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 Notes: Words and music used belong to Martina McBride. No money is being made from it and no copyright infringement is intended. The rest of the author’s notes will follow at the end of this story, though the Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is finally back in effect.
“NO!” The furious sound echoed across the hall of the temple as Sky gave Tiny his assessment of Randi’s condition. A vase flew into the wall with the single flick of a wrist and Ares stomped back over to the scrying bowl, watching the scramble of activity taking place in the palace room. “No, Randi! This isn’t supposed to happen!! I didn’t hit you hard enough to kill you.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “Damn it all to Tartarus!!” He watched a little while longer then roared in absolute frustration when Gwen was rushed to Randi’s side on a hover board and curled her body around Randi’s.
“No! It’s not supposed to be like this, dammit!! You’re supposed to call on me to join you so we can rule together, Randi. You’re not supposed choose that irritating little blonde over me and you’re certainly not supposed to die!”
“C’mon! C’mon!” Ares growled as he continued to watch Tiny and Lacey fight to keep Randi’s body alive. Then everything came to a screeching halt when Gwen sat up in the bed with a single cry....
“Oh, no!” bellowed Ares. “No! It is not going to end like this between us, warrior! You’re mine now! I own you! You don’t get to choose your path!” And with that pronouncement, Ares disappeared in a shower of blue fire.
“Are you sure about this, Rosie?” Lacey had set up her equipment to breathe for Randi, thus keeping her body alive, then set up the remainder to monitor both Randi and Gwen. Then at Rosie’s instruction, everyone had moved away from them. Now Geoff looked to the shamaness for some answers.
“I’m sure, Geoff. We’ve done all we can do. It’s up to them now. There’s nothing we can do except wait and hope.”
Rosie shrugged. “There’s no way to know. It depends on them and....” Whatever she had been going to say next was interrupted by the shimmer of dark sparkles that filtered into the room as Ares materialized next to the bed. Everyone shifted into action and what happened next was like a blur in super slow motion.
Ares lifted his hand to move Gwen off Randi’s body. Reed, Lacey and Rosie scrambled towards the bed as a single unit to protect them. Ares sent a burst of energy towards the three, knocking them across the room and into the wall. Tiny, meanwhile, headed directly for Ares, only to find himself thrown into Sky who was following behind him and together they slid down the wall next to the other three.
Fury lent strength to Geoff’s legs and the distraction of the rest allowed him the chance to slide into position covering Gwen and Randi with his own body. Then he screamed in agony when Ares’ hand landed on his back, but he refused to move from his place protecting them. Jill ran towards Geoff only to find herself physically assaulted when Ares backhanded her away from him, putting all of his anger and frustration into the blow.
Before he could turn to finish her off, he found himself being transported put of the palace against his will. “NOOOOOOOO!!!” he screamed, catching a glimpse of his three sisters connecting together to send him out of the palace. When he was able to see again, he didn’t recognize where he was; but he knew instinctively it wasn’t anywhere close to the palace.
He growled and orbed back to his temple on Olympus, intent on finding a way around this latest complication to his victory.
Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena looked around at the carnage Ares had created. The five human beings slumped against the wall were slowly starting to stir, and Artemis crossed over to check on them. Athena went immediately to Jill who lay face down on the floor some distance from the bed. Blood trickled from her ear and onto the carpet beneath it.
Dite moved to the bed, anxious to check on Gwen and Randi, but also concerned about Geoff’s stiff, unmoving form. He seemed frozen in agony, and when Dite touched him he simply collapsed away from the pair he had been so desperate to protect.
“Athena! Athena, NOW!”
“I can’t, Dite! She’s dying!” motioning to Jill with her head. Both hands were occupied with trying to heal her. Ares had done serious deliberate damage and Athena wasn’t sure she could heal her completely, not with the time factor working against them. She had to get to Randi and Gwen.
“The, I think he is dead already,” Dite insisted, wanting to be grossed out but not really having time for it.
“Well, check, Dite!!” But she didn’t have to. Artemis had been successful in getting the others to their feet, albeit shakily, and Tiny stumbled to Geoff’s side with Lacey right behind him. The rest were a little slower, but they followed as quickly as they could manage.
By then, Tiny had scooped Geoff up in his arms and was moving him over to the couch. Lacey was quick to move over to help, opening his shirt and visibly flinching at the amount of physical damage Ares had done to Geoff. She exchanged a glance with Tiny and shook her head slightly, but still proceeded to start resuscitation and regen processes on him.
Dite’s focus immediately went to the two women still wrapped around one another on the bed, completely unaware of the drama being played out around them. She placed a hand on Randi and the other on Gwen, trying to sense them. Artemis walked over to Athena and checked on Jill’s condition before she allowed Sky to pick Jill up and move her over to the couch with Geoff. Athena continued to channel healing to her and Artemis lent her strength to help Athena.
The restrictions placed on them and the rest of the Pantheon made everything more difficult, and that was never more apparent or more frustrating than it was at this very moment in this time and place. It should have been so easy, and yet they were forced to allow things to play out to their conclusion with only a minimum of interference. Their only mission here was simply to protect Randi and Gwen until Randi could make her own decision. The rest was a calculated risk, and only the fact that the damage was done by a god made it even possible.
“Goddess, is there anything we can do to help?” Rosie asked, directing her question generally.
Dite pulled her hands away and shook her head. “There is nothing any of us can do,” she said quietly. “It really is all up to them now.” She blew out a deep breath. “Let’s go see if we can help them,” motioning to the small group on the couch.
“But what about the antidote?” Rosie asked. “Surely we can....”
“We found it, but it’s here on the physical plane. They have to be awake... here... for us to make the offer. We have to wait for them to come to us... or not,“ said Artemis.
“Rosie, were you able to set up a perimeter when you moved here?” Athena asked as Jill continued to heal ever so slowly. She wondered if Jill were resisting the healing because of her husband’s condition or if Ares had done irreparable damage.
The shamaness nodded vigorously. “Apparently Geoff rounded up all the local military and Sabre members he could contact, and we sent the People out as soon as Gwen demanded we move her back here. I’m not sure what happened after that, except that the People knew to reset a perimeter here as tightly as they could manage. I’m not sure how you or Ares were able to penetrate it, in fact.”
Reed answered. “They weren’t focused on keeping gods out here since we never expected an attack from Ares against Randi. We figured he would target Gwen, though given that obvious error in judgment, maybe we need to change that,” gesturing to the mess around them. “They were simply trying to bolster our strength.” Reed looked around. “Let me go take care of that.” She slipped out of the room and the rest went over to see how the Goldmans were doing.
Reed took a deep breath as she walked out the door. Her defenses had taken quite a beating once she had lost direct support from Rosie, though her barriers were more intact than she’d had any reasonable hope of expecting given the current situation. Still, it was good to get out of that room and into the strong support she could feel flowing from the People in waves. She realized that the military and Sabres that Geoff had managed to gather together had been interspersed among the people and were doing their best to follow the example of those around them, and there were so many that they were within touching distance of one another.
Reed stopped at each person to thank them for the support and to give them new instructions on changing their focus. Some of the regular military members didn’t understand, but they were willing to try. Fortunately the Sabres and the People did understand, and they would be able to redirect the rest. When she was finished, she took a deep breath and crossed back into the bedroom.
Rosie met her at the door, taking her hand immediately, and providing her with some much needed relief. “How are you doing, my friend?” Rosie asked as her eyes began to glow once more as she channeled the enormous amount of power she was able to gather from the room into Reed.
Reed nodded. “Better now,” she acknowledged. “This hasn’t been anything like I thought it would be. Thank you for being here, Rosie. I wouldn’t have survived this without you... none of us would.”
Rosie bowed her head slightly to acknowledge the compliment, then looked around. Lacey and Tiny continued to work over Geoff’s unmoving form; Sky cradled Jill while Athena healed her and Artemis provided support for them both. Only Dite sat apart from the group, her focus totally taken by the two who remained motionless on the bed.
“What is up with them, Reed? Can you sense... anything?”
Reed shook her head. “Only a residual trace. It’s like they have gone somewhere beyond themselves – probably... hopefully, they are in Randi’s safe place in her mind.” She blew out a breath and glanced over towards the bed before looking back at Rosie. “The thing that concerns me – the two things, actually – are that Randi’s physical body is only being kept alive by Lacey’s machines and the fact that I can’t seem to reach Gwen. I feel like we’ve let them down.”
“Faith, Reed. Gwen knows we’re here and when we can help, she’ll let us know.”
“I hope so, Rosie.”
Gwen struggled to look around the darkness. When Randi’s chest had stilled here in the Empress’ safe place, everything had been plunged into a thick, inky blackness. Now as Gwen searched with her hands, she realized that Randi had moved out of this room, and Gwen knew of only one other place she could have gone. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure how to find Randi’s other safe place without at least the smallest amount of light, and even wishing for a light hadn’t garnered her any.
So she closed her eyes against the blackness and simply let herself feel, hoping her heart would lead her to Randi despite the darkness. After concentrating for a long moment, Gwen felt the warmth she had been searching for. She slid off the marble slab and followed where her heart was leading her.
