Disclaimers: None. If you're still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what you're getting into. If you don't have an open mind, why exactly are you still reading this far into the series? However, if you do read it and you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It 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 Phil for sticking around to beta read for me. She's picked up all kinds of dropped letters because Pink and Fluffy tend to leave a trail of them. All errors belong strictly to me.

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

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

A Valiant Mind

By D


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

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

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

"I never thought I would do this Randi," she said, slipping the platinum band from her finger. "What we had together.... It doesn't seem to mean anything to you anymore." She held up her hand when Randi opened her lips to speak. "Let me finish. I know what this means to me... what it symbolizes for me, for us. However, I don't want to hold you to a promise you are no longer capable of keeping." She took Randi's hand in her own and placed the ring in the center of her palm, closing it gently and watching as the fist clenched reflexively around it. "You decide what it means to you, if anything, and you let me know." Gwen kissed the balled fist then slipped from the room without another word.

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

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

The shuttle rose, and the Sabre felt her heart break. Randi couldn't see the corresponding tears slip from green eyes as Gwen left her behind, and headed for home... alone.

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

It had all started out so wonderfully....

Chapter I

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

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

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

"It's different this time, isn't it?" Gwen continued softly.

"Yeah," came the quiet reply. "It really is. I don't understand it. We're still the same people we were when we left. How do a few words spoken in front of our friends make such a difference?"

Gwen pinched the warrior's muscled belly lightly, earning her another squawk and an outraged glare. "I'm a bard and you're asking me about the difference words can make?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ella smiled back at him. "It'll be good to have them home again. But it's gonna be so different now."

"How do you figure, hon? Things'll be back to normal finally."

Ella gazed at her husband with something akin to pity in her eyes. "Sweetheart, have we been married so long that you don't remember how things changed for us when we got married?" He stared at her blankly and she rolled her eyes. "Nevermind. I love you anyway. I'm sure it'll dawn on you eventually."

"I... but...."

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

Tommy looked at her with a funny expression on his face. "Why? It's not like we don't know they're married."

Ella cuffed the back of his head. "Will you come on?" grabbing a jacket and stomping out the door that led to the shortcut between their property and Randi's. She kept mumbling under her breath, and though Tommy couldn't understand the words, he realized by her looks in his direction that he was going to be in the doghouse for a while.

Jill was curled up on the couch reading, grateful for the peace that had finally fallen over the boathouse. At her feet lay three shepherds - Ditto, who went everywhere Randall did, and the two pups that Geoff was training. Jill shook her head and smile reflectively. She wasn't sure Randi was going to appreciate some of the tricks her husband had patiently been teaching Carbon.

Her expression became pensive. Although truth to tell, she wasn't altogether sure they were going to be able to give the puppy up when Randi and Gwen returned. Carbon had been such a motivating force for Geoff and she hated to take that away from him. On the other hand, she wasn't sure either daughter would forgive them if they took Carbon away. Well, Randi might, but she was willing to bet Gwen wouldn't.

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

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

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

Her mind continued to wander freely from subject to subject as she rested, her eyes unfocused on the vista before her until a movement from the direction of the Steele house caught her attention. She wondered if Ella was still angry over her unwilling participation in Tommy and Geoff's post-nuptial practical joke on Randi and Gwen. She didn't think so, but something was up. That much was evident from her body language.

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

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

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

"Are you kidding?" Jill asked with a light laugh. "I haven't seen Geoff this happy in months. They wore each other out. This was great for him, so thank you. Now, what's up?" directing them to a seat on the couch.

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

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

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

Jill laughed at Tommy's blush and patted his leg. "Don't worry, Tommy. I'm sure you'll remember eventually."

"I think I'm being pandered to," he said with a scowl, crossing his arms over his chest. "I just don't see...."

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


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

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

"So do you think the folks will be offended if we skip the hellos this evening?" Randi asked. "I mean, Tommy and Ella won't care, but...."

Gwen chuckled. "Randi, I think if we show up at the boathouse tonight, my mother will chase us out with a broom. In case you haven't noticed, my folks still act like newlyweds after nearly thirty-five years of marriage. Somehow, I think they'll forgive us for wanting whatever time we can spend alone together."

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

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

Randi stopped and gazed at her bard with soulful eyes, but she didn't move otherwise.

"Randi! Don't look at me like that. C'mon... you carried me over the threshold at the cabin. You don't need to do it here too."

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

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

She missed the almost comic look that crossed Randi's face from the visual Gwen's words painted for her. She could just see the bard hefting her into a fireman's hold or dragging her into the house like a cavewoman because she just couldn't picture herself being cradled like she held Gwen now. The visuals made her want to giggle and she covered her exuberance by swinging around in a circle, causing Gwen to shriek before dissolving into laughter.

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

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

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


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

"O go too?"

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

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

"Absolutely," Ella replied. "And we'll bring you back tonight regardless."

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

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

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

"I love you, Randi. Always."

"I love you too, Gwen. Forever."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, they pulled apart a little winded. Gwen smiled up into Randi's eyes which caused a reciprocal smile to light the warrior's face.

"C'mon, beautiful. I wanna dance with you tonight."

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

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

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

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

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

"Hi, Chief. It's good to be back here, regardless of the reason."

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

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

His hesitation was answer enough.

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

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

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

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

"But I thought...."

Tiny's flow of words was halted by Reed's hand on his arm. "Sweetheart, trust Sky. If he thinks you need to be there, then there is a reason for it. He wouldn't ask otherwise."

"All right. I just didn't expect... I mean usually...."

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

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

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

"That is part of the long story," Sky replied. "I promise things will make a lot more sense for you both very shortly. Even if you don't like the picture they make," he added with dark intent. The two Sabres exchanged glances and followed the chief towards the shuttle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thanks, Sky. We'll come find you."

Then the house settled into silence.

"But, Master... I don't understand. Usher was my right hand and my best friend. I don't see what letting him die... letting that she-demon kill him, accomplished. I'm going to need him...."

"ENOUGH!" Ares roared, wrapping a strong hand around the young man's throat and lifting him up negligently. "You don't question me. You do as I command."

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

He cast his mind back to his mother's words when they'd discussed religion and gods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter II

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

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

Gwen didn't answer verbally; she simply let her lips replace her fingers for a long moment. Then she curled back down into Randi's side and gave the warrior a full body hug before she resumed the tracing over Randi's features.

It wasn't sexual in nature, but at once both sensual and comforting in a way that so few things in their lives had been, and they sighed in unison at the feelings the exchange evoked in them. Finally the sunlight began to creep over the horizon and Gwen slowed her fingers, letting them follow the curves and hollows of Randi's body and sliding around and on top of the Sabre until she was in perfect tickling position.

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, I'm glad we decided to come to bed last night," the Sabre said conversationally. Gwen scrunched up her face in thoughtful confusion. The change of subject was somewhat baffling, but she couldn't help returning the frank grin Randi was bestowing on her from her fairly vulnerable position.

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

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

"Smart ass! You know what I meant," Gwen huffed but couldn't keep the smile from her face. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked down at Randi haughtily. "Just *why* are you glad we came to bed?"

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

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

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

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

Gwen's focus was somewhere else entirely and Randi caught her completely by surprise. Squirming and squealing, she struggled to fight back, to get away... anything to get an edge in the tickle war, but her laughter was severely hampering her retaliatory efforts. Fortunately, Randi was plagued by the same malady and it wasn't long before they were comfortably tangled up together still giggling softly and trying to catch their breaths.

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

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

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

Randi turned on her side facing Gwen but let her eyes drop to the bedding, a little stung. "Well, yeah," she said slowly before lifting wide blue eyes to Gwen's. The bard gasped at the hurt she could see peering back at her from them. "Don't you?" continued in a whisper.

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

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

Randi didn't answer. She merely wrapped herself around Gwen and held on, burying her nose in the blonde hair. Gwen didn't understand the vulnerability she felt coming from the warrior, but she knew it was there, so she simply returned the embrace until she felt Randi's grip loosen.

"Better?" she asked.

The Sabre dropped a kiss on Gwen's head before she pulled back completely. "Yeah," she replied softly. "I'm, uh... I'm not sure where that came from... but thanks."

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

"A lifetime supply, huh?"

"Yeah, an eternal lifetime."

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

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


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

"Mine," Gwen growled.

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

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

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

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

Gwen grinned. "I imagine I could do that." She smacked Randi's bare behind. "But if you're going, you'd best go on. It's not gonna take me that long, and I like my waffles hot, ya know."

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't know who you are or how you got onto this island," Randi said darkly as she knelt on his chest, "but I can fix that little problem. Get up," she added, grabbing him by his ear and pulling.

He winced at the pain that caused, then simply disappeared from her grip to rematerialize right behind her. She whirled and glared at him, her eyes boring into him. He grinned sinisterly to himself. He couldn't have chosen better and to know that her darkness finally, finally lay within his grasp made him shiver with excitement.

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

He wasn't sure what reaction he was expecting, but it was a sure bet it wasn't the one he got.

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


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

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

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

Ares raised his hand.

"I wouldn't," the warrior commented loud enough for him to hear as she continued to run, increasing the distance between them.

"What's to stop me?" he asked, a little frustrated at the way the encounter was going so far. It wasn't at all like he had envisioned it. He tried to pop in beside her, but found he had to run to keep up, a fact he wasn't entirely happy with.

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

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

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

Randi finally stopped running, a fact Ares was devoutly grateful for. The passage of time had made the Olympians more susceptible to physical exertion. Despite his outstanding physique, physical activity wasn't something the gods were entirely suited for, and he felt the pull in his legs and the windedness in his breathing. It wasn't a pleasant sensation, especially in light if the fact that the warrior stood before him apparently untouched by the exercise at all. Her breathing and heart rate were only slightly elevated and her muscles stood out in stark relief.

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

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

She turned and headed back down the beach.

"But this would make things better," he muttered, sure that she heard when he saw her shoulders stiffen. She didn't stop running though, but Ares didn't care. He had planted the seed - now all he had to do was wait for it to take root. He watched her run until she disappeared from sight, enjoying the play of muscle and form. He could be patient. The outcome of this battle was a foregone conclusion.

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

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

The Marine shook her head, wanting to clear the encounter from her mind. Her return from the dead had given her a second chance at life and her marriage to Gwen felt like a new beginning. She wasn't going to allow anything to mar that.

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

It didn't take Gwen long to put things away. More and more the house had taken on an air of being theirs until now it was impossible to tell what belonged to who. So she put their clothing away and moved to take a shower before preparing the waffles for breakfast.

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

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

Her first instinct was to cover up, then she gave a mental shrug. It wasn't anything the goddess hadn't seen before, and since Aphrodite had never appeared to her like that before, she figured it must be fairly important. So Gwen girded her mental loins and continued to bathe.

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

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

"What's wrong?? Is it Randi? Is she hurt?? I need...."

"Whoa, Cutie. Take a chill pill, wouldja? She's not hurt. She's...."

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

"Gwen," she said softly, gaining the blonde's attention easily by addressing her by name. "She's all right. She's just had a visit from Ares."

Gwen's eyes met the goddess's with a slight look of panic. "Ares... as in the god of war Ares?"

"Yep. He's the only one I know of."


"Why what?" Dite asked.

"Why? What does he want with her? "

Dite shrugged, her eyes not giving away anything, except.... Gwen wasn't sure, but for a moment there, it almost looked like pain flashed in the goddess's eyes.

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

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

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

"Thank you, Aphrodite. I'm glad you're on our side."

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

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

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

"Randi!! Put me down!! I'm all clean and you're...."

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

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

"You're beautiful," the bard whispered, enjoying the look of wonder that crossed the warrior's face as their eyes slowly met again. "I've always thought so."

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

Gwen made a show of taking a deep breath. "I happen to like the way you smell, even all sweaty. I just don't want you sweating all over me." She watched as the brow climbed back up into the dark hairline and reviewed her words. A blush rose over her face.

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

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

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

"I love you, Little One."

"I love you back, Stud."


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

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

Gwen caught her hand. "'Kay... I'll go get the waffles started. You want bacon or sausage?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Guess they'll never be coming over again then, 'cause I see us being newlyweds for the next fifty or sixty years."

"Is that all?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Um hmm. I certainly do. It's one of those just married things."

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

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

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

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

"I'm sure you'll make the right one."

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ella smiled. "There is hope for you yet, love. There is hope for you yet." She ruffled his hair affectionately. "Why don't you take Geoff to Midas today? I wanna take Jill shopping before they have to go back to the capital city. And I think we'll make something special for dinner tonight and coax Gwen and Randi to join us. It shouldn't be too difficult since Geoff and Jill are supposed to head back tomorrow."

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter III

The ride out was smooth and almost silent - the only sound being that of the wind that whipped around them and the slight purr of the engine. Talk wasn't necessary between them. They were in tune enough to simply relish the joys of being alone together. Randi rode along the ocean for a while and let the wash of the waves accompany them as well before heading inland and allowing the relative peace total reign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I love listening to you sing to me."

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

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

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

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

"Just for you."

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

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

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

The burning look in Randi's blue gaze when their eyes met made her catch her breath... just as her lips were consumed in a fiery, ardent kiss. Gwen was never quite sure how they made it to the blanket or how she ended up half-clothed without realizing it, but she didn't have time to give it much thought before she was swept away by the passion that flowed between them. And by then, she didn't much care.

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

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

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

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

"I like being here with you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Look at me, love," Randi said, waiting until hesitant green eyes met her own. "You talk in your sleep. And to be quite honest," the warrior continued without pausing, "I'd be more concerned if there weren't. There are things that still haunt me as well, and probably always will."



"In a totally selfish way, it makes me feel better to hear that, but it also makes me sad. I don't want you to have regrets, love."

"Not about us. Never about us."

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

Randi squeezed Gwen in a fierce hug before she laid them back down again and recovered their naked bodies. "Thank you, Little One. Just the offer means a lot to me, but that darkness isn't meant for the light of day," she finished firmly.

Gwen returned the hug, hearing the finality in Randi's words. She stroked the body beneath her fingertips, warming the chilled flesh with her touch. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, just slightly awkward, and after a bit of it, Gwen leaned up on an elbow so she could look into Randi's face.

"Yes?" the warrior drawled, seeing the hesitation in the bard's expression.

"Promise me something?"

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

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

Twin dark brows rose into an equally dark hairline before a rakish grin appeared on Randi's face. "What a decadent idea. You've got yourself a promise, Little One."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You're taking all the fun out of this."

"I know," she answered soberly, sliding from his lap. "But...." She moved away from him to stand at the window that overlooked the beach house, staring sightlessly at the empty shell. She didn't even notice when Geoff moved his hover chair next to her to join her observation of Randi and Gwen's home.

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

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

"Oh honey... what's wrong?" he asked with evident concern.

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

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

"I thought you liked Randi...."

"Oh sweetheart, you know I do. She's a wonderful daughter, and absolutely perfect for Gwen. It's just...."

"It's just Gwen is now her responsibility, just like Randi is Gwen's."

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

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

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

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

Now it was Geoff's turn to shrug lightly. "We'll see how it goes. I'd like to keep him, but is that fair to her? Or to him for that matter? It's not like I can run with him and we don't have a lot of space." He blew out an impatient breath. "On the other hand...."

"He's been a big help in your recovery and they are newlyweds after all."

"Exactly. Now c'mon, my dear. I'd like to be to Tommy and Ella's before Randi and Gwen get back."

"Let me grab a sweater and we can be on our way." She was only gone a moment before returning with the garment around her shoulders. "How was your day at Midas?" Jill asked. "We haven't even talked about that since we got home."

Geoff laughed, a full-bodied sound, as he motioned her out the door ahead of him. "Poor Scott," he said still chuckling. "I don't think he's getting any sleep now that the baby's been born." The door closed on the rest of their conversation, and they made their way to the Steele home.

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

"Aw, honey," the man whined. "Not even a little bit? C'mon, they're newlyweds. It's tradition."

"Yes, they are; yes, it is; and no, you can't." Ella held up her hand when Tommy would have spoken, giving credence to the seriousness of her words and tone. "Tommy, love... think about this for a minute. Given the trouble the two of them have had getting together, do you really wanna tease Randi about them wanting to spend every minute they can together?"

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

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

"I know," Tommy whined, "but it's not fair."

"Well, tell ya what - we'll go through what they have and then you can tease to your heart's content." She smiled at the bulging brown eyes and the gaping mouth, realizing she'd just struck pay dirt in making him understand.

"Nope, that's all right. I'm quite happy living without that kind of drama in my personal life, thanks."

"So no teasing?"

"No teasing," he mumbled. "But you can't tell about me expecting them to be sociable last night either, deal?" licking his thumb and sticking it out.

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

"You're a nutcase, you know that?"

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Randi smirked, looking infernally pleased with herself, despite the fact that Gwen still had a rather intense grip on her ears. "Paybacks are a bitch, aren't they?" she replied, reaching up to gently loosen Gwen's hold before sliding from her grasp and swinging herself off the motorcycle with ease. For her part, Gwen sat there stunned. Finally she turned back to face Randi who was calmly unloading the saddlebags before she wiped down the bike.

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

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

"Oh you do, huh?"

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

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

"Oh you do, huh?"

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

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

"Oh, don't you worry, warrior mine. I will... and when you least expect it too." Gwen retrieved the items Randi had removed from the saddle bags and moved towards the house. "I'll go take care of this stuff."

"All right, love. I'll be inside in a few minutes."

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

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

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

"What say you and I go practice focusing?" Randi asked as she nibbled her way down Gwen's neck. "God, you're like a narcotic, my drug of choice, because I sure can't seem to get enough of you."

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

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

Randi scowled a moment longer before she relented. "You know I'm only doing this for you, 'cause Tommy's gonna tease me to death."

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

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

"Always, love."

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

There was something to be said for having all the family gathered together, Randi thought as they were greeted at the door with shouts and laughter. It was loud and noisy, for one thing. It was also warm and comforting in a way so many things simply couldn't be.

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

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


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

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

He nodded his head affirmatively. "Yes. Ran'all goo-dah boy. O goo-dah too."

"Oh really?" Randi said.

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

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

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

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

"Sometimes, Ma's laugh so they don't cry or get angry. You may wanna remember that next time you and O decide to play catch in the house, all right?"

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

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

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

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

"Oh yeah, you're a big boy, all right," Ella answered, tweaking his toe as she walked by and almost causing Gwen to fall when Randall jerked in her arms. "Sorry 'bout that," Ella muttered, taking the child from Gwen easily. "I forget others aren't used to handling him like I do."

"No harm, no foul," Gwen said a smile. "I can't get over how much he grew in the two weeks we were gone. You'd think we'd been gone months instead."

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

Gwen shook her head with a chuckle. "There's a scary thought - you're taller than I am!" She paused a brief moment waiting for someone else to make the comment, then added with a wry laugh. "I know... it's not like that's saying a whole lot!"

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

"I dunno," Randi offered quietly. "I think you're just about the perfect height."

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, I remember those days."

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Sr. piped up. "You don't know what you're missing, Randi."

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

Chapter IV

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

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

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

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

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

"Huh?" Gwen asked before finishing her own ablutions and following Randi back to their big bed. "Oh, you mean why am I glad they didn't tease us?" she continued when she realized what Randi was referring to.

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

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

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

"No argument from me, love," she said finally. "But I think, to be fair, they really only understand what we have endured here," touching the bard's forehead. "They have no concept of what we have suffered here," placing her hand over Gwen's solidly beating heart which picked up its pace at Randi's words. "They can't know what soul-sundering feels like."

Gwen couldn't stop the flinch that rippled through her body. "If it meant us being together like we are now," she whispered, "I'd go through it all again. But I sure don't wanna."

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

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

"Hmm?" Randi murmured, bringing her mind back from where it had wandered. "Yeah, maybe a little. I mean, I understand why he asked, and I can even agree with his reasoning to a point. It's just... I dunno. Why Carbon? Wasn't giving up Ditto to Randall enough? Am I being selfish because I want to keep him?"

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

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


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

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

Randi shook her head and blushed slightly. "I'm sorry... Dad. It's still a little, um... awkward for me."

Now it was Geoff turn to shake his head. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't push like that. It's just... I'd love for you to call me Dad, but I don't want it to be a problem for you either. We're both still kind of adjusting to this, I guess. As long as you realize we're family...."

Randi nodded and turned her attention to the flames in the fireplace. "I do. I'm pretty sure that's not what's bothering you though. Care to share?"

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

"Yeah. It's my job to know things like that, ya know?"

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

"Do what?"

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

"I know it sounds selfish of me. Maybe it is, though I didn't mean for it to be that way. Look, you don't have to decide now - just think about it, all right? Please? I think it might be best for all concerned."

He'd moved his hover chair away before either of them could respond - not that they had a clue what they'd have said if he hadn't. They had left the get-together shortly thereafter.

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

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

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

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

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

"I dunno... pretend he didn't ask?" the warrior replied half-jokingly. "He made some valid points, Gwen, and if Carbon can help in his recovery, who I am to get in the way of that?"

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

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

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

"On the other hand, Geoff and Jill are family too, and if he's helping Geoff recover...." Gwen could tell by Randi's tone that there was still some lingering guilt over the accident that had taken Geoff's mobility so suddenly. She started to speak, but Randi continued thinking out loud. "It wouldn't be like I'd be giving him up completely, would it? And if he was unhappy, he could always come back."

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

"Geoff would bring Carbon back if he was unhappy, wouldn't he?"

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

Randi nodded. "Strangely enough, it does."

"Of course," Gwen mumbled into Randi's chest. "I haven't decided whether he needs to be kissed or smacked yet. Jury's still out."

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

"C'mon, Bruiser. Real life bites tomorrow, and it's liable to come earlier than we'd like it to."

Gwen moved her hands from Randi's face to her stomach, yawning broadly as she wrapped her arm around the warrior's middle and settling more firmly into place. "Real life bites me tomorrow, I'm gonna get you to sic it for me, 'kay?"

Randi gave a full out belly laugh and Gwen couldn't help the smile that formed, though she mock-scowled and lightly smacked the rippling muscles that moved with each vibration from Randi's laughter.

"Bad mattress. I'm trying to sleep here, ya know," she muttered clearly enough for the warrior to hear, snuggling in deeper and delighting in Randi's reaction.

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

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

The knock was unexpected as early as it came the next morning, but Randi wasn't totally surprised to see Geoff in his chair just outside the French doors. She beckoned him in even as she moved to open the door for him.

"Good morning, Geoff."

"Morning. Um...."

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

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


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

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

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

The weapons smith had the grace to flush slightly, though her tone was neutral enough as to be non-accusatory. He couldn't think of a thing to say that didn't sound patronizing so he simply sat quietly.

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

She chuckled. "C'mon Geoff. You can't tell me that thing doesn't have some speed to it. You mean to tell me you can't keep up with a broken-down ex-Sabre? We may need to rethink your transportation in that case."

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

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

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

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

Carbon joined them on this morning, bringing sharply into focus the fact that he hadn't joined Randi the day before. Now he alternated running along side them, and jumping into Geoff's lap for a ride in the hover chair. The shepherd didn't growl at her, but she could sense a distinct change in his attitude towards her even from two weeks ago. It brought to mind Ditto's reaction to her since Gwen had been taken from her months before, and she wondered what exactly was going on that she seemed to have lost her touch with animals. Then they were approaching the beach house again, and she put those thoughts out of her mind to concentrate on what she wanted to say to Geoff.

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

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

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

Randi shrugged, wrapping a towel around her neck. "Yeah, why wouldn't it be?"

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

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

When they reached the deck, Randi turned to face Geoff. "Take him with you, Geoff. You need him worse than I do. BUT," she added, holding up a hand to keep him from interrupting. "But if at anytime it doesn't look like you can handle him, you send him here. He'll always have a home with us."

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

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

"Sweetheart, I'm hot and sweaty. You really don't wanna be that close to me right now," Randi said trying to keep from wrapping herself around the bard. She took a long pull of water. "C'mon now. I need a shower and you've already had yours."

"I don't mind getting wet again with you," Gwen said with a mischievous smile, kissing the sweat-soaked chest before moving back to look into Randi's eyes. "You are an awesome human being, you know that?"

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

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

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

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

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

Randi ignored the warning look and took the few steps necessary to close the gap between them. Without a word, she claimed Gwen's lips possessively and thoroughly, holding them until they were both dizzy from lack of air. Then she turned still silent and walked on unsteady legs to the bathroom, leaving the door open and stepping into the shower still fully clothed. The warrior didn't even flinch when the cold water hit her skin.

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

The bard turned her attention briefly back to the bathroom where she could see Randi had stripped out of her soggy clothing and was now standing under what Gwen hoped was at least a lukewarm spray. She couldn't stop the grin that crossed her face and had walked halfway to the bathroom door before she realized where she was headed.

"Ah, but what a way to go!" she said before her nose reminded her that some things couldn't be left unattended, no matter what other fires were burning.

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

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

"I need to talk to Tommy first. Can I come get you when we're done?"

Randi opened the door and Gwen walked in still holding her hand. They walked together to Tommy's door before Randi drew Gwen's hand to her lips.

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

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

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

"Thanks, Beth. I don't know how it looks, but it feels pretty damn good."

Beth returned Gwen's smile and nodded towards Tommy's office. "G'wan. He's got a busy morning scheduled, but I know he'll take some time for you."

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

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

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

Tommy's eyebrows flew into his hairline. Whatever he'd expected her to say, that hadn't been part of his thought process. "Um... she's doing fine. She's really enjoyed this teaching stint; in fact she commented to me last week how much she liked what you had done with the curriculum. And the kids haven't had any problems. Why?"

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

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

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

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


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

Tommy opened his arms and Gwen closed the gap until they were embracing. "That is so wonderful, Gwen," he whispered into her hair. "I couldn't be happier for you." He pulled back a little so he could look down into her shining face. "When you get your feet under you again, I'd like to try a couple new formats with you. I have some ideas that I think may give your work a whole new outlook."

Gwen cocked an eyebrow at him in a manner that was so familiar it was funny, and Tommy laughed in sheer emotional release. He hugged her again. "This is so exciting, I just can't tell you."

Now it was Gwen's turn to laugh. "You don't have to, T. I'm pretty sure I understand."

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

"Uh huh. Now I've gotta get to class before the boss finds out I'm late, but we'll talk about those ideas later, right?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perverted Scum, (it read)

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

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

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

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

Chapter V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep. Face first with both feet."

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

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

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

"Nope. Not for a while."

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

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

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

"What's wrong, Gwen?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you really think so?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh? Do tell."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Pick one."

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

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

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

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

"Then let's go pro."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ambiance, huh?"

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

"I could live with that."

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

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

"Brrr... Randi! It's cold out there!"

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

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

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

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


This time the Sabre gave no quarter.

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

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

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

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

"Well," the warrior hedged, "I didn't stay out in it very long. Once I realized it was mostly ice and sleet, I hightailed it back inside."

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

Randi shrugged and subtly tightened her hold around Gwen's body. The bard noticed and snuggled perceptibly closer in a gesture of comfort. "I dunno... weird dreams. I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep, so I decided to do a couple extra laps around the island hoping to tire myself out. I barely made it around once before it turned nasty and I came back in." Her brow furrowed in thought. "Strange weather. I don't recall any mention of it being made in the news."

Gwen chuckled. "Sweetheart, we haven't actually *seen* the news in a while."

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

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

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

The bard reached up and smoothed the wrinkles from Randi's forehead before she resituated her head on Randi's shoulder. "Not to worry, love. We'll figure it out."

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

Chapter VI

It wasn't too much later when they climbed from the bed, and after a hot shower, they moved to the kitchen to fix something to eat. The storm had increased in intensity and the sheer ferocity it exhibited made Randi shake her head as she sliced tomatoes to go with their steak and eggs.

"This is just beyond bizarre. If I hadn't been outside earlier, I wouldn't believe we were on the island. I surely wouldn't believe the sun had come up it's so dark out right now."

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

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

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

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

"Well, love," the bard said as she brushed a light kiss on Randi's collarbone. "Maybe you shouldn't keep trying to downplay the good you do. You really have changed so much for so many. In fact...."

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

"In fact what, Little One?"

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

Randi was silent so long, Gwen's shoulders dropped and she motioned to the table.

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

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

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

"No, sweetheart. You don't understand. Will you let me have my say now?"

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

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

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

"I'd like to think we would step up to the challenge."

"And are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to watch the peace dissolve into another world war over things that no longer matter if you're wrong? Because that is exactly what would happen if you brought light to the rebel's activities. They function in the shadows because we keep them from operating in the light of day. Slowly, surely we are once again bringing them under control. Eliminating Ghost Rider was a big step in erasing them from the planet once and for all. Exposing us now would do irreparable harm to the unit and allow the rebels an edge we can't afford to give them."

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

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

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

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

When Gwen finished speaking, Randi reached for the hand that was still poking her in the chest and pulled the smaller woman into her lap. She didn't say a word, merely holding onto Gwen as the fire raged. Gradually the fire burned out and the bard turned sad, hesitant eyes to Randi, finding only love and an equally sad understanding in the blue that looked back at her.

"I'm sorry, Randi. You know I really don't think that way about what you did as a Sabre, and I more than most understand why they are so necessary in this world. God knows I don't want the rebels to gain any quarter." She swallowed hard. "I just... why does it have to be you?"

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

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

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

"I'm sorry, sweetheart - God, so sorry. I'm not sure where my reaction came from or why you caught the brunt of it, but...."

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

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

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

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

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

"I love you back," the warrior reassured.


"Forever, Little One."

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

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

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

"Alllll riiight," Randi drawled with a smile.

"I'd still like to work on your story... just between the two of us. IF and only IF I can tell it so that you don't recognize the key players, I'd like you to consider allowing me to share it with the world."

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

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

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

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

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

"And the guilty."

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

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

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

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

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

Gwen straightened in surprise, unable to control the grin she felt sliding into place. "Don't be," she answered. "Sometimes I doubt myself."

"Still, it is my privilege to support you, and I didn't do that very well."

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

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

"Yep, I really am. I know if anyone could do something like this, it'd be you." She scowled. "What bothers me is the fact that I didn't remember that to start with. You, more than anyone else in the world, are qualified to tell this story both on a personal and a professional level. And no one, NO ONE has as much to lose if something goes wrong. You'd never risk it, and I KNOW that."

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

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

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

Noontime found them stretched out decadently in front of the fireplace. They were both naked and covered in massage oil, though their foreplay hadn't passed that particular stage - yet. For the moment, they were content to simply spend time exchanging kisses and teasing touches. The storm had finally stopped and the sun had emerged, but neither woman had taken the time to notice. Making up was much more fulfilling... and entertaining... than any storm could ever hope to be.

Or it was until a knock sounded on the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, I think this is as aggravating as hell, and if it wasn't for the fact that he's doing it out of genuine love and concern, *I'd* kill him."

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

"Because you were tickling me."

Randi looked down at her hands which had been stroking Gwen's sides tenderly just moments before. She didn't think they had been tickling - it surely hadn't been the intimate touch she'd intended at any rate. She looked up at Gwen again at the bard's soft laugh.

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

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

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

He had knocked and called out, but when he received no answer to the commotion he was causing, he feared the worst and opened the door with his key code. Now he waited in the shadows of the foyer, unable to see into the rest of the house, but well aware that Randi at least was nearby and unharmed. He figured, judging by the faint whispering he could just make out, that Gwen was probably wherever Randi was and with his luck, he had stepped into something he REALLY didn't want to interrupt. So he busied himself with looking at the bank of monitors, noting that they were still functioning for the most part, though many of them seemed to have at least a thin coating of ice.

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

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

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

"You don't mean that," Gwen chided with a gentle teasing glint.

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

"We'll continue this later."

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

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

"All right, Thomas. It's safe for you to come out now."

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

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

"That's sweet, Tommy. Really," Gwen assured him. Randi just smirked, knowing the teasing factor for this little episode could go either way if she didn't get in the first good lick. She didn't have to say a word, though - the setting surrounding them was enough.

"Why didn't you call?"

"I tried," Tommy answered plaintively. "Either the signal is screwed or you didn't pick up. I couldn't tell, because we have sporadic service at best to the mainland and that is so weird, I thought I'd come check."

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

"Yes, please!" Tommy agreed with eagerness. "I know I sometimes miss things in my enthusiasm to get things done, and God knows I sometimes miss stuff just because I don't think things as far through as I should. But I still remember what it was like to be a newlywed - and to have unexpected time alone together." He chuckled. "Hell, I know what it's like to be an old married and have unexpected time alone together."

"TMI, Tommy."

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

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

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

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

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

"Ya know," he muttered, "you really don't play fair at all."

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

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

Randi leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Tommy. You really are the best brother a girl could have, and I'm glad you're mine."

He nodded his acceptance of her words. "Works both ways, sis. And we always look out for family." The sounds of soft jazz wafted through the house with an easy sensuality that brought a smile to Tommy's face. "Now go be with your bride. This is the best kind of alone time. Don't waste it talking to me, all right? But you let us know if ya'll need anything."

"Back atcha, T. We'll be in touch."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't," she said succinctly. "It has taken us millennia to realize a good many things, though with a little luck it won't take us nearly so long to correct them."

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

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

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

"Okay, so...?"

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

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

"Gwen dies," Rosie finished succinctly.

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

"So why not just tell her?" the shamaness asked bluntly. "Surely she can't want to be under Ares' thumb."

"That's where we get into the meddling and interference rules," Athena continued. "We can't remove the drug induced hold involuntarily... we've tried. We have never succeeded and what happened when we tried doesn't bear repeating. And telling her outright opens up all kinds of other problems because she won't believe us."

"You've tried?"

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

"At least we have an antidote to work with. I take it I can't tell her either?"

"Nope. She wouldn't believe ya, babe. She wouldn't even believe Gwen at this point. This is the uncoolest thing that rat bastard brother has ever done," Dite griped.

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

Athena shook her head. "No."

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

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

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

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

"No," Athena answered. "We were just hoping. She is another piece of Gwen's support, though she doesn't know it yet. You will meet eventually when the time is right."

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

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

Rosie's eyes widened. "That soon? Guess I need to get busy."

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

Chapter VII

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

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

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

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

"And then we'll talk about what's going on?"

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

Tiny sat up and grimaced. "That bad?"

"I think so. I... it was so dark... so cold. That's why I need some more time."

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

"You don't know how much that means to me, baby. You just... I've never told you, but you are my strength and my joy. You bring me peace and happiness, and I am so glad you're a part of my life."

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

The Navy man tightened his hold on Reed, brushing another kiss on the top of her head. "You don't have to tell me beloved," he whispered. "You show me every single day. But in case I have been remiss in telling you - I love you. And when this is all over, and we can take the time to do it, I want us to get married... make us official."

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

"I know, honey. I know we agreed it wasn't necessary between us, that a few words spoken by a clergyman would change our vows or our commitment to one another."

"So why?" Reed questioned. She wasn't upset that Tiny could tell in the dark but her voice conveyed her confusion clearly. He shrugged lightly and ran his hands lightly up and down her arms and back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny cocked his head in mute question, and Reed patted his hand as she took a chair. "It takes a lot out of a person to transmit information like Sky did, but I am totally overwhelmed when I'm the receiver because I understand and process so much more than most." She sniffed the air, then looked at Sky with a big grin. "You fixed lasagna, didn't you?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't mind her," the man said as he handed Tiny the spatula. "She's always been this way, since she was a child."

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

Randi looked over the monitor of her computer, watching as Gwen put pen to paper. She smiled to herself, remembering the countless hours they'd spent together while the warrior taught the bard the long lost Sabre art of handwriting. Gwen had taken to it naturally and had proudly shown Randi the results as she'd steadily improved. Now more often than not she was found recording everything she could manually, but her journals especially. It held a comfort for her that writing electronically never had, and though she kept a cliff's notes diary in Randi's computer system, her real memoirs were in the leather and paper journal Randi had given her.

Gwen seemed totally absorbed in what she was chronicling and Randi had chance to wonder if it was story ideas or her diary or perhaps even the foundation for Randi's own story. She shook her head mutely. In some ways she was gratified that Gwen wanted to tell her story. The bard had helped her to see how much good there was in all the violence. But in others... in others she was appalled and if she was completely honest, terrified to have her story told. So much of it was ugly and violent and she wasn't sure she wanted to be exposed to the world in such a way.

Not that she didn't trust Gwen - she did, heart and soul - but this was something she'd never faced in all her years as a Sabre. Covert was her watch word and it had served her well. To let that go now....

Randi came back to the present to see concerned green eyes focused on her instead of on the writing Gwen had been concentrating on only moments before.

"You all right there, love?"

Randi blinked rapidly to clear her vision and nodded. "Yeah. Just working on...." She looked down at her computer to see what she was working on. "Hmm... not much apparently." She looked back at the black screen with a wry grin.

Gwen marked her place with her pen and put her journal on the couch beside her. Then she slid from her spot and padded over to where Randi sat, wrapping her arms loosely around the warrior's neck and dropping a light kiss on the top of her dark head. She looked at the blank screen and then leaned down to put her chin on Randi's shoulder, turning her head so they were looking at one another almost cross-eyed they were so close.

"I see your point. Makes a difference if it is actually on, I think," the bard said teasingly, touching the screen and watching the monitor come to life.

Randi scrubbed a hand over her face. "Yeah, I guess it would." She turned unexpectedly and drew a rather stunned bard into her lap, holding Gwen tightly for a long minute before releasing her just enough to gaze into the eyes of the one she loved above all else. For a long moment, they simply floated in the feelings so apparent between them, relishing the soul connection they still shared... a connection that was as old as it was new.

"I love you," Randi finally said softly, her smile touching her lips and lighting her eyes.

Gwen smiled in response. "I love you too, Stud." She reached up a hand to lightly trace the plains of Randi's face. "Past, present and future."

