“This has been nice,” Gwen said as they lay comfortably wrapped around one another half dozing in the warm, early evening air. Summer meant a late sunset, so they still had several hours before Geoff’s service. Lacey had come out briefly after Aphrodite had vanished to let Randi know her preparations were complete. Otherwise, they had been left totally alone.
Randi tightened her hold, simply glad to have Gwen in her arms again. She couldn’t believe she had let this slip from her grasp for any length of time and it made her cherish the preciousness of it now. Without thought, Gwen let her hand track upwards from Randi’s torso to gently trace the planes and hollows of her face. Randi smiled at the renewed intimacy the sensation caused to course through her.
“Yeah,” she agreed softly. “It really has. I could do this with you for the rest of our days together and never grow tired of it... never wish for another thing from life.”
Gwen shifted, sitting up enough to lean on one elbow and look down into Randi’s face. Randi cracked one blue eye open just a slit to return Gwen’s gaze.
“You’re serious, aren’t you? You’d give everything up again....”
Randi nodded. “It’s not worth the cost for me to remain a Sabre. As much a part of me as it is, it’s not nearly as much a part of me as you are. I can live without the excitement of being a Sabre as long as I have the peace of being with you.”
Gwen cupped Randi’s face and spent a long moment just staring into her eyes. Then she leaned down and captured Randi’s lips in a long, passionate kiss. It went on until their hands started to wander and air ran out. Then Gwen simply transferred her attention to Randi’s jaw line, nibbling up to her ear. Randi tilted her head, making sure Gwen had plenty of room to work with and felt the bard smile with her movement.
“I love you, Randi.”
“And I love you, Gwen... so much.” She slapped the ground. “I can’t believe I nearly lost this. I can’t believe I nearly let you get away from me.”
Gwen returned her hands to Randi’s face, turning it gently and stroking Randi’s cheeks with her thumbs. “Randi? Look at me.”
It took a moment, but finally Randi blinked her eyes open and Gwen’s heart wrenched at the profound sadness she saw there. “Don’t. Don’t even think about going there.”
“Do you really think I was going to let you go... especially when we have fought so hard to be together?? Randi, I stayed away because you needed me to, but I was never far away. And I always, *always* kept an eye on you as much as I could.” Gwen smiled wryly. “Poor Reed... I think I must have driven her half insane. We owe them a lot for sticking with us through all of this, you know.”
“I know. I’m planning to give them all some time off now, before we have to start the last of our work here. We’ll need their help then.” Gwen couldn’t stop the grin at Randi’s use of plural pronouns where the two of them were concerned. That, as much as anything else, marked a fundamental change in Randi’s attitude – before it had always been singular... a solo responsibility.
“We are, huh?”
“Yeah,” not picking up Gwen’s excitement immediately. “We’ve got a lot of work to finish in as short a time as we can manage. I wanna go home.”
Gwen dropped her head onto Randi’s chest and hugged her hard. Startled, Randi returned the embrace instinctively and kissed the top of the blonde head. After a few minutes of silence, Gwen relaxed her hold just slightly and she fell into a half-doze to the rhythmic beat of Randi’s heartbeat beneath her ear.
“Sleepin’” she mumbled, then frowned when Randi chuckled soundlessly. She swatted futilely at the moving surface she was resting on. “Still, mattress... sleepin’ here.” Randi’s chuckled became an outright laugh and Gwen couldn’t stop the gasp that the sound caused any more than she could stop the tears from springing to her eyes or the smile from spreading across her lips.
“I love that sound.”
Randi smiled. “It feels good to be able to do that again.” She squeezed Gwen’s body gently, reveling in the sensations that caused to ripple through her. “Gwen?”
“Did you really? Did you really keep an eye on me?”
“Yep. I sure did.”
Randi blew out a breath. “I’m glad. Even though I didn’t know it then, it’s nice to know you were looking out for me in spite of everything. I felt....”
“I... not abandoned, exactly – especially since I sent you away – but I was so lonely. Even once you were here again, I was so alone.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were struggling so hard, sweetheart? You know I would have done anything I could have to help you.”
“I know.” Randi shrugged. “I’m not sure really. I don’t know if it had something to do with whatever it was I was fighting or it was just warrior pride or.... I dunno. It was... I’m not sure how to describe it. It felt like... if I told you, I failed. I couldn’t protect you if you knew. It’s... I dunno,” she said again. “It doesn’t make much sense if I think about it now, especially trying to explain it. But it was so clear to me then. I need you to understand that, Gwen. I didn’t do anything maliciously.”
“Oh, I know that, Randi. I’d have kicked your ass pronto if I’d thought otherwise.” A beat. “I did wonder if you still loved me a time or too, but....”
“I never stopped loving you, sweetheart. You have to believe that.”
Gwen patted the chest underneath her ear, feeling the rapid beating slow perceptibly with just her tactile reassurance. “I know, love. Aphrodite had to remind me once or twice, but in my heart and in my soul, I knew.”
It hurt, knowing Gwen has suffered a loss of faith in her... in them... even briefly, but Randi really couldn’t blame Gwen either – not with what they had been through. It wasn’t like she had been able to explain things to Gwen... especially her own crisis of faith. It only served to strengthen her resolve to get them out of the circle. They deserved whatever peace they could find.
“I’m sorry,” Gwen whispered, bringing Randi’s attention back to the present. “It hurt me so much to think that, even though I knew better.”
“S’all right, love. It’s past and we have the rest of our lives to look forward to here. And that’s just the beginning for us.” She stuck her hand in her pocket and pulled out the circlet she’d hadn’t let out of her reach since Gwen had closed her hands around it. “I think you might want this back,” holding up the Soulmate’s ring.
Gwen accepted it with tears in her eyes and met Randi equally wet ones. “It hurt a lot to take that off. Never again, love.” Their lips met for an eternity to seal the promise.
“Never again,” Randi swore.
Gwen didn’t answer verbally, but she tightened her hold on Randi. For a long while, they watched the effects of the breeze as it danced across the grasses and flowers and trees. It was a lovely symphony... soothing and relaxing and it caused them both to fall back into a somnolent state. It was comfortable in the way so many things hadn’t been in a long time.
Eventually, Randi stretched a little beneath Gwen’s body and patted her gently on the back. “Gwen, sweetheart? C’mon. Nice as this has been, we need to get back to the palace and prepare for Geoff’s service.” She waited, then smiled when Gwen clenched her fists and mewed before she stretched and blinked her eyes open. Gwen tilted her head up to meet Randi’s amused blue eyes gazing back at her affectionately.
“Hey, beautiful. We need to get up and head back.” Gwen stretched again and nodded, but settled right back down on Randi’s chest, drawing a smile from the warrior. She let them remain that way for a few more minutes, then slowly edged into a sitting position, bringing Gwen up with her. Gwen tilted her head back enough to look at Randi, a distinct frown on her face.
“I was comfortable where I was, ya know,” she complained, but there was a definite twinkle in the back of her green eyes.
“I know,” Randi agreed. “So was I. But I’ve got to get into that uniform to pay my final respects to your father and it takes me a few minutes to get into it. Besides, I have a surprise for you.”
“You do? What kind of a surprise?”
“A nice surprise, but we have to get up and go back to the palace first.”
“All right,” Gwen grumbled, “but this better be good.”
Randi chuckled and shook her head, standing and bringing Gwen up with her. Then they gathered up the blanket and the remains of their picnic supplies and headed back through the gardens.
The air was sweet, the heat of the day having pulled the fragrance from the flowers and left it hanging heavily in the garden itself. Even the light breeze didn’t disperse it too much, although.... Gwen took a deep breath, tasting a particular sweetness on the back of her tongue with the inhalation. She turned to Randi with a tiny, incredulous smile.
“Um hmm. They thought I was nuts when I told them I wanted hedges of the stuff. But I glared at them and they planted it anyway.” Randi shrugged sheepishly when Gwen laughed at her admission. “I needed it here... as a sort of promise. It reminded me of you.”
“Ya know... even though we’re not going to stay here very long, I’m glad you took the time and effort to do this. This is actually my favorite part of the whole palace.”
“Mine too,” Randi said, maneuvering them back towards the kitchen. “I was out here a lot while you were gone. Made me think of better times.”
Gwen didn’t have a response to that, so she merely gripped Randi’s hand more firmly before they crossed the threshold into the palace and then to the kitchen. There was no one there, which was a little surprising given the time of day, but Randi could see both Ella’s and Rosie’s handiwork left behind. She made a mental note to thank them later, then put the basket and blanket back where Rosie had taken them from while Gwen grabbed up the few dirty dishes and washed them. Within a few minutes they were done and headed down the long, twisting corridor to their suite.
The guards snapped to attention at their approach and Randi stopped before entering the room. “Report,” she commanded quietly.
“Empress,” the senior non-com said, bowing his head slightly in respect. “It’s been quiet. The workmen left about twenty minutes ago and word is that everyone has returned to their rooms to prepare for the service. We did get a report of some unrest in the rehabilitation compound, but Tiny went over to check things out and we haven’t heard anything since.”
A frown crossed Randi’s features. “Has he reported back in?”
The guard nodded. “Yes ma’am. He is in his quarters. Shall I summon him?”
Randi nodded. “Please. Have him report to me immediately.”