She walked for a while, remembering from her previous walks that time and space here was a fluid thing. Her thoughts and concerns were focused on Randi and why she had disappeared from the Empress’ safe room. Her pace was quick but not rushed, not wanting to miss anything coming from Randi, and the warmth she felt flowing meant Randi was alive here.
Her greatest concern was the fact that Randi, at least for a few brief moments, had stopped breathing here. She could only imagine the havoc that was causing in the real world.
The warmth didn’t get weaker, but it didn’t get any stronger either. So it was an unpleasant sensation, though not an unwelcome event, when she literally ran into the second marble slab. Her groan caused a gasp and an echoing moan from the form she fell into, and immediately a light appeared to illuminate the small area around them.
What Gwen saw there was nothing short of shocking, and it rendered her momentarily speechless. It was Randi – not unexpected given their current location in her mind – but it was Randi twice over again – very unexpected in any case.
Randi lay with her head in the Empress’ lap, curled up into a fetal position to try and alleviate the ache in her chest. Her breathing was slow and shallow as though she were hanging onto her life by the barest thread. The Empress’ hands gently combed through Randi’s hair, trying to offer comfort without adding to her misery, both still feeling the lancing pain the separation had caused them.
Gwen simply gazed at them for what felt like a very long time, trying to wrap her mind around the fact that Randi was no longer whole... again. Then she took the Empress’s hand in one of her own and placed the other on Randi’s chest, just barely able to fell the irregular tempo of her heartbeat. She met the Empress’ eyes seriously, finding pain and true fear lurking in those stark blue depths. Gwen moved her hand up to cup the Empress’s face, gratified when she leaned into the touch.
“Sweetheart, what happened here? Why are you two separate personalities again?” The Empress shrugged gently so as not to disturb the woman cradled in her lap. Her blue eyes dropped back to herself and she watched as she combed long fingers through her own dark hair, realizing in a dark, far-off way just how surreal the whole situation was.
Fingers under her chin lifted her face and she brought her eyes up to meet Gwen’s, finding only love and concern in those green depths and wanting to fall into them. “It’s not my fault, Gwen. I didn’t do this... she did.”
“Love, I’m not blaming the warrior or the woman for this – I’m not blaming any part of you at all. I’m just trying to figure out what happened so we can try to fix it. If we’re both still here, then we must still be on our spirit walk. We need to finish it and get out of here, and I think to do that, we have to make you whole again. I felt you die, Randi....” She drew a sobbing breath. “Oh God, I can’t live through that again. I can’t.” The last was a bare whisper, but in the silence of the stillness around them, it was as if she shouted it from the hilltops.
Everything was tranquil and still for a long moment then Gwen gasped when she felt the Randi that lay unconscious reach up and cover the hand that rested on her aching chest. Gwen tore her eyes from the Empress’ and glanced down, but Randi’s eyes remained closed and her breathing uneven. Gwen turned her attention back to the Empress.
“We don’t want to die, Gwen... not like this. But we’re not sure how to fix this either.”
“Tell me what happened or at least what you remember.”
The Empress considered the request thoughtfully. “I remember you leaving us - talking about it here... well, in my space.” She gave Gwen a small smile and Gwen returned it. “We talked – you and I; and we forgave each other even though I am still not sure what I was forgiving you for. I know, I know.... this was us, but it was mostly me – even if Ares did cause it. I was so tired... both parts of me were and it just felt like we were fighting each other – still.”
“The pain was just... overwhelming. It hurt so much and the realization of what I had done as the warrior just finally....” The Empress motioned to the part of herself that remained unconscious in her lap. “It was too much for the woman in us to hold together. We’re afraid... *I’m* afraid that Ares will win after all if I can’t figure out how to get us back together again. We can’t defeat him apart like this.”
“Are you choosing to die here then? Are you choosing to give up instead of facing him together with me in the real world?”
“No, love, NO! We would choose to stand with you under any circumstances. But I don’t think we can defeat him as a ‘we’ entity. We need to be a single whole person to stand with you as the single whole you and I are together.”
Gwen straightened up, though neither Randi released their grip to allow her to move away from them. “All right. Have you tried... you know, like we did before? Laying down and merging yourself together?”
The Empress nodded. “As soon as we separated. We were still whole while we were in my safe place, but we were struggling... I was so tired and she was – it felt like she was dying inside me. Or I was dying inside her. We kissed you and closed our eyes for a little rest and when we opened them we were here in her safe place, and we had gone from being one person to two distinct personalities.”
“So since she was already laying on the slab here, I tried to lay in the same space. But something went wrong – it nearly killed her. I felt her stop breathing, and the pain.... The pain was excruciating. My chest... my head... God, Gwen, it hurt so badly. The only good thing was she started breathing again as soon as I was expelled. Then... we just waited, here, just like we are now. We knew you’d come looking for us. You promised you would.”
Gwen cupped the Empress’ face once more, then brushed their lips together in the gentlest of kisses. “You’re absolutely right... I did. And I meant it, Randi – I always have. Wherever you go, I go. However, that being said, the only place I want to go right now is out of here.”
Gwen caught and held the Empress’ eyes with an intensity she seldom employed outside the intimacy of their bedroom, even when they were alone. It got her attention instantly as it always did. “Randi, I need to know if you can carry her out of here,” motioning to Randi’s unconscious self.
The Empress held Gwen’s gaze, then looked down at her other self and nodded. “If it’ll get us out of this goddamn darkness, I’ll carry her back to reality.”
Gwen chuckled. “Not that far, love. I just want to go to the glade... to the safe room in my mind.”
“Is that a good idea? I mean, given what happened the last time....”
“We’ll make it secure for both of us. Trust me, sweetheart. I think it’s what we need. I think you need the peace of that place to be whole again.”
The Empress looked into those eyes that held the mirrors of her soul and trusted. Then she slid her arms around herself and scooped Randi into her embrace, groaning a little as the full weight hit her. She exchanged glances with Gwen. “Remind me I need to go on a diet when all this is over. I think I may give myself a hernia.”
Gwen snorted. “Sweetheart, it’s not fat that’s making you heavy. That is pure, unadulterated Valiant muscle. And I like it just the way it is.”
The Empress glared, though Gwen could easily see the twinkle that lurked in the back of those eyes, even in the dim light of this place. “You play dirty.”
“Yes, but I play to win. Now, c’mon. I want fresh air and sunshine.”
The Empress sighed, but obediently followed Gwen, noting she refused to lose contact with either part of Randi. And they slowly made their way from the darkness into full-blown light.
When they crossed into the glade, the Empress slid to the ground – not under the weight of the burden of self she bore, but more from relief of being out of the darkness at last. She looked around with new eyes, as though she had never seen this place before, and for a few minutes, Gwen was content to allow her the luxury. Then the unconscious woman began to stir at last and both of their attention was taken by her.
Without losing contact with the warrior, Gwen brushed the woman’s hair back from Randi’s face, gently caressing her skin and getting the tiniest smile out of Randi for her actions. “Hey,” she called softly. “How ya doing?”
“Hurts,” Randi replied in a whisper. “Hurts.”
“I know it does, sweetheart. I know. But you have to let yourself be whole again. It’s the only way you can heal. You need the warrior’s strength as well as the woman’s. You need her clarity of mind and judgment as well as your compassion and mercy. You need to be whole to heal, love, and I need you whole so we can go kick Ares’ ass, remember?”
Randi nodded and then shook her head. “Tried... already. Can’t.”
“Do you trust me, Randi?” Two heads nodded simultaneously. “Then you can do this. This is our place – yours and mine, and there is an energy here that is just us. Do you feel it?” Both incarnations nodded again. “It’s healing energy, Randi. This is what I feel when we come to our glade together – refreshed and revived and renewed. Trust in it, and let it heal you and make you whole again. Accept that you need what you perceive to be both your strengths and your weaknesses from both parts of yourself, love.”
Randi and the Empress looked at each other for long moments, measuring the other’s worth. Finally, they nodded, and the Empress gently placed Randi on the soft grass with her head in Gwen’s lap. Randi moaned in pain then breathed out, trying to force herself to relax.
Gwen put her hand on Randi’s shoulder, and Randi reached up to cover it with her hand. Then Gwen took the Empress’ hand in her own and squeezed it lightly. “I love and believe in both of you – with all my heart.”
“Will you hold us?” the Empress asked as she prepared to try to merge into Randi once more. Gwen brought the hand to her lips and kissed it.
“For as long as it takes.”
Then the Empress took a deep breath and lay down on her body. Gwen watched in fascination as the features melded back into the woman she knew and loved.
Reed gasped and froze, nearly hyperventilating as sensations cascaded over her. Rosie was instantly at her side offering support, and the rest moved as swiftly as they could manage. They had done all they could for Geoff and Jill; now it was a matter of waiting, which they were mostly content to do – until Reed had reacted so violently to whatever had hit her senses.
Tiny took her hands in his, chafing them lightly. Lacey moved over to check on Randi and Gwen as the monitors and sensors on them started whining bare seconds behind Reed’s response. Sky took her other side, hoping between him and Rosie, Reed would be able to feel the energy they were able to channel from the abundance that was being conducted to them.
Only the goddesses remained still, Athena and Artemis supporting Aphrodite in much the same way the others were sustaining Reed. Then they waited for Reed to speak. Tiny was talking to her quietly to offer comfort and to give her a few minutes to collect her wits from whatever corner they had been scattered to when Randi and Gwen had done whatever they had managed to do.
