Disclaimers: None. If youíre still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what youíre getting into. If you donít have an open mind, why exactly are you still reading this far into the series? However, if you do read it and you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It wonít change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.
Thanks: To Phil for sticking around to beta read for me. Sheís picked up all kinds of dropped letters because Pink and Fluffy tend to leave a trail of them. All errors belong strictly to me.
Special Thanks: To the many of you that have taken the time to send your kind words about the Valiant Series thus far. I greatly appreciate your feedback and your patience in waiting for this installment. I was actually writing this and Brave New World concurrently, and I appreciate both your patience and your indulgence.
Authorís Note: The Storytellerís Cardinal Rule has been suspended for the telling of this tale!!! Thatís right Ė the ending of this story is not a happy every after... yet. So if you want the happy ever after ending, please wait to read this. It will happen in the next story - A Valiant Option Ė which is the final story in the Valiant series. For now, though, consider yourself forewarned. This does pick up exactly where A Valiant Mind left off.
A Valiant Nightmare
Gwen sat on the bed and looked around the room she had come to despise. She had never liked it here, but now, she truly hated it. It was gaudy and pretentious and so many other things she didnít want to be or be associated with.
She looked down at the ring that she wore and let her mind travel back to their wedding day, when Randi had slipped it on her finger with promises of forever.
"Iím not good with words. We all know who the bard in this relationship is," with a smile at Gwen, who smiled back through her tears. "However." She drew the ceremonial blade carefully from its sheath across the front of her body then knelt before the bard. With sabre drawn, she saluted the bard, then extended it hilt first to the smaller woman. "All that I am, all that I have is yours. And I promise you, in life and in death I will be with you and love you and take care of you. You are my life and my soulmate, and I treasure and cherish you above all things. I will remind you daily of the special place you hold in my heart, my life, and my soul. I love you, Gwenievere Goldman. Forever."
Gwen looked around again, knowing the time had finally come for her to leave. Knowing is was coming hadnít prepared her for the rending she felt in her very soul, but the path Randi was on didnít offer them the option of forever... not together, anyway. Randi needed to be reminded it was her choice.
Gwen rose from the bed and motioned to Tiny who stood patiently waiting with her bag in his hand. "I need to see Randi before I go," she said quietly. He nodded his acceptance.
"Iíll load your bag onto the shuttle and notify Reed of your coming, My Lady."
"Tiny, please donít," Gwen pleaded. "I hate that title and this place so much."
He took a breath, finally understanding a little the scope of her feelings. "Iím sorry, Gwen, so sorry... sorry itís come to this. You both deserve so much better. "
Gwen shrugged, trying to hide the anguish in her soul with a casual nonchalance. "We knew it was gonna happen, Tiny. Not that the knowing makes it any easier," she added, blowing out a tremulous breath.
"Iíll... Iím going to stay here and, um... look after her. Make sure Sky can get to her as soon as he arrives."
Gwen patted his arm. "Thank you, Tiny. You have been such a good friend on a very ugly road, and...."
He put his larger hand over hers and squeezed gently. "Shh," he commanded softly. "You donít need to say anything. Iím glad I could be here... for both of you. Not that I wonít be glad when it is all over," he added, scratching through his short hair with his free hand. "Reedís going to have to give me a hair treatment to hide all the gray Iíve got now," he said with an attempt at humor.
Gwen smiled faintly, appreciating the effort. "If itís any comfort," noting the distinct wings clearly visible in his hair above his ears. "You look very distinguished."
"Good thing," he smiled. "I might have to go bald otherwise."
They chuckled weakly, knowing they could no longer put off the inevitable. "Iíll wait for you by the shuttle," Tiny said.
She nodded her head and waited for him to close the door behind him before she crossed the room and opened the door into their living area.
Randi sat in front of the fireplace, her eyes glued to the flames. She didnít look up when the door opened, knowing it could only be one person coming from the direction of the bedchambers. The warrior was a bit surprised when Gwen came around to stand in front of her with an air of resigned determination clear on her face. It was so different from the anger she'd seen the day before when the priest had presented them to the people or the love she had seen mere hours ago.
Now she waited patiently, watching with horrified eyes as Gwen lifted both hands and began removing the ring she had worn in so many lifetimes, but for such a short time in this one.
"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 door shut with a distinct snick as it closed, and Gwen stood beside it for a long moment regaining her composure. Dead silence was the only sound she heard. She squared her shoulders and walked out to the waiting shuttle, tears sliding easily down her face.
She had done her part. Now it was time to see what path Randi would take.
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, Randi 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 blindly 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.
The sound of a shuttle preparing for take off interrupted her reverie, and Randi closed her hand protectively over the ring she still held. Then she rose and turned off the fire completely, moving out the door without a backward glance. The door closed with definite purpose and the room was left in cold, dark silence.
The Marine made her way to the bedroom they had shared together for such a brief time here, finally understanding instinctively that there was no happiness in this house... not then and certainly not now. Blue eyes stared out the window, tracking the progress of the small blonde woman towards the shuttle. The grief was almost overwhelming now, and the warrior couldnít stop the lone tear that slowly, silently rolled down her planed cheek. She leaned her head against the cold glass, wondering what had gone so wrong that theyíd come to this place.
The shuttle rose, and the Sabre felt her heart break. Randi couldnít see the corresponding tears slip from green eyes as Gwen left her behind, and headed for home... alone.
Randi watched the craft fade out of sight, and still stood staring absently into the void into which it had disappeared.
"You promised me forever, Gwen," she muttered fiercely, pounding her fists on the windowpane. "What happened to forever?"
But there was no answer save the rain as it fell from the heavens and lashed at the window Randi gazed out of sightlessly.
Randi turned from the window to view the room she stood in Ė alone. She felt her chest begin to crush under the weight of the revelation of what she had held... then lost... forever.
She deliberately turned her back on the room and all it represented. Still clasping Gwenís ring in her hand, Randi gave an inarticulate cry, and she ran to the door and yanked it open, not even drawing the attention of guards and staff who had quickly grown used to her late-night rants and rages. The Sabre moved swiftly through the massive, ornate hallways until she reached the door that led to the outside. The door opened seemingly of its own volition and the sound of the storm increased dramatically.
Randi stepped outside the fortress into the driving rain, hoping it would purge the pain she felt. Wishing she could go back home where the sound of the rain would be accompanied by the crash of waves on the beach.
She hated it here, she suddenly realized. Hated who she was and what she had so obviously become. And she hated the fact that more than anyone who had been enslaved against their will, she was a prisoner incarcerated by her own choices.
"GWEN!!" she screamed into the darkness, knowing there would be no answer, but falling to her knees anyway when silence was the only reply she received.
Randi dropped her chin to her chest, too tired and drained to cry.
Randi looked up as lightning struck close enough to make her hair stand on end and wondered just how long she had been sitting in the rain getting thoroughly soaked. The rain continued to fall in her face and it forced her eyes closed again.
A hand on her shoulder caused her eyes to open, and she looked up into Tinyís grim face. Randi understood for the first time just what this had cost not only her and Gwen, but everyone.
The two Sabres looked at one another for a long moment before Tiny extended his hand. "Címon, Empress. You need to get back inside before you catch your death."
Randi shuddered at the title and gazed at him with sad blue eyes. "Please donít call me that," she whispered before accepting his hand and letting him help her rise to her feet. "I hate that worse than Gwen hates Ďconsortí. She paused, looked at the ring still clenched in her fist then asked seriously but just as quietly, "You donít think me dying would be the best for all concerned, Tiny? It would solve a lot of problems."
"Oh no," the Navy man answered unequivocally. "Youíre not quitting," he said, though there appeared to be more he wanted to say. Instead he bit his lips and continued to escort Randi back into the fortress she now called home.
"Say it," Randi commanded in a low, fierce tone. "Címon, Tiny. Youíve never held back before. Why start now?" with just a hint of a sneer in her voice, hoping to goad him in doing... something. At least heíd stand a chance of holding his own against her if they went head to head, and right now, she need the release that fighting would allow her.
He gazed at her sadly, knowing her aim and refusing to be baited. Her shoulders sagged in defeat. She knew the words he wouldnít give voice to, and she knew he was completely correct in his silent assessment. She wouldnít give up, she wouldnít quit and one way or another, she would find a way to make things right again. Or at least as right as she could. Randi turned her eyes in the direction Gwenís shuttle had taken. Some things just couldnít be undone.
They entered the fortress and dripped a trail all the way to the cavernous bedroom. Without discussion, Randi went right into the bathroom to get out of her wet things, and Tiny picked up a towel and began to dry himself off as best he could.
Randi emerged from the bathroom clad in a robe and toweling out her hair. "Here," she said briskly, shoving another robe in his direction. "Itíll be a little snug, but at least itís dry."
The big man nodded his thanks and moved rapidly towards the bathroom, stripping out of his wet things and into the dry fleece with a sense of relief. Then he hung up his clothes next to Randiís and made his way back to her room.
She was standing before a now active fireplace, a glass of merlot in her hand as she stared unseeing into the flames. She motioned to the open bottle and the empty glass. "Help yourself."
Tiny did so, though with much less wine than Randi had. He sipped it slowly, appreciating the warmth it put in his belly, but unwilling to lose his sensibilities. Not now Ė when they were this close to finishing everything.
Randi continued to watch the fire though she was aware of every movement in the otherwise silent room. Finally she cleared her throat and asked, "Whereís Reed?" realizing she hadnít seen her in quite some time.
Tiny stared at her back for a long moment before moving over to the window to look out at the expanse of darkness. He could feel and hear the ferocity of the storm as though it was an entity reaching out to him, but he was only allowed to glimpse the lashing rain on the window when the infrequent flash of lightning permitted it.
"She went home," he replied into the silence, careful to omit exactly which home sheíd returned to and when sheíd left. Theyíd cast everything on this one last gamble and if they lost.... He shook his head and took another swallow of wine. They wouldnít. Too much depended on their success. As long as they could keep Ares out of the loop.... Tiny shuddered. As a warrior, he disdained the war god to the point of loathing. But he only had to maintain the charade of tolerance a little while longer.
He felt Randiís gaze on the back of his neck and he turned to meet her eyes. They were filled with sorrow, pain and strangely enough, determination. He smiled wanly at her. "She couldnít stay. The energy Ė the rift Ė was killing her." Not to mention Gwen needed her to guide her spirit quest, he thought but didnít say aloud. Randi would understand things soon enough.
"They why...?" The warrior motioned around them. He got the hint.
"Because my duty lies here, Empress," he said bowing his head slightly and her head dropped. Despite everything, Tiny had remained a faithful, loyal friend and confidante.
"Are you sure she doesnít need you?" remembering the grounding Tiny had always provided for the seer and for the first time in a while, putting someone elseís needs and desires above her own.
"Not like you do, Empress."
There was no real answer Randi could give to that statement without admitting to something she was unwilling to yet. The silence fell thick between them, and she clenched her hands again
"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 she 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.
He let his hands drop, but didnít leave Randi, knowing sooner or later he was going to be needed. Tiny doubted she would 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?
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."
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."
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.
Quiet reigned for while as Randi pondered Aresí words and actions. "Tiny," asked softly, finally breaking the silence. "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. And the obvious results I can see in front of me." 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."
"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. Randiís eyes grew cold and distant. Without warning, she pulled her hand from his and began to pace, unable to bear the thought of company any longer.
"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 he flinched 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."
"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.
The memory faded once more and Randi became aware of Tinyís scrutiny. 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.
The world trembled in anticipation of things to come.
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.
Reed and Rosie stepped from the transport before it was completely shut down. "How is she?" addressing her question to Lacey who remained in the open doorway. The Sabre doctor only shook her head and gestured towards the bed. Gwen had removed a pillow from the bed and was now wrapped around it. From the distance, they couldnít tell anything else though. They quickly emptied the transport of the necessary supplies, then Reed motioned for the watchers to approach.
Lacey could track them only because she knew where to look. Their stealth was impressive, almost equal to the Sabreís own. When they reached the trio standing in the doorway, Reed nodded her head in approval.
"Excellent," she commented with a smile. "I am so glad to see you all. Now, you know what to do. Make the perimeter as tight as you can around the cabin. We need to form a barrier capable of keeping a god out."
"It will be done," an older man replied somberly. "We owe Ravenhawk our best effort... and the god who caused this and the death of our friend needs to be defeated."
"Amen to that brother," Lacey muttered under her breath. "I hear ya."
The watchers heard her comment as well, apparently, as smiles flashed across their dark faces, causing a brief reflection of moonlight. Then they began to scatter around the small cabin and Rosie, Reed and Lacey made their way inside.
Gwen didnít notice. She was currently curled around Randiís pillow, letting the familiar scent engulf her mind and transport her to a different time and place. If someone, anyone, had suggested to her on their wedding day that she would have returned to this place alone less than six months after sharing it with Randi on such a glorious honeymoon, she would have laughed them out of the room and possibly off the planet. Instead she lay still and let happier memories immerse her, hoping they would help shield her for the ordeal she knew lay ahead.
Reed walked over to her, reaching forward and brushing the blonde hair back away from Gwenís face. She was unprepared for the visible flinch that coursed through Gwenís slight frame. The seer figured the reaction was purely involuntary and anyone who approached Gwen would have received the same response. Still, it was a little unnerving.
Reed made to remove her hand, then some instinct not understood caused her to drop it to delicately rest on Gwenís shoulder. She was immediately gratified when the bard lightly covered it with her own for a brief moment before dropping her hand back down to curl around the pillow once more.
"How are you holding up?" Reed asked softly. Not that she was trying to hide anything from her compatriots, but the tone seemed to fit the situation.
Gwen smiled weakly. "Well, I have to admit this hasnít been one of my better days."
Reed gave a wry chuckle. "Yeah, I could see how youíd feel that way." She looked over her shoulder. "Rosie and Lacey are nearly set up, and then we just have to wait for a signal from Tiny and Sky."
Gwen nodded absently against the pillow and let the scent of her warrior surround her senses for a long moment. Then she turned slightly to face Reed and sat up just a bit.
"Reed, do you honestly think this will work?"
Gray eyes faced her squarely. "Do you honestly believe you are soulmates?" The seer found the answer burning in Gwenís eyes before her head moved. "Then yes," she stated firmly. "I honestly believe this will work. But youíve gotta believe it too, my friend. Now is not the time for a crisis of faith."
Gwen smiled Ė the first genuine smile sheíd worn in what felt like forever. "Thanks, Reed. I know this has been nearly impossible for you, and I appreciate you sticking around... more than youíll ever know."
Reed shrugged deprecatingly. "Thatís what friends do, right? Can I tell you a little secret, Gwen?" getting an interested nod in response. "Even if I wasnít... involved... in this situation, Iíd have still stuck around for you Ė because you were the first person, and have been one of the few outside the Sabre circle who accepted me for what I am and treated me as a normal human being. Iím just glad I get to be a part of what I know will be an incredible story."
Her watch vibrated and she looked down to see a signal from Tiny coming in. "Excuse me a minute, Gwen. Itís Tiny, so that means itís about time to get started."
Gwen nodded and watched her move into a secluded area. Then she slid back into a reclined position and closed her eyes. Already she was completely drained and the hard part hadnít even started yet. She missed the look of consternation that crossed Reedís face or the urgency that suddenly became apparent in the three womenís motions. Gwenís sole focus was on relaxing enough to reach out into Randiís dreamscape when the time came.
She was never even aware that a crisis had arisen.
"What?" Rosie whispered to Reed after one glance at her tight face. She clasped Reedís arm and drew her over to where she and Lacey had unpacked the few supplies they had brought with them, and had been waiting quietly for Reedís signal to begin. The shamaness had noticed Reedís olive skin drain of color and knew immediately something unwelcome had occurred. The haste with which Reed had summarily joined them only confirmed that suspicion.
Reed swallowed hard and blew out a breath. "I got word from Tiny."
"Excellent. Letís get started then. The sooner.... What?" Rosie broke off when Reed grabbed her arm and shook her head emphatically.
"No," Reed forced herself to calmness. "No, itís not that easy."
"Of course not," Lacey muttered. "Randi and Gwen are involved."
The other two women smiled wryly at each other acknowledging the truth of that statement. Then the seriousness returned to Reedís face.
"Randi has summoned Ares."
Blank shock dropped two sets of jaws. Rosie and Lacey exchanged looks before turning their attention back to Reed. Rosie closed her eyes and drew a deep breath.
"We have no time to waste then. Letís get to work."
Reed blinked, then realized Rosie was right. They were only defeated if they allowed themselves to be. She nodded, her determination obvious in her face and her now very deliberate actions.
"Letís do it."
"Well now," the god of war growled. "This was rather unexpected." He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "I mean after that nasty little dismissal a while ago, I didnít expect to hear from you quite so soon."
Randi kicked a chair in his direction and pushed him backwards. "Siddown," she invited, before dropping into her own chair. Ares stumbled a step before catching himself. Then he threw a glare in Randiís direction and sat.
Minutes passed in silence as they looked at one another. Tiny watched it all from his post near the door. He was outwardly dispassionate while mentally he mustered his intestinal fortitude for the final battle. Heíd been notified of Skyís arrival and knew it would be soon. Finally, Ares began to grin diabolically and then chuckle to himself. Randiís expression never changed. When his chuckles wound down to nothing, Ares spoke.
"You know, you really had me going there for a while... sending me away like that. No wonder I chose you. Youíre perfect, just like she was." Ares grinned at the memory of Randiís long-lost ancestor and stretched luxuriously. "No one would have guessed it was all for show. Only one other has ever had the gonads to stand up to me like that. To tell you the truth, Iíve missed it... the fire, the passion, the backbone Ė itís so... so...." He noticed the bored expression on her face. "What?" a little discombobulated by her lack of enthusiasm.
"Do you ever shut up or do you get off listening to yourself?"
He lost his humor. "Excuse me?" He rose from his seat and glared down at her. "Look, I donít know who you think you are or who you think youíre dealing with, but you are nothing, NOTHING without me. You got that? I am the GOD of WAR and I made you. You belong to me!"
The fire that blazed from her blue eyes should have rendered him ash and cinder, and Ares actually had to resist the urge to check himself for burn marks. He raised his hands for immediate retaliation, then lowered them again, when she didnít even flinch. "What?" he said again, this time with a slightly plaintive tone.
"Sit. Down." Randiís comment was a cold as ice.
He held her gaze for a moment longer before slowly sinking back into his seat, intrigued and not a little turned on by the intense personality across from him. He recognized that she was a force that needed to be reckoned with. She wasnít afraid of him... or dying... at all, and he wanted to know why.
Ares sat regarding her intently and Randi met his gaze look for look. He was the first to look away, glancing around the room with a smirk. "Nice place. A little too bright for my tastes, but we can fix that. First things first."
"What do you want?" with no trace of emotion.
Ares stood and turned in a full circle with his arms outspread. "I want everything. And I am finally," pounding a fist into his hand, "FINALLY going to have it all." He looked at Randi and the most diabolical smile creased his face. "After millennia of waiting and careful planning and manipulation," approaching her slowly and clenching his fist closed. "YOU belong to ME. Body, heart and soul are mine as it should have been from the beginning and I am ready to claim my due."
Ares reached for her, expecting... well, certainly not what he got and it was for that reason alone he was caught unawares by what happened. He fully expected Randi to be excited by the prospect of joining with him, to allow him to lay claim to the treasure he found her to be. That was why she summoned him after all, right? Instead, he felt the very real and unfortunate pain of her boot connecting with his family jewels. He gasped in agony, trying to process the fact that this woman had the ability to hurt him even as he covered himself and slumped to the ground hoping to catch his breath.
Tiny observed the action from the doorway and winced in automatic sympathy, unconsciously crossing his legs. He saw rapid movement headed his direction and allowed Skyís approach to take his mind off the agony he knew Ares was experiencing. The situation needed to be explained as quickly and thoroughly as possible so they could form a plan of action.
Meanwhile, Ares was now far less turned on by her attitude and he raised his hand. The fireball brushed by her head so closely that she felt her skin singe. Yet Randi never even flinched. She was simply beyond caring, and he recognized that at her lack of reaction. He couldnít do worse to her than had already been done.
Ares wheezed and stood up, though not completely straight, and slid his body back into his chair. "Please," he said when he managed to get his voice into its normal octave. "Tell me you are not going to let that little nothing of a bard take away everything we have worked so hard for."
She considered him carefully, then answered him with more passion than he had heard from her to date. "*WE* did not work for anything and this...." gesturing around them. "Iíd give it all up in a heartbeat, everything, to know what I did that caused Gwen to leave. Maybe then Iíd have a chance to fix it and get her back."
"Perhaps I can help?" Sky spoke quietly, but it was enough to carry his words to Randiís ears.
"Stay out of this, old man!" Ares snarled, using a look to throw the chieftain back against the wall of the hallway and slamming the door shut with a flick of his wrist when Tiny scrambled out after Sky.
The warrior glared. "Canít handle the competition, Ares?" daring him to do his worst. When he failed to react, Randi stood and went to stand in front of the fire, deliberately keeping her back to him. "Now," with her voice and intonation cold and dead once more, "Iím going to ask you one more time. What do you want from me? Why are you here?"
"I am here because you called for me," he replied in an equally cold voice. "And you know what I want from you Ė I explained that already. Even your little blonde friend is bright enough to have gotten it already. Or she would have if sheíd stuck around for explanations," he dug. "But she didnít, did she? She LEFT!!!" He walked closer, reaching out but not quite touching and calming his voice to a soothing sound. "Sheís gone, Randi. Itís time for you to reclaim your destiny. And with you at my side, we will be unstoppable!"
Randi turned, her face an impassive mask. Only her eyes showed any trace of emotion, but as focused as Ares was on his victory, he completely misread them. "You just donít get it, do you?" asked with derision in her tone. "She OWNS me Ė body, heart and soul. You canít claim something from me that I donít have to give."
Confusion flitted across Aresí face before it hardened into anger. "You summoned me... you WILL be mine!" In his fury, he didnít hear the bedroom door open or Tiny and Sky cross the threshold into the living room. "Let me show you why!"
This time when he reached for her, he struck first - forcefully projecting every dark, hidden memory she was missing since her return from the dead. They were nothing more than flashes of images in her mind, but it was disturbing enough for Randi to push Ares away from her with serious intent.
"Now what do you think, hmm?" he snarled. "I. *OWN*. YOU. Not *HER*. ME." Randi slumped to her knees cradling her head in her hands. Ares looked at her in disgust, waiting impatiently for her to figure it out. Then he dropped into the chair and drummed his fingers on the arm.
Nothing was clear Ė everything was a flash, a feeling. But Randi didnít like the feelings those images produced in her and she continued to kneel on the floor as she pushed away the pain receiving Aresí visuals had caused to lance through her head.
Tiny moved to go to her, but was held back by Skyís hand on his arm. He looked at the chieftain and cocked an eyebrow in question. Sky shook his head.
"She knows we are here, Tiny. She will call us when she is ready."
When the pain reached a tolerable level, Randi dropped her arms to her sides and stood, stoic mask firmly in place. Then she turned to Ares with a smirk.
His jaw fell in disbelief and he blinked at her. "What?"
"God, you really are stupid, arenít you? Leave. Go away. Get outta here."
"Oh, but I can. Ya see, I figured something out," resisting the urge to hold her head as another blinding ache pierced her awareness. "You canít stay here without an invitation. I have to give myself to you freely Ė you canít take. Otherwise, you would have staked your claim already... taken me for whatever purpose you wanted. I have to want you here for you to win. Well, guess what, war god... I donít want you here. I had you come here so I could get some answers, and I got what I needed from you. Now LEAVE."
Ares sat studying her for a very long moment, scratching his beard thoughtfully. "All right. You need some time to um... digest those memories. Iíve waited this long - a little longer wonít hurt. Youíll call for me again soon enough, and it will just make my victory all the sweeter. However, I am a god so allow me to give you something to remember me by."
He tossed a bolt her way and she read his intention clearly. But in her effort to evade it, she twisted the wrong way and wound up directly in its path. It caught her squarely in the chest and Randi collapsed to the floor twitching.
"Think about it," he muttered before deliberately stepping over her and disappearing out of sight.
Tiny didnít even wait for the sparkle to hit the floor before he was crossing the room and kneeling by her side. Randiís breathing was fast and shallow and he gently lifted her into his arms and walked swiftly into the bedroom.
Sky had anticipated his actions and had turned the bed down. Now Tiny placed her carefully on the mattress and moved the robe aside to see a large, ugly burn mark running the length of Randiís torso.
"Stay with her," he instructed Sky brusquely, then he padded rapidly to the bathroom to obtain the first aid kit and the regen unit. They needed her conscious before they could start the spirit walk because she had to make the choice to take that step.
He dropped the load in his arms onto the bed then looked as Sky. "Can you set up the regen unit, or you wanna take care of that burn?"
Sky cocked his head a moment. Heíd thought the regen unit was for the burn, and wondered why Tiny felt the need to medicate something that could be handled without creams and bandages. Then his eyes widened in understanding. The medicine was to *speed* the process as they were working in a very limited time frame. He would have hit himself for his shortsightedness, but Tiny was getting impatient waiting for an answer.
"Iíll start on the burn. I have a feeling you are much more familiar with the regen unit than I am. Then you need to contact Reed and find out where they are... in the process, I mean. With any luck we can still coordinate this together to make it easier for Gwen."
Tiny had started setting up the regen unit before Sky finished speaking. He checked Randiís vitals, pleased to know that her responses where still intact, even if her conscious mind didnít appear to be available at the moment. Tiny watched for a moment as Sky cleaned the wound and began smearing analgesic cream on Randiís upper body before he heeded the chieftainís advice and put in a call to Reed.
Tiny didnít waste time with Sabre encryptions and codes, though the line he used was secure enough. He figured time was important and putting it on the screen where Sky could see and hear as well would help speed matters on immensely.
Sky was in the process of applying the syn skin when Lacey answered the portable vid phone sheíd brought along for their use. They had no way to utilize the one in the caverns and it wasnít practical for their current situation regardless.
"Lace, itís Tiny. Let me talk to Reed."
"Canít do it, Tiny. Things are a little hairy here right now. Whatís up?"
Tinyís face immediately grew concerned. "Whatís happened? Whatís wrong?"
Lacey shook her head. "We donít know that anything is wrong yet. When we got your message earlier, we went right to work to get everything set. We didnít even notice that Gwen fell asleep on her own. Reed and Rosie are setting up a safe place in Gwenís mind
so that Reed can go in and lead Gwen there until they can start their walk together."
"Why didnít they just wake her up?"
"We tried. She didnít respond, so we decided to work from where she was. Sheís riding an edge right now, Tiny, and weíre trying to keep from pushing her over." Lacey saw the shadow that crossed his features and it immediately set the hair on the back of her neck standing upright. She shivered in response. "What?"
"Randi is unconscious," he answered plainly, holding up a hand to keep her from interrupting. "When she called for Ares, she goaded him Ė to the point that he did something... sent a jolt of power through her body and knocked her unconscious."
"When did this happen?"
Tiny looked at his watch. "About ten minutes ago, maybe. We got the regen unit set up and I called yaíll right after. Sky is just finishing up with the syn skin, so it hasnít been very long at all."
"If I understood Reed correctly, though, that is more than long enough for them to reach out to each other. God," she cursed softly. "Let me go see if I can interrupt or at least get this information to them without doing any damage. Keep the channel open, and Iíll face the screen so you can see what is going on here. Iíll crank the volume up for you as well."
Tiny nodded and turned to look at Sky with bleak eyes as Lacey moved away from the monitor. "What do we do now?"
"Now we wait. Anything else jeopardizes their soul."
Randi looked around conspicuously. She knew this place all too well, but this time, something was different. Actually, everything was different, and she examined that idea carefully. This was her hideaway, and yet it wasnít. The feel was completely wrong. Was it what Ares had done to her or...?
She paused and listened carefully. Only one other had ever been able to find this place; only one could stand her darkness and survive it. Or better yet, help her to survive the darkness Ares had tried to force into her mind.
Randi held her breath, diligently scanning for the sounds of other inhabitants in the darkness. Slowly, she heard another set of breathing in complete synchronicity with her own. She wished for a light but nothing happened Ė not immediately anyway. When the light finally came, it came from an unexpected person in an unexpected place.
In the far distance, from the same direction she had detected the breathing, a small light shone as though a candle lit at the end of a very long tunnel. Not seeing any other appropriate recourse, Randi focused her energies on reaching the light that beckoned her.
She walked slowly in deference to the ache in her chest. That in itself was odd as she couldnít remember feeling physical pain in this place before. Emotional or psychological pain was something else again, but that was not what this felt like. This felt real, as though some serious damage had been done to her person. Still she made progress as the light never wavered and she grew closer to it.
When she reached the light, she hesitated and looked around. It was, as she had imagined, a candle. The flame never flickered, even when she picked it up from the slab it rested on. Prudently, she examined the area around her with a judicious eye.
It was *her* space Ė the place in her mind where all her dark memories were stored. But sheíd never been forced to walk here before... never had to search for light if she wanted it, though she rarely did. Stranger, it was neat and clean. Not just orderly as her mind tended to be anyway, but squeaky clean like someone had been housekeeping.
"I have been," came a voice from behind her. Randi whirled, only to find she was looking at... herself. She stared for a moment, slack-jawed, before allowing her knees to give way. Her butt met the hard marble slab and she was happy to take a seat.
"Who... what... how...?" the Empress Randi fumbled with her words as the former Sabre watched with amusement.
"I know there is a whole question in there somewhere just dying to get out. Slide over," she said, nudging her counterpart. "I think itís time we had a talk."
The Empress clutched her chest and nodded her head dumbly. Randi smiled and took a seat beside, but not touching herself. This was weird enough without physical contact between them.
"What do you know?" Randi asked.
"In relation to...?" the Empress returned impatiently. "I know that this has got to be the single most surreal experience of my life. I know this place, although it is nothing like it is supposed to be. And I know Ares has got a hell of a wicked right hook. Other than that, I am pretty much flying blind here."
Randi nodded in complete sympathy. "It took me a while to figure it out. Let me give you the cliffís notes version of what I know and you can fill in any blanks, all right? Then maybe between us we can figure out a way to fix this mess."
Unpredictably, tears formed in the Empressí eyes. She had done more crying in the past hour than she had since her wedding day. It was disturbing and disconcerting and completely wonderful. It was as though she could feel again... with her whole heart.
"Whatever it takes, if it gets me Gwen back... Iím willing to do anything."
"Anything?" spoke a third voice from the darkness. Both Sabre and Empress turned instinctively towards it Ė one smiling in genuine warmth, the other more tremulously. But both clearly showed the love they felt for the woman who stepped into the circle of light.
"Gwen?" spoken simultaneously.
"Anything, Randi?" not batting an eye over the fact that there were in fact two distinct Randiís sitting in front her. Time for that explanation later. First she wanted a commitment from her... them... whatever. Warrior to bard - Gwen wanted a promise.
Randi turned to face herself, feeling the oddness of the sensation tingle through her body down to her toes. Whatever Ares had done to her, it was going to be up to her, both parts of her, to work together to defeat him. And with Gwen beside them, there was no way they could lose. They had too much at stake.
"Anything," they answered simultaneously.
"Good," Gwen nodded in satisfaction. "Then clasp hands. It is time to make you whole once more."
"I canít be whole without you, Gwen, and you left me. Why did you leave me, Gwen?"
The anguish in the Empressí voice brought tears to Gwenís eyes though she refused to let them fall. Now was not the time or place. If... *when* they survived their spirit walk together, that would be the time to fall apart, because then they could do it jointly.
Gwen stepped forward and reached out a hand to cup the Empressí face. She was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of their appearances. While both were sleek and well-defined, the Empress tended towards sharp lines and hard planes. The ex-Sabre, on the other hand, had a smoother, softer look. Startled by the revelation, she blinked in rapid succession, then smiled tremulously at both of them.
"I left because it was time Ė time for you to find your own truth and make up your own mind. But I never really went away. I promised you I would always be here when you needed me, and here I am."
"I know, love. We all do. They question is, do you want to fix it?"
"Yes," came the stark reply.
"Then the first step is to bring you back together again. The woman who loves and feels guilt and pain and sadness is part of the warrior, and the warrior is a part of her. They cannot continue to exist and function separately."
"Wait Ė you think I need her??" the Empress snarled, clutching her chest. "She is weak. Thatís why sheís here!"
Randi sat quietly, knowing the truth and knowing Gwen would defend both it and her.
"Youíre wrong, Randi. The part of you that loves, that feels things so deeply Ė that is the part that makes you strong. That is why Ares poisoned you... to separate the part he couldnít control from the part he could manipulate. He could only try to lay claim to the warrior part of you. The rest belongs to me unequivocally."
"You love her more!" the Empress said petulantly.
"Randi," taking the Empressí face in both hands and making those eyes the sole focus of her world for the moment. "You are the same, and I love all of you Ė the warrior and the lover, the darkness and the light Ė everything. It is all, ALL part and parcel of the woman who holds my heart and owns my soul. Donít discount your worth to me Ė not any part of it!"
The Empress gazed into Gwenís eyes and read the truth there. The truth of her words, the truth of her needs, and the truth behind her leaving. She leaned forward and brushed their lips together.
"Forgive me my lack of faith, beloved. I know better than to underestimate your capacity for love and understanding."
"Donít underestimate yourself there either, Stud."
The Empress saw faith and love reflected back to her from those green eyes, and she nodded and turned to face her other self. "All right. Letís do this," reaching for her counterpartís hand.
"Wait," Randi said to herself. "The parts of me that are here Ė weíre separated in my mind, but not literally physically. Lay down." The Empress looked at her askance. "We can share the same physical space Ė we have to. Weíre the same person. Címon."
Randi lay down on the slab and waited. The Empress hesitated, then stepped onto the platform and lay down as well. She felt herself sinking into and merging with the rest of her being and felt a momentís unreasoning panic. Gwen took her hand and held it to her lips, and suddenly, everything was all right.
Randi lay still, eyes closed, absorbing the sensation of being whole again. It was so different than what sheíd grown accustomed to feeling over the last few months that she could hardly stand the phenomenon of completeness within herself. Sheíd learned a new appreciation for the facets of her being and the balance of her life, and she hoped to never experience such a rending again. Only being separated from Gwen had been worse, and she had a feeling that might change when she knew the truth of everything sheíd seen and done in the last few months. She was overjoyed that Gwen was here and would be here to share it with.
She felt Gwenís grip on her hand and the touch of her lips, and Randi pulled their intertwined hands to her own lips for a kiss. She opened her eyes and smiled at Gwen.
"I love you," she whispered... words spoken for the first time in far too long.
Now Gwenís tears fell, but this time, they were tears of joy. "I love you too, Stud, so very much. Welcome back." And they took a brief respite to savor the moment together, knowing the worst was yet to come.
"WHAT?!?" Artemis whispered furiously as she clutched at Athenaís arm. The wisdom goddess flinched at the force of the huntressí hold on her and glared at her.
"Artemis, do you mind?" prying the fingers loose. "That hurts and youíre not a mortal... you can leave marks."
Artemis released Athenaís arm only to grip her fingers. "The, they canít do that! Do you know what this means??"
"Art, they already have, and yes, I do. It means that we have to adapt and overcome. Come on, if mortals can and have been doing this for thousands of years, surely we can manage it just this once."
Artemis shook her head. "One Hades of a time to decide to try."
Athena gave her a wry smile. "Yes, well, itís not like we have a choice."
"I donít think I like this whole human experience. And what are we going to tell Dite?"
"The truth. This isnít a time to hold anything back. She needs to know and we need to figure out what weíre going to do."
"I need to know what, babe?" Dite questioned as her eyes slowly opened and focused on her sisters. "Guys, Randi and Gwen have apparently already found one another in the dreamscape without either Reed or Sky to guide them on their spirit quest. Their bond is still strong, but itís... weird. Totally, bizarrely, off-the-scale weird."
Two set of godly brows hiked into equally godly hairlines and they glanced at each other in confusion. "Um, Dite," Artemis said after delicately clearing her throat. "I think we get the whole Ďweirdí concept youíve got going on here, but do you think you could, uh... be a little more specific on what brought you to that conclusion?"
Athena handed the love goddess a cup of ambrosia, which in her case was hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows. Dite smiled and received Athenaís offering with grateful thanks. It looked easy Ė monitoring the soulmatesí bond, but this was draining in a way that could only be felt in the depths of her own being. As thankful as she was for her sistersí love and support, even they didnít understand the stress and strain this put her under.
Dite sipped her beverage, feeling it warm and strengthen her from the inside out. Its added strength allowed her to keep an eye on Randi and Gwen, while focusing on sharing her knowledge with Athena and Artemis. She motioned for them to have a seat, and Artemis set down a tray of Diteís favorite snacks before sitting. Then they gazed at her expectantly. With any luck, this would be the final piece in their puzzle to understanding everything.
Dite stretched out, wishing for a massage but settling for the tray of tidbits instead. She picked one up and took a bite, then chewed and swallowed thoughtfully. Another sip of chocolate and she was ready to speak Ė a good thing since her sisters were twitching in impatience.
"Weíve been watching them regularly since we figured out that Ares was trying to totally manipulate Randi, and I started monitoring them constantly when Gwen went off on Randi for calling her a consort. It was so obvious to me from her reaction to that gnarly term that their separation was radically near." She held up her hand to keep Artemis from interrupting.
"I know you know this, Art... just let me tell this." She chewed another sandwich. "I noticed something right away Ė something we had no way of knowing from our visual observations. I understand now how Ares managed to gain some bogus control Ė how heís tried to maintain that awesome power. But I also learned that Randi didnít make this decision like, voluntarily and has been so at war with herself over it."
