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. I was actually writing this and Brave New World concurrently, and I appreciate both your patience and your indulgence.

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 in the next story - A Valiant Option – which is the final story in the Valiant series. For now, though, consider yourself forewarned. This does pick up exactly where A Valiant Mind left off.



A Valiant Nightmare

By D


Gwen sat on the bed and looked around the room she had come to despise. She had never liked it here, but now, she truly hated it. It was gaudy and pretentious and so many other things she didn't want to be or be associated with.

She looked down at the ring that she wore and let her mind travel back to their wedding day, when Randi had slipped it on her finger with promises of forever.

"I'm not good with words. We all know who the bard in this relationship is," with a smile at Gwen, who smiled back through her tears. "However." She drew the ceremonial blade carefully from its sheath across the front of her body then knelt before the bard. With sabre drawn, she saluted the bard, then extended it hilt first to the smaller woman. "All that I am, all that I have is yours. And I promise you, in life and in death I will be with you and love you and take care of you. You are my life and my soulmate, and I treasure and cherish you above all things. I will remind you daily of the special place you hold in my heart, my life, and my soul. I love you, Gwenievere Goldman. Forever."

Gwen looked around again, knowing the time had finally come for her to leave. Knowing is was coming hadn't prepared her for the rending she felt in her very soul, but the path Randi was on didn't offer them the option of forever... not together, anyway. Randi needed to be reminded it was her choice.

Gwen rose from the bed and motioned to Tiny who stood patiently waiting with her bag in his hand. "I need to see Randi before I go," she said quietly. He nodded his acceptance.

"I'll load your bag onto the shuttle and notify Reed of your coming, My Lady."

"Tiny, please don't," Gwen pleaded. "I hate that title and this place so much."

He took a breath, finally understanding a little the scope of her feelings. "I'm sorry, Gwen, so sorry... sorry it's come to this. You both deserve so much better. "

Gwen shrugged, trying to hide the anguish in her soul with a casual nonchalance. "We knew it was gonna happen, Tiny. Not that the knowing makes it any easier," she added, blowing out a tremulous breath.

"I'll... I'm going to stay here and, um... look after her. Make sure Sky can get to her as soon as he arrives."

Gwen patted his arm. "Thank you, Tiny. You have been such a good friend on a very ugly road, and...."

He put his larger hand over hers and squeezed gently. "Shh," he commanded softly. "You don't need to say anything. I'm glad I could be here... for both of you. Not that I won't be glad when it is all over," he added, scratching through his short hair with his free hand. "Reed's going to have to give me a hair treatment to hide all the gray I've got now," he said with an attempt at humor.

Gwen smiled faintly, appreciating the effort. "If it's any comfort," noting the distinct wings clearly visible in his hair above his ears. "You look very distinguished."

"Good thing," he smiled. "I might have to go bald otherwise."

They chuckled weakly, knowing they could no longer put off the inevitable. "I'll wait for you by the shuttle," Tiny said.

She nodded her head and waited for him to close the door behind him before she crossed the room and opened the door into their living area.

Randi sat in front of the fireplace, her eyes glued to the flames. She didn't look up when the door opened, knowing it could only be one person coming from the direction of the bedchambers. The warrior was a bit surprised when Gwen came around to stand in front of her with an air of resigned determination clear on her face. It was so different from the anger she'd seen the day before when the priest had presented them to the people or the love she had seen mere hours ago.

Now she waited patiently, watching with horrified eyes as Gwen lifted both hands and began removing the ring she had worn in so many lifetimes, but for such a short time in this one.

"I never thought I would do this Randi," she said, slipping the platinum band from her finger. "What we had together.... It 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 door shut with a distinct snick as it closed, and Gwen stood beside it for a long moment regaining her composure. Dead silence was the only sound she heard. She squared her shoulders and walked out to the waiting shuttle, tears sliding easily down her face.

She had done her part. Now it was time to see what path Randi would take.

Chapter I

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

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

When the torment grew to be too much, she brought her clenched fist up into her lap and slowly opened her hand, revealing a ring she'd never expected to hold like this again in this lifetime. The Soulmate's Ring.

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

The Marine made her way to the bedroom they had shared together for such a brief time here, finally understanding instinctively that there was no happiness in this house... not then and certainly not now. Blue eyes stared out the window, tracking the progress of the small blonde woman towards the shuttle. The grief was almost overwhelming now, and the warrior 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.

Randi watched the craft fade out of sight, and still stood staring absently into the void into which it had disappeared.

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

But there was no answer save the rain as it fell from the heavens and lashed at the window Randi gazed out of sightlessly.

Randi turned from the window to view the room she stood in – alone. She felt her chest begin to crush under the weight of the revelation of what she had held... then lost... forever.

She deliberately turned her back on the room and all it represented. Still clasping 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 suddenly realized. Hated who she was and what she had so obviously become. And she hated the fact that more than anyone who had been enslaved against their will, she was a prisoner incarcerated by her own choices.

"GWEN!!" she screamed into the darkness, knowing there would be no answer, but falling to her knees anyway when silence was the only reply she received.

Randi dropped her chin to her chest, too tired and drained to cry.

Randi looked up as lightning struck close enough to make her hair stand on end and wondered just how long she had been sitting in the rain getting thoroughly soaked. The rain continued to fall in her face and it forced her eyes closed again.

A hand on her shoulder caused her eyes to open, and she looked up into 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 hates '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?" realizing she hadn't seen her in quite some time.

Tiny stared at her back for a long moment before moving over to the window to look out at the expanse of darkness. He could feel and hear the ferocity of the storm as though it was an entity reaching out to him, but he was only allowed to glimpse the lashing rain on the window when the infrequent flash of lightning permitted it.

"She went home," he replied into the silence, careful to omit exactly which home she'd returned to and when she'd left. 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

"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 she sank to her knees.

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


He let his hands drop, but didn't leave Randi, knowing sooner or later he was going to be needed. Tiny doubted she would ask for help though, so he just stepped out of her sensory perception and waited.

"You promised me," so softly it broke 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?

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."

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.

Quiet reigned for while as Randi pondered Ares' words and actions. "Tiny," asked softly, finally breaking the silence. "Do you remember what happened to Russ... with the Sabres? I think that may have been when things started to come apart for me – 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. And the obvious results I can see in front of me." 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. Randi's eyes grew cold and distant. Without warning, she pulled her hand from his and began to pace, unable to bear the thought of company any longer.

"Tiny, leave me."

"Empress?" He hoped he had misunderstood. They were so close to ending this... so close to winning. He hated to chance leaving her alone to do something rash. She turned burning blue eyes in his direction, and he flinched at the pain and anger that smoldered in their depths.

"What did you not understand?"

"Empress... Randi, please. I thought you trusted me."

"This has nothing to do with trust, Tiny, and everything to do with responsibility." 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.

The memory faded once more and Randi became aware of Tiny's scrutiny. 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.

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.

Reed and Rosie stepped from the transport before it was completely shut down. "How is she?" addressing her question to Lacey who remained in the open doorway. The Sabre doctor only shook her head and gestured towards the bed. Gwen had removed a pillow from the bed and was now wrapped around it. From the distance, they couldn't tell anything else though. They quickly emptied the transport of the necessary supplies, then Reed motioned for the watchers to approach.

Lacey could track them only because she knew where to look. Their stealth was impressive, almost equal to the Sabre's own. When they reached the trio standing in the doorway, Reed nodded her head in approval.

"Excellent," she commented with a smile. "I am so glad to see you all. Now, you know what to do. Make the perimeter as tight as you can around the cabin. We need to form a barrier capable of keeping a god out."

"It will be done," an older man replied somberly. "We owe Ravenhawk our best effort... and the god who caused this and the death of our friend needs to be defeated."

"Amen to that brother," Lacey muttered under her breath. "I hear ya."

The watchers heard her comment as well, apparently, as smiles flashed across their dark faces, causing a brief reflection of moonlight. Then they began to scatter around the small cabin and Rosie, Reed and Lacey made their way inside.

Gwen didn't notice. She was currently curled around Randi's pillow, letting the familiar scent engulf her mind and transport her to a different time and place. If someone, anyone, had suggested to her on their wedding day that she would have returned to this place alone less than six months after sharing it with Randi on such a glorious honeymoon, she would have laughed them out of the room and possibly off the planet. Instead she lay still and let happier memories immerse her, hoping they would help shield her for the ordeal she knew lay ahead.

Reed walked over to her, reaching forward and brushing the blonde hair back away from Gwen's face. She was unprepared for the visible flinch that coursed through Gwen's slight frame. The seer figured the reaction was purely involuntary and anyone who approached Gwen would have received the same response. Still, it was a little unnerving.

Reed made to remove her hand, then some instinct not understood caused her to drop it to delicately rest on Gwen's shoulder. She was immediately gratified when the bard lightly covered it with her own for a brief moment before dropping her hand back down to curl around the pillow once more.

"How are you holding up?" Reed asked softly. Not that she was trying to hide anything from her compatriots, but the tone seemed to fit the situation.

Gwen smiled weakly. "Well, I have to admit this hasn't been one of my better days."

Reed gave a wry chuckle. "Yeah, I could see how you'd feel that way." She looked over her shoulder. "Rosie and Lacey are nearly set up, and then we just have to wait for a signal from Tiny and Sky."

Gwen nodded absently against the pillow and let the scent of her warrior surround her senses for a long moment. Then she turned slightly to face Reed and sat up just a bit.

"Reed, do you honestly think this will work?"

Gray eyes faced her squarely. "Do you honestly believe you are soulmates?" The seer found the answer burning in Gwen's eyes before her head moved. "Then yes," she stated firmly. "I honestly believe this will work. But you've gotta believe it too, my friend. Now is not the time for a crisis of faith."

Gwen smiled – the first genuine smile she'd worn in what felt like forever. "Thanks, Reed. I know this has been nearly impossible for you, and I appreciate you sticking around... more than you'll ever know."

Reed shrugged deprecatingly. "That's what friends do, right? Can I tell you a little secret, Gwen?" getting an interested nod in response. "Even if I wasn't... involved... in this situation, I'd have still stuck around for you – because you were the first person, and have been one of the few outside the Sabre circle who accepted me for what I am and treated me as a normal human being. I'm just glad I get to be a part of what I know will be an incredible story."

Her watch vibrated and she looked down to see a signal from Tiny coming in. "Excuse me a minute, Gwen. It's Tiny, so that means it's about time to get started."

Gwen nodded and watched her move into a secluded area. Then she slid back into a reclined position and closed her eyes. Already she was completely drained and the hard part hadn't even started yet. She missed the look of consternation that crossed Reed's face or the urgency that suddenly became apparent in the three women's motions. Gwen's sole focus was on relaxing enough to reach out into Randi's dreamscape when the time came.

She was never even aware that a crisis had arisen.

Chapter II

"What?" Rosie whispered to Reed after one glance at her tight face. She clasped Reed's arm and drew her over to where she and Lacey had unpacked the few supplies they had brought with them, and had been waiting quietly for Reed's signal to begin. The shamaness had noticed Reed's olive skin drain of color and knew immediately something unwelcome had occurred. The haste with which Reed had summarily joined them only confirmed that suspicion.

Reed swallowed hard and blew out a breath. "I got word from Tiny."

"Excellent. Let's get started then. The sooner.... What?" Rosie broke off when Reed grabbed her arm and shook her head emphatically.

"No," Reed forced herself to calmness. "No, it's not that easy."

"Of course not," Lacey muttered. "Randi and Gwen are involved."

The other two women smiled wryly at each other acknowledging the truth of that statement. Then the seriousness returned to Reed's face.

"Randi has summoned Ares."

Blank shock dropped two sets of jaws. Rosie and Lacey exchanged looks before turning their attention back to Reed. Rosie closed her eyes and drew a deep breath.

"We have no time to waste then. Let's get to work."

Reed blinked, then realized Rosie was right. They were only defeated if they allowed themselves to be. She nodded, her determination obvious in her face and her now very deliberate actions.

"Let's do it."

"Well now," the god of war growled. "This was rather unexpected." He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "I mean after that nasty little dismissal a while ago, I didn't expect to hear from you quite so soon."

Randi kicked a chair in his direction and pushed him backwards. "Siddown," she invited, before dropping into her own chair. Ares stumbled a step before catching himself. Then he threw a glare in Randi's direction and sat.

Minutes passed in silence as they looked at one another. Tiny watched it all from his post near the door. He was outwardly dispassionate while mentally he mustered his intestinal fortitude for the final battle. He'd been notified of Sky's arrival and knew it would be soon. Finally, Ares began to grin diabolically and then chuckle to himself. Randi's expression never changed. When his chuckles wound down to nothing, Ares spoke.

"You know, you really had me going there for a while... sending me away like that. No wonder I chose you. You're perfect, just like she was." Ares grinned at the memory of Randi's long-lost ancestor and stretched luxuriously. "No one would have guessed it was all for show. Only one other has ever had the gonads to stand up to me like that. To tell you the truth, I've missed it... the fire, the passion, the backbone – it's so... so...." He noticed the bored expression on her face. "What?" a little discombobulated by her lack of enthusiasm.

"Do you ever shut up or do you get off listening to yourself?"

He lost his humor. "Excuse me?" He rose from his seat and glared down at her. "Look, I don't know who you think you are or who you think you're dealing with, but you are nothing, NOTHING without me. You got that? I am the GOD of WAR and I made you. You belong to me!"

The fire that blazed from her blue eyes should have rendered him ash and cinder, and Ares actually had to resist the urge to check himself for burn marks. He raised his hands for immediate retaliation, then lowered them again, when she didn't even flinch. "What?" he said again, this time with a slightly plaintive tone.

"Sit. Down." Randi's comment was a cold as ice.

He held her gaze for a moment longer before slowly sinking back into his seat, intrigued and not a little turned on by the intense personality across from him. He recognized that she was a force that needed to be reckoned with. She wasn't afraid of him... or dying... at all, and he wanted to know why.

Ares sat regarding her intently and Randi met his gaze look for look. He was the first to look away, glancing around the room with a smirk. "Nice place. A little too bright for my tastes, but we can fix that. First things first."

"What do you want?" with no trace of emotion.

Ares stood and turned in a full circle with his arms outspread. "I want everything. And I am finally," pounding a fist into his hand, "FINALLY going to have it all." He looked at Randi and the most diabolical smile creased his face. "After millennia of waiting and careful planning and manipulation," approaching her slowly and clenching his fist closed. "YOU belong to ME. Body, heart and soul are mine as it should have been from the beginning and I am ready to claim my due."

Ares reached for her, expecting... well, certainly not what he got and it was for that reason alone he was caught unawares by what happened. He fully expected Randi to be excited by the prospect of joining with him, to allow him to lay claim to the treasure he found her to be. That was why she summoned him after all, right? Instead, he felt the very real and unfortunate pain of her boot connecting with his family jewels. He gasped in agony, trying to process the fact that this woman had the ability to hurt him even as he covered himself and slumped to the ground hoping to catch his breath.

Tiny observed the action from the doorway and winced in automatic sympathy, unconsciously crossing his legs. He saw rapid movement headed his direction and allowed Sky's approach to take his mind off the agony he knew Ares was experiencing. The situation needed to be explained as quickly and thoroughly as possible so they could form a plan of action.

Meanwhile, Ares was now far less turned on by her attitude and he raised his hand. The fireball brushed by her head so closely that she felt her skin singe. Yet Randi never even flinched. She was simply beyond caring, and he recognized that at her lack of reaction. He couldn't do worse to her than had already been done.

Ares wheezed and stood up, though not completely straight, and slid his body back into his chair. "Please," he said when he managed to get his voice into its normal octave. "Tell me you are not going to let that little nothing of a bard take away everything we have worked so hard for."

She considered him carefully, then answered him with more passion than he had heard from her to date. "*WE* did not work for anything and this...." gesturing around them. "I'd give it all up in a heartbeat, everything, to know what I did that caused Gwen to leave. Maybe then I'd have a chance to fix it and get her back."

"Perhaps I can help?" Sky spoke quietly, but it was enough to carry his words to Randi's ears.

"Stay out of this, old man!" Ares snarled, using a look to throw the chieftain back against the wall of the hallway and slamming the door shut with a flick of his wrist when Tiny scrambled out after Sky.

The warrior glared. "Can't handle the competition, Ares?" daring him to do his worst. When he failed to react, Randi stood and went to stand in front of the fire, deliberately keeping her back to him. "Now," with her voice and intonation cold and dead once more, "I'm going to ask you one more time. What do you want from me? Why are you here?"

"I am here because you called for me," he replied in an equally cold voice. "And you know what I want from you – I explained that already. Even your little blonde friend is bright enough to have gotten it already. Or she would have if she'd stuck around for explanations," he dug. "But she didn't, did she? She LEFT!!!" He walked closer, reaching out but not quite touching and calming his voice to a soothing sound. "She's gone, Randi. It's time for you to reclaim your destiny. And with you at my side, we will be unstoppable!"

Randi turned, her face an impassive mask. Only her eyes showed any trace of emotion, but as focused as Ares was on his victory, he completely misread them. "You just don't get it, do you?" asked with derision in her tone. "She OWNS me – body, heart and soul. You can't claim something from me that I don't have to give."

Confusion flitted across Ares' face before it hardened into anger. "You summoned me... you WILL be mine!" In his fury, he didn't hear the bedroom door open or Tiny and Sky cross the threshold into the living room. "Let me show you why!"

This time when he reached for her, he struck first - forcefully projecting every dark, hidden memory she was missing since her return from the dead. They were nothing more than flashes of images in her mind, but it was disturbing enough for Randi to push Ares away from her with serious intent.

"Now what do you think, hmm?" he snarled. "I. *OWN*. YOU. Not *HER*. ME." Randi slumped to her knees cradling her head in her hands. Ares looked at her in disgust, waiting impatiently for her to figure it out. Then he dropped into the chair and drummed his fingers on the arm.

Nothing was clear – everything was a flash, a feeling. But Randi didn't like the feelings those images produced in her and she continued to kneel on the floor as she pushed away the pain receiving Ares' visuals had caused to lance through her head.

Tiny moved to go to her, but was held back by Sky's hand on his arm. He looked at the chieftain and cocked an eyebrow in question. Sky shook his head.

"She knows we are here, Tiny. She will call us when she is ready."

When the pain reached a tolerable level, Randi dropped her arms to her sides and stood, stoic mask firmly in place. Then she turned to Ares with a smirk.


His jaw fell in disbelief and he blinked at her. "What?"

"God, you really are stupid, aren't you? Leave. Go away. Get outta here."

"You can't...."

"Oh, but I can. Ya see, I figured something out," resisting the urge to hold her head as another blinding ache pierced her awareness. "You can't stay here without an invitation. I have to give myself to you freely – you can't take. Otherwise, you would have staked your claim already... taken me for whatever purpose you wanted. I have to want you here for you to win. Well, guess what, war god... I don't want you here. I had you come here so I could get some answers, and I got what I needed from you. Now LEAVE."

Ares sat studying her for a very long moment, scratching his beard thoughtfully. "All right. You need some time to um... digest those memories. I've waited this long - a little longer won't hurt. You'll call for me again soon enough, and it will just make my victory all the sweeter. However, I am a god so allow me to give you something to remember me by."

He tossed a bolt her way and she read his intention clearly. But in her effort to evade it, she twisted the wrong way and wound up directly in its path. It caught her squarely in the chest and Randi collapsed to the floor twitching.

"Think about it," he muttered before deliberately stepping over her and disappearing out of sight.

Tiny didn't even wait for the sparkle to hit the floor before he was crossing the room and kneeling by her side. Randi's breathing was fast and shallow and he gently lifted her into his arms and walked swiftly into the bedroom.

Sky had anticipated his actions and had turned the bed down. Now Tiny placed her carefully on the mattress and moved the robe aside to see a large, ugly burn mark running the length of Randi's torso.

"Stay with her," he instructed Sky brusquely, then he padded rapidly to the bathroom to obtain the first aid kit and the regen unit. They needed her conscious before they could start the spirit walk because she had to make the choice to take that step.

He dropped the load in his arms onto the bed then looked as Sky. "Can you set up the regen unit, or you wanna take care of that burn?"

Sky cocked his head a moment. He'd thought the regen unit was for the burn, and wondered why Tiny felt the need to medicate something that could be handled without creams and bandages. Then his eyes widened in understanding. The medicine was to *speed* the process as they were working in a very limited time frame. He would have hit himself for his shortsightedness, but Tiny was getting impatient waiting for an answer.

"I'll start on the burn. I have a feeling you are much more familiar with the regen unit than I am. Then you need to contact Reed and find out where they are... in the process, I mean. With any luck we can still coordinate this together to make it easier for Gwen."

Tiny had started setting up the regen unit before Sky finished speaking. He checked Randi's vitals, pleased to know that her responses where still intact, even if her conscious mind didn't appear to be available at the moment. Tiny watched for a moment as Sky cleaned the wound and began smearing analgesic cream on Randi's upper body before he heeded the chieftain's advice and put in a call to Reed.

Tiny didn't waste time with Sabre encryptions and codes, though the line he used was secure enough. He figured time was important and putting it on the screen where Sky could see and hear as well would help speed matters on immensely.

Sky was in the process of applying the syn skin when Lacey answered the portable vid phone she'd brought along for their use. They had no way to utilize the one in the caverns and it wasn't practical for their current situation regardless.

"Lace, it's Tiny. Let me talk to Reed."

"Can't do it, Tiny. Things are a little hairy here right now. What's up?"

Tiny's face immediately grew concerned. "What's happened? What's wrong?"

Lacey shook her head. "We don't know that anything is wrong yet. When we got your message earlier, we went right to work to get everything set. We didn't even notice that Gwen fell asleep on her own. Reed and Rosie are setting up a safe place in Gwen's mind

so that Reed can go in and lead Gwen there until they can start their walk together."

"Why didn't they just wake her up?"

"We tried. She didn't respond, so we decided to work from where she was. She's riding an edge right now, Tiny, and we're trying to keep from pushing her over." Lacey saw the shadow that crossed his features and it immediately set the hair on the back of her neck standing upright. She shivered in response. "What?"

"Randi is unconscious," he answered plainly, holding up a hand to keep her from interrupting. "When she called for Ares, she goaded him – to the point that he did something... sent a jolt of power through her body and knocked her unconscious."

"When did this happen?"

Tiny looked at his watch. "About ten minutes ago, maybe. We got the regen unit set up and I called ya'll right after. Sky is just finishing up with the syn skin, so it hasn't been very long at all."

"If I understood Reed correctly, though, that is more than long enough for them to reach out to each other. God," she cursed softly. "Let me go see if I can interrupt or at least get this information to them without doing any damage. Keep the channel open, and I'll face the screen so you can see what is going on here. I'll crank the volume up for you as well."

Tiny nodded and turned to look at Sky with bleak eyes as Lacey moved away from the monitor. "What do we do now?"

"Now we wait. Anything else jeopardizes their soul."

Randi looked around conspicuously. She knew this place all too well, but this time, something was different. Actually, everything was different, and she examined that idea carefully. This was her hideaway, and yet it wasn't. The feel was completely wrong. Was it what Ares had done to her or...?

She paused and listened carefully. Only one other had ever been able to find this place; only one could stand her darkness and survive it. Or better yet, help her to survive the darkness Ares had tried to force into her mind.

Randi held her breath, diligently scanning for the sounds of other inhabitants in the darkness. Slowly, she heard another set of breathing in complete synchronicity with her own. She wished for a light but nothing happened – not immediately anyway. When the light finally came, it came from an unexpected person in an unexpected place.

In the far distance, from the same direction she had detected the breathing, a small light shone as though a candle lit at the end of a very long tunnel. Not seeing any other appropriate recourse, Randi focused her energies on reaching the light that beckoned her.

She walked slowly in deference to the ache in her chest. That in itself was odd as she couldn't remember feeling physical pain in this place before. Emotional or psychological pain was something else again, but that was not what this felt like. This felt real, as though some serious damage had been done to her person. Still she made progress as the light never wavered and she grew closer to it.

When she reached the light, she hesitated and looked around. It was, as she had imagined, a candle. The flame never flickered, even when she picked it up from the slab it rested on. Prudently, she examined the area around her with a judicious eye.

It was *her* space – the place in her mind where all her dark memories were stored. But she'd never been forced to walk here before... never had to search for light if she wanted it, though she rarely did. Stranger, it was neat and clean. Not just orderly as her mind tended to be anyway, but squeaky clean like someone had been housekeeping.

"I have been," came a voice from behind her. Randi whirled, only to find she was looking at... herself. She stared for a moment, slack-jawed, before allowing her knees to give way. Her butt met the hard marble slab and she was happy to take a seat.

"Who... what... how...?" the Empress Randi fumbled with her words as the former Sabre watched with amusement.

"I know there is a whole question in there somewhere just dying to get out. Slide over," she said, nudging her counterpart. "I think it's time we had a talk."

The Empress clutched her chest and nodded her head dumbly. Randi smiled and took a seat beside, but not touching herself. This was weird enough without physical contact between them.

"What do you know?" Randi asked.

"In relation to...?" the Empress returned impatiently. "I know that this has got to be the single most surreal experience of my life. I know this place, although it is nothing like it is supposed to be. And I know Ares has got a hell of a wicked right hook. Other than that, I am pretty much flying blind here."

Randi nodded in complete sympathy. "It took me a while to figure it out. Let me give you the cliff's notes version of what I know and you can fill in any blanks, all right? Then maybe between us we can figure out a way to fix this mess."

Unpredictably, tears formed in the Empress' eyes. She had done more crying in the past hour than she had since her wedding day. It was disturbing and disconcerting and completely wonderful. It was as though she could feel again... with her whole heart.

"Whatever it takes, if it gets me Gwen back... I'm willing to do anything."

"Anything?" spoke a third voice from the darkness. Both Sabre and Empress turned instinctively towards it – one smiling in genuine warmth, the other more tremulously. But both clearly showed the love they felt for the woman who stepped into the circle of light.

"Gwen?" spoken simultaneously.

"Anything, Randi?" not batting an eye over the fact that there were in fact two distinct Randi's sitting in front her. Time for that explanation later. First she wanted a commitment from her... them... whatever. Warrior to bard - Gwen wanted a promise.

Randi turned to face herself, feeling the oddness of the sensation tingle through her body down to her toes. Whatever Ares had done to her, it was going to be up to her, both parts of her, to work together to defeat him. And with Gwen beside them, there was no way they could lose. They had too much at stake.

"Anything," they answered simultaneously.

"Good," Gwen nodded in satisfaction. "Then clasp hands. It is time to make you whole once more."

"I can't be whole without you, Gwen, and you left me. Why did you leave me, Gwen?"

The anguish in the Empress' voice brought tears to Gwen's eyes though she refused to let them fall. Now was not the time or place. If... *when* they survived their spirit walk together, that would be the time to fall apart, because then they could do it jointly.

Gwen stepped forward and reached out a hand to cup the Empress' face. She was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of their appearances. While both were sleek and well-defined, the Empress tended towards sharp lines and hard planes. The ex-Sabre, on the other hand, had a smoother, softer look. Startled by the revelation, she blinked in rapid succession, then smiled tremulously at both of them.

"I left because it was time – time for you to find your own truth and make up your own mind. But I never really went away. I promised you I would always be here when you needed me, and here I am."

"I hurt."

"I know, love. We all do. They question is, do you want to fix it?"

"Yes," came the stark reply.

"Then the first step is to bring you back together again. The woman who loves and feels guilt and pain and sadness is part of the warrior, and the warrior is a part of her. They cannot continue to exist and function separately."

"Wait – you think I need her??" the Empress snarled, clutching her chest. "She is weak. That's why she's here!"

Randi sat quietly, knowing the truth and knowing Gwen would defend both it and her.

"You're wrong, Randi. The part of you that loves, that feels things so deeply – that is the part that makes you strong. That is why Ares poisoned you... to separate the part he couldn't control from the part he could manipulate. He could only try to lay claim to the warrior part of you. The rest belongs to me unequivocally."

"You love her more!" the Empress said petulantly.

"Randi," taking the Empress' face in both hands and making those eyes the sole focus of her world for the moment. "You are the same, and I love all of you – the warrior and the lover, the darkness and the light – everything. It is all, ALL part and parcel of the woman who holds my heart and owns my soul. Don't discount your worth to me – not any part of it!"

The Empress gazed into Gwen's eyes and read the truth there. The truth of her words, the truth of her needs, and the truth behind her leaving. She leaned forward and brushed their lips together.

"Forgive me my lack of faith, beloved. I know better than to underestimate your capacity for love and understanding."

"Don't underestimate yourself there either, Stud."

The Empress saw faith and love reflected back to her from those green eyes, and she nodded and turned to face her other self. "All right. Let's do this," reaching for her counterpart's hand.

"Wait," Randi said to herself. "The parts of me that are here – we're separated in my mind, but not literally physically. Lay down." The Empress looked at her askance. "We can share the same physical space – we have to. We're the same person. C'mon."

Randi lay down on the slab and waited. The Empress hesitated, then stepped onto the platform and lay down as well. She felt herself sinking into and merging with the rest of her being and felt a moment's unreasoning panic. Gwen took her hand and held it to her lips, and suddenly, everything was all right.

Randi lay still, eyes closed, absorbing the sensation of being whole again. It was so different than what she'd grown accustomed to feeling over the last few months that she could hardly stand the phenomenon of completeness within herself. She'd learned a new appreciation for the facets of her being and the balance of her life, and she hoped to never experience such a rending again. Only being separated from Gwen had been worse, and she had a feeling that might change when she knew the truth of everything she'd seen and done in the last few months. She was overjoyed that Gwen was here and would be here to share it with.

She felt Gwen's grip on her hand and the touch of her lips, and Randi pulled their intertwined hands to her own lips for a kiss. She opened her eyes and smiled at Gwen.

"I love you," she whispered... words spoken for the first time in far too long.

Now Gwen's tears fell, but this time, they were tears of joy. "I love you too, Stud, so very much. Welcome back." And they took a brief respite to savor the moment together, knowing the worst was yet to come.

"WHAT?!?" Artemis whispered furiously as she clutched at Athena's arm. The wisdom goddess flinched at the force of the huntress' hold on her and glared at her.

"Artemis, do you mind?" prying the fingers loose. "That hurts and you're not a mortal... you can leave marks."

Artemis released Athena's arm only to grip her fingers. "The, they can't do that! Do you know what this means??"

"Art, they already have, and yes, I do. It means that we have to adapt and overcome. Come on, if mortals can and have been doing this for thousands of years, surely we can manage it just this once."

Artemis shook her head. "One Hades of a time to decide to try."

Athena gave her a wry smile. "Yes, well, it's not like we have a choice."

"I don't think I like this whole human experience. And what are we going to tell Dite?"

"The truth. This isn't a time to hold anything back. She needs to know and we need to figure out what we're going to do."

"I need to know what, babe?" Dite questioned as her eyes slowly opened and focused on her sisters. "Guys, Randi and Gwen have apparently already found one another in the dreamscape without either Reed or Sky to guide them on their spirit quest. Their bond is still strong, but it's... weird. Totally, bizarrely, off-the-scale weird."

Two set of godly brows hiked into equally godly hairlines and they glanced at each other in confusion. "Um, Dite," Artemis said after delicately clearing her throat. "I think we get the whole 'weird' concept you've got going on here, but do you think you could, uh... be a little more specific on what brought you to that conclusion?"

Athena handed the love goddess a cup of ambrosia, which in her case was hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows. Dite smiled and received Athena's offering with grateful thanks. It looked easy – monitoring the soulmates' bond, but this was draining in a way that could only be felt in the depths of her own being. As thankful as she was for her sisters' love and support, even they didn't understand the stress and strain this put her under.

Dite sipped her beverage, feeling it warm and strengthen her from the inside out. Its added strength allowed her to keep an eye on Randi and Gwen, while focusing on sharing her knowledge with Athena and Artemis. She motioned for them to have a seat, and Artemis set down a tray of Dite's favorite snacks before sitting. Then they gazed at her expectantly. With any luck, this would be the final piece in their puzzle to understanding everything.

Chapter III

Dite stretched out, wishing for a massage but settling for the tray of tidbits instead. She picked one up and took a bite, then chewed and swallowed thoughtfully. Another sip of chocolate and she was ready to speak – a good thing since her sisters were twitching in impatience.

"We've been watching them regularly since we figured out that Ares was trying to totally manipulate Randi, and I started monitoring them constantly when Gwen went off on Randi for calling her a consort. It was so obvious to me from her reaction to that gnarly term that their separation was radically near." She held up her hand to keep Artemis from interrupting.

"I know you know this, Art... just let me tell this." She chewed another sandwich. "I noticed something right away – something we had no way of knowing from our visual observations. I understand now how Ares managed to gain some bogus control – how he's tried to maintain that awesome power. But I also learned that Randi didn't make this decision like, voluntarily and has been so at war with herself over it."

Dite glanced between her two sisters, verifying that she had their complete attention. Athena looked at Dite with a furrowed brow and a distinct look of confusion.

"Aphrodite, we already knew Randi didn't make the decision on her own. Ares had her poisoned – that's why Artemis has been so hard at work finding an antidote to reverse its effects and allow Randi to exercise her free will once more. That's why she has to make the decision to accept it." Dite shook her head vehemently and set her sandwich down with some force.

"No, The... that's what I'm totally trying to tell you. Yes, she was poisoned, and that allowed Ares way greater success in trying to, you know, manipulate her. But the reason the poisoning gave Ares that possibility of power is because it caused Randi's radical personality to distinctly split. It gave him major influence over the warrior part of her – the rest of Randi's gnarly character has been locked away in her own mind."

Both goddesses goggled at Dite like fish out of water. The implications of what she had just said were overwhelming.

"One wonders why he hasn't made more widespread use of this method if it is so successful."

"I don't think it is – that successful, I mean," Dite said honestly. "Not given what I've witnessed."

Athena pursed her lips. "What have you seen exactly? How did you come to this conclusion?"

"Not a sight... more of a feeling." Dite sighed. "When I started monitoring them like, constantly, I could feel two distinct individualities struggling for dominance in Randi's being. Two separate personas that are both part of Randi's singular personality."

"Do we have a way to confirm this?"

Dite shrugged. "As if. Look, I'm still working on it. I do know that Gwen and Randi seemed to have entered that radical dreamscape together. Something totally changed - I felt...." She bit her lips in thought. "It was weird. It was like Randi, you know, merged with herself or something, because she became a single entity again. Then she and Gwen connected and...." Dite trailed off.

"And??" Artemis prompted impatiently. The love goddess closed her eyes in concentration.

"And that's all so far. They're together, but things are still way off." Dite rubbed her eyes and rolled her neck. "I told you, all I can do is sense their bonding and keep it strong. The rest... the rest is because the emotions were so majorly intense."

Athena refilled Dite's cup with hot chocolate and added extra marshmallows. "You did good, little sister. What can we do to help?"

"Pray?" Dite replied jokingly. "I dunno... just be here and help me keep that bodacious link between them strong. Even without Reed and Sky to guide them, I have to believe they will be all right together as long as they have that."

"So do we need to tell Reed and Sky to back off and let Randi and Gwen handle it themselves?"

"I don't think so, Art. I think having the seers in place is in everyone's best interest. They may not be needed," Athena responded, "but it's better to have them there in any case. They can provide support for Randi and Gwen even if they don't guide their quest together."

Artemis nodded. "I'll let them know then." She sniffed subtly. "Any chance I could get a little of that nectar, Dite? It smells divine, and you're the only god with hot chocolate for nectar. And I have got to be honest with you – vegetable juice just isn't the same."

Dite laughed, and even Athena had to chuckle at Artemis' plaintive plea. But it was true – each god had his or her own flavor for nectar tailored to the dominion over which they reigned. Dite had definitely gotten the best result from that rule. Fortunately, she wasn't averse to sharing – most days, anyway.

"Go ahead, Art. I can use all the fabulous love vibrations we can muster."

"I can do fabulous," she said, pouring herself a cup of chocolate and gently inhaling the scent.

"I can second that," Athena concurred, adding extra marshmallows for herself. "Though I should be thankful to have gotten new wine and not olive oil. I believe Zeus was entertaining that as a possibility at one point because of the abundance of olives available."

All three goddesses scrunched up their faces at that idea. Then Artemis moved to notify the seers and Athena prepared to resume her support of Dite. The love goddess re-centered herself and closed her eyes once more, intently focusing on the bond that connected Randi and Gwen soul to soul.

"How is she?" Geoff asked as he came into the room. "I got here as fast as I could." His hover chair brought him right to the bed and Sky and Tiny moved aside to let him through. Geoff slipped from the chair and stood on unsteady legs before edging his body onto the bed beside Randi. He pulled her robe apart just slightly to see that the syn skin went from her collarbone to her naval. "What the hell happened? And where's Gwen?"

Tiny hadn't given Geoff any details. He'd just called and told Geoff that Randi was down and that they had issues. Geoff had kissed Jill goodbye and left the school where they had been observing the progress of the rebel students with satisfaction. He rushed back over to the palatial mansion Randi and Gwen had moved into when Randi had shifted from Commandant to Empress. Randi had tried to convince them to move in with her and Gwen, but he hated the place. Even if Randi and Gwen hadn't been newlyweds, he wouldn't have chosen to live there. It had been hard enough to come stay briefly at Gwen's request. It was apparent to him that Gwen hated it as well and he wondered why Randi couldn't seem to appreciate that.

"I told you we had issues, and it's complicated."

"Of course it is," Geoff said wryly. "When has it not been with the two of them? Will she be all right if we leave her alone for a bit?" Sky checked her pulse and nodded.

The weapons smith pushed himself off the bed and stood for a moment balancing on both legs and the staff that he now carried with him everywhere. Not only did it help his balance, but it gave him a much-needed feeling of self-power as he had become quite proficient with it in the chair and had been able to start doing the bare basics very slowly while standing on his own two feet.

He walked slowly and carefully to the chair Randi had occupied not so long before. He motioned for Sky and Tiny to join him, and they did so, with Tiny taking the other chair and Sky standing in front of the fireplace where he could keep an eye on the still figure on the bed.

"All right," Geoff said firmly. "Start at the beginning, and don't leave anything out."

"Ow! Goddamn it... that hurts!" Randi lay back down on the slab, clutching her chest and focusing her thoughts on breathing. Gwen eased her back down and gestured to her torso.

"Do you mind?"

Randi looked at her with hurt clearly showing from eyes that had darkened to grey in the candlelight. "You have to ask? After all we've been through together, you have to ask?" pulling away slightly.

Gwen reached for her, stopping her motion before Randi could completely turn away. "After all we've been through, *this* is why I asked. You've been withdrawing from me for months, love. I understand why now... at least a little, but I learned to stay out of your personal space. You made it clear I wasn't welcome."

Randi moved so quickly she had to seize her chest and grasp the side of the slab as bolts of agony ripped through her body. Gwen didn't hesitate this time but curled her body around Randi's, lending her strength and balance to the warrior's.

Randi lay there for long moments, absorbing the love and warmth she felt from Gwen, and reconciling that with the pain she felt physically in her chest and emotionally in her heart. Gwen's words had sent a cold chill down her spine and she was grateful that the bard's warmth seemed to be chasing that chill away.

For her part, Gwen simply relished the feeling of being close to her soulmate once more, after what had felt like a lifetime of distance. In some ways, it had been worse than when Randi had died – because this time she had been right there and yet... untouchable. Gwen gently stroked the dark hair and whispered words of comfort in Randi's ear, and gradually she felt the warrior's stiff body relax beneath her. But when Randi reached for her hand and tangled their fingers together, Gwen knew, without a doubt, they would be all right.

How long they lay like that was irrelevant, much as time itself was in this place. But it felt good and it felt right and for the time being... that was enough.

Finally, Randi turned in Gwen's arms, releasing her hand so she could reach up and stroke her face tenderly. "Gwen, did I... did I... hurt... you?"

Gwen returned the facial clasp, keeping her eyes pinned to Randi's so the warrior could see the truth in them. "No, love... not physically. My pain came from not understanding...." nudging Randi's chin when her eyes closed. "Hey," she coaxed kindly. "Randi, look at me. Yes, it hurt and it made me angry, and I'm not gonna lie to you about that. I promised you I would never lie to you as long as it was in my power to tell you the truth. But now I understand better, and it hurts a lot less."

"I'm sorry, Gwen. I never meant...."

"It's all right, love."

The dark head shook. "No. It was me who sent you away. I didn't want you to be hurt, so I sent you away. And you got hurt anyway."

Gwen smiled wryly. "My protector. Sometimes we just can't control things like we want to, huh?" pushing dark bangs off of Randi's forehead. "C'mon, can you sit up?" Randi pushed up slowly, glad the pain she'd experienced before had settled into a dull ache. "You all right so far?"

Randi nodded and began unbuttoning the shirt she wore. Gwen moved the candle closer, gasping sharply when she glimpsed the damage down the centerline of Randi's torso. She covered her mouth and just stopped herself from reaching out.

"Oh God, love! Are you... what happened??"

Randi caught her hand and placed it carefully on an undamaged bit of skin. Gwen made slow teasing circles almost unconsciously and Randi smiled at how quickly the pain receded under the bard's touch.

"Ares," she finally answered succinctly, pulling herself from the haze that Gwen's contact had caused throughout her body. Blonde brows hiked into a blonde hairline.

"I guess we really do have a lot to talk about."

"Are you sure about this, Reed? I mean, if Gwen has already joined Randi in *her* dreamscape, what makes you think you can reach Gwen through her own? And even if you *do* find Gwen, you can't go poking around in Randi's mind for a multitude of reasons." Lacey grabbed Reed by the arm. "Reed, are you listening to me?"

The seer caught Lacey's hands in her own and focused her gray eyes and considerable personality on the doctor. Where she wanted to be frustrated, she couldn't, because Lacey only showed her genuine caring and confusion over the current situation.

Lacey felt Reed's sigh of resignation, and moved them slightly away from the preparation area that Rosie was busy staking out around Gwen. The shamaness had to set things up to channel the energy Reed would need to draw on from the seers now surrounding the cottage. She wasn't about to get involved with the current discussion running between the two Sabres.

Reed and Lacey moved into the small kitchen area still clutching hands, and each could feel the tension rolling off the other. This was by far the riskiest, most dangerous mission they had ever undertaken, and after the fighting and destroying they had done in the last few months, that was saying an awful lot. Neither of them wanted to have come this far just to lose.

Reed nodded at Lacey and sighed a second time. "Yes, I was listening. What do you see as our obstacles?" Lacey blinked at her astounded. Reed smiled at her wryly, despite the seriousness of their situation. "I need to know – perhaps it is something we already have a solution to or can work around."

Lacey nodded. "Right. First concern is Randi's mind – if you couldn't find your way to her hiding place when she gave you permission to look around, do you really think you have a chance against what she will view as a threat? Especially since we all have our own safeguards in place to protect ourselves from giving up secrets willingly? What truly concerns me is the fact that she seems to be existing there... at least part of her is, and that could be particularly dangerous to you both."

Reed nodded thoughtfully. "Go on."

"My other concern is obviously how you intend to reach Gwen. If she and Randi are in Randi's mind, in her dreamscape, how do you intend to find her and show her the way to the safe place in her own? There are so many risks and variables to this, Reed."

"I know, but we have to work to give Gwen a safe place. It is my firm belief that if... when... she and Randi make it through the darkness together, Gwen is still going to want to bring Randi into her own world for a while. They need to have a place prepared where they can recover and Gwen knows this."

"And they can't do that in just any nice dreamscape they can conjure up?"

Reed shook her head. "Not this time. They're going to need support."

"So, any ideas how to find them?"

"Well," Reed answered honestly, "I think we need to go ahead and set up the support system like we discussed. Gwen is fully aware of what the plan was. With any amount of luck, she will retain that knowledge and will come looking for us. Then we won't have to go looking, and we won't have to go into Randi's mind without invitation."

Lacey nodded. "If you think it's for the best... I'll keep an eye on both your vitals. Wouldn't do to have something happen to either of ya'll during this little exercise." She cleared her throat. "Sorry about before."

"No worries – I expect you to bring up points of concern like that. It's what makes you so damn good at your job. But we've got to do this."

Lacey nodded. "All right. Let's get started."

Gwen was pacing silently – four paces up... four paces back. She hadn't wanted to give up her spot next to Randi, but the warrior's words made her so antsy, Gwen decided to pace. So to continue the tactile contact she craved, Gwen ran her hands lightly up Randi's prone body as she walked back and forth. For her part, Randi felt the touch fill a hole in her soul she hadn't realized was there until she was whole once again, and she savored the healing it provided her.

Finally Gwen stopped moving and perched on the slab next to Randi's hips, then she caught the long fingers in her own and lifted them to her lips. She sighed and reached hesitantly towards Randi's injured body. The warrior read her intent and, ignoring her own pain, pulled Gwen into her embrace, draping the bard over her body into their preferred position. Gwen felt Randi's body shift and tense then release a big sigh.

"Sweetheart, are you all right?" She made a move to ease off Randi, and she felt the strong arms close around her more tightly.

"Stay, please. I've... I've missed having you here. It's worth a little pain to feel you back where you belong."

Gwen smiled and gently placed her head back on Randi's shoulder, snuggling into her spot with a feeling of decadent pleasure. "I've missed this too."

There was silence for a time after that as both women simply absorbed the feeling of love and contentment that coursed through them. But it couldn't last and they knew that, and eventually, Gwen leaned up on an elbow so green eyes could meet blue.

"So let me see if I've got this straight – this whole thing... my kidnapping by Ben, your poisoning and subsequent memory losses – all of this was so Ares could try to gain control of the warrior part of you? Thinking... hoping... that it would give him control of all of you?"

"Best as I can figure out, yeah," Randi confirmed. "It took me a while to put it all together once he managed to completely separate me from myself. It was like... I really was two different people, and one didn't know what the other was doing. And I'm still not clear on what happened. Apparently the Empress part of me knew she couldn't hide her memories here, so she created her own hiding place. We'll have to go find them."

"Okay, so what happened that caused this?" motioning to Randi's still wounded chest. "How did you piss him off?"

Randi smiled. "I denied him his victory. I figured out that I had to come to him willingly and offer him parts of me that weren't mine to give. He can't simply take from me – I have to want him in my life, and I don't."

Green eyes were an interesting phenomenon, Randi mused, especially when they were backlit with the fires of jealousy. But it created a solid warmth in the warrior's belly to feel Gwen's possessiveness surround her once more.

"Excuse me...." Gwen's voice was low and surprisingly deep. "That lousy son of a bitch has plagued our lives for the past year, put us through hell and damnation itself, because he wants to take my place in your heart and in your bed?? I'll kill the bastard myself." Her nostrils flared as she tried to get her temper under some semblance of control.

Randi chuckled and winced in pain, grabbing her chest as she continued to laugh. "Oh, Gwen," she said, cupping her face with her free hand. "Do you have any idea just how fabulous that makes me feel... especially after everything we have been through together since this started?"

Gwen smiled and blushed adorably. "That was presumptuously possessive of me, wasn't it? Sor...."

Her apology was cut off mid-word as Randi's fingertips covered her lips. "Don't you dare be sorry. I want you to always feel that presumptuously possessive. God knows I do."

Gwen's blush deepened, but she maintained eye contact. "So that is why he tried to turn you into a crispy critter... because you told him no?"

"Actually, I told him to go away. Then he proceeded to give me a whopper of a headache and try to fry my insides."

"Um, not that I'm not thrilled about this little fact, but um... does he know he failed, or...?"

"Oh yeah... he wasn't trying to kill me. He's still convinced I will call for him and join him. Even if I wanted to, which I don't," she added firmly, "I couldn't give him what he wants, and he just doesn't get that. You own me – body, heart and soul – and I can't give away what's not mine."

"Well, he's damn sure not gonna get it from me," the bard muttered through gritted teeth. Then she looked up at Randi with concerned eyes. "But that means he's gonna come back for you again."

"Yes, it does," Randi agreed seriously. "But we'll be together this time, and he will be defeated once and for all."

"Peace at last?"

"Peace at last," Randi affirmed. "Figures we have to walk through the fires of hell itself first."

Gwen sighed, though there was a trace of a smile in her voice. "It's never easy with us, is it?"

Randi shuddered and Gwen realized almost immediately that she was shaking in silent laughter as gently as she could manage. She smiled in sympathy.

"My mother used to say the same thing to my father, though they never had issues like we do."

Now Gwen laughed. "I like that. Ares is an issue."

"Well, that's not all he is, but that description will suffice for now." Randi shifted and struggled to sit up with a groan. Gwen read her intention and scooted around to help her, watching her with worried green eyes.

"You all right, love? I didn't think you could feel physical pain here."

Randi shook her head. "I've never been able to before, thankfully. I wonder if it's because a god did this directly." She took a deep breath and gingerly slid from the slab to the floor. "However, we're on a mission. We need to find those memories and work through them." She clutched her head as another agonizing pain lance through her skull. "And somehow," she mumbled as Gwen took her arm and picked up the candle. "I don't think this is gonna be a moonlight and roses kinda picnic."

"That's okay," Gwen reassured as she wrapped her arm firmly around Randi's waist. "I'll bring the candle, and we'll have a candlelit dinner instead."

Randi smile was so big, it nearly lit up the darkness itself. "You're something else, you know that?"

Gwen returned her look and her smile turned wry. "I know...the real question, though, is what am I exactly."

"Wife, lover, best friend, confidante, companion, soulmate," giving Gwen back her own words. "And that's just what you are to me. Doesn't take into account any of the things you are to yourself or others, you know... like Queen, bard, teacher, warrior, taste tester," the last added with another grin. It earned Randi a slap on the butt. "Oof! Well, you are. Ella's not nearly as enthusiastic about allowing the rest of us to try new stuff until you give it a thumbs up."

Gwen pretended to be miffed and stuck her nose into the air. "Some of us are more culinarily inclined than others."

"Culinarily inclined... is that even a real word? Heh... some of you just enjoy eating more... Oof!" as she got lightly popped on the ass once more. "Hey, watch the merchandise – I bruise easily, ya know," rubbing the afflicted spot.

"Be nice to me," the bard growled, relishing the teasing in a way she hadn't expected. It had been a long time since they had indulged in such play and she hadn't realized how much she had missed it until its return just now. She looked around in the darkness, unable to see anything beyond the small circle of light the candle cast. "Where are we going anyway?"

Randi looked around slowly. "I'm not completely sure, honestly. I'm looking for those hidden memories, but I'm going mostly on instinct. I don't actually know where they are, but I'm hoping something will occur to me as familiar soon."

Gwen gestured forward with the candle. "Lead on then, MacDuff."

Randi's arm tightened around Gwen's shoulders, and she smiled when Gwen's arm tensed reflexively around her waist. She tilted her head down and brushed a kiss over the fair hair beneath her chin. "Uh uh," she replied. "I'm not leading and you're not following. This we do together walking side by side."

This time Gwen squeezed hard and it was the most painfully, wonderful experience Randi could recall in the months since things had started falling apart. She grunted softly and returned the embrace in full measure.

Abruptly, Gwen pulled away. "Sorry, love," she apologized hastily. "I forgot abo...." She stopped speaking when Randi tugged her closer again. Then she cleared her throat. "I like the sound of that, ya know. Walking side by side with you is where I always want to be."

Randi smiled at the sentiment, then suddenly grasped her head in her hands and fell to her knees. Gwen followed rapidly and held on to the warrior, rocking her gently and kneading the back of her neck with expert hands. The knots she found there were unnerving, but she continued her ministrations until she felt Randi's body slowly relax against her.

"Sweetheart? What happened? Are you all right now?"

Randi didn't speak for several long moments after dropping to her knees. One reason was that being held against Gwen's body was such a good feeling she didn't want to give it up. But the flip side of that reality was that the ache in her head was truly excruciating and the flashes of images that flitted through her consciousness only added to her pain and confusion. Finally, relatively sure her head wouldn't roll off her shoulders if she moved it, Randi nodded gently, then drew a deep breath to speak.

"I think we're near the source of the hidden memories, or at least I hope we are. I really don't want to know if there are other things here that could cause me this kind of agony." She raised her head slowly and peered into the darkness. "Can you hold the candle up, love? Can you see anything?"

Gwen picked the candle up from when she had hastily dropped it when Randi crumpled. She moved it around in every direction, but there was nothing to be seen beyond the small circle of light save more shadows and obscurity.

"I don't see anything, Stud, except more darkness. You want me to search around a little...?"

"NO!" Randi cut in fiercely, then blushed so hard Gwen felt it against her skin in the gloom. She cleared her throat. "Side by side, remember?"

Gwen nodded and kissed the dark head snuggled into her neck. "I remember. Are you able to stand up?"

Randi nodded and blew out a breath. "I think so, as long as we go slowly."

Not only did they go slowly, but Gwen did her best to help and in short order they were standing on shaky legs again. Randi took the candle from Gwen and moved it slowly in a circle, hoping for more than its meager illumination to give her some clue as to where they needed to go. Finally, she sighed and moved in the direction that felt right, and gradually, they found a second marble slab.

Gwen released a held breath and patted Randi's side. "Good instincts there, warrior. Now what?"

Randi eased her body down onto the slab in a sitting position and patted the spot beside her. Gwen slid into place and rested her head on Randi's shoulder, gratified when the dark head rested on hers and their arms went around one another instinctively.

"Now I learn how bad the last few months have been, and we figure out where to go from here."

"I'll be honest with you, Randi. What you're gonna see is not good – I mean...." Gwen tightened her grip when Randi stiffened. "What you accomplished is nothing short of amazing. How you did it, however...."

"Is that why you left me? Because of the horrible things I did?"

"No, Randi. I explained this to you. I left because it was time... because you needed to make a decision about who you are and who you want to be. We're here together because you chose us over Ares, and with that decision comes the consequence of having to accept responsibility for your actions. I won't leave you again, unless *YOU* decide we will no longer be together. I promised you forever, and I meant it."

Randi threaded her hands into Gwen's short, blonde head and gently enticed her closer until their lips were a breath's whisper apart. "Ares has no chance where I am concerned because I won't give us up," she said with a small smile before capturing the full lips with her own. Then they spent long moments reaffirming their bond together. Gwen could actually feel Randi's strength and confidence returning.

"Feel better?" she asked as they separated for air. "'Cause I sure do."

Randi chuckled and hugged the bard close. "That always makes me feel better, and so does this."

Gwen patted her sides as she returned the hug. "Good, because we need to get to work. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can move on."

"I'm all for that. I have a lifetime to spend with you, and amazingly, ruling the world doesn't fit into those plans." She slid off the slab and moved over to what appeared to be a series of file cabinets. "Do you know when I should start looking... how far back I should go?"

"Do you know when exactly you were infected? Or can you determine where the gaps are in your memory?"

Randi gently stroked her face. "There are no gaps. My mind just strings things together to cover the time that is missing. What Reed called editing – she can see them because she is watching them from an observer's point of view." She scratched her face again, then looked at Gwen. "Your kidnapping – I'll bet this goes back to your kidnapping. Something Ben said - things will never be the same between you ever again – I thought at the time he was referring to the fact that he had stolen your memories, but now.... I wonder if... I think he did something that helped give Ares the control he needed to allow me to separate myself to do what I did." Randi blinked her eyes. "Does that make sense?"

Gwen nodded. "Far more than you know." She looked around at the drawers and creased her forehead. "And I think you're right. Start with my kidnapping. Knowing you, everything is filed chronologically and it should be easy to follow once we start."

Randi agreed, and quickly searched through each memory date until she found her starting place. Then she stiffened her back and steeled herself to open the first book.

Chapter IV

"How's she doing, Rosie?" Lacey asked as she continued to monitor Reed's and Gwen's vital signs. Everything looked good on her end so far, but she knew the shamaness had a literal feel for what Reed was experiencing. Even Lacey could feel the power that ran between them and she had a fleeting desire to wonder how that felt. Then remembering the one mind walk Reed had done on her, decided she really didn't need to know.

Rosie turned towards the doctor and Lacey gasped in surprise. She'd expected to see warm brown eyes facing her and instead found glowing golden orbs in their place. Rosie couldn't stop the smile that formed.

"She's good. Her aura is very strong as is Gwen's and the support her tribe is providing is amazing."

"I...um, see... that." Lacey blinked and leaned in for a closer look. "Does that... hurt?"

Rosie blinked. "No. It's... well, it's hard to describe. I can feel Reed's strength and the power of her tribe, and I can sense distinct auras. Reed's and Gwen's the most strongly of course, but also yours, mine, the tribe, and in a very distant way, Randi's. This is a reflection of all of that."

"So things are all right? I mean, on that level? Even Randi?"

"Even Randi," Reed answered as she slowly opened eyes that glowed a weird silver color. "The vague uneasiness I sense from her has to do with what she is going to be facing, because I also sense a renewed joy and peace in her that has been missing for quite a while."

Reed leaned up out of Rosie's embrace and Lacey placed her hands over Gwen's wrists and moved them from Reed's. Then both seer and shamaness eased away from Gwen in what seemed a choreographed dance with Rosie never losing tactile contact with Reed until they had slipped completely from the bed.

Lacey turned and adjust two of the transmitters on Reed's body, nodding her head when their readings changed and fell into more acceptable parameters. Then she gave a cursory look at the readings she continued to receive from Gwen. Seeing they were perfectly normal, she rose and stretched, glad for the excuse to do so.

"So now what?"

"Well, everything is in place and the safe room is set up, and right now, Randi and Gwen seem to be relaxed together somewhere in Randi's mind for the moment anyway. So I'm going to take a pee break and grab a quick bite, because when it comes, I imagine the fallout to Randi's self-discovery could take quite a while, and we'll be stuck then."

"Is there anything else I can be doing?" Lacey asked. "I mean... I'm just sitting here."

Reed walked into the bathroom, but kept the door slightly open as she continued to talk. "That is so critically important, Lacey. They have to survive this, together and intact for us to succeed. It is the only way for Ares to be truly defeated once and for all."

She sighed in relief and flushed, chuckling when Lacey nearly knocked her out of the way in her haste to get in. "Note to self: no more coffee." Reed's chuckling became full-fledged laughter.

Rosie had remained to keep and eye on Gwen, and as soon as Lacey exited the bathroom, she took her turn. The Sabre medic returned to her post by Gwen's bedside, looking over the monitors and checking to make sure Gwen was comfortable.

She noticed a glitch in the readings and frowned, making a notation in the chart and continuing to check Gwen's vitals. She felt Gwen shiver and her eyes began to move rapidly behind her eyelids.


"Mmph... yeth?" trying to chew, swallow and answer at the same time.

"Reed, you better come look. I think there is something more going on now than just relaxing together."

Immediately Reed and Rosie were both at Gwen's bedside. They took in her rapid breathing and her pale complexion and immediately resumed their places as seer and support. Lacey put Gwen's hands on top of Reed's as soon as Rosie had hers underneath and the trio settled in for a long wait.

"You're kidding me... she actually blew Ares off to his face?? Not once but twice, and lived to tell about it??" Geoff swiped a hand across his eyes. "He must want her really badly."

Tiny sighed. "Yeah, but he wasn't above hurting her pretty badly too," turning his attention towards the bed where Randi still rested. Sky had long since gone back to her side to keep vigil over her. Aside from the activity in her mind that he could just sense on the edge of his awareness, something bothered him about the way her chest was healing – or to be more precise, the way it was *not* healing.

He'd expected the syn skin to take like it normally did... adhering to and becoming part of Randi's own skin to aid and speed the healing process. Instead, it remained a separate entity – covering but not blending into Randi's own skin. And worse, the regen unit seemed incapable of repairing the damage Ares' bolt had caused, at least with any sort of momentum.

So he sat and watched, monitoring her as well as he could without being inside her mind guiding her spirit walk.

Without warning, her breathing changed, becoming shallow and much faster, her pulse point fluttering and her eyes moving rapidly. Her body didn't move, but she tensed, and Sky could feel the anguish that suddenly permeated the air around her.

"Tiny!" Sky called softly, but with some urgency.

The big Sabre moved far more swiftly that someone of his size should have been able to manage, especially considering the stealth with which he accomplished it. Geoff was still trying to get out of the chair by the time Tiny was sliding his body behind Randi's on the bed. He ran his arms underneath Randi's, supporting them, then he extended her hands, palms up, for Sky to link to. He had been well- schooled in the difference hand placement made to the task.

"What are you doing?" Geoff asked as he hobbled over towards the odd tableau unfolding before him. He hadn't been a Sabre long enough to do a mind walk before he was critically injured, and had no cognitive memory of one being done on him. And he had believed the mere idea to be simple folklore. Now he wondered.

Sky took a deep breath and laid his hands on Randi's, gently clasping her wrists. "Not what you're thinking, my friend. Since I cannot guide her spirit quest, my purpose for being here is to give Randi strength and support to face her demons."

"You can do that?"

Sky smiled. "I can do that."

"Can I help?"

Sky eyes the weapons smith carefully, seeing that core of inner strength he'd needed to be able to walk again. The shaman nodded. "Yes," he said finally. "Place your hands on top of mine and I will channel all of our strength to Randi."

It was a curious sensation, Geoff decided, though not an unpleasant one. He could feel the power coming from Sky and Tiny and he perceived it being melded into one solid strength with his own as Sky directed it into Randi's essence.

He had a vague notion to wonder how Randi felt on the receiving end, then concentrated his efforts on staying strong... for all of them.

For a very long moment, Randi held the book in her hand – afraid to move forward and afraid to move back. There were no good choices any more, just different degrees of bad. She started when Gwen came up behind her and placed a hand on her back. Randi still hadn't gotten adjusted to the fact that not only could Gwen be here in such a private place, but that she was so much a part of it all that she could catch Randi unawares.

For her part, Gwen kept her hand on Randi's back, rubbing in light circles until she felt Randi begin to relax against her touch. Then she eased the book from Randi's reluctant hands.

The cover was non-descript... black leather with a date tooled into it. The pages appeared to be old parchment, but there was a lock that prevented Gwen from opening it. Instead, she led Randi back to the slab and they sat side by side, touching along their length. The bard turned the book over in her hands several times before returning her Gaze to Randi.

"So, how do you open it?"

Randi took the book into her hands and laid it gently in her lap, then she blew out a deep, frustrated breath. This was harder than she'd imagined it would be. And that was saying a lot, because she had imagined it pretty difficult.

She chanced a look into Gwen's eyes and saw nothing but love, understanding and support. She closed her eyes and offered up a brief prayer to Aphrodite, hoping those same emotions would be reflected back to her still when this was all over.

Randi reached a hand down and traced the lock carefully, focusing her considerable will on it. She'd never done this before – never felt the need to go back and revisit the memories she'd hidden away in these secret places. There was a slight snick, and the locking flap fell away from the rest of the book, giving them both the ability to open and read.

Gwen restrained herself from reaching up and taking the book from Randi. This was Randi's quest, and as much as Gwen wanted to take it for her, the bard could only provide whatever measure of support and comfort the warrior would allow.

"I have to want it open," Randi finally said aloud, startling them both in the silence. The book remained closed, and Randi's eyes remained glued to it.

Gwen chuckled a little nervously. "Wow! That's a pretty good lock."

Randi nodded, her dark hair covering her face, but Gwen could hear the nervous smile in her voice. "Yeah, it is. This is the first time I've ever come in here to unlock anything. Always before it's been to put things away." She lifted a hand to push the hair away from her face and noticed it was trembling. Gwen caught it in her own before Randi could hide it.

Blue eyes met green for a timeless moment.

"Always, Randi. I promised you that."

"Even if...?"

"Even if. You forget... I *know* what's in some of those pages. I lived through part of it, and the rest? We'll deal with it as it comes."

Randi gazed into those eyes a moment longer then nodded. "Together?"

Gwen nodded. "Together," and slid the book across until it lay between them equally. She still held Randi's hand, and when she made a move to let go of it, Randi held on tighter. Gwen offered Randi a smile then, and reached for the cover, opening the tome while Randi kept it from sliding away from them. Gwen blinked twice.

"This is... you *wrote*. You came and sat here and hand wrote these memories out?"

Randi nodded and chewed her lip slightly. "That's how I exorcise them. By writing everything out, I put in every single detail, and it transfers from my mind to the page. When I'm done, I lock it away forever."

"Until now."

Randi nodded. "Until now," she agreed softly. She took a deep breath, and began reading.

I was retuning from the infirmary. The pain in my face was agonizing, but when I saw Jerry, our supposed leader trolling along, I got angry, and things got very personal. I decided he needed to suffer some too, and I was just the person to make him pay.


It was too easy – I slid into the shadows behind him and he never saw me until he felt the knife pierce his gut. Jerry started to walk through clearly marked gang territory and he allowed himself to become distracted. The lack of attention cost him dearly, and he found himself pinned to the nearest polymer wall with a twelve-inch blade through his middle.


He closed his eyes, trying to center himself, then reopened them and tried to focus. There was nothing but a black-clad form in front of him, and blearily he realized this was his attacker, though he never knew who I was. When I spoke to him in a whisper, he shuddered at the sound.


"You owe me, Jerry, and the time has come for you to pay up." Swiftly, he saw the light reflected off his own blade before it cut off his head in one fell swoop. Then I picked up the head, and with a single thrust pushed the sword through his forehead, and into the wall. "The scavengers can have what's left now."


It took a moment to strip off the outfit that covered me from head to toe, and another to dump it into the nearest incinerator. Then I stumbled into the park and collapsed.

The book slid away from them as Randi crumpled onto the slab. Gwen started to reach for it until she realized Randi was falling as well. Then the book dropped to the floor and she held on to her keening soulmate.

Randi wasn't sure whether to hold Gwen tighter to her or push her away from what she saw herself as. Gwen took the choice from her when she simply wrapped her body around the warrior's and held on for dear life.

They lay there together holding on tightly to one another as they processed what they had both just learned. For Gwen, the events Randi had read about weren't really that shocking – not given what she had lived through and seen with her own eyes. Gwen had seen many facets of her warrior's personality since they had become part of one another, and she knew far too well just what depths Randi was capable of reaching... in love, in intelligence, in discipline and in violence.

Randi, on the other hand, was struggling with the knowledge that she had killed, had murdered, the former Sabre Commandant. That was beyond the code... totally unacceptable behavior for a Sabre, no matter the reason.

In the midst of this argument with herself, Randi felt herself infused with warmth... not just from Gwen, but from outside, as though it was being channeled to her from another source. Gwen lifted her head from the warrior's back and looked down into a face filled with pain and confusion. She lifted a hand up to tenderly wipe the trace of tears from Randi's cheeks, gratified when the warrior leaned into her touch.

"Randi? I know this is hard. I'd like to tell you it's gonna get easier, but it isn't. But, sweetheart, I need you to understand and remember something for me. Everything that you read about is in the past... it's already happened and there is nothing you can do to change it or make it better. We have to accept it and move on."

Randi sat up rapidly and brought Gwen with her. Then she grabbed the bard by the arms and turned to face her. "Accept it?!? Gwen, I can't accept this! It was cold-blooded murder! I committed the cold-blooded murder of a man I had sworn to obey."

"Randi, let go. You're hurting me." Randi pulled away so swiftly and forcefully one would have thought her hands were on fire. Only Gwen's quick grab of Randi's hands kept them both from tumbling backwards. "Don't you pull away from me, Miranda Valiant. We promised together and you're not backing out just because it starts out hard."

"I hurt you."

Gwen smiled. "Nothing that won't heal, love. Now listen, yes, you did those things, but I want you to think about something." She waited a long moment for the dark head to nod. "Good, now listen. As a warrior, isn't it part of the code to vanquish all those who oppose or hinder the greater good? To destroy those who try to destroy those you have sworn to protect and defend?"

"Yes, but...."

"Randi, regardless of the fact that he helped you rescue me from Ben, he contributed, no matter how unwittingly, to my being in that situation in the first place. Just like he was a huge factor in the whole Ghost Rider thing. I mean, he caused it - created Ghost Rider and then let it continue for how long? His inability to take care of problems that were his responsibility hindered the greater good, didn't it? Allowed the destruction of those you'd sworn to protect and defend??"

It was completely silent as Randi processed Gwen's words. Then her head slowly bobbed up and down in agreement. She opened her mouth, but Gwen's fingers covered her lips before she could speak.

"Even though it wasn't done on a combat mission, wasn't his execution similar to others who were guilty of the same crimes?"

Another bob. "Now I want you to think about one more thing, all right? Randi, remember the warrior part of you was in complete control – no mercy, no compassion, only justice. Jerry's death was very personal to you because he had caused you so much personal grief. Yet you behaved exactly as a warrior would with an enemy out in the field. His death was quick and clean. If you had been in complete control and you'd been given an order to do the same out in the field, the result would have been the same."

"Are you saying you think it was right?"

"I'm saying you behaved exactly as the warrior you are has been trained to, and you eliminated a threat. Right or wrong, love, you did follow that code of honor you and your fellow Sabres hold so dearly to. It's not my call to make – it never has been. But it is your choice to accept and believe it. Just know that I have never stopped believing in you."

Randi didn't say a word, but wrapped Gwen in her arms and nuzzled into her neck. Gwen bit her lips to keep from chuckling until butterfly kisses were added to the sensatory barrage of warm breath and nibbling lips. Then her chuckles became laughter and Randi squeezed tighter in sheer joy. She'd never expected to retain Gwen's belief in her... not after what she'd obviously done to bring Gwen to the point of leaving her. For now, though, Gwen was here and in her arms, and that more than anything soothed her soul and gave her back a measure of peace she'd been missing for far too long.

Eventually, they turned and stretched out on the slab, emotionally drained. They never realized when they fell into a light doze and went in search of the warmth they felt sustaining them from outside their shared bond.


"Reed? What are you doing here?" The bard looked around carefully. "Um... where *is* here, anyway?"

"This is a place in your mind that I've sealed off as a safe place for you and Randi to come." Gwen's brow furrowed. "Do you remember how we discussed that when you started on your spirit walk, we would create a safe haven for you to escape to and rest as you needed to? Well, this is it."

"But we're not on our spirit walk yet. You and Sky are supposed to guide us."

"Well, that was the plan, yes," Reed corroborated wryly. "But it seems you and Randi had other ideas, and it's not safe for you or us to enter once you've started."

"So you mean us going through her recent past together...?"

