Chapter V

The sun was at its short day zenith when the couple finished their repast. Between the heated blanket, the sunshine, their combined body heat and no wind, they were comfortably warm. And now that they were pleasantly stuffed as well, a nap was sounding like a better idea all the time.

They stretched out along side one another, spooned front to back. The Sabreís hand lightly traced an absent pattern on the bardís belly, smiling slightly when she heard Gwenís breath deepen into the evenness of sleep. She extended her senses, and found them to be alone, save for the few fish near the bottom of the river. Then she let herself drift off as well.

It was the chill in the air that woke them almost simultaneously. The sun had set behind the trees, though it still had a bit of a drop before it hit the horizon, and the wind had picked up.

"Wow!"

"Brr!"

The two looked at one another and chuckled. "I think weíre right on both counts, Stud."

"Hmm, yeah. Címon... letís get back to the cottage. We can figure out whatís for dinner, and then itís your turn for some storytelling. But happy ending this time, please? My heart is still aching from that last one you told."

They picked up the basket, wrapped the blanket around them, and slowly meandered together back toward the tiny home. Gwen took a deep breath. "I know. That one always makes me cry. Some of the others are equally sad, but that one always struck me as being senselessly so."

"Mmm," was the only reply Randi could make through her closed throat, though she had to smile when the blonde moved a little closer and wrapped her arm just a little tighter.

Dinner ended up being bits and pieces... fruit, raw vegetables, cheese and bread. They took their meal in front of the fireplace loath to give up the closeness that setting afforded them. "This is nice," Randi sighed softly, finding herself cradled by Gwenís smaller body for a change. They were stretched out on the thick fur-like rug, with the smaller woman propped up on pillows at an angle. The dark head rested on the bardís chest, and Gwenís hand lay lightly on Randiís hip. One of the warriorís hands was on the bardís hip; the other encircled her small waist. The position made eating a bit of a challenge, but feeding each other got around a lot of the awkwardness.

"Yeah, it is," Gwen quietly agreed. "I like being able to hold you like this sometimes... to be able to take care of you too."

The Marine inclined her head, and kissed the smooth skin of the bardís neck. "You do an excellent job of taking care of me everyday, love." She met the lips that caught her own, and was forced to clear her throat to get her voice back to its normal pitch when they pulled apart again. "Ahem. What about my story?" She poked her lip out just slightly, and muttered, "Youíre trying to distract me, and itís working."

Gwen grinned, both at the expression and the sentiment. "No, Iím not, but I bet I could if I tried," dragging her hand from Randiís hip slowly up the front of the Sabreís torso. The grin grew wider with the hitch in Randiís breathing when her touch circled and lingered on the warriorís breast. Setting her glass gently down, the bard wove her now free hand into the raven tresses and tilted the full lips up to meet her own. Then she passionately staked her claim. "And suddenly," she said on a ragged breath when they separated again, "I feel like trying." She eased Randi over on top of her, and proceeded to possess every inch of the Marine.

 

 

Sometime later found them bonelessly slumped in much the same position as they had been before, though now they were naked and draped with a blanket. "Let me tell you about one of our earlier reincarnations... several generations removed from the original soulmates."

 

 

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They were two scared boys, taken into slavery just as theyíd reached puberty. In the shipís hold, they became fast friends, looking out for one another and cementing a bond that would sustain them through the brutalities they expected to face when they reached the heart of the Roman Empire.

Rome was an old whore now, gasping her last before falling into the putrid heap sheíd become. In the final days of her glory, the two boys were bought as slaves... to be trained as gladiators for the games. It was horrible. They spent their days being beaten and ridiculed, but amazingly, they were left alone together at night.

The first night after their arrival, one of the older men had come in, intent on taking his pleasure from the younger of the two boys. The older turned on him ferociously, ripping his manhood from him before snapping his neck with an audible crack. The slave master, hearing the commotion, stepped in to see his compatriot fall to this almost child, and watched the boy stand protectively in front his friend.

"No one touches him," the elder said defiantly. "And no one touches me."

The big man knew he had a potential winner in this fierce child, and decided to make a deal with him. "You learn to fight, and you keep winning, you both get left alone. You do something stupid, or you start losing, and Iíll let every single man in this place have a shot at your friend. And he has to find something useful or entertaining to do to earn his keep."

"No, Dominic. Donít do it. Itís not fair to you. I can do this."

The dark haired boy ignored the younger blonde and said to the master, "Done."

The man nodded his acceptance and turned away from the pair. When he reached the door, he looked over his shoulder. "You will both still have to do your service as pleasure servants, but Iíll put it off until youíve had a chance to grow up a little more." He looked Dominic in his bright blue eyes. "As long as you win, you will get your choice of whom you serve." He walked out without another word.

"Dom, why did you do that?" the blonde boy asked when they were alone again. "I havenít got any skills."

"You can tell stories, Raphael. I heard you do it on the ship." The older boy paused, awkwardly taking his green-eyed companion in his arms as the settled back on the small cot theyíd been issued. "I couldnít let them hurt you. Not like that." He sighed. "Iíll teach you to defend yourself. Weíll get through this... together."

The blonde patted the older boyís chest and nodded. "Together... I like the sound of that." And they feel into a peaceful sleep.

Days became weeks and months became years, and the boys became strapping young men that were very pleasing to look upon. Dominic was the most successful gladiator Rome had ever seen, and Raphael was known throughout the court for his skillful weaving of tales. They were now lovers, and very protective of what they shared. Still, as slaves, they were forced into service on occasion, and by the time they reached majority, they had fathered several children apiece.

Not that they were allowed to be a father to their descendents... they were being bred for their strength, intelligence and beauty.

"Itís not fair, love." The blonde man gently caressed the face of his partner. "We have children. We could be a family if we werenít still slaves."

"I know, Rae. But we are also high profile. The patricians would notice if we disappeared."

"I donít care, Dom. We deserve more. We deserve to be happy."

The warrior put his fingers on his loverís lips to still his speech. "I know, baby. Itís closer than you think." These words spoken very low into the smaller manís ear. "Iíve heard rumblings of a slave revolt. If it happens, we go."

Raphael kissed Dominic full on the lips then, taking the time to gently coax the older manís mouth open with his tongue before claiming him fervently for long moments. When they broke apart, both were hard and ready, gazing into the otherís passion glazed eyes for a timeless space. As the blonde man leaned down to capture the gladiatorís lips again, he whispered solemnly, "Where you go, I go, beloved."

Then reality faded around them for a while as they reaffirmed the bond and the love they shared.

The revolt did go off as planned, and the two men managed to escape with seventeen children. Several were theirs, and the rest were orphans. They raised all of them with love and devotion, living to see several of them marry and have children of their own.

Years passed, and the two soulmates were nearing the end of their time together for the lifetime theyíd shared. "WeĎve had a good life, havenít we, love?"

They were laying in bed together, cuddled in their favorite position with the blonde head cradled on the broad shoulder, and the strong arms wrapped around the smaller body. "We really have. Didnít start off that way, but everything happens for a reason." They smiled in silence as their memories took them back over the years theyíd shared, and the children and grandchildren that they counted as theirs. "I think itís time to go home for a while though, Little One. Iím tired."

"Where you go, I go, Dom," Raphael responded quietly. Then they drew a deep breath and closed their eyes in eternal sleep.

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"That was amazing. Sounds like despite everything, they were happy together. And my God, seventeen kids! Can you imagine?" The bard had to chuckle at Randiís tone of voice. The warrior scowled up at her moving mattress. "Hey, weíre resting here."

"Iím sorry, honey. Youíre just too cute. And no," she added hastily, "I canít imagine. Just thinking about it makes my head hurt. But Raphael left some interesting tales with his children."

"Did he say if they had the rings? You didnít mention them in either this story or the first one."

"No, they didnít. Dominic and Raphael were taken away from their families as children, and in fact did not meet until they found themselves together in the shipís hold. When they escaped from slavery, they went away from their families and the rings. There are a few instances when that happened, but they are rare. For the most part, when the soulmates join, the rings are present."

"And when we miss, like we did with the soldier and the actress?"

"Our descendents continue to hold them in trust until we meet again... like now."

The warrior took Gwen hand in her own and placed a kiss of promise upon her ring. "I love you, Gwen. Iím so happy we got a chance to do this right. And so glad we got past our last meeting as soulmates. I can only imagine the misery...."

"Donít, please. Society is accepting of us as a family. Things are different in this time and place. Letís just be thankful for what we have now, instead off reliving the ache we suffered before." A tear fell from each eye before the bard could stop them, and she swiped at them angrily. "Shit! I shouldnít have told that damn story."

The Sabre moved swiftly to keep the small woman from bolting away from her, and she quickly reversed their positions. She looked down at the tear-filled green eyes and smiled sadly. "Iím sorry, love. You were right. That first story is haunting, and I canít help that it troubles me so. But weíve shared many lifetimes, and I want to hear about them all... good and bad. But I want to hear more about you too. ĎK?"

The Marine watched the rapid play of emotions that flew across Gwenís tell-tale features, and unbidden, she leaned down took possession of the bardís lips in a fiery kiss. The blonde responded deeply, sincerely and totally, until they were born away on a wave of passion that crested and crested again until the couple fell back spent and sated into their little nest.

"What was the hardest thing about adjusting to military life for you?" It was late, and they had been enjoying the quiet sense of peace that pervaded the tiny cabin. Gwen was finally getting back to Randiís request of her, in a somewhat roundabout fashion.

"Being away from my family and friends," the Marine responded without hesitation. "I have never been so lonely as I was those three months of boot camp."

"I know what you mean. When I did that six-month tour, I was miserable." She rushed on at the warriorís expression. "Donít get me wrong. I was glad to do it, and grateful to have made such a difference for so many, but it gave me a new, deeper understanding of just a little bit of what military life must have been like for you all those years as a Sabre." She sighed. "I didnít really realize til right then how very lucky I had been in my service."

