"GODDAMN YOU, GWEN!!! YOU PROMISED ME!!!" Randi flung her nearly full glass of wine into the fire, watching dispassionately as the flames flared, greedily consuming the alcohol theyíd been offered. "You promised me," the warrior whispered as sank to her knees.

Tiny moved up behind her and reached out, only to stop short when he felt the growl coming from deep in her chest.

"Donít."

He let his hands drop, but didnít leave Randi, knowing sooner or later he was going to be needed. Tiny doubted she ask for help though, so he just stepped out of her sensory perception and waited.

"You promised me," so softly it broke Tinyís heart to hear it.

Her shoulders dropped and Randi covered her face with her hands. This wasnít how things were supposed to be. The war was over and they had won. So why did it feel like sheíd lost everything that had mattered?

 

 

Things settled for Randi and Gwen after that, at least for a little while. Randi made more of an effort to talk to Gwen Ė to insure the bard knew what was going on, mostly. For her part, Gwen made sure to be even more open and honest with Randi, reassuring with both words and actions. And they discovered that their fight had made them a stronger couple Ė more willing to talk and disagree, but comfortable that they would be all right.

Then the second missive arrived at Midas for Randi, and life began to tailspin away from them.

 

 

Tiny frowned as he turned from the vid phone in Skyís study. It wasnít encrypted like their comm center at home, but the priority on the message heíd received had rendered it imperative that Tiny contact the unit in the most expedient manner possible. So heíd taken all the precautions he could manage, and called.

They had been in the heart of Reedís tribe for some time, and she was finally reaching a point in her shielding that made it comfortable for her to be exposed to almost anything. Her ultimate test, a face-to-face with Gwen and Randi, was scheduled to come fairly soon and now this.

Sky didnít question what Tinyís urgent consultation had been about. He didnít really need to. The troubled expression on the Navy manís face was enough for the chieftain to know that things were finally beginning to move. He also recognized that Tiny would not share what was bothering him with anyone other than Reed. So Sky excused himself almost casually.

"I am going to start dinner. I will call you when it is ready."

The two Sabres watched him out of sight, then turned to one another with identical smiles. "Subtle," they said to one another, and without thought moved into each otherís embrace to soak in the love and comfort the other provided.

"It is so bad?" Reed asked unnecessarily. Aside from the unease she felt flowing from Tiny in waves, the fact that the Sabres had contacted them here, in the midst of work they knew was imperative for Reedís survival, spoke volumes.

Tiny shook his head, his brow furrowed. "Iím not sure. Itís... disturbing."

Reed pulled back enough to look into his face, then reached up and smoothed the creases in his forehead. "Tell me," she commanded.

He released her from his hold, only to catch her hand in his and lead her to sit beside him on the couch. His free hand ran over his face and scrubbed through his hair before Reed caught it in her own.

He smiled at her weakly. "Iím not trying not to answer. Iím just trying to find the best place to start."

She smiled back at Tiny. "Iíve always found the beginning to be a good place."

"Well, how about the most recent developments? I think youíre pretty much up to speed on everything else."

"That works for me," she said, squeezing his hand. Tiny clasped both of hers in his and blew out a deep breath.

"You remember that Randi contacted us when she received a message from the Skinhead Faction." He waited for Reed to nod her head, remembering the day heíd been away from her giving Randi the information, and the several days after that it had taken for the odd, residual aura Randi left behind to completely dissipate on its own. "What she found was a... a decoy. Some sort of set-up. That was obvious to everyone who read her report."

Reed nodded again, having read the report and wondering why Randi had been sent to a place that was so obviously not real.

"We have had a few other fires sprout up in other places Ė nothing major, but enough to indicate that rebel activity is increasing and becoming better organized. Nothing on the level of Ghostriderís management, but still more coordinated than they have been since her death. Anyway, because of that, a team didnít investigate Randiís findings until just recently."

"And?" Reed questioned when the silence went on too long.

"They donít know. The decoy outpost was left alone just like Randi said it would be. But it had been wiped clean."

"By the rebels?"

Tiny looked at Reed with distressed eyes. "They donít know." His voice dropped to a whisper. "But I donít think so."

"You think Randi...?"

He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "There was a warehouse not too far from the decoy site. It went up in flames the same night. Every indication makes it out to be an accident."

"But...?"

"But it is too much of a coincidence for me to accept as accidental."

"Were there bodies or remains?"

"Remains, but not enough to tell how many perished or if they were alive or dead when the fire started. A few handful of ashes."

"A very hot fire then."

Tiny nodded. "Given what appears to have caused the explosion, itís a wonder it didnít take out the entire block. Thatís another thing that bothers me about the whole situation, actually. It *should* have taken out the entire block, and yet it was contained in that one warehouse." He paused. "And it looks like Randi may start trying to handle things outside of the Sabre chain. Word on the street is sheís got feelers out, but no one is saying enough for us to pinpoint anything definite."

"So what do we do?"

Tiny turned and faced her squarely. "Gwen has invited us to spend a couple days at the boathouse. Do you think youíre up to it?"

Reed smiled confidently at Tiny. "As long as we wait until after Cupidís holiday. With them being newlyweds, Iíd prefer to be well out of range for that celebration."

Tiny chuckled ruefully. "Oooh. Yeah, I can see your point there. That could really hurt."

"Uh huh. But that doesnít happen til next week. You honestly think we can afford to wait that long?"

"I think we canít afford to chance letting you be there during that. It could quite possibly ruin all the work weíve done so far, and I donít know that we can start over form the beginning without some serious repercussions for you. If the timing had been different, youíd have built up a tolerance well capable of handling their intensity, even during Cupidís holiday. But you havenít and we canít risk you being hurt or worse by a premature exposure to them."

"Then call Gwen and see if the weekend following Cupidís holiday will be okay with them. That gives us almost another full week to work on the shielding."

Tiny squeezed Reedís hands, thankful for the immediate clasp he got in return. "Itís started, hasnít it? This is the beginning."

Reed closed her eyes, leaned her head on the couch back, and gave him a reluctant nod. "I think so. Weíre on a slippery slope downhill until it plays out to the end now, I think."

"Weíre gonna win, you know," he growled so harshly she opened her eyes and saw only fierce determination looking back at her. "No matter what, weíre going to win."

"Yes," she agreed sadly. "But what a row to hoe in the meantime. Címon. Skyís cooking something that smells really good, and Iím hungry. Letís go see whatís for supper."

They walked out towards the kitchen hand in hand.

 

 

The communiqué was not completely unexpected this time, but it was just as unwelcome Ė and just as nasty. This one was from the Wizards and was as disturbing as the first.

Perversion of God,

You destroyed what was pure and holy, and the time for retribution is at hand. Vengeance is ours and we will repay, so prepare to meet your maker. Very soon you will be at the gates of hell itself and justice will be satisfied.

The Wizards will reclaim their own.

Randi sat back in her chair, twirling the pen she kept handy for thinking with. Something was not quite right. Aside from being practically the same thing the Skinheads had sent her, there was something else niggling at her Ė something bothering her Sabre sensibilities. A knock on her door brought her back to the present and she put the pen down on her desk as she beckoned Tommy in.

"Whatís up, T?"

The boss man sauntered in and plopped into a seat, leaning back and spreading his legs out comfortably. Randi smirked at him and gestured as she spoke.

"Please... make yourself at home."

He grinned back at her unrepentantly. "Thanks, I will. God, what a week." His expression turned serious. "Are you all right? Things okay?"

"Everythingís fine, T. Why?"

Tommy shrugged. "Just checking. My right as a big brother, ya know. Especially after...." He broke off when a hardness entered her eyes.

Randi took a deep breath and forced a smile, though it didnít reach her eyes. "I know. I appreciate the concern, but everything is okay."

He nodded, accepting her words and changing the subject in an effort to relieve the tension that now hung heavily between them.

"Iím sorry, Randi. I just.... Right." He stopped when she held up a hand. "Um... are you and Gwen doing anything special for Cupidís holiday?"

This time her smile was real and it turned into a chuckle. "We are newlyweds and this is our first Cupidís holiday as a couple. What do you think?"

Tommy grinned sheepishly. "I think it was a stupid question. Let me rephrase - *what* are you and Gwen doing for the holiday?"

Randi gave Tommy a rakish grin that made him blush from head to toe. Then she leaned forward and whispered.

"I donít kiss and tell, T."

His blush was so harsh, he expected the blood to issue from his pores from the sheer force of it. He cleared his throat twice trying to get his voice to work in the proper register. And it still cracked slightly when he spoke.

"<Ahem> Yes, well... maybe I should rephrase again?"

Randi laughed. "You sure youíre up to it?"

"Um, no... not anymore, but I need to know if um.... Can Ella and I... weíd like to borrow your happy place holo-program if you and Gwen donít have plans to use it. Weíd like to make a day of it with Randall."

"Absolutely. You wanna stop by and pick it up tonight? We can be home til you do."

"Yaíll going out? I can wait to pick it up."

"Weíre gonna be gone the whole weekend. You wanna wait til Monday?"

"Celebrating early, huh?" he said with a grin. "Mondayís fine. Weíre not going til Wednesday."

"All right. Iíll make you a copy of the programming specs. Itíll be ready for you Monday afternoon."

"Thanks, Randi. I appreciate it. Canít wait to see Randallís face."

"Make sure you take plenty of pictures."

Tommy smiled. "Better Ė Iíve got the holo-suite set to record the whole adventure." He rose from his seat. "Guess I better get back to work. Having Gwen back as a bard keeps us all busier." Randiís brow rose in question. "She... inspires." He shook his head. "Donít ask... just go with it. Iíve learned some things are more easily understood if you just accept them and move on."

"Works for me." Randi stood and walked out of her office with Tommy. "I need to make the rounds. See ya at lunch," and she headed for the barn at a fast pace.

Tommy watched until she disappeared inside, then padded back to his office. He waited til he heard the sound of rapid hoof beats retreating before turning to his own work and immersing himself in the inner workings that made Midas the success it was.

 

 

"Well, this is a pleasant surprise," Gwen said when Excalibur pulled up outside of her work space just before the lunch bell rang. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I thought you might like a ride before lunch. We missed our outing yesterday."

Gwen hesitated for the split second it took to glance at her screen. "Let me lock up and we can go."

Randi smiled and tapped Calís sides. The horse bowed low and Randi dropped her head in tandem with the movement. "We await your leisure, my lady."

Gwen felt herself swoon at the gesture and the words. She moved as quickly as she could to get everything shut down and locked up. Then she stopped in the doorway to admire the picture before her. Randi sitting astride Excalibur looking out towards the horizon and backlit by the sun. She covered her mouth with her hand to keep the gasp from escaping, but Randiís keen hearing picked up the sound anyway. Her attention immediately focused on the bard standing in the doorway staring at her. Randi swung her leg over the horseís butt and slid to the ground.

"Gwen?"

"Wow. Youíre such a beautiful woman, you know that?"

Randi blushed. She couldnít help it. The compliment was so totally unexpected, and from the look on Gwenís face, completely honest. She cleared her throat.

"Thank you. Iím glad you think so."

"I do. Very much. Now," she continued before Randi could respond. "I am ready to ride, fair knight. Shall we adjourn to luncheon?" she asked haughtily, extending her hand.

Randi accepted the hand, kissing it lightly before escorting Gwen to her noble steed. "Come, my lady. A ride before luncheon to whet the appetite, then a short afternoonís work to complete our tasks before I whisk you off into the sunset."

Gwen raised an eyebrow. "Well, that does sound intriguing. Lead on then, gallant knight. I feel the stirrings of another story beginning just looking at you."

Randi managed to control the blush, barely, and helped Gwen into the saddle before she mounted behind her. Then they were off on a long circuit around the property. After all, Randi never did specify exactly *when* theyíd arrive for lunch. The warrior urged Cal to a gallop, and held onto Gwen firmly as the landscape sped by in a blur.

 

 

"Do you think Gwen will be surprised?"

Geoff turned his head away from the therapist and looked at Jill when she asked the question. He continued working the muscles in his legs, doing his best not to show the agony he was feeling. He grit his teeth and exhaled hard when the man patted his leg and moved away to set up the next torture in Geoffís personal chamber of horrors.


Without a word, Jill walked to his side and wiped the sweat from his brow, pressing a kiss into his forehead. Geoff leaned against her for a moment, absorbing her wordless comfort. Then he sat up and smiled at her wryly, blowing out a breath in frustration.

"I hope so. I know there isnít a visible difference since we left. I mean how much real progress can be made in two or three weeks? But it sure is a good motivator for me knowing they are coming to visit."

"Wonder why Randi wanted it to be a surprise?"

"I donít know, but itís not a hard request to honor. She asks for so little," thinking of the warriorís appeal when sheíd given him Carbon. "And offers so much in return."

"Iím glad she and Gwen are finally a settled couple. Does my heart good to know they have one another. Especially given what it took to get them to that point."

The therapist handed the balance stick to Geoff and took a step back. This was one of the most difficult exercises Geoff had to do Ė walk to the stretch machine... a grueling six steps away. Jill waited for him to find his balance before she rubbed his back and kissed his cheek. He had yet to do this, and he hated for anyone, even her, to see his weakness. But Geoff loved her enough to have her there when she wanted to be, and Jill loved him enough to give him the privacy he needed to do this.

"Iím going to go get the girlsí room ready. Weíll be back to pick you up as soon as they get in." She turned her attention to the therapist. "Make sure he gets some rest when you two get finished, please."

"Yes maíam."

"Hey!"

Both men spoke at the same time Ė one with a grin on his face and the other with a mock frown. Jill just smiled at both of them and waggled her fingers in good-bye as she walked out the door. Today was shaping up to be the start of a good weekend.

 

 

Chapter XII

"So where are we going?" Gwen asked, not anxious, but not excited either... just mostly curious.

Randi settled comfortably by her side, glad for the private shuttle she had arranged for them. It certainly beat being crammed into seats that were inevitably too small for her long frame, and besides, she appreciated the luxury of being able to walk the short distance from their front door to the landing pad. She idly wondered why Tommy and Ella never took advantage of it before her mind moved on to Gwenís question.

"Out," said with as straight a face as she could manage Ė which was actually pretty impressive except for the twinkle in her blue eyes. "Oof!" rubbing her belly and mock-glaring in Gwenís direction. "Whaddya do that for??"

"What kind of answer was that?" crossing her arms and affecting a small pout.

Randi bit her lips to keep from chuckling at the adorable picture Gwen made. "The best on youíre gonna get for now," she replied sternly. "Itís not that long. Close your eyes and take a nap. By the time you wake up weíll be there."

"You are so mean to me."

"*I* am so mean?!? Which one of us was getting beaten up by the other just now, hmm?"

They caught one anotherís eyes and burst into laughter at their silliness. Finally catching their breaths, Gwen pushed on Randiís shoulder.

"Move."

The warrior looked at her askance. "Huh?"

Gwen pushed again. "Move... lay down."

"Oh... OH!" finally catching a clue. She wiggled herself into position until she was laying flat on the couch, not a bit surprised when Gwen cuddled up into her customary place with her head tucked under Randiís chin and her ear right over the strong heartbeat. The bard shimmied and wiggled for a couple minutes before settling down. Then she reached over the back of the couch and pulled the light cover over both of them and released a sigh.

"Comfortable, Love?" came the low rumble from Randiís chest. She tightened her arms around Gwen and laid her head on the blonde one so perfectly placed for her cheek to rest on. She felt Gwen smile.

"This is the safest place in the world," she commented contentedly. "I love you."

"I love you, too." The slight rumble of engines accompanied her words and they let the noise lull them into a light sleep.

 

 

"Hi, Mama!" Gwen greeted as they emerged from the shuttle. "What a nice surprise," throwing a loving look back in Randiís direction who merely smiled at the bard.

Jill smiled and opened her arms for the hug she knew was coming. "For us as well," she said, then pushed Gwen to arms length to take a good look at her. "Though I think your Daddy wouldíve liked to have had something new to show you."

"Itís only been a couple weeks."

"Sabre mindset," Randi said succinctly, and both blonde women nodded sagely, though they obviously did not grasp the entire connotation of Randiís words. "Besides, heíll have something new before the weekend is out."

Jill and Gwen waited for her to elaborate, frustrated when Randi didnít say anything further.

"Um, sweetheart? You wanna explain that?"

"Not really. Itís a surprise. Trust me."

Randi looked at Gwen and gave her puppy dog eyes and the bard melted. Jill just watched with veiled amusement. Gwen reached up and put her arms around Randiís neck. "I do."

Randi leaned down and pecked Gwenís lips before patting her shapely behind. "Good. Now letís go get your dad. We have tickets for the theatre in a couple hours," with a small smile in Gwenís direction.

Green eyes lit with excitement. "The Jungle musical?" She waited for Randiís nod. "Yes!" Gwen exclaimed with enthusiasm and pumped her arm. "I am so glad the Theatre Guild is having this musical revival. Iíve wanted to see this forever."

Randi chuckled. "I know." She looked at Jill. "Are we all set?"

"Yes. Your room is ready and I unpacked the box you sent, so your clothes are hanging up. We just have to pick up Geoff from rehab and weíre on our way home."

"You knew about this?" Gwen questioned.

"Nope. I had my suspicions when I saw the clothes, but I figured Randi would share when she was ready. All we knew was you two were coming up for the weekend."

Gwen smiled and wrapped her hand around Randiís arm, holding on possessively and squeezing. Randiís muscle flexed in response.

"Címon," Randi said hefting their lone bag. "Weíve got places to be."

 

 

"Are you sure about this, Randi? You and Gwen could probably have a better time without me and Jill."

Blue eyes pinned the weapons master to his hover chair while she scratched the puppyís ears. Carbon had been a little hesitant in his greeting, but was now practically purring under the attention the warrior was bestowing. "Geoff, if you donít feel up to going, thatís fine... just say so. Otherwise, weíd like for yaíll to join us tonight."

"I just canít forget youíre still newlyweds."

Randi grinned rakishly and Geoff was almost embarrassed by the sheer sexuality the warrior exuded. "Geoff, I told you... Gwen and I will be newlyweds for the rest of our lives. You sure you wanna never see your daughter again?"

He chuckled Ė he had to. Randi reminded him greatly of himself as a much younger man. "Ahem... well, when you put it *that* way.... Out of my way, you young pup. I have to get ready to be seen with the three loveliest women in the world, and it takes a while for this old man to look that good!"

Randi laughed and moved from in front of him, putting the dog in his lap and watching as he maneuvered his chair towards his room. When he reached the door he turned and looked at her with a twinkle in his eyes. "Better get a move on there, Marine. I know what you brought to wear, and I remember the time it takes to get into that thing."

Randi acknowledged his words with a nod of her head, wondering if he understood why... or if Gwen would. Then he answered he unasked question with a roundabout statement of his own.

"Wish I could still wear mine some days." He opened the door and passed through before Randi could formulate a response. Then she turned and entered the small suite that Jill had readied for her and Gwenís use.

"Everything settled?" Gwen asked as she tucked their unpacked bag into the closet.

"Yep," looking at her uniform apprehensively, then at Gwen. "Iím gonna get a shower."

"Can I join you?"

Randi reached out a hand and slowly began unbuttoning the bardís blouse. "Now," she said, untucking the ends from the snug jeans. "When have you ever...." pushing the shirt to the floor in a slow motion. "Ever...." popping the snap and unzipping the fly. "Known me...." sliding her fingers between denim and silk, easing the jeans down over slim hips. "To refuse...." lowering one bra strap and then the other, noticing that Gwenís hands were suddenly quite active in divesting Randi of her own clothing. "An offer...." twisting the clasp at the front of Gwenís bra and urging it off the bardís shoulders even as Gwenís hands and lips began to wander over Randiís bare skin. "Like...." Gwen traced a path over sensitive nipples, and Randi stopped talking, lifting the bard into her arms and moving them blindly into the bathroom as she captured Gwenís lips with her own.

It was a few minutes before water started running, and the water was cold before they emerged from the bathroom.

 

 

Gwen watched Randiís unease from her place in front of the mirror. From the warriorís body language, she had a very good idea what was bothering Randi, but she wasnít sure how to approach it. Finally, she put the last pin in place, smiling when large hands landed on her shoulders and even softer lips attached themselves to her neck.

"You are very beautiful."

"In your eyes."

"Mine are the only ones that count."

Gwen smiled and stood, taking the emerald dress from the hanger and stepping into it. Randi watched with focused intensity while the bard shimmied carefully into it, then smiled when Gwen backed up to her.

"Please?" she asked with a beguiling look over her shoulder.

Randi kissed the back of her neck again, and closed the back of the dress slowly, not surprised when Gwen turned in her arms when she was done.

"Thank you," Gwen said softly. Without a word, she stepped back out of Randiís embrace and reached for the Marine dress coat, holding it open for Randi to slip into. "May I?" she questioned.

Randi hesitated and Gwen waited, knowing the warrior was struggling. "Randi, I know this is part of who you were... who you are. I accept that Ė Iím *proud* of that. Just because I donít want to lose you to them again doesnít mean that I donít love this part of you." She paused, then smiled shyly, dropping her eyes. "I actually find this part of you very sexy... <ahem> a real turn-on."

Randi lifted her chin with her fingertips. "Really?" blue eyes twinkling.

Gwenís nostrils flared slightly and her eyes color deepened. "Really," she breathed.

Randi leaned down and seized Gwenís lips gently, leisurely exploring until they were both short of air. Then she pulled back just enough to allow their eyes to focus on one another. They exchanged silent promises, and without a word, Gwen raised the jacket again and Randi merely turned and slid into it. She lifted her hands to button it, only to find them slapped away by Gwen.

"My privilege," she said and proceeded to fasten the jacket to the neck. Randi hooked the last and pulled on her gloves. Then she lifted Gwenís coat and placed it tenderly on the bardís shoulders before swirling her cape across her own. Gwen tied it and waited for Randi to extend her arm, then they exited their room together.

Geoff and Jill were patiently waiting for them and smiled brightly when they walked into the living area. There was something so right about Randi and Gwen Ė something that fit.

"Well, Iím proud to be seen with this fine looking group," Geoff said as he looked around. "Are we ready?"

"Letís do it."

 

 

"That was a lot of fun last night, Randi. Iím glad we did that. Musical theatre has never been a favorite of mine, but I really enjoyed the evening. Thank you for insisting. And thank you for coming up."

Randi and Geoff were in the exercise room at the therapy center. Jill and Gwen had gone shopping at Randiís request. She was fairly certain Geoff wouldnít want them to see what was coming. She smiled at him, and suddenly the weapons master felt a tendril of anticipation tinged with fear curl in his belly.

"Well, Gwen and I enjoyed the evening as well, but Iíll be honest with you... between Sabres." He nodded his understanding of the phrase, knowing whatever she said was for his ears only and not to be repeated to anyone including Jill. "That is only part of the reason we came."

Geoffís brow wrinkled. He knew that Ė theyíd come to visit, hadnít they? Randi continued as though she could hear his thoughts.

"I brought Gwen to visit with her mother, but *I* came to start your next phase of treatment." He looked at her in confusion. She turned her back and walked across the room.

"Wha...?"

"Youíve let yourself slide, Sailor," she went on as though he had not spoken. "You seem to be under the impression that because youíve got a little trouble walking that you should be excluded from keeping up with your other martial skills. I am here to rectify that situation."

She turned back towards him. "Iím gonna get you started, and by the time we come visit again, I expect to see you back in shape. Ya got me?"

Geoff looked at her, astounded by the sheer force of her presence and personality. Heíd been peripherally aware of it when heíd followed her in their quest to retrieve Gwen, but never had it been turned against him full force. She is a power unto herself. She could rule the world.

Without warning, Randi got right into his face. "I said... You. Got. Me?"

He nodded vehemently. "Loud and clear."

She smiled and Geoff shivered at the intensity. He reflexively caught the staff she threw his way, then watched for several long moments as she began her warm-up routine. Randi turned an eye towards him at his lack of movement and he hastened to begin his own work-out.

It was awkward at first, trying to learn to maneuver with the chair. It wasnít something he was accustomed to and now he found it frustrating to try account for. He hit himself and the chair almost every time he moved, and he was quickly growing angry and impatient. Her watching him with the slightest smirk in her expression made him furious.

"You think this is funny?" he asked, gripping his staff even tighter.

Randi cocked her head at him. "Well, at least somewhat entertaining," she said casually.

"Oh really?" with a sarcastic twist, getting angrier Ė knowing she was goading him but beyond caring. "Well then, Marine, time to put your money where your mouth is." He brought his staff up and slammed it against hers, not surprised when she caught the motion easily.

Randi let Geoff lead the dance for a while, sensing he needed to lose his tension and aggravation before they could seriously begin to work on renewing his skills. For now, she simply held him to a standard he could maintain without hurting himself or doing any serious damage to her. Eventually, Geoff began to run out of steam and he slowed to a near crawl with bare taps on her staff.

"Feel better?" in the same casual tone.

He looked up at her in genuine gratitude and relief. "Actually, yes. I needed that... in more ways than I can explain right now."

Randi patted his leg in understanding. "I understand," she replied, reaching for his staff. He looked at her with a question in his eyes. "You need to rest a little before we do anything else. But we will work out together once youíve rested a bit; I promise you that."

She handed him a bottle of water and he gratefully gulped it down. As tired as he was, he felt better about himself than he had in a while. Randi was a great leader. She expected and demanded and accepted no less Ė from herself and everyone around her. That kind of motivation was hard to dismiss, and Geoff took it to heart that she cared enough... not only to kick his ass when necessary, but also to know how far to push and when to stop.

Randi guided him to the small room that was set aside for his rest periods between therapies and helped Geoff ease himself into the bed. He lay down with a groan and she smiled, knowing it was the kind of noise one made when thankful for the opportunity to rest after a good dayís work and not pain induced.