"That's your spirit walk, yes. It will either cement your bond or destroy it, but my money is on you and Randi," Reed hastened to confirm at Gwen's raised eyebrow and glowering gaze.

"Then how did you do this? And how are we able to meet here?

Reed sat down on the green grass, leaning her back against the tree and dangling her feet in the cool, clear water of the stream that burbled by. She tugged on Gwen's hand, and the bard dropped down beside her.

"I was able to do this because we talked about it, and you were agreeable to the idea. On a subconscious level you knew I was going to come in and prepare this place and you let me."

"I let you? Does that mean I could have stopped you?"

Reed shrugged. "Well, you could have made it very clear that I was not welcome. That would have pretty much put an end to it."

Gwen looked around. "I'm glad I didn't. I like it here." And indeed, the safe place that Reed has created for them resembled their private glade in amazingly accurate detail. "But that still doesn't explain how we are able to meet in this place," turning back to the conversation at hand.

Reed smiled. "You came looking for me, actually." Gwen's brow creased again as she stared at the seer in confusion. Reed patted her hand. "You felt warmth and strength emanating from outside your bond with Randi, yes? And you went looking for it." The bard nodded. "Rosie and I are channeling that strength to you, and when you reached this place, I was here waiting for you, knowing you had questions... and answers for that matter."


"Sure. How are ya'll doing?"

Gwen smiled. "Oh... *those* kinds of answers." She chewed her lip as she thought about it a minute, wanting to be as honest as possible. "It's hard," she finally said simply. "There's a lot there that we're gonna have to work through, but at least we're doing it together. That makes all the difference," she finished with a smile. "It's gonna take longer than we expected though, because some of this goes back further than I realized."

Reed cocked an eyebrow in question, but Gwen let it pass unanswered. They sat in silence for a little while, absorbing the warmth of what appeared to be the sun and enjoying the slight breeze that blew over them. The Gwen turned to Reed with her own question.

"Why isn't Randi here with us?"

"Because you didn't bring her."

"Excuse me?"

"Gwen, this safe place is in your mind. She doesn't know about it. What were you doing when you found yourself here?

"Um... we had been talking about what she read, and then we just kinda... fell asleep? I went searching for the warmth I could feel coming from outside myself. And when I opened my eyes again, I was here, and so were you. But no Randi."

"Tell you what... next time you go searching for warmth, bring her with you. Let her know where you're going and what you're doing and bring her with you. If she knows where you're going, she'll follow."

"Ya think?"

"Yeah. Now close your eyes and go back to her. There is a lot more work to be done before we can all be done and go home."

Gwen nodded and complied, closing her eyes and letting her heart guide her back to Randi. "Home," she murmured as she drifted off. "I sure do like the sound of that."

The sounds of the trickling stream and the feel of the breeze that caressed her skin drifted away as she opened her eyes in the darkness once more, but the warmth remained steady and constant. Gwen lay still for long moments absorbing the sensations of having Randi wrapped around her. She'd missed this so much – she just squeezed and held on tighter.

"I love you, too," came the whispered words in her ear. "Easy, though, love. My chest is still pretty sore."

Gwen gasped and would have pulled away had it not been for the strong arms that held her tightly in place. "Sorry," mumbled into Randi's neck. "I forgot."

Randi smiled and kissed the blonde head. "Don't apologize. It's worth any amount of pain to have you here again. I think it's actually helping."

Gwen raised her head slightly and met Randi's eyes. "Helping? What do you mean?"

Randi shrugged. "I can't explain it, but having you here makes it feel better. Dunno if it's healing or whatever, but it doesn't hurt as much."

"Except when I squeeze too hard."

"Except when Ares tries to roast me like a marshmallow. You're not big enough to squeeze too hard otherwise," Randi teased with a smile, knowing it would get a rise out of Gwen and pull her out of the doldrums she seemed to be settling into.

Green eyes narrowed dangerously and Gwen leaned up on an elbow to catch a smirking expression cross Randi's face. "Was that a short joke, hmm?" she purred. "Or maybe you think I'm a creampuff – I got muscles, ya know," flexing an arm and watching the bicep obligingly bulge. "See that?? That's functional ya know... not just there for looks."

Randi took Gwen's words for an invitation and slowly tracked up their entwined bodies, lingering on each muscle group as her eyes touched them. A slow smile crept across her face as she watched the blush follow behind her gaze.

"I dunno," she commented lazily. "I kinda like what I'm seeing here. It looks really good."

Gwen glared at Randi, but the frank adoration she saw back of the gentle teasing melted any aggravation she felt and she snuggled back down into Randi's arms, mindful of the warrior's damaged chest. "That's not fair."

Randi closed her eyes and relished the feeling of well-being. "What's not, love?" she murmured in contentment.

"Taking away a really good mad like that. Picking on me because I'm a short creampuff and then turning those beautiful eyes on me and... YIKES!"

Gwen felt herself lifted into the air above Randi's torso then gently lowered onto the warrior's chest despite the burns still highly evident there. "My eyes are beautiful because they're looking at you, Gwen. They reflect you. Now, you're not short... you're just the right height, see? You fit perfectly right where you belong. As for the creampuff comment, *I* never said you *were* a creampuff. I simply said I liked the way you looked."

"Good thing, that. Would you like me if I was ugly?"

Randi wondered where the sudden bout of insecurity about her looks was coming from, but hastened to assure Gwen of a fundamental truth. "Sweetheart, you would never, ever be ugly to me. Because I know what is in your heart and your soul is a part of mine. Those things make you beautiful to me above and beyond your outer good looks, though you are certainly no slouch in that department either."

"Hey who's the poet in this relationship?" the bard asked teasingly. "You keep this up, I'm gonna have to go do something radical. Like become a bona fide Amazon or something."

"You *are* an awesome Amazon, love. You're already kick ass with the staff."

"You're just trying to humor me."

Now Randi's voice grew serious. "Not about this love. That is a hard earned skill, and one that could save your life."

"You really think so? You think I'm that good? Good enough to be an Amazon?"

"I know you are, and so do you. You tried to kick my butt, remember? Besides, you in leather? Please... like I'm gonna try to dissuade you from letting me have that visual in the flesh?! I am many things, but stupid is not tattooed on my forehead."

Gwen chuckled, feeling better about herself than she had since they'd moved to the capital city. "I love you."

"I love you too, my bard. I guess we need to get up and go to the next book, hmm?"

Gwen nodded underneath Randi's chin. "Yes. I think I know what it's gonna be about."

"Oh?" after a moments silence. "You wanna share?"

"I think it will be about what happened on our honeymoon. I remember you losing consciousness then, and I think that has something to do with the times you close yourself off in here to purge your memories. Let's look, and then we can go to the safe room that Reed has prepared for us in my mind. I think we could both use a little time in the light."

"Can we do that? I mean, can I cross into your mind like that?"

"Sure, why not? I'm here in yours and I found the way alone. You just have to walk with me."

Randi smiled, and though unseen, Gwen felt it clearly in the warrior's voice. "I'd like that. I'll walk with you anywhere, anytime." She gently urged Gwen up and followed her carefully until they were both sitting upright once more. "Let me get the next volume, and we'll see if you guessed right."

She stepped down cautiously, mindful of the fact that the first book had fallen off her lap earlier. Randi looked around thoroughly, finally spotting it face down on the floor, half-hidden in the darkness near the file cabinets. She picked it up and flipped it over, intent on closing and locking it back to put away for safe keeping. Then she froze.

The book no longer had a lock. It no longer had writing. Even as she held it in her hands, it lost its form and simply disintegrated, leaving not even a trail of ash in its wake to mark its passage. Randi stood staring at her empty hands in disbelief until Gwen caught them in her own. She looked up to find green eyes sparkling at her in sheer joy.

"This is wonderful, Randi. You've faced it and come out on the other side. You don't need the book to hold and hide the memory for you any longer. It's yours now."

Randi nodded slowly, realizing that what Gwen said was absolutely true. She had claimed the memory back and it was now part and parcel of who she was. She couldn't give it back if she wanted to. She could chose not to think about it, but it was still part of her psyche. Hard as it had been to read about and accept her actions and the responsibility for them, it was oddly liberating, and she felt a lightening of a burden she hadn't recognized that she carried until now.

Randi squeezed Gwen's hand in affection, than released them and turned back to the cabinet, ready to retrieve the next volume for them to share together.

Chapter V

Randi grabbed the book and sat back down on the slab, absently wishing for a cushion of some type and then smiling affectionately down at Gwen when the bard snuggled up into her like she was Gwen's own personal pillow.

"Comfortable?" she asked fondly.

"Yes, thank you," shifting her butt on the hard marble. "I tell you what... we need to do something about the amenities in this place, because they are sorely lacking. Although," she added as she rubbed her sore behind, "I don't think we will ever have to come back to this place once we finish this walk together. There won't be anything here to come back for."

"That would be so amazing and very strange. Now," she continued before Gwen could voice her question. "Let's see if you guessed right."

She concentrated a moment and the clasp unlocked with ease since her apprehension level had dropped a bit when Gwen's conjecture about what this volume held. This instance, if Gwen was proven correct, would not be as bad for two reasons... they both already knew at least part of what had occurred and it had been done for honorable reasons without question.

The tome fell open, and Randi began to read.

I went to the barn. What Sky said, what he had so obviously seen scared me quite frankly, and I needed to get a grip on the turmoil that fear stirred in my gut. Finally, I realized how unfair it had been to Gwen for me to just walk away with no explanation and I decided to brave the cold back to the restaurant, But that lovely sixth sense – the Sabre sense that has kept me alive through impossible odds – caused me to stop at the door. The eerie silence caused a prickling to run up my spine and my hair stood on end. There was no sound... none. Even the natural sounds were gone save the slight whistle of the wind. I was peripherally aware of the scar burning even as the red wash of rage coursed through my veins. I felt the physical change from loving, tender soulmate of Gwen Goldman to deadly Sabre Miranda Valiant. It was easy... too easy. I slipped into the role I had played countless times before and without a whisper of sound blended into my surroundings and disappeared from sight.


I stood in the shadows, and listened as the sound of multiple transports reached my sensitive ears. I heard all hell broke loose. The few people who were wandering the street were immediately slaughtered before the small force began to spread out to lock up the town.


The first rebel walked by me unaware. I let the woman slip past me, then I silently stepped up behind her and casually snapped her neck. The woman slid from my grasp to the ground, and I promptly relieved her body of the tools I needed. Then I merged into the shadows, searching intently for my next victim.


I counted a dozen, less the one already dead. Child's play for me, even if it wasn't personal, and this was personal. Just their being here, in this time and place, made it personal for me. I briefly wondered about their objective and how much was focused on me because of my Sabre status, then decided it really didn't matter as I slipped a knife between the ribs of the young man I had crept up on. He fell with very little sound, and I moved him deeper into the building where he wouldn't be found easily. No sense in giving them any advanced warning as to what was coming.


The next soldier actually gurgled at the end as the knife sliced neatly across his neck... a very wet sound Two more met their demise almost simultaneously. The twin shuriken sliced deep into the right eye of one, and the left eye of the other. I have never really adjusted to that particular sucking sound as I pulled them out again, but a good warrior never leaves behind a weapon that can be reused against them. And I wasn't taking any chances since I was fighting alone.


With almost half the rebel force now decimated, my attention turned as a commotion broke out at the restaurant. The entire rest of the town was being herded into street. I have to admit to feeling a bit smug when I saw the lines of worry that crossed the apparent leader's face. He motioned two of his remaining team to circle around the perimeter and locate the missing team members. It was quite entertaining, actually, until I caught the feeling of Gwen's fear.


The man was an arrogant ass, making demands as though he was due something, and I kept an eye on him even as I raised the blowgun to my lips and shot the first dart at the woman fast approaching my position. The rebel reached for the stinging spot on her neck, even as she dropped dead in her tracks. I wondered what sort of poison the rebels were using. Nothing should be that deadly if they were only here for me. They had come prepared for slaughter, which didn't ring true with the leader's recent words. Something much worse was going on, but what? I blew a second dart at the other woman still some distance away, then I jumped silently from my hiding place before she hit the ground.


My rage grew exponentially as I watched Nanny fall to the ground, and the burning in my face was almost unbearable. The older woman had been the first to welcome me into the community, been a surrogate family member to me and had always had a pleasant word anytime I had come into town. She welcomed Gwen with the same open friendliness and it made me angry that she was taken away from us before they really had a chance to know one another. When that man reached out towards Gwen and Chief Screaming Sky however, he crossed a line with consequences that not even God himself could have saved him from. I felt the change happen and I became a bona fide killing machine.


The first two of the remaining five died when swift kicks to the neck crushed their windpipes. It made the most satisfying crunch. The next never saw the blow that sent a bone from his nose up into his brain, and the spray of blood was glorious – it made me one step closer to Gwen and one step closer to annihilating them. The pressure points I hit on the eleventh rebel caused him to fall over gasping for air and I had to wonder at the poor planning involved in this little raid. The blonde leader had no idea his little force now lay dead around the perimeter of townsfolk. I couldn't wait to watch his face when he died at my hand.


He grabbed Sky by the scruff of the neck and yanked him forward, then he closed his hand around Sky's neck and slowly began to squeeze the life from his lungs. He never noticed that during his speech a ripple in the crowd had caused the people to edge away from him, and he and Sky were left standing basically alone. I edged my way into the congregation, and they allowed me to pass through their midst easily. Simultaneously, they eased back, understanding that I was far more dangerous than the man who stood before them demanding my head. They wouldn't understand the deadly damage I had already perpetrated until much, much later, but they were witness to the last.


Gwen gasped when I stepped into the inner circle... an involuntary reaction to the transformation she could clearly see written on my visage. I can only imagine the picture I made standing before her blood spattered and wild, because I know how I felt at that moment. She clasped her hands to her lips to contain the sound, but it was too late because his attention focused on her at the first noise.


He dropped Sky, and the old man lay on the ground gasping for air, but I couldn't stop for that yet – Gwen was in serious, imminent danger. I didn't even slow down but reached the rebel just as he touched Gwen. He didn't even have time to process the thought that he was going to die before the blade entered his stomach. I wish I could have made it last longer... made him suffer, but I needed him dead worse than I needed to torture him. I needed to be sure Gwen was safe. He looked into my cold dead eyes, and I saw the questions there. Apparently, this hadn't ended like he'd expected it to – guess it sucked to be him. Then I jerked the knife upwards, and he scrambled to catch the innards that were suddenly spilling on the ground around him. He fell to his knees, dead before he hit the ground.


I watched him fall before turning around to meet Gwen's eyes, half-afraid of what I'd see there. What I found was love and understanding and a fear for me – not *of* me, but *for* me. I understood that as she reached for me, and then blinding pain... and darkness.


A post script to this memory - the most peculiar thing happened as I put this away the first time, and I actually had to come back in to add this. Gwen followed me here. She followed me into the darkness and found me here in this hiding place. I never would have imagined such a thing happening. Even a seer as powerful as Reed cannot find this place, and even if she could, she couldn't get past the traps and barriers I have set up. Yet Gwen breezed through and came in as if it were her right to be here.


And I'm so very glad she did.

"I'm glad I did too," Gwen said quietly into the stillness. She wrapped a hand around Randi's arm and rubbed her cheek against Randi's shoulder. "I wouldn't want you to go through this alone. It's scary."

Randi pulled back slightly until she could look into Gwen's eyes, knowing the bard couldn't lie to her this close. "Are you afraid of me Gwen? Is what I've done so horrible? Is that why you left?"

"No, baby, no. That's not what I meant at all," taking Randi's face in her hands and cradling it gently. She gazed into blue eyes until she felt the subtle relaxation of the tension in Randi's body. She took the book from Randi's grip and set it aside, then brought the warrior's attention back to her, holding tightly to her hands. "Knowing you already had to face these things alone... that's what's scary to me, love. It's scary knowing you faced this alone with no support – only your strength that allowed you to do what was necessary and then set it aside to be able to live without losing your sanity. It's scary knowing I could have lost you if you hadn't been strong enough, fast enough, smart enough. I'm glad I can be with you now to at least provide you with whatever strength and support you'll let me share with you."

"So, I was that horrible," Randi said when Gwen stopped speaking. "So bad that you can't even answer or tell me why you left?" She would have moved away except for the iron clad hold Gwen retained on her. She could have pulled away, but not without considerable damage to Gwen and substantial pain for herself. And Gwen was holding on for dear life.

"Don't. You. Dare," Gwen hissed. "Don't even start that with me, Randi. God, how many times I have to say it? I don't know everything – I don't know most things... especially not what you were thinking and feeling or what the motivation was behind your actions. We're here to go through this together, and I'm not going to cloud that with my thoughts – it's not my place to judge one way or another. That's not how it works."

"Then tell me why you left, please? I need to know."

"I told you, sweetheart... it was time."

Randi held up a hand in frustration. "I understand that. But why? Why was it time? Do you know what it felt like when you left? Do you??" Her voice was heated... a mixture of irritation and anger.

"Yeah, Randi, I do," green eyes sparking with their own ire. "I know what it felt like when you shut me out of your heart, out of your life, out of your bed. But if you want to know what the final straw was it was being introduced as your consort when you know how I felt about that title, being displayed like I was some sort of damned prize, and then being discarded like yesterday's garbage when all was said and done. It was obvious to me right then I no longer had a place with you – it was time to go."

"Then why are you here now?? Apparently I have totally fucked things up and completely driven you from my life. So why did you come back?? You don't belong here... especially here," towering over Gwen in the hopes that she would be intimidated and... and what, Randi?? Leave?? Do you really want her to leave you alone here? The inner dialogue would have gone one longer if not for Gwen's timely and forceful interruption.

"We've already been over this before, but if I have to keep repeating it, I will until you believe me. *I* belong here just as much as you do, Randi," Gwen said while she poked her finger into the warrior's chest. "Your soul called to mine and I promised you... I promised you... I'd be here when you needed me. Now," with one last poke, "You're gonna have to put aside the fact that I left; you'll understand it the further along we go in your memories. If you're still angry after you see the things that happened, and you still want me to leave, I will. And you will never hear from me again."

She couldn't stop the tears that filled her eyes, but she did keep them from spilling over. Gwen turned her back to Randi wondering how they had fallen into such a nasty argument so quickly. Her body instantly relaxed when the warrior's strong arms wrapped around her from behind and held on tightly.

"No, beloved, no! Don't you get it? That's the problem – you did leave. I still don't know why, but you left and I'm afraid when you see what else is hidden here, you might not want to come back. I don't like the person who writes these memories, but she is an integral part of who I am. And if I don't like her, how can I expect you to?"

Gwen turned in Randi's arms and grasped her face firmly before deliberately teasing Randi's lips with her tongue. The warrior endured the pleasant torture long enough to forget her anguish and respond, capturing the muscle tormenting her and returning the favor until Gwen pulled away breathless.

"Now do you understand, love? I love ALL of you and nothing... NOTHING is going to change that. Remember, sweetheart, I gave you the choice. You get to decide when you're ready to be an us again."

"Sorry. I don't know where all this insecurity is coming from."

"I do. What you're doing – facing your past like this - is hard. Sharing it is even harder. But I'll keep reassuring you," with another kiss, "for as long as you need me to."

Randi smiled. "If this is the kind of reassurance I get, I'm never gonna be secure, just so you'll keep on reassuring."

Gwen returned the smile wickedly. "Uh uh... the sooner you feel secure, the sooner we get to move to more advanced things."

Randi's eyes grew wide. "Advanced?"


"I'm secure," Randi said so earnestly it drew a laugh from Gwen. Randi grinned... she hadn't heard that sound in such a long time. "I want you to know one thing - despite everything, I have always, ALWAYS wanted there to be an 'us'. That never changed, no matter how stupid I got."

"Then there always will be," said with firm, quiet confidence. "Now, are you ready to get back to work? We're still a ways out from where we are now in the timeline."

"Yes," Randi replied decisively. "I'm over this already. I want to get done and get home to you. The world can just take care of itself for a while." She turned caught the look on Gwen's face. "If I go stupid again, just smack me, will ya? We don't have time for any more stupid insecurities."

"Honey, they're not stupid... they're perfectly normal. But no... no smacking. You might bite your tongue, and I prefer that to be in good working order. I'll lick your nose instead."

"Well, EW. That'll stop stupid in its tracks," Randi said, scrunching up her face in reaction.

"Good," Gwen added with a light chuckle. "C'mon then. Let's do it to it and see what happens next. Then maybe we can take a break and go see Reed? I think you'll like the safe room she created for us. It reminds me very much of our glade."

"I miss that."

"Hmm... so do I. Someday soon though, all right?"

Randi nodded and grabbed the next manuscript from its place in the file. She slipped back onto the slab, surprised to find a soft cushion beneath her behind.

"Where'd this come from?" she asked Gwen in confusion.

Gwen shrugged. "Dunno. I was tired of sitting hard and I wished for something a little more comfortable. Next thing you know...."

"Thanks," Randi said sincerely as she tried to slip the lock from the book. "My butt was getting kinda sore." They were both a little surprised when nothing happened and looked at one another curiously. Randi turned the tome around, assuring herself she had the next volume in chronological order. "That's weird. It's the right book."

Gwen took the book from her and looked it over carefully, hoping something would pop out at her. She jumped when Randi started upright and stated, "Ah! I'll just bet you...."

Randi picked up the previous volume, watching as it disintegrated into nothing but air. Then she took the next book back from Gwen, and the lock opened easily. "I have to accept one before I can move on to the next."

Gwen smiled and snuggled up close to her. "You are very clever." Then they opened the next book together, anxious to see what new memories awaited them.

It was weird - I scouted carefully around a second warehouse area Tiny's intelligence reports hadn't indicated were a possible location for the targets I was looking for. This was one Tiny and the Sabres apparently had no knowledge of, and I didn't understand that. They weren't that hard to find.


The first locale I visited had held a very few members of the Skinhead Faction, and I had done nothing but scout the location, just like I promised Tiny. It was obviously set up as some sort of decoy they expected to be destroyed without thought in the event someone came looking for it. They 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.


God, it felt so good to be doing this again. As much as I love Gwen and our life together, there has been a part of me that has missed being a Sabre, especially this part of it – the thrill of the chase. Of course this chase was terribly simple - in mere minutes, I struck pay dirt. I found proof that Gwen and I were being personally targeted by the group as a whole. That pissed me off, and it went from fun and interesting game to deadly, personal challenge. I found other positions around the globe that housed individual factions that functioned as regional headquarters and knew I would share that information with the Sabres eventually, but not right now. I wondered why such vital information was in such an insecure spot, but then realized I really didn't care. This had become personal, and the Skinheads were stupid enough to put information into my hands. I was going to give them the satisfaction of making sure it was put to good use.


So I went to the area's 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. I felt my blood begin to burn.


I blended into the shadows, taking my time to break the code that held the door shut. I didn't see a reason to announce myself. I planned to enjoy this little exercise for as long as it lasted. The man standing to one side never had the chance to realize he was dead before I wiped my knife free of his blood and let him slip to the floor.


The next two looked at one another in startlement for the split second it took them to see the shuriken embed itself in the other's forehead. I stopped to retrieve them, gritting my teeth as the blade slid along bone and shivering at the sound and feel it made. The look on their dead faces was a study in amusement for me, because they were taken completely by surprise. I wonder what the Sabres have been up to that these rebels didn't expect some sort of attack being as close to the capital as they were. Something stinks here and it smells of conspiracy.


Four more fell to crossbow bolts before I reached a second set of doors. These were monitored visually and sonically, and I took a moment to catch her breath and clean my tools while I considered my next move. That they would all die was never in question – their making it personal assured that. My concern now was how to best accomplish this without doing damage to myself. As angry as Gwen would be for my involvement in this, being hurt because of my actions here would be unforgivable.


With a little effort, visual security met an abrupt end, then I put the plugs into my ears, knowing that an investigation would follow. I figured they would remember their own damned security measure, but on the off chance that they didn't, I wanted to be prepared. Rebels weren't particularly known for their brilliance... only their innate ability to follow orders.


The noise they set off when they stepped through the doors was excruciating, and two of them fell to the floor clutching their heads and keening in agony for a long minute before succumbing to the pain. The other two looked down in disgust and shook their heads. I wanted to laugh – it was like watching a bad comedy. Then they drew their lasers and I knew it was time to get down to business. 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.


I was disappointed, though. I'd never cared for fighting with lasers. It takes all the skill and challenge out of victory. However, I also knew I was still outnumbered and I was just ready to be done with it. If they wanted to die by laser, then so be it.


The two men moved slowly and carefully, not knowing what to expect, but wary of whatever had managed to find them here and breach their defenses. It was interesting to watch, especially knowing they had no chance of surviving no matter how slow and careful they were. I casually stepped out into the hallway and dropped them where they stood. Then I made my way to the door where the two unconscious men lay across the threshold holding the door ajar while the sonic alarm continued to pulse and wail. I aimed my laser at one and then the other, pulling the trigger and watching them die. Then I crossed the threshold to see what else I could find.


The next six I came upon fell to a flash grenade before they even had an opportunity to draw their weapons. Pathetic really – I expected with all the noise and confusion for them to be prepared for an all-out assault. No matter though. It just made killing them easier.


Things became a blur after that as I went among them, killing them singly and in pairs. I varied my methods – the twist of a neck, the slash of my knife, a blade to the chest, a shuriken to the forehead and the occasional crossbow bolt to the eye. I took perverse pleasure taken in that particular method because of the hours of training I'd spent perfecting the technique. The sucking sound the bolt's removal made was a little more graphic than I liked. But it did was it was supposed to do and by the time I reached the one who was considered the leader of this faction, nearly one hundred members of the skinheads lay decimated in the warehouse that had previously been their safe haven.


I was covered in blood and bits of gore as I approached him. It was not a feeling I liked, but it did serve to make an impression. He never saw me – he never heard me – until it was too late. He felt my touch upon his throat and gasped for air, his eyes going wide at the specter I made standing in front of him. I felt the shiver go through him as he wet himself, and I knew he knew he was going to die.


Then he said something that made no sense to me. He said he was following orders in sending those notes – that warning me wasn't his idea, but someone higher up. I don't understand why. It makes no sense for them to target me and then warn me about their activities, They have to know that I will destroy them myself before I let them hurt Gwen or destroy what we have together.


Apparently, I needed to make an example here and send a message to the remainder of the rebels. I squeezed harder until he fell over convulsing, and I watched until his body stilled. Then I set about making an accident.


The fire burned hot and furious and I knew the rebels would understand the message. I just wondered if they would heed it.

The silence that fell when Randi reached the end was deafening. Gwen didn't move away, but Randi could feel the tension running through the slim body curled up next to her. Randi took a deep breath and blew it out. "Gwen, I...."

"Do you really? Miss it, I mean?" She shifted so she could look into Randi's eyes and was gratified that the warrior met hers honestly before dropping to the book in her lap. She chewed her lip thoughtfully before returning her eyes to Gwen's.

"Yes," she said candidly. "Parts of it I do, and I probably always will. Not the killing or the gore. But the danger and the chase and the strategy involved – the flush of success when I win. Those things, yeah, I do miss them, and it's very hard to replace that with anything. Not that I would change one thing if it meant I'd lose you, because you're far more important to me than any of that. It's just that it was such a big part of my life for so long...."

Unexpectedly, Randi discovered the green eyes were full of compassionate understanding. "I never meant for you to lose a part of yourself, love. I just wanted to protect you from the darkness. That was all I ever saw in your involvement with the Sabres, and I saw how that darkness haunted you." A pause. "Is that why you found those extreme holos? For that thrill of danger and excitement?"

Randi shrugged. "That's why I went looking for them, yeah. After you created that holo-program with the coasters, it got me to thinking. I knew from my reading that there had to be other things like that. So I did some digging, thinking these would be things we could do together. You remember how much fun sky-diving together was?"

Gwen blushed. "I remember a lot of things about sky-diving, but I especially remember the overwhelming desire I had to jump your bones when we touched the ground. The whole experience was a rush, but that was out of control," said with a saucy grin.

Randi smiled in sympathy. "Exactly. And your body can get used to it... crave it, in fact."

"And being a Sabre satisfies that urge?"

Randi thought about that a moment, wanting to be as open and honest in her answer as she could. "In some ways, yes, but it got to the point it wasn't worth what it was costing me."

"So why did you go back to it?"

"I didn't at first... it was manipulated back to me. Ares knew two crucial things about me that he took advantage of. One was that need for dangerous excitement and adventure. The other was the fact that I would do anything to keep you safe from harm, even if it meant walking back into the darkness. I didn't do it knowingly in the beginning, but I have to believe at some point I became aware of what was happening at some level and still went forward into the darkness."

"So if you were aware, why did you go forward? And why can't you remember?"

Randi shrugged. "I can't answer that, really, because I don't know what motivation I had. I'd like to think that somehow there was a greater good mixed up in it somewhere, but I know from what we just read that there is also a personal vendetta involved for me as well. I owed the rebels for trying to destroy us, and the warrior part of me would have been very happy to extract that payment from them. Justice without mercy."

"And your memory? I understand the part about your having two selves. I saw them separately with my own eyes, and I know the bard acts independently of the rest of me when I get lost in a creative mode and am working on a story while doing other things. Personally, I know there are far more than two facets to your personality, but I have to believe that the warrior and the woman represent your strongest parts. But since you merged back into a single being, shouldn't you know what each self knows? Share the memories and the feelings?"

"I do. I remember what it felt like when you left. I remember the speech you gave me about being called consort. I remember our honeymoon and you going back to work and any other number of things. But the things that I brought here were purged and the only way to remember them is to take them back by reading through them."

All right, then. Let's move on. What comes next?"

"I dunno. I have to accept this first."

Unexpectedly, Gwen wrapped her hand around Randi's larger one. "Let me share the burden, love. You have carried it on your own long enough. I believe, with all my heart, that what you did was done with the greater good in mind. Even though it became personal for you, I think... no, I *know* that it was necessary to achieving the peace we have today. I may not agree with or understand the methods, but no one can argue with the results."

"So many died by my hand."

Gwen nodded. "And so many more would have died at theirs, and those would have been innocents."

Randi looked into Gwen's eyes, searching for the answer to an unspoken question. What she found there satisfied her and she nodded hard. "I believe," she confirmed in a whisper, never breaking eye contact with Gwen. The book became less than ash, leaving only a trail of smoke in its wake.

Randi started to get up from her place when a hand on her leg made her pause. "Let me," Gwen said softly. "If things are falling into place like I think they are, this should be the memory that Reed was searching for – the one with the Amazons."

Randi scratched the back of her neck and nodded. "I remember that... parts of it anyway. I wonder what I would have put away in here."

Gwen slid from the slab and padded over to the files. "Dunno, but I'm willing to bet the next memory will fill in those holes Reed told us about. Just remember, love... they targeted us that time. They deliberately came after us. That much I remember."

Randi smiled grimly. "So do I," absently rubbing her leg. "Which is why I always wondered why they didn't finish me. They had an advantage."

Gwen picked up the novel. "Well, let's take a look. This should give us the answers we're looking for."

"I hope so," hoping the bard was right about what incident was covered in this memory. At least she had some partial memories of the Amazon attack, and felt reasonably justified for whatever actions she had taken then. Randi took the tome from Gwen's hands and focused until the lock clicked open. Then they settled back and readied themselves for more discoveries, hoping they would bring them both one step closer to finishing their quest.

"How're you holding up, Geoff?" Tiny's quiet words penetrated Sky's awareness and he let his eyes flutter open. They met Geoff's with concern before turning to Tiny.

"I'm fine," the weapons smith replied. "I just didn't realize how draining this would be." He would have said more when they were interrupted by a surprising, though not unwelcome voice.

"Geoffrey Mackenzie Goldman!!" All three men flinched at the censure in Jill's tone, looking anywhere but at her as she stepped into the room. "Sweetheart, I understand your need to be a part of whatever is going, but don't you think you could have called and eased my mind a little? I have been going stir crazy sense you left!"

"I'm sorry, honey. I was going to, and then we started channeling strength to Randi, and it kind of slipped my mind."

Jill looked at each of them carefully before setting her things down and joining them at the bed. "Will someone please share with me what is going on? And can I help?" she asked without preamble. The men smiled and nodded before arranging themselves and Jill accordingly. Then in low tones, Sky brought her up to date on the situation, even as they once more channeled their strength to Randi.

"Everything all right, you two?" Lacey questioned even as she checked the monitors she had connected to all three women.

Reed's eyes opened slowly at her words, as did Rosie's and then focused on one another in unspoken understanding before turning to Lacey simultaneously and nodding.

"Everything seems to be going better than expected. I made contact with Gwen and with a little luck she'll bring Randi with her the next time she enters the safe room. She said it's hard, but that's to be expected, but together they seem to be meeting the challenge head-on."

Rosie nodded. "I can feel the darkness they are experiencing on the periphery of my awareness, but mostly I feel the love and strength between them... and the strength Sky is sharing. It is more than I expected from him, but it is good. Randi needs the support, even if she doesn't know where it is coming from. She should feel it as comforting warmth – that is what it feels like to me."

"Agreed," Reed concurred. "We know Tiny is helping him, and I wouldn't be surprised to know that Tiny brought in reinforcements. Every Sabre alive would sacrifice themselves to help Randi through this. Aside from the fact that they know what is at stake, Randi has saved this planet twice now at great personal expense. I wouldn't be surprised if Ares had to fight off the whole damn military before this is all said and done."

Chapter VI

It was a beautiful day and the ride was more than a little stimulating as Gwen's hands wandered up and down my torso and thighs. Periodically, they would lovingly rub over my ass and I was forced to focus harder on maintaining the bike and driving than I normally would have been. It was nearly impossible to extend my senses around me in search of danger... not when they were fully engaged in contemplating possible paybacks for what was happening now. We were a little more than halfway home, and I was caught completely off guard by what happened next.


The road was well shaded with old oaks, something I had always appreciated for their beauty and majesty and in the summer for their shade. They always made me realize what an amazing thing life is – to have survived so much for so long and still stand proudly unbowed. Unfortunately for me, they also made a perfect cover for a covert Fringe Amazon operation. I never saw them, but I felt them mere moments before their assault, and I wasn't quick enough to avoid their attack. Worse, I had no weapons to combat them while on the bike – not with Gwen to protect, anyway. Without warning, arrows began raining down on us from the trees. I did her best to avoid them, swerving the bike dangerously in the road. One stuck in my thigh and I grimaced – damn thing hurt like a son of a bitch, and pulling it out later was gonna be a real pain in the ass. Gwen tightened her grip on me suddenly and released a muffled cry just before I felt the arrow pierce through her right shoulder and into mine. Gwen's grip started to slacken.


I wanted to panic and for the first time since becoming a Sabre nearly let the terror of the moment overtake me, knowing they had hurt Gwen. Instead I let the rage build and those same Sabre instincts came screaming to the fore. The arrow shower stopped as quickly as it began, and I heard the Amazons coming after us. I needed to find a place I could defend and protect Gwen at the same time.


I knew I couldn't let my assailants dictate the terms of our fight, so I turned the bike off the road and into the field. There were trees there, but they were sparse and spread out. I chose one to defend and decided to make them come to me.


I slipped into Sabre mode and stopped the bike by the large, lone tree in the middle of the pasture. I hissed in pain as I separated myself from Gwen. Pulling the arrow out of my shoulder made that horrid sucking sound I hated so much and I turned to catch Gwen as she slumped forward with a whimper. I knew she was in tremendous pain, but I also knew we had to get undercover and into a defensible position before I tried to anything about either of us.


She was so brave, and I went to work as quickly as I could to make things better for her.


I slid off the bike, then started digging through the saddlebags. I was so glad that some Sabre habits were so ingrained in my psyche that I didn't even think about them anymore. One of those habits was that I always carried a first aid kit with me. Another was that I never traveled without accessible weapons even if I didn't wear them on my person. I gave thanks for hard lessons well learned even as I searched my bags for the items I needed.


I found what I was looking for and took a minute to arm myself. The short staff was hooked on a belt loop; the flash grenades stuffed in the oversized pockets of my pants. The throwing stars I left in their pouch and tied it off to another belt loop. I would have been happier with a crossbow or even a laser at this point, just to speed things along. But I figured with a little luck, I could relieve a dead Amazon or two of anything else I would need. There was no time for savoring this chase... Gwen needed me, and taking care of her was paramount to any sort of enjoyment I might have gotten out of this little experience... especially when I knew we were short on time.


I took my jacket off and reached down to my thigh. I hated this part of fighting Amazons. Damn arrows hurt, and having to do this with no medic just sucked. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before breaking off the arrow that jutted out from deep in my leg, leaving only enough shaft to grasp later when I had time to treat it. I groaned and bit my lip as the world spun in vivid color. Then I fashioned a tourniquet from the bit of bandage wrap I carried in the kit and tied it around my leg. I hoped it would be enough til I could take care of it properly since there was always the possibility of poisoning. There was nothing I could do about the wound in my shoulder, and I could feel the blood trickling down my back in tickling rivulets.


Gwen had slumped in my arms, and I knew that what was coming was gonna hurt her a lot. She was only vaguely aware, but she shuddered in anticipation of the pain she knew was coming when I explained to her what I needed to do.


I broke off the head, catching Gwen when she passed out. I was glad for that – the less pain I caused my bard the better. I never realized how different... how much harder... it was to have to do these things to someone you loved. Not that I hadn't care about my fellow Sabres – I did – but not only was I not in love with any of them, they knew the risks, knew the price and the pain involved in being who we were. Gwen was an innocent, and it nearly killed me to have to hurt her.


I heard the Amazons approaching... it didn't seem like they were taking great pains to be quiet, as though I was already dead. That sort of attitude was the kind that would get them killed, though that was a given anyway, and I took great joy in the knowledge that I could and would make them suffer for what they had done... to Gwen and to me. I pushed the arrow through Gwen's shoulder and slapped on two pressure bandages. I felt certain they would stop the bleeding long enough for me to destroy the threat. Then I put Gwen over my shoulder, glad she couldn't hear my groan at the added pressure her weight put on my wounds. Then I set out to find a good hiding place in the tree, knowing Gwen would be out of harm's way there.


It was a struggle, and I slipped once, but I finally found a place that had several branches tangled together, and I gently deposited Gwen into the center. I slid my belt off and looped it around my bard to secure her to the tree. Gwen actually opened her eyes briefly and looked her question at me. I explained the situation and she nodded her understanding. I kissed her, then slid out of the tree silently. It was time to become the hunter.


The Amazons arrived and formed a visible perimeter, but they acted utterly clueless, as though once here they had no idea what to do next. I found that so strange – always before the enemy had a plan, no matter how badly conceived, and they stuck with it til the bitter end. I watched as it dawned on them that there were fifteen of them and only one of me, and they began to advance as a group through the tall grasses. I guess it never occurred to them that those kinds of odds weren't going to work in their favor, especially not with the weaponry they were working with. Their most customary weapon was the crossbow, and they had already wasted the surprise element that made them effective weapons. Even with the chobos, a few swords and a spear I saw among the gathered group, they didn't stand a chance.


I knew I didn't have time to enjoy the combat, so I worked swiftly to eliminate the threat now facing me. I wasn't going to let a bunch of pansy-assed rebels keep me from getting the help I needed for Gwen.


I slid through the grass like a snake, and the first four Amazons fell before anyone was aware I wasn't where they expected me to be. I crept up behind them and broke their necks with rapid precision and a very satisfying snap. Then I disappeared again before they even saw me. A cry went up when the bodies were discovered, which happened accidentally when one woman turned to give a whispered instruction to the woman behind her. I chuckled because the look on her face was priceless.


It made the Amazons to cluster together, and I just shook her head at the utter lack of sense before I tossed a flash grenade into the middle of the group and it was like shooting fish in a puddle. They didn't even have time to notice before it exploded, killing another five and injuring three. That left only three standing, and for that, I unleashed my staff. There was a burning rage inside that needed to shed blood and a simple twist turned the staff into a flange. I ran towards the remaining Amazons with a fierce roar.


The look of fear on their faces was glorious, and I longed for a moment to enjoy it. But the first raised her bow before I could savor the feeling, so I sent her head bouncing across the grass several times. Before her body actually crumbled, the next, who held a sword, came running towards me from behind. I buried the other blade in her belly, feeling it slide along her spine. I didn't even turn; I just yanked it back out and threw it like a javelin at the final Amazon, who had turned to run. It buried itself in her back, and the Amazon turned to look at me as she sank to her knees. The look on her face was a mixture of pain, disbelief and fear, and I relished it. Blood spilled out of her mouth and I could tell she saw in me the spectre of death itself. It made me smile.


I walked the few steps to the Amazon, removing my flange from her body and dragging her back to the crater where the flash grenade had exploded. The three injured Amazons were making various degrees of effort to escape. I couldn't allow that, so I calmly walked to each one and ended their torment with the single thrust of a blade. Then one by one I dumped the bodies into the hole and carefully set the remaining grenades for a delayed incineration blast, their actual intended purpose.


I wiped the blood off the flange, then returned it to its short staff form before heading back to the tree to retrieve Gwen. I felt the silent explosion that sent a wave of heat blasting over her, and knew that in short order the only evidence of anything amiss in this field would be the large hole in the ground. I wasn't worried about the transports – no one was going to come looking for them, and if they were found, it really didn't matter. I hadn't touched them.


I put my weapons away carefully as I always had, and I turned my attention to my thigh. Damn thing still hurt and it was still bleeding sluggishly. I braced myself and grit my teeth, then grabbed the end of the shaft and yanked hard. I heard myself scream and the world went black for a very long moment. When my senses returned, I loosened the tourniquet and blood flowed more rapidly. I cursed myself for being caught without water and wrapped a length of bandage around it tightly, then moved to climb the tree.


It took longer than I expected; the wound on my shoulder was starting to ache intensely. Gwen was still passed out, and it was a mixed blessing. I knew she couldn't feel any pain as long as she was out, but I knew I was gonna need her to hold on to get us both home safely. I grabbed an ammonia capsule and let the scent waft under Gwen's nose.


Her reaction was almost immediate, and she sat up with a hiss. Her eyes watered from the smell and her good hand reached for her injured shoulder. Gwen stretched a shaking hand towards my bandaged leg. I caught it and held it tightly for a moment before turning my head and explaining to her the need to move and the need I had for her help.


Gwen looked around, disoriented. She asked about the odd smell in the air, wondering if it was the burning in her nose and the scent of blood and sweat coming from both of us. I glanced in the direction Gwen was gazing and shrugged my shoulders. Already the fire had burned down to cinders with the wind carrying most of the scent away from us.


It was slow going as we eased down from one branch to the next. When we reached the bottom branch, I jumped unthinkingly, and my leg buckled when I hit the ground too hard. I couldn't believe I was that stupid. I heard Gwen scramble after me. She fell to her knees when she landed and crawling to kneel by my side. I heard her breathing hard with the pain and could have kicked myself for adding to her misery.


I looked up at her, breathing rhythmically to try and stabilize the dizziness I felt with a few deep breaths. Gwen leaned back against the tree and I felt her watching me. I consciously pushed the pain out of my awareness and stood to my feet. I extended my uninjured hand down to my bard who accepted it and gradually made her way upright. I could see the effort it was costing her and wished I could manage to do more for her. Instead, we leaned against one another for a long moment, then I looked into Gwen's eyes, needing to know if she could hang on to make it home.


Gwen nodded, and I could see her self-doubt about making it home before she passed out again. I thought about insisting she ride up front, but I wasn't sure I could balance everything since I was losing the feeling in my arm.


I grimaced as I lifted the helmet to Gwen's head and pulled it on. I felt vaguely uneasy as I donned my own head gear, but I couldn't pin down what was tickling my senses. Gwen had already straddled the bike, so I eased herself in front of her and started the engine, thankful for its quiet mode. My head was beginning to throb on top of everything else, and the light purr of the motorcycle was soothing.


The bike ride was never-ending... my hackles were standing straight up in anticipation of another attack. I pressed forward hard, willing us home faster. I didn't sense any immediate danger but I was unwilling to let my guard down even a fraction of an inch. There was too much at stake. My nerve endings ached from overextension and I couldn't find any trace of the Amazons. So my focus was now on getting us home as quickly and safely as possible. I felt Gwen clutch at my shirt with one hand and lean into me. I accepted the weight and let the need I felt flowing from Gwen motivate me. Gwen slumped against me just as we crossed the bridge and my focus was on maintaining our balance. It's amazing how focused that kind of motivation can make a person.


We made it home with no further incident and I pulled under the portico and slid off the bike. I turned to catch Gwen as she started to tumble over, wincing when her head hit my bad shoulder.


I steeled myself for what came next, and with a groan rose on unsteady feet, glad the door was only two paces from where I stood. I honestly didn't think I could make it given the way I felt, and I wondered what those arrows had been tipped in to have drained me so badly. I had to lean against the doorframe as I keyed in the code, then I stumbled in the door when it unlocked.


I was sweating profusely from exertion by the time I made it to the bathroom, and my throat was so dry I had to call out the water temperature twice before it activated. Gwen came to almost as soon as the water started spraying, and she reached for my hands and looked at me with miserable eyes.


I tried to be tender, but I could tell it still hurt. Hurting her hurts me in ways I can't explain even to myself. I was so glad to fall into bed together, but for the first time since the return of Gwen's memories, we didn't curl up together. I knew our injuries would make it a painful prospect, but the lack of intimacy between us hurt in a far worse way deep in my soul. Only when Gwen reached for my hand was I finally able to drift off into welcome oblivion.

"Wow," Gwen finally managed in a husky voice. "I never knew, and why do I get the feeling you downplayed what it was costing you to do all that? You make it sound so easy," she absently rubbed Randi's right shoulder. "But I remember how much that hurt, and you got it in the leg and still managed to keep the Amazons away from us."

"I killed them, Gwen. And I enjoyed it."

Gwen nodded slowly. "I understand that, love. And I think if our positions had been reversed, I would have done the same thing... especially this time." She paused and gathered her thoughts. "Randi, they came after us, deliberately targeting us hoping to kill you... to kill us. I know it's selfish, but I'm glad you were able to stop them. I am sorry they had to die, but sweetheart, it didn't stop with them. And they would have kept trying until the succeeded."

"Do I get the enjoyment part? No... I never have. But I believe that is the part of you that lets you be the warrior you are. You don't need my acceptance or approval of that, Randi, although you've got my unqualified support of you. You've always had my love and support. But you're the one that has to accept that facet of your personality – for better or worse."

Randi sat quietly, considering Gwen's words. She recognized it for the truth. Gwen had always accepted her regardless. *She* was the one who was having trouble, and she couldn't explain why. Perhaps it was because she had been so separated from herself, or maybe it was just the not knowing what to expect from herself anymore. Randi was honest enough to admit that it bothered her a lot that Gwen had been exposed to the warrior side of her, especially untempered. She knew what she was capable of when she was whole... what had happened when she had been the warrior alone?

"It bothers me," she finally said honestly. "It bothers me for you to see this... for you to know these things about me. Especially things I haven't discovered myself yet. I feel... naked, um... too exposed."

Gwen wanted to be hurt by that comment, and then she really thought about it. Given what Randi was and had been for all of her adult life, that feeling made perfect sense. She nodded her recognition of that fact. "I understand, Randi, but I want there to only be honesty between us. If you'd like, I will go back and wait for you to finish this alone in private."

"NO!" vehemently. "I'd rather you be here... even with all the awkwardness. You belong here." Randi offered a hesitant smile.

Gwen returned it wholeheartedly. "Then perhaps when we're done here, you would like to take a walk with me in my mind. There are a few things I need to be honest about with you, and some things I'd like you to see as well. Nothing too bad, but it is only fair for you to be able to see everything about me since you're doing the same." She smiled impishly. "Besides, I'd like you to see yourself the way I see you."

A dark brow rose. "Should I be scared?"

Gwen smacked her arm lightly and laughed. "Depends on how you feel about color, I guess. Now let's move on. The next one was the hardest for me."

"You know what happens next?"

"Oh yeah... I was there." Gwen grit her teeth to keep from shuddering in memory. "It was horrible to watch, but I eventually understood why. And you were right in what you did."

Randi looked down at the book. This one was easier to accept. For Gwen she would have done much worse, and as it had been visited upon them directly, even the woman in her had little difficulty in justifying the deaths of so many. The warrior had no compunction whatsoever. No justification was necessary – she had done what had to be done to eliminate a direct threat... period.

The book vanished, much in the same manner as the two before it had done, and Randi moved back to the files to retrieve the next volume. She was glad to note there were only four more tomes, but their thickness filled Randi with dismay. Apparently, her alter ego had been busy doing all sorts of things that had to be tucked away in the darkness. Randi closed her eyes, wishing she could have it in a story form – at least then it would be written in the third person and not quite so exclusive to simply being her thoughts.

As though reading her mind, Gwen rose and took the memories from her, placing them delicately on the slab before taking Randi's hands in her own. "I have an idea," she commented casually. "Do you trust me?"

"Absolutely," Randi replied without a second's hesitation.

Gwen smiled. "Good. Close your eyes and come with me. I think I know a way to make it a little easier read... something that won't be quite as personal as your memories."

Randi squeezed the hands holding hers and closed her eyes, glad to follow where Gwen led.

She felt it becoming lighter, then a breeze blew across her face. "Open your eyes, love," Gwen said with a smile in her voice.

Randi did so slowly, feeling the shock of familiarity run through her frame as she saw their glade surrounding them. She released Gwen's hands and did a slow pirouette before she looked her question in Gwen's direction.

"This was... is... our safe place. This is the spot in my mind Reed set up for our use during our spirit walk. She drew on my memories and came up with this. I'll have to remember to ask her how and why she managed to choose this place and recreate it so exactly."

"Oh, that's easy," came an amused voice from the far side of the space. Reed sauntered over to greet the two of them, pleased with the aura she could see surrounding them both. Not only had they healed the fractures in the bond between them, but she could feel it strengthening almost as a visible thing as they stood together even though they were not physically touching.

"I let you pick," Reed said to Gwen, thankful for the strength of the shielding that allowed her to be with them in this place together. "Subconsciously, this is the place you feel the safest... um, that I felt comfortable recreating, anyway," with a slight blush. Randi's response was a rakish grin while Gwen sported a matching blush.

"Ahem... so I chose this place. It had everything you needed for a safe haven, and the best part was it was fairly simple to isolate. Now," turning suddenly serious, "how are things going for the two of you? Honestly – because I can see that it is draining you both in at least some respects," noting the exhaustion they both wore as a cloak around them and the dark circles under both sets of eyes.

Gwen slid into place at Randi's heart, wrapping one arm firmly around the warrior's waist and feeling Randi's arm drape possessively over her shoulders. They tangled their fingers together almost absently, and Reed did feel the bond running through them as its own entity, stronger than it had ever been. And with that action her question was answered, but Gwen opened her mouth to speak and Reed was curious to hear her thoughts – to know what she could now see so plainly between them seemed like to them.

"It is, Reed. But it's a good thing too. We are learning things about each other that we would never know otherwise." Randi didn't speak but wrapped Gwen tighter in her embrace and Reed shuddered at the depth of emotion she felt rolling off them in waves.

"Just don't lose your essence. What you're doing has never been done before, and with no guide...."

Gwen brow furrowed. "What do you mean this has never been done before? I thought spirit walks were common among the people."

Reed nodded. "Oh, they are. But everyone's journey is usually as individual as the person taking it; no one has ever had a spirit walk like yours - not even remotely similar. And never had we had anyone go through together as a couple... on the same trek... like you and Randi are now. Especially with no guides... that is my concern. If you need help or have questions, come here. I am monitoring this room and will know."

"Do you know why I feel like I'm... uh, it's like... there's warmth, you know... from outside... something more than just Gwen and I together. Is it you?"

Reed looked at Randi, understanding her confusion if not her tongue tied-ness. "Does it feel like you're being cocooned?" waiting for Randi's nod. "It is Sky and Tiny. They are doing for you what Rosie and I are doing for Gwen... lending strength and support. It's the best we can manage under the circumstances." She blew out an exasperated breath. "Honestly, if I had known you two were just going to take off on your own like that, I would have made a few different arrangements."

"Sorry," Randi mumbled. "I think I screwed up any number of things here lately."

Reed blinked at her. "Don't prejudge, Randi. Go into every event you witness with an open mind. It's not going to be anything like you imagined it to be."

"Isn't it?" bitterly. She would have moved away but Gwen's hold on her was too strong. Randi was at once startled and grateful, and it showed in the look she gave the bard who looked back at her with a fierce possessiveness. Reed waited for them to finish their silent communication, knowing immediately when Randi surrendered to her soul's other half.

"All right," the warrior capitulated, rubbing her eyes with their joined hands. Then she turned to look at Reed again. "But when this is all over...."

"When this is all over there are going to be some tough decisions that you're going to have to make. And there is going to be some hard discussion as well. But until then, this is a place where you can both come to have a bit of a respite from... well, everything. I will only come if you call for me. Now, I should go and let you have a bit of peace to enjoy together. I know this is hard. But I want you to know that we are all pulling for you both."


Reed nodded though she didn't elaborate except to say, "You have far more friends on your side that you can possibly imagine." She started to walk away.

"Reed wait," Gwen called, reassuring Randi with her eyes before releasing her grip and moving over to the seer. Randi took the opportunity to walk down to the water's edge, noting that even the water's temperatures were correct to her memory with warmth swirling between the cool currents. She smiled when she felt Gwen's touch on her back.

"I'm going to go retrieve my diaries for us to share together. Would you like to walk with me or stay here?"

"You keep your memories locked away?" Randi asked with a frown. "Why? I would've thought...."

Gwen laced her hands through Randi's dark hair gently caressing her face in the process. "Shh," she instructed. "It's not what you're thinking at all. When Reed realized what our spirit walk was going to entail, she made sure my diaries of recent events were made available for us to share together on our walk. Even though I do remember what happened, my diaries are filled with much richer detail than I could consciously recall, and I want you to know everything... even the things I am not really proud of."

Randi's frowned deepened. What could Gwen have done that she could be ashamed of? Especially compared to my actions?? Aloud she said, "So you knew we would have to do this... walk through our memories together?"

Gwen shook her head. "No, I didn't. But Reed knew you would have to face your darkness. And she knows me well enough to know that I would want to *share* that with you, and sharing means my side as well as yours. So she and Rosie made it happen."

Randi considered this for a long moment, then nodded. "So where do we need to go?"

Gwen cringed just a little. "Not far... we have to get into the creative side. And we have to be fairly quick. Reed said it's not safe for us to be roaming around out there with no guide."

"She's really hung up about the fact that we are doing this without her, isn't she?" Randi asked. They walked slowly in deference to Randi's still injured body.

"I think it is more concern than anything else, with it being such a unique situation. I mean, most people don't go wandering around into other people's minds and memories. We don't want to screw anything up," not mentioning Reed's frantic concern about them wandering out into Gwen's mind alone. Gwen was determined that Randi be able to see herself the way that Gwen saw her.

"Good point," Randi conceded. "Sorry to be flippant about it. To be real honest, this whole situation is right on up there on my freak meter."

Gwen chuckled lightly. "Normal human reaction there, love. I think we're all a little freaked at this point. But ya know something, weird as it is... hard as it is... I'm glad for the chance to do this together. We've never had an opportunity like this before. Now c'mon. Reed said we just had to head this way and...."

Gwen stopped speaking when Randi jerked to a halt. They had crossed from the safe room into a swirl of color and light that was nearly blinding, and Randi's immediate reaction was to come to a halt to assess the situation. She looked around in wonder, then turned her attention back to Gwen, whose face reflected her delight.

The space was immaculate, but it sang with energy and creativity. The color was ever-changing and Randi swore she could hear snippets of music. There was texture that she could feel, though she wasn't actually touching anything, and Randi closed her eyes and grasped her chest as her senses started to overload. Gwen's expression turned to one of concern.


"Gwen, can we move a little faster?" shaking her head and trying to clear it. "I'm... uh...." She went to her knees and Gwen followed suit.

"Randi, focus on me... listen to my voice and slowly open your eyes. C'mon, let me see those baby blues. Look at me, sweetheart. C'mon. Take my hand and open your eyes. That's it."

Randi let Gwen's voice lull her into a place of comfort and slowly opened her eyes, letting those green orbs become her whole world. She followed where Gwen led, never dropping her gaze or losing the soothing sound of the bard's voice, until they were back in the safe room. Randi took a deep breath and let the breeze and the tinkling sound of flowing water wash over her and slow her rapid heartbeat. Finally she blinked, feeling Gwen's hands easing her discomfort.

"Sorry," she said roughly. "I don't know where that came from."

Gwen leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "My fault," she said softly. "Reed told me it was probably a bad idea... warned me it could be dangerous, but I wanted so badly to show you what I saw when I looked at you."

"Waitaminute... we went out there when you knew it was a bad idea? Gwen, this is serious. Do you know what kind of damage we could have done to you or had done to us? This isn't a game."

"No, it isn't. It's deadly serious. We've staked everything that we are and hope to be on the outcome of this little venture. The truth is, I expected it to affect me more than you since it's my mind we're wandering around in. But I felt it was worth the risk for you to see what I see when I look at you."

"Oh, love... please don't take that kind of risk again. If it's that important to you, we'll figure something out, but don't put yourself in jeopardy like that again. I need you with me."

"As I need you, Stud. So... let me go retrieve those diaries and then we'll go back to your cubby, since I get the distinct impression that that's the place you have to be to face the darkness."

Randi nodded. "Just be quick, please? And be careful."

Gwen noted the paleness of Randi's features and placed a light kiss on her forehead. "Quick as I can, love," she agreed. Then she moved back out of the safe room to reclaim her written memories of the events of their recent past.

"Oh Great Spirit," Sky mumbled as he slumped forward. Only the number of hand supporting him kept him from toppling over completely and falling into Randi's not-so-healing body. Tiny quickly assessed the situation, noting Randi's rapid pulse and shallow breathing, and realized instantly something had happened within the dreamscape that had cause such an intense reaction.

"Sky? Sky, stay with me all right? I'm going to try to do a bit of creative rearranging here to see if we can channel a little more strength. All right?"

The chief nodded, never releasing his hold on Randi and tried to focus his breathing. He kept his eyes closed and felt the movement around him, suddenly aware of being completely surrounded by raw brute strength.

Sky felt his heart rate begin to calm and his breathing slow as renewed energy began to flow through his veins. At the same time he opened his eyes and saw Randi's own physical response to whatever trauma she had encountered settle and become normal again.

"Sky, what happened?" Jill asked from her place between Geoff and Randi. Their moving around had left her and Geoff to brace Randi's torso while channeling their joint strength. Tiny had moved around to help Sky maintain his connection to Randi's essence in the dreamscape knowing his strength would be best suited to that assignment.

Sky shook his head, grateful for Tiny's support. He was infinitely glad the big man had so much experience with seers and the issues that came with doing things like this. His familiarity with both the seer's side and this particular situation made him perfect for this.

"I don't know," he answered honestly. "It felt like sensory overload." He shook his head again. "We might be able to ask Reed eventually. It was very odd."

Tiny nodded, not surprised. It seemed like everything the two of them touched was as unique and different from everyone else as they could make it.

"Figures," Geoff muttered with a chuckle. "If there's a hard way to do something, those two will find it and do it that way."

"Yes!" the other three in the room agreed with wry laughter, breaking the tension that had held them in its grasp. Then they turned once more to their vigil.

"Can we do that?"

"Do what exactly?" Artemis asked with some asperity. She had been so attentive to what was happening and supporting Dite, that she had absolutely no clue what Athena was referring to.

"Can we let Randi see herself as Gwen sees her?"

"Yes," Dite answered with some authority as she recovered her breathing. That little incident had been scarier than she wanted to admit, physically affecting her like it had Randi. "If... *when* they make it through this spirit quest together, we can do that with little danger to either of them. Gwen took a seriously major risk, trying to introduce Randi to her mind like that. That could have killed them both."

Athena nodded. "Agreed. I'll go have a bit of a talk with Rosie and see if they can somehow convey that little fact to Gwen. She shouldn't be taking chances like that!"

"No," Artemis said. "But she didn't become an Amazon Queen by waiting for things to happen to her either. It bites that they started this walk without guidance. It makes the whole thing a dubious prospect at best."

"Well, I'll make sure they explain it to her, and the fact that Gwen will get her wish about showing Randi what she sees." Athena turned to Dite. "Do you know what this vision Gwen has looks like at all?"

"Oh yeah," the love goddess practically growled. "And all I can say is I so love the way that rocking bard thinks!"

Despite the seriousness of the situation, the other two goddesses smiled in sympathy with Dite's enthusiasm. How could they fail with that kind of passion on their side?

Chapter VII

Randi was actually glad to feel the encroaching darkness surround her once again. She felt raw, like her nerve endings were exposed, and the feeling had gone from uncomfortable to outright miserable. She didn't mention it to Gwen, however, as the bard was suffering from guilt enough. Reed had come back into the safe room and taken one look at Randi's ashen face and lit into Gwen in a soft, controlled, but entirely authoritative manner.

Only Randi's own firm commanding voice had stopped Reed cold and she sighed as she realized they had discovered the risks they were running. She had apologized to Gwen for going off half cocked, but Gwen had cut her off, thanking her for her knowledgeable concern.

Gwen had collected her diaries and they had left the safe room immediately, heading back into the darkness. Randi settled onto the slab and stretched out, allowing tense muscles to uncoil and relax. Gwen placed her diaries down on the floor and crawled up into her place beside Randi. She put her head over Randi's heart and let the regular pulse lull her into a sense of security she'd never found anywhere else – in any of their incarnations. This was her one safe spot in all the world... it always had been, and she reveled in it now.

"I'm sorry, Randi. I really didn't think... well, I guess I really didn't think. That was so stupid...." Gwen probably would have continued to castigate herself except a pair of very warm lips covered her own for a very long moment. "Oh, um.... Wow!"

Randi smiled at Gwen's reaction. It had always been that way between them and she relished it each and every time. "Shh," she directed. "It's over, and we're all right."


"No, love. No buts, no what ifs.... If you start questioning, what am *I* gonna do? Hmm?" motioning around to the darkness that surrounded them. "What did you tell me just a little while ago? I have to accept the past because I can't change what already happened, right?" Gwen nodded her head. "Works both ways, sweetheart. You can't change it, and now we know better. So let's get on with things and see where we're at."

"You wanna start with my memories or yours?"

Randi ran her hands through her hair and scratched the back of her neck. "Well, I thought that maybe we could read yours since yours is likely to be much richer in detail and if I'm lucky, told as a story instead of a memory. Then we can insert mine whenever we get to a spot where they fit in."

Gwen nodded. "All right. I think we can do that. But first...." She concentrated real hard and wiggled around when a thick pillow popped up, bracing her back and allowing her to sit comfortably in this place for a change. Randi's eyes widened, and she waited for Gwen to situate herself before snuggling up into the bard's chest. Gwen smiled down at her indulgently and brushed the hair from her eyes. "Comfortable?"

Randi bounced her head lightly on Gwen's breasts and nuzzled them until Gwen was caught between laughter and arousal. She let laughter win and grabbed Randi lightly by the back of the head. "You done there yet, Stud?"

Randi pouted, but the twinkle in her eyes was a counterpart to the one she saw shining out of Gwen's. "I s'pose," she muttered, nuzzling one more time for good measure before turning her attention to the book Gwen held in her hand. "Okay, I'm comfortable now," leaning back to meet Gwen's eyes. The bard leaned forward and gave her a chaste kiss.

"All right, this picks up after the Amazon attacked us... just so you know where we are." Randi nodded, but didn't say anything, and Gwen opened her diary and began to read aloud, written in the third person to put it into a perspective she could manage.

Gwen knew the minute Randi crossed the threshold that something fundamental had changed. She'd caught a glimpse of the Sabre the night before when Randi had announced her determination to meet with Russ while Tiny was there, but Gwen had still been able to connect – still been able to pull some hard-earned answers from her. Now, it was almost as though she were an imposition in Randi's life and that knowledge cut deep into her soul.

So Randi went off to the capital, unwavering in her resolve to make Russ see what was going on and to get some answers of her own. One way or another, the Sabres were going to be involved in eliminating the rebels, once and for all. The time had come to destroy them, and Russ would either lead them or he would be removed as the obstacle he was.

All Gwen could do was wait.

"You don't know what happened when I got to the capital, do you?" Randi asked, surprised when Gwen nodded affirmatively. "You do? How? I mean, I don't... I don't remember much about it. A couple fleeting images, but my first real memory picks up that Sunday with the Sabre meeting."

"Tiny told me everything," Gwen replied in a whisper. "When he called to let me know he was bringing you home unconscious, I told him he was going to tell me everything. And once we had you settled, he did... everything from the time you left the house until he brought you home, including what happened when you visited Daddy."

Randi nodded her resigned acceptance. "Let me find my memory of what happened then," taking the thick book when Gwen reached it around to her. "Thanks. I'd forgotten I'd already gotten that out." She opened it up and took a deep breath, then started to read.


Russ greeted me cordially but not enthusiastically. It was obvious that my presence here was not only unexpected, but definitely unwelcome. It didn't surprise me a lot - Russ was too much of a by-the-book officer, and Sabres like me had always been a wildcard he was uncomfortable dealing with. However, I couldn't have given a shit about his comfort level at this point. It was time to play hardball, and.... Well, there was only one way out of the Sabre ranks, right?


Truth be told, Russ should never had been a Sabre. He'd never had the gumption for it... not the fighting and killing part of it anyway. And after what I had figured out in the shuttle, there wasn't a chance in hell of him remaining one after today. The real question here was how merciful I was going to be after I had been betrayed again by someone at the highest levels of the Sabres... by someone who couldn't stand the heat of the battle the unit bore. And this time, it had been a deliberate betrayal. This time it was personal in a way it hadn't been before.


I made sure in the noticeable drop in temperature in the room could be felt in my words and my attitude. I actually saw Russ shiver, and it made me smile. The tension was thick enough to cut with a blade, and Russ did his damnedest to exercise the authority he wished he actually held over me. It made me laugh inside, though he never saw the humor in my face.


I did feel badly for putting Tiny in the middle of things, but I needed to know where his loyalties lay and he came through for me like a trooper. It was a rush to know I still commanded that kind of loyalty from those I had served with. It would make what was coming so much easier if they all felt the way he did. His words were flattering to the point of embarrassment, and I almost blushed, but my pride wouldn't allow that kind of acknowledgment. Instead, I held his eyes and returned his respect, and it was enough.


I asked him to stay, gratified that he was willing to - given the possibilities that lingered in the air unspoken between us. I was only planning to talk to Russ for now, but I knew where it would eventually end... where it had to, knowing what I did about Russ's betrayal not only of me personally, but of the whole Sabre community.


I turned my attention back to Russ with a glare that could have melted glass. Russ sank into the chair behind him, hoping to hide his unease with bravado, thought I could see the tremors in his body and the twitches in his clenching jaw line. I dropped down on his desk.


I knocked his head back in the chair and the sound echoed across the room. I almost admired his nerve, here near the end... to think he could set ground rules and stay in charge. I grabbed the Commandant's chin and squeezed, forcing him to sit upright and focus on me, knowing I had his undivided attention


I explained what I had figured out as I began to pace around the desk. I knew of the betrayal. I knew it was someone high up who would consider me a threat – either to themselves personally or to the Sabre unit. The look on his face when I told Russ I knew it was him who was giving the rebels their orders was priceless, but I saw the truth in his eyes. The look I gave him in return was one of hatred and disdain. I watched as he recognized death in the glance and I saw the blood drain from his face. I turned my back to him deliberately, wondering if he really had the balls to try something.


I felt him twitch and turned to catch the blade inches from my heart. Tiny moved swiftly from his position to catch Russ' hand before he could drop it, and pulled it up behind Russ's back. Tiny turned to glance at me and flinched. I wondered what he saw as I felt red rage wash through my veins. It was time to make the son of a bitch pay for what he had done, and I planned to make Russ endure the agony of every single moment Gwen and I had suffered because of his machinations.


I released Tiny from his duty to me, knowing he'd never been fond of this part of the Sabre code. Truth was, I never had been too keen on it myself, though I was exceptionally good at it, and had always been more than creative enough to achieve whatever results I desired.


I was a little confused by his response, but I was glad to have him with me. Russ struggled, but as he and Tiny shared the same training and Tiny was in much better condition, it was no effort at all for Tiny to maintain the upper hand between them.


I had to laugh at Russ's declaration that his death would be murder. He should have known better than to try that card. There is no such thing as murder of an enemy in the Sabre code. We are all authorized... trained to kill the enemy. And he was most definitely the enemy. I hit several spots on his back and watched him to collapse into Tiny's arms.


Bless Tiny – he tried to give Russ the right to a Sabre trial, but I nixed that idea before it was even fully voiced. This was my right, and I was going to take it. What he did to the unit and to the code was unforgivable and would have gotten him executed by a jury of his Sabre peers anyway. But this was personal for me – what he had done to me and Gwen gave me the right to be judge, jury and executioner, and I was damned well going to exercise that right.


I picked Russ up and dropped him in his chair, and he spit at me. I stood casually and wiped the spittle from my cheekbone, then onto his shirt, deciding then and there that nothing I could make him suffer would be enough, but determined to get as much agony out of him as possible.


I reached out, pushing pressure points on his arms and legs before releasing the ones on his back, and he instantly keened in agony from the pain that flowed through his veins. I'm sure he never imagined ever having to suffer such misery. I smiled with the knowledge that he would die in a myriad of painful sensations. Then I popped two spots on either side of his neck to shut him up. No one likes a whiner, and I was simply over having to listen to his mouth.


I made sure he knew exactly why he was dying – not for the Sabres, but for Gwen. The disgust in his eyes almost made me laugh. Suddenly he struggled, understanding at last that not only was he not dying for something he believed in, he was dying for something he held in great disdain. I jammed the blade he'd thrown at me into his stomach, and felt a satisfying rush of warm blood. His innards spilled onto the floor and I stood up and backed away from him.


Then I made a decision to take back what was ours and gave my first order as Commandant. My only concern now was going to be how to explain this new development to Gwen.

"I'm not sorry for what I did, especially to Russ. His betrayal warranted far worse."