Randi remained silent, knowing the blonde had more to say.

"I mean I never left the capital city, except for a couple weekends to go see my folks. And apparently once the general found out who I was and where my true skill lay, I suddenly had much more "free time" to visit the sick. I wondered about having so much time to volunteer to visit the medifacs. But a lot of my duty time was used for morale boosting. Public performances. An Army ambassador, I think he called it."

"Tell me?" the Marine asked softly.

"Itís nothing special. I...."

"Please."

 

 

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Gwen was, technically speaking, the generalís aide de camp. She was to set his schedule, arrange his trips, take care of his correspondence, and generally do whatever needed doing around the office. She realized it was cushy duty, and had more than one passing thought as to how she had ended up with such a plum assignment. She had no way of knowing that Geoff had asked for a favor from an old friend.

The weapons smith had neglected to tell his old buddy about his daughterís talent, however, preferring to allow her to reveal herself if and when she felt comfortable doing so.

The bard, for her part was enjoying the anonymity of the Army at first. As Gwenievere Goldman, bard extraordinaire, people expected particular things from her. But as Army Pvt. G. Goldman, she relished a certain freedom she hadnít experienced since she was a child. So her three months of boot camp, and her first seven weeks of regular Army life, she didnít tell a story. But story telling was as natural to her as breathing, and the silence was wearing on her. She actually started losing a little weight, and sleep was slowly becoming more difficult.

When the weekend came, she decided to try a little experiment. She had managed to put off the Army buddies whoíd asked her to participate in a base softball game, instead choosing to go to the base clinic to see about visiting some of the soldiers whoíd been more seriously hurt in the war games the day before.

She stepped into the repair unit, the largest room in the building, and where most of the injured were housed for their regen processing. She was clad in jeans and a thick white T-shirt, cowboy boots sounding loudly as she crossed the floor in the stillness of the room. The bard expected to be stopped, but apparently all the personnel were attending to other tasks at the moment she chose to walk in, because there was no one at the desk, and no one who asked for her identity.

She walked to the first bed, and said quietly, "Hi, Iím Gwen. Whatís your name?"

Around the room she went, introducing herself, and making small talk to put the men and women in the room at ease. When she reached the front of the room again, she spoke louder, so the entire room could hear her.

"Well, now that weíve gotten to know one another a bit, I thought maybe you all might indulge me for a little while and let me entertain you."

"Whoo hoo!"

"Take it off, girl!"

"Letís see you shake it, honey!"

A furious red blush follow some of the more graphic suggestions, and it was by sheer grit and determination that Gwen didnít bolt and run. Instead she summoned her stage presence and answered them.

"I am a bard, and Iíd like to tell you a story." There were catcalls and whistles, but the blonde stood her ground.

"All right storyteller," a voice near the back called out. "Make us believe it."

It didnít take but a few minutes, and they were all drawn in to the spell she wove around them with her voice alone. By the time she finished, she noticed her crowd had grown, and that the staff had joined them somewhere along the journey. Her audience clapped and cheered... whooping and hollering for long minutes. And in the melee, she disappeared, needing a little space to think.

She took a long walk that afternoon, coming to understand in a way she hadnít thought about before just how much storytelling was a part of her. It wasnít a conscious decision on her part to tell stories... this was something she needed to share to be complete as an individual. Her time away from it just made it crystal clear to her.

Talk of the storytelling spread like wildfire, and it was all over the base Monday morning. General Hampton noticed the change in his aide, glad to see a new exuberance in her eyes and step. He greeted Gwen, and went into his office, an idea tickling at the back of his mind.

The second weekend, she went out into the nearby community center, where a lot of the neighborhood children gathered to play on their days off. They ranged in age from five to seventeen, and Gwenís target audience was somewhere in the middle. Old enough to understand and appreciate a good story, but not so old they would mock and deride her efforts. She neednít have worried.

The kids were segregated by age groups; the smaller children in the sand boxes, the older kids on the swing sets and jungle gyms, and the teens on the basketball and volleyball courts.

Gwen chose a swing, and sat down quietly, rocking slowly while her mind drifted back to her own childhood. She was the only adult who was playing... the rest sat along the perimeter involved in discussion, watching the kids play, and breaking up the occasional argument. Finally, a youngster bolder than the rest gathered her courage and, approached the bard.

"Hey lady," waiting for Gwenís attention to turn her way. "Whatcha doing out here with us kids?"

The blonde brought the swing to a halt, and turned the full force of her considerable personality on the child. "Well, I like to swing, and this one was empty. It helps me think of stories to tell. It always has."

The childís eyes lit up. "Youíre a bard?" When Gwen nodded she squealed with excitement and called out to her friends, motioning them over. "Hey, you guys," cupping her hands around her mouth to get their attention. "Sheís a storyteller." She waved them in. "Will you tell us a story? Something with a princess, maybe, and a hero, and...."

Gwen had to laugh out loud at their enthusiasm. This was what she needed. This was what sheíd been missing. The joy that came from being able to touch anotherís imagination. "Let me see what I can come up with," she answered, already laying out the bare bones story in her mind.

The group started out with twenty children, ranging in age from eight to twelve. Before sheíd finished her first tale, all activity in the center had ceased, and all eyes of every single person were focused on her in rapt wonder.

The bard told so many stories that day that she had no voice left at the end of it. But the soreness of her throat was miniscule compared to the elation she felt in the depths of her soul.

Monday morning was awkward, since she was unable to answer any vid calls except with text messaging. It made for an interesting plight. Rumors abounded now about the mysterious blonde storyteller who had woven such magic for so many on a Saturday afternoon. Many of those kids were military brats whose parents had heard the same fair-haired bard the week before. Stories were flying bout this new sensation, and General Hampton had a very good idea where the source for these rumors was.

He hadnít realized how very lively Gwenís voice was, or how he enjoyed listening to her soothing tones until he noticed just how quiet his office had become without the sound of her voice. Now more than ever he was determined to prove his suspicions, once and for all.

By Wednesday, Gwenís voice was back to normal, and the general smiled at the lilting sound. He made a note to himself to be outside her barracks before dawn the following Saturday, then flushed at his foolishness. It had been a while since heíd engaged in Ďcloak and dagger stuffí.

He almost missed her. Heíd fallen into a light doze because of his exceptionally early hours, and now it was late morning. Heíd begun to wonder if heíd already missed her when he saw her emerge from the building. He noted that she was alone, and had to wonder why someone as friendly as she was didnít seem to have any friends. Then he forgot to wonder anymore, as he became engrossed in a game of hide and seek... keeping her in sight while remaining hidden from her view.

He neednít have worried. She was far too involved with planning her stories to see she was being followed.

When she arrived at the retirement center, she didnít hesitate, but simply walked in the door. She spoke to the woman who sat at the desk, who smiled politely and pointed her down the hall. The blonde nodded her thanks, and went the direction indicated.

The general waited until Gwen turned into a doorway and disappeared from sight before he approached the same desk.

"May I help you sir?

"The young lady that came in ahead of me... who is she here to visit?"

"Everyone. Sheís here to tell stories to the folks who live here."

"Oh? Isnít that somewhat unusual?"

"Yes, and that is exactly the reason the director didnít turn her down when she called yesterday. This is a rare treat."

"Would you mind... do you think I could join the residents while they listen?"

The woman gave him a good going over, hesitating between good manners and good sense. He allowed her scanner to identify him, and she smiled in agreement. "Come this way, general."

The man followed the woman a different direction, and found himself in a corner that kept him from sight while permitting him to view the entire room. "I figure thereís a military reason for this, and this will keep you secret." She smiled at him conspiratorially.

"Thank you, maíam. You are most definitely correct."

She sat down next to him, conveniently forgetting her post as the director introduced their guest to a full room of older people. The applause was polite as they waited for her to impress them. And impress them she did... easily, totally captivating them until they stood clapping and whistling when she drew her tale to a close.

"That was phenomenal," the woman whispered to General Hampton. "I wonder who she is?"

The general was too busy smacking his palm on his forehead to reply. He couldnít believe how incredibly dense heíd been. It was time to employ the resources he had at hand.

Monday morning found a very somber General Hampton sitting sternly behind his desk when the bard arrived for duty. She hadnít even settled in for work when he summoned her into his office.

"Pvt. Goldman, we have a problem."

"Sir?"

"I have to claim stupidity on my part... it is the only excuse I can find for not figuring things out sooner."

"Sir?" Gwen was confused, and her bossís round about speech wasnít helping matters at all.

"Apparently youíve been hiding your light under a bushel, Private, and I am having an issue with that." She looked as bewildered as she felt at that point. "Is there a reason you neglected to mention who you really are?" The bard broke from attention, and rubbed her hand across her forehead. "You are still at attention, Goldman," he reminded in a stern but not unkind voice.

"Iím sorry, sir. Iím just more than a little confused by the conversation."

"You see, Gwen, it has come to my attention that the world-renown bard Gwenievere Goldman was my aide de camp. Now, Private, would you like to explain to me why I had to discover this situation right under my very nose?"

To his unpleasant surprise, the small blonde didnít say a word as tears rolled down her face. He waited patiently for her to collect her composure, then he indicated a chair and handed her a glass of water. When she seemed able to talk, he took the chair next to her, and turned his attention to her.

"This was the first place I was able to be one of many, and for a while, it was fine. It was a novelty for me, and I enjoyed it. But the stories... they are so much a part of me. They define who I am, and even though I have to be like everyone else in this uniform, out of it I have to be me. I have to be a bard."

The general steepled his fingers together in thought. "How would you like to be a bard in uniform?" He held up a hand to forestall her speech. "You would still be my aide de camp, but with shorter hours. We could arrange for small gatherings for the hundreds of military personnel who pass through this city every week." He focused inward and continued to talk as if she was no longer in the room with him.

"This could work very well," he mused, "and be good for morale. Would you be amenable to something like this?"

Her eyes began to glow, and she nodded firmly. "Oh yes general. Most certainly."

