logo.jpg (14314 bytes)

Disclaimer: Except that the physical characteristics of the two leading ladies in this story are amazingly similar to two well known (to us) television actresses, there is nothing to disclaim in this here story. You will need an open mind to read it, though. If you find something you think needs disclaiming, however, you are more than welcome to let me know. It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Thanks: To my Beta Reader Holly, for grammar and sentence structure corrections. And to my Beta Readers Marsha, Phil and Laurie for their questions, comments and encouragements.

Special Thanks: To SPLF, for the beta reading, insight, discussions, reality checks, and read flow checks. If the story makes sense, it’s her fault.

Author’s note: This story is an *extremely* long one, but I adhered to the Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule. (If you don’t know what that rule is, you can scroll all the way down to the very end of this tale, and I will tell you. But I don’t wanna ruin the story or its ending for anyone brave enough to read this.) My betas thought it was worth reading through to the end, but that’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.



A Valiant Heart

By D


Once Upon a Time. . . .


He knew it didn’t bode well for good news, when upon answering the door, she stood before him fully decked out in Sabre Titanium/Kevlar battle armour. The fact that she was, after all this time, confirming his suspicions, started a roiling in his gut. The clenching became almost spasmodic when she knelt down to the German shepherd that sat majestically still at her side, and took the dog’s face in her hands.

"Ditto, you be a good girl for Tommy, and watch over the kid for me, OK?"

Never had she brought the dog to him for safekeeping. Always before, Randi had simply called, letting Tommy know she’d be gone for a while, and asking him to keep an eye on Ditto while the Sabre was out of town. Now this.

The shepherd looked the woman long in the eye before agreeing with a lick to her cheek. Solemnly she gave the dog a rub on the nose before standing.

"Tommy, watch out for her, OK? And if anything happens to me, please give this to Gwen," withdrawing a sealed envelope from her vest.

Paper, so very rare in these days of electronic communication. He couldn’t help but wonder what was so special about this message.

"Randi, I mmph...." He was cut off by the placement of her fingertips on his lips.

"Tommy, you’ve always been a best friend, a brother to me, and I love you dearly. Please, just promise me."

He looked into her eyes, and saw more pain and despair than any one person should have to bear. And knowing the truth, he agreed.

"I promise. But . . . "

"No. No questions, no conditions. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your family, Tommy. It’s been a hell of a ride." And she gently kissed his lips and disappeared into the darkness before he could say another word.

For a very long time, he stood looking out into the darkness which had swallowed her up. Allowing the tears to fall at last as he heard the shuttle leave the pad.

"Goodbye, Randi."


Three Months Later

There was a complete desolate sadness which seemed to shroud the small blonde figure that sat unmoving, unblinking at the comm screen before her. In the fourteen hours since she had sat down to run this program, she had moved but once. Now, with a retinal scan and a verbal command, she placed the system back into ‘Secure’ mode, and moved to the bar. Forgoing the glass, Gwen simply grabbed the bottle of fifty year-old Scotch and walked to the French doors.

Unseeing, she let her gaze rest on the ocean, its rhythmic motion unconsciously soothing the pain in her heart, the roiling in her stomach. How long she stood, unmoving except for the occasional swallow of liquor, while tears continued to stream down her face, she couldn’t have said.

Finally, draining the last Scotch from the bottle, Gwen slid down the doorframe, leaning her head against the glass. She saw the moon’s light tracing a path toward the horizon. Closing her eyes, she whispered, "Why? Oh Artemis! Why? How could I have failed her so badly?" And she fell into a deep, but restless sleep.


Chapter I

"Ow! Ow!"...." Damn!"...." Stupid!"....the mutterings tapered off as bloodshot eyes closed rapidly in reflex to the obnoxiously bright sunshine peeking in around the shutters in the bedroom. Wait a minute . . . BEDROOM?!? How the hell . . . . ??? The last thing I remember . . . . And as thoughts of the previous night washed over her, Gwen felt the queasiness in her stomach, the pounding in her head, and the ache in her heart send her rushing to make penitence before the porcelain god. It was some time later before she realized she wasn’t alone.

"Ella?" Tommy’s wife nodded her brown curly head, as she continued to hold a cool cloth to the back of Gwen’s neck. She reached her other hand and grabbed the glass of hangover remedy. The blonde wrinkled her nose in disgust, but obediently drank every drop, knowing she would be thankful she had very shortly. Sure enough, it didn’t take long, and the queasiness all but disappeared, and the head stopped pounding incessantly. If only it would do the same for the ache in my heart. Green eyes started to tear up again, and she took a deep breath, trying to will them away. Finally, she straightened, and rose from the floor.

"Ella, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but what are you doing here, and how did I end up in Randi’s bed . . . Oh God!" And here she lost it again, offering no resistance as her friend pulled her into a tight hug, rocking her as gently as she would a child. When the sobs lessened, the brunette pulled back slightly, and hazel eyes met tear filled ones.

"Let me go call Tommy, while you get cleaned up, OK? Then we’ll sit down and talk."

Gwen wasn’t optimistic about talking, but she nodded her agreement. She knew a shower would help her relax and focus. After that, well, she could always listen to Tommy and Ella talk about Randi. She wasn’t sure *she’d* ever be able to talk about her, though. Not now that she knew . . .

Thirty minutes later, she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Except for the dark shadows beneath her eyes, and the fathomless sadness in their green depths, she looked much like her old self. But her old self no longer existed, innocence gone on the breath of the wind. She suddenly felt old, ancient, and wondered how one person, one letter, one night could change a person’s life so much.

Satisfied she looked as normal as she could manage right now, Gwen stepped out of the bathroom, only to be assaulted by the sights and scents of her dearest friend. With a smile that was mostly a grimace, she passed quickly through the bedroom, and out into the living room where Tommy and Ella waited, talking quietly between themselves. Ella looked up as Gwen crossed the threshold, glad to see, on the surface at least that she was doing better. Tommy cleared his throat.

"How you doing, hon?"

"Well, Tommy, gotta say I’ve had better days," she answered, smiling through tears she was determined not to let fall. After an awkward pause, she raised her head and asked, "Somebody here wanna give me the facts, or shall I just guess at things?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Everything. But we can start with how I, um," clearing her throat," how I ended up in bed when I am sure I was watching the moonlight bathe in the ocean last night."

"Still the poet, I see," teased Ella with a gentle grin. "Why don’t I go get us some drinks, and order dinner. It looks like we may be here a while."

"Thanks, love," Tommy said as his wife excused herself to the kitchen. "Um, have a seat, Gwen."

The blonde woman didn’t move for a few moments, looking around at the beach house that had become her second home. The dark-haired man watched her with interest, curious as to the thoughts lurking behind jewel colored eyes. Without warning, she walked to the glass doors, and peered out at the turbulent grey waters. He hesitated, unsure of whether to disturb her musing, when she turned suddenly and faced him. Caught off guard, he said the first thing that popped into his mind.

"This was her dream house. Did you know that?"

A blonde brow rose, unconsciously mimicking Randi’s natural response, and Tommy was forced to swallow the lump in his throat at the memories this invoked. After a short pause, he continued.

"When we were kids, growing up together, this was one of the things she talked about. You should have seen her face the day Ella and I brought her here from the shuttle port." He smiled at his remembrance of that day. "She couldn’t believe it."

"Oh God, yes," the brunette woman agreed, as she came in from the kitchen, bearing a laden tray. Tommy jumped up to relieve her of it, and got a kiss on the cheek for his trouble. He blushed slightly, and Ella just giggled. Gwen smiled sadly, observing them. "I remember that day so well," Ella said, as she handed the younger woman a drink.

"Tell me."



"So, what’s up?" from Randi.

"Does something have to be up?" with a twinkle peeking out from Ella’s hazel eyes.

"With you and Tommy?" smirking. "You bet it does. Especially since I specifically told him I didn’t need a lift from here," looking around the shuttle bay, then back at her companion with a mute question in her ice blue eyes.

"OH. Ahem. Well, yes, actually, we, um . . . we have a surprise for you."

"A surprise?" wondering what Tommy was up to this time, as episodes of past surprises, most of them good, flitted through her mind.

"Uh huh. So grab your bags, Gunny, and let’s move."

"Ma’am, yes, ma’am!" said with a grin and mock salute.

In her Class "A" uniform, the highly decorated Marine moved easily and swiftly to retrieve her duffle. Within moments she had returned to Ella’s side, and the two women walked smoothly to their luxurious transport vehicle. Tommy had spared no expense. A long missing part of his family was finally coming home.

Randi gazed out the window, trying to reacquaint herself with a home she had been away from for ten eternal years. Although she had found a second home in the Corps, and most particularly within her Sabre unit, she found she had missed the sights, sounds and smells of her birthplace, more than she ever thought possible. And after almost ten years among the best of the elite, she discovered that all she really wanted was to rest. She was tired to her very soul.

She hardly noticed when Ella had the driver stop the transport. She had been so taken in by the sight of the ocean and lush tropical plants, by the feel of the breeze and the smell of salt water, that she hadn’t realized they were no longer on the mainland, but were on a small, private island. It was only when Ella nudged her that she became aware that they had stopped, and the driver was patiently holding the door, waiting for her to get out.

Smooth, Valiant. You really *DO* need a break. Paying attention like that will get you killed!

Stepping out of the vehicle, she immediately took in her surroundings. Odd. I would have thought Midas Enterprises would have been much larger, given the success Tommy has had. Still, there was something vaguely familiar about the building in front of her that sent shivers chasing up and down her spine. What is with me today? Do I regret . . . She shut off that line of thinking in a hurry. Too many pitfalls she could hit there.

The sergeant turned toward the door as she her it open and saw her cousin leaning against the door frame, an expectant look on his face. With a whispered "Tommy!" and a squeal of joy, six feet of military hardened Marine became a five-year-old child again, and she flung herself with unbridled abandon into his arms. He squeezed her tightly, knowing he wouldn’t hurt her, and Randi returned the hug fiercely.

"Welcome home, Randi," he said softly.

When the implications of what he had said began to sink in, she pulled back slightly to look into his brightly twinkling eyes. He didn’t speak, but rather gave her a dazzling smile and with a flourish and a bow, indicated she should enter.

The Marine did so slowly, allowing her well-honed instincts to evaluate the situation even as she entered the foyer, and turned a questioning glance at the couple who now stood in each others arms, eager to see her reaction to their "little" surprise. She ventured in further, then gasped in awe at the vista before her. A huge, open room, with cathedral ceilings and a solid wall of windows showing the most magnificent view of the water. Pivoting around, Randi noticed the kitchen to the left, and a massive dual fireplace and the master suite to her right. When Tommy and Ella moved to stand on either side of her, she simply engulfed them both in a hug.

"Thank you," smiling through the tears.

"We wanted you to have a place here, a place of your own that you could call home."

"You crazy fool," she replied, tousling his hair. "It’s perfect, and you know it."



"That was one of the very few times I can actually recall Miranda Valiant crying. Even as a child I only remember once when . . . " he trailed off, not sure he wanted to go there in his memories, or if the two women listening would even be interested in hearing such old tales. A peek at the two questioning faces looking back at him, though, and he decided to indulge in some happy reminiscing.



Before the Great Plague of ‘43, the population had grown to such an alarming number that drastic measures had become necessary to stop it. Harsh laws were passed, and medical procedures were performed to ensure obedience to those laws. Millions suffered and many died for what was then considered to be "the Greater Good." There were more though, who didn’t understand why.

Eight-year-old Tommy Steele was perplexed at first, then downright concerned when he saw his five-year-old cousin Miranda sitting on the front step crying quietly. She hadn’t cried since she was a toddler, that he knew of anyway.

"What’s wrong, Li’l Randi? Why ya cryin’, huh?" He put his thin arm around her, and squeezed lightly. He didn’t want to hurt the small girl. She leaned back into his shoulder with a sniffle and a sigh. "You’re s’pose to be happy today. It’s yer birthday, ya know."

A nod of a raven head. "Uh huh. I know," said in her soft tones. "I asked Papa for my present, and he told me no." Another round of tears flowed from blue eyes.

"He did, huh?" sympathetically. " Well, what’d you ask him for?"

"A baby. I wanna a baby brother."

"Oh," scratching his head. "Well, Randi, I’ll tell you something, OK? See, it’s not that they don’t wanna give you a baby brother . . . they can’t."

"They can’t?"


"Well, why not?"

He’d been afraid of this. Randi was never one to accept things at face value, and had to delve deeper into everything to find things out for herself. But this wasn’t something he really wanted to explain. Oh well.

"It’s against the law. One kid. Period. Then it’s fixed so it stays that way."

Blue eyes grew large and looked into Tommy’s brown ones. "Fixed?" whispered alarmingly.

"Yeah, but don’t worry about it. You’ll understand it when you’re older, ‘K? For now," and he got down on the step below her and looked up at her, "how ‘bout you and me be brother and sister?"

"Really, Tommy? You mean it?"

"Yeah, I really mean it."

"I love you, Tommy." She flung short arms around his neck.

"I love you, too, short stuff. Let’s go get some ice cream." And he took her hand and led her down the steps toward the ice cream store . . . big, bright smiles on both their faces.




"Sounds like it was a memorable day, love," said his wife as she combed her fingers through his hair. Most of this she had heard before, at some time or another, but she could feel Tommy wanted to share them, and knew Gwen needed to hear them.

"Mm, it was. That was the first of many trips for ice cream."

"Chocolate fudge on a sugar cone?" queried a low voice from the French doors. She maintained her gaze on the view outside.

A startled look at the unexpected interruption, then a snort from the man seated on the couch. "Was there anything else? Never in all our visits could I get her to try something different." A thoughtful pause. "I remember one of our last trips there . . . it was the day she told me she was going to do her two-year hitch as a Marine, instead of in the Navy."




"Are you excited about doing your military service in the Navy, Tommy?"

A shrug from broad, but not fully developed, shoulders. At sixteen, he was almost nose to nose with his rapidly growing thirteen year old cousin. And even to his completely biased eyes, he knew when all of her growth finally caught up to itself, she would be a stunning woman. For now, the gangly youth was awkward, and he felt it his honor to look out for her.

"I dunno. Doesn’t really matter to me, I guess. I mean, we all gotta do it somewhere. May as well be the Navy as any other service. At least I know a little about it."

"Mm, I s’pose." A pause while they focused on their slowly melting ice cream. Then Randi took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "I’m gonna join the Corps."

Shocked silence followed. Not only from the fact that she had obviously spent many hours thinking about this and making such a firm decision, but also that she had chosen not to follow in her career Navy father’s footsteps.

"The Marines?!? Randi, are you sure about this? It’s not like you don’t have a few years to think about it before making this kind of decision."

"I’m sure, Tommy." And looking into the bright blue eyes staring back at him, he knew she was.

"Well, OK. If you’re sure. But what made you decide to go to the Corps?"

She took her time, knowing that the young man who sat in front of her was genuinely interesting in her answer, as he had always been from the first time they had sat in this very booth sharing ice cream. She decided to lighten the mood just a bit.

"You mean besides the fact that just the thought of being stuck at sea for months on end in a little bitty boat makes me sea sick?" A grin. "I like what I’ve seen in the Corps, and if I decide to stay in the service, I’d rather be there than anywhere else."

A lingering nod of agreement. "I can certainly understand that. But I thought you and I were gonna be partners," showing just a tiny bit of hurt over the loss of childhood dreams.

She covered his large hand with her own. "We can still be partners, Tommy. I’ll just be the silent kind, I guess. You know I can’t tell a story to save my life. And I can’t join the Artists Guild unless I do."

"You could sing."

"NO!" vehemently. Then more quietly, "No, Tommy. That’s something I do for me, not for anyone else, and certainly not for pay." Randi took a deep breath. "Can’t paint, sculpt or compose . . . "

"You’ve got a wonderful mind, and lots of talent in other directions. If you’d be more comfortable as a silent partner in the background, well, then that’s what you’ll be." He squeezed the hand still covering his own.

"Thanks, Tommy. I love you."

"I love you, too, short stuff," with a wicked grin, knowing this would provoke a reaction.

"Hey!" she replied, standing to her full, close to six foot height. "You can’t call me that anymore! I almost as tall as you are!"

"I know," he answered, rising to stand beside her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders companionably. "But I’ll always remember you as the five-year-old who became my sister that day."

And they walked out of the store toward home, and the future.


"We got so busy that last year before I left for my stint. And then I was gone to sea for almost two years. Randi was a wonderful correspondent. Hardly a week went by when there wasn’t a message from her in my comm panel. And when I finally got out, I had the best surprise for her sixteenth birthday."



A loud knock on the door had a laughing Randi excusing herself from the company of friends who had come over to celebrate her birthday with a surprise party. She opened the door, then stood staring at the figure standing before her for a very long moment. Gone was the tall, gangly youth who had been both friend and brother to her. In his place stood a well muscled, confident man. But she recognized his charming smile and twinkling eyes, and was quick to throw herself into his open arms.

"Tommy! You made it! You didn’t miss my birthday!" A tiny sob escaped her throat.

"Hey, short stuff! You bet I made it. I’d never miss an event this important." He lifted her completely off the ground and gave her a big hug. Then he set her gently on her feet and stepped back a pace.

"I’m *not* short!" she mock growled at him, while poking him in the chest. He looked her over carefully, and had to agree with her statement. No longer the awkward child, she had surpassed his expectations, and become an exceedingly beautiful young woman, who saw eye to eye with him. She will make someone very happy one day, and was just a touch sad at the thought that he would have to share one of the most special people in his life with an, as yet, unknown.

"C’mon," she said, grabbing his hand and pulling him toward the continuing party. "Let me reintroduce you to everybody. Where’s your uniform? When did you get here? How long can you stay?"

"Wait. Hold up a second," keeping a tight grip on her hand, and preventing her from moving. Randi gave him a puzzled glance.

"Sure, Tommy. What’s up?"

A chuckle. "Well, I was gonna answer your questions, for one thing." She smiled at him in relief. "And I wanted to give you your gift, for another."

"Oh. OK, then."

"Don’t be so enthusiastic, there, kiddo. You might hurt yourself."

"And if you don’t hurry up, I may have to smack ya."

Tommy smiled then. It had been a long time since they had bantered back and forth like this. "I mustered out of the Navy yesterday, and came straight home this morning. I’ll be here for a week before I leave for the Academy. Anything else?"

A frown furrowed her brow. "Wait. How did you muster out yesterday? You still have two weeks left on your hitch."

"True, but I never took leave, and spent my entire tour at sea. The Captain said I had more than earned the right to spend my last two weeks as a civilian." A beat. "Now, do you want your present?"

"Yes, yes, YES!" Tommy laughed out loud as the precocious five years old snuck out from the sixteen-year-old almost adult demeanor.

The box he indicated beside him was rather large, and when Randi tried to lift it, she found it to be extremely heavy. By this time, many of her friends had wandered over to the door to see who was there and what was taking so long, and four of the boys offered to carry it in. She looked to Tommy, who motioned them to take it to the shed. A perfectly arched brow rose, her curiosity a tangible thing, as she led the way, and opened the door to the outbuilding.

Easing it down gently, per Tommy’s instructions, the boys backed way, and Randi moved to kneel beside the box. Upon opening it, her face became a picture of confusion, as all she could pick out were various sundry mechanical pieces and parts of unknown origin. It wasn’t until she came to a nameplate with the words AMAZON WARRIOR that understanding lit her features, and still holding the motorcycle icon, threw herself once again into Tommy’s welcoming grasp.

Smiling through her tears, she spoke. "Thank you, Tommy! Thank you! Do you know how long I’ve dreamed . . . ?" A look into his eyes reminded her that he did indeed know. It had been the topic of more than one childhood discussion between them.

"We’re gonna have to do a bit of work to bring it up to code, of course, but other than altering the interior of the tank for that, it will be as close to the real thing as we can make it." A big grin shone on his face as she hugged him hard one more time, then whispered for his ears only.

"Thank you, Tommy. This has been the best birthday ever."

"Anytime, short stuff. Anytime."



"That week was one of the best we ever had. We were together almost constantly, and we did actually manage to make quite a bit of headway on getting that bike put together. Uncle Bobby spent most of the year trying to coax her out of the shed, but Randi was determined to get that motorcycle finished before graduation."

"And did she?" This from Gwen who had grown uncomfortable with the long silence that had ensued when Tommy fell into silent remembering.

"Finish the bike, you mean?" bringing himself back to the present. "Oh yes, and it was a beauty. Still is, as you well know." He flashed a grin in Gwen’s direction, as both thoughts turned the clock back to a not so long ago party.

"Yeah," she agreed, smiling sadly, "and she rides like a dream."

"You know the amazing part?"

"Beside the fact that she had no blueprint to follow, and still managed to put it together flawlessly?"

He looked at her in startled surprised.

"It was in her diary." She answered his unasked question. His mouth dropped open. He realized she probably knew more about Randi than he did, if she had access to her diary. "It was her last request of me, Tommy."

He nodded his head as if in agreement with her actions, and cleared his throat, trying to pick up the lost thread of conversation. "I was just totally bowled over by the fact that she still had time to letter in track and field, take up weightlifting as a sport, participate in band, jazz and chorus, and still finish at the top of her class. I know one of my proudest moments of her was when she told me she was doing the Valedictory address."

"Oh, God!" chuckled Ella softly. " I remember that." A quirked eyebrow from her blonde friend was all the encouragement she needed to continue. "She rode up to the ceremonies on that bike, much to her father’s chagrin."

"I thought he was gonna have a conniption. I don’t think I ever saw Uncle Bobby’s face turn quit that shade of red before," he chortled. "Then Aunt Ren lay her hand on his arm, and he just melted. He was so proud of Randi, really. She was the apple of his eye. And I think he was shocked to realize that she was all grown up."

"Was she?" from Gwen, who finally moved away from the glass, and crossed to sit in the large overstuffed chair nearest the fireplace.

"All grown up?" queried Tommy. "Yeah, I guess in a lot of ways she was, but I could still see that five-year-old peeking out from those baby blues. It was one of the last times I saw that child I loved so much." He grew silent again, and the silence became pensive as it lengthened interminably. A chime from the security system interrupted this tableau.

"Tommy, dinner’s at the bridge. Why don’t you go meet the driver, and pick it up?"

He started to protest, then thought better of it. A few minutes to collect his composure would be a good thing, and it would give Ella a bit of time with Gwen. Perhaps alone, the younger woman would open up. As far as he knew, aside from the few minutes in the bathroom this morning, she had not reacted to any of this at all. She needed to grieve, if only for her own health and peace of mind.

"That’s a good idea." He stood up and stretched, wincing at the popping he heard coming from his back. "Ill be back in a few." He kissed his wife, spoke into the comm link to let the driver know the situation, and walked out the door without a backward glance.

"Ya know, there are times. . . " Ella let the statement lie as she realized Gwen had zoned out into her own thoughts. She moved to the kitchen to refresh the drinks, and when she returned, placed a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. "Gwen?" waiting until green eyes tracked back to hers. "You want to talk about it?"

A negative shake of the blonde head.

"OK," Ella replied. "Just remember I’m ready to listen whenever you get ready to talk, all right?"

"Thanks, Ella. You’re a good friend."

And the two women spent the remainder of the time waiting for Tommy to return staring out the glass at the continuously turbulent seas, and overcast gray skies.



Dinner passed in much the same quiet way, each one silently agreeing that a break as this point would do them all some good. Gwen was amazed at how differently her friend was being presented as a child from the person she had known as an adult. But having read Randi’s diary, and had access to her most private thoughts and emotions, she could understand how she had become the woman Gwen had come to know so well....and really not know at all. On the one hand, she cursed herself for not digging deeper, looking for the five-year-old child Tommy described so lovingly. And on the other, she cursed Randi herself, for hiding behind the person she saw herself as.

"DAMN HER!" She jumped up from her seat. Her sudden exclamation thrown into the silence of the room, stunned both Gwen and her companions. "Sorry," she muttered to the two people still staring at her a bit dazed. "I don’t know where that came from."

Both Tommy and Ella had their suspicions, but wisely held their tongues. They knew at this point, any more conversation had to be instigated by Gwen. They had been grieving and preparing for this eventuality since Randi showed up on their doorstep three months prior. Gwen, however, was another story.

Eventually, Gwen put her mostly untouched plate down, and got up to open the French doors. Just as she did so, a loud clap of thunder was heard, followed by a torrential down pouring of rain. She stood for a long moment with the doors open, feeling the coldness of the mist settle on her skin and hair. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she slowly backed into the room, and shut the door in front of her.

"Tell me how she changed, Tommy. The person you knew, the person I knew, they were two completely different people. And the person she saw herself as was someone else entirely." All this was said without her ever having turned toward them.

Tommy wondered what she had read in Randi’s journal to bring her to that particular conclusion, but he let it slide. She would share when she was ready, if at all, and not a minute before.

"That’s not exactly true, Gwen. I knew the same person you did. I just knew both people, so to speak. The girl she was when she went into the Marines was certainly not the same woman who came home ten years later. In fact, she changed dramatically during her first hitch. So much so, that I nearly didn’t recognize her when she came home on her first leave."



Randi took a deep breath of the warm summer air. It was good to be back home, even for a short surprise visit. She couldn’t wait to see her folks, and the friends who were still here. She wondered how many of them she would recognize after more than two years away, and how many of them would still know her.

As she walked away from the transport, Randi spotted her first familiar face. A good friend to both her and Tommy, Joey had been one of her closer comrades growing up. They had both shared a love of music and sports, and had even dated briefly while in school. She approached him.

"Excuse me."

The shorter, dark skinned man turned away from the cargo he was loading into his transporter. "Yes, Corporal? May I help you?"

It took Randi a long moment to realize that the man before her did not seem to recognize her, and she hesitated. Perhaps she had made a mistake. But he looked so familiar, and she was sure she hadn’t guessed wrong about his identity. She plunged ahead.

"Joey? Joey Wright?"

"Yes, ma’am. That’d be me. Do I know. . . . ?" He trailed off as he really looked at the woman in uniform standing so confidently in front of him. Long legs merged into a pressed skirt of olive green, trim waist, four full rows of ribbons on an equally starched jacket with twin chevrons on the sleeve. Full lips, high planed cheekbones, eyes blue enough to drown in and raven hair pinned up neatly beneath her cover. His black eyes returned to meet her blue ones, and his eyes began to twinkle as light dawned.

"Randi?!?" grabbing her up into a big hug, which she briefly returned then stepped back. "Oh my God! Randi Valiant! Let me look at you." He took another long look at the impressive Marine standing in front of him. "My God, you look good. Guess you took to military life better than most of us."

She smiled with a hidden sadness in her eyes. Joey failed to notice in his excitement, and rambled on.

"Let me get the rest of this cargo loaded, and we’ll go get a drink somewhere."

"I’d love to, Joey, but I really can’t right now. I need to go see Mama and Papa first."

"Of course, of course," mock slapping his forehead. "I knew that. Guess I’m just a little excited to see you again. It’s been a couple years, and WOW! I know most of us didn’t change that much, but it looks really good on you."

"Thanks, Joey." smiling impishly for the first time. "I’ll be sure to tell Maria how you like the military look."

"Aw, Randi. You’re gonna get me in trouble," but he smiled, knowing she was teasing him a bit.

