Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team. Thanks to Carol and Lisa for
the editing. And thanks to Carol, Lisa, Marsha and Phil for the questions, comments
and encouragement. You guys ROC!
Special Thanks: To the many of you that took the time to send your
kind words about A Valiant Heart. They were much appreciated by the entire team.
Author's Note: This picks up immediately after A Valiant Heart ends,
so you will need to read that first if you haven't already. The Storyteller's
Cardinal rule is still in effect.
It was impossible to tell if the shrouded figure on the beach was actually
a human being, or just a very odd bit of sculpture left from an earlier, questionable
era. It stood so still that it wasn't until a slight movement was seen that
one could have been convinced that it was, in fact, a living entity.
The lack of movement, however, was not nearly so disturbing as the thoughts
emanating from beneath the covering.
"I promise you, Grace, Miranda Valiant's afterlife will be full of suffering
for what she did to you. I will make sure she pays the price for her actions."
It was a long time before the person actually moved, and disappeared into
the thick fog that was slowly rolling in.
It wasn't any one sensation that awakened Randi in the still darkness of the
pre-dawn morning. It was a combination of several... a gentle touch tracing
her face, warm, uneven breath on her neck, and hot wetness on her collarbone.
But it wasn't until the warmth in her arms began to shake lightly with silent
sobs that she rolled toward Gwen, tightening her arms convulsively in unspoken
support. They had yet to talk, and the Marine decided to let her blonde companion
cry herself out for now. So she rocked her gently, whispering love and endearments
in her ears, and holding on for all she was worth.
The two fell asleep again just as a hint of gray touched the eastern sky,
and the sun was quite high in the sky before blue eyes peeked open the second
time. Randi smiled in remembered joy at the exquisite pleasure they had shared
the previous night, then the smile turned melancholy at the remembered tears
the bard had shed. So much pain, and so many tears. So many things to talk about.
Grimacing in extreme discomfort, the Marine edged out from under the naked
bard who was draped over her own naked body. She moved rapidly to the bathroom
to take care of business. Randi was just splashing a bit of water on her face,
when Gwen's scream brought her back into the bedroom, running.
The blonde was sitting up in the middle of the bed, wrapped around the pillow
the newly returned soldier had been using. Green eyes stared ahead unseeingly,
the small body rocking gently back and forth in an effort to comfort herself.
Randi scooped the bard up into her arms, surrounding her senses. And after a
few minutes, Gwen, who had tensed at the Marine's touch, allowed herself to
relax and believe in her new reality. Randi's heart had broken at the flinch,
knowing she was the cause of Gwen's waking nightmare, and knowing it was going
to take lots of time and patience to convince her bard she was home to stay.
"I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean for you to wake up alone."
The small hand unclenched from the pillow it was buried in, and slowly moved
toward the Marine's face. Gwen lifted her chin, and raised her eyes to the features
of the woman she loved. She followed with her hand the path her eyes had taken,
as though assuring herself that what she saw was real, and not wishful thinking,
or a suddenly active imagination. Randi closed her eyes and allowed the exploration,
taking great comfort in the soft touch.
"You really are here with me, aren't you? You're really alive... I'm not just
dreaming, am I?"
The last was said so wistfully, the Marine had to close her eyes against the
tears that wanted to fall. She captured Gwen's hand, bringing the slim fingers
to her lips for a kiss. "I really am here. I really am alive, and you are not
just dreaming. We are in love and together, and will be forever and beyond.
"I promise." It would be a promise she would regret making in the not too
After a nice long joint shower, which lent itself to a bit of playtime as
well as calming Gwen's fears about Randi disappearing, the two decided a little
food might be in order.
It was odd sharing space again, and though the bard had changed nothing in
the house, Randi felt a little out of place. She stood there with the refrigerator
door open, focusing on nothing, until a warm hand appeared at the small of her
"Yeah," with a sigh. "It's just... everything is so odd, disjointed. I feel...
I dunno... out of place. Almost disoriented."
Gwen took the larger hands in her own and entwined their fingers together.
Gently she led the older woman out of the kitchen, and into the living room
where an open bottle of Merlot and several vid chips still sat on the table
as reminders of the night before. She was taken by surprise when the larger
woman suddenly jerked her off her feet, and with a twist, the bard found herself
tightly cuddled in Randi's lap. They sat in silence for long minutes.
"Guess we both have some issues to work through, huh?" Gwen gently traced
the muscles in the arms wrapped around her so tightly. She felt the Marine nod
her head above her. "Well, c'mon, stud. Let's get something to eat and we can
talk." The bard felt Randi chuckle slightly when she heard the endearment. Then
a light kiss was dropped on the top of her head.
"You cut your hair," the Marine commented as they moved back into the kitchen.
"It looks good. I like it."
Gwen ran her hands absently through the shortened locks. "Thanks. I did it
a while back. Made it easier to manage."
"I know. I saw you do it."
Two blonde brows rose into her hairline. She couldn't wait to hear the explanation
for that statement, but she let it pass for now. She was too hungry to ask a
question that so obviously required a long, detailed answer. They finished preparing
lunch, then took the meal into the living area and sat down on the sofa, still
touching. Both needed the tactile reassurance, and each was happy to provide
it to the other.
It was a fairly silent meal, both knowing that any serious discussion needed
to wait. When lunch was over, Randi took their plates into the kitchen, while
Gwen picked up the living room. Her nose crinkled as the scent of somewhat soured
Merlot wafted up. The tickling sensation it caused made her want to sneeze.
She bent to retrieve the holo-chips form the table, then straightened, standing
there lost in thought. It was to this scene that the Marine returned.
"Gwen?" placing her hands on the bard's shoulders when she got no response.
"Why did you leave me?" came a broken whisper. "And why were you gone so long?
We had all given you up for dead.... " Gwen's voice trailed off.
Oh boy. Nothing like starting with the tough stuff. "C'mon. Let's
sit down for this."
Randi sat down in one corner of the couch, leaving Gwen several options to
choose from. The bard hesitated, then voiced her desire. "May I?" she asked,
gesturing to the Marine's long lap.
"Please," patting her lap, and opening her arms.
The blonde squirmed into a comfortable position, then laced her fingers behind
the dark head, and pulled Randi's head down for a kiss. It was a long, leisurely
exploration, and the Marine needed a minute to catch her breath before speaking.
"Um, not that I'm complaining, mind you, but what was that for?"
Green eyes got lost in blue for a very long moment. "Courage," she said finally.
"I have a feeling we are both going to need it for this story," spoken very
"That is truer than you know, love." Randi took a deep breath. "The reason...
I was... gone... so long is... well, because I... I... died." Only her strong
arms kept the bard from bolting off her lap. "I know, I KNOW... it sounds impossible,
it sounds like an excuse, but Gwen, I swear to you it's the truth." The bard
turned to look into the face she loved, and saw nothing but honest truth staring
back at her.
"You're serious." More of a statement than a question.
A nod was the Marine's only answer.
"Tell me," she whispered.
Randi breathed a sigh of relief. Gwen was going to give her a chance to explain.
Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team. Thanks to Carol and Lisa for the editing. And thanks to Carol, Lisa, Marsha and Phil for the questions, comments and encouragement. You guys ROC!
Special Thanks: To the many of you that took the time to send your kind words about A Valiant Heart. They were much appreciated by the entire team.
Author's Note: This picks up immediately after A Valiant Heart ends, so you will need to read that first if you haven't already. The Storyteller's Cardinal rule is still in effect.
It was impossible to tell if the shrouded figure on the beach was actually a human being, or just a very odd bit of sculpture left from an earlier, questionable era. It stood so still that it wasn't until a slight movement was seen that one could have been convinced that it was, in fact, a living entity.
The lack of movement, however, was not nearly so disturbing as the thoughts emanating from beneath the covering.
"I promise you, Grace, Miranda Valiant's afterlife will be full of suffering for what she did to you. I will make sure she pays the price for her actions."
It was a long time before the person actually moved, and disappeared into the thick fog that was slowly rolling in.
It wasn't any one sensation that awakened Randi in the still darkness of the pre-dawn morning. It was a combination of several... a gentle touch tracing her face, warm, uneven breath on her neck, and hot wetness on her collarbone. But it wasn't until the warmth in her arms began to shake lightly with silent sobs that she rolled toward Gwen, tightening her arms convulsively in unspoken support. They had yet to talk, and the Marine decided to let her blonde companion cry herself out for now. So she rocked her gently, whispering love and endearments in her ears, and holding on for all she was worth.
The two fell asleep again just as a hint of gray touched the eastern sky, and the sun was quite high in the sky before blue eyes peeked open the second time. Randi smiled in remembered joy at the exquisite pleasure they had shared the previous night, then the smile turned melancholy at the remembered tears the bard had shed. So much pain, and so many tears. So many things to talk about.
Grimacing in extreme discomfort, the Marine edged out from under the naked bard who was draped over her own naked body. She moved rapidly to the bathroom to take care of business. Randi was just splashing a bit of water on her face, when Gwen's scream brought her back into the bedroom, running.
The blonde was sitting up in the middle of the bed, wrapped around the pillow the newly returned soldier had been using. Green eyes stared ahead unseeingly, the small body rocking gently back and forth in an effort to comfort herself. Randi scooped the bard up into her arms, surrounding her senses. And after a few minutes, Gwen, who had tensed at the Marine's touch, allowed herself to relax and believe in her new reality. Randi's heart had broken at the flinch, knowing she was the cause of Gwen's waking nightmare, and knowing it was going to take lots of time and patience to convince her bard she was home to stay.
"I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean for you to wake up alone."
The small hand unclenched from the pillow it was buried in, and slowly moved toward the Marine's face. Gwen lifted her chin, and raised her eyes to the features of the woman she loved. She followed with her hand the path her eyes had taken, as though assuring herself that what she saw was real, and not wishful thinking, or a suddenly active imagination. Randi closed her eyes and allowed the exploration, taking great comfort in the soft touch.
"You really are here with me, aren't you? You're really alive... I'm not just dreaming, am I?"
The last was said so wistfully, the Marine had to close her eyes against the tears that wanted to fall. She captured Gwen's hand, bringing the slim fingers to her lips for a kiss. "I really am here. I really am alive, and you are not just dreaming. We are in love and together, and will be forever and beyond. I promise."
"I promise." It would be a promise she would regret making in the not too distant future.
After a nice long joint shower, which lent itself to a bit of playtime as well as calming Gwen's fears about Randi disappearing, the two decided a little food might be in order.
It was odd sharing space again, and though the bard had changed nothing in the house, Randi felt a little out of place. She stood there with the refrigerator door open, focusing on nothing, until a warm hand appeared at the small of her back.
"Yeah," with a sigh. "It's just... everything is so odd, disjointed. I feel... I dunno... out of place. Almost disoriented."
Gwen took the larger hands in her own and entwined their fingers together. Gently she led the older woman out of the kitchen, and into the living room where an open bottle of Merlot and several vid chips still sat on the table as reminders of the night before. She was taken by surprise when the larger woman suddenly jerked her off her feet, and with a twist, the bard found herself tightly cuddled in Randi's lap. They sat in silence for long minutes.
"Guess we both have some issues to work through, huh?" Gwen gently traced the muscles in the arms wrapped around her so tightly. She felt the Marine nod her head above her. "Well, c'mon, stud. Let's get something to eat and we can talk." The bard felt Randi chuckle slightly when she heard the endearment. Then a light kiss was dropped on the top of her head.
"You cut your hair," the Marine commented as they moved back into the kitchen. "It looks good. I like it."
Gwen ran her hands absently through the shortened locks. "Thanks. I did it a while back. Made it easier to manage."
"I know. I saw you do it."
Two blonde brows rose into her hairline. She couldn't wait to hear the explanation for that statement, but she let it pass for now. She was too hungry to ask a question that so obviously required a long, detailed answer. They finished preparing lunch, then took the meal into the living area and sat down on the sofa, still touching. Both needed the tactile reassurance, and each was happy to provide it to the other.
It was a fairly silent meal, both knowing that any serious discussion needed to wait. When lunch was over, Randi took their plates into the kitchen, while Gwen picked up the living room. Her nose crinkled as the scent of somewhat soured Merlot wafted up. The tickling sensation it caused made her want to sneeze. She bent to retrieve the holo-chips form the table, then straightened, standing there lost in thought. It was to this scene that the Marine returned.
"Gwen?" placing her hands on the bard's shoulders when she got no response. "Love?"
"Why did you leave me?" came a broken whisper. "And why were you gone so long? We had all given you up for dead.... " Gwen's voice trailed off.
Oh boy. Nothing like starting with the tough stuff. "C'mon. Let's sit down for this."
Randi sat down in one corner of the couch, leaving Gwen several options to choose from. The bard hesitated, then voiced her desire. "May I?" she asked, gesturing to the Marine's long lap.
"Please," patting her lap, and opening her arms.
The blonde squirmed into a comfortable position, then laced her fingers behind the dark head, and pulled Randi's head down for a kiss. It was a long, leisurely exploration, and the Marine needed a minute to catch her breath before speaking.
"Um, not that I'm complaining, mind you, but what was that for?"
Green eyes got lost in blue for a very long moment. "Courage," she said finally. "I have a feeling we are both going to need it for this story," spoken very softly.
"That is truer than you know, love." Randi took a deep breath. "The reason... I was... gone... so long is... well, because I... I... died." Only her strong arms kept the bard from bolting off her lap. "I know, I KNOW... it sounds impossible, it sounds like an excuse, but Gwen, I swear to you it's the truth." The bard turned to look into the face she loved, and saw nothing but honest truth staring back at her.
"You're serious." More of a statement than a question.
A nod was the Marine's only answer.
"Tell me," she whispered.
Randi breathed a sigh of relief. Gwen was going to give her a chance to explain.
Randi vividly remembered her final moments. She and Grace were engaged in an almost inanely civil conversation when there were two separate blasts that occurred bare seconds apart. The first collapsed the dome into the hollowed out bedrock of the ocean floor. The second was a self-contained explosion that annihilated everything inside it, leaving nothing behind but the dome itself, and a very large hole beneath it.
Grace Rivers was an intriguing study in contrasts. On the one hand, she was a renegade, immoral killer whose sole aim was to perpetuate humankind's suffering and destructive tendencies. On the other, she had no desire to upset the planet's delicate environment. And the dome's self-destruct capabilities had been designed with this in mind.
"Thank you, my Sabre friend, for giving me this final rest," the older blonde woman said softly in the remaining seconds they had left. "I hope whatever gods you believe in give you a peaceful afterlife."
Time slowed to an imperceptible crawl, and every second became a lifetime in and of itself. The explosion was silent to Randi's ears. Only the buckling of the surrounding wall gave any indication of reaction to the blast. The wall supports collapsed, and the Marine felt searing pain flare... first in her leg as the bone was crushed, then in her back as it broke when she was pinned down. The last conscious sensation she remembered was the splintering of her cheekbone, and the burning of flesh. Then merciful darkness enveloped her, and removed her senses from brutal reality.
"Don't cry, love," Randi crooned as she gently wiped away the tracks of tears running down Gwen's face. "It's over now, and truthfully, it's more like a long remembered bad dream than anything else. Can I be perfectly honest here?" A tiny smile quirked the corners of her lips. "Death was much easier than coming back to life. That was truly horrific."
"Then why did you?" in a very small voice.
"Because you asked me to, and I was offered a second chance." Randi moved her hand to cup the bard's face. "And I would have gone through far worse for the opportunity for us to be together again." She kissed Gwen's lips almost chastely. Then she brought them together again for a long, passionate embrace.
"I'm so glad you did," she said when they broke apart again for air. "Can you talk about it? I'd like to understand."
"Yes, Little One. I can talk about it, but it's not a very pretty tale. You sure you wanna hear it?"
Gwen lifted a hand and gently traced the lines of the face above her that had been so horribly scarred only the night before, and were now as smooth as newborn skin. "Yes, love."
Randi was more than a little confused upon first waking up. The last thing she remembered was the explosion of the dome, and horrendous pain in her body. Then... this, where ever *this* was. Was she dead or wasn't she? In all the stories she had heard about the afterlife, none of them explained the place in which she now found herself. The gargantuan cave wasn't a bad place. After all, it was warm and dry. But the loneliness, and the hollow, aching pain made it seem like hell on earth, or hell in death. How long she sat there was unclear, because time seemed to have no meaning in this place. And then....
"Waitaminute! Waitaminute! Just hold on a second there!" Gwen drew back in her arms enough to be able to look the Marine in the eye. "You're telling me Aphrodite smacked you in the back of the head??"
"Oh yeah! Hard, too," unconsciously rubbing the back of her dark head. "Made me bite my tongue as well. See?" Randi stuck out the offended organ. "It was sore for days."
"Poor baby," placing a light peck on the body part in question. "But why on earth would the goddess of love hit you? I didn't think that was quite her style."