"Wonderful," was his comment. "Letís get the correspondence out of the way, and weíll sit down and come up with something of a schedule that will allow for you to be our ambassador of good cheer."

Gwen cringed inwardly at the descriptive, but merely nodded her agreement.

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"I didnít realize until the night of the awards ceremony that he knew about the volunteer work. I figured heíd finally recognized my name and put it all together that way. God, sometimes I am so dumb."

"Nope, sorry... canít let you talk about yourself like that. Never dumb, love. Focused maybe, naïve, but never, ever dumb."

Gwen shifted slightly, sliding off the Marineís body to lie at her side. Her objective was to get a better angle to see from, but Randi took exception to the movement. Instead she pulled the bard completely on top of her, draping the smaller womanís body to cover her own. The skin on skin contact caused funny little tingles to run up and down Gwenís spine, and she growled low in her throat before leaning down to thoroughly kiss the Sabreís full lips.

"Do you know just how much I love you?"

"Almost as much as I love you, I think," came the instant reply. The Marine tightened her arms around the bard and hugged her intensely.

"I love you with all my heart, and because of you, that heart gets bigger and bigger. Because everyday I seem to love you just a little bit more." She laid her head down on the broad chest beneath her, pillowing her head on the soft breast. Randiís heartbeat was strong and after that sentiment, rapidly beating out a rhythmic tattoo that slowly, surely lulled Gwen into sleep.

The Marine kissed the blonde head tucked under her chin when she heard the breathing even out into sleep. "Goodnight, love," she whispered.

 

 

The freezing rain falling on the roof was loud enough to wake them in the early morning hours. Randi smiled to herself. Maybe we could go explore the caves a little more today. Her thoughts became much more carnal when Gwenís shifting caused tingles to skitter across her skin. Or maybe we should just stay in bed all day. I still have that lovely.... Her thoughts drifted off, remembering the day sheíd bought it.

It wasnít as though she had any reason to buy something as frivolous and daring and risqué as the silk negligee that hung in the window. Except for the odd tryst, she hadnít dated in years, and even those flings had been all too rare. Not that Iíd waste something like this on a casual tete a tete. This would be for someone special... someone like.... Unbidden, her mindís eye flashed to her best friend, toward whom her feelings were deepening beyond her logical control. She shook her head uselessly, but still found herself drawn into the small boutique.

She arrived home with her purchase, feeling more than a little foolish, and hid it away. And hidden it stayed, completely forgotten until she went to pack for their honeymoon. When she was at first surprised, then flustered at her audacity, then tucked the garment in her bag for Gwenís preview.

"I bought it for her... I should wear it for her," the Marine muttered sotto voce.

The bard hummed her delight in her circumstances, and cuddled even closer into the warriorís body. Randi wrapped her arms tighter, reveling in their closeness. She drifted off again into a half doze that was perpetuated by the constant noise of the rain falling. Their combined warmth made her hesitant to crawl out of the bed.

When Gwen opened her eyes, she stared at the profile beneath her, and gently traced the facial pattern now ingrained in her mindís eye. The Sabre didnít twitch a muscle or flicker an eyelash, and the blonde lavish special attention on the scar. She noticed that is seemed more faded, and was the same temperature as the skin that surrounded it. She smiled when Randi leaned into the stroking. The bard leaned down to kiss the full lips that were twitching just slightly.

Then, of course, nature had to scream... loudly.

A quick peck on the lips, and Gwen jumped from the bed. The bathroom door slammed rather loudly, and Randi sat up and looked around. "Huh? What the...?"

She got up and puttered around, relighting the stoked embers til they caught and burst into flame. She leaned back into the smaller body when Gwen came out of the bathroom, and wrapped herself around the taller woman, reaching her hands around to lightly tease the warriorís breasts. "I was thinking about a shower," she whispered hotly in Randiís ear. "Care to join me?"

For answer, the warrior spun in place, and swept the bard up into her arms, searing their mouths together for a long passionate moment. At the bathroom door, she set the younger woman on her feet and admonished, "Go start the water. Iíll be right there."

Gwen looked at her mystified for a minute before moving into the tiny room to do the warriorís bidding. Randi turned back to her luggage before scooping up the packages, and heading into the bathroom.

 

 

"When do I get to see whatís under the robe?" the bard questioned sometime later when both of their physical appetites had been briefly sated. After their shared shower, Randi had wordlessly handed her a package and picked up the second before she started to leave the bathroom. Gwenís hand on her arm and the look of confusion in her eyes caused the warrior to turn and offer her a bit of explanation.

"I got this... well, Iíd kinda like to surprise you with it. I canít do that if youíre standing here watching me put it on."

Gwen watched in fascination as a slow blush crawled up Randiís face. "Oh, something I am going to like, I take it?" She wasnít sure, but thought the brunette mumbled "I hope so" when she nodded her head. "And something I get to take off you later?" Seeing the blue eyes darken when they met her own, and returning the rakish grin. "Oh I certainly hope so," was the firm, clear answer.

"Get along with you, then. Let me know when itís safe to come out."

Theyíd fixed breakfast, sharing teasing touches and nibbling kisses between bites of food. Then theyíd moved over in front of the fireplace, comfortable in the silence. The colorful silks of their robes blended nicely together, and each was absently stroking the softness of the material in lieu of the skin they could not reach. Gwen was almost startled when Randiís question broke the silence.

"Finish your story from yesterday?" The bard cocked an eyebrow, wondering what machinations her companion was playing at. She reviewed her story from yesterday, trying to gauge where sheíd left off. Understanding that she had indeed stopped before the end of the tale. "All righty, but then itís your turn again."

The warrior nodded her agreement, knowing that the bard had not yet realized that her muse had returned to her with a vengeance. Though not polished with the practice and study she put into a performance, the storyteller had staged a comeback. And Randi was looking forward to the moment that the truth dawned upon her beloved. She smiled secretly to herself, then settled back with Gwen in her arms, preparing to listen to the story that would bring their lives to cross once again in the past.

 

 

Chapter VI

"You have to remember," Gwen mused as she settled back into her partnerís warmth, "that my entire life up until my military service I was telling stories. So I knew what kind of time I needed to prepare, and I knew what the best performance times were. I was used to setting my own schedule for that... Iíd been doing it for myself for three years, and Iíd paid real close attention to Sal and my mother before then. Imagine my surprise when the general refused to let me do it my way."

 

 

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The bard had been insistent... weekends had always been her biggest draws. The general refused to listen, and finally put it to her point blank.

"Look, Private. I canít have you out of the office four days a week. As nice as it would be to have that be your assignment for the remainder of your tour, you are billeted as my aide, and I need you here." He didnít add, and would not reveal until the night of her award ceremony, that he wanted her to have the opportunity to continue her various volunteer projects as much as anything else. He had a feeling she would be a great community asset if she was given the time to participate.

"Yes sir," she answered solemnly.

"I think doing a presentation on Wednesday afternoon and another on Friday night should be sufficient. We can always do some sort of management to insure that the widest audience possible gets the opportunity to hear you. Iíd kind of like to keep the afternoon thing for the kids. Once the word gets out youíre doing this, we will have to have some sort of rotating schedule, because theyíre gonna want to come from all over."

"And the military guys? What about them?"

"Friday nights will be for them. If itís really successful, weíll see about doing a week at a time every few months."

Thoughtful green eyes turned inward, and the blonde chewed her lips in thought. "You donít think we need to do weekends?"

"No," Hampton replied, grinning inwardly. "We need those days free in case we need to catch up here. And you need some time off."

Gwen nodded her agreement. "All right, sir. That is acceptable. Thank you."

"Youíre welcome, soldier. Letís get to work."

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"By that point, I had been in the army just over six months. I continued to do my volunteer work on the weekends, but the Wednesday and Friday night sessions were a smash hit as well. After the first three months, I was slated for my first week of nightly storytelling duty. I was a nervous wreck."

"Why? Youíd done it before."

"Yes, but this was different. This time I wore a uniform, and represented something much bigger than myself or my stories."

"That was the first time I saw you perform, you know."

Green eyes widened. "I read a bit about that in your diary. Will you fill in the blanks?"

The warrior gave a silent sigh and smiled shyly. "As long as you keep me warm, I will." Gwen cuddled more deeply into her lap, and turned her head to catch Randiís heartbeat as the warrior began to tell her tale.

 

 

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

It had been a nightmare of an assignment, and having lost Poppy was almost more than the stoic Marine could bear. Loss like that didnít happen very often among the Sabres, and the fact that it was pointless just made it that much more intolerable. The Marine had stayed behind recklessly to recover her mentorís remains, and was now headed to the capital city to receive yet another commendation and a week of hard earned R&R.

Randi snorted to herself, clad in her dress blues. A look at her medal covered chest was impressive, especially when one knew that she had only been in the military for a little over four years at the time. But the ache in her chest made her wish she could rip them off and trade them in for Poppyís safe return.

However, she knew that there was no way for that to happen, so she bit her lip, and wiped her eyes a final time. The stoic warrior put her cold mask on, and emerged from the transport into the bright sunlight of the late fall day. She would have appreciated its beauty more if she hadnít been so anxious to just get away for a while.

Like the best-laid plans, however, it was not to materialize quite the way the Marine had envisioned. She had gone to the Sabre cottage she was using during her stay in the city, and changed into more casual attire. She was just headed out the door when Brenda, Lacey and Laceyís new girlfriend Nicky arrived at her front door.

"Um, sorry, guys. I was just headed out."

"Yes, you were," they cheerfully agreed. "In fact, youíre going out with us." Brenda and Lacey each took a side, and started escorting her down the short walk to their waiting transport.

"Um...." But that was all she could manage before she found herself safely ensconced in the back of the vehicle with her dark skinned compatriot. She settled back and closed her eyes, missing the concerned look that passed between her Sabre friends.

Without opening her eyes she asked, "So where are we going?"