The warrior tightened her embrace again, and Gwen held on, wondering what was going on in Randi's mind. She opened her mouth to ask when Randi drew a deep breath to speak.

"Sometimes, I wonder what I did in this life to find you."

A frown creased Gwen's features and she slid her arms around Randi's neck. "What brought all this on, sweetheart? We are a part of one another and have been for millennia, since we were originally blessed by Aphrodite. It's not a matter of deserving one another, love. It's a matter of being destined for each other... something I treasure."

"So do I," Randi acknowledged.

"So what is really bothering you?"

The warrior shrugged, shifting her eyes from Gwen's until the bard cupped her face tenderly and turned it until their eyes met.

"No lies between us, Randi, and no hidden truths. I can't help you if you don't trust me."

The words cut deeply and Randi grasped the hand that remained on her face while her eyes searched out Gwen's before looking away again. "Oh no, Little One. Don't think that. I do trust you. I just... I'm... this... scares me."

Blonde brows flew into an equally blonde hairline. "We scare you?? Us together???" She didn't pull away, almost sure of what the problem was, but wanting Randi to actually talk to her about it.

Horrified blue eyes met patient green. "No, love, NO! This is the one thing I am sure of. The one thing I rely on. No, it... I'm... putting myself out there... like that... you know, telling my story... that... it scares me. Except to you, I've never... I've never opened myself up like that... to anyone but you I mean."

Gwen combed her hands through Randi's hair. "Sweetheart, if it bothers you this much I won't tell your story. I just...." She shrugged her shoulders. "I think it's a good story and deserves to be told."

Randi shook her head. "No. I trust you. I think you can make it so no one but us actually knows who the story is about. I'm not sure why this is spooking me so bad except... Gwen, I've spent a lifetime in the shadows."

"I know, love. That's why it's time for you to step out into the sunlight with me. I'll be right beside you every step of the journey, and you'll be with me through each step of the creative process until we are both satisfied with the result. And if we're not, or we see along the way that it is not working, the only people who will ever hear this story are you and me."

Randi leaned down and kissed the bard's forehead in benediction. "You are so good to me."

Gwen chuckled. "As you are to me, Stud. And I plan on bringing you into the sunlight with me if I have to drag you kicking and screaming. You've had enough shadows in your life."

Randi laughed. She couldn't help it. Between the bard's words and the determined look on her face, she just had to. Gwen looked charmed by that response, and it made her laugh even harder, and she recognized it for the emotional release it was.

"Drag me kicking and screaming, huh?" She chuckled again. "That's quite a visual. I suddenly feel like a cavewoman being claimed or something."

Gwen reached up and tweaked Randi's nose before dropping a kiss onto it. "You are," she asserted firmly and patted Randi's chest above her heart. "MINE," she said firmly with confidence.

"Uggg," the warrior replied cheekily before brushing a kiss across Gwen's lips. "I sure am."

Gwen smiled and slid from Randi's lap. "I'm gonna go write in my journal some more. You gonna...." She motioned vaguely with her hands. "Do something here?"

Randi shook her head. "Nah. I think I'll go upstairs for a while. Maybe a good workout will clear my head and I'll be able to remember what I was supposed to be doing here."

Gwen shook her head with a smile and walked back to the couch, curling up and pulling her journal back into her lap. But she watched the gentle sway of hips out of sight and licked her lips before she returned her attention to the book in her hands.

Randi made her way up the stairs conscious of Gwen's eyes on her hips. She preened just a little to herself, her ego happy with the knowledge that she inspired that sort of lust. Then she entered the gym and turned her focus to pitting herself against the equipment.

After a couple hours of clanking, banging and grunting, Gwen's attention was caught by the sound of absolute silence. It was alarming enough to her that she set her journal aside and made her way up the staircase at a fairly brisk pace.

"Randi?" she called out as she reached the top of the steps. "Sweetheart, are you all right?"

Not receiving an immediate answer, she rushed into the gym, only to stop short when her gaze found the treadmill. There was her partner, apparently unaware of her audience walking at a slow, sedate pace - on her hands. Gwen watched for several moments before she finally ventured close enough to touch the warrior, and found herself at the bottom of a hot, sweaty mesh of human flesh.

Gwen blinked in confusion, not quite sure how she'd gotten there. Randi did the same as she tried to figure out why she and Gwen were tangled together on the gym floor. Not that she minded, but she was fairly certain that hadn't been her intention.

"Gwen?" she queried, sitting up and pulling the bard up with her. She stood and retrieved a towel and her water bottle, consuming a goodly portion before she turned back. "What's wrong?"

Gwen shook her head. "Um, sorry. I think I interrupted something. But it was so quiet up here and when you didn't answer me, I got a little worried."

"Was I... hmmm," she moved to the bar and hoisted herself up by her arms, closing her eyes to concentrate. "Was I meditating? I think I was done exercising and had moved to the meditation stage."

"Maybe," Gwen answered. "You were walking your hands on the treadmill."

"God," Randi's eyes popped open and her brows shot into her hairline. "That is one of my deepest stages of meditation at home." She dropped from the bar and immediately moved to Gwen's side. "Are you all right?"

The bard nodded. "I'm fine. You surprised me is all." She captured Randi's hands in her own as the warrior carefully checked her for damage. "Honey, really... I'm all right."

"You're sure? I'm... Gwen, that is... I could have unintentionally hurt you very badly. My body is trained to react without conscious thought at that level."

Gwen smiled. "No problem," she replied, taking one hand and running it up Randi's bare side and watching the tremors follow in its wake. "Your body knows me intimately, and is trained to recognize me without conscious thought."

"Oh yeah," the warrior agreed, reveling in the touch of skin on skin.

A flash of lightning brought Randi back to the present and she turned from the window to view the room she stood in - alone. Looking at it with new eyes, it was easy see why Gwen had hated it so much. It was palatial... ostentatious to the point of being vulgar. Marble, gold inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, yards of silk and fine lace and as cold and unfeeling as a tomb.

The bed took up a good portion of the space in the room and Randi realized with a start that though they had shared the room, they had never shared the bed or themselves in this place. It had been a seeming eternity since she and Gwen had shared more than space, and the Marine felt her chest begin to crush under the weight of the revelation of what she had held... then lost... forever.

She deliberately turned her back on the room and all it represented. She expected it wouldn't be too long before she was paid a visit, and right now, she just didn't want to deal with anything but the agony coursing through her soul. There would be time enough to deal with him later - when the pain had faded to something tolerable. But she did chance to wonder if that was even a possibility given the anguish she felt at the rending of her body, mind and soul.

Still clasping Gwen's ring in her hand, Randi gave an inarticulate cry, and she ran to the door and yanked it open, not even drawing the attention of guards and staff who had quickly grown used to her late-night rants and rages. The Sabre moved swiftly through the massive, ornate hallways until she reached the door that led to the outside. The door opened seemingly of its own volition and the sound of the storm increased dramatically.

Randi stepped outside the fortress into the driving rain, hoping it would purge the pain she felt. Wishing she could go back home where the sound of the rain would be accompanied by the crash of waves on the beach.

She hated it here, she realized. Hated who she was and what she had become. And she hated the fact that more than anyone who had been enslaved against their will, she was a prisoner incarcerated by her own choices.

"GWEN!!" she screamed into the darkness, knowing there would be no answer, but falling to her knees anyway when silence was the only reply she received.

Randi dropped her chin to her chest, too tired and drained to cry. She closed her eyes and let her mind go back to the Friday following the freak ice storm. It had been one of the nicer surprises she'd gotten and she remembered the feelings that had washed over her.

The weather was... bizarre. After the ice storm, it had mellowed to the point of being mild - almost warm. Tommy caught Randi in her office a couple days later and invited her and Gwen over for dinner the following evening. He'd hoped to do ask them both at lunch, but he'd seen Randi ride Excalibur up from the stalls and had a real sneaking suspicion he wouldn't be seeing them in the mess hall.

"Just let me know. Ella's making chicken and dumplings and she needs to know how much."

Randi's eyes lit up. "If Ella's making chicken and dumplings, we are so there. I love those, and so does Gwen. What time?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. Just come on over once you get home and settled. You know when we eat, and it's not like we have anything pressing this weekend. We can just sit a visit a while." He moved to perch on a corner of her desk. "I know you're a newlywed, but I've missed you being around. It's been different... hectic... since you came back."

A frown creased Randi's features. "From our honeymoon?" wondering what had happened that Tommy would consider it hectic.

"Um, no. From the... uh, dead. I mean, I'm sorry Randi. It's just... we never get to see ya'll anymore, and I miss ya."

Randi smiled and stood up, walking around the desk and embracing Tommy from behind for a long moment. "I'm sorry, T. I didn't even realize...."

He patted the arms wrapped firmly around his neck. "I know, and I feel selfish saying anything. But it would be nice to get back to having an evening a week to spend together if we can manage it."

"I think we can manage it, Tommy. It will give Gwen a chance to ease back into bard mode with someone other than me, though I gotta tell ya - it is so good to see that returning." She loosened her grip and walked around to sit in one of the chairs in front of her desk. Tommy slid off his perch and took the seat opposite her.

"It really is. I can't tell you how excited I was when she came and asked about returning to performance. I have some ideas I'm hoping to try with her - a couple new styles."

Randi's brow scrunched up again in unhappy thought. "You're gonna mess with her storytelling skills, T? I don't think...."

"What?! No, NO!! I am not that stupid even on bad days. Slow, sometimes but not stupid. No! Geez! No, what I want to do is try a couple new settings... something aside from live theatre for her. She... she tells stories differently outside that setting and I'd like to try those settings for a broadcast instead of simply sticking her on a stage in front of a live audience."

Now the warrior was scowling in confusion and Tommy reached over and patted her hands. "Don't worry, Randi. I think this is a good thing, and I do know what I'm talking about. And if Gwen's not comfortable, well, we can always do live theatre. She sells out on her name alone these days." He shook his head and Randi cocked an inquiring eyebrow in his direction.

"You remember the stint she did at festival when she was reading from the scroll you held for her?" waiting for her nod. "Randi, I can't tell you the number of people that were turned away trying to get in. I'm sure you didn't notice, but it was standing room only. It is never standing room only. Most people won't pay to stand through a performance they can watch from the comfort of their own homes. But they did to hear her. So trust me, she's still got mass appeal. I just want to tweak the settings... see what happens."

Randi grinned. "Not like I can't find you if it doesn't work." She looked at her watch. "Time for me to go pick up my girl. We have a date."

"I hate to tell you this short stuff, but you and your girl have had a date everyday since you met. Sometimes you just actually go somewhere to be alone."

He walked out before she could formulate an answer, a pleased smile on his face knowing he'd gotten one in on her. Randi just watched him leave and shook her head. There really wasn't much she could say to dispute his words. With a silent chuckle, she rose from the chair, snatched up their picnic supplies and headed out to where Excalibur stood patiently waiting.

The following afternoon Randi stood in the doorway of Gwen's workroom observing the bard as she helped one of her former students find the balance he needed to make his story flow. She didn't do it for him; simply led him in the right direction until he reached his own conclusions.

"Thanks, Miss Gwen," he said shyly.

The bard smiled and patted his arm. "You're doing fine, Brad. You just need to have a little more confidence in yourself."

The young man started to say something else when a slight movement at the door caught his attention. His eyes went wide when he realized that the warrior was watching them intently, the expression on her face as her eyes followed Gwen one of passionate possession. Gwen saw him swallow hard and turned to the door, her smile widening into a blinding grin. Randi pushed off the doorframe as Gwen rose to meet her.

"I didn't realize you were giving private lessons," the warrior commented pointedly, making Gwen's brow furrow at the tone.

Gwen walked right into Randi's personal space and snuggled into her. The warrior looked down bemusedly at the blonde head tucked contentedly beneath her chin and smiled. Brad flushed uncomfortably and scooped up his notes before leaving the room with a single backward glance.

"I've missed you today," the bard said softly.

"Me too," Randi replied with a squeeze. "So what was up with the kid?"

"Huh? Oh, Enrique asked if I could meet with him today. He had an appointment of some kind."

Randi's eyes found the path Brad had followed. The boy set off her squick meter. She figured he'd bear watching in the near future. She knew better than to ignore her Sabre sense.

"Hmm," the warrior said noncommittally. But Gwen heard the undertones in the sound clearly.

"Problem?" she asked, pulling back to look up into Randi's blue eyes.

Randi brushed a kiss across Gwen's forehead. "I hope not. I just...."

Gwen waited while the silence dragged on. Finally she felt the need to prod. "You just what, love?"

"He sets my teeth on edge, Gwen. Just be careful around him, all right?"

Gwen scowled slightly, seeing real concern reflected back to her. "I will, sweetheart, but today was the exception, not the rule. You know I am out of the teaching circle now. I was just helping Enrique out."

Randi hugged Gwen again. "I know." She sighed. "You about done here?"

"Yeah. I wanna get home. I've got something I wanna make to take to Ella's."

"Ooookay," Randi drawled, her curiosity piqued.

Gwen chuckled. "Don't worry. It won't take long, and I think you'll like it."

Gwen was right - it hadn't taken long and Randi did love it, but....

"Did you have to make so much fudge, Gwen? We're gonna be eating this stuff for Celebration," she teased.

The bard smiled secretly. Tommy had confided to her part of the reason he'd invited them to dinner, and she was hard-pressed to contain her excitement at the prospects for the evening. She realized she'd gone overboard with the candy from Randi's point of view, but they only had to get through dinner before she understood the real reason behind the quantity.

"Nah," she teased in return. "I know what happens when you are left alone with chocolate."

Randi's grown-up answer was to stick out her tongue....

... only to have it caught and thoroughly laved by Gwen's own. Only when they were both breathing quite heavily did the bard pull away. It took another full minute for blue eyes to flutter open.

"Whoo," she said quietly. "What was I saying?"

Gwen chuckled. "Beats me, but I think we need to go before I forget why we're going out instead of curling up together in front of the fireplace making out."

Randi put her hands on Gwen's waist. "Why are we?" leaning her body on the couch which brought her to perfect nuzzling level of Gwen's smooth neck. Unconsciously, the bard leaned her head to one side to allow Randi more room to explore.

"Because," she started then bit her lip, trying to focus. "Because we don't... we don't want Tommy coming over... here looking for us again," she finished in a rush.

Randi sighed deeply, the burst of air hot over Gwen's neck causing her to shiver. "You're right. We can finish this later."

Gwen gave the warrior a quick peck on the lips before picking up the fudge and heading for the door. "Yep, and if it's still nice tomorrow, maybe we can go for a ride."

Randi opened the door and nonchalantly took the box from the bard's hands as she passed. "I like that idea. I feel the need for some barbeque."

"Well, c'mon. I want chicken and dumplings tonight."

"That was fabulous!" Gwen told Ella. "One day you're gonna have to teach me the secret."

Dinner had gone well and conversation had flowed smoothly, but it hadn't escaped Randi's notice that all three adults at the table kept eyeing their watches as though they were expecting... something. She shrugged, figuring she'd find out soon enough, and in the meantime, there was always Randall to focus her attention on.

He reached out both arms to her as Tommy, Ella and Gwen began to stir from the table, moving things into the kitchen to get them cleaned up, and Randi was happy to comply. Ella nudged Tommy and he nodded with a smile.

"Hey Randi, why don't you and Gwen settle the boy in for the night while Ella and I clean up here and then we can have some coffee and some adult conversation?"

The warrior looked to the bard who nodded and took her elbow, and they moved down the hall without another word. Tommy and Ella watched them out of sight before they moved, clearing the table quickly and speaking in whispers.

"You think she suspects?" Tommy asked.

"Well, she probably suspect something," Ella answered, "but I doubt she suspects the truth."

He nodded and smiled, noting the stealth the guys were using outside in the pavilion area. He hoped they would be ready in time, and he really hoped Randi appreciated the surprise.

Chapter VIII

Randi took her time cleaning Randall up, helped him go potty and change into his pajamas, then picked him up to blow raspberries on his belly. Gwen leaned on the door jamb and just watched the interplay between them, enjoying the innocent banter and fun they were having together. Randall's childish laughter rose in high-pitched giggles and Gwen smiled in sympathy with him.

Finally, Randi sat in the big rocker and the boy's chuckles died away into big smiles. He reached up with both hands, confident in his charm, and cupped Randi's face. He looked directly in the warrior's eyes and said, "Wuv, sing pwease?"

She looked back at him, then turned her attention to Gwen, extending a hand and waiting til the bard took it and sat down on the floor beside them. "What shall I sing?"

"Sing Love's Song," Gwen said and Randi tilted her head until she realized Gwen had named the lullaby she'd always shared with Randall. With a deep breath, the low notes carried into the room and the warrior slowly rocked back and forth in a soothing, even motion. Before long, Randall's lashes were fluttering in a vain attempt to stay awake and within minutes, his breathing evened out in sleep.

Randi held him a moment longer, enjoying the peace and innocence his sleeping face held, before easing up into a standing position. Gwen rose with her and pulled his covers aside, waiting for Randi to lay him down and the covering Randall's body.

The bard leaned over and kissed the child, then the warrior did the same, and they linked hands as they stood observing him for a moment longer.

"What is Tommy up to?" Randi questioned softly, not wanting to disturb Randall's slumber. Gwen used their joined hands and pulled them towards the door.

"Something nice, I promise. It's a surprise you'll like," she continued, seeing the skeptical look on Randi's face.

"You promise?"

"Yep, I sure do," Gwen confirmed, lifting their hands to her lips and brushing them gently. Then she started drawing Randi from the room and moving them back towards the living area of the house. "Try to act surprised though, please. T is really excited about this."

Randi dragged her feet, but nodded to Gwen just the same. "All right," she compromised, "but if I hate it, you're gonna owe me big time."

"Okay," the bard agreed readily, "but if I don't, you'll owe me. " She laughed. "Either way we win." Then they entered the kitchen to find Tommy and Ella sitting on the couch, looking for all the world like the cat that had swallowed the proverbial canary. Randi decided to play along, knowing Gwen was right and no matter which way things played out, they would both come out winners.

"We thought if you two were up to it, we'd take our coffee outside. It's so nice out tonight, we'd like to take advantage of it. Especially after the weird weather earlier this week."

Now this was really standard operating procedure for them, and under normal circumstances, Randi wouldn't have wondered what was behind the request. However, she'd agreed to try and act surprised, so she simply nodded her acquiescence. Gwen squeezed her hand and went to help Ella with the coffee while Tommy grabbed a couple kinds of cake with a sheepish grin.

"I like a bit of something to go with my coffee, and we haven't had dessert yet. Wanna grab the fudge?"

Randi couldn't stop the eyebrow that rose into her hairline at that directive. "All of it?"

Tommy had the grace to look embarrassed. "May as well," he said as nonchalantly as he could manage. "We can always bring it back in."

"Uhhhh huuuhhh," she drawled, picking up the box. "Whatever you say," motioning him to lead the way. Gwen and Ella just exchanged glances and shook their heads in tandem and followed them outside.

As soon as they stepped outdoors, it occurred to Randi what must be going on, and she decided to step up to the plate and see what kind of hit she'd get.

"Hey, T... you still got my old drum set around here?"

"Wha... huh?" he stammered, wondering if she knew. Then his mouth caught up to his brain. "Oh, uh, yeah... yeah. Should um... should still be boxed up on the stage," motioning to the covered pavilion where the band had played many a Friday night. Her eyes followed his gesture, and she could just make out subtle movement in the darkness. She grinned covertly, excited about the prospect of what was coming.

She started moving in the direction of the drums. "Flip the lights, will ya, T?" she called out over her shoulder, stretching out and taking to the stage in a single leap. The lights came on as she reached the set, and she made quick work of unlocking the cases and setting them aside. Randi walked around the set reverently before finally taking a seat on the stool, her fingers lightly caressing each instrument in turn.

The warrior forgot her original intention while she embraced her memories. A small smile crept onto her face, and she wasn't at all surprised that the light touch on her shoulder brought Gwen into contact with her. They exchanged looks, both reliving another time with fondness before the bard extended her hands and placed a set of drum sticks into Randi's hands. Randi accepted the offering with a kiss to Gwen's knuckles, then spun the sticks and dropped right into a warm-up exercise she hadn't done in more than a year and a half.

She lost herself in the rhythm and music she was creating, peripherally aware of the gradual change in sound as one after another of the band members joined in her song. With a flourish and a feral joy that couldn't be hidden, Randi wrapped the first set on her feet. The echoes of sound hadn't even stopped reverberating before she found herself locked in a group hug by men she was happy to call friend and who weren't ashamed to be crying real tears at her return.

It lasted mere moments before they all pulled away with an embarrassed laugh. Without a word, Randi picked up her sticks and clapped them together in a countdown to starting a new song. The guys scrambled to get into place and it wasn't long before music was ringing out across the island, sounding just like old times.

"So, did you like Tommy's surprise?" Gwen asked with a knowing twinkle in her eye as they entered the bedroom much later that evening. Randi hadn't lost her grin since she'd picked up the drumsticks and started playing, a state compounded by the happiness she'd felt in being joined with such obvious enthusiasm by her old band mates.

Randi ran and tackled the bard to the bed, eliciting a squeal she'd learned to appreciate and even look forward to hearing.

"RANDI!!" she said with a chuckle, pressing her hands against the warrior's broad shoulders and looking up into mirth-filled blue eyes. Randi swooped down and stole a quick kiss, before pulling back to lock gazes with Gwen.

"You know I did, you little fink! How long did you know about it?" using long fingers to her advantage to tickle the bard though her own laughter was hampering any real efforts at teasing.

"He... told me thiiiiisss... afternoon." Gwen captured the squirming digits and kissing them. "Hold that thought, love," she said, squirming out from under the warrior, who promptly fell onto her side and propped her head up on an elbow. She watched Gwen rush into the bathroom and her brow furrowed in concern.

"You all right, my bard? You're not getting sick or something, are ya?" half-rising from the bed.

"I'm fine, Randi... just had to pee and this is about the first chance I've had."

Randi chuckled and fell back onto the bed. "Yeah, it did get a little crazy. But, God... I haven't had that kinda fun in I don't know when. I missed that," she continued more softly.

Gwen came out of the bathroom and spooned behind her, relishing the contact when Randi turned in her arms and snuggled into her.

"I think... no, I KNOW the guys did too. Tommy said they'd asked and asked until he just decided to take the bull by the horns and get everybody over to play."

"But why all the secrecy?"

"'Cause he's a showman, sweetheart. You know that. He likes to...."

"He likes to turn things into a production with a dramatic flair."

Gwen laughed and Randi bounced along with her movement enjoying the sensation of being held by the bard despite the jarring.

"You have quite a way with words there, warrior mine," Gwen intoned as her chuckles slowed.

"Yeah, well, T has quite a way with flair." Randi shifted so she could look up into Gwen's eyes. "Speaking of - has he talked to you yet about what he wants to try with you?" At Gwen's blank stare she went on, "With your storytelling?"

"Oh, no... I just know it has something to do with formatting on his end. I think we're supposed to sit down together in the next week or so. He wanted to let me get my bearings back, I think, before he threw anything new at me. I don't think it has anything to do with my storytelling per se." She frowned slightly. "I hope," Gwen added, though with far less confidence.

Randi tightened her hold around the bard's waist. "He told me it had something to do with settings. I was just curious if he'd talked to you about it yet." She squeezed again. "He knows better than to mess with your storytelling. You know the old adage - if it ain't broke...."

"... don't fix it. Yeah, but it was broke for a while there."

"Nah," Randi disagreed with a shaky grin. "It was just on hiatus."

Gwen's laughter caught them both by surprise and Randi chuckled in sympathy.

"Thank you, love," Gwen said, wiping her eyes as her amusement abated. "I needed that."

"Hmm," snuggling in deeper and closing her eyes.

"Um, Randi?" Gwen said quietly after several long, silent moments, gently brushing long, dark locks away from the warrior's peaceful face.

"Hmm? Shh... sleepin'," she said, nuzzling the soft chest she was resting on.

The bard bit her lip to keep from laughing. "Sweetheart, can we at least get undressed? We can crawl back into these positions, but I really don't wanna sleep with jeans on." She squirmed a little bit. "They leave creases and are uncomfortable."

A blue eye popped open and rolled up to looked up into Gwen's face, seeing only sweet affection staring back at her. Randi flopped over onto her back, arms spread across the mattress, allowing Gwen the chance to scoot off the bed.

"I think you just wanna get me naked," Randi said with a yawn, stretching her whole body before falling bonelessly back onto the firm surface.

Gwen cut her eyes in Randi's direction as she slipped the jeans down her legs. "Well, duh, honey," she replied with a cheeky grin. The bard slid her shirt from her body and then frowned when she took in the warrior's lack of movement. "But I don't seem to be making much progress in that direction."

Randi tucked her hands behind her head. "I was perfectly content to curl up clothed, ya know...." She paused as she considered Gwen's current state of undress. "Though I am happy to admit utter pleasure with the state of your lack thereof right at this moment." She whistled wolfishly, then she smiled as she followed the blush that made its way from Gwen's toes to the top of her head. "You do that so beautifully, ya know. Almost an art form itself... OOF!!"

Gwen landed on Randi's belly before sliding off onto her side of the bed, casually plumping up the pillows before making a show of settling down to sleep. Randi scowled.

"Hey, what about me?" said with the merest hint of a pout, motioning to her still mostly clothed body.

"Oh, sorry, love," Gwen answered and rolled onto her back, holding out her arms for Randi to crawl into.

"Uh... but... Gweeeennnnnn!"

The bard managed to keep from laughing by sheer grit, though she couldn't keep the mischief from sparkling out of her eyes. "Yes, dear?"

"Why... you... what... YOU'RE MEAN!!" Randi sputtered before collapsing onto her back beside Gwen, crossing her arms over her chest and breaking into a full-fledged pout. Gwen burst into nearly-hysterical giggles.

It took several minutes for the bard to stop laughing completely as every time she glanced towards Randi, she would be assailed by laughter all over again. The warrior was having a hard time holding her pout; the sight of so much happiness in Gwen even at her expense made her want to smile. So she settled for glaring at the ceiling until the bed stopped shaking.

"Are you done?" Randi asked with a mock growl, keeping her focus on the ceiling in order to hold her composure. She forgot to count on Gwen and grunted once more when the bard landed across her mid-section again. "OOF!!"

"Nope, now that you mention it," slowly unbuttoning the shirt Randi wore, pulling the warrior into a sitting position to slide it off her body. Randi took advantage of their arrangement to nip lightly at Gwen's pulse point, causing the bard to jump before pushing Randi back with a finger to her forehead.

"Behave," she commanded sternly, pushing the shirt down and flinging it to the floor. Then she moved down to straddle Randi's knees, stopping to tickle the bare belly which rippled in reflex.

"Hey, what happened to behaving?"

"That directive was for you, Stud, not for me. Lift up." Randi did and Gwen slid the jeans down long legs, dropping them off the end of the bed before climbing back up to the head of the bed and crawling under the cover. She situated herself while Randi watched with amusement, then extended her arms.

Randi smiled and moved back into the spot reserved for her alone, curling her longer body around Gwen's and greedily absorbing the gentle contact of the bard's fingertips on her skin. She returned the light stroking, watching in fascination as goosebumps followed in the wake of her touch.

"Lights," she called softly, relishing the semi-darkness created by the stars, the bit of moon and the phosphorescence of the waves as they crashed rhythmically on the shore. Randi hummed almost soundlessly as Gwen's touch moved into her hairline.

"This has been a good day," Randi murmured.

"Um hmm," Gwen agreed without missing a beat.

Randi tickled Gwen's ribs, causing the bard to jump and shift a little before pinching the warrior's behind.

Randi bit her lip to keep from squealing, then moaned softly when Gwen rubbed the spot she'd just tweaked.

"You don't play fair, you know that?"

"Yep, "Gwen answered with a smile in her voice. "You wanna trade places?"

Randi snuggled deeper into the soft chest she had her head pillowed on. "Nope, she replied blissfully. "I'm very happy where I'm at... quite content."

"Me too. Go to sleep."

Randi smiled. "I love you, Gwen."

"I love you too, Sweetheart. Goodnight."

Silence was its own answer as two sets of breathing deepened into the rhythms of sleep.

Not far from the fortress where Randi was, at least as the crow flies, Reed was steeling herself for the nightmare to come. Around her, much of her clan also prepared, as they would be required to maintain the shielding she would so desperately need once Gwen arrived.

Most of them didn't understand the semantics of what was going on. Sky had simply explained what was needed, not why, and the clan had rallied behind Reed to provide whatever the seer required of them. For Sky and Reed though, the coming ordeal was a trial to be borne and they were thankful for the support they had in this place.

Rosie stepped into the kitchen and took a seat at the table. Sky placed a cup of coffee in front of her and she accepted it with an absent nod.

"Gwen is on her way. She should be to the cabin within the hour."

Sky nodded. "Are you going to meet her there? Bring her here? What?"

"We need to meet her there," Reed said from the doorway. "She's gonna need all the positive karma she can muster, and that place holds it for her in spades."

"Reed's right," Rosie agreed. "We have our best chance of channeling the energy we're gonna need to get this done there."

Sky nodded. "I'll go let everyone know it's time and have them go stake out a perimeter. Then I need to get started myself," he said, draining his coffee and rising, making his way out of the house as quickly as he could. It wouldn't take much. The tribe had gathered at the restaurant earlier when it looked like things were finally coming to a head. Now they sat patiently waiting for their work to begin.

Reed and Rosie looked at each other for a long moment. They had been strangers when this started, but time and circumstances had made them trusted friends and allies. The shamaness held out her hands palms up, and Reed placed hers palms down on top. They could feel the strength flowing between them.

They let the field build until the air around them crackled with energy and the touch they shared was almost painful in its intensity. Finally the concentration of power leveled off and they sat back with a deep breath.

"Thank you, Rosie," Reed said with deep gratitude. "I'm not sure I could survive this without you."

Rosie accepted the thanks with a smile, knowing for a fact what was coming could still obliterate all of them. "I'm glad to help, Reed. Those girls have been like my own, and the idea of Ares destroying them for sport...." She shook her head, unable to finish the thought.

"Especially with the consequences that would follow," Reed said quietly. She scrubbed her hands over her face, covering it for long moments while she simply concentrated on breathing before removing them and looking Rosie squarely in the eye.

"Do you think we'll succeed, Rosie? Honestly - no bullshit."

"I think Gwen coming here alone is the best chance we're gonna have," the shamaness replied. "It all depends on how badly Randi wants it."

"Yeah, but does Randi want it?"

Rosie shrugged. "I hope so, because otherwise...." She shrugged again, though her tension was evident. "We'll know for sure very soon. Until then, we have to protect what we have so we're ready."

The seer smiled tiredly. "I know, Rosie. Sorry... I am just so tired and ready for this to be over - one way or another."

"I know, my friend. I promise it will be soon. That much I know. The rest? Well, we'll see."

"I just hope Randi does before it's too late to do anything about it."

Randi looked up as lightning struck close enough to make her hair stand on end and wondered just how long she had been sitting in the rain getting thoroughly soaked. The rain continued to fall in her face and it forced her eyes closed again, bringing the happy images back to the fore. She realized as she sat there defeated that she hadn't seen that playfulness in either herself or Gwen since they'd come to this location.

A hand on her shoulder caused her eyes to open, and she looked up into Tiny's grim face. Randi understood for the first time just what this had cost not only her and Gwen, but everyone.

The two Sabres looked at one another for a long moment before Tiny extended his hand. "C'mon, Empress. You need to get back inside before you catch your death."

Randi shuddered at the title and gazed at him with sad blue eyes. "Please don't call me that," she whispered before accepting his hand and letting him help her rise to her feet. "I hate that worse than Gwen hated 'consort'. She paused, looked at the ring still clenched in her fist then asked seriously but just as quietly, "You don't think me dying would be the best for all concerned, Tiny? It would solve a lot of problems."

"Oh no," the Navy man answered unequivocally. "You're not quitting," he said, though there appeared to be more he wanted to say. Instead he bit his lips and continued to escort Randi back into the fortress she now called home.

"Say it," Randi commanded in a low, fierce tone. "C'mon, Tiny. You've never held back before. Why start now?" with just a hint of a sneer in her voice, hoping to goad him in doing... something. At least he'd stand a chance of holding his own against her if they went head to head, and right now, she need the release that fighting would allow her.

He gazed at her sadly, knowing her aim and refusing to be baited. Her shoulders sagged in defeat. She knew the words he wouldn't give voice to, and she knew he was completely correct in his silent assessment. She wouldn't give up, she wouldn't quit and one way or another, she would find a way to make things right again. Or at least as right as she could. Randi turned her eyes in the direction Gwen's shuttle had taken. Some things just couldn't be undone.

They entered the fortress and dripped a trail all the way to the cavernous bedroom. Without discussion, Randi went right into the bathroom to get out of her wet things, and Tiny picked up a towel and began to dry himself off as best he could.

Randi emerged from the bathroom clad in a robe and toweling out her hair. "Here," she said briskly, shoving another robe in his direction. "It'll be a little snug, but at least it's dry."

The big man nodded his thanks and moved rapidly towards the bathroom, stripping out of his wet things and into the dry fleece with a sense of relief. Then he hung up his clothes next to Randi's and made his way back to her room.

She was standing before a now active fireplace, a glass of merlot in her hand as she stared unseeing into the flames. She motioned to the open bottle and the empty glass. "Help yourself."

Tiny did so, though with much less wine than Randi had. He sipped it slowly, appreciating the warmth it put in his belly, but unwilling to lose his sensibilities. Not now - when they were this close to finishing everything.

Randi continued to watch the fire though she was aware of every movement in the otherwise silent room. Finally she cleared her throat and asked, "Where's Reed?"

Tiny stared at her back for a long moment before moving over to the window to look out at the expanse of darkness. He could feel and hear the ferocity of the storm as though it was an entity reaching out to him, but he was only allowed to glimpse the lashing rain on the window when the infrequent flash of lightning permitted it.

"She went home," he replied into the silence, careful to omit exactly which home she'd returned to. They'd cast everything on this one last gamble and if they lost.... He shook his head and took another swallow of wine. They wouldn't. Too much depended on their success. As long as they could keep Ares out of the loop.... Tiny shuddered. As a warrior, he disdained the war god to the point of loathing. But he only had to maintain the charade of tolerance a little while longer.

He felt Randi's gaze on the back of his neck and he turned to meet her eyes. They were filled with sorrow, pain and strangely enough, determination. He smiled wanly at her. "She couldn't stay. The energy - the rift - was killing her." Not to mention Gwen needed her to guide her spirit quest, he thought but didn't say aloud. Randi would understand things soon enough.

"They why...?" The warrior motioned around them. He got the hint.

"Because my duty lies here, Empress," he said bowing his head slightly and her head dropped. Despite everything, Tiny had remained a faithful, loyal friend and confidante.

"Are you sure she doesn't need you?" remembering the grounding Tiny had always provided for the seer and for the first time in a while, putting someone else's needs and desires above her own.

"Not like you do, Empress."

There was no real answer Randi could give to that statement without admitting to something she was unwilling to yet. The silence fell thick between them, and she clenched her hands again. Gwen's ring cut into her palm as she cast her mind back to when things had first started to unravel for her and Gwen.

The next few weeks settled into a comfortable routine for the couple. The weekdays were filled with work, though Randi was happy to note that Brad wasn't seen in Gwen's vicinity. She'd gotten another missive, this one purporting to be from the Wizards, and the warrior had more than a sneaking suspicion that Brad had something to do with it making its way to her.

Her talk with Tiny had been less than satisfying, and had she not known him so well, she would have suspected him of dissimilation when they spoke. As it was he was vague about a good many things - enough to cause her hackles to rise and set her back up.

So she did what she had always done. Randi began doing her own research - putting out feelers and looking for answers she hoped not to find... at least not if they were going to be what her instincts led her to believe they would.

She didn't share any of this with Gwen. She saw no reason to upset the bard for possibilities. Time enough for that when... *IF* they pan out. I could be all wrong about this. Though the Sabre in her knew better. Her intuition in situations like this had never led her astray. She was being targeted specifically.

However, until they had precise information on where exactly the threat was coming from, Randi was unwilling to share the danger with Gwen. In her opinion, they had been tormented enough. She saw no point in adding to it without substantiated proof, knowing Gwen would kick her ass if she found out she was hiding information like this. But the rules of conduct that had kept her alive for all of her adult life kicked in, and though there was no change in her demeanor, Randi felt the difference. She knew the Marine Sabre had come home.

Evenings were spent in front of the fireplace, snuggling, cuddling, laughing, talking and making love together. It was the most peaceful time they'd shared collectively, aside from their honeymoon, and they treasured the time together - both the quality and the quantity. Mornings found them in their favorite position in bed, with Gwen's head on Randi's shoulder, legs and arms entwined until the only way to tell them apart was the natural colors of their skin.

Still, every morning Gwen spent some time tracing Randi's features as she committed them to tactile memory. Not that they weren't embedded in the depths of her soul, but it was comforting and familiar and gave her a sense of reassurance she still craved even months after her kidnapping by Ben. And it was a ritual they had both come to appreciate in that it reminded them of who and what they were to one another.

Fridays brought band practice once again and both Randi and Gwen found themselves looking forward to the weekly event. Saturdays were their own, usually spent on the bike going to their spot and always stopping at Rosie's for a barbeque lunch. Sundays were set aside for chores and talking to Gwen's folks on the vid phone. Geoff was making great progress according to his doctors and therapists, though when questioned directly, he admitted to being less than satisfied with his improvement.

About a month after their return from their honeymoon, Tommy asked for some time to talk to them on Sunday afternoon. It was Tiny's call that came as an unwelcome surprise.

Chapter IX

"C'mon in, T," Randi said, motioning him towards the living room. "Gwen will be right out." She smiled and moved toward the kitchen. "You want something to drink?"

