A Valiant Heart

By D





"Ya know , it’s funny," the bard mused out loud to herself as though Randi was still there to hear her words, "if you had seen me standing there staring at you right then, things would have happened so differently between us. My desire for you is so apparent to me in hindsight. I’ll bet you would have seen it in my eyes that day." She shook her head sadly at wasted opportunities, and returned her mind to that day.



Randi left the boat house, wrapping the small towel around her in reflex, and picking up her wet clothes. She threw them into the washer with the others, and started a cycle. Then the Marine moved to get dressed, and put a call in to her best friend.

Gwen seemed a little flustered when she popped on the vid screen. Randi put it down to her operating a transport while trying to talk.

"Good, I caught you before you made it home. Can you come over for a while?"

Damn! I can’t very well say no now, can I ? And in all honesty, I really don’t want to. "Sure, hon. I’ll be there in less than ten."

"Thanks, Gwen. I’ll have the bridge ready for you." The Marine signed off without another word, prompting the blonde to wonder what was wrong.

She became even more concerned when, after letting herself into the house when her knock received no reply, she could hear quiet sobbing coming from Randi’s bedroom. Immediately putting all other thoughts and concerns out of her mind, she rushed in, startled to find the older woman curled around a pillow in the fetal position in the middle of the bed, quietly crying. She moved the pillow out of the other woman’s hands, and slid into its place. The bard lay in a semi-reclining position against the headboard, and it wasn’t long before Randi curled around her, seeking comfort. Gwen softly stroked her hair, and gently rocked her, until the crying abated.

"You ready to talk about it?" the bard asked quietly.

"H. . he. . .he w-was so sm. . . sm. . . small, and I-I-I was s-so sc. . . scared."

A look of total confusion swept over Gwen’s face. "I beg your pardon? Come again, please?"

There were several minutes of silence, save the blonde’s steady breaths, and the brunette’s ragged one. Slowly, they merged into one sound, and Randi was calm enough to speak coherently.

"Tommy’s baby boy was born this afternoon."

"Doesn’t that make him kinda early?"

"Yeah. But Dr. Schroder said he was perfectly healthy, and quite big for a preemie."

Silence reigned in the room again. Gwen was the one to breach it. "Did Ella deliver him at home? I noticed you and Tommy took out right before lunch."

"Yeah, um. . .yeah, she did. We made it about ten minutes before the baby did."

"Oh my! That was cutting it pretty close. Was the doctor there when you arrived?"

"Um, no. I, um. . . I had to. . . Gwen, I was so scared. Tommy was taking care of Ella, and I had to deliver the baby." The Marine drew a deep breath.

"That’s wonderful, Randi!" letting the soldier see her enthusiasm and joy. "Do you realized how blessed you are to be able to participate in something so intimate, especially with people you care so deeply for? How thrilling to have been able to bring new life into the world safely!"

Randi found herself looking at things from the bard’s perspective, and liking what she saw there. For the first time, she had been allowed to participate in a life giving capacity, instead of a life taking one. The concept almost overwhelmed her mind.

"You’re right, Gwen. It was," catching the blonde’s happiness. "And he’s a beautiful boy. Tiny, but spunky." Blue eyes started to sparkle now. "And lungs, heh, he’ll make a great bard one day." This grinning comment got her a light pop on the butt. "Thanks, Gwen," very softly.

"What for?" equally softly.

"Reminding me to count my blessings," came the murmured reply, before the breathing became steady and even, and the soldier drifted off to sleep. The bard, still wrapped in Randi’s cocooning embrace, decided to join her.

When green eyes open two hours later, it was getting dark outside, and she was in the big bed alone. Stretching, she remembered her physical reaction to seeing Randi’s naked body, and her more recent reaction, or decided lack thereof, to comforting that same body. She shook her head to clear it of its confusing thoughts. She would have to give this some serious consideration, but not right now. For now, she needed to check on her best friend, and see about getting something to eat, and some rest. Her thinking would wait until she was alone.



I should have known then, the bard thought sadly to herself as she sat on the lowest step of the boat house deck. Pilot and Peanut had come out to play when they saw her approach, but noticing her mood, were content to keep watch over her nearby. I think I did know, but I was too afraid to say anything , to do anything about it. And then it didn’t matter. I was sure. . . . Her thoughts trailed off as her mind returned to the past.


The bard rolled slowly up, and stood, running her fingers through blonde hair in an effort to straighten it. Her nose became aware of the tantalizing scents of coffee, pancakes, and bacon wafting from the kitchen, and her brain invited her body along to investigate.

"Hey, I was just coming to wake you up."

"Um. Smells good," with a shy smile.

"Well, I made plenty, so dig in." Randi was supremely unaware of her friend’s discomfiture, and her normal manner soon put Gwen at ease.

After diner, they each took another cup of coffee, and moved to sit in on the couch. There was a comfortable silence for a long time. Finally the Marine turned to the bard.

"Gwen, I’m gonna be out of town a lot for the next few weeks. But you’re still more than welcome to come stay the weekends, if you want."

"What about Ditto?" motioning to the shepherd who lay peacefully dozing in front of the fireplace, only cocking an ear at the mention of her name.

"Oh, Tommy agreed to keep an eye on her, and check on her everyday. But I’m sure she’d be glad for some company on the weekends, or whenever you could manage to get over."

"Thanks, Randi. I’d like that. Ditto’s a good friend too."

Silence fell again after that for a while, until Gwen made a move to go home.

"You could just stay here," Randi reminded her, a little confused by her unusual actions. The bard had never turned down an opportunity to stay at the beach house that the Marine could immediately recall.

"I know. But I do have some thing I’ve got to take care of at home. I’ll see you tomorrow?"

"No, I’m headed out tomorrow."

"So soon?"

"Yeah," a little resignedly. "It can’t be helped. I’m hoping it won’t take too long, but you never know."

Gwen stepped forward, her uncertainties and reservations put to the wayside for now. "You be careful, my friend. I always worry about you when you’re gone." She put her arms around the taller woman’s waist, and felt long arms wrap around her upper body. They stayed in this comfortable haze of hugging for many minutes until the Marine loosened her hold, and stepped back a pace to lock her blue eyes with the green of the blonde.

"I’ll be careful. *You* stay out of trouble, okay?"

"Oh, I will. I always do."

An unladylike snort from Randi, who turned it into a chuckle the Gwen shared with her. "I’ll miss you, Little One."

"I’ll miss you too, soldier. Come back to me soon, all right?"

Twin heartbeats stopped at this statement, then Randi decided she misunderstood what the bard had said. Gwen, for her part, was unsure why and how that had come from her mouth exactly. The moment passed in confusion, and the Marine simply answered, "I’ll be home as soon as I can."

Gwen was grateful for two things for the first time in memory. One, that she lived alone, and two, that men in white coats no longer existed. If either had been untrue, she was pretty sure she’d have been locked up by now. For the past two hours, the bard had been walking in circles, having arguments with herself. She was almost to the point of pulling out her hair.

Yes, sheÕs beautiful, gorgeous even. But why did my heart start to pound? True, sheÕs one of the few adult human beings IÕve ever seen naked, and definitely the most perfect specimen imaginable, but still, sheÕs my best friend. Best friends donÕt react like that to each other, do they? What is going on with me?? Is something going on at all? Am I imagining too much, reading too much into things because I am a bard? Maybe I should talk to Randi. . . no, thatÕd be too weird, and sheÕs leaving town in the morning. Mother? Oh no, thatÕs even worse!! AAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

By the time she had turned this over a hundred times in her mind, she was clutching her hair, and beginning to seriously make herself sick. She decided to take something for her head and go to bed. She could think about it more later.

Randi, for her part, wasn’t getting much rest either. She had picked up some peculiar vibes coming from Gwen, and couldn’t place what the exact problem was.

Was it because of the emotional outburst?? ItÕs possible, since I rarely lose it like that. Yes, that is a definite possibility. I could have put her in an uncomfortable position.

The more she thought on this, however, the less likely she believed this to be a contingency.

No, Gwen had never had a problem with my few emotional outbursts, even when she had good reason to up and smack me for rudeness. So if it wasn’t the crying, was it the story? No, stupid! She a BARD. Stories are her life. Man, talk about a Duh moment!

She thought a few minutes longer in silence.

Maybe it is the fact that I am leaving tomorrow, and expect to be gone for a while. That could very well be it. Tommy says she always becomes more quiet and withdrawn when I leave. Hmm. . . .

The Marine felt quite pleased at the logic of her conclusion, until. . . .

Except that I was getting those weird vibes BEFORE I mentioned being gone for an extended amount of time. Poor Gwen. . . she puts up with so much from me. She’s a much better best friend than I deserve. I wish. . . .

She put those thoughts quickly out of her mind and turned her attention to why she was leaving in the morning. A dark cloud passed through her soul as she realized the ramifications of what she had learned so far, and how important the fact finding hunts of the next few months were going to be.

Since this was actually an independent mission she had planned, Randi had a few minutes the next morning to stop at Tommy’s before she left. It was going to be even harder to pull herself away, now that she had a nephew (of sorts) to get to know. The man answered her quiet knock, and ushered her straight in to the nursery. Ella, was just finishing up her breast feeding of the child, and as soon as Tommy cleaned him up, he placed the small bundle in the Marine’s hesitant arms.

"Randi, he won’t break," Ella chided. "He’s small, but he’s strong. You did a beautiful job getting him here. Thank you."

Both women’s eyes clouded over with tears, and Tommy’s looked suspiciously wet as well. Randi cradled him a little tighter, and gave him a small kiss on the forehead. Ella was thrilled to see Tommy capturing this for posterity, and equally happy that the tall woman seemed completely oblivious to that fact. Randi spent several quiet moments talking to the baby, while his parents looked on in happy observation, then she looked to Tommy to take the child so she could stand.

"Ya know, Randi, it is perfectly acceptable to walk and carry a child at the same time."

"Nope. I don’t think so," she said in all seriousness. "They break too easy."

"Uh huh. I’ll remind you of that one day, my friend." He failed to see the shadow that crossed the Marine’s face at his words, but Ella didn’t. She put the thought away for future study.

"Well, I need to go. Tommy, I’m gonna be in and out for a while. Would you prefer if I brought Ditto down to stay with you guys?"

The man considered this request carefully for long moments, while absently rocking the now sleeping baby in his arms. Finally, he spoke. "No, I don’t mind running over to your place everyday to check on her. She has her door to go in and out as she pleases there, and if she wants or needs anything, I’m sure she’ll come looking for me post haste." He smiled when he said this. Randi had patiently taught the puppy to cross the island for Tommy in the event of trouble. "If she gets lonely, she’ll come stay here anyway, I’m sure."

"True. Besides, Gwen said she’d come out to play with her on weekends if she could. Don’t be surprised if she comes over today to see the new baby."

"She knows??" Then he smacked his forehead. "Of course she knows. You told her last night, didn’t you?"

Randi looked shyly at the floor, unwilling to let them see the turmoil brewing in her eyes. "Yeah, I did. I wanted to share it with her. I figured you’d tell the masses today."

"Yep. In fact," he added, turning to place the boy gently into his mother’s outstretched arms, "I need to go get ready."

"And I need to go as well." She placed a light kiss on both the baby and his mother before heading for the door. "I will stop in as often as my schedule allows. I want you both to know, if there was any way for me to avoid this. . . . "

"You go do what needs to be done, Randi. We’ll all still be here when you get back."

The Marine had no comment she could make to this particular statement, so she just gave a small smile and a wave before exiting the house. Ditto joined her at the door, quite content with her morning’s explorations.

"I don’t like it, Tommy."

"Don’t like what, hon?" coming out of the bathroom, and disappearing into the closet.

"I can’t pinpoint what’s bothering me exactly, but there is something new in Randi’s attitude that just isn’t right."

"Sweetheart, she had a pretty traumatic day yesterday. Give her a little time to adjust to it all, okay? I’m fairly certain delivering her cousin-who-will-be-a-nephew-to-her was not on her list of things to do yesterday. I’m sure she hasn’t quite recovered from that shock."

"Maybe," Ella agreed, but she had some serious doubts in the back of her mind. Doubts that would plague her for months, before they finally came back to haunt her in a very real way.


Chapter XII

Randi’s troubling thoughts disturbed the serenity around her far more than her footsteps, or Ditto’s occasional growls and barks as she scampered around, could. The turbulence raging through her mind brought a scowl to her otherwise beautiful countenance.

Please, Artemis, Athena. . . please. I don’t want to be right. . . not this time. . .not about this.

Almost all of the feelers she had sent out months ago had returned with the same report. Things were gearing up for something massive. Everything pointed to full scale war.

Now Randi, along with three hand-picked, well trusted allies, was headed out to confirm the reports and gather information. No one in the chain of command, save the commandant himself, had been cleared of suspicion. The Marine had a very serious idea of who the leak was now, but she needed to talk to Geoff first. And that would have to wait until she got back. The logistics and timing of this mission were critical. She was fairly certain time was running out, and if she didn’t have her facts straight by Festival, things would get very ugly.

The Marine had no need for her armour this time, though she did secrete several well-honed weapons about her person. Then she knelt to look the shepherd in the eyes. "Be a good girl, Ditto, and go to Tommy if you need anything, okay? Watch out for the baby and. . . and Gwen. Take care of them for me until I get home, all right?"

The dog kept eye contact, and answered her with a single bark. The woman scratched the puppy’s head for several long moments, before straightening, and heading for the garage. "Beauty" was going to get a serious workout in the weeks to come.

They were a good mix of people, Randi thought to herself later as they met up in one of the most beautiful but forlorn spots she had eve laid eyes on. Just getting to this particular meeting place had been quite a challenge. The one hundred fifty foot climb down sheer rock had been an interesting experience, though not half so bad as getting back up was going to be, she was afraid. However, it served their purposes for the time being, and that was all that mattered. Once they had the final details ironed out, stealth wouldn’t be quite the problem it was now.

The Marine looked around at her newly assembled team. Each was lounging, talking softly, and drinking water. It was so hot in the canyon itself, that the cool darkness of the cave had been most welcome. Tiny, being the largest among them, was closest to the door. The cave narrowed rather quickly, and didn’t allow the man much room to maneuver. Next to him sat Brenda, only the whites of her eyes and teeth seen clearly in the near darkness. Across from Bren sat Cameron. Cam was a small, wiry man whose ancestry was impossible to define at a glance. They should be able to find out all they need to, because one of them would always be able to blend in.

It took the better part of the day for them to get things decided to everyone’s satisfaction, but by late afternoon, they had things worked out. It was decided it would be too dangerous to leave this close to sunset, and they settled in for the evening. The unit had pretty much expected this outcome, and been well prepared for it. The evening passed in pleasant camaraderie. It wasn’t until full daylight, however, that any of them made a move to leave.

Tiny and Randi both had to ascend the stoneface above them. Brenda and Cameron would be descending to the river below. Anyone who happened to spot them would assume they were cavers, climbing and rafting duos who found an interesting, habitable cave. Just the habitable part made that cave rare in this area, and therefore not surprising that it was used by more than one team. Most cavers were hospitable to one another in the extreme.

The end of the day found them in separate rooms at two different hotels. They would be splitting up individually in the morning, to meet at their first target from different destinations in two days time.

"Ya know," Tiny comment to Randi as they sat in the restaurant eating a passable meal, "a lot depends on us, my friend. If we succeed, no one will ever know how close things came to all out annihilation, but if we fail. . . ."

We *won’t* fail, Tiny. We can’t. Too much, and too many lives depend on our success." She paused while the waitress refilled their glasses. "You do realize, though, our chances of surviving the outcome are. . . ."

". . . .very, very slim. Yes, I know. We all do. But we swore an oath when we became Sabres that I will not disregard now."

"And what about Reed?"

"Reed is somewhat pragmatic about it. Not really happy, but completely understanding."

Here Randi’s thoughts turned to Gwen. Knowing she wouldn’t understand, but unable to give her the knowledge she needed to do so. She jerked her attention back to Tiny when he continued to speak.

"Besides, we’ve always lived with this possibility, with death coming early or violently for as long as we’ve been lovers. We knew it was one of the hazards when we got involved with each other, and as Sabres, we can live with that knowledge."

"And as human beings?"

He thought a moment about that before responding. "As human beings, it’s a bit tougher, but it happens." He tried to shrug it off lightly, but the Marine could see it bothered him more than he was willing to admit to. She decided to let the matter drop. It took her thoughts into areas she had no desire to venture into either.

They finished eating, and went back to their rooms. Randi was changed into her pajamas and stretched out on the bed trying to read an ebook when a knock came from Tiny’s side of the connecting room door. She got up slowly, reaching for a dagger before she put her hand on the door knob and called out, "Yeah?"

"Randi, Peanut eats Snickers. . . ."

". . . and Ditto speaks German." She put the knife down and opened the connecting door. "What’s up?" she asked hin as she resumed her comfortable position on the bed. She motioned for him to take a seat.

"Nothing. Just a little antsy, I think."

"Second thoughts, my friend?" gently.

"No, not really. Just anxious to get this done and over with, I suppose. I’ve never been good at waiting. You know that."

"Yeah, I seem to remember a few occasions where you were in more of a hurry than you needed to be." He blushed and she chuckled. They lost themselves in memories for a few minutes.

"Randi?" He spoke again quietly, unwilling to disturb the peace.


"What would you have done with your life, if you had never become a Sabre?"

It was an interesting question, one which she had never really pondered to any great degree, and she found it intriguing to do so now. Silence reigned in the room while she thought, broken only by the sounds of their breathing.

"Ya know, Tiny, I really don’t know. When I graduated, I only knew I wanted to join the Corps. I was interested in so many different things, still am to some extent." She was quiet for a while. "I don’t think I would be in the security business like I am now. I mean, I enjoy it and all, but most of what I use in that job is the same stuff I use in this one. I *learned* it all here." Another pause. "I think, though, given my choice, I would have liked to have been a builder." He smiled with her when he remembered the plans he had drawn for her. "I really enjoyed creating something with my own hands."

"Do you have any regrets, you know, about becoming a Sabre?"

A shadow passed over her visage so quickly that Tiny could not even be sure it was real and not imagined. "No, Tiny. I am what I am. To regret that means to lose myself. Liar, she scoffed to herself. You’d give it all up in a heartbeat, become whoever she needed you to be, if it meant you and Gwen could be together. Aloud she asked, "How about you?"

He shrugged broad shoulders. "Once in a while I think it would have been nice to have been like everybody else, and not have been selected for this specialty. Usually happens when I’m having to wait, especially if the mission is going to be exceptionally difficult." He smirked at himself. "But no, usually not, I’m too busy with other things, and once a mission is underway, *never*."

"Even knowing how it will end?"

"Most notably knowing how it will end. I think I have lived my life to its fullest potential every day, trying all sorts of new things, finding new ways to challenge myself, all because I’ve known the odds are stacked against my having a long life expectancy."

"And you won’t regret having to leave it, leave love behind?"

"I won’t leave love behind, Randi. I carry it, and all the memories with me all the time."

She lay quietly in the dark for a long time after he left, thinking about what he had said.

The following morning, they separated. It took two days for them to meet up with Brenda and Cameron at the rendezvous, and another two weeks for them to get the spook equipment in place. Another two days and part of a third passed before either team witnessed anything of interest.

"Randi, looks like the Blues will be heading out to Marcus Pointe tonight," Cameron commented as he walked in to door of their safe room.

A dark brow rose in question. "Marcus Pointe? Are you sure? That’s unusually far out of their territory."

"Yep, no mistake." He looked at the vid map she had displayed, and pointed out the spot. "Julio said it was the best neutral ground they could find."

Before she could comment, Brenda came in. "Reds are moving, Chief. Someplace called. . . ."

"Marcus Pointe," Randi and Cam finished together.

"Yeah, how’d you know?"

"Cause that’s where the Blues are headed. Any indication when or why?"

"Um, nothing definite. They’re moving up there tonight because it’s neutral ground."

"Damn! All right, let’s move. We’ve gotta be in place before they get there. All that wasted effort on equipment placement. Shit!"

No one was willing to question her in this mood. This was her project, and they were following her lead. They trusted her with theirs lives, as they had before, and she did the same. Right now was not the time for explanations, however. They needed to be shadows before the Blues and Reds arrived.

It was an intriguing sight to see the armies of blue or red clad humanity come marching up opposite sides of the street. Each band stopped short of the rendezvous point, with only the leaders advancing to the center line, where they were met by a small blonde woman. Without their equipment, they were unable to hear the actual words spoken. But in the end, it didn’t really matter, for the gestures were plain enough for all to decipher. Randi felt a sinking feeling hit her in the gut as the Red and Blue leaders shook hands and the blonde clasped both of them in her own. It became stark, cold fear when the armies, which had been enemies for longer than history defined, began mingling together to form one huge conglomeration of fighters.

It took them the better part of the night to stealthily work their way away from the raucous party that had started up once a truce had been declared. Randi, for her part, was trying to get her mind wrapped around reality, knowing that her worst fears were being confirmed. There wasn’t much for them to say to one another. Each was trying to soak in the impressions left them by the evenings events. To know that the two most violent gangs in existence, sworn enemies forever, had just declared temporary peace was disturbing in the extreme.

It was time to move on to their next objective.

Meanwhile, Gwen had decided to put all thoughts (and the feelings those thoughts brought with them) of having seen her best friend naked into a locked box in her mind. There was no reason to dwell on it, especially until she could sort things out. And this, she found, she was reluctant to do. She was sure, no matter what conclusions she came to, that this would change the dynamic between them. And she wasn’t ready to lose what they had.

The remainder of the first week that Randi was gone found Gwen amazingly busy. A fellow bard had been called away on a family emergency, and the blonde was more than willing to pitch in and help cover her absence. She even worked part of her weekend, and it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that she made it over to Tommy and Ella’s to see the new baby.

"Gwen, what a nice surprise! Come in! Come in! I see you stopped by Randi’s place," indicating the shepherd that followed obediently at her heels. Ella welcomed the bard in with a hug. "Did you come to see baby Randall?" The bard’s eyes widened perceptibly.

"You named him after her?" softly.

"Of course. I’ll admit it was one of the names we were considering anyway, but after she brought him safely into the world. . . ."

"Does she know?"

"That she has a namesake?" Gwen nodded. "Yes, we introduced them after the doctor got here and got a chance to look him over. Why?"

"She didn’t mention his name." The bard continued when she noticed the odd look on the other woman’s face. "She told me everything else. It’s just funny she didn’t remember to tell me his name."

"Not really. I think she was in quite a state of shock when she left here."

The bard agreed silently, but aloud she simply said, "Can I see him?"

"Oh yes. Certainly. C’mon." And she grabbed the blonde by the elbow and pulled her toward the nursery. "We just gave him a bath, so he may be sleeping, but we can take a peek anyway."

As it happened, they found Tommy asleep in the rocking chair, and Randall in the crib, not asleep, but not quite awake either. Ella gently picked him up and cradled him to her, crooning softly to him for a moment. Then she lay him in Gwen’s empty arms.

The bard stared at the now sleeping little boy for a very long time. "He’s beautiful, Ella," she stated in a hushed voice. "You’re a very lucky woman."

Gwen left the Steel residence after a short visit with Ella. She understood now a little better Randi’s reaction the day before she left for parts unknown. And here her thoughts turned briefly to her friend, hoping she was safe.

It was Tuesday of the next week, when Tommy called the bard into his office. She was a bit startled to see a tall form with raven hair sitting across from him, and for a brief instant thought Randi had returned. But the gray eyes that met her gaze were those of a stranger, and though she was disappointed, she greeted the man politely when the boss introduced them.

"Gwen, this is Scott Everret. He’s going to be with us for the next few months. Scott, this is. . . ."

". . . Gwen Goldman, probably the most prolific bard alive. It is a pleasure to meet you." He took the proffered hand and gently kissed her knuckles. The already flushed face turned beet red at this, and she eased her hand from his. "I’m sorry, Gwen. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I’ve just been a fan for a very long time, and was having a ‘fan moment’, I think."

"It’s all right, Scott. I’m just not used to that reaction anymore, especially around here. So, what’s up, Tommy?"

"Join us for lunch." And so saying, he led the duo out of his office.

The rest of the week found the trio taking lunch together, and it wasn’t long before the rumors started flying about Gwen and Scott. Rumors that Randi was sure to hear the instant of her return.

"Why is it," the man commented to his female counterpart two weeks after they had been introduced, "that a man and a woman, even in this day and age, cannot be seen as friends without gossip and rumors flying first?"

The blonde smirked at him. "Because, Scott, gossip and rumors are generally much more exciting than the truth could ever be. Besides, you’re the first person, aside from my best friend Randi, that I’ve ever spent any noticeable amount of time with. That makes it fodder automatically."

"Even though all we do is work together?"

"Even though all we do is work together. It’s fair game. Though maybe if they got a look at your girlfriend, the talk might die down some." Gwen had had the chance to meet Tori the previous weekend at the ‘Golden Touch’, and had found herself liking the young woman at once. She was a weaver, and the bard couldn’t wait to see some of her work which Ella had been positively gushing over.

"Does it bother you, all the talk, I mean?"

"Um, yeah, sometimes it does get to be a bit much. But mostly I’ve learned to ignore it."

"Well, hopefully it will die down soon."

"Yeah, something else will take the spotlight."

But it wasn’t soon enough. Randi had come back earlier that morning, and had intended on catching Gwen at work and convincing the bard to play hooky with her. But the rumors that Gwen had a hot new lover assaulted her from the moment she reached Midas, and when she saw them together at lunch (though it was not at *their* table), she jumped to the conclusion that the rumors were actually truth. She went back to her office, determined to get out of there as soon as possible.

That evening, Tommy stopped by to pick her up for dinner at his place. The Marine tried to decline, but Tommy insisted, reminding her that Ella would have both their hides if she didn’t come. Besides, she was anxious to see her young namesake, so her protest was short-lived.

"I heard you were at work today."

"Hmm. Yeah. I needed to check in with my guys, make sure things were okay."

"Did you see Gwen?"

"No. There just wasn’t time. I’ve got to head out again in the morning." T was curious whether her terseness was due to her travels, or the fact that she had missed, still missed the bard or if it was something else entirely. But wisdom hard learned made him keep his mouth shut, and his thoughts on the subject to himself.

Randi was thrilled with the baby, and not quite as nervous handling him as she had been the first time. She was *almost* convinced he wouldn’t break if she held him, but was a little reluctant to put that particular theory to the test. Fortunately, Ella took the decision right out of her hands, when she put the child into them. And Randi marveled at the precious, tiny miracle she held, even as she commented on his rapid growth.

Gwen cornered Tommy the following morning, having learned Randi had popped in the previous day. "And you didn’t tell me she was here? She didn’t call me?"

"Gwen, it was a flying visit, literally. I think she came home to do laundry. The only reason I saw her was I stopped at her house on my way home and insisted she come over for dinner and a visit with Randall. She wasn’t really thrilled to see me."

"Tommy, do you know what she is doing? Where she is going?"

"No, but I do know whatever it is, it’s weighing heavily on her soul."

