A Valiant Heart
Randi was squatting on the floor, cradling Dittos face in her hands as Gwen descended the stairs. The dog saw her and gave a sharp bark. The Marine gave the shepherd a brisk ear rub, and stood, watching as the canine headed out the door and down the beach.
"You ready?" asked the bard as she hefted her bag. Randi gently removed it from her grasp, and grabbed her own small case and the long hanging bag.
"Yep. Cmon. Weve got a private shuttle, but the sooner we leave, the sooner well get to the capital. And the longer youll get to rest before tonight."
"Hmm," following the tall woman out to the transport. "I havent been back to the capital in years, since my hitch was up, I think." She mused on that for a little longer. "Hey, whats in the bag? You said Mother had my dress with her."
"Oh, my dress whites. Theres a big. . . soiree. . . after the ceremony, and I. . . thought you might like to go with. . . me and, um. . . dance." Brilliant, Valiant. Stumble all over the place with this, why dont you?
"Youre asking me to *DANCE*?"
"Yeah. Unless theres, um, someone else. . . ."
"Oh no, Miranda Valiant. Youve asked me to dance. . . youre stuck dancing with me for the whole night. Im not letting you go." Then the bard flushed with the implications of what she just said. She started to open her mouth to qualify the statement, when a single word from the Marine stopped her.
Their shuttle flight had taken about half the time Randi expected. The flight plan had been expedited at the highest levels, insuring their safe and swift arrival, as it would have been difficult to have any kind of awards ceremony without the guest of honor attending. So it was still quite early when they arrived in the capital city, and were driven to the hotel. The Sabre inquired after the Goldmans, who had arrived very late the night before, and found they had been given one of the smaller suites one floor below the penthouse. She nodded her acceptance, and decided to contact them after both she and the bard had gotten a bit of sleep.
"Let me just get a room. . . . "
"I dont think so. Youre in the penthouse with me, gunny. Lets go." Five minutes later saw them upstairs looking out at the morning panorama of the capital city spread out below them.
"Great view," Randi commented with a yawn.
"Yeah," the bard agreed with one of her own," but I think we both need a little sleep to fully appreciate it. See you in a few hours." Gwen placed a chaste kiss on the taller womans cheek, then stumbled toward her bed.
The Marine stood stunned by the warmth the kiss had caused, before moving out of the living room, and to her own bed. She was going to think about the change she sensed in Gwen, but exhaustion quickly overtook her, and she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Afternoon shadows were creeping in the window when Randi awoke from her rest. It was a little earlier than she planned to get up, and wondered if there was some reason she had awakened. She listened for a long minute, before she heard the chirp of the vid phone. Wiping her eyes and pushing back her hair she sat up in bed.
"Yeah?" Her throat was gravelly sounding from sleep.
"Randi?" Jill whispered.
"Yeah, Jill. Whats up?"
"Oh, my. Im sorry to wake you, dear. But I thought you might like to have Gwens dress there instead of here. Not like she can get dressed without it."
The Marine chuckled lightly. "No, I suppose not. Shes not awake yet, but youre welcome to come on up."
"I know shes not awake yet, thats why I called you. I figured Id have a better chance reaching you than her, especially if she is exhausted. She has a tendency to tune things out til she catches up. Ill be up in a minute, all right?"
"Okay. Ill be waiting for you."
It was only a matter of a minute or two before the soft knock sounded at the door. The Marine had been waiting, and opened the door before Jill could knock twice.
The thought passed through the older womans mind about just how adorable the sleep rumpled Marine really was. Gwen is so lucky to have Randi in her life.
"Cmon in," the brunette beckoned. She reached out her arms to take the dress Jill was handing her. "Have a seat, and let me go hang this up in Gwens room. Ill be right back."
The Sabre was already almost to Gwens room before Jill took a seat on the sofa. After a soft knock, she gently opened the door and peeked in. The bard lay curled up around a large pillow, still soundly asleep. Her blonde hair was tousled, and there was the slightest grin on her face. Randi wondered briefly what kind of dreams made the woman smile, before crossing to the huge closet and hanging up the dress. She removed it from its bag, casting a critical eye across it. Then she nodded judiciously, and left as silently as she had come.
Jill was waiting patiently on the couch, and smile when Randi emerged from the room. "She didnt even move, did she?"
The Marine returned the smile with on of her own. "Nope. Not a twitch. I think shell be pleasantly surprised when she wakes up and see that hanging there."
"So do I , dear. You did an excellent job."
"Um, thanks, Jill. Will you. . . ."
"Ill be back in about three hours to help her get ready." The woman rose and headed toward the door. "So you have anther couple hours to rest yet, if you want. I have a feeling it may be long night." The older woman patted the youngers cheek, and closed the door behind her.
"You have no idea, Jill. You really have no idea," the Sabre muttered mostly to herself. Then she decided to take Mrs. Goldmans advice and rest a bit longer. It would be the last she would get.
When she woke from her nap, ninety minutes later, she felt refreshed, and ready for the evenings events. It was going to be interesting, and she actually found herself looking forward to the fun. It would be a wonderful memory to take with her, and wonderful one to leave Gwen with.
Thinking of the bard made her realize she needed to make sure the young woman was awake. She had indicated a desire for a nice long leisurely soak in the tub before it was time to dress, and Randi was going to do her best to fulfill every need and desire the younger woman expressed this night. She crossed the living area in swift strides, and tapped lightly on the bedroom door.
When there was no answer, she eased the door open and moved inside. The bard was still fast asleep, curled in almost the identical position shed been in earlier, except for the blanket she had pushed from her shoulders to her hips. The childlike expression made the Marine smile in reflex.
"Gwen?" she called out softly as she moved to the bed. "Hey," sitting down and brushing the blonde hair away from the fair cheek. "Gwen, cmon. Time to rise and shine."
"Ill rise, but I refuse to shine," came the mumbled response before sleepy green eyes peeked from half opened lids. A tiny grin flashed across her lips at the spontaneous laugh her words had garnered before she could school her features into a mock scowl. "Whas so funny?"
"You are," the Marine answered honestly. "You are too cute for words. Now, if you want that nice long soak, best if you get in there. Your mom will be here in about an hour and fifteen minutes to help you get ready for tonight. If youll excuse me, Im gonna go do the same." Truth, but she also wanted to be out of the room and inaccessible when the bard saw her dress. The Sabre was suddenly quite shy about her audacity.
Randi did soak for about forty-five minutes before reluctantly climbing out of the tub and into the robe the hotel provided. Though shed set the security protocols to allow both Geoff and Jill access to the elevator and the room, they respected both girls privacy enough not to enter the suite without being personally admitted. And the Marine knew it was going to take a little while to get her hair dried and braided properly.
She was sitting at the dressing table half an hour later, having just finished painstakingly braiding her hair. A knock on her bedroom door surprised her, as she was sure she hadnt heard Jill enter the penthouse. She assumed the bard was still in the tub.
"Come." And was surprised when Gwens still toweled head poked into her room. "Hey," she called, standing up from the table and crossing to the door, "Whats up? Have a seat." She waved the younger woman over to the bed.
"Um, I, uh," small hands rubbed together nervously. Randi sat down next to the bard , and began to chafe her cold hands.
"Nervous, Little One?"
"No. . . maybe. . . yes, a little, I think. Ive. . . its just that. . . I mean, um. . . ."
"Gwen? Gwen, look at me." Trusting green met confident blue. "Now, youre gonna be fine, okay? Its just gonna be a group of friends telling stories about *you* for a change. And then you say thank you, and we can go dancing, all right?"
"All right, but can I ask you a favor?"
"Sure. Name it."
The blonde tugged gently at the dark braid. "Just this once, just for tonight, will you leave it loose? For me?" The last in a bare whisper.
"But, Gwen I never. . . . "
"I know. Please? You have such gorgeous hair, and you look so beautiful with it down. Please?"
How can I say no to that? You cant, Valiant. Now nod your head in agreement. Atta girl! It really was so little to do, and the happiness it brought to the bard was way out of proportion to the act itself. Gwen threw her arms around the Marines neck.
"Thank you," she whispered, before she scampered out the door and back to her room. Randi shook her head dazedly, wondering if shed just been had.
A few minutes later, a knock sounded at the suite door, and Gwen called out to Randi, "Ive got it." She went to invite her mother in with a hug. The two Goldman women moved back to the dressing area, so the bard could finish her makeup and hair.
Jill actually took care of Gwens hair. It had been the ritual for the many years the bard had been a performer before leaving home for the first time. It came back to them now naturally. Within short order, the blonde hair was piled neatly on her head, except for a few loose strands Jill had left for softness.
"Its been a long time since weve done this," Gwen commented quietly.
"Yes, it has. But we are so proud of you, Gwen. Of who you are and what youve become. Thank you for the joy youve brought to our lives."
"Mom," trying hard not to let the tears spill. "Did you have to go and make me cry? I dont want runny makeup!!"
"Oh, so I take it zebra stripes are out again, huh? Geez, I feel so five minutes ago."
Now the bard had to chuckle. She was very thankful to have the loving, supportive parents she had been blessed with. "I love you, mom."
"Love you too, sweet heart." She gave her daughters face the once over. "Well," she said lightly, "looks like your makeup survived the mushy stuff. Lets get you into this dress."
"What dress? I still havent seen it?"
"Well, you are certainly in for quite the surprise," the older woman muttered mostly to herself, as she entered the closet. She stepped back out, holding the dress in front of her. The only reaction she got from Gwen was round eyed shock and an audible gasp.
The bard reached out a tentative hand to touch the silky, lace material in front of her. "It looks like. . . " a wedding dress. It did, too, though it was more than a little daring for a traditional wedding gown. The white silk had a white lace overlay and a high collar that lent an air of innocence. This was counterbalanced by the naked arms and back, that would show off the bards newly acquired muscularity from staff practice. The slits that ran from ankle to hip on either side simply added to the sensuality of the whole outfit. "Um, wow. Its gorgeous. Who. . . ?"
"If youre asking who made it, your friend Maria did. But Randi designed it for you." Gwen felt her eyes bug out and her breathing catch. She closed her eyes for a long moment, and focused her energies on trying to remember how to breathe.
"Ahem, uh, wow," she said again, trying desperately to regain her bearings, "help me?" Her voice cracked, but Jill wisely ignored it, and moved to help her daughter finish dressing.
Randi sat in front of the mirror, slowly unbraiding the hair she had just recently bound up. Just as she ran her hands through the dark mane to untangle the last bit of plaiting, she heard a second knock at the front door. Knowing the bard was busy with her mother getting ready for the festivities, she got up to answer it.
It was no great surprise to see Geoff there, waiting with an anxious Sal, and a very nervous Rico.
"A little under dressed there, arent you, Randi?" the rotund man asked the Marine as he breezed in the door. Geoff shook his head in amazed bewilderment, and Rico simply stepped over the threshold and stood still. He was still somewhat unsure about this whole idea.
"Are you clear on what I want tonight, Sal? Hi, Geoff, Rico," she muttered in after thought.
"Yes, Randi. Weve got it all covered. Rico will be taking candid shots all night, and we will get some posed shots of you together before we go over to the theatre. Im here to set up the background for the portrait part of this evening."
"And. . . ?"
"And everything will be put into a keepsake album. I promise, Randi, everything will be just like weve talked about." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the photographer subtly relax. "Shell love it. Now dont you need to go get dressed?" He waved his hands toward her in a distinct shooing motion.
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do. If you gentlemen will excuse me." When she closed the bedroom door, Geoff sat down on the couch out of the way, and Sal and Rico went to work.
The Marine took a deep breath, and moved to the closet where her uniform hung proudly. She studied it for a long moment, letting her mind acknowledge each and every award that was pinned to the jacket, and remember what she had done to earn it. Of the eighteen decorated medals and three ribbons, she was most proud of the twice decorated life saving medal. It was one of the few physical reassurances she had that her life, especially the military part of that life, wasnt a complete waste.
The white undershirt went on first, followed by thick, white socks. The crisply creased pants were next, the gold piping running up the side adding a dash of color to an otherwise monotone landscape. The Sabre ran a critical eye over the jacket again. The gold chevrons and rockers on her shoulder epaulets gleamed even in the low light. The gold service insignia on the high collar shone as well. Gold piping around the throat and wrist areas complimented the gold buttons which, if one was to look closely enough, bore the Sabre crest. The medals and ribbons marked the only spots of color on the whole outfit, aside from the multiple braids that draped from the left shoulder.
Randi hung the jacket back up again, and sat down to pull on her knee high boots. Unlike her black boots, the dress white boots that went with the dress white uniform were a soft kidskin leather that had no gloss or polish. She tucked her pants legs neatly into the boot tops, making sure to keep the creases straight. The Marine stomped her feet when she stood, trying to adjust her uniform to be a little more comfortable. Finally satisfied, she reached for the uniform coat again.
In the living room, Geoff smiled to himself. He had heard the stomping, and knew *exactly* what the young Sabre was doing. Always hated dress whites, especially those boots. A bitch to wear, and even worse to keep clean. But the only thought that crossed his mind when the Marine finally stepped out of the room, was how incredibly well she looked in them.
Randi slid into the tunic, looking at herself in the mirror for a very long moment. Then she removed her hair from the collar, and proceeded to button it closed, saving the hook at the top for last. Once she was buttoned and hooked, the Sabre picked up the ceremonial sword from the bed, and reverently slipped it into its sheath at her right side. The gold and silver ornamental sais were placed in the holders on the outside of either boot.
She glanced into the mirror again, giving herself a final once over. Satisfied with what she saw, she shook her head at the loose hair fanning out behind her. It softened her look more than she realized, but it was what Gwen wanted. And as far as it was in her power to provide, what Gwen wanted, Gwen got. . . tonight anyway. After that, well, she would trust to Geoff and Tommy to take care of her bard.
She opened the bedroom door, and was greeted by the flash of a camera. It took tight control on well honed instincts not to lash out at the invasion. But before she knew it, Rico had moved away from her again. Geoff walked over and sized her up critically.
"Nice, very nice, Marine, but why isnt your hair regulation?"
Blue eyes turned full force on the older man, and he took a step back instinctively. "Because Gwen asked me to leave it down."
"Simple as that?" he asked quietly.
"Simple as that." She moved away from him, unable to answer the questions she saw floating around in his eyes, knowing he knew all too well what she wasnt saying. She stopped at the huge picture window that looked out over the capital city, staring out unseeingly at the scenic vista spread out below. The sight was too intriguing for Rico to let pass by, and he snapped off several quick pictures that went unnoticed by the tall woman, so deep in her own thoughts was she. But all heads turned as the second bedroom door opened.
Jill stepped out first, and walked over without a word to stand beside her husband. Then Gwen stepped to the thresh hold, waiting hesitantly, it seemed, for some unknown signal before proceeding forward. Rico managed to capture her brilliantly, then Randi moved forward, and the first spell was broken, only to be replaced by a second, more powerful one.
"You are very beautiful tonight, Gwen."
"And you are quite dashing, Marine. I understand I have you to thank for this loveliness?" indicating her dress with a wave of her hand.
"No, I am only responsible for the dress. I had nothing to do with the loveliness that fills it."
Gwen blushed at the words, and Randi smiled. No one could hear the words spoken between them, though the love they shared was almost blinding in its intensity. Rico managed to finish one roll of film and start on another taking candids of them alone together like this. Finally, reluctantly, Geoff cleared his throat, breaking the tableau in front of him.
"Girls," smirking a bit at the dark brow that shot up in outrage, "Jill and I need to o get ourselves ready for the evening. If youll excuse us. . . Well meet you downstairs in about forty-five minutes."
Sal took the opportunity to separate the two women, seating Randi, then placing Gwen behind her. Rico worked a bit with this, then their positions were switched around, with Randi standing behind the seated Gwen. There were shots of the two of them standing, and both of them seated. But Rico knew his best photographs were going to come from the pictures where they were unaware of anything but themselves.
When they were done, the Bouvier brothers excused themselves and left. They needed to get set up for catching moments before the ceremony, though Dei had taken care of most of the arrangements. Once downstairs, the two men set themselves in the doorway to wait.
"You ready?" the Marine quietly asked the bard. "Its about time for us to leave."
"Yeah, Im, uh, just a little n-nervous." Gwen bit her lip. "Arent I a little young to be receiving a lifetime achievement award already?"
"Gwen, you have probably done more in your first quarter century, than many folks do in a full lifetime. This is the highest honor the Artists Guild can give you. Accept it with the grace you have always shown. Then you can get started on your second lifetimes worth of work." The small smile Randi gave the bard got an answering smile in return. Then the blonde threw herself into the taller womans arms.
"Thank you, Randi. I dont know what Id do without you in my life." She squeezed tight. "I hope I never have to find out."
Randi had no reply for this, so she simply returned the hug as fiercely as she could, brushing her lips over the blonde head tucked trustingly under her chin.
When they stepped from the lift, Geoff and Jill were waiting. The man walked forward and wrapped his daughter in his arms. "We are so very proud of you, Gwen. Proud of your accomplishments, and of who youve become," he whispered in her ear before releasing her.
"Thank you, Daddy," struggling to keep her tears in check. Her mother simply gave her a long, heartfelt hug. Then she moved back away from Gwen, and to her husbands side.
"You two need to get a move on. Its almost time."
Blonde brows scrunched in confusion. "Arent yall coming?"
Randi stepped up beside the bard from where she had momentarily retreated to give Gwen and her parents a minute alone. "Theyll meet us there," she answered, drawing the blondes small hand through her arm and covering it with her own gloved one. "They are taking a much more conventional mode of transportation," waving at the two as they got onto the speeding tube. "But, tonight is your night to be a princess, and you will be traveling in style."
The two had managed to make their way to the front door, and now Gwen stopped in shock at the sight of an old fashioned coach and four sitting at the end of the red carpeted entrance. "I feel a lot like Cinderella right now." She thought on this statement, then turned to Randi in question. "Does that make you my Prince(ss)
Charming?" She couldnt help the tiny smile that started as she watched the slow blush crawl up the Marines face.
"Until the stroke of midnight," the Sabre stated when she could breathe again, "I will be whoever you want me to be."
The bard felt a fluttering deep in her belly at the words, and grabbed hold of the larger hand closest to her. There were no more words between them after that, until they reached the Performing Arts Center. Gwen was stunned by the amount of people waiting outside for her arrival.
"Um, I, uh. . . oh boy. . . ."
"Gwen, look at me," Randi commanded, having sensed the turmoil by the stiffening of the bards spine. She was met by scared green eyes. "Youll be fine. These people are all here to honor you, and Ill be right by your side the whole way."
"Promise. Now, let me get out first, and Ill help you down, all right?" A single nod was her only answer.
Randi climbed gracefully from the carriage, then offered her hand up for Gwen to take. The moment the bard stood the sky around them erupted in a sea of light, everyone trying to get the best holo-image they could manage. The flashes continued as they made their way arm in arm up the carpeted walkway, and into the building itself. A valet immediately arrived to escort them to their seats down front. Gwen looked around in confused dismay for her parents.
"Relax, Gwen. I"m sure theyll be here." In fact, they *were* there, hidden safely in the green room, until it was their turn to participate in the evenings festivities. As soon as the guest of honor and her escort were seated, the house lights dimmed, and the filled to capacity building fell quiet. The curtains opened to a large screen, and a voice introduced, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Thomas Steele."
By the time the applause had died down, Tommy was seated comfortably at his desk, the wall of monitors behind him showing the several different camera shots of both the awards ceremony in progress, and the prep work being done in the ballroom for the party immediately following
"Gwen, I cant tell you how sorry Ella and I are to be missing this extraordinary occasion in person. But as you can see," motioning behind him, "Ive got it all covered, and youll have a really nice keepsake holo when I get the editing done." Polite laughter. "Thank you, Gwen. For making all of our lives a little better by sharing your gift with us. Youll never know the difference you have made, or the lives you have touched." He paused, knowing that his words had touched a deep chord in her heart by the tears streaming down her face. He decided to make her smile, and draw a little of the emotional level down. "And Randi, shes a princess, tonight especially. Make sure you treat her as such." The entire hall erupted into cheers and whistles. The Marine flushed a beet red, until the bard reached for her hand, and smiled up into her eyes. Then the world floated away for a time as if it had never been. Tommys voice recalled them back to reality. "Thank you, Gwen, for being an inspiration to so many. Yall have a great night tonight." More cheers and whistles, then he spoke one final time. "Ladies and gentlemen, your host for the evening, Mr. Geoffrey Goldman."
"Daddy?" Gwen whispered, and tightened her grip on the strong hand she held. Geoff came out, resplendent in his evening wear, and smiled down at his daughter. The he settled his notes on the podium, and turned to face the audience.
"When Tommy first approached me with the idea of being the Master of Ceremonies for this event, I had to question why. I mean, after all Im not an artist. . . Im a weapons smith. What did I know about being a storyteller? The he said to me, Geoff, Im not asking you to be a story teller or an artist or a weapons smith. Im asking you as one of the people who know Gwen best. Im asking you as her father. What could I say to that, except for yes?"
"So tonight, Gwen, we will start at the beginning, and revisit some old memories. I guess the best place to start would be at the beginning. And we couldnt start there without this person. . . . "
The blonde smiled when she heard her mothers voice taking them all back to the time before her birth, sharing the images and anticipation both she and Geoff had felt. She briefly talked them through to the age of three when Geoff resumed his narration.
"You folks wont believe this," addressing the audience again, "but Gwen told her first story at the age of three." The screen shifted to show a very young, incredibly cute kid sitting on an older womans lap. "Gramma," the bard breathed, watching the screen through misty eyes. The woman had an old leather journal that she was reading to the child out of, while the tiny girl listened in rapt fascination. When she was done, Gwen turned to her grandmother and asked, "Can I tell you a story now, Gramma?"
"Sure, darlin. Tell yer old gramma a story." The old womans eyes widened in amazement, then filled with tears as the bards first childish story came pouring forth from a babes lips. "That was beautiful, sweetheart," the woman commented proudly to the child.
"That story was the very beginning of a journey that so far has been widespread and varied. Sometimes, her gift made the daily grind a bit more difficult to tread."
The voice of a favorite teacher could be heard, telling of a young girl more interested in telling stories than in studying. Gwen buried her flushed face in her hand. Randi just squeezed the other one.
The bards mentor spoke next, showing a holo image of Gwens first public performance. "I knew, even then, that she had long surpassed my skill to teach. She was a law unto herself."