"Oh, that feels wonderful," Geoff commented as he stretched out to the best of his ability.

Randi pulled the thin blanket up over him. "Iíll bet," she commented, remembering the times Aphrodite had done the same for her. "You gonna be all right here for a while?"

"Oh yeah," he answered drowsily. "You okay with this? Want to ask them for a bed for you?" nodding off as he spoke the last word. His snores filled the room when he dropped into oblivion and he never heard her response.

"Nope. I got things to do."

Randi walked out of the room and to the small nursing station. The young man working there looked up at her approach.

"If Mr. Goldman wakes up before I return, please tell him Iíll be back shortly, though I fully expect to be back before then."

The man nodded his agreement vigorously. "Yes maíam. He usually sleeps about three hours if his therapy has been intense."

Randi nodded and walked out without a word, her steps headed towards Sabre headquarters and her mind already working on the second note.

 

 

"This is highly unusual, Sergeant... I mean, Ms Valiant, er... Randi. Do you have a preference?"

She shrugged. "Randi will be fine, Russ. Unless you are more comfortable with my rank." She shrugged again. "It really doesnít matter to me."

The manís brow went up at her presumptive use of his name. Though they had only served together occasionally, sheíd always shown respect for his rank and experience. Now she was making it subtly clear that neither held any importance to her, and it needled him, especially since he was now the commandant.

He leaned back in his chair and studied her for a moment. There was still a grace and power that surrounded her that went past self-confidence in herself and her abilities. But more than that, he realized that she was beyond them now, and that bothered him. He was a Sabre, first, last and always.

"So, um... Randi. Why did you think we should help you? I mean you obviously think this is personally directed towards you, and you know we have, uh... never really involved ourselves in personal disputes. What we do is for the good of all mankind."

He stopped speaking when she stood and leaned over the desk, her eyes cold as ice. "Look, Russ," she said, emphasizing his name. "Iím not asking for a team to wipe anyone out. Iím not asking for anyone to put themselves in harmís way. All Iím asking is that I be allowed to use the resources here to find the information I need to take care of things. I could have just hacked my way in."

He acknowledged the truth of her statement. "So why didnít you? Why ask?"

"Because I promised Tiny I wouldnít do things on my own. But so help me, Russ, if you stand in my way, I will run over you and anyone else necessary to protect Gwen and myself. Are we clear?" in a deceptively soft voice.

His eyes dropped, unable to hold the ferocity of hers any longer. He felt the truth in her words and understood both the threat and the accusation.

"Yes, we are very clear." He cleared his throat, then stopped when he caught her eyes again.

"Good." She raised an eyebrow when he opened his mouth to speak. Randi watched him swallow and gather his courage, giving an imperceptible nod when he forged ahead.

"Iím... sorry for coming off the way I did, Randi. Iím glad... Iím glad you came here instead of going out on your own. Weíve never... had a situation like this before and...."

Randi smiled just slightly. "Russ, weíre all on the same side. I have a personal stake in this, but Iím not suicidal. If and when I find anything, Iíve already told Tiny I will turn it over for yaíll to handle. But I have to be involved."

Russ nodded his head. "I do understand. And believe it or not, though Iím not happy about losing you, I do get why you canít come back, too." He sighed. "Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to not be a Sabre anymore. I think we all do. But itís just a passing thought; I canít imagine living that way."

Randi had no intention of explaining something that was so personal to her, knowing that Russ would never understand. She hadnít until sheíd died and been given a second chance. Finally the silence grew awkward and Russ cleared his throat once more.

"Come on. Letís get you started. With luck, this will be a fairly simple search."

Randi didnít respond out loud, but she rolled her eyes out of sight. In her experience, nothing had ever been that simple.

 

 

Geoff was still sleeping when Randi arrived back at the therapy center. It hadnít taken her nearly as long as sheíd expected it to start her inquiries. So she waved to the nurse on duty and went into the exercise room, retrieving her staff and beginning a complex set of warm-ups meant to focus her attention.

The warrior felt the eyes on her, but didnít slow or stop. Instead she turned and invited the weapons master to join her. He lifted Carbon off his lap, anticipating his actual participation in another sparring session. The puppy barked once then took up a sentinel position at the door. Already he knew to wait to be called to play.

Geoff felt another thrill trip up his spine. Heíd been at the door watching and had been again impressed by her skill and the absolute elegance of her movements. She made the movements a ballet, and though heíd always appreciate the beauty associated with martial forms, her efforts took that appreciation to a new level.

I thought she was good before, but this... this is something else again, remembering their few sparring sessions before his injury. When did she go so far beyond? And why? What need has she of such precise skills?

Then he forgot to wonder. Randi managed to work her way over to his staff without stopping her own work-out and with a kick and a flick of her wrists, she sent his staff flying in a graceful arc over her head and into his hands. But he didnít have time to be impressed Ė he was immediately on the defensive as she launched a light-scale attack on him.

He hit himself harder than Randi did. She was able to pull her hits until they were merely light taps to his torso. He, on the hand was fully focused on engaging her and swung with what little power he had in his upper body Ė something that was considerably stronger than heíd expected it to be. He winced when he popped himself in the head but grinned when he stopped a move against his legs.

"Good," she said approvingly, and stepped up the pace. Geoffís grin grew.

 

 

The sound of sticks hitting was loud throughout the center when Gwen and Jill walked in, matched only by the occasional bark from Carbon. They immediately noticed a crowd of people, patients and therapists, gathered around the door of the exercise room theyíd left Geoff and Randi in much earlier in the day. They exchanged alarmed glances then began pushing their way through the people blocking the doorway.

It wasnít easy at first, but as they were recognized their path cleared almost effortlessly. What they saw stopped them in their tracks with stupefied expressions on their faces.

Never since Geoffís accident had they seen him so animated... or so bloody. He had bloody trails of sweat running from cuts over both eyes and more poured from a busted nose and a split lip. His arms were dotted with welts and bruises. Randi was soaked with sweat, though she was otherwise unmarked.

Jill, a furious expression on her face, started to march into interrupt, but was halted by a hand on her arm.

"Itís all right, Mama. Let me."

Gwen stepped quietly into the room and over to the staff rack, testing each tentatively before choosing one whose balance she was happy with. Then she passed silently over towards Randi and her father, lifting her staff to tap Randi on the shoulder....

... only to be met by Randiís staff engaging her own. Immediately they began a familiar dance, falling into routines and patterns both intricate and deadly. Geoff backed his chair away from the action and watched open-mouthed, never having seen Gwen with a real staff in her hands since her short stint with the drum corps many years prior. He accepted the towel and water from Jill, but wouldnít let her examine him, so enthralled was he by the poetry the two women were weaving.

Jill looked Geoff over carefully, noting the enthusiasm in his eyes and the color in his cheeks. He was very battered and bruised but seemed none the worse for wear over it, and she decided to let it go until she got the whole story from him later. Instead, she turned her attention to the choreography playing out before her. Even with her lack of military expertise, Jill could see the art in the graceful movements and marvel at the beauty of it.

As tired as she was from her afternoon of practice, Randi welcomed Gwenís presence with a clash of staves and a twinkle in her eyes. Theyíd become somewhat lax about Gwenís training, and Randi had missed it. And if she was to judge by the expression of pure delight on Gwenís face, the bard had missed it as well.

Weíll have to get back to doing this on a regular basis, the warrior though even as she jumped over a low sweep. Not only do we both enjoy the exercise, but now is not the time to let our guard down. Her thoughts grew darker and her moves became more intense, though she did not move past her self-imposed limits. She knew Gwenís abilities well, much as sheíd understood Geoffís, only to a greater degree. Randi knew how far to push to get the most without either of them getting hurt.

Gwen grinned fiercely. Sheíd missed this. It allowed her to connect with Randi on a totally different level, and she had an intense pride in her skills and abilities to spar with Randi in this arena. It wouldnít do to let her proficiency erode for lack of effort on her part. She felt the warrior step up the intensity and she responded.

For long minutes they went back and forth, staves hitting and clashing with regularity and force. The only sounds in the room were those of their breathing, the soft squeak of their shoes on the flooring, and the violent sounds of their staves colliding.

Finally, though not obvious to anyone else, Randi started to show her exhaustion. Immediately, Gwen lowered the intensity of her attacks, and though the dark brow rose in mute question, Gwen easily read the relief and gratitude in those blue eyes. Where she didnít always have to be strong and stoic, in this place and with these people, Randi had a reputation to maintain. And Gwen was proud to help her defend and preserve it.

Slowly, they brought their workout to a close, both of them sweating profusely and breathing heavily. They were startled by the applause that rang out and by Geoffís calls of ĎBravo! Bravo!í

Randi collected their staves as well as Geoffís and put them into the rack. Gwen walked over to where her father still sat in the periphery of the room. He was no longer bleeding, though his white towel was no longer solid white and he was only marginally sweating, which she put down to the heat in the room. His eyes still sparkled with enthusiasm and his face was tinged with the color of excitement. Despite the cuts and bruises, Gwen thought heíd never looked better since his accident.

"That was amazing!" he exclaimed. "When? How?"

Gwen smiled, holding out her hand towards the warrior who was hesitantly approaching. "Randiís taught me for a while now." She tugged on the hand she clasped, and despite the sweat, Randi naturally wrapped herself behind Gwen and kissed her head.

"What am I being blamed for?"

Gwen smiled and spoke before Jill could formulate her question. Sheíd guessed wrong about this woman before and Randi had been gracious about it. She didnít want to do it again, but Geoffís obviously battered condition made her wonder. "No, love. Youíre being credited with my martial skills."

"Um, why? Theyíre your skills."

"Which you helped me to develop." She put a hand over Randiís lips when she would have opened them to speak. "Just nod and accept the accolades, please."

Randi nodded and kissed the fingers covering her lips, then reached her own hand up to remove them. She squeezed Gwenís hand, then she knelt at Geoffís side. Carefully she examined him and shook her head.

"You didnít do too much damage, but youíre gonna be sore in the morning."

The weapons smith shook his head. "I canít believe how clumsy Iíve gotten. You were right. There is no excuse."

Randi gave him a small smile, noting Jill had physically relaxed after the conversation. She didnít blame the woman for wondering, given how beaten-up her husband looked, but it still hurt to think that she believed that Randi would have done something like that to Geoff Ė accidentally or otherwise. Though in all fairness, Jill really could have thought little else, given that until today sheíd witnessed very little of Randiís or Geoffís skill level. And of course no one had seen the difficulty heíd had adapting to fighting in the chair.

"Well, if youíd like, tomorrow before we leave, we can set you up some exercises to work on Ė things that will help with strength and dexterity while accounting for the chair. With a little practice, hitting yourself shouldnít be a real problem."

Geoff chuckled, wincing at the pull in his lip. "You bet! Though I may take to wearing full body armor and a face mask until I get it down." He paused and laid a hand on her shoulder, waiting for Randi to meet his eyes. "Iíll tell you what, though... I wouldnít have missed this for anything. I havenít felt this good about myself... well, I sure did enjoy being able to spar like a Sabre again," he finished quietly so that only Randi could hear his words.

She patted his knee and rose to find her hand captured once more by Gwenís. She smiled down into adoring green eyes and they started out the door before Jill stopped them with a firm hand on Randiís arm. The older woman looked at Randi with sincere admiration which truly surprised the warrior given Jillís initial reaction.

"Thank you," was all she said, but her expression spoke volumes. Randi surprised them both by releasing Gwenís hand and giving Jill a brief hug. Then the warrior and bard exited the room, closely followed by Geoff and Jill. It had turned out to be a great weekend indeed.

 

 

Chapter XIII

"It was a great weekend," Randi whispered still gazing at the fire. "We had such a wonderful time and Geoff...." Randi trailed off and Tiny remained silent. He really wasnít sure what to say to her at this point. Sheíd done what she thought was right and it had backfired. He wondered if she realized why yet.

As if reading his thoughts, she turned to look at him and he met her stare though the depth of pain made his heart clench. "Why, Tiny? Why did Gwen leave? What did I do that was so wrong?" She turned back to the flames, studying them intently as if they had the answers she sought.

"I brought peace to the world," she muttered. "The rebel groups who opposed it are gone." She stood with a muffled groan and moved closer to the fire, drawn to both its warmth and light. "I laid the world at her feet, and she left me." Torn between hurt and anger, Randi stiffened at the dark tingle that flushed her skin and rose to her feet. She sneered when the god of war became a visible entity in the room. Tiny froze, knowing that what happened next was up to Randi.

"Whine, whine, whine," Ares complained, crossing his arms over his chest.

"What do you want?" Randi asked coldly, her eyes devoid of life.

"A little respect would be a good start." Blue eyes held brown with a look of loathing and contempt. "No, huh?" he said with an audible sigh.

"What. Do. You. Want?" Even Tiny felt the temperature drop from the chill in her voice and he shivered in reflex.

"I have come to claim what is mine."

 

 

Lacey exited the transport and surveyed the area around the cabin before she turned and nodded, extending her hand to the bard as she emerged. Gwen took a deep breath and closed her eyes against the memories of that last time sheíd been to this place Ė trying to forget they were supposed to have come back to experience summer together. Then she stepped down and squared her shoulders and moved deliberately towards the door.

She raised her hand to the pad, waiting for it to recognize her imprint. She spared a thought of gratitude for the time they had taken from their honeymoon to make this place accessible to her as well, then pushed the door open....

... only to stand frozen at the door as familiar sights and scents assaulted her senses. Gwen couldnít stop the gasp that escaped or the lone tear that rolled down her cheek. She covered her mouth to keep any other sounds from escaping and slowly stepped into the room.

Lacey stood at the door, not wanting to intrude on this moment, knowing it was intensely private and very painful. At the periphery of her hearing, she heard the transport turn into the lane leading to the cottage. She had already seen movement from several bodies in the trees and grasses surrounding the cabin, but they had indicated their peaceful intentions and she was content to let them be. She suspected they were here for a purpose, much as she herself was.

The Sabre turned her attention back to the solitary figure that now sat forlornly on the bed. The slump of Gwenís shoulders made Laceyís heart ache, and she could only hope they had done the right thing in coming here.

For her part, Gwen had let her mind wander back to the last time she and Randi had been truly happy, and she smiled at the memories that came to the fore.

 

 

The weekend with her parents had been wonderful. Aside from the time they got to spend with Geoff and Jill and the theatre and shopping, Gwen was reminded how much she enjoyed sparring with Randi. The warrior could push without hurting her or getting hurt Ė much. Gwen still couldnít pull her blows like Randi did and whenever anything got through the Sabreís defenses, it usually bruised pretty well. Randi was a good sport about it though and Gwen was learning how to control the intensity of her swings. Or trying to, at any rate.

When they arrived home on Sunday afternoon, they immediately got the bike out. They both had a craving for some good barbeque, and they hadnít seen Rosie in a while.

The day was beautiful, warm without being hot and a breeze that blew in off the water. It was spring-like and the fragrance of the earliest blossoms reminded them that here, spring was much closer than it was in the capital or the mountains.

Words werenít necessary between them, and Gwen rested her head contentedly between Randiís shoulder blades, greedily inhaling the scents of clean skin, jasmine shampoo and leather that identified Randi to her mind. The blossoms that lined the road changed randomly and only enhanced Randiís natural smell, and Gwen was in sensory heaven.

The bard squeezed the tight stomach she was wrapped securely around and she felt Randiís smile in the return press on her hands. She idly wondered what Randi would think of her Cupidís holiday plans, then the bike was slowing as they turned into Rosieís.

The shamaness flinched when they pulled up. Even from this distance she could feel the discord in Randi psyche and wondered that it wasnít visibly apparent to everyone. Still she smiled and greeted them, glad to see they were still happy together. The longer they lasted before everything broke the better for them all. Besides, she was happy to see them. Sheíd grown rather fond of them both and it did her heart good to see the strength of the love they shared together. Some days, it just felt like there wasnít enough of that in the world.

"Iíve missed seeing yaíll around here," Rosie called out in greeting.

"It hasnít been that long...." Randi started.

"But we sure have missed you and your good barbeque," Gwen finished, poking at Randi who squawked and moved out of reach. Rosie chuckled.

"Well, at least I got top billing. Yaíll come on and let me get ya fixed up. Iím pretty sure you donít wanna be hanging Ďround an old woman on a beautiful day like today."

She walked into the house and left the door open. They looked at one another and shrugged, then followed the shamaness inside. Rosie moved right over behind the counter and started dishing up their favorites into take away containers without a second thought.

"So do you girls have plans for Cupidís holiday?"

"Yep."

"Uh huh."

The simultaneous answers caused Gwen and Randi to look at one another with raised eyebrows and Rosie to start laughing.

"Whoops! Maybe I shouldnít have asked, huh?"

They turned and looked at the older woman with slightly sheepish grins. "Nope, weíre glad you did actually," Gwen said while Randi nodded her agreement. "We might need to, um... talk about this to make sure weíre not gonna screw one another up. So you probably did us a favor."

"And it being your first as a couple and you two being newlyweds besides makes it even more special, doesnít it?" She smiled at the twin blushes that graced their face. "I envy you. Itís been a long time since I celebrated Cupidís holiday with anyone." She closed up the containers and put them in a bag, handing the bag to Randi and taking the payment from Gwen. "Cherish the time you have together and each other. You never know when that will be taken away."

Gwen chewed her lip and Randi felt the gasp the bard bit off. She placed a hand on the small of Gwenís back, rubbing in a comforting circle. The warriorís eyes caught Rosieís and she pinned her with a hard stare until realization dawned.

"Oh, Gwen... Iím sorry. You probably understand better than most that sentiment."

The bard swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah, I do," she said quietly. "But it never hurts to be reminded. It is so easy to start taking things for granted that should be appreciated."

Rosie opened her arms, and Gwen stepped into her embrace willingly. "Iím so sorry," the shamaness whispered almost inaudibly into the ear next to her lips. "That was thoughtless of me."

Gwen hugged the older woman tightly for a moment. "Itís all right," she whispered in return. Then she pulled back. "Really."

Rosie looked at her for a full minute, seeing the truth of Gwenís words and more before nodding her head in acceptance. Then she met Randiís eyes.

"Iím sorry, Randi. I didnít mean to upset anyone."

Randi gave a curt nod and blew out a breath. "Sorry... I just...."

Rosie held up a hand. "Donít apologize for caring or of being protective. Iíd expect nothing less." She waved them towards the door. "Now you girls need to get home before your dinner gets cold. Come back after Cupidís holiday sometime when you can stay a little while and chat. I wanta know what you two end up doing for the day."

Randi wiggled her eyebrows and grinned rakishly. "Everything? Oof!"

The warrior had actually tightened her stomach muscles, knowing a reaction would be coming from the bard and having a very good idea what form that reaction would take. She looked at Gwen with wide, blue eyes. The bard was blushing furiously and she spared a glance at Rosie Ė she was a deep red as well.

"Whadíd I do?" asked with all the innocence she could muster.

"Behave!" Gwen hissed, desperately willing the blush to fade. Randi wrapped her arms around Gwen from behind and chuckled.

"Iíll try," she assured before moving over to the bike and packing their food in the saddle bags. Gwenís eyes followed her indulgently and Rosie couldnít stop the smile that crossed her face. The bard shook her head.

"I donít know what to do with her some days."

Rosieís expression turned serious. "Love her. No matter what."

Gwen turned solemn green eyes to the shamaness. "You know something," she stated flatly.

Rosie shook her head. "Not enough. Not yet. But I do know that you and the love you share together is the key... to many things. Hold on to that."

Gwen gave the older woman an impulsive hug. "Thank you, Rosie." Then she moved to join Randi on the bike and in another minute, they gave a final wave and disappeared down the path together. Rosie raised her hand in salute, watching until they were gone. Without hesitation, she crossed her threshold, put up the closed sign and walked into her sanctuary. She felt the need for meditation and prayer.

 

 

Randi and Gwen did not head back to the beach house. Instead, the warrior made for their grotto, anxious for a little peace and privacy where they would not be interrupted. Gwen patted her belly in approval when she realized where Randi was headed. Much as she loved her folks, Gwen loved being alone with Randi even more. And their dell held many special memories for them both.

Though the bike was not loud by any stretch of the imagination, the quiet was astounding when Randi switched the motor off. It was like they were the only human beings around. The birdsí sounds were predominating of the natural noises, their calls and whistles creating a cacophony of song. The brook made a fine accompaniment, and the breeze the rustled the grasses and flowers only enhanced the symphony of sound that surrounded them in this place.

Gwen slid of the bike and grabbed their blanket, moving to the tree to spread it out while Randi gathered up their meal and brought it over and carefully laid it out. Gwen retrieved the cooler with their drinks and they curled up beside one another to soak in the peace of their place and being along together in it.

They didnít talk much as they ate, choosing instead to share their food and company. Only when they were finished and nibbling on the fried apple pies Rosie was always sure to include did they shift into their normal discussion position Ė with Randi leaning against the tree and Gwen leaning on Randi.

"Ugh," the bard said as strong arms wrapped around her middle. "Donít squeeze too hard, Stud. My dinner will make a rather violent reappearance and I donít think Iíd enjoy it nearly as much coming back up."

Randi wrinkled her nose. "Thank you for that visual."

Gwen giggled lightly. "Yeah, didnít do much for me either, actually. But neither would throwing up."

"Good point," Randi agreed with a kiss to the blonde hair.

It fell silent and Gwen sighed, knowing it was up to her to bring it up. Randi had the patience of Job and would wait for the world to end before starting some dialogues it seemed.

"So, um... you have plans for us for Cupidís holiday?" knowing the answer but needing to start the discussion somewhere. A nod was her only response. "Can I ask when they are for? I mean, morning or evening or...?"

"The weekend, actually. I um... I sorta figured weíd do something Wednesday, but I made my plans for us for the weekend."

Gwen broke into a smile. "So, we can use my plan for Wednesday?"

Randi grinned happily. "Absolutely. I wasnít sure what or um... hmm...." She broke off and chewed her lip. Gwen stayed silent, knowing Randi was working through something and content to let her finish in until she reached whatever conclusions she needed to.

"I was, uh... hoping youíd want to plan something too, so I, um... I...."

Gwen put a hand on Randiís thigh, bringing her stumbling words to a halt. The bard leaned her head back into the muscled shoulder behind her, nuzzling her face into Randiís neck until she felt the silent laughter rock the body behind her.

"Youíre tickling me," the warrior accused in a growling whisper.

Gwen sniggered and batted her eyelashes which only served to tickle Randi further. "Would I do that?" she asked innocently.

"Every chance you got," Randi answered smoothly while moving her hands into position on either side of Gwenís trim waist. Gwen felt her intentions and squealed... loudly.

"NO! Nonononononono! Raaaaannndiiiiii!!!!!" laughter hampering her efforts to squirm away. "I give! I give! UNCLE!!" Gwen finally managed and sighed when the hands changed from tickling to caressing. She relaxed into the hold Randi still had and hummed in delight. "Thatís nice," she breathed.

"For me too," Randi agreed, dropping a light kiss onto Gwenís neck. "I love you, ya know."

"Yeah, I do. I love you back... so much."

Peace fell between them and they soaked it in. It held their thoughts and feelings and the air pulsed with unspoken ideas and possibilities. When the sun touched the edge of the water, Gwen reached up and laced her fingers into Randiís dark hair, pulling her lips within range of the bardís own. Blue and green eyes searched each other intimately and by unspoken consent their mouths met for a long, passionate exploration.

When their breathing had gone ragged, Gwen let go reluctantly and Randi loosened the grip she had around the bardís waist. Then they packed up their belongings and mounted the bike, setting their sights for home.

 

 

Wednesday rolled around and Randi had gone into work alone. Gwen had indicated she needed some time to set up her plans and Randi had been happy to comply. Especially since she wanted to get in touch with her contacts and see what they had learned.

Something wasnít sitting right. Why were the rebels suddenly announcing their intentions? Why not just come after her? The whole thing made her Sabre hackles not only rise, but stand up and salute. It bothered her so badly that she hadnít been completely truthful Ė either with Gwen or the new commandant. She had feelers out on *all* the rebel groups. One way or another, they were going down Ė permanently and for good. She could not live with them bullying her or Gwen. Therefore she was going to eliminate the threat Ė with or without Sabre help.

Only the Sabre part of her mind was working on this particular problem. The rest of her mind, the conscious part, was busy with her other regular work. The team at Midas had made such a positive impression on the community they had expanded into security for other agencies and guilds. It was a lot for Randi to manage, but she found she enjoyed it in ways she had never expected to. The companies she and her people worked for were very pleased with the level of professionalism they received.

So, one part of her mind worked on her Sabre puzzle, while the rest concentrated on her other security matters. And before she realized so much time had passed, it was noon and her phone was ringing, turning her mind and her thoughts towards home.

 

 

From Olympus, Ares watched, more than a little frustrated. Heíd thought it would work in his favor that Randi wouldnít be able to remember any of her violence until he revealed it to her. She was supposed to be his to control and manipulate.

He slammed his fists on the table in frustration. It wasnít working they way the war god expected, however. Randiís mind was much stronger than he realized and she was able to compartmentalize her thoughts so that the Sabre part of her - her subconscious mind - was almost a separate entity from the rest of her thought processes.

She still acted and reacted to things as a Sabre, as her decimation of the skinhead headquarters testified to. But she had no conscious memory of it, and Ares could neither call it up at will nor control it. Worse, she was very methodical to the point that things were going to unravel for him if he didnít step up his timetable and change his tactics. Perhaps it was time for a more direct approach.

 

 

In another area of the Olympian palace, Dite was in the midst of some serious love stuff when Athena strode into her boudoir.

"It seems to be working," she announced without preamble. "Just not as well as we hoped."