"Not at all, my friend. I’m just reporting the truth as I see it. Besides, she knows she’s got you hooked good and tight now, doesn’t she?"

He looked down, feeling the flush rise up his face, even though Randi couldn’t see it. "Yeah, she does. And it feels damned good, too."

"Good for you, Joey. Good for both of you." She picked up the lightweight bag she’d dropped when he hugged her. "Better get home. Leave time seems to go faster than service time, I’ve been informed."

"Yeah, it does. Say, can I give you a call? Maybe get the old gang together for a bit while you’re here?"

"Yeah, sure. I’ll be at home, and I’ve got no plans." A nod. "Thanks, Joey. It’ll be nice to see everyone again. And it was good to see you too."

"The pleasure was all mine, Randi. I’ll call you soon."

He waited until she walked had walked away and was seated in a small transcar before he coded his comm badge and started making calls.


"Tommy, I’m tellin’ you, man. She’s changed."

Not knowing that Randi was going to be making a visit then, Tommy had been out of town when she arrived, and it had taken him a couple days to finish his business so he could get back. After two years in the Artist’s Guild Academy, and another twelve months as an apprentice, he was ready to start building his dream. But first, he was anxious to see the woman he called sister, and to see how she’d grown up during their separation.

He slowed his pace as the younger man’s words penetrated his thoughts. "Changed? I’m sure she has, J. It’s been two years, and she’s done her military service. She’s grown up."

"Yeah, but that’s not all there is."

"Will you stop talking in riddles, and just say whatever it is you are trying to tell me?"

"I’m not talking in riddles intentionally, T. It’s something you need to see for yourself. Something in her eyes is different." A pause. "And do you know how decorated she already is after two years?"

"What are you implying?" growling.

"Nothing. But c’mon, Tommy. After your naval service, how many ribbons did you sport? Three? Four, maybe? I had three coming out of the Army, man. Two for weapons quals (archery and rifle), and one unit commendation." He stopped to let his words sink in. "She has four full rows, T. Twelve ribbons, ten of which were medals, and six of those were weapons quals. She’s an expert in all six weapons fields. She’s got an insignia, too, that I’ve never seen before." He shook his head as if to clear it. "I’m just telling you, my friend. I don’t know what her job function was, but the military has changed her."

"Maybe," Tommy said softly after a brief consideration of his pal’s words. "But she’s still the sister of my heart, and I love her."

"We all do, Tommy. I just wanted you to be prepared."

"Thanks, Joey. Now, let’s go to Randi’s.

The crushing hug that greeted him felt so much like home, Tommy found it hard to believe that Randi had changed that dramatically. But as the evening progressed, he noticed little things that began to alarm him slightly. Finally, their friends took their leave, and gave the two a chance to be alone at last.

"So, tell me about yourself now. You look so grown up and, I dunno, aloof, maybe, that I’m not sure who I’m talking to anymore."

Her posture, although never slouchy before, was now ramrod straight. Her gaze had always been direct, but now seemed to burn with a fire and intensity that was almost overwhelming. What troubled him most, however were the deep shadows, almost a hardness, lurking in blue ice, hinting at things best left undisturbed. That, and the fact that though she seemed friendly with everyone around her, she gave off a distinct aura that screamed, "NOT TOO CLOSE!!!" As though the things she had seen and experienced had taken away her trust in her own humanity.

"What makes you say that?" in a low burring voice. Even without her uniform, she commanded attention. The beautiful girl had indeed become a gorgeous woman. Yet she seemed completely unaware, as if her looks were separate from what she perceived to be her true self.

"I dunno. You’re just so quiet. We haven’t really had a chance to talk." The more softly, "I’ve missed you."

Her eyes soften perceptibly. "I’ve missed you too, Tommy. I know I haven’t written like I should. . . . "

"Nah, it’s okay," relaxing a bit with their old familiar banter. "I’ve been pretty busy too. We should be ready to open Midas Enterprises by the end of the year. I don’t suppose you. . . . "

"No, I don’t think so. I’ve found a place I belong in the Corps. But here," handing him a credit chit, "I’d still like to be a partner, if you’ll let me."

Tommy looked into blue eyes whose expression briefly reminded him of his favorite five-year-old tagalong. There was no way he would ever deny her anything in his power to grant. "I’ll always want you as my partner, Partner."

She rolled her eyes at his nonsense. "Uh huh, and what would Ella say?"

"She’d ask if you were gonna be here for the wedding."

Both dark heads turned in surprise, as the voice of the lighter, curly headed Ella wafted through the door ahead of her.

"Wedding?!? Why you dirty dog, you!" punching Tommy in the shoulder. "When were you gonna tell me?"

The man stuttered and stammered, trying hard to keep the blush off his face and his composure intact. "Well, that is, I mean to say, umm. . . ." The laughter of the two women at his expense was as unexpected as it was heartening, and he found himself joining in.

"So," Randi started when her chuckling was under control, "when’s this happy occasion?" The Marine had grown to know and love Ella in the three years she and Tommy had been a couple. The two women were introduced to each other by Tommy, soon after he had met and fallen for the short brunette. Because of their mutual love for the man, they had made an effort to get to know one another, and initial wariness had become a true liking and friendship.

"Well, since we never know when you’re going to be here, and we’d like you to stand for us, um, it’s um, Friday."

"Friday? FRIDAY?!? Like three days from now Friday?!?" This was the most emotion Randi had shown since she’d arrived home, and it caught her folks attention.

"Everybody okay in here?" A soft-spoken question from Renee Valiant. She and Bobby had excused themselves from the earlier gathering soon after it started, assuming Randi wanted some time with her old friends. And they’d refrained from coming back in when they’d all left, knowing she and Tommy needed a bit of time alone to talk. When Ella arrived, though, they’d waited for the exclamation they knew was coming, as soon as Randi heard of their plans.

"Yes, Mama. Did you two know. . . . ? Yeah, I can see by your faces you did. And you didn’t tell me?"

"I asked them not to," from Tommy. "Ella and I wanted to be the ones to let you know, and to ask you to stand for us."

"It’s a very simple service. You can wear whatever you’re most comfortable in."

"Even my uniform?"

"Even your uniform. I hear you cut a very striking figure in it."

"That she does," from her father.

"Papa, I think you’re just a wee bit biased."

"Well, he may be," from her mother, "but I’m not. And I think you look outstanding, so there!"



"The wedding was the last time I saw the little girl I had grown up with shining in those eyes. And except for a few minutes at her parent’s funeral, and their killer’s execution, it was the last time I saw her until she arrived here four years ago." A pause. "She killed him, you know." Another pause, this one longer. "I know the law demanding death for drunken vehicle and transport operators is fair, but allowing the victim’s nearest kin to decide the manner of execution, and to carry it out.....well, there are times when I think it’s a little over the top."

"And was this one of those times?" This from Ella who knew the answer, but felt Tommy needed to say it as much as Gwen needed to hear it.

"Oh, definitely," his eyes closing in memory. "She made that poor man suffer dreadfully before finally ending his misery. But the scary thing to me is, she *enjoyed* it." He took a deep gulp of his drink. "Randi and her parents were always very close, and their death changed something fundamental in her, I think.

"Did you continue to keep in touch with her?" This was the first Gwen had spoken in quite a while.

A sigh. "As much as we could, yes. We sent emails back and forth about once a week. She was pretty good to reply to those faithfully. But we very seldom got a vid call, and she never once came home again, until she came home to stay."

"Why did she come home?" From Gwen again, who knew the answer probably better than Tommy, but she was interested in his thoughts.

"I dunno. She never really said. I think she was very, very tired."

There was really nothing Gwen could say at this point, without starting a discussion she was not yet ready to have. So she turned her back to the room, returning to her contemplation of the storm raging outside, and trying to ignore the one building in her own heart and soul. She never even noticed when Tommy and Ella quietly took their leave of her, allowing her her privacy to sort through her own thought and feelings. The room grew noticeably darker as she revisited some of her favorite memories.



Chapter II

Gwen was sitting alone at a table for two, trying to work out the last bits of her latest offering. As one of the most sought after storytellers in the Artists Guild, she felt she had a level of excellence (to say nothing of her reputation) to maintain. So with great diligence, she worked on the end of her epic. The fact that she came from a line of bards, whose works stretched back to ancient times, was quite a motivational factor as well. One of her earliest, and fondest memories, was of sitting on her great-grandmother’s lap, listening to stories of travelers, adventure, and love.

The blonde woman sat back, removing the old-fashioned eyeglasses that so reminded her of the woman who had spent countless hours rocking her and telling her tales. She rubbed weary eyes for a long moment, the blinked in astonishment at the vision that stood in the doorway of the mess hall. She blinked again, sure it was an aberration from her intense concentration. This was an artistic endeavour. Why would such a highly decorated Marine gunnery sergeant be taking lunch with them? Not that societies and guilds didn’t mix and mingle, but not usually during business hours, unless it was for business reasons. As she watched a little longer, though, Gwen became aware that the reasons were personal. It was very evident from their interaction that the boss and the sergeant were good friends. Without warning, the storyteller’s green eyes were caught and held by the Marine’s ice blue, and she realized she had been staring. Lowering her head quickly, she replaced her glasses, and continued her work. She finished her notes and lunch about the same time, and stood to leave, only to be hailed by Tommy Steele.

"Gwen, please, join us."

"Thanks, Tommy, but I’ve already eaten. Besides, I wouldn’t want to intrude."

"Nonsense," he said, rising. "I want to introduce you to my best and oldest friend." The sergeant stood, and Gwen felt quite diminutive next to the tall raven haired soldier. "Gwenievere Goldman, may I introduce you to Gunnery Sergeant Miranda Valiant. Randi, Gwen is the best loved bard in the business today. Gwen, Randi is coming on board as a, um, security consultant. Unless you’d rather do something else," he whispered in an aside for Randi’s ears alone.

The Marine gave no real indication she heard him, save for a single nod of her head, but that could have been a simple acknowledgment of the introduction. Instead she reached out to Gwen and clasped the proffered hand. "It is a honor to meet you, Ms. Goldman. I"ve heard some wonderful things about you."

"Gwen, please. May I call you Randi?" At the brunette’s nod she continued, "Well, thank you, Randi. I haven’t heard anything about you yet," with a glare in Tommy’s direction, "but I’m sure we can remedy that situation." with a disarming grin. She stopped as she realized how forward she was being. "If you’d like to, I mean," mumbling in embarrassment.

"I’d like that," came the reply in a low voice. "I. . . I, um. . . . "

Green eyes peered once again into blue, and Gwen caught her breath at the myriad of things she saw reflected back at her. Patting the firm arm nearest her she simply said, "I am always happy to meet a new friend, Randi. Thank you for letting me be one of yours. Now, if you’ll both excuse me. . . . "

"May I walk with you? I’d like to look around a bit, and Tommy needs to get back to work." Neither woman saw his eyebrows rise up into his hairline, nor his swiftly hidden smirk.

"That’s true. Gwen, do you mind? You don’t have a call until three. That gives you a bit of leeway if you want to show Randi around a little."

"That would be nice. Maybe you can tell me a little about yourself, Randi, while we take the tour." Seeing the surprised look on the darker features at her directness, Gwen continued, "Seems only fair, since I never even heard of you until today."

A nod of agreement. "OK. That’s fair, but I warn you, I’m a pretty boring person," said with just a hint of a smile.

"Uh, huh. I’ll just bet," looking at the chest full of ribbons and then up into eyes twinkling with merriment. "Let’s go, gunny."

The next two hours they spent roaming the compound, while the conversation went nimbly from subject to subject as good conversation often does. When it was time for Gwen to report for her call, they separated.

"Next time, I want to hear about all those ribbons, gunny."

A dark shadow unexpectedly crossed Randi’s face, but was gone so quickly, the blonde thought she might have imagined it. "Um, we’ll see," was the noncommittal answer.

"OK," not wanting to push in to the taller woman’s personal space. "Let me know when and where and I’ll be there." A big smile and sparkling eyes lighting her face.

For the first time in years, Randi was caught flatfooted. But aside from Ella, Gwen was the first person since Tommy to accept her without questions or demands; the first to try to get to know the real Miranda Valiant, and not the persona nor the soldier she showed to the world. "Really?" quietly incredulous.


"Good," flashing the blonde woman a perfect smile. "As soon as I get settled in, maybe in a week or two. . . . "

"Whenever you want. Now I’ve got to get to work."

"Thanks, Gwen. See ya later."

Amazing, Gwen thought to herself as she moved off. I can’t believe this is the same cold, hard, aloof woman the girls were talking about at lunch last week.

It was several days later before they were able to speak together again.

"Wow, gunny. You look pretty good in civvies," teasingly. Gwen had seen the Marine sergeant around a few times in the last week, but until today she had always been in uniform. Not that her civilian clothes looked all that different. Black cargo pants, and black tee shirts seemed to make up the wardrobe essentials for the security officer, and except for the first day when the woman had been in a Class "A" regulation uniform, it was very similar to her service working dress.

"Yeah, well, Tommy said I couldn’t stay in uniform," with a smirk which was returned tenfold when Gwen caught the teasing twinkle in her blue eyes.

"Uh huh. Big difference, too," laughingly.

They walked toward the lunch room together. Tommy joined them midway.

"Ladies," ignoring the raised eyebrow from Randi and the barely veiled sniggering from Gwen, "Ella wanted me to remind both of you about the cookout tomorrow night. You will be there, right?" This directed at Randi specifically.

"Oh absolutely, boss." This was an ongoing joke between he and Randi, who though no one knew it yet, was half owner of Midas Enterprises. She tended to stick pretty close to the silent side of their silent partnership, unless she felt strongly about a particular story that was being told, or the bard doing the telling. In eight years, she had only spoken up twice. Once to ask him to change the direction a story he had written was moving. And once to ask him to look up Gwen Goldman, whom she had heard early in her service career. Both times, they were smart moves, incredibly good decisions.

"And you, Gwen?" rolling his eyes at Randi.

"You know me, boss," imitating Randi, and causing his eyes to roll again. "I never turn down an opportunity to eat, especially if Ella’s cooking. It’s no wonder she has the most successful restaurant around."

"Well, she doesn’t cook at the restaurant anymore, but they are her recipes. I’ll pass along your compliments. So we’ll see you both tomorrow night at the house. Gwen, you know how to get there?"

"I’ll show her, T. She can come stay the night with me, and I’ll make sure she gets there." A pause. "That is, if you’d like to," with a shy look at the blonde woman.

"I’d love to, Randi. I haven’t been to a sleep over in years." The bard lay a slim hand on the strong forearm of her friend. "It’ll be fun," she said with a smile.

"Good! That’s settled then. We’ll see you both tomorrow about 7:00." And he left them to finish their lunch in peace and quiet conversation.

Immediately after their work was finished the following day, the two women left for Randi’s house. The transport got them there in very short order, and Gwen was swiftly ushered inside where she stood gaping at the view in front of her.

"Want the nickel tour?"

"Sure," a bit breathlessly.

Gwen was suitably impressed with the entire downstairs, though nothing could capture for her attention the way the vista outside those walls of glass did. When they reached the second level, Randi halted a moment.

"Um, this area isn’t really ready yet. Tommy wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it, and to be honest with you, I’m not really into decorating too much."

Green eyes looked around at the tastefully furnished downstairs area questioningly.

The tall woman scratched the back of her neck. "Um, Ella did that for me."Having gotten an inkling of their relationship from Randi in their first talks, Gwen understood all that Randi was saying, and some of what she wasn’t. She waited for her to continue. "There is a comfortable bed, but not much else." She went on, a little shyly, "Maybe you can, um, I don’t know. . . well, um. . . ."

"I’d be glad to help you, Randi," desiring to alleviate the older woman’s misery as soon as possible.

"Thanks, Gwen," in profound relief. She had discovered Gwen’s panache for shopping over lunch the day before. "I’d appreciate it."

"Just let me know when and where, what you like, what your limits are. . . ."

"Whoa, Little One, slow down and get your breath back!" chucking a bit. "We can worry about all that later. Now, here’s your bathroom if you wanna freshen up before we head to the other side of the island. I’ll meet you back downstairs in a few."

"Hey, Randi?" calling out as the woman turned to make her way down the stairs. "What’s over there?" pointing to the only other room in the loft.

"Oh, just my home gym. Wanna look?"

"You mind?" curious, but not wanting to seem pushy.

"Nah. I was just gonna save it until we had time to use it. But here," opening the door, "go on in and take a look around. Don’t be too long now. Even as close as we are, we’re gonna need to leave soon."

The last of the tall woman’s words were lost on Gwen as she stepped into a room filled with equipment both archaic and state-of-the-art in design. "Wow," she whispered to herself, and then her heart warmed as she realized Randi’s implication that they would be spending more time together. She had finally found a friend she truly wanted to get to know better for her own sake, and she intended to cultivate this friendship with the greatest care imaginable. With one last look around, she hurried off to the bathroom to get ready for the cookout.

The evening was a great success, and Randi and Gwen returned to the house still laughing. All of Randi’s effort to find a bed so Gwen would have a place to sleep went for naught as the bunked down together in front of the massive fireplace in true, sleep over fashion. They spent the remainder of the night exchanging confidences and childhood dreams, learning much about themselves and each other. By the time dawn began to creep across the sky, a bond had been forged between them, and a strong foundation had been laid on which they would continue to build a deep, abiding friendship.

"I envy you this view," the blonde murmured drowsily as the sky began to lighten faintly. The windows had been cast in such a way as to catch both sunrise and sunset. "You are a very lucky woman, Miranda Valiant."

Looking down at her new friend, and thinking of Tommy and Ella, she agreed softly. "Yep, I sure am."

Then both woman dozed off, as the sun finally peeked over the horizon.

The next six weeks flew by, with the two friends getting together at least one of their nights off each week. Most times, they wound up at Randi’s beach house. Besides the privacy it afforded them, an increasing necessity in light of Gwen’s growing bardic popularity, it was simply a much nicer place to be than the younger woman’s rented dwelling. And since her contract with Midas Enterprises was only for six months, it made no sense at the present time to invest in anything more.

"Hey, Gwen," Randi broke the comfortable silence they had been enveloped in since watching the sunset, "I’ve been thinking."

"Yeah? Well, don’t strain yourself there, gunny." A quirk of her lips.

"Smartass!" Just for that I oughtta. . . ." and left off her sentence as she lunged for the blonde. Quick on the uptake, though, Gwen scrambled around and put the couch between them.

"Now, Randi. . . . " trying not to laugh at the teasing twinkle she saw sparkling in the blue eyes looking back at her.

"Don’t you ‘Now, Randi’ me," growling low, but unable to keep the smirk off her lips. "You asked for it. . . . it’s time for you to pay the piper." She reached toward Gwen, then froze as the innocuous looking comm device on her wrist vibrated once.

"Gwen, I hate to cut this short, but I need to ask you to leave now." The playful woman who had been standing in front of her only moments before had simply vanished, leaving in her place this cold, impassive soldier. Her eyes were dead, and her posture ramrod straight. All the warmth had seemingly fled her body.

Gwen nodded silently, unsure of what had happened or how to fix it. Maybe a talk with Tommy. . . .

"I’ll talk to you later, Randi. Thank you for dinner." And she quietly closed the front door behind her.

Eight days passed before Gwen saw Randi again. Her talk with Tommy had been unfruitful....he was as in the dark as she was at the abrupt change in Randi. Seemed his old friend didn’t confide in him as she had growing up. Still, the blonde was glad to see the older woman calmly join her at their now regular lunch table.

Whatever had happened during the Marine’s absence had obviously affected her deeply. Her eyes were shadowed, a dead, flat gray color. She didn’t say much, contributing little to their normal banter other than the occasional grunt or nod to indicate her attention to the conversation. Finally, the younger woman couldn’t stand it any longer.

"Randi, you wanna talk about it?" She felt upset as the raven haired woman flinched at her hand on the muscular forearm, but was reassured somewhat when Randi made no move to escape from her light touch. The silence stretched on for a seeming infinity, before those tortured eyes raised and met concerned green.

"No, not really. Thanks for asking, though," came the barely whispered words as the eyes dropped to the table once more.

A gentle pat from the warm hand on her arm made Randi look up into Gwen’s caring face again. "Anytime, my friend. I’ll always be ready to listen whenever you want to talk, OK?"

A nod. "Thanks, Gwen. I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you, cause you sure don’t deserve a friend like me." She stood up hastily. "I’m sorry. I gotta go." And left as though she were being chased by the devil himself.

"Hello? What exactly just happened here?" Gwen murmured to herself. She got up to follow her erstwhile companion, and then thought better of it. Something had happened during their separation to make the woman extremely skittish, and pursuing her at this point, when she so obviously needed some space, would only serve to alienate her further.

Sixteen days passed before things gave any hint of returning to normal. Gwen knew. . . she had counted each and every one of them. Three weekends of no visits or dinners, and twelve workdays where their only contact seemed to be a strained lunch together, and the occasional sighting from a distance. Gwen couldn’t figure out what she had or hadn’t done to provoke this reaction, but gradually realized this was something that dealt with the Marine alone, and she was simply caught in the maelstrom’s backlash.

On each of those twelve days, Randi would wait until she was seated and eating, before awkwardly, quietly asking to join her. There was little or no conversation between them for the first several days, but the blonde’s presence soothed the weight that seemed to press against those broad shoulders. It took a while, but gradually, by day sixteen, Gwen was again chatting a bit with her taciturn companion, whose nods and murmurs were more than enough to assure the younger woman than Randi was indeed coming back out of her self imposed shell.

The end of the week, eighteen days since the sergeant had returned after her week long absence, found the two friends once again sharing a dinner at the beach house, watching the sunset. Gwen had cooked. . . had insisted, as a matter of fact, since Randi was always playing hostess. It had taken the older woman two days to get up that much vaunted Marine courage to asked her companion about resuming their dinner get togethers, and in fact had asked her over just as they were preparing to leave work for the day. Taken by surprise, the blonde woman had just stared at her for a long moment before the green eyes sparkled with joy, and she had impulsively given Randi a hug. The tall woman stiffened reflexively for an instant, the returned the hug fervently. And in that moment, all the awkwardness that had been between them since Randi’s return simply vanished.

The next three months moved swiftly, and except for Randi being a bit more reserved and quiet, things returned to normal. She and Gwen continued to get together. Sometimes with Tommy and Ella, or some of Randi’s and Tommy’s childhood friends, going out and doing things. Most times alone, just talking. But always strengthening the bonds of their friendship, each in the back of her mind knowing they would soon be physically separated, and knowing that vid comms and emails just weren’t the same as face to face. So they cherished their time together.

Two and a half weeks out from Gwen’s departure date, Randi disappeared again. The Marine was only gone for two days, and unlike her previous absence, there was no remarkable change in her behaviour. It would have bothered the blonde considerably more had she had the opportunity to think about it, but she was much too busy to think about it. Besides, the day Randi arrived back home, Tommy made her an interesting proposal.

"You wanted to see me, Tommy?" the story teller asked as she stepped into his office.

"Have a seat, Gwen," motioning her to a large, comfortable chair in front of his desk. Silence reigned for a few minutes while he gathered his thoughts. Then he cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "I know you’ve done a lot of hard work here the past six months, and I wanted to say thank you. I think we’ve got something really big here, something that, if you’re interested in, we could make a long term project." He held up a hand to forestall her speech. "Hear me out first, please?" She nodded and he continued. "Thanks. Anyway, I know you’ve got three six-month engagements lined up. . . one up north near your folks, one across the water, and one for the military folks out in the field. Correct?"

A nod. "A little out of order, but those are my current contracts, yes."

"Very well, then," clearing his throat again. "I would like to sign you to an exclusive contract, starting the minute your last one expires."

Shock showed clearly on the blonde’s features. "Uh. . .buh. . . I. . . um," she trailed off. Some bard you are. And where will that get you, hmm?

"Look," he said, seeing her had caught her off guard,"it’s not like you have to decide this today, or even before you leave us. I just think we could do a lot with this, and it’s something we’d be interested in pursuing further with you."

We? Who’s we? She shook her head, trying to get the dazed look out of her eyes. "Um, it could be interesting," she finally replied. "Give me a list of contract points, and let me look them over."

"Thanks for giving us a chance," Tommy said as he held out his hand.

"Thank you for. . . ." words failed her again. "Well, just thank you. I’ve really enjoyed my time here."

"Good. Now, " changing the subject, " we are going to have a send off party for you the night before your transport leaves, OK? So don’t plan to leave too early the next morning, got it?"

Her broad smile matched his own. "Got it. Now, I’ve gotta get back to work. I’ve got this slave driver boss. . . . "

"Yeah, yeah. Everybody’s a critic." But he returned her wave before she shut the door.

She had known Randi was out of town indefinitely again, but the bard was so anxious to let her know about Tommy’s offer of a long term commitment, that she headed over the bridge to the island. It wasn’t until she was standing at her friend’s front door that Gwen realized there was no one home. So she nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of muffled cursing coming from the garage area that housed the Marine’s prized motorcycle. Without thinking too much about the consequences, she walked around to the side of the house to where the bike was housed. There she stood in awe of the sight before her.

The blue body itself stood gleaming proudly in it’s place of honor, but the engine lay in pieces all over the floor. Randi, for whatever reasons had several used, but well-taken-care- of tools strewn on the floor beside her, and at the moment was intently cleaning the part cradled in her hand. Gwen cleared her throat softly, not wanting to startle the older woman, but trying to gain her attention. A raven haired ponytail whipped around at the very first sound, and ice blue eyes captured emerald green. Long fingers set the delicate part gently back on the immaculate floor, and Randi stood up.

"Gwen?!? What are you doing here?" brusquely, then as if realizing how rude that sounded, hastened on. "Not that you’re not welcome here anytime, I mean. I . . . um, I just didn’t know you knew I got home today." Her eyes were now focused on the floor.

"Look at me, Randi." A shake from the dark head. She moved forward and placed a light hand on the Marine’s arm, bending her head a bit to catch the cerulean gaze of her friend. "Randi, I’m sorry." At this, the blue eyes jerked up to meet hers. "I came out here today without thinking. I didn’t know you were home." A blush. "In fact, it didn’t dawn on me until I was standing at the front door that you were out of town. I was debating to myself whether or not to leave you a note or not when I heard someone cursing in here, and decided to check it out. I’m sorry I disturbed you." She turned to go, but found her hand caught in a soft but unbreakable hold.

"I’m not," said with a small smile. "C’mon. Let’s go grab a drink, and watch the sunset, and you can tell me why you were so anxious to visit."

They watched the sunset together in silence, then went inside to fix a bite of dinner and talk. Gwen told of Tommy’s offer and noted with some surprise that Randi seemed to already be aware of it. But the story teller made no comment, until the end of her narrative.

"So, what do you think?"

"About?" lazily drawn out.

"UGH! About Tommy’s offer! What have I been telling you about for the past half hour?" Then she muttered under her breath while taking her filled plate to the table. Randi grinned to herself as she listened to the blonde.

"No," still trying to hide the smirk,"do you want my opinion on. . . . "

"I want to know what you think about the offer, and I want to know what you think I should do," the younger woman broke in. "I know what I *want* to do."

"And that is. . . . "

"I’d like to come back," the bard answered softly. "I like it here. I’ve made a lot of friends, and I’m gonna miss being away from here, from you, for eighteen months. You’re the first best friend I’ve ever had."

