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.
When the original soulmates went on to their rest, their descendants knew it would be at least a full generation before the soulmates returned to claim the tokens, and the rings were put away for safekeeping. No one spared a thought, nor would they for several centuries, that time in eternity is completely different than mortal time. And so, several mortal lifetimes passed before the soulmates were reborn.
Eventually, the guardians understood that the soulmates would not be reunited in every generation, but only in every *lifetime* they were born into. And there was no set pattern for their return. Sometimes it seemed almost immediate, while others it was almost an eternity in itself. The guardians, however, took their responsibility very seriously, and passed the tokens and tales down through their lines.
For hundreds, and even thousands of years, the system had worked perfectly. One of the warrior's line was chosen to be the guardian of the rings, one of the bard's ancestry was chosen to record their lifetimes together, and pass those stories down in the interim.
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.
When the original soulmates went on to their rest, their descendants knew it would be at least a full generation before the soulmates returned to claim the tokens, and the rings were put away for safekeeping. No one spared a thought, nor would they for several centuries, that time in eternity is completely different than mortal time. And so, several mortal lifetimes passed before the soulmates were reborn.
Eventually, the guardians understood that the soulmates would not be reunited in every generation, but only in every *lifetime* they were born into. And there was no set pattern for their return. Sometimes it seemed almost immediate, while others it was almost an eternity in itself. The guardians, however, took their responsibility very seriously, and passed the tokens and tales down through their lines.
For hundreds, and even thousands of years, the system had worked perfectly. One of the warrior's line was chosen to be the guardian of the rings, one of the bard's ancestry was chosen to record their lifetimes together, and pass those stories down in the interim.
Here, Jill's face lit with an inner glow, and years seemed to drop away from her face. "They have always been such interesting people, and led such varied lives. And then.... "
One hundred and eighty-seven years prior to what was now the present, two guardians, one from the warrior's line, and one from the bard's, had met and fallen in love. These were not the soulmates, and in fact, it was a second marriage for both parties. One brought a young son into the family unit, and the other brought a small daughter. And together they formed a new family.
Years passed, and the children became adults, having grown up hearing the soulmates' stories. The daughter, being something of a romantic, had found them wonderful, compelling. But the son had grown hard and bitter, lamenting the fact that he was not one of the blessed soulmates, and furious that it was his duty to keep the stories, and not the rings.
Finally, one moonless night, he snuck away, stealing the warrior's ring, and disappearing into the darkness. His sister never heard from him again.
"The daughter, taking the responsibilities left to her very seriously, went to her father's closest living relative, and explained the situation to her. She placed the copies of the bard's stories in my great-grandmother's care."
The silence was deafening when it fell, as the listener's absorbed the impact of the words they had heard.
"There's more to the story, isn't there?" Randi asked, knowingly.
"Yes, and a few answers too, I think."
Time moved on, and the old woman was on her deathbed. She called her elder daughter, herself a grown woman, in to her bedside, and took the leather bound stories out from their hiding place.
"You are the guardian, now," she said on her last whispered breath.
"I'll take care of them, Mama." And she kissed the still cheek.
When the woman had read through the journal, reviewing the stories she had grown up with, and wanted to share with her baby girl, she found an electronically printed note from her mother folded and stuck at the very end. A heavy object fell from the envelope with the single sheet of paper, and the woman gasped in perception. She opened the note and began reading.
For the Record.... (it stated)
Twelve years ago, a strange and sickly man approached me begging a favor.
I didn't know him, for time and disease and a hard life had beaten him beyond
recognition. It was only when he showed me this token, the Soulmates' Ring,
that I realized who he was.
"I brought disgrace and dishonour to our family because of my greed and
discontent, and it has cost me everything I ever held dear. Hold this in
trust, as you do the stories, for one day, the warrior and the bard will be
one again, and the rings will be reunited by them."
He melted off again into the night, and was never seen nor heard from again.
It is suspected he died and was buried in an unmarked tomb by the love goddess.
One last thing... until the soulmates are reunited, this story is only to be told,
passed from mother to daughter, upon the death of the guardian.
Jill smiled, seeing the acceptance and understanding in the bard's eyes. The question in them, however made her speak to her daughter alone.