"Nah, I'm good right now." He looked at his watch then gestured towards the bedroom. "She all right?" Gwen was noted for her punctuality and she'd known he was due after lunch. It wasn't like her not to be waiting for his arrival.

Randi pulled a bottle of water from the fridge and came back out into the living area, perching on the arm of the sofa behind Tommy. "Yeah, just a little nervous. You've never really taken her aside to do anything with her storytelling, and with all the problems she had getting back in the groove...." Randi shrugged. "I think it spooked her a little."

"God almighty!" Tommy covered his face with his hands and shook his head, then he blew out a breath and clapped his hands together, bringing them to his lips. "And she's been thinking about this for the past month, hasn't she? It's been driving her nuts, and I just kept putting off talking to her to give her a chance to settle back into a routine. Damn! I'm sorry, Randi. I never meant...."

The warrior held up her hands. "I know, T. I explained it to her, but still...." She chuckled, not seeing Gwen come up behind her. "I think it's that bard ego thing."

A pair of arms slid around her neck, and Randi would have audibly gulped if it wouldn't have ruined her warrior image. Gwen let her nails rake across Randi's chest and up the sides of her neck, relishing the shiver she felt pass through the warrior's body. "What bard ego, hmm?"

Tommy sat very quietly, enjoying the by-play between them. It was a rare, personal glimpse into their life together even as well as he knew them. He valued the opportunity to see them like one another, care for one another, love one another.

"Um, sweetheart?" Randi said quietly, trying to turn away from Tommy as much as possible and keep their conversation private. "Tommy's here. Maybe we should talk about this later."

"Oh," Gwen responded in a normal voice, not quite able to repress the twinkle in her eyes. "I don't think he'd mind waiting at all. In fact, I bet he'd be really interested to hear more details about this bard ego thing." She turned towards Tommy who was doing his level best to keep a straight face. "Whaddya say, T? Wouldn't you like a little more insight on this?"

At that precise moment, the vid phone began chirping, causing a complete change in the atmosphere in the room - relief from Randi and resignation from Gwen. The sound sent an odd chill skittering up her spine and she just knew Randi was gonna use it as an excuse not to have to sit through her meeting with Tommy. Not that Gwen could blame Randi, but for the first time since she was a child, Gwen had a distinct twinge of nervousness flowing through her, and she'd wanted Randi's support for whatever Tommy was going to tell her.

The warrior looked at Tommy. "Can you let me answer that before we get started?" she asked, knowing from the ring tone that it was Tiny. When she'd returned from the dead and severed most of her ties to the Sabres, she'd taken the time to reset her phone with different sounds for different individuals. These were folks she'd been friends with for most of her adult life that she hadn't wanted to lose contact with and since she no longer had any 'official' contact with them, she'd had a great time picking out sounds to match personalities. She couldn't have explained why, but at the moment, she was profoundly grateful she had.

"Sure, short stuff. I'm not in any hurry. Go take your call."

Gwen merely squeezed her hand and looked at her with gratitude. Randi brushed the bard's cheek with the back of her knuckles before moving over to her security area and keying in the codes to answer the vid phone, placing it on the smaller computer monitor and not the large wall screen. Her gut told her this was not something she wanted broadcast yet... if ever.

The Sabre was facing the room, though neither Gwen nor Tommy could see her actual expression. But the bard felt the tautness appear in her shoulders, and even as she got something for herself and Tommy to drink, she wondered what had happened to bring that tension into Randi's posture.

Randi made arrangements with Tiny, and closed the call. Then she leaned forward and focused on nothing for a long moment before dropping her Sabre mask into place. Though she'd put it away almost a full year previously, the façade came back to her now with the comfort of an old friend returning.

"Sweetheart?" Randi smiled when two arms wrapped around her neck affectionately. She leaned back into the embrace and gazed up at Gwen.

"Do you know how much I love you?"

A frown creased Gwen's brow momentarily as her mind attempted to jump the tracks it had been running on, but was almost immediately replaced by a smile as the words registered.

"Almost as much as I love you?"

"More, actually," Randi said without missing a beat. She put her hands on Gwen's arms and returned the hug as well as she could. "But we can talk about it later," she added in a whisper. A nod in Tommy's direction showed he had moved to the French doors and was doing his level best not to watch the proceedings between them.

Gwen planted a kiss near Randi's ear. "And we'll talk about what's bothering you later too, right?" feeling the tension running just beneath the surface.

"C'mon," Randi said as she rose and extended a hand towards Gwen. "Let's let Tommy off the hook. I think the suspense is killing him."

The bard dragged the warrior to a stop. "We will talk later." Not a question this time.

Randi nodded. "Yeah. We will."

"I'd like to try a couple different formats, Gwen." Tommy jumped right to business when they were all seated again. "I'd like to see you in more personal, intimate surrounding - something we can't do with your tours, but that we could utilize for your broadcasts."

"Different how?"

"Well, I'd like to do something exclusively with children, very similar to what you do at band practice. Bring in a few children with you so the story is directed to them. We can put you in a variety of settings, but the fact is, everything about your storytelling changes for a small group. Your focus, your cadence, the tone... even the story itself. I'd like to try a couple specials doing this."

Gwen sat silently for a few minutes, reviewing his words and envisioning what he saw. Tommy sat quietly chewing his lip and Randi merely sat, her thoughts hundreds of miles away. Finally, Gwen turned her gaze back to him and smiled.

"I like it. I think it's a good idea and it should work really well. You're right - my delivery, everything changes when I am telling stories to the kids. And it's new... different. It will make a nice performance twist as well. Bet I can even work it into live performance."

Tommy laughed. "No bet. I know you can."

"So what's the other idea?"

He looked at Randi, praying that she wouldn't go thru the ceiling at his next suggestion. Gwen caught his pensive look and tilted her head in question. For her part, Randi allowed Tommy's regard to bring her back from wherever she'd gone and her blue eyes drilled into his.

"What are you thinking, Thomas?" with a glare and a growl.

He held up his hands in petition. "Now, Randi, hear me out first before you say no."


Gwen lightly slapped the warrior's arm. "Be nice and let him talk." She turned back to Tommy. "Go ahead, T. Let's hear it."

He swallowed hard. "I want you to tell stories to Randi." Then he sat back and waited for the explosion.

There wasn't one. There was no sound at all. Their only visible response was a rapid blinking of eyelashes as they tried to process the words they'd heard come out of his mouth. Finally, he couldn't stand the suspense any longer.

"Look, it's not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it's pretty damned clever. See, Gwen, one of the greatest gifts that you have is your ability to craft your story to your audience. You've always done it to some degree and putting you in front of the kids just takes it a step further."

"Right. I got that. What does that have to do with me telling stories to Randi?"

Tommy flushed, the weight of both their stares more than a little unnerving, and hurried on. "Well, your focus with her is even more intense. I, um... I'd like to see what would happen if you turned that focus on your storytelling."



"No, Tommy. The stories I have... the stories I share with Randi are personal and private. I'm not willing to... I'm not *going* to share them with the world. That's not what they're for and it's not up for negotiation."

"Huh?" He looked at her in honest befuddlement. "Oh... OH! No, no. God almighty!! If you're talking about what I think you're talking about.... Are you talking about the Soulmates' stories?"

"No and yes. It's complicated."

"Of course it is. You two are involved." He took a breath to continue, but stopped when Randi held up a hand.

"Let it go for now, T. Gwen and I need some time to talk about it."

Gwen looked at Randi like she'd grown another head. "Randi?"

"It's all right, love. I think I know what he has in mind and it would fit right in with what we were talking about earlier." Randi gazed directly into Gwen's eyes, smiling when she saw comprehension dawn.

"Okay, T," Gwen said without taking her eyes from Randi's. "We'll talk about it."

"Good, good. That's good. Um... do ya'll wanna come over for dinner?"

Rand and Gwen looked at one another a moment longer before subtly nodding and turning to Tommy in tandem. He just shook his head as they reached for one another.

"Why don't ya'll come over here? It's nice... we can cook out on the barbeque. Steaks, maybe?"

"Sounds good. Will we have light for it, though?"

"We'll just open up the boathouse - no problem."

Tommy smiled. "We'll be by around dusk then. You want us to bring anything?"

"Nope, though I doubt Ella will be able to stand that," Randi said with a smirk. "So we'll take whatever she feels like making."

"Banana pudding," Gwen said without hesitation. Randi's eyebrows jerked upwards and Tommy laughed outright.

"Banana pudding it is. We'll see ya'll in a little while." And he left without a backwards glance.

Gwen waited until she heard the door close before her eyes became serious and she tugged on Randi's hand. The warrior looked down and her brow creased at Gwen's serious expression. Her own countenance became more serious as a result, and she allowed the bard to draw her down to the couch. Gwen sat and pulled Randi down until she was lying down with her head in Gwen's lap. She closed her eyes in sheer bliss when the bard's fingers began running through her hair.

"Now," Gwen asked as she felt Randi relax under her ministrations. "What upset you so badly about that call? And don't even think about dissimulating for me, Miranda Valiant. I know it did. I could see it, and I could feel it."

The warrior opened her eyes to find Gwen's green gaze fixated on her intently. She looked for a long time, finding love reflected back to her first and foremost, but also strength, compassion and understanding. And she realized in that moment in a way she really hadn't before that Gwen was not only deserving of the truth, she was more than worthy of the trust that truth required. She'd earned that right. Not that she hadn't known it before, but Randi suddenly felt it click and settle into place.

Gwen watched a myriad of emotions and thoughts manifest themselves in Randi's expressive eyes. She smiled when she saw Randi reach a decision that brought peace to her visage.

"That was Tiny who called."

"Uh huh."

"He um... he did some inquiring for me. It seems...." She took a deep breath. This was harder than Randi had imagined it would be. "We're being targeted... or at least I am."

Gwen inhaled sharply, the only indication she understood what Randi had said. The warrior waited patiently, knowing there would be questions. She didn't have to wait long.

"Do they know who... or why?"

"We have several leads, but nothing definite."

"What do you mean 'WE', Randi? This is not your business anymore. You need to let them handle it."

Randi sat up, knowing the next bit was not going to be pretty. She held Gwen's hands, though, needing to maintain the personal contact. "I can't. Even if I wanted to, this is not the kind of thing the Sabres deal with. This is a personal threat. I need to take care of it myself."


"Excuse me?"

"No. We'll deal with it if and when we have to, but you are not gonna go out there and put yourself on the line for some sort of perceived threat. No."

"Yes," Randi said just as firmly, girding her loins for battle in an arena she was not generally comfortable in. "Sweetheart, if I can go find the threat, the odds are really good that it will tie into to other wrongdoing and then the Sabres can step in and take care of the problem. But they can't just go for me."

Gwen shifted and eased her hands from Randi's grip, standing up and moving away from the warrior. Randi felt the withdrawal like a physical pain, and bit her lip to keep from crying out from the ache it caused in her soul. Her hands dropped into her lap and she watched as Gwen wrapped hers around herself as though to shield herself from something.

For a few minutes, it was completely silent as Gwen paced and Randi watched with an aching heart. Finally the bard turned and faced the warrior, merely looking at her for long moments before dropping onto the table in front of the couch. She clasped Randi's hands, surprised by the chill she felt, and gently chafing them to restore some of their customary warmth.

"Take me with you?"

Randi slid a hand from Gwen's and cupped her face, sliding it into the short, soft golden locks she loved to caress. She smiled sadly. "I can't, love. You don't have the training for this and if something were to happen to you.... This is what I do, Gwen. It's what I'm good at. Besides, it's just a scouting mission. I shouldn't be gone more than a couple days."

"I don't like it," Gwen said flatly. "I don't like it at all. There are just too many things that could go wrong. It could be a set-up."

Randi smiled again, this one a little more genuine. "You're right... it could be. But I have contingency plans for things like that. Trust me, Little One - No one... NO ONE is gonna take this away from us. I won't let them. That is why I have to do this."

Gwen stood just enough to slide into Randi's lap. "I don't like it," she reiterated. "But I do understand this is something you have to handle... FOR NOW. But I want you home safe, you got it? You do what you need to, and ONLY what you need to for the Sabres to take over and finish. And you come home."

"Gwen, I promise I will do only what needs to be done, then I'll come home. All right?"

Gwen gazed into earnest blue eyes, seeing the love and trust held there within for her alone. She leaned her forehead against Randi's and closed her eyes.

"Thank you for trusting me with this, love. I know it's hard. Not the trusting me part, but the giving up of what had been a survival mechanism for you for so long. I appreciate it. And thank you for loving me enough to see my side."

Randi smiled and hugged Gwen tightly enough to her that green eyes opened in alarm. "Breathing! Breathing!" she wheezed. She took a deep breath and squeezed Randi with all her might, feeling them fall over onto the couch and giggling in sheer relief.

"Thank you for loving me enough to fight for me," Randi whispered. "You're the first person to care that much."

Gwen shook her head in disagreement. "Nope. I'm just the lucky one who got away with it." She wiggled around, trying to get up, but Randi's sudden weight on her made it fairly impossible for her to move much.

"Going somewhere?" in a purr.

"Well, I thought I'd better go make sure we had steaks and whatnot for dinner. But *someone* doesn't seem to wanna let me up."

Randi pouted just slightly. "I'm comfortable?"

Gwen chuckled, earning her a mock glare which made her mirth turn into a full-fledged belly laugh.

"Hmph!" Randi pouted. "I can see how much I am loved here," sitting back and folding her arms over her chest - a move somewhat defeated by the fact that Gwen merely followed her and nuzzled into her neck.

"We can discuss the state of my affections for you later and in much greater depth and detail, but for now we need to get things ready for family dinner tonight."

Randi groaned then stood, casually knocking Gwen onto the couch and slowly moving away as those green eyes fasten on her with wicked intent.

"All right, fine. I'll go open up the boathouse and you can... WHOA!!" finding herself with an armful of feisty bard. "Yeeeessss?" she drawled

"Be nice to me," Gwen said. "Or you'll be making excuses to Tommy that he will never believe." She bit Randi's pulse point, then slid down her body until she reached the floor. "And I guarantee you it will be a long night," eyes sparkling.

"You, my bard, are a wicked, wicked woman. God, I love you."

Randi did have to make excuses to Tommy, though not for the hickeys Gwen had left on her body. Thankfully, the weather turned cool again overnight so covering them up with clothing was a necessity. Instead, she merely had to tell him she had business out of town. He wondered, but she put him off with a look and he let it go, knowing it really wasn't his place and she wouldn't share with him anyway.

"How long?"

"Should only be a couple days."

"You'll be careful?"

"I promised Gwen I would. I should be home by Wednesday at the latest, but if something comes up I'll let you know. Or Gwen will."

"All right, Randi. We'll hold the fort down for a day or two. But don't take to long, will ya? I like having you around on a regular basis."

"I never thought I'd say it, T, but I like it too. Stability is an amazing thing, ya know? See ya Wednesday." His eyes followed her out his door and out the front. Then he closed his eyes and offered up a prayer of protection on her behalf.

"I don't like it, Randi. That's not the way we operate and you know it."

"Tiny, this is personal. There is no reason to involve the Sabres as a unit. Besides, it's only a scouting mission. I'm in and out in two days. We have done that before, ya know."

"Randi, rescuing Gwen was personal too, and we didn't let you go alone then either."

The blue gaze hardened perceptibly, and Tiny flinched when it was turned in his direction. "That wasn't the same thing, Tiny, and you know it. That *was* a Sabre matter... something that should have been resolved years before Gwen became involved."

Tiny held up his hands and took a step back. "Whoa! Whoa! Take it easy, Randi. I'm on your side, ya know. There's just something about this... do you remember your Shakespeare? My thumbs are prickling."

Randi snorted. "I always suspected you of having a dramatic streak. Nice to finally have that confirmed," she said with a smirk. "Look, Tiny," she said blowing out a breath. "I appreciate the Intel, but we don't know for sure that this skinhead Faction is gonna be where we expect them to be. After all, how many times have we gone out looking only to have them be somewhere else? Until it becomes more general and less personal, it is my responsibility to do what I can to protect myself and my family."

"You're not gonna be dissuaded about this are you?" Tiny asked a bit peeved. "Randi, I thought we were family too."

"You are, my friend. That is my point." She smiled in his direction. "Don't worry, Tiny. When the time comes, you and the rest of my Sabre family will be called on to do your part. Right now it's time for me to do mine."

The Navy man looked at his Marine counterpart for a very long moment. "Don't do anything stupid, all right? I don't wanna have to be the one to have to explain it to Gwen. Not again. I did that once, and it was... don't ask me to do it a second time."

Randi clasped his arm. "In and out, Tiny - my word as a Sabre." She looked him in the eye and waited til she got a slight nod before she squeezed. Then she released him and walked out and he watched her go.

"But Randi," he murmured, closing his eyes in defeat. "You're not a Sabre anymore."

Randi scouted carefully around the warehouse area Tiny's intelligence reports hadn't indicated were a possible location for the targets she sought. This was actually a second site... one Tiny and the Sabres had no knowledge of.

The first locale she'd visited had indeed held a very few members of the Skinhead Faction, and true to her word, Randi had done nothing but scout the location. It was obviously set up as some sort of decoy they expected to be destroyed without thought in the event someone came looking for it. They didn't think anyone would take the time to scout it out and look around, so getting around the security in the small building and its systems had been child's play. Randi had been overjoyed to sharpen hacking skills long dormant. In mere minutes, she struck pay dirt, finding not only proof that she and Gwen were being personally targeted by the group as a whole, but also other positions around the globe that housed individual factions that functioned as regional headquarters. Randi had cause to wonder why such vital information was placed in what she found to be such an insecure spot. She never even realized when she slipped into Sabre mode.

So now she stood outside a second address - one which if the Skinheads' own information was correct, held at least one member of their upper echelon. There was no physical security outside the building; that would have drawn unwanted attention. But there was plenty of surveillance and security equipment, even if it wasn't quite state-of-the-art.

Randi blended into the shadows, taking her time and breaking the code that held the door shut. The man standing to one side never had the chance to realize he was dead before she wiped her knife free of his blood and let him slip to the floor.

The next two looked at one another in startlement for the split second it took them to see the shuriken embed itself in the other's forehead. Randi stopped to retrieve them, gritting her teeth as the blade slid along bone.

Four more fell to crossbow bolts before she reached a second set of doors. These were monitored visually and sonically, and she took a moment to catch her breath and clean her tools while she considered her next move. That they would all die was never in question. How she could best accomplish this without doing damage to herself was what she now contemplated.

With very little effort on her part, the visual security met an abrupt end. Then she put the plugs into her ears, knowing that an investigation would follow. She was fairly certain they would remember their own damned security measure, but on the off chance that they didn't, she wanted to be prepared.

The noise they set off when they stepped through the doors was excruciating, and two of them fell to the floor clutching their heads and keening in agony for a long minute before succumbing to the pain. The other two looked down in disgust and shook their heads. Then they drew their lasers. They weren't taking any chances now that their force had been cut in half; they knew it would be several minutes before reinforcements would arrive.

Randi sighed. She'd never cared for fighting with lasers. It seemed to take all the skill and challenge out of victory. However, she knew also that she was still outnumbered and her Sabre training made her want to expedite the matter in the same manner as she was approached in.

The two men were moving slowly and carefully, not knowing what to expect, but wary of whatever had managed to find them here and breach their defenses. Nevertheless, slow did not help and careful wasn't enough when Randi casually stepped out into the hallway and dropped them where they stood. Then she nonchalantly made her way to the door where the two unconscious men lay across the threshold holding the door ajar while the sonic alarm continued to pulse and wail. Without thought, she aimed her laser at one and then the other, pulling the trigger as negligently as though she were taking a Sunday afternoon stroll. Then she crossed the threshold to see what else awaited her in this place.

The next six, those that were coming to back up their fallen brothers, were taken out by a flash grenade before they even had an opportunity to draw weapons against her. Then it fell to singles and doubles - the twist of a neck, the slash of her knife, a blade to the chest, a shuriken to the forehead and the occasional crossbow bolt to the eye. There was a perverse pleasure taken in that particular method because of the hours of training they'd spent perfecting the technique though the sucking sound upon the bolt's removal was a little more graphic than she liked. Still, it did was it was supposed to do and by the time she reached the one who was considered the leader of this faction, nearly one hundred members of the skinheads lay decimated in the warehouse that had previously been their safe haven.

Randi was covered in blood and bits of gore as she approached him. He never saw her - he never heard her - until it was too late. He felt her touch upon his throat and gasped for air, his eyes going wide at the specter she made standing in front of them. He felt as though he was gazing at Death herself.

"You know who I am?" she asked in a whisper.

He nodded furiously, unable to do more than gurgle a response.

"Why?" The man frowned, not understanding. "Why did you target Gwen and me? Why did you warn me?"

He gasped. "Was... told... foll... owed... instr... be... oth...." He fell over convulsing, and Randi watched dispassionately until his body stilled. Then she set about making an accident.

Ares sat back, enjoying the warmth and lust that flowed through his veins from Randi's actions. He regretted that she would still be unable to remember her actions, but he relished them and the power he gained from them unknowingly. Besides, he was keeping a record, and one day, when he was able to claim her openly as his queen, he would take great pride and joy in sharing them with her. Until such time, he would appreciate her actions enough for both of them.

"Oh, Randi," he growled low in his throat. "Can you feel the darkness yet? Do you understand it? I can't wait until you are finally mine... body, heart and soul. Finally, FINALLY I will have my due!!"

Strangely, though, his laughter was hollow and did not echo through the halls of Olympus.

When Gwen arrived home from Midas Wednesday evening, she found Randi sound asleep in their bed wrapped around Gwen's pillow. Nothing seemed to rouse her, and her mind flashed back to similar happenings. She crawled into bed and curled herself around the warrior, hoping she could locate Randi in their dreamscape - wondering what could have gone so wrong to have caused this. The bard never saw the blood and gore. The cleaning closet had rinsed it all away before she came home. But it couldn't remove it from Randi's subconscious mind, and it was there Gwen hoped to find some answers.

Chapter X

Gwen got up frustrated. She'd been unable to find Randi, and she felt in her very soul it was important. Something had happened to wipe the warrior completely out and she clearly remembered the darkness that had sent Randi down for the count the last time. The bard chanced to wonder if something aside from a reaction to the scar medication had taken place that first time in the park, knowing what she did now, but knew there was no way to find an answer to that on her own.

She moved to the vid phone. Hopefully, she could find some of the answers she needed so she could find Randi in their dreams. She input her information and waited.

"Gwen! This is a pleasant surprise. How are ya?"

"I'm...." She blew out a frustrated breath. "Tiny, where did Randi go and what did she find?"

The Navy chief blinked at her stupidly. He hadn't expected... well, things certainly had changed between them. He thought back wistfully to the days before Gwen understood who they were or what they did. He'd never had to worry about being broadsided by questions like these. On the other hand, he wouldn't change the life Randi and Gwen had earned for themselves either. Guess there's no give without some take he thought to himself.

"TINY!" Gwen growled.

"Sorry, Gwen. Woolgathering there for a minute. She just went on a brief scouting mission - in and out kinda thing. She found what we believe is a decoy operation, so we've gotta go digging and see what else we can find, because there is obviously more there."

"You're sure? I mean, nothing else happened?"

Tiny's expression changed only subtly, but Gwen was watching for the nuances, and felt him come more alert and wary with her question. "Why do you ask?"

"Because she came home and collapsed. I was just concerned she might have gotten hurt or something."

Tiny relaxed perceptibly. "Nope. I debriefed her myself. She was a little frustrated over the set-up she found, but she was unhurt. She'd probably just out of shape."

"Excuse me?" Gwen asked with a raised eyebrow, knowing exactly what sort of shape Randi was in. "Tiny, if anything, she is in better shape than she was in before...." trailing off, knowing where those thoughts led.

Tiny chuckled. "I'll take your word for that, Gwen. No, I meant mentally. This kind of stuff can be... hell, it *is* very exhausting, even when you're doing it regularly, and Randi has deliberately let those skills rust." He became serious, a kernel of worry gnawing at the back of his mind. "Let her rest. If you're still concerned when she gets up, or if she's not up by say, tomorrow afternoon, let me know, will ya? I didn't want her going by herself, but you know how she is when she's decided something."

Gwen chuckled. "Yeah, I've run into that a time or two myself. Thanks, Tiny. I was a little concerned. This is all... a little new for me. I mean, she never let me see before, ya know?"

"Yeah, hon. I understand what you mean. Sleeping or meditating is the easiest way to decompress, and like I said, she's really not in shape for this kind of work anymore. I...."

"Tiny, do you think she was in danger going out?" when the silence had grown too long.

"No, Gwen. Not at all or she wouldn't have been given the information. Randi was the best... still is the best, actually. Her mind is just not in the same frame of thinking that it was before." He saw the flash of... concern? Anger? Frustration? flicker across her eyes. "Gwen, don't take it to heart. This was a one time thing. Something she did because it was personal. I don't expect it to continue."

The bard tried to smile, not liking the feeling that worried at her guts. "I imagine you're right, Tiny. Now that she's gotten ya'll involved, maybe she will be content to stay out of it." She paused and thought about how that sounded. "No offense, but you know what I mean."

"Yep, I sure do, and I can't in all fairness say I blame you for that attitude either. We'll do what we can to keep it from becoming any more personal."

"Thanks, Tiny... and thanks for letting me worry in your ear. It's a little different when I know what I'm worrying over."

Tiny smiled compassionately. "I know, Gwen. Welcome to the elite Sabre family. Anytime you need to ask questions or vent or just need someone to worry to, you know how to reach me. Day or night, hon, Reed and I are here for you both."

"I know that, Tiny, and I can't tell you how I appreciate it. It works both ways, ya know."

"I know, and when it gets warmer, we may just drop in on the two of you for a few days."

Gwen gave the big man a genuine smile this time. "If Reed can manage, we'd love to have ya'll. Just let me know when."

"Absolutely," Tiny laughed. "It's a date."

Gwen cut the connection feeling better, but still needing answers for the nagging upset in her belly. She looked carefully in the directory, but couldn't find a listing for Sky, so she put in a search request and went to fix herself a bite of supper.

The information was waiting for her when she returned from the kitchen and she placed her call, hoping the chieftain would be able to provide her with some of the answers she sought.

"I'm unavailable at the moment. Please leave a message."

Gwen dropped her head onto the console in sheer disappointment. She might get her answers, but they weren't going to be in time to help her today. She grit her teeth, then left a message for Sky to call her as soon as he was able, making it possible for him to cut into any other communications. Then she decided to call and talk to her folks... just because.

"Geoff, did Gwen seem a little off to you tonight?" Jill rubbed his legs hard ensuring the best circulation she could administer.

Geoff thought about their recent conversation with their daughter. "I dunno, sweetheart. She... mmm... seemed a little... ow... uptight. I-yi-yi... I put it down to... ow... her returning to performance and...ummmm... those new formats she and Tommy are working on. Ouch. You think it was... hmmm... more than that?" He groaned every time Jill hit another knot in the muscles of his legs. Slowly, surely, Geoff was regaining his mobility, but it was coming at a steep price.

It was never going to be the same as it had been, but he had been losing his strength and abilities for years - his accident merely hastened the process. Some days, when the pain was overwhelming, he wondered why he was fighting so hard to regain something that would never, could never be fully restored. Then he caught the look on Jill's face as she cared for him and realized aside from not wanting to be a burden to her or himself if he was perfectly honest, he wanted to be able to love her completely again. He'd never realized how he took that for granted between them, until that ability was taken away. And though she'd never complained, *he* was less than satisfied with what he was able to do - for her and with her.

So he pushed everyday, hoping to make just a little more progress, gain a little more control, feel a little more sensation. And every night he paid the price for his impatience, though admittedly, some nights were definitely worse than others. Tonight he put his pain and exhaustion aside to consider what Jill had said. She watched him drop into an inward study at her question, so she continued her massage and let him think.

Finally he turned his attention back to Jill. "Can I ask what makes you think there is something wrong?"

Jill shrugged and narrowed her eyes in thought. "Just a feeling. She seemed off-balance, almost distant. Call it a mom thing."

Geoff cursed himself silently for not paying closer attention to Gwen's attitude and mood. He gave Jill a smile, though. "A mom thing, huh? Well, I can't claim that, but since your mom thing detector went off, we'll keep an eye on her next time and see if we can figure out what the problem is. It could be she's just tired too. I seem to remember being a newlywed could be exhausting." He smiled sadly at her.

Jill snorted. "I seem to recall being an old married and being exhausted just last night, old man," seeing the unexpected delight in his eyes and getting the grin she'd been hoping for in response. "Now let me finish up this massage. Some of us need a little rest and recovery time, ya know."

Though he would never have believed it, he fell in love with her just a little more right then, and they put aside all other concerns and basked in the warmth they felt in being together. Tomorrow would be soon enough to worry about shadowy trepidations.

Gwen called Tommy just before bed, letting him know that Randi had returned and explaining to him that neither of them would likely be in to work the following day. For that ability alone, Gwen was thrilled for her departure from teaching. It had been much harder to simply take a day off with little or no notice when she had students to consider.

"Is she all right, Gwen?"

"Yeah, T. Just exhausted, and I'd rather not leave her alone. I'm gonna start working on some new kids stories to go with that new format," saying nothing about the second option. She and Randi had yet to discuss that, and she still wasn't sure she wanted to commit to something so personal being exposed to the world.

"That's fine, hon. You let me know when you feel comfortable enough to go live with it and we'll set up a crew. I'm working on a list of locations for you to pick and choose from. I thought we'd keep it near home for now."

Gwen smiled. "Well, I've got a couple of ideas in that direction myself. It'll be interesting to see if we are on the same wavelength."

Tommy laughed. "Bet we are." He turned away from the monitor for a moment and nodded his head before turning back. "Ella said she will drop by tomorrow and bring lunch for ya'll." His voice dropped to a loud whisper. "Nod and say yes, please. I think she is ready for some good girl talk."

Now it was the bard's turn to chuckle. "Tell her to come early, T. I can always do girl talk. The stories are always there."

"Thanks, Gwen," Ella called out over his shoulder. "I'll bring cinnamon rolls."

Tommy pouted. "She loves you more than she loves me. *I* get cold cereal for breakfast. *You* get cinnamon rolls."

Ella's face appeared over Tommy's shoulder in the screen. "Gwen, will you excuse us? I think my husband is having some memory issues that need to be addressed immediately."

Gwen nodded, unable to control the mirth in her expression at the devilment that danced in Ella's eyes and the bemusement that was reflected in Tommy's. "Go on, you two. I'll see ya in the morning."

Gwen set the alarm codes and turned out the lights, then moved over to the French doors and looked at the moonlit path on the water. She couldn't stop the chill that skittered up her spine, feeling alone for the first time since Randi's return. She finally felt deep in her soul that whatever Aphrodite had warned her of had actually started, and there was nothing to do but see it through to its conclusion. Gwen just wished she knew when that conclusion was going to be.

It was the scent of hot cinnamon rolls that pulled Randi from the depths of sleep earlier than Gwen expected to see her. But the sleep-rumpled picture she made standing at the door of their bedroom made the bard smile and hold out a hand in welcome. Ella watched, tickled by their interactions.

Randi shuffled over to the couch that Gwen was curled up on and stretched out her length, laying her head in Gwen's lap and sighing in contentment. Without a word, Gwen offered her a roll, and Randi merely closed her eyes and opened her mouth, waiting to be fed.

"Awfully trusting there, aren't you warrior? I mean, I could ask Ella to bring me some Brussels sprouts for you or something," trying not to chuckle at the screwed-up face Randi made or the pout that followed. Then rolled her eyes when Randi flashed puppy dog eyes in her direction, and she capitulated gracefully. "Here," she said. "Open wide."

Randi smiled smugly before opening her mouth and closing her eyes once more.

"So how is he enjoying it?" Gwen asked, turning her conversation back to Ella who was grinning unrepentantly. Gwen rolled her eyes again and shook her head, feeding Randi another piece of roll.

"He loves it," Ella said. "He gets to be with other kids and he's making all kind of new friends. I think it's gonna work out to be a good thing for all of us. And he's suddenly interested in so many new things. We've started reading with him instead of just to him."

A shoulder nudged Gwen in the belly. "What'd I miss?" mumbling around a bite of roll.

"Randall. He's in school now a couple days a week. He just started this semester."

One blew eye cracked open and rolled in Ella's direction. "Already? Isn't he a little young?"

Ella smiled patiently, having had the same argument with Tommy until he'd seen the difference in Randall's demeanor. "He is just the right age - old enough to already be potty-trained, and young enough to look forward to it as a new and exciting experience everyday. Besides, his speech therapist thinks it will do him a world of good to be around other children."

Randi rolled over slightly, so she was facing Ella and asked seriously, "They don't make fun?"

"Not that I've heard about yet anyway, and you'd think that I would. But I can already hear improvements in his speech. He definitely knows more words than he did just a few weeks ago."

Randi chuckled. "Can't wait til he starts bringing home words you have to explain. But I'm glad he's doing so well. He's a good kid."

"And you're completely unbiased, naturally," Gwen replied, teasingly as she combed through the dark locks spilled across her lap.

"Of course, Randi agreed. "He's *my* nephew, after all."

"And to hear Tommy tell it, he's just like you."

A shadow passed over the warrior's face and Gwen felt the chill, but Randi merely smiled in Ella's direction. "You have my sincere sympathies. I don't think the world is ready for another one like me." She chuckled. "At least Tommy had me to practice on first."

Ella laughed outright. "That helps, believe me. Now, how are things going in the story department? Tommy told me ya'll were gonna try something new?" And the conversation turned to less worrisome subjects, though Gwen could feel the subtle upset in the body that rested on hers. She made a mental note to find its source as soon as she was decently able.

"You all right, love?" Gwen jumped immediately into the conversation as soon as Ella was safely away. Randi frowned slightly.

"I'm fine, sweetheart. Why do you ask?"

Gwen turned and looked Randi full in the face then caught the warrior's chin in her fingertips and gazed into her bright blue eyes. What she found there baffled her.

There was nothing - nothing upsetting anyway. The wariness the warrior had shown her before she'd left on her scouting trip was gone. The fear Gwen had seen after the incident on their honeymoon was missing. It was as though nothing had happened. Gwen shook her head in confusion and turned, moving away from Randi to grab a drink from the fridge.

"I was just concerned. You seemed so exhausted...." Gwen broke off, not wanting to upset Randi about the lack of a dreamscape before the bard had a chance to talk to Sky.

Randi came up behind Gwen, putting her hands on the bard's waist and resting her chin on the blonde head. "I was exhausted. It's been so long since I did anything like this, I'm out of shape. But it'll get better."

Gwen turned in her arms now, putting her hands against Randi's shoulders in a move that both moved them closer together and simultaneously pushed them apart. "Excuse me? What do you mean it'll get better? I thought it was understood that this was a one time thing."

The warrior's expression never changed, but Gwen felt the chill build between them as though an icy wind had blown through the house. She pushed back a little more, stepping out of Randi's embrace, the warrior's hands falling to her sides. Then Gwen looked up at Randi almost accusingly. "It wasn't a one-time thing, was it?"

"I can't honestly say yet, Gwen, but given what I know right now, probably not. I do know that we are targets; we are *specific* targets. I don't know why yet, but I also know that where I got sent was some kind of decoy. I may have to go to my own sources and see what they can dig up." Her eyes grew distant and her voice grew thoughtful.

Gwen walked completely away from Randi, her movement startling the warrior from her musing. She started to speak, then bit her lip and crossed into their bedroom, only to re-emerge a moment later with her jacket. A perplexed frown crossed Randi's face.

"What the hell? Where do you think you're going??"

"Out," Gwen said succinctly. "I need some space." She felt as though she were being pushed, so great was her sudden need to escape. She vaguely remembered Aphrodite's words and went with the feeling, though she wondered why it felt as though she was escaping from something instead of leaving on her own terms.

Randi grabbed the bard's arm in a gentle but unbreakable grasp. "You wanna explain to me what just happened here? What's going on?"

Gwen reached up and removed the fingers clasped around her wrist. "I don't want to talk right now, and I don't want to fight. I am pretty pissed right now, and anything I say is gonna cause an argument, so I'm going out."

"Pissed? Why? At me? I'll go...."

"NO! I need time to think away from you. Now please let me go before I say something I can't take back."

Randi looked into pained green eyes and dropped Gwen's hand as though it were on fire. Without another word, she turned her back and walked to the French doors, staring sightlessly out at the vista that lay before her.

Gwen lifted a hand then let it fall, spinning on her heel and leaving by the front door. She closed it softly, but Randi felt the click as though it had been slammed, and she visibly flinched. Then she let her mind go into a place where nothing existed and she focused on nothing at all.

Gwen didn't have a destination in mind - she just put the transport in gear and let it go. For several hours she drove, trying to lose the coldness she'd felt cut into her heart at the realization that Randi was falling back into the familiar patterns of a Sabre. What really hurt though was the fact that not only was Randi allowing that to happen, but that she was doing so *knowing* how Gwen felt about it.

"Maybe you should tell her again."

Gwen had stopped at their glade and was sitting in the oak they usually reclined beneath. Her eyes were focused in the water beyond, but she didn't really see it. It was the sound of another voice in their private place that brought her back to her surroundings and made her look up.


The goddess stretched out in a comfortable niche formed by several intertwined branches, shifting her bow and quiver to a more secure position and subtly approving of Gwen's choice of thinking spots. Then she frowned. This love thing was not her gig, but Gwen, whether she remembered it or not, was still her Chosen and Artemis had asked Dite to let her handle the situation this time.

"Why did you leave, Gwen? Why didn't you stay and fight?"

A frown creased Gwen's forehead. "Artemis, Dite told me I was gonna have to leave to win. Besides, this fight would have gotten ugly. Randi knows how I feel about this - we've discussed it before."