An emotion akin to shock lit the brunettes features, before she was able to school herself to neutrality. A person as open and friendly as Gwen? But. . . . "Why?" asked quietly. "I would have thought. . . ." She let her words taper off.

Gwen stirred a bit uneasily in her seat. Aside from Randi’s military service, a topic which seemed to be completely off limits, this was the only thing they had not at least touched on in conversation. The Marine noticed her friend’s discomfort at once.

"I’m sorry, Gwen," she said softly. "I didn’t mean to pry."

"No, it’s OK. It’s not something I realized was true until I came here." A deep sigh. "I’ve been a bard most of my life, since I was a child. I’ve been writing and telling stories for as long as I can remember. I’ve traveled the world, met scores of important people, and even more regular folks. And everyone has always been friendly. But not once, until I came here, and met you, has anyone ever made an effort to get to know me on a personal level. No one has ever shared their thoughts with me. So, even if this wasn’t the nicest place I have ever worked, and even if the boss wasn’t a nice guy, I would want to come back anyway, just because of you."

Randi was caught flatfooted, completely speechless. She opened her mouth, then closed it, not having any real clue how to respond to this declaration. For her part, Gwen was amazed by Randi’s response. Though she had no words, the look on her face was priceless. She cleared her throat.

"Um, wow. I don’t think I’ve ever. . . um, it’s been my pleasure, Gwen," recovering her poise. "Aside from Tommy, whose always looked after me like an older brother, you’re the first best friend I’ve had, too."

It was silent for a time after that, while both women absorbed their new-found knowledge. Finally, the story teller decided to ask a question that had been niggling at the back of her mind since her meeting with Tommy.

"Can I ask you something?" At the nod in response, she continued, "How did you know about the offer Tommy made me?" She was beginning to put the pieces together.

"Um, you just told me about it, Gwen."

"Yes. But you weren’t surprised. And the boss mentioned something about ‘WE’ when he asked me to return." She was taken off guard when Randi started squirming a bit under her scrutiny. "Randi?"

Tommy, you idiot, Randi fumed silently to herself. I’m gonna pop you one good one for this. "Well, uh, since I know you can keep a secret, um, I’ll tell you. But you have to keep it to yourself. This isn’t common knowledge."

The blonde crossed her heart solemnly and waited.

"I’m, um, well. . .I"m half owner of Midas Enterprises." She waited for Gwen’s reaction.

"That’s what I thought. Thanks for trusting me, Randi." And to the Marine’s surprise, the bard let the conversation drift to other things.

Six days later, Randi disappeared again. And when Gwen’s last day arrived, she still hadn’t returned. The blonde was growing anxious as the day wore on. She had no desire to leave without saying goodbye to her best friend. Tommy caught up with her at lunch.

"Don’t worry, Gwen. If there is anyway for her to get back here for your farewell party tonight, she will. Besides, it’s not like you two can’t continue to keep in touch."

"I know," sadly. "But vid comms and emails are not the same."

"True." A beat. "Have you given any more thought to my proposition?"

"Uh huh."

"Annnndddd?" he queried when the silence started to drag on too long.

"And, draw up a contract."

"You’re coming back?" somewhat unable to believe his good luck.

"I’d like to. So, make it a good contract," said with a teasing smirk.

"Yes, ma’am!" And he gave her a little salute and got down to the serious business of eating.

Forty-five minutes before the guests were to start arriving at his home for Gwen’s party, Tommy heard a transport lad on the private pad he and Randi shared. He decided to pay a visit to remind his "sister" about the bash.

"I wouldn’t, Tommy," Ella called when she saw his intentions. "You know she wants to be left alone for a couple days after she disappears like this." Although they had never discussed it with the Marine, and never would, they were fairly certain why she took off unannounced, and why she wanted a bit of space when she returned.

"I know. But she needs to be here tonight. Both for Gwen’s sake, and her own."

"All right. But don’t blame me if you come home carrying your head under your arm after she hands it to you."

"You’re all heart, love."

Tommy didn’t stay long. The fire in her eyes when she opened the door warned him of the danger in doing so. But she did hear him out. Then escorted him to the door and sending him home without uttering a word.

Two hours into the party, Randi still hadn’t shown up, and Tommy had about given up hope of her actually doing so. He hadn’t told Gwen that she had actually arrived home, not wanting to raise her hopes, but he was silently cursing the raven haired woman for her selfishness. A glance in the bard’s direction showed the melancholy expression in her eyes, even though a smile was on her face, talking to the many friends who had shown up to wish her well. But even as he watched, those eyes went from gray to green, and began to sparkle with pure, unadulterated joy. He felt a squeeze on his shoulder as Randi swept passed him, then simply smiled as the two friends embraced. The hug was long and hard, conveying both a welcome home for the Marine, and the beginnings of goodbye for Gwen. Finally they broke apart. Tears spilled onto the blonde’s cheeks.

"You made it," she whispered.

"I wouldn’t have missed it."

"I’m so glad you’re here."


And though the party went on for several more hours, no one said a word when the guest of honor and her best friend walked away from the party and down toward the beach.

Sunrise found them walking back up the beach, still chatting together as the had been when they’d left the night before. Randi escorted Gwen to her transport, then leaned over for one final hug, which actually lasted for several minutes.

"Take care, Little One. I’ll, um, I’ll miss you."

"I’ll miss you too, gunny," said with smiling, watery eyes. "You’ll keep in touch?"

"Oh yes, my friend. At every opportunity. You too?"

"Me, too." And with one last squeeze, she was gone.

Randi watched the transport out of sight, then headed to her home, wondering how she was going to survive the loneliness of the next eighteen months.


Chapter III

Fall had passed into winter in the three and a half months since Gwen had crossed the waters to fulfill her next contract obligation. And at least twice a week, every week, notes and vid messages had been sent back and forth between the two friends. Now the Winter Festival holidays were fast approaching, and the bard was trying desperately to contact Randi. She cursed herself over and over for her lack of courage in asking the Marine to join she and her parents at their northern home for the holidays when she’d had the opportunity. She hadn’t heard from the older woman in several days, and was afraid she had gone away indefinitely again.

In fact, Randi had been called away, and had only just returned home three days before the holiday week was to begin. But needing some space to recover herself, and craving nothing more than peace and quiet, the tall woman never ventured near her comm system until very late the night before Festival Eve. When she noticed all the messages from Gwen, many of which were marked "URGENT", she smacked herself for not checking the center earlier. Not that I would have been able to face her like that. . . well, nothing to be done for it now except. . . . The Marine tried faithfully for over an hour to reach her friend, but there was no answer. Probably out last minute shopping or something, she thought with a small smirk, knowing first hand how much the small blonde loved to shop. Randi wrestled with herself inwardly for a long moment before coming to a decision. Then she put in a call to Tommy, to let him know where she’d be, and a call to her private transport to make arrangements. Then she headed for her room to pack a small bag, thinking how nice a surprise this was going to be. On a second thought, she grabbed a hanging bag from the back of her closet. Just in case.

The family was just sitting down to their Festival Eve breakfast, when a knock sounded at the door. Puzzled, the man sitting at the table rose, putting his napkin back in his place, and walked into the hallway. Folks just didn’t come unannounced during breakfast, especially on Festival Eve without a serious reason. So he was unprepared for the beautiful woman standing there with the shy smile on her face, and the bouquet of holiday flowers in her hand. He took a few seconds to recover himself then asked, "Yes? May I help you?"

A faint blush traced the young woman’s features, and she stood there for a long moment arguing with herself about the wisdom in her decision to just show up here. Then she straightened her shoulders almost imperceptibly and decided she had nothing to lose at this point.

"Um, I hope so. I’m looking for Gwen Goldman. I understand this is where she is staying," not wanting to assume nor inform too much.

"And you would be. . . . ?" The man was well used to looking out for his daughter, and trusted his instincts.

"Randi. Um, Miranda Valiant."

He looked her over carefully once more, then motioned her in to the hall. "Wait here, please." And turned and left her standing there without another word.

Well, that was interesting, Randi thought. Then busied herself noticing her surroundings while she waited for the man to return. She had her back to the door the man had disappeared through, but she heard rapid footsteps headed her way, and knew from the lighter sound that they belonged to Gwen. A smile came unbidden to her eyes and mouth, and she turned to face her friend just as the blonde crossed the threshold into the hallway.

"Randi?" Gwen stood there stunned. She hadn’t quite believed her father when he had told them who was at the door. And she stood there frozen, gazing at the friend she had given up hope of seeing for almost fifteen more months. Randi opened her arms wide, breaking the tableau between them, and Gwen rushed to her with a little cry of joy.

Gwen’s squeal brought her parents to the doorway. They lingered for a minute, watching their daughter’s happiness, then returned to their breakfast, leaving the two women to their private reunion. But they immediately followed the older couple, with the blonde gently leading the brunette by her free hand.

"Mother? Daddy?" addressing her parents, "this is the friend I told you about. This is Miranda Valiant. Randi these are my folks, Geoffrey and Gillian Goldman."

"Sir," shaking the man’s extended hand. "Ma’am," offering the older blonde the bouquet still in her hands. "It’s a pleasure to meet you both. I apologize for dropping in unannounced, but. . . ."

"Nonsense," Jill broke in. "Gwen’s been trying to reach you for several days, I understand. You’re the first friend our baby girl has ever wanted to bring home. "Besides," lowering her voice so the father and daughter talking quietly together a few feet away couldn’t hear, "no one should be alone during Festival, so Geoff and I wanted you here as well."

Stunned, Randi simply replied, "Thank you, Mrs. Goldman." And she swallowed hard to remove the lump that had suddenly taken up residence in her throat. Gillian just patted her hand.

"Please, dear. Jill, Gillian, Mom, Hey You. . .ANYTHING but Mrs. Goldman, Okay? I’m not old enough for stuffy titles like that yet, even with the gray." And when she smiled, Randi got a glimpse of how Gwen would look in twenty-five years.

"Okay, Jill," with a full fledged grin. "You sound a lot like my mama." But before this conversation could continue, Geoff broke in from the other side of the table.

"Ms. Valiant. . . ."

"Randi, please, sir."

"Then I’m Geoff, okay?" At her nod he continued. "I noticed you didn’t have any bags. Are you just here for the day or. . . . "

"No, sir. I’ve got a room at the Regency." His eyebrows shot up. A last minute room at the Regency implied both money and power. He wondered in passing what the woman did for a living to merit that sort of influence. But he let it pass in the interest of his daughter’s request.

"Well," he said with a glance at his wife who nodded her head in approval of what he was going to do, "why don’t you just call them up and check out. We’ve got plenty of room for you right here."

"Oh, no, sir. I wouldn’t want to impose. . . . "

"You’re not imposing. . .we’re offering. We *want* you to be here."

A long look, studying the sincerity in his eyes, and then those of his wife. But it was the hopeful, almost pleading look from Gwen that decided her. "Thank you, sir, ma’am. I’d be delighted." Then they settled down to breakfast with a will.

With the morning meal finished, the two younger women decided to walk to Randi’s hotel to check her out and arrange for her to pick up her things later in the afternoon. Gwen had some last minute Festival shopping to do, and she was a woman on a mission. So scant minutes passed before they were exiting the hotel and moving down the street toward the shopping district.

The morning moved slowly for Randi, but she bore it stoicly, happy to be sharing the holidays with her blonde companion. They had a quick lunch, and were returning to the melee of last minute shoppers when a loud hail of Gwen’s name caused both parties to look around for the voice. Then Gwen gave a rueful chuckle as she spotted the energetic, rotund little man coming toward her, with his brother, the photographer in tow.

"Don’t move," he called, stopping several paces away from them, while the other man moved around them and started snapping photographs in rapid succession. He got off about five shots before a long arm and strong hand lifted him up bodily off the ground by the neck, and brought him nose to nose with the most electric blue eyes he had ever seen. He probably would have been more appreciative of them if he had had any sort of oxygen flow going on at all. As it was, he was praying for a rescue before he either passed out or embarrassed himself badly.

The raven haired woman was furious, and fairly intent on killing the man in her hands for imposing himself into what had otherwise been a fairly nice day. A gentle touch on the arm holding the interloper caused her to rein in her fury, and a look into the emerald green eyes caused it to simply ooze away. She set the man down easily, and he scrambled back from her as fast as his wobbly legs would carry him. Blue eyes stayed locked on green, until Randi felt he calm return, and looked in apology at Gwen. Th blonde patted her arm in understanding and turned to the two shaken men.

"Sal. . .Rico, this is my friend, Miranda Valiant. Randi, these two intrepid gentlemen are, well they are somewhat difficult to explain." She held up a warning hand to keep Sal quiet when he would have interrupted. "They make people aware of upcoming entertainment in their area, and for several lucky performers, they make sure we have plenty of, um, well, exposure, I guess. They do old fashioned photographs, which Rico actually shoots at his studio here and the develops, as well as digital and holo-imaging. It’s quite an interesting process. Now," turning a stern eye to the two men, "would either of you like to explain why you were accosting us in the middle of the shopping district?"

"We weren’t accosting you!" Sal shouted in outrage. Then he began to notice all the attention their little altercation was drawing. He lowered his voice circumspectly. "Could we go to the office and talk about this?"

Gwen looked at Randi, who appeared supremely uncomfortable at the unexpected crowd. She caught the brunette’s eye, and asked her question silently, receiving only the barest of nods in response. But it was enough.

"Call your transport, Sal. We’ll meet you there."

"But. . . . " reaching for her arm, but stopping at the low growl he heard rumbling from her companion.

"Trust me, Sal. It’s better this way for now." And with a glance in his brother’s direction, still rubbing at the red ring around his throat, he agreed.

The women walked along silently. Randi was loathe to break it, and indeed could think of nothing to say.

"Don’t worry about it, my friend. It was a natural reaction, given your job." Actually, it was a bit over the top, Gwen thought, but she realized that Sal and Rico had been out of line, and Randi responded as though it had been a personal threat. It wasn’t the first time she had seen Randi become defensive of both her own and Gwen’s personal space, but it was definitely the most aggressive she had seen her. But she was secretly just a tiny bit delighted that Randi looked out for her with such care, and that came through in her eyes and voice.

"I’m sorry Gwen. I didn’t mean to. . . . "

"I know. Sal should have asked before Rico started shooting. I’ll make sure they understand that."

"Thank you, but after today, I doubt that’ll be a problem." A wry smile.

"You don’t know the Bouviers that well. There was a reason for that, and I’ve no doubt we’ll hear about it very soon. C’mon. We’re almost there." And the shorter woman linked arms with her taller friend for the short distance to their destination.

"Well, I need to apologize, I guess," a little defiantly. Then they were there, standing in front of an unadorned door that simply said BOUVIERS. Randi grabbed the handle and held it open, motioning for Gwen to go in ahead of her.

"Chicken," sotto voce. The Marine glared at the back of her head for a long instant, sure she had misunderstood the whispered word. "You coming in?" the blonde teased when the soldier failed to follow her inside. Randi glared at her a moment longer, then rolled her eyes at the smirk she got in return.

A lovely woman with wavy chestnut, gray-streaked hair and deep brown eyes greeted them as they entered. "Gwen! How very nice to see you again." She embraced the blonde woman who gently returned it. "What are you doing here? We didn’t expect you in for several more months." Then it occurred to the woman that she and the bard were not alone. "Oh, please excuse my manners." And she waited for Gwen to introduce them.

Randi had stood quietly to the side, somewhat bemused to find someone who talked faster than her friend did. Gwen couldn’t manage to get a word in, and that was highly unusual for the story teller. When the older woman fell silent, the blonde turned to her, eyes twinkling. "Dei, this is my friend, Miranda Valiant. Randi, this is Deiannera Bouvier, Sal’s and Rico’s sister. She’s the one who holds this place together."

"It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Bouvier."

"Everyone calls me Dei, hon. May I call you Randi?" The Marine nodded and the older woman smiled. Then she turned and looked back and forth between the blonde and the brunette. "So, why’re you two here?" Not that I’m not glad to see you, but it’s Festival Eve. I’m only trying to catch up in the peace and quiet while Dell is at rehearsal, or I wouldn’t be here either."

"I guess Sal and Rico haven’t gotten here yet either, then." Just at that moment, a commotion from the studio area of the building caused the three women to move in that direction. Apparently, the two had been back for long enough to set the stage for a photo session. When Sal saw the three heads peek around the corner for a closer look, he headed in their direction. He thought better of it when he heard a low warning growl emanating from Gwen’s seeming bodyguard, and stopped several feet from them. Rico finished the last set, then perched on his stool and waited for the go ahead. He’d learned the hard way today never assume permission of any kind without asking first. And he was content to wait and let his brother do the asking this time around.

Without warning, Dei jumped the gun and took matters into her own hands. "Sal, what in the name of. . . ." Her voice drifted off as she looked at the backdrops and drapings now scattered around the different set areas of the studio. One set a vivid green, almost matching the color of Gwen’s eye’s. Another a bright blue that was uncannily reflected back from Randi’s. Still a third in pure white. She gazed at the scenery for what seemed like hours, glancing back and forth between the women and the sets. Finally, she let out a breath and simply said, "Well?"

Sal cleared his throat. "Well, can we take this to the office? We wanted to talk about this first. In fact, we were hoping to be done and waiting there before you two got here."

Randi made eye contact with Gwen. She was not real happy with the way things were going right now. And this Sal person had a look in his eye that was making her distinctly twitchy . The bard shrugged her shoulders, and led the way to the office.

The silence was deafening. Sal had been hoping for a better response after he’d explained their earlier actions and their present intentions. Instead, he was getting two blank stares and one death look. And he was fairly certain that it was only the blonde’s light grasp on the Marine’s hand that was holding her in check. Finally, Dei broke the silence.

"Ya know, Sal," she said, rising to pace the floor, "I can see how these two together would capture your attention, , ,your imagination." She gave the two still seated women the once over, noticing how striking they were, and how well their differences in looks made them such a matched set. She shook her head and continued, whirling on him in anger. "But there is a REASON I work with the artists and you handle the business end of things!"

"But, Dei. . . . "

NO, Sal! I’m not discounting your eye for success, but you know as well as I do that you went about this totally wrong. And then to expect both Gwen and Randi to understand and go along with you. . . I think you expect too much!"

"Dei," came the story teller’s quiet voice, "will you and Sal excuse Randi and I for a minute?"

"You take all the time you need, dear. And you," grabbing the short man by the ear, "Come with me. I need some coffee, and I still have things to do before I meet Dell." She turned back to Gwen. "You will be at the symphony tonight, yes?"

The blonde smiled impishly at the older woman. "Oh, yes! Holiday tradition, you know."

"Good. Perhaps I’ll call your mother and invite her and your father to take supper with us afterwards. You two will join us, I hope."

Green eyes met blue, then broad shoulders shrugged and a dark head nodded in agreement. "We’d love to, Dei. Thanks for asking."

The woman nodded briskly then turned and walked out the door without another word, dragging Sal behind her still protesting. The two women still seated in the office sat silent and still until the words outside the door faded into nothing, then laughed.

"I’m sorry, Randi. I never thought he would come up with something like this," Gwen remarked when their chuckles had died down. "If it makes you feel uncomfortable, we won’t do it."

"You’d like too, though, wouldn’t you?" bluntly.

A small blush was its own answer, but the blonde gave a verbal one anyway. "Yes," almost in a whisper.

"Well, if that’s what you want, then we’ll do it."

"Randi, are you sure?"

"Will it make you happy?"


"Okay, then. Let’s go tell them."

So arrangements were made for the two women to be back at the studios two days later. They still had a couple more places to visit in the shopping district, and prepare for the symphony, so the pictures were going to have to wait.

It wan mid-afternoon when the two friends turned their footsteps toward Gwen’s home. The blonde woman had called a transport to deliver their many sundry packages, but both had declined the offer of a ride themselves. The unseasonable weather was too nice to pass up, especially with more snow predicted to start falling by nightfall.

They were almost out of the shopping district when a thought occurred to the bard. "Um, Randi?" she hesitated. She hated to put her friend on the spot, but would hate worse for her to be embarrassed later. So she took her courage in hand and plunged ahead. "Um, about tonight. . . I mean, do you. . . . ? Should we um, well. . . .?"

Randi took pity on her then, knowing Gwen was trying to save her humiliation. She grabbed a gloved hand and pulled the younger woman to a stop, turning Gwen to face her. "Thank you."

Green eyes looked at her in confusion. "For what?"


The eyes widened. "Oh." And she lowered her head a bit to conceal the blush.

"And to answer your question, I brought my dress blues. We talked about Festival traditions, remember? I wanted to make sure I had all my bases covered, just in case."

The Marine answered the dazzling smile she received with one of her own, and they continued their walk to the Goldman residence.

Several hours later, Randi stood in front of the mirror appraising her reflection. Been a while, she thought wryly. Dark, knee high boots, polished to a high sheen met sharply creased black trousers. The insignias on the collar of the high necked, mid-thigh black over tunic sparkled from their polishing. A bright white shirt peeked from the red piping around both the neck and wrist openings. A decorative sword hung from the black belt and down the left hip. On the left side of her chest she wore seventeen miniature medals, and on the right she had four ribbons. From her left epaulet hung numerous colored braids, indicating the different units she had seen action with., and there were enough of these that no one would notice or question the black with interwoven gold threads braid that marked her as a Black Sabre. She had debated for a long time while preparing whether to bother with all the medals and braids, as they invariably led to questions she had no desire to answer. However, protocol demanded it, and as a by-the-book Marine, Randi wore them proudly. Besides, it’s not like I have to answer anything I don’t want to. She smiled darkly into the mirror. Her raven hair had been tamed into a long sleek braid down the center of her back. She glanced at her watch and pulled on pristine white gloves. Wouldn’t do to be late. She scooped up hat and cape and left the room.

At almost the same instant, the door to the room across from hers opened and Gwen stepped out. They stood frozen for a timeless moment, then as if by mutual agreement, they stepped toward the stairs and walked down two floors to the first level living area where the senior Goldmans waited. Gillian Goldman drew in a breath at the stunning picture they made together as they paused momentarily on the threshold. No wonder Sal was so anxious to photograph them. He’ll die if he sees them like this! Complimenting Randi’s dashing but dark uniform, Gwen wore an emerald sheath dress, very simple, but very flattering. It left her shoulders bare, and had a slit up the left side from floor to hip. The jewelry was also simple, but elegant, consisting of an emerald and diamond bracelet, necklace and earrings. This particular set had been in her family for generations, an heirloom that went back farther than records. Blonde hair elegantly twisted up and off her neck, wisping gently at the nape.

"Ah, well then," spoke Geoffrey Goldman, breaking the tableau. "Are we ready to go? "

In answer, his wife picked up her overcoat from the sofa and handed it to him. Gwen turned to Randi.

"Would you mind?" offering the Marine her coat. Randi set her cloak and hat aside and took the coat, easing it onto and over Gwen’s arms. "Thanks." Then she retrieved the cape. "Your turn."

The Marine gently removed the cloak from the younger woman’s hands. "Trust me. It’s easier if I do

this." And she swirled it up and around over her shoulders to settle it there. Small hands batted hers away as Gwen fastened it for her. Then they all headed out the door to the awaiting transport.

It had been, Randi thought in wry amusement much later, quite an interesting evening. The Goldmans owned one of the more spacious boxes, and the Marine had been very comfortable with the privacy it afforded. The symphony had been pleasant as well, right until the first intermission, when Sal caught a glimpse of them standing together.

Blonde and brunette turned simultaneously at the gasp behind them, and watched in some consternation as Sal’s jaw literally swung from its hinges as he gazed unabashedly at them. "OH! Um,. . . I. . . uh. . . you. . . um, WOW!

Gwen felt the tall body beside her tense, and moved to intercept the man before he ruined their evening. Linking an arm through his, she steered him away from Randi, back to his box beside her own. Randi never heard what was said, but from the look on both faces, it couldn’t have been too bad. And the man had been kind enough to avoid staring at the two of them throughout supper. Not to say that he didn’t glance between them a lot, but his wife Carmen, as well as Dei and her partner Dell had managed to keep him from staring outright. Besides, he seemed to have trouble with eye contact, Randi thought wickedly to herself. She knew how to intimidate with just a look. But he had made an effort, and for that, they had agreed to bring those outfits with them to the shoot. Still, all in all it had been a very nice evening, and one that she would reflect on warmly for some time to come.

Randi was a bit startled by a light tapping on the door, as it was now very early morning. But she knew it could only be one of two people (as she really couldn’t see Geoffrey Goldman knocking at her bedroom door at *any* time), and called out softly, "Come in."

She tried hard not to laugh, as befitted a Marine, but she couldn’t contain the chuckle that bubbled forth at the sight of her friend. Gone was the glamourous woman from the symphony. In her place stood an enigma. . . a young woman in a lovely silk nightgown and matching robe, with ugly, thick army-issue wool socks on her feet.

"Don’t laugh," standing there with hands on her hips which just made Randi laugh that much harder. Then she caught a glance of herself in the mirror, decided she did look halfway funny, and joined the laughter. After a moment, they settled down, and Gwen sighed, "I haven’t laughed like that in a while."

"Gee, maybe you should let Rico do those photos of you like that. Then it would be handy when you needed a laugh."

"Oh yeah. You’re a real riot, gunny. Keep it up," mock punching the Marine’s shoulder.

"So what’s up?" Randi asked.

"Nothing. Just wanted to check on you."

A dark brow rose. "You my mom now?" said jokingly, but with a hint of the sadness that lay behind it.

"Nope," with a little grin. "Just a good hostess. Now you’ve got enough blankets, pillows,. . . . "

"Gwen, please. I’m very comfortable, and you have all made me feel so welcome here. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a place to spend the holidays."

"Well, we. . .*I* am glad you’re here."

"Ditto." A beat.

"Well, goodnight, then."

"Goodnight, Little One. Happy dreams."

"Happy dreams." And she shut the door softly and went back to her room across the hall.

Festival Day passed quietly, as it was supposed to do. A day for reflection and family, and the only quiet day in an otherwise boisterous week.

Early the next morning found the two friends at Bouviers. Randi was more then a little uncomfortable, but one look at the utter delight on Gwen’s face made her put her own questions and insecurities aside, and just try to go with the flow of things. So the two spent the morning smiling for Rico’s camera, stopping to change outfits occasionally, and for the necessary drink of water. Shortly before lunch, they came out of their respective dressing areas in their symphony attire. Time stood still again as they took measure of one another for a long moment, then ended at Sal’s exclamation.

"Wonderful! Simply magnificent!"

Rico nodded, but didn’t say a word as he positioned them carefully the way he wanted them. He took a whole roll of film of them like this, mostly together, but a few separates, as he needed some new shots of Gwen.

When they were finished, they changed back into street clothes, and stopped by Dei’s office. Rico had already gone into his developing room, and Sal was on a vid call with his wife.

"Are you two all booked up for the rest of festival week?" from Dei.

"No," answered the blonde. "We’re playing it by ear." A pause. "Why?"

"Can you come back tomorrow, to look at the proofs?"

A blank look from the Marine. This was all new to her, so she decided to let the bard take the lead. Gwen could see the confusion pass through her friend’s eyes. Excuse us, please a minute, Dei?" And they walked to the corner for a bit of privacy.