"When you were little, your grandmother shared all the soulmate stories with you." Randi's eyebrows rose into her hairline, but otherwise, she remained Gwen's silent, stoic anchor. "Soon you could tell them better than she could read them to you, and you were telling us more than we had ever gotten from the journals." The mother swallowed, suddenly weary. It had been a very long, emotional night for her, and it wasn't quite over yet.
"Just before your Gramma died," using the bard's loving address for Jill's mother, "she took me aside and gave me the journals and the ring. Then she told me something I never understood until tonight."
Gwen swallowed hard, and asked softly, "What was that?"
"She told me to always keep the ring with me, because you would need it someday." Tears welled up in her eyes and poised on the verge of falling. "Looks like she was right." She paused and looked right at Randi. "And I'm so glad she was."
Jill pulled a small pouch from her pocket, and passed it to her daughter. "This is yours to take care of, I think." And without another word, strode out into the darkness of the night.
It hadn't taken Geoff long to join her. He, Tommy and Ella had scattered willingly and quickly when Jill had stepped outside. They were all quite aware of what the tiny packet contained, and were each anxious to insure the lovers had a bit of privacy.
"Things are changing... so much is happening so fast. I'm not sure I can cope with all this, Geoff. It's a little overwhelming."
He made a mental note of the sound of a door closing in the distance, but at the moment, his attention was entirely focused on the woman who stood in front of him. The weapons smith closed the scant inches of space between them, resting his hands on her shoulders, and pulling her back against his still muscular body. He smiled when she relaxed against him, and wrapped his arms neatly around her waist. He put his chin on her shoulder before he spoke.
"You're doing fine, love. It's a lot to adjust to in the course of a couple hours."
"Yeah, well, I didn't see you slapping our daughter's fianc„e across the face on first sight."
"Sweetheart, in the first place, you were between us. And in the second, well, there are some things I come at from a different point of view than you do, even when I understand and accept your reasoning. Besides, Randi could have stopped you. She obviously felt it was your due."
Jill looked at her husband in puzzlement over the sureness of his words, but he didn't explain any farther, and she was unwilling to press him on it. She knew herself that there were some secrets that had to be kept, regardless of personal convictions or feelings.
"It could have cost me our daughter, Geoff!!" Her voice rose in a mixture pf pain, anger and frustration. She didn't know whether to pull away from him or cuddle closer. He solved her dilemma by pulling her to him and holding on tightly.
"It didn't, love. And it won't."
Tear filled eyes looked up at him. "Do you really believe that?"
Remembering the expression in Randi's eyes, and the same later reflected in Gwen's, he nodded. "Yeah, I do." And they stood there in silence while thunder rolled in the distance.
Gwen and Randi sat frozen when the weight of the little package settled in the bard's hand. They never noticed when the room cleared... only that they were alone. The small blonde hesitated, hefting the heavy object in her hand without taking it out of its holder. Randi felt the shaking start, and held on to her companion for dear life. Her head was still spinning with all the implications the day and evening had held. She could only imagine how it was affecting Gwen.
Words whispered so low she could hardly make them out, even in the stillness. "Love, do you think anyone would be terribly offended if we left? I need to be alone with just you for a while."
In answer, the Sabre rose, carrying the smaller woman up with her. They didn't stop to speak to anyone, but simply left quietly together. Tommy and Ella, watching from a shadowed doorway, smiled at each other and walked to the kitchen to prepare a light snack for their impromptu company.
The walk home was quiet, the stillness only broken by the night sounds and the surf crashing upon the nearby shore. The two held hands, needing the physical connection to one another. With a tug, Randi led them down the dock to the end of the boathouse deck. She was fairly certain that Gwen's parents would stay with Tommy, at least for tonight. Tomorrow, well, they'd see about tomorrow when it came. For now, though, they were alone together... with nothing but the sound of the wind and water, the stars, and the darkness.
For a very long time, they sat wrapped together, staring into the blackness, absorbing the peace. Finally, Gwen cleared her throat to speak. "This has been a very emotional day, hasn't it?"