Artemis sighed and rubbed her eyes in a surprisingly human gesture. "Gwen, it's not going to be that easy. Tell me - did it feel like the right thing to do? Leaving instead of fighting, I mean. Do you think when you go home the issue will just go away?"

Gwen shrugged. "I know if I had stayed and fought, it would have gotten nasty. She really pissed me off with this."

Artemis blew out a breath. "Gwen, I want you to think about this with your heart and not your head. Regardless of the fight it would have caused if you'd stayed, did leaving feel like the right thing to do? Are you in a place you can accept Randi's decision without a fight?"

Gwen scrunched her eyebrows in thought. "I...."

"Listen very carefully to me, Gwen. You're going to have to fight for her, for you, for you both as a couple. Only when the time is right, when you know in your heart and your head and the very depths of your soul that the time has come to walk away and let Randi make the final decision, should you walk away. Because when you walk, it has to be with the knowledge that it may be for the last time - not because you wanted to avoid a fight, all right?"

Gwen closed her eyes, defeated. "A fight for her soul," she whispered.

"Exactly. And you have a lot of support, more than you're aware of. But the ultimate fight, the ultimate responsibility is yours. We can only provide assistance and encouragement, but we are going to do our best to give you all the guidance we can."

Gwen closed her eyes. "Thanks, Artemis. I need to get back. I should have stayed to talk this out. It's just...."

The goddess covered Gwen's hand with her own. "It's hard, I know. It's going to get harder before you win, but I am confident you will win. And we'll be here to help you as much as we can."

The bard smiled and squeezed the warm hand holding hers. "Even when I screw up?"

Artemis smiled. "Especially then."

Gwen stood and dropped from her branch to the ground and Artemis appeared beside her once more. "I think I'll go pick up some barbeque for dinner. Randi and I need to talk, and she needs to understand I'm not giving up on her."

"Good girl," Artemis answered, cupping her cheek. "Don't forget the fried apple pies."

Gwen laughed. "No way. That's the best part. Thanks, Artemis."

"Thank you, Gwen. Keep the faith, child. Nothing worth having is ever easy."

"No wonder this is so difficult." Gwen smiled at the arched eyebrow. "What Randi and I have together is priceless." That statement got her a genuine grin.

"Here," she said, extending her hand to the bard. Gwen proffered her hand to accept the goddess's gift. "A reminder."

Gwen examined the amulet - a triple-twist, eternal twining of blue and green shell hung from a gold chain. "It's beautiful. Thank you, Artemis."

Artemis helped Gwen put the chain around her neck, then waited until the bard was on her way before her smile fell and her shoulders slumped. She didn't even flinch when two forms appeared one on either side of her.

"You did good, Art."

"You think so, Dite? I mean, this really isn't what I do. Especially not when we suspect Ares was influencing her actions."

"Trust me, babe. You did a totally rocking thing. She gets it. That necklace will be a continual reminder. And she'll fight until it is time to leave."

"Will she be able to leave though?" Athena asked. "I've never seen a bonding like theirs survive separation."

"It'll be that bonding that gives her the strength to go, and Randi the will to understand," Dite answered, hoping in her heart of hearts she was right. The three of them disappeared without leaving a trace of their passage.

Randi came back to her surroundings after an eternity of idle speculation. She didn't know if she was angry at Gwen, at herself or just angry because. Then she realized that Gwen was out and about alone while there was a legitimate threat on her life and well-being.

Without hesitation, she moved over to her console, going into a secure area Gwen wasn't even aware of. In minutes, she was networking with her Sabre compatriots, making them aware of the urgency of her situation to the extent she was comfortable sharing. The Sabre unit didn't take lightly the threat to one of their own, especially after what had happened to their previous commandant - even less when the threat was made against the one who had given her all for the salvation of mankind. And in their minds, Gwen and Randi were one in the same.

Randi presented Gwen as being the one threatened, and much as they had done when Gwen had made her walkabout trek after Randi's death, they again stepped up to the plate for their comrade, vowing to keep her safe when Randi was unavailable to do so. Gwen would be none the wiser for their surveillance.

Sighing, Randi nodded her approval at the arrangement, knowing each and every Sabre would do their utmost to keep the bard safe, no matter what. For the rest - well, they didn't need to know all the facts yet. This was her responsibility to take care of. She had a feeling there would be plenty of action for everyone before all was said and done. The whole situation just set her Sabre instincts right off the scale.

With that thought in mind, she turned her attention to her old contact network. She sent out feelers and inquiries through every discrete channel she had accessibility to. Unlike what had been left to her to handle before, Randi wasn't going to rely on anyone else to clean up for her. She'd learned a long time ago that taking out the garbage herself assured her it would be done to her satisfaction.

She didn't consider it to be a form of lying - either to her fellow Sabres or to Gwen. For too long she had survived by the rule of need to know. As far as she was concerned, at this point, no one needed to know everything. Now, however, she had to convince Gwen that she was only doing what was best for both of them.

She turned her thoughts back to Gwen, trying to understanding her upset and the unusual reaction the bard had given her. She was still at a loss to really know why Gwen had simply left instead of talking things out with her.

Her work done, Randi came to the realization the Gwen had been gone a very long time and darkness was swiftly approaching with no sign of her return. The Sabre moved quickly through the house, grabbing her jacket and walking to the door, just in time to see the extension for the bridge activate. Randi blew out a breath of relief and padded back to their bedroom to hang up her jacket before cranking up the fireplace and assuming a seat on the couch. She would wait to see what Gwen's state of mind was before determining a course of action.

The warrior could almost time to the second how long it would be before she felt the soft hum of the transport pull into the garage. Once she felt it, she knew it would be mere moments before Gwen came in the door.

One minute passed and became two, and still Gwen didn't come in the house. Randi wondered if perhaps something had happened or if the bard was simply continuing her pique at the warrior. She rose from her seat and went to the door, resolute in her decision to have things out between them tonight.

She opened the door... then rushed to Gwen's side to alleviate some of the evident burden she carried. They spent a long moment looking into one another's eyes without moving, each subtly nodding in satisfaction at what they found reflected back to them, though Gwen noted the fear and worry that lurked in the back of Randi's blue eyes.

"I brought dinner," Gwen said somewhat unnecessarily given the fact that they were now juggling the fragrant containers between them.

"I see that," Randi replied. "It smells good. Did you... did you have a good ride?"

Gwen shrugged. "It was very personally enlightening. I owe you an apology for running out without telling you why I was upset and where I was going. I didn't mean to worry you, but...."

"I know. And I didn't... I mean...." Randi trailed off, unsure of what to say.

They reached the door and passed through, setting the boxes on the table before Randi set the alarms. Gwen went to hang up her jacket, remembering Artemis' words, and thinking of the brief exchange she had shared with Rosie - or rather the words of advice the shamaness had offered her.

Don't accuse her, Gwen, and don't assume. State your concerns clearly and precisely, then listen to her answers and her own concerns. There are things going on here - well, I don't think even the gods have all the threads yet. I know none of us understand it all. Let your love guide you.

Gwen took a seat and waited for Randi to do the same before she covered the warrior's hand with her own. Randi immediately curled strong fingers around Gwen's own and looked up into the bard's gentle, open face.

"I think we need to talk."

Chapter XI

"Why did you leave?" Not an accusation - merely a question of the facts.

Gwen closed her eyes a moment before looking at Randi with complete honesty. "You made me angry," stated flatly, and Randi winced. "I wanted time to decide what to say to you before having to say it, because I didn't want to start a fight. I still don't, but we've got to talk about this." She didn't mention her talk with the goddesses or the fact that her leaving was an eventuality they were going to have to face - this just simply hadn't been the right time.

"Even if we fight about it?" not letting go of the hand she held, and noting that Gwen had a rather tight grip of her own going.

"Even if we disagree," the bard corrected mildly. "I mean, we're two reasonable - usually - rational - mostly - adults." Gwen grinned in return at the smile her qualifiers garnered her. "There's no reason we can't talk about this or anything else as such." Gwen took a deep breath and looked down. "We're not always gonna agree, and God knows no relationship can survive in a perpetual 'Yes, dear' honeymoon state. However, we do need to be able to talk about anything and everything, and I was wrong to leave without talking first." She looked up at Randi now, tears barely visible in her green eyes. "I'm sorry - forgive me?"

Randi rose, pulling Gwen up with her, then reseated herself with Gwen cozily wrapped in her embrace on her lap. "Only if you forgive me as well."

Gwen pulled back just slightly to be able to look into Randi's eyes. "What for?" she asked with a perplexed frown. The warrior hugged her tighter and Gwen curled contentedly into Randi's neck.

"For whatever it was I did to upset you. You've never walked away from me before so I must have done something...."

Randi glanced down when she felt the movement, then smiled when she realized the woman in her arms was shaking her head. Gwen looked up, her shaking tapering off at the genuine love she saw gazing back at her from clear blue eyes.

"You are too precious. I love you," urging Randi's head down for a kiss.

"I love you back," whispered against soft lips before passion took over for a long moment. When they pulled away they were both grinning.

"God, we're good at that," Gwen said, licking her lips. Randi's nostrils flared slightly and she simply nodded her head. "However," she said, turning serious, "further practice will have to wait until we are done talking. Agreed?"

Randi stood and waited for Gwen to put her feet on the floor before moving to hold her chair. Gwen sat with a puzzled expression on her face.

"I cannot think to talk if you are close enough to offer that sort of temptation. Besides," she added with a smile as both of their stomachs growled in tandem. "I'm starving, and it sounds like you are as well. C'mon. Let's eat and we can talk."

Gwen took a bite and slowly chewed as she decided the best way to begin this discussion. "Um...." She cleared her throat. "I was angry for two reasons. The first was because you were involving yourself in Sabre matters again, and that... I don't like it. At all." She held up a hand when Randi took a deep breath to speak. "Wait - please. I like the *people* I have met. Sabres are wonderful individuals. But as a unit... as a group of people who do what they do... I have a real problem with them reinserting themselves into your life. Even at your own request. *Especially* at your own request. That was the other reason I was angry. It seemed like you were deliberately going against my wishes on this - like you didn't care how I felt. And since you shut me out of your dreams...."

Randi put her fork down and sat quietly for a long few minutes processing Gwen's words. Finally she cleared her throat and spoke softly, addressing what was bothering her most first.

"Why run, though? Why not stay and talk to me?" There was hurt in Randi's voice, that though well hidden, Gwen felt.

"Because I really was furious. I can't explain... it was a fire licking through my veins - like I was being goaded away from you for some reason. But after I got out of here and I had a chance to think about things, I realized I had been completely unfair to both of us. You're not gonna know how I feel unless I tell you, and visa versa. I owe you the courtesy of listening to you before I jump to any sort of conclusion. I can't say I won't still react emotionally, but at least you'll know *why* you're getting that reaction."

She smiled tremulously at Randi and received a gentle smile in return. "Thank you," the warrior said. A brief pause. "Um, where did this come from?" reaching out and lifting the amulet with her fingertips. "I don't remember seeing it before."

Gwen covered Randi's hand, and both women felt the stone warm between them. "Artemis. She came to give me a talking to; she gave me this as a reminder to talk first always. Though you'd think as a bard I'd know that," said with more than a hint of irony.

"It's beautiful. It reminds me of...."

"Us," they said simultaneously. They smiled then slowly separated their hands and resumed eating.

"Would you... do you want to talk about the rest of it? I know what I said bothered you, love, but it was the honest truth. I realize my anger was motivated by my fear of losing you again, but I'd really like to understand your side as well. I know, despite my earlier actions that there is more behind this than just control or whatever."

"Yes. You deserve to understand as much as I can explain."

Pushing back from the table by mutual consent, they cleaned up and moved to the couch as quickly as was doable. Gwen sat in one corner and Randi stretched out along its length, laying her head in the bard's lap and closing her eyes when gentle hands began to comb through her hair.

"First, I need to know - when did I shut you out of the dreamscape?"

Gwen leaned down and brushed a kiss across Randi's forehead. "That was an unfair accusation, love... I'm sorry. I don't know if you shut me out or your exhaustion meant you were sleeping too deeply to even go into the dreamscape or if I was trying to hard to find you or if I just needed Sky to guide me to you. When you got back from your scouting mission and dropped into that same sleep you did after the incident in the mountains...."

Sad blue eyes opened and gazed at Gwen in stark memory. Gwen cupped Randi's face with one hand. "I know, sweetheart. I'm sorry. But that is why I got so concerned. I couldn't reach you. I couldn't even find you."

"I don't remember dreaming at all. I was so tired...." She hesitated. "It was a very strange trip."

"How so?"

"It wasn't... it was almost like a set-up. Hell, it *was* a set-up, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. You weren't taken; I wasn't attacked. It was just weird. I found what I was sent to find, but not what I expected to be there."

"I don't understand."

"I know, and I'm sorry. There's really no way to explain it other than the whole thing sets off my squick meter in a big way."

"You're gonna keep doing this, aren't you - gonna keep pushing this agenda?" asked flatly without malice or rancor.

Randi nodded slowly. "I have to for now. Something or someone is stalking us, and I need to know who and why. I've gone outside the Sabre chain of command to see what my own sources can find. My instincts tell me that if I can find out what is behind it, the Sabres will be justified in, um... resolving the situation."

Gwen smiled sadly. "I want you to know then, for the record, that I don't like it. It feels like you are being manipulated, and you're giving them exactly what they want by resorting to Sabre tactics. I lost you to them once. I don't want to lose you again... to them or anything else."

Randi sat up, twisting until she and Gwen had shifted and Randi was holding onto Gwen. She tenderly cradled the bard in a hug, carefully enveloping her in loving warmth. The warrior rocked them both until she felt Gwen relax and her own heartbeat slow. Only then did she pull back slightly and look into the green eyes she loved.

"I understand, love. And I want you to understand that I'm not doing this *in spite* of you, but *because* of us. I will do whatever it takes, short of dy... leaving you again, to insure that we are safe. I have to - it's part and parcel of who I am."

"I understand that, warrior... very, very well. That is why it scares me. You're the best, and I lost you anyway. I couldn't live through that again." The last whispered so low, it was barely audible.

Randi bit her lip. She'd known Gwen still had nightmares about her death, but she hadn't realized the depth of her fear. She drew a deep breath and hugged Gwen tighter to her.

"Can I be totally honest with you?" asked softly, waiting for the blonde head to nod. "I couldn't survive it once. That's why I have to do this. If I can find out who is behind this, the Sabres can take care of it. Because I'm fairly certain this is gonna trace back to a central core of rebels."

"So why not just wipe them out now?"

"I have to find them first. That's why I went on the scouting mission; that is why I have my own feelers out looking for these guys. I need to know who is behind it."

Gwen sighed, her breath warming Randi's neck and chest. "I still don't like it, but I do understand." A pause. "You will keep me posted on everything?"

"As much as I can, love."

"And you'll turn it over...?"

"As quickly as possible."

Another sigh. "I guess that will have to be enough for now, but I reserve the right to come back and object to anything and everything as I see fit."

Randi smiled and gave the bard a big squeeze. "As long as we're talking about things."

"No more running, Stud. I promise."

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

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


He let his hands drop, but didn't leave Randi, knowing sooner or later he was going to be needed. Tiny doubted she ask for help though, so he just stepped out of her sensory perception and waited.

"You promised me," so softly it broke Tiny's heart to hear it.

Her shoulders dropped and Randi covered her face with her hands. This wasn't how things were supposed to be. The war was over and they had won. So why did it feel like she'd lost everything that had mattered?

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

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

Tiny frowned as he turned from the vid phone in Sky's study. It wasn't encrypted like their comm center at home, but the priority on the message he'd received had rendered it imperative that Tiny contact the unit in the most expedient manner possible. So he'd taken all the precautions he could manage, and called.

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny shook his head, his brow furrowed. "I'm not sure. It's... disturbing."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We have had a few other fires sprout up in other places - nothing major, but enough to indicate that rebel activity is increasing and becoming better organized. Nothing on the level of Ghostrider's management, but still more coordinated than they have been since her death. Anyway, because of that, a team didn't investigate Randi's findings until just recently."

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

"They don't know. The decoy outpost was left alone just like Randi said it would be. But it had been wiped clean."

"By the rebels?"

Tiny looked at Reed with distressed eyes. "They don't know." His voice dropped to a whisper. "But I don't think so."

"You think Randi...?"

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


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

"Were there bodies or remains?"

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

"A very hot fire then."

Tiny nodded. "Given what appears to have caused the explosion, it's a wonder it didn't take out the entire block. That's another thing that bothers me about the whole situation, actually. It *should* have taken out the entire block, and yet it was contained in that one warehouse." He paused. "And it looks like Randi may start trying to handle things outside of the Sabre chain. Word on the street is she's got feelers out, but no one is saying enough for us to pinpoint anything definite."

"So what do we do?"

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

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

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

"Uh huh. But that doesn't happen til next week. You honestly think we can afford to wait that long?"

"I think we can't afford to chance letting you be there during that. It could quite possibly ruin all the work we've done so far, and I don't know that we can start over form the beginning without some serious repercussions for you. If the timing had been different, you'd have built up a tolerance well capable of handling their intensity, even during Cupid's holiday. But you haven't and we can't risk you being hurt or worse by a premature exposure to them."

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

Tiny squeezed Reed's hands, thankful for the immediate clasp he got in return. "It's started, hasn't it? This is the beginning."

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

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

"Yes," she agreed sadly. "But what a row to hoe in the meantime. C'mon. Sky's cooking something that smells really good, and I'm hungry. Let's go see what's for supper."

They walked out towards the kitchen hand in hand.

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

Perversion of God,

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

The Wizards will reclaim their own.

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

"What's up, T?"

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

"Please... make yourself at home."

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

"Everything's fine, T. Why?"

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

Randi took a deep breath and forced a smile, though it didn't reach her eyes. "I know. I appreciate the concern, but everything is okay."

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't kiss and tell, T."

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

" Yes, well... maybe I should rephrase again?"

Randi laughed. "You sure you're up to it?"

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

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

"Ya'll going out? I can wait to pick it up."

"We're gonna be gone the whole weekend. You wanna wait til Monday?"

"Celebrating early, huh?" he said with a grin. "Monday's fine. We're not going til Wednesday."

"All right. I'll make you a copy of the programming specs. It'll be ready for you Monday afternoon."

"Thanks, Randi. I appreciate it. Can't wait to see Randall's face."

"Make sure you take plenty of pictures."

Tommy smiled. "Better - I've got the holo-suite set to record the whole adventure." He rose from his seat. "Guess I better get back to work. Having Gwen back as a bard keeps us all busier." Randi's brow rose in question. "She... inspires." He shook his head. "Don't ask... just go with it. I've learned some things are more easily understood if you just accept them and move on."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Wow. You're such a beautiful woman, you know that?"

Randi blushed. She couldn't help it. The compliment was so totally unexpected, and from the look on Gwen's face, completely honest. She cleared her throat.

"Thank you. I'm glad you think so."

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

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

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

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

"Do you think Gwen will be surprised?"

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

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

"I hope so. I know there isn't a visible difference since we left. I mean how much real progress can be made in two or three weeks? But it sure is a good motivator for me knowing they are coming to visit."

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

"I don't know, but it's not a hard request to honor. She asks for so little," thinking of the warrior's appeal when she'd given him Carbon. "And offers so much in return."

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

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

"I'm going to go get the girls' room ready. We'll be back to pick you up as soon as they get in." She turned her attention to the therapist. "Make sure he gets some rest when you two get finished, please."

"Yes ma'am."


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

Chapter XII

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

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

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

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

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

"You are so mean to me."

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

They caught one another's eyes and burst into laughter at their silliness. Finally catching their breaths, Gwen pushed on Randi's shoulder.


The warrior looked at her askance. "Huh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's only been a couple weeks."

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

Jill and Gwen waited for her to elaborate, frustrated when Randi didn't say anything further.

"Um, sweetheart? You wanna explain that?"

"Not really. It's a surprise. Trust me."

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

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

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

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

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

"You knew about this?" Gwen questioned.

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

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

"C'mon," Randi said hefting their lone bag. "We've got places to be."

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

Blue eyes pinned the weapons master to his hover chair while she scratched the puppy's ears. Carbon had been a little hesitant in his greeting, but was now practically purring under the attention the warrior was bestowing. "Geoff, if you don't feel up to going, that's fine... just say so. Otherwise, we'd like for ya'll to join us tonight."

"I just can't forget you're still newlyweds."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep," looking at her uniform apprehensively, then at Gwen. "I'm gonna get a shower."

"Can I join you?"

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

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

Gwen watched Randi's unease from her place in front of the mirror. From the warrior's body language, she had a very good idea what was bothering Randi, but she wasn't sure how to approach it. Finally, she put the last pin in place, smiling when large hands landed on her shoulders and even softer lips attached themselves to her neck.

"You are very beautiful."

"In your eyes."

"Mine are the only ones that count."

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

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

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

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

Randi hesitated and Gwen waited, knowing the warrior was struggling. "Randi, I know this is part of who you were... who you are. I accept that - I'm *proud* of that. Just because I don't want to lose you to them again doesn't mean that I don't love this part of you." She paused, then smiled shyly, dropping her eyes. "I actually find this part of you very sexy... a real turn-on."

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

Gwen's nostrils flared slightly and her eyes color deepened. "Really," she breathed.

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

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

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

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

"Let's do it."

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

Randi and Geoff were in the exercise room at the therapy center. Jill and Gwen had gone shopping at Randi's request. She was fairly certain Geoff wouldn't want them to see what was coming. She smiled at him, and suddenly the weapons master felt a tendril of anticipation tinged with fear curl in his belly.

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

Geoff's brow wrinkled. He knew that - they'd come to visit, hadn't they? Randi continued as though she could hear his thoughts.

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


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

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

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

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

He nodded vehemently. "Loud and clear."

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

It was awkward at first, trying to learn to maneuver with the chair. It wasn't something he was accustomed to and now he found it frustrating to try account for. He hit himself and the chair almost every time he moved, and he was quickly growing angry and impatient. Her watching him with the slightest smirk in her expression made him furious.

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

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

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

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

"Feel better?" in the same casual tone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nope. I got things to do."

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. "Randi will be fine, Russ. Unless you are more comfortable with my rank." She shrugged again. "It really doesn't matter to me."

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

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

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

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

He acknowledged the truth of her statement. "So why didn't you? Why ask?"

"Because I promised Tiny I wouldn't do things on my own. But so help me, Russ, if you stand in my way, I will run over you and anyone else necessary to protect Gwen and myself. Are we clear?" in a deceptively soft voice.

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

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

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

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

Randi smiled just slightly. "Russ, we're all on the same side. I have a personal stake in this, but I'm not suicidal. If and when I find anything, I've already told Tiny I will turn it over for ya'll to handle. But I have to be involved."

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

Randi had no intention of explaining something that was so personal to her, knowing that Russ would never understand. She hadn't until she'd died and been given a second chance. Finally the silence grew awkward and Russ cleared his throat once more.

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

Randi didn't respond out loud, but she rolled her eyes out of sight. In her experience, nothing had ever been that simple.

Geoff was still sleeping when Randi arrived back at the therapy center. It hadn't taken her nearly as long as she'd expected it to start her inquiries. So she waved to the nurse on duty and went into the exercise room, retrieving her staff and beginning a complex set of warm-ups meant to focus her attention.

The warrior felt the eyes on her, but didn't slow or stop. Instead she turned and invited the weapons master to join her. He lifted Carbon off his lap, anticipating his actual participation in another sparring session. The puppy barked once then took up a sentinel position at the door. Already he knew to wait to be called to play.

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

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

Then he forgot to wonder. Randi managed to work her way over to his staff without stopping her own work-out and with a kick and a flick of her wrists, she sent his staff flying in a graceful arc over her head and into his hands. But he didn't have time to be impressed - he was immediately on the defensive as she launched a light-scale attack on him.

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

"Good," she said approvingly, and stepped up the pace. Geoff's grin grew.

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

It wasn't easy at first, but as they were recognized their path cleared almost effortlessly. What they saw stopped them in their tracks with stupefied expressions on their faces.

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

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

"It's all right, Mama. Let me."

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

... only to be met by Randi's staff engaging her own. Immediately they began a familiar dance, falling into routines and patterns both intricate and deadly. Geoff backed his chair away from the action and watched open-mouthed, never having seen Gwen with a real staff in her hands since her short stint with the drum corps many years prior. He accepted the towel and water from Jill, but wouldn't let her examine him, so enthralled was he by the poetry the two women were weaving.

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

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

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

Gwen grinned fiercely. She'd missed this. It allowed her to connect with Randi on a totally different level, and she had an intense pride in her skills and abilities to spar with Randi in this arena. It wouldn't do to let her proficiency erode for lack of effort on her part. She felt the warrior step up the intensity and she responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What am I being blamed for?"

Gwen smiled and spoke before Jill could formulate her question. She'd guessed wrong about this woman before and Randi had been gracious about it. She didn't want to do it again, but Geoff's obviously battered condition made her wonder. "No, love. You're being credited with my martial skills."

"Um, why? They're your skills."

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

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

"You didn't do too much damage, but you're gonna be sore in the morning."

The weapons smith shook his head. "I can't believe how clumsy I've gotten. You were right. There is no excuse."

Randi gave him a small smile, noting Jill had physically relaxed after the conversation. She didn't blame the woman for wondering, given how beaten-up her husband looked, but it still hurt to think that she believed that Randi would have done something like that to Geoff - accidentally or otherwise. Though in all fairness, Jill really could have thought little else, given that until today she'd witnessed very little of Randi's or Geoff's skill level. And of course no one had seen the difficulty he'd had adapting to fighting in the chair.

"Well, if you'd like, tomorrow before we leave, we can set you up some exercises to work on - things that will help with strength and dexterity while accounting for the chair. With a little practice, hitting yourself shouldn't be a real problem."

Geoff chuckled, wincing at the pull in his lip. "You bet! Though I may take to wearing full body armor and a face mask until I get it down." He paused and laid a hand on her shoulder, waiting for Randi to meet his eyes. "I'll tell you what, though... I wouldn't have missed this for anything. I haven't felt this good about myself... well, I sure did enjoy being able to spar like a Sabre again," he finished quietly so that only Randi could hear his words.

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

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

Chapter XIII

"It was a great weekend," Randi whispered still gazing at the fire. "We had such a wonderful time and Geoff...." Randi trailed off and Tiny remained silent. He really wasn't sure what to say to her at this point. She'd done what she thought was right and it had backfired. He wondered if she realized why yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I have come to claim what is mine."

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

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

... only to stand frozen at the door as familiar sights and scents assaulted her senses. Gwen couldn't stop the gasp that escaped or the lone tear that rolled down her cheek. She covered her mouth to keep any other sounds from escaping and slowly stepped into the room.

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

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

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

The weekend with her parents had been wonderful. Aside from the time they got to spend with Geoff and Jill and the theatre and shopping, Gwen was reminded how much she enjoyed sparring with Randi. The warrior could push without hurting her or getting hurt - much. Gwen still couldn't pull her blows like Randi did and whenever anything got through the Sabre's defenses, it usually bruised pretty well. Randi was a good sport about it though and Gwen was learning how to control the intensity of her swings. Or trying to, at any rate.

When they arrived home on Sunday afternoon, they immediately got the bike out. They both had a craving for some good barbeque, and they hadn't seen Rosie in a while.

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

Words weren't necessary between them, and Gwen rested her head contentedly between Randi's shoulder blades, greedily inhaling the scents of clean skin, jasmine shampoo and leather that identified Randi to her mind. The blossoms that lined the road changed randomly and only enhanced Randi's natural smell, and Gwen was in sensory heaven.

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

The shamaness flinched when they pulled up. Even from this distance she could feel the discord in Randi psyche and wondered that it wasn't visibly apparent to everyone. Still she smiled and greeted them, glad to see they were still happy together. The longer they lasted before everything broke the better for them all. Besides, she was happy to see them. She'd grown rather fond of them both and it did her heart good to see the strength of the love they shared together. Some days, it just felt like there wasn't enough of that in the world.

"I've missed seeing ya'll around here," Rosie called out in greeting.

"It hasn't been that long...." Randi started.

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

"Well, at least I got top billing. Ya'll come on and let me get ya fixed up. I'm pretty sure you don't wanna be hanging 'round an old woman on a beautiful day like today."

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

"So do you girls have plans for Cupid's holiday?"


"Uh huh."

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

"Whoops! Maybe I shouldn't have asked, huh?"

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

"And it being your first as a couple and you two being newlyweds besides makes it even more special, doesn't it?" She smiled at the twin blushes that graced their face. "I envy you. It's been a long time since I celebrated Cupid's holiday with anyone." She closed up the containers and put them in a bag, handing the bag to Randi and taking the payment from Gwen. "Cherish the time you have together and each other. You never know when that will be taken away."

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

"Oh, Gwen... I'm sorry. You probably understand better than most that sentiment."

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

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

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

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

"I'm sorry, Randi. I didn't mean to upset anyone."

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

Rosie held up a hand. "Don't apologize for caring or of being protective. I'd expect nothing less." She waved them towards the door. "Now you girls need to get home before your dinner gets cold. Come back after Cupid's holiday sometime when you can stay a little while and chat. I wanta know what you two end up doing for the day."

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

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

"Whad'd I do?" asked with all the innocence she could muster.

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

"I'll try," she assured before moving over to the bike and packing their food in the saddle bags. Gwen's eyes followed her indulgently and Rosie couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face. The bard shook her head.

"I don't know what to do with her some days."

Rosie's expression turned serious. "Love her. No matter what."

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn't talk much as they ate, choosing instead to share their food and company. Only when they were finished and nibbling on the fried apple pies Rosie was always sure to include did they shift into their normal discussion position - with Randi leaning against the tree and Gwen leaning on Randi.

"Ugh," the bard said as strong arms wrapped around her middle. "Don't squeeze too hard, Stud. My dinner will make a rather violent reappearance and I don't think I'd enjoy it nearly as much coming back up."

Randi wrinkled her nose. "Thank you for that visual."

Gwen giggled lightly. "Yeah, didn't do much for me either, actually. But neither would throwing up."

"Good point," Randi agreed with a kiss to the blonde hair.

It fell silent and Gwen sighed, knowing it was up to her to bring it up. Randi had the patience of Job and would wait for the world to end before starting some dialogues it seemed.

"So, um... you have plans for us for Cupid's holiday?" knowing the answer but needing to start the discussion somewhere. A nod was her only response. "Can I ask when they are for? I mean, morning or evening or...?"

"The weekend, actually. I um... I sorta figured we'd do something Wednesday, but I made my plans for us for the weekend."

Gwen broke into a smile. "So, we can use my plan for Wednesday?"

Randi grinned happily. "Absolutely. I wasn't sure what or um... hmm...." She broke off and chewed her lip. Gwen stayed silent, knowing Randi was working through something and content to let her finish in until she reached whatever conclusions she needed to.

"I was, uh... hoping you'd want to plan something too, so I, um... I...."

Gwen put a hand on Randi's thigh, bringing her stumbling words to a halt. The bard leaned her head back into the muscled shoulder behind her, nuzzling her face into Randi's neck until she felt the silent laughter rock the body behind her.

"You're tickling me," the warrior accused in a growling whisper.

Gwen sniggered and batted her eyelashes which only served to tickle Randi further. "Would I do that?" she asked innocently.

"Every chance you got," Randi answered smoothly while moving her hands into position on either side of Gwen's trim waist. Gwen felt her intentions and squealed... loudly.

"NO! Nonononononono! Raaaaannndiiiiii!!!!!" laughter hampering her efforts to squirm away. "I give! I give! UNCLE!!" Gwen finally managed and sighed when the hands changed from tickling to caressing. She relaxed into the hold Randi still had and hummed in delight. "That's nice," she breathed.

"For me too," Randi agreed, dropping a light kiss onto Gwen's neck. "I love you, ya know."

"Yeah, I do. I love you back... so much."

Peace fell between them and they soaked it in. It held their thoughts and feelings and the air pulsed with unspoken ideas and possibilities. When the sun touched the edge of the water, Gwen reached up and laced her fingers into Randi's dark hair, pulling her lips within range of the bard's own. Blue and green eyes searched each other intimately and by unspoken consent their mouths met for a long, passionate exploration.

When their breathing had gone ragged, Gwen let go reluctantly and Randi loosened the grip she had around the bard's waist. Then they packed up their belongings and mounted the bike, setting their sights for home.

Wednesday rolled around and Randi had gone into work alone. Gwen had indicated she needed some time to set up her plans and Randi had been happy to comply. Especially since she wanted to get in touch with her contacts and see what they had learned.

Something wasn't sitting right. Why were the rebels suddenly announcing their intentions? Why not just come after her? The whole thing made her Sabre hackles not only rise, but stand up and salute. It bothered her so badly that she hadn't been completely truthful - either with Gwen or the new commandant. She had feelers out on *all* the rebel groups. One way or another, they were going down - permanently and for good. She could not live with them bullying her or Gwen. Therefore she was going to eliminate the threat - with or without Sabre help.

Only the Sabre part of her mind was working on this particular problem. The rest of her mind, the conscious part, was busy with her other regular work. The team at Midas had made such a positive impression on the community they had expanded into security for other agencies and guilds. It was a lot for Randi to manage, but she found she enjoyed it in ways she had never expected to. The companies she and her people worked for were very pleased with the level of professionalism they received.

So, one part of her mind worked on her Sabre puzzle, while the rest concentrated on her other security matters. And before she realized so much time had passed, it was noon and her phone was ringing, turning her mind and her thoughts towards home.

From Olympus, Ares watched, more than a little frustrated. He'd thought it would work in his favor that Randi wouldn't be able to remember any of her violence until he revealed it to her. She was supposed to be his to control and manipulate.

He slammed his fists on the table in frustration. It wasn't working they way the war god expected, however. Randi's mind was much stronger than he realized and she was able to compartmentalize her thoughts so that the Sabre part of her - her subconscious mind - was almost a separate entity from the rest of her thought processes.

She still acted and reacted to things as a Sabre, as her decimation of the skinhead headquarters testified to. But she had no conscious memory of it, and Ares could neither call it up at will nor control it. Worse, she was very methodical to the point that things were going to unravel for him if he didn't step up his timetable and change his tactics. Perhaps it was time for a more direct approach.

In another area of the Olympian palace, Dite was in the midst of some serious love stuff when Athena strode into her boudoir.

"It seems to be working," she announced without preamble. "Just not as well as we hoped."

"Huh?" Dite looked up and pulled the glasses off her face. She appreciated that Athena hadn't simply popped in, though they'd all learned a respect for one another's space the hard way - much like they'd learned everything else. She was a little annoyed though; she'd been in the middle of a pretty important love match and her elder sister's presence could have screwed her up at the crucial moment if she hadn't been so focused. So she let a little of her exasperation show in her tone. "The, whatcha talking about, babe? I'm kinda in the middle of some radical love biz."

Athena blew out a breath. She loved Dite, but sometimes.... Still, they all had their responsibilities, and Dite had one of the most extensive that kept her busy beyond belief. And to her credit, the wisdom goddess thought fondly, she is incredibly good at it. She shook her head when Dite raised an eyebrow at her and started chewing on an earpiece of her glasses.

"Sorry," Athena mumbled, slightly embarrassed. It wasn't like her to let her mind wander. "I was speaking of Randi."

That caused Aphrodite to sit up and lean forward. "What about her?" all business now.

Athena motioned to a chair and at Dite's nod, swept into a seat. She leaned back and propped her head on a fist, locking eyes with the love goddess.

"Rosie has made some progress. She's helped strengthen the barrier Randi has erected between her Sabre self and the rest of her mind. As of yet, Randi is completely unaware of the events she has been involved in that have resulted in the death of others, except for the details Gwen shared with her about the incident in the mountains."

"And this is a good thing? I mean, couldn't she control it if she knew what was happening?"

"Possibly. But *Ares* cannot breach it either. He has no power over her, and before, he has *always* been able to control and manage well before this point."

"That means...."

"That means that we have a better chance of her choosing sides against him when the time comes. Artemis is still with the Amazon scientists working on something to reverse the poison, but no luck so far. I've got my people looking into it as well."

Aphrodite blew out a breath and leaned back in her chair, feeling the subtlest uncoiling of tension in her gut. It wasn't much, but it was more than she'd had any reasonable expectation of happening given how things had been going up to that point. Now against all odds and reckonings, she felt the tiniest stirrings of hope in her heart. For the first time since this started, something - if not positive, at least not bad - had finally gone their way. She'd take her victories where she could find them.

At this point - they all would.

The house smelled of sandalwood but there was no sign of Gwen when Randi walked through the door.


The warrior stuck her head into a dark, empty bedroom, then headed to the kitchen to snag a bottle of water before she went outside. While still bent over with her head in the fridge, hands she immediately recognized landed on her ass. They traveled lightly up her spine to tangle in her hair where fingernails began delicately scratching her scalp. Her eyes closed and Randi moaned softly at the sensation that action caused to skitter up and down her spine. She stood rooted to the spot until a low laugh made her turn her head just slightly and open her eyes to mere slits.

Mere slits, that is, until she got a good look at Gwen. Then they popped open wide and she turned her whole body to take in the picture she had never expected to see. Her mouth opened and her jaw dropped and she stared in obvious delight that produced a light blush across Gwen's body - a majority of which was exposed to Randi's hungry eyes.

Bare feet with painted toenails were met at the ankle by silk. The harem pants were white - nearly sheer with gold stars speckling its length and breadth. A gold girdle belt swayed from slim hips and Randi licked her lips unconsciously at the bellybutton and muscled abdomen that were uncovered for her perusal.