As each speaker finished their part of the presentation, they moved to take the seats near the bard and Marine that had been reserved for them. Gwen gave each a hug and kiss in return, always taking a moment to share a private word before they resumed their seats, and the next voice from the past was brought out. Randi stood every time the bard did, as Gwen was loathe to release her hand for any length of time, and proper etiquette demanded. She was a little tired of having to keep readjusting the sword at her side, though.
General Hampton, who had been Gwens commanding officer during her hitch in the Army, was the next orator, and quite funny to listen to, when you remembered career military had never been issued a sense of humor. He spoke for some time on the time the bard had volunteered visiting the old and infirmed, and doing shows for the local military. "She never knew I knew about her volunteer efforts, but I will say I was never prouder to be her commanding officer than I was when she was a storyteller instead of a soldier."
Now they were down to the last two talkers. The first out was the Commander of the base where shed imagined shed seen Randis blue, blue eyes staring back at her from the audience. He told of her desire to insure everyone got a chance to hear and participate in the brief moments of escape she was able to provide in an otherwise dreary outpost. About her visits to the sick. And then he did an unexpected thing. He pulled a card out from the stage wings and held it up.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the personnel at my base, when they learned of the honor being bestowed on Ms. Goldman this evening, all asked for an opportunity to send their good wishes to her. We compromised, and everyone who wanted signed this card for her." He left the stage to applause, and headed toward the bard. She was a bit overwhelmed by the gesture, and stood looking at the several paged card for a very long moment, before turning, and giving the Commander a brief hug and kiss. So far, each speaker had a light smudge of her lipstick on their cheek, and this man was no exception. Surprisingly, he reached out a hand to Randi, who took it firmly and shook. Then the commander took his seat, and the bard and warrior resumed theirs.
"Our last speaker is himself a bard, but I think I should let him talk for himself. Ladies and gentlemen, from Midas enterprises, please welcome Scott Everret."
"That little fink," Gwen hissed under her breath. Randi just chuckled silently.
Scott, a little nervous, told the story of himself begging the blonde bard for help. "And ya know, she didnt laugh, or brush me off. She encouraged me, and showed me how to look at things from more than one angle, more than one plane. It has been my honor to watch her work, to learn from her creative processes, the past few months. There are some people, who without seeming to, affect the lives of those around them. Who change the course of the world by word or thought or deed. I am proud to say that Gwen Goldman is one of those rare individuals. She has made this world, for many of us a better place to be, even if only for a little while."
The applause that broke out here was thunderous, and Gwen found herself wrapped in Randis strong arms in tears before Scott made his way halfway down the stairs. He stood waiting patiently, as did the boisterous crowd in the Hall, until she regained a measure of composure, and turned to him. She held on tightly for a long moment, then released him and laughed at a joke hed whispered in her ear. When they were all seated again, Geoff stepped up to the podium one final time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pride and pleasure that I present the Artists Guilds Lifetime Achievement Award to my daughter, Gwenievere Goldman." The cheers and applause started again, as the crowd rose to their feet in a wave. Randi stood, pulling the bard up with her. She hugged the woman who had turned to her for support, then tried to ease her in the direction of the stage. But Gwen was having none of that, and pulled the Marine to the platform with her.
"Um, I, uh. . . ." Without a word, Randi stepped up behind the stammering bard and put a hand on either side of her waist. That simple touch sent a calming peace through Gwen. She placed her smaller hands on top of the larger ones, and leaned back into the hard strength of the woman behind her. The Marine whispered something unintelligible in her ear, which caused a slight chuckle to cross her lips. The bond between them was almost palpable, and the world held its breath waiting.
Gwen stood straight again, but did not allow the hands to leave her body. "Um," she cleared her throat a bit noisily, "my Marine friend reminded me that the sooner we take care of the official business, the sooner we can go eat and party!" Laughter broke out at her words, followed by hooting and clapping.
"I, um. . .I really dont know what to say about all this. I am still so young, and I have a lifetime of stories still to tell. But youve honored me with the highest award I can be given, and I thank you all so much. Im looking forward to my second lifetime of story telling."
The thunderous applause that met her short and sincere acceptance speech rocked the rafters of the old building. And it warmed the bards heart no end. She glanced back at the Marine who still held her gently and grasped her hand, leading her softly toward the wings of the stage, expecting the ovation to die down. It didnt, and indeed, seemed to increase in volume.
Randi gave her a faint nudge toward the stage, and she stepped gingerly out from the curtains and into the spotlight again. The Marine was more than a bit surprised when she felt herself being pulled back out from behind the curtain and into center stage with the bard. She felt like Gwen deserved to be in the spotlight alone, while the bard was determined to have the older woman by her side. Apparently, most of the crowd agreed with her decision, as the volume level increased exponentially at the sight of the Sabre, and her negligent possessiveness. She never consciously set out to stake a claim, but it was clear to each and every person seeing them together that they were two halves to a whole, bound by a bond strong enough to be felt by everyone present.
Geoff, noticing his daughters and her companions discomfiture moved back to the podium. "Folks, why dont we move the party over to the ball room. It will give everyone here a chance to offer their congratulations to Gwen." Cheers greeted his words, and when he turned to look, he saw that the two women had already moved from the stage to the wings, and were standing alone together in the haven of one anothers arms.
"Thank you, Daddy." The bard looked up from her embrace, but didnt move out of it when she saw her father walking toward them. Instead she waited until he embraced the both of them, as shed known he would.
"It was my pleasure, sweetheart. Youre mother and I are very, very proud of you." He released them and moved back a pace. "Speaking of. . . I need to go find her, and escort her next door. You two need to make an entrance, of course, so youll need to wait until the hall clears. Ten minutes, probably. Well see you next door, all right?"
"Okay, Daddy." The bard watched him walk off before looking down at her timepiece. "DAMN!" she exclaimed, still looking at the watch face.
"What?!? Whats wrong?!?" Alarmed, Randi stepped back to see into Gwens eyes.
"Nothings wrong, but do you realize that lifetime took less than an hour and a half? I thought we were *in there* for a lifetime!"
"Was it really so bad?" a little saddened that Gwen was so miserable about her accomplishments.
"No, not at all. Especially with you beside me every step of the way tonight. Thank you for that, by the way."
"Welcome," came the murmured reply.
"I dont mean to sound ungrateful. Im not, really. I am mostly overwhelmed and more than a little embarrassed. I really dont think I was ready for all this yet. Its just. . . . "
She stopped talking when Randi pulled her back into their mutual hug. "Its okay, Little One. Now you understand why Im not too keen on talking about all these ribbons and medals."
"Yeah, I have a much better insight on it now." She paused, then added, "Cmon. Im getting hungry. Lets go next door and grab a bite to eat."
"Oh, now *theres* a big surprise! OOF!" the Marine exclaimed when a small hand hit her dead center in the gut. "Take it easy there, Little One. Youve got muscle enough to leave a bruise now."
"And dont you forget it!" the bard chuckled as they made their way to the ballroom.
All eyes turned to them when they stepped to the doorway, and then applause and cheering broke out once more. People were kind enough to let them pass unmolested to the table reserved for them, and waited for Randi to seat Gwen before they started making their way to the front of the room to speak with the bard. The Marine tried to excuse herself when the crush started, but the blonde held onto her wrist for dear life. It was only when Randi explained she was going to get food for them both that Gwen loosened her grip.
"Be quick, please?" a mere whisper.
The Sabre nodded, and in fact found a server to help her expedite things. Within minutes, she was back at the bards side, placing an appetizing array of food in front of her. She leaned back in her chair, her arm casually draped along the back of Gwens, observing for a long moment. The Marine realized if the bard was going to eat, Randi was going to have to feed it to her, since everyone in the room seemed to have a need to speak to the young woman personally. So she scooted her chair up close to Gwens until they were touching, and proceeded to insure the bard finished her food.
Gwen was more than a little startled to see a fork full of food heading directly toward her mouth. She cast a glance at the woman at her side, who gave her a crooked grin and raised eyebrow in response. The bard opened her mouth obligingly, then nearly moaned out loud at the wonderful tastes crossing her palate. The grin turned to a smirk, and Gwen settled back to enjoy the unexpected pampering.
The musicians had slowly made their way to the platform reserved for them when the bard finished up the last bit of food on her plate. She turned to the woman who had so patiently been feeding her for the past hour or so, thankful for the lull in well-wishers.
"Thank you, Randi. That was wonderful."
"It was my pleasure, Little One. Im glad you enjoyed it."
"Oh, you bet I did. Im not sure I can move."
"Hmm. . . guess this means you dont want to dance then, right?" blue eyes twinkling with mischief.
Gwen was out of her chair and pulling the taller woman up to stand beside her. "Oh, no. I dont *think* so, soldier. You promised me each and every dance, and I intend to collect."
Randi was silently flattered by the vehemence in the bards voice, but only replied, "But you said. . . ."
"Never mind what I said! I have waited a lifetime to dance with you. Now, please," she cajoled, leading the Marine to the dance floor, "will you dance with me?"
In answer, the tall woman took the shorter woman in her arms, and at her signal the music began to swell throughout the room. The lights were lowered, and it became as though the two of them were alone in the universe together. For the entire first dance they floated spellbound in each other, entrancing the entire room. Then the house lights came up again, and more couples moved to join them on the floor.
No one dare bother the Marine, as she made it clear any such attention would be unwelcome in the extreme, and dealt with accordingly. Several people did try to cut in on the couple and ask Gwen to dance, but all were firmly and politely refused. The bard, however was quickly losing patience with those that were interrupting her evening with Randi. Three songs, and half a dozen refusals later, she made her way to the musicians stage, and asked for everyones attention.
"Folks, I appreciate all kind offers to dance, but please, dont ask me any more tonight. I promised all my dances this evening to my beautiful Marine sergeant, and Id like to do so without being interrupted every five steps. Thank you."
Randi reached up automatically to help the bard step down from the platform, but her head was still reeling from the blondes words. Never once had she ever expected so public nor so possessive a declaration to come from Gwen, and she was a bit shell shocked by it. Gwen noticed the stunned look, and took the Marines face in her hands, and waited patiently for blue eyes to track to hers.
"You okay?" came the whispered words. "Im sor. . . . "
The Sabre took one of the hands off her cheek, kissing the knuckles lightly before bringing their joined hands to the bards lips. "Dont be. Im not sorry. Just surprised." She indicated the dance floor with a wave of her hand. "Shall we?"
"Yes, lets." And they rejoined the dancers on the floor.
Geoff and Jill looked on in amazement at the two women so absorbed in each other. Then they turned to each other, with the same look of questioning wonder in their eyes.
"Do you think. . . . ?" Geoff started, then stopped, hoping against hope that Gwen had not begun to realize the truth in her heart. The Sabre was about out of time, and he was afraid for his daughter if she did discover the truth between them.
"Yes, I do," Jill replied to his question, her eyes twinkling happily. Not knowing what Randi was involved in, she could only see their bright future together, and not the heartache that her husband saw.
"Well, then," neatly diverting her attention from the subject, "lets join them on the dance floor. The music is too good to waste just sitting here."
"How right you are, my love. And suddenly, I feel like celebrating." She offered him her hand and he swept her up and to the floor in one fluid motion. And they glided around the room, glad to be together in this time and place.
As the witching hour approach, Randi looked down at the woman in her arms. Knowing she would soon need to leave, she kissed the top of the blonde head, which prompted jewel green eyes to meet her blue ones.
"Im going to have to go soon, Gwen. May I walk you back to the penthouse first?"
For her answer, the bard merely took her hand, and led her from the ballroom, and into the carriage that was waiting for them. They were silent during the ride, and it was only as they stepped into the vast lobby that Gwen broke the hush that lay between them.
"Youre going away again, arent you?"
They stepped into the elevator, and Randi waited until the doors were shut behind them before she answered.
"Yes. I should have gone before now, but. . . . " she broke off, unable to admit the truth to her bard even now.
"Will you be gone a while?"
They walked off the elevator and the three steps it took to get to the door before the Marine spoke.
"Yes." Unlocking the door and opening it, though neither of them moved to cross the threshold.
"You be careful then, cause Im gonna miss you so much."
The Sabre found herself with an armful of blonde bard once again, and this time, she went with her gut instincts. She held on for a long time, rocking the younger woman back and forth. Eventually, she pulled back just enough to gaze into the beloved face. "So beautiful," she breathed.
The Marine raised a trembling hand to gently trace first an eyebrow, then a planed cheekbone, and finally a pair of soft, warm lips which quivered in response to the light touch. She looked into eyes which had darkened in ready desire, and the temptation became too much.
As if in slow motion, she moved her hand to the back of the bards neck, and tangled her long fingers in the blonde locks. Then she bent slowly and brushed the lips beneath hers once, twice, before claiming Gwens mouth fully. A swipe of her tongue asking permission, and with a moan, the bard opened up to her like a flower to the sun. Randi couldnt resist the urge, and wrapped her other arm around the blondes waist, pulling the smaller woman into her. Gwen reciprocated the action by tangling both hands in the long, dark hair, holding on tightly. For long minutes the kiss went on, tasting, teasing, breathing hard, until they were forced to pull away. The bards eyes remained closed as though unwilling to leave the state of bliss shed suddenly found herself in.
Randi reached up, loosening the Gwens grip and gently kissing both hands before turning on her heel and entering the lift. She took a long moment to drink in the visage of the woman who had, in the end, become her entire world. As the doors closed, and headed up to the roof, she spoke aloud softly, "Goodbye, my love."
"I heard you say goodbye to me that night, Randi. I heard it, and assumed that was why you kissed me. Youd never said goodbye before, but you did that night. Because you knew, YOU *KNEW* it was forever, didnt you? You knew you were leaving and not coming home again. It would almost have been better if you hadnt, or at least if you hadnt told me of your love for me from the grave. Ive lost everything, Randi, and so much of it I was unaware of having until it was gone."
Ditto had wandered in during the night and curled up at the foot of wherever Gwen had fallen asleep, as had been her custom for the last few days. Now she barked at the bard once, indicating her desire to be fed. The blonde smile in reflex, giving the canine a hug until she yelped for mercy. When the bards hold loosened slightly, the dog proceeded to give her a thorough face washing.
"Ive missed you these past few days, Ditto. I know youve been staying with Randall since hes been sick, but Im glad youve been home at night." She gave the dog another brief squeeze, and moved to get her fed. It occurred to her in passing that she really needed to eat, but she felt her stomach flip flop at the mere suggestion of food. She placed Dittos food and water dish in its usual spot, then headed toward the stairs. "Im gonna go take a bath, girl."
The young woman spent a long time in the bath, content to sit for just a little while. When the water finally began to cool past an acceptable level of warm comfort, she quickly cleaned up and got out. She moved out of the bathroom clad only in a towel, and remembered the last time she had come out so dressed, only to find her best friend waiting for her. She moved to the bed, and sat where she had seated the Marine. It took her a few moments to notice, but when she looked up and glanced into the mirror, she discovered exactly how much Randi had been able to see of her while shed been dressing in the closet.
"You brat!" smiling through her tears. "I cant believe I gave you such an eyeful." She made a mental note to reread that portion of the Marines diary. Some of those later comments suddenly made a whole lot more sense. And she felt just a little bit better than before.
Sighing, she went downstairs, unsure of what to do with herself. She was startled by a knock on the door. She hadnt been expecting anyone, and none of the security alarms had been set off. Tommy must have extended the bridge, but then why are they knocking at our door? Curious now, and not even noticing the slip in her thoughts, the bard walked to the door and opened it. And stood there staring at her parents staring back at her. She fell forward into her fathers arms.
"Oh, Daddy," she cried, before the tears started in earnest. He picked her up and eased them through the doorway. Jill just gave him a look, knowing his back had been troubling him, and hefted the bags. Geoff gave his wife an apologetic look, and she nodded at him in understanding. The circumstances were unusual enough to warrant the strain.
"Honey, why didnt you call us?" Gwens tears had finally dried, and they were sitting on the couch facing the vid monitors. She couldnt bear to look at the picture of them together right now. Jill posed the question then continued. "We came as soon as Tommy contacted us."
"Mama, I knew Daddy was in therapy for his back. You let me know he was going to have to have some extensive treatment for the increasing pain hes been having." Her eyes grew wide as she considered what shed just said, and what her father had just done. The bard knelt down on the floor in front of him and placed her hands on his clasped one. "Oh God! Are you all right? I didnt just make things worse, did I?"
Seeing the already acute pain reflecting from her dulled-to-almost-gray green eyes, he took her small hands in his larger ones. "No, Little Girl. And I wouldnt have missed the opportunity even if it had. Its been a long time since I cradled my daughter like a child." He smiled at her, and she gave him a watery version in return.
She moved to sit on the table, facing them. "To get back to your question, Mother, I knew Daddy was in therapy. I was going to let you know when you called with his report. Its not like there is anything you could do."
Both parents flinched at the deadness in her tone. "We could have been there for you, sweetheart."
"Please dont misunderstand me, but that means absolutely nothing. There is nothing to be here for. Randi took my heart and soul when she left."
"You dont really mean that. . . . "
Gwen erupted. "DONT TELL ME WHAT I THINK OR WHAT I FEEL!!!!!!" She drew in a deep breath and dropped her eyes to the floor, then continued in whisper, "Please, just leave me be."
Geoff and Jill exchanged serious glances, and decided to move their stuff to the boat house for now. They were here for the duration, and it was obvious they needed to be. Their daughter was sinking into a serious depression, and she seemed to be tailspinning fast.
Geoff called Tommy as soon as he and Jill walked in the door. He needed to find out exactly what had happened. All the younger man had told the elder was that his daughter needed her parents because Randi was dead. There were a lot of questions to be answered.
"Im sorry, but I am obviously slow. Would you please explain that to me once more?" from Geoff. Tommy could understand the older mans aggravation that was more than apparent with his statement and question, but it didnt make him any happier to have to tell this tale again.
"What do you want me to tell you that I havent already said, Geoff? No amount of retelling is going to change the story any."
Geoff drew a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. "I understand that, son. But Im trying hard to make all the pieces fit, and right now, they just dont. But first, why did you wait so long to call us? Its been what. . . two? three days?. . . since you told Gwen?? Why didnt you call us before you told her, or at least as soon as youd told her? We should have been here." He thumped his fist on the table in frustration.
He was thankful now that Jill had gone up to the Steeles house to stay with Ella while Tommy was with him. It would give him a chance to edit some of this down, as he was sure Tommy had not shared much of this with his wife either. He looked up when he heard Tommy start to answer his question.
"When the, I dunno. . . I think they were military officers, though they never said. Anyway, when they showed up at Midas four, five, six days ago, I dunno, things are a bit blurry right now. . . they told me point blank that Randi was dead due to an unexplained accident, and gave me a holo-chip. That chip was her last message to me." His voice trailed off and his eyes became distant as he remembered her last words to him. He finally cleared his throat and continued. "She reminded me of the note shed given me to give to Gwen, and asked that I give her a bit of time alone to read it. I took Gwen her letter, and gave her a day to digest it. I fully expected her to contact you, but when you didnt come, and you didnt come, I went looking for you myself. I called you as soon as Id located you. Ella and I have tried to keep an eye on her, but since Randall has been so sick the last few days, its been difficult."
"Thank you, Tom. I do appreciate the care youve taken, and I dont mean to accuse. Its just. . . . "
"I know, my friend. Believe me, I know.
There was silence for a few minutes, and Geoff got up from the table and went to the frig. He grabbed a couple beers, and handed one to the younger man.
"Hmm." A breath. "Okay, you wanna tell me why you think the men who informed you of Randis death were military? I thought it was Standard Operating Procedure to appear in full dress uniform when relaying news like this to the family."
"Um, well, it actually has more to do with Randi, than it does with them. Though their looks and bearing did mark them as active duty military officers." He paused so long, Geoff wondered if he needed to re-ask his question. He drew a breath to do so, when Tommy continued. "You see, when she came to my house that night, the night of the awards ceremony, she was in military regalia, and Im not talking about that fancy dress uniform either.. Some sort of covert missions team from the looks of it." He stopped again for a moment, then looked up. "Lets just say she confirmed my suspicions of what her military career *really* entailed."
"Okay then," accepting the younger mans words because he knew better then Tommy ever would just how true they were. "What did these gentlemen say?"
"They introduced themselves as part of the Seamans Guild, and told me, due to an unfortunate accident, Randi had been killed while on a sea voyage. Apparently, there was an explosion of the ship she was on, and everyone aboard perished. From what they said, they spent more than two months looking for survivors or remains. There were none of the first, and precious little of the second."
"And what makes you doubt their words?"
"Aside from Randi showing up on my front step decked out in covert gear with a note for Gwen like she knew shed never come back, you mean?" Bitter words were met with a cynical smirk from Geoff. "Because, though Randi loved living by the ocean, and didnt mind taking a mini-cruise with us for very short durations, she absolutely* hated* being out in the middle of the water days away from land. She would never voluntarily go on a sea voyage, especially with the Seamans Guild. She was *never* that fond of the smell of fish." Both men smiled in memory of the strong scent of fish Ditto had brought to Tommys on Festival, and Randis immediate desire to rid her of it.
"Have you tried to have her traced?" Geoff asked, knowing full well it was impossible.
"Now thats another odd thing. According to all the databases, she does not, nor has she ever existed."
The old Sabre nodded, as if hed expected such an answer. "Ill tell you what. I still have quite a few military contacts who might be able to find something out for us. Give me a bit of time, and Ill see what I can find out." Tommy nodded. "Now, it will probably take a while," Geoff cautioned, "because we need to be discreet. But it should get us a few more concrete answers as well."
Tommy nodded is acceptance once again, and finished off his beer in a single, long pull. "How does Gwen seem to you? Aside from being broken hearted, I mean."
"Not good. This has hit her especially deep. Im afraid for her." There was a long minute of silence. "Id better get back to the beach house and check on her. She sent us away this morning, which is why I contacted you, looking for answers. I dont think shes gonna be talking to anyone anytime soon." There was a profound sadness in her fathers tone when he said this, and for a moment he felt a surge of rage at the woman who had put them all in this place. Because he had known, deep in his heart, that this could very well destroy his little girl, and he could do nothing to prevent it. It was a testing of her soul. He hoped she was strong enough to bear it.
Tommy moved with him toward the door, and they walked up the dock, parting ways when they reached the sand. The younger man made his way to the front of the beach house, and climbed in his transport, headed for home. Geoff slipped in the French doors quietly, listening to the silence, trying to find his daughter. He had seen from the dark circles underneath her eyes, and the dull flatness of the orbs themselves that she had had very little restful sleep since shed been given the news of Randis passing.