Finally Reed took a deep breath and swallowed, meeting his gaze. “Sweetheart, are you okay?” he asked, refusing to let his hands loose from hers, and she clasped his gratefully. She nodded and turned her head towards the bed.
“They are... Randi is breathing on her own. Her pulse is stronger, though still weak, and I think she might be healing finally, though at the rate it is happening, we’re still gonna be here a while.”
“What about Gwen?” This from a groggy Jill who was lying next to Geoff. She had been sleeping until the commotion in the room had stirred her from her deep slumber, and though she still couldn’t open her eyes or dredge up the will to move, she had to know how her daughter was fairing in all of this drama.
“If she curled around Randi any tighter, they’d be sharing the same skin,” Lacey replied with a smile. “She’s doing great – deep, even breathing, strong pulse, nice color. Whatever Reed sensed has been a good thing for both of them.”
“Reed?” Tiny said, curious to know what had caused such fierce reaction.
“It was... I felt... it was almost like their souls merged or something.” She shook her head. “Whatever it was, it was powerful and intense.”
“Was it bad?”
Reed shook her head. “Not bad in a painful way... not like it has been. It was just overwhelming and unexpected. But for the first time in what seems like forever, it feels like they are back to being part of one another again.”
She let her gaze go inward, then blinked and drew a deep breath. She made a move to stand, and the three around her stood with her as a single unit, unsure what she had in mind, but unwilling to lose contact with her even briefly.
“Reed?” Tiny asked.
“Turn me around, Tiny. I want to see their auras.”
Tiny kept his eyes locked on hers, reading, not apprehension, but excitement and expectancy. For the first time in a long time, Reed was anticipating something good between Randi and Gwen instead of the searing pain that had long since accompanied these looks.
Rosie clasped one arm, and Sky took the other and they walked in a solemn circle and allowed Tiny to turn them in a circle so they never lost contact with Reed. When they were facing Randi and Gwen, Reed closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she opened her eyes and looked, pushing her body into Tiny’s behind her for support. She couldn’t stop the flow of tears. Tiny tightened his embrace and looked down into her face.
“You all right, baby?”
Reed smiled and nodded her head even through the tears. “Oh yeah. I haven’t hurt this good in forever it seems like. This is awesome.”
Tiny squeezed her again, and only then did he notice that Sky had his eyes clenched shut, shaking slightly. “Sky?”
“Even I can see it from here, Tiny,” the chief whispered. “They are so in tune with one another, it is impossible to tell them apart. They are indeed a single whole together once more.”
“So you can sense their life force again?”
“Yes, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Reed smiled. “It is so strong. Randi is... Randi’s body is still damaged, but her soul is a single entity again. I don’t feel the struggle for power inside her that has been present since Gwen’s kidnapping and especially since she assumed command of the Sabres. And Gwen is simply melding into her. I wish you could see this; it’s amazing.”
The three goddesses listened, but didn’t comment directly. When Dite had felt Randi’s body die, she had lost any connection to them whatsoever. So the only information the three of them were allowed now was whatever their human counterparts could share with them. Instead, Artemis brought up the issue that wasn’t far from any of their minds.
“Can you contact her? Can you let them know about the antidote?”
Reed shrugged. “I dunno. I can try...” starting towards the bed when a shake of Lacey’s head stopped her. “Or I can wait,” she added, a frown creasing her forehead at Lacey’s action. “What’s wrong, Lace?”
“Their aura may be strong, but I’m not sure their physical bodies are up to that sort of effort yet. I’d rather not take the chance on doing damage that we could avoid by waiting for them... especially Randi... to heal a little while longer. Reed, I’m afraid it would kill them.”
“Can we afford to wait?” from Athena.
“I don’t think we can afford not to,” was Lacey’s stark answer. “Killing them due to our impatience would sort of defeat our whole purpose in being here trying to protect them.”
“Besides,” Reed broke in before the goddesses could get angry for any sort of perceived impudence on Lacey’s part. She had always been a straight shooter and tended to speak bluntly. Made for an interesting trait in a healer, but it was perfectly suited to the Sabre she was. “We have the barriers set up against Ares to keep him from popping in again. Aside from that, there really isn’t much we can do until Randi is well enough to return to consciousness or Gwen lets me know they need something. I can go back to monitoring them again.”
Reed looked around the room at that suggestion, finding every head, Lacey and goddesses included, agreeing with her suggestion. “All right then. We need to get set up. Um... what about Geoff and Jill?” motioning to the two figures still reclining on the couch motionless.
“I have monitors set up for them,” Lacey said, “But I’ve done all I can for them at the moment. Jill needs rest and Geoff....” She shook her head.
Reed blew out a breath. They would have to worry about those consequences once Randi and Gwen were back in this reality with them. First though.... The four of them – Tiny, Sky, Rosie and Reed – moved as one body towards the bed, not wanting to lose tactile contact with each other. It was a bit of a struggle, but they managed to get Reed situated so she was able to monitor Randi and Gwen without losing the support the rest provided.
Reed closed her eyes and let her mind wander, following the warmth she could feel between them and searching for her own safe place to observe and wait.
Then everyone settled in, hoping with a little luck, they would get a good ending to all of this soon.
Gwen opened her eyes when Randi shifted in her grip. She couldn’t have said how long they had they had been in the glade. When Randi was a single being once more, both she and Gwen had fallen into a deep, healing slumber. Now Randi stirred slowly, gingerly testing the limits of her still healing, sorely abused body. She was cautiously pleased, feeling the healing taking place in her body and relatively happy with the results. Then she looked up and found sleepy green eyes gazing back at her with a look that was nothing but genuine love. It made her smile.
Gwen smiled at the sight. “What are you smiling at?”
“You. Do you know just how beautiful you are?”
Gwen blushed. She couldn’t help it. When Randi looked at her with the combination of love, lust and passion that burned out of those bright blue eyes, it set her very soul on fire. And it had been so long since she had seen it focused in her direction, Gwen found she was somewhat taken by surprise by it now. She cupped Randi’s face in her hand and gave into her desire for a kiss – a kiss that she quickly lost control of when Randi took passionate possession of her mouth.
Gwen leaned back when it was over, blinking and breathing before she cleared her throat to speak. “Ahem... well, that certainly answers that question.”
“What question... how beautiful you are?” Randi teased, waggling her eyebrows to good effect.
“No, you goofball. You’re the only one who sees me that way. No, I was going to ask you how you felt, but I think your response to that kiss said plenty.”
Randi tangled her hands in Gwen’s lengthening hair and pulled her down until their lips were just touching. “First of all,” she growled low, “I’m certainly not the only one who thinks you are beautiful, love. I’m just the only one who gets to enjoy it privately.”
This time Gwen took control of the kiss, and only stopped reluctantly when Randi nipped her bottom lip. “Air... I need air, sweetheart. I’m still having....”
“Oh, God, Randi! Did I hurt you? Are you all right?”
Randi captured the hands that were wandering over her torso checking the damage. It tickled and was stimulating and painful all at the same time. “I’m fine, Gwen, really. Coming here has worked wonders for me. I feel whole again... for the first time since Ben infected me with whatever that was. I’m not fighting with myself anymore, and that feels so wonderful.”
“Does it feel different than what happened before?”
Randi nodded and slid up until she was partially sitting and could rest her head in the crook of Gwen’s neck. “It’s very different. Before I could still feel both parts, and though we weren’t fighting one another, we could only merge so far... sort of whole, but not.”
“Is that why you weren’t healing?”
“Probably. The more we read, the harder it was for the woman in me to hear what the warrior in me had done, especially in my actions towards you. That caused it to get worse and the darkness we were held in only exacerbated the problem. Being here, with you, in the light, has made all the difference. I can see the good I did as well as the bad now.”
“Can you really?”
“Uh huh. It’s kinda hard to explain.”
“Would you try?”
“Um... sure, but I don’t know if I can make it make sense. See, as I accepted responsibility for everything I’ve done in the last year, the injuries Ares inflicted on me spread, because I was focused on the bad. Accepting responsibility meant acknowledging the deaths I had committed and the misery I had caused... especially yours. I took the guilt for my actions on all of me... not just the warrior part. Since Ares had already tried to blow the snot out of me, doing that weakened me enough to force the Empress and me to split into two distinct personalities again.”
“Okay, so how is your merging different this time? How do we know this will stick?”
Randi chuckled... a painful venture, but well worth the answering smile it brought to Gwen’s face. “Well, for one thing, there is only me now. I am the Empress as well as the woman... the lover and the fighter. Look into my eyes love. This close, you’d be able to see the parts of my soul if it was still fractured.”
Gwen did so and the sight brought tears to her eyes. Randi wiped them away gently with her thumb, understand all too well where they were coming from.
“Do you know,” Gwen whispered as she tightened her arms around Randi while still trying to keep from doing more damage to her slowly healing upper body. “Do you know how wonderful... how amazing it is to see you... all of you looking back at me again? To see that love and strength and desire all in the same glance?”
