It was awkward at first, at least for Randi. She stopped in the middle of the room, hesitant and unsure. She had spent so long pushing Gwen away and then Gwen had sent her away, that she wasn’t sure how to handle the radical turnaround. It was all a bit surreal.
Gwen set the water temperature and started to undress, then realized Randi was still frozen in the same spot. She dropped her shirt in the hamper and crossed to Randi, reaching out cautiously, a little uncertain at Randi’s lack of movement.
“Randi, love? Is something wrong, or...?”
Randi shrugged and rubbed the back of her neck. “I dunno... it’s so – normal. I don’t know if I remember how to do this... do normal.”
Gwen started to drop her hands, unsure now if Randi would welcome the touch. Randi reached out and clasped the hands, pulling Gwen closer, then blinked as though she had just realized the Gwen was standing inches from her clad in a sheer, lacy bra. Her eyes were pulled inexorably to the well-rounded cleavage and she licked her lips unconsciously.
Gwen smiled, suddenly reassured by the lust she felt shiver through Randi’s frame. Gwen reached for Randi’s face, smiling when Randi’s hands naturally fell to her waist, gently rubbing the sensitive skin there with the pads of her thumbs while her eyes never strayed from Gwen’s breasts. Gwen cupped Randi’s cheeks and brought Randi’s eyes to meet hers, inhaling sharply at the blue deepened by desire to almost black.
She took one of Randi’s hands and shifted it up to her breast, closing her eyes momentarily when Randi traced just the exposed tops with a light, teasing touch. Gwen slid one hand into Randi’s hair, lacing her fingers into the locks and tugging gently, until their lips were a hairsbreadth apart.
“I think you’re doing normal just fine there, love.”
Then their lips met and conversation stopped. Only the sound of water running in the shower brought them back to reality and a smile crossed both faces as they took in their state of near undress. Randi cleared her throat and smiled crookedly at Gwen.
“I guess I am,” she agreed. “C’mon,” shedding the rest of her clothes and stripping Gwen of hers before ushering them both into the shower enclosure. Randi grabbed the soap and started lathering them indiscriminately, hoping to cool the fire raging in her blood. She felt a little uncomfortable with the burning desire she felt towards Gwen, knowing Geoff was being kept alive only by Lacey’s machines in the very next room.
Gwen turned in Randi’s arms, eyes that only moments before had been darkened in desire were now tear-filled. She wrapped her arms around Randi waist and squeezed. Randi returned the embrace, kissing the top of Gwen’s head.
“Is it wrong to feel so much love and desire for you when my father is...?” Her whispered words turned into silent sobs that Randi could feel. Her own eyes teared up but she refused to let them fall, instead choosing to focus all her love on the woman in her arms. After a moment, Gwen stopped crying and pulled back with a watery smile. “Thank you, Randi. I love you.”
“I love you too, Gwen... so much. And no, it’s not wrong; it’s perfectly natural. Aside from what we just went through together and what we’ve been going through for months, death makes us long for an affirmation of life. It’s completely normal. And after what we’ve been through.... But I think first we should go pay our final respects to Geoff and give him the send off to the next world he deserves. Then what do you say to dinner tonight, maybe some candlelight, soft music, sexy lingerie and just you and me together in this plane? I think your dad would understand.”
Gwen smiled, thinking of her parents’ relationship, glad Geoff and Jill had always been openly demonstrative about the love between them. While it had been embarrassing for Gwen as a child, it was something she had come to rely on and even appreciate as an adult. “I think they both would.”
Randi bit her lip thoughtfully. “You think we should plan to stay with your mother instead?”
Gwen shook her head. “No, I think mama is gonna need some time alone to adjust.” She stopped and blew out a breath, closing her eyes as memories washed over her. “I remember....” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I remember... all I wanted was to be left alone. It’s easier to grieve and get angry and cry when there’s no one there to see. We’ll know when she wants company... she’ll tell us.”
“I’m sorry, Gwen,” feeling that burden of guilt settle squarely on her shoulders again. She moved to shut off the water and Gwen grabbed her arm. Randi smiled sadly. She does know me well realizing that Gwen knew she was trying to pull away. She turned the water off then twisted around to face Gwen, only to find Gwen gazing back at her with complete understanding.
“You know better than that, Randi. I won’t let you pull away from me and I won’t let you shoulder that guilt again.”
Randi reached around and snagged a towel from the rack, reaching for Gwen and starting to dry her off. When she was done, she tucked the ends in, letting her touch linger on the soft skin. Gwen cleared her throat and Randi looked up with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
Gwen took the second towel and repaid the favor. When she was down on her knees drying a long length of leg, she spoke quietly. “Randi, I want you to understand something – I never, ever want to go through losing you again... I won’t, because I’d never survive it. But I also want you to know that what happened gave me a deeper appreciation of our life together as well as more sympathy for people that I didn’t have before. So while I would never have chosen to walk that path, I have learned to find the good in it, love.”
Randi pulled Gwen to her feet, wrapping the towel around herself before pulling Gwen into a tight hug. “Only you would find good in that, Little One. Thank you.”
“Anytime, sweetheart. Now, c’mon. I need to say goodbye to my daddy, and I want you there with me.”
They stepped from the bathroom and immediately Randi realized that Jill was no longer in the bed, but had moved over to sit beside Geoff on the couch. Jill was combing her fingers through Geoff’s hair and even as Randi watched, she put her head down on his chest A quick glance around showed her the goddesses were no longer in the room, at least visibly, and Randi turned away as well to give Jill a modicum of privacy to say her goodbyes in. She followed Gwen into the closet and they slowly dressed. Finally, their eyes met and by common unspoken consent they walked out of the closet and into the bedroom.
Jill was back in the bed, the pain on her face written in the tear tracks still visible. Her eyes were closed and her breathing even though, so Randi decided to leave her alone in her grief for now. Instead she reached for Gwen’s hands and they walked together to Geoff’s side.
When they reached the couch, Randi released Gwen’s hand to allow her a minute of privacy with her father....
... only to have Gwen keep a firm grasp on her wrist. She looked at Gwen even as the bard knelt and pulled Randi down beside her.
“Gwen? Love, I only wanted to....”
“I know, Randi. But we are one – body, soul and spirit. And Daddy knows that. I don’t think he would object to us saying our goodbyes to him as one.”
Randi nodded and resumed her grip on Gwen’s hand, only this time she wrapped an arm around Gwen’s waist before clasping their fingers together.
Gwen reached up with her other hand and grasped Geoff’s, surprised that it still retained a measure of warmth. “Hi, Daddy,” she said softly. “It’s Gwen and Randi, Daddy. We’re together again, Daddy. It worked... just like it was supposed to.” She smiled at him wanly. “Well, maybe not *just* like it was supposed to,” she joked feebly. “This is *us* we’re talking about, after all.”
Gwen felt Randi’s silent chuckle and laughed a little herself. She turned to glance at Randi briefly, drinking in the strength of her before returning her attention to Geoff.
“Thank you, Daddy. I never thought....” She took a shaky breath. “Well, I wish you were here to see the fruits of your efforts. She’s all mine again, Daddy. Ares has no hold on her anymore, and no hope of ever having any again.”
Gwen shifted slightly and Randi released her hold, knowing instinctively Gwen needed some freedom of movement to finish her goodbye. Gwen leaned forward and brushed a kiss across Geoff’s cheek. “Goodbye, Daddy. I love you, and I’m gonna miss you so much.” A tear ran down her face and she let it. “And if you’re not too busy, could you maybe look in on us once in a while? I’d like to know you were still keeping an eye on your little girl.”
She kissed him again then moved to take her place at Randi’s side. Then Gwen waited patiently for Randi to speak, hearing her swallow several times before her voice came out as a hoarse whisper.
“I’m sorry, Geoff. You shouldn’t be lying here, but I will always, *always* be indebted to you for what you did – for Gwen and for me. If there was any way for me to fix this, I want you to know I would do whatever it took. I never meant to take you from your family.” She paused and cleared her throat. “I’ll take care of your little girl, Geoff... whatever it takes.”
She stared at Gwen for a long moment before turning back to Geoff one final time. “God speed your journey, my friend, and reward you well for your sacrifice. And um... you might wanna look up my folks when you get to the other side. I know they would love to meet you. Ya’ll could probably swap some interesting stories.”
This time it was Gwen who chuckled silently and she leaned over to rest her head on Randi’s shoulder. “Um, sweetheart? You do realize that if my father gets together with your folks, we may have to leave eternity just to get a little peace from the ragging they’re gonna do to us?”
Randi bit her lip and nodded. Then she leaned down to whisper into Gwen’s ear. “Except we have a hideaway that no one knows about... no one except us, remember?”
Gwen pulled back just slightly to watch Randi’s face for a long moment before comprehension struck. Her eyes lit, but before the expression could reach her lips, she tucked her head back into the crook of Randi’s neck. Her lips tickled when they moved to speak. “We’re going home?”
Randi nodded. “I think it’s time.”
They were silent for a little while after that, then Randi eased Gwen away from her body. “Little One? I think it’s time we let his body join his soul in finding peace. Do you... do you think we should wake your mom up or...?”
