A Valiant Heart

By D




Valiant, you are nothing but a coward, you big chicken! She was disgusted with herself, but at a loss to know how to fix it. Instead, she continued on her way, sighing in relief when she arrived home. She bypassed the house entirely, going directly to the deck. She sat there for a long while, contemplating the water in front of her. An idea began to form in her mind, and she walked down toward the water to study the possibilities. Even this far south, the water was chilly toward the end of winter, so she stopped short of actually entering it. But enough of her plan had taken shape, that she could get started laying the ground work. By the time the water was warm enough, she would be ready. A smile crossed her face, and she relaxed a little. Until she realized she had to go back to work. A look at the sky told of the lateness of the hour, and she knew most everyone should be gone, so she could return and work uninterrupted for a while. Maybe it would be better if I did my work when no one’s there, anyway. I am sick of trying to deal with people.

It was quiet when she entered the office area. She had made a few spot checks, overall pleased with the security level around the complex, but still finding a few things that needed work. She made note of these, and got down to taking care of the things that needed her attention. Much later, she headed back home. She was too tired to notice the message light flashing on the vid phone, and went straight to bed. When she got up in the morning, she deleted it sight unseen, not realizing her error until it was too late.

For six days she followed this pattern, sleeping late and staying at home until late evening, when she went in to Midas and took care of whatever business needed tending to. Tommy noticed her work was getting done, even though he never saw her. He thought strongly about confronting her, but decided to wait and see if she would come to him first. He had no idea how quickly things were coming to a head.

"C’mon in," Tommy called out to whoever was knocking. His PA was out of the office on personal business. Just as well, considering Randi’s earlier episode. He wasn’t too surprised to see Gwen standing in his doorway, and he beckoned her in and gestured her to shut the door. He motioned for her to be seated and waited for her to begin. He didn’t have long to wait.

"Tommy, what’s going on?"

"I’m not sure I understand the question, Gwen." Not deliberately trying to evade, but wanting to be clear on what she was asking.

"What’s up with Randi?" she asked bluntly. "She didn’t call while I was gone, and she’s avoiding me. Did something happen. . . ?"

"Wait. What do you mean, she’s avoiding you? She thinks you’re avoiding her. And she said she tried to call all weekend, but you never picked up her calls,"

"Tommy, I wasn’t *home* all weekend. I took the time off to go visit my folks. She didn’t leave a message. I checked."

A silence in the room as they both considered what had been said. "Oh, dear. This could be a problem," said the woman.

"You aren’t kidding. But Gwen?"


"Let her come to you."

"Hmm," was her noncommittal answer. "Thanks, Tommy." And she left his office and went back to work.

By the time six days had passed, Gwen didn’t know whether to be more hurt or angry. At the moment, though, she was leaning heavily toward angry. And she decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. If she waited for Miranda Valiant to make the first move towards reconciliation, hell would freeze over before anything got done.

Randi walked into her office late that evening, having spent a bit of time making rounds with the night security, pointing out different things that needed work. Her attention was taken by some suggestions one of the personnel had made when she entered her office, that she didn’t notice she was not alone until she saw Gwen sitting in her chair. The Marine froze. Why didn’t they tell me she was here? I am in such deep shit!

The emerald eyes blazing at her pinned her in place. Even when the blonde woman rose from the chair and came around the desk, Randi couldn’t move. And the bard moved right into her personal space, poking at her chest to emphasize her words.

"Miranda Valiant! I have HAD it! We have to talk NOW. Sit."

The Marine obediently dropped into a chair. The blonde walked around the desk, but remained standing. "Now, would you like to explain what is going on?" in a quieter voice, but anger still laced her words and tone. When she was met with silence, she looked down at her folded hands and asked softly, "Why are you avoiding me? Aren’t we friends any more?" At the continued silence, the bard heaved a great sigh and rose. "I guess there’s nothing to say then. Goodbye, Randi."

A sound made her look up then, and she could see the tears trembling on the dark lashes of her friend’s blue eyes. The jaw was clenched shut in an effort to keep them from spilling over. One hand grasped the chair arm, but the other was reaching toward her imploringly. With a small cry, Gwen came around the desk and stood at the Marine’s side. She grabbed both hands and drew the taller woman up, leading her over to the small couch against one wall.

"I’m sorry. I’m sorry," Randi repeated over and over. The storyteller sat down, pulling the other woman down beside her, still clasping both hands. The Marine wouldn’t look at her, but kept her gaze on the floor while she repeated her mantra of apologies.

"Randi, look at me." A negative shake from the dark head. "Randi, please." A long hesitation before blue eyes met green. When their gazes locked, the Marine tried to pull away, turn away, but the small blonde held on for dear life. She pulled the older woman to her, and Randi fell apart in her arms, still whispering, "I’m sorry."

How long they sat there, the bard was unsure of but finally the tears seemed to abate. She gently wiped the traces of tears from Randi’s face. "You ready to talk now?" A nod. "Why are you sorry Randi? What happened, my friend?"

At those words, the Marine looked directly into Gwen’s face, and determined that even if she could only love this woman from afar, she would hold onto this precious friendship as tightly as she could. "I let you down," was all she whispered into the silence following the blonde’s question.

"How so, my friend?" Gwen continued to use the reference, as it seemed to bring some measure of comfort to the older woman.

"I forgot to tell you to come on over while I was gone, I forgot to call. When you didn’t answer any of my calls, I figured you were mad at me for being gone when you got here, and you didn’t want to be friends anymore," reminding Gwen of a small child when she looked away again.

"Okay, let’s tackle these one at a time, shall we? First of all, I will always, *ALWAYS* be your friend, your best friend, until you say otherwise, okay?" Randi gazed deep into the other woman’s eyes and saw the truth of her words there and nodded in agreement. "Okay, next. The reason I didn’t answer the phone when you called was because I wasn’t home. I went to see my folks, since I hadn’t had a chance since I got back. You could have left a message, you know," in a softly chiding tone.

"I know. But I wanted to apologize in person, and I thought you just didn’t want to talk to me." A beat. "I am sorry I forgot to call you. I hadn’t been home but a couple days, and something urgent came up. I had to leave out again immediately. I didn’t let anyone know."

Gwen hesitated now, choosing her words carefully. "Randi, I know there are some things in your life you have no control over, and can make no explanation for. But please, never, ever assume again that I don’t want to hear from you, even if it’s just a message on the machine as soon as you’re able." Another nod of agreement.

A long, but fairly comfortable silence ensued. Randi thought about broaching the subject of Gwen living with her, then thought better of it. Maybe in a year when her lease is up, and I have a better handle on things. She can still come over whenever. Finally, Gwen’s voice broke the stillness.

"C’mon, short stuff. Let’s get you home."

"I can’t go home, Little One. I’ve got work to do." And with the use of the nicknames both women realized they’d crossed the hurdle.

"Not tonight, you don’t. Let’s go, gunny. We both need some rest after this emotional ride."

Randi couldn’t argue with the logic. She was more tired now than she’d been after many extended Sabre outings. She allowed the smaller woman to lead her to her transport and take her home. When they arrived at the beach house, Gwen asked, "Do you mind if I crash here tonight? I am too tired to drive back."

"You know where your room is," the Marine answered. A pause. "Can I give you a hug?"

Without a word, the bard reached up and held on tight, squeezing with all her might. Randi returned the hug as fully as she could without causing injury to her friend. "Thanks, Gwen," she whispered.

"Anytime, my friend. Promise me you’ll talk to me first next time?"

"I promise."

"Goodnight, gunny"

"Ditto, Little One."

The next day, a Sunday, found Gwen up long before her tall friend. Unusual, but given the emotional upheaval the Marine had been through the previous evening, not all that surprising. She thought briefly of leaving and giving the older woman a bit of space, then remembered her vehicle was still parked over at Midas. So she took a long bath, after rummaging through Randi’s clean but unfolded laundry for some sweats to borrow. She chuckled at the picture she made when she stepped out of the bathroom, but at least she was clean, warm and comfortable.

She tried briefly to check the latest news updates, but found she was unable to access anything on Randi’s computer, and without it, she couldn’t turn on the holo imaging systems. She had never seen so many security failsafes on one system in her life, and it made her wonder what warranted such high security measures. She didn’t wonder very long, though. Her stomach chose that moment to announce its need, and she made her way into the kitchen to see what she could find.

It took her almost forty minutes to find the stuff she needed for pancakes and sausage. The actual cooking ingredients took less then fifteen minutes. Randi was somewhat meticulous about order and everything was pretty much where Gwen remembered it to be. Except the flour, because she had to go to the pantry and find a new container. It was the griddle that took so long to track down. Having never used it, she hunted all over the kitchen, finally finding it in the last possible cupboard towards the back.

She got it out, setting it up to heat while she mixed up her batter. When it was hot enough, she poured the batter on, and added the sausages to one side. She set a fresh pot of coffee on, and moved to the frig to get out the butter, syrup and milk. The bard almost slammed her head against the top of the open frig door when a low voice croaked behind her.

"Um, something smells really good in here." The tall woman reached up and grabbed a couple of plates. "Got enough for two there?" trying to look sad and pitiful, and not quite succeeding. Her sleep tousled look was simply too adorable.

"Hmm, I s’pose so," the blonde woman answered. "Especially as I made myself quite at home," tugging at the clothes she had borrowed and gesturing at the kitchen.

"I’m glad you did," Randi returned shyly. "In fact, I know it’s too late now, but I hope you’ll consider this a place to call home after your lease is up."

"You mean that?" A nod. "I’d like that." A big grin that lit up blue eyes was echoed in the big grin and green eyes facing her. Then they took breakfast off the griddle, and sat down to eat.

"Did you want to check out today’s current events?" the brunette asked her friend when the kitchen had been cleaned up.

"Yeah, I was gonna do that earlier, but I couldn’t get the holo emitters on."

Randi scratched the back of her head a little sheepishly. "Yeah. Sorry about that. My security system is pretty tight. Let me get you set up so you can do the basics at least when you’re here." So for the next while the two women worked to get Gwen in the system. She made a voice print, which the computer processed and stored, then a retinal scan. The obligatory hand scan was done, and she was in Randi’s system, and logging onto current events. It didn’t occur to her til later to wonder at the voice print and retinal scan, which she didn’t need to log on to use the basic functions. But she dismissed it soon after as part of the set up process. It would be much, much later before she realized its true purpose.



"You knew, even then, didn’t you, my friend? Knew that it would come to this. . . that your life would end this way. Knew that the only way you’d ever get the last word was to make sure I could access your diary."

The bard grew silent, knowing she would never get an answer from the silence, the complete loneliness that surrounded her now. Instead, she put her empty coffee cup on the counter, and walked out onto the deck. Headed toward the half mile long dock her Marine friend had built soon after that first real argument they’d had. Gwen remembered Randi’s enthusiasm for the project.



After they’d watched the news, catching up on what was happening in the rest of the world, Gwen rose, preparing to leave and give the Marine some space. Just as it was on the tip of tongue to ask for a ride back to Midas, Randi grabbed her hand and pulled her outside.

"C’mere. I wanna show you something."

Curiosity got the better of her, and she allowed herself to be lead along. They walked down the two steps of the deck onto the sand, and continued to move until they were very near the edge of the water. The brunette woman stood in silence for long minutes, just studying the horizon. The storyteller fixed her gaze on the water, allowing herself to feel the enormity of the vast expanse of space around them. She came back to herself with a bit of a start when her friend’s low voice burred quietly near her.

"This is where I’m gonna build it."

Green eyes blinked in confusion at the statement. "Build what, Randi?"

"Hmm? Oh, a dock, nice and long, with a comfortable boat house at the end."

"You gonna get a boat then?"

"Um, no. Well, I dunno. I hadn’t really thought about it."

"Oookaaaay," drawing the word out, a bit more confused. Then why build a boat house?" A logical question, the bard thought.

"Couple reasons, I guess. I saw a dolphin out here the other day, and I’d like a nice place to come sit and play with them from. Somewhere to keep some drinks and snacks, some towels, maybe have a shower, without having to track back to the house every time I need something. And if I’m gonna go to all that trouble, may as well make it a full fledged guest house. Tommy and Ella might like to bring the boat over, and I need a place to put them and that boat." She didn’t mention the fact that she’d like to have a place for Geoff and Jill to stay when they visited Gwen. It was quite presumptuous on her part.

Randi flushed a bit as she said this, thinking about surprising Gwen with a visit from her parents here. She knew she was coming perilously close to crossing a line she could not cross, but in truth, Jill and Geoffrey Goldman reminded her more than a little of her own parents. And she found herself liking them for themselves in spite of the fact that they were Gwen’s folks. The fact that they had both seemed to accept her unequivocally, accepting what she was able to give without pushing her for more than she was comfortable with sharing, only endeared them to her more. It was a nice feeling that she couldn’t afford to give into very often, but the look of excitement on Gwen’s face made the effort of this gesture more than worth it to the older woman.

"That would be so great. Did you really see a dolphin? Are you sure this isn’t too much work? Tommy and Ella will appreciate it, I’ll bet. What an awesome idea. Can I help?"

Randi had to chuckle just a little at the bard’s energy and enthusiasm. She was glad her project had been met with such open support. Shortly thereafter, she was giving the younger woman a lift back to Midas in her transport. Gwen had actually asked about the motorcycle, but had not come prepared for such a cold outing. The Marine promised her a ride very soon, when she was better prepared, and she stopped pouting in disappointment.

The following morning, early, Randi poked her head into Tommy’s office.

"T, you got a minute?" She had a contrite expression on her face, similar to one he had seen her use as a child.

"C’mon in, short stuff. Have a seat. What’s on your mind?" waving her to a chair and folding his hands on the desk in front of him.

"I uh," looking down at the floor briefly, before raising blue eyes to meet his brown ones. "I owe you an apology." Eyes dropped back to the floor.

"No more than I owe you." The dark head whipped up. "I was interfering in things not my concern. Well, not really my concern, except as to how they affect you, I mean." A wistful smile. "I did call and leave a message apologizing. . . . "

"That was you? I deleted it before saw it unthinkingly. I figured if it was important, whoever left it would call back."

"And I didn’t call back, thinking you were still mad." He chuckled. "We are quite a pair."

She smiled. "Yeah, we are. So, we’re okay?"

"Yeah, we’re okay."

Randi went to the door, and paused with her hand on the knob. "T, you wanna go get some ice cream?"

"Randi," he answered, looking at his watch, "it’s eight o’clock in the morning!"

"And your point?"

"Is sadly blunted, I’m afraid." He laughed again, and moved from behind his desk. "Fine, but this better not get back to Ella. She’s already threatening me with a diet." She smiled, but his laughter followed them out to the kitchen.

Things gradually smoothed out as the week progressed. Randi still heard the whispers about her standoffishness, but was frankly unconcerned. She was okay again with Gwen and Tommy, and the rest didn’t really matter to her. And mostly, people were content to leave her alone, disturbing her only when absolutely necessary. Not that she was violent or threatening to them, but she was rather short and brusque. The Marine did continue to come in late once a week, finding it worked better for her and her security team. They were able to accomplish several things they couldn’t attempt during the day, and Randi decided to implement some basic training courses for them during this time.

On Thursday, she had an unusual visitor. The man was cleared at the gate by her personally, and escorted to her office. The two of them stayed shut up in that room for several hours, without a sound. Then the dark haired woman personally escorted this huge man, who dwarfed her tall height by more than half a foot, back to his vehicle. Most surprising, she gave him a brief hug and a smile, both actions completely unheard of from her by almost all who knew her.

"Thanks, Tiny," she said quietly.

"Anytime, my friend." He smiled sadly. "It’s nice to be able to do something constructive together for a change." She nodded in agreement.

"You’ll have to come see the finished product."

"I’d love to, but you know how the boss feels about us fraternizing outside the job."

"Yeah, well, he can just get over it."

Tiny looked at the woman in amazement. He had never heard her be so rebellious before, but he could certainly sympathize with the sentiment. "I’ll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Tiny. But don’t do anything to get yourself in trouble, okay?"

He rolled his eyes drolly at her. "I live for trouble, remember?"

"Don’t we all?" with a smirk. Then they shook hands, and the large man left.

Friday afternoon, Gwen knocked on the door of the security chief. "What?" came the growling response. The blonde poked her head in the door.

The frown creasing Randi’s forehead smoothed out into a welcoming smile when she saw her visitor’s face. But it quickly reverted to the frown as she turned her attention back to the vid monitor in front of her. She waved the bard in, and silently motioned her to a chair.

"Look, Larry, I don’t care who you have to call, or what you have to do. . . I want that order put together and ready to deliver to my place by this time next week."

"But, Ms. Valiant, an order of this magnitude. . . . "

"No excuses, Larry. Just get it done." She closed the video reception, and turned her attention to her friend.

"Hi, Little One. What brings you my den of iniquity at this time of day on a Friday afternoon?"

Blonde eyebrows rose to her hairline. "Den of iniquity?"

"Oh, you haven’t heard those rumors?" The Marine grinned ruefully at the look of confusion that crossed the storyteller’s face. "I had a man in here alone for hours yesterday."

"Yeah. So?" A frown was quickly replacing the confusion.

Randi chuckled. "Gwen, I love you just the way you are. Don’t you ever go changing on me, okay?"

"Is that why they kept whispering and looking at you during lunch today?" The bard snorted. "For heaven’s sake. If they want to know so bad, why not just ask?"

"Because it’s much more fun to speculate. Besides, they all know better than to be minding my business. . . to my face, anyway." A beat. "You never answered my question, though. Did you come in to root out the secrets of my mysterious visitor?" A serious tone, but teasing twinkled from her eyes.

"Ya know," growling as low as she could manage, "if I thought you were serious, I’d slug you."

The Marine chortled. "It’d be worth it, just for the ferocious expression on your face right now."

Randi’s laugh was the bard’s downfall, however, and her grim countenance melted into a smile. "No, that’s not why I came in. I thought I’d stop by to see if you wanted to go do something tonight."

"Actually, I’ve got plans. . . ."


". . . but you’re welcome to come along with me."

"No, I wouldn’t want to butt in."

"You wouldn’t be butting in. I’m inviting you."

"No, I’d be a third wheel."

A third wheel. "Huh?" What is she. . . ??? OH! "No, you wouldn’t. A few guys and I, well, we get together most Fridays nights and play."


"Music. We’ve got a sorta band together, and we get together and play for a few hours. We all pitch in bringing food and drinks. They bring their families and partners. It’s a good time." A pause. "So, you wanna go with me? You know some of the people. Joey and Maria will be there with their little girl. Tommy and Ella usually show up before the night is over." Another pause, then she added, "Your folks went when they were here."

Green eyes grew wide. "You took my parents to a band party?"

A deep chuckle from the tall woman’s throat. "Oh yeah. Your mom was a riot. She got everybody up and dancing. They’ve been dancing ever since. I think they want to prove they can keep up with her next time she’s here. She outlasted everyone, including the band."

The blonde head dropped into her hands, and her shoulders shook with laughter. "Yep," she said when she could finally speak again, "that sounds like my mom. You remember the big party at Festival when we were up there."

"Yeah. But I didn’t tell them about that. They would have had her giving lessons."

Silence followed for as few moments as the two women sat remembering. The Marine broke the tableau. "So, you wanna go?"

"I’d love to go! Sounds like a lot of fun." She got up to leave. "Where and when?"

"Tell you what. Why don’t you just swing by your place and pick up some clothes for the weekend? I’ll be at the house by the time you get there."

"Great! Sounds like a plan." She walked to the door and had it partly opened when her friend’s voice stopped her.

"Don’t forget to pack something warm. We’ll take the bike out for a while tomorrow."

The blonde didn’t say anything in response, but the dazzling smile that lit up her face was an answer all its own.

Three hours later found the bard crossing the bridge Randi extended for her. She found it a bit disconcerting to be crossing this object that could literally be pulled out from under her, but the peace of the island always mace her forget her concerns in the interim. She got out of the transport parked at the door, and rang the chime.

"C’mon in, Gwen."

The blonde opened the door and walked in, finding the brunette in the kitchen. She looked quite at home and lovely in her faded jeans and very red sweatshirt, but it was quite a change from the black on black or white on black Gwen was used to seeing her outside her house in. Even around the house, the storyteller reflected, Randi stuck to mostly black and white, with jeans shorts, and the occasional khaki in warmer weather. So she just stood still and stared. The older woman caught the look on her friend’s face and looked down at herself in alarm trying to find the problem.


"You’re wearing color!!"


"And you never wear color. It’s just. . . shocking" A beat. "A nice shock, but still, very surprising."

"Uh huh. We’ll grab a case and we’ll go."


"Practice is over at Tommy’s place. He built a pavilion for us. Outdoors, but covered from the weather."

"Cool. Let’s go."

Band practice was interesting. Gwen was as accomplished a dancer as her mother, and was quite a popular partner with both the men and the women of the group. By and by, though, she grew tired of dancing, and took the four children there with their parents off to one side away from the noise, and started telling them stories.