"She just wants us to come in and look at the pictures Rico took this morning, maybe pick out the ones we’d like to have. Some of them they’ll use for my bookings, and if we give them permission, some of them they will show to other potential clients. You can say no to that if it makes you uncomfortable, Randi," as the older woman started to flinch. "I think they mostly wanted to do the shoot just because we look good together." A small smile. "Why not wait to see how they turn out?"

A slight grin and a nod. "Sorry, Gwen. I know I’m being weird about this, but it’s all so new and different from what I’m used to."

"No worries, my friend. Though I can’t believe no one’s never tried to get you on film of any kind."

Randi didn’t say anything, as she thought of the reasons she avoided public exposure like this when she was still full-time active duty. She missed the rest of the conversation between the other two women, and was quite surprised to find herself outdoors with a pensive looking Gwen staring up into her face.

"You okay? You disappeared on me there for a minute."

"Hmm? Yeah, I’m fine. Just thinking about Festival is all."

"I thought Festival was supposed to put a smile on your face, not a frown, but that’s okay. By the end of the week, you’ll be too tired to care anyway."

A moan for sympathy rolled out from Randi’s chest, but the story teller wasn’t buying it for a minute. Not even the puppy dog eyes did her in. But when the lower lip started to edge out in a pout. . . "C’mon, you. Let’s go get some lunch and a bit of rest before the parade tonight."

Lunch the following day found Randi and the Goldmans sitting with the Bouvier siblings and their respective spouses. It was quite chaotic, and Randi found herself watching and listening around her in fascination, while not really participating. The pictures had turned out so much better than anticipated that Geoff and Gillian had been invited for the unveiling. They had been excited by the prospect, especially as they had seen very little of their daughter this trip. But they couldn’t begrudge the fact that she’d finally found someone she was comfortable enough with to not only call ‘friend’, but also invite into their home. So, the Marine took in the melee around her, amazed by the fact that everyone seemed to be part of everyone else’s conversation and was able to keep track of it all.

Finally, they all made it back to the studio. Sal actually twittered in excitement. When all parties had taken a seat, he walked over to the first wall, and without a word, dropped the tarp covering it. There was a gasp, then deafening silence. He walked to the second wall and did the same thing, to an almost identical response. When he got to the third wall, he hesitated. This was the one. . . well, nothing to do but show it to them, and get their reactions. He pulled off the covering, and moved to one side, anxious to see what they thought. Complete stillness, then the Marine rose slowly, and moved toward the wall. The bard stood and moved to stand next to her, and the spell was broken. Hushed whispers broke out among the remaining congregation, while the two subjects continued to gaze in awe at the almost life-sized replicas of themselves hanging on the wall.

It was the two of them in their formal attire, the dark of Randi’s dress blues accentuating the richness of color in Gwen’s dress. The blonde gave a hint of a smile, both in eyes and mouth, while the Marine wore a somber look befitting the uniform she wore. Blue eyes twinkled, however, and it made for a most charming picture. Surrounding this portrait were several smaller pictures, both of them together as well as individually.

"Wow," muttered the blonde. "Rico really outdid himself this time."

"I want this one," Randi stated bluntly.

Gwen looked at her, stunned. "This one? The life size?"


"You sure?"


"Ookkkaaaaayyy. I’ll go tell Sal."

Randi nodded her head , and resumed her seat. She chuckled as she watched the man’s reaction to Gwen’s news. First shock, then amazement, and finally resignation tinged with just a touch of consternation when he realized the bard was serious. It was the best picture of the lot, although in all honesty none of them were bad. And he could always have Rico do another one, though it wouldn’t be that big. Rico nearly killed him as it was for having to do it in the first place. So he nodded in reluctant agreement. He had already agreed to let Randi have what she wanted as a way to get her to participate fully.

Gwen, for her part, chose several for herself, including a smaller version of the one Randi got. She set the individuals of herself that she liked aside, putting them into Dei’s care until they were needed. The bard’s parents chose several as well, and everyone went back home contented.

Geoff noticed Randi’s empty hands, and commented, "Didn’t see anything you liked?"

"Hmm?" the brunette replied, having been distracted by the scenery passing swiftly outside the transport window. "Oh, yes, mine’s been shipped straight home, though."

"Oh, that makes sense, I guess. What did you get?"

"The life size."

"The life size?!? You mean that huge, formal. . . . "


He stared in awe at he for a moment, then his eyes twinkled, reminding her of her gentle best friend. "Nice choice."

"Yep." And she gave him a tiny grin.

On the day before Festival was over, Randi and Geoff found themselves alone together for the first time. Gwen and her mother were still preparing for the evening out. It was an enormous party, considered by many to be the social event of the year. The Marine was once again in her dress blues, having forgotten about this particular event, and not bringing anything else appropriate. Besides, I HATE having to dress up. Might as well be me. Good thing they have an outstanding laundry service, though. Her uniform had been washed and pressed to military crispness, and she had polished and shined medals, sword, and boots.

Geoff stood quite handsome in his high collared blue frock coat and pants. His white shirt peeked out as Randi’s did, and the buttons glistened in mute reflection of the firelight. He puttered around at the bar, offering the tall woman a drink, which she declined. He fixed himself a small shot of whiskey, then moved over to stand opposite of her at the fireplace.

"May I ask you something?"

Randi arched a brow in surprise. She and Geoff had shared many conversations in the past week with both Jill and Gwen on many varied subjects. They were agreed on most things, and when they disagreed, they had each stated their viewpoint and the reason for it and moved on. It had made for some lively and interesting exchanges. This was the first time, however, that he had actually asked permission to broach a subject. She had to wonder. Nevertheless, she nodded for him to proceed.

"I noticed you never discuss your military service, though you are very obviously highly decorated Marine. Why?" A pregnant pause in which she said nothing. "I recognize many of your medals and braids. You’ve had an extremely honorable career. . . . "

"PLEASE! Please, Geoff. If you recognize most of this stuff, you know why I am loathe to talk about it." A beat. "I am, however, still considered to be on active duty, and protocol demands I wear this for occasions like this." She shrugged her shoulders, unable to say more.

"Thank you."

"What for?" confused.

"Being honest. You could have said all kind of things, but you didn’t. I like an honest person with integrity. Thank you for being Gwen’s friend."

The woman chuckled. "She didn’t really give me a choice, sir. And it’s been my pleasure."

They sat in silence after that, each lost in their own thoughts. Geoff, wondering what painful secrets were wrapped up in the uniform sitting beside him. Randi, wishing she could have done things differently. The two put contemplation aside when Gillian and Gwen joined them, and the four of them headed out for a gala evening.

The party had been a rousing success, but now, the two women stood on the transport pads, hugging for all they were worth.

"I hate saying goodbye again," from the shorter of the pair.

"Ditto," from the raven haired half. "But I had a wonderful time this week. Thanks for inviting me up."

"Oh, you’re most welcome. In fact, even my folks made me promise to bring you back again," with a tiny, impish grin.

"They did, huh?" A genuine smile grace Randi’s face. "Funny, they told me to bring you home again soon." This garnered a full fledged laugh from both parties for a long minute before settling back into their rather morose thoughts.

"I’m gonna miss you."

"I’ll miss you too, Little One." A hesitation. "You’ll write, or. . . or call?"

"Every Sunday morning." Heartbeats of silence.

"Safe journey, my friend."

"You too, gunny."

And with a final brief squeeze, and a wave goodbye, the two friends parted company for the second

time. But they parted with the realization that they had lots of wonderful new memories, and a much stronger bond of friendship between them.



Gwen came back to herself quite suddenly, noticing for the first time that she was alone in an almost pitch dark room. She turned on a small table lamp, walked over to the fireplace, and flipped it on low. Then she snapped off the light, and sat on the couch, gazing up at the life-sized portrait hanging above the mantle board

for an incalculable length of time. Damn her. . . for never saying anything. And damn me. . . for being too blind to see what she said without words. And with this final thought, she passed into a deep, restless sleep.


Chapter IV

The bard woke up with a crick in her neck, and a stitch in her side from not having moved from the couch to sleep. Tears flooded her eyes as they lit on the picture staring back at her from the fireplace. It was still quite dark outside and a glance at the clock in the corner showed her she’d only been asleep for a couple hours. The blonde stood and stretched, easing the tension out of her back and neck. She stepped over to the fireplace to turn it off. It had always charmed her how Randi combined old and new technology. The only voice commands she used were for her security/comm systems, and they were interlinked with several other safeguards that would override the voice device if she so desired, which she did on many occasions.

Gwen looked around slowly, noting that the security system had been activated, then wearily climbed the stairs for the loft and stumbled into her bed. She lay there for more than an hour, tossing and turning, becoming more frustrated by the minute. Finally she gave up, and went and crawled in Randi’s big bed downstairs. It comforted her in her very soul, and she drifted away into a semi peaceful rest.

Dawn edged over the horizon a few hours later, and the blonde woman stirred reluctantly. Her body told her it needed more down time. . . her mind told her it was not going to happen. She sat up and ran her hands through her hair, letting out a big sigh as she made her way to the bathroom. Half an hour later, she was showered and dressed. A look in the mirror showed dark circles and lifeless eyes. Even though Randi had been gone for three months, the last two days had brought home one fact with startling clarity. She’s never coming back. Tears started to well up in the green eyes, and she quickly turned away from the mirror, and left the bathroom.

A trip to the kitchen, and she was fixing a cup of her favorite coffee. Randi’s too, she recalled, and with her first sip, her mind went back to the time they had discovered this particular blend together.



Her story telling across the waters had been very successful, and her run up north had been just as good. But Gwen was more than anxious for a break. It had been almost eight months since she’d seen Randi during the winter Festival, and she was looking forward to seeing her face to face again. They had spoken every week, and written almost everyday, but it just wasn’t the same. And both times they had hoped to get together, Randi had been mysteriously summoned out of town. At the last minute the first time, and days in advance, and through their scheduled time the second. I wish I knew why that happened, the bard grumbled to herself as she stood in her bedroom at her folks house packing for her trip. But she knew better than to even broach the subject. Some things were taboo, and best left alone for all concerned.

Tommy had been keeping an eye on Randi, who knew nothing of this surprise. She had been so disappointed, almost despondent, when the two previous visits had failed to come to fruition due to her own responsibilities. When Gwen contacted him privately to ask about coming down for a week, they decided to just let the story teller show up unannounced.

Randi, meanwhile, was having one of those days, just as she had been for the last couple weeks. The harder she tried, the worse things seemed to get. She was getting very frustrated, and Tommy’s cheerfulness was beginning to grate on her last nerve. Of course, she had no way of knowing that his bubbly enthusiasm was due to a certain blonde’s imminent arrival. She just knew when he told her to be at the transport hub at three o’clock to pick up a guest he was expecting, it was a mixed blessing. It wasn’t the first guest pick-up she’d done, and wouldn’t be the last, but she really wasn’t in the mood to be sociable, or even hospitable today. On the other hand, it got her away from people for a while, and she could dump this person back on Tommy post haste. It was then that she realized she had no clue who she was waiting for. Well, I’ll make sure they can find me, picking up the sign the read "Midas Enterprises", and walking out the door. She never even noticed Tommy standing in his doorway, looking for all the world like the cat who swallowed the canary.

"Now. Honey," Gillian said to her daughter before she boarded the shuttle, "you make sure you invite Randi back for Festival again, all right?"

"I will, Mama. Thank you."

"It’s been nice having you home for the last six months. I’m gonna miss you."

"I’ll miss you too, Mama. But we’ll keep in touch."

"You’d better," growled out her father. "Now give us a hug and kiss."

She did, to both of them, then picked up her bag. Her next contract made her a traveling bard, going to different military units and bases scattered throughout the planet. She’d been told to pack light, and was already practicing this skill on this short trip south. It was something new for someone used to being in the same place for months at a time. Even during her two year hitch in the military, she’d never moved. Being stationed at Army headquarters had its advantages, especially when you were the head honcho’s aide. So she boarded the transport full of excitement, and just a little trepidation, hoping nothing would stop her from seeing Randi’s smiling face this time.

When she stepped off the shuttle, she saw Randi’s face immediately, but it wasn’t smiling. Instead, it was looking quite bored and frustrated, while she held a sign saying, "Midas Enterprises." The Marine hadn’t seen her yet, and Gwen decided to take full advantage of her short stature. She mingled with the others leaving the transport, managing to sidle up behind the tall woman without her knowledge.

"Hey, good lookin’," she drawled. "Buy me a cup of coffee?"

The raven haired woman had frozen at the first sound, but whipped around at the second word, recognizing her friend’s voice. She stared in awe, then dropped her sign as Gwen dropped her bag, and they met halfway in a deep, soul-melding hug. It went on for minutes, each relishing the closeness they had missed in the last eight months.

Tommy turned away from his view screen with a delighted smile on his face. "Thanks, Nick. Appreciate you letting me see that."

"Anytime, my friend. It’s nice to see that kind of love and joy in the world."

"Yeah, it is." But he secretly wondered if the two women recognized it for what it was. Surely. . . . but he wasn’t going to ask. If they *didn’t* know, well, they were just going to have to figure it out for themselves.

People had filtered past them, leaving them alone in their embrace. After long minutes together, they finally pulled apart. "Oh, I needed that. I"ve missed you," from the woman whose blue eyes were suspiciously bright.

"Umm, me, too,"replied the woman whose green eyes were equally wet with another brief squeeze. It’s good to be back here, and it’s wonderful to be able to touch what I see."

"Ditto. What are you doing here? How long you here for? Any chance we can get together for a bit?" Questions just rolled off the older woman’s tongue, not even giving the bard a chance to answer. Randi only stopped when Gwen’s fingertips brushed her lips.

"I am here for a week to visit my best friend, but I’ll try to fit you in to what I’m sure will be a hectic schedule." she smiled impishly.

The look on the Marine’s face was priceless, and she grabbed the smaller woman up into another bone-crushing hug. The tears really fell this time when she loosened her hold. "Tommy knew?"

A nod. "Who do you think helped me set this up? Now c’mon. I really do need that cup of coffee."

Randi picked up the bag and much trampled sign, and held out her hand. Gwen grabbed it without hesitation, and they started to the transport Tommy had arranged. Scant minutes passed before Randi told the driver to stop. The "Golden Touch" was Ella’s restaurant, and though they weren’t opened, Randi knew Ella would be there with a cup for the two of them. Besides, she was sure Tommy had told his wife of his surprise visitor, and Ella would be expecting them to stop.

The Marine exited the vehicle, then reached a hand to help Gwen out. They walked to the door and rapped loudly, then Randi used her code key to get in. Ella came around the corner just as the two women crossed the threshold, and she opened her arms in welcome. Gwen gave her a very brief, though heartfelt hug, and Randi put an arm around her shoulder and kissed the top of her head.

"We stopped by for coffee," Randi said in her most pathetic voice with the saddest face she could muster under the circumstances.

"Uh, huh," came the droll reply. But she hustled off to retrieve the pot. Gwen and Randi busied themselves getting cups and condiments. When Ella returned, she was pushing a small cart with several carafes. "Well, since you’re here, you can be my guinea pigs. I have several new flavors, and I need some opinions."

The other two women looked at each other in startlement for a moment, then with graceful shrugs, began their taste testing. After a couple hours, not only had they ingested enough caffeine to keep them going for the week, they had created their own blend. Ella took note of it, and carried it from then on. It became her most popular coffee, and she made sure both women were kept with a supply of it.

They left the "Golden Touch" shortly before it opened for the evening meal, with a promise to Ella that they’d be back for a late dinner with she and Tommy. They made it to the island fairly quickly, and Randi had the driver stop so she could extend the bridge. It was the first safety feature she had installed. Eliminating easy access to the island eliminated a lot of problems. Tommy laughed at what he described as "military paranoia", but gave into her on the matter. She dismissed the driver as soon as they reached her home, opting to carry Gwen’s lone bag in herself. Randi unlocked the door and ushered Gwen inside, going quickly to the bank of security monitors, and watching the transport cross the bridge. When he reached land on the other side, she retracted the bridge. Gwen just watched in fascination.

"Wow! When? How? Why?" came the rapid-fire questions.

"C’mon," taking her friend by the arm and leading her up the stairs. "Let’s get you settled in, and then we’ll talk."

Gwen had done as she had promised earlier, only she didn’t *help* Randi shop. She simply shopped *for* her. Randi had told her to furnish the room the way she would like, as she’d more than likely be the only person to ever use it, and she took the Marine at her word. Now, lovely, old world, cherry wood furniture, so difficult to obtain in this day and age, stood gracing the room. Tall, four-poster, canopy bed, high boy, dresser with mirror and two night stands. The large armoire held a nice view screen, comm unit, and computer. The room itself had been somewhat plain, wall and flooring both done in a cool neutral gray. So the bedding and curtains reflected jewel tones. . . emerald, sapphire, and ruby. The two prints on the walls accented that as well. Altogether is was a comfortable, cozy place to be.

She put her bag down, and unpacked quickly. Randi couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a bit of teasing. "Traveling awfully light there, Little One. Last time, you had luggage piled up to here," raising her hand to her own eyebrow level.

The blonde stuck out her tongue. "Funny. Actually, I’ve gotta do this for the next six months. May as well get used to it now." She shrugged nonchalantly.

"Does it bother you?"

"No, not really. It does strike me as somewhat ironic that I’m traveling to military bases all over the world *after* my required service time. I never left the capital while I was *in* the military." Randi had to chuckle softly at the irony. "And I believe this will be good for me, as well as for those folks stuck so far away from home. Oh, and that reminds me," leaping to another subject before her friend could even think to make a comment. "Mama said to remind you you’re spending Festival with us."

A dark brow rose at the imperious word and tone, but her heart warmed at the thought of being part of Festival with these people who had opened heart and home to her. Not that Tommy and Ella hadn’t, but she’d known them forever. And T was family. She had been a virtual stranger when their door opened and invited her in to be a part of them. "Umm," was her only comment, as Gillian stayed in regular contact with her, and had already extended an invitation. . . twice.

"I’m going downstairs. I need some water after all that caffeine."

"Ooo, me too. I never realized how thirsty a person could get from drinking coffee."

They stepped out of the room, onto the balcony overlooking the living room, and Gwen froze. "Oh. . . my. . . sweet. . . " At this point her hand came up to cover her mouth, and she stood in awed silence. There, hung just above the mantle board, was the portrait Randi had gotten from Sal. Gwen was stupified. She hadn’t realized how impressive or how overwhelming it was. Now she simply gazed at it, until she felt her friend’s gentle tug on her hand. Her eyes flashed to Randi’s face, where blue eyes twinkled merrily at her. Then she looked back at the picture. Randi’s face. Portrait. Randi’s face. Then she shook her head amazedly, and allowed the raven haired woman to lead her down the stairs.

They sat down on the sofa, and Gwen looked at the picture again. "Wow," she finally whispered. She cleared her throat, hoping she could get a little more vocalization from her voice box than that. "That’s impressive." A little louder, but not much. "Um, why didn’t I notice that when we came in?"

"You were never actually facing toward it, except when you first walked in the door." The older woman pointed out where they had been standing facing the monitors, and the stairs, which led away from the picture. "It is most noticeable from the loft balcony or the couch," said with a teasing grin.

"Uh, huh," finally tearing her eyes away and looking into the blue sparkling ones nearby. "So," changing the subject again, "explain the bridge."

And she did, telling Gwen it was the first of several planned security measures for the island. That and the vid feeds had been taken care of, but there was plenty more to take care of here as well as at the studios. Gwen watched her expressive face as she talked, noting how passionate she was about her work and responsibility. Her study didn’t inhibit her mind or her listening skills, and she asked a few pointed questions that showed her thirst for knowledge. Randi had been careful not to be too technical, as it tended to get boring rather quickly, but Gwen’s inquiries required more in depth answers, and she was happy to explain. So time flew by as the Marine outlined her security plans for both the island and Midas Enterprises, and they realized they would need to get going soon to meet the Tommy Steeles for dinner.

It was at this point that Randi became aware of a small oversight on her part. When Tommy had sent her to the transport hub, she had taken the company vehicle. However, in her excitement, she’d had the man bring she and Gwen home, instead of returning to the Studios to pick up her personal transport first. So now she was stuck with a small dilemma.

"Um, Gwen? We’re gonna need to call for a transport."

"Huh? Why? Where’s yours?"

Randi looked at the ground a bit sheepishly. "At work. I uh. . . I um, well, I totally forgot about it. I was so amazed to see you, and I wanted to get here, and well, I just forgot."

"So, what’s the problem?"

"We’re gonna be really late. This is the busiest time of the night, it being Friday, and this is pretty out of the way."

"Hmm. I see your point. No other option?"

"Um, well, there are a couple, but" a slow flush started up her neck.


"But, one of them will still make us pretty late. The other one won’t."

"So, what exactly is the problem here? If we’ve got an option that won’t make us late, why are we even discussing this?" Gwen was mildly exasperated. She couldn’t see where this discussion was headed, if it was actually going any where at all.

"Because you said you were afraid of motorcycles."

The blonde’s face blanched. She didn’t know that much blood could completely leave a body, and have the body remain upright and conscious. Randi had shown off her pride and joy to Gwen early in their friendship, and had even offered to take the younger woman for a spin on it. But the bard had refused. The thought of riding out in the open like that was quite terrifying, and moving at those speeds. . . . she shook her head. The brunette had never offered again.

"Look, Gwen," the taller woman said, growing concerned at the pale complection and dazed look she was getting, "I’ll call Ella and explain things. Then I’ll ride the bike over and pick up the transport. Shouldn’t take but an hour. Hour and a half, tops."

"Randi, wait." She was touched by the other woman’s determination to make her comfortable. The Marine halted and turned to look at her. "You swear it’s safe?"

"It’s completely safe, Gwen, but. . . . "

"Nope," touching her fingers to Randi’s lips for the second time that day. "You have never lied to me, and you’ve always protected me." A pause. "I trust you."

"You’re sure?" A nod. And now her cheeks began to regain some color, as Randi’s excitement and enthusiasm became contagious. "All right, then. Put on some comfortable jeans, and change your shoes." A thought occurred. "You bring a jacket?" A jacket in the southern regions in August??? The bard shook her head negatively. "Okay then. I’ll give you one of mine. C’mon. Hurry up," shooing her toward the stairs. "We’re gonna be late if you don’t hustle." Gwen made a face, then raced for the stairs before Randi could react. The Marine just shook her raven head and went to clean up.

Ten minutes later, Gwen walked over to the garage that housed the bike. Randi was just removing the tarp, and the bard gasped at the strength and sleek beauty of the motorcycle. The soldier misunderstood, and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "It’s alright, Gwen. It only *looks* dangerous." Her eyes twinkled mischievously.

The blonde knew the tall woman was yanking her chain, but she was not about to explain her true reaction. So, she chose not to comment on either situation and just said, "Well, let’s go, then."

"Uh huh. Wait a minute," holding her back by her shirt. "You’ll need this," handing her a leather jacket, "and this," grabbing up a helmet. The dark headed woman walked over to the bike and straddled it, kicking up the stand and easing it over to Gwen. She contained a smile at the picture the story teller presented in a leather jacket that hung to her mid thigh, with sleeves rolled up once or twice. She was standing there with the most peculiar look on her face, and Randi was hard put to figure it out. It seemed oddly like a cross between anger and affection. "Gwen?"

"Randi," not looking at her friend, but rather the helmet she had been given, "was this planned?" Bitten off words let her anger dominate for the time being.

The Marine just looked at her blankly, confused. "Was *what* planned? I didn’t know you were coming til you got here, remember?"

The bard took a deep breath to calm herself. "Let me start over." She held up the helmet, personalized with her name on it. "Why do I have a helmet with my name on it? I mean it’s beautiful, but. . . ."

Suddenly comprehending, Randi looked down sadly. "I got it for you months ago, before I found out you were afraid to ride. It was going to be a surprise for our first ride together," quietly hurt.

Gwen felt horrible for her painfully incorrect assumption. "I’m sorry, Randi," she said simply. "I knew better. I know *you* better. I just. . . I just let my fear get the better of me." She put her arms around shoulders that for the first time were at a level with her own. "Please forgive me," whispered into the warm neck that helped cradle her head.

She felt long arms encircle her, and returned the hug gratefully. "I do, I should have thought. . . . "

"No," Gwen cut her off suddenly. "You did think. I was the one who spoke without thinking." A pause. "Thank you for taking such good care of me." A featherlike kiss brushed the top of her head in response. "Now, let’s go. I"m starving." She placed a chaste kiss on Randi’s cheek before pulling the helmet over her head. Then she took the Marine’s proffered hand, and mounted the bike behind her. The blonde heard the soft-spoken words in her ear, "Hold on", and eased her arms around her friend’s waist. A smooth purring and slight vibration was the only indication that the motorcycle was running.

"You ready?"

The younger woman started to nod, forgetting Randi couldn’t see her. She said plainly, "Yep." Her hold tighten convulsively as the bike started moving, and she put her head down on the sturdy back in front of her and decided to hang on tight and enjoy as much of the ride as she could.

Randi pulled up to her reserved spot by the front door, and shut the motor off. Then she turned toward her passenger as much as possible and said," Gwen? Hey, we’re here. You can let go now."

The blonde unlocked her grip, and sat up straight. Her hands were shaking slightly as she lifted them to the helmet. But the bright smile belied the shaking, and it was this that Randi responded to.

"Liked it, huh?" teasingly.

"Oh, yeah! Can we do that again?" Her excitement brought a knowing laugh to the Marine’s lips.

"Well, we’ll pretty well have to. It’s our way home."

"Awesome! That is just so much fun. And what a rush! I mean. . . ." The bard noticed she was babbling and tapered off. Her older friend said nothing, but kept the enigmatic smile in place as she propelled them in the door.

Dinner passed pleasantly. Their little group, though by no means loud or boisterous, garnered lots of attention. Laughter seemed to ring out steadily. At one point there was a lull, and Randy turned to her older cousin.

"Thanks, T. This was a really nice surprise."

"Don’t thank me. It was Gwen’s idea," he gestured to the woman sitting across from him. "I just agreed to keep it, and get you to the hub. But. . . . " He stopped, remembering his vow to let them figure things out for themselves. Randi, however wasn’t going to let him NOT finish.

"But what?"

He took a deep breath, and decided to go ahead. "But if I’d have known her visiting was going to make you this happy, I’d have made sure it happened long ago, and much more often."

The point went right by her without her even noticing there was one. "We have tried, T. It’s hard to get our schedules to mesh."

"That’s true, Tommy, " Gwen chimed in from her spot between Ella and the Marine. "But, six more months, and I’ll be back here on a much more permanent basis."

"And I for one will be very happy to have you back, dear," Ella assured her while patting her hand. "You are by far the *best* guinea pig I have ever had." The entire table erupted in laughter.

The restaurant had been closed for an hour or so when Randi made the decision to move. It wasn’t

that it wasn’t a lot of fun. It had in fact been a wonderful evening. Gwen was getting hard pressed to hold back her yawns, and they still had to get back on the bike. So the Marine reluctantly brought the evening to a close.

"Guys, it’s been fun, but we need to get going."

"So early?" from Tommy who was used to Randi going for hours longer.

"Yeah. We brought the bike, and. . . . "

She didn’t get to finish when Ella exclaimed, "Beauty, the AMAZON WARRIOR is here?"

"You named your motorcycle?" This from a very amused bard.

