dite broke in firmly. "We totally cannot risk that bodacious bond because all the information weíve got right now points to Gwen being like, the key. And if Randi dies...."

"Gwen dies," Rosie finished succinctly.

"Yep. And as they go, so goes the world."

"So why not just tell her?" the shamaness asked bluntly. "Surely she canít want to be under Aresí thumb."

"Thatís where we get into the meddling and interference rules," Athena continued. "We canít remove the drug induced hold involuntarily... weíve tried. We have never succeeded and what happened when we tried doesnít bear repeating. And telling her outright opens up all kinds of other problems because she wonít believe us."

"Youíve tried?"

Artemis paled and swallowed hard. "Oh, yes, and with some... ghastly results. Whatever Ares did when he crafted this put a lock on the warriorís being. Basically, they have to figure it out and want the antidote for anything to work."

"At least we have an antidote to work with. I take it I canít tell her either?"

"Nope. She wouldnít believe ya, babe. She wouldnít even believe Gwen at this point. This is the uncoolest thing that rat bastard brother has ever done," Dite griped.

"So has a reversal of this drug ever worked?"

Athena shook her head. "No."

Rosie blew out a breath. "Great. So what exactly do you want me to do here? It sounds like Ares has already won."

Dite smiled for the first time in days, a bright smile that lit up the whole area like sunshine. "Oh no, he hasnít. See, he totally discounted one radical little detail. Those two babes not only love one another to distraction, but they are so way soul connected with a bond thatís been consummated. We just need you to like, keep an eye on Gwen. Ya know, be a support base for her."

"Diteís right," Artemis agreed. "We are working with some of the other deities to get some things in motion as much as we can under the constraints we have to work under. Do you know a woman named Reed?"

Rosie closed her eyes as she mentally reviewed the names and faces of everyone she knew, then shook her head. "No. Should I?"

"No," Athena answered. "We were just hoping. She is another piece of Gwenís support, though she doesnít know it yet. You will meet eventually when the time is right."

Rosie nodded thoughtfully. "All right. Any ideas on how long this will take to play out?"

"Best guess?" Athena responded. "Everything will be decided, one way or another, before Summer Solstice."

Rosieís eyes widened. "That soon? Guess I need to get busy."

"We all do. The next few months will determine... everything."

 

 

Chapter VII

It was full dark before Reed stirred in Tinyís arms. He had been awake since sundown, content to hold his lover as long as she needed his strength. He thought about the things he had seen; he only had vague feelings and impressions Ė nothing concrete, but enough to give him a distinct feeling of foreboding. He wondered what had happened and what they could do to fix it.

At Reedís first movement, he compulsively tightened his hold on her, letting her know he was there. She stretched then patted his hands before entwining their fingers so he knew how much she appreciated his support. When she relaxed her body again, she turned in his arms so she was facing him, grateful for the weak moonlight that allowed her to see the barest outline of his strong features.

"We need to get something to eat," she whispered into the darkness.

Tiny nodded. His stomach had been grumbling furiously since heíd awakened. He suspected it was what had woken him up in fact, so he merely agreed and released Reed as a prelude to sitting up. The big Navy chief ran his hands through his short hair and stretched, yawning widely before tuning to face his partner.

"And then weíll talk about whatís going on?"

Reed shook her head. "No, not yet. I need some more sleep and I need some time to process what I saw. I... Tiny, Iím afraid. What I saw...." She shook her head and shivered.

Tiny sat up and grimaced. "That bad?"

"I think so. I... it was so dark... so cold. Thatís why I need some more time."

Tiny pulled Reed into a sitting position and wrapped his arms around her. "Shh, sweetheart. Iím sorry. I didnít know it was still causing you so much pain. We can talk when youíre ready. Iím not going anywhere." He kissed the top of her head and she snuggled deeper into his embrace.

"You donít know how much that means to me, baby. You just... Iíve never told you, but you are my strength and my joy. You bring me peace and happiness, and I am so glad youíre a part of my life."

Tiny reached up to wipe the tears from his eyes. He had a good idea what Reed was talking about, for though his partner had never spelled out what her life had been like outside of this community before theyíd met, Sky had taken him aside during his very first visit years prior and explained a little of what life had been like for the seer. It still broke his heart to know the misery she had experienced before heíd come into her life. And it made him respect her own formidable strength and determination even more, having witnessed a portion of what she suffered through every time she opened herself up like this.

The Navy man tightened his hold on Reed, brushing another kiss on the top of her head. "You donít have to tell me beloved," he whispered. "You show me every single day. But in case I have been remiss in telling you Ė I love you. And when this is all over, and we can take the time to do it, I want us to get married... make us official."

Reed pulled away just enough to look into the shadowed plains of his face. "Tiny?"

"I know, honey. I know we agreed it wasnít necessary between us, that a few words spoken by a clergyman would change our vows or our commitment to one another."

"So why?" Reed questioned. She wasnít upset that Tiny could tell in the dark but her voice conveyed her confusion clearly. He shrugged lightly and ran his hands lightly up and down her arms and back.

"I dunno. It just seems like the right thing to do for us now."

"But what about the Sabres? And the clan? Theyíre all gonna have problems with it."

"Weíll deal with it as it comes up... if you want to do this. If youíd rather not...." He tried to keep a neutral tone in his voice, but his shoulders sagged perceptibly at her perceived lack of enthusiasm for the idea. He smiled in reflex though when her fingertips covered his lips.

"Shh," she commanded, removing her fingers and replacing them with her lips instead. Long minutes passed before she eased away from his lips, though his hands kept her very close to him still. Reed smiled at the gentle possession the touch held.

"Iíd like very much to marry you, sweetheart. I love you, too."

She felt Tinyís grin spread across his face even as his hands tightened around her waist. "Yes?" he questioned once more, wanting to be sure.

"Yes," she nodded and kissed him again for good measure.

How long the kiss would have lasted is anyoneís guess, but as it was, the loud rumbling of empty bellies forced them to separate laughing.

"Címon, babe," Tiny said to Reed as he stood up and pulled her with him. "Letís go get something to eat before Sky comes up here looking to kill the monsters."

Still chuckling, they moved in tandem to clean up a bit. Then they headed downstairs in search of Sky... and sustenance.

 

 

The chieftain looked up from the table where he was placing the last of the food heíd prepared for dinner. He smiled at the couple, enjoying the surprised looks on their faces as he gestured for them to take seats.

"I heard you stirring upstairs," he said in answer to their unasked question. "I knew youíd be hungry Ė I woke up starving, and I was just the sender."

Tiny cocked his head in mute question, and Reed patted his hand as she took a chair. "It takes a lot out of a person to transmit information like Sky did, but I am totally overwhelmed when Iím the receiver because I understand and process so much more than most." She sniffed the air, then looked at Sky with a big grin. "You fixed lasagna, didnít you?"

Sky chuckled and nodded, removing the cover from the dish. He pointed a finger at her. "Yes, and you have to share."

Reed turned to Tiny. "Oh boy, are you in for a treat. Sky makes the *best* lasagna I have ever had. There was an old world grandmother somewhere in his lineage and the recipe has been passed down for generations."

The seer turned and directed a mock-fierce scowl in the chieftainís direction. "I hope you made enough if youíre gonna make me share."

Sky laughed now, and indicated the kitchen. "There is a whole other pan in there, just in case."

Reed broke into smiles and lifted a helping onto her plate. "In that case...." she began, then started eating voraciously. Tiny watched in bemusement until a nudge at his elbow drew his attention away from his partner and onto the chief.

"Donít mind her," the man said as he handed Tiny the spatula. "Sheís always been this way, since she was a child."

Tiny shook his head. He wondered how many other interesting revelations this journey would bring about the woman he had shared his life with for the better part of a decade. It was shaping up to be quite an enlightening trip.

 

 

Randi looked over the monitor of her computer, watching as Gwen put pen to paper. She smiled to herself, remembering the countless hours theyíd spent together while the warrior taught the bard the long lost Sabre art of handwriting. Gwen had taken to it naturally and had proudly shown Randi the results as sheíd steadily improved. Now more often than not she was found recording everything she could manually, but her journals especially. It held a comfort for her that writing electronically never had, and though she kept a cliffís notes diary in Randiís computer system, her real memoirs were in the leather and paper journal Randi had given her.

Gwen seemed totally absorbed in what she was chronicling and Randi had chance to wonder if it was story ideas or her diary or perhaps even the foundation for Randiís own story. She shook her head mutely. In some ways she was gratified that Gwen wanted to tell her story. The bard had helped her to see how much good there was in all the violence. But in others... in others she was appalled and if she was completely honest, terrified to have her story told. So much of it was ugly and violent and she wasnít sure she wanted to be exposed to the world in such a way.

Not that she didnít trust Gwen Ė she did, heart and soul Ė but this was something sheíd never faced in all her years as a Sabre. Covert was her watch word and it had served her well. To let that go now....

Randi came back to the present to see concerned green eyes focused on her instead of on the writing Gwen had been concentrating on only moments before.

"You all right there, love?"

Randi blinked rapidly to clear her vision and nodded. "Yeah. Just working on...." She looked down at her computer to see what she was working on. "Hmm... not much apparently." She looked back at the black screen with a wry grin.

Gwen marked her place with her pen and put her journal on the couch beside her. Then she slid from her spot and padded over to where Randi sat, wrapping her arms loosely around the warriorís neck and dropping a light kiss on the top of her dark head. She looked at the blank screen and then leaned down to put her chin on Randiís shoulder, turning her head so they were looking at one another almost cross-eyed they were so close.

"I see your point. Makes a difference if it is actually on, I think," the bard said teasingly, touching the screen and watching the monitor come to life.

Randi scrubbed a hand over her face. "Yeah, I guess it would." She turned unexpectedly and drew a rather stunned bard into her lap, holding Gwen tightly for a long minute before releasing her just enough to gaze into the eyes of the one she loved above all else. For a long moment, they simply floated in the feelings so apparent between them, relishing the soul connection they still shared... a connection that was as old as it was new.

"I love you," Randi finally said softly, her smile touching her lips and lighting her eyes.

Gwen smiled in response. "I love you too, Stud." She reached up a hand to lightly trace the plains of Randiís face. "Past, present and future."

The warrior tightened her embrace again, and Gwen held on, wondering what was going on in Randiís mind. She opened her mouth to ask when Randi drew a deep breath to speak.

"Sometimes, I wonder what I did in this life to find you."

A frown creased Gwenís features and she slid her arms around Randiís neck. "What brought all this on, sweetheart? We are a part of one another and have been for millennia, since we were originally blessed by Aphrodite. Itís not a matter of deserving one another, love. Itís a matter of being destined for each other... something I treasure."

"So do I," Randi acknowledged.

"So what is really bothering you?"

The warrior shrugged, shifting her eyes from Gwenís until the bard cupped her face tenderly and turned it until their eyes met.

"No lies between us, Randi, and no hidden truths. I canít help you if you donít trust me."

The words cut deeply and Randi grasped the hand that remained on her face while her eyes searched out Gwenís before looking away again. "Oh no, Little One. Donít think that. I do trust you. I just... Iím... this... scares me."

Blonde brows flew into an equally blonde hairline. "We scare you?? Us together???" She didnít pull away, almost sure of what the problem was, but wanting Randi to actually talk to her about it.

Horrified blue eyes met patient green. "No, love, NO! This is the one thing I am sure of. The one thing I rely on. No, it... Iím... putting myself out there... like that... you know, telling my story... that... it scares me. Except to you, Iíve never... Iíve never opened myself up like that... to anyone but you I mean."

Gwen combed her hands through Randiís hair. "Sweetheart, if it bothers you this much I wonít tell your story. I just...." She shrugged her shoulders. "I think itís a good story and deserves to be told."

Randi shook her head. "No. I trust you. I think you can make it so no one but us actually knows who the story is about. Iím not sure why this is spooking me so bad except... Gwen, Iíve spent a lifetime in the shadows."

"I know, love. Thatís why itís time for you to step out into the sunlight with me. Iíll be right beside you every step of the journey, and youíll be with me through each step of the creative process until we are both satisfied with the result. And if weíre not, or we see along the way that it is not working, the only people who will ever hear this story are you and me."

Randi leaned down and kissed the bardís forehead in benediction. "You are so good to me."

Gwen chuckled. "As you are to me, Stud. And I plan on bringing you into the sunlight with me if I have to drag you kicking and screaming. Youíve had enough shadows in your life."

Randi laughed. She couldnít help it. Between the bardís words and the determined look on her face, she just had to. Gwen looked charmed by that response, and it made her laugh even harder, and she recognized it for the emotional release it was.

"Drag me kicking and screaming, huh?" She chuckled again. "Thatís quite a visual. I suddenly feel like a cavewoman being claimed or something."

Gwen reached up and tweaked Randiís nose before dropping a kiss onto it. "You are," she asserted firmly and patted Randiís chest above her heart. "MINE," she said firmly with confidence.