"Huh?" Dite looked up and pulled the glasses off her face. She appreciated that Athena hadnít simply popped in, though theyíd all learned a respect for one anotherís space the hard way Ė much like theyíd learned everything else. She was a little annoyed though; sheíd been in the middle of a pretty important love match and her elder sisterís presence could have screwed her up at the crucial moment if she hadnít been so focused. So she let a little of her exasperation show in her tone. "The, whatcha talking about, babe? Iím kinda in the middle of some radical love biz."

Athena blew out a breath. She loved Dite, but sometimes.... Still, they all had their responsibilities, and Dite had one of the most extensive that kept her busy beyond belief. And to her credit, the wisdom goddess thought fondly, she is incredibly good at it. She shook her head when Dite raised an eyebrow at her and started chewing on an earpiece of her glasses.

"Sorry," Athena mumbled, slightly embarrassed. It wasnít like her to let her mind wander. "I was speaking of Randi."

That caused Aphrodite to sit up and lean forward. "What about her?" all business now.

Athena motioned to a chair and at Diteís nod, swept into a seat. She leaned back and propped her head on a fist, locking eyes with the love goddess.

"Rosie has made some progress. Sheís helped strengthen the barrier Randi has erected between her Sabre self and the rest of her mind. As of yet, Randi is completely unaware of the events she has been involved in that have resulted in the death of others, except for the details Gwen shared with her about the incident in the mountains."

"And this is a good thing? I mean, couldnít she control it if she knew what was happening?"

"Possibly. But *Ares* cannot breach it either. He has no power over her, and before, he has *always* been able to control and manage well before this point."

"That means...."

"That means that we have a better chance of her choosing sides against him when the time comes. Artemis is still with the Amazon scientists working on something to reverse the poison, but no luck so far. Iíve got my people looking into it as well."

Aphrodite blew out a breath and leaned back in her chair, feeling the subtlest uncoiling of tension in her gut. It wasnít much, but it was more than sheíd had any reasonable expectation of happening given how things had been going up to that point. Now against all odds and reckonings, she felt the tiniest stirrings of hope in her heart. For the first time since this started, something - if not positive, at least not bad Ė had finally gone their way. Sheíd take her victories where she could find them.

At this point Ė they all would.

 

 

The house smelled of sandalwood but there was no sign of Gwen when Randi walked through the door.

"Gwen?"

The warrior stuck her head into a dark, empty bedroom, then headed to the kitchen to snag a bottle of water before she went outside. While still bent over with her head in the fridge, hands she immediately recognized landed on her ass. They traveled lightly up her spine to tangle in her hair where fingernails began delicately scratching her scalp. Her eyes closed and Randi moaned softly at the sensation that action caused to skitter up and down her spine. She stood rooted to the spot until a low laugh made her turn her head just slightly and open her eyes to mere slits.

Mere slits, that is, until she got a good look at Gwen. Then they popped open wide and she turned her whole body to take in the picture she had never expected to see. Her mouth opened and her jaw dropped and she stared in obvious delight that produced a light blush across Gwenís body Ė a majority of which was exposed to Randiís hungry eyes.

Bare feet with painted toenails were met at the ankle by silk. The harem pants were white Ė nearly sheer with gold stars speckling its length and breadth. A gold girdle belt swayed from slim hips and Randi licked her lips unconsciously at the bellybutton and muscled abdomen that were uncovered for her perusal.

Firm full breasts were teasingly hidden Ė the silk that covered them opaque instead of sheer in pertinent spots, the only thing holding it in place seemed to be a knot that was loosely tied in the front. A twisted gold chain hung from Gwenís neck, its adornment resting in the valley between Gwenís breasts. Gold armbands, wrist cuffs and a diadem atop the blonde hair completed the outfit, and the make-up Gwen wore only enhanced its effects.

Randi extended a hand to Gwenís neck, her touch light and teasing as she traced down the centerline of the bardís body. She smiled as goosebumps followed in her wake almost feeling the cascade of sensation she was causing Gwen to experience.

A look up into Gwenís face made the warriorís nostrils flare and her eyes to deepen and dilate. The blonde head was thrown back, lips slightly parted and wet from the tongue Randi could just see. Green eyes were only partially closed and filled with desire.

Randi let her hand trail back up from Gwenís waist, deliberately circling each nipple in turn before winding a hand into the blonde hair and pulling Gwenís body forcefully into her own. Without hesitation, she seized Gwenís mouth with blazing passion, conveying love, lust, desire and need.

Gwen accepted the aggression and returned it with her own. She pulled away to breathe and Randi followed her, unable or unwilling to give up conquered territory for even a moment. By the end of the second kiss, both women were breathing hard and it was only the grace of God and Randiís locked knees that were keeping them upright.

Gwen looked into the blue eyes that were worshipping her and she blushed again, flattered and embarrassed beyond words.

"You need me so much?"

"Yes," came the blunt, stark reply.

"I, um... I have a costume for you as well. Would you... would you like to, um... put it on or...?"

Randi swallowed. What she would like at the moment frankly scared her. It was rough and wild and totally different from anything they had shared before. Of course, so was role-playing and Gwen had obviously put a lot of time and effort into setting up this scenario. The warrior cleared her throat.

"Um... let me go freshen up and um... change. Shouldnít take me but a few minutes." She leaned down and kissed Gwen hard and fast, possessing her thoroughly. Then she stepped back, knowing if she stayed thing were going to get out of hand quickly, and frankly, she wasnít that fond of the kitchen floor or the counters. She squeezed Gwenís hands briefly before releasing them, then headed for their bedroom.

Randi turned back as she reached the doorway, her eyes glowing with the intensity of her emotions. "By the way," she said with a smile. "You look great." Then she disappeared and Gwen took a deep breath.

"Wow," she murmured, lifting a shaky hand to adjust the circlet that had gone askew during their impromptu make-out session. "What that woman does to me."

 

 

The candles had burned low in the holo-suite. Randi and Gwen were stretched out, comfortably naked and sated among the pillows and thick rugs scattered on the floor. Their clothing was cast haphazardly around the room and Gwen spared a passing thought for the silk, wondering if chocolate could be removed once it dried. Then she shrugged, not really caring. Her plans for Cupidís holiday had been supremely successful, judging from the satisfied purring coming from the chest beneath her ear and her own feeling of contentment.

"This was a wonderful idea, love." She looked around the room, admiring the work and incredible detail Gwen had put into creating such an exotic setting. "What, um... what made you decide to try something like this?"

Gwen felt the blood rush through her body, then giggled. Now was really not the time to be shy and embarrassed about this Ė not after what they had just shared together. She had been wanton, and Randi aggressive and it had been... her body burned in memory of the passion it had ignited between them.

"Iíve been reading the Soulmates Journals. Some of our previous lifetimes were um... well, I thought it might be nice to experience the nicer side of some of them."

"Good thought." Randi brushed a kiss over the top of Gwenís head, smiling when the bard mewled lightly and snuggled deeper into her embrace. "I wasnít... um, I didnít... hurt... you, did I?"

"Nope," Gwen quickly reassured, kissing Randiís bare chest. "Absolutely not."

"Good," shivering at the sensation those lips caused. "Iím not sure where all that came from...."

"Well, if it was the setting, rest assured we will do this again," her words sending the message Randi needed to hear. She felt the body beneath her visibly relax. Gwen leaned up on an elbow so she could look down into Randi eyes. "I love making love with you, Randi, and Iím glad we can try new things together."

"So am I," Randi said, easing Gwenís head back down to rest on her chest. She lightly ran her hands up and down Gwenís sides, enjoying the touches she received in response. "That requires so much trust and Iím glad we have that between us," Randi continued, but Gwen couldnít see the doubt and fear in Randiís eyes.

Where did that come from Ė that fire and rage? It was so intense, so frightening. I could have lost control... could have hurt.... My God.... letting her thoughts trail off. She hugged Gwen tighter, smiling when the bard responded with a fierce hug of her own and another kiss on the soft skin of her breast.

"I love you, ya know Ė more than life. Always."

"Forever, sweetheart... forever."

 

 

"This isnít gonna seem like much after what you did for us the other night," Randi said as they packed their stuff into the bikeís saddlebags. They were leaving straight from work and all Gwen knew so far was to pack light.

"Are we gonna be together this weekend?"

"Uh huh."

"And will we have some time *alone* together?"

"Uh huh."

"Itíll be perfect. Now letís get to work. Iíve got things to do before we head out this afternoon."

 

 

"Oh my God, this is wonderful," Gwen said as she sank into the blissfully warm water. They had arrived at the spa and already had their first massage of the weekend. Now they were relaxing in the whirlpool before going back top their room for room service and a decadent evening of pampering one another. And tomorrow would be more of the same, just more extensive treatments.

Randi leaned her head back and closed her eyes in bliss, stretching her arms out and smiling when Gwen slid into place right beside her. "Uh huh," she said.

"Youíre on a roll."

"Kaiser or deli?" asked without opening her eyes or cracking a smile. Gwen merely covered her eyes and blamed the flush on her cheeks on the heat of the water.

"I donít believe you said that," groaning and lightly smacking Randiís belly.

"Uh huh," figuring out what the bard meant.

"There you go again. Something up that youíve been reduced to single syllables?"

"Nope," Randi said, feeling more relaxed than she had since theyíd returned from their honeymoon, and almost more than she had since Gwenís kidnapping. "Just happy... content."

Gwen laid her head on Randiís shoulder, delighting in the warriorís personal scent she could detect over the smell of chlorine in the pool. "Me too." She closed her eyes and breathed in the steam. "OH!" she exclaimed suddenly, sitting upright and nearly catching Randi in the chin. "I forgot to tell you Ė I invited Tiny and Reed to visit. Theyíll probably be at the boat house when we get back. They wanted to come this weekend, but I put them off after I found out you had made plans for us."

"Thatís fine." Randiís brow scrunched up in confusion. "Wait... can Reed do that? I mean, is she okay, you know," motioning between them. "With us?"

"I guess so. Tiny seemed to approve of the idea, and you know heíd never put her in harmís way."

True," Randi agreed with a nod of her head. "Cool... maybe we can keep them around and have a session with the guys on Friday. I think theyíd enjoy that... almost as much as Jill does."

Gwen chuckled. "I donít know if thatís possible, but it would be a good time."

The buzzer sounded and they rose from the whirlpool, the water cascading in sheets down their now pink, pruney skin. Then they wrapped themselves in robes and made their way to their room, looking forward to the remainder of their weekend together.

 

 

And in several different hideouts scattered around the planet, plans to eliminate the Sabres Ė and most especially Miranda Valiant - were put into motion. Time had come to exact revenge.

 

 

Chapter XIV

"I feel like a wet noodle," Gwen said as she flopped down on the big bed. Randi laughed at her and pulled their bag from the closet, carefully packing up their few belongings.

"So this was a good idea then?"

"This was a great idea. I didn't know I was carrying so much stress until it was gone. Here, let me help," the bard added, rolling from the bed and heading to the bathroom to grab their toiletries.

"You don't...." Randi started before realizing it was a lost cause.

"I know I don't," Gwen said when she emerged. "But this marriage is a partnership. We share everything Ė good and bad."

Randi sat down on the bed, those words hitting her in an unexpectedly deep place. Gwen looked up in startlement at the still, unmoving figure. She put the toiletries down and moved to take a seat beside Randi, clasping the warrior's hand and pulling it into her lap.

"Love? You all right?"

The dark head nodded slowly as blue eyes turned to capture green. "I just... I was just thinking about what you said Ė about what that means for you."

Blonde brows furrowed. "What do you think it means for me, sweetheart?"

"I think it means you got a lot more darkness than you bargained for," said succinctly.

"I think it means I got my soul's other half." She lifted up the linked hands and kissed Randi's long fingers one at a time. "Now, unless you want me to start something we really don't have time to finish right now, we need to get moving. I'd like to be home when Tiny and Reed arrive."

Randi leaned over and stole a quick kiss, chuckling when Gwen followed her back. "I thought you said we needed to get a move on," the warrior said against Gwen's lips. She felt the bard smile.

"Yes, but that's not something we do halfway, either."

"An all or nothing kind of thing?"

"Yep, and I prefer the *all* method myself." They kissed once more Ė quickly but thoroughly.

"Me too," Randi agreed as she pulled away. "C'mon... before we get into any more trouble."

"Before *WE* get into trouble?? Excuse me, warrior mine Ė as I recall, *I* am not the trouble maker in this family."

Randi stood to her full height and glowered down at Gwen, though she couldn't quite hide the twinkle sparkling in her eyes. "As you insinuating that *I* am a troublemaker?"

"I'm not insinuating anything... that was a flat out statement of fact."

"Why you little...." reaching for Gwen and deliberately missing so the bard would run and she could give chase. She was flummoxed when Gwen stopped suddenly, hands on her hips and eyes narrowed to slits. Randi froze, then reflexively took a stride back.

"Did you just make a short joke?" taking a menacing step towards Randi.

Randi shook her head rapidly. "No... I'm not allowed to make jokes. It goes against the warrior code."

Gwen didn't answer verbally; her eyebrow rose in response as her mind reviewed the times Randi had played practical jokes or deadpanned unexpected funny puns. Randi could see the machinations going on behind the bright green eyes and figured she'd better get while the getting was good. She snatched up their travel bag and started out the door, Gwen hot on her heels.

"Iím gonna get you for that, Stud."

Randi smirked. "Oh, I'm counting on that, Little One," taking off down the halls, but not before Gwen got in a good pinch to her backside. "HEY!"

 

 

They were a little more than halfway home, and Randi was pleasantly distracted by Gwen's hands. Periodically, they would lovingly rub over the spot the bard had pinched, and Randi was forced to focus more of her senses on maintaining the bike and driving than she normally would have been. It was the only explanation she could find for being caught so off guard by what happened next.

The road was well shaded with old oaks, and it made a perfect cover for a covert Fringe Amazon operation. She felt them more than saw them, but it wasnít quick enough to avoid their attack and she had no weapons to combat them while on the bike Ė not with Gwen to protect, anyway. From the trees, without warning, arrows began raining down on them. Randi did her best to avoid them. One stuck in her thigh and she grimaced Ė that was going to be a real bitch to pull out later. Gwen tightened her grip suddenly and released a muffled cry just before Randi felt the arrow pierce her right shoulder. Then Gwenís grip started to slacken and Randi realized she must have been hit.

The arrow shower stopped as quickly as it began, and Randiís Sabre instincts came screaming to the fore. Now the Amazons were coming after them. She needed to find a place she could defend and protect Gwen at the same time.

Randi knew she couldnít let her assailants dictate the terms of their fight, so she turned the bike off the road and into the field. There were trees there, but they were sparse and spread out. Randi would choose one to defend and make them come to her.

The Amazons, seeing that they had injured both women, were celebrating, despite the fact that Randi had unexpectedly turned away from them instead of fighting. They quickly made haste to follow her, each determined to be know as the one who had destroyed Miranda Valiant. Ultimately, it would be that mindset that saved the warriorís life.

Randi slipped into Sabre mode and stopped the bike by the large, lone tree in the middle of the pasture. She hissed in pain as she separated herself from Gwen, pulling the arrow out of her shoulder and turning to catch Gwen as she slumped forward with a whimper.

"Iím sorry, love," Randi whispered. "I know it hurts, but weíve gotta get under cover before I can do anything about it."

Green eyes glazed over with pain blinked up into darkened blue. "Síall right, Stud," she slurred. I uníerstaní."

"Can you stay awake for me for just another minute?" Randi waited for Gwen to nod. "Good girl. Hang on. Iíll be right back."

The warrior grit her teeth and slid off the bike, then started digging through the saddlebags. Some Sabre habits were so ingrained in her psyche that she didnít even think about them anymore Ė one of those habits was that she always carried a first aid kit with her. Another was that she never traveled without accessible weapons. It was those two habits that she was now giving thanks for, even as she searched her bags for the items she needed.

Randi found the items she was looking for and took a minute to arm herself. The short staff was hooked on a belt loop; the flash grenades stuffed in the oversized pockets of her pants. The throwing stars she left in their pouch and tied it off to another belt loop.

"Raníi?" Gwenís soft call got her attention immediately. "I fíl funny."

"Hang on, sweetheart."

Randi took her jacket off and reached down to her thigh, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before breaking off the arrow that jutted out from deep in her leg. She groaned and bit her lip, willing the world to steady. Then she fashioned a tourniquet and tied it around her leg, praying it would be enough til she could take care of it properly. There was nothing she could do about the wound in her shoulder, and she could feel the blood trickling down her back.

Shaking her head, she turned to Gwen, who slumped in her arms. "Raníi, iís all dark Ďní fuzzy."

"I know, love. Iím sorry. And what Iíve gotta do now is gonna hurt a lot."

"Wha...?"

"Iíve gotta break the arrow off so I can push it through and bandage it up." Randi felt Gwen shudder in anticipation of the pain she knew was coming. "Iím sorry, sweetheart. Iíll be as quick as I can. Here," handing the bard the arm of her jacket. "Bite on this."

Gwen did and Randi broke off the head, catching Gwen when she passed out. Then she pushed the arrow through, knowing the Amazons were approaching by the sounds audible in her peripheral hearing. Randi slapped on two pressure bandages, and put Gwen over her shoulder, groaning at the added pressure it put on her wounds. Then she struggled to get them both into the tree, knowing Gwen would be out of harmís way there.

Randi found a place that had several branches tangled together, and she gently deposited Gwen into the center. She slid her belt off and looped it around the bard, securing her to the tree. Then Randiís eyes shuttered and she became the feral hunter.

The Amazons had arrived within a visible perimeter and were now at a loss of how to proceed. Though most conventional weapons were available to them through every sort of illegal means, they were in very short supply. Therefore they, and all the rebel groups, tended to rely on the more traditional weapons their forefathers and mothers had used. In the case of the Amazons, their most customary weapon was the crossbow, though there were some chobos, a few swords and a spear among the gathered group.

Finally, it dawned on them that there were fifteen of them and only one Miranda Valiant, and they began to advance as a group through the tall grasses. Unfortunately, it never occurred to them that those kinds of odds werenít going to work in their favor.

The Sabre in Randi knew that she didnít have time to enjoy the combat, so she worked swiftly to eliminate the threat now facing her and keeping her from getting the help she needed for Gwen. The first four Amazons fell before anyone was aware Randi was not where they expected her to be.

She had slid down the tree and through the grass like a snake, creeping up behind them and breaking their necks with rapid precision. Then she was gone again before they saw her. A cry went up when the bodies were discovered, which happened accidentally when one woman turned to give a whispered instruction to the woman behind her.

This caused the Amazons to cluster together, and Randi just shook her head before tossing a flash grenade into the middle of the group. There wasnít even time to notice before it exploded, killing another five and injuring three. That left only three standing, and for that, Randi unleashed her staff. A simple twist turned the staff into a flange, and Randi approached the remaining Amazons with a fierce roar.

The first barely raised her bow before her head went flying, bouncing across the grass several times before her body actually crumbled. The next held a sword and came running towards the warrior from behind, only to find the other blade buried in her belly. Randi didnít even turn; she merely yanked it out and threw the weapon like a javelin at the final Amazon, who had turned to run. It buried itself in her back, and the Amazon turned to look at Randi as she sank to her knees. Blood spilled out of her mouth and she realized that the woman regarding her with dead eyes was the spectre of death herself.

Randi walked the few steps to the Amazon, removing her flange and dragging the body back to the crater where the flash grenade had exploded. The three injured Amazons were making various degrees of effort to escape, and the Sabre calmly walked to each one and ended their torment with the single thrust of a blade. Then one by one she dumped the bodies into the hole and carefully set the remaining grenades for a delayed incineration blast, which was actually their intended purpose.

Randi rinsed the blood off her flange, then with a twist returned it to its short staff form before heading back to the tree to retrieve Gwen. She didnít even flinch at the silent explosion that sent a wave of heat blasting over her. Randi knew that in short order, the only evidence of anything amiss in this field would be the large hole in the ground. She wasnít worried about the transports Ė no one was going to come looking for them, and if they were found, well... she still wasnít worried. She hadnít touched them.

She put her weapons away, carefully storing them as she always had, and with that action went her memories of what had just happened. She turned her attention to her thigh. It was still bleeding sluggishly, so she braced herself and grabbed the end of the shaft and yanked. The warrior screamed and the world went black for a very long moment. She loosened the tourniquet and blood flowed more rapidly now, and she cursed herself for being caught without water. Instead, she took a length of bandage and wrapped it tightly, then moved to climb the tree.

It took longer than she expected; the wound on her shoulder was starting to ache intensely. Gwen was still passed out, and Randi decided to revive her, knowing she needed the bard to hold on to get them both home safely. She grabbed an ammonia capsule and let the scent waft under Gwenís nose.

The bardís reaction was almost immediate, and she sat up with a hiss. Her eyes watered from the smell and her good hand reached for her injured shoulder. Already the fire had burned down to cinders with the wind carrying most of the scent away from them. Gwen put down the odd smell in the air to the burning in her nose and the scent of blood and sweat coming from both her and Randi. Gwen stretched a shaking hand towards the warriorís bandaged leg.

Randi caught it in her own and held it tightly for a moment before turning her head. "We need to go, love, and youíre gonna have work with me to get down from here and home."

Gwen looked around, disoriented. "What are we doing up here? And whatís with the smoke?"

Randi glanced in the direction Gwen was gazing and shrugged her shoulders, though her brow furrowed. "Dunno. I brought us up here because it was the safest I could manage on short notice. I must have passed out once I got the bandages on."

Gwen nodded her acceptance of the explanation. She could only imagine the pain Randi had been in to get them up here alone.

"You think itís safe now?"

"I hope so, but I do know we canít stay here. If I have to fight, I will, but weíve got to get home before this gets worse."

"This is gonna hurt, isnít it?"

"Yep," the warrior answered succinctly, "but the quicker we get down, the quicker we get home. And Iíve got some stuff there that should help with the pain."

Gwen didnít ask; she hurt too badly to worry about the whys and wherefores at the moment. Their first order of business was to get down, and the second was to get home. After that, well, the future would just have to take care of itself.

It was slow going as they eased down from on branch to the next. When they reached the bottom branch, Randi jumped unthinkingly, and her leg buckled when she hit the ground hard. Gwen scrambled after her, falling to her knees when she landed and crawling to kneel by the fallen warriorís side.

"Randi? Sweetheart... are you... all right?" breathing hard with the pain and shaking her head over the irony of that statement. "I mean is... there anything... I can help you... with?"

Randi looked up at her, breathing rhythmically to try and stabilize the dizziness she felt. "No, love," she whispered and took a deep breath. "Just give me a minute to get a grip on this." Another breath. "Then weíll go."

Gwen nodded and leaned back against the tree, watching as Randi consciously pushed the pain out of her awareness and stood to her feet. The warrior extended her uninjured hand down to the bard who accepted it and gradually made her way upright. They leaned against one another for a long moment, then Randi looked into Gwenís eyes.

"Can you make it home holding on, or would you feel more comfortable sitting in front?"

Green eyes widened. "You need me to drive?" Her arm was practically useless and she was afraid there was no way for her to control the bike on the ride home. Her relief was palpable as the dark head began shaking.

"No, no. I just need to know if you can hold on or if I need to hold on to you."

Gwen took in the exhausted face in front of her, and shook her head. "I think... I can hold on, but youíre gonna have to help me... with my helmet."

Randi smiled at her. "I can do that. And if at any time you feel like youíre falling or you canít hold on, you tell me immediately, all right?"

Gwen nodded, hoping beyond hope she could at least make it home before she passed out again. She didnít understand Randiís fortitude, knowing the warrior had been in a position of being hurt and having to press forward anyway on more than one occasion. She wondered if it was something Randi ever got used to, but couldnít seem to get her mind or her mouth to ask the question. It was just too much effort.

Randi grimaced as she lifted the helmet to Gwenís head and pulled it on. Aside from the strength it was costing her, she understood quite clearly that their helmets had gone a long towards protecting them. She felt vaguely uneasy as she donned her own head gear. It wasnít the sense of foreboding she normally got when being chased; rather it was the odd displacement she felt trying to figure out where her enemies were and why they hadnít pressed their advantage.

That the Fringe Amazons were the ones that attacked them wasnít in question Ė they were the only rebel group that used arrows. And Randi highly doubted the rebels were organized enough to be cooperating together. So where were they? And why wasnít her Sabre sense tingling?

She didnít have time to consider more. Gwen had already straddled the bike, so she eased herself in front of the bard and started the engine, thankful for its quiet mode. Her head was beginning to throb on top of everything else, and the light purr of the motorcycle was soothing.

Her hackles were standing straight up now and Randi pressed the bike forward, not sensing any immediate danger but unwilling to let her guard down even a fraction of an inch. Her nerve endings ached from overextension and her focus was now on getting herself and Gwen home as quickly and safely as possible. Gwen clutched at her shirt with one hand and leaned into Randi. The Sabre smiled grimly, accepting the weight and letting the need she felt flowing from Gwen motivate her.

Strangely, to Randiís mind at least, they made it home with no further incident and not even a blip on her Sabre radar to indicate they were being followed or were in any more danger. She would have considered it longer, but she felt Gwen slump against her just as the crossed the bridge and her focus was on maintaining their balance. She pulled under the portico and slid off the bike. She turned to catch Gwen as she started to tumble over, wincing when the blonde head hit the bad shoulder.

Randi steeled herself for what came next, and with a groan rose on unsteady feet, glad the door was only two paces from where she stood. The warrior leaned against the doorframe as she keyed in the code, then stumbled in the door when it unlocked.

Randi was sweating profusely from exertion by the time she made it to their bathroom, and she had to call out the water temperature twice before it activated. She got them onto the shower seat and stripped them both, strewing clothes haphazardly around the room. The warrior was happy that Gwen was still out for the count when she removed the pressure bandage, leaving red marks in her wake.

Then they sat and let the water wash over them. Gwen came to almost as soon as the water started spraying, and she reached for the hands that were wrapped around her middle.