"Yes," the dark haired woman replied to Ella. "And no. She did," nodding toward her cousin’s wife in answer to Gwen’s inquiry.

The Steeles accompanied the two women outside to the bike. Ella raved over it, and Tommy rolled his eyes at Randi who was unstrapping their helmets. She just grinned back. It was something they heard every time the restauranteur saw the WARRIOR. The Marine handed her helmet to Gwen, then put on her own. Both women mounted the bike, and Randi started it while Ella still gushed. When the motorcycle was running, and she realized they were leaving, she sighed. "I got a little carried away again, didn’t I?"

Tommy enveloped his wife in a hug. "Yeah, a little," he smiled. "But I love you anyway."

They waved goodbye to their two friends, and watched until the motorcycle disappeared into the darkness of the night.

It was very quiet when they arrived back at the island, and they whispered goodnight to each other. Randi watched til Gwen was up the stairs and out of sight in her bedroom, then she turned and went into her own room. Within minutes, both women were sound asleep.

"Ya know, if you like the picture all that much, maybe you should get Sal to do one for you," came Randi’s voice from the kitchen. Gwen was leaning on the balcony railing, staring at the life sized portrait of herself and the Marine , as she had been doing for the better part of half an hour.

"Hmm?" bringing herself own of her daze, and starting down the stairs. "Oh, no. I already got one." She hesitated then went on. "Besides, Sal can’t make any more."

"Why’s that?" the brunette questioned, her mind only partly in the conversation. She was concentrating on getting breakfast to the plates.

"Well, I know how uncomfortable you were doing the pictures in the first place, and when Daddy mentioned something about you’re not wanting to discuss your military awards, I was reminded about how much you didn’t like to be questioned about them." She now had Randi’s full attention, blue eyes blazing into hers. "So, I went to Sal and told him I wanted all the prints and negatives and such from that part of the shoot."

"And he just *gave* them to you?" the Marine asked incredulously. "I find that hard to believe. Those were the best part of the shoot."

A tiny smile. "Well, he did take a bit of convincing, but I reminded him that the publicity photos were of me alone, and the rest were a favor to satisfy his aesthetic sense."

Randi snorted. "You didn’t!"

"Oh yes, I did. You’d think he’d know better than to argue with a bard." A chuckle. "Anyway, I told him if he wanted me to sign the release on the other pics, he was gonna have to give up the symphony ones. Otherwise, he’d end up with nothing."

"And he agreed?" The Marine was finding it hard to believe her luck. She had been so happy to do something for Gwen that made the blonde woman happy, that she had completely forgotten the trouble she could get into for flaunting her image across the known world in that way. It would have been different, of course, if it had been part of her cover, or even if she’d just gotten permission from the old man. Instead, she’d done it because Gwen asked her to, and now the same woman was inadvertently keeping her out of a shit load of trouble.

"He didn’t really have a choice," dryly, "though he was good natured about it. Said he wouldn’t even keep the one he had set aside for his private collection. Besides, Dei told him to do it. I’m one of their best clients, you know," said with a hint of embarrassment. "Doesn’t do to piss off the folks paying your meal ticket."

"Yeah, I know," handing the smaller woman a plate piled high with food. "I knew there was a reason I liked Dei. She always look out for you?"

"Pretty much. She always manages Sal, though." Both women chuckled. "Good thing too, the way he tends to get carried away." A pause. They’re all pretty nice people."

"Yep." And they settled down to eat.

The first three days they spent together on the beach, mostly. A little swimming, a bit of fishing and a lot of relaxing. They took long walks together, and spent the time catching up. Keeping in touch via emails and vid calls was nice, but it wasn’t the same as their hours of conversation about nothing and everything, with long stretches of comfortable silence thrown in for good measure.

On Tuesday, they decided to take a little jaunt up the coast of the mainland. Randi offered to take the transport, but Gwen decided she’d like to try the bike again. The Marine was happy to comply as it was her preferred method of recreational travel. After a two hour ride, they stopped at a historical venue that they had decided would make an interesting day trip. The fact that it was very close to a shopping district didn’t hurt, either. So they spent the better part of the morning visiting the museums and historical sites, and a better part of the afternoon shopping. Or rather, Gwen spent it shopping, oohing and ahhing over every little thing, to Randi’s mind. The older woman bore it bravely though, helping the bard carry her many packages. It was only when they sat down for tea that Randi decided to broach the subject that hand been troubling her.


"Thank you," the blonde said to their waitress, handing back their menus. "Yes?" looking back at her best friend. There were packages and bags stacked up on either side of their table. "What’s wrong?" a bit concerned by the worried furrow now creasing the brunette’s forehead.

"Nothing, really," smoothing long fingers over her eyes and face. "I’m just wondering how you planned to get this home," motioning to the purchases surrounding them. "They’re not exactly all going to fit on the bike, ya know."

Green eyes widened slightly, as though not having thought about that before, but they recovered almost immediately. "No problem. I needed to arrange to have them sent up north anyway. I’ll just arrange a transport while we’re here."

They both sat back as their tea and its accompanying delicacies were delivered to their table. The story teller had developed quite a fondness for afternoon tea while overseas, and it was a habit she was glad to rediscover here. Randi was happy to indulge this whim, thought it wasn’t something she’d ever tried before today. The Marine cast a critical eye at the tiny plate of food sitting in front of her, hoping this wasn’t supposed to pass for a meal. It wasn’t enough to fill her up, much less her precocious friend, but after a taste, she decided it would make a nice snack til they got back home.

Gwen had watched her stoic friend in some amusement, seeing her bemusement at the assortment of small sandwiches on her plate change to appreciation as she tasted the offerings.

"So, what do ya wanna do tomorrow?" taking a sip of the hot tea. She grimaced slightly, and added a bit more milk. Another sip, and she gave a small nod of approval.

"Well, I was thinking," sitting back as their server removed the now empty sandwich plates, and set down a scone with jam in front of each of them. "Can we go over to Midas? I can’t come here and not say hi to all the folks at the Guild, now, can I?"

The dark headed woman shrugged. "If that’s what you want to do, then that’s what we’ll do."

"You sure you don’t mind? I mean, you are supposed to be on vacation *away* from there."

"Gwen," seriously, blue eyes boring into green, "if it makes you happy, it’s *fine* with me. It’s not like I can’t get away whenever. You’re the one with the impossible schedule, ya know," said teasingly, but with an under lying of truth. They had tried to work their meetings around the bard’s breaks. Neither of them mentioned, however, that it had been Randi’s unscheduled business that had prevented them from getting together before now.

"Then it’s settled. We’ll go to Midas tomorrow."

They finished their scones, and the Marine sat back, wiping her lips and setting her napkin on the table. "Are we ready?"

"Nope," with a wicked grin. "And we’re not leaving til we get dessert!"

"Dessert? I thought this was a snack. It’s turning into a full fledged meal!"

"Nah. Just a very filling snack," said with a twinkle. "We’ve got a long ride back, you know."

"Hmm," was the noncommittal answer, but the tall woman slipped her napkin back on her lap.

At that moment, the waitress came around to their table, bearing a tray of some of the most interesting pastries and such Randi had ever seen. She chose a fruit tart with a chocolate covered strawberry on the side. Her companion also had a chocolate strawberry, and a mocha filled eclair swan. A lovely creation, but a bit difficult to eat gracefully. Finally the two sat back, comfortably satisfied, and ready to make the trek home. They asked the waitress for directions to the nearest shipping transport, which she happily provided. They picked up the assorted parcels, and leaving her a nice tip, headed down the block.

Twenty-five minutes later found them settled on the motorcycle, moving toward the island.

Wednesday morning found them up, but in no big rush to get to the studios. They planned to go over for lunch, knowing everyone would be in one place, namely the mess hall, and it would be much easier to meet and greet people that way. And having everyone together meant it wouldn’t take too long, and they could go to the beach for a couple hours in the afternoon. That was the plan, anyway. But like the best laid plans of mice and men. . . .

It was about fifteen minutes before the lunch bell was scheduled to ring, when Randi piloted the transport into a spot. Gwen had asked about bringing the bike, but the Marine was adamant about *not* riding it to Midas. "No way, Gwen," she had spouted. "You’ve seen how Ella is over it. And I’ve known a few of these guys since before I put the damned thing together. They think it gives them rights to touch and drool," not meanly, but a bit exasperated.

Gwen could only shake her head at the proprietary care Randi took of the bike and then thought, Why not? It is her baby, after all. But she didn’t say this. Aloud she said, "That’s fine. We can take another ride before I leave though, right?"

"We can take several," glad her friend had decided she like the bike. "As long as we don’t go to Midas," grinning.

They got out, and went straight to Tommy’s office.

"He in, Beth?" the raven head peered around the door.

"Yeah, Randi. Go on in."

She motioned her smaller companion to go first. The blonde woman put a finger to her lips, then hugged the assistant lightly. "Nice to see you, Beth."

"Nice to see you, too, Gwen. Ya’ll staying for lunch?"


"Good. Then I won’t ask any questions. I’m sure you’ll tell us everything you’ve been doing the last year. Just so you don’t have to say the same thing over and over again three hundred times," with an impish smile. The bard just smile at the other woman’s exaggeration.

The tall woman rapped twice at the inner door, then proceeded to open it, ushering her shorter friend through in front of her. The man behind the desk rose and moved from behind it when he caught sight of them.

"Randi? Gwen! Glad you decided to drop in and visit. I know the whole gang will be happy to see you. It’ll be such a surprise for everyone."

"No one knows I’m in town?" taken faintly aback by this knowledge.

"Well, if they do, they’ve kept really quiet about it. No whispers, rumors or questions have reached my ears, and I heard things both other times you were scheduled in."

"And you didn’t tell anybody?"

"Nope. I wasn’t sure when or if you would decide to stop by." He stopped, knowing better than to give anything else away to either of them. He could see it, Ella could see it. As far as he knew, everyone who knew the two of them could see the bond between them. They would discover it for themselves when they were ready to, and not a moment before. "So, let’s go get some lunch. I know a lot of people that will be wanting to talk to you."

The raven haired sentinel had stood silently through the entire exchange, and now shook her head solemnly as she close the door and followed behind her two friends. This excursion was starting to look more and more like a very bad idea.

Six hours later, they were finally pulling away from Midas Enterprises. The place had literally shut down at lunch, when the entire complex learned of Gwen’s visit. The first couple hours she had spent talking back and forth with folks, asking and answering questions, just getting reacquainted a bit. Then someone had asked for a story, then another and another, until finally, as her voice grew hoarse, Randi stepped up and called an end to the marathon session. They thought of grumbling, but a look into ice blue eyes, and a glance at the time sent those thoughts scurrying. Instead, each and every person in the room walked over to where the bard was sitting, and thanked her for sharing her wonderful stories, before they headed for home.

When the last one, save Tommy, had left, he turned to her. "Thank you, Gwen. I can’t remember when I’ve spent a more delightful afternoon. It’ll be worth the hell we’ll pay the rest of the week making up for it."

He smiled at her. She smiled back.

"Remember that when you’re cursing my name next week, all right?"

He chuckled. "Don’t forget we have a date for dinner with you two Saturday night. Now ya’ll get on out of here so I can lock up."

It was silent in the transport, and the bard was a bit loathe to break it. Finally, though, she couldn’t stand the quiet and blurted out, "You’re not mad, are you?"

Randi looked over at her with a small smile. "Nah. Should I be? I was just being quiet so you wouldn’t talk, and could give your poor throat a rest. Figure it needed one after all that." A beat. "Those were really nice stories, by the way."

The younger woman blushed at the unexpected praise. "Thanks."

The next two days passed far swifter than either woman wanted. The time for them to part was drawing nearer and nearer, and time seemed to lend wings to its feet the way it slipped by them so rapidly. When Saturday came, Randi got out the bike, and they rode all day. Never going anywhere, just riding together. They stopped and had lunch at a little roadside stand with some of the best barbeque either woman had ever tasted. There was no real conversation between them. They were simply content to be, and savored the feeling of being together.

Dinner with Tommy and Ella was by contrast, very lively. The man told stories of Randi’s growing up--- nothing truly embarrassing, but "cute" stories that made her blush nonetheless. To ease her discomfort in the spotlight, Gwen and Ella both offered up stories of their own, and the Marine managed to get a couple in on Tommy as well. All in all, it was relaxing, entertaining and a whole lot of fun. Something they would each look back on with warm thoughts.

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, as had the rest of the days proceeding them, but the mood at the beach house was somber. It was almost time for another goodbye, and neither woman was prepared to face this grizzly task yet. So they sat on the deck watching the sunrise together. And afterwards had tried to share breakfast, though very little got eaten, as food was pushed around on the plates more than anything else. Finally, it was time to leave for the transport hub.

"Last ride on the bike?" offered Randi. With the bard carrying such a small bag, it wouldn’t be a problem.

"Could we?"

"Sure. Get your stuff."

It wasn’t a long ride to the hub, certainly much shorter than they wanted it to be. The Marine parked the motorcycle, and moved to stand.

"No. please," Gwen requested, laying a hand on Randi’s shoulder. "Please let’s just say goodbye here."

"But. . . ."

"Please. . . ." The pleading look in the blonde’s eyes was enough to sway the older woman. "I want. . . I don’t know what I want. I am making such a mess of this. Some bard, huh?"

"Gwen, it’s okay. We can say goodbye here if it makes you more comfortable."

"There is never any comfort for me in saying goodbye to you, Randi."

"For me either. But this is the last time, right? Next time you come this way, you will be coming to stay," said with the tiniest of grins.

"That is certainly my game plan," with a slightly larger smile.

The two were quiet for a while, not sure what to said that hadn’t already been said. It began to grow a touch awkward, and Randi was the one to break it.

"Do you know where you’ll be going?" for lack of anything truly clever to say. They’d talked about this several times, but Gwen answered gamely, "East. Apparently, I’ll make a circuit around the world. They are sending me east, and I will continue to head east."

"I wish they had given you some sort of set schedule, so I would at least know where you were."

"Miranda Valiant! You of all people know the military better than that!" With just a hint of teasing in the tone. "Don’t worry. I will still vid call you every single Sunday, and email you as often as possible. I have my own comm units, ya know."

"I know. I’m just a little worried about you doing a military tour like this. There are some really nasty places where some of these bases are."

"All the more reason for the Guild to send artists and entertainers in for the troops, then isn’t there?" She chuckled. "I am probably the only person who went on overseas duty *after* doing their entire two year hitch in one spot. I never left the capital once." The Marine laughed softly with her. "It’ll be good for me. You’ll see." A pause. "And think of all the new stories I will be able to tell."

They heard Gwen’s shuttle number being called. "That’s me. I’d better go." She picked up her bag.

They embraced for a long moment, then separated. "I’ll miss you, Little One."

"I’ll miss you too, gunny." Then she walked away without turning back, unable to face the tears in Randi’s eyes, and unwilling to let her see the tears in her own.


Chapter V

The shuttle landed with barely a whisper of sound at the military hub which was Gwen’s first stop on this new assignment she was contracted for. Though the city was familiar, it being where she had been a mere year ago, the base was an entity unto itself, and new and unfamiliar territory to her. This was actually a new experience for all involved. It had been a very long time since civilians were allowed on any military facility for any reason. She was the first, and the results of this little experiment would have far reaching results, determining whether the rules might ever change.

She had, of course, endured many security checks and tests to get here. Still, she would never be unaccompanied on any base, and from necessity, her next scheduled venue would be revealed to her only before she headed out. She felt all the security precautions a bit bizarre, having never endured such measures during her active service. Of course, I never left the capital, either. Wonder if Randi had to go through this sort of scrutiny a lot. Thoughts of her best friend brought a smile to her lips. It would be something they would have to talk about when she got back. Though she wouldn’t always be allowed to reveal her location to Randi via the vid phone, they had agreed to give her the access she needed to make her calls.

The bard settled into a fairly predictable routine. Fridays were her traveling days, a somewhat ironic anomaly, since she rarely moved more than three hours from her previous location. She told stories for four days, then was given off Saturdays and Sundays where she was allowed off the base, under guard, to sightsee and mingle with other civilians. She found the guard, which were put into place for her protection more than anything, a bit too restrictive for her comfort. She understood that no one wanted to jeopardize this test project on their watch, and she rarely left the confines of any base she visited. In return, they did try to give her as much leeway as they could at each facility she stopped at, which was not always an easy thing. She had become very popular, both for her wonderful stories, and her friendly, but reserved demeanor.

More than once she thought of inviting her protective best friend over to take care of some of her more zealous admirers, knowing from experience the Marine could give them a keen understanding of what was appropriate and acceptable behaviour. Her erstwhile protectors did their best, but she sometimes longed for the days she spent at Midas when she and Randi could go out on the town, and she never worried about people bothering her. It had only happened once, and word of the Marine putting a man who wouldn’t take "no" for an answer in traction (almost unheard of in this day of relatively instant cure) spread so far and so fast, she had not been approached again. For the most part, though, the miliary personnel she dealt with were friendly, respectful, and appreciative of her literary talent. Those that weren’t she did her best to ignore.

For ten weeks she spoke with Randi every Sunday, regaling her with some of the more humourous incidents that occurred to her and those around her during the previous week. On the eleventh Sunday, there was no answer, and she realized Randi had disappeared yet again. She was disappointed the rest of the day, having looked forward to the call all week, as she always did. It occurred to her again what a strange, almost double life the older woman seemed to lead, and the bard wondered what the real story was. Knowing she would never know the truth until and unless Randi herself decided to reveal it, she sat down to compose and email to her companion instead.

Dear Randi, it read, I can’t tell you much about this new location, as usual <g>, but

I would like to say it is hotter than blazes here. It’s a good thing scientists cured

the common cold fifty years ago, or all this hot, cold, hot, cold stuff would keep me

in the infirmary, instead of on stage entertaining the troops.

The people here have been very friendly, but I find myself counting the days til I

return home. Not that I don’t think these personnel don’t deserve the best

diversions we can give them. Some of these outposts and bases are so lonely and

desolate. And I do give them all my very best effort, and they generally seem glad

for it. But it’s not a life I would have chosen, and I find myself wondering how you

stood ten years of it.

Monday morning, Gwen was given the grand tour, as she had on every other installation so far. There were, of course, places that were restricted or completely off limits, but she still got to see quite a bit of the facility, and meet lots of new faces. It was after lunch, and well into the afternoon before she was back in her temporary quarters. She fell asleep, quite exhausted from the unaccustomed heat, and only awakened scant minutes before she was due to start her storytelling. She took a quick, cold shower to wake herself, and was only ten minutes late to the gathering place. She apologized for her tardiness, feeling somewhat better when the commanding officer apologized right back for keeping her out in the heat. She thanked him, then began her first tale.

Tuesday found her visiting the sick and injured in the hospital, as well as those who cared for them. They had been unable to hear her the night before, and the blonde woman was more than happy to bring her stories to them. And they enjoyed the time she spent with them.

The following day, a Wednesday, she took a bit of time to do some shopping at the Post Exchange. She was trying to collect a small memento from each base she visited. Most of the units she went to gave her a patch or pin, but she also liked to choose a few things of her own. She was garnering quite a collection of mugs that would soon have to be shipped home, due to their added weight in her bag and the room they were taking up.

So she stopped by the mail room after her shopping was finished, to inquire about transporting her things overseas. The bard made arrangements to have the shipping materials delivered to her quarters, then readied the items for shipping. After all her packing was finished, Gwen took the somewhat heavy box back to the mail room. On her way across the compound, she stopped, staring, as a woman striding away from her rapidly got her attention. The box started to slip from her grasp, and she looked down to catch it. When it was safely restored in her hold, she looked up again, to find the woman gone. Odd, she thought, that woman reminded me of Randi. Same build, same posture, same confident walk. Huh. The heat must be bothering me more than I thought.

The blonde shook her head, and entered the mail room. It took only a couple minutes to make her arrangements, before she headed across the camp to the mess hall. She didn’t see anyone there who resembled the woman she *thought* she saw that reminded her of her Marine friend. She put those thoughts aside as she concentrated on the serious business of eating lunch.

The remainder of the day passed quickly, out of the heat, and just before sundown, the bard made her way to the auditorium. She knew she was going in early, but she wanted to watch the people entering. She did this at least once at every stop, usually on Thursday, to gauge the interest levels and enthusiasm of her audience. It helped her to learn how she was doing in relating things that caught their attention and intrigued them. The thought that her best friend had somehow shown up on this restricted base made her do this a day early. But her watching was in vain, for she never saw what her eyes insisted she had seen. So she put her best into her stories, and put those troubling thoughts away.

For the next two Sundays, Gwen’s attempts to contact Randi were for naught. Her emails went unanswered as well. She thought briefly of contacting Tommy, but knew the man wouldn’t have any knowledge of the Marine’s location. When Randi disappeared like this, it was as if she had walked off the face of the planet. That in and of itself was extremely odd. For more than a hundred years, sensor devices were implanted in the skin at birth. This allowed for instantaneous tracking anywhere in the world. If you knew the right answers to the right questions, you could find anyone. Tracking sensors had cut crime dramatically, and had made parents feel safer about their children. But somehow, somehow, Randi had managed to find a way around this technology. And there was no trace of her at all, as if she didn’t actually exist.

Gwen had reached a place in her travels that marked almost the midway point. She was restricted to the military compound only, as there was terrible unrest in the area. It was impossible to find out what was really happening. She only knew that the whole base was on edge, and this put her on edge as well. The stress and the extreme heat where giving the blonde woman a terrible headache. She went to the infirmary, where the medic gave her a shot of pain reliever, and gave her a space to rest under her watchful eye. Through the rest of the morning and the better part of the afternoon she slept, startled a bit when the young woman on duty shook her arm lightly.

"Ma’am?" A pause, until bleary green eyes focused on her. "It’s about an hour until sundown. I thought you might want a bit of time to get ready before your performance tonight."

"Sundown?" Gwen questioned with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, ma’am. The commander said your tour could wait til tomorrow. You needed the rest." A beat, then,"How’s your head?"

"Much better, thank you. I’m just a little embarrassed. I didn’t expect to sleep all day."

"Don’t feel bad, ma’am. You’re moving on a pretty tough schedule, and this heat takes a bit of adjustment. It affects everyone to some degree at first."

"Really?" sitting up now, and running her fingers through her long locks, thinking to herself that a serious haircut might be in order soon, if she didn’t get out of the heat.

"Oh, yes ma’am," the corpsman was answering her forgotten question. "Some folks get lethargic, some get headaches like you did. Still others get sick to their stomachs. It all depends on the person, but it does affect everyone in some way."

"How about you?"

"Me, ma’am?" A chuckle. "I threw up for three days."

"Ooooo," Gwen grimaced. "I guess I got off fairly easy then."

"Yes ma’am. Just listen to your body, and take it easy for a while. You’ll adjust just fine."

"Thank you, Corpsman Mannack. I hope to see you in the audience later."

A wry grin crossed the woman’s face. "No ma’am, not tonight. Twenty-four hour duty, you know. But I will be there at least once before you leave. I got to see you perform up north about a year ago, and I’ve been a big fan ever since."

Gwen was never sure what to say to these confessions, and simply answered, "I’ll look forward to seeing you again then." And with that, she left the clinic.

A nice cool, shower, and she was ready. She brought her favorite sweater, one Randi had given her for Festival the year before, with her, knowing that when the sun finally set the temperature would fall rapidly. By the time she made her way over to the gathering place, quite a crowd had already assembled. They were in the dining, hall, the biggest building on the base, and all the tables had been removed. Row after row of chairs had been filled, and soldiers stood five deep in the back waiting for a chance to hear this renowned bard. For a moment, Gwen was overcome by a sense of awe and humility. She determined to make them glad they had made the effort to welcome her so heartily.

After two hours of non stop story telling, the bard decided it was time for a break. No one had eaten since the noon meal, and she for one was a bit hungry. When she finished and called for an intermission, the men and women of her audience groaned, unwilling to let her stop her telling. She assured them all she would be back after the break, that they all needed something to eat.

The kitchen had been putting out the most incredible scents during the entire performance, but strangely, not one person moved when the blonde left the stage area. When she came back thirty minutes later, no one had eaten. Perplexed, she asked the commander, who was seated off to one side.

"You see, Ms. Goldman, no one wanted to give up their seat, or their standing spot either, for that matter. This is one of the toughest bases to serve at because of the constant skirmishes by people who don’t like the way the world is being run for whatever reason. We are almost constantly on alert. You are the first non military diversion we’ve seen, and though the tour here is only a year, it can get very, very long. So no one wants to miss the opportunity to escape with your stories, and no one in his right mind would give up his place, knowing there are people behind him willing to take it."

"Oh, I see." Gwen furrowed her brow in thought for a moment. She couldn’t be the cause of these servicepeople not eating. Nor did she think it was fair that they have to fight so hard for simple entertainment. She could see by the expressions in the sea of faces looking towards her, that they considered this a definite treat. This was one of the hot spots, one of the foremost threats to continuing world peace, and the folks stationed here were front line fighters. Surely they shouldn’t have to fight each other as well for a little bit of escape.

"Commander, can we move this outside, so *everybody* can participate, a place where everyone can hear?"

He looked at her a bit startled. "Yes, ma’am!" he answered her suggestion. "The reason we are indoors at all is for your comfort. It gets very cold in the desert at night."

"Yes, Commander, I am aware of that fact and I came prepared. Please ask your people to move outside, and take their dinner with them. I think we would all be a lot happier with this arrangement."

The man did as she asked, and his troops replied with whoops and hollers of agreement. Within an hour, everyone had been served and was seated in some form or fashion outside on the practice field. Gwen stood on a hastily thrown together platform, illuminated by small fires to either side. She looked out over her audience, which had doubled in size with the move, and felt better within herself, even as a small shiver chased its way up her spine. She was thankful for the small wireless mic, as soldiers stretched to the tree line. They had managed to set up so that everyone could see. Those in front sat Indian style, legs crossed, after several rows of this people knelt. Behind the kneelers, came those with chairs, and in the very back stood the ones remaining. For two hours and more she regaled them with tales, giving them a respite from their harsh, real world existence. Toward the end, she caught a pair of ice blue eyes, staring at her from the tree line. She faltered for a moment, dropping her eyes to the ground, then recovered her poise and finished the story. When she looked back up, they were gone.

The next day, true to his word, the base commander took her around the facility. She searched each and every unit for those familiar blue eyes, but she didn’t see anything even close. She began to think the heat had really, finally gotten to her, making her hallucinate. The man beside her noticed her intense scrutiny of his personnel, but asked no questions, and offered no explanations. He had learned years ago never to volunteer.

The bard kept her eyes opened for the rest of the week, trying to find proof that it had not been her imagination playing tricks on her. But she never caught another glimpse of those eyes, and she did not see the familiar silhouette. So she put it out of her thoughts, finally, as a simple trick induced by a mind that had succumbed to the heat of this place and exhaustion of her trip.

The weeks rolled by, and she was once again talking to Randi on the vid phone. Several times it was on the tip of her tongue to ask where the older woman had been, and each time Gwen bit it back. It would only serve to put a wedge between them, and drive her friend away. It was hard enough to maintain and cultivate their friendship over time and distance like this as it was. She was not going to add another burden to it. They were now both counting the days until Festival.