Firm full breasts were teasingly hidden - the silk that covered them opaque instead of sheer in pertinent spots, the only thing holding it in place seemed to be a knot that was loosely tied in the front. A twisted gold chain hung from Gwen's neck, its adornment resting in the valley between Gwen's breasts. Gold armbands, wrist cuffs and a diadem atop the blonde hair completed the outfit, and the make-up Gwen wore only enhanced its effects.

Randi extended a hand to Gwen's neck, her touch light and teasing as she traced down the centerline of the bard's body. She smiled as goosebumps followed in her wake almost feeling the cascade of sensation she was causing Gwen to experience.

A look up into Gwen's face made the warrior's nostrils flare and her eyes to deepen and dilate. The blonde head was thrown back, lips slightly parted and wet from the tongue Randi could just see. Green eyes were only partially closed and filled with desire.

Randi let her hand trail back up from Gwen's waist, deliberately circling each nipple in turn before winding a hand into the blonde hair and pulling Gwen's body forcefully into her own. Without hesitation, she seized Gwen's mouth with blazing passion, conveying love, lust, desire and need.

Gwen accepted the aggression and returned it with her own. She pulled away to breathe and Randi followed her, unable or unwilling to give up conquered territory for even a moment. By the end of the second kiss, both women were breathing hard and it was only the grace of God and Randi's locked knees that were keeping them upright.

Gwen looked into the blue eyes that were worshipping her and she blushed again, flattered and embarrassed beyond words.

"You need me so much?"

"Yes," came the blunt, stark reply.

"I, um... I have a costume for you as well. Would you... would you like to, um... put it on or...?"

Randi swallowed. What she would like at the moment frankly scared her. It was rough and wild and totally different from anything they had shared before. Of course, so was role-playing and Gwen had obviously put a lot of time and effort into setting up this scenario. The warrior cleared her throat.

"Um... let me go freshen up and um... change. Shouldn't take me but a few minutes." She leaned down and kissed Gwen hard and fast, possessing her thoroughly. Then she stepped back, knowing if she stayed thing were going to get out of hand quickly, and frankly, she wasn't that fond of the kitchen floor or the counters. She squeezed Gwen's hands briefly before releasing them, then headed for their bedroom.

Randi turned back as she reached the doorway, her eyes glowing with the intensity of her emotions. "By the way," she said with a smile. "You look great." Then she disappeared and Gwen took a deep breath.

"Wow," she murmured, lifting a shaky hand to adjust the circlet that had gone askew during their impromptu make-out session. "What that woman does to me."

The candles had burned low in the holo-suite. Randi and Gwen were stretched out, comfortably naked and sated among the pillows and thick rugs scattered on the floor. Their clothing was cast haphazardly around the room and Gwen spared a passing thought for the silk, wondering if chocolate could be removed once it dried. Then she shrugged, not really caring. Her plans for Cupid's holiday had been supremely successful, judging from the satisfied purring coming from the chest beneath her ear and her own feeling of contentment.

"This was a wonderful idea, love." She looked around the room, admiring the work and incredible detail Gwen had put into creating such an exotic setting. "What, um... what made you decide to try something like this?"

Gwen felt the blood rush through her body, then giggled. Now was really not the time to be shy and embarrassed about this - not after what they had just shared together. She had been wanton, and Randi aggressive and it had been... her body burned in memory of the passion it had ignited between them.

"I've been reading the Soulmates Journals. Some of our previous lifetimes were um... well, I thought it might be nice to experience the nicer side of some of them."

"Good thought." Randi brushed a kiss over the top of Gwen's head, smiling when the bard mewled lightly and snuggled deeper into her embrace. "I wasn't... um, I didn't... hurt... you, did I?"

"Nope," Gwen quickly reassured, kissing Randi's bare chest. "Absolutely not."

"Good," shivering at the sensation those lips caused. "I'm not sure where all that came from...."

"Well, if it was the setting, rest assured we will do this again," her words sending the message Randi needed to hear. She felt the body beneath her visibly relax. Gwen leaned up on an elbow so she could look down into Randi eyes. "I love making love with you, Randi, and I'm glad we can try new things together."

"So am I," Randi said, easing Gwen's head back down to rest on her chest. She lightly ran her hands up and down Gwen's sides, enjoying the touches she received in response. "That requires so much trust and I'm glad we have that between us," Randi continued, but Gwen couldn't see the doubt and fear in Randi's eyes.

Where did that come from - that fire and rage? It was so intense, so frightening. I could have lost control... could have hurt.... My God... . letting her thoughts trail off. She hugged Gwen tighter, smiling when the bard responded with a fierce hug of her own and another kiss on the soft skin of her breast.

"I love you, ya know - more than life. Always."

"Forever, sweetheart... forever."

"This isn't gonna seem like much after what you did for us the other night," Randi said as they packed their stuff into the bike's saddlebags. They were leaving straight from work and all Gwen knew so far was to pack light.

"Are we gonna be together this weekend?"

"Uh huh."

"And will we have some time *alone* together?"

"Uh huh."

"It'll be perfect. Now let's get to work. I've got things to do before we head out this afternoon."

"Oh my God, this is wonderful," Gwen said as she sank into the blissfully warm water. They had arrived at the spa and already had their first massage of the weekend. Now they were relaxing in the whirlpool before going back top their room for room service and a decadent evening of pampering one another. And tomorrow would be more of the same, just more extensive treatments.

Randi leaned her head back and closed her eyes in bliss, stretching her arms out and smiling when Gwen slid into place right beside her. "Uh huh," she said.

"You're on a roll."

"Kaiser or deli?" asked without opening her eyes or cracking a smile. Gwen merely covered her eyes and blamed the flush on her cheeks on the heat of the water.

"I don't believe you said that," groaning and lightly smacking Randi's belly.

"Uh huh," figuring out what the bard meant.

"There you go again. Something up that you've been reduced to single syllables?"

"Nope," Randi said, feeling more relaxed than she had since they'd returned from their honeymoon, and almost more than she had since Gwen's kidnapping. "Just happy... content."

Gwen laid her head on Randi's shoulder, delighting in the warrior's personal scent she could detect over the smell of chlorine in the pool. "Me too." She closed her eyes and breathed in the steam. "OH!" she exclaimed suddenly, sitting upright and nearly catching Randi in the chin. "I forgot to tell you - I invited Tiny and Reed to visit. They'll probably be at the boat house when we get back. They wanted to come this weekend, but I put them off after I found out you had made plans for us."

"That's fine." Randi's brow scrunched up in confusion. "Wait... can Reed do that? I mean, is she okay, you know," motioning between them. "With us?"

"I guess so. Tiny seemed to approve of the idea, and you know he'd never put her in harm's way."

True," Randi agreed with a nod of her head. "Cool... maybe we can keep them around and have a session with the guys on Friday. I think they'd enjoy that... almost as much as Jill does."

Gwen chuckled. "I don't know if that's possible, but it would be a good time."

The buzzer sounded and they rose from the whirlpool, the water cascading in sheets down their now pink, pruney skin. Then they wrapped themselves in robes and made their way to their room, looking forward to the remainder of their weekend together.

And in several different hideouts scattered around the planet, plans to eliminate the Sabres - and most especially Miranda Valiant - were put into motion. Time had come to exact revenge.

Chapter XIV

"I feel like a wet noodle," Gwen said as she flopped down on the big bed. Randi laughed at her and pulled their bag from the closet, carefully packing up their few belongings.

"So this was a good idea then?"

"This was a great idea. I didn't know I was carrying so much stress until it was gone. Here, let me help," the bard added, rolling from the bed and heading to the bathroom to grab their toiletries.

"You don't...." Randi started before realizing it was a lost cause.

"I know I don't," Gwen said when she emerged. "But this marriage is a partnership. We share everything - good and bad."

Randi sat down on the bed, those words hitting her in an unexpectedly deep place. Gwen looked up in startlement at the still, unmoving figure. She put the toiletries down and moved to take a seat beside Randi, clasping the warrior's hand and pulling it into her lap.

"Love? You all right?"

The dark head nodded slowly as blue eyes turned to capture green. "I just... I was just thinking about what you said - about what that means for you."

Blonde brows furrowed. "What do you think it means for me, sweetheart?"

"I think it means you got a lot more darkness than you bargained for," said succinctly.

"I think it means I got my soul's other half." She lifted up the linked hands and kissed Randi's long fingers one at a time. "Now, unless you want me to start something we really don't have time to finish right now, we need to get moving. I'd like to be home when Tiny and Reed arrive."

Randi leaned over and stole a quick kiss, chuckling when Gwen followed her back. "I thought you said we needed to get a move on," the warrior said against Gwen's lips. She felt the bard smile.

"Yes, but that's not something we do halfway, either."

"An all or nothing kind of thing?"

"Yep, and I prefer the *all* method myself." They kissed once more - quickly but thoroughly.

"Me too," Randi agreed as she pulled away. "C'mon... before we get into any more trouble."

"Before *WE* get into trouble?? Excuse me, warrior mine - as I recall, *I* am not the trouble maker in this family."

Randi stood to her full height and glowered down at Gwen, though she couldn't quite hide the twinkle sparkling in her eyes. "As you insinuating that *I* am a troublemaker?"

"I'm not insinuating anything... that was a flat out statement of fact."

"Why you little...." reaching for Gwen and deliberately missing so the bard would run and she could give chase. She was flummoxed when Gwen stopped suddenly, hands on her hips and eyes narrowed to slits. Randi froze, then reflexively took a stride back.

"Did you just make a short joke?" taking a menacing step towards Randi.

Randi shook her head rapidly. "No... I'm not allowed to make jokes. It goes against the warrior code."

Gwen didn't answer verbally; her eyebrow rose in response as her mind reviewed the times Randi had played practical jokes or deadpanned unexpected funny puns. Randi could see the machinations going on behind the bright green eyes and figured she'd better get while the getting was good. She snatched up their travel bag and started out the door, Gwen hot on her heels.

"I'm gonna get you for that, Stud."

Randi smirked. "Oh, I'm counting on that, Little One," taking off down the halls, but not before Gwen got in a good pinch to her backside. "HEY!"

They were a little more than halfway home, and Randi was pleasantly distracted by Gwen's hands. Periodically, they would lovingly rub over the spot the bard had pinched, and Randi was forced to focus more of her senses on maintaining the bike and driving than she normally would have been. It was the only explanation she could find for being caught so off guard by what happened next.

The road was well shaded with old oaks, and it made a perfect cover for a covert Fringe Amazon operation. She felt them more than saw them, but it wasn't quick enough to avoid their attack and she had no weapons to combat them while on the bike - not with Gwen to protect, anyway. From the trees, without warning, arrows began raining down on them. Randi did her best to avoid them. One stuck in her thigh and she grimaced - that was going to be a real bitch to pull out later. Gwen tightened her grip suddenly and released a muffled cry just before Randi felt the arrow pierce her right shoulder. Then Gwen's grip started to slacken and Randi realized she must have been hit.

The arrow shower stopped as quickly as it began, and Randi's Sabre instincts came screaming to the fore. Now the Amazons were coming after them. She needed to find a place she could defend and protect Gwen at the same time.

Randi knew she couldn't let her assailants dictate the terms of their fight, so she turned the bike off the road and into the field. There were trees there, but they were sparse and spread out. Randi would choose one to defend and make them come to her.

The Amazons, seeing that they had injured both women, were celebrating, despite the fact that Randi had unexpectedly turned away from them instead of fighting. They quickly made haste to follow her, each determined to be know as the one who had destroyed Miranda Valiant. Ultimately, it would be that mindset that saved the warrior's life.

Randi slipped into Sabre mode and stopped the bike by the large, lone tree in the middle of the pasture. She hissed in pain as she separated herself from Gwen, pulling the arrow out of her shoulder and turning to catch Gwen as she slumped forward with a whimper.

"I'm sorry, love," Randi whispered. "I know it hurts, but we've gotta get under cover before I can do anything about it."

Green eyes glazed over with pain blinked up into darkened blue. "S'all right, Stud," she slurred. I un'erstan'."

"Can you stay awake for me for just another minute?" Randi waited for Gwen to nod. "Good girl. Hang on. I'll be right back."

The warrior grit her teeth and slid off the bike, then started digging through the saddlebags. Some Sabre habits were so ingrained in her psyche that she didn't even think about them anymore - one of those habits was that she always carried a first aid kit with her. Another was that she never traveled without accessible weapons. It was those two habits that she was now giving thanks for, even as she searched her bags for the items she needed.

Randi found the items she was looking for and took a minute to arm herself. The short staff was hooked on a belt loop; the flash grenades stuffed in the oversized pockets of her pants. The throwing stars she left in their pouch and tied it off to another belt loop.

"Ran'i?" Gwen's soft call got her attention immediately. "I f'l funny."

"Hang on, sweetheart."

Randi took her jacket off and reached down to her thigh, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before breaking off the arrow that jutted out from deep in her leg. She groaned and bit her lip, willing the world to steady. Then she fashioned a tourniquet and tied it around her leg, praying it would be enough til she could take care of it properly. There was nothing she could do about the wound in her shoulder, and she could feel the blood trickling down her back.

Shaking her head, she turned to Gwen, who slumped in her arms. "Ran'i, i's all dark 'n' fuzzy."

"I know, love. I'm sorry. And what I've gotta do now is gonna hurt a lot."


"I've gotta break the arrow off so I can push it through and bandage it up." Randi felt Gwen shudder in anticipation of the pain she knew was coming. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'll be as quick as I can. Here," handing the bard the arm of her jacket. "Bite on this."

Gwen did and Randi broke off the head, catching Gwen when she passed out. Then she pushed the arrow through, knowing the Amazons were approaching by the sounds audible in her peripheral hearing. Randi slapped on two pressure bandages, and put Gwen over her shoulder, groaning at the added pressure it put on her wounds. Then she struggled to get them both into the tree, knowing Gwen would be out of harm's way there.

Randi found a place that had several branches tangled together, and she gently deposited Gwen into the center. She slid her belt off and looped it around the bard, securing her to the tree. Then Randi's eyes shuttered and she became the feral hunter.

The Amazons had arrived within a visible perimeter and were now at a loss of how to proceed. Though most conventional weapons were available to them through every sort of illegal means, they were in very short supply. Therefore they, and all the rebel groups, tended to rely on the more traditional weapons their forefathers and mothers had used. In the case of the Amazons, their most customary weapon was the crossbow, though there were some chobos, a few swords and a spear among the gathered group.

Finally, it dawned on them that there were fifteen of them and only one Miranda Valiant, and they began to advance as a group through the tall grasses. Unfortunately, it never occurred to them that those kinds of odds weren't going to work in their favor.

The Sabre in Randi knew that she didn't have time to enjoy the combat, so she worked swiftly to eliminate the threat now facing her and keeping her from getting the help she needed for Gwen. The first four Amazons fell before anyone was aware Randi was not where they expected her to be.

She had slid down the tree and through the grass like a snake, creeping up behind them and breaking their necks with rapid precision. Then she was gone again before they saw her. A cry went up when the bodies were discovered, which happened accidentally when one woman turned to give a whispered instruction to the woman behind her.

This caused the Amazons to cluster together, and Randi just shook her head before tossing a flash grenade into the middle of the group. There wasn't even time to notice before it exploded, killing another five and injuring three. That left only three standing, and for that, Randi unleashed her staff. A simple twist turned the staff into a flange, and Randi approached the remaining Amazons with a fierce roar.

The first barely raised her bow before her head went flying, bouncing across the grass several times before her body actually crumbled. The next held a sword and came running towards the warrior from behind, only to find the other blade buried in her belly. Randi didn't even turn; she merely yanked it out and threw the weapon like a javelin at the final Amazon, who had turned to run. It buried itself in her back, and the Amazon turned to look at Randi as she sank to her knees. Blood spilled out of her mouth and she realized that the woman regarding her with dead eyes was the spectre of death herself.

Randi walked the few steps to the Amazon, removing her flange and dragging the body back to the crater where the flash grenade had exploded. The three injured Amazons were making various degrees of effort to escape, and the Sabre calmly walked to each one and ended their torment with the single thrust of a blade. Then one by one she dumped the bodies into the hole and carefully set the remaining grenades for a delayed incineration blast, which was actually their intended purpose.

Randi rinsed the blood off her flange, then with a twist returned it to its short staff form before heading back to the tree to retrieve Gwen. She didn't even flinch at the silent explosion that sent a wave of heat blasting over her. Randi knew that in short order, the only evidence of anything amiss in this field would be the large hole in the ground. She wasn't worried about the transports - no one was going to come looking for them, and if they were found, well... she still wasn't worried. She hadn't touched them.

She put her weapons away, carefully storing them as she always had, and with that action went her memories of what had just happened. She turned her attention to her thigh. It was still bleeding sluggishly, so she braced herself and grabbed the end of the shaft and yanked. The warrior screamed and the world went black for a very long moment. She loosened the tourniquet and blood flowed more rapidly now, and she cursed herself for being caught without water. Instead, she took a length of bandage and wrapped it tightly, then moved to climb the tree.

It took longer than she expected; the wound on her shoulder was starting to ache intensely. Gwen was still passed out, and Randi decided to revive her, knowing she needed the bard to hold on to get them both home safely. She grabbed an ammonia capsule and let the scent waft under Gwen's nose.

The bard's reaction was almost immediate, and she sat up with a hiss. Her eyes watered from the smell and her good hand reached for her injured shoulder. Already the fire had burned down to cinders with the wind carrying most of the scent away from them. Gwen put down the odd smell in the air to the burning in her nose and the scent of blood and sweat coming from both her and Randi. Gwen stretched a shaking hand towards the warrior's bandaged leg.

Randi caught it in her own and held it tightly for a moment before turning her head. "We need to go, love, and you're gonna have work with me to get down from here and home."

Gwen looked around, disoriented. "What are we doing up here? And what's with the smoke?"

Randi glanced in the direction Gwen was gazing and shrugged her shoulders, though her brow furrowed. "Dunno. I brought us up here because it was the safest I could manage on short notice. I must have passed out once I got the bandages on."

Gwen nodded her acceptance of the explanation. She could only imagine the pain Randi had been in to get them up here alone.

"You think it's safe now?"

"I hope so, but I do know we can't stay here. If I have to fight, I will, but we've got to get home before this gets worse."

"This is gonna hurt, isn't it?"

"Yep," the warrior answered succinctly, "but the quicker we get down, the quicker we get home. And I've got some stuff there that should help with the pain."

Gwen didn't ask; she hurt too badly to worry about the whys and wherefores at the moment. Their first order of business was to get down, and the second was to get home. After that, well, the future would just have to take care of itself.

It was slow going as they eased down from on branch to the next. When they reached the bottom branch, Randi jumped unthinkingly, and her leg buckled when she hit the ground hard. Gwen scrambled after her, falling to her knees when she landed and crawling to kneel by the fallen warrior's side.

"Randi? Sweetheart... are you... all right?" breathing hard with the pain and shaking her head over the irony of that statement. "I mean is... there anything... I can help you... with?"

Randi looked up at her, breathing rhythmically to try and stabilize the dizziness she felt. "No, love," she whispered and took a deep breath. "Just give me a minute to get a grip on this." Another breath. "Then we'll go."

Gwen nodded and leaned back against the tree, watching as Randi consciously pushed the pain out of her awareness and stood to her feet. The warrior extended her uninjured hand down to the bard who accepted it and gradually made her way upright. They leaned against one another for a long moment, then Randi looked into Gwen's eyes.

"Can you make it home holding on, or would you feel more comfortable sitting in front?"

Green eyes widened. "You need me to drive?" Her arm was practically useless and she was afraid there was no way for her to control the bike on the ride home. Her relief was palpable as the dark head began shaking.

"No, no. I just need to know if you can hold on or if I need to hold on to you."

Gwen took in the exhausted face in front of her, and shook her head. "I think... I can hold on, but you're gonna have to help me... with my helmet."

Randi smiled at her. "I can do that. And if at any time you feel like you're falling or you can't hold on, you tell me immediately, all right?"

Gwen nodded, hoping beyond hope she could at least make it home before she passed out again. She didn't understand Randi's fortitude, knowing the warrior had been in a position of being hurt and having to press forward anyway on more than one occasion. She wondered if it was something Randi ever got used to, but couldn't seem to get her mind or her mouth to ask the question. It was just too much effort.

Randi grimaced as she lifted the helmet to Gwen's head and pulled it on. Aside from the strength it was costing her, she understood quite clearly that their helmets had gone a long towards protecting them. She felt vaguely uneasy as she donned her own head gear. It wasn't the sense of foreboding she normally got when being chased; rather it was the odd displacement she felt trying to figure out where her enemies were and why they hadn't pressed their advantage.

That the Fringe Amazons were the ones that attacked them wasn't in question - they were the only rebel group that used arrows. And Randi highly doubted the rebels were organized enough to be cooperating together. So where were they? And why wasn't her Sabre sense tingling?

She didn't have time to consider more. Gwen had already straddled the bike, so she eased herself in front of the bard and started the engine, thankful for its quiet mode. Her head was beginning to throb on top of everything else, and the light purr of the motorcycle was soothing.

Her hackles were standing straight up now and Randi pressed the bike forward, not sensing any immediate danger but unwilling to let her guard down even a fraction of an inch. Her nerve endings ached from overextension and her focus was now on getting herself and Gwen home as quickly and safely as possible. Gwen clutched at her shirt with one hand and leaned into Randi. The Sabre smiled grimly, accepting the weight and letting the need she felt flowing from Gwen motivate her.

Strangely, to Randi's mind at least, they made it home with no further incident and not even a blip on her Sabre radar to indicate they were being followed or were in any more danger. She would have considered it longer, but she felt Gwen slump against her just as the crossed the bridge and her focus was on maintaining their balance. She pulled under the portico and slid off the bike. She turned to catch Gwen as she started to tumble over, wincing when the blonde head hit the bad shoulder.

Randi steeled herself for what came next, and with a groan rose on unsteady feet, glad the door was only two paces from where she stood. The warrior leaned against the doorframe as she keyed in the code, then stumbled in the door when it unlocked.

Randi was sweating profusely from exertion by the time she made it to their bathroom, and she had to call out the water temperature twice before it activated. She got them onto the shower seat and stripped them both, strewing clothes haphazardly around the room. The warrior was happy that Gwen was still out for the count when she removed the pressure bandage, leaving red marks in her wake.

Then they sat and let the water wash over them. Gwen came to almost as soon as the water started spraying, and she reached for the hands that were wrapped around her middle.

Randi leaned down and nuzzled the wet head leaning against her good shoulder. "Hi," she whispered, not wanting to speak louder for fear of what would happen to her head. Gwen turned and looked at her with miserable eyes.

"Hi," she returned. "Guess we need to wash off huh?" indicating the dried blood that was slowly falling away from their skin.

"Yeah. I'll wash your back if you wash mine," Randi said weakly.

"Deal, sweetheart," leaning forward at Randi's urging. The warrior's touch was tender, but Gwen's skin was so sensitive, it still hurt. They managed to get the blood cleaned off, and Randi was happy to note the gashes in their shoulder and backs had stopped bleeding. Her thigh was another matter - it was still bleeding sluggishly, and she wondered if something had been put on that arrow. Randi slapped another bandage on it. She would check it again after she got a little rest. She couldn't see anything and there wasn't anything she could do for it until she was sure something was there.

The shower had been reviving enough to give them the strength to towel dry before they fell into bed, literally. For the first time since the return of Gwen's memories, they didn't curl up together, their injuries making it a painful prospect at best. Instead, they held hands and drifted off into welcome oblivion.

Tommy looked up as the signal chirped, then grinned at Tiny and Reed. "That'll be them," he said, not mentioning the relief he felt. He hadn't minded entertaining the couple, and in fact had welcomed the time to get to know them a little better. But he had expected Randi and Gwen home much earlier and was beginning to grow concerned to the point of alarm at their tardiness.

"C'mon. I'll take you over and say hey. Let me just go tell Ella; be right back."

Tiny nodded as he started to rise, then turned when he felt Reed tremble beside him.


She closed her eyes and gripped his arm. "Something's out of kilter again."

Tiny turned to face her with concerned eyes. "Out of kilter how? Bad? Can you manage or do we need to leave?"

Reed shook her head, gray eyes gone silver in focused thought. "I'm fine. It's just... odd. It's not like it is supposed to be, but it's not like it was either. Sort of hard to explain."

Tiny shrugged and gave Reed a sheepish little grin. "That's okay... it's kinda hard to understand sometimes too." He stood and offered her a hand up which she graciously accepted. "Let's get over there and see what's up. With a little luck, it'll just be because they had a phenomenal weekend together. I know," he continued at her disbelieving look, "but I can hope."

"Do ya'll mind walking?" Tommy asked as he re-emerged in the living room. "It's not far, and since you left your bags in the shuttle...."

"Walking will be fine," Reed answered. "It looks like such a beautiful day. We still have snow at home."

Tommy laughed. "That's never been much of a concern here, though we do get an occasional cold day here and there. But it is gorgeous out. C'mon."

It was gorgeous out, and the trio took their time walking through the trees between the two houses. The sound of the surf made a pleasant accompaniment and they breathed in deeply of the fresh air.

"I could grow accustomed to this," Tiny said. "No wonder Randi protects her privacy here so fiercely."

Tommy shook his head. "No. She's always been that way. I've been allowed glimpses, but she's always been a very private person. This place just allows her to guard it a little more intensely."

"He's right," Reed agreed. "That's one reason she's so hard to read," forgetting for a moment that the man accompanying them was unaware of her abilities. Tommy, however, accepted the statement on face value.

"Yeah, but she's worth the extra effort too," walking towards the front door and looking askance at the motorcycle still parked under the portico. "Hmm."

"Problem?" Tiny rumbled, stepping up beside him.

Tommy shrugged. "Dunno. Randi doesn't generally leave the bike out like this." He turned his attention to the door, then looked back at Reed and Tiny. "Um, can you guys give me a minute? Something's not right here," gesturing towards the door. "The alarm's not on."

Two sets Sabre eyes met then turned back to Tommy. "We'll go in with you," Tiny said firmly. Tommy saw the seriousness of Tiny's expression and nodded his agreement. He felt better about having them watch his back, as it were; he just wanted to insure Randi and Gwen's privacy as well.

Tiny eased the door open, taking the point position as a matter of course. He let his eyes track around the room before motioning the other two in with a jerk of his head. They walked slowly through the foyer and into the living room, silently agreeing to let Reed check the bedroom alone, just in case.

She held onto Tiny's arm for a long moment, gathering strength from him, then stepped across the threshold... only to immediately step back out.

"Tommy, do you know if Randi has a regen unit?" knowing he wouldn't know where her Sabre gear was hidden, but hoping she had one for general purposes.

"Are they... what happened?" wanting to push by her, by held tight by Reed's hidden strength. Tiny turned on his heel and raced out the door towards the shuttle. They had emergency medical equipment there, including a regen unit. Tommy watched him fly out the door before he turned his attention back to Reed.

He stepped away from her, drawing a deep breath to settle himself and scratching the back of his neck in thought when he realized she was waiting for an answer to her question.

"Um, in the bathroom, maybe? The only time I've seen one here was when the medic brought it - when she fell while building the dock," he added, seeing the befuddled look on Reed's face. "You, um... you want me to go look?"

The Sabre nodded. "Yeah, I think so. You probably have a better idea where to look." She grabbed his arm as he started into the room. "They are hurt. I don't know how much, but we'll get them taken care of. Tiny went to get the med kit from the shuttle."

Tommy swallowed and nodded. He stepped into the room, noting their distance and wondering how Reed could tell at a glance that they were injured. Then he crossed into the bathroom and his eyes widened at the mess he found there.

"Um, Reed?"

She came in swiftly at his call, and she bit her lip in surprise at the condition of the bathroom, having only ever seen neatness and order from Randi.

"Put the clothing in a pile to one side, then start looking through the drawers and cabinets." A bumping noise alerted her to Tiny's return. "Get started. I need to help Tiny," she directed and went back out to the living area.

"How are they?" Tiny asked as he brought the equipment in the door.

"I haven't had a chance to check thoroughly. No wonder their aura was off kilter though. Are you gonna help me?"

Tiny took a deep breath. "Yeah. You can't do it alone, and I don't think Tommy would be comfortable seeing them naked. C'mon. Let's get them healed so we can find out what the hell happened."

Tommy came out of the bathroom just as Reed and Tiny walked into the bedroom. He handed Reed a small device. "That was all I found aside from some first aid stuff," looking at their gear. "But I think you've got that covered. I'm gonna go call Ella. She might be able to help."

Tiny nodded. "Thanks, Tommy. I'd feel better if Ella could help Reed. This is a little different than what we usually deal with."

Tommy nodded his head, not really understanding, but respecting the Navy chief's words. He knew how invasive he felt seeing them naked together, and he was family. It had to be even more awkward for Tiny who had been Randi's comrade-in-arms.

While Tommy made his phone call, Tiny readied everything Reed would need to care for Randi and Gwen. He ran a clinical eye over them, noting only the hole in Gwen's shoulder and the hole in Randi's thigh. That one looked like it might be infected, and he made sure to lay out extra pads and a scalpel in case Reed had to go poking around inside the wound. He wondered what other injuries there were to make them both sleep so soundly their chests hardly stirred with their breathing. Never before had he seen Randi in repose like this as the slightest sound or stirring of air was sure to awaken her.

Reed came out of the bathroom where she'd washed up, then turned her attention to Gwen. She knew she was going to need help with Randi's leg so she figured to take care of Gwen first. Reed looked closely and pulled Gwen into a sitting position, wincing when her suspicions were confirmed.

"They were attacked by Amazons. This is an arrow hole, and it went all the way through." Ella walked into the room, and immediately moved to take the cleansing pads from Reed and disinfecting the whole area around the injury. She applied antibiotic cream and a sterile pad, then waited for Reed to lay the bard down so they could do the same to the front. They checked the rest of her over carefully and aside from a couple of minor scrapes caused from her tree climbing, found nothing else wrong. So they set the regen unit to go to work on Gwen's shoulder and moved over to Randi.

The warrior was more scratched and sported a couple bruises which Reed rubbed a cream into to stimulate their healing. They found the hole in Randi's shoulder and looked between her and Gwen for a very long moment before cleaning it and covering it to lay her back down gently. Then they turned their attention to the leg.

Without a word, Tiny prepped the syringes - the first was a deadening agent and the second contained a heavy-duty antibiotic. Ella leaned her weight across Randi's midsection while Tiny placed his hands on either side of the large hole. Then Reed quickly injected the vials, one after the other. Randi didn't flinch and the Sabres look at each other with concerned eyes.

Finally Tiny moved his hands, though he placed them on Reed's back to help stabilize her defenses. Ella sat up to help, and very shortly the two women were cleaning out pockets of pus from the leg. Still Randi didn't stir.

"What happened?" Ella asked softly as though her voice would disturb the two patients lying so still on the big bed. "I mean, who did this? And why?"

Tiny shrugged. "We're not sure. But they were obviously ambushed. We're hoping they can tell us when they wake up."

"I think I got it all," Reed interrupted quietly. "It's washing clear and I can't find any more pockets."

"All right, let's set up the regen unit and let them rest. The quicker they heal, the sooner we get the real story of what happened."

Tiny arranged the regen unit for Randi while Reed gathered their tools and supplies and began putting them away. Ella tucked the couple in, placing a light kiss on each forehead, and covering them in sheets and blankets to their chins. Then she helped the two Sabres gather their gear and followed them out to the living room.

Through it all, Randi and Gwen never stirred from their slumber, and they never let go of one another's hands.

Chapter XV

Randi scrubbed her hands through her hair in frustration as she got up from the table. "I don't know, Tiny," she said, frustration evident in her voice. She walked to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water, gulping half of it down before she returned to the table the rest were still seated at. Gwen held out a hand and Randi reached for it like it was a lifeline.

"He's only trying to help."

"I know, love, and I'm sorry, Tiny," looking in the big man's direction. "I'm still tired and sore, and...."

"Let's move into the living room," Reed suggested. "I'd like to try something, if you're game."

Randi nodded and pulled Gwen up by their linked hands. "Anything. This is gonna make me nuts otherwise."

Tiny cast Reed a worried glance and she nodded subtly at him. Then they followed the couple over to the couches.

Gwen had slept for a full twenty-four hours and Randi for another twenty passed that. Their wounds were completely healed, not even leaving a scar behind. And their memories were almost identical - Randi's lasting a bit longer than Gwen's. Neither of them not knew what had happened between the time Randi got the up into the tree and the time they got home. The ride home was mostly a blur of sensations and images.

Therein lay the source of Randi's frustration. Something didn't add up. Why attack her and Gwen if there was no plan to finish the job? She had a vague recollection of being surprised it was Amazons, given the note she had received from the Wizards, but Tiny and Reed confirmed that much of her memory was intact. They had indeed been ambushed by Amazons.

But why? Why attack and not kill them? That had to have been the intent - there was no quarter given for mercy and Randi knew in her heart she was a killing target. Besides the bragging rights it would give to the person and organization that accomplished it, as long as she was alive she was a stumbling blocks to them ever regaining any sort of power base, even without being a Sabre.

The warrior smiled darkly. Now, though - now they had crossed a line with her. Now it was personal, and people were going to die. First, however, they had to figure out why the Amazons had run instead of terminating her, especially when it appeared that was clearly their objective. Randi's smile dropped from her face. There shouldn't be holes or questions and that bothered her more than she let on.

When they reached the couches, Reed stopped them with an upraised palm before they could assume their normal cuddling position.

"Gwen, if you could sit in the corner and let Randi lean back into you... however is most comfortable for the two of you, but you're going to act as her grounding, her shield." Gwen nodded and took her position, stretching one leg against the back cushions and planting the other squarely on the floor. This was something of a feat in and of itself since the couches had been purchased with Randi's longer frame in mind. However, it worked perfectly for their needs and now Randi was able to sit cocooned in Gwen's embrace.

Randi sat between Gwen's legs, leaning back against her chest. The bard pulled her leg off the floor and purposely tangled them together with Randi's on the couch. The warrior sighed in contentment at the warmth that enveloped her soul when Gwen wrapped her arms around her middle. They didn't do this often - just because the logistics made the alternative a much easier prospect. But Randi always enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by Gwen's love and strength.

The warrior leaned her head back until their cheeks brushed, and Gwen took advantage of her position to nuzzle a bit. Neither of them paid the slightest attention to Tiny and Reed, who had moved to the far side of the room to retrieve Randi's desk chair, which was by far the most comfortable one she owned.

"Are you sure about this, honey?" Tiny asked in a hushed voice - not that he expected Randi to overhear him given how engrossed she and Gwen were in one another at the moment, but it never hurt to be extra vigilant, either. Reed smiled up at him sweetly and put a hand on his arm.

"I'm sure, Tiny. The shielding is holding well, and with you here to provide grounding for me, I'll be all right. A little tired, but we all are at this point, I think. Besides, we've got to know - if the shielding doesn't work now, it certainly won't work later. And we need to know what Randi's subconscious remembers. You know how we all have memories we can't consciously access."

Tiny nodded solemnly. He knew that all too well, as did every Sabre member. Those memories only came out at night, and were the stuff their nightmares were made of. He looked in Randi and Gwen's direction and shook his head.

"Do they ever stop?" he asked with a smile in his voice and on his face.

They weren't actually doing anything. They sat tangled together so tightly even air couldn't pass between them, talking quietly. He turned his attention back to Reed at her light touch. Her expression was sad and almost resigned.

"I hope not," she said quietly. "The darkness that would follow that breaking would be unbearable."

Tiny sobered, remembering the echoes of darkness he had felt in the periphery of his mind when Sky had shown Reed his vision. It wasn't something he wanted to experience again. That experience had left him with a greater appreciation of Reed's strength, and an overwhelming desire to protect her as much as possible from what she knew and he suspected was coming.


Reed smiled again. "Don't be. In any other situation, I'd ask the same question, and use it as an opportunity to tease Randi unmercifully. And when we get out of this," spoken confidently, "I still might."

Tiny smiled and pulled the reclining, leather chair out from the desk and began moving it towards the couch. He sat down and waited for Reed to situate herself comfortably between his legs. Then he waited. Reed cleared her throat, startling Randi and Gwen from their conversation. They had been so engrossed in one another they never even heard the two Sabres approach - a testament to how truly safe and comfortable Randi felt around them.

"Sorry," Randi said, managing to keep the blush from staining her face though she felt the heat of Gwen's against her cheek.

"Don't be," Reed said. "It does my heart good to know you hold us in high enough regard to let your guard down around us. Besides," she added with an impish twinkle in her gray eyes, "it is always nice to see newlyweds so totally involved with one another. Lots of potential teasing there."

Randi did the only adult thing she could think of - she stuck her tongue out at Reed. That action made Reed laugh heartily and for the first time since Sky had shared his vision, the seer felt a wave of peace pass through her about the outcome of this drama. Finally, she cleared her throat and became serious.

"Tiny." Just the one word, but the big man knew what she needed. Without any visible effort he moved them forward until Reed's knees touched the edge of the couch. Then he extended his hands, palms up and held them steady, waiting for Reed to place hers palms up within his.

Reed turned her gaze to Gwen. "I don't think you can mimic this posture, but hold on to her for all you're worth, and don't let go." Green eyes widened and Gwen felt the words to have more than an immediate meaning. She nodded her head and wrapped herself even more securely around the warrior's body. Randi gasped and patted the hands around her middle.

"Let me breathe, love."

The bard loosened her hold slightly and Randi smiled at the still firm grip she maintained. In truth, she loved the possessiveness Gwen showed towards her. She'd just found breathing to be a necessary component of living.

"Better?" whispered in her ear.

"Yep," Randi replied. "I like being here." She felt Gwen brush a light kiss near her hairline.

"Good - I like having you here too."

They both looked back at Reed who was waiting patiently for them to arrange themselves comfortably. She nodded in satisfaction.

"Good. Are you ready?" Randi concurred and Reed continued to speak. "Randi, place your hands palms down in mine."

