“This is incredible, Randi. You’ve managed to pull all the ideas together and make it work.”
“In theory, anyway,” she replied dryly to Tiny’s enthusiasm. “We haven’t tried to put it into practice yet.”
“Yes, but I think people will work to make it work... especially now that there is a better perception of what peace really requires. Learning about one another can... working together with those that you think are different from you... can only help foster understanding, right?”
“I hope so, Tiny. I just want peace.”
“Well, the immunizations should help that.” A beat. “Randi?” Tiny queried, still focused on the plans in front of him. “Why now? I mean,” going on quickly at the look of confusion on her face. “Ares developed this serum a long time ago to ensure the loyalty of the warriors who swore an oath to him. Why did Ares finally decide to go looking for warriors now? And why go to the Amazons – he knows they are protected by Artemis. Why didn’t he take advantage of any of the rebel forces before they were defeated?”
Gwen cleared her throat softly, drawing their attention to her. She removed her glasses, chewing absently on the earpiece for a moment before speaking. “I think I might know; I’ve been doing some research on that since we learned about the Amazons and I talked to Rosie this morning.”
“You mean there’s a reason besides Ares has finally lost his mind?” Randi asked sardonically.
“I’m not so sure he has,” Gwen replied seriously. The certainty on her face made Randi move from where she stood behind Tiny at her desk to sit on the arm of the couch where Gwen had ensconced herself with her journal and small computer. Tiny remained still and silent.
“What makes you say that, love? Even the goddesses think he’s nuts.”
Gwen nodded. “Yes, but what if that is what he wants everyone to believe? Give me a minute.... I want you to think about this,” she added, running her hands through her hair and closing her eyes. Randi slid down off the arm to sit beside Gwen, scooting her over by wiggling her hips until Gwen sighed in exasperation and shifted over. “Comfortable?” she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“Yep,” Randi confirmed with a cheeky grin, putting her head in Gwen’s lap and flinging her long legs over the end of the couch. “Continue, please.”
Gwen gave Randi another look before closing her eyes again and letting her fingers idly riffle through the soft, dark hair spread over her lap. Then she took a deep breath and started to speak in a low voice.
“The story goes that when Ares first lost your soul to me... when we chose each other over redemption and you laid down your sword... he decided to ensure the loyalties of those warriors who had dedicated their lives to him and those he had made his Chosen. His priests worked for years – lifetimes, even – searching for the perfect formula, because even though he found one to bind his warriors, your soul still eluded him. And you were the prize he wanted.”
“Through every lifetime we passed through, he tested and tried to capture your soul... make it his for the claiming. Sometimes he missed us completely and those were lifetimes we had a measure of peace. The times he separated us by torture and death were painful, but we never lost our claim on one another. And he had no chance to assert his right to your soul. It was already mine.”
“But this lifetime - I think he recognized your vulnerability this lifetime and took advantage of it. Ares kept me from acknowledging my feelings for you and you died without admitting your love for me – we hadn’t claimed one another and he had the perfect chance to finally make you his.”
“But none of this explains....”
“Shh,” Gwen reprimanded Randi, covering her lips with her fingertips. Randi kissed them, twitching her lips a little to tickle. Gwen chuckled soundlessly and pinched Randi’s lips lightly. Tiny watched, fascinated. They seemed to have forgotten he was in the room. “I’m getting there.”
“Unfortunately for Ares, Aphrodite had been watching us very closely – waiting... hoping that we would figure things out for ourselves before it was too late. When she saw you say goodbye, she realized you knew the truth of your heart and that’s the reason she caught your soul at the last possible second. I think she knew the consequences of leaving you vulnerable then; I think she knew how devastating it would be – not just for us, but for everyone. That’s why we got our second chance.”
“The trouble was, Ares had seen his opportunity and decided to take it. I think he knew he would never get a better chance – so he had Ben come after me when our love was still new and uncertain... before everything was publicly acknowledged between us. I don’t think he knew what we had shared privately; I think Dite kept as much from him as she could and in all fairness he was so busy stirring up the different rebel factions, keeping them busy and always on the verge of war, he missed things.”
“However, when he took my memories and made us just friends again, Ares preyed upon every one of your secret fears. Ares had finally perfected the serum... or so he thought... so he had Ben implant it. Except Ben’s delivery method was less than direct and it allowed your body to resist it almost from the beginning – but Ares didn’t know that. He had created the poison to be very slow moving. He wanted the transformation to happen so gradually, no one would notice until it was too late.”
Gwen opened her eyes to meet the blue ones she knew were gazing at her in such devotion. “It might have worked,” she continued in a whisper, “except we had exchanged private promises long before spoke them aloud in front of anyone else. We had already cemented our commitment to one another. As it was, you were struggling with the heightened lust for blood and fighting Ares’ serum had produced in your system.”
Randi’s eyes dropped, effectively closing her glance from Gwen’s... until Gwen tapped her chin. “Sweetheart, I know you have a... if not love, a distinct joy in fighting. You’re a warrior, love. You always have been and you have always enjoyed a good fight. I don’t think less of you for it – it’s what makes you the one I love... in every lifetime.”
She held those deep blue pools for another long moment before she was satisfied Randi believed her words. The kiss on her fingers made her clear her throat prior to speaking again. “Um... there were enough ‘dark episodes’ – things you had no conscious recollection of - to convince Ares he was on the right track... that you would soon be his for the claiming. I believe this success is what convinced him not to try that stuff on the rebel forces... one of them, anyway.”
“I’m not sure I follow your thinking, Gwen,” Tiny spoke for the first time in her narrative. She started just slightly; she had literally forgotten her audience in focusing on telling her story to Randi. Gwen blinked and turned her gaze to Tiny.
“Well, to begin with, the rebels have always been fighters... not soldiers and certainly not warriors. Their sole purpose was to allow him to stir things up so he could watch true warriors – the Black Sabres and especially Randi – to fight and kill and destroy. When Randi... died,” she said with a shuddering breath, the memory still painful even now. Gwen glanced down when Randi’s long fingers clasped her and just held them. She took another breath and turned back to Tiny, though she refused to release the hold she had on Randi’s hand.
“When Randi died,” she said again with almost no hesitation, “Ares was devastated; his obsession with her soul has been complete for centuries and he figured he had lost his opportunity to claim her in this lifetime. Remember that for the year she was gone, everything in the rebellion seemed in disarray – there was no leadership to speak of, including direction from Ares. Only when Randi came back to life did he take notice of the rebellion, but only as a means to an end. He knew if he could get Randi under his control, *she* would make warriors of the rebels and the Sabres would be as likely to follow her as not, given what she had already done for mankind. And they would all accept the serum and swear loyalty to him with no real effort on his part. All he had to do was let her lead the Sabres and defeat the rebels, and then together Ares and Randi would create a real army of warriors and rule the world. But first there was the little problem of me that needed to be disposed of.”
“Randi could never bring herself to do me any physical harm, and she was still fighting with herself over being a warrior with this enhanced love of fighting and killing. So she sent me away to where I would be safe from her. All it accomplished was to make us both miserable, but Ares saw it as proof of his success. With me gone, even though I wasn’t dead like he would certainly have preferred, he would be able to move in and finally claim that which he thought was his – Randi’s soul. Imagine his surprise when she told him no.”
“I don’t need to imagine,” Tiny responded quietly. “I saw it happen. He was furious.”
“Exactly – he was furious. Not distraught or out of his mind or lost and confused – he was furious... angry beyond belief. And he saw this as my fault – for coming between him and his prize once again... never mind that Randi’s soul had rejected him on her own all those millennia ago. No, this was my fault. And what better way to seek revenge on me than to enslave the people who for no other reason than heritage and ancient tradition had made me their queen?”
“I think, however, this is where he screwed up, and if I am right in my thinking, his mistake will work in our favor.”
Randi butted Gwen gently in the belly with her head. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“You already have a good idea, don’t you?”
“Uh huh... but I wanna see if we are thinking alike.”
“Will one or the other of you mind sharing this thinking aloud so that those of us who are not in the loop yet can catch up, please?” Tiny said with severe exasperation.
Randi and Gwen exchanged glances; then Randi nodded her head slightly and Gwen resumed speaking. “The serum that Ares had developed for his warriors was supposed to be administered after the swearing of allegiance to him. The Amazons, if I understood correctly, did not swear this oath; they were in fact given the potion to secure their loyalty.” She felt Randi nod her agreement against her stomach and caught the contented smile on her face when she looked down.
“And this is significant?”
“I think so, Tiny. It means we can administer the antidote without permission.”
“Why didn’t we do that for Randi?”
“Hers was different. Her change was so slow and so insidious, that sort of shock to her system would have killed her. The Amazons literally changed overnight. Besides being done against their wishes and desires, it hasn’t really had a chance to take root yet. That’s why we need to get out there immediately. We want to keep it from doing so.”
“All right... no wonder you picked an all female team,” he muttered. “No reason to give them any more reason to fight.”