"It's not, not usually, I mean. She was just really angry and frustrated with me for not being honest with you, and for that kiss. We had quite a long talk about it later. Anyway.... "
Talking to her parents had done wonders for the Marine's peace of mind. To know that they loved and approved of the bard was enough to almost, *almost* take some of her pain away. As it was, it did make her smile, and gave her a bit of comfort that they were not disappointed or ashamed of her.
The talk with the goddesses, particularly the seemingly cold love goddess had been hard, especially hearing Gwen pour out her heart's pain to Aphrodite. But that, more than anything else, had firmed her resolve to return to her bard. And it made the bearing of bones being crushed and reknitting, and flesh being burned and scarring not quite as horrendous in the Marine's mind
It was that resolve, and watching Gwen's daily suffering that allowed Randi to struggle each day through her healing process. Every morning the Sabre rose from her rest, and set to work, being subjugated to the bard's life and thoughts. The emptiness and pain she felt from Gwen multiplied her own feelings a thousand fold, and provided her the impetus to improve her condition and heal. But it was her memorial service, realizing she had been gone from the bard's life for a year that forced her to find her way home.
"I never expected to be healed so quickly and so completely," touching her face gingerly. "Aphrodite said six months of hard therapy for my body, and gave me no hope for my face. I was supposed to be scarred for life."
"Well, babe," came an otherworldly voice before the goddess it belonged to appeared, 'I'm like, so sure we can revert you to type if that's what you like, totally want."
"In the flesh and at your service, warrior babe. Hey, cutie!" Randi looked a little confused at the goddess's advent, but the bard was completely stunned. Dite settled in a diaphanous cloud on the other end of the couch, peering at the couple in loving happiness. "I so cannot tell you two how seeing you so totally together like this just makes my heart like, pitter patter." Her eyelashes fluttered, and she fanned herself with small, rapid motions. She gave a sigh.
"Um, Dite, not to seem ungrateful or anything, but why are you here?" Gwen's hold had tightened on the Marine while Randi was talking to the deity. Her eyes had yet to leave the love goddess's face, but she felt secure in the love and strength she felt in the arms surrounding her. Randi tightened her grasp around the bard in response to her unspoken fear. The Marine wondered silently to herself what the cause was. The bard could only remember her harshness to the goddess the first, and last, time she had seen Dite.
"I'm actually here to like, answer your question, warrior."
"Why do you call me that?"
"What... warrior? It's what you are, isn't it? Anyway, I thought you might like to know the total truth. See, the final outcome of your injuries was a test... one for each of you. You had to be willing to come to her broken and battered. And she had to be willing to accept you completely, deformities and all. You both came through beautifully. Now, down to business. This," reaching out a hand toward the Marine who intercepted the small package neatly, "is from your mom. Nice lady, by the way. Anyway, she asked me to tell you 'About time, you two!' and 'Congratulations.' This," leaning forward and brushing the blonde's lips lightly with her own, 'is from Randi's dad, welcoming you to the family."
"Hey there, love goddess, you just watch where you plant those lips! This one belongs to me, and I don't share!"
"As if!! Chill, babe! Like I'm gonna put the nix on the most bodacious duo I've hooked up in millennia? Get real!" She grinned at the stunned expression on the bard's face. "I'll expect an invitation to the wedding," she said with a smile as she disappeared.
Randi noticed the dazed look lingering on Gwen's face. "Hey! Gwen?" The Marine gently grasped the bard's chin, and turned her face until their eyes met. "Love? You okay?"
The blonde swallowed hard and closed her eyes in a prolonged blink before reopening them, and gazing into the blue she loved so well. "They gave us their blessing."
"Yes, they did. Is that a bad thing?" The brunette was more than a little confused on what was going through Gwen's mind.
"No, love, no," cupping the face above her with a palm. "No, I think it's a wonderful thing." She lowered her head and went on more softly, "It's something I wished for, early this morning." A hand raised her chin, and Randi met tear-filled green eyes.
"Oh, Little One," she slowly lowered her lips to meet those of the bard, and a long stretch of time was devoted to sharing love, devotion and tenderness. "I can't tell you what that means to me."
"You don't have to, Randi. I know you love and miss your parents, and I just wished, if they were happy about... us... I prayed for a way... I just wanted... I mean.... " The bard, at a loss for words, trailed off incoherently. But the Marine knew exactly what she was trying to say, and she gave the smaller woman a fierce hug.
"I know what you are saying, love. Shall we find out what Mama sent?"
"You don't want some privacy?" Gwen tried to slip from Randi's lap, but the Marine held tight to the bard.
"No, Gwen, no. I'm pretty sure it is meant for both of us." The tall woman brought her long arms to wrap more snugly around the bard so she could bring her hands together. Gwen, for her part, tucked her head under Randi's chin, cozy and content. It was a small, square box, encased in parchment with writing on it. Carefully removing the wrapping, she placed the ornate, wooden box on the blonde's lap for safekeeping while they read the note together.
Dear Children, (it read)
Words cannot possibly convey the depth of our happiness at your joining.
Yours has been a beautiful, and sometimes frustrating relationship to
watch grow and strengthen and blossom. We are both so glad you have
finally come together as one.
The box contains something Randi will recognize. Explain it to your
bard, daughter. She, of all people, deserves to know the history behind
it. It has a magic all its own... maybe it will help her recover her own
stories. It is one reason Aphrodite generously granted Gwen's wish.
Know that you do now, and will always have our love and blessing on
your union. Soulmates are precious and rare. Love one another well,
and treasure each other above everything.
From Eternity with Love,
Mama and Papa
P.S. Randi, don't sit there goggling with your mouth open like a fish out
of water that we can write. You'd be surprised at the things you can
learn here. :-)
Randi snapped her jaw shut. Gwen giggled at the Marine's reaction to her mother's command. The tall woman frowned at her, then had to chuckle softly at the absurdity of it all. Even from beyond, her mother was still a formidable woman. The bard plucked the box from her lap and offered it to Randi. The Marine took it and placed it in her hand, holding it so Gwen could take the lid off.
"Open it," she said quietly. The bard took a moment to admire the craftsmanship and detail on the cover, then slowly lifted it away. A gasp caught in her throat as the object inside came into full view.
"Randi, it's beautiful."
"Hmm, yes it is, and its origins are very interesting. Would you like to hear the story?" Gwen nodded, interest and enthusiasm lighting her features. The Marine smiled to herself at the reaction. That sparkle... that's what's been missing. It's wonderful to see that coming back, even just a tiny bit. Randi cleared her throat and took a deep breath, ready to share the magical myth.
In ancient times, millennia ago, two soulmates had come together in the guise of a storyteller and a veteran fighter. They suffered adversity and trials, celebrated triumphs and successes, and became home and hearth to each other. When the two finally admitted their love for one another, even the gods themselves celebrated their union, for the joining together of two souls was a rare and beautiful experience, even for those who had been around almost since time began.
Not all the gods were happy, of course. There were those who were sure the darkness surrounding the soldier would spill over and taint the purity of the tale weaver. And there were others convinced the seeming weakness of the bard would destroy the strength of the warrior. But Aphrodite herself blessed their marriage, and those who were unhappy resigned themselves to the match, and eventually, some even grew accepting of it.
At their joining, the love goddess blessed the tokens they had each chosen for the other... matching rings. And these rings had been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years.
"I only have the bard's ring, as the other passed out of the family more than a century ago. There is a story, however, that tells that when the soldier and the storyteller come together again, the rings will join as well. Because as soulmates, when we rejoin each other, it is always in some semblance of the warrior and the bard."
"Are we those soulmates, Randi?"
"What does your heart tell you, love?"
The bard gave the question the serious consideration it was due. "It says that we have come full circle once again. That you are a part of me, the other half of my soul," she said finally, deliberately. She looked into Randi's eyes. "My heart tells me I have finally come home." Gwen smiled. "Yes, love, we are those soulmates."
"Then, my precious soulmate," swooping the blonde out of her arms, and placing her down on the couch tenderly, then kneeling at her feet. "Marry me." The utterly shocked look on Gwen's face made her stumble on. "I know it's fast. I've only just come back, and we just became lovers, but God, Gwen, I've loved you forever and.... " She stopped talking when soft fingers covered her lips.
"I love you," she said as tears tracked silently down her cheeks. "Yes, I will marry you, just as fast as we can get everything arranged and everyone notified. I'm not letting you get away again," with a smile. Then her eyes grew big and round.
"What?? What's wrong??" The Marine moved from the floor back to the sofa, trying to figure out what had caused the sudden look of alarm.
"MY GOD!! Randi, no one knows you're alive!! We got to tell people! My folks, Tommy and Ella, Tiny.... "
" ... can you imagine Ditto's reaction?"
"And what about Randall, and mmph... mmm.... " Her attention shifted and she concentrated on the wonderful sensations kissing Randi was causing in her body. "You know," she commented breathlessly when they broke apart, "I could grow addicted to this type of attention-getter." She went back for seconds, pulling away reluctantly when Randi rose, gathering the bard into her strong arms. "Randi?" Another passionate kiss was her only answer, and when the bedroom door shut behind them, there were no more questions.
"You said this ring is millennia old, and yet it looks so new." It was quite a bit later, and the two still lay tangled together in the sheets. Randi had finally slipped the ring on the bard's finger, and Gwen was taking great delight in looking at it from every angle. "And how is it that the size is perfect? Is there a meaning behind the stones and their arrangement? And.... "
"Slow down, love," the Marine replied with a low chuckle. "I'll tell you all I know." She curled up a little closer behind the blonde, and drew the hand with the ring on it into her own larger one. "Every generation, there has been a guardian of the rings. When we met again as soulmates, we were the guardians, of course, and wore the rings in trust as our ancestors before us did. But in those many generations where we did not meet, one was chosen to hold them until the next came along. A couple hundred years ago, maybe a little less, there was a daughter and son who split the rings. The son took the warrior's ring for his own, the daughter held the bard's ring in trust. No one has seen it since, or knows where the warrior's ring went after the son passed on. My family has held the bard's ring until today, when Mama passed it on for you.
It was the guardian's responsibility to maintain the quality and integrity of the jewelry, and it has been completely revitalized several times, and cleaned regularly."
"Well, your family has done a wonderful job of taking care of this. What does the inscription say?"
"It's a very ancient text... one I doubt many people can even read today, but the words have been passed through each subsequent generation with the ring itself. The words are 'Ani L'Dodi v'dodi li'. Translated, it says 'I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.' "
"What a very beautiful sentiment," the bard commented.
"Hmm, yes. And the significance of the stones is lovely as well." The band itself was a platinum base with the inscription engraved on it. Placed into the top of the band, all the way around, was an arrangement of sixteen stones set in a repeating pattern. Two diamonds, one emerald, one sapphire. "The two white stones, the diamonds, represent the two halves of the soul coming together. The two colored stones show the individuality of each half of the soul that was joined. Legend says the blue and green were chosen because of the vibrant eye colors of the first two soulmates were these two colors."
Gwen looked hard at the ring, and then looked up into Randi's eyes. "Yep, I could certainly see that."
The Marine, who had turned to study first the ring, then the green eyes before her, merely grunted her agreement. "Me too."
Peace and quiet reigned for a few minutes, before the bard asked again, "But what about the size?"
Randi smiled wickedly. "I could say Mama found out through devious means, but she'd find a way to come back and smack me for that." Gwen laughed lightly. "The truth is, that is part of the blessing Aphrodite put on it. Only we, true soulmates, can wear the rings, and they are made to fit the wearer at the time. That ring will fit only you, until such time as you... d... pa... move on. Then it becomes the responsibility of a new guardian, until your soul comes back to claim it once again."
"So when the son took the warrior's ring for himself.... "
".... it became a problem because he was not one of the blessed and bonded soulmates. It is suspected that he either lost or sold the ring. But there's no real way to tell. Records from that era are piecemeal, at best."
Silence ruled in the room for a time after that, as the two dozed contentedly in each other's arms. Finally, though, hunger once again drove them from the bed and into the kitchen. It was while eating dinner that the bard came back to something that had dawned on her earlier, but had subsequently forgotten about with Randi's distractions. She smiled in memory.
"We *are* gonna tell people you're alive, right? It doesn't have to stay some big secret, does it?"
"Why would you think that?"
"Well, when I mentioned it before, you went to great lengths to take my mind off of the subject, and move it to something else." She grinned lasciviously. "Not that I minded the, um, distraction, but...."
The Marine laughed softly. "Oh, Little One. I was just being selfish. I'd like... I wanted... to have you all to myself for the weekend. Because you know when this gets out, we won't have a moment to ourselves for a while. Everybody and his brother that knows either one of us is gonna want to come and see for themselves that it's true. I wanted just a little time for us alone."
"You know, I think that may be the most romantic thing you ever said to me."
"Well, give me a little while. I'm new at this. I'm sure I can do better with practice."
"You're doing just fine, stud."
"Stud, huh?" glancing down at herself. "I think I may be missing a few, ahem, accouterments in that department, love."
Gwen stood and backed up a pace, giving the Marine a thorough once over from head to toe and back again. Her gaze lingered at several sensitive spots on the tall woman's body, making Randi blush furiously under the intense scrutiny. "Um mmm mmm, I don't think you're missing a thing there, stud. I think you're pretty perfect just they way you are."
Long black lashes dropped, and blue eyes were hidden from view while a second, gentler blush climbed up the Marine's face. She peeked up from beneath her lashes, only to find the bard gazing at her in unabashed adoration. "Really?"
"I love you, Gwen."
"I love you too, Randi."
"Is this gonna become an every morning habit?" Randi was laying flat on her back, with the bard half sprawled on top of her. Gwen had one long leg pinned down with her own, and her left arm had been anchoring Randi down at the waist. Now it was softly chasing goose bumps up and down the Marine's torso, while her ear remained plastered to the spot above Randi's heartbeat. The brunette had actually awakened to the fingertips gently tracing her face, as though the bard was trying to memorize her features by touch alone. Randi sighed silently. It was gonna take them both a while to adjust to this.
"Does it bother you?" Gwen whispered, slowing her touch to a stop.
"No, Little One. I love it when you touch me. I just wish you didn't need the reassurance, and for that I apologize."
The bard drew a deep breath. "Randi, why did you leave me? You never answered that for me yesterday." She cursed silently to herself when she felt the tear slide out of her eye, and drop onto the chest beneath her face. She hated asking again, but she needed an answer. If she was ever to get any closure on this, Gwen needed Randi to be honest about this.
The Marine sighed, and tucked the smaller body in closer to her own. She squeezed briefly, and brushed a kiss over the top of the blonde head. A second sigh, and she said softly, "Let's get a shower and get dressed. I thought maybe we could take the bike out to our favorite barbeque place. Then we can find a quiet spot and talk. But you need to know this.... " Randi rolled onto her side so she was looking down into green eyes. "Leaving you was the hardest thing I have ever done, and coming back to you, regardless of the pain and work involved, was the easiest. I love you."
The bard didn't answer verbally, but instead wound her hands into the raven locks, and pulled the older woman down for a kiss. It was at once loving and reassuring and passionate, and Randi pulled away with great reluctance. "C'mon. Let's get ready and go for a ride."
They weren't *too* late leaving the beach house. Randi offered to let Gwen drive, but she merely shook her head, and settled into the seat behind the tall woman. She grasped the Marine's waist tightly, and gave her a fierce hug. Randi had to loosen the hold somewhat. "Let me breathe, love."
"Sorry," the blonde muttered, slackening her grip even farther. The driver turned around, and fixed a warm blue stare on Gwen.
"Don't be sorry. Never be sorry for loving me, please. I know you need some reassurance, especially right now. We both do." She took her helmet off, and removed Gwen's as well. Then she cupped the storyteller's face in her large palms, teasingly tracing the lips until they creased into a smile. "I love you. I have loved you since the first time I saw you perform ten years and more ago. I will always love you, in life, in death and beyond. You complete me, and nothing, *nothing* will ever change that."
Gwen's eyes had widened when she caught the Marine's reference to ten years ago. But that quickly slipped into the back of her mind at the eloquence of the vows that followed. "I love you too, Miranda Valiant." And though her mouth said nothing else, her eyes left little doubt in Randi's mind exactly what she felt.
Randi leaned down and put a swift, chaste kiss on soft lips. "You ready to ride?"
The bard nodded her head, and replaced her helmet. "Let's rock and roll, stud." With a chuckle, and a whispered sound from the motor, they were off.
The glade where they stopped was a favorite. They had found the hidden dell when they had first started making the bike treks, looking for a place to stretch and rest awhile. It had become a regularly scheduled stop during their weekly rides together. In the fifteen months since Randi's... departure, the bard hadn't been back.