He moved around the house with a stealth he found seldom necessary to utilize anymore. He hesitated to enter the Marines domain, when he heard an almost silent whimpering. He stepped into the darkened room, and his heart broke again at the sight that met his gaze. There, curled up in the middle of the bed, wrapped almost completely around one of Randis pillows, lay his daughter. From what he could ascertain, she was asleep, but still the tears rolled unchecked down her cheeks. Geoff pulled a chair near the bed, and sat down to keep watch over his daughter. He was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of things, and find out the truth of what had happened to the woman he had called friend.
When Jill returned to the house, she found her husband still sitting by their daughters side, watching her restless slumber. His concerned gaze tracked to her, his eyes warming when they met hers. He reached a hand out to her, and she accepted his invitation, sliding into his lap. She cuddled close, absorbing the strength she felt surrounding her.
"I need to go get dinner started," she pronounced reluctantly after a bit. "Nice as this is," smiling up at him, "we need to eat, and so does she. She looks as though she hasnt eaten in days."
"She probably hasnt, love. You remember she used to stop eating as a child when something upset her. This would multiply that a thousand fold, I would think."
"Yeah, I imagine youre right." She patted his hands, and his hold instantly loosened. "Why dont you try to wake her? Ill be in the kitchen." Jill slid from his lap, and slipped out the door. Geoff continued to observe his daughter in silence for a while, before softly moving to sit on the edge of the bed. He reached a hand over, and gently placed it on the bards shoulder.
Gwen awoke at the touch, but knew instinctively that it was not the touch she desired. She stiffened, then slowly rolled onto her back, glancing into her fathers concerned scrutiny, then looking away. She spent a long moment putting her emotions behind a mask, and when she had a semblance of control, she met his eyes again.
"How are you, Little One?"
The moniker almost broke her, but she bit her lip and drew in a deep, deep breath to keep from reacting. She kept silent, knowing anything she said would be a lie. The silence stretched on until it became uncomfortable. For the first time in his memory, Geoff couldnt find the right words to say to his daughter. Because he knew any platitudes he could produce at this moment were beyond useless, and his mind wouldnt allow him to think of anything else.
"Ahem. Your mother is getting dinner together in the kitchen. Would you like to join her?"
The bard turned he back to him, hugging the pillow tight to her body and breathing deeply. "No, not really. Im not hungry. But you go ahead." She closed her eyes.
"Sweetheart, you need to eat."
She made no answer, though he was well aware she wasnt asleep. He left her finally, his heart breaking once again at the truth hed never hoped to see. . . her soul was dying, and the only person who could heal it was already dead.
The following morning dawned bright and clear, for which most of the world was happy. After a week of rain, they were all more than a little ready to see the sun shine for a while. But more importantly, it was Celebration, and most of the rest of the world had something to celebrate.
Gwen sat out on the deck of the beach house watching the sun come up. Had her parents not been there, she would have been on the boathouse dock, but she was loathe to go down there with them inside. Her father had left a large box with her the night before. She replayed the conversation in her mind.
"Honey, Sal asked me to give this to you. He said he had instructions from, uh, from Randi, to make sure you got this on Celebration."
"Just put it down, Daddy. Ill get to it later."
He had done as she asked with a bit of trepidation. He wasnt *positive* what was in the box, but given who it was from he could make a fairly good guess. And he wasnt sure if she was ready for this yet. Or if she ever would be. But it had to be her choice.
"Well be at the boathouse if you need us , Gwen. Goodnight."
She, too, was pretty certain what the box contained, but she sat on deck with it in her lap, waiting for the sun to come up, debating on whether or not to confirm her suspicions. Finally, daylight crept across the horizon, and she gave in to the temptation of knowing for sure.
Gwen opened the box hesitantly, then pressed a hand to her mouth as her hunch was confirmed. Delicately, she lifted the album out, amazed at the weight. Shed never seen so many genuine photographs together before, and was surprised by their weight. For a very long moment, she stared at the picture that graced the cover of the album. It was one of the many candids Rico had taken, obviously, as she never remembered it being done. Tears sprang to her eyes and rolled unheeded down her face as she gently replaced the book in the box and put the lid back on it. Maybe someday, she thought, but not now.
The bard was still sitting at the table on the deck when Geoff came out of the boathouse a short time later. He walked up to join her, then hesitated when he saw the box had been opened. She didnt preface her words at all, but told her father of the decision she had made.
He knew he looked like a fish out of water, with his eyes bulging and his mouth hanging open, but he couldnt help it. Shed blind sided him. "Huh? Bu. . . Wh. . . Uh. . . ."
"I need to get away for a while. I need to be on my own to work some things out for myself. I cant do that here, surrounded by well intentioned, well meaning friends. This is something I have to do alone."
"But what about your work, your stories?" Hes finally regained coherence enough to speak.
"My work?!? If and when I come back it will be waiting there for me in some form or fashion. As for my stories," and here her eyes watered, though she refused to allow the tears to fall. "My stories are gone, and have been since she left that night. I havent written one story or told one tale in three months." She held her hand up to forestall his questions. "Its not that I havent tried. . . theyre just not there anymore. She took them with her."
Geoff had no words of comfort to offer his only child at that point. So he did what he could. . . he supported her. "All right, honey. You do what you need to. You know how to reach us if you need us."
"I know, Daddy. Thanks. I love you, ya know."
"I know, honey. I love you too."
Geoff had wanted to have been the one to close up the house, but Gwen would have none of it. "Its my responsibility, Daddy. I need to do this." And with that he relented.
"Tommy, you let me know when she comes home, all right?"
"You really think she will? This place has lot of memories for her."
"I know. Thats why I think shell be back. Its the only tie she has left, and she needs it."
"All right, Geoff."
The Steeles had taken the Goldmans to the shuttle hub. Gwen had said her rather stilted goodbyes at the house, not wanting to break down in public. Her mother had held her for a long time, rocking her like she was a child again, then kissed her forehead and moved away. Her father had simply looked into her eyes, and whispered, "Take care of yourself, Little Girl." Gwen made no acknowledgment beyond a small nod of her head.
"Well be in touch." Geoff commented. He watched as Jill and Ella fussed over the almost-year-old baby a few feet away. He lowered his voice. "I will let you know if I discover anything else about what happened."
"Id appreciate that, Geoff. Thanks." The two men extended their hands for a handshake, but by mutual consent it turned to a hug. It didnt last long, but both reveled in the feeling of support they found. When they separated, Geoff took Jill by the hand and lead her up the ramp. Tommy and Ella stood together with Randall, and waved until the shuttle was out of sight.
They had decided to return to the medical facility they had left so abruptly so Geoff could resume his treatments. His back had been getting steadily worse and more painful, and lifting Gwen up had put some severe strain on itnot that he would ever have admitted it to her, especially in the face of everything else she was facing right now. But he knew the therapy would help. Besides, the medifac was in the capital city, which, coincidentally enough, was where he needed to make his inquiries.
Gwen looked around the beach house one final time before hefting the backpack to her shoulders and settling it into place. "Im sorry, love. Its too painful for me to stay here. Maybe someday, but not right now." She paused, as though waiting for a response, then sighed. "Goodbye, Randi." And without a backward glance she grabbed her staff, walked out and closed the door, the album box sitting prominently in the middle of the coffee table.
Geoff was never so glad to be done with therapy for the day. He knew the exercises were beneficial, and would eventually alleviate the pain he was suffering with, but right at the moment, he was sure the cure was worse than the ailment.
Jill had gone out, at his behest, to spend the day in the market. He was expecting company, and wanted to receive him alone. His wife understood, and had left him with a kiss after she dropped him at the treatment facility that morning, saying she would bring something good back for dinner. He had just gotten back to their room, when a knock sounded at the door.
"Jerry! Come on in," he greeted with a handshake.
"Geoff, my friend! You look. . . . "
. . . like I spent the day being tortured, I know. I did. Physical therapy can be a true beast, and today was just one of those days."
"We can put this off if youre not feeling well." Though the two men generally got together for lunch on the rare times they were both in the city, the Sabre Commandant had a feeling this was a more official visit. His suspicions were confirmed almost immediately.
"No, Jerry. This is more than us just getting together to talk and reminisce. I need a couple favors."
"I thought as much, my friend, from the urgency in your tone, and your desire to meet here privately instead of at HQ as weve usually done. I will caution you though, Geoff. It would probably be in your best interests to stop by one day anyway. Im sure Kene knows youre in town, and God forbid you snub her." He finished off the last with a smile, then whispered conspiratorially, "Id never hear the end of it."
Geoff chuckled at the chagrined look on his friends face. "Ill see what I can do, sir." Though they had been friends since the accident thirty years before, and had met on many occasions as business men, Geoff still sometimes slipped back into the Sabre role of respect. "Sorry," he corrected himself almost immediately. "You cant take the Sabre out of the man, even when you take the man out of uniform."
The two men seated themselves at the table, and spent the next few minutes enjoying the lunch Jerry had brought with him. Finally, the Commandant turned to the weapons smith. "All right, my friend. Time to get down to brass tacks."
Geoff cleared his throat and began speaking. "I need two things. I need to know what *really* happened to Miranda Valiant." Jeremiah Daetwyler froze. "And I need a tracer kept on my daughter. Now, before you refuse the first, hear me out. It will explain a lot, including why I asked for the second." The active duty Sabre nodded his agreement, and folded his hands on the table, waiting expectantly.
So Geoff told him. . . about meeting Randi, and knowing what she really was. About their talks together. About knowing where ever she had gone, it was to do her duty as a Sabre, knowing she would die this time. And finally, about Gwen, and the love she and Randi had shared, that to his knowledge though never physically consummated, still bound them together as the soulmates they were. "My little girl is dying over this, and has gone on a walkabout for God only knows how long to see if she can find something to replace what shes lost. Id just like to know shes being looked out for."
"Geoff, well look out for Gwen for as long as necessary, I promise. As for the other," he sighed heavily. "Come by the office in a few days. Ill have your answers, what of them I can give you, then."
"Thank you, Jerry. You dont know how I appreciate all this."
Gwen had gone to the shed where the motorcycle sat, tarp-covered and waiting. She pulled the covering off slowly, and actually sat down on it for a long moment, before standing up off of it, and replacing the tarp. Nope, it just doesnt feel right, being on there by myself. Guess Ill walk. It never occurred to her to take a transport. She wanted to be able to see and feel the places her traveling would take her. With that, she set out for Tommy and Ellas, to bid them goodbye.
The Steeles were just back from the shuttle hub, and settling in for lunch when the bard rapped on the door. Ella was quick to usher her in, noticing with some alarm her backpack and staff. "Come in! Come in! Were just sitting down to the table. Let me get you a plate."
"No, really, I. . . . "
The blonde woman meekly did as she was told. She wasnt sure what to expect from them when she told them her news. So, for more than half an hour, Gwen did little more than push the food around on her plate. Very little seemed to be reaching her mouth.
"You know, if you cant figure out how to eat it, Im finished feeding Randall. . . Im sure I could manage to get most of the food to your mouth."
Gwen had to smile at Ellas comment. Watching Randall eat table food had brought a few moments of genuine happiness back into the bards eyes. His determination to help the process helped insure not all the food made it anywhere near his mouth. "I think I can manage on my own, thanks."
"Then see that you do, or I *will* make sure of it." The blonde took in the determined look on the face of her friend, and decided to humor her, as much as her stomach would tolerate it, and slowly started eating. She ate better than half the portion, before finally pushing the plate away.
"Thanks, Ella. That was good. And Im glad to see Randall is feeling better."
"Do you feel better?"
It was an honest question and Gwen thought about it before answering. "Lets just say that my physical being feels better, though the rest of me is still pretty shot."
"Understandable. Now, you wanna tell us why youre here?" Tommy had sat quietly during the whole meal, watching the tableau that was unfolding around him. He knew very well that the bard had been struggling since the night of the awards ceremony, though until just a few days previous neither of them had known definitely about Randi, to the best of his knowledge. Now he waited patiently for Gwen to speak, certain of what she was going to say after his talk earlier with Geoff.
"Im leaving," repeating her earlier words to her father. He nodded in sympathetic comprehension. "I need some time to myself, to be alone and grieve. Maybe itll give me my muse back." Now Tommy looked at her sharply. "It walked out on me the night she left, and took all my stories with it."
"Oh, Gwen!" Ella commiserated, covering one of the small hands with her own. "Ya know, I keep wondering, if I had just asked the right questions, or pushed a little harder. . . ."
"No, whatever else happens you gotta remember that this, whatever it was that took her from us, had nothing to do with us. You wouldnt have wanted to push her away, and thats what would have happened." Tommy chided his wife gently, having already had this conversation on several occasions the past several days.
"I know, love. Its just easier to second guess at this point."
"A lot of things are easier to second guess at this point," Gwen agreed softly, and the Steeles wept silent tears at the anguish plainly written on the bards face.
"Youll keep in touch?"
"Ill do my best. Ill be back when I can. But right now. . . . "
"Go with our blessing, then. And may the goddesses watch over you." The trio exchanged hugs, and Gwen picked up her pack and staff. She opened the door and hesitated. Then without another word she walked out and closed the door behind her, setting her feet toward the bridge and the mainland.
Jill had needed to return home before his physical therapy was completed, which worked out very well for Geoff. He felt bad about keeping secrets from his wife, especially like this, but it was a part of his life. And if he wanted answers, he was going to have to live with the consequences of keeping the secrets. Hed told her about the conversation hed shared with Jerry that concerned their daughter, and he could see the relief on Jills face as she understood that Gwen would be monitored and safeguarded as much as could be managed.
Now, with his treatments finished for the present, he made his way to Sabre headquarters for lunch, and he hoped, some enlightenment.
Kenesha Rachoen rose from her position behind the desk, as soon as he stuck his head in the door. "Geoff!" she exclaimed. "Id heard you were in town for therapy. Hows the back?"
"Hi, Kene! Been better, been worse. Youre looking good, though. How are things with you?"
"Same old, same old, anymore. Let me let Jerry know youre here." Geoff eyebrows rose at the informality of her reference, but said nothing. "Go on in, Geoff. Lunch should be here shortly."
"Thanks, Kene." He entered the inner sanctum of the Commandants office with a bit of trepidation. The fact that Jerry was having lunch delivered instead of going out meant hed found something. And it was important enough to ensure they were overheard by no one, not even wait staff.
"Come in, Geoff." He offered his hand in greeting, which the weapons smith accepted with alacrity. "Please, have a seat," waving him to one of the comfortable chairs in front of his desk. "Howve you been lately? How did the therapy go?"
The ex-Sabre grasped immediately the fact that the Commandant wanted to give the impression that this was their first meeting. He wasnt sure he liked what that pointed to, but knew there had to be a reason for it, so he went along until the could talk a bit more freely.
"Im doing well, sir, better now that therapy is over. It amazes me that something that intensely painful can make me hurt less, but it does. I will admit to being glad its over for a while."
"I dont doubt it. I thought wed have lunch in. I thought you might be more comfortable."
"Yes, sir. I would, actually. Thanks you."
They spent the next few minutes in small talk, discussing some of the improvements and new weapons Geoff was working on. Then talk turned to his family, and the weapons smith got some much needed reassurance. "I understand your daughter was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Artists Guild recently."
"Yes, yes she was."
"Its always nice when the ones we love are recognized and taken care of. Nice to know that others appreciate them as much as we do. Shes a rare talent."
"Thanks, Jerry. I like to think so, but I could be accused of bias." He smiled in relief at what was not being said as much as at what was.
"Well, no one could accuse me of prejudice, and I say shes incredible, so there." The two men were still chuckling when lunch was finally being wheeled into the room. When the meal had been placed on the table, Kene stuck her head in the room.
"Boss man, if yall dont need me, Ill go get my own lunch now."
"Thats fine, Kene. Go ahead."
"Thanks, Jerry. And if I dont see you when I get back, Geoff, it was good to see you again."
"You. too, Kene. Take care."
"I thought the two of you had trouble getting along," the ex-Sabre commented.
"Well, time has mellowed us in a lot of ways, my friend. She still speaks her mind more often than not, and we still have some fantastic rows, but for the most part, were very civil to one another. Besides, shes got on her company manners today. Let me enjoy it, will you?" The last was said with a ripple of amusement.
The two men ate their meal with continued small talk and personal exchanges. When they were finished, the Commandant rose, and asked, "Did you walk, or. . . . "
"Actually, I called for a transport, but I feel like I could walk back. That was a great meal, thanks! But I am so full I think a little exercise might be in order." Hoping his response was what Jerry was looking for.
"Let me walk back with you then. I feel in need of a bit of exercise myself." They stepped into the outer office, where Kene was just seating herself behind her desk. "Kene, Im going to walk Geoff back to his room. You know how to reach me if you need me."
Sure do, boss. See you next time, Geoff." The weapons smith waved his goodbye, and the two men walked out of the office, then out of the huge military complex. It always amazed Geoff how the Sabres were able to maintain their anonymity, until he remembered they were but a very small cog in a vast military machine. No one even knew they were there. The men walked outside in silence, and by mutual unspoken agreement, went toward a nearby park, where they could talk without being overheard.
"Okay, Jerry. You wanna tell me why all the double talk and mystery?"
"Lets just say I have reason to believe there is a leak coming from high enough up it could be from a member of my staff, and what I am going to tell you is completely off the record. If word gets out of what really happened, Randis sacrifice would be for naught, and the world would, more than likely, plunge itself back into the chaos it knew before the peace was achieved."
"So you know the story? She is really dead?"
"I know the story, and I have found no evidence that she is alive." He watched Geoffs broad shoulders slump. "Sit down, my friend, and let me tell you what I know about what happened to the brave woman known as Miranda Valiant."
"Part of this story, the beginning of this story, is more than thirty years old. I know youve heard rumors about a woman who ran away from her duty as a Sabre, screaming hellfire and damnation, and Kenesha and I getting into a huge row about it. You need to know the truth of what happened then, to understand what just happened recently."
Geoff said nothing, but nodded for the other man to continue.
"We were all so young. Id had a brief affair with a fellow Sabre, by the name of Grace Rivers. She was lovely, but obsessive, and I had to break it off with her rather abruptly. She was determined to make a life with me, while I was very happy and content to focus on the Sabres. They were my life, and I told her as much. . . that while I found her company pleasant and entertaining enough, she simply couldnt compete. I knew what I wanted, and she wasnt anywhere near first on my list."
"I know, I know. Stupid. I look back and think of the myriad of ways I could have handled that better, but at the time my only concern was getting rid of her, which I did most effectively. She disappeared shortly thereafter, swearing vengeance, which I put down to theatrics. In retrospect, I am still a little confused at how she managed to pass her psych quals. She became a totally different person."
"A couple days passed, then Kenesha called me out, and proceeded to try to beat the snot out of me. We both gave as good as we got, and we ended up in the infirmary together. Since it was a private matter between the two of us, done on our own time, no action was taken. But we were made to understand it was not to *ever* happen again." Jerry grimace at the memory.
"She called me a fool, told me I was an idiot for turning down the love of a woman like Grace. Of course, she hadnt seen Grace go from demure to psychotic in the blink of an eye either. Turned out she was in love with the woman herself. It made working together more than a little awkward, but we managed. I did try to explain what had happened, but she didnt want to hear it, didnt want to believe that of the woman she loved."
"Why stay as part of the same team if it was so difficult? Surely something could have been worked out."
"You know what the rules were like then. If either of us had opted to change teams, it would have been disastrous for both our careers. Although Kene and I are basically responsible for that particular rule change, allowing for teams to be put together on an as needed basis, instead of being assigned to a particular team."
"Yes, I noticed that had changed, after talking to Randi," Geoff said. "It was a good choice."
"We thought so. Its made for better teams, better camaraderie among the Sabres. Less competition and more teamwork." The Commandant sat thoughtfully for a few minutes.
"Sir, pardon me for asking. I mean this has been fascinating, and has cleared up a few things I had heard about before but didnt really understand. But what does this have to do with Randi?"
"Patience, young pup. Im getting there, I assure you. I have long suspected Grace Rivers became the Ghost Rider who was responsible for much of the political unrest and rebellion we have encountered for the last thirty years. Several months ago, Gunnery Sergeant Miranda Valiant confirmed my suspicions, and brought to my attention a much more significant problem."
"Come in, Gunnery Sergeant." The Commandant extended a hand, surprised as always by the power behind the returned grip.
"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, sir,"
"What can I do for you? Please, have a seat."
"Actually, sir, would you mind taking a walk with me?" He looked at her oddly, but complied readily with her request. She was more decorated than himself even, and he respected the work and wisdom it had taken to achieve that. She had proven herself many times. It was time to return a bit of that trust.
The two Sabres walked along in silence, a striking pair in any crowd, their looks and bearing drawing attention even in the military surroundings they were in. The tall, gray-haired Army Commandant, and the equally tall raven headed Marine Sergeant. Though neither spoke a word, it became apparent they were intent on something, and they passed through the corridors and stepped into the outside air unimpeded.
When they were a distance away from the building, their walk slowed, and the man turned to the woman. "Very well, Valiant. Would you like to explain to me why we are outside?"
"Do you remember a woman named Grace Rivers?" she asked bluntly. The shocked look on his face was his answer. "I see that you do. I have conclusive proof that points to her as being the legendary Ghost Rider. And there is evidence indicating someone very high up in the Sabre hierarchy, possibly even your own staff, as her leak."
In all his years, Jeremiah Daetwyler had never been flummoxed like he was at that moment. He stood there staring at her, trying to determine if the woman was serious, mad, or just trying to piss him off royally. If the last was the case, hed see she scrubbed every military latrine and head on the planet until it glistened. Then hed have her do it again for good measure. The Commandant drew a deep breath. "You say you have proof of all this."
"I do, sir."
He remained silent for several minutes, realizing that if any part of her story was true, any and all communication from here on out would have to be handled with utmost secrecy. "Very well, Gunnery Sergeant. I would like you to meet me at this address at 2200 hours tonight. If what youre telling me is true, and I have no reason beyond the sheer incredibility of the concept to think it isnt, weve got to keep this quiet."
"She wasnt lying, or making anything up. The proof she showed me as to Ghost Riders true identity was conclusive. And what she showed me about a leak was more than enough for us to decided to keep her suspicions between us, and a chosen few. The same few who went out with her on information gathering missions for the nine months prior to the last one. You are the first person outside the circle to know the truth."