Gwen blinked at that pronouncement. She'd thought that what he had gotten had been pretty severe, and it was obvious from the words and tone Randi had used in writing out her memory that she had taken pleasure in the pain she had caused. Russ had been different from the others – Russ had made everything personal. Even Jerry hadn't deliberately betrayed Randi, but Russ had intentionally tried to destroy them both.

"Worse how, love?" Gwen asked honestly.

Randi turned hard, cold eyes in her direction, and Gwen knew that it was the warrior who answered her. "If he had been given Sabre justice he would have walked the gauntlet and been beaten until he was dead. Instead, I chose personal vengeance."

"And did anyone fault you for that choice, Randi?"

"No. There were several comments made on how he deserved worse, but everyone was satisfied that justice was served by my actions."

Gwen nodded and let the subject go. "So what happened with Daddy?"

"Nothing, really... except...." Randi paused thoughtfully as a memory sprang forth of its own volition. "Carbon growled at me." She stopped speaking and Gwen waited patiently, having already heard the story from Geoff. Randi blinked. "It was odd, because his hackles rose and the fur stood up on his neck. Then he stepped between me and Geoff like he was protecting him from me. Weird huh?"

"Not really, no," Gwen said, and waited for Randi's eyes to snap to hers which they did with fierce intensity. "Think about it, love. From the time you were infected with... whatever it was Ares stuck you with, the dogs started acting weird with you. Ditto wouldn't come near you, and Carbon grew more and more distant and aggressive. Animals are pretty perceptive, sweetheart. You know that. We should have started listening to them sooner."

"But you know what is really cool?" Gwen continued before Randi could respond. She was absently rubbing her face where the mace had hit so many months ago. Gwen captured the hand and raised it to her lips. "Stay with me, warrior... now you know what is really cool?"

Randi looked up into ardent green eyes and her breath caught at the emotions that swirled in them. She smiled tremulously and shook her head, inhaling Gwen's scent surrounding her. "Nope... what is really cool?"

"What is really cool," Gwen said with force concentration, "is the fact that you just remembered something on your own without the aid of the book. That was a suppressed memory you called up of your own volition. Maybe we are making some headway."

Randi thought about that, then let a big grin cross her face. "Heh." She looked up into the darkness and raised her voice. "You hear that, Ares? I'm winning!"

Gwen put her hand on Randi's nose and brought her attention back to them. "*We're* winning. And we're gonna keep winning until we win for good. But sweetheart, Ares can't hear you. This is your safe place – no one is allowed in here.

"Except you."

Gwen grinned bashfully, something Randi found endearingly cute. "Except me. However, I am looking forward to sticking it to Ares when we get outta here. That lousy SOB has caused us way too much grief in my opinion."

Randi's eyebrows went into her hairline at Gwen's description of the god of war. She almost felt sorry for him... almost. But with a little more thought she figured it was time he got what was coming to him. After the millennia he had been pursuing them, it was time Ares got his just desserts.

"What is that smirk for?" Gwen asked when she saw the expression on Randi's face. Her question just made the smile grow larger.

"I am looking forward to sticking it to Ares. I think he has more than earned it, this lifetime especially."

"Well, hopefully, he will get the damn point. I'm a little tired of him and his scheming."

Randi wrapped her arms around Gwen and squeezed tightly. "Maybe we should think about putting an end to it, once and for all."

Gwen returned the hug as fully as she could manage in their current positions, absorbing the sensations that flowed through her. Then her brow furrowed as Randi's words penetrated her mind. "Put an end to it how?"

Now Randi's brow furrowed and she burrowed back into Gwen's neck, eliciting a goggle. "I'm not sure yet, love. Let me think about it."

"Fair enough," Gwen nodded. "You ready to go back to reading?"

"I think so," Randi replied with a bit of hesitation.

Gwen brushed the dark bangs of the warrior's forehead. "There's no rush, Randi. We've got all the time you need."

"No, I really think I'm ready, but...." She motioned to the book still in her lap.

"Oh. OH. I see your point. Hmm.... Well, maybe there's more you need to read. Or maybe you just have to exercise your personal faith in yourself."

Randi thought about it – thought about what she had done and why – and made a conscious decision. Though she had chosen personal vengeance over Sabre justice, the outcome had been the same, and given the same circumstances, she'd choose the same path every single time.

With that knowledge settled firmly in her heart and mind, she focused her attention on the tome now firmly clasped in her hands. A sense of satisfaction washed through her being as the volume disintegrated into nothingness. Then Randi tilted her head back to look at Gwen, easily catching the knowing smirk on her face.

"Ya know, bard, sometimes you are too damned smart for your own good." She threaded her hand through the short, blonde hair and urged Gwen's head down to meet her lips. "I love you."

"I don't think I will ever get tired of hearing that from you," Gwen whispered into her lips when she and Randi drew back from their kiss. "And I love you back, ya know. All of you."

Words weren't necessary for their silent communication and by unspoken agreement Gwen reopened her diary and found her place, clearing her throat before she started reading again.

When Tiny crossed the threshold of the shuttle with Randi unconscious in his arms, Gwen's heart leaped into her throat. Even though she expected it after Tiny's vid call, it was still unnerving in the worst way to see Randi cradled in his arms like a babe... or worse.

It took a bit of doing, but eventually Gwen got both Randi and herself comfortably ensconced in bed and then Tiny came in to share the events that had taken place and Randi's obvious reaction to them.

"It's started," Gwen commented to Tiny. She swallowed hard. "I knew it was coming, but God... this is so hard."

"At least it should be over fairly quickly now that it's started."

"Strangely, that's less than comforting, Tiny. Especially since the hard part is just starting." She yawned and snuggled down into Randi's body, smiling drowsily when Randi naturally curled up into her. Gwen never even noticed when Tiny slipped from the room.

The dreamscape had been like nothing they had experienced together before. Randi was fighting with herself and she didn't recognize Gwen. Things were touch and go for a while, and Randi left Gwen alone in the darkness in an effort to protect her. Unfortunately for the warrior, Gwen wasn't about to take that kind of decision lying down, and went after Randi to claim what was hers. But between the visits, while Gwen had been gone, Randi had released the warrior. And when they awakened, it was the warrior who was in control.

"Dammit! I can't believe I overslept like that. I wanted longer for us in the capital city."

Gwen looked at her as she trailed behind Randi into the bathroom, confusion showing clearly on her face. "The capital city? When did we decide to visit... not that I'm complaining. It's always nice to visit the folks, but...."

"We didn't. I called the meeting. I am assuming command of the Sabre unit."

It was all Gwen could do to keep from reacting to the lost soul that stared back at her from the familiar blue eyes. She knew in that moment that the fight had really begun, and that it was the warrior alone who faced her now. The ferocity was wild and burning, and once more, Gwen feared the darkness – not for herself, but for what it was going to do to Randi.

But Gwen had promised to love and support, and she determined to do so to the best of her ability. Her fear was spent in the intense passion shared between them, and then they made their preparations and were in the capital city by nightfall.

The nearer they drew to their destination, the more distant Randi became until she was withdrawn and almost cold. Yet she clasped Gwen's hand in her own as the shuttle landed and they exited without a word. Gwen wondered about that, remembering before... before they had become lovers – when they were just becoming friends, in fact – when Randi would be required to resume her Sabre persona. On those occasions, Randi avoided all contact, especially tactile. Gwen smiled to herself. Maybe things hadn't changed as much as she feared.

A knock on the cottage door, and Jill welcomed them... then froze as Carbon charged at Randi as though she was a threat. She glared at him, and he stopped a few feet away, ruff standing up all over his head and lips pulled back in a snarl. He opened his mouth and snapped at her and Gwen moved to get between them, understanding that Carbon was reacting instinctively to whatever change had occurred to Randi's psyche.

Randi stopped her movement with a subtle commanding motion of her hand and instead knelt to be at eye level with the now growling half-grown pup. She held his eyes and he continued to snarl and growl though the ruff of his neck eventually flattened enough to allow them to pass. But he remained between Randi and the Goldmans.

"What is his problem?" Geoff asked as they entered the small living room of the cottage. Then he got a good look at Randi's eyes and understood immediately what the shepherd was reacting to. "Yes, well... is everything set for tomorrow, Randi?"

The Sabre nodded. "I think so, yes. It shouldn't be that difficult. I don't think anyone is going to object much." She spoke as though she knew he knew what was going on. He did, of course, thanks to Tiny's information, but it struck him as completely odd since their last encounter was still clearly fixed in his mind.

He remembered the surprise in her eyes when they got the alert for the Sabre meeting. It was easy to recall the honest uncertainty in her eyes when Tiny had informed them both that Randi had been responsible for the meeting. Then he saw the pain and confusion that swept across her strangely open features before she crumpled.

He wondered how Gwen was dealing with the return of the Sabre, and he turned to study her when Jill's voice cut into his thoughts.

"Wait a minute... just hold on. Does someone want to let me in on what exactly is going on here? I seem to be the only one in the room not in on the secret." She waved her hands expressively. "I mean, even Carbon seems to have more of a clue than I've got."

"Mama, calm down," Gwen said quietly, and that made Jill more nervous than anything else. Gwen was a bard by trade, an actor capable of many tones and facial expressions. But there were some things that a mama could see regardless of what face Gwen put on, and her addressing Jill as Mama instead of Mother said more than most other things could.

Jill blinked and looked into Gwen's face, then she took her daughter's hands. "Okay, I'm calm. Now what's going on?"

Gwen met her eyes unflinchingly. "We've been threatened, Randi and I, and Randi is going to take command of the Sabres to insure it doesn't happen any more." She was surprised at how calm she was and how easy it was to explain the basics to her mother. Neither her inflection nor her expression gave a hint of the turmoil that roiled through her guts at the knowledge of what was coming. Jill, however, had no compunction over voicing her displeasure. She withdrew her hands from Gwen's, then turned her attention to Randi and glared. Then she did the same to Geoff, hoping to make a point.

"Excuse me?? What exactly does that mean, taking command?? I thought you were well out of this cloak-and-dagger, undercover military stuff!! And you," rounding on Geoff again. "Who exactly do you think you are keeping something like this from me? Have you lost your mind??" She turned and looked at Gwen accusingly. "And you're all right with this?"

Everyone stood stock still, flabbergasted by the vehemence in Jill's voice. Even Jill was a little stunned, but she maintained her glower as she looked at everyone in the room. Randi stepped up to break the silence.

"Jill... mom... this is something I have to do. I tried playing by their rules, and it nearly got Gwen and me both killed. Now we do it my way."


"Yes," not offering more detail.

"And you're all right with this?" Jill asked Gwen again when she saw nothing more was going to be forthcoming from Randi.

"She's promised me this is the end. When this is taken care of, she's done – they're done. It has to be done, Mama. We won't have any peace until it is. We'll be targets forever otherwise."

Jill nodded. Though she didn't like it, she did understand their need to put the past to rest once and for all. She just really hated the idea that it had to be Randi, again, that had to be the one to assume the brunt of the responsibility for it. Jill had seen what had happened to Gwen the last time, and honestly didn't thing her daughter could survive it a second time.

"And how did you get involved, Geoff? It's not like...." Jill scrubbed her hands over her eyes and walked away a little, dropping into a chair set a little apart from the rest. It was where she curled up in the mornings to watch the activity in the miniature garden space. Silence reigned while she sat there contemplating and the other three exchanged almost awkward looks.

Finally Randi girded her loins to speak. It wasn't like she'd ever had to deal with this kind of awkwardness before, but she couldn't let this go by. They had to accept how important this was to them... all of them, but especially to her and Gwen.


"No, Randi," Jill held up a hand. "I get it... I really do. But I don't like it... at all. I just want you to know that right up front. I know what this did to Gwen before and I don't want it to happen again."

"Neither do I, Jill. It's why I'm gonna take care of this myself."

Jill looked long and hard at her daughter-in-law, and shudder at the cold determination she saw so clearly in the shuttered blue eyes. Something wasn't right, but she couldn't doubt Randi's strength of will in this endeavor. Finally she nodded her head in satisfaction.

"All right. I'll support this for now, but if you go and do something stupid again, I reserve the right to come after you and kick your ass."


"Gwen, it is my right as your mother, now hush." Jill turned back to Randi who was doing an exceptional job of keeping a straight face. "Do we understand each other?"

"Yes ma'am... we certainly do."

"Good. Now c'mon to the kitchen. I hear a bowl of fudge ripple calling my name." Geoff and Gwen just stared at each other in amazement before following quietly behind.

Chapter VIII

It was an unusual circumstance. Never in the history of the Sabre unit had every Sabre, active duty and retired reserve, been gathered together all in one place. Now they stood shoulder to shoulder at parade rest in the only room at Sabre headquarters large enough to hold them waiting for Randi to make an appearance.

Tiny walked in first and called them to attention, and they snapped to with efficient, military precision. Then Randi strode in wearing a full dress uniform accompanied by Gwen. Only their strict discipline kept them from gasping and making whispered comments about either.

Randi wasn't real keen about Gwen attending this particular meeting, but it had been the best compromise they could reach since Gwen simply refused to be left out.

"At ease."

Randi stood at the head of the room surveying the proud troops that now waited for her words. Though rumors had long since made the rounds with Russ's demise, still they held bated breath for her to confirm what many of them truly hoped to hear.

She had served with most of the people who now stood before her, either actively or as part of a safe haven during her numerous missions. They had built trust and understanding between them, and now she was going to ask them for the ultimate trust - to follow her.

"I asked you all here because the time has come to take back who we are – to become the Sabres we are meant to be and not the Sabres we have been led into becoming. The time has come to finally end the rebellion once and for all."

Randi looked around, seeing the agreement in the sea of faces throughout the room and felt a confidence and surge of pride she hadn't known in a long time. For all that being a Sabre had cost her, there was still a sense of family and always would be.

"First though, I think you all need to understand what brought us... what brought me to this point." She cleared her throat and took the glass of water Gwen offered. She downed it and handed it back with a smile then turned her attention back to the room.

"Some of you know that after my... after Ghost Rider was disposed of, I retired from the Sabre service. And I'll be honest with you, I was glad to leave it behind because it gave me a chance to have a normal life with the woman I love. And we were so happy... or we would have been if we'd been left alone. But then the rebels started targeting us specifically – threatening notes, attacks – and I knew that I had been betrayed by someone high up in the unit... again."

"My research led me to our former Commandant, Russell d'Amor. He took exception to my retirement and decided that if the Sabres couldn't have me, the rebels could. And if it took Gwen out in the process, then all the better," she added in a voice so cold, everyone in the room shivered.

"He disgraced the code; he personally targeted me, and when I confronted him on it, he acted like it was his right... his due. I took exception to his attitude, and then I took vengeance."

Complete silence – not even the sound of breathing could be heard. For sixty heartbeats Randi waited, looking over the room for any sign of disagreement. What she found was satisfaction and expectation.

"With that in mind, I have decided to step forward and fill the void left by Russell's death. As of this moment, I am assuming the role of Sabre Commandant."

The cheers went up from the entire room, and it echoed for several minutes. Randi's expression did not visibly change, though her eyes sparkled in excitement. Gwen bit her lip and kept her face carefully blank, easily able to feel the exhilaration running through Randi's frame. Finally Randi held up her hands and the room quieted once more.

"I have some definite ideas of what we are going to do to end the rebellion, and I will be meeting with each of you to make you aware of your new responsibilities and the actions we will be undertaking to insure our success. Thank you all for your support during this critical time."

Again they cheered and Randi stood and absorbed it for a long moment before she turned and started out the door. She got two steps before she realized and turned back to extend her hand to Gwen. Gwen accepted it slowly, and together they walked out of the hall and into a dark and uncertain future.

The next few hours were filled with meetings with various members of the Sabre unit. These were people in the worst locations who would be hosting many of the teams that would be involved in decimating the rebels. For the first time in a long time, optimism and enthusiasm ran through the unit, and they moved in and out of what had by default become Randi's new office exuding a confidence that had long been missing.

Gwen watched the proceedings with mixed feelings – knowing it was necessary, and having some inkling of just exactly what this was going to cost. But she was also secretly fascinated to see Randi in her element... to watch her wield her authority so effortlessly. It was obvious Randi had the respect of every Sabre who entered her office.

Some asked questions; some offered advice; a few even argued points. But always their eyes and voices and very posture held a note of respect and excitement.

Tiny served as her second, and he was the one to bring to Randi's attention to the fact that Gwen had gotten lunch for them. Randi looked up in surprise, having been so involved in what she was doing that she had completely lost track of the time. Aware, her stomach rumbled as the scent of good food hit her nose, and she moved over to the small table where Gwen sat in silence.

Randi's attention remained locked on her preparations however, and she read through the dossiers of the next few she would be speaking to while she ate. These would be her active team leaders – people who would be in charge of being certain her orders were followed to the letter.

They were the people she had trusted before – the ones who had gone into the pit of hell with her and watched her back as her world shattered in an underwater explosion. Better – not only could she trust them, but they had maintained their covert ties to each group they had been assigned to and would be best placed for retrieving information and formulating plans with the inside knowledge they garnered.

Aside from Tiny, who was a Wizard legacy, Brenda was her best operative. Her link to the Brotherhood was purely carnal, and as such, it was an unlimited source for information. Cam as a Red and Hernandez playing his role as a Blue had managed to achieved a small degree of success in moving up the ladder beyond simple peon status. Neither as well placed as both Tiny and Brenda, but they were higher up the chain than they had been a scant year ago.

Nick hadn't moved up, but he had moved around and garnered some interesting tidbits about the Skinheads – things that if Randi had been privy to before her raid, she might have done things differently. However....

She looked over Jess' file. She had assumed Randi's place in the Fringe Amazon when Randi had been killed and had managed to become a scout leader. Randi smiled. Jess had done a credible job filling her shoes, and she was glad to have people she trusted already in places of knowledge throughout the rebellion.

Her smile faded and took on hard planes. This was what she truly didn't understand. Russ had had all these resources in place, and he had the capability of not just defeating, but totally destroying the rebellion once and for all. And yet he just let it sit dormant, choosing instead to take the side of the rebels if it meant her destruction.

Tiny and Gwen watched her in silence with uneasy fascination. For Gwen, it was the realization that this was a side of Randi that she didn't know at all, and she was having difficulty reconciling the coldness and distance she felt emanating from Randi with the woman she had fallen in love with.

For Tiny it was a return to something he had expected... had hoped... to never see again, because to do so meant she had to become something she had ultimately come to despise for what it kept from her. He privately wondered how long Gwen would be able to stand it before she walked out the door, leaving Randi alone again. Not that it was what Randi wanted... deep in her heart... but it was the only way she knew how to operate. She pushed everyone and everything away and isolated herself to put her sole focus on whatever mission was in front of her.

Randi was unaware of her companion's thoughts. She ate mechanically, not tasting her food, simply ingesting it because intellectually she knew she needed the sustenance. She looked up in some shock when Gwen shoved her plate forward. Her chair fell over with the force of the push and Gwen stood up and walked to the door without a backward glance.

"I am going to see my parents," she announced in a shaky voice, exiting the room without meeting Randi's eyes or giving her a chance to answer. The warrior looked at Tiny in some confusion.

"What's her problem?"

"You," he answered succinctly.

"Me?" Bewildered blue eyes looked back at him. "What did I do? I didn't say anything about work. I didn't say or do anything at all."

"No shit, Sherlock. Did you suddenly go stupid or something?"

Randi's eyes narrowed and she stiffened even as she stood. "Tread carefully there, Chief. I will not tolerate insubordination from you or any other member of the unit regardless of our friendship." She blew out a breath as he automatically came to attention at her address of him, and she saw his jaw clenching in anger. "Now, did you have an opinion to offer?"

"No ma'am," he bit out, and Randi swore she could hear him grinding his teeth. She knew he was lying, but what could she really do to make him answer? He was her friend, despite her now superior rank and she had no desire to threaten him or worse. She knew he knew the gravity of the situation and if it was something she truly needed to know to accomplish her goal, he would speak up.

"Very well, then. Assemble the rest of the team in my office at thirteen hundred hours. And find out what's up with Gwen, will ya?"

"No ma'am." She looked up at him startled at his direct disobedience after what she had just said. Tiny swallowed hard but he met her eyes seriously. "I will assemble the team as you have ordered ma'am, but Gwen is your responsibility. I will not interfere and if you can't figure it out on your own, you are just shit outta luck. Ma'am," adding the last deliberately slowly and making it sting.

Randi's nostrils flared. "Get out," she commanded flatly, clenching her hands into fists almost unconsciously. Tiny didn't acknowledge her order except to spin on his heel and leave. Randi watched him go, not even blinking when the door slammed behind him. Then she resumed her seat and continued studying her files in the sterile solitude that was left behind.

"Waitaminute," Randi interrupted. Gwen looked at her tolerantly, waiting for her to continue. "How do you know what happened between Tiny and me? You weren't in the room."

"No, but I did know that when we finally got to this point, you were gonna need all information I could gather. So I did. Parts that I missed or weren't directly involved in, someone who was would share their experience. I put the parts together into a narrative." She smiled impishly. "It makes a better story that way."

"So how much of this," motioning to the diary between them, "is yours?"

Gwen shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe half? It's been a real busy time this last little bit." Randi closed her eyes in defeat. Gwen gripped her chin and turned Randi's face back to her again, waiting patiently until she felt Randi sigh in defeat and open her eyes. "C'mon, soon as we finish this, the sooner we get to go kick war god butt."

"Yeah, but first I get to hear about what a first-class asshole I was," Randi snorted in disgust. "Kinda hard to get up a lot of enthusiasm for that."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, you weren't always an asshole and you did do some good things. At least when you were being an asshole, you were first-class. I mean, really – who wants to be a second rate asshole?"

Randi couldn't help it... she snorted in laughter, then clutched at her still aching chest. Gwen burst into giggles at the inelegant sound, then wrapped her hand over the arm that cradled Randi's chest even as they both shook in true merriment.

Eventually the chortling did wear down and they could look at one another without breaking into laughter again. Randi shook her head even as a half-smile graced her features. Her eyes, however, were full of tender devotion and Gwen felt herself respond to that look of love that was directed towards her from underneath dark lashes and bangs.

"You're something else," she said to Gwen softly, turning her head and kissing the side of her breast.

Gwen tilted her head down and planted an almost chaste kiss on Randi's lips. "So are you," she whispered, trying not to smack her lips together in satisfaction. "The real question is," Gwen cleared her throat and spoke a little louder. "What exactly are we together."

Randi did grin then, and Gwen felt herself return the look in kind, even without knowing the reason behind it. "We, my love, are bona fide certifiable trouble together – only the best kind though. As long as we've had to perfect it, we couldn't be any less."

Gwen smiled and dropped another kiss on the warrior's full lips, reading clearly the worry that lurked in the back of those pale blue eyes. Then she hugged Randi to her body with enough strength to cause the air to whoosh from Randi's lungs. She reveled in the contact along their lengths before modifying her hold into something less constricting.

"Ready to read a little more?"

Randi nodded. "I remember what happened next. It wasn't too bad."

"A lot of what happened wasn't, and the results were mostly positive," Gwen agreed. "You know that – or part of you does. I just couldn't live with being nothing but a trophy anymore." Gwen felt Randi slump against her in defeat and put her own hurt aside to comfort her. "Sweetheart?"

"I never meant for that to happen. I never wanted you to leave me."

"I know. But it got your attention the way nothing else in the world would have. So we'll spend some time together here and we'll figure things out between us, and then.... Well, I guess once we figure it out we'll know."

"Okay, so next is my meeting with the team leaders, isn't it?"

Gwen took the book up again and Randi reached out a hand to hold one side. "Yep."

"That's it then," Randi said as she turned her attention back to the small group, meeting each person's eyes directly and holding them for a few brief moments before moving on. "Each of you has your assignment, and I'll expect results within the week. I don't want ya'll doing anything stupid, but I do want as much information as you can gather without putting yourself in mortal danger. I want answers and I want action. The sooner we can move on this the better for all concerned. Understood?"

"Aye, sir," they responded uniformly, and Randi's only visible reaction was a blink of her eyes. That salutation of respect was something she was going to have to adjust to. These were people she had worked with in the field as an equal, and to be so obviously separated from them now.... It hurt in a way she couldn't even comprehend consciously; it was just something she felt.

Randi took a deep breath. "Very well. Carry on, then. I will see you all back in here one week from today, and if you need anything, my door is open." She paused as they rose jointly to their feet and stood at attention. "Dismissed," she commanded quietly, and they all snapped a salute before turning and departing out the door.

She'd halfway expected Tiny to stay. He was clearly still very angry with her, though she doubted any of the rest of the team could tell that. He had maintained a perfect professional air and been as clear and concise in his responses to her as he had been respectful. But she had seen his jaw clenching whenever she addressed him directly and he made it a point to refuse to meet her eyes.

Randi looked at her watch, noting how late it was and deciding she could continue things in the morning. There were still a number of Sabres she needed to speak to, but she'd taken care of the most critical and sent them on their way. And though she knew that it was no longer going to business as usual – that is to say, business as it had become under Russ' leadership... keeping banker's hours – still, eight hours was time enough to spend working on her first Sunday back. With any luck, she could get things straightened out quickly and work on Sundays would become less of a necessity and more of an option.

For now, though Randi was ready to go find Gwen and see if she could make peace, even though she was still at a loss to understand what exactly the issue was. It wasn't like Gwen just to storm out without giving a reason, though Randi did understand the bard wanting to visit her parents. It had been the ostensible reason for bringing her along on what was purely Sabre business.

Randi's brow creased. Something in Gwen's reaction was off, and even more, something in Geoff's was. She folded her hands and brought them to her lips in thought. He had been as vocally supportive as the rest, but there was a hesitancy in his eyes – something troubled him about the whole situation. And he hadn't waited around to speak to her... he had left immediately after the meeting. She'd expected him to take a more active role... at least as active as he could manage. And yet....

Randi shook her head. There would be more time to consider things further later. For now, she had a bard to find and make up with.

Carbon's ruff stood up straight and his lips pulled back in a snarl seconds before Randi knocked on the door to Geoff and Jill's small cottage. When the tap sounded, the shepherd growled low and deep in his throat, then barked loudly. Geoff frowned in Carbon's direction, and he moved to answer the door, unsurprised when he opened it to find Randi standing there.

Carbon lunged and Geoff grabbed him by the neck and pulled the pup into his lap. He moved the hover chair back to allow Randi entrance and stroked Carbon's fur in an attempt to calm him. The further away from Randi they moved, the more settled the dog became. Randi frowned as she noted the odd reaction and closed the door behind her.

"What's up with him?"

Geoff shrugged. "Beats me, unless he just doesn't like uniforms," motioning to the clothing Randi wore like a second skin. He felt another shiver skitter down his spine. The Sabre standing in front of him scared him just a little bit. She wasn't the woman he had grown to love as a daughter and respect as a friend. This was something beyond his experience as she wasn't the tortured soul who was struggling with what she was and what she wanted to be.

This was someone who was completely and totally in command... of herself, of her situation, of her Sabre persona. There was no hesitation, no indecision. This was a warrior who knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish and had a plan for getting it done.

Despite himself, Geoff was impressed. On the one hand, he hated what he saw in her eyes... what she had become. On the other, he relished it, because he recognized that she was going to do what needed to be done to not only protect Gwen, but to end the rebellion once and for all. And selfishly, he looked forward to that. There was a part of him, a part that grew bigger the longer things continued, that was simply tired to his very soul. He felt like this fight had been going on forever, and he truly believed that Randi could and would put a stop to it.

His only concern was what it was going to cost.

A hand waving in front of his face brought him out of his brown study and he blinked his eyes rapidly as his thoughts cleared and he met Randi's sardonically amused expression.

He was struck then by just exactly how charismatic she was. She had an aura, a presence that was so compelling, so commanding, that if she had asked right at that moment, he would have stood and walked, regardless of the fact that his body couldn't tolerate the activity at all well yet. Part of him, the darker part that was rarely acknowledged and even more seldomly indulged, looked forward to seeing her wield the power that she exuded so effortlessly.

Then she spoke, and he remembered the look in Gwen's eyes when she had knocked on the door.

The change in his demeanor was subtle, but Randi had no difficulty seeing it happen. Geoff's eyes narrowed slightly and she felt the temperature in the room drop subtly.

"Problem, Geoff?" Randi asked as she took a seat. "Where's Gwen?"

"Out shopping with her mother. She was upset about something when she got here and Jill decided a new outfit for the story session she is doing this week might be just the thing to pick her up."

"What was she upset about?"

Geoff shrugged. "I dunno," he said blithely, giving no hint that he suspected it had everything to do with Randi. "When she got here, her mother took one look at her and decided they needed to go shopping. Personally, I think Jill just wanted an excuse to go out shopping."

Suddenly Randi turned feral eyes towards Geoff and he almost flinch from the burn her could feel crawling up his skin at the fiery trail they left.

"You let them go out alone?" she growled, tapping her comm badge.

Geoff furrowed his brow. "They're grown women, Randi. Of course I let them go out alone. It was broad daylight when they left and they are both more than capable of calling for a transport to get home."

"Need I remind you, Geoff, that Jerry Daetwyler was murdered in this very city in broad daylight not so long ago? And need I further remind you," her voice a mere snarling whisper that sent chills through his veins, "that Gwen is a particular target? Goddamnit, Geoff!!! What the hell were you thinking??"

She rose and moved to the door, her boots sounding loudly on the floor even as she started issuing orders. "Notify the command. This takes priority. I want them found and brou...." The sound of the door opening cut off her words and Randi's head whipped around to see both Jill and Gwen come through the portal laughing as though they didn't have a care in the world.

"Have you lost your fucking mind?" she snapped grasping Gwen by the arms and running anxious hands over every part of Gwen she could reach. Her touch was surprisingly gentle given the harshness of her tone. "Are you all right?"

Gwen handed off her packages to Geoff who had come up behind Randi without ever losing eye contact with the warrior. There was anger and frustration in those eyes, but mostly what Gwen saw was stark fear. She clasped the frantic hands in her own and brought them to her lips, calming the racing pulse she could feel pounding beneath her fingertips by touch alone.

"Sweetheart, I'm fine. We just went and did a little shopping. That's all."

"You can't do that anymore. You can't go out alone like that."

Fire sparked from green eyes and Geoff and Jill casually extracted themselves from the discussion, though Randi and Gwen were so intent on one another, they didn't even notice.

"I don't think so, Randi. You may be the Sabre Commandant, but you are not my master. I will not be dictated to! It's bad enough you completely disregard me, but you do not control what I do or who I do it with. I won't allow it!"

Randi straightened to her full height. "*You* won't allow it? This isn't your decision to make, Gwen. Your safety... *our* safety is my responsibility. It is my right to take care of you."

"Yes, it is, but not if you're smothering me in the process, Randi. I won't be penned up like some sort of an animal. And it is my right to take care of you as well," she continued before Randi could draw breath to speak. "What happens when the tables are turned and you decide to go out on some sort of mission? Do you just expect me to stand by and let it happen? Are you gonna stay in just because we are being threatened? It's what you expect me to do."

"That's a little different, Gwen. I am a trained Sabre warrior – someone with lethal combat skills and the experience to produce the necessary results. Do you really think you could kill someone to stay alive? Because that is what it would come down to. I can... I've done it before and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Whatever it takes to survive – whatever it takes to win. Can you do that Gwen?"

"Randi, you're being completely unfair and unreasonable. You're assuming I would get into trouble the minute I was out of your sight... I am a fully capable adult. I don't need a nanny goat or a nursemaid."

"No, but you do need an escort when you go out!"

"I don't believe you!" Gwen growled. She held up her hands and took a deep breath. "You do whatever it is you need to do. I'm going to bed."

"But it's early!"

"I have an early flight in the morning. Good night, Randi."

"Waitaminute," Randi just kept herself from reaching out and grabbing Gwen by the arm. "Gwen, please. I don't wanna fight. Where are you going in the morning?"

Gwen paused and turned back around to face Randi with a weariness she felt deep in her bones. "Home," she said succinctly. "I have commitments back there that I am not willing to break."

"Not even to stay here with me?"

Gwen hesitated then shook her head. "No. You don't need me here... not to do Sabre business. But Tommy and those kids do, and I made a promise to them I intend to keep."

"What about your promise to me? Doesn't that count for anything?"

"I haven't broken my promise to you, Randi."

"You promised to support me in this, Gwen. I thought you understood how important it was for me to do this... how important it is for us."

"I do, love. I also know that you don't need me here to get things done. Besides, I'm not going away forever. Just long enough to do my recordings for Tommy," not mentioning Randi's promise to be there for her performances.

Randi ran a hand through her hair and blew out a breath. "All right – fine. We'll leave in the morning. How long will it take?"

Gwen felt Randi's impatience in the biting words and she took a deep breath to keep from making another caustic comment. "I'll be three or four weeks. It depends on how things go."

Randi shook her head. "I can't spare three or four weeks. I'll have to see what I can arrange for security...."

"Randi, no! That isn't necessary. That is our home, and those are our friends."

"And we have been attacked more than once by people who want us dead. Dammit Gwen! Show a little sense here!"

"Randi, NO! I can't work like that. If it can't be you, I would rather it not be anyone." Gwen mumbled the last so low Randi missed it as she scrubbed a hand over her face.

"I'll make it people you know and trust... Reed and Tiny and Lacey," Randi continued as though Gwen had not spoken. "I imagine I can get any number of volunteers. Did you know that a number of Sabres protected you when you were on your walkabout? They really care for you, Gwen." Randi put her hands on Gwen's waist and leaned down to put them almost nose to nose. "Can't you see how important this is, Gwen?"

Gwen lifted the strong hands from her waist and squeezed them gently before giving Randi a sad smile and releasing them as she step back slightly. "I see how important you think it is, Randi. I just don't happen to agree with you." She stood on tiptoe and gave Randi a soft kiss on the cheek. "Goodnight."

Randi watched her go down the short hall and listened to the door close. Then she blew out a breath in frustration. This was not the ending to her day she had pictured with her triumphant return to the Sabres as commandant. She had been hoping for a bit of a private celebration with Gwen, and instead....

Randi walked back into the small living room and poured herself a stiff drink. Then she moved to the window that overlooked the garden and stood contemplating the darkness for a very long time.

Chapter IX

"Geoff, I don't like this. I don't like the person Randi seems to have become overnight. Who the hell does she think is acting like that? Do you know how close I came to slugging her... acting like she owned Gwen like that?? I've got half a mind...."

Geoff caught Jill around the middle and pulled her into his lap before she could make good on her implied threat and go share that half a mind with Randi. "Sweetheart, now calm down and...."

"Calm down?!? Calm down?!? Geoff, do realize the damage she could have done to Gwen... the damage she could still do if she lost control?? Our daughter is in mortal danger from that woman, and I promised her an ass kicking if she was stupid. That's as close to stupid as I am willing to let her get."

"Jill? Jill, calm down and breathe a second, please. Randi was afraid *for* Gwen – given what has happened to them recently and the fact that they are being deliberately targeted by the rebels, Randi has gone a little nuts. But she will never, ever lay a hand on Gwen to hurt her. It would destroy her. Besides, you know Gwen wouldn't allow it."

Jill sighed deeply. "I don't like it, Geoff. I don't like it at all."

"Neither do I sweetheart, but we really can't step in yet."

Jill turned angry eyes towards her husband. "We're going to wait until Randi hurts her?"

Geoff gently stroked Jill's back in an effort to calm her. "Sweetheart, I promise you... I honestly don't believe Randi can physically hurt Gwen. Gwen wouldn't stand for it and Randi wouldn't survive it. I don't think she would intentionally hurt Gwen emotionally either, but they are going to have to set those boundaries and determine what is too much."

Jill dropped her head onto Geoff's shoulder. "I hate this."

Geoff leaned down and brushed a kiss over the top of Jill's head, noting with some surprise a large number of grays he didn't remember being there before. "I know, love," he whispered and tightened his arms around her in a firm embrace. "But we can't interfere yet. They're still newlyweds – we have to give them the chance to work things out for themselves."

"But if things go bad...?"

"I'll kill Randi myself," he said with all seriousness, hoping the trial that they were just beginning to endure wouldn't lead to that conclusion.

"Um... wow!" Randi said softly, sadly. "I never realized...." She broke off and looked around the dark cavern, trying to adjust the mental picture she had of her in-laws with the one she had just been presented. She blinked as the awareness of just how much that hurt shuddered through her large frame and she held perfectly still until the first wave passed.

"No, because they made sure not to bring it to your attention so as not to put me into any greater danger." Gwen drew in a sharp breath when Randi tilted her head back and she could see the stark agony reflected in her eyes. She cupped the warrior's face gently with one hand and rocked Randi against her chest. Gwen leaned down and brushed a kiss over Randi's forehead. "They still love you, Randi... they never stopped. They just didn't like the person you became when you allowed the Sabre persona to become all-consuming."

Randi sighed so deeply, Gwen felt it in her toes. "*I* don't like the person I became when I allowed the Sabre persona to become all-consuming. But Gwen, you have to know something... have to believe it with all your heart – Geoff was absolutely right about one thing. Never, not even in the darkest throes of my stint as Commandant or Empress, would I ever deliberately hurt you. It would destroy me. My one clear thought has always been to protect and love you, even though I've clearly done a sucky job at that lately."

Gwen shrugged, hoping Randi wouldn't lean back and see the tears that had gathered in her eyes. "I never doubted your love for me, Randi... that's why some of the things you did and said hurt so badly. I never believed it was deliberate – that's why we're here together now. Not even on the darkest days from the darkest part of you did I think you were trying to hurt me, but a lot of your words and actions still hurt."

She felt the flinch and held onto Randi tighter. "I'm not gonna let him win, Randi. We're gonna fix this together... you and me."

Gwen felt the tremulous smile against her breast before Randi brushed a kiss across her skin and tilted her head back to look into Gwen's eyes. "I think that is one of my favorite words in the world."

"What, love?"

Randi smiled brightly. "Well, I really like that one too," eliciting a smile from Gwen, "but I was referring to the word together. That one makes us one – and combined, they make us invincible."

"Well, Wonder Woman, you ready to move on?"

"Yes. The faster we get through this the sooner we get back to us."

Gwen leaned down as Randi tilted her face up, and their lips met briefly before they turned their attention back to the book they still held between them.

The moon had moved quite far across the sky before Randi put the whiskey down untouched and crossed the room. Her steps were silent so as not to disturb the rest of the household and she followed the path Gwen had trod hours earlier.

Randi opened the door soundlessly and stood for a moment, just watching Gwen sleep. A frown crossed her face as Randi noted the restlessness in Gwen's body and the tenseness in her features. She stepped out of her boots and shed her clothes carelessly, leaving them to lie where they fell. Then she crawled in to lay naked next to Gwen, noting that the bard didn't relax against her for long moments. So Randi spooned against Gwen's back and fell into a light, agitated sleep.

Randi stirred the minute Gwen shifted away from her. That action in and of itself was enough to wake her. Since her rescue of Gwen from Ben, they had always used those first awakening moments to cuddle together while Gwen gently traced the planes of Randi's face.

Now Randi scowled even though Gwen took a moment to tuck her in and brushed a ghostly kiss over her forehead. Then the bard padded to the small guest bath across the hall and began preparing to leave.

Randi rose from the bed and contemplated joining Gwen in the shower, then decided to go with the signals that were being clearly sent for the present. She felt confident when Gwen had a chance to sit down and think things through clearly she would agree with Randi's reasoning. So instead, Randi put her time to good use, packing up their things and making a couple vid calls.

When Gwen came out of the shower, they didn't speak, merely changed places. Gwen looked around the room and noted their things were ready to go, so she went out to the kitchen to say goodbye to her folks.

"Is everything all right, baby girl?" Jill asked softly as she placed a cup of coffee in front of her daughter and pushed the bangs back from her forehead.

"Yes, mama," Gwen answered with a small smile in her mother's direction. "I have to get back to do those recording sessions for Tommy. You know that."

Jill gazed at Gwen knowingly. "That is not what I meant and you know it."

Gwen clasped Jill's hand in her own and squeezed it gently. "I know. But we'll be fine, Mama."


"Cross my heart."

Randi stuck her head into the kitchen and Jill schooled her expression into something close to a neutral welcome. Randi was so intent on Gwen she missed the uneasiness Jill quickly masked.

"Would you like some coffee, Randi?" Jill asked cordially, removing Randi's focus from Gwen momentarily and trying not to remember the fury she had seen in Randi's face the previous evening.

"No, thank you, Mom." This time seeing the flinch and feeling her heart harden just the slightest bit towards this woman who really had no right to judge her and yet continued to do so. Randi cleared her throat. "I owe you an apology though... I owe everyone here one," she continued as Geoff slid into the room. "I may have overreacted last night. I certainly didn't mean to scare ya'll. I just need you to understand how important this is. Gwen's security is paramount to me." She shrugged sheepishly. "I guess it makes me a little overzealous."

Randi noted a slight thawing in the Goldman's eyes and she accepted it as a first step in repairing the damage she had done the night before. She turned back to Gwen.

"Are you all right, sweetheart?" Randi clasped Gwen's hands, pleased when she did not pull away. She gazed into green eyes and found a myriad of emotion, chief among them fear. It hurt to think Gwen was afraid of her and Randi started to pull away.

"I'm fine, Randi, honestly," she said, cupping the warrior's face as their hands slid apart. "I just need to get going soon. I've got a lot of work to do in the next few weeks."

"Without me?"

Gwen nodded. "Yes. You said last night you couldn't spare the time, and I can't spare the time to stay here at the moment. I don't want to stand in the way of you doing what needs to be done to end the rebellion once and for all. I'm ready for this to be over with once and for all."

Suddenly Randi realized that Gwen's fear was not *of* her, but of the circumstances that seemed to be shrouding their lives lately. And for that, she really couldn't blame the bard – though she personally wasn't afraid of them. She was simply over the whole thing and ready to be done with it.

"I want to go with you, but...."

"I want you to stay here. I want you to do whatever it takes to bring you home to stay. I'll be fine."

"I will arrange for security immediately."

"Randi, I...."

"This is non-negotiable, Gwen. If you want me to be able to do what I need to do here, then you have to let me do this. Otherwise I will have to come with you or lose my mind worrying about you."

Gwen didn't answer; she simply left the kitchen and went to their room to retrieve her small bag. Randi caught up with her as she exited.

"I need you to promise me, Gwen... to show me you understand why I have to do this."

"I already told you I understand why you feel the need to coddle me, Randi. I promise you... I do understand. You do what you feel you need to do, and I will do what I need to do. And right now that means I have a shuttle to catch – Tommy and I had to reschedule Friday's session for this afternoon, and I'm not gonna let him down again."

"I already called Reed – she will fly you directly home. I don't want you using public transportation for the duration."

Gwen nodded. She would allow Randi this bit of precaution if it would help her to settle down and get the job done. Suddenly she was tired to the depths of her very soul. She wanted nothing more for everything to be over with so she and Randi could go home and live a normal life together.

"Thank you, Gwen. C'mon. I'll take you to the shuttle before I head to work." Randi took the small tote and tucked Gwen's hand into the crook of her elbow. Gwen shuddered. The feel was all wrong, but she couldn't put her finger on just what had changed.

Randi settled her into the small transport that had been provided for their use and they proceeded in silence to the Sabre landing field just on the outskirts of the capital city

Maybe some time apart would be best for both of us, Gwen pondered, and that thought created an ache in her soul so intense it made her breath catch in her chest - given what they had been through just to be together.

Randi felt the reaction and she looked down into Gwen's face, stopping the transport when she realized Gwen was having difficulty breathing. She blew gently in her face, forcing an instinctive reaction and causing Gwen to inhale automatically.

"You all right?" her sudden tenderness nearly Gwen's undoing.

Gwen bit her lip and nodded. "Yes. Just thinking about how much I will miss you."

Randi leaned forward and caught Gwen's lips in a light kiss, which both of the deepened by mutual, passionate consent. Randi cupped Gwen's face and threaded her hands in the blonde hair, reveling in the intensity she could feel between them.

Gwen let her fingers tangle in Randi's hair, kissing her as though it was the last time, memorizing the tastes and textures and scents until they were a living part of her. Slowly, she pulled them apart and placed a final kiss on Randi's nose.

"I love you."

"I love you too. Be safe. I'll miss you."

Gwen nodded and slipped from the transport and moved quickly towards Reed and the waiting shuttle. She wondered how long this separation would last. And she speculated on whether or not this was the separation Aphrodite had warned her of. She didn't think so – she wasn't forcing Randi to choose. She was merely going home to fulfill previous obligations.

Reed gave her a nod as she approached but was otherwise silent. Gwen recognized that Reed was probably in some discomfort and wanted to keep it at a minimum. She boarded the shuttle with a single backward glance at Randi and a wave, then moved quickly to the rear of the vehicle.

The flight home was made in silence except when Reed needed to communicate with Tiny. Gwen half suspected he was keeping an eye on their progress for Randi, but she remained quiet. There wasn't much she could do about it until they landed anyway. Instead, she focused her attention on preparations for her upcoming performance. Tommy and those kids deserved her very best effort.

When the shuttle set down with a bare whisper, Gwen picked up her pack and moved back towards the front to thank Reed for the ride. She wasn't surprised to see Reed reach for the cutoff switch and grab her own bag out from under the seat.

"Don't bother," Gwen said in a low flat voice. Reed turned to her in surprise, hesitating at the tone and then stopping all together at the look on Gwen's face. She meant business.

"Gwen, I have my orders."

"I understand that, Reed, and any other time, it wouldn't matter because you would be here as my friend. God, I hate to have to say this...." She drew a deep breath. "But as a Sabre you are not welcome in my home – not for this. It is bad enough Randi has given in to whatever madness had befallen her, but I will not be subject to it in my own home."

"I thought you promised Randi...." having spoken to the Commandant once they were in the air and on their way back to the island. Randi had made it clear the Gwen understood how things had to be and that she would give Reed no problems. Reed smiled to herself – she should have known it wouldn't be that easy. Given how skewed their auras were she was surprised they were still talking... much less trying to stay together through it – though she understood better than most just how important they were to one another's very existence.

"I promised Randi that I understood, and I do understand. I just don't happen to agree with her. I told her to do whatever she felt was necessary, and I would do the same. I cannot work if I am being hawked over, and even if you stayed in the background, Reed, *I* would know you were there. And I will not tolerate that sort of treatment in my home."

"Gwen, it wouldn't be like that. No one is going to impose on you; you won't even know we're there."

Gwen shook her head sadly. "Yeah, I would. I knew you were there during my walkabout... I just didn't care."

Reed looked surprised. "You knew?"

"Yeah. I mean, I didn't know who ya'll were, but after a while I knew I was being followed. I just figured when no one attacked me that whoever it was had their own reasons for following. I figured maybe someone who liked the stories I was reading to people, though I couldn't figure out why. They were the same few stories over and over again." She shrugged. "Like I said, I really didn't care. But I am well aware of this, and I do care. I don't want ya'll here."

Reed raked a hand through her newly shorn hair. She'd liked Gwen's new look so well, she'd decided to try something a little radical herself. She just hadn't expected to be nearly bald by the time the barber finished. It would be a while before she needed another cut for sure.

"Then I'm afraid we are at an impasse, Gwen, because I have my orders and they take precedence over your wishes."

Gwen refrained from putting her hand on Reed as she was well aware of the kind of pain she could inadvertently inflict. "If you feel the need to remain on the island for the duration, you can either stay here or you can go to the boathouse. But you are not to step one foot inside the beach house and I do not want you or anyone else near Midas. Do I make myself clear?"

Reed nodded, seeing the seriousness of the command written clearly in the green eyes that held hers. She idly wondered if Randi was capable of keeping this particular powder house dry, because she had the distinct feeling Gwen wasn't going to give much quarter on this.

"You do realize I will have to report this to Randi."

"You do what you need to do, Reed. But understand I am not kidding about this. I will not become a prisoner for Randi's peace of mind. Because this isn't about me... this is about winning. And she is determined to win no matter what the personal cost."

"Gwen, what changed? As of last Thursday when Tiny brought her home to you, I know she had your complete support. Even though you weren't happy and didn't agree with what was happening, you were still determined to support her... whatever it took."

"You didn't see what happened to her last night. I still support her, Reed, but I refuse to become a pawn in whatever game is being played. She's becoming someone I don't recognize by giving into her fears and I will not be part of anything that aids and abets those fears. She's going to have to get past them, whatever it takes."

"Do you understand that by defeating the rebels, she is looking to win once and for all?"

"Yes, Reed. I do. Do you understand that I run a real chance of losing her regardless of how things turn out for the rest of the world? Already I don't like what she is becoming to do this... it is beyond what she was before she died."

Gwen hefted her pack and moved towards the shuttle doors. "Maybe it would have been better for everyone if she had simply stayed dead. Ares would never have gotten an opportunity to try to corrupt her in this lifetime, and I wouldn't have to stand by and watch it happen."

Reed gasped, feeling the waves of misery that wafted from the core of Gwen's being. "You can't mean that. Gwen, you're soul bound to one another. Your karmic cycle could have been permanently destroyed had not Randi come back and allowed you both to claim one another once more."

Gwen looked back from the doorway at Reed, and the seer easily recognized the ancientness that resided in those eyes. "Our karmic cycle would not have been destroyed, Reed. That is not the way things work for us. She would have gone to her rest and I would have followed. That is how it has always been with us. The only reason I did not know it was time to go when she died the last time is we had not actually admitted our love to one another... that's the real reason she was allowed to come back. But I would have gone to my rest and found her. We would've been together again in the afterlife, and all of us would've been spared the misery and heartache we have already had and still have to look forward to. So, yeah... absolutely I do mean it."

"You would so willingly give up every happiness you have known with her in this life to have spared...."

"Yes, Reed. I would... in a heartbeat."

"And if you knew that her staying dead would have screwed your karmic cycle forever? That you would be lost to one another for eternity?"

Gwen hesitated. That was an infinitely tougher question as it meant losing something that was an intricate part of her being forever. Her breath caught at the palpable loss just the thought brought to her soul and tears formed in her eyes.

"Yes," she finally whispered. "Because it would have finally given Randi peace and she has more than earned that, Reed. Ares couldn't have touched her then."

"He would have owned her."

"What??" managing to wrap the whisper around an agonized keening. "Reed, that's not possible." She sank down onto the shuttle steps, her legs no longer able to hold her up when her knees turned to jello. "She was beyond his reach."

Reed nodded and moved to sit next to Gwen on the steps, though she left her bag neatly tucked under her pilot's seat. "May I?" she asked, motioning to the space beside the bard. Reed waited for a nod before she dropped down rather heavily beside her.

"You're right... if Randi had stayed dead after her defeat of Ghost Rider, she would have had peace for a little while. Ares couldn't have touched her as long as she remained in eternity. But she knew that she loved you and her soul was already pining for you before she died. She wouldn't have stayed in eternity for very long before she would have resumed an earthly form. And you wouldn't have been around the next time to stop him from winning."

Gwen sat silently for a moment, taking in Reed's words and letting them soak into her consciousness. She never took her eyes off the house she could just make out on the other side of the foliage, but she did finally speak softly. "How do you know this?"

"Rosie and I have been doing research. It took some doing, but we found some ancient texts that gave Rosie the ability to look beyond... to see the possibilities the past held."

"Isn't that what you do?"

"No," Reed answered with a smile. "I see the possibilities of what is coming. Rosie was able to look into the past and see what would have been."


"Because we need as much information as we can gather if you are to defeat Ares once and for all. Because what could have been could be again if your bond is broken."

Gwen gasped and wrapped her arms around herself in an effort to ease the anguish that trembled through her body as she faced the reality that she might be separated from Randi for eternity. Reed sat quietly and let her process the pain that rippled from Gwen's body into Reed's awareness. The seer focused on maintaining her barrier until Gwen turned to her.

"You bear a tremendous responsibility, Gwen... a burden no one should bear, but one that fate has handed to you anyway. You are all that stands between Ares and Randi's soul. Alone she is formidable but vulnerable. Together the two of you are invincible. If you win this time, you win for keeps. He will no longer have any sway over her."

"You sound so sure."

"I am."

Gwen turned her attention back out to sea and closed her eyes as a breeze blew across her face. "I don't doubt our love for one another or Randi's commitment to me. I never have."

"Then why the doubts?"

"Because the stakes have never been so high, Reed, and the odds have never been so stacked against us." Gwen looked at her briefly again before turning her attention back to the outdoors. She watched the breeze move the leaves randomly and Reed remained quiet, sensing Gwen was not done speaking.

"Aphrodite came to me. She told me what Ares did... how he managed to infect her. He took away her choice, Reed. So my doubts aren't about the bond Randi and I share – my doubts are about the outcome of this fight with Ares. He has made winning impossible this time."

"Not... really, Gwen. True, he did infect her. And true, it should have taken away her choice. But the fact is, it didn't... not completely. She has been struggling for control since this started. I think Russ did something to push her over the edge, because it wasn't until then that she decided she needed to go on the offensive."

"So she gave in to Ares," flatly.

"I don't think so. Gwen, even with her drive and her focus on becoming Sabre Commandant, on wiping out the rebellion, her first priority has remained your safety. I believe she is still fighting. Don't give up on her yet, Gwen."

"I'm tired, Reed. My soul hurts."

The seer mentally braced herself, then wrapped an arm around Gwen's shoulders. Gwen accepted the comfort, leaning her head against Reed's shoulder but keeping her attention on the world just beyond the shuttle.

"You're not alone in your fight, Gwen. We're all going to be here in your corner, and we're going to win. You wanna know why I think that?"

"Did you see it?"

"Would you like to see what I have seen?"

Gwen nodded. "I think I need to... especially if you can show me something positive." She sat up unexpectedly and looked into Reed's gray eyes – eyes that she had nearly lost helping to recover Gwen from the former Sabre that had kidnapped her and subsequently erased her memories. She shook her head.

"I sound like a whiny brat, don't I? God, I'm sorry. I just... I dunno. I'm just at such a loss here. I feel like I'm caught in the whirlpool of Charybdis. I seem to be losing sight of everything."

Reed smiled. "Nah... you just sound like someone who is running on overload. That's why I am here - to remind you that you don't have to do this alone this time. C'mon," she encouraged, tendering her own hands. "I'll make it quick. I don't think either of us is up for anything extensive."

Gwen proffered her hands towards Reed and was assaulted by a flurry of mental images when their hands linked. Then the connection steadied and she was able to make out a single image, and she wondered how Reed had managed to hold her vision on this one impression.

The two of them were older – Randi had streaks of gray in her hair on either side of her face over her ears and both of them had less than smooth skin. They stood together wrapped in one another's arms facing the ocean as the sun set. The prophetic foresight couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, but for Gwen, everything moved slowly enough for her to drink in the details and realize with startling clarity that she was looking at their distant future together.

Abruptly, the picture disappeared from her mind and the connection between her and Reed was broken. Gwen gasped, momentarily overwhelmed. There had been so much darkness, but that final image gave her the hope she needed. She couldn't have explained why she needed the reassurance, but she was glad Reed had been able to provide it. Even though it was only a possibility, it was a vision that would take her through the darkness yet to come.

"Thank you, Reed."

Reed smiled tiredly. "I'm glad I could help, Gwen." She rose shakily to her feet and snatched her bag out from under the seat before extending a hand down to the bard. "C'mon. You've gotta get ready for work and I need to make a few calls."


"It's okay, Gwen. Trust your instincts. There's got to be a reason you feel as strongly about this as you do. Just don't forget we're on your side too."

"You're sure?"

Reed shook her head and they headed up the short walk towards the beach house. "No, but that is what I feel most comfortable trusting at this point. There are so many variables, and somehow I think you pushing Randi out of her comfort zone will ultimately be a good thing. Might suck in the short-term though."

Gwen laughed wryly. "It already does, Reed. It already does."

Gwen stopped reading when the book slid off her lap and she looked down at Randi. The warrior didn't look up, but Gwen could feel the sobs and the wetness that was soaking the front of her shirt. Randi made no sound, but Gwen could feel the misery and confusion roiling through Randi's being.

For a long moment they stayed that way, and Randi absorbed the comfort Gwen so freely offered. Then she eased her grip and leaned her head back on Gwen's shoulder so she could peer gently into verdant green eyes.

"You would have given us up." A flat statement, no question in her voice.

"Yes," Gwen answered in a whisper, her eyes never leaving Randi's. "If it would have granted you peace, I would have given us up in a heartbeat." She reached up two fingers and cover Randi's lips before she could speak. "You've been fighting for thousands of years, love, and this time Ares stacked the deck against you... to make you his warrior forever. I wanted you to know peace, and if that's what it took...."

Randi removed Gwen's fingers from her mouth and brushed a kiss across the back of them before tucking them in her own. "Sweetheart, do you understand that I would never know peace if we were separated? Gwen, you're my source, my strength, my reason. Don't you know that by now? Without you... without us... there is no peace for me, and there never would be. We have been a part of each other for so long...."

Gwen loosened her hand and smoothed back sweaty bangs from Randi's forehead and let her hand trace down across Randi's facial features. The blue eyes closed at the feather-light touch and Gwen let her own eyes drift shut, allowing herself to simply feel in the moment. Finally, she moved her touch down Randi's neck and let her hand come to rest over the warrior's strong heartbeat, taking care to use a gentle stroke around the still burned skin of Randi's chest.

"We have, love. And I'm not sure either of us would survive an eternal separation. I know I was slowly dying without you here before we confessed our love to one another in this lifetime. I just meant you finally deserved some peace and if that was the only way to give it to you, I would have given that up for you to find it."

"Always looking out for me huh?" cupping Gwen's face and smiling when the bard leaned into the contact.

"Always. It is my privilege and responsibility."

"Then remember something for me." She waited for Gwen's eyes to track to hers. "Nothing is worth the price giving us up would cost. Nothing."

"I understand that. I just want you to remember that you are worth everything to me."

"Works both ways, sweetheart. No yin without yang." Randi paused then pulled the book back up between them. "Now, back to the grind. Every memory we work through makes my chest hurt a little less and I am ready to be done."

"Me too," Gwen smiled shakily, and they turned their attention back to her written words.

Chapter X

"Gwen, you promised me! You said you understood!" Randi roared. Reed had contacted her as soon as she and Gwen had settled into their respective residences. Actually, she had waited until Gwen gave her the go-ahead, both of them knowing that Randi was going to erupt when she heard.

Randi had been quite calm during Reed's report, instructing her to remain at the boathouse when Gwen was at home. Randi insured Reed understood in no uncertain terms that the minute Gwen left the island, Reed was to be by her side regardless of Gwen's feelings on the matter.

As soon as her call to Randi was complete, Reed placed another call – this one to Sky, requesting some local support. Already her hair was standing on end from all the skewed energy flying between Randi and Gwen, and she had the distinct impression it was only going to get worse. Her final call was to Rosie. She wanted to bring the shamaness up to speed on recent developments, and she hoped the added time would give Randi and Gwen time to work out the latest wrinkle in their road.

In the meantime, a storm was brewing in the beach house.

"I promised you I understood your position, Randi, and I do. I understand that you think I need a sitter twenty-four hours a day. I also told you I would do what I needed to do to live normally. And I will not be kept like some sort of prisoner, especially in my own home."

"Gwen, you need protection. This threat is real. The rebels will do anything they can to get to me and that definitely includes jeopardizing your life. They have already tried and they will keep trying until they win or I do. And I am not going to let them win. I am not going to stand aside while something else happens to you."

"And I can't stop living my life to accommodate some unreasonable fear on your part. Randi, the island is impregnable... you've seen to that. Reed is welcome to stay at the boathouse, but I will not have her here in our home as some sort of Sabre watchdog. I will not allow it!!!"

Randi gaped at her for a long moment over the vid screen, before her eyes became hooded. "I see. Very well, then. I will take care of this myself. She will be accompanying you to Midas, period. I already have other operatives in place there who will watch out for you. No arguments, Gwen. I don't have time for it right now."

Randi cut the connection without another word and Gwen stared at the blank screen unseeing until a light rap on the French doors brought her out of her shock. She turned her head slowly to see Reed standing there uncertainly and motioned her in.

The seer crossed the threshold and glanced around cautiously. Nothing was disturbed or out of place, yet Reed could feel the discord pulsing through the air. "Um, is it okay for me to come in?" she asked hesitantly.

Gwen rubbed her forehead then ran her hand though her hair before dropping her hand to her side. "Yeah, sure," Gwen replied. "I wish I didn't have to be like this, but...."

Reed held up a hand. "It's fine, Gwen. Honestly, it's better for me to stay at the boathouse. The vibes here are so whacked they are beating on my defenses and until and unless I get some sort of support, it could get very painful for me. I appreciate the distance."

Gwen grimaced. "I hadn't thought about that aspect. Are you sure you'll be all right?"

Reed nodded. "I've already made some calls. It is just a matter of getting folks into place. Rosie has agreed to come out this evening and help. I'll be all right."

Gwen reached out a hand, then hesitated. She certainly didn't want to cause Reed any more undue pain. Reed clasped her hand very briefly before releasing it again. "I'm glad," she said softly. "Now, let's get to Midas. I have a fitting and then it should be time for lunch."

Reed smiled. "I'm there. I don't know who your cook is there, but you can invite me to lunch any time."

Gwen laughed and picked up her things as they headed out to the transport together. "I think it is an apprentice of Ella's. His name is Gideon."

"You'll have to introduce me. My taste buds would like to say thank you." And so the banter continued down the road until they reached the Midas complex.

Gwen wondered what sort of directives Randi had sent down that she and Reed were passed through the gates without comment, then realized the new gate guard was one of the operatives Randi had spoken of earlier. She shook her head. She had a bad feeling about this.

"Gwen, what's the problem?" Tommy finally asked after he had to stop filming for the third time. Something was obviously troubling Gwen and he had a feeling Randi's distinct absence was a contributing factor. "This is not turning out like I visualized it and I don't think my imagination is at fault."

Gwen blew out a breath and walked over to the chair that had her name inscribed on the back. The children who had been patiently waiting for her story were claimed by their somewhat agitated mothers and given a small snack to tide them over til the next call.

"It's not, T. I'm just a little out of sorts today."

Tommy put his arm around Gwen's shoulder and he felt her lean into him for comfort. It disturbed him more than he let on and he turned to Gwen in full big brother mode. "C'mon, Little Bit. Share with ol' Tommy what's wrong. Let me fix it, then we can get back to the serious business of telling stories."

Gwen wrapped her arms around Tommy's middle and squeezed, glad when he returned the embrace fully. "Nothing you can fix, T."

"Musta been one humdinger of a fight then," he said evenly, feeling Gwen tense lightly in his arms. He chuckled softly. "And before you ask, it's very easy to tell. Ya'll are so in tune with one another it's real obvious when things fall out of sync between you. I'm kinda glad she's not here if things are that screwy between you. My hair would be standing on end."

"Pretty much," Gwen agreed solemnly.

Tommy felt her look around as she eased away from him, and it occurred to him that had been part of the problem. Something or someone in the room was distracting her. He didn't think it was Reed; she had agreed to wait with him in the control booth, though there was a distinct tension between her and Gwen – something he hadn't noticed before. No, this was something beyond that, as if the whole room was making her uncomfortable... or someone in it was.

The clue that had been circling finally bit him in the ass and Tommy reacted almost physically to the epiphany. Instead, he patted Gwen lightly on the back. "I have an idea," he said to her sotto voce. "I should have gone with my original idea to start with," he continued, muttering. He turned to the room. "Everyone out. Except for the children, I want everyone out of the studio."

Reed rose from her chair in the booth, wondering what was going on and how she could keep her spot in the booth without causing an uproar. There weren't that many people in the studio to start with and she wondered what had prompted his command.

Everyone else looked back at Tommy doubtfully until he began to shoo them out of the room, and Gwen was quick to note which were more hesitant than others. Soon, there was no one left in the room but the kids, Tommy and Gwen. Reed and one technician remained in the control booth.

Tommy felt Gwen physically relax and drew a sigh of relief. He should have expected Gwen's reaction though. The original idea had been to simply recreate the casual atmosphere of band practice. But Randi's call had changed all that and made it into a production. He had felt Gwen's hackles rise the minute she'd stepped onto the set, but she had tried to accommodate the change. It simply wasn't working the way he wanted it to. So he chucked Randi's directives and went with his gut.

Gwen rose from her chair and moved over towards the kids, some of whom were getting fidgety and restless. She crouched down and spoke to them in a voice too low for Tommy to hear the words, but in short order Gwen had one in her arms and another by the hand. The older children took the hands of the others, and as a group they made their way to the set fireplace and were setting up their own little nook.

Tommy casually walked over to the camera and focused it on them, motioning offhandedly to the sound tech in the booth.

The children and Gwen settled themselves comfortably on the pile of pillows they had stacked up around the floor and then Gwen began to talk to them. That's all it was at first, just informal conversation between them. The children talked about their various days while Gwen listened and laughed at their stories and antics. Finally, the youngest, Randall, who was comfortably ensconced on Gwen's lap, turned to her and tugged on her shirt. Gwen looked down into his wide brown eyes with a smile.

"What's up, cutie?"

Randall smiled back adorably. "Wen, story, pwease?"

"A story? I dunno. Do you think anyone else here might like to here a story?"

"Yes!" he replied emphatically.

Gwen grinned at his enthusiasm, and looked around at the sea of expectant, upturned faces. "Whaddya say, guys? Should we have a story?"

The cacophony that erupted was loud enough to make Gwen want to cover her ears, but instead she leaned back and laughed. When the noise died down, she asked her next question.

"So, what shall I tell a story about today?"



"Space fights!"


The number of suggestions Gwen got was only limited by the number of ideas the children surrounding her were capable of imagining. She laughed again and held up her hands for quiet. Eventually, they did settle down again, and she smiled at each of them. She had missed this and she welcomed the tingle of enthusiasm that coursed through her veins at their obvious eagerness. Her imagination pricked up its head, responding to the energy that now flowed from her audience, and Gwen's mind turned itself over to creating a story with all the elements the children had asked for.

Tommy observed the whole proceeding with a smile, watching the magic return to Gwen's face and voice as she rose to the challenge the kids had presented her. *This* was what she had needed, and though it was still a little off, *this* was what had been missing. He kept an eye on the camera, but for the most part, Tommy settled in to enjoy the new tale Gwen was spinning for the children who now sat around her, enthralled by her words.

For her part, Reed sat in the booth, struggling to maintain her hyper-alert status. Since Tommy had effectively dismissed the security Randi had set up, the responsibility for Gwen's safety fell solely and squarely up her shoulders. So she fought not to be drawn in to story that Gwen was weaving around her.

In the shadows, Randi stood hidden from sight. It had been her intention to burst into the room as soon as she knew that Tommy had discharged the security measures she'd practically forced him to employ. Then she caught a glimpse of Gwen surrounded by children with Randall sitting so trustingly in her lap, and Randi hesitated.

Gwen started to speak and Randi found herself spellbound by the sound of her voice. Then she began listening to the words and felt a calm wash through her as she allowed herself to be drawn into the telling of the tale.

At some point, Gwen became aware of the brooding presence standing in the shadows and she tailored her story to reach Randi like she couldn't any other way. It wasn't a Soulmates story, but it still held all the elements that Gwen wanted to share with Randi.

Eventually though she reached the end of her story – the pirates were defeated in a space fight with the cowboys and the knight rescued the princess so they could all live happily ever after in their underwater castle with the dolphins and seahorses. The children were thrilled and clapped and cheered when Gwen was done and Tommy nodded in satisfaction. This experiment was going to be everything he envisioned and more.

Randi stepped from the shadows and everything came to a standstill. The children had never seen her in uniform before, and though she tended towards dark and muted colors, there was something about the Sabre working uniform that simply absorbed the light from everything around it. She was a hole of darkness in a room already filled with shadows except where they sat under the lighting.

Tommy turned and caught the feral intensity in the look she wore and swallowed hard. After all, he had completely disregarded her orders concerning Gwen's safety and security and he'd known there would be hell to pay for it later.

He motioned to the tech who let the others know it was safe to come back on the set, though the mothers were the only ones who rushed in. The rest had no real reason to be in the room now that the filming had been done without them and most had in fact gone back to the jobs they had been hastily pulled from that morning. It was odd for Tommy to be so indecisive, but they had seen the trouble Gwen was having with all of them around, so most put it down to his accommodating her needs – which was the truth. The others, well, they would face Randi's wrath later.

Gwen rose from her seat as Randall was removed by Ella and moved to stand between Randi and Tommy. Randi reached out to gently move Gwen to one side, but the bard refused to budge and Randi was loath to use force against her. Gwen felt the anger roiling from Randi in waves and reached up a hand to her chest and laid it against Randi's heartbeat. She felt the pounding slow and finally Randi looked down into open green eyes.

"You don't get mad at him, Randi. He sent them out for me... he sent EVERYONE out for me, everyone except Reed. I couldn't work knowing half the people in here were here expressly to babysit me. So, if you want to get mad at someone, you get mad at me, but you leave Tommy out of this."

Randi scrubbed a hand through her hair. "Why, Gwen? You promised me." There was anger back of the words, but also a resigned tiredness. "Why are you so determined to make this difficult? Can't you see you are in danger? I'm just trying to protect you!"

Reed had escaped from the control booth and waited silently in the corner of the set. The technician had already moved to another area of the room to begin editing the shoot, and Tommy stood waiting patiently in the same spot he had been since he started the cameras rolling. Ella had wanted to remain as well, but a hand signal from Tommy had encouraged her to take Randall out of the room. Randall had been staring at his beloved playmate Wuv as though she was a spectre he had never seen the likes of before.

"Randi, you're trying to suffocate me! Reed was right here – against my express wishes, I would like to add – but she stayed because you gave her an order to protect me. Sweetheart, you can't wrap me up in cotton wool, no matter how much you might want to. I can't live like that, and neither can you."

Gwen paused, feeling Randi trying to get her breathing under control.

"I know what is driving this," she continued in a softer voice. "Randi, you can't let this fear win. What Ben did...."

"What Ben did was take you from me." The statement was stark and fierce. "What the Amazons tried to do was take you from me. Never again, my bard. I won't permit it."

"I understand that, Randi. But you've got to trust yourself and me. Trust Reed to handle things here until you can be here. She knows who to trust and who to look out for. I'll bet if I ask her, she can tell me the names of the half dozen Sabres you had staked out in here."