Dite glanced between her two sisters, verifying that she had their complete attention. Athena looked at Dite with a furrowed brow and a distinct look of confusion.
"Aphrodite, we already knew Randi didnít make the decision on her own. Ares had her poisoned Ė thatís why Artemis has been so hard at work finding an antidote to reverse its effects and allow Randi to exercise her free will once more. Thatís why she has to make the decision to accept it." Dite shook her head vehemently and set her sandwich down with some force.
"No, The... thatís what Iím totally trying to tell you. Yes, she was poisoned, and that allowed Ares way greater success in trying to, you know, manipulate her. But the reason the poisoning gave Ares that possibility of power is because it caused Randiís radical personality to distinctly split. It gave him major influence over the warrior part of her Ė the rest of Randiís gnarly character has been locked away in her own mind."
Both goddesses goggled at Dite like fish out of water. The implications of what she had just said were overwhelming.
"One wonders why he hasnít made more widespread use of this method if it is so successful."
"I donít think it is Ė that successful, I mean," Dite said honestly. "Not given what Iíve witnessed."
Athena pursed her lips. "What have you seen exactly? How did you come to this conclusion?"
"Not a sight... more of a feeling." Dite sighed. "When I started monitoring them like, constantly, I could feel two distinct individualities struggling for dominance in Randiís being. Two separate personas that are both part of Randiís singular personality."
"Do we have a way to confirm this?"
Dite shrugged. "As if. Look, Iím still working on it. I do know that Gwen and Randi seemed to have entered that radical dreamscape together. Something totally changed - I felt...." She bit her lips in thought. "It was weird. It was like Randi, you know, merged with herself or something, because she became a single entity again. Then she and Gwen connected and...." Dite trailed off.
"And??" Artemis prompted impatiently. The love goddess closed her eyes in concentration.
"And thatís all so far. Theyíre together, but things are still way off." Dite rubbed her eyes and rolled her neck. "I told you, all I can do is sense their bonding and keep it strong. The rest... the rest is because the emotions were so majorly intense."
Athena refilled Diteís cup with hot chocolate and added extra marshmallows. "You did good, little sister. What can we do to help?"
"Pray?" Dite replied jokingly. "I dunno... just be here and help me keep that bodacious link between them strong. Even without Reed and Sky to guide them, I have to believe they will be all right together as long as they have that."
"So do we need to tell Reed and Sky to back off and let Randi and Gwen handle it themselves?"
"I donít think so, Art. I think having the seers in place is in everyoneís best interest. They may not be needed," Athena responded, "but itís better to have them there in any case. They can provide support for Randi and Gwen even if they donít guide their quest together."
Artemis nodded. "Iíll let them know then." She sniffed subtly. "Any chance I could get a little of that nectar, Dite? It smells divine, and youíre the only god with hot chocolate for nectar. And I have got to be honest with you Ė vegetable juice just isnít the same."
Dite laughed, and even Athena had to chuckle at Artemisí plaintive plea. But it was true Ė each god had his or her own flavor for nectar tailored to the dominion over which they reigned. Dite had definitely gotten the best result from that rule. Fortunately, she wasnít averse to sharing Ė most days, anyway.
"Go ahead, Art. I can use all the fabulous love vibrations we can muster."
"I can do fabulous," she said, pouring herself a cup of chocolate and gently inhaling the scent.
"I can second that," Athena concurred, adding extra marshmallows for herself. "Though I should be thankful to have gotten new wine and not olive oil. I believe Zeus was entertaining that as a possibility at one point because of the abundance of olives available."
All three goddesses scrunched up their faces at that idea. Then Artemis moved to notify the seers and Athena prepared to resume her support of Dite. The love goddess re-centered herself and closed her eyes once more, intently focusing on the bond that connected Randi and Gwen soul to soul.
"How is she?" Geoff asked as he came into the room. "I got here as fast as I could." His hover chair brought him right to the bed and Sky and Tiny moved aside to let him through. Geoff slipped from the chair and stood on unsteady legs before edging his body onto the bed beside Randi. He pulled her robe apart just slightly to see that the syn skin went from her collarbone to her naval. "What the hell happened? And whereís Gwen?"
Tiny hadnít given Geoff any details. Heíd just called and told Geoff that Randi was down and that they had issues. Geoff had kissed Jill goodbye and left the school where they had been observing the progress of the rebel students with satisfaction. He rushed back over to the palatial mansion Randi and Gwen had moved into when Randi had shifted from Commandant to Empress. Randi had tried to convince them to move in with her and Gwen, but he hated the place. Even if Randi and Gwen hadnít been newlyweds, he wouldnít have chosen to live there. It had been hard enough to come stay briefly at Gwenís request. It was apparent to him that Gwen hated it as well and he wondered why Randi couldnít seem to appreciate that.
"I told you we had issues, and itís complicated."
"Of course it is," Geoff said wryly. "When has it not been with the two of them? Will she be all right if we leave her alone for a bit?" Sky checked her pulse and nodded.
The weapons smith pushed himself off the bed and stood for a moment balancing on both legs and the staff that he now carried with him everywhere. Not only did it help his balance, but it gave him a much-needed feeling of self-power as he had become quite proficient with it in the chair and had been able to start doing the bare basics very slowly while standing on his own two feet.
He walked slowly and carefully to the chair Randi had occupied not so long before. He motioned for Sky and Tiny to join him, and they did so, with Tiny taking the other chair and Sky standing in front of the fireplace where he could keep an eye on the still figure on the bed.
"All right," Geoff said firmly. "Start at the beginning, and donít leave anything out."
"Ow! Goddamn it... that hurts!" Randi lay back down on the slab, clutching her chest and focusing her thoughts on breathing. Gwen eased her back down and gestured to her torso.
"Do you mind?"
Randi looked at her with hurt clearly showing from eyes that had darkened to grey in the candlelight. "You have to ask? After all weíve been through together, you have to ask?" pulling away slightly.
Gwen reached for her, stopping her motion before Randi could completely turn away. "After all weíve been through, *this* is why I asked. Youíve been withdrawing from me for months, love. I understand why now... at least a little, but I learned to stay out of your personal space. You made it clear I wasnít welcome."
Randi moved so quickly she had to seize her chest and grasp the side of the slab as bolts of agony ripped through her body. Gwen didnít hesitate this time but curled her body around Randiís, lending her strength and balance to the warriorís.
Randi lay there for long moments, absorbing the love and warmth she felt from Gwen, and reconciling that with the pain she felt physically in her chest and emotionally in her heart. Gwenís words had sent a cold chill down her spine and she was grateful that the bardís warmth seemed to be chasing that chill away.
For her part, Gwen simply relished the feeling of being close to her soulmate once more, after what had felt like a lifetime of distance. In some ways, it had been worse than when Randi had died Ė because this time she had been right there and yet... untouchable. Gwen gently stroked the dark hair and whispered words of comfort in Randiís ear, and gradually she felt the warriorís stiff body relax beneath her. But when Randi reached for her hand and tangled their fingers together, Gwen knew, without a doubt, they would be all right.
How long they lay like that was irrelevant, much as time itself was in this place. But it felt good and it felt right and for the time being... that was enough.
Finally, Randi turned in Gwenís arms, releasing her hand so she could reach up and stroke her face tenderly. "Gwen, did I... did I... hurt... you?"
Gwen returned the facial clasp, keeping her eyes pinned to Randiís so the warrior could see the truth in them. "No, love... not physically. My pain came from not understanding...." nudging Randiís chin when her eyes closed. "Hey," she coaxed kindly. "Randi, look at me. Yes, it hurt and it made me angry, and Iím not gonna lie to you about that. I promised you I would never lie to you as long as it was in my power to tell you the truth. But now I understand better, and it hurts a lot less."
"Iím sorry, Gwen. I never meant...."
"Itís all right, love."
The dark head shook. "No. It was me who sent you away. I didnít want you to be hurt, so I sent you away. And you got hurt anyway."
Gwen smiled wryly. "My protector. Sometimes we just canít control things like we want to, huh?" pushing dark bangs off of Randiís forehead. "Címon, can you sit up?" Randi pushed up slowly, glad the pain sheíd experienced before had settled into a dull ache. "You all right so far?"
Randi nodded and began unbuttoning the shirt she wore. Gwen moved the candle closer, gasping sharply when she glimpsed the damage down the centerline of Randiís torso. She covered her mouth and just stopped herself from reaching out.
"Oh God, love! Are you... what happened??"
Randi caught her hand and placed it carefully on an undamaged bit of skin. Gwen made slow teasing circles almost unconsciously and Randi smiled at how quickly the pain receded under the bardís touch.
"Ares," she finally answered succinctly, pulling herself from the haze that Gwenís contact had caused throughout her body. Blonde brows hiked into a blonde hairline.
"I guess we really do have a lot to talk about."
"Are you sure about this, Reed? I mean, if Gwen has already joined Randi in *her* dreamscape, what makes you think you can reach Gwen through her own? And even if you *do* find Gwen, you canít go poking around in Randiís mind for a multitude of reasons." Lacey grabbed Reed by the arm. "Reed, are you listening to me?"
The seer caught Laceyís hands in her own and focused her gray eyes and considerable personality on the doctor. Where she wanted to be frustrated, she couldnít, because Lacey only showed her genuine caring and confusion over the current situation.
Lacey felt Reedís sigh of resignation, and moved them slightly away from the preparation area that Rosie was busy staking out around Gwen. The shamaness had to set things up to channel the energy Reed would need to draw on from the seers now surrounding the cottage. She wasnít about to get involved with the current discussion running between the two Sabres.
Reed and Lacey moved into the small kitchen area still clutching hands, and each could feel the tension rolling off the other. This was by far the riskiest, most dangerous mission they had ever undertaken, and after the fighting and destroying they had done in the last few months, that was saying an awful lot. Neither of them wanted to have come this far just to lose.
Reed nodded at Lacey and sighed a second time. "Yes, I was listening. What do you see as our obstacles?" Lacey blinked at her astounded. Reed smiled at her wryly, despite the seriousness of their situation. "I need to know Ė perhaps it is something we already have a solution to or can work around."
Lacey nodded. "Right. First concern is Randiís mind Ė if you couldnít find your way to her hiding place when she gave you permission to look around, do you really think you have a chance against what she will view as a threat? Especially since we all have our own safeguards in place to protect ourselves from giving up secrets willingly? What truly concerns me is the fact that she seems to be existing there... at least part of her is, and that could be particularly dangerous to you both."
Reed nodded thoughtfully. "Go on."
"My other concern is obviously how you intend to reach Gwen. If she and Randi are in Randiís mind, in her dreamscape, how do you intend to find her and show her the way to the safe place in her own? There are so many risks and variables to this, Reed."
"I know, but we have to work to give Gwen a safe place. It is my firm belief that if... when... she and Randi make it through the darkness together, Gwen is still going to want to bring Randi into her own world for a while. They need to have a place prepared where they can recover and Gwen knows this."
"And they canít do that in just any nice dreamscape they can conjure up?"
Reed shook her head. "Not this time. Theyíre going to need support."
"So, any ideas how to find them?"
"Well," Reed answered honestly, "I think we need to go ahead and set up the support system like we discussed. Gwen is fully aware of what the plan was. With any amount of luck, she will retain that knowledge and will come looking for us. Then we wonít have to go looking, and we wonít have to go into Randiís mind without invitation."
Lacey nodded. "If you think itís for the best... Iíll keep an eye on both your vitals. Wouldnít do to have something happen to either of yaíll during this little exercise." She cleared her throat. "Sorry about before."
"No worries Ė I expect you to bring up points of concern like that. Itís what makes you so damn good at your job. But weíve got to do this."
Lacey nodded. "All right. Letís get started."
Gwen was pacing silently Ė four paces up... four paces back. She hadnít wanted to give up her spot next to Randi, but the warriorís words made her so antsy, Gwen decided to pace. So to continue the tactile contact she craved, Gwen ran her hands lightly up Randiís prone body as she walked back and forth. For her part, Randi felt the touch fill a hole in her soul she hadnít realized was there until she was whole once again, and she savored the healing it provided her.
Finally Gwen stopped moving and perched on the slab next to Randiís hips, then she caught the long fingers in her own and lifted them to her lips. She sighed and reached hesitantly towards Randiís injured body. The warrior read her intent and, ignoring her own pain, pulled Gwen into her embrace, draping the bard over her body into their preferred position. Gwen felt Randiís body shift and tense then release a big sigh.
"Sweetheart, are you all right?" She made a move to ease off Randi, and she felt the strong arms close around her more tightly.
"Stay, please. Iíve... Iíve missed having you here. Itís worth a little pain to feel you back where you belong."
Gwen smiled and gently placed her head back on Randiís shoulder, snuggling into her spot with a feeling of decadent pleasure. "Iíve missed this too."
There was silence for a time after that as both women simply absorbed the feeling of love and contentment that coursed through them. But it couldnít last and they knew that, and eventually, Gwen leaned up on an elbow so green eyes could meet blue.
"So let me see if Iíve got this straight Ė this whole thing... my kidnapping by Ben, your poisoning and subsequent memory losses Ė all of this was so Ares could try to gain control of the warrior part of you? Thinking... hoping... that it would give him control of all of you?"
"Best as I can figure out, yeah," Randi confirmed. "It took me a while to put it all together once he managed to completely separate me from myself. It was like... I really was two different people, and one didnít know what the other was doing. And Iím still not clear on what happened. Apparently the Empress part of me knew she couldnít hide her memories here, so she created her own hiding place. Weíll have to go find them."
"Okay, so what happened that caused this?" motioning to Randiís still wounded chest. "How did you piss him off?"
Randi smiled. "I denied him his victory. I figured out that I had to come to him willingly and offer him parts of me that werenít mine to give. He canít simply take from me Ė I have to want him in my life, and I donít."
Green eyes were an interesting phenomenon, Randi mused, especially when they were backlit with the fires of jealousy. But it created a solid warmth in the warriorís belly to feel Gwenís possessiveness surround her once more.
"Excuse me...." Gwenís voice was low and surprisingly deep. "That lousy son of a bitch has plagued our lives for the past year, put us through hell and damnation itself, because he wants to take my place in your heart and in your bed?? Iíll kill the bastard myself." Her nostrils flared as she tried to get her temper under some semblance of control.
Randi chuckled and winced in pain, grabbing her chest as she continued to laugh. "Oh, Gwen," she said, cupping her face with her free hand. "Do you have any idea just how fabulous that makes me feel... especially after everything we have been through together since this started?"
Gwen smiled and blushed adorably. "That was presumptuously possessive of me, wasnít it? Sor...."
Her apology was cut off mid-word as Randiís fingertips covered her lips. "Donít you dare be sorry. I want you to always feel that presumptuously possessive. God knows I do."
Gwenís blush deepened, but she maintained eye contact. "So that is why he tried to turn you into a crispy critter... because you told him no?"
"Actually, I told him to go away. Then he proceeded to give me a whopper of a headache and try to fry my insides."
"Um, not that Iím not thrilled about this little fact, but um... does he know he failed, or...?"
"Oh yeah... he wasnít trying to kill me. Heís still convinced I will call for him and join him. Even if I wanted to, which I donít," she added firmly, "I couldnít give him what he wants, and he just doesnít get that. You own me Ė body, heart and soul Ė and I canít give away whatís not mine."
"Well, heís damn sure not gonna get it from me," the bard muttered through gritted teeth. Then she looked up at Randi with concerned eyes. "But that means heís gonna come back for you again."
"Yes, it does," Randi agreed seriously. "But weíll be together this time, and he will be defeated once and for all."
"Peace at last?"
"Peace at last," Randi affirmed. "Figures we have to walk through the fires of hell itself first."
Gwen sighed, though there was a trace of a smile in her voice. "Itís never easy with us, is it?"
Randi shuddered and Gwen realized almost immediately that she was shaking in silent laughter as gently as she could manage. She smiled in sympathy.
"My mother used to say the same thing to my father, though they never had issues like we do."
Now Gwen laughed. "I like that. Ares is an issue."
"Well, thatís not all he is, but that description will suffice for now." Randi shifted and struggled to sit up with a groan. Gwen read her intention and scooted around to help her, watching her with worried green eyes.
"You all right, love? I didnít think you could feel physical pain here."
Randi shook her head. "Iíve never been able to before, thankfully. I wonder if itís because a god did this directly." She took a deep breath and gingerly slid from the slab to the floor. "However, weíre on a mission. We need to find those memories and work through them." She clutched her head as another agonizing pain lance through her skull. "And somehow," she mumbled as Gwen took her arm and picked up the candle. "I donít think this is gonna be a moonlight and roses kinda picnic."
"Thatís okay," Gwen reassured as she wrapped her arm firmly around Randiís waist. "Iíll bring the candle, and weíll have a candlelit dinner instead."
Randi smile was so big, it nearly lit up the darkness itself. "Youíre something else, you know that?"
Gwen returned her look and her smile turned wry. "I know...the real question, though, is what am I exactly."
"Wife, lover, best friend, confidante, companion, soulmate," giving Gwen back her own words. "And thatís just what you are to me. Doesnít take into account any of the things you are to yourself or others, you know... like Queen, bard, teacher, warrior, taste tester," the last added with another grin. It earned Randi a slap on the butt. "Oof! Well, you are. Ellaís not nearly as enthusiastic about allowing the rest of us to try new stuff until you give it a thumbs up."
Gwen pretended to be miffed and stuck her nose into the air. "Some of us are more culinarily inclined than others."
"Culinarily inclined... is that even a real word? Heh... some of you just enjoy eating more... Oof!" as she got lightly popped on the ass once more. "Hey, watch the merchandise Ė I bruise easily, ya know," rubbing the afflicted spot.
"Be nice to me," the bard growled, relishing the teasing in a way she hadnít expected. It had been a long time since they had indulged in such play and she hadnít realized how much she had missed it until its return just now. She looked around in the darkness, unable to see anything beyond the small circle of light the candle cast. "Where are we going anyway?"
Randi looked around slowly. "Iím not completely sure, honestly. Iím looking for those hidden memories, but Iím going mostly on instinct. I donít actually know where they are, but Iím hoping something will occur to me as familiar soon."
Gwen gestured forward with the candle. "Lead on then, MacDuff."
Randiís arm tightened around Gwenís shoulders, and she smiled when Gwenís arm tensed reflexively around her waist. She tilted her head down and brushed a kiss over the fair hair beneath her chin. "Uh uh," she replied. "Iím not leading and youíre not following. This we do together walking side by side."
This time Gwen squeezed hard and it was the most painfully, wonderful experience Randi could recall in the months since things had started falling apart. She grunted softly and returned the embrace in full measure.
Abruptly, Gwen pulled away. "Sorry, love," she apologized hastily. "I forgot abo...." She stopped speaking when Randi tugged her closer again. Then she cleared her throat. "I like the sound of that, ya know. Walking side by side with you is where I always want to be."
Randi smiled at the sentiment, then suddenly grasped her head in her hands and fell to her knees. Gwen followed rapidly and held on to the warrior, rocking her gently and kneading the back of her neck with expert hands. The knots she found there were unnerving, but she continued her ministrations until she felt Randiís body slowly relax against her.
"Sweetheart? What happened? Are you all right now?"
Randi didnít speak for several long moments after dropping to her knees. One reason was that being held against Gwenís body was such a good feeling she didnít want to give it up. But the flip side of that reality was that the ache in her head was truly excruciating and the flashes of images that flitted through her consciousness only added to her pain and confusion. Finally, relatively sure her head wouldnít roll off her shoulders if she moved it, Randi nodded gently, then drew a deep breath to speak.
"I think weíre near the source of the hidden memories, or at least I hope we are. I really donít want to know if there are other things here that could cause me this kind of agony." She raised her head slowly and peered into the darkness. "Can you hold the candle up, love? Can you see anything?"
Gwen picked the candle up from when she had hastily dropped it when Randi crumpled. She moved it around in every direction, but there was nothing to be seen beyond the small circle of light save more shadows and obscurity.
"I donít see anything, Stud, except more darkness. You want me to search around a little...?"
"NO!" Randi cut in fiercely, then blushed so hard Gwen felt it against her skin in the gloom. She cleared her throat. "Side by side, remember?"
Gwen nodded and kissed the dark head snuggled into her neck. "I remember. Are you able to stand up?"
Randi nodded and blew out a breath. "I think so, as long as we go slowly."
Not only did they go slowly, but Gwen did her best to help and in short order they were standing on shaky legs again. Randi took the candle from Gwen and moved it slowly in a circle, hoping for more than its meager illumination to give her some clue as to where they needed to go. Finally, she sighed and moved in the direction that felt right, and gradually, they found a second marble slab.
Gwen released a held breath and patted Randiís side. "Good instincts there, warrior. Now what?"
Randi eased her body down onto the slab in a sitting position and patted the spot beside her. Gwen slid into place and rested her head on Randiís shoulder, gratified when the dark head rested on hers and their arms went around one another instinctively.
"Now I learn how bad the last few months have been, and we figure out where to go from here."
"Iíll be honest with you, Randi. What youíre gonna see is not good Ė I mean...." Gwen tightened her grip when Randi stiffened. "What you accomplished is nothing short of amazing. How you did it, however...."
"Is that why you left me? Because of the horrible things I did?"
"No, Randi. I explained this to you. I left because it was time... because you needed to make a decision about who you are and who you want to be. Weíre here together because you chose us over Ares, and with that decision comes the consequence of having to accept responsibility for your actions. I wonít leave you again, unless *YOU* decide we will no longer be together. I promised you forever, and I meant it."
Randi threaded her hands into Gwenís short, blonde head and gently enticed her closer until their lips were a breathís whisper apart. "Ares has no chance where I am concerned because I wonít give us up," she said with a small smile before capturing the full lips with her own. Then they spent long moments reaffirming their bond together. Gwen could actually feel Randiís strength and confidence returning.
"Feel better?" she asked as they separated for air. "íCause I sure do."
Randi chuckled and hugged the bard close. "That always makes me feel better, and so does this."
Gwen patted her sides as she returned the hug. "Good, because we need to get to work. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can move on."
"Iím all for that. I have a lifetime to spend with you, and amazingly, ruling the world doesnít fit into those plans." She slid off the slab and moved over to what appeared to be a series of file cabinets. "Do you know when I should start looking... how far back I should go?"
"Do you know when exactly you were infected? Or can you determine where the gaps are in your memory?"
Randi gently stroked her face. "There are no gaps. My mind just strings things together to cover the time that is missing. What Reed called editing Ė she can see them because she is watching them from an observerís point of view." She scratched her face again, then looked at Gwen. "Your kidnapping Ė Iíll bet this goes back to your kidnapping. Something Ben said - things will never be the same between you ever again Ė I thought at the time he was referring to the fact that he had stolen your memories, but now.... I wonder if... I think he did something that helped give Ares the control he needed to allow me to separate myself to do what I did." Randi blinked her eyes. "Does that make sense?"
Gwen nodded. "Far more than you know." She looked around at the drawers and creased her forehead. "And I think youíre right. Start with my kidnapping. Knowing you, everything is filed chronologically and it should be easy to follow once we start."
Randi agreed, and quickly searched through each memory date until she found her starting place. Then she stiffened her back and steeled herself to open the first book.
"Howís she doing, Rosie?" Lacey asked as she continued to monitor Reedís and Gwenís vital signs. Everything looked good on her end so far, but she knew the shamaness had a literal feel for what Reed was experiencing. Even Lacey could feel the power that ran between them and she had a fleeting desire to wonder how that felt. Then remembering the one mind walk Reed had done on her, decided she really didnít need to know.
Rosie turned towards the doctor and Lacey gasped in surprise. Sheíd expected to see warm brown eyes facing her and instead found glowing golden orbs in their place. Rosie couldnít stop the smile that formed.
"Sheís good. Her aura is very strong as is Gwenís and the support her tribe is providing is amazing."
"I...um, see... that." Lacey blinked and leaned in for a closer look. "Does that... hurt?"
Rosie blinked. "No. Itís... well, itís hard to describe. I can feel Reedís strength and the power of her tribe, and I can sense distinct auras. Reedís and Gwenís the most strongly of course, but also yours, mine, the tribe, and in a very distant way, Randiís. This is a reflection of all of that."
"So things are all right? I mean, on that level? Even Randi?"
"Even Randi," Reed answered as she slowly opened eyes that glowed a weird silver color. "The vague uneasiness I sense from her has to do with what she is going to be facing, because I also sense a renewed joy and peace in her that has been missing for quite a while."
Reed leaned up out of Rosieís embrace and Lacey placed her hands over Gwenís wrists and moved them from Reedís. Then both seer and shamaness eased away from Gwen in what seemed a choreographed dance with Rosie never losing tactile contact with Reed until they had slipped completely from the bed.
Lacey turned and adjust two of the transmitters on Reedís body, nodding her head when their readings changed and fell into more acceptable parameters. Then she gave a cursory look at the readings she continued to receive from Gwen. Seeing they were perfectly normal, she rose and stretched, glad for the excuse to do so.
"So now what?"
"Well, everything is in place and the safe room is set up, and right now, Randi and Gwen seem to be relaxed together somewhere in Randiís mind for the moment anyway. So Iím going to take a pee break and grab a quick bite, because when it comes, I imagine the fallout to Randiís self-discovery could take quite a while, and weíll be stuck then."
"Is there anything else I can be doing?" Lacey asked. "I mean... Iím just sitting here."
Reed walked into the bathroom, but kept the door slightly open as she continued to talk. "That is so critically important, Lacey. They have to survive this, together and intact for us to succeed. It is the only way for Ares to be truly defeated once and for all."
She sighed in relief and flushed, chuckling when Lacey nearly knocked her out of the way in her haste to get in. "Note to self: no more coffee." Reedís chuckling became full-fledged laughter.
Rosie had remained to keep and eye on Gwen, and as soon as Lacey exited the bathroom, she took her turn. The Sabre medic returned to her post by Gwenís bedside, looking over the monitors and checking to make sure Gwen was comfortable.
She noticed a glitch in the readings and frowned, making a notation in the chart and continuing to check Gwenís vitals. She felt Gwen shiver and her eyes began to move rapidly behind her eyelids.
"Mmph... yeth?" trying to chew, swallow and answer at the same time.
"Reed, you better come look. I think there is something more going on now than just relaxing together."
Immediately Reed and Rosie were both at Gwenís bedside. They took in her rapid breathing and her pale complexion and immediately resumed their places as seer and support. Lacey put Gwenís hands on top of Reedís as soon as Rosie had hers underneath and the trio settled in for a long wait.
"Youíre kidding me... she actually blew Ares off to his face?? Not once but twice, and lived to tell about it??" Geoff swiped a hand across his eyes. "He must want her really badly."
Tiny sighed. "Yeah, but he wasnít above hurting her pretty badly too," turning his attention towards the bed where Randi still rested. Sky had long since gone back to her side to keep vigil over her. Aside from the activity in her mind that he could just sense on the edge of his awareness, something bothered him about the way her chest was healing Ė or to be more precise, the way it was *not* healing.
Heíd expected the syn skin to take like it normally did... adhering to and becoming part of Randiís own skin to aid and speed the healing process. Instead, it remained a separate entity Ė covering but not blending into Randiís own skin. And worse, the regen unit seemed incapable of repairing the damage Aresí bolt had caused, at least with any sort of momentum.
So he sat and watched, monitoring her as well as he could without being inside her mind guiding her spirit walk.
Without warning, her breathing changed, becoming shallow and much faster, her pulse point fluttering and her eyes moving rapidly. Her body didnít move, but she tensed, and Sky could feel the anguish that suddenly permeated the air around her.
"Tiny!" Sky called softly, but with some urgency.
The big Sabre moved far more swiftly that someone of his size should have been able to manage, especially considering the stealth with which he accomplished it. Geoff was still trying to get out of the chair by the time Tiny was sliding his body behind Randiís on the bed. He ran his arms underneath Randiís, supporting them, then he extended her hands, palms up, for Sky to link to. He had been well- schooled in the difference hand placement made to the task.
"What are you doing?" Geoff asked as he hobbled over towards the odd tableau unfolding before him. He hadnít been a Sabre long enough to do a mind walk before he was critically injured, and had no cognitive memory of one being done on him. And he had believed the mere idea to be simple folklore. Now he wondered.
Sky took a deep breath and laid his hands on Randiís, gently clasping her wrists. "Not what youíre thinking, my friend. Since I cannot guide her spirit quest, my purpose for being here is to give Randi strength and support to face her demons."
"You can do that?"
Sky smiled. "I can do that."
"Can I help?"
Sky eyes the weapons smith carefully, seeing that core of inner strength heíd needed to be able to walk again. The shaman nodded. "Yes," he said finally. "Place your hands on top of mine and I will channel all of our strength to Randi."
It was a curious sensation, Geoff decided, though not an unpleasant one. He could feel the power coming from Sky and Tiny and he perceived it being melded into one solid strength with his own as Sky directed it into Randiís essence.
He had a vague notion to wonder how Randi felt on the receiving end, then concentrated his efforts on staying strong... for all of them.
For a very long moment, Randi held the book in her hand Ė afraid to move forward and afraid to move back. There were no good choices any more, just different degrees of bad. She started when Gwen came up behind her and placed a hand on her back. Randi still hadnít gotten adjusted to the fact that not only could Gwen be here in such a private place, but that she was so much a part of it all that she could catch Randi unawares.
For her part, Gwen kept her hand on Randiís back, rubbing in light circles until she felt Randi begin to relax against her touch. Then she eased the book from Randiís reluctant hands.
The cover was non-descript... black leather with a date tooled into it. The pages appeared to be old parchment, but there was a lock that prevented Gwen from opening it. Instead, she led Randi back to the slab and they sat side by side, touching along their length. The bard turned the book over in her hands several times before returning her Gaze to Randi.
"So, how do you open it?"
Randi took the book into her hands and laid it gently in her lap, then she blew out a deep, frustrated breath. This was harder than sheíd imagined it would be. And that was saying a lot, because she had imagined it pretty difficult.
She chanced a look into Gwenís eyes and saw nothing but love, understanding and support. She closed her eyes and offered up a brief prayer to Aphrodite, hoping those same emotions would be reflected back to her still when this was all over.
Randi reached a hand down and traced the lock carefully, focusing her considerable will on it. Sheíd never done this before Ė never felt the need to go back and revisit the memories sheíd hidden away in these secret places. There was a slight snick, and the locking flap fell away from the rest of the book, giving them both the ability to open and read.
Gwen restrained herself from reaching up and taking the book from Randi. This was Randiís quest, and as much as Gwen wanted to take it for her, the bard could only provide whatever measure of support and comfort the warrior would allow.
"I have to want it open," Randi finally said aloud, startling them both in the silence. The book remained closed, and Randiís eyes remained glued to it.
Gwen chuckled a little nervously. "Wow! Thatís a pretty good lock."
Randi nodded, her dark hair covering her face, but Gwen could hear the nervous smile in her voice. "Yeah, it is. This is the first time Iíve ever come in here to unlock anything. Always before itís been to put things away." She lifted a hand to push the hair away from her face and noticed it was trembling. Gwen caught it in her own before Randi could hide it.
Blue eyes met green for a timeless moment.
"Always, Randi. I promised you that."
"Even if. You forget... I *know* whatís in some of those pages. I lived through part of it, and the rest? Weíll deal with it as it comes."
Randi gazed into those eyes a moment longer then nodded. "Together?"
Gwen nodded. "Together," and slid the book across until it lay between them equally. She still held Randiís hand, and when she made a move to let go of it, Randi held on tighter. Gwen offered Randi a smile then, and reached for the cover, opening the tome while Randi kept it from sliding away from them. Gwen blinked twice.
"This is... you *wrote*. You came and sat here and hand wrote these memories out?"
Randi nodded and chewed her lip slightly. "Thatís how I exorcise them. By writing everything out, I put in every single detail, and it transfers from my mind to the page. When Iím done, I lock it away forever."
Randi nodded. "Until now," she agreed softly. She took a deep breath, and began reading.
I was retuning from the infirmary. The pain in my face was agonizing, but when I saw Jerry, our supposed leader trolling along, I got angry, and things got very personal. I decided he needed to suffer some too, and I was just the person to make him pay.
It was too easy Ė I slid into the shadows behind him and he never saw me until he felt the knife pierce his gut. Jerry started to walk through clearly marked gang territory and he allowed himself to become distracted. The lack of attention cost him dearly, and he found himself pinned to the nearest polymer wall with a twelve-inch blade through his middle.
He closed his eyes, trying to center himself, then reopened them and tried to focus. There was nothing but a black-clad form in front of him, and blearily he realized this was his attacker, though he never knew who I was. When I spoke to him in a whisper, he shuddered at the sound.
"You owe me, Jerry, and the time has come for you to pay up." Swiftly, he saw the light reflected off his own blade before it cut off his head in one fell swoop. Then I picked up the head, and with a single thrust pushed the sword through his forehead, and into the wall. "The scavengers can have whatís left now."
It took a moment to strip off the outfit that covered me from head to toe, and another to dump it into the nearest incinerator. Then I stumbled into the park and collapsed.
The book slid away from them as Randi crumpled onto the slab. Gwen started to reach for it until she realized Randi was falling as well. Then the book dropped to the floor and she held on to her keening soulmate.
Randi wasnít sure whether to hold Gwen tighter to her or push her away from what she saw herself as. Gwen took the choice from her when she simply wrapped her body around the warriorís and held on for dear life.
They lay there together holding on tightly to one another as they processed what they had both just learned. For Gwen, the events Randi had read about werenít really that shocking Ė not given what she had lived through and seen with her own eyes. Gwen had seen many facets of her warriorís personality since they had become part of one another, and she knew far too well just what depths Randi was capable of reaching... in love, in intelligence, in discipline and in violence.
Randi, on the other hand, was struggling with the knowledge that she had killed, had murdered, the former Sabre Commandant. That was beyond the code... totally unacceptable behavior for a Sabre, no matter the reason.
In the midst of this argument with herself, Randi felt herself infused with warmth... not just from Gwen, but from outside, as though it was being channeled to her from another source. Gwen lifted her head from the warriorís back and looked down into a face filled with pain and confusion. She lifted a hand up to tenderly wipe the trace of tears from Randiís cheeks, gratified when the warrior leaned into her touch.
"Randi? I know this is hard. Iíd like to tell you itís gonna get easier, but it isnít. But, sweetheart, I need you to understand and remember something for me. Everything that you read about is in the past... itís already happened and there is nothing you can do to change it or make it better. We have to accept it and move on."
Randi sat up rapidly and brought Gwen with her. Then she grabbed the bard by the arms and turned to face her. "Accept it?!? Gwen, I canít accept this! It was cold-blooded murder! I committed the cold-blooded murder of a man I had sworn to obey."
"Randi, let go. Youíre hurting me." Randi pulled away so swiftly and forcefully one would have thought her hands were on fire. Only Gwenís quick grab of Randiís hands kept them both from tumbling backwards. "Donít you pull away from me, Miranda Valiant. We promised together and youíre not backing out just because it starts out hard."
"I hurt you."
Gwen smiled. "Nothing that wonít heal, love. Now listen, yes, you did those things, but I want you to think about something." She waited a long moment for the dark head to nod. "Good, now listen. As a warrior, isnít it part of the code to vanquish all those who oppose or hinder the greater good? To destroy those who try to destroy those you have sworn to protect and defend?"
"Randi, regardless of the fact that he helped you rescue me from Ben, he contributed, no matter how unwittingly, to my being in that situation in the first place. Just like he was a huge factor in the whole Ghost Rider thing. I mean, he caused it - created Ghost Rider and then let it continue for how long? His inability to take care of problems that were his responsibility hindered the greater good, didnít it? Allowed the destruction of those youíd sworn to protect and defend??"
It was completely silent as Randi processed Gwenís words. Then her head slowly bobbed up and down in agreement. She opened her mouth, but Gwenís fingers covered her lips before she could speak.
"Even though it wasnít done on a combat mission, wasnít his execution similar to others who were guilty of the same crimes?"
Another bob. "Now I want you to think about one more thing, all right? Randi, remember the warrior part of you was in complete control Ė no mercy, no compassion, only justice. Jerryís death was very personal to you because he had caused you so much personal grief. Yet you behaved exactly as a warrior would with an enemy out in the field. His death was quick and clean. If you had been in complete control and youíd been given an order to do the same out in the field, the result would have been the same."
"Are you saying you think it was right?"
"Iím saying you behaved exactly as the warrior you are has been trained to, and you eliminated a threat. Right or wrong, love, you did follow that code of honor you and your fellow Sabres hold so dearly to. Itís not my call to make Ė it never has been. But it is your choice to accept and believe it. Just know that I have never stopped believing in you."
Randi didnít say a word, but wrapped Gwen in her arms and nuzzled into her neck. Gwen bit her lips to keep from chuckling until butterfly kisses were added to the sensatory barrage of warm breath and nibbling lips. Then her chuckles became laughter and Randi squeezed tighter in sheer joy. Sheíd never expected to retain Gwenís belief in her... not after what sheíd obviously done to bring Gwen to the point of leaving her. For now, though, Gwen was here and in her arms, and that more than anything soothed her soul and gave her back a measure of peace sheíd been missing for far too long.
Eventually, they turned and stretched out on the slab, emotionally drained. They never realized when they fell into a light doze and went in search of the warmth they felt sustaining them from outside their shared bond.
"Reed? What are you doing here?" The bard looked around carefully. "Um... where *is* here, anyway?"
"This is a place in your mind that Iíve sealed off as a safe place for you and Randi to come." Gwenís brow furrowed. "Do you remember how we discussed that when you started on your spirit walk, we would create a safe haven for you to escape to and rest as you needed to? Well, this is it."