"Thank you for trusting me, Jerry."
"Youve earned it, my friend. And you are in the unique position to need to know, and be able to understand."
"Commandant, this is a list of people I trust, that I know are clean. Id like you to insure I am able to use them as necessary on my fact finding missions in the next few months."
Jerry looked over the list, approving her choices with a nod. I can do that, on a somewhat limited basis. It will call too much attention to you if you use full teams every time, especially as you will be doing unauthorized covert operations.
"I know. For now, I plan to use teams of three or four as much as possible. Some things we can find out on regular missions."
"Agreed. You will keep me posted on your progress?"
"As much as possible, sir. We cant meet too often. We dont need to start talk."
"Very well, Marine. Good hunting."
"Thank you sir."
"I had one more visit from her after that, shortly after Festival. She had a full team going into do some last recognizance. They were hoping for enough information to be able to put a stop to the Ghost Riders activities once and for all."
"Did they succeed?"
"Far beyond anything we expected. But until Tiny McCall showed up at my home several nights after Spring Equinox, I had no idea what had happened. I still dont have all the details, Im sure. And doing a search for her remains has proven to be a close to impossible task, given the utmost secrecy surrounding this mission."
"Hold it. Waitaminute. Just back right on up there." Geoff stood and started pacing. "Youre telling me you knew she was dead for almost three months before you notified the family?"
"Why?" So simple, and so complex a question.
Jerry decided to go with the simplest, most forthright answer he had. "Geoff, we never found a body, and it has been very difficult to look, considering what happened."
"Youre gonna tell me about that, though, arent you?" He glared at the older man.
"Yes, but understand. . . we wanted to be as sure as possible that it was true before announcing it to the family. No sense in upsetting folks if there was even a remote possibility she was alive, right?"
Geoff sat down, defeated by the honest truth in his friends tone. He had been hoping. . . but at least now he would know the truth surrounding her death. He nodded for the Commandant to proceed.
"Now remember, everything I am going to tell you comes from Tiny, and his was an eyewitness and an ear witness account. He saw everything up to the time Miranda entered the stronghold, and heard everything up to the explosion."
Tiny had personally volunteered to be the one to pick Randi up from the roof of the hotel. He, better than anyone else, knew how very difficult the evening had to have been, and he was trying to spare his friend the embarrassment of being seen as emotional. He had the courtesy to look away as soon as she boarded, because hed seen the tears that were streaking her face.
Shortly into the flight, he risked a covert glance in her direction. He was surprised to see her writing a somewhat lengthy missive on paper. He knew better than to even ask. She continued to write until shortly before they landed. Then she folded the letter and placed it in an envelope, writing a name across the front of it, just as they set down gently on the shuttle pad.
"You stay here. Ill be back." It was an order, and Tiny understood it as such. He nodded his comprehension, unwilling to disturb the balance shed found with a single word.
She was gone for slightly longer than hed expected, though not by any means upsetting their timetable. The Marine who arrived back at the shuttle pad was calm, cool and collected. "Lets go." In veery little time they were up and away. "Report." Staccato, and only asked when his attention could be turned away from the controls.
"Except for you and I, all our people are in place. She didnt even notice the exchange of security personnel."
"Why would she? Even though these people are in her organization, they are still basically hired guns patrolling the water outside the dome. The ones she knows and trust are inside with her. And we have never, ever been this close before."
"That is very true. You will be able to sneak in before daylight. There are two guard who patrol at night thatll you need to take care of. Once you get by them, you have several options."
"No, I dont Tiny. Weve been over this. Someone has to stay, to insure no one leaves. And that is my responsibility.
"Why not just kill them all and then set the device? No one will know the difference."
"I will try. But, how many times have we found someone who was supposedly dead trying to crawl away from a scene, huh? You know and I know, like it or not, that this is the best solution for everyone."
"Everyone but you and Gwen," came the big mans rejoinder.
It almost broke her. But she grit her teeth together hard and glared at him. "It is the best solution for everyone," she hissed at him.
The silence was strained after that, broken only by the sounds of their respective breathing. She understood his point, but knew he understood that she was right. She could not get into the dome with weapons. Ghost Rider had set up elaborate alarms to detect them, due to the volatile nature of her guests. Ghost Rider didnt want the havoc to start until they reached topside again, and were given the signal. Besides, she had an overwhelming urge to talk to the blonde woman and find out why. This chase had brought up far more questions than it had answers. The questions needed answers before this chapter could be closed. It was necessary, if only for the record.
It was the darkest part of the night when they reached the ship that had been awaiting their arrival out in the middle of black water. Tiny set the shuttle down on the small pad that had been delegated for its use, and moved quickly behind Randi to exit the vehicle. They were immediately escorted over to two separate, distinct submersibles, which they climbed into. Each vehicle was then gently lowered into the water, and they sped for their ultimate target. The ship slowly moved away, knowing the surviving Sabres would find it easily by homing in.
Its just as well this thing is solid. Pitch black is pitch black anywhere, and its not like we can turn on lights to alleviate that problem down here. They could, of course, turn lights on, but it served little purpose here, except to attract unwanted trouble. And the dark swallowed up the light here, making the darkness impenetrable. The Marine glanced around her at the technology that surrounded her, appreciating it in an abstract concept sort of way. It did what she needed it to do, and that was enough.
Just shy of the fortress, her auto guide slowed the capsule down and started reading itself for docking maneuvers. She spoke to her team one last time as their leader. After this, there would be no direct communication with them, and they would only have knowledge of what was going on with her through a comm link that interfaced between not only their vessels, but for the first time, between the Sabres themselves. Once that was gone, they would have no way of transmitting to or from her at all.
"My friends, we have served long and well together. Thank you for being part of such an enormous and productive effort. Today we reach the payoff of many months, and in some ways, even years of hard work. Dont let it go to waste. No one escapes the dome once I go in. And remember me, my friends, when all is said and done. CARPE DIEM!!!
Silence greeted her words, as she had known it would. They were far too disciplined to try to dissuade her at this late date. But her choice made no one in this group happy, and though it was as frustrating as hell, it cheered her to know, in the end, she was regarded love and respect in the eyes of her comrades. And knowing that somehow made it all a little easier, for by choosing to do this herself, they should all, if they were careful, go home to loving families this day, with far more confidence in their own peaceful futures.
The submersible docked with the merest whisper of sound, and Randi waited until the little craft signaled it was safe before opening the hatch. It was an interesting phenomenon, she mused, knowing you were sitting on the ocean floor and stepping out into a surrounding air pocket. She worked quickly, scrambling the impulses for the computer door lock, and opening it within seconds. The Sabre glanced carefully into the hallway, and sensing no one, stepped in, closed the locked door behind her.
First stage completed. Now to go find those to wandering security people. Tiny and the rest of the team were monitoring the silence anxiously. As much as they hated knowing the sacrifice Randi was deliberately making, they all knew it was the surest bet for accomplishing their mission. These were mostly surveillance and escort vehicles. If those inside the dome tried to escape, they would have to become kamikaze weapons. And they all admitted to being human enough to want to live, to want to tell the tale of heroism that was being wrought.
It hadnt taken long. They seemed to be patrolling the compound in something of a circle at pretty regular intervals. She simply waited for them to come directly to her. The team members heard the bone crunches, and flinched in natural reaction. It wasnt a particularly pleasant sound, especially when you couldnt see who was doing what to whom. They all heaved a sigh of relief when Randis voice spoke to them. "Still with ya, guys."
The Sabres listened for footsteps they knew they would never hear, but strained to do so anyway. The next noise they heard, in fact, was the very quiet sound of buttons being pushed. Then a female computer voice said softly, "Entryways secured and locked." More buttons. "Blast doors lowered." A swipe, a click, and the rattle of a key pad. "Self destruct set. There will be no audio countdown. Please enter authorization code to commence sequencing." A longer pause this time, broken only by the almost soundless clatter of code data being entered. Randi had taken care to bring along prints of the womans identification scans, and she put them to good use now. "Retinal scan complete." Another few seconds of silence. "Hand scan recognized. Authorization complete. Destruct in twenty-nine minutes."
The entire team marked the second those words were uttered. In fifteen minutes, they would need to leave the area, back to the outer edges of transmission range. The shock wave would destroy them otherwise. As it was, they were walking a fine line to stay in communication until the very last moment. But Tiny, especially wanted to be sure he had the whole story when he told the ending to the Commandant.
Randi, meanwhile, was not happy with the length of time set for the auto destruct. On the one hand, it was far too long, leaving a possibility for someone to stop it. On the other, it was barely enough time for her to get the answers she wanted. She left the control room, melting the control pad before heading down the hall to confront the Ghost Rider face to face.
She stepped into the darkened room stealthily, casting her glance first toward the empty Empty? bed. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she found the woman she sought, sitting in front of the artificial fireplace asleep. Randi took great pains to secure her, not wanting the Ghost Rider to stop the events the Sabre had set in motion. She was here for answers.
It hadnt taken the blonde woman long to awaken, though her face remained clouded with confusion until her eyes fell upon Randi. She didnt even struggle, knowing she had lost, and somewhat glad that it was going to be over sooner rather than later. She was more tired than she would even admit to herself.
"Hello, Grace." The only reaction the woman showed to being addressed by name, was a rapid blinking of her brown eyes. "My name is. . . ."
". . . Miranda Valiant, the most decorated Sabre in history." Now it was blue eye that blinked in swift succession. "Oh yes, dear. I know *all* about you. And I knew, if I was ever to meet my demise at a time not of my own choosing, it would be at your hand. Ive watched you, you know. It pays to know your enemy. And you are simply the best. Absolutely magnificent."
"Now, would you like to tell me why youre here? And why Im not dead yet?"
It was almost humorous, Randi thought as she gazed at the older woman, how very polite and civil were being. To look at us youd never know we were mortal enemies. Aloud she simply said, "I wanted to talk to you. And it seemed kinda rude to kill you before I gave you a chance to answer.
The womans response to that was a light laugh. "I see your point. Well, my Sabre friend, what would you like to know?" getting right to the heart of the problem.
"Actually, Id really like to know why."
"Why it started? Or why I am not struggling to escape and stop you?"
"Well, it started because the man I loved scorned me, and when I tried and failed to destroy him, I vowed to destroy the one thing he cared aboutthe Black Sabres. He felt they were paramount to everything, and I was determined to see he paid for choosing them over me. Especially when he chose them even after being injured because of them." The insanity which had gripped her years before shone from her eyes for a long instant, before giving way to the exhaustion of a woman who had been fighting too long for something she was no longer sure was worth the risk.
"It didnt stay that way, though, did it?"
"No," said with a hint of remorse and regret. "It became fun, and the power was addicting. Do you know how large my army has become?"
"Our conservative estimates put it close to a quarter million people."
"I think its closer to half, but Id have to talk to the faction leaders, and Im really not in a position to do that right now."
"Thats okay. Neither are they." The listening team wondered what they had missed while it had been silent. It explained why the silence had been so lengthy, though. Grace chuckled at Randis comment.
"No, I dont suppose they are." Silence fell.
"So, why are you so willing to give it up?"
"Honestly? Im tired. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, I just want to rest. Revenge is a hard motive to maintain for thirty years."
"Youll excuse me if Im a little skeptical of your motives at this point, wont you? After all, just three months ago you were psyching up the upper echelon of your army."
"Now, you know, thats a funny thing. I fully expected an all out military assault to destroy the leaders and their minions. Its not like its difficult to find ten thousand dissidents standing out in the middle of a normally uninhabited desert."
"It is if youre not looking for them. Lets face it, Grace," with a raised eyebrow. "Lets face it, Grace," she continued at the older womans nod, "the reason the Sabres exist is because the regular military is kept pretty useless. And my team wasnt prepared to commit suicide without guaranteed results. Nine against ten thousand puts the odds at more of a disadvantage than we usually like."
The Sabres had started moving away from the structure slowly the second their alarms indicated fifteen minutes had passed. Tiny moves as slowly as was safely possible, knowing he was severing the last link he had to one of the best friends he had.
"I see your point. Are the odds better now?"
"Will you answer a question for me?"
Randi thought about it a second before she answered. "If I can, sure."
"Why are you so willing to die?" It came from a blind corner, and hit her so deep, she actually gasped for breath for an instant. She swallowed then looked back into the face of her enemy, startled by the compassion she found there. "Oh, youre not, are you? Wait," gesturing to the Marine,"let me finish. You are *willing* to die, but not *ready*. "
"What makes you think Im going to die with you today?"
"I was in your place once. Cocky young Sabre, willing to do whatever it took, until I found out that what it took was giving up the one thing I wanted."
"There is one difference between you and me."
"Uh huh. I am willing to die to ensure the safety of those I love and care about. You wanted to ensure the death of those you claimed to have loved because of petty jealousies."
"I suppose, but youre almost worse than I am."
"How do you figure?"
"Well, Ive been sending people to their reward in the afterlife. You are choosing to condemn your loved ones to a living hell on earth. Which of us is worse, do you suppose?"
"I guess well know in a minute now, wont we?" asked the Marine, looking at her watch. "Our time here is almost up."
"You have been an interesting person to talk to, Miranda Valiant, and a very worthy opponent. In some ways, I regret our time together is at an end. In others, though, I am profoundly grateful to you for freeing me from this tired, miserable existence. I truly have grown weary of the struggle."
"I have two quick questions for you."
"Of course. I have nothing to hide at this point."
"What will happen to the factions now?"
"Well, they have no concrete directions. They only know that they are at peace for the duration. So either they will settle down in the peace, and finally become productive citizens. . . . "
"Or they will start a civil war among themselves, much like what has been going on for the last thirty years, only directed more at each other than at any outside foe It has been so long since many of them thought for themselves, Im not sure they could at this point. Anyway, a full scale war is out of the question without a strong central leader. And after today, there wont be one. Problem solved."
"Last question then, "looking at her watch and seeing she had about sixty seconds. "Who is your inside contact?"
"You mean you dont *know*?"
"I have my suspicions, but Id like them confirmed."
"Aw, what the hell, its not like you can do anything anyway. My Sabre contact is. . . . " BUUUZZZZZZ! Crackle, crackle, buzz.
Tiny cursed roundly as he lost the signal. And then there was nothing but a large explosion. And silence.
Geoff sat stunned as he listened to the tale unfold around him. The narrative had been so visual he could almost see the scenes taking place around him. Finally, he drew in a breath, then two, and still he had to swallow and clear his throat before speaking. "Then what happened?"
The eight remaining Sabres were all affected by the resulting shock waves to varying degrees. Tiny took the worst hit, since he was the closest to the area of the explosion. It didnt crush him, but instead sent him reeling end over end for quite a span of time. When he finally regained control of his small craft, he sent out a signal to the members of the team.
And they did so, starting with himself as Beta, giving their Greek designation and location. It didnt take long to see they had been scattered quite widely, though he had been flung the farthest by quite a few lengths. "All right, people, lets go see what we can find out."
What they found out of course, was there was no way they were getting anywhere near it for at least a couple days. The water was still roiling pretty good, and the silt and debris the explosion itself had stirred up made it impossible for even their sophisticated sensors to see through. So they marked the spot on their computers, and headed back to the ship.
It took three days for the sea to settle enough to be deemed safe enough for them to go back to take a look. The silt was still stirring, though they were each secretly convinced it was going to be like that for a while. It played havoc with their sensors and equipment, but the doggedly kept on. For a very long week, they searched and studied, growing more despondent with each passing day. After seven days of searching, ten days after the explosion, Tiny called a halt to their efforts.
"I need to go inform the Commandant. And he needs to get some people down here to see if there are any remains to be returned to the family."
He held himself ridged during this speech, willing himself not to cry. And he utterly lost it when Brenda curled her small hand into his, and whispered, "Im gonna miss her too, Tiny. She was a good friend."
The ship lowered its standard to half mast. Tiny took of in the shuttle a short time later, heading straight for the capital city. He had left a set of dress blues in the shuttle, fully aware of his duty as Randis second in command.
He went directly to the BEQ, his haggard appearance garnering him several questioning looks, but no comments. He gave off a distinct air that made it clear questions would be unwelcome. He took a long hot shower to revive himself, then turned it on full cold to assure he was awake and coherent. Slowly, he put on his dress blues, the Navy cracker jack fitting him sleekly. One of the things he loved about the Sabres was the lack of formality, and traditional military garb. Except in situations like this. Or, he thought with a pain filled smile, those lovely, formal, dress up occasions like Randi took Gwen to. His mind filled, for a wistful moment, with the image of the two of them Randi had shown him of them after the symphony. Such a beautiful couple. Too bad Randi was so damned pig-headed stubborn. . . . He let the thought die, as he knew his anger was beyond useless at this point, and not what he needed to show the Commandant when he arrived at the mans office. Besides, he knew deep in the very deepest part of his being she had been right. It had been necessary. And if he were honest with himself, he admired her for having the backbone to make and stand by that decision. He didnt think he could have done it himself, and hoped he was never put in a position to find out for sure.
He walked into the Commandants office, and, after his salute, presented his name to the Army Lieutenant Colonel seated at the desk. "Is he expecting you, Chief McCall?"
"He asked me to report as soon as I got into town, Colonel."
She wondered, but said nothing except, "Ill tell him youre here."
"Thank you maam." And he went to stand by the window to wait. It didnt take long, before she called his name, and indicated he had clearance to proceed.
"Chief McCall, how nice to see you again," the Commandant said in a carrying voice. Thank you for taking the time out to come see me on your own time for a personal matter for me. I cant wait to see what youve got." Jerry Daetwyler knew exactly what the news was going to be by the look on the mans face and his manner of dress, but with the leak still undetermined, he found it necessary to to use pretense. Already things were in motion to find out exactly who the problem was, but it would take time he didnt have right now, for this mission. "Come, I know youve got to be hungry after your trip. Lets go get a bite, and look at those plans. Kene, Ill be out for a while with Chief McCall. You know how to reach me."
"Sure do, boss. Enjoy your lunch."
"Have you ever seen a grown man cry, Geoff? I mean break down and bawl like a baby. Tiny McCall did that day. It took a while to get the story straight from him, he was crying so hard at one point. But Ive told you exactly what he told me."
"Will you answer a couple questions now?" He stood up to pace.
"If I can. I will certainly try."
"Did you send teams back down to search for remains, proof that everyone who had been in the dome was dead?" He sighed harshly. "I know the likelihood of her having survived that is nil, but it would give us all some sense of closure if there were remains we could physically verify, could, I dunno," running his fingers through his hair in agitation, "cremate and scatter. Something, anything." He slumped down on the seat in frustration. "Im sorry, Jerry. I guess Im not making much sense"
"Youre making excellent sense, my friend. Im just sorry there is nothing I can say to help you. The truth is I had teams down there for almost a month. There was nothing identifiable left after the blast. The explosives Ghost Rider had rigged for her self destruct mechanism were chosen specifically for their ability to wipe out all living tissue. In fact the only thing left intact in any way shape or form is the dome itself. Thats one thing that took so long."
"From the way things were set, it took out the foundation, and when that happened, the dome fell straight down. It gave us hope their might be survivors, even though our scanners detected none. The silt was screwing our reading on everything else, why not this? But basically it fell straight to the ocean floor, because everything beneath it, organic and inorganic, was blown into oblivion as though it had never been."
The two men sat silently for a while, Geoff trying to absorb what Jerry had said, and the Commandant trying to unknot muscles that were suddenly very painful under the stress of retelling this story.
"Come, my friend," Jerry said motioning to Geoff. "Let me walk you back to your room."
The two walked slowly, partially to accommodate the weapons smith, whose back was beginning to bother him. All the sitting on stiff, unyielding metal was uncomfortable, if not downright painful. But the narrative had been too powerful to interrupt for mere physical misery. It would tell on him later, of course, even as it was starting to now. It always did.
"Do you know now who your leak is?"
"I am fairly certain, but still have no real proof. Its almost as though. . . ."
"Almost as though what?" Geoff prompted, when it became clear the Sabre was not going to continue.
"Its almost as though its accidental."
"HUH?!? What in Gods name are you saying??"
"Im not sure. It just doesnt feel right. The whole situation. . . . "
"Of course it doesnt feel right, Jerry. Its TREASON!!" The Commandant never knew so much venom could be conveyed in a whisper.
"No, Geoff. Im not being real clear, I guess. Even if my suspicions are correct, Im missing a significant piece of the puzzle, because its not making total sense yet."
"Okay, okay. I see what youre saying. Can you tell me who you suspect?"
No. My suspicions came from Randi, and she asked me not to say or accuse until and unless I was sure. I have to honor her last request."
"Yes, youre right." The two men entered the room where Geoff would be staying the night. His shuttle home left the next morning. He waved the Commandant to a seat on the couch, and walked to the bar, pouring up to whiskeys, neat. He handed one to his friend and kept the other for himself. "Thank you for telling me all this, Jerry. I can see how difficult all this has been on you."
And he could too. The months had not been kind to the Sabre. New lines of strain and stress had been written in his face, and his normally bright eyes were much duller. It was as though all this had hit him in the core of his soul, and were slowly destroying him. Treason was bad, losing your very best was worse, but finding out it was all your fault, due to insolence and youththat was a bitter pill to swallow.
"You deserved to know, my friend. You, of all people in the world deserved to know the whole truth."
"Well, I thank you, It will give me something to tell Gwen, oh, not specifics," holding up his hand when Jerry made to speak. "I know better. But I can honestly say that Randi died as she lived." A silence, then "And Thank you for watching over my little girl."
"You know Ill keep an eye on her like she was my very own, and Ill keep you apprized of her whereabouts."
Both men finished their drinks, and Jerry stood to leave. "Dont let so long go between visits, my friend. And please dont wait until its something so tragic."
"Agreed. And Ill even go you one better. Why dont you plan a weekend to come up and see Jill and I? A little home cooking might do you some good." Geoff extended the invitation with a smile.
"I might just have to take you up on that. Its been too long since Ive taste one of Jills home cooked meals."
"Well then, its settled. And maybe well have to take you down South with us sometime. Got some really good friends there, thanks to Gwen and Randi."
"Well see," not sure what his welcome would be like in that place. "Its been. . . ."
". . . informative. Thanks, Jerry." The two men shook hands and the Commandant took his leave. Geoff walked over and poured himself another whiskey. He sat down and hung his head, setting the drink down and rubbing his temples. It was gonna be a long evening, and he had a lot to think about.