"Uggg," the warrior replied cheekily before brushing a kiss across Gwenís lips. "I sure am."

Gwen smiled and slid from Randiís lap. "Iím gonna go write in my journal some more. You gonna...." She motioned vaguely with her hands. "Do something here?"

Randi shook her head. "Nah. I think Iíll go upstairs for a while. Maybe a good workout will clear my head and Iíll be able to remember what I was supposed to be doing here."

Gwen shook her head with a smile and walked back to the couch, curling up and pulling her journal back into her lap. But she watched the gentle sway of hips out of sight and licked her lips before she returned her attention to the book in her hands.

Randi made her way up the stairs conscious of Gwenís eyes on her hips. She preened just a little to herself, her ego happy with the knowledge that she inspired that sort of lust. Then she entered the gym and turned her focus to pitting herself against the equipment.

 

 

After a couple hours of clanking, banging and grunting, Gwenís attention was caught by the sound of absolute silence. It was alarming enough to her that she set her journal aside and made her way up the staircase at a fairly brisk pace.

"Randi?" she called out as she reached the top of the steps. "Sweetheart, are you all right?"

Not receiving an immediate answer, she rushed into the gym, only to stop short when her gaze found the treadmill. There was her partner, apparently unaware of her audience walking at a slow, sedate pace Ė on her hands. Gwen watched for several moments before she finally ventured close enough to touch the warrior, and found herself at the bottom of a hot, sweaty mesh of human flesh.

Gwen blinked in confusion, not quite sure how sheíd gotten there. Randi did the same as she tried to figure out why she and Gwen were tangled together on the gym floor. Not that she minded, but she was fairly certain that hadnít been her intention.

"Gwen?" she queried, sitting up and pulling the bard up with her. She stood and retrieved a towel and her water bottle, consuming a goodly portion before she turned back. "Whatís wrong?"

Gwen shook her head. "Um, sorry. I think I interrupted something. But it was so quiet up here and when you didnít answer me, I got a little worried."

"Was I... hmmm," she moved to the bar and hoisted herself up by her arms, closing her eyes to concentrate. "Was I meditating? I think I was done exercising and had moved to the meditation stage."

"Maybe," Gwen answered. "You were walking your hands on the treadmill."

"God," Randiís eyes popped open and her brows shot into her hairline. "That is one of my deepest stages of meditation at home." She dropped from the bar and immediately moved to Gwenís side. "Are you all right?"

The bard nodded. "Iím fine. You surprised me is all." She captured Randiís hands in her own as the warrior carefully checked her for damage. "Honey, really... Iím all right."

"Youíre sure? Iím... Gwen, that is... I could have unintentionally hurt you very badly. My body is trained to react without conscious thought at that level."

Gwen smiled. "No problem," she replied, taking one hand and running it up Randiís bare side and watching the tremors follow in its wake. "Your body knows me intimately, and is trained to recognize me without conscious thought."

"Oh yeah," the warrior agreed, reveling in the touch of skin on skin.

 

 

A flash of lightning brought Randi back to the present and she turned from the window to view the room she stood in Ė alone. Looking at it with new eyes, it was easy see why Gwen had hated it so much. It was palatial... ostentatious to the point of being vulgar. Marble, gold inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, yards of silk and fine lace and as cold and unfeeling as a tomb.

The bed took up a good portion of the space in the room and Randi realized with a start that though they had shared the room, they had never shared the bed or themselves in this place. It had been a seeming eternity since she and Gwen had shared more than space, and the Marine felt her chest begin to crush under the weight of the revelation of what she had held... then lost... forever.

She deliberately turned her back on the room and all it represented. She expected it wouldnít be too long before she was paid a visit, and right now, she just didnít want to deal with anything but the agony coursing through her soul. There would be time enough to deal with him later Ė when the pain had faded to something tolerable. But she did chance to wonder if that was even a possibility given the anguish she felt at the rending of her body, mind and soul.

Still clasping Gwenís ring in her hand, Randi gave an inarticulate cry, and she ran to the door and yanked it open, not even drawing the attention of guards and staff who had quickly grown used to her late-night rants and rages. The Sabre moved swiftly through the massive, ornate hallways until she reached the door that led to the outside. The door opened seemingly of its own volition and the sound of the storm increased dramatically.

Randi stepped outside the fortress into the driving rain, hoping it would purge the pain she felt. Wishing she could go back home where the sound of the rain would be accompanied by the crash of waves on the beach.

She hated it here, she realized. Hated who she was and what she had become. And she hated the fact that more than anyone who had been enslaved against their will, she was a prisoner incarcerated by her own choices.

"GWEN!!" she screamed into the darkness, knowing there would be no answer, but falling to her knees anyway when silence was the only reply she received.

Randi dropped her chin to her chest, too tired and drained to cry. She closed her eyes and let her mind go back to the Friday following the freak ice storm. It had been one of the nicer surprises sheíd gotten and she remembered the feelings that had washed over her.

 

 

The weather was... bizarre. After the ice storm, it had mellowed to the point of being mild Ė almost warm. Tommy caught Randi in her office a couple days later and invited her and Gwen over for dinner the following evening. Heíd hoped to do ask them both at lunch, but heíd seen Randi ride Excalibur up from the stalls and had a real sneaking suspicion he wouldnít be seeing them in the mess hall.

"Just let me know. Ellaís making chicken and dumplings and she needs to know how much."

Randiís eyes lit up. "If Ellaís making chicken and dumplings, we are so there. I love those, and so does Gwen. What time?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. Just come on over once you get home and settled. You know when we eat, and itís not like we have anything pressing this weekend. We can just sit a visit a while." He moved to perch on a corner of her desk. "I know youíre a newlywed, but Iíve missed you being around. Itís been different... hectic... since you came back."

A frown creased Randiís features. "From our honeymoon?" wondering what had happened that Tommy would consider it hectic.

"Um, no. From the... uh, dead. I mean, Iím sorry Randi. Itís just... we never get to see yaíll anymore, and I miss ya."

Randi smiled and stood up, walking around the desk and embracing Tommy from behind for a long moment. "Iím sorry, T. I didnít even realize...."

He patted the arms wrapped firmly around his neck. "I know, and I feel selfish saying anything. But it would be nice to get back to having an evening a week to spend together if we can manage it."

"I think we can manage it, Tommy. It will give Gwen a chance to ease back into bard mode with someone other than me, though I gotta tell ya Ė it is so good to see that returning." She loosened her grip and walked around to sit in one of the chairs in front of her desk. Tommy slid off his perch and took the seat opposite her.

"It really is. I canít tell you how excited I was when she came and asked about returning to performance. I have some ideas Iím hoping to try with her Ė a couple new styles."

Randiís brow scrunched up again in unhappy thought. "Youíre gonna mess with her storytelling skills, T? I donít think...."

"What?! No, NO!! I am not that stupid even on bad days. Slow, sometimes but not stupid. No! Geez! No, what I want to do is try a couple new settings... something aside from live theatre for her. She... she tells stories differently outside that setting and Iíd like to try those settings for a broadcast instead of simply sticking her on a stage in front of a live audience."

Now the warrior was scowling in confusion and Tommy reached over and patted her hands. "Donít worry, Randi. I think this is a good thing, and I do know what Iím talking about. And if Gwenís not comfortable, well, we can always do live theatre. She sells out on her name alone these days." He shook his head and Randi cocked an inquiring eyebrow in his direction.

"You remember the stint she did at festival when she was reading from the scroll you held for her?" waiting for her nod. "Randi, I canít tell you the number of people that were turned away trying to get in. Iím sure you didnít notice, but it was standing room only. It is never standing room only. Most people wonít pay to stand through a performance they can watch from the comfort of their own homes. But they did to hear her. So trust me, sheís still got mass appeal. I just want to tweak the settings... see what happens."

Randi grinned. "Not like I canít find you if it doesnít work." She looked at her watch. "Time for me to go pick up my girl. We have a date."

"I hate to tell you this short stuff, but you and your girl have had a date everyday since you met. Sometimes you just actually go somewhere to be alone."

He walked out before she could formulate an answer, a pleased smile on his face knowing heíd gotten one in on her. Randi just watched him leave and shook her head. There really wasnít much she could say to dispute his words. With a silent chuckle, she rose from the chair, snatched up their picnic supplies and headed out to where Excalibur stood patiently waiting.

 

 

The following afternoon Randi stood in the doorway of Gwenís workroom observing the bard as she helped one of her former students find the balance he needed to make his story flow. She didnít do it for him; simply led him in the right direction until he reached his own conclusions.

"Thanks, Miss Gwen," he said shyly.

The bard smiled and patted his arm. "Youíre doing fine, Brad. You just need to have a little more confidence in yourself."

The young man started to say something else when a slight movement at the door caught his attention. His eyes went wide when he realized that the warrior was watching them intently, the expression on her face as her eyes followed Gwen one of passionate possession. Gwen saw him swallow hard and turned to the door, her smile widening into a blinding grin. Randi pushed off the doorframe as Gwen rose to meet her.

"I didnít realize you were giving private lessons," the warrior commented pointedly, making Gwenís brow furrow at the tone.

Gwen walked right into Randiís personal space and snuggled into her. The warrior looked down bemusedly at the blonde head tucked contentedly beneath her chin and smiled. Brad flushed uncomfortably and scooped up his notes before leaving the room with a single backward glance.

"Iíve missed you today," the bard said softly.

"Me too," Randi replied with a squeeze. "So what was up with the kid?"

"Huh? Oh, Enrique asked if I could meet with him today. He had an appointment of some kind."

Randiís eyes found the path Brad had followed. The boy set off her squick meter. She figured heíd bear watching in the near future. She knew better than to ignore her Sabre sense.

"Hmm," the warrior said noncommittally. But Gwen heard the undertones in the sound clearly.

"Problem?" she asked, pulling back to look up into Randiís blue eyes.

Randi brushed a kiss across Gwenís forehead. "I hope not. I just...."

Gwen waited while the silence dragged on. Finally she felt the need to prod. "You just what, love?"

"He sets my teeth on edge, Gwen. Just be careful around him, all right?"

Gwen scowled slightly, seeing real concern reflected back to her. "I will, sweetheart, but today was the exception, not the rule. You know I am out of the teaching circle now. I was just helping Enrique out."

Randi hugged Gwen again. "I know." She sighed. "You about done here?"

"Yeah. I wanna get home. Iíve got something I wanna make to take to Ellaís."

"Ooookay," Randi drawled, her curiosity piqued.

Gwen chuckled. "Donít worry. It wonít take long, and I think youíll like it."

 

 

Gwen was right Ė it hadnít taken long and Randi did love it, but....

"Did you have to make so much fudge, Gwen? Weíre gonna be eating this stuff for Celebration," she teased.

The bard smiled secretly. Tommy had confided to her part of the reason heíd invited them to dinner, and she was hard-pressed to contain her excitement at the prospects for the evening. She realized sheíd gone overboard with the candy from Randiís point of view, but they only had to get through dinner before she understood the real reason behind the quantity.

"Nah," she teased in return. "I know what happens when you are left alone with chocolate."

Randiís grown-up answer was to stick out her tongue....

... only to have it caught and thoroughly laved by Gwenís own. Only when they were both breathing quite heavily did the bard pull away. It took another full minute for blue eyes to flutter open.

"Whoo," she said quietly. "What was I saying?"

Gwen chuckled. "Beats me, but I think we need to go before I forget why weíre going out instead of curling up together in front of the fireplace making out."

Randi put her hands on Gwenís waist. "Why are we?" leaning her body on the couch which brought her to perfect nuzzling level of Gwenís smooth neck. Unconsciously, the bard leaned her head to one side to allow Randi more room to explore.

"Because," she started then bit her lip, trying to focus. "Because we donít... we donít want Tommy coming over... here looking for us again," she finished in a rush.

Randi sighed deeply, the burst of air hot over Gwenís neck causing her to shiver. "Youíre right. We can finish this later."

Gwen gave the warrior a quick peck on the lips before picking up the fudge and heading for the door. "Yep, and if itís still nice tomorrow, maybe we can go for a ride."

Randi opened the door and nonchalantly took the box from the bardís hands as she passed. "I like that idea. I feel the need for some barbeque."

"Well, címon. I want chicken and dumplings tonight."

 

 

"That was fabulous!" Gwen told Ella. "One day youíre gonna have to teach me the secret."

Dinner had gone well and conversation had flowed smoothly, but it hadnít escaped Randiís notice that all three adults at the table kept eyeing their watches as though they were expecting... something. She shrugged, figuring sheíd find out soon enough, and in the meantime, there was always Randall to focus her attention on.

He reached out both arms to her as Tommy, Ella and Gwen began to stir from the table, moving things into the kitchen to get them cleaned up, and Randi was happy to comply. Ella nudged Tommy and he nodded with a smile.

"Hey Randi, why donít you and Gwen settle the boy in for the night while Ella and I clean up here and then we can have some coffee and some adult conversation?"