"But weíre not on our spirit walk yet. You and Sky are supposed to guide us."
"Well, that was the plan, yes," Reed corroborated wryly. "But it seems you and Randi had other ideas, and itís not safe for you or us to enter once youíve started."
"So you mean us going through her recent past together...?"
"Thatís your spirit walk, yes. It will either cement your bond or destroy it, but my money is on you and Randi," Reed hastened to confirm at Gwenís raised eyebrow and glowering gaze.
"Then how did you do this? And how are we able to meet here?
Reed sat down on the green grass, leaning her back against the tree and dangling her feet in the cool, clear water of the stream that burbled by. She tugged on Gwenís hand, and the bard dropped down beside her.
"I was able to do this because we talked about it, and you were agreeable to the idea. On a subconscious level you knew I was going to come in and prepare this place and you let me."
"I let you? Does that mean I could have stopped you?"
Reed shrugged. "Well, you could have made it very clear that I was not welcome. That would have pretty much put an end to it."
Gwen looked around. "Iím glad I didnít. I like it here." And indeed, the safe place that Reed has created for them resembled their private glade in amazingly accurate detail. "But that still doesnít explain how we are able to meet in this place," turning back to the conversation at hand.
Reed smiled. "You came looking for me, actually." Gwenís brow creased again as she stared at the seer in confusion. Reed patted her hand. "You felt warmth and strength emanating from outside your bond with Randi, yes? And you went looking for it." The bard nodded. "Rosie and I are channeling that strength to you, and when you reached this place, I was here waiting for you, knowing you had questions... and answers for that matter."
"Sure. How are yaíll doing?"
Gwen smiled. "Oh... *those* kinds of answers." She chewed her lip as she thought about it a minute, wanting to be as honest as possible. "Itís hard," she finally said simply. "Thereís a lot there that weíre gonna have to work through, but at least weíre doing it together. That makes all the difference," she finished with a smile. "Itís gonna take longer than we expected though, because some of this goes back further than I realized."
Reed cocked an eyebrow in question, but Gwen let it pass unanswered. They sat in silence for a little while, absorbing the warmth of what appeared to be the sun and enjoying the slight breeze that blew over them. The Gwen turned to Reed with her own question.
"Why isnít Randi here with us?"
"Because you didnít bring her."
"Gwen, this safe place is in your mind. She doesnít know about it. What were you doing when you found yourself here?
"Um... we had been talking about what she read, and then we just kinda... fell asleep? I went searching for the warmth I could feel coming from outside myself. And when I opened my eyes again, I was here, and so were you. But no Randi."
"Tell you what... next time you go searching for warmth, bring her with you. Let her know where youíre going and what youíre doing and bring her with you. If she knows where youíre going, sheíll follow."
"Yeah. Now close your eyes and go back to her. There is a lot more work to be done before we can all be done and go home."
Gwen nodded and complied, closing her eyes and letting her heart guide her back to Randi. "Home," she murmured as she drifted off. "I sure do like the sound of that."
The sounds of the trickling stream and the feel of the breeze that caressed her skin drifted away as she opened her eyes in the darkness once more, but the warmth remained steady and constant. Gwen lay still for long moments absorbing the sensations of having Randi wrapped around her. Sheíd missed this so much Ė she just squeezed and held on tighter.
"I love you, too," came the whispered words in her ear. "Easy, though, love. My chest is still pretty sore."
Gwen gasped and would have pulled away had it not been for the strong arms that held her tightly in place. "Sorry," mumbled into Randiís neck. "I forgot."
Randi smiled and kissed the blonde head. "Donít apologize. Itís worth any amount of pain to have you here again. I think itís actually helping."
Gwen raised her head slightly and met Randiís eyes. "Helping? What do you mean?"
Randi shrugged. "I canít explain it, but having you here makes it feel better. Dunno if itís healing or whatever, but it doesnít hurt as much."
"Except when I squeeze too hard."
"Except when Ares tries to roast me like a marshmallow. Youíre not big enough to squeeze too hard otherwise," Randi teased with a smile, knowing it would get a rise out of Gwen and pull her out of the doldrums she seemed to be settling into.
Green eyes narrowed dangerously and Gwen leaned up on an elbow to catch a smirking expression cross Randiís face. "Was that a short joke, hmm?" she purred. "Or maybe you think Iím a creampuff Ė I got muscles, ya know," flexing an arm and watching the bicep obligingly bulge. "See that?? Thatís functional ya know... not just there for looks."
Randi took Gwenís words for an invitation and slowly tracked up their entwined bodies, lingering on each muscle group as her eyes touched them. A slow smile crept across her face as she watched the blush follow behind her gaze.
"I dunno," she commented lazily. "I kinda like what Iím seeing here. It looks really good."
Gwen glared at Randi, but the frank adoration she saw back of the gentle teasing melted any aggravation she felt and she snuggled back down into Randiís arms, mindful of the warriorís damaged chest. "Thatís not fair."
Randi closed her eyes and relished the feeling of well-being. "Whatís not, love?" she murmured in contentment.
"Taking away a really good mad like that. Picking on me because Iím a short creampuff and then turning those beautiful eyes on me and... YIKES!"
Gwen felt herself lifted into the air above Randiís torso then gently lowered onto the warriorís chest despite the burns still highly evident there. "My eyes are beautiful because theyíre looking at you, Gwen. They reflect you. Now, youíre not short... youíre just the right height, see? You fit perfectly right where you belong. As for the creampuff comment, *I* never said you *were* a creampuff. I simply said I liked the way you looked."
"Good thing, that. Would you like me if I was ugly?"
Randi wondered where the sudden bout of insecurity about her looks was coming from, but hastened to assure Gwen of a fundamental truth. "Sweetheart, you would never, ever be ugly to me. Because I know what is in your heart and your soul is a part of mine. Those things make you beautiful to me above and beyond your outer good looks, though you are certainly no slouch in that department either."
"Hey whoís the poet in this relationship?" the bard asked teasingly. "You keep this up, Iím gonna have to go do something radical. Like become a bona fide Amazon or something."
"You *are* an awesome Amazon, love. Youíre already kick ass with the staff."
"Youíre just trying to humor me."
Now Randiís voice grew serious. "Not about this love. That is a hard earned skill, and one that could save your life."
"You really think so? You think Iím that good? Good enough to be an Amazon?"
"I know you are, and so do you. You tried to kick my butt, remember? Besides, you in leather? Please... like Iím gonna try to dissuade you from letting me have that visual in the flesh?! I am many things, but stupid is not tattooed on my forehead."
Gwen chuckled, feeling better about herself than she had since theyíd moved to the capital city. "I love you."
"I love you too, my bard. I guess we need to get up and go to the next book, hmm?"
Gwen nodded underneath Randiís chin. "Yes. I think I know what itís gonna be about."
"Oh?" after a moments silence. "You wanna share?"
"I think it will be about what happened on our honeymoon. I remember you losing consciousness then, and I think that has something to do with the times you close yourself off in here to purge your memories. Letís look, and then we can go to the safe room that Reed has prepared for us in my mind. I think we could both use a little time in the light."
"Can we do that? I mean, can I cross into your mind like that?"
"Sure, why not? Iím here in yours and I found the way alone. You just have to walk with me."
Randi smiled, and though unseen, Gwen felt it clearly in the warriorís voice. "Iíd like that. Iíll walk with you anywhere, anytime." She gently urged Gwen up and followed her carefully until they were both sitting upright once more. "Let me get the next volume, and weíll see if you guessed right."
She stepped down cautiously, mindful of the fact that the first book had fallen off her lap earlier. Randi looked around thoroughly, finally spotting it face down on the floor, half-hidden in the darkness near the file cabinets. She picked it up and flipped it over, intent on closing and locking it back to put away for safe keeping. Then she froze.
The book no longer had a lock. It no longer had writing. Even as she held it in her hands, it lost its form and simply disintegrated, leaving not even a trail of ash in its wake to mark its passage. Randi stood staring at her empty hands in disbelief until Gwen caught them in her own. She looked up to find green eyes sparkling at her in sheer joy.
"This is wonderful, Randi. Youíve faced it and come out on the other side. You donít need the book to hold and hide the memory for you any longer. Itís yours now."
Randi nodded slowly, realizing that what Gwen said was absolutely true. She had claimed the memory back and it was now part and parcel of who she was. She couldnít give it back if she wanted to. She could chose not to think about it, but it was still part of her psyche. Hard as it had been to read about and accept her actions and the responsibility for them, it was oddly liberating, and she felt a lightening of a burden she hadnít recognized that she carried until now.
Randi squeezed Gwenís hand in affection, than released them and turned back to the cabinet, ready to retrieve the next volume for them to share together.
Randi grabbed the book and sat back down on the slab, absently wishing for a cushion of some type and then smiling affectionately down at Gwen when the bard snuggled up into her like she was Gwenís own personal pillow.
"Comfortable?" she asked fondly.
"Yes, thank you," shifting her butt on the hard marble. "I tell you what... we need to do something about the amenities in this place, because they are sorely lacking. Although," she added as she rubbed her sore behind, "I donít think we will ever have to come back to this place once we finish this walk together. There wonít be anything here to come back for."
"That would be so amazing and very strange. Now," she continued before Gwen could voice her question. "Letís see if you guessed right."
She concentrated a moment and the clasp unlocked with ease since her apprehension level had dropped a bit when Gwenís conjecture about what this volume held. This instance, if Gwen was proven correct, would not be as bad for two reasons... they both already knew at least part of what had occurred and it had been done for honorable reasons without question.
The tome fell open, and Randi began to read.
I went to the barn. What Sky said, what he had so obviously seen scared me quite frankly, and I needed to get a grip on the turmoil that fear stirred in my gut. Finally, I realized how unfair it had been to Gwen for me to just walk away with no explanation and I decided to brave the cold back to the restaurant, But that lovely sixth sense Ė the Sabre sense that has kept me alive through impossible odds Ė caused me to stop at the door. The eerie silence caused a prickling to run up my spine and my hair stood on end. There was no sound... none. Even the natural sounds were gone save the slight whistle of the wind. I was peripherally aware of the scar burning even as the red wash of rage coursed through my veins. I felt the physical change from loving, tender soulmate of Gwen Goldman to deadly Sabre Miranda Valiant. It was easy... too easy. I slipped into the role I had played countless times before and without a whisper of sound blended into my surroundings and disappeared from sight.
I stood in the shadows, and listened as the sound of multiple transports reached my sensitive ears. I heard all hell broke loose. The few people who were wandering the street were immediately slaughtered before the small force began to spread out to lock up the town.
The first rebel walked by me unaware. I let the woman slip past me, then I silently stepped up behind her and casually snapped her neck. The woman slid from my grasp to the ground, and I promptly relieved her body of the tools I needed. Then I merged into the shadows, searching intently for my next victim.
I counted a dozen, less the one already dead. Childís play for me, even if it wasnít personal, and this was personal. Just their being here, in this time and place, made it personal for me. I briefly wondered about their objective and how much was focused on me because of my Sabre status, then decided it really didnít matter as I slipped a knife between the ribs of the young man I had crept up on. He fell with very little sound, and I moved him deeper into the building where he wouldnít be found easily. No sense in giving them any advanced warning as to what was coming.
The next soldier actually gurgled at the end as the knife sliced neatly across his neck... a very wet sound Two more met their demise almost simultaneously. The twin shuriken sliced deep into the right eye of one, and the left eye of the other. I have never really adjusted to that particular sucking sound as I pulled them out again, but a good warrior never leaves behind a weapon that can be reused against them. And I wasnít taking any chances since I was fighting alone.
With almost half the rebel force now decimated, my attention turned as a commotion broke out at the restaurant. The entire rest of the town was being herded into street. I have to admit to feeling a bit smug when I saw the lines of worry that crossed the apparent leaderís face. He motioned two of his remaining team to circle around the perimeter and locate the missing team members. It was quite entertaining, actually, until I caught the feeling of Gwenís fear.
The man was an arrogant ass, making demands as though he was due something, and I kept an eye on him even as I raised the blowgun to my lips and shot the first dart at the woman fast approaching my position. The rebel reached for the stinging spot on her neck, even as she dropped dead in her tracks. I wondered what sort of poison the rebels were using. Nothing should be that deadly if they were only here for me. They had come prepared for slaughter, which didnít ring true with the leaderís recent words. Something much worse was going on, but what? I blew a second dart at the other woman still some distance away, then I jumped silently from my hiding place before she hit the ground.
My rage grew exponentially as I watched Nanny fall to the ground, and the burning in my face was almost unbearable. The older woman had been the first to welcome me into the community, been a surrogate family member to me and had always had a pleasant word anytime I had come into town. She welcomed Gwen with the same open friendliness and it made me angry that she was taken away from us before they really had a chance to know one another. When that man reached out towards Gwen and Chief Screaming Sky however, he crossed a line with consequences that not even God himself could have saved him from. I felt the change happen and I became a bona fide killing machine.
The first two of the remaining five died when swift kicks to the neck crushed their windpipes. It made the most satisfying crunch. The next never saw the blow that sent a bone from his nose up into his brain, and the spray of blood was glorious Ė it made me one step closer to Gwen and one step closer to annihilating them. The pressure points I hit on the eleventh rebel caused him to fall over gasping for air and I had to wonder at the poor planning involved in this little raid. The blonde leader had no idea his little force now lay dead around the perimeter of townsfolk. I couldnít wait to watch his face when he died at my hand.
He grabbed Sky by the scruff of the neck and yanked him forward, then he closed his hand around Skyís neck and slowly began to squeeze the life from his lungs. He never noticed that during his speech a ripple in the crowd had caused the people to edge away from him, and he and Sky were left standing basically alone. I edged my way into the congregation, and they allowed me to pass through their midst easily. Simultaneously, they eased back, understanding that I was far more dangerous than the man who stood before them demanding my head. They wouldnít understand the deadly damage I had already perpetrated until much, much later, but they were witness to the last.
Gwen gasped when I stepped into the inner circle... an involuntary reaction to the transformation she could clearly see written on my visage. I can only imagine the picture I made standing before her blood spattered and wild, because I know how I felt at that moment. She clasped her hands to her lips to contain the sound, but it was too late because his attention focused on her at the first noise.
He dropped Sky, and the old man lay on the ground gasping for air, but I couldnít stop for that yet Ė Gwen was in serious, imminent danger. I didnít even slow down but reached the rebel just as he touched Gwen. He didnít even have time to process the thought that he was going to die before the blade entered his stomach. I wish I could have made it last longer... made him suffer, but I needed him dead worse than I needed to torture him. I needed to be sure Gwen was safe. He looked into my cold dead eyes, and I saw the questions there. Apparently, this hadnít ended like heíd expected it to Ė guess it sucked to be him. Then I jerked the knife upwards, and he scrambled to catch the innards that were suddenly spilling on the ground around him. He fell to his knees, dead before he hit the ground.
I watched him fall before turning around to meet Gwenís eyes, half-afraid of what Iíd see there. What I found was love and understanding and a fear for me Ė not *of* me, but *for* me. I understood that as she reached for me, and then blinding pain... and darkness.
A post script to this memory - the most peculiar thing happened as I put this away the first time, and I actually had to come back in to add this. Gwen followed me here. She followed me into the darkness and found me here in this hiding place. I never would have imagined such a thing happening. Even a seer as powerful as Reed cannot find this place, and even if she could, she couldnít get past the traps and barriers I have set up. Yet Gwen breezed through and came in as if it were her right to be here.
And Iím so very glad she did.
"Iím glad I did too," Gwen said quietly into the stillness. She wrapped a hand around Randiís arm and rubbed her cheek against Randiís shoulder. "I wouldnít want you to go through this alone. Itís scary."
Randi pulled back slightly until she could look into Gwenís eyes, knowing the bard couldnít lie to her this close. "Are you afraid of me Gwen? Is what Iíve done so horrible? Is that why you left?"
"No, baby, no. Thatís not what I meant at all," taking Randiís face in her hands and cradling it gently. She gazed into blue eyes until she felt the subtle relaxation of the tension in Randiís body. She took the book from Randiís grip and set it aside, then brought the warriorís attention back to her, holding tightly to her hands. "Knowing you already had to face these things alone... thatís whatís scary to me, love. Itís scary knowing you faced this alone with no support Ė only your strength that allowed you to do what was necessary and then set it aside to be able to live without losing your sanity. Itís scary knowing I could have lost you if you hadnít been strong enough, fast enough, smart enough. Iím glad I can be with you now to at least provide you with whatever strength and support youíll let me share with you."
"So, I was that horrible," Randi said when Gwen stopped speaking. "So bad that you canít even answer or tell me why you left?" She would have moved away except for the iron clad hold Gwen retained on her. She could have pulled away, but not without considerable damage to Gwen and substantial pain for herself. And Gwen was holding on for dear life.
"Donít. You. Dare," Gwen hissed. "Donít even start that with me, Randi. God, how many times I have to say it? I donít know everything Ė I donít know most things... especially not what you were thinking and feeling or what the motivation was behind your actions. Weíre here to go through this together, and Iím not going to cloud that with my thoughts Ė itís not my place to judge one way or another. Thatís not how it works."
"Then tell me why you left, please? I need to know."
"I told you, sweetheart... it was time."
Randi held up a hand in frustration. "I understand that. But why? Why was it time? Do you know what it felt like when you left? Do you??" Her voice was heated... a mixture of irritation and anger.
"Yeah, Randi, I do," green eyes sparking with their own ire. "I know what it felt like when you shut me out of your heart, out of your life, out of your bed. But if you want to know what the final straw was it was being introduced as your consort when you know how I felt about that title, being displayed like I was some sort of damned prize, and then being discarded like yesterdayís garbage when all was said and done. It was obvious to me right then I no longer had a place with you Ė it was time to go."
"Then why are you here now?? Apparently I have totally fucked things up and completely driven you from my life. So why did you come back?? You donít belong here... especially here," towering over Gwen in the hopes that she would be intimidated and... and what, Randi?? Leave?? Do you really want her to leave you alone here? The inner dialogue would have gone one longer if not for Gwenís timely and forceful interruption.
"Weíve already been over this before, but if I have to keep repeating it, I will until you believe me. *I* belong here just as much as you do, Randi," Gwen said while she poked her finger into the warriorís chest. "Your soul called to mine and I promised you... I promised you... Iíd be here when you needed me. Now," with one last poke, "Youíre gonna have to put aside the fact that I left; youíll understand it the further along we go in your memories. If youíre still angry after you see the things that happened, and you still want me to leave, I will. And you will never hear from me again."
She couldnít stop the tears that filled her eyes, but she did keep them from spilling over. Gwen turned her back to Randi wondering how they had fallen into such a nasty argument so quickly. Her body instantly relaxed when the warriorís strong arms wrapped around her from behind and held on tightly.
"No, beloved, no! Donít you get it? Thatís the problem Ė you did leave. I still donít know why, but you left and Iím afraid when you see what else is hidden here, you might not want to come back. I donít like the person who writes these memories, but she is an integral part of who I am. And if I donít like her, how can I expect you to?"
Gwen turned in Randiís arms and grasped her face firmly before deliberately teasing Randiís lips with her tongue. The warrior endured the pleasant torture long enough to forget her anguish and respond, capturing the muscle tormenting her and returning the favor until Gwen pulled away breathless.
"Now do you understand, love? I love ALL of you and nothing... NOTHING is going to change that. Remember, sweetheart, I gave you the choice. You get to decide when youíre ready to be an us again."
"Sorry. I donít know where all this insecurity is coming from."
"I do. What youíre doing Ė facing your past like this - is hard. Sharing it is even harder. But Iíll keep reassuring you," with another kiss, "for as long as you need me to."
Randi smiled. "If this is the kind of reassurance I get, Iím never gonna be secure, just so youíll keep on reassuring."
Gwen returned the smile wickedly. "Uh uh... the sooner you feel secure, the sooner we get to move to more advanced things."
Randiís eyes grew wide. "Advanced?"
"Iím secure," Randi said so earnestly it drew a laugh from Gwen. Randi grinned... she hadnít heard that sound in such a long time. "I want you to know one thing - despite everything, I have always, ALWAYS wanted there to be an Ďusí. That never changed, no matter how stupid I got."
"Then there always will be," said with firm, quiet confidence. "Now, are you ready to get back to work? Weíre still a ways out from where we are now in the timeline."
"Yes," Randi replied decisively. "Iím over this already. I want to get done and get home to you. The world can just take care of itself for a while." She turned caught the look on Gwenís face. "If I go stupid again, just smack me, will ya? We donít have time for any more stupid insecurities."
"Honey, theyíre not stupid... theyíre perfectly normal. But no... no smacking. You might bite your tongue, and I prefer that to be in good working order. Iíll lick your nose instead."
"Well, EW. Thatíll stop stupid in its tracks," Randi said, scrunching up her face in reaction.
"Good," Gwen added with a light chuckle. "Címon then. Letís do it to it and see what happens next. Then maybe we can take a break and go see Reed? I think youíll like the safe room she created for us. It reminds me very much of our glade."
"I miss that."
"Hmm... so do I. Someday soon though, all right?"
Randi nodded and grabbed the next manuscript from its place in the file. She slipped back onto the slab, surprised to find a soft cushion beneath her behind.
"Whereíd this come from?" she asked Gwen in confusion.
Gwen shrugged. "Dunno. I was tired of sitting hard and I wished for something a little more comfortable. Next thing you know...."
"Thanks," Randi said sincerely as she tried to slip the lock from the book. "My butt was getting kinda sore." They were both a little surprised when nothing happened and looked at one another curiously. Randi turned the tome around, assuring herself she had the next volume in chronological order. "Thatís weird. Itís the right book."
Gwen took the book from her and looked it over carefully, hoping something would pop out at her. She jumped when Randi started upright and stated, "Ah! Iíll just bet you...."
Randi picked up the previous volume, watching as it disintegrated into nothing but air. Then she took the next book back from Gwen, and the lock opened easily. "I have to accept one before I can move on to the next."
Gwen smiled and snuggled up close to her. "You are very clever." Then they opened the next book together, anxious to see what new memories awaited them.
It was weird - I scouted carefully around a second warehouse area Tinyís intelligence reports hadnít indicated were a possible location for the targets I was looking for. This was one Tiny and the Sabres apparently had no knowledge of, and I didnít understand that. They werenít that hard to find.
The first locale I visited had held a very few members of the Skinhead Faction, and I had done nothing but scout the location, just like I promised Tiny. It was obviously set up as some sort of decoy they expected to be destroyed without thought in the event someone came looking for it. They didnít think anyone would take the time to scout it out and look around, so getting around the security in the small building and its systems had been childís play.
God, it felt so good to be doing this again. As much as I love Gwen and our life together, there has been a part of me that has missed being a Sabre, especially this part of it Ė the thrill of the chase. Of course this chase was terribly simple - in mere minutes, I struck pay dirt. I found proof that Gwen and I were being personally targeted by the group as a whole. That pissed me off, and it went from fun and interesting game to deadly, personal challenge. I found other positions around the globe that housed individual factions that functioned as regional headquarters and knew I would share that information with the Sabres eventually, but not right now. I wondered why such vital information was in such an insecure spot, but then realized I really didnít care. This had become personal, and the Skinheads were stupid enough to put information into my hands. I was going to give them the satisfaction of making sure it was put to good use.
So I went to the areaís second address Ė one which, if the Skinheadsí own information was correct, held at least one member of their upper echelon. There was no physical security outside the building; that would have drawn unwanted attention. But there was plenty of surveillance and security equipment, even if it wasnít quite state-of-the-art. I felt my blood begin to burn.
I blended into the shadows, taking my time to break the code that held the door shut. I didnít see a reason to announce myself. I planned to enjoy this little exercise for as long as it lasted. The man standing to one side never had the chance to realize he was dead before I wiped my knife free of his blood and let him slip to the floor.
The next two looked at one another in startlement for the split second it took them to see the shuriken embed itself in the otherís forehead. I stopped to retrieve them, gritting my teeth as the blade slid along bone and shivering at the sound and feel it made. The look on their dead faces was a study in amusement for me, because they were taken completely by surprise. I wonder what the Sabres have been up to that these rebels didnít expect some sort of attack being as close to the capital as they were. Something stinks here and it smells of conspiracy.
Four more fell to crossbow bolts before I reached a second set of doors. These were monitored visually and sonically, and I took a moment to catch her breath and clean my tools while I considered my next move. That they would all die was never in question Ė their making it personal assured that. My concern now was how to best accomplish this without doing damage to myself. As angry as Gwen would be for my involvement in this, being hurt because of my actions here would be unforgivable.
With a little effort, visual security met an abrupt end, then I put the plugs into my ears, knowing that an investigation would follow. I figured they would remember their own damned security measure, but on the off chance that they didnít, I wanted to be prepared. Rebels werenít particularly known for their brilliance... only their innate ability to follow orders.
The noise they set off when they stepped through the doors was excruciating, and two of them fell to the floor clutching their heads and keening in agony for a long minute before succumbing to the pain. The other two looked down in disgust and shook their heads. I wanted to laugh Ė it was like watching a bad comedy. Then they drew their lasers and I knew it was time to get down to business. They werenít taking any chances now that their force had been cut in half; they knew it would be several minutes before reinforcements would arrive.
I was disappointed, though. Iíd never cared for fighting with lasers. It takes all the skill and challenge out of victory. However, I also knew I was still outnumbered and I was just ready to be done with it. If they wanted to die by laser, then so be it.
The two men moved slowly and carefully, not knowing what to expect, but wary of whatever had managed to find them here and breach their defenses. It was interesting to watch, especially knowing they had no chance of surviving no matter how slow and careful they were. I casually stepped out into the hallway and dropped them where they stood. Then I made my way to the door where the two unconscious men lay across the threshold holding the door ajar while the sonic alarm continued to pulse and wail. I aimed my laser at one and then the other, pulling the trigger and watching them die. Then I crossed the threshold to see what else I could find.
The next six I came upon fell to a flash grenade before they even had an opportunity to draw their weapons. Pathetic really Ė I expected with all the noise and confusion for them to be prepared for an all-out assault. No matter though. It just made killing them easier.
Things became a blur after that as I went among them, killing them singly and in pairs. I varied my methods Ė the twist of a neck, the slash of my knife, a blade to the chest, a shuriken to the forehead and the occasional crossbow bolt to the eye. I took perverse pleasure taken in that particular method because of the hours of training Iíd spent perfecting the technique. The sucking sound the boltís removal made was a little more graphic than I liked. But it did was it was supposed to do and by the time I reached the one who was considered the leader of this faction, nearly one hundred members of the skinheads lay decimated in the warehouse that had previously been their safe haven.
I was covered in blood and bits of gore as I approached him. It was not a feeling I liked, but it did serve to make an impression. He never saw me Ė he never heard me Ė until it was too late. He felt my touch upon his throat and gasped for air, his eyes going wide at the specter I made standing in front of him. I felt the shiver go through him as he wet himself, and I knew he knew he was going to die.
Then he said something that made no sense to me. He said he was following orders in sending those notes Ė that warning me wasnít his idea, but someone higher up. I donít understand why. It makes no sense for them to target me and then warn me about their activities, They have to know that I will destroy them myself before I let them hurt Gwen or destroy what we have together.
Apparently, I needed to make an example here and send a message to the remainder of the rebels. I squeezed harder until he fell over convulsing, and I watched until his body stilled. Then I set about making an accident.
The fire burned hot and furious and I knew the rebels would understand the message. I just wondered if they would heed it.
The silence that fell when Randi reached the end was deafening. Gwen didnít move away, but Randi could feel the tension running through the slim body curled up next to her. Randi took a deep breath and blew it out. "Gwen, I...."
"Do you really? Miss it, I mean?" She shifted so she could look into Randiís eyes and was gratified that the warrior met hers honestly before dropping to the book in her lap. She chewed her lip thoughtfully before returning her eyes to Gwenís.
"Yes," she said candidly. "Parts of it I do, and I probably always will. Not the killing or the gore. But the danger and the chase and the strategy involved Ė the flush of success when I win. Those things, yeah, I do miss them, and itís very hard to replace that with anything. Not that I would change one thing if it meant Iíd lose you, because youíre far more important to me than any of that. Itís just that it was such a big part of my life for so long...."
Unexpectedly, Randi discovered the green eyes were full of compassionate understanding. "I never meant for you to lose a part of yourself, love. I just wanted to protect you from the darkness. That was all I ever saw in your involvement with the Sabres, and I saw how that darkness haunted you." A pause. "Is that why you found those extreme holos? For that thrill of danger and excitement?"
Randi shrugged. "Thatís why I went looking for them, yeah. After you created that holo-program with the coasters, it got me to thinking. I knew from my reading that there had to be other things like that. So I did some digging, thinking these would be things we could do together. You remember how much fun sky-diving together was?"
Gwen blushed. "I remember a lot of things about sky-diving, but I especially remember the overwhelming desire I had to jump your bones when we touched the ground. The whole experience was a rush, but that was out of control," said with a saucy grin.
Randi smiled in sympathy. "Exactly. And your body can get used to it... crave it, in fact."
"And being a Sabre satisfies that urge?"
Randi thought about that a moment, wanting to be as open and honest in her answer as she could. "In some ways, yes, but it got to the point it wasnít worth what it was costing me."
"So why did you go back to it?"
"I didnít at first... it was manipulated back to me. Ares knew two crucial things about me that he took advantage of. One was that need for dangerous excitement and adventure. The other was the fact that I would do anything to keep you safe from harm, even if it meant walking back into the darkness. I didnít do it knowingly in the beginning, but I have to believe at some point I became aware of what was happening at some level and still went forward into the darkness."
"So if you were aware, why did you go forward? And why canít you remember?"
Randi shrugged. "I canít answer that, really, because I donít know what motivation I had. Iíd like to think that somehow there was a greater good mixed up in it somewhere, but I know from what we just read that there is also a personal vendetta involved for me as well. I owed the rebels for trying to destroy us, and the warrior part of me would have been very happy to extract that payment from them. Justice without mercy."
"And your memory? I understand the part about your having two selves. I saw them separately with my own eyes, and I know the bard acts independently of the rest of me when I get lost in a creative mode and am working on a story while doing other things. Personally, I know there are far more than two facets to your personality, but I have to believe that the warrior and the woman represent your strongest parts. But since you merged back into a single being, shouldnít you know what each self knows? Share the memories and the feelings?"
"I do. I remember what it felt like when you left. I remember the speech you gave me about being called consort. I remember our honeymoon and you going back to work and any other number of things. But the things that I brought here were purged and the only way to remember them is to take them back by reading through them."
All right, then. Letís move on. What comes next?"
"I dunno. I have to accept this first."
Unexpectedly, Gwen wrapped her hand around Randiís larger one. "Let me share the burden, love. You have carried it on your own long enough. I believe, with all my heart, that what you did was done with the greater good in mind. Even though it became personal for you, I think... no, I *know* that it was necessary to achieving the peace we have today. I may not agree with or understand the methods, but no one can argue with the results."
"So many died by my hand."
Gwen nodded. "And so many more would have died at theirs, and those would have been innocents."
Randi looked into Gwenís eyes, searching for the answer to an unspoken question. What she found there satisfied her and she nodded hard. "I believe," she confirmed in a whisper, never breaking eye contact with Gwen. The book became less than ash, leaving only a trail of smoke in its wake.
Randi started to get up from her place when a hand on her leg made her pause. "Let me," Gwen said softly. "If things are falling into place like I think they are, this should be the memory that Reed was searching for Ė the one with the Amazons."
Randi scratched the back of her neck and nodded. "I remember that... parts of it anyway. I wonder what I would have put away in here."
Gwen slid from the slab and padded over to the files. "Dunno, but Iím willing to bet the next memory will fill in those holes Reed told us about. Just remember, love... they targeted us that time. They deliberately came after us. That much I remember."
Randi smiled grimly. "So do I," absently rubbing her leg. "Which is why I always wondered why they didnít finish me. They had an advantage."
Gwen picked up the novel. "Well, letís take a look. This should give us the answers weíre looking for."
"I hope so," hoping the bard was right about what incident was covered in this memory. At least she had some partial memories of the Amazon attack, and felt reasonably justified for whatever actions she had taken then. Randi took the tome from Gwenís hands and focused until the lock clicked open. Then they settled back and readied themselves for more discoveries, hoping they would bring them both one step closer to finishing their quest.
"Howíre you holding up, Geoff?" Tinyís quiet words penetrated Skyís awareness and he let his eyes flutter open. They met Geoffís with concern before turning to Tiny.
"Iím fine," the weapons smith replied. "I just didnít realize how draining this would be." He would have said more when they were interrupted by a surprising, though not unwelcome voice.
"Geoffrey Mackenzie Goldman!!" All three men flinched at the censure in Jillís tone, looking anywhere but at her as she stepped into the room. "Sweetheart, I understand your need to be a part of whatever is going, but donít you think you could have called and eased my mind a little? I have been going stir crazy sense you left!"
"Iím sorry, honey. I was going to, and then we started channeling strength to Randi, and it kind of slipped my mind."
Jill looked at each of them carefully before setting her things down and joining them at the bed. "Will someone please share with me what is going on? And can I help?" she asked without preamble. The men smiled and nodded before arranging themselves and Jill accordingly. Then in low tones, Sky brought her up to date on the situation, even as they once more channeled their strength to Randi.
"Everything all right, you two?" Lacey questioned even as she checked the monitors she had connected to all three women.
Reedís eyes opened slowly at her words, as did Rosieís and then focused on one another in unspoken understanding before turning to Lacey simultaneously and nodding.
"Everything seems to be going better than expected. I made contact with Gwen and with a little luck sheíll bring Randi with her the next time she enters the safe room. She said itís hard, but thatís to be expected, but together they seem to be meeting the challenge head-on."
Rosie nodded. "I can feel the darkness they are experiencing on the periphery of my awareness, but mostly I feel the love and strength between them... and the strength Sky is sharing. It is more than I expected from him, but it is good. Randi needs the support, even if she doesnít know where it is coming from. She should feel it as comforting warmth Ė that is what it feels like to me."
"Agreed," Reed concurred. "We know Tiny is helping him, and I wouldnít be surprised to know that Tiny brought in reinforcements. Every Sabre alive would sacrifice themselves to help Randi through this. Aside from the fact that they know what is at stake, Randi has saved this planet twice now at great personal expense. I wouldnít be surprised if Ares had to fight off the whole damn military before this is all said and done."
It was a beautiful day and the ride was more than a little stimulating as Gwenís hands wandered up and down my torso and thighs. Periodically, they would lovingly rub over my ass and I was forced to focus harder on maintaining the bike and driving than I normally would have been. It was nearly impossible to extend my senses around me in search of danger... not when they were fully engaged in contemplating possible paybacks for what was happening now. We were a little more than halfway home, and I was caught completely off guard by what happened next.
The road was well shaded with old oaks, something I had always appreciated for their beauty and majesty and in the summer for their shade. They always made me realize what an amazing thing life is Ė to have survived so much for so long and still stand proudly unbowed. Unfortunately for me, they also made a perfect cover for a covert Fringe Amazon operation. I never saw them, but I felt them mere moments before their assault, and I wasnít quick enough to avoid their attack. Worse, I had no weapons to combat them while on the bike Ė not with Gwen to protect, anyway. Without warning, arrows began raining down on us from the trees. I did her best to avoid them, swerving the bike dangerously in the road. One stuck in my thigh and I grimaced Ė damn thing hurt like a son of a bitch, and pulling it out later was gonna be a real pain in the ass. Gwen tightened her grip on me suddenly and released a muffled cry just before I felt the arrow pierce through her right shoulder and into mine. Gwenís grip started to slacken.
I wanted to panic and for the first time since becoming a Sabre nearly let the terror of the moment overtake me, knowing they had hurt Gwen. Instead I let the rage build and those same Sabre instincts came screaming to the fore. The arrow shower stopped as quickly as it began, and I heard the Amazons coming after us. I needed to find a place I could defend and protect Gwen at the same time.
I knew I couldnít let my assailants dictate the terms of our fight, so I turned the bike off the road and into the field. There were trees there, but they were sparse and spread out. I chose one to defend and decided to make them come to me.
I slipped into Sabre mode and stopped the bike by the large, lone tree in the middle of the pasture. I hissed in pain as I separated myself from Gwen. Pulling the arrow out of my shoulder made that horrid sucking sound I hated so much and I turned to catch Gwen as she slumped forward with a whimper. I knew she was in tremendous pain, but I also knew we had to get undercover and into a defensible position before I tried to anything about either of us.
She was so brave, and I went to work as quickly as I could to make things better for her.
I slid off the bike, then started digging through the saddlebags. I was so glad that some Sabre habits were so ingrained in my psyche that I didnít even think about them anymore. One of those habits was that I always carried a first aid kit with me. Another was that I never traveled without accessible weapons even if I didnít wear them on my person. I gave thanks for hard lessons well learned even as I searched my bags for the items I needed.
I found what I was looking for and took a minute to arm myself. The short staff was hooked on a belt loop; the flash grenades stuffed in the oversized pockets of my pants. The throwing stars I left in their pouch and tied it off to another belt loop. I would have been happier with a crossbow or even a laser at this point, just to speed things along. But I figured with a little luck, I could relieve a dead Amazon or two of anything else I would need. There was no time for savoring this chase... Gwen needed me, and taking care of her was paramount to any sort of enjoyment I might have gotten out of this little experience... especially when I knew we were short on time.