Gwen didnt go very far the first night. She was unaccustomed to the walking, and she really had no destination in mind. She simply knew she needed to get away for a while. And having somewhat unlimited time and resources, she planned to do just that.
As soon as she crossed the bridge onto the mainland, she turned her steps northward. The bard decided that she would walk along the lesser traveled thoroughfares, and see parts of the world she had not as yet been exposed to. Part of her wanted to be excited about this new adventure, and the opportunity to learn old folktales and create new stories. But the rest of her knew this experience for what it truly was. . . a desire to run from the pain of losing her soul.
She thought back to the day three months earlier, when shed woken up in a blind panic, drenched in sweat. It was still early morning after the most incredible night of her life. Shed felt the wrenching even then, as though part of her died. But that was impossible, right? She had no reason to feel that way. But. . . .
BUT. . . Randi had said goodbye to her. Why? In their more than three years of friendship, never once had they ever said goodbye. So why then? She understood now, of course, but then. . . . Shed managed to put her questions and bad feelings to the side, and blame them on the unusual events and experiences of the past couple days. After all, she and her warrior were standing on a precipice theyd never been on before together, and that was enough to make anyone a little anxious. Right?
But as the days passed into weeks and the weeks became one month, and then two, and finally three with no word at all, Gwen knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what the news would be when it was given to her. And when two days later, Tommy knocked on the beach house door, the blow fell. And no amount of speculating and thinking, and bracing, for what, with each passing day became more and more inevitable, had prepared her for the cold hard fact of the truth being forced upon her.
As the sun began its decent into the horizon on the evening of that first day out, Gwen started looking for a place to spend the night. She found an old mom-and-pop owned hotel that had clean linens that reminded her of fresh cut grass and sunshine. And she settled in for the night. Along about seven oclock, there came a knock to her door. She grabbed her staff, and moved toward it.
"Its Mrs. Thimble, dear. Would you like to join us for dinner?" The Thimbles had big family style meals for their guests, at breakfast and dinner, and she wanted to make sure this young one was taken care of. The hostess could tell the bard bore heavy burdens, though very few words had passed between them at check-in.
"I dont. . . . "
"Oh, please join us. There are only four of us tonight. Week nights are always slower than weekends, ya know." Suddenly, talking through the closed door struck Gwen as ridiculous to the point of being absurd. She opened the door marginally, to see her hostess standing in the hall smiling at her tentatively.
"I appreciated the invitation, really, its just that. . . . "
"Nonsense, my dear," reminding Gwen a little of her grandmother. "Cmon," linking an arm within the bards own. "Id like to hear about that staff you have," with a twinkle that would have intrigued the blonde woman had she seen it. And Gwen allowed herself to be led away toward the dining room.
Late that night, when she was sure that her guests were comfortably settled in for the evening, Mrs. Thimble went to her own room and shut the door. "She came, Randi, much as you said she would. You chose her symbols wisely, my friend. That is one staff I am happy to have made. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of something so special. And Damn You, for leaving that beautiful woman alone!" With a huff, she turned off the lights and turned over to sleep.
The following morning saw Mrs. Thimble packing a lunch for the little bard, and inviting her back anytime she came around. Then she wished her well, and sent Gwen on her way, praying to Artemis to watch over the young blonde woman.
In the meanwhile, both Tommy and Ditto were in something of a dilemma. Ditto had spent the entire time since Gwen had left the morning before whining and moping back and forth between the two houses. Shed stayed the night with them, whimpering until even Ella was ready to do something drastic. Finally, after breakfast, Tommy knelt down to eye level, and made contact with the canine.
"Ditto, we are all fine here, but Gwen needs you with her right now, okay? Find Gwen. Find and protect."
The shepherd licked his face roughly, and proceeded to knock him flat on his butt in her haste to get out the door and find her charge. Her blonde mistress was most important to her brunette mistress, and until Randi came home, Gwen was her responsibility. And since Tommy had released her and give her a new obligation, she was free to do what needed to be done. Tommy barely got the bridge extended before she crossed it.
It didnt take her long at all to find the blonde womans scent, and she followed it faithfully. By lunchtime, she had reached the graceful Victorian styled structure where Gwen had stayed the previous night. With an insight she didnt truly understand, Mrs. Thimble made sure the dog had a bit of food and some water, before pointing the shepherd in the direction the bard had taken just a few hours earlier. With any luck, the dog would catch Gwen before nightfall, ensuring the woman had some company and protection on what the older woman could see was going to be a long journey for her.
It was getting close to sunset when the bard and dog decided to stop for the night. Ditto had caught up with Gwen by mid afternoon, and the bard was actually very relieved to see the canine. She had never been alone like this before, and found some aspects of it thrilling, and others frightening. Not sticking to main roads allowed her to see many things she had not been exposed to. Just as shed reached the burned out shell of what had been, before the last great war, a thriving metropolis, Ditto had caught up with her. And she had been very thankful for that fact. It was positively eerie, and she understood now very well the reason Randi had chosen to stick to known roads. Now, however, she was approaching a small town, and was hopeful for a clean inn and a hot bath.
It didnt take her long to decide something was downright different about this town, but it wasnt until she was comfortably ensconced in a hot bubble bath that it occurred to her what the difference was. There were no men here, she thought to herself. How unusual. Figuring there was a reason behind it that was really none of her business, she sat back and without her own volition, remembered some of the good times she and Randi had shared, unmindful of the tears that tracked down her face. Will it ever hurt less, love? Somehow, I doubt it.
When the water grew too cool for comfort, she stepped out and dried off, crawling into bed.
Next morning, when the blonde came down the stairs, she was questioned by the restaurant hostess who seated her. "Arent you the bard, Gwen Goldman?"
Talk about a quandary. . . she really didnt want to lie, but she had no desire for people to know who she was, either. The hostess saw the hesitation, and realized her mistake. "Im sorry, hon. I didnt mean to pry or embarrass you. I just wanted to thank you. For making a difference not only in my own life, but in the lives of many of the women here."
Seeing a way to redirect the conversation, Gwen asked,"Will you tell me a bit about this place? Ive never seen a community quite like this before."
The woman laughed. "Oh, were around, all over, in fact. We just pretty much keep to ourselves. We are a community of women, that caters specifically to women."
"Kind of like the Amazons of ancient times then?"
"Exactly like that. In fact, we call ourselves Amazons."
"I see. And how did I impact on your lives? I never even knew you existed."
"Your stories." The hostess noticed the smaller womans intake of breath and rush of tears. "Your stories have a way of touching a chord deep in all of us. Youve helped some heal, others find themselves, give still others the confidence and belief in themselves to do what needed to be done." She stopped when the bard rose abruptly.
"Im sorry. I really need to go."
"But you havent eaten yet. At least let me get you something to take with you." The bard didnt stop walking, but instead went straight to her room to gather her things together and pick up Ditto.
"Im sorry, girl. Guess well have to find you something to eat later." The two travelers made it down the stairs and out the front door before a voice calling her name halted them in their tracks. Her innate manners kicked in, and she turned around to face the woman she had been talking to only moments earlier. The shepherd took up a protective position in front of the bard as the other woman warily approached.
"Im sorry, Ms. Goldman. I didnt mean to upset you." She held up her hand to silence the bard before she could interrupt. "No, you wouldnt be out here if you werent looking for something, and whatever it is, I hope you find it." She held out a wrapped package to Gwen. "Here, just a bit of something to snack on while youre on the road. And I hope another time, youll consider coming through here and sharing a few stories with us." And without giving the blonde woman a chance to reply, the hostess turned and walked back into the inn.
Gwen stood dumbfounded for just a minute, and turned her steps northward once again, and headed for the outskirts of town.
The next month continued in much the same pattern. For the most part, people let the sad young woman alone, her grief providing a cloak of protection. The few that did try to speak to her soon let her be as well, her demeanor making it clear their attentions were unwelcome. And so she became content to be an observer, rather than a participant, in life.
High above, a goddess cried, unconsolable as her two equally unhappy sisters.
When Geoff walked in the door of his home, the day following his intense discussion with Jeremiah Daetwyler, Jill was there to greet him. She had known, even without him having said so specifically, that he was going to use his military contacts to see if he could find out the truth. From the droop of his shoulders, she knew he had, and that what hed found out was not pleasant.
She took him by the hand and set his bag by the stairs, then lead him back to the kitchen, where she had fresh coffee waiting. He took a seat, as she poured two cups out, and brought them to the table. She sat down next to him, and took his hand in hers again.
"Um, I dont know if you are aware of this, but Gwen is being monitored, and her signal is being sent here so we can keep track of her whereabouts."
"I asked Jerry if hed see about monitoring and he told me hed try to make the arrangements. I didnt realize hed have them send the signal to us as well. Ill have to remember to call and thank him." A brief silence while they each sipped at their coffees. "Oh, I invited him up for a weekend soon, by the way."
"Thatll be nice. I havent seen him in ages. Hows he doing? Isnt he due to retire soon?"
Geoff smiled. Retire? Jerry? I dont think so, love. "He didnt mention anything about it, but he looked tired. But after thirty-five years in the Army, what dyou, expect, sweetheart? We all know the Navy is the better service," snarkily.
"There are probably a few branches that would disagree with you, love."
"I spose." They sat quietly again, each of them focused on their coffee, when Geoff got up to refill their cups, Jill asked the question hed been dreading.
"You found out the truth, didnt you?" He nodded once. "Shes dead, isnt she? Theres no doubt, is there?"
"No, theres no doubt. Thats why it took so long to hear apparently." He sat pensively for a time, trying to phrase his words so he didnt lie, but didnt reveal the truth either. "From what I have learned, which was precious little, the military *was* called in and did more than a month of searching in a ten mile radius from where the incident apparently occurred. But the ocean is very deep there, and it is very possible that the currents washed away any and all evidence that could have helped give some resolution to all this."
"Geoff, why was she out there? I was so sure. . . and what it has done to Gwen?" There were tears in her eyes now. "Surely she had a reason, a justification, SOMETHING!!!" She broke down in tears, knowing in her heart that even if her husband knew the reason, it was not going to be something he could share. Jill had noticed something different about Geoff since Miranda Valiant had entered their lives. The two of them had formed a bond, and it tied in to the reason Randi disappeared at odd intervals, she was sure. But she trusted Geoff and had asked no questions. She knew he would never betray the Marines trust in him, even though she was dead.
Now, for the first time since hed been hurt all those years ago, he was going to have to lie to her. He took her in his arms, to comfort her, but also so she couldnt see into his face. His respect for Randi grew as he realized what shed live with for more than 13 years, and how much shed had to keep hidden. "Jill, there are some things I am just not privy to. That would be one of them. The only one who could tell us that is no longer alive to do so, and I doubt very seriously well hear her speak from the grave."
They remained locked in their embrace a while longer, before Geoffs last words settled in Jills ears. "What about that, love?"
"What about what, hon?" He groaned as his back started to lock up on him. "Can we go upstairs? My back. . . ."
"Oh, sweetheart, Im sorry. Yes, of course. Cmon." He made to reach for his bag, but her hands slapped his away. "Dont you dare," glaring at him. She picked up the bag and gestured at the stairs. "After you."
He extended his arm, and she walked up beside him, wrapping an arm around his waist and lending him a bit of support. They made it to the second floor in silence, and the weapons smith was glad to stretch out flat on the bed. Jill opened his bag and started putting his clothes away.
"I can do that, you know."
She smiled impishly at him. "I know you can, but I like taking care of you. By the way, you never answered my question."
"Im sorry. What question?"
"About Randis grave. Will she have one? Should we have some kind of service for her?"
"Well, love, I think a lot of that depends on her last wishes, and those of both Tommy and Gwen. And we cant ask Gwen until she comes back."
"But that could be weeks, or even months!!"
"I know, but you know Tommy will say its her decision. Maybe we should go down this weekend and talk to them. This is something to discuss in person, and not on the vid phone." She nodded her agreement, but remained quiet. "You want to call them for me, just to be sure theyre not busy?"
"Sure, love. You rest a bit, okay?" She was more than a little worried by his pallor.
Actually, Tommy and Ella came north for a change. They hadnt realized how much they unconsciously took for granted the fact that they were not alone on their little island. And how very glad they were to have company. Even though they could go for days without seeing one another, just knowing they were there was comforting.
So they came to visit Geoff and Jill, bag and baggage, taking a room at the nearby hotel, to keep the boy from driving the older couple to distraction. The Goldmans had tried to insist, but the Steeles had prevailed, and Jill and Ella were now out at the Market place with Randall, shopping.
Geoff invited Tommy into his study and offered the younger man a drink. Tommy looked at his watch, noting the early hour, and then at his friends face. After a glance into eyes that had aged significantly since the last time theyd talked, T nodded his head affirmatively. Obviously, the news was not good at all, and if Geoff felt the need for a drink, he was certainly not going to ignore the hint.
"You have a preference?"
"Whatever youre having is fine."
The weapons smith walked back to the sofa with two tequila shooters, and handed one to the younger man. Then he sat down and took a healthy swallow.
"The news is that bad then?"
"Hmm, what of it I could get. This stays right here between us, understand?" T nodded again, sipping on his own drink. "All right, then. They have confirmed that she is dead. They searched the area for more than a month, and didnt find enough remains of anyone or anything to fill a sample cup. Other than that, they will neither confirm nor deny, and you can draw your own conclusions from that."
Tommy wasnt sure whether to cry in pain or scream in anger. He settled for calm control, the anger and frustration seething just below the surface. "So, she dies, and disappears as though she never existed, and they dont even have the decency to acknowledge her?!?" He threw the shot back and swallowed it all in one big gulp.
"Tommy, I want you to listen to me very carefully, okay?" waiting until he was sure he had the younger mans full attention. "*If*, and only *IF* what you suspected about her true occupation in the military is true, then it would make sense that they would act this way now. She would belong to a unit that didnt exist. She would be a true unsung hero, and we have to assume her death was honorable and necessary for reasons that we will never comprehend. Do you understand what I am saying?"
The man who had been like a brother to Randi for more than a quarter century looked deep into the weapons smiths eyes, searching for the truth. He found his answers and sighed deeply. "I understand, Geoff." Both the spoken and the unspoken words, my friend. Thank you.
Geoff continued to look at Tommy for another long moment, until he was sure the younger man understood what was not being said. Then he nodded in satisfaction. "However, just because the military or the Corps is unable or unwilling to remember her, doesnt mean we cant. Would you like to have some sort of memorial service for her?"
"I think Gwen should be involved in any decision like that. If things had worked out like they should have, they would have been married and settled down. . . " thinking for a long moment, "or at least definitely headed for marriage and settling down. So I think we should wait."
Geoff smile at how accurately he had pegged Tommys response. "You realize it may be weeks or even months before she returns, right? Shes been gone almost three weeks now, and we have yet to hear from her."
"I know. Thats one of the reasons I sent Ditto to find her. Figured she could use a bit of company. And a little added protection wouldnt hurt either, no matter how long she needs to stay gone."
"Youre a good man, Thomas Steele."
One month became two and then three without Gwen noticing how much time had passed. Her body had grown leaner and hardened, firm muscles in place of the softness that had been there before. Her face had become much more planed, cheekbones highlighted by the shadows which fell on the hollows beneath them. The grave maturity suited her somehow, though the grief that still shrouded her meant those who admired her did so with looks from afar.
The bard took her time wandering, meeting interesting and ordinary people, hearing their stories. As time passed, she became more willing to lend a helping hand along the way to those she met that needed it, but it came more from being the right thing to do as opposed to deriving any joy or pleasure from it.
She came to realize she had been quite sheltered in her world. In her world, Gwen was surrounded by loving and understanding individuals who cared for her and loved her for herself. Out here, even still, there was bigotry and hatred in small pockets. Not a lot, thankfully, but enough that she found it disturbing, and for the stupidest things too. She tried to wrap her mind around the fact that some people hated other human beings, simply because of the color of their skin, their beliefs, their sex, or who they loved. All she got for her trouble was a headache.
The bard sorely wished for her stories back, thinking that perhaps, just maybe, she might be able to make a difference in the way these people thought. But that thought only brought back the pain of losing Randi, and that just made her want to cry. Gwen bit her lip, but a single tear escaped its confines, and slid down her cheek.
Time heals all wounds they say, love, but this one only hurts worse the longer were apart, and Im not finding the answers I need out here. Maybe its time to head for home.
For the first time in the six months since Randi had left her that fateful night, Gwen pulled out the old journal of her great-grandmothers stories. She might not have stories of her own left, but she could still share the ones her grandmothers ancestors had written down. She smiled. Ill try it. After all, at this point, I have nothing left to lose.
The first opportunity she had, she placed a vid call. She hadnt contacted anyone since shed left, and figured Randalls birthday would be as good an excuse as any. With any luck, her parents would be there as well, and that would save her from too much emotion from any of them, she hoped. She hoped in vain.
Ella took the call, and instead of diffusing her reaction, T and the elder Goldmans compounded it. They were all so excited, she couldnt get a word in. So the bard simply stood there, arms crossed over her chest, waiting for the babbling to stop, and for them to settle down.
"I called to wish Randall a happy first birthday." Tommy was holding the birthday boy, who tried to reach Gwen through the vid screen. This got a small chuckle from those watching him, and a cry of frustration from the child himself, when he couldnt grasp the object of his desire. Fortunately, before he could protest too loudly, Ella placed him in his seat, and Jill proceeded to walk out with piece of chocolate cake with a single lit candle. They all proceeded to sing "Happy Birthday" while Randal looked on. Ella helped him blow out the candle. The boy studied the cake solemnly, not sure at all what he was supposed to do with it. Finally, Jill swiped a bit of icing off the cake and put the taste between the boys lips. Without further ado, he grabbed two handfuls of the stuff, and aimed for his mouth. Not all of it made it there, of course and shortly, Ella was taking a very chocolate covered baby to get a bath.
Jill and Tommy left Geoff to talk to Gwen alone. She stood there, wiping the tears which had come unbidden to her face at the sight of Randalls precociousness, and the thought that Randi would miss seeing the child grow up. "How are you, baby girl?" his heart breaking again at the forlorn look in her eyes.
Shrugging her shoulders, Gwen kept quiet. There really wasnt a good way to say to your father, Ive been dying since she left me and will only be half alive for the rest of my life, which if I am very lucky will be short.
"Come home soon, Gwen. We love and miss you."
"I love you, too, Daddy." She severed the connection, and turned her footsteps toward home.
A week before Festival, not quite six months since Gwen had left, and almost nine months since Randis death, Jerry went to visit Geoff and Jill. Like her father, the Sabre Commandant had been keeping an active eye on Gwens travels. And being in his position, he had seen a very interesting phenomenon occur that he wanted to share with his old friend. Knowing intuitively that the two men wanted to talk privately, Jill excused herself shortly after breakfast.
"I have several errands to run, fellas, and I promised to visit Elizabeth, so you boys will be on your own for lunch." She kissed her husband lightly.
"All right, beautiful. We may be over at the workshop. Ive got some new things to show Jerry."
"Now, Geoff, you stop that. Jerrys supposed to be here for a bit of R&R, not work."
"Its okay, Jill. I actually asked to see them. Oh, and thank you, by the way. I havent had anyone refer to me as a boy in years."
"Well, you two try to behave while Im gone, please," giving them her sternest look. They both had the decency to look at the floor sheepishly, remembering the one other time they had been in the workshop together. Some ideas just didnt work as well in practice as they did in theory was all.
"Yes maam," chuckling when she did.
So what really brings you here, Jerry?" Geoff asked his friend as that sat back in the study. The weapons smith knew the Sabre had come for a purpose, that had little to do with his previous invitation, or his desire to see what Geoff himself had been conjuring up.
"Right to the point, my friend? Well, youre right. . . there is more to it than a friendly little visit. Have you been keeping track of Gwen, may I ask?"
"Yes, of course. Thank you for allowing me that access."
The Commandant waved away his thanks. "Have you noticed anything odd about her progress?"
"Not really. She seems to slowly be making her way back home. Very slowly, all things considered."
"How do you mean?" prodded Jerry.
"Well," Geoff pondered his phrasing thoughtfully. "When she left her pattern was somewhat erratic. . . sometimes north, sometimes west, once in a while shed backtrack east or south. But she was never in one spot more than a day or two. Her route back has been much more straightforward and direct, but she seems to be stopping in places for two or three days at a time."
"Would you like to know what shes been doing when she stops traveling?"
"Youre going to tell me anyway, right?"
"Yep." The man took a deep breath. "After you left the capital city, I got in touch with the remainder of Randis team. I wanted to know Gwen would be safe no matter where she went. And she went into some pretty scary places, for an innocent. Each and every member of that Sabre team volunteered to keep watch over your daughter, Geoff, because of what she meant to Randi. So she went unobtrusively escorted by two Sabres everywhere she ventured. They worked in teams of two, and rotated out every week." Jerry noticed the tears silently falling from Geoffs eyes. To know that Randi had been so loved and respected that her team would insure her lovers safety on their own time was almost overwhelming to the weapons smith.
"After she called you, she did indeed head for home, but. . . ." He paused for a long moment, organizing his thoughts. " When the Ghost Rider died, we werent sure what was going to happen. . . whether the factions would stick to their truces and attack on Celebration anyway, or if the truce would hold indefinitely, awaiting word from a leader who was no longer alive to give the word to proceed, or if the truce would fail when the word wasnt given on time, and infighting and civil war would begin between old enemies once again."
Geoff nodded his comprehension, wondering what this had to do with his daughter.
"My Sabres have told me that Gwen has stopped at several of each of the factions encampments, and because of the stories shes read out of her great-grandmothers journal, she has made them at least stop and think. She has come through each encounter unscathed, and has, from what my team tells me, managed to stop more than one skirmish with her words."
The weapons smith sat stunned. Maybe. . . . "She has her stories back?"
"No, my friend. She doesnt *tell* them, she *reads* them. And from all accounts, from those who had heard her before. . . um. . . before, the joy is no longer there. She is doing this because it is the right thing to do, an obligation, not from a desire to tell the stories."
Damn! Geoff thought morosely. "Does she know she has made a difference?"
"Yes, but she doesnt care. As I said, its as if she is fulfilling an debt or an oath to someone. Nothing more."
The two men sat in silence for a while, watching the flames of the fire in front of them. When the stillness grew too much, Geoff turned to the Sabre and asked, "You ready to see those new toys?" Jerry smiled rakishly and motioned for the weapons smith to lead the way. He had done his best to prepare them. The rest was gonna be up to them. From the reports of the team that had been watching her, though she was no longer depressed, Gwen was no closer to recovering from Randis death than she had been when shed left. She had simply withdrawn into herself, and become a spectator of life.