"Oh, this is too fabulous, but Nicky was able to score us some tickets to the hottest show in town." Lacey reached over and clasped her girlfriendís hand tightly, giving it a brief squeeze. The other woman smiled brightly with a quick look at her lover, then turned her attention back to their surroundings.

Randi pulled her head up off the back of the seat where sheíd been resting it, and opened her eyes. "Guys, I appreciate the sentiment, but Iím really not in the mood for raucous and rowdy. So...."

"Good," Nicky broke in. "Cause thatís not what this is. Youíll like this, Randi. I promise."

The Marine looked at her skeptically before turning her attention to her surroundings, and noticing for the first time that they were at the entrance to a theatre. "You have got to be kidding me," she muttered to herself, but exited the transport and waited for her friends to join her.

They entered, and she was pleased that Nicky had managed to acquire a box for them. She was also amazed at the fact that here it was, a Sunday night, and the place was packed... literally standing room only. She took a seat in front at their insistence, though the logic of their choice escaped her. She settled back comfortably slumped in her seat, listening to the conversation that flowed around her until the darkening of the house lights indicated the beginning of the performance. She didnít move when the bard was introduced, though her laughter at the petite figure in Army green was covered entirely by the cheers and whistles of the crowd around her.

Randi propped her head on her hand, wishing silently to herself that she could just get away and be alone for a while. All these people were making her skin crawl. Then Gwen opened her mouth and began to speak, and without realizing it, the warrior was drawn into the tale being woven around her as if by magic. Her posture changed with her attitude, and before the end of the first story, she was sitting on the edge of her seat, leaning forward on the railing.

The entire performance held her mesmerized, and by the end of the bardís final ovation, she was sitting spellbound. Except for the change in her posture, her comrades didnít notice the rapt expression on her face, so captivated had they themselves been. But Nicky saw, and understood that on some level, the storyteller had filled a need within the warriorís troubled soul.

Lacey and Brenda were full of chatter at dinner and on the ride back to the cottage. Randi was quiet, but since that was her standard operating procedure, no one thought twice about it. The Marine sat down as soon as she reached the haven of her room, and shot off an email to her cousin cum business partner. Midas was doing well under Tommyís guidance, but a performer like this bard could put them over the top... make them a strength in the Artistís Guild.

The Sabre awoke with the sun, all her R&R plans shot to hell overnight. She spent the day trying to get tickets to the nightís performance, only to find there were none to be had. When the weeklong series had been announced, the tickets had sold at an astronomical rate. They were gone.

Finally, in desperation, she placed a vid call to Nicky, hoping the young woman could hook her up. As luck would have it, Nicky had been waiting for the contact, and had spent the morning acquiring the tickets she had the distinct impression the Marine would need. She smiled to herself in triumph when the call came through. Lacey was gonna owe her breakfast in bed for a month.

When her two Sabre friends called to see what was on for the evening, Randi explained that she was going to be busy the remainder of the week. It didnít take a genius to figure out where she was going, and Lacey groaned to herself. How had Nicky known?

She and Brenda harangued their comrade about her sudden interest in the theatre, but Randi would not be deterred. This went beyond physical comfort. Somehow, Gwenís words reached down and fed the very depths of her soul. And she wouldnít give that up. She couldnít.

Night after night she sat awestruck under the auspices of the bard who knew how to touch lives... minds and hearts and souls. She soaked up each word like a man in the desert dying of thirst, storing it for the drought she knew was sure to come in the days and duty that would follow.

Not once did she ever approach the younger woman, content to appreciate the skill and absorb the feeling from afar. As she watched and listened, her determination grew, and once again her strength resolved to protect the little ones like Gwen from the unknown dangers that threatened them.

When the final ovation of the final performance was finished, the Marine was ready to take up her burden and walk forward into the darkness once more.

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

 

 

The wet heat of tears slowly rolling between her breasts brought Randi back to the reality of the present. She bent her head slightly as she tilted Gwenís chin to bring the bardís eyes up to meet her own. The warrior gazed into her loverís eyes with a mixture of confusion, upset, and compassion.

"Crying, Little One?" she asked the blonde tenderly.

"Happy tears. Sad tears. Angry tears." The lost look in Gwenís eyes was something the warrior understood all too well, and she smiled sadly while gently wiping the wetness from the smooth cheeks. Instinctively, Gwen leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. Randi cupped her cheek, and waited for the green eyes to open to her.

"Dance with me," she whispered huskily.

"Yes." Plain and simple, and said as she rose from the Marineís lap, her eyes never leaving electric blue.

"Music," Randi called out softly, and a light jazz tune wafted through the air. They wrapped themselves in one anotherís arms, and slowly began to sway to the music that surrounded them. Gwenís ear was pressed to Randiís chest, and she listened contentedly as the beat kept time with her own.

The couple stayed locked together like this for an eternity. Randi brushed a light kiss across the top of the blonde head. The bard turned and nuzzled the tiny bit of exposed skin, just above the warriorís cleavage. She greedily inhaled the scent of soap and silk and Randi. It was intoxicating, and she felt the Sabreís heart rate pick up at the contact. Gwen blew a gentle breath across the pulse point just above her lips, watching the goosebumps break out across the skin then placed a ghostly kiss on the fluttering spot. She edged her nose into the robe, nestling further into Randiís breasts and placing light kisses across the top of the exposed curves. She felt the hitch in the Marineís breathing and smiled.

Gwen slid her hands down from where they rested behind Randiís neck, coming first to caress the broad shoulders. Her smile grew even broader when she felt the warriorís large hand begin to return the touch up and down her spine. Slowly, she moved her hands down to rest lightly on Randiís chest, her fingertips tracing the path her lips had just made. Again her hands moved downward, and Randi moaned softly as her touch lingered briefly on hardened nipples. She continued moving down over the ribs and the washboard stomach she could feel even beneath the robe, until her hands rested lightly on the knot tied just below the warriorís waist.

The bard unknotted the sash slowly, then gasped as the robe parted to reveal the treasure that was hidden beneath it. The gown was a deep purple silk lace, with strategically placed solid weave. It was sexy, appealing, and entirely touchable, and caused the blue eyes to reflect a lavender color of desire. She pushed the Marine away from her slightly, causing Randiís arms to drop away from Gwenís body, and a furrow to cross her dark brow. Gwen didnít have to explain. She ran her hands back up the warriorís torso, eliciting an involuntary shudder from her partner as her fingers lightly caressed Randiís breasts again then continued up to her shoulders. The bard eased the robe from the taller woman, letting it drift to the floor as she pulled Randi back into her body.

The Sabre stopped short, reaching her hands down to loosen the blondeís robe ties, arching unexpectedly when Gwen ducked her head and began kissing the valley between her breasts. The sash loosened quickly with her almost frantic pulling, and she returned the favor to Gwen as she eased the material to the floor. Randi stepped back away from the bard, drinking in the sight of her for a long moment.

Her gown was a black silk, almost sheer, and slit up both sides to allow teasing glimpses of well-toned legs. Randi pulled the smaller woman back into her, and their dancing resumed slowly.

"You are so beautiful," she murmured in the ear just below her lips. She felt the vibration that trembled through the smaller womanís body. "I love you so much," then gasped when she felt her nipple captured in a pair of hot, wet lips. Her head fell back as her body arched forward. Her hands went from gently caressing the firm ass she held to firmly kneading it. One hand slipped upwards to tangle in the short blonde hair.

Gwen lifted her head from her task at Randiís subtle tug. Smokey green eyes met lust filled blue, then their mouths met fiercely, passionately. Silk became too much of a barrier between them, and as they lowered themselves to the fur hearthrug, skin met skin in a blinding sensation of passion. The rain kept tempo with the music, and the soft sounds of their lovemaking blended to create a new symphony.

 

 

It was still raining when they opened their eyes again in the early afternoon. The fire had died down, and though it was still warm in the room, Randi rose and stoked the flames, feeling her loverís eyes follow her naked body around the small room. She smiled when Gwen blushed and lowered her head when she was caught staring. The warrior crossed to the bardís side, and placed the refreshments she had gotten on the small table by the couch. Then she knelt, and raised Gwenís eyes to meet her own.

"Never be ashamed of that, love. The fact that you feel that way... to know I inspire that kind of desire...." she grinned rakishly. "Does a hell of a lot for the old ego."

Green eyes dropped, then raised again to ensnare the blue above her. "Do I....?" Her eyes dropped again, uncertain how to voice her concern with out seeming petty or needy. Randi understood her unvoiced question, and rapidly wrapped the bard up in strong, sure arms.

"Oh, Little One, do you doubt it? You did so long before we became lovers, before I would let myself admit I had fallen in love with you." Gwenís eyes turned and gazed at her, seeking reassurance. The Marine chuckled lightly. "Let me tell you about how I ended up with that silk lace gown."

The bard smiled sympathetically. From the color that was slowly climbing up Randiís face, it was going to be an interesting tale. Besides, it wasnít something she would have picked out as the Marine choosing for herself in a million years. She couldnít wait to hear the story.

 

 

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

The assignment hadnít been bad. Routine, but with the increasing violence against the team that seemed to be becoming the norm these days. A prickling along her spine caused the Marineís nape hairs to stand up as she slowly gathered up pieces of a puzzle far more complicated than she could imagine at that point in time. Soon, many things would be revealed, and be much clearer to her mindís eye.

But for now, for today, she was simply a woman visiting a fair sized Mariuset, doing her best to blend in. Her blue eyes and her height made her stand out in this community, but her demeanor diverted what little attention her physical aspects garnered, and she was almost able to relax.

There were several Mariuset stalls that featured local delicacies, and she gamely tried several as she strolled along the broad avenue. The toy maker caught her attention, and she found several interesting old-fashioned gadgets to amuse her and add to her collection of unique items back home.

Randi paused to watch a conventional glass blower in wonder. This type of artistry was rare, and she watched in fascination as he performed his craft. She picked up a little trinket, thinking how Gwen would enjoy the novelty. The warrior couldnít see the expression these thoughts brought to her face, but those around her noticed, and wondered who put such a look of sheer love and joy on the previously stoic face.