“I know how fantastic it feels to be able to do that again. It’s one reason I believe the merging will stick. I think it means whatever poison Ares used to infect me is gone, because before, I had to fight to feel anything beyond rage and hatred for the rebels. I should have destroyed them... I was originally going to and I didn’t. That’s another reason I think this merging is permanent – I did good, Gwen. I can actually see that now. Before, I could only see the ugliness of my actions, but there have been a lot of positive consequences as well. I think it is safe to say I have expunged the poison from my being – body and soul. ”
“There is an antidote... at least Artemis had top Amazon scientists working on one. I know they were close, but I don’t know if it is done yet. Do you think you still need it?”
Randi shrugged, then winced at the pull on her chest. “Gotta remember not to do that for a while yet. As for the other, I honestly don’t know, love. I don’t think so, because I feel clean and whole. On the other hand if it is ready, would it hurt? Maybe it would help me to heal faster.”
“Well, not a lot we can do about it here, and I’m not ready to leave yet. I like it here with you; besides, you have to get stronger before we can go. I want you to be able to kick Ares’ ass, but mostly I want you to see how I see you. And you’re going to need every bit of strength and fortitude we can muster for that.”
Randi frowned. “Why? Are you planning to take me back into that room?” remembering the lights and colors and music she had briefly glimpsed in the open corridors of Gwen’s mind.
“Yes,” Gwen said frankly. “It is the only way for you to see yourself through my eyes and I think it’s important that you do. We will take every precaution, but this means a lot to me.”
“We’ll see what we can do, love. I don’t want to do any more damage to either of us. But for now I am perfectly content to remain right here with you. It is lovely and peaceful and totally refreshing.”
They passed a bit of time in contented silence before Randi spoke again. “Kinda late for me to worry about this, I suppose, but I’m not hurting you, am I? Because I’m not sensing the warmth from outside us that I did before, which means you’re not getting any extra strength even though you are sharing yours with me. Wonder why we lost it.”
Gwen brushed a light kiss over Randi’s temple and gently started tracing the familiar planes of Randi’s face. “No, sweetheart. I am relishing the experience of having you in my arms again. In fact, when we get out of the spirit realm and back to the real world, I see everything taking a backseat to some serious ‘us’ time. We have a lot of make-up cuddling and tracing and snuggling to do.”
“Please do not forget about the make-up sex. I figure we may get a chance to come out of the bedroom after the first fifty years or so.”
Gwen blushed again but decided to turn the tables on Randi. “I hate to break it to you, Stud, but I’m not gonna have had my fill of you by then, so if you want a turn, we’re gonna be in that bedroom for a lot longer than fifty years. I may let you be on top after fifty years if you’re lucky.”
The rejoinder was so unexpected, even the tips of Randi’s ears burned beet red. “Ahem, well, that is more than sufficient motivation for me to hurry up and get the hell out of here so we can kick Ares’ ass and go home.”
“Do we get to go home, Randi?”
“I think it depends on what we want to do, sweetheart. We have the world by the tail now, as it were. We can do what we want with it.”
“But can we really do that? Your becoming Empress means you accepted a responsibility for the world and the people of it. Can you just walk away from that? Do you want to?”
Randi tilted her head. “Well, when I took the job, I did so with the understanding that the responsibility was a temporary one for me... much like the job of Sabre Commandant. I did what I set out to do with them, accomplished the goals I set for myself. I quelled the rebellion and brought peace back to the world. The threat is gone.”
“Yes, but just two nights ago you promised to stay. You said, and I quote, ‘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.’ You just accepted the position; last night was your Coronation Ball, for heaven’s sakes! That doesn’t sound like something you can just walk away from at a whim.”
“If it’s a choice between going home with you and staying here to rule alone, there’s no contest, Gwen. I’m not giving us up again... not for anything. I can’t believe I gave it up to start with... not given how goddamn hard I had to fight for it in the first damn place.” There was more than a little disgust in her voice and Gwen moved a hand from around her shoulders up to cradle her face.
“You never gave us up, Randi... not once. You fought to protect me, to keep me safe. Just because I didn’t agree with the way you went about it doesn’t mean you gave us up, sweetheart. You fought for us harder than I did. I didn’t do anything but give you grief.”
“On the contrary, you gave me a reason. Without you, I would have slaughtered the rebels. Without you, innocents would have died. Because of you, the rebels got a choice... a second chance, and the Amazon Nation is reestablishing itself. Don’t you dare discount your worth... to me or to anyone else. You are the reason the world is changing.”
“I... but... um, really?”
Randi grinned charmingly, enraptured of the stunned expression on Gwen’s face. “Yeah... really.”
“I never... um, I never actually considered... I never thought... wow!”
Randi chuckled. “I love you, ya know.”
“I know. That makes me the luckiest woman in the whole damn world. And I love you too... so much.”
It was quiet for a while after that, because those words needed an unspoken affirmation, and they took their time and enjoyed the connection between them. When they finally broke apart for air, they spent a long moment simply gazing into one another’s eyes. Then they smiled.
“God, I’ve missed this,” gently tracing the planes of Randi’s face. Randi smiled and raised her hand to trace Gwen’s lips.
“So have I, and it feels so good. Even better, I can sense the healing happening... almost feel things mending inside me when we kiss. Your love... our love is healing me.”
“Does this mean we should keep kissing?”
“Um hmm... for the greater good, you understand.”
“I see,” Gwen said, easing out from behind Randi and lowering her gently into the soft grass. Then she stretched out beside her and propped her head in her hand and looked into Randi’s face with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Gwen let her fingers trace around Randi’s collarbone and down into her cleavage, watching Randi’s breathing hitch as she circled a nipple without touching it. “So,” Gwen said, clearing the huskiness from her throat, “if kissing can heal you slowly, do you suppose escalating our physical activities might speed the healing process even more?”
Randi didn’t deign to answer verbally; instead she let her fingers do the walking, sliding them into Gwen’s clothing and making skin on skin contact. She felt Gwen’s gasp as sensations began to cascade between them and grinned fiercely, then she was too busy feeling... for what seemed like the first time in eternity.
Reed gasped. The sensations she felt between them were overwhelming, but she almost welcomed the burn. It, even more than their aura, signified a true return to the strength of their bonding. A strength that she welcomed gladly. It made the tears run from her eyes.
“Reed?” Tiny lifted one hand to wipe the tears from her eyes and Reed smiled at him with blinding intensity.
“Oh God, Tiny. It hurts so much, and it feels so good. They’ve re-knit the bond between them, stronger than it was before.” She took Tiny’s hands in hers and opened her mind, willing him to see what she did. She knew the moment he saw – he simply froze all movement. Then his mouth dropped open and his eyes bugged out, forgetting to blink and forgetting to breathe. She cut her eyes at Sky who understood her unspoken directive, and moved to intercept Tiny when Reed removed her hands from his. Sky held onto him gently as Tiny came back to himself, blinking rapidly as his body tried to catch up to the experience his mind had seen.
“*That’s* what Randi has been living without for the past few months?? Damn! No wonder she’s been pricklier than a hedgehog in heat!”
The small group, even the goddesses, chuckled at his pronouncement. Despite its innate truth, it was a great stress reliever, and everyone appreciated the chance to laugh. Lacey stopped first, though her smile remained big as she looked around the room.
“You want even better news? Whatever they are doing to repair their bond is also working to heal Randi’s physical injuries. I can almost see it repairing itself in front of my eyes.”
That announcement made everyone shift in her direction, though no one, Reed especially, got close enough to touch. What they saw made them all gasp.
As Lacey had indicated, Randi’s healing could almost be seen taking place with the naked eye. It was obviously clear that the damage Ares had done to her was getting better. Athena looked at Lacey. “Are you sure this is them and not the regen unit finally doing its thing?”
“Oh yeah... I’m sure. The regen unit isn’t even on. Sky removed it at my instruction just before we arrived. We thought since her wounds were inflicted by Ares that perhaps trying to regen her was making her worse instead of better. So whatever is happening... whatever is causing her to heal... is them alone. We’re not doing anything at all to make a difference. We’re not even channeling strength their way right now. They are completely on their own except for the outside monitoring we’re doing.”
“Why? Why aren’t you channeling strength to them?”
“Same reason Reed isn’t trying to contact Gwen right now. It’s not safe for them... or for her, for that matter.”
“I don’t understand,” Dite piped up. “I mean, I know I totally lost them when Randi died, but....”
Lacey took a deep breath. “When we moved Gwen and we got them physically together again, they literally pushed all of us out of their space. To try to reestablish a connection with them, without an invitation, means disrupting whatever they have going on between them. And since whatever they’re doing is working for them, distracting them from it could kill them... and us.” She looked at Aphrodite. “It could even do serious damage to you.”
“Okay, dying would majorly suck.” She looked between Reed and Lacey. “Any idea how long this healing biz will take?”
Reed and Lacey exchanged glances and shrugged. “Best guess physically speaking... if she keeps healing at her current rate, I’d say within the next two hours.”
“And then they’ll be all right? Everything will be back to normal for them?”