Festival Day dawned cool and clear, and Gwen breathed the salt air of home with a wistful smile. She had seen and learned many things on her six month journey. The most important thing she learned was that there was no place like home, and her home no longer existed. So she was returning to the known, to where people cared for her for herself. The bard extended the bridge, and Ditto ran across it with astute steps, relishing the return to familiar surroundings, and aware that her charge would soon follow.
Tommys head snapped up at the sound of barking, and he caught Ellas gaze for a long moment. He rushed to the door, Randall toddling along behind him, and jerked it open. And was almost knocked to the ground by Dittos joyful greeting. The baby plopped to the floor, and the dog pushed by the man to give the boy a thorough face cleaning. Randall chortled in glee.
"Does this mean what I think it does?" Ella whispered, as though speaking aloud would make things change.
"I hope so. Shes been gone a long time."
Gwen arrived right around lunch time, stopping to pick up the shepherd. "I figured shed come here first." The continuing haunted look in her eyes broke both their hearts, but neither knew of anything they could do to relieve it.
"Youll stay for the Festival meal, of course."
"No, I couldnt. I wouldnt want to impose."
"Gwen, youre family. You will always be family. And youre not imposing."
The bard thought about this for a bit then said, "All right. Id like to go to the beach house and clean up. Ill be back before dinner."
She left before they could think of a reason to reject her idea or offer to accompany her. The blonde slowed her steps as she neared the structure, coming to a halt outside the French doors, and drawing a deep breath. Then she resolutely keyed in the code, and opened the door. And almost cried out as the sight and scent of things loved and familiar greeted her senses.
Its not supposed to hurt like this any more. Time is supposed to make it better, right? Randi, its not getting any better, love. I still miss you so much I can hardly breathe sometimes. How much longer, love? How much longer before I can join you, before it hurts less, before life is worth living?
She stopped questioning herself, and dropped onto the couch exhausted, falling almost instantly into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"Thanks, Morph," the goddess whispered as she stood watching over the bard.
"Anytime, cuz. Glad to help the little one."
The goddess smile, knowing there were quite a few who shared that sentiment.
She popped out, to see how her project was coming along.
Randi didnt hear the sound of the explosion. She simply felt the searing pain in her leg, back, and face before darkness fell, and then she felt nothing for a very long time.
When she awakened, she found herself alone in a mammoth rock edifice in which there were, to her eyes at least, no apparent entryways. The Marine gingerly touched her face, noting there was no longer pain in any part of her body, except for the lingering pain in her heart for Gwen. She sat for the longest time it seemed to her, though it was truly impossible to tell exactly how much time had passed, waiting for something or someone to acknowledge her. Does time even exist here? "If this is the afterlife," she muttered to herself, "it leaves a lot to be desired. . . on a lot of levels."
How long she sat there contemplating her fate, she never knew, but it didnt seem long. But suddenly, and without the first hint of warning, an irate goddess of love appeared out of nowhere, marched smartly up to her, and proceeded to smack the back of her head hard enough to make the Marine bite her tongue.
The Sabre grabbed the back of her head with one hand, and slapped the other over her mouth, glaring at the woman who was walking away muttering. . . "Stupid, inconsiderate, selfish. . . ." Aphrodite disappeared into nothingness still grumbling.
"Best let it go for now," came a voice from nowhere.
"What the hell is going on here? And who are you?" Patience had never been a virtue she had possessed in abundance, and Randi was fast reaching the end of hers. She never expected death to be so complicated or so confusing. What had gone wrong? Right now, shed do just about anything to be with her bard again. The owner of the voice smiled at her thought.
"I am called Hades, and as to what is going on here, well, a lot of that depends on you. You rest now, and when you awaken, well talk." She couldnt understand why she should be tired after having just recently gotten up. But she felt her lids grow heavy, and she obediently lay back on the comfortable pallet, and closed her eyes. She was asleep before sixty heartbeats had passed. The god who stood watching over her, hoped his niece would calm down before the Marine woke up, or this would never work. Anger would accomplish very little for any of them.
Randi was jerked awake rather rudely by the terror of a nightmare whose details faded as she regained consciousness. All she remembered was the terrible grief and loss she felt. But when she was fully awake, she realized the loss and grief were real, for she was alone in the huge cave. It occurred to her that she was dead, and the thought of being here without Gwen caused tears to slip from her eyes. She wiped savagely at them, furious at herself on many levels.
You chose this, Valiant. You cant change it. So, deal with it, Marine.
"What would you give to change it?" That disembodied voice again. Randi silently wondered if she was slowly being driven insane. This is my *reality*?!? I thought death was supposed to be restful. This is gonna drive me nuts. Voices without bodies. . . women who appear and disappear at will (she gently moved her sore tongue around in her mouth. That felt real enough, remembering the head smack that had caused it). . . no way in or out of this prison. . . no other souls to talk to. . . no Gwen. . . . Here her thoughts tapered off, understanding she was in a Hell of her own making by her own choice. She laid back down and closed her eyes, hoping for oblivion.
"You have no answer, child? No wonder my nieces are ready to torture you for eternity."
"Look, Hades, or whoever you are, what exactly do you want from me?!?"
He removed his helmet, and was revealed to be a tall, handsome, dark blonde man with piercing gray eyes. He chuckled. "What do *I* want? Nothing, child, except for you to look deep in your heart and be honest with yourself. My nieces asked that you be brought here to await judgement."
"So this is not the end?"
"No, this is merely a waiting room. But make your choices here wisely, child. Their outcome will affect far more than just yourself."
"But. . . . " But before she could utter another word, the god had disappeared, and Randi knew instinctively that she was alone again. "Why do they always talk in riddles? Is it really so difficult to give a straight answer?"
Silence was the only answer she got.
"You didnt answer my question, Miranda Valiant."
"Mama??" She sat up and looked around, knowing that eternity wouldnt change the immediate recognition of mothers voice when it spoke to her. Especially when Mama spoke to her in *that* tone. "Mama," she called again, hoping her mind wasnt playing tricks on her. Eternity was gonna be bad enough stuck here without that.
"Papa??" She closed her eyes to stop the tears from falling, sure now that the only reward she had to look forward to was eternal torment. That perception changed the instant she felt her fathers strong arm encircle her shoulders, and her mothers hand comb through her long tresses. Now the tears fell in earnest, and they trio spent an indeterminate amount of time simply sitting together, relishing their reunion. Finally, Ren broke the quiet.
"Weve missed you, Randi." Bobby Valiant squeezed his daughter tightly in confirmation, but said nothing. "Weve been watching you, you know." The Marines head dropped in shame. Renee put two fingers under the Sabres chin, and lifted troubled blue eyes to meet her gaze. "Were proud of you, daughter." Blue eyes filled with tears again, and dropped to the floor. Fingers tapping on her chin forced her to reluctantly raise her eyes back to her mothers.
"How can you say that? Do you know who I really am?? What Ive done??"
"Randi," spoke her father, "we probably know you better than you know yourself. Weve watched you grow and mature, agonize over the brutality of humanity, cry, laugh and fall in love." He paused a moment, knowing she was unsure whether to smile or cry yet again. She compromised by giving them both a watery smile. "Shes a beautiful person, Randi. One we would have been proud to welcome into our home and family. Tell us about Gwenievere Goldman."
And she did. For what could have been hours or days. . . it was impossible to be sure, she told them all she knew, all she felt about her bard.
"Why didnt you ever tell her this? Couldnt you see how much she loved you??"
"Mama, sit down, please. Youre making me nervous pacing up and down like that." Renee Valiant gave her daughter a long look, before sighing, and coming to sit next to her husband and grown child. The mother had to admit how very odd it must be for Randi, since she and Bobby were actually younger in appearance than their daughter had ever seen them, except in holo-pics.
"Thank you." Now the Marine stood up to pace. "To answer your second question first, no. Not for a very long time, and even once I was sure, once Geoff told me she was in love with me, I didnt want to believe it. She deserves so much better. . . . "
"NOW YOU HOLD ON A MINUTE RIGHT THERE, YOUNG LADY!!!" Bobby had rarely raised his voice to his daughter in her lifetime, and on the few occasions he did always had her attention. So he was more than a little startled when she got right up in his face.
"NO!! *YOU* hold on a minute." She gave him her fiercest whisper, which served to get his attention far better than a bellow ever would have. "Be honest now, Papa. If our positions were reversed, Gwens and mine, would you really want us to be together? Like it or not, Papa, I am a killer, and I am very, very good at what I do."
He caught her gaze, and never looked away or flinched. "If your positions were reversed, I would be very glad to welcome Gwen into our family. Because while youre seeing only the ugliness that haunts, I see the whole picture. And what I see is a beautiful, caring individual with a loving heart and a giving spirit, who is carrying far more than the weight of the world on her shoulders. And she, more then anyone I know, deserves all the peace and happiness life affords her."
Randi held her breath when he started speaking, recognizing Gwens words through Geoff that she had heard on the bards birthday almost a year ago.
"I want you to think about something, Randi." When her mother spoke, the Marine pulled her attention back to the present. "I want you to think about the *real* reason you never admitted the truth to Gwen. Ah ah ah," she said, holding up a hand to silence her daughters protests. "I know you think she deserved better than you, but that is not the whole truth, and you need to face that, or you will never get out of here." Renee and Bobby moved toward the door that had sprung up in the wall. "Think about it, honey. Why didnt you at least give Gwen a chance to choose?"
"Wait! Where are you going? When will I see you again?"
"We are going back to what is our home here. We will see you again when judgement is passed." They left after exchanging hugs and kisses with their daughter, assuring her they would see her once more. She did try to leave with them, but the doorway would not allow her to pass through it, and it disappeared when they closed it behind themselves.
"Are you so anxious to stay here then?" The brown-eyed huntress asked Randi when she slumped back on the pallet after her parents departure.
"Artemis? Where am I? And why am I here?"
"I thought Uncle explained all that to you already. This is a waiting room, and you are here awaiting judgement."
"But why? Both you and Athena assured me I had earned a heros place in eternity, that my actions had your blessings."
"That is true," proclaimed the goddess of wisdom. "But we are not the ones withholding judgement. And you have managed to single-handedly thoroughly piss off the most easygoing god among us." Blue eyes grew round with the realization of who that *had* to be. "Ive never seen her quite as torqued as when she pulled you from that dome."
"You mean I didnt die?? Im not dead?!?"
"Oh no. You most certainly did die, and you are dead. But. . . ."
"But *I* claimed your body and spirit before they became part of Hades realm, and you have been brought here to plead your case."
"You got it, Stud. And youre gonna get one chance to like, make the right decision, because I owe you and the little one. But if you make the wrong choice, Ill make sure your punishment is waaaaay fitting." Randi had to admit she had no doubt the love goddess could certainly make her life (or her death) miserable here. And the fire in her eyes said shed be right happy to do that if the Marine were stupid enough to choose foolishly. "I have no problem totally smacking the back of that bogus head of yours again."
"Waitaminute! That was you who hit me before?!?" A glare from Aphrodite made her chill the outrage in her tone. "Nice right."
"Cmon, warrior babe. We got work to do." Athena and Artemis exchanged rueful glances and followed the couple back to Dites lair.
Randi froze upon entering the room, caught by an image of Gwen sitting at her computer console, tears streaming down her face. She turned to the goddess of love for an explanation.
"You have been dead for three months. Tommy got word yesterday, and gave your letter to Gwen this morning. But she knew. Shes known since you left her that night. She felt it when you died. Her soul was ripped apart." Tears fell from blue eyes at the misery shed caused her beloved. She fell to her knees.
"Im sorry. God, Gwen, Im so sorry."
"You know," Aphrodite continued conversationally, "in the millennia Ive been dealing with the whole love gig, I think this is the first time Ive ever had such a near hit. I havent seen two people so determined to *not* admit their love for one another in. . . well, lets just say a very long time."
The whisper was so soft, even Dite almost didnt hear it. "I would give anything to make things right." The love goddess smiled at her two silent sisters. Things might just work out after all.
"Tell me something, Randi," drawing the Marines attention away from the image of the bard. "Why exactly didnt you tell Gwen of your love for her?"
The Sabre sat quietly, not ready yet to admit the reason she had only so recently admitted to herself, aloud. Dite threw her hands up in frustration. Then she looked to her sisters. "Stay here with her, please. Ill be right back."
In what seemed like mere minutes to Randi, several days had passed in the mortal realm, and when she looked at the scrying bowl again, she saw Aphrodite sitting in the boathouse with Gwen.
Gwen, do you really think Randi betrayed you by not telling you of her
love for you?
YES! No. I dont know what to believe anymore. It just hurts so much.
And its easier to blame her since shes no longer here.
She left me! She left me all alone to go die for something I dont
understand, and nobody will explain it to me. She left me without
once. . . But she did, didnt she? In her actions, in her looks, even
in her words she told me, and I just never heard her, did I?
Why do you suppose it is that you didnt hear her?
I was afraid. Afraid she wouldnt feel the same. Afraid it would
change everything if she did feel the same, and I didnt want to
lose the most precious friendship Ive ever had.
Randi lost track of the conversation momentarily as Gwens words hit her hard in the chest. She feared the same things I did. And now its too late. She focused her attention back on the scrying bowl when the bard start to speak again.
I would tell her that Im sorry, and that I miss her very much. 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.
Now the tears flowed from the Marines eyes in earnest. She never noticed Aphrodites arrival back in her lair, or the three goddesses subsequent departure from it. She sat on the longue, hugging her knees to her chest, rocking lightly back on forth, eyes fastened to the slim figure still reflected in the water. She heard every word, every thought Gwen directed at her, and her soul cried out at the anguish of it. She finally collapsed from the overwhelming emotions battering her heart and soul, and immediately fell in a deep slumber.
Still, the Marine was unable to escape the thoughts of the living, and Gwens words haunted her relentlessly. And it seemed she followed Gwen in her dreams. When she woke, she found this to be true, for the bard was on a walkabout, and the goddesses were back.
"Cmon, babe. Sit up to the table and eat. Its time for us to finish our little talk."
"I dont think so. If I eat, Im stuck here."
"What makes you think youre not like, totally stuck anyway, sweet cheeks?" Dite paused while observing the emotions chasing themselves across Randis now vividly expressive features. Yep, I think shes just about there. "Were not in Hades realm. Those rules dont apply here."
The Marine gazed long and hard into the love goddess eyes to determine the validity of her statement. She looked toward both the huntress and Athena for confirmation before she sat down.
"Ya know, youre gonna need to trust me at some point."
"Have you ever given me a reason to?"
"When have I given you a reason not to?" Dite shot back. "Look, I am *really* bending the rules here. You wanna cut me a little slack?"
"Im sorry," Randi breathed, suddenly contrite. "I just. . . it just hurts so much. I feel her pain, and it multiplies my own."
Artemis set a full plate down in front of the Sabre, and with a pat on the shoulder, encouraged her to eat. Randi whispered her thanks, and the four women ate in silence for a while. Finally, as they approached the end of the meal, Aphrodite sat back, drink in hand.
"Tell me, Randi. Why didnt you tell Gwen of your love for her?"
Nothing like shooting straight from the hip. The Marine stood, and the others took it as their signal to disperse to various spots in the room. Athena and Artemis took over pillows on either side of the fireplace. Dite commandeered the chaise longue. Randi walked to the window, looking out at appeared to be nothing at all. Just mist. She stood there for what could have been seconds or a fathomless amount of time before she turned to face her tribunal. It was time to lay it all on the line.
"Bottom line?" She drew a deep breath. "Fear. Pure, unadulterated, unreasoning fear." She turned around to face the window again. "Fear I wasnt worthy, that she deserved better. Fear it would change our friendship. Fear she didnt really return the love I had for her." The room was quiet as her thoughts turned inward. "Fear kept me from allowing Gwen the choice that was rightfully hers. I am a fool."
"And you kissed her because. . . . ???"
"Because I wasnt strong enough to resist anymore."
"And you think that was fair to her??" Silence followed, as the words hit Randi squarely in the heart, and sank to the like lead weight in her guts.
The three goddesses held their collective breaths as the realization of what shed done to Gwen hung heavily in Randis mind and soul. Artemis was the first to break the silence. "So, what now?"
"Now I pay the price for my infernal arrogance. I spend eternity without the other half of my soul." The utter defeat in Randis voice was heartbreaking, and each member of the divine trio raised a surreptitious hand to wipe away an unexpected tear.
"What would you do, what would you give for the chance to make things right?" from Athena.
The words hit Randi squarely in the chest, and she sank to the floor in reaction. It took several moments to regain her breath, and when she spoke , it was in a whisper. "Anything, I would do anything, give up everything, for a chance to make Gwen happy."
"Anything?" A nod. "You would suffer the intense pain of recovery, give up your looks, your strong body?" Another nod. "Even Gwens love?" A visible flinch at the prospect, but another nod. "You will give her the choice, the chance to choose this time, and you will abide by her decision, regardless?"
"Yes," in a bare whisper. "Whatever it takes to make her happy," pointing to the grief-shrouded figure in the scrying bowl. The smile on her face while she watched Randall discover the joys of chocolate cake for the first time did nothing to hide the desolation in her eyes. "I owe her that much." A beat. "I owe her so much more."
"One more thing. . . would you be willing to live for her?" The warriors forehead scrunched in confusion.
"Randi," Artemis cut in on Dites question. "We already know youre willing to *die* for Gwen. Are you willing and able to stick around and *live* for her, regardless?"
"I already told you. . . whatever it takes." It had been a long time since the goddesses had seen the fire that had returned to the blue eyes, and they welcomed it. It was going to be a long uphill battle, and Randi would need every ounce of determination she could drum up.
They returned to the waiting room, as the Marine liked to refer to it, and she settled on the bed at their direction. Then she closed her eyes, and listened to the words of the love goddess.
"We are going to reunite your spiritual and physical bodies at the precise moment before they were destroyed. What this means for you is a return to the moment just after the explosion. You will experience intense physical pain." She hesitated as the Marine flinched. "We will keep you alive. But your recovery is strictly up to you.
Randi couldnt help the involuntary shiver that shimmied up her spine at Dites mention of the pain she had been exposed to before being brought here. On the outer edges of her awareness, she remembered the searing pain, and it hadnt been a pleasant experience. However, just the possibility of seeing Gwen again was enough to give her the courage she needed at that point, so she simply nodded her head in agreement.
"Very well," Athena intoned. "Let us begin."
Each goddess took up a position around Randis body, and began to bring her body back to the point just before her mind and spirit had departed it. Artemis felt the leg form crushed underneath her hands and cringed. It was a most unpleasant sensation for the huntress. . . she could only imagine the agony the soldier would be in upon completion of their task. Athena winced as the once strong back crumpled and broke as it reformed itself into solid shape. Finally, Aphrodite cried real tears as the once beautiful face was marred by the damage that had been inflicted on it. The entire left side was broken and burned.
"Are you sure we cant just heal her?" from Artemis. Athena kept silent. She would authorize it if Aphrodite asked, but. . . . "
"No. She needs to learn from this. I dont want it to be easy for her. I want her to remember to never again waste the opportunity shes given, cuz you never know when its gonna be your last."
The goddesses eventually finished their work, actually exhausted from the effort it had taken them. Randi had long since slipped into an unconscious stupor, though she still moaned and groaned in pain from time to time. They were hoping for a bit of rest before she woke up and discovered what she had to work through. The sound that brought them all out of their short-lived meditative state was a scream of intense pain. Now it was time for the real work to begin.
Pain. . . all she knew was intense, acute pain. But her eyes were too heavy to open, and she watched her bard travel back to the place they had both called home. She faded in and out of conscious observance, and therefore, many of the things she saw had an unreal, almost dreamlike quality to them. Watching Gwen took her mind off her own pain, somewhat, and helped force her focus onto something other than herself and her misery.
It was an interesting phenomenon. . . she could almost feel the bones knitting themselves back together and it was excruciating. But her desire to heal grew as she watched her bards journey, and actually helped speed the healing process. Of course, she had no way of knowing yet that her work had only just started.
Randi watched, in her minds eye, and smiled through the tears the anguish her body was enduring as she watched the small blonde work her own particular brand of magic on some of the same forces Randi had spent her entire adult life fighting against. She smiled as old enemies turned thoughtful, brought to heel by the words of a small bard. She smiled as old friends took up silent, unnoticed positions around Gwen, to ensure her safety now that her protector, their comrade, was no longer able to do so. Here her smile turned to tears once again. She saw how lonely the little bard really was, how her words came solely from her book, and not from her heart. She cried for the loss of youth and innocense she could see, and the loss of joy she could feel emanating from Gwens heart.
The last thing Randi remembered taking notice of before she finally became fully conscious again was the fact that coming home for Festival brought no more joy to the bards heart than she had felt from Gwen since the Marines death nine months previously.
She screamed again long and loud as she came to full consciousness. It was really a wonder she had any voice left, as it had been occurring more and more often in the weeks her body had spent reknitting itself into a somewhat whole entity. More than once each of the goddesses had questioned the validity of what seemed a cruel and unusually punishing form of healing. But when Aphrodite put aside the ditzy persona she wore most of the time, she was a formidable deity, and she had determined her course of action. And so the goddesses suffered along side the mortal they had offered a second chance to.
Aphrodite pushed back the sweat soaked hair, and offered the weary warrior a bit of liquid refreshment. Randi sipped at it greedily. She had been weeks without actually partaking of nourishment, though the goddesses had made sure her body was provided with all the liquids and sustenance she needed to recover. "Would you like a bath?" the love goddess offered. Again, she had been kept clean, but the thought of a refreshing, soothing soak was almost overwhelming. Randi simply nodded her head, too weak to do much else.
With a wave of her hand, the Marine found herself sinking into warm, bubbly bath water. Sinking, literally, she realized, as she didnt have the strength in her body any longer to hold herself upright. Dite was quick to grasp the situation, and within the blink of an eye, she and her sisters had joined Randi in the tub.
"This is carrying that whole family thing a little too far, dont you think?" Randi joked weakly. Her head was being cradled on Aphrodites chest, and Athena and Artemis were supporting her on either side.
"Yeah, well, the family that bathes together stays together, apparently," Artemis joked back at her. And really, it wasnt even a matter of bathing. They simply made sure the mortal didnt drown while relaxing a bit in the warm water. When Randi started to fall back to sleep, Dite simply snapped them out of the tub, clean, dried and dressed. Tomorrow, Randis work would begin.