That weekend, the rumor mill came to a screeching halt when Scott brought his now fiancee to the Guild picnic. Tommy liked to hold events and gatherings often, to allow his people to interact on a personal as well as a professional level. He was distinctly glad for this one, as he could tell the whispers were beginning to wear on Gwen’s last nerve.

Gwen spent a bit of time watching Scott and Tori interact with each other and others. There was something about it that was familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. She decided to observe them covertly. Perhaps that would help her figure it out.

Meanwhile, Randi and her team had headed out once again, and this time the trip took almost a week. If it hadn’t been for the fact that they wanted to attract as little attention to themselves as possible, they could have been there in a matter of hours. But people tend not to notice tourists and lazy day travelers, and so they became such, and blended in to the mass of humanity around them.

As they each arrived individually at the meeting place, it became very apparent that something massive was gearing up here as well. In the Southern province there were waves of Wizards taking up all the available space. To the North, the Brotherhood was filling the province, over running the natural population. Within a week, word was spread of the meeting between the two factions.

Once again, the rendezvous was at midnight, and as the two groups came together, the same cold, unreasoning fear that permeated her stomach the last time returned full force to assault her senses. The Marine watched in uneasy fascination as a near repeat of the previous events happened before her eyes. Two enemies, enemies for a longer lifetime than the history of modern and post modern man, stood together making peace. A peace blessed by a tall, thin blonde woman. And as black and white mingled together under the night sky, Randi felt the weight of the world fall more heavily onto her shoulders.

Scott was struggling, badly. Bad enough that his beloved finally convinced him of the wisdom in asking Gwen for some help or advice, before Tori threw him out of the house. The bard just chuckled when her compatriot explained his desperation to her, even going so far as to get down on bended knee in front of her and beg.

To the blue eyes watching this tableau, Gwen seemed flustered by the unexpected proposal, and the flush on her face made her seem even more beautiful. Randi tried to pull herself away, but stood still staring in fascination until the tall man took the bard into his arms and kissed her almost reverently. Then with tears in her eyes the Marine fled for the safety of her home.

"Do you see what I mean, Gwen? It just doesn’t flow like it’s supposed to. And I can’t seem to get past this point. It’s pivotal to the story."

"Yeah, I see your problem. How about instead you. . . ." and she offered him a few suggestions to work out what was best for him, never knowing their actions had been seen and so grossly misunderstood.

When Randi arrived at home, Ditto greeted her with unbridled enthusiasm. It brought a sad smile to her face, in spite of the fact the shards of her heart ached so badly she could hardly breathe. She took a long run with the dog, stopping by to see Ella and her ever-changing baby boy. Randall brought another sad smile to the Marine’s face, and Ella had to wonder what made the tears come to the eyes of a woman who never cried. Randi was perilously close to the edge, and Ella was afraid of pushing too hard for fear she’d fall right off the precipice she was standing on. Her concern, however. continued to mount by leaps and bounds.

"I wish there was a way to keep him from growing so much while I’m away. I’m missing out on so much of his life."

"Simple solution to that problem—stay here," Ella replied only half jokingly.

"If only it *were* that simple, my friend. I leave out again in the morning."

"Randi. . . ?"

"Please don’t, Ella. I have to."

"Take care of yourself, then. We really miss you when you’re gone."

I know one that doesn’t miss me anymore. But aloud she answered, "I miss you guys, too. I’ll be careful." And then she left, to place a vid call and repack.

The next morning found her knocking at the door of the shop of an expert weapons smith. Geoff opened the door, and admitted her into his work sanctuary. She looked around in fascination, recognizing many of the pieces and parts laying around the surprisingly small room. There were several things she could not readily identify, but there was no time for exploration at present. Perhaps later.

"Randi," welcoming the woman with a hug which he quickly noticed was not being returned, "you’re cryptic vid call last night piqued my curiosity. What’s up?" He wondered what had happened that she looked at him through the shuttered eyes of a near stranger. The man decided he needed to have a talk with his daughter as soon as possible.

"Geoff, tell me about the team you served with when Ghost Rider first began her rampage thirty years ago." If she could have asked a more difficult or complicated question, he wasn’t sure what it would have been. And he was at a loss to see what this had to do with anything, but he decided to humor her. It was obvious she was in SABRE mode, and the friendship had been put to the side for the present.

"Okay," he answered slowly. "What would you like to know?"

"Anything. Everything. Tell me about the individuals that comprised the team that was first attacked."

"All of them?"

"All of them."

There was quiet for the space of about sixty heartbeats, until Geoff spoke again. "You can just read about the incident, you know."

"I know, and if this is hard for you, I apologize." For a brief instant, there was a trace of warmth in her eyes. Then the blue went cold again. "But those are just flat facts written on a computer screen. I am asking for you to tell me something about them as human beings. Make them 3-D figures that come alive."

The intensity in her voice surprised him. "It’s that important?"

"It’s that important."

He nodded to himself at her answer, and drew his mind inward for a long moment. Then he drew a deep breath and began.

"Jeremiah Daetwyler was my sergeant, and he was a Sabre through and through."

"Wait, Jeremiah Daetwyler, Sabre Commandant?"

"The same. Even then he had the skill and intelligence to make him one of the best. Rumor is, he had gotten into a terrible row with a girl, a fellow Sabre, a year previously because of that drive and initiative. She disappeared swearing vengeance, but was never seen or heard from again."


"Well, yeah. I wasn’t around when it happened, and it was never really talked about among us. It was his private business, you know."

"Hmm. Go on."

"Not much to tell, really. Though I will say it was quite a surprise when he came to see me as a lieutenant when I was still in the recovery unit after the attack."

"Why is that?"

"He never wanted to be an officer. He enjoyed working in the field, doing the dirty work. It was his life, and he had apparently turned down the commission before. I think it was the only way he could stay in, stay a Sabre, after we were all hurt."

"Was he hurt badly?"

"Well, we all were to some degree, remember. But his physical wounds weren’t as bad as the emotional ones seemed to be. He was really shaken up after an attack like that happened on his watch."

Randi concentrated on that in silence for a little while, pacing back and forth in the small space. Geoff let her alone, recognizing the serious focus behind the blue eyes. He could almost see her putting the puzzle together, and was more than a little curious at what picture the finished product would be. Finally, she motioned for him to continue.

"You already know my story, and there were only two other survivors, unless you want to know about those that died." She shook her head negatively. "Okay, then. Ben-ramen Ha’amaen was my best friend. We went through basic and Sabre training together. He was always very quiet. He did his ten year service, and got out to become a ship builder. We stay in touch still. He and his partner live near the capital city where they are well respected members of the builder’s Guild there. I would almost consider him Gwen’s godfather."

"What about the last team member?"

"Ah, Kenesha Rachoen. Kene was quite the firebrand. And she and Jerry seemed to butt heads regularly."

"About anything in particular?"

"No, about everything, it seemed."

"Was this a problem before you arrived, do you know?"

"Well, again, we’re back to rumors." Randi nodded her comprehension. "But the rumor was they had almost come to blows over a woman."

"Why weren’t they separated if it was such a problem?"

"I dunno. They actually worked well together under pressure. But during the down time, everything was cause for a debate." He paused, thinking hard for a moment. "I think she had actually *finally* requested a transfer shortly before we were attacked." He frowned in remembrance. "In fact, though, she became his attache, his right hand after he was promoted."

"Did they get along any better?"

"No, not really. They still argue about everything, even to this day. But it changed, we all changed. I’d say they were more subdued. Kene certainly became less volatile."

Randi withdrew into herself to study the puzzle pieces she had been handed. The workroom became a study in quiet as the Marine continued to examine her evidence while the weapons smith tinkered with a crossbow mechanism that wanted to stick. Finally he noticed the tall woman come to some conclusion in her mind, as she straightened. He broke the silence when she stood.

"Did any of this help, Randi?"

"Yeah, Geoff," she said, smiling at him somewhat absently. "I think it did. Thanks." But she didn’t explain any further, and he was not comfortable in asking. It was clear the walls were up, and would not be breached. She made a move to leave.

"Can you stay, for a little bit at least?"

"I wish I could Geoff, but I’ve got places to be. Thank you for asking."

"You’re welcome here, anytime. You know that. Maybe you and Gwen can. . . ." He hesitated seeing the fleeting look of intense pain cross her features. It was gone almost as quickly as it appeared.

"I think Gwen will probably be bringing some else home with her the next time she comes. Thank you for your help, Geoff." And she was out the door and gone before he could recover his scattered wits.

"Now what the hell was that all about?" the man wondered, muttering to himself. "I think it may be time to have a little talk with my daughter."

Randi didn’t head for home this time. Even though she and here team were not expected to meet across the waters for another five days, she decided to go early, to scout things out a bit. Liar, you just can’t bear to see her with someone else. No matter what your head says is best. The Marine shook her head to clear it and boarded the shuttle. It wasn’t going to be long before the shit hit the fan.

The ancient forest she wandered through was like a balm to her troubled soul. It had been a blessing to get out of the crowded city she had arrived in, and the peace of this place pervaded her every sense. The Marine was even able to put Gwen into somewhat of a (distorted) perspective.

Randi decided to use the uninterrupted time to meditate, and finding a relatively comfortably tree to nest in, she extended her outer senses, and turned her vision inward.

What troubles you, child?

"Everything , Artemis."

And what is it you wish of me?

"Nothing. There is nothing any of you can do for me now. I know my destiny, and I’ve accepted it."

Then why have you summoned me, summoned us, to you? Gesturing at her two sisters who stood quietly trying very hard not to burst into apoplectic rage at Randi’s presumptuous words. They had seen what she had, and could understand, how from her point of view, things could seem the way they did. That did not lessen their need to want to correct her, however.

"I’m sorry, Artemis. I meant to summon no one. I simply wanted to meditate and clear my head for the coming days. The calm and peace that prevails in this place is a welcome change from the chaos that permeates much of the rest of the world."

Nevertheless, you did summon us. Are you sure you desire nothing? Trying to edge the Marine into asking the right question. She was please when the woman seemed to be considering her words.

"No, Artemis, except that you keep an eye on Gwen. She deserves nothing but happiness."

And what of you, child?

Randi did not answer, hoping the goddesses would leave her in peace to find her focus. They did so, finally, and with much reluctance.

"It’s not supposed to be this way!" Aphrodite fumed. "This is not the way the end was written for them!"

"Keep the faith, sister. You know the old saying. . . . It ain’t over til the fat lady sings! And I’ll give ’em all laryngitis if I have to!"

The goddess of love had to smile through her tears at the image that conjured up. "Thanks, ‘Thena! You’re the best!"

"Oh, and I’m chopped liver, I suppose!" the goddess of the hunt mock groused.

"Nope, you’re the best too! Chopped liver, grody! What a visual there, Art!" The three sisters chuckled together, then got busy looking for a solution to a problem that was rapidly getting away from them.

When the rest of the team finally arrived four days later, Randi had found her center, and had put everything but the mission out of her mind. With Festival only a few weeks away, she was fairly certain this would be the last gathering until the holiday season was over. In the thirty years that Ghost Rider had been a threat, never once had she broken holiday tradition. And with the enormous build-up taking place, Randi was betting she wouldn’t break this one either. No, everything pointed to action occurring sometime after Festival Season had passed. Waiting was going to be a bitch, though.

Never had the team seen so many bald heads in one place as Skinheads poured into the region. It could have been almost comical, had the circumstances and events surrounding their presence not been so dire. Instead, it prompted that cold, unreasoning fear to coil in Randi’s belly once more, even though she was sure of the outcome of this gathering.

It took ten days for the Skinheads to finish arriving, and almost on cue, as they stopped, an army of

Fringe Amazons walked onto the scene. And that night, as the moon rose high in the sky, a truce was sealed between them, as though there had never been any animosity at all. The blonde woman looked well pleased with the outcome of her efforts. Randi wished she could go be sick.

"Randi," asked Tiny, when they were all gathered back at the hotel, and congregating in her room, "are you sure this is a put on, just a temporary truce? Some of the things I saw tonight. . . ."

"Yeah, and we’ve seen that kind of celebrating at each of these rendezvous," Brenda chimed in. Cam remained silent. Randi got off the bed, and moved to the window, wishing she risked looking outside.

"I would almost be inclined to agree with you except for a couple of things. One, this blonde is always present, and fits what little description we have of Ghost Rider perfectly."

"And the other?" from Cam when the silence grew too long for his liking.

"I overheard what was said tonight." The Marine drew a deep breath before continuing. " ‘Coming together under truce to cause chaos and war’ is not my idea of a settled peace. And she mentioned something else. A date and place. I think there will be a coming together of all parties involved in the desert sometime shortly after Festival. I want to check that out."

"You let us know when and where, my friend. We’ll be there with you. You know that," from Tiny.

"I know that. You guys have been awesome the last few months. Thank you. Now let’s get some sleep. We head for home tomorrow, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I haven’t done any shopping for Festival. And with it only twelve days off. . . ."

"Do you really think it’s safe until after the holiday?"

"Yeah, Bren, I do. Ghost Rider holds the season sacred for whatever reason, and I don’t think that will change. That date is almost four weeks away. I think we’ll be okay til then."

"I hope so. It’ll be nice to have a little quality family time. Goodnight, guys." The others responded, and they made their way to their own rooms through the connecting doors.

Randi lay in the quiet dark, thinking about the days to come, and wondering if Gwen was happy in her newfound love. She supposed she couldn’t put off meeting the man forever. She decided to face him with the courage of the Marine she was, then disappear for the holiday. She didn’t want Gwen to pity her and invite her along to whatever they had planned together. She was in for quite a shock.

"Good morning, little girl." Geoff’s voice over the vid screen echoed in Gwen’s still sleeping mind. Weird dream she thought as she burrowed deeper under the bedcovers.

"Gwen, time to get up, dear," her mother’s voice chided lightly.

"Go ‘way," the bard muttered, still convinced she was asleep and dreaming the intrusions. She peeked out from under the blankets, noting that it was full daylight, and that her imagination was not playing tricks on her. Her folks *were* on the vid screen, waiting to talk to her. She fell face first back into the bed with a groan, and pulled the pillow down on top of her head.

The chuckling from her parents brought her sitting up in bed, running a hand through tangled blonde hair, and wiping the sleep from her eyes.

"Sorry, guys. Morning."

"Late night, hon?" Jill inquired with motherly interest. The dark circles under the bard’s normally bright eyes were a matter of some concern to her.

"Hmm, no, not the way you mean. I just couldn’t sleep. Happens sometimes." Happens a lot when Randi is gone, doesn’t it? She shook her head to clear the internal dialogue. She could concentrate on that later. "So, what’s up?"

"We just wanted to check in, make sure plans for Festival were set."

"Um, as far as I know, I’ll be up early morning the day before, so we can attend the symphony that evening."

"Will you be coming alone?" Not really a tactful way to ask that question, Jill realized, but there was really no good way to ask it, either.

Blonde brows furrowed at the direction of the conversation. "I think so. Randi was supposed to come with me, but I haven’t seen her in almost three months, and there is no one else I’d want to ask."

"So, there’s no one new in your life?" There, now the question was out in the open.

"Huh?!? What are you. . . Oh, wait." Now thoroughly aggravated, she threw the cover off her and rose abruptly from the bed. She paced back and forth briefly trying to calm herself, and ran her hands over her face and through her hair again. "I don’t fucking believe this," the bard muttered almost to herself. "Okay look, Scott and I are just colleagues and friends at work. Once in a while I get together with him and Tori for dinner. Somehow, I don’t think his *fiancee* would be too thrilled if I invited him home for Festival.

"Well, dear, we’d heard. . . ."

"Yeah, I can just imagine what you’ve heard, but it’s not true. Scott and I are just friends, so are Tori and I, and they make a lovely couple. They’re nice people. I’ll be sure to introduce you on your next trip down."

"That would be wonderful. Thank you for telling us daughter, and don’t be upset if we’re concerned. It’s a parent thing. . . we just want you to be happy."

"I am happy, Mom. Just tired," scratching her head. "I’m glad Festival is only seven days away."

"You go back and get some more rest, sweetheart. We’ll talk to you later. Love you."

"Love you both, too." And Gwen severed the connection, and crawled back into bed. She didn’t fall asleep immediately, though, thinking about the upcoming holiday. She hoped to see Randi soon, to invite her home again. And she fell asleep with a smile on her lips, reliving happy memories of the previous Festival they had shared.

"What do you think Randi meant, then?" Jill asked her husband as they broke the comm link to Gwen.

"I think she heard the rumors, maybe saw something that could have been misconstrued, and made some assumptions based on those things. It fits with what we know." And it fits with Randi’s profile as well.

"I suppose, though you’d think she would have just asked Gwen."

"Well, you heard what our daughter said. They haven’t seen each other in almost three months. And knowing what we do about Randi and how reserved she is, can you really picture her approaching Gwen and just asking something like that outright?"

"No, you’re right. Those two are enough to give me a headache sometimes!"

Well, baby," the man replied, wrapping still strong arms around a still slim waist, "if it makes you feel any better, they are seriously driving me to drink!" They chuckled together at the situation, and she patted Geoff’s hands. He released her, and they wandered into the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

Gwen woke later in the day feeling much better. And hungry, not really surprised when she looked at the clock and saw it was nearly lunch time. Hmm, quick shower, a bite to eat. Then I think I’ll go see Ditto for a while, maybe run to Ella’s and take a peek at the baby. Then, I’ll just play it by ear. Nothing pressing to do today. All my Festival shopping is done. Hmm.

The bard climbed out of the bed, stretching languidly before heading to the bathroom. She didn’t even bother to dry her hair when she stepped from the shower, choosing instead to simply pull it into a long braid. One of these days, I’m gonna cut this mess off, she groused, though half-heartedly. Some comfortable jeans, a T-shirt topped by a flannel button up, and she went to the kitchen bare footed to make a couple sandwiches. Finally completely dressed and fed, she left the apartment, and headed for the island.

It didn’t occur to her to enter the house on her arrival. Generally, when she came to play with Ditto, she went straight around to the back, knowing the dog would hear her and join her there. She usually checked the house right before she left. So she got quite a surprise when she rounded the corner, and headed toward the dock.


Chapter XIII

Ditto was the first to spot Gwen as she rounded the corner, and to Randi’s surprise, the dog flew up the dock toward the house instead of out into the water to retrieve the newly thrown stick. The Marine got up to see what had caused the shepherd to run away from her, and then really wished she hadn’t when she saw her best friend frolicking with the puppy and headed toward her. No where to go but straight ahead, Valiant. Suck it in. And she literally took and expelled a deep breath trying to calm herself for the confrontation she knew was coming. . . had been expecting since she’d returned home four days earlier.

The bard, for her part, was amazed to see Ditto outside, and her attention was focused on the dog for the first little bit. Gradually, though, she became aware of the blue eyes trained on her, and could see, even from a distance, sadness in the eyes, and tenseness in the stance. Well, let’s go see if we can fix whatever is wrong.

She walked right into Randi’s arms, hugging her tightly, and holding on until she felt the briefest return squeeze. The blonde looked up into eyes that were now shuttered against her, and felt her heart clench in reaction. What happened to her while she was gone to turn her away from me completely like this? The Marine gently removed herself from the bard’s embrace.

"I missed you, Randi," said with a tremor in her voice. Her eyes watered up, but she refused to let the tears fall. The tall woman was so remote as to seem frigid, and Gwen did not want pity. She hesitated, afraid to ask, but scared not to," Are you still attending Festival with me?"

"Hmm. I hear congratulations are in order."

Confusion in green eyes. "Huh? What for?" This conversation was quickly going nowhere.

"I’ve been given to understand that you have a lover in your life, now. Somehow, I don’t think he would welcome my participation as your Festival escort."

The bard nearly choked over her own tongue trying to get the words out of her mouth. "WHAT?!? Where in the hell did you hear something like that??"

"Are you saying it’s not true?" The blue eyes became less closed, though still guarded and wary. She literally felt the pieces of her heart start mending themselves back together at the woman’s response, though her mind chided her, remembering all too well what she had seen with her own eyes.

"Of Course it’s not true!! Don’t you think I’d be aware if I had taken a lover, or gained a significant other?? At least, God, I hope I’d know something that important." She paused a moment, thinking about what Randi could have possibly heard. "Oh, wait. You heard this at Midas, didn’t you? New guy, I was eating lunch with, working with, had to be having an affair with. Am I close?"

"Yeah, mostly. I, um, I did hear he was seen on bended knee in front of you, and kissing you just moments later." Not the whole truth, of course, but close enough.

"Oh for the love of. . . we were working! Scott was having a block, and begged me, literally, to help him. We ran the scene he was struggling with. . . . Damn! Ya know, if people would just mind their own fuc. . ." The bard stopped short in her raving when long arms engulfed her in a tight hug.

"I missed you, Little One," Randi admitted in a bare whisper.

Gwen forgot about her rant and return the hug with equal abandon. "I missed you too, gunny." And Randi knew then that everything that could be was right in her world again. "So are you attending Festival with me?"

"If you still want me to."

A small hand landed on firm stomach muscles when Gwen tried to pop the Marine. "Ow! Of course I still want you to, silly. Why wouldn’t I? Oh, because. . . . "

"Yeah. I was sure. . . . "

"Enough. It’s over, and we’re past it. So, are you, or not?"

"Yes, of course I am! I promised you, didn’t I?"

"Yeah, you did, and you’ve never broken a promise to me."

"And I’m not gonna start now."

During this entire discussion, the two had stayed in one another’s embrace, and it suddenly became clear to Gwen just how comfortable and safe she felt sheltered in Randi’s arms. She pulled back a bit to look the taller woman in the face. "Are you up to dinner out with friends tonight? Cause I would really like you to meet Scott and his fiancee, Tori. They’re lovely people. And I’ll bet Tommy and Ella would love to go. Maybe Joey and Maria, and CL and Tony, and. . . . "

"Whoa, whoa! Hang on there, slow down! Sounds like you’re planning quite a party. Kinda late in the day, and too close to the holidays for an impromptu gathering like that, don’t ya think?"

The bard stuck out a impudent tongue. "Nah, bet we can get everyone to bring something. Have an old fashioned pot luck dinner. Whaddya say?"

"Hon, if that’s what you wanna do, knock yourself out. You know where the vid phone is."

It took Gwen less than thirty minutes to round up a majority of the "Gang", including the band members. They had been a little lost with Randi gone, and even though it wasn’t Friday, they decided a bit of practice wouldn’t hurt any of them.

They had decided out of consideration for Randall, that the get together would start early, and around four that afternoon, people started arriving at the island. Since Gwen had called her first, Ella had volunteered their place, and had encouraged the bard to invite the band when she learned what the blonde was planning. By four-thirty, everyone had arrived, and the two long tables that had been brought out for the occasion were full of food.

It was too soon for most folks to want dinner, so the band set up, and started slowly warming up. Within a few minutes, they seemed to have hit a stride, and went right into playing music. Forty-five minutes later, they were more than ready for a break. And that’s when the guys started badgering Randi to sing with them.

"C’mon, Randi!"

"Yeah, sing with us."

"Guys. . . . " not quite growling from the Marine.

"Raaaannndiii," whiningly.

"C’mon, please?"

"Please? Ya gotta."

"No, I don’t gotta. Now drop it."

At this point, Gwen intervened, knowing Randi wouldn’t tolerate this kind of badgering for very long. "C’mon, guys. Let it go for now. She’ll let you know if and when she is ever ready to sing again." The smaller woman steered her companion over to a sheltered corner taking the larger hands into her own.

"You all right? I know you hate that."

"Yeah. Thanks for rescuing me, by the way," squeezing the small hands encased in hers.

"Any time, my friend. Any time."

Unnoticed by the two women, Scott and Tori stood next to Tommy and Ella watching the scene play out in front of them. "They are truly in love, aren’t they?" commented Scott.

"Hmm. And everybody can see it but them."

Tori’s brows disappeared into her hairline. "You’re kidding me, right?"

"Nope," answered Ella. "There is actually a pool going at Midas about when those two will actually figure it out." Then with a look at Tommy, "And you’d better hope Randi never gets wind of it. That could be ugly."

"How long. . . .?"

"Depends on what you are really asking. They’ve known each other for better than three years. How long they’ve been in love is another question again. Seems like forever."

The objects of their conversation ambled toward them. Gwen was anxious to introduce Scott and Tori to Randi. Randi was ready to se her little namesake again.

The Marine was actually pleasantly surprised by her response to the man she had been jealous of. She found herself liking him. She hadn’t wanted to like him, her mind’s eye still filled with the picture of him kneeling before the bard, of gently kissing her soft lips. But Scott was a genuinely nice individual, obviously very taken by his Tori.

So the two couples and Tommy were sitting together talking. Ella had excused herself to retrieve a now awake and hungry Randall.

"Is it true you sing, Randi?" from Scott.

The drummer drew her head up sharply, wondering where the question was coming from. She saw nothing but innocent inquiry in his expression, and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, for now. But Gwen actually beat her to the punch.

"She sings beautifully, Scott, but only when she is moved to do so. Tommy made a vid of my birthday party several months ago, which I never got a copy of," now glaring at her boss. "Maybe you can get him to show it to you. Randi sang then."

Conversation came to a halt then, as Ella emerged from the house, and casually laid the baby in Randi’s arms, and handed her a bottle of milk. Talk ceased at all the tables gradually, each taking in a tableau they had never expected in their lifetimes to see. Randi, for her part, was totally engrossed in the child she cradled, and Gwen watched the two in rapt fascination as she sat at the Marine’s side, gently stroking the child’s downy head.

Many looked on at the beautiful living family portrait sitting in from of them, and smiled at the picture they made. As the baby drew the last drops of his mother’s milk from the bottle, discussion resumed quietly. No one wanted to make Randi self conscious of the beautiful scene that had all been witness to. The tall woman burped the boy, then passed him over to Gwen. Their eyes met briefly in an understanding their hearts shared, and their minds refused to acknowledge, until Randi returned to her drum set. The rest of the band joined her, and for another fifty minutes, they entertained the masses.

"Ya know, boss," commented the male bard to Tommy while the band was putting away its equipment, "this has been a lot of fun. You should do this for one of the Guild get togethers sometime."

The head of Midas Enterprises stared at Scott as though he had grown two heads. He wondered why that had never occurred to him before. But now that he had been hit between the eyes with the idea, he knew exactly when he would utilize it.

"Um, Tommy, did I say something wrong?" A pensive question from Scott as the silence continued to lengthen while the other man stared at him like he was from another planet.

Tommy shook his head to clear it. "Hmm? No, sorry. An idea just sprang forth full blown. You were saying?"

But whatever their conversation might have been about was dissipated as four women converged on their spot. Ella was returning from changing her progeny. Tori came back from retrieving a couple drinks, with Gwen doing the same. Randi dropped rather gracelessly into a small two seater, wiping the sweat dripping from her with a towel Ella had had ready for her. She smiled gratefully at the blonde who handed her a regen drink, gulping it down as Gwen sat down beside her.

"Slow down there, soldier. You’re gonna make yourself sick drinking like that."

Randi silently disagreed, but brought the bottle down anyway. If it made the bard feel better, she would sip it really fast. Tommy and Scott just looked at each other, eyes twinkling, then looked away again, at the Marine’s rather meek compliance to the blonde’s request.