"Mmm," the Marine agreed, drained from the day's events, and content to have the bard wrapped in her arms. She figured Gwen was working through some things aloud, and was glad to provide her lover support and a listening ear until she needed more. The blonde turned in the Sabre's arms, until she sat straddled across Randi's lap, and could capture those blue eyes in her own gaze
"She knew, Randi. My Gramma knew." She tilted her head slightly, and the Marine could see the glistening of tears forming in the green eyes. "How did she know? And why didn't she tell me? Such a waste. We could have lost each other never knowing the truth." And here the tears fell in earnest, tumbling from her eyes and rolling down planed cheeks. Randi smiled a gentle smile of understanding, and let the woman cry. Finally, as the tears abated, she removed one arm from around the bard, and softly wiped away the wetness. Then she spoke slowly, considering her words.
"Love, this was something we had to discover and acknowledge for ourselves. You know that. We might never have found each other otherwise. You would not have fulfilled your potential as a bard, because you would have been too busy looking for something that wasn't even in place yet." She took a deep breath, choosing her words with even greater care now. "None of our time together has been wasted, and the time we spent apart only strengthened the bond of our hearts and souls." The warrior looked like there was more she wanted to say, but fell silent, unsure of how to convey what she wanted.
I thought *I* was the bard here, was Gwen's first thought when Randi stopped speaking. She smiled as the truth of the warrior's statements sank in. She's right. The bard didn't speak for a while, but raised a hand to trace the now familiar lines of the face she held so dear. Randi relaxed, and allowed the exploration, knowing the bard was using the ritual to relax and focus herself. The Marine waited for the smaller woman to speak when one hand began caressing her neck and collarbones, and the other wove itself into her raven hair. With a gentle tug, Gwen brought their lips to almost touching, and whispered, "You're right," before bringing their mouths together passionately for a long kiss.
It was the rumble of thunder that pulled them apart after a few breathless moments. Randi made a move to rise. "C'mon, love. Let's get in the house before it starts raining and we get caught in the flood again." She smiled, and was surprised by the seriousness of the blonde's gaze, and her refusal to budge. "Gwen?" Then she felt her left hand grasped and held.
The once loquacious bard remained silent as she slowly raised Randi's hand to her lips, green eyes locked onto blue. She softly kissed each knuckle, before focusing on the third finger. She kissed the empty spot, then slid the coolness of the ring into place, filling it. She placed another kiss on the token as a sacrament, and whispered, "Always."
A flash of lightening illuminated the silent tears falling from the Marine's eyes, and reflected the joy shining from them. "Forever," she whispered back, before bringing their lips together again to seal the vow. Neither one even noticed when the rain began to fall.
Geoff and Jill walked back into the house just as the downpour started. "We owe you two an apology," Geoff said slowly, as Tommy ushered them into the kitchen. Ella was putting the finishing touches on a snack, and motioned them to take a seat.
"How so?" The curly headed woman cocked her head to the side in a listening attitude, while placing their ice cream in front of them. Then she set a multitude of toppings in front of them, gesturing. "I *never* dress anyone else's ice cream."
She saw them visibly relax, and she smiled. That had been her aim. Ella knew they were gonna be embarrassed and uncomfortable now, given what had happened earlier, and the fact that the "girls" had left without so much as a goodbye.
"We should have called you first. We have no right to be dropping in on you unannounced. My mother would roll in her grave if she knew how rude...."
"As I recall," Tommy broke in on the explanation, "we've told you both on numerous occasions you are always welcome here anytime." He paused, then continued. "Ya'll are part of the family, and we're glad you're here." He looked into Jill's eyes, and clasped her hand. "We'll get through this, Jill. We all will."
She looked at the man who she considered a dear friend and smiled at his faith. "Thanks, Tommy. I think we will." She took a deep breath, squeezed his hand before they released. Then she reached for the colored sprinkles and asked, "So, when do we get to meet the rest of the family?" And talked turned to less intensive matters for the remainder of the evening.
A hot shower had gone a long way toward warming them up after the chill of the storm had soaked into their bones. Now they sat curled up together in front of the fireplace, with mugs of hot tea.
"I thought summer storms were supposed to be warm."
"Hmm. Apparently not always." The Marine smiled. "But it was worth it," she added, smiling into Gwen's eyes.
"Yeah, it was," after a soul-sharing pause. Then the blonde lay her head on Randi's shoulder, and together they tranquilly watched the flames dance and crackle.
The following morning found them wrapped around one another in the middle of the big bed. Gwen lay there, ear plastered to the Marine's chest, listening to the strong heartbeat. She tilted her head up to look at Randi's features in repose. It still surprised her to be awake first. Always before, the Marine had been up running before the break of dawn. Absently, the bard began tracing the lines and planes of the beloved face. She smiled as the muscles twitched, and the arms tightened, just before sleepy blue eyes appeared and returned her smile.