The warrior looked to the bard who nodded and took her elbow, and they moved down the hall without another word. Tommy and Ella watched them out of sight before they moved, clearing the table quickly and speaking in whispers.

"You think she suspects?" Tommy asked.

"Well, she probably suspect something," Ella answered, "but I doubt she suspects the truth."

He nodded and smiled, noting the stealth the guys were using outside in the pavilion area. He hoped they would be ready in time, and he really hoped Randi appreciated the surprise.

 

 

Chapter VIII

Randi took her time cleaning Randall up, helped him go potty and change into his pajamas, then picked him up to blow raspberries on his belly. Gwen leaned on the door jamb and just watched the interplay between them, enjoying the innocent banter and fun they were having together. Randallís childish laughter rose in high-pitched giggles and Gwen smiled in sympathy with him.

Finally, Randi sat in the big rocker and the boyís chuckles died away into big smiles. He reached up with both hands, confident in his charm, and cupped Randiís face. He looked directly in the warriorís eyes and said, "Wuv, sing pwease?"

She looked back at him, then turned her attention to Gwen, extending a hand and waiting til the bard took it and sat down on the floor beside them. "What shall I sing?"

"Sing Loveís Song," Gwen said and Randi tilted her head until she realized Gwen had named the lullaby sheíd always shared with Randall. With a deep breath, the low notes carried into the room and the warrior slowly rocked back and forth in a soothing, even motion. Before long, Randallís lashes were fluttering in a vain attempt to stay awake and within minutes, his breathing evened out in sleep.

Randi held him a moment longer, enjoying the peace and innocence his sleeping face held, before easing up into a standing position. Gwen rose with her and pulled his covers aside, waiting for Randi to lay him down and the covering Randallís body.

The bard leaned over and kissed the child, then the warrior did the same, and they linked hands as they stood observing him for a moment longer.

"What is Tommy up to?" Randi questioned softly, not wanting to disturb Randallís slumber. Gwen used their joined hands and pulled them towards the door.

"Something nice, I promise. Itís a surprise youíll like," she continued, seeing the skeptical look on Randiís face.

"You promise?"

"Yep, I sure do," Gwen confirmed, lifting their hands to her lips and brushing them gently. Then she started drawing Randi from the room and moving them back towards the living area of the house. "Try to act surprised though, please. T is really excited about this."

Randi dragged her feet, but nodded to Gwen just the same. "All right," she compromised, "but if I hate it, youíre gonna owe me big time."

"Okay," the bard agreed readily, "but if I donít, youíll owe me. " She laughed. "Either way we win." Then they entered the kitchen to find Tommy and Ella sitting on the couch, looking for all the world like the cat that had swallowed the proverbial canary. Randi decided to play along, knowing Gwen was right and no matter which way things played out, they would both come out winners.

"We thought if you two were up to it, weíd take our coffee outside. Itís so nice out tonight, weíd like to take advantage of it. Especially after the weird weather earlier this week."

Now this was really standard operating procedure for them, and under normal circumstances, Randi wouldnít have wondered what was behind the request. However, sheíd agreed to try and act surprised, so she simply nodded her acquiescence. Gwen squeezed her hand and went to help Ella with the coffee while Tommy grabbed a couple kinds of cake with a sheepish grin.

"I like a bit of something to go with my coffee, and we havenít had dessert yet. Wanna grab the fudge?"

Randi couldnít stop the eyebrow that rose into her hairline at that directive. "All of it?"

Tommy had the grace to look embarrassed. "May as well," he said as nonchalantly as he could manage. "We can always bring it back in."

"Uhhhh huuuhhh," she drawled, picking up the box. "Whatever you say," motioning him to lead the way. Gwen and Ella just exchanged glances and shook their heads in tandem and followed them outside.

As soon as they stepped outdoors, it occurred to Randi what must be going on, and she decided to step up to the plate and see what kind of hit sheíd get.

"Hey, T... you still got my old drum set around here?"

"Wha... huh?" he stammered, wondering if she knew. Then his mouth caught up to his brain. "Oh, uh, yeah... yeah. Should um... should still be boxed up on the stage," motioning to the covered pavilion where the band had played many a Friday night. Her eyes followed his gesture, and she could just make out subtle movement in the darkness. She grinned covertly, excited about the prospect of what was coming.

She started moving in the direction of the drums. "Flip the lights, will ya, T?" she called out over her shoulder, stretching out and taking to the stage in a single leap. The lights came on as she reached the set, and she made quick work of unlocking the cases and setting them aside. Randi walked around the set reverently before finally taking a seat on the stool, her fingers lightly caressing each instrument in turn.

The warrior forgot her original intention while she embraced her memories. A small smile crept onto her face, and she wasnít at all surprised that the light touch on her shoulder brought Gwen into contact with her. They exchanged looks, both reliving another time with fondness before the bard extended her hands and placed a set of drum sticks into Randiís hands. Randi accepted the offering with a kiss to Gwenís knuckles, then spun the sticks and dropped right into a warm-up exercise she hadnít done in more than a year and a half.

She lost herself in the rhythm and music she was creating, peripherally aware of the gradual change in sound as one after another of the band members joined in her song. With a flourish and a feral joy that couldnít be hidden, Randi wrapped the first set on her feet. The echoes of sound hadnít even stopped reverberating before she found herself locked in a group hug by men she was happy to call friend and who werenít ashamed to be crying real tears at her return.

It lasted mere moments before they all pulled away with an embarrassed laugh. Without a word, Randi picked up her sticks and clapped them together in a countdown to starting a new song. The guys scrambled to get into place and it wasnít long before music was ringing out across the island, sounding just like old times.

 

 

"So, did you like Tommyís surprise?" Gwen asked with a knowing twinkle in her eye as they entered the bedroom much later that evening. Randi hadnít lost her grin since sheíd picked up the drumsticks and started playing, a state compounded by the happiness sheíd felt in being joined with such obvious enthusiasm by her old band mates.

Randi ran and tackled the bard to the bed, eliciting a squeal sheíd learned to appreciate and even look forward to hearing.

"RANDI!!" she said with a chuckle, pressing her hands against the warriorís broad shoulders and looking up into mirth-filled blue eyes. Randi swooped down and stole a quick kiss, before pulling back to lock gazes with Gwen.

"You know I did, you little fink! How long did you know about it?" using long fingers to her advantage to tickle the bard though her own laughter was hampering any real efforts at teasing.

"He... told me thiiiiisss... afternoon." Gwen captured the squirming digits and kissing them. "Hold that thought, love," she said, squirming out from under the warrior, who promptly fell onto her side and propped her head up on an elbow. She watched Gwen rush into the bathroom and her brow furrowed in concern.

"You all right, my bard? Youíre not getting sick or something, are ya?" half-rising from the bed.

"Iím fine, Randi... just had to pee and this is about the first chance Iíve had."

Randi chuckled and fell back onto the bed. "Yeah, it did get a little crazy. But, God... I havenít had that kinda fun in I donít know when. I missed that," she continued more softly.

Gwen came out of the bathroom and spooned behind her, relishing the contact when Randi turned in her arms and snuggled into her.

"I think... no, I KNOW the guys did too. Tommy said theyíd asked and asked until he just decided to take the bull by the horns and get everybody over to play."

"But why all the secrecy?"

"íCause heís a showman, sweetheart. You know that. He likes to...."

"He likes to turn things into a production with a dramatic flair."

Gwen laughed and Randi bounced along with her movement enjoying the sensation of being held by the bard despite the jarring.

"You have quite a way with words there, warrior mine," Gwen intoned as her chuckles slowed.

"Yeah, well, T has quite a way with flair." Randi shifted so she could look up into Gwenís eyes. "Speaking of Ė has he talked to you yet about what he wants to try with you?" At Gwenís blank stare she went on, "With your storytelling?"

"Oh, no... I just know it has something to do with formatting on his end. I think weíre supposed to sit down together in the next week or so. He wanted to let me get my bearings back, I think, before he threw anything new at me. I donít think it has anything to do with my storytelling per se." She frowned slightly. "I hope," Gwen added, though with far less confidence.

Randi tightened her hold around the bardís waist. "He told me it had something to do with settings. I was just curious if heíd talked to you about it yet." She squeezed again. "He knows better than to mess with your storytelling. You know the old adage Ė if it ainít broke...."

"... donít fix it. Yeah, but it was broke for a while there."

"Nah," Randi disagreed with a shaky grin. "It was just on hiatus."

Gwenís laughter caught them both by surprise and Randi chuckled in sympathy.

"Thank you, love," Gwen said, wiping her eyes as her amusement abated. "I needed that."

"Hmm," snuggling in deeper and closing her eyes.

"Um, Randi?" Gwen said quietly after several long, silent moments, gently brushing long, dark locks away from the warriorís peaceful face.

"Hmm? Shh... sleepiní," she said, nuzzling the soft chest she was resting on.

The bard bit her lip to keep from laughing. "Sweetheart, can we at least get undressed? We can crawl back into these positions, but I really donít wanna sleep with jeans on." She squirmed a little bit. "They leave creases and are uncomfortable."

A blue eye popped open and rolled up to looked up into Gwenís face, seeing only sweet affection staring back at her. Randi flopped over onto her back, arms spread across the mattress, allowing Gwen the chance to scoot off the bed.

"I think you just wanna get me naked," Randi said with a yawn, stretching her whole body before falling bonelessly back onto the firm surface.

Gwen cut her eyes in Randiís direction as she slipped the jeans down her legs. "Well, duh, honey," she replied with a cheeky grin. The bard slid her shirt from her body and then frowned when she took in the warriorís lack of movement. "But I donít seem to be making much progress in that direction."

Randi tucked her hands behind her head. "I was perfectly content to curl up clothed, ya know...." She paused as she considered Gwenís current state of undress. "Though I am happy to admit utter pleasure with the state of your lack thereof right at this moment." She whistled wolfishly, then she smiled as she followed the blush that made its way from Gwenís toes to the top of her head. "You do that so beautifully, ya know. Almost an art form itself... OOF!!"

Gwen landed on Randiís belly before sliding off onto her side of the bed, casually plumping up the pillows before making a show of settling down to sleep. Randi scowled.

"Hey, what about me?" said with the merest hint of a pout, motioning to her still mostly clothed body.

"Oh, sorry, love," Gwen answered and rolled onto her back, holding out her arms for Randi to crawl into.

"Uh... but... Gweeeennnnnn!"

The bard managed to keep from laughing by sheer grit, though she couldnít keep the mischief from sparkling out of her eyes. "Yes, dear?"

"Why... you... what... YOUíRE MEAN!!" Randi sputtered before collapsing onto her back beside Gwen, crossing her arms over her chest and breaking into a full-fledged pout. Gwen burst into nearly-hysterical giggles.

It took several minutes for the bard to stop laughing completely as every time she glanced towards Randi, she would be assailed by laughter all over again. The warrior was having a hard time holding her pout; the sight of so much happiness in Gwen even at her expense made her want to smile. So she settled for glaring at the ceiling until the bed stopped shaking.

"Are you done?" Randi asked with a mock growl, keeping her focus on the ceiling in order to hold her composure. She forgot to count on Gwen and grunted once more when the bard landed across her mid-section again. "OOF!!"

"Nope, now that you mention it," slowly unbuttoning the shirt Randi wore, pulling the warrior into a sitting position to slide it off her body. Randi took advantage of their arrangement to nip lightly at Gwenís pulse point, causing the bard to jump before pushing Randi back with a finger to her forehead.

"Behave," she commanded sternly, pushing the shirt down and flinging it to the floor. Then she moved down to straddle Randiís knees, stopping to tickle the bare belly which rippled in reflex.

"Hey, what happened to behaving?"

"That directive was for you, Stud, not for me. Lift up." Randi did and Gwen slid the jeans down long legs, dropping them off the end of the bed before climbing back up to the head of the bed and crawling under the cover. She situated herself while Randi watched with amusement, then extended her arms.

Randi smiled and moved back into the spot reserved for her alone, curling her longer body around Gwenís and greedily absorbing the gentle contact of the bardís fingertips on her skin. She returned the light stroking, watching in fascination as goosebumps followed in the wake of her touch.

"Lights," she called softly, relishing the semi-darkness created by the stars, the bit of moon and the phosphorescence of the waves as they crashed rhythmically on the shore. Randi hummed almost soundlessly as Gwenís touch moved into her hairline.

"This has been a good day," Randi murmured.

"Um hmm," Gwen agreed without missing a beat.

Randi tickled Gwenís ribs, causing the bard to jump and shift a little before pinching the warriorís behind.

Randi bit her lip to keep from squealing, then moaned softly when Gwen rubbed the spot sheíd just tweaked.

"You donít play fair, you know that?"

"Yep, "Gwen answered with a smile in her voice. "You wanna trade places?"

Randi snuggled deeper into the soft chest she had her head pillowed on. "Nope, she replied blissfully. "Iím very happy where Iím at... quite content."