“Aye, sir,” popping off a salute and receiving a snappy one in return. He reached for his comm unit even as Randi opened the door and guided Gwen inside... until she stopped completely just passed the threshold. Randi had to ease her forward a couple steps just so she could close the door behind them. Then she leaned down to catch the stunned look on Gwen’s face.
Gwen nodded mutely while her eyes continued to roam around the brand new room. Everything had been changed or replaced, except the tile floor. There was new paint on the walls, new curtains at the windows, new rugs on the floor and new furniture throughout. And it was all similar to what they had in their home – no more of the garish, vulgar pretentiousness that had been the décor. Gwen turned to regard Randi with astonishment.
A knock on the door saved her from having to answer immediately. “I’ll answer, I promise; just let me speak to Tiny real quick first, all right?”
Gwen nodded, dropping Randi’s hand to wander around the room, amazed at the changes. Randi watched her a minute before she turned back to the door and bade the guard to open it.
“Ma’am? Tiny is here to see you.”
Randi nodded. “Please, come in, Tiny.” The chief was dressed casually and Randi could tell he’d dressed rather quickly probably right out of the shower. She motioned him to a chair and took one herself. “I’m sorry, Tiny. If I had known you were in the shower, I would have asked them to wait until you were done. It wasn’t that critical.”
Tiny smiled. “Well, I was just stepping out when the message came – it’s why you got bare feet and a tropical print shirt, sir. It was the first thing I grabbed, though if Reed sees me wandering around in public with this thing on, she’s liable to burn it and kick my ass. “
“She hates it huh?”
“With a passion,” Tiny replied solemnly and cleared his throat. “Is there something you needed from me, Empress?”
Randi shuddered, but before she could speak, a light touch on her shoulder made her look up into compassionate green eyes. Without ever breaking contact with Randi, Gwen responded softly. “Tiny, I know it’s probably against every rule, regulation and protocol the Sabres have, but do you think, at least when it’s just us together... not in public, maybe we could be Randi and Gwen to ya’ll? We’re not going to have these titles for very long, ya know.”
Tiny smiled, and though they couldn’t see it, they could hear it in his voice. “As my queen commands, so shall it be.”
They turned to him simultaneously, then they each popped him on the leg. “Smartass,” they mumbled together. Tiny burst into delighted laughter.
“God, I have missed you two. Now,” becoming more serious. “Was there something you needed, my friend, or did you just want to see what kind of outlandish civilian clothes I have?”
“Actually, I was wondering what you got called over to the rebel compound for. The guards said there was some sort of unrest?”
Tiny relaxed and gave them a reassuring smile. “Nothing bad, I promise. Apparently Gwen has made such a dramatic impact on the folks in rehab over there, that when they found out her father had passed away, they asked for permission to attend the service for him this evening.”
Gwen gasped and Randi covered her hand in support. “What did you tell them?”
“I explained the venue, told them about the limited space, but I also told them they would be welcome until space ran out, BUT if there was any trouble they would be made to leave. We will have a large enough military presence there that we will be able to handle any outbreaks of trouble. I have already handed out instructions to that effect.”
“Are you expecting trouble then?” Gwen asked. “Tiny, I don’t want Daddy’s service disrupted. I can’t do that to my mother.”
“No, Gwen... actually, I’m not. But we believe in being safe instead of sorry. They were very courteous and understanding about the whole thing. They just want to show their support. I suggested they have a candlelight vigil they could all attend after the service was over. I thought Gwen might possibly stop by for it,” turning his attention to Randi.
Randi nodded. “I think we could both stop by for something like that,” turning her head to Gwen. “If you want to, I mean.”
“I’d like that.”
Tiny nodded and rose from his place. “All right. I’ll make sure to tell the folks over there. But now I’ve gotta go get dressed before Reed sees me in this shirt. I’d hate to lose it. I got it on my very first shore leave, too many years ago to count now.” He scooted out the door before either of them could comment.
Gwen held out a hand which Randi accepted with alacrity, pulling a startled Gwen into her lap. Gwen giggled and wrapped her arms around Randi’s neck, giving and receiving a long hug. “Well, this certainly wasn’t what I was intending when I offered you my hand... not that I’m complaining,” she added when Randi’s eyebrow arched into her hairline.
“So what do you think of your new boudoir, my queen?”
Gwen swatted at Randi, then tucked her head under Randi’s chin. “I love it,” she said. “You knew I would. I figured out the how... that was Jake, wasn’t it?” Randi nodded, her eyes twinkling. “But, honey... why? I mean....” motioning around her.
“Because you hated it, and honestly, so did I once I saw it through your eyes. Yuri did what I asked him to – it presented a front I wanted people to see... opulence and power. But it’s not what we’re about.” She shrugged. “Since we do need to stay here a little while longer, I figure we may as well be comfortable in surroundings that don’t make us want to scream for mercy.”
Gwen chuckled. “Yeah, that about sums up the way I felt in here before. I wanted to take my staff and start hitting things. It wasn’t pretty.”
Randi smiled and kissed the top of her head, then they gently stood from the chair. “C’mon, love. Let’s get dressed.”
For Gwen it was a lot like déjà vu. She dressed slowly in the same black suit she had worn to Randi’s memorial service fifteen months previously. Only this time, Randi was getting dressed beside her and it wasn’t pouring rain outside.
It didn’t take Gwen long... she twisted up her hair and applied minimal make-up before adding earrings, then she slipped into her suit. Then she sat down on the bed to watch Randi transform into the Empress and Sabre Commandant.
Every movement was precise and not a motion was wasted. The hair went into a braid with a wry smile as Randi remembered Geoff’s reaction to her leaving it down for Gwen. Then came the T-shirt and the trousers, then Randi sat down and pulled on the boots, standing again to stomp them into place. The sound made Gwen smile sadly; it reminded her of the first time she’d heard it – on the night that Randi had kissed her for the first time... when Randi had disappeared from her life for fifteen months.
Randi gazed at the tunic for a long time. It held a lot of memories – a lifetime of them. She didn’t even realize Gwen had moved until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She met Gwen’s eyes and held them even when Gwen slipped the jacket from her hands.
Gwen held it opened and waited patiently for Randi to extend her arms. Randi stood silent and still for a long moment, the implications weighing heavily on her shoulders. Gwen folded the tunic over one arm and gently rubbed Randi’s back until she felt Randi relax into her touch.
“C’mon, sweetheart,” opening the jacket again. “Daddy was always proud when you were a Sabre; he said it was a kinship he was thrilled the two of you shared.”
Randi didn’t answer, but she extended her arms and took the tunic, shrugging it into place. Then she reached for the buttons, only to have her hands slapped away by Gwen who had circled around in front of her. She looked down with a raised eyebrow though she couldn’t hide the twinkle in her eyes.
“My privilege,” Gwen assured Randi and Randi let her arms fall back to her sides. Gwen buttoned the jacket to Randi’s neck, then Randi did the clasp that kept the neck closed. She slid her sais into her boots and looked at Gwen before picking up the sabre. She offered it to Gwen who gladly accepted it reverently and wrapped her arms around Randi’s slim waist to fasten it on her uniform. Then Gwen stood back to appreciate the picture Randi presented, seeing the presence Randi wore like a cloak. Randi flushed under Gwen’s regard and Gwen blushed in return.
Clearing her throat, Randi broke the tableau and snatched up her gloves, pulling them on then picking up her cover and tucking it under one arm. Then she offered her arm to Gwen, who glanced down at her bare feet.
“One sec,” she said, before Randi pulled her to a halt. Gwen tilted her head in question. “Randi?”
Randi strode into the closet and picked up Gwen’s shoes, then knelt at Gwen’s feet. Gwen balanced her hands on Randi’s shoulders as Randi slid the shoes onto her feet then stood.
“I feel a little like Cinderella,” Gwen said softly.
Randi gave her a crooked smile. “Does that make me Prince Charming?” extending her arm to Gwen again. Gwen tucked her hand into the crook of Randi’s elbow and smiled up at her as they made their way out the door, picking up an honor guard on their way to Jill’s room.
“I hope not,” Gwen said seriously. “I married the most beautiful, charming woman in the world, and she’s the Empress. It’d be a real let down to find out she’d transformed into a male prince.”
Randi blinked, caught completely off-guard by Gwen’s pronouncement, though part of her was rather tickled by it. In light of the circumstances, though, and in an effort to maintain a solemn air, she merely nodded gravely, then leaned over to whisper in Gwen’s ear. “I’m fairly certain it would be something of a shock to me as well.” She kissed her cheek and straightened to knock on Jill’s door.
There was no immediate response, so she knocked again, even as Gwen called out, “Mama? Can we come in?” Randi jiggled the door and found it unlocked, so she opened it slowly and stuck her in head around the door, not surprised to feel Gwen’s head rub against her arm. They looked around, but didn’t see Jill, so Randi motioned to the guard to stay put and she and Gwen entered the room. It was empty.
Gwen and Randi exchanged glances. “Why did she go ahead without us?”
Randi shrugged at Gwen’s question, though she had a fairly good idea. “I dunno, but nothing we can do about it now. C’mon. It’s time to honor your father’s sacrifice and send him on his way.”
One of the guards closed the door silently as they couple made their way slowly down the hallway towards the garden door. Gwen turned to Randi, a frown furrowing her brow. Randi cocked an eyebrow at her. “What’s wrong, love?”
There was a long pause and they crossed the threshold into the garden before Gwen spoke.