Gwen shook her head. “No. She said her goodbyes. I think she wants us to do it. I think Daddy would prefer that too. That way, he really does go as a warrior.”
“That is so important to him?”
“Wouldn’t it be important to you, love?” A beat. “Randi, my father was a Sabre, just like you. Well, not just like you because there has never been anyone else even close to being who you are, but he is just like the other Sabres I have met. Despite his handicaps, he was bred a Sabre. I think he’d want to be remembered as one.
Randi nodded. “Then let me do it, love. He isn’t the first, and I doubt he will be the last, and I will honor the sacrifice he made as a warrior’s gift.”
So saying, she reached up and flipped off the machines that were keeping his body alive. Then together they watched as the monitors flat lined one by one until the room was left in silence, the wail having been silenced before it could even begin to sound an alarm.
“Goodbye, Geoff. Thank you.”
“Goodbye, Daddy. I love you.”
Jill kept her eyes closed but the tears slid down her face as she whispered her last private goodbye to the man she had spent the better part of her life loving and living with. Then she prayed for sleep to come, just to get a respite from the loneliness she already felt in her heart.
When Randi opened the door, the guards snapped to attention, then they bowed as she and Gwen exited their suite with joined hands and headed for the huge office area she had commandeered that also served as her conference room. They had tucked Jill in and decided to call everyone else together to let them know what was going on. Their friends deserved that much, and in honesty, Randi and Gwen felt they deserved more. But for now, disclosure would have to be enough.
Yuri, who had assumed the job of her personal assistant, snapped to attention as Randi and Gwen crossed the threshold. He bit his lip to keep from smiling over the obvious change between them. Though is had only been spoken of in hushed tones, he was aware, as were all who were in the household, of the fractured tension that had been between them – a tension that had obviously been dissolved by whatever had taken place in all the excitement two nights previously.
Yuri bowed his head. “Empress... Consort....”
“NO.” Gwen had frozen at the title, and Randi’s word cut through the stillness. “No, Yuri. Gwen is many, MANY things, but she is not now nor will she ever be my consort. Make sure everyone is aware of that before the end of the day.”
“Yes, Empress.” He turned to Gwen. “My apologies, Co....” He gave her a beseeching look, unsure how to address her.
“Gwen is fine, Yuri.”
“But her title is that of Queen.”
“Yes, Empress,” he nodded. “My queen,” with a bow in Gwen’s direction. Gwen rolled her eyes and shook her head, slapping Randi lightly on the belly.
“You’re a troublemaker.”
Randi grinned and wrapped her hands around Gwen. “You’re just now realizing that? You’re getting slow there, beautiful. Besides, as you so aptly pointed out, you are my equal, not my lesser and the world needs to know that. You deserve the respect the title garners you.”
“The only title I want to wear is that of your soulmate, wife and lover. Everything else is just so much window dressing.”
Randi smirked. “I suppose it would be useless to point out that you actually named three so-called titles.”
“No, you weren’t paying attention. Same title, different words.”
Randi was enjoying their banter so much, she opened her mouth to retort when she stopped and thought about what Gwen had said. “Damn, sweetheart, you’re right.” She chuckled and kissed Gwen’s nose. “I love you.”
Gwen smiled. “I know. I love you too.” They stood gazing into one another’s eyes, enjoying the renewed warmth that flowed between them. A throat clearing nearby brought their attention away from one another and back to the room... and Yuri.
“Congratulations, Empress... my queen. It is wonderful to see you so happy together again.”
“Thank you, Yuri. It is wonderful to be so happy again.” She and Gwen crossed the foyer area arm in arm, stopping only when they reached the door to her office. “Yuri, please call my staff together. We have a lot to talk about.”
He motioned to the door, but before he could answer she opened it – then stopped dead when she saw her staff sitting around the large conference table set to one side of the room with coffee cups and Danishes, waiting patiently for her arrival. When they saw that she and Gwen were together, and how together they were, bright smiles broke out across the room and they cheered.
“Nevermind, Yuri,” Randi threw over her shoulder before she and Gwen entered the room and shut the door behind them. It didn’t keep the sound of cheering from resonating across the room, nor did it stop the smile on Yuri’s face from growing into a grin. He scurried to his desk and began to prepare the ‘consort’ memo; he was fairly certain no one wanted to be on the receiving end of Randi’s ire if that slip was made again.
The door closing brought utter stillness to the entire group. Reed had reached out to Tiny and Rosie before the door even opened, and the only movement was her hands clenching theirs. Randi slid Gwen around in front of her and wrapped her arms around Gwen’s body, relishing the connection, especially when Gwen linked their hands together as naturally as breathing.
They stood regarding their friends... friends who had risked everything to make sure things worked out for her and Gwen. Friends who continued to be there, even knowing things would never be easy where Randi and Gwen were concerned, just because that’s the way things were with them.
“I’m sorry about what happened to Geoff, Gwen,” Tiny said, breaking the silent tableau. “We all are. If there had been anything else we could have done....”
“I know, Tiny and I appreciate it. He died as a warrior and that meant everything to him.”
“There aren’t words... there’s nothing we can say that could convey....” Randi bit her lip and stopped speaking. Gwen squeezed the hands she held.
“Thank you all. What you did for us is beyond price.”
At Gwen’s words, Reed rose slowly and the rest followed suit, never losing contact with her or each other. She more than any of them had suffered with Randi and Gwen – first by their joining, then through their rending and now through a bonding so complete, even Sky and Rosie could sense their union with little effort. Gently she eased her hands from Tiny’s and Rosie’s, sensing their reluctance and hoping she had guessed right.
Reed looked at each of them and nodded slightly. They released her, though Tiny followed right behind her as she walked from the table to stand two steps from where Randi and Gwen remained near the door. For a long moment, they simply looked at one another, then Reed reached out a hand towards them. Gwen hesitated, knowing the pain their bond had always caused the seer before and unwilling to hurt her again.
“Please?” Reed asked, her eyes glowing silver with the power that was flowing between them. Slowly, Gwen extended her hand and waited for Reed to grasp it. Randi and the rest watched and waited, fascinated by the drama playing out.
Reed took a step forward and clasped Gwen’s hand firmly. Then she smiled broadly and raised her eyebrows in question, extending her arms. Gwen tapped lightly on the hands around her middle and Randi freed her hold on Gwen. Gwen stepped into Reed’s embrace, hugging the seer with all her might. Eventually, they pulled away from one another and Gwen cupped Reed’s face in her hands and placed a kiss on either cheek. “Thank you, Reed,” she whispered. “What you did....”
“What I did, I did out of love and genuine friendship. The fact that it was for the greater good was a really nice benefit, but I would do it again for you both alone in a heartbeat. You changed the world, Gwen, and I’m proud to have been a part of that.”
“Waitaminute. What the hell is going on here?? Reed, what happened?” Tiny was ultimately the one who dared to voice the question, having been stunned out of his silence at her words. “Did we finally channel enough strength to you to make your barrier against them impregnable?”
Reed shook her head, letting go of Gwen’s hand and capturing both of Tiny’s instead. “No. This is all them. Somehow, the barrier they have enacted against Ares is also serving to protect me. It is channeling their aura into something I can manage. It’s incredible.”
“Wait...” Randi broke in. “We’re doing this? How?”
“Yes. When you healed your relationship during the spirit walk, you were able to strengthen the bond between you to the extent that you are able to keep Ares out. When you get ready to confront him, you will have to invite him in. He can’t reach you otherwise.”
“But Reed, she hasn’t had the antidote yet.”
“She doesn’t need it, Gwen. The millennia’s worth of good karma you have built up together has finally synched up in this lifetime to protect you both.”
“Okay, not that I’m not glad to hear it on several levels, and we’ll certainly have to discuss this in greater detail later, but what does that have to do with you now? Because you’re not feeling any pain here are you?” This from Randi.
“No. The barrier that is keeping Ares out is also keeping the strength of your connection in... just between the two of you. So while I can see how bright your auras are and I can sense how strong your bond is, all the feelings associated with it are completely yours.”
“That’s amazing,” Gwen said. “I’m so glad, Reed.”
Whatever she might have answered was lost when Randi stepped forward and took Reed in her arms for a timeless moment, simply rocking them back and forth. No words were spoken, but none were needed; the embrace itself spoke volumes. When they separated, Randi smiled at Reed and spoke simply. “Thank you, Reed.”
The softly spoken words were the impetus the rest needed move forward and claim hugs of their own, and Randi and Gwen were happy to comply. For a while, the only sounds in the room were the whisper of cloth, the occasional sniffle of tears and the quiet murmur of voices exchanging condolences and gratitude. Eventually, the group made its way back to the table, and everyone resumed their seats. Despite their happiness over the turn of events, there was still work to do, and the sooner they got down to business, the sooner they could be done and go home. And that was something they were all looking forward to.
“All right,” Randi said as she took her seat, then noticed Gwen was still standing. “Shit!” she muttered with chagrin, to some serious tittering from her staff. Randi popped back up immediately and crossed to her desk, pushing her chair from behind it and over to the table. It made quite the statement since she could have easily asked them to move, or taken one of the two empty chairs already at the table.