"Me too. Go to sleep."

Randi smiled. "I love you, Gwen."

"I love you too, Sweetheart. Goodnight."

Silence was its own answer as two sets of breathing deepened into the rhythms of sleep.

 

 

Not far from the fortress where Randi was, at least as the crow flies, Reed was steeling herself for the nightmare to come. Around her, much of her clan also prepared, as they would be required to maintain the shielding she would so desperately need once Gwen arrived.

Most of them didnít understand the semantics of what was going on. Sky had simply explained what was needed, not why, and the clan had rallied behind Reed to provide whatever the seer required of them. For Sky and Reed though, the coming ordeal was a trial to be borne and they were thankful for the support they had in this place.

Rosie stepped into the kitchen and took a seat at the table. Sky placed a cup of coffee in front of her and she accepted it with an absent nod.

"Gwen is on her way. She should be to the cabin within the hour."

Sky nodded. "Are you going to meet her there? Bring her here? What?"

"We need to meet her there," Reed said from the doorway. "Sheís gonna need all the positive karma she can muster, and that place holds it for her in spades."

"Reedís right," Rosie agreed. "We have our best chance of channeling the energy weíre gonna need to get this done there."

Sky nodded. "Iíll go let everyone know itís time and have them go stake out a perimeter. Then I need to get started myself," he said, draining his coffee and rising, making his way out of the house as quickly as he could. It wouldnít take much. The tribe had gathered at the restaurant earlier when it looked like things were finally coming to a head. Now they sat patiently waiting for their work to begin.

Reed and Rosie looked at each other for a long moment. They had been strangers when this started, but time and circumstances had made them trusted friends and allies. The shamaness held out her hands palms up, and Reed placed hers palms down on top. They could feel the strength flowing between them.

They let the field build until the air around them crackled with energy and the touch they shared was almost painful in its intensity. Finally the concentration of power leveled off and they sat back with a deep breath.

"Thank you, Rosie," Reed said with deep gratitude. "Iím not sure I could survive this without you."

Rosie accepted the thanks with a smile, knowing for a fact what was coming could still obliterate all of them. "Iím glad to help, Reed. Those girls have been like my own, and the idea of Ares destroying them for sport...." She shook her head, unable to finish the thought.

"Especially with the consequences that would follow," Reed said quietly. She scrubbed her hands over her face, covering it for long moments while she simply concentrated on breathing before removing them and looking Rosie squarely in the eye.

"Do you think weíll succeed, Rosie? Honestly Ė no bullshit."

"I think Gwen coming here alone is the best chance weíre gonna have," the shamaness replied. "It all depends on how badly Randi wants it."

"Yeah, but does Randi want it?"

Rosie shrugged. "I hope so, because otherwise...." She shrugged again, though her tension was evident. "Weíll know for sure very soon. Until then, we have to protect what we have so weíre ready."

The seer smiled tiredly. "I know, Rosie. Sorry... I am just so tired and ready for this to be over Ė one way or another."

"I know, my friend. I promise it will be soon. That much I know. The rest? Well, weíll see."

"I just hope Randi does before itís too late to do anything about it."

 

 

 

Randi looked up as lightning struck close enough to make her hair stand on end and wondered just how long she had been sitting in the rain getting thoroughly soaked. The rain continued to fall in her face and it forced her eyes closed again, bringing the happy images back to the fore. She realized as she sat there defeated that she hadnít seen that playfulness in either herself or Gwen since theyíd come to this location.

A hand on her shoulder caused her eyes to open, and she looked up into Tinyís grim face. Randi understood for the first time just what this had cost not only her and Gwen, but everyone.

The two Sabres looked at one another for a long moment before Tiny extended his hand. "Címon, Empress. You need to get back inside before you catch your death."

Randi shuddered at the title and gazed at him with sad blue eyes. "Please donít call me that," she whispered before accepting his hand and letting him help her rise to her feet. "I hate that worse than Gwen hated Ďconsortí. She paused, looked at the ring still clenched in her fist then asked seriously but just as quietly, "You donít think me dying would be the best for all concerned, Tiny? It would solve a lot of problems."

"Oh no," the Navy man answered unequivocally. "Youíre not quitting," he said, though there appeared to be more he wanted to say. Instead he bit his lips and continued to escort Randi back into the fortress she now called home.

"Say it," Randi commanded in a low, fierce tone. "Címon, Tiny. Youíve never held back before. Why start now?" with just a hint of a sneer in her voice, hoping to goad him in doing... something. At least heíd stand a chance of holding his own against her if they went head to head, and right now, she need the release that fighting would allow her.

He gazed at her sadly, knowing her aim and refusing to be baited. Her shoulders sagged in defeat. She knew the words he wouldnít give voice to, and she knew he was completely correct in his silent assessment. She wouldnít give up, she wouldnít quit and one way or another, she would find a way to make things right again. Or at least as right as she could. Randi turned her eyes in the direction Gwenís shuttle had taken. Some things just couldnít be undone.

They entered the fortress and dripped a trail all the way to the cavernous bedroom. Without discussion, Randi went right into the bathroom to get out of her wet things, and Tiny picked up a towel and began to dry himself off as best he could.

Randi emerged from the bathroom clad in a robe and toweling out her hair. "Here," she said briskly, shoving another robe in his direction. "Itíll be a little snug, but at least itís dry."

The big man nodded his thanks and moved rapidly towards the bathroom, stripping out of his wet things and into the dry fleece with a sense of relief. Then he hung up his clothes next to Randiís and made his way back to her room.

She was standing before a now active fireplace, a glass of merlot in her hand as she stared unseeing into the flames. She motioned to the open bottle and the empty glass. "Help yourself."

Tiny did so, though with much less wine than Randi had. He sipped it slowly, appreciating the warmth it put in his belly, but unwilling to lose his sensibilities. Not now Ė when they were this close to finishing everything.

Randi continued to watch the fire though she was aware of every movement in the otherwise silent room. Finally she cleared her throat and asked, "Whereís Reed?"

Tiny stared at her back for a long moment before moving over to the window to look out at the expanse of darkness. He could feel and hear the ferocity of the storm as though it was an entity reaching out to him, but he was only allowed to glimpse the lashing rain on the window when the infrequent flash of lightning permitted it.

"She went home," he replied into the silence, careful to omit exactly which home sheíd returned to. Theyíd cast everything on this one last gamble and if they lost.... He shook his head and took another swallow of wine. They wouldnít. Too much depended on their success. As long as they could keep Ares out of the loop.... Tiny shuddered. As a warrior, he disdained the war god to the point of loathing. But he only had to maintain the charade of tolerance a little while longer.

He felt Randiís gaze on the back of his neck and he turned to meet her eyes. They were filled with sorrow, pain and strangely enough, determination. He smiled wanly at her. "She couldnít stay. The energy Ė the rift Ė was killing her." Not to mention Gwen needed her to guide her spirit quest, he thought but didnít say aloud. Randi would understand things soon enough.

"They why...?" The warrior motioned around them. He got the hint.

"Because my duty lies here, Empress," he said bowing his head slightly and her head dropped. Despite everything, Tiny had remained a faithful, loyal friend and confidante.

"Are you sure she doesnít need you?" remembering the grounding Tiny had always provided for the seer and for the first time in a while, putting someone elseís needs and desires above her own.

"Not like you do, Empress."

There was no real answer Randi could give to that statement without admitting to something she was unwilling to yet. The silence fell thick between them, and she clenched her hands again. Gwenís ring cut into her palm as she cast her mind back to when things had first started to unravel for her and Gwen.

 

 

The next few weeks settled into a comfortable routine for the couple. The weekdays were filled with work, though Randi was happy to note that Brad wasnít seen in Gwenís vicinity. Sheíd gotten another missive, this one purporting to be from the Wizards, and the warrior had more than a sneaking suspicion that Brad had something to do with it making its way to her.

Her talk with Tiny had been less than satisfying, and had she not known him so well, she would have suspected him of dissimilation when they spoke. As it was he was vague about a good many things Ė enough to cause her hackles to rise and set her back up.

So she did what she had always done. Randi began doing her own research Ė putting out feelers and looking for answers she hoped not to find... at least not if they were going to be what her instincts led her to believe they would.

She didnít share any of this with Gwen. She saw no reason to upset the bard for possibilities. Time enough for that when... *IF* they pan out. I could be all wrong about this. Though the Sabre in her knew better. Her intuition in situations like this had never led her astray. She was being targeted specifically.

However, until they had precise information on where exactly the threat was coming from, Randi was unwilling to share the danger with Gwen. In her opinion, they had been tormented enough. She saw no point in adding to it without substantiated proof, knowing Gwen would kick her ass if she found out she was hiding information like this. But the rules of conduct that had kept her alive for all of her adult life kicked in, and though there was no change in her demeanor, Randi felt the difference. She knew the Marine Sabre had come home.

Evenings were spent in front of the fireplace, snuggling, cuddling, laughing, talking and making love together. It was the most peaceful time theyíd shared collectively, aside from their honeymoon, and they treasured the time together Ė both the quality and the quantity. Mornings found them in their favorite position in bed, with Gwenís head on Randiís shoulder, legs and arms entwined until the only way to tell them apart was the natural colors of their skin.

Still, every morning Gwen spent some time tracing Randiís features as she committed them to tactile memory. Not that they werenít embedded in the depths of her soul, but it was comforting and familiar and gave her a sense of reassurance she still craved even months after her kidnapping by Ben. And it was a ritual they had both come to appreciate in that it reminded them of who and what they were to one another.

Fridays brought band practice once again and both Randi and Gwen found themselves looking forward to the weekly event. Saturdays were their own, usually spent on the bike going to their spot and always stopping at Rosieís for a barbeque lunch. Sundays were set aside for chores and talking to Gwenís folks on the vid phone. Geoff was making great progress according to his doctors and therapists, though when questioned directly, he admitted to being less than satisfied with his improvement.

About a month after their return from their honeymoon, Tommy asked for some time to talk to them on Sunday afternoon. It was Tinyís call that came as an unwelcome surprise.

 

 

Chapter IX

"Címon in, T," Randi said, motioning him towards the living room. "Gwen will be right out." She smiled and moved toward the kitchen. "You want something to drink?"

"Nah, Iím good right now." He looked at his watch then gestured towards the bedroom. "She all right?" Gwen was noted for her punctuality and sheíd known he was due after lunch. It wasnít like her not to be waiting for his arrival.

Randi pulled a bottle of water from the fridge and came back out into the living area, perching on the arm of the sofa behind Tommy. "Yeah, just a little nervous. Youíve never really taken her aside to do anything with her storytelling, and with all the problems she had getting back in the groove...." Randi shrugged. "I think it spooked her a little."

"God almighty!" Tommy covered his face with his hands and shook his head, then he blew out a breath and clapped his hands together, bringing them to his lips. "And sheís been thinking about this for the past month, hasnít she? Itís been driving her nuts, and I just kept putting off talking to her to give her a chance to settle back into a routine. Damn! Iím sorry, Randi. I never meant...."

The warrior held up her hands. "I know, T. I explained it to her, but still...." She chuckled, not seeing Gwen come up behind her. "I think itís that bard ego thing."

A pair of arms slid around her neck, and Randi would have audibly gulped if it wouldnít have ruined her warrior image. Gwen let her nails rake across Randiís chest and up the sides of her neck, relishing the shiver she felt pass through the warriorís body. "What bard ego, hmm?"

Tommy sat very quietly, enjoying the by-play between them. It was a rare, personal glimpse into their life together even as well as he knew them. He valued the opportunity to see them like one another, care for one another, love one another.

"Um, sweetheart?" Randi said quietly, trying to turn away from Tommy as much as possible and keep their conversation private. "Tommyís here. Maybe we should talk about this later."

"Oh," Gwen responded in a normal voice, not quite able to repress the twinkle in her eyes. "I donít think heíd mind waiting at all. In fact, I bet heíd be really interested to hear more details about this bard ego thing." She turned towards Tommy who was doing his level best to keep a straight face. "Whaddya say, T? Wouldnít you like a little more insight on this?"

At that precise moment, the vid phone began chirping, causing a complete change in the atmosphere in the room Ė relief from Randi and resignation from Gwen. The sound sent an odd chill skittering up her spine and she just knew Randi was gonna use it as an excuse not to have to sit through her meeting with Tommy. Not that Gwen could blame Randi, but for the first time since she was a child, Gwen had a distinct twinge of nervousness flowing through her, and sheíd wanted Randiís support for whatever Tommy was going to tell her.

The warrior looked at Tommy. "Can you let me answer that before we get started?" she asked, knowing from the ring tone that it was Tiny. When sheíd returned from the dead and severed most of her ties to the Sabres, sheíd taken the time to reset her phone with different sounds for different individuals. These were folks sheíd been friends with for most of her adult life that she hadnít wanted to lose contact with and since she no longer had any Ďofficialí contact with them, sheíd had a great time picking out sounds to match personalities. She couldnít have explained why, but at the moment, she was profoundly grateful she had.