It wasn’t long before the adults grew captivated by the sound of her voice and the tale she was weaving that they began drifting in that direction. Less than half an hour after she started, the band had stopped playing, and all eyes and ears were focused on the bard. She never noticed, as all her attention was trained on the children she was speaking to. It wasn’t until the overwhelming applause at the close of her story that Gwen looked around and saw her captivated adult audience. She blushed profusely, and apologized for ruining practice.

"You gotta be kiddin’, Gwen," from Joey

"Yeah," remarked Greg, "that was wonderful."

"Thank you for sharing with us, Gwen," added Jack’s wife, Patty.

She felt better when each of the children, ranging in age from five to eleven, gave her a hug and a whispered thank you. Especially when they asked her to come back again.

Practice broke for the night after that. It wasn’t until they got home that Randi had a chance to say anything to her.

"Interesting story. One of the new ones you’ve been working on?"

"Hmm? Not really. I actually made that one up tonight, just for the kids ."

"Wow! That’s amazing. You made it all up right then?"

"Yeah," looking down and blushing a bit. "I’ve got so many stories still to tell. I don’t think I’ll get them all told if I live a thousand years."

"Well, I look forward to hearing them all."

"Thanks," with a grin. "I’ll hold you to that."

The two separated to change, then met back at the couch. Randi turned on the fireplace, while Gwen grabbed a bottle of Merlot and a couple glasses. They sat sipping in silence for quite a while before Randi turned to her friend.

"So, you wanna see why Tiny came to see me?"


"The man in my office yesterday."

"Oh, sure."

The tall woman stood, reaching a hand down to the blonde. "C’mon." They walked over to the computer, which Randi activated. Two commands later, they were gazing at a set of blueprints, and pictures of the final product.

"What do you think?" after a bit of silence had passed.

"That’s pretty impressive. That’s how it will look when it’s finished?"

"Yep. It took a few hours to iron out all the details, but we finally managed a dock and boathouse that looks like I wanted it to, and that I can still build myself."

"You’re gonna build this yourself?"


"Why? There are a lot of masons in the builder’s guild who would love to build it for you."

"I know. But this is something I want to do myself." A glance at her friend’s worried countenance. "It’s not like I can’t call them in if I get myself into trouble. But I’d like to try it."

"Can I help?"

"If you want to, sure." A grin was her answer.

They moved back to the couch, sitting side by side in silence again, studying the flames.

"Randi?" breaking the quiet of the room.


Gwen hesitated, unsure how to word the question she wanted to ask without seeming too invasive into the Marine’s privacy. She finally decided just to ask. "Since Tiny was designing the boathouse and dock, which is something for your home, and has nothing to do with Midas, why did you have him meet with you there? It would have saved a lot of tongue wagging at work if you had met him here instead."

The Sabre had to smile at the way Gwen got to the heart of things. She couldn’t have chosen a harder question to ask Randi if she’d tried. The Marine decided to be as honest as she could.

"Tiny and I worked together in the military a few times, which is how I knew about his work. It’s just better for everyone if this looks like it was business and not personal." Hoping beyond hope that the bard would let it lie. Which she did for the space of about thirty seconds.

"But it *is* business. I don’t. . . . "

"Trust me on this, my friend. It is best to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing or misunderstanding."

And sensing the older woman’s reluctance to discuss the matter further, Gwen let it drop, even though there were still many questions left unanswered.

She didn’t remember moving up the stairs to her room, or getting into bed and drifting off to sleep. But the blonde woke up the next morning to the sounds of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen. She jumped into the shower, dressing warmly for their ride when she got out. She followed her nose out the door of the loft room, and stood staring for a moment, as she always did, at the portrait that hung over the fireplace. Then she continue following the scents to the table.

She chuckled a bit at her friend who still looked sleep rumpled. Randi had gotten up and decided, since she couldn’t exercise with the bard still in bed asleep, to eat before starting her morning. They ate together in relative silence, though Gwen did compliment the Marine on the good food, who accepted the praise with a nod and a muttered,"Thanks." Then she volunteered to clean up the kitchen while the brunette showered and dressed. Half an hour later they were out the door, and on the bike, heading for the open road.

They rode for the better part of the day, with no end destination in sight. They were simply riding for the thrill of riding. They stopped twice, once for lunch, and the other time just to stretch their legs a bit. No conversation was exchanged, but they were both just content to be together riding along. And when they pulled into the garage many hours later, Gwen reached up and gave the taller woman a hug.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"You’re welcome," Randi whispered back, returning the hug gingerly. It had been a good day.

Chapter VIII

The next week was moving along very smoothly, although the two friends only saw each other in passing. Randi’s responsibilities kept her out and away from the office most of the day, even causing her to miss their usual lunch together. It was Friday afternoon before she made it in to Midas for more than ten minutes. She called Beth, asking the PA to locate Gwen for her. Beth knew at a glance where the bard was, and immediately paged her to Randi’s office. The blonde came running, afraid there was something seriously wrong.

"What’s up, Beth?" concern tinging her voice. "What’s wrong?" She stood quietly then, trying to get her breath back.

The assistant took one look at her face and pour her a glass of water. Then she eased her into a chair, and folded her arms across her chest, waiting for the younger woman to finish the beverage. "Now," she spoke as Gwen raised an eyebrow in question, "nothing is wrong. Randi asked me to locate you. And since you’ve been at cross purposes all week, I thought I’d give you a chance to talk together for a while."

A smile had begun to creep across the storyteller’s face. She had, in fact been missing her friend, and hated that they hadn’t had any time to talk. She stood and gave the older woman a hug around thin shoulders. "Thanks, Beth. You’re the best."

The PA blushed slightly, and she shooed the bard out of her office towards Randi’s. "Get along with you now." She smiled to herself at the love she could see between the two of them. Then frowned at the realization that it remained unacknowledged between them. And was saddened by the folly of youth that would waste precious time thinking they had forever.

A knock on the door made the security chief glance up from her work, sigh, and call out, "C’mon in." But the sigh change to a smile when she recognized the familiar profile of her best friend. "Hey, stranger!"

"Uh huh. Look who’s talking, Ms I-am-never-at-work-anymore."

"Yeah, I know," Randi agreed ruefully. "Been a hell of a week, *but* My schedule is clear for the next week, *and* Larry came through, and actually managed to get my order together and delivered this morning. And since spring officially starts tomorrow, I figure I can start work on the dock. I’d like to have it done, and a rough up on the boathouse by the beginning of summer."

"That water is still gonna be pretty cold. You sure you wanna start so soon?"

"Yep. I’d really like to have it roughed in by the first of summer. Then I can finish it during the hot season as time allows." A suspicious look at her friend’s twinkling green eyes. "Why?" narrowing blue eyes at the bard. "What are you thinking?"

"Well, if you’d wait another couple months until the water is warm, I’ll bet we could get lots of help, and it would get done fairly quickly," unknowingly using the plural pronoun.

"Maybe, but this is something I really want to do myself. And I’ve already got everything lined up and ready to go. However," she continued noticing her companion’s downhearted countenance, "I seriously doubt I’ll get a majority of it done in a week. There will still be plenty for you to help me with."

"Promise?" with a smile.

"Promise. Maybe you should ask T to give you an extra day off next week. I know you’ve got some time coming."

"Maybe I just will." She sobered a little. "It worries me you being out there working like that alone."

Randi frowned a little. Gwen wasn’t one to worry unnecessarily. "Really? Why?"

"I dunno. The thought just gives me creeps up and down my spine. So be careful, will ya?"

"Yep. You betcha. Now, you coming to practice tonight?"

"Am I invited?"

Randi almost snorted. "Of course you’re invited. In fact, consider yourself permanently invited." A beat. "So, you coming, or not?"

"Yep, I’ll be there. What time?"

"Just come on over like you did last week. You can leave your stuff at the house."

"Am I staying for the weekend?" An innocent question, not wanting to make assumptions.

The Marine looked like a deer caught in headlights. "Um, yeah. I mean. . . I thought. . . if you . . . aw shit!" Now thoroughly flustered and embarrassed. "Only if you want to." Blue eyes fell to the floor.

"Randi," leaning over and touching the brunette’s arm, "of course I want to. I just didn’t want to presume anything.

"Really?" blue met green.


"Good. Anytime you wanna come out and stay is cool with me. Just so we’re clear. I’ll give you the key codes tonight, if you’ll remind me. And for the record, there is plenty of space in the garage for your transport, but that’s up to you."

"Okay," the bard agreed, sliding off the desk. "I gotta get back to work. See ya in a few." And with a grin and a wave, she was out the door.

"Later, my friend." And the Marine turned back to her monitor.

Band practice turned out to be very similar to the previous week’s. This time, however, Tommy was there, and managed to catch much of Gwen’s impromptu performance on a vid chip. He wanted to study it. There was something different about her delivery tonight than what he usually saw in the holo work she was doing now. It was even different from her live storytelling to adults. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but her knew it was there. He’d find it. She was too captivating in this mode for him not to.

She never even noticed him. Once again, she became totally wrapped up in the children, and never realized practice had ended so they all could listen to her tales. She was actually rather embarrassed by the unsolicited and unexpected attention.

The bard was unusually quiet on the short ride back to the beach house. Randi waited til they got inside, and locked up behind them before she asked,"You okay?"

"Hmm? Yeah. Just thinking."

"Abbooouuuut?" drawing the word out questioningly.

"Maybe it’s not a good idea for me to go to practice any more."

"Because?" The Marine was beginning to think she was gonna have to pull teeth to get Gwen to the point.

"Because ya’ll don’t seem to be practicing very much. I seem to be a distraction."

"Uh huh. Well, in the first place, you’re not a distraction. . . you’re a damned good storyteller. In the second place, we’re not doing this for a living. We’re doing it for fun. So it doesn’t matter how long we practice. Just as long as we have fun doing it. Now, if it bothers you to tell stories in your time off, I’ll make sure folks back off and give you some space."

"No, I volunteered to tell the kids stories, remember? I really do have so many still to tell. I just don’t want the rest of you guys to think I’m coming in and taking over."

"Not a problem on this end."

"I’m glad."

Saturday was quite interesting. The polymer Randi was going to use to create her sanctuary with was a synthetic product with an as yet unknown life span. It had been developed more than a hundred and fifty years previous, and was immediately put to use to spare further disintegration of natural resources. Lightweight, and durable, it also possessed the unique quality that allowed it to be molded into whatever building material the user wished it to resemble. In this case, it looked like well seasoned wood, worn smooth by years of time and exposure to the elements.

The morning found the Marine in a syn-skin suit, wading out into somewhat still chilly waters. She needed to mark her lines and determine her pylon placement. Around mid morning, the bard stepped out of the house bearing to cups of hot coffee. Randi thought she had never seen a more welcome sight.

"Ah, Little One. How did you know it was time for me to take a break?"

Gwen was clad in shorts and a T-shirt. The day was quite warm with the sun shining down brightly, and only the ocean breeze stirring slightly. "Well, between knowing the time, figuring from your usual rising time about how long you’ve been out here, and seeing how much you’ve done, it wasn’t a hard deduction." She smiled then asked, "Why didn’t you wake me?"

"I did try. You muttered at me, then proceeded to disappear under pillows and blankets. I can certainly take a hint," said with a hint of laughter.

Color suffused the storyteller’s face and a blush raced across her features. "Sorry. Guess I was pretty tired."

"Guess you were. But don’t apologize. It’s not like we’re running a race here, and you needed the rest. Happens to all of us."

"Even you? I’ve never seen you sleep past daybreak."

"Even me. Usually when it hits me, though, I’m out for a day or two."

"Really?" fascinated now.


"Great. . . now I don’t feel so bad," seeing Randi’s startled look. "So, what can I do to help?"

"Well, that depends. You wanna help me with this or go for a ride?"

"Um," the blonde’s forehead scrunched up in thought. "How ‘bout if I help you until lunch time, then we take the bike and go get lunch. Maybe take a ride afterward. I, um, I really don’t want you working out here alone."

Randi looked up at her friend in surprise. "Why?" not understanding the bard’s concerns.

"I’m not really sure I can articulate it. I just know it gives me the creeps to think about it. If something was to happen to you while you were out here working on this thing, no one would know. Not for hours, or even days. It bothers me."

"Oooookkaaaaayyy." the Marine drawled. "I’ll tell you what. You can help me this morning, and whenever you want when you’re here. If I am by myself, I’ll keep a comm unit nearby when I’m out here working. Will that make you feel better?"

"A little, I guess," Gwen answered as the roiling in her guts eased just a little. "I know you think I’m being a mother hen about this, but. . . ."

"No, Little One. I appreciate the concern. And I’ll be careful."

The two spent the remainder of the morning doing plumb readings to determine the various lengths the pylons would need to be cut into. Larry had included the cutting equipment, and the raft the were now sitting on to do their measurements. Randi found that she would need more polymers, as she was going to use more than she had originally calculated. She wanted this thing to be strong enough to last through the massive storms that sometimes swept through the area, and had decided to put the pylons three across instead of the normal two. She also wanted them just a little closer together, but that little extra would add quite a few more to her final total. The Marine decided the security and safety were worth the effort.

After a couple hours, they were done, which was, in point of fact a very good thing. The bard’s fair skin was definitely starting to show signs of sunburn, and Randi was anxious to get the syn-skin off. It was beginning to drive her nuts. When first one, and then the second stomach growled in hunger, they called it quits for the day. But both were pleased with their progress so far.

The afternoon was very pleasant as well. They stopped by Ella’s restaurant, where she proceeded to stuff them to the bursting point. Then she shooed them out the door, admonishing them to go play for a while. They rode til sunset, stopping only to watch the red ball slip beneath the horizon, before turning to head for home. The stars kept a close watch on them, but there was nothing to disturb the solitude but the chirp of crickets, the rustle of grass and the whisper of the wind.

Sunday found them taking it quite easy. As anxious as Randi was to work on the dock, she agreed that a bit of time off wouldn’t be a bad idea. So when Tommy called around nine am, inviting them over for brunch and a day cruise on his boat, Gwen accepted with alacrity. The Marine just chuckled at her friend’s enthusiasm.

Conversation over the meal was interesting and varied, and continued as they boarded and cast off. Tommy brought the talk around to the bard’s impromptu performance Friday evening.

"Would you consider doing some work like that at the studio? I think it would be a wonderful addition to your current repertoire."

"I dunno, T. I like doing it for the kids, just off the cuff. I don’t think I really want to format it."

"No, *I* don’t want it formatted. Just something like you did at practice. It was phenomenal to watch." He read her hesitation quite clearly. "Just think about it, ‘K? I’m sure we could come up with something, someway to share it that would work for everybody."

"All right. I’ll think about it, but no promises, T." She moved away from him as he dropped anchor on the vessel and he and Randi got out the poles. And they settled in a comfortable silence to wait for the fish to bite.

Several hours later, they were cruising back to the Steeles’ manse. Gwen was a little surprised that Randi hadn’t mentioned her own project, but she held her tongue. It was the Marine’s place to share or not as she saw fit. As they were clambering back onto the dock in the late afternoon sun, Ella held them up for a moment. "Um, we wanted you to be the first to know." She flushed and looked down at her feet, then looked back up into Randi’s very blue eyes. "We’re pregnant! We’re gonna have a baby!"

The tall woman stood completely stunned for a full thirty seconds, before she gently lifted Ella off her feet and swung her around gleefully. "Really? I’m gonna be an aunt?!?"

"Yeah, you’re really gonna be an aunt!"

"That is so very cool!" She kissed Ella softly. "I am so, so happy for you both." Turning to include Tommy. "Congratulations!"

"That is wonderful, Ella. I’m happy for you both," Gwen whispered as she hugged the newly pregnant woman. "When are you due?"

"Late summer, early fall. I’m around eight weeks, I think. We haven’t actually been to the doctor yet, but we wanted you both to know."

"That’s terrific! Shall we go out and celebrate, or do you need to rest?"

"Randi, I’m pregnant, not an invalid. But, I am a little tired from being out in the sun all day. How about I call Frank at the restaurant, and have them deliver something?"

This was a plan agreed to wholeheartedly by everyone, and Randi and Gwen took their leave very soon after the meal was over. They were both pleasantly tired after their day on the water, and the walk back to the beach house made them more than ready to turn in for the evening.

"Thanks for a wonderful weekend, Randi. I had a great time."

"I’m glad you came, Gwen. It’s always more fun when you’re here."

Randi’s features were completely schooled, and didn’t give her away, but Gwen heard an under tone of. . . longing. . . despair. . . something. She put the thought aside to study later. She was far too tired to think tonight.

"Goodnight, Randi."

"Ditto, Little One."

Throughout the week, Gwen made periodic calls to check on her Marine friend. She couldn’t have explained it if she’d tried, but it made her feel better to keep an eye, or at least an ear, on her friend. Randi appreciated the calls and the obvious concern the bard showed her, though she did notice Gwen tended to call her at the most inopportune times. Still, she bore it stoically, knowing that her blonde friend only had her best interests at heart.

Randi, for her part was making slow, steady progress on the dock. Not as rapid as she would have liked, perhaps, but enough to see it was gonna be an interesting project. By the time Friday rolled around, she had a very dark tan, and was extremely tired, but well pleased. She had about a quarter of the pylons in and secured. She moved all her tools and supplies onto the beach and covered them with the tarp Larry had provided for just such a purpose. She was more than a little shocked to find Gwen standing in her kitchen fixing dinner, until she remembered she had given the bard the key codes.

"Hey, Little One," startling the blonde who was in her own world. "What’s up?" She didn’t question the bard’s presence, knowing it would only hurt her friend to think she was not welcome.

"HEY!" Gwen jumped in alarm. Then she walked over and smacked the Marine on the midriff. "Don’t scare me like that! I’m too young for heart failure!" Smiling happily.

"You??? What about me? I couldn’t figure out when I left the lights and stereo on. Thought I was going senile for a minute there!"

"You mean you’re not?!" saucily. Then squealing and running for dear life when the Marine made to take off after her. Once the dark haired woman had her trapped in the loft, blue eyes looked up and smiled.

"Best if you c’mon down and take your medicine like a big girl, squirt." Those eyes twinkled. "Besides. I don’t want you catching my kitchen on fire now."

"EEEEEKK!!" from Gwen who came charging down the stairs and flew by Randi into the kitchen. "You are so lucky you didn’t make me burn dinner," glowering at the mocking expression on Randi’s face. The tall woman merely winked at her and continued on to the shower.

Fifteen minutes later, she returned to the kitchen table, dressed in white sweat pants and crop top. The bard blinked at the deep color she was exhibiting, then commented, "I think you need to adjust the color tint on your comm unit. You weren’t that dark over the vid screen."

"Um, yeah. That syn skin doesn’t keep out the sun’s rays, and the sun screen I was using only enhances the depth. I keep it up, I’ll be as dark as Joey." Gwen smiled. Joey was the darkest skin human being she had ever seen. It would take an incredible amount of effort on Randi’s part to even come close to that.

"Speaking of Joey. . . you going to band practice like that?" pointing to the drummer’s choice of clothing.

"Hmm? Oh, no. I called Greg earlier and let him know he’d have to play tonight. I am too damned tired to try to keep up with them tonight."

"Oh," flatly.

"Hey," said the Marine, thinking she understood what the problem was, "You can still go on over if you want. I know for a fact they will be thrilled to have you join them whenever you want to be there."

"Nope. I’d rather go with you. If you’re not gonna be there, then neither am I." A pause. "You sure you don’t mind me just busting in on you like I did tonight?"

"Oh!" as a light went on in her mind. "No, I don’t mind at all. I like having you here. I meant what I said about you coming over whenever you wanted. You’re always welcome."

"Thanks, Randi."

". . . especially if you’re gonna cook for me," with a wicked twinkle in her eyes.

"Oh, yeah. Use me and abuse me. You only love me for my cooking skills."

"No, I love you for far more than that, but that is all that concerns me for the moment." Said lightly, so the bard wouldn’t see the serious intent behind the words.

"Well," the younger woman huffed, "if that is all you’re concerned with, *you* can clean up the kitchen!" Randi groaned. She had walked right into that one.

But it ended up that they cleaned the kitchen together. Then they took a glass of wine outside with them, and went to see the progress that Randi had made during the week on the dock.

"I know it doesn’t seem like a lot," looking out at the newly placed pylons and their support structure, "but it’s getting there."

"It looks really good, Randi. You accomplished quite a bit this last week. Do you think you’ll actually be able to finish it by the time summer gets here?"

"Barring incidents and accidents? Sure."

"Well, then," clinking their glasses together in a toast, "Here’s to the swift completion of the boat house, without incident and accident."

"Hear, hear!"

But when Gwen got up the next morning, Randi was gone.

The Marine’s silent pager had gone off at two o’clock that morning. Groaning quietly to herself, she took another fast shower and dressed in her armor. She wrote a quick note for Gwen, which she left sitting on the bard’s bedside table. Then she left, muted footsteps not giving away anything. Within thirty minutes of her page, she was boarding a shuttle.