I took my jacket off and reached down to my thigh. I hated this part of fighting Amazons. Damn arrows hurt, and having to do this with no medic just sucked. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before breaking off the arrow that jutted out from deep in my leg, leaving only enough shaft to grasp later when I had time to treat it. I groaned and bit my lip as the world spun in vivid color. Then I fashioned a tourniquet from the bit of bandage wrap I carried in the kit and tied it around my leg. I hoped it would be enough til I could take care of it properly since there was always the possibility of poisoning. There was nothing I could do about the wound in my shoulder, and I could feel the blood trickling down my back in tickling rivulets.
Gwen had slumped in my arms, and I knew that what was coming was gonna hurt her a lot. She was only vaguely aware, but she shuddered in anticipation of the pain she knew was coming when I explained to her what I needed to do.
I broke off the head, catching Gwen when she passed out. I was glad for that Ė the less pain I caused my bard the better. I never realized how different... how much harder... it was to have to do these things to someone you loved. Not that I hadnít care about my fellow Sabres Ė I did Ė but not only was I not in love with any of them, they knew the risks, knew the price and the pain involved in being who we were. Gwen was an innocent, and it nearly killed me to have to hurt her.
I heard the Amazons approaching... it didnít seem like they were taking great pains to be quiet, as though I was already dead. That sort of attitude was the kind that would get them killed, though that was a given anyway, and I took great joy in the knowledge that I could and would make them suffer for what they had done... to Gwen and to me. I pushed the arrow through Gwenís shoulder and slapped on two pressure bandages. I felt certain they would stop the bleeding long enough for me to destroy the threat. Then I put Gwen over my shoulder, glad she couldnít hear my groan at the added pressure her weight put on my wounds. Then I set out to find a good hiding place in the tree, knowing Gwen would be out of harmís way there.
It was a struggle, and I slipped once, but I finally found a place that had several branches tangled together, and I gently deposited Gwen into the center. I slid my belt off and looped it around my bard to secure her to the tree. Gwen actually opened her eyes briefly and looked her question at me. I explained the situation and she nodded her understanding. I kissed her, then slid out of the tree silently. It was time to become the hunter.
The Amazons arrived and formed a visible perimeter, but they acted utterly clueless, as though once here they had no idea what to do next. I found that so strange Ė always before the enemy had a plan, no matter how badly conceived, and they stuck with it til the bitter end. I watched as it dawned on them that there were fifteen of them and only one of me, and they began to advance as a group through the tall grasses. I guess it never occurred to them that those kinds of odds werenít going to work in their favor, especially not with the weaponry they were working with. Their most customary weapon was the crossbow, and they had already wasted the surprise element that made them effective weapons. Even with the chobos, a few swords and a spear I saw among the gathered group, they didnít stand a chance.
I knew I didnít have time to enjoy the combat, so I worked swiftly to eliminate the threat now facing me. I wasnít going to let a bunch of pansy-assed rebels keep me from getting the help I needed for Gwen.
I slid through the grass like a snake, and the first four Amazons fell before anyone was aware I wasnít where they expected me to be. I crept up behind them and broke their necks with rapid precision and a very satisfying snap. Then I disappeared again before they even saw me. 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. I chuckled because the look on her face was priceless.
It made the Amazons to cluster together, and I just shook her head at the utter lack of sense before I tossed a flash grenade into the middle of the group and it was like shooting fish in a puddle. They didnít even have time to notice before it exploded, killing another five and injuring three. That left only three standing, and for that, I unleashed my staff. There was a burning rage inside that needed to shed blood and a simple twist turned the staff into a flange. I ran towards the remaining Amazons with a fierce roar.
The look of fear on their faces was glorious, and I longed for a moment to enjoy it. But the first raised her bow before I could savor the feeling, so I sent her head bouncing across the grass several times. Before her body actually crumbled, the next, who held a sword, came running towards me from behind. I buried the other blade in her belly, feeling it slide along her spine. I didnít even turn; I just yanked it back out and threw it 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 me as she sank to her knees. The look on her face was a mixture of pain, disbelief and fear, and I relished it. Blood spilled out of her mouth and I could tell she saw in me the spectre of death itself. It made me smile.
I walked the few steps to the Amazon, removing my flange from her body and dragging her back to the crater where the flash grenade had exploded. The three injured Amazons were making various degrees of effort to escape. I couldnít allow that, so I calmly walked to each one and ended their torment with the single thrust of a blade. Then one by one I dumped the bodies into the hole and carefully set the remaining grenades for a delayed incineration blast, their actual intended purpose.
I wiped the blood off the flange, then returned it to its short staff form before heading back to the tree to retrieve Gwen. I felt the silent explosion that sent a wave of heat blasting over her, and knew that in short order the only evidence of anything amiss in this field would be the large hole in the ground. I wasnít worried about the transports Ė no one was going to come looking for them, and if they were found, it really didnít matter. I hadnít touched them.
I put my weapons away carefully as I always had, and I turned my attention to my thigh. Damn thing still hurt and it was still bleeding sluggishly. I braced myself and grit my teeth, then grabbed the end of the shaft and yanked hard. I heard myself scream and the world went black for a very long moment. When my senses returned, I loosened the tourniquet and blood flowed more rapidly. I cursed myself for being caught without water and wrapped a length of bandage around it tightly, then moved to climb the tree.
It took longer than I expected; the wound on my shoulder was starting to ache intensely. Gwen was still passed out, and it was a mixed blessing. I knew she couldnít feel any pain as long as she was out, but I knew I was gonna need her to hold on to get us both home safely. I grabbed an ammonia capsule and let the scent waft under Gwenís nose.
Her 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. Gwen stretched a shaking hand towards my bandaged leg. I caught it and held it tightly for a moment before turning my head and explaining to her the need to move and the need I had for her help.
Gwen looked around, disoriented. She asked about the odd smell in the air, wondering if it was the burning in her nose and the scent of blood and sweat coming from both of us. I glanced in the direction Gwen was gazing and shrugged my shoulders. Already the fire had burned down to cinders with the wind carrying most of the scent away from us.
It was slow going as we eased down from one branch to the next. When we reached the bottom branch, I jumped unthinkingly, and my leg buckled when I hit the ground too hard. I couldnít believe I was that stupid. I heard Gwen scramble after me. She fell to her knees when she landed and crawling to kneel by my side. I heard her breathing hard with the pain and could have kicked myself for adding to her misery.
I looked up at her, breathing rhythmically to try and stabilize the dizziness I felt with a few deep breaths. Gwen leaned back against the tree and I felt her watching me. I consciously pushed the pain out of my awareness and stood to my feet. I extended my uninjured hand down to my bard who accepted it and gradually made her way upright. I could see the effort it was costing her and wished I could manage to do more for her. Instead, we leaned against one another for a long moment, then I looked into Gwenís eyes, needing to know if she could hang on to make it home.
Gwen nodded, and I could see her self-doubt about making it home before she passed out again. I thought about insisting she ride up front, but I wasnít sure I could balance everything since I was losing the feeling in my arm.
I grimaced as I lifted the helmet to Gwenís head and pulled it on. I felt vaguely uneasy as I donned my own head gear, but I couldnít pin down what was tickling my senses. Gwen had already straddled the bike, so I eased herself in front of her and started the engine, thankful for its quiet mode. My head was beginning to throb on top of everything else, and the light purr of the motorcycle was soothing.
The bike ride was never-ending... my hackles were standing straight up in anticipation of another attack. I pressed forward hard, willing us home faster. I didnít sense any immediate danger but I was unwilling to let my guard down even a fraction of an inch. There was too much at stake. My nerve endings ached from overextension and I couldnít find any trace of the Amazons. So my focus was now on getting us home as quickly and safely as possible. I felt Gwen clutch at my shirt with one hand and lean into me. I accepted the weight and let the need I felt flowing from Gwen motivate me. Gwen slumped against me just as we crossed the bridge and my focus was on maintaining our balance. Itís amazing how focused that kind of motivation can make a person.
We made it home with no further incident and I pulled under the portico and slid off the bike. I turned to catch Gwen as she started to tumble over, wincing when her head hit my bad shoulder.
I steeled myself for what came next, and with a groan rose on unsteady feet, glad the door was only two paces from where I stood. I honestly didnít think I could make it given the way I felt, and I wondered what those arrows had been tipped in to have drained me so badly. I had to lean against the doorframe as I keyed in the code, then I stumbled in the door when it unlocked.
I was sweating profusely from exertion by the time I made it to the bathroom, and my throat was so dry I had to call out the water temperature twice before it activated. Gwen came to almost as soon as the water started spraying, and she reached for my hands and looked at me with miserable eyes.
I tried to be tender, but I could tell it still hurt. Hurting her hurts me in ways I canít explain even to myself. I was so glad to fall into bed together, but for the first time since the return of Gwenís memories, we didnít curl up together. I knew our injuries would make it a painful prospect, but the lack of intimacy between us hurt in a far worse way deep in my soul. Only when Gwen reached for my hand was I finally able to drift off into welcome oblivion.
"Wow," Gwen finally managed in a husky voice. "I never knew, and why do I get the feeling you downplayed what it was costing you to do all that? You make it sound so easy," she absently rubbed Randiís right shoulder. "But I remember how much that hurt, and you got it in the leg and still managed to keep the Amazons away from us."
"I killed them, Gwen. And I enjoyed it."
Gwen nodded slowly. "I understand that, love. And I think if our positions had been reversed, I would have done the same thing... especially this time." She paused and gathered her thoughts. "Randi, they came after us, deliberately targeting us hoping to kill you... to kill us. I know itís selfish, but Iím glad you were able to stop them. I am sorry they had to die, but sweetheart, it didnít stop with them. And they would have kept trying until the succeeded."
"Do I get the enjoyment part? No... I never have. But I believe that is the part of you that lets you be the warrior you are. You donít need my acceptance or approval of that, Randi, although youíve got my unqualified support of you. Youíve always had my love and support. But youíre the one that has to accept that facet of your personality Ė for better or worse."
Randi sat quietly, considering Gwenís words. She recognized it for the truth. Gwen had always accepted her regardless. *She* was the one who was having trouble, and she couldnít explain why. Perhaps it was because she had been so separated from herself, or maybe it was just the not knowing what to expect from herself anymore. Randi was honest enough to admit that it bothered her a lot that Gwen had been exposed to the warrior side of her, especially untempered. She knew what she was capable of when she was whole... what had happened when she had been the warrior alone?
"It bothers me," she finally said honestly. "It bothers me for you to see this... for you to know these things about me. Especially things I havenít discovered myself yet. I feel... naked, um... too exposed."
Gwen wanted to be hurt by that comment, and then she really thought about it. Given what Randi was and had been for all of her adult life, that feeling made perfect sense. She nodded her recognition of that fact. "I understand, Randi, but I want there to only be honesty between us. If youíd like, I will go back and wait for you to finish this alone in private."
"NO!" vehemently. "Iíd rather you be here... even with all the awkwardness. You belong here." Randi offered a hesitant smile.
Gwen returned it wholeheartedly. "Then perhaps when weíre done here, you would like to take a walk with me in my mind. There are a few things I need to be honest about with you, and some things Iíd like you to see as well. Nothing too bad, but it is only fair for you to be able to see everything about me since youíre doing the same." She smiled impishly. "Besides, Iíd like you to see yourself the way I see you."
A dark brow rose. "Should I be scared?"
Gwen smacked her arm lightly and laughed. "Depends on how you feel about color, I guess. Now letís move on. The next one was the hardest for me."
"You know what happens next?"
"Oh yeah... I was there." Gwen grit her teeth to keep from shuddering in memory. "It was horrible to watch, but I eventually understood why. And you were right in what you did."
Randi looked down at the book. This one was easier to accept. For Gwen she would have done much worse, and as it had been visited upon them directly, even the woman in her had little difficulty in justifying the deaths of so many. The warrior had no compunction whatsoever. No justification was necessary Ė she had done what had to be done to eliminate a direct threat... period.
The book vanished, much in the same manner as the two before it had done, and Randi moved back to the files to retrieve the next volume. She was glad to note there were only four more tomes, but their thickness filled Randi with dismay. Apparently, her alter ego had been busy doing all sorts of things that had to be tucked away in the darkness. Randi closed her eyes, wishing she could have it in a story form Ė at least then it would be written in the third person and not quite so exclusive to simply being her thoughts.
As though reading her mind, Gwen rose and took the memories from her, placing them delicately on the slab before taking Randiís hands in her own. "I have an idea," she commented casually. "Do you trust me?"
"Absolutely," Randi replied without a secondís hesitation.
Gwen smiled. "Good. Close your eyes and come with me. I think I know a way to make it a little easier read... something that wonít be quite as personal as your memories."
Randi squeezed the hands holding hers and closed her eyes, glad to follow where Gwen led.
She felt it becoming lighter, then a breeze blew across her face. "Open your eyes, love," Gwen said with a smile in her voice.
Randi did so slowly, feeling the shock of familiarity run through her frame as she saw their glade surrounding them. She released Gwenís hands and did a slow pirouette before she looked her question in Gwenís direction.
"This was... is... our safe place. This is the spot in my mind Reed set up for our use during our spirit walk. She drew on my memories and came up with this. Iíll have to remember to ask her how and why she managed to choose this place and recreate it so exactly."
"Oh, thatís easy," came an amused voice from the far side of the space. Reed sauntered over to greet the two of them, pleased with the aura she could see surrounding them both. Not only had they healed the fractures in the bond between them, but she could feel it strengthening almost as a visible thing as they stood together even though they were not physically touching.
"I let you pick," Reed said to Gwen, thankful for the strength of the shielding that allowed her to be with them in this place together. "Subconsciously, this is the place you feel the safest... um, that I felt comfortable recreating, anyway," with a slight blush. Randiís response was a rakish grin while Gwen sported a matching blush.
"Ahem... so I chose this place. It had everything you needed for a safe haven, and the best part was it was fairly simple to isolate. Now," turning suddenly serious, "how are things going for the two of you? Honestly Ė because I can see that it is draining you both in at least some respects," noting the exhaustion they both wore as a cloak around them and the dark circles under both sets of eyes.
Gwen slid into place at Randiís heart, wrapping one arm firmly around the warriorís waist and feeling Randiís arm drape possessively over her shoulders. They tangled their fingers together almost absently, and Reed did feel the bond running through them as its own entity, stronger than it had ever been. And with that action her question was answered, but Gwen opened her mouth to speak and Reed was curious to hear her thoughts Ė to know what she could now see so plainly between them seemed like to them.
"It is, Reed. But itís a good thing too. We are learning things about each other that we would never know otherwise." Randi didnít speak but wrapped Gwen tighter in her embrace and Reed shuddered at the depth of emotion she felt rolling off them in waves.
"Just donít lose your essence. What youíre doing has never been done before, and with no guide...."
Gwen brow furrowed. "What do you mean this has never been done before? I thought spirit walks were common among the people."
Reed nodded. "Oh, they are. But everyoneís journey is usually as individual as the person taking it; no one has ever had a spirit walk like yours - not even remotely similar. And never had we had anyone go through together as a couple... on the same trek... like you and Randi are now. Especially with no guides... that is my concern. If you need help or have questions, come here. I am monitoring this room and will know."
"Do you know why I feel like Iím... uh, itís like... thereís warmth, you know... from outside... something more than just Gwen and I together. Is it you?"
Reed looked at Randi, understanding her confusion if not her tongue tied-ness. "Does it feel like youíre being cocooned?" waiting for Randiís nod. "It is Sky and Tiny. They are doing for you what Rosie and I are doing for Gwen... lending strength and support. Itís the best we can manage under the circumstances." She blew out an exasperated breath. "Honestly, if I had known you two were just going to take off on your own like that, I would have made a few different arrangements."
"Sorry," Randi mumbled. "I think I screwed up any number of things here lately."
Reed blinked at her. "Donít prejudge, Randi. Go into every event you witness with an open mind. Itís not going to be anything like you imagined it to be."
"Isnít it?" bitterly. She would have moved away but Gwenís hold on her was too strong. Randi was at once startled and grateful, and it showed in the look she gave the bard who looked back at her with a fierce possessiveness. Reed waited for them to finish their silent communication, knowing immediately when Randi surrendered to her soulís other half.
"All right," the warrior capitulated, rubbing her eyes with their joined hands. Then she turned to look at Reed again. "But when this is all over...."
"When this is all over there are going to be some tough decisions that youíre going to have to make. And there is going to be some hard discussion as well. But until then, this is a place where you can both come to have a bit of a respite from... well, everything. I will only come if you call for me. Now, I should go and let you have a bit of peace to enjoy together. I know this is hard. But I want you to know that we are all pulling for you both."
Reed nodded though she didnít elaborate except to say, "You have far more friends on your side that you can possibly imagine." She started to walk away.
"Reed wait," Gwen called, reassuring Randi with her eyes before releasing her grip and moving over to the seer. Randi took the opportunity to walk down to the waterís edge, noting that even the waterís temperatures were correct to her memory with warmth swirling between the cool currents. She smiled when she felt Gwenís touch on her back.
"Iím going to go retrieve my diaries for us to share together. Would you like to walk with me or stay here?"
"You keep your memories locked away?" Randi asked with a frown. "Why? I wouldíve thought...."
Gwen laced her hands through Randiís dark hair gently caressing her face in the process. "Shh," she instructed. "Itís not what youíre thinking at all. When Reed realized what our spirit walk was going to entail, she made sure my diaries of recent events were made available for us to share together on our walk. Even though I do remember what happened, my diaries are filled with much richer detail than I could consciously recall, and I want you to know everything... even the things I am not really proud of."
Randiís frowned deepened. What could Gwen have done that she could be ashamed of? Especially compared to my actions?? Aloud she said, "So you knew we would have to do this... walk through our memories together?"
Gwen shook her head. "No, I didnít. But Reed knew you would have to face your darkness. And she knows me well enough to know that I would want to *share* that with you, and sharing means my side as well as yours. So she and Rosie made it happen."
Randi considered this for a long moment, then nodded. "So where do we need to go?"
Gwen cringed just a little. "Not far... we have to get into the creative side. And we have to be fairly quick. Reed said itís not safe for us to be roaming around out there with no guide."
"Sheís really hung up about the fact that we are doing this without her, isnít she?" Randi asked. They walked slowly in deference to Randiís still injured body.
"I think it is more concern than anything else, with it being such a unique situation. I mean, most people donít go wandering around into other peopleís minds and memories. We donít want to screw anything up," not mentioning Reedís frantic concern about them wandering out into Gwenís mind alone. Gwen was determined that Randi be able to see herself the way that Gwen saw her.
"Good point," Randi conceded. "Sorry to be flippant about it. To be real honest, this whole situation is right on up there on my freak meter."
Gwen chuckled lightly. "Normal human reaction there, love. I think weíre all a little freaked at this point. But ya know something, weird as it is... hard as it is... Iím glad for the chance to do this together. Weíve never had an opportunity like this before. Now címon. Reed said we just had to head this way and...."
Gwen stopped speaking when Randi jerked to a halt. They had crossed from the safe room into a swirl of color and light that was nearly blinding, and Randiís immediate reaction was to come to a halt to assess the situation. She looked around in wonder, then turned her attention back to Gwen, whose face reflected her delight.
The space was immaculate, but it sang with energy and creativity. The color was ever-changing and Randi swore she could hear snippets of music. There was texture that she could feel, though she wasnít actually touching anything, and Randi closed her eyes and grasped her chest as her senses started to overload. Gwenís expression turned to one of concern.
"Gwen, can we move a little faster?" shaking her head and trying to clear it. "Iím... uh...." She went to her knees and Gwen followed suit.
"Randi, focus on me... listen to my voice and slowly open your eyes. Címon, let me see those baby blues. Look at me, sweetheart. Címon. Take my hand and open your eyes. Thatís it."
Randi let Gwenís voice lull her into a place of comfort and slowly opened her eyes, letting those green orbs become her whole world. She followed where Gwen led, never dropping her gaze or losing the soothing sound of the bardís voice, until they were back in the safe room. Randi took a deep breath and let the breeze and the tinkling sound of flowing water wash over her and slow her rapid heartbeat. Finally she blinked, feeling Gwenís hands easing her discomfort.
"Sorry," she said roughly. "I donít know where that came from."
Gwen leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "My fault," she said softly. "Reed told me it was probably a bad idea... warned me it could be dangerous, but I wanted so badly to show you what I saw when I looked at you."
"Waitaminute... we went out there when you knew it was a bad idea? Gwen, this is serious. Do you know what kind of damage we could have done to you or had done to us? This isnít a game."
"No, it isnít. Itís deadly serious. Weíve staked everything that we are and hope to be on the outcome of this little venture. The truth is, I expected it to affect me more than you since itís my mind weíre wandering around in. But I felt it was worth the risk for you to see what I see when I look at you."
"Oh, love... please donít take that kind of risk again. If itís that important to you, weíll figure something out, but donít put yourself in jeopardy like that again. I need you with me."
"As I need you, Stud. So... let me go retrieve those diaries and then weíll go back to your cubby, since I get the distinct impression that thatís the place you have to be to face the darkness."
Randi nodded. "Just be quick, please? And be careful."
Gwen noted the paleness of Randiís features and placed a light kiss on her forehead. "Quick as I can, love," she agreed. Then she moved back out of the safe room to reclaim her written memories of the events of their recent past.
"Oh Great Spirit," Sky mumbled as he slumped forward. Only the number of hand supporting him kept him from toppling over completely and falling into Randiís not-so-healing body. Tiny quickly assessed the situation, noting Randiís rapid pulse and shallow breathing, and realized instantly something had happened within the dreamscape that had cause such an intense reaction.
"Sky? Sky, stay with me all right? Iím going to try to do a bit of creative rearranging here to see if we can channel a little more strength. All right?"
The chief nodded, never releasing his hold on Randi and tried to focus his breathing. He kept his eyes closed and felt the movement around him, suddenly aware of being completely surrounded by raw brute strength.
Sky felt his heart rate begin to calm and his breathing slow as renewed energy began to flow through his veins. At the same time he opened his eyes and saw Randiís own physical response to whatever trauma she had encountered settle and become normal again.
"Sky, what happened?" Jill asked from her place between Geoff and Randi. Their moving around had left her and Geoff to brace Randiís torso while channeling their joint strength. Tiny had moved around to help Sky maintain his connection to Randiís essence in the dreamscape knowing his strength would be best suited to that assignment.
Sky shook his head, grateful for Tinyís support. He was infinitely glad the big man had so much experience with seers and the issues that came with doing things like this. His familiarity with both the seerís side and this particular situation made him perfect for this.
"I donít know," he answered honestly. "It felt like sensory overload." He shook his head again. "We might be able to ask Reed eventually. It was very odd."
Tiny nodded, not surprised. It seemed like everything the two of them touched was as unique and different from everyone else as they could make it.
"Figures," Geoff muttered with a chuckle. "If thereís a hard way to do something, those two will find it and do it that way."
"Yes!" the other three in the room agreed with wry laughter, breaking the tension that had held them in its grasp. Then they turned once more to their vigil.
"Can we do that?"
"Do what exactly?" Artemis asked with some asperity. She had been so attentive to what was happening and supporting Dite, that she had absolutely no clue what Athena was referring to.
"Can we let Randi see herself as Gwen sees her?"
"Yes," Dite answered with some authority as she recovered her breathing. That little incident had been scarier than she wanted to admit, physically affecting her like it had Randi. "If... *when* they make it through this spirit quest together, we can do that with little danger to either of them. Gwen took a seriously major risk, trying to introduce Randi to her mind like that. That could have killed them both."
Athena nodded. "Agreed. Iíll go have a bit of a talk with Rosie and see if they can somehow convey that little fact to Gwen. She shouldnít be taking chances like that!"
"No," Artemis said. "But she didnít become an Amazon Queen by waiting for things to happen to her either. It bites that they started this walk without guidance. It makes the whole thing a dubious prospect at best."
"Well, Iíll make sure they explain it to her, and the fact that Gwen will get her wish about showing Randi what she sees." Athena turned to Dite. "Do you know what this vision Gwen has looks like at all?"
"Oh yeah," the love goddess practically growled. "And all I can say is I so love the way that rocking bard thinks!"
Despite the seriousness of the situation, the other two goddesses smiled in sympathy with Diteís enthusiasm. How could they fail with that kind of passion on their side?
Randi was actually glad to feel the encroaching darkness surround her once again. She felt raw, like her nerve endings were exposed, and the feeling had gone from uncomfortable to outright miserable. She didnít mention it to Gwen, however, as the bard was suffering from guilt enough. Reed had come back into the safe room and taken one look at Randiís ashen face and lit into Gwen in a soft, controlled, but entirely authoritative manner.
Only Randiís own firm commanding voice had stopped Reed cold and she sighed as she realized they had discovered the risks they were running. She had apologized to Gwen for going off half cocked, but Gwen had cut her off, thanking her for her knowledgeable concern.
Gwen had collected her diaries and they had left the safe room immediately, heading back into the darkness. Randi settled onto the slab and stretched out, allowing tense muscles to uncoil and relax. Gwen placed her diaries down on the floor and crawled up into her place beside Randi. She put her head over Randiís heart and let the regular pulse lull her into a sense of security sheíd never found anywhere else Ė in any of their incarnations. This was her one safe spot in all the world... it always had been, and she reveled in it now.
"Iím sorry, Randi. I really didnít think... well, I guess I really didnít think. That was so stupid...." Gwen probably would have continued to castigate herself except a pair of very warm lips covered her own for a very long moment. "Oh, um.... Wow!"
Randi smiled at Gwenís reaction. It had always been that way between them and she relished it each and every time. "Shh," she directed. "Itís over, and weíre all right."
"No, love. No buts, no what ifs.... If you start questioning, what am *I* gonna do? Hmm?" motioning around to the darkness that surrounded them. "What did you tell me just a little while ago? I have to accept the past because I canít change what already happened, right?" Gwen nodded her head. "Works both ways, sweetheart. You canít change it, and now we know better. So letís get on with things and see where weíre at."
"You wanna start with my memories or yours?"
Randi ran her hands through her hair and scratched the back of her neck. "Well, I thought that maybe we could read yours since yours is likely to be much richer in detail and if Iím lucky, told as a story instead of a memory. Then we can insert mine whenever we get to a spot where they fit in."
Gwen nodded. "All right. I think we can do that. But first...." She concentrated real hard and wiggled around when a thick pillow popped up, bracing her back and allowing her to sit comfortably in this place for a change. Randiís eyes widened, and she waited for Gwen to situate herself before snuggling up into the bardís chest. Gwen smiled down at her indulgently and brushed the hair from her eyes. "Comfortable?"
Randi bounced her head lightly on Gwenís breasts and nuzzled them until Gwen was caught between laughter and arousal. She let laughter win and grabbed Randi lightly by the back of the head. "You done there yet, Stud?"
Randi pouted, but the twinkle in her eyes was a counterpart to the one she saw shining out of Gwenís. "I sípose," she muttered, nuzzling one more time for good measure before turning her attention to the book Gwen held in her hand. "Okay, Iím comfortable now," leaning back to meet Gwenís eyes. The bard leaned forward and gave her a chaste kiss.
"All right, this picks up after the Amazon attacked us... just so you know where we are." Randi nodded, but didnít say anything, and Gwen opened her diary and began to read aloud, written in the third person to put it into a perspective she could manage.
Gwen knew the minute Randi crossed the threshold that something fundamental had changed. Sheíd caught a glimpse of the Sabre the night before when Randi had announced her determination to meet with Russ while Tiny was there, but Gwen had still been able to connect Ė still been able to pull some hard-earned answers from her. Now, it was almost as though she were an imposition in Randiís life and that knowledge cut deep into her soul.
So Randi went off to the capital, unwavering in her resolve to make Russ see what was going on and to get some answers of her own. One way or another, the Sabres were going to be involved in eliminating the rebels, once and for all. The time had come to destroy them, and Russ would either lead them or he would be removed as the obstacle he was.
All Gwen could do was wait.
"You donít know what happened when I got to the capital, do you?" Randi asked, surprised when Gwen nodded affirmatively. "You do? How? I mean, I donít... I donít remember much about it. A couple fleeting images, but my first real memory picks up that Sunday with the Sabre meeting."
"Tiny told me everything," Gwen replied in a whisper. "When he called to let me know he was bringing you home unconscious, I told him he was going to tell me everything. And once we had you settled, he did... everything from the time you left the house until he brought you home, including what happened when you visited Daddy."
Randi nodded her resigned acceptance. "Let me find my memory of what happened then," taking the thick book when Gwen reached it around to her. "Thanks. Iíd forgotten Iíd already gotten that out." She opened it up and took a deep breath, then started to read.
Russ greeted me cordially but not enthusiastically. It was obvious that my presence here was not only unexpected, but definitely unwelcome. It didnít surprise me a lot - Russ was too much of a by-the-book officer, and Sabres like me had always been a wildcard he was uncomfortable dealing with. However, I couldnít have given a shit about his comfort level at this point. It was time to play hardball, and.... Well, there was only one way out of the Sabre ranks, right?
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. And after what I had figured out in the shuttle, there wasnít a chance in hell of him remaining one after today. The real question here was how merciful I was going to be after I had been betrayed again by someone at the highest levels of the Sabres... by someone who couldnít stand the heat of the battle the unit bore. And this time, it had been a deliberate betrayal. This time it was personal in a way it hadnít been before.
I made sure in the noticeable drop in temperature in the room could be felt in my words and my attitude. I actually saw Russ shiver, and it made me smile. The tension was thick enough to cut with a blade, and Russ did his damnedest to exercise the authority he wished he actually held over me. It made me laugh inside, though he never saw the humor in my face.
I did feel badly for putting Tiny in the middle of things, but I needed to know where his loyalties lay and he came through for me like a trooper. It was a rush to know I still commanded that kind of loyalty from those I had served with. It would make what was coming so much easier if they all felt the way he did. His words were flattering to the point of embarrassment, and I almost blushed, but my pride wouldnít allow that kind of acknowledgment. Instead, I held his eyes and returned his respect, and it was enough.
I asked him to stay, gratified that he was willing to - given the possibilities that lingered in the air unspoken between us. I was only planning to talk to Russ for now, but I knew where it would eventually end... where it had to, knowing what I did about Russís betrayal not only of me personally, but of the whole Sabre community.
I turned my attention back to Russ with a glare that could have melted glass. Russ sank into the chair behind him, hoping to hide his unease with bravado, thought I could see the tremors in his body and the twitches in his clenching jaw line. I dropped down on his desk.
I knocked his head back in the chair and the sound echoed across the room. I almost admired his nerve, here near the end... to think he could set ground rules and stay in charge. I grabbed the Commandantís chin and squeezed, forcing him to sit upright and focus on me, knowing I had his undivided attention
I explained what I had figured out as I began to pace around the desk. I knew of the betrayal. I knew it was someone high up who would consider me a threat Ė either to themselves personally or to the Sabre unit. The look on his face when I told Russ I knew it was him who was giving the rebels their orders was priceless, but I saw the truth in his eyes. The look I gave him in return was one of hatred and disdain. I watched as he recognized death in the glance and I saw the blood drain from his face. I turned my back to him deliberately, wondering if he really had the balls to try something.
I felt him twitch and turned to catch the blade inches from my heart. Tiny moved swiftly from his position to catch Russí hand before he could drop it, and pulled it up behind Russís back. Tiny turned to glance at me and flinched. I wondered what he saw as I felt red rage wash through my veins. It was time to make the son of a bitch pay for what he had done, and I planned to make Russ endure the agony of every single moment Gwen and I had suffered because of his machinations.
I released Tiny from his duty to me, knowing heíd never been fond of this part of the Sabre code. Truth was, I never had been too keen on it myself, though I was exceptionally good at it, and had always been more than creative enough to achieve whatever results I desired.
I was a little confused by his response, but I was glad to have him with me. 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 Tiny to maintain the upper hand between them.
I had to laugh at Russís declaration that his death would be murder. He should have known better than to try that card. There is no such thing as murder of an enemy in the Sabre code. We are all authorized... trained to kill the enemy. And he was most definitely the enemy. I hit several spots on his back and watched him to collapse into Tinyís arms.
Bless Tiny Ė he tried to give Russ the right to a Sabre trial, but I nixed that idea before it was even fully voiced. This was my right, and I was going to take it. What he did to the unit and to the code was unforgivable and would have gotten him executed by a jury of his Sabre peers anyway. But this was personal for me Ė what he had done to me and Gwen gave me the right to be judge, jury and executioner, and I was damned well going to exercise that right.
I picked Russ up and dropped him in his chair, and he spit at me. I stood casually and wiped the spittle from my cheekbone, then onto his shirt, deciding then and there that nothing I could make him suffer would be enough, but determined to get as much agony out of him as possible.
I 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. Iím sure he never imagined ever having to suffer such misery. I smiled with the knowledge that he would die in a myriad of painful sensations. Then I popped two spots on either side of his neck to shut him up. No one likes a whiner, and I was simply over having to listen to his mouth.
I made sure he knew exactly why he was dying Ė not for the Sabres, but for Gwen. The disgust in his eyes almost made me laugh. Suddenly he struggled, understanding at last that not only was he not dying for something he believed in, he was dying for something he held in great disdain. I jammed the blade heíd thrown at me into his stomach, and felt a satisfying rush of warm blood. His innards spilled onto the floor and I stood up and backed away from him.
Then I made a decision to take back what was ours and gave my first order as Commandant. My only concern now was going to be how to explain this new development to Gwen.
"Iím not sorry for what I did, especially to Russ. His betrayal warranted far worse."
Gwen blinked at that pronouncement. Sheíd thought that what he had gotten had been pretty severe, and it was obvious from the words and tone Randi had used in writing out her memory that she had taken pleasure in the pain she had caused. Russ had been different from the others Ė Russ had made everything personal. Even Jerry hadnít deliberately betrayed Randi, but Russ had intentionally tried to destroy them both.
"Worse how, love?" Gwen asked honestly.
Randi turned hard, cold eyes in her direction, and Gwen knew that it was the warrior who answered her. "If he had been given Sabre justice he would have walked the gauntlet and been beaten until he was dead. Instead, I chose personal vengeance."
"And did anyone fault you for that choice, Randi?"
"No. There were several comments made on how he deserved worse, but everyone was satisfied that justice was served by my actions."
Gwen nodded and let the subject go. "So what happened with Daddy?"
"Nothing, really... except...." Randi paused thoughtfully as a memory sprang forth of its own volition. "Carbon growled at me." She stopped speaking and Gwen waited patiently, having already heard the story from Geoff. Randi blinked. "It was odd, because his hackles rose and the fur stood up on his neck. Then he stepped between me and Geoff like he was protecting him from me. Weird huh?"
"Not really, no," Gwen said, and waited for Randiís eyes to snap to hers which they did with fierce intensity. "Think about it, love. From the time you were infected with... whatever it was Ares stuck you with, the dogs started acting weird with you. Ditto wouldnít come near you, and Carbon grew more and more distant and aggressive. Animals are pretty perceptive, sweetheart. You know that. We should have started listening to them sooner."
"But you know what is really cool?" Gwen continued before Randi could respond. She was absently rubbing her face where the mace had hit so many months ago. Gwen captured the hand and raised it to her lips. "Stay with me, warrior... now you know what is really cool?"
Randi looked up into ardent green eyes and her breath caught at the emotions that swirled in them. She smiled tremulously and shook her head, inhaling Gwenís scent surrounding her. "Nope... what is really cool?"
"What is really cool," Gwen said with force concentration, "is the fact that you just remembered something on your own without the aid of the book. That was a suppressed memory you called up of your own volition. Maybe we are making some headway."
Randi thought about that, then let a big grin cross her face. "Heh." She looked up into the darkness and raised her voice. "You hear that, Ares? Iím winning!"
Gwen put her hand on Randiís nose and brought her attention back to them. "*Weíre* winning. And weíre gonna keep winning until we win for good. But sweetheart, Ares canít hear you. This is your safe place Ė no one is allowed in here.
Gwen grinned bashfully, something Randi found endearingly cute. "Except me. However, I am looking forward to sticking it to Ares when we get outta here. That lousy SOB has caused us way too much grief in my opinion."
Randiís eyebrows went into her hairline at Gwenís description of the god of war. She almost felt sorry for him... almost. But with a little more thought she figured it was time he got what was coming to him. After the millennia he had been pursuing them, it was time Ares got his just desserts.
"What is that smirk for?" Gwen asked when she saw the expression on Randiís face. Her question just made the smile grow larger.
"I am looking forward to sticking it to Ares. I think he has more than earned it, this lifetime especially."
"Well, hopefully, he will get the damn point. Iím a little tired of him and his scheming."
Randi wrapped her arms around Gwen and squeezed tightly. "Maybe we should think about putting an end to it, once and for all."
Gwen returned the hug as fully as she could manage in their current positions, absorbing the sensations that flowed through her. Then her brow furrowed as Randiís words penetrated her mind. "Put an end to it how?"
Now Randiís brow furrowed and she burrowed back into Gwenís neck, eliciting a goggle. "Iím not sure yet, love. Let me think about it."
"Fair enough," Gwen nodded. "You ready to go back to reading?"
"I think so," Randi replied with a bit of hesitation.
Gwen brushed the dark bangs of the warriorís forehead. "Thereís no rush, Randi. Weíve got all the time you need."
"No, I really think Iím ready, but...." She motioned to the book still in her lap.
"Oh. OH. I see your point. Hmm.... Well, maybe thereís more you need to read. Or maybe you just have to exercise your personal faith in yourself."
Randi thought about it Ė thought about what she had done and why Ė and made a conscious decision. Though she had chosen personal vengeance over Sabre justice, the outcome had been the same, and given the same circumstances, sheíd choose the same path every single time.
With that knowledge settled firmly in her heart and mind, she focused her attention on the tome now firmly clasped in her hands. A sense of satisfaction washed through her being as the volume disintegrated into nothingness. Then Randi tilted her head back to look at Gwen, easily catching the knowing smirk on her face.