The Sabre continued to walk, turning when she reached the end of the shopping district, and crossing to walk back on the opposite side. There was music coming from one storefront, and she winced when the singer continued to sing just slightly flat of the tune.

"Great," she muttered. "My ears will be twanging for an hour." She hurried past the noise, and didnít stop to look again until she was out of sound range. When she looked up again to see where she was, she drew in a quick breath. She had found a master weaver, and the garment that hung in the window was created from the most delicate silk lace she had ever seen.

She shook her head, knowing she had no real use for something like that, gorgeous though it was. It would have to be shared with someone extraordinary, and the only person in her life that qualified in that regard was....

She shook her head again, unable to control the brief thought that had skittered across her imagination. Gwen was her best friend, nothing more. Still, as though drawn by a sirenís song, she entered the shop, and purchased the gown. She was frankly amazed at her audacity when she stepped back out into the bright sunlight.

Randi shook her head a third time, trying to reconcile what sheíd done with who she was, and what she and Gwen were to one another. She felt the fool, but took the garment home anyway as Ďan excellent illustration of quality and master craftsmanship.í

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

 

 

"I tucked it away... out of sight, out of mind. And I literally forgot about it until...." She blushed beet red again.

"Until when, love?" Gwen lightly stroked her soulmateís face, smiling when Randi closed her eyes and leaned into the touch.

"Um, when Ben took your memory, and you were sleeping upstairs. I did a bit of cleaning up, and came across it. I found it totally ironic. We were bound, and I still couldnít wear it for you. And then I got to thinking about why I bought the damned thing in the first place."

"Oh?" The blonde brow arched just slightly.

"Hope. As much as I denied us, denied my feelings for you... well, it is part of the human condition to have hope. Even for one insane moment, the heart sometimes has to hope beyond the logical constraints the mind tries to put on it. There was no other reason for me to buy it. I would never have worn something like that for anyone else."

"Well," the bard said with an ebullient grin. "Iím flattered. That has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of work I have ever seen, and you do such justice to it. Will you take me there some day? Iíd like to meet the weaver, and express my thanks."

"Your wish is my desire, love. We can take a little weekend trip; see what we can see. I will be interested for her to meet you."

"Why?"

"When I purchased it, she held it next to me for a long moment. Her words as she wrapped the package up were...." Her brow furrowed as she thought back to that day. The one who holds your heart holds your soul as well. One who will appreciate the gift you offer in this. She wrapped this up, and laid a second package on top of it. For her. Her strength will be your greatest asset.

"I never really understood what she meant by that, until I was gone from you. Because with you by my side, I can do anything."

Gwen smiled, and shifted their positions so she was pillowing the dark head on her soft chest. Randi sighed in contentment as nimble fingers slipped through her disheveled hair, gently coaxing it back into some semblance of order. They ate slowly, Gwen feeding both of them as Randi stroked her bare sides almost absently. When the food was finished, the Marine raised her head and looked into the green eyes above her.

"You owe me another story, and then I want to show you something."

The bard looked dubiously out the window at the still pouring rain. "Ooooookay," she drawled. "What would you like to hear about?" fairly certain she knew the answer to her question.

"Can I have another Soulmates story?" Hopeful blue eyes peered back at her, and the bard felt herself melting under their intense regard.

"Um, all right, but this one isnít happy ever after either."

Randi dropped her eyes, considering, then raised them back to Gwenís face. "Thatís okay, love. I know they canít all be happy, and Iím more prepared this time. That first one just sorta blindsided me."

"Yeah, that one always makes me cry at the injustice of it all. This one is sad also, but the cruelty in it makes me angry." A dark brow rose at the fiery sparks that flew from the bardís eyes.

"Tell on then, please."

 

 

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

The young soldier was tired and bleeding when he crawled into what smelled like a barn in the darkness. He struggled to get behind the small stack of bales near the corner and collapsed. He had no idea if he was in friendly or enemy territory, but he was beyond caring. He closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.

When next he woke, the sun was fully up, and he was gazing into the most intense green eyes he had ever seen. Surprisingly, given the young womanís attire that indicated her as an enemy to his clan, she continued to approach him gently. The man was too injured to worry about her intentions. If she wanted him dead, he would die this day. Instead, her touch was soothing, and welcome to his fevered brow, and her whispered words of comfort carried him back into the depths of healing sleep.

Opening his eyes again, he found himself lying on a small cot, his wounds tended to, and a small fire going in the pit nearby. Tenderly, she wiped his forehead, and he sank into a healing sleep once more.

On the morning of the fourth day, he was able to sit and take some broth. By the sixth, he was gingerly easing himself around under her watchful eye.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months as he healed and regained his strength. He helped her around her small farm, and she continued to minister to his slowly healing body. Evenings were spent quietly talking, or in long comfortable silences neither felt the need to break. And so summer became fall, and fall passed into winter. Then winter turned to spring. With the coming of spring their time together ended, and the rending was horrific to both souls.

Over the months, they had fallen in love, and one cold night in the dead of winter, they had exchanged vows and promises between them, and consummated their love one for the other. Daily they saw their bond strengthen as their souls wove themselves into a single entity.

The young manís father, a brutal warlord and clan chieftain had been scouring the countryside looking for his sonís remains. When he came across the homestead, he thought to take his fill of the beautiful young woman he found. The son, out in the fields, heard the cries of his beloved, and rushed to the cabin to find a bear of a man thrusting in and out of his wife. Consumed with rage, he attacked, only to find himself gutted by his fatherís sword.

"Yours then, lad?" the cruel man chortled. "Sheíll make a fine whore for meself and me men. The price ye pay for deserting and taking up with enemy scum. And títhink I was gonna giíye a heroís burial." He spat on the son as he released into the womanís body. "Yeíre no man, no hero, and yeíre no longer me son."

The warlord pulled himself out of the woman, and moved to step around the body that lay still in a pool of his own blood. A hand reached out and grabbed his ankle, yanking with an unnatural strength, and causing the man to fall on his own blade. It pierced his heart, and he died instantly. With his remaining strength, the ex-soldier pushed the corpse off his body and coughed. His wife made her way to his side, and cradled his head in her hands.

"Oh, beloved." The tears ran down his face, mingling with the blood that speckled his lips. "I am so sorry. I failed you. I failed us." He closed his blue eyes and turned his head away in disgrace. Gentle fingers turned his face back to her bosom, and warm lips brushed his own. He had to open his eyes, and when he did, he found only love and sorrow reflected back at him. The man reached for his wifeís hand, and tenderly kissed her fingers.

"No, love," she answered him softly. "You didnít fail. You brought me joy... made my life complete." Tears flowed freely from the green eyes and dripped onto his lips in sacrament. "Our time together here is done. Rest now, I will join you shortly."

He closed his eyes in death as her lips brushed his one final time. Then she moved, placing their pillow under his head. The she gathered all her anger, and kicked the dead hulk that had been his father out the door, and removed her husbandís knife from the warlordís heart. She washed the blade, not wanting any part of him to touch her again. Then she went back inside and carefully shut and locked the door. She built up the fire, ensuring that it would catch the cottage on fire after she was dead, and lay down beside her husbandís body one final time.

With his knife, well-honed and sharpened, she slit the skin on both wrists with only a slight gasp at the stinging pain she felt from the cut. She was mostly beyond pain now. One more small cut at her neck, and she lay her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes in eternal sleep. It didnít take long for the cabin to burn once it caught fire, and by mid-morning the following day, it was nothing but a pile of smoldering ash.

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

 

 

The fire that had sparked from the bardís eyes now burned brightly in the warriorís as well. "Why that slimy, no-account goddamn worthless bastard." She jumped from the bardís arms and started pacing. "When I get my hands on him...." Her hands clenched and unclenched reflexively, and her jaw ground in anger. Gwen leaped to her feet, and caught Randiís hands in her own, her thumbs gently stroking the throbbing pulse points on the thick wrists.

"Love? Love, look at me." Green eyes focused solely on the Sabreís face, patiently waiting for the ice blue gaze to rivet her way. When it did, the bard drew a deep breath at the lost look hidden behind the pain and anguish so clear in their depths. She released one hand to tenderly cup her soulmateís planed face, unconsciously tracing the warriorís features.

Randi closed her eyes, absorbing the sensation and the heartfelt emotion she could feel emanating from Gwen. She drew a deep breath and then another, only opening her eye when her partner began to speak.

"Randi, honey? Itís over. Heís dead and gone, and has been for a very long time."

Another deep breath. Then she wrapped her arms around the bard and pulled her closer until they were touching along their lengths. She sighed and kissed Gwenís forehead. "I know, Little One, and Iím sorry. There is just so much ugliness, so much cruelty in that story, and it makes me want to reach out and return the hurt to him a hundred fold."

The blonde chewed on her lip. "I wish we had access to a holosuite here. I have someplace fun Iíd like to take you."

The Sabre pulled back just slightly, until she could see the knitted brow clearly. "Well, as a matter of fact...."

Gwen caught the teasing in her tone. "Do you?" looking around the tiny cabin, wondering where her companion could possibly have installed one. She caught the blue eyes above her twinkling with mischief.

"Um hmm," Randi managed to hum in a drawl. "But you gotta get dressed first. The caves tend to be kinda cool year round." The storyteller looked at her, startled.

"Waitaminute. Hold on right there," lightly splaying her hands against the taller womanís chest. "You mean to tell me you really have a holosuite in the caverns?"

"Yep," with a saucy grin. The Marine lifted the hands to her lips and kissed them both, then moved to get some clothes on. "Remember, this is my sanctuary. A place I built for my own rest, relaxation and comfort. And since there was nobody around unless I drove into town to socialize, that meant supplying my own entertainment. There are a couple rooms you didnít see the other day." This last was said with a wicked gleam as Randi tied her shoes. "Now hurry up and get dressed so we can go play pretend." 9;

God, Gwen thought as she finished tying her own shoes. Iím married to a seven-year-old. Her smile was big and wide though, as she gazed upon her loverís happiness. Just how did I get so lucky? Then she reached out, and took Randiís large hand in her own smaller one. "Címon, you overgrown kid. Letís go ride."