Even more significant than the use of her personal chair – one she’d had custom made for herself here – was the fact that she put it beside the other chair at the head of the table. Gwen started to slip into the original chair, only to be stopped by Randi’s hand on her arm. Gwen looked at Randi with a question in her eyes.
For answer, Randi held the chair she’d pulled from behind her desk and waited for Gwen to take a seat. Then she pushed it up to the table next to the chair she’d been seated in and resumed her seat there. Everyone at the table, including Gwen, was aware of the significance of her actions. Randi reached over and took Gwen’s hand in hers.
“All right,” Randi said again. “Now that we’re *all* seated,” with a grin at Gwen. “I want some ideas on what we can do to solidify the peace. Gwen and I are ready to go home, but I made a promise two nights ago and we want to do the best we can – BUT – we are not going to do this for very long. We have other things we want to be doing. Ruling the world was never in my plans.”
“Gods be damned!!! *I’ll* be damned!!” Ares screamed at the top of his lungs. He was storming around in a favored temple, periodically destroying things and causing his priests to go scurrying for cover. He stomped back and forth as he ranted and raved and the priests had long since learned to stay out of his way.
Ares strode back over to the alcove that held his scrying bowl, the one area of the temple that remained unscathed. He stopped in front of it, willing there to be more there than just water and cursing virulently when it remained dark.
“You can’t keep me out, Randi. I’m going to find a way to get to you, and when I do, YOU *WILL* BE MINE!!!”
The priests wisely found somewhere else to be, leaving the war god to his madness.
Randi had not released Gwen’s hand the entire time they had been sitting, and their thumbs gently caressed the soft, inner skin over one another’s pulse points. Now she looked around the room, meeting everyone’s eyes individually. “These are good ideas... good suggestions, guys. Thanks. I think there is a way we can make these ideas work, but it’s gonna take a little time to work everything out.”
“At least we have time now,” Sky commented. “I have sent the People back to the village as it appears we no longer need them here to provide a barrier for anyone.”
“How long will this new barrier last?”
Rosie and Reed exchanged glances, then shrugged simultaneously. “We don’t know, Cam. This is a totally new area for us. The barrier is protecting Reed from Randi and Gwen’s energy, but it’s also keeping her from being able to scan more than just the exterior – she can’t get in. So we’re pretty much stuck with guessing at this point.”
“So what’s the guess?” Brenda asked. She, Cam and Jess had been part of the barrier effort that protected Gwen and Randi in the palace and she finally had an inkling of what Reed had endured as a seer. Though she had always considered Reed a friend, she’d never pretended to understand her gift. Now she had a sympathy that went beyond friendship. She hoped the guess was in Reed’s favor.
“Well, since Randi and Gwen pushed everyone, friend and foe, out of their space when their auras merged and became one, the assumption is that they have some sort of control. At least they appear to have the ability to protect themselves until the time comes to confront Ares.”
“When will that be?” Tiny asked, looking at Randi. “Do you know?”
“If we do it on our timetable? It will be our final objective – the last thing we do before we go home.”
“You have a plan then?”
Gwen nodded and answered this time. “Yes, we do... for Ares at least.” Her eyes grew hard and everyone sat back in their chairs in surprise. Her fury was a surprise even while it was not completely unexpected. They’d not thought to see it among them, at any rate. “However,” she continued, softening her expression at their reaction, “if he is able to force the issue sooner, we will deal with him. This fight will be on *our* terms.”
Silence reigned for a few moments as everyone considered the implications of Gwen’s words. Finally, Randi cleared her throat to speak again.
“Tiny, please let the staff know that today is a day of mourning for Gwen and I. We will be having a pyre for Geoff tonight if any of you would like to attend the service.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
“No, thank you, Reed,” Gwen answered. “Lacey is preparing – him; Randi took care of the arrangements this morning.”
“Actually,” Randi broke in, “if someone could make sure that Tommy and Ella are taken to their room when they turn up and could notify me of their arrival, I would appreciate it.” She was more than a little curious as to why they hadn’t already been here, but it was one of the many things she and Gwen hadn’t had time to talk about yet.
“We’ll do that,” Reed assured Randi, taking Tiny’s hand.
“I’d like to go sit with Jill a while if that’s all right?” Rosie looked between Randi and Gwen. Randi turned to Gwen, leaving it up to her. Gwen stared into Rosie’s eyes for a long moment, seeing an unexpected sympathy and understanding glowing in the back of Rosie’s eyes. She nodded mutely, and Rosie covered Gwen’s hand with her own in silent comfort.
After a moment, Gwen cleared her throat. “Thanks again, ya’ll. We would never have defeated the rebellion and achieved the peace we have without each and every one of you. And Randi and I certainly wouldn’t be here now without all your support. There is nothing we could say or do that could ever express our gratitude for your friendship and your devotion to us, but I promise you all we’ll try.”
“Gwen, the fact that ya’ll are together again and Randi is back to normal is thanks enough,” Tiny said, then gave an evil smile, “though normal for her is....” He cleared his throat when he caught Randi’s glare in his direction and turned his attention back to Gwen. “But I don’t think anyone would object to a good party and some good music,” with a wicked glance in Randi’s direction, “when things settle down a little bit.”
Randi growled and Gwen chuckled. “I think we can manage that, Tiny.”
“Good. Now if you’ll excuse us, I think we all have things we need to do.” They rose as one and started towards the door, then Tiny turned back to Gwen and Randi who were still sitting together at the head of the table. “What time tonight?” asked quietly.
“Sunset,” Gwen replied. “In the garden.”
“We’ll be there. C’mon, you lot,” Tiny said, capturing Reed’s hand in his and ushering the rest out the door ahead of them. He looked at Jess who was lagging behind; she gave him the slightest shake of her head and he and Reed left her with Randi and Gwen, closing the door soundly behind them.
Jess looked up at Randi and Gwen, and cleared her throat to speak. “I’m sorry about your father, Queen Gwen, but I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Jess? I know we’ve only just met, but you can call me Gwen. What you’ve done....”
Jess shook her head violently. “No, I can’t. As a card-carrying Amazon, you are my queen. As the wife of the Empress, you are still my queen. I just wanted to ask your forgiveness.”
Gwen frowned and looked at Randi in consternation squeezing the hand she still held. Randi shrugged. She was as lost as Gwen. They turned back to Jess.
“For what, Jess? We’ve only just met.”
“Because it’s my fault you were put into danger... my fault Lenore died. It was my responsibility to let Reed know when the attack was going to take place, and I wasn’t able to. There was no time, my queen... honestly. I tried when we arrived in the village, but because of the way the circumstances played out, the attack happened before I was able to reach Reed.”
Jess bowed her head. “I’m sorry, my queen. I have no excuse, but I am asking you to forgive me.”
Gwen stood up and released Randi’s hand. Then she walked the table length to where Jess still sat with her hands clasped together and her head bowed. Jess didn’t look up when Gwen took the chair beside her.
“Jess? Jess, I don’t blame you for what happened and neither would Lenore. Everything happens for a reason, and Lenore would be the first to tell you that. If you need me to forgive you, I will, but you did your duty, Jess. There is nothing to forgive you for.”
Jess smiled and looked at Gwen. “Thank you, my queen. Empress,” she said, standing and bowing her head briefly towards them before she too made her exit from the room. Gwen and Randi looked at one another in silence, and Gwen stood and waited for Randi to join her. When Randi reached her, they took one another’s hands again and headed back to their suite.
Lacey was waiting for them when they arrived and the guards didn’t have time to bow before she had opened the door and was ushering them inside. Geoff and Jill had both been removed as had Lacey’s equipment. Randi wondered what the emergency was and then realized Lacey was simply trying to give them a private update so she could continue with the preparation of Geoff’s body. As a Sabre, he was entitled to certain honors and Lacey had insisted on her right to accord him her very best effort.
Gwen, however, didn’t understand the nuances of protocol Lacey was working under, and was visibly concerned by her behavior. She looked around frantically, trying to figure out why Lacey was so anxious... until Randi took her hands and waited for Gwen’s attention to focus on her.
“It’s all right, love. She is simply trying to give us an update so she can get back to Geoff. Sabres do things a little differently when it comes to burying one of their own. Lacey’s on a deadline.”
“Of course Sabres do things a little differently when it comes to burying one of their own,” Gwen agreed wryly. “Sabres do *everything* a little differently... not that I’m complaining on any level right now,” she added with a mischievous smile in Randi’s direction. Lacey just shook her head. Despite the lack of time, the two of them were simply too precious together again, and she wasn’t about to discourage or interfere with them. They had all fought too hard to get them back to this point.
Gwen turned to Lacey with a look of chagrin. “Sorry, Lacey. It’s just....”
“No need to explain, Gwen. It’s wonderful to see. BUT... I had Jill moved back to her room and gave her a sedative to help her rest. She has physically healed from the damage Ares did to her, but she will be recovering from the after effects for another few days. She’s a tough old broad – her words,” Lacey chuckled, “but she’s got some seriously hard days ahead of her. Otherwise, there’s not much else I can do for her until and unless she asks for help.”
Gwen reached for Lacey’s hands, feeling Randi slide around behind her to support her. “Thank you, Lacey. Thank you for taking such good care of my parents. Is there anything I can do?”