Randi looked startled. "You could tell?"

Gwen nodded. "Yes. Now that I know what to look for, it's easy."

Randi blew out a breath. "I won't pull them out, but I will pull them back for now. But Gwen, if something happens here...."

"Randi, if something happens here, I will stop everything I am doing and will go with you to the capital city until this is all over. But for now, I just need things to be as normal as we can manage. Please?"

Randi nodded her reluctant agreement. "You finish up here while I issue new orders. Then I'll run you home before I head back."

Gwen bit her tongue and nodded. She wanted to urge Randi to stay, but things felt awkward between them still and she hesitated to ask. Then Randi spoke.

"Thank you for the story," she said softly and trailed her fingers down Gwen's cheek. "I enjoyed that very much."

Gwen chuckled. "So did I, though God know the kids didn't make it easy."

"No kidding... space cowboys?" She dropped an arm around Gwen's shoulders and steered her towards the corner where Reed stood relaxed and waiting patiently. As they approached, it was all Reed could do to remain unaffected on the outside as their skewed aura battered against her defenses. For now her barriers held, but she spared a moment's gratitude for her upcoming meeting with Rosie. The shamaness would be able to bolster the barrier she had in place, and Reed appreciated the fact that not only could Rosie help her, but the fact that she was willing to do so. It had gone a long way towards cementing their friendship.

She was standing at attention by the time Randi and Gwen reached her. "At ease, Captain," Randi commanded, and Reed fell into position automatically. Gwen rolled her eyes.

"Reed, relax, will ya? I can feel the starch in your shorts all the way over here, you're so uptight."

"Let it go, Gwen," Randi instructed firmly. "This is military business and well she knows it. Her behavior is perfectly proper, given the circumstances."

Gwen glared at Randi a minute before slipping out from under her arm. "All right. If you will excuse me, I have business of my own to finish up before I can leave for the day. You two can take care of your military business without me."

Without another word, Gwen took Tommy by the elbow and walked out the door. Reed kept her focus on a tiny speck on the far wall to maintain the fa?ade required by her military bearing. Randi watched Gwen leave and slapped her thigh in disgust.

"Goddamn it!! I can't do anything right for shit as far as she is concerned lately, can I?? And why is she making things so difficult, hmm? Does she think this is some sort of game??"

Reed didn't answer. It was not her place to speak, especially since she wasn't sure whether or not the questions were rhetorical or directed to her.

Randi whirled again and glared at Reed. "Well?!"

"I'm sorry, sir. Well, what?"

Randi looked at Reed as though she had lost her mind. Then she realized Reed was reacting as a discrete Sabre should – never answer a question the content of which you're not entirely sure. "Nevermind," Randi muttered. "Assemble the troops in my office in five minutes. I have a different assignment for them."

Reed took a chance. "And me, sir?"

"No, you will remain with Gwen until she returns to the capital city to rejoin me."

"By your leave then, sir ...."

"Yes, dismissed."

Reed snapped to attention and saluted before scurrying out of the room, quickly finding her colleagues and gathering them to her with a nod of her head. Then they went directly to Randi's office to await their new orders.

Beth blinked at them as they strode into the reception area, but Tommy had given her instructions to leave these new hires to their business, so she watched as they followed one another into the security office. There was a precision and a military bearing to them that marked them as far more than simple security personnel, and Beth wondered what was happening at Midas that the military had moved in.

Meanwhile, Randi went to Gwen's trailer, knowing Gwen would need to remove her stage make-up before she could leave. A grim smile crossed her face as she thought back to Gwen confiding in her how much the stuff made her itch. Suddenly that closeness seemed so far away from them, and yet it had only been a matter of weeks. Her heart clenched at the realization.

Randi grabbed her head in her hands as searing pain lanced through her skull, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. She stumbled blindly and fell into the trailer and Gwen opened the door at the noise.

"Randi?!?" She turned and looked back at Tommy who had been sitting in the trailer with her going over her performance schedule. At her cry, he rushed to the door and looked at Randi in alarm before hastening to her side and easing her up the steps and onto the small couch.

"I'll get the doc...."


"But Randi...."

"No doctor."

Tommy looked at Gwen who simply nodded back at him. He started to move away and found his hand clasped in Randi's. He waited.

"Thanks, T," she said quietly. "It'll pass in a minute; it always does."

He looked at Randi for a long minute in serious concern. "Does this happen a lot? Randi, something could be terribly wrong – you need to get it checked out." His attention moved to Gwen. "You talk to her. Don't let her go all stoic on you either. And you," facing Randi again. "Don't be stupid." He squeezed her hand and released it, then left the trailer without another word.

Randi closed her eyes and let her head rest quietly on Gwen's lap for a few minutes until the blinding pain became a dull ache, then her eyes fluttered open.

"Did Tommy just call me stupid?"

"Not exactly," Gwen replied with a small smile. "He instructed you not to be."

Randi's forehead crinkled in confusion. "Have I done something lately to warrant that kind of warning from him?"

Gwen wasn't sure what sort of answer to give. She realized with startling clarity that Randi was still fighting – only she was fighting herself... with herself and for herself. It was as though she were two separate, distinct individuals fighting for dominance and control of Randi's mind and body. Gwen wondered if Randi would be able to survive if she couldn't merge both parts of her personalities back into a single whole individual.

Before she could form the words to speak, Randi blinked and when her eyes open, the blue had become a gunmetal gray. She sat up slowly as the pain diminished, confusion washing over her features again before they took on the hard planes of the Sabre warrior once more. Gwen blinked at the dramatic change she could physically see take place.

"I have some business to finish up in my office. Will you please wait here until I come back to get you so I can take you home?"

Gwen nodded her agreement and Randi brushed a light kiss across her cheek before rising and leaving the trailer without so much as a backwards glance. Gwen stared at the closed door for a long moment before she blew out the breath she had been holding and went back to her mirror. She was going to have to talk to Tommy about moving the schedule up, or canceling it completely until this thing played itself out. Despite the anger she felt and the turmoil that was her life currently, she wanted to be at Randi's side for as long as could be managed.

Truth be told, she wanted to kick Ares in the nuts for his inability to accept defeat gracefully, and for continuing to make a mockery of their commitment to one another. Gwen had never considered herself a violent person, but she was ready to go to war with him over this. She wondered if she could enlist some outside aide, and let her mind wander over those thoughts as she continued to remove the irritating make-up.

Randi took much less time than she expected and before she was actually ready to leave, the warrior was back at her side. Reed brought the transport around and got out, taking the motorcycle keys from Randi with nary a word between them. Gwen's eyes grew when she realized what had just taken place. No one but no one besides Randi was allowed on that bike except for Gwen, and Randi had just turned it over to Reed without batting an eyelash.

"We could have taken the bike, ya know," Gwen commented softly as Randi adjusted the transport seat to accommodate her much longer length. "I enjoy riding tucked in behind you."

"No," Randi answered starkly, the bleakness apparent in her tone. "It is too dangerous and I won't risk you again." She couldn't stop the shiver that trailed up her spine. "Something is wrong here. I feel...."

"You feel what, love? What is making you so skittish here?"

Randi shook her head mutely as she looked around the compound, searching for visible signs of whatever it was that was making her antsy. Finally, she moved the transport forward and headed out the gates. "My thumbs are prickling," was all she muttered. Gwen looked at her with a frown, but didn't say a word. She understood the reference well, but couldn't imagine what or who at Midas would set Randi's sense off like that. Neither of them saw the brown eyes burning with hate watch them head out the gates for home.

"Oh no, Randi," Ares growled as he watched the events play out on his scrying bowl. "No, no. You're not going to lose your focus now... not for blondie." He chewed on his lip as he paced, mind working furiously. He was too close to achieving his desires to let Gwen's hold on Randi to become her downfall. He couldn't afford her as a distraction for Randi's focus – not when she was this close to fulfilling her destiny, and his.

"Time to put your focus back where it needs to be... on the conquering."

"Waitaminute...." Randi said as they read that passage. "How do you know what was going on with Ares? It's not like we have a scrying bowl to spy on him," she added bitterly. It stung knowing how she had been played by this particular god.

"No, we don't," Gwen agreed. "But we have some friends who do. And we've been working on this a while. It took a long time to put all the pieces together, especially since some of them had to be gathered and recorded on the sly."

Randi chewed her lip in silent contemplation and Gwen simply remained still and let her think. Finally, Randi nodded her head and Gwen picked up her reading.

They arrived home and Randi was surprised to see that Reed wasn't already there. She had been rather leisurely in her driving, and she hadn't given Reed any specific orders that would make her late. So she was not very happy when Reed pulled up behind them with Rosie and dinner on the back of the bike. But Gwen welcomed their friend and Randi allowed her manners to usurp her anger. She would deal with Reed's insubordination later.

"It was good of you to come with Reed and bring us dinner, Rosie," Randi commented agreeably. "I feel like it has been months instead of just a week or so since I've had your barbeque." She stopped speaking when Rosie laid a hand on her arm.

"Please don't try so hard, my friend. I know my presence here is unexpected if not unwelcome. I came because Reed needs me, especially if she is to fulfill the order you have tasked her with. Don't judge her too harshly."

Randi didn't answer verbally, but patted Rosie's hand before gently removing it. Then she stepped towards the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

Gwen watched with confused eyes and Rosie shifted her attention to the bard. She waited patiently until green eyes tracked to hers, then she gripped Gwen's hands reassuringly. "Go to her, Gwen. Reed and I need to go down to the boathouse to do some work on her defenses. We'll be back shortly."

Gwen nodded her head numbly before moving to follow Randi into their room.

The warrior stood in front of her weapons closet casually studying the massive array of armaments she had cached there. She didn't even turn when the bedroom door opened and Gwen crossed into the room.

"Before I leave tomorrow, we need to start your training on a few new weapons. Reed will continue your lessons until I can be with you again."

Gwen's forehead creased in a frown. "Why?" succinct and to the point.

Now Randi turned around to face Gwen with her own frown marring her features. "Whaddya mean why?"

"I didn't stutter, Randi," Gwen replied with more than a hint of exasperation. "Why do I need more weapons training? I have the staff and I'm good with it. Why do I need something else?"

"Because I need to know you can protect yourself if everything else fails... if I can't be there." Randi's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Gwen, it's not a matter of *if* something happens to you, but *when*. You are my greatest strength, but you are also my biggest weakness, and if the rebels can exploit that, they will. That's just how they operate."

Gwen could feel the frustration rolling off the warrior in waves, and she stepped into Randi's personal space, feeling the hidden flinch at the invasion. It made her soul cry out in agony, while at the same time, it fueled an angry possessive streak.

"Don't," she said fiercely. She placed one hand over Randi's heart while the other cupped the warrior's face. "Don't let them dictate to you and don't let your fear win." She pulled away from Randi and stepped back, moving over to the doors that overlooked the beach and turning her back to the warrior. "I've already lost you to the Black Sabres again. Don't let the rebels win as well. They will completely destroy you. They have less of your best interests at heart than the Sabres do."

"That's not how it is Gwen. The Sabres don't own me... they *owe* me."

"Yes, they do owe you, Randi. But they own you as well. They are as much a part of you as I am, and you are their natural leader."

"Is that what you think?" The whisper was stark and pain-ridden.

"It's what I know, Randi. You can deny it, but they are the truth of who you really are."

"What does that do to us?" after a long, awkward silence.

Gwen's shoulders slumped. "It doesn't change how I feel about you, Randi. Nothing can do that. I promised you forever and I meant it. But it feels like you're slipping away from me, and...."

Randi walked up behind Gwen, within touching distance but still separated from her. Her reach was hesitant and awkward and Gwen made no effort to help ease the discomfiture between them. Finally, Randi let her hands rest on Gwen's shoulders, rubbing them lightly to erase the tension she felt resting there.

"I'm not slipping away, Gwen. I am trying to ensure that we are finally able to have a measure of peace to live in together in this lifetime. I think we have earned that."

Gwen patted the hand on her shoulder before pulling away from the uncomfortable embrace. "I do understand, Randi." She walked over to the bathroom and closed the door behind her. A look in the mirror showed green eyes full of despair. "I understand that you aren't slipping away from me. You are deliberately walking away from us and into the darkness alone by choice."

The bedroom was empty when she walked back into its sanctuary.

Chapter XI

Rosie took Reed's hands into her own and urged the seer out the French doors before Gwen had completely disappeared into the bedroom. As uncomfortable as the situation made her she knew Reed had to be in some sort of agony if her barriers were not holding. And while she didn't look to be in pain, she didn't seem particularly healthy either.

Reed took the hint and led the older woman into the boathouse rapidly. Without ceremony, the two assumed a position to help Rosie strengthen Reed's defenses. Reed had hoped it would take a while longer for this to become necessary, but obviously, she hadn't built up enough strength to combat the sheer awkwardness of their aura. What they were doing to her senses was like experiencing a continual wreck, and it was exhausting as well as painful. At some point in the very near future, she would need another session with Sky and the elders of her village to bolster what Rosie was doing for her currently.

As it was, Reed could literally feel the strength flowing through her veins, and it was a relief to her battered psyche. After a bit, she was able to pull away, and Rosie looked at her questioningly.

"I think we both need to eat before we continue. Passing out at this point won't help either of us."

Rose chewed her lip. "Good point. But we left all the food with Randi and Gwen. Are you sure...?"

Reed nodded her head. "Yeah. I feel much stronger, and we both need food. Besides, I want some barbeque, dammit!" Rosie chuckled lightly at this pronouncement and Reed grinned rakishly and wiggled her brows before her expression became one of concern. "What about you... will you be okay going in there with them after sharing so much energy with me?"

Rosie smiled wanly. "Their aura does not affect me like it does you. However, restoring some of the power I just shared with you is probably a good idea, especially since we need to do it again. We've got to find a way to make it more permanent, though."

"Agreed. We can talk to Sky and see if he and the council can come up with something. I don't think we've ever actually had something like this happen before."

Rosie shook her head. "We haven't. I've done the research. Ares has never gone to such drastic measures to insure his success, and that's a lot of what you seem to be combating. Not only is their aura together screwed up, but also Randi's single energy is entirely warped from what it should be. He has done something... it is almost as though she is fighting herself."

Reed nodded. "Well, that at least would make things make more sense." She paused in thought. "It does seem like we are dealing with two distinct personalities, doesn't it?" She shook her head. "We'll have to study this some more. It is just so beyond our scope of reality."

The two headed out the door and back towards the beach house. "Rosie?" Reed asked, breaking the casual silence between them.

"Hmm?" the shamaness replied absently. Her mind was already working on the convoluted problem she had been handed. There had to be a way to beat it... she just needed to find the right thread first.

"We are going to win, right? We *can* defeat Ares?"

"We'll find a way," Rosie assured the seer. "We have to – we can't let him win, so he won't."

Reed smiled. "Just like that?"

"Just like that." Then the conversation ended as they stepped onto the deck and knocked on the French doors.

Gwen walked out of the bedroom and noted Randi was casually setting the table for four as though nothing had happened. It was more than a little disconcerting. When Randi saw Gwen come out of their bedroom, she crossed the room and took the bard in her arms. Gwen returned the hug reflexively, acknowledging just how right it felt to be there despite all the confusion. It was moments like this she felt sure in her belief of them forever. It was just unfortunate they were becoming way too few and much too far between.

Eventually, Randi's hold loosened though both women refused to completely release the tenuous hold they had on one another. Instead, Gwen pulled back just enough to look into Randi's blue eyes.

"I do understand your concern, Randi, and if you think more weapons training is what I need, then we'll start my lessons tomorrow."

Randi drew Gwen back into her body for another long hug before brushing her lips over the soft, blonde hair. "I wish it wasn't necessary, love, but I can't stand the thought of taking chances with you... especially not now. So much has happened...." Gwen could feel the trembling in the strong body she was wrapped around and she squeezed tighter to show Randi her love and support.

Randi loosened one arm from Gwen's body and ran the hand through her long, dark hair and scratched at her neck in utter frustration. "I know you think you are losing me to the Sabres, but you're not. This is temporary... just until we destroy the rebellion once and for all. I can't... *we* cannot continue to live in a state of siege."

She would have persisted in her efforts at explanation had it not been for the hand covering her mouth. Randi looked down at Gwen with a raised eyebrow.

"It's all right, love. I do get it. I realize it is important to both of us for me to be able to protect and defend myself... just in case. I just want you to understand that I hope just in case never arises."

"Me too, sweetheart. Me too."

Whatever else might have been said was lost when Rosie and Reed knocked on the door looking for entrance into the beach house. Randi released Gwen and moved to let them in, knowing she owed both women an apology.

"I'm sorry, guys. I didn't mean to be so rude earlier. I just... having... knowing... this whole situation is driving me nuts and ya'll caught the backlash."

Reed didn't answer. There was a different code in place for her now, and the fact remained that Randi was her commanding officer. And as of yet, she hadn't given any unreasonable orders.

Rosie moved to the table and took a seat rather matter-of-factly. "Just don't forget who your friends are, Randi. Things will be a lot easier for you that way."

The rest followed her example and sat down in the awkward silence that followed. Gwen tried to break it, but was at a complete loss for something to say that didn't sound trite or inane. Finally, Randi allowed her Sabre persona to come to the fore and both Reed and Rosie marveled silently at the obvious physical change that took place before their eyes as she spoke.

"Reed, can you and Rosie take care of your business tonight?"

The two women exchanged looks before Reed turned back to Randi. "Temporarily, at least. It will require more work later on, but we can do enough to get by on until we can get things in place to create a stronger shield."

"And when will that be?"

"I have a call into Sky. If I go to them, we can do it in the next couple days. If they have to come here, probably a week or so."

Randi sat thoughtfully with her fingers steepled under her chin. Finally, she tilted her head towards Gwen, and the bard saw a flash of the woman she loved before the Sabre returned to the forefront of Randi's expression.

"Your choice, Gwen. You can go with Reed to the village or Sky and the elders can come to you. Which would you prefer?"

Gwen looked at Randi for a long moment before she turned her attention to the seer who was also her friend... a friend who was suffering almost as badly as she was from the rift that was becoming a chasm between Gwen and Randi. Gwen took note of the dark circles under Reed's eyes and the exhaustion that lay so plainly in the gray eyes. She saw the physical contact that Reed maintained with Rosie and realized even now Rosie was straining her own reserves to strengthen the barrier Reed had erected to shield herself from the skewed energy that permeated the bond she and Randi shared. If Reed could feel what Gwen did, she needed whatever help could be managed for her as quickly as possible. And if it was worse....

"I'll go with Reed. I think it's best that she get what she needs as soon as possible, especially if she is going to continue to be my sitter."

Randi gave an exasperated sigh. "Gwen, it's not like that...."

"Yes, Randi, it is, but I'm over it. We can start on the weapons training whenever you want. I'm sure there are several Sabres you will want to send with us that will be perfectly capable of instructing me. Now, if you'll excuse me, ladies," nodding towards Reed and Rosie. "I imagine the sooner ya'll get started, the better for everyone, so I'm just gonna turn in early. For some reason, I am exhausted. Don't worry about cleaning up here – I'll take care of it in the morning. Goodnight, guys."

Reed grasped Rosie's outstretched hand as Randi watched in consternation while Gwen walked away from them without a backwards glance. Gwen crossed the threshold of the bedroom and shut the door without ever looking back. Randi glanced at Reed and Rosie, astounded by the amount of pain radiating from the very posture of both women.

She jumped up from her place as though she'd been bitten by something and backed away from the table. "Are ya'll done?" motioning to their empty plates. They looked at one another and nodded. "Then why don't ya'll head back to the boathouse? I can see being here is making you both pretty miserable, and I'm sorry about that. I'm not really sure what is going on with Gwen these days." She shook her head then muttered under her breath, "I'm not really comfortable either."

Randi looked up again at the sound of chairs scraping back from the table. Rosie met her eyes while still maintain a firm grip on Reed's hands. "Thank you, Randi. Do you have a time you need us back here in the morning?"

Randi shook her dark head. "No. In fact, if ya'll want to head up to the village early tomorrow, that will be fine. I need to work on a few things with Gwen, then I will bring her up before I head back to the capital. I'd like to reintroduce her to the local Amazon tribe there as well."

Reed nodded. "That could be an immense help."

"I think so," Randi replied. "They are already somewhat aware of her capabilities. They could continue to teach her and protect her without me having to pull from the Sabres. And that means we can get our business finished faster."

"I'm all for that, sir." Rosie blinked at the address, but didn't comment. She knew Reed would explain everything more thoroughly when they were alone.

Randi nodded decisively. "That is what we will do then. The sooner we are done with the rebellion, the better for all of us." She cast her eyes in the direction of the bedroom before moving to escort Reed and Rosie to the door. "Ya'll be careful out there. I'll leave the light on until I get done in here and ya'll get back safely, all right?"

"Thank you, sir," Reed answered as she pulled Rosie out the door with her and moved swiftly back towards the boathouse. Randi watched until they reached the dock then moved to clean up the dining area so she could go check on Gwen. Something just wasn't right there, and it hadn't been since before the Amazon attack.

It didn't take long; it was mostly a matter of recycling the take away containers and washing up the few dishes they had used. Then Randi walked back over to the French doors and looked towards the boathouse, pleased that she could see lights and two distinct silhouettes. She flipped off the light and set the alarm, then crossed into the bedroom without hesitation.

What she found there was not unexpected, but still tremendously disheartening to see. Gwen lay facing the wall, wrapped around her own pillow and dressed in some sort of pajama outfit Randi had no recollection of ever actually having seen before.

It was clear from her body language that Gwen was still not happy, and Randi was torn between anger at her stubborn refusal to see the truth and sadness that they were obviously fighting about something she felt was a non-issue.

Randi scrubbed a hand through her hair in frustration, then crossed to the bathroom. She figured a hot shower would help her to relax. Maybe by the time she was done, Gwen would either be over her snit or at least asleep. In any of their previous disagreements, they had never been able to maintain their anger or barriers during sleep. She hoped this would be the same.

Then she stepped into the steaming water and let her thoughts wander back to the Sabre business at hand.

Gwen let the tears roll silently down her face.

When the water shut off, Randi stepped from the shower a bit more relaxed but no closer to a solution to any of the problems she saw as immediate threats – especially those that threatened her very existence... Gwen. She rubbed a hand over her eyes, then grabbed a towel to dry off with. The worst part of her problem centered around the fact that Gwen refused to accept the seriousness of the situation.

Randi reached up a hand and cleared a space on the mirror. She gazed for a long moment at the haggard reflection gazing back at her and rubbed the side of her face. The burning had started up again recently and it was starting to work her nerves in the worst way. She kept meaning to tell Gwen about it, but since they seemed to be a cross purposes continually lately, the opportunity hadn't really presented itself. She wondered briefly, given Gwen's attitude, if she would even care.

That thought caused a wave of pain to shoot through her head and she managed to push away from the vanity just before her knees crumpled beneath her and darkness enveloped her.

Gwen rolled over at the sound of the thump and looked at the door. She waited, but when there was no other sound forthcoming, she threw the covers off her body and rapidly slid from the bed. She was nearly running by the time she hit the bathroom door and she fell to her knees with a startled cry at Randi's position on the floor. She grabbed the wet rag from the shower door and pulled Randi's head into her lap.

With one hand she gently wiped Randi's face while the other combed through dark, wet tresses. Gwen studied Randi's face, noting with unease the hollowed cheekbones and the dark circles under her eyes.

"Oh, love," she murmured under her breath. "What have they done to you? What are you doing to yourself??"

As though hearing the whispered words, the blue eyes fluttered open. Randi blinked rapidly trying to figure out exactly how she ended up on the floor while her mind processed the feel and scent of the warmth surrounding her. Only then did she allow her eyes to track upwards to meet Gwen's green ones gazing back at her with love and concern. The intensity that radiated from Gwen's very being brought sharp tears to her eyes and she nuzzled the soft, firm surface she was nestled against to keep the bard from seeing the relief in her own.

Still, Gwen felt the relaxation that flowed through Randi as the warrior's body sagged imperceptibly in her arms, and she held on tightly for all too brief a moment before she allowed Randi to find a more comfortable position.

Much to her surprise, Randi didn't move off the cold tile floor, but continued to lay with her head comfortably ensconced in Gwen's lap. After a slight hesitation, Gwen resumed her ministrations, feeling Randi continue to relax into her. She closed her eyes and smiled sadly that there was such awkwardness between them so soon.

After an eternity, she felt Randi sigh deeply and she opened her eyes to find Randi regarding her seriously. Gwen moved the wet rag to one side and ran her hands carefully to the partially dried locks, letting her hand rest slightly on Randi's face.

"What happened, love? Why did you fall?"

Dark brows scrunched up while Randi considered the question earnestly. She remembered stepping from the shower, and then a shooting pain before waking up in Gwen's arms. Why did it feel like she had missed something pretty important in the interim?

She grasped Gwen's hand and rubbed it along her face. "Pain," she said softly. "Pain."

Gwen frowned in response. Randi was running their hands along the side of her face that had been scarred not once, but twice by different members of the rebellion, and Gwen had to wonder what was causing it to flare up yet again. Though she could see no visible evidence of its return, the spot where it had been was cold to the touch.

Gwen squeezed their joined hands and held them still, waiting for Randi to open her eyes. Finally, Randi opened her eyes again and this time she let them remain locked on Gwen's. For the first time, Gwen noticed the redness of the eyes that faced her. She wondered of the warrior was sleeping at all given the exhaustion she could see lurking in the back of her gaze.

Gently Gwen caressed Randi's face. "C'mon, Stud. Let's get off this cold floor before you catch a chill. I'll tuck you into bed and then we'll see what we can do for the pain, all right?"

Randi nodded, strangely compliant. She continued to rub her face into Gwen's belly as though the sensation was soothing. Gwen looked down at her in alarm at her unusual meekness, disturbed by the sudden shift in moods. Then she moved Randi into a sitting position, holding onto her while she felt the warrior gather herself, then helped both of them to stand.

Randi hesitated, hating to show any weakness, even in front of Gwen, but needing the support as she felt another wave of dizziness wash through her. Gwen held on, not making a big deal of anything, but completely unwilling to leave Randi to her own devices, even when the warrior tried to gently disengage herself from Gwen's grasp.

Instead, she wrapped an arm more firmly around Randi's waist and put Randi's arm around her shoulder before she slowly moved them back to the bedroom. It was fairly easy to get Randi settled once they reached the bedside.

Gwen started to step away, intent on retrieving some juice and painkillers to help Randi cope with whatever had thrown her for such a loop. She was a little surprised to find her hand caught and held in Randi's firm, light grasp, and she looked up to find her gaze snared by the blue-eyed intensity of the warrior's stare.

Gwen cocked an eyebrow in Randi's direction, and almost got a familiar teasing grin in response. What she got in its place though, was ultimately more heartfelt, and a true indication of how badly Randi felt... something that, given what was going on between them, would never have happened if Randi's defenses hadn't dropped so low. As it was, Gwen could do nothing but comply once the request was made.

"You," Randi said quietly. "I only need you."

In answer, Gwen climbed into the bed beside Randi and opened her arms. Randi snuggled into Gwen's breast, placing the burning cheek tight against Gwen's heartbeat.

Gwen waited for Randi to settle before she started a gentle tracing of Randi's face, relishing the touch between them. It seemed so long since they had shared this intimacy and Gwen found the memories brought tears to her eyes now.

"I've missed this," Randi whispered.

Gwen smiled sadly, unseen by Randi. "So have I," she replied with equal softness. "I don't like that we seem to be losing so much of what makes us... us."

Her words were only met with silence, and Gwen felt the tears well in her eyes though she refused to allow them to fall. Then she felt a warm wetness on her breast and she held Randi tighter to her, relishing the chance for the closeness. She felt Randi cuddle deeper into their embrace with a sigh. It was a very long time before either of them settled down to sleep.

They had no way of knowing how drastically their lives would change once again with the coming of morning.

Reed and Rosie were long gone by the time Gwen opened her eyes, and she felt around to discover that Randi was long since gone from their bed. She bit her lip at the feeling of desolation that swept through her, trying to remember when the last time was she and Randi hadn't woken together when they had shared a bed. Green eyes closed and Gwen concentrated on riding out the pain in her soul. She didn't even move when she felt a warm touch try to erase the wrinkles from her forehead. Only when the touch cupped her face did Gwen open her eyes to be met by the sympathetic blue ones of Aphrodite.

"You doing all right there, chica?" Dite asked with a small, sad smile. She brushed blonde bangs away from Gwen's eyes. "This is hard, huh?"

Gwen nodded and returned the sad smile. "Harder than I thought it would be, yeah. I expected... well, I hoped it would be over quickly." She slapped the bed in frustration. "Dammit, Dite! Haven't we been through enough? Haven't we suffered enough to be together in this lifetime?"

"Yeah, ya have, but this is so not my call. Otherwise...." she shrugged.

"I know, Aphrodite, and I'm sorry. I don't mean to take this out on you. I'm just tired and frustrated and.... We're gonna win, you know; we have to. I just want it to happen sooner rather than later. I'm sorry... the waiting is almost worse than just having it go ahead and happen. I think it is starting to drive me nuts."

Dite chuckled. "Well, babe, if it makes you feel any better, I passed nuts at such a radical speed so long ago, it had to be pointed out to me."

Gwen couldn't help it... she laughed. Whatever words she had expected to fall from the love goddess' lips, that hadn't even been in the realm of possibilities.

Aphrodite tilted her head, not imagining her honest response would get such a reaction from Gwen as the bard continued to laugh until she cried. And then she simply held Gwen in her arms until the storm passed. Though intense in duration, it was mercifully brief, and Gwen sat up almost as quickly as she had collapsed into Dite's waiting arms. She looked at the goddess with a watery smile.

"Sorry about that."

Dite pushed her hair back from her forehead once more. "I'm not. You need the release, and I'm glad I was here to help... hmm, that doesn't sound right, does it? And somehow, I don't think Randi is in the mood to appreciate that sort of humor these days. Tell ya what, though... anytime you need a shoulder, you let me know, 'kay? All you gotta do is like, call for me and I am so there."

"Thanks, Dite. I appreciate it."

Dite squeezed her hands then rose from the bed. "I gotta split before that gnarly warrior babe of yours comes bebopping through the door, but you remember what I said, all right? We're watching, even if it seems like we've deserted you."


"I'll be back when I can. Later, Cutie!" And she was gone in a shower of rose petals and sparkles, then not even the rose petals were left. Gwen blinked her eyes furiously. She'd never known the rose petals to disappear without a trace.

Then a hot, sweaty warrior came running into the bedroom and gave Gwen a wave as she passed right into the bathroom. Gwen blinked and slid from the bed, feeling like she had just stepped into the Twilight zone. Then she walked to the kitchen and began preparing breakfast.

Randi came out behind her shortly thereafter, drying her hair absently with a frown on her face. Gwen felt a frown crease her own face at Randi's expression, especially when that look of confused dissatisfaction was turned her way.

"What?" Gwen finally asked when Randi continued to stare. She crossed the kitchen to cup Randi's face in her hand. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?"

Randi didn't flinch, but Gwen could feel the tenseness in the skin under her fingertips. She looked into Randi's eyes and saw pain and confusion before the warrior's expression cleared, though the frown remained. With her other hand, Gwen smoothed the wrinkles from her forehead. Randi caught the hand and gave Gwen a crooked smile before planting a kiss on her fingertips.

"I missed you in the shower this morning."

"I missed you in the bed this morning. I figured you just needed some space."

"Not from you. I just woke up antsy this morning. Something... something is nagging at me, and I don't know what."

"Where... here?"

Randi shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think so. It's a feeling that started at Midas yesterday, but I can't put my finger on just what it is that's making me nuts."

Gwen smiled. "And that just makes you nuttier."

Randi nodded and returned the smile wryly. "Yeah, it does just make me nuttier. And these days, I don't think I need any pushing in that direction."

Gwen snorted. "Like any of us do?" She turned back to the waffles which were now a golden brown. "C'mon. Breakfast is ready and I've still got to get a shower. Then we can go...."

"We'll run by Midas to give Tommy the lowdown on things. Then we'll get you up into the mountains and I'll reintroduce you to the Amazon tribe there. I imagine they will remember you, though I doubt you will remember them."

"Are they the ones...?"

"They are the tribe we visited when you got your introduction to the card-carrying festival."

"With the staff thing?"

"Yep. You will be staying with Reed and Sky, but they will come in to help train you."

"Can you do that? I mean, I didn't know you had that sort of position in the tribe."

Randi smiled depreciatively and shrugged as she decimated the waffle on her plate. "It's not a position, really. It's more like an owning of a favor. Besides, the queen likes me and she is going to love you."

"What makes you think so?"

Randi grinned. "Because I am just that smart," she said cheekily. "Now, go get your shower so we can get going. I'll clean up the kitchen." And in short order, they were headed to Midas, though Gwen's mind was working overtime as she tried to make sense of Randi's change of moods.

It didn't take long to reach Midas and Tommy was easily convinced of the need, once again, to postpone Gwen's recording sessions. Truth be told, it was something he had been anticipating. Given Randi's obvious change of focus and her need to keep Gwen safe, he was surprised it had taken as long as it had. But it was apparent to both women that he had been more than prepared for the eventuality.

"All I ask, Gwen, is that you keep in touch with me from time to time and let us know that you're all right. It's in my nature to worry about you."

"And what am I?" Randi cut in. "Chopped liver??" She put her hands on her hips and gave him a mock glare.

"No, but I figure you will be too busy ruling the world or something similar." His serious response caught her off guard, and she merely blinked in reaction. "Besides," he continued without a breath, "Gwen and I may have a chance to get some more work done if I keep in touch with her. Ya never know when that muse will strike again."

Gwen smiled, trying to alleviate the sudden tension she could feel running through Randi's frame. "I don't think that will be a problem, T. My muse has a lot of catch-up work to do and has been busy working on a few new things. I think it is safe to say we will be able to do some more recording soon... regardless of where I am. And I think if we could do one or two in the mountains, it would be all to the better. I think a change of scenery could definitely work in our favor."

"Good," Tommy agreed readily. "We'll plan on it then. You just let me know when you're ready and we'll get things set up for ya. And in the meantime, ya'll stay safe, all right?"

Gwen reached up and squeezed Tommy around the neck, relishing the return hug he gave her. "We will, Tommy," she whispered. "Ya'll too."

"We'll get through this, Gwen."

At that point, Randi stepped forward and encompassed both of them. "Once this is over, Tommy, things will get back to normal... I promise."

It only took seconds for them to all be reminded just how not normal things had become for them all.

They stepped out from Tommy's office, arms still wrapped around one another. It almost caused Randi to react too slowly.

Without warning and without sound, Brad came around the corner, blade raised. He swung at Gwen, managing to slice into her arm before Randi grabbed his wrist. The warrior didn't pause, didn't hesitate, but continued to squeeze, feeling the bones break beneath her grip.

"Augh! Gwen cried.

Randi pushed Gwen behind her and advanced on Brad, pushing him down hard and making him hit the floor with a bounce. Tommy rushed to pull Gwen out of range.

"Randi, NO!" Gwen cried as she put pressure on her bleeding arm.

"Infidel!" Brad screamed as he fell to his knees. "The whore must die!" He didn't get to say anything else as Randi backhanded him so hard across his face Tommy heard the bones crack over Gwen's yelling in his ear.

Just for good measure, Randi hit Brad again, relishing the spray of blood from his nose as it washed over her. Then she grabbed him around the neck with her free hand and squeezed until he started to gag. He struggled to no avail, wincing when she released his broken wrist, only to snap the other arm in two places.

"She has... to... die, Randi," Brad wheezed. "If... not by... the... Wizards... then... someone else... will... do... it." He chuckled as her hand tightened, then he choked. "She's... she's your weak... spot... Randi, and the... whole... rebellion... knows it. <gasp> We get... her – we... get... you. And once... we... have you... we win."

Randi grinned evilly and reached down and hit a pressure point on either leg, rendering him immobile from his hips down. Then she snatched up the knife he had dropped, and he knew when he met her black eyes that he was going to die a painful death.

"Randi, NO!! Please don't do this!" Gwen pleaded to no avail.

"I don't think so," she replied calmly, ignoring Gwen's entreaty. She turned the blade and rammed it into his stomach cavity with some force. "You see," she continued conversationally as she slowly wrenched it upwards, "she is also my greatest strength, and I will do anything to protect her. Even if that means taking on the entire rebellion myself – one stupid son of a bitch at a time."

Brad looked in her eyes again, and in that moment he believed she would. For the first time he felt true, unmitigated fear. His sacrifice would be for naught. He started to cry.

Randi jerked the knife up into his chest cavity and pierced his heart, ready to have done with him. "No more living for you," she muttered as he toppled over into a puddle of blood and most of his internal organs. The entire exchange had taken less than two minutes.

Chapter XII

Randi moved away from Brad immediately, scooping Gwen into her arms and shouldering her way past the door back into Tommy's office. For his part, Tommy stood unmoving as she brushed by, stunned by what he had seen.

Gwen caught a glimpse of Randi's black eyes before they started to fade back into their natural blue. Without a word, she relaxed into Randi's embrace, allowing the warrior the comfort she needed to both give and receive. Time would come later for discussion, though Gwen understood why Randi had executed Brad. She just didn't understand the feral joy she so obviously took in it.

Out of nowhere, several of Randi's new security agents, the Sabre contingent, showed up and began cleaning up what was left of the rebel Wizard. Tommy vaguely wondered how they knew they were needed and how they were able to cope with the heinousness of the scene without emotion. But most of his mind was occupied by the images of Randi that had been seared into his brain.

Randi set Gwen tenderly on the couch in Tommy's office and started to place a gentle finger on the tip of the bard's nose. But she saw the blood that remained on her hands and pulled back abruptly, unwilling to allow the ugliness of what had happened to touch Gwen any longer than necessary. Instead, she held up a finger, silently cautioning Gwen to stay put and she rose to her feet, moving over to the door. Immediately, one of the remaining agents stood from his cleaning duty, nodding his head at her whispered instruction. Then he left at a run, returning almost instantly with a med kit in his hands.

Randi tried to pull Tommy back into the office with her, but he furiously resisted her attempt, jerking away from her and leaving without a backwards glance. Randi's shoulders slumped. Having Tommy walk away from her hurt almost as much as having Gwen push her away had. She only hoped she'd get the opportunity to explain.

Randi closed the door and crossed the room, kneeling beside the couch and reaching for Gwen's arm. The blood was only flowing sluggishly and Randi pulled an alcohol wipe from the kit without moving her eyes from the cut. Gwen reached her free hand and lifted Randi's chin until their eyes met.

"It's all right, Randi. I don't understand the joy you take in killing, and I don't like it. But I do understand why that is your reaction... especially after being attacked." Randi didn't answer but Gwen could see the relief in the back of her eyes. "We'll talk about this later?"

Randi nodded and turned her attention back to the cut on Gwen's arm. She sprayed it to numb the area and then poured cleanser on it before wrapping it up. "I want to get you out of here. We'll regen it when we get to Sky's."

"We're going to Sky's and not the cabin?"

Randi nodded. "I want you in the village. It will be easier to keep you safe there."

Gwen frowned. "Randi, um... why do you think I would be safer there? I mean... we were attacked there the last time we visited. People died. People are still dying because of me." She paused, drawing in a shuddering breath and sparing a glance towards the door. "Randi, I don't want to be the cause of something like that again. I can't," in a bare whisper.

Randi slipped onto the couch and took Gwen in her arms. "I know. That's why I need you to go to Sky's for now. No one will look for you there – they won't have time. And I can move enough Amazons in to protect both the village and you."

"No, Randi. I don't want anyone else to die."

"Gwen, people are going to die, because I am going to end this rebellion once and for all. The only way to do that is to destroy them, and that is what I am going to do. One rebel at a time, they are going to die."

Gwen closed her eyes. It wasn't something she'd ever wanted to hear come from her Marine and she felt Randi slip just a little bit further from her with the words. Then she opened her eyes and met Randi's gaze squarely.

"I don't like it, Randi. It's not your job and it's not your responsibility. Remember? You DIED for them. You don't OWE them *anything else*."

"You're right, Gwen. I don't. But I do owe US that, and I'm the only person I completely trust to get the job done. I know I can, and I know I *will*."

"Why, Randi? Why does it have to be you? Why can't you leave it to someone else?"

"Gwen, we've been over this. We *keep* going over this. Continuing to talk about it is not going to change anything – not the facts nor my position on what needs to be done." Randi sighed in sheer frustration as much as anything else. "The fact is if someone else was able to take care of the rebellion, it would have already been taken care of. The Sabres need a leader, and like it or not, I am the most qualified person for that position. Besides which, this has become very, very personal to me. I cannot stand idly by while someone is taking potshots at us."

"I still don't like it," Gwen stated adamantly. "It feels like you are being set up... like you are being pushed into it for some reason." She swayed and leaned further into Randi's body, somewhat reassured when the warrior reflexively clasped her tighter.

"By whom, and for what purpose? I mean, ending the rebellion is for the greater good and all. What difference does it make if I do it or if someone else does... as long as it gets done? Forget the fact that I am the most qualified person to get the job done – who stands to gain from me specifically taking charge and leading that kind of offensive?"

Gwen closed her eyes again as a wave of dizziness washed over her. She wondered what was happening since she didn't think she had actually lost that much blood. "Wh' cou' man'pla' y...?" was what Randi heard come out of Gwen's mouth before the bard went limp in her arms.

Without hesitation, she scooped Gwen back up into her embrace and stood from the couch, moving swiftly to and out the door.

"Riker!" She didn't bellow – she didn't need to. The man was standing just outside the door as though waiting for instructions. "Get me a medic with a regen unit and a shuttle, stat."

"The shuttle is standing by, sir, as is Lacey. She was summoned as soon as we knew there was an injury."

Randi nodded. "Good work." She looked down at the scrupulously cleaned floor. "Make sure that body is put in a place where it makes a statement the rebels understand."

"Aye, sir. Do you need some help with her, sir?"

"Nope. It's not that long a walk. Please let the command center know that my schedule will be a bit behind as I will probably need to stay overnight with her before I head back to the capital."

"Aye, sir... understood."

Randi headed out the door, but paused momentarily when she caught Tommy's eyes. He held her gaze as though searching for something, before turning his back. She walked out the door without missing another beat. Time for Gwen was too precious to waste on something she couldn't even begin to fix at the moment. Tommy would just have to wait.

As soon as Randi stepped foot onto the shuttle, the door closed and they prepared for take off. Lacey met her and together they eased both Gwen and Randi into the reclining chair as neither woman showed a desire to release the other from the hold they had. Even unconscious, Gwen clung to Randi fiercely, and Randi was just naturally proprietorial where Gwen was concerned. But Lacey was well-experienced in this particular bonding and knew how to work around it.

She cut the binding from Gwen's arm, wincing at the bubbling she could see still taking place from the cleanser Randi had poured into it. Obviously the blade had been contaminated by something. Lacey glanced at Randi for her reaction, a little startled by the fact that Randi wasn't watching - and indeed her eyes were closed and her breathing even as though she was asleep.

Lacey decided to take small blessings where they came and got rapidly to work.

When she was satisfied she had removed all the poison and infection from Gwen, Lacey turned her attention to Randi's hands. Though she hadn't seen Brad's execution, she had heard about it just as the rest of the team had from Yemin, the Sabre who had been assigned to Randi's office while Tommy's assistant Beth was on vacation.

According to his report, Randi's execution of Brad had been swift, and given the fact that he had attacked Gwen, fairly merciful. However, it had also been in front of both Gwen and Tommy and everyone knew how Tommy had reacted to the violence. Lacey shook her head. She wondered just how much more these two could survive together before everything fell apart for them.

Lacey took Randi's hands in hers cleaning the blood from them dispassionately. She felt Randi's eyes on her and looked up to find them open to mere slits. "How is Gwen?" Randi muttered hoarsely.

"She'll be all right. I've got her under the regen unit now and I sent ahead to let Reed and Sky know we're headed in. They'll be ready and Gwen should be awake in another few minutes."

"What was wrong? Was it blood loss or...?"

"Probably or. There was something on the blade he used to slice her with. It was still bubbling when I unwrapped it."

Randi sat up abruptly, taking her hands from Lacey and shifting Gwen in her arms. "Do we know what it was?"

"Wha' what wuz?" Gwen mumbled, blinking her eyes sleepily and sitting up.

"You need to stay still, Gwen. Lacey's got the regen unit going on your arm. It should be done by the time we reach Sky's."

Gwen frowned. "I thought we were gonna wait til we got there."

"We were, until the cut seemed to knock you out. So Lacey came along to fix you up."

Gwen nodded. "Are you staying?"

Lacey shook her head and smiled. "Not this time. But I'll be back." Then she got up to move away from the two of them to allow them a bit of privacy to talk. Gwen's hand on her arm brought her to a sudden halt and she turned to look at the bard with questioning eyes.

"Thanks," was Gwen's only word.

Lacey patted the hand on her arm and smiled again. "Anytime, my friend." Then she crossed to the other side of the shuttle, leaving Randi and Gwen alone in the silence.

Gwen sat comfortably, her head tucked into Randi's neck. She let her hands wander absently up and down Randi's sides, enjoying the feel of being able to touch while being surrounded by Randi. For right now, in this moment, Randi was totally with her, and Gwen relished it completely. They sat there for a little while, simply absorbing the peace. Then Randi drew a deep breath and whispered into Gwen's ear.

"Gwen, what did you say to me earlier? When we were talking about who would stand to benefit if I led the Sabres through this campaign to wipe out the rebellion."

Gwen sat up to look directly at Randi. "What do you remember?"

"I remember Brad attacking, carrying you into Tommy's office and wrapping your arm. We talked."

Gwen gazed into Randi's eyes, seeing nothing but honesty in them. Once again, Randi really didn't recall the actual act of violence she had committed. Gwen wondered what it would take for Randi to see the truth. She drew a deep breath and decided to push a little.

"Do you remember what we talked about?"

"Yep. We talked about why I needed to be the one to destroy the rebellion. Then you muttered something at me just as you passed out, but I didn't actually understand what you said."

"I asked who could manipulate you."

Randi absorbed the question with a thoughtful pause, understanding it was being asked in all seriousness and not as a knock at her integrity. Coming from Gwen, there had to be a significant reason behind the asking. Finally, Randi withdrew from her self-absorption and turned her full attention back to Gwen.

"No one," she replied sincerely. "There is no one on earth who could manipulate me into doing anything... except me. And that is not manipulation – that is decision and responsibility."

Gwen bit her lip and nodded slowly. "All right. I can accept that as an answer. But what about things not on earth? Could you be being manipulated by something outside the mortal realm?"

"Like a god, you mean?" Randi paused again for a long moment then shook her head. "I don't think so. There isn't one who'd be interested... except maybe Ares, and I already turned him down flat."

Gwen looked at Randi for a long time before slowly nodding her head. "All right," she drawled. "It was just a thought." She put her head back down on Randi's shoulder and snuggled more deeply into her neck. "Do you mind if I stay here a while longer?" she asked drowsily. "I'm still kinda tired."

Randi smiled and brushed a kiss across the top of the blonde head before resting her cheek. She squeezed Gwen gently but firmly for a long minute, then relaxed her hold just slightly. "You're always welcome here, Gwen. You get some rest. Regen takes a lot out of you. I'll wake you when we arrive in the village."

"'Kay, thanks," Gwen mumbled as she dozed back off.

"You knew," Randi said as Gwen paused in her reading. "You knew and you tried to warn me – you kept trying to warn me. But you didn't just tell me. Why?"

"I told you... I couldn't. You had to figure it out for yourself and make the choice on your own."

"Huh... no way he could win if I get to choose. I'll pick you every time."

"Would you really?" Gwen blurted out. An expression of hurt flashed across Randi's face and settled into her eyes.

"You doubt me so much? You doubt us?"

Gwen leaned forward and brushed a kiss across Randi's cheek, then cupped the same cheek in her hand. "Not here," she reassured. "And not now." She blew out a breath. "I will admit to having some doubts before – for a while I really was afraid Ares would win."

Randi thought about pulling away but realized just from their reading that Gwen's concern had been legitimate. Instead she covered the hand on her face, leaning into it and brushing a kiss against the palm. "I guess I can see where you might have gotten that idea. It's been a rough few months, huh?"

"Well," Gwen replied slowly. "It's not something I'd want to have to repeat, no. But ya know what? You're here, I'm here, and we're together at the end of it. That's good enough for me."

"Is it? Enough, I mean. This isn't exactly what you signed on for."

"I promised to stand beside you through the triumphs and trials of our lives, not just when it suited me. So yes," Gwen answered with a fierce growl. "It *is* enough. YOU are enough. You have always been all I ever wanted. Just because we don't always have moonlight and roses don't mean I need anything more than you beside me."

Randi grinned and took Gwen's hand in hers, lifting it to her lips and brushing a kiss across the back of her knuckles. "I love you," was all she said, but her eyes spoke volumes more. Gwen just wrapped her up and held on, being careful to remember the still burned skin on Randi's chest.

"Randi, do you remember what happened with Brad... I mean, actually remember it? Not what I just read, but actual memories."

Randi closed her eyes and breathed in the scent surrounding her... a scent that had been distant from her for a scant few months that had seemed like forever. Finally she brought her mind back to the question Gwen had asked her. She thought about it seriously for a long moment, searching every cognitive memory she had. Randi opened her eyes.

"No. I put it away like I did the others. There's nothing there, except for what you just read."

Gwen nodded slowly as though she had anticipated that very answer. "So you don't remember how you felt when...?"

"No... only how I felt when you read about it." She paused, formulating her thoughts, knowing Gwen was waiting for her to share. "I was glad," Randi said simply. "He hurt you – tried to kill you. I'm glad he died, and I'm glad I was the one who killed him." She paused again, watching Gwen's reaction closely, but finding no recrimination or reproach in her gaze. "He deserved far worse than what he got."

"Because he came after me?"


Gwen nodded again, as she once more got the response she expected. "I think he deserved far worse than he got as well."

Randi started involuntarily in Gwen's arms as the bard's words penetrated her conscious thought. She blinked rapidly, wondering what could have brought on Gwen's change of heart. The bard had never been a proponent of torture or violence for violence's sake, and what Randi was proposing was just exactly that.

Gwen smiled sadly. "You're wondering where that came from, I guess." Randi blinked again and nodded. She didn't trust herself to speak yet, but she wanted to hear why. Gwen leaned forward and kissed Randi's forehead. Then she sat back a bit and let her eyes drop to their entwined fingers before her voice became a mere whisper.

"After you... executed... Brad, you became obsessed. Completely. I didn't see you again except through notes, vid calls or in passing until the rebellion was absolutely destroyed. And then it was to become your...." Her nose wrinkled up in distaste. "Consort. And you know how I feel about that particularly title," giving Randi an exceptionally telling glare.

Randi scratched her nose and looked somewhat abashed. "Yeah, I think I am real clear on those feelings, love. I will never, EVER use that word again, even if we remain...." She broke off. "Gwen, what are we going to do about this whole Empress thing?"

Gwen's eyes opened wide at the point blank question. Though she'd been thinking about it off and on since Randi had taken control of the Sabres, she still hadn't come to any concrete conclusions so she wasn't ready to give Randi an answer. There were too many variables and it needed to be their decision... their choice. She shook her head and blinked.

"I think we need to tackle one thing at a time, Stud. Let's worry about this first. Then we can worry about whatever comes next."

"After this, anything else will be a piece of cake."

Gwen smirked. "My point."

Randi mock glared at Gwen. "You're pickin' on me." She smiled wistfully. "I've missed it."

"Me too."

Silence ensued for a little while as they basked in the contentedness of just being part of one another again. Then Gwen turned to Randi. "Do you want to read your memories of what happened to Brad and why?"

Randi seemed to consider it for a long moment before she shook her head. "No. I know what I did from your reading, and I know why I did it just based on my reaction to that. I don't think dredging it up yet again is going to change anything or make either of us feel any differently about it."

Gwen nodded her acceptance. "All right. I can understand that. It's not like we can't come back to this if we need to." She blew out a breath, fluffing her bangs with it before picking the book up once more and opening it to the place they'd stopped. "Shall we continue?"

Randi nodded. "Yep," she affirmed with determination. "Sooner we get this done, the sooner I can go kick Ares' ass."

"You might have to stand in line for that, ya know," Gwen joked lightly. "I have a feeling there are a few goddesses that will want to get in a lick or two."

Randi cut her eyes towards Gwen. "Me first," she grumbled, then motioned towards the open book. "You gonna read?"

"Yep," trailing a finger down the page to find her place. "Here we go."

Their arrival at the village was subdued. Reed waited for them, as did Sky and a woman Gwen had not yet met. There was nothing blatantly obvious in her dress or bearing, but the bard was convinced that the stranger was an Amazon. And not just any Amazon, but someone of responsibility, though Gwen was not entirely sure the woman was a ruler.

Randi scooped Gwen into her arms and trotted down the shuttle ramp before Gwen could draw a breath to protest. She came to stand in front of them and immediately the change was apparent – no longer were they treated as friends. Instead they were deferred to; it was clear that Randi's change in status with the Sabres had caused them to be viewed differently.

Gwen frowned. She wasn't entirely sure she liked that.

Randi eased Gwen to her feet but kept a possessive arm around her shoulders. Reed snapped to attention while both Sky and the unknown woman bowed their heads respectfully. Randi acknowledged the accolades with a slight nod of her own, then turned her attention immediately to Reed.

"Has everything been prepared?"

"Aye, sir. Rosie is at the temple and the rooms have been prepared at Sky's." Randi nodded and turned her attention to Sky.

"Thank you, Sky. I appre...."

The chieftain held up his hand to stop her speech. "You honor us, Ravenhawk. We will treat Little Dove like she is one of ours."

"Sky, she is one of yours. Thank you for making us part of the tribe." Randi then turned to the unknown woman. "Gwen, this is Lorac, weapons master for the local Amazon tribe. Lorac, Gwen."

Gwen frowned instead of responding to the introduction. She understood they hadn't talked about it, but being newlyweds, she had expected more of an introduction... some sort of status as far as her relationship to Randi. Then she realized that except for their honeymoon, and no time since, Randi had never once referred to her as anything but Gwen when introducing her to people. Gwen wondered why it had suddenly come to her attention and why it was bothering her so badly, aside from the obvious. Then she became conscious that everyone's attention was on her and she flushed just slightly under all the observation.

"I beg pardon," she said softly. "My mind wandered."

Without giving her a chance to protest, Randi swooped Gwen up into her arms once more and began making tracks for Sky's. The other three didn't even miss a beat, but fell into line behind her. Gwen started to speak, but one look into Randi's face with its clenching jaw made it clear that there would be neither discussion nor debate about her current circumstances. So Gwen simply laid her head on Randi's chest and closed her eyes in contentment as she listened to the musical rhythm of the steady heartbeat under her ear.

They reached Sky's in short order, and he walked in front of Randi to open the door, then passed her through in front of him. Without hesitation, she walked in front of him and right up the stairs, directly into the room they had shared not so long ago. Gwen reflected on how lonely it looked, knowing she was going to have to stay there alone for a still undetermined amount of time.

Randi waited for Reed, knowing the seer would be right behind them to make sure everything was taken care of to Randi's satisfaction. She crossed the room and turned down the bed, then stepped back to allow Randi the opportunity to tenderly place Gwen in the bed. Randi reached down and removed Gwen's shoes, then moved up to her pants. Gwen's hand on hers halted her motion, and she gazed into green eyes with questioning blue.

"Randi, why are you tucking me in? It is just coming on to midday and...."

"Because," Randi's hands resumed their motion, and she gently but efficiently stripped both pants and shirt from Gwen's frame before tucking the covers around her body. "You are apparently still suffering from the effects of whatever it was that Wizard put on his blade. I want you to rest for the remainder of the day. And if it continues, I will call Lacey back to care for you until I can assign a medic to you and get the issue is resolved."

Gwen sat up and threw back the covers, and Reed flinched at the raw fury she felt radiating from Gwen. She couldn't hear the low words being whispered between them, but it was obvious even to a non-seer that something bad had happened. She slipped out the door, motioning to both Rosie and Sky who had kept the room in sight for that very reason. They hurried to her side to give her grounding and Reed held on for dear life.

Meanwhile, Gwen got up from the bed, pushing Randi's hands away from her when the Sabre attempted to force her back into bed. "Now you listen to me," Gwen ground out through clenched teeth as she poked her finger into Randi's chest. "My drifting off had nothing to do with Brad and everything to do with you."

"Me? Why?"

Gwen looked at Randi for a long moment. "You really don't know, do you? You really don't realize." She just shook her head at the look of honest bewilderment that crossed Randi's face. Then she placed one hand over Randi's heart and the other cupped the side of her face that had borne the scar. Randi closed her eyes all too briefly as she leaned into the touch, then returned a look of questioning. Gwen took a deep breath before she spoke.

"Randi, when did I cease to be your bride? Your wife? Your partner?"

Randi blinked in confusion and her jaw muscles jerked. "What do you mean Gwen? You are still all of those things. We're still newlyweds for God's sake!" Her indignation was very clear.

"Yes, we are. And yet since our honeymoon, you haven't introduced me that way. I am simply Gwen and I want to know why!"

Here Randi made a critical error. She rolled her eyes and moved away from Gwen, walking to the door before turning back. "You have got to be kidding me! Why do I need to, Gwen? Everyone knows... even those who are meeting you for the first time. They know who and what you are to me. Why do I need to spell it out for them?"

Gwen blinked in astonishment, unable to believe she had just heard the words that had come out of Randi's mouth. "You're serious, aren't you?" Before Randi could answer she crawled back into the bed and pulled the covers up, turning her back to Randi. Randi looked perplexed at the sudden change in demeanor and started to walk back over to the bed. Instead, she was stopped by the resigned, flat tone in Gwen's voice.

"Go back to the capital, Randi. I'll be fine here without you."

The words cut and Randi staggered a bit under the assault. Then she straightened and whirled back towards the door, glancing back to relay her parting shot. "I will be downstairs for the remainder of the afternoon squaring things away for your stay. Call if you need anything and someone will accommodate your needs." She saw the flinch in Gwen's body from the formality of her tone, but she couldn't bring herself to change it. Instead, she slid out the door and closed it firmly behind her. Randi never saw Gwen's tears but she felt them cut deep into her soul as she made her way down the stairs. There was still work to be done.

Fortunately for Reed, Rosie and Sky flanked her on either side when Randi came downstairs. With a brief inclination of her head, Randi directed all of them into Sky's living area where Lorac stood gazing out the window waiting patiently. She turned when the others entered the room and took a seat at Randi's commanding gesture.

Lorac was more than a little uncomfortable. She wasn't particularly thrilled to have been given this assignment, and to know there were already problems wasn't making her any more at ease with the situation. However, her queen had commanded and she knew they owed Randi a great debt. She only hoped this would go a long way towards repaying it.

Now they all waited for Randi to speak. It was obvious to all of them that something was troubling the new Commandant over and above what had happened at Midas.

"You have all been brought up to date on the situation with Gwen. She will need to remain here until I can get to the bottom of the rebellion. I cannot risk her out there any longer. She is too great a target and my chief liability. The rebellion knows this and I will not allow them to capitalize on that knowledge, not for her sake nor my own."

Reed heard the words, but she felt the rending growing between them with each syllable and groaned in silent agony. This was becoming more intolerable by the minute and Randi was not in a position to accept advice about it. Rosie's hand on her arm brought her back to Randi's speech.

"Lorac, you will be chiefly responsible for Gwen's training. She is already well-versed in the staff, but she needs instruction on sais, lasers, crossbow and hand-to-hand. Anything else, you will need to clear with me first. Bring in your best instructors – Gwen is a quick learner and she needs the best to insure she gets what she needs quickly."

"It will be done, Chosen," Lorac responded, though her enthusiasm was far less than Randi wanted to see from her. Randi made a mental note to talk to the Amazon queen to insure the cooperation she needed. She wasn't going to leave anything to chance due to indifference.

"Sky, Lenore is sending a small contingent of Amazons to become part of the tribe for the duration. They will blend in as much as possible. Insure that they have what they need. They will be chiefly responsible for the safety of the tribe and will work in conjunction with your warriors."

Sky nodded. "They have already begun, Ravenhawk."

"Reed, Gwen is your responsibility. I need you...." She took a deep shaky breath and Reed wondered what had really happened between them once she'd left the room. "I need you to look after her well-being... physical, mental and spiritual. I can't be here to do that so I am asking you to do your best to make sure she has everything she needs to be happy."

"Aye sir. I will do my best though I am fairly certain she will not be happy until you return to her," Reed said bravely, her words having more than one significance though she doubted Randi would see past the surface meaning.

"I wish I could be that certain," Randi said in a bare whisper, so low Reed only heard it because she strained to do so. Then the warrior cleared her throat and raised her voice to speak again. "Assignments will begin this evening as I must return to the capital to begin final operations for the elimination of the rebellion. Lenore has been notified of my arrival?" with a glance at Lorac.

The Amazon nodded her head.

"Good. Then I will need to meet with Lenore within the hour. Sky, I will leave the security scheduling in your hands. Lorac, you will begin your training with Gwen tomorrow morning, and Reed, just do the best you can. Rosie, will you be remaining here?"

"For the duration, yes."

"Good, then you can help Reed with Gwen. Other than that ladies and gentlemen, I just want to walk around the village and check things out. Make sure there is nothing I am missing. I promised Gwen no more death because of her, and I'll be goddamned before I break it from lack of diligence. Now if you will excuse me...."

And with that, Randi made her way out the door, leaving the rest alone to ponder the shape of things to come.

Chapter XIII

Gwen couldn't stop the flinch that shivered through her body at Randi's words any more than she could stop the tears that flowed at the door's firm closing. She closed her eyes, hearing the disdain clearly in Randi's voice as she answered Gwen's questions, making it clear she felt Gwen's concerns were pitiful at best.

The pain was incalculable and Gwen curled into herself hoping it would ease the pain. Eventually she was able to block the sound of Randi's mocking voice from her consciousness and simply dozed off. She didn't know how much time had passed before a light rhythmic stroking of her hair brought her to a wakeful state once more.

When she blinked open her eyes, Gwen looked up into tear-filled blue, but it wasn't Randi who sat there looking back at her with such compassion. That fact alone was enough to bring the tears back, but she bit her lip instead and gave Aphrodite a watery smile instead.

"Hey, Cutie," Dite said with her own sad smile. "How ya doing?"

"I feel like my guts got ripped out, Dite, but otherwise, I'm good."

If she hadn't been the goddess of love, the look would have been classified as an unhappy pout. As it was, Dite's lower lip was extended far past her upper and she still appeared extremely unhappy. "Well," she commented with a sigh, "this is the beginning of the end. It's all downhill from here."

"You sound so sure. Why?"

"Because your guts got ripped out... that was the final rending. Now it's all up to her – all up to the love you share between you."

"Question is – will it be enough?"

"I think so," Dite replied hesitantly, continuing her gentle stroking. "But I honestly can't say for sure anymore. There way too many variables in play right now. It really is completely up to her."

Gwen rolled away from Aphrodite's touch at those words, turning her back completely on the love goddess. Dite regarded her with bewilderment. "Gwen?"

"There is no hope, Aphrodite. There is no love left in her heart... not for me or anything else. There is only hatred and killing and revenge."

Gwen's form was so tense, Dite reached out a hand towards her. Then she let her hand fall into her lap before she actually made contact with Gwen, fearful that even her light touch would cause the bard pain. "You are so sure the love is gone?" asking a question it hurt to utter.

There was silence for a long while from Gwen... so long Dite assumed she has simply fallen asleep. Then Gwen drew a shuddering breath. "No," she finally admitted in a whisper. "But my faith in that love is gone."

Now it was Dite's turn to inhale sharply against the pain. She hadn't realized that such an admission would hurt so badly. She sat quietly breathing, glad for the meditation techniques she had learned so long ago. When the grief lessened to a tolerable ache, Dite patted the bed and stood, walking around until she could kneel at Gwen's side within eyesight. Then she waited patiently for the bard to open her eyes.

It took longer than she expected it to, but eventually green eyes blinked open and Gwen focused on Aphrodite's sad countenance. She took Dite's hand in her own and laced their fingers together. Dite kept her gaze for a long moment without a sound until Gwen felt compelled to speak.

"What?" she asked, clearing the huskiness from her throat.

"I know it's hard, babe, and I know it's asking a lot of you, but I'm asking, 'kay? You were so sure of winning just yesterday. I'm asking you to keep having faith in that love. As impossible as it seems to you right now, that love is there. But if you stop believing, it really will be gone, and once it's gone...." She stopped and let the thought lie, knowing Gwen could easily reach her own logical conclusion.

But she could read the agony in the green eyes before they closed again, wincing in sympathy when Gwen curled into herself again. There wasn't much Dite could do except provide whatever comfort Gwen would allow, so she morphed into the bed, putting Gwen's head in her lap. And she gently stroked her hair in a soothing motion until she felt Gwen relax under her touch and her breathing deepen in sleep. Only then did she allow her own tears to fall.

As soon as Randi walked out the door, Reed moved to the kitchen area followed by both Sky and Rosie. A conclave had been set up and it only took one vid call to bring the other members of the tribe so they could begin the final process for Reed's barrier. They had hoped what they had already done would have been enough, but the rending had made it worse than they had imagined. So it was time to reinforce her shielding to a staggering degree – something they had never had to do before.

It would have been optimal if they could have done it in a sterile environment away from both Randi and Gwen. Unfortunately, Randi has already charged Reed with Gwen's safety, so they would have to work around her presence and the disruption of her spirit. Not an easy task, but not an impossible one either.

So the tribe gathered quickly, ready to set things right for Reed so she could do her best for Gwen.

Lorac followed Randi out of Sky's but she headed directly to the inn where the Amazon contingent was stationed. Sky had given the inn over to them and Lenore had been very pleased with the results. They had their own space while still being able to participate as part of the town and the joint training exercises with the village warriors had been mutually beneficial.

Lorac went directly to the queen's chambers, knowing that she would be there waiting for a report. Many of the Amazons, though enjoying the opportunity to train with their male equivalents, were curious as to why they had been brought into the village. Mixing like this was unheard of anymore... usually only the need to procreate forced them into other societies unless it was an individual, personal choice. Never had they been called to attend an outsider like this and certainly never in conjunction with male warriors.

So now, Lorac walked up the flights of stairs until she reached the queen's room and lightly tapped on the door. It only took a moment for Lenore to open the door and usher Lorac into her sanctum.

She motioned the weapons' master to a seat before taking one of her own. Then the queen turned to Lorac and lifted a brow in question.

Lorac sat silently for a moment returning her regard before shrugging her shoulders slightly. "I don't know, my queen. Something is very, very wrong, but I have been charged with teaching this outsider our ways, and I will do so to the best of my ability as will the rest of my warriors." She rose from her seat abruptly and went to the window, looking but unable to find Randi in the town. Then she turned back towards Lenore to find the queen watching her intently. "My queen," she asked suddenly, "why are we doing this? Why are we training an outsider to our ways? Do we really owe Miranda Valiant so much that she can command such favor from you... from us?"

Lenore smiled. She would miss all of her Amazons, but this one in particular. Of all the Amazons she knew, Lorac was her favorite, though they were not bonded or mated to one another. Instead, they were lifelong friends who spoke openly and candidly to one another, title and status between them notwithstanding. Even as frustrating as the weapons' master could be... as frustrating as she was being about this right now... Lenore appreciated her honestly. She wasn't one to hold back if she believed in something – rightly or wrongly, she stuck to her guns. So even though they had been over this several times before, Lenore took a deep breath to go over it one more time.

"Lorac, you know what we owe Miranda Valiant. She made so much possible not only for our tribe, but for the entire Nation. She changed the world for us. The least we can do is take care of the one who holds her heart. So much depends on Gwen's safety. I have seen... as has the priestess."

Lorac's shoulders slumped, knowing Lenore spoke nothing but the truth. It rankled that she had to share the tribe's secrets with one who was not of them, but given that Randi had shared hers freely, she really had no choice. However, she had sworn a duty, both to her queen and to her Nation, and if this was how they were both best served, then so be it.

Lenore saw the change in attitude when it happened. Lorac straightened and faced Lenore squarely. "Very well, my queen. She will be taught and protected to the very best of our ability. We will give you no reason to be unhappy with our performance."

Lenore smiled at Lorac and the weapons' master couldn't help but return the gesture. She resumed her seat beside the queen and Lenore patted her leg. "I knew I could count on you, my friend. Now tell me, what is wrong?"

"I don't know, Lenore," easing into the comfortable familiarity they shared now that the formalities were out of the way. "I just know the seer was having real problems and Randi seem to be completely off kilter when she came down from her room."

"It's okay to call her by name, you know, Lorac. You're going to have to call her Gwen at some point."

Lorac rolled her eyes. "I'm sure, Len. But I'd like to have my introduction to the woman acknowledged by her first if you don't mind."

Both brows shot up and the queen looked at her friend in some amazement. "I thought that was part of the reason you met them... for an introduction."

"I thought the same thing, but apparently *Gwen* was having some sort of issue. She phased out on me completely during our introduction and when she zoned back in, Randi scooped her up and carried her off upstairs." She paused and chewed on a nail thoughtfully. "I think whatever happened upstairs between them... I dunno... it just made things weird."

Lenore thought about Lorac's words. The weapons' master was good at many things, but she had never been accused of being overly imaginative. If she said something was weird, then something was most definitely weird. Question was... what?

They sat quietly together for a little while as Lenore processed Lorac's words. Finally, though, the weapons' master rose from her seat and moved towards the door. Lenore looked at her in startlement at the abruptness of the gesture and waited for Lorac to speak.

"By your leave, my queen. I have preparations to finish and Randi will be here soon to speak to you privately. I believe it would be best if I were elsewhere when she arrives."

Only one eyebrow shot up this time and Lorac knew there would be further conversation on the matter later. But for now....

"Very well, Lor. You go take care of whatever it is you need to do, but don't wander far. I want to be able to fetch you quickly if I need you."

Lorac nodded. "The instructors and I will be in the training room for the remainder of the afternoon. I need to be sure they understand the importance of their task."