"Ya know, bard, sometimes you are too damned smart for your own good." She threaded her hand through the short, blonde hair and urged Gwenís head down to meet her lips. "I love you."
"I donít think I will ever get tired of hearing that from you," Gwen whispered into her lips when she and Randi drew back from their kiss. "And I love you back, ya know. All of you."
Words werenít necessary for their silent communication and by unspoken agreement Gwen reopened her diary and found her place, clearing her throat before she started reading again.
When Tiny crossed the threshold of the shuttle with Randi unconscious in his arms, Gwenís heart leaped into her throat. Even though she expected it after Tinyís vid call, it was still unnerving in the worst way to see Randi cradled in his arms like a babe... or worse.
It took a bit of doing, but eventually Gwen got both Randi and herself comfortably ensconced in bed and then Tiny came in to share the events that had taken place and Randiís obvious reaction to them.
"Itís started," Gwen commented to Tiny. She swallowed hard. "I knew it was coming, but God... this is so hard."
"At least it should be over fairly quickly now that itís started."
"Strangely, thatís less than comforting, Tiny. Especially since the hard part is just starting." She yawned and snuggled down into Randiís body, smiling drowsily when Randi naturally curled up into her. Gwen never even noticed when Tiny slipped from the room.
The dreamscape had been like nothing they had experienced together before. Randi was fighting with herself and she didnít recognize Gwen. Things were touch and go for a while, and Randi left Gwen alone in the darkness in an effort to protect her. Unfortunately for the warrior, Gwen wasnít about to take that kind of decision lying down, and went after Randi to claim what was hers. But between the visits, while Gwen had been gone, Randi had released the warrior. And when they awakened, it was the warrior who was in control.
"Dammit! I canít believe I overslept like that. I wanted longer for us in the capital city."
Gwen looked at her as she trailed behind Randi into the bathroom, confusion showing clearly on her face. "The capital city? When did we decide to visit... not that Iím complaining. Itís always nice to visit the folks, but...."
"We didnít. I called the meeting. I am assuming command of the Sabre unit."
It was all Gwen could do to keep from reacting to the lost soul that stared back at her from the familiar blue eyes. She knew in that moment that the fight had really begun, and that it was the warrior alone who faced her now. The ferocity was wild and burning, and once more, Gwen feared the darkness Ė not for herself, but for what it was going to do to Randi.
But Gwen had promised to love and support, and she determined to do so to the best of her ability. Her fear was spent in the intense passion shared between them, and then they made their preparations and were in the capital city by nightfall.
The nearer they drew to their destination, the more distant Randi became until she was withdrawn and almost cold. Yet she clasped Gwenís hand in her own as the shuttle landed and they exited without a word. Gwen wondered about that, remembering before... before they had become lovers Ė when they were just becoming friends, in fact Ė when Randi would be required to resume her Sabre persona. On those occasions, Randi avoided all contact, especially tactile. Gwen smiled to herself. Maybe things hadnít changed as much as she feared.
A knock on the cottage door, and Jill welcomed them... then froze as Carbon charged at Randi as though she was a threat. She glared at him, and he stopped a few feet away, ruff standing up all over his head and lips pulled back in a snarl. He opened his mouth and snapped at her and Gwen moved to get between them, understanding that Carbon was reacting instinctively to whatever change had occurred to Randiís psyche.
Randi stopped her movement with a subtle commanding motion of her hand and instead knelt to be at eye level with the now growling half-grown pup. She held his eyes and he continued to snarl and growl though the ruff of his neck eventually flattened enough to allow them to pass. But he remained between Randi and the Goldmans.
"What is his problem?" Geoff asked as they entered the small living room of the cottage. Then he got a good look at Randiís eyes and understood immediately what the shepherd was reacting to. "Yes, well... is everything set for tomorrow, Randi?"
The Sabre nodded. "I think so, yes. It shouldnít be that difficult. I donít think anyone is going to object much." She spoke as though she knew he knew what was going on. He did, of course, thanks to Tinyís information, but it struck him as completely odd since their last encounter was still clearly fixed in his mind.
He remembered the surprise in her eyes when they got the alert for the Sabre meeting. It was easy to recall the honest uncertainty in her eyes when Tiny had informed them both that Randi had been responsible for the meeting. Then he saw the pain and confusion that swept across her strangely open features before she crumpled.
He wondered how Gwen was dealing with the return of the Sabre, and he turned to study her when Jillís voice cut into his thoughts.
"Wait a minute... just hold on. Does someone want to let me in on what exactly is going on here? I seem to be the only one in the room not in on the secret." She waved her hands expressively. "I mean, even Carbon seems to have more of a clue than Iíve got."
"Mama, calm down," Gwen said quietly, and that made Jill more nervous than anything else. Gwen was a bard by trade, an actor capable of many tones and facial expressions. But there were some things that a mama could see regardless of what face Gwen put on, and her addressing Jill as Mama instead of Mother said more than most other things could.
Jill blinked and looked into Gwenís face, then she took her daughterís hands. "Okay, Iím calm. Now whatís going on?"
Gwen met her eyes unflinchingly. "Weíve been threatened, Randi and I, and Randi is going to take command of the Sabres to insure it doesnít happen any more." She was surprised at how calm she was and how easy it was to explain the basics to her mother. Neither her inflection nor her expression gave a hint of the turmoil that roiled through her guts at the knowledge of what was coming. Jill, however, had no compunction over voicing her displeasure. She withdrew her hands from Gwenís, then turned her attention to Randi and glared. Then she did the same to Geoff, hoping to make a point.
"Excuse me?? What exactly does that mean, taking command?? I thought you were well out of this cloak-and-dagger, undercover military stuff!! And you," rounding on Geoff again. "Who exactly do you think you are keeping something like this from me? Have you lost your mind??" She turned and looked at Gwen accusingly. "And youíre all right with this?"
Everyone stood stock still, flabbergasted by the vehemence in Jillís voice. Even Jill was a little stunned, but she maintained her glower as she looked at everyone in the room. Randi stepped up to break the silence.
"Jill... mom... this is something I have to do. I tried playing by their rules, and it nearly got Gwen and me both killed. Now we do it my way."
"Yes," not offering more detail.
"And youíre all right with this?" Jill asked Gwen again when she saw nothing more was going to be forthcoming from Randi.
"Sheís promised me this is the end. When this is taken care of, sheís done Ė theyíre done. It has to be done, Mama. We wonít have any peace until it is. Weíll be targets forever otherwise."
Jill nodded. Though she didnít like it, she did understand their need to put the past to rest once and for all. She just really hated the idea that it had to be Randi, again, that had to be the one to assume the brunt of the responsibility for it. Jill had seen what had happened to Gwen the last time, and honestly didnít thing her daughter could survive it a second time.
"And how did you get involved, Geoff? Itís not like...." Jill scrubbed her hands over her eyes and walked away a little, dropping into a chair set a little apart from the rest. It was where she curled up in the mornings to watch the activity in the miniature garden space. Silence reigned while she sat there contemplating and the other three exchanged almost awkward looks.
Finally Randi girded her loins to speak. It wasnít like sheíd ever had to deal with this kind of awkwardness before, but she couldnít let this go by. They had to accept how important this was to them... all of them, but especially to her and Gwen.
"No, Randi," Jill held up a hand. "I get it... I really do. But I donít like it... at all. I just want you to know that right up front. I know what this did to Gwen before and I donít want it to happen again."
"Neither do I, Jill. Itís why Iím gonna take care of this myself."
Jill looked long and hard at her daughter-in-law, and shudder at the cold determination she saw so clearly in the shuttered blue eyes. Something wasnít right, but she couldnít doubt Randiís strength of will in this endeavor. Finally she nodded her head in satisfaction.
"All right. Iíll support this for now, but if you go and do something stupid again, I reserve the right to come after you and kick your ass."
"Gwen, it is my right as your mother, now hush." Jill turned back to Randi who was doing an exceptional job of keeping a straight face. "Do we understand each other?"
"Yes maíam... we certainly do."
"Good. Now címon to the kitchen. I hear a bowl of fudge ripple calling my name." Geoff and Gwen just stared at each other in amazement before following quietly behind.
It was an unusual circumstance. Never in the history of the Sabre unit had every Sabre, active duty and retired reserve, been gathered together all in one place. Now they stood shoulder to shoulder at parade rest in the only room at Sabre headquarters large enough to hold them waiting for Randi to make an appearance.
Tiny walked in first and called them to attention, and they snapped to with efficient, military precision. Then Randi strode in wearing a full dress uniform accompanied by Gwen. Only their strict discipline kept them from gasping and making whispered comments about either.
Randi wasnít real keen about Gwen attending this particular meeting, but it had been the best compromise they could reach since Gwen simply refused to be left out.
Randi stood at the head of the room surveying the proud troops that now waited for her words. Though rumors had long since made the rounds with Russís demise, still they held bated breath for her to confirm what many of them truly hoped to hear.
She had served with most of the people who now stood before her, either actively or as part of a safe haven during her numerous missions. They had built trust and understanding between them, and now she was going to ask them for the ultimate trust - to follow her.
"I asked you all here because the time has come to take back who we are Ė to become the Sabres we are meant to be and not the Sabres we have been led into becoming. The time has come to finally end the rebellion once and for all."
Randi looked around, seeing the agreement in the sea of faces throughout the room and felt a confidence and surge of pride she hadnít known in a long time. For all that being a Sabre had cost her, there was still a sense of family and always would be.
"First though, I think you all need to understand what brought us... what brought me to this point." She cleared her throat and took the glass of water Gwen offered. She downed it and handed it back with a smile then turned her attention back to the room.
"Some of you know that after my... after Ghost Rider was disposed of, I retired from the Sabre service. And Iíll be honest with you, I was glad to leave it behind because it gave me a chance to have a normal life with the woman I love. And we were so happy... or we would have been if weíd been left alone. But then the rebels started targeting us specifically Ė threatening notes, attacks Ė and I knew that I had been betrayed by someone high up in the unit... again."
"My research led me to our former Commandant, Russell díAmor. He took exception to my retirement and decided that if the Sabres couldnít have me, the rebels could. And if it took Gwen out in the process, then all the better," she added in a voice so cold, everyone in the room shivered.
"He disgraced the code; he personally targeted me, and when I confronted him on it, he acted like it was his right... his due. I took exception to his attitude, and then I took vengeance."
Complete silence Ė not even the sound of breathing could be heard. For sixty heartbeats Randi waited, looking over the room for any sign of disagreement. What she found was satisfaction and expectation.
"With that in mind, I have decided to step forward and fill the void left by Russellís death. As of this moment, I am assuming the role of Sabre Commandant."
The cheers went up from the entire room, and it echoed for several minutes. Randiís expression did not visibly change, though her eyes sparkled in excitement. Gwen bit her lip and kept her face carefully blank, easily able to feel the exhilaration running through Randiís frame. Finally Randi held up her hands and the room quieted once more.
"I have some definite ideas of what we are going to do to end the rebellion, and I will be meeting with each of you to make you aware of your new responsibilities and the actions we will be undertaking to insure our success. Thank you all for your support during this critical time."
Again they cheered and Randi stood and absorbed it for a long moment before she turned and started out the door. She got two steps before she realized and turned back to extend her hand to Gwen. Gwen accepted it slowly, and together they walked out of the hall and into a dark and uncertain future.
The next few hours were filled with meetings with various members of the Sabre unit. These were people in the worst locations who would be hosting many of the teams that would be involved in decimating the rebels. For the first time in a long time, optimism and enthusiasm ran through the unit, and they moved in and out of what had by default become Randiís new office exuding a confidence that had long been missing.
Gwen watched the proceedings with mixed feelings Ė knowing it was necessary, and having some inkling of just exactly what this was going to cost. But she was also secretly fascinated to see Randi in her element... to watch her wield her authority so effortlessly. It was obvious Randi had the respect of every Sabre who entered her office.
Some asked questions; some offered advice; a few even argued points. But always their eyes and voices and very posture held a note of respect and excitement.
Tiny served as her second, and he was the one to bring to Randiís attention to the fact that Gwen had gotten lunch for them. Randi looked up in surprise, having been so involved in what she was doing that she had completely lost track of the time. Aware, her stomach rumbled as the scent of good food hit her nose, and she moved over to the small table where Gwen sat in silence.
Randiís attention remained locked on her preparations however, and she read through the dossiers of the next few she would be speaking to while she ate. These would be her active team leaders Ė people who would be in charge of being certain her orders were followed to the letter.
They were the people she had trusted before Ė the ones who had gone into the pit of hell with her and watched her back as her world shattered in an underwater explosion. Better Ė not only could she trust them, but they had maintained their covert ties to each group they had been assigned to and would be best placed for retrieving information and formulating plans with the inside knowledge they garnered.
Aside from Tiny, who was a Wizard legacy, Brenda was her best operative. Her link to the Brotherhood was purely carnal, and as such, it was an unlimited source for information. Cam as a Red and Hernandez playing his role as a Blue had managed to achieved a small degree of success in moving up the ladder beyond simple peon status. Neither as well placed as both Tiny and Brenda, but they were higher up the chain than they had been a scant year ago.
Nick hadnít moved up, but he had moved around and garnered some interesting tidbits about the Skinheads Ė things that if Randi had been privy to before her raid, she might have done things differently. However....
She looked over Jessí file. She had assumed Randiís place in the Fringe Amazon when Randi had been killed and had managed to become a scout leader. Randi smiled. Jess had done a credible job filling her shoes, and she was glad to have people she trusted already in places of knowledge throughout the rebellion.
Her smile faded and took on hard planes. This was what she truly didnít understand. Russ had had all these resources in place, and he had the capability of not just defeating, but totally destroying the rebellion once and for all. And yet he just let it sit dormant, choosing instead to take the side of the rebels if it meant her destruction.
Tiny and Gwen watched her in silence with uneasy fascination. For Gwen, it was the realization that this was a side of Randi that she didnít know at all, and she was having difficulty reconciling the coldness and distance she felt emanating from Randi with the woman she had fallen in love with.
For Tiny it was a return to something he had expected... had hoped... to never see again, because to do so meant she had to become something she had ultimately come to despise for what it kept from her. He privately wondered how long Gwen would be able to stand it before she walked out the door, leaving Randi alone again. Not that it was what Randi wanted... deep in her heart... but it was the only way she knew how to operate. She pushed everyone and everything away and isolated herself to put her sole focus on whatever mission was in front of her.
Randi was unaware of her companionís thoughts. She ate mechanically, not tasting her food, simply ingesting it because intellectually she knew she needed the sustenance. She looked up in some shock when Gwen shoved her plate forward. Her chair fell over with the force of the push and Gwen stood up and walked to the door without a backward glance.
"I am going to see my parents," she announced in a shaky voice, exiting the room without meeting Randiís eyes or giving her a chance to answer. The warrior looked at Tiny in some confusion.
"Whatís her problem?"
"You," he answered succinctly.
"Me?" Bewildered blue eyes looked back at him. "What did I do? I didnít say anything about work. I didnít say or do anything at all."
"No shit, Sherlock. Did you suddenly go stupid or something?"
Randiís eyes narrowed and she stiffened even as she stood. "Tread carefully there, Chief. I will not tolerate insubordination from you or any other member of the unit regardless of our friendship." She blew out a breath as he automatically came to attention at her address of him, and she saw his jaw clenching in anger. "Now, did you have an opinion to offer?"
"No maíam," he bit out, and Randi swore she could hear him grinding his teeth. She knew he was lying, but what could she really do to make him answer? He was her friend, despite her now superior rank and she had no desire to threaten him or worse. She knew he knew the gravity of the situation and if it was something she truly needed to know to accomplish her goal, he would speak up.
"Very well, then. Assemble the rest of the team in my office at thirteen hundred hours. And find out whatís up with Gwen, will ya?"
"No maíam." She looked up at him startled at his direct disobedience after what she had just said. Tiny swallowed hard but he met her eyes seriously. "I will assemble the team as you have ordered maíam, but Gwen is your responsibility. I will not interfere and if you canít figure it out on your own, you are just shit outta luck. Maíam," adding the last deliberately slowly and making it sting.
Randiís nostrils flared. "Get out," she commanded flatly, clenching her hands into fists almost unconsciously. Tiny didnít acknowledge her order except to spin on his heel and leave. Randi watched him go, not even blinking when the door slammed behind him. Then she resumed her seat and continued studying her files in the sterile solitude that was left behind.
"Waitaminute," Randi interrupted. Gwen looked at her tolerantly, waiting for her to continue. "How do you know what happened between Tiny and me? You werenít in the room."
"No, but I did know that when we finally got to this point, you were gonna need all information I could gather. So I did. Parts that I missed or werenít directly involved in, someone who was would share their experience. I put the parts together into a narrative." She smiled impishly. "It makes a better story that way."
"So how much of this," motioning to the diary between them, "is yours?"
Gwen shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe half? Itís been a real busy time this last little bit." Randi closed her eyes in defeat. Gwen gripped her chin and turned Randiís face back to her again, waiting patiently until she felt Randi sigh in defeat and open her eyes. "Címon, soon as we finish this, the sooner we get to go kick war god butt."
"Yeah, but first I get to hear about what a first-class asshole I was," Randi snorted in disgust. "Kinda hard to get up a lot of enthusiasm for that."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, you werenít always an asshole and you did do some good things. At least when you were being an asshole, you were first-class. I mean, really Ė who wants to be a second rate asshole?"
Randi couldnít help it... she snorted in laughter, then clutched at her still aching chest. Gwen burst into giggles at the inelegant sound, then wrapped her hand over the arm that cradled Randiís chest even as they both shook in true merriment.
Eventually the chortling did wear down and they could look at one another without breaking into laughter again. Randi shook her head even as a half-smile graced her features. Her eyes, however, were full of tender devotion and Gwen felt herself respond to that look of love that was directed towards her from underneath dark lashes and bangs.
"Youíre something else," she said to Gwen softly, turning her head and kissing the side of her breast.
Gwen tilted her head down and planted an almost chaste kiss on Randiís lips. "So are you," she whispered, trying not to smack her lips together in satisfaction. "The real question is," Gwen cleared her throat and spoke a little louder. "What exactly are we together."
Randi did grin then, and Gwen felt herself return the look in kind, even without knowing the reason behind it. "We, my love, are bona fide certifiable trouble together Ė only the best kind though. As long as weíve had to perfect it, we couldnít be any less."
Gwen smiled and dropped another kiss on the warriorís full lips, reading clearly the worry that lurked in the back of those pale blue eyes. Then she hugged Randi to her body with enough strength to cause the air to whoosh from Randiís lungs. She reveled in the contact along their lengths before modifying her hold into something less constricting.
"Ready to read a little more?"
Randi nodded. "I remember what happened next. It wasnít too bad."
"A lot of what happened wasnít, and the results were mostly positive," Gwen agreed. "You know that Ė or part of you does. I just couldnít live with being nothing but a trophy anymore." Gwen felt Randi slump against her in defeat and put her own hurt aside to comfort her. "Sweetheart?"
"I never meant for that to happen. I never wanted you to leave me."
"I know. But it got your attention the way nothing else in the world would have. So weíll spend some time together here and weíll figure things out between us, and then.... Well, I guess once we figure it out weíll know."
"Okay, so next is my meeting with the team leaders, isnít it?"
Gwen took the book up again and Randi reached out a hand to hold one side. "Yep."
"Thatís it then," Randi said as she turned her attention back to the small group, meeting each personís eyes directly and holding them for a few brief moments before moving on. "Each of you has your assignment, and Iíll expect results within the week. I donít want yaíll doing anything stupid, but I do want as much information as you can gather without putting yourself in mortal danger. I want answers and I want action. The sooner we can move on this the better for all concerned. Understood?"
"Aye, sir," they responded uniformly, and Randiís only visible reaction was a blink of her eyes. That salutation of respect was something she was going to have to adjust to. These were people she had worked with in the field as an equal, and to be so obviously separated from them now.... It hurt in a way she couldnít even comprehend consciously; it was just something she felt.
Randi took a deep breath. "Very well. Carry on, then. I will see you all back in here one week from today, and if you need anything, my door is open." She paused as they rose jointly to their feet and stood at attention. "Dismissed," she commanded quietly, and they all snapped a salute before turning and departing out the door.
Sheíd halfway expected Tiny to stay. He was clearly still very angry with her, though she doubted any of the rest of the team could tell that. He had maintained a perfect professional air and been as clear and concise in his responses to her as he had been respectful. But she had seen his jaw clenching whenever she addressed him directly and he made it a point to refuse to meet her eyes.
Randi looked at her watch, noting how late it was and deciding she could continue things in the morning. There were still a number of Sabres she needed to speak to, but sheíd taken care of the most critical and sent them on their way. And though she knew that it was no longer going to business as usual Ė that is to say, business as it had become under Russí leadership... keeping bankerís hours Ė still, eight hours was time enough to spend working on her first Sunday back. With any luck, she could get things straightened out quickly and work on Sundays would become less of a necessity and more of an option.
For now, though Randi was ready to go find Gwen and see if she could make peace, even though she was still at a loss to understand what exactly the issue was. It wasnít like Gwen just to storm out without giving a reason, though Randi did understand the bard wanting to visit her parents. It had been the ostensible reason for bringing her along on what was purely Sabre business.
Randiís brow creased. Something in Gwenís reaction was off, and even more, something in Geoffís was. She folded her hands and brought them to her lips in thought. He had been as vocally supportive as the rest, but there was a hesitancy in his eyes Ė something troubled him about the whole situation. And he hadnít waited around to speak to her... he had left immediately after the meeting. Sheíd expected him to take a more active role... at least as active as he could manage. And yet....
Randi shook her head. There would be more time to consider things further later. For now, she had a bard to find and make up with.
Carbonís ruff stood up straight and his lips pulled back in a snarl seconds before Randi knocked on the door to Geoff and Jillís small cottage. When the tap sounded, the shepherd growled low and deep in his throat, then barked loudly. Geoff frowned in Carbonís direction, and he moved to answer the door, unsurprised when he opened it to find Randi standing there.
Carbon lunged and Geoff grabbed him by the neck and pulled the pup into his lap. He moved the hover chair back to allow Randi entrance and stroked Carbonís fur in an attempt to calm him. The further away from Randi they moved, the more settled the dog became. Randi frowned as she noted the odd reaction and closed the door behind her.
"Whatís up with him?"
Geoff shrugged. "Beats me, unless he just doesnít like uniforms," motioning to the clothing Randi wore like a second skin. He felt another shiver skitter down his spine. The Sabre standing in front of him scared him just a little bit. She wasnít the woman he had grown to love as a daughter and respect as a friend. This was something beyond his experience as she wasnít the tortured soul who was struggling with what she was and what she wanted to be.
This was someone who was completely and totally in command... of herself, of her situation, of her Sabre persona. There was no hesitation, no indecision. This was a warrior who knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish and had a plan for getting it done.
Despite himself, Geoff was impressed. On the one hand, he hated what he saw in her eyes... what she had become. On the other, he relished it, because he recognized that she was going to do what needed to be done to not only protect Gwen, but to end the rebellion once and for all. And selfishly, he looked forward to that. There was a part of him, a part that grew bigger the longer things continued, that was simply tired to his very soul. He felt like this fight had been going on forever, and he truly believed that Randi could and would put a stop to it.
His only concern was what it was going to cost.
A hand waving in front of his face brought him out of his brown study and he blinked his eyes rapidly as his thoughts cleared and he met Randiís sardonically amused expression.
He was struck then by just exactly how charismatic she was. She had an aura, a presence that was so compelling, so commanding, that if she had asked right at that moment, he would have stood and walked, regardless of the fact that his body couldnít tolerate the activity at all well yet. Part of him, the darker part that was rarely acknowledged and even more seldomly indulged, looked forward to seeing her wield the power that she exuded so effortlessly.
Then she spoke, and he remembered the look in Gwenís eyes when she had knocked on the door.
The change in his demeanor was subtle, but Randi had no difficulty seeing it happen. Geoffís eyes narrowed slightly and she felt the temperature in the room drop subtly.
"Problem, Geoff?" Randi asked as she took a seat. "Whereís Gwen?"
"Out shopping with her mother. She was upset about something when she got here and Jill decided a new outfit for the story session she is doing this week might be just the thing to pick her up."
"What was she upset about?"
Geoff shrugged. "I dunno," he said blithely, giving no hint that he suspected it had everything to do with Randi. "When she got here, her mother took one look at her and decided they needed to go shopping. Personally, I think Jill just wanted an excuse to go out shopping."
Suddenly Randi turned feral eyes towards Geoff and he almost flinch from the burn her could feel crawling up his skin at the fiery trail they left.
"You let them go out alone?" she growled, tapping her comm badge.
Geoff furrowed his brow. "Theyíre grown women, Randi. Of course I let them go out alone. It was broad daylight when they left and they are both more than capable of calling for a transport to get home."
"Need I remind you, Geoff, that Jerry Daetwyler was murdered in this very city in broad daylight not so long ago? And need I further remind you," her voice a mere snarling whisper that sent chills through his veins, "that Gwen is a particular target? Goddamnit, Geoff!!! What the hell were you thinking??"
She rose and moved to the door, her boots sounding loudly on the floor even as she started issuing orders. "Notify the command. This takes priority. I want them found and brou...." The sound of the door opening cut off her words and Randiís head whipped around to see both Jill and Gwen come through the portal laughing as though they didnít have a care in the world.
"Have you lost your fucking mind?" she snapped grasping Gwen by the arms and running anxious hands over every part of Gwen she could reach. Her touch was surprisingly gentle given the harshness of her tone. "Are you all right?"
Gwen handed off her packages to Geoff who had come up behind Randi without ever losing eye contact with the warrior. There was anger and frustration in those eyes, but mostly what Gwen saw was stark fear. She clasped the frantic hands in her own and brought them to her lips, calming the racing pulse she could feel pounding beneath her fingertips by touch alone.
"Sweetheart, Iím fine. We just went and did a little shopping. Thatís all."
"You can't do that anymore. You canít go out alone like that."
Fire sparked from green eyes and Geoff and Jill casually extracted themselves from the discussion, though Randi and Gwen were so intent on one another, they didnít even notice.
"I donít think so, Randi. You may be the Sabre Commandant, but you are not my master. I will not be dictated to! Itís bad enough you completely disregard me, but you do not control what I do or who I do it with. I wonít allow it!"
Randi straightened to her full height. "*You* wonít allow it? This isnít your decision to make, Gwen. Your safety... *our* safety is my responsibility. It is my right to take care of you."
"Yes, it is, but not if youíre smothering me in the process, Randi. I wonít be penned up like some sort of an animal. And it is my right to take care of you as well," she continued before Randi could draw breath to speak. "What happens when the tables are turned and you decide to go out on some sort of mission? Do you just expect me to stand by and let it happen? Are you gonna stay in just because we are being threatened? Itís what you expect me to do."
"Thatís a little different, Gwen. I am a trained Sabre warrior Ė someone with lethal combat skills and the experience to produce the necessary results. Do you really think you could kill someone to stay alive? Because that is what it would come down to. I can... Iíve done it before and Iíd do it again in a heartbeat. Whatever it takes to survive Ė whatever it takes to win. Can you do that Gwen?"
"Randi, youíre being completely unfair and unreasonable. Youíre assuming I would get into trouble the minute I was out of your sight... I am a fully capable adult. I donít need a nanny goat or a nursemaid."
"No, but you do need an escort when you go out!"
"I donít believe you!" Gwen growled. She held up her hands and took a deep breath. "You do whatever it is you need to do. Iím going to bed."
"But itís early!"
"I have an early flight in the morning. Good night, Randi."
"Waitaminute," Randi just kept herself from reaching out and grabbing Gwen by the arm. "Gwen, please. I donít wanna fight. Where are you going in the morning?"
Gwen paused and turned back around to face Randi with a weariness she felt deep in her bones. "Home," she said succinctly. "I have commitments back there that I am not willing to break."
"Not even to stay here with me?"
Gwen hesitated then shook her head. "No. You donít need me here... not to do Sabre business. But Tommy and those kids do, and I made a promise to them I intend to keep."
"What about your promise to me? Doesnít that count for anything?"
"I havenít broken my promise to you, Randi."
"You promised to support me in this, Gwen. I thought you understood how important it was for me to do this... how important it is for us."
"I do, love. I also know that you donít need me here to get things done. Besides, Iím not going away forever. Just long enough to do my recordings for Tommy," not mentioning Randiís promise to be there for her performances.
Randi ran a hand through her hair and blew out a breath. "All right Ė fine. Weíll leave in the morning. How long will it take?"
Gwen felt Randiís impatience in the biting words and she took a deep breath to keep from making another caustic comment. "Iíll be three or four weeks. It depends on how things go."
Randi shook her head. "I canít spare three or four weeks. Iíll have to see what I can arrange for security...."
"Randi, no! That isnít necessary. That is our home, and those are our friends."
"And we have been attacked more than once by people who want us dead. Dammit Gwen! Show a little sense here!"
"Randi, NO! I canít work like that. If it canít be you, I would rather it not be anyone." Gwen mumbled the last so low Randi missed it as she scrubbed a hand over her face.
"Iíll make it people you know and trust... Reed and Tiny and Lacey," Randi continued as though Gwen had not spoken. "I imagine I can get any number of volunteers. Did you know that a number of Sabres protected you when you were on your walkabout? They really care for you, Gwen." Randi put her hands on Gwenís waist and leaned down to put them almost nose to nose. "Canít you see how important this is, Gwen?"
Gwen lifted the strong hands from her waist and squeezed them gently before giving Randi a sad smile and releasing them as she step back slightly. "I see how important you think it is, Randi. I just donít happen to agree with you." She stood on tiptoe and gave Randi a soft kiss on the cheek. "Goodnight."
Randi watched her go down the short hall and listened to the door close. Then she blew out a breath in frustration. This was not the ending to her day she had pictured with her triumphant return to the Sabres as commandant. She had been hoping for a bit of a private celebration with Gwen, and instead....
Randi walked back into the small living room and poured herself a stiff drink. Then she moved to the window that overlooked the garden and stood contemplating the darkness for a very long time.
"Geoff, I donít like this. I donít like the person Randi seems to have become overnight. Who the hell does she think is acting like that? Do you know how close I came to slugging her... acting like she owned Gwen like that?? Iíve got half a mind...."
Geoff caught Jill around the middle and pulled her into his lap before she could make good on her implied threat and go share that half a mind with Randi. "Sweetheart, now calm down and...."
"Calm down?!? Calm down?!? Geoff, do realize the damage she could have done to Gwen... the damage she could still do if she lost control?? Our daughter is in mortal danger from that woman, and I promised her an ass kicking if she was stupid. Thatís as close to stupid as I am willing to let her get."
"Jill? Jill, calm down and breathe a second, please. Randi was afraid *for* Gwen Ė given what has happened to them recently and the fact that they are being deliberately targeted by the rebels, Randi has gone a little nuts. But she will never, ever lay a hand on Gwen to hurt her. It would destroy her. Besides, you know Gwen wouldnít allow it."
Jill sighed deeply. "I donít like it, Geoff. I donít like it at all."
"Neither do I sweetheart, but we really canít step in yet."
Jill turned angry eyes towards her husband. "Weíre going to wait until Randi hurts her?"
Geoff gently stroked Jillís back in an effort to calm her. "Sweetheart, I promise you... I honestly donít believe Randi can physically hurt Gwen. Gwen wouldnít stand for it and Randi wouldnít survive it. I donít think she would intentionally hurt Gwen emotionally either, but they are going to have to set those boundaries and determine what is too much."
Jill dropped her head onto Geoffís shoulder. "I hate this."
Geoff leaned down and brushed a kiss over the top of Jillís head, noting with some surprise a large number of grays he didnít remember being there before. "I know, love," he whispered and tightened his arms around her in a firm embrace. "But we canít interfere yet. Theyíre still newlyweds Ė we have to give them the chance to work things out for themselves."
"But if things go bad...?"
"Iíll kill Randi myself," he said with all seriousness, hoping the trial that they were just beginning to endure wouldnít lead to that conclusion.
"Um... wow!" Randi said softly, sadly. "I never realized...." She broke off and looked around the dark cavern, trying to adjust the mental picture she had of her in-laws with the one she had just been presented. She blinked as the awareness of just how much that hurt shuddered through her large frame and she held perfectly still until the first wave passed.
"No, because they made sure not to bring it to your attention so as not to put me into any greater danger." Gwen drew in a sharp breath when Randi tilted her head back and she could see the stark agony reflected in her eyes. She cupped the warriorís face gently with one hand and rocked Randi against her chest. Gwen leaned down and brushed a kiss over Randiís forehead. "They still love you, Randi... they never stopped. They just didnít like the person you became when you allowed the Sabre persona to become all-consuming."
Randi sighed so deeply, Gwen felt it in her toes. "*I* donít like the person I became when I allowed the Sabre persona to become all-consuming. But Gwen, you have to know something... have to believe it with all your heart Ė Geoff was absolutely right about one thing. Never, not even in the darkest throes of my stint as Commandant or Empress, would I ever deliberately hurt you. It would destroy me. My one clear thought has always been to protect and love you, even though Iíve clearly done a sucky job at that lately."
Gwen shrugged, hoping Randi wouldnít lean back and see the tears that had gathered in her eyes. "I never doubted your love for me, Randi... thatís why some of the things you did and said hurt so badly. I never believed it was deliberate Ė thatís why weíre here together now. Not even on the darkest days from the darkest part of you did I think you were trying to hurt me, but a lot of your words and actions still hurt."
She felt the flinch and held onto Randi tighter. "Iím not gonna let him win, Randi. Weíre gonna fix this together... you and me."
Gwen felt the tremulous smile against her breast before Randi brushed a kiss across her skin and tilted her head back to look into Gwenís eyes. "I think that is one of my favorite words in the world."
Randi smiled brightly. "Well, I really like that one too," eliciting a smile from Gwen, "but I was referring to the word together. That one makes us one Ė and combined, they make us invincible."
"Well, Wonder Woman, you ready to move on?"
"Yes. The faster we get through this the sooner we get back to us."
Gwen leaned down as Randi tilted her face up, and their lips met briefly before they turned their attention back to the book they still held between them.
The moon had moved quite far across the sky before Randi put the whiskey down untouched and crossed the room. Her steps were silent so as not to disturb the rest of the household and she followed the path Gwen had trod hours earlier.
Randi opened the door soundlessly and stood for a moment, just watching Gwen sleep. A frown crossed her face as Randi noted the restlessness in Gwenís body and the tenseness in her features. She stepped out of her boots and shed her clothes carelessly, leaving them to lie where they fell. Then she crawled in to lay naked next to Gwen, noting that the bard didnít relax against her for long moments. So Randi spooned against Gwenís back and fell into a light, agitated sleep.
Randi stirred the minute Gwen shifted away from her. That action in and of itself was enough to wake her. Since her rescue of Gwen from Ben, they had always used those first awakening moments to cuddle together while Gwen gently traced the planes of Randiís face.
Now Randi scowled even though Gwen took a moment to tuck her in and brushed a ghostly kiss over her forehead. Then the bard padded to the small guest bath across the hall and began preparing to leave.
Randi rose from the bed and contemplated joining Gwen in the shower, then decided to go with the signals that were being clearly sent for the present. She felt confident when Gwen had a chance to sit down and think things through clearly she would agree with Randiís reasoning. So instead, Randi put her time to good use, packing up their things and making a couple vid calls.
When Gwen came out of the shower, they didnít speak, merely changed places. Gwen looked around the room and noted their things were ready to go, so she went out to the kitchen to say goodbye to her folks.
"Is everything all right, baby girl?" Jill asked softly as she placed a cup of coffee in front of her daughter and pushed the bangs back from her forehead.
"Yes, mama," Gwen answered with a small smile in her motherís direction. "I have to get back to do those recording sessions for Tommy. You know that."
Jill gazed at Gwen knowingly. "That is not what I meant and you know it."
Gwen clasped Jillís hand in her own and squeezed it gently. "I know. But weíll be fine, Mama."
"Cross my heart."
Randi stuck her head into the kitchen and Jill schooled her expression into something close to a neutral welcome. Randi was so intent on Gwen she missed the uneasiness Jill quickly masked.
"Would you like some coffee, Randi?" Jill asked cordially, removing Randiís focus from Gwen momentarily and trying not to remember the fury she had seen in Randiís face the previous evening.
"No, thank you, Mom." This time seeing the flinch and feeling her heart harden just the slightest bit towards this woman who really had no right to judge her and yet continued to do so. Randi cleared her throat. "I owe you an apology though... I owe everyone here one," she continued as Geoff slid into the room. "I may have overreacted last night. I certainly didnít mean to scare yaíll. I just need you to understand how important this is. Gwenís security is paramount to me." She shrugged sheepishly. "I guess it makes me a little overzealous."
Randi noted a slight thawing in the Goldmanís eyes and she accepted it as a first step in repairing the damage she had done the night before. She turned back to Gwen.
"Are you all right, sweetheart?" Randi clasped Gwenís hands, pleased when she did not pull away. She gazed into green eyes and found a myriad of emotion, chief among them fear. It hurt to think Gwen was afraid of her and Randi started to pull away.
"Iím fine, Randi, honestly," she said, cupping the warriorís face as their hands slid apart. "I just need to get going soon. Iíve got a lot of work to do in the next few weeks."
Gwen nodded. "Yes. You said last night you couldnít spare the time, and I canít spare the time to stay here at the moment. I donít want to stand in the way of you doing what needs to be done to end the rebellion once and for all. Iím ready for this to be over with once and for all."