"Good morning, beautiful." The low voice was husky with sleep. The Sabre closed her eyes again as the small fingers continued to softly follow the contours of her face.
"Good morning, love." Gwen moved up until she was nose to nose with Randi, which she quickly licked. Outraged blue eyes flew open, and the giggling bard leaped from the bed heading for the bathroom. She wasn't quite quick enough, though, and the Marine caught her round the waist before she could close the door. Randi hefted the blonde off her feet, and took the wiggling, squirming mass of humanity back to the big bed, throwing her in the middle and pouncing on top of her before Gwen could even think about moving. The tickle fight that ensued caused the smaller woman to plead for mercy.
"So, you wanna start something, hmm?" The tickling had slowed to a slow caress, and Randi licked up one side of the bard's neck, nipping at the conveniently placed ear.
"No! Yes! Oh, um.... " Gwen voice trailed off, and her breath caught in a gasp as she felt Randi's tongue trace up the other side of her neck. That was the last of the discussion for the better part of the morning.
"C'mon, love. We can't avoid them forever." They had finally gotten out of bed and showered, and were just now sitting down to what could technically be termed "brunch." Geoff and Jill had called much earlier, though they'd been far too engrossed in other things to pay the vid center any mind. Randi did remember being thankful to have turned of the bedroom connection, before she was swept away into a world of sensation. Now, however, they had seen the vid message, and Gwen was showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for calling them back. "You knew they were gonna have to know."
The bard sighed deeply. "I'm not avoiding them, love." She clasped Randi's hand across the table. "Okay, I *am* avoiding them a little bit. I would have preferred to have told them in my own time and way, but I can't fault them for their concern." Another breath and exhalation. "I'm still furious with my mother, though. How dare she.... "
Randi rose, and came around the table, kneeling at the blonde's feet. "Gwen," she placed her hands on the bard's knees and changed tactics. "Why don't you ask her?" The simplicity of the question was almost overwhelming, and Gwen blinked in surprise. "Don't you think you owe her the courtesy?"
The bard cupped her hands around the older woman's cheeks. Then she drew their faces close, and rubbed their noses together, before depositing a gentle kiss on said appendage. "I love you, ya know," looking deep into soft blue eyes.
"I know," came the soft answer. "Ditto, Little One."
"C'mon, Stud," rising and pulling the warrior to her feet. "Let's go talk to the folks."
Randi and Geoff decided to go for a walk around the island. They needed a bit of private time to talk, and both had the distinct feeling Jill and Gwen's discussion was not for their ears. Ditto, who had accompanied the Goldmans back to the beach house, decided that outdoors was infinitely better than in, and dashed out toward the beach as soon as Randi opened the French door.
They walked along together in silence for a while. The Marine absorbed the sights, sounds and smells that assaulted her senses, while the man studied her and her reaction to the world newly returned to her. Finally, they paused to rest on a small dune. Randi had seen the toll the walk was taking on Geoff, and took a seat. He followed her lead, secretly grateful for the break. She scooped up a piece of driftwood and threw it for Ditto, happy to stay silent until the weapons smith was ready to talk.
"A lot has changed." He spoke at last.
She nodded in agreement. "Yes, it has." She was actually much more apprehensive about this conversation than she was letting on. She had turned Gwen back over into his care when she had left. He could, by right, deny her the bard's hand. While it wouldn't stop their marriage, as they were both well over age, it would put a damper on things. They wanted the Goldman's blessing, much as they had her own parents. Hence her presence her with Geoff, and Gwen's with her mother. The tenor of the rest of their relationship with Gwen's folks depended heavily on the outcome of the talks they were now having.
"You gave my daughter back into my care, though she was never formally in yours to start with. Why was that?"
The question caught the Marine somewhat flatfooted. She had expected him to ask about the mission, or her death, or why she thought he would trust her with the precious commodity that Gwen was. He had blind-sided her, and it took her a moment to recover. Still, she swallowed audibly, and met his gaze briefly, before turning to look out across the endless ocean vista.
"Because I was selfish," was her soft reply.
Now it was Geoff's turn to look somewhat stunned. That hadn't been close to the things he had supposed she would say.