“Yeah,” Randi agreed, sitting up and swinging her legs over the edge of the couch. “I think our going in there will precipitate enough excuse for that.” Gwen’s brows furrowed and Randi reached out a casual hand to smooth them away. “It’s the nature of the beast, love. They’re warriors; they’re gonna be spoiling for a fight.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. Doesn’t change anything though. But who knows... maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Gwen snorted. “And maybe those pigs will really start flying, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.”
Randi chuckled silently and turned back to Tiny. “Do you have enough to get started?”
He nodded. “I will be plenty busy while you’re gone. Doc Litzer is gonna set up the immunizations for everyone in the compound; then we’ll start on the rest of the military and move on to the civilian population. As for the rest, I will start putting things in place. It should be ready for implementation by the time you get back from the Amazons.”
“You think you’ll be done that quickly?”
“No,” Tiny replied honestly. “I think you will be there that long.”
“I will call for reinforcements before that much times passes. But I don’t think it will. Even while they were infected with the serum, I wouldn’t have to fight all of them – only a few. Once the strongest warriors and Ares were defeated, the rest would fall in line. But once the antidote is administered, I should only need to defeat Ares and the few who will hold a grudge for what happened to them and want to take a shot at me for it.”
“Why would you assume that?”
“Any of it; seems to me you’re making a lot of assumptions.”
Randi frowned. “Not really. A lot of it is based on experience and the rest on the knowledge human nature. You know this stuff, Tiny; we do it all the time as Sabres. What’s wrong with you that you’ve got doubts about it all of a sudden?”
Finally Tiny smiled. “Just checking, Randi. You’ve been a little of out it lately, ya know; I wanted to be sure you had that core of confidence still before you go out there without me to watch your back.”
Don’t worry, Tiny,” Gwen said in a soft voice. “I’ve got her back this time, and I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t Gwen; I saw that sparring workout ya’ll had yesterday. I wouldn’t go up against you with a staff.”
“Really?” she asked shyly with a blush.
“And get my ass kicked twice?? Um... yeah – really. You’re the best I’ve seen, bar none.” He smiled when her eyes widened and cut in Randi’s direction. “Yeah, even her. In a staff battle, I’d bet on you. You’ve got an advantage... you learned from the best and then got better. You’re built for it, and you seem to have a knack for it.”
“Thanks, Tiny,” she muttered, scratching the back of her neck with a bit of embarrassment. It really wasn’t something she or Randi talked about much. They just enjoyed it as a chance to share another aspect of their lives together. She smiled when Randi wrapped her arms around her middle and moved her hands to cover them.
“He’s right, ya know,” Randi whispered in Gwen’s ear. “You really are the best. I’m glad you’ll be watching my back out there.”
“I’m glad you’ll be watching mine.”
Tiny cleared his throat self-consciously, trying to remind them he was in the room. Randi looked at his embarrassed expression and laughed aloud; Gwen chuckled a little more quietly. Tiny shrugged sheepishly then grinned. “All right, you two. Get outta here and go meet the rest of the team so I can get some real work done.”
“We’ll be in touch, Tiny,” Randi said as she and Gwen moved towards the door. “This isn’t a black op. So you’ll be in the loop.”
“Thanks, boss. I appreciate it. Is Reed taking care of your ride out?”
“Yep. She’s flying Gwen and me in. Shibata is flying the second shuttle with the team. I wasn’t sure about having Reed fly us, all things considered, but she insisted. Said she had come this far, she wanted to see things through to the end.”
Tiny nodded as though he had expected as much, which of course he had. “All right with you if I check them out... maybe stoke them up a little bit?”
Randi grinned. She would have been disappointed if he hadn’t made the offer and told him as much. “The team should be done getting their immunizations. Come join us for lunch and the mission brief when you’re done with your check. We’re gonna pull out of here right after that.” Then she and Gwen were out the door and headed back to their quarters to prepare.
“Matt? This is Tiny. Look. I’m sorry to bother you since I know you didn’t get settled til early this morning, but I’m a little short for time at the moment. How was Mrs. Goldman?”
“She seemed all right, Chief. We didn’t interact much, but when we did, she was peaceful... quiet.”
Tiny nodded at the screen. He could see the exhaustion in Matt’s eyes and pushed forward to the reason he had called. “Good. Now, did you clean out the workshop? Did you find the stuff Geoff told me about – the new weapons and protection devices?”
“Yes, Chief. But they are all prototypes – there is only one of everything he was working on and some of them aren’t complete.”
Tiny sighed. He had expected the answer, but hoped for better. “All right... meet me at the landing area in ten minutes. We need to prep the Sabre shuttle with as many tactical advantages as we can give her... just in case.”
“And the Empress’s?”
“No. She is going in as a ruler and an invited guest of the queen. Anything on that shuttle will be by her doing, although I am going to make some strong recommendations. None of the new stuff though. Since they will be flying in to the mountain, I don’t wanna give the Amazons any kind of an excuse for a fight. And obvious weaponry like that would be so easy for them to pick on.”
“Gotcha, Chief. Let me throw on some clothes and grab the stuff and I’ll meet you there.” Then they broke the connection and Tiny snatched up his pack. He had work to do and not much time to do it in.
“Hi, Mama. How are you?”
“I’m a little tired, baby girl. How are you?” Jill asked. In truth, Jill could easily see that despite the lingering sadness Gwen felt over the loss of her father, she was whole again. And that gave Gwen a measure of peace that brought comfort to Jill’s heart. Gwen kept the smile off her face, but she couldn’t hide the contentment in her eyes.
“We’re good, Mama, but we have to go to the Amazon Nation for a few days. I wanted to let you know in case you tried calling here while we were gone.”
Jill’s brows furrowed. “Problems?”
“Yeah,” she said honestly. “It’s time to take care of Ares, once and for all.”
Jill bit her tongue. She’d known it was coming, but she hadn’t expected it to be so soon. Instead she nodded affirmatively. “All right. You two take care of yourselves. Don’t let anything happen to one another. I want to visit with you both when you get back.”
Gwen nodded. “Love you, Mama.”
“Love you too, Gwen. Pass the same on to Randi.”
“I will. See you in a few days,” cutting the connection.
Jill looked down at Carbon once the screen went dark. “Well, boy... guess we’re on our own for a few more days. What say we go shopping?” Carbon tilted his head, tongue lolling comically in question before he answered her with a sharp bark of approval. He led the way to the door and waited for Jill to gather her things, then together they headed out into the warm summer day.
Packing hadn’t been the chore either of them had expected. The most exciting part had been when each of them had pulled out their respective ceremonial leathers and exchanged wordless glances, then broken into gales of laughter at the similar expressions they wore. Otherwise it had been a quick process – Randi’s dress uniform was always ready and Gwen had a number of formals to choose from. By mutual consent, though, they left those. This trip wasn’t about formal occasions or celebrating; this trip was about wrapping up the last of their loose ends.
When they were finished, they hefted their bags and made their way to the kitchen to meet the rest of the team. Halfway there, the scent wafting from that direction caught their attention and they knew that Rosie had arrived. Randi looked at Gwen.
“Did you know she was coming back?”
“She didn’t say, but I’m not surprised. I think the only reason she left was because everyone expected her to. She probably feels like Tiny and Reed and Lacey do – this is something they started that they want to see through to the end.”
“We’re gonna have to think of something really nice to do for everyone when the dust finally settles.”
Gwen smiled. “We will... even if it is just to give them a break from us,” pushing the door to the kitchen open and laughing when they were greeted as though they were attending a hen party with a group of girlfriends and not headed out to confront the god of war.
Lunch was a rowdy, boisterous affair; all the women chose for this particular mission were well-acquainted and teased one another mercilessly like the friends they were. Outwardly, they were confident... in themselves and in Randi, and it showed in their comfort level now. When Tiny came in, he was greeted with enthusiasm, and Gwen took the opportunity to corner Rosie.
“That was great, Rosie. But you didn’t need to come back to cook for us, you know. You were supposed to take a break... go home... I dunno, relax, maybe?”
Rosie chuckled and took Gwen’s plate from her hands, trading her for a huge slice of chocolate cake. Gwen’s eyes grew wide and round and she couldn’t stop the smile that crossed her face. “Well, seeing that look would have been worth the trip back,” Rosie teased. “But the truth was I only went home to check on my place and see how my daughter was getting along. I had no intention of staying there... not until this business is finished. Besides, I felt the ripple; I was on my way back anyway.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain; let’s just say I knew something was wrong somewhere. It was very odd because I have never really felt anything like that before. Maybe it comes from all the bonding and linking we’ve had between us recently – I don’t know. But I did know I needed to be here - so here I am. I hope Randi will let me travel out there with you.”
“Hey, how come she rates chocolate cake?” Randi asked. “You’d think being Empress would get me a few perks like this!” with a mock glare and hands on her hips. Gwen smacked her in the belly and tried to move around her.
“Knock it off, drama queen! We’ve got work to do... ACK!” The last a squeal added when Randi relieved her of her piece of cake. The commotion caught everyone’s attention and they laughed when Gwen started chasing Randi around the table; then Randi stopped running and held the cake above her head so Gwen couldn’t reach.