Arriving at her destination didn’t take nearly as long as the previous mission had. And from the looks of the mission brief, the patrol itself should take far less time and effort. They weren’t actually after "Ghost Rider" this time. Simply a band of cutthroat skinheads who were terrorizing a nearby village. Randi found a bit of poetic justice in the fact that this time her mission was to protect and defend a group of Amazon women who were actually blessed by Artemis, and trying to follow the precepts of the law. They were trained to fight and defend themselves, of course, but the perpetrators were catching them alone and in pairs. Even amazons couldn’t overcome twenty to one odds. It was time to even the odds.

Randi and another female Sabre, Jess, were being sent in ahead of the rest of the strike force, to see if they could draw the perps out. Once they did so, they and the remainder of the unit would decimate them.

The drop point was fairly close to the village, but well hidden from view by the crags, mountains, and trees that surrounded the village on three sides. Jess and Randi walked along side by side openly towards the village, hoping to draw out their prey. They didn’t but knew they were being watched by unfriendly eyes as the approached the village gate. The two spoke briefly to the guard at the gate, and were admitted into the village.

Night fell, and the two Sabre comrades were speaking to the council that governed the Amazons. They made recommendations on enhancing security, and personal defenses, and spoke at some length about other necessary precautions. Then they turned in, both knowing the morrow would bring a new set of challenges.

At dawn, they made their way out of the gates with the rest of the wood gathering patrol. Jess made it a point to grab the Marine’s hand, holding it tight and pulling her closer. Randi in turn, leaned over to ostensibly nuzzle the other woman’s neck, but in reality to whisper in her ear. "Do you feel them out there?"

The red head maneuvered her head so her lips were touching the brunette’s ear. "Yeah, and I can actually see one or two. I think there are about a dozen of them so far."

"Do you think they’ll attack?"

"I doubt it. There are twenty of us out here. They haven’t been known to play when the odds aren’t heavily in their favor."

"Okay then. Guess we come out alone together tonight."

"All right you two!" shouted the patrol leader’s voice from up front. "The honeymoon’s over for now. We’ve got work to do." She smiled at them so they could see she was teasing. The rest of the Amazons snickered at them. The two Sabres merely blushed and got to work.

It took three days, but late that evening, the two of them strolled out together again, hand in hand, looking for all the world like a pair of lovers. Their quiet conversation would have given them away, had anyone been close enough to hear and taken the time to listen.

"Chase would absolutely die if he could see me right now," raising a hand to push back a strand of dark hair behind Randi’s ear. Chase was a fellow Sabre, but not on this particular mission. Serious relationships between Sabres was frowned upon, discouraged in the extreme, but there was no way to stop them completely.

The upper echelon did their best to keep romantically involved members on separate teams to avoid any more complications than necessary, and it had worked fairly well thus far.

"Why," Randi whispered, pulling the other woman closer to her. They were now a hair’s-breadth apart, almost eye to eye. Jess was slightly taller than she was. "Does he have a problem with same sex lovers?" She tilted her head for a chaste kiss.

"No. You know better than that. And you know *him* better than that. He just has a big, BIG problem with sharing." Winding her hands into raven hair.

"Oh, I see," moving her hands and stroking the red head’s back. "Well, he’ll get over it. It’s not like he’s gonna have to share much longer. I count seven behind you and four to each side."

"Yeah, well I count ten behind you, with three to each side. I hope the guys are ready and waiting out there, or this could get ugly," leaning down slightly to nip Randi’s lower lip. And right about then, all hell broke loose.

In their favor was the fact that this particular group seemed to thrive on beating people to death physically with their bare hands, and the occasional odd bat or pipe. But for the most part, these skinheads carried no real weapons. Against them was the fact that they, due to the nature of the outfits used to blend in, carried few weapons that could be used in close contact fighting. They both had a couple of knives stashed in their boots to help them hold off the trouble makers until the cavalry arrived.

The two women did quite well holding their own when they were each jumped from behind, pulling them forcefully apart. The first few men went down in a heap, not even knowing that they were dead. Then things became blurry, the fighting fast and furious as the remainder of the Sabre team took out perps as quickly and safely as they could. No one knew exactly what happened, but just as they were down to the last twelve or so, one of them clocked Randi but good upside her head. She landed in a heap, and Jess stood over her body, dripping blood, slashing at anything that came too close. In minutes it was all over. Thirty-one dead skinheads lay in a heap around one downed Sabre. Two of the guys had gotten sliced pretty good, one on the shoulder, the other on the thigh. It was decided that they and Randi would go back to the village with their medic, Lacey again, to heal and regen. The remaining five members would begin the burial process. Surprisingly, the Amazons were quick to form several details to help them. "We don’t want them stinkin’ up our air," was the only reason given. The Sabres accepted that reason, and their help.

"May as well be comfortable to recuperate," Lacey commented. The Amazons were uncomfortable with allowing the men into their compound, but relented when they saw the blood. They immediately rushed them into the infirmary. Lacey was only too happy to release her cradle hold on the tall Marine. Carrying her even this short distance had been a strain for the smaller woman.

The Marine woke up short time later, groggy, and with a headache that would have felled an elephant at thirty paces. She was more than a little put out with herself with getting caught from behind like that. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did she berated herself and growled at everything around her for days. After thirty-six hours in the hospice, she was released, and went immediately to her debriefing. The rest of her team had been debriefed earlier that morning and sent on their way. She was anxious to head home herself.

When she arrived home, her mood was black. Though the mission had been successful, she felt as if she had failed by being hit. She was tired, angry and disillusioned with everything at the moment, and with the unfortunate timing the Fates sometimes throw at us, Gwen was about to bear the brunt of Randi’s frustration.

The bard arrived at the house shortly before the Marine did. She was hoping beyond hope her friend would be back today from where ever she had disappeared to this time. It really bothered Gwen the way Randi just vanished with very little word and no warning. Or any indication as to when she would return most of the time. But the blonde accepted that it was a part of Randi’s life that she was not, could not be privy to and was happy that the Marine let her in as far as she had. The note the older woman had left for her to find Saturday morning went a long way toward this peace of mind.

Dear Gwen, (it read)

I’ve been called out of town on urgent business, but please feel free to

make yourself at home here. If luck holds, this shouldn’t take too long,

and I should be back in about a week, maybe a little less. As with every

thing, it depends on circumstances beyond my control. Thanks for dinner

last night. It was great. Take care.

Love ya,


She had actually tried to call her friend the night before, hoping Randi had been correct in her "less

than a week" prediction. She decided to try in person today. Besides, she wanted a look at the dock in the daylight. She was standing on the beach, admiring the work Randi had done when the whisper of a shuttle landing nearby caught her attention. Odd, she thought, and then assumed that perhaps Tommy had a private strip close to his house. It never occurred to her that she wouldn’t have heard the sound of a shuttle so far away. When she saw the tall form of her friend striding towards her, though, she stopped thinking about mundane matters like that, and concentrated on the happiness she felt.

"What are you doing here?" snarled Randi in her direction as soon as she saw blonde hair loping in her direction. Gwen was a bit taken back by both the question and the tone.

"I, um, well. . . . "

"Go home, Gwen. I don’t want you here right now."

"But, I. . . . "

"Goddammit! I said go home!" opening the door, and nearly slamming it in the bard’s face. Green eyes flashed in anger.

"I’ll go home for now, Randi. But I will be back. And we *will* talk about this! You got me?"

"I understand," whispered a defeated Marine. "I’m sorry, Gwen. Just please, go home."

The smaller woman reached around the tall, stiff figure in front of her and gave a brief hug. Randi remained motionless and rigid, holding on to what self control she had left as tightly as she could. Any reaction she had at this point could very well drive her friend away.

With a muttered, "I’ll see you later, Randi," Gwen let herself out of the beach house and headed toward the bridge to the mainland. On impulse, she bypassed the bridge, and continued on to Tommy’s place.

She was ushered in by Ella, who had opened the door at her ring. "Is Tommy free, Ella? I need to talk to him a moment."

"Sure, hon," a little concerned by the lack of color in the bard’s face. "Go on back to his office."

The bard moved down the indicated hallway, and rapped on the closed door in front of her. After a brief pause, she heard, "come in" and opened the door. Tommy sat at his desk, working on something or other for Midas she supposed. It really didn’t matter right now.

"Hey, T. You got a minute?"

"Sure, Gwen. What’s up?" He came from behind his desk, and motioned her over to the fireplace, with its strategically placed chairs. He waved the bard into one, and took the second for himself.

The blonde took a deep breath, trying to marshal her thoughts into some kind of linear, coherent statements that he would understand without her having to go into too much detail. She finally decided on the direct approach, from his point of view.

"Tommy, do you know where Randi disappears when she goes off like this?"

Now it was the man’s turn to feel uncomfortable. He had his suspicions, certainly, but no proof to back them up. So he turned the tables back to her. "No. Why?"

"Have you ever seen her right after she gets back?" ignoring his question, and asking another one of her own.

"Yeah, three times, actually," wondering where the bard was going with this line of questions.

"What happened?" Getting right to the heart of the matter.

He chuckled. It was kinda funny in retrospect, though he hadn’t been laughing at the time. "The first time she was gone, after she retired and moved back here, I guess it was about two months after she arrived. She disappeared for just over a week. No word, no warning. And no apology when she got back, either. I heard the shuttle land, and took off for her place. I yelled at her for a good five minutes before she punched me in the face, and told me to go away. Two days later she called to apologize for the punch, but not the disappearance."

"I remember that. And the second time?"

"Oh, the second time was right before your going away party. But she was actually pretty calm that time. She just listened to what I had to say and shut the door behind me when I was done, And you know she showed up for your party, although she was quite late." A thoughtful pause. "Come to think of it, though, she was gone for four days after that. Left almost as soon as you did. Hmm."

"What happened the last time?" bringing him out of his reverie.

"The last time, things got kinda ugly. I went over as soon as the shuttle landed. We got into a yelling match, and then into a knock down, drag out fight. She literally beat the shit out of me." Gwen’s eyes rounded in horror. "No, it was my fault. I didn’t leave when she asked me to, and then I touched her from behind. It was a purely responsive action to danger on her part. A few days later, we had a long talk. I learned not to come near her for a couple days after she returns from these trips, and she learned to talk things out a little more. I think she realizes now that talking, explaining reactions and consequences can sometimes eliminate a problem before it starts. Now I give her the space she needs until she’s ready for company, and she calls and let’s us know she’s okay. It’s worked out well for all of us, for the most part."

The bard meditated on these words for a little while. Then she nodded her head in acceptance. "Thanks, Tommy. You’re a good friend."

"Anytime, Gwen. I’m glad she has you for a friend as well. Be patient with her, though, huh? She needs your friendship more than she’ll ever admit."

"I will, T. Hers is a friendship worth keeping, even when it’s hard to get through that thick skull."

"Hear, hear!" The man agreed with a smile. "You gonna stay for band practice?"

"No," rising from her chair. "I’m just not comfortable there without Randi."

He rose as she did, and started escorting her to the door. "Okay, but you’re always welcome, anytime. With or without our drummer."

"I’ll keep that in mind. But tonight, I’m going back to the penthouse, and take a nice long whirlpool bath."

"Drive safely."

"I will. Bye, Ella," she called out to the woman in the kitchen. "See ya later. Bye, Tommy. And thanks again." She reached up and gave him a hug. She heard his wife patter out of the other room. "Take care, Ella," smiling at the way the brunette’s hands rested naturally protective over her stomach.

"You too, Gwen. Come by the restaurant next week sometime. I’ve got a new recipe for you to try out."

"Will do, boss lady," smirking at the look she got for that comment. "Bye, guys!"

And she headed her transport toward her apartment, eager for that whirlpool and a bit of rest.

The remainder of the weekend went fairly smoothly. Gwen used the time to do some things she had neglected for quite some time. She also visited the goddesses temple, hoping to find a bit of solitude and serenity. It was a habit she had picked up from her otherwise taciturn companion, and she was amazed at how centered the meditation made her feel. She was sure she must have drifted off though, towards the end, when she heard a low voice speak in her ear, "Have faith, child. It will be rewarded." The bard opened her eyes, but saw no one around her, save a priestess up near the altar. She shook her head to clear it, and rose to leave. Though confused by the voice that spoke to her, she felt more relaxed than she had in a while.

Monday came, and she went back to work. Not really surprised not to see the tall Marine there, she hesitated to put in a call to her friend. Her discussion with Tommy had helped her understand that there were some things she just couldn’t remedy, either for her sake or for Randi’s. She would just have to try to be patient, and wait for the blue eyed woman to come to her.

Tuesday was moving along smoothly, when during her creative time, shortly after lunch, Beth disturbed her writing. This time was held sacred by both artists and personnel, and was only interrupted for important things. A knot tied itself up in Gwen’s stomach when the knock came on her dressing room door.

She got up and went to the door, opening it and looking into Beth’s face, and knowing there was a problem of no small proportion.

"What’s wrong, Beth? What’s up?" grabbing the older woman by the arms and practically dragging her into the room.

"I’m not sure. Um," taking a deep breath and rubbing her hand across her face. "I just got a call from Randi. The message was garbled. But I did make out your name." A beat. "And the words ‘help me’."

The bard shot out of her seat, and grabbed her personal effects. "Okay, I’m gonna head out there and see what’s up. Will you tell Tommy I’ll be out for the rest of the day?"

"Yes, certainly. You be careful, and let me know what you find out, all right?"

"Will do." And with that, she was out the door and into her transport.

Fifteen minutes later found her letting herself in to Randi’s front door, firmly putting out of her mind their confrontation the last time she had been here uninvited. A quick search through the house showed her the Marine was not inside, and she headed toward the new dock. She must have been busting her butt like a dog the past couple days, Gwen thought to herself noting the amount of finished work on the project. The first quarter was completely laid, and half of the remaining pylons and their supports were in place. Have you slept at all since we fought, my friend? Have you?

The storyteller was sure she’d find the Marine out around the construction, and headed over that way. She figured she would find her passed out from sheer exhaustion, and she was very nearly right. What had actually happened was a little more complicated.

Randi had found it impossible to rest since her confrontation with Gwen.

Knowing she had been a total ass was bad enough, but having her friend

be so gracious about it was just about killing her. And the lack of rest

was giving her a major headache. Finally, absolutely disgusted with herself

and her behaviour, she got up and went to work on the dock. It was one

thing she could do and fully immerse herself in to doing

Only stopping for occasional bathroom or water breaks, the woman worked

for three and a half straight days. Around lunchtime on Tuesday, her body

and her mind said "No More". She fell off the end of the dock that she

was standing on, managing to snag her shoulder and rip a wide gash in it

on the way down. She landed with a THUD onto the raft that she’d had

floating below, holding the tools and equipment she had been using. By

sheer bad luck, she hit her head on a corner of her toolbox, and knocked

herself out cleanly.

She had no idea of the time when she came to, just that a while had

passed. She tried to use the vid com she kept with her at all times

because of her friend’s request, but the concussion and exhaustion were

making coherent thought terribly difficult. The Marine did reach Beth

through perseverance, but wasn’t sure she was entirely clear in asking

for Gwen or help. And then she was again unable to care, as pain and

extreme fatigue overtook her once more.

Gwen walked all around the site looking into every nook and cranny, her gut tightening with each passing moment. Something was direly wrong. She could feel it. She was about to give up, and go look in the garage to see if the woman was even home, when she saw movement in the water. As she moved closer, she saw it was a dolphin, splashing water over an inert figure on the raft. It didn’t take much deduction on the bard’s part to know precisely who lay there. With a muffled cry, the blonde rushed to the edge and peered down, her concern growing by leaps and bounds when she saw copious amounts of blood on the raft.

Instantly, she lowered herself gently and firmly onto the raft. She contacted an emergency response team, then Tommy. The dolphin, though it backed away out of touching range, stayed close enough to watch the proceedings. Gwen moved the raft to shore, and the mammal felt satisfied at her intentions as she gently stroked the raven hair. She hesitated to move the woman at all for fear of doing serious damage to her already broken body. She did put what pressure she could manage on the torn shoulder.

It took eight minutes, by the watch on the vid phone, for Tommy to arrive. The bard had to wonder at his speed, he arrived so quickly. The medics were right behind him. They had indeed been waiting for him about a minute when he got to the bridge to extend it for them. He led the way, as this was the first time they had ever been summoned to the island for anything.

The first thing they did was examine the wounds, and determine the woman needed to be clean. There was sand and salt everywhere. About two minutes, and her sonic shower was done, and she was clean. They wrapped her now nude body in a sheet, and set her on a gurney. Both Tommy and Gwen insisted that they could care for her at home, if the med techs would set things up. Neither wanted to know what the Marine’s reaction would be if she woke in a medical facility. The medics carried the gurney to the deck, then rolled it smoothly to the house. In moments, they had her transferred to her own bed, and had begun setting up the regen equipment the tall woman would need.

"One of you will need to keep an eye on her for the next forty-eight hours. It will take about that long for the process to complete itself. She should be awake and coherent within twelve hours. If not, or if she has any kind of bizarre or unusual behaviour, call us back immediately. She will need to see a doctor at the medifac."

"I’ll stay," the blonde woman spoke quietly before the man with her could say a word.

The techs both nodded in acknowledgment of her statement, and moved to leave. Tommy saw them to the door, assuring them that the bridge was still in place. He watched until they were out of sight then turned back to the small blonde before him.

"You sure, Gwen? I don’t mind. . . . "

"I’m sure, Tommy. It’s my responsibility, and my pleasure to do so." His eyebrows rose at that comment, but he refused to allow the words that so wanted to escape past his lips. "Besides, you have a pregnant wife to take care of at home. Just don’t expect me in before Friday, okay?"

He smiled. "Why don’t you just take the rest of the week? We’ve got enough stuff we can fill in with."

"Thanks, T. Appreciate that."

"No problem," he said, squeezing her hands gently. "Now, how about I go call Ella, and asked her to come on out her in a little while with some dinner for all of us?"

"I dunno, T. I don’t want her to go to any trouble."

"No trouble at all, Gwen. She’s concerned about our friend in there as well, and it’s just a matter of adding another plate to the pile. She was bringing home dinner anyway."

"Well," her resolve wavering, "if you’re sure it’s no trouble."

"I promise. Let me go make my call."

She nodded and walked away, over to the larger wall mounted comp vid screen. He watched in surprise and then astonishment as she unlocked the basic security, and turned on the news. In the almost three years since Randi’s return and move into this very house, never once had she offered him any of her security clearances. He did, of course, have the key codes for her doors, but he could no more get into her computer system than the man on the moon could. Now he watched in amazement as the young blonde did just that, seemingly unaware exactly how monumental that gesture was. He wondered if they’d ever figure out the truth for themselves.

Ella brought dinner over a few hours later, and the three friends sat at the kitchen table talking quietly. Randi had yet to wake up, but if the amount of time Gwen suspected she had been without sleep was anywhere close to being right, the bard had no real expectation to hear from the Marine until sometime late the next morning. She relayed her suspicions to the Steeles, who agreed with her assessment. They took their leave of her shortly after dinner was over, with her promise that she would advise them the minute Randi showed signs of consciousness.

Gwen debated with herself for the space of all of about five minutes, before moving the comfortable reclining rocking chair right next to the bed. Staying in her room was out of the question, and the couch was too far away to be a comfortable option for her. She didn’t stop to reason out the whys and wherefores of her thoughts. She simply went with the gut feeling that was telling her to stay close by.

It was the darkest hour, just before dawn, when Gwen snapped back into wakefulness. She was disoriented at first, then chided herself for falling asleep as she recognized her surroundings and remembered her reason for being there. She rubbed a hand across tired eyes, and tried to comprehend what had jerked her from a sound sleep. The bard her a muttered moan from the bed and moved to check on her friend.


The dark haired woman thrashed around a little bit, but didn’t answer. Gwen was unsure if she was in pain or the throes of a nightmare. She hesitated for a long moment, then sat lightly on the edge of the big bed, reaching a hand over to smooth the hair out of the older woman’s face. Her skin was flushed and damp, but she didn’t feel feverish, much to the storyteller’s relief. She rose, and fetched a cool, wet cloth from the bathroom, then resumed her place by the Marine’s side. The bard began to gently bathe Randi’s face, only half listening to the delirious rambling coming from her friend’s lips until she caught sound of her own name.


"I’m here, Randi."

"Gwen!?" a bit more frantic this time.

"Randi! I’m right here!" She moved forward trying to press the larger woman down onto the bed by the shoulder, avoiding the injury. The Marine continued to struggle, and the bard worked her way behind her, pulling Randi back into herself gently. The brunette stopped struggling and seemed to calm down, and Gwen renewed her efforts to wipe the Sabre’s face, mumbling softly in her ear. After a bit, the Marine relaxed but called out again, softly.


"I’m right here, my friend," whispered directly into her ear. The bard noted that Randi’s eyes were still closed and her breathing even. She supposed her to still be sleeping.

"I’m sorry, Gwenie," sounding suspiciously like a well-chastened five year old girl.

"Why are you sorry, Randi?"

"I was mean to you. I said ugly things, and hurt your feelings bad." She pouted. "I didn’t mean to. . . I didn’t mean what I said. It’s just that. . . . "

"Just that what?"


"Just that what, Randi?"