"Oh? How so?" He had mixed emotions about her decision to leave, and she wasn't, he felt, solely responsible for her choice. But that was something they could talk about later. For now, he refocused himself, and listened to her whispered answer.
"When I first met your daughter, four years ago, I accepted a responsibility to protect and keep her safe. I was the head of Midas security, and it was my job. As she became my friend, it became less my job and more my pleasure. And as I fell in love with her, her safety and security became paramount to me," the tears rolled silently down her face, "as did her happiness." There was silence for a time as she tried to recover herself. Geoff respected her privacy, and kept his eyes riveted on the horizon stretched out in front of him. When she was able to continue, he glanced at her, then looked away again, seeing that she was holding it together by sheer grit.
"When it was obvious there was no way to accomplish that last mission without dying, I wanted the peace of mind of knowing she would be taken care of. I knew you would understand that."
Her eyes never left the blue water, and he found it easier to speak to her without looking at the gut-wrenching expression writ large across her face. There were still some things he needed to know.
"What was it like to die, Randi?" And she heaved a sigh. Here was a question she could answer easily, though she was still hanging as to his decision in regards to the marriage.
"I don't actually remember dying. There was a silent explosion. I saw the walls begin to collapse around me, and then I woke up in this large," she gestured with her hands, "hmm, I dunno... waiting room." He tilted his head in question, and she answered. "It's the reason I was given the choice to come back." Her flat tone indicated a reluctance to say anymore, and he didn't push. Instead, he quietly waited, and she offered a little more. "I will tell you this, Geoff. Coming back was far, far harder than dying, but I'd do it again for Gwen in a heartbeat if I had to."
"Would you make the decision to die again?"
"There are a lot of things I would change if I could go back and redo them, that not being the greatest among them. But I can't. We have to pick up from here and go on." She paused. "I have already promised to live for her from now on." She looked him dead in the eyes when she said the last part, and he felt the commitment flow from her. He stood, and held out his hand to her. She rose and stood, awaiting his verdict.
"Then you have my blessing. C'mon," he continued as they started walking once again. "Let's go tell the girls they have a wedding to plan."
Ditto shook herself dry next to both of them, and took off running at their indignant cries. There were times when having four legs to run on was a definite asset.
The silence in the house was awkward, but neither woman was sure how to pierce it. Gwen had her back to the room, and her mother, as she stood at the French doors watching her lover and her father disappear from sight. She kept her eyes glued to them, all but unaware of her mother's return scrutiny.
Jill took the opportunity to study her daughter. She knew Gwen was avoiding her, but she could also feel the concern for Randi flowing from Gwen. Even in profile, she could see the difference the few days the Marine's return had made. Light color infused her face, green eyes sparkled, and there was a hint of a smile on full lips. Even her posture reflected a change. Jill shook her head sadly. Had she thought *before* she struck Randi, they wouldn't be in this situation. Now, instead of the happiness of planning a wedding, they were struggling to find words to bridge the chasm that now divided them.
"Why, Mother?" Gwen never moved, and Jill had to strain to catch the words whispered away from her hearing. "What did you hope to accomplish?"
"Oh, baby girl." The older woman moved closer to the younger, but not touching, not willing to see her daughter flinch away from her. "It was a reaction, plain and simple. Not a very good one, and not one I'd have had if I had stopped and thought about it." She paused, and Gwen waited quietly. "But I didn't think... I felt. All I saw was this person who caused you untold agony and grief, and I lashed out."
Now Gwen turned from the door and looked into Jill's eyes. "Mama, I love her. She is my life."
"I know that, Gwen. I suspect your father and I were aware of that fact long before you acknowledged it to yourself. But when I saw her standing there, I didn't register her as your lover... only as the object of your pain."
"I'm a grown woman, Mother."
"I know that, Gwen. But you are still my daughter, and will always be, to some extent, my little girl. And a mother is supposed to protect her children." She paused, collecting her thoughts before continuing. "I want you to know something." Finally she reached out a hand and cupped the bard's cheek, pleased when Gwen did not move away from her. "Words cannot possibly convey how happy I am that the two of you have been given a second chance at being together. I've always like Randi, and we were prepared to welcome her into our family years ago. I'm glad we're finally getting the chance to do so."
At these words, tears fell from both eyes in earnest, and the Goldman women came together mutually for an embrace. "Thank you, Mama."