“I’m gonna have to hurt you, ya know,” wrapping herself around Randi’s body and proceeding to try to climb up her body to reach her cake. But the rest felt their hidden tensions melt and relax. Tiny, knowing what Randi was doing, just smiled and enjoyed the rare glimpse into their private lives. Meanwhile, Gwen had managed to scale up Randi’s body far enough that she was forced to sit down in self-preservation.
Once Gwen had reclaimed her cake, Randi patted her side and Gwen stood up long enough for Randi to rise before resuming her seat. Then Randi cleared her throat to speak and the atmosphere in the room settled down into something serious and subdued.
“All right, ladies. Let’s settle down and get to work. I’m ready to take my bride and go home. Tiny?”
“Matt brought the things he found in Geoff’s workshop and we added them to the second shuttle’s gear pack. Unfortunately, most of them are prototypes – single use items. However, there are a number of new little gadgets for ya’ll to use if you need them. I’ve downloaded the specs into your personal units; you’ll find most of them are self-explanatory.”
“We are hoping not to need most of the gear. You will be posing as my honor guard. The plan is for this group to help dispense the antidote to the Amazons and to be available to keep the peace if it comes to that, but I am hoping it doesn’t. I’m hoping that it will be an in and out mission; that between the antidote and Ares’ defeat, we’ll be able to walk in, take care of business and leave. If not....”
“If not,” Brenda cut in, “we’ll take care of business, just like we always have.”
Randi nodded. “Make sure you take care of distributing the antidote first. Then anything that happens after that will be legitimate.”
“You expect there to be trouble?” from Jess.
Randi grinned wryly. “Let’s just say I know better than to not expect trouble, especially where the Amazons are concerned. And unless Ares’ little potion makes it possible for them to forget everything that has happened to them under the influence of that drug, they are going to be furious and looking for someone to blame. I’ll be the natural target for that rage.”
“Or I will,” Gwen broke in quietly. “I am their queen, Randi.”
“Sweetheart, they challenge you, they challenge me.”
“You think I can’t handle any challenge they offer me, Randi? You said I was the best,” Gwen’s hurt was clear, but her eyes were steady and unflinching on Randi’s. The rest of the room remained silent watching the tableaux play out in front of them.
“It’s a fight to the death, love,” came Randi’s soft rejoinder. “If it was simply a fight, Gwen, I’d let you handle it in a heartbeat. But I would never, ever expect you to fight – not to the death; I wouldn’t want you to.” She swallowed hard. “I couldn’t stand to watch.” They were so focused on one another neither of them noticed when the room cleared.
“You don’t think I’d lose, do you?”
“No, I don’t, and that would change something fundamental about the person you are.” She paused and Gwen waited, feeling Randi had more she wanted to say. “Do you remember how you felt when I died? How your soul was so empty your muse deserted you?”
Gwen swallowed and nodded. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Killing - taking another person’s life… even in combat... even if they deserve to die for whatever heinous crime they have committed – it kills something inside of you. And nothing – no amount of confession or contrition or retribution or redemption – nothing can change that. That part of your soul is gone... forever. I can’t watch you lose that, Gwen... not when there is something I can do to prevent it. I’ve done it before, love. It’s not going to take anything else away from me.”
Gwen smiled sadly and cupped Randi’s cheek with her hand. “That’s not true, Randi, and we both know it. I know how every death affects you; I’ve seen it. But I would never ask you watch that happen to me; somehow, I think that would be worse than letting you fight for me... and as hard as it is for me to do that, I couldn’t bear to watch your soul die like that. Because it would, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah. You couldn’t watch when I was dispensing justice to the rebels, and seeing what that did to you nearly killed me. I....”
“Shh,” Gwen finally said, covering Randi’s lips with her fingertips and feeling them tremble beneath her touch. “I understand, love. If a challenge like that comes, you will champion in my stead.”
“Thank you, Gwen.”
Gwen removed her fingers and replaced them with her lips for a timeless moment. “It is my right and my privilege to take care of you, Randi, even when that care is sometimes beyond my scope. Now c’mon, Empress. We’ve got Amazon business to take care of and god of war justice to dispense to.”
“Then can we go home?”
“Then we can go home.”
For the first time, Randi looked up and noticed they were alone. “Hey, where did everybody go?”
Gwen chuckled. “I think we chased them off with the mush factor.”
Now Randi chuckled. “Too bad we don’t have time to take advantage of it. Of course you know we’re gonna be in for some serious teasing.”
“Who in their right mind would tease the Empress of the World and her Queen Consort?”
“Sweetheart, no Sabre has ever, EVER claimed to be in their right mind. We’re just lucky most of them will be on that second shuttle.”
“I don’t suppose they will forget.”
“Not even if they were infected with Ares’ serum.”
Gwen blushed, but gave her an impish grin. “Well, maybe we’ll just have to give them something else to talk about,” she said, slipping out of Randi’s arms and picking up her bag as she headed out the door. Randi froze, looking gobsmacked by the ideas Gwen’s words put into her mind for a moment before she shook her head to clear it, snatched up her own bag and followed Gwen out the door.
“Hey... wait for me! What did you mean by that?? GWEN!!!!!” lengthening her stride to catch up. It was obviously going to be quite an interesting experience having Gwen as part of her Sabre life. Randi couldn’t stop the grin that formed when she dropped an arm around Gwen’s shoulders and felt the reciprocal warmth around her waist. Time to go to work.
Gwen blinked when they reached the waiting shuttles. Someone had been busy – both shuttles had been emblazoned with... well, in honesty, Gwen wasn’t sure what they were, having never actually seen the design before. She looked at Randi whose face remained stoic, but Gwen could see the twinkle lurking in the clear depths of those blue eyes. She raised an eyebrow in question.
On both shuttles was the most intricate design Gwen had ever seen and she realized with sudden insight that there was something strangely familiar about what she was looking at. She tilted her head as the answer tickled her mind just out of reach.
The tribal black bird was obvious in its connotations – that definitely represented Randi and her affiliation with the People as Raven Hawk. But there was more to it and Gwen wasn’t able to quite put her finger on it. She squinted and it allowed her to focus on the markings that made up the bird. Her eyes widened when she realized there were distinct symbols that made up the markings – symbols she recognized as personal to her and Randi.
The Sabre emblem was the first thing she recognized; it made up a large part of the bird and its wingspan. But it was the other images intertwined that Gwen knew were not part of the Sabre badge that drew her attention – her name had been woven into the Sabre emblem. She found a labrys and the character for the female intertwined amongst the markings. There was also the sigil for the Amazon Queen and the crest of the Empress as well as insignia for warrior and bard, strength, wisdom and courage. There were a couple others she didn’t readily recognize, but Gwen had a sneaking suspicion Randi wouldn’t mind sharing.
“Did you design this?”
“Um hmm. I, um... I had plenty of time while you were gone.” Her voice was quiet and she shrugged negligibly. “I wasn’t sleeping much; this helped me pass the time and gave me a way for us to still be a part of one another.”
Gwen walked closer to it, running her fingers lightly over the painted design. “It’s incredible. Will you explain all the symbolism to me?”
“Absolutely,” Randi answered with a big grin. “I brought the roughs and notes; I knew once you saw the design you’d want to know the story behind it.” Randi motioned Gwen ahead of her into the shuttle. Rosie was seated up front in the cockpit beside Reed who was doing her final preflight checks. She took a seat on the couch, pleased when Gwen plopped down in her lap. “Hello there. Something I can help you with?”
“Nope, just trying to get comfortable.”
“Uh huh. I think you’re just trying to cause a scandal.”
“Pfft!” Gwen scoffed. “In front of Rosie and Reed?” Her laughter was contagious and Reed and Rosie worked hard to keep from laughing out loud. “Sweetheart, I’m not willing to do in public what it would take to scandalize these two.” She kissed Randi chastely and slid from her lap. “Now show me.” Randi passed over the paper drawing she’d made; Gwen could see the erasure marks. Then she passed over her small handheld computer that held all her notes. Reed’s eyes widened when she realized what Gwen actually had in her hand.
“Reed,” Rosie whispered, putting a concerned hand on her arm. “Are you all right?”
Reed cleared her throat and nodded her head, turning her attention back to her prep work. “Yeah, I am, Rosie. It’s just nice to see those two so together again.” She wasn’t going to explain to Rosie the significance of what Gwen was holding. Reed figured Rosie knew what she meant without sharing classified details.
Rosie chuckled quietly, not wanting to disturb Gwen and Randi whose heads were now bent together over the small device talking in low tones. Then she sobered. “Reed, did you feel the ripple yesterday... like something odd in the forces of nature were shifting around you?”
Reed blinked and nodded. “Yeah,” she drawled. “That’s a good way to describe it. You think it has something to do with this?” meaning the Amazon situation.
“I hope so. I sure don’t want any more crises if we can avoid them.”
“Amen to that, sister! Let’s get the party started.” She contacted Shibata and soon they were lifting off, heading to wrap up one of their last few loose ends. Randi and Gwen didn’t even notice.
“You know something,” Gwen commented unexpectedly into the silence. Randi set aside her mission brief and gave Gwen her full attention, cocking an eyebrow in question. “This design would make a great tattoo,” motioning to the hand drawn design.
Randi couldn’t help it – her jaw dropped. “Ex... excuse me?” she stuttered.