Now, returning to the retreat was comfortable, and calming and went a long way in reassuring Gwen about the realness of their future together. She was still very emotionally fragile and having difficulty accepting that her reality had changed so drastically, not once, but twice, overnight. She desperately hoped that her new reality was here to stay. She wasn't sure she could survive losing Randi again... especially now.
Gwen saw the slight tremors in the Marine's hand as the tall woman reached for her, and she took the proffered clasp, gently rubbing her thumb along Randi's wrist. The Marine led them over to the large oak, and lowered herself to the ground, coaxing the bard to sit down in front of her. Randi wrapped her arms around the blonde's middle for a very long time, shaking, but not crying. Gwen squeezed the hands joined in front of her, conveying her love to the woman seated behind her. Finally, Randi drew a deep breath, and started to speak.
"First of all, I want you to know that I love you far above and beyond everything. And given a choice, I'd certainly do things differently if I had them to do over." She nuzzled the bard's cheek with her own for a very long minute. "But, we can't go back... we have to go forward from here, and I want you to understand the whole story."
Having just graduated boot camp with honors, and receiving a life saving medal to boot, Randi was more curious than concerned about being summoned to the base Commander's office. The yeoman sitting at the desk announced her, and shut the door soundlessly behind her after ushering her in.
"Private First Class Miranda Valiant, reporting as ordered, SIR." She stood stiffly at attention, awaiting a reply. The Marine Colonel in the chair behind the desk in front of her smiled slightly to himself at the strict bearing and response. She was the very finest the Corps had had the pleasure of instructing in a long time. If he had to lose her, at least it was to a unit worthy of her exceptional capabilities. And she'd still be a Marine. He truly smiled at this thought.
"At ease. Private Valiant, allow me to introduce you to General Jeremiah Daetwyler. The general is in charge of the unit you are being assigned to." She looked at the tall, distinguished-looking man in the Army uniform who had been hidden by shadows until he moved forward at the colonel's introduction.
"Sir?" The young Marine was a little confused. The squad was expecting their new assignments to be posted in two days. No one had said anything about a private audience with the base commander. It was more than a little disconcerting.
"Allow me, Colonel." The general spoke for the first time. "Private Valiant, will you walk with me?"
"Of course, sir."
As they reached the door, the colonel called out, "By the way, Private, the Corps is very proud of you. Congratulations."
"Thank you, sir."
They crossed out through the back of the building, and headed toward the now quiet, empty training yards. Randi remained silent, knowing it was not her place to speak. When they were out in the open, and far enough away from everyone and everything to be overheard, the general spoke.
"Private, you have been selected to become part of a select group of the Special Forces. You will report in two days time to," he showed her the destination, "this address with nothing save the clothes on your back. Everything you need will be re-issued to you there."
She digested this information, and he patiently waited, knowing there would be questions. And his patience was rewarded, though she took a little longer than he expected, and when she spoke, her question caught him by surprise. She didn't ask about the training, why she wasn't allowed personal effects, or how she had been selected.
"Sir, what is this unit called?"
"Valiant, you will be a Black Sabre."
"So why were you chosen to be a Black Sabre? Tiny explained a lot about them to me. And I just don't see you that way. That's not who you are. I can't picture you.... " Gwen tilted her head back on Randi's shoulder to look up into the partially hidden face. The Marine would have jumped up and moved away from the scrutiny if she could have done so gracefully, and with out injuring the bard.
"Please don't," said almost harshly. "I *never* want you to be able to see me that way. But make no mistake... I was the very best at what I did. As for why I was chosen, that was never explained. The only mention made to me was that the tests we took in basic indicated I was Sabre material. And for a while, especially after the training was finished, I was on top of the world."
Three months of basic training had been bad, but it was a walk in the park compared to the six additional months of Sabre training. There were days Randi went to bed in tears, so tired and hurting so badly that she wondered what the penalty for failing really was. It was whispered that failing meant death, but no one really believed it. No one wanted to test it out, either. So after her daily four-hour rest period, she was back in the trenches again, learning just exactly how much agony and humiliation a human being could really stand when pushed to the limits of their endurance.
At the end of her six-month course, she had a rock hard body, a chest full of medals, and the rank of corporal. She was pretty damned proud of herself, and eager to begin her "real" work.
At first it was exciting and thrilling, and knowing she was making such a profound difference was enough to excuse the methods the Sabres used in dealing with the rebels. And it wasn't like they were unhumanitarian about the issue either. After all, they were in a life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed struggle. But being a part of wholesale slaughter, even for the greater good, was wearing on the soul, and had a tendency to sober and mature the most outgoing of people. And Randi, who had always been somewhat soft-spoken and shy, began to turn more inward. Nothing noticeable, except to those few who had known her before, and who saw the difference when she finally got her first leave home.
That first sabbatical from the unit did give her a better perspective on the greater good. After all, though most of the populace enjoyed the peace and its prosperity, there were still those who wanted to fight and die over things that should no longer matter. She was one of the chosen few selected to stand between those who would destroy, and those who lived unknowing of the dangers waiting to decimate them. Randi returned to the Sabres after her two-week vacation, secure in the knowledge that she and her compatriots were a necessary evil in a still imperfect world.
The first time she laid eyes on the small blonde bard, she wanted to scoff. What could one tiny Army private have that made her the entertainment sensation of the capital city? She was quite fetching to behold, the Marine acknowledged, but the moment she opened her mouth and began speaking, Randi was entranced. Green eyes sparkled, and lips curved in a smile that implied a genuine love for her craft. But it was her voice, her inflection that captured Randi's attention and imagination. The Marine didn't move for the entire three-hour performance. And when the bard was finished, and accepted her final applause, Randi rushed back to her temporary quarters and dashed off a note to her cousin Tommy.
Dear Tommy, (it read)
You know I don't get involved in the business decisions very much. That
is definitely your department, and I'm fine with it.
HOWEVER, I'm not above making a *strong* recommendation, so pay
attention, now. I don't have time to come re-enforce this in person, all
Tonight, I was witness to the most intriguing story teller you will ever
hear weave a tale. I'm not kidding Thomas... she's fantastic. You do
whatever you have to do, but you get her to Midas when her hitch is
over. It will be the best business decision you'll ever make.
I'll tell you this... I'm spending the remainder of my R&R here in the
capital listening to her. She makes me feel... refreshed, renewed.
You'll just have to trust me on this, T. Gwen Goldman is the best.
More later. Love to you both.
For the remainder of her stay in the capital, Randi spent each evening in the presence of the small Army bard. She hadn't realized how tired of death she was until the renewal caused by Gwen's stories wove itself through her soul. It was so wonderful to feel peace again, if only briefly, and though her friends had started out teasing her about giving up all their well made plans to listen to a *bard*, she continued her nightly vigil. The friends knew to leave off when she glared a "Look" in their direction, and they were content to let her be.
The blonde was never aware of the Marine, as Randi made it a point to blend in, just as her Sabre training had taught her. But for the week she was able, the tall Sabre sat under the spell of the blonde bard, comforted by the fact that it was warriors like her who made sure the world remained a safe, peaceful place for peace givers like Gwen Goldman.
For three more years, the Sabre did her duty exceptionally well, and rebellions and rebels, if not eliminated, were at least kept under tight control. She earned a reputation as the best of the best, an elitist, with a chest full of medals and an epaulet of multicolored braids to back up the claim. She grew colder and harder on missions, expressing very little emotion. Surprisingly, she also became more accurate, and more deadly. And she could feel her soul slowly dying, needing something she was not even consciously aware of missing.
The Marine was being sent to an adjacent territory to help eliminate some 'deadwood' that had been harassing innocents in the near vicinity. But she found, increasingly, that duty and honor no longer made up for the hollow aching emptiness in her soul. She was getting careless, and losing her focus, and that could easily prove to be detrimental to herself as well as her teammates. She needed something to help her regain her sense of honor.
By chance, Randi caught wind of a bard who was performing nearby. No name was mentioned, but her curiosity led her to investigate, even while her logic laughed at her faith. But her faith was well rewarded, and that evening found a world-weary Marine basking under the healing words of Gwen Goldman. The blonde was no longer in an Army uniform, and she had grown from youthfully fetching to stunningly beautiful. Still, it was the storyteller's words, and the sparkle in her very green eyes, and the smile on her lips that captured and held the Sabre's attention.
For three hours a night, three nights running, Randi sat and fed her soul. She realized, amazingly, that she had yet to hear the bard tell the same story. Not odd, except when you knew that most storytellers, and entertainers in general, had a few customary standbys that they always did. It was a comfort zone for them, but not so with Gwen.
Finally, Randi reached a plateau of acceptance for herself, and was able to regain her focus. The Marine sat down the third night, and dashed off another email to Tommy.
Dear Tommy, (it read)
I have just spent three wonderful nights listening to Gwen Goldman
weave her magic again. She is amazing, T. Absolutely stunning.
It is my understanding that she has several contracts lined up already
so if you haven't contacted her again, do so now. She is the kind of bard
Midas needs. She hasn't told the same story twice in the ten days I've
had the privilege of listening to her. Don't let her get away without
at least *trying* to approach her further.
Gotta run. Lots to do, as usual. Give my love to Ella.
"Why are you crying, Gwen?" The bard's tears were silent, but Randi could feel the small blonde shaking in her arms. She squeezed gently in reassurance, and felt relief flow through her when the small hands clasped over hers squeezed back.
"I n-never knew... I-I-I n-never r-realized... "
"How much of a difference I, my stories, made for you, in your life."
"Oh, Little One. You still don't know the depth that you have touched my soul. I hate to think what I would have become, where I would be now, if not for your words."
And now, the tears fell in earnest, as the bard knew for a certainty at last, that she had made a difference. And she had unknowingly made a difference in the life of the person most dear to her in all the world. And though she was no closer to getting an answer to why the Marine had left, she felt as though her understanding had been broadened, and she marveled at what her Sabre had overcome, and that she had gained strength and comfort from the blonde bard's stories to do so.
When Randi had "retired" from the service, and returned home, she was greeted with a most welcome surprise. Tommy had taken her advice, and when they reached the mess hall, there sat Gwen working on... something. The Marine was too astounded to smack Tommy for not telling her, (though she did think about it later). She was simply overwhelmed for the opportunity to meet the bard who had unwittingly done so much to help the Sabre survive. Randi realized she and the blonde were staring at one another when Tommy prodded her forward toward the food, and a table.
"So you finally decided to take my advice, huh?"
"Yep, and it has to be about the best suggestion you've ever made."
"And you didn't tell me about it earlier because.... "
"I wanted to surprise you. I did start trying after you wrote me that very first time. It just took this long to get her here because of all her other contracts. Let me get her over here and I'll introduce you."
"No... but... wait.... " And then the bard was approaching, and instinctively, the Marine stood to meet her.
"Ya know, as much as I wondered about all those ribbons you wore that day," the bard whispered so low Randi could hardly discern her words, "I was more curious as to what made your eyes so old and lost." She remembered that look so vividly, and it suddenly occurred to her when and how often she had seen it. Her conscious and subconscious minds abruptly met and a sudden, unreasoning anger sprang full-blown from her heart and mind, and spewed from her lips unchecked.
"You chose them over me repeatedly, didn't you?" She jumped up from her place sitting between the Marine's legs, and started pacing steps away with her back turned toward the Sabre. Randi had jumped up at almost the same instant that Gwen did, and now stood stoicly, waiting for the bard to vent. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and Randi preferred sooner to later.
"You continually left me alone, because of them." She swiveled around, and reversed her course, heading straight toward the tall brunette standing braced against the old oak. "You habitually came back a bitch on wheels for days, Because Of Them!" Gwen emphasized every other word with a poke in Randi's chest, and the Marine did nothing to stop her. "And finally, inevitably, you left me!! You left without a word... you left me to DIE... BECAUSE OF THEM!!!!! " The bard was screaming by this point. She balled up her fists and began swinging. Randi allowed the hits to fall, understanding all too well how desperately Gwen needed the release. " I HATE YOU, RANDI!!! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I... Oh God," she sobbed, crumpling in tears into the Marine's waiting arms. Randi slid them down the tree trunk together, cradling her lover protectively until the storm passed.
When it was silent, save for the harsh breathing left from spent tears, the Marine spoke softly. "Gwen, I never, never once, not once, ever *chose* them over you. The Sabres were my duty, and that duty and honour demanded that I go when called." She drew a deep breath and continued. "I don't much like who I am most of the time, and I haven't liked what I do for a very, very long time." She paused again. "But for that long time, my honour was all I had left. I couldn't shirk the duty because of my feelings. Especially when my duty involved protecting you. From the moment we met, you became my greater good. And stopping the Ghost Rider became paramount to me." She stopped, removing one arm from around the bard, and running her fingers through her dark hair pensively. "I'm not saying this very well at all."
"I understand, love." Randi breathed a sigh of relief at the endearment. "You could never be less than you are and still be true to yourself. But I wish you had told me everything then." Gwen gently stroked the smooth skin of the arm she was nestled in.
"I wish I could have, and at the same time I wish you were still ignorant to the truth." The blonde jerked upright in her arms, and she held on tight this time. "No, wait... not like... I don't mean about the fact that I love you... the fact that I have loved you longer than forever. God, Gwen, you are the very air that I breathe. Oh no, love, if I could do one thing over again, I would have told you about it years ago and consequences be damned." She smiled sadly when Gwen squeezed her arm in acknowledgment of the truth of that statement. "No, Little One, I would have spared you the truth of knowing who, or what, I really am."
The green eyes started to glow in anger again, but this time it was on Randi's behalf, instead of directed at her. Gwen sat up and turned in the Marine's arms, until she was completely sprawled straddle across her lap. She took the long, lean face into her small, capable hands, and lifted it up until blue eyes were forced to meet hers, however hesitantly.
"Now you listen to me, Miranda Valiant," her low, sibilant whisper caught the Sabre's attention. "You listen real good, because I want you to understand the truth of what I am saying. I *KNOW* who you really are, though I am just now beginning to explore the height and depth and breadth of you. And I love *ALL* of you. We will get through this." She smiled into tear-filled eyes that smiled back at her, and slowly lowered her head for a kiss. It was soft and loving and possessive, staking a claim to the Marine that was unmistakable. "One more thing... "
"What's that, love?"
"They can't have you back." A brow raised in mute question. "You did your duty, and you died for them. They can't have you back... you're mine now."
"Oh, really?" Both brows went up at this question.
"Yeah, really. I... I, um... I don't... damn! I'm sorry, love. I shouldn't have been so hateful. I really do love you, Randi. So much. I just... You're everything to me and.... "
Long, soft fingertips covered her lips, and prevented her from further defense of her earlier words and actions. "I know. No apologies, Gwen. You had every right to be angry with me. Are we okay now?"
The blonde head nodded. "We're better than okay now."
"We may have to remind each other of that now and then."
"That's okay. We've got forever."
The two sat together for a long time simply basking in the other's nearness, taking comfort in the soft touches and whispered words they traded, knowing that a huge hurdle had been crossed, and they had survived it together. It didn't mean there wouldn't be any more bumps or problems, just that they could conquer anything as long as they faced it together. They had found their key.
Finally, the growling of two hollowly empty stomachs forced them to get up. "I guess we'd better go get lunch. You still up for barbeque?"
Green, slightly reddened eyes rolled wryly in the direction of the tall woman. "Randi, when have you ever known me to refuse Rosie's barbeque?" A long, low roll of thunder startled both women, and they turned toward the sound to see an ominous black cloud encroaching rapidly. "We'd better hurry though, before we get caught in the deluge."
They mounted the bike swiftly, and in mere moments were headed down the road away from the cloud. Their escape was not rapid enough, however, and the cloud caught them relatively unprepared. Randi had to slow to almost a crawl when her visibility all but completely disappeared. Had it not been that she knew exactly where the stand was, she would never have found it. As it was, she nearly missed it anyway.
The Marine pulled the motorcycle right up under the overhang, and shut it off. It wasn't completely dry with the way the wind was blowing everything in whipping gusts. But it wasn't pouring on them any longer either. Riding home is going to be real uncomfortable, though, Randi thought with a glance down at her sodden jeans. She spared a moment to be thankful for the leather jackets protecting their torsos, and the helmets on their heads.
Both women jumped lightly when the window they were perched next to suddenly flew open, and the proprietor, Rosie, stuck her gray streaked red head out the window and peered at them for a long minute. "My God," she finally muttered, "I haven't seen the two of you in a dog's age. Thought you'd given old Rosie the brush off. Ya'll c'mon in out of the weather." And the little woman motioned them over to an almost unnoticeable side door entrance.