"You're welcome, little girl. I love you," kissing the blonde head.
"I love you, too."
Both women felt better after the talk, and a good cry together. After refreshing themselves, and grabbing some drinks, they moved out into the sunshine of the deck, and the conversation turned to more pleasant and interesting topics.
"So have you discussed your wedding at all yet?" reaching out a finger and lightly touching the band on Gwen's. "I'm guessing that we're not going to have to wait very long for this occasion."
The bard shook her head, a smile on her lips as she replayed their conversation from earlier that morning over in her mind again.
"Randi, any ideas about our wedding?" She caressed the ring she had placed on the Marine's finger the previous evening, and looked up into sky blue eyes. Those same eyes crinkled up as Randi smiled down at her bard, and answered slowly.
"I want you, me and a priest or priestess. That's all we really need."
Gwen smiled at the truth in that statement, even as she rolled to her back and groaned. "You're gonna make me do this myself, aren't you?" Her breath caught when the large body hovered over her, eyes bare inches from her own.
"Love, we can do whatever you want." She swallowed hard. "In my line of work, it was not prudent to dwell on situations like that, so it's not something I had dreams about." She held up a hand when the bard opened her mouth to speak. "I know some do, most to their extreme regret later, because they lose focus. But I never had a reason to dream until I met you, and then I wouldn't allow myself the distraction, as badly as I wanted to." She swallowed hard again. "So you plan whatever will make you happy. Just having it happen at all is enough for me."
Gwen lay there silently for a time, looking up into blue that reflected only love back to her. It made her angry beyond words that Randi had never really been given the chance to dream in her adult life, thrust into a role whose repercussions would haunt them both forever. She gently reached up to stroke the smooth face, returning the smile reflexively. We'll do what makes us both happy.
"I have one question." Her smile grew broader as the brow crept up. "Will you wear your uniform for me?"
The Sabre gave an almost inaudible sigh of relief. "Thank you, love... for understanding how much that really is a part of me."
Gwen acknowledged the seriousness of the statement, before her eyes began to twinkle mischievously. Her voice took on a teasing tone when she spoke. "Stud, it just makes me hot!" And she squealed aloud when the tickle fight resumed.
Jill wondered what had caused the mysterious smile, but knew better than to ask. Considering what their discussion had been about before Gwen fell into her current trance, she felt it better not to even think about it. There were just some things parents didn't need to know about their children. The bard came back to the present with a start.
"Yeah, we talked about it a bit this morning, but she was a little less than helpful." A sad look entered Gwen's eyes, long enough for Jill to question its origin. Then it was gone, and the younger woman looked at her mother with a smile. "I want to make it special for her... for both of us."
The mother reached over and covered the hand nearest her. "Well, you both deserve that much. Hang on a second." She got up an retrieved something from indoors, returning with her pocket secretary. "Let's see.... " She began musing aloud. "We'll need a wedding coordinator, definitely. They can take care of the details like invitations, chairs, flowers... hmm, and we'll need a caterer and.... "
Gwen's eyes grew big and round as her mother started speaking to the secretary, rattling of things at an alarming rate. "Whoa! Whoa! Mother, stop! Hold on a minute, please."
"What's wrong, dear? Would you really rather us handle everything ourselves? A coordinator will just ease the burden."
"Mother!!" Jill grew quiet, trying to figure out her misstep this time. "Mother," in a much softer tone. "We can plan a fancy reception, invite everyone we know, and do all that. But the ceremony itself is going to be a very private, intimate affair."
"Um, *how* private?"
"A little larger than Randi wants, but not much. Probably you and Daddy, Tommy and Ella, Randi, me and the priest."
"Well, all she wanted were the two of us and the minister. I imagine she'll concede that the four of you should be there, but no one else."
Jill was silent for a bit after that, thinking. Gwen was happy to let her be. The morning had been very draining already, and she was concerned about how her lover and her father were getting along. He and Randi had always had an interesting relationship... almost a kinship that went beyond the bard's understanding. She truly hoped the time and circumstances would not alter that.
So the two women were sitting quietly, each lost in her own thoughts, as Geoff and Randi approached the beach house. Ditto had left them at Tommy's, having spotted her favorite young playmate at the edge of the water with his mother. The Sabre had been surprised to see Ella still at home instead of at the restaurant. The other woman smiled and said they would be going in shortly. The two warriors continued on toward home without speaking. They had settled things between them, and words were not necessary to bridge the silence. It was a state of being they were both comfortable to share.