Lenore concurred. "Excellent idea. So much rests on this, but I know it is safe in your capable hands. Go ahead. I will call you when I am done here. Perhaps we can share dinner?"

"I'd like that," Lorac agreed before slipping out the door and closing it soundlessly behind her.

She was only halfway down the stairs when she met Randi coming up. She merely nodded to the Sabre and would have kept going had Randi not blocked her immediate way. Instead, she stood on the step above her and looked her eye to eye.

"I hope you realize the responsibility you bear. I expect Gwen to be given every consideration and training an Amazon warrior would."

"She will, Chosen," Lorac answered with all seriousness and this time Randi saw the commitment she was looking for. "In fact I am meeting with her instructors in the training room this afternoon to assure they understand the seriousness of this assignment. Perhaps you'd like to join us?"

Randi didn't answer but nodded and moved aside to let Lorac pass. Lorac bowed her head respectfully before she stepped to the other side of the stairs and continued on her way down and out of sight.

Randi watched until she disappeared into the training room before she continued on to the queen's quarters, knocking and waiting respectfully for a request to enter.

Lenore was quick to open the door and bid Randi inside. Randi accepted the invitation and crossed the threshold into the queen's quarters, nodding with approval at the clean, Spartan surroundings. Randi motioned for Lenore to be seated, then took the chair opposite her.

"No guards?" Randi queried. Lenore shook her head.

"No. Sky and I discussed it, but we decided it would send a message we didn't want it to. There are those who keep a subtle eye on my door just to satisfy their sense of propriety, but otherwise, we appear much as any other traveler in the village."

"Did that cause problems for you?"

"Not as much as I expected," Lenore answered honestly. "I think my Amazons are enjoying their exchanges with the warriors here, no matter how much they try to hide the fact. It has been good for everyone, despite the reason for it."

A hard look crossed Randi's face fleetingly and Lenore wondered whence it came, but before she had a chance to ask, it was gone and Randi had opened her mouth to speak.

"Well, then... perhaps it will be something you will want to add to the teaching regimen. It sounds like it could be mutually beneficial. But for now... how are things going on your current project?"

Lenore cocked her head at Randi's impersonal wording and detached tone. From everything she had been able to ascertain, Randi and Gwen were completely devoted to one another and very much in love. Then she remembered Lorac's words and wondered just what had happened between them to cause such hardness in Randi's voice. Then she blinked when she found Randi's eyes boring into hers impatiently and she cleared her throat to speak.

"Very well, Chosen. Lorac has all the instructors in the training room now, assuring they understand the seriousness of the situation and their responsibilities concerning it. Sky has already given the warriors their assignments and schedules and they are already working together in teams to get things done without being noticed by Gwen or anyone else."

Randi nodded. "I noticed their casual placement around. He's done a good job and they seem to be adjusting well to working together. Does Lorac understand the responsibility she bears? I got the impression from her at Sky's that she was blowing it off."

Lenore shook her head. "She understands, Randi... your reasons as well as mine. She will not do less than her best for you or the Nation. Gwen will know everything she needs to become an Amazon warrior, and knowing Lorac's attention to detail, probably everything she needs to know to become a true card carrying Amazon Princess."

"Just insure she knows how to protect herself, Lenore. The rest is...." She waved her hand, dismissing it.

"We will, Chosen. Gwen will be fine with us." The queen felt the flinch rather than saw it, but she knew it was there. She wondered at the cause, but continued speaking. "You can go do whatever it is that you need to take care of, knowing we will take care of things here."

Randi took a deep breath as though she was going to say something, then simply rose from her spot. "I will check in with you as often as I can, but I expect to be fairly busy in the next few months. You will let me know immediately if there are issues – you have my private contact numbers, correct?"

"Yes, Chosen. You will be notified immediately if anything untoward happens, but I expect things to remain fairly status quo."

"Very good," Randi replied, walking towards the door. "I am going to go look in on the training downstairs and then I have a few more minor details to attend to before I leave." She opened the door and paused on the threshold. "Thank you, Lenore. This takes a load off my mind."

"We are happy to do it, Randi. You have done so much for us...." She broke off when Randi held up a hand to forestall her words. "We will make sure Gwen is well prepared."

Randi nodded then slid out the door without another word. Lenore sat quietly, a troubled look on her face as she processed the words and formal tone Randi had used. Something had definitely gone very, very wrong. She'd talk to Lorac about it over dinner. Despite what she and the priestess had seen, Lenore wanted to be prepared for all possibilities.

Randi slipped into the training room unnoticed and stood in the shadows in the back watching the various workouts. Without warning, she moved into an offensive position against the staff master and immediately launched an attack. The only indication the Amazon gave of her surprise was the widening of her eyes before she settled down to business, defending herself from the one who had enhanced the Nation's staff techniques.

It was apparent to all watching that Randi was only testing Cheyenne's worthiness as Gwen's instructor. She pulled killing blows easily and intercepted everything that came her direction. With a flourish, Randi drew the exercise to a close, then smiled briefly.

"Very good, Cheyenne. You're going to need to keep that right end higher though, or Gwen will hit you there every single time. She is exceptional with the staff – she can keep up with me." Then Randi almost had to laugh at the look of chagrin the crossed the staff master's countenance. There weren't many in the world who could lay claim to that particular distinction. But she managed to keep her composure and maintain her warrior facade.

"For the rest of you," she continued, addressing the entire room. "Gwen has little or no experience in your fields of expertise. I expect you to do whatever it takes to make her proficient, but kindly remember she is my consort and I will not tolerate any mistreatment of her. Am I clear?"

"Yes, Chosen," they answered as a single unit. Lorac had been very explicit in her instructions to them and they understood far more than Randi gave them credit for. For her part, Randi made eye contact with each of them, measuring their worth and finding satisfaction with what she found. Somewhere, they had found responsibility in their purpose and she for one was glad. She had the distinct feeling each of them was going to need it before all was said and done.

"Excellent. If you have any sort of difficulties that you need me to resolve, please let Lenore know. She has direct access to contact me, and I can be here within an hour if necessary. Otherwise, I will see you all in a few months. I thank you for your assistance." Then she was gone before any of them could answer.

They looked at one another in confusion, then turned to Lorac... their questions obvious in the eyes. Lorac just shook her head and motioned them back to work. "I don't understand it either," she replied to their unasked queries. "But we have our instructions and we have work to do. I suggest we be about it and try not to think too hard about the other."

But she made a note to herself to ask Lenore about things at dinner.

Randi continued her tour through the town, noting the careful placement of male warriors and Amazons. It was nothing noticeable, nothing a normal individual would have even seen, but to Randi's practiced eyes, easily discernable. She nodded her approval even as she made her way around the perimeter one last time. Several of those on duty acknowledged her presence with a slight nod of the head.

When she got to the restaurant, she paused, briefly remembering the last time she had been in this place. Her heart ached for the differences and yet she firmly turned her mind back to the present and forced her attention away from the road that led to the cottage. There was nothing to be gained from her memories except pain, and she didn't have the time or the inclination for it.

She continued her sweep, stopping by the barn to see Lancelot. He had been bred to several mares that spring and was prancing around in the corral in supreme contentment when Randi arrived. She watched him for a long moment before he noticed her presence and she smiled sadly at his enthusiastic greeting when he spotted her.

He rose up on his hind legs and pawed the air, whickering and whinnying before he raced over to where she was casually propped against the fence. He butted her in the chest and she reached up a hand and scratched him behind the ears, chuckling just a bit at his outraged snorting when she stopped.

She took Lance's face between her hands and looked him squarely in the eyes. "You be good, boy, and you let Gw...." She had to stop and clear her throat before she could continue. "You let Gwen ride you whenever she wants to; she's gonna need a friend. You be that for her, okay?"

Lancelot gazed at Randi in all seriousness then he nodded his head solemnly. Randi kissed his nose before she released him, then slapped his hindquarters as he turned to head back into the pasture. Lancelot whinnied once more and took off at a gallop.

Randi stood and watched him run for a while. Then she turned and made her way back towards Sky's.

The house was empty for all intents and purposes. There was no visible sign of habitation, though Randi could easily see the warriors ostensibly working around the area keeping a discrete eye on the house. It made her feel some better, though she wondered where everyone had gotten off to. There was no sign of Reed or Rosie or Sky, and she was fairly certain they would have been working on barrier enhancement when she left to do her perimeter check.

Randi glanced through each room in the house and realized it was empty except for her and Gwen. With a heavy heart and heavier steps, Randi slowly made her way up the stairs to say goodbye to Gwen. She wondered if the bard even cared at this point – she had been so angry earlier, and Randi was only trying to do what needed to be done so they could get back to living normally. Why didn't Gwen seem to be able to understand that?

Shaking her head, Randi reached the door and stood there silently for a very long time. She hated that things had developed like they had, but she honestly didn't see any other way to handle the situation. Finally, she drew a deep breath and blew it out before lightly tapping on the door.

There was no answer, so she knocked again and called out, "Gwen?"

There was still no answer and it occurred to Randi that either Gwen was sleeping or she was ignoring her. She opened the door, determined to find out.

Aphrodite heard Randi come up the stairs slowly and noted that Gwen was sound asleep. So she simply faded from sight but remained in the room where she could observe Randi's interaction with Gwen. Dite listened to the knocking and the calling out, then watched as the door slowly opened and Randi peeked around the room as though unsure where Gwen was. Dite saw Randi's shoulders slump in relief when she saw Gwen asleep in the bed.

For a long moment, Randi simply stood at the door looking at Gwen, a sad smile crossing her face at the look of peaceful repose on Gwen's face. Then she walked the short distance to the bed and knelt beside it, stroking the soft cheek gently before tangling her fingers in the blonde hair.

Dite wondered at the look of pain that crossed Randi's face before she closed her eyes. She watched a lone tear run from beneath the closed lid. It slid down to Randi's chin before the warrior took a deep breath and blinked open her eyes, willing the tears back.

Randi gazed down at Gwen, then she leaned down and brushed a kiss just at Gwen's lips, letting her touch linger for a long moment before she pulled back. "I love you," Randi whispered, and rose from her knees.

Randi let her glance remain on Gwen's face for just a little while, then she turned and crossed the room, exiting the door without a backwards glance. She never saw the tear slide from Gwen's closed eyes, nor did she hear the words, "I love you, too," whispered in return.

It was a very long, lonely flight to the capital.

Tiny was glad beyond belief that Reed had given him warning about the state of things before Randi arrived. It enabled him to put on his game face and prepare for the worst. And he knew when he got a look at the expression on Randi's face that the worst was going to be pretty bad.

Her face was actually schooled into its typical stoic fashion. It was her eyes that were different – cold and hard and stony. It made him want to cry for the things that had been pushed to the wayside for her to accomplish the goals she had established for herself and them. It looked to be a very long, ugly road ahead of them, though he honestly couldn't doubt the outcome with her leading them. Aside from her personal motives, it was simply time for things to be done and over with.

Randi gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment and Tiny took up cadence beside her as they made their way back to headquarters together. He didn't speak or ask questions, knowing she would be wanting answers from him instead and would be asking for them momentarily. She didn't disappoint.

"Report," short and succinctly.

"We have all the teams out searching for rebel bases. We expect reports to start coming back in within the next few days. We have already started amassing information and should be ready to put together a preliminary elimination plan within a week or so. Estimates show it taking until summer at the very least given the knowledge we already possess. However, if things work in our favor, this will be the last offensive we will need to launch. We will be able to destroy the rebellion and completely wipe out any sort of threat they pose to society."

Tiny stopped speaking and waited, hating the formality of his language, but knowing it was necessary in this situation. Randi was functioning in another mode from her Sabre warrior persona, and she didn't accept familiarity from anyone. It was one reason she was struggling so with her relationship with Gwen. The bard didn't know any other way to be with her and Randi was unable to function as the Sabre Commandant with that sort of intimacy in her life.

They continued walking into the building, making their way down the obscure hallway to the minuscule area that housed the Black Sabres in the huge cog of the world military machine. It wouldn't be long before they were openly successful enough to become the leader of that military machine but for now, they remained the anonymous, secret organization they had always been since their inception.

No one gave them a second glance and they made it into Randi's office without being stopped. She motioned Tiny to the desk and he nodded his understanding, sitting long enough to send an alert signal to the five other section leaders. Then he followed Randi into the inner sanctum and stood at ease, waiting for further instruction.

In less than two minutes, all six Sabres stood in front of Randi's desk, wondering at the urgency of the summoning. They didn't have to wait long.

"Tiny has brought me up to date on what is going on. I want you to know I am very pleased with your preliminary efforts. But we are going to step things up. I have other things to take care of besides rebels, and I want them gone as soon as we can manage. So," she said, slapping the desk and leaning her weight on her hands. "We're going to start putting plans into place. I want each of you to start working on details – all contingencies. I want to be able to put a strike force together on a moment's notice with a plan the will work the first time. Full access, people. No more obstacles. The point here is total destruction of the rebellion."

Six pairs of eyes widened slightly. They had never had such freedom in their careers and the thought was a little dizzying. Randi had basically put the game on their turf with their rules. Suddenly, the possibilities were endless. Only Tiny felt a tendril of fear skitter up his spine at Randi's casual declaration, and then he felt it run through that of his comrades when Randi spoke again.

"I will be leading each task force. This has become personal for me, and I intend to see it through to the end. Any questions?"

The implications of what she said hit all of them, but no one could deny her right. They only hoped this just meant good for them, and not just more bad for Randi.

Reed blew a breath into her hairline, her bangs tickling her forehead as they settled back into place. It was the most effort she could make after the intensive work she and the others had just endured. But finally, finally, they had reached a point where she could bear to be in the same room with Gwen and by extension, Randi and even both of them together. That wouldn't be tested for a bit though, and the seer was more than glad for that. They could all use a break. The whole process had taken far more exertion and strength than any of them had anticipated.

She looked down at the bard, still curled up into a ball as though trying to shield herself from pain. Aphrodite, still unseen by all but Gwen watched Reed's actions carefully. The goddess understood Reed was not there to hurt Gwen, but there were many different kinds of hurt and Gwen had already suffered more than her share for a while.

Reed sat down on the edge of the bed and let her hands gently run over Gwen's face and through her hair. She smiled when Gwen relaxed under her touch, especially as her shield seemed to be holding. That in itself was a huge relief. Reed was more than a little tired of having her senses bombarded by the skewered auras of both Gwen and Randi, and she was enjoying the reprieve. She was fairly certain the rest were as well.

Slowly, Gwen came to wakefulness and Reed watched with a slight smile. A smile that turned to concern when Gwen's eyes opened and she launched herself into Reed's arms.

For a long moment, they stayed that way, Reed providing the comfort Gwen needed to regain her equilibrium. After a bit, Gwen eased away from the seer though Reed kept her hands wrapped around
Gwen's biceps even as the bard looked into gray eyes with a sheepish smile.

"Um... sorry, Reed. You all right?" trying to move out of Reed's personal space. Gwen had observed the pain Reed had been in with her estrangement to Randi, and couldn't imagine how the seer was suffering with so much personal contact between them now.

Reed gave Gwen a reassuring smile. "I'm fine, my friend... really. We've done some serious work and built up my barriers. I can still see things are wonky, I just can't feel it."

"I wish I couldn't," Gwen murmured. Before Reed could reply, she continued, "How long?"

Reed blinked, her mind having gone off the track with Gwen's whisper. "Huh? How long what?"

Gwen chuckled. "How long will the barriers last?"

"Oh... I dunno. I guess we'll find out though. The good thing is here I have a support system to bolster it anytime I feel the need. But for now, things are good. I think we have finally found a good balance." She sighed. "I know I feel better, and I think the rest of the tribe does too."

"The rest of the tribe? They could feel...?"

"Only that things were off, and I think they were picking it up from me – not from you. Now that I've found my equilibrium, everyone has settled down."

"And Rosie?"

"Even Rosie. She's been a lifesaver, and she's gonna stay around for a while. She's already made some good friends here."


"Her choice, Gwen. She's glad to be here." And I'm glad she decided to stay. I think she and her power are the reason the barrier finally worked. Gwen nodded her head and Reed patted her hand in return. "Don't worry, Gwen. We're gonna get through this... all of us, together."

"You listen to her, Cutie," Dite said as she shimmered into view. "Everyone is on your side you know." She cleared her throat when Gwen cut her eyes at the deity. "Okay, all the totally cool people. Ares is just a radical ass," Dite said, responding to Gwen's look. Reed stood up from the bed and goggled for an unguarded moment, then swallowed her surprise. Obviously Gwen was accustomed to godly visitors and took it all in stride.

Gwen had to smile at Dite's words. "Yeah, well, when I get done with him, he's gonna be one sorry sonofabitch."

"Whoo hoo!" Dite cheered. "You go girl!"

For the first time in forever, real laughter rolled from Gwen's belly and she felt like she could conquer the world. Both Reed and Dite felt the change, and they joined in her laughter. It was an unusual enough occurrence that when Sky heard it, he and Rosie looked at the ceiling then exchanged smiles of their own. Finally, things were falling their way for a change.

Chapter XIV

"How do you feel about dinner?" Reed asked when their laughter finally stopped.

Gwen didn't have to answer as her stomach chose that moment to announce its extreme displeasure with her lack of attention to detail as far as it was concerned. She looked down at it askance before catching the gleam in Reed's eyes.

"I guess that answers that question," Gwen joked.

"You girls rock on," Dite said. "I've got radical places to be and major things to take care of." Her expression turned serious and she looked directly at Reed. "I would appreciate if you would keep my appearance here quiet."

"I understand, ma'am. My lips are sealed."

Dite's brows hiked into her eyebrows. "Ma'am? Did you just call me ma'am?" She turned to Gwen in outrage. "Did she just call me ma'am?? I'll have you know that...."

Gwen put an arm around Dite's shoulders and gave her a hug, drawing the goddess' attention away from Reed. "She didn't mean anything by it, Dite; it's a sign of respect from her."

Dite raised an eyebrow and cast a look back at Reed who stood casually at ease. Her posture reminded Dite of Randi and she suddenly understood. "Gotcha. All righty. Got things to do, babe." She kissed Gwen's cheek. "Set her straight about the ma'am thing, will ya? Later, Cutie!" Then she shimmered out of sight, leaving only a few rose petals in her wake.

"C'mon, Gwen. My belly hasn't started rumbling yet, but it's only a matter of time."

Gwen took the hand that Reed extended to her and they made their way down the stairs to join Sky and Rosie in the kitchen. It promised to be an interesting evening.

"Good morning," Lorac said as Gwen stepped into the training room. After her conversations with both Randi and Lenore, the weapons master had decided to wait for Gwen to join them before setting some ground rules, including finding out how the bard preferred to be addressed. She had no desire to tick Randi off for any perceived dishonor or mistreatment of her consort and she suspected it would be to her advantage to make sure Gwen was comfortable in her new learning environment. She was surprised that Gwen was up and about so early, though she wasn't sure what she really anticipated either. She had an idea, however, that this was going to be a lot different from her original expectations.

"Good morning, Lorac. I want to apologize for yesterday. I am not normally so rude at a first meeting."

The weapons master held up her hand and offered Gwen a tentative smile. "No apology is necessary. I understand, mostly, and what I don't...." She shrugged. "First though, I need to know what you'd like be called."

Gwen smiled. "Most folks just call me Gwen."

"Gwen. Okay... I can work with that. Much better than consort, at any rate," not seeing Gwen's face harden at the term. "Now," Lorac continued, "I've set up a pretty comprehensive training schedule. If you'd like to look it over and make sure it meets your needs.... I thought we'd spend the first part of each day concentrating on a single discipline. Then we can spend the afternoon brushing up on each of the others."

Gwen spent a moment looking over the schedule, her eyes widening at the number of different martial arts she would be studying. "It looks okay to me, Lorac. I would also like to keep up my daily staff work if possible."

"Absolutely, Gwen. We expected as much, and Cheyenne has been practicing for just such an opportunity. Of course, that was before Randi told us of your skill level, so if you like, we'll make the playing ground a little more level for Cheyenne and little more interesting for you."

"Whatever you like," Gwen said with fiendish delight, her insides just a little warmer for hearing Randi's praise of her skill... even secondhand.

Lorac cleared her throat. "All right then. I'd like to start around seven every morning and finish up around three in the afternoon. Then your evenings will be free to do... um, whatever it is you'd like to do in the evenings."

"Do you think... is there someone here who would be willing to spend some time in the evenings teaching me Amazon traditions and customs? I'd like the chance to learn if anyone is willing to share."

"I'm sure I can find several volunteers," Lorac commented as the other masters stepped into the room at her direction. "Let me introduce you to the women you will be working with during your weapons' drills and then we can get started."

Gwen nodded and Lorac went around the room slowly, introducing each Amazon warrior and giving a brief summary of her qualifications in her chosen field. When they reached the last woman, Gwen was surprised to find a woman not much taller than herself and slight; most of the others had been nearly a head taller, much closer to Randi's size.

"Coop here is a scout. She will teach you stealth and tree walking."

"Um, tree walking?"

"Yeah. Hope you're not afraid of heights."

Gwen's head dropped and she covered her eyes. "I am so doomed."

Lorac just chuckled and signaled to Cheyenne. "Why don't we start with staff work today just to sort of get into a groove? Then you can choose what you'd like to learn every morning before we get started. That sound all right?"

"Sounds like a plan, Lorac," Gwen replied. "Let me go get my staff."

"Oh my God," Lorac groaned to Lenore. Lenore just laughed and offered the weapons master a glass of ice water. Lorac gulped it like a man dying of thirst in the desert.

"Randi didn't lie about her skill, I take it?"

"No. And if she is that proficient with learning the staff, teaching her almost everything else should be easy. Sword and hand to hand might require a little more time since they are offensive and not defensive skills, but I expect her to pick up the rest fairly quickly." Lorac shifted in her seat and accepted the plate of food Lenore placed in front of her. Then she waited for the queen to take the chair across from her and begin eating before she picked up her fork and did the same.

Quiet reigned for a few minutes while the two of them ate, then Lorac cleared her throat. "She wants to learn about us – our customs and traditions and stuff. Do you think...?"

Lenore nodded. "I'd like the chance to teach her. Invite her to dinner tonight." She paused and took a deep breath. "On second thought, I'll come down for the afternoon session and invite her myself."

"As you wish, my Queen. I think you will be impressed."

Lenore smiled. "I remember hearing about her skill from my sister. I expect to be."

More quiet before Lorac unexpectedly chuckled. "One thing," waiting for and getting an eyebrow raised in question. "She's afraid of heights."

"Oh my."

Lenore watched silently as Gwen took on all comers with her staff. Each of the instructors had decided to go easy on the newcomer until they had seen her skill that morning. So the afternoon's exercise was a joint effort and Gwen was taking all of them on at once and it looked like a deadly ballet. Finally, Gwen was the only on left standing and Lenore started clapping.

Groaning, the Amazons scattered around on the ground rose to unsteady feet and Lorac came to stand next to Gwen.

"One request?" The bard nodded. "From now on we do staff work at the end of the day only. I wanna be able to go from here right to soak in a hot tub."

Gwen chuckled. "Deal."

"Good. Then I think we are done for the day. Will you come and meet my queen? She volunteered to be the one to teach you traditions and customs."

"I'd like that, Lorac. Please," gesturing her to lead the way.

Lenore extended her hand as they approached and Gwen accepted it naturally as she and the queen were introduced by Lorac. The two studied one another, each liking what they saw in the other, and hoping they had found a new friend.

"It's delightful to meet you, Gwen. I have looked forward to this since Randi contacted us." She watched the barriers go up in Gwen's green eyes and wondered what she'd said to merit that response from someone who only a moment earlier had been open to her.

"Thank you, your majesty. It's an honor...." She stopped speaking when Lenore held up a hand.

"Please, Gwen, I'd like for us to be friends. My name is Lenore."

Gwen hesitated, having realized again with the queen's words about Randi that though she wasn't a prisoner here, there was more than behind this visit than simple desire to be in this place for all of the players involved. She had recognized it in her brief meeting with Lorac the day before, though something fundamental had obviously happened to change the weapons master's attitude. She focused her attention on Lenore and understood her desire for friendship was sincere and would have been offered under any circumstance.

Gwen nodded and Lenore breathed a sigh of relief. She had watched the thoughts and emotions chase across Gwen's face before finally settling on acceptance. Lenore really did want to be friends with Gwen, but she understood all too well the bard's hesitation. She was glad Gwen had decided to give them a chance.

"Lenore," Gwen said softly. "I understand you have volunteered to be my Amazon tutor."

Lenore smiled. "Yes. The weapons master won't allow me to participate in your weapons training," giving Lorac the evil eye. "So I jumped at the chance to be involved intellectually. I'm glad you asked to learn."

"I think it's only fair to study the customs and traditions of the people who are teaching me to defend myself. Besides," ducking her head to hide her slight blush, "I hope to be able to learn enough to become a card carrying Amazon."

"You already are one by default because of your marriage to Randi, but I admire your desire to become one on your own merit." Lenore turned her attention to Lorac, completely missing Gwen's expression. "We'll make sure you're ready whenever you are ready to take the test." Lorac nodded her agreement.

"Thank you, Lenore. Shall we get started?"

"I thought perhaps you might join me for dinner and we could get you some books to begin. A lot of our history and such can be learned through reading and discussion."

"That sounds great. I'd like the opportunity to clean up and then perhaps we could meet?"

"Excellent! I will have Lorac escort you to my quarters about seven? And would you like to invite your friends Reed and Rosie? They are both such interesting women. I'd like the opportunity to talk further with them if you are comfortable with it."

Gwen swallowed the angry retort that had been on her lips when Lenore suggested an escort and nodded her agreement. This whole situation was awkward and would take a bit of getting used to. No reason to make it worse because the woman was doing her best to look out for Gwen. It wasn't her fault they were in this mess in the first place. A hand on her arm brought Gwen out of the dark thoughts she had fallen into.

"Gwen, are you all right?" Lenore asked. She was fairly certain where Gwen's reflection had led her and she hated that she was an unwitting part of that. She started to withdraw her offer when Gwen spoke up.

"I'm fine, Lenore," patting the hand on her arm. "Thanks for your concern though. Just a little out of shape, I guess." She looked up when Lenore's laughter rolled across the room. "What?"

"Gwen, if you're a little out of shape now, my Amazons may not survive when you finally get there." A groan from Lorac only backed up her words and now Gwen laughed.

"Go ahead and invite Reed and Rosie to dinner if you'd like. Who knows? You may end up with a whole class of women to teach."

"Well, we could always end up with an exchange of new ideas. Last time that happened, Randi turned our culture upside down."

Gwen didn't respond, but simply turned away and headed back to Sky's. Lenore and Lorac watched her walk away before they turned to face one another.

"I see what you mean, Lorac," Lenore whispered as Gwen entered the house without a backwards glance. "Something is terribly wrong between them. We'll have to tread lightly around her until this is resolved."

"I hope it is soon, my queen. Teaching her would be fun if it weren't for what was hanging over us."

Lenore sighed, knowing more of what was to come than Lorac did and feeling the weight of it come to bear heavily on her shoulders. "That is truer than you know, my friend. That is truer than you know," the last muttered too low to be heard. "Now," Lenore continued, raising her voice. "Contact the kitchen and let them know we are having guests. Let's begin Gwen's introduction to the Amazons with some good food and wine."

"Heh, wait til she hears what Amazon food *used* to be like."

"At least she won't have to eat it." The peal of their laughter made a pleasant sound as it rolled across the courtyard. It caused more than one head to turn and watch their progress across the yard until they split up to take care of their own various tasks before dinner.

Reed followed Gwen's progress into the house, but did not stop her as she made her way immediately upstairs. She would do a little investigation first to find out what, if anything, had caused Gwen to have issues with the Amazons. Reed cursed Randi roundly in her mind for putting her, and all of them, in this position.

A knock on the door halted her train of thought and Reed moved to answer it. She was more than a little surprised to find the Amazon queen standing on the porch. She had agreed to give them all a few days to get comfortable with one another before attending Gwen's training; she certainly didn't expect to find the Amazons coming to her and so soon.

"Lenore? Is something wrong?"

"No, Reed. I stopped by to invite you and Rosie to join Gwen and me for dinner tonight. I have agreed to tutor her in the ways of my people and I thought you might be interested as well. Besides, Gwen is not really comfortable with me yet and I hoped you might be willing to help ease some of her discomfort... give her a friendly face."

Reed stood thoughtfully for a moment, then motioned Lenore inside. "Would you like to come in?" Lenore hesitated, then read the apprehension in Reed's eyes. "I'd like to talk to you privately if you have a few minutes to spare."

Lenore came in without another word and followed Reed into the small study Sky had turned over to her for the duration of her stay. Reed gestured to a seat and Lenore took one on the small settee, hoping to set a more confidential tone between them than the big desk would have allowed. Reed smiled to herself at the choice and took the side opposite Lenore.

"What can I do for you, Reed?"

"You can tell me why Gwen came in here looking like the weight of the world rested on her shoulders." A pause. "Lenore, I'm gonna be right up front with you. Randi has charged me with Gwen's well-being, and if she's not happy...." Lenore grimaced. "Yeah, exactly. So what happened today that made her unhappy, Lenore? I need to know if I can fix it."

"No, but I probably can. I mentioned something about Randi and she just walked off. Apparently that subject is taboo."

Reed ran a hand through her hair and nodded. "Yeah, I think it probably is. You might want to pass that along to your people and I'll have Sky do the same for the warriors here. They didn't part under very good terms and I think it will be a sore spot for Gwen until it gets resolved. Unfortunately, unless Randi grows some brains quickly, it could be a while before that happens."

"Should I even ask?"

"No, because I really don't know the details – just that their aura together was so skewed it took us a very long time to set up a barrier capable of keeping it contained. It was physically painful to see."

"I see. And now?"

Reed blew out a breath. "Well, with Randi gone it is much easier to control, but the aura between them is still totally out of whack. That means Gwen's personal aura is out of sync as well, though not nearly as badly as theirs together is."

"So what can we do to help? I don't want to make things worse, but I feel like I'm flying blind here."

"We all are, Lenore. My best advice is to let Gwen dictate the direction things go for at least a little while, until we all have a better handle on the situation. And whatever else you do, DON'T, under any circumstance bring up Randi unless she does so first."

Now it was Lenore's turn to sigh heavily. "Any ideas on how long this might last?"

Reed shook her head. "Nothing definite. If I were a betting woman though, I would say it will be over sooner rather than later. I don't think they will be able to stay apart for any length of time without it tearing them apart completely." A pause while Reed turned her attention out the window behind the big desk. "Personally, I think it will be settled one way or another before summer is over."

She didn't mention her opinion on what would happen if it ended badly between Randi and Gwen. She had nothing to go on but her own fleeting impressions of darkness and pain. But Lenore wore a look that showed she understood more than was being explained to her.

They sat in quiet contemplation for a while before Reed turned to Lenore again. "So what time is dinner?"

Lenore smiled. "Seven. I told Gwen I'd have Lorac to escort her over, but if you and Rosie are joining us, that should be escort enough, don't you think? I think the offer of an escort upset her as well."

Reed sighed. "I'm sure it did. Gwen is being forced to accept a lot of behavior she really doesn't understand or necessarily agree with. Rosie and I will bring her, and we'll see if we can't find some sort of medium ground to work together in. It will make things a lot easier on all of us if we can."

"Agreed." She rose from her spot on the couch and Reed joined her immediately. "Thank you, Reed. I feel better knowing we are allies on this little project."

"So do I Lenore. I just honestly wish there wasn't one... not like this anyway." She opened the study door and led her guest back to the front of the house. "We'll see you at seven. Is there anything you would like us to bring?"

"No. We would like to show you all true Amazon hospitality. You just come prepared with good conversation and we'll take care of the rest."

Gwen heard the door close behind Lenore and turned her attention back out the window. It was obvious to her that the village had been infiltrated by warriors and Amazons to protect her. Instead of making her feel better, it made her angry and the tension she had released during her sparring returned with a vengeance.

Taking a deep breath to center herself, she put her anger aside. It wasn't the fault of anyone here that Randi was being ridiculous and absurd; she wouldn't take it out on them. She pulled out her diary as a substitute outlet and began to write in it furiously.

She was still scribbling away frantically when a light knock at her door brought her attention back to her immediate surroundings. She looked up and realized that it had gotten quite dark in the room since she'd sat down, and several pages of her journal were now covered in fine writing. Gwen marked her place and set the diary to one side. Then she turned on the small light by the bed, blinking against the sudden brightness and called out, "Come in?"

Reed poked her head in the door. "Hey, Gwen, you ready to go to dinner?"

Gwen looked around at the clock, surprised to see it read five minutes of seven. "Oh shit!" she mumbled. Reed covered her mouth to hide her smile. Gwen didn't curse often and it usually caught people by surprise when it did. "Um, I need to clean up. Can you call Lenore and let her know I'm going to be a few minutes late, please?"

"No problem, Gwen. Rosie can go ahead and I'll wait for you to do whatever. Just come downstairs when you're ready." Reed was out the door with it closed behind her before Gwen could open her mouth to reply. The bard shook her head, then scrambled off the bed and ran into the bathroom for a quick shower.

After the fastest shower of her life, Gwen jumped into clean clothes and literally skidded down the staircase to find Reed watching her with widened gray eyes. "Gwen, take it easy. Lenore knows we're running a little behind schedule. I got the feeling from Rosie that the queen was glad for the extra time... something about a small fire in the kitchen."

Now Gwen's eyes widened and she came to a rather abrupt stop. "Oh my."

Reed nodded. "Uh huh. So you have the time to tuck your shirt in and tie your shoes if you'd like." She said it with a completely straight face but Gwen could hear the smile in her voice. She looked down at herself.

"Good idea. I don't know what is wrong with me."

Reed suspected, of course, but there was no way she was going to give voice to that particular suggestion. Instead she gestured to Gwen's still wet hair. "Would you like me to braid that for you?"

"Do you mind? I've been letting it grow out since... since the wedding and it's just completely unreasonable at the moment."

Reed smiled. "I was thinking today that I need a trim." Gwen's eyebrows went to her forehead, given how short Reed's hair actually was, but she simply nodded her head. "Maybe we should find someone here to take care of it. Lenore might have someone in her crew who could take care of it."

"Maybe I'll just let it grow long and shaggy until I get completely fed up and shave myself bald."

Reed actually hesitated a moment to blink the visual image the words created out of her mind's eye. "Well," she started, clearing her throat. "That would certainly make some sort of statement."

Gwen looked up at Reed with a wry smirk. "Yeah, and probably leave me with a really nasty case of sunburn followed by a peeling head."

"Ew!" Reed slapped Gwen's shoulder. "Thank you so much for *that* visual. You're done."

Gwen twisted her head back and forth. "Thanks, Reed. I think I'm presentable enough for dinner now. At least I won't scare anyone," with a wry look at Reed.

The seer held up her hands and backed away in self defense. "I didn't say a word."

"I know... I did to save you the trouble. C'mon... we're late enough."

The room was still a little smoky when they entered, but the table was set when Gwen and Reed arrived. The bard tried to apologize, but Lenore held up a hand to stop her.

"Please, Gwen. You did us a favor." She flanked around. "We had a little, um, mishap in the kitchen, so we didn't mind the extra time, really. However, we're glad you could join us. We thought we'd treat you to a traditional Amazon meal tonight, which as Lorac will be happy to tell you, is much better now than it used to be."

"Oh?" Gwen replied as she took a seat. "Thank you. Why is that, Lorac?"

"Well, our civilization is based on ancient texts written... well, honestly, no one is quite sure how long ago they were written. But let's just say they were written a reeeeeeealy long time ago – long enough that there are some authentic parchment scrolls involved. And for a really long time, we followed every single precept and dictate the law laid down. Every single one."

Gwen nodded and swallowed the mouthful of exceptionally tasty food she had been enjoying. "Okay."

"Well, you see, the texts included recipes and stuff, and naturally, they were followed like gospel." She grimaced. "It wasn't pretty." She took a deep draught of her wine then spoke again. "It wasn't... bad... per se. It was just bland."

"So what happened?" Rosie asked. "This is very good," motioning to her plate, "and definitely *not* bland."

"After the last great war, the Nation went through a whole reorganization. It was decided that to keep the Nation alive, we would split into smaller tribes ruled by regents and spread across the continent. The elders felt it was the most prudent course of action to preserve our way of life. We came together one last time and together we started copying our histories and traditions so that each tribe would have their own copies for their archives."

"In the process of going through the archives, we found a sealed box that had been pushed to the back of...." She gestured a square with her hands. "I dunno... what had apparently served as a safe. Anyway, when it was opened it, what we found was... Nation changing."

"How so?"

Lorac chuckled. "Well, for one thing, there was a cookbook of sorts – hundreds of recipes written in the long dead native tongue of our people. It took several teams of translators months of work to interpret the scrolls and when they did... wow!"

"Wow?" Gwen pushed back her plate and picked up her wine glass to wait for an answer.

"Wow!" Lorac said emphatically. "Suddenly our food was given flavor and spice. It was wonderful."

"So how do you know about the bland food if you have had this wonderfully flavored food since the last Great War?"

Lorac grimaced again. "Well, to keep the <ahem> tradition alive, and to make the Amazons thankful for all their many blessings, when an Amazon goes into her into training to attain her status in the Nation, she is put on traditional rations. We have one set of cooks who do nothing but cook for trainees. It is probably the best motivating force we have to insure that apprentices succeed in their education the first time out, because they lose the food quality we had tonight to go back to bare bones basics. It's quite a shock to the system."

Gwen shivered. "I'll bet."

Lorac's eyes sparkled in delight. "But as an added bonus to the scrolls we found, there were stories... amazing stories of some of our forbearers. Real heroes, if any of the tales are even remotely true."

"Can I read them?"

"Oh yes," Lenore affirmed. "They are part of our histories."

"I'd like to read them as well, if I could," Rosie asked.

Lenore smiled. "Of course. You're all welcome to read them if you'd like."

"I have a question," Reed spoke suddenly. All eyes shifted to her and Lenore gestured for her to continue speaking. Reed cleared her throat. "Um, Lorac said you that when the Nation divided into separate tribes, a regent was named for each tribe. But you were introduced as the queen. So are you the queen or the regent?"

Lenore smiled, though the painful reminder didn't allow the smile to reach her eyes. She didn't give anyone the chance to notice since she turned at that moment and picked up the wine bottle to refill the glasses at the table. "I am the queen of my tribe but a regent of the Nation. We are waiting for the true queen to return to assume her throne."

Rosie's eyes widened at the implication, but neither Reed nor Gwen showed any sign of understanding the deeper meaning of Lenore's words.

"Why would that happen, Lenore? If the Nation was split into tribes to protect it, why would it be brought back into a single entity?"

"Though it's not the original reason we split the Nation, if... <ahem> if the eradication of the rebellion is successful, we feel confident about bringing the Nation back together. It will be time. The other regents and I have already discussed it... it's why I was unable to greet you until this afternoon, Gwen. I was on a conference call bringing the Nation up to date."

Gwen's lips tightened, but all she did was nod. She wasn't going to take her residual anger out on these women who were only doing their best to help her. And part of her was looking forward to both the defense training and the history. She especially found the idea of reading the scrolls intriguing.

"So, how would you like to set up our study time, Lenore? Lorac and her staff are going to do defense work with me until three every afternoon. Would you like to pick up immediately afterwards, or...?"

"I'd like to keep it as informal as possible. Here," getting up from the table and moving into the living area. She picked up a small stack of books. "I thought you could start reading these," she smiled wryly, "since they are the only books I have with me at the moment. I am having more brought up from the village tomorrow," she continued to forestall Gwen's protest. "Then we can talk about them as you get into them and have questions. I don't think we really need to do anything formal, but that is totally at your discretion."

Gwen nodded. "I like that idea. And you said the scrolls were available as well?"

Lenore nodded. "Yes, though they are bound copies and not the original scrolls of course. Those have all been put away. I haven't actually seen them – no one has since the copies were made."

Gwen nodded. "Of course." She opened the first book reverently, looking down at the page. "Thank you, Lenore. I'm really looking forward to this. I've been interested in the Amazons since Randi...." She broke off and turned her attention to Lenore. "I will take very good care of your books, Lenore. You're very lucky to have so many."

"Yes, we are, and you're most welcome. I'm looking forward to discussing them."

Reed and Rosie stood back and watched. There were some things they couldn't do anything about. For now, Gwen had to find her own comfort zone with the circumstances she found herself in. All they could do was keep an eye on her.

Chapter XV

"Lenore?" Gwen asked a short time later after she had gently examined each and every book. She had been so absorbed, the rest had shifted away for conversation to allow Gwen some time alone to study. Now everyone looked up and Lenore moved back over to the chair where Gwen still sat appearing a little shell shocked.

Lenore patted her hand in a friendly gesture and sat down on the ottoman at Gwen's feet. "What can I do for you, Gwen? Are you all right?"

Gwen shook her head to clear it. Books... real, printed and bound books... always did this to her. They had always been so rare in her world, and even now, they were considered such an anomaly that they were a collector's item though there were precious few of those.

"Gwen?" Lenore leaned down to catch her eye.

"Sorry." She blinked and smiled shyly. "Books," gesturing to the copies that were currently residing in her lap, "have a tendency to render me speechless."

Lenore nodded her agreement. "They do they same to me. It's why we decided to have the scrolls hand copied and bound. We have electronic copies of course, but somehow, our history seems much more vibrant when reading the written words as they were given to us. I wish... I would like to have been around when the scrolls were found. That would have been...." She sighed.

"Phenomenal," Gwen finished for her. "At least I think so. What a precious gift. There is so little true written history around any more these days." She smiled sardonically. "And it's not like we pass it along through our storytellers anymore either."

"Oh, I don't know," Lenore replied. "I've heard you. You do share history in your stories; yours is just of a more personal nature. Tell me... do you keep a journal? A log of the stories you tell?"

Gwen bit her lip. "Sort of. I do keep a journal, but it's not of my stories; it's more of a diary. I keep the log of stories that I have told here," rubbing her forehead. "I know which ones I have told and which ones are still waiting as well as those that will never see the light of day for one reason or another. I do have a collection of written stories that have been passed down through my family for generations – those are the personal histories I sometimes tell."

Lenore smiled broadly. "Perhaps you would consider sharing some of your stories with us while you're here. I know there would always be a willing audience to listen."

Now Gwen smiled. "I'd like that. And I did promise Tommy I'd try to do some more children's sessions while I was here as well. Have to keep up the skills, you know."

Lenore clapped her hands together in excitement, causing Gwen to chuckle in sympathy. The Amazon blushed just a little but she couldn't keep the smile off her face or the twinkle out of her eyes. "I know I sound like a kid, but I don't think you understand how exciting that is." Now her blush turned beet red and she dropped her eyes to the floor. "The chance to actually see you perform...."

Gwen blushed almost as fiercely, though she accepted the compliment gracefully. "Thank you, Lenore. I enjoy it so much I sometimes forget that others get something from it as well. I hope you won't be disappointed."

"I suppose I shouldn't tell you that the queen is a huge fan, hmm?" Lorac teased as the rest made their way over to take part in the conversation.

"You know, Lorac, I can find all kinds of ways to eliminate your free time," Lenore growled.

"Heh heh," the weapons' master chuckled nervously. "All right, no sharing your secret or the fact that the entire Nation feels the same way. We've got enough to concentrate on trying to keep up with the warrior side of the bard," sketching a bow in Gwen's direction. The room broke into laughter. It was a nice way to end what had been a comfortable evening.

"Are you sure about this, Randi?"

He felt the growl more than heard it; it was just a low rumbling that pulsed through his chest. But when he turned and saw Randi's ice blue eyes glaring daggers at him, he realized that the sound had come from her. She put her hands on her hips and he took a reflexive step back.

"Tiny, I am only going to say this once and then I don't want to hear about it ever again. Are we clear?" He nodded. "Good, now understand this well – the Sabres are going to destroy the rebellion, and I am going to lead the Sabres. If you have a problem with that, let me hear it."


"Tiny, I need you with me on this, but if you can't do it, I need to know now."

He stood quietly a moment, then straightened and faced her squarely. "I told you I was with you, Randi, and I meant it... we all did. All of us believe that the rebellion has to be destroyed once and for all." He took a deep breath. "My concern here is you specifically. You're putting yourself out there, becoming someone I never thought to see again, someone I don't even recognize sometimes."

Randi waited, sensing there was more and she had given him the floor. She would let him finish speaking before she responded. They needed to settle this once and for all.

"Randi, I'm afraid... not *of* you, but *for* you. You're giving up so much, and I don't want that to be something you live to regret. Randi, please... let us do this. You can lead without going in. You give the orders and we will follow them, but...!"

"No, Tiny! I told you... this is personal for me now! The rebellion has deliberately targeted me – they attacked Gwen. And for that, I will obliterate them...wipe them off the face of the planet. If I have to do it by myself, killing them one by one, I will, but they will be destroyed."

Tiny hung his head, knowing by her words there was no way to bring her back... not until this was over. "Aye, sir."

Randi released a breath. "Now, are you with me or do I need to...?" She stopped when Tiny held up his hands.

"I'm with you, sir. We all are."

"Very well. Go prepare. We have a lot to do before the end, and I want this over with. I have better things to do and a life to live that doesn't involve this anymore."

"Yes, sir. The Wizards expect me at their encampment in two days. We are still trying to determine if this is a meeting of everyone or just our region. But I do know for certain that they are angry with Brad's failure and your subsequent execution of him."

"Well, it just sucks to be them, doesn't it?" She moved from behind her desk and together they crossed the office. "I will be at the rendezvous point in a week, maybe a little less. Everyone has their assignments?" Tiny nodded. "Good, then let's get outta here. We've both got work to do."

Tiny extended his hand. "Good luck, Commandant," deliberately putting a professional barrier between them. Randi blinked, then adjusted her attitude as quickly as that action took. She straightened and accepted his hand.

"The same to you, Chief. I will see you shortly."

When they released their brief clasp, Tiny stepped back and saluted. Randi acknowledged the respect with a nod of her head, then turned and walked off without another word. Tiny watched her go, then let his shoulders slump before he turned in the other direction and headed out.

It was quiet in the beach house when Randi arrived home – an unnatural stillness that she actually found unnerving. It was as though the spirit of their life here had fled, leaving nothing but an empty shell behind. It reminded her a little too much of what her life with Gwen had become, and worse, what it had been.

Randi resolutely put that out of her mind and walked into the bedroom, ignoring the surroundings to walk directly into the weapons' closet. She looked at the uniform hanging so casually and predominately at the front.

Without thought, she pushed it aside and moved on to the weapon's locker. Slowly and methodically, Randi pulled out the weapons she wanted to have for use against the rebels. She had to be prepared for any and every contingency, and she doubted once things started she'd have a chance to return. Randi fully expected to move from one sect to another until they were all eliminated – whatever it took for her to get back to Gwen as fast as humanly possible and get their lives back.

Randi took her choices and laid them on the bed in an orderly fashion. She trekked back into the closet and removed her armor and placed it carefully beside her cache. Then she went into the bathroom to take a shower before she prepared for battle.

She shouldn't have been surprised by the knock on the door when it came, but she looked in the bathroom mirror and sighed when the sound reached her ears. She'd hoped to avoid this until after the rebellion was taken care of, but apparently Tommy had other ideas.

She snagged her robe from the back of the door and wrapped it around her, then went through the bedroom and into the foyer. A second louder banging only served to work her nerves but she was thankful that at least he wasn't using his key codes.

"Randi, I know you're in there! Open the damn...." He stuttered to a stop when he met ice blue eyes. "... door. 'Bout damn time," he muttered, pushing past her. She allowed him entry, knowing they needed to resolve the issue between them.

"Something I can do for you Tommy?"

He turned back to her, a look of total disbelief on his face. "You're kidding me, right? You gutted a man in my office - right in front of me... right in front of Gwen! You took pleasure in it! And then you disappeared, just took Gwen and left without a word."

"What did you expect me to say, Tommy?" her voice calm and controlled. "Hmm? What do you expect me to say now? You made it clear you weren't interested in anything I had to say."

"Well, forgive me for being human... for feeling some sort horror at what had just happened! How exactly did you think I was going to react?? My God, Randi! Unlike you, this wasn't a normal occurrence in my life!"

He hadn't realized her eyes could get any colder, but he watched the light drain out of them until they were completely lifeless and almost clear. She straightened and he could feel the controlled rage flowing from her in waves. Still, the only outward manifestation of her anger was the flaring of her nostrils and a slight flexing of her fingers.

"Be thankful, Tommy," her voice a hoarse whisper. "Be thankful you haven't had to see the things I have... you don't have to live with the things I've done." Then she moved right into his personal space and poked a finger hard into his chest. "But understand this well – I would do it all again to keep Gwen safe. I don't like who I am most of the time, and I don't like what I've done. But you're right about one thing – I did enjoy gutting that pig. He deserved far worse for what he tried to do! And I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."

She straightened and took a step back, inhaling deeply before she spoke again. "Now, if you can't accept that... if you can't live with the knowledge of who and what I really am, then I am sorry. But I'm not gonna change... I can't."

"Can't? Or won't?"

She sighed tiredly. "Does it really matter, Tommy? Now you understand the truth of why I never let anyone get too close – why I never shared all of myself."

"Not even with Gwen?" he dared to ask.

"She is the only one who does understand, Tommy. The only one who tried and the only one who succeeded, and look what it got her." She walked back to the door and opened it. "Go home, Tommy. Go home to your wife and son and forget about me and what you saw. You'll sleep better."

Tommy gasped as the words hit him like a punch to the stomach, and he had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak, finally realizing what his reaction had done to her.

"No." It was barely a sound, but Randi heard it.

"Excuse me?"

"No," he said more confidently. "I will not forget about you. You're part of my life, part of my family. And I don't take that lightly." He walked over to where she stood. "I don't understand – you're absolutely right about that. But that doesn't change the fact that I love you and if you need me, I'm gonna be there for you. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you that." He paused, then grasped the other door handle. "I'm gonna go for now because it is obvious you need me to. But one day... one day soon, you and I are going to sit down, and you're gonna help me understand all this. Because I think it's important. Now, you go off and slay the dragons and save the world. Just remember you've got family waiting anxiously at home for you to return, all right?"

Randi nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Then Tommy walked across the threshold and pulled the door shut behind him.

Randi stood in silence and watched from the windows until he was out of sight. Then she shook her head and walked back into the bedroom to begin dressing, putting the encounter and everything not relevant to the coming mission out of her mind.

Tommy stood just out of sight in the line of trees, watching as the warrior he didn't actually recognize strode out of the house and into the garage. A moment later he heard the full-throttled roar of her motorcycle, and he watched as she sped off and headed across the bridge that extended just ahead of her progress.

Tommy shook his head sadly at her recklessness and sent up a prayer for her safety. Then he turned and finally headed home.

Aphrodite stomped a foot in frustration. This was not going well and it didn't look like things were going to improve anytime in the near future. She turned as Artemis and Athena walked into the room, one with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and the other with a carafe of hot chocolate. Despite the seriousness of the situation around them, Dite couldn't help but smile at the scent that wafted into the room with them.

"One of the true gifts humanity has shared with us," Athena said, putting the still warm cookies down on the table. "How do things look?"

The disconsolate look returned to mar Aphrodite's lovely features and she plopped in a chair gracelessly, picking up a cookie to munch on. She shook her head. "From my perspective, this thing just totally sucks piggy wonks. They are so far apart now – not just physically, but emotionally – and it's so bogus!" she said, slapping her hand on the chair arm for emphasis. "Makes me wanna gag Ares with a spoon or string him up by his toenails or something equally disgusting."

Artemis couldn't stop the chuckle that bubbled up at Dite's colorful speech. "Well, on the plus side," she said, clearing her throat when Dite glared at her before the look gave way to a grudging smile from the love goddess. Artemis returned the look and handed her a cup of cocoa. That got her a real smile and she handed one to Athena before taking a seat. "Gwen is learning about the Amazons and will be ready to be the queen when the time comes. And she is doing well in her weapons training as well. Randi is going to be very surprised I think."

Athena nodded. "She makes a good chosen... for all of us," chewing thoughtfully.

"Yeah, but they make a much gnarlier chosen together," Dite pouted. "I hate this!!"

"We all do, Dite, but what can we do? We have interfered more than the rules actually allow. This has to be their choice... their desire... or it all becomes pointless, and Ares wins anyway. At least this way, when Randi chooses Gwen, Ares loses for good."

"You really think she will?"

Athena blinked, unable to believe that Dite of all of them had doubts. "You don't think so?"

Dite shrugged and reached for another cookie. "I want to. I just don't... I don't know what to think anymore." She paused and sighed. "Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite everything, I really thought it wouldn't come to this. I'd hoped...." She got up and walked to the window, looking out at the landscaped garden that held every type of rose known to man, and some not yet discovered. "I'd hoped that their love would have been enough...."

Artemis stood up and crossed the room to wrap Dite in a hug. "It will be, Dite. You got to have faith in that... in them and in you. It's just going to take the long, bumpy route to get to that happy ending."

Dite snorted. "It always has with those two," she huffed. "Gods, they are enough to give a goddess gray hair!" throwing her hands up in the air. "Do they realize *they* are the reason we are so high maintenance?!? I'm gonna need another manicure after this is over!!"

Athena and Artemis exchanged glances and snickered. Dite whirled at the sound and put her hands on her hips. Then her lip twitched and her eyes crossed. The three of them burst into laughter.

Once it got quiet again, Dite looked at them seriously. "So you both think this will work out then?"

"Damn straight!" Artemis said decisively.

"What she said!" Athena confirmed. Her sisters turned in unison with identical raised eyebrows. "What??" then covered her eyes with her hand. "Oh no... I'm turning into Aphrodite!"

"Gnarly, babe. I'll make a radically cool chick outta you yet." She wrapped an arm around Artemis' waist and extended her other towards Athena. "C'mere, The. We need a group hug."

"Aw, Dite," Athena whined, but stood up and went to her anyway. The sisters shared a hug and felt better for the support the gleaned from one another.

"I really do love you guys. Thanks for sticking with me through this."

"Feeling's mutual, Dite," Athena said and Artemis nodded her agreement. "Now, let's get back to work. We've got other things to do. We can worry about them in the interim." And they turned their attention back to the scrying bowl, watching as time continued to pass with a majority of the world still unaware of what was coming.

Randi rode for a while with no particular destination in mind. She wasn't scheduled to meet with her team leaders for seven days, but the thought of staying in their home without Gwen was unthinkable. So instead, she decided to tour around a little and see what she could see. She had always learned a lot by being able to blend in and walk among people unseen.

She drove by Rosie's and felt a twinge of sadness to see the barbeque stand closed up. Randi felt like something was slipping through her fingers and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Then she resolutely turned her thoughts and her bike away from the past and towards the future.

The rendezvous was in the middle of nowhere. It was the most central location to where all the different rebel groups were gathering. Things had moved swiftly once word of Brad's execution had made the rounds. That coupled with her slaughter of the Fringe Amazons and the destruction of one of the Skinheads cells had rallied the rebellion.

So now each segment was meeting in preparation, the Sabres believed, for another unification meeting between all the rival factions. Only this time, they expected all out war.

Originally, to find a way to defeat their enemy, the Sabres had infiltrated each group of the rebellion with an operative of their own. Even after Randi's death during the elimination of the rebel's leader Ghost Rider, they continued to maintain their status within the rebel factions. It wasn't too difficult – a majority of the rebels had lives outside the rebellion. They had hoped that Jerry would use their knowledge to destroy the rebellion once and for all. When that didn't happen, the five remaining operatives continued their undercover work mostly out of a sense of duty with only a small hope for an eventual resolution, but knowing it was what Randi would have done to ensure their ultimate success. Now, finally, they were going to get their payoff.

The rendezvous was high in the mountains, surrounded by what, with time, had become re-grown virgin forest. Randi was careful to take only what she needed to survive from the land surrounding her. She had found the cave that would serve as their meeting point and she had gathered enough brush to make some comfortable beds. Then she set out to wait for the rest of her team to arrive.

Strangely, they almost managed to arrive as a group. They would have had they not been coming in from six different scattered directions. As it was, they walked into the camp within minutes of each other.

After the first initial greetings, each of them scattered to collect supplies. Randi had made a start but more would be needed before they were through. What they had found out had not been encouraging, no matter how anticipated it was.

"What's the verdict?" Randi asked bluntly once the fire was built out of sight and they were standing in the main chamber of the cavern. The six looked at one another, each waiting for the other to speak first. Randi glowered and put her hands on her hips. "Don't make me have to start guessing."

They all took seats on the ground and Tiny cleared his throat. "Well, it's similar to what happened before, except this time it will be a much smaller gathering. Only the faction leaders will meet the new leader of the rebellion – no aides, no guards – nothing but the six faction leaders and the rebel leader. Then they will get their marching orders and the fighting will start in earnest."

Randi blew out a breath and ran her hands through her hair. "Dammit! When and where?"

"We don't know; they haven't been given their orders yet. This was just to put everyone into the loop and let them know what's coming down the pipeline so preparations can be made."

"Goddamnit!! All right, when do they expect to hear the details?" Five sets of shoulders shrugged. Only Jess remained still. Randi's attention focused on her immediately. "Jess?"

"I don't know the details on the meeting, but word in the Amazons is it will be after Gwen is... taken care of."

"WHAT?!?" Randi jumped up from her spot. She crossed the cave and jerked Jess up from the floor by her elbow. "What did you hear??"

Jess jerked her arm out of Randi's grasp, meeting Randi's glare stare for stare. "What the hell are you trying to do, Randi? You coulda pulled my arm out of the socket like that!"

"Tell me," Randi growled, dropping her hands and doing her best to keep her temper in check.

"That's all I know, Randi. Basically, the Fringe Amazons here bear the responsibility of taking care of Gwen. They know where she is and it's only because she's in this region that I know that much. They've been told to eliminate her immediately; once that's done, everything else will move forward."

No one had to look at Randi for a reaction. They could feel it in her body language, though there was nothing overt in her response. Her eyes paled to pure white fury and her nostrils flared. Other than a rhythmic clenching of her fingers, there was no other outward manifestation of the fury they could feel rolling off her in waves.

After several long minutes of complete silence, Randi took a deep breath and turned her attention back to the Sabres who waited patiently for her next instructions. "All right, I want everyone but Jess to go back to your surveillance duties for now. Whatever it takes to get that information. There's nothing else we can do until we have a date and location," she continued before anyone could protest. "Jess, I want you to go to the village...." She stopped speaking when Jess shook her head. "Whaddya mean NO? It's not a request, Jess. You *will* go and protect Gwen. That's an order."

"I can't, Randi." Jess swallowed hard. "I'm supposed to be part of the strike team that takes her out."


"I don't know, but it's gotta be soon. Everything else hinges on it. They'll send word when a plan has been worked out. We'll be given our assignments and transported immediately to the village or somewhere nearby."

"How did you manage that?"

"Luck of the draw? Actually, I think it has to do with my marksmanship skills. Everyone who was chosen is at the top of their game in something... tracking, marksmanship, hand-to-hand, whatever. This is supposed to be the best of the best from the rebellion. They want to make sure it gets done right the first time."

"And how do they know about your marksmanships skills?"

"Easy, Bren. Part of being a Fringe Amazon means attending their festivals, and one of those was some sort of game tournament they hold every year. It encompasses everything they do – sports, weapons, arts & crafts, all of it... even cooking. Anyway, I won the marksmanship contest. I never realized it would play into this, but I'm so glad it does."

"Yeah, but we won't know what's coming ahead of time," from Cam. "Are we just going to storm the place and wait for them to attack? Or are we just going to take them out now?"

"No," Randi said. "If we do that, they'll know we know and they'll try something else when we're not aware. I want to destroy them all at once. I'll alert the warriors and Amazons already there. They're trained... they know what to do. And the villagers know the area well enough to be able to defend it with the advanced warning. Good work, Jess. See if you can get a list of those involved and what their specialty is."

The woman nodded.

Randi knelt back down and slapped her legs. "All right. I want each of you to go back to your regular duties. I want ya'll to come up with every possible scenario for getting the information we need and then I want ideas and solutions from each of you on how to use it. We're gonna start moving on this as soon as possible."

"What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," surprising everyone but Tiny. They had all assumed her first action would have been to go to Gwen. However, they were all bright enough not to let the reaction show. "I need to get back to the capital to coordinate things. And I need to talk to Geoff," an unexpected idea tickling at the back of her mind. She wondered what part of her psyche had germinated it and why it popped up now, but it was an instinct she had long ago learned to respect.

"All right," Tiny said with some authority. "You heard the boss lady. Let's get some chow and some rest. We've gotta get back home and get to work."

Randi had set up a sleeping area just slightly apart from the others. She figured as commandant, it was expected of her to separate herself from her people. But all she felt was isolated. She could hear the whispers and soft chuckles of the others and became aware of the silence around her. It made her chest ache. So Randi sat down and pulled her knees into her chest and moved her mind into a place where only she existed.

"What's up with her, Tiny?" Brenda asked sotto voce. "She's almost like the Randi I remember from before, except...." She chewed her lip worriedly.

"Except she's lost her compassion," Hernandez commented as he set the regen unit to repair the small tear Randi had caused in Jess' rotor cuff. It would have gone unnoticed and unmentioned except for his chancing to catch her wince when she tried to spread her bedroll.

Tiny shook his head. "I think she just finally reached her limit," not willing to delve into Randi's personal life and unable to fully explain Ares involvement. "Don't forget – she died to keep the peace and then came back to find the job still undone. And the rebels have made it intensely personal for her and have put the focus of their attacks squarely on her and Gwen."

"That's another thing." Jess commented from her pallet. "Since when does she not want to be with Gwen... especially at a time like this??"

They all looked at Tiny who remained silent, though the sadness in his eyes told a story all their own.

Cam's sigh was echoed around the cavern by each of them. He dug in his pack for the heat sticks they would need for the night. It was still cold up here and they couldn't risk a bigger fire. Tiny and Brenda were going to have their hands full trying to cook the fish Randi had caught over the small flame. There was no way it would provide enough warmth for all of them. They only wished it could warm the coldness they felt settling over Randi.

For her part, Randi moved into the darkness of her mind, putting away the hurt and anger she felt towards Gwen. What she needed now was focus.

"They knew," Randi whispered, leaning back and clutching her chest in physical as well as emotional pain. "They knew and yet they followed me anyway."

"Yes, they did," Gwen affirmed.

"Why? If what I did was so horrible you felt you had to leave me, why didn't they stop me? Why let it go on until it became unbearable?"

Gwen smiled and brushed Randi bangs off her forehead. "The reason I left has to do with *us*, love. It was a culmination of everything, personal as well as professional. They followed you because they had sworn their allegiance to you; they are still loyal to you." Gwen took a deep breath and cover Randi's lips with her fingers. "What you did had to be done, Randi. They knew that and so did I. The hatred the rebellion was stirring up had begun to destroy the peace. My biggest problem, aside from the fact that you went back to the Sabres at all, was because you seemed to revel in the power this whole situation brought you. I understand why you did, it... I do. I just don't always understand the harshness. That's not the woman I know and love."

"But it is."

"No, it is *part* of who you are, but it is definitely not all. But for a while, it was all there was. I felt like I had lost you... even though I knew that Ares was directly responsible for the change, it was hard to watch you allow that to become you." A pause. "I realize now that you have been fighting that; I should have realized sooner, given the actual outcome. But at the time, all I knew was that it was happening, and you didn't seem to care."

Randi reached out a hand to cup Gwen's cheek. "Oh I cared. I cared so much - but all I could feel was the anger."

Gwen took Randi's hand and clasped it in her own. "I understand that now, love. I'm sorry for my lack of faith." She swallowed hard, seeing the love she felt reflected back to her in those blue, blue eyes. "Are you ready to continue?"

"Yep. Let's do it."

Gwen curled around Randi, and Randi relaxed into the bard's body. Then Gwen took up the book again, and found her place to begin reading.

Chapter XVI

"Randi!" Jill exclaimed as she opened the door. "This is an unexpected surprise!" She looked around for her conspicuously absent daughter. "Where's Gwen?"

"Tucked away safely. Can I come in?"

Jill blinked and swallowed her questions when it became obvious Randi wasn't going to elaborate. Maybe Geoff would be able to get more information, but for now.... Jill blushed when Randi's raised eyebrow reminded her that she was standing there blocking the doorway staring.

"Sorry... thinking does that to me sometimes," Jill smiled. "Please, come in. Geoff?" she called out. "Can I get you something to drink, Randi? Geoff? Sweetheart, where are you?" She turned back to Randi again. "He was just here."

Randi smiled. "How did you know I was looking for Geoff? I didn't ask to see him."

"Easy – you're here without Gwen. As much as you care for both Geoff and I, and I know you do," holding up her hands before Randi could speak, "the only time you come here alone is when you're on military business. So, you've got to be here to talk to Geoff."

Randi nodded her head in acknowledgement, though her eyes held a hint of shame at the veracity of Jill's statement. "You're right, Jill. I'm sorry...."

Jill held up a hand to stop the apology, wondering what had happened to make Randi go back to calling her by name instead of by mom. "It's all right, Randi. I do understand. It isn't like we haven't had a rocky road. I'd actually be more concerned if you acted a little more comfortable than you really were. It would mean you were lying and I'd rather you be honest. It gives us a chance to grow comfortable together. Now," Jill continued with barely a pause for breath. "Come sit down and let me get you some lemonade. Then I'll go find Geoff."

"I'm right here, hot stuff," Geoff said as he eased his chair into the room. He grabbed Jill around the waist and swung her into his lap, relishing the squeal she graced him with. Then Geoff stole a kiss. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Goldman? I heard you screaming all the way out in the workshop. You feeling that frisky??"

Randi bit her lips to keep from laughing out loud and Jill flushed six shades of red. "GEOFF!!" slapping him lightly on the chest. "We've got company!"

Geoff looked around her shoulder and saw Randi sitting there stoically, though she couldn't hide the devilment that sparkled in her blue eyes. He had the grace to blush, but he kept his hold on Jill's waist as he cleared his throat. "Hello, Randi."

"Hi, Geoff. You got a minute?"

"Absolutely. Um, Jill...."

Jill patted his hand and slid from Geoff's lap. "I was just going to make some lemonade. You two go...." She shooed her hands in the direction of Geoff's workshop. "Do whatever it is you need to do. Drinks will be ready when you come back in."

"Ooo, I love fresh squeezed lemonade," Geoff commented. "C'mon, Randi. Come see the new workshop. I had one built here when it became obvious therapy was going to take longer than I planned for it to." He held up his hands. "I know the doctors say I'm ahead of schedule, but I really didn't think it would take so long. I guess I've gotten too used to our quick fix technology."

They were silent until they got into the workshop and Randi closed the door behind them. Carbon rose from his place by the workbench, ruff standing out from his head. The dog growled before leaping to put himself between Randi and Geoff, then he barked viciously at Randi. Geoff snatched him up and put the shepherd out in the small enclosed yard. Then Geoff closed the door firmly and became all business. "What's wrong? And how can I help?"

Randi clasped her hands behind her back and walked slowly around the room, taking in the smell of new. Scattered throughout the workshop were projects in various stages of completion – some of them related to the Sabres and others completely frivolous. She smiled at the hover bike propped in the corner; she hadn't seen a working one of those in years. Then she turned her attention to the weapons laying neatly on the bench or hanging on the walls.

"I need something new, Geoff. Something different."

He motioned her to a seat and leaned back in his chair, clasping his hand together in an attitude of attentive listening. "What are you looking for, Randi?"

Randi took a seat and dropped her clasped hands between her knees, looking at the floor. "I want something to incapacitate the rebels... a pulse weapon of some kind that will allow us to take them into custody but won't do any harm to the Sabres."

"Randi? We've never tried to incapacitate them before; we've always destroyed them."

"Oh we will. I just want to do this with as few Sabre casualties as possible."

"And taking them into custody will do this how?"

"I can use them to make a point," Randi said shortly, but she didn't elaborate. Geoff sighed. He knew pushing her on this would do nothing but make her angry. And somehow he had the distinct impression that her anger directed at him was not in his best interests.

"When do you need it?"

"How soon can you have it ready?"

Geoff cleared his throat. "That soon, hmm? All right... let me get started. I have a couple ideas. Let me draw up some rough sketches and we'll go from there."

"You gonna be all right to do this Geoff?"

Geoff chuckled ruefully. "A little late to be asking me that, don't you think? G'wan back to the house and have some lemonade. I'll be in shortly and then I want to hear full details about Gwen."

He saw the almost imperceptible flinch, but let it pass without comment. Then he shooed her out of the workshop and turned his attention back to his desk, his mind already busy with possibilities. Randi observed him for a moment longer, but Geoff was already so lost in his work he never noticed her. Randi left him to his work, and she headed back to the house.

Jill had just finished mixing up the lemonade, so she poured it over ice and handed Randi a glass as she walked in the door. Randi accepted it gracefully and nodded her thanks. The silence went on until it became a little awkward and Randi decided to make an effort at conversation.

"So, are ya'll settling into the capital all right? I was surprised to see Geoff had had a workshop built here. I didn't think ya'll expected to be here that long."

"We didn't. Geoff was certain we'd only be here until you and Gwen got married – that he'd be able to walk by then and we could go home." Jill motioned Randi to a seat and took on for herself. Then she blew out a frustrated breath. "I guess you can imagine how well it went over with Geoff when he found out it was going to require *months* more of therapy and pain-filled work." She and Randi exchanged knowing glances.

"Jill, I want you to know how sorry I am...."

Jill held up her hand. "Randi, it's okay. What happened is not your fault – Geoff was having problems with his back long before he went on that mission. What happened would have happened sooner or later because of damage done to him years and years ago. Besides, you know and I know that Geoff would have gone on that mission regardless of what you wanted."

Jill paused, but Randi waited, knowing instinctively that Jill wasn't finished talking. "I think," she continued softly, "he would be happiest if he was to die doing something like that. Sometimes I think he wanted to die then; I think that is why he is so... frustrated over his progress. It would have been very circular for him to have died as a Sabre for Gwen, and since that didn't happen, well...."

"I'm sorry, Jill. I wish there was something I could do."