“Well, I was just thinking... why are we doing this? You know and I know that Daddy’s spirit is already in the afterlife; Aphrodite told us so. So why are we going to all the trouble to send him on his way? He’s already there.”
Randi smiled, glad the guard was discrete and far enough away not to overhear their conversation. “Sweetheart, you know why... this isn’t for Geoff. It’s for us - a chance to say goodbye... a chance to celebrate his life and our part in it.” Randi frowned. “You already know all this, Gwen. Where’s this coming from?”
“I dunno. I just feel out of sorts... like something’s not right.”
Randi pulled them to a sudden halt and the guard reacted instantly, forming a perimeter around them. “About Geoff’s death? Gwen, that’s only natural, especially given the circumstances surrounding it.”
“I dunno,” Gwen said again. “I’m probably just being silly.”
“Nope, you’re never silly. You’re my queen, remember.”
Gwen snorted and leaned into Randi’s body, relishing the embrace that swaddled her whole being. “I’m gonna remind you of that some day,” she said with a smile. “Now let’s go. I want to talk to my mother... see how she is doing and why she left without us. I thought we were supposed to walk in as a family.”
“I think she went ahead because of our status, love. It’s the only reason I can think of for her going off alone without us since she is supposed to be the one who arrives last.”
“Our sta... bu... wh... Who’s idea was *that*?!?”
Randi held up her hands. “Not mine! It was probably Jill’s, but honey, remember that she’s having a rough time right now. If she says she did it out of some twisted idea of respect, just let it go, all right? We can make sure she understands the truth about things later.”
“I just wanted to be there for her,” Gwen whispered. “I know what she is going through.”
Randi wrapped her hands around Gwen’s body and cradled her gently. “Then you know that sometimes you just do what you have to do to get through the day. Despite her happiness for us, and I really do think she is happy for us, Jill is having to cope with the knowledge that not only was Geoff *willing* to die for us... he *did* die for us. On some level – deep down – she resents him and she resents us. She’s likely to push us away, just like you did.”
Gwen nodded, recalling all too clearly how she’d felt when Randi had died. “I know.”
“Well, we can only take things one step at a time,” Randi said, releasing Gwen from their hug and taking her hand. “For now,” she continued, moving them again towards where everyone else was already gathered. “The sun is just touching the horizon. It’s time.”
There was a path cleared for them and everyone present, except Jill, stood as they approached. Gwen gripped Randi’s hand tighter as she realized what was going on, but together they made their way to the front. When they reached the coffin, Randi stood back a step and allowed Gwen a minute alone with her father. Gwen placed her hands on it and leaned down to whisper briefly, then brushed her lips over the top. Then she leaned back into Randi’s body absorbing her strength for a long moment before reaching for Randi’s hand once more.
Randi took Gwen over to Jill and seated them next to one another. Then Randi knelt down in front of Jill in spite of the spotless white trousers she wore. She didn’t say a word, but took one of Jill’s hands in both of her larger ones. Jill took her free hand and cupped Randi’s cheek in an oddly comforting manner, lifting her chin enough that Jill could look into the blue eyes nearly hidden by the cover Randi had donned when she and Gwen stepped outdoors. Then she nodded and directed Randi to the podium with a glance.
Randi rose and took her place on the elevated platform and gestured for everyone to take their seats. Then she cleared her throat and began speaking quietly.
“My friends, we are gathered here this evening to pay tribute to a man was known and loved by many, as is testified to by the presence of so many gathered her. I was lucky – not only did I count Geoffrey Goldman as a fine man and a good friend, but I also had the great fortune to call him family. And Geoff died as he lived – a warrior and a hero to those who knew him best and he died protecting those closest to his heart.”
Her words made many wonder, as only those who had been in the room knew the true circumstances surrounding Geoff’s death, but most assumed that she was making a metaphorical reference to his career as much as anything specific.
Randi drew a deep breath. “So we have gathered to celebrate his life and send him into the next life with our good memories and Godspeed.” Then she stepped back from the podium to allow those who wanted to share their memories of Geoff the opportunity to do so. She took her place at the coffin’s head, standing at attention as speaker after speaker rose to pay tribute to their fallen friend and colleague. Jill listened in amazement as many friends she knew, and so many more she didn’t told of how Geoff had touched their lives in one way or another.
The sun had long since set and twilight was but a memory when Gwen rose to tell her story, sharing bits of her memories of Geoff as a loving father. When she was done, Randi returned to the podium and without a warm-up, began to sing the song of the People meant to guide his spirit to the next plane. Those who knew the melody joined her and those who didn’t kept time with their feet and hands. And the bearers took their positions and committed the casket to the fires while the honor guard saluted.
When the polymer box was fully engulfed in flames, Randi took Gwen’s hand in hers and together they walked over to where Jill still sat, eyes glued to the blaze that surrounded Geoff’s remains. For a long moment, they thought she was going to ignore them. Finally, she met their eyes, tears in her own. Randi extended her hand and Jill took it with a watery smile. Then they headed out of the garden, leading the rest back towards the palace and the planned wake.
They stood with Jill at the door of the ballroom, greeting old and new friends as they arrived. When the deluge became a trickle, Randi turned to Gwen with a raised eyebrow and she answered with a nod of her head. Then Gwen turned to Jill.
Jill met her eyes with a sad smile. “This is amazing, baby girl. I think your daddy would have been proud to see all the people that came to pay their respects... especially on such short notice.”
Gwen returned the smile with one of her own. “I know he would have. Mama, Randi and I have to leave for a few minutes, but we’ll be back. Sky and Rosie said they would stay with you until we do, because we don’t want you to be alone here. Please, Mama. It would make us both feel better to know Sky and Rosie were keeping you company until we returned.”
Jill looked into Gwen’s eyes and then Randi’s and nodded her head. “If it will make you feel better,” she agreed softly. “Can you give me some time after this is over? I’d like to talk to both of you.”
The answers came simultaneously and brought a real smile to Jill’s face. “All right, then. You two go take care of whatever business you have. We’ll be here when you get done, and then we’ll go talk.”
Gwen leaned down and kissed one cheek and Randi the other. Then with a discrete nod, Sky and Rosie made their way over to stand with Jill and Randi and Gwen left for the rehabilitation compound, accompanied by a small circle of Sabre guards.
Tommy and Ella stood with Tiny and Reed and watched them leave together without drawing undue attention to themselves, though Tiny noted most of the eyes in the room followed them naturally. It was just the way of things with them.
“Wish I could be there to see this,” Tiny commented wistfully, but he and Randi had agreed it was important for him to stay with Jill.
Tommy smiled. “You will. I reconfigured the security monitors. It is all being recorded.”
Tiny smiled and the four of them circled the room to talk to Jill. Tiny figured she might like to know what was going on. He figured she would appreciate the gesture on several levels, but was also confident Gwen would play down her part if they had even bothered to share their reason for leaving. And he had promised Geoff to look out for all his girls. This would be a good place to start.
"I was surprised to see so many uniforms," Gwen commented as they crossed the grounds towards the rehabilitation compound. "I mean... I know Daddy was always a part of the military, being a weapons master and all, but it never really occurred to me how much a part of the military he really was. Seeing all those folks in uniform really brought it home for me... reminded me a lot of your memorial service. I had never seen so many uniforms in one place before then... even when I was telling stories to the people who were serving." Gwen shook her head to clear her thoughts. "It just seems... I dunno – it's a little peculiar for me."
Randi smiled but said nothing, choosing instead to wrap an arm around Gwen's shoulders to guide their steps together. It was late and it was dark, but Tiny had assured her the rebels were waiting, so they had decided to honor their request.
"You know something else?" Gwen asked softly, though she was content that their guards were more intent on their surroundings than they were in listening to whatever conversation the Empress and Queen were sharing. If there was one rule Sabres understood very well, it was that of discretion.
"I have tried not to know too much, love. Every time I think I know something, it just gets me into trouble. However, that notwithstanding," feeling Gwen's silent laughter along her length where they were touching. "You apparently know something you want to share. Please... share."
"You're too much sometimes, you know that?"
"That I do most assuredly know, my bard, but I am almost sure that is not what you were gonna say a minute ago."
"You're right... it's not. What I was going to say was it's a little odd to be surrounded by people like this. Always before, it's been just us. You've been able to handle whatever came at us – no question and no hesitation. What changed?"
Randi sighed. "I became the Empress, and that entails certain protocols... including an honor guard."
"Does it bother you?"
Randi shrugged and nodded hesitantly. "Some," she said honestly. "In some ways, it feels like my skills are being questioned - like I can’t be a warrior anymore. I think it’s one reason I keep pushing so hard to maintain my level of proficiency... well, that and I couldn’t stand coming home to an empty bed.” A beat and Gwen stayed silent, though Randi could hear the unasked question pulsing between them. “Then I couldn’t bear the thought of sharing a bed with you and having you turn away from me anyway. It was better not to even have that be a possibility.”
Regardless of their escort, Gwen pulled them to a halt. Immediately, the honor guard spread out even further and turned their backs, keeping their eyes on the area around them. Gwen took Randi’s hands in hers and waited for the blue eyes to meet hers.
“Randi, I can’t say that it would have been easy – I was so angry at you for pushing me away... for treating me like I was a responsibility instead of your partner....”
“Are you still?” Randi cut in. “Angry, I mean.”