Eventually, people began to make their way to the tables to fill their plates with dinner. The murmur of conversation flowed as more folks sat down to eat. Randi and Gwen were among the last to serve themselves, with Tori and Scott directly in front of them. Again the bard felt a sense of familiarity watching the young couple together, but couldn’t place her finger on just what that was.

"I think Gwen is starting to see the light," commented Ella to her husband now holding the sleeping baby.

"Oh? What makes you say that, love?"

"Little things, but mostly because she keeps glancing at Scott and Tori, and frowning, as though puzzling something out."

"And this means. . . .?"

"She is seeing the similarities between the two of them, and she and Randi, I think. That’s what it looks like to me, anyway."

"Well, I hope you’re right. They deserve to be happy together."

The group was relatively quiet as they consumed their food. Gradually, eyes turned toward Gwen, all hopeful for a storytelling session. The Marine took the empty plates away while Gwen refilled their drinks. She was a little disturbed when, instead of joining her, Randi moved off to a private corner with Tommy. She decided to wait until they were finished with their business to start, and spent a few minutes just talking with the crowd.

"Are you sure?" the soldier whispered, though no one was near enough to hear them speak.

"Yep. Got the confirmation today." He looked at her worriedly when the furrowed brow remained. "I thought you’d be happy about this. It’s a great honor."

The woman made an obvious attempt to put whatever was bothering her aside. "I know it is, T. I’ve just got a lot on my plate right now." Trying desperately to ensure she would be around then, and knowing that task was nearly impossible.

"Okay, I can understand that," glancing at her dubiously before continuing. "Would you be willing, the night before, to help host a party here for the whole Midas crew? Have the band perform, with you singing maybe the last set?"

Randi rubbed a hand across closed eyes. How could she promise something like this? How can I not? She heaved silent sigh, then nodded her head. "Sure, T. I’ll do my best. But let’s leave my singing a surprise, okay? The guys will be willing to practice with me another time when they know the reason."

"All right, Randi. However you want to work it will be fine. But I think we better discuss the details later. Your bard keeps casting glances this way, and I think they’re waiting on us to start the stories." The man moved to sit next to his wife before the Marine could reply.

And just what would I have said to that anyway? *MY* bard?? Only in my dreams, Tommy. Only in my dreams. She moved to stand in the back of the room, as had been her habit, and was not a little surprised when Gwen moved from the platform and walked to stand in front of her. Without a word, she extended her hand, and Randi bemusedly took it, following her to the stage. The Marine hesitated when the bard started to lead her onto the stage itself.

"Come sit with me, please?" the blonde whispered quietly, a gentle pleading in her green eyes. Randi could no more deny her request than should could stop breathing. She did wonder what had prompted it, though. She silently nodded her agreement, and allowed the younger woman to pull her forward. She seated Gwen when they reached the edge of the platform, then took a seat beside her, close, but not quiet touching.

The bard couldn’t have explained the need, the desire, to have the warrior sitting so near. But she was more relaxed and comfortable than she could remember herself being. And drawing a deep breath, she began her magic of weaving tales.

About thirty minutes into the telling, Randi held her empty glass up with a pointed look in Tommy’s direction. The man smiled good naturedly at her, and brought her two bottles of water as inconspicuously as possible. The Marine opened one, and gently nudged her companion. Gwen’s eyes twinkled in appreciation when it was passed to her, and she gratefully drank a long draught before picking up her story.

"It’s so interesting to watch her work," Tori whispered to Ella during some applause.

"Yes, and I don’t think I"ve heard her tell the same story twice yet."

"It can be a bit depressing," from Scott.

"How so?"

"Well, let’s just say she’s incredibly gifted, blessed, even. When we were working the other day, she mentioned that she has so many tales left to tell that she will run out of time before they all get told. Depressing when you are struggling, or realize you *do* have limits."

"Hmm, I never thought about it like that. I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it."

"Oh, I know she didn’t. And I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with her. It’s incredible to watch that much creativity in action." And then their attention turned back to the stage when Gwen resumed speaking.

"I think the evening was quite a success," the bard commented to her silent walking partner as they strolled back across the island to the beach house. The temperature had dropped significantly since the sun had set, and they had moved out of the protected area near Tommy’s house. Gwen wrapped her arms around herself in an effort to stay warm. She was pleasantly surprised when an arm dropped around her shoulders and pulled her close.

"Oh, you’re nice and toasty," the bard exclaimed as the Marine’s warm hands rubbed her arms briskly. "How do you do that?" Neither woman had thought to bring a jacket, since the day had been so nice. Gwen had to wonder why the cold didn’t seem to be effecting her companion, though.

"Just hot blooded, I guess," Randi replied with a smirk. "And yeah, tonight was nice. You did a good job with the stories."

"Thanks for sitting up there with me," shyly, quietly.

"Umm." The brunette wasn’t really sure what response to make to her blonde friend over that, and decided to stay quiet.

"So, did you have a good time?" the bard asked when she realized she had embarrassed the older woman.

"Yeah, I did. And you were right. . . your friend Scott and his fiancee are nice people. And Randall has grown so much. It was a good idea. Thank you."

"You’re welcome, my friend. I’m glad you had a nice time." And she nonchalantly placed her arms around the tall woman’s waist and stopped their forward motion a moment. She gave her a light squeeze before resuming the walk to the beach house, which passed in comfortable silence.

"It’s late. You wanna stay here tonight?"

"You don’t mind?"

"No, silly. You’re still moving in in the next couple weeks, right?"

"If you still want me here," said a little bashfully.

"Don’t be goofy. You belong here."

Gwen didn’t say a word at this, but simply wrapped herself in the other woman’s arms, soaking herself in the warmth of the embrace. They remained that way for a timeless moment, before the bard whispered, "Thank you."

"Anytime, Little One." Another very long minute pass before Randi said, "Best be heading off to bed. We both have to be at work pretty early in the morning."

The hug tightened between them once more before the bard whispered, "Goodnight, Randi." And she brushed her lips lightly against the tall woman’s jaw, which tensed reflexively at the contact. The Marine held herself rigidly, wanting so badly to reach out to Gwen and confess the truth of her feelings. She watched silently as the blonde walked up the stairs and into her room without a backward glance. And when she was sure Gwen was out of hearing, she answered.

"Goodnight, Love."

The week passed by rather quickly. There was so much to do before Festival started, and Randi was playing catch up from being gone for the better part of three months. Gwen, for her part, was rushing home each night to pack up her things, in preparation for the move that was happening after Festival week was over. So, they barely saw each, except to say "hi" in passing. Even their lunch time together was non existent.

The drummer had managed by Wednesday, to contact the other members of the band, and explain what she wanted to do, and that it needed to remain a secret. The guys were thrilled with the whole idea, and were more than happy to stay close mouthed about it. They were all looking forward to the bard’s reaction.

Gwen, meanwhile, was happy she, or rather Tommy, had rented a furnished apartment. She couldn’t believe the amount of stuff she had accumulated in not quite a year of living there. Then she realized not all of her stuff was in the penthouse, as things had slowly been working their way to the beach house. She chuckled a bit, looking at the stacks of boxes surrounding her. Guess I need to go through all this stuff. I don’t want to make Randi crazy, or make her think I’m crowding her out of her own place. But it was late on Friday night, and they were leaving for her folk’s place early the next morning. It would have to wait until Festival was over.

Saturday morning didn’t dawn so much as arrive, and when it arrived, it was cold, wet and gloomy. The rain was bad, but the wind just made it miserable. Blonde and brunette were silent until the shuttle was underway.

"That’s an awfully small bag, Randi. You sure you’ve got enough for the week?"

"I’m not staying a week, Gwen. I’m coming back tomorrow."

"Excuse me?" Both eyebrows rose. "I’m sure I misunderstood what I thought I heard you say."

"No, you understood what I said. I’m coming back tomorrow."

"Why? I thought we were spending Festival together. . . *all* of Festival."

"No, I promised to be your escort, and that means tonight, and the last night I’ll be by your side. But I. . ." she broke off, not wanting to lose her composure."

The bard swallowed hard, and realized how selfish she had been, was being. Thinking she understood the problem, she attempted to rectify the situation. "I’m sorry, Randi. I thought you wanted to be here with me. Wanted us to spend Festival together. I didn’t know there was someone else in your life you needed to be with. When we get to the hub, why don’t you just go on back home." And here she stopped, as she thought about all those boxes she had packed for no reason apparently. If there was someone new in her warrior’s life, she couldn’t be moving in with Randi now, could she? Wait a minute. *MY* warrior?? Where did THAT come from???

"Gwen, will you sit down a minute and listen to me?" Glad beyond measure she had hired a private shuttle for this trip. "I just wanted to go back for a day or two to spend it with Randall. I’ve already missed so much of his life. I don’t want to miss his first Festival, too."

Oh. . . bu. . . um. . . I," The bard drew a deep breath and tried to compose herself. "Oh, Randi. I am so sorry. It didn’t even occur to me that you might want to spend Festival at home. You go on back when we get. . . . "

"Gwen, you’re not listening, and you didn’t let me finish. Now," placing two fingers over the bard’s soft lips, "hush a minute, all right? Just listen."

The blonde nodded her head in compliance, and Randi removed her fingers, taking her hands instead.

"I *want* to spend Festival with you. I am very happy, proud, to be your escort. But I also want to spend a little of this special time with the baby. And I know you’d like some time with your parents. So I thought I’d come back for a day or two, then rejoin you. Okay?"

The storyteller nodded her head in agreement, then stopped as another thought dawned on her. It must have shown in her eyes, because Randi looked at her in concern. "You all right?"

She nodded again, biting her lip, then deciding to just take the plunge. "Would you mind. . . I mean, could I. . . um, can we. . . damn!"

The invective made the Marine’s brow arch, but the flustered demeanor brought a smile to her features. She loosened her hands from the bard’s grasp, and gently cupped her face. "Now," locking blue on green, "take a deep breath, and tell me what you’re thinking."

Gwen let her hands fall to rest lightly on the taller woman’s waist. She lost herself in that blue regard for a very long moment, then dropped her gaze to the floor. "It’s nothing. Never mind."

"Gwen, look at me." A shake of the blonde head. "Gwen," playfully growling now, "don’t make me get down on my knees here."

The bard couldn’t help but chuckle a little at the visual that comment brought. She turned eyes sparkling up toward the Marine. "I dunno. I kinda like the thought of you having to look up at me for a change."

Got both eyebrows up on that comment. Then before she could take her next breath, Randi was on her knees in front of her, large hands neatly gripping her waist. Her hands fell to the Marine’s shoulders just before she burst out laughing at the total absurdity of their situation.

Randi sank back on her heels, hands coming to rest on her thighs, watching Gwen try to catch her breath. An involuntary smile crossed her face, and it wasn’t long before they were both laughing out loud. Finally, the two settled back down. The soldier moved from her spot on the floor to sit beside her friend who had resumed her place on the small couch.

"Now, you wanna tell me what you were stumbling over a few minutes ago?"

"I just thought, maybe, if you wouldn’t mind we could come back together. I have something for Randall as well. I was just gonna give it to him when we got home, but. . . " She tapered off, feeling foolish for inviting herself along to a family gathering Randi obviously felt the bard was not part of. "It’s all right. Never mind. I didn’t mean to intrude on your family." And she would have moved away if not for the lightening fast reflexes of her Marine friend.

"Whoa! You and I obviously need to work on communicating. First of all, you *ARE* my family, as much as Tommy or Ella or Randall. And secondly, I assumed (stupid me!) that you’d want some time alone with your folks. I mean, we, um, you. . . haven’t seen them since your birthday."

The smile that appeared on the bard’s face at Randi’s words about being family, only grew wider as she listened. "Well, if you don’t mind playing hostess, they could come back with us. They’ve been dying for a chance to see the new baby, but didn’t want to butt in."

"Why didn’t they. . . how come. . . but. . . oh for heaven’s sake! Sometimes, I swear!" But then Gwen crawled into her arms and gave her the nicest hug, and she promptly forgot what her ranting had been about.

"So, we’re all set then?" the bard whispered after a few minutes of peaceful contentment.

"Yeah. I think we’ve got a plan."

Shortly thereafter, they arrived at the hub, and the Goldmans were there to meet them. In very short order, they were on their way to the brownstone residence. Once inside, Geoff and Randi took the bags upstairs. He had gallantly offered to carry hers, but she just smirked at him, and proceeded him up. He chuckled softly behind her as he followed. Gwen and Jill went directly to the kitchen to fix some fresh coffee.

"I’m so glad you got Randi to come up with you. After her talk with your father, I wasn’t sure she’d be here."

When did Randi talk to Daddy? And why? Oh Artemis, this is getting so complicated.

You have NO idea, child, replied the goddess to herself when she heard the bard’s thoughts.

"Hmm, well," not commenting on her mother’s statement. "We’re all going back tomorrow for a couple days. Unless you two can’t get away." She noticed the stricken look on Jill’s face. "We don’t want to miss all of Randall’s first Festival. Randi has already missed so much of the boy’s life. She’s determined not to miss this."

"Waitaminute." It became clear that she and Geoff were being counted among those going to spend part of Festival with Tommy’s family. The surge of jealousy at Gwen’s announcement faded away, and left Jill just a little dizzy. "We’re *ALL* going down tomorrow???"

The bard nodded her head. "Yep. Randi told me on the way up. Ya’ll said you wanted an opportunity to visit, and see the baby. This is the perfect time."

Jill was rapidly growing excited about this idea. "You’re right! I’ll thank Randi for the invitation, and accept it. Coffee’s ready. Let’s take it in the living room."

The Sabre and her elder counterpart had quickly stowed the luggage in the appropriate rooms, and returned to sit in front of the fire place. Snow had started falling just as they entered the house, and the fire made for a warm, comforting atmosphere in the living room. Geoff sat down in an easy chair and the Marine chose the couch that was at a right angle to it. The arrangement made for easy, private conversation.

"Randi? Did the information I gave you help any?"

She was silent so long, the man was sure she wasn’t going to answer. He opened his mouth to apologize for over stepping his bounds.

"Yeah," she whispered. "Yeah, it did. But please don’t ask me any questions about it right now, Geoff. I don’t have all the answers yet. There are still some things that don’t make sense in this whole picture."

"Is there anything else I can do to help?" A cold chill of trepidation ran down his spine at the look of despair that flashed through the Marine’s eyes at his low spoken question.

She hadn’t planned to talk about this now. Hadn’t planned to bring this up to him until much later, much closer to the time she had to leave. But as long as he’d brought it up, he had a right to know what to expect when the time came. She looked into his eyes, and unflinchingly met his gaze.

"When. . . if something. . . happens. . . to me. . ." she drew a deep breath and continued. "Watch out for Gwen for me, will ya? Be there for her. She’ll. . . need you."

He looked at the woman in alarm at the calm manner in which she spoke of her death, and her assuredness of its happening. He leaned forward, and lightly grasped the clasped hands in front of him. "Randi, if anything were ever to happen to you, I promise you I’ll be there for her. But Randi, know this as well. If you were ever not able to come home to her, it would devastate her. Even now, her soul is tightly bound to yours. I’m not sure she would survive it."

"Yes, she would, Geoff," said in the barest whisper. "She’s strong, and she’d have the love and support of friends and family. She’d be fine."

"I don’t think so, Randi. Best if you don’t ever give us a reason to find out." But even as the words tumbled from his mouth, he knew they were now living on borrowed time. His shoulders slumped.

It was into this strained silence that Jill and Gwen walked into. Jill, excited about the prospect of seeing the new baby, began chattering at her husband about their unscheduled trip south, heedless of the atmosphere in the room. Gwen, on the other hand, noticed the pall immediately, and went to sit at her friend’s side.

"You okay?"

The Marine made a visible effort to gather herself together, and gave the bard a tremulous smile. "Yeah," she whispered hoarsely.

The blonde woman didn’t believe her for a single minute, but knew when it was best to just let things go. "Okay. You want some coffee? Mom got Ella to send her some of our blend."

"That’d be nice, thanks."

Gwen patted Randi’s hand, mildly surprised when the Marine curled long fingers around her smaller ones. She arched an eyebrow in unspoken question. "Thanks," the woman said simply.

"What for?"

"Caring. Not pushing me. Just being you."

The bard was caught speechless. She squeezed the fingers still held in hers, and lifted her other hand to gently stroke Randi’s face. They looked at each other a timeless moment, before she broke her gaze, and moved to get their coffee.

Things got rather lively during coffee, as the discussion turned to Randall, and the Goldman’s newly anticipated trip south to meet the boy.

"I thought we could leave after dinner tomorrow. That would give us a bit of time here, and still get us back before dark, so we’d have some time to spend there as well."

"Were those your original plans?" from Jill.

"Um, no ma’am. But. . . ."

"No buts, young lady. You’re not changing your plans just for us. Besides, we’re pretty anxious to see the little rugrat. If you’re serious about us coming along, we’ll be ready whenever you need us to be."

"Actually, Jill. . . I, uh, I was just gonna play it by ear. It’s a private shuttle. We don’t have a set schedule."

"Then I have a proposition." All eyes turned to Gwen at her words. "Why don’t we just head back after the symphony tonight?" We can sleep a bit on the shuttle, and we’ll still have time to sleep a bit when we get home before we go see the Steeles."

Glances were exchanged and a decision was reached without a word being spoken. "Guess I’d better call Ella, and tell her to expect four more for dinner. Geoff, may I use the vid phone in the study?"

He started to nod, before Jill spoke up. "Wait, Randi. Are you sure this isn’t gonna cause a problem for her?"

"No ma’am, but I’ll ask. If it is, we’ll do something else. Don’t worry, Jill. We won’t any of us be imposing."

"Very well. Come along then." And she nodded the Marine into the study before heading back downstairs to the kitchen.

Ella had actually been quite excited about welcoming the Goldmans back into her home. They had been so kind to both her and Tommy, and she had really enjoyed both occasions they had visited. And Jill had sent a cunningly wrought afghan for Randall when he was born. So Randi was reassured about their welcome on the morrow, and was just going to announce it when Jill poked her head out the kitchen door way, and looked up the stairs at Randi.

"Hon, would you call the other two down for lunch, please?"

The tall woman ducked into the living room, and then halted when it seemed she was interrupting a private conversation. She stepped back out the door, and cleared her throat in the hallway before entering the room the second time.

"Um, Jill says lunch is ready," she reported, eyes cast toward the floor. Then the soldier turned to leave, until her own particular Circe called out to her.

"Hey, Randi! Wait for me." The bard took her friend by the arm, and guided her out the door to the stairs. Geoff watched them go with a smile on his face at the picture they made together. And Randi never found out what the conversation she had walked in on was about.

The rest of the day passed pleasantly enough. Gwen was glad her mother had already gotten her dress for the evening. The snow was falling very steadily, and it was as good an excuse as any for staying indoors together. They played a couple games, sat and talked for a while, but a majority of their time was spent curled up together on the couch, staring into the firelight. At one point, they actually dozed off together, and Geoff got several holo captures of them snuggled up asleep. It would be something to cherish in the weeks and months ahead.

When it was time to dress for the symphony, Randi found herself experiencing a bit of deja vu. Two years had passed since she had stood in this room, in front of the same mirror, giving herself and her uniform a final once over.

She was pleased, for the most part, with what was reflected back to her. The uniform was as sharp and creased as it had ever been. There were two more braids and another medal since her last trip, but unless you looked closely, you couldn’t tell.

The face, though. There were lines of experience that hadn’t been there before. And her eyes. . . maybe it was just her, but her eyes seemed so old. As though they had seen and done everything, good and bad, that a human being could undergo in several lifetimes. There is little to be done for it now. Let’s just go show Gwen a wonderful evening, We don’t have many left, especially like this. That thought brought a real chuckle to her lips. Because as much as she loved the bard, and as much as she really didn’t mind accompanying her to these formal functions, she absolutely hated the fuss and formality of this uniform. But like the good Marine she was, she stood proudly conscious of who she was while she wore it.

Randi gathered up her gloves and tucked them into her belt, then snatched up her cape and hat, and open the door. And got a second wave of deja vu, as Gwen stepped out of her room at the same time, and they halted, as they had before, just staring at each other. So devastatingly gorgeous in that uniform, and even more awards than the last time I saw her in it. Oh, Randi, what hold do they have on you, my friend?

The bard wore a white gown this time, that left her shoulders and a goodly portion of her back bare. On her arm lay her coat. The Marine reached and took the coat from her, then offered her arm to escort the bard down stairs.

When they reached the second floor, the waiting Mr. And Mrs. Goldman simply nodded for the two younger adults to proceed them to the next level. Arriving on the first floor, Randi held out the blonde’s coat, and Gwen allowed the soldier to wrap the garment around her. Then she waited for the cape to settle over broad shoulders before moving to secure it. In short order, they were ready to leave, and stepped out briefly into the snowy night, before being whisked away for a night at the symphony.

Randi had managed to put Sal out of her mind, right up to the time he saw her and Gwen step out of the transport together. Her groan made the bard smile.

"Buck up, soldier!" the blonde said with a smile in her voice and on her face. Then she turned to greet the portly man and his wife. The Marine put on her best no nonsense military face, and returned respects cordially.

"Looking good there, Sergeant. Got a couple more awards there, I see. Time for a new picture, maybe? Especially since Gwen looks the part of the bride tonight."

Randi was saved from replying as Dei joined them at precisely that moment. "SALVADOR!!!! What did I tell you about bothering Gwen and her Marine? Now let them be before you upset the applecart."

"But, Dei, I wasn’t bothering them," the man whined. At the same time, different thoughts were flashing through blonde and brunette minds.

MY Marine???

Part of the bride??? And why, *WHY* did he have to notice the extra awards? And why did he have to comment on them? No one else has said a word. Damn!

"Dei, it’s okay. He really wasn’t bothering us," the bard reassured her friend. Deiannera looked to Randi for confirmation. The Marine didn’t comment, but she didn’t look too displeased, and the woman let it go to usher her brother and sister-in-law in to take a seat. Rico and his date met them at the entrance, merely waving at the Goldman party before going inside.

Geoff came up to stand beside the tall woman, and spoke to her in sotto voce. "You showed remarkable restraint, my friend. They’re nice people, but sometimes his enthusiasm. . . . "

". . . . gets on your very last nerve. I know."

"Funny the things we put up with for love, isn’t it?" he whispered so only she could hear. He then turned to offer his arm to Jill who had just finished talking to her daughter, not giving the Marine a chance to reply.

"Randi, you okay?" Gwen asked softly, seeing the completely dumbstruck look on her friend’s countenance.

"Huh?" she answered dazedly. Very seldom was she completely blind sided, but Geoff had managed to come around a corner unexpectedly. "Oh, yeah," making a visible effort to collect herself. "Musta zoned there for a minute. Sorry. You ready?" The woman gallantly offered her arm to the smaller woman, and gestured toward the door where the Goldmans stood waiting.

"Absolutely." And together they moved as one toward the symphony.

"Did you hear all the whispers when Gwen and Randi entered the Hall tonight, dear?" Geoff commented to his wife as they changed clothes much later that evening. They were leaving out as soon as they were all comfortably dressed. Randi had declared there was no way she was traveling in dress blues, and they all agreed they could spare twenty minutes to be comfortable.

"Oh yeah. Complete silence at their initial appearance. Then wildfire. It was kinda funny." The smiled at each other.

"Yeah. But I don’t think they even noticed, they were so wrapped up in each other." He sobered, then sat to put on his shoes.

"What’s wrong, love?"

"Nothing, love. Just tired, I think. My back is bothering me a bit." He put her off. There was no way in hell he was going to explain how little time he suspected Gwen and the Sabre had left together. He could only hope he was wrong.

"You gonna be okay to travel?"

"Yeah. Randi said it was a private shuttle, and we’d have a place to lay down for a bit."

"As long as you’re sure," she inquired, hefting the bag.

"I’m sure." He felt guilty about her taking the luggage, for even in this day and age chivalry wasn’t completely dead. But he didn’t want to blow his story. Of course, she only made it out of the room, before the bag was being gently removed from her grasp by the Marine. And within half an hour, the shuttle was on its return trip south.


Chapter XIV

It was still very early in the morning when the shuttle landed on the private pad Randi directed the pilot to. The questions were there, but the Marine made it clear that asking them was a bad idea. The four of them walked the relatively short distance from the pad to the dock together.

"You sure you don’t want me to take this down for you?" the brunette inquired solicitously. Geoff and Jill had the only bag, so it wasn’t a real problem for Randi to carry.

"No, hon, thanks. I’ve got it just fine. It’s sweet of you to offer, but we can manage. You girls go on up to the house now and get into bed. It’s late, and we’ve got a long, busy day for Festival."

There wasn’t much either younger woman could say against that statement, though Jill’s wording had caused twin blushes. . . unnoticed by each other, but obvious to the two parental onlookers. The two women stood together until the Goldmans reached the boathouse doorway, and keyed in their password. Then they waved goodnight, and continued their trek to the beach house.

Ditto was glad to see them, though not enough to do more than wag her tail at their arrival. Randi merely shook her head, and Gwen muffled a chuckled. With a whispered goodnight, they separated, and tumbled into their beds. Both were sound asleep before heads hit the pillows.

It was full daylight, though still not terribly late by the rest of the world’s standards, when the Marine opened her eyes the next morning. She stretched, secretly glad for the warm up pants and sweatshirt she still had on, as she’d never actually managed to get past removing her shoes before she fell into bed. She’d never crawled under the cover either, and it was just a bit chilly this morning.

Smiling happily to herself, she got up, scratching the dog behind her ears for several long minutes before heading toward the shower. Once done, she dressed, and placed a call to Ella, letting the other woman know they had arrived safely, and establishing a meeting time. Then she went to the kitchen to fix some coffee.

Her first cup was a mere memory, and she was well into her second when a knock at the French door sounded. A glance showed her Geoff standing there huddled against the cold wind coming off the water, and she beckoned him inside.

"Good morning, Geoff. Cold out?"

"Morning, Randi. Let’s just say it’s a little brisk." He grinned at her, his rosy cheeks and red nose giving him away.

"Uh huh. You want some coffee to chase the brisk away?" She held up her own cup.

"If you’ve got it to spare, it would be greatly appreciated."

"There’s plenty, and I can always make more if it’s needed." She went into the kitchen and pulled down another cup. She turned to get the creamer out of the fridge, when she found herself with an armful of bard. Gwen, having woken to the smell of coffee, tramped down the stairs, headed straight to the kitchen. She never even noticed her father sitting in the living room, now regarding the scene before him bemusedly. Instead, she buried herself in Randi arms, which had wrapped around her reflexively, and now cradled her close.

"G’ morning," she mumbled, still not fully awake. A light kiss at the top of her head garnered a sleepy smile. "Happy Fest’val."

"Good morning, sunshine. Coffee?"

The blonde head nodded up and down once, then the arms tightened briefly a second time before the bard stepped back a pace. It was then that she noticed the third cup on the counter.

"A little thirsty there?" taking her first sip with something akin to relief.