Reed smirked. “What’s normal for them?” The rest returned her look, exchanging smiles with one another. “The fractures to their auras are already healed, mended as though they never happened. Their bond is stronger than it has ever been. I think the only reason they haven’t finished their spirit walk is because Randi’s physical self is still healing. When they are ready, they will return to us. Then the real work begins.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, Randi is still the Empress, Gwen is still the Amazon queen and the rebels are still in the process of being reeducated. Then there is the fact that the people really want Randi as a leader; they like what she has done in the few months she has been in command of the Sabres and control of the world. It’s a safer place than it has ever been and they are informed like they haven’t been in their lifetimes. She promised them she would stay until everyone was satisfied that the peace was in place, and we all know that could take a while. Mankind’s track record in the peace department is pretty sorry.”
“It gets more complicated,” Tiny chimed in.
“Of course it does,” the rest answered in chorus.
“We all know that neither of them will stand for that sort of demand on them for very long. They have fought too long and too hard to be together to allow that sort of intrusion into their lives more than briefly. That means they are going to be looking for a way to return home alone. Randi has always been an extremely private individual; she won’t stand for any sort of public scrutiny for long.”
“Neither will Gwen,” Reed assured him. “Despite her status as a celebrity, Gwen is a very private woman and has always safeguarded her privacy fiercely. She won’t tolerate the examination of every little detail of her life either.”
“So what can we do? Regardless of whatever support we provide for them, we are still simply support for them. They are the names and faces the world knows and wants. We can’t just jump in and take over now that things are more stable. No one knows us... that could cause Gwen and Randi far more problems than it would solve. And none of us want that.”
“That’s true, Lace... but I think we need to be proactive about this – anything to make this easier.”
“What about Ares?”
Tiny shrugged and looked at Aphrodite. “That will be up to Randi... or more to the point, it will be up to both of them. But I’d imagine, all things considered, that is the one thing she will insist on taking care of personally. The rest... well, it would be nice to figure out a way to go ahead and get the ball rolling. The sooner we have a plan of sorts figured out to present to Randi, the better off things will be for them... and for us.”
“All righty! So we need some radical plan of action, right? I think we should totally look into some food first then, babe. I know if I’ve got the munchies, the rest of you must be way starved.” Artemis and Athena exchanged glances and shook their heads, but acknowledged Dite probably did have a point. “Wicked. Let’s see what we can whip up for these bodacious dudes and dudettes.”
“All right, Dite. All right. We’ll go figure out something good to feed them, and they can get to work figuring out what they can do to speed things along, as it were.”
“This is my favorite place in the whole world,” Gwen said sometime later. She was curled up in Randi’s arms with her head resting over Randi’s heart, listening to the strong rhythm of her heartbeat. Her hand traveled over every bit of skin she could reach, lightly tracing familiar patterns and feeling the goosebumps follow behind her touch. Randi squirmed a little, then turned her head and brushed a kiss over the blonde hair.
“You’re tickling me,” she stated matter-of-factly. “And I wouldn’t have you be anywhere else, love. I have missed this with you so much. I have missed *everything* with you so much.”
“Ditto, Stud. I can’t tell you how good it feels to just lay here like this with you and just be.”
“You don’t have to, sweetheart. I know.”
Silence reigned for a while before Gwen eased her head up and turned to meet Randi’s gaze. “How do you feel?” gesturing to Randi’s torso. “I mean, it looks healed, but here I am laying on it and it could still be painful for you.” She stopped talking when a hand cupped the back of her head and positioned her on Randi’s chest again listening to her heartbeat. Gwen smiled. “Guess that means you’re feeling better, huh? God, I’m glad.”
“Me too, though I suppose that means we have to head back to the real world. And that means we’ll be separated again, at least for a little while.”
“Why? Do you need me to go away from you again?”
Randi brow creased in a frown. “Again? Gwen, sweetheart, you already left. Remember? That’s what started this spirit quest in the first damn place.” She drew a shuddering breath and her voice dropped to a whisper. “You gave me back your ring and you left.”
“And I have already made the return trip back to the palace.” Randi shifted so they were both lying on their sides, facing one another. She stared into Gwen’s eyes searching for answers. Gwen put on hand on Randi’s cheek and cupped it lightly. “I had Reed move me back to the palace a while ago. You were dying here in the spirit realm as well as on the physical plane. I wanted physical contact with you. I hoped it might help you heal.”
“Gwen, that could have killed you.”
“Randi, if you had died here, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have been dead anyway. Where you go, I go, remember?”
“Shh. It’s the truth and you know it. It always has been; it just sometimes takes a little longer to remember that promise than it does others.”
“I’ve been thinking about that... a lot actually. And about what to do about Ares. I want this to be the end with him, Gwen. We have been through the karmic cycle over and over again throughout history – for thousands of years - and in every lifetime, he’s been there... teasing me, tempting me, trying to separate us. Sometimes he has been subtle, and sometimes he’s been blatant, but always, *always* he has been some part of our lives together.”
“So what do you wanna do, love? I know you’ve been thinking about this for at least a little while.”
Randi nodded and sat up, leaning against their tree and pulling Gwen’s naked body into her own, relishing the simple sensation of skin on skin contact. She wrapped her arms around Gwen’s middle and smiled when not only did Gwen cover her arms with her hands, but she leaned back into Randi’s chest with a sigh of absolute contentment.
“In the short term, I am going to demand a code duello with set conditions. As the one who has been wronged repeatedly, it is my right to do so and I believe it will be easy enough to get my demands met... if not by Ares’ choice, then on command of a higher authority. You know there are a number of gods who would stand for us. More than anything, Ares cannot afford to lose face over this, and if he refuses to accede to my demands, the rest will view him as weak.”
“Playing on his vanity, huh? You’re pretty damned smart.” Gwen felt the silent chuckle behind her. “Do you think you can beat him though, love? I mean... he is a god after all. And I don’t want him doing damage to you again like he did today.”
“Ah, but I’ve already thought of that. See, one of the conditions will be that he will have to lose the god powers to fight. Not just have them bound or whatever, but have them completely stripped away. He has to fight as a mortal, with only the skill he possesses. It’s not going to be a fight to the death either. I only want to make him yield.”
“He’ll never go for it, Randi. He can’t stack the odds that way.”
Randi smiled. “I know. But I will make it a very public challenge if I have to – so not only will the entire worldwide pantheon of gods know about it, but the entire world will. He will have to accept just to keep the followers he has, because who wants to follow a war god who won’t accept a challenge?”
“Won’t he lose face when you beat him?”
Randi’s smile turned melancholy. “You’ve never lost faith in me, have you? Even when you left tonight, you did so knowing I would choose you,” letting her fingers trace over Gwen’s smooth skin. “As for the other, yes – that is why it’s a win/win situation for me no matter what he chooses to do. He’s going to have to choose one or the other.”
Gwen caught Randi’s fingers in her own and tangled them together in a light clasp. “I had my doubts,” seeing the immediate hurt in wide blue eyes, “but not in you or us. My doubts had more to do with Ares and what he had done to you.” Her eyes dropped to their still joined hands. “I’m sorry for the doubts though. He just stacked the decked against you so high; I never expected you to choose me so quickly. I didn’t know you were fighting him so hard or so long on your own.”
Randi brought their hands up under Gwen’s chin and lifted it until their eyes met. “I know... and I’m sorry for that. I was fighting so hard it made everything else nearly impossible, especially talking about it. I’m just glad you forced the choice. I think it was the kick in the pants I needed to confront Ares.”
Gwen smiled tremulously into Randi’s eyes. “Guess we make a pretty good team, huh?”
“Damn straight,” then stealing a kiss.
“Okay, you said that was short term. What’s the long term plan, or is there one yet?”
Randi nodded slowly. “There is one, sorta. It kinda depends on you.”
“Uh huh. I figure the short term solution will buy us peace in this lifetime. The only way we’re gonna have eternal peace is to remove our souls from the karmic cycle... completely.”
“Completely?” Gwen sat still staring blindly ahead for a long moment considering Randi’s words, then she blew out a breath. “Wow. That’s... I never thought about.... Why haven’t we done that before now?” She leaned her head to one side so she and Randi could gaze into one another’s eyes.
Randi shrugged. “Probably because he’s never pushed us so hard or so far. He hasn’t been this involved in our lives since our original journeys together millennia ago. So we’ve never really had a reason to make a decision like this; his participation has been minuscule or so completely detached that it was nearly impossible to trace anything back to him. This lifetime, he was blatant.”
“Is that what you want to do, love? Doesn’t he win if we quit?”
“I guess it depends on your point of view. I don’t think so, because we would be doing it on our terms; it would be our decision. I’ll be honest with you, Gwen – I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially lately.” She looked down the length of their bodies then back in Gwen’s eyes. “I’m tired, Little One. More tired than I have ever been before. It’s selfish of me to say this, but I really don’t know that I want to keep doing this anymore.”
Gen sat up and turned around in Randi’s lap, straddling her legs and resting her arms on the broad shoulders beneath her. She twined her hands together in the dark hair and tilted Randi’s face up to meet her gaze. They stayed that way for a long moment; spending that kind of quality time together in the past few months was something they had both sorely missed, and it was apparent they were going to indulge that need very often in the foreseeable future.