Gwen looked up from the paper she held to Randi’s flabbergasted expression and frowned. “What?” she asked seriously. “This design is incredible and it’s all about us. I think it would make a fabulous tattoo.”
“It would,” Randi concurred immediately. “But I never expected to hear something like that from you, Gwen. You cringed when you found out about the nipple piercings, and that was a one-shot, single needle operation – took about ten minutes from start to finish. A genuine tat like that involves a number of needles and depending on where it’s placed and how big it is, a minimum of five hours... probably more.” Societal advancements aside, some things were still done the old-fashioned way – tattoos being one of those. It was looked on as a coming of age and those who were serious about them disdained any other form of application citing the finished product made the pain bearable and in some cases, even welcome. Gwen swallowed hard as the implications of what Randi was saying sunk in. Then she nodded her head determinedly.
“I’d like to get this one done. I like what it represents; I like what it says... about us.”
Randi smiled - a smile that reached the depths of her eyes. “All right. When we get finished here with the Amazons, I’ll give Ahmed a call. He does the most incredible body art; he’s the one who did the one on my shoulder blade – the one I did for my mom and dad.”
Gwen’s eyes lit up. “Really? That’s amazing; he did such fine detail on that.” They had talked about the reason for and meaning behind the art, but not about the artist; she hadn’t realized he was so close. “Could we go see him work?”
“Sure, love. Whatever makes you feel comfortable.” And then a shuddering in the air around them brought them back to the present and Randi looked towards the cockpit with a frown on her face. “What the hell is going on? Are they firing on us?”
“Um... I think they are supposed to be guiding us in. We are obviously unexpected... and mostly unwelcome, it appears.”
Gwen was out off the couch and in the cockpit almost before Randi could react. “Give me a visual, Reed and put me on audio. NOW, please.”
Reed didn’t blink at the authority that rang through Gwen’s tone, but Rosie watched in fascination as Gwen transformed before her eyes into the Amazon Queen. It was subtle, but the changes were there and they were apparent.
“Do not veer from your instructed flight path,” the voice was droning when Gwen cut in decisively.
“Amazons, this is Queen Gwen. I know you have been made aware by the honor guard who is traveling with me that we are approaching the Nation in a royal shuttle with the Empress. You will cease and desist all aggression towards us immediately and move that greeting party back ahead of us to the mountain. Is that understood??” The Amazon facing the screen hesitated and Gwen got right into the screen. “I said, do you understand?”
“Yes, my queen,” turning and giving the order. The fighters instantly shot ahead of the two shuttles.
“I expect the senior staff waiting at the landing pad when I arrive.”
“Yes, my queen,” came the voice again, but Gwen had already moved away from the screen. Randi just watched Gwen walk back towards her, enjoying the visual. Green eyes sparked fire and nostrils flared while she clenched her fists regularly.
“Wow!” Randi breathed and gave Gwen a sexy grin. “That was amazing.”
Almost automatically in response, Gwen relaxed and cocked her head at Randi. “What was?”
“Watching you become the Amazon Queen.”
Gwen dropped down beside Randi and leaned her head on her shoulder, gratified when Randi’s arm wrapped around her. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” her tone honestly puzzled.
Randi pulled back just slightly and looked at Gwen incredulously; then she realized that Gwen’s confusion was genuine. “Gwen, until last night, though you’ve never been particularly shy about your wants and needs when we’re together, you’ve never been aggressive either. And you’ve certainly never barked orders like a Sabre commander,” the last added with a teasing grin.
Gwen smiled briefly then chewed her bottom lip in thought. “I don’t feel any different, but I’ve never been in this sort of authoritative position before either. Maybe it’s just because I’m really good at playing a part. It is what I do as a bard after all.”
“Not always, love. You tell your best stories when you’re just being Gwen. Maybe it has something to do with our merging?” Randi continued without giving Gwen a chance to catch her breath over her casual words. Then they were landing and that thought was pushed to the wayside for the foreseeable future. It was time to focus on the Amazons.
“My lord, are you sure about this? We are not prepared for their arrival yet.”
Ares shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, Lorac. Let them come... settle in for a few days. We can afford for them to be here. There’s no way they can stop us and when all is said and done... well, I will rule the world and you will be my chosen warriors. So invite them in and show them Amazon hospitality. I think your Queen and the Empress deserve that much respect, don’t you?”
Lorac nodded hesitantly. Ares grinned. “Good girl,” he said condescendingly. “Now run along and go meet your queen,” said with a sneer. “I believe she demanded your presence in the landing pad when she arrived, so chop, chop. Don’t want to keep her waiting, do you?”
Lorac nodded again and walked haltingly out of the room to make her way down to the landing area. Ares watched the closed door for long moments before turning back to the monitors. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, missing his scrying bowl but thankful for the ability to watch his immediate surroundings, especially with Randi’s imminent arrival. He smiled again – this time coldly and maliciously.
“What are you playing at, Randi? Why are you here?”
“You ready?” Randi asked Gwen as Reed completed her post flight shutdown. The Sabres on the second shuttle had their instructions and had scattered to attend to their various duties as soon as the shuttle was settled on the pad. Half of them would assume positions around Randi and Gwen when they disembarked from their shuttle, forming the first honor guard. The rest gathered the gear and luggage, a majority of which was the bags carrying the antidote. Lacey was going to lead that group and would start distributing the medicine immediately... as soon as they were escorted to their rooms.
Lacey led her squad off first, moving over to the side and waiting for the other team to descend and form an honor guard for Randi and Gwen. Jess stepped up and rapped lightly on the shuttle door, then moved back and waited for it to open. Then the entire room froze and stood staring.
The Sabres were all decked out in black fatigues – standard issue uniforms for this sort of mission. Even Rosie had been outfitted to look like part of the unit. Randi and Gwen had been similarly clothed when they had entered the shuttle. So it was quite a surprise to the Sabres, but not one of them twitched. The Amazons, however, were gobsmacked.
Gwen stood on the cusp of the shuttle - her bearing regal, her expression stern – looking every bit the Amazon Queen of legend. The leathers were a rich, red-brown color, soft like suede and decorated with gold filigree. The halter top enhanced the fullness of her breasts and showed off the muscularity of her toned abs. The short skirt flared softly around full hips and highlighted the evident strength of her legs. Even the boots did nothing to hide their sculpted physique.
A long cape hung off one shoulder, the pelt dark and thick. To everyone looking, it gave her the appearance of being surrounded by Randi – a fact given credence to by the formidable presence standing behind Gwen and to her right.
Randi’s leathers were a little more conservative but did not take away from the impressive figure she cut. The trousers were dark – sleek and smooth and form-fitting, outlining each individual muscle precisely. Her top tied off neatly under her rib cage, allowing for a good look at the six pack stomach and the chiseled arms and back.
Without ceremony, Reed stepped up behind Randi and draped a long, red-blonde cloak over on shoulder and it became readily apparent to everyone exactly what statement was being made by the two women. When Reed stepped back, Randi extended her arm and Gwen took it as they walked off the shuttle together.
The honor guard remained standing, but the rest of the women, Sabre and Amazon alike, knelt as they emerged from the shuttle. Almost immediately, Randi released the Sabres from obeisance. Gwen, however, allowed the Amazons to remain in their kneeling position for another full minute before she commanded them to stand.
“Welcome, my queen,” Lorac said softly. “You are unexpected, but most welcome.”
“Really? Then why were we being fired upon?” She held up her hand when Lorac drew breath to speak. “Don’t bother to lie to me, Lorac. You knew who we were and there will be punishment meted out for such blatant treason. You will escort us to our quarters, then we will adjourn to the conference room to discuss this. Am I understood?”
“Yes, my queen.” Lorac lowered hr eyes so Gwen could not see the rage she felt. She couldn’t wait until this interloper got what was coming to her. Then the Amazons would finally be able to take their rightful place as the warrior guardians of the world order.
“Good... let’s go.”
“By your command,” motioning Gwen and Randi towards the elevator. Gwen shuddered when the door closed behind them, her mind going back to her forced separation from Randi at Ben’s hand. Randi responded to her silent terror by wrapping a strong arm around Gwen’s shoulders and brushing a kiss on her hair. Gwen looked up in reaction, feeling the horror fade in the light of Randi’s love shining back at her from those very blue eyes.
Lorac watched unabashedly – something wasn’t right. This was not what she expected from these two – not what Ares had told her would happen. They were supposed to be cold and distant with one another. Gwen was standing between Randi and greatness... between the Amazons and their destiny. But her eyes told Lorac that Gwen was right where Randi wanted her to be... by her side. So what was really going on? Why would Ares lie? He was committed to them, and they to him... right?
The elevator stopped and Lorac stepped off first, holding the door open and waiting for both Randi and Gwen to exit before gesturing down the hallway towards the executive suite. They’d had to scramble to get it ready, though fortunately, they had been working on it before Gwen’s surprise arrival. The honor guard formed around them and the remainder of the unit walked off a second elevator immediately behind them. Then they followed Lorac into the suite.