"I’m sorry. Please don’t ask me, Gwenie. I can’t tell." A tear rolled down her face. "Can we still be friends?" in a small, forlorn voice.

"You’re my best friend, Randi. And we’ll always be friends, okay?"

"Okay, Gwenie. I love you. G’night."

"Goodnight, my friend. I love you, too." She brushed a light kiss on the dark head, and fell back into a dreamless slumber.

The dawn creeping over the horizon didn’t disturb the two sleeping women, but shortly thereafter, Randi’s dreams began to haunt her again. Her thrashing woke the bard who still clung to her, and her mutterings were much more pronounced and violent

"No, not again, please! " "Oh Artemis, help me!" "Please, no more!" "I’m sorry! Blessed Athena, I’m so sorry!" "I can’t do this anymore!" "ARTEMIS NOOOOOOOO!!!!!"

This last brought them into a sitting position together, Gwen arms still firmly wrapped around the Marine’s torso. Randi fought briefly, her disorientation over her company and surroundings only adding to the confusion already present in her mind. The bard’s quiet reassurances brought first calm, then shame to her, and she slumped in her friend’s arms.

"I’m sorry, Gwen," she muttered. "I really don’t deserve your caring." She struggled to get up. The blonde fought equally hard to keep her in place.

"Hey! In the first place, we’ve already had this conversation, and I’ve already forgiven you. Secondly, you’re hurt, and need to stay still. It’s gonna take the regenerator another few hours to heal that shoulder wound." The Marine calmed in her arms with her words. "Now, do you wanna talk about whatever it was that woke you so abruptly?"

"I don’t remember."

Green eyes gazed piercingly into guileless blue. Randi was telling her the truth. The bard wondered what could trouble her companion so badly that such horrible dreams were instantly forgotten upon awakening. She dismissed the subject for now, and moved on. "Okay, then. How do you feel?"

"Honestly? Like a transport landed on me. What happened?" with a grimace, clutching her head with her good hand.

"Well, I’m not sure, myself. You sent a garbled message to Beth asking for me. When I got here, you were lying out at the end of the completed part of the dock on the raft. Unconscious. A dolphin was keeping watch over you, and wouldn’t actually leave until he was assured you were in good hands."

This got a small smile out of the Marine. It was reciprocated by the bard.

"So, can I get you anything?"

Randi rubbed her temples with her fingertips, trying to ease the pounding. "Um, yeah, actually. I need something for this headache."

"Well, the medics left a shot cap." The bard smiled in sympathy with the other woman’s groan. "I know. You need the bathroom, or some food first? It’ll probably knock you out for another twelve hours."

"Do I gotta?" almost whining.

"No, silly. You don’t ‘gotta’. But you’ll feel a lot better if you do. And your regen should be about done by then, too. So what’s it gonna be?"

"Let me run to the bathroom. Will you maybe get me a small glass of juice? I’m sure there’s some in the fridge."

"Yep. Let me help you up first."

The Marine was reluctant to allow it, but was infinitely glad for the assistance when she tried to stand, and found the floor swirling up to meet her far too quickly.

"It’s okay, my friend. Probably a combination of things causing this. Just lean on me and let me help."

"Thanks, Gwen. You’re a good friend."

Randi got finished in the bathroom before Gwen got back with her juice, and was slowly shuffling across the floor toward the bed. The blonde woman muffled her exclamation, and set the juice down quickly, moving to guide the Marine back to bed. Randi sat down wringing her hands and looking more than a tad bit embarrassed. Gwen knelt before her and took the larger hands in her own.

"What’s wrong?"

"I, um, I. . . would you. . . um. . . ."

"Randi, I’m not going to hurt you, and in all likelihood, I’m not gonna say "no" either. Now, what do you need, want or desire?"

Just the words sent a jolt through her system, and the Marine was hard pressed to wrestle her emotions under control. She was sure Gwen meant something entirely different than she hoped she did, and just took the offer on face value alone.

"Um, will you stay with me til I fall back to sleep?"

"There, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? I’ll go you one better. Hang on." The blonde stood and moved over to where she had placed the juice. "Here. Drink." The Marine did, slowly but steadily, and soon handed the empty glass back to her companion. "I’ll be right back." Randi sat still, her head cradled in her hands as the hammering continued to get worse. She hoped the shot would take effect before it got so bad it made her sick. Gwen walked back in the bedroom at just that instant. She picked up the shot cap, and moved to the other side of the bed.

Once seated and comfortable, she patted her chest. The older woman eased over, moving slowly so as not to hurt anymore than she already did. Eventually she reached her goal, and promptly sank down, leaning her head back on Gwen. The blonde put the shot in her neck before she realized what had happened, and she closed her eyes in reflex. The last thing she heard before she faded into oblivion was, "Rest well, my friend. I’ll be here when you wake up."

Several hours later, Tommy was letting himself into the beach house. He was more than a little concerned that he had not yet heard from Gwen. So he left Midas at lunch time to come and check on them. He had knocked first, to no avail, and called out quietly as he let himself in. Getting no response from either woman, he decided to look in the bedroom first. The house was entirely too quiet for his nerves.

The picture he found there was one that made him smile in pure reflex. There they were, together in the middle of the big bed, wrapped around each other tightly. Gwen was sitting up, supported by several pillows. And she in turn was supporting Randi, arms wound around the tall woman’s waist. The brunette was curled up into her, one arm between her breasts, the other disappearing behind the bard’s back. Their breathing was even, and in synch, and neither woman knew when he pulled the covers up over them and left the room.

Finally, he thought. Maybe this will be the wake up call they both need.



Chapter IX

"It wasn’t, though, was it, my love?" finally acknowledging aloud what she knew to be true in her heart. That understanding made her sink to her knees on the dock in total defeat. "How, *HOW* could I have been so fucking blind to what was so apparent to everyone around us? Why was I so totally oblivious to what in retrospect was so very , very obvious in your beautiful blue eyes?" Tears of loss, of anger and frustration began to roll from her eyes. "And you," speaking as though Randi was standing there in front of her, "YOU were too damned stubborn, too Damned Proud, too DAMNED HONORABLE to say anything!!!! Her voice rose then fell away to a whisper. "I wish I could hate you. I really wish could, cause it would hurt so much less." She sobbed quietly. "It’s killing me, Randi. It truly is." A deep breath. "They say you never know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Well let me tell you. . . they don’t know the half of it." She sat on the dock for long moments composing herself, finally smiling when she heard the two dolphins cavorting together down at the end near the boat house. And she forced her memories back to happier times.



Gwen had awakened in the early afternoon, her bladder screaming for relief. Randi had at some point moved off of her and was now laying flat on her stomach with and arm curled around the bard’s thigh. The blonde ease out from under the grip, leaving a pillow in her place. Then she scampered to the bathroom.

Finished in there, including a short but satisfying shower, the storyteller made her way to the vid phone to give Tommy a call. The man never gave away the fact that he had been by and seen them. He simply promised to stop by and check on them, and coincidentally bring them dinner, on his way home. Gwen then went into the kitchen and fixed herself some toast and juice. She knew it would be several more hours before Tommy came by with food and she was starving. Then she grabbed a couple ebooks, and returned to sit on the bed and read.

Randi woke up in the late afternoon, pushing her hair back away from her face and stretching before she sat up. She was still tired, something she found strange, though she’d learned not to question her body’s demands on this particular point. It would take what it needed, and apparently she had run her reserves down pretty low. Otherwise, she felt. . . good. The headache was gone, and her shoulder seemed healed. She sat up, hoping the dizziness was gone as well.

"Hey," a soft voice called from the other side of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

The blue eyes opened slowly and regarded her companion. "Better, thanks. I’m, uh, I’m glad you’re here. Thanks for staying with me."

"That’s what friends do. . . they stick together," said with a smile.

"Well, I’m glad you’re my friend. A lot of them wouldn’t have stuck around after. . . . "

"Over. . . done with. . . forgotten, okay?" Dark hair nodded. "Okay, well, you might want to get dressed. I don’t know that you want to meet Tommy and Ella in your skivvies." In truth, it was a T-shirt and underwear that she and Ella had put on the unconscious woman the night before.

"Hmm, guess you’re right. Let me run and take a shower before they get here."

It was a pleasant evening spent with friends, filled with chatter and bantering and warmth.

The remainder of the week moved very passively. Gwen moved back up to her room, though she kept her door open in case Randi had more nightmares. She didn’t hear anything, but never knew if that was a good sign or a bad one. She did creep down the stairs a couple of times each night to check on the older woman, a habit she had never cultivated until now.

Thursday, just to humor the bard, they sat out on the deck, lazing around. The Marine commented on the blonde’s ever darkening tan, to which Gwen replied, "You looked in a mirror lately?" Randi chuckled, knowing her friend had made a very apt comeback.

Friday, antsy from being still too long, the brunette informed the bard of her intent to work on the dock. Gwen said nothing to dissuade her, but instead got dressed to join her. By the end of the day, the dock was a little more than halfway completed. Practice with the guys later was fun. Unspoken understanding between the members meant that two hours after practice started, they shut down for the night, and gathered around with their families for storytelling. This was only true, of course, when Gwen accompanied Randi, and though they’d made it clear she was welcome anytime, she’d made it equally clear she would only be there when her drummer friend was. Tommy took advantage of the relaxed atmosphere, and recorded the session again. He was sure they were onto something. . . he just needed to process what that something was.

The following day, after doing a little more dock work in the morning hours, found them on the road again in what was becoming a ritual ride. They didn’t stay out as long, since Gwen really needed to go back to her place and take care of a few things that she’d let go slack during the week. They had dinner at the "Golden Touch", under Ella’s watchful eye, then made their way to the complex that housed Gwen’s penthouse.

"Thank you for taking care of me, Gwen. Thank you for being my friend," clasping the smaller hand to her and looking into eyes gone golden in the sunset.

The bard patted the smooth chest area where her hand rested. "Anytime you need me, I’m yours." She stretched up on tiptoe, and brushed her lips lightly on Randi’s smooth cheek. "Goodnight, gunny."

The Marine struggled to clear her throat and keep her composure. "Ditto, my friend." She watched until the younger woman made her way across the foyer and into her private elevator. "I’ll always need you, Little One," she whispered, and cranked the bike, flipping the sound switch and revving the engine. Maybe the noise would drown out the sound of her thoughts.

The weeks of spring started flowing toward summer in a rapid, but predictable pattern. Randi was in something of a quandary, trying to maintain her regular responsibilities, keep up her band practice and playtime with Gwen, and still get the boathouse finished before Celebration. The bard failed to see what the rush was, especially in light of the fact that the Marine still had no firm plans to purchase a boat. And Randi was loathe to spoil the surprise she had planned for the blonde. So she continued to work all kinds of odd hours, intent on getting it done. She had confided the reason to Tommy, who offered to provide manpower if she started running short on time. The brunette was grateful for his assistance, and promised to let him know if it became necessary.

Surprisingly, Sabre duty only pulled her away for two short periods during this three month stretch, one for three days, the other for six. She relished that fact at the same time she deplored it. She knew there would be big paybacks for this temporary reprieve. But she tried to enjoy the down time while she could.

She had tried, several times, unsuccessfully, to nudge Gwen in the direction of other, more suitable (to her mind, at least) friends, and possibly romantic partners. But her heart cried out against her mind’s logic, and finally, when Gwen turned to her with green eyes full of hurt at the anguish Randi’s pushing her away was causing, and asked her point blank "WHY?", she caved.

"I thought you’d be happier with someone special in your life."

"Randi, I already have someone special in my life. You. I never had a best friend before, and you changed everything for me. But please, no more pushing me away, or trying to force people in, all right? I’m very happy with my life and the people in it. I don’t need you to find me a lover. That will happen when it happens. Probably when I least expect it, with the unlikeliest of partners."

She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again in defeat. The Marine nodded her head in acceptance of her friend’s words, and thought she now realized what her true challenge was. . . it wasn’t to keep Gwen at arm’s distance , nor was it to help her find happiness with another. No, this was far, *far* worse. It was to have everything she desired in the palm of her hand, and live knowing she would never be able to grasp it fully. Oh, Artemis! Why do I deserve such a punishment? her mind cried out, even as her arms opened to embrace the woman who held her heart.

Meanwhile, high above, observing the whole scene, Artemis and Athena had their hands full trying to subdue their sister goddess. They had actually each physically taken an arm to prevent her from descending and smacking the right answer into the back of the hard headed Marine’s skull. She had been stomping her feet, until they lifted her bodily from the floor, kicking and squealing. Finally, her tantrum cooled, and the two sisters lowered the third to the ground, and backed away a bit. It was time for a serious strategy session.

Unlike Festival, which brought customs, cultures, and traditions together in observance, Celebration’s activities simply depended on your location at the mid-year Solstice. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, there were all sorts of cold weather sports and activities to participate in. Those in the north were more geared to picnics, barbeques, and beach parties.

Wednesday, two days before the long weekend activities of Celebration were due to begin found Randi rushing to make the boat house livable. It was still very rough, but Gwen’s parent’s would have a place to stay when they arrived the next day. The thought passed through her mind that it was just as well that she wasn’t any more done than she was. Gwen and Jill could choose the interior decor, and that was more than fine with the Marine. All that shopping made her twitchy.

The boat house was quite open, made of the same polymer as the dock. While the outside maintained the same weathered wood appearance, the inside was a pale sky blue. She had manage to secure a bed, one set of sheets that surprisingly matched the room, a comforter of a darker blue, and two sets of white towels. She hadn’t managed anything for the kitchenette tucked into one corner of the room, but figured that would come in time. The deck was also incomplete, though there was a small three foot portion done. There was another twelve feet to add, and the barbeque pit, but she had about run out of time. Randi knew Geoff and Jill would understand. They had been thrilled when the Marine invited them, and more than happy to keep it a surprise for their daughter.

Randi, thinking she was alone doing her clean up, had the music up quite loud, and was singing and dancing all over the place. Unbeknownst to her, however, Gwen had stopped by after work to see how things were coming along. She knew the older woman was anxious to have the room presentable for the holiday. The bard stood in the doorway mesmerized, thoroughly awestruck by the previously unseen side of her friend. Randi can sing. . . WOW, can she sing!! And she dances?! Why has she been sitting in the dark playing the drums all this time? She should be headlining that band. Man, she’s GOOD!!

She was unaware of how much time passed while she simply stared at the antics of the brunette, but suddenly Randi turned around and saw Gwen staring at her in amazement. The silence that followed the music being turned off saw a blush forming on the Marine’s face at being caught. She loved to sing and dance, but only for herself. She had never shared that part of herself with anyone. Even when she had escorted Gwen to the big Festival party with the Goldmans, she hadn’t danced. She simply wasn’t comfortable dancing in public. But from the look on the storyteller’s face, and the twinkle in her green eyes, that was all fixing to change. So the Marine decided to beat the blonde woman to the punch.

She walked casually over to portable music system she had brought with her, and chose a different music disc from the one she had been working to. As the first strains of a classical waltz filled the room, the Marine walked over to where her friend still stood, and bowed rather formally. It was a little comical, considering the shorts, tank top, and ponytail, but she did it anyway. "May I have this dance?"

The bard didn’t answer aloud. She simply extended her arms, and was suddenly being swept around the room. They danced two complete waltzes before stopping, then the taller woman offered Gwen a bottle of water from the small cooler she had with her.

"Why didn’t you tell me you could dance? And why haven’t I ever heard you sing? You have an incredibly beautiful voice."

Randi rubbed her jaw. "I don’t care to dance in public. I’ve never been comfortable with it. . . never found a partner I was comfortable enough to follow, or lead, for that matter. As for singing, it’s very personal to me. Not something I’ve shared with very many folks."

"Well, thank you for sharing it with me, however accidental it was.. Now, " looking around the mostly empty room in appraisal, "what can I do to help?"

"Hmm, not much to do, really. I’m not gonna get too much more done before the weekend. I’ve got several things to take care of tomorrow, and Celebration starts, unofficially, anyway, tomorrow night. I do need to pick up some stuff to put out here. Tommy mentioned something about bringing the boat. May as well have some drinks and snacks, just in case."

"Randi, um. I don’t want to seem picky, but don’t you think a little furniture would be in order here? Except for the bed," motioning to where she was seated, "there’s really not a place to sit."

"Yeah, I know, but you know how I feel about shopping. Besides, I’ll never be able to get anything out here by tomorrow afternoon."

"You leave that to me. I’ll take care of everything."

"Hey, where ya going?" as the bard got up to leave.

"I’ve got some stuff to do to get things in here by tomorrow. I’ll see ya later," closing the door behind her.

Randi looked around her in bemusement at the silence she suddenly found herself in. "I guess she and Jill won’t be doing much shopping together after all, if she gets it all done before they get here." Then she shrugged here shoulders. "Oh well. At least it will be done. And I know I can trust Gwen’s tastes." And with that she got up, and headed for the beach house. She decided a shower was in order before she went anywhere.

Early the next morning, having come in from her morning run, Randi was stopped on her way to the shower by the beep of the vid phone.

"Yeah?" she answered, grabbing a water bottle and guzzling half the contents down in one gulp.

"Hi, Randi," the bard said brightly. "Bad time?" motioning to the woman’s disheveled look.

"Nope. Just back in from my run. What’s up?"

"I wanted to let you know the furniture will be out there by mid morning. If you don’t like it, you can change it later, but I think you will."

"What time? I need to make sure I’m here."

"Ten. Is that gonna be okay?"

The Marine mentally went over her schedule. "Yeah, I can rearrange a couple things and be here then. What time are you coming out?"

"Hmm, Tommy is letting us all go by four, so say five?"

"Okay. If I’m not here let yourself in."

"See ya later, Randi."

"Ditto, Gwen, and thanks!"

Randi had no more than stepped from the shower, dripping wet and steamy, when the vid phone chirped again. "Yeah?" she called out, knowing the unit in the bedroom would pick up her voice. She grabbed a bath sheet from its hanger and proceeded to wrap it around herself.

"Randi? It’s Tommy. Where are you, short stuff?"

She stepped from the bathroom, still wrapped in the towel, running another, smaller towel through her hair. "Here, T. What’s up?"

He cleared his throat, not having expected her to emerge in front of him towel clad. "Um, hey. I was just wondering if you’re gonna be able to be there when we deliver this grouping set. Gwen told the guys to get it there around ten, but aren’t you supposed to pick up her folks then?"

"Huh?" hoping she didn’t look as confused as she suddenly felt. "Would you like to say that again, please? I think I missed something in the translation."

"The butter creme leather reclining sofa and love seat grouping Gwen had made for the boat house. She said. . . Oh shit! You didn’t know about this, did you? She was planning a surprise for you, and I just ruined it," he blurted out at the confusion that remained on the tanned face.

"Wait. . . wait. . . hang on a minute," holding up a hand and dropping onto the bed. " Gwen had this *made* for me?"

"Uh, yeah. She asked the guys to start crafting it the day you started building the dock. We’ve had it done here for the last six to eight weeks, just waiting for time for it to be delivered. I figured you knew. She usually. . . I mean. . . . "

"It’s okay, T. I’m just surprised, that’s all."

"Yeah, well, just be sure you’re surprised if and when she tells you about where it came from, okay?"

"Will do, brother," with a grin. "If you can bring it by earlier, that would be better."

"All right. I"ll just tell Gwen I had to get it out there earlier because of the guys schedule."

"Thanks, Tommy. You and Ella gonna come over tonight?"

"Yep. We’ll be there before Gwen. I wanna see her face. She’s been more than a little upset that she hasn’t been able to reach them."

"It’s a good thing she doesn’t know how to activate those hand sensors then, isn’t it?" with a smile. It took a special code to activate the scanners for those who had already done their military service, and was damned near impossible for anyone outside the chain of command to access those on active duty. Only those who had not yet reached the age of accountability were monitored with any regularity. . . usually parents keeping an eye on their kids.

"Oh yeah! But I think she’ll appreciate her surprise well enough."

"All right, my friend. I’ve got to get a move on, so I’ll see you later, right?"

"With bells on, short stuff. Later" And he severed the connection before she could comment.

It seemed she’d barely had time to dress and grab a cup of coffee, before Tommy, and a few of the guys from the studios came barreling up the road in a rather large transport. She nodded in the direction of the boat house, then pulled Tommy aside.

"I need to go. I’ve got a couple of things to do before I meet Geoff and Jill. Will you lock up for me when you leave, please?" She knew he would, but she felt better asking rather than assuming.

"Go ahead and lock the beach house. We’ll lock up the boat house when we leave. Now, go on," making shooing motions in her direction. "Get going so you can get back."

"Thanks, T. Appreciate it." And she went to the garage and got out her bike. Since her transport was only a two seater as well, and she knew she was gonna have to hire something larger like she had before, she figured she may as well enjoy the beautiful weather, and the ride as well.

As soon as she was gone, and Tommy counted off enough time for her to cross the still extended bridge, he signaled the men to open the transport doors. The first thing they unloaded was Gwen, who had been waiting not so patiently. She was on a tight schedule, and was a little upset that Tommy had changed the time. But she realized he was the one basically paying these people to be doing work away from the Guild, and decided she would get over it. Anything she didn’t finish in the hour he had allotted to get this done this morning, could be taken care of either tonight, or sometime this weekend.