“Not with the preparations, no. As for your mother,” Lacey shrugged. “Take your clues from her. She’ll let you know what she needs from you... and when. Now, if you’ll excuse me... I still have a few things to do before sunset. Do you have the service prepared?”
“Yeah, I think so. And what I’m not sure about, Randi has covered. Thanks, Lace.”
Lacey squeezed the hands she held before releasing them. “I’d rather not have to, but I’m glad to be able to do it.” She turned to Randi. “The workmen are waiting for your authorization before starting their work. See you both at sunset.”
Then she disappeared out the door.
Gwen turned in Randi’s arms and put her head down just over Randi’s heartbeat. She felt the strong arms tighten around her. She tipped her head back to look into Randi’s eyes without losing the sound of rhythmic thudding. Randi reached a hand up and tenderly caressed Gwen’s cheek, wondering where the suddenly lost look had come from.
Gwen shook her head and buried her face in Randi’s chest, greedily absorbing the scent that surrounded her. “I have missed being here in your arms... so much. This has always been the safest place in the world for me and I am so very glad to be back here... in my place. Yet, I feel guilty about being here.” She didn’t move out of Randi’s embrace though, and Randi realized Gwen was looking for reassurance.
She scooped Gwen into her arms and moved out of the bedroom and into the living area of their suite. Randi dropped onto the couch there and stretched out, smiling when Gwen automatically shifted until she was curled up in her favorite position half on Randi’s body with her ear centered over Randi’s heart. Randi ran her hands up and down Gwen’s back and arms, feeling Gwen’s body relax more fully into her own.
“Um hmm,” patting Randi’s chest.
“I can’t help but, being here,” she said softly. “But....”
Randi’s fingers covered her lips. “Gwen, don’t you think Geoff would want you to be happy... to know that you were back where you belonged... that his sacrifice was worth the cost? Your dad knew what he was doing, love, and he did it willingly – for you and for us. If I can’t dishonor him by taking responsibility for his decision, then you can’t dishonor him by feeling guilt because of it.”
It was silent for a while as Gwen considered Randi’s words, then Randi felt Gwen smile against her. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?” feeling the surface beneath her face shake with silent laughter. “Keep reminding me of that, will ya?”
“Of my brilliance? Absolutely... oof!” sitting up slightly to glare down at twinkling green eyes. Randi kept up her glare though she couldn’t keep the mischievous sparkle out of her eyes.
“You’re such a goof. God, I’ve missed that, too,” squeezing Randi around the middle.
“Me too,” returning the hug. “And I’ll keep reminding you if you keep reminding me.”
“For as long as it takes,” Gwen said with a smile and tilted her head up for a kiss. It was a leisurely exploration that was as much a reaffirmation as it was about love and passion. Slowly they pulled back from one another, relishing the renewed warmth and connection between them. Gwen smiled and watched its answer form on Randi lips. “You’re really good at that, you know?”
“Umm... yeah. I’ve got this amazing practice partner. She rocks.”
Gwen grinned, and tangled her hands in Randi’s hair and brought their lips together again. This kiss was a little more intense and would have lasted longer if a knock on the door hadn’t separated them. Gwen’s brow furrowed and Randi smoothed out the lines, even as she called out.
The workman didn’t blink twice at the position he found the Empress and her Consort... no, her Queen in, remembering the instructions he’d gotten from Yuri. He figured it wasn’t his business anyway, and besides, if they were happy together, it had to bode well for the rest of the world, right? So he bowed his head and waited respectfully for Randi’s instructions.
Randi and Gwen exchanged confused glances. Finally Gwen shrugged and spoke. “Um, can we help you... with something?”
“I await your orders, my Queen.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Now the man looked up. “I’m sorry. I was told I needed authorization to begin the rework here. Was I mistaken? Should I...?”
“Oh, God... sorry.” Randi struggled to sit up and Gwen shifted so they could sit up together. Gwen slid up to the sofa arm and leaned into Randi, wrapping her arm around Randi’s shoulders. Randi leaned into Gwen and motioned for the man to take a seat. “You’re Jake, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. I just need your go ahead, and we’ll get started.”
“Did Yuri give you your instructions?” Jake nodded. “Then please... go with my blessing. But Jake, you need to be done an hour before sunset, so....”
He nodded and nearly ran out of the room. Randi and Gwen exchanged glances.
“So what’s he gonna do?”
“Change a few things, but that’s not important now. However, I am curious to know why Tommy and Ella weren’t here.” Randi bit her lip. “Is Tommy still angry at me?”
“Oh, baby... Tommy was never angry at you. He didn’t understand the violence or your joy in it, but he was never, ever angry at you, love. He wasn’t here because I asked him to stay away.” Gwen blew out a breath. “I didn’t know what we were going to get into, and I didn’t want anything to happen to them... especially Randall. I wasn’t going to give you that kind of guilt.”
Randi reached up and cupped Gwen’s cheek. “Always looking out for me, huh?”
Gwen covered Randi’s hand with her own. “Always. Somebody’s gotta watch your back.”
“Glad I’ve got the best,” Randi confirmed with a smile and then cleared her throat. “Can I interest you in a picnic? There’s um... there’s a small wooded area beyond the garden. It’s nothing like home... nothing like our glade. But it is cool and shaded and right on the river.”
“What about Tommy and Ella?”
“Reed will see to getting them settled and will advise me when they arrive. But I think we need a little time apart to process what’s happened and to prepare for tonight. We can be strong for the family tonight and for the world tomorrow, but for right now, I would really like to be alone with you.”
Gwen nodded, then a knock on the door made her groan softly and drop her head onto Randi’s. “I thought we were supposed to have the day off,” she muttered. Randi squeezed her knee and called out for the second time, “Come in.”
Jill stood in the doorway as it slid open, and Randi and Gwen stood to meet her. “Mama? I thought you were resting.”
She looked a little dazed and Randi wondered how and why she’d forced herself to function through the sedatives Lacey had given her. She moved to Jill’s side immediately and put and arm around her waist.
“C’mon, mom,” she said gently. “Let us tuck you back into bed. You look wiped and you want to be rested before the service tonight.” Randi began to lead Jill back toward her suite of rooms with Gwen sliding in on her other side. “That’s it,” Randi soothed. “You and Geoff took good care of me and Gwen. Let us take care of you now.”
The mention of Geoff’s name made Jill stop walking. “Geoff? Geoff is why I was coming to see you. He left you a holo-chip.” She smiled sadly and allowed Randi and Gwen to continue their escort to her set of rooms. “He said he made it just in case, but I think he knew he was going to die. I think he hoped he would.”
Randi and Gwen exchanged horrified glances. Randi wondered how much of Jill’s speech was truth, and how much was based on drug-induced delusion, though she knew that even the delusion had to have some foundation in truth. But before they could comment, Jill slumped and only Randi’s swift reaction kept her from hitting the floor.
The door slid open at Gwen’s behest and Randi crossed through the small living area into the bedroom. They wondered briefly where Rosie was, then Gwen straightened the cover on the bed, and Randi gently placed Jill back in the bed. Carbon merely lifted his head and whined at them, then he gently nuzzled Jill’s neck and face before curling up at her knees. Gwen covered Jill’s body then they stood together by her bedside for a long moment. Then Randi took Gwen’s hand in her own and together they walked back into the living room.
“Maybe we should postpone our picnic,” Randi suggested.
“How about if we just move the location? Instead of the river, what if we just sit in the garden? I’d like to get outside alone with you for a while, but I don’t want to go too far away from Mama.”
Randi smiled. “I like that compromise. Would you like to go to the kitchens and put it together ourselves or would you prefer to call down and have something prepared?”
Gwen gave Randi a look. “Sweetheart, if I have my way, we’re going to get rid of the staff and do for ourselves like we do at home. I don’t plan for either of us to be here long enough to get accustomed to being waited on like we rule the world or something.”
Randi snickered. “Well, my queen, tomorrow you can make any and all changes you think we need to make here. And we’ll start making plans to get out of here as quickly as we can. But for now....” She tugged on the hand she still held. “C’mon. Let’s see if we can find the kitchen in the damn place and go outside for a while.”
“God, I am so tired,” Reed said as they left the conference room. “I’d like to take a vacation now, please and thank you very much.”
Tiny chuckled and wrapped his arms tightly around her. “Soon, baby. I promise. How about some of Rosie’s barbeque for now? I understand she was heading down to the kitchens to run everyone out and take over. She told me last night she was over this plastic food they kept trying to feed her.”
Reed laughed. “Oh, she would have loved eating Sabre rations.” Then she laughed harder at Tiny’s exaggerated grimace. “C’mon, big boy. You and I have a hot date with some really good barbeque. Maybe then I’ll feel like going back to work.”
“Nah... when Randi declared today a day of mourning, I made it across the board. Except for essential personnel, everyone has the day off. We can pick up the work tomorrow; it’s not gonna go anywhere... unfortunately. At least not for a while. One day off, more or less, isn’t going to make much difference for us in the long run.”
“I’m sorry for the reason behind it, but I love you.”
Tiny smiled. “I love you too. Now c’mon,
woman... I’m starving and I can hear your stomach growling from here.”