Their clasped hands made an excellent anchor, and the bard found herself pulled to an abrupt stop. Gwen looked at the Marine in question, only to have Randi quirk an eyebrow at her. "Ride? Ride *what* exactly?"

The smaller woman gave another tug on their joined hands and smiled mischievously at the Sabre. "Youíll just have to trust me on this one, Stud. But I promise youíll have a good time."

The Marine gave a crooked little grin and shrugged. "All right. Letís go."

They passed into the caves, gingerly skirting the stalactites and stalagmites in the first few enclosures before reaching the more open spaces of the mining caverns beyond. It was in the second of the open caverns that Gwen noticed several shadowed areas she hadnít noticed before, and it was in this direction that Randi lead her.

The Sabre stopped at the first opening and motioned. "This is pretty self-explanatory." And it was. The space was filled with a number of weight machines and exercise equipment, and of course her favorite old standby... the punching bag. Gwen looked on in appreciation at the well laid out space and the variety of training tools Randi had outfitted the gym with.

"This," motioning to the next space as they moved on, "is my office. I donít use it much, since I always came up here to get way, but itís nice to have if an emergency arises." The storyteller looked around in approval at the state-of-the-art work sanctuary. She smiled. Her soulmate was nothing if not thorough. Then Randi was guiding her to the third opening, which had door that had been carefully built to seal the doorway.

"This is the holosuite. I havenít used it in a while, but it should be ready to go. Do you have a chip, or will you need to program it. Oh, wait," smacking her forehead. "Never mind. You didnít know this was here. Of course you need to program it in."

She would have continued berating herself, except Gwen chose that moment to cover her lips in an extendedly passionate kiss. So long, in fact, that they were both breathing hard when they separated.

"What was I saying again?" the Sabre asked dazedly.

"Nothing," the bard mumbled. "Not a damned thing."

"Good," she agreed. Now letís get this thing set up. I am looking forward to this adventure of yours."

Gwen stepped back into the office space and accessed the computer. It was simply an extension of Randiís home format, and the storyteller had no problem getting into the program file she needed. She downloaded the information onto a tiny chip, then forwarded the chip into the holosystem. She took the warrior by the hand and led her back to the holosuite room, ensuring the door was firmly closed before she called up the specs for her program. She set the parameters in place, then turned to her companion.

"When you took us to the happy place, I had such a good time that I did a little research. Seems a lot of the entertainment for that bygone era focused on spots like that. And remembering the rush from the shuttle jump, I did a little more looking, and found that they had some amazing and bizarre Ďthrillí rides." She smiled at the childlike enchantment that sparkled back at her from the warriorís smiling face. "So I had the computer put the best of them together for us in one place. I was gonna surprise you with it sometime, though I didnít expect it to be quite so soon. Anyway... surprise," said with a nervous chuckle and a tiny half-shrug of assumed nonchalance. She hit a button, and the room became all outdoors filled with some of the most curious objects Randi had ever seen.

Blue eyes widened in delight as she looked around in sheer wonder. Then she turned her gaze to her soulmate who stood hesitantly watching her, waiting for her reaction. Gwen gasped slightly in startlement when large hands clasped her waist, and swung her around in a high circle.

"RAAAAANNDDDIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!" she squealed, closing her eyes, and grasping the Marineís strong shoulders. Randi laughed excitedly.

"Oh, Little One... this is fabulous!! Thank you!!" She set the now unsteady woman on her feet, and held onto her until the bard regained her balance. "Címon. We got some ridiní to do." The blonde cheerfully followed where the Sabre was leading her, overjoyed that her gift had been so well received. She was hoping this would prove half as much fun as it appeared to be when she set it up.

 

 

Chapter VII

"Oh my God!" the Marine breathed as she collapsed onto the bed much later. "That was so incredible. I canít believe some of the stuff they did for kicks, but God, what a rush. Oof!" The wind left her lungs as Gwen fell on top of her deadweight. She gently rubbed the strong back. "You okay there, love?"

A groan was her answer.

"I guess riding the last coaster was a bad idea, huh?"

Another groan.

She felt the smaller body slowly beginning to relax into her own. "I had a fantastic time. Thank you for sharing such an incredible experience with me." A third groan, but this one sounded suspiciously like a purr. "I love you."

The blonde head rose from its rather comfortable pillowed position on Randiís full breasts, and smiled. "I love you too, Stud. And there is no one else Iíd want to share incredible experiences with. I had a really good time too."

"Right up to that last ride."

"Yeah. Iím not sure if it was the shot-like start, the three loops, or that ugly drop. But something just didnít sit right."

"Coulda been the fact that we werenít sitting."

"Yep, thanks for reminding me of that." The bard made a mad dash for the bathroom. Randi followed quickly when she realized her partner was honestly not well. She rubbed the younger womanís back, and gently wiped her face.

"You feel any better?" asked contritely. She didnít know Gwen was feeling so badly.

The storyteller cupped the warriorís face. "Yes, actually. Just got to be a little too much. Iím gonna take a lukewarm shower and...."

"And Iím gonna make you some tea. See if we canít make you well."

"Randi," in a commanding tone that forced the Marine to meet intense green eyes. "Iím okay now, really. It was just a little more than I expected it to be. Maybe we should do it first next time."

"You want to go again?"

"Of course, silly. We did some incredible things today. I had a great time."

The sparkle returned to the sapphire eyes. "Me too. Next time, we wonít spend so long at it."

"Sounds like a plan, Stud. You wanna join me in the shower?" waggling her eyebrows comically. The Sabre chuckled at the sight.

"No, Iím gonna fix you some tea. See if we can settle your stomach. And then I think I owe you another story."

"Yep, you sure do."

"Well, the sooner we settle in for the night the sooner you get your story. So chop chop!" saucily. The bard stuck out her tongue before retreating into the shower fully clothed with a shriek. The Marine laughed evilly as she went back into the main room, and pulled out the peppermint tea.

When Gwen stepped from the bathroom, Randi had a cozy nest set up in their bed with the blankets pulled down and the pillows propped up. She settled her lover into place, then excused herself to shower while the blonde sipped her tea.

The Marine was a little distracted when she stepped out of the bathroom, concentrating on the picture Gwen made and the story she wanted to tell her more than her surroundings. So she was mightily surprised, and not pleasantly, when she felt a now familiar smack to the back of her head. One hand reached for her head, while the other covered her mouth where sheíd once again bitten her tongue. The towel sheíd been wrapped in fell to the floor, and Gwen whistled and cheered in appreciation. The Sabre was torn between glaring at the now visible goddess of love, and blushing under Gwenís fervent, lust-filled admiration.

"Whatíd you do that for?" opting to glare while she blushed. She snatched the towel from the floor, and rewrapped it around her tall body.

"Oh babe, I donít think you need to like cover up that totally luscious bod of yours. We were enjoying the view." Aphrodite actually cringed when a bardic throat cleared, and green eyes glared daggers in her direction. "Ahem, yeah well anyway." She walked over to the not-so-carefully discarded gown from earlier in the day. She picked them up, and physically folded them carefully herself before placing them gently on the arm of the couch. "I do something totally radical, and this is how you treat it? Of all the ungrateful...." the goddess fumed. She was met by a blank stare. "Oh wait, you like so donít have a clue here, do ya?"

Randiís hand moved from the back of her head to the front, and she looked at her bard plaintively. "Ya know, just once Iíd like to have a coherent conversation with these guys that doesnít start in the middle of something." Gwen hid her laughter behind her hand, and the warriorís attention returned to Dite.

"*I* gave Maiora the designs for these gowns. They were made *for you*... for you both."

The warrior didnít know whether to be pleased or angry. She settled for upset. "You set me up? Whatever happened to free will?"

"Oh, you bought them of your own free will, babe. We just set up the circumstances and opportunity. Trust me, if you didnít have free will," the love goddessís eyes darkened in something akin to rage, "a lot of things about the past few years would have been different."

Randiís head lowered in acknowledgment, and she started to speak when Gwenís voice interrupted her breath.

"Now, just a damn minute, Aphrodite." Remembering the bardís fearful reaction to the goddess the first time theyíd met once the Marine had returned, Randi had to wonder where the fire in her tone came from. Then she understood that her soulmate was speaking in her defense, and that lent a fire all its own. Gwen slipped from the bed, and tightened her robe as though in preparation for doing battle.

"There are a lot of things a lot of people would change over the course of their lives if they could go back and redo with all the knowledge they have garnered in their life experiences." The blonde stepped into Diteís personal space, and poked a finger at her chest. "Iím sure there are even a lot of things the gods would do differently given a second chance." Now she stood nose to nose with the goddess. "But thatís not how life works. The fact that Randi and I have a second chance at happiness together is nothing short of miraculous, and for that I am forever in your debt. BUT... but, you are not going to continue to lord that over her, do you understand? We are past that."

Aphrodite stared at Gwen for a very long moment... an amazing feat, considering her eyes were crossed. Then she kissed the bardís forehead, and broke into a heartfelt, joyous giggle. "Oh, Little One. I am so proud of you. You so totally ROCK!!! Later, guys!" And she disappeared in a shower of rose petals and the tinkling of fading laughter.

Gwen looked at Randi curiously, who was gaping at her in astonishment. "What? I swear encounters with her are getting bizarre." She stopped talking when Randi wrapped her up tightly in her strong arms and held on as though for dear life. After a timeless moment, the Marine eased up just enough to gaze into Gwenís eyes before lowering her head and capturing the bardís lips.