It really didn’t take them very long to unload the furniture she’d had created. Tony really surpassed himself this time, she thought, looking again at the intricate carvings he’d wrought on the small table and chairs. She couldn’t help but admire the delicate work, and the exquisite detail he incorporated into all the animals he portrayed. It was mind-boggling.

As soon as they’s placed the items in the places she had designated for them, they started in on the kitchenette. In very short order, everything was arranged and neatly put away. It only took few more minutes to hang the sheer curtains on the wall of glass facing out toward the open sea. Now the bard moved into the surprisingly spacious (given the size of the whole place) bathroom, and was a little amazed to find towels already hanging. She added her half dozen colored sets to the white sets put into the tiny linen closet. Then she went and stood in the middle of the room. What had been a rather drab empty room a mere hour ago, was now full, infused with warmth and color as much as the new furniture that graced it.

"You know," Gwen stated quietly to Tommy, "she must love you very much."

"How do you figure that?" glancing around him in approval.

"How many people do you know that would go to all this trouble just so a family member, who lives not even a mile away, would have a private place to stay when he brings his boat around the island to play?"

So that’s the cover story Randi used with Gwen? Not bad, short stuff. I may just take you up on that one day. He smiled to himself. "You’re right, Gwen. But you know something," whispering conspiratorially to the blonde, "I think it’s her first step to buying a boat of her own. You know the. . . if-she’s-already-got-the-space-why-not-use-it type of logic."

The bard chuckled. "Yeah, I will admit that that particular thought crossed my mind a time or twenty."

They shared a laugh together as Tommy led them all back to the transport. He knew Gwen’s parents were due in less than an hour, and he wanted to be long away from here before they arrived. This time he was in on both sides of a surprise conspiracy. He just hoped all the pieces fell in place like they were supposed to.

At that very same moment, at the shuttle hub, Randi was waiting a little impatiently for Gwen’s parents to arrive. They weren’t due in for another twenty to thirty minutes, but her last task before she could start Celebration tonight lay too far out for her to take care of before they got in. Tommy had arranged it that way for her specifically because of the Goldman’s arrival time, but she wasn’t all that happy with having to leave them alone practically the minute they got in.

Ten minutes out from their arrival time, the large transport she had requested pulled up, with Ella inside it.

"Ella, what are you doing here?" surprised but please to see her.

"Tommy phoned, and asked me to meet you and the Goldman’s here. He had forgotten you had that appointment *after* you picked them up, and figured you wouldn’t want to just drop them off alone and leave. So he asked me to come and accompany them, since there was no way to change the schedule. He said, and I quote, ‘El, do you know what Mama would have said if I was that rude to company?’ "

Randi smiled. "Oh, I only imagine. ‘Cause I know what *my* Mama would have said. . . or worse, what she would have done." And then the arrival of the Goldman’s shuttle was announced.

Jill squealed, and embraced the Marine in a rather enthusiastic hug, which she hesitantly returned. Geoff greeted her with a firm handshake, and a quiet ‘hello’ when Jill’s attention turned to Ella. Randi and Geoff grabbed the bags, and the group headed out to the transport. The man’s face showed surprise when he saw Randi’s motorcycle parked next to the transport. She noticed, and explained.

"I have an appointment it took months to schedule, that I cannot possibly break. However, Ella has graciously agreed to take you to the boathouse, and play hostess until I can get back. I’m hoping it won’t take too long. But I *will* be there to see Gwen’s face when she sees you." Just a hint of real emotion from her. They smiled back at her.

"We’ll see you in a bit," Ella called out to the Marine who was already straddling her bike. Randi waved in acknowledgment before riding off. The woman guided them to the back of the transport where the driver stood waiting, having already loaded up the luggage.

"Pull all the way around, Freddie. We’re going straight to the boathouse to unload the Goldman’s things first." The older man did as instructed, maneuvering the transport around the house, and right up to the beginning of the dock. He drew the suitcases out, and Geoff picked them up. Freddie tried to take them from him, but the other man just walked away toward the boathouse, possessions firmly in his hands. He and his wife stood gaping in awe at the sight that greeted them when Ella opened the door.

"Now," Ella began as she proceeded them in, "I need to tell you the whole story of the boat house and all these things. I think you will find it quite interesting." And she did. She told them of Randi secretly building it for them, so they would have a place they could call home when they visited. Of how Gwen knew nothing of the real reason. Of how Gwen had arranged for all the furnishings to be made to her specifications as a surprise for Randi.

"They love each other very much, don’t they?" a quiet question from Geoff.

"Ya know, it’s funny," Ella answered conversationally. "Everyone can see it but them."

"If I thought it would help, I’d sit Gwen down and talk to her about it. But this is something they need to discover on their own." from the bard’s mother.

"I agree, which is why I haven’t spoken to either of them, though the temptation has been almost overwhelming a few times. I don’t understand *why* they can’t see it."

Geoff remained quiet, formulating an idea or two. He’d see if he could discover the truth later.

It was late afternoon before Randi was headed back towards her home. Much later than she had hoped or anticipated being. She was about twenty-five minutes out, and was startled by the chirp of her com link. "Yeah?"

"Randi?" hesitantly.

"Hi, Gwen. What’s up?"

"Um, is everything okay? I’m not getting a visual."

"I’m on the bike."

"Oh, good reason. That helps me, though. Listen, can you swing by an pick me up?"

"Sure. I’ll be there in about ten minutes."

"Great! I’ll meet you outside." The bard cut the connection, sighing in relief. This was going to work out just perfectly.

The Marine grinned as she clicked of her comm unit. This was gonna be so awesome.

Nothing much was said between them on the ride home. They were both silently contemplating the surprise each had in store for the other. With the bike parked in its place, the two made their way into the beach house. Gwen walked up the stairs to put her extra clothes away. It seemed she was bringing more and more over with her, and taking less and less of it back to the penthouse. The blonde was puzzling over how to get her friend over to the boat house without raising her suspicions, when the Marine solved her dilemma for her quite unknowingly.

"Hey," peering up at the bard who looked over the loft railing at her hail, "I had some groceries delivered out at the boathouse this afternoon in preparation for Celebration weekend. Ella received them for me, but I wanna make sure I got what I ordered. You wanna come along and check ‘em out with me?"

"Yeah, sure," came the answer, as the bard energetically descended the staircase. She beat Randi to the French doors, since the older woman had been rooted to the spot, chuckling lightly at the bard’s enthusiasm at what appeared to be a mundane chore. "Well, c’mon. Pokey. Let’s go see what they brought. It’s time to start our holiday!" And she reached out her hand, and took the Marine’s larger one in her own small one.

Once outside, the Marine allowed Gwen to pull her along. The bard noticed the lights on in the boat house and frowned. The frown disappeared almost immediately when she remembered Tommy saying he wanted to see Randi’s reaction to her surprise. "Guess Ella told Tommy about the groceries."

"Hmm? Oh yeah. I know he’s been anxious to get over here and take a peek. I asked him to wait until the inside was done, and he’s been pretty patient. Let’s go see what he thinks."

By this point they were almost to the door. The taller woman opened the door and gestured to her blonde companion, ushering her inside first. Gwen automatically entered, with the Marine following right behind her. Had Randi not had exceptional reflexes, she would have plowed into the bard at her sudden stop.

"Mother?" A beat. "Daddy?" With a joyful little cry, Gwen leapt exultantly into their waiting arms. "It is so good to see you both. I’ve been so worried about not being able to contact you. You were planning this, weren’t you?"

"Actually, Randi invited us during Festival to come back for Celebration."

Gwen let go of them and turned toward her friend. "You did this?" A nod. Realization dawned. "You built the boat house for them as well, didn’t you?" Another small nod. The bard moved to give Randi a long, hard squeeze. "Thank you," she whispered. "I can’t tell you how much this means to me." The Marine simply closed her revealing eyes, and hugged her firmly in return.

After a long private moment, while the other occupants of the room had focused their attention on other things, the two woman pulled away from each other. "Well," the storyteller spoke up softly, "I don’t think my surprise for you is as wonderful as yours was for me, but. . . . " Her words trailed off as she motioned around the room. Randi’s eyebrow, which had risen in question at the statement, was joined by its mate as the reality of what Gwen meant made itself apparent to her. She slowly walked into the center of the now furnished boat house.

"You did all this?" Looking directly at the blonde.

"Well, not exactly. I just made sure it got done," cutting off Tommy’s protest with a look and a wave of her hand.

"This is incredible. Thank you," sincerely, walking over and giving her friend another good hug. The younger woman returned the embrace with equal fervor.

"You are most welcome."

They broke apart somewhat awkwardly when the realized they were becoming the center of some rather intense attention. Randi turned to greet the Goldmans and the Steeles. It was then she noticed both Jill and Ella were wrapped in aprons, and the boat house was filled with some tantalizing aromas.

"Ooo, did ya’ll cook?"

"No, Randi," Ella remarked dryly. "This is the latest fashion statement. Of course we cooked. There’s food enough here to feed the Army."

"Food?" spoke up the bard. "I heard food mentioned."

"Or at least feed the beast that resides in my daughter’s stomach with enough left for the rest of us to have a taste."

"MOM!" Gwen groaned loudly, just as her tummy rumbled even louder. Everyone laughed.

"So, how long are you here for?" the bard questioned her mother after dinner. The two men were in the kitchen area cleaning up, though they were still able to participate in the conversation.

"Until after your birthday," responded her father, when Jill looked at him and raised her eyebrow in question. The stunned look on the blonde’s face was priceless.

"Really? That’s great! That’s what. . . .?" her gaze going inward for a minute, " a little over two weeks. And you’ll be here for Randi’s birthday as well. Awesome!"

The Marine looked up from her spot on the couch at these words, eyes widening at the implications of the words and tone. Oh no, she’s planning something, isn’t she?

"Oh really?" Jill answered her daughter. "Well now, what do you know about that?" The mischief in her voice just made Randi groan aloud. Ella laughed.

"Buck up there, short stuff. It can’t be as bad as all that," from Tommy, and her and Geoff came in from the kitchenette. The room was getting quite crowded. Randi and Gwen were sitting next to each other on the large couch, close , but not touching. The bard had moved to sit next to her friend as soon as the meal was over. The table only held four, and Randi and Tommy had elected to sit on the couch. Gwen had confiscated the man’s place as soon as he had made a move toward the kitchenette. Geoff had watched the proceedings with interest. He noticed that not only did the Marine keep a watch on her bardic friend, but that Gwen subtly returned the scrutiny.

Now, as they returned to the small living area, Geoff joined his mate on the love seat. Tommy elected to squeeze into the small space between Gwen and Ella on the couch, forcing the bard to practically sit in Randi’s lap. Geoff took note of the look of unconscious contentment on his daughter’s face, and the mix of pain and pleasure on the Marine’s. This was shaping up to be a most interesting and enlightening weekend.

Conversation went on long into the night, and it was quite early in the morning when they broke up. Randi and Gwen headed back to the beach house after wishing Tommy and Ella a goodnight.

"She’s starting to waddle just a little bit, did you notice? She makes a cute pregnant woman," the bard commented.

"Yeah, she does. I’m so happy for them. They waited a long, long time for this." The Marine paused a moment to open the door. "So, how did you like your surprise?" as she turned to close the door and arm the security system. And turned around to find herself with an armful of happy bard.

"Thank you, Randi! I think that was incredibly sweet of you." She pulled the Marine’s face down to her own and brushed her lips lightly against the corner of Randi’s mouth, then gave her a fierce hug. "I love you, Randi. Goodnight." And was up the stairs before the implications of that statement sank into the brunette’s brain.

"I love you too, Little One," whispered into the still darkness. "Goodnight."

By the following day, Randi had put Gwen’s words into perspective, and saw them for the way she thought the bard intended them. Still, they managed to have a lot of fun. There was actually a huge Guild picnic at Midas that they all attended. Geoff and Jill had the opportunity to meet many of Gwen’s friends and colleagues, and they got the chance to see their daughter interact with them. Their final niggling little concerns over her happiness and well-being were belayed, and they felt good about the choices she had made and the life she had here. The father kept a discreet eye on the Marine. He was well aware that even though she was not always with them, they were always in her sights. And from listening and watching, soon learned that the only two people who seemed completely blind to the love between the bard and the warrior were the two of them. He shook his head at the folly of youth. But it was a good day, and everyone went home tired and happy.

On Saturday, to Randi’s surprise, a great many people arrived at Tommy’s behest to help her finish off the deck of the boat house. By lunchtime, they had accomplished quite a bit, and were digging in heartily to the meal Tommy had thoughtfully provided for them. CL had already started creating a barbeque pit of rather large proportions, and most of the flooring was laid. They still had the remainder of the floor, railings, and the lower dias to finish today. Randi would add the actual *housing for a boat* part of the boat house later. They had great faith they would be done by mid- to late afternoon.

"So," Geoff approached Randi who was sitting off to one side of the beach practically alone, "how do you feel about the invasion?" The Marine quirked an eyebrow at him, but he noticed her eyes never left the blonde who was at the moment refilling her plate. He chuckled and continued. "Well, I mean, first Jill and I show up on your doorstep, and then this crew comes in to help out. Must be a bit overwhelming for a person who craves solitude."

Both eyebrows went up at this remark. How does he know? She thought about it. I guess we are alike in more ways than one. "Well," she drawled out, choosing her words carefully, "if I remember correctly, I invited you and Jill to come play with all of us during Celebration." He noticed she was very careful in avoiding coupling Gwen and herself together. "As for these guys," motioning to the men and women scattered on the dock and beach area, "they’re my friends. And as unexpected as it was for them to turn up here to help me out with this, I’m glad they came. They’re good people."

"Hi, guys! Whatcha talking about?" from Gwen as she came back from the table. Geoff noticed she handed another bottle of water to the brunette, and subtly motioned for her to start drinking. The most intriguing thing to him, though, was the haste Randi showed in complying to the unspoken command.

"Hi, honey. Randi was just telling me about how nice it was for all your friends to come out here and help her with this project. I’ve met a lot of genuine people on my visits here. I’m glad you chose this place, Gwen."

"Thanks, Daddy. I’m very happy here, but it means a lot to me to know that you approve." She gave Randi half her hamburger, which the tall woman lost no time in devouring. "Gee, maybe I should give you the whole thing, and go fix another for myself," she jokingly said.

"Nah, that was just what I needed to fill me up, thanks. I’m gonna get back to work." And she swiftly moved away, leaving father and daughter alone together.

"She’s a lovely young woman, very charming," Geoff commented, curious as to his daughter’s reaction. He was already quite sure of her feelings. He watched with a mixture of sadness, that his little girl was all grown up, and pride, that she had chosen someone worthy of her, as her face lit with an inner glow.

"She’s my very best friend, Daddy. Do you know, until I met her, I never really understood what that was, or what I had been missing? But she. . . I don’t know if I can explain it. She fills something in me. Like she’s a part of me or something. I’m not really sure. . . this is not. . . I can’t. . . ." She trailed off.

"That’s all right, daughter. I think I understand what you’re trying to say." And even more what you have yet to give voice to in your own heart and mind. "I guess we should get back to work as well." He motioned to the movement around them as folks began returning to their tasks.

By mid-afternoon, the deck was finished, as was the railing around it. CL was still working on the pit, though it was close to being done, and Randi was placing the lower platform. Greg, the roofer, and his cousin, Jeff, were trying to place the steps from the upper deck to the lower portion without disturbing the Marine’s concentration on her job. Finally, just as the sun was starting to set, the work was completed, and the project itself declared a smashing success. After a little talk, it was decided that all the participants and their families would return the next day for a big party. The band would set up in the evening for a little bit and entertain, and the bard would tell some stories. For now, though, everyone was pretty well beat from a good, hard day’s work, and most wanted nothing better than a chance to rest and relax tonight. Tomorrow, they would play as hard as they had worked today.

Folks started arriving early, though not too early to begin their last day of Celebration. Solstice actually fell on the final day, so that made it doubly special. Randi and Gwen had gotten up at dawn, though the bard had protested the early hour to begin with, until she watched the sun peek across the horizon. Then she had been silent, and simply enjoyed the beauty of greeting a new day. With a calm she found in the stillness, a shower and a cup of coffee later, the blonde was more than ready for the influx of guests that would soon fill the beach with laughter.

A volleyball net had been set up, the kids were swimming or playing chase, ribs were ready to go onto the new barbeque pit. Tables had been set up, and were loaded down with all sorts of edibles. People were clustered in small groups, talking or cheering on the few who were energetic enough to be playing volleyball this early. Late morning, though, found Randi in the beach house alone. She needed a bit of space and quiet time. Having all these people around was making her twitchy. There was a reason why she was a loner. . . it suited her far better than this whole social thing.

The Marine cleared a space on the floor to sit, them cleared her mind and let the world recede from her consciousness. How long she sat there regaining her inner balance was unclear, but when she opened her blue eyes, she saw green eyes returning her gaze thoughtfully.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, just needed to clear my head."

The bard looked at her for a long moment, as though waiting for her to finish the sentence, but when it became apparent she wasn’t going to add to that, the blonde nodded her head in acceptance. "Would you like me to leave you alone then?" seeming to understand what the real problem was.

"Nope. You’re fine. It’s not you, anyway. I just get uptight having so many people here."

"Hmm. Well, I can understand. You go ahead and take what time you need. I need to let T know everything is all right."

"He sent you to check on me?" vaguely disappointed.

"Nope. I told him I was going to and he asked me to let him know."

"Oh. Okay. I’ll be out in a few minutes."

The rest of the day went fairly smoothly. There was only one rather heated argument over a call in the volleyball game, and a somewhat nasty food fight that caused a majority of the partygoers to take a dip in the water for cleaning and cooling purposes. Close to sundown, Tommy got up.

"All right, guys. Let’s get this place cleaned up and move the party to the band pavilion. They should be ready to play in just a little while." A cheer went up, and in less than half an hour the place was spotless, and the people were gone.

"What exactly just happened here?" Randi queried, as she and the bard stood alone on the dock. Even Gwen’s parents were already at the practice area.

"I asked Tommy to move the rest of the stuff away from here," the blonde woman stated quite frankly.

"You did? Why?"

"Because best friends look out for each other, and that was the best thing for you."

The Marine looked down at Gwen affectionately. "Thank you. You take good care of me."

"Ditto, my friend."

"Well, let’s go get this over with. Then we can have a bit of peace."

"Hear! Hear!"

Jill was pleasantly surprised, and more than a little flattered that she had started a trend that continued on after she’d gone back home. Dancing was now as much a part of practice as the music seemed to be. She couldn’t help but notice Gwen’s tendencies to dance with a different partner every dance, never allowing a single person more than one dance. The bard’s mother was quite amazed that after exactly two hours, the band members, instead of taking a break, put their equipment away and exited the stage area, quickly finding a seat with their families near the dias. She moved and sat down near Geoff, whispering in his ear, "Do you know what is going on?"

He shook his head, but then nodded toward the front where their daughter was mounting the platform. The silence that hung over the previously rowdy group was a fascinating contrast to what had been there before. And they watched, and listened, as the bard held them all spellbound for more than another hour. He had chanced, once, to glance in Randi’s direction as the tale unfolded. She was standing apart from the crowd, alone in the back so as to remain unnoticed. And the naked longing he saw on her features as she gazed at his daughter, made him wonder. Why? What is holding you back, Randi? Then he saw her suddenly smile, and knew before he turned his head back to Gwen what he would find. Sure enough, the bard was holding Randi’s eyes, and smiling back at her. He determined to have a word alone with the Marine before he and Jill left for home.

The next few days were quite busy for all of them. The Marine had issued, and her blonde friend had accepted, an invitation to stay at the beach house for the duration of the elder Goldmans stay. Geoff and Jill took day trips, seeing the area, and spending their evenings with their daughter. Gwen returned to work. Tommy offered to let her be off, but she chose to wait until the following week, wanting to be off to spend her birthday with them. Randi. . . Randi had disappeared again, having received another mysterious summons just as they came home from the end of Celebration. The bard contemplated again the metamorphosis her friend’s entire being seemed to make. It was really odd, but nothing she could make Randi open up and talk about. She hoped against hope that the Marine would be back from where ever before her own birthday in four days. She had a couple of special gifts.

Randi’s birthday came and went with no sign of her, and no word on her possible return. Geoff watched as his daughter’s green eyes became grayer and more shadowed. A week passed, then ten days. On day thirteen, Gwen’s birthday, he heard the whoosh of a shuttle as it landed and almost immediately left nearby.

The bard and her mother had gone into the shopping district to spend the day, while he had elected to stay at the boat house and fish. An all day excuse to laze around in the fresh air and sunshine’s more like it, he mused. He’d seen a couple dolphins hovering close, but they hadn’t come near enough to touch. But the sound of the shuttle drew him out of his reverie, and he found his feet moving toward the sound of their own volition.

The fire in the Marine’s eyes told him far more than any words ever could, but he maintained his approach in her direction. He watched as she struggled to drop the mask of civility in place, knowing it for the futile effort it was. The tall woman tried to brush by him without speaking, but his voice halted her.