As they came over the last dune near the house, the bard spotted them, and jumped up. She raced toward the two, leaping into the Marine's arms, and nearly landing them both in the sand. Gwen was so relieved about having straightened things out with her mother that she momentarily forgot about her lover having the same concerns with Geoff.
She realized her possible mistake, just as she landed in Randi's embrace. If her father had not given them his blessing, this could be very awkward. She was almost immediately reassured by the Sabre's wide grin, her father's laughter, and the dizziness she felt as Randi twirled the two of the around together.
"He said yes?" Gwen whispered, eyes lighting joyfully.
"He said yes." Their lips came together, and Geoff walked on toward his wife, as anxious to give the two a few minutes of privacy as he was to talk to Jill.
"They make a beautiful couple, don't they?" the woman asked as her husband grew nearer.
"Yes, they do, and they make each other happy." He paused. "Are you okay with that?"
"Oh, Geoff. All I ever wanted for Gwen was her happiness. I'm so thankful Randi's return was able to fulfill that wish."
They watched in silence as the two women finally separated enough to walk the short distance up to the beach house deck.
"Randi," Jill began without preamble. "I'd like to take care of your wedding and reception arrangements for you." She held up a hand to forestall Gwen's speech. "I understand you'd like the ceremony to be an intimate affair, and we all know the reception, by necessity, will be quite large. I would like a chance to make up for my behavior last night. This is the best way I can think of. You two deserve a little time together without having to worry about arrangements and details. Let me do this for you, please."
The Sabre was a little surprised. She certainly had no objections, but felt the decision actually lay with Gwen. She looked down at her smaller partner. "It's up to you, love."
Gwen stood quietly in the circle of the Marine's embrace for a long moment. She nodded at Randi, and the taller woman smiled at her in return.
"Thanks, Jill. That's very kind of you."
"Oh no, my dear. Kindness has nothing to do with it. My reasons are totally selfish." She chuckled at the twin eyebrow raises she got from the two younger women. "I have always dreamed of my daughter's wedding. It will be nice to make some of those dreams come true. Besides," she continued in a much softer tone, "I owe you both something for my reaction last night."
Gwen started to pull away from the Sabre's arms, when she felt them tighten around her. She gazed into the blue eyes looking back at her, and gave in to the unspoken request. Randi disengaged herself from the bard, and moved to kneel in front of the still-seated Jill.
"Jill, we'd be happy for you to plan our wedding, and make a few of your dreams come true. But you don't owe us anything. What happened is over, and I don't want any more guilt about it." She let loose a bit of the formidable Sabre personality, and the other woman just sat there, stunned. "Understand?"
Jill Goldman simply nodded, unable to speak with her suddenly parched throat. Geoff seemed to comprehend the problem. He simply passed his wife the water, and waited while she gulped it down. "Better?" he whispered. She nodded, then turned back to Randi who still waited.
"Thank you, Randi. Your trust and forgiveness is more than I deserve."
"Jill, can I tell you something?" She waited until the woman nodded before continuing. "If I'd have been in your place, I doubt I would have gotten off quite so easily." She rose and moved back to Gwen's side before Jill had the opportunity to even think about a response.
The elder Goldman woman shook her head as if to clear it. She looked to the younger and said, "Gwen, I will of course keep you appraised on the situation. Ya'll can veto anything you don't like. Now," readying her pocket secretary, " there are a few things I will need to know before I get started."
Geoff and Randi were content to sit back in silence while Gwen and her mother started discussing some of the particulars for the upcoming nuptials. As the conversation dragged on, however, one warrior looked to the other and proposed a bit of sparring. The two excused themselves from the talk, and went to prepare.
Several minutes later they returned and bowed to one another before beginning a rapid-fire set of warm-up drills. Jill and Gwen's dialogue came to a grinding halt as the staff play became more intense. They watched, fascinated, at the display of skill the two Sabres exhibited.
Gwen knew, in their practices together, that Randi never went full out. She had wondered why, a little confused at why the Marine didn't give her full effort. Watching her now with Geoff, the bard understood so much better. It was apparent, even as good as the weapons smith was, that Randi was still holding back. The blonde sat enthralled by the grace and power demonstrated by her lover.