"Reed?" The warrior hesitated, knowing the pain the seer had suffered before because of her bond with Gwen. She had no desire to inflict more agony on the woman she called friend, even for answers to this frustrating riddle that her memory had become. "I don't...."

Reed smiled, appreciating the consideration, no matter how misplaced. She extended her hands again and Tiny accompanied her. "It's all right, Randi. I have spent a significant amount of time reinforcing my shielding, and Tiny will provide extra grounding for me, just as Gwen will help you maintain your equilibrium and sense of self."

"Will I see what you see?"

Reed returned the look Randi gave her measure for measure. "I'm not sure," she answered honestly. I think it will depend on what you want to see."

Randi cocked her head and blue fire burned from her eyes. "You think I am hiding something?"

Reed accepted the accusatory stare. "We all do, Randi. Every Sabre has a safe place in their subconscious mind where they hide memories too painful to bear in the light of day. It's a survival mechanism."

"And you're gonna go find this safe place?"

"I hope so. It depends on what you allow. I'm not going to go pushing into places in your head."

"And you're sure this won't hurt you?"

Reed smiled. "I'm sure. Trust me."

Randi nodded. "Fair enough." Then she extended her hands and laid them in Reed's; both women closed their eyes.

There was no sound to be heard except for four sets of breathing. Even Tiny and Gwen's eyes shut to help maintain the atmosphere. For long minutes this went on as Reed carefully walked thru Randi's memories. Randi did not accompany her visually throughout, but she hadn't actually expected her to. She anticipated Randi's appearance in her safe place if she emerged at all.

Reed was vigilant and prudent as she moved. This was such a delicate procedure. On the one hand, she didn't want to be invasive; yet on the other, she needed to know what happened. Randi had an organized mind, though, and it was child's play for Reed to find the memories of the Amazon attack that happened to Randi and Gwen two days prior.

She watched as dispassionately as she could manage, knowing she was an observer only in the drama that played out before her. Her brows suddenly furrowed together in a frown. Randi's memories were jumpy, as though scenes had been cut and lifted. Now Reed knew she was going to have to find Randi's safe spot. There were things missing and she felt sure they held the key to what had happened.

Reed watched as Randi deposited Gwen in the tree. The very next thing she saw was them waking up beside one another some time later. Question was - what had happened in the interim?

Slowly, she proceeded, finding each and every space compartmentalized and neatly labeled, but never finding Randi's memory core... the place where the worst memories were hidden. The seer would have stamped her feet in frustration if she'd have thought it would have made things any better. Eventually, she could feel the fatigue that preserving her sense of self in this place was becoming. So she closed the eyes of her spirit self and willed her being back into her physical body.

When she opened her physical eyes, she was back in Tiny's arms in Randi's house with both blue and green eyes facing her with questions in them. She shook her head and everyone's arms dropped, breaking the link between them.

"I can see parts, but not the whole story. I am seeing exactly what Randi already told us happened."

"What happened to visiting the place where the memories are hidden?"

Reed clenched her hands into fists and banged them on her legs. "I can't find that place in your mind, but I know there has to be one. The memories I saw are edited." She turned to Gwen. "Would you mind... can I check your memories? It's possible I might see something you wouldn't notice." Reed saw the apprehension rise in Gwen's eyes. "I promise not to go anywhere but to your memories of what happened a couple days ago. I know it's invasive, but I would respect your privacy. I don't just wander about indiscriminately." Reed tried to remain detached during her explanation.

"I'm sorry, Reed. I didn't mean for you to think I was accusing you of anything. It's just a very scary thought to have someone else roaming around in my mind."

"I understand, Gwen. Really, I'm just... I've always been very sensitive about things like this for that very reason. Even with someone you know and trust, it's a very scary prospect. To be honest with you, I don't like to do it, and I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it was necessary."

Gwen looked intently into gray eyes she had come to trust. Reed returned the gaze openly and honestly, allowing the bard a glimpse into her soul. Finally, satisfied with what she found there, she nodded.

"You sure, love?" from Randi. Gwen looked back into blue eyes full of love and understanding. The warrior didn't like the procedure, but as a Sabre she understood the necessity of it, though this was the first time it had ever been done to her. Her record had been too spotless during her service to warrant invading her privacy.

"Will you hold me?"

"Always and forever," came the immediate response. Tiny moved the chair back from the couch, holding carefully to Reed who was trembling slightly from exertion. Randi stood and Gwen followed so they could trade places on the couch. When they resettled themselves, Tiny moved the chair forward again, and Reed opened her eyes.

"Reed, are you sure?" Gwen asked with concern. "You look so drained."

The seer smiled tiredly. "I am, to both. But when we finish, we can all go sleep until tomorrow morning. Tommy was very understanding about waiting to get together until tomorrow."

"This isn't exactly the way I saw your visit with us playing out, ya know," Randi quipped.

"Me either," Reed conceded, "but I'm glad we were here."

"Double for us, my friend," Gwen agreed, and with those words, Reed felt Gwen relax. It was natural to feel trepidation about this. Outside the military, and only in the most compelling of circumstances then, this procedure was rarely used. Otherwise, it was a relatively unknown phenomenon to the world - one only speculated about in myth and legend.

Reed lifted her hands from Tiny's and the man unwrapped himself from her waist and extended his arms again, palms up once more. Reed placed her hands in his and waited for Gwen to add hers to the mix.

Randi slid her hands along the undersides of Gwen's arms, supporting and encouraging the bard. Gwen shivered slightly at the touch and allowed the warrior to guide her hands into position over Reed's. Randi went to move hers when the seer spoke.

"No. Leave them there, please. It will make Gwen more comfortable."

Randi turned to Gwen and recognized the need she saw lurking in the back of her green eyes. Without a word, she covered Gwen's hands again. She kissed the bard's temple and whispered, "Relax. I'll be right here." Then Gwen closed her eyes and opened her mind.

Reed was overwhelmed by the sights that greeted her when she entered Gwen's mind. Everything was vivid, alive, colorful - so different from what she was used to. She wasn't sure which response was stronger... the desire to immerse herself in something so amazing or the desire to run from something so totally foreign to her nature.

However, she had promised Gwen not to pry so she walked through the passages of the bard's memories to find the Amazon attack. She stood watching, almost able to feel Gwen's emotions her memories were so strong. Reed actually flinched as she felt the impact of the arrow when it hit Gwen's shoulder and pinned her to Randi.

Reed closed her eyes and focused on the sounds now as that was all Gwen could share with her at this point. The bard wasn't completely unconscious, but she wasn't cognizant either and the only real sense Reed could use was her hearing.

The rumble of an engine... the silence that followed. Heavy breathing; a grunt and moan. Mumblings - exchanged words garbled to Gwen's memories. A scuffling noise... and.... Reed wasn't sure. There were odd sounds but nothing clear, nothing she could pinpoint over the whirring vortex that was Gwen's struggle to maintain some sort of awareness. But it was enough to bother her - to reassure her that something more had definitely happened. Then things went completely silent for a long moment before Gwen resumed consciousness.

Reed felt the agony and confusion wash through the bard as she came to in the tree and she continued to watch until they made it home. Then she stepped out of Gwen's mind and opened her eyes, slowly withdrawing her hands.

"Thank you, Gwen."

Green eyes gradually opened and met the steel gray of Reed's facing her. "Did you...? I didn't even feel you there, I mean... did you find what you were looking for?"

Reed smiled then shook her head. "Good, you're not supposed to. And no, not really. But enough to convince me that something definitely happened." She saw questions jump into two sets of eyes and felt Tiny's reaction at her back. "Can we have a moratorium on this til tomorrow morning? I'd like to process what I heard, and I'm beat. I promise to share first thing."

Gwen yawned which caused a chain reaction, and that led to chuckles and giggles from the entire troupe. By mutual consent, they rose from their places in the living room and moved to the kitchen. Tiny rolled the chair back to its place at the desk.

"I know I haven't been up that long, but I am so tired," Randi said, patting Gwen's belly with their still linked hands. Reed exchanged startled glances with Tiny. Never had they heard Randi make a statement like that, even when it was apparent to all and sundry that she was exhausted and/or in pain. It just wasn't her way, and it went against the Sabre code. Something fundamental had changed and it was up to them to discover if it was for the better or not.

"Me too," Gwen responded. "How 'bout we raid the fridge for a snack and head to bed? We don't have to be in a rush to get up in the morning, but when we do, we can figure out a plan from there."

Tiny nodded. "Sounds good. I'm starving."

Reed laughed and pinched his muscular stomach. "Now there's a surprise. C'mon. I hear that really nice big bed upstairs calling my name." She turned to Gwen suddenly. "You don't mind that we did that, do you? That we took your old room upstairs instead of the boathouse?"

Gwen released Randi's hand and enveloped Reed's hands in hers so quickly the seer had no time to brace, no time to worry. But she easily felt the warmth Gwen was projecting, and her shielding acknowledged it as strength. She didn't understand why, but she accepted the unexpected blessing gratefully and met Gwen's eyes with a steady gaze.

"You're welcome in our home wherever you are comfortable. We suggested the boathouse to give you the space you sometimes need from us, not because we didn't want to have you here. Reed, you and Tiny are family to us, not guests. That gives you the right to choose."

"So you wouldn't mind if we moved out to the boathouse tomorrow?"

"Not if that's where you wanna be. That's where my folks stay. Daddy says he's likes the peace and quiet." Both warrior and bard blushed. "I um... I decided not to pursue that line of questioning."

Reed chuckled and squeezed Gwen's hands before she let go and turned towards the refrigerator. "I think that was probably a good idea." She lifted out the tray of sandwiches she and Tiny had prepared earlier. "God knows where *my* mind goes with that comment, and talking about something like that with my dad would just be...."

"EW!" the three women chorused together. Tiny just chuckled and helped himself to a sandwich.

The rest of the week was tame by comparison, though a few things of note did occur - things that would make a difference later.

Tiny accompanied Randi on her rounds of the Midas property, enjoying the vast expanse of land and trees and appreciating the chance to ride a beautiful horse. He and Reed had talked casually about getting a couple, but had yet to manage to actually do so. He had grown up riding and missed having a horse of his own - something he had not realized until he got back in the saddle.

They didn't talk much - there was no need. They had reached a place in their relationship where they understood many things about one another without having to use words. And right now, they both needed a chance to process what they knew and decide on the best course of action for all of them.

Reed went with Gwen, anxious to see the bard at work after experiencing her mind so personally. The seer never considered herself to be overly curious, but she was excited about watching the creative process Gwen went through to achieve the stories she produced.

"Reed, it's really not that interesting. I do a lot of pacing - a lot of talking to myself. I write a bit and then take a break to order things in my mind again.

"Gwen, I'm going to share something with you." The blonde head nodded and the green eyes focused intently. Reed blinked, startled by the force of concentration behind the gaze. "Um, I don't do mind walks often, but I have certainly done more than my share. In all my life, I have never encountered a mind like yours, and I'd like the chance to see how it works... from this side."

"From this side?"

"Yeah. I didn't look around - I promised you I wouldn't. But I'd like to watch what results from the glimpse I got... if it wouldn't bother you."

Gwen blinked, a little disconcerted by the request. "Was it... was it really so different?"

Reed nodded. "Yeah, it really was. You see the world in such vibrant color. It's so different from what I am used to - both in my own mind and in those minds I have shared."

Gwen smiled gently. "If you want to subject yourself to my creative work habits, you are more than welcome to join me. But I can't promise to be entertaining."

"I don't need to be entertained; I'm trying to understand something new."

Now Gwen laughed. "Well, c'mon. Maybe you'll share with me the differences. Who knows... it might make an interesting story."

"Fair enough."

"We need to go see if we can find anything."

Tiny nodded, having reached the same conclusion himself. "Agreed. Do you remember where you were?" They were sitting in Randi's office after their inspection of the property. Midas was good-sized and Tiny had thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to ride around it. Randi had considered going to the mess hall and waiting for Reed and Gwen to join them, but figured it wasn't worth the talk it would start. Randi had never considered herself that interesting, and still didn't get why she and Gwen seemed to be a regular topic of conversation among their fellow employees. However, she has accepted the fact that they were, and did her best to insure she did nothing to encourage it.

Randi shook her head, scowling in frustration. "No!" She ran her hands through her hair. "No, and it's making me nuts not being able to remember. But there should be some evidence of something somewhere."

Tiny rose from his chair and stood beside Randi, looking out the window. "If it's there, we'll find it," he said confidently with a squeeze to her shoulder. "Now let's go fetch Reed and Gwen and find some lunch. I'm starving."

Randi laughed and clapped a hand on his back. "Today is pot roast day. We only have to get to the mess hall to find lunch." A knock interrupted her and she smiled when Gwen's head peeked around the door. The bard caught a glimpse of frustration and confusion in the back of blue eyes before it was replaced by happiness and joy at seeing her. She extended her hand and Randi captured it, drawing Gwen into the office. Reed followed immediately behind, an expression of amused contentment on her face.

"I take it you enjoyed watching Gwen work," Tiny commented to the seer as she stepped inside. Reed's face lit up with a big grin.

"You have no idea. I mean... wow. Just wow!" Reed couldn't stop the enthusiasm that echoed across her features and Tiny got a massive hug out of it.

Randi chuckled silently, knowing exactly what Reed was feeling. She turned to Gwen when the bard squeezed her hand lightly. Green eyes searched hers intently. Randi released Gwen's fingers and rested her hands on Gwen's hips.


"Are you all right, love?" Gwen asked as she cupped the warrior's face in concern. "You seem a little... disjointed."

Randi scrubbed a hand through her hair and rested it on the back of her neck, blowing out an irritated breath. "I am. I'm... there should be... hmm...." Randi looked down and took a deep breath. "Something is going on - we are being targeted by more than one group, and I can't remember anything. I feel like... I need to be out there doing something about this whole thing, but...." Her shoulders slumped. "I mean... I promised you... I...."

Gwen eased he fingers under Randi's chin until she could look into her eyes. "We can talk this out when we get home, okay?" waiting for the dark head to nod. "Just remember I love you. Always."

"Forever," Randi whispered, enclosing the bard in a hug that completely enveloped her. "I love you too."

"This isn't possible!" Randi was ready to scream in frustration. "It has to be here. *Something* has to be here."

"You're sure this is the place?" Tiny asked, flinching when fierce blue eyes glared in his direction. He held up his hands in supplication. "Hey, I'm only asking. You're the one who said they didn't remember anything."

Randi drew herself up, but Reed inserted herself between them before the warrior could speak. "That's enough, Tiny! That was completely uncalled for, and you know it! *I'm* the one who confirmed this as the right spot from Gwen's memories. *I* told you Randi's memory wasn't there - you want to call me a liar as well?"

"No! No! I'm just... this is so aggravating. There is nothing here; like a god wiped it away or something." They looked at one another as his words sank in. "You don't suppose...?"

"Well, anything is possible. God knows we've seen everything else."

"But who?"

"Better yet, why? What does this accomplish aside from making me nuts? I thought the gods were forbidden direct interference in mankind's lives now."

"They are," Reed replied as she sank to the ground beneath what she recognized from Gwen's memories as the healing tree. "But that isn't to say it would stop them if they became desperate." The seer turned her attention towards Randi. "Can you think of a god who would do something like this - be willing to risk their godhood?"

Randi shook her head. "Not really. Even Ares wouldn't be that stupid."

"Why do you say that?" Tiny felt a curious chill chase up his spine, and he didn't like the feeling of foreboding that accompanied it.

"He came and talked to me one day... acted like we were old buddies or something. It was weird, because I don't worship him - never have, and he's not my patron."

"What did he want?"

"Nothing really, that's what made it so strange. He asked for a favor - I told him no. He disappeared and hasn't been back."

Tiny and Reed exchanged sudden understanding glances. Their situation had just become more dire than they had believed possible, even with the darkness that had been foreseen. If Ares was involved to the point of personal contact, Randi could be beyond everyone's reach - including Gwen's.

"This is so not good," Reed muttered to herself, though it was loud enough for Randi to hear. The warrior gave the seer a wry look.

"No kidding." Randi stood up from her spot. "C'mon. I promised Gwen some barbeque before practice tonight."

It was then that Reed met an ally who had the same strength of will that she herself possessed, and it provided a tiny light of hope in the darkness that now surrounded them. It was the first time Reed had an inkling of how they, and the world itself, could survive the darkness yet to come.

Chapter XVI

"That has to be one of the more interesting people I've met in a while," Reed said as she and Tiny snuggled down together in the boathouse a bit later that evening.

Rosie had been quite the surprise for the seer, especially when she greeted Reed as a long lost friend. There hadn't been an enormous amount of time to talk or exchange any sort of information, but Rosie had managed to slip Reed the contact information she needed to get in touch with Rosie again at a time in the not-too-distant future.

"What did you two talk about? I know Randi was curious. I saw her eyebrow go up into her hairline and stay there for a very long time." He chuckled and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "It was kind of funny actually. I wondered if she was gonna come over and listen."

Reed smiled. "Nothing, really. Rosie just introduced herself and gave me her information so we could get together later."

Tiny's brow furrowed. "Why? We don't even know her."

"She is a high priestess of Athena and a gifted shamaness. She is going to help me... help us... resolve the darkness that is coming."

Now Tiny turned his head and looked at the seer directly, his eyebrows up in his hairline. "Excuse me? C'mon, Reed. You just met this woman, and I could tell by the look on your face she was an unexpected surprise."

"Yes, she was," Reed acknowledged. "But she was also a welcome one. She was able to briefly share one of her visions with me. She has been waiting for my arrival."

"And you trust her enough to accept her word with a meeting so brief?"

It was Reed's turn to furrow her bow. "Why the doubt in my abilities all of a sudden, Tiny?"

"Not your abilities, sweetheart. I have never, ever lost faith in you or your gifts. But she is a self-admitted shamaness. That means she has gifts as well - and I don't want her using those gifts against you. Besides how important you are to helping Randi find her way home - a way she's just learning might be lost yet, I might add - you are important to me. I love you, and we've already been through so much together, especially in the last couple years. I don't want to lose you to the machinations of a dark god or his lackeys."

Reed took his hands in hers and lifted them to her lips, brushing a light kiss over the knuckles before cradling them against her face. "Not to worry, honey. She opened herself to me. She's the genuine article, and she has invited us both back to her place at our convenience to spend a little time getting to know each other." Reed grinned impishly at Tiny. "I think she sensed your distrust."

He sniffed delicately. "I prefer to think of it as caution."

Reed giggled. "That's funny. That's exactly what she said. Now c'mon. I want to see this band Gwen told me Randi is a part of. Somehow I can't reconcile the Sabre we know with some party animal drummer who sings and dances."

"Waitaminute. Hold it, hold it HOOOOOLD IT!!" Tiny looked hard at Reed. "You mean that is for real?"

"Oh yes," Reed answered with a smile. "According to Gwen it is quite the experience."

"Well, c'mon already. What are we waiting for?" Tiny exclaimed, getting up off the couch and pulling Reed with him. "I gotta see this."

Reed laughed and allowed herself to be herded out the door and over to Tommy's house.

"I've never seen Tiny so discombobulated," Gwen said to Randi later as they prepared for bed that night. "That was funny; I mean, he looked like a fish out of water the way his eyes were popping out of his head. He really had no clue, did he?"

Randi chuckled in memory. "Nope, and it was worth every single tease I'm gonna get from this too."

"You really think he'll tease?"

The warrior cocked an eyebrow. "I think he'll try. Don't think he'll succeed very well," she continued with a smirk, "but there you go."

Gwen laughed. "You're so funny."

Randi looked affronted by the insinuation. "Not on purpose I assure you."

They curled up together in the middle of the big bed, Gwen resting her head over Randi's heart. They tangled their legs together naturally until the warrior flinched involuntarily, causing Gwen to pull back and look into her face.


Randi grimaced and returned Gwen's gaze. "Dunno," she shrugged. "My leg hurts."

"From? Which leg?"

"Again, I don't know, but it's the leg that took the arrow."

Gwen slid her legs of Randi's and flipped the covers off them. What she found caused her to gasp.

"Oh, sweetheart. This is bad. I can't believe I didn't see this when you undressed."

Randi wiggled her eyebrows rakishly up and down at the bard and smiled. "Attention on other things perhaps?"

Gwen smiled wryly. "Probably. But this is serious. What do you wanna do about this?"

Randi sat up and took a good look at something that hadn't been there that morning. It was ugly - red and inflamed with dark threads radiating out from it. The warrior blew out a breath.

"Dammit!! All right, I'm gonna need the large medical kit and the regen unit from my Sabre closet."

"You want me to fetch Reed and Tiny to help with this?"

"Nah," Randi said. "I think we can manage this ourselves if you're up to trying."

Gwen swallowed hard but nodded gamely, rising from the bed and moving to the small closet she'd never seen until Randi had taken her to it one day after the warrior's return from the dead. She pushed on the wall and the panel slid back to reveal a long, rather narrow room. The bard disregarded the different weapons and accouterments placed carefully in their assigned spots and overlooked the armor that hung neatly in the back of the small room next to the cleaning closet. Instead she made her way to the corner that held a large medical chest and opened it.

Inside were several small kits and one larger one and it was this one she removed. Then she grabbed the full sized regen until from its position in the corner of the chest and moved back out to the bedroom, cautiously closing the wall panel behind her. That had been drilled into her by Randi when she'd shared this secret with the bard, and though Tiny and Reed were both Sabres and would probably be aware of the closet's existence and purpose, Gwen wasn't going to chance anyone finding it. It wasn't worth the heartache that would follow.

She walked back to the bed, handing the kit to the now upright warrior and placing the regen unit on the floor until it was needed. Gwen sat on the corner of the bed and waited for Randi to give her some sort of direction.

Randi laid out the tools she needed then looked directly at Gwen. "You ready?"

"Tell me what you need me to do, love."

Randi had to smile at Gwen's willingness. It wasn't like this was something she was particularly accustomed to, and God knew it had been a steep learning curve when Randi herself had been forced to learn. The warrior forced away those memories and turned her attention to the here and now.

She took an alcohol wipe and rubbed the infected area down, wincing at the touch, but doing it anyway. "Grab a towel out of the bathroom. This is gonna be messy."

Gwen did, rushing back and putting it under Randi's leg before the warrior could protest. She was so gentle it brought tears to the warrior's eyes.

"Did I hurt you sweetheart?"

"Not at all, love. You have a very tender touch."

Gwen's brow wrinkled. "That's a good thing, right?"

Randi laughed. "That's a very good thing. Now," she continued before the bard could question further. "Next comes the hard part. I can do it myself, but it's at an awkward angle, so it would be better if you think you can manage it."

"I'll do it," Gwen answered in a determined voice, slipping on the gloves Randi offered.

Randi nodded and handed her a knife by the handle. "Take this and hold it while I sterilize it. Then you're gonna have to cut my leg open."

Gwen's eyes widened, but she nodded her head, waiting for the warrior to give her the go-ahead. Randi finished the sterilization and numbed the leg on either side of the redness. Then she put her hands on either side of the inflammation and looked at Gwen.

"You need to cut between my hands."

The bard swallowed. "How deeply?" she asked in a whisper.

"Dunno. We'll figure it out once we get started, I guess. For now, you've at least got to open up the skin." She looked into Gwen's eyes. "It's not gonna hurt, Gwen. The whole area is completely dead of feeling. I promise."

The bard nodded and moved the knife intently towards the mark, determined to remove the poison from Randi's body before it could do any more damage to her.

She cut it a neat, straight line, watching in morbid fascination as blood and pus and blackness oozed from the wound. Gwen looked up at Randi, noting the look of confusion before the blue eyes came up to meet hers.

"All right, now I need you to push down and then push together and see what else will come out of there. Then you're gonna have to go hunting."

"Hunting?" Gwen repeated even as she handed Randi the blade to hold so she could expelled as much ugliness as possible from the cut.

"Yep. We've gotta find all the hidden pockets of poison or we'll end up doing this again."

"Hunting," the bard muttered as she continued to push, her hands becoming coated in all sorts of interesting fluids she would have been quite happy never to have been introduced to. There were some things you just couldn't really prepare for - this was one of them. Especially the warmth that accompanied the gushing - it was unnerving.

For her part, Randi could feel the pockets bursting under Gwen's ministrations and shivered slightly at the peculiar sensation. Infections, though not unheard of, were uncommon in a Sabre unit. Injuries were tended to quickly by a trained medical doctor who worked hard to insure that healing was swift and complete with no complications. Complications could be deadly out in the field.

Eventually the bleeding slowed as did the other and Gwen reached for the knife. She held it a moment and looked deeply into Randi's eyes, knowing there was no way for the warrior to hide anything from her this close.

"You all right?"

"Yeah; it's just a little weird. You?"

"Yep. I'm going hunting now."

"All right. You're gonna have to poke around real carefully. See if there is anything else in there besides muscle and bone. You're gonna have to go by feel."

Gwen nodded and bit her lip in concentration. She didn't want to cause any more damage than had already been done. Slowly she moved the blade around the perimeter of the cut and worked her way in. She managed to find a couple of deeply hidden pockets and gently pushed until no pus or poison came out and the blood ran clearly red.

"'Kay... now what?"

"Here," handing Gwen a packet of white powder she had liberated from the med kit. "Use this and douse it well. It's gonna bubble a lot when you do and that's okay. That means its working, cleaning out the poison."

"All right. Here goes."

The reaction was immediate. As soon as the powder hit the open wound it began to crackle and sizzle, bubbling up and running down both sides of Randi's leg in narrow, pink streams.

Gwen got up from the bed and retrieved a warm, wet washcloth, gently wiping away the tracks left behind by the cleansing medicine. Gradually the bubbling stopped and Randi handed Gwen a package of butterflies to seal the cut. Gwen chanced a look at Randi, disturbed by the distinct lack of color in the warrior's face. Moving swiftly, the bard set up the regen unit, then rushed to the kitchen for some juice.

"Drink," she commanded forcefully, glaring at the warrior until the glass was drained. "Better?"

Randi smiled wanly. "Yeah, thanks. I forgot about the losing blood issue."

"Ahem... we'll let's try not to have to do this again, and then it won't matter whether you remember it or not. Now lay back.... Are you comfortable?"

Randi squiggled into a better position and nodded. "Yep," opening her arms wide. "Except for missing you."

Gwen bit her lip. "Are you sure? I mean... I don't want to hurt you or get in the way of your healing."

Randi extended her arms again more forcefully this time, much like an impatient child demanding attention. "Here. Now," she stated defiantly, then added, "Please," when Gwen gave her the bard's version of 'the look'. Not nearly as potent as the warrior's own, but effective nonetheless.

Gwen couldn't stop the grin that blossomed across her face. Then she crawled into bed and snuggled into the warrior's arms, giving a little sigh to match the one breathed above her as they settled together.

"There is no better feeling than this," Gwen said softly, kissing the skin beneath her lips.

"There never will be, and I never want to be without it again."

"No chance, love. This is a forever kind of thing for us... always has been."

Randi's smile went unseen, but her hug was felt and returned in full. "It's an amazing feeling to belong to you, Gwen."

A shiver made its way through the bard's body at Randi's quiet admission. She squeezed the warrior once more. "Almost as breathtaking as it is to be yours, warrior mine." She yawned and flexed her hands. "I love you, Randi. Goodnight."

Randi brushed a kiss over the blonde head tucked under her chin. "I love you, my bard. Goodnight."

Nothing could have prepared Randi for Ares' claim, especially given the memories she had been reliving. "I beg your pardon?" Tiny hadn't believed the temperature in the room could drop any farther, but he swore he saw frost form on Ares' facial hair at Randi's disbelieving, whispered words. "I don't know what fucking planet you just dropped in from, but *nothing* and *NO ONE* here belongs to you." The coldness in her voice was countered by the fire in her eyes.

Ares smirked, probably not the best choices of expressions he could have chosen given the circumstances, but this was his final gamble, and he had to project an air of confidence he no longer felt. If he lost now, there would be hell to pay from any number of directions... not that he expected to lose. Even though things had not turned out like he'd hoped... planned, he still had to believe he had every possible factor working in his favor.

"Oh, you don't have to beg, my dear. You need only ask." The war god smiled and waved a hand, taking a sip of the merlot he had filled the glass with and then spitting it out. "How do you drink this shit?" he asked with disdain as he wiped his mouth. "No, never mind," he continued, waving his hand. "It doesn't matter. After tonight, you won't have to suffer with it any longer."

Ares crossed his arms over his chest and gave Randi his most confident smile. "I said, I have come to claim what is mine."


Ares looked amused, going so far as to chuckle lightly. "Excuse me?"

Randi clenched her jaw so tightly the muscles in her face stood out in sharp relief and she stepped right into his personal space. "Are you deaf as well as stupid? Get the fuck out."

Tiny's eyes rounded comically as he watched the fearless interplay between Randi and the god of war. He had never thought to see such a display in person, and he remained silent and still now as the drama unfolded before him, not wanting to disturb or influence the scene as it played out - until or unless it became necessary for Randi's safety.

Ares lost his amused expression; his eyes hardened and flamed, then widened when the warrior neither flinched nor retreated. He walked around her slowly, or tried to, but Randi turned with him, watching his every step, every breath.

"You've got some big brass ones on you, don't you there? I never thought I see you grow them like this again, and any other time they'd be welcome." Ares shook his head. "But not now. I think you need to learn a little respect."

He reached for her, but Randi caught his hand. "Respect is something you earn, and I don't want you in my personal space." She shoved him back slightly.

He let her, knowing she had to come to him willingly. "I'll go, for now. You'll call for me soon enough. But let me leave you with a parting gift."

Faster than she could stop him, Ares touched her temple. There was no immediate reaction on her part and he stood there perplexed, only coming out of his reverie when she knocked his arm away.

"I am telling you one last time," she hissed. "LEAVE, or we'll find out if there are more ways to kill a god than the legends tell us about."

He continued to look at her another long moment. "I'll be here when you need me, but until then...." He touched her cheek and laughed wickedly. Then he vanished without a trace in a shower of blue fire.

"He's made his attempt," Athena informed her sisters as well as her priestess. "Is everything in place?"

Rosie nodded. "Everything on this end is. Reed is simply waiting for a signal to start."

"And what of Sky?" Artemis asked. "With the shielding that has been set up, it is nearly impossible for us to follow anything. Perfect, since it means it's working and Ares will remain unaware of what is happening. Horrid since it keeps us out of the loop as well."

Rosie smile weakly and looked at her watch. "He should be landing in the next few minutes. He is to contact Reed directly as soon as he makes it into the palace. Tiny is waiting for him, even if Randi is not. From there, well... we play it by ear."

Both goddesses nodded, and glanced over at their sister. Dite had assumed a pose of complete meditation and was focusing all her love and energy at the moment on the bond that still ran strong between the warrior and bard. Her job was to keep that link strong and connected. It was up to Athena and Artemis to protect her.

Now they moved to stand on either side of her, each resting a hand on her shoulders in a show of support and strength. This was the hardest part, and even after millennia of practicing, patience never got any easier.

"Tiny, do you remember what happened to Russ... with the Sabres? I think that may have been when things started to come apart for me - with Gwen, I mean."

He met her eyes carefully, not wanting to show his surprise. Up to this point, she had had no cognitive memories of anything she had done in regards to taking control of the unit or destroying the rebels. Even now, knowing that the rebels were gone and that she was the one responsible because of her status as Empress, there was no trace of the memories of what she had done nor how she had accomplished it. According to Reed, they didn't exist... at least not in a place that could be accessed in a mind walk. Randi had to be willing to walk into her darkest place - one so carefully hidden that no one else, save Gwen could find it.

"What do you remember, Empress?"

She shook her head, though he wasn't sure if it was at her title or some other reason. "Nothing." She slammed her fist against the table. "Nothing! Except a few rumors that reached my ears." She looked at him with tears in her eyes - a mixture of fear, sadness and hopelessness etched onto her expressive features. Then she looked back into the fire again as if searching for answers.

Tiny chanced a glance at his watch. If he could manage to hold on for just a few more minutes, Sky should be here to help him.

"Why can't I remember, Tiny? Why?"

"Randi, do you trust me?"

Her dark head popped up at his use of her name. He had not used her name since they'd come to this place, and it caught her attention now. Tiny extended a hand towards her and waited. She had to meet him on this - it wasn't something he could force.

Randi gazed at the large hand, palm up and let those memories she had of this man wash over her. Times he had watched her back or eased her pain or wiped her tears or caressed her body. So much water under the bridge between them and yet they had always, *always* had trust and respect between them. She placed her hand in his without further hesitation, knowing this one thing in her life was still right.

"Yes," came the solid, unequivocal answer.

"Then be patient just a few more minutes, and then we can figure everything out together."


"Absolutely. I promise. And I will stay right here beside you every step of the way."

Randi nodded her head and let it drop disconsolately. "I don't think I don't deserve a friend like you anymore, Tiny."

Tiny patted her hand and held on, but he didn't say a word. Instead he let his mind go back to the time when he had seen the change in Randi for himself - up close and personal.

Reed left Saturday morning, ostensibly to go home and take care of a couple dogs that were coming into heat. In reality, though she would be breeding the bitches, her true purpose for leaving was to start bringing more support into the circle. Lacey was expected to meet her first. From there, they would figure out what other talents they needed to include to tip the scales in their favor when time for the final showdown came.

It hadn't been their first plan - in fact it hadn't been a plan at all until they were sharing coffee with Randi and Gwen and the bard casually mentioned the emergency medical attention she'd given Randi the previous evening. Reed looked horrified and Randi was quick to reassure her.

"Reed, it's all right. There was no way of knowing the arrow was poisoned."

"You don't understand, Randi... we checked for that. We cleaned it out thoroughly. Nothing should have been left to fester. May I?" gesturing to the newly healed leg.

Randi frowned. "Hmm? Sure, but you're right... that is weird. We'll keep an eye on it and see if it does it again. Something else may be going on we need to know about."

"God, I hope not. That was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Gwen muttered.

Randi covered Gwen's hand. "You did a great job, my bard. I couldn't have asked for better care."

"She's right, Gwen. You did a good job here - no flaws in this technique either," Reed said with a smile, recalling her conversation with Gwen about the bard's modus operandi when preparing a new story. She resumed her seat with studied casualness, laying a hand on Tiny's leg and subtly signing to him under the table.

'Well, I don't know about that," Gwen said, "but I really don't want to be perfecting this particular skill any time soon. I'm glad I was around to help though."

"So I am," Tiny commented, "'cause I know she wouldn't have come to get us to help her," glaring in Randi's direction and receiving a burning stare in return. "Don't bother," Tiny growled. "You know it's true and so do we," smirking when Reed nodded her head emphatically in agreement. "See?"

Gwen looked between the three friends in concern and then caught the sheepish expression in Randi's eyes. "Randi?"

The warrior shrugged. "It's true. I don't always play well with others, especially if it means letting others see me vulnerable. You're different," she continued before the question was asked. "You're a part of me. I can't hide things from you... I wouldn't want to."

Gwen stood and wrapped her arms around Randi's neck. "Good thing you added that last bit there Stud."

"Oh yeah?" drawled slowly as she urged the bard onto her lap.

"Yep. I would've had to have gotten nasty with you otherwise."

"Really?" smirking. "Do you promise?"

"Ahem, guys? I um... I hate to interrupt," Tiny said, clearing his throat and scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. Two sets of eyes met his in chagrined understanding.

"Sorry, Reed," they muttered simultaneously.

"No problem," she breathed, her voice a little higher than normal. "It's all positive energy at this point. My shielding is just getting a good workout this week. I almost hate to have to cut it short."

Now their eyes grew concerned and they looked at one another a long moment before Gwen slid from Randi's lap to stand beside her, unwilling to completely lose tactile contact with the warrior.

"Something wrong?"

"Here? Nothing you don't already know about. No, I need to get home. I got a comm message early this morning from the farm. I've got two dogs coming into heat and I need to be there to keep an eye on things. It's a control thing."

Gwen snorted. "Like no one here understands that little issue, huh?" Then giggling at the identical expression on all three Sabre faces.

"Watch it, bard," she growled. It didn't stop the giggles and instead the sound made Randi crack a smile, just slightly.

"I was wondering, though," spoke Tiny. "Would you mind if I stayed here a few more days? Tommy has asked me for some plans for a playhouse for Randall and I have to go up to the capital city on Thursday. It would save me a little if I could just go from here."

"Sure, Tiny. You know you're welcome here anytime. What's up in the capital?"

The big man shook his head. "Nothing yet. That was the first appointment I could get to talk to the new commandant. I'm trying to get some activity information - maybe we can figure out what or who will come after you next."

Gwen shivered at his words and Randi glared at him. Then his words registered and she frowned. "Waitaminute... what do you mean, the first appointment you could get? Is Russ getting stupid or has the position gone to his head?"

"I'm not sure, honestly," Tiny answered. "That's another reason I am going to speak to him. Something is going on, and we don't like it. We're not being sent out like we should, not given the amount of activity obviously going on if they are targeting you. You have a lot of friends in the Sabres, Randi, and we don't like seeing one of our own being treated the way you are."

"I can handle myself, Tiny."

"Yes, you can. But this is our fight too."

Randi stiffened and started to speak again, but was stopped by the pressure on her shoulder. She blew out a deep breath and relaxed. "All right, Tiny. You do what you need to do. You're welcome to stay here as long as you'd like. Now I'm going for a run. You think you can keep up?"

"No, but damned if I'm gonna let that stop me from trying again." Tiny turned to Reed. "Wait for me to get back before you leave?"

"Count on it...." She paused. "But run fast. It won't take me that long to pack."

He nodded and would have stolen a kiss had not Randi run by right at the moment and pinched his ass hard. He grabbed the bruised spot and yell, then took off running after her. Reed shook her head.

"Some things never change," she muttered to Gwen. The bard just laughed.