Unlike their first Festival together the preceding year, there was no way for them to be together on this holiday. Jill and Geoff had invited Randi up north to spend the time with them, and Randi in turn had invited them down to celebrate with she, Tommy and Ella. They had accepted with alacrity, wanting to know more about the people Gwen had opened her life to and called friend. They were especially curious to learn more about her enigmatic best friend. Miranda Valiant was a very reticent woman, and they felt they had barely begun to scratch the surface in getting to know her. And they felt she might be more approachable in her own setting surrounded by family and friends of her own. So Randi was looking forward to , with more than a little trepidation, welcoming her friend’s parents into her home. And Gwen wasn’t looking towards spending her first Festival holiday away from family and friends.

Buck up, Goldman. You’re twenty-six years old. That makes you a big girl, and big girls can handle this. But for some reason, this little pep talk didn’t help. She was really becoming quite depressed over the whole situation, having never missed a Festival with her folks. Then she got to thinking, and looking at the service men and women around her, and realized they were all in the same boat. And a lot of them were far worse off than she was, since they were just starting two year rotations away from home. And once she realized this, it didn’t take long for her drop the gloom and doom facade, and start counting her blessings. She would still get to talk to them sometime during the holidays, and if her luck held, with Randi as well. Though it wasn’t the same as face to face, it was a way for them to still be together.

Festival Eve brought the mail transport, several of them in fact. Loaded down with gifts and goodies for all the military personnel. Gwen was amazed when she heard her own name being called to pick up a care package. She went to her quarters, and laughed and cried with joy as she opened the box, delighting in each and every little thing that had been sent. Lots of trinkets, simple reminders of the friends she had at Midas. From her folks, two new outfits, in deference to an earlier complaint of her being tired of being stuck wearing the same thing day in and day out. Tommy and Ella sent some lovely new music. But Randi. . . Randi couped them all. Remembering the many times Gwen had fondly recalled the stories read to her from a leather bound journal while sitting on her Great-grandmother’s lap, the Marine had gone out and had one made specially for her. It even came with the old fashioned writing utensil known as a pen. She was so excited. There were so may stories she wanted to write down as her ancestors before her had done. First though, she had to figure out how the whole ‘pen’ idea worked.

Festival dawned drearily at the base, for besides being bitterly cold, the skies poured forth an icy slush that made going outside utterly miserable. However, it was the only way to get to the specially constructed building for the celebration, so Gwen bundled up, and trudged over as quickly as she safely could. After the incident in the southern camp, and knowing the harshness of the usual weather during the bard’s proposed visit, the base commander had had his engineers design and build a shelter large enough to house the entire compound, but easy to assemble and remove. What they had come up with was ugly, to be generous, but it served its purpose very well. It was warm and dry, and would hold each and every member of the outpost.

When Gwen crossed the threshold, someone immediately thrust a warm cup of. . .something. . . into her hands. She gingerly took a sip, unsure of what she had been given, then smiled as the warm buttered rum slipped easily down her throat. It wouldn’t do to drink too many of these, but it was perfect for warming her, and taking the chill that had settled, right out of her bones.

Festival was very different here than anything she had ever experienced at home. For one thing, these people came from all over the world, and each had a heritage that contributed different facets to the celebration. According to what she could perceive, no two Festivals were ever the same, in any of these outlying military bases. Any of the places that were seen as hardship tours rotated personnel in and out regularly, and there was never the same ethnic, tribal or religious mix twice. For another, due to the fact that this was a hardship location, and the people who served here were expected to remain on alert regardless of the holiday, Festival itself only lasted for the day of Festival, and not for the traditional week afterwards. So she was determined to make the most of the day.

There was music and dancing in the morning hours, until it was time for the luncheon feast. Laughter and merriment from the dance floor carried over to the table. Many had asked her to dance, but the bard laughingly refused, reminding them all that she was a storyteller, not a dancer. She did enjoy watching though, especially as there were several entertaining dance contests. Lunch was wonderful, the dishes offered reflecting the different heritages abounding at the base. After the meal, giving everyone a chance to digest before the indoor games started, each person rose and told something about their Festival celebration, and a reason they were thankful.

She slipped out as the games began, wanting to be undisturbed during her vid call to her parents. It was very early morning there, but they should still be awake, having just recently returned from their after symphony supper. She waited for long moments for someone, anyone to pick up her call, but finally resigned herself to the knowledge that there was no one home to do so. A little disappointed with her lack of success, she vowed to try again late that evening, after she called Randi.

The blonde made her way back to the large building, and lost track of the time as she became immersed in the games. She was quite surprised when the contests slowed and the stopped as food was once again brought out to be served. The evening meal passed very comfortably, the many participants pleasantly tired from the days activities, They settled down into quiet when she rose shortly after dinner to begin her story telling. And for two hours and more she held them in the palm of her hand, enthralling them with tales of heroes and fantasy, myth and legend. When the evening ended, they stood and applauded with a rousing cheer that made the building itself shake and rattle. It was only as they left, in fact that they were reminded of their harsh reality. But nothing. . .not the weather, not their location, nor the lack of loved ones. . .could dampen the enthusiasm or renewal they had found within themselves today. And it would be enough to get them through the rest of the winter.

Very, very late that night, Gwen put in her call to Randi’s. She hoped the Marine was home. She missed not having talked to her parents, and didn’t want the same thing to happen with her friend. That would be just too depressing. So she sat, quietly, waiting for the brunette to pick up the link. She was about to give up when. . . .

"Hello, Gwen. Happy Festival," came the low voice of her friend.

"Hi, Randi. Happy Festival to you too," The blonde couldn’t help the tears. This reminded her so much of home and how very much she missed everyone. Suddenly she hated the fact that despite world peace there were still people that threatened it enough that required a military presence to keep the peace intact. She had never realized, during her own required service, that so many ended up away from home and family during their two years, had never quite understood how very lucky she had been. . . until now.

"Tears?" the low, vibrant voice broke into her thoughts. "Well, I had a surprise for you, but if you’re going to be that way. . . ." Randi trailed off, knowing Gwen well enough to know that that would get her attention and pique her curiosity enough to stop whatever memories had started the tears falling.

The blonde woman had to smile through the tears, and wiped the traces of wet off her cheeks. "Okay," she sniffed, "I’m ready for my surprise."

"You sure?" A pause. "I don’t know. . . anybody who cries on Festival. . . . "

Gwen looked at her watch, noticing it was just past midnight where she was. "Hey, Festival’s over here. Now," trying to be menacing and failing miserably, "Give. Me. My. Surprise!" she growled.

The dark haired woman chuckled at her feistiness. "All right. All right. Hang on a minute, will ya?" And she put the woman on hold, leaving her staring at a view of the ocean from the beach house. It didn’t take but a minute, and the visual came back up, but now Gwen was facing, not only Randi, but Tommy, Ella, and most surprisingly, her parents. The tears really started flowing now, as happiness warmed her through and through. This was one surprise she had never anticipated. The better part of an hour passed while they all talked, sharing love and laughter over the miles. When the time came to say goodbye, they each took a turn to speak to her privately. Most of them went rather quickly, her father taking only a moment longer than the two who went before him. Jill took a bit longer.

"How are you REALLY doing, baby girl?"

"I’m fine, Mother. Just a little lonely, but this did wonders for me."

"Then I’m glad we came down here this year." A beat. "I like your friends here, Gwen. These are very nice people, and I’m glad to have gotten the chance to get to know them all a little better. I don’t know if it matters to you, since you are an adult, but I’m gonna say it anyway. I approve of you coming down here to live and work, and I’m glad you have such good company to do it in. I’m proud of you and the decisions you have made for yourself."

"Thank you, Mother. It means a lot."

"I love you, baby girl. See you in a couple months,"

"I love you too, Mother."

Jill walked away, leaving Randi and Gwen in privacy to say their goodbyes. They simply looked at each other for a long moment in silence, then the Marine said softly, "I miss you, Little One."

"I miss you too, gunny. I, um, I got something for you for Festival, but you’ll have to wait until I get back before I can give it to you. I’m a little leery of sending it by transport."

Randi was a tiny bit intrigued, wondering what wouldn’t be safe on a transport, but all she said was, "Come home safely. That will be present enough."

"You sweet talker, you," with a glowing smile and a touch of banter in her tone. "Thank you for the journal, my friend," more seriously now. "I hope to have my first story written in it by the time I get home."

An eyebrow rose before the reality set in. Of course, handwriting is an outdated skill. The only reason I know how is because of the Sabres. "I’m sure you’ll do fine," was all she said.

Silence for another long minute as they gazed at each other again, unable to speak, and unwilling to say goodbye. Finally, the tall woman said softly, "I’d better let you go. I know it’s late where you are, and you need to go get some sleep." A nod answered her. "Take care, my friend. Be safe."

There was no audible answer from the blonde, who simply touched her fingertips to her lips and raised them in farewell. She severed the connection without another word.

The next seven weeks passed in a blur for the bard. She was moving back into a warmer climate again, which she was more than a little thankful for. She had found she much preferred the warm to the cold, although she’d rather not have to deal with desert heat again. At each stop, the military personnel made her feel welcome, and each time she gave them her best. But she found herself wishing time would pass faster, as she was anxious to get home. She had friends, steady work, and, at the very least, a new beginning.

Finally, the day came when her military contract was finished, and she boarded the shuttle for home. She was so excited she could hardly sit still. Fortunately by this point, she had circuited the world and was fairly close to her destination. The shuttle stopped and she allowed her fellow passengers to disembark in front of her. She exited calmly, looking for her tall, raven haired best friend. When her gaze rested on Tommy’s apologetic face, depression settled on her shoulders like a cloak. Randi’s gone again. Damn!

"Hi, Gwen," with a small hug. "Welcome home."

"Thanks, Tommy. When did she leave?"

"Yesterday morning. Just left a message that she couldn’t pick you up." A pause. "I’m sorry." And he was sorry too, because Randi hadn’t said anything else, and hadn’t given him a chance to ask any questions. And since he knew better than to assume with her, Gwen wouldn’t be staying at the beach house. He had already engaged a room for her. If he didn’t hear from Randi in a week, that penthouse hotel room would be her penthouse apartment for the next year if Gwen wanted it that way. She needed a place to call home, and since Randi wasn’t around to offer her one, it was up to him to see she was provided for.

"I’m sorry, too. Let’s go." And she followed him to the transport. This homecoming had been nothing like she’d expected. . . or hoped.

For six very long weeks, not a thing was heard from or about Randi. Then she heard from Tommy that Randi was back, and still it was another two weeks before she saw her around Midas. She got the feeling Randi was avoiding her, and was determined to put a stop to it immediately if not sooner. She wasn’t going to lose her best friend to whatever mystery had her in its pocket.



"Hindsight really is twenty-twenty, isn’t it, my friend?" Gwen said, realizing for the first time that her coffee had grown cold while she had stood there reminiscing. She reheated it, then cursed herself for making it too hot. "So much would have changed, so much I would have done differently, if only. . . . " She let her words taper off, as her mind wandered back to the same course of events told by Randi as she had read them two nights prior in the Marine’s diary.



Randi left the hub, riding along aimlessly for several hours. She was thankful, right then, for the conversions she had done to the bike’s engine when she was rebuilding it. It could run for years on one fuel tablet. But she always kept a spare with her, just in case. It was a habit her Papa had instilled very early on. Better to be safe than sorry, Randi. You never know what the future holds.

Boy, Papa, she thought to herself, you weren’t kidding. By mid-afternoon, she was extending the bridge to cross back onto the island, which she did with alacrity. She parked the bike in its special place in the garage, wiping it down gently to remove the dirt and dust. By the time that was done, the engine had cooled sufficiently, and she pulled the tarp over it. Still she resisted entering the house, and instead walked around the back toward the beach to sit and watch the sunset. Only when the sky changed from red to purple, then to black did she get up and go into the house. Without turning on a light, she merely reset the alarm, and went straight to her room, where she stripped off her clothes, and fell into bed.

The next morning, she went into work, determined to stay busy to help the time pass faster. In addition to Midas, she had taken on several other clients to improve their security issues. Midas and the island were still her top priorities, but she was glad to spend time helping out some of the local businesses. Many of them were owned by old friends or their parents, who remembered her fondly from her childhood. A lot of these people had dealings with Midas for one reason or another, and she had been slowly renewing old acquaintances and friendships.

Besides Joey and Maria, who were part of the Merchants Guild, tailors in fact, she also saw Chin Lo, and his partner Tony. Both men were in the Masons Guild, one a brick smith, the other a woodcarver. They were at Midas on a regular basis, constructing various scenes and such for the Guild, though her schedule did not bring her into contact with them often. Still they always managed to pass the time pleasantly, in small talk and reminiscing.

It was on a break from their respective labors, that they spotted Randi crossing the hall, and called out to her to join them. She did so, curiosity getting the better of her. CL and Tony had been a couple years ahead of her in school, though they had played together in a couple band classes.

"Hey Randi, you got a minute?"

She ambled over to where they were sitting. She had been on her way out, but since she wasn’t on any schedule, and not really in a hurry, she sat down with them.

"Hi, guys. What’s up?"

Now that the moment was here, Chin Lo was not quite as sure. But he decided to ask anyway. The worst she could say is no. He tried not to think about what she could do. The Marine meanwhile studied them, wondering at their sudden apprehension. She had no idea of the imposing figure she cut, especially when she was not smiling. Joey had been right, the short man mused. She had definitely changed. The quiet, lighthearted girl they had known could not be found at all in the strong, enigmatic woman who now sat before them.

"Well, we’ve been talking, dickering back and forth for a while now. . . Do you by any chance still play?"

At her blank expression, he elaborated. "The drums, Randi. Do you still play the drums?"

Her face cleared, and broke into the first real smile he had seen from her since her return eighteen months prior. "CL, I don’t think I ‘ve touched a stick in almost twelve years." A small chuckle. "I don’t think it’s something you forget, though. Why?"

"We, some of the guys and I have been talking, and we’d like to get together and see if any of us can still play. We need a drummer."

"I see." It wasn’t the enthusiastic response they had been hoping for, but she didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand, either. That was a good sign. A breath. "What brought all this up, and why come to me?" Direct questions, honest curiosity.

"I dunno. Maybe just the fact that we’re all having a middle aged crisis," He smiled nervously at her raised eyebrow. "Not you, necessarily, I mean. . . I didn’t. . . ah, shit!" He finished, realizing he was digging himself into a very deep hole.

"What he means to say is," Tony cut in, "is that we, and Joey have been talking about getting together to play, just for a bit of fun and relaxation. There are a couple guys here that would like to jam for a bit, and we thought maybe you might be interested as well. Besides," he admitted honestly, "You’re the only drummer we know," with a sheepish smile.

"Uh huh," as understanding dawned in her eyes. "Well," she said, "I’ll tell you what. You get Joey and these other guys together, and let me know when and where we’re gonna play. I’ll sit in on a session or two, and if I like what I hear, then you’ve got yourselves a drummer."

"Really?" from CL.

"Really," Randi answered. It’ll be nice to play again. I miss it sometimes. I gotta run," she said, rising from her seat. "Let me know. I need to go get some drums. See ya, guys." And she left without another word.

"Cool, " said Tony. "Wait til Joey hears."

It took a couple weeks to get everyone together. Randi had been busy working on several business projects, as well as securing a new set of drums. Even if things didn’t work out as far as playing with a band, she had decided she wanted to have them, just for herself. She hadn’t told Gwen about them in either vid call she’d received from her best friend so far. She wanted them, and the band if things worked out, to be a surprise for the bard when she came home.

Joey had offered his home as a place to practice, and that’s where they all met that Friday night after work. It wasn’t a bad set up, but his garage area was very close to the house. Maria wasn’t particularly thrilled about this when it came time to put their seven year old daughter to bed. It was hard enough to convince the child she needed to go to bed without the distraction of this *band* being in her very own back yard.

Amazingly enough, for being as rusty as they all claimed to be, they didn’t sound halfway bad. They were good enough that they all decided to brush up a little at home over the weekend, and try it again the following Friday night.

Randi went home that night, pleasantly exhausted, but glad to have made some new friends, and get better reacquainted with some old ones. Joey, whom she had actually grown up with, played keyboards, and actually had a very nice tenor voice. CL was the bass guitarist, while Tony handled the sound.. That thought made the Marine pause, wondering why he did not do it for a living. Probably enjoys it as a hobby. And he’s an expert woodcarver. He had actually done some of the woodwork in her home, and she absolutely loved it. She had met three new friends as well. Two of them, Jack Smith and Charlie Turret , worked for Midas. The third, Greg Mason, worked with Tony and CL. He was a roofer. Jack played lead guitar; Charlie played second and rhythm guitars. Both men did vocals, one as a baritone, the other as a bass. Greg was the catch all man. He played synthesizer and also sang baritone, but he was also called upon to play guitar on occasion. He professed a knowledge of the drums, two brass and a woodwind, though it was untested as of yet. His job would be the most taxing, and the most varied, as he would be expected to fill in many parts.

Strangely, no one had asked Randi about singing, and she for one was not about to volunteer herself. She figured they had more than enough parts between the men. And she had learned very early in her Sabre career never to volunteer any information. All things are eventually revealed in their own good time. So she spent the better part of her weekend working up callouses on hands that hadn’t held a drumstick for more than a decade.

Tommy noticed the blisters when she came over that Sunday afternoon for lunch. He was immediately concerned.

"Randi, you okay?"

"Fine. Boss. Why do you ask?"

He took hold of one of her hands gently, wincing in sympathy when she flinched.

"Oh," answering his unspoken question. "Just trying to break my hands in again."

"Uh, huh. Break them in to what, exactly?"

And she told him. . . about the band, and the guys, and practicing. Her cousin eyed her closely, noting with some amusement that this was the most excited he had seen in her (aside from when she and Gwen were together) since she had written him telling about the first time she had seen the bard in concert. It had been her excitement, in fact, that had led him to hiring the story teller initially.

The next six Friday nights, they spent practicing at Tony and CL’s place, which had a nice clear open space, no kids, and no close neighbors to disturb. It was perfect right until the thunder started rumbling overhead on the Friday nine weeks after Gwen had left. It took all of them, but they got the equipment in and under cover, just as the deluge broke. By now, it had become traditional for all the spouses and significant others of the band members to come and socialize during practice. They suggested music, socialized, and just generally had a good time. Tommy and Ella came along when they could, and as fate would have it they were there that evening. After scurrying around with the others to help get everything in out of the rain, Tommy made a proposal to the group.

"I would like to suggest a more permanent place for ya’ll to practice." All eyes turned to him, interested. "I’d like to put up a building out on the island for you." Now those eyes grew round with surprise. "I think with some serious work, you could do really well. And even if you just want to play, I’d feel better about ya’ll having a place under cover."

"Tommy, could I have a word with you?" He knew this would happen the minute the idea occurred to him. "T, what are you thinking? Do you really want all these people to have access to your privacy?"

"Randi, take a deep breath, okay? It’ll be fine. I’ll put it up on my side, but far enough away from the house that the noise won’t interfere with our lives. And it will be up to us to extend the bridge. None of them will have the code. Besides, you’ve vetted all these folks, and you know they are good people." He took a breath. "Take a step back from the military and security angle, my friend, and you’ll see what a good idea this is."

"We could just practice in my garage," she replied, surprising him.

"No, not with your schedule unpredictability." No other reference was ever made to her disappearances. "I can keep an eye on things at my place. And it will make me feel a little part. You know I’ve never been able to carry a tune in a bucket."

She chuckled, remembering the few times he had tried to be musical. The temple choir master had actually asked him *NOT* to sing during choir.

"Okay, T. I just hope you realize what you’re getting yourself , and Ella, into."

Practice together was suspended while the building was being erected. That was just as well for Randi, as on the second Thursday after the storm she got an alert from Sabre headquarters. It occurred to her in passing that she would probably miss Gwen’s call on Sunday, and there was absolutely no way to let her friend know. Sometimes, I wish. . . But she had been informed, upon being designated for the Sabre program, that it was a lifetime commitment. Gotta love today’s military. . . not only do you get placed in an assignment best suited to your talents and skills, they are some jobs that you’d actually have to die for to get out of. And the Black Sabres was the most impossible program to get out of. Even those no longer on active duty in the military, and there were few of these on the team, were still pressed into service when the need arose. With increasing frequency, it seemed to Randi. For every threat they squashed, two more rose to take its place. Her mind went back almost twelve years prior, when she was freshly out of boot camp, and being sent to her first "A" school.

Starched and pressed in her graduation uniform, the young PFC looked down

in confusion at the orders she held in her hands. The numerous physical,

emotional and psychological tests she had endured through her twelve weeks

of basic training had all pointed to one assignment. Her class standing,

leadership abilities, and the fact that she had earned a life saving medal

during boot camp, had merely been icing on the cake, indicating to her

superior officers that she was an exemplary Sabre candidate.

So now, instead of a standard deployment, she would be sent to numerous

schools during the course of the next six months, ensuring she would be

more than capable of handling the challenging role Fate, and her abilities,

had given her.

The young Marine learned many things over the course of those six months,

not the least of which was just how much torture and humiliation the human

body is capable of enduring.

She learned many useful skills, as well, and when she was issued her black

and gold braid, Randi was sure that being part of the elite Black Sabre

force was indeed her destiny.

She grabbed up her ever ready duffle bag, and took out her armour. And her mind returned to that first assignment after graduating Sabre school.

It had been amazingly easy, she realized upon later reflection. The fact

that the people who died by her hand, and those of her team, were human

beings, never really entered into her thoughts. Instead, she focused on

the fact that the rebels that had been put down like the dogs they were,

had been a threat to a world peace, and deserved what they had gotten

and more. It wouldn’t be until much later, and many more assignments,

that the Marine became world weary of the whole business.

Randi came back to herself with a start, and a little shake, realizing she had dressed and armed herself while lost in her own private reverie. She knew any further reminiscing would have to wait, as she was expected at her personal shuttle pad immediately. She did question her wisdom in dragging up old memories now, and had to wonder what had brought it about. Then her mind turned to the present and immediate future. She had a job to do.

Technology had become at once both a boon and a bane to mankind. Lots of scientific and medical advancements, smart weapons, instant communications. For those involved in covert operations, however, it became much more difficult. Comm equipment and trackers were death warrants, because they were so easily traced. So while they were out in the bush, they were on their own, until they could get to a settled base to relay information and requests.

It was on this mission, almost a week into it, that Randi was sent to the nearest base camp to make a report. She slipped into the comm center, sent her message, and slipped out again, not once having been seen by the soldiers stationed there. She never realized that she was spotted by a pair of familiar green eyes that were certain they were seeing things in the heat of the afternoon sun.

Twelve days passed, and found Randi and her team stumbling in to the nearby base that was some two hundred miles from the base the Marine had snuck into previously. They had lost two of their own this time, and were all exhausted by the blood and death and sheer physical output of the past nineteen days. Things were more settled, though the base would have to maintain an alert status. The Sabres, however, had done their job for this trip, and just wanted to clean up and go home. It was time to mourn and bury their fallen comrades.

The base commander, while he released them from duty, would not give them permission to leave. Something was brewing, though he wouldn’t say what, and he wanted them to stick around. He did, however, give them private hot showers, that the Sabres availed themselves to with abandon. Then he gave them each a comfortable bed to sleep in for a while. After having being out with barely an hour’s sleep at a stretch, each of the five members from Randi’s unit fell to sleep immediately.

It was just dark when they were roused, though they could have each slept straight through with no problem. This was the reason the commander had kept them, however, and they knew they had to take care of this task before heading home.

The "task" he had for them, however, was not what they were expecting. They weren’t required to be elite Black Sabres, being sent out again, but simply common soldiers and marines sharing a meal and some entertainment together. It was the sight of said entertainment that made Randi’s breath catch. She hadn’t realized where Gwen was on her tour, and seeing everyone leaving the mess hall carrying their dinner to come outside so all could participate was typical of Gwen’s actions. She smiled to herself when she saw her friend wearing the sweater the Marine had given her. She debated with herself hard and fast while people were getting settled outside about the wisdom in staying to hear the bard weave her tales. Randi decided the reward would be more than worth the risk, and settled in the back near the tree line.

She sat entranced as for two hours, the storyteller brought fantasy to life and made reality fade into nothingness. It was only when those penetrating green eyes caught hers, and the blonde faltered in her delivery that the dark haired woman came crashing back to Earth with a jolt. Suddenly realizing the precarious situation she found herself in, she quickly returned to her temporary quarters, determined to be gone before first light.

It didn’t take much doing. A well placed word to the base commander, who was himself a Black Sabre. Those who stayed in the military for more than ten years were rare, but when they did, they provided an especially safe haven for the men and women who did the dirty work the Sabres took care of. It worked out well for both parties. It gave the lifers a chance to grow older with their friends and families, and it gave those still doing Sabre service a place to relax before, for most of them, being thrust back into the real world of civilian life. No one ever mentioned the fact that these bases were always the most dangerous assignments. That was an accepted fact. You lived as a Sabre, you died as a Sabre. It was not a matter of "if", but "when".

So shortly before dawn, a single transport with its lone passenger took flight, heading out of the base. The dark haired Marine sat quietly, cursing whatever fate had brought her to this particular place and time. Letting her mind drift, she thought back to when this life had changed for her. . . no longer a righteous champion for the greater good, but a pawn whose sworn duty and honor left a trail of blood and death in her wake. A pawn who was tired in the depths of her very soul.

Four years into her required ten year Sabre commitment, and a little

more than three years since she’d earned her braid, Miranda Valiant

found herself in the capital to receive one of the Corps highest awards,

and take a bit of R&R. Her comrades watched as she was given the

medal by the Commandant of the Corps personally, then whisked her

away to hear the latest entertainment sensation. She wanted to scoff

when she saw the petite blonde woman in an Army private’s uniform.

But then her attention was caught and held captive as the little storyteller

wove a spell of words. All her carefully laid plans for her R&R flew out

the window. Instead, every night found her listening, entranced, to the

young woman who could transport her audience into the realms created

from her imagination. The Marine never ventured to meet the young bard,

but held her stories in a corner of her heart. She did have to tell her

cousin about the experience. She knew he, of all people, could appreciate

a spellbinding tale weaver. Three years passed, and each mission was

beginning to wear on her heart and mind. The Marine was torn between

how she’d begun to feel, and what she knew was right. She was still one

of the best Sabres in the elite team’s history, but. . . but. . . . And if she

let herself think and feel this way too long, bad things would start to

happen. She needed to get her focus back, before the wrong people

started dying. So when she heard that the golden haired bard she had

been so enamoured of was in the area, she asked for the time off to go

hear the young bard. For three nights, the Marine sat and listened, her

soul thrilling to the feeding the storyteller gave it. And when she left,

though she was no more convinced of the rightness of her mission any

longer than she had been before she arrived, she felt ready to do her

duty once again.....with honour, and to the best of her almost limitless

capabilities. She did write to Tommy again, advising him to hire the

storyteller. It was one of the few times she advised him in any way on

how business at Midas was done.

And one of the best things you’ve ever done, Randi thought to herself as the shuttle landed without a sound back at the pad on the island. I just hope. . . she let the thought trail off as she exited the shuttle and made her way into her silent home, never looking back when the pilot lifted off as soundlessly as he’d arrived.