The two glanced warily at one another, never having been invited inside the small establishment that housed the barbeque stand as well as the older woman's home. But Rosie had never given them any cause to doubt her sincerity, and they really would be more comfortable out of the wet. Randi offered her hand to Gwen to help unseat her, and then rose from the bike herself in one fluid motion. They went to the door they had been directed to, and almost magically it opened into a small mudroom. Both women were thankful for the fact, as they were dripping quite thoroughly all over the cool tile floor. They removed their helmets, and stood while the diminutive proprietor spoke.
"Here," handing them each an extra long bath sheet. "I don't have anything either of you will fit in, but if you'll take your wet things off, and wrap up in these, I'll get them dry for you while you wait out the storm." Well-honed instincts long trusted kicked in, and Randi promptly assessed the situation for threats or danger to herself and Gwen. Finding none, she accepted the towel almost immediately, and began the task of removing her boots and disrobing. Gwen quickly followed suit. "Well, I'll leave you to it then," the redhead commented as she left them alone.
"Thank you, Rosie," the bard called out as she walked away. Rosie just raised her hand in answer.
Ten minutes later found them safely ensconced in the warm kitchen with cups of hot chocolate in their hands. Leather jackets had been hung in the mudroom to dry, and their outerwear was now tumbling lazily in the dryer. Rosie placed two plates of her famous barbeque in front of them, with the admonishment, "Eat up." They proceeded to clean their plates in relative silence. It was not awkward or uncomfortable. Both young women were both too hungry to speak more than basic table talk, and Rosie had been in the business long enough to recognize the signs. They would talk after bard and warrior were done with their meals.
Eventually, eating slowed, and Rosie brought out fried apple pies she'd made for dessert. Gwen moaned in sheer ecstasy... this was one of her favorites, and she hadn't tasted one since right before Randi had left more than a year previously. She closed her eyes and savored the sensations. Each texture and taste was relished, with an almost hedonistic enjoyment. When she popped the last bite into her mouth, the bard opened her eyes, humming in appreciation. She blushed when she noticed gray and blue eyes fastened on her twinkling in amusement.
"Ya know," the redhead commented conversationally to the Marine, "I think I can honestly say I've never seen anyone appreciate their food quite the way your bard does."
Now it was Randi's turn to blush, being quite unaccustomed to the truth of that particular reference. She smiled indulgently, though and winked at Gwen. "That's true, Rosie," subtly acknowledging both statements.
"Hey!" A mock pout. "Don't tease me. I've missed this great food." A brief pause while she thought about the reason for that. "And I've missed the trips out here to get it," she added more softly. She looked up and smiled when the back of Randi's fingers brushed her cheek.
"Me, too, the Sabre quietly agreed. Guess we'll have to get into the weekend habit again, huh?" Gwen simply nodded her agreement.
"Good! Good!" Rosie interjected. "That means I'll be seeing ya'll around here more often again, right?"
"I'd say that was a pretty good bet, Rosie." Gwen gave the older woman a smile. A thought occurred to the bard. "Are we holding you up from celebrating the holiday?"
"No, hon, I was open for lunch, and did a pretty brisk business, like I always do," stated matter-of-factly. "The storm caused me to close up a little earlier than I normally do, but my daughter and her family don't expect me for another," peering at the clock, "hour or so, anyway, and I'm glad you both stopped by."
"Well, we appreciate your hospitality." Randi nodded her agreement to Gwen's words.
"It's stopped raining, so we should head for home. What do we owe you for lunch, Rosie?"
"This one is on the house, hon," patting the Marine on the arm as she rose from her seat. "You just make sure ya'll come see me a little more often, okay? Now, let me go get your clothes. They should be dry by now."
They were, and she was back momentarily with them draped over one arm, and pointing them to her small bedroom to change. "I don't think ya'll will mind sharing," had been her only comment. A twin blush had been their only response.
Walking out into the setting sun, the world around them sparkled iridescently, reflecting the beads of fallen water poised on every surface. "Oh, Randi, look!" the bard suddenly exclaimed. "A rainbow." She cocked her blonde head. "A double rainbow, actually." She smiled in almost childish delight. "How beautiful."
The Marine wrapped her arms around Gwen and pulled the smaller woman back against her chest in a hug. "Shall we follow it to the end, and find that pot of gold?"
"Nope," the storyteller answered swiftly, patting the hands clasped together at her waist. "I found mine already." She leaned back and accepted the kiss she knew would be forthcoming at that statement. The world faded out for the two of them for a long moment, and it was only the clearing of a throat behind them that caused them to separate.
"I am so happy the two of you finally found each other. Yours has been an interesting courtship to watch develop." Startled blue and green eyes met each other in question. Had everyone been able to see the love between them before they did? Rosie missed the interplay and continued speaking. "Now here, you take these fried apple pies home to have with your dinner tonight. And you come back to see me again, soon."
"We will, Rosie." On impulse, the bard gave the diminutive woman a brief hug, and a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you," she whispered.
Randi wasn't given the opportunity to decide on a farewell, because the proprietor simply stepped into her personal space and gave her a brief hug. "You take good care of her, Marine. What you have is beautiful, and precious, and rare. Protect it. That means taking care of yourself as well."
The Sabre looked deep into gray eyes that suddenly appeared far older than time itself. "I know, and I will, Rosie. I swear."
"Good girl." She didn't see the raised eyebrow, as she turned and headed back to her home. She stood in the doorway, watching as the soldier and the storyteller readied themselves to leave.
The two women put their helmets on, and Randi heard Gwen's voice in her ear at the same time she felt a tug on her sleeve. She tilted her head in mute question.
"Randi, can I drive back?" The Marine could hear the impishness in her lover's voice, and grinned beneath the helmet. She waited until the bard was seated, and mounted the bike behind her. A little of their playfulness had returned to their healing, developing relationship. Suddenly, the rainbow portended a wonderful omen for their future together.
Rosie waved goodbye as they pulled away from the stand, and Randi returned it. She watched until the two were a mere speck on the horizon, before re-entering her house. "Thank you, Athena," she whispered.
The ride home was more than pleasant. Gwen was driving slightly slower than normal, distracted by the large hand absently stroking up and down her abdomen. Randi was humming softly, and the whole situation was conducive to distracting the bard quite handily. Finally, unable to take anymore, the blonde pulled the bike off to one side of the road and shut it off. The Marine came out of whatever self-induced reverie she had fallen into and looked around.
"Wha.... ??" But she never got to finish her question. The bard had already removed her own helmet, and quickly relieved Randi of hers as well. Without warning, the Sabre found herself with an armful of overheated bard, mouths firmly engaged in an all out lip-lock. It took a mere second for the surprise to become participation, and those large hands started caressing again. Reluctantly acknowledging the need for air, the Marine pulled back slightly, hands still roaming. "Not that I'm complaining, but.... " and found her words cut off again as her head was drawn back down for a second, soul searing kiss. The world faded out completely, and all they knew was each other for the longest time.
This time it was Gwen who pulled away slowly. She looked at Randi with desire-darkened eyes, and said breathlessly, "If you don't stop teasing me, we won't make it home tonight."
A dark brow was rakishly raised, and a grin crossed the Sabre's lips. "Teasing you?" Gwen looked down pointedly at the hands now lightly running up and down her rib cage, then turned her gaze back to the tall woman seated behind her. "Oh, is this a bad thing?" moving her hands again to deliberately tease a bit.
"No," the bard's voice had dropped huskily, and Randi felt it start a slow burn in her belly. "But it is very distracting. And I can think of far more comfortable places to be than here on this bike." She watched as the Marine's eyes darkened in turn.
"Hmm, I see your point." She leaned down for another kiss, then pulled away hesitantly. "Very well. Home, driver," she stated haughtily, replacing her helmet on her head. "I promise to behave until then. But once we get home," and Gwen could hear the evil chortle in the words, "You. Are. Mine."
"Love, I've always been yours." And that admission threw the Sabre off kilter long enough for them to get home without any more... distractions.
"Did you really mean what you said earlier?" The two women lay curled up on the couch together in front of the fireplace. Even in mid-summer, nights on the beach tended to be cool, and after the ride home, they were glad for the warmth and comfort of the low fire. They were sharing the fried apple pies Rosie had sent home with them, washing them down with ice-cold milk.
"About what, love?" Gwen was humming happily as she consumed the pie.
"About having always been mine." The dark head was lowered shyly, and the bard could hardly make out the softly spoken words.
The blonde set the remainder of her uneaten pie on the table, and turned fully in the Marine's arms, until they were fully facing each other, instead of side by side. "You really need to ask?" She lifted the Sabre's chin, forcing the blue eyes to meet her green ones. Gwen saw the confusion reflected in Randi's face. "Let me show you something." And she showed her highlights from all the holo chips Tommy had given her. "Even before my mind accepted it, my heart knew. I love you, warrior mine. Now and forever."
"I love you, too, my bard. Now and forever."
Gwen woke early the third morning alone. She told herself not to panic, that the last two days had been real, and not just some dream. Still she hastened out of bed, looking for her missing lover. Give her a break, Gwen. She probably just needed a bit of space. But she couldn't help the urgency that propelled her steps. She stopped abruptly at the bedroom door, seeing the holo vids replaying, and Randi's somewhat huddled form sitting on the couch, wrapped in a blanket intently watching.
She moved quietly toward the Marine, hesitating when she was standing next to the taller woman. Randi opened the blanket in mute invitation, and Gwen accepted with alacrity, noticing, but not commenting on the tears that continued to roll down the Sabre's face. They watched together in silence until the final dance, then Randi turned to the bard.
"I'm sorry, love. I never realized how completely selfish and unfair I was to you, and I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you."
"Randi, we're here, and we're together, and that's enough for me. As for the rest, we have the rest of our lives together to concentrate on. Let the past go." A pause. "I missed you when I woke up this morning, by the way." Gentle fingers brushed away wetness on Randi's cheeks, then continued to trace a now familiar pattern over the much-loved features. Randi sighed in contentment, inexplicably comforted by the soft touch.
The Marine smiled through her tears, and leaned forward to kiss the bard gently. "What do you want to do today?"
"Anything, as long as I'm with you."
When they finally made it outside, they went down to the end of the dock to play with Pilot and Peanut. The two dolphins had been waiting, or so it seemed, and the four spent the rest of the morning in the water. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning, and both women were tired and hungry when lunchtime approached. They lay stretched out on the benches of the dock deck, sharing the picnic lunch they had packed together earlier.
"I guess the honeymoon is almost over," Gwen commented.
"Why do you say that? I don't see it being over for another seventy-five years or so." The Marine grinned rakishly at the bard, who couldn't help but return it with a faint blush.
"I was thinking more along the lines of Tommy and Ella coming back sometime tonight, and things returning to normal tomorrow. Real life is fixing to intrude on our peaceful solitude in a big, ugly kinda way."
"Real life can bite me," Randi muttered. "Besides, I intend on taking a very long honeymoon with you after the wedding. Real life be damned."
"I'd like that," the bard admitted gently. "I'd like some more time for just us."
"That's what we'll do, then."
"But first, we have to let folks know you're alive again."
"Later. I want to spend the rest of the day alone with you. Tomorrow is soon enough to worry about everybody else."
Ella sat in the stern of the boat, chuckling lightly over the antics of her husband and son as one tried to teach the other about fishing. Unfortunately for Tommy, his almost two-year-old prodigy Randall seemed to be a natural fisherman, and was putting his old man to shame. It was very difficult for him to explain the finer nuances of fishing when the boy's hook just seemed to attract the fish. It didn't take long, however, for the child's attention to waver, and Tommy brought him over to play with Ditto.
"It's been a nice three days, hasn't it?" he commented to his wife. They laughed together as the shepherd gave their son a thorough face washing, making Randall chortle in delight. Then they smiled as the boy yawned in sleepy contentment, and proceeded to use the dog as his own personal pillow.
"It's been very nice," the woman answered. "It's nice to get away as a family, every one in awhile." She paused. "I do kinda wish Gwen had come along, though. I worry about her. She's so different, so... withdrawn... since Randi's death. It's.... "
"I know, hon, but she said she had plans." Ella's expression showed quite plainly how much stock she put in that statement. "We have to accept her word, love. You can't blame her for not wanting to be around people, though."
"I know. It just hurts to see the shell of her former self that she has become. I wish there was something we could do for her."
"There is only one thing able to fix this, and that's just not a viable option any more. On the other hand, she is doing much better recently."
"Yeah, she is. But I'm still pissed off with Randi. She best run and hide when I die, cause I'm gonna kick her butt all over the afterlife for doing this to all of us. Especially to Gwen."
The man took his wife into his arms, and held her until he felt her calm. He was angry too, but for slightly different reasons. "I think, from the very, very little I've been able to find out, she did it *because* of Gwen, and for the rest of us."
Ella turned her head and looked back at him. "What do you mean?"
He shrugged lightly. "I can't find out anything definite... anything specific, but all indicators point to her ensuring continued peace."
Ella snorted. "I don't care. I'm still gonna kick her ass." Tommy laughed outright.
"I guess Ditto will be glad to get back home," Tommy said to Ella, as he steered the vessel towards his boathouse while the sun slowly sank toward the horizon.
The curly headed woman wrapped her arms around him for warmth. The breeze coming off the water was quite cool, even in mid-summer. She gazed at the shepherd who sat majestically still at the bow of the boat. "Why do you say that, sweetheart?"
"Just a hunch... and the fact that she has not moved from that spot looking in the direction of home, since you put Randall down. And speaking of.... " Almost on cue, they heard the child stirring. He didn't speak. At almost two years, he had yet to utter a single word. The specialists they had visited assured them that he would speak when he was ready. Tommy wondered what was stopping him from talking now, but put those thoughts aside as Ella brought the child back topside.
"Hey, boy! Thought you were gonna miss the chance to steer." The child's eyes lit up in delight. "Whaddya say, you wanna help your old man get the boat to the dock?"
Randall nodded vigorously, and leaped into his father's arms. The two men turned their attention toward pulling the craft in safely to their inlet.
"I guess I know when I'm not needed," Ella joked as she left them to their bonding time. She moved over to take a seat on the bow close to where Ditto maintained her vigil. Just as they came within periphery of the island, the dog let out a long, wailing howl. "What's the matter, girl? Hmm? You still miss Randi, too, huh? Well, I'll tell ya, Ditto," gently scratching the dogs ears, "I think her being gone is something none of us will ever get used to."
The boat had no more than been tied up to the dock, when Ditto jumped off and hesitated, raising her snout to the sky again, and baying at the moon for a very long moment. Then without a backwards glance, she raced for home.
"That's odd," Ella said mostly to herself.
"Did you say something, hon?" Tommy asked as they moved off the boat and headed up the dock toward the house.
"Hmm? Oh, I was just commenting about Ditto. She's usually not in such a rush to get off the boat." She shrugged slim shoulders. "Guess Gwen is home."
"I suppose so. Hope she had as nice a weekend as we did." He wrapped his arm around his wife's waist, while hoisting his son onto his shoulder with the other, and they walked into their home together.
Ditto was confused. There was a fragrance on the wind that she remembered as familiar, but one that had been gone for a very long time. Even now, it was so faint as to have almost been imagined, but the dog kept determinedly on, heading home to her blonde mistress, and that scent.
When she reached the beach house, she paused, head tilted and tongue lolling out to the side. The scent was much stronger now, and with a sharp, staccato bark, she hurled herself toward the door.
Gwen was standing in the middle of the living room, hands on hips, chuckling in the direction of the bedroom. The shepherd bounded in toward the bard, only to come to a full halt as Randi exited the bedroom, arms full of blankets and pillows. With an ecstatic yodel, Ditto leaped forward, knocking the Marine squarely on her butt, and sending bedding flying in six different directions. The dog proceeded to try to give Randi a thorough face and neck washing, interspersing her tongue swipes with barks, growls and whines.
"Yes, yes... I missed you too. Yes. And you did such a good job taking care of Gwen, yes, you did. You are such a good girl." The Sabre was trying, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the canine from her perch atop her own body. It was more than a little difficult, though, with the bard's contagious laughter hampering her efforts. Finally, Gwen felt a little sorry for Randi, and called the dog away. Ditto obeyed, reluctantly, coming to sit next to Gwen's feet. The Marine was finally able to sit up herself, and spent a minute trying to catch her breath.
"My God, Gwen! What have you been feeding her? She weighs a ton!" She stood and began retrieving the pillows that had scattered around the room. The bard moved to help her.
"Oh, um, Reed set her up on a special diet. While she's pregnant she has different nutritional needs." Gwen shrugged inconsequentially, and put her stack down near the French doors. Then she walked toward the bar to grab the wine and glasses they had readied earlier.
The Sabre froze in mid pick-up as the bard's words penetrated her mind. "Excuse me?" Gwen had picked up the bottle, and turned to find the Marine looking at her with head slightly tilted, and eyebrow risen almost to her hairline. "When did this happen exactly?"
Now it was Gwen's turn to furrow her brow. "I thought you saw everything that went on."