"Do you feel up to a bit of sparring with an old man?"

"Now’s really not a good time, Geoff. I’m sorry." And she tried to move away from him again.

This time, he reached out to her, and felt the muscles tremble in reaction to his touch. He knew, better than most, the extremely fine line she walked right now. "Randi, look at me." With noticeable strain, her blue eyes met his gray ones. "I understand." Now she really *looked* into his eyes, seeing that, hard as it was for her mind to fathom, he *DID* understand. It was when he showed her the comm link on his wrist, identical to her own, that she began to comprehend what he wasn’t saying. "Come. Spar with me a bit, and then I’ll tell you the whole story."

She still hesitated, knowing her hair trigger reflexes for the deadly skills she depended on were right on the edge. One slip, one wrong move. . . "I don’t want to. . . hurt. . . you. If I was to. . . . "

He didn’t even let her finish. "You won’t. You’re that good. Your body knows the difference between practice and a real threat. And besides, " he grinned, "I’m not too shabby myself."

This almost got a small smile from her. He could see it in her eyes, if not on her lips. "You’re sure?"

"I’m sure."

"Then chose your weapon."

He chose knives. And for almost ninety minutes, the two of them battled back and forth. He was good, safe enough for her to seriously spar with, though her mind never lost sight of the fact that this match was strictly for practice, and she never moved beyond those self-imposed practice limits. He, on the other hand, was flabbergasted by her strength and skill. Her sheer intensity and focus was enviable, and he knew she was holding back. For once in his life he had met his match, and much more.

Finally, she sensed him slowing, tiring, and she brought the exercise to a close. "Thank you, Geoff," she said, bowing slightly in his direction. "It has been an honor to spar with you."

"The honor has been mine. I hope we can do it again sometime." And he returned her bow in the Sabre salute of respect.

"Whenever you wish. It has been a while since I felt this good so quickly. . . " she trailed off again, unsure still of what she could safely reveal to this man.

"Let’s get something to drink, and sit down. I want to tell you a story."

A walk down the dock, and they entered the boat house, grabbing a couple waters, and continuing on to sit out on the lower platform of the deck. "When I was just a young pup," he began without preamble, "and it was time to do my military service, I joined the Navy. I don’t know why exactly, except I found the sea fascinating. Still do, in fact. Anyway, after basic training I, like you, was sent to Sabre school." He chuckled in remembrance. "I thought three months of basic were bad. I never thought I’d live through six months of Sabre training. But I did, and not long after, I was sent out on my first assignment." His eyes clouded in memory as his gaze focused on the past. "Nothing big, you understand. Just something to get our feet wet, so to speak." He paused. "The Sabres then were far different than what they have since had to become. We were still guardians of the peace, not the enforcers that we have since had to be."

"What happened?" she finally asked quietly when the silence dragged on. He was surprised she had waited as long as she had. She was much more patient than he had ever been.

"About three months after I had graduated Sabre school, we were sent out on what we thought was a routine enforcement. Cocky young punks that we were, we thought we were invincible. To this day, I have no clear recollection of the exact events that took place then. But when I finally woke up, two weeks later, I had a plate in my head, a spine that had been regenerated because it had been broken in two places, and I was no longer an active duty Sabre."


"Why did they remove me from active status? It was no longer viable for me to do some of the things necessary to maintain my quals. I did become a weapons smith, and I provide a good part of the weapons that all Sabres use. I am still considered part of the unit, and when my time comes, I will have an honorable death. Why did it happen? That was Ghost Rider’s first act of terrorism against humanity. Five of my team died that day. The other four were seriously injured, though I was the only one who was removed from active duty."

"Does Jill know?"

"No. She does know that I have some serious health issues, which require treatment at a military facility from time to time. And of course she is well aware that as a weapons smith, I provide military hardware. As far as she will ever know, I served two years in the Navy learning the trade of weapons crafting, the got out to continue my trade as a civilian. You are the only person, outside of my superior officers at the time, and the remainder of my team, who knows the whole truth."

They were silent for a long time after that, both gazing out toward the horizon. Pilot and Peanut, the two dolphins that seemed to have adopted Randi, swam up to them for a bit of petting. Both warriors smiled at their antics and their chatter, glad for the distraction. After a while, the two sleek mammals moved back into deeper water, and the only sound left was the water that lapped at the polymer beams.

"Why did you tell me this?"

He thought long and hard before he answered. A lot was riding on his response. "Several reasons, but only one really important one right now." He waited, knowing she would ask if he waited. She didn’t disappoint.

"You wanna share it with me?"


"Gwen? What does she have to do with this?"

"Do you love her?"

The dark head whipped around to face him, then her eyes dropped as he found the truth he already knew revealed there. She said nothing.

"Randi, do you love her?" The Marine still held her tongue and refused to look at him again. He took her chin firmly in his grasp, and turned her to face him. "Do. You. Love. Her.?"

She jerked from his hold and stood, moving away from him. "YES, GODDAMMIT!!! I LOVE HER!!!" She shrank down, seemingly coiling up within herself. "I do love her," she whispered so softly he almost missed it.

He got up and moved to her slowly, taking care not to startle her. "Randi?" He waited long moments for her attention to focus on him once again. "Randi, I know you love her. I’ve known since the first time you came to my house. It shows in everything you do, everything you say. It’s in every single glance you cast in her direction." He watched as blue eyes grew wide with fear. "My question to you is, why doesn’t Gwen know, and when are you going to tell her?" He saw the fear fade as realization of Gwen ignorance of her feelings registered in her mind.

"Gwen isn’t to know. Ever. Not now. NOT EVER." Her eyes bore into his as he understood her determination to keep his daughter in the dark about her true feelings.


"Why? WHY?? You know what I am and you ask me that?!? What kind of a father are you that you would wish someone like me on their only child? Especially a person as special as Gwen is." Her anger was starting to burn.

"I told you my story, so you could see it is possible to be a Sabre and still have a full active life with a partner who loves you, that you love in return. It’s not all about the team anymore."

"No! You’re wrong! The Sabres aren’t what they were when you were in, and it’s not a life I would ever, EVER ask Gwen to share with me. She’s had to deal with it enough as my friend, and even if she could return my feelings, I would never ask her to share this as my partner."

"She does return your feelings, Randi. She’s just not aware of that yet."

"Then you best pray to whatever gods you believe in that she never figures it out. I will not allow her to share the horror that is my life beyond what she knows right now."

"But. . . . "

"No, Geoff! I mean it! I am the ‘Best of the Best’, ‘the Elite of the Elite’. Do you know what that means?" with a derisive snort. "It means I kill people, Geoff. And I’m very, *very* good at it. I go out so much, because no one has more kills to their credit than I do. Is that *really* the type of person you want to love your daughter?"

"Yes, it is, if that person is you. There is so much more to you than you can acknowledge. You’re only seeing the ugliness that haunts you. But me, now, I see the whole picture. And I see a beautiful, caring individual, with a loving heart and a giving spirit, who is carrying far more than the weight of the world on her shoulders alone."

She quirked a crooked grin at him. "I think you need your eyes checked, Geoff. That person, if she ever existed. died a long time ago."

"And I think you should look at yourself through Gwen’s eyes. Those were her words to describe you not long after you two met."

The look on the Marine’s face was priceless, and the father only wished there was a way to capture it for posterity. Very seldom did that stoic mask slip, but when it did, it revealed her inner beauty to the world.

"However, " he continue, as though he hadn’t seen straight into her soul, "it is not my place to tell her. . . either your feelings or her own. That is between the two of you. I will say, though, that I think you are making the wrong decision by not telling her and giving her the opportunity of discovering her love for you."

"It’s better this way, Geoff. For her."

"And for you?"

She shrugged. "I don’t matter. Just her."

"You’re wrong. You *DO* matter, especially to her, but as I said, it’s your decision. And I will abide by it. Now, shall we get cleaned up before the girls get back? I think we are going out on the town for Gwen’s celebration."

She looked at him blankly, until her mind focused and she realized she hadn’t missed the bard’s birthday. "Yep. C’mon up to the beach house when you’re ready." And she moved off without a backward glance.

Well, I’m not sure how productive that was, but at least I understand things a little better now. And he entered the boat house to start his preparations for the evening ahead.

Chapter X

Jill was just entering the boat house, arms loaded with packages, as Geoff stepped out of the bathroom. "Did you buy out the market?" he asked with a chuckle. He reached to help ease the packages to the table and stole a kiss.

"Hey, you! Get back here and give me a proper hello." A few minutes later, they pulled away from each other, breathless. Jill looked at the clock and sighed. "Hold that thought til later, I guess."

"Yep. But hey, Randi came home this afternoon."

"Did she?" How wonderful! Gwen will be so thrilled she made it in time for her birthday." And she stepped into the shower to freshen up for the night’s activities.

At that very moment, the bard was standing in the middle of the beach house living area trying to decide whether or not to be concerned at the sound of water running she heard coming from the master bedroom. It was only when she recognized the Marine’s voice singing in the shower, that her face lit with a brilliant smile, and she ran up the stairs to get ready for their evening out.

Shit! The Marine thought as the whiskey burned down her throat. Now I remember why I don’t drink much. Man, that is nasty. But she refilled the glass again anyway, hoping it would ease the tension she felt coiling in her belly at the thought of being in a room full of people. And being near the bard while having to keep her distance. She wasn’t sure if this would accomplish what it was supposed to, but she hoped it would kick in soon. She needed to relax, or pass out. Anything would be preferable to the way she felt right now.

Gwen didn’t know which was more shocking as she stood at the loft railing looking down into the living room. The fact that Randi was swallowing three fingers of very old scotch like it was water, the fact the she proceeded to pour herself a second glass of the liquor, or the fact that she was actually wearing color. In the three years she’d known the older woman, she could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen Randi drink anything stronger than coffee. And there seemed to be about the same number for the times the Marine had worn something other than her standard black, white, or olive drab/khaki combination. Well, I guess this is something of a event, looking down at her own short black dress. Then she hurried down the steps as fast as her ridiculously heeled shoes would allow.

Randi tensed as she heard the running steps of her friend. She was already on edge from her talk with Geoff, but she had no desire to ruin the bard’s special evening. The alcohol she had consumed hadn’t relaxed her as she’d hoped, and now she stood waiting for. . . what. . . she wasn’t sure. But what she got was an enthusiastic reception, and an armful of blonde.

"Randi! You’re home! I am so happy you made it back in time to go out with us tonight!"

No questions, no recriminations, but Gwen could see the uncertainty and fear lurking in the back of blue eyes fade at her welcome. The Marine tentatively returned the hug, knowing how close she was to revealing her heart to the young woman who had been the topic of her rather intense afternoon discussion. Knowing how very close those emotions were to the surface. She brushed her lips lightly over the blonde hair and whispered, "Happy Birthday, Gwen."

She was saved from any response the bard might have made by a light knock on the French doors. She eased away from Gwen, and moved to let her parents into the beach house. "C’mon in, guys. Can I get you a drink?" motioning to the bar.

"No, thanks, Randi" Geoff answered while looking at his watch. "We need to get going. We don’t want to be late." He smiled as he said it, but looked at the Marine with concern. He had hoped the sparring had relaxed her, but apparently their conversation had wound her up tightly once again. He would have to try to keep an eye on her. Even if he hadn’t already developed a liking for her on his own, and even if she wasn’t desperately in love with his daughter, and even if that same daughter didn’t return her love, he would have kept an eye on her anyway. It was just part of the Sabre code.

They pulled up in front of the ‘Golden Touch’, a bit astonished to find the parking lot so full on a Thursday night. Geoff, having found a larger transport to use during their stay, was driving. He moved up to a space very near the door and stopped. "Well, Ella asked us to stop in. Let’s go see what’s up."

They all exited the vehicle. The bard instinctively grabbed her friend’s larger hand, gripping it tightly. Randi found herself wondering what had upset Gwen so much, and then they were passing into the building, and all rational thought flew out of her head at the yelled "SURPRISE!!!" The Marine noticed that there were balloons and banners, and some of them had her name on them as well as Gwen’s.

"How did you know?" whispering in the blonde’s ear.

"I didn’t, especially about you. I didn’t even know you were back in town. But I suspected about me. People have stopped talking every time I’ve come around for the last week."

A chuckle. "Good clue. I’ll bet Tommy heard me come in and set the rest of it up." The bard would have asked more, but then they were surrounded by friends and well wishers. The evening was off to an interesting start.

Dinner passed pleasantly enough. The two women, along with the bard’s parents and Tommy and Ella, sat together at a front table. Gwen was a bit concerned by the amount of alcohol her previously sober friend seemed to be consuming, but didn’t want to upset the Marine further by bringing it up. It was obvious something was bothering the older woman.

When it was over, tables were pushed against the walls to clear the floor for dancing. At Tommy’s nod, Geoff led Gwen out onto the dance floor to start things off. It didn’t take long for others to join them, and soon the floor was full. After the traditional first dance together, the father relinquished his daughter to the first in line to claim a dance with the birthday girl.

His intention had been to escort Jill back to the floor immediately, but judging by the black looks and twitchiness of the Marine sitting beside them, he decided prudence demanded he stay put for a little while longer. He gave Jill a short whispered explanation, who nodded her agreement, and sat back to watch both the dancers and Randi. Tommy had returned Ella to the table after one dance. Even at seven months, their child seemed extremely heavy, and she was glad to resume her seat. She told Tommy to dance with Jill, who was glad to accept.

Meanwhile, Randi had finished her fourth drink, and was about to order number five. She didn’t hear Ella comment to the older man,"This is so unlike her. She hardly ever drinks, even socially, especially after her folks were killed by a drunk." The Marine had lifted the fresh glass to her lips, when Geoff’s voice stopped her. "You’ve had enough, Randi." There was a no nonsense tone in his speech that caused Ella to look at him in surprise, and then look away. The only person, aside from Tommy, she had ever heard used that tone toward Randi, was Gwen. Most people just weren’t *that* suicidal.

The Marine looked at him, baleful blue eyes filled with disdain pinning him in place. "Have I passed out yet? Am I falling down drunk?" she asked without ever raising her voice above a whisper. "Oh no, I haven’t had nearly enough." As she made to take a drink again, Geoff put a hand on her arm. He felt her flinch.

"Randi, don’t do this. It’s not going to help." The compassion in his eyes only served to fuel her anger.

She wanted to say something, anything to hurt him, the way she hurt, but decided walking away was a far better option, and would leave her with less regrets in the morning. She jerked from his grasp and stood, moving out of the restaurant to the outdoor patio before he even realized her intentions. The worried green eyes of his daughter met his, and he tried to reassure her with his own as he moved to follow his comrade-at-arms.

The fresh air that met her lungs as she stepped out onto the veranda did wonders in clearing her mind. That didn’t particularly make her feel any better, as her recent actions towards a man whom she knew to be a colleague, but also considered a friend, came to light. Damn you, Valiant. Sometimes you are a complete ass!! She sat there, trying to figure out how to apologize, when she heard footsteps stop several paces behind her.

"I’m sorry, Randi," Geoff began. He saw her stiffen. "I shouldn’t have pushed, shouldn’t have tried to. . . I don’t know. . . be a father figure. You’re a grown woman, and capable of making your own decisions. I apologize for presuming. Especially since you’re strung tighter than a bow string right now." He paused, then took the plunge. "I know you were watching Gwen on the dance floor. Didn’t you notice she kept all her partners, men and women, at arms length?" She nodded, but still didn’t look at him. "Have you ever danced with her?" He noticed her hesitation before she nodded again. "Did she keep you at a distance?" A longer hesitation before a single, solitary shake. "You see, her body has already accepted her love for you. Her mind simply needs to acknowledge what her heart already knows."

"No, Geoff. We’ve been through this already. As badly as it hurts me to see her with someone else, it’s better for *her* that she does." And she looked him full in the face, letting him see the weight of her past, and her service as a Sabre in her eyes. He would have flinched, and almost did, but he knew that would simply prove her point, and serve to drive her further away. Instead, he moved to sit beside her, reaching out to her, glad when she didn’t move away from him.

"Randi," he said softly. "I can’t pretend to understand how you feel. You have born more of the weight of the world than any one person should ever be expected to carry. I know I can’t change your mind or your determination to keep Gwen away from this, and by extension, you. But I also know you are underestimating both yourself and Gwen, and your love for each other. However," he continued, before she could interrupt, "I want you to know I will always be here to listen, if you ever feel the need to talk."

The Marine sat quietly, digesting everything the man had said. Then, "Thanks, Geoff. Can I ask you something?" He recognized that the other subject was closed, and he could only wonder if she would ever feel comfortable enough with him, or anyone else for that matter, to open up the darkest part of herself.

"Sure. What would you like to know?"

"Your comm unit. I know you didn’t have it on when I first met you, and you don’t have it on now."

"Hmm. Well, I really don’t have a reason to wear it anymore. I have it in case of an emergency, and I do check it everyday, just in case." A breath. " When you walked into my living room, in full dress blues, I was impressed. Very few Marines, very few military personnel in general actually, are as decorated as you. When I noticed the black and gold braid, well, so many things about you feel into place for me. By then, I was fully aware about how you and my daughter felt about each other, but it was between the two of you. However, I did want you to know that there was someone who understood, if only marginally, what you were and what you did in that persona."

It was quiet again for the longest time as she thought over his words. He had no reason to reveal himself to her as he had, except that he cared about her, and he loved his daughter. She still found it difficult to comprehend that any father, especially one who understood the true nuances of her job, would want someone like her as a partner for their beloved child. But more than she was willing to admit, she appreciated his support. "Thanks, Geoff," she said simply.

The fresh air and conversation had returned her normal balance, and she felt the fire and rage that had unsettled her before slip back into its cage. She could only hope to keep it under control until it burned itself out again. Geoff’s voice broke into her reverie.

"This is hard for you, isn’t it?"

"What?" not fully understand which question he was asking.

"Having to be around people, around Gwen, so soon after a mission." Succinct and to the point.

She looked at him in surprise. She had been trying very hard to keep it under control, but if he could see her struggle. . . .

"No," he answered her unspoken reaction. "It’s not terribly obvious, and most would put your reactions down to your typical aloofness. I just remember being, um, twitchy after an assignment, and needing a couple days to wind down. And mine weren’t nearly as. . . intense. . . as yours seem to be."

She raised a hand and scratched the back of her neck. "Hmm. Yeah. But I’ll get over it. I always do."

"I’m glad to have met you, Miranda Valiant. You’re the kind of person I’m proud to call friend." He wrapped an arm lightly around her shoulders, and was happy when she nestled in to him, just a bit.

"Hey, should I be jealous?" Gwen called out from the doorway she was leaning against. She wasn’t sure whether she was more jealous of Randi or her father. Whoa! Where did *that* come from? But she didn’t have time to examine the thought as the two turned and looked at her. Then Geoff was excusing himself, and Randi reminded him to ask Jill to dance. He nodded, and gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek as he moved past her.

"You okay?" the blonde asked Randi after several minutes of silence.

"Hmm? Yeah." She didn’t add any more, uncomfortable with having been caught in a moment of weakness by both father and daughter. "Hey," she added, changing the subject, "aren’t you missing all the dancing being out here with me?"

"Yeah, but that’s okay. I need a break, and the person I most want to dance with won’t, so. . . . " she trailed off. "Besides, I rather be out here with you. It’s cooler. It’s like a sauna in there." Gwen grinned. And was thrilled at the one she got in return.

"I noticed. That’s one reason I came out here." The Marine broke off, not wanting to reveal anymore. The two sat together in a comfortable silence for quite a while, leaning shoulder to shoulder. Finally, regretfully, "I guess we’d better go back in. It’s bad manners to hog the guest of honor," the brunette commented.

"I s’pose. I like it out here a lot better though."

"Duly noted," Randi replied, and helped the bard to her feet. The Marine felt her equilibrium return, and her stoic nature settle into place, and breathed a sigh of relief. She might make it through this with her honor intact. The blonde’s small hand slipped into hers, and she felt sweet pain at the unspoken trust and affection that gesture brought. She squeezed the hand lightly, and felt it returned, and they moved back toward the party together.

They were hailed on all sides when they entered. It had been determined that it was time for gifts and cake. They were seated side by side at the front table, and Randi was astonished to note that there were nearly as many gifts for her as there were for Gwen. She had to wonder how it had all come about, but that questioning was put out of her mind rapidly, as the bard’s excitement took precedence.

They took their time, and at the bard’s insistence, took turns opening gifts. Before Randi could open her last two presents, Gwen stopped her with a hand on her arm. "I have to say something first. This," indicating the long heavy box in front of the Marine, "was supposed to have been your Festival gift. I found a design that I really like, that just seemed to suit you. But I wanted Daddy to check it out for me. He gave it the go ahead, so. . . go ahead. Open it."

Blue eyes twinkled with reflected merriment at the smiling face above hers. She carefully opened the box, Her jaw dropped, and she could only stare at the beauty and craftsmanship of the sword. Though the handle was quite plain, the blade had something incredibly detailed and intricate etched onto it, and tickled her memory with something just out of reach. She placed the box gently on the table, and reverently removed the weapon that was nestled therein. A gasp arose from the crowd at the amazingly fitting gift. It seemed to be a part of her. Tear-filled eyes turned toward the storyteller. "Thank you, Gwen. This is incredible."