They started down to the kitchen, already able to smell the difference with Rosie in the kitchen. Then Reed’s Sabre alert went off and she dropped her head on Tiny’s chest. “Augh! What happened to my day off??” Then she read the message. “Oh... never mind. I like this kind of news. C’mon.” She turned and headed in the opposite direction.
“Honey? Hooooneeey??” Tiny wailed as he scurried to catch up to Reed. “Reed... what about lunch?”
“I imagine Tommy and Ella might like some lunch as well.”
Tiny’s response was cut off by the vibration of his own alert bracelet. He looked down and grimaced.
“Someone asking for permission to enter the perimeter. Someone who isn’t on the clearance list.” He blew out an exasperated breath. “Go meet Tommy and Ella. I’ll try to meet ya’ll in the kitchen in a few minutes. Hopefully this won’t take too long.”
“Who is it, baby? Why do they want to come in?”
“Um....” He looked at the information scrolling across his wrist pad. “Something about an honor guard for Gwen. The request is coming from someone called Lorac.”
“Let them in, Tiny. Lorac is the Amazon weapon’s master who was teaching Gwen when we were in the village and she is the temporary regent until Gwen gets back to the Nation.”
“Temporary? Does she think Gwen is going to return to the Nation to stay?”
“No. They know she isn’t. She told them so up front when she accepted the position of queen. But they are in the process of setting up a new form of government, though I got the distinct impression that they would be perfectly content to remain with a monarchy style if it could be managed... and if they could get Gwen to settle down with them.”
Tiny took a deep breath to speak. The thought that the Amazons would even think about trying something like that, after all it had taken to get the two of them back together, made him madder than a wet hen... especially knowing what the cost would have been, not only to Randi and Gwen had they failed, but to the rest of the world. Reed’s hand on his arm caused him to pause.
“They do understand, Tiny... they really do. It’s just a vain hope, and they know that. Doesn’t keeping them from hoping, though. The rest of the world is doing the same thing about Randi remaining Empress, honey, and the truth is, if I thought she’d do it, I’d be wishing for the same thing. She has a way of making things happen... good things.”
Tiny nodded. “I know. I’d already had the same thought. But you know she’d never go for it. She never wanted that kind of power.”
“I know – it’s one of the things that makes her so perfect for the job. Doesn’t hurt that she’s already managed to defeat Ares once of her own free will either. Her sense of duty and responsibility will keep them both here for a little while, but if they are here for their first anniversary, I’ll be amazed.”
Tiny chuckled and took Reed’s arm, heading them both towards the secured landing area. “Six more months?!? Honey, I never realized that you were such an optimist. If they are here until the equinox, it will be a miracle. In fact, if they are involved in any part of anything other than themselves by that point, I’ll be shocked.”
“Three months? You think they will be out of here in three months?”
“No, baby. I think they will be out of *everything* but each other in three months. I’ll be surprised if they last here in the palace – here in the capital as Empress and Queen for more than a month.”
Reed blinked at him in astonishment, and Tiny just shook his head at her.
“Reed, why are you surprised at this? You’ve been around both of them to know that are completely absorbed in one another.”
“But they haven’t been, Tiny. I know they were; I guess I just need to readjust my thinking. I’ve been so focused on how they have been and trying to get them back to what they are supposed to be that I’ve sorta forgotten what that means to them and for us.”
“Yeah, you’ve had it more than a little rough lately, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but it was worth it, Tiny. What it would have been like had we failed....” Reed shivered in reflex.
“So what do you see when you look at them now?”
“I can see their bond as a strong, solid wall, but I can’t sense any more than their own feeling of satisfaction and well-being. I can’t get past the barrier they have protecting themselves, and their bond can’t seem to get past it either. I have to tell you, it’s nice to be able to be around them without my senses screaming. I can actually enjoying being friends with them instead of simply enduring it.”
At that, Tiny opened the door that led to the shuttle pad and he and Reed split up to meet the waiting occupants of the two newly arrived shuttles. Reed waved at the waiting Amazons and kept going to greet her arrivals as Randi had asked.
“Tommy! Ella!” Reed said opening her arms for a hug.
“Weed!!” The three adults exchanged glances and burst into laughter at the unexpected address. Finally, Reed cleared her throat and knelt down to Randall’s level.
“Hi, Randall. Aren’t you just a cutie?”
“Yes,” Randall replied matter-of-factly. “Go to Wuv now?”
“Well, I don’t know, Randall. Randi and Gwen were busy earlier,” easily deducing who he meant, “but I do know that Rosie is in the kitchen and she’s cooking up some barbeque and fried apple pies.”
“Nummmm,” Randall commented.
“Nummmm,” Tommy echoed.
Ella and Reed just laughed. “C’mon,” Reed gestured with her head. “Randi asked that I get ya’ll settled in, and Tiny and I really were on our way to lunch with Rosie when I got the alert that ya’ll were here. I know she’ll be almost as glad to see you as Randi and Gwen will be.”
“Reed, how are they? And how is Jill?” Tommy insisted on carrying their luggage and motioned Reed to lead the way. Ella took Randall’s hand and together they walked beside Reed into the palace.
“Jill is... Jill is still in shock, actually. She’s been pretty calm about it; Lacey thinks the truth just hasn’t sunk in. But her reactions seem to me that she almost expected it to happen. They knew going into that room that there were no guarantees, but....”
Reed shrugged. “I dunno. It’s just a feeling, but I really believe she and Geoff were both prepared for this eventuality. I think they expected... something... to happen, and I honestly believe Geoff hoped that if anything did happen, it would happen to him. His one desire, barring a total regaining of his mobility, was to die a warrior. That’s part of what caused him to cover them like he did – it was an instinctive reaction we all had. He just had stronger motivation than the rest of us... that of both a father and a warrior. So he died the warrior he wanted to be, protecting his daughter and Randi in the process, insuring their recovery. So I think Jill is just adjusting to the fact that he’s gone.”
Dumbfounded silence. “Poor Jill. Even knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier.”
“I know, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Painful as it is, I think Jill will have an easier time of it because she and Geoff talked about possibilities and about his desire to be a warrior again.”
“I hope so. She’s been through so much the past couple years.” A beat. “How are Randi and Gwen doing?”
“Randi and Gwen are phenomenal.”
“So everything is all right with them now?”
“Everything is better than all right. They have... it’s hard to explain, but it’s like their soul has merged. They have literally become a single soul... a single being.”
A sound made Reed stop walking and she turned to back to see Tommy standing still with the suitcases piled up around him and a look of shock written clearly across his face. Ella dropped Randall’s hand, rushed to Tommy’s side and took his face in her hands. “Tommy, sweetheart? What’s wrong, baby?”
His jaw worked fruitlessly a few times and he stared into space. It took him a moment to bring his mind back to the present, and he blinked as Ella came into focus. By that time, Reed and Randall had walked back to where Tommy still stood gobsmacked.
“Tommy?” Reed said softly, taking his chin in her fingertips and turning his face towards her. “Tommy, what’s wrong? What did I say?”
“Reed, do you know the Legend of the Soulmates? Not the stories that Gwen tells but the actual legend about them?”
Reed shook her head. “I guess not. I only know anything about them because of the stories I’ve heard... the stories Gwen has shared.”
Tommy nodded. “That makes sense, I guess. Gwen has revealed a lot about the soulmates through her stories, but she hasn’t really shared the truth about who and what they are.” Tommy drew a breath and picked up the luggage, deciding to try a different tack. “C’mon, take us to our room and I’ll see if I can make sense of this for you.”
They walked in silence for a little while, except for Randall’s chattering. Finally, they reached the rooms Randi had chosen for them, and Reed led them inside. Tommy set the cases down and immediately Ella took Randall to the bedroom to unpack. Tommy gestured for Reed to take a seat and sat at an angle to her.
“Reed, what do you see when you look at Randi and Gwen? What does your seer’s sense tell you?”
“Now? Very little. Their merging has given them a barrier that keeps everything except the most basic, topical scan out.”
“Before – aside from being physically painful for me – they were more... blended, I guess you call them. One and yet still separate and apart from each other. Despite their bond, I could still sense both parts of their shared soul.”
“And you don’t sense that now?”
“No. The little I am able to see shows me one – one heart... one soul. Is that important?”
Tommy shrugged. “Depends on how much stock you put into the legend, I guess.”
“Well, you obviously believe in its importance, Tommy. Why don’t you share it with me and we can go from there?”
Tommy studied Reed for a long moment. He could easily see the exhaustion in her eyes and the remnants of lingering pain. Despite the unwritten rule about keeping this story in the family, she deserved to know. They all did – all those who had risked so much to insure the prophecy was fulfilled. He nodded his agreement.
“All right,” he said, settling himself more comfortably. “But you have to understand that this legend has been passed down through both families for untold generations. It was the only story the warrior side helped preserve. It was that important. And though it isn’t forbidden, it has rarely been shared outside the extended family; you’ll understand why when you hear the story.”
Reed sat back and waited for Tommy to tell his tale.
“Hi, Lorac?” Tiny said hesitantly, extending his hand in greeting. “I’m Tiny, the Empress’ second. I understand you and your warriors are here to offer an honor guard to the queen?”