Her days started with strengthening muscles which were as weak as a newborns. For the most part, the goddesses left her to her own devices, except when she specifically ask for help. Though they had taken turns watching over her during her healing process, and continued to keep an eye on her during her rehabilitation, they had many other responsibilities to oversee, and didnt want things to fall behind. Besides, they had found that her best motivation lay in watching the small blonde bard who had laid claim to her warrior heart.
Day after day she worked, bolstering newly knitted bones and atrophied muscles. And she watched as Gwen went from telling stories to correcting the technique of the beginning and apprentice bards who had come to Midas to learn their craft. And though she did well enough at it, it was obvious to the woman who watched her that she was simply marking time, watching life pass by. It broke Randis heart every time she saw the look of despair in the green eyes she loved.
The Marine was unaware of how time was passing the mortal realm, until she noticed a gathering of her Sabre comrades interspersed with her band mates, and many of the people she had known at Midas. She watched with interest as Tiny and Tommy flanked Gwen on either side, escorting her to the front of the temple. Ella walked an eighteen-month old Randall to the front, and took her seat next to Tommy. The Marine became even more fascinated as the flag was lowered and folded, then presented to Gwen. She saw the bard sit stoically, only her eyes reflecting the depth of her despair.
"APHRODITE!!!" Randi bellowed.
"Chill, babe," the goddess said as she popped into view. "Like, what has got your panties in a total wad?"
"What day is it?!" Dite looked at her in confusion. "In the mortal realm," pointing to the bard who was now talking quietly to Tiny. "What day is today?"
"OH! Its the Spring Equinox."
"Oh. My. God." Legs which had slowly grown strong enough to support her for longer and longer stretches of time suddenly became gel beneath her, and it was only the goddesss quick action the kept the Marine from hitting the floor. "Ive been here a YEAR?!? A FUCKING YEAR?!? Youve gotta get me out of here. Ive gotta get back to Gwen before she forgets. . . before someone else. . . Oh God!!" And this time she did crumple to the floor.
"Randi, hon, slow down!" The Marine looked around frantically, trying to find a door, a window. . . anyway to get out and get back to Gwen. There was nothing, and she grew more agitated. "Randi," Dite grabbed her chin and waited for the eye contact. "Are you sure youre strong enough to leave?" The goddess didnt think so, given the amount of pain the mortal still bore, and the limp that still plagued her, but if she was determined to go and fight for what she saw as hers, Dite certainly wasnt going to be the one to hold her back. She had worked too damned hard to get Randi to this point.
"I dont think I have a choice at this point, Aphrodite. I will not lose her now. Not Now!" Fierce determination reflected out of eyes filled with tears of. . . pain? Frustration? Fear? It didnt really matter much at this point. The goddess of love called upon her sisters. It was time to get Miranda Valiant started on her journey home.
"You go home, baby girl, and you claim that bard of yours. Shes still waiting for you, ya know." Renees whispered words in her ear comforted Randi more than she could have ever imagined. She gave her much taller daughter a hug and kiss. "Well always love you."
"I love you to, Mama."
"Take care of yourself, Randi. I am very proud of the woman youve become. I love you."
She gave her father a fierce hug, which he returned in kind. "I love you too, Papa. And thank you. You have no idea what that means to me."
He squeezed her hard once more before gently depositing her on the ground in front of him. "I think I do, daughter. I think I do. Take care of yourself and that bard of yours. What you have together is very precious."
"I will, Papa." They turned and waved at the doorway, the disappeared out of sight. "Im ready, Aphrodite. Thank you."
"I want you to understand, your continued recovery is up to you. If you continue to work, your back and leg will heal to the point that you will never know they were injured. Another six months of hard therapy perhaps. But you cannot use contemporary medicine. Thats the deal."
Randi nodded her comprehension. She realized that this was a test of her faith as much as it was a punishment, and she accepted it as such. "What about my face?" in just above a whisper. More than anything, she hated for Gwen to see her so deformed. She personally found the scars hideous, and had refused to look into a mirror after the first sight of them.
"What about it? No contemporary medicine. Its something you have to learn to live with." Even as the harsh words came out of her mouth, the deity flinched at the pain she was adding to this womans already heavy burden. But she was comforted by the fact that if things worked out like they were supposed to, it was all going to be a moot point anyway.
The Marine cringed inwardly at the words, but outwardly wore a mask of stoicism that would have made many of her ancestors proud. She refused to shed any more tears for herself over this. She had already cried a lifetimes worth. It was time to return and face her fate. Se nodded her readiness to the triumvirate of goddesses who had done so much for her.
"Thank you, all of you, for giving me a second chance."
"You earned it, child," said Artemis, as they three prepared to return to a more formal relationship with a mortal who had not only helped retain the shape of the world peace, but had helped change their immortal lives as well. "See that you dont squander it."
"Oh no. This time Im gonna do more than just kiss the girl," with a rakish grin.
"Miranda Valiant!" screeched a furiously blushing Aphrodite when hit by an unexpected blast of sexual energy that was suddenly rolling off the Marine in waves. "Ooo, you go, girlfriend," said with a teasing air and a big smile.
"I certainly hope so," stroking her disfigured face sadly.
"Randi, have a little faith in yourself, in her, and in the love you share."
Randi nodded, but couldnt speak around the knot that had settled in her throat. And then the three goddess laid hands on her, and blessed her, and sent her reeling toward home.
In some ways it had been the blink of an eye since Randis death, and in others, it had been forever. Gwen was able to function what, to those who didnt know her, would have passed for normal, though she rarely smiled now and never laughed. She never talked about Randi either, though she continued to think of her constantly. She had not opened the album box that still sat on the table where she had left it before taking her walkabout, and the holo-vid compilation that Tommy had given her at Festival remained untouched as well. There were just some things that the bard was not yet ready for, and she wondered if she ever would be.
Festival was. . . an ordeal, though it could have been much worse. Ellas parents had returned from a three year lunar expedition, and Tommys father had shown up as well. Gwen was glad, because that kept a lot of the attention off of her, and focused it on Randall and the strangers who were his grandparents. Or at least she was glad right up to the time she spoke to the elder Mr. Steele.
"Ya know," he said calmly sitting next to the bard while they watched Randall, "when my wife died five years ago, I left. I have spent the last five years of my life doing and see all the things she and I wanted to do together, and Ive found that the ache does eventually fade, and life is better is youre a part of it than if you just watch it pass you by."
Gwen turned her head toward him, looking him in the face. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Youre young. And you dont want to wake up one morning regretting all the opportunities you lost because you refused to be a part of life."
"Sir, with all due respect, you have no idea what I think, or what I feel, or why I do what I do. And Ill thank you to mind your own business." She stepped away from him without a backward glance, never seeing the tear that rolled down his weathered cheek.
"Tommy, thank you both for inviting me, but this is a family gathering. I really dont belong here." The blonde had only recently arrived back at the house for Festival dinner, and while the surprise appearance of the three grandparents startled her, she hadnt seemed too uncomfortable about it until. . . . He wondered what his father could have said to upset the bard so. She was gone before he could make an answer.
Ella found her just as the sun was setting, sitting out at the end of the dock. "Here, I brought you a bit of dinner." The bard accepted the plate, but set it aside untouched. "Youll have to forgive Dad," referring to her father-in-law. "He has a tendency to say whats on his mind. And I think his regret in being out of our lives. . . out of Randis life, too. . . well, it makes him a little harsh."
They sat there until the sky turned black, and the stars shone cold and clear. "You need to get in out of this cold night air, Gwen, and I need to get back home. Cmon, Ill walk you in."
The blonde woman rose, and took the plate. "Ditto, walk Ella home," she instructed. "Thanks, Ella," said quietly to the woman who was her friend.
The following day, Tommy came by the beach house. He noticed it was spotless, as though the bard had been up cleaning all night. He wasnt far from wrong. Gwen welcomed him in and seated him, then waited passively for him to speak. Tommy didnt care for her new demeanor at all, but wasnt really sure how to dissuade her from it. Her resignedness to enduring life was disheartening. He decided to call her on it.
"Damn it, Gwen! Youre not the one whos dead. . . Randi is!!!"
He wasnt sure what he expected, but the blow across his face rocked him badly. "Now you listen to me, you little pissant." The harsh whisper and the dead eyes were scarier than almost anything he had ever seen, and the fact that they came from a previously enchanted, passionate woman was even more frightening. "Dont you *DARE* presume to speak to me like that, *EVER, do you hear me?!? The only difference between Randi and me right now is the fact that my body still breathes, and hers doesnt. Understand this, I woke up from a nightmare the morning she was killed. . . KNOWING she was dead. In that instant, she took my heart, my soul, my voice. So dont you sit there and tell me. . . " Here she broke down, and even in his shock and anger, he wanted to reach out and help, aware of the pain and despair that motivated her.
"Gwen. . ."
"Go, Tommy. Please, just go."
"Not this time, my friend." And he grabbed the stiff shoulders, and held on for dear life. She crumpled in his arms, and he caught her as she fell. Gently, he picked her up, and moved them both to the rocking chair, where he cradled her like a baby and rocked her to sleep. This was how Geoff and Jill found them a short while later.
"What happened?" Geoff threw his coat aside, and stood in front of Tommy. The younger man got up, and laid the bard on Randis bed. Jill, having followed them, made sure Gwen was comfortable and covered, before closing the door softly as they exited the room. "Now, *what* *happened*? You need some ice on that face. . . its gonna bruise real nice."
"Just a little confrontation. I made a bad comment. Gwen took exception to it and punched me."
"What on earth did you say?" He told them, and watched as they both shook their heads in dismay. "I know, it was a stupid thing to say, but you havent seen her. Shes as dead on the inside as Randi is physically."
"I thought you said she only arrived home yesterday."
"She did, but the difference is marked. You cant miss it."
And it was true. Gwen got up a scant hour later, and it was immediately apparent that while she had accepted her Marines death, she had not moved passed it. And looking into her eyes, Geoff wondered if she could. He cursed Randi for doing this to his daughter, knowing full well his worst fears were being confirmed.
She played the gracious hostess, welcoming her parents back. She apologized to Tommy quietly, though she did not meet his eyes until he lifted her chin. "Gwen, Im sorry too. I had no right to push you like I did. Can we talk later?" The bard nodded, and the younger man took his leave of them.
For the second time in Geoffs memory, an awkwardness fell between them. There was nothing that could be said without sounding shallow, and Gwen had an wariness now that had never been present before. Jill broke the silence.
"Youre looking good, Gwen, different." And she did quite different from when they had seen her last face to face. Six months walking all over had made her lean, and sleekly muscular. She was still quite tanned, considering it was the winter season. But the bleakness of her eyes told a story all their own. "How are you doing?"
"Mother, I appreciate you both coming down here, but I want you to go home."
"But. . . . "
"Randi is gone, and I have to live with that. Yall cannot continue to coddle me." A beat. "I understand you want to help, so please go home."
"Shes right," from Geoff. "She has to handle this on her own. Well go back tomorrow."
"Thank you for understanding, Daddy."
Gwen and Tommy sat down shortly after her folks left, and hammered out an understanding between them. He agreed not to ask for stories, and to ensure that no one else at Midas did either. In return, the bard agreed to return to the Guild in the capacity of a beginners teacher. The next few days saw the bard settle into something of a routine that would become natural for the subsequent six months with sporadic exceptions.
Teaching was not satisfying, but it kept her busy most days, and people soon learned not to try and involve the previously vivacious bard in any discussion that did not focus on her students or their work. She refused any and all overtures of friendship, and no longer shared lunch time with the rest of the facility. She came to work, did her time and went home.
"Tommy, isnt there anything we can do to help her? Her apathy is depressing. Its like shes stopped living." It was almost Spring Equinox, and as the day approached, Gwen withdrew more and more into herself.
"No. She has agreed to attend the memorial service, and I consider that to be a minor miracle. I was contacted by some of Randi military peers, who have asked to be allowed to attend." Ellas eyebrows rose at the phrasing her husband used. "That was my thought," he responded. "The man, Tiny, who I spoke to, said they didnt want to intrude. I told him they were welcome." Tommy paused. "Im actually hoping their being there will help. Maybe I can get a few answers. Maybe Gwen can find a little peace."
Spring Equinox, as it was wont to do, came roaring in like a lion. It was actually quite chilly, with pouring rain, and whipping wind. Altogether fitting, the bard thought, as she stood at the French doors watching the waves whitecap the nearby water. She wondered at the impulse that had made her agree to this service, but she knew Randis friends deserved the chance to say goodbye. There were times, and now was one of them, that her anger at having to do so overrode the heartbreak doing so caused. The anger never lasted long, though, and today was no exception. She would get through this, and speak to the man Tiny who had asked to talk to her privately. She remembered him vaguely as having been the man that designed the dock and boathouse, and that Randi had mentioned him as a military colleague. Her curiosity had been piqued as to what he had to say. Then Tommy had requested that they read Randis will. It had been a year, though not officially, and Tommy was hoping beyond hope the Marine had left some final words of comfort for the bard. He was out of ideas to help her, otherwise.
Her folks had come in the night before, and things were. . . strained, to put it mildly. Even though they spoke every week now, Gwen was closed off, and there were just so many things that were off limit for discussion now. It made everything difficult, to say the least. But the bard was grateful for their support, and both Geoff and Jill reminded their daughter of their love and concern for her. She was glad, now, looking out at the weather, that she had insisted they stay in the beach house instead of the boathouse. Getting to the temple was going to be hard enough in this weather, without being soaking wet before leaving the house.
She heard her father come down the steps from the loft. She had moved into Randis room, unwilling to give up the tremulous connection she had with the Marine, and over the course of the past three months, had even found a bit of peace in being surrounded by the sense of Randi she found there.
Geoff was walking with a bit of a limp as he came down the steps. The weather was making his slowly worsening back give him absolute fits. He sighed. . . it was gonna soon be time to travel back to the capital city for another treatment session. It was getting to the point, though, where even the healing energy remedy and the physical therapy work was just not doing the job like it should.
Added to his physical pain, was an emotional distress. His anger at Jerry had grown steadily as hed watched his only child become a shell of her former self. If the man had had half the honor Randi had, he would have assumed the responsibility that was rightfully his, and taken her place on the team. The Ghost Rider had been his fault after all. Geoff knew, though, that wishes and speculation about this were pointless, and a waste of energy he could be applying elsewhere. Instead, he greeted his daughter quietly, smiling when she responded in
something a little like her old manner. They had coffee together, then by tacit agreement, left to get ready for the morning.
The black suit lent a quiet dignity to her somber demeanor, and added a depth of maturity Geoff wished he had never lived to see. She didnt even bat an eyelash when he appeared in his dress blue crackerjack which, amazingly enough, still fit. She simply nodded her blonde head approving the appropriateness of the gesture.
"Are you ready, dear?" Jill asked. Her understated navy blue dress was the only hint of color in the trio, save for Geoffs few ribbons and medals.
The bard looked long and hard at the portrait above the fireplace, then moved toward the door without a word, thankful for the portico that kept them mostly dry. She entered the waiting transport, silently wishing for the day to be over.
Everyone was inside, seated and waiting, with the exception of Tommy, Ella, Randall, and the man she surmised to be Tiny. He father squeezed her shoulder as he and her mother walked silently into the temple, and sat in the place reserved for them.
"You ready?" Tommy questioned. He, too, wore his uniform as a symbol of respect for a fallen comrade, and Gwen noticed as they stepped into the sanctuary that many of Randis friends had chosen to honor her memory this way. She was in a sea of uniforms, many of which she did not recognize the soldier or sailor in them. Theres still so much of you I know nothing about, love. But then she was being seated between Tommy and Tiny, and the priestess was speaking.
After a mercifully short eulogy, Tiny stood and reminisced about his friend. He said nothing to indicate their true military intent, but he told some Sabre tales of Randi that caused happy tears in most of the eyes in the room. Only Gwen seemed withdrawn and subdued. That caused him to wrap up sooner than he had planned, and he and the rest of the team lowered the flag, and folded it. He presented it to the bard, saving his condolences for later. He hoped what he had to say would help.
Gwen rose and exited the sanctuary, waiting in the vestibule as protocol demanded. It was quite an interesting picture the small woman made standing there, flanked on either side by Tommy and Geoff, with Tiny standing sentinel behind her. The entire congregation rose solemnly, and walked out, each person stopping briefly to say something to Gwen.
Finally, only the Sabre team, the Steeles and the Goldmans remained. Each and every team member stated the same sentiment to the bowed blonde head. "It was an honor to serve with her, and a pleasure to call her friend." Then at a nod from Tiny, they all departed for the Golden Touch, leaving he and Gwen alone.
"Is there somewhere we can go to talk privately?" She nodded, and he had hid transport brought around. He followed her soft-spoken directions, but other than that, there were no words between them. Tiny pulled up at the beach house, well aware of where they were. The bard opened the door, and he trailed her inside, stopping short when he saw the life size portrait on the wall.
"She loved you very much, you know."
"I know, just not enough to stay with me." He blinked in surprise at her words. He hadnt expected. . . . "She told me after she. . . left, after she. . . died."
His head was reeling, if she knew this then why? He had rediscovered his letter from Randi just days ago, while preparing his uniform for the service. "Wait. What did she tell you exactly? Hold on. Never mind. That is between the two of you, and should remain so. You need to know what she said to me. It may. . . help."
"Will it bring her back to me?"
A look of confusion crossed his face. "Um, no, but. . . . "
"Then I fail to see how it will help, but please," she gestured to him to sit down, "continue. Would you like a drink or something?" The big Sabre shook his head no, and the bard kicked off her shoes with a groan and sat down. She curled her feet up under her, and waited in pensive silence.
"That night, I picked her up from the hotel. I could see the tears, but I knew better than to ask. She immediately sat down and started writing. I didnt think anything of it really. Most Sabres find a lot of comfort in writing out their thoughts before and after a mission." He paused. "When I left to inform the Commandant of the. . . " he cleared his throat, "success of our assignment, I found the envelope in the pocket of my dress blues." The Sabre stopped again and wiped his eyes. "I didnt read it until I was informed of the memorial service. I just couldnt bring myself to do it." He took a deep breath.
"Perhaps it would be better if you read the letter for yourself." He reached the paper over toward her. Gwen hesitated visibly before accepting the missive. She recognized the strong handwriting and the sight of it brought fresh tears to her eyes. Tiny stood and moved away to the French doors, giving her a bit of privacy to read in. The bard sat for a few moments staring at the words without actually seeing them, before she finally took a deep breath, and began to read to herself.
Dear Tiny, (it read)
So much I really want to say, and really, no time left to do it in. We
are in the shuttle on our way home after the most wonderful, and most
agonizing night of my life. I have already written to Gwen, but there
are so many things that I cant explain to her that you need to hear.
Perhaps one day, you will explain them to her for me. I have never
asked much of you, my friend. But I do ask, that when the time
right, you will share with her who we were, what we did, and most
importantly, the secret I entrust to you nowwhy I had to stay.
I know you dont understand the decision, my friend, and even now,
especially now with the memory of her in my arms, and the taste of
her kiss still on my lips, I find myself fighting to find another way.
Truth, Tiny. . . I have tried. I have looked at every possible angle, and
the fact remainswhoever enters that dome is destined to die there.
You see, I wasnt completely honest with the team, and didnt give them
all the information Brenda was able to get. You will remember when
she stumbled into our camp that morning, she went to rest, and I left
for a bit. She had given me the lot of info shed collected, including
the schematic of the dome. And for all our disdain and animosity toward
Ghost Rider, we have always known that she is a brilliant, if somewhat
Truth, once I lock the doors, a chain of events will be started that
cannot be stopped until they reach their logical conclusion. If any
effort is made to stop the explosion, or if any effort is made to breach
the dome whether it is internally or externally, the nature of the blast
is changed. Instead of a self contained explosion that simply destroys
the dome, it becomes a ripple effect that will disrupt the balance of
the ocean floor, and throw the world itself into chaos with the resulting
natural disasters that will occur.
Now do you see why I cannot let this happen? Especially when one of
those who would suffer the most from this outcome would be my beloved?
There are no good choices here, my friend. And though the true responsibility
is not mine, the responsibility has fallen to me by default, as I am the one
who discovered the true identity of our culprit, and arranged for her demise.
When you see Gwen, remind her that I loved her passionately and with
the intensity of a Sabre. Remind her that I will always love her.
Think of me often, my friend. And know that I cherished you and our
friendship near to my heart. You have been a gift to me.
Miranda Valiant, Black Sabre
Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant
Silence was its own sound for a very long time after that. Tiny had decided to let the bard break the tableau when she felt ready to. He simply stood, staring out at the gray landscape before him. He felt a kernel of pride in the bare bones outline he could see of the dock and boathouse in all the gloom. Her soft voice startled him, when it finally spoke out of the darkness.
"Tell me about the Black Sabres, Tiny."
And he did. Everything he could to help Gwen understand the kind of woman she had fallen in love with. He told how and why they were formed, gave her quite a history lesson. He told of many of Randis exploits and deeds. He talked on until he nearly lost his voice, hoping to make the bard understand. Tiny knew he had broken the code of silence, but he was, frankly, past caring. This woman deserved whatever effort he could give her to find a little peace.
"Did she make a difference?"
"All the difference in the world, Gwen. When Celebration rolled around, nothing happened. Without the leader, the factions had no direction, no clear cut course. There have been little rumblings, like weve always had, but the big war never evolved into anything. Our information points to everything coming to a halt."
He had long since moved to take a seat on the couch near her, but not touching. Now he reached out, and very gently enfolded her small hands in his much larger ones. "I truly am sorry, Gwen. If I had. . . damn! I should have made her. . . . " A small chuckle interrupted his train of thought.
"Tiny, were you ever able to *make* her do *anything*?"
He answered her with a small laugh of his own. "Um, no, actually. Its one of the things that made her the best. Once she was sure she was right, that was it, she went full steam ahead. And that instinct served her very well, right up until. . . ."
"Right up until she died for it." She rose now, disentangling her hands from his, and moving for he first time since their dialogue had started. It was quite dark, and she moved to turn on the fireplace. She felt in need of its comfort and warmth, as much as she did its light. She briefly wondered where her parents were, but figured they were with Tommy. And indeed, Tiny had made arrangements with them to give he and Gwen the time to talk they needed.
"Thank you for sharing all this with me, Tiny. Youve made a lot of things finally make sense for me."