Gwen shook her head. “No. It still hurts me to think what happened between us; it will for a long time, I imagine. But I understand now and that understanding made the anger sorta disappear; it even made the pain our fighting caused lessen because of the real reason behind it. But I have to tell you - in hindsight of course - I think no matter how angry we were, our hearts and our bodies would never have accepted it.”
Randi’s brows creased and Gwen reached up with one hand to smooth out the furrows her frown caused. “Are you saying...?”
“I’m saying that I reached for you every night you weren’t there – here, in the village... it didn’t matter. Despite everything – despite the hurt and anger and aggravation and any other number of not so nice emotions, I still wanted you beside me, especially when I closed my eyes to try and sleep. I wanted to be in your arms every night.” She chuckled and Randi raised an eyebrow in question. Gwen smirked. “Look at how our bodies reacted to one another - not just in the dreamscape, but the minute they were put into the same space in this plane.”
“Yeah, that was kinda nice.”
This time Gwen laughed out loud and she wrapped herself around Randi, soaking in the pure joy the embrace created. They resumed walking towards the compound and their guard reformed around them instantly. “You’re a master of understatement, did you know that?”
Now Randi laughed. “Yeah, I’ve heard that a time or two before.” She paused and Gwen looked up at her expectantly. “It was fantastic; it always is.”
“Ooo... you sweet talker, you.”
Gwen didn’t see the reaction, but Randi felt the smiles ripple around the small group of guards. Discretion was their watch word, but sometimes a Sabre just couldn’t help hearing things. They just knew how and when to keep their eyes and mouths shut.
They reached the compound and realized that every single member of the former rebellion must have been waiting for their arrival. The courtyard was packed with bodies, each holding a lit candle. When their entrance was noticed, a small pathway was created that allowed them passage to the center where the rebels had hastily erected a small platform. Heads nodded in obeisance as they passed through since kneeling in such close quarters with lit candles was not prudent.
A lone woman waited for them there and they mounted the steps to join her while the guard spread out around the stage. The Sabres were more than a little nervous about the situation, truth be told, but Randi knew there was a matter of trust that needed to be established. And though it took things to an extreme level, she believed in the goodwill Gwen had wrought here with these people.
When they reached the center of the platform, the woman knelt. Randi released Gwen’s hand and took the woman’s, urging her gently to stand. Then Randi turned to face the crowd. “Thank you all for coming here to show your support in our time of mourning the loss of Gwen’s father. We appreciate the acknowledgement of my position as Empress and Gwen’s as Queen. But please, no kneeling, bowing or scraping. A simple nod of the head will suffice.”
The woman nodded. “Thank you, Empress. We weren’t sure of the protocol and decided to err on the side of caution.”
Randi smiled and extended her hand. “Been there, done that more than once in my life. And you are...?”
The woman accepted Randi’s hand and returned the smile. “My name is Billie. And I was um... selected to greet you both and offer you our sincerest condolences.” She turned to Gwen. “We were very sorry to hear about your father, my queen. He must have been a good man.”
“Thank you, Billie.” She looked out over the gathered congregation all around them, the lights from the candles lighting the entire courtyard. “Thank all of you. You didn’t even know my father, and yet....” raising her arm and waving towards them when words failed her.
“Yes, but we know you, my queen. And that’s enough for us.”
Randi stood silent, having moved to stand behind Gwen in her customary position of support. Gwen leaned back into the firm body, absorbing the love and encouragement she could feel flowing from the woman behind her.
“Thank you. I don’t....”
Billie smiled sadly. “You don’t have to. We have... we’d like to offer up a song for the safe passage of his soul.” Gwen nodded. “It’s not really traditional anymore, but it was the one song we all knew and could agree on.” Bobbie turned and focused on a mixed group of people standing to just one side of the stage.
The pipes began playing a hymn that had been old when it was written, and slowly a chorus of voices swelled to echo throughout the courtyard. Gwen felt the rumble, but it was Randi’s voice she heard joining those of those who had once been enemies as they sang Geoff’s soul to its final rest. That was the sound that brought tears to her eyes.
When the song was finished, Gwen wiped her eyes and faced the crowd once more. She didn’t speak, but they cheered anyway. Gwen waved her appreciation and then Randi escorted her down the stairs. The crowd parted and took up the hymn once more as they made their way out of the courtyard and back to the palace.
They were silent in their passage, only the quiet whisper of cloth to betray their path. When they reached the palace entrance, Randi pulled them to a stop. “Are you all right? Do you feel up to going back into the wake?”
“I feel... drained, but we need to go back in. We pretty much promised my mother we’d be back in and it’s not fair to leave her in there to cope alone.”
“She’s not alone, Gwen, but you’re right – family is important, and we’re her family now. I just don’t want to put you at risk. You’ve been through so much lately.”
“*We’ve* been through so much lately, love. I’m just tired.”
“All right, sweetheart. I can certainly understand that sentiment. Let’s go circulate at this thing for a few minutes, then we’ll get your mother alone and see what she needs from us. Then I’m going to tuck you into bed for some much needed rest.”
“I thought we had a date planned for tonight.”
Randi smiled a Gwen and wrapped an arm around her shoulders as the moved towards the ballroom. The team scattered, spreading out more now that they were back inside the palace. “We did,” she confirmed, “and any other time I would take advantage of the opportunity to be intimate with you... especially with how long it’s been since we’ve been together in this plane and what we’ve been through to get here. Please trust it’s not a lack of desire on my part, but my love for you that’s speaking. You’re exhausted, and honestly... so am I. I think we’d both be better off waiting until tomorrow.”
“Will you be there to hold me?”
“All night long, Little One. For the rest of our lives.”
Gwen squeezed Randi with the arm she had wrapped around the warrior’s waist and felt the kiss Randi brushed across the top of her head.
“That will be enough for a start. Let’s get this done, because you’re right – I am exhausted, and we’ve still got things to do here before we can go home to stay.” The doors opened for them as if by magic and they reentered the ballroom with as little fanfare as they could manage.
Jill was easy to spot – she was actually holding court of sorts, sharing tales and reminiscences of Geoff with a number of the folks who were in the room. For the most part, all eyes and ears were on her, and Randi and Gwen were able to sneak over to the buffet table practically unnoticed. It was nice to be observers, for a change, instead of the focus of attention.
Randi and Gwen walked the length of the tables, picking up bits at random. Then they moved over to the dais to watch the rest of the activity while still out of the way of the action. Jill was smiling, though it was a sad expression that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Still, it was apparent to the two watchers that she was enjoying the opportunity to tell stories about her husband, but also to hear tales from others who had known him – friends both old and new.
As the hour of midnight approached, Tiny began circulating the room, encouraging people to take their leave. Nothing pressing, but most had been waiting for his cue and with relief, made their way towards Jill to offer final condolences and wish her good night.
Finally, the only people left in the room were those that had been directly involved in the spirit walk and Tommy and Ella. Lacey, Sky and Rosie were the first to bid her goodnight from their little group, followed immediately by Tommy and Ella since Ella and Rosie had plans to restructure the kitchen. Their day would start early; they figured they would let Randi in on their plans once they had the details worked out between them. One less thing she needed to concern herself with but would appreciate being taken care of.
Tiny and Reed wished Jill a good evening, then they approached Randi and Gwen who were just leaving the dais area they were seated on. Tiny bowed his head and Reed mimicked his action until they both felt Randi’s hand land heavily on their shoulders.
“All right, you two... cut it out.”
“As you say, Empress... my queen.”
Randi’s eyes narrowed. “Ya know, Tiny... I know where you live.” Gwen bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud. Tiny and Reed didn’t show her restraint and chuckled, guffawing when Randi squeezed their shoulders and snorted herself. “I don’t know why I put up with you two.”
“Because you luuuuuuuuuuv us,” Tiny drawled.
“Uh huh,” Randi agreed in a slow, skeptical tone. “I love you so much I am sending you away. I want you out of my hair and on vacation starting tomorrow. I want you to take a week or two off and go... I dunno. Go do something that makes you both happy. Go home and check on the dogs; take a trip somewhere you’ve never been together; see a play; visit a holodeck. I don’t care. Just go do something for the two of you... something wild and crazy and completely outrageous.”
“Really? You’re serious?”
“Yep. It’s not much, but.... Without the two of you, we never would have defeated Ares... Gwen and I wouldn’t be together anymore,” the last said in a whisper. “You deserve a lot more, my friends, but a couple weeks is the best I can do for now. Thank you both.”
Tiny reacted instinctively and gathered Randi in what should have been a crushing hug. Instead, Randi returned the favor and Tiny heard his spine realign itself in her grip. He moaned aloud and Randi chuckled in response.
“How do you do that? Even the Sabre doctors can’t put me back in place like that.”
Randi shrugged. “I have many skills,” she deadpanned.
Tiny shook his head disgustedly. “I shoulda seen that one coming.”
The three women laughed at his apparent repugnance at having given Randi an opening like that. Jill came up behind Randi and Gwen, putting her arms around their shoulders and poking her head between them. “So, is this a private party or can anyone join in?”
Tiny opened his arms and Jill walked into his embrace. They stood locked together in a hug for a long moment before he released her and she turned to Reed. They hugged for another long moment before Jill pulled back and took their hands in hers.
“Thank you, both. You have been such good friends. I want you to promise to keep in touch.” Jill couldn’t see the furrow that her words etched into Gwen’s and Randi’s foreheads, but Tiny and Reed could. So they nodded and bid the rest goodnight, leaving Randi, Gwen and Jill alone in the ballroom aside from the honor guard stationed periodically throughout. As soon as they moved to leave, the guard formed up around them and escorted them through the hallways to Jill’s room.