“Yes. May we see the queen?”
Tiny shook his head. “Not today; she and the Empress are taking the day to mourn and make preparations for the service tonight. I’m sure she will be glad to meet with you tomorrow.” Lorac nodded. It was much as she had expected, especially since Gwen hadn’t contacted them herself about Geoff’s death.
“How is the queen doing, I mean, with her father’s untimely death? I got the feeling from the report that we received that it was an unexpected occurrence.”
“May I ask how you found out? Not that it is wrong that you were notified, but if Gwen didn’t contact you, who is sending you reports about her?” Tiny saw her hesitation and continued. “Please, Lorac – Gwen and Randi’s safety is my top priority and if we have a leak I need to know about it.”
“It’s not a leak, per se, Tiny. We couldn’t in good conscience allow our queen to go off without an escort, and yet Queen Gwen wouldn’t allow us to send anyone with her. So, Jess agreed to act as our eyes and ears here, so the Nation could keep an eye on our queen.”
Tiny nodded. “I can understand that, I suppose. Perhaps, though, you and I could sit down and work out a better agreement between us. Because if the Empress found out information was going out without her knowledge....”
Lorac chewed her lip and then nodded her agreement. “I believe we can come to an understanding.” She offered Tiny her hand again. “I think we will make formidable allies.” They shook and then Lorac introduced him to the Amazon traveling with her.
“Let me get you settled and then we can go get some lunch. Rosie is cooking up barbeque and I, for one, am starving.”
The four Amazons grinned at each other and followed him into the palace.
“I apologize for the accommodations. Ya’ll were unexpected arrivals, and we are pretty full. So I’ve had to put you into two rooms. They are across the hall from each other, but it was the best I could do on short notice.”
“So, how did you get elected to meet us and take care of all this?” Lorac asked as Tiny led them down the short hallway. “Not that we don’t appreciate it, because we do, but....”
“But you already knew Reed and Jess and I’m not a woman, right?”
Lorac shrugged sheepishly. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Well, Reed and Jess were both given other assignments this morning, and that didn’t change because you all arrived. Besides, I really am Randi’s second and protocol demanded that I clear your arrival.”
Lorac smiled. “I’m glad you did. It’s always good to find allies and make new friends. And we appreciate the consideration. I know you didn’t have to let us land or give us a place here, despite who we represent.” She paused. “Why did you?”
“Because we’re all on the same side, and I think your being here will be good for Gwen.”
“How is she? You never did say.”
Tiny shrugged. “Randi is taking care of her,” as if that said it all. And as far as the Amazons and Tiny were concerned, apparently it did.
Though neither Randi nor Gwen had ever been to the kitchen in their short tenure in this place, the emptiness and almost complete silence in the kitchen was unnerving. Surely there were supposed to be people in this area at all time preparing food for the significant number of people who lived and worked in the palace. And yet there was only the shuffle of one pair of feet and one lone voice singing quietly when they pushed open to door.
Randi and Gwen exchanged glances, stopping in surprise when they realized Rosie was alone in the kitchen, and she was obviously cooking. Gwen closed her eyes and just stood there breathing. Rosie turned around and caught the beatific look on Gwen’s face and the one of absolute adoration on Randi’s as she gazed at Gwen.
“Ahem.” Her slight throat clearing caused the spell to be broken and Gwen opened her eyes at the same time that Randi turned to look in Rosie’s direction. “What are ya’ll doing in my kitchen?”
Randi’s eyebrows both shot into her hairline and her expression was on of surprised amazement. Rosie met Randi’s look with one of her own and a snort.
“Don’t you even try to give me that look. I have had all the plastic food I can stand. No wonder you look like you haven’t eaten in months – I’d have stopped eating food if all I was getting was rubber chicken and burnt beef. My gracious, if that’s what you military folks consider good grub it’s a wonder there hasn’t been a revolt before now.”
“Um, Rosie, not to put a fine point on things, because we will certainly enjoying eating your barbeque and fried pies again, but I thought you were going to sit with Jill. What made you decide come in here and run everyone else out so you could cook instead?”
“Two things, actually – one, I really am tired of eating <ahem> what the people who were running this place considered edible meals... or at least it seems that way since we moved with Gwen from the village. Even the Amazons of old had it better than this, and I *saw* those recipes.” She shuddered and Randi and Gwen bit their lips to keep from chuckling.
“The second,” Rosie continued, growing more serious, “is because Jill asked me for some barbeque. I figured she wanted to be alone more than anything, but I was happy to do whatever I could to ease her pain.”
Gwen stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Rosie, Squeezing tightly and holding on for a long moment. “Thank you, Rosie. You have done so much for us. We will never, ever be able to repay you.”
Rosie pulled back just enough to cup Gwen’s face in her hands. “There’ll never be any repayment, Gwen. What we did, we did out of love for you two and for the greater good. I’d do it all over again... we all would. Besides, it’s a really good feeling knowing that we did something that made a difference... to you and to the world. So thank you for letting me be a part of that.”
“Now,” Rosie continued, stepping back from Gwen and clapping her hands together before stirring the pot bubbling softly on the stove. “What are ya’ll doing in my kitchen?”
This time Randi did laugh. “Rosie, don’t you ever go changing, all right? We just came in to *your* kitchen to get some things for a picnic. We thought we’d go sit in the garden for a while and just be for a few minutes.”
Rosie nodded soberly, understanding only too well the peace they wanted to find together. “All right, then... let me put something together for ya’ll,” scurrying around the kitchen collecting items. In less than two minutes, Rosie had a nice lunch put together and was pushing them out the door. They looked at her askance.
“Trust me on this, you two. If you wanna get a little time alone together in the garden, you need to get outta here before folks figure out we’re having barbeque for lunch. ‘Cause if they find you two in here....”
Randi and Gwen exchanged glances. “Point taken. We’re outta here. Thanks, Rosie. We’ll be back.”
“Enjoy, you two. I’ll make sure Jill gets something to eat before the service this evening.”
“Thanks, Rosie. You’re the best.”
Then they slipped out the back door and down the hallway that led to the garden. They just missed the contented mob that descended on Rosie’s kitchen.
There really wasn’t any other way to tell this story, so Tommy scrubbed his hands through his hair and blew out a breath, then decided to just start. “First you need a little background to understand what the legend is based on. When the soulmates originally found one another millennia ago, they thought their bond was unbreakable. Not only did they love one another deeply and passionately, but they were best friends who genuinely liked one another. They never thought anything could come between them – never thought anything could break them apart.”
“But they found out that wasn’t true. They found out that lies and circumstances and time could come between them and that there were gods and men who would take advantage of their separation and mistrust. It nearly tore them apart forever.”
Reed nodded. “That’s about what happened to them this time.”
“Yeah it is. Except... when it happened to them originally, they were targeted for destruction very much like this time, only there was a complete lack of trust between them that they had to overcome. And when they came back together, they were able to form an unbreakable bond... something that nothing – not gods, not man, nothing short of death itself – was able to destroy.”
Tommy took another deep breath, not seeing Ella come to the door and lean on the jamb to listen better. This was a story she hadn’t heard before and she really wanted to.
“Unfortunately, they were unexpectedly separated by a gruesome death, and it took them some time after that to return from eternity back into the karmic circle, and it was upon that return that the legend began.”
“So what’s the legend?” Reed asking, having a very good idea what Tommy was going to say.
“The legend stated that when the soulmates returned for their final trip through the circle, they would suffer again as they had before and that their unbreakable bond would return to protect them from the influences that were so eager to rip them apart. That barrier would allow them to succeed over those influences.”
“How do you know it hasn’t happened in *each* of their lifetimes?” Ella asked, turning their attention to her. “I mean, I realize what the prophecy says, but you know as well as I do that there have been lifetimes where those two souls have suffered greatly together. They’re in the stories Gwen allowed us to read.” Ella looked at Reed. “Those are the stories she has never shared publicly.”
Reed nodded. “I understand. Gwen and I got to have some interesting talks while we were in the village and she shared bits about her storytelling. So I know there is a lot that will never see the light of day, and a lot more that gets severely edited before it does.”
“Because never - not once in the stories that have been handed down through Gwen’s line - never once has there ever been a mention of an unbreakable bond or a barrier that could protect them from a god. And given the bard’s line’s propensity for detail, it would have been recorded. Besides, the legend was passed through both warrior and bard lineage. If it had occurred before, both sides would have known.”
Tommy turned back to Reed. “I’ve shared this with you in confidence. I hope you will hold it in trust until I can share it with those of you who stood beside them through this whole mess.” Reed shook her head and Tommy cocked an eyebrow at her. She patted his knee and held up a hand before he could have a conniption.
“Don’t,” Reed said simply. “Don’t share this with folks. Shh,” she cautioned before he could interrupt. “Hush a minute and listen to me all, right? I want you to hear what I am saying to you.” He nodded and Reed took a deep breath to speak again.
“It’s an incredible story, Tommy, and I am inclined to believe it for several reasons I won’t even bother to explain. But if it’s true, and we think that it is, then it’s really not fair to Randi and Gwen for you to be the one to share it. Because you *know* what it means. And honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to those who helped bring them together for it to happen. That knowledge makes the good they feel they have done become a burden instead.”