Large as the room was, it was crowded with sixteen people and their gear and luggage. Still, this was where they would maintain a headquarters of sorts. Without a word, the honor guard took places around the room and the rest spread out, negligently removing surveillance equipment with ease. Randi’s expression didn’t change, but Gwen’s grew darker and Lorac became increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed. When Shibata nodded the all clear, they put the gathered equipment into a pile and started to demolish it piece by piece.
Meanwhile, Lacey clapped Lorac around the neck and led her to a seat at the small conference table. Lorac slapped at her hand and scowled. “What the hell did you just poke me with?”
Lacey smiled. “Give it a few minutes. I imagine you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself.” As a precaution, Lacey dragged an empty basin over beside Lorac, then sat down and waited. Randi wandered around the room, checking things out and giving whispered instructions to the Sabres. All but three left in the room – one destroying the spy paraphernalia, one that stayed guard at the door and Lacey. The rest moved out into the hall to claim and clear the rooms on either side and across the hall. Then they moved to the conference room to clear it of bugs as well. The waiting Amazons were not happy with their actions, but they did nothing to stop it either.
Gwen walked over to the screen that served as a window and focused on something beyond the picture. Randi walked to stand behind her – not touching, but close enough to let Gwen feel the strength of her presence. Gwen didn’t speak, but stepped back into Randi’s body, smiling when Randi turned it into an embrace. Then the sound of retching made her flinch just slightly and she curled into Randi’s arms. Randi leaned forward and started singing softly into Gwen’s ear. Very quickly, it became the only sound either of them was aware of.
Lacey watched them even as she offered comfort to Lorac. It was as though, now that they had finally come together again, nothing could touch them. And she realized what a great thing that was as so much depended on that very reality, Lacey wiped Lorac’s face carefully and offered her a bottle of water to rinse her mouth. She realized that Lorac’s focus was on Randi and Gwen as well and looked back in their direction for a moment before turning back to Lorac.
“You all right?” handing her some mint and dropping a ginger tablet into her water.
Lorac blinked and brought Lacey’s face back into focus, cradling her head and eating the mint. “Ow... what happened? What did you give me?” Lorac groaned and covered her face. “Oh Artemis... tell me that what I am remembering is a bad dream.”
“What do you remember?” Gwen’s voice was cool but not hateful. Lorac looked up and saw the reserve in a face that had been much more open to her only days previously. Her eyes closed and she dropped to one knee in deference.
“My queen,” she whispered, her voice once again filled with respect. “My apologies, your majesty. I’m not sure....”
“Lorac, what do you remember?”
“Ares,” she replied softly. “He came... he made promises... said he would restore the Nation to greatness.” She swallowed hard, not wanting to throw up again. “He has... he has been impregnating us. We are to be the mothers of his immortal army.” She couldn’t stop the retching this time. Gwen picked up the cloth Lacey had been using to wipe Lorac’s face and knelt down, wiping the back of her neck. Lorac looked up with bloodshot eyes.
“Why what, my friend?”
Lorac sipped her ginger water, gratefully feeling it settle her stomach. “Why us? Why this? HOW this?? And why are you...?”
Gwen took a seat on the floor and motioned Lorac to do the same. She was peripherally aware of Randi and Lacey moving to take seats nearby, but she kept her attention on Lorac. “We believe Ares chose the Amazons for a number of reasons. Frankly, the Amazons are the most viable choice for readily trained warriors and the fact that he can use it as a ‘screw you’ to me and Artemis and the Nation just makes it sweeter for him.”
“The good news is no one has gotten pregnant and we have the antidote for the loyalty drug he administered to the Nation to ensure Amazon cooperation. The bad news... the bad news is you have to physically dispel what amounts to poison in your system.” Her voice dropped. “And you will remember everything.”
Lorac covered her eyes with her hands. “Oh God!”
“I’m sorry, Lorac. I would have prevented this if I had known.”
“How did he do this?? How did he dispense a drug to commit us to him without our knowledge? I thought a warrior had to swear allegiance first.”
“They’re supposed to,” Randi broke in. “That is the reason we can distribute the antidote without your knowledge. You didn’t choose loyalty to Ares – you can’t be forced to remain that way. The antidote gives you the right to choose; if you swear allegiance to Ares now, it will be by your choice. If you make that choice then, the antidote will only work if you allow it to. Otherwise, it will kill you.”
“Is there enough antidote for everyone?”
“For the entire Nation with some left over,” Gwen said with a tender smile. “The bad thing is we have to administer it directly. The good thing is, it doesn’t take too long once we get it into your system. And as we cleanse Amazons, we can recruit them to help us spread it to the rest. First though,” Gwen said and slapped her hands on her thighs and accepting Randi’s help to stand, “I think we need to go take care of the rest of the senior staff. Once we have them, the rest should be much easier.”
“My queen,” Lorac asked as she stood shakily to her feet. “What are we going to do about Ares? He’s here... now... and probably more than a little frustrated about the fact that you have eliminated the only means he had for observing you here.”
Randi grinned, her smile so cold everyone in the room felt the temperature drop. “You leave Ares to me,” she said ferally. “I intend to take care of him once and for all.”
Lorac looked between Randi and Gwen. “You knew when you came?”
“Yes. It’s why we came early. This will be done on our terms,” Gwen said as she gestured Lorac to lead the way out of the suite. Randi touched her wrist and four Sabres met them as they crossed into the hallway. Then Lorac slowly led the way to the opposite end of the corridor where the executive conference room was now full of Amazon elders and council members.
They stood in a semi-circle around it while Lacey made sure she, Lorac, Randi and Gwen were well-supplied with antidote for the Amazons that were waiting inside the conference room. They didn’t want to be caught short as these were the most critical members of the society. Once they were treated, they would be able to distribute the drug more quickly and effectively. Lorac was still a little shaky, but assured Lacey she was good to go as she accepted the pouch and nodded her understanding of the delivery method.
Before she keyed open the solid wood door, Lorac turned to look squarely at Gwen. “My queen, how can you be so sure no one is pregnant by Ares? Surely as a god he is not impotent, and we are very aware of when we can conceive. His timing was perfect.”
“His timing may have been, but your petitioning wasn’t,” Gwen replied gently. “No one asked for dispensation from Artemis. The safeguards that were put into place for population control were not removed, and even Ares doesn’t have the power to break a covenant between Artemis and her chosen people. He may not have been shooting blanks, but he was shooting into a void.”
Lorac chuckled wryly. “The Nation gets a shot at him, he will be lucky to ever shoot again.” Then she turned and opened the door before Randi or Gwen could respond verbally, though neither of them could prevent the snickering that escaped their lips.
The Amazons in the room rose as a single body, though more out of habit than any sort of perceived courtesy. The resentment was entirely too clear in everyone’s expression. Lorac stepped into the room first, followed by Gwen and Randi together, and they felt the temperature drop further at the unspoken statement that equality made to the Amazons. Here, Randi was only seen as a consort, and it was presumption on her part to be seen as equal to the queen in any regard.
Nevertheless, there was little they could do about it until Gwen was made to see the error of her ways as Ares had promised them she would, so they bore it stoically. The Sabres brought up the rear and the four who were functioning as guards took up a watchful post in each of the room’s four corners. Lacey kept close beside Randi and Gwen, waiting and watching.
“Be seated, please.”
The Amazons hesitated, then resumed their seats, folding their hands on the table and waiting for Gwen to speak. Instead, she put her hand on the back of Nebula’s neck, holding it there and meeting her eyes. The anger in Nebula’s eyes melted before Gwen’s direct gaze and became a look of confusion. Gwen nodded in understanding and removed her hand, grabbing another vial from her pouch before moving to the next Amazon.
It was easier than they had reasonably expected it to be – mostly because their actions were completely unexpected. And by the time the Amazons had figured out something was going on, the first of them were already scurrying for the executive restroom – retching and puking the poison out of their systems in great, gasping waves.
It was quiet in the room otherwise, the only sound being that of more than a dozen women hurling their guts out. Lorac, still queasy from her own experience, took the seat that had been left vacant for her and laid her head carefully on the table. Lacey, Randi and Gwen did their best to make the women comfortable, though there really wasn’t much they could do aside from a cold cloth and adding ginger to the water sitting at each place at the table.
Slowly the sounds of people being sick lessened and one by one the Amazons made their way carefully to the long table, not willing to do anything that would disturb the precious balance they had managed to achieve. Each of them sipped at the ginger water Lacey had prepared for them, feeling its settling effects almost immediately and groaning in both relief and mortification.
“My queen,” Nebula said softly, wincing at the raw soreness of her throat. “What just happened here?”
So once more, Gwen explained to the Amazons what had happened to them at Ares’ hand and what steps had been taken to correct his machinations. There was a long moment when they were torn between fury and the desire to be sick again. Then cold, hard reason took hold and a grim determination settled over the gathered women and turned their focus towards recovering the Amazon Nation.
“What are we going to do about Ares? He is entrenched here, and it is going to take us several days minimum to get this antidote out to the people without arousing his suspicions... especially given how drained it leaves a body. God, this sucks.” Lorac paused and blew out a short breath. “We don’t want to arouse his suspicions, do we?”
“What instructions did he give you regarding us?”