Jill waved her hands. "No, Randi. I don't want you to feel guilty – that was my reason for sharing that with you. If there is any guilt here, it belongs to Geoff and it is something he has to live with and work through. All right?"

Randi looked doubtful but allowed her head to nod slow agreement. She felt it was the only way Jill could let it go and regardless of their less-than-stellar history, she thought Jill deserved that much peace.

"So you decided to build him a workshop?"

It was Jill's turn to nod. "Um hmm... for his sake as well as mine. It keeps him busy during his down time and occupies his mind with something besides physical therapy... kind of a mental therapy for him. Carbon helps, but he can only handle so much attention without wanting to play and that is pretty physical. Training takes a lot out of Geoff too. But the workshop – that is his haven. He can always find something there to occupy his hands and mind."

"And this is completely selfish of me, but in a way, I am thankful you are back in the military. I know Gwen hates it and why, and I agree with her on that score, but I'm glad for the distraction it's given Geoff in his off hours. Because he has been out there working furiously since you rejoined or took over or did whatever it was you did. So thank you."

Randi sat quietly considering Jill's words. She certainly hadn't taken over the Sabre unit for Geoff's benefit, though she certainly didn't begrudge him or Jill the fringe benefit it had provided them. She was frankly glad for any good that came from it, considering what it was costing her personally.

"I'm glad," was all Randi said and turned her attention to the kitchen door, looking out and watching Carbon run around and chase bugs. It brought a smile to her face when he caught one and then shook his head as though wondering what to do with it. Jill followed her attention and chuckled at Carbon's antics, then lifted her chin in his direction.

"He's been a godsend as well. I know it was hard for you to give him up, especially with what happened with Ditto, but you have really helped Geoff by letting us raise Carbon. As much as it takes out of Geoff to train him, he looks forward to it and has set time aside every day to commit to it. So thank you for that as well. You've given so much. I hope...."

Jill stopped speaking and clasped her hands together tightly. She looked up in shocked surprise when Randi's hand covered hers. "What do you hope, Jill?"

Jill swallowed and unclasped her hands until she could hold on to Randi's hand. Then she looked into Randi's eyes, seeing for the first time the pain and confusion that lingered at the back of them nearly hidden by the steely resolve. She squeezed Randi's hands and smiled at her. "I hope that whatever happened between you and Gwen gets resolved really soon. You deserve to be happy together... you both do."

Randi didn't respond, but she didn't pull away either. Instead she turned her eyes back out the window unseeing, her mind in turmoil.

Gwen took advantage of the break and copped a seat on the floor as she guzzled the bottle of water she had snagged from the ever-ready cooler the Amazons kept filled in the room that served as their training gym. After just a couple weeks of work, she was already showing definite signs of improvement in several disciplines, particularly those that focused on the defensive aspects of her training. It was when it came to offensive training that Gwen was having the most problems.

Lorac and the other instructors bowed their heads as Lenore crossed the threshold. Gwen smiled when she looked up and met the twinkle in the Regent's eyes. "What?"

"You look a little worse for the wear, Gwen," motioning to the bruises on her arms and torso. "You going to be all right for your performance later?"

Gwen nodded and leaned her head against the wall. "Yeah. We're gonna cut out early today so I can regen and get a little rest. With Tommy coming up tomorrow for the children's presentation, I wanted to be sure I didn't resemble the punching bag I feel like."

Lenore laughed. "You have not heard my warriors moaning and groaning in their barracks. I assure you that you dish out at least as well as you take it. Lorac is especially pleased with your progress in defensive maneuvers."

"Yes, but offensively is another matter entirely."

Lenore gestured to the open space beside Gwen. "May I?"

"Please," waving her down.

"Why do you think that is, Gwen?" smiling sympathetically when Gwen looked at her in confusion. "Sorry – why do you think it is that you excel at defense but seem to have trouble acting offensively?"

Gwen shrugged. "Probably because I'm not a warrior. I don't see things the way you or Lorac or especially Randi does," turning her face away from Lenore at the last. "I just am not the type to go out and start a fight for the sake of fighting. It's not my nature, Lenore. It never has been, even before Randi started teaching me."

"What did she teach you?"

"To wait for the other guy to attack. To defend and protect myself by disabling my opponent."

"That's all?"

Gwen nodded. "Yeah, that's all."

Lenore chewed her lip, then waved Lorac over to them. "I think we have been going about Gwen's training all wrong." She turned to Gwen. "Do you think you could attack if it was a matter of defense?" sighing at the scrunched up look of confusion on Gwen's face. "If you were defending someone other than yourself, could you – would you – protect them by attacking your enemy? Even if attacking meant they would die?"

Gwen stared off into space. "I don't know," she answered honestly. "I'd like to think I could, but I have never been in that sort of situation before. When Randi and I would spar, I always knew it was just that – sparring... no real danger, and set up for me to learn defense. Any real threats, Randi has always taken care of. Offense is something she excels at."

Lenore nodded, understanding the truth of that statement far better than Gwen realized. Hers had been the tribe Randi had visited with Jess when the skinheads had attacked them. She had seen with her own eyes just what happened when Randi went on the offensive – people died.

"I would like to try something in the next few days, if you are willing," waiting for Gwen to nod her agreement. "Okay... I'd like to make this more real for you by using holo technology first and then eventually bringing in real warriors."

Gwen blinked. "Do you realize what an oxymoron that is?"

Lenore smiled. "I know it sounds that way, but hear me out and I think you'll understand what I'm not saying very well here."

"All right."

"Well, I think if we could put you into an environment where you had to go on the offensive to protect yourself and others, it might force you to learn to act instead of react."

Gwen thought about it. "You don't think I need to know how to fight offensively first?"

Lorac answered. "Gwen, it is my opinion that your body already has the knowledge and understanding to attack an enemy you perceive as a threat. There is a warrior inside of you, even if you don't feel it within yourself yet. Your hesitation seems to be in making that knowledge work for you – like you have some sort of deep-seated barrier keeping the knowledge from translating into physical ability. If we put you into a safe environment, I think we might be able to break through that."

Gwen sat contemplating Lorac's words, finding a certain sense in them. She finished the bottle of water in her hands then shrugged and gave Lorac a nod. "I suppose it couldn't hurt to try."

"You don't seem very enthusiastic," Lenore noted.

"Honestly, I'm not. But I promised Randi I would try, so if that's what ya'll think will work...."

Lenore and Lorac exchanged glances. "Gwen, I don't think it will work if you don't believe in it."

The expression on Gwen's face hardened so quickly, the two Amazons flinched in response to the fire that burned in her eyes. "Frankly, I don't give a good goddamn what you want me to believe in." She stood up with a jerk and pointed a finder at them. "I said I would give it a try... that's the best you're gonna get from me. I don't want to be here doing this, so don't push me, all right??"

Dead silence met her words and Gwen stalked from the room, fury radiating from every pore in her body. The Amazons let her go and waited until the door slammed shut behind her completely before they turned to look at one another. Then they all faced Lenore.

"Well, that could have gone better."

"I don't know, my queen. I think, given her true feelings about being here, it could have gone much worse. And in fairness, I can't blame her. She is a warrior, Lenore, but her best weapons are her words, and they always will be. Forcing her to play a role she is not meant for is going to make her miserable. We just have to try to give her enough space to avoid any nasty fallout."

Lenore chuckled and put an arm around Lorac's shoulders. "How did you get so smart?"

"Watching you?"

Now Lenore laughed so hard she nearly doubled over. "Ah, Lorac, my friend, you should have gone into politics. You could rule the world with that slick tongue."

The other instructors tittered and Lorac cast an evil glare in their direction before poking Lenore in the side. The queen jumped and returned Lorac's glare. The weapons' master just shrugged before the two old friends smiled at one another.

"All right, ladies... it looks like we've got the rest of the day off. However, I will ask that all of you remain extra vigilant. Given Gwen's current state of mind, I wouldn't be surprised if she tried something unexpected... even with her friend Mr. Steele due up here this evening."

Just then, Rosie came rushing through the doors. "What happened?" she demanded without preamble. "We saw Gwen leave. She went right to the stable and saddled up Lance. It was all Reed could do to get the transport out in time to follow her once we realized she was leaving."

Immediately the Amazons went from relaxed to warrior state so quickly Rosie nearly got whiplash watching the transformation. "Does Reed know where Gwen is going?"

Rosie nodded. "We believe she is headed out to the small cabin she and Randi have nearby." A pause. "It's where they spent their honeymoon."

"All right. Let Sky know we need whatever warriors he has available and Lorac, you go round up the rest of the sisters. Don't sound the alarm; just get everyone here quickly and quietly. We," motioning to the instructors now standing at her back, "will go with the warriors that are already ready to go. You will come with the rest and lead the second wave in. Don't," she commanded, holding up a hand to forestall the argument she knew was coming. "Lorac, do as I ask, please. We don't have time to argue."

The weapons' master nodded, though she had grave misgivings. There was something about the whole thing that she just didn't like aside from the fact that Lenore was going out without her. Lorac knew her sisters' strengths and weakness and Lenore was not one to go off half-cocked. She had a reason for rushing out after Gwen, and Lorac respected Lenore's gut instincts. They had rarely steered the Nation wrong. But this was giving Lorac the heebie jeebies.

Nevertheless, Lenore was still her queen and a regent of the Nation and Lorac had sworn a duty to both. So she nodded her head and raced out the door. Lenore turned back to Rosie.

"Do you know where this place is?"

The shamaness nodded. She had made sure of a great many things upon their arrival in this place and as much as it had pained her to venture into Gwen's privacy, the location of their secret home was the first thing she had ascertained from Sky. She had already gone to the area with Reed, though they stayed out of the house itself, scouting it out. She had discovered that it held the karma that bound Randi and Gwen together and knew it would be useful when it came to the final battle. At this point, Rosie planned to use every advantage they could find, and this was a big one.

For now, though, it was time to fulfill another destiny.

Lance was happy to be out of the stables, even if his preferred rider wasn't on his back and Gwen was a much lighter jockey. He had a grudging respect for Gwen, even without Randi's admonishment. But the fact that Gwen had saddled him up and now was riding him for all she was worth made him run like the wind. It was good to be out and about, even if only for a little while.

For her part, Gwen let the smooth, even cadence of the horse's gait blow the turmoil from her mind. Though she was enjoying her time with the Amazons, Gwen was so tired. And it was a physical tired as much as it was a mental and an emotional one. She wasn't sleeping well, her dreams haunted by images both real and imagined until she couldn't tell the difference between the two.

Gwen hadn't spoken to Randi since the Sabre had left the village a little more than two weeks prior. She had determined that since Randi had placed her here and cut off their interaction, it was up to Randi to decide when to resume contact. It made perfect, logical sense, but her heart and soul felt it was just so much bullshit. However, they had embarked upon this path – there was nothing to be done now but to see it through to the end.

Worse than Randi's pointed lack of communication with her was the fact that Gwen knew for a certainty that Randi was in almost daily contact with Reed. Even if it was only for a status report or an update on things, Reed spoke to Randi everyday, and never once had she asked to speak to Gwen directly. Oh, she inquired after her naturally, checked on her progress and such, but it wasn't the same as having Randi care enough to talk to her personally.

Pain ripped through her and she screamed. Lancelot reacted by running faster, and Gwen let the sting of the wind pull the tears from her eyes and dry them on her cheeks.

Reed felt her heart break at the sound. She had caught up with Gwen enough to keep her in sight but stayed back far enough to insure the bard's privacy. She hoped that Rosie and the Amazons were close behind her though. There was far too much open space here, and Randi had been very clear about the threat the Fringe Amazons posed to Gwen. That thought made Reed speed up just a little bit.

When Gwen arrived in the meadow, she jumped from Lance's back and tied the reins to one of the low tree branches then walked down to the spring, never once glancing in the direction of the cabin.

It was beautiful in the spring. The fruit trees were in full blossom and the air was perfumed with their scent, much as Gwen had imagined it would be. The meadow itself was covered in an array of festive flowers and the bees seemed quite happy with the bounty that was spread as far as the eye could see. Gwen didn't see it, though; her mind was in chaos.

Reed pulled her transport up to the small house and shut it down, looking around frantically when she couldn't find Gwen. The sight of Lance calmed her considerably, and she started searching the meadow and riverbank.

Almost immediately, two transports pulled into the lane. Reed motioned them towards the house and continued to track swiftly across the meadow until she came across Gwen. Then she stood waiting for the Amazons and male warriors to join her so they could set a perimeter. Reed kept an eye on Gwen, noting the rigid posture. Even without being a seer, Reed could sense Gwen's pain. She was glad the barrier they had erected was in place and still holding.

Lenore and Rosie led the group that approached her silently. With just a few whispered instructions, they managed to set a perimeter round Gwen. Then they settled in to wait.

Gwen didn't move for a number of hours. She sat perfectly still unseeing as the wind riffled through her hair and the creek rushed and tripped over and around the rocks that made up its bed. She didn't allow herself to think or to feel. She was compartmentalizing everything, trying to separate herself from the pain. A part of her in the back of her mind wondered what had set this off here and now, but the larger part of her didn't care. The fact was it had happened and there was nothing to be done for it but to work through it to the best of her ability.

Another part of her, her creative center, knew doing this was going to crucify her muse, effectively rendering it dead. But she had decided it would be worth the cost if it would give her some peace from what her life had become.

And if she was to be quite honest, without Randi she didn't want to tell stories anyway.

"How long do you think she's going to sit there, Lenore?" Lorac asked in a whisper. She and the rest of the Amazons had arrived shortly after the regent and her group and had served as reinforcements around the perimeter. Personally Lorac wondered if Gwen planned to move at all; she had been so angry when she slammed out of the training room that morning.

"I don't know. Maybe I should go talk to her. I certainly didn't intend to push any hot buttons with her," Lenore sighed. She watched as Rosie approached Gwen, wondering if Gwen would even acknowledge her. "But I think I'll wait until Rosie is done. We don't want Gwen to feel like she is being ganged up on."

"Let me go instead, my queen. After all...."

"After all, Lorac, this is my responsibility. Even if I hadn't been the one to push her, I am still accountable to Randi for her well-being." She held up a hand, knowing Lorac would place the responsibility for Gwen squarely on Randi's shoulders. "Don't go there, my friend. It is our duty, and you more than the rest understand why we need to do this – not just for us, but for everyone."

Lorac nodded, biting her lips to keep from speaking out against the roiling in her guts. Then she turned her attention back to the tableau playing out in front of her.

"She's not lost to you, child," Rosie said as she sat down beside Gwen. "At least not completely." Gwen didn't move, but she did open her eyes slowly. That and the slight tremor that traveled through her body were the only signs that Gwen was aware of Rosie's presence, but the shamaness didn't mind. She knew Gwen was grieving; she just wanted Gwen to know she wasn't alone.

"Reed shared her vision with you, didn't she? You have to have a little faith, child. It will all work out in the end."

"Rosie, faith is not the problem, and neither is the end. The problem I am working on is the here and now and the pain it is causing me. I have to get through that first, anyway I can. Then I can worry about the future and how this ends."

"But at what cost, Gwen?"

The silence was long and ominous and when Gwen looked at Rosie, there was fire in her eyes. "Whatever it takes, Rosie. Whatever it takes."

Rosie reached over and took her hand, pleased when Gwen didn't pull away from her touch. "Just know that you don't have to endure this alone – neither of you do."

Gwen didn't answer; her attention had returned to finding a place of calm in her own mind.

Rosie sat there for a moment longer, until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and nodded at Lenore, letting the regent help her to her feet. They exchanged silent glances before nodding in unspoken understanding, then Rosie went back to wait with Reed.

"How is she?" the seer asked when the shamaness reached her side, unwilling to intrude on Gwen's emotions at this point for purely selfish reasons. Reed knew all too well that the path they traveled would be long and bumpy, and this was just another pothole in the road. She would maintain her barrier until necessity dictated otherwise.

Rosie shrugged. "It's rough. These things pop up unexpectedly and she keeps getting blindsided by them. It would be so much easier of we could see this stuff ahead of time and deal with it before it erupted." She waved her hands. "I know the future is too fluid for that. I'm just saying it would be nice to be prepared for a change." She paused and looked at Reed, and Reed returned the look with all seriousness.


"Have you seen the end yet? Do we have any clue on what, when and how?"

Reed blue out a breath and her gray eyes flashed silver in thought. "The what and how are still unclear, but I have reason to believe that the when will be by Celebration. One way or another, I think everything will be settled by then."

Rosie sighed. "Well, at least that is only a few weeks off. Does Randi...?" She would have said more but Reed held up a hand for silence.

"You all right, Gwen?" Lenore asked as she took a seat beside her. "I'm sorry I spoke out of turn earlier. I didn't mean...."

"It's all right, Lenore. It wasn't you or anything you said, really. This is just me having a bad day." She shrugged and gave Lenore a half-hearted smile. "Happens to the best of us."

Lenore chuckled. "No kidding. You should be around every month when PMS hits the Nation. Imagine *everyone* having one of those days all at the same time."

Gwen shuddered and made a face. "Oh, my. That would be...." She shuddered again and Lenore laughed.


"So since we've established I'm just having a really bad day, why are all of ya'll out here with me? I know you're supposed to be protecting me and all, but this is our private hideaway. No one knows about this place... or they wouldn't have if ya'll hadn't followed me out here." Gwen hid her face behind her hands. "Randi managed to keep this place a secret for years. She shares it with me and within months the world knows about it."

Lenore patted Gwen's shoulder a little awkwardly. She wanted to provide comfort but it felt more like an intrusion. "Gwen, the Nation has known about this place since it was given to Randi in her vision quest. And I'd be willing to bet the People have known about it since she first arrived. We've just respected her privacy much as she respected our traditions and out ways." She paused. "As for why we're here... you're right – we're protecting you. I know it seems ridiculous, but it's not. We have reason to believe...."

Whatever Lenore had been about to say was cut off when she pushed Gwen over and covered her body as a hail of arrows rained down around them. Almost immediately, Amazons and warriors alike scattered to find the Fringe Amazons that were perpetrating the attack.

Not having seen the attack start, Gwen was at something of a loss to understand why Lenore was suddenly deadweight on top of her, though it wasn't hard for her to figure out given their conversation only moments before. Still, she knew she would be more comfortable if Lenore would at least give her the opportunity to breathe.

"Lenore?" muffled from where she was being pushed into the ground. "Lenore, please... I know you're trying to protect me, but I can't breathe here. Can you lift up just a little?" When she got no immediate response, she realized that Lenore wasn't simply covering her, but was actually – deadweight. A moan caused Gwen to wiggle out from under the regent enough to see that she had two arrows embedded in her spine... one near the base and the other close to her neck.

"Oh, God... Lenore!"

"My Queen," Lenore rasped. Gwen didn't have the chance to ask what Lenore meant because the Amazon regent closed her eyes and stopped speaking.

"Queen?? Lenore?? Lenore!!"

Chapter XVII

"What the fuck happened?? Goddamnit, Reed!! We were supposed to have warning!! We were supposed to know they were coming!! Where was Jess?!?"

Randi was furious and it was clear not only in her tone, but in her controlled movements and clenching jaw. Reed strained to keep her expression and her voice neutral. She knew there was more frustration than accusation, but it still cut to have Randi go off on her like that.

"I don't know, sir. Jess is one of the Amazons we managed to capture, but she is still unconscious at the moment. The doc has her in regen right night and says she'll recover, no problem, so we expect her to come around in the next couple hours. Then we'll be able to get some answers."

Randi nodded once so hard Reed could hear the bones grind together. "I expect some," Randi said flatly. "There is no excuse for this kind of fuck up... especially this close to a major offensive. Let me know immediately what you find out. Now, recap for me."

"They came out of nowhere, showered us with arrows. Fortunately, they were hoping to overwhelm us with numbers instead of skill so we suffered a lot less damage than we could have. We have two injured Amazons and three injured warriors, but we managed to subdue a majority of the renegade Amazons."

"How many?"

"Six dead, nineteen captured, seven of those injured."

"Kill them."

Reed sputtered. "Excuse me, sir?"

"I did not stutter, Reed. Find out who the leader is and keep her for interrogation purposes. Kill the rest. The only purpose they serve at this point is to send our message to the rebellion."

"What about Jess?"

"Find a way to make it look like she dies. Then have her report to me here. Understood?"

"Aye, aye, sir. Is there anything else?" Reed asked, knowing there was, but wanting to make Randi ask for it. Randi turned her seat away from the monitor so Reed could still hear her, but was unable to see her. Not that Reed needed to see Randi to feel the emotions that rolled off her like water. Personally, the seer appreciated the barrier between them – not being able to see Randi made it easier to keep her personal barrier intact. She waited patiently.

"How is Gwen?" whispered so low Reed nearly missed it in spite of listening for it.

"She's...." Reed blew out a breath. "She's all right, physically speaking. She was completely covered; the warriors and Amazons know their assignments and take them seriously. As for the rest... well, there's a reason she went out to the cabin, Randi."

"DON'T," Randi growled. "Don't go there. We're all having to make sacrifices we don't like. Keep me posted." The screen went dark. Reed shook her head and went upstairs to Gwen's room.

As soon as they had the attack under control and had rounded up the Fringe Amazons and all the injured, the entire entourage had immediately returned to the village. Surprisingly, it had been Gwen who had taken charge of the entire proceeding and gotten everyone back safely. More surprisingly, the Amazons and warriors both followed her directives without question. Reed wondered if Gwen realized how unusual that was.

"Did you?" Randi asked. She leaned back into Gwen's embrace, biting back a groan. Instead of getting better, the pain in her chest was suddenly becoming worse. Gwen tilted the dark head back until she could look into pain-dulled blue eyes. She didn't say anything; she simply shifted their positions until she was spooned behind Randi. It took some doing and Randi was at something of a loss when Gwen slipped out from behind her... until she understood what Gwen was doing. Then she just settled in and absorbed the change in position – it allowed her to curl up a little more, which eased the pain in her chest considerably.

"Better?" Gwen asked when she finally got enough pillows settled so she could not only curl up behind Randi, but could also see over her to continue reading aloud together.

Randi took a cautiously deep breath, then nodded as she exhaled. "Yeah, thanks. That took some of the pressure off." She breathed in again gently, and turned her head enough to catch Gwen's eye. "You avoiding the question or did you just forget?"

"Hmm? What question, sweetheart? Oh... you mean knowing about the Amazons and warriors? Sorry, I was trying to make you more comfortable and forgot, I guess. Hmm, well... I didn't really think about it at the time. My only thought was getting everyone out of there and getting some help for Lenore." She shivered in memory at the remembered blood. "I didn't even stop to wonder why they would follow me without question... my mind was on overload. I guess I figured everyone had the same objective in mind."

"How long did it take before you realized it?" Randi asked, nuzzling into Gwen's neck for comfort.

Gwen smiled wryly and returned the affection, easing her fingers along Randi's ribs where it wouldn't hurt. She started to pull away immediately when Randi flinched, only to find her hand trapped between long fingers and warm skin. Randi gave Gwen a shy smile. "It tickled."

Now Gwen chuckled. "Sorry, I was trying to be gentle." She stroked a little harder. "How's that?"

"Better," Randi said, relaxing back until they were touching along their length.

"Now to answer your question, when did I realize it? When Lorac kept calling me queen. When did I actually believe it? About the time they all started kneeling and calling me 'Queen'."

"Yeah, I guess that would do it. Is that what the next part is about?" turning the book ahead a few pages.

"Among other things."

"Gwen?" Reed asked as she knocked on the door. "May I come in?"

"Please, Reed."

Reed opened the door and crossed the threshold, a little surprised to see Lorac there instead of at Lenore's side. Gwen was quick to interpret the look.

"The doctor shooed us out while they took care of the injured. I told Lorac she could wait with me."

"I figured it was best not to leave the que... Gwen alone," Lorac said with a slight stutter, and Reed nodded her approval. "I have sent for the royal guard. They should be here," looking at her watch, "in about an hour. They had to make some arrangements to accompany the elders here as well. The doctors, both of them, said they would come here to give us a report once they were finished. It was either here or the restaurant, and this is more sec... more comfortable."

Gwen shook her head. "Lorac, you don't have to act like I don't know this entire thing is my fault. I don't like it but I do understand it. Five more people have been hurt because of me. Six died."

"At least they were the enemy," Lorac muttered, but Gwen still heard.

"Yes, they were the enemy, but they were still human beings." She ran a hand through her hair and turned towards the window as she blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm sorry, Lorac," Gwen apologized, still facing the window. "I know this is not your fault and I shouldn't be taking it out on you. It's just that so many people have died directly because of me, and that doesn't even count those who have been injured. I really think there should be more that I personally could do about it." She didn't mention Randi nor her seeming lack of interest in what had happened.

Reed had already put reflective glass in place to keep anyone from seeing in while still allowing light into the room, but it still made her nervous to see Gwen that close to the window. Still, Gwen was on edge enough without adding to it, so she stayed quiet, well aware of the extra vigilance in the village now. She wasn't going to share with Gwen about the influx of security Randi had sent in.

"My que... Gwen... it's not your fault. This was going to happen whether you had been guarded or not." Two heads whipped around so quickly, Lorac felt herself getting whiplash in sympathetic reaction. The question in Gwen's eyes was clear, but the glare in Reed's was burning. Lorac swallowed hard. "Your being here was divine provenance – according to what I have *now* been told," said with not a little irritation in her voice. "The time has come for you to reunite the Nation and make us strong again. You are the queen we have been waiting for."

Gwen just blinked at Lorac, but Reed moved to wrap a hand around her throat. Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but Reed held up her free hand for silence. She didn't squeeze; she didn't need to. The threat was enough to make her intentions perfectly clear. "Did you know there would be an attack? Did anyone?? Lenore??"

Lorac shook her head. "Not that I know of. Lenore knew that the queen was coming. That was all she saw in her vision – that Gwen would be our new queen and would bring the Nation together once more. I think she expected to die, but if she knew more than that she never said." Lorac gave Reed a wry grimace. "I didn't find out that much until we got back here. It is how I knew to send for the guard and the elders."

"Wait just a damn minute," Gwen ground out, forcing the two of them to face her. "What the hell is going on here exactly? You don't get to decide my future like that! No one does. I am no one's queen, you got that?? I don't care about your prophesies or your visions or anything else! I've got more than enough on my plate without having to deal with that as well!"

Lorac swallowed hard, at something of a loss to deal with this side of Gwen. Privately she wondered how the Nation was going to survive her mood swings; Gwen appeared to be much more volatile that the entire nation cycling at the same time, and that thought was just downright scary.

Reed released her hold on Lorac and looked at her directly. "Lorac, why don't you wait downstairs for the reports from the doctors? They should be done shortly, and I need to speak to Gwen alone."

Lorac nodded, happy to have an excuse to escape the room, and left as swiftly as she could gracefully manage. Reed and Gwen exchanged long glances before Gwen sighed and looked away. She crossed the room and fell gracelessly onto the bed. Reed sat down beside her and brushed the bangs back from Gwen's closed eyes, but she didn't speak.

"I'm screwed, aren't I?" Gwen said softly with her eyes still closed. She missed Reed's forehead scrunched in confusion. But she heard it when she spoke.

"How so, Gwen? I mean more than you thought you were before?"

Gwen sat up so swiftly she nearly cracked Reed's chin with her head. "You're kidding me, right?" Gwen said with disbelief. "C'mon, Reed. Don't patronize me. Things were bad before, but this... this just takes the cake. I can't be an Amazon Queen – I'm not even an Amazon!!!"

"But you are."

The soft voice wasn't Reed and it wasn't Gwen and it caused both of them to look around the otherwise empty room. Finally they met each other's gaze with widened eyes.

"You did hear that, didn't you?" Gwen whispered. "Please tell me you heard that."

"I heard that," Reed said with a nod.

"Thank God," Gwen muttered. "I don't need to add losing my mind to the rest of my day." She slid back down onto the bed and covered her head with a pillow. "I should have stayed in bed today."

Reed couldn't stop the wry chuckle... she felt the same way. She started to speak when a clattering from the stairs resonated in the room and she turned her head towards the door. She gently slapped Gwen on the legs. "Hey... I think something is happening downstairs. You think we ought to...?" She was interrupted by a knock on the door.

"My queen? Um... Gwen?"

Reed felt the groan more than heard it, then Gwen slid the pillow off her face and slammed it into the bed. "Come in, Lorac."

The weapons' master opened the door slowly and stuck her head in. When she was sure she was welcome, Lorac crossed the threshold. She bowed in Gwen's direction then she stood and met both sets of eyes. "The doctors are downstairs. I think... they've asked to speak to you, my queen."

"Lorac, my name is Gwen... GWEN, got it?? I am no one's queen!" Lorac's eyes widened, but she nodded. She wasn't about to say anything else if she didn't have to. She was torn between loyalties and had her own mixed feelings about everything that was going on.

Gwen looked completely frustrated. But she slid from the bed and ran a hand through her hair before blowing out an exasperated breath. Then she motioned to Lorac. "C'mon. Let's go." She turned back and looked at Reed. "You coming?"

"Absolutely," the seer answered. She had enough to answer for without choosing to miss out on anything else. Besides, she had a good idea how Randi was going to react when she got the news and Reed wanted everything available to her to give to Randi when the time came. It might make the information go down a little easier.

Lorac held the door and waited for the other two women to go in front of her. This day was just going from bad to worse, and she didn't see it getting better anytime soon. She sighed when she closed the door and followed Randi and Gwen down the stairs.

The Amazon healer was pacing quietly across the small living room while both the village doctor and Sky watched helplessly. There was nothing either could do or say at the moment, so they alternated looking between her and the staircase. It wasn't long before their patience was rewarded.

Gwen came into the room, calm and composed, assuming an air of authority almost unconsciously. The mask faltered when the Amazon healer knelt at her feet and bowed her head. Gwen looked around the room in startlement. "Rise, Dalia, please. You shouldn't be kneeling at my feet."

"My queen??"

Gwen shook her head and blew out a breath. She didn't have the time or the patience to deal with this right now. She would ask Lorac to call for an assembly once the present crisis was over. It wasn't right for everyone to continue to believe she was something she was not. For now though....

"Dalia, Lorac said you and Nim needed to see me. What can I do for you?"

"My queen, Dr. Darkhorse and I have done everything we could for the Amazons and warriors we brought back with us, but...."


"Queen Gwen," Dr. Darkhorse picked up the thread. "There is nothing more we can do for them except make them comfortable."

"Excuse me?" Gwen wasn't being deliberately dense, but she really didn't want to accept what it sounded like she was being told.

"My queen, the Amazons who attacked us weren't content to simply kill us. They wanted to ensure that everyone suffered." Dalia paused and sighed, forgetting the 'queen' business and returning to the healer she was. "Their arrows had some sort of poison on them that steals a person's life step by step. We tried the regen unit, but it simply sped up the process. One warrior and one Amazon have already died. Regent Lenore is asking to speak to you."

"Dammit," Gwen mumbled, running her hand through her hair again. "All right, look. I want you both to get back to work. See if you can physically isolate the poison and find an antidote. Find some people to keep your patients as comfortable as possible, but I want you two working together to find a way to fix this. Don't tell me it can't be done," she commanded, holding up a hand to halt their protestations. "Reed, can you please call Lacey and see if she can come help?" Reed nodded and moved off to the small office Sky had given her.

Gwen turned back to see Dalia and Nim still standing in the living room looking at her with mouths agape. She clapped her hands together. "I wasn't talking just to hear myself speak, people. Let's move. Go, go, go!"

Surprise as much as anything else made them move and they scampered out the door like they were on fire. Gwen rubbed her eyes. "Sky, will you gather the village, please? Maybe together they will be strong enough to see... I don't know... something – anything that can help us out with this mess."

"I'll get right on it, Gwen," moving into the kitchen.

"Lorac, I need you to get the Amazons together, please. Those with any medical training, get them over to help Dalia and Nim. The rest, get together with Reed and rework a schedule to make up for the losses until we can get some reinforcements in here."

"You think we will, my queen?"

"Lorac, I may not be an Amazon, but I'm not stupid either. I know very well you sent out an all call around the Nation as soon as Lenore decided to call me queen. And I am fairly certain that there will be a large military contingent headed this way as soon as Randi hears about this... although I am hoping to put a stop to that before it happens."

"Why?" Lorac blurted out before she had time to censor herself. "We can use all the help we can get."

"No," Gwen stated clearly and firmly. "Not this kind. We really don't want the military in here. They will take over and this place will become unbearable for everyone. Trust me on this, Lorac," when the weapons' master failed to look convinced. "If Randi sends in the troops, it's not going to be the ground pounders you're used to. They will be a lot like Randi in the way they do things."

Lorac nodded. "I see your point, my queen. Let me go take care of it." Then she bowed and made her way swiftly over to the inn where the remainder of the Amazons were waiting to get the ball rolling. Lorac knew she had enough problems without adding gung-ho military minds to the mix. She blinked in surprise when she realized how easily Gwen had slipped into the role of Queen, then stopped dead when she figured out how natural it had been to follow her. Her steps became a run as she allowed the physical activity to push out the confusing thoughts. She would worry about them and her conflicting loyalties later. For now, there was work to be done.

"Lenore?" Gwen tapped on the doorjamb as she stuck her head into the room where the regent lay unmoving. She stepped into the room and crossed over to the bed, clasping Lenore's cool hand in her own. "Lenore? Dalia said you wanted to speak to me. What can I do for you?"

Lenore blinked her eyes open and looked at Gwen with a smile. She tried to squeeze Gwen's fingers, but it was more of a reflex action than a genuine grasp. Gwen reached for the water that sat on the small bedside table and offered it to Lenore who accepted it gratefully. She sat back with a relieved sigh. "Thank you," she said softly.

Gwen smoothed the hair back from Lenore's face, biting her bottom lip. "Oh, Lenore. I wish I could do more. You saved my life. Thank you."

"There is something you can do," grimacing in pain.

"Anything, Lenore."

"Accept the mantle of queen; become the ruler you were born to be. The Nation needs you. It's your time."

"Lenore, I'm not even an Amazon. I can't be the queen you want me to be." She pulled the cover up a little further and tucked it in more tightly around Lenore's body. "C'mon. You need to rest. Dalia and Nim are working on finding an antidote for the poison. You want to be ready to resume your regency when they do find it."

Lenore winced and drew as deep a breath as she dared. "Gwen, why are you fighting so hard against this? Most people would be thrilled to have that kind of power handed to them on a silver platter. Trust me... I have been shown – you are the chosen one. You are the queen of the Amazon Nation."

"This is not something I want, Lenore; it's not something I ever even considered wanting, much less having. Can't I do something... anything... else for you? I'm not queen material."

"Oh, I beg to differ, my queen. You are – you just haven't had a real chance to practice yet. But don't worry – I think you'll have plenty of opportunity to work at it."

Gwen groaned. "You're not gonna let this go, are you?"

"No. It's important to me that you accept this, and it's important to the Nation."

Gwen blew out a breath. "I'll make a deal with you. I'll work on this queen thing, but you have to stay alive. I think they will be able to find a cure and you have to live so it can work." Lenore flinched again and gave Gwen a wry smile.


"All right, then. Let me go see about doing some sort of queen thing, and you get some rest. I'll be back later. You just remember your promise, all right?" Lenore nodded slowly, her eyes starting to close again. "Can I get you anything before I leave?"

"No, thank you, Gwen. Go practice being a queen."

Gwen would have answered, but Lenore's breathing had already deepened into the even rhythm of sleep.

"Thanks, Lacey. We'll see you in about an hour then?"

"Yeah. I'm gonna bring a couple folks with me." She was boarding the shuttle and talking to Reed even as they prepared for take off. Her compatriots had already loaded their equipment and taken their seats. The door closed behind Lacey as soon as she cleared the threshold.

"Not Sabres?"

"No, folks from the hospital... internists. They're researchers." She paused. "Wait, why?"

"Long story, but let's just say if Randi sends any more Sabres in, Gwen is liable to go postal, and I don't want to be here for the fallout."

Lacey chewed her lip. "That bad, huh?"

"Oh, you have no idea. She is running on overload at the moment. Among other things, the Amazons are trying to make her their queen." Dead silence met Reed's pronouncement and she moved the comm unit to assure herself there was still a connection between them. She hated that the comm link was only vocal, but it was the best they had. "Lacey? You still there?"

"Uh huh," drawled out so slowly Reed chuckled silently to herself. "Did I hear you right? Did you say the Amazons are trying to make Gwen their queen?" Reed could hear the engines whine as the shuttle lifted off.

"Yeah... I'll fill you in when you get here. But just be prepared... the Gwen you know is not the Gwen that is here. This whole business is really taking a toll on her."

"All right. Maybe I can help make it better. I'll see you in a bit."

"Thanks, Lacey." Then she hung up and placed the call she really wasn't looking forward to.

Randi rubbed her forehead and turned back to the screen. "You wanna repeat that for me, Reed?"

This time Reed wished for no video connection, but she knew Randi would never go for that. She also knew Randi would never accept no as an answer. She sighed and saw the blue eyes glaring at her in impatience. "The Amazons have declared Gwen to be their queen, sir. They say she is destined to reunite the Nation."

"Uh huh... and they know this how?"

"I didn't ask for specifics, sir. I haven't had a chance, actually. I just thought you would like to be notified as soon as I became aware of the situation."

Randi nodded her head curtly. "Good job, Reed." She turned the chair and looked out the window. "I'll be sending in a squad...."


Randi's head whipped around and Reed swore she could see the flames in the eyes that met hers. "Excuse. Me?" Her voice was low, flat and deadly. "Since when do you...?"

"Since you charged me with her well-being, Randi. You've pushed her as far as she's gonna go; she's riding the edge."

"She doesn't have to know."

"She will though, and I won't even have to tell her." Reed blew out her own exasperated breath. "Dammit, Randi. Give the woman some credit. She knows you. She knows exactly how you would react to any sort of perceived threat to her. And let's face it - you see her becoming the Amazon Queen as a huge threat to both of you. Sir."

Reed swore she could feel Randi's teeth grinding in her mouth. But she knew if Randi took the time to think it through completely, she would not only agree with Reed, she'd know why she was right in what she said. Finally, though, Randi gave a little growl.

"Fine. It's not like I actually have the troops to spare right for that now. You're sure that the Amazons are sending in reinforcements?"

"Yes sir. According to Lorac, all the tribes will be sending in representatives as well as their council of elders. They will want to swear her in before the entire Nation, but that won't be for a while. She hasn't actually accepted the position."

Randi rubbed her forehead. The day hadn't been going well in the first place, and now she was just getting a headache. To top it off, the pain of being separated from Gwen, not sure where they stood, was agonizing and it made her irritable. All her Sabre leaders were keeping their distance except when it was absolutely necessary to come into her space. Just as well, they were leaving for their first assignment very shortly, and she wanted them focused. Now she just had to find her own focus to take care of Sabre business. If Reed was sure about Gwen, Randi would have to put that aside until later.

Randi nodded. "All right. See to it, Reed. I'm going to be out of communication for a while," knowing Reed understood full well exactly what she wasn't saying. "If something comes up, you will need to handle it until I get back."

"Aye, sir. I understand. I'll take care of everything," Reed agreed, anxious to cut the communication short as it was starting to become painful. Randi's aura was so screwed it was a horrible drain on Reed's barrier and she was looking forward to some reinforcement of her own.

"Do that," Randi agreed. "I'll be in touch."

The screen went dark before Reed could respond. Things were spiraling out of control and she had work to do to keep ahead of the chaos.

Tiny and Brenda were gearing up in silence. They were the last part of the final team to be preparing for the mission except for Randi. The rest had already arrived at the rendezvous in staggered increments to avoid arousing suspicion. It was different than the way they had done things before, but Randi had a plan, and it looked like they might finally have a chance to defeat the rebellion once and for all.

However, the two of them still had work to do before the assault started, and they wanted to be well on their way before Randi arrived. She had been a bitch on wheels since she'd left Gwen in the small village that was home to Reed's people. They would all be glad when this was over... for a multitude of reasons.

"You think this will work?" Brenda said softly to Tiny as they boarded the shuttle. It was a fairly safe place to talk without being overheard.

Tiny looked at her. He couldn't blame her for her doubts. Randi had been all over the map from what they knew of her and even knowing her motivations didn't always make it easy to understand her choices. However, knowing her motivation made it easy to believe in her success.

"Yeah, I do," he answered easily, though Brenda knew he had given the question the deliberation it was due. He'd never been one to rush his answers when it came time to go to work. "I know why she is pushing, Bren... hell, we all do. But I think there is some merit to this. Why wait to take out the leaders if there are pockets we can destroy now? Less we have to deal with later."

"I agree. I'm just not sure I understand this whole roundup idea. Why not just obliterate them?"

"I dunno. I'm sure she has a reason though."

"I guess. Just wish she'd share. I hate being kept in the dark like this."

"So do I, Brenda... so do I."

Chapter XVIII

Randi looked around her office. She was tired of this; she missed home and the beach and most especially, she missed Gwen. She hated this... this whole thing had spiraled out of control. It wasn't how things were supposed to be. But responsibility came first and that meant being her alone for the time being. Randi rubbed the side of her face. It was aching badly today and it was giving her a headache on top of everything else.

She watched as the shuttle lifted off carrying the last of her team members. They were going to try something different this time, bringing a majority of the rebels back to the capital city to stand trial... of a sort. But first....

Randi walked out of the office and through the corridors of the military building. She shook her head; that was one of the things she was going to have to finish fixing when the rebellion was taken care of. It was time the regular military started pulling its own weight in the world and took care of some of the dirty work and this operation would be just the beginning. Maybe then the burden would become more bearable... for everyone.

A quick transport ride took Randi to the accommodations she had arranged for during her time in the capital. She keyed in the gate code and waited for them to open completely before piloting the transport through and under the portcullis. It was a large house – something left over from another era, but it suited her needs admirably in this time and place.

She opened the door into larger foyer and went straight up the stairs to the large master suite she was using. It occurred to her to get a decorator in to furnish the house; having a bed as her only piece of furniture was going to become a problem as time went on, especially if things played out the way she expected them to.

A vid call later, and things were all set up. Fortunately, Sabres covered a number of occupations in their outside lives, and Yuri knew exactly how to set things up to give the intimidating impression Randi wanted. Even better, he wasn't assigned to any of the teams she had out in the field at the moment, so his plate was clear to make this house his priority.

Randi went into the closet and removed her uniform, laying each piece out precisely on the bed. Then she removed each weapon she wanted to take with her and did the same with them. Satisfied with her choices, Randi went into the bathroom and took a shower, knowing the mission might take longer than she planned for it to and wanting to start out clean at least.

She was glad there were no memories in this place; otherwise, being here alone would be unbearably miserable, and it was bad enough as it was. Her shower was brief but very hot and Randi got out of it glowing from the heat and the brisk rubdown drying off. Then she moved into the bedroom and began to dress with swift efficiency.

With her armor in place, it didn't take Randi long at all to add her weapons to her person, and only a few minutes more than that to prepare her duffle. When she was set, she sat down to wait for the shuttle she had ordered. It didn't take long.

Yuri stepped off the shuttle and they exchanged a brief word before she boarded. He had his orders, and she had her mission. With a little luck, she would be back before he was finished. And if not, well, he knew what to do.

Randi stepped onto the shuttle feeling an unexpected wave of nostalgia when she realized Reed wasn't her pilot. She knew it, of course, on a conscious level, but they had shared any number of assignments and Randi had always been able to count on Reed for an honest assessment of whatever situation they were going into. But Randi knew Reed was serving where she was most needed and she turned her focus to the upcoming operation, knowing it was going to be quite a different undertaking that the Sabre unit was used to. She only hoped she could make it work to her advantage.

A huge detention area had been built in the shadow of the city, out among the ruins of the previous civilization. Randi wasn't completely convinced it would hold the number of rebels she suspected were going to be rounded up, but she gave a mental shrug. Her intent wasn't to make them comfortable.

Randi spent her time on the way to the rendezvous studying the latest reports she'd received from the teams in the field. Things were coming together better than she expected. The principals of the rebellion had gotten a bit paranoid after Randi had destroyed the previous leaders in what was supposed to have been an impenetrable fortress. Even with her people in place, it had taken them a while to learn about the safe houses. Only now, when all the sects were slowly moving all their people to their respective hideaways, were they able to finally get a bead on them. Randi vowed to make sure this was the end. It was time for this to be over.

She would have preferred for the Fringe Amazons to be first; she owed them a great debt she was more than a little anxious to repay. However, the Reds were the first to arrive at their designated safe place, so they would be the first to fall.

Cam was in place, just waiting for the Sabres to move in. The regular military was on standby under the impression that they were simply part of a military exercise. Now they were waiting for the go ahead... waiting for Randi to give the word.

The shuttle landed with the barest whisper of sound, and Randi was off and headed for cover before the pilot could even power down the engines. Her primary team, the leaders of each of the sub-teams she was utilizing for this mission, was waiting for her and they came to attention as she crossed the threshold. She waved them to an 'at ease' position and they relaxed slightly.

"Report," she barked softly. Tiny stepped up to reply.

"The sensors are in place. No one will be able leave the area once they are activated, not even the regular military... except us. We have the chips ready to implant, and oh... here. Geoff sent these along with the sensors. They will protect us when we send out the pulse."

"How long will it last?"

"That's the only thing we don't have specifics on, sir." The ice in her glance caused Tiny to shiver and rush on with his explanation. "Geoff gave us parameters – he said between four and eight hours. A lot will depend on the individual people themselves." Tiny shrugged, trying to convey an air of nonchalance. "It's just something we will have to keep an eye on while we work, but we've got it covered, sir."

"Can we send out the pulse more than once? Without too much damage?"

"I don't see why not, sir. Geoff didn't mention anything about it either way. But we have no real way of knowing until we try. This is all new technology we're using, sir." A beat. "He did say it the sensors would continue to let people in to the area once they are activated, but he thinks we will need to render them unconscious individually. Hopefully we won't need to worry about that, though... if the Red leader is worth his salt."

Randi snorted and lifted an eyebrow. "What about the medics? Do we have enough to take care of this within a reasonable amount of time?" Randi waited for an answer, then realized Lacey wasn't with the team. She turned her attention back to Tiny, her voice calm and controlled... and completely terrifying. "Where is Lacey?"

Tiny actually had to clear his throat, though he was careful not to emulate any other behavior that would signify any sort of guilt. The only reason he knew was because Reed had called him once Lacey had arrived to give him an update on how things were going. Some days, he just hated his life – this was fast becoming one of them.

"She's in the village with Reed and Gwen."

Silence. Then, "I see. And why wasn't I informed?"

Tiny blinked, walking a very fine line. "We didn't know you weren't aware until now."

Randi looked at him hard, trying to detect any deceit in his answer. The rest of the unit stood perfectly still, unwilling to jeopardize either Tiny's life or their own by fidgeting. Finally, she nodded, accepting his words for truth and everyone released a relieved breath. Then they stiffened again when she asked, "On whose authority did she go? Who gave the order?"

Tiny swallowed hard and spoke softly. "Gwen did."

Now it was Randi's turn to go completely still, not even blinking for a very long moment. "I see," she repeated more slowly. "Guess she's got that queen thing going on," muttered mostly to herself, though the entire unit heard her loud and clear. "All right," Randi continued, raising her voice to be heard. "We don't have time to fix this right now. I'll deal with Lacey later. Bendara," recognizing Lacey's immediate subordinate when she looked around the small group. "You have point with the med teams. Make sure things are handled. You report directly to me. Understand?"

"Aye, sir," the young man nodded briskly. Bendara hadn't been thrilled to find out that he was the medic-in-charge of this particular operation, and now he was less so. However, he was also a good Sabre and would do his duty well.

Randi nodded her acceptance of his assurance and looked around more carefully at the remaining members of her team. She didn't want any more unpleasant surprises, and finding out Lacey had bugged out on this mission, regardless of the reason for it, was a downright rude sensation.

"All right, people. Where do we stand on everything else?"

She went around the room, checking with each leader to ensure everything else was as she had planned it to be. Though adapt and overcome was part of the Sabre creed, Randi would be happy not to have to scramble to alter her plans for a change.

Surprisingly, everything else was in place exactly as she had set forth and soon they were ready to take their places around the perimeter. Each leader would check in with his or her respective section and send a readiness report to Randi. Cam was to give Randi a high sign when the Red leader signaled the completion of the gathering.

Then they settled in to wait.

"How's it going, Lacey?" The Sabre and her two civilian compatriots had settled into the area of the small village hospice that Sky had graciously set aside for their use. It hadn't taken them long to set up a lab area, and since the Amazon and village nurses had already taken blood samples, they had gotten straight to work upon arrival.

Now here it was several hours later, and Gwen was finally able to take the time to come say hello and check on everyone. She had been busy setting things up for the arriving Amazons. She had been flabbergasted by the sheer influx of Amazons that had been arriving in steady numbers since Lorac had sent word out to the tribes. Already the population of the village had tripled and Amazons were still arriving. Even doubling and tripling up, they had already spilled into the countryside for miles surrounding the village on both sides.

Gwen was more than a little concerned, though both the Amazons and the villagers had been extremely charitable about the whole thing, especially considering how awkward things could have been for everyone. But Gwen was even more apprehensive about the expectations the Amazons were putting on her. They all seemed to be assuming that Gwen was going to be their queen. Period. No choice. No debate. End of discussion.

Gwen, however, wasn't so certain.

But regardless of her feelings about becoming the Amazon Queen, she did assume the responsibility of making sure the women coming into the town were taken care of. It was just part of who she was. So it took her awhile to get to Lacey.

For her part, Lacey took a long moment to study Gwen. At first glance, there wasn't any visible change, and without Reed's warning, she probably wouldn't have noticed for a while, if ever. But since she was looking for it, Lacey was able to see the difference in Gwen's bearing and attitude. She wondered briefly how Randi would adjust to the new Gwen.

She smiled and opened her arms, pleased when Gwen responded with a brief, though enthusiastic, hug. Then Lacey turned back to her work and gestured to her two companions. "Gwen, meet Locha and Jed, my colleagues from the hospital. Locha is a disease specialist and Jed is our top researcher."

They reached out a hand and exchanged brief pleasanries with Gwen, then turned their attention back to their work. In some respects, medicine and medical research hadn't changed much. It was still a long, tedious process that required a meticulous attention to detail, and once they had a rhythm established, it was difficult to turn the focus onto anything else... even the politeness of society.

Gwen smiled. That kind of focus she well understood. She used it a lot when she got into a storytelling groove. She turned her attention back to Lacey. "So?"

"Well, the good news is we have high hopes of being able to isolate the poison and eventually find a cure."


Lacey nodded. "Yeah. That's the bad news... we don't have a timeline to give you yet. We have every faith that we'll be able to do it – I just don't know when."

Gwen sighed and rubbed a hand over her face. She was exhausted and this complication was not making life any easier. Coupled with the Amazon Queen situation and it was downright ugly on several levels. "Um, Lacey? I don't want to put anymore pressure on you," she said, blowing out a breath. "But I think we are under a deadline here."

"We are," Lacey said, "and we're doing our best – we'll keep doing our best - to find a cure. I know there's a lot riding on this, Gwen. Aside from the Amazon issue you have, the fact is that if one rebel group has this, odds are they all have something... if not the same, then at least similar. Since Randi has begun the Sabre offensive against the rebellion, this could give the rebels an unexpected advantage if we don't find some way to defeat this... soon."

Gwen blinked and took a deep breath. "Oh, I see," was all she said, but her tone conveyed a wealth of meaning. She cleared her throat. "All right, let me leave ya'll alone to do your work. Is there anything I can get for ya'll? Anything ya'll need?"

Lacey shook her head and patted Gwen on the upper arm. "No, Gwen... we're fine here. Reed has made sure to take real good care of us."

"All right," Gwen nodded and walked towards the door. "Let me know if I can do anything for ya'll."

"Will do, Gwen, and thanks. We'll figure it out."

Gwen nodded, but she didn't reply. She simply walked out the door, and Lacey watched her go, then shook her head as she returned to the workbench and picked up the computer pad with her notes. Then she reread them and resumed her work.

Gwen crossed the village slowly, taking in the immediate changes having so many people in such a small space. She made a mental note to make sure that the Amazons were able to sustain themselves without becoming a burden to the local community. The last thing she needed was a war breaking out here, especially among people who were allies.

"How are you doing, Gwen?" Sky asked as he caught up with her halfway across the compound. He took the time he had waiting for her answer to study Gwen. He could see by her posture she was carrying a great burden, even more so than right after Randi had left her alone here. The business with the Amazons was stressing Gwen, and Sky was hoping he could do something to help ease the situation. He knew there was nothing he could do to relieve the shadows of sadness in her eyes.

She scrubbed a hand through her hair and shook her head before squaring her shoulders. Then Gwen looked at Sky and gave him a wry little grimace that could almost have passed for a smile had Sky not known the difference.

"I'm okay, Sky." She had to sigh when he gave her a knowing look. "All right, I'm a little tired. It's been a rough few days."

Master of understatement, Sky thought with a grim smile. Never expected that from a bard. Aloud he said, "Come. Let us go to the house and get some tea. It has been an exceptionally tiring day, and it's not over yet. I'd like to take a little break, and I'd like for you to join me."

Gwen blew out a breath and nodded. "I'd like that."

Sky ushered them both into the kitchen, putting on the kettle and removing from the refrigerator the tea sandwiches he always seemed to have on hand. He set them on the table while Gwen went to the cabinets to take out the plates and cups Sky used for tea service. He smiled; it was nice to see Gwen relax a little bit. Gwen was just happy to be doing something normal.

The kettle whistled and Sky poured the water into the pot he had prepared and waiting. He motioned to Gwen and they took a seat. They didn't speak for a while, simply enjoying the companionship and the variety of sandwiches.

Just when Sky felt Gwen had relaxed enough to be willing to talk a bit about what was really weighing so heavily on her, a knock sounded on the door, followed by Reed's voice. "Sky?"

He sighed silently, wishing he'd had a little more time with Gwen before this interruption. "In the kitchen, Reed. Please join us." Maybe this would actually help.

Reed poked her head into the kitchen, then smiled at the domestic picture in front of her and how much more relaxed Gwen appeared. Then she scooted into the room, followed by Tommy. Gwen squealed and leaped from her seat right into his arms.

"TOMMY!!" She squeezed his neck hard and he gladly returned her fervent embrace, casting a worried look in Reed's direction. It hadn't been that long since they'd seen one another, relatively speaking, and yet she was acting like it had been months. He held onto Gwen and rocked her gently, rubbing his hand up and down her back.

Eventually, Gwen's grip loosened and she stepped back with the slightest hint of a blush. "I didn't expect you until tomorrow morning. Oh... where are my manners? Would ya'll like to join us?" she asked, gesturing to the table where Sky was adding plates and cups. "We're just taking a little break."

Reed took a seat with alacrity and motioned Tommy to the seat beside her. "Have a seat, Tommy. Sky makes his own special blend of tea; trust me when I tell you you've never had anything like it."

Tommy looked at Sky with an apprehensive expression on his face. "Um, it's not illegal, is it?" He was so earnest Sky and Reed looked at one another and burst into laughter. Even Gwen chuckled and Tommy couldn't help but grin ruefully as he ran a hand across his blood infused features. "Sorry, I know better, really. I'm not sure where that came from actually."

Sky let his chuckles wind down so he could speak. He'd known Tommy had had a rough time just from the bits Reed had shared. Though it had been an unexpected question, Sky couldn't help but see the humor in it.

"No worries, my friend," Sky answered, still smiling. "And no... there is nothing illegal in my tea. That would dull our senses too much and we need them now more than ever," Sky continued as he poured Tommy a cup of tea. "Honestly, it really is just tea. I just mix a variety of flavors to create my own."

Tommy took a small sip and his eyes got wide. He took a second, longer sip, only just stopping from gulping in deference to the heat. "Wow! This is great. Can I get the recipe?"

"Um, no. But I will be sure you have a supply to take home with you."

Reed patted Tommy on the shoulder and helped herself to several sandwiches. "Don't feel bad, Tommy. He hasn't shared his recipe with anyone... even me. It's a closely guarded secret. We're just lucky he sees fit to share tea time with the rest of us," she added in a teasing tone, jabbing Sky gently with her elbow. Sky just chuckled and shook his head at her.

Gwen decided now would not be a prudent time to admit that Sky had shared the recipe with her. Some secrets were better kept.

"So," Tommy turned to Gwen, anxious to deflect the conversation away from himself. "What's the deal?" motioning in the general direction of the village. "Why are so many strangers hanging around here? They look like Amazons, but I've never heard of them gathering in such large numbers in a single place before."

Gwen groaned and put her head down on the table despite the bad manners. She was glad Jill wasn't around to see it, knowing her mother would have given her grief. That thought brought a smile to her lips and Gwen realized it had been a long time, figuratively speaking, since she had talked to her parents. She made a mental note to call them soon. Her thinking kept her head down on the table long enough for the other three to exchange glances and Tommy understood the unspoken message from Reed and Sky loud and clear.

"Oooookay... next subject."

Gwen lifted her head from the table and brushed the hair from her eyes. Then she propped her face on her open palm and looked at the other three. "No, it's all right. I'm gonna have to figure out what to do about this whole mess sooner or later."

Tommy cleared his throat. "Um... do I dare even ask?"

Gwen smirked at him, but he could read the fatigue in her eyes and wondered what had happened to make such a big change in such a short time. "Depends... do you really want to know?"

"Yep, I really do," he said seriously before allowing a cocky grin to overtake his expression. "Because you're the only person I know who could attract trouble on a scale of this magnitude." He didn't have to say it, but all their thoughts went automatically to Randi and it brought wistful smiles to their countenances for different reasons. Tommy cleared his throat again. "So what gives?"

Gwen chuckled and shook her head. "What gives is that those are Amazons, and they want to make me their queen." Her chuckles turned to outright laughter at his flummoxed expression. "Yeah," she said, her laughter winding down on the edge of tears, "that was pretty much my thought."

"All righty then. Should I ask how it happened?"

Gwen shrugged. "I'm really not sure. I mean, Randi arranged for them to tutor me in self-defense, and I asked if I could learn about their culture. I figured I should, ya know? As much as my own desire to learn about them, it seemed like sort of a courtesy... a sign of respect and appreciation that I could give to them in return for their teaching me. Especially since it was clear, at least at first, that some of my instructors were there under duress."

Tommy nodded, understanding very well Gwen's thirst for knowledge. It was one of the things that made her such an excellent storyteller. Then his brow furrowed. "Under duress? What do you mean, Gwen?"

Gwen gave him a wry smile. "Let's just say they had other things they would have preferred to have been doing besides teaching me."

"But it changed?"

"Yeah, it did. Once they realized I was willing to learn, not just the mechanics, but the reasons behind it as well as their history and traditions, things settled down pretty quickly."

Reed chimed in. "It didn't hurt you could kick their asses with your staff work either."

"Very true," Sky agreed. "Don't sell yourself short, Gwen. *You* are the reason they accepted you."

"Maybe, but it still doesn't make sense that they would choose me as their queen. I mean... c'mon. I'm not an Amazon. There are certainly a lot of women *far* more qualified to become this queen to reunite all the tribes into a single nation again, and they are ALL Amazons."

Tommy looked thoughtful, and Gwen pounced on him. "What?!? What are you thinking??"

He grinned unrepentantly at her. "What makes you think I am thinking anything?"

"I can see the smoke coming out of your ears. Means something's gotta be working hard in that head of yours."

Tommy's mouth dropped open and his eyes bulged as he realized he'd walked right into that one and been gotten but good. But secretly, he was glad to see the teasing side of Gwen. It had been far too long and she had gotten much too serious in recent days.

Reed and Sky chuckled in sympathy with the outraged look on his face. Gwen simply laughed at the 'gotcha' factor involved. "So, you gonna share before all the gears burn up in there?"

Tommy shook his head. Gwen was on quite a roll. "Yeah," he finally said. "I was thinking that there is a legend about this whole scenario. At least I think there is. I'm trying to remember the specifics; it's not like I.... I don't remember much, but I have a very clear memory of my great-grandmother telling me stories about the Amazons when I was really little."


"And they were waiting on the return of their queen." He paused and pinched his lip between his fingers trying to remember more detail. "I think... it seems like... the legend said that one day the queen would be brought back into the fold by a rogue Amazon warrior. And that when she returned, the tribes would unite once more."


"Excuse me?"

"Why would this supposed queen return and unite the tribes? I know what Lenore told me... she said if the eradication of the rebellion was successful, the Nation would be brought back as a whole. But what you are saying is that the tribes would reunite simply because the queen returned."

Tommy rubbed the crease in his brow. "I'm not sure what to tell you, Gwen. I'm sure Lenore, if she's an Amazon, has a far greater knowledge of this legend than I do. I'm just trying to tell you what I remember of the legend Granny shared with me."

Reed and Sky remained silent, yet observant. Gwen pulled at her hair in frustration. "I know, T; I'm sorry. I'm starting to feel a little frustrated, among other things. Do you remember anything else?"

Tommy shook his head. "Not really... just feelings and impressions. I remember that Granny always got a little excited when she shared this story. It's why I remember it. It always made her happy to tell it."

"Your Granny was an Amazon?" Reed asked before Gwen could speak again. Tommy nodded. "If you are willing, we might be able to help you remember exactly what she told you. Rosie is a shamaness," she continued at his unasked question. "She might have the knowledge to help you regress to that point in your life again."

"Do you think it would help Gwen at all?"

"I don't know, Tommy. I honestly can't say for sure one way or another."

"I doubt a regression would tell you why they decided to choose me, Tommy, but it might be nice for you to be able to have that memory whole and intact instead of the bitsy pieces you have now," Gwen said. "So please don't make your decision based on what it might or might not do for me. Do it because it is the right decision for you."

"I'll think about it," he replied after a long moment of silence. Then he turned back to Gwen. "So what do you want to do about recording? I'm not sure bringing kids into this situation is a bright idea on any number of levels. Personally, I don't think you need the added stress of performance right now, and I doubt we'd get what we're going for at any rate."

"I'm inclined to agree," Gwen said without much hesitation. "To be honest with you, I completely forgot about it until you walked through the door. There has just been so much going on here, especially lately. However," she paused a moment. "I am supposed to do a storytelling session for the Amazons. I promised I would when Lenore agreed to teach me about the Amazons. We haven't really set a new time after what happened today, but I doubt it would be a problem."

"I know it wouldn't," Sky rumbled softly. "I hear a lot of comments you don't, especially now that they consider you their queen. You were already quite popular among them as a bard, and the Amazons that have been training you have been spreading the stories both of your prowess in weapons' training and your desire to delve into their culture as well."

Gwen put her hands over her eyes. "Nothing is ever easy."

"Well, that should keep anyone from challenging the throne for now," Rosie said as she stepped into the room. "No one wants the complications *that* particular action would cause." She took the seat Sky vacated for her.

"Especially since Randi is a named Amazon champion," Lorac added as she slipped into the kitchen. Sky shook his head and brought in two more chairs, wondering where his quiet tea time with Gwen had gone. He put the kettle on to heat more water and removed two more cups from the cabinet. All the while, he kept his ear on the conversation going on around him.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Gwen asked Lorac. "I guess I haven't gotten to that yet."

"You've shown you have a true Amazon spirit and skill, and those are things the Amazons respect and would be less likely to challenge. If you were challenged, regardless of where Randi was or what she was doing, it is safe to assume that she would make the time to be here and take care of it."

"But if it was my challenge...." Gwen trailed off when five sets of disbelieving eyes turned her way. She waved her hands. "I know," she said, imagining the repercussions if Randi swept into the village to answer a challenge to Gwen – or worse, to exact revenge. "Talk about a no win situation...."

"Exactly," Rosie said. "But first you have to accept the throne."

Gwen stood from her place. "I don't know that I want to do that, Rosie. I'm not convinced it is the right thing for me and I'm certainly not convinced it is in the best interest of the Amazons. I refuse to be pushed into this, just because it is something other people have decided they want for whatever reason."

Without another word, Gwen walked out the door and into the yard at the back of the house. It was one of the few open spaces left in the town for more than a mile in any direction, and right now, she needed the peace it afforded her. She was going to have to have to make some hard decisions... very soon.

"I would have, you know," Randi said softly. "If someone had challenged you, I would have dropped everything to have defended you... even if it had meant wiping out the entire Amazon Nation." Randi took Gwen's hand in hers and lifted it to her lips. "Despite Ares' curse, despite everything that was between us then, I would never have let them... any of them... hurt you."

"I know, love. That was one of the main reasons I accepted the title. I knew if you knew that I was part of them, you would also know they would protect me... because they knew we were a package deal. And you don't poke a bear with a stick."

Randi chuckled, then moaned in pain. "Well," she hissed. "I know a few who would."

"Yeah, but you'd be first in line. No problem there."

Randi tried to glare, but the twinkle in Gwen's eyes was contagious, and Randi gave her a grudging smile instead. "You're so lucky I love you," growling.

"No kidding," came the very serious reply. Then they took up the book again and started reading.

Chapter XIX

Gwen took a seat in the garden. She drew a deep breath and let the scent of the flowers and the drone of the bees lull her into a peaceful non-state. She watched the clouds slowly trek across the sky, occasionally covering the tops of the mountains that surrounded the tiny village. Eventually, she found her attention caught by the butterflies that were attracted to the colorful blossoms Sky nurtured in his garden.

They flitted gracefully from bloom to bloom, caring for little beyond the bright colors and doing their part to propitiate the flowers' continued existence. Gwen watched them with a wistful smile, wondering how her life had gotten so complicated.

She sat quietly, thankful for the peace and quiet of the garden. Sky had surrounded the yard with tall, thick poplar trees and a solid wall of shrubbery. Together they were successful in damping the sound that came from the village, and Gwen could imagine she was alone with nothing more pressing to worry about than what to wear to meet Randi for a romantic dinner together.

Gwen let her thoughts wander along the pleasant paths of her imagination for a while before realizing she was no longer alone. She felt the smile fall from her face as her attention turned to the person who had taken the chair beside her.

"Good thoughts? That was an interesting smile."

Gwen gave a silent sigh, but turned to her visitor with the most pleasant smile she could muster. "What can I do for you, Rosie?"

"I thought perhaps there was something I could do for you, child. You seem to be carrying the weight of the world, Gwen. Isn't there any way we can help you?"

Gwen reached over and patted Rosie's hands. "It's not that I don't appreciate the offer, Rosie, but I really don't think there is anything you can do... any of you. This is something I have to figure out for myself."

"Can I play devil's advocate for just a minute, Gwen?"

Gwen shrugged. "If you think it will help, Rosie." She sighed, aloud this time. "I'm sorry, Rosie. I don't mean to seem insensitive or ungrateful. There are no good solutions for me here. No matter what I decide I'm gonna be screwed."

"Do you really believe that, Gwen?"

Gwen pushed her hair off her forehead and rested her hand on her fingers. "I know it, Rosie. There are no good choices here. Only lesser degrees of evil."

"Well, then... for what it's worth, I think the lesser degree is for you to accept the mantle of Queen."

"Can I ask why? I'm not saying I disagree with what you're saying. I'd just like to hear your reasoning behind that decision."

Rosie smiled. "A couple things, actually. First of all, I think you would make a fantastic queen. The Amazons would do well to have you leading them. Secondly, I think it would be good for you – not only for the experience it would give you and the experience you could share, but Gwen, if you became their queen, the Amazons would die to protect you."

Gwen jumped to her feet so fast her chair flew backwards and tipped over with a clatter. "Dammit, Rosie! I don't want anyone else dying to protect me! God, that's what started all this in the first place!! This whole situation is because Randi wants to protect me. Quelling the rebellion will be a really great side benefit, but that is not why she's doing this, Rosie. This is personal for her!! My being Queen of the Amazons is not going to change that one way or the other."

She stopped moving and talking, her back to Rosie and her hands on her hips. Rosie didn't move from her place. She could feel the tension radiating off of Gwen even from this distance. Instead, she spoke in a calm, rational manner.

"Gwen, I know it's personal. It always has been since you became a part of her life. And right now, that is all that is keeping her from giving in to the fire that burns in her blood. Your accepting the title might put her mind at ease and allow her to focus on her mission."

"Or it might cause her to get angrier... she might see at as me choosing the Amazons over her. And I would never do that, Rosie. Despite the troubles we're having right now, in spite of everything Ares has done, I will always, *ALWAYS* choose her first. Randi comes first, last and always for me. Is it fair to the Amazons to give them a queen that puts them a distant second?"

Rosie sighed. "What do you want to do then?"

"What I want to do is to put Ares in the deepest part of hell to burn for eternity for what he's done to Randi. What I am going to do is another thing entirely."

At that moment Lorac stuck her head out the door. "My queen, the Amazon regents are here to see you. They say they need an answer."

Gwen shook her head. "If they need an answer this quickly, then the answer is no. I will not be bullied or pushed into taking this. They've waited this long; they can wait until I make a decision or they can take no for my answer. Now if you ladies will excuse me...." Gwen eased past them and went up the back stairs to reach her room. Lorac and Rosie watched through the screen until they heard Gwen close the bedroom door behind her before turning towards one another.

"Well, I guess the queen has spoken," Lorac commented to Rosie. The shamaness simply nodded.

"Perhaps you would do well to ensure the regents and the elders understand what will happen if they push Gwen too hard." Lorac's cocked eyebrow prompted further comment from Rosie. "Gwen is tough and she won't let them push her into any sort of decision, but Randi is standing behind Gwen and she won't tolerate any sort of perceived mistreatment or disrespect." Rosie held up a hand when Lorac took a deep breath to speak. "Think about it, Lorac. Randi is focused on destroying the rebellion now... destroying it... because they made it personal for her. They targeted Gwen. We really don't want to draw that kind of attention for whatever the reason."

"I'll make sure they appreciate that little fact. They just don't understand Gwen's hesitation. Any one of them would give their first born for the opportunity she's being offered on a silver platter."

Rosie turned thoughtful eyes towards Lorac. "Then maybe Gwen is right to be so hesitant. Any people who are so power hungry leave much to be desired as a nation."

"I don't know if it is the power aspect or the chance to be seen as a legend... a real, live hero. We've waited a very long time to be a united nation again. Everyone is very excited about the prospect of it happening now... in their lifetime. And to have the Chosen One be someone like Gwen...."