By the time Randi was ready to face the world again, it was Friday. Tommy was kind enough to let her know that the practice stage was ready, and the guys were all coming over to play. She had missed the rehearsal the week before, and though she really wasn’t ready for the boisterousness the fellas all exhibited at these get togethers, she* was * ready for some company besides her own. So for reasons which later eluded her, she got out her bike and rode it over to Tommy’s place early. Ella had invited her for dinner.

Things were set up and ready to go, and with a few minutes to spare after the sumptuous meal she had been fed, Randi wandered over to her drums. She sat down to warm up a bit, and before she knew it, the entire band was playing with her, following her lead. It was a good way to start practice, and had made for a fun evening. When the time came to call it an evening, though, she was instantly reminded of her lack of judgement in riding the bike.

"Oh, Man!"

"Wow! Nice bike!"

"Fine machine!"

"Check the wheels!"

"Ooo, hot ride, babe!"

The drummer just rolled her eyes. Typical machoisms rolled from lips of most of the men present. Only Joey and Tommy remained silent, knowing how Randi felt about the ogling. She went home shortly thereafter, having left them all speechless when she lost all patience and growled at them. The men had grown used to her aloofness, but were somewhat taken aback by her reaction, nevertheless. They quickly turned their attention, and their questions, to Tommy.

The next few weeks went by rapidly. The weather cooled off considerably, and attention was turned toward the upcoming Festival holiday. Randi was somewhat glad of this fact. Tommy had evidently given the guys the lowdown on the motorcycle, and their questions and comments had become more respectful and awe filled. Now, though, they all wanted to build their own, and considered her their answer man but with the holidays fast approaching, their interest turned toward merrymaking instead. The Marine was thankful for the respite.

The Goldmans had been in touch several times since Gwen had left on her military tour, and each time they had reminded her of her standing invitation to share Festival with them. Finally, she bit the bullet, inviting them to visit her instead. She was both surprised and relieved, and maybe just a touch terrified, when they accepted her proposal. When their message arrived agreeing, she immediately went to Ella for help. If the woman was shocked by Randi’s actions, she never let it show. Instead, she got down to business, and helped her plan a nice holiday for all of them.

It fell to Randi to pick Geoff and Jill up from the hub. She greeted them cordially, and led them to the larger transport Tommy had arranged. When they stopped to let the bridge extend, Jill broke the silence.

"This is remarkable. . . and so different from home."

"Well, I’m glad ya’ll decided to join us for the holiday. I, uh. . . I’m glad for the chance to um, show you around, and let you meet some of the folks here." It was one of the longer sentences either Goldman parent had heard the tall woman utter.

"Thank you for inviting us, dear. We are looking forward to meeting the people Gwen will be living and working with, her friends." Geoff nodded in agreement, but remained silent.

The remainder of the ride was brief, and they exited the transport where Randi immediately ushered them into the house. Geoff and Jill stood awestruck, staring in mute fascination at the gorgeous vista outside the glass wall. The brunette brought their bags in, and motioned them up the stairs. "This is Gwen’s room, when she visits," she stated. "She did the decorating, so you should both be comfortable." She stopped outside the door, motioning them to enter ahead of her. When Geoff turned to retrieve the bags, his mouth dropped open and he froze. Jill noticed, and came back to stand beside him, only then noticing what had captivated his gaze.

"Oh. My. God." Was all she said, but her eyes and his were riveted to the life size portrait that filled one wall. Randi stood there blushing, badly, though for what reason she couldn’t fathom. Finally she set the bags down outside the room, and headed back down the stairs without another word. Suddenly it occurred to her that this might not be such a great idea after all.

Ten minutes passed before the Goldmans, who had freshened up, exited their room and stood staring in awe once again at the huge picture covering one wall. Not realizing how their actions were being interpreted by the hostess, their gazes remained locked on the picture until the stairwell removed it from sight. The Marine, unsure of the reaction, simply opened the French door and walked out onto the deck, leading them outside. She was committed to a week of their company. She didn’t want to make them uncomfortable at the outset. Jill unknowingly put her mind at rest.

"That portrait is magnificent, my dear. Simply stunning. I had forgotten how well the two of you look together. And the wall," she continued without giving Randi a chance to speak, "it looks as if it were made for it. Absolutely beautiful."

"Thank you, Mrs. Goldman. . . Jill," she corrected herself when the woman held up a hand.

"Thank you for inviting us for the holiday, Randi. It is very lovely here. I think this is the first time since my time in the military that I haven’t been in snow, or at least frigid temperatures for Festival. How about you, love?" she inquired of the man who had wrapped his arms around her comfortably.

He snorted. "I nearly froze both Festival holidays I spent in the Navy. Do you know how cold it gets out on the water in winter?" Randi just chuckled and turned her eyes pointedly to the ocean spread in front of her. The Goldmans joined her in laughter.

She offered them a drink, which they accepted, and they moved the tete-a-tete inside the house. Shortly thereafter, they left to meet Tommy and Ella for dinner.

The following day, a Friday, they went to Midas. Geoff had made arrangements for a complete tour with Tommy the night before, and Jill went along to humour him. That evening , they all went to band practice. Jill was having quite a good time, and even convinced Tony to dance with her at one point. This got the others interested in it, and by night’s end, they were all happy, but exhausted. Tommy and Randi built up a campfire, and they all sat around afterwards eating and drinking and telling tales of past Festivals. They each contributed something different to the traditions. It was a very relaxing way to spend the evening.

Saturday dawned, and Jill was up with the birds. Ella had extended an invitation to go shopping before the evening parade, and the older woman had been glad to take her up on it. Randi had offered to go with them, as a courtesy, but both women could see her heart wasn’t really in it. Besides, Geoff had gotten wind of her motorcycle, and was looking forward to inspecting it. . . and possibly even coaxing a ride out of the tall brunette. So shortly after breakfast, Ella stopped by to pick up Jill, and Tommy and Geoff wandered over to the workshop with Randi.

The two men found they had a lot in common, and were quite comfortable in one another’s company. And it wasn’t long before the two of them were deeply involved in conversation. Randi joined in periodically, but mostly was content to listen. Geoff did get his ride, though he was glad to do so sitting behind Randi. Tommy made it clear she was only making an exception for him because of Gwen. And he was glad to respect her wishes of being the one to drive. Truth to tell, he was more comfortable with her driving. It had been years since he’d ridden a bike. But this was definitely giving him some ideas for retirement.

The parade was, in marked contrast to the symphony they usually attended, a boisterous and crowded affair. Tommy had box seats above street level, which helped alleviate some of the crush, but still allowed them to experience the full parade event. They went home laughing.

"Would either of you like to attend Temple with me this morning?" The Marine was sitting at a sunrise breakfast with the Goldmans when she quietly posed the question. Though caught completely by surprise, Jill answered quickly in the affirmative.

"We’d love to, dear." Geoff nodded his silent agreement. The more he got to know this stoic, complex woman, the more he found to like and admire about her. In short order, they were ready to go, and Tommy and Ella stopped by to pick them up in their large transport. The service was short, but poignant, and they all returned to Randi’s home in respectful silence. Then their attention quickly turned to getting the meal together. Dinner was almost ready to put on the table, when the vid phone chimed for attention. Randi went to answer it. At the Marine’s signal, they all gathered around to chat and laugh with Gwen. By the end of the hour, Randi could see the sparkle returning to her friend’s eyes. She had been a bit concerned by what she had seen when Gwen first popped up on her monitor. But this virtual gathering appeared to be helping immensely, and the Marine was glad. The storyteller was doing an untold amount of good, and she hated to know it was adversely affecting her.

When they said goodbye, they kept it brief. Even before the comm link was severed, they were counting the days until Gwen would be home to stay.

The next few days were easy for Randi, as Tommy took over the entertaining of the Goldmans. He invited them out on his boat for a mini-cruise and some fishing. Randi declined to go, since there really wasn’t room for her on his small cruiser. After three days, they came back tanned and ready for the big end of Festival blowout party. It was a smashing success, and Geoff and Jill were glad for the chance to say goodbye to all the new friends they had made on this visit. They were now much more comfortable about their daughter’s choice to move so far away. It was good to know there were people here who cared for and about her, and who would look after her.

Randi took the Goldmans back to the shuttle hub the following morning.

"Thank you for having us, dear. We had a wonderful time, and it was so nice to meet so many of Gwen’s friends here. You’ve helped put this old woman’s mind at ease about her only child." She reached up and gave the Marine a firm hug. Startled, Randi reciprocated, squeezing gently.

"I’m glad you could come. Ya’ll are always more than welcome." Both Geoff and Jill knew what that invitation cost Randi. Though she had been a gracious and attentive hostess, it was plain to both of them that she wasn’t an especially social person, and having company around constantly was very hard for her. So they accepted the words for the importance they actually held.

Now Geoff stepped forward, and also gave the dark haired woman a hug. "That works both ways, you know," he said softly as they pulled apart. "You are always welcome in our home."

She nodded, then stepped back to allow them to board. Then she waved goodbye, and left the terminal.

The days seemed interminably slow in their passing. Finally, though, the last weeks’ countdown was begun. Everyone caught the excitement of having the blonde woman back again. She had made many friends, and though none of them were as happy as Randi about her return, they were all gearing up to welcome her home.

The day before Gwen’s scheduled arrival, Randi got a page. For the very first time, the Marine came perilously close to mutiny, but duty and honor won out once again. She grabbed her armour, and gear, throwing them on the bed. Randi dressed, and was adding her weapons when she remembered to call Tommy. A quick message left on his vid machine, and she finished her preparation and walked out the door, slamming it shut in her anger. There was no way she would ever be able to make this up to Gwen, or herself.


Chapter VI

The thought of Gwen became a mere footnote in her memory by the time she reached the shuttle pad. Long practice allowed her to put all personal concerns aside, and focus on the upcoming mission instead. The transport landed silently, and the doors whispered open long enough for her to climb aboard. The pilot handed her a report pad without a word, and lifted off as soon as the doors were firmly shut.

Technology was indeed a help and a hindrance these days, especially to the special forces community of the military. When world peace had finally been achieved, more than a hundred years previous, people had breathed a sigh of relief that a military force would no longer be necessary. This, of course, had been a major error in judgement, and had almost killed the peace before the ink was dry on the paper the agreement was written on. People found out very quickly that there would always be some who were not content unless they were stirring up the shit for everyone else to step in. So it was decided, then that there would be a world wide military, mixing race, religion, and creed. This actually went a long way to helping secure the peace. By learning that former "enemies" were human beings much like themselves, with the same needs and desires, many found a way to work out the petty differences that had been formed through ignorance. But there were always some who could not see past their own hatred and prejudice.

Unfortunately, these groups tended to be at least as well equipped as the military force, and most of their number was far more committed to their cause than the average military member was to his. The mandatory two year conscription into the military ensured the necessary numbers, but did not guarantee the quality of the recruits. Most did their best to their duty, but the commitment to sacrifice for that duty seemed to be missing from their makeup. And from this need, the Black Sabre unit was born.

The Black Sabres were formed from the elite forces of all branches of service, and contained a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They were trained in a multitude of both offensive and defensive tactics, and served to control , if not eliminate threats. Their biggest problem was it was nearly impossible for them to use much modern technology. By very bloody error, it was discovered that the tracers the rest of the world had could be turned against them, as well as all communications equipment. So once they went in on a call, they were virtually out of contact until *they* initiated it, which never happened until the job was done. This meant days or even weeks in which the teams disappeared completely.

Now, Randi sat back and reviewed the mission notes the pilot had handed her. This trip was truly going to be a bitch.

It didn’t take very long, before the shuttle landed at the rendezvous point. Randi and her eight fellow teammates moved as one down into the bunker for their briefing. Sabres were a very interesting group. All told there were about one hundred worldwide that could be pulled for a mission at any given time. Of these, less than half were actually active duty. Most of them served their ten year commitment, then resumed a real life in the civilian sector that was put on hold when they were needed. A few remained in the ranks until retirement, serving in the hazardous areas as ranking officers. Many of the Sabres were specialists, and were only called upon occasionally when a need arose for their particular expertise. But a small group were gifted, utilizing several skills, and making them the elite among the elite, and the most called upon for special duty. Randi had always been extremely proud to be part of this tiny sect of Sabres, until today. Today, she wished she were simply ordinary. . . not a Black Sabre, and certainly not the best of the best.

Without really contemplating the reasons for that thought, Randi took her seat and waited for the mission briefing to begin. It was very similar to the last several meetings she had sat through. The rebels had become rather clever in concealing themselves and it was much harder and took much longer to find them. The person they were (still) after had been chased for years across every continent and ocean. It was suspected that she was the rebel leader, but she was too slick for them to catch. Just when she seemed within reach, ‘Ghost Rider’ would slip from their net and disappear again. So they’d had to be content with catching underlings to this point.

When the assembly was concluded, the unit dispersed to make final checks on gear and supplies. Hmm. . . boot daggers, blasters, crossbow, quarrels, recharge packs, mentally tabulating the weapons already on her person. The Marine sat and checked through her backpack. It could be days or weeks before they saw civilization again and she wanted to be sure she had the necessary supplies. Let’s see. . . three pairs black wool socks, poncho, extra gloves, wooly pulley sweater, change of clothes. Toiletries. . . dammit, I hate this unscented alcohol cleanser, thinking fondly of her vanilla scented soap at home. First aid kit, blackout, water tabs, laundry chem tabs, heat sticks. She checked the glasses around her neck, which could be adjusted for day or night use, and looked at the watch that also contained her compass. There were times, she mused, that being an enforcer of peace, instead of a protector like the everyday service individual, totally sucked wiener schnitzel with sauerkraut. Just the thought made Randi’s mouth pucker in response. UGH! She picked up one last item, a luxury, but something she’d learned to make the sacrifice for. No woman should have to give up chocolate for an unlimited or undetermined amount of time. She could make a bag of miniatures last for quite a while if she was careful. And they were far better than the protein bars the unit was issued for emergency rations.

As the Marine waited for the rest of her team, she mentally reviewed the reasons this seemed to be becoming a more frequent occurrence, hoping that by not forgetting *her* history, she could perhaps get into the mind of their quarry.

It had come at the cost of millions of lives and terrible damage to the planet

itself. But in the end, world peace had finally been achieved. The Black Sabres

had become the guardians of the peace, putting out the rare rebellion handily.

As with most things, though, the passage of time made people forget the sacrifices

that were made to achieve the peace. Worse, it made some people resent it.

Slowly, gradually, small groups of malcontents began to pop up, determined to be

"special" because of their race, religion, creed or personal morals. The Sabres

kept them down for more than eighty years. Then thirty years ago, things had

changed drastically. A leader had appeared, uniting the many different factions

under a common banner. Destroy the peace, so we can once again fight over our


This concept baffled Randi, and she shook her dark head trying to comprehend this misguided logic now. There were enough bad things in life to worry about. How could people not enjoy, even celebrate, the peace. Perhaps she had seen too much of fighting and death. She just wanted this private war to be over.

But this leader, code named "Ghost Rider", was good. She knew how to keep the

groups stirred up, yet keep them under her control. And she knew how to stay

one step ahead of the Sabres. It almost made one think. . . but treason of that

degree was impossible to contemplate, especially in a small, tight-knit unit like

the Sabres. Trust in your comrades was everything, and without it. . . .

Randi shook her head again. Going after "Ghost Rider" always made her uneasy in her gut. The woman was just too good, it seemed, and though she had already been around for several years before the blue eyed woman became a Sabre, she still felt it a personal affront to her honor and duty that the woman was still loose and causing trouble.

They knew very little about "Ghost Rider", considering the length of time she had been around. Tall, thin, blonde, with insane depths in her brown eyes. Cruel, vicious, and a wonderful strategist. It actually said quite a bit for the woman’s strength of character that she had managed to hold the individual factions together for so many years, especially when you realized how many of those groups considered any number of the others mortal enemies. And it said a lot for the Sabres that by and large, except for those of their number who now served in key military positions and outposts, the world was totally oblivious to this entirely too real threat to the peace.

Randi came back to the present with a start, when the other two female members of this team joined her, and set their backpacks next to hers on the ground. Lacey, their primary medic this trip, looked up at the overcast sky and muttered, "How long you think we’ve got til the bottom drops out?"

The Marine followed her gaze up, sighing inwardly at the thought of spending this entire outing wet. Just the idea made her whole mood want to shift to grouchy. She decided to wait until it happened. No sense anticipating feeling miserable. She shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno. "

"Better that the bottom drops out, and then we get clear weather for a bit, than to have a continuous drizzles for days on end," chipped in Brenda. The short Army woman was one of their best scouts, and she and Randi found themselves on many teams together. The taller woman leaned forward from her reclined position, and smacked her squarely on the back of her head. "OW!"

"Are you trying to jinx us or something?" The dark skinned woman’s eyes grew round, and she slapped a hand over her mouth as the implications of what she had said dawned on her. Lacey sat on the bench besides her, snickering.

"Too late now, Bren. And if we get shitty weather this trip," seeing the mock glare the soldier was getting from the Marine, "well, it’s been nice knowing ya."

The small woman slowly removed her hand from her lips. "I can’t believe I said that."

"Neither can I," said the Marine. "Well," with a resigned sigh." won’t be the first time we’ve all been wet together."

The other two burst into howls of laughter, leaving Randi to blush profusely when she realized what she had said. "In your dreams, Ladies. You couldn’t possibly keep up," with a wicked grin.

The two women looked at her startled. What brought *that* on? Never once in the more than ten years they had served together as Sabres had Randi ever teased like that. But there was no time to pursue that train of thought, as the rest of the unit chose that particular moment to join them.

The first week was pure, unadulterated hell. The bottom had indeed fallen out of the sky not an hour after they were left at the drop point. The downpour cut their visibility so badly, they were forced to stop and seek shelter. Or more accurately, they were forced to build shelter. Removing their ponchos from their individual backpacks, the unit was able to construct a camouflaged covering large enough to protect all of them on top and about three quarters of the way down on the sides. The ground, however, was another story altogether. It was soaked, and while the water wasn’t running through the makeshift tent, it was quite muddy inside. They broke out the heat sticks to try and dry things out, which they did quite handily. But the heat inside the structure became so warm that the Sabres themselves were forced back out into the cold rain to avoid overheating. After fifteen minutes, the sticks had done their job, and the men and women returned to the shelter. It was less than ten minutes before they and their armor were dry and toasty warm, and waiting for the storm to pass.

This early into the mission, there weren’t any chores to catch up on, and no one was tired enough to need a nap yet. Randi noticed with a wicked twinkle, that Brenda had seated herself as far away from the Marine as possible. She might have a little fun with that later. But for now, they were stuck waiting for the storm to pass.

For six hours they sat, until the storm finally cleared enough for them to move on. It did settle into a cold, steady drizzle, which in fact made Randi cut her eyes over at the little scout more than once. But darkness had settled during their enforced rest. And they had learned early, the hard way, several times, that to try to track this particular enemy in the dark was deadly. Some of the traps she lay were so clever, so heinous, that orders had come down from the top. . . under no circumstances, save a flight for life were they to try to track "Ghost Rider" in the dark. The cost was far too high for the results they were achieving. With nine of them to stand watch, they only had to do so every other day. So they settled in for the night, content that they would be moving again soon.

For seven very long days, they settled into a frustrating routine. Up at the crack of dawn, and if it was clear enough, they would pack up, and slowly move on. Randi lost count of the number of times they’d been forced to stop due to the limited visibility, and a hike that should have taken them less than two days, took a week. A week of drizzle, and cold, uncomfortable temperatures that made them all miserable, and extremely thankful for the long life of their heat sticks.

Finally, they reached what had been their destination. The Sabres were aware that the whole fortress was not destroyed, because the one thing "Ghost Rider" didn’t want was an internal war. . . yet. And destroying any one factions’ hideaway base was a sure way to start one. So they left the place covered with traps. Having the Sabres demolish your home was a great motivator to continue to fight against them. When the unit finally reached its first target destination, the enemy, was of course, long gone. It took three more days, though, to carefully comb through the underground fortress, skillfully disarming booby traps, and looking for clues to indicate where their prey had gone. There was nothing definite for them to follow, though, and they split into three groups of three. They would all be scouts for now.

One more decent night’s sleep. When morning found them, the units were gathered around their maps. The territory was divvied up, and a rendezvous location and time agreed upon. Within two days, everyone agreed to be at the meeting place. By then they should have a direction to head.

They nearly missed it, though in fact, Randi had sent the rest of her squadron back to the rendezvous to bring the entire unit to her location based solely on a hunch. Tiny and Mitch, both her equal in rank, followed her directive without question. They had seen her intuition pan out too many times to doubt her. The meeting place was nearly a day’s walk from her location, though, and Randi hadn’t been a Sabre as long as she had by being stupid. So she found a semi-comfortable spot in a high tree to wait for reenforcements.

She had a long time to sit and think while sitting in that tree. . . contemplating her life. . . what it was. . .what it could have been. She thought of her folks, wondering, not for the first time, if they would have been so proud of her if they had known her true mission in the military. Her Papa had never expressed anything but pride and affection for her, but he had never been privy to the true nature of her calling.

She thought of Tommy and Ella. Almost ten years of marriage, and they still had no kids. She didn’t know if it was by accident or design, and had never had the heart to ask. She remembered Tommy fondly as an older brother figure, and knew he would be a fine father one day if they chose to have a child. She hoped, if it wasn’t a decision not to have one, that Artemis would grant them a baby. They would both make truly wonderful parents. She made a mental note to make a special offering for them when she got home.

Home. . . and with that her thoughts swung like a magnet to the North, toward Gwen. She tried to push the reason for that away, but it persisted in returning, and forced her to confront her feelings face first.

How did she feel about Gwen. . . really? The Marine thought back to the first time she had seen the story teller. Although she was a very beautiful woman, and Randi acknowledged to herself that she was, it was her voice and her stories that first attracted her attention. Listening to the bard spin a tale had been, and still was in all honesty, a balm to her spirit. So was it just gratitude for her stories and friendship?

The tall woman looked at her watch, amazed to find two hours had passed during her silent contemplation. She stood carefully on her tree branch and stretched, hanging for a long moment from a branch above her head, while her back popped back into realignment. Then she opened her backpack and took out a protein bar and a miniature chocolate and settled back down with her thoughts.

So, she captured my attention and garnered my interest. Randi was honest enough with herself to admit that the blonde woman interested her more than anyone else she had ever met. Her problem seemed to be admitting the why. She shied away from those thoughts even now. I’ve always been interested in her, since I first saw her, She’s beautiful, well-spoken, kind, thoughtful, considerate. She gave me her friendship, asked to be my friend in return, made me welcome in her family. But is it just gratitude?

Damn, Valiant, be honest with yourself, okay? She hung her head. Being honest with herself, about this, meant admitting something that she wasn’t ready to acknowledge. In her line of work, falling in love was a bad idea. So what are the facts here anyway? Maybe you’re just assuming these emotions. For all your sexual experience, I don’t recall once ever having the word love come up for discussion. You’ve never even kissed the woman, for mercy’s sake.

"Whoa, slow down," she said out loud to herself. The Marine ran long fingers through her dark tresses, noting absently the slight tremor that shook them. Where is all this coming from, anyway? I need to. . . you need to sit your butt back down and come to grips with reality, Valiant. Fact. . . this woman attracted your attention, garnered your interest, captured you heart and imagination, invaded your mind and then stole your soul with out so much as a by-your-leave. Fact. . . this woman is your best friend. Fact. . . she has never given you any indication she would like to be more than just your friend. Fact. . . the only kind of Sabre who falls in love is a dead Sabre. She knew this was not completely accurate, but only those Sabres who stayed in and advanced to high ranking leadership positions had families. Those who were sent into the field knew better. It was an unspoken, but well understood rule. Face it, Valiant. You’ve broken the first commandment. You’ve fallen in love, and with your best friend even. How in the hell did you manage that?!? Great going, Marine! At least when you fuck up, you go whole hog! She bowed her head as the implications of that statement washed over her. It was something she could not, would not allow to happen. Gwen didn’t deserve to be exposed to what she perceived to be as her true self. She deserved a lover, man or woman, who could share themselves completely with her, who was able to be totally honest, who wasn’t dark and tainted. Randi sat in the tree for the remainder of the night, silent tears streaming from blue eyes in seemingly endless pain. When dawn crept over the horizon, she dried her face, and put forever behind her thoughts of what could have been, if only. . . . By the time her team arrived with the rest of the unit, her stoic mask was in place, and an icy reserve, chilling even for her, resonated from her person. No one dared question her—she’d made it very clear that any sort of chit chat was unwelcome. But each and every Sabre there wondered what had happened to their comrade while she had been alone for two days.

The next nine days were very slow going. Besides the drizzle which popped up just often enough to keep everything slick and treacherous, the area became more difficult to penetrate the closer the unit drew to the rebels new hiding place. Traps were laid thicker, though their crudity showed the haste with which they were assembled.

Nick, who had been assigned their leader for this campaign, got caught in one of the nastier ones. Large metal barbs buried themselves deeply into the flesh of his left leg, from ankle to hip. Randi, who was the second in command this trip, and who was on point, whirled around at his muffled outcry. The tall man had been about three yards to her right when he tripped the trigger switch. He went down, and the Marine cautiously, quickly made her way to his side. The rest of the unit was almost as fast, and Lacey swiftly opened her medical kit, and took out the necessary laser tools to cut through the man’s armour. Great, Randi thought in disgust, they’ve found a way to penetrate the amour. Just fucking great. This trip has been nothing but a disaster from the get go. Damn!

Nick looked at her and nodded, transferring command to her in the single gesture. Then Lacey gave him a shot to relax him, and the rest of the unit moved a short distance away to give the two a bit of privacy for the repair work. The medic hated hangers on watching over her shoulder, but it was out of respect for the wounded man, mostly, that they moved away. It was always unpleasant to be reminded of how human they all really were.

"John, I want you to stay here with Nick and Lacey. Even with the regen enhancer, it’s gonna take about forty-eight hours for him to recover."

The burly man nodded agreement. Sabres never left comrades unprotected. And with Nick unable to defend himself, and Lacey’s attention focused on healing him, it was an honor to be chosen to stay. He moved over to within hearing distance, and began walking a narrow perimeter.

Randi moved the rest of her team out at an even slower pace. They couldn’t afford any more injuries.

The rest of the team would try to catch up as soon as Nick healed, but there was no guarantee they would make it in time to see any action. And the way this endeavour was panning out, none of them might see any.

By midday on the third day since Nick’s accident, they found the new encampment of the rebel band. This was a part of the group which called themselves Fringe Amazons from the looks of things. About twenty-five women, well armed, and from the looks of things, expecting a siege.

This was the part Randi hated the most, and this was the rebel confederation she had the hardest time putting down. She could certainly understand and even sympathize with women wanting to be their own society, but these women were vicious and unruly, and wreaking havoc on otherwise peaceful societies. Though nothing had been proven in this regard, it was also suspected that they were responsible for the disappearance of many girl children before their implants were done. Left in their place were boys of approximately the same age and size.

The Sabres pulled back into the trees, to rest and regroup until dark. They would need a plan. They also needed to discover if "Ghost Rider" was in this camp.

The time they spent in the trees allowed them to observe the camp without being seen. Apparently, these Amazons had not yet learned to maneuver through the forests, although they did keep several lookouts in some of the bigger trees surrounding the outpost. There were also four sentries walking the place constantly. The Marine hadn’t seen any sign of their chief nemesis, but the luck of the mission thus far told her she probably wouldn’t.