Randi’s tone left no doubt in anyone’s mind who was in command at the moment, but Lorac’s eyes shifted from Randi to Gwen, waiting for the queen’s indulgence before turning back to answer Randi. She reached out and twined their fingers together, wanting everyone to understand the truth between them. Randi’s facial expression didn’t change at all, but Gwen could feel the joy running through her body. She motioned to Lacey.
Lorac nodded slowly, not wanting her head to fall off from any sudden movement. She jumped when Lacey came up beside her, but tilted her head when she realized her intention. “Thank you,” she murmured gratefully.
“I’m sorry you had to wait, but we wanted to be sure the poison was purged before....”
Lorac nodded a little more firmly now that the anti-nausea medicine was speeding through her system. “Oh, I agree. I would prefer not to have to suffer through this a second time because the first didn’t take completely. I feel like someone parked a transport on my head.” She rubbed the back of her neck, easing the knots from it, then turned her attention back to Randi and Gwen who sat waiting patiently for her to answer Randi’s query.
“Oh... um, sorry. Ares instructed us to fire at you, but not hit you. It was like it was a game to him. He was laughing until Queen Gwen appeared on the screen. Then he muttered something and instructed us to comply. He told me we could spare a few days to lull you into a sense of security before we made our move.”
“What is your move?”
Lorac shook her head. “He never shared the details. He told me that Gwen was standing between Randi and greatness and through us, he was going to help you reclaim your destiny. Then we would recapture our standing as the preeminent warriors in the world. Other than that, I do not know what he had planned for either of you... or for us.”
The room fell silent as Randi and Gwen contemplated Lorac’s words. There were just too many possibilities and Randi didn’t like leaving that kind of thing to chance. She turned to Gwen and the two of them held a wordless conversation between them for a very long moment. Then Randi nodded her head and looked back to the gathered women waiting patiently for her to say something.
“All right... it’s going to drive him nuts that he cannot spy on us here and if he wants to lull us into a sense of security, he’s either gonna remain in the dark about our activities except for what ya’ll report to him or he will go back to his scrying bowl on Olympus. Either way, we can use the circumstance to our advantage.”
“Well, it depends on what he does. If ya’ll can convince him things are still status quo, I think he will stay hidden out here – that would be my preference. He is cut off here, except for what comes in from the outside. He can’t go get information unless he physically leaves, and I think he will have a hard time doing that with me here.”
“So how does that work in our favor?” Gradually, the Amazons were returning to normal as Lacey medicated them, and despite the exhaustion plainly marking their faces, they were obviously finding a sense of purpose.
Gwen smiled. “It means we’ll get to yank his chain a little before we kick his ass,” and each of the Amazons in the room knew exactly which ‘we’ was going to be doing the ass kicking. They exchanged smiles. That was something they would take particular joy in watching. First, though, they were going to have a bit of fun tweaking Ares. They sat back to wait for Randi and Gwen to fill them in on what they had planned.
“Where have you been?? What took so long?? How could you let them removed the surveillance equipment??” Ares took a long look at Lorac’s pale features. “What’s wrong with you?” He threw himself into the couch as she eased her body into the matching chair and propped her head on her hands, covering her eyes.
“Ares, please. My head hurts.”
“Oh, baby... why didn’t you just day so?” He stood and walked behind her, dropping his hands on her shoulders. Lorac tensed to keep from flinching and Ares assumed it was from the stress of having Gwen and Randi around days before they were ready for them. He kneaded gently and Lorac found herself relaxing despite herself. Ares smiled. Penchant for war or not, there was something ultimately satisfying in taking victory this way as well.
After a few minutes, however, his impatient curiosity reared its head again and he began questioning Lorac again, though he was a little gentler in his queries this time. “So did you spend all this time with your queen and her consort?”
“Yes... damn bossy bitch!” she grumbled. “She just doesn’t know when to shut up; kept going on and on and on.” Lorac smirked. “She was more than a little angry about being shot at.”
Ares snorted. “She’ll get over it soon enough. Then she’ll be just another little concubine in my little harem here.” He chuckled. “However, tomorrow will be soon enough to start her conversion. What else happened? Surely she did not rant and rave for four hours about being shot at – even a bard has to shut up and breathe at some point.”
“Not her,” Lorac said with a grunt. “But the first hour or so was spent removing all the observation gear. They went right to it... like they expected it to be there. And they found it all – even stuff I didn’t know was there.”
Ares nodded his head sagely. “I should have expected as much; Randi is without a doubt one of the best warriors I have ever seen. I should have anticipated her lack of trust here in an environment not of her own creation.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “You and the rest will need to be extra vigilant. I want to know what is going on with them at all times... or as much as you can manage. Randi especially will not tolerate the scrutiny.”
Lorac reached up and patted his hands and Ares resumed his place on the couch. “All right – so what are their plans? They had to have shown up early for a reason.”
Lorac shrugged. “They didn’t really share. Basically all we got for our trouble was a real good ass chewing. I know they plan to go out tomorrow and walk around the city.”
Ares chortled. “Oh, they’re just itching to feel the love, aren’t they?” He rubbed his beard. “Well, just keep an eye on them and let me know if you find anything out. We’ll move our timetable up as much as possible to accommodate their early arrival. What’s going on tonight? Are you hosting a dinner party welcoming the queen?”
“No,” Lorac said, shaking her head. “She and her consort both made it clear our presence would not be welcomed by them for the remainder of the evening. It was suggested the tomorrow night might be a better choice... after they had a chance to get out among the Nation.”
“All right,” he agreed again. “That should be fine. It’s not like the Amazons will tell them about me, will they?”
“What will you do in the meantime?” Lorac asked. “It’s not like you want them to know you are here yet. Will you stay here in hiding or are you going to go back to Olympus until the time is right?”
Ares considered her words. “I’ll stay here,” he said after due deliberation. “Randi really can’t sense me and they are going to be much too busy fighting the resentment around here to notice me at any rate. I can’t do anything else until this is taken care of. Besides, I want to watch things fall apart for them once and for all and this will give me a front row seat.”
Lorac nodded and stood. “Okay. Now, if you’ll excuse me....” She forced herself not to jerk away when Ares caught her wrist in his grasp. “Ares, please... I really don’t feel well.” Truth, as far as it went. “I don’t know if it is the stress of dealing with Randi and Gwen while they were being completely nasty and unreasonable or if they brought some sort of virus with them from wherever or what. But all I want to do right now is go to bed and sleep for the next sixteen hours.” Again, the truth.
Ares looked at Lorac more closely and noted that not only was she pale, but her eyes were bloodshot and had deep, dark circles under them. He let go of her wrist and nodded his approval. “I think that is a good idea. It won’t do to have you out of commission when the time comes. Go get some rest. I have some things to check on myself.”
Lorac put on a concerned face. “You won’t get caught?”
“No,” he said with a chuckle. “No one has even ventured close to the area that I am using yet. I’ll be safe enough for the next few days. Now go. You have work to do tomorrow and you need to be rested up for it.”
He watched her walk into her bedroom and close the door before he shimmered and disappeared without flash, leaving no trace of his passage.
The water was warm and fragrant and Gwen leaned back in perfect contentment against Randi’s chest. The candles were their only source of light, but it seemed to fit in the old-fashioned bathroom. Besides, it was romantic and comfortable in a way they hadn’t shared in a while and both were entirely happy to remain where they were.
“So what do you think?” Gwen asked as she stirred the bubbles floating lazily in front of her, then trembled when Randi’s teasing touch caused goosebumps to trail up her skin. She leaned down enough to put her mouth even with Gwen’s ear, nipping the lobe before breathing her whisper.
Gwen closed her eyes. “You’re making it nearly impossible to think.” The vibration rumbling through Randi’s chest made Gwen open her eyes a slit – just enough so that Randi could see the green glare. She dropped a kiss at the juncture of Gwen’s neck and shoulder, delighting in the reciprocal shiver she received in response.
“I have been told that thinking is way overrated.”
“So is talking sometimes, but it still has to be done once in a while,” letting her fingers trail up and down Randi’s smooth, soft thighs. Randi’s legs had always intrigued her; they were so feminine to the touch and yet the whipcord muscle just beneath the surface was all power and strength. Gwen jumped when Randi’s teeth closed over her jugular and she let her tongue lave the spot before sucking lightly.
“Ya know,” Randi commented conversationally, though her voice was low and husky. She examined the well-placed hickey she had just created, kissing it and setting her hands free to wander over Gwen’s torso. “If you want to talk, you shouldn’t tease me.”
“Who’s teasing who?” the last word coming out as a whimper when Randi’s touch became a little more insistent.
“Still wanna talk?”
Gwen didn’t answer verbally; her body spoke for her... loud and clear.
The water was considerably cooler when they finally got out, wrapping one another carefully in long robes and towel drying their hair before moving back into the bedroom. Then they donned comfortable clothing, knowing the Sabres who were not sleeping now for a later guard shift would be joining them soon for dinner. Gwen’s eyes twinkled as she buttoned up the silk top, knowing Randi’s eyes were firmly fastened on her.