Lorac sighed, trying to find a way to express herself that would make Rosie understand without making the Amazons sound petty. Finally she shrugged. "It's complicated."

Rosie laughed out loud at the plaintive statement and clapped Lorac on the shoulder. The discombobulated look the weapons' master spared her only made her laugh harder, until tears were running from her eyes. Lorac crossed her arms over her chest and gave Rosie her best glare. The shamaness took a deep breath to contain her laughter.

"I'm sorry, Lorac. I was not laughing at you or the dilemma the Amazons are faced with. It's just that, with Gwen and Randi involved, it has to be complicated. It always is with them, and has been in every lifetime they have shared together."

Rosie could easily see the twinkle lurking in the back of Lorac's eyes and a smirk teasing her lips. "You're kidding me... really?"

"Absolutely the truth. Gwen has even shared some stories about them."

Lorac's face grew expressive and she dropped her arms and reached for the screen door. "C'mon. I have an idea."

"Line them up," Randi said precisely in a deceptively calm voice. Rebel and Sabre alike shivered at the coldness of her tone. It didn't take much effort on the part of the Sabres; the Reds had already been beaten into the ground. Still scattered around the area were the dead bodies of those that had resisted when the Sabres had moved in.

Randi sat in a throne-like chair, surveying the carnage. They had lost more rebels than she'd expected, though they still had a majority of this faction to return to the capital for incarceration. With any luck, she would only need to make examples of small parts of each rebel group. She was looking forward to that... at least, if it worked. If it didn't, well, it wouldn't be pretty, but it would be taken care of.

Twelve rebels stood in front of her, having been singled out as the leaders of the Red faction. For them, there would be no mercy. The regular military had surrounded the compound; their orders were to ensure no one went in or out. They would be used to escort the rebels to their new prison home. Slowly, Randi was going to incorporate the regular military into pulling their weight. It was time *everyone* served and not just the few.

"Kneel." Again, cold and hard. The only people in the room were the Sabre teams and the twelve rebels. The tone of her voice was enough to make knees bend willingly and they hit the floor hard together. Most sets of eyes followed the same path; only one remain belligerent for seconds longer before dropping to the floor with a glare.

Randi sat thoughtfully rubbing her hand on her chin. Now she had the answer to at least one question. He would suffer the worst and he would suffer last. He would see the others die first and Randi had given a lot of thought to making sure they all suffered long and well before granting any of them the absolution of death.

"Back off," she said quietly, motioning the Sabres away from the kneeling rebels with a wave of her hand. They exchanged glances with one another before they each stepped back several healthy paces.

Randi waited, wanting to see them sweat before the killing began. She really had no regrets about the whole situation and was, in fact, relishing this first victory. Eventually, she rose gracefully to her feet, her manner that of a ruler about to pronounce sentence on the accused. In that regard, she succeeded admirably. Even the Sabres watched her with awe and respect.

Kill them.

The voice echoed in her head and Randi looked around to see who would dare presume to give her orders or try to make that decision for her.

Show no mercy... KILL THEM. Slaughter them like the dogs they are.

Randi walked behind them slowly, smiling as each rebel tensed as her body passed behind them. She closed her eyes and focused, pushing the voice out of her mind. Then she opened her eyes and drew a deep breath to speak.

"I have decided to give each of you a far more honorable death than you deserve. You will each be allowed to fight me, one at a time, and I promise to make it relatively quick, if not painless. So which of you wants to be first, hmmm?" Randi waited.

She wasn't surprised when no one volunteered. Randi kept a close eye on the line, noting two, neither of them the pseudo-defiant leader, who flinched and clenched their hands into fists. She tapped one on the shoulder, then blocked the shot to her belly as the rebel turned on her swinging. Almost negligently, Randi popped the man in two nerves in his neck and watched dispassionately as he fell over clutching his neck.

"Next?" she drawled with a hint of a grin in her voice.

They would have rushed her, but the Sabres around the room made it clear that wasn't an option. One by one she ripped them apart – a severed head, a snapped neck, a bleeding jugular, a blade to the heart – each death different and more creative than the last, until only the leader was left.

"Any last words?" He opened his mouth and she backhanded him before he could spit. "Bad choice," she said, beating him to death with her bare hands. Then she looked at the Sabres who gazed at her with the oddest expressions – a mixture of awe, respect, disgust and pain. She shrugged; she'd done what she'd needed to and nothing more.

"Burn them," she ordered flatly. Tiny motioned to a number of the Sabres standing around the room and instantly they sprang into action to clean up the area. The rest moved into formation and awaited further instructions, knowing Randi was anxious to get back to the capital city.

"Tiny, divide up the squads. We need two units to supervise the regular military as they escort the rebels to the holding facility. The rest need to get back to the city and prepare for the next mission. Something's gotta give with someone else soon. You and Brenda need to get back to your groups. You need to be in place when the last of your factions arrive in their respective gathering spots."

"Aye sir."

"Jess should be waiting for me when we get back. And I expect to hear from both you and Brenda fairly quickly."

"As soon as we know anything, sir." Tiny waited for her to dismiss him and he took the opportunity to study Randi. She looked tired and in need of a friend. He opened his mouth to speak again when she cut him off.

"Thank you, Tiny," said softly. "Dismissed."

He hesitated, then snapped to attention and gave Randi a salute. Then he ran back to the Sabres who were still waiting for instructions, barking out orders and causing people to move with alacrity. Randi watched for a moment longer before she headed to the shuttle that was waiting to take her back to the capital city.

Tiny's eyes followed Randi until she was out of sight. Then he went back making sure Randi's orders were carried out, wanting the whole thing to just be over.

Gwen was scribbling furiously in her diary when the gentle knock came on the door. She blew out an aggravated breath, unconsciously pushing her bangs off of her forehead with the motion. She hesitated, then resumed her scribbling, her mind moving faster than the pen could keep up. The second knock was a little louder and caused Gwen's pen to stutter to a stop. She glared at the door, intent on ignoring the interruption when a voice called out to her softly.

"My queen?"

Gwen sighed. She knew Lorac meant well; Gwen just needed some quiet time for herself and didn't understand why people didn't seem to get that. She lay across the bed for a long moment contemplating being rude to Lorac regardless of the circumstances, then dropped her pen into the crease of her journal and closed the leather bound book. Sometimes, having good manners was just a pain in the ass.

Lorac knocked once more. "My queen?" she said again quietly, her voice barely audible through the thick door. Gwen rolled over onto her back and covered her eyes with her arm and sighed.

"Come in, Lorac."

The Amazon opened the door slowly and stuck her head in. "Um... is this a bad time?"

Gwen sighed again and slid her arm up to peek at the weapons' master. "Lorac, all things considered, I don't think there is going to be a good time for a while." She sat up on her elbows and looked at Lorac compassionately. "What can I do for you?"

"I came to apologize." She handed Gwen a cup of hot tea which was received with a brief smile of thanks. Gwen hadn't gotten to finish hers downstairs. Lorac spoke again. "I didn't mean to push you earlier. It's just...." She stopped speaking at Gwen's signal.

"Don't worry about it, Lorac. I have a feeling you're between a rock and a hard place and not by your own doing either. I'm sorry you got stuck there. I'll take care of the regents, all right?"

"I already did," came the calm retort.

Gwen sat all the way up. "Excuse me?"

"I said, I already took care of the regents. I explained to them they needed to chill. Trying to force you into accepting something you don't want isn't going to be good for you or for us. I actually came up here to ask you a favor."

Gwen gave Lorac a smile. "Considering the favor you just did me... what can I do for you?"

"I was hoping maybe you'd be willing to tell some stories tonight. So many of the visiting Amazons are big fans and I think it would go a long way to soothing any ruffled feathers. They aren't trying to be pushy; they just honestly don't understand why you... why anyone... wouldn't jump at an opportunity like this."

Gwen's smile turned wry and she rolled her eyes and chuckled. "I'm sure they don't. I doubt anyone besides me would... understand it, I mean. 'Cause you're right – most people would jump on a chance like this. I can't even explain my hesitation. I just know I won't have anyone deciding this for me."

Lorac nodded. "So will you?"

"Do you really think they want to listen to me tell stories, Lorac? Especially if they are that angry with me right now?"

Lorac grinned. "Gwen, I think their pride is hurt more than anything. Some of them are taking this like a personal rejection. But you haven't heard them talking either... they are totally infatuated with you... with your storytelling. Everyone here is a huge fan to hear them tell it. One reason they feel like you are rejecting them is because of your celebrity status. I know, I know...." Lorac said, raising her hands. "It doesn't make sense to me either, but I think it helps them feel better knowing you're not *not* choosing the Amazons because you have something else more important."

Gwen closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. "I do, Lorac. That's one of the problems." She removed her hands and looked Lorac directly in the eyes. "Randi will always, *always* be first in my heart and in my life. Even if I was to accept the mantle of Amazon queen, the Nation would always be a distant second to what Randi and I share. Is it fair to ask the Amazons to accept *that*?"

"I don't know, Gwen. That's not my call to make. However, would you still be willing to tell stories tonight? It wouldn't take us long to set everything up if you say yes."

"This is important to you, isn't it?"

Lorac nodded. "Yes. I was wrong when I jumped to conclusions about you. I don't want them to be guilty of the same. And I think this might keep them from making the same mistake."

Gwen studied Lorac's earnest expression for a long moment before nodding her agreement. "All right, Lorac. I did promise Lenore I would tell some stories, and if you think it will help...."

"I really do."

"Okay then. Give me a couple hours. I know that will make kinda late, but...."

"Nope, that will be perfect. "I'll get things set up and come get you in two hours."

Gwen wanted to protest the escort, but bit her tongue. Her leaving the village alone earlier in the day had had all sorts of unforeseen complications. She would deal with having a bodyguard if it would make the Amazon's responsibility to her a little easier for them to bear. They shouldn't have to suffer because if her anger towards Randi.

"All right. Thanks, Lorac."

"Thank you, my queen," automatically switching back to Gwen's title with ease. "I really do appreciate it." And before Gwen could say another word, Lorac was out of the room and the door was closed firmly behind her.

"Well?" Rosie asked as Lorac crossed the threshold into the kitchen. The rest waited patiently for her answer. Lorac nodded her head as she took a seat. She gave Sky a grateful smile when he set a glass of iced tea in front of her and she took a healthy swallow before speaking.

"She agreed. But I hope she gets some rest; she looks exhausted."

"I imagine she is," Reed commented. "It's been a hell of a long day."

"It says a lot about Gwen's character that she is still willing to perform for the Amazons tonight after all she's been through today... especially given the way the regents were pushing her earlier."

"She's a professional, Sky," Tommy chided gently. "Storytelling is her life."

"Not anymore," Lorac said with conviction. "Randi is her life, her heart, her home. Everything else - storytelling, Amazon title, whatever – is a very distant second. She said as much to me upstairs just now."

Reed blinked. She'd never expected Gwen to share something so private and wondered what had brought it on. Then Lorac shared the context and Reed understood perfectly, as did the rest of the group seated at Sky's small table. And it made them understand her dilemma even more. Reed made a decision and turned to Lorac, who was just getting up from her seat.

"Lorac, I want you to go tell the Amazons that while Gwen was willing, and absolutely agreed to do a storytelling session for them tonight, I have decided it is in her best interests to rest for the remainder of the evening, given the stress she has been through today."


"Instead, she will perform tomorrow like she was scheduled to. But instead of telling stories to children, she will be telling stories to the Amazons instead."

"Um, Reed? Don't you think Gwen might like to have a say in all this? Not that I disagree with you, because the toll this day has taken is written clearly on her face. I felt really bad asking, but it seemed important. Somehow, I don't think your giving a unilateral order like that without even consulting her is going to go over very well with Gwen, even if it is in her best interests."

"She's right, Reed. I know the commission Randi gave you," Sky commiserated sympathetically. "And quite frankly, nothing you do is going to be completely right. Randi is going to find fault with everything. That's a given. But I don't think pissing Gwen off it the way to go either. At least if she is... well, not happy, but content, it will go a long way towards assuaging whatever concerns Randi has."

"That's true, Reed," Rosie agreed, clapping her hands on Reed's shoulders and rubbing out the knots with strong, firm kneading. "And you know it."

Reed's chin dropped to her chest and she moaned. "God, that feels good," feeling the tension melt and the bones in her neck realign themselves with Rosie's sure touch. "I know you're all right. I also know Gwen will do what she thinks is necessary to keep the peace for everyone... even if it's not best for her. I'm less afraid of her being angry with me for trying to look out for her than I am of Randi thinking I'm not."

The sound of a throat clearing broke the stillness that had fallen over the room with Reed's pronouncement. All eyes turned towards the doorway that led to the back stairs, not surprised to see Gwen standing there smiling wryly at all of them. Reed cursed silently for allowing her senses to be overrun by the sensations of serenity Rosie's hands had been creating on her psyche instead of focused outwardly, though she rationally admitted to needing the downtime to fortify herself for what was coming.

Reed had been honest about her feelings in the matter. Still, it didn't mean she wanted a knock-down, drag–out fight with Gwen about things either. She and Gwen had come to a tentative understanding after their disagreement at the beach house, and she didn't want to jeopardize that to argue about this. On the other hand, Reed did have her orders, and she was, first and foremost, a Sabre. So, she waited silently, watching as Gwen crossed the short space between them and taking the chair Sky offered with an appreciative smile. Then the rest of the room faded away.

Surprisingly, Gwen took Reed's hands in her own. Usually, she tried not to, knowing her touch was sometimes quite painful for Reed to endure. But this time, Gwen needed the connection and she felt confident that the support system Reed had currently in this room and in the village would be more than enough to protect her from anything unpleasant.

"I appreciate you looking out for me, Reed. I really do. I think you probably would have even if Randi hadn't issued you orders to do so. But this is something I need to do. I need for the Amazons to understand that while this queen thing is just not personal to me, I am not snubbing them or their way of life. Especially since they want me to be a part of their culture... even if it is only to fulfill an old legend. I, of all people in the world, can't discount old legends, can I?"

Gwen smiled and Reed couldn't help but smile back as she shook her head no. Gwen had more reason than most to believe in old legends – she was a living one. She sighed. "I understand that, Gwen... I honestly do. But does it have to be tonight? It's already been a long day. You're exhausted... hell, we all are. Wouldn't it be better to wait til tomorrow?"

"Probably," she answered wryly. "But it needs to be their decision. They have to feel some measure of control here, and since I'm not going to let them dictate to me about becoming their queen, it's easy enough to do this for them."

Reed chuckled. "When did you get so smart?" Then she jumped when Gwen pinched the back of her hand. "What did you do that for?"

Gwen snorted. "As if. I'll have you know I have been smart for a while. Just ask my mother – she'll verify I am a genius – absolutely certified." She was doing her best to keep a straight face, but the twinkle in her eyes gave her away. It was Tommy's muffled guffaw that caused laughter to ripple around the room, cutting through the tension like a hot knife through butter.

"Absolutely certifiable, you mean," he commented.

The room howled and Gwen slapped at Tommy. "I'm gonna certify something in a minute!!" It took a few more minutes for everyone to settle down, and even then they couldn't look at one another without someone breaking into another round of giggles. Finally Gwen took a deep breath. "That felt really good."

"Yeah, it sure did," Tommy agreed. "I needed that."

"We all needed that," Reed commented. Gwen turned back to the seer at her words.

"Yeah, we did. Now, Lorac, if you want to give the Amazons the news and let them make their choice...." Lorac nodded and slipped out the door, thinking how nice it had been to have seen a more human side to Gwen, even if it had been a little odd. Despite the feelings of sisterhood throughout the Nation, Lorac couldn't recall a time when the Amazons just sat around laughing for laughter's sake. She almost envied that.

Gwen blinked at Lorac's rapid disappearance, then refocused on Reed. "You let me worry about Randi. She's not gonna take anything out on you; I won't let her."

Reed smiled. Given the precariousness of the whole situation, it was almost funny. But it did her heart good know that Gwen still believed... in herself and in them. "All right," she agreed. "I'll look out for you, and you can cover my back."


"Jess... in my office, now!"

It was late and Jess had hoped Randi would wait until morning before calling her in for a briefing. She was exhausted and still healing from her encounter with the Amazons and village warriors earlier in the day. It had been a vain hope. With a sigh, she got up and followed the Commandant into the office, assuming attention immediately and letting her senses absorb the tension she could feel rolling from Randi.

"What happened?" Her voice was calm and completely unnerving. Jess clamped down on the chill that wanted to skitter up her spine. "Why didn't you alert us to the attack?"

"I tried, sir. I did, but no one answered my call, and I only had time to try once. We were taking advantage of the fact that Gwen was out alone."

"Excuse me? What do you mean she was out alone?"

Jess shook her head, wishing Randi would let her move to an at ease position. She was still feeling the effects of her regeneration and collapsing in front of the Commandant was really not something she wanted to add to her agenda for the day.

"She wasn't alone, sir, not really. Reed and all the Amazons and warriors were right behind her when she left the village unexpectedly. Frieda was just trying to take advantage of the situation, sir."

Randi dropped into her chair, absorbing the information. She looked at Jess for a long moment before waving her hand. "Sit, before you fall." Jess took a seat with startling rapidity, glad to be off her feet. She'd been close to passing out. Randi regarded Jess a little longer before nodding her head. "All right. Do you know when and where the Fringe Amazons are meeting?"

"Yes, sir. Frieda gave us the information before we moved towards the village. We were supposed to go there as soon as our objective was obtained, sir."

Randi bit her lips, knowing exactly what that objective had been. She knew Jess was trying to keep thing impersonal, but in this instance it was hard to maintain her objectivity. All she wanted to do right now was wreak havoc, cause harm – anything, everything – whatever it took to make things safe so Gwen could come home where she belonged once and for all.

"All right. Give me your information, then I want you to go back to the medifac and get some rest. We're gonna need you when we get ready to go take them out."

"Aye sir."

Randi stood up and took Jess by the arm. "C'mon. I'll walk you down. You can tell me on the way. Then I have plans to make."

Chapter XX

"In my lifetime, I've had the opportunity to visit many of the societies that populate our world and I have always delighted in the stories that the people in those cultures choose to share with me. Some have a lot, and some have only a little, but everyone has something they want to pass on about their people and their traditions. I have been very lucky in the respect that I not only get to hear those stories, but I get to share them with others."

Gwen crossed the stage slowly, connecting with as many Amazons as she could. They had been quite excited when she'd offered to perform for them, and had been gracious about waiting until they'd all had some rest. But now, in the light of day, she could see their - not skepticism, but confusion – and she wanted to allay their misgivings as much as possible.

"When I first came here, when the Amazons agreed to tutor me in weapons' training, I asked Regent Lenore if I could learn about your history and culture as well. I can't tell you how excited I was when she agreed. The Amazons have a fantastic history. It goes back not hundreds, but thousands of years, and while I haven't actually seen them, you have actual writings and scrolls that date back that far... to the very beginning of the Amazon Nation."

Gwen took a seat on the stool provided for the purpose and looked over the crowd again carefully. "I'm looking forward to studying about the Amazons. Few cultures have the depth of history you've been blessed with and your historians have been wonderful caretakers in preserving the written word."

"My own ancestors have also served as historians and record keepers. We have been storytellers and bards for all of our recorded history, and that history goes back to ancient, ancient times. I'd like to share with you a time when the path of one of my ancestors crossed into the world of the Amazons."

Gwen smiled. She saw her audience physically sit up straighter and lean forward in anticipation. This was something they hadn't expected. Gwen wasn't going to explain how the ancestor was related to her; though the Soulmates were known to the Amazons, how they reincarnated through the karmic cycle wasn't public knowledge. Only Gwen's and Randi's families knew the whole truth, and that was enough.

But the tale Gwen wanted to share was interesting and she didn't have to share the whole truth of the Soulmates – just the parts where they had come together within the Amazon Nation, millennia ago.

The Amazons sat rapt, listening to parts of their history that they knew well and yet was somewhat unfamiliar with the telling. Gwen was revealing bits to them that they had never heard and her point of view was refreshing. Those listening would have easily believed she had been there as the outsider accepted the title of Amazon queen for the first time.

They listened as her pain became palpable, more than one wiping away tears surreptitiously. They held their breath through her fear and cheered spontaneously when she experienced unlooked for joy. This was a queen they had known of, but not really known, and Gwen brought a real life dimension to her that made them appreciate her and themselves even more.

She didn't share much about the queen's relationship with her companion, not in this telling, yet it was clear that the two together were separate parts of the same whole. The warmth they shared was something the Amazons could sense just in Gwen's tone of voice, and they found themselves drawn to it, wishing she would share more about the two who were so obviously everything to one another.

But she didn't. Instead, Gwen drew their attention to the one who would be queen simply because of her compassion and a cruel twist of fate. She took her time, weaving their history and hers together, and before they realized it, the morning was gone. Still, no one moved as Gwen took them from the triumphs and tragedies of the old world to their relocation in the new.

When she finally stopped speaking, the Amazons sat stunned. They had been introduced to a part of their history they all knew and yet had no real understanding of, and Gwen, through her words and inflections of tone, had made it come alive for all of them.

The silence was spectacular, and more than a little unnerving for Gwen. She looked back at Tommy with worried green eyes. Surely she hadn't miscalculated that badly. Tommy raised his hands in the universal gesture of non-understanding. He himself had been transfixed during the telling, but having underlying knowledge of who the soulmates in question really were admittedly contributed to his interest. Regardless, though, the story was compelling on its own, and neither of them understood the complete lack of reaction on the part of the Amazons.

Almost as one the Amazons realized that Gwen was finished, and they rose as a single entity, clapping and cheering with enthusiasm. They couldn't see it, but Tommy smiled when he saw Gwen visibly relax. Nothing was worse for an artist than doubt, and the Amazons had managed to create a big one... until Gwen realized they had been completely astounded by what they had heard.

Her smile of comprehension was blinding in its intensity. She had no way of knowing she had cemented the Amazons' conviction that she was the queen they had waited for.

She stood to accept their applause graciously when a movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Gwen turned her head full to see Lorac approaching her rapidly, upset clear in every line of her body. Gwen held up her hands for quiet and moved to the side of the stage to intercept the weapons' master.

The exchange was terse and brief, and Gwen covered her mouth with her hand before she stood upright. Then she moved back to the center of the stage, her footsteps making loud noises in the silent hall. The Amazons looked at her expectantly.

Gwen swallowed hard, blinking the tears out of her eyes. The silence became tomblike, thick and palpable. She took a deep breath and then a second, before clearing her throat and beginning to speak, her voice wavering only slightly.

"My sisters," she addressed them without conscious thought. "It is my sad duty to inform you that my friend, your regent Lenore...." A shuddering breath. She bit her lip to try to bring the trembling under control. "Lenore just died." A murmur rose up from the crowd. Gwen waited patiently for it to die down before she resumed speaking. Eventually all eyes turned towards her, waiting expectantly for her to continue.

"We will have a pyre for her at sunset. Please go and make yourselves ready."

Without another word, Gwen turned and left the stage. The Amazons followed her directive without question, filing out with barely a word spoken amongst them. Tommy smiled sadly, wondering if Gwen realized she'd just accepted the mantle and title of queen.

Then he followed Gwen back to Sky's. He needed to call Ella and he knew Gwen would need his support. This weekend was becoming more convoluted by the minute.

SLAP!! "Bad choice. Would you like to try again?" Randi's voice was deceptively calm, not belying the underlying fury that pulsed through her veins at the mere sight of this rebel. This one, more than any that had come before her - including Ghost Rider – deserved death, and Randi wanted this woman to suffer for what she had done to Gwen. Already they had been at this for a while, and Frieda's face was swollen from the series of buffets Randi had showered her with... and she hadn't even begun to use the torture implements so prominently displayed.

Randi walked around the naked body that was strung up between two polymer posts. Yuri had redesigned the basement at Randi instruction, soundproofing it and turning it into a bona fide, state-of-the-art torture chamber. It had been his top priority upon arrival, knowing it would be put to use sooner rather than later. He just hadn't expected it to be so soon; he was glad he'd been ready. This would be one room Gwen would never be allowed into; the lock on the door assured that.

Randi picked up the cat of nine tails and walked around in front of Frieda, gently caressing the crop in her hands. She turned her attention back to the trussed up woman and arched an eyebrow in question. "Well? Would you like to try again?"

"Fuck you, bitch!"

"Tsk, tsk. Wrong answer. Not even in your dreams, Frieda." Without warning, Randi lashed out and let the cat bite into the woman's back, breaking the skin and causing the blood to weep from the marks. Frieda flinched away from the pain and couldn't stop the whimper that escaped her lips at the unexpected attack.

Unseen in the corner, Ares stood watching the proceedings with perplexed interest. He didn't understand why Randi simply didn't destroy the rebellion. Given the fact that the scar on her face was totally eradicated, she should have been completely under his control. Yet she continued to disregard his instructions, doing what she wanted to do how she wanted to do them. Not that Ares didn't enjoy torture as much as the next dark god, but this wasn't at all the victorious conquering he had envisioned from her when he'd decided to reclaim her warrior soul for his own. He bit his lip and turned his attention back to the drama playing out in front of him.

Randi walked around to stand in front of the Fringe Amazon that had been responsible for the attack on Gwen at their honeymoon cabin. "You're obviously not very bright, Frieda," Randi continued almost conversationally. "You see, you are going to die, and you're going to tell me everything you know before I let that happen. The only control you have here is how much you're gonna suffer before I grant you the mercy of death."

A second lash caught Frieda in the upper thigh, drawing blood again and she spat at Randi in both pain and anger. The warrior wiped the spittle from her cheek then onto her pants, not sparing Frieda a glance before walking over to a second table. She placed the cat reverently back in its preferred spot and picked up a bottle of clear liquid. Randi pulled the top off and took a sniff then a sip. Satisfied, she turned back to Frieda with a malicious smile on her face.

For her part, Frieda took Randi's lack of reaction as a capitulation of sorts. She figured the warrior was simply going to kill her, realizing that Frieda was not going to betray the Fringe Amazons or Bramble. She idly wondered if Randi even knew about the new rebel and his plans to annihilate the peace and smiled grimly. She would miss being part of the new world order of mayhem and destruction, but at least she hadn't betrayed it. Too bad for Frieda she figured wrong.

"I think you need some time to think about things," Randi said calmly, breaking into Frieda's train of thought. It took her a moment to comprehend what Randi's words meant. Frieda lost her smile as the meaning sunk in. Randi's expression simply grew more deadly.

"But first, let me leave you with something to think about." She took the open bottle and poured its contents on Frieda's open wounds... first on the thigh, then letting the remainder cascade down the renegade's back. Randi watched dispassionately as the alcohol and the blood co-mingled before dripping onto the floor.

It only took a moment for realization to move from thought to reality as the alcohol that Randi had liberally poured over her body seared into Frieda's conscious understanding. She screamed.

Randi stood and absorbed the sound, licking her lips as the taste of victory washed over her. Frieda was still screaming when she stepped from the room without a backwards glance.

Ares remained a moment longer, enjoying the rebel's pain with a sense of sadistic pleasure. Then he orbed out, intent on searching for a way to resolve what he perceived as Randi's humane weakness. He wanted all of the warrior's soul to be his. He couldn't claim ownership of – complete domination over - her until he did, and in all likelihood, given the way things were going, she wouldn't call for him unless she surrendered. Ares wanted insurance that was going to happen, even if it wasn't on his timetable. He'd never realized winning was going to take so much work after the battle was over.

Aphrodite watched with tears in her eyes as Randi's soul grew colder. Finally, the goddess couldn't stand it any longer and turned her face into Athena's shoulder. For once, the goddess of wisdom didn't question or retreat. She simply held on and offered Dite whatever comfort she could. For a long time, they stood locked together. Eventually, Dite's silent sobs slowed and she pulled back from Athena's embrace just slightly.

"Thanks, The," said with a slight hiccup. "Sorry... I...."

"Shh," Athena replied, covering Dite's lips with two fingers. "Truth be told, I felt like doing the same thing, and I can't actually feel the withdrawal of their souls from one another like you can."

"I didn't expect it to hurt so much."

"I know. Who would? This has already been so much more than we expected it to be. When did we get so bad at this whole god thing?"

Dite gave Athena a watery chuckle and Athena gave her a blinding smile in return, happy to hear the sound. Dite had been entirely too sad and depressed lately and it cast a pall over all of Olympus. Even Ares felt it, though he couldn't put his finger on what was troubling him; he assumed it had something to do with the fact that Randi had yet to call on him. He never considered anything else.

"The, since when do you do valley-speak, babe? Whole god thing?"

Athena shrugged. "Maybe you're rubbing off on me, Dite. After millennia of trying to understand you, I guess it finally started to sink in."

"Radical, The," Dite said, bumping shoulders with her and smiling. "I'll make a righteous babe outta ya yet."

Athena chuckled. "Dite, I'm not sure the world is ready for that."

Dite nodded sagely. "You're probably right. There's plenty enough of me to go around." She grinned up at Athena and smiled shyly. "Thanks, The."

"What for?" though she was fairly confident what Aphrodite was referring to.

"Reminding me... we're totally gonna win."

"I never doubted it," Athena lied smoothly. "But what makes you say that now?"

"Cause it's so not up to us... it's up to them and they're not gonna live with this kind of pain."

"And you think...?"

"I think they're gonna fight to be together. They have to be together. And that means... we win."

Athena wrapped an arm around Dite's shoulders, smiling when Aphrodite reciprocate with an arm around her waist. "I like the way you think, sister."

"Me too," with a laugh. Then they walked towards the scrying bowl together, anxious to find out how things were going for Artemis and the Amazons.

Gwen sat at the desk in her room, undisturbed by the preparations that were going on in the village. She had her diary open and was writing slowly and thoughtfully. She looked up when a knock on the door was followed immediately by Tommy's head peeking around the door looking for her. Gwen placed her pen in the journal to mark her place, then closed the book as a wave of d?j?O vu swept through her. She motioned him in, and he smiled in relief.

"Hey, T. What's up?"

"I came to check on you," he answered frankly.

She smiled and patted his leg closest to her. "I'm all right, Tommy. As all right as I can be for now."

"That's actually not all that good, Gwen."

She shrugged. "Sorry. Best I can do for you. I'm not gonna lie about it."

He took the hand she had left on his calf and held it in his. "I don't want you to lie, Gwen. We've always had honestly between us. Is there anything I can do for you?"

This time she gave him a real smile. "No, Tommy. I appreciate you asking though."

"Gwen, I'll tell you like I told Randi. You're part of my life, part of my family. And I don't take that lightly. If you need something, I want you to ask. I know this whole situation sucks, and if Ella and I can do something to make things a little better, we'd like to. In fact, she said if you'd like, she and Randall will come stay a while."

"NO!" Her emphatic answer startled him, and he jumped. "No, Tommy. I appreciate the offer, I really do. But I cannot, *will not* put anyone else in danger. No, Tommy," she said, holding up a hand. "I was brought here for my protection, and in doing so have risked the lives of hundreds of people. People have already died – both friends and enemies. I don't want any more deaths on my conscience... especially not the deaths of family."

"You don't think that should be our choice?"

"Not this time, Tommy. I know it's selfish, but I wouldn't wanna live with that, and honestly, I couldn't ask Randi to live with that kind of guilt. You know as well as I do she would assume personal responsibility if anything happened to ya'll. That's how I ended up here in the first place."

"All right," Tommy agreed, nodding his head and squeezing the fingers he still held lightly. He cleared his throat. "What are you gonna do about this queen thing?" though he was already fairly confident in her answer. She had been born to it, even if she didn't realize it yet.

"I think I am going to accept the position, even if it is only on a temporary basis. It will provide Randi with some peace of mind, I think, after she realizes the full implications behind it. And it will make the Amazons happy without really hurting anyone."

"What about you? Doesn't it mean anything to you?"

Gwen shook her head. "Not really, Tommy. I know I have Amazon roots – the Soulmates stories are quite explicit in their telling. But it's not who I am now, and it's not something I have ever looked towards being again. I mean, c'mon... you know the Amazon legends better than I do, and you're a man. Doesn't *that* tell you anything? I'm not cut out to be an Amazon queen, but for now, they need something to believe in and it is mutually beneficial to us both."

"It tells me you're selling yourself short again... something you seem to have developed a real knack for in the past year or so," wisely not mentioning what she had suffered in the last year. He didn't figure reminding her would get him very far. "I want you to promise me something," he added before she could continue.

"What's that?"

"You have to promise first."

"Tommy!" she whined. "That's not fair."

"Life generally isn't," was the soft retort. He squeezed her fingers again for emphasis. "Promise me."

"All right," she capitulated gracefully. "I promise," trusting him not to ask for the impossible.

"Thank you," he breathed, recognizing her trust for what it was. "I want you to consider you first – before you accept this position for everyone else. I want you to do what is right for Gwen."

She smiled sadly and pulled her hand from his as she turned back to her journal. "Sometimes, Tommy... sometimes you have to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs or the desires of the one. I will promise you that I will do my best for me and for them, but I can't not consider them, especially Randi. As angry as I am with her right now, I will not make things worse for her."

Tommy sat a moment, considering her words carefully. "Okay," he finally concurred. "But if you need anything... if there is any way we can help at all, you call us. The Amazons can borrow you for a little while, but they don't get to keep you. You're family; you belong to us." His teasing grin didn't distract from the seriousness of his eyes.

"Tommy, even if I wanted to, Randi would never stand for it. Hell, I would never stand for it!" She blew out a breath. "Trust me, Tommy. I will do my best for the Amazons, but when they are taken care of, well... I know where home is."

"All right," he agreed. "Now, let me go get you something to eat. It wouldn't do for the new Amazon Queen to fall over before she even gets sworn in. Back in a few."

Gwen propped her head on her fist and shook her head while chuckling silently as Tommy exited the room. When the door closed, she turned her attention back to her journal, opening the book and rereading her entry up to the point where Tommy had interrupted her. She had just picked up her pen to resume writing, when a new voice caused her to sigh and drop the pen back into the crease of the book before turning around to face....


"You're wrong, you know." She reached forward and smoothed the lines from Gwen's face with a tender touch. "You are an Amazon, and you are an Amazon queen. You were the best queen the Nation ever had. You did so much...." Artemis stopped speaking when Gwen shook her head, and cocked an eyebrow in question.

"Artemis, I have no memory of that time... only the stories that have been handed down through my family. But I know for certain, even without reading the Amazon histories - just relying on the accountings in my possession - that I was not the kind of committed leader the Amazons deserved – not then and certainly not now. My soulmate came first, last, always... just like she does now."

"Gwen, though I would have wished for you to have been a full time queen of my people, when you did serve as their queen, you did so well and with honor. Though they didn't always understand, I knew when I chose you your soulmate would always come first... then and now."

"Artemis, I'm willing to accept the mantle of queen and I'll do the very best I can for them until they are a strong nation again. It would be mutually beneficial. But they need to understand the reservations and restrictions I'm working under. I know you do." Gwen held up her hands. Artemis clamped her lips together. "I just want them to know exactly what they are going to get from me... to avoid any heartache later when the time comes for me to go home."

"You tell them that, Gwen. I'll make sure they understand."

"Can you do that?"

Artemis chuckled. "It's been a while since I had to use the art of persuasion to any good end, but I think I might remember how."

Gwen blushed. "Sorry... I didn't mean...."

"It's all right, Gwen. It was a fair question. You're in a difficult position. I'm glad you're going to accept the title, Gwen. As you've pointed out, it will be mutually beneficial, and I think you might even enjoy it. I am fairly certain you will learn a few things about yourself that you never suspected... things you never knew you were capable of."

Gwen smiled nervously. "I hope they're good things."

"I think they will be," Artemis smiled gently, reaching out a hand and brushing Gwen's bangs back from her face. "And if not, it won't be the first challenge you have had to face. Have a little faith in yourself, Gwen. You are going to be fine."

"I hope so, Artemis. I want to do right by these women, but more than anything, I just want this to be over. I'm ready to go home."

"I know, my queen. I have every hope that this will be over soon."

Gwen didn't say anything; there really wasn't anything to say. Instead, she gave the goddess a half-smile. Then she turned back to her diary and picked up her pen once more, ready to resume her writing. She hoped that by putting her thoughts down it writing, it would give her a little more clarity.

Artemis couldn't add anything else, so she brushed a kiss over the top of Gwen's head. Then she patted Gwen's shoulders before she shimmered out of sight and back to Olympus.

"The next part gets a little muddled," Gwen commented to Randi. "A lot of things happened all at once, and I had trouble pinning people down to get everything straight. And then it just got crazy."

Randi started to chuckle, but the pain in her chest cut the effort short. She lay back against Gwen with a groan, shifting to try and find a comfortable position. She quickly gave it up as a lost cause and tried to catch her breath instead. Gwen cupped Randi's face with one hand, and green eyes met blue in concern.

"It's getting worse, isn't it?"

Randi closed her eyes against the truth and nodded. Gwen bit her lip in thought. She knew they were stuck here in the darkest part of Randi's subconscious mind until there spirit walk was completed. Though the safe room had been pleasant enough, their one trip into Gwen's mind had been a near disaster, and Gwen wasn't sure she was ready to risk another walk on that particular wild side. She tried wishing for medication or bandages, anything to make Randi more comfortable, but nothing appeared. Apparently, that kind of comfort was to be denied them until this was over, and Gwen was becoming more worried Randi might not survive if they didn't finish soon.

"I'm not sure what I can do to help you, love," wrapping an arm around Randi's neck and shoulders and brushing a light kiss across her temple checking for a fever. Her brow furrowed when she felt the heat. "But I think we need to move things along faster. The sooner we get out of here and back together on a physical plane, the better."

"I couldn't agree more, love. Just your being here helps, but I think we need to get done with this and get out. Can you reach my next book of memories? I think I can fill in all the blanks you have." She waited until Gwen handed her the next locked book, rubbing a hand over the plain leather cover before looking back up at Gwen. "Thanks. I wish I felt well enough to chance a trip to the safe room Reed set up for us. I am so tired of the darkness."

With her words, the inky blackness around them lightened perceptibly, and while not anywhere close to light, it no longer felt thick and heavy. Gwen and Randi looked at one another in amazement.

"Tell me you felt that," Randi whispered, astonishment clearly heard in her voice. "Tell me you see the difference." Despite the pain, she reached up to trace Gwen's lips when they creased into a smile at her question. "You do, don't you?"

"Oh yeah. You bet I do." Gwen leaned down and captured Randi's lips for a long moment, smiling into the embrace. "You know what this means, don't you?" pulling back just far enough to allow them to breathe. Their lips were still touching and the movement of Gwen's lips against hers tickled Randi's. She smiled at the sensation and shook her head, returning the ticklish feeling with abandon. Gwen giggled and brushed another kiss across Randi's lips, reveling in this return of freedom between them.

"This means we are winning. You have more control over what happens here."

"Good," Randi said firmly. "Let's get this done, then. I want control over what is going on out there."

"Anything?" Lacey said to Reed as the seer opened her eyes slowly.

Reed nodded, shifting but not losing her contact with Rosie. Lacey offered her some liquid nourishment and Reed took it gratefully. Monitoring Gwen and Randi was draining, but at least she finally had something positive to share.

She looked at Gwen's prone body, able to see the difference in her posture. "Can you see it?" glancing to the other two before motioning to Gwen. Lacey and Rosie turned their attention away from their technical observations and actually studied Gwen with the eyes of a concerned friend.

"She's relaxed, hasn't she?"

"What happened to them?"

Reed grinned at the enthusiasm both women showed and nodded, shifting again to find a more comfortable position. "They are making progress. I don't know what happened exactly, but I felt a lightening of their burden. It was amazing – I felt them...." She scrubbed a hand over her face. "Their aura is changing again; they are becoming who they were before, but more."

"Does this mean we're winning?" Lacey asked as she checked on Gwen's vitals again. "Whoa!!" scrambling when the monitors screamed briefly before resuming their normal function. "What the hell was that all about??"

Reed winced in tandem with the noise, feeling Gwen's soul shiver in fear before it settled.

"It's not the equipment," Lacey assured them, having given her gear a cursory glance. "At least it isn't anything I can find without running complete diagnostics on it."

"No," Reed said. "It's not the equipment. Something happened to Gwen or Randi, and Gwen's body reacted to it. It didn't alter their aura, at least not negatively; that much I can see. Let me get back in there. Maybe I can get a better sense of what just happened. At least I can reaffirm our support. Rosie, are you up to it?"

The shamaness nodded. "I'm fine, Reed. Lacey's been taking good care of me," gesturing to the small pile of wrappers next to her. She didn't figure she needed to explain that there was as much chocolate in the pile as there was protein.

"All right. Thanks, Lacey. I'm glad you're here keeping an eye out on things."

Lacey grinned. "Well, I'm glad you're the one keeping an eye on things in there. Now get back to work, so we can get this thing done and go home. I'm ready for a beer."

Reed chuckled even as she resettled herself. "That sounds like a damn fine idea, Lacey. Make sure to put in a couple cold ones for me too." Then she closed her eyes and resumed her monitoring, hoping to find what had made Gwen shudder.

Chapter XXI

Frieda lasted longer than I expected, but not nearly as long I had hoped she would – not given what she had tried to do to Gwen. I didn't even make it to some of the more interesting tools Yuri had collected for my use. A part of me... a very small part tucked deep in the recesses of my mind knew this would make Gwen unhappy if she knew the truth, but a much larger part of me didn't care. Frieda deserved what happened to her... and more.


It wasn't too bad for her at first, though I don't think she expected to be strung up naked in the basement of a modern day torture chamber. The psychological impact that had on her was worth pushing Yuri to get done literally overnight.


I started out buffeting her with my bare hands, slaps and punches meant to show her I meant business. She was defiant to begin with, thinking my humanity would eventually lead me to imprison her for her crimes instead of execute her. I decided to correct that impression and give her something to think about overnight.


I got great pleasure using the cat on her bare skin, especially since I caught her by surprise. I would have left it at that had she not spit at me. But that kind of action deserved a special reaction on my part, and I thought the alcohol in her open wounds was a nice touch. It certainly made her cooperation much easier to obtain when I went back in the room the following morning.


There is something about the smell of blood and fear that wakes up my senses in the morning quite like nothing else, and Frieda gave me both of those in abundance. Nothing like the love I used to get from Gwen, but I don't know if or when I will ever know that feeling again, so I'll take what I can get.


I didn't bother with preliminaries and speaking. Instead, I went straight to work, alternately breaking bones and using a number of the tools Yuri had provided. I didn't ask any questions, choosing to methodically to inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain on her. I relished the sounds of her whimpers as I slowly, surely caused her untold suffering.


Finally, when she had scratches and open wounds covering a majority of her skin, I took the alcohol bottle from the tray and held it up in front of her once more. Then I offered her an option, and she couldn't talk fast enough. I learned everything she knew - who and when and where, and when she was done, true to my word, I put an end to her suffering.


Then I had to move quickly, because Frieda had given me information that meant I had team members in unexpected danger, and I didn't want to lose anyone else to this fight, if I could prevent it.


I had known going in of course that people would die; it is the nature of war. However, what this new leader... this Bramble, son of Ghost Rider... had planned wasn't war, it was carnage. And he didn't care who he hurt or who got in his way. His only objective was winning. Bramble was much worse than his mother had ever been.


"Do you really think so?"

Randi nodded, remembering clearly her thoughts as she'd written the passage. "Yes," she answered. "Because he was going to wage war on the innocents. Grace, for all her bluster and bravado, had one focus. She wanted to destroy the Sabres and she was using the rebels to do it. She knew the rebels would wipe out one another if they were let loose against each other. The innocents would be safe, relatively speaking. They wouldn't be direct targets at any rate."

"With Bramble, he wanted to destroy everything... the Sabres, the rebels, and anyone else he could take with him. He felt the world owed him something."

"Because of his mother?"

Randi shrugged, stopping the effort mid-motion with a hiss. "I dunno," she mumbled as she shifted in Gwen's arms. "I never asked him, and it wasn't something he volunteered. Finding out wasn't really a top priority for me by the time he was in my custody."

Gwen shivered involuntarily, having witnessed the last moments of Bramble's life in Randi's custody. "So what happened next?" motioning to the book. Randi ran her finger down the page to find her place, then cleared her throat before starting to read again.

I was lucky that all my operatives were in place, though it did make getting any sort of intel to them difficult... especially since they were each moving to their hideaways to await further instruction. On the other hand, since they were still gathering, I might be able to slip someone in to each encampment, if I was careful in my selection. It was something I was going to have to risk to insure our final success.


Even with my foreknowledge, Bramble nearly got the slip on us, because he discovered what he thought was a Sabre in his midst. He guessed wrong about who the Sabre actually was, but in the end that didn't matter. Everyone suffered for his paranoia.


I still don't know what tipped him off, but he managed to wipe out the entire contingent of the Blue rebellion, including Hernandez. And that action threw everything into a tizzy – us and them. We were going to have to move faster than we had anticipated if we wanted to round everyone else up. Contrary to popular belief, I didn't want everyone in the rebellion to die... yet. Whether or nor they would later would be strictly up to them. But first we had to contain them.


The Wizards were first by my choice. Selfishly, since I could no longer have Gwen at my side, I wanted Tiny there. He had never failed to watch my back, and that trust, more than anything, was something I needed right now. It felt like it was all I had left.


It wasn't that hard, really... in retrospect. It was a bit anti-climactic, actually, considering what it had taken to get us to that point. Tiny used his position of a High Grande Wizard and was instrumental in not only getting the Wizards to capitulate peacefully, but indicated those in a position of authority without blowing his own cover.


Peaceful capitulation was actually incredibly easy, once the majority watched their leaders die. I made sure it was entirely unpleasant for those watching, though I found a great deal of personal satisfaction from it. I was learning to appreciate disemboweling and beheading as a fine art form... especially as a means of intimidation. So few can withstand the brutality necessary to watch one, much less perform one correctly, and brutal was something I had developed an unlooked-for affinity for. I was glad of that in a far-off, distant kind of way. It made some things easier. The rest I would just have to worry about later.


I knew that bringing in the Wizards would spark terror in the hearts of the remaining half of the rebellion, and that would subsequently make each of the rest of the factions harder to retrieve. But the sooner we got them all to the prison I'd had specially built for them, the sooner this would all be over. And that I wanted more than anything... except one.


As I expected, the disappearance of the Wizards from the landscape, after the Reds had been rounded-up and the Blues had been destroyed by Bramble, the three remaining factions went into hyper alert status. They were as terrified of him as they were of us, and it was that little fact that broke things in our favor at last.


"Can I ask you a question?" Gwen broke in.

"Sure, love. Anything, you know that. Whatcha wanna know?"

"Well, I noticed this diary is a little... sparse... on detail. It's almost technical instead of descriptive. Not that I really want to hear about the disemboweling and beheading... please, I really don't," turning a little green at the thought. "But there is no real detail here – not about what really happened when ya'll were rounding up each of the rebel groups."

Randi shook her head. "No, there wouldn't be. I wrote out details of the first mission – the one you wrote about as well. After that, except for the Blues annihilation, they played out with remarkable similarity, so I didn't see a need to continually repeat myself."

"What about what happened with the Blues? You didn't write much about that either. No regrets?"

Randi bit her lips, considering. "That's actually not a fair question for me." She looked up at Gwen. "I was sorry to lose Hernandez. He was a good Sabre and a good friend. But his death was honorable and not entirely my fault. But honestly, there wasn't anything for me to write when I came here to put things down. I wrote all the details I knew."

"And now?"

Randi sighed. "I really don't know much more. Since no one survived Bramble's massacre...." She paused. "Despite the harshness of my actions, I honestly believe I did the best I could with the situation, so I don't have a lot of regret about this part of what happened. I actually remember large chunks of it and there isn't anything about it I would change, as far as the rebels go anyway."

With those words, the volume disappeared, fading into nothingness as though it had never been.

Randi looked at Gwen. "Do you think we could take a short break, love? I'm so tired."

For answer, Gwen tucked her arms more firmly around Randi's body and leaned her head on Randi's dark hair. She breathed in deeply and closed her eyes, allowing the scent surrounding her to relax her into a comfortable state. Then she felt Randi relax against her and closed her eyes, joining her lover in a brief respite.

"Sky? How are you holding up?" Tiny asked, offering the chieftain a nutritional drink when he opened his eyes. Sky took several large swallows, allowing them to course through his system before he looked up at Tiny with an expression Tiny had learned to read from Reed. It put a knot in his stomach.

"I'm fine," he answered verbally, jutting his chin to Geoff and Jill. "How are they?"

Their voices brought Geoff and Jill back to reality and they opened their eyes together, blinking rapidly to reorient themselves. They exchanged glances with each other and then looked at Sky and Tiny, though none of them lost their tacit connection to one another. "What happened? Are we done here?" Geoff moved his attention to Randi who remained unmoving. "Why isn't she waking up?"

"No, we're not done," Sky answered honestly, ignoring the last question. "I just needed a bit of sustenance. This is very draining for me, even with the extra help," he said, giving them both a small smile. "How are the two of you doing? Do you need anything?"

"I actually need to move around a little if that's possible," Geoff said. "My muscles are locking up."

"Absolutely," Tiny replied after seeing Sky's almost invisible nod. "Can I...?" hoping Geoff didn't accept. He could feel Sky's unease coursing through him, and while it wasn't painful, it was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. But he would have given up their contact briefly to help move Geoff away if it would give Sky the opportunity to explain what was troubling him.

"Let me," Jill said, putting a hand under Geoff's arm like it was the most natural thing in the world. "It's time for his scheduled rubdown if you don't think it will disturb what you're doing here."

"Not at all," Sky assured them, his flinch unseen but felt by Tiny who looked at him in concern. "As I said, you have both been an unexpected though very welcome boost for me. You take the time you need. Just let Tiny know if and when you feel ready to come back."

Geoff nodded, allowing Jill to help him slide back into his hover chair and taking the short trip to the couch. There he got out and stood for a moment before his legs collapsed out from under him and he took a swift seat. Jill helped him stretch out and Geoff bit his lips to contain the groan of pain that wanted to escape. Then she settled down beside him and began to loosen his muscles.

Sky and Tiny watched for a moment, making sure the two were totally engrossed in what they were doing before Tiny turned to Sky with a question in his eye.

"Now," he whispered harshly. "What's wrong?" Sky motioned with his head to Randi's still body they were protecting. Tiny looked at her, noting nothing amiss. "What, Sky? What are you sensing?"

Sky closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he opened his eyes and Tiny saw a swirl of emotions he'd never expected to see there. "She's dying, Tiny, and there's nothing we can do out here to stop it."

"What do you mean she's dying, Sky?" Tiny hissed, trying to keep his voice down. "Why can't we do anything to help... to stop it?"

"Tiny, she's not taking the regen at all. Her body is rejecting the healing we are trying to provide."

"So that means she is dying? She's making a decision to just give up?? I don't believe it! C'mon, Sky... Randi has survived much worse. Why would she let this defeat her?"

"That's all I can sense right now, Tiny. I don't know if it is her decision, but she is dying. Perhaps we should contact Reed and see if she can sense anything more."

Tiny nodded, already keying in the code he needed to reach Reed at the cabin. He only hoped she would have some answers.

"Gwen? Gwen, it's Reed, can you hear me? Gwen, I'm in the glade. Gwen, if you can hear me, I need to talk to you."

"I'm here, Reed. What's wrong?"

"That's what I came to ask you. I felt your fear. What happened?"

"Randi's getting worse. She's feeling more pain and she's not healing... at least not here. I don't know if it's because she has to experience everything before she can let it go or if it's something worse. But I don't like it. I can't seem to do anything to fix it and make to better or to make her more comfortable. I think this spirit walk is killing her," Gwen finished in a whisper.

"Oh, Gwen," Reed sighed. "Does she seem to be making progress otherwise?"

Gwen nodded and gave Reed a brief, sad smile. "Oh yes, we are so close. She's gotten to the point when the rebels were being rounded up and brought to the capital city. She's even managed to lighten the darkness a bit. I'm just afraid we're running out of time."

Reed's eyes widened. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "You really are close then. Is there anything we can do to help... to make things go faster or easier for either of you?"

Gwen shook her head. "Not that I don't appreciate your concern, and God knows I am glad for the support, but unless you know what is causing the lack of healing or know some way for me to fix it, I'm not sure there's a whole lot either of us can do. I'm afraid it's up to Randi." She took a deep breath. "I need to get back. Randi needed a break and is resting, but I don't think it can last too long. I don't want her to get too comfortable in the darkness."

"All right. I'm gonna go talk to Sky... see if we can find out what is happening on his end. Maybe he has some answers." Reed cupped Gwen's cheek with one hand. "Meantime, you keep the faith. The hard part's over, Gwen. It should all be downhill from here."

Gwen covered Reed's hand with her own. "I hope so, Reed. I really do." Then she turned and walked out of the glade, disappearing into the darkness beyond.

"Randi? C'mon, love. Time to wake up and get back to work." Randi didn't move, her sleep deep and heavy. Gwen bit her lip, not liking the situation at all. She thought a moment, then let her fingers do the walking, gently tracing the planes and contours of Randi's face. Tears welled in Gwen's eyes. This was something she'd missed so much and to have it again was a treasure beyond price.

Randi smiled in her sleep, the love and familiarity in Gwen's actions flowing in and around her. Gwen felt Randi's face crease under her fingertips and she smiled in kind. Randi shifted in Gwen's arms and absorbed her touch for several long moments before letting her eyes flutter open.

"I've missed that feeling," she whispered.

"So have I, love," Gwen replied, blinking rapidly to stay the tears that had yet to fall, but still welled in her eyes. Randi reached up awkwardly and stroked Gwen's cheek, her own smile returning when Gwen leaned into the touch. "How do you feel? Ready to go on? We don't have much left."

"I'm still so tired, but I want to get this over with already. Can you reach the last journal?"

"Not without moving," Gwen said as she slid from beneath Randi's bulk. The warrior tried not to groan, but Gwen felt the sensation in her own chest, and turned to brush the hair from Randi's face. "Here, hold this," Gwen said as she retrieved the thick book from its resting place. Then she climbed back onto the stone slab and slipped her body carefully behind Randi's.

The light brightened around them just a bit when they came in contact again, and Randi smiled. "You make the light stronger, love. I've missed that feeling so much." Gwen smiled, then had to cover her mouth to keep a gasp from escaping. With the added light, Gwen could easily see the exhaustion plainly written across Randi's features. "Sweetheart?"

"C'mon, warrior. Time to get back to work. We're almost done. Would you like to go first or shall I?"

"You, please. I'd like to hear about your coronation, since I missed it. Then I'll read and hopefully we will be at the end of this spirit walk." Gwen nodded and opened the diary she held in her hands. Then she took a deep breath and started to read.

"Lorac, when we have given Lenore her final rite of passage, I want you to gather together the regents and elders together. I think it is time we set a few ground rules for this whole queen thing."

Lorac's eyebrow lifted despite the seriousness of the situation and the sadness in her heart at losing a friend. She had the distinct impression that the Nation was in for quite a bit of a ride where this new, young queen was concerned. Unorthodox seemed to describe Gwen best and that meant to hell with tradition. Lorac was looking forward to that with a perverse bit of pleasure. She figured the elders could do with a bit of shaking up.

"It will be done, my queen. Are you ready?"

Gwen shook her head. "Not really, but Lenore deserves to be sent to her final rest with all the ceremony we can give her. I owe her that much; she gave everything for me."

Lorac didn't answer. There was nothing she could say. Instead, Lorac ushered Gwen out the door, pausing only long enough to slide a memory chip between the marked pages of her diary. Then she followed Gwen down the stairs and led her over to the village square where Lenore's body rested in preparation for her pyre. Despite Amazon tradition, concern for the environment insured that Lenore's cremation would be handled in the village facility and the specially prepared polymer funeral casket would not only insure a clean burn, but a rapid one as well.

The gathered crowd parted on either side to allow Gwen to pass through to the podium. Lenore's body lay in state next to it and she paused a moment to put her hand on the polymer box. Her words weren't audible to anyone, but after a moment, she closed her eyes and kissed the lid before she mounted the steps and turned to face the waiting crowd.

"I didn't know Lenore for very long, but she opened her heart and welcomed me as a friend from the moment we met. While Lorac and her instructors were teaching me self-defense, Lenore was teaching me about what was dearest to her heart – her people. I asked to learn about the Amazons and she was so enthusiastic about sharing everything she knew. Not just customs and traditions, but history and stories and life."

"She made the Amazons come alive for me... not just as women of myth, but as strong, independent women of today. Women who were part of the world, but who were also eager to be a united nation once more. Lenore was so excited when she talked of these things to me. I thought she would be a fantastic queen."

Gwen took a deep breath, and blinked back tears. "Her time here was cut short, and I for one am truly sorry about that. She was a good friend for the time I knew her and I am proud to have had the opportunity to know her. And I am honored that she requested that I helped speed her journey to the afterlife."

At her nod, the Amazon musicians started their dirge and Gwen stood solemn and proud until the music was over. Then she stepped forward once more. "Go with our blessing, Lenore, and rest in the knowledge that because of you, the Amazons will be a strong, thriving nation once more. May you find peace and contentment in the arms of Artemis."

She signaled and the bearers slid under the box to lift it onto their shoulders and carry it reverently to the flame. The musicians started chanting, and the Amazons took it up as Lenore's body passed from their midst. They stood for long moments, watching as the fire rose high enough to consume the box. Then the doors were closed and the women slowly moved back to their places in the village, waiting for the decision that would move them forward into a single nation once more.

Lorac went around to the first tribe's encampment, knowing the word would spread rapidly as soon as her intention was known. Sure enough, before she was able to move to the second camp, Amazons were making their way towards the inn where Gwen was already waiting.

They took seats in the small restaurant noting that it had been set aside for their use. No one besides Amazons was entering the structure, and they all did so with a solemn sense of dignity and purpose.

Gwen watched them file in. Despite her lack of cognizant memory of her first tenure as queen of the Amazons, Lenore had been sure to include many of the more comedic aspects of the Nation, including their love for a good party, practical jokes and competition. She wondered after this meeting was over if they would want to have a party or depose her before this reign even started.

When the last Amazon had entered the room and taken a seat, Lorac closed and locked the doors. This was Amazon business and would remain so. She gave Gwen a nod.

Gwen rose from her place and looked over the assembly. What she saw made her smile in understanding – these women, for whatever reason, wanted her to lead them. They had chosen her and though she didn't understand why they had done so, she felt a sudden surge of pride in having been asked. They were ready to protect and defend her, and she in turn was prepared to lead them to the best of her ability.

"Sisters," she addressed them. "You have given me the time I asked for to consider everything and I appreciate that. Lenore...Lenore's last request of me was that I accept the title and mantle of queen of the Amazons." She paused. "Actually, the last thing she told me to do was to go practice being a queen." Gwen gave a wry smile and caught several in return.

"I didn't understand why she was so sure I was meant to be queen; I still don't, actually. Before we go any further, is there anyone here that knows why I was chosen or who feels I shouldn't be the queen?"

Silence for a very long moment as the Amazons exchanged glances. Then the oldest crone in the room stood up and gave Gwen a slight bow. "My queen, my name is Nebula and I am the eldest of the elders in the Nation." Gwen nodded and gestured for the woman to continue speaking. "My queen... your coming was foretold to us, in great detail. It described you and the circumstances surrounding your return. And it was said that one would die to assure your life and your ascendancy."

Gwen swallowed hard. "So Lenore knew...?"

"Yes, my queen, she did. And she protected you... gave her life to insure the fulfillment of prophesy."

Gwen was quiet a moment, thinking. "What else do the prophecies say?"

"Only that you would reunite the Nation and lead us to great things." Nebula paused to gather her courage, then spoke again. "My queen... Gwen... is there a reason you do not want to lead us? Have we offended you in some way that you find it to be such a distasteful task?"

"Oh, Nebula. It's nothing like that. It has more to do with the level of commitment I can make to the sisters and the Nation. You see," she continued, looking out over the assembly again before turning her attention back to the elder. "I have been given to understand that if I become queen of the Amazon Nation, everyone from all the tribes will swear allegiance to me... be willing to die for me whether it be in battle or to protect me from some perceived threat."

Nebula nodded her head. "That's right. We would swear fealty to you, to follow you in peace and in war. It's a vow we don't take lightly."

"That's my problem, Nebula. I cannot offer the same level of commitment, and I feel that's unfair to the Amazons. My soulmate will always, *always* come first. I can't... I won't... put anything in front of her, and I won't allow anything to come between us – not even my duty to the Nation." She looked around again, meeting everyone's eyes individually before she resumed speaking. "Are you sure this is something you are willing to live with? Because my priorities are not going to change in that regard. I want you to consider that before you make any decisions."

Nebula's unexpected laughter startled Gwen and swung her focus squarely back to the elder. Nebula put her hand over her mouth to contain her mirth though her eyes still twinkled merrily. The rest of the room twittered. Gwen raised an eyebrow and waited patiently as Nebula brought herself under control. Finally, the elder drew a deep breath to speak.

"My apologies, my queen. I didn't intend any disrespect. It's just... Gwen, we already knew that. You see, as soon as Lenore let us know the queen had returned we did our homework. We researched who you are... who you were. Don't forget, we have the original Soulmates stories archived as well."

"And you're willing to accept that... willing to accept second place in my life and in my heart?"

"We've had time to discuss this, my queen, both as individual tribes, and since our arrival here. If you are willing to give us the best you have to give, then we are willing to follow where you lead." Nebula dropped her head to study the floor a minute before looking Gwen in the eyes again. "We believe you will follow a path similar to your ancestor's original – that you will lead us to new unity and prosperity, but will choose another to lead in your absence."

"And you're okay with this? All of you?"

"Have some faith in yourself, Gwen. We do."

Gwen smiled. "Whaddya know... and I didn't even have to call on Artemis to vouch for me." She didn't see the startled expressions that went around the room at her casual words. Gwen clapped her hands together. "All right. I will accept the title of queen and help you re-establish the Nation."

A cheer erupted from the gathered regents and elders.

It took a few minutes for them to settle down. After all, this news was huge. Many had harbored doubts that Gwen would actually accept. Given her commitment to Randi, and the history of her ancestors, it wasn't completely unthinkable. However, since she was willing to work with them, they were willing to work with her. She would unite them and bring them to settle in a new land; in return, they would protect her with their lives.

Eventually things settled into an excited murmur that ran around the room. Gwen signaled for attention and eyes turned her way once more as the Amazons quieted down. "Um, not to put a damper on the enthusiasm here, but um... do we need to have some sort of ceremony to make this official or what?"

This time, no one contained their laughter. When the room calmed yet again, Nebula rose to speak once more. "My queen, I can see having you on the throne is a going to something of an experience for all of us. We definitely need to have a coronation, but it will take us a day or two to set up."

"Okay then. Is there anything I need to do to prepare for this?"

Nebula smiled and nodded. "Lorac will give you your instructions." She turned to look to the weapons master. "Lenore should've left...." Lorac nodded. "Good. Everything will be taken care of, my queen. We will let you know as soon as we're ready."

Gwen smiled at them. "Thank you, ladies. I want you to know I will do my very best for you." Then she turned and went to the door, waiting for Lorac to unlock it before passing through, not at all surprised when Lorac followed her out to accompany her back to Sky's home.

Silence reigned in the room until they were sure Gwen was out of hearing range before the room exploded into chaos. Nebula waited all of ten seconds before she let loose with a whistle so piercing, everyone quieted and covered their ears. "SISTERS!!" she roared, looking around until was confident she had everyone's attention. "What is the problem? Now is not the time for doubts!"

"There is going to be some serious backlash to this decision, Nebula," one of the regents spoke up. "Despite the fact that we all agree that this is the right thing to do, and she is the chosen one to do it, there are going to be those throughout the Nation who will want to challenge this... especially since this queendom was not earned – it was given."

"NO!" Nebula stated emphatically. "The title of queen has been bequeathed to Gwen by Artemis and agreed to by us, and there will be no challenges. Not by anyone."

"Nebula, you can't do that."

"Not alone, no. But together, we can enforce it." Nebula looked around at the disbelieving stares she was receiving and shook her head. "Sisters, think about this for a minute. If we allow Gwen to be challenged, we run the distinct possibility of being destroyed. Regardless of Gwen's prowess at arms, Randi would never allow a challenge to Gwen go unanswered by anyone other than her. Does anyone here really want to deal with the fallout that would result from that?"

The silence that greeted her was profound, as the consequences of allowing such an action to take place sank in.

"Okay, Nebula. You've got a good point, but how do we just disregard thousands of years of tradition? You know there are some Amazons who won't accept Gwen's leadership despite who stands behind her."

"Well, I'll tell you what, Sherry. We'll allow any challenges to Gwen's throne as long as all the challengers come forward before Gwen's coronation, and Randi is allowed address the challenges upfront. We are walking a very fine line; given what we know about the state of things where Randi is concerned, it shouldn't take her too long to decimate each and every challenger. We can just hope that she doesn't destroy our core warrior contingent in the process."

Sherry nodded. "All right. Let's send out notices to the tribes and let them know what is going on. It shouldn't take long for any challengers to get here. Then we can schedule the coronation for three days from now. That will be plenty of time."

Nebula agreed. "As it is written...." she proclaimed.

"... so shall it be," the rest intoned. And they moved out to begin the process of anointing a new queen, glad the time for reunification had come at last.

Chapter XXII

"What happened with your coronation? You didn't tell about that."

"It wasn't anything special. It can wait." A pause. "Do you think we could go visit the Nation, once this is over?" Gwen asked, closing her diary. "I want them to know you like I do and they should be marginally settled by now."

"Do you think they'd want to challenge you if we were to show up together? Because there were no challengers when you took the throne," Randi stated. "At least I wasn't contacted to answer any."

Gwen shook her head and brushed a kiss over Randi's temple, providing comfort for Randi's ever-worsening pain that Gwen was beginning to feel as her own. "There weren't any... not one. I think Nebula was quite explicit in making everyone understand what the cost could have been... would have been to them personally and to the Nation at large if they had. Not even your friend Corky was willing to risk challenging my position if it meant confronting you, and she was quite vocal about it. Between them, Corky and Nebula painted a very intimidating picture of you. So no... I don't think there would be any challengers regardless."

"Was that a bad thing? Did it make things worse for you?" Randi coughed and then curled up into a fetal position and held onto her head to try to alleviate the pain that followed. "Ow."

"Sweetheart, are you okay? Can I do anything for you?"

Randi took a moment longer to breathe through the pain before answering. "No, love. Thank you, though. So, did it make things worse?"

"Well, it made a little shaky at first, but by and large, I think it has worked in my favor. I had to prove myself... prove I was more than just you at my back, but once I did that, they realized that it was me AND you – together. That was a really nice moment for me. In fact, it happened just before you had me brought to the palace in the capital city."

"Really? What happened?"

"You mean you don't know? I thought you were keeping a close eye on me?"

Randi rubbed a hand over her eyes another pain lancing through her head. "I was... wasn't I? I don't... I don't remember... not clearly, at any rate. Bits, impressions... things are jumbled. I'm...I'm not sure how... how things fit... what's real, and what's... what's not."

"Randi, honey? Are these bits you never had clearly or are these things you're losing now?"

"I don't... I'm not sure." Then she fell silent and Gwen felt Randi's body slump completely into hers.

Gwen's brow furrowed anxiously. "Randi, sweetheart? I need you to stay with me. C'mon, baby. We have to finish the final journal so we can get out of here forever." She rubbed Randi's arms, hoping to stir some sort of response. "C'mon, warrior. Don't you give up yet! Not now... not when we're so close."

Randi blinked open groggy eyes. "Can we rest just a little bit, love? I'm so tired." Her words trailed off into silence, and Gwen bit her lip, forcing her tears back thru sheer grit and determination. Then she closed her mind and reached out to Reed with her mind.

"Gwen, what is it? Your call felt desperate."

"It is, Reed. I need you to move us all back to the palace. Now!"

"Gwen, we can't stop your spirit walk before it is complete. That could kill you. What?" she asked in response to Gwen's rapidly shaking head.

"No, Reed. I need you to move us now... just the way we are. My body needs to be in physical contact with Randi's body, just as our minds are connected on a spiritual plane. Dammit, Reed! She's dying on me and I don't know what else to do to stop it!! Move my body back to the palace!! Please!!"

"Gwen, I don't know if we can. We've never tried anything like that before." Reed gasped as Gwen's agony rushed over her. "But we'll try. We'll do our very best to get you there quickly and without incident or damage to either of you. You go back to her and try to keep her with you. I'm not sure what would happen if your spiritual connection is broken before your journey together is finished. We're working with so many unknowns here. Let me go and get things started. You hang in there, okay?" She reached out towards Gwen to offer comfort, but Gwen was gone before she could touch her. Just as well... her pain probably would have done serious damage.

Then Reed allowed her mind to return to reality swiftly. They had a lot to do and a very short time to do it in.

"WHAT?!? Have you lost your mind??? C'mon, Reed... do you *KNOW* how dangerous that is right now... for everyone concerned?? God almighty!!! Whose idea was this anyway??"

Reed let Lacey vent, knowing she was simply voicing the same concerns and reservations that Reed herself had. When she finally stopped to breathe, however.... "Lacey, I know. Trust me, I know. But Gwen was adamant. Lacey, she's losing Randi on the spiritual plane, and Sky said they were losing Randi on the physical plane."

"Did you tell Gwen that?"

"No. I didn't really have time, and frankly, I'm not sure the knowledge would do her any good at this point anyway, Lace. She's under enough stress."

"No kidding... I've been watching her pressure and breathing spike since you went to check on her a little while ago. All right, Reed. I'll take care of getting everyone moved back to the palace. You just make sure you keep her alive to get there."

"Doing my best, Lace," Reed growled.

"I know, Reed. Sorry. You know what I mean."

Reed nodded and resumed her monitoring of the situation.

"Randi? C'mon, honey. Wake up for me. We need to finish our spirit walk."

"Gwen? Where are we? Why is it so dark here? Can you turn on the lights a little bit? I can't see anything." Gwen closed her eyes. Randi was getting worse; now she seemed to be completely disoriented, not even recognizing her own safe place.