Suddenly Randi realized that Gwenís fear was not *of* her, but of the circumstances that seemed to be shrouding their lives lately. And for that, she really couldnít blame the bard Ė though she personally wasnít afraid of them. She was simply over the whole thing and ready to be done with it.
"I want to go with you, but...."
"I want you to stay here. I want you to do whatever it takes to bring you home to stay. Iíll be fine."
"I will arrange for security immediately."
"This is non-negotiable, Gwen. If you want me to be able to do what I need to do here, then you have to let me do this. Otherwise I will have to come with you or lose my mind worrying about you."
Gwen didnít answer; she simply left the kitchen and went to their room to retrieve her small bag. Randi caught up with her as she exited.
"I need you to promise me, Gwen... to show me you understand why I have to do this."
"I already told you I understand why you feel the need to coddle me, Randi. I promise you... I do understand. You do what you feel you need to do, and I will do what I need to do. And right now that means I have a shuttle to catch Ė Tommy and I had to reschedule Fridayís session for this afternoon, and Iím not gonna let him down again."
"I already called Reed Ė she will fly you directly home. I donít want you using public transportation for the duration."
Gwen nodded. She would allow Randi this bit of precaution if it would help her to settle down and get the job done. Suddenly she was tired to the depths of her very soul. She wanted nothing more for everything to be over with so she and Randi could go home and live a normal life together.
"Thank you, Gwen. Címon. Iíll take you to the shuttle before I head to work." Randi took the small tote and tucked Gwenís hand into the crook of her elbow. Gwen shuddered. The feel was all wrong, but she couldnít put her finger on just what had changed.
Randi settled her into the small transport that had been provided for their use and they proceeded in silence to the Sabre landing field just on the outskirts of the capital city
Maybe some time apart would be best for both of us, Gwen pondered, and that thought created an ache in her soul so intense it made her breath catch in her chest - given what they had been through just to be together.
Randi felt the reaction and she looked down into Gwenís face, stopping the transport when she realized Gwen was having difficulty breathing. She blew gently in her face, forcing an instinctive reaction and causing Gwen to inhale automatically.
"You all right?" her sudden tenderness nearly Gwenís undoing.
Gwen bit her lip and nodded. "Yes. Just thinking about how much I will miss you."
Randi leaned forward and caught Gwenís lips in a light kiss, which both of the deepened by mutual, passionate consent. Randi cupped Gwenís face and threaded her hands in the blonde hair, reveling in the intensity she could feel between them.
Gwen let her fingers tangle in Randiís hair, kissing her as though it was the last time, memorizing the tastes and textures and scents until they were a living part of her. Slowly, she pulled them apart and placed a final kiss on Randiís nose.
"I love you."
"I love you too. Be safe. Iíll miss you."
Gwen nodded and slipped from the transport and moved quickly towards Reed and the waiting shuttle. She wondered how long this separation would last. And she speculated on whether or not this was the separation Aphrodite had warned her of. She didnít think so Ė she wasnít forcing Randi to choose. She was merely going home to fulfill previous obligations.
Reed gave her a nod as she approached but was otherwise silent. Gwen recognized that Reed was probably in some discomfort and wanted to keep it at a minimum. She boarded the shuttle with a single backward glance at Randi and a wave, then moved quickly to the rear of the vehicle.
The flight home was made in silence except when Reed needed to communicate with Tiny. Gwen half suspected he was keeping an eye on their progress for Randi, but she remained quiet. There wasnít much she could do about it until they landed anyway. Instead, she focused her attention on preparations for her upcoming performance. Tommy and those kids deserved her very best effort.
When the shuttle set down with a bare whisper, Gwen picked up her pack and moved back towards the front to thank Reed for the ride. She wasnít surprised to see Reed reach for the cutoff switch and grab her own bag out from under the seat.
"Donít bother," Gwen said in a low flat voice. Reed turned to her in surprise, hesitating at the tone and then stopping all together at the look on Gwenís face. She meant business.
"Gwen, I have my orders."
"I understand that, Reed, and any other time, it wouldnít matter because you would be here as my friend. God, I hate to have to say this...." She drew a deep breath. "But as a Sabre you are not welcome in my home Ė not for this. It is bad enough Randi has given in to whatever madness had befallen her, but I will not be subject to it in my own home."
"I thought you promised Randi...." having spoken to the Commandant once they were in the air and on their way back to the island. Randi had made it clear the Gwen understood how things had to be and that she would give Reed no problems. Reed smiled to herself Ė she should have known it wouldnít be that easy. Given how skewed their auras were she was surprised they were still talking... much less trying to stay together through it Ė though she understood better than most just how important they were to one anotherís very existence.
"I promised Randi that I understood, and I do understand. I just donít happen to agree with her. I told her to do whatever she felt was necessary, and I would do the same. I cannot work if I am being hawked over, and even if you stayed in the background, Reed, *I* would know you were there. And I will not tolerate that sort of treatment in my home."
"Gwen, it wouldnít be like that. No one is going to impose on you; you wonít even know weíre there."
Gwen shook her head sadly. "Yeah, I would. I knew you were there during my walkabout... I just didnít care."
Reed looked surprised. "You knew?"
"Yeah. I mean, I didnít know who yaíll were, but after a while I knew I was being followed. I just figured when no one attacked me that whoever it was had their own reasons for following. I figured maybe someone who liked the stories I was reading to people, though I couldnít figure out why. They were the same few stories over and over again." She shrugged. "Like I said, I really didnít care. But I am well aware of this, and I do care. I donít want yaíll here."
Reed raked a hand through her newly shorn hair. Sheíd liked Gwenís new look so well, sheíd decided to try something a little radical herself. She just hadnít expected to be nearly bald by the time the barber finished. It would be a while before she needed another cut for sure.
"Then Iím afraid we are at an impasse, Gwen, because I have my orders and they take precedence over your wishes."
Gwen refrained from putting her hand on Reed as she was well aware of the kind of pain she could inadvertently inflict. "If you feel the need to remain on the island for the duration, you can either stay here or you can go to the boathouse. But you are not to step one foot inside the beach house and I do not want you or anyone else near Midas. Do I make myself clear?"
Reed nodded, seeing the seriousness of the command written clearly in the green eyes that held hers. She idly wondered if Randi was capable of keeping this particular powder house dry, because she had the distinct feeling Gwen wasnít going to give much quarter on this.
"You do realize I will have to report this to Randi."
"You do what you need to do, Reed. But understand I am not kidding about this. I will not become a prisoner for Randiís peace of mind. Because this isnít about me... this is about winning. And she is determined to win no matter what the personal cost."
"Gwen, what changed? As of last Thursday when Tiny brought her home to you, I know she had your complete support. Even though you werenít happy and didnít agree with what was happening, you were still determined to support her... whatever it took."
"You didnít see what happened to her last night. I still support her, Reed, but I refuse to become a pawn in whatever game is being played. Sheís becoming someone I donít recognize by giving into her fears and I will not be part of anything that aids and abets those fears. Sheís going to have to get past them, whatever it takes."
"Do you understand that by defeating the rebels, she is looking to win once and for all?"
"Yes, Reed. I do. Do you understand that I run a real chance of losing her regardless of how things turn out for the rest of the world? Already I donít like what she is becoming to do this... it is beyond what she was before she died."
Gwen hefted her pack and moved towards the shuttle doors. "Maybe it would have been better for everyone if she had simply stayed dead. Ares would never have gotten an opportunity to try to corrupt her in this lifetime, and I wouldnít have to stand by and watch it happen."
Reed gasped, feeling the waves of misery that wafted from the core of Gwenís being. "You canít mean that. Gwen, youíre soul bound to one another. Your karmic cycle could have been permanently destroyed had not Randi come back and allowed you both to claim one another once more."
Gwen looked back from the doorway at Reed, and the seer easily recognized the ancientness that resided in those eyes. "Our karmic cycle would not have been destroyed, Reed. That is not the way things work for us. She would have gone to her rest and I would have followed. That is how it has always been with us. The only reason I did not know it was time to go when she died the last time is we had not actually admitted our love to one another... thatís the real reason she was allowed to come back. But I would have gone to my rest and found her. We wouldíve been together again in the afterlife, and all of us wouldíve been spared the misery and heartache we have already had and still have to look forward to. So, yeah... absolutely I do mean it."
"You would so willingly give up every happiness you have known with her in this life to have spared...."
"Yes, Reed. I would... in a heartbeat."
"And if you knew that her staying dead would have screwed your karmic cycle forever? That you would be lost to one another for eternity?"
Gwen hesitated. That was an infinitely tougher question as it meant losing something that was an intricate part of her being forever. Her breath caught at the palpable loss just the thought brought to her soul and tears formed in her eyes.
"Yes," she finally whispered. "Because it would have finally given Randi peace and she has more than earned that, Reed. Ares couldnít have touched her then."
"He would have owned her."
"What??" managing to wrap the whisper around an agonized keening. "Reed, thatís not possible." She sank down onto the shuttle steps, her legs no longer able to hold her up when her knees turned to jello. "She was beyond his reach."
Reed nodded and moved to sit next to Gwen on the steps, though she left her bag neatly tucked under her pilotís seat. "May I?" she asked, motioning to the space beside the bard. Reed waited for a nod before she dropped down rather heavily beside her.
"Youíre right... if Randi had stayed dead after her defeat of Ghost Rider, she would have had peace for a little while. Ares couldnít have touched her as long as she remained in eternity. But she knew that she loved you and her soul was already pining for you before she died. She wouldnít have stayed in eternity for very long before she would have resumed an earthly form. And you wouldnít have been around the next time to stop him from winning."
Gwen sat silently for a moment, taking in Reedís words and letting them soak into her consciousness. She never took her eyes off the house she could just make out on the other side of the foliage, but she did finally speak softly. "How do you know this?"
"Rosie and I have been doing research. It took some doing, but we found some ancient texts that gave Rosie the ability to look beyond... to see the possibilities the past held."
"Isnít that what you do?"
"No," Reed answered with a smile. "I see the possibilities of what is coming. Rosie was able to look into the past and see what would have been."
"Because we need as much information as we can gather if you are to defeat Ares once and for all. Because what could have been could be again if your bond is broken."
Gwen gasped and wrapped her arms around herself in an effort to ease the anguish that trembled through her body as she faced the reality that she might be separated from Randi for eternity. Reed sat quietly and let her process the pain that rippled from Gwenís body into Reedís awareness. The seer focused on maintaining her barrier until Gwen turned to her.
"You bear a tremendous responsibility, Gwen... a burden no one should bear, but one that fate has handed to you anyway. You are all that stands between Ares and Randiís soul. Alone she is formidable but vulnerable. Together the two of you are invincible. If you win this time, you win for keeps. He will no longer have any sway over her."
"You sound so sure."
Gwen turned her attention back out to sea and closed her eyes as a breeze blew across her face. "I donít doubt our love for one another or Randiís commitment to me. I never have."
"Then why the doubts?"
"Because the stakes have never been so high, Reed, and the odds have never been so stacked against us." Gwen looked at her briefly again before turning her attention back to the outdoors. She watched the breeze move the leaves randomly and Reed remained quiet, sensing Gwen was not done speaking.
"Aphrodite came to me. She told me what Ares did... how he managed to infect her. He took away her choice, Reed. So my doubts arenít about the bond Randi and I share Ė my doubts are about the outcome of this fight with Ares. He has made winning impossible this time."
"Not... really, Gwen. True, he did infect her. And true, it should have taken away her choice. But the fact is, it didnít... not completely. She has been struggling for control since this started. I think Russ did something to push her over the edge, because it wasnít until then that she decided she needed to go on the offensive."
"So she gave in to Ares," flatly.
"I donít think so. Gwen, even with her drive and her focus on becoming Sabre Commandant, on wiping out the rebellion, her first priority has remained your safety. I believe she is still fighting. Donít give up on her yet, Gwen."
"Iím tired, Reed. My soul hurts."
The seer mentally braced herself, then wrapped an arm around Gwenís shoulders. Gwen accepted the comfort, leaning her head against Reedís shoulder but keeping her attention on the world just beyond the shuttle.
"Youíre not alone in your fight, Gwen. Weíre all going to be here in your corner, and weíre going to win. You wanna know why I think that?"
"Did you see it?"
"Would you like to see what I have seen?"
Gwen nodded. "I think I need to... especially if you can show me something positive." She sat up unexpectedly and looked into Reedís gray eyes Ė eyes that she had nearly lost helping to recover Gwen from the former Sabre that had kidnapped her and subsequently erased her memories. She shook her head.
"I sound like a whiny brat, donít I? God, Iím sorry. I just... I dunno. Iím just at such a loss here. I feel like Iím caught in the whirlpool of Charybdis. I seem to be losing sight of everything."
Reed smiled. "Nah... you just sound like someone who is running on overload. Thatís why I am here - to remind you that you donít have to do this alone this time. Címon," she encouraged, tendering her own hands. "Iíll make it quick. I donít think either of us is up for anything extensive."
Gwen proffered her hands towards Reed and was assaulted by a flurry of mental images when their hands linked. Then the connection steadied and she was able to make out a single image, and she wondered how Reed had managed to hold her vision on this one impression.
The two of them were older Ė Randi had streaks of gray in her hair on either side of her face over her ears and both of them had less than smooth skin. They stood together wrapped in one anotherís arms facing the ocean as the sun set. The prophetic foresight couldnít have lasted more than a few seconds, but for Gwen, everything moved slowly enough for her to drink in the details and realize with startling clarity that she was looking at their distant future together.
Abruptly, the picture disappeared from her mind and the connection between her and Reed was broken. Gwen gasped, momentarily overwhelmed. There had been so much darkness, but that final image gave her the hope she needed. She couldnít have explained why she needed the reassurance, but she was glad Reed had been able to provide it. Even though it was only a possibility, it was a vision that would take her through the darkness yet to come.
"Thank you, Reed."
Reed smiled tiredly. "Iím glad I could help, Gwen." She rose shakily to her feet and snatched her bag out from under the seat before extending a hand down to the bard. "Címon. Youíve gotta get ready for work and I need to make a few calls."
"Itís okay, Gwen. Trust your instincts. Thereís got to be a reason you feel as strongly about this as you do. Just donít forget weíre on your side too."
Reed shook her head and they headed up the short walk towards the beach house. "No, but that is what I feel most comfortable trusting at this point. There are so many variables, and somehow I think you pushing Randi out of her comfort zone will ultimately be a good thing. Might suck in the short-term though."
Gwen laughed wryly. "It already does, Reed. It already does."
Gwen stopped reading when the book slid off her lap and she looked down at Randi. The warrior didnít look up, but Gwen could feel the sobs and the wetness that was soaking the front of her shirt. Randi made no sound, but Gwen could feel the misery and confusion roiling through Randiís being.
For a long moment they stayed that way, and Randi absorbed the comfort Gwen so freely offered. Then she eased her grip and leaned her head back on Gwenís shoulder so she could peer gently into verdant green eyes.
"You would have given us up." A flat statement, no question in her voice.
"Yes," Gwen answered in a whisper, her eyes never leaving Randiís. "If it would have granted you peace, I would have given us up in a heartbeat." She reached up two fingers and cover Randiís lips before she could speak. "Youíve been fighting for thousands of years, love, and this time Ares stacked the deck against you... to make you his warrior forever. I wanted you to know peace, and if thatís what it took...."
Randi removed Gwenís fingers from her mouth and brushed a kiss across the back of them before tucking them in her own. "Sweetheart, do you understand that I would never know peace if we were separated? Gwen, youíre my source, my strength, my reason. Donít you know that by now? Without you... without us... there is no peace for me, and there never would be. We have been a part of each other for so long...."
Gwen loosened her hand and smoothed back sweaty bangs from Randiís forehead and let her hand trace down across Randiís facial features. The blue eyes closed at the feather-light touch and Gwen let her own eyes drift shut, allowing herself to simply feel in the moment. Finally, she moved her touch down Randiís neck and let her hand come to rest over the warriorís strong heartbeat, taking care to use a gentle stroke around the still burned skin of Randiís chest.
"We have, love. And Iím not sure either of us would survive an eternal separation. I know I was slowly dying without you here before we confessed our love to one another in this lifetime. I just meant you finally deserved some peace and if that was the only way to give it to you, I would have given that up for you to find it."
"Always looking out for me huh?" cupping Gwenís face and smiling when the bard leaned into the contact.
"Always. It is my privilege and responsibility."
"Then remember something for me." She waited for Gwenís eyes to track to hers. "Nothing is worth the price giving us up would cost. Nothing."
"I understand that. I just want you to remember that you are worth everything to me."
"Works both ways, sweetheart. No yin without yang." Randi paused then pulled the book back up between them. "Now, back to the grind. Every memory we work through makes my chest hurt a little less and I am ready to be done."
"Me too," Gwen smiled shakily, and they turned their attention back to her written words.
"Gwen, you promised me! You said you understood!" Randi roared. Reed had contacted her as soon as she and Gwen had settled into their respective residences. Actually, she had waited until Gwen gave her the go-ahead, both of them knowing that Randi was going to erupt when she heard.
Randi had been quite calm during Reedís report, instructing her to remain at the boathouse when Gwen was at home. Randi insured Reed understood in no uncertain terms that the minute Gwen left the island, Reed was to be by her side regardless of Gwenís feelings on the matter.
As soon as her call to Randi was complete, Reed placed another call Ė this one to Sky, requesting some local support. Already her hair was standing on end from all the skewed energy flying between Randi and Gwen, and she had the distinct impression it was only going to get worse. Her final call was to Rosie. She wanted to bring the shamaness up to speed on recent developments, and she hoped the added time would give Randi and Gwen time to work out the latest wrinkle in their road.
In the meantime, a storm was brewing in the beach house.
"I promised you I understood your position, Randi, and I do. I understand that you think I need a sitter twenty-four hours a day. I also told you I would do what I needed to do to live normally. And I will not be kept like some sort of prisoner, especially in my own home."
"Gwen, you need protection. This threat is real. The rebels will do anything they can to get to me and that definitely includes jeopardizing your life. They have already tried and they will keep trying until they win or I do. And I am not going to let them win. I am not going to stand aside while something else happens to you."
"And I canít stop living my life to accommodate some unreasonable fear on your part. Randi, the island is impregnable... youíve seen to that. Reed is welcome to stay at the boathouse, but I will not have her here in our home as some sort of Sabre watchdog. I will not allow it!!!"
Randi gaped at her for a long moment over the vid screen, before her eyes became hooded. "I see. Very well, then. I will take care of this myself. She will be accompanying you to Midas, period. I already have other operatives in place there who will watch out for you. No arguments, Gwen. I donít have time for it right now."
Randi cut the connection without another word and Gwen stared at the blank screen unseeing until a light rap on the French doors brought her out of her shock. She turned her head slowly to see Reed standing there uncertainly and motioned her in.
The seer crossed the threshold and glanced around cautiously. Nothing was disturbed or out of place, yet Reed could feel the discord pulsing through the air. "Um, is it okay for me to come in?" she asked hesitantly.
Gwen rubbed her forehead then ran her hand though her hair before dropping her hand to her side. "Yeah, sure," Gwen replied. "I wish I didnít have to be like this, but...."
Reed held up a hand. "Itís fine, Gwen. Honestly, itís better for me to stay at the boathouse. The vibes here are so whacked they are beating on my defenses and until and unless I get some sort of support, it could get very painful for me. I appreciate the distance."
Gwen grimaced. "I hadnít thought about that aspect. Are you sure youíll be all right?"
Reed nodded. "Iíve already made some calls. It is just a matter of getting folks into place. Rosie has agreed to come out this evening and help. Iíll be all right."
Gwen reached out a hand, then hesitated. She certainly didnít want to cause Reed any more undue pain. Reed clasped her hand very briefly before releasing it again. "Iím glad," she said softly. "Now, letís get to Midas. I have a fitting and then it should be time for lunch."
Reed smiled. "Iím there. I donít know who your cook is there, but you can invite me to lunch any time."
Gwen laughed and picked up her things as they headed out to the transport together. "I think it is an apprentice of Ellaís. His name is Gideon."
"Youíll have to introduce me. My taste buds would like to say thank you." And so the banter continued down the road until they reached the Midas complex.
Gwen wondered what sort of directives Randi had sent down that she and Reed were passed through the gates without comment, then realized the new gate guard was one of the operatives Randi had spoken of earlier. She shook her head. She had a bad feeling about this.
"Gwen, whatís the problem?" Tommy finally asked after he had to stop filming for the third time. Something was obviously troubling Gwen and he had a feeling Randiís distinct absence was a contributing factor. "This is not turning out like I visualized it and I donít think my imagination is at fault."
Gwen blew out a breath and walked over to the chair that had her name inscribed on the back. The children who had been patiently waiting for her story were claimed by their somewhat agitated mothers and given a small snack to tide them over til the next call.
"Itís not, T. Iím just a little out of sorts today."
Tommy put his arm around Gwenís shoulder and he felt her lean into him for comfort. It disturbed him more than he let on and he turned to Gwen in full big brother mode. "Címon, Little Bit. Share with olí Tommy whatís wrong. Let me fix it, then we can get back to the serious business of telling stories."
Gwen wrapped her arms around Tommyís middle and squeezed, glad when he returned the embrace fully. "Nothing you can fix, T."
"Musta been one humdinger of a fight then," he said evenly, feeling Gwen tense lightly in his arms. He chuckled softly. "And before you ask, itís very easy to tell. Yaíll are so in tune with one another itís real obvious when things fall out of sync between you. Iím kinda glad sheís not here if things are that screwy between you. My hair would be standing on end."
"Pretty much," Gwen agreed solemnly.
Tommy felt her look around as she eased away from him, and it occurred to him that had been part of the problem. Something or someone in the room was distracting her. He didnít think it was Reed; she had agreed to wait with him in the control booth, though there was a distinct tension between her and Gwen Ė something he hadnít noticed before. No, this was something beyond that, as if the whole room was making her uncomfortable... or someone in it was.
The clue that had been circling finally bit him in the ass and Tommy reacted almost physically to the epiphany. Instead, he patted Gwen lightly on the back. "I have an idea," he said to her sotto voce. "I should have gone with my original idea to start with," he continued, muttering. He turned to the room. "Everyone out. Except for the children, I want everyone out of the studio."
Reed rose from her chair in the booth, wondering what was going on and how she could keep her spot in the booth without causing an uproar. There werenít that many people in the studio to start with and she wondered what had prompted his command.
Everyone else looked back at Tommy doubtfully until he began to shoo them out of the room, and Gwen was quick to note which were more hesitant than others. Soon, there was no one left in the room but the kids, Tommy and Gwen. Reed and one technician remained in the control booth.
Tommy felt Gwen physically relax and drew a sigh of relief. He should have expected Gwenís reaction though. The original idea had been to simply recreate the casual atmosphere of band practice. But Randiís call had changed all that and made it into a production. He had felt Gwenís hackles rise the minute sheíd stepped onto the set, but she had tried to accommodate the change. It simply wasnít working the way he wanted it to. So he chucked Randiís directives and went with his gut.
Gwen rose from her chair and moved over towards the kids, some of whom were getting fidgety and restless. She crouched down and spoke to them in a voice too low for Tommy to hear the words, but in short order Gwen had one in her arms and another by the hand. The older children took the hands of the others, and as a group they made their way to the set fireplace and were setting up their own little nook.
Tommy casually walked over to the camera and focused it on them, motioning offhandedly to the sound tech in the booth.
The children and Gwen settled themselves comfortably on the pile of pillows they had stacked up around the floor and then Gwen began to talk to them. Thatís all it was at first, just informal conversation between them. The children talked about their various days while Gwen listened and laughed at their stories and antics. Finally, the youngest, Randall, who was comfortably ensconced on Gwenís lap, turned to her and tugged on her shirt. Gwen looked down into his wide brown eyes with a smile.
"Whatís up, cutie?"
Randall smiled back adorably. "Wen, story, pwease?"
"A story? I dunno. Do you think anyone else here might like to here a story?"
"Yes!" he replied emphatically.
Gwen grinned at his enthusiasm, and looked around at the sea of expectant, upturned faces. "Whaddya say, guys? Should we have a story?"
The cacophony that erupted was loud enough to make Gwen want to cover her ears, but instead she leaned back and laughed. When the noise died down, she asked her next question.
"So, what shall I tell a story about today?"
The number of suggestions Gwen got was only limited by the number of ideas the children surrounding her were capable of imagining. She laughed again and held up her hands for quiet. Eventually, they did settle down again, and she smiled at each of them. She had missed this and she welcomed the tingle of enthusiasm that coursed through her veins at their obvious eagerness. Her imagination pricked up its head, responding to the energy that now flowed from her audience, and Gwenís mind turned itself over to creating a story with all the elements the children had asked for.
Tommy observed the whole proceeding with a smile, watching the magic return to Gwenís face and voice as she rose to the challenge the kids had presented her. *This* was what she had needed, and though it was still a little off, *this* was what had been missing. He kept an eye on the camera, but for the most part, Tommy settled in to enjoy the new tale Gwen was spinning for the children who now sat around her, enthralled by her words.
For her part, Reed sat in the booth, struggling to maintain her hyper-alert status. Since Tommy had effectively dismissed the security Randi had set up, the responsibility for Gwenís safety fell solely and squarely up her shoulders. So she fought not to be drawn in to story that Gwen was weaving around her.
In the shadows, Randi stood hidden from sight. It had been her intention to burst into the room as soon as she knew that Tommy had discharged the security measures sheíd practically forced him to employ. Then she caught a glimpse of Gwen surrounded by children with Randall sitting so trustingly in her lap, and Randi hesitated.
Gwen started to speak and Randi found herself spellbound by the sound of her voice. Then she began listening to the words and felt a calm wash through her as she allowed herself to be drawn into the telling of the tale.
At some point, Gwen became aware of the brooding presence standing in the shadows and she tailored her story to reach Randi like she couldnít any other way. It wasnít a Soulmates story, but it still held all the elements that Gwen wanted to share with Randi.
Eventually though she reached the end of her story Ė the pirates were defeated in a space fight with the cowboys and the knight rescued the princess so they could all live happily ever after in their underwater castle with the dolphins and seahorses. The children were thrilled and clapped and cheered when Gwen was done and Tommy nodded in satisfaction. This experiment was going to be everything he envisioned and more.
Randi stepped from the shadows and everything came to a standstill. The children had never seen her in uniform before, and though she tended towards dark and muted colors, there was something about the Sabre working uniform that simply absorbed the light from everything around it. She was a hole of darkness in a room already filled with shadows except where they sat under the lighting.
Tommy turned and caught the feral intensity in the look she wore and swallowed hard. After all, he had completely disregarded her orders concerning Gwenís safety and security and heíd known there would be hell to pay for it later.
He motioned to the tech who let the others know it was safe to come back on the set, though the mothers were the only ones who rushed in. The rest had no real reason to be in the room now that the filming had been done without them and most had in fact gone back to the jobs they had been hastily pulled from that morning. It was odd for Tommy to be so indecisive, but they had seen the trouble Gwen was having with all of them around, so most put it down to his accommodating her needs Ė which was the truth. The others, well, they would face Randiís wrath later.
Gwen rose from her seat as Randall was removed by Ella and moved to stand between Randi and Tommy. Randi reached out to gently move Gwen to one side, but the bard refused to budge and Randi was loath to use force against her. Gwen felt the anger roiling from Randi in waves and reached up a hand to her chest and laid it against Randiís heartbeat. She felt the pounding slow and finally Randi looked down into open green eyes.
"You donít get mad at him, Randi. He sent them out for me... he sent EVERYONE out for me, everyone except Reed. I couldnít work knowing half the people in here were here expressly to babysit me. So, if you want to get mad at someone, you get mad at me, but you leave Tommy out of this."
Randi scrubbed a hand through her hair. "Why, Gwen? You promised me." There was anger back of the words, but also a resigned tiredness. "Why are you so determined to make this difficult? Canít you see you are in danger? Iím just trying to protect you!"
Reed had escaped from the control booth and waited silently in the corner of the set. The technician had already moved to another area of the room to begin editing the shoot, and Tommy stood waiting patiently in the same spot he had been since he started the cameras rolling. Ella had wanted to remain as well, but a hand signal from Tommy had encouraged her to take Randall out of the room. Randall had been staring at his beloved playmate Wuv as though she was a spectre he had never seen the likes of before.
"Randi, youíre trying to suffocate me! Reed was right here Ė against my express wishes, I would like to add Ė but she stayed because you gave her an order to protect me. Sweetheart, you canít wrap me up in cotton wool, no matter how much you might want to. I canít live like that, and neither can you."
Gwen paused, feeling Randi trying to get her breathing under control.
"I know what is driving this," she continued in a softer voice. "Randi, you canít let this fear win. What Ben did...."
"What Ben did was take you from me." The statement was stark and fierce. "What the Amazons tried to do was take you from me. Never again, my bard. I wonít permit it."
"I understand that, Randi. But youíve got to trust yourself and me. Trust Reed to handle things here until you can be here. She knows who to trust and who to look out for. Iíll bet if I ask her, she can tell me the names of the half dozen Sabres you had staked out in here."
Randi looked startled. "You could tell?"
Gwen nodded. "Yes. Now that I know what to look for, itís easy."
Randi blew out a breath. "I wonít pull them out, but I will pull them back for now. But Gwen, if something happens here...."
"Randi, if something happens here, I will stop everything I am doing and will go with you to the capital city until this is all over. But for now, I just need things to be as normal as we can manage. Please?"
Randi nodded her reluctant agreement. "You finish up here while I issue new orders. Then Iíll run you home before I head back."
Gwen bit her tongue and nodded. She wanted to urge Randi to stay, but things felt awkward between them still and she hesitated to ask. Then Randi spoke.
"Thank you for the story," she said softly and trailed her fingers down Gwenís cheek. "I enjoyed that very much."
Gwen chuckled. "So did I, though God know the kids didnít make it easy."
"No kidding... space cowboys?" She dropped an arm around Gwenís shoulders and steered her towards the corner where Reed stood relaxed and waiting patiently. As they approached, it was all Reed could do to remain unaffected on the outside as their skewed aura battered against her defenses. For now her barriers held, but she spared a momentís gratitude for her upcoming meeting with Rosie. The shamaness would be able to bolster the barrier she had in place, and Reed appreciated the fact that not only could Rosie help her, but the fact that she was willing to do so. It had gone a long way towards cementing their friendship.
She was standing at attention by the time Randi and Gwen reached her. "At ease, Captain," Randi commanded, and Reed fell into position automatically. Gwen rolled her eyes.
"Reed, relax, will ya? I can feel the starch in your shorts all the way over here, youíre so uptight."
"Let it go, Gwen," Randi instructed firmly. "This is military business and well she knows it. Her behavior is perfectly proper, given the circumstances."
Gwen glared at Randi a minute before slipping out from under her arm. "All right. If you will excuse me, I have business of my own to finish up before I can leave for the day. You two can take care of your military business without me."
Without another word, Gwen took Tommy by the elbow and walked out the door. Reed kept her focus on a tiny speck on the far wall to maintain the façade required by her military bearing. Randi watched Gwen leave and slapped her thigh in disgust.
"Goddamn it!! I canít do anything right for shit as far as she is concerned lately, can I?? And why is she making things so difficult, hmm? Does she think this is some sort of game??"
Reed didnít answer. It was not her place to speak, especially since she wasnít sure whether or not the questions were rhetorical or directed to her.
Randi whirled again and glared at Reed. "Well?!"
"Iím sorry, sir. Well, what?"
Randi looked at Reed as though she had lost her mind. Then she realized Reed was reacting as a discrete Sabre should Ė never answer a question the content of which youíre not entirely sure. "Nevermind," Randi muttered. "Assemble the troops in my office in five minutes. I have a different assignment for them."
Reed took a chance. "And me, sir?"
"No, you will remain with Gwen until she returns to the capital city to rejoin me."
"By your leave then, sir ...."
Reed snapped to attention and saluted before scurrying out of the room, quickly finding her colleagues and gathering them to her with a nod of her head. Then they went directly to Randiís office to await their new orders.
Beth blinked at them as they strode into the reception area, but Tommy had given her instructions to leave these new hires to their business, so she watched as they followed one another into the security office. There was a precision and a military bearing to them that marked them as far more than simple security personnel, and Beth wondered what was happening at Midas that the military had moved in.
Meanwhile, Randi went to Gwenís trailer, knowing Gwen would need to remove her stage make-up before she could leave. A grim smile crossed her face as she thought back to Gwen confiding in her how much the stuff made her itch. Suddenly that closeness seemed so far away from them, and yet it had only been a matter of weeks. Her heart clenched at the realization.
Randi grabbed her head in her hands as searing pain lanced through her skull, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. She stumbled blindly and fell into the trailer and Gwen opened the door at the noise.
"Randi?!?" She turned and looked back at Tommy who had been sitting in the trailer with her going over her performance schedule. At her cry, he rushed to the door and looked at Randi in alarm before hastening to her side and easing her up the steps and onto the small couch.
"Iíll get the doc...."
Tommy looked at Gwen who simply nodded back at him. He started to move away and found his hand clasped in Randiís. He waited.
"Thanks, T," she said quietly. "Itíll pass in a minute; it always does."
He looked at Randi for a long minute in serious concern. "Does this happen a lot? Randi, something could be terribly wrong Ė you need to get it checked out." His attention moved to Gwen. "You talk to her. Donít let her go all stoic on you either. And you," facing Randi again. "Donít be stupid." He squeezed her hand and released it, then left the trailer without another word.
Randi closed her eyes and let her head rest quietly on Gwenís lap for a few minutes until the blinding pain became a dull ache, then her eyes fluttered open.
"Did Tommy just call me stupid?"
"Not exactly," Gwen replied with a small smile. "He instructed you not to be."
Randiís forehead crinkled in confusion. "Have I done something lately to warrant that kind of warning from him?"
Gwen wasnít sure what sort of answer to give. She realized with startling clarity that Randi was still fighting Ė only she was fighting herself... with herself and for herself. It was as though she were two separate, distinct individuals fighting for dominance and control of Randiís mind and body. Gwen wondered if Randi would be able to survive if she couldnít merge both parts of her personalities back into a single whole individual.
Before she could form the words to speak, Randi blinked and when her eyes open, the blue had become a gunmetal gray. She sat up slowly as the pain diminished, confusion washing over her features again before they took on the hard planes of the Sabre warrior once more. Gwen blinked at the dramatic change she could physically see take place.
"I have some business to finish up in my office. Will you please wait here until I come back to get you so I can take you home?"
Gwen nodded her agreement and Randi brushed a light kiss across her cheek before rising and leaving the trailer without so much as a backwards glance. Gwen stared at the closed door for a long moment before she blew out the breath she had been holding and went back to her mirror. She was going to have to talk to Tommy about moving the schedule up, or canceling it completely until this thing played itself out. Despite the anger she felt and the turmoil that was her life currently, she wanted to be at Randiís side for as long as could be managed.
Truth be told, she wanted to kick Ares in the nuts for his inability to accept defeat gracefully, and for continuing to make a mockery of their commitment to one another. Gwen had never considered herself a violent person, but she was ready to go to war with him over this. She wondered if she could enlist some outside aide, and let her mind wander over those thoughts as she continued to remove the irritating make-up.
Randi took much less time than she expected and before she was actually ready to leave, the warrior was back at her side. Reed brought the transport around and got out, taking the motorcycle keys from Randi with nary a word between them. Gwenís eyes grew when she realized what had just taken place. No one but no one besides Randi was allowed on that bike except for Gwen, and Randi had just turned it over to Reed without batting an eyelash.
"We could have taken the bike, ya know," Gwen commented softly as Randi adjusted the transport seat to accommodate her much longer length. "I enjoy riding tucked in behind you."
"No," Randi answered starkly, the bleakness apparent in her tone. "It is too dangerous and I wonít risk you again." She couldnít stop the shiver that trailed up her spine. "Something is wrong here. I feel...."
"You feel what, love? What is making you so skittish here?"
Randi shook her head mutely as she looked around the compound, searching for visible signs of whatever it was that was making her antsy. Finally, she moved the transport forward and headed out the gates. "My thumbs are prickling," was all she muttered. Gwen looked at her with a frown, but didnít say a word. She understood the reference well, but couldnít imagine what or who at Midas would set Randiís sense off like that. Neither of them saw the brown eyes burning with hate watch them head out the gates for home.
"Oh no, Randi," Ares growled as he watched the events play out on his scrying bowl. "No, no. Youíre not going to lose your focus now... not for blondie." He chewed on his lip as he paced, mind working furiously. He was too close to achieving his desires to let Gwenís hold on Randi to become her downfall. He couldnít afford her as a distraction for Randiís focus Ė not when she was this close to fulfilling her destiny, and his.
"Time to put your focus back where it needs to be... on the conquering."
"Waitaminute...." Randi said as they read that passage. "How do you know what was going on with Ares? Itís not like we have a scrying bowl to spy on him," she added bitterly. It stung knowing how she had been played by this particular god.
"No, we donít," Gwen agreed. "But we have some friends who do. And weíve been working on this a while. It took a long time to put all the pieces together, especially since some of them had to be gathered and recorded on the sly."
Randi chewed her lip in silent contemplation and Gwen simply remained still and let her think. Finally, Randi nodded her head and Gwen picked up her reading.
They arrived home and Randi was surprised to see that Reed wasnít already there. She had been rather leisurely in her driving, and she hadnít given Reed any specific orders that would make her late. So she was not very happy when Reed pulled up behind them with Rosie and dinner on the back of the bike. But Gwen welcomed their friend and Randi allowed her manners to usurp her anger. She would deal with Reedís insubordination later.
"It was good of you to come with Reed and bring us dinner, Rosie," Randi commented agreeably. "I feel like it has been months instead of just a week or so since Iíve had your barbeque." She stopped speaking when Rosie laid a hand on her arm.