When they pulled apart with several small kisses, Randi whispered over the sound of their joint heartbeats thrumming loudly in the stillness. "Thank you." Blonde brows scrunched up as she tried to determine exactly what she was being thanked for. The Sabre interpreted her confusion easily, and she continued speaking. "You stood up for me. You defended my choice. Even though it was wrong, and hurt us both horribly, you still defended my honor."

"Of course I did. I love you. Laugh lines, scar, bellybutton lint, freckles and all."

The warrior couldnít help it. She burst into unrestrained laughter. "Oh sweetheart," she said when she finally caught her breath enough to speak. "I love you too... so much. Donít you ever forget that." And she kissed the bard deeply once more.

"Oh, baby... you keep reminding me like that, and Iíll be lucky to remember anything else." Randi chuckled delightedly, and this time Gwen joined her. They started toward the bed, but hadnít moved two steps before the Marineís towel slipped again.

"Damnation!" she muttered, and went to rewrap it yet again, when a pair of small hands stopped her progress.

"Donít bother, please? Aphrodite was right... you are totally luscious, and *I* was certainly enjoying the view. It just wasnít one I felt needed to be shared with her. Iíd like to cuddle up naked with you, if you donít mind."

For answer, the Sabre let the towel slide to the floor, and reached to remove the bardís robe. As the material slid to the ground, Randi took her companion in her arms, and simply held her. "This what you wanted?" whispered in a nearby ear as they both savored the intimate sensation.

The blonde head nodded against her chest. "Um hmm. I just need to feel you near. Can we go lay down? Iím still a little wiped."

Randi bent down, and tenderly cradled the smaller woman in her arms. She walked the few remaining steps to the bed, and reverently laid Gwen on the sheets. "Finish your tea, love. It will help you feel better."

"It has already," she answered with a smile. "Itís very good. Whereíd you get the recipe?" The bard settled back with the cup in her hand and an expectant look on her face.

Randi sighed. This wasnít the story she had planned, but it was one she would be happy to share. "A friend," she replied with a smile. "Itís been long time since this happened, but Iíll tell you as much of the story as I remember."

"Iíd like that. Is it someone I know?"

"Nope. Now let me tell it," said with a grin. The bard stuck out her tongue, but settled back into her pillows with an eager appearance. The expression changed to amused indulgence when Randi curled up into her, and gently wrapped an arm around the bardís sore midsection. The taller woman lightly massaged the tender area, caressing the skin as much as anything else. Gwen purred at the sensations flooding her body.

"That feels wonderful. You have magic hands, ya know?"

"So youíve said before," with an evil leer.

"And Iím sure Iíll say again," with a snicker. "But that is not what I meant, and you know it."

"I know. Iím glad itís helping you feel better. I still feel bad...."

"Donít. It was worth every minute. Now," swallowing the last of her tea, and curling up on her side so the warrior could spoon around her. "Tell me the story of your friend and this tea."

 

 

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

Herbology wasnít something sheíd anticipated studying in depth when she started her Sabre training. So the young Marine was a little surprised to find it in her class listing when she started the second phase of her training.

"I dunno about this, Randi," the young woman striding next to her commented as they made their way across the compound. "We already have advanced first aid and lifesaving techniques. What good is a class on herbs gonna do for us? I donít want to be a medic."

"Keep an open mind, Becca. You may learn something."

The redhead laughed. "Marine, if my mind gets anymore open, stuff is gonna start falling out of it." Randi joined in her laughter, and they entered the small classroom still chuckling. The rest of their unit wondered at the joke, but there was no time to share as the instructor stepped in right behind them, and motioned them to take their seats.

"Iím sure some of you are wondering why you are having to sit through a class on herbs," the older Sabre intoned. "My name is Poppy, and Iím here to teach you how to survive." The class looked at each other in silence. Wasnít that what *all* their training was about?? What difference was this class going to make?

The training facility had a holosuite that was dedicated to the herb class year round. In it, one could find every single type of plant life found on the planet in its natural habitat. The class spent two hours every morning of the next month learning and studying each and every single plant and its many varied uses.

It became clear to all the Sabres-in-training just how important this class was to their survival. It could mean the difference between life or death.

Shortly after the unit finished the class, they were sent out into the field on a real life training exercise. Success was imperative. Failure washed a recruit from the program. Poppy drew instructor duty, to monitor the unitís progress through the test. The older Sabre had to smile at some of the unorthodox methods used to accomplish the task that had been set before them, but the instructor was well pleased with their success.

The next two months went swiftly enough, and the new Sabres were officially inducted into the ranks by their comrades. Then they were sent to their various new postings to await assignments. Randiís first mission was routine... a scouting job. But the area the team was sent to was remote, and it was rough, slow going. The one bright spot was Poppy. The older Sabre had drawn the duty, and Randi, for one was thrilled to see her former instructor. Poppy had some great stories to tell, and kept the small team entertained in the evenings.

Once the mission was complete, and the unit had secured the information theyíd been sent for, they slowly began to make their way to the nearest base. Sometimes, to alleviate the boredom, someone, usually Poppy, would throw a brainteaser question out to the group. It was an activity the unit had come to appreciate.

One evening, just a day or so out from the base, Randi began to feel a bit sick to her stomach. Nothing horrible, just a little nauseous. Lacey, the new medic noticed her pallor, and the fact that sheíd barely touched the dinner sheíd helped to prepare.

"Randi," spoken quietly, with a hand on the Marineís arm. "You all right? You look...."

"Iíll be fine, Lacey. Iím just a mite off my feed tonight."

"Can I get you something?"

"No, thanks," Randi replied with a wan smile. "I think Iím gonna just get some rest. I donít have duty tonight."

"If youíre sure."

"Yeah. Thanks, though."

"Not a problem, my friend. Itís my job."

"Nah, the fact that you cared enough to notice isnít your job. It just makes you really good at what you do," the Marine replied quietly and sincerely. Then Randi slipped off to the tent, and crawled into her space.

Lacey went to Poppy then, still concerned about the Marineís pallor. The instructor moved to the fire, and carefully measured out herbs into a cup. A little hot water, and the older Sabre walked into the shelter.

 

 

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

"My first mission as a Sabre and I was sick from what I thought was nervousness. I just *knew* this would wash me from the program. When Poppy came in, I assumed it was to tell me to pack my bags, figuratively speaking. We were only a day out from the base, and I expected to be dropped from the program and reassigned."

"Well, obviously that didnít happen." Gwen paused, and spared a brief moment to wonder how different things might have been if she had. We wouldnít be the same people. And I like who we are. The storyteller smiled at her companion. "So what did?"

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

 

 

"How do you feel, Marine?" Poppy crossed the small space, and set the tea down by Randiís bedside. The instructorís hands briefly rested on Randiís forehead, then moved with some alarm to the younger Sabreís neck, finding a weak, thready pulse. Poppy moved swiftly to the shelter opening, and motioned for Lacey.

The medic recognized the urgency in Poppyís eyes, even though the herbologistís motions were calm and controlled. "Whatís up, Poppy?" At that moment, Randi could be heard retching. The two Sabres walked back into the tent, and raced to the Marineís side.

"She probably thought it was a nervous reaction to her first mission," Poppy said to the medic, who was already doing a preliminary scan on her friend. "Look for a viral infection of some kind." The instructor moved to Randi side, and began cleaning her face carefully. Then Randi felt herself eased into a semi-reclined position, as Poppy gave her the tea. "Drink," the older Sabre commanded. "It will help ease your stomach until we can figure out what is wrong with you."

 

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

"Turns out, I had been bitten by... something... that made me sick as a dog for three days. I donít remember much of those three days, but when I came to my senses the fourth day, the nurse pressed a cup of tea into my hands. I thought she was nuts. I hadnít had anything on my stomach in almost four days, and the last thing Iíd eaten had had a return flight I really didnít want to think about, much less repeat. I would have protested if Iíd had the strength. But then I got a whiff, and I realized it was Poppyís special blend. And I did remember vaguely that it had helped. So I sipped it down slowly, and it did help me feel better. I determined right then to have the recipe, when I felt well enough to ask for it."

"Poppy didnít mind sharing it?" Gwen found herself more than a little curious about the Sabre who had been her partnerís friend and mentor. But despite the fondness that the bard could see reflected in Randiís eyes, there was also a lingering pain, well-hidden, but not completely concealed.

"No. And it became an instant Sabre favorite. Somebody always had the herbs for tea on any given mission. It was just... comforting. It always reminded me of caring friends."

"I can see why." The younger woman turned in the Marineís embrace, until they were facing one another. "Iím glad you had them then." A pause. "Did they ever find out what made you so sick... specifically, I mean?

Randi thought long and hard about that for a while, absently running her hands up Gwenís strong back. The storyteller closed her eyes as the stroking touch became firm, and the Sabre began to coax knots from the muscles beneath her fingers. "Not that I remember, now that I think about it." She shrugged. "It didnít seem important once I felt better, and nothing like that ever happened again."

"Mmm," the bard murmured, falling into a light doze. Randi smiled down indulgently at her soulmate, then pulled up the covers and closed her eyes. It wasnít long before the only sound in the cabin was their synchronized breathing as sleep overtook them.

 

 

It was pitch dark outside, and the only light indoors was the faint glow from the fireís banked embers. The Marineís features creased into a frown, wondering what had awakened her, only to reflexively tighten her arms around Gwen at the loud crack. The blonde shifted slightly, resting her hand on the soft skin just above Randiís heart.

"Itís all right, love. Itís just ice."

A deeper frown as she thought about Gwenís words, before Rand looked down and realized that the green eyes were still tightly shut. She must be dreaming, the older woman thought as another loud sound reverberated through the room. The raven head raised from the pillow as blue eyes tracked around the room.

"Randi, hon? Relax. Itís just ice." This time, sleepy eyes peered back at her when the warrior looked down at her lover. "The temperature must have dropped when it stopped raining earlier. What youíre hearing now is the ice breaking up."