“Is it safe to try and talk now?” keeping the bed between them. She laughed softly at the blush that colored Randi’s face a light pink. Randi’s head snapped up, gauging Gwen’s loving expression before shrugging sheepishly.
“I can’t help it,” she said softly. “I know technically we’re still newlyweds, but after everything that’s happened, I feel like we’re starting new again. And given how long I have loved you....” She shrugged again and focused her gaze on the floor. “It just reinforces things so much... makes everything between us so intense for me. You can tell me to shut up any time here.”
Gwen had moved so silently that Randi’s first clue she was close was the touch of Gwen’s fingertips on her face. “Why would I do that, sweetheart? I love it when you talk to me, Randi – you have a very beautiful soul.”
Randi gave Gwen a crooked grin. “Is that why you married me? For my beautiful soul?”
“Your beautiful soul,” placing a kiss on one side of Randi’s mouth. “Your beautiful mind,” kissing the other side. “Your beautiful body,” capturing the full lips passionately for a long moment. “I like the whole beautiful package.”
Randi let her hands drop to Gwen’s waist, stepping closer and let them slide down around Gwen’s butt. “Ya do, huh?” leaning down....
... only to snap her head back up when a pounding sounded on the solid door that stood closed between the bedroom and the living area. She glared and as if in response to the look, Reed’s muffled voice came through the thick wood.
“You two can fool around later. Let’s go... I’m starving!!!”
Randi and Gwen swapped glances, then Randi engulfed Gwen in a hard, tight hug, letting the embrace last for so long that Reed felt the need to bang on the door again. Randi growled and picked Gwen up before striding towards the door. Gwen had enough presence of mind to wrap her arms and legs securely around Randi’s body just before Randi let go of her with one arm and jerked the door open.
Everything in the living room ground to a dead halt and the silence was palpable as every single eye turned in Randi and Gwen’s direction. Randi glared in Reed’s direction. “Is there a reason you need us here to begin the meal?”
Reed glared back at her, returning stare for stare – comfortable that she could get away with it... especially since not only could she feel the giddy happiness emanating from both of them, but also from the twinkle she could see lurking in the back of bright blue eyes.
“Yeah... it’s your turn to say grace,” came the drolly delivered comment. “We can’t eat til you say ‘amen’.”
“AMEN,” Randi snarled, causing a ripple of laughter to skitter around the room before it broke out into waves. The Sabres began moving again, taking their seats around the table. Randi looked down at the tapping on her chest and got lost in the green gaze reflecting so much devotion. Then Gwen blinked and smiled shyly, crinkling up her nose in reflex. Randi returned the look without thought of effort, then scowled. “You want something?” she mock growled.
“Um... you wanna let me down?”
“Not really, no,” Randi answered with painful honesty. “But I suppose I should so my team doesn’t hurt themselves trying to ignore us, huh?” looking around the table at the women who were studiously focused on their food while making quiet conversation. Gwen followed her gaze and chuckled soundlessly, sliding down Randi’s body when Randi released her.
“C’mon, Empress. I’m starving and something smells really good.”
Reed laughed, hearing Gwen’s comment. “Yeah, between Rosie and Shibata, eating on this mission will a treat.”
Gwen turned from filling her plate and looked at Randi. “Meals are usually bad?” She didn’t miss the shudders or grimaces that went around the table.
“Trail rations,” Randi mumbled. There was a muted groan from several of the women, but Reed and Jess chuckled softly behind wide grins. Gwen’s head swiveled around and pinned them with a questioning look.
“Of course, some of us carried more than just trail rations, didn’t we, Randi?” Randi just glowered at both of them before turning her attention back to her meal. This time Jess laughed aloud, choking when Randi put her fingers in her ears. Reed just howled; Gwen gave a smiling sigh and took one of Randi’s hands in her own and held on with loving exasperation.
“What?? Are they going to tell me you carried edible underwear or something equally scandalous?”
Now the entire table hooted and clapped. Randi’s eyes grew round and horrified. “No! You know I don’t like that stuff!” watching the red suffuse Gwen’s face. Gwen cleared her throat awkwardly, but kept her attention on Randi, whose expression was now one of chagrin for what she had revealed. The rest of the group continued to chortle, enjoying the byplay they were witnessing.
“Right,” Gwen agreed. “I know all kinds of fun and fascinating things about you. What do you think anyone here is going to tell me that is going to come as a great surprise?”
“I don’t think that’s the problem, Gwen,” Reed offered with a smile. “You see,” garnering everyone’s attention and watching Randi’s expression become sheepish. “Randi had a weakness for chocolate, as I’m sure you’re very well aware of. She is especially enamored of those little, miniature chocolate bars. And when we went out on missions, she always, ALWAYS carried a supply with her.” Reed paused and shared a knowing smile with Randi, who shrugged and motioned for her to continue.
“Those of us who were already Sabres at the time,” smirking in Randi’s direction, “and were assigned to the training unit as instructors remember when Randi was still a babe in arms... so to speak...” She looked directly at Gwen. “First you have to understand that while a Sabre is in training, every training mission is carefully monitored by the non-com in charge. Her very first training mission, the sarge went to check through her bags. She had everything she was supposed to... and a single bag of miniature chocolates.”
“Well, the sergeant decided to make an example of her and took them out of her gear, intent on making a point.”
Gwen turned her attention back to Randi, a devilish gleam sparkling in her green eyes. “You didn’t.”
“You bet I did,” arms crossed and chin jutting out defiantly. “Took him down and wrapped him up like he was a novice. Not once... not twice... but three times.”
“Gwen... she kicked his ass. And she made her point. It really did take her knocking him down three times before Nyugen understood that Randi wasn’t gonna let him kick her around regardless of his rank. The few of us that witnessed it were under strict orders not to reveal anything, including anything about her secret chocolate stash. As long as it remained unofficial, Randi could carry her chocolate; no one would be the wiser.”
“The only problem was Randi shared with some of us,” Jess cut in. “Oh... not about Nyugen; none of us had heard that story before,” glancing around the table at the others who shook their heads negatively. “But she did share her chocolate sparingly... and some of us figured out to bring our own.”
“Did Nyugen continue to give you problems after that?”
“Nope,” Randi said, going back to her dinner. “He learned and actually took the time to make me better. We became friends.”
Gwen’s eyebrows went into her hairline. “Really?”
“Yep.” Gwen was sure no one else noticed, but Randi’s tone indicated there was more than friendship between them. Gwen swallowed hard, trying to rid herself of the wash of jealously she felt. Instead, she focused her attention on her meal once more.
“I still miss him sometimes,” Reed offered. “He was the best kind of Sabre.”
“He was,” Randi agreed softly. Gwen forcibly put her jealousy aside and covered Randi’s hand.
“What happened to him?”
“He saved my life,” Randi said after a long moment of silence. “Said it was payment for an old debt.”
“Empress...” swallowing when Randi’s head snapped in her direction; “Commandant....” Ariel stopped speaking when Randi cleared her throat.
“All right, ladies... my name is Randi. This is just like it would be if we were on a mission together. You will need to use the titles until we get the Amazons turned around, but honestly, I don’t want to hear them otherwise. Please.”
The Sabres nodded and Rosie chose that moment to speak up. “So, Randi... do you think Ares will buy Lorac’s story?” She set a large chocolate cake in the center of the table and Gwen got up to retrieve the milk and some glasses. When Jess saw what Gwen was bringing, she moved to grab enough glasses for everyone while the rest moved swiftly to clear the table. The interlude gave Randi a chance to formulate her answer. When everyone was seated again, Randi spoke.
“I do think Ares will believe Lorac... for several reasons. The most important is he really has no reason not to. He is too busy right now either trying to figure out why I am here early or how he can get some sort of surveillance equipment in here to find out what is going on. I have already sent for another two teams to join us tomorrow.” She pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Secondly, he is convinced that he is gonna win. He really believes I am going to call him to join me. And lastly, he doesn’t know that we are all already immune to that crap he’s given the Amazons. By the time he figures it out, we will have restored the women here to their normal lives. However,” she added in all seriousness, “I do not want anyone eating or drinking from the Amazon supply until Shibata and Jess have cleared it. And if you get cut or poked... anything you would consider an invasive injury, have Lacey check it immediately.”
“Why?” Rosie asked reasonably. “If he doesn’t know we’re immune....”
”Because this... me... I have become an obsession for him. Despite his supreme confidence in himself, at this point I think he is paranoid enough to ‘tweak’ his formula... just to ensure that success one more time.” She shrugged. “I know it sounds contradictory, but Ares has made less and less sense lately. I suspect this quest of his made have genuinely driven him mad and I am too much of an unknown variable for him to just assume anything will work like he expected it to at this point. I would just prefer to err on the side of caution.” She paused and looked at Gwen, her voice growing quieter. “Enough people have died for us – we don’t want to lose anyone else.”
“As long as neither one of you do anything stupid,” Shibata said firmly.
“No worries there,” Gwen replied. “We made a deal about that. We plan to be celebrating anniversaries together for a very long time to come.”
“Great,” Reed said dryly, trying to lighten the mood. “Does this mean I can have chocolate cake now?”
Randi turned outraged blue eyes in her direction. “Do you like living dangerously or something?”