The blonde let her tears spill over. "You’re welcome, gunny. I"m glad you like it."

"Like it? No. I love it. It’s perfect." The two seemed to have forgotten their audience, which was holding its collective breaths. Finally the tension became too much for the bard and she turned away to the second box. The expulsion of frustrated sighs around them was palpable.

"*This* is for your birthday. I hope you like it as well." This box was a third the length of the previous one, but the weight was similar. When she opened it, she found a pair of matching daggers, compliments to the sword she had just received. The etchings on the blades of these smaller knives were similar to each other and the sword, but it was unique unto itself. The Marine couldn’t wait for the opportunity to study them all at length privately. She looked up when she heard the bard continue to speak. "Daddy made these especially for you to go with the sword." Now she glanced toward the man who had done more to help her in the last twelve hours than anyone, including Tommy had been able to do in the last twelve years. She hadn’t realized two things until just that moment — just how much she missed her papa, and how nice it was to share a little bit of who she really was with someone who could understand without judging. This time, the tears didn’t stay in her eyes, and an errant one made its way down her cheek before she could catch it. Geoff seemed to understand, and gave her a brief nod and smiled. Gwen, on the other hand, simply reached up and wiped it away. The brunette stood slowly and gently embraced her friend, lifting her completely off the ground and rocking back and forth.

"Happy Birthday, Randi!"

"Ditto, my friend," and decided then and there to do something rather risky, from more than one point of view. But it was one of the few things the bard had ever actually asked of her privately, though she was considerate enough never to mention it in public. She eased the younger woman out of her arms and into a chair. "Comfortable?" The blonde nodded her head, but looked perplexed. What is she up to?"

Randi moved to the center of the dance floor signally people to take a seat. She didn’t have to ask for quiet. The silence was deafening, as all eyes focused on her. The Marine cleared her throat, wondering how she’d managed to get herself into this position. Then she called upon Sabre reserves, and her nervousness vanished, her sheer presence becoming commanding, forceful. And her focus narrowed to a field of one.

"Gwen, for your gift this year, I’ve decided to do something a little bit different." The tall woman moved over to the sound system, sorting through the various discs, until she found one that she loved. It was an old song, so old, no one was quite sure anymore just where it had originated. She fiddled with the equipment briefly, until she had the settings arranged to her satisfaction. Then she took the small mic from the DJ who presided over the dance music, and nodded her head at him. The sound of violins and synthesizers filled the room. Otherwise, there was a expectant silence. After eight measures of introduction, Randi’s voice rang out strong and true.

Then You Look at Me

written by James Horner and Will Jennings

c 1999 Touchstone Music and Songs, Inc./Horner Music/New Columbia Pictures, Inc. (ASCAP)

All rights reserved. Used without permission.

Performed by Celine Dion

Laugh and cry, live and die,

Life is a dream we are dreaming;

Day by day I find my way—

Look for the soul and the meaning.

Then you look at me

And I always see

What I have been searching for;

I’m lost as can be

Then you look at me

And I am not lost anymore.

People run, sun to sun,

Caught in their lives ever flowing;

Once begun, life goes til it’s gone

We have to go where it’s going.

Then you look at me

And I always see

What I have been searching for;

I’m lost as can be

Then you look at me

And I am not lost anymore.

And you say you see

When you look at me

The reason you love life so—

Though lost I have been

I find love again

And life just keeps on running,

And life just keeps on running

You look at me and life comes from you.

The silence that followed the end of her song was deafening, for the space of five seconds that it lasted. Then the cheers that resonated throughout the room were overwhelming and long lasting. Randi was oblivious to all of it. She only saw the tears in green eyes, and the smile on the bard’s face. Fearing, knowing she had revealed too much, the Marine took advantage of the resulting melee to escape from the room, and disappeared.

The party began to wind down after that, much of the talk centered on the incredible hidden talent the brunette had casually revealed that evening. Her fellow band members were already working on angles and ploys to get her to do that again as part of the group. It was too good to just let go.

"Tommy, man, did you know she could sing like that?"

"Yeah, why haven’t we heard this before?"

"Guys, I knew she could sing, though I will admit maturity has made a good voice fabulous. But then, you never asked me, and you certainly never asked her. You should know Randi well enough by now to know she’s not gonna just *give* anything up."

"Yeah, you’re right." Heads nodded all the way around. "I guess the next thing we need to figure out, then is. . . how do we get her to sing with the band?"

"We could just ask." Guffaws and chuckles followed that statement. "Well, we’ll work something out." And the conversation turned to ways to approach their dour drummer about her singing.

"Mother. . . Daddy," asked Gwen from the other side of the room, "have you seen Randi?" The bard was no longer tearing up, and wanted to thank her friend for the incredibly beautiful song. She was still tingling all over from it, and she wanted to examine the feelings and reactions the song and singer had caused, curious to find the reasons for them. But first, she wanted to thank Randi for the unexpected and much appreciated gesture. The bard knew the drummer had opened herself up to all kinds of aggravation from the guys in the band by revealing such a voice. They were gonna be after her to sing now for sure.

"I don’t know, hon. I haven’t seen her since shortly after her song ended. She has a magnificent voice. I hope someone got that. I would love to have a copy of it."

"I think Tommy did. I know he had several vids running to get this whole thing down for posterity." Jill chuckled at Ella’s remark.

"Did I hear you taking my name in vain?" from Tommy, as he crossed from where the band was still gathered, talking amongst themselves. "What am I being accused of now?"

"My, my, don’t you have the guilty conscience. What are you guilty of, hmm?"

The five of them , including Tommy himself, broke into laughter. He moved behind Ella, pulling her to her feet, and rubbing her belly from the back. He smiled when the baby reacted to his touch by pushing back against his hands. "Not guilty of anything, this time, except not announcing to the world that Randi could sing, apparently."

"Speaking of, did you get all that?"

"Oh yeah, from several angles." He didn’t mention that one vid had been focused solely on Gwen, and caught the woman’s every reaction. He would edit it all together later. Maybe, just maybe. . . .

"Good, can we get a copy of it?" Jill asked. "That was breathtaking."

"Sure. Give me a chance to edit it all together, and I’ll get a copy to you. How much longer do ya’ll have here?"

"The latest we can leave is the day after tomorrow," from Geoff.

"Okay then, I’ll have it ready and over to you before then. Probably tomorrow afternoon. Now, if you’ll excuse us, I think I need to get Ella home." They bid each other goodnight, and the Steeles made the move to leave. The others, as though they had been waiting for this signal gathered up all and sundry, and slowly left, making sure to say goodbye and happy birthday to Gwen first. Finally, the Goldmans were left in the large restaurant alone, except for the wait staff and cleaning crew, who had already begun their jobs of restoring the place to its familiar appearance.

"Mr. Goldman?" the maitre ’d inquired. "This was left for you. I was asked to give it to when you were ready to leave."

The man took the note, knowing who it was from due to the fact that it was hand written and on paper to boot. He glanced at the missive, then put it in his pocket. "Could we get some help getting all these things back to the transport?" He indicated the large pile of gifts both Randi and Gwen had received.

"Certainly, sir." And he motioned two waiters over to aid them in carrying the stuff to the transport that awaited them at the door. It took each of them two trips back and forth, but when the last of the stuff was loaded, Geoff thanked and tipped the two helpers, and climbed in, heading the transport back to the island.

It was very quiet in the transport all the way back to the beach house. Jill knew Geoff would explain what he felt he could share when they were alone. She glanced back at her daughter. Gwen was curled up in a corner of the seat, looking out the window. The mother couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw tears in the green eyes. She reached for her husband’s hand. He squeezed back reassuringly.

As soon as they’d reached the front of the beach house, the bard was out of the transport and into the house. It became apparent, that though Randi had been there recently, she was no longer in the house. A quick check into the garage, showed the blonde that the motorcycle was gone. Now she went from being upset to being angry, and bewildered. Gwen stormed back over to where her folks were quietly and efficiently unloading the gifts from the transport’s hold.

"Where is she, Daddy?"

"I don’t know, Gwen." He handed her the sheet of paper Randi had left for him.

Geoff, (it read)

I think it’s best if I go off for a while. It’s just not a good idea for me

to be around. . . anyone. . . right now. I won’t risk it.

It’s been nice to have you and Jill here. Know that you both are always

welcome anytime.


The bard handed the note back without a word, puzzling as much over what seemed to be unsaid, as much as what was written. The father took pity on the young woman who was obviously confused and upset for reasons her heart had yet to acknowledge.

"Gwen," lifting her chin gently with two fingers and forcing eye contact, "if you are truly her friend, then be patient and understanding. She is working through some tough issues. But she’ll be back, and she’ll need you to be there when she is ready to share it."

The bard looked deep into her father’s green eyes, so much like her own, though they seemed much more worldly-wise than she had ever known. She tried to read in them what he was trying to say without words, but all that she could see was that he was telling her the truth. And he would not break whatever confidence Randi had given him. Finally, she accepted his words, and gave him a big smile and a hug. "Thank you Daddy. I love you."

"I love you too, little girl. Now help us get the rest of the stuff inside. I have no desire to be unloading the remainder of the night." They smiled at each other and got to work.

"Do you think we are wrong not to tell her, Geoff?" Jill asked hours later as they lay in bed together. "She’s hurting so badly. . . they both are."

He pulled the sheet up over their naked bodies, and gathered his wife into his still strong arms. She nestled into him, and waited for his response. "No, hon. We’re not wrong. This is something she needs to figure out for herself, you know that."

"I know," curling more deeply into his embrace. She sighed. "I just wish she’d get it already."

"EVERYBODY does, baby. But until she lets go of whatever it is that’s scaring her, she’s not gonna acknowledge it. And exposing it to her is only gonna drive her into denial or worse."

"Do you know where Randi went? That was such an beautiful song she sang to Gwen."

"I think she feels she gave too much away----like the entire world except for Gwen isn’t completely sure how that Marine feels about our daughter. I don’t know exactly where she is, but I’d guess it’s relatively nearby, quiet, secluded. Somewhere she can regroup."

"You really got a chance to get to know her this trip, didn’t you?"

"Yes, I did. And the more I talk to her, the more I find to like and respect about her."

"Well, she’s a good woman. I like her, and think she’s a perfect match for Gwen."

"Me, too, love. Goodnight."

"Happy dreams, sweetheart." And quiet prevailed for the remainder of the night

In fact, Randi was no where even on the continent by this point in time. She had hired a transport to take her back to the island, but before they reached the bridge, her wrist comm vibrated. Her head fell to her chest. She really didn’t need this right now. As soon as she reached home, she gathered her equipment and changed into her armour. But instead of walking to the nearby shuttle pad, she jumped on the bike and took off. She would ride to a different meeting point. The old man didn’t make too much fuss about it, especially considering she had just gotten home that morning. This must be pretty damned important, she thought as she sped away from her home.

Two days later, Geoff and Jill were preparing to board the shuttle. "I’m gonna miss you guys. It’s been so nice to have you here." The bard reached up, giving both mother and father long, hard hugs. "Come back again soon, okay?"

"You know where we live as well, daughter. Anytime you get a bit of time, come on up. And you can always bring Randi with you. Sal has been asking about both of you. I think he wants some new pictures. He loves the ones he has."

Gwen chuckled at her mother’s statement. "I’ll see what I can do, Mother. I’m not sure I could ever get Randi to agree to any more pictures, though. Sal is a little too, um, enthusiastic for her comfort level."

"How very politely put, dear," Jill laughed. "I love you, little girl."

"I love you too, Mother. Be safe." And with another hug, the woman boarded the shuttle. Gwen turned to her father.

"Remember what I told you, daughter."

"I’ll remember, Daddy. She is my best friend, and the most important person in my life. I’m not letting her go."

The words made him smile, and gave him hope that she would soon recognize the place Randi held in her heart. "I love you, Gwen. Take care of yourself."

"You too. I love you, Daddy." He moved to enter the shuttle door, but turned to wave goodbye, first. "Remember," he mouthed to her. She nodded her head in agreement, and stood watching as the door closed and the shuttle moved out of sight. Then she turned to go to the penthouse. She had briefly considered going back to the beach house, hoping Randi would be back shortly, and they could talk, but dismissed the idea as bad out of hand. Between what had happened that last time she had shown up unexpectedly, and the fact Randi had made it perfectly clear she needed some space, she didn’t want to intrude. Her father was right—the Marine would come to her when she was ready to talk.

Talking was the farthest thing from Randi’s mind at the moment. For the present, her concentration was solely on the activity in front of her. People of color perpetuating horrors on others of their races who wanted nothing more than to exist with the rest of society in peace. The members of the Brotherhood who were committing these crimes seemed to think the peace lovers were traitors, and needed to be taught a lesson. The Sabres were itching to step in and stop the atrocities, but they had specific orders to follow these dregs to their lair, and destroy the entire nest of vipers.

It didn’t take long, though each minute felt like an hour to the team, before the group was done taking their "fun" for the evening, and was moving back to their headquarters. The Sabres followed like the shadows they were, never being spotted. When all was said and done, there was a mass grave that held the bodies of close to forty previously living beings. And they were able to offer assistance to those who had been brutalized. It gave the Sabres some measure of comfort, but Randi was not the only one still furious they had not been allowed to stop the ugliness while people were being hurt.

The mission itself only took three days, but Randi did not return home immediately. The Marine took another week, going off by herself, and replacing the walls she’d let drop, and distancing herself from her feelings. Nothing good could come of them, so she sat at the top of the mountain she had spent the morning climbing, and let them go. Tucking them into a place where she could control them. Perhaps, one day, if she lived long enough, she would take them out, and just remember, and think about what could have been, if only.

The blonde, curly headed goddess sat forlornly on her couch, and groaned. "Athena? Artemis? What am I so doing wrong? I haven’t had radical trouble with a pair like this in millennia."

"And if memory serve me correctly, Dite, that particular pairing came through beautifully," answered Athena.

"Yes, sister, have a bit of faith in your own abilities," from Artemis.

"Do you two like totally remember what that ‘particular pairing’ " standing, with a nod in Athena’s direction, "went through before they finally admitted their love for one another? And do you know how close they came to like *never* admitting anything at all? Man, this is so bogus!" The goddess flounced back over to her couch and plopped rather gracelessly onto it. "Smacking the back of the head of hard headed, stubborn Marines, and unseeing, stubborn bards should be fair play. They are so totally blowing my best stuff!"

The two sister goddess chuckled at the third sister’s phrasing, but understood her frustration completely. These two were favored among the gods, and most wanted to see them happy. It was a heavy burden Aphrodite had to bear, especially when playing by the new rules. They could only hope things would work out in their favor. No one wanted to contend with a depressed love goddess.

Randi returned home eleven days after she’d left on Gwen’s birthday. She noticed how empty and quiet the house seemed without the bard and her parents around. Strange how it seemed to bother her so much. The Marine swiftly put those thoughts from her mind. She had chosen her course, and she would stick with it.

The first person to notice she erected walls and had invoked a profound withdrawal from those around her, was Tommy. While she had always been somewhat standoffish and aloof, now she was brusque to the point of harshness, He secretly wondered how long it would be until she and Gwen would butt heads. He was putting his money on the little blonde.

"WHAT?!?" came the shouted response to her knock. Gwen wasn’t thrilled by the sound. She’d heard rumors all morning about Randi’s worse than usual behavior and disposition. Time to put and end to this pronto.

For her part, the Marine’s morning was steadily going down hill. Everyone suddenly had this need to annoy her, it seemed. And worse, the feelers she had sent out months ago were start to come back with stories she really didn’t want to hear. The truth was worse than she’d suspected.

"Is this a bad time?" came the gentle voice from the door. "I can come back later, but I thought you might be ready for lunch."

Randi felt her resolve melt away like butter in the sunshine at the soft voice, compelling green eyes, and bright smile. Why did I think it would be so easy? I forget, when I’m away from her, the power she holds over me. She came to a decision. Though she wouldn’t change her mind and give in to her feelings for the bard, she wouldn’t use the walls to keep her out, either. From the reports I’ve been getting, we’ll be lucky to have another year together before this all comes to a head. And when it does. . . . She let that thought trail into nothingness, knowing all too well where it led. And I’ll be there for her until it does. She deserves the best I can offer her.

While all of this had been going on in the Marine’s mind, Gwen was standing there fascinated, watching the gaze go inward, and the body still. She was somewhat taken aback by Randi’s sudden jump that brought her up out of her chair and around the desk.

"Did you mention lunch?" putting an arm around blonde shoulders.

"Yep. You hungry?" placing her own arm around a narrow waist.

"Yeah, a little. Let’s go."

"Hang on." The blonde pulled her companion to a halt before they reached the door. Obviously something had happened to change Randi’s frame of mind, and she was gonna take advantage of the good mood.

"Hmm?" The eyebrow rose. "What’s up?"

"Nothing." Gwen stepped close to the Marine, and gave her a tight hug. "I just wanted to say I missed you and welcome home."

Randi smiled unseeingly, and silently thanked the gods for the woman she now held in her arms. "Ditto, Little One, and thank you." She brushed her lips lightly over blonde hair. Then chuckled softly as she heard not one, but two stomachs growl in tandem. "C’mon. Let’s go get something to eat before we set off the Richter scale with this noise." Gwen laughed with her, and led the way to the lunchroom.

"Are we absolutely sure head smacking is against the rules?" Artemis asked Athena. Their attention had been caught by Randi’s small prayer of thanks. The two had watched the scene between the two mortals, then reviewed it to see what they had missed the first time.

"I will say Dite is showing remarkable restraint with these two, but no wonder she is so frustrated. Maybe it’s time to up the ante."

"What are you thinking, sister?" watching the wisdom goddess’ eyes narrow in thought.

"Well, what if. . . " she began, whispering an idea into the ear of the goddess of the hunt.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when Gwen strode through the mess hall door, towing Randi by their linked hands. Whatever problem the Marine had had during the morning seemed to have been solved, or at least put aside by the presence of the bard. The two got their lunch plates, and sat down at their usual table. Conversation was flowing smoothly, and there had been several smiles and a laugh or two. Everything halted rather abruptly, when a third person tried to sit at their table.

"I’m sorry," Randi tried diplomatically. "You can’t sit there."

"Why not?" Obviously this guy was new. I need to speak to Tommy about some of his apprentices. "I just want to sit and talk, maybe get to know you better."

"Let me make this perfectly clear," Gwen cut in unexpectedly. There was something about the fact that he was hitting on Randi that just made her blood boil. She wasn’t being nice this time. "We don’t want you here. This is our table, and our time. You are intruding."

The Marine’s eyebrows rose into her hairline at the cool, clipped tones of the bard. Gwen was usually much more tolerant and polite with people. She almost sounds. . .jealous.

"And do you feel the same?" turning his back to the bard completely and addressing Randi directly.

"Yes, I do. Now please leave."

He looked at them both a full minute longer before he rose without another word and left the dining room. Chatter resumed its normal level, as it had fallen silent to watch the tableau taking place before them. Not since Randi had come to work there, and especially since Gwen’s return eight months ago had anyone attempted to sit with them. It was clear they were happiest alone together. Even Tommy, whom they both considered family, was careful about intruding, He invited them to join him at his table, but had never tried to sit with them at theirs.

"Do you know who that was?" Randi asked casually after the man had left. She was still a bit startled at Gwen’s biting retort to the stranger.

"Nope. Not a clue," shortly. She was still seething over the man’s interference.

"Hmm. Guess I need to talk to Tommy. These apprentices need to know the rules." The smile in her voice brought a blush to the bard’s face.

"I’m sorry. He just rubbed me the wrong way, I guess."

"I guess. But at least he’s gone now. Where were we?" And they picked up the conversation where it’d left off.

"Yo, mom! What’s the deal? You didn’t tell me the blonde was gonna be tripping when I hit on her girlfriend."

"Long story, Cupie. I’ll tell ya later, ‘K? Thanks for helping me out."

"No prob, mom. Later."

The blonde goddess scrubbed her hands over her face. "Well it’s a start."


Chapter XI

The heat of mid-summer was blistering, and Gwen was becoming quite concerned about her best friend. Randi was looking very tired and drained, and having been gone for twenty-three of the last thirty days had to make the bard wonder what kind of care the Marine was taking of herself. There seemed to be a difference in these outings, from the previous ones, though the blonde was not sure what it was. She just knew that the older woman was becoming more drawn and pensive after each outing.

So Gwen was a bit surprised to find a message on her vid machine asking her to come over when she could. Between the curiosity she felt and the concern that was nagging at her, she walked out of the penthouse five minutes after having walked in. She secretly wondered why she kept the place, since she seemed to spend as much time at the beach house as she did at her apartment. But she didn’t dwell on it to long. She knew that when the lease was up, she was going to be changing addresses anyway, and that thought made funny little tingles run up and down her spine. She didn’t stop to think about them, though, as she punched in the code to extend the bridge. That made tingles of a different kind skitter across her body. Wonder if I’ll ever get used to this? And then she was across, and found her curiosity growing about the reason she was here.