"Hmm?" Randi pulled her head and the creamer from the fridge, and noticed the direction of the bard’s gaze. "Oh, no. That’s for your dad."

Blonde brows scrunched as the bard processed this information. "Daddy? Why does he need a cup of coffee?"

"Because it’s cold out this morning, and he walked up from the boat house."

The golden skin turned red under the blush Gwen suffered. Then she drew a deep breath, and shrugged in an attempt of nonchalance. "Oh, okay." Then she walked into the living room, and sat down on the couch near him. "Good morning, Daddy." And she gave his cheek as little kiss. "Happy Festival."

"Good morning, daughter. Happy Festival." Nothing more was said, until Randi re-entered the room. Gwen had gotten up to unlock the vid screen, and was searching through the different channels when the Marine walked in. Geoff watched in fascination, knowing what a revelation it was about their unspoken commitment that his daughter had such free access to Randi’s life. Sabres tended to be very secretive, except within their own ranks, and every one he had ever met had security measures beyond belief. And the evidence in front of him pointed to the fact that Gwen was all the way in the door. But even as he came to this conclusion, he realized the bard had no idea what a significant gesture it was. Randi was stubborn, and short of breaking faith, he saw no way around her determination to keep Gwen in the dark about her feelings.

He was brought out of his musings, by the cup of coffee that appeared in front of him, and the blonde who plopped down next to him. Randi took a chair off to the side, giving her a view of both the portrait and fireplace to her right, the vid screen to her left, and the French doors straight ahead. It was times like this she was grateful Ella had thought to buy dual sofas and chair sets for this big room.

"I love this choir," Randi commented as she seated herself. "They have the most amazing harmonies, and to listen to them a capella. . . . Thanks for choosing this, Gwen."

"You’re welcome," the blonde answered with a smile. "We have almost always watched this on Festival morning. It is one of my favorite memories growing up. I always wanted to be a musical part of this group, but I don’t sing well enough. I have been able to be part of it as the story teller, though." Her eyes unfocused as she revisited those times for a brief moment.

"Have you really? I never knew that!" The Marine’s voice was slightly accusatory. She couldn’t believe she had missed something this important.

The bard chuckled. "Well, it’s been a while. Before my Army enlistment."

"Yes, but you’ve been offered the chance to do it several times since your military service was over," Geoff contributed.

"You turned down the opportunity to do the Festival reading with these guys? Why??"

Gwen shot her father a very dirty look before turning her attention back to Randi. "Because I wanted to spend Festival here." It was a huge confession, and well she knew it.

"Oh," was the only answer the tall woman could make, having been caught completely off guard. She swallowed, then cleared her throat. "Promise me something?" Geoff felt as though he had disappeared from the room, simply an observer to the scene in front of him.

"Sure." No hesitation, no questions. Randi wavered under the trust she found in the green eyes regarding her.

"If, um, if you get the opportunity to do this next year, will you please take it?" She paused as Gwen started to tear up, thinking the Marine was trying to get rid of her at the most important time of year. Randi continued quickly, sensing the reason for the look of hurt confusion. "I’d like to see you be a part of this." You are such a fraud and liar, Valiant. You’re not gonna be around long enough to see it, and well you know it. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’d still really like to, does it? The wistful thought brought her internal argument to a screeching halt, and returned her attention to the small woman in front of her.

"All right. I promise." Her smile was blinding in its clarity.

Geoff wisely held his tongue.

The program was almost over when Jill made her appearance at the beach house. Randi quietly motioned her in, and got up to get her a cup of coffee.

"Brrr. I thought we left the cold weather up north. Oh, I love this choir."

"We do get the occasional cold day, Jill. Thankfully, though, not often."

Silence reigned in the room until the music was over. Then Gwen rose, stopping to wish her mother a happy Festival, before moving upstairs to take her shower. Then quiet ensued once more, and though not uncomfortable, it made Randi want to squirm. Finally, she broke it.

"Um, we don’t need to be over to Ella and Tommy’s until lunch time. Would ya’ll like to visit the temple with me? Or would you prefer to stay here? You’re more than welcome to do either. Whatever you’re

comfortable with."

"Are you sure we don’t need to help Ella with lunch preparations? I hate to take advantage, and not helping really feels that way."

"No. I offered, believe me," rubbing her finger in her ear. "She made it very clear all we were to do was show up on time."

Geoff chuckled. "Somehow, I don’t find that too hard to believe."

"Well, then, I for one would be happy to join you at temple. When do you want to leave?"

Randi looked at the loft. "Probably about twenty minutes, but let me check with Gwen." She mounted the stairs without a backwards glance.

Jill waited until the tall woman had been admitted into the inner sanctuary, before turning to her husband. "They are just like an old married couple, aren’t they? It would almost be funny, if it wasn’t so sad. They’re so cute together."

"Yeah, they are," sadly. Then he rose from his place on the couch. "C’mon, old married woman. Let’s rinse out these cups, and go get ready for temple. A very busy day has begun." He lowered a hand to help her up. She reached up and pinched his butt instead.

"Watch who you call old there, old married man. I still got enough to take you, if I’ve got a mind to." She muffled a laugh at the shocked expression on his face. It turned into an out and out laugh when he rubbed the spot she had pinched. He smiled at her.

"That you do, my love. That you most certainly do. Now c’mon." And he did help her up this time, and they made their way into the kitchen.

Randi, meanwhile, was having her self control severely put to the test. When Gwen bade her enter the bedroom, she’d assumed, however incorrectly, that the bard was dressed or nearly finished. She was stunned speechless to know how false that assumption had been. The bard was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, clad in what had to be the skimpiest towel in the house. Breathe, Valiant, breathe. Not really, it was a full bath sheet just like every other towel was, but the sight was so unexpected, Randi was ill prepared to cope with the effects of the smaller woman so undressed.

Why is this bothering me so? I’ve seen her in less, thinking of the many times they spent on the beach in tiny swimsuits. And those only to preserve Gwen’s modesty. The Marine was quite candid and open about her body around the place otherwise, but didn’t want to make her friend duly uncomfortable. She had no idea that a certain love goddess was watching this scene play out with great expectation.

"Ahem," clearing her throat, and trying desperately to keep her voice near its normal pitch, "Sorry. I’ll come back in a few minutes after you’re dressed. I didn’t mean to interrupt."

"No, that’s okay," the bard replied, exiting the bathroom and entering the closet straightaway after checking her makeup one final time. "Take a seat on the bed. You can talk to me while I get dressed."

She tried to resist Gwen’s efforts to seat her, but her heart wasn’t in it, and she found herself staring at a sculpted back and tight ass in the mirror as the blonde dropped the towel upon entering the closet. OH, this is NOT good. This is NOT good at all. Damn! She is so beautiful. Oh goddess, must you torture me so?? She realized Gwen had no idea that she could be seen from this angle, as the door was more than partially shut. Just not enough to protect the bard’s modesty from where Randi sat.

The Marine knew the smart thing, the *honorable* thing, to do would be to get up and leave the room, because from where she was sitting, she had a perfect view of a breathtakingly beautiful, naked bard. A bard who was apparently unaware she was being observed, because Randi was being treated to a complete picture of that body. She tried closing her eyes, but that certainly didn’t help matters. Her mind’s eye was more than happy to present her a full color image.

The Marine pressed a fist to her lips to keep from embarrassing herself by either saying something she shouldn’t or moaning out loud. But she found herself unable, or unwilling to move from her spot, enjoying the guilty pleasure of looking at her friend naked. Finally, Gwen found what she was looking for, and after slipping on underclothes, and pulling a sweater on, she peeked her head out the closet door. Randi had had just enough time to remove her fist from her mouth, and was rubbing her face with her hands when the bard spoke.

"Hey, you okay?"

"Hmm?" clearing her throat once more. "Yeah. Got up too early this morning, I think. Actually, I came up to find out when you’d be ready to go to temple?"

The bard had moved back into the closet, and was stepping into a pair of black slacks. Give me another five minutes and I should be ready."

"Okay, let me run tell your folks."

"All righty. Meet ya downstairs."

Oh boy, Valiant. It’s gonna be a llllloooooonnnnnngggg day.

And somewhere high above, a goddess was stomping her feet in pure, unadulterated frustration.

Temple was, in and of itself, quite an interesting experience. In the three and a half years she had known the Marine, and in the numerous times they had attended temple together, Gwen had never seen Randi so fidgety before. The woman couldn’t seem to find a comfortable position, and squiggled and squirmed all over the place until the bard placed her hand on a jumpy leg. Then the soldier froze. For the rest of their communion, the tall woman hardly dared to breathe. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was afraid Gwen was gonna leave her hand there, or because she was afraid the blonde would pull it away. In the end, it stayed in placed til they stood to leave.

"What was up with you?" the bard queried as they walked slowly toward the altar to light a candle for each of Randi’s parents. "I’ve never seen you so antsy."

Brilliant, Valiant. Absolutely incredible. Can’t tell the woman she’s got you so hot and bothered you wanna jump her bones. <Well, why not?> She answered herself. Because it wouldn’t be fair to her. <How do you figure that?> Great, now I’m arguing with myself, and I’m losing. They’ll lock me up for sure. Because, STUPID, I don’t want to hurt her. And loving and leaving is not my style. . . not anymore, and *Never* with her.

"Hello? Hello?? Randi? Are you all right?" Blue eyes tracked to concerned green ones, which warmed as the Marine’s focus sharpened. "There you are. Where’d you go"

"No place special. Just thinking about my folks," she lied, sending an apology to her parents for using their memory that way. "I still miss them." A true enough statement, and as she thought about it, she found herself really missing them a lot, and wishing they could have met the woman at her side. They would have loved Gwen, she was almost sure. And they would have made friends of Geoff and Jill, just as she had. She smiled at that thought. "They would have liked you. Gwen, and they would’ve liked your folks. Thanks for sharing the day with me."

"There’s no where else I’d rather be." When the bard placed her small hand into the soldier’s larger one, Randi could feel the love between them. And strangely, the sexual frustration was gone for the moment, replaced by that love. She knew the other would return full force with a vengeance later, but for now what she held in her hand was more than enough. She was content.

"Nice try, Dite. But it’s been millennia since we’ve run into a will as strong as hers."

"I know," the goddess pouted. "If I didn’t like her and the little one so much, I’d. . . I’d. . . well, I don’t know what I’d do offhand, but it’d be grody, let me tell you that. I can’t like understand why she’s so resistant to it. She wants it so badly she can totally taste it."

"You *know* why. And you also know what the new rules say. We can’t afford to break them. We almost disappeared, as did many of our fellows, because we were so sure we were right. And mankind grew tired of our arrogance. No interference, Dite."

"I know, and I won’t. But it hurts to watch this sometimes."

"It has to be up to them."

"It will be. Even at the beginning, I never forced love on anybody. Love has always been a choice. I just hope they make the right one." The lack of slang, and the quiet whisper said more about Aphrodite’s sincerity than any words she could have said. Her sisters left her alone to contemplate the couple still seen in her scrying bowl.

The quartet didn’t head back to the beach house, but instead went straight over to Tommy’s when they left Temple. They didn’t even have the chance to knock, for the frazzled man had spotted their approach, and happily opened the door, and dumped an extremely unhappy Randall into the Marine’s arms. He glared at her when the child immediately quieted. "I hate you," he muttered in a grinning aside to her, as he welcomed the others warmly into his home.

Geoff and Jill tried very hard not to stare at the startlingly unexpected picture now standing in front of them. The look of gentle love present on the hard bitten Marine’s face as she crooned to a now contented baby made her more than beautiful. But when Gwen walked casually over to join them, saying hi and softly talking to Randall, they did stare, until tears clouded their vision, and they had to look away.

"It is a sight to behold, isn’t it?" Ella questioned them as she walked over to greet them. Then louder, "All right, Randi." The woman looked up startled. "What’s the big secret? He’s been howling since he got up this morning. Now you waltz in here, and he’s happy as a clam. It’s a conspiracy, isn’t it?" Ella accused in mock anger, though the twinkle in her eyes belied her serious tone.

Randi just looked smug. "It’s a secret, between Randall and me."

"Uh huh. Just for that, you get diaper duty today."

"Oh. . .um, uh. . . ."

A tug on her sleeve made her look down into grass colored eyes looking up at her. "I’ll help," the bard whispered to her conspiratorially.

"Thanks," the Marine whispered back.

Randi and her little namesake took a seat on the couch near the Goldman’s, and Gwen sat next to them on the arm. The soldier offered to scrunch them all together so the bard would actually fit on the seat, but Gwen was more than happy with her position on the arm. It afforded her a good view of both Randi, the baby, and her parents, no one was unduly squashed, and she was still next to her friend and Randall.

Ella had left with a chuckle at Randi’s speechlessness over her impending diaper duty, and Tommy excused himself momentarily to help his wife finish up dinner preparations. The Marine felt it a good time to introduce her namesake to Gwen’s parents.

"Geoff, Jill. . . this is Randall Thomas Steele. Randall," looking the baby squarely in the eyes, "this is Mr. and Mrs. Goldman. They are good people, good friends. You be nice to them, okay?"

It tickled the two older adults to hear the Marine talk so straightforward to the infant, but he apparently understood her quite well. He didn’t utter a sound as he was passed from one set of arms to another, and he blinked at them in seeming understanding.

After several ‘get acquainted’ minutes, the boy started to get fussy, and was passed back to the Marine’s waiting arms. She looked up at the bard again and raised a brow in silent inquiry. The blonde shook her head.

"No, not until he settles down again. I’m not messing with what’s working!"

The room cracked up with this pronouncement, and Tommy and Ella, who’d been standing in the doorway together when it was made, laughed harder than the rest.

"Ain’t it the truth, sister," Ella proclaimed. "Ain’t it the truth! Ya’ll come on in for dinner. It’s time to eat."

"Um, Ella, I think the boy may be ready to eat as well," Randi commented, watching the infant sucking hard on his tiny fist.

"Hmm, well, if ya’ll will excuse me then. . . . "

"Wait, Ella." Jill spoke up. There is no reason, unless you prefer to nurse privately, why you can’t join us at the table. We’re all adults here, for heaven’s sakes."

The woman looked around the table of family and friends, and nodded. "I’ll be right back." A brief minute passed, and when she returned, the child was covered and nursing at her breast.

It didn’t take long for talk around the table to give way to the very serious business of eating. Ella excused herself, and returned again shortly, having moved Randall to the other side. As the eating slowed, conversation resumed. And in a lull, they heard a whining at the back door.

"Ditto?" The Marine rose from her seat and moved to open the door. She stopped the shepherd from entering as the dog’s smell assaulted her. "Phew, girl! What have you been doing?? You stink!" The canine barked intermittently for a minute or so, then sat quietly. "Yes, well, I missed you too, but you need a bath first." Ditto’s head dropped at the mention of a bath. "Go on home. We’ll be there shortly, an after your bath we can play a bit, all right?" The dog’s ears perked up at that, and with one sharp bark, she headed to the beach house.

The Marine turned around and almost ran into Ella, who had removed the suckling child from her bosom, and was in the process of trying to straighten her clothing. Unceremoniously, she placed the dozing infant in Randi’s arms with a command. "Go change him, and put him down, please. It’s nap time."

The brunette looked back at her, horrified, trying to determine her seriousness. Ella’s shooing motions assured the Marine it was no joke, and Randi made her way slowly to the nursery. Fortunately, Gwen had heard the whole exchange, and excused herself from the table to help her beleaguered companion. The rest saw it as an opportunity to move elsewhere. The men volunteered for cleanup duty, and the two wives moved their discussion into the living room.

When Gwen entered the baby’s room, troubled blue eyes gazed up at her and pleaded, "Help?" The bard took pity on her and gently moved her to one side. The Marine moved herself to stand slightly behind and observe over the shorter woman’s shoulder. Six swift, skilled moves later, Randal was clean and dry, and gazing adoringly up into emerald colored eyes. He gave the bard a sleepy smile, and the one she gave in return lit up the whole room. Randi moved to stand in the doorway unnoticed, while the story teller sat in the room’s single rocking chair, and began to weave a tale of magic and intrigue for her tiny audience.

The baby fell asleep less than halfway through the story, and the bard silently rose and placed him in his crib. She joined Randi at the door, and with one last look at the boy, they exited the nursery together.

"So, how does the story end?"

"Huh?" Her mind had already moved on to other things.

"The story, that you were just telling Randall? How does it end?"

"Guess you’ll just have to show up for the other sessions to see, now, won’t you?" The twinkle in Gwen’s eyes made the Marine growl in frustration. The bard laughed.

Knowing that everyone was pretty well content to stay put and relax after the huge meal they had eaten, Randi made to excuse herself for a while. She promised to return after Ditto’s bath and a bit of playtime.

"She smells like dead fish, or worse. So I really need to get her clean soon. I don’t want the whole beach house to smell like that for the next few days. Besides, I’ve been a little neglectful of her lately."

"She’s been around here everyday for a bit at least, so whatever she got into happened fairly recently. . . like since yesterday. And we’ve been playing with her a bit. Randall squeals when he sees her," Tommy supplied helpfully. "But go on. We’ll all still be here in a couple hours when you get back."

"But, don’t you come in all wet and stinky," Ella warned. "Randall will be up by then."

The group chuckled at the implied threat, and Randi made her move toward the door. She was brought up short when a small hand slipped into her larger one.

"Mind if I come along?"

"You’re always welcome, Gwen. You know that."

The two walked silently back to the beach house, needing no words between them. The German shepherd was waiting patiently outside the door. Randi punched in the key code, then motioned the blonde, then the dog ahead of her into the house. Ditto walked straight to the partial bath, knowing the sooner this part of the ritual was over, the faster they would get to the treats and playtime part.

The Marine detoured into her room momentarily, coming back out pulling up the strap on a sleek one-piece Speedo. A blonde brow rose in confusion. "Trust me, it works better all the way around this way."

Randi stepped into the bathroom, then over the short step into the tiny shower stall. "C’mon, Ditto. Let’s go, girl." The puppy pleaded and whined to no avail for about thirty seconds, then dropped her head and tail and stepped in behind her mistress. Randi called out the water temperature she wanted, and when it was reached, the shower came on automatically. Ditto hung her head resignedly, and allowed the washing to commence, and actually enjoying the extra attention the Marine lavished on her during this ritual. It wouldn’t do to admit that, though. Dogs were supposed to *hate* baths.

In relatively short order, the shepherd was pronounced fresh and clean by her very pleased owner, and sent out draped in a towel to the waiting blonde. The dog stood stock still while the bard patiently dried and brushed her coat. She licked the fair cheek in thanks, and received a hug and a treat in return.

By this time, Randi had cleaned up the mess in the bathroom and the tracks on the floor, and had gone into her own bathroom to clean herself up. She came out to see the puppy on her back, legs twitching in pleasure and tail wagging, as Gwen vigorously scratched her belly.

"Hey, can anybody get in on this?"

Two heads popped up, then the dog shot up. Her exuberance knocked the Marine flat on her ass, and Gwen laughed out loud at the sight it made. Randi got a second face washing, then finally managed to remove the shepherd from her chest.

"A little help here would be appreciated," with a pointed glare in the bard’s direction. This just threw the bard into more gales of laughter. The dog, thinking it was all part of the game, turned her attack on the bard and knocked her down and sliding across the floor. Now it was Gwen’s turn for a doggy tongue face wash, and Randi’s turn to howl in laughter. Of course, the bard was laughing so hard, she could neither move the dog nor call for help. Instead, she grabbed the taller woman by the ankle, and yanked, toppling her balance. She forgot to consider, however, that she was going to be at the bottom of this particular doggy pile, and emitted a loud "OOF" when Randi landed somewhat on top of her and Ditto. The Marine had managed to shift most of her weight to one side when she realized what was happening.

It was to this somewhat tangled web of humanity and dog that the Goldmans walked into shortly thereafter. They had come to retrieve their coats, as Tommy had invited them out for a little spin in the boat. Randi didn’t know whether to be angry or thankful. She decided to be thankful, as her self control seemed to be less and less in control these days.

Since it was going to be a short trip, they all grabbed their coats, and Ditto stood waiting for them at the doors. She never missed an opportunity to ride on the boat.

As it turned out, the dog got two rides. It was too cold for the baby to go, so Ella sat with him while Tommy took Randi and the Goldmans out for a bit. Then Randi and Gwen stayed behind so she could ride and look at the mainland decorations as well. It had become something of a tradition for Tommy and Ella, and she was secretly glad Randi had insisted she go out, even though she had protested it wasn’t necessary.

Randall awakened while his mama was out. Gwen watched in awe at the way the small bundled responded to the otherwise fierce Marine, and at how the other woman seemed to soften around the baby. The three of them sat in contented silence while Randi fed the infant from a warm bottle Ella had left for him, just in case.

It was quite a picture they made together, when the Goldmans and the Steeles walked in on them somewhere very close to sunset. Gwen was sitting in the corner of the sofa, head back, tilted slightly down, sound asleep. One hand was tangled in the dark hair sprawled across her lap, the other draped protectively over the taller woman’s shoulders. Randi, for her part, was laying with her head in the bard’s lap. Also sound asleep. Both arms were wrapped firmly around the baby sleeping soundly on her chest. Tommy managed to capture the moment several times before Ditto interrupted the tableau by putting her frozen nose on Randi’s warm neck. The woman’s eyes shot open, but she didn’t move or make a sound. The others were amazed, but Geoff recognized how very thorough her training was right then. He was impressed.

The rest of the evening passed in quiet conversation, remembering past Festivals and eating leftovers. Jill and Geoff took turns holding Randall until bedtime, and remarkably, he was well behaved for them as well.

"It the law of nature, dear," Jill told Ella. "They’re* supposed* to give you grief. It’s all part of the mother’s curse." The room broke into muffled chuckles at Ella’s rolled eyes and disgusted sigh. The party broke up shortly afterwards.

The walk back to the beach house was quiet, and each one of them was caught up in their own thoughts. They were each thankful for the jackets or coats they wore, as the sea wind was stiff and cold. Ditto ran ahead, and was waiting by the door like a sentinel when they arrived. With a quick goodnight, Geoff and Jill broke off, and went straight to the boathouse. It had been a long, exhausting day, and they still had a lot they wanted to do before they headed back up north day after tomorrow.

Randi and Gwen headed back up to the house. They were anxious to exchange Festival gifts, which they had agreed to do once they were alone. So they entered the beach house, and the Marine flipped on the fireplace. Ditto moved to her customary place in front of it and stretched out to sleep. The two women split up and went to their rooms to fetch their gift.

The bard came downstairs hesitantly with a box. Randi left her gift leaning against the doorjamb on the inside of her room, and moved toward the couch. "Would you like to open your gift first?" a bit shyly.

"Um," biting her lip, "I thought we’d open them together."

"Well, we can, but, uh, well, you’re kinda gonna know what yours is when I bring it out."

A look of confusion crossed Gwen’s face and she set the box down on the sofa. "Okay, I can go first, I guess."

"Okay, then. Close your eyes." The blonde obliged, and Randi reached for the long cylindrical object resting near to hand. "Do you remember a conversation we had a few months back?"

The bard’s brow crinkled in thought as she waited for a little more detail. Finally, exasperated, "Randi, you wanna help me out here a little more? We have had more than one conversation in the past few months, ya know."

"Oh, right. Sorry. I thought you were still thinking about it. Anyway, when I was doing some of my weapons drills with the security team at Midas. Do you remember?"

Gwen cast back in her mind, and finally lit upon the talk her friend was referring to.

Randi had had her security teams alpha and beta come together one Saturday

morning for training. After warming up, and working on some hand to hand,

the Marine had brought out a bundle of staves. The bard, who had accompanied

her friend, watched in fascination as the classes did their practice routines

in perfect synchronization. Then she sat enthralled as they came at their

instructor, singly, in pairs, and in small groups, and with nothing but a staff of

her own, Randi kicked butt and took names.

It had taken Gwen most of the remainder of the day to get up the courage to

ask about what she had seen. But Randi had offered to teach her, and get her

a staff suited to her. Then the Marine had disappeared for three months and

the bard had assumed she had forgotten.

The blonde opened her eyes, just as Randi pulled a beautiful, dark wood carved stave from her room. She stared in awe at it for several silent minutes before whispering, "Oh, Randi." The tears rolled unheeded down her cheeks. "It’s beautiful. Thank you." Impulsively, she kissed her, and hugged her neck so tightly the Marine was in danger of passing out from lack of oxygen, if not flaring hormones. Instead, she reached down, and engulfed the bard in a smothering hug of her own, lifting the smaller woman completely off the ground.

"I love you, Gwen. Happy Festival."

"I love you too, Randi."

They slowly separated, and Gwen turned to the box. "Would you like to open your gift before or after you tell me about these exquisite carvings."

Randi turned into the five year old child. "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!"

The bard chuckled at her enthusiasm, and placed the unexpectedly heavy box in Randi’s hands. She looked extremely shy, and almost uncomfortable. The smile on the soldier’s face was huge, though, and Gwen got lost in the other woman’s zeal. "I hope you like it."

The Marine stopped her opening, and turned to the bard, grasping her wrists, and chafing gently. "Gwen, no matter what it is, I’ll like it, because it’s from you." Reassured, Gwen stepped back a pace, releasing her hands from Randi’s light grip. The tall woman resumed her attack on the box.

Raising the cover, she froze in shock, staring down at the gift. Slowly, she placed the lid on the floor, and reached a hesitant hand toward the intricately tooled leather cover. She lifted it from the box, moving the box from her lap, and setting the book there with gentle precision. Tears of wonder flooded her eyes when she opened it, and found Gwen’s stories written at first in a somewhat shaky hand, then with more confidence.

"You," the Marine stopped and swallowed the lump in her throat. "You wrote these for me?"

The bard nodded her head, then drew a deep breath. "I wrote them out for you," with a shy smile. "But these are actually the stories my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child."

Randi was silent for a very long time, running a trembling hand up and down the soft pages in wonderment. "This is so awesome, Gwen. Thank you."

Gwen sat down next to her friend, and leaned a head on her shoulder. "The cover is a copy of the original, with a new glyph added for you."

The brunette closed the pages carefully, looking at the Sabre symbol in the lower right hand corner. "Do each of these symbols have meaning?" A nod from the bard. "And what made you choose this one for me?"

"I didn’t. The leather crafter did. She and her family have always done them, and they are gifted with insight. I’m not sure I understand the symbolism, myself. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. "

Randi didn’t comment, simply hugged the bard to her and placed a kiss on the top of her head, fiercely resisting the impulse to lift the bard’s chin and kiss her senseless. Gwen, unknowing of the mental battle taking place in the head above her, snuggled closer, wrapping an arm about the Marine’s waist and returning the squeeze. This is the safest place in the world. It feels like home.

"You enjoy torturing her, don’t you?" Artemis asked with wry humor.

"Hmm, well, it’s like. . . if she’s gonna totally frustrate my plans, I’m gonna for

sure frustrate her."

Athena looked at the hunter. "Ooo, Love’s a bitch!"

"You bet your sweet ass I am, sister!" Laughter followed this pronouncement.

The two floated in timeless regard of the flames. Then Gwen’s voice broke the silence. "Randi, will you tell what the different symbols on the staff mean?" The Marine nodded, and the bard reached the staff to her.