Reed blinked, truly perplexed by the question. “Excuse me?”
“Do you like living dangerously or something?” Randi repeated slowly. “Did we not just have a discussion about how seriously I take my chocolate, and then you sit there and think I am going to share this ‘Death by Chocolate’ cake??”
Suddenly Reed realized Randi was teasing, showing a playful side they had never seen from her as a Sabre. She glanced between Randi and Gwen, able to see the bond between them even with their shielding in place, and she couldn’t stop the tears from forming. Randi raised an eyebrow, knowing instinctively that Reed’s tears were real and had nothing to do with her teasing. Unexpectedly, Jess broke in with a grin.
“Well, boss,” she drawled in a bantering tone. “We figured since you had Gwen now, you wouldn’t need chocolate anymore... or at least there would be enough chocolate for everyone to have a share.”
Randi’s eyebrows shot up, but she bit her bottom lip to keep from smiling. Gwen couldn’t stop the blush, but she didn’t try to contain her laughter. She reached over and covered Randi’s hand with her own, clearing her throat when Randi focused her powerful attention in Gwen’s direction.
“I hate to admit it, but she’s got a point,” Randi admitted and hands reached for the small plates, then froze when Randi held up her free hand. “*However*,” she continued gruffly. “How can I be sure that my good nature is not being taken advantage of?” She kept her eyes locked with Gwen’s. “What’s in it for me to be nice?”
Gwen smirked, a confident, sexy look that she knew Randi loved on her and one she wore well. “Don’t you worry, Marine. You take good care of your team; I’ll take good care of you. It’ll be worth any sacrifice you have to make here.”
Blue eyes widened comically. Randi could not believe Gwen had been so forward in front of people who were, to her anyway, mostly strangers. The cheers and catcalls just made it seem all the more unreal. Then she realized Gwen could see Reed’s distress and was giving them a chance to get away without drawing attention to her. Randi stood and pushed the cake to the center of the table. She extended her hand to Gwen, who took it and rose smoothly to her feet.
“Save me a piece,” she instructed, her eyes never leaving Gwen’s. “Let’s go negotiate terms for this sacrifice I’m making,” and they left without a backwards glance behind them, closing the door firmly when they crossed into their bedroom.
“Wow!” Shibata muttered. “Where can I find something like what they have? I can hardly keep a man in my life long enough to find out his name, much less....” waving her hand in Randi and Gwen’s general direction. “Surely everyone is entitled to that sort of connection at some point in their life.”
Rosie chortled sadly and shook her head. “Shibata, in a perfect world, everyone would be entitled to find love with their soul’s other half. But this world is far from perfect and there is no entitlement to love, much less anything else. Most of us do find love and companionship and we consider ourselves blessed... which we are. They are two of the most special feelings one human being can share with another.” She paused and drew a deep breath, helping herself to a slice of cake.
“But to find and hold on to what Randi and Gwen have... it is very, very rare to find – much less keep. It cost them dearly to find one another initially and they have suffered greatly through their lifetimes to hang on to what they have.”
“Do you know the whole story, Rosie?” Jess asked. Rosie shook her head slowly as she chewed.
“No... only bits and pieces. I’ve seen the Amazon scrolls, but they only give part of the original story. Gwen has told small parts of unrecorded stories from that first lifetime... but it was enough to show that their lives together were plagued with hardship and conflict. Like now, they were happiest together and they did have some wonderful experiences, but they also endured tremendously. Don’t think their happiness does not come without great sacrifice and price.”
Jess and Reed both nodded their agreement. Shibata shook her head and focused on her cake, chewing several mouthfuls slowly. The rest ate quietly, content to listen and learn from the ongoing conversation. Shibata picked up her milk and drained it. Only then did she turn her attention back to Rosie who was slowly finishing her own milk.
“So are you saying we shouldn’t want what they have? That what they share isn’t worth the price they pay to be together??”
“Oh no, child... not at all. What they have together is an amazing thing, and if everyone could find the same, the world would be a much nicer, much happier place. And I’m sure Randi and Gwen would pay any price asked of them short of separation to have and maintain the soul bond that they do – they HAVE paid every price asked of them, and they would both tell you it was worth it... because what they know together is beyond price.” She sighed.
“What I am trying to make you see, Shibata, is two-fold. First, you should always love with an open heart and an open mind – you never know when love will cross your path, but if you are so busy searching for a soulmate, you will miss the love that is right in front of you. Don’t discount love simply because it is not a soul bond or what you think a soul bond should be. Love with abandon... you will be much happier for it.”
“Secondly, every happiness in life comes with a price – that is just the way of things. There is balance in all things, but balance does not make life fair. Don’t expect a free ride, especially in matters of the heart; it won’t happen and you will forever be disappointed.”
“Were you ever disappointed, Rosie?” Reed asked, cocking her head in inquiry.
“As a kid? Yeah, several times. I was so sure I was in love, and it always broke my heart to find out I wasn’t.” She chuckled. “Of course, the broken heart only lasted until the next boy came along.” She stopped and her eyes grew thoughtful. “That all changed the day I met Stephen.”
“Love at first sight?”
“Oh no,” she snorted through her laughter. “Mutual antagonism. We were ready to kill each other.” Now the rest laughed along with her. Finally Ariel recovered enough to speak.
“Yeah,” Jess cut in. “And what happened?”
“Well, we met at a protest of sorts... on opposite sides, naturally. He wanted more open land; I was in favor of planting more trees. Now I know that sounds rather tame... especially compared to what you have been through as Sabres and what we have all been through recently. But the environment and the best way to protect its resources was something we were both equally passionate about, and we butted heads over a number of environmental issues in the beginning.”
“So what happened?” Shibata asked this time.
“We talked to each other. It took months, but we eventually realized that we were fighting for the same things – we just saw the big picture a little differently. Talking brought into focus the things we disagreed on, but it also highlighted the many things we saw eye to eye about. And that gave us a basis for friendship and from the friendship, love grew.” Rosie drew a shuddering breath. “We had sixteen wonderful years together before he died.” A beat. “I still miss him. But ya know something – the loneliness I feel now because he is gone is worth it to me because of what we had together while he was alive.”
“Were you soulmates?”
“No,” Rosie said honestly. “But we were good friends and we were very much in love with one another. We were a good match, as my mother used to say.”
“You’re lucky,” Jess said wryly. “My mother has never been fond of Chase. Thinks he is too much of a playboy to ever settle down and be serious about our relationship.”
“Um... my mother still isn’t sure what to make of Tiny,” Reed contributed. “She likes him well enough, but it offends her sensibilities that we are not married, even though we have been in a committed relationship for the better part of eight years.”
Lacey laughed. “My mother loves Nicky so much, I think I have been replaced as the favorite daughter. Once in a while it works in my favor, but when they gang up on me....”
“At least you didn’t have to explain to your mom why you would like to date the enemy,” Brenda said, referring to the ex-rebel she had very recently become friendly with. “My mother still has not forgiven me for just wanting to become friends with Jamal... not after all the shit we went through to rid the world of, in her words – his kind.”
“I don’t think my mother would care if my significant other was a rebel, a hermaphrodite or an alien species. She just wants me to bring someone home,” Shibata complained.
“So does mine,” piped up half a dozen others, then they broke out in laughter. When they finally stopped, Rosie wiped her eyes and fanned her face, trying to compose herself enough to speak.
“I realize this is serious business and I know there is a lot of work to be done. But I have to honestly say that I am enjoying this. Getting to know you girls has been a real treat for me.”
“For all of us, Rosie,” Reed confirmed. “This mission is so different from many we have been on. Despite the gravity of the situation, it is nice to be able to just kick back and have a little time for girl talk. We don’t get to do that nearly enough.”
“Almost never,” Brenda confirmed. “Since we’ve always had mixed teams, the guys never wanna listen to it, and usually, there is precious little time to sit around and just share like this.”
“Maybe we should make an effort to try a little more often, once this is all over,” from Lacey.
“I like that idea.”
Several answers and nods of approval went around the room and it brought smiles to everyone’s faces to feel the enthusiasm they shared. Several of them had privately wondered how things would change for them with all the transformation taking place throughout the world. It was gratifying to know they were all interested in maintaining the friendships they had formed despite the alterations and adaptations that were changing the world and their place in it. Now all that remained was to see how life would change for them.
“Well, now that we have the future decided,” Reed remarked with a grin that was echoes around her, “I think we need to break this party up.” Groans followed her pronouncement but everyone shifted to begin preparing for the night. “I know,” she pacified, “but this is a mission and we still have work to do. Brenda, Ariel and Shibata have first watch correct?”
They nodded. “All right. Wake the next watch in four hours. Lacey is off watch rotation until we get the Amazons taken care of. The rest of you know your assignments. Anyone have any questions?” Silence was her answer. “Good. Let’s pack it in.”
They moved swiftly and silently, separating and heading to their rooms. The three remaining hefted their weapons, and after a brief discussion, split up. Brenda stood watch near the bedroom door; Ariel took the darkened corner in the kitchen that allowed her a view of the entire suite without being seen; and Shibata took the outside corridor. Then they settled in to watch as quiet settled around an uneasy Amazon Nation.
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