Randi leaned down and nuzzled the wet head leaning against her good shoulder. "Hi," she whispered, not wanting to speak louder for fear of what would happen to her head. Gwen turned and looked at her with miserable eyes.

"Hi," she returned. "Guess we need to wash off huh?" indicating the dried blood that was slowly falling away from their skin.

"Yeah. Iíll wash your back if you wash mine," Randi said weakly.

"Deal, sweetheart," leaning forward at Randiís urging. The warriorís touch was tender, but Gwenís skin was so sensitive, it still hurt. They managed to get the blood cleaned off, and Randi was happy to note the gashes in their shoulder and backs had stopped bleeding. Her thigh was another matter Ė it was still bleeding sluggishly, and she wondered if something had been put on that arrow. Randi slapped another bandage on it. She would check it again after she got a little rest. She couldnít see anything and there wasnít anything she could do for it until she was sure something was there.

The shower had been reviving enough to give them the strength to towel dry before they fell into bed, literally. For the first time since the return of Gwenís memories, they didnít curl up together, their injuries making it a painful prospect at best. Instead, they held hands and drifted off into welcome oblivion.

 

 

Tommy looked up as the signal chirped, then grinned at Tiny and Reed. "Thatíll be them," he said, not mentioning the relief he felt. He hadnít minded entertaining the couple, and in fact had welcomed the time to get to know them a little better. But he had expected Randi and Gwen home much earlier and was beginning to grow concerned to the point of alarm at their tardiness.

"Címon. Iíll take you over and say hey. Let me just go tell Ella; be right back."

Tiny nodded as he started to rise, then turned when he felt Reed tremble beside him.

"Honey?"

She closed her eyes and gripped his arm. "Somethingís out of kilter again."

Tiny turned to face her with concerned eyes. "Out of kilter how? Bad? Can you manage or do we need to leave?"

Reed shook her head, gray eyes gone silver in focused thought. "Iím fine. Itís just... odd. Itís not like it is supposed to be, but itís not like it was either. Sort of hard to explain."

Tiny shrugged and gave Reed a sheepish little grin. "Thatís okay... itís kinda hard to understand sometimes too." He stood and offered her a hand up which she graciously accepted. "Letís get over there and see whatís up. With a little luck, itíll just be because they had a phenomenal weekend together. I know," he continued at her disbelieving look, "but I can hope."

"Do yaíll mind walking?" Tommy asked as he re-emerged in the living room. "Itís not far, and since you left your bags in the shuttle...."

"Walking will be fine," Reed answered. "It looks like such a beautiful day. We still have snow at home."

Tommy laughed. "Thatís never been much of a concern here, though we do get an occasional cold day here and there. But it is gorgeous out. Címon."

It was gorgeous out, and the trio took their time walking through the trees between the two houses. The sound of the surf made a pleasant accompaniment and they breathed in deeply of the fresh air.

"I could grow accustomed to this," Tiny said. "No wonder Randi protects her privacy here so fiercely."

Tommy shook his head. "No. Sheís always been that way. Iíve been allowed glimpses, but sheís always been a very private person. This place just allows her to guard it a little more intensely."

"Heís right," Reed agreed. "Thatís one reason sheís so hard to read," forgetting for a moment that the man accompanying them was unaware of her abilities. Tommy, however, accepted the statement on face value.

"Yeah, but sheís worth the extra effort too," walking towards the front door and looking askance at the motorcycle still parked under the portico. "Hmm."

"Problem?" Tiny rumbled, stepping up beside him.

Tommy shrugged. "Dunno. Randi doesnít generally leave the bike out like this." He turned his attention to the door, then looked back at Reed and Tiny. "Um, can you guys give me a minute? Somethingís not right here," gesturing towards the door. "The alarmís not on."

Two sets Sabre eyes met then turned back to Tommy. "Weíll go in with you," Tiny said firmly. Tommy saw the seriousness of Tinyís expression and nodded his agreement. He felt better about having them watch his back, as it were; he just wanted to insure Randi and Gwenís privacy as well.

Tiny eased the door open, taking the point position as a matter of course. He let his eyes track around the room before motioning the other two in with a jerk of his head. They walked slowly through the foyer and into the living room, silently agreeing to let Reed check the bedroom alone, just in case.

She held onto Tinyís arm for a long moment, gathering strength from him, then stepped across the threshold... only to immediately step back out.

"Tommy, do you know if Randi has a regen unit?" knowing he wouldnít know where her Sabre gear was hidden, but hoping she had one for general purposes.

"Are they... what happened?" wanting to push by her, by held tight by Reedís hidden strength. Tiny turned on his heel and raced out the door towards the shuttle. They had emergency medical equipment there, including a regen unit. Tommy watched him fly out the door before he turned his attention back to Reed.

He stepped away from her, drawing a deep breath to settle himself and scratching the back of his neck in thought when he realized she was waiting for an answer to her question.

"Um, in the bathroom, maybe? The only time Iíve seen one here was when the medic brought it Ė when she fell while building the dock," he added, seeing the befuddled look on Reedís face. "You, um... you want me to go look?"

The Sabre nodded. "Yeah, I think so. You probably have a better idea where to look." She grabbed his arm as he started into the room. "They are hurt. I donít know how much, but weíll get them taken care of. Tiny went to get the med kit from the shuttle."

Tommy swallowed and nodded. He stepped into the room, noting their distance and wondering how Reed could tell at a glance that they were injured. Then he crossed into the bathroom and his eyes widened at the mess he found there.

"Um, Reed?"

She came in swiftly at his call, and she bit her lip in surprise at the condition of the bathroom, having only ever seen neatness and order from Randi.

"Put the clothing in a pile to one side, then start looking through the drawers and cabinets." A bumping noise alerted her to Tinyís return. "Get started. I need to help Tiny," she directed and went back out to the living area.

"How are they?" Tiny asked as he brought the equipment in the door.

"I havenít had a chance to check thoroughly. No wonder their aura was off kilter though. Are you gonna help me?"

Tiny took a deep breath. "Yeah. You canít do it alone, and I donít think Tommy would be comfortable seeing them naked. Címon. Letís get them healed so we can find out what the hell happened."

Tommy came out of the bathroom just as Reed and Tiny walked into the bedroom. He handed Reed a small device. "That was all I found aside from some first aid stuff," looking at their gear. "But I think youíve got that covered. Iím gonna go call Ella. She might be able to help."

Tiny nodded. "Thanks, Tommy. Iíd feel better if Ella could help Reed. This is a little different than what we usually deal with."

Tommy nodded his head, not really understanding, but respecting the Navy chiefís words. He knew how invasive he felt seeing them naked together, and he was family. It had to be even more awkward for Tiny who had been Randiís comrade-in-arms.

While Tommy made his phone call, Tiny readied everything Reed would need to care for Randi and Gwen. He ran a clinical eye over them, noting only the hole in Gwenís shoulder and the hole in Randiís thigh. That one looked like it might be infected, and he made sure to lay out extra pads and a scalpel in case Reed had to go poking around inside the wound. He wondered what other injuries there were to make them both sleep so soundly their chests hardly stirred with their breathing. Never before had he seen Randi in repose like this as the slightest sound or stirring of air was sure to awaken her.

Reed came out of the bathroom where sheíd washed up, then turned her attention to Gwen. She knew she was going to need help with Randiís leg so she figured to take care of Gwen first. Reed looked closely and pulled Gwen into a sitting position, wincing when her suspicions were confirmed.

"They were attacked by Amazons. This is an arrow hole, and it went all the way through." Ella walked into the room, and immediately moved to take the cleansing pads from Reed and disinfecting the whole area around the injury. She applied antibiotic cream and a sterile pad, then waited for Reed to lay the bard down so they could do the same to the front. They checked the rest of her over carefully and aside from a couple of minor scrapes caused from her tree climbing, found nothing else wrong. So they set the regen unit to go to work on Gwenís shoulder and moved over to Randi.

The warrior was more scratched and sported a couple bruises which Reed rubbed a cream into to stimulate their healing. They found the hole in Randiís shoulder and looked between her and Gwen for a very long moment before cleaning it and covering it to lay her back down gently. Then they turned their attention to the leg.

Without a word, Tiny prepped the syringes Ė the first was a deadening agent and the second contained a heavy-duty antibiotic. Ella leaned her weight across Randiís midsection while Tiny placed his hands on either side of the large hole. Then Reed quickly injected the vials, one after the other. Randi didnít flinch and the Sabres look at each other with concerned eyes.

Finally Tiny moved his hands, though he placed them on Reedís back to help stabilize her defenses. Ella sat up to help, and very shortly the two women were cleaning out pockets of pus from the leg. Still Randi didnít stir.

"What happened?" Ella asked softly as though her voice would disturb the two patients lying so still on the big bed. "I mean, who did this? And why?"

Tiny shrugged. "Weíre not sure. But they were obviously ambushed. Weíre hoping they can tell us when they wake up."

"I think I got it all," Reed interrupted quietly. "Itís washing clear and I canít find any more pockets."

"All right, letís set up the regen unit and let them rest. The quicker they heal, the sooner we get the real story of what happened."

Tiny arranged the regen unit for Randi while Reed gathered their tools and supplies and began putting them away. Ella tucked the couple in, placing a light kiss on each forehead, and covering them in sheets and blankets to their chins. Then she helped the two Sabres gather their gear and followed them out to the living room.

Through it all, Randi and Gwen never stirred from their slumber, and they never let go of one anotherís hands.

 

 

Chapter XV

Randi scrubbed her hands through her hair in frustration as she got up from the table. "I donít know, Tiny," she said, frustration evident in her voice. She walked to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water, gulping half of it down before she returned to the table the rest were still seated at. Gwen held out a hand and Randi reached for it like it was a lifeline.

"Heís only trying to help."

"I know, love, and Iím sorry, Tiny," looking in the big manís direction. "Iím still tired and sore, and...."

"Letís move into the living room," Reed suggested. "Iíd like to try something, if youíre game."

Randi nodded and pulled Gwen up by their linked hands. "Anything. This is gonna make me nuts otherwise."

Tiny cast Reed a worried glance and she nodded subtly at him. Then they followed the couple over to the couches.

Gwen had slept for a full twenty-four hours and Randi for another twenty passed that. Their wounds were completely healed, not even leaving a scar behind. And their memories were almost identical Ė Randiís lasting a bit longer than Gwenís. Neither of them not knew what had happened between the time Randi got the up into the tree and the time they got home. The ride home was mostly a blur of sensations and images.

Therein lay the source of Randiís frustration. Something didnít add up. Why attack her and Gwen if there was no plan to finish the job? She had a vague recollection of being surprised it was Amazons, given the note she had received from the Wizards, but Tiny and Reed confirmed that much of her memory was intact. They had indeed been ambushed by Amazons.

But why? Why attack and not kill them? That had to have been the intent Ė there was no quarter given for mercy and Randi knew in her heart she was a killing target. Besides the bragging rights it would give to the person and organization that accomplished it, as long as she was alive she was a stumbling blocks to them ever regaining any sort of power base, even without being a Sabre.

The warrior smiled darkly. Now, though Ė now they had crossed a line with her. Now it was personal, and people were going to die. First, however, they had to figure out why the Amazons had run instead of terminating her, especially when it appeared that was clearly their objective. Randiís smile dropped from her face. There shouldnít be holes or questions and that bothered her more than she let on.

When they reached the couches, Reed stopped them with an upraised palm before they could assume their normal cuddling position.

"Gwen, if you could sit in the corner and let Randi lean back into you... however is most comfortable for the two of you, but youíre going to act as her grounding, her shield." Gwen nodded and took her position, stretching one leg against the back cushions and planting the other squarely on the floor. This was something of a feat in and of itself since the couches had been purchased with Randiís longer frame in mind. However, it worked perfectly for their needs and now Randi was able to sit cocooned in Gwenís embrace.

Randi sat between Gwenís legs, leaning back against her chest. The bard pulled her leg off the floor and purposely tangled them together with Randiís on the couch. The warrior sighed in contentment at the warmth that enveloped her soul when Gwen wrapped her arms around her middle. They didnít do this often Ė just because the logistics made the alternative a much easier prospect. But Randi always enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by Gwenís love and strength.

The warrior leaned her head back until their cheeks brushed, and Gwen took advantage of her position to nuzzle a bit. Neither of them paid the slightest attention to Tiny and Reed, who had moved to the far side of the room to retrieve Randiís desk chair, which was by far the most comfortable one she owned.

"Are you sure about this, honey?" Tiny asked in a hushed voice Ė not that he expected Randi to overhear him given how engrossed she and Gwen were in one another at the moment, but it never hurt to be extra vigilant, either. Reed smiled up at him sweetly and put a hand on his arm.

"Iím sure, Tiny. The shielding is holding well, and with you here to provide grounding for me, Iíll be all right. A little tired, but we all are at this point, I think. Besides, weíve got to know Ė if the shielding doesnít work now, it certainly wonít work later. And we need to know what Randiís subconscious remembers. You know how we all have memories we canít consciously access."

Tiny nodded solemnly. He knew that all too well, as did every Sabre member. Those memories only came out at night, and were the stuff their nightmares were made of. He looked in Randi and Gwenís direction and shook his head.

"Do they ever stop?" he asked with a smile in his voice and on his face.

They werenít actually doing anything. They sat tangled together so tightly even air couldnít pass between them, talking quietly. He turned his attention back to Reed at her light touch. Her expression was sad and almost resigned.

"I hope not," she said quietly. "The darkness that would follow that breaking would be unbearable."

Tiny sobered, remembering the echoes of darkness he had felt in the periphery of his mind when Sky had shown Reed his vision. It wasnít something he wanted to experience again. That experience had left him with a greater appreciation of Reedís strength, and an overwhelming desire to protect her as much as possible from what she knew and he suspected was coming.

"Sorry."

Reed smiled again. "Donít be. In any other situation, Iíd ask the same question, and use it as an opportunity to tease Randi unmercifully. And when we get out of this," spoken confidently, "I still might."

Tiny smiled and pulled the reclining, leather chair out from the desk and began moving it towards the couch. He sat down and waited for Reed to situate herself comfortably between his legs. Then he waited. Reed cleared her throat, startling Randi and Gwen from their conversation. They had been so engrossed in one another they never even heard the two Sabres approach - a testament to how truly safe and comfortable Randi felt around them.

"Sorry," Randi said, managing to keep the blush from staining her face though she felt the heat of Gwenís against her cheek.

"Donít be," Reed said. "It does my heart good to know you hold us in high enough regard to let your guard down around us. Besides," she added with an impish twinkle in her gray eyes, "it is always nice to see newlyweds so totally involved with one another. Lots of potential teasing there."

Randi did the only adult thing she could think of Ė she stuck her tongue out at Reed. That action made Reed laugh heartily and for the first time since Sky had shared his vision, the seer felt a wave of peace pass through her about the outcome of this drama. Finally, she cleared her throat and became serious.

"Tiny." Just the one word, but the big man knew what she needed. Without any visible effort he moved them forward until Reedís knees touched the edge of the couch. Then he extended his hands, palms up and held them steady, waiting for Reed to place hers palms up within his.

Reed turned her gaze to Gwen. "I donít think you can mimic this posture, but hold on to her for all youíre worth, and donít let go." Green eyes widened and Gwen felt the words to have more than an immediate meaning. She nodded her head and wrapped herself even more securely around the warriorís body. Randi gasped and patted the hands around her middle.

"Let me breathe, love."

The bard loosened her hold slightly and Randi smiled at the still firm grip she maintained. In truth, she loved the possessiveness Gwen showed towards her. Sheíd just found breathing to be a necessary component of living.

"Better?" whispered in her ear.

"Yep," Randi replied. "I like being here." She felt Gwen brush a light kiss near her hairline.

"Good Ė I like having you here too."

They both looked back at Reed who was waiting patiently for them to arrange themselves comfortably. She nodded in satisfaction.

"Good. Are you ready?" Randi concurred and Reed continued to speak. "Randi, place your hands palms down in mine."

"Reed?" The warrior hesitated, knowing the pain the seer had suffered before because of her bond with Gwen. She had no desire to inflict more agony on the woman she called friend, even for answers to this frustrating riddle that her memory had become. "I donít...."

Reed smiled, appreciating the consideration, no matter how misplaced. She extended her hands again and Tiny accompanied her. "Itís all right, Randi. I have spent a significant amount of time reinforcing my shielding, and Tiny will provide extra grounding for me, just as Gwen will help you maintain your equilibrium and sense of self."

"Will I see what you see?"

Reed returned the look Randi gave her measure for measure. "Iím not sure," she answered honestly. I think it will depend on what you want to see."

Randi cocked her head and blue fire burned from her eyes. "You think I am hiding something?"

Reed accepted the accusatory stare. "We all do, Randi. Every Sabre has a safe place in their subconscious mind where they hide memories too painful to bear in the light of day. Itís a survival mechanism."

"And youíre gonna go find this safe place?"

"I hope so. It depends on what you allow. Iím not going to go pushing into places in your head."

"And youíre sure this wonít hurt you?"

Reed smiled. "Iím sure. Trust me."

Randi nodded. "Fair enough." Then she extended her hands and laid them in Reedís; both women closed their eyes.

There was no sound to be heard except for four sets of breathing. Even Tiny and Gwenís eyes shut to help maintain the atmosphere. For long minutes this went on as Reed carefully walked thru Randiís memories. Randi did not accompany her visually throughout, but she hadnít actually expected her to. She anticipated Randiís appearance in her safe place if she emerged at all.

Reed was vigilant and prudent as she moved. This was such a delicate procedure. On the one hand, she didnít want to be invasive; yet on the other, she needed to know what happened. Randi had an organized mind, though, and it was childís play for Reed to find the memories of the Amazon attack that happened to Randi and Gwen two days prior.

She watched as dispassionately as she could manage, knowing she was an observer only in the drama that played out before her. Her brows suddenly furrowed together in a frown. Randiís memories were jumpy, as though scenes had been cut and lifted. Now Reed knew she was going to have to find Randiís safe spot. There were things missing and she felt sure they held the key to what had happened.

Reed watched as Randi deposited Gwen in the tree. The very next thing she saw was them waking up beside one another some time later. Question was - what had happened in the interim?

Slowly, she proceeded, finding each and every space compartmentalized and neatly labeled, but never finding Randiís memory core... the place where the worst memories were hidden. The seer would have stamped her feet in frustration if sheíd have thought it would have made things any better. Eventually, she could feel the fatigue that preserving her sense of self in this place was becoming. So she closed the eyes of her spirit self and willed her being back into her physical body.

When she opened her physical eyes, she was back in Tinyís arms in Randiís house with both blue and green eyes facing her with questions in them. She shook her head and everyoneís arms dropped, breaking the link between them.

"I can see parts, but not the whole story. I am seeing exactly what Randi already told us happened."

"What happened to visiting the place where the memories are hidden?"

Reed clenched her hands into fists and banged them on her legs. "I canít find that place in your mind, but I know there has to be one. The memories I saw are edited." She turned to Gwen. "Would you mind... can I check your memories? Itís possible I might see something you wouldnít notice." Reed saw the apprehension rise in Gwenís eyes. "I promise not to go anywhere but to your memories of what happened a couple days ago. I know itís invasive, but I would respect your privacy. I donít just wander about indiscriminately." Reed tried to remain detached during her explanation.

"Iím sorry, Reed. I didnít mean for you to think I was accusing you of anything. Itís just a very scary thought to have someone else roaming around in my mind."

"I understand, Gwen. Really, Iím just... Iíve always been very sensitive about things like this for that very reason. Even with someone you know and trust, itís a very scary prospect. To be honest with you, I donít like to do it, and I wouldnít ask if I didnít think it was necessary."

Gwen looked intently into gray eyes she had come to trust. Reed returned the gaze openly and honestly, allowing the bard a glimpse into her soul. Finally, satisfied with what she found there, she nodded.

"You sure, love?" from Randi. Gwen looked back into blue eyes full of love and understanding. The warrior didnít like the procedure, but as a Sabre she understood the necessity of it, though this was the first time it had ever been done to her. Her record had been too spotless during her service to warrant invading her privacy.

"Will you hold me?"

"Always and forever," came the immediate response. Tiny moved the chair back from the couch, holding carefully to Reed who was trembling slightly from exertion. Randi stood and Gwen followed so they could trade places on the couch. When they resettled themselves, Tiny moved the chair forward again, and Reed opened her eyes.

"Reed, are you sure?" Gwen asked with concern. "You look so drained."

The seer smiled tiredly. "I am, to both. But when we finish, we can all go sleep until tomorrow morning. Tommy was very understanding about waiting to get together until tomorrow."

"This isnít exactly the way I saw your visit with us playing out, ya know," Randi quipped.

"Me either," Reed conceded, "but Iím glad we were here."

"Double for us, my friend," Gwen agreed, and with those words, Reed felt Gwen relax. It was natural to feel trepidation about this. Outside the military, and only in the most compelling of circumstances then, this procedure was rarely used. Otherwise, it was a relatively unknown phenomenon to the world Ė one only speculated about in myth and legend.

Reed lifted her hands from Tinyís and the man unwrapped himself from her waist and extended his arms again, palms up once more. Reed placed her hands in his and waited for Gwen to add hers to the mix.

Randi slid her hands along the undersides of Gwenís arms, supporting and encouraging the bard. Gwen shivered slightly at the touch and allowed the warrior to guide her hands into position over Reedís. Randi went to move hers when the seer spoke.

"No. Leave them there, please. It will make Gwen more comfortable."

Randi turned to Gwen and recognized the need she saw lurking in the back of her green eyes. Without a word, she covered Gwenís hands again. She kissed the bardís temple and whispered, "Relax. Iíll be right here." Then Gwen closed her eyes and opened her mind.

Reed was overwhelmed by the sights that greeted her when she entered Gwenís mind. Everything was vivid, alive, colorful Ė so different from what she was used to. She wasnít sure which response was stronger... the desire to immerse herself in something so amazing or the desire to run from something so totally foreign to her nature.

However, she had promised Gwen not to pry so she walked through the passages of the bardís memories to find the Amazon attack. She stood watching, almost able to feel Gwenís emotions her memories were so strong. Reed actually flinched as she felt the impact of the arrow when it hit Gwenís shoulder and pinned her to Randi.

Reed closed her eyes and focused on the sounds now as that was all Gwen could share with her at this point. The bard wasnít completely unconscious, but she wasnít cognizant either and the only real sense Reed could use was her hearing.

The rumble of an engine... the silence that followed. Heavy breathing; a grunt and moan. Mumblings Ė exchanged words garbled to Gwenís memories. A scuffling noise... and.... Reed wasnít sure. There were odd sounds but nothing clear, nothing she could pinpoint over the whirring vortex that was Gwenís struggle to maintain some sort of awareness. But it was enough to bother her Ė to reassure her that something more had definitely happened. Then things went completely silent for a long moment before Gwen resumed consciousness.

Reed felt the agony and confusion wash through the bard as she came to in the tree and she continued to watch until they made it home. Then she stepped out of Gwenís mind and opened her eyes, slowly withdrawing her hands.

"Thank you, Gwen."

Green eyes gradually opened and met the steel gray of Reedís facing her. "Did you...? I didnít even feel you there, I mean... did you find what you were looking for?"

Reed smiled then shook her head. "Good, youíre not supposed to. And no, not really. But enough to convince me that something definitely happened." She saw questions jump into two sets of eyes and felt Tinyís reaction at her back. "Can we have a moratorium on this til tomorrow morning? Iíd like to process what I heard, and Iím beat. I promise to share first thing."

Gwen yawned which caused a chain reaction, and that led to chuckles and giggles from the entire troupe. By mutual consent, they rose from their places in the living room and moved to the kitchen. Tiny rolled the chair back to its place at the desk.

"I know I havenít been up that long, but I am so tired," Randi said, patting Gwenís belly with their still linked hands. Reed exchanged startled glances with Tiny. Never had they heard Randi make a statement like that, even when it was apparent to all and sundry that she was exhausted and/or in pain. It just wasnít her way, and it went against the Sabre code. Something fundamental had changed and it was up to them to discover if it was for the better or not.

"Me too," Gwen responded. "How Ďbout we raid the fridge for a snack and head to bed? We donít have to be in a rush to get up in the morning, but when we do, we can figure out a plan from there."

Tiny nodded. "Sounds good. Iím starving."

Reed laughed and pinched his muscular stomach. "Now thereís a surprise. Címon. I hear that really nice big bed upstairs calling my name." She turned to Gwen suddenly. "You donít mind that we did that, do you? That we took your old room upstairs instead of the boathouse?"

Gwen released Randiís hand and enveloped Reedís hands in hers so quickly the seer had no time to brace, no time to worry. But she easily felt the warmth Gwen was projecting, and her shielding acknowledged it as strength. She didnít understand why, but she accepted the unexpected blessing gratefully and met Gwenís eyes with a steady gaze.

"Youíre welcome in our home wherever you are comfortable. We suggested the boathouse to give you the space you sometimes need from us, not because we didnít want to have you here. Reed, you and Tiny are family to us, not guests. That gives you the right to choose."

"So you wouldnít mind if we moved out to the boathouse tomorrow?"

"Not if thatís where you wanna be. Thatís where my folks stay. Daddy says heís likes the peace and quiet." Both warrior and bard blushed. "I um... I decided not to pursue that line of questioning."

Reed chuckled and squeezed Gwenís hands before she let go and turned towards the refrigerator. "I think that was probably a good idea." She lifted out the tray of sandwiches she and Tiny had prepared earlier. "God knows where *my* mind goes with that comment, and talking about something like that with my dad would just be...."

"EW!" the three women chorused together. Tiny just chuckled and helped himself to a sandwich.

 

 

The rest of the week was tame by comparison, though a few things of note did occur Ė things that would make a difference later.