"Please donít try so hard, my friend. I know my presence here is unexpected if not unwelcome. I came because Reed needs me, especially if she is to fulfill the order you have tasked her with. Donít judge her too harshly."
Randi didnít answer verbally, but patted Rosieís hand before gently removing it. Then she stepped towards the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
Gwen watched with confused eyes and Rosie shifted her attention to the bard. She waited patiently until green eyes tracked to hers, then she gripped Gwenís hands reassuringly. "Go to her, Gwen. Reed and I need to go down to the boathouse to do some work on her defenses. Weíll be back shortly."
Gwen nodded her head numbly before moving to follow Randi into their room.
The warrior stood in front of her weapons closet casually studying the massive array of armaments she had cached there. She didnít even turn when the bedroom door opened and Gwen crossed into the room.
"Before I leave tomorrow, we need to start your training on a few new weapons. Reed will continue your lessons until I can be with you again."
Gwenís forehead creased in a frown. "Why?" succinct and to the point.
Now Randi turned around to face Gwen with her own frown marring her features. "Whaddya mean why?"
"I didnít stutter, Randi," Gwen replied with more than a hint of exasperation. "Why do I need more weapons training? I have the staff and Iím good with it. Why do I need something else?"
"Because I need to know you can protect yourself if everything else fails... if I canít be there." Randiís shoulders slumped in defeat. "Gwen, itís not a matter of *if* something happens to you, but *when*. You are my greatest strength, but you are also my biggest weakness, and if the rebels can exploit that, they will. Thatís just how they operate."
Gwen could feel the frustration rolling off the warrior in waves, and she stepped into Randiís personal space, feeling the hidden flinch at the invasion. It made her soul cry out in agony, while at the same time, it fueled an angry possessive streak.
"Donít," she said fiercely. She placed one hand over Randiís heart while the other cupped the warriorís face. "Donít let them dictate to you and donít let your fear win." She pulled away from Randi and stepped back, moving over to the doors that overlooked the beach and turning her back to the warrior. "Iíve already lost you to the Black Sabres again. Donít let the rebels win as well. They will completely destroy you. They have less of your best interests at heart than the Sabres do."
"Thatís not how it is Gwen. The Sabres donít own me... they *owe* me."
"Yes, they do owe you, Randi. But they own you as well. They are as much a part of you as I am, and you are their natural leader."
"Is that what you think?" The whisper was stark and pain-ridden.
"Itís what I know, Randi. You can deny it, but they are the truth of who you really are."
"What does that do to us?" after a long, awkward silence.
Gwenís shoulders slumped. "It doesnít change how I feel about you, Randi. Nothing can do that. I promised you forever and I meant it. But it feels like youíre slipping away from me, and...."
Randi walked up behind Gwen, within touching distance but still separated from her. Her reach was hesitant and awkward and Gwen made no effort to help ease the discomfiture between them. Finally, Randi let her hands rest on Gwenís shoulders, rubbing them lightly to erase the tension she felt resting there.
"Iím not slipping away, Gwen. I am trying to ensure that we are finally able to have a measure of peace to live in together in this lifetime. I think we have earned that."
Gwen patted the hand on her shoulder before pulling away from the uncomfortable embrace. "I do understand, Randi." She walked over to the bathroom and closed the door behind her. A look in the mirror showed green eyes full of despair. "I understand that you arenít slipping away from me. You are deliberately walking away from us and into the darkness alone by choice."
The bedroom was empty when she walked back into its sanctuary.
Rosie took Reedís hands into her own and urged the seer out the French doors before Gwen had completely disappeared into the bedroom. As uncomfortable as the situation made her she knew Reed had to be in some sort of agony if her barriers were not holding. And while she didnít look to be in pain, she didnít seem particularly healthy either.
Reed took the hint and led the older woman into the boathouse rapidly. Without ceremony, the two assumed a position to help Rosie strengthen Reedís defenses. Reed had hoped it would take a while longer for this to become necessary, but obviously, she hadnít built up enough strength to combat the sheer awkwardness of their aura. What they were doing to her senses was like experiencing a continual wreck, and it was exhausting as well as painful. At some point in the very near future, she would need another session with Sky and the elders of her village to bolster what Rosie was doing for her currently.
As it was, Reed could literally feel the strength flowing through her veins, and it was a relief to her battered psyche. After a bit, she was able to pull away, and Rosie looked at her questioningly.
"I think we both need to eat before we continue. Passing out at this point wonít help either of us."
Rose chewed her lip. "Good point. But we left all the food with Randi and Gwen. Are you sure...?"
Reed nodded her head. "Yeah. I feel much stronger, and we both need food. Besides, I want some barbeque, dammit!" Rosie chuckled lightly at this pronouncement and Reed grinned rakishly and wiggled her brows before her expression became one of concern. "What about you... will you be okay going in there with them after sharing so much energy with me?"
Rosie smiled wanly. "Their aura does not affect me like it does you. However, restoring some of the power I just shared with you is probably a good idea, especially since we need to do it again. Weíve got to find a way to make it more permanent, though."
"Agreed. We can talk to Sky and see if he and the council can come up with something. I donít think weíve ever actually had something like this happen before."
Rosie shook her head. "We havenít. Iíve done the research. Ares has never gone to such drastic measures to insure his success, and thatís a lot of what you seem to be combating. Not only is their aura together screwed up, but also Randiís single energy is entirely warped from what it should be. He has done something... it is almost as though she is fighting herself."
Reed nodded. "Well, that at least would make things make more sense." She paused in thought. "It does seem like we are dealing with two distinct personalities, doesnít it?" She shook her head. "Weíll have to study this some more. It is just so beyond our scope of reality."
The two headed out the door and back towards the beach house. "Rosie?" Reed asked, breaking the casual silence between them.
"Hmm?" the shamaness replied absently. Her mind was already working on the convoluted problem she had been handed. There had to be a way to beat it... she just needed to find the right thread first.
"We are going to win, right? We *can* defeat Ares?"
"Weíll find a way," Rosie assured the seer. "We have to Ė we canít let him win, so he wonít."
Reed smiled. "Just like that?"
"Just like that." Then the conversation ended as they stepped onto the deck and knocked on the French doors.
Gwen walked out of the bedroom and noted Randi was casually setting the table for four as though nothing had happened. It was more than a little disconcerting. When Randi saw Gwen come out of their bedroom, she crossed the room and took the bard in her arms. Gwen returned the hug reflexively, acknowledging just how right it felt to be there despite all the confusion. It was moments like this she felt sure in her belief of them forever. It was just unfortunate they were becoming way too few and much too far between.
Eventually, Randiís hold loosened though both women refused to completely release the tenuous hold they had on one another. Instead, Gwen pulled back just enough to look into Randiís blue eyes.
"I do understand your concern, Randi, and if you think more weapons training is what I need, then weíll start my lessons tomorrow."
Randi drew Gwen back into her body for another long hug before brushing her lips over the soft, blonde hair. "I wish it wasnít necessary, love, but I canít stand the thought of taking chances with you... especially not now. So much has happened...." Gwen could feel the trembling in the strong body she was wrapped around and she squeezed tighter to show Randi her love and support.
Randi loosened one arm from Gwenís body and ran the hand through her long, dark hair and scratched at her neck in utter frustration. "I know you think you are losing me to the Sabres, but youíre not. This is temporary... just until we destroy the rebellion once and for all. I canít... *we* cannot continue to live in a state of siege."
She would have persisted in her efforts at explanation had it not been for the hand covering her mouth. Randi looked down at Gwen with a raised eyebrow.
"Itís all right, love. I do get it. I realize it is important to both of us for me to be able to protect and defend myself... just in case. I just want you to understand that I hope just in case never arises."
"Me too, sweetheart. Me too."
Whatever else might have been said was lost when Rosie and Reed knocked on the door looking for entrance into the beach house. Randi released Gwen and moved to let them in, knowing she owed both women an apology.
"Iím sorry, guys. I didnít mean to be so rude earlier. I just... having... knowing... this whole situation is driving me nuts and yaíll caught the backlash."
Reed didnít answer. There was a different code in place for her now, and the fact remained that Randi was her commanding officer. And as of yet, she hadnít given any unreasonable orders.
Rosie moved to the table and took a seat rather matter-of-factly. "Just donít forget who your friends are, Randi. Things will be a lot easier for you that way."
The rest followed her example and sat down in the awkward silence that followed. Gwen tried to break it, but was at a complete loss for something to say that didnít sound trite or inane. Finally, Randi allowed her Sabre persona to come to the fore and both Reed and Rosie marveled silently at the obvious physical change that took place before their eyes as she spoke.
"Reed, can you and Rosie take care of your business tonight?"
The two women exchanged looks before Reed turned back to Randi. "Temporarily, at least. It will require more work later on, but we can do enough to get by on until we can get things in place to create a stronger shield."
"And when will that be?"
"I have a call into Sky. If I go to them, we can do it in the next couple days. If they have to come here, probably a week or so."
Randi sat thoughtfully with her fingers steepled under her chin. Finally, she tilted her head towards Gwen, and the bard saw a flash of the woman she loved before the Sabre returned to the forefront of Randiís expression.
"Your choice, Gwen. You can go with Reed to the village or Sky and the elders can come to you. Which would you prefer?"
Gwen looked at Randi for a long moment before she turned her attention to the seer who was also her friend... a friend who was suffering almost as badly as she was from the rift that was becoming a chasm between Gwen and Randi. Gwen took note of the dark circles under Reedís eyes and the exhaustion that lay so plainly in the gray eyes. She saw the physical contact that Reed maintained with Rosie and realized even now Rosie was straining her own reserves to strengthen the barrier Reed had erected to shield herself from the skewed energy that permeated the bond she and Randi shared. If Reed could feel what Gwen did, she needed whatever help could be managed for her as quickly as possible. And if it was worse....
"Iíll go with Reed. I think itís best that she get what she needs as soon as possible, especially if she is going to continue to be my sitter."
Randi gave an exasperated sigh. "Gwen, itís not like that...."
"Yes, Randi, it is, but Iím over it. We can start on the weapons training whenever you want. Iím sure there are several Sabres you will want to send with us that will be perfectly capable of instructing me. Now, if youíll excuse me, ladies," nodding towards Reed and Rosie. "I imagine the sooner yaíll get started, the better for everyone, so Iím just gonna turn in early. For some reason, I am exhausted. Donít worry about cleaning up here Ė Iíll take care of it in the morning. Goodnight, guys."
Reed grasped Rosieís outstretched hand as Randi watched in consternation while Gwen walked away from them without a backwards glance. Gwen crossed the threshold of the bedroom and shut the door without ever looking back. Randi glanced at Reed and Rosie, astounded by the amount of pain radiating from the very posture of both women.
She jumped up from her place as though sheíd been bitten by something and backed away from the table. "Are yaíll done?" motioning to their empty plates. They looked at one another and nodded. "Then why donít yaíll head back to the boathouse? I can see being here is making you both pretty miserable, and Iím sorry about that. Iím not really sure what is going on with Gwen these days." She shook her head then muttered under her breath, "Iím not really comfortable either."
Randi looked up again at the sound of chairs scraping back from the table. Rosie met her eyes while still maintain a firm grip on Reedís hands. "Thank you, Randi. Do you have a time you need us back here in the morning?"
Randi shook her dark head. "No. In fact, if yaíll want to head up to the village early tomorrow, that will be fine. I need to work on a few things with Gwen, then I will bring her up before I head back to the capital. Iíd like to reintroduce her to the local Amazon tribe there as well."
Reed nodded. "That could be an immense help."
"I think so," Randi replied. "They are already somewhat aware of her capabilities. They could continue to teach her and protect her without me having to pull from the Sabres. And that means we can get our business finished faster."
"Iím all for that, sir." Rosie blinked at the address, but didnít comment. She knew Reed would explain everything more thoroughly when they were alone.
Randi nodded decisively. "That is what we will do then. The sooner we are done with the rebellion, the better for all of us." She cast her eyes in the direction of the bedroom before moving to escort Reed and Rosie to the door. "Yaíll be careful out there. Iíll leave the light on until I get done in here and yaíll get back safely, all right?"
"Thank you, sir," Reed answered as she pulled Rosie out the door with her and moved swiftly back towards the boathouse. Randi watched until they reached the dock then moved to clean up the dining area so she could go check on Gwen. Something just wasnít right there, and it hadnít been since before the Amazon attack.
It didnít take long; it was mostly a matter of recycling the take away containers and washing up the few dishes they had used. Then Randi walked back over to the French doors and looked towards the boathouse, pleased that she could see lights and two distinct silhouettes. She flipped off the light and set the alarm, then crossed into the bedroom without hesitation.
What she found there was not unexpected, but still tremendously disheartening to see. Gwen lay facing the wall, wrapped around her own pillow and dressed in some sort of pajama outfit Randi had no recollection of ever actually having seen before.
It was clear from her body language that Gwen was still not happy, and Randi was torn between anger at her stubborn refusal to see the truth and sadness that they were obviously fighting about something she felt was a non-issue.
Randi scrubbed a hand through her hair in frustration, then crossed to the bathroom. She figured a hot shower would help her to relax. Maybe by the time she was done, Gwen would either be over her snit or at least asleep. In any of their previous disagreements, they had never been able to maintain their anger or barriers during sleep. She hoped this would be the same.
Then she stepped into the steaming water and let her thoughts wander back to the Sabre business at hand.
Gwen let the tears roll silently down her face.
When the water shut off, Randi stepped from the shower a bit more relaxed but no closer to a solution to any of the problems she saw as immediate threats Ė especially those that threatened her very existence... Gwen. She rubbed a hand over her eyes, then grabbed a towel to dry off with. The worst part of her problem centered around the fact that Gwen refused to accept the seriousness of the situation.
Randi reached up a hand and cleared a space on the mirror. She gazed for a long moment at the haggard reflection gazing back at her and rubbed the side of her face. The burning had started up again recently and it was starting to work her nerves in the worst way. She kept meaning to tell Gwen about it, but since they seemed to be a cross purposes continually lately, the opportunity hadnít really presented itself. She wondered briefly, given Gwenís attitude, if she would even care.
That thought caused a wave of pain to shoot through her head and she managed to push away from the vanity just before her knees crumpled beneath her and darkness enveloped her.
Gwen rolled over at the sound of the thump and looked at the door. She waited, but when there was no other sound forthcoming, she threw the covers off her body and rapidly slid from the bed. She was nearly running by the time she hit the bathroom door and she fell to her knees with a startled cry at Randiís position on the floor. She grabbed the wet rag from the shower door and pulled Randiís head into her lap.
With one hand she gently wiped Randiís face while the other combed through dark, wet tresses. Gwen studied Randiís face, noting with unease the hollowed cheekbones and the dark circles under her eyes.
"Oh, love," she murmured under her breath. "What have they done to you? What are you doing to yourself??"
As though hearing the whispered words, the blue eyes fluttered open. Randi blinked rapidly trying to figure out exactly how she ended up on the floor while her mind processed the feel and scent of the warmth surrounding her. Only then did she allow her eyes to track upwards to meet Gwenís green ones gazing back at her with love and concern. The intensity that radiated from Gwenís very being brought sharp tears to her eyes and she nuzzled the soft, firm surface she was nestled against to keep the bard from seeing the relief in her own.
Still, Gwen felt the relaxation that flowed through Randi as the warriorís body sagged imperceptibly in her arms, and she held on tightly for all too brief a moment before she allowed Randi to find a more comfortable position.
Much to her surprise, Randi didnít move off the cold tile floor, but continued to lay with her head comfortably ensconced in Gwenís lap. After a slight hesitation, Gwen resumed her ministrations, feeling Randi continue to relax into her. She closed her eyes and smiled sadly that there was such awkwardness between them so soon.
After an eternity, she felt Randi sigh deeply and she opened her eyes to find Randi regarding her seriously. Gwen moved the wet rag to one side and ran her hands carefully to the partially dried locks, letting her hand rest slightly on Randiís face.
"What happened, love? Why did you fall?"
Dark brows scrunched up while Randi considered the question earnestly. She remembered stepping from the shower, and then a shooting pain before waking up in Gwenís arms. Why did it feel like she had missed something pretty important in the interim?
She grasped Gwenís hand and rubbed it along her face. "Pain," she said softly. "Pain."
Gwen frowned in response. Randi was running their hands along the side of her face that had been scarred not once, but twice by different members of the rebellion, and Gwen had to wonder what was causing it to flare up yet again. Though she could see no visible evidence of its return, the spot where it had been was cold to the touch.
Gwen squeezed their joined hands and held them still, waiting for Randi to open her eyes. Finally, Randi opened her eyes again and this time she let them remain locked on Gwenís. For the first time, Gwen noticed the redness of the eyes that faced her. She wondered of the warrior was sleeping at all given the exhaustion she could see lurking in the back of her gaze.
Gently Gwen caressed Randiís face. "Címon, Stud. Letís get off this cold floor before you catch a chill. Iíll tuck you into bed and then weíll see what we can do for the pain, all right?"
Randi nodded, strangely compliant. She continued to rub her face into Gwenís belly as though the sensation was soothing. Gwen looked down at her in alarm at her unusual meekness, disturbed by the sudden shift in moods. Then she moved Randi into a sitting position, holding onto her while she felt the warrior gather herself, then helped both of them to stand.
Randi hesitated, hating to show any weakness, even in front of Gwen, but needing the support as she felt another wave of dizziness wash through her. Gwen held on, not making a big deal of anything, but completely unwilling to leave Randi to her own devices, even when the warrior tried to gently disengage herself from Gwenís grasp.
Instead, she wrapped an arm more firmly around Randiís waist and put Randiís arm around her shoulder before she slowly moved them back to the bedroom. It was fairly easy to get Randi settled once they reached the bedside.
Gwen started to step away, intent on retrieving some juice and painkillers to help Randi cope with whatever had thrown her for such a loop. She was a little surprised to find her hand caught and held in Randiís firm, light grasp, and she looked up to find her gaze snared by the blue-eyed intensity of the warriorís stare.
Gwen cocked an eyebrow in Randiís direction, and almost got a familiar teasing grin in response. What she got in its place though, was ultimately more heartfelt, and a true indication of how badly Randi felt... something that, given what was going on between them, would never have happened if Randiís defenses hadnít dropped so low. As it was, Gwen could do nothing but comply once the request was made.
"You," Randi said quietly. "I only need you."
In answer, Gwen climbed into the bed beside Randi and opened her arms. Randi snuggled into Gwenís breast, placing the burning cheek tight against Gwenís heartbeat.
Gwen waited for Randi to settle before she started a gentle tracing of Randiís face, relishing the touch between them. It seemed so long since they had shared this intimacy and Gwen found the memories brought tears to her eyes now.
"Iíve missed this," Randi whispered.
Gwen smiled sadly, unseen by Randi. "So have I," she replied with equal softness. "I donít like that we seem to be losing so much of what makes us... us."
Her words were only met with silence, and Gwen felt the tears well in her eyes though she refused to allow them to fall. Then she felt a warm wetness on her breast and she held Randi tighter to her, relishing the chance for the closeness. She felt Randi cuddle deeper into their embrace with a sigh. It was a very long time before either of them settled down to sleep.
They had no way of knowing how drastically their lives would change once again with the coming of morning.
Reed and Rosie were long gone by the time Gwen opened her eyes, and she felt around to discover that Randi was long since gone from their bed. She bit her lip at the feeling of desolation that swept through her, trying to remember when the last time was she and Randi hadnít woken together when they had shared a bed. Green eyes closed and Gwen concentrated on riding out the pain in her soul. She didnít even move when she felt a warm touch try to erase the wrinkles from her forehead. Only when the touch cupped her face did Gwen open her eyes to be met by the sympathetic blue ones of Aphrodite.
"You doing all right there, chica?" Dite asked with a small, sad smile. She brushed blonde bangs away from Gwenís eyes. "This is hard, huh?"
Gwen nodded and returned the sad smile. "Harder than I thought it would be, yeah. I expected... well, I hoped it would be over quickly." She slapped the bed in frustration. "Dammit, Dite! Havenít we been through enough? Havenít we suffered enough to be together in this lifetime?"
"Yeah, ya have, but this is so not my call. Otherwise...." she shrugged.
"I know, Aphrodite, and Iím sorry. I donít mean to take this out on you. Iím just tired and frustrated and.... Weíre gonna win, you know; we have to. I just want it to happen sooner rather than later. Iím sorry... the waiting is almost worse than just having it go ahead and happen. I think it is starting to drive me nuts."
Dite chuckled. "Well, babe, if it makes you feel any better, I passed nuts at such a radical speed so long ago, it had to be pointed out to me."
Gwen couldnít help it... she laughed. Whatever words she had expected to fall from the love goddessí lips, that hadnít even been in the realm of possibilities.
Aphrodite tilted her head, not imagining her honest response would get such a reaction from Gwen as the bard continued to laugh until she cried. And then she simply held Gwen in her arms until the storm passed. Though intense in duration, it was mercifully brief, and Gwen sat up almost as quickly as she had collapsed into Diteís waiting arms. She looked at the goddess with a watery smile.
"Sorry about that."
Dite pushed her hair back from her forehead once more. "Iím not. You need the release, and Iím glad I was here to help... hmm, that doesnít sound right, does it? And somehow, I donít think Randi is in the mood to appreciate that sort of humor these days. Tell ya what, though... anytime you need a shoulder, you let me know, Ďkay? All you gotta do is like, call for me and I am so there."
"Thanks, Dite. I appreciate it."
Dite squeezed her hands then rose from the bed. "I gotta split before that gnarly warrior babe of yours comes bebopping through the door, but you remember what I said, all right? Weíre watching, even if it seems like weíve deserted you."
"Iíll be back when I can. Later, Cutie!" And she was gone in a shower of rose petals and sparkles, then not even the rose petals were left. Gwen blinked her eyes furiously. Sheíd never known the rose petals to disappear without a trace.
Then a hot, sweaty warrior came running into the bedroom and gave Gwen a wave as she passed right into the bathroom. Gwen blinked and slid from the bed, feeling like she had just stepped into the Twilight zone. Then she walked to the kitchen and began preparing breakfast.
Randi came out behind her shortly thereafter, drying her hair absently with a frown on her face. Gwen felt a frown crease her own face at Randiís expression, especially when that look of confused dissatisfaction was turned her way.
"What?" Gwen finally asked when Randi continued to stare. She crossed the kitchen to cup Randiís face in her hand. "Sweetheart, whatís wrong?"
Randi didnít flinch, but Gwen could feel the tenseness in the skin under her fingertips. She looked into Randiís eyes and saw pain and confusion before the warriorís expression cleared, though the frown remained. With her other hand, Gwen smoothed the wrinkles from her forehead. Randi caught the hand and gave Gwen a crooked smile before planting a kiss on her fingertips.
"I missed you in the shower this morning."
"I missed you in the bed this morning. I figured you just needed some space."
"Not from you. I just woke up antsy this morning. Something... something is nagging at me, and I donít know what."
Randi shrugged. "I donít know. I donít think so. Itís a feeling that started at Midas yesterday, but I canít put my finger on just what it is thatís making me nuts."
Gwen smiled. "And that just makes you nuttier."
Randi nodded and returned the smile wryly. "Yeah, it does just make me nuttier. And these days, I donít think I need any pushing in that direction."
Gwen snorted. "Like any of us do?" She turned back to the waffles which were now a golden brown. "Címon. Breakfast is ready and Iíve still got to get a shower. Then we can go...."
"Weíll run by Midas to give Tommy the lowdown on things. Then weíll get you up into the mountains and Iíll reintroduce you to the Amazon tribe there. I imagine they will remember you, though I doubt you will remember them."
"Are they the ones...?"
"They are the tribe we visited when you got your introduction to the card-carrying festival."
"With the staff thing?"
"Yep. You will be staying with Reed and Sky, but they will come in to help train you."
"Can you do that? I mean, I didnít know you had that sort of position in the tribe."
Randi smiled depreciatively and shrugged as she decimated the waffle on her plate. "Itís not a position, really. Itís more like an owning of a favor. Besides, the queen likes me and she is going to love you."
"What makes you think so?"
Randi grinned. "Because I am just that smart," she said cheekily. "Now, go get your shower so we can get going. Iíll clean up the kitchen." And in short order, they were headed to Midas, though Gwenís mind was working overtime as she tried to make sense of Randiís change of moods.
It didnít take long to reach Midas and Tommy was easily convinced of the need, once again, to postpone Gwenís recording sessions. Truth be told, it was something he had been anticipating. Given Randiís obvious change of focus and her need to keep Gwen safe, he was surprised it had taken as long as it had. But it was apparent to both women that he had been more than prepared for the eventuality.
"All I ask, Gwen, is that you keep in touch with me from time to time and let us know that youíre all right. Itís in my nature to worry about you."
"And what am I?" Randi cut in. "Chopped liver??" She put her hands on her hips and gave him a mock glare.
"No, but I figure you will be too busy ruling the world or something similar." His serious response caught her off guard, and she merely blinked in reaction. "Besides," he continued without a breath, "Gwen and I may have a chance to get some more work done if I keep in touch with her. Ya never know when that muse will strike again."
Gwen smiled, trying to alleviate the sudden tension she could feel running through Randiís frame. "I donít think that will be a problem, T. My muse has a lot of catch-up work to do and has been busy working on a few new things. I think it is safe to say we will be able to do some more recording soon... regardless of where I am. And I think if we could do one or two in the mountains, it would be all to the better. I think a change of scenery could definitely work in our favor."
"Good," Tommy agreed readily. "Weíll plan on it then. You just let me know when youíre ready and weíll get things set up for ya. And in the meantime, yaíll stay safe, all right?"
Gwen reached up and squeezed Tommy around the neck, relishing the return hug he gave her. "We will, Tommy," she whispered. "Yaíll too."
"Weíll get through this, Gwen."
At that point, Randi stepped forward and encompassed both of them. "Once this is over, Tommy, things will get back to normal... I promise."
It only took seconds for them to all be reminded just how not normal things had become for them all.
They stepped out from Tommyís office, arms still wrapped around one another. It almost caused Randi to react too slowly.
Without warning and without sound, Brad came around the corner, blade raised. He swung at Gwen, managing to slice into her arm before Randi grabbed his wrist. The warrior didnít pause, didnít hesitate, but continued to squeeze, feeling the bones break beneath her grip.
"Augh! Gwen cried.
Randi pushed Gwen behind her and advanced on Brad, pushing him down hard and making him hit the floor with a bounce. Tommy rushed to pull Gwen out of range.
"Randi, NO!" Gwen cried as she put pressure on her bleeding arm.
"Infidel!" Brad screamed as he fell to his knees. "The whore must die!" He didnít get to say anything else as Randi backhanded him so hard across his face Tommy heard the bones crack over Gwenís yelling in his ear.
Just for good measure, Randi hit Brad again, relishing the spray of blood from his nose as it washed over her. Then she grabbed him around the neck with her free hand and squeezed until he started to gag. He struggled to no avail, wincing when she released his broken wrist, only to snap the other arm in two places.
"She has... to... die, Randi," Brad wheezed. "If... not by... the... Wizards... then... someone else... will... do... it." He chuckled as her hand tightened, then he choked. "Sheís... sheís your weak... spot... Randi, and the... whole... rebellion... knows it. <gasp> We get... her Ė we... get... you. And once... we... have you... we win."
Randi grinned evilly and reached down and hit a pressure point on either leg, rendering him immobile from his hips down. Then she snatched up the knife he had dropped, and he knew when he met her black eyes that he was going to die a painful death.
"Randi, NO!! Please donít do this!" Gwen pleaded to no avail.
"I donít think so," she replied calmly, ignoring Gwenís entreaty. She turned the blade and rammed it into his stomach cavity with some force. "You see," she continued conversationally as she slowly wrenched it upwards, "she is also my greatest strength, and I will do anything to protect her. Even if that means taking on the entire rebellion myself Ė one stupid son of a bitch at a time."
Brad looked in her eyes again, and in that moment he believed she would. For the first time he felt true, unmitigated fear. His sacrifice would be for naught. He started to cry.
Randi jerked the knife up into his chest cavity and pierced his heart, ready to have done with him. "No more living for you," she muttered as he toppled over into a puddle of blood and most of his internal organs. The entire exchange had taken less than two minutes.
Randi moved away from Brad immediately, scooping Gwen into her arms and shouldering her way past the door back into Tommyís office. For his part, Tommy stood unmoving as she brushed by, stunned by what he had seen.
Gwen caught a glimpse of Randiís black eyes before they started to fade back into their natural blue. Without a word, she relaxed into Randiís embrace, allowing the warrior the comfort she needed to both give and receive. Time would come later for discussion, though Gwen understood why Randi had executed Brad. She just didnít understand the feral joy she so obviously took in it.
Out of nowhere, several of Randiís new security agents, the Sabre contingent, showed up and began cleaning up what was left of the rebel Wizard. Tommy vaguely wondered how they knew they were needed and how they were able to cope with the heinousness of the scene without emotion. But most of his mind was occupied by the images of Randi that had been seared into his brain.
Randi set Gwen tenderly on the couch in Tommyís office and started to place a gentle finger on the tip of the bardís nose. But she saw the blood that remained on her hands and pulled back abruptly, unwilling to allow the ugliness of what had happened to touch Gwen any longer than necessary. Instead, she held up a finger, silently cautioning Gwen to stay put and she rose to her feet, moving over to the door. Immediately, one of the remaining agents stood from his cleaning duty, nodding his head at her whispered instruction. Then he left at a run, returning almost instantly with a med kit in his hands.
Randi tried to pull Tommy back into the office with her, but he furiously resisted her attempt, jerking away from her and leaving without a backwards glance. Randiís shoulders slumped. Having Tommy walk away from her hurt almost as much as having Gwen push her away had. She only hoped sheíd get the opportunity to explain.
Randi closed the door and crossed the room, kneeling beside the couch and reaching for Gwenís arm. The blood was only flowing sluggishly and Randi pulled an alcohol wipe from the kit without moving her eyes from the cut. Gwen reached her free hand and lifted Randiís chin until their eyes met.
"Itís all right, Randi. I donít understand the joy you take in killing, and I donít like it. But I do understand why that is your reaction... especially after being attacked." Randi didnít answer but Gwen could see the relief in the back of her eyes. "Weíll talk about this later?"
Randi nodded and turned her attention back to the cut on Gwenís arm. She sprayed it to numb the area and then poured cleanser on it before wrapping it up. "I want to get you out of here. Weíll regen it when we get to Skyís."
"Weíre going to Skyís and not the cabin?"
Randi nodded. "I want you in the village. It will be easier to keep you safe there."
Gwen frowned. "Randi, um... why do you think I would be safer there? I mean... we were attacked there the last time we visited. People died. People are still dying because of me." She paused, drawing in a shuddering breath and sparing a glance towards the door. "Randi, I donít want to be the cause of something like that again. I canít," in a bare whisper.
Randi slipped onto the couch and took Gwen in her arms. "I know. Thatís why I need you to go to Skyís for now. No one will look for you there Ė they wonít have time. And I can move enough Amazons in to protect both the village and you."
"No, Randi. I donít want anyone else to die."
"Gwen, people are going to die, because I am going to end this rebellion once and for all. The only way to do that is to destroy them, and that is what I am going to do. One rebel at a time, they are going to die."
Gwen closed her eyes. It wasnít something sheíd ever wanted to hear come from her Marine and she felt Randi slip just a little bit further from her with the words. Then she opened her eyes and met Randiís gaze squarely.
"I donít like it, Randi. Itís not your job and itís not your responsibility. Remember? You DIED for them. You donít OWE them *anything else*."
"Youíre right, Gwen. I donít. But I do owe US that, and Iím the only person I completely trust to get the job done. I know I can, and I know I *will*."
"Why, Randi? Why does it have to be you? Why canít you leave it to someone else?"
"Gwen, weíve been over this. We *keep* going over this. Continuing to talk about it is not going to change anything Ė not the facts nor my position on what needs to be done." Randi sighed in sheer frustration as much as anything else. "The fact is if someone else was able to take care of the rebellion, it would have already been taken care of. The Sabres need a leader, and like it or not, I am the most qualified person for that position. Besides which, this has become very, very personal to me. I cannot stand idly by while someone is taking potshots at us."
"I still donít like it," Gwen stated adamantly. "It feels like you are being set up... like you are being pushed into it for some reason." She swayed and leaned further into Randiís body, somewhat reassured when the warrior reflexively clasped her tighter.
"By whom, and for what purpose? I mean, ending the rebellion is for the greater good and all. What difference does it make if I do it or if someone else does... as long as it gets done? Forget the fact that I am the most qualified person to get the job done Ė who stands to gain from me specifically taking charge and leading that kind of offensive?"
Gwen closed her eyes again as a wave of dizziness washed over her. She wondered what was happening since she didnít think she had actually lost that much blood. "Whí couí maníplaí y...?" was what Randi heard come out of Gwenís mouth before the bard went limp in her arms.
Without hesitation, she scooped Gwen back up into her embrace and stood from the couch, moving swiftly to and out the door.
"Riker!" She didnít bellow Ė she didnít need to. The man was standing just outside the door as though waiting for instructions. "Get me a medic with a regen unit and a shuttle, stat."
"The shuttle is standing by, sir, as is Lacey. She was summoned as soon as we knew there was an injury."
Randi nodded. "Good work." She looked down at the scrupulously cleaned floor. "Make sure that body is put in a place where it makes a statement the rebels understand."
"Aye, sir. Do you need some help with her, sir?"
"Nope. Itís not that long a walk. Please let the command center know that my schedule will be a bit behind as I will probably need to stay overnight with her before I head back to the capital."
"Aye, sir... understood."
Randi headed out the door, but paused momentarily when she caught Tommyís eyes. He held her gaze as though searching for something, before turning his back. She walked out the door without missing another beat. Time for Gwen was too precious to waste on something she couldnít even begin to fix at the moment. Tommy would just have to wait.
As soon as Randi stepped foot onto the shuttle, the door closed and they prepared for take off. Lacey met her and together they eased both Gwen and Randi into the reclining chair as neither woman showed a desire to release the other from the hold they had. Even unconscious, Gwen clung to Randi fiercely, and Randi was just naturally proprietorial where Gwen was concerned. But Lacey was well-experienced in this particular bonding and knew how to work around it.
She cut the binding from Gwenís arm, wincing at the bubbling she could see still taking place from the cleanser Randi had poured into it. Obviously the blade had been contaminated by something. Lacey glanced at Randi for her reaction, a little startled by the fact that Randi wasnít watching - and indeed her eyes were closed and her breathing even as though she was asleep.
Lacey decided to take small blessings where they came and got rapidly to work.
When she was satisfied she had removed all the poison and infection from Gwen, Lacey turned her attention to Randiís hands. Though she hadnít seen Bradís execution, she had heard about it just as the rest of the team had from Yemin, the Sabre who had been assigned to Randiís office while Tommyís assistant Beth was on vacation.
According to his report, Randiís execution of Brad had been swift, and given the fact that he had attacked Gwen, fairly merciful. However, it had also been in front of both Gwen and Tommy and everyone knew how Tommy had reacted to the violence. Lacey shook her head. She wondered just how much more these two could survive together before everything fell apart for them.
Lacey took Randiís hands in hers cleaning the blood from them dispassionately. She felt Randiís eyes on her and looked up to find them open to mere slits. "How is Gwen?" Randi muttered hoarsely.
"Sheíll be all right. Iíve got her under the regen unit now and I sent ahead to let Reed and Sky know weíre headed in. Theyíll be ready and Gwen should be awake in another few minutes."
"What was wrong? Was it blood loss or...?"
"Probably or. There was something on the blade he used to slice her with. It was still bubbling when I unwrapped it."
Randi sat up abruptly, taking her hands from Lacey and shifting Gwen in her arms. "Do we know what it was?"
"Whaí what wuz?" Gwen mumbled, blinking her eyes sleepily and sitting up.
"You need to stay still, Gwen. Laceyís got the regen unit going on your arm. It should be done by the time we reach Skyís."
Gwen frowned. "I thought we were gonna wait til we got there."
"We were, until the cut seemed to knock you out. So Lacey came along to fix you up."
Gwen nodded. "Are you staying?"
Lacey shook her head and smiled. "Not this time. But Iíll be back." Then she got up to move away from the two of them to allow them a bit of privacy to talk. Gwenís hand on her arm brought her to a sudden halt and she turned to look at the bard with questioning eyes.
"Thanks," was Gwenís only word.
Lacey patted the hand on her arm and smiled again. "Anytime, my friend." Then she crossed to the other side of the shuttle, leaving Randi and Gwen alone in the silence.
Gwen sat comfortably, her head tucked into Randiís neck. She let her hands wander absently up and down Randiís sides, enjoying the feel of being able to touch while being surrounded by Randi. For right now, in this moment, Randi was totally with her, and Gwen relished it completely. They sat there for a little while, simply absorbing the peace. Then Randi drew a deep breath and whispered into Gwenís ear.
"Gwen, what did you say to me earlier? When we were talking about who would stand to benefit if I led the Sabres through this campaign to wipe out the rebellion."
Gwen sat up to look directly at Randi. "What do you remember?"
"I remember Brad attacking, carrying you into Tommyís office and wrapping your arm. We talked."
Gwen gazed into Randiís eyes, seeing nothing but honesty in them. Once again, Randi really didnít recall the actual act of violence she had committed. Gwen wondered what it would take for Randi to see the truth. She drew a deep breath and decided to push a little.
"Do you remember what we talked about?"
"Yep. We talked about why I needed to be the one to destroy the rebellion. Then you muttered something at me just as you passed out, but I didnít actually understand what you said."