“It’s late,” Gwen commented softly as they stopped in front of her door. “Would you like to wait until tomorrow to talk? You look tired.”
Jill shook her head and opened the door, ushering them into her room with a wave of her hand. “No,” she said as she closed the door behind them. “I’m going home in the morning, so I’d like to talk to you both tonight.”
Jill motioned them to sit, taking a chair for herself and leaning her head against the back. She closed her eyes in exhaustion and Randi got up to get her some water while Gwen knelt beside the chair and took Jill’s hand in her warmer one. Randi touched Jill’s shoulder, having removed her gloves with a sense of relief. It took a moment, but finally Jill blinked her eyes open and offered Randi a small smile as she accepted the glass.
“Thank you, Randi. Have I mentioned how dashing you look in uniform? You and Gwen make such a lovely couple anytime, but when you do the formal thing together, you’re simply stunning.”
Randi couldn’t stop the blush that crawled up her face, but she smiled lightly. “I think you just like the uniform... all the colorful ribbons and sparkly bits.”
Jill chuckled. “Well, I will admit to having a thing for a man in uniform, but the two of you are something else altogether. Why do you think Sal is always pestering me to get you into the studio for a new round of pictures? You’re just two incredibly beautiful women who compliment one another totally. And when you go formal....” Jill left the thought hanging, content with the astonishment on the face of *both* her daughters.
“Ahem... well,” Randi said after clearing her throat. “What can we do for you, Jill? I’m pretty sure you didn’t bring us in here just to embarrass us – at least not completely.” She moved an ottoman around to the side of the chair where Gwen was kneeling and seated both of them on it. Randi wrapped an arm around Gwen’s waist even as Gwen reached for Jill’s hands again. Jill just looked at them for a long moment before meeting Randi’s eyes directly.
“First, is there a reason you don’t call me Mom anymore, Randi? I know we’ve had some ups and downs, but I thought.... If I’ve done something....” She stopped speaking when Randi held up an unsteady hand.
“It’s not you, Ji... mom. I just didn’t think you’d want to hear that from me after everything.”
Jill captured the shaking hand in one of her own, unconsciously completing a circle between them. “I need to hear it now more than ever. I’ve already lost part of my family this week. Please don’t ask me to give up any more.”
Randi nodded and squeezed her hand, but she didn’t say anything. Gwen leaned into the warrior and nuzzled her neck before depositing a kiss in her wake. Then she turned her attention back to her mother.
“Are you sure you need to go home in the morning, Mama? I mean, you just got here a couple days ago. We haven’t had much of a chance to visit together.”
Jill looked down at their conjoined hands and sighed deeply before looking up again to meet their gazes. “I’m sure, baby girl. Despite the fact that your daddy and I talked about this possibility, I still need a little time alone to process the fact that it is my reality. You can understand that.”
“All too well,” Gwen agreed. “I just... I can’t help but be concerned – about you being alone; about how you feel about us now. I *know* what you’re going through, Mama. I know about being angry and hurt and resentful. I don’t want you to resent us... or Daddy.”
Jill shook her head. “I don’t, Gwen... honestly. Geoff and I really did talk all this out before we came here and certainly before we offered to help Sky during the spirit walk. We knew the dangers.” Jill drew a deep breath and paused, formulating her thoughts. “Your father would never have quit... never have given up on his own. But he was miserable, Gwen and in an enormous amount of constant pain. He was even before he went to help rescue you from Ben; that merely sped up the degeneration. It would have come to that eventually.”
Randi and Gwen sat quietly, wanting to let Jill finish and fairly confident she wasn’t done. They were right. “Randi? Could you activate the holochip please?” gesturing to the small piece of plastic resting on the table in front of the warrior.
Randi leaned forward and activated the chip and leaned back as it flickered to life. All three women held their breath as Geoff appeared in front of them. He wore his Sabre uniform, sitting proudly in his hover chair. He looked down at his hands and frowned, then made a decision. He cleared his throat and looked back at the vid cam.
“All right... business first, I guess. “I, Geoffrey Goldman, being of mostly sound mind and fairly decrepit body, do hereby declare this to be my last will and testament.” He stopped and flopped back in his chair and propped his head on his fist.
“Hmph,” he snorted. “That has got to be about the lamest.... All right, let me try this again. Computer, I’d like to begin recording again,” not realizing he had never stopped recording. He sat up straight and folded his hands, smiling into the camera this time.
“Hello, my beautiful girls. If you’re watching this, then I obviously I am no longer alive and cannot relay these words and thoughts to you in person. However, there is something I want you to understand right off the bat, though – if I have been very lucky in regards to my death, I got to go out as a warrior. And with any luck at all, I did so protecting those I care about the most.”
Randi paused the recording and turned her attention to Jill. “He knew something,” she stated flatly. Jill nodded.
“He thought he did,” she replied simply. Randi let it rest for the moment, hoping the holo would give her the answers she needed. She signaled the chip to proceed and Geoff’s hologram came to life before them once more.
“I want you to know, though... no matter what... everything has been my choice. And despite the pain and the consequences, it has been worth it. It has *all* been worth it. Jill understands and on some level, she even agrees with me. Don’t regret my actions or dishonor my choices. Make the most of the opportunity you’ve been given.”
“Randi, I’m trusting you with one of the two most precious things my life. Gwen is now in your care and keeping, Marine. Don’t misplace my trust. She needs you, Randi, as much as you need her. So take care of yourself as well as her. You need one another.”
“I also need to ask a favor of you, from one Sabre to another. Jill is strong woman, but she needs someone to be there for her, kinda keep an eye on her. I know you’d look after her as a daughter, but I am asking you to accept the responsibility as a Sabre.”
This time Jill leaned forward and paused the hologram, then turned to Randi. “What does that mean, exactly? I understand the part about keeping an eye on me; that....” She paused to clear her throat and her voice wavered when she spoke again. “That was always something of a running joke between us. But why ask for your word as a Sabre? I don’t get that at all.”
Randi covered the hand that Gwen still held and looked Jill in the eye. “Family is an obligation... something you have to do. Taking responsibility as a Sabre means there is a willingness or a desire to take care of you – to look after you better than family.”
Jill looked into Randi’s eyes and saw the truth there. She covered Randi’s hand for just a moment, then restarted the chip. “Thank you,” she whispered as Geoff started speaking once more.
“Gwen, my precious child – I don’t know if I have ever shared with you just how proud I am of the woman you have become. You’re amazing, and I’m glad to have known you and had some small part in guiding you to becoming the person you are. I realize I can’t take much credit and neither can your mother; so much of what you have become is simply the culmination of all that you are. I do know I couldn’t have chosen a better mate for you if I had designed Randi myself. Take care of one another and love each other long and well. What you share together is precious and rare and meant to be protected and preserved. Don’t let anyone or anything take it away from you.”
“Now I will share a little secret with you. I have had the same dream for several nights running; hence the reason for my recoding this will, such as it is.”
“In these dreams, I am able to walk again without pain or impediment. I was young and strong... a Sabre once more. I was fighting an unknown enemy... always unknown, always just beyond my reach. The fighting was always a little different, but the enemy was the same evil darkness. The ending was always the same too. Always it would end with me covering a comrade whose face I couldn’t see – whose presence I wasn’t aware of until then.”
“I think this is someone’s way, whether it be a god or my own subconscious desire or what, but I think this is someone’s way of showing me what is coming... what I need to do to protect my family. I want you both to know I do this willingly and with both eyes open to the possible consequences.”
He paused and it was apparent to the watchers that he was debating his next words, and when they came, only Jill showed a distinct lack of surprise.
“To be very honest, girls, I am looking forward to death in a very basic way. I’m tired... tired of hurting like I do. I know it’s not going to get better, despite my best efforts. I can feel it getting worse, even when I seem to be making progress. Everyday it gets a little bit harder, a little bit worse. And even though I will cherish every moment I am given, I am looking forward to not hurting anymore.”
“So please don’t mourn for me, girls. I’m not in pain anymore, and I’m in a much better place. Besides,” he added with a wicked grin and a twinkle in his eye. “I’m looking forward to finding Bobby and Renee Valiant and swapping stories with them. I have a feeling there is all kinds of mischief to be learned about.” He chuckled and Randi covered her eyes and groaned.
“I am so doomed.” Her martyred tone added just the levity they needed, and the three of them exchanged glances and burst into laughter.
Geoff had continued speaking, and they had to stop the chip and run the hologram again. “The bulk of my estate, such as it is, of course goes to me beloved wife, Jill. We have shared everything together, so most of it already belongs to her anyway. However, I have a small collection of hardbound, printed books that I collected that I want you to take, Gwen. It will be something you can give to your child one day,” his blush matching hers. “Your mama knows where they are.”
“Randi, I do have a few odds and ends in both workshops, things that don’t belong to the military but that you might find... um, interesting. You’ll know what they are when you see them. They’re yours – enjoy them.”
He paused and they watched in silence as his brow furrowed in thought. “You know,” he said looking back towards the vid cam and staring directly at them again. “I never thought about how to end this ridiculous thing.” He scratched his chin. “Be good to one another and love one another long and well. And remember that I’ll be watching over you all. I love you.”
He sat still for another moment before his image faded from their sight.