Gwen brushed her lips over Randi’s but didn’t allow the contact to deepen. “I’m gonna keep saying this until you catch a clue, all right? Where you go, I go, warrior. In life, in death, in the afterlife, to the moon or another plane of existence... it doesn’t matter. I promised you forever. In each and every lifetime we have shared together, I have always promised you forever, and that has never ever changed... not since we first exchanged vows privately between us, nor anytime since then. God, Randi... I love you so much. You are the best part of who I am and who I want to be. I will walk with you anywhere. You got that?” capturing the lips just beneath hers passionately until she felt Randi’s hands start to wander indiscriminately.
They separated on an uneven breath and Randi smiled – a smile that started in the depths of her blue eyes and worked its way outward until it consumed her entire expression. “I got that. I got you – FOREVER - and that makes me the luckiest human being to ever walk the face of this planet. However,” tilting her head for another kiss, “you can always keep reminding me this way. I’ll never, ever get tired of hearing it.”
Gwen laughed. “I’ll bet. We could debate the lucky part, but we’ll have to save that for another day. Just like we probably need to table any other life-altering decisions until we get out of here. As long as we understand one another and know that regardless of what we decide to do, it will be us together forever, the actual decision of what we do can wait until we get back to the real world. But Randi, I’ll be happy to stop going and settle down. I’m a little tired too.”
And Randi looked deep into those deep green eyes, and saw the truth in Gwen’s words.
Unexpectedly, Gwen stood up and offered her hand to Randi, who accepted the gesture automatically and allowed herself to be hauled to her feet. They spent a few minutes dressing, then Gwen extended her hand again.
“C’mon,” she said with a tingle of excitement in her voice. “One quick trip and then we’ll head back.”
Randi nodded, and slowly they walked to the door that would take them into the orderly chaos that was the creative side of Gwen’s productive mind.
“Oh man... I’m stuffed. That was so good. You don’t have a recipe, by any chance?” Rosie asked.
The three goddesses exchanged glances and Dite snorted. “As if. But, if you really want it, I guess we could manage to like, sit down together when this totally over and see what we can, you know, figure out. Shouldn’t be too hard, huh?”
“After this... *nothing* should be too hard ever again.”
“True that,” Dite agreed. “So you have some sort of gnarly plan worked out to show Randi?” She and the other goddesses had left the five awake and aware humans to pour over ideas and details to present to Randi and Gwen when they awoke, because they had already interfered more than was actually allowed by the rules they now operated under. It was bad enough they couldn’t fix the damage that had already been wrought by Ares. But they knew even better than Reed did how Randi and Gwen would covet all the time together that could be managed.
Tiny shrugged. “Sorta. More like a few suggestion and options. We can’t do much until we know Randi’s state of mind. If the Empress returns, we can only offer ideas. If we get any other part, well, we’ll work with it when the time comes.”
His wording got Athena’s attention. “Do you see her as more than one person, Tiny?”
Tiny considered his answer carefully. “No,” he said at last. “I see her as having many facets. It’s just that her focus has been so intense lately that first the Commandant and then the Empress have dominated everything else.”
“Which facet do you think will return? If Reed is right and she and Gwen have been on their spirit walk together, do you think the Empress or the Sabre will be in charge? Or will Gwen find the woman she fell in love with and bring her to the fore? I’m asking because if Reed is right, and we all believe she is, then I think it is safe to say that Gwen is not going to let this spirit walk end until she... until they... have been successful in returning Randi to a more complete sense of self than she has had lately. That would explain why it is taking them so long.”
Tiny cleared his throat. “If you think I’m betting against either of them in this, you are out of your mind... no offense intended.”
Athena chuckled. “None taken. We learned a long time ago not to rule out any possibilities where these two souls are concerned.”
A gasp from Reed stopped any further conversation and Tiny rushed back to her side. She had wandered closer to the bed after their repast. They had moved away to eat, knowing there was little they could do for Randi and Gwen and content that the monitors would alert them to any physical changes that took place in the meantime.
She reached out a hand blindly, knowing that Tiny would comprehend her need. He intercepted it and held on tightly, moving to wrap her up in his arms. After a moment, she stopped shaking and took a deep breath. Then she relaxed in his arms and turned to smile at him.
“Thanks, honey. I needed that.”
Reed shrugged. “A surge of energy between them. They actually seemed to glow for a brief moment.”
“Do you think...?”
“I dunno, Tiny, and I am past guessing with these two. I am too tired to try.”
Tiny chuckled wearily. “I know exactly how you feel, and I’ve only been a supporter through all this. Wonder if we could get a vacation out of this when it’s all over.”
Reed smiled. “Well, if not a real vacation, I’ll bet we could probably borrow some of the holo programs Gwen was telling me she and Randi had collected.” Her eyes twinkled in pure mischief.
“That good, huh?”
“Better,” Reed assured him.
A wailing noise caused them all to jump and Lacey to come skidding over to check the machines that had started screaming bloody murder in tandem. She looked up at Reed and Tiny in alarm, but before she could say a word, Randi and Gwen sat up with a gasp, clinging to one another. Then they fell back to the bed, blinking rapidly and panting for air, before curling completely into one another and falling into a deep healing sleep.
“What the hell was that all about?? Lacey, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know! I’m not sure what happened between them to cause the monitors to go haywire, but they’re sleeping naturally now. In my expert opinion, I’d say their spirit walk is over.”
“Waitaminute... that’s it?!? That’s how it ends? What a total bummer!! Where’s the drama??”
Rosie laughed. “Aphrodite, take a chill pill! You’re gonna hurt yourself in a minute.” The goddess looked so flummoxed by Rosie’s words that she goggled at her, causing the rest to laugh as well. She started to get angry, then decided it was a much needed stress release for everyone and joined in the laughter.
“Okay, so what just happened here? Surely that’s not it??”
“No, it’s not. Their spirit walk is over, but their work has just begun. We might get to hear about their walk together, but then again, we may not. You know how closed mouthed they can both be about things between them and this was intensely personal.”
Now Dite crossed her arms and pouted. “Well, that just bites! I wanted to dish... ya know? Get some details from these babes.” She sighed deeply. “All right then... I guess if we’ve gotta wait, then we’ve just gotta wait.” She looked around at the five men and women who had been up all night long keeping an eye on Randi and Gwen.
“Why don’t you rockin’ chicks and studs take off and get some shut-eye? The three of us can keep and eye on those two,” motioning towards the big bed, “and those two,” gesturing to Geoff and Jill. “Ya’ll have earned whatever fab rest you can find... especially if more work is rolling down that nasty pipeline for ya’ll. So g’wan... shoo now, ‘kay?”
They all grinned tiredly in her direction. Sky stood up from the chair he’d been sprawled in. “I have to admit that sounds like a wonderfully decadent idea.” He turned to Reed. “I can’t begin to imagine how you feel.”
“Good,” she answered, looking at Randi and Gwen wrapped together once more before leaning back into Tiny’s embrace. “I am exhausted and seeing them together again is painful, but I haven’t felt this good in a long, long time. C’mon, baby. Let’s go get some sleep. We can worry about the consequences of all this tomorrow... or at least much later today. The world will just have to manage on its own for a few hours.”
“What about the shielding? The People and the military are not gonna be able to keep that up indefinitely.”
Sky and Reed closed their eyes simultaneously only to have them pop back open a moment later so they could trade startled glances. “They won’t have to,” Reed said softly. “Randi and Gwen have their own shielding in place.”
Lacey looked between them before voicing the question on everyone’s mind. “Um... what does that mean exactly?”
“It means,” Athena replied when no one else answered, “that at some point in the future, Randi and Gwen are going to challenge Ares’ claim and actions. It means that they will have to invite him in for him to do anything else to them.”
“WHAT?!? Wait... just... if they could do that all along, why wait til now? We know they’ve already paid a terrific price to be together,” indicating the spot where Gwen’s parents were. “Everyone here has suffered with and supported them through it for the past few months. Why did we go through all the pain and suffering and shit first? Why did they? Why not do it as soon as they knew the truth?”
“Because, Lacey, even for the gods, everything happens in its own time and its own way. The truth is, they couldn’t do it all along – they did it as soon as they could. Their bond is unbreakable now; ask Reed... it is stronger than it has ever been. They had to suffer, to know separation, to know the rending between them like they did before. They had to make a conscious choice to be a part of one another again and to determine the cost they were willing to pay to be together – the cost they are willing to exact from Ares for his repeated interference in their lives. Not just in this lifetime, but in every lifetime they have shared together since they found one another all those millennia ago. Whatever happened to them in that spirit walk, they had to experience it alone together. *That* is how they were able to finally seal their bond again.”
“I wonder what the cost was for them and what it will be for Ares.”
The silence that followed was staggering.
Gwen stopped when they reached the door. She could feel Randi’s rapid heartbeat through their joined hands. She turned to look at Randi and watched as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening her eyes and allowing their gazes to meet.
“You all right there, Stud?”
Randi’s head nodded yes, but her eyes weren’t as confident in their answer. Gwen reached over and took Randi’s other hand in hers and just held them for a long moment, chafing Randi’s pulse point until she could feel the pounding beneath her touch slow to a more normal rhythm. Finally, Randi took a second deep breath and blew it out slowly.
“Sorry... I’m a little nervous. After what happened before....”
“I know, love, and I’m sorry about that. I didn’t know it would be as overwhelming for you as it was. I didn’t know you were still fractured. But this time you are going in whole. Both parts of you have melded and blended to become one again and you and I are more a part of one another than ever. Can you feel the difference?”