"Sure, short stuff. Iím not in any hurry. Go take your call."

Gwen merely squeezed her hand and looked at her with gratitude. Randi brushed the bardís cheek with the back of her knuckles before moving over to her security area and keying in the codes to answer the vid phone, placing it on the smaller computer monitor and not the large wall screen. Her gut told her this was not something she wanted broadcast yet... if ever.

The Sabre was facing the room, though neither Gwen nor Tommy could see her actual expression. But the bard felt the tautness appear in her shoulders, and even as she got something for herself and Tommy to drink, she wondered what had happened to bring that tension into Randiís posture.

Randi made arrangements with Tiny, and closed the call. Then she leaned forward and focused on nothing for a long moment before dropping her Sabre mask into place. Though sheíd put it away almost a full year previously, the façade came back to her now with the comfort of an old friend returning.

"Sweetheart?" Randi smiled when two arms wrapped around her neck affectionately. She leaned back into the embrace and gazed up at Gwen.

"Do you know how much I love you?"

A frown creased Gwenís brow momentarily as her mind attempted to jump the tracks it had been running on, but was almost immediately replaced by a smile as the words registered.

"Almost as much as I love you?"

"More, actually," Randi said without missing a beat. She put her hands on Gwenís arms and returned the hug as well as she could. "But we can talk about it later," she added in a whisper. A nod in Tommyís direction showed he had moved to the French doors and was doing his level best not to watch the proceedings between them.

Gwen planted a kiss near Randiís ear. "And weíll talk about whatís bothering you later too, right?" feeling the tension running just beneath the surface.

"Címon," Randi said as she rose and extended a hand towards Gwen. "Letís let Tommy off the hook. I think the suspense is killing him."

The bard dragged the warrior to a stop. "We will talk later." Not a question this time.

Randi nodded. "Yeah. We will."

 

 

"Iíd like to try a couple different formats, Gwen." Tommy jumped right to business when they were all seated again. "Iíd like to see you in more personal, intimate surrounding Ė something we canít do with your tours, but that we could utilize for your broadcasts."

"Different how?"

"Well, Iíd like to do something exclusively with children, very similar to what you do at band practice. Bring in a few children with you so the story is directed to them. We can put you in a variety of settings, but the fact is, everything about your storytelling changes for a small group. Your focus, your cadence, the tone... even the story itself. Iíd like to try a couple specials doing this."

Gwen sat silently for a few minutes, reviewing his words and envisioning what he saw. Tommy sat quietly chewing his lip and Randi merely sat, her thoughts hundreds of miles away. Finally, Gwen turned her gaze back to him and smiled.

"I like it. I think itís a good idea and it should work really well. Youíre right Ė my delivery, everything changes when I am telling stories to the kids. And itís new... different. It will make a nice performance twist as well. Bet I can even work it into live performance."

Tommy laughed. "No bet. I know you can."

"So whatís the other idea?"

He looked at Randi, praying that she wouldnít go thru the ceiling at his next suggestion. Gwen caught his pensive look and tilted her head in question. For her part, Randi allowed Tommyís regard to bring her back from wherever sheíd gone and her blue eyes drilled into his.

"What are you thinking, Thomas?" with a glare and a growl.

He held up his hands in petition. "Now, Randi, hear me out first before you say no."

"No."

Gwen lightly slapped the warriorís arm. "Be nice and let him talk." She turned back to Tommy. "Go ahead, T. Letís hear it."

He swallowed hard. "I want you to tell stories to Randi." Then he sat back and waited for the explosion.

There wasnít one. There was no sound at all. Their only visible response was a rapid blinking of eyelashes as they tried to process the words theyíd heard come out of his mouth. Finally, he couldnít stand the suspense any longer.

"Look, itís not as bad as it sounds. In fact, itís pretty damned clever. See, Gwen, one of the greatest gifts that you have is your ability to craft your story to your audience. Youíve always done it to some degree and putting you in front of the kids just takes it a step further."

"Right. I got that. What does that have to do with me telling stories to Randi?"

Tommy flushed, the weight of both their stares more than a little unnerving, and hurried on. "Well, your focus with her is even more intense. I, um... Iíd like to see what would happen if you turned that focus on your storytelling."

"No."

"But...."

"No, Tommy. The stories I have... the stories I share with Randi are personal and private. Iím not willing to... Iím not *going* to share them with the world. Thatís not what theyíre for and itís not up for negotiation."

"Huh?" He looked at her in honest befuddlement. "Oh... OH! No, no. God almighty!! If youíre talking about what I think youíre talking about.... Are you talking about the Soulmatesí stories?"

"No and yes. Itís complicated."

"Of course it is. You two are involved." He took a breath to continue, but stopped when Randi held up a hand.

"Let it go for now, T. Gwen and I need some time to talk about it."

Gwen looked at Randi like sheíd grown another head. "Randi?"

"Itís all right, love. I think I know what he has in mind and it would fit right in with what we were talking about earlier." Randi gazed directly into Gwenís eyes, smiling when she saw comprehension dawn.

"Okay, T," Gwen said without taking her eyes from Randiís. "Weíll talk about it."

"Good, good. Thatís good. Um... do yaíll wanna come over for dinner?"

Rand and Gwen looked at one another a moment longer before subtly nodding and turning to Tommy in tandem. He just shook his head as they reached for one another.

"Why donít yaíll come over here? Itís nice... we can cook out on the barbeque. Steaks, maybe?"

"Sounds good. Will we have light for it, though?"

"Weíll just open up the boathouse Ė no problem."

Tommy smiled. "Weíll be by around dusk then. You want us to bring anything?"

"Nope, though I doubt Ella will be able to stand that," Randi said with a smirk. "So weíll take whatever she feels like making."

"Banana pudding," Gwen said without hesitation. Randiís eyebrows jerked upwards and Tommy laughed outright.

"Banana pudding it is. Weíll see yaíll in a little while." And he left without a backwards glance.

Gwen waited until she heard the door close before her eyes became serious and she tugged on Randiís hand. The warrior looked down and her brow creased at Gwenís serious expression. Her own countenance became more serious as a result, and she allowed the bard to draw her down to the couch. Gwen sat and pulled Randi down until she was lying down with her head in Gwenís lap. She closed her eyes in sheer bliss when the bardís fingers began running through her hair.

"Now," Gwen asked as she felt Randi relax under her ministrations. "What upset you so badly about that call? And donít even think about dissimulating for me, Miranda Valiant. I know it did. I could see it, and I could feel it."

The warrior opened her eyes to find Gwenís green gaze fixated on her intently. She looked for a long time, finding love reflected back to her first and foremost, but also strength, compassion and understanding. And she realized in that moment in a way she really hadnít before that Gwen was not only deserving of the truth, she was more than worthy of the trust that truth required. Sheíd earned that right. Not that she hadnít known it before, but Randi suddenly felt it click and settle into place.

Gwen watched a myriad of emotions and thoughts manifest themselves in Randiís expressive eyes. She smiled when she saw Randi reach a decision that brought peace to her visage.

"That was Tiny who called."

"Uh huh."

"He um... he did some inquiring for me. It seems...." She took a deep breath. This was harder than Randi had imagined it would be. "We're being targeted... or at least I am."

Gwen inhaled sharply, the only indication she understood what Randi had said. The warrior waited patiently, knowing there would be questions. She didn't have to wait long.

"Do they know who... or why?"

"We have several leads, but nothing definite."

"What do you mean 'WE', Randi? This is not your business anymore. You need to let them handle it."

Randi sat up, knowing the next bit was not going to be pretty. She held Gwen's hands, though, needing to maintain the personal contact. "I can't. Even if I wanted to, this is not the kind of thing the Sabres deal with. This is a personal threat. I need to take care of it myself."

"No."

"Excuse me?"

"No. We'll deal with it if and when we have to, but you are not gonna go out there and put yourself on the line for some sort of perceived threat. No."

"Yes," Randi said just as firmly, girding her loins for battle in an arena she was not generally comfortable in. "Sweetheart, if I can go find the threat, the odds are really good that it will tie into to other wrongdoing and then the Sabres can step in and take care of the problem. But they can't just go for me."

Gwen shifted and eased her hands from Randi's grip, standing up and moving away from the warrior. Randi felt the withdrawal like a physical pain, and bit her lip to keep from crying out from the ache it caused in her soul. Her hands dropped into her lap and she watched as Gwen wrapped hers around herself as though to shield herself from something.

For a few minutes, it was completely silent as Gwen paced and Randi watched with an aching heart. Finally the bard turned and faced the warrior, merely looking at her for long moments before dropping onto the table in front of the couch. She clasped Randi's hands, surprised by the chill she felt, and gently chafing them to restore some of their customary warmth.

"Take me with you?"

Randi slid a hand from Gwen's and cupped her face, sliding it into the short, soft golden locks she loved to caress. She smiled sadly. "I can't, love. You don't have the training for this and if something were to happen to you.... This is what I do, Gwen. It's what I'm good at. Besides, it's just a scouting mission. I shouldn't be gone more than a couple days."

"I don't like it," Gwen said flatly. "I don't like it at all. There are just too many things that could go wrong. It could be a set-up."

Randi smiled again, this one a little more genuine. "You're right... it could be. But I have contingency plans for things like that. Trust me, Little One Ė No one... NO ONE is gonna take this away from us. I won't let them. That is why I have to do this."

Gwen stood just enough to slide into Randi's lap. "I don't like it," she reiterated. "But I do understand this is something you have to handle... FOR NOW. But I want you home safe, you got it? You do what you need to, and ONLY what you need to for the Sabres to take over and finish. And you come home."

"Gwen, I promise I will do only what needs to be done, then I'll come home. All right?"

Gwen gazed into earnest blue eyes, seeing the love and trust held there within for her alone. She leaned her forehead against Randi's and closed her eyes.

"Thank you for trusting me with this, love. I know it's hard. Not the trusting me part, but the giving up of what had been a survival mechanism for you for so long. I appreciate it. And thank you for loving me enough to see my side."

Randi smiled and hugged Gwen tightly enough to her that green eyes opened in alarm. "Breathing! Breathing!" she wheezed. She took a deep breath and squeezed Randi with all her might, feeling them fall over onto the couch and giggling in sheer relief.

"Thank you for loving me enough to fight for me," Randi whispered. "You're the first person to care that much."

Gwen shook her head in disagreement. "Nope. I'm just the lucky one who got away with it." She wiggled around, trying to get up, but Randi's sudden weight on her made it fairly impossible for her to move much.

"Going somewhere?" in a purr.

"Well, I thought I'd better go make sure we had steaks and whatnot for dinner. But *someone* doesn't seem to wanna let me up."

Randi pouted just slightly. "I'm comfortable?"

Gwen chuckled, earning her a mock glare which made her mirth turn into a full-fledged belly laugh.

"Hmph!" Randi pouted. "I can see how much I am loved here," sitting back and folding her arms over her chest Ė a move somewhat defeated by the fact that Gwen merely followed her and nuzzled into her neck.

"We can discuss the state of my affections for you later and in much greater depth and detail, but for now we need to get things ready for family dinner tonight."

Randi groaned then stood, casually knocking Gwen onto the couch and slowly moving away as those green eyes fasten on her with wicked intent.

"All right, fine. I'll go open up the boathouse and you can... WHOA!!" finding herself with an armful of feisty bard. "Yeeeessss?" she drawled

"Be nice to me," Gwen said. "Or you'll be making excuses to Tommy that he will never believe." She bit Randi's pulse point, then slid down her body until she reached the floor. "And I guarantee you it will be a long night," eyes sparkling.

"You, my bard, are a wicked, wicked woman. God, I love you."

 

 

Randi did have to make excuses to Tommy, though not for the hickeys Gwen had left on her body. Thankfully, the weather turned cool again overnight so covering them up with clothing was a necessity. Instead, she merely had to tell him she had business out of town. He wondered, but she put him off with a look and he let it go, knowing it really wasn't his place and she wouldn't share with him anyway.

"How long?"

"Should only be a couple days."

"You'll be careful?"

"I promised Gwen I would. I should be home by Wednesday at the latest, but if something comes up I'll let you know. Or Gwen will."

"All right, Randi. We'll hold the fort down for a day or two. But don't take to long, will ya? I like having you around on a regular basis."

"I never thought I'd say it, T, but I like it too. Stability is an amazing thing, ya know? See ya Wednesday." His eyes followed her out his door and out the front. Then he closed his eyes and offered up a prayer of protection on her behalf.

 

 

"I donít like it, Randi. Thatís not the way we operate and you know it."

"Tiny, this is personal. There is no reason to involve the Sabres as a unit. Besides, itís only a scouting mission. Iím in and out in two days. We have done that before, ya know."

"Randi, rescuing Gwen was personal too, and we didnít let you go alone then either."