Tiny accompanied Randi on her rounds of the Midas property, enjoying the vast expanse of land and trees and appreciating the chance to ride a beautiful horse. He and Reed had talked casually about getting a couple, but had yet to manage to actually do so. He had grown up riding and missed having a horse of his own Ė something he had not realized until he got back in the saddle.

They didnít talk much - there was no need. They had reached a place in their relationship where they understood many things about one another without having to use words. And right now, they both needed a chance to process what they knew and decide on the best course of action for all of them.

 

 

Reed went with Gwen, anxious to see the bard at work after experiencing her mind so personally. The seer never considered herself to be overly curious, but she was excited about watching the creative process Gwen went through to achieve the stories she produced.

"Reed, itís really not that interesting. I do a lot of pacing Ė a lot of talking to myself. I write a bit and then take a break to order things in my mind again.

"Gwen, Iím going to share something with you." The blonde head nodded and the green eyes focused intently. Reed blinked, startled by the force of concentration behind the gaze. "Um, I donít do mind walks often, but I have certainly done more than my share. In all my life, I have never encountered a mind like yours, and Iíd like the chance to see how it works... from this side."

"From this side?"

"Yeah. I didnít look around Ė I promised you I wouldnít. But Iíd like to watch what results from the glimpse I got... if it wouldnít bother you."

Gwen blinked, a little disconcerted by the request. "Was it... was it really so different?"

Reed nodded. "Yeah, it really was. You see the world in such vibrant color. Itís so different from what I am used to Ė both in my own mind and in those minds I have shared."

Gwen smiled gently. "If you want to subject yourself to my creative work habits, you are more than welcome to join me. But I canít promise to be entertaining."

"I donít need to be entertained; Iím trying to understand something new."

Now Gwen laughed. "Well, címon. Maybe youíll share with me the differences. Who knows... it might make an interesting story."

"Fair enough."

 

 

"We need to go see if we can find anything."

Tiny nodded, having reached the same conclusion himself. "Agreed. Do you remember where you were?" They were sitting in Randiís office after their inspection of the property. Midas was good-sized and Tiny had thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to ride around it. Randi had considered going to the mess hall and waiting for Reed and Gwen to join them, but figured it wasnít worth the talk it would start. Randi had never considered herself that interesting, and still didnít get why she and Gwen seemed to be a regular topic of conversation among their fellow employees. However, she has accepted the fact that they were, and did her best to insure she did nothing to encourage it.

Randi shook her head, scowling in frustration. "No!" She ran her hands through her hair. "No, and itís making me nuts not being able to remember. But there should be some evidence of something somewhere."

Tiny rose from his chair and stood beside Randi, looking out the window. "If itís there, weíll find it," he said confidently with a squeeze to her shoulder. "Now letís go fetch Reed and Gwen and find some lunch. Iím starving."

Randi laughed and clapped a hand on his back. "Today is pot roast day. We only have to get to the mess hall to find lunch." A knock interrupted her and she smiled when Gwenís head peeked around the door. The bard caught a glimpse of frustration and confusion in the back of blue eyes before it was replaced by happiness and joy at seeing her. She extended her hand and Randi captured it, drawing Gwen into the office. Reed followed immediately behind, an expression of amused contentment on her face.

"I take it you enjoyed watching Gwen work," Tiny commented to the seer as she stepped inside. Reedís face lit up with a big grin.

"You have no idea. I mean... wow. Just wow!" Reed couldnít stop the enthusiasm that echoed across her features and Tiny got a massive hug out of it.

Randi chuckled silently, knowing exactly what Reed was feeling. She turned to Gwen when the bard squeezed her hand lightly. Green eyes searched hers intently. Randi released Gwenís fingers and rested her hands on Gwenís hips.

"Gwen?"

"Are you all right, love?" Gwen asked as she cupped the warriorís face in concern. "You seem a little... disjointed."

Randi scrubbed a hand through her hair and rested it on the back of her neck, blowing out an irritated breath. "I am. Iím... there should be... hmm...." Randi looked down and took a deep breath. "Something is going on Ė we are being targeted by more than one group, and I canít remember anything. I feel like... I need to be out there doing something about this whole thing, but...." Her shoulders slumped. "I mean... I promised you... I...."

Gwen eased he fingers under Randiís chin until she could look into her eyes. "We can talk this out when we get home, okay?" waiting for the dark head to nod. "Just remember I love you. Always."

"Forever," Randi whispered, enclosing the bard in a hug that completely enveloped her. "I love you too."

 

 

"This isnít possible!" Randi was ready to scream in frustration. "It has to be here. *Something* has to be here."

"Youíre sure this is the place?" Tiny asked, flinching when fierce blue eyes glared in his direction. He held up his hands in supplication. "Hey, Iím only asking. Youíre the one who said they didnít remember anything."

Randi drew herself up, but Reed inserted herself between them before the warrior could speak. "Thatís enough, Tiny! That was completely uncalled for, and you know it! *Iím* the one who confirmed this as the right spot from Gwenís memories. *I* told you Randiís memory wasnít there Ė you want to call me a liar as well?"

"No! No! Iím just... this is so aggravating. There is nothing here; like a god wiped it away or something." They looked at one another as his words sank in. "You donít suppose...?"

"Well, anything is possible. God knows weíve seen everything else."

"But who?"

"Better yet, why? What does this accomplish aside from making me nuts? I thought the gods were forbidden direct interference in mankindís lives now."

"They are," Reed replied as she sank to the ground beneath what she recognized from Gwenís memories as the healing tree. "But that isnít to say it would stop them if they became desperate." The seer turned her attention towards Randi. "Can you think of a god who would do something like this Ė be willing to risk their godhood?"

Randi shook her head. "Not really. Even Ares wouldnít be that stupid."

"Why do you say that?" Tiny felt a curious chill chase up his spine, and he didnít like the feeling of foreboding that accompanied it.

"He came and talked to me one day... acted like we were old buddies or something. It was weird, because I donít worship him Ė never have, and heís not my patron."

"What did he want?"

"Nothing really, thatís what made it so strange. He asked for a favor Ė I told him no. He disappeared and hasnít been back."

Tiny and Reed exchanged sudden understanding glances. Their situation had just become more dire than they had believed possible, even with the darkness that had been foreseen. If Ares was involved to the point of personal contact, Randi could be beyond everyoneís reach Ė including Gwenís.

"This is so not good," Reed muttered to herself, though it was loud enough for Randi to hear. The warrior gave the seer a wry look.

"No kidding." Randi stood up from her spot. "Címon. I promised Gwen some barbeque before practice tonight."

It was then that Reed met an ally who had the same strength of will that she herself possessed, and it provided a tiny light of hope in the darkness that now surrounded them. It was the first time Reed had an inkling of how they, and the world itself, could survive the darkness yet to come.

 

 

Chapter XVI

"That has to be one of the more interesting people I've met in a while," Reed said as she and Tiny snuggled down together in the boathouse a bit later that evening.

Rosie had been quite the surprise for the seer, especially when she greeted Reed as a long lost friend. There hadn't been an enormous amount of time to talk or exchange any sort of information, but Rosie had managed to slip Reed the contact information she needed to get in touch with Rosie again at a time in the not-too-distant future.

"What did you two talk about? I know Randi was curious. I saw her eyebrow go up into her hairline and stay there for a very long time." He chuckled and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "It was kind of funny actually. I wondered if she was gonna come over and listen."

Reed smiled. "Nothing, really. Rosie just introduced herself and gave me her information so we could get together later."

Tiny's brow furrowed. "Why? We don't even know her."

"She is a high priestess of Athena and a gifted shamaness. She is going to help me... help us... resolve the darkness that is coming."

Now Tiny turned his head and looked at the seer directly, his eyebrows up in his hairline. "Excuse me? C'mon, Reed. You just met this woman, and I could tell by the look on your face she was an unexpected surprise."

"Yes, she was," Reed acknowledged. "But she was also a welcome one. She was able to briefly share one of her visions with me. She has been waiting for my arrival."

"And you trust her enough to accept her word with a meeting so brief?"

It was Reed's turn to furrow her bow. "Why the doubt in my abilities all of a sudden, Tiny?"

"Not your abilities, sweetheart. I have never, ever lost faith in you or your gifts. But she is a self-admitted shamaness. That means she has gifts as well Ė and I don't want her using those gifts against you. Besides how important you are to helping Randi find her way home Ė a way she's just learning might be lost yet, I might add Ė you are important to me. I love you, and we've already been through so much together, especially in the last couple years. I don't want to lose you to the machinations of a dark god or his lackeys."

Reed took his hands in hers and lifted them to her lips, brushing a light kiss over the knuckles before cradling them against her face. "Not to worry, honey. She opened herself to me. She's the genuine article, and she has invited us both back to her place at our convenience to spend a little time getting to know each other." Reed grinned impishly at Tiny. "I think she sensed your distrust."

He sniffed delicately. "I prefer to think of it as caution."

Reed giggled. "That's funny. That's exactly what she said. Now c'mon. I want to see this band Gwen told me Randi is a part of. Somehow I can't reconcile the Sabre we know with some party animal drummer who sings and dances."

"Waitaminute. Hold it, hold it HOOOOOLD IT!!" Tiny looked hard at Reed. "You mean that is for real?"

"Oh yes," Reed answered with a smile. "According to Gwen it is quite the experience."

"Well, c'mon already. What are we waiting for?" Tiny exclaimed, getting up off the couch and pulling Reed with him. "I gotta see this."

Reed laughed and allowed herself to be herded out the door and over to Tommy's house.

 

 

"I've never seen Tiny so discombobulated," Gwen said to Randi later as they prepared for bed that night. "That was funny; I mean, he looked like a fish out of water the way his eyes were popping out of his head. He really had no clue, did he?"

Randi chuckled in memory. "Nope, and it was worth every single tease I'm gonna get from this too."

"You really think he'll tease?"

The warrior cocked an eyebrow. "I think he'll try. Don't think he'll succeed very well," she continued with a smirk, "but there you go."

Gwen laughed. "You're so funny."

Randi looked affronted by the insinuation. "Not on purpose I assure you."

They curled up together in the middle of the big bed, Gwen resting her head over Randi's heart. They tangled their legs together naturally until the warrior flinched involuntarily, causing Gwen to pull back and look into her face.

"Randi?"

Randi grimaced and returned Gwen's gaze. "Dunno," she shrugged. "My leg hurts."

"From? Which leg?"

"Again, I don't know, but it's the leg that took the arrow."

Gwen slid her legs of Randi's and flipped the covers off them. What she found caused her to gasp.

"Oh, sweetheart. This is bad. I can't believe I didn't see this when you undressed."

Randi wiggled her eyebrows rakishly up and down at the bard and smiled. "Attention on other things perhaps?"

Gwen smiled wryly. "Probably. But this is serious. What do you wanna do about this?"

Randi sat up and took a good look at something that hadn't been there that morning. It was ugly Ė red and inflamed with dark threads radiating out from it. The warrior blew out a breath.

"Dammit!! All right, I'm gonna need the large medical kit and the regen unit from my Sabre closet."

"You want me to fetch Reed and Tiny to help with this?"

"Nah," Randi said. "I think we can manage this ourselves if you're up to trying."

Gwen swallowed hard but nodded gamely, rising from the bed and moving to the small closet she'd never seen until Randi had taken her to it one day after the warrior's return from the dead. She pushed on the wall and the panel slid back to reveal a long, rather narrow room. The bard disregarded the different weapons and accouterments placed carefully in their assigned spots and overlooked the armor that hung neatly in the back of the small room next to the cleaning closet. Instead she made her way to the corner that held a large medical chest and opened it.

Inside were several small kits and one larger one and it was this one she removed. Then she grabbed the full sized regen until from its position in the corner of the chest and moved back out to the bedroom, cautiously closing the wall panel behind her. That had been drilled into her by Randi when she'd shared this secret with the bard, and though Tiny and Reed were both Sabres and would probably be aware of the closet's existence and purpose, Gwen wasn't going to chance anyone finding it. It wasn't worth the heartache that would follow.

She walked back to the bed, handing the kit to the now upright warrior and placing the regen unit on the floor until it was needed. Gwen sat on the corner of the bed and waited for Randi to give her some sort of direction.

Randi laid out the tools she needed then looked directly at Gwen. "You ready?"

"Tell me what you need me to do, love."

Randi had to smile at Gwen's willingness. It wasn't like this was something she was particularly accustomed to, and God knew it had been a steep learning curve when Randi herself had been forced to learn. The warrior forced away those memories and turned her attention to the here and now.

She took an alcohol wipe and rubbed the infected area down, wincing at the touch, but doing it anyway. "Grab a towel out of the bathroom. This is gonna be messy."

Gwen did, rushing back and putting it under Randi's leg before the warrior could protest. She was so gentle it brought tears to the warrior's eyes.

"Did I hurt you sweetheart?"

"Not at all, love. You have a very tender touch."

Gwen's brow wrinkled. "That's a good thing, right?"

Randi laughed. "That's a very good thing. Now," she continued before the bard could question further. "Next comes the hard part. I can do it myself, but it's at an awkward angle, so it would be better if you think you can manage it."

"I'll do it," Gwen answered in a determined voice, slipping on the gloves Randi offered.

Randi nodded and handed her a knife by the handle. "Take this and hold it while I sterilize it. Then you're gonna have to cut my leg open."

Gwen's eyes widened, but she nodded her head, waiting for the warrior to give her the go-ahead. Randi finished the sterilization and numbed the leg on either side of the redness. Then she put her hands on either side of the inflammation and looked at Gwen.

"You need to cut between my hands."

The bard swallowed. "How deeply?" she asked in a whisper.

"Dunno. We'll figure it out once we get started, I guess. For now, you've at least got to open up the skin." She looked into Gwen's eyes. "It's not gonna hurt, Gwen. The whole area is completely dead of feeling. I promise."

The bard nodded and moved the knife intently towards the mark, determined to remove the poison from Randi's body before it could do any more damage to her.

She cut it a neat, straight line, watching in morbid fascination as blood and pus and blackness oozed from the wound. Gwen looked up at Randi, noting the look of confusion before the blue eyes came up to meet hers.

"All right, now I need you to push down and then push together and see what else will come out of there. Then you're gonna have to go hunting."

"Hunting?" Gwen repeated even as she handed Randi the blade to hold so she could expelled as much ugliness as possible from the cut.

"Yep. We've gotta find all the hidden pockets of poison or we'll end up doing this again."

"Hunting," the bard muttered as she continued to push, her hands becoming coated in all sorts of interesting fluids she would have been quite happy never to have been introduced to. There were some things you just couldn't really prepare for Ė this was one of them. Especially the warmth that accompanied the gushing Ė it was unnerving.

For her part, Randi could feel the pockets bursting under Gwen's ministrations and shivered slightly at the peculiar sensation. Infections, though not unheard of, were uncommon in a Sabre unit. Injuries were tended to quickly by a trained medical doctor who worked hard to insure that healing was swift and complete with no complications. Complications could be deadly out in the field.

Eventually the bleeding slowed as did the other and Gwen reached for the knife. She held it a moment and looked deeply into Randi's eyes, knowing there was no way for the warrior to hide anything from her this close.

"You all right?"

"Yeah; it's just a little weird. You?"

"Yep. I'm going hunting now."

"All right. You're gonna have to poke around real carefully. See if there is anything else in there besides muscle and bone. You're gonna have to go by feel."

Gwen nodded and bit her lip in concentration. She didn't want to cause any more damage than had already been done. Slowly she moved the blade around the perimeter of the cut and worked her way in. She managed to find a couple of deeply hidden pockets and gently pushed until no pus or poison came out and the blood ran clearly red.

"'Kay... now what?"

"Here," handing Gwen a packet of white powder she had liberated from the med kit. "Use this and douse it well. It's gonna bubble a lot when you do and that's okay. That means its working, cleaning out the poison."

"All right. Here goes."

The reaction was immediate. As soon as the powder hit the open wound it began to crackle and sizzle, bubbling up and running down both sides of Randi's leg in narrow, pink streams.

Gwen got up from the bed and retrieved a warm, wet washcloth, gently wiping away the tracks left behind by the cleansing medicine. Gradually the bubbling stopped and Randi handed Gwen a package of butterflies to seal the cut. Gwen chanced a look at Randi, disturbed by the distinct lack of color in the warrior's face. Moving swiftly, the bard set up the regen unit, then rushed to the kitchen for some juice.

"Drink," she commanded forcefully, glaring at the warrior until the glass was drained. "Better?"

Randi smiled wanly. "Yeah, thanks. I forgot about the losing blood issue."

"Ahem... we'll let's try not to have to do this again, and then it won't matter whether you remember it or not. Now lay back.... Are you comfortable?"

Randi squiggled into a better position and nodded. "Yep," opening her arms wide. "Except for missing you."

Gwen bit her lip. "Are you sure? I mean... I don't want to hurt you or get in the way of your healing."

Randi extended her arms again more forcefully this time, much like an impatient child demanding attention. "Here. Now," she stated defiantly, then added, "Please," when Gwen gave her the bard's version of 'the look'. Not nearly as potent as the warrior's own, but effective nonetheless.

Gwen couldn't stop the grin that blossomed across her face. Then she crawled into bed and snuggled into the warrior's arms, giving a little sigh to match the one breathed above her as they settled together.

"There is no better feeling than this," Gwen said softly, kissing the skin beneath her lips.

"There never will be, and I never want to be without it again."

"No chance, love. This is a forever kind of thing for us... always has been."

Randi's smile went unseen, but her hug was felt and returned in full. "It's an amazing feeling to belong to you, Gwen."

A shiver made its way through the bard's body at Randi's quiet admission. She squeezed the warrior once more. "Almost as breathtaking as it is to be yours, warrior mine." She yawned and flexed her hands. "I love you, Randi. Goodnight."

Randi brushed a kiss over the blonde head tucked under her chin. "I love you, my bard. Goodnight."

 

 

Nothing could have prepared Randi for Ares' claim, especially given the memories she had been reliving. "I beg your pardon?" Tiny hadn't believed the temperature in the room could drop any farther, but he swore he saw frost form on Ares' facial hair at Randi's disbelieving, whispered words. "I don't know what fucking planet you just dropped in from, but *nothing* and *NO ONE* here belongs to you." The coldness in her voice was countered by the fire in her eyes.

Ares smirked, probably not the best choices of expressions he could have chosen given the circumstances, but this was his final gamble, and he had to project an air of confidence he no longer felt. If he lost now, there would be hell to pay from any number of directions... not that he expected to lose. Even though things had not turned out like he'd hoped... planned, he still had to believe he had every possible factor working in his favor.

"Oh, you don't have to beg, my dear. You need only ask." The war god smiled and waved a hand, taking a sip of the merlot he had filled the glass with and then spitting it out. "How do you drink this shit?" he asked with disdain as he wiped his mouth. "No, never mind," he continued, waving his hand. "It doesn't matter. After tonight, you won't have to suffer with it any longer."

Ares crossed his arms over his chest and gave Randi his most confident smile. "I said, I have come to claim what is mine."

"GET. OUT."

Ares looked amused, going so far as to chuckle lightly. "Excuse me?"

Randi clenched her jaw so tightly the muscles in her face stood out in sharp relief and she stepped right into his personal space. "Are you deaf as well as stupid? Get the fuck out."

Tinyís eyes rounded comically as he watched the fearless interplay between Randi and the god of war. He had never thought to see such a display in person, and he remained silent and still now as the drama unfolded before him, not wanting to disturb or influence the scene as it played out Ė until or unless it became necessary for Randiís safety.

Ares lost his amused expression; his eyes hardened and flamed, then widened when the warrior neither flinched nor retreated. He walked around her slowly, or tried to, but Randi turned with him, watching his every step, every breath.

"Youíve got some big brass ones on you, donít you there? I never thought I see you grow them like this again, and any other time theyíd be welcome." Ares shook his head. "But not now. I think you need to learn a little respect."

He reached for her, but Randi caught his hand. "Respect is something you earn, and I donít want you in my personal space." She shoved him back slightly.

He let her, knowing she had to come to him willingly. "Iíll go, for now. Youíll call for me soon enough. But let me leave you with a parting gift."

Faster than she could stop him, Ares touched her temple. There was no immediate reaction on her part and he stood there perplexed, only coming out of his reverie when she knocked his arm away.

"I am telling you one last time," she hissed. "LEAVE, or weíll find out if there are more ways to kill a god than the legends tell us about."

He continued to look at her another long moment. "Iíll be here when you need me, but until then...." He touched her cheek and laughed wickedly. Then he vanished without a trace in a shower of blue fire.

 

 

"Heís made his attempt," Athena informed her sisters as well as her priestess. "Is everything in place?"

Rosie nodded. "Everything on this end is. Reed is simply waiting for a signal to start."

"And what of Sky?" Artemis asked. "With the shielding that has been set up, it is nearly impossible for us to follow anything. Perfect, since it means itís working and Ares will remain unaware of what is happening. Horrid since it keeps us out of the loop as well."

Rosie smile weakly and looked at her watch. "He should be landing in the next few minutes. He is to contact Reed directly as soon as he makes it into the palace. Tiny is waiting for him, even if Randi is not. From there, well... we play it by ear."

Both goddesses nodded, and glanced over at their sister. Dite had assumed a pose of complete meditation and was focusing all her love and energy at the moment on the bond that still ran strong between the warrior and bard. Her job was to keep that link strong and connected. It was up to Athena and Artemis to protect her.

Now they moved to stand on either side of her, each resting a hand on her shoulders in a show of support and strength. This was the hardest part, and even after millennia of practicing, patience never got any easier.

 

 

"Tiny, do you remember what happened to Russ... with the Sabres? I think that may have been when things started to come apart for me Ė with Gwen, I mean."

He met her eyes carefully, not wanting to show his surprise. Up to this point, she had had no cognitive memories of anything she had done in regards to taking control of the unit or destroying the rebels. Even now, knowing that the rebels were gone and that she was the one responsible because of her status as Empress, there was no trace of the memories of what she had done nor how she had accomplished it. According to Reed, they didnít exist... at least not in a place that could be accessed in a mind walk. Randi had to be willing to walk into her darkest place Ė one so carefully hidden that no one else, save Gwen could find it.

"What do you remember, Empress?"

She shook her head, though he wasnít sure if it was at her title or some other reason. "Nothing." She slammed her fist against the table. "Nothing! Except a few rumors that reached my ears." She looked at him with tears in her eyes Ė a mixture of fear, sadness and hopelessness etched onto her expressive features. Then she looked back into the fire again as if searching for answers.

Tiny chanced a glance at his watch. If he could manage to hold on for just a few more minutes, Sky should be here to help him.

"Why canít I remember, Tiny? Why?"

"Randi, do you trust me?"

Her dark head popped up at his use of her name. He had not used her name since theyíd come to this place, and it caught her attention now. Tiny extended a hand towards her and waited. She had to meet him on this Ė it wasnít something he could force.

Randi gazed at the large hand, palm up and let those memories she had of this man wash over her. Times he had watched her back or eased her pain or wiped her tears or caressed her body. So much water under the bridge between them and yet they had always, *always* had trust and respect between them. She placed her hand in his without further hesitation, knowing this one thing in her life was still right.

"Yes," came the solid, unequivocal answer.

"Then be patient just a few more minutes, and then we can figure everything out together."

"Promise?"

"Absolutely. I promise. And I will stay right here beside you every step of the way."

Randi nodded her head and let it drop disconsolately. "I donít think I donít deserve a friend like you anymore, Tiny."

Tiny patted her hand and held on, but he didnít say a word. Instead he let his mind go back to the time when he had seen the change in Randi for himself Ė up close and personal.

 

 

Reed left Saturday morning, ostensibly to go home and take care of a couple dogs that were coming into heat. In reality, though she would be breeding the bitches, her true purpose for leaving was to start bringing more support into the circle. Lacey was expected to meet her first. From there, they would figure out what other talents they needed to include to tip the scales in their favor when time for the final showdown came.

It hadn't been their first plan Ė in fact it hadn't been a plan at all until they were sharing coffee with Randi and Gwen and the bard casually mentioned the emergency medical attention she'd given Randi the previous evening. Reed looked horrified and Randi was quick to reassure her.

"Reed, it's all right. There was no way of knowing the arrow was poisoned."

"You don't understand, Randi... we checked for that. We cleaned it out thoroughly. Nothing should have been left to fester. May I?" gesturing to the newly healed leg.

Randi frowned. "Hmm? Sure, but you're right... that is weird. We'll keep an eye on it and see if it does it again. Something else may be going on we need to know about."

"God, I hope not. That was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Gwen muttered.

Randi covered Gwen's hand. "You did a great job, my bard. I couldn't have asked for better care."

"She's right, Gwen. You did a good job here Ė no flaws in this technique either," Reed said with a smile, recalling her conversation with Gwen about the bard's modus operandi when preparing a new story. She resumed her seat with studied casualness, laying a hand on Tiny's leg and subtly signing to him under the table.

'Well, I don't know about that," Gwen said, "but I really don't want to be perfecting this particular skill any time soon. I'm glad I was around to help though."

"So I am," Tiny commented, "'cause I know she wouldn't have come to get us to help her," glaring in Randi's direction and receiving a burning stare in return. "Don't bother," Tiny growled. "You know it's true and so do we," smirking when Reed nodded her head emphatically in agreement. "See?"

Gwen looked between the three friends in concern and then caught the sheepish expression in Randi's eyes. "Randi?"

The warrior shrugged. "It's true. I don't always play well with others, especially if it means letting others see me vulnerable. You're different," she continued before the question was asked. "You're a part of me. I can't hide things from you... I wouldn't want to."

Gwen stood and wrapped her arms around Randi's neck. "Good thing you added that last bit there Stud."

"Oh yeah?" drawled slowly as she urged the bard onto her lap.