Randi considered Gwen’s words then nodded her agreement.
“Trust me, Randi. Together we have the fortitude to do this again. We need to do this... we both do. I need you to see what I see when I look at you, and you need to see it. I know you think I only see the darkness, love, and I know it is there. It’s an integral part of who you are; it’s where your strength comes from. But it is not all you are, and it is certainly not all I see.”
“How can you not, especially after all that has happened between us lately?”
“How could I, especially after all that has happened between us lately?”
Silence for a long moment while Randi let the peace and warmth of Gwen’s words soak into her, then she squeezed the hands she still held. “All right,” she said with confidence. “Let’s do it.”
Gwen put her hand on the door, then hesitated briefly. “If it starts to get overwhelming again, focus on my voice and my eyes and my touch. That will ground you until we can get back here.”
“I’m gonna be all right, sweetheart. You’re gonna be there with me, and I’m ready for this. You’re right... I do need to see this, as much as you need to share it.” She reached over and put her hand on Gwen’s so that together they could open the door. “Let’s do it.”
Randi kept her attention on Gwen, not allowing her eyes or hearing to stray beyond that focus. She was peripherally aware of the sight and sounds and scents that surrounded her, of course, but she did not let it overwhelm her senses and she found it a much more pleasant experience than the time before. It was warm and comforting and familiar and strangely enough, soothing to her battered psyche. It occurred to her to wonder why; instead, Randi decided to simply enjoy the sensations.
They stopped walking and Gwen turned to find Randi’s eyes fixed intently on her. She blushed and swallowed and Randi grinned ferally. “Well, I was gonna ask how you were doing, but, um... I think I can guess. Are you ready?”
Randi nodded, but didn’t take her gaze from Gwen. Gwen slid around to stand beside her. Randi’s eyes followed her; then Gwen reached out and turned Randi’s chin away from her form and toward what appeared to be a mirror.
She watched in fascination as her reflection faded and in its place....
The warrior facing her was dark and intense, but Randi could see an aura of light surrounding her. Even as she watched, the reflection changed and morphed – she lost the dark, gleaming armor she wore and became a woman as well as a warrior. There was strength and purpose in her body and determination in her stance. She was a warrior to be both feared and admired. But it was her eyes that Randi took note of. They twinkled and glowed with unbridled love and affection and even from where she stood, Randi could feel the love and desire she felt both for and from Gwen.
For a long time, Randi just stood looking, amazed at the image looking back at her. Finally, she turned back to look at Gwen, the wonder clear in her eyes. “Is that really how you see me?”
“Yep,” she said with a little smile. “It really is.”
“That’s... um, wow, Gwen. I... I never... I... hmm....”
This time Gwen chuckled. “Speechless much there, love?” Long fingers reached over and tickled Gwen’s ribs, eliciting a squeal.
“With you, it’s a constant state of being.”
The words were so unexpected Gwen sucked in a breath and just held it, staring into Randi’s eyes for a timeless moment. Then she wrapped her arms around Randi’s neck and pulled her down for a deep, passionate kiss. It went on until they broke for air, and when it was over they gasped, ending their spirit walk and sending them both into a natural, healing sleep.
It was still raining when Gwen woke up, though not with the ferocity it had stormed the previous night. She eased her head up off Randi’s shoulder and looked around, noting with distinct pleasure that she and Randi were not only sharing the same bed for the first time in months, but they were curled around one another possessively again.
She couldn’t stop the tears that flowed down her cheeks, but for the first time in forever, they were happy tears. Gwen let her fingertips gently trace the planes of Randi’s face, learning the harsh changes the months had wrought on Randi’s features. Her cheekbones were more pronounced and the planes were sharp. She let her touch wander down Randi’s body, feeling her ribs more prominent than they should be. Her fingers clenched into light fists in anger at the damage their separation had done to Randi and then she felt the touch of fingers on her face, tenderly wiping away her tears.
“Tears, Little One? I thought waking up together like this was a good thing,” she teased lightly. She was concerned, not because of the tears since Gwen had been known to cry on occasion when she was happy. More, it was that she had felt the fists clench as well as the touch of anger that had flowed through Gwen.
“Waking up like this is an incredible thing, Stud. I just can’t tell you how much. These are happy tears,” leaning up so she could look into Randi eyes. Then, just because she could, she leaned down and brushed their lips together, smiling into the kiss when Randi deepened it. Only the clearing of a throat brought them back to an awareness of the present... and the fact that they were not alone.
Randi sat up and tucked Gwen behind her... or tried to at any rate. She gave it up when Gwen simply wrapped around her like an octopus and held on tightly. Aphrodite stepped into the light, wincing when Randi glared at her. She shifted her gaze to Gwen and returned the small smile of contentment Gwen wore. She shifted around to Gwen’s side of the bed and lightly touched her face, studying her face before exchanging a long look with Randi.
“It is so fab to have you two back again! How’s it hanging?”
“Well, technically speaking, it’s not hanging at all,” Randi smirked, enjoying the light blush the banter got her. Then she laughed at the smack it earned her on the belly, enjoying the rub that immediately followed. “We’re doing good, Aphrodite. In fact, better than good; we’re absolutely fantastic.”
Aphrodite clapped her hands together and hopped in place just a little. “That is so cool! So what happened? C’mon... tell Dite all about it!” Unseen, Artemis and Athena just covered their eyes and shook their heads. Leave it to Aphrodite to stir the pot unthinking very first thing.
“Excuse me?” Randi’s eyebrows went into her hairline.
Dite dropped onto the bed. “What?? C’mon, dish a little.”
Gwen wrapped her arms more securely around Randi’s frame, soothing her with a gentle touch. Randi turned and met Gwen’s eyes, feeling her gaze soften. Gwen arched an eyebrow in question and Randi gave her a tiny, crooked smile. Gwen smiled back brightly before turning her attention to Aphrodite. “No, Aphrodite.”
“No. We’re not gonna share what happened between us there... at least not now. Maybe not ever.”
“Dite, what happened to us on our spirit walk - it’s intensely personal and extremely private.”
Dite pouted and picked at the covers. “All right, all right. Fine. But we still need to talk. Ya’ll so need to know what’s been, like, going on here during your righteous walk together. We’ve hit a few bumps while ya’ll were busy.”
The seriousness of her tone caused both Randi and Gwen to straighten up. It was then that they realized that Athena and Artemis were in the room as well as they chose that moment the make their way over to the bed. Randi tightened her hold on Gwen, feeling the tension mount when the other two goddesses arrived.
Dite reached for Gwen’s hands and Artemis sat behind her with her hands on Dite’s shoulders. Athena stood behind both of them to lend her strength. Gwen gripped Randi’s hands and looked at her in alarm. Randi brushed a kiss across Gwen’s temple and murmured in her ear, “I love you.” Then they held stares for a long moment, until Randi saw Gwen smile just the tiniest bit. The embrace became a brief hug, and they turned their attention to the goddesses.
“All right... what kind of bumps?? Where is everyone?”
Dite gave Athena a plaintive look, and Athena cleared her throat. Randi’s eyes sharpened into steel points and Athena took a deep breath and started to speak. “We sent most everyone to bed to get some rest. They had been working all night and were exhausted. We stayed here keeping an eye on the two of you. You’ve been sleeping for a full day... and so have they.”
They blinked at each other, then Randi spoke. “You said most... what happened?”
“First of all, I need you to both understand that no one was ready for you to begin your spirit the way you did. Nothing was in place like it was supposed to be... especially as far as Randi was concerned. There was no shielding here because of course Ares knew where to find Randi – she called on him twice before she fell into the state which started your walk.”
“When Gwen and her contingent arrived from the cabin, you were dying. You did in fact stop breathing for a few moments shortly after they arrived, and in that time....” She took another deep breath. “We were not here and the People were still setting up a perimeter – when Randi stopped breathing, Ares was furious. He saw it as her way of cheating him out of the prize he felt was rightfully his to claim. So he came back to seek vengeance. He was determined to take his due.”
“And...? Get to the point,” Randi growled impatiently. Athena arched her eyebrow and in any other situation, Randi might have been contrite for her impatience, but not this time. She was tired and cranky and despite what she had told Gwen, sore from the damage Ares had inflicted her body. She hadn’t had many reserves left going into this ordeal and this had drained her almost dry. So Randi just returned Athena’s look and waited.
“And,” Dite broke in with a somber tone, “everyone that was here tried to protect you from him... both of you. Rosie, Reed and Lacey moved towards you first; they were the closest. Ares flung them against the far wall. He did the same to Tiny and Sky when they tried to tackle him.”
“Oh, God... are they all right?” from Gwen. “He didn’t hurt them too badly, did he?”
Dite shook her head and looked down at the blanket. “No... a few bruises. They’ll probably wake up sore and stiff this morning, but nothing a little time with the regen unit can’t cure.” Silence fell again until Randi broke it impatiently.
“Okay... and? I mean, ya’ll wouldn’t be acting like somebody died if....” Gwen gasped and Randi stopped as realization dawned. “Who died?? Who else was here??” a bit frantically. Gwen took Randi’s hands in her own and turned her body until she could look directly into Randi’s eyes. She felt a strange sense of calm and peace envelop her.