"Let’s see. . . these," pointing to nine different symbols strategically placed along the length of the stave, "are the symbol of woman. Each is taken from a different culture."

"And the animals?"

"The animals have meaning as well. Each one represents a different set of characteristics you are seen to have."

A blonde brow rose into her bangs. "Really? Like what?"

"Um, well, the hummingbird represents energy and wonder. The horse, endurance, independence, and friendliness, and the wolf print is a symbol of loyalty and success."

"The owl represents wisdom, doesn’t it?"

"Yeah, wisdom and vision."

"What about the eagle’s head?"

"That is for courage and strength. The seal shows dreaming and imagination, the sea horse, magic and grace. The lion represents health, nobility, and courage. And the dolphin symbolizes harmony, love and communication."

There was silence for a long time after that, until Randi reached down and lifted the bard’s tear streaked face. Small fingers covered her lips before she could voice her concern. "Wow. That is so awesome, so humbling," she whispered. "Thank you."

The Marine nodded a silent acknowledgment, and by tacit agreement, they turned their gazes back to the fireplace. It wasn’t long before they were asleep, wrapped in one another’s embrace.

"Ow, dammit! That hurts!" The Marine tried moving her neck.

"S’matter?" Sleepy green eyes peered up at her. "G’morning."

An indulgent smile crossed Randi face. "Good morning." She groaned again.

"What’s wrong?" She moved her head and moaned at the twinge in her neck. "Ow! Never mind, I am starting to understand the problem." She lifted a hand to rub the back and side of her neck. "I guess falling asleep on the couch wasn’t the smartest thing we’ve ever done."

"No, but it was nice waking up with you in my arms." Damn! Stupid! What the hell was that that just came out of your mouth??? Have you lost your mind, Valiant??"

"It was nice to be here. I always feel so safe, so protected, when I’m with you." She hugged the woman briefly, then rose. "I’ll fix breakfast, since you had pillow duty last night. That sound okay to you?"

"Yeah, yeah. Fine," Randi answered dazedly. She couldn’t believe the bard had played off her words so easily. She decided to let it lie, and said, "I’m gonna go get a shower. I’ll do clean-up detail, all right?"


If Gwen noticed the Marine took slightly longer than normal in the shower, she made no mention of the fact. She was just glad to see her friend less tense looking than she had since the Marine’s return. They ate in relative silence, though Randi did make it a point to compliment the bard on her fine cooking. When they were done, the tall woman moved to clean up, while the bard went upstairs to bathe.

In the middle of all this, Geoff and Jill arrived, refusing breakfast, which they’d already had, but accepting a cup of coffee.

"Randi, hon, what are ya’ll’s plans for today?"

"Nothing special, that I know of, until tonight. Why? Was there something you wanted to do?"

"Well, actually, Tommy called this morning." The weather, so typical for this region, was in stark contrast to the day before, was moderate to the point of being warm. "Since the weather has turned out so nice today, he and Ella wanted to take us and the baby out for a little mini-cruise. If you girls don’t mind. . . . "

"If we don’t mind what, Mother?" Gwen interrupted as she came downstairs still toweling her hair, Usually she finished this process and at least had the blonde locks combed out before venturing out of her room, but hearing her mother’s voice was too big a pull on her curiosity.

"Being left alone to fend for yourselves today. Tommy has invited your father and I out on the cruiser with them today."

"Mom, that’s fine with me. Ya’ll are here to have a good time, and see some friends you only see once or twice a year. Do what makes you happy."

"Take your coats with you. It may be warmer, but that breeze is gonna be chilly."

"Boy, that’s the truth," chimed in Geoff. "Thanks for the reminder, Randi."

"Forget it once. . . you’ll never forget it again!" Her eyes twinkled in amusement.

"I’ll bet."

So the Goldmans and the Steeles went out together on a little mini water jaunt, which left Randi and Gwen alone together for the day. Randi took the bard through a few basic staff maneuvers. Then, by mutual, unspoken consent, they got the bike out, and went for a nice long ride.

At lunch, Gwen mentioned in a rather casual off handed way, that one day she’d like to learn to drive it. And Randi decided, then and there, that she would do everything in her power to grant the bard’s requests of her from now on. She wanted the younger woman to have roomfuls of pleasant memories to think about once the Marine was removed from her life.

So, much to the blonde’s surprise and delight, her best friend turned over her prized motorcycle, and Gwen got her first lessons in how to "drive" it. She laughed out loud, once she got the hang of it, at the absolute freedom and power she felt being in control. Randi just grinned at her contagious enthusiasm, and let her hands rest lightly on the bard’s waist.

Just before sunset, they stopped on the bridge, and watched the orb slip beneath the horizon. Then they hurried home to get ready for the "small" party at CL and Tony’s.

Geoff and Jill had been home some while, and were watching for them when they came in. Gwen was talking to Randi ninety to nothing, and the Marine listened with an indulging smile on her face. The elder Goldmans walked up from the boathouse as they arrived and met them at the French doors. They were able to pick out, from the bard’s somewhat incoherent babble, that Gwen had gotten a chance to drive the bike.

Geoff looked at Randi, who shrugged slightly and smiled. The man nodded his agreement, knowing why she had done it, and felt a helpless sadness flood through him. He knew it was obvious to her, even through his smile. She clapped him on the back in understanding, and moved into the house.

An hour later, they were approaching the party site, in Tommy’s large transport. It had room for all of them, plus Randall, and it just made more sense to take the one vehicle. Besides, it would give them a chance to get away at a decent hour with a valid excuse.

It was a fun evening. Geoff and Jill renewed friendships with people they had met before, and made a few new friends. Gwen made it a point to introduce Scott and his fiancee to them. The band even set up and played for a bit. Jill was still the life of the party, and Geoff enjoyed watching his young-spirited wife wipe the floor with the much chronologically younger people trying to keep up with her. The bard was happy to stay in the background, and was relieved when she noted they were leaving. It had been an exciting, exhausting day, and she was ready to go home and go to bed.

A whispered goodnight to her folks outside the beach house, and another to Randi just inside, and they all were all in bed sound asleep within minutes. It had been a good day.

The following day, Randi found herself alone in the house, babysitting Randall. Her own fault, she supposed, though she was secretly very pleased to have the time with him.

Ella had come by early. She was ready to spend the day shopping, and Jill and Gwen were thrilled to join her. The Marine, however, was less than enthusiastic.

"You could stay here and babysit, if you’d rather," the boy’s mother commented, thinking her friend would never agree to that.

"I’d rather," Randi stated flatly.

"Oooookaaay. Well then, ladies," placing the diaper bag on the floor and the baby in the tall woman’s arms, "are we ready?"

"Not quite," Gwen replied. "Will you excuse us?" Taking the bag in one hand and Randi in the other, she dragged them both to the kitchen.


"Are you sure about this, Randi? I can stay. . . . "

"No," awkwardly reaching out to put two fingers on the bard’s lips. "No, you enjoy shopping, and this will give you some quality time with your mom. You go and have a good time. I’ll be here when ya’ll get back this afternoon."

"Yeah, but will the house still be standing?"

"Smart aleck! Get outta here!"

Laughter bubbled up from the bard, and Randall cooed in response. "I know how you feel, buddy," whispered the Maine into his tiny ear. He cooed again in response to the ticklish feeling.

Tommy and Geoff stopped by briefly, just after the three women had left, but took off again shortly thereafter. They had a suspicious look about them, but Randi couldn’t weed out what they were up to.

"Ya know, boy, they’re up to something, but damned if I know what." She looked around furtively as the epithet left her lips. "Don’t tell your mama you heard that from me, okay?" Waving arms and kicking legs were her answer.

It was early afternoon when the Goldman/Steele shopping contingent returned home loaded down with bags. The sight that met their eyes stopped them dead in the doorway.

Randi had changed from her standard, somber black and white, and was wearing the most outrageous, colorful T-shirt any of them had ever seen. The baby seemed enthralled with it, his eyes never leaving the colorful figure crawling around on the floor near him. Ditto was serving as his chair back, and had not moved since her mistress had placed the baby down next to her.

As the three froze in the doorway, Randi scooped the child up, and blew a raspberry on his tummy, then neatly made her way over to the shell shocked women. The Marine was a little disheveled looking, but appeared very self satisfied. Ella shook herself to clear her mind, and put the bags on the floor to take her son. Ditto, released from her assistant’s duties, came over to inspect each woman and her packages. Well satisfied, she moved over to her fireplace spot to take a nap. Babysitting assisting was hard work.

Randall squealed upon seeing his mother, and started rooting around. Ella darted the Marine a dirty look.

"Hey, don’t glare at me. I fed him, three times!"

The woman chuckled. "I’m sure. He seems to be trying to compensate for his small size at birth, and is eating constantly now." She moved to the far couch.

Jill and Gwen had moved into the room, and Gwen had taken her things upstairs. "Randi, have you seen Geoff?"

"Yeah. He and Tommy came up shortly after ya’ll left. They’re up to something."

"They’re boys, dear, in grown up bodies. Of course they’re up to something."

The "boys" returned an hour later, full of not too well hidden mischief. They and their wives were quick to leave, not sure their secret could stand up under the Marine’s questioning, and ice blue stare. They were going to meet up again at the beach house around dark, and go out for dinner and the small parade being held that evening. Tommy and Ella begged off.

"Did ya’ll manage to get it done?" Jill asked Geoff on the walk down the dock.

"No, but it has a good start. A few more trips, and Randi will have a boat." They exchanged smiles, and entered the boathouse together.

The night was very entertaining. Tommy had secured a balcony table at one of the nicer restaurants where they could sit and eat, and watch the festivities below them. They commented on some of the more interesting and outlandish costumes in the parade, and Randi caught one of the prized necklaces, which she presented to Gwen with a flourish.

A wandering photographer for the restaurant took several candid shots of them, and told them they would be ready for pick up at the door. Everyone was quite pleased with them, and they took the lot, glad for a memento of such a nice evening together.

"What time are we heading back tomorrow, Randi?" Geoff asked as they piled into Tommy’s transport.

"Whenever ya’ll are ready. Makes no difference to me."

"Okay. Midmorning, maybe. Then we don’t have to rush getting out of here, and will still get home in plenty of time to go to Sal’s party tomorrow night."

He saw her slight grimace, but she simply said, "I’ll let the pilot know to be ready for us."

It was quiet the remainder of the ride home, and they separated with soft good nights. Gwen stopped Randi at the door of her room with a hug.

"What’s that for?" she asked, as she returned the squeeze.

"Just because I can." A dark brow rose, though the bard couldn’t see it. "And to say thanks for letting us come along and play. It’s been fun."

"Yeah, it has, and it’s not over yet." She kissed the blonde head tucked beneath her chin. "Now to bed with ya, so we can go to Sal’s tomorrow."

"You okay with that?"

"Yeah. He’s a good guy, just a little to, um, exuberant sometimes."

They chuckled together, then said good night and headed for bed. Tomorrow was another day.


Chapter XV

The shuttle flight was uneventful, as was the ride to the Goldman’s brownstone home. Before they’d hardly placed the bags in their rooms, Gwen was pulling Randi down the stairs and out the door. With a shrug and a smiling wave, they were gone.

"What’s your rush?" The dark haired woman asked with a chuckle. "The party’s not for several more hours."

"Not the party, silly. The park."

"The park?

"Yes. Now c’mon."

Randi realized the bard wasn’t going to impart any further information, and gladly allowed the smaller woman to pull her along. She figured she’d find out what the mystery was about soon enough.

What the mystery was, to her great surprise, and secret delight, was an old fashioned fair. And for the remainder of the afternoon, the two woman played like children from a time gone by. There were fast rides, slow rides, high in the air rides, and spinning rides. But their favorite turned out to be an ancient merry go round that had all white horses. They rode it until they were dizzy, and as the sun started to set, they headed back home.

"So, did you have fun?" the bard asked with a knowing twinkle in her eyes.

"No," the Marine replied pulling out her gruffest voice and sternest face.

"I’m glad. So did. . . HUH??? Whaddya mean. . . NO?!?" Gwen stopped dead in the middle of the walkway, forcing others to move around them as she stood firm with her hands on her hips, glaring at Randi.

The tall woman held her gaze, not flinching. The blonde was so shocked by the answer she failed to see the twinkle lurking in the blue depths. Green eyes dropped to the ground. "I’m s. . . ", but the rest of her words were cut off as she was lifted into the air by her waist, and spun around in circles like a little child.

"Of course I had fun , you goof!! Couldn’t you tell?? That was an awesome idea!! Thanks!!" Randi hugged the smaller woman to her tightly, rocking gently back and forth. Gwen returned the squeeze until she was lowered to her feet. Then she punched the other woman’s arm.

"*That* was for being so mean." And this time she saw the twinkle and took off running. She squealed loudly when she heard the Marine catching up to her quickly. Not that she couldn’t catch me if she tried. Now laughter bubbled up, and it slowed her down just enough for Randi to catch up to her before they reached the steps of the brownstone. She slung Gwen up into a fireman’s carry, and marched up the steps and into the house, the bard squealing and laughing all the way. She thought of pounding on the broad back, but determined if one punch had gotten her into this position in the first place, repetitive punching would not further her case in her favor.

Geoff and Jill peeked out of their bedroom as Randi made her way past the second floor door. They merely exchanged looks, and shut the door again.

Randi went straight to Gwen’s room, and dropped the bard on the bed, tickling her until she cried for mercy. Then she disappeared out the door, and into her own room before the blonde woman stopped laughing and recovered her breath to speak.

"Brat," Gwen mumbled when she was able to speak. She knew Randi had left, thinking she had won, because there was no time now to retaliate. She was gonna be pressed for enough time to get ready as it was. But there was *always* later, she thought with an evil little smirk.

This is getting harder and harder to keep a lid on. I want so badly to just. . . .NO!! I decided that wouldn’t be fair to her. I just want her to have lots of good memories. Is that so much to ask?!? The Marine ran shaking hands over her face and into her hair. Guess I’d better go get ready for this shindig, and she moved to take a shower.

A scant half hour later, each stepped from her room and stopped, staring at the other for a long moment.

"Ya know," Gwen commented with a smile," we’ve got to stop meeting like this. People are gonna start to talk."

They already are, love. . . more than you know. Aloud Randi said, "You look really nice." She smiled when the blonde flushed slightly at the compliment. And she did, too. Her forest green sweater accentuated her eyes, and coordinated quite well with the Marine’s crimson one. Both wore black pants, though the bard’s were a tailored cloth, and Randi’s were a soft rawhide leather.

"Thanks. So do you. Shall we?" gesturing toward the stairs. They walked down slowly together. At the door they were met by the Goldmans, and stopped to don their coats. Then into the transport, and over to Sal’s.

Sal and his wife, surprisingly, didn’t live in the city itself, but in a sprawling farmhouse some good distance away. Randi was impressed with the beautiful, original hardwood floors and stone fireplaces. The decorating was subdued, and the Marine figured that was in large part due to Carmen’s touch. Sal was just naturally more flamboyant.

Carmen and Sal greeted them at the door, and took their coats. They moved further into the room, and the Goldman’s were swallowed up by old friends. Gwen did her best to stay by Randi’s side, but the Marine encouraged her to mix and mingle.

"Go on, Gwen. I’ll be fine here."

"Randi, I don’t want to leave you alone. And I’d really rather not be without you, either." It was a startlingly unexpected comment, and it warmed the cockles of the brunette’s heart. There was nothing she could say against the sentiment, either. The blonde took her arm, and slowly, they circuited the room.

"They look so well together," Carmen commented to Sal as they moved to join their guests.

"Yes, they do," the man agreed lightly. "Dei and I are going to speak to them about doing some new pictures."

"Well, it can wait til after dinner," noticing the subtle signal being given to her from the kitchen. And they announced the meal, and made their way to the dining room.

Conversation flowed smoothly around the table, and Randi found herself next to an older man discussing ancient politics, and political systems. It was interesting, and she found she was enjoying herself much more than she anticipated. He was very sharp, and asked pointed questions, to which she gave equally pointed answers. They did not realize they had captured the table’s attention, until a lull in their debate rested in the complete silence of the room.

"You know, young lady. . . you are the first person in a very long time to challenge my thinking." He lifted his wine glass to her. "Salut!"

The Marine raised her glass in return. "I thank you, sir, for the fine conversation." The guests cheered, and Randi blushed, ever so slightly at the attention. The man twitched his mustache and smiled at her, his eyes twinkling.

After dinner was over, the guests moved back to the large room they had gathered in before, forming groups of twos or threes. Randi moved into a far back corner, content just to observe. Gwen had excused herself on the way back from the dining room, and now the soldier watched as the bard made her way across the room. She slowed and chatted with several folks, though never allowing them to impede her progress toward the Marine. Not far from her goal, she was intercepted by Dei and Dell, and knew she would have to actually spend a few minutes with them. She threw an apologetic glance to her companion, and Randi shrugged and smiled in return. The three women walked toward the bar.

Randi watched them go, then stiffened as she sensed someone approaching her. She growled low in her throat when she recognized Sal, but remembering her manners, and the fact that he was her host for the evening, beckoned him closer, and indicated the chair reserved for the bard.

"What’s on your mind, Sal? I sense a set-up here."

"Well, um, yeah. You do. But we wanted to clear this with you first this time. We wanted to ask about you and Gwen doing new pictures together."

"Why? What’s wrong with the old ones?"

"Hmm? Oh, there’s nothing wrong with them. We’d just like to do some more. You two make such an interesting contrast, such a beautiful couple. . . . " Her head whipped up, and baleful blue eyes pinned him to the spot. "I. . . I. . . I mean, uh. . . ."

"It’s okay, Sal. I know what you meant." He heaved a sigh of relief. There was quiet between them for a few minutes while she considered his words. He had asked Dei to let him be the one to approach the Marine. He wanted a chance to redeem himself of their initial meeting. Now, at least she seemed to be considering the idea. So he supposed he was that far ahead, he supposed. Finally she broke the silence.

"Does Gwen know about this?"

"No. We agreed to talk to you alone first, since we kinda cornered you into the last bunch. We thought it was only fair not to put you on the spot, and only if you agreed would we go to Gwen with the idea."

She nodded her head at his words. "I appreciate that, Sal. I’ve got a counter proposal for you."

Both his brows rose. "Oh? Do tell."

"Walk with me."

They rose and went towards Sal’s private study. He was fairly confident his sister and her partner could keep the bard occupied for a few more minutes, and was equally certain that Randi would prefer a bit of privacy to talk.

"Can I offer you a drink?"


"With or without ice?"

He handed her a tumbler of ice water, and fixed himself a bourbon, neat. The man then motioned her to one of the two high back near the fireplace, and they seated themselves. "By the way," he added, giving her a chance to collect her thoughts, "nice discussion during dinner. You are the first person since my mother passed away who has argued with my father, and actually gotten his attention and made him think about views other than his own."

Blue eyes went wide. "That was your father?"

"Yes, and I’ll warrant he hasn’t had such a good time in years. Most people are afraid of him, for whatever reason. So thank you, for entertaining him so well. Now, what is your proposal?"

She told him. About the big surprise party they had planned for Gwen at Spring Equinox. About the achievement award the Entertainment Guild was going to give the bard on the night following the party. And about the huge soiree after the awards ceremony.

"I was thinking maybe you guys could come down, do some shots of her at the party, then join us at the capital city, capture the whole awards thing. Even the dance afterwards. Candid stuff, instead of the posed studio look."

Sal thought hard on this. "I like it. I really do. What a novel idea. And Rico could do so much with this, maybe even put together a collage." Now he seemed to be talking mostly to himself. "Oh, this could work out so very well. What a wonderful idea." He turned to face Randi again. "Thank you."

A light tap on the door sounded, and the man called out, "Enter." A blonde head peeked into the room. The bard spotted her quarry, and came over to her.



"I was a little worried. You just up and disappeared."

With a glance at Sal to make him understand to follow her lead, the Marine answered. "Actually, Sal took pity on me. It was getting a little close in there, and he offered me a bit of respite from the crowd for a few minutes. I certainly never meant to hog the host’s time."

"Not a problem at all, Randi. I needed a bit of a break from the crowd myself for a few minutes. But if you’ll excuse me now, I need to get back out there. You’re more than welcome to stay until you feel comfortable, ladies." And so saying, he closed the door behind himself.

"You okay?" Gwen asked once they were alone. "I know Sal kinda drives you crazy."

"I’m fine. Actually, he’s been very kind. Did you know that was his father I was talking to at dinner?"

"Yeah, and I’ll admit to being surprised. Old man Bouvier hasn’t smiled that much in all the years I can remember knowing him. And that’s a pretty long time. C’mon. Mother and Daddy will be ready to go shortly."

It was a very short time later when the quartet took their leave of the party.

"Well, that was interesting. Sal and Carmen always have such nice gatherings. Mr. Bouvier Sr. was extremely animated, more so than I’ve seen him in years. Let’s see, tomorrow night is our parade. I’ll be glad for that day of rest before the last big party. It’s funny how tired having fun will make you."

Geoff agreed silently with a nod of his head, and indicated the back of the transport. There, wrapped in each others arms, the bard and her warrior sat sound asleep.

The next day passed in relative quiet. Gwen managed to talk the Marine into doing a bit of shopping with she and Jill. The bard’s mother noticed that Randi was not enjoying herself particularly, but was determined to bear things out with good grace and humor. Before she could step in, though, the bard moved to rectify the situation.

Taking the taller woman by the arm, Gwen led her over to a small indoor café. Jill followed behind slowly, not wanting to intrude. Once they were seated for lunch, Jill excused herself to the ladies room, to give the two younger women a bit of privacy.

"Thank you for coming with us today, Randi. I know shopping is not high on your list of fun and entertaining things to do, and I really do appreciate your willingness. . . . "

"Does it make you happy, Gwen?"

"Yes, of course, but. . . . "

"Then I’m glad to do it. I don’t mind it, really. I just figure you have a better time going with like minded folks, like your mom and Ella. But I never mind going with you."

"And I much prefer your being with me."

The waiter walked up them, cutting off whatever reply the Marine would have made. Instead, they turned their attention to the menu, and had ordered when Jill returned to the table.

"Hi, Ma! I ordered you a Reuben on seedless Rye with fries."

The older woman wrinkled her nose good naturedly at her daughter. "You’re bad for my figure, you know."

"Oh I don’t know, Jill," running a lazy blue eye up and down her body. "I think you look pretty good, and I’ll bet Geoff does too. What about you, Gwen?"

"Oh, yeah. I want to look that good when I get to be old," getting in on the teasing.

Jill flushed in pleasure, then sputtered," OLD?? What do you mean, OLD??"

The two younger women burst out laughing at the look of outrage, the sheepishness that adorned Jill’s features. "Oh you two! Geez!"

Fortunately, lunch arrived at the table, and the next few minutes were spent indulging in guilty pleasures. When the first rush to eat was done, conversation resumed.

"So what’s on for the afternoon?" from Jill.

"I thought you still had shopping to do,"replied Randi a bit puzzled.

"Randi, there is *always* shopping to do," the bard explained. "But we’ve done enough for today. What would you like to do?"

The Marine was caught flat footed. That happens a lot with her, doesn’t it Valiant? "I, uh I dunno. I hadn’t thought about it, really."

"OK, I’ll tell you what. We’ll take a little walk, then maybe go back to the house for a bit. You be thinking on what would interest you around here, and we’ll plan all day tomorrow with stuff you want to do. Sound like a plan? What do you think, Mother?"

"Sounds like a good plan to me. Would you like me to take the packages back in the transport, dear?"


"Well, I guess it’s all settled then." the Marine commented as she rose and paid the bill. "Will you be all right going back alone?" with consideration.

"Aren’t you sweet. I’ll be fine, dear. Thank you. You kids run along now."

Randi stretched out her hand to the bard, who took it willingly. They walked out of the café, and headed out toward the park.

Instead of visiting the fair, they chose a path, and meandered slowly around the outskirts of the park in silence. Mostly silence, that is, since the sounds of the fair carried to them easily in the still air. Their still linked hands allowed them to find a pace they were both comfortable with, and in unspoken consent that headed home after only one lap around the perimeter.

Jill met them at the door with cups of hot cocoa, and motioned them into the living room and its already lit fireplace. They curled up next to each other on the couch, and stared into the flames until their hot chocolate was finished. Then the bard reached for Randi’s cup, and placed them both on the table.

"You decided what you’d like to do tomorrow?"

The Marine looked down at the blonde head tucked beneath her chin. I suppose staying right here with you in my arms is out of the question. She moved an arm around her companion’s shoulder, and was gratified when Gwen reached for her other hand and wrapped it around the bard’s middle. "Um, well, is there anywhere we can do some skiing or something?"

The bard’s gaze turned inward for a long moment. "Yep, I know just the place."

The following morning found them headed to an old, abandoned ski lodge. The new building that had replaced it was on the other side of the mountain, so they were alone on the old side. They unloaded the sno-doos and skis, and rode one to the top.

"Well, now I understand the need for the ‘Doos," Randi commented as they reached the summit. "Good choice, though. It’s almost like we’re alone in the world. I needed a little peace." Said with a sigh.

"I know," Gwen smiled. "That’s why I chose this place. Very few people ever come here anymore."

And for hours that morning, and into the early afternoon, they took turns skiing and riding the sno doos up and down the mountainside. Finally, exhausted, the bard dropped to the ground.

"No more, please. No more."

"How about this then?" indicating a picnic basket. "Your mom gave it to me this morning as we started out the door."

"That’s what held you up?"

"Yep. So how ‘bout it?"

"Whatcha got there soldier?"

"Well, let’s see. Tomato soup. Coffee." She put the two thermoses aside. "Hmm, roast beef sandwiches, chips, aannnndddd, Mmmmm, chocolate cake."

"I think you may have just found yourself a lunch date, sugar," drawled the bard with a chuckled. Randi just stared at her. She found the accent cute in the extreme, and was hard pressed not to say something. The Marine swallowed, and continued to remove the food from the basket.

After they were finished, they loaded up the transport and headed back toward the Goldman homestead. The plan was to enjoy a quiet relaxed evening in. And for a change, they managed to stick to the plan.

Much of the following day was spent apart, though it wasn’t deliberate on anyone’s part. Randi was up with the birds, and went for a run. It went a little longer than she’d expected, though when she got back, Gwen was still in bed. That’s unusual. But she shrugged, figuring the bard was taking full advantage of her holiday. The Marine hopped in the shower, and when she got out and dressed, headed down stairs for a cup of coffee. She noticed the bard on the vid phone with Dei as she passed the open library door, and decided to pick up a cup for her friend as well. By the time she reached the study, though, Gwen was gone, and she heard the shower running in the room above her head. With a smile, the soldier took the coffee, and left it on the blonde’s dresser.

Geoff met Randi coming back downstairs, and invited Randi to join him in his workshop. He had been tinkering with a couple new weapons, and wanted her comments and input. The morning passed with them bantering back and forth, though they actually made a bit of progress, and the Marine made some insightful suggestions. When they went in for lunch, Jill casually mentioned that Gwen had been called away for a meeting with Dei and Sal. Randi was disappointed, but understood the need to take care of business.