"Not exactly. I saw and felt everything that was directed toward me or about me. Ditto having puppies was apparently not in that category."
"And me cutting my hair was?"
"Yep. You wondered how I'd like it short, and you questioned it the entire time it was being done. I wanted so badly to be able to tell you to do what made you happy." She ran her hands through the short blonde locks. "You're always beautiful to me."
The bard reached for the hand now tracing her face, and kissed the fingers softly. "As you are to me, love. Thank you." She entwined their fingers. "C'mon. Let's go curl up on the deck and watch the stars come out."
They were silent for several long moments, waiting for the sun to finish setting, and watching as the sky changed from blue to purple and finally to black. As the first stars made their appearance, Randi brought the conversation back to Ditto, and the question that had been niggling at her. "Gwen, what made you and Reed decide to breed Ditto?"
"We had nothing to do with deciding that. We merely offered her the opportunity, and she took advantage of it." The raised eyebrow made her continue her explanation. "Reed mentioned that the dog would be coming into heat, and asked me to bring her out to give her the opportunity to mate." The bard smiled. "It was actually kind of funny... she spurned the first two males that approached her."
"Who's the father?"
"You know the big guy, Phil?" A pause. "They made a cute couple," said with a smile. "They were together for a week before we came home."
"So, when is she due?" the Marine asked, after a few moments of silence.
"Reed figures another three weeks until I'm... you're... *we're* grandparents." She smiled impishly at this.
Outraged blue eyes faced her. "What?!?" Randi squawked. "I don't think so! I'm not old enough for grand-parenthood!"
"Ahem," rubbing her nose lightly before continuing the conversation. "Well, anyway, I'm supposed to take her out there next week, to give her a bit of a chance to settle in before delivery. And she is supposed to stay for six weeks or so afterwards as well, or at least until the puppies are weaned."
There was silence again as two sets of thoughts contemplated in the same direction. Then both women spoke at once.
"Would you mind.... ?"
"Could we.... ?"
They smiled at each other, then Gwen gestured for the Marine to speak. Randi cleared her throat rather self-consciously. "Um, I'd really like for Ditto to be a part of our wedding. Would you mind if we waited until she was back from Reed's before we.... "
The bard threw her arms around the broad shoulders reclining next to her, which naturally resulted in her being pulled onto the larger woman's lap to make them both more comfortable. This in turn became a long hug. "Thank you, love. That was exactly what I was thinking. Ditto is as much a part of our family as anyone we know. I would really like her there too."
"I love you, bard."
"I love you too, warrior." Then there was a long stretch of silence while they reconfirmed their love with a kiss. "Um," as they pulled apart in a series of short kisses, "I could get used to this kind of treatment."
Randi loosened an arm from around the bard's slim waist, and moved a hand up to cup to fair cheek. "For the rest of our lives, my love. For the rest of our lives."
Gwen closed her eyes and savored the words, accepting them for the promise she knew them to be. Then she turned her head and kissed the palm, and laid her head back to rest her ear just above Randi's heart. They stayed locked this way for a while before the blonde spoke up again.
"We need to go call Tommy, love. He's family too, and has a right to know as soon as possible." She felt the shudder run through the large frame beneath her, and looked up quizzically into haunted blue eyes. Now it was her turn to cup the planed cheek above her. "Randi?"
"What am I going to say to them, Gwen? How am I.... ? "
The small hand moved from cheek to lips, stopping the words that were pouring from the taller woman. "Randi, love," focusing the Marine's attention to her face and her words. "You won't have to say anything. Not at first, I promise. And when he does start asking questions, you will just answer them honestly, like you did for me." The Sabre looked a little doubtful. "Trust me, warrior mine. Folks will be thrilled to have you back. Not many will question your motives in getting here. Now," easing herself up and out of Randi's warm embrace, "let me go call them to come over. I think they'll like this interruption to their holiday."
"That was weird." Tommy looked oddly at Ella as he stepped back into the kitchen where she was fixing a light supper for the three of them. Randall was already sitting in his chair as the curly headed woman put the plates on the table. She and Tommy seated themselves, and began to eat.
The man's brow was furrowed in thought, and it took him a moment to answer. "Hmm? Oh, that vid call from Gwen." He fell silent again.
Ella shook her head. Sometimes getting answers from this man is worse than pulling teeth. "Would you like to continue to explain, or should I just guess?"
"Oh, sorry, hon. Gwen just asked that we come over in an hour or so. Said it was important."
"Annnnnddddd?" trying to figure out just exactly where this conversation was headed, and failing drastically.
"That's it. It's just that... I dunno. She seems, different... more relaxed. Something happened this weekend, I'd be willing to bet."
"This is a good thing, right?"
"I hope so. I truly hope so. She deserves to be happy."
"Ya know, it might work better if some of the food actually made it into your mouth, instead of merely being pushed around on your plate. It's got more miles on it than my boots did after my walkabout." When she got little reaction to her banter, the bard put her fork down, and moved to sit in Randi's lap. Once she was situated comfortably, she cradled the long, lean face in her small hands, and forced the blue eyes to meet her green ones. "Love, I'll be right here beside you, always. No matter what."
The Marine smiled at this declaration, and leaned forward to steal a kiss. "Even when your parents find out?" And now Gwen understood what was really troubling her lover.
"Randi, I meant what I said." She clasped the larger hand in hers. "Always, all right?" She brushed the fingers held in her grasp with her lips. "I promise."
The Sabre relaxed a little, and crushed the smaller woman in an enveloping hug. "Thanks, Gwen." The bard returned the hug with equal fervor, but said nothing to disturb the moment. When Randi relinquished her hold, Gwen slid off her lap and offered the taller woman a hand up.
"C'mon. We may as well be comfortable 'til they get here."
They put their plates in the kitchen, and returned to the living room to curl up on the couch together. Gwen turned both the music and the fireplace on low, and let them work their magic. Slowly she felt the large body behind her begin to relax, and she melted into it. Words were not necessary, as their souls communicated silently. Strong arms clasped gently around the bard's smaller body, and Gwen lightly stroked the arms that cradled her. The peace and contentment that pervaded the room relaxed them both to a point that they never realized they had dozed off. And they never heard the knock that came at the door shortly thereafter.
"That's weird," Tommy commented for the second time that evening, when he failed to get an answer to his knock. "She said to be here in an hour."
"Maybe she's indisposed, T. It happens, ya know."
"I know, hon. It's just that, since Randi died, I've felt responsible for her somewhat. You know that." Ella nodded her head in agreement. "And this is the first time I've seen any real enthusiasm from her in forever. So for her not to be here answering the door, after she called and made it clear.... "
"I understand, sweetheart. Why don't you open the door, and we'll let Randall find her? She's probably out on the deck, and lost track of the time. She'll notice an almost two year old running through the house."
Tommy smiled in response. Gwen and his son had a very unique relationship, and seemed to be tuned into one another quite well. He instinctively knew when the bard needed loving attention, and even though they weren't hers, she always had a story ready to tell him. It was an arrangement that suited them both.
So Tommy keyed in the lock code, and opened the door softly. Then he set his son down and let him loose to roam the house and find Gwen. The sight that greeted his eyes when the boy did, however, was a little more than he bargained for.
Ditto was the first to stir when Randall started across the floor, but this was an old game for them, and she was content to let him be. The dog watched in silence as the child walked toward the couch, his eyes focused on the sleeping women. And if her expression was anything to go by, the shepherd was inwardly laughing at the drama that was unfolding in the room before her. She watched as Tommy and Ella stood just inside the door, waiting for Gwen's exclamation to indicate she had been found. Instead, they heard the murmur of voices, one deeper, one light, and then the most unexpected sound of all.
"Wuv!!" A childish but unmistakable outburst from their offspring. The two parents looked at each other in mute shock, frozen for a timeless moment by what they had heard. Then, rushing into the room, the tableau that greeted their eyes caused them both to stop dead in their tracks and stare.
Randall sat sedately on Gwen's lap, patting Randi's face and tugging not-so-gently on her hair. He was talking nonsense words to them and himself, obviously content with whom he was with and where he was. The Marine answered his babbling as though she understood every word. Finally, satisfied that she was the person he remembered, Randall buried his nose in Randi's neck, and settled happily in her arms.
The Sabre didn't understand the tears that ran silently down Gwen's face, but was satisfied the bard would explain her reaction when they were alone once again. For her part, Randi hesitated to look up, knowing the exact moment Tommy and Ella entered the living room behind their offspring, and honestly fearful of the reception she would receive from them. So she kept her eyes pinned on her namesake until he curled up into her. She took comfort from the grasp the blonde maintained on the arm still twined around her, and slowly raised her countenance to meet the shocked expressions of two of her very best friends.
"Hello, Tommy... Ella," The low voice was almost a whisper of sound. But the two people it was directed toward heard quite clearly, and both reacted very differently to the vocal confirmation of what their eyes had informed them to be the truth.
"Oh. My. God." Tommy slid into the chair nearest to him, and gaped at the woman who until five minutes previously had been dead to him for the past fifteen months. His mind was still processing a myriad of emotions and reactions to her sudden reappearance, and his knees gave out trying to cope with the shock. Ella, on the other hand, had no doubts as to her reaction, and crossed the floor in three smooth strides.
She took the Marine by a firm grip on the ear, and pulled, just hard enough for Randi to understand she meant business. Then she waited, ear still firmly in hand, while the Sabre placed a now unhappy Randall in Gwen's lap, and unwound herself from the bard's embrace. The blonde gave the hand she was holding a firm squeeze, and the woman she loved a reassuring smile. This was something they were going to have to work through with each of their friends. For the most part, Gwen expected acceptance. She did put Randall down beside her though, ready to intervene if it became necessary.
Randi took great consolation in the love she felt from her bard, relayed so readily through her look and touch. It gave her the strength and courage she needed to face the curly headed terror still clutching her ear. Quite a feat, when one realized Ella was a good half-foot shorter than the Marine she still held.
"What is wrong with you, huh? Do you know how upset we all were? Do you know how we mourned your passing? How dare you go and die like that... without even saying goodbye?!?" She waved off Randi's attempts to interrupt and explain, poking her rather hard in the chest to emphasize each point. "I know it was a secret mission. That was simple enough to figure out, hindsight being what it is. I know it was for the "greater good". That's just typical you. But, so help me, if you ever go and do something that stupid ever again... if you ever, *ever* die on us like that again... not even the gods will be able to help you. Do you understand me??"
Randi had stood very still and very silent during this entire tirade. Now she meekly nodded her head and responded, "Yes ma'am." Ella released the hold she had on the taller woman's ear, and pulled her into a fierce embrace.
"Welcome home, my friend. It is so good to have you back with us again."
The Marine returned the hug with equal fervor, picking the smaller woman up, and letting the tears fall freely down her face. She didn't say anything, too overcome by Ella's reception of her reappearance to find the appropriate words to speak. They stayed that way for a very long minute, the dazzling grin on Gwen's face lighting up the whole room, and causing the boy to babble a bit more. It was this sound that seemed to draw Tommy out of his trance, and when he slowly rose from the seat he had been in, the two women separated, and the Marine turned to await his judgment.
He raised his hand to her, and she didn't flinch, knowing if he struck at her it would be no less than what she deserved after what she had unwittingly put him, put them all, through. She didn't see the hair trigger lines of Gwen's body perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to step between them... lines which visibly relaxed when the man simply began to trace the features of a well known and loved face, much as the bard did every morning. His hand smoothly glided over her face, across her shoulders, and down her arms, coming to rest lightly on her waist. Without a word, he wrapped his arms around her, and laid his head over her heart, listening to the strong, steady beat for a time. Then he straightened and looked her in the eye. "I missed you," he said simply, lifting her off her feet into a massive hug.
"I missed you, too," content for the moment to be rocked silently by the man she considered to be closer than a brother. It was the rather loud insistence of an almost two year old to be included in this activity that pulled them apart. Tommy and Ella laughed out loud for sheer joy at the sound, and Randi, though not understanding the cause, joined them. Gwen was happy to retrieve the child, and place him in the Sabre's arms. Then she tugged the tall woman into a sitting position next to her on the couch, and indicated the chairs.
"Why don't you both take a seat? I'm sure you have lots of questions. We might as well be comfortable, seeing as how we're gonna be here for a while."
They did, and for the next hour, the questions from the two of them came rapid fire, and finally the Sabre had to hold up her hands for quiet. Randi told them exactly what had happened to her during her time away from them, stumbling awkwardly through a good deal of the basic story. Randall dozed happily in her lap, lulled to sleep by the familiar sound of her voice, and the remembered scent of her. Both Tommy and Ella sat entranced by the story the Marine told. The bard merely wrapped herself possessively around the older woman, and silently offered her all the love and support she could give. When the Sabre finally stopped talking, the couple sat there dumbfounded at what she had endured for love. The happiness shining from the bard's face told a story all its own.
Before either could form a coherent word to comment on the whole bizarre situation, Randall woke with a start. He put his chubby little hands on either side of the Marine's face, forcing her to meet his still sleepy gaze. "Wuv... sing." She raised an eyebrow at him, and he felt the need to reiterate himself. "Wuv... sing." A beat. "Pwease?"
Not even a heart of stone would have been unmoved by the plea, and Randi found her emotions entirely too close to the surface for her relative comfort lately. She gave a watery smile to her bard, then looked down at the small child. "Okay, there, stud," exchanging another mischievous glance with Gwen. "What would you like to hear?"
He clapped his small hands together enthusiastically. "Wuv sing. Wuv sing." The Sabre felt at a bit of a loss. It had been months since she had sung, and she knew everyone in the room was focused on her. She was drawing a complete blank at what to sing to the boy. Gwen came to her rescue.
"Do you remember the lullaby you used to sing to him? That is probably what he remembers." And so the Marine began to sing softly, her attention concentrated solely on the child who even at the beginning of the music had drooping eyelids. By the end of the first verse, he was soundly asleep in her hold, but she finished the song before gently rising, and placing him in his father's arms.
Tommy looked down at his peacefully sleeping heir, before looking up into his cousin with loving wonderment reflected in his eyes. "We need to go home, and get the boy to bed. Will you be around?" still a little fearful that this was all a dream or a mirage his wishful thinking had conjured up in a moment of madness. "There are still a lot of things we need to talk about."
"I'll be around." She felt the bard come up behind her and wrap her arms around Randi's waist, squeezing lightly. The Marine, in turn, pulled Gwen in front of her, and wrapped herself around the smaller woman, relishing the contact between them. She smiled when Gwen entangled their fingers together. "I promised I wouldn't ever leave like that again." She clasped the fingers wound tightly in her own even firmer. "It's a promise I intend to keep." Absently she rubbed her finger and thumb along the band on the bard's left hand. Ella noticed immediately, and squealed, albeit quietly, in deference to her sleeping offspring.
"My God! We really do have a lot to talk about, don't we?" The happiness that radiated from the two women standing together before her was almost blinding in its intensity. "However, it will have to wait until later. Can we have dinner tomorrow?" The warrior and bard exchanged glances, then nodded affirmatively. "Good. We'll expect you both at the house after work. That should give us plenty of time to talk... about everything."
They bid one another goodnight. By his relative silence, Tommy was obviously still in shock over the turn of events. He had whispered an "I love you", and given both woman a hug as though in a bit of a trance before walking out the door with his sleeping progeny. Gwen was actually looking forward to the moment he realized it wasn't his imagination, and was all quite real. Ella, being Ella, had accepted the whole thing without question. There are just some things you learn to go with, had been her comment to Gwen on the way out the door.
Now it was quiet in the house again. Randi shivered in reaction as she realized the first hurdle was crossed, and she had been accepted by three whose acceptance meant everything to her. The bard understood immediately what was happening, and drew the larger woman down to resume her place beside Gwen on the sofa. She whispered nonsensical words into her ear over and over, as she ran comforting hands up her smooth back. The Marine absorbed the sound of the bard's voice like a sponge, taking the love she felt from her to heart, and letting it ease the fear she had held tightly to herself.
As the tension slowly uncoiled in her body, the Sabre wrapped herself more securely around the woman who had become her anchor. And the safety and contentment she found in Gwen's arms allowed her to drift off to peaceful sleep.
The bard smiled to herself at the gentle snoring that emanated from the woman sleeping soundly on her chest. Life was good at the moment. Then she frowned a little. Of course, there were still her parents, and all of Midas, and Randi's military friends to explain this wonderfully peculiar situation to. But for right now, for this one moment, life was good. She smiled as she joined her partner in a restful doze.
It was still quite dark when Randi roused from her nap with a crick in her neck from the odd angle it had been perched at on Gwen's chest. She nuzzled the softness for a minute, inhaling the sweet scent before reluctantly moving from the bard's embrace. A quick glance at the clock told her they'd only been asleep for a little more than an hour. She thought briefly of staying right where she was, and then thought longer about the big, comfortable bed waiting for them in the other room. Comfort won out in a hurry.