Chapter XVII

"C'mon, Gwen. You can do this." The bard repeated the mantra to herself over and over as she paced back and forth across the empty stage area. Tommy wanted her to tell stories to the kids like they'd talked about, and today they were going to do a run through. Something wasn't settling right, and Gwen was having difficulty getting into the groove she needed to be in. Fortunately, she had a little time to compose herself as Tommy was in a meeting with some of the new artists.

Gwen looked around, unhappy with the setting, confident it wasn't going to work for what Tommy had in mind. It was too formal, too barren. Always when she'd shared her stories with the kids at band practice, things had been relaxed and completely informal. It had been casual, but right now all she had was stark and bare.

She continued to pace, willing her mind to focus on the stage and the setting and the story she wanted to tell, trying not to allow her thoughts to wander to what was truly bothering her.

Finally unable to stave off the disturbing memory, Gwen dropped to the edge of the stage and took a seat. She scrubbed her hands through her hair and covered her face as though to dispel the look in Randi's eyes before she left with Tiny.

That had been something of a shock. Gwen had honestly expected Randi to be with her for this first session with the children - just like she had always been at band practice. In fact, the warrior had given every indication of her intention to be there, until the night before. Randi had gotten a message that she had not shared with either Gwen or Tiny, but her demeanor had completely changed. Even Tiny had noticed it and his eyes had widened perceptibly at the return of a personage he had never expected to see again.

This wasn't the logical, precise warrior whose mind had figured out the most complex puzzles and villains. No, this was the Sabre whose greatest skill was slaughter, whose decimation of the rebel hierarchy was legendary among their kind.

Briskly, she had informed him that she would be accompanying him to the capital, and Tiny had time to wonder what the message had contained before Gwen broke in with a pained question.

"You're leaving... tomorrow? But...."

"Yes. Something has come up that I need to take care of immediately. Why?"

Gwen swallowed. Noting the coldness in Randi's eyes and wondering what had happened in the hours since lunch to have changed the warrior so much. It reminded her greatly of the woman that had kept secrets from the bard in what seemed like another lifetime ago. Gwen decided that wasn't going to happen again. She had claimed Randi for her own and she wasn't giving the warrior up... with or without a fight.

"I don't think so," she replied boldly. "Not until you explain to me what is going on."

A dark brow rose over one blue eye. "Excuse me?" Randi quirked her lips into a half-smile in an attempt to add a little humor to the question, but it never quite reached her eyes. Neither woman noticed Tiny's withdrawal, so intently focused on one another were they. "Since when...?" breaking off at the pure fury directed at her from green eyes.

Gwen grabbed her left hand and lifted their rings to eye level. "Don't finish that question. You already know the answer to it."

Blue eyes blinked and the coldness evaporated, leaving only marked confusion in its wake. "Gwen?" Randi shook her head as though to clear it. "Sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. I know better than that. You deserve better than that."

"Yes, I do," Gwen said bluntly. "Randi, what happened? There wasn't a problem at lunch. We even talked about you being at the new session with the kids." Her voice dropped. "I need you there."

Randi took her free hand and ran it vigorously over her face as though trying to get the blood pumping. Then she led them over to the couch to sit, tugging the bard into the niche between her legs and cocooning her gently.

"I'm sorry, Gwen. It completely slipped my mind after...." Randi blew out an exasperated breath. Gwen simply waited. Finally the warrior spoke, so lowly Gwen would have needed to strain to hear her had her lips not been pressed to the bard's ear. Gwen forced herself to listen to the words and ignore the sensations that coursed through her as the warm air flowed into her ear. It wasn't as difficult as it normally would have been - not with the tension filled body now sitting ramrod stiff behind her.

Gwen turned slightly - just enough to allow her to look into Randi's eyes. And what she saw there... she drew a deep breath. "That bad?"

The warrior nodded. "Yes. Another threat. It's time for the Sabres to take this seriously. I'm gonna go with Tiny and make sure Russ understands that. Otherwise, it could be weeks or even never before he deigns to speak to me."

Gwen frowned. "What's up with that? I thought he'd be anxious to...."

"Yeah, me too. But apparently he's got some sort of grudge going."

"Against you? But why?"

Randi shook her head. "I dunno... unless it's because I left the unit." She shrugged. "Maybe it's a power trip for him or something."

Green eyes blazed. "Why that little punk! I oughta...."

Randi chuckled, relaxing for the first time since she'd received the newest missive from the Wizards as well as one from the Brotherhood. There were too many questions, and it was time she demanded some answers.

"Don't worry, love. I'm gonna. One way or another, this is going to be settled. We aren't going to continue living like this - in fear of reprisals." Her eyes darkened and so did her voice. "Either he will take care of this... or I will."

Now Gwen turned all the way around in Randi's lap, not liking the words or the tone behind them. And what she saw in Randi's eyes scared her in a way she hadn't been in a long time.


The warrior blinked and her eyes returned to their normal blue. She looked down and smiled at the bard, wondering what had caused the uneasy expression now reflected back at her.

"C'mon, sweetheart. Tiny's leaving early in the morning, and I don't want him to have to wait." She used her fingertips to urge Gwen's chin up, so their eyes met. "But I promise you I will be back as soon as I can. With a little luck, I will be home in the early afternoon."

Gwen nodded, knowing that the likelihood of that happening was slim. She knew what their luck was like whenever the Sabres were involved with something.

"I'd like that. Tomorrow is only rehearsal, but I'd still like you to be there if possible."

"It means that much to you?" The blonde head nodded without breaking eye contact. "Well, then. I'll be there. Ask Tommy to schedule you for late afternoon. That should fit for the kids' school schedules as well."

"It does. We're scheduled to start at four."

It was Randi's turn to nod her agreement. "I may be a little late, but I'll be there. Look for me."

"I will," wrapping her arms around Randi and hugging her as hard as she could. "Thank you, Sweetheart. That means so much to me."

Randi smiled and kissed the top of Gwen's head absently, caressing her back as she lulled the bard into sleep. But Randi's gaze turned distant and it was a long time before she joined Gwen in sleep.

Gwen chuckled softly as her mind returned to her surroundings. Waking up on the couch in the early hours of the morning had been a rather painful experience for them both, though moreso for Randi than herself. They had hobbled to the bedroom and proceeded to collapse into comfort with twin moans.

"Remind me not to do that again," Randi mumbled into her pillow.

"Don't do that again," Gwen muttered back, willing herself to move long enough to undress. She felt the bed shift as Randi did just exactly that.

"Smartass," the warrior growled in her direction, and Gwen couldn't stop the smile that formed.

"Better than a dumbass, I always say," she retorted before stripping her clothes off and sliding back into bed. She was asleep before she could say goodnight.

Randi smiled faintly as she crawled into bed beside Gwen. "Well, that's one way to get the last word in, I guess." Then her smile turned into a full-fledged grin when the bard claimed her spot on Randi in her sleep. "Goodnight, love."

But something fundamental had changed in the night. Randi had been cold, distant, almost formal with Gwen when she'd gotten back from her run and the bard cringed inwardly at the memory, shying away from the pain it had inflicted on her very soul. It felt like a deliberate rejection and Gwen was at a loss to explain what had happened or why.

So now she sat alone on a darkened stage, trying to pull herself together to give a performance she wasn't sure she could manage to pull off. She whispered a prayer to Aphrodite, then rose and made her way to Tommy's office.

Tiny sat quietly in the small, private shuttle he'd managed to arrange for them. He was a little disconcerted at Randi's abrupt change in personality. He hadn't seen her like this - completely remote and aloof - since Gwen's appearance in her life. Before that, this had been a much more common façade in her attempt to separate herself from the brutal reality of her Sabre existence. He wondered what in particular had brought it to the fore and if Randi was even aware of the difference.

Randi sat rubbing her leg absently, her gaze focused somewhere that Tiny couldn't see. She had moved into the darkness of her subconscious mind, looking through the memories she had stored there. Something - several somethings, in fact - were bothering her about the notes she continued to receive, and she was slowly working through every possibility she had ever encountered during her time as a Sabre looking for the answers she knew were there.

The biggest question to her mind was *WHY*. Why were the rebel groups bothering to threaten and warn? Why not simply attack and destroy as they had in the small Native village mere weeks ago. She scrubbed her face at that realization. Had it only been a few weeks since their honeymoon? Randi examined her thoughts. It had, but so much had happened to almost make that time of seclusion with Gwen seem like nothing more than a dream. She felt... different. Not that she could put her finger on a specific event or time frame, because even her slaughter of the rebels in that village and Gwen's recounting of actions she had no conscious memory of had not left her with the disquiet she now felt gnawing at the edges of her soul.

She had Tiny's wrist caught in a crushing grip before she recognized his touch on her leg. Immediately she released him, blinking her eyes in surprised reaction. The Navy chief sat back and swallowed the blood in his mouth where he'd bitten his lip, cradling his now throbbing appendage. He'd forgotten about those lightning swift reflexes.

"Oh God, Tiny." She gazed at him with horror-filled eyes, the cold remoteness disappearing from them in her concern for him. "I'm sorry. I...." His fingers covered her lips.

"My fault. I knew better than to grab when your mind was obviously so far away. I forgot," he added sheepishly before his look turned serious again. "Where were you? I haven't seen you look like that since... well, not for a while." He cautiously moved his wrist around, grateful it wasn't broken.

"Here, let me," Randi said softly as she took his arm in a firm but gentle clasp. She examined him carefully, then patted his forearm before returning it to him. "Just a little bruised, I think."

Tiny nodded. "I think so too." He chuckled lightly. "You must be slowing down in your old age." He was a bit surprised when her serious air never changed. "Randi? Hey, what's going on with you? I'm all right, and it really was my fault for startling you so badly. I know better. I just didn't think."

He thought for a moment she was going to blow him off - her expression and her posture remained rigid. Then she leaned back in the seat and she turned to stare out the shuttle windows once more. Tiny waited patiently, finally able to feel the conflict of her thoughts by her body language. He knew she'd speak when she had it sorted enough to make sense of it.

Randi took a deep breath and sighed, looking at him with frustration. Tiny tilted his head. "Those letters still bothering you?"

"Not for the reason you're thinking. I mean hateful rhetoric is hateful rhetoric, right?"

"Right. So...?"

"Why, Tiny? Why are they suddenly taking the time to write to me? To warn me of what they are planning? Vague warnings, I'll admit, but they are warnings just the same. Why not just attack, like they have in the past? What's changed? The whole things sets off my Sabre meter in a way that makes my nerve endings stand on edge."

Tiny rubbed his chin thoughtfully, trying to discretely flex the soreness out of his bruised wrist. "Well, we know they are struggling within to find new leadership to bring them together like Ghost Rider did. Maybe this is their way of duking it out, so to speak."

Randi shook her head. "I could accept that if there was any sense to it, but Tiny, these letters make no sense. If they need leadership, it seems like actions would speak louder than words in this case." She sighed again. "I've seriously considered the fact that I am being deliberately baited, but by whom and to what end? So that I react? So that I get the Sabres involved?" Randi covered her face with her hands and blew out an exasperated breath before she dropped her hands and looked at him again.

"What does your gut tell you?"

Randi leaned back and closed her eyes as she carefully considered Tiny's words. "It feels like manipulation. I can't think of any other logical reason for the notes. My problem is I can't get a good grip on how I am being manipulated, or by whom or why. It's making me nuts."

"Have you considered...." Tiny waited for her to open her eyes and focus on him before he continued. "Have you considered that if you are being manipulated, your course of action could be irrelevant?" She twitched an eyebrow at him and motioned for him to continue. Tiny cleared his throat and blew out a breath before continuing.

"I agree with you - what you've said smacks of manipulation. That being said, if it's true, then wouldn't whoever is behind this plan for every contingency... or at least try to?"

"Go on," Randi said succinctly.

Tiny shook his head. "I'm just thinking out loud, but you know how we are... how you were as a Sabre. You studied your enemy and made educated guesses about what and when and where and how, but always, *always* there were contingency plans in place to assure nothing was missed. It wasn't until there was a leak from within that those strategies stopped working."

Randi nodded slowly and her eyes resumed their veiled coldness once again. "So, I need to think outside the box - go beyond what I would normally do and try something totally unexpected." She rubbed her leg again. Tiny followed the movement with his eyes.

"That bothering you again? You need me to take a look at it?"

Tiny saw a flash of mischievous twinkle in the depths of her eyes before Randi cast a glower in his direction. "You wanna explain to Gwen why you were groping me in the shuttle?" He goggled at her, his eyes bulging and his mouth opening and closing silently like a fish breathing. "It's fine, Tiny. We double-checked it this morning. It just aches like a tooth gone nervy now. All the stress, I think."

He blinked, realizing she'd yanked his chain so seriously, he'd never seen it coming. He shook his head. The lightning changes in her demeanor were going to drive him to drink if he wasn't real careful keeping up with her.

"So what are you planning to do exactly?" Tiny asked trying to refocus the conversation. He already knew what was causing the stress - it was the same thing that was causing him enough stress to make the ends of his very short hair ache. However he also knew there was nothing for it but to let it play out to its conclusion now. They had come too far and risked too much, and Ares had stepped up the price of the outcome until there was no other choice.

Randi shrugged and Tiny watched as her Sabre mask settled on her face once more. "Whatever it takes," she answered with detachment before turning her face to the window and her attention inward. Tiny leaned back, knowing he wasn't going to get any more answers from her until she had something she felt like sharing.

For her part, Randi already had the beginnings of an idea. Gwen wasn't going to like it, but if it meant they would be rid of the rebels forever and that she and Gwen would be safe to live out their lives in peace, Randi was willing to risk the bard's wrath. The warrior figured she could make Gwen see the positive side of the possibilities before them.

The shuttle whispered to a stop and the two Sabres stood to exit. What happened in the course of the next few hours would change everything.

"Well, Randi," Russ greeted cordially but not enthusiastically. "This is a... an unexpected... surprise." Unexpected and definitely unwelcome. Russ was a by-the-book officer, and Sabres like Randi - especially Randi - had always been a wildcard he had difficulty dealing with.

Truth be told, Russ should never had been a Sabre. He'd never had the gumption for it... not the fighting and killing part of it anyway. He was a throwback to the old days despite his relative youth, when the Sabres had merely been peacekeepers, not enforcers. But he was a hell of an efficient organizer and Jerry had depended on him to keep everything - personnel, schedules, supplies and operations - on track. And to his credit, Russ had been a whiz at that particular aspect of his duty.

But with Jerry's death, he had become the defacto leader of the Sabre unit and he was doing his best to run it by the book. Unfortunately for him, the Sabres *had* no book... only a code of honor they had all sworn to live and die by. He was in over his head and he knew it. What he didn't know was how to remedy the situation he found himself in, and now this.

Randi was an anomaly to him - something to be tolerated at best and ignored whenever possible. The fact that she was no longer truly a Sabre was his only leverage against her, and he intended to use that little fact to his best advantage. He had no way of knowing he'd already been out maneuvered and Randi was merely present to call checkmate.

When Tiny had finally left her to her solitude, Randi had let her mind drift into what she called her Sabre haze. It was the place where she didn't consciously think - she simply allowed her thoughts to wander randomly of their own recourse. It was how she solved the most difficult of puzzles, by allowing the facts to arrange themselves until she could see the pattern in them and understand the truth behind them.

What she had discovered was something that made her angry beyond words. Once again, she was being betrayed by someone at the highest levels of the Sabres. Only this time, it was deliberate. This time it was personal in a way it hadn't been before.

Randi read his unease easily behind the cordiality of his greeting. He struggled to meet her gaze, unable to hold the intensity directed at him. Russ extended his hand, somehow not surprised when it wasn't accepted. He knew well the disdain she held for the officer ranks now after cleaning up behind them and well aware of what that action had cost her.

"I'm sure it is," Randi answered coldly, transferring her meaning to a number of levels that could be felt in the noticeable drop in temperature in the room.

Tiny watched the by-play with interest. It was obvious even to the untrained eye that there was no love loss between these two, but the question foremost in his mind was why. They had rarely interacted when Randi was still an active member of the Sabres and now that she was officially separated from duty, they had no cause whatsoever to relate to one another on any level. Yet the tension was thick enough to cut with a blade.

"Well," Russ said, clearing his throat. "I'm uh... glad you stopped by, but I do have a schedule to keep, so if you'll excuse us...." gesturing her towards the door.

"I don't think so," she replied in the same calm, cold voice. "Have a seat, Russ. Tiny, the door." She looked at Tiny and he gaped at her momentarily. There was no longer any trace of his friend Randi. The woman who stood before him now was his Sabre compatriot Miranda Valiant and despite any misgivings he had about her transformation, his mind chose to remember only the trust they had shared between them.

The big Navy man rose and Russ looked at him in horror. "Sit down, Chief. We have business to attend to. Ms Valiant has no authority here."

Tiny looked back and forth between them before shaking his head at Russ. "I'm sorry, sir. If I have to choose a loyalty here and now, you'll lose badly."

"THIS IS MUTINY!!" the Commandant roared.

"Perhaps," Tiny muttered, noting Randi's expression hadn't wavered. "But I have put my life in her hands more times than I can count, and she has never let me down; never betrayed my trust." He locked eyes with Randi for a long moment before turning his attention back to Russ. "I can't say the same for the officer corps of this unit." Tiny turned again and locked eyes with Randi.

"I'll have your head for this, Chief," Russ growled.

"Somehow, sir... I don't think so," Tiny replied without breaking eye contact with Randi. "Would you like me to wait outside?" hoping the answer would be no. He very much feared for Randi at this moment having seen Sky's vision. But he knew it had to be her choice - he was merely to be her watchdog to insure she got to the point of choosing. And somehow, he had the feeling that time had not arrived yet. Both Sky and Reed had assured him he would know, but all he understood right now was that Randi's demeanor was both comfortingly familiar and disturbingly disconcerting.

"You can stay," Randi said. "I'm not going to do anything to him but talk." The warrior turned her attention back to Russ. "Have. A. Seat." Repeated slowly and distinctly with a glare that could have melted glass. Russ got the hint and sank into the chair behind him, hoping to hide his unease with bravado. She dropped down to sit on his desk.

"I'm not sure what you hope to accom...."

"Shut up," Randi said flatly. "You don't speak unless I give you specific instruction to do so. Do you understand?"

"Who the hell...?" The slap knocked his head back in the chair and resounded across the room.

"Randi?" Tiny's concerned utterance got him a raised hand, but Randi's eyes never left Russ.

"We apparently need to set a few ground rules as Russ here doesn't seem to understand English." She grabbed the Commandant's chin and squeezed, forcing him to sit upright and focus on her.

"Now... do I have your undivided attention?" He jerked his head in a nod. "Good. I'll only have to explain this once then. I ask a question - you give me an answer. A very brief answer. No expletives, no questions, no commentary. Otherwise, you sit and listen. Do we understand each other?"

Russ nodded. "Yes," he ground out succinctly.

"Good. I am going explain a couple things to you that I have figured out, then we're gonna have to make a decision on how to proceed. You see, I've been getting notes from the different rebel factions... little missives meant to unnerve me and keep me off balance." Russ nodded again. She had already shared this with him before. She rose and began to pace around the desk, much in the manner of a college professor addressing her students.

"The thing that bothered me was WHY? Why not just attack? Obviously they were aware of how to reach me... to some extent, at least. So why play games? What were they hoping to accomplish? Then it occurred to me - they were playing games because that was what they had been instructed to do. And they were able to find me because they had access to someone here. Someone high enough up for me to be considered a threat to."

"And you think it was me?" he scoffed. "Why would I consort with the enemy? No matter what I think of your decision to quit, I am still a Sabre. I follow the code!"

"I don't think so. You knew Jerry wanted me to be groomed for this position, and when I turned it down, you were angry. You didn't think I should have a choice... even though I had already DIED once. But that didn't matter, did it? You figured if the Sabres couldn't have me, then no one should. Only you knew my Sabre compatriots would never turn against me. So you went to someone who would - people who would take great pleasure in seeing me destroyed... knowing... hoping one of them would eventually succeed."

Randi spoke almost conversationally, but the look she gave Russ when she met his eyes was one of hatred and disdain. He saw his death in the glance and he felt the blood drain from his head.

She turned her back to him deliberately as she continued her narrative. "The sad part of this is if we had been left alone to live in peace - if you had just left us alone!!!" She blew out a deep breath. Though her tone had never risen, Randi's rage was palpable. She scratched her forehead absently.

"The question now is what to do with you." She paused as though in thought, then began speaking in a low tone as though to herself. "You have no honor - you do not deserve a Sabre's death. So you choose... either you kill yourself tonight or I will disgrace you in the morning."

Russ laughed nervously. "You have got to be kidding me. You have no proof - this is all pure speculation." He shifted in his chair, uncomfortably aware of her piercing regard.

"No, it isn't. Even though I choose not to do this any longer, I am still the best there is. I know where to find what I need to prove my statement. Besides, I am confident that the unit would believe me if I declared you a traitor to them. I have earned their trust and you...."

She felt him twitch and turned to catch the blade inches from her heart. Tiny moved swiftly from his position to catch Russ' hand before he could drop it, and pulled it up behind his back. He turned to glance at Randi and flinched.

Eyes which had been silvery in her anger now faded to a clear white. "Bad choice, Russell. Now you die slowly and painfully like the traitor you are... like the rebel you have become. And lucky you... you even got to choose the method."

She looked at Tiny and saw the confusion clearly written in his eyes. She hesitated then shook her head. "You don't have to stay, Tiny," knowing the big man's hatred for torture. "It's not going to be pretty."

He swallowed hard and shook his head. "I think I need to stay... for your sake," mumbling the last words under his breath, though Randi heard them clearly. Now it was her turn to look confused momentarily, then she felt her Sabre focus slip back into place.

Russ struggled, but as he and Tiny shared the same training and Tiny was in much better condition, it was no effort at all for the big man to maintain the upper hand between them.

"You can't do this," Russ gasped out. "It's murder."

Randi snorted, hitting several spots on his back and causing him to collapse in Tiny's arms. "There is no such thing as murder of an enemy in the Sabre code. We are all authorized... trained to kill. And the time has come for you to die."

"No! NO!! You can't do this!!"

"Um, Randi...." Tiny started to speak, then hesitated when she turned back to him. He gathered his courage and spoke. "He deserves the right to a Sabre trial."

"Tiny, if this bothers you, leave. He's a traitor and he lost any rights he might have had when he tried to kill me." The cold flatness in her voice unnerved him, but he shook his head. She spoke the truth... it was her right, and Russ, if he was the traitor Randi claimed him to be, deserved to die by whatever method she deemed appropriate.

"Nope, I'm staying." Hoping his presence would deter her violent tendencies.

She picked Russ up and dropped him in his chair. "Ya know what?" she said conversationally to him. "I really have to wonder how you became a Sabre. You're nothing like the rest of us, and quite frankly, you're not even worth the effort to torture."

He spit at her.

Randi stood casually and wiped the spittle from her cheekbone, then onto his shirt. "However, it doesn't mean I can't make you suffer first."

She reached out, pushing pressure points on his arms and legs before releasing the ones on his back, and he instantly keened in agony from the pain that flowed through his veins. He had never imagined such misery.

"Oh," she added as an afterthought, popping two spots on either side of his neck. "I'm tired of having to listen to you whine."

Tiny watched her work. It wasn't something they'd had to do often, but Randi had always done so without conversation or emotion. He wondered where all this was coming from, and then she unknowingly answered his question.

"This is for what you did to Gwen, you fucking son of a bitch," she hissed at him before jamming the blade he'd thrown at her into his stomach. "Now you'll feel every single last wretched minute of your pathetic life."

She stood up and backed away from him. "You can be glad for one thing though - your death will have a much more lasting effect than your life ever did."

"Tiny, I want you to notify the unit - call a mandatory meeting for every Sabre on Sunday morning. That should give everyone time to get here. It's time we took back what was ours and did what we've been trained to do."

"Randi?" hoping he'd misunderstood, knowing what the action meant.

"Do it, Tiny. Everybody... active, retired, whatever. Just get them here. I've gotta go see Geoff and Jill, then I've gotta get home. I made a promise to Gwen."

"She's not gonna to like this."

"I know, but there's no help for it either. I'll make it right with her... somehow."

Tiny watched her leave, then closed his eyes and prayed. Her eyes had still been almost clear when she'd left and he shivered at the memory. He hoped he'd done the right thing, but only time would tell that for sure.

Chapter XVIII

Randi walked into the therapy room, grinning at the memories the grunts and groans issuing from Geoff's mouth evoked in her. Though there had been nothing pleasant about the time she'd spent recovering from her death, the ultimate reward had been worth it. It was those thoughts that put the smile on her face and drew a roar from Geoff. That noise drew a sympathetic whine from the half-grown dog on the floor.

"You better have a damn good reason for coming in here with a smile on your face. Do you know how damn much this hurts??"

Randi just kept grinning like a Cheshire cat as she advanced into the room. She reached Geoff and reached her hands towards him, intent on kneading out the tension she could see rippling in the broad shoulders.

Carbon stepped between Randi and Geoff and bristled, growling at her briefly before relenting with a sniff of her person and another whine. Then he moved to one side but kept his attention focused attentively on Randi.

"That was weird," Randi mumbled to herself, then let her hands go to work.

Geoff flinched at the first contact, then relaxed as her skilled hands worked weeks of knots out of his muscles. Even though he had massage therapy after every physical therapy session, Randi hit places with knowing hands that had plagued him repeatedly. He groaned loudly when she hit a particularly tender spot. She bent low and whispered into his ear.

"Yeah, I do... up close and personal like. I also know what the reward is like at the end of the road."

Geoff let his head drop until his chin touched his chest. "God, that feels so good. Those young pups just don't get that they have to dig hard to get the worst of the knots out."

"Yeah, well," Randi replied, standing up and patting his back before walking around to take a seat in front of him. "That one of those things you learn by hard-earned experience." And this time, he could see the pain in her blue eyes behind the grin she gave him. "Where's Jill?" she asked before he had a chance to probe further.

"At home. She had some things that had to be taken care of and they needed a more personal touch that a vid conference could give her. We didn't know you were coming. Where's Gwen?" All said without a pause for breath.

"At home. She's got a dress rehearsal this afternoon. Tommy's gonna try the first of his change of settings ideas, and they're starting with the kids. In fact, I'm supposed to be back there to watch."

He frowned at her. "So why are you here?"

"I had to let Russ know about some problems the Sabres needed to be aware of." She blew out a breath and met his eyes. "I'm being set up as a target by the various rebel groups, and that means...."

"That means Gwen is a target as well, and she's much more visual than you are."


"So, what did he say? What's he going to do?"

"He didn't say. He barely gave me the time of day... made it clear I was wasting my time as I wasn't a Sabre anymore." Her words stopped as they both felt a slight vibration at their wrists. They looked down simultaneously and two sets of eyebrows rose into hairlines.

"Well, maybe that's what this meeting is about then," Geoff said. "Better be or else I'm going to have to get out of this chair to kick Russ' ass for being stupid," he muttered to himself. Geoff looked at Randi with an interesting expression. "You still wear it?" gesturing to her Sabre alert band.

"Yeah. I like to know what is going on." She shrugged. "Habit as much as anything, I guess."

"So you going to come back up for this meeting?"

Randi nodded. "I think so. I think I need to know what's going on... especially if he is going to do something about these notes I've been getting. Don't worry," she said with a smile, tapping him on the leg. "I'll bring Gwen with me for sure on Sunday." She glanced up and saw Tiny waiting in the doorway for her and motioned him in.

Geoff smiled. "See that you do. I'll make sure Jill is here. We can have a little family reunion."

Randi nodded as she rose. "Sounds good. Maybe Carbon will be friendlier with Gwen here."

Geoff nodded, an odd look on his face. "Maybe... I hope so. He's never acted that way towards anyone who has been part of my therapy. Strange that he'd do that to you, of all people."

"Who did what?" Tiny questioned as he extended a hand to the weapons smith. "Hey, Geoff! How's it going?

Geoff grunted and shrugged. "Better now that I've had a real massage to get the knots out," with a smirking glance in Randi's direction.

"Yep, she could have been a pro."

"Hey! I'm sitting right here, ya know."

"And your point?" Tiny teased. "C'mon. I hate to pop in and run, but you've got a shuttle to catch and so do I. Sure wish I could be there when you explain to Gwen about why you called this meeting though."

Geoff's head snapped towards Randi, catching the honest uncertainty in her eyes before she looked at Tiny. She rubbed a hand across her forehead.

"Huh? Tiny, what are you talking about? If that's your idea of a joke, your punchline needs work, because that isn't funny." She rubbed her forehead again, wincing slightly at the pain that suddenly radiated through her skull. Carbon whined pitifully before howling.

"Randi? Don't you remember...?" Tiny took Randi by the arms and looked into her eyes. The first thing he noticed was they were their beautiful blue color once more. What he realized almost immediately after that was she had no recollection of what had happened... just like with the Amazons. The only thing he saw in her eyes now was bewilderment and pain.

She clenched her hands around his arms until he grimaced at the bruising he could feel. "Tiny?" her voice dropped to a whisper as though anything louder was too much effort. "Tiny? Take me home to Gwen."

Then Randi did something she'd never done before in her life - she swooned.

Tiny caught her before she hit the deck and scooped her up in his arms. He looked at Geoff whose expression was a mixture of surprise, confusion and concern.

"Tiny, do you know what is going on?" The big man nodded. "Do you think you could explain it to me?

Tiny nodded. "I will. I'll come back and tell you everything I know."

"Come back? Don't you think she needs a doctor now?"

Tiny shook his head. "No... she needs Gwen." He held up a hand - quite a feat considering he still had Randi unconscious in his arms. "I need you to trust me for just a little while, Geoff. I promise I will come directly back here and make things make as much sense to you as they do to the rest of us right now, but I have to get her home first. Trust that Gwen's love is what Randi needs right now," remembering Reed's cautionary words to him before she'd left. He hoped she'd been able to fill Lacey in on everything. Things were likely to move very quickly from this point.

Gwen was waiting at the private pad when the shuttle touched down. Tiny had contacted her as soon as they'd gotten into the air. He knew they would need clearance to approach the island, and Gwen needed time to get there and prepare herself.

He lifted Randi into his arms once more and stepped down the ramp. She hadn't stirred since her collapse and he was growing more concerned by the minute. Tiny nodded to the pilot who closed the door as soon as the Navy man was clear, and lifted off when they were a safe distance away.

Gwen waited for him to approach her, mindful of Randi's guidelines for pad safety and not wanting to jeopardize anyone. But as soon as Tiny was clear of the transport area and into the safety zone, she ran to him, immediately smoothing Randi's hair from her face and noting the pale features.

"My God, Tiny!! What happened??"

Tiny shifted uncomfortably in his uniform and looked at her beseechingly. "Can we get her inside first? Then I'll tell you about our day, I promise."

Gwen nodded and walked beside him, wanting to keep tactile contact with Randi. She hadn't liked the look in Tiny's eyes when he'd asked for a reprieve, and she knew that whatever was coming down the pipeline was nothing but bad news. Her stomach knotted up.

She'd known things were going to go bad - Aphrodite had warned her of as much. But she'd expected... hoped it would be longer. Already they had been through so much just to be together - they were still newlyweds by all standards for God's sake - and now this. She'd hoped for a little more time, but she got the definite impression that hope was in vain and fading fast.

They reached the beach house and she released her hold on Randi with a tangible sense of loss to open the door for Tiny to step through. He carried her straight into their bedroom and placed her gently on the bed Gwen had pulled down. Then he stepped out of the room to allow Gwen the privacy she deserved to make Randi comfortable. He twitched his uniform into place and sat down in front of the blazing fireplace to wait.

For her part, Gwen simply gazed at her mate for many long moments, wondering what had happened. Finally she moved, easing Randi's shoes off her feet and sliding her pants down long legs. Then she removed Randi's jacket and shirt before pulling the covers up around her shoulders. Gwen took another long minute to just look at Randi. Gently she combed the hair off the warrior's face and she leaned down kissed the smooth cheek. She inhaled Randi's scent greedily, knowing with a certainty that no matter what else, this was the woman she had married and pledged her life, her heart, and her very soul too. She let that knowledge settle the cramping in her guts and she rose to go hear what Tiny had to say.

At least, that was the plan... until Gwen realized that Randi had a clenched fist firmly grasping her shirttail. She tried to loosen the warrior's hold, and Randi immediately became restless, retreating into the anxious state Gwen had encountered on occasions when Randi had been on Sabre business and done things she was ashamed for Gwen to know about.

A cold fear raced through Gwen, remembering well what those things had been and what they had done to Randi's psyche. She looked down, seeing the frown crease Randi's forehead and made a quick decision.

"Tiny?" Gwen called softly, though she was fairly sure her voice would do little to disturb Randi current state. She cleared her throat and beckoned a little louder, only to having him standing awkwardly in the doorway. She flushed slightly at the sight of his obvious uncomfortable embarrassment.

"Sorry," Gwen apologized softly. "Um, look... I need to.... Hmm...." She mumbled quietly to herself, though her words were quite clear to Tiny. "I don't know why I'm embarrassed about this. I mean, you've seen us in bed together and everything. It's just...."

He decided to come to her rescue. "I need to call Reed real quick and I can see Randi needs you with her," gesturing to the tight grip the warrior maintained on Gwen's shirt. "Why don't you um... do whatever you need to do to make you both comfortable and call me when you're ready?"

Gwen closed her eyes and nodded. "Thanks, Tiny."

He turned and made his way back to the living room, moving to the far side to insure the privacy he needed to make his call.

Gwen sat down and riffled her fingers through Randi's hair. Gradually, she felt the tension melt from the warrior's frame and she leaned down to whisper in Randi's ear. "Sweetheart, I know you can hear me. I know you're in a dark place right now, but I want you to know I am right here. I'm right beside you, love, and I'm waiting for you to come home to me."

Gwen drew a deep shuddering breath, trying to will away the knots she felt tying up her guts. She patted the hand still clutching her shirt, loosening the fingers and lifting them to her lips for a kiss. Then she held on to them as she awkwardly maneuvered herself into the bed beside Randi. The warrior immediately released the hold she had on Gwen's hand and rolled into her, allowing Gwen to envelope her almost completely.

Gwen clung to Randi for several long minutes, mumbling words of reassurance meant for them both. Promises she hoped they survived together to keep. Finally, she felt ready to face the truth of what Tiny had to share with her, and she summoned him.

Tiny, in the meantime, had been quite busy on his Sabre comm - a fact that in and of itself spoke of the gravity of the situation. The link was rarely used... only in emergencies and never before for something quite so personal. But this affected them all deeply, and Reed especially needed to be aware of the developments. Things were suddenly moving faster than they had anticipated and their timetable was going to have to be stepped up.

He had just finished his conversation with her, in fact, when Gwen called him. Tiny squared his shoulders and crossed into the bedroom.

He didn't even blink at their positioning; he simply gestured to the chair by the bedside, and at Gwen's nod, took a seat. Tiny fidgeted for a few minutes, straightening his uniform and clearing his throat. Gwen clamped down on the rising dread she felt growing in her belly at Tiny's obvious discomfort. It had been clear even without all the restlessness that the news was going to be bad at the very least... his reticence to speak only made it worse.

"Tiny, please," Gwen pleaded when the silence had become unbearable. "I need to know."

The big man nodded and sighed. "You do. I just wish...."

"So do I, but we knew it was coming. How bad is it?"

"Bad," he said succinctly. "I think... I am fairly certain she is going to assume leadership of the Sabres. And then she is going to destroy the rebels once and for all."

"Excuse me? How can she assume leadership of the Sabres? She isn't one anymore."

Tiny sighed again. He hated this - hated what Randi had done, but more... hated what Ares had done to the woman he considered to be his friend. If only.... he thought, but shook his head. They had to deal with the cards they had been dealt and this woman deserved a fighting chance to hold onto the love and happiness she had found in the one Ares had chosen. They both did.

"Technically, you're right. She isn't. She died and that gave her an impossible gift - the opportunity to live a normal life. But honestly, Gwen, it's such a part of who she is... who we all are. It... it's hard to explain." He let his hands drop between his knees and sat silently trying to formulate his thoughts a little more clearly. Gwen's words brought him up short in his contemplation.

"I think I understand, Tiny. It's not... it's not something you would consciously choose, but it is ingrained in your psyche. And all that training brings that personality and the responsibility of it to the fore."

"Right... exactly," Tiny exclaimed with relief in his voice. "You do understand."

Gwen smiled sadly. "More than I'd like to," she replied. "But, Tiny, my understanding of the Sabre mentality doesn't explain why you think Randi is going to become the Sabre Commandant. Tiny, she's done everything she could to avoid stepping back into those Sabre boots."

Tiny nodded his agreement. "Consciously, you're right, Gwen. But she has a lot of missing spots in her memory. You know that. And I was witness to one of them today."

"Come again, please?" Gwen said.

So he told her - everything that had happened from the moment they entered Russ' office until Randi's collapse in Geoff's therapy room. He briefly considered giving Gwen an abbreviated accounting of what had happened... what Randi did... then decided she deserved nothing less than the truth.

"Why?" spoken so softly Tiny barely made out the word. Gwen's arms tightened convulsively around Randi, and he watched in amazement as the warrior responded to the bard's distress. Randi snuggled deeper into Gwen's embrace and for a long moment, Gwen's attention was focused solely on the woman in her arms. Then she turned outraged green eyes to Tiny and demanded again, "Why?"

"It was her right, Gwen, and it was her responsibility as the Sabre who was wronged. It all goes back to the Sabre code."

"The code?!?" she hissed incredulously, though she never raised her voice above a whisper. "You let her betray everything for some goddamn code???"