After the meal, the Marine went to her room, and took out the journal Gwen had given her. She read until sleep claimed her, and when she dreamed, it was off far off places, and long lost times, and two people who had meant everything to one another—in life, in death, and beyond.

Gwen came in mid afternoon, and after asking after her, climbed the stairs quietly to the top floor landing. She knocked softly at the door, and when she received no response and heard no sound, gently pushed the door open. She smiled at the picture Randi made, curled up tight in the middle of the bed around the book the bard had given her. Gwen extracted the journal, and placed it on the stand beside the bed. Then she pulled a cover up over her sleeping friend, and returned to her own room. She decided a nap wasn’t a half bad idea, and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

When she awoke a few hours later, she realized the smells of dinner were making her very hungry. Though supper was always served at the dance, the Goldmans always ate before they left. It was necessary, since the supper didn’t start being served until quite late. The bard ran a brush through her hair, and ran lightly downstairs to the kitchen.

Everyone seemed to be waiting on her, and as she slid into her seat, she muttered, "Why didn’t somebody wake me?"

"We didn’t need to, dear. The food did exactly what it was supposed to," Jill teased with a twinkle in her eyes.

Dinner and clean up was taken care of fairly quickly, and the four separated once again to prepare for the evening. Randi regretted the fact the she only had her uniform, but wryly smiled at how well it suited her.

Gwen, for her part was secretly glad for the formal gathering, as it afforded her an opportunity to see Randi decked out in full dress blues. The Marine was a striking figure any time, but when she put on that uniform, she commanded attention.

The bard debated for a long time, finally deciding on a blood red backless frock. She didn’t question the need to look perfect tonight, she simply went with her gut instinct. Almost an hour passed before she emerged from her room. She was strangely disappointed that the Marine did not exit her door at the same time, until she looked at the lower landing, and saw her companion returning her gaze from below. With a deep breath, she made her way slowly down.

Without a word, Randi took her arm, and escorted her down the second set of stairs. They paused, playing at what was now a ritual between them in donning their outerwear. Then they silently headed out to the transport and the dance.

The party passed as the ones before it had. Upon entering the room, Gwen was swept away by one pair of arms and then another. Randi made it clear by her eyes and body language alone that offers would be unwelcome. Instead she stood in the same place all evening, waiting for the time that the bard would return to her. Each time she welcomed her back joyfully, and they would stay in conversation until a new body whisked the blonde to the dance floor again.

"Why don’t you ask her to dance, Randi?" Geoff asked, as he and Jill took a break

"No, Geoff. It’s hard enough to maintain control without taking her into my arms like that."

The man furrowed his brow in confusion. "Randi, you take her in your arms all the times. I’ve seen you do it."

"Never like this, and never in public."

He accepted her words, though he disagreed with her logic. He realized she was right about their public touching, though. He really wished. . . . Damn! It was getting harder and harder for him to remain silent as well. He got an idea and excused himself.

Randi thought she saw Geoff, a little while later, talking to the DJ, but couldn’t be entirely certain. And she didn’t have long to think about it as Gwen came up with drinks.

"Step outside with me?"

The veranda was sheltered, but still very cold when the two women stepped from the overly warm room. Gwen wrapped her arms around herself in reflex.

"Brrr. Oh, wow!" she exclaimed all in one breath as a warm wool jacket was draped over her shoulders. She turned, and found herself wrapped in strong, white covered arms. White covered?!? What the hell?? Then she realized what the wooly warmth surrounding her was.

"Miranda Valiant! Put your jacket back on this minute!" She started to shrug it off. Large, muscular hands impeded her efforts.

"Leave it," the low voice commanded. "You need it worse than I do. We’re only going to be out here for a minute anyway." The bard stopped struggling. "Now, you okay?"

"Yeah. Just needed a bit of a break, and some fresh air." A pause. "Thank you for coming with me. I know you’re not having fun."

"Gwen, I’m fine. But you’re welcome."

They stood in silence for a few more minutes, looking out at the stars together. "C’mon," the blonde said, slipping off the jacket and holding it for the Marine. "Before they start looking for us."

Gwen gave Randi the once over when she was finished buttoning, and nodded her head. "Sometime when you wear this, I’d like to see your hair down, instead of in the braid. Now let’s go. I’m hungry."

There wasn’t anything to say at that point, and the brunette willingly followed the blonde to the buffet supper table. It was a quiet few minutes, as they were left in peace while they at. But as soon as they reached the ballroom, the bard was once again besieged by willing partners.

As the night neared it’s closure, Gwen finally got up the nerve to do something she’d been garnering courage all evening for. "Dance with me?" She asked the Marine, shyly.

She wanted to say no. She really, truly tried to say no. But one look into those pleading green eyes, and she was lost. When the music of the song she’d sung to the bard for her birthday began to play, she took the smaller woman into her arms. And the world faded away until there was nothing but the music and each other.

Slowly the floor cleared, leaving them alone together to dance the last dance of the season together. When it was over, they strolled off arm in arm toward the door. Not a word was spoken between them, but something fundamental changed. It was not ready yet to be acknowledged, but it was there. Things were subtly different.



Gwen came back from her memories to dark swirling clouds, and a brisk wind that whipped whitecaps on the waves. She stood in the face of the approaching storm, unconcerned.

"Kinda suits your mood, doesn’t it, Little One?

The blonde head jerked around, looking for the voice that had spoken to her. "Randi?" She whispered, seeing no one, then paused, knowing it couldn’t possibly be her Marine friend. "All right. I don’t know who’s out there, but this is not funny. Show yourself."

She waited, then stared in amazement, as with very little fanfare a beautiful blonde woman took up residence on one of the deck’s built in benches. "Wh. . . who are you? And why are you here?"

"My name is Aphrodite, and we need to talk."

"Aphrodite?? Goddess of Love, Aphrodite??"

"You got it, Sweet Cheeks. In the flesh."

"What do we have to talk about? This is too little, too late, I’m afraid." Tears welled up in her eyes and rolled silently down her face as her gaze returned to the dark horizon. Her arms came up to wrap around herself in a sense of self protection. The goddess flinched in sympathy at the anguish radiating from the slim form.

"Do you really think she betrayed you?" dropping any hint of playfulness in her speech.

There was quiet for a very long time. Big, fat raindrops started dropping slowly onto the deck, increasing in speed and ferocity rapidly. Soon, the bard was soaked, and almost hidden from view by the pelting water. The goddess began to wonder if Gwen was ever gonna answer her. She looked so miserable, and with a snap, they were in the boathouse, dry and warm, sitting comfortably in front of the fire.

"Gwen, do you really think Randi betrayed you by not telling you of her love for you?"

"YES! No. I don’t know what I believe anymore," she said with a whisper. "It just hurts so much."

"And it’s easier to blame her since she’s no longer here."

"She left me! She left me all alone to go die for something I don’t understand and nobody will explain it to me! She left me without once. . ." She paused and drew in a sobbing breath. "But she did, didn’t she?" looking at Aphrodite with pain filled eyes. "In her actions, in her looks, even in her words she told me, and I just never heard her, did I?"

The blonde goddess didn’t answer her, just took the small, cold hands in her own warmer ones. "Why do you suppose it is that you didn’t hear her?"

Silence for a long while, and then a whispered, "I was afraid. Afraid she wouldn’t feel the same. And afraid it would change everything if she did feel the same, and I didn’t want to lose the most precious friendship I’ve ever had."

"Gwen, if you could say anything you wanted to Randi right now, and you knew she would hear you, what would you tell her?"

Another long pause while the bard who had lost her words thought seriously on this. "I would tell her I’m sorry, and that I miss her, and that I love her very much, that I am totally, hopelessly *in* love with her . And I would ask her to come back to me, because I need her."

Aphrodite didn’t say anything for a while, overwhelmed by the simplistic truth of those few sentences. She hoped they would be enough. She squeezed the hands she had been holding, and released them to stand. The goddess took a long look around the boathouse, admiring, to her amazement, the simple, clean lines and lack of frills in the room.

"Ya know, Gwen, when mankind made its first tentative steps toward peace, and the different religious sects came together to build the temples, a few of the gods were confused as to why the temples were built out of old fashioned marble stone and cedar wood. I mean, after all these millennia, none of us really understood why you would use such outdated materials. It was only when we looked closer, and realized how rare those items were now, that we began to appreciate what we had been given."

"Are you telling me I need to appreciate what I’ve been given?? Something that was ripped away from me before I understood its importance to me?? That one day I’ll see how rare what we had together was and be thankful for the time we had together??" The fire died as quickly as it flared. "Please, just go," the bard whispered, eyes never leaving the floor.

It wasn’t at all what the love goddess had been driving at, but she realized that there was really no way to explain herself either. "I’m sorry, Gwen. I wouldn’t for all the world have had this happen." Happy when the young woman didn’t pull away from the light touch on her shoulder.

"What. . . having us fall in love, or having us not recognized the glaring truth in front of us?"

"Your not recognizing your love for each other. We are bound by new rules now, and they restrict so much of what we are able to do."

"Oh, so you can make people fall in love, just not make sure that they’re happy in it?" with a bitter twist.

The goddess took Gwen in her arms, cradling and comforting her like she would a small child. "Oh no, hon. I don’t make people fall in love at all. Never have. I just put people and circumstances together. What develops from there is up to the individuals involved. A lot of times, they end up friends. A lot of times they end up lovers, or even *in* love with each other. But only in very rare instances, do soul mates come together. But when they do, it’s a beautiful thing."

"Were Randi and I soul mates?"

"You know the answer to that as well as or better than I do."

There was quiet after that, and when Aphrodite checked on her charge, she found she had fallen into a light doze. With a thought directed toward her cousin Morpheus, she felt the bard slip into a deep, dreamless state. Thanks, Morph, she thought. She needs this. Dite then moved the two of them to the beach house, and after only a moments hesitation, placed the young woman into the Marine’s bed, before disappearing in a shower of rose petals.

Gwen slept through the night, undisturbed by dreams or nightmares. She awoke in the morning, confused as to how she’d ended up in Randi’s bed again, wondering if Aphrodite’s visit had been just a figment of her once active imagination. When she saw rose petals scattered on the floor and bed, she figured what she remembered must be real, and that the love goddess had put her where she was.

Why here? The bard thought dully as the sights and scents of the room again overwhelmed her, and sent fresh pain searing through her heart. She got up, pushing her hair away from her face haphazardly, and shuffled her way into the kitchen. The bard started the coffee, and looked around the room, noting the changes her moving in had brought. Her mind carried her back to the events of six months previous.



The week after they had returned from up north after Festival was incredibly busy. The days at work were spent catching up from the holiday. Randi and Gwen did manage lunch together, but that was the extent of their contact. Still, many noticed a subtle, tangible difference between them. They were much more tactile with each other, managing some sort of physical contact the entire time they were together. Neither woman seemed overtly aware of this change, but it was markedly there nevertheless.

The Marine snuck out of work early both Monday and Wednesday. Gwen never noticed, because Randi was right there when the day was over, waiting to help her move her stuff. Her reaction to the many, many boxes piled in the bard’s living room was priceless, though.

Blue eyes, wide and round, had turned to the blonde in startlement. "You didn’t tell me I was gonna need to build a whole new house, Gwen."

The bard had burst into surprised laughter. She sent a light smack to her friend’s muscular mid section, then grimaced slightly at the contact. "Ow, you’re solid!"

Which comment got her a smirk and a raised eyebrow. "You’re just now noticing this? Man, I must be slipping." She picked up a small stack, and moved out the door toward the elevator. Gwen followed right behind her with a couple of her own.

"It’s not as bad as it seems, Randi. I need to go through all these boxes and get rid of a lot of stuff."

Now Randi felt bad about her comment. "No, Gwen. We’ll find a place for it all to go. I just didn’t, uh. . . well. . . . "

"I know. Neither did I until the boxes started piling up around me. I decided the other night I was gonna have to do some sorting. There’s a lot here that I don’t really need or want, but have never taken the time to get rid of. This is the perfect excuse." She smiled at the Marine, who naturally responded in kind.

It took the better part of the week to move everything from the penthouse to the beach house, but that was due in large part to the fact that neither woman seemed to be in any great rush to go back and forth. One load a night was plenty, and still the bard didn’t go through every box they brought in each night, so they started piling up.

Tommy stopped by on his way home Friday to remind them of band practice, and could only stand shell shocked at the number of boxes stacked neatly by the walls awaiting Gwen’s attention. He wisely did not comment, only reminded them of their expected presence, and headed home.

Practice was short and sweet. Randi told the guys privately that she was going out of town, and asked them to continue working on the other songs. "I should be back in a couple weeks, and we can do the afternoon practices til we’re ready."

"You still want it to be a surprise?"

"Yeah, the party, the award’s ceremony, the whole nine yards. Everything is a surprise for her, all right?"

"Okay, Randi. We’ll be ready with your music by the time you get back."

They finished putting away equipment silently as the bard emerged from the house and headed their way.

"You tuck the baby in?"

"No, Ella just let me feed him a bit. She’s waiting for you to say goodnight to him before she puts him down."

"Okay. I’ll be back in a minute, all right?"

Gwen nodded her head, and watched until the Marine disappeared into the house. Then she walked over to where Tommy was casually seated.

"You don’t put your progeny to bed, T?"

"Hmm, I’ll go in and sit with him and we’ll talk a while when he wakes up again. He’s quite the conversationalist at times. Must gonna be a bard." She mock punched him.

"Ya know, you’re the second person to make a bard crack to me about that boy. Bet he does grow up to be one, just to spite you." The blonde picked up a water bottle and took a long gulp. Randi stepped from the doorway, and neatly removed the bottle from Gwen’s grasp, draining it quickly.

"Why you little. . . . I oughtta . . . . " Her voice tapered off when the Marine rose to her full height and glowered down dangerously at the smaller woman.

"Yeeeesssss?" she drawled with a smirk. "You oughtta what?"

Gwen lost her train of thought as the nearness of the body triggered memories of what had been exposed to her eyes months previous. And the memories prompted responses she wasn’t ready to receive or acknowledge. She stepped back a pace.

"I oughtta get started on my story telling, I guess." She grabbed another bottle and moved away. Randi looked at Tommy in a somewhat confused consternation. He shrugged his shoulders. He understood Gwen’s response, he just wasn’t sure what had caused it. And he wasn’t about to try to explain it to the hard headed Marine. If she couldn’t see it for herself, there wasn’t much he could do to make her see.

The bard had actually walked to a private area to regroup, and after a few calming breaths, and a distinct effort on her part to clear her mind, actually felt ready to start. She walked over to where Tommy and Randi still sat, and waited for the same reaction. When it didn’t come, she extended a hand to the seated woman.

"Come sit up front with me?"

Randi made no verbal response. She simply took the proffered hand, and allowed the bard to link their fingers and lead her forward. And their fingers stayed entwined while the stories were woven. Gwen adapted her style to allow for the lack of hand gestures. Tommy sat in awe, as once again, he realized she could really tell a story with nothing but words. No holo-technology, no visual aids, just words, and the inflection of her voice. It was, as Scott had once said, a very humbling experience.

Saturday began much like the rest of the week had started, with an early morning staff workout. It was becoming their habit to do practice in the morning before work, and again in the evening before they retired. They had missed the exercise the night before, and discovered very quickly that moving outside was a prudent idea. It was amazing the difference a foot of space could make.

The chill outside was a bit of a shock, but the katas warmed them up quite fast, and by the time they came in, both women were sweating liberally. They separated for showers, and met back up in the kitchen almost simultaneously.

"What you wanna do today?"

Gwen sighed at the Marine’s question, looking toward the boxes with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. She sighed again loudly. "I need to start going through all those boxes, I guess."

"Would it change your mind if I told you I’m going out of town Monday, and will be gone for at least a couple weeks?"

Those words caused an ache deep in her gut, and the bard had to draw breath against the sudden, unwelcome sensation. "You’ll be okay?" Where did that come from?

Randi smiled, grateful for the concern, although she was a bit puzzled at the reaction. "Yeah, it’s just something that can’t be rescheduled that I need to take care of. I’ll be back here aggravating you before you know it," waggling her eyebrows.

Gwen mock punched at the Marine. "Well, in that case, you can give me another riding lesson?" ending with a question and a hopeful look sparkling in her verdant eyes.

"A riding lesson, huh? I think that can be arranged. Bundle up, though."

"Yes, mom," the bard sassed, before scooting out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

"Brat," muttered the Marine, but the smile on her face betrayed her mumbling.

They rode most of the day, with Gwen doing a majority of the driving. She was really starting to get quite a liking for this bike, and was glad again she’d allowed Randi to coax her on it the first time. She was amazed at the freedom she felt, and was subtly conscious of the large hands resting lightly at her waist. Wonder what it would feel like if she wrapped herself around me like I do to her? She shook her head, wondering why that thought had popped into her head.

"You okay?" came the low voice in her ear.

"Hmm, yeah. But maybe you should drive the rest of the way home." Gwen pulled the bike over to the side of the road and stood up. The hand on her shoulder startled her.

"Hey," Randi said, removing her own helmet and reaching for the bard’s. "What’s wrong?"

"I guess I’m just a little tired," barely meeting her companion’s compelling blue eyes.

The Marine read the confusion in the green eyes looking back at her, but couldn’t fathom the reason for it. So she took what Gwen said at face value. "All right. I’ll drive."

The remainder of the ride was silent, each woman lost in her own thoughts.

Sunday was fairly quiet. They spent a good portion of the day babysitting Randall, giving Tommy and Ella a bit of much needed "couple" time. It was fun and entertaining, and Gwen told the infant and Randi another part of her special baby tale. But they were happy as well for the peace and quiet that returned that evening when the Steeles picked their son up.

"I never realized how tiring a baby was," Gwen commented as she flopped on the sofa after they had taken their leave.

"Um," was the only response she got from the Marine who dropped down beside her, stretching long legs out in front of her, and rolling her head back onto the back of the couch.

"Well, I was gonna work on those boxes tonight, but I am just too tired." She closed her eyes.

The dark head turned her way. "No rush, Gwen. You’ll get it done when you get it done. It’s not going anywhere."

"Yeah, I know. That’s part of the problem. But I’ll try to get it done before you get back."

Silence fell again for a long while after that, broken only by the popping from the fireplace. "You will be careful, right?" The blonde couldn’t explain the clenching in her gut if she’d tried, but it was very real. The thought of this trip was making her almost physically ill.

"I’ll be fine, I promise."

"You promise?"

"Yes, I promise."

"All right, then." But she felt the spasming subside to a tolerable level.

They said their goodbyes that night, as Randi needed to be up and away before Gwen was out of bed.

"Keep up your staff practice. I’ll be testing you when I get back."

"I will. And I’ll try to have things sorted out."

The hug they found themselves enveloped in was like a safe port for both of them, and they stood there for long moments absorbing the warmth. Lips grazed across the top of blonde hair in a light kiss.

"I love you Gwen," spoken an many planes.

"I love you too, Randi. Good night."

"Happy dreams, Little One."


Chapter XVI

It was still fully dark outside when Randi left the house and headed to the public shuttle hub. This mission was unauthorized and not for the record, so she wanted to keep it as quiet as possible. She was fairly certain she could pinpoint who the leak was. Catching them was going to be a whole other kettle of fish.

She looked much like any other traveler, and in fact blended in so well neither Gwen nor Tommy would have noticed her. Years of being a shadow were truly effective now, when her best safety lay in being out in the open.

It took three days to travel a distance that should have taken a mere two hours directly. However, directness wasn’t as important as discreteness, and she took her own sweet time, listening and learning along the way. It was interesting what people would say if they didn’t know a person was there.

The Marine was the first to arrive at the first rendezvous point. Her team was meeting here before separating to regroup at the second, and official, assembly. This area attracted all manner of individuals throughout the year, and was a perfect spot for them to blend and mingle without attracting undue attention. The tall woman lay down on the bed and tried to relax. Hopefully, within ten days, they would have an answer. Then they could begin to work on the solution.

While out in the cheerful market place late the next morning, the soldier noticed two of her compatriots had arrived. A third showed up while she was enjoying lunch at an outdoor café. Five were still unaccounted for, but the team wasn’t scheduled to meet up until afternoon the following day.

Randi got up early that Friday morning, careful to leave no trail as she slowly made her way to their gathering spot. Tiny was the first to arrive behind her, followed shortly by Brenda and Cam. The rest of the team, though coming from different directions, arrived almost simultaneously. The rest of the afternoon was spent going over the details of their infiltration. When they were sure all the bases had been covered, the Sabres slowly slipped away one by one, until only Randi and Tiny were left.

"Do you think this will work, Randi?"

"Doubts, my friend?"

"Merely concerns. This is a big risk."

"Tiny, if you want out, now’s the time to speak up."

"No, NO, my friend. I, *we* are all with you til the end. I just want to be sure we take the bastards with us."

"Oh, we will. And we’ll take the bitch for good measure."

Another three days passed before the Sabres began trickling into Ghost Rider’s temporary encampment. The sheer size of it, and the volume of dissidents arriving could have been down heartening. To know that so many people were unhappy with peace, and to know there were so few Sabres to protect it was a heavy burden to bear. Instead, it strengthened their resolve to ensure the peace for an unknowing mankind.

Randi had become a Fringe Amazon. No one even looked twice at her, and she learned just how fragile the truce was between the six fanatical cults. Already these women had plans to destroy their temporary allies, after their common enemy, the Black Sabres, was decimated. It made her blood run cold to listen to such matter-of-fact talk about murder. It was hard enough for her to live with the things she had done, even knowing they were necessary to maintain the peace, and blessed by the goddesses. She couldn’t imagine how these women were able to sleep at night.

Tiny was quite impressive as a Wizard. He looked much like his grandfather had when he had been a wizard in his youth, and no one questioned his right to be there, nor the reason for it. The things he saw and heard sickened him, and he wondered how his grandfather had ever managed to swallow the line of shit they were serving. He now understood a lot of the comments his own father made about his old man, and why he kept pretty much to himself. He was more than a little ashamed at what he had come from, then realized he had much to be proud of. He had made more of a difference than his grandfather ever had, and if he died now, it would be with far more honor than his grandfather had ever known.

No one would have recognized Nick. Even Randi had a hard time picking her fellow Sabre out of the throng of Skinheads wandering around. She secretly wondered how he felt about giving up the mass of blonde hair that had adorned his head. She absently ran a hand through her own dark mane. I don’t think I could do that, though the piercings she’d ended up with hadn’t been a particularly pleasant experience. You’d think we’d be a bit more advanced in this day and age.

As a member of the Reds, Cam seemed to blend in quite well. His nondescript features helped him to mold himself into a typical Red gang member. His tattoo, which took up all of one arm and part of his back, had actually made him quite admired by his fellows. The attention was a double edged sword. It got him noticed, but it also allowed him the opportunity to hear things he wouldn’t have otherwise.

Hernandez was their Blue infiltrator. His heritage, which was written in his features and skin, made him welcome and unquestioned. The fact that he spoke the language like the native he was only helped his cause. He thought of his upbringing, and realized the many nights he had spent at his mother’s knee learning of his ancient culture were to his benefit now. He sent a silent thank you to his mama. It was very possible the time she had taken with him as a child would keep him alive as an adult.

As a member of the Brotherhood, though, Brenda had topped them all. Her short muscular physique and captivating good looks had earned her a place at the leader’s side. He had noticed her when she had arrived in the camp, and after a little "persuasion", she had been glad to remain there. She was risking everything to be so close to the information, and she only hoped whoring herself out to the enemy would bring in the results they needed.

Randi was more than a little amazed at how easy it was for them to blend in to their groups, until she realized that in the sea of faces they were in, few individuals actually knew each other. And her team had their stories down pat. The other three members of the squad were set up in various observation spots to learn all they could without actually being seen.

It took more than ten days for people to stop arriving, and Randi secretly wondered what would happen if the regular military were to notice a gathering of more than ten thousand souls in the dry, dead desert. But because it was dry and dead, no one would think to look. And because there was no known threat to the peace, no one would think to look. So the sea continued to swell, until the desert became a mass of humanity from all over the planet. And then the assembly held its collective breath, waiting for its leader.

Two more days passed, and tempers were growing frayed. But on the evening of the second day, word was passed that Ghost Rider, Grace Rivers, had arrived. Excitement mounted. Finally, after years of work and planning, they were all about to hit pay dirt.

As the witching hour approached, each faction made its way toward its designated area around the circular stage that had been constructed. Brenda, of course, had a front row seat, but the rest of the Sabre team managed to get fairly close to the front as well.

The floodlights which had been hastily erected were suddenly switched off, causing a gasp to rise from the assembled crowd, followed by complete and absolute silence. When they were turned back on a mere moment later, Ghost Rider was standing alone in the midst of the stage. Cheers and applause rang out across the desert for several long minutes, until the woman raised her hands, and a hush fell.

"My friends." Her surprisingly quiet voice rang out through the stillness of the desert night air. "The time we have been working toward for years lies almost within our grasp." The empty night echoed again with the shouts and callings of ten thousand dissidents. Randi felt a thrill of terror shimmy up her spine at the sound. It was the first real tendril of fear she’d felt. She’s known, when she started this, and when she realized where the corruption was, that in all likelihood, she was a dead woman walking on a very limited clock. As a Sabre, it was an accepted part of life. But the fact that so many were ready, anxious even, to wreak havoc on innocents all in the name of wreaking havoc, was horrifying to the woman. A picture of Gwen’s face floated before her mind’s eye. I will keep you safe. I swear. Her resolve affirmed, she turned her attention back to the blonde on the podium.

"A few of you have been with me from the very beginning. Many of you are second generation. And we even have a scattering of third geners with us." The tall blonde smile a sickly sweet smile. It brought home to Randi how many young people and children were here, and she wondered privately how many of them truly believed what they were told, and how many were here out of a sense of duty and loyalty. But seeing the looks of fanaticism all around her reminded her that most of these people had been schooled in hatred and violence since their birth. How sad, and how unjust. She wondered how many of them would have chosen this had they been offered an alternative. Ghost Rider resumed her speech, and the Marine focused on the words.

"Set your houses in order, my children, and prepare yourselves and your troops for the apocalypse. In a few short months, at the time of Celebration, we will strike! And we will be victorious!" A loud roar of approval met her words, and she let the sound carry and build momentum for quite a little bit. Eventually, though, she signaled for quiet, and continued. "The Black Sabres are not great enough nor strong enough to oppose us, and when we have crushed them beneath our heel, the world will be ours for the taking, and chaos shall reign!" Her voice had grown more shrill with each word, until she was shrieking. The troops seemed to rally with it though, and again the desert shook with the thunder of cheering voices and applause. The blonde woman soaked it all in, and regained a semblance of sanity. When she spoke the next time, her voice was soft and modulated.

"Now, my friends, please, eat, drink, make merry among yourselves. When next we meet again, it will be to make war, not love."

At this, controlled mayhem broke out all over. Factions began to politely mix and mingle, which was a blessing for the Sabres. It enabled them to meet and speak without arousing suspicion. Everyone except for Brenda, that is. The leader of the Brotherhood made it very clear he wanted her company for the remainder of their time together. She had managed to pass that much information to Randi when they’d met sometime later.