The Marine slid off the couch, softly pushing Gwen's longish bangs away from her eyes, then scooped the bard up into her arms. She smiled quietly when the blonde nuzzled her in much the same manner as she had done to Gwen just moments earlier, before resettling herself into a deeper slumber. Randi made her way silently to the bedroom, where she swiftly stripped away Gwen's shoes and outer garments before tucking her into bed. She did the same for herself, before crawling in to join her bard. She smiled in contentment when Gwen unconsciously moved nearer, and cuddled up against the Marine, who reflexively wrapped her body around the smaller woman and drew her closer. Twins sighs of serenity and satisfaction echoed in the room as the women moved deeper into Morpheus' embrace.
Daylight found Randi waking once again to the gentle stroking of Gwen's hands on her face. She was learning to delight in the gentle exploration as the bard reaffirmed the realness of her still new reality. She hummed in contentment as she pulled the bard into a fierce embrace. "Thank you," she whispered into the top of the blonde head.
Gwen stilled her hands, and edged back a little to look into Randi's face. "What for?" She was just a little confused, though she blamed it on the early hour as much as anything else. She enjoyed the early morning quiet time spent with her Marine, but usually it didn't require much thought or discussion.
"For being here, loving me." A pause. "And for inviting Tommy and Ella over last night. They deserved a private announcement, and a little time to prepare."
Randi could feel the bard's smile against her skin, though she couldn't see her face. But the happiness that radiated in her voice warmed the Sabre from head to toe. "As for the first, I can't imagine myself anywhere else. My place is at your side. And as for loving you, well, I couldn't help that part, and wouldn't want to if I could. It comes as naturally to me as breathing does, and is just as vital to my life."
She took a deep breath, and then relaxed into the hug the taller woman wrapped her up in. "I knew you were anxious about talking to Tommy and Ella, and figured the sooner you got it over with, the better you'd feel."
"When did you get so smart?" And Randi jumped when she felt a sharp pinch on her stomach. "Hey!"
"Smart ass," muttered the bard, even as she rubbed the injured spot lovingly.
The Marine chuckled lightly, then gave the woman in her arms another squeeze. "Seriously, Little One," with another small kiss to the top of the head tucked under her chin, "thank you for your loving consideration. I, for one, greatly appreciate it."
"Anytime, love," with a return kiss on the chest on which she was resting her head. "I'm glad things went so well, though I think T is still in shock. I hope I'm around to see his face when he finally realizes it's true. It is such a wonderful feeling." She hugged the Marine to her tightly, and basked in the return wash of joy she felt emanating from the large body beneath her.
"Yes, it is," Randi replied, as she shifted Gwen in her arms, and leaned down for a prolonged exploration. "I just hope things go as well with your parents," said with a sigh when their kiss ended. "I don't think they will be as forgiving."
"It will be fine, one way or another," the last part muttered too low against her skin for even Randi to understand the muffled words. But the Marine took great comfort in the bard's insistence.
The two lay quietly wrapped together for a long space of time. Finally, they acknowledged the need to move, and Gwen went to start the coffee, while Randi headed for the bathroom. The Sabre wandered out to the kitchen several minutes later clad in nothing but a towel, her long, wet hair tied up turban style on her head. The bard jumped when large, warm hands landed on her shoulders, bringing her out of a self-induced trance. Then she fell into the startled embrace of the tall woman, who enfolded Gwen in her long arms without hesitation.
"Love?" Randi heard the almost inaudible sniffing, and grew alarmed. "Gwen?"
"Sorry, warrior," looking up with smiling, tear-filled eyes. "I was just realizing how lonely it was without you here, and what a wonderful difference it's gonna make having you with me. Already, you've made more of a difference than you know."
Randi stepped back a pace so she could better look into the bard's green eyes, gently wiping away the traces of tears that remained on her face. She cocked a brow in a gesture so familiar that the blonde had to smile, and questioned, "How so?" She got the distinct feeling that Gwen was referring to more than just herself.
"Why don't you get dressed and start breakfast, while I go get my shower. I'll explain it to you while we eat." Though a bit confused, the Marine nodded her agreement, and followed Gwen to the bedroom where they separated.
Randi had the meal almost finished, and was, in fact, just putting the plates on the table as the bard stepped, clean and dressed, from the master suite. The Marine took a moment to simply admire the beauty of the woman who held her heart, before silently gesturing to Gwen to take a seat. The blonde blushed furiously under Randi's intense gaze, actually glowing under the love and desire she saw radiating from her lover's eyes.
"Now, would you like to explain what you meant? Because I get the distinct feeling you were referring to more than just yourself, and I'm missing something very important."
The bard swallowed the bite of food she had in her mouth, and took a sip of coffee before replying. "You're right, though you have made more of a difference coming back into my life than I will ever be able to express to you. I hope to spend the rest of our lives together showing you, however." She grinned a bit impishly. "But what I was actually talking about was the fact that last night for the first time in his life, Randall spoke." The Marine's eyes grew wide and round in alarm.
Gwen expected the reaction, and calmly continued to explain. "Last night, Randall spoke his first words... to you, *because* of you. Tommy and Ella have had him seen by several specialists who assured them he would speak when he was ready. Apparently, he was waiting to talk to you."
The Sabre slumped back into her chair in disbelief. "My God!" Her hand clutched instinctively at the fingers that curled over her own. "I never knew.... "
"I think you are in for quite a surprise, love, when you see how many people your life, and death, really affected."
Randi swallowed hard, trying to accept the enormity of what she had just heard. Then she pushed away from the table, and walked to the French doors, looking out unseeingly at the vista spread before her.
The Marine took a deep breath, trying desperately to reel in her staggering emotional reaction. She felt herself foundering until a soft touch came at the small of her back, and suddenly, her world had an anchor, and stabilized. She turned, and the bard opened her arms, and the Sabre willingly fell into her embrace. The small blonde urged them toward the couch, and Randi complied.
"I don't know if I can do this, Gwen. I don't think.... "
"Shh, love, shh. There's no need to rush anything. Why don't you stay home today? Maybe go reacquaint yourself with Randall."
"I don't want to lose any more time with you, Gwen. We've already lost so much.... " She took a deep breath. "I'm just not ready to face the questions, and comments, and stares." The Marine scrubbed her hand roughly over her face. "I guess you think I'm just being a big coward about all this." She pulled slightly away from the bard, and hung her head. Her hands dropped to hang loosely between her knees. Her whole attitude was one of projected disillusionment and defeat.
Gwen moved closer, eliminating the minute space Randi had put between them. She took the large hands in her smaller ones, smiling to herself when they closed reflexively over her own. "Look at me, Randi." She noticed the hesitation, and continued. "C'mon. Stud. Let me see those beautiful baby blues." Then green found themselves captivated by a piercing cerulean gaze, and words failed her for a long moment. Then she cleared her throat to speak.
"I want you to listen to me very carefully, Randi, and understand what I am about to say to you." She waited until the Marine acknowledged her words with a nod. "Our lives have changed so dramatically in the past few days, and it is more than a little overwhelming. I have a feeling it's gonna be that way for us for a while. It's gonna take us some time to adjust to all this, everything. So if you need a little time, love, it's okay. I do understand. And I will never, never think less of you for needing." She brought a hand up to Randi's face, and cupped her palm over the cheek plane. "Sometimes, I'm gonna need too, and I know you'll be there for me as well." She smiled when the Marine leaned deeper into the hand on her face, bringing Gwen's small hand that she still held in her own to her lips and brushing it with a gentle kiss.
"Can I tell you a secret?" the bard continued before Randi spoke. "I really don't want to go into work today either. I really have no desire to spend any time away from you, as unhealthy as that sounds. But there are lots of people there that have been worried about me for a long time, and if I don't show up, it will worry them even more. I will be coming home early, though. I can't stand to be apart from you all day right now."
"I don't think it sounds unhealthy. I think it sounds wonderful. Are you sure you'll be okay? Maybe I should just go in with you, and.... "
"Love, you need to do what is best for *you*. If you're not ready to face folks yet, it can wait. We have forever now, remember."
Randi's lips curved upwards in sheer reaction to both the words Gwen spoke, and the love that flowed from her sparkling eyes. "I like the idea of forever with you." She took both of Gwen's hands in her own, and helped the bard stand with her. "So c'mon. We've started our forever together. Let's keep it that way."
The blonde cocked her head to one side. "You sure?"
"Yep." A dazzling grin was the only response Randi got to that.
"You know, Dite, this has to be one of your best matches. You did very well!" Artemis and Athena raised the glasses in salute as the three of them stood peering into the scrying bowl.
"Babes, this was a joint effort. We all 'done good'," and the love goddess returned the gesture, "though it is more 'them', than anything else" wrinkling her nose comically, as the three moved away from watching the couple. "It's always so nice when things turn out so well." She smiled. "I'm really looking forward to this wedding."
Tommy was sitting at the breakfast table, listening to his son chatter to himself and them for the very first time. Occasionally, he could make out a few of the child's words, but the one he understood best was 'Wuv.' Finally he pushed away his untouched food, and looked at Ella with eyes full of tears. "It's true, isn't it? She really is alive again after all this time."
His wife said nothing, simply nodding her head and opening her arms. He tucked himself into them, and cried his heart out while she held him tight and rocked him back and forth in a soothing gesture of comfort. When he was cried out, he pulled away slightly, readjusting himself to cradle the woman he loved. "Thank you, Sweetheart. I needed that."
She smiled into his chest. "Anytime, love. I'm glad it was for such a happy reason."
He started to respond when the chime from an incoming vid call stopped him. "It's from Gwen." He moved to the monitor. "Hi, Gwen. What's up?"
Even through the screen she could see the traces of tears in his eyes. Her only comment was, "Good morning, T. I need a favor."
"Sure. Name it."
Half an hour later, Gwen and Randi climbed into the transport, and the bard headed them in the direction of Tommy and Ella's home. The Marine looked at her with confusion when the blonde got out and indicated the Sabre should do the same.
"What are we doing here, Gwen? I thought we were going into Midas together."
"Slight change of plans." An arched brow made her smile, and continue speaking. "We are gonna pick up Randall, and I will drop you two off at the park. But I'll be back shortly before midday to pick you up for lunch at Midas."
"But.... " She smiled into the hand that covered her lips.
"But nothing. You are really uncomfortable about being there, and I know you would be happier spending the time with Randall. It will give you a bit more time to adjust. Tommy will make an announcement to the company when we arrive, and after lunch, we can just go home."
"Oh, Little One," taking the smaller woman in her arms and just holding on for a long time. The truth was, she *was* scared about facing these people, her friends again. It wasn't something she would ever admit to out loud, or ever be able to even put into words to herself, but the feeling was there nonetheless. Her heart overflowed with appreciation at Gwen's sensitivity in understanding something the Marine didn't even fully comprehend. Randi placed a kiss on the top of the blonde head tucked under her chin, and rocked gently back and forth. How long they stood together that way was unknown, and how much longer they would have remained that way is also unclear. But at that moment....
"WUV!!" A childish exclamation from the door caused them to look up, and a fast moving toddler body hurtling toward them caused them to separate so the Marine could intercept him.
"Hey there, love muffin! What's your hurry?" She scooped him up in her arms, cradling him on one side, while enveloping the bard on the other. He began chattering his still mostly nonsensical words at her, as they moved slowly as one unit toward the front door where Ella stood leaning against the doorframe, watching with a smile and waiting.
"Well, you wanna go to the park with me?" The light in the child's eyes was answer enough. "Hi, Ella."
"Hey, stud. Hey, Gwen. Ya'll c'mon inside while I get the rest of the boy's things together." She turned and headed back into the house without a backwards glance.
Randi froze in her tracks at Ella's use of Gwen's nickname for her. "Where's she get *that* from?" she growled sotto voce while glaring at the bard.
"Don't look at me," Gwen replied with a slightly raised brow. "You've heard every word we've said to each other since you got back." She smirked. "Probably has something to do with that strut of yours."
Two dark brows flew to an equally dark hairline. "I DO NOT STRUT!!"
Gwen just smirked harder. "Whatever you say, stud. Whatever you say." Then in a sotto voce undertone, muttered, "It's more like stalking."
Randall broke in here, deciding attention had moved away from him for long enough. "Wuv, go." They resumed their walk to the house.
"We'll talk about this later, bard." Here Gwen couldn't help but chuckle slightly, and Randi's blue eyes twinkled in return. Nothing, not even Ella's teasing could make her feel less happy about her return to life, and Gwen. Secretly, she relished the teasing, knowing it indicated their love and acceptance of her and her remarkable journey back to them.
"So tell me, Randi," as the two women and the child crossed the threshold into the house, "where did the nickname come from?"
The Marine and the bard glanced at each other, unsure what Ella was referring to. Both knew it was happenstance that their friend had accidentally hit upon Gwen's pet name for the warrior. They looked at the curly headed woman in confusion.
"Wuv," she responded to their bewildered expressions. "I was just wondering where it came from, since it sounds nothing like 'Randi'.
"Oh," enlightenment crossing the Sabre's features. "I'm not really sure. I know I always called him 'love' whenever I talked to him, and told him I loved him before I left. Maybe he picked up on that."
The three women looked thoughtful, then turned their attention to the young child nestled contentedly in Randi's arms. "It's certainly possible," the bard spoke up. "I know I reminded him of how much you loved him every time I talked to him in the last few months."
"Hmm, and Tommy and I did the same thing. Children understand and remember far more than they are given credit for. Well," Ella continued, dismissing the reason, "I like it. Now," not even pausing for breath," ya'll need to get going. Gwen is gonna be late for work." Handing them Randall's bag, she shooed them out the door. "I'll see ya both before lunch."
Words were not really necessary between them on the rest of the trip in. Randi reached over and took hold of Gwen's hand, and the bard was content to return the clutch, absently running her thumb over the Marine's soft skin. Randall sat quietly, happy to be where he was for the moment. It didn't take long for them to reach the park, and Gwen moved to help Randi get them out of the transport.
"Wen come?" He cocked his head to one side, and smiled up adorably at her.
"Not today, tiger. This time is for you and Randi." He nodded as though in understanding, and she kissed his dark head. Then she moved her attention to the tall Marine waiting patiently. "I love you, Randi." She moved one hand behind the Marine's head, and pulled full lips down to meet her own. She smiled into the kiss when not only did the Marine's long arm encircle her waist, but a tiny hand also found it way to her head, patting gently. The three stayed that way for a very long moment, til Gwen slowly pulled herself away.
"Well," clearing her throat slightly to remove the huskiness that remained. "I love you too, my bard," and drew the younger woman in for a second, lingering kiss. They finally separated at Randall's impatient insistence, with a series of small kisses. Hand in hand they walked over toward the children's play area, making a beeline for the swings. Randall chortled with delight. The swings were his favorite.
"I'll see you in a few hours. Meet you right here?"
"We'll be waiting." Randi gently stroked the blonde's soft cheek, as they continued to hold each other's gaze. Suddenly, green eyes filled with tears. "What's the matter, Little One?"
"I don't know if I can do this."
The Sabre transferred the child in her arms into Gwen's, and then proceeded to wrap her strong arms about them both. "I'll be right here, I promise."
"Well, then," holding on tight for another minute before releasing her grip and stepping back a pace. "I'll go, and be back shortly." She started to step completely away, before she felt the Marine's hold tighten, and warmth enveloped her whole being. The world disappeared for another long moment, and Randi became the sole focus of her universe.
Reluctantly, Gwen finally pulled herself away. The blonde slowly unraveled herself from the tall figure, and then set the boy gently into a nearby swing, and moved toward the transport. She kept the woman and child in her sights, until they completely disappeared from view. She chided herself inwardly at her weakness, but had been unable to control the urge to keep them in sight. The bard sighed, wondering how she would make it through the morning. She had no way of knowing the rumors had already started raging like wildfire.
"Ya got a minute, boss?" Scott stuck his head in Tommy's open office door, even as he knocked on it.
"Sure, Scott. C'mon in." His brow arched in surprise when the bard closed the door carefully behind him. For the most part, business at Midas was conducted under an 'open door' policy. Only very serious discussions warranted the need for a closed door. "What's up?" T leaned back in his chair and motioned the younger man to a seat, giving him his undivided attention.
"Have you heard the latest gossip?"
Now, both brows rose, and it was all he could do not to lose his patience. Only the exceedingly welcome good news he had gotten the day before kept him from jumping out of his chair. That and the fact that Scott did not have a tendency to stir up trouble. He decided to hear him out first.
"Apparently not. Is there a problem?"
"I dunno. I've been hearing some things about Gwen this morning, and I thought you might like to be prepared."
"I see. Why didn't you go to her first?"
"I would have. I mean, I did try, but she's not here yet. That seems to be a big part of the problem."