"Yep. I would've had to have gotten nasty with you otherwise."

"Really?" smirking. "Do you promise?"

"Ahem, guys? I um... I hate to interrupt," Tiny said, clearing his throat and scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. Two sets of eyes met his in chagrined understanding.

"Sorry, Reed," they muttered simultaneously.

"No problem," she breathed, her voice a little higher than normal. "It's all positive energy at this point. My shielding is just getting a good workout this week. I almost hate to have to cut it short."

Now their eyes grew concerned and they looked at one another a long moment before Gwen slid from Randi's lap to stand beside her, unwilling to completely lose tactile contact with the warrior.

"Something wrong?"

"Here? Nothing you don't already know about. No, I need to get home. I got a comm message early this morning from the farm. I've got two dogs coming into heat and I need to be there to keep an eye on things. It's a control thing."

Gwen snorted. "Like no one here understands that little issue, huh?" Then giggling at the identical expression on all three Sabre faces.

"Watch it, bard," she growled. It didn't stop the giggles and instead the sound made Randi crack a smile, just slightly.

"I was wondering, though," spoke Tiny. "Would you mind if I stayed here a few more days? Tommy has asked me for some plans for a playhouse for Randall and I have to go up to the capital city on Thursday. It would save me a little if I could just go from here."

"Sure, Tiny. You know you're welcome here anytime. What's up in the capital?"

The big man shook his head. "Nothing yet. That was the first appointment I could get to talk to the new commandant. I'm trying to get some activity information Ė maybe we can figure out what or who will come after you next."

Gwen shivered at his words and Randi glared at him. Then his words registered and she frowned. "Waitaminute... what do you mean, the first appointment you could get? Is Russ getting stupid or has the position gone to his head?"

"I'm not sure, honestly," Tiny answered. "That's another reason I am going to speak to him. Something is going on, and we don't like it. We're not being sent out like we should, not given the amount of activity obviously going on if they are targeting you. You have a lot of friends in the Sabres, Randi, and we don't like seeing one of our own being treated the way you are."

"I can handle myself, Tiny."

"Yes, you can. But this is our fight too."

Randi stiffened and started to speak again, but was stopped by the pressure on her shoulder. She blew out a deep breath and relaxed. "All right, Tiny. You do what you need to do. You're welcome to stay here as long as you'd like. Now I'm going for a run. You think you can keep up?"

"No, but damned if I'm gonna let that stop me from trying again." Tiny turned to Reed. "Wait for me to get back before you leave?"

"Count on it...." She paused. "But run fast. It won't take me that long to pack."

He nodded and would have stolen a kiss had not Randi run by right at the moment and pinched his ass hard. He grabbed the bruised spot and yell, then took off running after her. Reed shook her head.

"Some things never change," she muttered to Gwen. The bard just laughed.

 

 

Chapter XVII

"Címon, Gwen. You can do this." The bard repeated the mantra to herself over and over as she paced back and forth across the empty stage area. Tommy wanted her to tell stories to the kids like theyíd talked about, and today they were going to do a run through. Something wasnít settling right, and Gwen was having difficulty getting into the groove she needed to be in. Fortunately, she had a little time to compose herself as Tommy was in a meeting with some of the new artists.

Gwen looked around, unhappy with the setting, confident it wasnít going to work for what Tommy had in mind. It was too formal, too barren. Always when sheíd shared her stories with the kids at band practice, things had been relaxed and completely informal. It had been casual, but right now all she had was stark and bare.

She continued to pace, willing her mind to focus on the stage and the setting and the story she wanted to tell, trying not to allow her thoughts to wander to what was truly bothering her.

Finally unable to stave off the disturbing memory, Gwen dropped to the edge of the stage and took a seat. She scrubbed her hands through her hair and covered her face as though to dispel the look in Randiís eyes before she left with Tiny.

That had been something of a shock. Gwen had honestly expected Randi to be with her for this first session with the children Ė just like she had always been at band practice. In fact, the warrior had given every indication of her intention to be there, until the night before. Randi had gotten a message that she had not shared with either Gwen or Tiny, but her demeanor had completely changed. Even Tiny had noticed it and his eyes had widened perceptibly at the return of a personage he had never expected to see again.

This wasnít the logical, precise warrior whose mind had figured out the most complex puzzles and villains. No, this was the Sabre whose greatest skill was slaughter, whose decimation of the rebel hierarchy was legendary among their kind.

Briskly, she had informed him that she would be accompanying him to the capital, and Tiny had time to wonder what the message had contained before Gwen broke in with a pained question.

"Youíre leaving... tomorrow? But...."

"Yes. Something has come up that I need to take care of immediately. Why?"

Gwen swallowed. Noting the coldness in Randiís eyes and wondering what had happened in the hours since lunch to have changed the warrior so much. It reminded her greatly of the woman that had kept secrets from the bard in what seemed like another lifetime ago. Gwen decided that wasnít going to happen again. She had claimed Randi for her own and she wasnít giving the warrior up... with or without a fight.

"I donít think so," she replied boldly. "Not until you explain to me what is going on."

A dark brow rose over one blue eye. "Excuse me?" Randi quirked her lips into a half-smile in an attempt to add a little humor to the question, but it never quite reached her eyes. Neither woman noticed Tinyís withdrawal, so intently focused on one another were they. "Since when...?" breaking off at the pure fury directed at her from green eyes.

Gwen grabbed her left hand and lifted their rings to eye level. "Donít finish that question. You already know the answer to it."

Blue eyes blinked and the coldness evaporated, leaving only marked confusion in its wake. "Gwen?" Randi shook her head as though to clear it. "Sorry. I donít know what I was thinking. I know better than that. You deserve better than that."

"Yes, I do," Gwen said bluntly. "Randi, what happened? There wasnít a problem at lunch. We even talked about you being at the new session with the kids." Her voice dropped. "I need you there."

Randi took her free hand and ran it vigorously over her face as though trying to get the blood pumping. Then she led them over to the couch to sit, tugging the bard into the niche between her legs and cocooning her gently.

"Iím sorry, Gwen. It completely slipped my mind after...." Randi blew out an exasperated breath. Gwen simply waited. Finally the warrior spoke, so lowly Gwen would have needed to strain to hear her had her lips not been pressed to the bardís ear. Gwen forced herself to listen to the words and ignore the sensations that coursed through her as the warm air flowed into her ear. It wasnít as difficult as it normally would have been Ė not with the tension filled body now sitting ramrod stiff behind her.

Gwen turned slightly Ė just enough to allow her to look into Randiís eyes. And what she saw there... she drew a deep breath. "That bad?"

The warrior nodded. "Yes. Another threat. Itís time for the Sabres to take this seriously. Iím gonna go with Tiny and make sure Russ understands that. Otherwise, it could be weeks or even never before he deigns to speak to me."

Gwen frowned. "Whatís up with that? I thought heíd be anxious to...."

"Yeah, me too. But apparently heís got some sort of grudge going."

"Against you? But why?"

Randi shook her head. "I dunno... unless itís because I left the unit." She shrugged. "Maybe itís a power trip for him or something."

Green eyes blazed. "Why that little punk! I oughta...."

Randi chuckled, relaxing for the first time since sheíd received the newest missive from the Wizards as well as one from the Brotherhood. There were too many questions, and it was time she demanded some answers.

"Donít worry, love. Iím gonna. One way or another, this is going to be settled. We arenít going to continue living like this Ė in fear of reprisals." Her eyes darkened and so did her voice. "Either he will take care of this... or I will."

Now Gwen turned all the way around in Randiís lap, not liking the words or the tone behind them. And what she saw in Randiís eyes scared her in a way she hadnít been in a long time.

"Randi?"

The warrior blinked and her eyes returned to their normal blue. She looked down and smiled at the bard, wondering what had caused the uneasy expression now reflected back at her.

"Címon, sweetheart. Tinyís leaving early in the morning, and I donít want him to have to wait." She used her fingertips to urge Gwenís chin up, so their eyes met. "But I promise you I will be back as soon as I can. With a little luck, I will be home in the early afternoon."

Gwen nodded, knowing that the likelihood of that happening was slim. She knew what their luck was like whenever the Sabres were involved with something.

"Iíd like that. Tomorrow is only rehearsal, but Iíd still like you to be there if possible."

"It means that much to you?" The blonde head nodded without breaking eye contact. "Well, then. Iíll be there. Ask Tommy to schedule you for late afternoon. That should fit for the kidsí school schedules as well."

"It does. Weíre scheduled to start at four."

It was Randiís turn to nod her agreement. "I may be a little late, but Iíll be there. Look for me."

"I will," wrapping her arms around Randi and hugging her as hard as she could. "Thank you, Sweetheart. That means so much to me."

Randi smiled and kissed the top of Gwenís head absently, caressing her back as she lulled the bard into sleep. But Randiís gaze turned distant and it was a long time before she joined Gwen in sleep.

 

 

Gwen chuckled softly as her mind returned to her surroundings. Waking up on the couch in the early hours of the morning had been a rather painful experience for them both, though moreso for Randi than herself. They had hobbled to the bedroom and proceeded to collapse into comfort with twin moans.

"Remind me not to do that again," Randi mumbled into her pillow.

"Donít do that again," Gwen muttered back, willing herself to move long enough to undress. She felt the bed shift as Randi did just exactly that.

"Smartass," the warrior growled in her direction, and Gwen couldnít stop the smile that formed.

"Better than a dumbass, I always say," she retorted before stripping her clothes off and sliding back into bed. She was asleep before she could say goodnight.

Randi smiled faintly as she crawled into bed beside Gwen. "Well, thatís one way to get the last word in, I guess." Then her smile turned into a full-fledged grin when the bard claimed her spot on Randi in her sleep. "Goodnight, love."

But something fundamental had changed in the night. Randi had been cold, distant, almost formal with Gwen when sheíd gotten back from her run and the bard cringed inwardly at the memory, shying away from the pain it had inflicted on her very soul. It felt like a deliberate rejection and Gwen was at a loss to explain what had happened or why.

So now she sat alone on a darkened stage, trying to pull herself together to give a performance she wasnít sure she could manage to pull off. She whispered a prayer to Aphrodite, then rose and made her way to Tommyís office.

 

 

Tiny sat quietly in the small, private shuttle heíd managed to arrange for them. He was a little disconcerted at Randiís abrupt change in personality. He hadnít seen her like this Ė completely remote and aloof Ė since Gwenís appearance in her life. Before that, this had been a much more common façade in her attempt to separate herself from the brutal reality of her Sabre existence. He wondered what in particular had brought it to the fore and if Randi was even aware of the difference.

Randi sat rubbing her leg absently, her gaze focused somewhere that Tiny couldnít see. She had moved into the darkness of her subconscious mind, looking through the memories she had stored there. Something Ė several somethings, in fact Ė were bothering her about the notes she continued to receive, and she was slowly working through every possibility she had ever encountered during her time as a Sabre looking for the answers she knew were there.

The biggest question to her mind was *WHY*. Why were the rebel groups bothering to threaten and warn? Why not simply attack and destroy as they had in the small Native village mere weeks ago. She scrubbed her face at that realization. Had it only been a few weeks since their honeymoon? Randi examined her thoughts. It had, but so much had happened to almost make that time of seclusion with Gwen seem like nothing more than a dream. She felt... different. Not that she could put her finger on a specific event or time frame, because even her slaughter of the rebels in that village and Gwenís recounting of actions she had no conscious memory of had not left her with the disquiet she now felt gnawing at the edges of her soul.

She had Tinyís wrist caught in a crushing grip before she recognized his touch on her leg. Immediately she released him, blinking her eyes in surprised reaction. The Navy chief sat back and swallowed the blood in his mouth where heíd bitten his lip, cradling his now throbbing appendage. Heíd forgotten about those lightning swift reflexes.

"Oh God, Tiny." She gazed at him with horror-filled eyes, the cold remoteness disappearing from them in her concern for him. "Iím sorry. I...." His fingers covered her lips.

"My fault. I knew better than to grab when your mind was obviously so far away. I forgot," he added sheepishly before his look turned serious again. "Where were you? I havenít seen you look like that since... well, not for a while." He cautiously moved his wrist around, grateful it wasnít broken.

"Here, let me," Randi said softly as she took his arm in a firm but gentle clasp. She examined him carefully, then patted his forearm before returning it to him. "Just a little bruised, I think."

Tiny nodded. "I think so too." He chuckled lightly. "You must be slowing down in your old age." He was a bit surprised when her serious air never changed. "Randi? Hey, whatís going on with you? Iím all right, and it really was my fault for startling you so badly. I know better. I just didnít think."

He thought for a moment she was going to blow him off Ė her expression and her posture remained rigid. Then she leaned back in the seat and she turned to stare out the shuttle windows once more. Tiny waited patiently, finally able to feel the conflict of her thoughts by her body language. He knew sheíd speak when she had it sorted enough to make sense of it.

Randi took a deep breath and sighed, looking at him with frustration. Tiny tilted his head. "Those letters still bothering you?"

"Not for the reason youíre thinking. I mean hateful rhetoric is hateful rhetoric, right?"

"Right. So...?"

"Why, Tiny? Why are they suddenly taking the time to write to me? To warn me of what they are planning? Vague warnings, Iíll admit, but they are warnings just the same. Why not just attack, like they have in the past? Whatís changed? The whole things sets off my Sabre meter in a way that makes my nerve endings stand on edge."

Tiny rubbed his chin thoughtfully, trying to discretely flex the soreness out of his bruised wrist. "Well, we know they are struggling within to find new leadership to bring them together like Ghost Rider did. Maybe this is their way of duking it out, so to speak."

Randi shook her head. "I could accept that if there was any sense to it, but Tiny, these letters make no sense. If they need leadership, it seems like actions would speak louder than words in this case." She sighed again. "Iíve seriously considered the fact that I am being deliberately baited, but by whom and to what end? So that I react? So that I get the Sabres involved?" Randi covered her face with her hands and blew out an exasperated breath before she dropped her hands and looked at him again.

"What does your gut tell you?"

Randi leaned back and closed her eyes as she carefully considered Tinyís words. "It feels like manipulation. I canít think of any other logical reason for the notes. My problem is I canít get a good grip on how I am being manipulated, or by whom or why. Itís making me nuts."

"Have you considered...." Tiny waited for her to open her eyes and focus on him before he continued. "Have you considered that if you are being manipulated, your course of action could be irrelevant?" She twitched an eyebrow at him and motioned for him to continue. Tiny cleared his throat and blew out a breath before continuing.

"I agree with you Ė what youíve said smacks of manipulation. That being said, if itís true, then wouldnít whoever is behind this plan for every contingency... or at least try to?"

"Go on," Randi said succinctly.

Tiny shook his head. "Iím just thinking out loud, but you know how we are... how you were as a Sabre. You studied your enemy and made educated guesses about what and when and where and how, but always, *always* there were contingency plans in place to assure nothing was missed. It wasnít until there was a leak from within that those strategies stopped working."

Randi nodded slowly and her eyes resumed their veiled coldness once again. "So, I need to think outside the box Ė go beyond what I would normally do and try something totally unexpected." She rubbed her leg again. Tiny followed the movement with his eyes.

"That bothering you again? You need me to take a look at it?"

Tiny saw a flash of mischievous twinkle in the depths of her eyes before Randi cast a glower in his direction. "You wanna explain to Gwen why you were groping me in the shuttle?" He goggled at her, his eyes bulging and his mouth opening and closing silently like a fish breathing. "Itís fine, Tiny. We double-checked it this morning. It just aches like a tooth gone nervy now. All the stress, I think."

He blinked, realizing sheíd yanked his chain so seriously, heíd never seen it coming. He shook his head. The lightning changes in her demeanor were going to drive him to drink if he wasnít real careful keeping up with her.

"So what are you planning to do exactly?" Tiny asked trying to refocus the conversation. He already knew what was causing the stress Ė it was the same thing that was causing him enough stress to make the ends of his very short hair ache. However he also knew there was nothing for it but to let it play out to its conclusion now. They had come too far and risked too much, and Ares had stepped up the price of the outcome until there was no other choice.

Randi shrugged and Tiny watched as her Sabre mask settled on her face once more. "Whatever it takes," she answered with detachment before turning her face to the window and her attention inward. Tiny leaned back, knowing he wasnít going to get any more answers from her until she had something she felt like sharing.

For her part, Randi already had the beginnings of an idea. Gwen wasnít going to like it, but if it meant they would be rid of the rebels forever and that she and Gwen would be safe to live out their lives in peace, Randi was willing to risk the bardís wrath. The warrior figured she could make Gwen see the positive side of the possibilities before them.

The shuttle whispered to a stop and the two Sabres stood to exit. What happened in the course of the next few hours would change everything.

 

 

"Well, Randi," Russ greeted cordially but not enthusiastically. "This is a... an unexpected... surprise." Unexpected and definitely unwelcome. Russ was a by-the-book officer, and Sabres like Randi Ė especially Randi Ė had always been a wildcard he had difficulty dealing with.

Truth be told, Russ should never had been a Sabre. Heíd never had the gumption for it... not the fighting and killing part of it anyway. He was a throwback to the old days despite his relative youth, when the Sabres had merely been peacekeepers, not enforcers. But he was a hell of an efficient organizer and Jerry had depended on him to keep everything Ė personnel, schedules, supplies and operations Ė on track. And to his credit, Russ had been a whiz at that particular aspect of his duty.

But with Jerryís death, he had become the defacto leader of the Sabre unit and he was doing his best to run it by the book. Unfortunately for him, the Sabres *had* no book... only a code of honor they had all sworn to live and die by. He was in over his head and he knew it. What he didnít know was how to remedy the situation he found himself in, and now this.

Randi was an anomaly to him Ė something to be tolerated at best and ignored whenever possible. The fact that she was no longer truly a Sabre was his only leverage against her, and he intended to use that little fact to his best advantage. He had no way of knowing heíd already been out maneuvered and Randi was merely present to call checkmate.

When Tiny had finally left her to her solitude, Randi had let her mind drift into what she called her Sabre haze. It was the place where she didnít consciously think Ė she simply allowed her thoughts to wander randomly of their own recourse. It was how she solved the most difficult of puzzles, by allowing the facts to arrange themselves until she could see the pattern in them and understand the truth behind them.

What she had discovered was something that made her angry beyond words. Once again, she was being betrayed by someone at the highest levels of the Sabres. Only this time, it was deliberate. This time it was personal in a way it hadnít been before.

Randi read his unease easily behind the cordiality of his greeting. He struggled to meet her gaze, unable to hold the intensity directed at him. Russ extended his hand, somehow not surprised when it wasnít accepted. He knew well the disdain she held for the officer ranks now after cleaning up behind them and well aware of what that action had cost her.

"Iím sure it is," Randi answered coldly, transferring her meaning to a number of levels that could be felt in the noticeable drop in temperature in the room.

Tiny watched the by-play with interest. It was obvious even to the untrained eye that there was no love loss between these two, but the question foremost in his mind was why. They had rarely interacted when Randi was still an active member of the Sabres and now that she was officially separated from duty, they had no cause whatsoever to relate to one another on any level. Yet the tension was thick enough to cut with a blade.

"Well," Russ said, clearing his throat. "Iím uh... glad you stopped by, but I do have a schedule to keep, so if youíll excuse us...." gesturing her towards the door.

"I donít think so," she replied in the same calm, cold voice. "Have a seat, Russ. Tiny, the door." She looked at Tiny and he gaped at her momentarily. There was no longer any trace of his friend Randi. The woman who stood before him now was his Sabre compatriot Miranda Valiant and despite any misgivings he had about her transformation, his mind chose to remember only the trust they had shared between them.

The big Navy man rose and Russ looked at him in horror. "Sit down, Chief. We have business to attend to. Ms Valiant has no authority here."

Tiny looked back and forth between them before shaking his head at Russ. "Iím sorry, sir. If I have to choose a loyalty here and now, youíll lose badly."

"THIS IS MUTINY!!" the Commandant roared.

"Perhaps," Tiny muttered, noting Randiís expression hadnít wavered. "But I have put my life in her hands more times than I can count, and she has never let me down; never betrayed my trust." He locked eyes with Randi for a long moment before turning his attention back to Russ. "I canít say the same for the officer corps of this unit." Tiny turned again and locked eyes with Randi.

"Iíll have your head for this, Chief," Russ growled.

"Somehow, sir... I donít think so," Tiny replied without breaking eye contact with Randi. "Would you like me to wait outside?" hoping the answer would be no. He very much feared for Randi at this moment having seen Skyís vision. But he knew it had to be her choice - he was merely to be her watchdog to insure she got to the point of choosing. And somehow, he had the feeling that time had not arrived yet. Both Sky and Reed had assured him he would know, but all he understood right now was that Randiís demeanor was both comfortingly familiar and disturbingly disconcerting.

"You can stay," Randi said. "Iím not going to do anything to him but talk." The warrior turned her attention back to Russ. "Have. A. Seat." Repeated slowly and distinctly with a glare that could have melted glass. Russ got the hint and sank into the chair behind him, hoping to hide his unease with bravado. She dropped down to sit on his desk.

"Iím not sure what you hope to accom...."

"Shut up," Randi said flatly. "You donít speak unless I give you specific instruction to do so. Do you understand?"

"Who the hell...?" The slap knocked his head back in the chair and resounded across the room.

"Randi?" Tinyís concerned utterance got him a raised hand, but Randiís eyes never left Russ.

"We apparently need to set a few ground rules as Russ here doesnít seem to understand English." She grabbed the Commandantís chin and squeezed, forcing him to sit upright and focus on her.

"Now... do I have your undivided attention?" He jerked his head in a nod. "Good. Iíll only have to explain this once then. I ask a question Ė you give me an answer. A very brief answer. No expletives, no questions, no commentary. Otherwise, you sit and listen. Do we understand each other?"

Russ nodded. "Yes," he ground out succinctly.

"Good. I am going explain a couple things to you that I have figured out, then weíre gonna have to make a decision on how to proceed. You see, Iíve been getting notes from the different rebel factions... little missives meant to unnerve me and keep me off balance." Russ nodded again. She had already shared this with him before. She rose and began to pace around the desk, much in the manner of a college professor addressing her students.

"The thing that bothered me was WHY? Why not just attack? Obviously they were aware of how to reach me... to some extent, at least. So why play games? What were they hoping to accomplish? Then it occurred to me Ė they were playing games because that was what they had been instructed to do. And they were able to find me because they had access to someone here. Someone high enough up for me to be considered a threat to."

"And you think it was me?" he scoffed. "Why would I consort with the enemy? No matter what I think of your decision to quit, I am still a Sabre. I follow the code!"

"I donít think so. You knew Jerry wanted me to be groomed for this position, and when I turned it down, you were angry. You didnít think I should have a choice... even though I had already DIED once. But that didnít matter, did it? You figured if the Sabres couldnít have me, then no one should. Only you knew my Sabre compatriots would never turn against me. So you went to someone who would Ė people who would take great pleasure in seeing me destroyed... knowing... hoping one of them would eventually succeed."

Randi spoke almost conversationally, but the look she gave Russ when she met his eyes was one of hatred and disdain. He saw his death in the glance and he felt the blood drain from his head.

She turned her back to him deliberately as she continued her narrative. "The sad part of this is if we had been left alone to live in peace Ė if you had just left us alone!!!" She blew out a deep breath. Though her tone had never risen, Randiís rage was palpable. She scratched her forehead absently.

"The question now is what to do with you." She paused as though in thought, then began speaking in a low tone as though to herself. "You have no honor Ė you do not deserve a Sabreís death. So you choose... either you kill yourself tonight or I will disgrace you in the morning."

Russ laughed nervously. "You have got to be kidding me. You have no proof Ė this is all pure speculation." He shifted in his chair, uncomfortably aware of her piercing regard.

"No, it isnít. Even though I choose not to do this any longer, I am still the best there is. I know where to find what I need to prove my statement. Besides, I am confident that the unit would believe me if I declared you a traitor to them. I have earned their trust and you...."

She felt him twitch and turned to catch the blade inches from her heart. Tiny moved swiftly from his position to catch Russí hand before he could drop it, and pulled it up behind his back. He turned to glance at Randi and flinched.

Eyes which had been silvery in her anger now faded to a clear white. "Bad choice, Russell. Now you die slowly and painfully like the traitor you are... like the rebel you have become. And lucky you... you even got to choose the method."

She looked at Tiny and saw the confusion clearly written in his eyes. She hesitated then shook her head. "You donít have to stay, Tiny," knowing the big manís hatred for torture. "Itís not going to be pretty."

He swallowed hard and shook his head. "I think I need to stay... for your sake," mumbling the last words under his breath, though Randi heard them clearly. Now it was her turn to look confused momentarily, then she felt her Sabre focus slip back into place.

Russ struggled, but as he and Tiny shared the same training and Tiny was in much better condition, it was no effort at all for the big man to maintain the upper hand between them.

"You canít do this," Russ gasped out. "Itís murder."

Randi snorted, hitting several spots on his back and causing him to collapse in Tinyís arms. "There is no such thing as murder of an enemy in the Sabre code. We are all authorized... trained to kill. And the time has come for you to die."

"No! NO!! You canít do this!!"

"Um, Randi...." Tiny started to speak, then hesitated when she turned back to him. He gathered his courage and spoke. "He deserves the right to a Sabre trial."

"Tiny, if this bothers you, leave. Heís a traitor and he lost any rights he might have had when he tried to kill me." The cold flatness in her voice unnerved him, but he shook his head. She spoke the truth... it was her right, and Russ, if he was the traitor Randi claimed him to be, deserved to die by whatever method she deemed appropriate.

"Nope, Iím staying." Hoping his presence would deter her violent tendencies.

She picked Russ up and dropped him in his chair. "Ya know what?" she said conversationally to him. "I really have to wonder how you became a Sabre. Youíre nothing like the rest of us, and quite frankly, youíre not even worth the effort to torture."