The blue gaze hardened perceptibly, and Tiny flinched when it was turned in his direction. "That wasnít the same thing, Tiny, and you know it. That *was* a Sabre matter... something that should have been resolved years before Gwen became involved."

Tiny held up his hands and took a step back. "Whoa! Whoa! Take it easy, Randi. Iím on your side, ya know. Thereís just something about this... do you remember your Shakespeare? My thumbs are prickling."

Randi snorted. "I always suspected you of having a dramatic streak. Nice to finally have that confirmed," she said with a smirk. "Look, Tiny," she said blowing out a breath. "I appreciate the Intel, but we donít know for sure that this skinhead Faction is gonna be where we expect them to be. After all, how many times have we gone out looking only to have them be somewhere else? Until it becomes more general and less personal, it is my responsibility to do what I can to protect myself and my family."

"Youíre not gonna be dissuaded about this are you?" Tiny asked a bit peeved. "Randi, I thought we were family too."

"You are, my friend. That is my point." She smiled in his direction. "Donít worry, Tiny. When the time comes, you and the rest of my Sabre family will be called on to do your part. Right now itís time for me to do mine."

The Navy man looked at his Marine counterpart for a very long moment. "Donít do anything stupid, all right? I donít wanna have to be the one to have to explain it to Gwen. Not again. I did that once, and it was... donít ask me to do it a second time."

Randi clasped his arm. "In and out, Tiny Ė my word as a Sabre." She looked him in the eye and waited til she got a slight nod before she squeezed. Then she released him and walked out and he watched her go.

"But Randi," he murmured, closing his eyes in defeat. "Youíre not a Sabre anymore."

 

 

Randi scouted carefully around the warehouse area Tinyís intelligence reports hadnít indicated were a possible location for the targets she sought. This was actually a second site... one Tiny and the Sabres had no knowledge of.

The first locale sheíd visited had indeed held a very few members of the Skinhead Faction, and true to her word, Randi had done nothing but scout the location. It was obviously set up as some sort of decoy they expected to be destroyed without thought in the event someone came looking for it. They didnít think anyone would take the time to scout it out and look around, so getting around the security in the small building and its systems had been childís play. Randi had been overjoyed to sharpen hacking skills long dormant. In mere minutes, she struck pay dirt, finding not only proof that she and Gwen were being personally targeted by the group as a whole, but also other positions around the globe that housed individual factions that functioned as regional headquarters. Randi had cause to wonder why such vital information was placed in what she found to be such an insecure spot. She never even realized when she slipped into Sabre mode.

So now she stood outside a second address Ė one which if the Skinheadsí own information was correct, held at least one member of their upper echelon. There was no physical security outside the building; that would have drawn unwanted attention. But there was plenty of surveillance and security equipment, even if it wasnít quite state-of-the-art.

Randi blended into the shadows, taking her time and breaking the code that held the door shut. The man standing to one side never had the chance to realize he was dead before she wiped her knife free of his blood and let him slip to the floor.

The next two looked at one another in startlement for the split second it took them to see the shuriken embed itself in the otherís forehead. Randi stopped to retrieve them, gritting her teeth as the blade slid along bone.

Four more fell to crossbow bolts before she reached a second set of doors. These were monitored visually and sonically, and she took a moment to catch her breath and clean her tools while she considered her next move. That they would all die was never in question. How she could best accomplish this without doing damage to herself was what she now contemplated.

With very little effort on her part, the visual security met an abrupt end. Then she put the plugs into her ears, knowing that an investigation would follow. She was fairly certain they would remember their own damned security measure, but on the off chance that they didnít, she wanted to be prepared.

The noise they set off when they stepped through the doors was excruciating, and two of them fell to the floor clutching their heads and keening in agony for a long minute before succumbing to the pain. The other two looked down in disgust and shook their heads. Then they drew their lasers. They werenít taking any chances now that their force had been cut in half; they knew it would be several minutes before reinforcements would arrive.

Randi sighed. Sheíd never cared for fighting with lasers. It seemed to take all the skill and challenge out of victory. However, she knew also that she was still outnumbered and her Sabre training made her want to expedite the matter in the same manner as she was approached in.

The two men were moving slowly and carefully, not knowing what to expect, but wary of whatever had managed to find them here and breach their defenses. Nevertheless, slow did not help and careful wasnít enough when Randi casually stepped out into the hallway and dropped them where they stood. Then she nonchalantly made her way to the door where the two unconscious men lay across the threshold holding the door ajar while the sonic alarm continued to pulse and wail. Without thought, she aimed her laser at one and then the other, pulling the trigger as negligently as though she were taking a Sunday afternoon stroll. Then she crossed the threshold to see what else awaited her in this place.

The next six, those that were coming to back up their fallen brothers, were taken out by a flash grenade before they even had an opportunity to draw weapons against her. Then it fell to singles and doubles Ė the twist of a neck, the slash of her knife, a blade to the chest, a shuriken to the forehead and the occasional crossbow bolt to the eye. There was a perverse pleasure taken in that particular method because of the hours of training theyíd spent perfecting the technique though the sucking sound upon the boltís removal was a little more graphic than she liked. Still, it did was it was supposed to do and by the time she reached the one who was considered the leader of this faction, nearly one hundred members of the skinheads lay decimated in the warehouse that had previously been their safe haven.

Randi was covered in blood and bits of gore as she approached him. He never saw her Ė he never heard her Ė until it was too late. He felt her touch upon his throat and gasped for air, his eyes going wide at the specter she made standing in front of them. He felt as though he was gazing at Death herself.

"You know who I am?" she asked in a whisper.

He nodded furiously, unable to do more than gurgle a response.

"Why?" The man frowned, not understanding. "Why did you target Gwen and me? Why did you warn me?"

He gasped. "Was... told... foll... owed... instr... be... oth...." He fell over convulsing, and Randi watched dispassionately until his body stilled. Then she set about making an accident.

 

 

Ares sat back, enjoying the warmth and lust that flowed through his veins from Randiís actions. He regretted that she would still be unable to remember her actions, but he relished them and the power he gained from them unknowingly. Besides, he was keeping a record, and one day, when he was able to claim her openly as his queen, he would take great pride and joy in sharing them with her. Until such time, he would appreciate her actions enough for both of them.

"Oh, Randi," he growled low in his throat. "Can you feel the darkness yet? Do you understand it? I canít wait until you are finally mine... body, heart and soul. Finally, FINALLY I will have my due!!"

Strangely, though, his laughter was hollow and did not echo through the halls of Olympus.

 

 

When Gwen arrived home from Midas Wednesday evening, she found Randi sound asleep in their bed wrapped around Gwenís pillow. Nothing seemed to rouse her, and her mind flashed back to similar happenings. She crawled into bed and curled herself around the warrior, hoping she could locate Randi in their dreamscape Ė wondering what could have gone so wrong to have caused this. The bard never saw the blood and gore. The cleaning closet had rinsed it all away before she came home. But it couldnít remove it from Randiís subconscious mind, and it was there Gwen hoped to find some answers.

 

 

Chapter X

Gwen got up frustrated. Sheíd been unable to find Randi, and she felt in her very soul it was important. Something had happened to wipe the warrior completely out and she clearly remembered the darkness that had sent Randi down for the count the last time. The bard chanced to wonder if something aside from a reaction to the scar medication had taken place that first time in the park, knowing what she did now, but knew there was no way to find an answer to that on her own.

She moved to the vid phone. Hopefully, she could find some of the answers she needed so she could find Randi in their dreams. She input her information and waited.

"Gwen! This is a pleasant surprise. How are ya?"

"Iím...." She blew out a frustrated breath. "Tiny, where did Randi go and what did she find?"

The Navy chief blinked at her stupidly. He hadnít expected... well, things certainly had changed between them. He thought back wistfully to the days before Gwen understood who they were or what they did. Heíd never had to worry about being broadsided by questions like these. On the other hand, he wouldnít change the life Randi and Gwen had earned for themselves either. Guess thereís no give without some take he thought to himself.

"TINY!" Gwen growled.

"Sorry, Gwen. Woolgathering there for a minute. She just went on a brief scouting mission Ė in and out kinda thing. She found what we believe is a decoy operation, so weíve gotta go digging and see what else we can find, because there is obviously more there."

"Youíre sure? I mean, nothing else happened?"

Tinyís expression changed only subtly, but Gwen was watching for the nuances, and felt him come more alert and wary with her question. "Why do you ask?"

"Because she came home and collapsed. I was just concerned she might have gotten hurt or something."

Tiny relaxed perceptibly. "Nope. I debriefed her myself. She was a little frustrated over the set-up she found, but she was unhurt. Sheíd probably just out of shape."

"Excuse me?" Gwen asked with a raised eyebrow, knowing exactly what sort of shape Randi was in. "Tiny, if anything, she is in better shape than she was in before...." trailing off, knowing where those thoughts led.

Tiny chuckled. "Iíll take your word for that, Gwen. No, I meant mentally. This kind of stuff can be... hell, it *is* very exhausting, even when youíre doing it regularly, and Randi has deliberately let those skills rust." He became serious, a kernel of worry gnawing at the back of his mind. "Let her rest. If youíre still concerned when she gets up, or if sheís not up by say, tomorrow afternoon, let me know, will ya? I didnít want her going by herself, but you know how she is when sheís decided something."

Gwen chuckled. "Yeah, Iíve run into that a time or two myself. Thanks, Tiny. I was a little concerned. This is all... a little new for me. I mean, she never let me see before, ya know?"

"Yeah, hon. I understand what you mean. Sleeping or meditating is the easiest way to decompress, and like I said, sheís really not in shape for this kind of work anymore. I...."

"Tiny, do you think she was in danger going out?" when the silence had grown too long.

"No, Gwen. Not at all or she wouldnít have been given the information. Randi was the best... still is the best, actually. Her mind is just not in the same frame of thinking that it was before." He saw the flash of... concern? Anger? Frustration? flicker across her eyes. "Gwen, donít take it to heart. This was a one time thing. Something she did because it was personal. I donít expect it to continue."

The bard tried to smile, not liking the feeling that worried at her guts. "I imagine youíre right, Tiny. Now that sheís gotten yaíll involved, maybe she will be content to stay out of it." She paused and thought about how that sounded. "No offense, but you know what I mean."

"Yep, I sure do, and I canít in all fairness say I blame you for that attitude either. Weíll do what we can to keep it from becoming any more personal."

"Thanks, Tiny... and thanks for letting me worry in your ear. Itís a little different when I know what Iím worrying over."

Tiny smiled compassionately. "I know, Gwen. Welcome to the elite Sabre family. Anytime you need to ask questions or vent or just need someone to worry to, you know how to reach me. Day or night, hon, Reed and I are here for you both."

"I know that, Tiny, and I canít tell you how I appreciate it. It works both ways, ya know."

"I know, and when it gets warmer, we may just drop in on the two of you for a few days."

Gwen gave the big man a genuine smile this time. "If Reed can manage, weíd love to have yaíll. Just let me know when."

"Absolutely," Tiny laughed. "Itís a date."

Gwen cut the connection feeling better, but still needing answers for the nagging upset in her belly. She looked carefully in the directory, but couldnít find a listing for Sky, so she put in a search request and went to fix herself a bite of supper.

The information was waiting for her when she returned from the kitchen and she placed her call, hoping the chieftain would be able to provide her with some of the answers she sought.

"Iím unavailable at the moment. Please leave a message."

Gwen dropped her head onto the console in sheer disappointment. She might get her answers, but they werenít going to be in time to help her today. She grit her teeth, then left a message for Sky to call her as soon as he was able, making it possible for him to cut into any other communications. Then she decided to call and talk to her folks... just because.

 

 

"Geoff, did Gwen seem a little off to you tonight?" Jill rubbed his legs hard ensuring the best circulation she could administer.

Geoff thought about their recent conversation with their daughter. "I dunno, sweetheart. She... mmm... seemed a little... ow... uptight. I-yi-yi... I put it down to... ow... her returning to performance and...ummmm... those new formats she and Tommy are working on. Ouch. You think it was... hmmm... more than that?" He groaned every time Jill hit another knot in the muscles of his legs. Slowly, surely, Geoff was regaining his mobility, but it was coming at a steep price.

It was never going to be the same as it had been, but he had been losing his strength and abilities for years Ė his accident merely hastened the process. Some days, when the pain was overwhelming, he wondered why he was fighting so hard to regain something that would never, could never be fully restored. Then he caught the look on Jillís face as she cared for him and realized aside from not wanting to be a burden to her or himself if he was perfectly honest, he wanted to be able to love her completely again. Heíd never realized how he took that for granted between them, until that ability was taken away. And though sheíd never complained, *he* was less than satisfied with what he was able to do Ė for her and with her.

So he pushed everyday, hoping to make just a little more progress, gain a little more control, feel a little more sensation. And every night he paid the price for his impatience, though admittedly, some nights were definitely worse than others. Tonight he put his pain and exhaustion aside to consider what Jill had said. She watched him drop into an inward study at her question, so she continued her massage and let him think.