She half expected Randi to open the door before she got out of her transport. When no one answered her ring or knock, she started to grow concerned. A quick check in the garage showed both the transport and the bike at home. The bard figured her friend was down at the boat house, and had her suspicions confirmed when she rounded the corner and spotted the top of a dark head sitting at the very end of the pier deck.

She was taken completely off guard when out of no where a large, fierce looking German shepherd puppy charged at her before she had taken three steps toward the dock. The bard stood frozen, afraid to move while the dog was snarling at her, fangs bared and nape hair standing up. Fortunately, Randi had heard the puppy move, and was not far behind her.

"Ditto!! Sit!" The shepherd backed away from Gwen a pace, and continued growling. The Marine stood directly in front of the dog now, putting herself completely in the pup’s line of sight, and blocking the blonde. "Ditto," using a hand command this time in conjunction with her voice, "sit." The dog immediately obeyed, sitting back majestically on her haunches, and waiting for the ear rub and cookie she knew would come with compliance. "Good girl. Now, stay," moving slowly out from in front of Gwen. Or, at least, that had been her intention. She hadn’t realized the dog had scared her friend so badly that the bard wasn’t going to let Randi move away from her.

The small hands on her hips made her mind go blank for a long moment, until she understood it was pure terror on the bard’s part that put them there. Slowly, she grasped the hands, and turned to face the younger woman. "Do you trust me?"

"You know I do, soldier." Her voice wavered just a little bit.

"Okay, then," looking deep into green pools. "I’m gonna turn around and bring you in front of me. Then I’ll introduce you. She won’t hurt you."

"Could’ve fooled me," with a nervous little chuckle.

"I know. I’m sorry. Let’s get you introduced, and I’ll tell you the story." The bard nodded her agreement. The dog, she noticed, hadn’t moved a muscle. Randi turned, and drew Gwen around into the circle of her arms, still holding trembling hands. Except for a low, throaty growl, the shepherd didn’t even twitch. "Ditto, this is Gwen. She’s a friend." She moved one of the small hands, still encased in her own, down to their sides. The dog looked to the Marine for permission, and at her nod, moved closer to inspect the bard’s scent. She apparently liked what she found, for before either woman could prepare for it, the puppy jumped up onto Gwen’s chest and started to clean her face. The blonde woman burst into nervous laughter, while Randi called out, "Ditto! Get down, girl." The Marine pulled the dog down by the collar. "Sorry about that," she muttered. "We’re still working on the not-jumping-on-people thing."

"It’s quite all right. I think I’d rather have her jump on me in greeting, than snarling at me for whatever reason. Where did she come from? How long have you been training her? What else does she know?" Questions came rapid fire, now that her equilibrium was returning.

"C’mon. Pilot and Peanut were out playing when you got here. They may still be there. Let’s go sit and have a drink, and I’ll tell you all about it."

Randi grabbed a couple sodas from the fridge in the boat house as the passed through. They sat on the end of the dock’s deck, shoulder to shoulder to give the shepherd a place to jump in and out of the water from. The Marine had been throwing a stick out for the puppy to fetch while the dolphins chattered their encouragement for a while, but had taken a break not long before the bard had arrived. Now the activity resumed, though Pilot and Peanut were farther out.

"Do you remember Tiny?"

"Um, the man who designed the boat house and dock for you?" A nod from Randi. "Yeah, why?"

"His live-in lover, Reed, breeds and raises German shepherd dogs. When I saw him a few months back he mentioned a new litter, and I said I’d like one. He mentioned it to Reed, and she started training Ditto for me."

Gwen took a deep breath and took the plunge. "Is that why you’ve been gone so much?" She didn’t look at her friend, not wanting to see the anger for her prying blazing from those clear blue eyes.

"Mostly. I’ve had some business that took me out that way quite a bit, and I used the extra time to help train Ditto here and get her used to me. We decided this last time she was ready to come home with me, and I wanted you to be the first to meet her. I didn’t know she was going to be quite so, um" scratching the back of her neck, "ferocious."

"You’re not mad at me for asking?" Green eyes peeked from downcast lashes.

"No. I know it’s hard for you, sometimes, but, no. This time, I’m glad you asked. It’s nice to be able to share things with you when I can." A startling admission, she knew.

"Well, thank you for sharing. I like it, too."

The two women sat in silence for a long time after that, lost in their own thoughts. Gwen, pleased that Randi had opened up to her, even the tiniest bit. And Randi reviewing the last month.

Actually, her visits to Reed and Tiny had been part of her effort to

confirm the truth of the things she had been learning from the feelers

she had dispatched many months previous. And the truth was far worse

than she had feared. There *was* a leak in the Sabre unit, and all

indications pointed to it being someone very high up the chain of

command. They and their canine companions had helped provide a perfect

cover for her while she followed up the leads she had.

It was just coming on sunset when they stirred from their reveries. Ditto had since come out of the water, and lay on the deck, drying in the waning sunlight. "So," the bard commented, "you never said. What is she trained to do?"

"Hmm? Oh, you know, the usual. Sit, roll over, lay down, protect, attack."

"Uh huh."

"What? Those are things Reed teaches to all her dogs. Useful, too. Watch." Randi got to her feet, and Ditto automatically rose to her haunches. The Marine didn’t say a word, but looked the dog in the eye, indicated the bard, then gave a hand signal. The shepherd didn’t moved, even when Randi walked away. But the canine was in front of the bard in a flash, teeth bared in a snarl when the brunette made a threatening move toward the blonde. Gwen was astounded. She never thought to see the dog turn on her mistress. Randi gave another signal, and the puppy relaxed her stance, reveling in the ear rub and cookie her obedience brought. The bard continued to stand, amazed at the sudden turn of events.

"Uh, what just happened here, exactly?"

"I told Ditto to protect you. She did."

"But she threatened you."

"Because I threatened you."

"Oh. And why is she so calm now?"

"I released her from the command."

"Okay," rubbing her eyes, "I think I’m confused."

The Marine put a conciliatory arm around the bard and led her down the dock toward the beach house. "C’mon. Let’s go fix some dinner, and I’ll see if I can explain it to you."

"So you’re saying she’ll protect who or whatever she’s told to, and won’t back off, even for you, her mistress, unless given the proper signal?"

"Yep. Same thing with the attack command."

"Wow. Will you teach me her signals?"

The Marine looked at her a long moment. "You sure you wanna learn?"

"Uh huh. I really would."

"All right. We’ll work on it this weekend."

And they did. By Sunday afternoon, Gwen had the basics, though she couldn’t bring herself to give the attack signal, even with Randi bundled in the protective clothing. They decided to walk the mile of beach between Randi’s house, and Tommy’s. The Marine was anxious to introduce Ditto to both Tommy and Ella, and Gwen wanted to practice her command signals. The Steeles were impressed with the shepherd, and the bard was quite pleased with herself. Randi was happy her new friend was so well accepted by her old ones, to the point that Tommy was glad to volunteer to keep an eye on the dog whenever the Sabre was called out of town.

Three days later, the wrist comm sent the brunette out again. This was going to be particularly ugly.

Most of the various religious orders that existed had come to peace among themselves, finding truth in the conclusion that they all worshiped the same deity, though they referred to them by different names and honored them with different rituals. No one knew why, exactly, but certain religious factions had grown more and more obsessive in thinking that their way was the only right way, and they had consequently become more violent in their effort to insure everyone understood their truth. Not only did they visit extreme physical torture on their unwilling victims, but were quite into inflicting horrible psychological trauma as well.

Not surprisingly, this particular group, the Wizards, was not at their last known position by the time the Sabre team reached its destination. Randi bit back the audible sigh that was dying to escape her lips. This was getting to be a game of cat and mouse, and more and more , she was feeling like the mouse. The Sabres became extra vigilant, now, knowing they would have to track their quarry. But this time, it wasn’t enough to overcome the depth of betrayal they had suffered.

From out of nowhere, the team found itself surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned to a ludicrous degree. Knowing there would be a chance to find a way out if they were together, they surrendered peaceably. The zealots would try to convert them before they killed them. But first, they would celebrate their victory over the much vaunted foe, and that was gonna give the Sabres the time they needed to escape and solve this little problem.

The team was, of course stripped of all visible weapons, and each member placed in a separate cell. Then cocksure of their success, their captors left the Sabres alone in the darkness and silence to contemplate their fate while they went out to join in the victory celebration. And this was the break they needed.

Each of them had a laser weapon in parts attached to different places on their uniform, mostly hidden. Now they set to work to put them together swiftly so they could get the hell out of Dodge. Minutes later, they were burning through the control panels, allowing them to exit their cells. Finding their equipment proved a little more difficult, but they did, and set to ensuring that this extremists camp was soon going to be nothing more than a memory. When everything was set, the Sabres, save Randi, faded into the background, waiting for the imminent explosion. She, on the other hand, had been chosen to insure the zealots knew who sent them to meet their maker.

"Hey, Assholes!" Silence fell over the celebratory participants, when they realized they were being addressed, and by one of the prisoners. "Do you believe in God?"

"INFIDEL!!! Seize the bitch!!"

"Bite me, mother fucker! You’ll be in hell first." And stood, looking like the avenging angel she was as a sheet of flame flared between them. The screams were horrific, and the smell was worse, but Randi couldn’t seem to tear herself away. And she watched for a long moment as men, women, and children died. There would be no burial for these people, as their ashes would be carried away on the four winds. The fire would disintegrate their bones.

Two weeks and some, this mission had taken. The Marine secretly wondered if she had another year. The way things were falling, she seriously doubted it.

Gwen knew, without asking, by the change in her friend’s demeanor, that whatever had called her out of town was back in the "Don’t Ask" category. It made her a little sad, knowing there was so much of the other woman that the Marine kept hidden from her. She put those thoughts out of her head. Nothing good could come from them.

She had called Tommy on Saturday, to see if he minded if she came to play with Ditto a bit. Truth was, she was lonely. She was just realizing how much she looked forward to her weekends with Randi. Tommy told her to come ahead. Ella needed the distraction as much as the bard did.

Gwen stopped by the beach house, hoping against hope that Randi had returned, and sighing in disappointment that she wasn’t there. So she and Ditto headed down the beach path toward Ella’s.

They found the pregnant woman inside the cool house, against the heat of the day and her raging hormones. Tommy was nearly as anxious as Ella was at this point for their child to be born. She was making him suffer right along with her, though most of the time, it wasn’t intentional.

He looked at Gwen with a mixture of concern and relief when he opened the door to admit her and the shepherd into his home. Ditto had been exceedingly well heeled, obeying her each and every command. The bard had no way of know how much time Randi had spent with the puppy, insuring Gwen’s acceptance by the dog. Now Ditto gladly followed the bard, knowing her to be her second mistress.

"I’m back here, Gwen," Ella called from the sun room.

"How are you doing?" with gentle concern in her voice.

"Hmm. . . honestly? I’m tired, and I"ve been having cramps the last week or so. The doctor is worried about an early delivery, and has told me to stay off me feet as much as possible. It’s starting to make me nuts."

"Eww, I can certainly understand that. But you best not be having this baby early, especially while Randi is gone. She’d never forgive you."

"I suppose you’re right. But it would serve her right for being away so much. Always so secretive." A breath, and then, "I’m sorry, Gwen. That was uncalled for. It’s just that Tommy and I worry about her so much, and she never says anything. Makes me crazy sometimes, ya know?"

"Boy, do I know. But, you know something else, Ella? As hard as this is for us, I think. . . no, I *know*, it is far, far more difficult for her. Whatever she carries, it torments her. And she bears it alone."

Silence fell for a time after that, as each woman contemplated the truth of Gwen’s words. Then talk turned to other things. The bard stayed and shared dinner with the Steeles, and all three were in a much better frame of mind by the end of the evening.

Ditto followed the short woman faithfully back to the beach house, relishing the attention lavished on her. She decided she like this blonde mistress very much.

Randi was somewhat distracted the Monday morning after her return. Her mind was searching for the answer to a puzzle whose pieces were not, as yet, all there. She wasn’t sure what she found more disturbing—the fact that the rebel attacks were coming more frequently, or the fact that the factions were growing larger and bolder. She knew the thing that bothered her most was having a traitor in their midst, and being unable to pinpoint them. It’s got to be someone high enough up to have access to all the mission files. Someone who is able to find out where we are being sent, and when. But WHY??? I am missing something very important here.

A knock on her office door brought her out of her internalization. She shook her head slightly to regain her focus, and cleared her throat before calling out, "Come in."Not realizing until the words were out of her mouth that a very frazzled looking Tommy was standing in front of her.

"T? You okay?" rising from her seat, and coming around the desk to put a hand on his arm.

He swallowed nervously, then swallowed again. "Ella called. She thinks the baby’s coming." His hand shook slightly as he ran it through already rumpled hair.

"Now? She’s got another month left. She can’t have this kid yet!"

"Yeah, well, the baby’s got other ideas apparently." He grew calmer as her talked.

"Well, what are we doing hanging around here?" Now the Marine was getting as excited, and as nervous as Tommy. "Let’s go."

Their first sense of foreboding hit as they approached the bridge, and sensors showed it had yet to be extended. Because the island was unapproachable by any shuttle other than Randi’s militarily cleared ones, it meant the doctor had not arrived on the scene. Tommy extended the bridge as he linked to the doctor’s office.

"Mr. Steele? What can I do for you? I didn’t expect to see you until tomorrow at your wife’s appointment."

"Doc, can I assume , since you’re at your office, that Ella hasn’t contacted you?"

She leaned forward in her chair at the urgency in his tone. "No, Mr. Steele. I’ve been seeing scheduled appointments all day. No urgent calls. Why?" She rose from the chair, pretty sure where this conversation was leading. She’d been concerned about a preemie birth for the last few weeks of Ella’s pregnancy. Hence the conditions and restrictions she had placed on Tommy’s wife.

"She called me about twenty minutes ago, Dr. Schroder. Said she thought she was going into labor. I figured she had already called you first." The man cursed his stupidity roundly for assuming anything.

"All right, Tommy," addressing him by given name for the first time. "Take a deep breath. Now when you get home, call me again." Randi pulled up in his driveway. "Ill give you instructions from the transport, and I will be there as fast as I can manage." The doctor shut down the office vid link.

It didn’t take them long to get into the house, and find Ella partially submerged in a large tub of warm water. Ditto, with her uncanny sense, had wandered down from the beach house, and was standing sentinel next to the woman. Randi sent Tommy to change, and round up the blankets to place the baby in when it arrived. She patched in a vid link to the doctor’s vehicle.

"Dr. Schroder? We haven’t met, but I am Miranda Valiant." She was cut off by the good doctor’s answer.

"Yes, Ms. Valiant. Both Mr. and Mrs. Steele have spoken very highly of you. I’m glad you’re there."

"Hmm. Yes, well," unsure of how to respond to this, "Um, Ella is in a tub of warm water, and Tommy is getting changed to join her. What do we need to do next?"

"What’s your first aid knowledge?"

"Very basic. I’ve never had to deliver a baby, if that’s what you’re asking."

"I figured as much. I’ll talk you through, and hopefully make it well before the baby does."

Tommy came back attired in brief swim trunks, and carrying an armload of blankets. He lay the covering out in layers beside the Marine, leaving the smallest, softest for last. Then he climbed into the water behind his wife, allowing her to hold is arms as she braced through another contraction.

"Ella, this is Dr. Schroder. How far apart are your contractions?"

"About two minutes, I think, doc. It’s been harder to time them lately."

Randi looked up at the vid screen at this pronouncement. The doctor calmly returned her gaze. "Miranda, please check her dilation." The Marine looked totally confused at this directive. "Ms. Valiant. . . ."


"Randi," the doctor replied calmly. "I need you to check and see how ready she is. She has to be wide open for the baby to fit through." Randi nodded her head in comprehension. She removed her shoes and socks, but otherwise stepped into the huge tub fully clothed. The tall woman knelt down for a better look, when another contraction pulsed through Ella’s already tense body. Tommy stayed strong behind her, holding on, and whispering words of love and encouragement.

"Doc, she’s opened up about a hands width, and I can see the top of the baby’s head."

"I’m about five minutes out. If she’s ready to push, let her. Randi, you need to be sure the cord isn’t wrapped around the baby’s neck. Ease your hand inside, you’ll be able to feel if it’s there or not."

Randi was only peripherally aware of Tommy and Ella. For now, her primary focus was on the new life waiting to join the human race. She felt no cord, and when the next contraction hit, she instructed Ella to push hard. The woman was more the happy to comply, and the head emerged from the womb. The next push eased the shoulders out, and the sac was torn as Tommy’s new baby boy entered the world. The Marine rinsed him thoroughly before she raised him up for his proud parents to get there first glimpse.

"It’s a boy!" she announced happily, as three things happened simultaneously. The doctor walked in, the baby screamed his unhappiness at being removed from his dark, warm cocoon and Tommy passed out. Dr. Schroder calmly took over, cutting the cord and delivering the afterbirth, while Randi wrapped the baby and made him ready for his mother. The doctor took a quick look at the bundle, well satisfied that his early arrival had not hurt him in any way. He was relatively small, but still good sized considering he was several weeks premature.

Tommy came to to a most amazing sight in his eyes. His newborn son, being cradled by a woman he treasured almost as much as his beloved wife. He never thought to see such a sight in his life, and he found it awe inspiring now. He gave thanks for his forethought in turning on the vid cams. And then his son was placed in Ella’s arms, and he gazed upon his future.

Randi, seeing the doctor had things well in hand, quietly left the tub, dripping soundlessly over polished wood floors as she made her way to Tommy and Ella’s room. She purloined a pair of warm up pants from his drawer, happy to remove her own soggy garments in the bathroom. She rolled them in the towel she’d dried herself with, and took another to wipe up the trail she’d left on the floor.

By the time she reached the birthing room, which was in fact the nursery, Tommy had helped Ella out of the tub and into a warm robe. He was just wrapping another around himself when he saw Randi approaching the doorway.

"Thank you, Randi," he said sincerely. "I don’t know what we would have done without you."

"I concur," stated the doctor as she moved over to them with the baby in her arms. She had just given him a thorough once over, and was very happy at how healthy the little guy was. "You did an excellent job, Randi. Really very well done."

The Marine was starting to grow quite red from the praise, and made to move away from them. Tommy took the boy from the doctor, and handed him to Randi. "Uh uh, Aunt Randi. Say hello to Randall Thomas Steele."

She took the child in her arms, tearing up when she realized what Tommy had said. She looked to him for confirmation. He nodded back at her.

"Least we could do, considering how you stepped in and all. Besides, it was at the top of our choices anyway. Now it’s your turn to be the older sibling," with a smile.

They had walked over to the reclining chair where Ella was resting while Tommy was speaking, and now Randi was most thankful for that. His words had touched a deep chord in her, and knowing the truth, that she would in all likelihood not live to see this child’s first birthday, to say nothing of being around to mentor, hurt her deeply. The tears spilled over, and she kissed the child lightly on the forehead.

"It’s nice to finally meet you, Randall Thomas. He’s a beautiful baby." She placed him into Ella’s waiting arms. "I’m so happy for you guys. Now if you’ll excuse me. . . . " and she was out the door before either of them had a chance to stop her.

The doctor, who had withdrawn to a corner to observe the family tableau, commented, "Let her be for a while. That was probably one of the most amazing, and frightening experiences of her life. Give her a little bit to adjust."

Tommy nodded in agreement. The doctor was probably more right than she knew.

Ditto was waiting for her right outside the room. Tommy had introduced the shepherd to the baby when Randi had gone to change. The dog didn’t seem overly impressed, but she was very gentle and cautious in her investigation of this new anomaly. For now, though, she was happy to be running at her master’s side. Randi stopped by the beach house, stripping of the warm up pants she’d borrowed, and throwing those and her wet work clothes into the washer. She changed into her normal exercise gear, and she and Ditto started out on a nice long run.

Two hours later, she returned, having run until she was soaked with sweat and ready to drop. Instead of stopping, though, she ran to the end of the dock, stripped off her socks and shoes, and jumped in. It helped cool her down some, and Ditto was in heaven when the dolphins appeared to play. Randi stayed in the water for a bit, taking o ride first with Peanut, then Pilot, before climbing up on the lowest step of the dock’s deck. She sat for only a moment, before deciding to put the boathouse facilities to good use.

The Marine stepped into the shower fully clothed, hoping to rinse out some of the salt water. Then she stripped to the skin, and proceeded to bathe herself. There was no real need for modesty out here, especially knowing that Tommy and Ella would not be coming to call anytime soon, and she stepped out of the boathouse totally naked, save for the towel she was drying her hair with. She had forgotten for the moment, that Gwen had the codes, or she might have reconsidered this action after Geoff’s words to her several weeks previous.

Gwen, for her part, stood in shock at the sight before her. She wasn’t sure of herself, or the reaction she was having to seeing Randi this way, and before Randi could notice her, she turned and left. She wasn’t sure whether or not to be thankful or angry that she had been unobserved. Suddenly, she had a lot to think about.


Part 2

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