He spit at her.

Randi stood casually and wiped the spittle from her cheekbone, then onto his shirt. "However, it doesnít mean I canít make you suffer first."

She reached out, pushing pressure points on his arms and legs before releasing the ones on his back, and he instantly keened in agony from the pain that flowed through his veins. He had never imagined such misery.

"Oh," she added as an afterthought, popping two spots on either side of his neck. "Iím tired of having to listen to you whine."

Tiny watched her work. It wasnít something theyíd had to do often, but Randi had always done so without conversation or emotion. He wondered where all this was coming from, and then she unknowingly answered his question.

"This is for what you did to Gwen, you fucking son of a bitch," she hissed at him before jamming the blade heíd thrown at her into his stomach. "Now youíll feel every single last wretched minute of your pathetic life."

She stood up and backed away from him. "You can be glad for one thing though Ė your death will have a much more lasting effect than your life ever did."

"Tiny, I want you to notify the unit - call a mandatory meeting for every Sabre on Sunday morning. That should give everyone time to get here. Itís time we took back what was ours and did what weíve been trained to do."

"Randi?" hoping heíd misunderstood, knowing what the action meant.

"Do it, Tiny. Everybody... active, retired, whatever. Just get them here. Iíve gotta go see Geoff and Jill, then Iíve gotta get home. I made a promise to Gwen."

"Sheís not gonna to like this."

"I know, but thereís no help for it either. Iíll make it right with her... somehow."

Tiny watched her leave, then closed his eyes and prayed. Her eyes had still been almost clear when sheíd left and he shivered at the memory. He hoped heíd done the right thing, but only time would tell that for sure.

 

 

Chapter XVIII

Randi walked into the therapy room, grinning at the memories the grunts and groans issuing from Geoffís mouth evoked in her. Though there had been nothing pleasant about the time sheíd spent recovering from her death, the ultimate reward had been worth it. It was those thoughts that put the smile on her face and drew a roar from Geoff. That noise drew a sympathetic whine from the half-grown dog on the floor.

"You better have a damn good reason for coming in here with a smile on your face. Do you know how damn much this hurts??"

Randi just kept grinning like a Cheshire cat as she advanced into the room. She reached Geoff and reached her hands towards him, intent on kneading out the tension she could see rippling in the broad shoulders.

Carbon stepped between Randi and Geoff and bristled, growling at her briefly before relenting with a sniff of her person and another whine. Then he moved to one side but kept his attention focused attentively on Randi.

"That was weird," Randi mumbled to herself, then let her hands go to work.

Geoff flinched at the first contact, then relaxed as her skilled hands worked weeks of knots out of his muscles. Even though he had massage therapy after every physical therapy session, Randi hit places with knowing hands that had plagued him repeatedly. He groaned loudly when she hit a particularly tender spot. She bent low and whispered into his ear.

"Yeah, I do... up close and personal like. I also know what the reward is like at the end of the road."

Geoff let his head drop until his chin touched his chest. "God, that feels so good. Those young pups just donít get that they have to dig hard to get the worst of the knots out."

"Yeah, well," Randi replied, standing up and patting his back before walking around to take a seat in front of him. "That one of those things you learn by hard-earned experience." And this time, he could see the pain in her blue eyes behind the grin she gave him. "Whereís Jill?" she asked before he had a chance to probe further.

"At home. She had some things that had to be taken care of and they needed a more personal touch that a vid conference could give her. We didnít know you were coming. Whereís Gwen?" All said without a pause for breath.

"At home. Sheís got a dress rehearsal this afternoon. Tommyís gonna try the first of his change of settings ideas, and theyíre starting with the kids. In fact, Iím supposed to be back there to watch."

He frowned at her. "So why are you here?"

"I had to let Russ know about some problems the Sabres needed to be aware of." She blew out a breath and met his eyes. "Iím being set up as a target by the various rebel groups, and that means...."

"That means Gwen is a target as well, and sheís much more visual than you are."

"Exactly."

"So, what did he say? Whatís he going to do?"

"He didnít say. He barely gave me the time of day... made it clear I was wasting my time as I wasnít a Sabre anymore." Her words stopped as they both felt a slight vibration at their wrists. They looked down simultaneously and two sets of eyebrows rose into hairlines.

"Well, maybe thatís what this meeting is about then," Geoff said. "Better be or else Iím going to have to get out of this chair to kick Russí ass for being stupid," he muttered to himself. Geoff looked at Randi with an interesting expression. "You still wear it?" gesturing to her Sabre alert band.

"Yeah. I like to know what is going on." She shrugged. "Habit as much as anything, I guess."

"So you going to come back up for this meeting?"

Randi nodded. "I think so. I think I need to know whatís going on... especially if he is going to do something about these notes Iíve been getting. Donít worry," she said with a smile, tapping him on the leg. "Iíll bring Gwen with me for sure on Sunday." She glanced up and saw Tiny waiting in the doorway for her and motioned him in.

Geoff smiled. "See that you do. Iíll make sure Jill is here. We can have a little family reunion."

Randi nodded as she rose. "Sounds good. Maybe Carbon will be friendlier with Gwen here."

Geoff nodded, an odd look on his face. "Maybe... I hope so. Heís never acted that way towards anyone who has been part of my therapy. Strange that heíd do that to you, of all people."

"Who did what?" Tiny questioned as he extended a hand to the weapons smith. "Hey, Geoff! Howís it going?

Geoff grunted and shrugged. "Better now that Iíve had a real massage to get the knots out," with a smirking glance in Randiís direction.

"Yep, she could have been a pro."

"Hey! Iím sitting right here, ya know."

"And your point?" Tiny teased. "Címon. I hate to pop in and run, but youíve got a shuttle to catch and so do I. Sure wish I could be there when you explain to Gwen about why you called this meeting though."

Geoffís head snapped towards Randi, catching the honest uncertainty in her eyes before she looked at Tiny. She rubbed a hand across her forehead.

"Huh? Tiny, what are you talking about? If thatís your idea of a joke, your punchline needs work, because that isnít funny." She rubbed her forehead again, wincing slightly at the pain that suddenly radiated through her skull. Carbon whined pitifully before howling.

"Randi? Donít you remember...?" Tiny took Randi by the arms and looked into her eyes. The first thing he noticed was they were their beautiful blue color once more. What he realized almost immediately after that was she had no recollection of what had happened... just like with the Amazons. The only thing he saw in her eyes now was bewilderment and pain.

She clenched her hands around his arms until he grimaced at the bruising he could feel. "Tiny?" her voice dropped to a whisper as though anything louder was too much effort. "Tiny? Take me home to Gwen."

Then Randi did something sheíd never done before in her life Ė she swooned.

Tiny caught her before she hit the deck and scooped her up in his arms. He looked at Geoff whose expression was a mixture of surprise, confusion and concern.

"Tiny, do you know what is going on?" The big man nodded. "Do you think you could explain it to me?

Tiny nodded. "I will. Iíll come back and tell you everything I know."

"Come back? Donít you think she needs a doctor now?"

Tiny shook his head. "No... she needs Gwen." He held up a hand Ė quite a feat considering he still had Randi unconscious in his arms. "I need you to trust me for just a little while, Geoff. I promise I will come directly back here and make things make as much sense to you as they do to the rest of us right now, but I have to get her home first. Trust that Gwenís love is what Randi needs right now," remembering Reedís cautionary words to him before sheíd left. He hoped sheíd been able to fill Lacey in on everything. Things were likely to move very quickly from this point.

 

 

Gwen was waiting at the private pad when the shuttle touched down. Tiny had contacted her as soon as theyíd gotten into the air. He knew they would need clearance to approach the island, and Gwen needed time to get there and prepare herself.

He lifted Randi into his arms once more and stepped down the ramp. She hadnít stirred since her collapse and he was growing more concerned by the minute. Tiny nodded to the pilot who closed the door as soon as the Navy man was clear, and lifted off when they were a safe distance away.

Gwen waited for him to approach her, mindful of Randiís guidelines for pad safety and not wanting to jeopardize anyone. But as soon as Tiny was clear of the transport area and into the safety zone, she ran to him, immediately smoothing Randiís hair from her face and noting the pale features.

"My God, Tiny!! What happened??"

Tiny shifted uncomfortably in his uniform and looked at her beseechingly. "Can we get her inside first? Then Iíll tell you about our day, I promise."

Gwen nodded and walked beside him, wanting to keep tactile contact with Randi. She hadnít liked the look in Tinyís eyes when heíd asked for a reprieve, and she knew that whatever was coming down the pipeline was nothing but bad news. Her stomach knotted up.

Sheíd known things were going to go bad Ė Aphrodite had warned her of as much. But sheíd expected... hoped it would be longer. Already they had been through so much just to be together Ė they were still newlyweds by all standards for Godís sake Ė and now this. Sheíd hoped for a little more time, but she got the definite impression that hope was in vain and fading fast.

They reached the beach house and she released her hold on Randi with a tangible sense of loss to open the door for Tiny to step through. He carried her straight into their bedroom and placed her gently on the bed Gwen had pulled down. Then he stepped out of the room to allow Gwen the privacy she deserved to make Randi comfortable. He twitched his uniform into place and sat down in front of the blazing fireplace to wait.

For her part, Gwen simply gazed at her mate for many long moments, wondering what had happened. Finally she moved, easing Randiís shoes off her feet and sliding her pants down long legs. Then she removed Randiís jacket and shirt before pulling the covers up around her shoulders. Gwen took another long minute to just look at Randi. Gently she combed the hair off the warriorís face and she leaned down kissed the smooth cheek. She inhaled Randiís scent greedily, knowing with a certainty that no matter what else, this was the woman she had married and pledged her life, her heart, and her very soul too. She let that knowledge settle the cramping in her guts and she rose to go hear what Tiny had to say.

At least, that was the plan... until Gwen realized that Randi had a clenched fist firmly grasping her shirttail. She tried to loosen the warriorís hold, and Randi immediately became restless, retreating into the anxious state Gwen had encountered on occasions when Randi had been on Sabre business and done things she was ashamed for Gwen to know about.

A cold fear raced through Gwen, remembering well what those things had been and what they had done to Randiís psyche. She looked down, seeing the frown crease Randiís forehead and made a quick decision.

"Tiny?" Gwen called softly, though she was fairly sure her voice would do little to disturb Randi current state. She cleared her throat and beckoned a little louder, only to having him standing awkwardly in the doorway. She flushed slightly at the sight of his obvious uncomfortable embarrassment.

"Sorry," Gwen apologized softly. "Um, look... I need to.... Hmm...." She mumbled quietly to herself, though her words were quite clear to Tiny. "I donít know why Iím embarrassed about this. I mean, youíve seen us in bed together and everything. Itís just...."

He decided to come to her rescue. "I need to call Reed real quick and I can see Randi needs you with her," gesturing to the tight grip the warrior maintained on Gwenís shirt. "Why donít you um... do whatever you need to do to make you both comfortable and call me when youíre ready?"

Gwen closed her eyes and nodded. "Thanks, Tiny."

He turned and made his way back to the living room, moving to the far side to insure the privacy he needed to make his call.

Gwen sat down and riffled her fingers through Randiís hair. Gradually, she felt the tension melt from the warriorís frame and she leaned down to whisper in Randiís ear. "Sweetheart, I know you can hear me. I know youíre in a dark place right now, but I want you to know I am right here. Iím right beside you, love, and Iím waiting for you to come home to me."

Gwen drew a deep shuddering breath, trying to will away the knots she felt tying up her guts. She patted the hand still clutching her shirt, loosening the fingers and lifting them to her lips for a kiss. Then she held on to them as she awkwardly maneuvered herself into the bed beside Randi. The warrior immediately released the hold she had on Gwenís hand and rolled into her, allowing Gwen to envelope her almost completely.

Gwen clung to Randi for several long minutes, mumbling words of reassurance meant for them both. Promises she hoped they survived together to keep. Finally, she felt ready to face the truth of what Tiny had to share with her, and she summoned him.

Tiny, in the meantime, had been quite busy on his Sabre comm Ė a fact that in and of itself spoke of the gravity of the situation. The link was rarely used... only in emergencies and never before for something quite so personal. But this affected them all deeply, and Reed especially needed to be aware of the developments. Things were suddenly moving faster than they had anticipated and their timetable was going to have to be stepped up.

He had just finished his conversation with her, in fact, when Gwen called him. Tiny squared his shoulders and crossed into the bedroom.

He didn't even blink at their positioning; he simply gestured to the chair by the bedside, and at Gwen's nod, took a seat. Tiny fidgeted for a few minutes, straightening his uniform and clearing his throat. Gwen clamped down on the rising dread she felt growing in her belly at Tiny's obvious discomfort. It had been clear even without all the restlessness that the news was going to be bad at the very least... his reticence to speak only made it worse.

"Tiny, please," Gwen pleaded when the silence had become unbearable. "I need to know."

The big man nodded and sighed. "You do. I just wish...."

"So do I, but we knew it was coming. How bad is it?"

"Bad," he said succinctly. "I think... I am fairly certain she is going to assume leadership of the Sabres. And then she is going to destroy the rebels once and for all."

"Excuse me? How can she assume leadership of the Sabres? She isn't one anymore."

Tiny sighed again. He hated this Ė hated what Randi had done, but more... hated what Ares had done to the woman he considered to be his friend. If only.... he thought, but shook his head. They had to deal with the cards they had been dealt and this woman deserved a fighting chance to hold onto the love and happiness she had found in the one Ares had chosen. They both did.

"Technically, you're right. She isn't. She died and that gave her an impossible gift Ė the opportunity to live a normal life. But honestly, Gwen, it's such a part of who she is... who we all are. It... it's hard to explain." He let his hands drop between his knees and sat silently trying to formulate his thoughts a little more clearly. Gwen's words brought him up short in his contemplation.

"I think I understand, Tiny. It's not... it's not something you would consciously choose, but it is ingrained in your psyche. And all that training brings that personality and the responsibility of it to the fore."

"Right... exactly," Tiny exclaimed with relief in his voice. "You do understand."

Gwen smiled sadly. "More than I'd like to," she replied. "But, Tiny, my understanding of the Sabre mentality doesn't explain why you think Randi is going to become the Sabre Commandant. Tiny, she's done everything she could to avoid stepping back into those Sabre boots."

Tiny nodded his agreement. "Consciously, you're right, Gwen. But she has a lot of missing spots in her memory. You know that. And I was witness to one of them today."

"Come again, please?" Gwen said.

So he told her Ė everything that had happened from the moment they entered Russ' office until Randi's collapse in Geoff's therapy room. He briefly considered giving Gwen an abbreviated accounting of what had happened... what Randi did... then decided she deserved nothing less than the truth.

"Why?" spoken so softly Tiny barely made out the word. Gwenís arms tightened convulsively around Randi, and he watched in amazement as the warrior responded to the bardís distress. Randi snuggled deeper into Gwenís embrace and for a long moment, Gwenís attention was focused solely on the woman in her arms. Then she turned outraged green eyes to Tiny and demanded again, "Why?"

"It was her right, Gwen, and it was her responsibility as the Sabre who was wronged. It all goes back to the Sabre code."

"The code?!?" she hissed incredulously, though she never raised her voice above a whisper. "You let her betray everything for some goddamn code???"

"No, Gwen, no!!" Tiny rubbed his hands over his face as he searched for a way to clarify his thoughts to her. He moved from the recliner to the bed, taking Gwen's hands in his much larger ones. "I'm not explaining this very well. Randi became the Sabre she was before she knew you. She didn't betray anything." He held on to the hands that would have pulled away at his words.

"Gwen, she had no memory of it... at all. I watched her become someone I hadn't seen since... since before her death. And the next time I saw her, she was the person I've known since her return."

"But Tiny... why? Why didn't you stop her? Why did you let her kill him?"

"Gwen, Randi was the best at what she did, and one reason for that is because of her single-minded focus. When she got into that mode, nothing could put her off, and I wasn't going to add to her guilt."

"I'm not sure I understand what you mean?"

"If I had interfered with her right to retribution, a right that she was entitled to, she would have hurt me... or worse. As it was, she was fairly merciful to the rat bastard Ė much more than I would have been in her place."

"Really?"

"Absolutely. I would have cut out his tongue out for starters and then gotten creative for what he did to her."

Gwen blinked, startled by the vehemence of Tiny's tone. "Oh... wow... um...." She loosened one hand and rubbed the tip of her nose. "No, actually, I meant Ė do you really think Randi would have... hurt... you if you had interfered with what she was doing?"

Tiny looked down at Randi who was still completely oblivious to everything except her unconscious attachment to Gwen. "As herself, no," he answered quietly, shaking her head. "But as the Sabre that she once was... that I saw today Ė yes, definitely." He looked up and met Gwen's eyes squarely. "Until she met you, she never let herself be swayed or deterred from her purpose... no matter how distasteful she found it to be personally."

"That's why she was the best?"

Tiny nodded. "That's why she was the best Ė still is to some degree."

"Is that why you think Randi will become the next commandant?"

"No. I got that impression from what she said today when she called the meeting of all Sabres. Gwen, she could have been the commandant and she turned it down. But after Russ... died... she assumed command as naturally as breathing. She's a leader, Gwen, and the Sabres will follow her."

"Can we... can I stop her?"

Tiny shook his head. "I honestly don't know. I think it depends on whether or not the Sabre wakes up. Given the blackout episodes she's been having, it's obvious she's been struggling with this... fighting to keep from becoming a Sabre again."

"You think her returning to the Sabres is part of the darkness Sky warned us about?"

"Don't you?" Tiny countered sadly.

Gwen gazed at him honestly. "I know it is," she whispered. "The Sabre part of her is so dark... so violent. But I love her despite that, Tiny. I love that part of her because it *is* a vital part of who she is. It's where her strength lies. It's where she gets her sense of honor and responsibility."

"Yes, it is," Tiny agreed. He squeezed her hand and stood up from the bed. "I've got to go. I promised your father I'd return and explain things to him... as much as I can anyway. Will you be all right here alone? Or should I call Tommy?"

Gwen returned his squeeze before she released her hold. "I'll... *we'll* be fine, Tiny. Tommy knows we're here and I can call him if I have to. We'll get through this...together... just like we always have." She smiled at him and Tiny found himself responding in kind automatically. "I wouldn't be adverse to you keeping in touch, though."

"You can count on that, Gwen. You have a vast support system, and when the time comes, well, we'll be were we're needed." I hope, he added silently.

"Thank you, Tiny," Gwen said, suppressing a yawn and snuggling closer to her still unconscious soulmate. "Will you... um... will you come back and let me know what Daddy's reaction was?" she mumbled, sinking into a light doze.

"You betcha," he agreed with a smile as he pulled the covers up over her. Then he walked out of the bedroom and headed over to Tommy's. He and Ella needed to know what was going on as well. It was time to pull the troops together for the coming firestorm.

 

 

"You're sure about this Tiny?" Geoff asked the man who now filled his view screen. When Tiny had arrived at Tommy's, he'd asked for a vid conference and both Tommy and Geoff had been agreeable. Tiny was glad; he wanted to be nearby when Randi woke up... for both their sakes.

"Yes, Geoff. I am. I saw what happened in Russ' office and you were witness to what took place in your room."

"But why now? Why...? She's been so determined to stay out of Sabre business and away from Sabre life."

Tiny shrugged. "I don't know what originally started it, but I believe, given what we now know, that whatever it was happened at least several months ago, if not longer. Reed didnít do a thorough walk-thru in Randiís memories, but according to both Gwen and Randi, Randi has had several instances of lost time in the recent past."

"And thereís nothing we can do about this, Tiny?" This from Tommy.

"Weíre doing everything we can, which unfortunately, isnít much."

"Tiny," Geoff asked, in a deceptively calm tone that made the big Sabreís skin crawl. "If youíve known about this, why are we just hearing about it now?"

Tiny bit his inner lip, but outwardly displayed no hint of the turmoil roiling in his gut. It was the one question heíd been hoping to avoid, though he knew in his heart of hearts this accounting would come.

"There wasn't anything to share." He held up his hand when Geoff would have interrupted. "Give me a minute, Geoff. Randi has no conscious memory of these episodes, and up to now, no one except maybe Gwen had observed any of them. We didn't even suspect this as the problem until Reed did a mind walk this last weekend and found... blanks... in Randi memory. Nothing concrete Ė just... time gaps... that couldn't be explained. Things hidden so deeply even Reed couldn't find them."

"So there was nothing to share?" Tommy inserted.

"Not really, no," Tiny answered with a relieved breath. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes today, there still wouldn't be."

"But you said...." Geoff accused.

"Geoff! We know that darkness is coming, and we are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn't win. But until today, *I*, at least, did not know what form the darkness probably would take. So cut me some slack, would you?"

"But Gwen knew?" Geoff asked, his tone cool.

Tiny bit his lip. "Yes." The Navy man watched as the weapons smith's shoulders dropped. "Geoff, she's going to need you to support her."

"I know," he sighed. "And I will. I just don't understand why she didn't come to me... to us. We could have done... I don't know... something."

"No, we couldn't, Geoff," Tommy said. "The only real thing we can do is support them both. From what Tiny has and hasn't said, I think everything else that could be done is being done by people more qualified than we are."

"But she should have come to me... should have...."

"Geoff, you'll always be her father, but you're not responsible for Gwen anymore. And you can't expect her to share everything that does happen or might happen in her life. You just be there for her when she finally does come to you."

Geoff scrubbed his hands through his hair and smiled sheepishly at both men. "I know. Doesn't stop me from wanting to help or be involved though."

Tommy chuckled. "I think that's a 'Dad' thing. We do tend to get involved in our children's lives, don't we?"

Ella snorted, speaking up for the first time since Tiny had made his unexpected appearance at their front door. "And of course mothers don't," she commented, rolling her eyes at her husband, causing laughter to ripple through the group. She turned her attention to Tiny.

"Do you know anything else? Anything that will help us with whatever is coming?"

Tiny shook his head. "No, now you know everything that I know. Reed and Sky might know more, but I've shared with you all they shared with me."

"So now we wait?"

"Now we wait. Despite the fact that it's not something any of us would ever have chosen, some thing or some one started this. We have to let it play out... to whatever conclusion Randi chooses. And it has to be her choice."

"And she has to make this choice without knowing she's making a choice, why, exactly?" from Geoff.

"Gwen has it on good authority...." He held up his hand. "I didn't ask which one, but I'm putting money on a couple different goddesses. Anyway, Gwen has it on good authority that any outside or undue influence will kill Randi. And according to Reed, as Randi goes, so goes Gwen, and as they go together, so goes the world."

"What a fucking mess," the weapons smith muttered, then looked at Ella. "Beg pardon," he muttered with a flush.

"S'all right," she said with an ironic chuckle. "You merely voiced what I was thinking." She turned and looked at Tiny. "If the gods are involved on one side, are they also involved on the other? Do you know who is behind this?"

"Know?" Tiny shook his head. "Not for certain. But we suspect... Ares." Tiny held up his hands to stop their mumblings and muttered oaths. "I know, believe me Ė our reaction was very similar. He's made contact with Randi, and he has the most to gain from her as a warrior."

"Why her?" Tommy asked.

"Because she's the best," Tiny and Geoff replied simultaneously.

Tommy shook his head. "I don't get it. Randi has never worshipped him... never acknowledged him."

Tiny shrugged. "I don't understand it either... none of us do. But she is without a doubt the best warrior alive. She's one of the best history has ever known. It's not surprising that he covets her."

"I understand that part," Geoff said tiredly. "What I don't get is what he's done to make this a fight to begin with."

Silence was his answer and he rubbed his eyes tiredly.

"Right," he commented. "Well, keep me posted, please, Tiny. I have to figure out a way to explain it to Jill. We'll do whatever we can."

"I will, Geoff. Get some rest. I'll see you on Sunday."

They closed the connection and watched the lengthening shadows as they contemplated the darkness that was swiftly approaching.

 

 

Chapter XIX

Gwen lay wrapped around Randi thinking, her mind not quite allowing her to doze off for a very long time. The things she saw in her mindís eye terrified her, and yet she couldnít seem to dismiss them from her thoughts. Knowing itís coming, but uncertain as to when or what form itís going take is almost worse than having it happen, she thought. The waiting was making her nuts, and even though she dreaded the coming fight, at least when it finally did come she would have something concrete to fight against. It was impossible to mount a defense against an unseen enemy.

Gwen never realized when she finally passed from waking to sleeping until she looked around and saw... nothing.

She found herself in thick, inky darkness, the visions sheíd been assailed with before lost in the blackness and she knew immediately that somehow, someway, sheíd found her way into Randiís dreamscape again. Now all she had to do was find the warrior and lead her safely home again.

Gwen closed her eyes to center herself, though it certainly wasnít necessary given the darkness surrounding her. But somehow it helped and she started walking forward with more confidence than sheíd shown the last time sheíd visited this place.

Like before, she wished for a light, but this time, one didnít appear for her. So she walked slowly, feeling her way through solid shadows.

How long she walked, Gwen couldnít have said, but eventually she heard the soft rasp of breathing. Still the darkness remained thick and cloying and Gwen had to let her sense of hearing be her guide to Randi.

Suddenly, all she heard was silence. Without warning, Gwen hit the sharp corner of something solid and she panted in very real pain. Then she found herself wrapped in an extremely tight grasp, the grip on her wrists causing ripples of agony to shoot up her arms and into her shoulders.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" The sibilant whisper cut through the blackness like a hot knife through butter, sending a chill rushing up Gwenís spine and causing an involuntary shiver to pass through her body. Randiís hold tightened at the movement, and the bard forced herself to relax.

"Randi, love, itís me, sweetheart. Itís Gwen." The hold, which had loosened at the first sound of her voice tightened again, and a slight whimper escaped from Gwenís lips.