"You sure you’re okay with this?" growled Randi, sotto voce. "I hate to think. . . ."

"Then don’t," Bren whispered back. "I’m fine. It’s our best chance for information, and you know it." Sincere brown eyes met troubled blue. "It’s only for three more days. I’ll meet you all at the rendezvous after that."

"And we’ll talk?"

"We’ll talk. I promise."

"Be careful."

"You, too."

Alcohol was flowing freely, and it didn’t take long for the music to start. With the music, came the dancing, and many heretofore unaccepted, in this company anyway, unions began to form. Morning was going to bring some interesting discoveries.

The Sabres took the opportunity to escape the debauchery as early as they could. There was a lot to do and discuss. And none of them felt particularly like partaking in the activities that were breaking out around them. It was difficult enough to know Brenda was having to consort with the enemy, at that level. And these people, all of them, *were* the enemy.

Randi and Tiny actually left together. No one even gave them a second glance. The way they were cuddled up together whispering and giggling, it was assumed they were going to one or the other’s room. And in fact, they were, though they were headed into the town, and not to the temporary shelters that had been put in place in the desert. But not for the reason it was thought.

Two of the three team members who had been hidden observers were already back in the hotel when Tiny and Randi arrived. They knew this by the small signal that was placed in the window of their room. The Marine nodded satisfactorily, then unwrapped herself from the big man’s embrace to open the door for them. They both carefully checked the room out, visually as well as electronically before entering. Well satisfied that their cover was intact, they heaved a silent sigh of relief and sat quietly on the bed together for a long time, comfortable in the solitude.

"This is bad, isn’t it?" the Marine asked, breaking the silence.

"Yeah, it is," Tiny answered. "If we don’t stop them before their attack on Celebration, we won’t be *able* to stop them." He got up and started pacing the room a little. "Where did all these people, all this hatred come from? Did you know it was gonna be this bad?" He turned an accusing eye on her.

She jumped up, and met him stare for stare, blue eyes locked on grey for a very long moment. She wasn’t sure whether or not to be angry or sad at the frustrated allegation in her friend’s voice. Finally she fell back to the bed in defeat, and dropped her head into her hands.

"I don’t know, Tiny. I suspected it was big, though never in a million years did I ever imagine something like this. How did all this get started? I think that’s gonna be a big key here to understanding where the hate is coming from, especially for Ghost Rider. And she’s the glue that’s holding all of this together."

He didn’t interrupt her. He could sense she was having difficulty expressing some things, and was working others out aloud. So he patiently waited through the silence for her to continue.

"Tiny, I’ll be honest with you. Since I started putting the pieces together months ago, I’ve discovered a few things." She stood an d started pacing, and now he sat to stay out of her way. He had sat in on a few of her thinking sessions before, and found it best to stay out of her way until she was done.

"First of all, we have a leak." She nodded at the look of shock that crossed his handsome features. "I know, but it gets worse. It’s somebody high up. . . someone very close to the top. I’m fairly certain I know who it is, but until I have proof, I can’t make any accusations." He knew better than to even ask. She would reveal nothing until and unless she was able to do so.

"Secondly, we know Ghost Rider is the glue that holds these people together. If we can remove the heads of the hydra, we should be able to defeat the lower echelon quite easily. The question is, can we get it done quickly enough with minimal damage to our forces. I’m not sure it’s possible, because we need to take her *and* the faction leaders out of the picture completely." Doubt was very evident in both her words and her tone. She grew pensively silent.

"What else troubles you, my friend?"

She debated long and hard with herself about sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings with her comrade. This man, who had stood beside her, sharing life and death. Whom she had trusted her life to on many occasions, and had him place his own life in her hands in return. He was the closest thing to a confidante she had ever, or would ever know. And she needed to share, just a little bit.

"I’m in love, Tiny."

His eyes widened. Words he had never expected to hear from the Marine had tumbled from her lips and fallen on his ears. He made no immediate comment, though. There was nothing he could say at this point. He waited in silence for her to continue.

"You’re not gonna comment, Tiny? Tell me how stupid that is? What a waste of effort and energy?" she finished with a sneer. But the compassion in his eyes was her undoing, and she sank to her knees of the floor in defeat. Her voice fell to a bare whisper.

"I didn’t mean for it to happen, Tiny. But I couldn’t stop it. She means everything to me."

"Have you told her?"

"NO!" A breath. "No, and I won’t. She deserves better than me. She deserves to be happy."

"And if you’re what makes her happy?"

"She’ll forget soon enough, I think. This is a suicide mission, and you and I both know that. The odds of us, of me, surviving the outcome are nil. I won’t do that to her. I can’t."

"Randi?" No response. "Randi, look at me." He knelt on the floor beside her and cradled her face in his big hands. "How does she feel about you?" She made no verbal acknowledgment, but her eyes gave him all the answer he needed. He took her in his arms and held her while she cried away months of heartache and frustration. Crying for what could have been, what she really wanted, and what could never, would never be. When he felt her tears slow, and finally start to abate, he spoke softly.

"Randi, life is too short to not reach out and grab whatever happiness you can find with both hands. If being with her, even for just a little while would make you both happy, what is so wrong with that?"

"I want a lifetime, Tiny. I want forever. And I can’t offer that to her. I won’t ask her to accept or settle for less."

He heard the firm determination in her voice, and knew she had thought it all out before reaching this decision. The big man knew at this point he had no hope of changing her mind, but he couldn’t resist the impulse to try.

"You’re wrong, Randi. You’re not giving her the chance nor the opportunity to choose for herself. Can’t you see how wrong that is? How unfair you’re being to her? To you both?"

"Life’s not fair, Tiny. It never has been," she said quietly with a sigh.

The two remained locked in a comforting embrace for a while, until finally, Tiny’s body protested its discomfort at sitting on the hard floor.

"Randi, I need to move." He got no comeback, and looked down to find the tear stained face relaxed and the swollen eyes closed. Tiny stood, hefting the tall woman with negligent ease, and walked over to the bed. He placed her gently on the sheets, and moved to take her shoes off. A strong grip around his wrist gave him pause.

"Stay with me, Tiny. Please? I don’t want to be alone tonight."

He knew the admission for what it was, and nodded his agreement. He took off her shoes, and then his own, and climbed into the opposite side of the bed. He curled up protectively behind her, and cocooned her in his strong arms. She placed a hand on top of his, and squeezed gently.

"Thanks, Tiny."

"Anytime, my friend." Then sleep claimed them both.

When morning arrived, Tiny unwound himself from Randi, and moved to his own room to get cleaned up and changed. He had been recognized enough that he deemed it wise to stick around for another day. The big man was fairly certain the faction leaders were going to be receiving special orders in the next day or two, and he was going to try to learn what he could. He would be back before the rest of the team started trickling in to meet at the rendezvous in three days.

Tiny also felt it wise to give Randi a little space. She had opened up to him last night, and he knew from previous experience she would want a bit of time to distance herself from what she perceived to be a weakness. He grabbed the transport key card, and left for the two hour return trip to the encampment.

Shortly after Tiny had gone to his own room, Randi awoke. A bit disoriented, she wasn’t sure if her head or her heart hurt worse. She lay there for a long moment, wondering what had come over her, that she went to pieces like that. The Marine shrugged her broad shoulders, and pushed the rawness she felt out of her awareness. She had more important things to deal with. A long, hot shower helped clear her mind, and she went downstairs for breakfast.

Her three Sabre compatriots were there, two of them together, one of them alone. Since the one alone was sitting at a table for two, and the restaurant was quite busy, she asked to join her. An affirmative answer was given and she took a seat, engaging the woman in the small talk that strangers forced to share circumstances usually found themselves exchanging.

In their rather stilted conversation, they managed to set up a meeting for later in the day between the three scouts and Randi. When the meal was over, the Marine gave a slight nod to her companion, and left without a backwards glance.

She went to the marketplace, resolutely putting aside what she knew would be Gwen’s reaction to the delightfully colorful place. Instead, she concentrated on getting the supplies she need to take a day hike and picnic, and set off at a leisurely pace toward the lovely painted rocks in the distance.

The Marine was happy to be out and about again. The ten days they had been with the factions had been very wearing on her nerves. Probably why I went nuts on Tiny last night. She smiled at his consideration for her, in leaving her alone and giving her some space to put things back into a perspective she could handle.

For the first time in memory, Randi was not the first team member to arrive at the rendezvous point. In fact, she and Tabitha arrived at almost identical times. Tabitha got there just slightly ahead of her, and had just set her pack down when the Marine reached the hidden crevice where there were gathering. Each woman silent went about the tasks of setting up a mini camp. John and Lacey walked in together, each with a small load of firewood. As soon as everyone was seated comfortably, the discussion began.


"Well, we learned some things, but it’s mostly bad," from John.


"Like there is an underground fortress here. Like this is not the only hidden fortress the Ghost Rider has, and in fact, this isn’t her headquarters. Or the fact that security around her is tighter than a drum."

"Like the fact that a majority of the dissidents weren’t here." Lacey chimed in.

"WHAT?!?" For the first time Randi’s voice rose, and she stood and paced in the confined area.

"It’s true, chief." Tabitha spoke up now. This was mostly for each individual pocket leader world wide to come and meet his or her faction leader."

"So we’re talking about a force of at least two hundred fifty thousand people organized and ready for war?"

"Looks that way, boss."

"Shit!" The Marine rubbed the back of her suddenly aching neck, and sank to the ground. "All right. Any good news?"

"Not really. Not yet. Our best hope for any kind of helpful information at this point is Bren or Tiny. They’ve got the best "ins".

"I did hear a bit of conversation between a couple of her security people. There is going to be another meet, for the faction leaders alone. They didn’t mention specifics. Just a casual comment about hoping the security wouldn’t be so lax." Lacey trailed off when she saw everybody looking at her.

"Well, that’s a start. Let’s hope Bren or Tiny can come up with something definite on that. Now, let’s see what all we know." And the rest of the afternoon was spent reviewing the facts they had, and speculating on possibilities.

The next day saw Nick amble in mid morning, followed by Cam coming in near dark. Both men were exceedingly happy for the shabby little transports they’d gotten, especially Cam. It was a two hour ride to the desert rendezvous. No one really wanted to know what kind of walking time they were looking at. And since Cam had had to take the long way around, he was more than glad to be riding. Tiny actually stumbled in in the dark, early morning hours, though he did manage to stumble quietly. Then they all settled in to wait for Brenda. She wouldn’t be arriving before sunset, at the very earliest. Randi frankly expected her sometime the next day.

The Sabres had checked out of their various hotels, and now had a camp set up at the rendezvous. They spent the time waiting honing skills with practice, talking, meditating. and resting. They were forging a tighter bond to see them through the difficult days that lay ahead.

Randi, for her part spent most of her mornings alone recovering her center of balance. Her time was so short now, she didn’t want to have to push Gwen away. She wanted her equilibrium back before she returned home. Though they had done no fighting and killing on this mission, they had seen and heard some horrendous things. A bit of time spent in deep meditation each morning helped her achieve some of the peace she was seeking. It would have to suffice for now.

Brenda came walking into came shortly after dawn of the fourth morning. She flopped gracelessly on the ground. "I’m beat."

"You wanna go crawl in the tent and take a bit of a rest?" Randi offered the exhausted woman. "I think we can wait another few hours for your report."

"You sure?" The Sabre was tired beyond belief, but knew where her duty lay.

"Is a few hours gonna make a difference for us?"

"No, we’ve got a bit of time."

"Then go rest. I’ll wake you around midday."

Brenda nodded, then slowly moved to the tent, where she immediately feel into a deep, dreamless sleep. The others, mindful of her need, chose quiet tasks to pass the time until lunch.

When the noon meal was ready, Randi went into the tent to wake her friend. She noticed the woman had not removed her shoes before tumbling onto a pallet, and it looked as though she hadn’t stirred from her original spot. The Marine’s light touch on her shoulder brought her to consciousness instantly, albeit she did not react defensively, her body recognizing a comrade.

The black woman scrubbed her hand over her face in an effort to jump start her brain. Then she looked to Randi with a question in her eyes. The Marine nodded back.

"It’s midday, and lunch is ready."

"Good. I’m starving."

Randi put a hand out to stop the other woman’s progress as they reached the doorway. "Hey, you okay? You wanna talk?" The Marine wondered if she sounded nearly as awkward as she felt. But the truth was she was feeling horribly guilty about putting the woman in the position she’d ended up in.

"Randi, c’mere a minute." The short woman took the taller woman’s hand and led her back to then pallet she had just vacated. "Look, I’ll be honest with you. I wasn’t real thrilled that I ended up in the leader’s bed for the week. It’s certainly not what I would have chosen, given the choice. BUT, *you* didn’t make the choice, *he* did. And he treated me well, Randi. He never forced himself on me. In another life, who knows? But in this one, it got us the information we needed. And I’m glad, proud that you chose me to be a part of this team. We *will* make a difference. And though no one but us ever knows how much, we will always know. And that’s enough for me. Okay?"

It was the longest speech she had ever heard from her fellow Sabre, and Randi sat quietly thinking about it for a minute. "Okay, Bren." Nothing more was said between them. They understood one another, and that was enough.

Their plates were fixed and waiting for them when they left the confines of the tent. Lunch conversation was light, and consisted mostly of some of the interesting sights they had seen in the different factions’ camps. When the meal was over, however, talk turned serious, and Brenda took center stage.

"I gotta say, Ghost Rider is well organized. If we can’t stop her at the Equinoctial meeting, we have very little hope. Do we have a world map?"

Tiny unfurled the small one he kept with him. Most Sabres had one somewhere in their kit. The majority of mankind could not read or understand them because they were not electronic devices. And these maps provided the location of every military facility on the planet, which was always handy to know when you’d been in the bush for days on end.

Now, he took the map out, and laid it flat for Brenda to read. He held one side, while Randi held the other, and the others crowded in as close as they could. Her lips moved silently, as her fingers traced latitudinal and longitudinal lines to a point where they met.

"Here," she said at last. "Here is the meeting place for the faction leaders meeting."

"The middle of the ocean?? They’re meeting on a boat??"

"No, nothing so simple, my friend. Apparently, this is the Ghost Rider’s headquarters. And it is located on the bottom of the ocean floor."

Stunned silence met this pronouncement. Then. . . "Excuse me. Did you say the *bottom* of the ocean floor?"

"Yeah, I did. And believe me, everyone else had the same reaction. Apparently no one is particularly thrilled to have to make this journey."

"And you got details, specs. . . ? "

"I got everything she gave to them."



"Nice job, Bren!"

"Way to go!"

"Okay, people. Let’s get back to work." The focus resumed on Brenda, and the small woman took a deep breath before continuing.

"There are specific routes the leaders are to follow to get to this fortress. And there are specific vehicles that will be placed in their control to get them there. We will need to take out the security people, and then we can take out the hydra’s heads. They will all be there together for the week of the Spring Equinox. It will be our only opportunity to stop them, I’m afraid. Once they leave this facility, getting a hold of them becomes much more complicated."

"When are they scheduled to arrive and leave?" This from Randi who was seeing her plans with Gwen go sliding down the drain.

"They are scheduled for staggered arrivals on Equinox. Meetings won’t begin until the following day."

"Okay. We need to do a bit of thinking and planning here. But I think we have a real shot at this." A feral twinkle entered the blue eyes as a plan began to form itself. And it would even allow her to accompany Gwen to the awards ceremony and banquet.

"Do we have a real shot of coming out of this alive?"

"I’d say for almost everyone here, odds have risen considerably. But this is still extremely dangerous for all of us. You know that, Tiny. But I’ll do my best to see everyone gets home safely, okay?" She sounded more than a little frustrated, because she knew where he was going with this, and really didn’t want to go over all this again now. He didn’t take the hint.

"Even you?"

"Well, Tiny, someone’s gonna have to stay behind and pull the switch. And that responsibility falls to me alone." The no nonsense tone in her voice got his attention, and he let it lay.

"Now, we’ve got some serious planning to do before we can separate, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready to go home and get in my own bed. So, let’s get done."

The initial planning took the rest of the daylight hours, and most of the next day’s. By that evening, though, they had things roughed out, tasks assigned and were ready to head for their respective homes. They were scheduled to meet together in three weeks, to make sure things were on track. With spring Equinox only six weeks away, they had some serious work to accomplish quickly.

Goodbyes early the following morning were bitter sweet. It was kind of like leaving your family. Hating to go, but glad to leave. They staggered their departures, with Randi being the last to head out. She was actually taking a direct route home. The more than three weeks she had been gone made her anxious to get back. Knowing precisely how limited her time was made it all the more valuable. And her determination to keep her feelings to herself became that much stronger.

It was very late when Randi finally arrived at the darkened beach house. She was a little surprised when Ditto did not meet her at the door, as had become the dog’s habit when she arrived home. The Marine suspected the shepherd was out on one of her nocturnal hunts, and figured she’d see the dog sometime after daybreak. Hope she doesn’t get all smelly again, wrinkling her nose in remembrance of the scent the dog had brought with her to Tommy’s house on Festival morning. Shrugging her shoulders, she moved to put her dirty laundry in the hamper to be washed.

She finally noticed, on her way back to her bedroom, that all the boxes which had been stacked neatly against the wall were now gone. Guess Gwen’s been busy. That thought made her want to go look in on her friend, to check and make sure she was there and unharmed. She shook her head in self disgust. You’re pathetic, Valiant. Go get a shower and go to bed. You’ll see her soon enough in the morning.

The hot water felt good on tired, achy muscles. The cold water stream they had used for bathing was good for getting a person clean, but it left a lot to be desired in the relaxation department. The Marine stood there for long moments just absorbing the warmth once she was clean. Finally, though, she turned the water of and stepped out.

Dried off and dressed, she padded toward the kitchen in search of a snack. Ditto, however, stopped her at the bedroom door. Randi knelt to be at eye level with the dog.

"Hey, girl!" briskly rubbing her ears. "How ya doing, huh?" The shepherd whimpered at her mistress, and nudged the woman’s chest. "What’s wrong, girl? Hmm? What’s the matter?"

Ditto rose from her haunches and took several towards the staircase. She turned to be sure Randi was following. The Marine moved after her, and the dog, satisfied, headed up the steps. The brunette kept up her low murmur of running dialogue with the canine, content that the dog was taking care of the bard. When they reached the loft balcony, the shepherd took a sentinel post beside the open door. Randi could hear soft cries and mumbling coming from inside the room. She hesitated at the doorway, not wanting to invade her friend’s privacy, until she heard her own name called out.

"RANDI!!!! Oh God, no! Please, Randi! NO!"

The Marine rushed to the bard’s bedside, wondering what she had done to have caused the woman such terror in her dreams. Softly, she began to speak to the blonde, crooning words of comfort that seemed to assuage the bard’s fears. Then she reached forth a gentle hand, and slowly moved the hair away from the flushed face. Sleepy green eyes opened and looked at the Sabre in disbelief.

"Are you real?

Randi wondered at the tenor of the question, but answered it honestly.

"Yes. Are you okay? It sounded li. . . ."

That was all the reassurance Gwen needed before she flung herself into her companion’s strong arms. Randi just cradled her there until the bard stopped shaking and pulled back a bit. "Sorry, I, um. . . I was, uh. . . having a bad. . . . "

"Shh." Long fingers lightly covered soft lips. "It’s okay. I understand." Gwen tucked her head under Randi’s chin and resumed her hold on the older woman, though not quite as tightly as before. "You wanna talk about it?" the Marine whispered at the top of the blonde head.

"Nothing to talk about, really. I know I was scared. It was just a bad dream."

Now it was Randi’s turn to pull back a little, and bend down to look Gwen squarely in the face, directly in the eyes. What she saw there gave her pause. While the bard was apparently telling her the truth about not remembering the dream, there were black circles underneath those verdant eyes attesting to more than one nights lost sleep. She sat down on the bed and leaned back against the headboard, still holding on to the bard. Two fingers lifted Gwen’s chin so Randi could keep eye contact.

"Hey, you okay?" she asked the small woman again.

"I’m fine. Much better in fact, now that you’re home. I missed you, Randi."

"Ditto, Little One," stifling a yawn.

At the sound of her name, the dog came into the room and settled contentedly at the foot of the bed.

"Looks like she thinks she owns the place," the Marine commented with a chuckle.

The bard felt, as much as heard, the light laugh, and responded in kind. "You mean she doesn’t? She settled herself in her with me the day you left, and she sticks pretty close. I think she’d even go to work with me if I’d take her."

"Good girl, Ditto. You kept a good eye on Gwen." The shepherd lifted her head and gave a sharp staccato bark of agreement.

"You had her keeping an eye on me?"

"Nope, didn’t have to. She knows." The Marine closed her eyes. Just for a minute, she thought.

"She knows? Knows what?" But there was no answer. Gwen looked up at the serene, sleeping face of her companion, and shrugged. She reached down, and snagged the covers, then pulled them up, and settled down into sleep herself.

"Ow! Ow! Damn!" came the muttered cursing from the brunette. "Who’s bright idea was this anyway?" It was nearly dawn, and Randi had woken up to screaming pain in her neck and shoulders. She had never meant to fall asleep, especially given the god-awful position she had been sitting in.

"Yours," came the burring answer from the blonde head tucked just under her chin. "You fell asleep while we were talking. Here," untangling herself from the taller woman, and moving to lay flat on one side of the bed. "Scootch down and go back to sleep." Green eyes were already closing.

"Maybe I should. . . ." The Marine’s upward motion was halted by a small hand pressing against the middle of her chest.

"Maybe you should just lay down and go back to sleep."

Randi didn’t really want to leave, and she gave in to her desire, and just lay back and closed her eyes. Her left hand came up to tangle with the fingers still splay lightly on her chest. She felt a soft return squeeze before slipping back into the realm of dreams.

Things settled into something of a normal rhythm for the two women over the course of the next three weeks. Up early, Randi and Ditto took their morning together. The shepherd had regained her favorite spot in front of the fireplace once the Marine returned, knowing Randi was there to take care of the bard. By the time they got back, Gwen was up, showered and fixing breakfast. After the meal, Randi cleaned up while the story teller finished getting ready. Then they rode in to work together.

Mondays and Wednesdays, the Marine left right after lunch, to meet up with the guys in the band. Tommy had pulled a few strings, to insure that they could get the time off to practice. The drummer was thrilled with the amount of effort the guys had put into making sure this would be a success. She was convinced Gwen was gonna be captivated. The blonde had been subtly after her to sing with the band since she’d heard her in the boathouse. For this party, the bard was going to get her wish.

They rode home again together, always stopping by for at least a few minutes every day to see and play with Randall. Dinner, which they usually prepared together, was full of lively conversation, and the evenings were spent first on their individual tasks, and then in quiet talks or peaceful solitude in front of the fireplace. It was a time of peace, and Randi’s soul sorely craved it, and stored the feeling against the onslaught of war that was coming.

Fridays, again, were spent at band practice. The guys were hard pressed to keep quiet, and keep a lid on their excitement. In fact, Gwen noticed the elevated energy levels, but just put it down to the happiness over Randi’s return. Though they never said much, they drew energy from her playing, and it showed.

By now, though, everyone was aware of the surprise party planned for the bard, though most did not know of Randi’s hidden agenda for Gwen. The entire Midas compound was on a countdown to spring.

On the third Saturday since her homecoming, while they were getting ready for their bike ride, the Marine turned to Gwen. "I just wanted you to know I’ll be gone all day tomorrow. But I’ll be back sometime tomorrow night."

A thousand questions sprang to the bard’s lips at this pronouncement. All she said aloud was, "Be careful, okay?"

"I promise."

Then she stepped onto the bike behind her blonde companion, and settled back to enjoy the ride.

In the darkest hour before the dawn, Randi was up and gone from the beach house. The rendezvous was actually close to her, but it was going to be a long meeting she suspected. The sooner they started the sooner it would all be over.

They were actually in a well hidden cove at a beach on an island right off the mainland near Midas. Randi had stumbled across it shortly after her arrival when she had gotten her "discharge" papers. And as far as she could tell, no one else had ever visited it.

Her comrades arrived in two boats just as dawn started lightening the night darkened sky. She had things set up and breakfast waiting when they stepped foot into the cove. Each of them grabbed a roll and some coffee, and with a mumbled "Good Morning", they fell to work with a will.

It took all morning, and a majority of the afternoon, before all the details were sorted out, and the assignments settled. Then they took an hour just to sit and talk together as friends. This would be the last time they saw each other until this was all over, and it was accepted fact at this point that, short of a miracle or divine intervention, they would not all be together at the end of that day.

Finally, as they prepared to leave, Randi withdrew a flask of Scotch from her bag, and poured each of her Sabre teammates a swallow.

"My friends," she said, raising her flask in salute. "It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with each and every one of you. CARPE DIEM!!!"

"SEIZE THE DAY!!" they repeated in tandem after her, then as one, drained their glasses. Without another word, they loaded up, and headed out, confident they would achieve victory.

It was just good dark, when Randi approached the beach house. This time, she was met at the door with a body full of exuberant German shepherd ready for a tussle. Happy to comply, she didn’t even notice the blonde in the kitchen doorway with the camera taking holo-pics. After about fifteen minutes, both dog and mistress lay sprawled on the floor exhausted. Soft chuckling from the kitchen made the Marine roll from her back to her stomach and glare in Gwen’s direction

"What’s so funny?"

"You are," came the unrepentant answer.

"I live to amuse."

"You do so very well. Would you like dinner? It’s about ready."

"Really? Yeah, just give me a minute to clean up."

It took a little longer than a minute, but things picked up as though the Marine had not been gone on a mysterious errand for the entire day.

The next three weeks flew by for the two. Randi wished for a way to capture time by the tail and slow it down a bit. It was so very nice to be able to just sit and talk with Gwen, to listen to her tell stories or share her dreams. She could only hope that the bard would one day look back and treasure these quiet times as much as the Marine herself did now.

For her part, Gwen *did* treasure the quiet time they’d had to spend together. The conversation was nice, though far less revealing of her companion than it was of herself. But mostly she simply cherished their time together. Something about Randi had been different, withdrawn, since her trip after Festival, and no amount of questioning or puzzling helped her figure it out. It was enough that the Marine was here with her. Everything else would have to be revealed in Randi’s own good time.


Chapter XVII

Early that last week before the spring equinox, Tommy and Randi put together the finishing touches on their game plan. Randi placed a vid call to Gwen’s parents, making sure they would be available for both the party and the ceremony. They had actually made all their arrangements during Festival, but the Marine was anxious, and talking to the Goldmans helped her calm down. She so badly wanted this to go right. It was the last thing she was going to be able to do for her bard.

On Friday morning, just as Tommy had predicted, Gwen made her way to his office first thing.

"T, is this schedule right?"

"Hmm?" looking over the paper she handed him. "Yeah, that’s right. You’ve only got half a day today."

"Damn! Wish I’d have known about this earlier."

"Why, is there a problem?

"Sorta, but not really. It’s just that Randi and I rode in together."