"No, Gwen, no!!" Tiny rubbed his hands over his face as he searched for a way to clarify his thoughts to her. He moved from the recliner to the bed, taking Gwen's hands in his much larger ones. "I'm not explaining this very well. Randi became the Sabre she was before she knew you. She didn't betray anything." He held on to the hands that would have pulled away at his words.

"Gwen, she had no memory of it... at all. I watched her become someone I hadn't seen since... since before her death. And the next time I saw her, she was the person I've known since her return."

"But Tiny... why? Why didn't you stop her? Why did you let her kill him?"

"Gwen, Randi was the best at what she did, and one reason for that is because of her single-minded focus. When she got into that mode, nothing could put her off, and I wasn't going to add to her guilt."

"I'm not sure I understand what you mean?"

"If I had interfered with her right to retribution, a right that she was entitled to, she would have hurt me... or worse. As it was, she was fairly merciful to the rat bastard - much more than I would have been in her place."


"Absolutely. I would have cut out his tongue out for starters and then gotten creative for what he did to her."

Gwen blinked, startled by the vehemence of Tiny's tone. "Oh... wow... um...." She loosened one hand and rubbed the tip of her nose. "No, actually, I meant - do you really think Randi would have... hurt... you if you had interfered with what she was doing?"

Tiny looked down at Randi who was still completely oblivious to everything except her unconscious attachment to Gwen. "As herself, no," he answered quietly, shaking her head. "But as the Sabre that she once was... that I saw today - yes, definitely." He looked up and met Gwen's eyes squarely. "Until she met you, she never let herself be swayed or deterred from her purpose... no matter how distasteful she found it to be personally."

"That's why she was the best?"

Tiny nodded. "That's why she was the best - still is to some degree."

"Is that why you think Randi will become the next commandant?"

"No. I got that impression from what she said today when she called the meeting of all Sabres. Gwen, she could have been the commandant and she turned it down. But after Russ... died... she assumed command as naturally as breathing. She's a leader, Gwen, and the Sabres will follow her."

"Can we... can I stop her?"

Tiny shook his head. "I honestly don't know. I think it depends on whether or not the Sabre wakes up. Given the blackout episodes she's been having, it's obvious she's been struggling with this... fighting to keep from becoming a Sabre again."

"You think her returning to the Sabres is part of the darkness Sky warned us about?"

"Don't you?" Tiny countered sadly.

Gwen gazed at him honestly. "I know it is," she whispered. "The Sabre part of her is so dark... so violent. But I love her despite that, Tiny. I love that part of her because it *is* a vital part of who she is. It's where her strength lies. It's where she gets her sense of honor and responsibility."

"Yes, it is," Tiny agreed. He squeezed her hand and stood up from the bed. "I've got to go. I promised your father I'd return and explain things to him... as much as I can anyway. Will you be all right here alone? Or should I call Tommy?"

Gwen returned his squeeze before she released her hold. "I'll... *we'll* be fine, Tiny. Tommy knows we're here and I can call him if I have to. We'll get through this...together... just like we always have." She smiled at him and Tiny found himself responding in kind automatically. "I wouldn't be adverse to you keeping in touch, though."

"You can count on that, Gwen. You have a vast support system, and when the time comes, well, we'll be were we're needed." I hope, he added silently.

"Thank you, Tiny," Gwen said, suppressing a yawn and snuggling closer to her still unconscious soulmate. "Will you... um... will you come back and let me know what Daddy's reaction was?" she mumbled, sinking into a light doze.

"You betcha," he agreed with a smile as he pulled the covers up over her. Then he walked out of the bedroom and headed over to Tommy's. He and Ella needed to know what was going on as well. It was time to pull the troops together for the coming firestorm.

"You're sure about this Tiny?" Geoff asked the man who now filled his view screen. When Tiny had arrived at Tommy's, he'd asked for a vid conference and both Tommy and Geoff had been agreeable. Tiny was glad; he wanted to be nearby when Randi woke up... for both their sakes.

"Yes, Geoff. I am. I saw what happened in Russ' office and you were witness to what took place in your room."

"But why now? Why...? She's been so determined to stay out of Sabre business and away from Sabre life."

Tiny shrugged. "I don't know what originally started it, but I believe, given what we now know, that whatever it was happened at least several months ago, if not longer. Reed didn't do a thorough walk-thru in Randi's memories, but according to both Gwen and Randi, Randi has had several instances of lost time in the recent past."

"And there's nothing we can do about this, Tiny?" This from Tommy.

"We're doing everything we can, which unfortunately, isn't much."

"Tiny," Geoff asked, in a deceptively calm tone that made the big Sabre's skin crawl. "If you've known about this, why are we just hearing about it now?"

Tiny bit his inner lip, but outwardly displayed no hint of the turmoil roiling in his gut. It was the one question he'd been hoping to avoid, though he knew in his heart of hearts this accounting would come.

"There wasn't anything to share." He held up his hand when Geoff would have interrupted. "Give me a minute, Geoff. Randi has no conscious memory of these episodes, and up to now, no one except maybe Gwen had observed any of them. We didn't even suspect this as the problem until Reed did a mind walk this last weekend and found... blanks... in Randi memory. Nothing concrete - just... time gaps... that couldn't be explained. Things hidden so deeply even Reed couldn't find them."

"So there was nothing to share?" Tommy inserted.

"Not really, no," Tiny answered with a relieved breath. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes today, there still wouldn't be."

"But you said...." Geoff accused.

"Geoff! We know that darkness is coming, and we are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn't win. But until today, *I*, at least, did not know what form the darkness probably would take. So cut me some slack, would you?"

"But Gwen knew?" Geoff asked, his tone cool.

Tiny bit his lip. "Yes." The Navy man watched as the weapons smith's shoulders dropped. "Geoff, she's going to need you to support her."

"I know," he sighed. "And I will. I just don't understand why she didn't come to me... to us. We could have done... I don't know... something."

"No, we couldn't, Geoff," Tommy said. "The only real thing we can do is support them both. From what Tiny has and hasn't said, I think everything else that could be done is being done by people more qualified than we are."

"But she should have come to me... should have...."

"Geoff, you'll always be her father, but you're not responsible for Gwen anymore. And you can't expect her to share everything that does happen or might happen in her life. You just be there for her when she finally does come to you."

Geoff scrubbed his hands through his hair and smiled sheepishly at both men. "I know. Doesn't stop me from wanting to help or be involved though."

Tommy chuckled. "I think that's a 'Dad' thing. We do tend to get involved in our children's lives, don't we?"

Ella snorted, speaking up for the first time since Tiny had made his unexpected appearance at their front door. "And of course mothers don't," she commented, rolling her eyes at her husband, causing laughter to ripple through the group. She turned her attention to Tiny.

"Do you know anything else? Anything that will help us with whatever is coming?"

Tiny shook his head. "No, now you know everything that I know. Reed and Sky might know more, but I've shared with you all they shared with me."

"So now we wait?"

"Now we wait. Despite the fact that it's not something any of us would ever have chosen, some thing or some one started this. We have to let it play out... to whatever conclusion Randi chooses. And it has to be her choice."

"And she has to make this choice without knowing she's making a choice, why, exactly?" from Geoff.

"Gwen has it on good authority...." He held up his hand. "I didn't ask which one, but I'm putting money on a couple different goddesses. Anyway, Gwen has it on good authority that any outside or undue influence will kill Randi. And according to Reed, as Randi goes, so goes Gwen, and as they go together, so goes the world."

"What a fucking mess," the weapons smith muttered, then looked at Ella. "Beg pardon," he muttered with a flush.

"S'all right," she said with an ironic chuckle. "You merely voiced what I was thinking." She turned and looked at Tiny. "If the gods are involved on one side, are they also involved on the other? Do you know who is behind this?"

"Know?" Tiny shook his head. "Not for certain. But we suspect... Ares." Tiny held up his hands to stop their mumblings and muttered oaths. "I know, believe me - our reaction was very similar. He's made contact with Randi, and he has the most to gain from her as a warrior."

"Why her?" Tommy asked.

"Because she's the best," Tiny and Geoff replied simultaneously.

Tommy shook his head. "I don't get it. Randi has never worshipped him... never acknowledged him."

Tiny shrugged. "I don't understand it either... none of us do. But she is without a doubt the best warrior alive. She's one of the best history has ever known. It's not surprising that he covets her."

"I understand that part," Geoff said tiredly. "What I don't get is what he's done to make this a fight to begin with."

Silence was his answer and he rubbed his eyes tiredly.

"Right," he commented. "Well, keep me posted, please, Tiny. I have to figure out a way to explain it to Jill. We'll do whatever we can."

"I will, Geoff. Get some rest. I'll see you on Sunday."

They closed the connection and watched the lengthening shadows as they contemplated the darkness that was swiftly approaching.

Chapter XIX

Gwen lay wrapped around Randi thinking, her mind not quite allowing her to doze off for a very long time. The things she saw in her mind's eye terrified her, and yet she couldn't seem to dismiss them from her thoughts. Knowing it's coming, but uncertain as to when or what form it's going take is almost worse than having it happen, she thought. The waiting was making her nuts, and even though she dreaded the coming fight, at least when it finally did come she would have something concrete to fight against. It was impossible to mount a defense against an unseen enemy.

Gwen never realized when she finally passed from waking to sleeping until she looked around and saw... nothing.

She found herself in thick, inky darkness, the visions she'd been assailed with before lost in the blackness and she knew immediately that somehow, someway, she'd found her way into Randi's dreamscape again. Now all she had to do was find the warrior and lead her safely home again.

Gwen closed her eyes to center herself, though it certainly wasn't necessary given the darkness surrounding her. But somehow it helped and she started walking forward with more confidence than she'd shown the last time she'd visited this place.

Like before, she wished for a light, but this time, one didn't appear for her. So she walked slowly, feeling her way through solid shadows.

How long she walked, Gwen couldn't have said, but eventually she heard the soft rasp of breathing. Still the darkness remained thick and cloying and Gwen had to let her sense of hearing be her guide to Randi.

Suddenly, all she heard was silence. Without warning, Gwen hit the sharp corner of something solid and she panted in very real pain. Then she found herself wrapped in an extremely tight grasp, the grip on her wrists causing ripples of agony to shoot up her arms and into her shoulders.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" The sibilant whisper cut through the blackness like a hot knife through butter, sending a chill rushing up Gwen's spine and causing an involuntary shiver to pass through her body. Randi's hold tightened at the movement, and the bard forced herself to relax.

"Randi, love, it's me, sweetheart. It's Gwen." The hold, which had loosened at the first sound of her voice tightened again, and a slight whimper escaped from Gwen's lips.

"No," Randi avowed. "No. No one comes here but me. Gwen would never come to a place like this... it's dark and ugly. You're lying," squeezing even harder.

Gwen grit her teeth, desperate to keep the scream that wanted to erupt from her throat from escaping. "No, lo... ve, I... m not. Randi, pl... please, you're hur... ting me." Gwen felt the confusion wash through Randi and drew a grateful breath when the hold around her relaxed once more though Randi still held her tightly enough to prevent her from escaping.

For long moments they stood that way, Gwen remaining perfectly still so as not to disturb the warrior's thoughts. Randi stood considering the words she had heard and the body pressed against hers that she knew better than her own. Eventually, she let her grip slacken enough to turn Gwen in her arms and Randi let her hands roam over the bard's face and body, and Gwen allowed the examination, aware that Randi needed the reassurance she was seeking with her hands. Finally, satisfied that her senses were not playing tricks on her, Randi freed Gwen from her grasp and stepped back, intending to move away from the bard and disappear into the darkness. Gwen had other ideas.

She reached out, catching Randi's wrist in her grasp and trusting to the fact that Randi would not hurt her now that she believed it was Gwen who held her. The bard felt the strong shoulders slump in defeat, then Randi turned to face her in the darkness.

"Gwen, why are you here?" she asked softly. "You don't belong here."

"Neither do you," came the firm reply.

Gwen felt Randi stiffen under her touch, but she was unprepared for the violent reaction her words caused. The warrior ripped her hand from Gwen's clasp and stepped back out of reach. Gwen bit her lip in frustration - being completely unable to see was driving her nuts and making it impossible for her to function like she was accustomed to. She stomped her foot, but the sound was completely absorbed by the darkness.


"Go back, Gwen," the warrior said from some distance away. "This place isn't for someone like you."


Her only answer was silence.

Gwen blinked her eyes open and curled herself tighter around Randi's body, holding them together for all she was worth. It wasn't supposed to be this way, was it? Aphrodite had been very specific - when the time came, it was going to be Gwen's responsibility to walk away and let Randi make her choice. So why did it feel like Randi was the one walking away?

"Because she is... sorta," came the unexpected answer. "Hey, bardic babe!" Gwen felt the touch before the goddess came into view. "How's ya doing?" Dite asked softly while stroking the blonde hair gently off Gwen's forehead.

Gwen just looked at her for a long moment. She wanted to give the matter a little thought because she knew that Aphrodite deserved an honest answer. "I'm confused," she finally said.

Dite nodded. "Me too," muttered under her breath. She shook her curly head. "What happened? Why do you think Randi is walking away from you?"

Gwen frowned. "She just did... in her dreamscape." She turned confused green eyes to meet Aphrodite's blue ones. "Aphrodite, why are you here? And what did you mean?"

Dite's eyes shifted to either side of Gwen's face before finally coming to rest on the covers in front of her. Long, graceful fingers picked absently at the material before her hands were covered by one of Gwen's.


Dite's eyes came up to meet Gwen's once more. "We've been keeping an eye on things... ya know... trying to like, piece things together."

"Uh huh... and?" A pause. "C'mon, Dite. I deserve to know as much as possible."

Aphrodite nodded her agreement. "You're right... you do." The goddess sighed. "I totally hate my job sometimes." She looked at the ceiling. "How did I get stuck with this radically bogus assignment?"

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Gwen couldn't help but smile. Then she looked down at her still-unconscious partner and the smile left her face. She turned her attention back to Aphrodite and met her gaze.

"Well, you so know most of it, babe. But given her recent majorly bizarre behavior and with the totally rad research that Artemis and Athena have been doing, we think that Randi is like, ya know, fighting with herself right now. That the part of her that is totally yours has somehow separated itself from the part of her that was... is still... the Sabre that was so deadly and efficient. The part that she draws her warrior strength from - the part that belongs to Ares."

"But how? And why?"

Dite shrugged. "The how is strictly due to Ares. The why? Well, we really don't like, know for sure, but the bet is on some radical sense of self-preservation."

"You think it was deliberate then... something she consciously chose to do?"

"As if." Dite shook her head. "No, no... we think it is completely a subconscious reaction to her absolute desire to remain yours alone and not become part of Ares' minions."

"He has such control then?"

"Over the warrior part of her, yes. He... drugged her or rather, he had her drugged. That is what has caused her blackout episodes, we think. At least everything points to that. The fighting with herself, I mean."

"And I still can't tell her about it?"

"No, babe. Bad as it pains me to say it, we can't risk it... unless you're totally willing to risk her life."

"But if I don't tell her, don't I risk her soul?"

Dite's eyes met hers with all seriousness and she dropped any hint of inflection in her speech. "No," she stated firmly. "I believe with all my heart that you own her soul, just as she owns yours. When the time comes for her to choose, she will choose you."

"But in the meantime...."

"In the meantime, you have to fight for her and with her and when the time comes, walk away from her."

Gwen closed her eyes. "That will be so hard, Aphrodite. I tried once and it nearly killed me... nearly killed both of us. I promised her forever."

"I know. Because you were angry and unsure. When you walk away this time, it will be the last time you will have to. Forever will come after that."

"You sound so sure," Gwen said hesitantly.

Dite nodded. "I am. One way or another there will be a forever in your future," closing her mind's eye to the horrendous possibilities if forever went the wrong way for them. "I have faith in both of you, and faith in the love and bond you have shared for eternity. What Ares wants is superficial in comparison."

"You think?"

"Nuh uh," Dite said as confidently as she could manage. "I know. Don't you?"

Gwen bit her lip in though. "Yeah," she answered slowly. "I guess I do." A beat. "I *know* I do."

Randi started to stir in agitation, clutching at Gwen and whimpering softly. Dite gazed at her compassionately before turning her focus back to Gwen.

"Go to her, babe. She needs you...." holding up her hands. "I know she walked away from you, but she needs the reassurance that you will follow her... that you will find her regardless, especially since she sees her walking away from you as trying to protect you."

Gwen blinked at Dite for a long moment, and it caused the goddess to emit a weary chuckle. "I know, I know... it's a warrior thing, and as strong as your warrior is, she is also very fragile and very vulnerable."

Gwen nodded and tightened her hold on Randi, smiling when the warrior returned her embrace fervently and relaxed into her quieting touch. She closed her eyes and felt Dite's touch on her forehead again. She struggled to open an eyeball, the grinned sleepily at the love goddess.

"We're gonna win, Aphrodite. With the power of love behind us, how can we lose?"

Aphrodite waited for the breathing to slow and deepen before she answered, allowing all her doubts to come to the fore. "How indeed?" Then she popped out, leaving no rose petals behind to show her passage. Things were hairy enough without given Ares any extra ammunition.

The darkness was just as thick, still as cloying, but this time Gwen strode forward with confident purpose. She closed her eyes out of habit to allow her other senses to guide her to where Randi was hidden within the inky blackness.

For the longest time there was no sound, save that of her own breathing. Gwen deliberately concentrated on slowing her heartbeat, allowing the resonance of her breathing to become a part of the darkness that she was aware of but did not interfere with her focus on finding Randi.

Gradually, she became aware of other sounds and realized that Randi's heart was beating in tandem with her own. The warrior's breathing was soft, muffled, as though Randi was trying to remain undetected. Gwen extended her arms in front of her and moved even more slowly, her soul knowing that she was close to her other half.

She was much better prepared for the impact this time when she ran into smooth, cool stone. With her arms braced, Gwen felt her way inward until she found the warmth of flesh beneath her touch. She felt Randi flinch involuntarily and she sighed, knowing her presence a second time was completely unexpected by the warrior.

Slowly, Gwen crawled up onto the slab, counting on her innate sense of balance to keep her from toppling over the edge. Instead, she found herself cradled in warm, soft warrior as Randi instinctively curled around her protectively. The bard mentally shook her head; these sudden shifts in personality and attitude were disconcerting to say the least. But she had learned the Sabre slogan from the very best, and 'Adapt & Overcome' became her motto now as a new set of challenges presented themselves to her.

So she settled into the embrace, returning the hug fervently and feeling Randi relax into in soundlessly. For timeless moments, they stayed locked together in wordless comfort. Then Randi pulled back slightly as though to look Gwen in the eye despite the darkness. Without warning, a small light suddenly appeared beside her head that enabled her to do just that. Gwen gasped and blinked furiously at the unexpected intrusion and she reached out blindly to hold onto Randi until she could regain her equilibrium.

When she opened her eyes, the sadness she saw looking back at her from those wounded blue eyes nearly broke her heart, and Gwen gently clasped Randi's face firmly between her hands, smiling when the warrior did the same in return.

Green eyes closed as Randi's hands tenderly caressed her face as though committing her features to memory. Finally, Randi learned forward and brushed Gwen's lips with inherent gentleness before pulling away and meeting Gwen's eyes when they fluttered open.

With a sad smile, Randi asked, "Gwen, why are you here? I thought I told you...."

Those words brought a real, if tremulous smile to Gwen's face, and now she let her fingers wander over familiar territory as she answered.

"You did," she readily agreed as she allowed her touch to relax them both. "And I listened. I went back out into the light and deliberated all the possibilities and weighed all the options. And right now, at this very moment in this time and place, *my* place is here beside you. That may change someday, but if and when it does, it will only be temporary, because nothing, NOTHING will be able to stand between us. Do you understand that, Randi? Do you believe?"

The warrior considered the words then nodded silently, wondering where Gwen's vehemence stemmed from.

"I want you to know and understand one more thing, all right?" Gwen waited for the dark head to nod again before she continued speaking. "Good... all right. I want you to know... to *believe*... that no matter what happens out there, you will always be able to find me here when you need me. This won't be a place for you to hide anymore. Instead it will become a place we can claim together - a place we can be alone with our secrets and our fears and no one can touch us."

A confused look crossed Randi's face. "Here? But Gwen, this is a dark and ugly place. I don't like to come here - it always means bad things have happened when I do. And this isn't a place for someone like you. You don't know all the horrible memories that are stored here. You'd leave me if you did," the last muttered so low Gwen almost missed them.

"We're gonna change that, love. One by one, we're gonna take all those old memories and shred them. And we'll create new memories to go in their place - things that we will do together... dreams and hopes and ideas we have for and about one another. I will never leave you for anything you share with my in this place. I know the darkness is a part of you Randi and it always will be, but it is time to face the memories that haunt you because of the darkness they hold once and for all and sweep them out. We will never have total peace together until the last of your ghosts is gone." Gwen looked down and swallowed hard before letting her eyes capture Randi's once more. "And I want total peace for us... once and for all forever."

Randi smiled tentatively, both at the fervor in Gwen's voice and the determination in her eyes. "I like the sound of that," the warrior acknowledged. "I like the sound of peace and us and forever. But Gwen," she added hesitantly. "I need to... to work on... this... on my own... first. It's not that... it's not that I don't trust you - God, I do. So much more than I trust myself. But that's the problem." Randi gave a big sigh, then looked down and shook her head.

Gwen waited patiently, finally using her fingertips to bring the blue eyes back to level with her own. "What's the problem, Randi?"

The warrior sighed again, so big that it fluffed her bangs out. "I don't trust me. So much... so many of the memories here," motioning to the darkness that surrounded them outside the tiny circle of light they sat in, "I honestly don't remember them anymore. And I don't know how I will react to them. I don't... I don't want to hurt you."

Gwen blinked. "Do you think you will?" she asked with brutal honesty.

Randi shrugged, dropping her eyes again momentarily until gentle fingers lightly tapped her chin. "I dunno," she whispered finally. "But I don't wanna take the chance. You're too precious to me to risk like that."

Gwen chewed her lip thoughtfully, understanding Randi's dilemma, but unwilling to let her suffer alone. "*IF* I let you do this alone first, will you share with me what you can? Not everything - God knows you're entitles to some modicum of privacy. I just.... Sweetheart, I don't want you to do this all alone. If you're afraid of what you will do to me because of the memories here, then I am terrified of what you will do to you."

"I can't hurt myself here - not physically. That much I am sure of. But I've never had anyone else here, so I can't be certain about you. Please, Gwen... don't ask me to put you in that kind of danger."

"You know you can't hurt yourself physically here - have you tried?" Gwen asked softly, but her eyes demanded a direct answer.

Randi nodded and looked away. "Once, yes... a long time ago."

Gwen bit her lip again in thought. "Can we talk about it? Not now," she assured, seeing the panicked look clearly in the blue eyes that faced her when the dark head had whipped around at her question. "Not now," she repeated. "But someday, when this is all done and we've gone through and swept out all the ugliness from this place...."

Randi took Gwen's smaller hands in her own and held them, studying them together for a very, long moment before she raised her eyes once more to the bard's. "Someday," she said, then cleared her throat. "Someday, I will share everything I can with you about this place and we will walk through it together and set free the ghosts I have locked away here. But even when I face them alone, you will still be here with me," Randi added with a compassionate smile. "Because you live here," she said, patting her heart. "And there is nothing in the world that will make me forget that."

Gwen smiled brilliantly, though her eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "You are a sweet talker, Miranda Valiant. Maybe I should ask Tommy to let you do the bard thing for a change." Blue eyes widened comically and Gwen shook her head to keep from laughing out loud in relief. "On second thought, I'd prefer to keep that part of you to myself. There are some things a woman just doesn't like to share with the world, and the hidden romantic tendencies of her stoic warrior would rank right up at the top."

Randi spluttered, trying desperately to form words of denial until soft lips covered her own. Then she relaxed into the kiss, meant more to convey love and reassurance than to spark great passion. They pulled apart slowly and rested their foreheads together, breathing in one another's air and soaking in the feeling of belonging and well-being that pervaded the space around them.

Finally, Randi pulled back and clasped Gwen's hands firmly in her own. Then she looked sincerely into green eyes that radiated back only honest trust and love for her. The warrior swallowed hard. Never had stepping into combat been as difficult as this.

"Gwen, love... something is going on. Something I don't have a good grasp on yet, but it has something to do with my being a Sabre. It has to - it is the only explanation I can figure out for my continued presence in this room. The only times I've ever come here have been when being a Sabre became too much for me to bear. I can't seem to find a way out, and until I do... until I do, things could get a little rocky. Just be patient with me, please? And remember that I'm not all together there if things get rough. I will return whole to you as soon as I can find the key to getting out of here."

Gwen lifted their joined hands to her lips and brushed them gently.

"Nothing will separate us forever, Randi... not even you. I love you. I want you to always remember that."

"I love you more and don't you forget it."

"Oh you do, do ya? And what makes you think so," Gwen asked with a saucy little smirk.

Randi raised an eyebrow at her. "I'm bigger than you. Bigger body, bigger heart, more love. Simple math."

Gwen pulled her hands away from Randi's and planted them squarely on her hips. "Uh huh. I can see we have been remiss in your education. Time for some tutorials."

"I already know the important stuff. The rest can wait."

"Ya think?"

The dark head shook emphatically. "Nope. I know. I know how much I love you and how much you love me and how to make you scream. The rest I can make up as I go along," reaching out her long arms and wrapping Gwen up in them and proceeding to tickle her mercilessly until the bard screamed uncle. Then they collapsed onto the slab together, pleasantly stimulated and tangled up.

"You're right," Gwen agreed with a yawn as they settled comfortably. "You've got the important stuff covered. We'll get to everything else eventually."

"Glad you agree," the warrior smirked. "Knew you would see things my way." But Gwen never heard the last. She had fallen into a pleasant dream state, and Randi caught look of happy contentment in the bard's face and smiled in reflex.

"Good night, love," she whispered. Then she allowed the light to go out as they moved deeper into their dreams.

Gwen blinked her eyes sleepily in the pre-dawn light. Her forehead creased in confusion. Why was she awake? She blinked again and listened into the quiet darkness and found nothing out of the ordinary. The soft whirr of the fan created the white noise that even now was luring her back to sleep, and beyond that... she focused her hearing. Nothing. Just the bare whispers of sound so common in their household.

Gwen shook her head, confused by the sheer normalcy of everything. If nothing was wrong, why had she woken up?

She closed her eyes again listening to the sounds in the room and letting the soothing monotony of the fan push her closer towards sleep. Then a chill skittered up her back and she shivered.

She opened her eyes again and rolled onto her back, frowning when she met nothing but bed. She distinctly remembered wrapping herself around Randi before reentering the dreamscape a second time, and she was almost as positive that she and Randi had been tangled up together in that hidden room in Randi's mind.

Ok, so why...? She let the thought trail off as she turned her head towards the other side of the bed. Then she pushed up onto her elbows until she could scoot across to where Randi lay with her back towards Gwen. She wasn't curled up protectively, but she was clinging to the edge of the bed.

Gwen grabbed Randi's shoulder and tugged until the warrior rolled onto her back, all without waking her. A little unnerved, Gwen slyly felt for a pulse, relieved when she found one. She couldn't remember her and Randi ever having shared a bed since before they became lovers, and certainly since they'd exchanged wedding vows, that they hadn't slept cuddled closely together. And she wondered if whatever was going on inside Randi's mind was responsible for the change.

The bard frowned. Whatever was causing it, she didn't like it. She'd sworn to Randi she wasn't giving them up, and if she had to start fighting for them at this most basic of levels then so be it. But gods help Ares if Gwen ever got a hold of him. She was fairly certain even a god could be a eunuch and at this point she was anxious to test the theory.

Gwen continued to tug and pull Randi towards the center of the bed without ever disturbing the deep sleep the warrior seemed to be lost in. Finally convinced that they could comfortably curl up together again without fear of falling off the edge or of Randi slipping away again without her noticing.

She lay down, careful to put her ear directly over Randi's heart. That, more than any other sound in the world, could relax her and put her to sleep. She smiled as the steady, rhythmic beating lulled her into a place of perfect contentment.

Gwen wrapped an arm possessively around Randi's waist. She couldn't stop the smile from growing into a full grin when a strong arm came up round her shoulders, hugging her before brushing an absent kiss atop the blonde head. Then Gwen tucked her head under Randi's chin and let her eyes close in satisfaction, secure in the knowledge that they would win out in the end, unaware of the nature of the challenges that lay before them.

When she woke the second time, Gwen was surprised first by the lateness of the hour - not that it was particularly late except by their own very early standards. But the sun was fully up and shining brightly in the windows. The second surprise of note was that Randi still lay sleeping beneath her. Gwen had fully expected to see indulgent blue eyes twinkling back at her when she'd looked up into Randi's face.

The bard shifted slightly, leaning up on an elbow and sliding up until she could look down at Randi's peaceful features. She raised a hand and gently began to trace the warrior's face. Slowly, slower than she expected, Randi's face began to take on tension, and gradually blue eyes fluttered open.

"Hey," Randi croaked out hoarsely. She cleared her throat and winced. "Wow, it's really late, huh?" She pushed herself further upright until she was half-reclining in the bed. Immediately, Gwen curled into her spot and continued her delicate tracing. Randi smiled and closed here eyes again to enjoy the sensations the attention caused in her body.

"Later than you know, love," Gwen answered with a smile in her voice.

Randi opened her eyes, turned her head towards Gwen and raised an eyebrow in the bard's direction. "Oh? Why do I get the feeling I've missed something?"

"What's the last thing you remember?"

Randi's forehead creased into a frown and she rubbed her eyes in contemplative thought. "Um... I was... I was with Geoff. And then Tiny showed up and then... then...?" She dropped her hand from her eyes and returned her gaze to Gwen. "What day is it?"


Randi sat up completely and rubbed her hands over her face. "Saturday??" She pushed the covers away from her body and climbed from the bed. "Damn!" She walked to the bathroom.

Gwen sat up and followed Randi into the bathroom. "Sweetheart? What's wrong?"

"I have a meeting in the capital city tomorrow afternoon, and I was hoping we could go up early to give us a little visiting time with your folks." She set the water temperature and ran her hands through her hair. "Now it's gonna be a much shorter visit."

The water came on and Randi stepped into the shower, then she turned back to Gwen and extended her hand. "You wanna join me?"

Gwen took the proffered hand almost absently and trailed Randi closely into the warm stream of water. She wore a look of intense concentration and confusion, and when she didn't react to Randi's sensual soaping of her body, the warrior pulled back and focused her attention on Gwen's face until Gwen became aware of the scrutiny.

The blonde head shook slightly and Gwen looked up into intense blue eyes. "What?"

Randi rested her arms on Gwen's shoulders and shrugged, giving her a crooked little grin. "That was my question, actually. Here I was being all seductive and everything, and your mind was so far away your body didn't even notice. Where were you exactly?"

Gwen blushed a bright pink. "Sorry. I was trying to remember when we made plans to go to the capital. I can't believe I forgot something like that." Not the total truth, but needing to know whether *her* Randi or the Sabre now stood in front of her.

Randi stepped away from Gwen, turning her back and moving to stand under the spray. Then she squared her shoulders and twisted around to face Gwen directly. "You didn't." Randi paused then took a deep breath before continuing, meeting her eyes, and Gwen had to bite her lip to keep from reacting to the lost soul she saw reflected back at her in those blue eyes.

"The truth is I called a Sabre meeting."

"A wha...? You can't do that!!"

Randi soaped up the sponge and began to methodically bathe herself. "I can and I did," she stated flatly. "I have tried playing the game their way," she said. "Now they are going to learn to play it mine."

"But Randi...."

"No, Gwen!" her voice low but furious. "I played by their rules and they have done nothing... NOTHING! It's time to take the Sabres back to their roots and become the warriors we are meant to be. We will wipe out this rebellion once and for all!"

"No, Randi! This is wrong - wrong for you and wrong for us!" Gwen sighed and slumped, knowing for sure that the Sabre had come back to her. "You promised me," she whispered. "What happened to leaving them behind forever?"

Randi sat down on the shower seat, her posture one of defeat. "I tried that, Gwen. I really tried, and what did it get me? Threats and attacks and our lives in constant danger. I have the ability to put a stop to it, Gwen, and I will. It stops now."

"How, Randi? How can you stop them alone?"

"I won't be alone. I will take over leadership of the Sabres. Then we will stop them together."

"Can you do that? Take over as Commandant I mean?"

The dark head nodded solemnly. "I already have. Tomorrow's meeting makes it official."

Gwen bit her lip until she tasted blood. "I hate this! This scares me, Randi. This scares me so much."

Randi stood and wrapped her body around Gwen's, kissing the top of the wet head before gently rubbing the sponge randomly across Gwen's body. "I know it does, Gwen, but you've got to understand how important it is to eliminate these rebels once and for all. We'll never know peace until I do." She gave a deep sigh. "Will you... can you accept that? Can you stay beside me still?"

Gwen clasped the necklace of reminder that Artemis had given her and prayed for strength. Then she pulled back slightly until she could look into the Randi's eyes. "Promise me something."


"Don't shut me out. I need to know what is going on, Randi. And when this is all over, you come back to me. This Sabre business is just temporary."

"Absolutely. This is just temporary. We, on the other hand, are forever." Then Randi captured Gwen's lips in a kiss that was fierce in both its passion and its possessiveness, and they lost themselves in the feelings that overwhelmed them.

Ares stood at his scrying bowl watching their lovemaking with an odd mixture of fascination, disgust and amusement. "No, no," he whispered to the two women. "This is temporary. *You* are temporary. My victory is finally complete, and I will soon claim all that is mine - body, heart and soul."

Then he laughed cruelly before disappearing into the mist, anxious to be part of the culmination of his dreams and planning as they finally come together in a glorious battle - whose outcome would be Miranda Valiant ruling the world at his side. He couldn't wait to have her do battle in his name and for his glory. Nothing was sweeter than the fruit of revenge borne on the wings of victory, and he had waited millennia to retrieve this warrior's soul as his own.


The memory made Randi shudder in disgust, and she let it bring her back to the present on a wave of revulsion. The feeling of self-loathing she felt made her incapable of bearing the thought of company any longer and she pulled away from him and began to pace. "Tiny, leave me."

"Empress?" He hoped he had misunderstood. They were so close to ending this... so close to winning. He hated to chance leaving her alone to do something rash. She turned burning blue eyes in his direction, and to flinch at the pain and anger that smoldered in their depths.

"What did you not understand?"

"Empress... Randi, please. I thought you trusted me."

"This has nothing to do with trust, Tiny, and everything to do with responsibility." Randi's shoulders slumped in defeat. "It's time I took responsibility for what has happened, because obviously, I did something - Gwen wouldn't have left otherwise. I have to believe that." She sighed. "Please, Tiny. You've done all you can and been a better friend than I have ever deserved, especially lately. Now, leave me and let me finish this. Go to Reed - get married, have a baby. You can enjoy the peace now... at least one of us should."


"Excuse me?" her tone sharpening.

"No. I will not leave you alone. Not now."

The noise she made would have been considered a sob had she not been a Sabre warrior and Empress of the World. Then she slipped on the mask that had served her well for the better part of her life and she shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said. "Funny," she added sardonically, though Tiny could hear the pain behind the words. "Gwen couldn't wait to leave."

"That's not true," Tiny stated firmly. "And you know it."

She stiffened at his words and snarled. "I know what I remember." She let her mind drift back to the moment, an hour earlier, when her world had shattered.

A rasp of air and the click of a lock in place were the only sounds the door made as it shut then stillness was all that was left in the room, save the occasionally popping from the fireplace. A flick of a wrist and even that comforting sound disappeared, leaving the tense figure alone in the abrupt silence.

For long moments, the woman stood ramrod straight, clenched hands at her side the only testament to the frustration running through her body. Without warning, she brought both fists down on the low table in front of her, watching dispassionately as it splintered. Then her body sagged in defeat, and she slumped into a chair and stared unseeingly at the silent flames as the coldness in her soul became unbearable.

When the torment grew to be too much, she brought her clenched fist up into her lap and slowly opened her hand, revealing a ring she'd never expected to hold like this again in this lifetime. The Soulmate's Ring. Her mind turned to the last words that had been spoken between them before Gwen walked out of her life.

"I never thought I would do this Randi," she said, slipping the platinum band from her finger. "What we had together.... It doesn't seem to mean anything to you anymore." She held up her hand when Randi opened her lips to speak. "Let me finish. I know what this means to me... what it symbolizes for me, for us. However, I don't want to hold you to a promise you are no longer capable of keeping." She took Randi's hand in her own and placed the ring in the center of her palm, closing it gently and watching as the fist clenched reflexively around it. "You decide what it means to you, if anything, and you let me know." Gwen kissed the balled fist then slipped from the room without another word.

The sound of a shuttle preparing for take off interrupted her reverie, and Randi closed her hand protectively over the ring she still held. Then she rose and turned off the fireplace completely, moving out the door without a backward glance. The door closed with definite purpose and the room was left in cold, dark silence.

The Marine made her way to the bedroom they had shared together for such a brief time here, finally understanding instinctively that there was no happiness in this house... not then and certainly not now. Blue eyes stared out the window, tracking the progress of the small blonde woman towards the shuttle. The grief was almost overwhelming now, and the warrior couldn't stop the lone tear that slowly, silently rolled down her planed cheek. She leaned her head against the cold glass, wondering what had gone so wrong that they'd come to this place.

The shuttle rose, and the Sabre felt her heart break. Randi couldn't see the corresponding tears slip from green eyes as Gwen left her behind, and headed for home... alone.

The Marine watched the craft fade out of sight, and still stood staring sightlessly into the void into which it had disappeared.

Randi became aware of Tiny's scrutiny as the memory faded once more. Then she squared her shoulders. "Let's end this now," she said with purpose and before he could speak, she did, calling the one name Tiny never wanted to hear her utter.


The world trembled in anticipation of things to come.


12/04 - 07/05


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