"We're in your safe place, remember, love? We're taking our spirit walk, facing the tough stuff and making us a stronger force together. We're gonna finish up here and we'll finally be able to defeat Ares. We're gonna go kick his ass, remember? That was the deal."

Gwen felt Randi smile. "Oh, yeah. I remember that. We need to make it a really good ass-kicking though; this hurts a lot."

"I know it does, baby. I know it does. Do you think you can focus on your last diary? We've got to finish it before our spirit walk is over and we can get out of here and go back to being together in the real world."

"But we're not together in the real world, Gwen. You left me," misery in her tone.

"Yes, I did, but if you want me to come home, love, you have to make that decision. And we have to finish this first. Once we do that, I can leave here and come home to you, if that's what you want."

"That's what I want, Gwen. It's what I've always wanted. I was so amazed when you came into my life, even when we were only best friends. You brought my life meaning and joy, and when you agreed to marry me, I spent nights trying to figure out what I had done right. I don't want to lose that, Gwen. I don't want to lose you. I can't. Everything I have done worth doing since we met has been for you... because of you."

Gwen leaned forward and brushed another kiss across Randi's temple, feeling the sweat that had gathered there as Randi struggled with the pain that continued to worsen as it coursed through her system. "Then do this for me... for us. I'm ready to come home to you, Randi, so let's focus and get this done. All right?"

"Okay, sweetheart. I love you, you know."

"I know, baby. I love you too. Now, open the journal so we can finish reading and get the hell out of here. I am tired of being in the dark."

"Me too. I miss the sun. It seems like I haven't felt the sunshine in such a long time. So much darkness."

Gwen grit her teeth in frustration. Keeping Randi on track was becoming more and more difficult. She put the diary into Randi's hands, relieved when Randi took it and opened it immediately. Then she started reading silently, before Gwen squeezed her shoulder in silent support and reminder. Randi cleared her throat and started once more, reading aloud this time.

It was all too easy. Within the space of a few weeks we had rounded up the rebel contingents. It made me wonder what we had been doing wrong for so long that victory came at such a negligible cost... though it could have been the new rebel leader as well. He certainly fell from a different tree than Grace Rivers was. He wasn't very bright and he was a prick besides. Being a leader by default didn't make him a leader. Killing him was my pleasure, but we'll get to that.


So now I had ten percent of the planet's population incarcerated in the make-shift prison I'd had prepared for them. It was a little more than I had expected from the intel my people had collected, but I'd make due. It wasn't like that prison was meant to hold them for any length of time. I had plans for the rebels, but first, I had to take care of some more pressing business.


It was simple really. The Sabres had more than done their part in assuring the peace for any number of years. It was time that the world knew that, and it was past time for the regular military to assume some real responsibility for it. I was going to insure that happened.

"This is when you became Empress, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. It seemed like the best solution at the time, but looking at this journal, I have to wonder what in the world I was thinking."

"I wonder why Ares didn't come to you then. Surely that pronouncement was what he was waiting for."

"I don't know... or at least I didn't know then. Truth is, for him to win I had to want him there – I had to call for him. And even with everything I've done and all the bad decisions I've made, including becoming Empress, that was just one thing I never felt compelled to do. His poison didn't work the way he expected it to on me. I think my soul knew better even when my mind was still trying to catch a clue about the internal conflict I was having."

"Well, if it makes you feel better, love, Tiny told me that the world was... is glad for it. For all the problems this whole scenario has caused you and me, it has been wonderful for everyone else."

Randi gripped Gwen's hands so tightly Gwen could feel the bones rubbing together. "I don't care," she answered with stark honesty. "The greater good can go to hell for all I care. I want you – I want us. Everything else can just fuck off."

Gwen blinked a little in stunned surprise. She had never expected such a soul-baring response from Randi. She gently returned the clasp on Randi's hands. "Randi, ease up a little, okay? You're hurting me," then held on with her own grip when Randi would have snatched hers away. "Uh uh... I didn't say let go. Just loosen a little. You don't get to let me go, remember? You made a vow before the goddesses and our friends. Forever."

"And I meant it, Gwen, with all my heart. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know you didn't, love. Why do you think I held on? C'mon... let's get back to your journal." Gwen was thrilled that Randi's lucidity had returned and wanted to push forward for as long as it remained. Randi obliged with a nod and turned her head back to her reading.

Talking to the military leaders was fairly simple once they understood that there was no joke and no punch line involved in my assimilation of all military forces into one cohesive unit. It was past time for these troops to begin carrying their own weight and shouldering some of the burden the Sabres had suffered with for years. The best part for me was that very little persuasion was necessary on my part to convince the men and women seated in the conference room, though it helped to have several Sabres as part of the leadership contingent. I had killed enough of my enemies in my past and had even more to look forward to in my future without wanting to resort to killing allies as well.


When an agreement was reached – that is to say, when they accepted the terms and conditions I had laid out for them, we decided to enlighten the rest of the planet.

Despite his reservations, Tiny arranged for me to address the world. I should have been nervous about it, given my predilection towards shyness but honestly, by that point, I didn't care. Gwen had been gone forever it seemed like – first by my doing and then with becoming the Amazon Queen and getting them resettled in their new home. I was going to have to bring her home soon, queen or no queen – this separation was killing me, but I had to take care of a few things first. I didn't want her to see me like this. I didn't like me much – how could I expect her to?


So the time came for me to speak, and I kept it short and sweet, knowing Reed could only keep Gwen out of the loop for so long.


"Ladies and Gentlemen, citizens of the world - The time has come for you to be aware of what has been happening for years all around you without your conscious knowledge. Not even a majority of the military has been aware of this, but that is going to change."


"We have compiled years of surveillance and mission footage into a file that has been uploaded for your viewing. I would recommend that each of you take the time to watch it to better understand what I am about to tell you."


""For decades, there has been a rebellion... an insidious underground movement whose sole goal has been the destruction of the peace we have enjoyed. And for all those decades, it has been the responsibility of a small special forces unit known as the Black Sabres to ensure the peace and keep the rebellion in check and under wraps. It is time for that to change."


"I have already assumed command of every military outfit throughout the world. It is going to be their job to maintain the peace. Everyone is going to learn how to safeguard it. For the time being, however, I am in command. And as such, it will be up to me, and me alone to decide how to dispose of the rebel forces we have captured."


"The leaders of each faction have already been executed. Only one, the overall leader, remains and his execution will be public... for the world, but especially his followers to see. I want everyone... *everyone* to understand what the penalty is for inciting rebellion and threatening the peace."


"Once that is taken care of tomorrow, we will begin decimating the rebels. They will be offered a choice – intense, structured rehabilitation or execution gladiator style. I will not risk good soldiers and warriors against them. My warriors have earned a chance to rest, and the soldiers have not yet trained to fight in such a manner."


"Until such time as this is settled, and everything is put in place, I am setting myself up as Empress, leader of the free world and all the military thereof. In this way, you well know exactly where the responsibility lies."


"Other than my having a title to insure there is a single leader the people can look to, nothing will change from what you already know. Thank you for your time and attention. Good night."


Randi stopped reading again to try and catch her breath. She turned her head just slightly, catching the scent that was uniquely Gwen and taking slow, deep breaths.

Gwen was lost in thought, but not so deeply she didn't feel the sudden chill that chased up her spine, or the goosebumps that followed in its wake. She turned in Randi's direction, stopping her motion when her chin bumped into Randi's nose.

"That tickles, ya know."

"Yeah, well, you smell good. All comfortable and warm."

"I do?"

"Uh huh. Smells like home and love... and us." Gwen smiled; Randi could feel the shift of her facial muscles with her eyes closed and she smiled in response, knowing Gwen would feel it as well. "What were you thinking about so hard there anyway?"

"You gave them a choice – why?"

Randi shrugged gently. "I dunno. There was part of me that just didn't want to kill them all if I didn't have to."

"That was when I was taking the Amazons to the mountain to reestablish the Nation and create a stronghold for them out of that fortress, wasn't it? Is that why you gave Reed the go ahead... to get me out of the way while you assumed control of the entire world?"

"Sorta, but not really. That timing was mostly coincidental, but I did take advantage of it... absolutely. I never wanted you to know about this side of my life... about this part of me."

"Sweetheart, I've known since before we were married. Not everything, of course; certainly not the intimate details. But you talk in your sleep to me sometimes, honey. Did you really think you could hide it from me? I love all of you... even the darkest parts of yourself you've hidden away here. Please don't shut me out." A pause. "When we get done here, I'm going to take you back to my world so you can see just exactly how I see you. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."

Randi didn't answer; she couldn't actually think of anything to say - about that anyway. Instead she changed the subject. "Why did you choose the mountain fortress, Gwen? You could have chosen anywhere, so why there? You can't possibly have good memories of that place – not with that whole situation with Ben and me."

"That's actually one reason I chose it. I wanted to purge the bad memories and replace them with some good ones. As for the rest... there were several reasons, most of them logistical. The mountain itself is safe and secure and even though there is a lot of work to do to make the majority of it livable again, at least the basics are in place. That plus the fact that there are already some security measures in place make it an ideal choice."

"They weren't... upset at being forced to... live... indoors like that? Randi's breathing grew rough again and she shifted again, trying to relieve the pain she felt returning with a vengeance.

"Not really," Gwen answered as she allowed her hands to offer soothing comfort. They shifted together until Gwen felt Randi's breathing ease. Then she continued speaking. "We do have a security perimeter set up outside in the trees that surround the meadow, and the meadow is being transformed into a garden. And we still have hunters and trackers and scouts and gatherers, so there is ample opportunity for anyone who wants to be outside to get outside. Right now, a majority of the work is still indoors, but Lorac and the elders have implemented the schedule I drew up, so everyone gets outdoors on a rotating basis."

"You're pretty... smart, you... know that? I can't... wait... to see what you've... done."

"Well, c'mon and let's finish," riffling through the few pages that remained. "We don't have much left."

"We'll have everything as prepared as we can, Lacey," Tiny said into the vid comm. "Are ya'll sure about this?" Around him, Jill was setting up a comfortable space on either side of the bed for them to be able to maintain their connections with Randi and Gwen while continuing to channel strength to them. Geoff, after his initial startled outburst, had gone to round up as many local Sabre and military people as he could muster on short notice. They figured they could use all the reinforcements they could get.

"No, Tiny, we're not. I certainly am not comfortable moving Gwen at this stage. But she is adamant about it, and I don't know what else we can do. Randi is getting worse on the spiritual plane, and since Sky believes her physical body is dying as well, putting them is the same place on the physical plane can only help at this point. We'll be there in less than an hour."

"All right, Lace. We'll be as ready as we can."

"Master, why are you letting this happen to me? I did everything you asked of me. I thought I was going to rule the world with you."

"Yes, Bramble. You did everything I asked you to, and it achieved exactly what I needed it to. And now the time has come for you to die. Your reward for being a weak leader."

"But Ares... I did what you asked. I did what you asked!!"

They rebels were surprised that I offered them a choice... especially after what happened to their leader, Bramble. I made sure his death was particularly gruesome though. I wanted them to understand... and I wanted him to suffer.


I wore my working uniform that day. This was personal to me, and I was going to kill him myself.


He was brought before me full of piss and vinegar and strung neatly between two poles set exclusively for that purpose. He didn't deserve the honor of being allowed to fight back. I made a bet with myself how long it would take before he was crying like a baby. I didn't expect him to last as long as some of his lieutenants, nor did I think he would maintain the dignity his mother had possessed. Still, he was defiant at first, and I let him rant so the world could see just what kind of man he really was. Then he crossed a line.


"Shame about your bitch, Valiant. You and your perverted kind deserve to die... just like everyone else who's different. You're responsible for the downfall of the human race. Only by purging the deviants from humanity do we have any hope of surviving."


Whatever else he was going to say was lost in a gurgle when my hand wrapped tightly around his throat. The look of shock on his face would have made me laugh if I hadn't been seething in anger. As it was, I just stopped myself from choking him to death with my bare hands. He gagged and dropped to his knees as far as his restraints allowed when I released him.


"Truth hurt?" he mocked as he struggled to stand once more.


"What truth was that, Bramble? I have yet to hear any real truth come from your mouth." I was under control again. I wanted the world to see this pathetic loser for what he really was. His death would mean more if he wasn't seen as a martyr, but as an infidel. He had no idea the world, and all those who had pledged allegiance to the rebellion, were watching.


"The truth that we are *not* all created equal. The truth that people of color are inferior and should be kept strictly in their own societies. The truth that women have a place, and that place is under a man. The truth that my God is the only God worthy of worship and all others are heretical. The truth that people like you and that slut you call a wife are a perversion of the natural order of life."


I sliced the length of his arm so quickly, his cry was as much shock as it was pain.


"Well, Bramble," I said calmly as I inspected my blade. "It seems you have managed to eliminate the entire rebellion in one fell swoop there. According to you, no one deserves to live. Everyone falls into at least one category you've named. However," I said as I swung around and drew a bloody line down his other arm. This time he screamed and whimpered. "I want you to understand on thing before you die."


"My wife is not a slut or a pervert or any other ugly name you'd like to call her. What she is is a wonderful, compassionate woman who is so far above your understanding I don't actually expect your two living brain cells to be able comprehend it. I would advise you, though, to keep any more rude thoughts about her between yourself and your god. Because you see," I slid around behind him and sliced the tendons of both knees, reveling in his screams as he crumpled to the ground. "I *am* a pervert... I take great pleasure in your pain. I relish it, in fact."


Bramble was crying now, though to his credit he was trying to hide it. He even tried to spit at me... or would have had I not backhanded him so hard his nose broke. Now his tears fell in earnest.


"The shame of it, Bramble," I drawled as I cut across the tops of both thighs, "is that you're just not bright enough to actually get it." A slice across his belly, though not deep enough to cause permanent damage... yet. "You see," I jammed my blade into his hand and swiftly withdrew it. "I am a master of torture and interrogation; it is something I am very, very good at." The whip snapped across his back and he wet himself. Things went downhill from there rapidly.


It didn't take long... less than I hoped for but a little longer than I expected. In the end, though, he died crying and blubbering like a two-year-old. I didn't say anything. I figured the silence said it all. Instead I turned my back to what was left of the rebel leader and headed to my chamber. I had never grown accustomed to the smell and feel of blood, and this was no exception. I wanted a shower.


"I think... Ares... tried to contact... me right after that. I had the... oddest sensation before... I made it to the shower – like... I should be... reveling in the blood... bath I had just had. It... made me... sick."

"That's good, Randi," Gwen commented, feeling the warrior's disbelieving stare even in the darkness. "Not the feeling, love, or even the memory itself. But the fact that you remembered on your own again is. Do you remember anything else?"

"Yes. I... remember that... is when I decided... to... bring you home."

Gwen smiled sadly. "I remember that. I wasn't sure whether I should be furious at your autocratic summons or hurt by your obvious indifference to me by having someone else handle the message."

"What did you... decide on?"

"Furious. It was easier to maintain my distance from you that way... at least til the end. When I left it was pure hurt... soul-breaking agony."

"That... explains a lot. How did... the... Amazons... take it.... You... being summoned by me, I... mean?"

"They never knew. Your message went directly to Reed, remember. I simply let Lorac know that I had to come check on you. Being their queen gave me more latitude than simply being your wife and partner. Lorac wasn't happy about it, but there wasn't a whole lot she could do about it either. Kinda hard to argue about something that isn't a request, but more of a directive. Besides, it wasn't like I was doing a whole hell of a lot. I had already set things up, and then the Amazons were broken into work groups and took over. I think they were anxious to make a good impression on one another."

Gwen reached down and tapped the book. "C'mon, love. Just a little more."

"How's she doing, Lace?"

"Everything looks good, Rosie," rechecking her readings once more. "How's Reed?"

"Hanging in there. I think we're all gonna need a three day nap when this is over. How much longer?"

Lacey looked up at the clock in the shuttle and quickly calculated. "About four minutes. Tiny should have help standing by to get us inside, and the rest of the People should be arriving about the same time. With a little luck, we'll be set up inside in less than ten minutes."

"Will that be soon enough?"

Lacey shrugged. "Only Gwen and Randi know the answer to that question."

I decided it was time to bring Gwen home. Despite her responsibilities with the Amazons, she had a responsibility to me and to us as well. I knew she was not happy with my decision to send her away for her own safety in the first place. I fully expected her to be ecstatic to be here with me. Imagine my surprise when she wasn't.




"Why did you bring me here, Randi?" Gwen asked as she stepped from the shuttle. "I was in the middle of resettling the Amazons. Couldn't this summons have waited? What exactly do you expect me to do here?" gesturing to the ornate palace where Randi lived in the capital city. "I heard about your announcement declaring you Empress. Where exactly do I fit in with that scenario, hmm? Because I assure you I will not be referred to as your consort. I don't want any part of this whole set up, if you want to know the truth." She took a deep breath, easily reading the fire burning in those expressive blue eyes. "Randi, let me go home... or back to the Amazons. I don't belong here."

"No," came the flat answer. "I need you here and it is best for the population to see us maintain a united front. I only let you stay away so long because it was easy to explain that the Amazons needed you to get resettled in their new home. However, that is no longer a priority, and your presence here is."

"Oh, I see," was Gwen's cool response. "You *let* me stay with the Amazons because it was convenient for you to do so, and now that it's convenient for me to be here instead... because you feel I can be an asset to you now, you brought me here."

"I brought you here because I missed you."

"Yeah, you missed me so much I didn't rate one vid call from you while I was gone. I didn't get an invitation, personal or otherwise to join you. No, all I rated was an order, like I was one of your minions. Look, I'm tired – it's been a long trip. Just have someone show me to my room and I'll get out of your hair until it is convenient for you to need me again, all right?"

Randi stood stunned for a moment, then waved her hands. "I'll take you there myself. C'mon. Someone will bring your bags later." They walked as far apart as they could manage and still be going to the same place.

This wasn't at all how Randi had pictured their reunion.

"Oh God, Tiny!" Reed cried. "It hurts so much!" Tiny held on to Reed as tightly as he dared. Her arrival with Gwen from the new Amazon Nation stronghold had been painful in the extreme and he had been with her every moment since. He figured Randi would call for him sooner rather than later if things were so skewed between her and Gwen. His first responsibility was to Reed, though, and he eased them over to the comm unit. They needed Sky, and they needed him now. He'd be able to move Reed back to the village and give her a continued source of strength and support.


Randi closed her journal. "I remember... the rest," she said in a bare whisper, the rasp clear in her voice. "The glad... iators, the... coronation, every... thing."

"You do?"

"Uh huh. I... gave the... rebels... a choice."

"Yes, you did. I still cannot believe that forty percent of the rebels chose to die in the gladiator ring instead of turning to peace. But they did have a choice, Randi, and they made that choice. That choice was never your responsibility."

"No, but... your... leaving me... was."

"Randi, it was *our* responsibility, but it was my choice."

"No. I called you... consort, even... knowing... how you felt... about it." She chuckled and clutched her chest immediately. "You... sure chewed... my ass out... for it... before... and after."

Gwen smiled and let her mind go back to the events leading up to that fateful day.

Chapter XXIII

Gwen looked around the room, wondering who in the hell had decorated the room she was currently standing in. It was... gaudy would have been a polite description. Gwen blinked and swallowed the bile that had risen in her throat, then she turned to find Randi's eyes on her watching her intently.

"You hate it," Randi commented dryly, observing the expression in Gwen's eyes that she couldn't hide fast enough. Gwen shrugged, not seeing a reason to lie at this point. She figured things were about as skewed as they could get. She figured wrong.

"Pretty much," she replied honestly. "But then again, it's not like we're gonna be here for too long, are we? You have the rebels incarcerated; you won the war."

"Yes, I did. And I still have to deal with the fallout and the repercussions that are left. In addition, at this point in time I am unable to relinquish the responsibility I currently hold. It will be a while before we are able to return home together."

Gwen didn't respond, except to move over to the window, hoping to block out the sight of the garish room behind her. Unfortunately, her only view brought the prison that housed the rebels. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead on the glass.

For the first time, Randi felt the need to fill the silence between them and at the same time, escape the silent accusation she felt emanating from Gwen's slim form. "I have some things to take care of this afternoon, but I will be back around seven-thirty to pick you up."

"Pick me up?"

"Yes. We have a state function to attend. You'll find appropriate clothing for your attendance already hanging in the closet. Now if you'll excuse me...." Then Randi was gone before Gwen could give voice to the uneasy questions rolling around in her mind.

State function? What does that mean exactly? Gwen thought to herself, hoping beyond hope that it didn't mean what she thought it did.

At precisely seven-thirty, a knock came on the door to the living and Gwen crossed the room to answer it. When she opened it, Randi stood before her, resplendent in her Marine uniform. It was hard to hold onto her anger when so many good memories assailed her. But she knew holding on to her anger would make it that much easier for her to leave when the time came. She just hoped it would be sooner rather than later.

She gave Randi a slight nod and crossed the threshold, following Randi's extended arm as an indication of the direction they were headed in. They walked along without speaking or touching, awkward with one another in a way they had never been before... even when they had first met.

Only when they reached the huge double doors did Randi move close enough to actually touch Gwen and while Gwen didn't recoil from the contact, she made no effort to deepen it. She was still hurt and angry, and the confusing signals she was getting from Randi were only making it worse. Gwen could feel the beginnings of a migraine coming on, and then the doors opened and she didn't have much time to think of anything except the blinding light and the roar of the crowd that greeted them.

What those big, double doors led to was a huge arena and it was filled with cheering, screaming people. Many of them were dignitaries from around the globe that conducted their business in the capital city. There were a few friends and acquaintances; Gwen notice the members of the band Randi had once played with and found herself suddenly longing for another Friday night band practice. Tommy and Ella were noticeably absent as were her parents.

But a majority of the seats were filled with military personal. There was a large contingent of Sabres, but they were liberally interspersed with regular military officers and men. Randi had obviously been serious about breaking down the barriers between the special forces unit and the standard issue military. And for that one small blessing, Gwen was thankful.

Then she was escorted to the box she was to share with Randi. Randi was very solicitous in seeing to her comfort though at no time did she actually touch Gwen. Gwen had made it extremely clear, to Randi's mind anyway, that her touch was unwelcome and her presence only barely tolerable. They would be seen together at State functions for appearance's sake, but other than that, she would concentrate on finishing up her business here, so the two of them could go home and talk.

Unseen by her or anyone else, Ares hid in the shadows, watching his plan finally come to fruition. He fed on the excited buzz of electric power that Randi wielded so effortlessly, thrilled that she had finally accepted her place as ruler of the world. He knew it would only be a matter of time before she called for him now, and then they would rule together... side by side as it was always meant to be. He would have preferred an all-out slaughter of the rebels, but recognized this as a sound strategic move on her part. Her humanity towards the 'enemies of all mankind' would only serve to strengthen her powerbase. And that was something he was looking forward to tapping into.

For now, Randi finished getting Gwen settled and raised her hands for silence. The crowd immediately quieted and waited for her to speak. Tiny stepped into the box, and remained at a sentinel position by the door, even when Gwen invited him to sit.

"As you know, the rebels have been defeated, and the peace is secure once more." Loud cheering, silenced only by Randi's signal. "However, since much of our hatred and prejudice is taught, I wanted to offer each member of the rebellion the opportunity for a second chance. A chance for them to see how alike we really are and to appreciate the differences between us as a good thing." More cheering, quickly halted by Randi's upraised hands. She hadn't expected to feel so awkward about the adulation and praise in front of Gwen; instead of gratified, she felt extremely uncomfortable and she attempted to wrap things up rapidly. "Unfortunately, almost half have decided to die instead of trying to learn a different way. So tonight we are here for the first in what will hopefully be a short lived series of gladiatorial fights."

Surprisingly, to Gwen's mind at least, the applause and cheering was rather short-lived, as though the crowd could sense Randi's displeasure at their overwhelming enthusiasm. When quiet fell once more, Randi resumed speaking.

"There are no rules. Lots were chosen to determine when each rebel will become a gladiator. The first group will be brought into the arena and they will battle one another until all but one of them is dead. The person that remains will then have a choice of combat with me or gladiator fighting the following night. Thus it will continue until only one is left. He or she will get to choose their manner of death – the choices to be determined at a later date."

"So, without further ado, let the games begin."

More cheering and clapping as the opponents entered the arena, though much more subdued than previously. It was obvious that lots had been drawn randomly as there were people from each faction represented on the floor. Natural enemies gravitated towards each other automatically, wanting to insure an enemy's death with their own. And so the carnage began.

Gwen turned away at first, and Randi grew angry with her inattention. Everyone knew who Gwen was and what she and Randi were to one another. Surely Gwen could understand how important it was for them to be seen by the world as of the same mind about this. So Randi was shocked when without a word, Gwen rose from her place and walked out of the box. She started to follow, but Tiny gestured her back to her chair with a slight shake of his head and she knew that he was right. Instead, Tiny followed Gwen, motioning to another Sabre to take his place guarding the Empress. He knew where his first duty lay and Randi gave him a nod of appreciation.

Gwen wandered out rapidly, not having a clear idea of how to get back to the room she was staying in. She heard footsteps behind her running to catch up, but did not turn around, still appalled by the savagery she had seen in the arena.

She jumped when Tiny's hand landed gently on her shoulder and turned to find his compassionate eyes on hers. "C'mon," he said. "Do you wanna go get something to eat? Or perhaps just some company back to your room?" he added quickly when Gwen's skin went green-toned at the mere mention of food.

"Tiny, you don't need to baby sit me. I'll be fine." The expression in his eyes turned to chagrin, but Gwen didn't see it immediately as she came to a crossroads of hallways and stood looking around trying to figure out where she was and how to get where she wanted to go. "Maybe if you could just point me in the right direction...." Then she caught a glimpse of the look on his face. "You have *got* to be kidding me," she snapped at him.

"Actually, Gwen, I offered. I'd feel more comfortable if you'd let me kinda keep and eye on you. According to Reed, this is almost over. I'd hate to have Ares decide to... well, I'd just prefer you stay safe, all right?"

Her shoulders slumped. She couldn't deny him the right to protect her – he had almost as much at stake as she did at this point.

"All right, Tiny. God knows you deserve whatever peace of mind I can offer. I know it's not much, but I really do appreciate everything you've done for me... and Randi. I know you've given up a lot to stay by her side through all of this and I am so grateful for your sacrifice."

Tiny blushed unexpectedly, embarrassed by Gwen's profuse gratitude. Then he swallowed hard and gallantly offered her his arm, which she accepted with alacrity.

They turned and walked in silence for several minutes before Gwen's hand tightened on his arm. He looked down at her with a question in his eyes. "How's Reed?"

Tears welled in his eyes before he could stop them. Gwen's compassion was unanticipated, even knowing her concern for others, given the complicated state of affairs that existed in Gwen's life at present. He gave her a shaky smile. "She's all right. I sent her back to the village this afternoon, and Sky is taking care of her right now. Thanks for asking."

"Tiny, Reed is my friend, and she's taken such good care of me... even when I didn't want her to. Is there anything I can do for her?"

"No, Gwen. You're right where you need to be. Sky and the people will look out for Reed and will strengthen and reinforce her barriers. She'll be all right; we all will."

Gwen realized that guards had been stationed periodically along the hallways and two seemed to be permanently attached to either side of the doorway. She and Tiny reached the apartment that belonged to Gwen and Randi, and Tiny halted outside the door. The two guards snapped to attention, startling Gwen. A hand signal from Tiny shifted both of them back to a more relaxed, but still alert position beside the door. Gwen looked at Tiny... impressed.

"You have *got* to teach me that, because I'm fairly sure Randi won't let me get rid of these guys, and they look so uptight, they're making me hurt."

Tiny chuckled, and he thought he saw one guard twitch just slightly, though he would certainly never bring attention to it. Randi had implemented strict security measures throughout the palace which had become downright stringent before she brought Gwen in.

"I'll teach you all the tricks, Gwen. Don't worry. Now would you like me to come in and wait with you until Randi returns?" She shook her head. "Can I get you anything?" Another shake. "All right, then," he said, keying in the code and opening the door. "I will leave you to your solitude. Goodnight, Gwen."

"Goodnight, Tiny," Gwen returned as she crossed the threshold into the living area of their suite. "Oh, Tiny," she said, turning back before she had moved two steps into the room. "Do you know... I understand that some of the rebels chose rehabilitation instead of becoming gladiators. Is that true?" He nodded.

"About sixty percent, yes."

"Do you... can you come by in the morning? I think I'd like to go see those people."


"Tiny, I am trying to make your position here as easy as possible by keeping you in the loop as far as my plans go. If you'd like me to just go ahead and do things on my own, I will, but I am going to go see those people tomorrow. Now, are you going to come with me or am I going alone?"

Tiny sighed and offered a prayer for Reed, knowing she had coped with Gwen's stubborn resistance for several months. "I'll be here to pick you up... um, what time?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. What time do they start?"


Gwen grimaced. "Ai yi yi. Okay, how about eight? I'd like to observe the rehabilitation unnoticed if I can and I think that might be more easily achieved if they are already engrossed in... whatever it is that they are doing." She turned and faced him directly. "Please tell me they are learning by doing and not being reprogrammed or some such other psychobabble."

Tiny smiled. "No psychobabble, Gwen, though all of them attend classes to learn about the differences and similarities we all have. No, a lot of this is pure hard work."

"Good, hard work I can be part of. Thanks, Tiny. Goodnight."

"Night, Gwen."

Tiny left with a word to the two guards and headed directly back to the arena. He knew Randi was waiting anxiously for him to report back to her. He slid into the box without a sound, though she was aware the moment the door opened. She signaled him forward without letting her eyes leave the arena for an instant.


"I escorted her back to your apartment, sir. Simmonds and Nickels are on duty. She is safely tucked into your suite and of course you will know if she makes a move to leave before morning."

"And?" She waited and when he didn't respond further, she prompted with a gently teasing tone. "C'mon, Tiny. I know Gwen... I'm married to her for God's sake! You're not gonna sit there and think I believe that it was that easy. So what else?"

"She mentioned going to visit the rebels in the morning. She wants to observe their rehabilitation."

Randi waited again, and finally turned to glare at him with baleful blue eyes. "AND??" she said again with much more force. Tiny remained silent, shrugging his shoulders as though he didn't understand exactly what she was getting at. "You mean to tell me she didn't discuss her feelings with you... about being summoned here or the gladiatorial games or anything else?"

"Empress... Commandant – I give you my word as both a Sabre and your friend. We did not at any time discuss her feelings on anything nor did we discuss the gladiators. We did talk about the fact that I am her personal escort here and she is trying to 'keep me in the loop' is how she described it. That is why I know about her desire to see the rehabilitation process, sir. I believe she is trying to work within the restrictions she knows are necessary here."

Randi stared hard at him for long moments before nodding her head and turning her attention back to the final five opponents still alive on the floor. "Make sure Simmonds and Nickels know to be extremely vigilant. I have a few things to work on tonight."

"Aye, sir," Tiny replied sharply, taking her words for his dismissal. His shoulders didn't slump until he closed the door behind him. He had hoped that Gwen's return to Randi would have changed that late night practice habit, but apparently not. He spoke to the two guards before heading down the hall to his own room. Tomorrow promised to be a long day.

Randi got back to the apartment just as the sun touched the edge of the horizon. She glanced towards the bed, noting that Gwen was still peacefully asleep. Randi stood and merely gazed at her for a long moment, only feeling the freedom to take such liberties because Gwen was sleeping so soundly and aching for what they had lost between them. When the feeling began to overwhelm her, Randi spun on her heel and headed directly into the bathroom.

Gwen felt her leave, and only then did she turn to the wall, and let the tears slide down her face. It didn't last long; Gwen didn't allow it. Instead, she slipped from beneath the covers and dressed. Then she grabbed her staff from the corner and headed out the door.

A few questions and answers later and Gwen was headed out to the training area Randi had set up for her personal use. Gwen was unaware that the Sabres and guards who were considered part of Randi's personal staff used it as well. Nor had anyone told her of the recording devises that were maintained on a twenty-four/seven basis so that Randi could review and critique each warrior's performance. That feature was something those under her command had asked for and Randi had been happy enough to comply. She felt, as they did, that there was always room for improvement, and she watched her own workouts with the same intensity and a far more critical eye. Besides, it let the security detail keep an eye on the room at all times as well.

So, Gwen approached the room, lost in thought, remembering when Randi had given her the staff she now carried, and the care she had taken in choosing each of the symbols that adorned it. Gwen pushed open the door to the training room, a little surprised to find it in use. Several Sabres and a few guards were scattered throughout, using the various pieces of equipment. They all turned and looked at her when she stepped into the room, then deliberately went back to their own tasks. No matter what was or was not between Randi and Gwen, the fact remained that everyone... *everyone* saw Gwen as Queen and consort to the Empress herself. That alone entitled her to a modicum of respect and privacy.

Gwen stepped over to the cleared area that seemed to be set aside for sparring. At the moment, she was the only one in it and she went immediately into the warm-up routine Randi had taught her all those months ago. From there, she went into her Amazon exercises, and then she crossed right into fighting technique – not expecting an opponent, but reacting just as she should have when one appeared in front of her without warning.

She didn't take note of who her opponent was; simply that she had one and together they went at it seriously and with clear determination. Only when they went into a cool down application did Gwen come out of the haze she had moved into for her combat exercise and realize that Tiny had been her opponent and that every other warrior in the room had stopped to watch them.

He nodded at her, though the twinkle in his eye told a far greater story than his expressionless face did. When they were done, they saluted one another and gave a slight bow before relaxing. Then and only then did Tiny allow a huge grin to cross his face.

"Wow, my lady! That was amazing! Thank you for the workout. I can't recall the last time I have had such a worthy opponent." Actually, he could, but he wasn't about to share how Randi kicked his ass in this room on a regular basis if he could help it. A right hand man had to maintain *some* dignity if he could, and though he knew Gwen wouldn't tease, the rest might be inclined to smirk and snark about it behind his back. Things were treacherous enough without adding anything else to the mix. And while Randi could razz him, she would take exception to anyone else trying it.

Gwen smiled with distinct pleasure. "Thanks, Tiny. The Amazons really pushed me during staff workouts because it is what I have the most experience with."

"Did they, my lady?" he questioned. "What else were they teaching you?" he asked as they made their way to the area that held towels and a refrigerator. He chose water and Gwen selected an orange juice for herself. Then by mutual consent they headed beck towards their residences.

"A little of everything," she replied to his question after a long pull on her juice. "Hand to hand, crossbow, chobos, sword, sais and of course staff work. They were even trying to teach me stealth and tree walking."

"Oh boy."

"No kidding. I have a fear of heights, so that one was not progressing well at all even though my instructor was very patient with me. She swears I'll get it eventually, but I'm not so sure of that myself. There's just something unnerving about the whole idea."

Tiny smiled in agreement. "I know. I try not to think about it and just do it."

Gwen looked at him, eyes wide in amazement. "You're afraid of heights?"

He chuckled. "No. I am just not fond of tree walking. As big as I am, the branches tend to fold quite a bit under my weight and that, coupled with the fact that I mostly end up traveling hunched over, makes it less than pleasant for me."

Gwen looked him up and down and nodded. "Oh. Yeah, I could see where that would be a problem." They had reached her apartment and Tiny stopped.

"I'll be back by to pick you up in, say... half an hour?"

"All right," Gwen replied, opening the door and closing it softly behind her before Tiny moved back towards his own room. She put her staff in its corner, then tiptoed to the bathroom, shutting the door before she stripped off her sweaty clothes. Only when she was standing under the shower did she realize Randi wasn't in the bed.

The knock came to the door exactly thirty minutes later, and Tiny announced himself before opening it and peeking around. "Queen Gwen?"

"In the bedroom, Tiny. Give me one minute." It was just a minute later when she stepped from the bedroom into the living area where Tiny stood waiting. "Sorry."

"No problem, my lady. Are you ready?" Gwen nodded. "You may want to bring your staff. Trust me," he added at her confused look. She stepped back into the bedroom and grabbed it, then followed him out the door. Then they headed down the hallway side by side.

"Tiny?" Gwen said, breaking the silence only once they were out of the palace. "Why do you keep calling me 'my lady'?

"It is your title here, and you'll find that the Empress is a stickler for protocol." Her shoulders slumped and she looked back at him plaintively. "I am sorry, my lady. Perhaps when we are out of the palace and alone I can call you Gwen if you'd like."

"I'd like," Gwen answered firmly. "And any other time you think it is safe to do so. I don't want to get you into trouble, but I am so tired of being addressed by a title and not by my name."

"Given the security measures the Empress has in place here, even that is pushing it, but I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Tiny. Is that how you were able to find me this morning? Because of the security measures?"

"Well, I could have, but not this time. I actually use that room every morning. I was surprised to find you there so early, especially after your reaction to the rebels' early morning hours."

"Yeah, well, I woke up wide awake. I guess I slept out," not mentioning that she'd been anxious to escape from the suite before Randi got out of the shower. She wondered where Randi was now, and where she'd spent the night. She didn't think Randi was cheating on her, at least not on a physical level, but given the state of things between them, she had doubts. And that hurt... a lot.

"So why did you want me to bring my staff? Do you think the rebels are going to attack me?"

"No. I thought maybe you might like to have it to show your prowess to the Amazons here. They know about your accepting the title of queen and everyone knows you arrived here yesterday." He smirked at her shocked expression. "Strict security or not, that was huge news."

"And how did Randi take that?"

Tiny shrugged. "She didn't share. You're gonna find that the Randi you married is not the Empress that rules. She keeps to herself a lot and she does a lot of sparring and working out - alone as well as with whoever happens to be in the training room at the time. I don't think she's sleeping much, either." He paused and put a hand on her arm, stopping their progress. "I'm worried about her, Gwen. She is really struggling with this. It's almost like she's being pulled apart - in two completely different directions."

"I think she is, Tiny." She tugged on his arm. "C'mon. Let's go see how things are going in rehab."

Surprisingly, to Gwen anyway, no one turned an eye their way as they walked through the various classrooms. They were only separated by ages and abilities, not by race or clan or culture. Some groups were intently focused on what was being taught, while others were engaged in animated discussion. But all of them were deeply involved in learning, and Gwen couldn't help but be impressed.

"How, Tiny? And why?"

"Most of them... Gwen, most of the rebels in rehab are second and third generation legacies. They were rebels because that is all they know; it's all they have ever known. Most of the folks here can't read; they have no mathematics skills. They had no schooling growing up. They were taught to hate and fight and die."

Gwen covered her mouth to hide her horrified gasp, but she couldn't stop the tears from welling in her eyes. Tiny took her hand from her mouth and tucked it into the crook of his arm. "Don't feel sorry for them, Gwen. They're here now by choice, and they're learning. They're learning what they need to know to function in the world, and they're excited about it. For the first time, they have the chance to learn and choose and make their own decisions. Even with having to suffer with pain of having the tracking implants put in place, this has been very liberating for them."

A bell rang, and the rebels – the students – Gwen reminded herself, filed out quietly and headed in the same direction. She turned questioning eyes to Tiny. "Lunch," he answered succinctly. "We've been here for a while. Would you like to join them?"

"Can we?"

"My lady," emphasizing her title. "You are Queen to the ruler of the world. There is very little you cannot do that you want to."

She glared at him for a moment for the use of the title, then smiled and nodded her head. "Then yes. I would like to if you don't think we'll disrupt things too much. They obviously have a very strict schedule to keep."

"Well," he drawled, turning them to follow the last of the people entering the mess area. "That's another cool thing about being the queen. You can occasionally disrupt things and no one will mind... not even the Empress."

The quiet murmur that was running around the room halted abruptly when they crossed the threshold and Gwen looked around. "Do ya'll mind if we join you for lunch?" A place was cleared for them so fast a chair was knocked over and several people scrambled to set it upright. Gwen watched the proceedings with interest, knowing she was being watched in return. For his part, Tiny became an observer who blended in, and when Gwen took her seat, they forgot about him completely in their excitement at having Gwen among them.

"Are you really a bard?"

"You're Gwen Goldman?"

"Is it true you're the queen of the Amazons?"

Are you really married to the Empress?"

"Does that make you queen of the world?"

"Can you fight with that stick?"

"What's she like?"

"Can you tell us a story?"

The adults may have been shy about talking, but the kids certainly weren't, and the questions came fast and furious from all corners of the room as soon as Gwen had taken her seat. She smiled at their enthusiasm and looked at Tiny who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. He shrugged and nodded at her with a slight smile.

"Well," Gwen said slowly, folding her hands in her lap. "How about if I tell you all a story?" It got quiet so quickly the hiss of steam could be heard rising from the serving line. Gwen looked around a little startled. She didn't know what kind of reaction she expected, but she was gratified by the one she got. "All right, then," she said, standing up. "Let's see what we can come up with."

The room watched silently as her gaze became introspective for several long moments. Then she looked around, meeting as many eyes as she could and giving them a smile. "I've got it. Have any of you heard about the day the gods got up to discover they weren't who they thought they were any more?" Negative shakes and blank stares met her question, and Gwen chuckled a little, and turned her talent and her personality over towards telling them a good story.

All the gods of the world she could think of were included – even Notta God. That one was a surprise for most; they didn't realize that even non-believers had their own god, and her description of him drew chuckles from the entire room. However, as she got deeper into her story, there was outright laughter coming from everyone. Gwen made hearing about your chosen deity suddenly becoming someone or something else and the trial and error involved in trying to cope with that reality hysterical. And she was equal opportunity – she didn't leave out a single god. Everyone was picked on equally and with equally disastrous results.

The bell to return them to class came and went, but no one moved because no one noticed. They were all, students and teachers alike, far too engrossed in Gwen's storytelling.

A sentry was dispatched to find out what the trouble was, and the moment he entered the room, he sent a reply to Randi. And she came down to see for herself.

No one noticed her arrival – no one except Tiny, and he certainly wasn't going to call attention to it. She hadn't noticed him standing in the corner; Randi's was totally mesmerized by beautiful woman who held her audience captivated with her words. Randi watched until she could tell Gwen's story was winding down, then she slipped out the door before she was noticed.

Gwen finished her story to shouts of approval and wild cheering. She laughed, it felt so good. Then she looked at the clock, and her eyes widened, realizing they had been in the mess hall for the better part of two hours. "Um... I hate to be an old killjoy, but what time are ya'll suppose to be back in class?"

Then everyone's eyes went to the clock and the fairly orderly scramble to get out of the mess hall and back to class couldn't cover the simultaneous gasp that everyone released upon seeing the time. In a very few minutes, only Gwen and Tiny were left in the room, and they exchanged amused glances before they headed out the door and back towards the palace.

"I hope I didn't get anyone in trouble."

Tiny chuckled. "I don't think you did, Gwen, but even if you did, I think they all would agree it was worth it. I haven't heard anything that funny in a long time. Where did you come up with that idea?"

Gwen shrugged. "Dunno. Same place as all the others, I suppose. I just figured comedy would be appreciated. They're all still so new to this... so unsure of themselves and their lives and their beliefs." She shrugged again. "It just seemed like the thing to share."

"Well, I don't know where it came from, but it was damned funny," he added with a chuckle. "I'm glad I was there to hear it." He laughed again. "The scariest thing is I could honestly picture it happening. But making them all work together to put things back the way they were supposed to be was a touch of pure genius."

"Tiny?" Gwen said abruptly. "The fighters last night – most of them were originally with Ghost Rider or are first generation legacies, aren't they?"

"Yes, my lady," he answered as they crossed the threshold back into the palace.

"Regardless, I can't watch the gladiator tournament. I won't. I know something has to be done with them, and I suppose having them destroy each other is better than Randi slaughtering them one by one. But I can't watch it happen, Tiny."

"It's all right, my lady. I'll make sure the Empress understands."

She looked at him forlornly. "The sad thing is, Tiny... you shouldn't have to."

Chapter XXIV

"Tiny tells me he's the reason that the school ran over schedule today. Is that true?" Randi and Gwen were sitting alone at dinner. It was the first time that day they had spent any appreciable time together, and their awkwardness was palpable.

"No, and I'm sure you already know that or you wouldn't be asking." Gwen made an effort to swallow both her anger and sarcasm. "Is it a problem?"

Randi chewed slow as she thought about her answer. "Well, as a rule, yes it would be," she replied honestly. "The school is set up on a strict schedule, and it needs to be maintained if we are to maintain discipline."

Gwen nodded, but did not respond otherwise. Randi waited, but Gwen remained silent. Finally, Randi spoke again.

"The games begin at eight o'clock. I will be by at seven-thirty...." stopping when Gwen shook her head negatively and cocking her head in question.

"Don't bother," Gwen said flatly. "I'm not going."

"Gwen, I thought you understood...."

"I understand that I cannot, *will* not sit through that carnage again, Randi. I know that your position of authority requires that you be there. It does not, however, require my presence and I refuse to be forced into it."


"Randi, NO!"

Randi clamped her jaw together. "Gwen, I need you to be a visible part of life here. The world should see that we are united in our efforts to bring peace and stability back to the world."

"United in what efforts? Randi, we're not united in anything, and we haven't been since... God, since I can't remember when anymore. Quite frankly, I don't give a good goddamn *what* the world thinks or doesn't think! I am not going to sit through those games just for some sort of appearance's sake."

"Goddamn it, Gwen!! Do you want me to kill them all myself?? Hmm? Is that what you want?? You want me to kill each and every rebel that decided to die as a gladiator? Would that make it easier for you to support this?"

"God, no, Randi!! I don't want to have to see you kill anyone... or worse, to have to watch people who hate you and everything you stand for try to kill you – to even be offered the opportunity to do so! There is always the chance, however remote, that someone would get in a lucky shot. You could be hurt... or worse. And I don't want to see that." She drew a shaky breath. "But I have no desire to watch them kill each other either. I can't and I won't," with furious determination.

Randi blew out an exasperated breath; despite everything... despite the fact that Gwen was complicating things immeasurably, she couldn't help but admire the fierce conviction in her tone. And she was more than a little turned on by the passion emanating from her. She blew out another breath and tried to think. She hadn't realized how much she missed this.

"Would you like to be a storyteller?"

Gwen blinked at Randi like she'd lost her mind. "I beg your pardon?? Randi, I *AM* a storyteller. I have *always* been a storyteller... since I first drew breath in this life and in every other life I've ever had. I don't think...."

"Gwen, waitaminute. Just hear me out, please." Holding up a hand and waiting to Gwen to acquiesce. "Thank you. Would you like to tell stories to the rebels who are in rehabilitation school?"

"I thought...."

"In the evenings... during the games. Instead of attending the games with me, would you prefer to tell stories to the people in rehab? Lunch is not a very good venue for it; there's just really not enough time then. But it would be easy to set some time aside in the evening... however much you'd like to schedule."

Gwen thought about it and nodded. "I'd like that, thanks," giving Randi the ghost of a smile.

Randi pushed away from the table and stood. "I'll go make the arrangements."

Gwen was left sitting at the table alone.

And so it came to pass that while Randi spent her evenings overseeing the gladiatorial games, Gwen spent hers telling stories to people who needed to hear them. Most of the rest of their time was spent apart – by choice as much as circumstance.

Gwen got up every morning as soon as she heard Randi step into the bathroom upon her return from wherever it was she spent her nights. All Gwen knew was that Randi's nights were not spent with her or anyone else. Other than that, she had no real clue what Randi did with her time.

As soon as she was up and dressed, Gwen made her way to the training room where she spent the better part of the morning training on the variety of weapons and skills the Amazons had introduced her to. There always seemed to be one sort of master or another who was more than willing to spar and train with her. It was rarely the same discipline two days in a row and she never considered that the instructors were following any kind of schedule to insure she got as much diversity as possible in her training.

Tiny was there every morning without fail, and always the two of them spent time working on staff technique. Always Gwen was able to hold her own and more than once she was able to defeat him. Several times, she even gave a demonstration of a particular move that someone had never seen put into practice before. She never knew how often Randi stood in the security room and simply watched.

Afternoons Gwen spent talking to people, finding out what they did and didn't like about how things were going. Mostly it was good things she heard, but there were always little things that could be improved upon, and Gwen made sure Tiny had a list of all the things she heard.

In the evenings, before her storytelling sessions, she always shared dinner with Randi, unless state business took her away. But mostly Randi did try to be available for dinner, as it was the only time she and Gwen actually shared any time together, though she did wonder why they even made the effort when it was so painful for them to be in each other's presence for any length of time. Silences were long and awkward and only served to remind them both of a time in the not-so-distant past when there was always communication between them... even when it was unspoken.

From dinner, Gwen went to the rebel encampment and told stories until her voice was nearly gone. Then she went back to their shared apartment to go to bed alone and cried herself to sleep.

Randi left dinner and went to the games, overseeing them with a grim sense of satisfaction. When they were over, she went to the training grounds. Sometimes she closed them and worked out alone until she was ready to drop from exhaustion. Others, she welcomed the distraction of other human beings and pushed them to push her. By the time the sun was ready to creep over the horizon, Randi was ready to face another day alone.

She waited for Gwen to leave the apartment before she left the bathroom and went to take care of whatever business was on tap for the morning. Lunch was generally a brief, hurried event and then Randi went to rest for a short while immediately after before rising and attending to more affairs of state. Always she took time to go to the school to check on the progress of each of the rebel students, and she was well-pleased with what she found. Soon, the people here would no longer be known as rebels and would be able to take a productive place in society. Those that didn't... well, she would deal with that if and when the time came. Then it was time for dinner with Gwen and back to the gladiatorial arena for another night of senseless death.

Despite everything, Randi could not understand why these rebels were so determined to die, but by the same token, she almost had to admire their strict devotion to their beliefs – twisted as she felt those beliefs to be. She idly wondered how many outside the Sabre unit would be so devoted to their own if push came to shove as it had for these rebels. When it was over, she wandered out of the arena alone and headed for the training grounds for another night of physical work, hoping to erase the image of disgust and disdain she felt emanating from Gwen... whether it was real or imagined.

For his part, Ares was at something of a loss. Everything had been done that should have been done. The rebellion had been destroyed – granted, it hadn't happened the way he had envisioned; certainly not the way that he had hoped. But the rebellion had been wiped out. Randi had personally slain each faction's leaders, and made a public example of the overall rebel leader Bramble.

That coupled with the fact that she had declared herself Empress of the world *and* her obvious estrangement from Gwen meant his time had come. And yet she continued to resist the burning in her blood; she continued to refuse to call for him.

However, he had pushed the envelope as far as he dared, and broken as many rules as he could hope to and not get caught. The ball was in her court and it was up to her. Not that he didn't expect to win – that outcome was a given as far as he was concerned. He had stacked the odds too heavily in his favor for it to be otherwise. But he still hated waiting... he figured he had been waiting for millennia for this to finally come to fruition. That should be long enough.

So he watched, growing increasingly frustrated by Randi's distinct lack of progress in calling for him to join her as ruler of the world.

Athena and Artemis sat on either side of Aphrodite as she lay nearly unconscious on her bed. She had become increasingly more despondent and in actual physical pain as Randi and Gwen continued to pull further apart from one another. They hoped that once the rendering actually took place Aphrodite would be able to help focus on the strength needed for healing. But for right now, all she felt was the tearing, and it was ripping her apart as well.

Athena and Artemis took turns watching the scrying bowl while the other maintained the vigil over Aphrodite. It was evident to all of them that the end was very near.

Finally, on Celebration Eve, the games were over, save the final match between Randi and the rebel champion. For that, Randi had commanded that Gwen be present. Not that Gwen would have been anywhere else, but it would have been nice to have been asked instead of being told. So she started off furious, and things just went downhill from there.

"You can't wear that," Randi said without preamble as she stepped into the room. Gwen looked down at herself. It was much the same as what she had been wearing during her time in this place. She looked up at Randi and waited for an explanation with fire in her eyes. "Go change," was the only directive she got.

Gwen didn't move and Randi looked at her askance. "Hurry up. We don't have a lot of time."

"I'm not going anywhere with you dictating to me. What is wrong with my appearance?" Gwen was nicely dressed but it was comfortable and very casual.

Randi sighed. There would have been a time when Gwen would have been excited about the coming prospect, but no more. "Tonight is a formal occasion. Once I defeat Jared, my title of Empress and yours of Consort will become official and there will be a reception for us immediately following the coronation." She would have continued, but Gwen interrupted her, green eyes flaring hot enough to burn. It was all Randi could do not to flinch.

"NO. I will not be introduced as your consort. That implies I am less than your equal; I don't think so. You can introduce me as your wife, your partner, your best friend and confidante, even as your lover or your queen. But I will not stand for being referred to as your consort, either now or in the future. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Gwen, what have I done to make you so angry with me? Haven't I done good... made the world a better place? Why can't you trust me like you used to?"

"Do I make myself *perfectly* clear?"

"Your feelings on the matter are understood," Randi acknowledged. "Now, go change. We are running late."

Gwen snorted as she walked back into the dressing area to find something more appropriate to wear. "Not like they will start without you." Then she shut the door to stop any further conversation between them.

Randi wore her Sabre armor and Gwen had to suck it up when she stepped from the bedroom a short while later. Despite everything, she still loved Randi – still desired her... body, heart and soul. But she could feel the slippery slope they stood upon the precipice of and knew that Randi accepting this position, however innocently her intentions started out, would destroy them. Gwen hoped if she kept pushing Randi, she'd see the truth for herself before it was too late... before Gwen had to leave. But she was losing hope. She felt in her heart that her time to leave - Randi's time to choose between Gwen and Ares - was very nigh to hand.

Randi simply stood and gazed at Gwen, the look of her searing itself into Randi's mind. It was a dress she had never seen before – a simple sleeveless, black sheath that shown off the golden tan she had acquire during her hours out on the palace grounds. Her hair was loose around her face and around her neck was a single, teardrop diamond – a present from Aphrodite. To all outward appearances, she was a queen... a worthy consort for their Empress. But one look in her eyes made it obvious that there was no happiness in her heart in this place or circumstance.

Randi didn't know what to say that wouldn't sound trite or fake coming from her at this point in time, so she simply nodded her head in approval and extended her arm for Gwen to walk in front of her. By unspoken consensus, they again walked through the corridors without speaking or touching until they reached the entrance to the arena. Then Randi extended her arm, and Gwen placed her hand on top, and they entered their box to the resounding cheers of those in attendance as well as those who were watching around the world. This was something of an event, and everyone everywhere wanted to be a part of history in the making... everyone, it seemed, but those who mattered most to Randi. Neither Geoff and Jill nor Tommy and Ella had deigned to show up at Gwen's request, and Gwen would be forced to sit in the box alone, save for Tiny who would remain as her escort.

It took a little while for the crowd, both live and electronic, to calm down. Once they did, Randi smiled charismatically and began to speak.

"Ladies and Gentlemen – Tonight ushers in the beginning of a new era." Loud cheering. "Now, if you'll excuse me...." Then she seated Gwen and jumped from the box onto the floor of the arena with a bit of theatrical acrobatics and another rousing cheer from the onlookers.

Jared stepped from the prep room where he had been ensconced full of bluster and bravado. He had earned his chance to be in this place, and he was the rebellion's last, best hope. And he had come determined to win the day for them.

He took his sword in his hands and swung it experimentally, knowing his best chance was going to come right at the beginning. Randi stood with her hands on her hips and simply waited for him to make the first move.

Jared screamed and lunged, swinging his sword hard enough to decapitate the woman standing in front of him... or the woman who *should* have been standing in front of him at any rate. But she wasn't where she was supposed to be, and a tap on the shoulder told him exactly where she was. He swung again and she ducked, kicking him in the knees and watching him fall to the ground. She stood and waited for him to regain his footing, and this time he was much more cautious when he approached her.

The fight went on like this for several minutes before Randi finally decided to draw steel and get down to business. She let Jared lead the dance for a little while longer, simply deflecting his blows and doing little damage to him while keeping him from doing any to herself. Then suddenly, as though she had been touched by Ares himself, she went on the offensive and it quickly became clear just how out of his league Jared really was.

Nicks and cuts began to appear liberally and randomly all over his body, and maintaining his footing became problematic due to the blood loss he was experiencing. Finally, tired of the whole encounter, Randi swung around and neatly cleaved his head from his shoulders. The crowd went wild, and she raised her bloody sword in victorious salute, grinning from ear to ear...

... until she turned to her box and saw Gwen looking anywhere but at her – anywhere but in the arena. Randi compressed her lips together and accepted the accolades she felt she had earned and deserved for finally defeating the last of the rebellion once and for all. But her victory was hollow and her joy in it was gone.

After completing her victory circle, Randi raised her hands again and the crowd quieted. She nodded to Tiny who stood behind Gwen in the box. He touched Gwen's elbow and with a whispered word, led her down into the arena to take her place beside Randi, though Randi noticed Gwen didn't actually get close enough to touch her or be touched by her. The crowd waited for her words with bated breath, hoping it was the pronouncement they were expecting.

"My friends... the rebellion is over and the reign of peace has begun." The people cheered and clapped appropriately, only stopping when Randi held up her hands for quiet. Then they waited expectantly. "I have heard your voices and your desire for a single ruler to reign until the peace is stable and the military is able to quell any uprisings that would threaten it." She paused. "In light of that, and since it is the will of the people, I will accept the responsibility to continue as your Empress until such time as we feel the peace is well established enough to maintain itself without my governing."

Now the crowd cheered and whooped for long, long minutes and Randi let it, basking in the approval and acceptance she could feel prevailing, not only in the arena, but from the world itself.

After a few minutes of adulation, she raised her hands for silence once more and the crowd capitulated to her wishes. "Now," she said, extending her hand to Gwen, who took it gingerly. "I would like to formally present to you someone most of you know. This is of course Gwen Goldman." The crowd shouted its approval. Many of them knew of her work with the rebels in the rehabilitation program, and even more of them knew of her work as a bard.

A priest stepped forward from the shadows bearing two crowns. Randi bent her head to receive hers; Gwen refused, but given her height, the priest simply placed it on top. Then he stepped back a pace and offered a traditional blessing before giving Randi the oath of office. When he was finished, he looked at the expectantly waiting crowd.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the honor and privilege of presenting to you, Empress Miranda Valiant and her consort, Gwenivere Goldman." Randi held tightly to Gwen's hand when she would have jerked it out of Randi's grasp. "The Coronation Ball will be held in this very arena tomorrow night. God save the Empress!" As the music began to play, Randi led Gwen out of the arena. When they were out of sight, Gwen jerked her hand from Randi's, wiping it off on her dress. Randi noticed the action, and realized Gwen was smearing blood onto the black fabric.

An aide handed a towel to Randi, who accepted it and then reached for Gwen. Gwen snatched her hand away from Randi's grasp, instead turning and stalking down the hall. Randi followed her, grabbing her by the shoulders as they reached the apartment. Gwen reached up and removed Randi's fingers from her body, then she snatched the forgotten circlet from her head and slapped it into Randi's hands.

Without a word, Gwen moved into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. She set the shower temperature and stripped off the dress, leaving it in a wad on the floor. When the water came on, Gwen stepped under the water and began to scrub herself clean until her skin was a bright pink color. Only then did she step out of the shower and into the robe that was there for her use.

Randi, meanwhile, watched Gwen enter the bathroom and wondered what she was so angry about. They had just been made rulers of the world – didn't she understand what an awesome honor and responsibility they had been given? Didn't Gwen care about the trust that had been placed in them?

Randi removed the circlet from her own head, then realized both now had blood stains on them and would need to be cleaned before the morrow. She called for Tiny, instructing him on what she wanted as far as the crowns went. Just as she was about to dismiss him, Gwen walked out of the bathroom and over to the dressing table to comb out her hair.

"Oh, and have someone take Gwen's dress and have it cleaned," Randi commanded.

"Burn it," Gwen said flatly. Tiny stood still, just looking back and forth between the two of them. "I will never wear that dress again, Tiny. Burn it... or give it away. But don't bring it back here. I don't want to see it ever again and I will certainly never wear it again."

He looked at Randi who nodded silently and went into the bathroom to gather it up before escaping back out the way he came. Then he went to call Reed. He could feel the tension was ready to explode.

"Gwen?" not reaching out, but meeting green eyes with blue in the mirror for a bare moment before looking away. Gwen dropped her gaze from the mirror and focused her attention on the brush in her hands. Then she shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Randi. I really am. This is not how I ever expected our life together to go." She took a deep breath and blew it out to stymie the tears that wanted to fall. She felt Randi take a step towards her and shook her head. "Don't, please. Just go and do whatever it is you do every night."

Randi dropped her hands and realized for the first time she, and they, were still coated with Jared's blood. Disgusted she stomped off, not even bothering to stop for a shower and slamming the door behind her when she left. Gwen watched her in the mirror, not moving from her seat until the door closed. Then she got up and slowly moved to the bed, feeling her age and the weight of the world in a way she never had before. It was a very long time before sleep came to her that night.

Geoff and Jill arrived at the palace early the next morning. They'd had very little chance to spend time with Gwen since her arrival in the city and Geoff had decided he needed to talk to his daughter face to face. When Gwen had first arrived, Geoff had been undergoing a new surgery procedure the doctor's hoped would help Geoff obtain more mobility, and Geoff had asked her to give him some time to work on things before coming to see him. He wanted to have something new to show her. Then Gwen had asked that they skip the formal activities Randi had scheduled and they had been glad to comply.

With Randi's declaration the previous night, however, all bets were off. Geoff and Jill had both noticed the pained look on Gwen's face and felt Gwen needed their support and had come over immediately.

It hadn't been as difficult as they had anticipated; their names were on short list of people Randi had cleared for admittance into the palace grounds. Finding Gwen was a little more difficult. Fortunately, the guard that passed them through to the palace was able find Tiny who in turn was able to alert Gwen to her visitors.

Gwen ran into her parents' arms and they embraced for long moments before they released one another. Tiny moved to an inconspicuous corner of the room. Jill brushed a hand through Gwen's hair before cupping her face. "How are you doing, little girl? You look so tired." Geoff took her hand and held it, offering Gwen his support.

"I am," Gwen confirmed. "It has been a very long few months."

"You've done a lot of good, Gwen. You both have."

"Maybe," she shrugged.


"But I think the time has come to bring this to an end." She shook her head. "I'm sorry... I know it's not the way any of us wanted to spend Celebration. I certainly had different plans," remembering the same time a mere year ago, when Randi had walked back into her life. How things have changed was her sad thought. "However, the time feels right to do this, but I have a huge favor to ask."

"Anything, Gwen, you know that," from Geoff.

"I want... I'd like you to stay here... to support Randi while I'm gone. I don't know how long it be, but I'd like to know she has you watching out for her until.... well, until this is over. It could be days or weeks or even months – it all depends on Randi and how quickly she makes her choice."

"What about you, Gwen? Won't you need us?"

"No, mama... not like Randi will. Please, I need to know you will do this for me... and for her."

Jill stroked Gwen's hair in a comforting manner. "All right, Gwen. If it will give you some peace of mind, we will give you our word. We'll do everything we can for as long as we are able. I just want to make sure you are taken care of as well."

Gwen smiled sadly and opened her arms for another hug which she received with great enthusiasm. "I'll be fine, mama. Reed and the People are preparing for my arrival and Lacey will remain with me until we are done."

"Do you think it will be a long wait or...?"

"I hope not, Daddy. I don't think it will be; I think subconsciously Randi wants this to be over as well. That's the reason all this started... to make it safe for us to be together." She drew a breath and released it. "C'mon. Let me take you to a room and get you settled. If you need anything, let Tiny know. He'll look after you."

Tiny and Geoff exchanged glances and nods. They walked together to the room Gwen had chosen for them to stay in for whatever time they would be in the palace. Then they all separated to prepare for the Coronation Ball.

Gwen walked with Randi once more in silence towards the arena. They had argued about the circlet crowns. Gwen had refused to wear hers and finally Randi had simply given in so they could make it to the ball. She did have Tiny bring it with him, however, hoping Gwen would see the need to wear it before they were presented to the public once more. Randi was resplendent in her uniform, and the gold circle only added to her image. She really did not understand Gwen's reluctance or refusal to accept the role Fate had thrust upon them. Didn't she understand that Randi was doing all of this for them... to keep them safe from those who wanted to separate them from each other??

Randi extended her hand as they reached the door, and Gwen took it, pulling Randi to a stop before they reached the doors and were forced into a public persona once more. Randi looked at Gwen with a question in her eyes, taking Gwen's other hand in hers as well. "Gwen?"

"Randi, I'm sorry things have been so tough for us lately. So much has happened; it's been a tough adjustment for both of us. I know I haven't made it any easier, and I'm sorry for that. I just want you to know... no matter what happens, no matter what comes next for us – I love you, and I'm so very glad you came back to me a year ago today."

Randi smiled, a gentle expression Gwen hadn't seen in far too long reflected in her eyes. She leaned down and brushed a soft kiss across Gwen's lips, hoping this was an indication of better things to come for them. Then Randi nodded her head at the guard, and he opened the door for both of them. The noise that radiated from the arena precluded further conversation, and they stepped into the din.

Without any warning at all, Randi swept Gwen into her arms, and they began to dance around the room as the music started to play. Even without her crown, Gwen was beautiful in the emerald green dress Randi had designed and had made for the occasion, and Randi was overjoyed to have Gwen in her arms once more. And after the brief conversation they had just had outside the door, she had hope for more and better things to come soon. For now, though, she relished having Gwen in her arms again.

When the dance was done, they took the dais and watched as the rest of the room's occupants took to the floor to indulge in the same. Time and again, Gwen was approached by one or another and asked to dance, and time and again she rejected the invitation. Though there were merely sitting together without words, Randi finally grew weary of the interruptions and stood to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen, though my consort is flattered by the attention, we would both appreciate it if you would kindly enjoy the dancing without us. Thank you."

Subdued, but still thrilled to be part of the inauguration, the room resumed its enjoyment of dancing and eating and drinking. Randi remained standing for a few moments to make sure the people understood she meant business before she turned to smile at and speak to Gwen...

... only to find that Gwen was no longer in the room.

She looked around carefully, noting that only Tiny seemed to be missing otherwise. Without a word, she slipped from the dais and made her way quickly back to the room she had sort of shared with Gwen during their time together her in the capital city palace.

The apartment was empty when she arrived and Randi looked around the room, suddenly despising its harsh, garish design. She left the bedroom and crossed into the living area, wondering why Gwen had left and where she was if she wasn't here. She was glad that Tiny was looking out for Gwen since Randi obviously wasn't going to be allowed to for whatever reason. Randi contemplated returning to the party that was being thrown for them – for her – but found the whole idea suddenly disgusted her. Randi took off the crown she wore and dropped it carelessly onto the table, turning on the fireplace and flopping into the chair gracelessly.

She heard Gwen come into the apartment bedroom from the outside hall, and heard Tiny's voice as well though she couldn't make out the words that were said. When the bedroom door opened she didn't look up, knowing it could only be one person coming from the direction of the bedchambers. The warrior was a bit surprised when Gwen came around to stand in front of her with an air of resigned determination clear on her face. It was so different from the anger she'd seen the day before when the priest had presented them to the people or the love she had seen mere hours ago.

Now she waited patiently, watching with horrified eyes as Gwen lifted both hands and began removing the ring she had worn in so many lifetimes, but for such a short time in this one. Gwen stared at her hands for long moments before lifting her eyes to meet Randi's. Despite the rending she felt in her soul, she also felt a peace about the timing and rightness of her decision to go. It really was time.

"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 door shut with a distinct snick as it closed and Gwen stood beside it for a long moment regaining her composure. Dead silence was the only sound she heard. She squared her shoulders and walked out to the waiting shuttle, tears sliding easily down her face.

Gwen had done her part. Now it was time to see what path Randi would take.

Randi and Gwen looked at each other as they finished sharing the events that had brought them to this time and place, and they embraced for a very long time. Gwen tilted her head down and let her lips brush Randi's; Randi barely returned the pressure before Gwen pulled away slightly to speak.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry for my part in causing this whole fiasco. Forgive me?"

Randi shook her head. "Not... your fault," she said with difficulty. "Mine. I... unner...stan' ever'... thing now. So... so... sorry. Fo'give me?"

Gwen smile with tears in her eyes. "This was us, love... both of us together. I'll forgive you if you'll forgive me." Randi met Gwen's eyes, barely able to see enough to see the truth in them. She nodded and reached up awkwardly to cup the back of Gwen's head with her hand. Then she pulled Gwen down until their lips were touching.

"Always," she managed. I... love... you."

"Forever," Gwen agreed. "I love you too."

They kissed then. It was long and passionate and full of love and promise. Immediately, the journals holding the last of these memories disappeared into nothing, and the room lightened significantly.

"S'now wha...?" Randi asked groggily, as her awareness began to slip from her grasp.

Gwen shrugged, careful not to disturb Randi too much with the motion. "I think that is up to us, love. What do you want to do now?"

"Wanna sleep... need res' fir...." tapering off before she could finish her thought. It was only after a long moment of silence that Gwen noticed Randi's chest had stilled... completely.


Aphrodite sat up with a gasp, holding her chest as though in acute pain. "It's done," she announced, drawing in deep breaths and trying to push the pain out of her mind. "But we got serious issues. Let's go. They may need our help." Artemis and Athena exchanged glances then stood on either side of Aphrodite before all three of them disappeared in a shimmer of sparkles.

"Oh no, goddamn it! You're not gonna do this... not now!!" Tiny roared. "C'mon, goddamn you! Work with me here!" Sky had felt Randi's consciousness slipping away as her breathing got slower and slower. Now Tiny was doing his best to force air into her lungs to keep them moving.

Geoff and Jill sprang from the couch as quickly as they could manage to see if they could be of any help whatsoever. But before they could move from their spot, the doors to the bedroom crashed open and Gwen's body was rushed in on a hover bed, accompanied by Reed and Rosie on one side and Lacey on the other. Tiny scrambled out of the way so Gwen could be lowered down next to Randi, and though still unconscious, she curled up into Randi as soon as she was released. Tiny immediately resumed his breathing for Randi from the other side, while Lacey quickly went to work to try to stabilize Randi even as she continued to monitor Gwen.

But everything came to a screeching halt when Gwen sat up in the bed with a single cry....


Then she collapsed back down onto Randi's body, covering it with her own, her mind still locked into the spirit walk world she and Randi were sharing. Those in the room looked at one another, and settled down to wait. They had done their best and it was all they could do. Everything was now up to Randi and Gwen.


08/05 – 03/06

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