"That’s not a problem. I’m sure Randi wouldn’t mind taking a half holiday and playing hooky with you."

A genuine smile crossed the fair features. "That might be fun. Think the boss would let her?"

‘The Boss’ snorted. "And when has ‘the boss’ ever been able to stop her from doing whatever she wanted or needed to do? The woman is a law unto herself, and well you know it." Their laughter rang through the room. "G’wan. I’ll make sure she knows she needs to be free after lunch."

"Thanks, Tommy. We’ll see you at practice tonight, right?"

"As far as I know." He did manage to keep a straight face until the door closed behind her. Then his grin grew to resemble that of a Cheshire cat. The first call he made was to Randi. "It worked. She has no clue." Her smile echoed his own.

"I’ll tell her about tonight at lunch. Is Ella picking up Geoff and Jill?"

He looked at his watch. "As we speak. We’ll keep them at the house tonight."

"All right, T. Thanks."

The lunch room was a-buzz with excitement. Everyone there knew of and was attending the big, formal surprise party Tommy was hosting for Gwen that night. The chatter didn’t stop when she and Randi entered the room, though the Marine did notice all eyes turned their way, and big smiles greeted them before turning back to their own meals. Gwen chalked it up to the coming of spring. People always seemed just a little bit happier then.

"I hear you’ve got the afternoon free," Randi commented once they were seated at their table. "By happy coincidence, so do I. Wanna go shopping?"

The bard looked at her companion in complete shock and disbelief. The woman never wanted to go shopping and now she was offering?!? What was up with *that*?

"I know. I know. I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but when T gave me the rest of the day off, he invited us out for dinner and dancing. . . a real *adult* evening. I told him yes, if you wanted to, but now I need a new shirt."

"What happened to practice?"

"Oh, CL and Tony called in sick with the flu. So, practice is a no go, and we are free for the evening. Wanna go play with Tommy and Ella?"

"Sure, sounds like fun. And if we’re going shopping anyway, I can get a new dress for tonight."

Randi rolled her eyes in mock exasperation, but inwardly she was as giddy as a schoolgirl. "Yeah, you can get a new dress. You about ready to leave?" looking down at the younger woman’s now empty plate.

"Uh huh. Let me grab my stuff, and I’ll meet you out front in five." The brunette ushered the blonde out in front of her, but paused in the doorway to make eye contact with Tommy, and give him the thumbs up. The muted cheer that rose after the door was closed made her smile.

Shopping wasn’t nearly the chore that she’d expected it to be, though that probably had as much to do with the company she was in as anything else. Gwen had found a white silk shirt that Randi actually really liked not long after they got started. And Gwen’s comment cinched the sale for the Sabre. It highlights your tan and brings out the color of your eyes. I like it.

Finding something for the bard that both she and the Marine liked, was a bit harder. After a solid hour of patient and not-so-patient looking, the tall woman held up a sleeveless aqua silk sheath. "I like this one," she announced. Having seen some of Randi’s other somewhat dubious selections, the blonde was hesitant. The Marine seemed to be looking strictly at color, though Gwen liked this shade herself. She took the dress from Randi, and held it up in front of herself. She looked from Randi, who was smiling in approving pleasure, to Maria, who was doing her best not to let the bard know this was the dress the Sabre had commissioned specifically for her.

"Try it on, Gwen. Let’s see how it looks."

The blonde went to the changing room, and slipped into the dress. It came to mid thigh, and outlined her figure very nicely. The rounded neckline was modest, though it did show a teasing hint of firm breasts. "Well," she muttered to herself, glancing in the mirror. A voice interrupted her musing.

"How’s it look?"

"Judge for yourself," Gwen answered as she stepped into the room. "Can you please zip me up the rest of the way? I couldn’t reach." She moved her hair to one side, then dropped it and walked forward a pace before turning around to face the Marine.

Randi could feel the slow flush burning its way up her skin. Two more days, Valiant. You can control yourself two more days. But she questioned if this was gonna be a losing battle. Aloud, she commented, "Um, Wow! You look fabulous!"

The bard noticed the blush and wondered what was behind it. It made her just a bit shy. "Really?" looking first to Randi, and then to Maria. The dressmaker nodded enthusiastically.

"Really," she confirmed. "It looks like it was made for you," she couldn’t resist adding.

"Great, I’ll take it." The she glanced at the Marine. "Do you think we could find a nice spot to have some tea? I need a break."

Randi nodded mutely, still a bit overcome by the effects of the dress. Gwen moved closer. "Are you all right?"

"Hmm? Yeah, I just think I’m ready for a break as well." She turned to Maria. "Can we leave this stuff here and pick it up on our way back?"

"Sure. No problem."

"I’ll go change then," said Gwen. "Be right back."

They waited for the door to close behind her before Randi whispered, "What about the other dress?"

"Ella and Mrs. Goldman were in this morning and picked it up. She will take it up when ya’ll leave in the morning. It shouldn’t need any alterations, since it was made on the same specs as this one, but if it does, I can be there in little more than a couple hours."

"Thanks, Maria. I can’t wait to see her face."

"I’m looking forward to tonight myself." And then the conversation halted as a blonde head poked out of the door.

"Randi, could you come get the zipper for me please?"

The Marine gritted her teeth silently, but smiled at her companion, and moved to do her bidding. She was sure the gods were conspiring against her at this point. And she wasn’t at all certain how long her resolve would last against this sort of temptation.

The tea house they went to was actually a favorite. The proprietor was an old friend, and he seated them in the garden that was just coming into bloom under his precise care. The hour melted away, and it was with some regret that they moved to leave.

"Thanks, Willie. It was lovely, as always."

"Anytime, ladies. You know you are welcome here anytime."

Gwen decided to take a long relaxing bath when they got back to the beach house. Randi, on the other hand, opted for a shower, since she had a vid call to make while the bard was indisposed. So now she sat, toweling her hair dry, dress in shorts and a tank top talking to Tommy.

"Everything’s all set then?"

"Yep, The dance floor has been laid, the guys have already got the band set up on the pavilion stage, and the caterers are already here." She heaved a sigh of relief. "We do have one minor problem." The Marine stiffened at these words.


"Randall is cutting teeth. So it’s probably gonna be a relatively short night for Ella and I. And we won’t be able to be there tomorrow."

"Aw, Tommy. . . . "

"I know, hon, but what are ya gonna do? He’s miserable and cranky, and making everyone around him that way as well. Don’t worry, though. I’ve got things covered and it will all be recorded. I’ll be getting a live feed from both the ceremony and the party afterwards. I’ll put together a nice momento for all of us." He didn’t tell the woman of the elaborate plans to cover both the events and she and Gwen personally.

The Sabre smiled, though it never reached her eyes. "Okay. Still wish you could be there, though."

"So do I. Next time."

A sad nod of agreement. "Is Jill around?"

"Uh, yeah, hang on a sec." He waited until the woman picked up the call in her and Geoff’s room, before shutting the call off in his study, and leaving to go get ready.

"Hi, Randi! What’s up?’

"Aside from my blood pressure?" the younger woman joked. "Not much. I just wanted your thoughts on the dress."

"My God, child! It’s beautiful. She’s going to be absolutely breathtaking in it. And let me just say, if this is your work, your design, you are in the wrong line of work. It’s fantastic."

"No, I could never do something like this on a regular basis. This was special, and it took forever to create. Besides, it was a labor of love. I couldn’t do that for anyone else.

"Well, it’s gorgeous. You did a fabulous job."

The Marine blushed a little at the effusive praise. "Thanks, Jill. Listen, let me run before Gwen gets out of the tub and catches me talking to you. I’d hate to spoil the surprise at this point." She saw the confusion plainly on the older woman’s face. "She’d recognize Tommy’s house in the background." Realization dawned, and Jill nodded in comprehension.

"Okay, see you both shortly," then she ended the call.

Randi was dressed and ready before Gwen made her appearance. Getting into the leather pants had taken less time than deciding how to wear the shirt. Finally, though, she’d tied the two ends into a halter just below her ribs, and rolled the sleeves to her elbows. She left it unbuttoned just far enough to expose a hint of cleavage. Boots for her feet and a braid for her hair, and she was ready to go.

Now she paced back and forth silently, willing herself to calm. She wanted so much for this night to go well, and she was very nervous about performing. Funny, it’s never bothered me before. But it’s never been so important to me before, either. A slight gasp from the loft caused her to look up.

"Wow," the bard breathed. "You look incredible."

The Marine found herself blushing under the compliment. "Thanks. So do you. You need help?" remembering the zipper difficulties of earlier in the day.

"Do you mind?" Gwen asked, even as she presented her back to the taller woman. Her hair was pulled up in a twist, and was already off her neck.

"Wouldn’t have offered if I did. There ya go," patting the younger woman’s shoulder. She was caught off guard when Gwen grabbed the hand and squeezed it.


She cleared her throat. "You, um, about ready to go?"

"Yep. Let’s do it."

They walked out toward the garage. "Are we meeting them at their house, or in town?"

"Their place, why?"

"Can we take the bike over? I feel daring." And considering the length of the dress she had on, it was quite a dare.

Randi groaned inwardly. The gods are all conspiring against me here. I’m not gonna survive to go on this mission at this rate. "Uh, sure, I guess, if you want. We both need to get a jacket or something, though. This mild spring air gets downright chilly on that bike, ya know."

"I know."

With Gwen wrapped in her leather bike jacket, and Randi in her long duster, they settled themselves on the motorcycle. The decision was made to leave the helmets at home, since Gwen couldn’t wear hers with her hair up, and the distance was relatively short. Randi sat down first, and started the bike, then reached a hand back to seat the bard. Warm hands wrapped around her bare midriff, and she shivered in response. Gwen tucked the reaction away in her mind.

"Let’s go, tough stuff," the blonde commented to her companion with a pat on the exposed belly. Without another word, they were off.

In order to keep things a surprise, Tommy had hired multiple large transports to bring folks to the island. Five minutes before the two women were due to arrive, he got the prearranged signal from Randi that they were on their way. Everyone made their way outside, and stood in the shadows, waiting patiently.

When he heard the bike, the man muttered to his wife, "Wonder whose idea *that* was?" And then Randi was knocking at the door.

"Wow! You guys look great," he said in honest appreciation when he opened the door. "Come in. Ella will be out in a minute." She had gone back to check on her unhappy offspring before the knock, as had been agreed upon earlier. She lifted the boy up and cuddled him to keep him quiet, while she went out the back door and joined the others waiting to surprise the bard.

"We’ve got a couple minutes. Can ya’ll come out and see something? I’ve added something to the band pavilion that I think you’ll like."

"What is it?" asked the inquisitive bard.

"You’ll have to see it for yourself. It’s kind of unexplainable." Tommy led the way to the double French doors and opened them. "Over that way," he directed them, as he turned to pull the doors shut behind him.

Gwen reached out and took Randi’s hand in a firm grip. The Marine gave her a reassuring squeeze, and led her out toward the stage area. Halfway there, the bard noticed Tommy wasn’t right behind them, and they were no longer walking on what should have been grass. She looked up at Randi, concerned, who smiled down at her indulgently. And if as by some hidden signal, the world around them came alive in a cacophony of sound and movement.

"SURPRISE!!!!!" Many voice rang out, and caused the blonde to reach her free hand to her chest.

"Wha. . . ? Why?"

Tommy held up his hands for silence. "Gwen, we all," gesturing to the many people clustered around in their finery," wanted to congratulate you on being one of the youngest recipients in Guild history to receive the lifetime achievement award. To wish you well at the awards ceremony tomorrow night. And to salute your continued success!" A cheer rose up from the crowd.

She stopped breathing for a minute, then turned and hid her face in the Sabre’s chest. Randi wrapped her arms around the younger woman, and whispered into her hair.


"I’m sorry. Just a little overwhelmed." The bard wiped a lone tear from her face. Then she straightened a little, though she kept an arm attached to the tall woman’s waist. "Waitaminute. . . awards ceremony tomorrow night?!?"

Randi was glad for the arm she still had around Gwen, as it prevented her from going anywhere. "Trust me? I promise it’ll be fine," she whispered.

Green eyes gazed into blue for a long moment. "Always," she replied. Then she turned back to face the expectantly waiting crowd, never releasing her hold on her companion, nor allowing the Sabre to remove the supporting arm from the bard’s waist.

"My friends," looking around at the sea of people she had come to know over the years. "Thank you all so much. For being here tonight. For being part of my life. For sharing and caring. Now," she said with a giggle, "enough of the mushy stuff. Let’s get this party started." The people roared their approval.

Randi gently led the bard toward the spot Tommy nodded her to. Gwen looked at her questioningly, and the Marine merely raised her eyebrow, and turned her head.

"Mother? Daddy?" And without another word, leaped into their embrace. She turned a loving look on the Sabre. "You did this. You arranged this whole thing, didn’t you?"

The brunette flushed in embarrassment, and scratched the back of her neck. She kept her eyes on the ground and scuffed her toe on the wood floor. "Um, well. . . I, um. . . ." And found herself with an armful of warm blonde bard.

"Thank you, Randi! This is just so awesome."

Randi returned the hug with all the love she could show without actually hurting the smaller woman, She slowly set Gwen on her feet again.

"I, uh, I need to go. The guys are waiting for me." She motioned toward the stage.

"Ya’ll are playing tonight? For real?"


"This is just too cool!" They shared a big smile, and Randi moved to take her place behind the drums.

The Marine found the reaction she got to her outfit once she removed the leather coat surprising. "What??" she questioned the guys in the band after a long moment of stunned silence and staring. They all shook their heads, unable and unwilling to explain. Instead they picked up instruments, and waited for her to count them out.

However, even that took a bit of time, as Gwen chose that minute to remove her outer covering. The entire place whistled and cheered, and the bard blushed a beet red. She turned her attention to the drummer, who gave her a dazzling grin. Gwen echoed the smile, and Randi counted the band down to its first number.

After fifty-five minutes, the band was ready for a break. Randi grabbed one of the towels Ella had set out for that purpose and headed towards the bard. "Here," she said laughingly. You look like you need this as badly or worse than I do." It wasn’t really true, though. The drummer was sweating profusely. And while the bard had danced the entire time the band had been playing, she was merely flushed and slightly winded. "God, don’t you ever sweat?" Randi questioned while wiping another bead of moisture that had started rolling down her face.

"Hmm," was the only reply the blonde made, as Tommy chose that moment to ask for everyone’s attention.

"Folks, I’m sure you’ve noticed the caterers have gotten most everything set up, so we’ll ask our guest of honor to make her way over to the buffet lines and get things started."

"Gwen," the Marine whispered when the bard didn’t immediately move, "he’s talking about you."

Blushing slightly when she realized all eyes were turned her way. "Oh, sorry, guys," with a modest shrug. "I forgot."

A chuckle rippled through the crowd at her words. One of the nicest things about the bard was her unassuming manner and modesty. They laughed a second time, as with a tug, she drew the Marine along with her to insure she wasn’t alone.

The dinner hour was a very pleasant interval. The banter among the six friends sitting together was warm and funny, and everyone took the time to come over and speak to the bard personally. She was amazed at how many friends she had really made, and her parents were equally impressed with their daughter’s newly developed people skills. Until she had come to Midas, though friendly to one and all alike, Gwen had been very much a loner. It was amazing the difference one person, the right person, had made in her life.

Geoff sat quietly watching the Sabre watch the bard. And he could see the sadness underwritten in her eyes while her face continued to smile at the conversation and activities taking place around them. He felt the chill of premonition chase up his spine. He had a feeling their time had just about run out.

Talk continued to flow for a few minutes after the meal was completed, as Randi waited for her band mates to finish eating. She used it as an excuse to take Randall away from his mother, and rock him gently to sleep. It was very faint, but Geoff could have sworn he heard a lullaby coming from her direction. When the baby was soundly asleep, the Marine rose from her seat and made her way into the house. A few minutes later, she returned, and if he had not been studying her so intently, he would have missed it. Just before she stepped back outside, she lifted a discreet hand to her eyes and wiped them, then put a smile back on her face and moved stepped back onto the terrace.

When the drummer came out, the rest of the band took it as their signal to head back to the stage area to start the second part of their show. It was hard to tell who was more nervous about this, them or Randi, but they all wanted to make this part special. Because it was something they could give back to a woman who had given so much of herself to them without expecting or asking for anything in return.

Gwen was more than a little puzzled when Greg walked around and took the drum position. She looked for her tall friend, but couldn’t see hide nor hair of her. How does six feet of silk and leather just up and disappear? Then the band kicked off the opening chords of its second set, and she stopped wondering, and just stood in awe as Randi came out singing.

Jill reached over and gently pushed the bard’s mouth closed. "Careful, dear. You’ll start catching flies." The twinkle in her eyes made the rest of the table smile in reaction. And seeing the energy and enthusiasm the Sabre and her music were generating, and the response it created in the bard, Tommy was glad beyond measure for the time and effort he had spent to set up making sure a permanent record of this night was being made.

It didn’t take long before the dance floor was full, but Gwen never moved from her spot, her attention riveted on the dark, lithe form belting out song after song. Many of them the bard recognized from the Marine’s enormous collection of oldies music. She was trying to figure out when they’d had time to practice and prepare for this night, since she attended all the Friday night rehearsals that the drummer did. I’ll have to ask her later. This is phenomenal.

No one bothered the bard. Her entranced look was too precious to disturb, and more than one couple on the dance floor commented to their partner about the almost palpable love between the two women. Finally the band wound down, and stopped, though no one moved from their positions. Applause and cheers rang out over and over for them, even when Randi signaled for quiet. After taking a bow, she asked for quiet again, and this time the crowd was happy to comply, sensing the best was yet to come.

"Thanks, guys, thanks! You’ve been great!" Another loud whoop allowed the woman to take a long drink of water and wipe her face before continuing. "Um, wow! Thanks!" She hesitated, not really sure she could go through with it now that the moment was at hand. But she’d given her word to Tommy, and she wasn’t gonna let him down now.

"When Tommy came to me with this idea a few months ago, he made a special request of me, of us," gesturing to the guys behind her. She moved to sit on the edge of the stage, and the band members took their cue from her, and sat on the stools they used during practice. She’d said she was gonna have to give an intro to her last song, and they were very content to take a break. The audience also decided to resume their seats, wondering where all this was heading.

"For those of you who don’t know, T and I grew up together and have been best buds since I was, what. . . five, Tommy?" He nodded his head. "Anyway," scratching the back of her neck, "we grew up listening to the same music, and right up until the time he and Ella fell in love, he claimed the oldies I liked were all to, um, sappy. Imagine how falling in love changed that." She snickered, and the crowd laughed in response. Tommy and Ella just blushed and nodded.

"By coincidence, one of my favorite, all time love songs is an ancient one both they and our beautiful guest of honor have come to adore. So if you folks will be kind enough to indulge me, I would like to close out the night with this song." Clapping greeted her words.

She slid off the stage and onto the dance floor, and stood waiting for an introduction. This song was particularly hard for her, as it said everything she could never bring her self to admit openly to the bard. She took a deep breath to control the butterflies now screaming in her gut. But once the music began to play, she tuned out everything but the words, the music, and the green eyes of her best friend that she knew were watching. She saw tears spring up as Gwen recognized the tune, and smiled. Then she lost herself in the message of the song itself.

Because You Loved Me

Words and Music by Diane Warren

c Realsongs/Touchstone Pictures Music & Songs, Inc. (ASCAP)

All rights reserved. Used without permission.

Performed by Celine Dion

For all those times you stood by me

For all the truth that you made me see

For all the joy you brought to my life

For all the wrong that you made right

For every dream I had come true

For all the love I found in you

I’ll be forever thankful, baby

You’re the one who held me up

Never let me fall

You’re the one who saw me through

Through it all.

You were my strength when I was weak

You were my voice when I couldn’t speak

You were my eyes when I couldn’t see

You saw the best there was in me

Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach

You gave me faith cause you believed

I’m everything I am

Because you loved me.

You gave me wings and made me fly

You touched my hand I could touch the sky

I lost my faith, you gave it back to me

You said no star was out of reach

You stood by me and I stood tall

I had your love I had it all

I’m grateful for each day you gave me

Maybe I don’t know that much

But I know this much is true

I was blessed because I was loved by you

You were my strength when I was weak

You were my voice when I couldn’t speak

You were my eyes when I couldn’t see

You saw the best there was in me

Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach

You gave me faith cause you believed

I’m everything I am

Because you loved me.

You were always there for me

The tender wind that carried me

A light in the dark shining your love into my life

You’ve been my inspiration

Through the lies you were the truth

My world is a better place because of you.

You were my strength when I was weak

You were my voice when I couldn’t speak

You were my eyes when I couldn’t see

You saw the best there was in me

Lifted me up when I couldn’t speak

You gave me faith cause you believed

I’m everything I am

Because you loved me.

She didn’t hear the thunderous applause which broke out as the last note echoed on the wind. She only saw green eyes full of unshed tears, and opened her arms. The bard made her way there unseeingly, and hugged the older woman tight. "Thank you, Randi. That was beautiful."

Full lips brushed the top of the blonde head. "Hey, you wanna go for a ride, maybe watch the sunrise with me?"

"Where you go, I go, gunny."

The words sent a curious thrill skittering across her skin, leaving goose bumps in its wake. "All right, " shaking off her reaction, "let’s go say goodnight to Ella, Tommy and your folks. Then we’ll grab our coats and get outta here."

No one stopped them, which would have surprised both of them if they had bothered to think about it. The aura they were projecting was so intense, so special, no one wanted to intrude. And neither of them thought about it, intent as they were to leave.

Ella was just returning from checking on her son when the two walked over.

"How’s the boy?" from Randi as they reached the table where the Steeles and Goldmans had been sitting most of the evening.

"Cranky." Ella run a weary hand through what had been perfectly coiffed hair. "This teething thing is gonna be the death of me."

"You want me. . . . ?"

"No, there’s nothing you can do for him."

"Well, then I’ll just peek in on him before we leave."

"You’re leaving?" He wasn’t surprised. Geoff was sure Randi was trying to fit in as much time as he could with his daughter before the Sabre left. He knew she had little hope of coming home, and from her demeanor, the time was closer to hand than he wanted to acknowledge.

"Yeah. Tommy wanted to make it an early night, and Gwen and I are going for a ride. We’ll see ya’ll tomorrow, though, right?" Please, Geoff, don’t make me leave her alone.

"Oh, yeah," answered Jill. "I can’t wait to see this dress."

"Wait, what dress?" the confused bard asked.

"I’ll tell you about it later, ‘K?" Blue met green in an imploring look, and green acquiesced, with a promise of later interrogation. The dark head nodded slowly in agreement, and the blonde smile.

"Thank you for a lovely party, Tommy. It has been so much fun." She kissed his cheek lightly.

"Ahem, yes, well, would you like to say goodnight to the folks before you leave?" To his surprise, she took his hand, and he helped her onto a nearby chair. She signaled for quiet.

"I’m getting ready to leave," a groan arose, "but, BUT, before I go I wanted to say thank you to each and every one of you for coming out tonight. You have no idea how much this all means to me. To know I have so many caring friends. Thank you all, for being part of one of the most special nights of my life." A cheer sounded out at her words, and they lifted their glasses as one in a toast. She lifted hers in response, then had Tommy help her down.

"Where’s Randi?’ not having seen the tall woman leave.

"She went inside, to look in on Randall, I suspect."

The bard donned her jacket, then gave hugs and kisses around the table. Just before she reached the door, she heard Scott call out her name, and turned around.

"Don’t let her forget this," handing Gwen the duster that the Marine had negligently handed him before she climbed behind the drums the first time. "She might need it."

"Thanks, Scott."

"Congratulations, by the way. I think it’s just awesome!"

She smiled at him. "I’m still a bit overwhelmed from the shock of it all, I think. But thanks." He gave her arm a squeeze, then turned and made his way back to the crowd of people slowly congregating to say their goodbyes. Whispers had made the rounds about how difficult Randall’s teething was for the entire Steele family, and no one wanted to impose.

Gwen found Randi standing beside the baby’s crib, lightly patting his bottom. "He’s a beautiful baby, isn’t he?" She looked up, and the bard would have sworn for an instant there were tears in the blue eyes. But with a blink, they were gone.

"Yeah, he is. I hope he gets through this teething soon."

"Oh, he will," the Marine answered with a chuckle. "And then he’ll undoubtably move onto something worse." She chuckled again softly at the expected backhand.

"Well, don’t say that where Ella can hear you. I don’t think she’s ready to hear that right now." This time they both laughed, before heading for the door. Geoff and Jill watched them go.

"They look so well together, don’t they?" the woman commented to her husband.

"Yes, they do." But for how much longer?

Surprisingly to the Marine, Gwen did not ask to drive, but was content to hold on to her from behind. She did wonder what was going through her friend’s mind, but figured the bard would speak up when she was ready. Self expression had never been a problem for Gwen before.

How shocked she would have been, had she been able to read the blonde’s thoughts. The blonde had deliberated a lot about Randi while the Sabre had been gone, and about the reactions she had to the Marine. She had finally decided that what she felt for Randi was more than friendship, but how much more, and where it would all eventually lead was still in question. She knew she felt safe and loved, contented and well-cared for around the older woman, and no place felt more like home than her strong arms. For now, that knowledge was enough. The bard wouldn’t push or question, comfortable to let things progress naturally. She was fairly certain Randi felt *something* for her, but retaining their friendship was far more important than pushing to explore other possibilities. They had all the time in the world for that.

Sunrise found them back at the beach house, sitting out on the sand. Randi sat peacefully satisfied with the world for the brief moment she held it in her arms. The bard was sitting in front of her, leaning back against her chest, her small hands grasping the top of the larger ones wrapped around her middle. The was no need for words, as they watched the sun peek over the horizon, then burst onto the scene in a dazzling display of color. Once it was up, the Marine released her companion and rose, reaching a hand down to help her up.

"C’mon. We need to get showered and changed. We have to be at the shuttle hub in an hour."

"But. . . ." wondering how she was gonna make it through the day without some sleep.

Long fingertips on her lips sent a tingle down her spine and stopped her speech. "Relax. Trust me, remember?" A nod. "You have the penthouse suite at the hotel there next to the Performing Arts Center. We’ll be there in," Randi glanced at her watch, "about three hours. You can sleep on the ride up, and once we get there. The affair doesn’t start until eight, and your parents, and your dress will meet us there."

"Really?" The Marine nodded. "Can I ask you something?" Another nod. "Where did the dress come from?"

"Um, well," looking at the ground before pulling her friend forward with her toward the beach house. "Uh, Maria made it when she made this one," indicating the aqua sheath now mostly hidden under the long duster."

"This was made for me? You had her do this, didn’t you?" She got no verbal answer, but the flush that was making its way up the Marine’s neck was answer enough for Gwen. "Thank you, Randi." She gave the woman a heartfelt hug. "You’ll probably never know what it, all this, means to me." Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell you. "But thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I love you, ya know. "

"I love you, too, Little One," soaking up the bitter sweetness of both the words and the moment. She gave Gwen another brief squeeze. Now c’mon," she said, resuming their walk toward the doors, "let’s get a move on. We’ve got a shuttle to catch."



Part 2b

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