"No," Randi avowed. "No. No one comes here but me. Gwen would never come to a place like this... itís dark and ugly. Youíre lying," squeezing even harder.

Gwen grit her teeth, desperate to keep the scream that wanted to erupt from her throat from escaping. "No, lo... ve, I... m not. Randi, pl... please, youíre hur... ting me." Gwen felt the confusion wash through Randi and drew a grateful breath when the hold around her relaxed once more though Randi still held her tightly enough to prevent her from escaping.

For long moments they stood that way, Gwen remaining perfectly still so as not to disturb the warriorís thoughts. Randi stood considering the words she had heard and the body pressed against hers that she knew better than her own. Eventually, she let her grip slacken enough to turn Gwen in her arms and Randi let her hands roam over the bardís face and body, and Gwen allowed the examination, aware that Randi needed the reassurance she was seeking with her hands. Finally, satisfied that her senses were not playing tricks on her, Randi freed Gwen from her grasp and stepped back, intending to move away from the bard and disappear into the darkness. Gwen had other ideas.

She reached out, catching Randiís wrist in her grasp and trusting to the fact that Randi would not hurt her now that she believed it was Gwen who held her. The bard felt the strong shoulders slump in defeat, then Randi turned to face her in the darkness.

"Gwen, why are you here?" she asked softly. "You donít belong here."

"Neither do you," came the firm reply.

Gwen felt Randi stiffen under her touch, but she was unprepared for the violent reaction her words caused. The warrior ripped her hand from Gwenís clasp and stepped back out of reach. Gwen bit her lip in frustration Ė being completely unable to see was driving her nuts and making it impossible for her to function like she was accustomed to. She stomped her foot, but the sound was completely absorbed by the darkness.

"Randi!!"

"Go back, Gwen," the warrior said from some distance away. "This place isnít for someone like you."

"Randi!!"

Her only answer was silence.

 

 

Gwen blinked her eyes open and curled herself tighter around Randiís body, holding them together for all she was worth. It wasnít supposed to be this way, was it? Aphrodite had been very specific Ė when the time came, it was going to be Gwenís responsibility to walk away and let Randi make her choice. So why did it feel like Randi was the one walking away?

"Because she is... sorta," came the unexpected answer. "Hey, bardic babe!" Gwen felt the touch before the goddess came into view. "Howís ya doing?" Dite asked softly while stroking the blonde hair gently off Gwenís forehead.

Gwen just looked at her for a long moment. She wanted to give the matter a little thought because she knew that Aphrodite deserved an honest answer. "Iím confused," she finally said.

Dite nodded. "Me too," muttered under her breath. She shook her curly head. "What happened? Why do you think Randi is walking away from you?"

Gwen frowned. "She just did... in her dreamscape." She turned confused green eyes to meet Aphroditeís blue ones. "Aphrodite, why are you here? And what did you mean?"

Diteís eyes shifted to either side of Gwenís face before finally coming to rest on the covers in front of her. Long, graceful fingers picked absently at the material before her hands were covered by one of Gwenís.

"Aphrodite?"

Diteís eyes came up to meet Gwenís once more. "Weíve been keeping an eye on things... ya know... trying to like, piece things together."

"Uh huh... and?" A pause. "Címon, Dite. I deserve to know as much as possible."

Aphrodite nodded her agreement. "Youíre right... you do." The goddess sighed. "I totally hate my job sometimes." She looked at the ceiling. "How did I get stuck with this radically bogus assignment?"

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Gwen couldnít help but smile. Then she looked down at her still-unconscious partner and the smile left her face. She turned her attention back to Aphrodite and met her gaze.

"Well, you so know most of it, babe. But given her recent majorly bizarre behavior and with the totally rad research that Artemis and Athena have been doing, we think that Randi is like, ya know, fighting with herself right now. That the part of her that is totally yours has somehow separated itself from the part of her that was... is still... the Sabre that was so deadly and efficient. The part that she draws her warrior strength from Ė the part that belongs to Ares."

"But how? And why?"

Dite shrugged. "The how is strictly due to Ares. The why? Well, we really donít like, know for sure, but the bet is on some radical sense of self-preservation."

"You think it was deliberate then... something she consciously chose to do?"

"As if." Dite shook her head. "No, no... we think it is completely a subconscious reaction to her absolute desire to remain yours alone and not become part of Aresí minions."

"He has such control then?"

"Over the warrior part of her, yes. He... drugged her or rather, he had her drugged. That is what has caused her blackout episodes, we think. At least everything points to that. The fighting with herself, I mean."

"And I still canít tell her about it?"

"No, babe. Bad as it pains me to say it, we canít risk it... unless youíre totally willing to risk her life."

"But if I donít tell her, donít I risk her soul?"

Diteís eyes met hers with all seriousness and she dropped any hint of inflection in her speech. "No," she stated firmly. "I believe with all my heart that you own her soul, just as she owns yours. When the time comes for her to choose, she will choose you."

"But in the meantime...."

"In the meantime, you have to fight for her and with her and when the time comes, walk away from her."

Gwen closed her eyes. "That will be so hard, Aphrodite. I tried once and it nearly killed me... nearly killed both of us. I promised her forever."

"I know. Because you were angry and unsure. When you walk away this time, it will be the last time you will have to. Forever will come after that."

"You sound so sure," Gwen said hesitantly.

Dite nodded. "I am. One way or another there will be a forever in your future," closing her mindís eye to the horrendous possibilities if forever went the wrong way for them. "I have faith in both of you, and faith in the love and bond you have shared for eternity. What Ares wants is superficial in comparison."

"You think?"

"Nuh uh," Dite said as confidently as she could manage. "I know. Donít you?"

Gwen bit her lip in though. "Yeah," she answered slowly. "I guess I do." A beat. "I *know* I do."

Randi started to stir in agitation, clutching at Gwen and whimpering softly. Dite gazed at her compassionately before turning her focus back to Gwen.

"Go to her, babe. She needs you...." holding up her hands. "I know she walked away from you, but she needs the reassurance that you will follow her... that you will find her regardless, especially since she sees her walking away from you as trying to protect you."

Gwen blinked at Dite for a long moment, and it caused the goddess to emit a weary chuckle. "I know, I know... itís a warrior thing, and as strong as your warrior is, she is also very fragile and very vulnerable."

Gwen nodded and tightened her hold on Randi, smiling when the warrior returned her embrace fervently and relaxed into her quieting touch. She closed her eyes and felt Diteís touch on her forehead again. She struggled to open an eyeball, the grinned sleepily at the love goddess.

"Weíre gonna win, Aphrodite. With the power of love behind us, how can we lose?"

Aphrodite waited for the breathing to slow and deepen before she answered, allowing all her doubts to come to the fore. "How indeed?" Then she popped out, leaving no rose petals behind to show her passage. Things were hairy enough without given Ares any extra ammunition.

 

 

The darkness was just as thick, still as cloying, but this time Gwen strode forward with confident purpose. She closed her eyes out of habit to allow her other senses to guide her to where Randi was hidden within the inky blackness.

For the longest time there was no sound, save that of her own breathing. Gwen deliberately concentrated on slowing her heartbeat, allowing the resonance of her breathing to become a part of the darkness that she was aware of but did not interfere with her focus on finding Randi.

Gradually, she became aware of other sounds and realized that Randiís heart was beating in tandem with her own. The warriorís breathing was soft, muffled, as though Randi was trying to remain undetected. Gwen extended her arms in front of her and moved even more slowly, her soul knowing that she was close to her other half.

She was much better prepared for the impact this time when she ran into smooth, cool stone. With her arms braced, Gwen felt her way inward until she found the warmth of flesh beneath her touch. She felt Randi flinch involuntarily and she sighed, knowing her presence a second time was completely unexpected by the warrior.

Slowly, Gwen crawled up onto the slab, counting on her innate sense of balance to keep her from toppling over the edge. Instead, she found herself cradled in warm, soft warrior as Randi instinctively curled around her protectively. The bard mentally shook her head; these sudden shifts in personality and attitude were disconcerting to say the least. But she had learned the Sabre slogan from the very best, and ĎAdapt & Overcomeí became her motto now as a new set of challenges presented themselves to her.

So she settled into the embrace, returning the hug fervently and feeling Randi relax into in soundlessly. For timeless moments, they stayed locked together in wordless comfort. Then Randi pulled back slightly as though to look Gwen in the eye despite the darkness. Without warning, a small light suddenly appeared beside her head that enabled her to do just that. Gwen gasped and blinked furiously at the unexpected intrusion and she reached out blindly to hold onto Randi until she could regain her equilibrium.

When she opened her eyes, the sadness she saw looking back at her from those wounded blue eyes nearly broke her heart, and Gwen gently clasped Randiís face firmly between her hands, smiling when the warrior did the same in return.

Green eyes closed as Randiís hands tenderly caressed her face as though committing her features to memory. Finally, Randi learned forward and brushed Gwenís lips with inherent gentleness before pulling away and meeting Gwenís eyes when they fluttered open.

With a sad smile, Randi asked, "Gwen, why are you here? I thought I told you...."

Those words brought a real, if tremulous smile to Gwenís face, and now she let her fingers wander over familiar territory as she answered.

"You did," she readily agreed as she allowed her touch to relax them both. "And I listened. I went back out into the light and deliberated all the possibilities and weighed all the options. And right now, at this very moment in this time and place, *my* place is here beside you. That may change someday, but if and when it does, it will only be temporary, because nothing, NOTHING will be able to stand between us. Do you understand that, Randi? Do you believe?"

The warrior considered the words then nodded silently, wondering where Gwenís vehemence stemmed from.

"I want you to know and understand one more thing, all right?" Gwen waited for the dark head to nod again before she continued speaking. "Good... all right. I want you to know... to *believe*... that no matter what happens out there, you will always be able to find me here when you need me. This wonít be a place for you to hide anymore. Instead it will become a place we can claim together Ė a place we can be alone with our secrets and our fears and no one can touch us."

A confused look crossed Randiís face. "Here? But Gwen, this is a dark and ugly place. I donít like to come here Ė it always means bad things have happened when I do. And this isnít a place for someone like you. You donít know all the horrible memories that are stored here. Youíd leave me if you did," the last muttered so low Gwen almost missed them.

"Weíre gonna change that, love. One by one, weíre gonna take all those old memories and shred them. And weíll create new memories to go in their place Ė things that we will do together... dreams and hopes and ideas we have for and about one another. I will never leave you for anything you share with my in this place. I know the darkness is a part of you Randi and it always will be, but it is time to face the memories that haunt you because of the darkness they hold once and for all and sweep them out. We will never have total peace together until the last of your ghosts is gone." Gwen looked down and swallowed hard before letting her eyes capture Randiís once more. "And I want total peace for us... once and for all forever."

Randi smiled tentatively, both at the fervor in Gwenís voice and the determination in her eyes. "I like the sound of that," the warrior acknowledged. "I like the sound of peace and us and forever. But Gwen," she added hesitantly. "I need to... to work on... this... on my own... first. Itís not that... itís not that I donít trust you Ė God, I do. So much more than I trust myself. But thatís the problem." Randi gave a big sigh, then looked down and shook her head.

Gwen waited patiently, finally using her fingertips to bring the blue eyes back to level with her own. "Whatís the problem, Randi?"

The warrior sighed again, so big that it fluffed her bangs out. "I donít trust me. So much... so many of the memories here," motioning to the darkness that surrounded them outside the tiny circle of light they sat in, "I honestly donít remember them anymore. And I donít know how I will react to them. I donít... I donít want to hurt you."

Gwen blinked. "Do you think you will?" she asked with brutal honesty.

Randi shrugged, dropping her eyes again momentarily until gentle fingers lightly tapped her chin. "I dunno," she whispered finally. "But I donít wanna take the chance. Youíre too precious to me to risk like that."

Gwen chewed her lip thoughtfully, understanding Randiís dilemma, but unwilling to let her suffer alone. "*IF* I let you do this alone first, will you share with me what you can? Not everything Ė God knows youíre entitles to some modicum of privacy. I just.... Sweetheart, I donít want you to do this all alone. If youíre afraid of what you will do to me because of the memories here, then I am terrified of what you will do to you."

"I canít hurt myself here Ė not physically. That much I am sure of. But Iíve never had anyone else here, so I canít be certain about you. Please, Gwen... donít ask me to put you in that kind of danger."

"You know you canít hurt yourself physically here Ė have you tried?" Gwen asked softly, but her eyes demanded a direct answer.

Randi nodded and looked away. "Once, yes... a long time ago."

Gwen bit her lip again in thought. "Can we talk about it? Not now," she assured, seeing the panicked look clearly in the blue eyes that faced her when the dark head had whipped around at her question. "Not now," she repeated. "But someday, when this is all done and weíve gone through and swept out all the ugliness from this place...."

Randi took Gwenís smaller hands in her own and held them, studying them together for a very, long moment before she raised her eyes once more to the bardís. "Someday," she said, then cleared her throat. "Someday, I will share everything I can with you about this place and we will walk through it together and set free the ghosts I have locked away here. But even when I face them alone, you will still be here with me," Randi added with a compassionate smile. "Because you live here," she said, patting her heart. "And there is nothing in the world that will make me forget that."

Gwen smiled brilliantly, though her eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "You are a sweet talker, Miranda Valiant. Maybe I should ask Tommy to let you do the bard thing for a change." Blue eyes widened comically and Gwen shook her head to keep from laughing out loud in relief. "On second thought, Iíd prefer to keep that part of you to myself. There are some things a woman just doesnít like to share with the world, and the hidden romantic tendencies of her stoic warrior would rank right up at the top."

Randi spluttered, trying desperately to form words of denial until soft lips covered her own. Then she relaxed into the kiss, meant more to convey love and reassurance than to spark great passion. They pulled apart slowly and rested their foreheads together, breathing in one anotherís air and soaking in the feeling of belonging and well-being that pervaded the space around them.

Finally, Randi pulled back and clasped Gwenís hands firmly in her own. Then she looked sincerely into green eyes that radiated back only honest trust and love for her. The warrior swallowed hard. Never had stepping into combat been as difficult as this.

"Gwen, love... something is going on. Something I donít have a good grasp on yet, but it has something to do with my being a Sabre. It has to Ė it is the only explanation I can figure out for my continued presence in this room. The only times Iíve ever come here have been when being a Sabre became too much for me to bear. I canít seem to find a way out, and until I do... until I do, things could get a little rocky. Just be patient with me, please? And remember that Iím not all together there if things get rough. I will return whole to you as soon as I can find the key to getting out of here."

Gwen lifted their joined hands to her lips and brushed them gently.

"Nothing will separate us forever, Randi... not even you. I love you. I want you to always remember that."

"I love you more and donít you forget it."

"Oh you do, do ya? And what makes you think so," Gwen asked with a saucy little smirk.

Randi raised an eyebrow at her. "Iím bigger than you. Bigger body, bigger heart, more love. Simple math."

Gwen pulled her hands away from Randiís and planted them squarely on her hips. "Uh huh. I can see we have been remiss in your education. Time for some tutorials."

"I already know the important stuff. The rest can wait."

"Ya think?"

The dark head shook emphatically. "Nope. I know. I know how much I love you and how much you love me and how to make you scream. The rest I can make up as I go along," reaching out her long arms and wrapping Gwen up in them and proceeding to tickle her mercilessly until the bard screamed uncle. Then they collapsed onto the slab together, pleasantly stimulated and tangled up.

"Youíre right," Gwen agreed with a yawn as they settled comfortably. "Youíve got the important stuff covered. Weíll get to everything else eventually."

"Glad you agree," the warrior smirked. "Knew you would see things my way." But Gwen never heard the last. She had fallen into a pleasant dream state, and Randi caught look of happy contentment in the bardís face and smiled in reflex.

"Good night, love," she whispered. Then she allowed the light to go out as they moved deeper into their dreams.

 

 

Gwen blinked her eyes sleepily in the pre-dawn light. Her forehead creased in confusion. Why was she awake? She blinked again and listened into the quiet darkness and found nothing out of the ordinary. The soft whirr of the fan created the white noise that even now was luring her back to sleep, and beyond that... she focused her hearing. Nothing. Just the bare whispers of sound so common in their household.

Gwen shook her head, confused by the sheer normalcy of everything. If nothing was wrong, why had she woken up?

She closed her eyes again listening to the sounds in the room and letting the soothing monotony of the fan push her closer towards sleep. Then a chill skittered up her back and she shivered.

She opened her eyes again and rolled onto her back, frowning when she met nothing but bed. She distinctly remembered wrapping herself around Randi before reentering the dreamscape a second time, and she was almost as positive that she and Randi had been tangled up together in that hidden room in Randiís mind.

Ok, so why...? She let the thought trail off as she turned her head towards the other side of the bed. Then she pushed up onto her elbows until she could scoot across to where Randi lay with her back towards Gwen. She wasnít curled up protectively, but she was clinging to the edge of the bed.

Gwen grabbed Randiís shoulder and tugged until the warrior rolled onto her back, all without waking her. A little unnerved, Gwen slyly felt for a pulse, relieved when she found one. She couldnít remember her and Randi ever having shared a bed since before they became lovers, and certainly since theyíd exchanged wedding vows, that they hadnít slept cuddled closely together. And she wondered if whatever was going on inside Randiís mind was responsible for the change.

The bard frowned. Whatever was causing it, she didnít like it. Sheíd sworn to Randi she wasnít giving them up, and if she had to start fighting for them at this most basic of levels then so be it. But gods help Ares if Gwen ever got a hold of him. She was fairly certain even a god could be a eunuch and at this point she was anxious to test the theory.

Gwen continued to tug and pull Randi towards the center of the bed without ever disturbing the deep sleep the warrior seemed to be lost in. Finally convinced that they could comfortably curl up together again without fear of falling off the edge or of Randi slipping away again without her noticing.

She lay down, careful to put her ear directly over Randiís heart. That, more than any other sound in the world, could relax her and put her to sleep. She smiled as the steady, rhythmic beating lulled her into a place of perfect contentment.

Gwen wrapped an arm possessively around Randiís waist. She couldnít stop the smile from growing into a full grin when a strong arm came up round her shoulders, hugging her before brushing an absent kiss atop the blonde head. Then Gwen tucked her head under Randiís chin and let her eyes close in satisfaction, secure in the knowledge that they would win out in the end, unaware of the nature of the challenges that lay before them.

 

 

When she woke the second time, Gwen was surprised first by the lateness of the hour Ė not that it was particularly late except by their own very early standards. But the sun was fully up and shining brightly in the windows. The second surprise of note was that Randi still lay sleeping beneath her. Gwen had fully expected to see indulgent blue eyes twinkling back at her when sheíd looked up into Randiís face.

The bard shifted slightly, leaning up on an elbow and sliding up until she could look down at Randiís peaceful features. She raised a hand and gently began to trace the warriorís face. Slowly, slower than she expected, Randiís face began to take on tension, and gradually blue eyes fluttered open.

"Hey," Randi croaked out hoarsely. She cleared her throat and winced. "Wow, itís really late, huh?" She pushed herself further upright until she was half-reclining in the bed. Immediately, Gwen curled into her spot and continued her delicate tracing. Randi smiled and closed here eyes again to enjoy the sensations the attention caused in her body.

"Later than you know, love," Gwen answered with a smile in her voice.

Randi opened her eyes, turned her head towards Gwen and raised an eyebrow in the bardís direction. "Oh? Why do I get the feeling Iíve missed something?"

"Whatís the last thing you remember?"

Randiís forehead creased into a frown and she rubbed her eyes in contemplative thought. "Um... I was... I was with Geoff. And then Tiny showed up and then... then...?" She dropped her hand from her eyes and returned her gaze to Gwen. "What day is it?"

"Saturday."

Randi sat up completely and rubbed her hands over her face. "Saturday??" She pushed the covers away from her body and climbed from the bed. "Damn!" She walked to the bathroom.

Gwen sat up and followed Randi into the bathroom. "Sweetheart? Whatís wrong?"

"I have a meeting in the capital city tomorrow afternoon, and I was hoping we could go up early to give us a little visiting time with your folks." She set the water temperature and ran her hands through her hair. "Now itís gonna be a much shorter visit."

The water came on and Randi stepped into the shower, then she turned back to Gwen and extended her hand. "You wanna join me?"

Gwen took the proffered hand almost absently and trailed Randi closely into the warm stream of water. She wore a look of intense concentration and confusion, and when she didnít react to Randiís sensual soaping of her body, the warrior pulled back and focused her attention on Gwenís face until Gwen became aware of the scrutiny.

The blonde head shook slightly and Gwen looked up into intense blue eyes. "What?"

Randi rested her arms on Gwenís shoulders and shrugged, giving her a crooked little grin. "That was my question, actually. Here I was being all seductive and everything, and your mind was so far away your body didnít even notice. Where were you exactly?"

Gwen blushed a bright pink. "Sorry. I was trying to remember when we made plans to go to the capital. I canít believe I forgot something like that." Not the total truth, but needing to know whether *her* Randi or the Sabre now stood in front of her.

Randi stepped away from Gwen, turning her back and moving to stand under the spray. Then she squared her shoulders and twisted around to face Gwen directly. "You didnít." Randi paused then took a deep breath before continuing, meeting her eyes, and Gwen had to bite her lip to keep from reacting to the lost soul she saw reflected back at her in those blue eyes.

"The truth is I called a Sabre meeting."

"A wha...? You canít do that!!"

Randi soaped up the sponge and began to methodically bathe herself. "I can and I did," she stated flatly. "I have tried playing the game their way," she said. "Now they are going to learn to play it mine."

"But Randi...."

"No, Gwen!" her voice low but furious. "I played by their rules and they have done nothing... NOTHING! Itís time to take the Sabres back to their roots and become the warriors we are meant to be. We will wipe out this rebellion once and for all!"

"No, Randi! This is wrong Ė wrong for you and wrong for us!" Gwen sighed and slumped, knowing for sure that the Sabre had come back to her. "You promised me," she whispered. "What happened to leaving them behind forever?"

Randi sat down on the shower seat, her posture one of defeat. "I tried that, Gwen. I really tried, and what did it get me? Threats and attacks and our lives in constant danger. I have the ability to put a stop to it, Gwen, and I will. It stops now."

"How, Randi? How can you stop them alone?"

"I wonít be alone. I will take over leadership of the Sabres. Then we will stop them together."

"Can you do that? Take over as Commandant I mean?"

The dark head nodded solemnly. "I already have. Tomorrowís meeting makes it official."

Gwen bit her lip until she tasted blood. "I hate this! This scares me, Randi. This scares me so much."

Randi stood and wrapped her body around Gwenís, kissing the top of the wet head before gently rubbing the sponge randomly across Gwenís body. "I know it does, Gwen, but youíve got to understand how important it is to eliminate these rebels once and for all. Weíll never know peace until I do." She gave a deep sigh. "Will you... can you accept that? Can you stay beside me still?"

Gwen clasped the necklace of reminder that Artemis had given her and prayed for strength. Then she pulled back slightly until she could look into the Randiís eyes. "Promise me something."

"Anything."

"Donít shut me out. I need to know what is going on, Randi. And when this is all over, you come back to me. This Sabre business is just temporary."

"Absolutely. This is just temporary. We, on the other hand, are forever." Then Randi captured Gwenís lips in a kiss that was fierce in both its passion and its possessiveness, and they lost themselves in the feelings that overwhelmed them.

 

 

Ares stood at his scrying bowl watching their lovemaking with an odd mixture of fascination, disgust and amusement. "No, no," he whispered to the two women. "This is temporary. *You* are temporary. My victory is finally complete, and I will soon claim all that is mine Ė body, heart and soul."

Then he laughed cruelly before disappearing into the mist, anxious to be part of the culmination of his dreams and planning as they finally come together in a glorious battle - whose outcome would be Miranda Valiant ruling the world at his side. He couldnít wait to have her do battle in his name and for his glory. Nothing was sweeter than the fruit of revenge borne on the wings of victory, and he had waited millennia to retrieve this warriorís soul as his own.

 

 

Epilogue

The memory made Randi shudder in disgust, and she let it bring her back to the present on a wave of revulsion. The feeling of self-loathing she felt made her incapable of bearing the thought of company any longer and she pulled away from him and began to pace. "Tiny, leave me."

"Empress?" He hoped he had misunderstood. They were so close to ending this... so close to winning. He hated to chance leaving her alone to do something rash. She turned burning blue eyes in his direction, and to flinch at the pain and anger that smoldered in their depths.

"What did you not understand?"

"Empress... Randi, please. I thought you trusted me."

"This has nothing to do with trust, Tiny, and everything to do with responsibility." Randiís shoulders slumped in defeat. "Itís time I took responsibility for what has happened, because obviously, I did something Ė Gwen wouldnít have left otherwise. I have to believe that." She sighed. "Please, Tiny. Youíve done all you can and been a better friend than I have ever deserved, especially lately. Now, leave me and let me finish this. Go to Reed Ė get married, have a baby. You can enjoy the peace now... at least one of us should."

"No."

"Excuse me?" her tone sharpening.

"No. I will not leave you alone. Not now."

The noise she made would have been considered a sob had she not been a Sabre warrior and Empress of the World. Then she slipped on the mask that had served her well for the better part of her life and she shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said. "Funny," she added sardonically, though Tiny could hear the pain behind the words. "Gwen couldnít wait to leave."

"Thatís not true," Tiny stated firmly. "And you know it."

She stiffened at his words and snarled. "I know what I remember." She let her mind drift back to the moment, an hour earlier, when her world had shattered.

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 fireplace 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.

Randi became aware of Tinyís scrutiny as the memory faded once more. Then she squared her shoulders. "Letís end this now," she said with purpose and before he could speak, she did, calling the one name Tiny never wanted to hear her utter.

"Ares...."

The world trembled in anticipation of things to come.

 

TO BE CONTINUED...

12/04 Ė 07/05

 


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