“How do you figure?” Ella asked, coming to sit down beside Tommy and taking his hand in hers.
“You’ve spent the last few months living on the fringes of the upheaval Gwen and Randi have been living through, yes? You know how bad things have been for them.”
Ella nodded. “I have an idea, yes.”
“Okay, those few of us who have been right near the center of things, especially the last few days – what we did was not only for Randi and Gwen, but also for the greater good. The world would have been destroyed if Randi and Gwen had not survived. Now, imagine how you’d feel if you knew that your act of helping preserve the greater good and incidentally, your friends, had been the catalyst to end their karmic cycle.”
Ella’s face scrunched up in pensive thought. “Ew... I never thought of it that way. That makes it... that is a horrible feeling.”
Reed agreed. “It really is. And even though they could live another fifty years together, that knowledge casts a pall over everything; always in the back of your mind you know that their departure from the circle is imminent. And it’s saddening because you know that there is no chance of seeing them or the bond that they share, ever again.”
Tommy dropped his head in his hand. “God, Reed. I’m so sorry. I didn’t think of it like that. I just thought those of you who had struggled so hard to keep them together should know that... well, now I’m not so sure what I intended at this point. I wonder though....”
“What?” Reed asked, sitting back in her chair and trying to rid herself of the sudden tension that was flowing through her body.
“If they are leaving the karmic circle anyway, why was the outcome of this spirit walk so important? Whether it is a day, a year or fifty years from now, they will still be gone, not to return.”
“That’s true,” Reed said. “But if they hadn’t succeeded, had they not rejoined one another and merged to form that unbreakable connection, Ares would have won. He would have claimed Randi... forever. Gwen and Randi would never have been reunited – not here or in eternity. They would have destroyed everything searching for each other.”
“So you’re saying...?”
“I’m saying that they have come full circle and they have earned their eternal rest together. But I think the decision to share that with folks should be theirs and no one else’s.”
“I agree,” Tommy concurred, “but I don’t know if....”
“I can take the knowledge away from you... from you both... if you’ll trust me.”
Tommy and Ella exchanged a long glance, then turned to Reed and nodded simultaneously. She held out her hands to Ella, palms up, and waited for her to take them. Then Reed closed her eyes and let her mind move in Ella’s. Even as tired as she remained, this wouldn’t take much effort or mental energy – especially compared to her output recently.
It was fairly easy to erase it from Ella’s mind as she had only just found out about it, and when they were done, Ella didn’t even remember Reed’s presence. A call from Randall caused her to excuse herself and move back into the bedroom. Then Reed extended her hands to Tommy.
“No pain?” he asked softly, and Reed had to smile in reassurance.
“No pain. You won’t even know I’m there. It will take me a little longer than it did for Ella though. Your knowledge is old, not recent. Do you remember when you heard the legend?”
“Eighteen. It was passed on to each member as they reached adulthood.”
She nodded her understanding then closed her eyes with him as she moved into his mind. Reed was careful where she went and what she saw, focusing only on finding that one tiny piece of information and removing it as neatly as a surgeon would, leaving nothing behind to mark her presence there. And it was done.
Reed slid her hands out from under Tommy’s and he opened his eyes slowly. Randall’s excited voice preceded his footsteps and he ran into Tommy’s leg. “I’m hungry, Pa.”
Tommy leaned down and pulled Randall into his lap. “You are? You think we should go see Rosie... get some barbeque?” hugging his son to him.
“N’apple pies,” Randall said emphatically, drawing a chuckle from the rest.
Reed opened her eyes slowly and slid to the edge of her chair before standing. Tommy looked at her in concern, noting the strain in her eyes and the tired lines around her mouth.
“Reed? You all right?”
Reed nodded and stood. “Yeah. It’s just been a while since I ate and I’m a little hungry too.” She held out her hand to Randall. “Whaddya say, big guy? Wanna walk to the kitchen with me?”
Randall jumped from Tommy’s lap and grabbed Reed hand, tugging her forward firmly and with purpose. “YES!” Tommy and Ella followed at a much slower pace, silently laughing all the way down the hallway. Some memories were best left alone, but others were simply priceless.
“Wow... something smells *really* good,” Lorac commented as they followed Tiny through the corridors towards the kitchen.
“Yeah, I’m really glad Rosie got tired of plastic food, ‘cause it seems like forever since I had a good home cooked meal.”
“Waitaminute... you mean to tell me the queen has been eating bad food since she came here??”
“Well, let’s just say that what we’ve been having is a step above military rations but well below what most of us are used to. We had more important things to worry about and we let it slide. So don’t be surprised when you see her... she’s lost some weight.”
“How much? Is she in danger?”
“No... no. She’s all right, but it’s noticeable and I didn’t want you to be upset by the change. Although, in all fairness, I don’t think it was the food. I think it was a loss of appetite.”
Lorac nodded. “I noticed some of that at the village, though at least the food was decent enough that she picked at it.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t a real choice here,” he chuckled, “though I did notice we were suddenly going through a lot more fresh fruit.” He pushed open the hinged door and the Amazons looked at him in amazement. “What??” he said with a shrug, motioning them ahead of him.
“This is a very odd house,” Lorac commented as she walked in. “Hello, Rosie. It’s good to see you again.”
Rosie crossed from the stove and she and Lorac embraced briefly. “Come in, Lorac and introduce me. Lunch is nearly ready.” Five stomachs growled in tandem and they all looked at one another and blushed. Rosie just laughed and clapped her hands together. “That is the highest compliment you can give to a cook.” She gestured them around the table and moved back towards the stove just as the door swung open again to admit Reed and Randall, then Tommy and Ella.
“Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here!”
“Not quite,” Tiny said, having been notified of Sky’s imminent arrival. “But we will be soon.” He rose and crossed over to where Reed stood, wrapping an arm around her even as he offered a hand to Tommy, then Ella. Tiny tousled Randall’s hair and guided them all to the table.
The Amazons had risen and Tommy initiated introductions while never losing contact with Reed. She returned his embrace, grateful for the added support he was providing her with. She had never expected the two short mind walks to drain her so badly. Rosie immediately put down the food she had been carrying and took Reed’s hands in hers.
“Reed? Are you all right? You look terribly pale.”
Ella rose and walked to the stove to finish bringing food to the table, glad when the rest followed her example to give Reed and Rosie the moment they obviously needed. She had no way of knowing that the Amazons had seen it all before. So it was easy to make conversation between them when they returned to the table; they were all making an effort.
“So, Lorac, you’re the Amazon regent now, correct?” Tommy asked. “Are you still the weapons’ master as well?”
“Temporarily, I am the regent and I have a group of advisors of whom Nebula is the chief elder among them,” motioning to the older woman who had taken a seat next to Randall. “Cheyenne is our weapons’ master in my stead and Coop is here because you never know when a scout will be needed. Besides, I figured just seeing her smiling face would raise Gwen’s spirits... literally.” Lenore chuckled at the shocked faces around the table. “You don’t understand – Coop’s job was to teach the queen to walk through the trees.”
Now the rest of the table winced wryly and chuckled, understanding all too well the challenge that particular skill could present to any of them. “Can you share with us a little about Amazon life and how it is changing with the unification and Gwen’s return as queen?” Ella asked as she prepared a plate for Randall, who was being remarkably quiet in light of all the strangers suddenly around him.
Lorac nodded and the door opened again, admitting the rest of the Sabre team leaders. Jess was welcomed by the Amazons with open arms and then moved to make introductions. It was enough to keep everyone’s attention from Reed, and she was thankful for that. Once the conversation started, she turned her attention back to Rosie.
“I’m fine, Rosie,” squeezing the hands that she held. “Just a little tired. Tommy and Ella brought an unexpected wave of nervous, almost negative energy with them, and it kinda wiped me.” She didn’t want to lie, but there was no way she was going to share the truth.
“Come and sit down. A little good food will go a long way towards making you feel better. And the company and conversation won’t hurt either.”
Reed smiled. “Rosie, just knowing you did the cooking is making me feel better.”
Tiny’s stomach growled again. “Me too. Now let’s eat, woman! I’m starving!!”
With laughter, they joined the melee at table, and Reed felt some of her strength returning, just being among friends.
Randi took a deep breath as she and Gwen stepped outdoors together, blinking in the bright sunlight. It was nice to see the sun after the storms of the previous couple days. Even more, it was the first time in forever they had been alone together in the light of day, and it felt soooooo good... so right. Finally things were back to the way they were supposed to be, and despite the sadness they both felt over Geoff’s death, they couldn’t help but revel in the completeness they were experiencing again once more.
Gwen reached over and tucked her hand in the crook of Randi’s arm and sighed, squeezing lightly on the muscled arm beneath her grasp. She closed her eyes and stood still, soaking in the newness and freshness of air and sunshine and holding Randi in place with her light grip.
Randi looked down to find out why Gwen had halted them, then caught her breath at the vision she found standing beside her. “My God, you’re beautiful!” she whispered reverently. Gwen opened her eyes slowly and smiled up into Randi’s eyes, then felt her own breathing catch at the love pouring out of Randi’s eyes that made the blue literally glow from within.