"Do you think it made a difference, Tiny?" Tommy had never met the man before he had shown up early this morning for the service, but in the short while theyd had to talk together, hed begun to develop a real liking for the man. And he could certainly see why Randi thought highly enough of him to call him friend. Geoff had accepted him by virtue of his Sabre status alone, but he too had found himself appreciating Randis compatriot.
"I dont know, Tommy. Id like to think so." There were six of them seated around the Steeles dining room table. Reed had spent no small amount of time while Tiny had been talking to Gwen cuddling Randall, and talking to both Jill and Ella, giving them a small picture of the woman she knew Randi to be. She didnt reveal anything, but she noticed Geoff and Tommy listening in a bit as well.
"It will give her a little more peace in her own heart and mind. But dont expect her to return to being the woman you remember. Shes not, and never will be again, as long as she and Randi are separated."
"Why do you say that, Reed?"
"Because its the truth." The Sabre saw no need to elaborate. Jill was ready to scream in frustration.
"But, *why* do you feel its the truth?" Reed looked at the bards mother for a long time, and saw, not nosiness, but a desire to understand. She sighed.
"My people are gifted. And sometimes, rarely, we get to see soulmates come together, and the bonding is powerful, blinding."
"But you never met my daughter until today."
Another sigh. Then she stood and paced the floor, standing proudly in her Sabre pilots uniform. "I have known Randi for more than eleven years. But when she came to the ranch, almost two years ago, she nearly blinded me with the intensity of her aura. She never said a word about Gwen. It wasnt her nature. But today, I saw the matching aura surrounding your daughter. They are soulmates."
"Yes, for Gwen it is, because she will spend the rest of her days only half alive. She will survive, because that is who she is. But she will not return to being the daughter you remember her as."
"Reed, at this point, I think wed both be happy if she could find a bit of peace to live in."
"Thank you for staying over, Tiny. Geoff, you and Gwen have a seat. This wont take very long." Tommy welcomed the other three into his study the following morning. He slipped in the holo-chip and took a seat behind the desk. It only took a couple seconds before Randis image stood life size before them. Gwen gasped and covered her mouth. Geoff reached over an tentatively covered her other hand. Tiny reached up and brushed a tear aside from his own eyes. Tommy, having seen the instructions she had left him in this same format, and been a bit more prepared for the image, merely swallowed hard. . . twice.
"My friends, if you are watching this, then it has been determined that my final mission was a success, and I have died with honor. Remember this, and do not grieve for me. I go into this with my eyes open, and only one regret, knowing that it is for the best.
I dont have much to leave, so this wont take long. To my good friend, Tiny, the man who never failed to watch my back, and who listened to my ramblings. . . I leave you one of my most precious possessions." Tommy reached down to the desk, and picked up the leather bound book of stories Gwen had written for her, handing it solemnly to the big Sabre. "Real stories, my friend, and written by my bard." Said bard in question sat stunned at the open admission, secretly wondering why it had been so hard for either of them to say those words aloud before. "Read and enjoy them for years to come. They will bring you great joy."
It was quiet in the room for a moment, as the hologram seemed to need a moment to collect itself. Tiny smiled through his tears as he thumbed through the journal. After a simulated deep breath, the image was ready to continue.
"For Tommy, who has been more like a brother to me for, ahem, many years, I leave my sword, daggers and staff. I did a bit of research on them, and I think youll appreciate the history behind the sword, and the etchings found on the blades. I dont know if Geoff is aware of all of them, but it will make for some interesting conversations between the two of you, Im sure. Give them to Randall one day.
Geoff, you have been like a father to me, and I hand back into your care the woman I love, and can no longer be with and protect. Watch over her for me, Geoff. And take the life sized portrait. I know you liked it almost as much as I did, cause I overheard your comment to Jill once you found out I had it." She smiled rakishly at him. Then she sobered. "Now, Im going to ask you gentlemen to leave Gwen and I alone for the remainder of this reading. What I have to say is private between the two of us."
The holo image actually paused, looking around the room. "Go on," she urged, and the fact that Randi knew they would hesitate, and continued to encourage them to leave, made them all smile slightly. Tommy gave a pause command then, and rose from his seat.
"Lets go, guys. Gwen, well be right out there in the living room if you need us, okay?" The bard nodded, but didnt say a word. Her attention was still focused on the almost real Marine in front of her. Once she heard the door close, she authorized the hologram to continue.
"Everything else I own, Gwen. . . the house, the bike, my half of Midas Enterprises, all the accounts, everything was put in your name a long time ago, and it is yours to do with as you wish. Tommy is aware of how I left things, and what all there is. If you have any questions, ask him. Hes a good guy, and he promised me hed keep an eye on you for me." She paused as though debating the wisdom of continuing. Knowing she had nothing left to lose at this point, the image took a breath and spoke again.
"Oh, my love. . . what can I say to you? You are my light, my life. . . . Words really cant say what I feel, and to take action on my feelings would be grossly unfair to you. There is so much of me that I cant share, so much ugliness I dont want to taint you with. However, now the knowledge can no longer hurt you, I want you to know. . . I love you, and I have been in love with you for, well. . . lets just say a very long time. If things had been different. . . ." The apparition ran its hands through the raven hair it sported, stopping to scratch the back of its head uncertainly in a very familiar, Randi-like manner. Gwen smiled through her tears at the gesture.
"But they werent and there is nothing to be done about it now. I am sitting here recording this the day of your party, hoping I can hold out and be strong. It has become very difficult for me to hide my feelings from you, but I do so, because you deserve the very best, someone who can offer you everything. I wish it could be me, but know this. . . more than anything, I want you to be happy. So, go, my love. Live life to its fullest and be happy. You will always remain in my heart."
It was quiet in the room for a very long time after the vision faded away, only the rhythmic sound of Gwens breathing breaking the stillness. Eventually, she loosened the white-knuckled grip from the chair arms, and wiped her face dry of the tears that had streamed down it. When she felt more composed, she took the chip, and tucked it in her pocket. Then she motioned to the dog who had remained still as a statue since having heard her mistresses voice. "Cmon, Ditto. Lets go home."
No one ever asked what had transpired in that room once Gwen was left alone, nor did anyone ever find out what Randis message to the bard was. All they knew was that Gwen slowly, gradually started opening up around people again, just a tiny bit. And though she wasnt the bard they loved and remembered, they were glad to see her turn toward the woman she had once been.
She still didnt tell stories, but teaching became a little more enjoyable. And though she still never went out, she did return to the lunch room, and did not refuse invitations to sit with old friends. No one, not even her, sat at the table she and Randi had shared. She just couldnt bring herself to do it. Maybe someday, love. It was too public a venue, and though the memories were not at all unpleasant, remembering was not something she was comfortable with doing while in the company of other people.
Two days before Celebration began, Scott sat eating lunch with the blond
"Hi, Scott. Hows Tori?" The couple had gotten married six weeks previous, and found they were expecting just a week ago. He chuckled ruefully.
"Cursing my name, actually. Morning sickness hit her pretty badly."
Gwen grimaced in sympathy. "Oh, yikes! Sorry."
"Why?" He smiled. "Its not your fault. But the doc gave her a bit of something that has solved that problem. Its just that very first minute or two before it kicks in every morning that shes unhappy. Otherwise, well, shes gonna be very busy if she does all the things she wants to preparing for this little one."
The bard smiled in response to Scotts. It was obvious her was very happy and excited about the prospect of being a father. "And, of course, youre not doing anything to get ready, right?" She actually chuckled briefly at the blush that climbed up his face.
"Well. . . . " he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "By the way," he said, changing the subject, "would you like to join us for Celebration? Nothing fancy, I promise."
"Thank you for the invitation, Scott, but Ive already got plans."
He looked her long and hard in the eyes, trying to assure himself she wasnt just trying to avoid observing the holiday. He nodded, finally, satisfied with her sincerity. "Okay, then. If youre sure. But youre more than welcome to join us if you change your mind. And Gwen?" She raised her eyebrow and waited for him to finish. "Come visit us sometime anyway, will ya? We miss you."
Everyone thought that the bard had plans with someone. Tommy had asked her to join he Ella, and their folks. Geoff had called to invite her home. Even Reed and Tiny had issued an invitation. Each got the same response she had given to Scott. And each assumed, however incorrectly, that Gwen had accepted one of the others invitation. It wouldnt be until after the holiday that anyone got the real story of how she spent Celebration.
She got out the album that Sal had given her a year before, as well as the holo vids Tommy had made of their birthday celebration, surprise party and awards ceremony, as well as many of the band practices and story telling sessions he had recorded. On this Celebration Eve, it was time to start reliving some of their happier memories together.
Randi shook her head to clear it when she opened her eyes. Where. . . ? The temple? How long. . .? She closed her eyes again, trying to let her mind calm a bit. The whirling of her thoughts was enough to make her more than a little dizzy. She focused on her breathing, and her intense concentration gradually settled the questions going round in her brain. She would find the answers she needed. She was sure of that.
Slowly, she opened her eyes again. As the Marine had first concluded, she was indeed in a prayer room of the temple near her island home. She sat up rather abruptly. What day is it? She moved to open the door, when it opened in toward her. A priest, bearing food and drink, smiled at her. "The goddesses commanded this be brought to you," he stated simply. When he turned to go, she stopped him.
"You require something further?"
"Just a little information. My mind is a little muddled, and I think you might be able to clear up a bit of the confusion."
"Very well," taking a seat at the small table. "What would you like to know?" The goddesses had given him specific instructions for the tall brunette, and this room had been prepared with the basics for her arrival. Aside from the chair he sat in, and the small table on which he had placed the untouched food, there was the cot that the Marine still sat upon. She rubbed a hand across her scarred face, and sighed.
"Where am I?"
He told her, very distinctly and exactly.
"How long have I been here?"
"By our time, mortal time, you arrived one hour ago."
"A mortal hour ago, huh? One is almost afraid to ask how much god time passed." She drew a deep breath. "What day is it?"
"Tonight is Celebration Eve."
Complete silence, then. . . ." WHAT?!? Celebration Eve??? Are you sure?!?"
"Yes, Ms. Valiant. I am completely sure."
The Marine jumped up from the cot and began pacing the small room, not even noticing at first that she did so without pain or a limp. As the knowledge slowly did begin to dawn on her, she came to a standstill, tears in her eyes. "Would you excuse me, please?"
The priest stood, glad hed had the opportunity to witness her realization. "Certainly." And he left without another word.
"Aphrodite, Athena, and Artemis," she paused, trying to order her thoughts. "Thank you,"was all she said out loud. It was all she could come up with. Everything else sounded trite in her ears, and she had no wish to offend at this point especially. She was too close to her goal, and had too much to gain to risk screwing it up now. For healing me, and allowing me to go to her almost whole. A hand touched her cheek again. For giving me a second chance to make things right, she thought, hoping the goddesses would understand what she was trying so desperately hard to say.
"Youre welcome, child. Eat now. It is time for you to be on your way." Athena faded almost as quickly as she had appeared. And Randi sat down to do her bidding.
"That was a good thing you did, sister," the warrior commented to Aphrodite.
"Yes, I"m glad you healed her body," the huntress agreed. "But why not heal her scarred face as well?"
The love goddess smiled. "I never intended to leave the bodacious warrior babe a cripple. I wanted her to totally learn a few things." Athens nodded her head in agreement. "I think she did, and in a way she will soooo never forget. As for her face, well, it will take an act of faith to make that miracle happen."
"Its up to Gwen, then?"
"Its up to Gwen."
"Oh, well then. Shes as good as healed." Artemis smiled, and got answering smiles from her sisters. This was gonna be sweet.
There was a half day of work on Celebration Eve, and mostly it was a matter of wrapping up loose ends for the long Solstice holiday weekend. Just before lunch, people started leaving, and by noon, Midas Enterprises resembled nothing so much as it did a ghost town. Tommy smiled. He was looking forward to this holiday, as it was the first one since Randis passing that Gwen showed any interest in participating. He hoped where ever she was spending the holiday, she would find happiness. He turned his transport toward home. As soon as he got there, his family, father and in-laws were gonna take out the new, large cruiser hed gotten. He was looking forward to a relaxing weekend.
Gwen made it back to the island quite a bit before Tommy, as she had been one of the first to leave Midas. She took Ditto to Ella. "You sure you dont mind taking her, El?"
"Oh, not at all, Gwen. You know that. I was actually debating asking you for her when you asked me to take her, quite honestly. Besides the fact that she loves the boat, she keeps a great eye on Randall. Having her with us gives me extra peace of mind."
"I can understand your point." The blonde knelt to sit at eye level with the shepherd. "Ditto, you be a good girl for Tommy and Ella, and keep an extra sharp watch on Randall, okay?" The dog answered with a bark, and a serious face washing that actually got chuckles from Gwen. "Yes, yes, Ill miss you, too. Ill be here when you get back, all right?" The canine barked again, and left to find her charge. The curly headed woman handed Gwen a wet cloth, and a dry towel to wipe her face .
"Thanks, Ella. I think shes excited to be going out."
"I agree. Im looking forward to it myself. You sure you dont want to come along? Theres plenty of room for everyone in this new boat."
"No, thanks. Ive got plans I really cant break. But thanks for asking." She looked at her watch. "I need to get a move on. Yall have a good trip, okay?"
"We will," the other woman said with a hug. "You, too."
Gwen said nothing, not wanting to lie. She merely waved as she took the slightly beaten path between the two houses. She hated to give the wrong impression, but she needed to do this, and she needed to do it alone. After a bite of lunch, she decided to have a bit of a swim off the dock. She was overjoyed when the two dolphins, Pilot and Peanut, came in close enough to play a bit. She accepted it as a good omen for the evening, and it made her feel better about doing this.
After a couple hours, she was quite tired out, and happy to pull herself out of the water. It was hot enough that she was sufficiently dry after just a few minutes sitting out in the sun. She rose from the bench she had been reclining on, and walked back into the house. She went upstairs to her bathroom, pausing on the landing to look at the portrait that still hung above the fireplace. Her father hadnt had the heart to take it down. It belongs there, had been his comment to her. She smile sadly as she recognized again, the rightness of his words. The weapons Randi had left to Tommy remained in their places as well. I cant do it, Gwen. Maybe Randall will want them one day, but I cant accept them. Shed understand. And the bard knew the man was right. . . Randi probably did understand, where ever she was now. So she didnt force the issue. She knew he would claim them when the time was right.
After a short, satisfying shower, the bard pulled on shorts and a crop top, and prepared for her evening. A bottle of Merlot and a glass made it to the table first. The album box remained on the table where she had placed it almost exactly to the day a year previously. Several vid chips were placed on the table as well. And with only a moments hesitation, she went to Randis closet, and removed the dress white uniform jacket the Marine had been wearing that last night. Her scent still lingered on it even now, and the memory brought tears to Gwens eyes. She lay it down carefully on the couch beside her. Then she poured a glass of Merlot, and picked up the box.
Long moments passed while she simply breathed, willing herself to stillness. When her heart finally resumed its normal beat, she opened the box and removed the album. She smiled through her tears at the picture on the cover, feeling as much joy as she did pain at seeing the two of them together the way others had. Portrait of two women in love, she thought to herself, then opened the book, and began perusing.
Just as Randi finished eating, an acolyte knocked on the door. Upon being invited in, the young woman began clearing the dishes, stating, "Your transport is waiting."
The Marines brow furrowed. What transport? Then realizing the priest must have arranged her way home, rose from the chair. "Thank you," was all she said aloud. Then she headed out the door toward her new life.
Gwen didnt know how many hours had passed while she had looked at, and studied, and memorized each and every picture. She recalled each and every instance the pictures had captured, and all of those Rico had missed, including and especially their last precious moments together. The wine sat untouched, even after she put the book back on the table, still opened to her favorite image. She didnt even take note of the approaching sunset, and the coming dark.
The first holo chip she activated was the band practice she attended that gave record to her second performance there. She was surprised, having never watched this record before, at how often Tommy turned the vids to capture the expression on Randis face. After only a few minutes, she changed to another practice. He had been kind enough to put them all on the same disk. She was amazed at what she saw, now that her eyes were opened. Each and every practice showed the same love reflecting out of bright blue eyes.
The next chip she opened was of their joint birthday party. She watched amazed as the Marine opened up and exposed her heart completely during that song. And watched herself as the knowledge seemed to wind its way into her heart. Could I have been any more blind or obstinate? Why?
She stopped questioning, knowing it was a fruitless endeavour. And today wasnt about doubts and second guessingit was about the good memories they had created together. There would be time to question herself again tomorrow.
Randi never realized what a long distance there was between the temple and her home, or how quickly a transport could move. She was sure she was going to be sick. Time was moving too fast, and not nearly fast enough. And the butterflies in her stomach almost made her miss the code to extend the bridge.
As soon as the transport got to the other side, she got out, and sent the driver on his way. The Marine stood anxiously, waiting until it was safely on the other side before recalling the bridge. Then she set off on foot on the last part of her journey home.
Gwen hesitated before starting the chip that contained the last party and awards ceremony. She needed to eat something, but the roiling in her gut made that a very bad idea. She took a sip of the wine, hoping that would calm her a bit. When it didnt come flying back up, she took a slightly larger one, and sat back to watch the memories play out in front of her.
The bard laughed and cried her way through the entire party. She had to especially laugh at herself through the tears as she realized that she, the viewer, was pulling for a kiss after Randi finished her last song. And now that she was more aware, she could almost feel the groan of the entire audience when the two women pulled away from their hug with no kiss. The disappointment was that palpable.
When their last day together began to play, Gwen slowly put the wine glass on the table in front of her. She reached over, and picked up the dress jacket, inhaling the scent, and letting it fill her. Then she slowly wrapped the tunic around her shoulders. She smiled at the comfort she could find in Randis arms even now, and turned her attention to watch the holo vid in front of her.
Randi would have been more concerned at the seeming lack of security, had she not been so nervous. Cmon, Valiant. Youve been in far scarier situations than this, But Ive never had so much to lose before. She stopped for a moment at the door, taking several deep breaths, trying to control her anxiety. She thought about knocking, but decided to just bite the bullet. She keyed in the code, not really surprised that the bard hadnt changed it. The Marine shut the door behind her with silent precision, and froze. Just out of her line of vision, but well within her hearing, she became aware of herself singing. . . a *very* familiar song.
"Im everything I am. . . Because you loved me."
As the sound of applause was heard throughout the room, Randi took advantage, and moved close enough to see the bard set down the wine glass, and pick up the white jacket. Tears flooded the blue eyes when Gwen took a deep breath of the fabric before encasing herself in it. Her heart broke all over again, as she more fully understood the havoc her decisions had wreaked. And she watched in fascination as the blonde skipped portions, watching only the parts that focused on the two of them.
The Marine felt like an intruder, unsure she should be witnessing such a private moment, but unable to break it as well. So she watched, smiling and crying at the wonderful, painful memories Tommy had so magically captured for them.
When the two of them left the ballroom, the holo image faded. Randi gathered her courage, and took a step forward, only to be stopped by the sound of her own voice again.
Oh my love. . . what can I say to you? You are my light, my life. . . .
The Marine closed her eyes in agony, and hung her head. God. Then she took a deep breath, and took up speaking with the hologram. "I love you, and I have been in love with you for, well. . . lets just say for a very long time."
At the very first note from the voice behind her, Gwen rose from the couch and swivelled toward the sound. And froze at the sight that stood before her. The bards hands came up to cover her mouth, and her eyes widened perceptibly.
"Oh my God," she breathed, not moving.
The hologram finished its speech, and flickered off behind her unnoticed. Gwen forced herself to move toward the apparition, sure that it would disappear when she got near. Randi, for her part, couldnt move. She tried, but she stood frozen to the spot while she watched Gwen approach her with trepidation.
The bard halted less than an arms length from Randi, and just stood silently studying her for a very long moment, trying to determine in her mind if what her eyes saw was real or a mirage. She noticed the awful scar that disfigured one whole side of the Marines face, and saw her try to turn away. Immediately, Gwen closed the distance between them, and raised and to stroke the marred cheek. Blue eyes closed, and tears slid down silently at the gentle, familiar touch.
"Youre really here," the blonde whispered on a bare breath.
"Yes," came the equally soft response.
"And youre alive," green eyes gazed into the now open blue.
There was silence for a few seconds while they gazed at each other. Gwen cried inwardly at the pain she saw hidden in the depths of those blue orbs. They were going to have a lot to talk about. But it would wait. Her hand had already begun to trace its way across the scar. The Marine flinched, and tried to pull away. Gwen wrapped her other hand in the brunette tresses and held Randi in place.
"So beautiful," she breathed.
Randi looked deep into the green eyes shed missed so much. "Still?" she questioned.
"Always," came the answer. And then Gwen was gently urging her head down, and their lips met, and she lost herself in the touch and taste and scent of the woman who had become her home. Her arms reached out, quite of their own volition, and drew the blonde into her. Long minutes passed while they stood melded together, until they were finally forced apart by a need for air. The bard lay her head on Randis chest, and stood breathing in the essence of the woman she loved. The Marine lay her head atop Gwens, simply absorbing the profound joy of the moment.
Gwen pulled back to better look the brunette in the eye and gasped. "Randi!"
"What?!? Whats wrong?"
"Your face!" The large hand flew to her cheek, and froze, shocked at what she found there. "Randi, theres no scar there!"
Now the tears resumed down the Marines features. "Thank you, Dite," she whispered.
"Dite?? I guess we really do need to talk."
Randi took a deep breath, and wiped her eyes. "Yeah, we do." She put her hands on the bards waist, and slowly raised her until they were at eye level with one another. She smiled when she felt Gwens legs wrap around her middle. The blonde rested her arms on the Marines broad shoulders, and tangled her hands in the long, dark hair. Unable to resist, Gwen leaned in, and nipped at the full lips so close to her own, then slowly traced them with her tongue. The arms wrapped around her tightened and moved. One hand curled itself into her hair, the other caressed her ass. With an incoherent moan, she covered Randis mouth, and proceeded to deepen the kiss, as though she wanted to absorb her very essence into her own soul. At very long last, just when the Marine was sure her knees would buckle from the intense emotions flowing between them, Gwen pulled back, and whispered one word.
Then she resumed her focus on Randis lips, teasing with her tongue and teeth, and smiling when the Marine groaned and clenched her ass.
" Much later," Randi agreed. And she turned her steps to the bedroom, kicking the door shut behind them.
And they lived happily ever after.
Storytellers Cardinal Rule: No matter what happens in the story itself, it must have a happy ever after ending.
01/01 - 07/01
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