The three of them sat for another moment before Randi leaned back and the spell was broken. Jill drew a deep breath. “Well, do you understand now? More than anything, Geoff wanted you both to understand what he did and why he did it. He wanted to assure you that it was his choice; it was *our* choice. And it was worth it.”
“Do you really believe that, Mama?”
“I really do, baby girl. As much as he loved me and lived for my sake, I knew your Daddy was in excruciating pain – towards the end especially. I would never, ever hold him to life knowing he was so miserable. I miss him... I will always miss him, because he was the best part of me for such a long time. But I will join him again – maybe sooner, maybe later – but until then, I will live without his physical presence, knowing that he is still with me here,” she added, covering her heart. “And knowing that his sacrifice made a difference.”
Randi stood then, content in the knowledge that Geoff and Jill had indeed talked this through thoroughly and Jill understood as much as one human being could understand the thoughts and motives of another. And that she was comfortable with the knowledge she held.
Randi extended her hand down to Gwen and waited for her to accept it. Then she tugged Gwen to her feet and together they turned to Jill. “How long would you like, Jill... mom?” At her questioning look, Randi continued. “How long would you like to grieve in peace before....”
“Oh! A month perhaps? I just need to adjust to being alone. It’s been a very long time since I was.”
“Can we call you? You know... just to check on you? I’m gonna worry a lot otherwise,” Gwen commented softly.
Jill smiled sadly. “How about if I call you?” she compromised. “Once a week, maybe on Sunday evenings?”
Gwen nodded. “That would work.” She took her mother in an embrace and hugged her tightly. “Thank you, Mama.”
“You’re welcome, baby girl. I’ve been where you are. Oh, by the way,” changing the subject before Gwen could feel guilty. “I know you only loaned him to us to help with Geoff’s therapy,” motioning to the nearly grown puppy now lounging comfortably across the foot of the bed. Only his ears gave any indication that he was alert. “Would you like to take him with you?”
The question itself was casual, but Randi could see the importance of her answer in Jill’s eyes. Almost without consideration, she shook her head. “No. He’s yours now. I think he will be a good friend.”
Jill couldn’t stop the tears from coming to her eyes, though she didn’t let them fall down her cheeks. “Thank you, Randi. He already has been. He is a wonderful confidant. And he seems to approve of you again – I haven’t noticed him growling at you lately.”
“I have a theory about that.”
Randi’s eyebrow crawled up her forehead as she realized Gwen had spoken the words with her. Randi grinned at her and Jill smiled in response to their unexpected playfulness. “Do you now?” Gwen nodded. “Well, what is your theory? You share yours; I’ll share mine.”
“I think he knows that you’re you again.”
Randi blinked and nodded. “Yeah, that pretty much sums up my thought.”
“Well, while the two of you are summing and thinking, I think I need to get some rest before the night becomes morning. And I think you need to do the same. I won’t leave without saying goodbye. Besides,” she smiled gently. “Rumor has it that Ella and Rosie have taken over the kitchen and are going to teach the military types here how to *really* cook. I’m not about to miss that.”
Randi chuckled. “Yeah, I only *thought* I charge here. Apparently, whoever rules in the kitchen, really rules the world. I’m just glad they get along so well. It could get ugly in there otherwise.”
That visual made Jill laugh. “Oh, no kidding. That’s actually a scary thought.” She took the hand that Randi offered and stood, then accepted and returned their hugs fervently. Then she accompanied them to the door.
“Goodnight, my children. Sleep well and in peace.” Jill brushed a kiss across each of their cheeks and gently pushed them out the door, closing it quietly behind them.
They looked at the closed door a moment longer before exchanging glances and making their way down the corridors back to their suite. It had been a long day and they wanted nothing more than to end it safely together in one another’s arms.
It was the soft touch of Gwen tracing her features once again that brought Randi back from her dreams with a smile on her face. Blinking, she realized it was still dark out and a glance at the clock showed they had only been asleep a little more than three hours. She frowned and clasped Gwen’s hand in hers.
“Gwen? Sweetheart, is something wrong?” Randi croaked out drowsily. “Why aren’t you sleeping?” And why am I? When did you start watching over me like this?
Gwen lifted their linked hands to her lips and kissed each knuckle before tucking Randi’s hand into the hand she hadn’t been tracing with and resumed the light touch across Randi’s face. “Nothing’s wrong, love. I missed this with you and I just decided to indulge myself for a little while. I’m sorry I woke you up, though. That wasn’t my intention.”
Randi smiled lazily and raised their hands to her lips, repeating Gwen’s earlier actions. “I’m not. I’ve missed this with you too. It has always been something very precious to me.” She closed her eyes again and Gwen resumed her gentle tracing, smiling when Randi hummed in contentment.
For a little while, Gwen was satisfied with running her fingertips over Randi’s face and down her neck. Gradually, however, she let her touch wander down the torso beneath her, circling firm breasts and tracing well-defined abs before tickling Randi’s navel. She smiled when the muscles jerked in reaction, then laughed out loud when blue eyes opened and glared at her.
Her laughter stopped rather abruptly when the glare became a smoky glance filled with fiery intent.
“No more teasing,” Randi growled, rolling them over until she was covering Gwen’s body, gentle touches denying the gruffness of her voice or the surprise of her actions. “I want more than our dreams, love. I want reality... here and now.”
For answer, Gwen reached up and threaded her hands into Randi’s hair, pulling her full weight down onto Gwen’s body and their lips into the lightest contact. It was all the encouragement Randi needed.
Randi let her fingertips trail the length of Gwen’s body, reacquainting herself with the smooth skin and familiar contours that she had only been allowed to touch in her dreams for what seemed like forever. She was slow and deliberate, holding Gwen’s eyes while tracing across Gwen’s shoulders and down her arms before shifting over to her hips and up her torso. Randi smiled when Gwen’s breathing hitched and sped up as she reached the soft fullness of Gwen’s breasts.
“I love the way you respond to my voice,” Randi whispered in Gwen’s ear, watching the goosebumps follow in the wake of her words. Her fingers circled nipples begging for attention, then she cupped Gwen’s breasts in her hands. “The way you respond to my mouth,” suckling gently and briefly at each breast before kissing a path down the centerline of Gwen’s body, then moving back to capture Gwen’s lips until Gwen was forced to pull away for lack of air. Randi’s hands stayed in constant motion and Gwen’s back arched when her interest focused on Gwen’s breasts once more. “The way you respond to my touch,” letting her hands glide along Gwen’s body from shoulders to knees until Gwen was writhing beneath her attentions.
Then there were no more words; only the sounds of the love they shared between them. It was well past dawn when the awakened the second time that morning.
It was the smell of fresh cinnamon rolls wafting through the air that brought Randi and Gwen to full wakefulness, exchanging chagrined looks when they realized how late it was and how much teasing they were in for. Then the expression changed to a knowing smile and they let their lips meet for a good morning kiss.
“We’re never gonna hear the end of this, you know... especially if Jill delayed her trip home to say goodbye.”
Gwen stretched against Randi, rubbing their bodies together sensuously. “Can I be honest here and admit I really don’t care? Besides, we all worked too damn hard for us to be together again; do you really think anyone is gonna give us a lot of grief about wanting to spend time alone together?”
Randi smirked. “Probably not, especially if they know what’s good for them.” She assumed a snooty air and continued. “I am the Empress, you know. I could just banish them all to Mars.”
Gwen’s shudder was genuine and she shook her head adamantly. “No, please. These people are our friends and I’d like to see them remain that way.”
Randi’s expression turned to one of concern. “Speaking from personal experience?” Gwen nodded but didn’t elaborate. “Will you share it with me some day?” The blonde head nodded hesitantly and Randi cradled Gwen tenderly in protective arms. “Whenever you’re ready, love,” hoping it would be soon. “C’mon. In the meantime, we should probably take a shower and get to the kitchen before all the cinnamon rolls are gone.”
Gwen’s stomach chose that moment to protest the very idea of going hungry when there were cinnamon rolls to be had. She tilted her head up at Randi plaintively. “Are you sure about that shower? My stomach is asking for immediate action.”
Randi made a huge show of sniffing the air between them, then did the same to Gwen’s body, causing her to twitch in laughter at the teasing, ticklish touches Randi’s effort caused to skitter up her sides. Finally, Randi pulled away slightly with a rakish grin.
“Well, if you don’t mind going out there smelling of sex and sweat, I’m game. I didn’t know if you wanted to flaunt the fact.”
Gwen blushed adorably from head to foot as Randi had known she would, but she kept her teasing to a wicked twinkle in her very blue eyes. Still, Gwen saw it and color suffused her skin once more. “Hmm, well... when you put it that way.... You wanna join me?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” They slipped from the bed and walked into the bathroom together, holding hands like the newlyweds they still were.
Lorac bowed her head in acknowledgment when they crossed the threshold into the kitchen and Rosie motioned them over to the buffet where a few cinnamon rolls sat plated in solitary splendor. Sky poured them each a cup of coffee and offered them a smile, but didn’t comment on the lateness of the hour. Jill rose from the table where she had been in conversation with Reed and Tiny and took first Gwen then Randi in her arms for a hug.
“I wondered if I was going to get to say goodbye before I left,” chuckling when twin blushes flushed the faces of the two women facing her. Everyone else might leave it alone, but nothing was sacred to a mother it seemed. Jill hugged them again. “I would have waited; it is so good to see... to know....”