"I asked who could manipulate you."
Randi absorbed the question with a thoughtful pause, understanding it was being asked in all seriousness and not as a knock at her integrity. Coming from Gwen, there had to be a significant reason behind the asking. Finally, Randi withdrew from her self-absorption and turned her full attention back to Gwen.
"No one," she replied sincerely. "There is no one on earth who could manipulate me into doing anything... except me. And that is not manipulation Ė that is decision and responsibility."
Gwen bit her lip and nodded slowly. "All right. I can accept that as an answer. But what about things not on earth? Could you be being manipulated by something outside the mortal realm?"
"Like a god, you mean?" Randi paused again for a long moment then shook her head. "I donít think so. There isnít one whoíd be interested... except maybe Ares, and I already turned him down flat."
Gwen looked at Randi for a long time before slowly nodding her head. "All right," she drawled. "It was just a thought." She put her head back down on Randiís shoulder and snuggled more deeply into her neck. "Do you mind if I stay here a while longer?" she asked drowsily. "Iím still kinda tired."
Randi smiled and brushed a kiss across the top of the blonde head before resting her cheek. She squeezed Gwen gently but firmly for a long minute, then relaxed her hold just slightly. "Youíre always welcome here, Gwen. You get some rest. Regen takes a lot out of you. Iíll wake you when we arrive in the village."
"íKay, thanks," Gwen mumbled as she dozed back off.
"You knew," Randi said as Gwen paused in her reading. "You knew and you tried to warn me Ė you kept trying to warn me. But you didnít just tell me. Why?"
"I told you... I couldnít. You had to figure it out for yourself and make the choice on your own."
"Huh... no way he could win if I get to choose. Iíll pick you every time."
"Would you really?" Gwen blurted out. An expression of hurt flashed across Randiís face and settled into her eyes.
"You doubt me so much? You doubt us?"
Gwen leaned forward and brushed a kiss across Randiís cheek, then cupped the same cheek in her hand. "Not here," she reassured. "And not now." She blew out a breath. "I will admit to having some doubts before Ė for a while I really was afraid Ares would win."
Randi thought about pulling away but realized just from their reading that Gwenís concern had been legitimate. Instead she covered the hand on her face, leaning into it and brushing a kiss against the palm. "I guess I can see where you might have gotten that idea. Itís been a rough few months, huh?"
"Well," Gwen replied slowly. "Itís not something Iíd want to have to repeat, no. But ya know what? Youíre here, Iím here, and weíre together at the end of it. Thatís good enough for me."
"Is it? Enough, I mean. This isnít exactly what you signed on for."
"I promised to stand beside you through the triumphs and trials of our lives, not just when it suited me. So yes," Gwen answered with a fierce growl. "It *is* enough. YOU are enough. You have always been all I ever wanted. Just because we donít always have moonlight and roses donít mean I need anything more than you beside me."
Randi grinned and took Gwenís hand in hers, lifting it to her lips and brushing a kiss across the back of her knuckles. "I love you," was all she said, but her eyes spoke volumes more. Gwen just wrapped her up and held on, being careful to remember the still burned skin on Randiís chest.
"Randi, do you remember what happened with Brad... I mean, actually remember it? Not what I just read, but actual memories."
Randi closed her eyes and breathed in the scent surrounding her... a scent that had been distant from her for a scant few months that had seemed like forever. Finally she brought her mind back to the question Gwen had asked her. She thought about it seriously for a long moment, searching every cognitive memory she had. Randi opened her eyes.
"No. I put it away like I did the others. There's nothing there, except for what you just read."
Gwen nodded slowly as though she had anticipated that very answer. "So you donít remember how you felt when...?"
"No... only how I felt when you read about it." She paused, formulating her thoughts, knowing Gwen was waiting for her to share. "I was glad," Randi said simply. "He hurt you Ė tried to kill you. Iím glad he died, and Iím glad I was the one who killed him." She paused again, watching Gwenís reaction closely, but finding no recrimination or reproach in her gaze. "He deserved far worse than what he got."
"Because he came after me?"
Gwen nodded again, as she once more got the response she expected. "I think he deserved far worse than he got as well."
Randi started involuntarily in Gwenís arms as the bardís words penetrated her conscious thought. She blinked rapidly, wondering what could have brought on Gwenís change of heart. The bard had never been a proponent of torture or violence for violenceís sake, and what Randi was proposing was just exactly that.
Gwen smiled sadly. "Youíre wondering where that came from, I guess." Randi blinked again and nodded. She didnít trust herself to speak yet, but she wanted to hear why. Gwen leaned forward and kissed Randiís forehead. Then she sat back a bit and let her eyes drop to their entwined fingers before her voice became a mere whisper.
"After you... executed... Brad, you became obsessed. Completely. I didnít see you again except through notes, vid calls or in passing until the rebellion was absolutely destroyed. And then it was to become your...." Her nose wrinkled up in distaste. "Consort. And you know how I feel about that particularly title," giving Randi an exceptionally telling glare.
Randi scratched her nose and looked somewhat abashed. "Yeah, I think I am real clear on those feelings, love. I will never, EVER use that word again, even if we remain...." She broke off. "Gwen, what are we going to do about this whole Empress thing?"
Gwenís eyes opened wide at the point blank question. Though sheíd been thinking about it off and on since Randi had taken control of the Sabres, she still hadnít come to any concrete conclusions so she wasnít ready to give Randi an answer. There were too many variables and it needed to be their decision... their choice. She shook her head and blinked.
"I think we need to tackle one thing at a time, Stud. Letís worry about this first. Then we can worry about whatever comes next."
"After this, anything else will be a piece of cake."
Gwen smirked. "My point."
Randi mock glared at Gwen. "Youíre pickiní on me." She smiled wistfully. "Iíve missed it."
Silence ensued for a little while as they basked in the contentedness of just being part of one another again. Then Gwen turned to Randi. "Do you want to read your memories of what happened to Brad and why?"
Randi seemed to consider it for a long moment before she shook her head. "No. I know what I did from your reading, and I know why I did it just based on my reaction to that. I don't think dredging it up yet again is going to change anything or make either of us feel any differently about it."
Gwen nodded her acceptance. "All right. I can understand that. It's not like we can't come back to this if we need to." She blew out a breath, fluffing her bangs with it before picking the book up once more and opening it to the place they'd stopped. "Shall we continue?"
Randi nodded. "Yep," she affirmed with determination. "Sooner we get this done, the sooner I can go kick Ares' ass."
"You might have to stand in line for that, ya know," Gwen joked lightly. "I have a feeling there are a few goddesses that will want to get in a lick or two."
Randi cut her eyes towards Gwen. "Me first," she grumbled, then motioned towards the open book. "You gonna read?"
"Yep," trailing a finger down the page to find her place. "Here we go."
Their arrival at the village was subdued. Reed waited for them, as did Sky and a woman Gwen had not yet met. There was nothing blatantly obvious in her dress or bearing, but the bard was convinced that the stranger was an Amazon. And not just any Amazon, but someone of responsibility, though Gwen was not entirely sure the woman was a ruler.
Randi scooped Gwen into her arms and trotted down the shuttle ramp before Gwen could draw a breath to protest. She came to stand in front of them and immediately the change was apparent Ė no longer were they treated as friends. Instead they were deferred to; it was clear that Randi's change in status with the Sabres had caused them to be viewed differently.
Gwen frowned. She wasn't entirely sure she liked that.
Randi eased Gwen to her feet but kept a possessive arm around her shoulders. Reed snapped to attention while both Sky and the unknown woman bowed their heads respectfully. Randi acknowledged the accolades with a slight nod of her own, then turned her attention immediately to Reed.
"Has everything been prepared?"
"Aye, sir. Rosie is at the temple and the rooms have been prepared at Sky's." Randi nodded and turned her attention to Sky.
"Thank you, Sky. I appre...."
The chieftain held up his hand to stop her speech. "You honor us, Ravenhawk. We will treat Little Dove like she is one of ours."
"Sky, she is one of yours. Thank you for making us part of the tribe." Randi then turned to the unknown woman. "Gwen, this is Lorac, weapons master for the local Amazon tribe. Lorac, Gwen."
Gwen frowned instead of responding to the introduction. She understood they hadn't talked about it, but being newlyweds, she had expected more of an introduction... some sort of status as far as her relationship to Randi. Then she realized that except for their honeymoon, and no time since, Randi had never once referred to her as anything but Gwen when introducing her to people. Gwen wondered why it had suddenly come to her attention and why it was bothering her so badly, aside from the obvious. Then she became conscious that everyone's attention was on her and she flushed just slightly under all the observation.
"I beg pardon," she said softly. "My mind wandered."
Without giving her a chance to protest, Randi swooped Gwen up into her arms once more and began making tracks for Sky's. The other three didn't even miss a beat, but fell into line behind her. Gwen started to speak, but one look into Randi's face with its clenching jaw made it clear that there would be neither discussion nor debate about her current circumstances. So Gwen simply laid her head on Randi's chest and closed her eyes in contentment as she listened to the musical rhythm of the steady heartbeat under her ear.
They reached Sky's in short order, and he walked in front of Randi to open the door, then passed her through in front of him. Without hesitation, she walked in front of him and right up the stairs, directly into the room they had shared not so long ago. Gwen reflected on how lonely it looked, knowing she was going to have to stay there alone for a still undetermined amount of time.
Randi waited for Reed, knowing the seer would be right behind them to make sure everything was taken care of to Randi's satisfaction. She crossed the room and turned down the bed, then stepped back to allow Randi the opportunity to tenderly place Gwen in the bed. Randi reached down and removed Gwen's shoes, then moved up to her pants. Gwen's hand on hers halted her motion, and she gazed into green eyes with questioning blue.
"Randi, why are you tucking me in? It is just coming on to midday and...."
"Because," Randi's hands resumed their motion, and she gently but efficiently stripped both pants and shirt from Gwen's frame before tucking the covers around her body. "You are apparently still suffering from the effects of whatever it was that Wizard put on his blade. I want you to rest for the remainder of the day. And if it continues, I will call Lacey back to care for you until I can assign a medic to you and get the issue is resolved."
Gwen sat up and threw back the covers, and Reed flinched at the raw fury she felt radiating from Gwen. She couldn't hear the low words being whispered between them, but it was obvious even to a non-seer that something bad had happened. She slipped out the door, motioning to both Rosie and Sky who had kept the room in sight for that very reason. They hurried to her side to give her grounding and Reed held on for dear life.
Meanwhile, Gwen got up from the bed, pushing Randi's hands away from her when the Sabre attempted to force her back into bed. "Now you listen to me," Gwen ground out through clenched teeth as she poked her finger into Randi's chest. "My drifting off had nothing to do with Brad and everything to do with you."
Gwen looked at Randi for a long moment. "You really don't know, do you? You really don't realize." She just shook her head at the look of honest bewilderment that crossed Randi's face. Then she placed one hand over Randi's heart and the other cupped the side of her face that had borne the scar. Randi closed her eyes all too briefly as she leaned into the touch, then returned a look of questioning. Gwen took a deep breath before she spoke.
"Randi, when did I cease to be your bride? Your wife? Your partner?"
Randi blinked in confusion and her jaw muscles jerked. "What do you mean Gwen? You are still all of those things. We're still newlyweds for God's sake!" Her indignation was very clear.
"Yes, we are. And yet since our honeymoon, you haven't introduced me that way. I am simply Gwen and I want to know why!"
Here Randi made a critical error. She rolled her eyes and moved away from Gwen, walking to the door before turning back. "You have got to be kidding me! Why do I need to, Gwen? Everyone knows... even those who are meeting you for the first time. They know who and what you are to me. Why do I need to spell it out for them?"
Gwen blinked in astonishment, unable to believe she had just heard the words that had come out of Randi's mouth. "You're serious, aren't you?" Before Randi could answer she crawled back into the bed and pulled the covers up, turning her back to Randi. Randi looked perplexed at the sudden change in demeanor and started to walk back over to the bed. Instead, she was stopped by the resigned, flat tone in Gwen's voice.
"Go back to the capital, Randi. I'll be fine here without you."
The words cut and Randi staggered a bit under the assault. Then she straightened and whirled back towards the door, glancing back to relay her parting shot. "I will be downstairs for the remainder of the afternoon squaring things away for your stay. Call if you need anything and someone will accommodate your needs." She saw the flinch in Gwen's body from the formality of her tone, but she couldn't bring herself to change it. Instead, she slid out the door and closed it firmly behind her. Randi never saw Gwen's tears but she felt them cut deep into her soul as she made her way down the stairs. There was still work to be done.
Fortunately for Reed, Rosie and Sky flanked her on either side when Randi came downstairs. With a brief inclination of her head, Randi directed all of them into Sky's living area where Lorac stood gazing out the window waiting patiently. She turned when the others entered the room and took a seat at Randi's commanding gesture.
Lorac was more than a little uncomfortable. She wasn't particularly thrilled to have been given this assignment, and to know there were already problems wasn't making her any more at ease with the situation. However, her queen had commanded and she knew they owed Randi a great debt. She only hoped this would go a long way towards repaying it.
Now they all waited for Randi to speak. It was obvious to all of them that something was troubling the new Commandant over and above what had happened at Midas.
"You have all been brought up to date on the situation with Gwen. She will need to remain here until I can get to the bottom of the rebellion. I cannot risk her out there any longer. She is too great a target and my chief liability. The rebellion knows this and I will not allow them to capitalize on that knowledge, not for her sake nor my own."
Reed heard the words, but she felt the rending growing between them with each syllable and groaned in silent agony. This was becoming more intolerable by the minute and Randi was not in a position to accept advice about it. Rosie's hand on her arm brought her back to Randi's speech.
"Lorac, you will be chiefly responsible for Gwen's training. She is already well-versed in the staff, but she needs instruction on sais, lasers, crossbow and hand-to-hand. Anything else, you will need to clear with me first. Bring in your best instructors Ė Gwen is a quick learner and she needs the best to insure she gets what she needs quickly."
"It will be done, Chosen," Lorac responded, though her enthusiasm was far less than Randi wanted to see from her. Randi made a mental note to talk to the Amazon queen to insure the cooperation she needed. She wasn't going to leave anything to chance due to indifference.
"Sky, Lenore is sending a small contingent of Amazons to become part of the tribe for the duration. They will blend in as much as possible. Insure that they have what they need. They will be chiefly responsible for the safety of the tribe and will work in conjunction with your warriors."
Sky nodded. "They have already begun, Ravenhawk."
"Reed, Gwen is your responsibility. I need you...." She took a deep shaky breath and Reed wondered what had really happened between them once she'd left the room. "I need you to look after her well-being... physical, mental and spiritual. I can't be here to do that so I am asking you to do your best to make sure she has everything she needs to be happy."
"Aye sir. I will do my best though I am fairly certain she will not be happy until you return to her," Reed said bravely, her words having more than one significance though she doubted Randi would see past the surface meaning.
"I wish I could be that certain," Randi said in a bare whisper, so low Reed only heard it because she strained to do so. Then the warrior cleared her throat and raised her voice to speak again. "Assignments will begin this evening as I must return to the capital to begin final operations for the elimination of the rebellion. Lenore has been notified of my arrival?" with a glance at Lorac.
The Amazon nodded her head.
"Good. Then I will need to meet with Lenore within the hour. Sky, I will leave the security scheduling in your hands. Lorac, you will begin your training with Gwen tomorrow morning, and Reed, just do the best you can. Rosie, will you be remaining here?"
"For the duration, yes."
"Good, then you can help Reed with Gwen. Other than that ladies and gentlemen, I just want to walk around the village and check things out. Make sure there is nothing I am missing. I promised Gwen no more death because of her, and I'll be goddamned before I break it from lack of diligence. Now if you will excuse me...."
And with that, Randi made her way out the door, leaving the rest alone to ponder the shape of things to come.
Gwen couldn't stop the flinch that shivered through her body at Randi's words any more than she could stop the tears that flowed at the door's firm closing. She closed her eyes, hearing the disdain clearly in Randi's voice as she answered Gwen's questions, making it clear she felt Gwen's concerns were pitiful at best.
The pain was incalculable and Gwen curled into herself hoping it would ease the pain. Eventually she was able to block the sound of Randiís mocking voice from her consciousness and simply dozed off. She didn't know how much time had passed before a light rhythmic stroking of her hair brought her to a wakeful state once more.
When she blinked open her eyes, Gwen looked up into tear-filled blue, but it wasn't Randi who sat there looking back at her with such compassion. That fact alone was enough to bring the tears back, but she bit her lip instead and gave Aphrodite a watery smile instead.
"Hey, Cutie," Dite said with her own sad smile. "How ya doing?"
"I feel like my guts got ripped out, Dite, but otherwise, I'm good."
If she hadn't been the goddess of love, the look would have been classified as an unhappy pout. As it was, Dite's lower lip was extended far past her upper and she still appeared extremely unhappy. "Well," she commented with a sigh, "this is the beginning of the end. It's all downhill from here."
"You sound so sure. Why?"
"Because your guts got ripped out... that was the final rending. Now it's all up to her Ė all up to the love you share between you."
"Question is Ė will it be enough?"
"I think so," Dite replied hesitantly, continuing her gentle stroking. "But I honestly can't say for sure anymore. There way too many variables in play right now. It really is completely up to her."
Gwen rolled away from Aphrodite's touch at those words, turning her back completely on the love goddess. Dite regarded her with bewilderment. "Gwen?"
"There is no hope, Aphrodite. There is no love left in her heart... not for me or anything else. There is only hatred and killing and revenge."
Gwen's form was so tense, Dite reached out a hand towards her. Then she let her hand fall into her lap before she actually made contact with Gwen, fearful that even her light touch would cause the bard pain. "You are so sure the love is gone?" asking a question it hurt to utter.
There was silence for a long while from Gwen... so long Dite assumed she has simply fallen asleep. Then Gwen drew a shuddering breath. "No," she finally admitted in a whisper. "But my faith in that love is gone."
Now it was Dite's turn to inhale sharply against the pain. She hadn't realized that such an admission would hurt so badly. She sat quietly breathing, glad for the meditation techniques she had learned so long ago. When the grief lessened to a tolerable ache, Dite patted the bed and stood, walking around until she could kneel at Gwen's side within eyesight. Then she waited patiently for the bard to open her eyes.
It took longer than she expected it to, but eventually green eyes blinked open and Gwen focused on Aphrodite's sad countenance. She took Dite's hand in her own and laced their fingers together. Dite kept her gaze for a long moment without a sound until Gwen felt compelled to speak.
"What?" she asked, clearing the huskiness from her throat.
"I know it's hard, babe, and I know it's asking a lot of you, but I'm asking, 'kay? You were so sure of winning just yesterday. I'm asking you to keep having faith in that love. As impossible as it seems to you right now, that love is there. But if you stop believing, it really will be gone, and once it's gone...." She stopped and let the thought lie, knowing Gwen could easily reach her own logical conclusion.
But she could read the agony in the green eyes before they closed again, wincing in sympathy when Gwen curled into herself again. There wasn't much Dite could do except provide whatever comfort Gwen would allow, so she morphed into the bed, putting Gwen's head in her lap. And she gently stroked her hair in a soothing motion until she felt Gwen relax under her touch and her breathing deepen in sleep. Only then did she allow her own tears to fall.
As soon as Randi walked out the door, Reed moved to the kitchen area followed by both Sky and Rosie. A conclave had been set up and it only took one vid call to bring the other members of the tribe so they could begin the final process for Reed's barrier. They had hoped what they had already done would have been enough, but the rending had made it worse than they had imagined. So it was time to reinforce her shielding to a staggering degree Ė something they had never had to do before.
It would have been optimal if they could have done it in a sterile environment away from both Randi and Gwen. Unfortunately, Randi has already charged Reed with Gwen's safety, so they would have to work around her presence and the disruption of her spirit. Not an easy task, but not an impossible one either.
So the tribe gathered quickly, ready to set things right for Reed so she could do her best for Gwen.
Lorac followed Randi out of Sky's but she headed directly to the inn where the Amazon contingent was stationed. Sky had given the inn over to them and Lenore had been very pleased with the results. They had their own space while still being able to participate as part of the town and the joint training exercises with the village warriors had been mutually beneficial.
Lorac went directly to the queen's chambers, knowing that she would be there waiting for a report. Many of the Amazons, though enjoying the opportunity to train with their male equivalents, were curious as to why they had been brought into the village. Mixing like this was unheard of anymore... usually only the need to procreate forced them into other societies unless it was an individual, personal choice. Never had they been called to attend an outsider like this and certainly never in conjunction with male warriors.
So now, Lorac walked up the flights of stairs until she reached the queen's room and lightly tapped on the door. It only took a moment for Lenore to open the door and usher Lorac into her sanctum.
She motioned the weapons' master to a seat before taking one of her own. Then the queen turned to Lorac and lifted a brow in question.
Lorac sat silently for a moment returning her regard before shrugging her shoulders slightly. "I don't know, my queen. Something is very, very wrong, but I have been charged with teaching this outsider our ways, and I will do so to the best of my ability as will the rest of my warriors." She rose from her seat abruptly and went to the window, looking but unable to find Randi in the town. Then she turned back towards Lenore to find the queen watching her intently. "My queen," she asked suddenly, "why are we doing this? Why are we training an outsider to our ways? Do we really owe Miranda Valiant so much that she can command such favor from you... from us?"
Lenore smiled. She would miss all of her Amazons, but this one in particular. Of all the Amazons she knew, Lorac was her favorite, though they were not bonded or mated to one another. Instead, they were lifelong friends who spoke openly and candidly to one another, title and status between them notwithstanding. Even as frustrating as the weapons' master could be... as frustrating as she was being about this right now... Lenore appreciated her honestly. She wasn't one to hold back if she believed in something Ė rightly or wrongly, she stuck to her guns. So even though they had been over this several times before, Lenore took a deep breath to go over it one more time.
"Lorac, you know what we owe Miranda Valiant. She made so much possible not only for our tribe, but for the entire Nation. She changed the world for us. The least we can do is take care of the one who holds her heart. So much depends on Gwen's safety. I have seen... as has the priestess."
Lorac's shoulders slumped, knowing Lenore spoke nothing but the truth. It rankled that she had to share the tribe's secrets with one who was not of them, but given that Randi had shared hers freely, she really had no choice. However, she had sworn a duty, both to her queen and to her Nation, and if this was how they were both best served, then so be it.
Lenore saw the change in attitude when it happened. Lorac straightened and faced Lenore squarely. "Very well, my queen. She will be taught and protected to the very best of our ability. We will give you no reason to be unhappy with our performance."
Lenore smiled at Lorac and the weapons' master couldn't help but return the gesture. She resumed her seat beside the queen and Lenore patted her leg. "I knew I could count on you, my friend. Now tell me, what is wrong?"
"I don't know, Lenore," easing into the comfortable familiarity they shared now that the formalities were out of the way. "I just know the seer was having real problems and Randi seem to be completely off kilter when she came down from her room."
"It's okay to call her by name, you know, Lorac. You're going to have to call her Gwen at some point."
Lorac rolled her eyes. "I'm sure, Len. But I'd like to have my introduction to the woman acknowledged by her first if you don't mind."
Both brows shot up and the queen looked at her friend in some amazement. "I thought that was part of the reason you met them... for an introduction."
"I thought the same thing, but apparently *Gwen* was having some sort of issue. She phased out on me completely during our introduction and when she zoned back in, Randi scooped her up and carried her off upstairs." She paused and chewed on a nail thoughtfully. "I think whatever happened upstairs between them... I dunno... it just made things weird."
Lenore thought about Lorac's words. The weapons' master was good at many things, but she had never been accused of being overly imaginative. If she said something was weird, then something was most definitely weird. Question was... what?
They sat quietly together for a little while as Lenore processed Lorac's words. Finally, though, the weapons' master rose from her seat and moved towards the door. Lenore looked at her in startlement at the abruptness of the gesture and waited for Lorac to speak.
"By your leave, my queen. I have preparations to finish and Randi will be here soon to speak to you privately. I believe it would be best if I were elsewhere when she arrives."
Only one eyebrow shot up this time and Lorac knew there would be further conversation on the matter later. But for now....
"Very well, Lor. You go take care of whatever it is you need to do, but don't wander far. I want to be able to fetch you quickly if I need you."
Lorac nodded. "The instructors and I will be in the training room for the remainder of the afternoon. I need to be sure they understand the importance of their task."
Lenore concurred. "Excellent idea. So much rests on this, but I know it is safe in your capable hands. Go ahead. I will call you when I am done here. Perhaps we can share dinner?"
"I'd like that," Lorac agreed before slipping out the door and closing it soundlessly behind her.
She was only halfway down the stairs when she met Randi coming up. She merely nodded to the Sabre and would have kept going had Randi not blocked her immediate way. Instead, she stood on the step above her and looked her eye to eye.
"I hope you realize the responsibility you bear. I expect Gwen to be given every consideration and training an Amazon warrior would."
"She will, Chosen," Lorac answered with all seriousness and this time Randi saw the commitment she was looking for. "In fact I am meeting with her instructors in the training room this afternoon to assure they understand the seriousness of this assignment. Perhaps you'd like to join us?"
Randi didn't answer but nodded and moved aside to let Lorac pass. Lorac bowed her head respectfully before she stepped to the other side of the stairs and continued on her way down and out of sight.
Randi watched until she disappeared into the training room before she continued on to the queen's quarters, knocking and waiting respectfully for a request to enter.
Lenore was quick to open the door and bid Randi inside. Randi accepted the invitation and crossed the threshold into the queen's quarters, nodding with approval at the clean, Spartan surroundings. Randi motioned for Lenore to be seated, then took the chair opposite her.
"No guards?" Randi queried. Lenore shook her head.
"No. Sky and I discussed it, but we decided it would send a message we didn't want it to. There are those who keep a subtle eye on my door just to satisfy their sense of propriety, but otherwise, we appear much as any other traveler in the village."
"Did that cause problems for you?"
"Not as much as I expected," Lenore answered honestly. "I think my Amazons are enjoying their exchanges with the warriors here, no matter how much they try to hide the fact. It has been good for everyone, despite the reason for it."
A hard look crossed Randi's face fleetingly and Lenore wondered whence it came, but before she had a chance to ask, it was gone and Randi had opened her mouth to speak.
"Well, then... perhaps it will be something you will want to add to the teaching regimen. It sounds like it could be mutually beneficial. But for now... how are things going on your current project?"
Lenore cocked her head at Randi's impersonal wording and detached tone. From everything she had been able to ascertain, Randi and Gwen were completely devoted to one another and very much in love. Then she remembered Lorac's words and wondered just what had happened between them to cause such hardness in Randi's voice. Then she blinked when she found Randi's eyes boring into hers impatiently and she cleared her throat to speak.
"Very well, Chosen. Lorac has all the instructors in the training room now, assuring they understand the seriousness of the situation and their responsibilities concerning it. Sky has already given the warriors their assignments and schedules and they are already working together in teams to get things done without being noticed by Gwen or anyone else."
Randi nodded. "I noticed their casual placement around. He's done a good job and they seem to be adjusting well to working together. Does Lorac understand the responsibility she bears? I got the impression from her at Sky's that she was blowing it off."
Lenore shook her head. "She understands, Randi... your reasons as well as mine. She will not do less than her best for you or the Nation. Gwen will know everything she needs to become an Amazon warrior, and knowing Lorac's attention to detail, probably everything she needs to know to become a true card carrying Amazon Princess."
"Just insure she knows how to protect herself, Lenore. The rest is...." She waved her hand, dismissing it.
"We will, Chosen. Gwen will be fine with us." The queen felt the flinch rather than saw it, but she knew it was there. She wondered at the cause, but continued speaking. "You can go do whatever it is that you need to take care of, knowing we will take care of things here."
Randi took a deep breath as though she was going to say something, then simply rose from her spot. "I will check in with you as often as I can, but I expect to be fairly busy in the next few months. You will let me know immediately if there are issues Ė you have my private contact numbers, correct?"
"Yes, Chosen. You will be notified immediately if anything untoward happens, but I expect things to remain fairly status quo."
"Very good," Randi replied, walking towards the door. "I am going to go look in on the training downstairs and then I have a few more minor details to attend to before I leave." She opened the door and paused on the threshold. "Thank you, Lenore. This takes a load off my mind."
"We are happy to do it, Randi. You have done so much for us...." She broke off when Randi held up a hand to forestall her words. "We will make sure Gwen is well prepared."
Randi nodded then slid out the door without another word. Lenore sat quietly, a troubled look on her face as she processed the words and formal tone Randi had used. Something had definitely gone very, very wrong. She'd talk to Lorac about it over dinner. Despite what she and the priestess had seen, Lenore wanted to be prepared for all possibilities.
Randi slipped into the training room unnoticed and stood in the shadows in the back watching the various workouts. Without warning, she moved into an offensive position against the staff master and immediately launched an attack. The only indication the Amazon gave of her surprise was the widening of her eyes before she settled down to business, defending herself from the one who had enhanced the Nation's staff techniques.
It was apparent to all watching that Randi was only testing Cheyenne's worthiness as Gwen's instructor. She pulled killing blows easily and intercepted everything that came her direction. With a flourish, Randi drew the exercise to a close, then smiled briefly.
"Very good, Cheyenne. You're going to need to keep that right end higher though, or Gwen will hit you there every single time. She is exceptional with the staff Ė she can keep up with me." Then Randi almost had to laugh at the look of chagrin the crossed the staff master's countenance. There weren't many in the world who could lay claim to that particular distinction. But she managed to keep her composure and maintain her warrior facade.
"For the rest of you," she continued, addressing the entire room. "Gwen has little or no experience in your fields of expertise. I expect you to do whatever it takes to make her proficient, but kindly remember she is my consort and I will not tolerate any mistreatment of her. Am I clear?"
"Yes, Chosen," they answered as a single unit. Lorac had been very explicit in her instructions to them and they understood far more than Randi gave them credit for. For her part, Randi made eye contact with each of them, measuring their worth and finding satisfaction with what she found. Somewhere, they had found responsibility in their purpose and she for one was glad. She had the distinct feeling each of them was going to need it before all was said and done.
"Excellent. If you have any sort of difficulties that you need me to resolve, please let Lenore know. She has direct access to contact me, and I can be here within an hour if necessary. Otherwise, I will see you all in a few months. I thank you for your assistance." Then she was gone before any of them could answer.
They looked at one another in confusion, then turned to Lorac... their questions obvious in the eyes. Lorac just shook her head and motioned them back to work. "I don't understand it either," she replied to their unasked queries. "But we have our instructions and we have work to do. I suggest we be about it and try not to think too hard about the other."
But she made a note to herself to ask Lenore about things at dinner.
Randi continued her tour through the town, noting the careful placement of male warriors and Amazons. It was nothing noticeable, nothing a normal individual would have even seen, but to Randi's practiced eyes, easily discernable. She nodded her approval even as she made her way around the perimeter one last time. Several of those on duty acknowledged her presence with a slight nod of the head.
When she got to the restaurant, she paused, briefly remembering the last time she had been in this place. Her heart ached for the differences and yet she firmly turned her mind back to the present and forced her attention away from the road that led to the cottage. There was nothing to be gained from her memories except pain, and she didn't have the time or the inclination for it.
She continued her sweep, stopping by the barn to see Lancelot. He had been bred to several mares that spring and was prancing around in the corral in supreme contentment when Randi arrived. She watched him for a long moment before he noticed her presence and she smiled sadly at his enthusiastic greeting when he spotted her.
He rose up on his hind legs and pawed the air, whickering and whinnying before he raced over to where she was casually propped against the fence. He butted her in the chest and she reached up a hand and scratched him behind the ears, chuckling just a bit at his outraged snorting when she stopped.
She took Lance's face between her hands and looked him squarely in the eyes. "You be good, boy, and you let Gw...." She had to stop and clear her throat before she could continue. "You let Gwen ride you whenever she wants to; she's gonna need a friend. You be that for her, okay?"
Lancelot gazed at Randi in all seriousness then he nodded his head solemnly. Randi kissed his nose before she released him, then slapped his hindquarters as he turned to head back into the pasture. Lancelot whinnied once more and took off at a gallop.
Randi stood and watched him run for a while. Then she turned and made her way back towards Sky's.
The house was empty for all intents and purposes. There was no visible sign of habitation, though Randi could easily see the warriors ostensibly working around the area keeping a discrete eye on the house. It made her feel some better, though she wondered where everyone had gotten off to. There was no sign of Reed or Rosie or Sky, and she was fairly certain they would have been working on barrier enhancement when she left to do her perimeter check.
Randi glanced through each room in the house and realized it was empty except for her and Gwen. With a heavy heart and heavier steps, Randi slowly made her way up the stairs to say goodbye to Gwen. She wondered if the bard even cared at this point Ė she had been so angry earlier, and Randi was only trying to do what needed to be done so they could get back to living normally. Why didn't Gwen seem to be able to understand that?
Shaking her head, Randi reached the door and stood there silently for a very long time. She hated that things had developed like they had, but she honestly didn't see any other way to handle the situation. Finally, she drew a deep breath and blew it out before lightly tapping on the door.
There was no answer, so she knocked again and called out, "Gwen?"
There was still no answer and it occurred to Randi that either Gwen was sleeping or she was ignoring her. She opened the door, determined to find out.
Aphrodite heard Randi come up the stairs slowly and noted that Gwen was sound asleep. So she simply faded from sight but remained in the room where she could observe Randi's interaction with Gwen. Dite listened to the knocking and the calling out, then watched as the door slowly opened and Randi peeked around the room as though unsure where Gwen was. Dite saw Randi's shoulders slump in relief when she saw Gwen asleep in the bed.
For a long moment, Randi simply stood at the door looking at Gwen, a sad smile crossing her face at the look of peaceful repose on Gwen's face. Then she walked the short distance to the bed and knelt beside it, stroking the soft cheek gently before tangling her fingers in the blonde hair.
Dite wondered at the look of pain that crossed Randi's face before she closed her eyes. She watched a lone tear run from beneath the closed lid. It slid down to Randi's chin before the warrior took a deep breath and blinked open her eyes, willing the tears back.
Randi gazed down at Gwen, then she leaned down and brushed a kiss just at Gwen's lips, letting her touch linger for a long moment before she pulled back. "I love you," Randi whispered, and rose from her knees.
Randi let her glance remain on Gwen's face for just a little while, then she turned and crossed the room, exiting the door without a backwards glance. She never saw the tear slide from Gwen's closed eyes, nor did she hear the words, "I love you, too," whispered in return.
It was a very long, lonely flight to the capital.
Tiny was glad beyond belief that Reed had given him warning about the state of things before Randi arrived. It enabled him to put on his game face and prepare for the worst. And he knew when he got a look at the expression on Randi's face that the worst was going to be pretty bad.
Her face was actually schooled into its typical stoic fashion. It was her eyes that were different Ė cold and hard and stony. It made him want to cry for the things that had been pushed to the wayside for her to accomplish the goals she had established for herself and them. It looked to be a very long, ugly road ahead of them, though he honestly couldn't doubt the outcome with her leading them. Aside from her personal motives, it was simply time for things to be done and over with.
Randi gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment and Tiny took up cadence beside her as they made their way back to headquarters together. He didn't speak or ask questions, knowing she would be wanting answers from him instead and would be asking for them momentarily. She didn't disappoint.
"Report," short and succinctly.
"We have all the teams out searching for rebel bases. We expect reports to start coming back in within the next few days. We have already started amassing information and should be ready to put together a preliminary elimination plan within a week or so. Estimates show it taking until summer at the very least given the knowledge we already possess. However, if things work in our favor, this will be the last offensive we will need to launch. We will be able to destroy the rebellion and completely wipe out any sort of threat they pose to society."
Tiny stopped speaking and waited, hating the formality of his language, but knowing it was necessary in this situation. Randi was functioning in another mode from her Sabre warrior persona, and she didn't accept familiarity from anyone. It was one reason she was struggling so with her relationship with Gwen. The bard didn't know any other way to be with her and Randi was unable to function as the Sabre Commandant with that sort of intimacy in her life.
They continued walking into the building, making their way down the obscure hallway to the minuscule area that housed the Black Sabres in the huge cog of the world military machine. It wouldn't be long before they were openly successful enough to become the leader of that military machine but for now, they remained the anonymous, secret organization they had always been since their inception.
No one gave them a second glance and they made it into Randi's office without being stopped. She motioned Tiny to the desk and he nodded his understanding, sitting long enough to send an alert signal to the five other section leaders. Then he followed Randi into the inner sanctum and stood at ease, waiting for further instruction.
In less than two minutes, all six Sabres stood in front of Randiís desk, wondering at the urgency of the summoning. They didnít have to wait long.
"Tiny has brought me up to date on what is going on. I want you to know I am very pleased with your preliminary efforts. But we are going to step things up. I have other things to take care of besides rebels, and I want them gone as soon as we can manage. So," she said, slapping the desk and leaning her weight on her hands. "Weíre going to start putting plans into place. I want each of you to start working on details Ė all contingencies. I want to be able to put a strike force together on a momentís notice with a plan the will work the first time. Full access, people. No more obstacles. The point here is total destruction of the rebellion."
Six pairs of eyes widened slightly. They had never had such freedom in their careers and the thought was a little dizzying. Randi had basically put the game on their turf with their rules. Suddenly, the possibilities were endless. Only Tiny felt a tendril of fear skitter up his spine at Randiís casual declaration, and then he felt it run through that of his comrades when Randi spoke again.
"I will be leading each task force. This has become personal for me, and I intend to see it through to the end. Any questions?"
The implications of what she said hit all of them, but no one could deny her right. They only hoped this just meant good for them, and not just more bad for Randi.
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