Finally he turned his attention back to Jill. "Can I ask what makes you think there is something wrong?"

Jill shrugged and narrowed her eyes in thought. "Just a feeling. She seemed off-balance, almost distant. Call it a mom thing."

Geoff cursed himself silently for not paying closer attention to Gwenís attitude and mood. He gave Jill a smile, though. "A mom thing, huh? Well, I canít claim that, but since your mom thing detector went off, weíll keep an eye on her next time and see if we can figure out what the problem is. It could be sheís just tired too. I seem to remember being a newlywed could be exhausting." He smiled sadly at her.

Jill snorted. "I seem to recall being an old married and being exhausted just last night, old man," seeing the unexpected delight in his eyes and getting the grin sheíd been hoping for in response. "Now let me finish up this massage. Some of us need a little rest and recovery time, ya know."

Though he would never have believed it, he fell in love with her just a little more right then, and they put aside all other concerns and basked in the warmth they felt in being together. Tomorrow would be soon enough to worry about shadowy trepidations.

 

 

Gwen called Tommy just before bed, letting him know that Randi had returned and explaining to him that neither of them would likely be in to work the following day. For that ability alone, Gwen was thrilled for her departure from teaching. It had been much harder to simply take a day off with little or no notice when she had students to consider.

"Is she all right, Gwen?"

"Yeah, T. Just exhausted, and Iíd rather not leave her alone. Iím gonna start working on some new kids stories to go with that new format," saying nothing about the second option. She and Randi had yet to discuss that, and she still wasnít sure she wanted to commit to something so personal being exposed to the world.

"Thatís fine, hon. You let me know when you feel comfortable enough to go live with it and weíll set up a crew. Iím working on a list of locations for you to pick and choose from. I thought weíd keep it near home for now."

Gwen smiled. "Well, Iíve got a couple of ideas in that direction myself. Itíll be interesting to see if we are on the same wavelength."

Tommy laughed. "Bet we are." He turned away from the monitor for a moment and nodded his head before turning back. "Ella said she will drop by tomorrow and bring lunch for yaíll." His voice dropped to a loud whisper. "Nod and say yes, please. I think she is ready for some good girl talk."

Now it was the bardís turn to chuckle. "Tell her to come early, T. I can always do girl talk. The stories are always there."

"Thanks, Gwen," Ella called out over his shoulder. "Iíll bring cinnamon rolls."

Tommy pouted. "She loves you more than she loves me. *I* get cold cereal for breakfast. *You* get cinnamon rolls."

Ellaís face appeared over Tommyís shoulder in the screen. "Gwen, will you excuse us? I think my husband is having some memory issues that need to be addressed immediately."

Gwen nodded, unable to control the mirth in her expression at the devilment that danced in Ellaís eyes and the bemusement that was reflected in Tommyís. "Go on, you two. Iíll see ya in the morning."

Gwen set the alarm codes and turned out the lights, then moved over to the French doors and looked at the moonlit path on the water. She couldnít stop the chill that skittered up her spine, feeling alone for the first time since Randiís return. She finally felt deep in her soul that whatever Aphrodite had warned her of had actually started, and there was nothing to do but see it through to its conclusion. Gwen just wished she knew when that conclusion was going to be.

 

 

It was the scent of hot cinnamon rolls that pulled Randi from the depths of sleep earlier than Gwen expected to see her. But the sleep-rumpled picture she made standing at the door of their bedroom made the bard smile and hold out a hand in welcome. Ella watched, tickled by their interactions.

Randi shuffled over to the couch that Gwen was curled up on and stretched out her length, laying her head in Gwenís lap and sighing in contentment. Without a word, Gwen offered her a roll, and Randi merely closed her eyes and opened her mouth, waiting to be fed.

"Awfully trusting there, arenít you warrior? I mean, I could ask Ella to bring me some Brussels sprouts for you or something," trying not to chuckle at the screwed-up face Randi made or the pout that followed. Then rolled her eyes when Randi flashed puppy dog eyes in her direction, and she capitulated gracefully. "Here," she said. "Open wide."

Randi smiled smugly before opening her mouth and closing her eyes once more.

"So how is he enjoying it?" Gwen asked, turning her conversation back to Ella who was grinning unrepentantly. Gwen rolled her eyes again and shook her head, feeding Randi another piece of roll.

"He loves it," Ella said. "He gets to be with other kids and heís making all kind of new friends. I think itís gonna work out to be a good thing for all of us. And heís suddenly interested in so many new things. Weíve started reading with him instead of just to him."

A shoulder nudged Gwen in the belly. "Whatíd I miss?" mumbling around a bite of roll.

"Randall. Heís in school now a couple days a week. He just started this semester."

One blew eye cracked open and rolled in Ellaís direction. "Already? Isnít he a little young?"

Ella smiled patiently, having had the same argument with Tommy until heíd seen the difference in Randallís demeanor. "He is just the right age Ė old enough to already be potty-trained, and young enough to look forward to it as a new and exciting experience everyday. Besides, his speech therapist thinks it will do him a world of good to be around other children."

Randi rolled over slightly, so she was facing Ella and asked seriously, "They donít make fun?"

"Not that Iíve heard about yet anyway, and youíd think that I would. But I can already hear improvements in his speech. He definitely knows more words than he did just a few weeks ago."

Randi chuckled. "Canít wait til he starts bringing home words you have to explain. But Iím glad heís doing so well. Heís a good kid."

"And youíre completely unbiased, naturally," Gwen replied, teasingly as she combed through the dark locks spilled across her lap.

"Of course, Randi agreed. "Heís *my* nephew, after all."

"And to hear Tommy tell it, heís just like you."

A shadow passed over the warriorís face and Gwen felt the chill, but Randi merely smiled in Ellaís direction. "You have my sincere sympathies. I donít think the world is ready for another one like me." She chuckled. "At least Tommy had me to practice on first."

Ella laughed outright. "That helps, believe me. Now, how are things going in the story department? Tommy told me yaíll were gonna try something new?" And the conversation turned to less worrisome subjects, though Gwen could feel the subtle upset in the body that rested on hers. She made a mental note to find its source as soon as she was decently able.

 

 

"You all right, love?" Gwen jumped immediately into the conversation as soon as Ella was safely away. Randi frowned slightly.

"Iím fine, sweetheart. Why do you ask?"

Gwen turned and looked Randi full in the face then caught the warriorís chin in her fingertips and gazed into her bright blue eyes. What she found there baffled her.

There was nothing Ė nothing upsetting anyway. The wariness the warrior had shown her before sheíd left on her scouting trip was gone. The fear Gwen had seen after the incident on their honeymoon was missing. It was as though nothing had happened. Gwen shook her head in confusion and turned, moving away from Randi to grab a drink from the fridge.

"I was just concerned. You seemed so exhausted...." Gwen broke off, not wanting to upset Randi about the lack of a dreamscape before the bard had a chance to talk to Sky.

Randi came up behind Gwen, putting her hands on the bardís waist and resting her chin on the blonde head. "I was exhausted. Itís been so long since I did anything like this, Iím out of shape. But itíll get better."

Gwen turned in her arms now, putting her hands against Randiís shoulders in a move that both moved them closer together and simultaneously pushed them apart. "Excuse me? What do you mean itíll get better? I thought it was understood that this was a one time thing."

The warriorís expression never changed, but Gwen felt the chill build between them as though an icy wind had blown through the house. She pushed back a little more, stepping out of Randiís embrace, the warriorís hands falling to her sides. Then Gwen looked up at Randi almost accusingly. "It wasnít a one-time thing, was it?"

"I canít honestly say yet, Gwen, but given what I know right now, probably not. I do know that we are targets; we are *specific* targets. I donít know why yet, but I also know that where I got sent was some kind of decoy. I may have to go to my own sources and see what they can dig up." Her eyes grew distant and her voice grew thoughtful.

Gwen walked completely away from Randi, her movement startling the warrior from her musing. She started to speak, then bit her lip and crossed into their bedroom, only to re-emerge a moment later with her jacket. A perplexed frown crossed Randiís face.

"What the hell? Where do you think youíre going??"

"Out," Gwen said succinctly. "I need some space." She felt as though she were being pushed, so great was her sudden need to escape. She vaguely remembered Aphroditeís words and went with the feeling, though she wondered why it felt as though she was escaping from something instead of leaving on her own terms.

Randi grabbed the bardís arm in a gentle but unbreakable grasp. "You wanna explain to me what just happened here? Whatís going on?"

Gwen reached up and removed the fingers clasped around her wrist. "I donít want to talk right now, and I donít want to fight. I am pretty pissed right now, and anything I say is gonna cause an argument, so Iím going out."

"Pissed? Why? At me? Iíll go...."

"NO! I need time to think away from you. Now please let me go before I say something I canít take back."

Randi looked into pained green eyes and dropped Gwenís hand as though it were on fire. Without another word, she turned her back and walked to the French doors, staring sightlessly out at the vista that lay before her.

Gwen lifted a hand then let it fall, spinning on her heel and leaving by the front door. She closed it softly, but Randi felt the click as though it had been slammed, and she visibly flinched. Then she let her mind go into a place where nothing existed and she focused on nothing at all.

 

 

Gwen didnít have a destination in mind Ė she just put the transport in gear and let it go. For several hours she drove, trying to lose the coldness sheíd felt cut into her heart at the realization that Randi was falling back into the familiar patterns of a Sabre. What really hurt though was the fact that not only was Randi allowing that to happen, but that she was doing so *knowing* how Gwen felt about it.

"Maybe you should tell her again."

Gwen had stopped at their glade and was sitting in the oak they usually reclined beneath. Her eyes were focused in the water beyond, but she didn't really see it. It was the sound of another voice in their private place that brought her back to her surroundings and made her look up.

"Artemis?"

The goddess stretched out in a comfortable niche formed by several intertwined branches, shifting her bow and quiver to a more secure position and subtly approving of Gwen's choice of thinking spots. Then she frowned. This love thing was not her gig, but Gwen, whether she remembered it or not, was still her Chosen and Artemis had asked Dite to let her handle the situation this time.

"Why did you leave, Gwen? Why didn't you stay and fight?"

A frown creased Gwen's forehead. "Artemis, Dite told me I was gonna have to leave to win. Besides, this fight would have gotten ugly. Randi knows how I feel about this Ė we've discussed it before."

Artemis sighed and rubbed her eyes in a surprisingly human gesture. "Gwen, it's not going to be that easy. Tell me Ė did it feel like the right thing to do? Leaving instead of fighting, I mean. Do you think when you go home the issue will just go away?"

Gwen shrugged. "I know if I had stayed and fought, it would have gotten nasty. She really pissed me off with this."

Artemis blew out a breath. "Gwen, I want you to think about this with your heart and not your head. Regardless of the fight it would have caused if you'd stayed, did leaving feel like the right thing to do? Are you in a place you can accept Randi's decision without a fight?"

Gwen scrunched her eyebrows in thought. "I...."

"Listen very carefully to me, Gwen. You're going to have to fight for her, for you, for you both as a couple. Only when the time is right, when you know in your heart and your head and the very depths of your soul that the time has come to walk away and let Randi make the final decision, should you walk away. Because when you walk, it has to be with the knowledge that it may be for the last time Ė not because you wanted to avoid a fight, all right?"

Gwen closed her eyes, defeated. "A fight for her soul," she whispered.

"Exactly. And you have a lot of support, more than you're aware of. But the ultimate fight, the ultimate responsibility is yours. We can only provide assistance and encouragement, but we are going to do our best to give you all the guidance we can."

Gwen closed her eyes. "Thanks, Artemis. I need to get back. I should have stayed to talk this out. Itís just...."

The goddess covered Gwenís hand with her own. "Itís hard, I know. Itís going to get harder before you win, but I am confident you will win. And weíll be here to help you as much as we can."

The bard smiled and squeezed the warm hand holding hers. "Even when I screw up?"

Artemis smiled. "Especially then."

Gwen stood and dropped from her branch to the ground and Artemis appeared beside her once more. "I think Iíll go pick up some barbeque for dinner. Randi and I need to talk, and she needs to understand Iím not giving up on her."

"Good girl," Artemis answered, cupping her cheek. "Donít forget the fried apple pies."

Gwen laughed. "No way. Thatís the best part. Thanks, Artemis."

"Thank you, Gwen. Keep the faith, child. Nothing worth having is ever easy."

"No wonder this is so difficult." Gwen smiled at the arched eyebrow. "What Randi and I have together is priceless." That statement got her a genuine grin.

"Here," she said, extending her hand to the bard. Gwen proffered her hand to accept the goddessís gift. "A reminder."

Gwen examined the amulet Ė a triple-twist, eternal twining of blue and green shell hung from a gold chain. "Itís beautiful. Thank you, Artemis."