“Wow....” Gwen sighed.
Randi blinked. “What?”
“You are so beautiful, and when you look at me... I wish you could see what I see when I find you looking at me like that... again. It is so amazing.”
Randi let the basket slip from her hands, glad the polymer would protect both food and dishes from the drop. With her now free hand, she cupped Gwen’s face. “I know what you see, love. It’s the same thing I see when I find you focused on me. I’m not really sure what you see when you look at me like that, but your eyes tell me... everything.”
Gwen didn’t answer verbally; instead she let her eyes speak for her. Then she wound a hand into Randi’s wild, dark hair and pulled her down until their lips met. And she let her lips do the talking for a long peaceful moment.
They separated slowly, licking their lips in tandem then leaning their foreheads together to simply breathe in one another. The peace was shattered when their stomachs protested their abuse and distinct lack of sustenance loudly, and they broke into soft laughter.
“Talk about ruining a mood,” Randi muttered as she reached down to retrieve their basket. “C’mon.”
They walked slowly across the garden, pausing to admire the various flora and fauna that grew throughout. When they reached the place where the pillars had been placed to receive Geoff’s body for the service, Gwen stopped and looked around.
It was a small open space, surrounded by old, stately trees that shaded it without making it dark. Along the perimeter of the meadow area beyond the trees, were flowering shrubs and Gwen nodded in approval. “Daddy would like this. It’s beautiful and peaceful, so full of life and color and fragrance.” Randi nodded but didn’t answer, unable to stop the wash of guilt. Gwen tightened her hold. “Don’t.”
“You felt that?”
“Yes. Please don’t.” Gwen tugged on the arm she still held and they headed into another area of the garden that also had trees but contained wildflowers. Randi set the basket to one side of the tallest tree and they spread the blanket out together. Then Randi seated Gwen and handed her the basket and took a seat beside her.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I just....”
“I know, love. We will probably both have some guilt over this for a while. But ya know what?” accepting a glass of honey mead and passing Randi a full plate. “I’d be willing to bet you that when Mama gives us the holo-chip Daddy made, it will go a long way to assuaging the guilt both of us feel about what happened. Because I really do think he made an active choice to save us knowing what the consequences would likely be. Besides, you know and I know he would have done it even knowing the outcome to have gotten the results we did.”
“That’s true. And I think Geoff is probably at peace now. I know he’s walking again and out of pain.” Randi’s head dropped to her chest and she sighed loudly. “And with my luck, he has already met my parents and they are planning all sorts of interesting things for our afterlife.”
“Well, warrior babe, I’d have to say you were pretty much dead on the money there. They are so rocking eternity right now.”
Dark and light heads popped up at the first sound and Gwen looked for the source while Randi focused her eyes on one spot just in front and to one side of where they were sitting and waited patiently. A huff preceded a fading in of glaring blue eyes followed immediately by pouting lips and the skimpily dressed body of the goddess of love.
“You totally take the fun outta being a goddess sometimes, ya know?”
Randi chuckled. “Of course. Why do you think I do it?”
“Bitch,” Dite muttered under her breath, causing a snort of laughter from Gwen, followed immediately by her clapping her hand over her mouth when Randi cut her eyes in Gwen’s direction.
“I beg your pardon?” returning Aphrodite’s glare tenfold.
“Oh, Randi... chill, babe. It’s just a figure of speech.”
Randi held the expression for a long moment, then gave Dite a crooked grin. “Whatever. I had ya going there though.”
“As if,” Dite denied and Randi crooked and eyebrow at her. “Okay, maybe a little. Can we get on with the reason I came or is this gonna be a not so gnarly ‘pick on Dite’ visit?”
“Should I remind you who was trying to sneak up on whom in this little scenario? Hmm?” Randi was now enjoying a bit of teasing herself, knowing she could fluster Dite so easily by doing so. Beside her, Gwen was chuckling in silent laughter.
Aphrodite pouted. “I hate you guys. You’re so mean to me. Here I came to let you know how Geoff was doing and you wanna pick on me? How bogus is that?” But she couldn’t help but see the renewed strength of their bond and the love that flowed between them again like a rushing river instead of the trickling stream it had been for too long. She clapped her hands together and squealed.
“Ooooh... ya’ll are just so radically fab together again. I can’t tell you how happy.... Actually, I can. It’s why I’m here.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, fanning herself rapidly before opening her eyes to speak. “Okay... okay... okay... see....” Dite blew out a breath and took another deep one in an effort to calm herself. “What happened between ya’ll a couple nights ago was just awesome. The vibes were delish and they rocked the world... all of it.”
Randi and Gwen exchanged glances, each hoping the other had a clue as to what Aphrodite was talking about. She realized they weren’t following her and closed her eyes again, centering herself to calm and allowing the more serious side of her demeanor to speak.
“All right... let me see if I can be a little clearer. The reunion of your souls the other night was a such a powerful phenomenon that was felt on Olympus, throughout the underworld and even to some extent, here on the mortal plane. That vicious storm...? That was a physical manifestation of what was happening between you.”
Dite nodded when they blinked and looked at one another. “*Everything*... present and future was riding on the outcome of your spirit walk together. And when you won....” She shivered. “Oooooh man! It was totally bitchin’!!”
“So what does that have to do with Geoff?”
“His death provided the final impetus to seal your bond, and he knows that. He couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. And he is immensely proud of his role in your coming together again. Though he misses Jill, and will continue to do so until it’s her time to join him, he is content in the afterlife he has now. He is no longer in pain, he is young and strong again, and he has had the opportunity to meet Bobby and Renee Valiant. That last has already given him a lot of fun.”
Randi dropped her forehead onto Gwen’s shoulder in a gesture of defeat. “I am so doomed.”
Dite laughed aloud. “Nah... it was just like you said it would be. Your parents received him warmly and welcomed him home. They are well on their way to becoming real friends beyond the forced acquaintanceship of being in-laws.”
“Already? We just released his soul from his body this morning.”
“Yes, already. They have been taking him around, showing him how things work in the afterlife. It was how he knew ya’ll were feeling guilt for the decision he made to die for you. He told me, and I quote, ‘Please tell those two that it was my choice... my decision, and if I had to do it all over again, knowing what the outcome would be, I’d do it a hundred times if I had to.’” Dite scrunched up her forehead in thought. Then she made a face and continued. “He said, ‘Live as a warrior, die as a warrior, and if the sacrifice you make is for those you love the most, then it is worth the cost. Tell Randi I understand a little better what makes her the Sabre she is, but I’m glad my sacrifice was more personal. It makes it seem like hardly a sacrifice at all.’”
Silence for long moments while Randi and Gwen absorbed the words that Aphrodite shared. Finally... “Thank you, Aphrodite.”
“Anytime, babes. We are so rocking up there, but this gave Geoff the last bit of closure he needed.”
“Did he say anything to my mother... leave some sort of message for her?”
Dite shook her head. “No, Cutie. He sure didn’t. He said they had settled everything between them before they ever left their room and came to yours.”
Gwen nodded. “That makes sense. And it certainly goes a long way towards explaining Mama’s reaction to everything... or lack thereof.
“Aphrodite, what about Ares?? I know ya’ll sent him away, but I also know better than to think he won’t eventually turn up here again ready for battle.”
Aphrodite bit her lip pensively. “He’s already tried, but Reed was exactly right with what she said about your bond now. It has formed a barrier around you two, shielding your souls – your very essence – from his machinations against you. He cannot get near you now, physically or spiritually, without your conscious permission; even the good guys are blocked from more than a basic read on your well-being,” said with a small smile.
“So you think he’ll quit now, knowing he can’t get in?”
“I wish I could believe that, Gwen, but he’s bet everything he has on this gamble. He pissed off a lot of deities with his manipulations and intrigues. And if he loses... he loses big.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Randi mumbled. “He’s gonna lose, Dite. We’re gonna taking him down.”
Dite shrugged. “I figured as much. Can’t say I’ll be sorry to see him pay the price for his arrogance.”
“Can’t say I’m sorry to be the one collecting it either.” Randi cleared her throat and tried to erase the fierceness from her expression. “Now, would you like to join us for some lunch? It’s barbeque, and Rosie made plenty.”
“Ask me another time and I will. I wouldn’t have disturbed ya’ll today if it hadn’t been important. But you both needed to hear the message from Geoff.”
Gwen held out her hands and took Dite’s in hers. “Thank you, Dite. Even though we knew it in our heads, hearing it from you makes it easier to believe in our hearts. Tell Daddy we love him.”
Aphrodite kissed Gwen forehead then squeezed her hands before releasing them. “He knows, and he’ll be keeping an eye on you two. ‘Cause that’s just something Daddies seem to do for their daughters. Ya’ll be good, and I’ll be in touch... later!”
Then she was gone before either of them could answer her, leaving a mess of petals in her wake. They looked at one another and laughed, scattering the fragrant softness before resuming their meal together.
But in the deep, sinister recesses of Ares’ darkest, most powerful temple, the god of war worked feverishly mixing and measuring, knowing the focus of his fight had to change and that everything was riding on the outcome of his work here
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