"Oh? How so?"
The young man blushed a deep, furious red, terribly uncomfortable, but feeling that his boss and his friend deserved to know what was being said. Especially given as how Gwen, no matter how gracious she was about it, hated the attention. He cleared his throat self-consciously.
"You know how broken up she was over Randi's death." He paused and waited for T to nod his understanding. "And you know that only within the last few months, since the memorial service and the viewing of that holo-chip from Randi has she shown any sign of coming out of that funk." Another glance and another nod. "Well, apparently, she's over it." He hurried on at the raised brow. "Someone, and I am still working on pinning down where this started," he added in almost an aside, "supposedly saw her on Randi's bike this weekend, with another woman wrapped around her like an octopus. No word on who the love interest is."
"Then how are they so sure it was Gwen?"
"I asked the same question. The answer 'Because no one had a bike that looks like Randi's Amazon Warrior, and there is no way Gwen would let anyone else have it.' It made a lot of sense to me, put that way."
Tommy nodded. He had to agree. And now he was hard pressed to keep his news under wraps for another few hours.
"It gets more complicated," Scott continued. "It seems she was seen in the park this morning making out with this woman, and the woman had a child."
The boss passed a hand over his face, as much to bring his grin under control as anything else. Then a thought occurred to him, and he lost the impulse to smile very quickly.
"Why is this a problem? Doesn't Gwen deserve to be happy? She's been in mourning for well over a year."
"Honestly, T, I think it is more concern for her than anything else. I mean," the male bard stood, and started pacing the floor, scratching the back of his neck in an effort to organize his thoughts. "We've watched Gwen suffer and agonize over Randi's death. Up until Thursday, as a matter of fact, she was still quite melancholy, and regardless of what she said, there were a lot of us convinced she was putting on a good face when she turned down everyone's invitations for the weekend. We guessed she wanted to be alone. Now," he shrugged his shoulders in an act of confusion, "now all of a sudden she apparently has a new love interest." He turned his attention to his boss fully, and leaned across his desk to drive his point home. "We don't want to see her hurt again, Tommy, or taken advantage of. She's been through enough."
Tommy managed to contain his grin, barely. This is gonna be so awesome. "Let me talk to her when she comes in. I'll make sure I have the answers to announce at the lunch meeting."
Scott nodded his understanding. "Thanks, boss. Gotta get to work." And he excused himself and opened the door. Just as he reached the outer door, Tommy heard him greet the blonde. "Morning, Gwen." The unintelligible murmur of conversation buzzed for a moment, then Gwen was sticking her head in the door.
"Come in and shut the door, Gwen." Blonde brows rose, but she did as she was bade, and took a seat in the chair Scott had so recently vacated.
"Do me a favor," the man sitting behind the desk began without preamble. "Next time you and Randi decide to neck, do it somewhere a little more privately than the back of her bike or the park down the road, huh? Ya'll have started all kinds of rumors flying."
He looked up when he didn't get any kind of retort back from her, and immediately crossed to the front of his desk to kneel at her side. "Gwen?" She was sitting in the chair, arms wrapped around herself, shaking lightly. Tears welled up in her eyes, and fell silently down her face. "Oh, honey," he muttered, and took the sobbing bard into his arms. He cradled her, and stood, gently lifting and carrying her over to the couch. And he held her while she cried.
Finally, the only sound in the room was the sound of harsh breathing being slowly brought under control as Gwen's sobs lessened. Tommy continued to gently stroke her back calming and soothing her with the motion. She eventually patted his chest and pulled away from him, moving to sit next to him on the sofa.
"Thanks, T. I needed that."
"Apparently so. Feel better?" he asked, looking at red-rimmed eyes and blotchy cheeks.
She nodded. "Yeah, I do. It just seems so unreal. Like I'm gonna wake up and find out it is all a dream, and she's not really alive again. I can't stand being away from her, T. Not now."
He scratched his jaw, and she smiled at the rasping sound it made. He had obviously been too excited this morning himself, if his lack of shaving was any indication. He noticed her reaction, and grinned in response. "I was shaking a little too much to make shaving a good idea this morning." The spontaneous chuckle warmed his heart, and gave him an unexpected degree of comfort.
"Tell ya what... " he said. "I really don't think you're gonna be much good around here this week. Why don't ya'll take some time to be together?"
The slow blush that crept up her face, and the way she ducked her head as if to hide it, made her adorable, and Tommy couldn't help but smile. She reminded him of Randi, when the Marine had still been growing up, and put on the spot about something she would have preferred been kept private. It was then that he finally noticed the flash of gems on her left hand. He reached forward, and clasped the now cold hand in his much larger warm ones.
"The Soulmates' Ring?"
She nodded, head still bent.
"Does this mean what I hope it does?"
She looked up now, gauging the sincerity of his question. Though she didn't doubt that he loved and cared about them both, and wanted to see them married and settled down together, the admission that they were the soulmates of legend and lore reunited again was a bit of a step. Especially in light of their mind-boggling reality that had so recently been altered to allow it. She studied him for a moment, taking in the fine lines and gray hair that had emerged over the past fifteen months of Randi's absence. Then she looked deep in his eyes, and found nothing but love, and acceptance, and hope.
She nodded again, smiling up at him brightly, trying to convey everything the lump in her throat wouldn't allow her to voice. The next instant she found herself locked in a bear hug.
"I am so happy for you both, Gwen. So very happy. We've waited a long time for this."
She smiled again. She wasn't sure if he was referring to the soulmates reuniting, or she and Randi finally admitting the truth to one another. Not that it really mattered. The statement was true on many levels, in both instances.
"So, when is the happy occasion? I *KNOW* we're gonna get a nice wedding out of this, right?" He raised his eyebrow at her.
EEK!! "We haven't really talked about what we'd like to do, but it will be in about two months, probably. We want Ditto to be back from Reed's first. She's as much family as anyone."
"Oh, that's true," releasing the bard to sit, and moving back to perch on the edge of his desk. "That's good, though. It'll give us time to plan something really nice."
"Gwen, there's gonna be no way around it. You'll either end up with a large service, a larger reception, or both. So many people are gonna want to celebrate with ya'll."
The bard sighed. "If we have to, we'll have a big reception. I want a small, private ceremony, and I'm pretty sure Randi will feel the same. We've had so little time together."
"Which brings me back to my original suggestion. Why don't you take some time off?"
She scrunched up her eyebrows, aware that she was not making herself clear. "T, when I take some time off, it's gonna be so Randi and I can go away and be alone together for a while." He shrugged his shoulders, obviously not seeing her point.
"And, we are going to reintroduce her back into our community here at Midas today. How fair is it if we just take off into the unknown again immediately afterwards? People are gonna want to see her and talk her. We can't just up and leave." She almost snickered as the light of comprehension dawned in his eyes. "Besides," another faint blush traced up her features, "I want the time for our honeymoon."
Now the man's face suffused with color, as the implications of what Gwen was so delicately trying not to say became obvious to him. He cleared his throat awkwardly.
"First of all, let me say that giving you two some time to be together is purely selfish on my part. By your own admission, she took your muse when she left. Perhaps she'll be gracious enough to return it now that she's back." He smiled in tandem to the twinkle he saw peeking out of clear green eyes. "Besides, I know good and well you're not going to accomplish the least little thing around here for a while. Not when you'd much rather be by her side. And I don't blame you for that. That's why I rearranged the schedule to cover your classes. Maybe by the time you get back, you'll have stories to tell again."
She had never really realized others had missed her muse almost as much as she had. But it was heartwarming to hear the concern Tommy had for she and Randi, and the faith he had in her bardic abilities. "Thank you, Tommy. Thank you for understanding. I.... " She trailed off, unable to finish. But Tommy understood, and rose, reaching down and giving her a hand up.
"Go to her. And bring her in the back way a few minutes before lunch, huh? I'd like to have a word with her." He smiled as he spoke, but the blonde could tell that he, too, still had a lot of things to work out. Impulsively, she gave him a quick hug, and brushed a light kiss near his mouth.
"We'll be back before Ella gets here, I imagine." She smirked. "Depends on what it takes to get the child to leave the park."
"Randall will be no problem, if he knows he's coming here."
She flashed a wicked grin at him as she opened the door to leave. "I was speaking of the other child." The sound of his laughter kept her company all the way out of the office.
Randi knew the minute eyes landed on her, and discretely looked around as she walked herself and Randall up the slide once more. She couldn't see anything offhand, but since her senses weren't prickling with danger, she was content to enjoy the moment with the boy. He squealed as they started down, and laughter bubbled up within her. They landed at the bottom, and she took a moment to swing him around, taking a good look at her surroundings. With a startled squawk, she headed toward the still figure perched in the low, low branches of the ancient oak tree watching them.
"Gwen? Love, what's the problem? Why're you.... ?" She didn't get a chance to finish as the bard stepped the short distance to the ground, landing in front of her and covering her mouth with her hand.
"Tommy sent me. He knew I was gonna be useless." She grinned. "I'm not sure *he's* not gonna be useless for a while. He did ask that we come in the back way a little early so he can have a minute or two with you." They walked over to the toddler's area, and set Randall down, taking a seat on a nearby bench. He immediately found some new playmates, and Randi kept an eye on him as she and Gwen sat in comfortable silence.
Finally, lunchtime approached, and the two gathered up boy and baggage, and left the park for Midas Enterprises.
Randi was content to let Gwen guide the transport into Midas. Truth was, her guts were churning so badly, she felt the urge to be sick almost overwhelming. To take her mind off things, she studied her surroundings, noticing with some interest the changes the time she had been gone had wrought.
The Marine frowned a bit as the security at the gate waved them through upon recognizing Gwen and her transport. She had put a halt to that, insisting that each vehicle and its occupants be checked personally. The bard smiled at the almost inaudible growl that came from her companion. She had a feeling Randi was gonna slip back into her role here just fine.
The blonde had notified Tommy of their departure from the park, so he was not overly surprised when two women and a tired toddler stepped in the back entrance to his office. He had sent Beth out on an errand, just in case. But he knew by the look his assistant had given him that she knew something was up. He smirked. She'll know what it is soon enough. This was one time he was glad to have to make a general announcement. Good news, especially like this, was rare, and he was thrilled to be the bearer of such glad tidings.
She hasn't really changed much was his first idle thought. She still had the same striking features, the same determination present in the set of broad shoulders and firmly closed jaw. And then he started to look a little closer. She was glowing, radiating an inner sense of peace and well-being he had never seen in her before, not even as a child. His attention turned to the small blonde standing contentedly beside her Marine. There was no personal space between them, and even as he watched, they unconsciously moved closer together in what seemed to be an effort to provide the other with protection and support. The tableau was broken by his squirming son, eager to be put down so he could run amuck in the office.
The Marine grinned at him, and set him on his feet. Randall took three running steps away from her, before heading back, and colliding rather hard with her knees. The bard put a rather discreet arm around Randi's waist to help her maintain her balance, and let go of her hold when the tall woman bent back down to unravel the boy from her legs and lift him back up to her.
"What's up, squirt?"
"Wuv," was all he said, but he flung his arms around her neck and gave her a sloppy kiss. The she set him down, and he ran right to Gwen, repeating the procedure, though she was "Wen". Finally, he ran to his father, and tugged on his pants. "Pa," was all he said, but it got a huge smile out of Tommy. Just as the man picked his son up, his wife came through the door. "Ma!" the boy squealed. The sound brought tears to Ella's eyes.
She looked at the two women now standing comfortably wrapped together. Such a difference they've made already, together. I'm so glad they finally found each other.
She scooped up her son in her arms, and he rested his head happily on her shoulder. Randi had worn him out, and he was glad for the chance to take a break. The four adults stood in an odd silence that while not completely awkward, was difficult to breach. There was so much to talk about and tell and discuss. Randi, surprisingly, was the one to speak up.
"I know you still have questions, both of you. And I'll answer as much as I can tonight, I promise. For right now, though, can we go get this over with before I get sick?"
Gwen, who'd sensed the distress flowing from her partner in waves, had been rubbing soothingly on Randi's strong back. Now she gently turned the Marine toward her, ignoring the others in the room, and focusing solely on her lover.
"Randi, love?" She turned the tall woman to face her and captured her eyes. "Look at me, that's right. Now breathe... slowly, deeply... c'mon, you can do this. Breathe. Focus on the sound of my voice. That's good." The litany continued for quite a few minutes, until Gwen felt the Marine relax. Tommy and Ella stood in awe. Randall simply fell asleep.
"Now remember, these are our friends. They've mourned you and missed you. They're gonna welcome you back."
"Promise?" A bare whisper.
"Promise." And just about that time the lunch bell chimed, and the entire company swarmed to the mess hall. The noise woke the toddler who immediately became fussy. Ella spoke soothingly to calm him, and Tommy moved toward Randi and Gwen.
"We're gonna go ahead and go over. Maybe Randall will calm down with some food in him. When things have settled down, I'll let you know. Then we'll tell the folks about this, and give ya'll an opportunity to say something, or whatever you feel comfortable with. All right?"
The two women nodded their agreement, and sank to the couch in the silence that was left behind by the Steele's departure. For a change, the bard cradled the warrior, stroking the dark head that lay upon her shoulder. Randi took great comfort in the soul healing strokes, as did Gwen. Almost before they were ready, Tommy signaled them to join the rest of the company at lunch.
"I think I'm gonna be sick," muttered the Marine.
"No, you're gonna be fine. I love you."
Randi smiled at the sweet sincerity of those words, and realized suddenly that nothing else mattered. She had the love of the one she loved, and with that, she could do anything. She gave her bard a beaming smile and answered, "I love you too, Little One. Always"
"Forever," came the expected response. And then they were almost late to the lunchroom, having gotten lost together in their kiss.
"Over the years since we have been a family, we have always used this venue to announce any news of importance to us." Tommy had risen and was now standing on the makeshift stage area at the front of the room. "We've heard about engagements, pregnancies, accidents, illness and death. Good and bad news had always been shared here among us. Sometimes it had been exhilarating and uplifting, others it has been completely devastating." His hands shook, and each and every person in the room was well aware of his thoughts right then. It had been the only time they had ever seen the boss break down. He drew a deep breath, gave them a tremulous smile, and continued. "But today, today I have miraculous news. Something so wonderful, so truly amazing.... " He trailed off, casting his eyes toward the door, and noticing that Gwen and Randi had not yet responded to his summons.
"But first, I have heard some of the gossip going around about Gwen today." A few people had the decency to look away in embarrassment. "I know many of you have been, are still truly concerned about her. Please don't begrudge her the opportunity for happiness she has found." A movement caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he grinned brightly. "Especially with the person she has found it with. Ladies and Gentlemen, our newly engaged bard, Gwen Goldman, with her fianc„e, Randi Valiant."
The silence that greeted them was stunning, and they walked into the room together holding hands tightly. People stared as though unable to believe their eyes, which was entirely true. Even in their world of make-believe, dead people didn't just waltz back to life after being gone so long. Voices rose in murmured question, all contemplating the validity of the reality that now stood before them.
Just as they arrived on the stage, a voice from the back called out, "Is it true?"
The bard chuckled nervously. Randi just tightened her grip on Gwen's hand. The blonde winced, and immediately turned her attention back to the Marine standing beside her, gently loosening the hand clutching hers so tightly. She placed the large hands lightly on either side of her waist, and reached up to cup the face she so dearly loved. Her entire focus became the two bright blue eyes staring back at her, and everything else faded into the background, dismissed as unimportant for the moment. The only thing that mattered was the two of them: Gwen, as Randi's support and stability; Randi, as Gwen's support and protector.
The crowd still observing them watched in awe at the tangible love that shimmered between them. It was this, more than any words that could be spoken, that convinced them of the truth of Randi's astounding return to life. Voices rose again in tandem, until above the din the question rang out, "How?"
The lovers continued to gaze at one another for a long moment, garnering strength from their love for the coming ordeal. Their friends respected their need, and sat silently, waiting for the tableau to end. By mutual accord, the warrior and bard separated, but remained touching as they faced their patiently expectant colleagues. In fact, they resumed what was a familiar stance to most in the room, with the Marine standing behind Gwen. The difference now, however, was that there was no space between them, and Randi was literally wrapped around her bard as she cradled her carefully. Gwen returned the contact as fully as she was able, leaning back into the body behind her, and loosely clasping her hands over the arms wrapped around her mid-section.
If the people watching them were surprised by the public display from two very private individuals, they didn't show it. Most accepted it for necessary support it was, and took great pleasure at seeing the happiness and love that flowed between them. It was incredible to see the fulfillment, even in a small way, of something they'd waited to see for a very long time. And the folks at Midas finally smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. This was gonna be a wonderful story.
"There's really not a lot I can tell you," Randi began, and most were surprised to hear her voice and not the bard's. People had just expected Gwen to do the story telling. It was what she did, after all. But then again, it was not unreasonable for the Marine to have something to say about her own return. They settled back to listen.