Artemis helped Gwen put the chain around her neck, then waited until the bard was on her way before her smile fell and her shoulders slumped. She didnít even flinch when two forms appeared one on either side of her.

"You did good, Art."

"You think so, Dite? I mean, this really isnít what I do. Especially not when we suspect Ares was influencing her actions."

"Trust me, babe. You did a totally rocking thing. She gets it. That necklace will be a continual reminder. And sheíll fight until it is time to leave."

"Will she be able to leave though?" Athena asked. "Iíve never seen a bonding like theirs survive separation."

"Itíll be that bonding that gives her the strength to go, and Randi the will to understand," Dite answered, hoping in her heart of hearts she was right. The three of them disappeared without leaving a trace of their passage.

 

 

Randi came back to her surroundings after an eternity of idle speculation. She didnít know if she was angry at Gwen, at herself or just angry because. Then she realized that Gwen was out and about alone while there was a legitimate threat on her life and well-being.

Without hesitation, she moved over to her console, going into a secure area Gwen wasnít even aware of. In minutes, she was networking with her Sabre compatriots, making them aware of the urgency of her situation to the extent she was comfortable sharing. The Sabre unit didnít take lightly the threat to one of their own, especially after what had happened to their previous commandant Ė even less when the threat was made against the one who had given her all for the salvation of mankind. And in their minds, Gwen and Randi were one in the same.

Randi presented Gwen as being the one threatened, and much as they had done when Gwen had made her walkabout trek after Randiís death, they again stepped up to the plate for their comrade, vowing to keep her safe when Randi was unavailable to do so. Gwen would be none the wiser for their surveillance.

Sighing, Randi nodded her approval at the arrangement, knowing each and every Sabre would do their utmost to keep the bard safe, no matter what. For the rest Ė well, they didnít need to know all the facts yet. This was her responsibility to take care of. She had a feeling there would be plenty of action for everyone before all was said and done. The whole situation just set her Sabre instincts right off the scale.

With that thought in mind, she turned her attention to her old contact network. She sent out feelers and inquiries through every discrete channel she had accessibility to. Unlike what had been left to her to handle before, Randi wasnít going to rely on anyone else to clean up for her. Sheíd learned a long time ago that taking out the garbage herself assured her it would be done to her satisfaction.

She didnít consider it to be a form of lying Ė either to her fellow Sabres or to Gwen. For too long she had survived by the rule of need to know. As far as she was concerned, at this point, no one needed to know everything. Now, however, she had to convince Gwen that she was only doing what was best for both of them.

She turned her thoughts back to Gwen, trying to understanding her upset and the unusual reaction the bard had given her. She was still at a loss to really know why Gwen had simply left instead of talking things out with her.

Her work done, Randi came to the realization the Gwen had been gone a very long time and darkness was swiftly approaching with no sign of her return. The Sabre moved quickly through the house, grabbing her jacket and walking to the door, just in time to see the extension for the bridge activate. Randi blew out a breath of relief and padded back to their bedroom to hang up her jacket before cranking up the fireplace and assuming a seat on the couch. She would wait to see what Gwenís state of mind was before determining a course of action.

The warrior could almost time to the second how long it would be before she felt the soft hum of the transport pull into the garage. Once she felt it, she knew it would be mere moments before Gwen came in the door.

One minute passed and became two, and still Gwen didnít come in the house. Randi wondered if perhaps something had happened or if the bard was simply continuing her pique at the warrior. She rose from her seat and went to the door, resolute in her decision to have things out between them tonight.

She opened the door... then rushed to Gwenís side to alleviate some of the evident burden she carried. They spent a long moment looking into one anotherís eyes without moving, each subtly nodding in satisfaction at what they found reflected back to them, though Gwen noted the fear and worry that lurked in the back of Randiís blue eyes.

"I brought dinner," Gwen said somewhat unnecessarily given the fact that they were now juggling the fragrant containers between them.

"I see that," Randi replied. "It smells good. Did you... did you have a good ride?"

Gwen shrugged. "It was very personally enlightening. I owe you an apology for running out without telling you why I was upset and where I was going. I didnít mean to worry you, but...."

"I know. And I didnít... I mean...." Randi trailed off, unsure of what to say.

They reached the door and passed through, setting the boxes on the table before Randi set the alarms. Gwen went to hang up her jacket, remembering Artemisí words, and thinking of the brief exchange she had shared with Rosie Ė or rather the words of advice the shamaness had offered her.

Donít accuse her, Gwen, and donít assume. State your concerns clearly and precisely, then listen to her answers and her own concerns. There are things going on here Ė well, I donít think even the gods have all the threads yet. I know none of us understand it all. Let your love guide you.

Gwen took a seat and waited for Randi to do the same before she covered the warriorís hand with her own. Randi immediately curled strong fingers around Gwenís own and looked up into the bardís gentle, open face.

"I think we need to talk."

 

 

Chapter XI

"Why did you leave?" Not an accusation Ė merely a question of the facts.

Gwen closed her eyes a moment before looking at Randi with complete honesty. "You made me angry," stated flatly, and Randi winced. "I wanted time to decide what to say to you before having to say it, because I didnít want to start a fight. I still donít, but weíve got to talk about this." She didnít mention her talk with the goddesses or the fact that her leaving was an eventuality they were going to have to face Ė this just simply hadnít been the right time.

"Even if we fight about it?" not letting go of the hand she held, and noting that Gwen had a rather tight grip of her own going.

"Even if we disagree," the bard corrected mildly. "I mean, weíre two reasonable Ė usually Ė rational Ė mostly Ė adults." Gwen grinned in return at the smile her qualifiers garnered her. "Thereís no reason we canít talk about this or anything else as such." Gwen took a deep breath and looked down. "Weíre not always gonna agree, and God knows no relationship can survive in a perpetual ĎYes, dearí honeymoon state. However, we do need to be able to talk about anything and everything, and I was wrong to leave without talking first." She looked up at Randi now, tears barely visible in her green eyes. "Iím sorry Ė forgive me?"

Randi rose, pulling Gwen up with her, then reseated herself with Gwen cozily wrapped in her embrace on her lap. "Only if you forgive me as well."

Gwen pulled back just slightly to be able to look into Randiís eyes. "What for?" she asked with a perplexed frown. The warrior hugged her tighter and Gwen curled contentedly into Randiís neck.

"For whatever it was I did to upset you. Youíve never walked away from me before so I must have done something...."

Randi glanced down when she felt the movement, then smiled when she realized the woman in her arms was shaking her head. Gwen looked up, her shaking tapering off at the genuine love she saw gazing back at her from clear blue eyes.

"You are too precious. I love you," urging Randiís head down for a kiss.

"I love you back," whispered against soft lips before passion took over for a long moment. When they pulled away they were both grinning.

"God, weíre good at that," Gwen said, licking her lips. Randiís nostrils flared slightly and she simply nodded her head. "However," she said, turning serious, "further practice will have to wait until we are done talking. Agreed?"

Randi stood and waited for Gwen to put her feet on the floor before moving to hold her chair. Gwen sat with a puzzled expression on her face.

"I cannot think to talk if you are close enough to offer that sort of temptation. Besides," she added with a smile as both of their stomachs growled in tandem. "Iím starving, and it sounds like you are as well. Címon. Letís eat and we can talk."

Gwen took a bite and slowly chewed as she decided the best way to begin this discussion. "Um...." She cleared her throat. "I was angry for two reasons. The first was because you were involving yourself in Sabre matters again, and that... I donít like it. At all." She held up a hand when Randi took a deep breath to speak. "Wait Ė please. I like the *people* I have met. Sabres are wonderful individuals. But as a unit... as a group of people who do what they do... I have a real problem with them reinserting themselves into your life. Even at your own request. *Especially* at your own request. That was the other reason I was angry. It seemed like you were deliberately going against my wishes on this Ė like you didnít care how I felt. And since you shut me out of your dreams...."

Randi put her fork down and sat quietly for a long few minutes processing Gwenís words. Finally she cleared her throat and spoke softly, addressing what was bothering her most first.

"Why run, though? Why not stay and talk to me?" There was hurt in Randiís voice, that though well hidden, Gwen felt.

"Because I really was furious. I canít explain... it was a fire licking through my veins Ė like I was being goaded away from you for some reason. But after I got out of here and I had a chance to think about things, I realized I had been completely unfair to both of us. Youíre not gonna know how I feel unless I tell you, and visa versa. I owe you the courtesy of listening to you before I jump to any sort of conclusion. I canít say I wonít still react emotionally, but at least youíll know *why* youíre getting that reaction."

She smiled tremulously at Randi and received a gentle smile in return. "Thank you," the warrior said. A brief pause. "Um, where did this come from?" reaching out and lifting the amulet with her fingertips. "I donít remember seeing it before."

Gwen covered Randiís hand, and both women felt the stone warm between them. "Artemis. She came to give me a talking to; she gave me this as a reminder to talk first always. Though youíd think as a bard Iíd know that," said with more than a hint of irony.

"Itís beautiful. It reminds me of...."

"Us," they said simultaneously. They smiled then slowly separated their hands and resumed eating.

"Would you... do you want to talk about the rest of it? I know what I said bothered you, love, but it was the honest truth. I realize my anger was motivated by my fear of losing you again, but Iíd really like to understand your side as well. I know, despite my earlier actions that there is more behind this than just control or whatever."

"Yes. You deserve to understand as much as I can explain."

Pushing back from the table by mutual consent, they cleaned up and moved to the couch as quickly as was doable. Gwen sat in one corner and Randi stretched out along its length, laying her head in the bardís lap and closing her eyes when gentle hands began to comb through her hair.

"First, I need to know Ė when did I shut you out of the dreamscape?"

Gwen leaned down and brushed a kiss across Randiís forehead. "That was an unfair accusation, love... Iím sorry. I donít know if you shut me out or your exhaustion meant you were sleeping too deeply to even go into the dreamscape or if I was trying to hard to find you or if I just needed Sky to guide me to you. When you got back from your scouting mission and dropped into that same sleep you did after the incident in the mountains...."

Sad blue eyes opened and gazed at Gwen in stark memory. Gwen cupped Randiís face with one hand. "I know, sweetheart. Iím sorry. But that is why I got so concerned. I couldnít reach you. I couldnít even find you."

"I donít remember dreaming at all. I was so tired...." She hesitated. "It was a very strange trip."

"How so?"

"It wasnít... it was almost like a set-up. Hell, it *was* a set-up, but I canít for the life of me figure out why. You werenít taken; I wasnít attacked. It was just weird. I found what I was sent to find, but not what I expected to be there."

"I donít understand."

"I know, and Iím sorry. Thereís really no way to explain it other than the whole thing sets off my squick meter in a big way."

"Youíre gonna keep doing this, arenít you Ė gonna keep pushing this agenda?" asked flatly without malice or rancor.

Randi nodded slowly. "I have to for now. Something or someone is stalking us, and I need to know who and why. Iíve gone outside the Sabre chain of command to see what my own sources can find. My instincts tell me that if I can find out what is behind it, the Sabres will be justified in, um... resolving the situation."

Gwen smiled sadly. "I want you to know then, for the record, that I donít like it. It feels like you are being manipulated, and youíre giving them exactly what they want by resorting to Sabre tactics. I lost you to them once. I donít want to lose you again... to them or anything else."

Randi sat up, twisting until she and Gwen had shifted and Randi was holding onto Gwen. She tenderly cradled the bard in a hug, carefully enveloping her in loving warmth. The warrior rocked them both until she felt Gwen relax and her own heartbeat slow. Only then did she pull back slightly and look into the green eyes she loved.

"I understand, love. And I want you to understand that Iím not doing this *in spite* of you, but *because* of us. I will do whatever it takes, short of dy... leaving you again, to insure that we are safe. I have to Ė itís part and parcel of who I am."

"I understand that, warrior... very, very well. That is why it scares me. Youíre the best, and I lost you anyway. I couldnít live through that again." The last whispered so low, it was barely audible.

Randi bit her lip. Sheíd known Gwen still had nightmares about her death, but she hadnít realized the depth of her fear. She drew a deep breath and hugged Gwen tighter to her.

"Can I be totally honest with you?" asked softly, waiting for the blonde head to nod. "I couldnít survive it once. Thatís why I have to do this. If I can find out who is behind this, the Sabres can take care of it. Because Iím fairly certain this is gonna trace back to a central core of rebels."

"So why not just wipe them out now?"

"I have to find them first. Thatís why I went on the scouting mission; that is why I have my own feelers out looking for these guys. I need to know who is behind it."

Gwen sighed, her breath warming Randiís neck and chest. "I still donít like it, but I do understand." A pause. "You will keep me posted on everything?"

"As much as I can, love."

"And youíll turn it over...?"

"As quickly as possible."

Another sigh. "I guess that will have to be enough for now, but I reserve the right to come back and object to anything and everything as I see fit."

Randi smiled and gave the bard a big squeeze. "As long as weíre talking about things."

"No more running, Stud. I promise."

Continued - Part 1b


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