The Marine cocked her head just slightly, and caught the very faint patter of rain underneath the crackling sound of the ice. Now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense. "Amazing. I didnít even think about that. Not that I have ever been exposed to that much cold weather. Even as a Sabre...." She looked down at her companion, now cuddled up against her with her eyes firmly closed again. "Howíre you feeling, love?"

Gwen smiled without opening her eyes. "Much better. My stomach is a little sore, but otherwise, pretty damned good."

"Iím glad," the warrior answered. "Would you do something for me?"

One green eye opened and rolled up to peer at Randiís profile, which could barely be seen in the dim light. "Does it require me to move in any way?"

"Uh huh. A little."

The storyteller gave an aggrieved sigh, and sat partially up to look fully into the Sabreís face. "Youíre so lucky I love you so much," said with a lightly teasing note in her voice.

"Oh Little One. That I most surely know," answered with utmost seriousness. "I love you too." Gwen reached out and wrapped a hand in Randiís hair, pulling the Marine to her sharply, and capturing her lips with surprising fierceness. The kiss went on for long moments, until the bard felt the warrior relax and whimper softly. Only then did she release her.

"Now, what can I do for you?"

Randi ducked her head, thankful for the darkness that covered her sudden blush, wondering where her embarrassment was coming from. There was no need to be shy. She and Gwen were married... joined in heart, mind, body and soul. No reason at all not to ask. She stuck out her tongue.

"I wath gowín to ast you to kith ií aní mate ií bedda," she replied, pointing to the spot in question. Gwen clasped her chin, and turned to look, squinting to see in the near darkness.

"Oh," as light finally dawned. "Lemme guess. Thatís where you bit your tongue when Aphrodite smacked your head earlier." Randi nodded. "And now it hurts, and you want me to kiss it and make it better?" she hazarded, her hand gently stroking the facial scar in a soothing manner. The warrior leaned into the touch, soaking up the comfort like a sponge. Her eyes closed, and she waited, until she realized that Gwen was waiting for an answer. Blue eyes popped open and met Gwenís, and she nodded once, swallowing hard at the passion she could plainly see just for her.

"Well, then. I guess we should kiss it and make it better then, huh?" A third nod, and this time as her eyes closed, she felt the bard moving in closer. She took a deep breath, savoring Gwenís scent, and felt a tingle run up her spine as her soulmate sat for a long moment, simply breathing in the same air. Then came the most tender of touches. Lightly, Gwenís tongue traced one side of her tongue, lingering on the spot she had bitten. Then the warmth moved to the other side, delicately mapping the muscle. When Gwen moved to the bottom of Randiís tongue, the warrior moaned loudly, and opened her mouth, inviting the bard to come in and play. The invitation was not refused, and the last coherent thing Randi remembered was the soft warmth of Gwenís body on top of her own. The sounds outside couldnít begin to compete for their attention.

 

 

"How do you suppose Carbon is getting along with the folks?" Gwen cocked her head at the peculiar phrasing, and thought about the question.

"Well, Reed was supposed to bring Rox with her, and knowing Daddy, heís started training them both. So I imagine everybody is doing pretty well."

"You think Dad is ready for that? I mean, Mom told me that if he hurts his back again, there is no fixing it. The fact that he recovered any mobility at all this time is nothing short of a miracle." Randi paused when the tears welled up in Gwenís eyes. "Oh, Little One, Iím sorry. I thought you knew." She drew her soulmate into her arms, and wrapped her in a tender embrace.

The bard had waved a hand to halt the warriorís speech, and she melted into the hug with a sigh of abandon. Reluctantly, she pulled back enough to look the Marine in the eye. "Mom and Dad?"

The dark head ducked in embarrassed acknowledgment. "Um, yeah. Ji... *mom* insisted. Said since we finally made it officially official, I couldnít get by with calling them by their first names anymore." She looked up at Gwen then. "Does it bother you?"

"Oh, love. No. No, not at all." She pulled the taller woman back in for another hug, squeezing tightly. "I... Iím... these are happy tears. I know they canít replace your own parents, but I had always hoped...."

"Gwen, I would never presume such an intimacy. Iím... glad your... *our* folks insisted. I know our parents would have been great friends had they been given the chance to know one another. Iíve looked at them as family for a long time."

The storyteller just hung on fiercely, trying to convey the depths of her feeling by action alone. When they separated, Gwen looked up at her soulmate with smiling lips and shining eyes. "Iím glad," was all she said. "Now, letís go see what all the racket was about last night," and she held out her hand to Randi who clutched it, and followed Gwen out the door.

 

 

"Sit." Pause. "Stay." Pause. "Good." The man rewarded the two small shepherd pups for their obedience. "All right, you two. Thatís enough for now. Time for *my* training now."

Geoff was frustrated with his seeming lack of progress. Even though his doctors assured him repeatedly that his advancement thus far was unheralded, he felt he should be walking. Not still trying to remind his muscles what their purpose was. He sighed quietly. He knew he was risking a lot pushing himself, but he was ready to be a whole man again, dammit, and not an invalid! Jill deserved better than he was able to give her.

With another sigh, he maneuvered his hover chair to a separate area of the workshop. Tommy had set this up for him when he confided to the younger man that he needed a space he could do his exercises privately. Jill didnít mean to hover, but sometimes she worried too much for either of their own good.

He made it to the parallel bars, noting wryly that little had changed in this area of physical therapy in a very long time. Oh he could walk electronically aided, and he would do that after he made it through his regimen, but this was an exercise in freedom of movement. The muscles needed to remember their function, and if doing things the old fashioned way was what it took, then that is precisely what he would do.

The weapons smith looked down at his strong hands for a long minute, and offered up a benediction of gratitude that his still had function of his upper body and his hands and arms. Then he reached out and latched onto the bars with a firm grip, and hauled himself to his feet. He gasped in pain as he straightened, and gritted his teeth in determination. It was time to get to work.

 

 

"Geoff!" The now profusely sweating man looked up when he heard his name called with something akin to alarm. "Thatís enough!" He was so close to the end of the rails. He shook his head negatively. Jill moved to stand in front of him, blocking his progress. "Sweetheart, youíve done enough for today. Youíre going to hurt yourself...."

"I already did that," he snarled, lifting both hands from the bars in his anger. Without hesitation, his legs gave out from under him, and he crumpled to the ground with a moan. When his wife approached him, however, he growled a warning. "Stay. Back."

"No, Geoff. Not this time," Jill answered just as fiercely. "I promised you Iíd keep an eye on you, and keep that ego in check." She took a deep breath. "Well, checkmate, buddy! You are done trying to do this on your own. I wonít have you hurt yourself!"

"No, you donít want an invalid on your hands, do you?" snarling at her.

"ALL RIGHT!" the woman roared. "Enough with the pity party already! We will get through this." She took his face in her hands, softening her voice and gently stroking his cheeks. "We will get through this," she repeated, "together. You will be able to walk again, or you wonít. What matters is that we do this together. Everything else is secondary."

Geoff gazed into the eyes he had fallen in love with so many years before, and saw not pity or anger, but love and acceptance. His head would have dropped had Jill not been cradling it. Instead, the weapons smith lowered his eyes until a tap on his chin made him look up at his spouse. "Together?" he asked softly.

"Together," came her smiling reply.

He just looked at her for a long moment, the tears unashamedly falling down his face. "I hope Randi and Gwen have together what I have been so lucky to have with you." He paused. "I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart. Can we get off the floor now?"

He chuckled at her plaintive question. "I think that might be a good idea. Iím not sure the puppies know what to make of this recent development." Indeed, the two tiny shepherds sat with cocked heads, looking for all the world like they were trying to solve a riddle. When the big humans looked their way and laughed, they took that as a sign for playtime, and rushed over on little legs, yipping and barking.

When Jill found herself flat on her back with two licking, nipping, squirming puppies ferociously attacking while Geoff laughed himself silly, she gave up the struggle to get up. Instead, she gave thanks for the laughter, and proceeded to join him.

It was to this scene that Tommy, Ella and Randall walked in on. The child thought it looked like great fun, and rushed forward to join the melee. Jill sat up, laughing when both puppies and the boy rushed to her lap. Randall squirmed and giggled as the dogs attacked from both sides, licking his face with abandon.

"We came to see if yaíll wanted to join us for lunch. I have a new recipe I want to try out," Ella offered in explanation. She didnít add that sheíd called Tommy home when Geoff had been cooped up alone in the workshop for an inordinate amount of time. Sheíd promised Randi sheíd keep an eye on things, and damned if she wasnít going to do just that!

"Oh," Jill answered, evading a shepherdís tongue, "that sounds wonderful. Iím starving. What bout you, honey?"

Geoff glanced up from his spot on the floor. "Actually, if youíll give me a few minutes to shower, it sounds like a great idea to me too." Then everyone paused awkwardly when he did not move from his place.

"Well, then," Ella replied, clearing her throat. "Let me take Randall, and go get things started. "Yaíll come on up to the house when youíre ready." Jill stood up, scattering puppies, and handing the child to his mother. Tommy didnít budge.

"Can I help you up, Geoff?" No condescension or pity, but still the weapons smith stiffened. The other man just waited. Jill held her breath, looking at her husband. He finally turned his gaze to hers, and held her eyes, even as he spoke to Tommy.

"Iíd appreciate that, my friend. Thanks."

Jill smiled with tears in her eyes, and turned to Ella. "Címon. Letís go get lunch started." She stopped at the threshold, and looked at Geoff. "Iíll meet you at the boathouse shortly, sweetheart." Jill called the puppies to her side, and left arm in arm with Ella. The men in their lives watched them go, and then began maneuvering Geoff into the hover chair.

"We are very lucky, Tommy." The other man glanced to the now empty doorway that Jill and his family had exited through.

"Yep, we sure are. And I am so glad Randi and Gwen are blessed as well. Címon, letís get you home so we can get back to lunch. Whatever Ellaís got cooking smells fantastic."

Geoff just chuckled, his optimism restored, and he led the way to the boathouse.

 

Continued

 


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