"When I left here, fifteen months ago, I really did die. Suffice it to say it is not an experience I'd like to repeat in the near future," Gwen's hands tightened convulsively, and now it was the Marine's turn to do some reassuring. She whispered almost inaudibly directly into the bard's ear, "I love you," and felt the smaller woman relax under her hands. "When I reached the... um, well," scratching the back of her neck in an all too familiar gesture that caused the room to smile, "um, anyway, when I got there, I was offered a choice. Stay or come back to Gwen." Here her arms tightened convulsively around her partner. "I chose to come home."
When is became obvious by her silence that Randi was not going to give them any more details, Beth stood up to ask a question. It wasn't at all what the two women were expecting.
"So, when's the wedding?"
The blush on the soulmates faces caused a round of laughter, applause and cheers, a release of emotion precipitated by other things. Randi hid her face in the bard's short blonde hair, muttering invectives that cause an even deeper blush on Gwen's face. The deeper blush incited more cheers from the crowd, who imagined far worse than was really true. Tommy decided to step in before things got too far out of hand.
"Folks, folks," he said, raising his hands for quiet, and waiting for the room to settle down. "Folks, Randi has only been back for just a few days. Let's give them a little time here, okay? Nothing has been decided about anything much, and it's probably best to give us all a little time to adjust to the newness of this situation before making any major decisions. The getting married one, though----it was about damned time!!"
The crowd whooped and hollered again, and slowly rose to filter out past the bard and warrior. Scott stood for a long moment in front of the two of them. "This is so awesome! I can't wait to tell Tori. We will have to have ya'll over to dinner soon. Congratulations!" Everyone there wanted to welcome Randi back, and congratulate them, so it was nigh unto dinnertime before they were able to finally leave Midas.
Tommy had called Ella, who'd left with Randall as the meeting broke up, to let her know that they were going to be a few minutes later than originally planned. The tall woman had promised her godson that Ditto would be coming to dinner, and they wanted to freshen up just a bit. A quick shower, some clean clothes, and they both felt ready to face the inquisition. Unlike the people at Midas, Tommy and Ella deserved a much more detailed explanation rather than the bumbling basic explanation they had been put off with the night before. Even so, they would be getting an abridged version. Some of it was much too private and personal to share with anyone but each other.
The walk to the Steele manse was peaceful. Ditto was happy to walk along sedately beside them, while they held hands, and remarked about the beauty of the evening and their surroundings. Mostly, they were content to walk in silence.
When they reached the door, Randall greeted them with his father. He immediately reached out his arms toward the tall brunette, who accepted his hug and kiss. Gwen took her turn next, then flinched slightly when the child shrilled directly in her ear. "O!!" The dog barked once, loudly, and Randall squirmed to get down. Once on the ground, he and the shepherd carried on quite a conversation, to the amusement of the three adults observing them.
"Ya'll c'mon in," Tommy beckoned, knowing the dog would follow, and the boy would follow her. The two had become fast playmates after a fashion, when Randi had left, and the canine took her responsibility of watching out for the child very seriously.
"I wondered if ya'll were gonna come in, or just stand at the door all night," Ella teased as she came in from the kitchen. "C'mon in and sit down. You want something to drink?"
Both women shook their heads no, and offered to help. Ella refused, as they'd known she would. She was proprietorial about her cooking space, but they always offered. It would be bad manners not to.
They sat making small talk for five minutes or so, when the curly-haired woman called them to the table. Randall was in his chair, and everyone, save Randi, was seated when a knock came to the door. The Marine glanced at Tommy, who had a blank look on his face. She grimly vowed to herself to update the security for the entire island first thing the next morning. Then she growled out, "I'll take care of this."
She didn't notice the bard follow right behind her, though she was very thankful she had shortly thereafter.
Not since the memorial service had Geoff and Jill Goldman been to the island. Things hadn't been as strained between them and their daughter then, but they had found it difficult to return. Gwen had made it clear she needed a bit of space still to work out the grief on her own, and her parents had respected her decision. Tommy and Ella were good to keep an eye on her, and inform the Goldmans of the bard's state of mind and health. Several times they had visited while Gwen was on her walkabout, and twice since she'd returned, and Tommy made it clear they were always more than welcome to come down. The awkwardness between them at Spring Equinox had kept them away, but the refreshing Celebration holiday over Summer Solstice had convinced them it was time to try again.
"Do you think we're doing the right thing, Geoff?" Jill asked as the shuttle landed at the hub. "You don't think she'll be mad or upset with us, do you?"
The weapons smith wrapped a strong arm around his wife's shoulders. "Hon, I think she'll know that we're here out of love and concern for her." They had been unable to reach their daughter the entire weekend, giving a bit of validity to her claim of having other plans, but still there was a niggling worry in the back of their minds that she had simply put them off to be alone once again. Geoff had nearly asked for a trace to be run on her, but thought better of it. There was no real reason to invade her privacy. So now they were in a transport on their way to see Tommy, hoping he could give them some of peace of mind about the bard's recent activities.
"C'mon, sweetheart," he said as he helped the woman out of the transport, "let's let Ella and Tommy know we're here." He was thankful the man had given him the codes to extend the bridge. It made things so much easier for all involved. "Maybe while we're here, we'll get a chance to meet Ella's parents, and Tommy's father." He raised his hand and knocked on the door.
"That would be nice," Jill replied, smiling into her husband's eyes. He always managed to see a bright side. Then the door opened, and she felt him freeze even as she saw his eyes widen in shock. She turned to see what had caused such a consequence. Then she reacted, without thought to the backlash involved.
When Randi reached the door, she saw immediately who stood there and hesitated. She almost called Tommy to come answer it, but knew she was going to have to face them sooner or later. Best to get it over and done with now, she thought, and opened the door.
She saw Geoff stiffen, and his eyes widen with disbelief before Jill turned and rocked her world.
"YOU BITCH!!!" The connection of palm to cheek managed to turn Randi's head a full ninety degrees. Almost immediately, a vibrant red handprint began to appear on the side of the Marine's face. "HOW DA.... " But that was all she managed before Gwen stood between them, green eyes blazing.
"Don't you dare presume to lay your hands on her again, Mother." The bard's low modulated, well-controlled voice was in stark contrast to Jill's. "You have no right."
"I have EVERY.... "
"NO. MOTHER. YOU. DO. NOT." Each word was clearly enunciated, and Jill realized she had gravely miscalculated a great many things. "What happens between Randi and myself is no one's business but our own, and I'll thank you to remember that in the future."
Gwen turned toward the Sabre, who had frozen in place when Jill Goldman raised her hand. Randi had been prepared to suffer whatever wrath her bard's parents deemed appropriate. She had never expected Gwen to halt it so effectively and instantaneously. That, as much as anything else, still held her in place. Now, she found her gaze captured by eyes that had lost their fury, and held only love and concern. Cool hands found a place on either side of her face. Randi heard the mother's stifled gasp, but her focus was too intent on her bard to pay it much immediate mind. She gently rested her hands lightly on Gwen's hips.
"Are you all right, love?"
"I'm fine, Little One. It is no more than I deserved." Green eyes blazed again.
"It is *far* more than you deserved," and here she turned to look her mother straight in the eye. "And I will not tolerate it ever again."
Jill nodded her head in acceptance and understanding, but her eyes remain locked on Gwen's left hand. The bard finally noticed the peculiar expression the other woman wore. "Mother?" The tone and tenor of the word were completely different from before, showing genuine concern.
Covering her mouth to half-stifle a sob, Jill raised the other hand toward the ring her daughter wore. She took the bard's left hand into her own for a long minute, then looked past the blonde to the silent sentinel still standing behind her. "The Soulmates' Ring?" she questioned. At Randi's nod, she crumpled, and Geoff moved for the first time since the door opened to take his wife into his arms and comfort her. He and Gwen exchanged puzzled glances, but a look at Randi's faces told him she understood.
"Why don't ya'll come on in, instead of standing out here all night? We were fixing to sit down to the table, and I know Ella has plenty."
Ella did indeed have plenty, and had already set the table for her two impromptu guests. She had gotten used to this in the last few months, since Gwen's folks, her own, and Tommy's father all had a knack for showing up unannounced, though this was only the second time the Goldmans had done it.
Tommy had risen from his place as soon as he heard the slap, but just as quickly the decided that interfering in what was essentially a family matter was a bad idea. It needed to be worked out, and, he smiled... Gwen seemed to have quite a handle on things. Instead, he helped Ella set two more places, and they were all seated at the table when the four walked into the dining room.
Randall's happy noise was in marked contrast to the almost stillness that surrounded the adults as they seated themselves at the table. Randi had seated Gwen, then taken the one beside her, ever solicitous of her needs. Geoff did the same for Jill, who had yet to raise her head. Tommy and Ella had no idea how to splinter the silence, especially in view of the ire they both felt at the glowing mark on the Marine's face.
So dinner started in an awkward silence everyone seemed hesitant to break. The only sounds were the tinkling of silverware on china, the clink of glasses, and the muted whispers of conversation between the warrior and the bard. Finally, Jill raised her head, and looked Randi in the eye. She smiled sadly at the subtly protective gesture Gwen made toward her Marine in response to the contact.
"I'm sorry, Randi. I ... I don't know, um, what, uh, came over me. But you didn't deserve my wrath and I apologize."
Even the child was quiet as Randi sat there, absorbing the woman's words. Then she set her napkin on the table, and slid her chair back. The bard reached out and took her hand, and she and Randi exchanged a few whispered words. Then the Sabre lifted the hand to her lips and brushed the fingers lightly in a kiss. Gwen did the same in return, then released the fingers with a smile. Randi grazed the blonde's cheek with the back of her hand, and rose.
Jill stood as well, determined to face Randi's retribution on her feet. She signaled Geoff to remain seated, and waited as the Marine came around the table and stood directly in front of her. She held the intense blue gaze for as long as she was able, then Jill dropped her eyes to the table, knowing she had screwed up horribly. It might not be fixable, and this error in judgment could cost her her daughter.
Long fingers gently raised her chin, and Jill found herself again staring into intense blue eyes. Now, though, that look was filled with compassion and understanding, and the mother collapsed into the strong arms of her soon-to-be daughter-in-law.
"I'm sorry, Randi. I'm so sorry. I just.... " and she cried for many things. The Marine just held on, knowing this would heal more than any words she could say. She glanced at her beloved, whose eyes now shimmered with unshed happy tears, and whose lips turned up in a small smile.
Randall inadvertently broke the strain and awkwardness of the moment by screaming out, "WUV!" That brought chuckles from the entire table, and caused Geoff and Jill to start in surprise.
"He speaks?" Jill questioned. Too many startling revelations in too short a span of time were causing her synapses to overload badly. She was starting to develop a serious headache.
Now Ella smiled warmly. She, more than anyone else at the table, could understand and sympathize with Jill's reaction to Randi from a mother's point of view. It had been an instinctive response. "Yes, he saw Randi last night, and we haven't had a moment of quiet since."
Jill pulled away from the Marine who still gently cradled her, stepping back to look into the taller woman's face. "You've made such a difference already." She looked around at the chatting Randall, the relaxed and happy Steeles, and the shining happiness that radiated from her daughter. Now she raised a hand to the still red mark on the Marine's face. Randi did not flinch or back away. "Thank you," Jill said simply. The Sabre nodded her acceptance and forgiveness before moving back to sit with Gwen.
Geoff had sat quietly through the exchange. He was once again impressed with the young woman his daughter had fallen in love with, and thankful for her generous heart and maturity that allowed her to forgive. He was looking forward to getting a chance to talk to her. Judging from the expression on Gwen's face, and the ring on her finger, there was gonna be a lot to talk about.
"... and so I got the chance to spend a little time with Mama and Papa." Randi was nearing the end of her hour-long narrative about the fifteen months she had been gone from them. She had left out the more personal details, but her tale had been sufficient in and of itself. It had answered all their questions, and then some. They had cringed, laughed and cried with her. Gwen moved from her embrace to get some water for her parched throat. The Marine accepted it with a smile, and the bard returned to her place in Randi's arms. Everyone noticed that there was no space between them, and that they seemed loathe to be apart from one another. The six adults sat quietly for several minutes, four of them contemplating the amazing story they had just heard... two simply basking in each other's nearness. Tommy broke the silence.
"Can you tell us about the Soulmates' Ring?"
"Let me get us some drinks first, and check on Randall." The child had been put to bed shortly after dinner. Ditto had followed, and there hadn't, strangely enough, been a sound from the room since Randi shut off the light. The entire group took that as their signal to move around and stretch briefly. Gwen whispered something to Randi and moved toward the bathroom. Jill accompanied Ella to the boy's room, while Tommy moved to the bar. Geoff saw this as a perfect opportunity to speak privately with the Sabre.
"Hello, Randi," said in a quiet voice.
She looked up at him, a mixture of respect, liking, hesitancy and genuine fear in her eyes. He opened his arms, and she moved into them, accepting the gesture as she would have from her own father. She again wished the two men had had a chance to know one another and be friends, but for now she accepted the regard and affection she knew Geoff had for her.
"I can't tell you how much we all missed you, and how glad we are to have you back." She smiled at him grateful for the acceptance he welcomed her with. "Perhaps later we can talk?"
"I'd like that," she answered honestly. And I'd like to talk to you about Gwen and I."
"What about you and Gwen?" the bard questioned as she slipped into the space on Randi's lap. Her mother's earlier attack had put Gwen on the defensive, and she was not going to allow her father to do the same.
"Gwen," long fingers gently turned the blonde until blue eyes captured green and the rest of the world faded away. "It's okay." She hesitated. "Your dad and I understand each other, and it's only fair. I am taking his only daughter."
Gwen smiled rakishly. "His only daughter is coming to you willingly, love."
The Marine returned the grin in kind. "As willingly as I come to you, Little One. But it is a little different. I... I, um.... " She blushed. "I don't know how to say this."
The bard stroked the nearby cheek. "It's okay, warrior. I understand. And I think it's precious." she smiled. "I love you, ya know." She slowly laced her hands through the thick black tresses and gently tugged the Sabre towards her. Long arms tightened as Randi ducked her head.
"I love you, too," she murmured, before capturing Gwen's lips in a long kiss.
Geoff couldn't explain the gamut of emotions running through him, but he finally settled for pleased embarrassment. Pleased that they loved each other so deeply, and embarrassment that they had seemingly forgotten his presence. He moved away to give them a bit of privacy.
The entire group had rejoined him in the great room, with Tommy bringing drinks, before the weapons smith felt compelled to clear his throat for their attention. Slowly, ever so slowly, they parted, staying lost in one another's eyes for a very long moment, before realizing they had a full audience. The bard buried her now flushed face in Randi's neck, while the Marine tried to appear nonchalant about the whole incident. The color in her face was telling, however.
She picked up the water bottle Gwen had given her, and managed to take a couple swallows before the bard swiped it from her and drained it dry. Tommy didn't say a word as he passed them each a soda, but the smirk on his face was priceless.
"Something amusing, Thomas?" though the flush she sported undermined the threat she conveyed with her arched brows.
"Nothing at all, Miranda. Nothing at all. I didn't realize it was so warm in here, though," he teased.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Ya know, Tommy, paybacks are a bitch." He gulped audibly at the cool tone. It was always so difficult to tell when her sense of humor kicked in, and he found himself wondering if this was one of those rare times it hadn't. She really wasn't big on public embarrassment or humiliation of any kind.
Unknowingly, Ella came to his rescue, as she turned from her conversation with Geoff and Jill. She walked to Gwen, still snugly cuddled on Randi's lap. She reached out and took the younger woman's hand, garnering a mildly questioning look from the bard. Then Ella lifted the hand up for a closer inspection of the ring Gwen wore.
"This is absolutely gorgeous. Will you explain why it is called the Soulmates' Ring?"
To everyone's surprise, it was Jill who said, "She can't tell you, but I can." Her eyes made a plea with Randi's, silently asking for permission to tell her side to the tale. The tall woman nodded acceptance. She was very interested in hearing what Jill had to say.
She felt Gwen stiffen in her embrace. She held the bard a little closer to herself, gently rubbing a hand up and down the muscled back. "Forever, love. No matter what," whispered directly into Gwen's ear. The Sabre felt the blonde begin to relax again in her arms, and made a mental note to ask her what troubled her so badly. Then they both turned their attention to Jill, who took a deep breath, ready to begin her story.
"You have to realize," Jill said, pacing in a small area in front of the group of avid listeners, "that most of my side of this story has been documented by the story tellers that have graced our lineage down through the ages." She gestured toward her daughter and smiled, pleased at the small smile she got in return. "I believe it to be as accurate as any account of something this long past can possibly be."
Continued in Part 2.