“My parents were here, love. If they did what I asked them, they were here to offer you and the rest of our friends whatever support they could.”
Randi searched Gwen’s eyes, knowing her words for the truth. Then she turned to the goddesses. Aphrodite wouldn’t meet her eyes and Artemis’ glance offered sympathy. Athena extended her hand, and Randi unwound herself from Gwen then knelt down in front of her, clasping their hands together.
“I need to know, sweetheart. I need to see for myself what Ares did. Do you want to wait here or come with me?”
“Would you like some privacy to grieve in first or would you like my support?”
Randi reached up one hand and cupped Gwen’s face, marveling at her composure and the tranquility in her expression. “Even the warrior in me would like you to be there with me to face whatever is waiting for us together. But what I really want is to make it all go away so this didn’t happen and we, and especially you, don’t have to suffer through the possible loss of your parents.”
Gwen covered Randi’s hand, and turned her head to brush a kiss across her palm. “Randi, my folks and I talked about this possibility. They knew the risks... everyone that was involved in this did. Even without Ares involvement, spirit walks can be dangerous undertakings,” here she smiled wanly. “The common consensus was that since we were involved, things would probably get complicated.”
“And yet they all stuck around anyway,” Randi whispered.
“Yes, they did. It was important to them and imperative for us.” Gwen took a shuddering breath unexpectedly and released it, her voice dropping in pitch and wavering just slightly. “I don’t want anything to have happened to my parents Randi. I love them both dearly and I’d like to have them around for the rest of my life. But I did ask them to stay with you once I left, knowing you would need some support and they were more than willing – they were glad to do it.”
“Shh.... They know what we mean to each other and they knew what was at stake. They wanted to be a part of this, love.”
“My father continues to be in a lot of pain and it bothers him; this was something he could do despite the pain. My mother still feels guilt about what happened with... um, with Ben. She was hoping to be able to start making up for it by helping here. Randi, I only asked them to stay here with you; they decided to do the rest on their own.”
Gwen turned back to the goddesses who were patiently waiting. “What did they decide to do anyway? What happened to my parents?”
Athena answered. “Ares was completely distracted because of the interference the others caused, and Geoff was able to get to the bed and cover you both just before Ares tried to claim you. Jill was only a step behind him and Ares physically knocked her across the room. We arrived bare moments after it happened and we sent him to the far reaches of the earth. But it was too late.”
Gwen bit her lip and held on to Randi’s hands tightly. Knowing something was likely wasn’t quite the same thing as having it confirmed. Randi returned the clasp and met Gwen’s eyes squarely.
“I’m sorry, Little One,” she said, her shoulders slumping. “I have hurt so many people I care about because of this. I wouldn’t have had anything happen to Geoff and Jill for the world.”
Gwen smiled sadly. “Oh, love... don’t do this. No guilt over this.” She held up her hand before Randi could speak. “No, Randi. This was their decision... their choice. No matter the outcome, this was what they wanted. Don’t dishonor them by taking that choice away from them.”
Randi stood then and helped Gwen do the same, then holding hands, they walked to the small couches where Geoff and Jill lay.
Geoff was hooked up to all manner of medical equipment including two full-sized regen units, but it was obvious that there was no practical function from Geoff’s mind or body despite the intrepid efforts of the variety of machines surrounding him. Jill, on the other hand, appeared to merely be sleeping. Randi and Gwen looked at Athena for an explanation and she walked to them before she spoke.
“By the time we got here, Geoff was already dead; his soul had passed on. Almost as though he knew it was safe for him to go. “But your friends wouldn’t admit defeat, and hooked his body up to these machines, hoping it would do some good.”
“What about my mother?” Gwen asked. “What happened to her?”
“I healed her as well as I could; the rest is up to her. I’m sorry, Gwen. It’s like Ares was deliberately targeting her... them... once he figured out they were going to protect you - like he expected the outcome to turn them against you... or each other. He purposefully inflicted as much damage to both of them as he could.”
Athena looked at Gwen then, expecting to see sadness in her eyes. What she found was a fire so bright, she felt scalded. Gwen held her eyes for a moment, then turned and wrapped herself in Randi’s embrace.
“Randi?” the word a mere vibration that flowed through Randi’s chest.
“Hmm?” kissing the blonde head tucked beneath her head.
“Before you kick Ares’ ass to kingdom come, I want one good shot at him. Who knows? Maybe we’ll have war god on a stick.”
Randi couldn’t help it... she burst into laughter. She knew it was an emotional release for both of them, feeling Gwen laughing in her arms, but it was also just the least little bit funny. Not just picturing Ares hoisted on a stick, but the calm manner in which Gwen presented it. Besides, it chased the tears out of her eyes – tears which returned with fervor when she felt Gwen’s laughter evolve into sobs.
The outburst only lasted a moment before Gwen pulled back just slightly and looked into Randi’s eyes. Randi wiped the wetness from Gwen’s cheeks and felt the touch reciprocated. “He died on his own terms, Gwen. He died as a warrior.”
“I know, love. He found his peace. I was crying because I’m gonna miss him. He was a constant friend during my childhood. And I’m crying for my mother. She is gonna miss him even more than I will. They have been together for so long; I’m not sure how she’s going to do, living without him. And I was crying for you, beloved – because I know that no matter what I say and no matter what you know to be the truth, somewhere, somehow you’re going to take responsibility for this on your shoulders. And you shouldn’t have to live with that guilt.”
“Not guilt, love, but responsibility. You’re right – their participation was their choice, and I won’t dishonor them by taking the choice away from them and feeling guilt. But I do bear a certain responsibility here, and I own Geoff a debt of honor now.”
Whatever response Gwen might have made was cut off by the soft moan that came from the second couch where Jill was lying. Immediately, Randi and Gwen knelt beside her and covered her hands with their own. Then they waited to see if she was going to come to.
Long moments passed in silence while they waited. Aphrodite and Artemis joined Athena in the small sitting area, taking the seats they had occupied during the night and through the long day while everyone slept. Though they couldn’t interfere, they could observe, and all three were anxious to see how this part of the saga would end.
Finally, Jill moaned again, shifting her head slightly and grimacing at the pain that lanced through her head at the movement. She reached for it, only to find herself unable to lift her hands. She wondered vaguely if the harm Ares had done had paralyzed her in addition to causing her acute pain. Then she realized there was another sound besides the roaring in her ears and she strained to listen to it, hoping it would give her some insight into what had really happened.
The words made no sense; they were nothing more than so much sound. But the tone was familiar and warm, and the touch she felt on her face was one she recognized. Jill forced herself to concentrate, and ever so slowly, she opened her eyes.
And had to give the tiniest smile to the unexpected sight that greeted her.
Randi and Gwen sat in front of her wrapped around one another so tightly, Jill doubted air could pass between them. It made her want to cry, knowing that whatever she had lost because of Ares, the balance had been restored. Instead, she smiled at them, and tried to speak.
She was too dry, though and the sound she made was more of a croaked whisper and Dite reached over their shoulders with a cup in her hands. Gwen smiled up at Aphrodite and accepted the cup. Randi moved from behind Gwen and slid beneath Jill, gently easing her up into a semi-sitting position so Gwen could help her drink. After a few swallows, Jill turned her head away and Gwen lowered the cup. Randi started to move out from behind Jill when a hand on her wrist stopped her.
“Thanks, Randi. It’s so good to see the two of you right again.”
Randi nodded, but let her eyes drop. Jill’s glance went to Gwen and she saw the residual tears and the sadness in her eyes. “Your father’s dead, isn’t he?”
Gwen nodded, and Randi tried to slip out from behind Jill, figuring Jill would blame her for Geoff’s death. The hand on her wrist tightened and she froze and looked down into Jill’s eyes. Jill smiled sadly at her. “No, Randi. I don’t blame you for Geoff’s death. It was his choice; we talked about things. He wanted to die as a warrior, and he did.” Now she teared up, but she didn’t lose her grip or her tiny smile. “I am going to miss him, Randi... a lot, and I’ll probably get mad at him for being gone. But I wouldn’t have denied him the right to be whole again... to be a Sabre again... or Gwen’s father.”
“I wouldn’t have had this happen, Jill... not for anything.”
Jill patted her hands and then added Gwen’s to theirs, watching when Gwen’s and Randi’s fingers twined together as naturally as breathing. Then she covered their hands with hers. “I know, Randi. I’m just glad it was worth it. It was worth it, wasn’t it? Everything is all right again?”
Gwen’s smile was reassuring. “Everything is better than all right, Mama. Everything is wonderful, fantastic, amazing, incredible....” Jill chuckled and halted Gwen’s descriptive words mid-stream.
“I think I get the picture, Gwen, and I’m so glad. It is nice to see the sparkle in those eyes again, little girl. I’ve missed it.”
“C’mon, Jill. Let me get you settled on the bed, and then Gwen and I have some things to take care of together.” A pause. “Would you like us to start making arrangements for Geoff or would you like to do it yourself?”
Jill didn’t answer, having fallen back into a light doze. Gwen covered her up and then extended her hand to Randi. “C’mon, Stud. Let’s go get cleaned up. Then I’d like to say goodbye to my dad before we take him off the machines.”
They walked into the bathroom together and silence fell over the room.
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