By dark, they had seen four shift changes. Every two hours, things rotated. Those patrolling the ground moved to the trees. Those in the trees went off duty. And fresh women came out to walk the perimeter of the camp. Full dark and the sound of the dinner chime. This left the eight women on guard duty virtually alone. Moving silently through the trees, Randi and Tiny dispatched the four in the trees. Then with equal stealth, they dropped to the ground and killed the other four. They signaled the remaining members of their team, who quickly removed the four bodies from sight. Then they waited in silence for the rest of the Fringe Amazon women to show up to die.

The dawn found the Sabres burying the dead rebels. Honor dictated they show respect for the dead, regardless of what they had been in life. So they used their blasters to perform the cremation, and then gently laid the ashes to rest in the grave they had dug for that purpose. Randi said a quiet prayer to Artemis and Athena over each one. The six soldiers were exhausted by the time they were finished, but propriety demanded they move away from the grave site. So, they shouldered their packs, and began to move out slowly back toward their comrades. They were careful to keep and eye out for traps they had missed on the way in. The unit stopped for the day just as the sun touched the horizon.

Camp was silent that night. These missions were always hard on the soul, especially when it was as fraught with complications and difficulties as this one had been. They were no closer to finding "Ghost Rider" either. Not one of the women who had been interrogated had offered up the first piece of information about her. Death was preferable to perceived dishonor.

Misguided loyalty, Randi thought to herself. How many humans have died due to misguided loyalty to a person who wants to see them all fighting and killing each other anyway? What is so horrible about peace that we will do anything to keep from having it? She shook her dark head in disgust. I’m sorry, Artemis. I don’t know what this world is coming to. . . what *I* am coming to. She set up the guard rotation, and waited for the darkness to pass.

Late afternoon, the following day, found their comrades catching up with them. Randi shook her head negatively at Nick, indicating that no one had been left alive in the camp, and that they were no closer to catching their quarry. He accepted her silent information with a nod of his own, and resumed command of the team. She was more than happy to let him. This trip had been more draining on her than usual, and she needed some time and space to work things out in her own mind. With any luck, they would be back in the nearest base in a week, and she could just go home. She wanted a chance to write this in her diary. It was the best form of therapy she had ever found for her tattered psyche.

It was slow going, but without all the rain and drizzle that had plagued them for the better part of the expedition, they did make it back to the military base in eight days. Immediately, they were sent to the showers and bed. It had taken them far longer to accomplish this campaign than had been expected, and the lines of exhaustion were etched deeply in all their faces. The fact that the outpost had been destroyed was enough information for now. The debriefing could wait until they had slept.

It took forty-eight hours for all nine members of the team to be awake and coherent enough for the debriefing to begin. Nick had been examined by the compound doctor, who praised Lacey’s work. Except for the fact that the man had a two inch wide patch of skin running from hip to ankle that had not grown hair yet, it was impossible to tell that he’d been injured so severely. The Sabres sat in the conference room most of that day, going over all the different parts of the patrol, highlighting the two new traps they had seen and disarmed. It was important to get this information out to the rest of the unit. They didn’t want to see any of their other comrades taken down by them. At the end of the session, the commanding officer, herself a Sabre, declared a week of R&R. This news was received with varying enthusiasm on the part of the Sabres. A few of them just wanted to go home. But they all understood the inherent need to return to a form of normalcy in this safe and contained environment.

Randi, for her part, hung her head and went for a walk, looking for a temple. She felt the need to meditate, as a way to calm and center herself until she could get home and pour her thoughts out. She could, she supposed, have done that from the base. But the fact of the matter was, she didn’t trust the security here like she did her own. And it wasn’t like there was a lot of privacy here either. So she decided to reflect on the past few weeks events and revelations.

The temple was located just outside the base. There was an understanding between the religious order and the military one, and the military respected Holy ground. The temple was well taken care of, and represented the many different deities the people subscribed to. Randi found a small, unoccupied prayer room, and locked herself in. She planned to be here for a few days.

Four days into her seclusion, a voice spoke to her. "Rise and walk with us, my child." Before her stood Artemis, lifting her chin in gentle fingers. Behind her stood Athena, compassion clear in her flaming eyes. She looked around her, finding herself in a garden of undefinable origins. Then she rose to her feet, while her patrons took up positions on either side of her, and they walked.

"You have done well, child. We are proud of the way you walk your chosen path."

"Even after what I just did?" Doubt filled the Marine’s voice.

"Even then. What you do is for the greater good. We have a true Amazon Nation in place, that prospers well in this peace. Making war on innocents, as those women were doing, is sheer savagery. Fighting for the right to kill people who are different, *because* they are different from you is just wrong. And we do not condone their actions.

"Thank you. I wish I could rid myself so easily of the guilt ."

"You feel because it is your nature. It is what makes you so good. But know this, child, a much greater challenge is on your horizon. Your future hangs in the balance."

"And. . . . "

"And we can tell you no more. You must learn to trust your feelings, as well as your instincts. Come, it is time to go back to the temple. The acolytes have refreshment waiting for you. No more questions," when she started to speak. "You are among the most favored of all the gods, but even you cannot be told of what lies ahead."

The deities blessed her, and kissed her forehead softly. When Randi opened blue eyes again, her body had resumed its meditative position, and she was locked in the prayer room she had been in for (glancing at her watch) six days. The "short" time she had spent with the goddesses had taken two days, but she felt, if not at peace, then renewed in her mind.

The Marine rose from her relaxed position on the floor, and unlocked the door. Waiting, just as had been promised, was a tray of refreshment. She slowly drank the nutrient filled water and ate the energy laden food bar so as not to shock her system after its six day fast. She placed a small offering on the altar, and returned to the base. It was time to go home.

The commander of the base showed no surprise when Randi asked for transport home a day early. She had made the R&R an order, knowing it would be followed. The older woman had served with Randi when she was still green, and she chuckled over the wildcat the Marine had once been. The smile turned sad, though as she realized how withdrawn the other woman had become with the passing years. She wondered if Randi still wrote in her diary, but she didn’t ask. Instead, she granted the early transport, and wished her comrade gods speed.

Randi checked in at the Club, sure she would find her mission mates there. They cheered when she walked in the door, having wondered where she’d disappeared to. They were a bit disappointed when she didn’t sit down and drink with them, but even the most unobservant of them could see something was still troubling the tall Marine. So they wished her safe journey, and went back to their relaxing when she walked out the door.

The trip home was made in silence, Randi having nothing to say, and her pilot having no desire to stir the fires he saw banked in her eyes. He hadn’t gotten to twenty years as a military pilot by being stupid. The shuttle settled on the island’s private pad several hours later. The Marine thanked her pilot quietly, directing him to the closest military facility for some rest before he returned to his regular duty station. Though she didn’t outrank him, the status of the Sabres who went out like she did gave credence to her suggestion, and he decided he was tired enough to take a rest. Old Sabres like himself knew when to take advice.

Randi let herself in the house, surprised at the quiet. She figured Gwen would be up by now. She took her things to the laundry room, and set them in the cleansing closet immediately. She’d had to install this little addition herself, after she’d moved in. It was a special little facility especially designed to clean her armour. Her weapons, cleaned upon awakening at the base before the debrief, were put away in their special place in her walk-in. Then, unable to stand it anymore, she moved toward the stairs, contemplating what she could say to Gwen that wouldn’t reveal anything except her gladness to have her here at last. She knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t help the bit of giddiness that flowed through her as she mounted the stairs. You’ve gotta get over this, Valiant, especially if you’re gonna share living space with the woman. It didn’t help, and a smile crossed her face unbidden as she knocked on the door. No answer. The smile slipped. She knocked again, then gently turned the knob. The bed was made, and there was no sign of occupation anywhere in the room. The Marine crossed swiftly to the bathroom, and found it empty as well. The smile fell completely, and she stiffened her shoulders in acceptance of what she perceived to be a sign from the gods. Obviously we are not meant to be together, and in this way they are assuring I understand that and get over it.

Her mind *thought* it understood, but her heart was breaking a second time, and she left the room and took the stairs at a run. Then she was out the French doors and running down the beach at an impossible clip.

She returned after several hours, when dark was settling over the island, and her body demanded a rest. Standing under the shower a few minutes later, she let the water rinse away the dirt and sweat, wishing it could do the same with the pain in her heart. This must be my great challenge. Learning to live without her completely, the Marine thought resignedly. Then she collapsed into bed and fell into a deep sleep. High above, Artemis and Athena looked at each other and shook their heads sorrowfully. And a glance at their sister showed them she wasn’t very pleased with the warrior either.

Many hours of the next two days saw the Sabre sitting at her computer. She could have, she knew, recorded her entry vocally, but she always felt she was more thorough and accurate when she typed it all out. It gave her a chance to visually compartmentalize her thoughts, feelings and experiences. Her detail was much richer in written form as well.

It occurred to Randi again, as she typed and then reread her diary entry, that this patrol had more than bad luck. It was almost like they knew we were coming. In this way, she was able to put her feelings for Gwen aside, and concentrate on the reality of a traitor in their midst. The Marine began researching the diary, bypassing the personal entries, and focusing on the military ones. She found some disturbing oddities, but nothing she could put a definitive finger on.

She locked the journal and shut down the computer. The tall woman sat, staring at a blank screen for long minutes with her hands steepled at her lips. Finally, restlessness drove her from her seat, and she started to pace the floor. She walked slowly back and forth for a good twenty minutes before she came to a decision. Even though it was near dark, she grabbed a duffle, and loaded it with a few things. Then she set the security system, hopped on her bike, and rode away.

Tommy was getting just a little angry, and more than a little concerned with his younger cousin. He knew she had arrived home ten days ago, and he had not heard hide nor hair from her since. Not that it was unusual for her to want a bit of space for a couple days when she got back from one of her "outings". But up to now, Randi had always been more than considerate in calling him or Ella within that forty-eight hour period. Mostly to let them know that she was home, but also to silently indicate she was ready to interact with society again. This time, though, this time she had gone a week and a half without a word, and it was affecting his entire world.

Ella, caring for Randi as the sister she’d never had, was growing thinner with worry. The band seemed lackluster in its playing without her fire. But it was Gwen who concerned him most. When he had told the bard of the Sabre’s arrival home, he had cautioned her that it would be a couple days before anyone heard from or saw her. She accepted that, knowing it for the truth, but hoping to hear from her friend soon thereafter. As the days passed with no word, the blonde grew heavier of heart, the joy of knowing Randi was home being replaced by the hurt of being ignored by her. The entire Guild seemed to pick up on her unhappiness, and the depression she felt slowly cast a pall over everyone at Midas. By the tenth day of Randi’s continued disappearance, Tommy was reaching the end of his rope.

Since it was already a Thursday, he decided to give everyone an unscheduled three day weekend. He had hopes the extra playtime would put everybody in a better mood, and they’d be ready to work again come Monday morning. His announcement was greeted with a bit of enthusiasm, and he was locking up less than an hour later.

When he reached the island, he drove straight to Randi’s house. He was of a mind to have a few words with her. His knock received no answer. He unlocked the door, and disarmed the security system, standing quietly listening for any sound of habitation. A quick walk around showed no recent sign of occupancy. He went to the garage to see if she was there, tinkering on her bike again. She had been know to become oblivious to everything around her when working on the WARRIOR. He not only did not find the Marine, but saw the bike was gone. His concern started to outweigh his anger. The reason she had left must have been pretty damned important for her to have not even called to let him know that she was home safe but leaving immediately.

He locked up the garage, and returned to the house to reset the system there. He was just exiting the front door when the familiar rumble of a motorcycle headed towards him caught his attention. He walked over to stand by his transport, a little surprised when she rode right by him, and drove straight into the bike shed. He jogged the short distance, and went inside.

The duffle was sitting on the floor beside the bike, and Randi had her back to the door. She was in the process of wiping the motorcycle down after her lengthy road trip. The Marine stiffened when he reached the doorway, but did not turn to acknowledge him. He stood in silence for a while, just watching her work. By her movements, he could tell she was still greatly disturbed by something, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t his presence. He decided to announce himself gingerly. If she wanted him gone, he could wait til later to talk to her. So he cleared his throat.

" Wondered how long you were gonna stand there," she said, continuing her work without turning around.

Her comment angered him, knowing he was there, but refusing to acknowledge him, and it fueled him to bait her. "And where in the hell have you been?"

She whirled on him then, eyes flashing fire, but he had worked up a lot of worry and anger over her second disappearance, and was ready to let her have it. He continued on as though she was just gonna stand there and listen. "Do you know how worried sick we have all been? How dare you. . . ."

"How dare *I*? Who the hell do you think you are, questioning me like this? I am not a child anymore, Tommy. And I’m not your responsibility. I’m not anyone’s," she finished in a whisper, eyes dropping.

He sensed far more in that last comment than she was actually saying, but he let it go for now. He knew there were some things he couldn’t push her on, and he was pretty close to the edge right now. "Randi, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell, but we have all been worried."

"Why? You know I can’t talk about. . . ."

"I know, but that’s not what I mean. Wait, we do worry about you when you go off like that, don’t get me wrong, but we know you are out of reach. But always before, when you’ve come back, after a couple days, you call and let us know you’re okay. It’s been ten days, Randi. Ten days. Ella has stopped eating she’s been so upset, and Gwen. . . . "

"What about Gwen, Tommy?" she asked when he didn’t continue. "She didn’t care enough to be here when I got back. It couldn’t have mattered to her too much that I didn’t call." A Pause. "I am sorry about Ella, though. Something urgent was brought to my attention shortly after I got home, and I had to leave right away to check some things out. It didn’t even occur to me to call."

Tommy sat stunned as his mind reviewed what she had said about the bard. "Wait, waitaminute. Hold on. Would you like to repeat the part about Gwen for me, please?"

"Sure. What part didn’t you understand?"

"All of it, actually. You wanna start from the top?"

"Not really. I’m tired, and it doesn’t really matter now. So if you’ll excuse me. . . . "

"I don’t think so," he answered, laying a hand on her arm. "I’ve had to give the whole damned business a three day weekend."

"And what does that have to do with me? Or Gwen, for that matter?"

He rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in disgust. "Women! Honest to. . . I swear! Can’t see <mutter, mutter, mutter>" She raised an eyebrow. "Look," he continued, "Let’s go in the house. I need a drink."

She gazed at hin a moment longer then capitulated. "Yeah, me too."

Now his brow rose. He knew she kept it in the house for guests, and the occasional glass, but never had he ever heard her admit to needing a drink.

They walked in, and he reset the alarm while she dropped her bag in her bedroom. Then she walked to the bar and raised her eyebrow at him again.

"Whiskey, neat," he replied to her unspoken question. She pour one for him and another of the same for herself, then brought them over to the couch where he was sitting. He took a deep drought, wincing slightly at the burn as it went down. Then watched in sharp amazement as she polished the three fingers of alcohol as though it had been a shot.

"Now, you wanna start this discussion, or shall I?" he asked when her eyes opened again.

"Why don’t you?" she said closing her eyes again. The pain of her unresolved feelings for the bard was far too evident in her eyes, and she didn’t want him to see it. "You seem to be confused about something."

"Yeah, well, I’m not the only one," He continued before she could gather the words to respond. "Why do think Gwen doesn’t care about you, Randi? She’s your best friend."

Yeah, that’s what I thought too," letting the hurt and bitterness show through. "But she wasn’t here when I got home. Hasn’t been here at all as far as I can tell."

"Randi," confusion evident in his tone, "Why would she be here? We didn’t know where you were or how long you’d be gone."

"Yeah, but. . . she. . . I mean, I. . . . "

Comprehension suddenly dawned in the man’s eyes. "Oh, Randi. She wasn’t here, hasn’t been here, because you weren’t. She would never presume an invitation, and it wasn’t my place to invite her."

The Marine sat silent, astonishment clear in her features. It had never once dawned on her that the reason for the storyteller’s absence could be so simple and polite. It had been *her* place to extend an invitation, a welcome to the bard, and she had totally dropped the ball. She groaned and got up to fix herself another drink. Tommy shook his head in the negative when she raised the bottle in his direction. The tall woman was gonna need a bit of time to sort through all this, but not tonight. She was beat, and the feelers she had put out for information were gonna take a while before they found anything. Discrete avenues outside normal channels took much longer than open ones.

Bringing her attention back to the matter at hand she asked, "So, why’d you give the entire Guild the day off tomorrow?"

"Honestly? Because Gwen’s depression is bringing everybody else down, and nothing productive is getting done anyway. Maybe with an extra day off, folks will bounce back." A beat. "You *are* gonna call Gwen, right?"

Her face was a study in embarrassment, chagrin and longing. "I don’. . . . " She stopped talking when his hand covered her mouth.

"The correct answer here is YES. So do me a favor and nod your head in the affirmative." She nodded. "Good girl. Will you really?"

"Yes, Tommy. I really will." I need to figure out what I’m gonna say, though, besides, "Hi Gwen. I am an IDIOT!!!" "And I’ll call Ella tomorrow as well."

"Thanks, Randi," he said with relief. "I’ll be sure to tell her. She’ll be glad to hear it." He studied her now, noting with concern the fine lines of exhaustion and worry etched on her face. But he could also see some of the tension in her shoulders had dissipated, due in part, he thought, to his information. He rose. "Hey, you look about done in." Her brow inched up. "No offense, but I’m gonna go so you can get some rest. Will I see you tomorrow night?"

"Dunno. Lemme see how I feel. Right now I feel like I could sleep for a week."

"Fair enough. But please don’t forget to call Ella." A pause. "And Gwen."

"I’ll do my best. Good night, Tommy," walking him to the door. He opened his arms for a hug, and she willingly obliged him. After a long moment, they separated, and he kissed her cheek lightly, She returned it in kind, and he bade her happy dreams. Then he left without another word.

Randi shut and locked the door behind him, turning tiredly into her room. She went straight to the shower and turned on the hot water, stripping down and stepping in when it was hot. She stood under the spray until she felt her muscles begin to unknot and relax. Then she made quick work of washing herself clean, glad to be rid of the road grime. She knew she had lots of thinking and sorting to do, but it would have to wait until she got a bit of rest. She was much too tired at this point to think coherently. As soon as she was dry, she climbed in the bed, and was asleep when her head hit the pillow.

Looking into their scrying bowls, the two goddesses traded glances, hoping she would figure it all out before it was too late. The third sister continued to keep watch over the sleeping woman.


Chapter VII

It was midmorning before the Marine awoke, and it startled her a bit to know she had slept so long. She rubbed her eyes hard, trying to clear the sleep from them. Then she got out her running gear, deciding a visit to Ella was in order.

She found them sitting out on the deck enjoying the rare time off together in the middle of the day. Ella spotted her coming and ran out onto the sand to greet her. "Randi!" giving the taller woman a bear hug. "I’ve missed you!"

"I missed you to, Ella. I, uh, I’m sorry I, uh forgot. . . . It’s just that. . . ."

"No explanations, short stuff," looking up in delight as the dark brow rose. "I’m just glad you’re here now. Have you had breakfast?" At Randi’s negative shake, the smaller woman grabbed her arm and pulled. "C’mon, let’s get you something to eat. You look like you haven’t had a decent meal in months." Truth, the blue eyed woman realized, and let herself be led away.

It was early afternoon before she made it back to the beach house. She had stayed and caught up with Ella and Tommy until it became evident to her that she was putting off the inescapable task of calling Gwen. She wasn’t sure of her reception, after her big screw-up. But she bowed to the inevitable, and placed the call. Palms sweating, heart pounding she waited for the other woman to pick up the vid phone, only to get a recording. She hung up before she could leave a message. This was something she needed to say while at least talking to a live person, and not to a machine.

At that very moment, Gwen was twelve hundred miles to the north, at her parents house. When Tommy had given them a three day weekend, she’s packed a small bag and caught a late transport out. She wasn’t really sure why she ran to them, but she was glad for the unexpected holiday.

Jill, of course, knew something was troubling her offspring, but decided to let Gwen tell in her own good time. In the meantime, she was going to enjoy her daughter’s visit. They had spoken every week since the bard’s return, but this was the first time they’d actually been together in close to eight months.

The elder Goldman female knocked softly on the younger’s door somewhat early the next morning. She was hoping to talk Gwen into some serious shopping, a past time they both enjoyed, but hadn’t indulged in together in a very long while. Upon entering her daughter’s room, however, any thoughts of waking the bard flew right out of her head. She looked so peaceful, and reminded Jill of the little girl she had once been. So the mother simply smoothed the covers over the body hugging the pillow in the center of the bed, and left as quietly as she had come.

A couple hours later, rested and refreshed, the storyteller made her way down the stairs to the kitchen. Grabbing a cup of coffee, she kissed her mother’s cheek and invited, "So, you ready to do some shopping?"

Jill smiled at the twinkle in her daughter’s eye. It was good to know some things never changed.

Thirty minutes later found them walking along the shopping district. Talk had been general, a bit of catch-up on their friends and neighbors. When Gwen didn’t mention her, Jill asked after Randi. She had taken a sincere liking to the woman, and felt there was more than liking between the two of them. She caught the fleeting pain that crossed the storyteller’s features, before they were schooled into a pleasant mask. What was *that* all about, I wonder. But she knew it was best to let her daughter reveal what she was comfortable with in her own good time.

"I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since I got back." Truth, as far as it went.

"Haven’t seen her? Why not?" Pushing a little. "Did you two have a fight?" Pushing a lot.

"No, Mother. We didn’t have a fight. I haven’t seen her to fight with."

"Then. . . ?" When it became apparent that Gwen wasn’t going to continue.

She pulled the older woman into a sidewalk café. Once they had been seated inside out of the weather, and had ordered their tea, Gwen folded her hands on the table and took a deep breath. "Mother, Randi is involved with. . . something. I don’t know what, and it has been indicated that questions on that subject are taboo. But whatever this . . .something is, it owns her."

"What do you mean, dear? I’m not sure I understand what you are saying."

"That’s OK, Mom. I’m not sure I understand what I’m trying to explain. I just know that there were times, and apparently still are, when she would disappear for days, sometimes weeks, without warning. And she’s reappear just as suddenly. It may have something to do with her job. I don’t know. It made her extremely uncomfortable when I tried to bring it up. So I didn’t."

The bard didn’t mention to her mother how isolated, how distant Randi became after those trips. She hadn’t really considered the implications of that behaviour. It would be something to ponder. Her attention was brought back to the present with her mother speaking.

"Well, dear. I think you did the right thing. Don’t push. She’ll open up to you when she’s ready."

"You really think so, Mom?"

Thinking of the looks that had passed between her daughter and the tall Marine, she simply answered, "I *know* so, dear." Jill noticed the look of relief that flowed across the planes of Gwen’s face and the set of her shoulders. And she tactfully changed the subject to more general topics.

Late that night, as she and Geoff were preparing for bed, Jill broached the subject. She had a feeling her husband might be able to shed some light on the subject. Weapons smiths were very aware of security issues, and what they entailed.

"Geoff?" while brushing out her hair. He was just slipping under the covers.

"Yes, hon?" He answered almost absently, picking up his ebook.

"What do you know about Randi? About what she does?" She had no way of knowing he had done some extensive research on that very subject. Everything he could find out, he liked immensely, but there were several stone walls as well. He decided to accept the fact that someone that highly decorated had to have some secrets. Especially if his suspicions, which would never be confirmed, were true.

"What do you mean, love?"

"Well, seems her job makes her disappear abruptly for undetermined amounts of time. Is that, I mean, well is that normal for security personnel?"

Now Geoffrey Goldman was not a stupid man, and he knew what his wife was really asking. So instead of asking the audible question, he answered her unasked query instead.

"Jill, Randi Valiant is one of the most honorable people I have ever met. Gwen is very lucky to have made a friend of her. I would be proud to call her part of my family one day."

And with those three simple sentences, her mother’s heart found satisfaction. And she was glad for the peace her husband had given her with his words. "Thank you, love."

The next two days passed peacefully, and Gwen was in a much better frame of mind as she readied herself for the return trip south. Her father took the opportunity to talk to her alone for a few minutes while she was packing.

"I’m glad you came home, sweetheart. It’s been good to have you here, even for a little while."

"Thanks, Daddy. I needed this." And she gave him a big hug.

"You come back anytime you get the chance, and try to bring Randi with you next time, huh? I like her a lot."

"If I can, Daddy," with a bit of sadness.

"He grasped her chin in his hand gently and pulled her eyes up to his. He hesitated, debating on what to reveal. He knew, from his talks with her mother what was bothering his daughter, and now set about to help her without giving anything away.

"Little One, have faith in your friendship with her. Whatever it is that is keeping Randi away from you right now is about her, not about you. You need to give her a chance to work through it, and be there for her when she is ready to talk to you about it, if she ever is." She looked at him questioningly, but didn’t speak. He continued, "She, well, let’s just say she’s seen a lot of things she should never have had to and leave it at that." He interrupted her as she started to speak. "No questions, daughter. I don’t know the answers. And until Randi is ready to tell you, you mustn’t ask her either. This is something she needs to initiate, all right?"

The bard nodded, understanding far more than what was being spoken aloud. She resolved to be there for her friend when Randi was ready to talk, and to just be there for her until then. She also made a mental note to see if she could put together the pieces of this particular puzzle by watching, listening, and learning.

She wasn’t too surprised to find no messages from her Marine friend when she got home, but decided then and there to wait until she could talk to Randi face to face. That determination was greatly challenged however, by the tall woman’s evident avoidance of her. She had seen Miranda at Midas Monday morning just before lunch, but the brunette disappeared when she caught Gwen’s eye.

The bard overheard snippets of conversation during lunch about the Marine, none of them favorable.

Wonder what crawled up her ass and died?

She’s been pricklier than a porcupine in heat.

Maybe she is. <snickering laughter>

No, I don’t think so. She’s too damned frigid to be in heat. <more laughter>

I thought she was cold and aloof when she first came back here, but this. . . I’m glad I don’t have to deal with her today. Damn! I ever heard her growling at the boss. She nearly handed him his head.

This caught the bard’s attention. Even when Randi and Tommy disagreed, they rarely raised their voices to do so. She was growing quite concerned about whatever had brought about these changes. Gwen got up, even though her lunch wasn’t over, to see if she could find her friend. But Randi had managed to escape both Tommy and the storyteller for the present. The bard found herself outside of Tommy’s office before her break was over, and lightly tapped on the door.

Randi was not having a good day. Not that this should surprise me. . . I haven’t been having a good day for a while now. Damn! She had spent the entire weekend, at odd intervals, trying and failing to reach Gwen at home. Illogically, she came to the conclusion that the younger woman was avoiding her, and determined to stay out of her way for the duration. So when Tommy asked about her, Randi had reacted rather harshly.

I don’t know how she is! I haven’t talked to her. She’s avoiding me, so get the hell off my back, all right?!

She’d stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She went straight to her office, but couldn’t concentrate, her thoughts were in such a whirl. Maybe I just need something to drink. She got up from her chair and headed over to the dining hall. Halfway there she caught Gwen’s eye, and did a one eighty, turning and heading back the way she came. Before she realized her feet’s intentions, she was in her transport, and headed back to the island, and her sanctuary.

Part 1b

Return to The Bard's Corner