“Mush, mush, mush,” Tiny cut in. “You’re giving me a sugar overload.”
His words cut the awkwardness in the room and laughter followed his pronouncement. Randi stepped up and smacked the back of his head lightly.
“I know where you live, buddy! Besides, aren’t you supposed to be on vacation somewhere already? What are you doing hanging around here?”
“Like I was going to miss fresh cinnamon rolls or pass up the opportunity to rag on you a little bit,” Tiny snorted. “Being Empress made you daft?”
Randi raised an eyebrow. “You’re feeling feisty today.”
Tiny laughed aloud in pure joy. “I feel good. No... actually, I feel great! I feel like a burden finally has been lifted, and it feels wonderful.”
Randi clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed. “I know,” she agreed. “It really does. Now, go on and get outta here. I’m hoping for a quiet week while you’re gone.”
“Does that mean I can borrow the holochip?”
“Sure... which one do you want?”
Randi chuckled. “Nevermind. I wouldn’t subject Reed to extremes with you. C’mon, I think I have what you’re looking for in the office.” She turned to Gwen and Jill. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
Gwen nodded and brought the remaining cinnamon rolls to the table before sitting down across from Reed. “So are you excited?”
Reed nodded and conversation at the table turned to their upcoming time away. And for the first time, Gwen realized that everyone was leaving and by that evening, she and Randi would be alone together for the first time in months. She couldn’t stop the thrill that ran through her. In all honesty, she couldn’t wait.
“Are you excited?” Tiny asked Randi as they entered the office. Yuri just nodded at their waves and turned back to his work. Tiny closed the door while Randi crossed to her desk, her handprint allowing her access and unlocking the safe built into it.
“About what? You’re the one going on vacation.”
“Yeah, but by this afternoon, we’re gonna all be out of your hair for a while. Except for the standard honor guard, you and Gwen will be all alone in this big house. And don’t think I don’t know how far away that honor guard will be banished while I’m gone either,” smiling wickedly.
Randi snorted. “Be thankful I won’t be making them leave the grounds completely,” giving him a look. “In some ways it’s a little insulting that you think I need them.”
“They’re not for you, actually,” Tiny stated emphatically, causing Randi to raise an eyebrow in his direction. He shrugged. “They are there for my peace of mind. I know you could handle yourself, *but* if something *was* to happen, and it could – however unlikely, *I* would be the one that would have to face Gwen. And on the flip side to that,” before she could interrupt him, “if something was to happen to Gwen that could have been prevented by a little vigilance on my part,” he cleared his throat. “I gotta be honest, Randi... I don’t think either of us could live with it.”
She held his eyes unblinking for a long moment, acknowledging the truth. Then she turned her attention back to the chips in the safe.
“Besides,” he added, shrugging again. “I haven’t done anything but make up a schedule.”
“Come again? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.”
“There is no honor guard unit, Randi. Everyone who serves does so on their off time as a volunteer.”
Randi jerked her head up so quickly, Tiny heard the vertebra in her neck snap back into alignment with the motion. He winced reflexively. Randi didn’t say anything, but proffered her hand to him. Tiny extended his and she placed the holochip in his palm.
“Go on, Tiny. You and Reed deserve some time together. That chip has all the old happy place haunts I could find in the archive. You can alter each place to be as full or as empty as you want, but I wouldn’t make it empty. It’s a little spooky.”
She was serious as she said it, but Tiny saw the twinkle in her eye and returned her look with a grin. “Spooky, huh? I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, boss lady. We’ll see you in a week or so.” Tiny waited for Randi to come around to the front side of the desk then took her in his arms for a bone crushing hug. “Ya’ll try to behave while we’re gone, all right? I mean I don’t wanna have to come back early to....”
A glare cut him off and he chuckled nervously, backing away from her slowly. He glanced towards the door quickly, trying not to lose Randi in his peripheral vision. “Heh, heh. Time to go!” And he dashed out the door, squealing. Randi’s laughter followed him down the hall.
“Are you sure you need to be leaving so soon, Lorac? You only just arrived, and we haven’t exchanged much more than a hello.” Despite her eagerness to be alone with Randi, she knew she had a responsibility to these women beyond any friendship they shared.
The regent nodded. “Yes, my queen. We only came to pay our respects to your father. There are still so many things we need to do to make the mountain into a home and the tribes into a single Nation again. We wouldn’t have come now, if....”
Gwen clasped Lorac’s arm. “I’m glad you did,” then looked around at the others. “All of you. I’ve already spoken to Randi. As soon as we can get things settled here, we will be out to visit. I am anxious for the Nation to know her.”
“She is already a legend among our people, Gwen,” Lorac addressed her informally and tilted her head in confusion.
Gwen gave her a gentle smile. “I know. I want you to know the woman that she really is.”
Understanding dawned and Lorac returned the smile and nodded. “We would like that very much. In the meantime, however, it is time for us to leave. We will look forward to seeing you again soon.”
With a salute, the Amazon contingent boarded their shuttle and was soon on their way back to the Nation. Jill came up to stand beside Gwen as they watched the shuttle disappear into the horizon. “An Amazon queen, hmm? Things really have come full circle.”
Gwen was silent for a long moment. “In some ways.” She turned to Jill. “I am going to miss you, Mom.”
Jill smiled and wrapped an arm around Gwen’s waist. “I will miss you too, daughter... both of you. But it’s good to know you will have one another. And I’ll be calling you soon, I promise. I just need a little time to process.”
Gwen nodded, unwilling to let her mind wander into painful memories. Then Jill’s unexpected laughter pulled her attention in a completely new direction. Gwen hadn’t laughed when Randi died. She turned her head in the direction Jill was looking with her hand shading her eyes and broke into laughter as well.
When they had gone to retrieve Jill’s luggage, Carbon had jumped on Randi. Not maliciously, but with a distinct desire to play; with Geoff dead, he hadn’t had much fun or exercise for a few days and he remembered her scent as that of a playmate. He had pounced and joyously licked her face, and with a sheepish look and a shrug, Randi and Carbon ran out the door and into the garden.
Now they returned to the landing area, the dog’s tongue lolling out one side if his mouth and Randi looking a little worse for wear. There was a dirt smudge across one cheek and what looked like a rip in her shirt. Gwen cocked an eyebrow in her direction.
About that time the dog dropped down at Jill’s feet and closed his eyes. Randi sauntered up to wrap Gwen in a sweaty embrace.
“Ew... honey, I love you, but you need a bath.”
Randi leered in her direction. “That is not what you said this morning.”
Gwen flushed ten shades of red and slapped at Randi’s arms. “RANDI!!”
Jill laughed. “That would be my cue, I think.” She opened her arms and Randi released Gwen so mother and daughter could hug goodbye. Gwen brushed a kiss across Jill’s cheek as she pulled back.
“Please let us know you got in safely.”
Jill nodded. “I will.” Then she turned and opened her arms to Randi, who looked down at her dirty, sweat-covered self. Jill waved her forward. “Randi, dirt hasn’t killed me yet. I don’t think it’s going to happen today.”
Randi smirked and shook her head. Then she gently cradled Jill for a long moment before stepping back and picking up Jill’s bags, ignoring her exasperated sigh. She remained stoic even when Jill rolled her eyes and Gwen muffled a chuckle, waiting patiently for Jill to lead the way to her shuttle. Carbon actually snorted in disgust at the lot of them and flopped on the floor of the vehicle as soon as he made his way inside. Randi settled Jill’s bags and then she and Gwen stepped back to allow the door to close. Their last glimpse of her had her blowing a kiss to them, and then she was gone.
They watched the shuttle out of sight arms curled around one another possessively, dirt and sweat forgotten. Then they turned towards the palace to make the short walk back.
“So, are we all alone yet?” Randi asked. “Aside from the military and the rebels, of course,” said with the slightest hint of a smile and a hint of melancholy in her voice. Gwen shook her head, knowing Randi already knew the truth.
“Noooooo,” drawing the word out. “You know Tommy wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. But Sky and Rosie left about the same time that Tiny and Reed did. Rosie was muttering something about having troops to train and I think Sky was just looking for a bit of peace.” She cut her eyes in Randi’s direction. “What did you do to Tiny anyway? He couldn’t seem to stop chuckling and Reed was smirking when they literally snuck out of here.”
“I glared at him. He was being a wiseass.”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Oh, there’s a big surprise.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“What?? It wasn’t.”
“I know, honey,” Gwen said straight-faced with a teasing hint in her voice. “It never is. C’mon. Let’s get you cleaned up and go find Tommy and Ella,” as they reached their room.
“Gweeeeeeeennnnn!!!” Tommy heard Randi’s whine in his room and he and Ella exchanged glances before they started laughing.
Randi actually had a couple scrapes along her ribs where Carbon’s nails had ripped through her shirt. But they didn’t hurt much and after Gwen kissed them, they didn’t hurt at all. They were good; they didn’t dawdle knowing Tommy and Ella were waiting for them.
“Ya know,” Randi said, pulling a fresh shirt over her head. “I wish we could go home with them.”
Gwen shrugged nonchalantly, though she couldn’t hide the momentary sparkle that flashed in her green eyes. “Why can’t we? Why can’t you be Empress there?”
“I wouldn’t be,” Randi answered honestly. “When we go home, we are going home to live... as Randi and Gwen - not as Empress and Queen or anything else. I have no self delusions in that regard; and I don’t want that in our home.”
Gwen came up behind her and kissed Randi’s back before resting her head between strong shoulder blades. “I don’t want that either, love. But at least we’ll have this place to ourselves for a little while. Despite everything we have to do, I am looking forward to some time alone with you, Randi.”
Randi grinned. “Me too,” she replied simply.
They found the Steele family in the kitchen, not that it was a great surprise. Randall squealed when he saw them walk in and ran straight for Randi. She scooped him up off the floor and blew raspberries on his belly before lowering him down so he could wrap his body around hers in a hug. Randall squeezed with all his might and gave Randi a sloppy kiss; then he reached out with one hand towards Gwen.
She grabbed his hand and tickled his palm, grinning when he squealed. He leaned over and planted a sloppy kiss on Gwen’s nose. The trio turned towards Randall’s parents who were enjoying the interaction with fond smiles.
Randall tugged on Randi’s hair. “Go,” he commanded imperiously, pointing towards his mother. She arched an eyebrow towards him.
“Pwease, Wuv? Go Mama.”
“How do you resist that much cuteness?” Tommy asked.
Randi walked to Ella and placed Randall in her arms. “Apparently, I can’t,” she said sardonically. Then she crossed to the refrigerator and grabbed a couple bottles of water. She looked a question at Tommy and Ella, but both shook their heads.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Tommy said into the sudden silence as Randall’s attention was suddenly absorbed by a picture book Ella put in front of him.
Randi seated Gwen, then pulled out a chair for herself and dropping into it. “Huh? Maybe I shouldn’t what?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t try to resist all that cuteness.”
Randi gave him a frown of complete confusion. “Tommy, evidence to the contrary, it is too early and I am running on too little sleep for you to be talking in riddles. I didn’t resist Randall’s cuteness. I brought him to Ella just like he asked.”
He shook his head. “No. Maybe you two should have one of your own. Someone else whose cuteness you couldn’t resist.”
“NO.” This from Randi, her tone firm and implacable.
“But....” Ella put her hand over Tommy’s and shook her head.
“But....” he tried again.
“No, Tommy,” Gwen said kindly. She bit her lip as she considered her words. She and Randi didn’t plan to make a general announcement about their decision to leave the circle... at least not this close to the spirit walk that had assured their place in the cycle. “We are too much of a target in this lifetime. Ares has made it very personal this time; he wouldn’t hesitate to use our child against us.” She paused, then continued. “We already worry about the people who are closest to us; we couldn’t bring a child into the world, knowing....”
Tommy slid his hand out from under Ella’s and covered Gwen’s hand. “I’m sorry, Gwen. I didn’t think about it like that. I didn’t mean to bring up an unpleasant subject – I just... watching you tell stories to the kids, seeing you both with Randall....”
“Tommy, it’s okay. It’s something we’ve already discussed; we have peace about it.”
Tommy gazed into Gwen’s eyes, then turned his focus to Randi. This close he could see the truth and realized they really had no desire to have a child together. He felt a bit of sadness about it; he had secretly hoped they would give Randall a playmate. He thought they would make extraordinary parents. A memory tickled the back of his mind, but it was nothing but a shadow. Shrugging, he let it go and nodded at them both.
“All right,” he nodded. “Now that I have managed to butt in yet again,” he started, clearing his throat. Randi laughed.
“Tommy, that has been one of the few constants in my life. I would miss it if you didn’t butt in regularly, though we should really work on your timing,” watching his face turn six shades of red.
He scrubbed his face. “I hate you,” he muttered, causing another round of laughter. “Anyway,” glaring in Randi’s direction, which was mostly pointless since she returned glare for glare. He gave up and turned his attention solely to Gwen; that got him a snicker from Randi and Randi a slap on the leg from Gwen. “When things settle down for you here, but before you come home, can we do a children’s storytelling session here?”
“Absolutely. I think the kids here would love to be part of something like that.”
“Good. When you’re ready, let me know and we’ll get a crew up here. I’ll work on what details I can from Midas. Do you have an idea on when...?” looking back at Randi.
She shook her head. “Nothing definite yet. At least a few weeks. We have a lot of things to put into place before we can leave here, and Gwen wants to visit the Amazons before when settle at home for good. But I’m gonna push things as fast as I can.”
He looked at her, seeing a lot in her eyes he had never expected to see there. Despite the walls she still had in place, she was more open to him than she had ever been. He couldn’t stop the reaction that widened his eyes, but he didn’t say a word about it. Instead he turned back to Ella.
“Whaddya think, babe? Time to head home?”
“Yes.” She looked towards Randi. “Rosie and I are gonna give your cooks a crash course in good cooking. No wonder you’ve been so unhappy if that’s what you’ve been stuck eating for the last little while. We’ll do what we can in the next week or so to make sure your meals are edible.”
“Well, it’s not like Gwen and I can’t fend for ourselves.”
“I’m looking forward to it actually,” Gwen said with a smile.
“So am I,” Randi added softly with an eyebrow wiggle.
Tommy groaned. “That is definitely our cue to leave. The mush levels are rising to unbearable proportions in here.”
“I know where you live, buddy,” Randi growled.
Tommy laughed. “That’s okay; I know where you live too.”
Randi growled again and threw in a glare for good measure, lunging across the table just as he jumped out of her reach. Randall yelled in excitement, “Go, Pa!!!”
Tommy ran and Randi gave chase. Gwen, Ella and Randall simply sat back and enjoyed the entertainment, cheering and clapping until Randi and Tommy collapsed back into their chairs. “More, Pa! Go!!” Randall screamed. Ella shook her head in exasperation, chuckling as she rose and took two bottles of water from the fridge and placed them in front of Tommy and Randi. Tommy was red-faced and winded, and sucked half the bottle down before thanking Ella. Randi sipped hers and wound an arm around Gwen’s shoulders.
“You’re such a brat.”
“Yeah, but I’m *your* brat.” Tommy just dropped his head on the table and groaned.
It didn’t take them long to get things squared away; Ella showed Gwen the few treats she’d put together for them, receiving a hug for her efforts. “Some of these are new recipes, so you’ll have to let me know what you think.”
“I always do.”
Ella grinned. “I know. You’re probably the most honest critic I’ve got.” She looked down at her hands. “I’ve really missed having ya’ll home. I’ll be glad when you come home to stay.”
“Me too,” Gwen agreed fervently, just as Tommy and Randall came out of the bathroom. He immediately ran over to Randi who picked him up and swung him up high before wrapping him in a hug. “I’m big boy, Wuv!”
“You sure are, love muffin. You’re growing up so fast,” she added sadly. “I’m missing so much.”
“Good,” Tommy replied emphatically as he came up beside her just in time to hear her last whispered words. “Maybe that kind of motivation will bring you home faster.”
“I’m doing the best I can, Tommy,” she growled, carefully expunging her language for Randall’s sake. Tommy didn’t miss the true anger and upset so clear in her eyes, but before he could apologize, Gwen was beside Randi, gently rubbing her back and glaring at Tommy. He ignored the burning green eyes and pulled Randi into a grudging hug that Randall was quick to protest. Tommy shifted, but didn’t release the hug.
“I’m sorry, Randi. We just miss you and want you to come home. That’s all.”
She nodded, but didn’t answer. Instead, Gwen spoke for both of them. “We’re trying, Tommy. Please don’t make it harder for us.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Can anyone get in on this hug?” Ella said in an effort to cut the tension she could still feel. Gwen and Tommy opened their arms and Ella stepped in, making it a true family embrace. The anxiety level dropped and after a moment, they all stepped back a pace. “We miss you guys and will be glad to see you come home. But for now, ya’ll stay safe and keep in touch, all right?”
Randi nodded to Ella’s words. “Thanks... both of you. I know it comes from love and caring.”
“And I know better than to push,” Tommy admitted sheepishly. “Now, c’mon. We’ve got a shuttle to catch. And ya’ll have some couple time to catch up on.” He picked up their bags and motioned them towards the door. “I am so, SO happy things worked out for the two of you, despite everything else. Gwen, if you ever need to talk... I still remember what it felt like to lose my mother.”
“Thanks, Tommy. Just remember that the vid phone works both ways. We expect to hear from ya’ll regularly as well. And just as soon as we can, we will come home to stay. I promise.”
Tommy put the bags in the shuttle, then turned and brushed a kiss across Gwen’s cheek, then Randi’s. He took a loudly protesting Randall out of her arms and climbed aboard the shuttle to strap him in. They exchanged a last hug with Ella, then stepped away once more to allow the door to close. They watched the shuttle out of sight before Gwen turned to Randi with a wicked smile.
“We have the house to ourselves… except for the guards.”
“Actually, we have the inside of the house to ourselves. The guards have agreed to keep their patrols and posts outside until Tiny and Reed return. So when we’re not working, we can just be us.”
“Oooh... well, in that case, can I interest you in some decadent Gwen and Randi time?”
“What’d you have in mind?”
“I feel daring. How about a little skinny dipping now and a little fondue later?”
For answer, Randi turned them back towards the palace, casually tugging her shirt from shorts. Gwen smiled and did the same to her own. The guards saw them coming, and decided it was safer to back their outdoor zone up about a dozen feet even though they were not yet aware of Randi and Gwen’s specific plans. Anything that could be construed as an invasion of privacy now wasn’t worth Randi’s ire later. When they heard the splash of pool water and the squealing laughter that followed, the guard moved back another five feet. Better safe than sorry.
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