Randi, for her part, could see the strain the effort was taking on her soon-to-be father-in-law. He was obviously in some serious pain, judging by the grimace that remained in his eyes. Rather abruptly, she withdrew and saluted him, leaving him looking after her in mute question. She placed her weapon on the table set there for just that purpose, and moved back beside him. A raised eyebrow caused him to follow her lead, and when he was next to her again, they began some slow, free form exercises. The relief on his face was palpable, and she mentioned quietly, "You should have said something, Geoff. You know better then to do some of this sparring while you're hurt."
He looked her in the eye as they turned to face off. "I am almost continually in pain now, to some degree, Randi. I wasn't going to give up this opportunity, or stop doing other things I enjoy because of it. I can't, because the day I do will be the day I stop living."
She gave his words some thought, then nodded her acceptance of the truth of them. They finished their workout, oblivious to the stares of their respective partners. Done, they each took a towel and wiped away the rivulets of sweat pouring from them. Randi plucked at her now soaked tunic.
"You up for a swim?"
The weapons smith glanced down at himself, and grimaced. "Yeah," he smiled at the Sabre. "That sounds like a great idea. Meet ya on the dock in ten." He turned and headed for the boathouse, thankful Randi had insisted they keep some things there.
The Marine scooped up the staves and used towels, and walked the short distance to the beach house deck, noticing for the first time the two sets of eyes glued on her. "What?" looking around herself carefully. "Is there a problem?"
Seeing as her daughter appeared to be momentarily struck mute, Jill shook her head and replied. "No, no problem. That was... fascinating."
Randi, flustered now, bowed her head as they blush made its slow way up her face. "If you'll excuse me," she said, pulling at her wet top, " we're gonna go swimming to cool off for a bit. Ya'll can.... "
".... join you." The bard, suddenly animated, jumped up and took the surprised Sabre by the arm. "Mother, we'll meet you both shortly." And without another word turned toward the house, dragging Randi inside with her. Jill just chuckled, and headed for the boathouse.
It was coming on to sundown when the four of them pulled themselves out of the warm water. It had been a relaxing and enjoyable afternoon, which had been just the kind of day they needed to sweep away most of the awkwardness that threatened them. Pilot and Peanut had come to play for a while, and that had been a lot of fun. The four climbed back onto the deck, discussing dinner plans, when a hail from the shore caught their attention.
"Hey, you guys up for some dinner?"
Randi waved Ella down to join them, since she had no real desire to move yet, and wasn't about to carry on any kind of conversation yelling back and forth. She watched as Ditto stayed by Ella's side as she carried Randall down the dock, and noticed how attentive to the child the dog was. There was a niggling at the back of her neck, but she put it aside for the present.
It wasn't long before good-natured laughter and teasing could be heard on the deck. Steaks had been put on the grill that Randi was currently manning, and Jill, Ella and Gwen had gone up to the beach house to see what they go find to go with them. Geoff and Tommy sat on the boathouse dock, casting the occasional glance toward the Marine, and talking. Randall got tired of playing with Ditto, and ran over right into Randi knees.
"Hey there, love muffin! Whatcha got going on, huh? She reached down and pulled him up to her, and she let him "help" her turn the steaks. Content, he kissed her and asked to be put down. The child proceeded to wander over to his father. Geoff excused himself from their conversation and walked over to Randi, still in her somewhat damp swimsuit.
"I'll keep and eye on these, if you wanna go change."
She smiled, appreciating the offer. "You sure you don't mind? I hate to ask guests... "
"Randi," seriously, looking her in the eyes. "We're not guests. We're family."
She looked at him wide-eyed and swallowed hard. " Won't take me but a couple minutes." She scampered of as though being chased by fire. Tommy's eyes followed her, concerned, then came back to meet Geoff's.
"I think I threw her off stride." The man from Midas let it go.
Randi, on the other hand, was repeating the words to herself. She nearly ran into Ella, coming down the deck steps with a platter of corn.
"Sorry, Ella. Wasn't watching where I was going."
The curly headed woman peered into the Sabre's still wide eyes. "Randi? You okay?"
The Marine nodded her head absently, and answered, "Yeah, I just need to change. I'll be down there in a minute." She continued on into the house where she almost knocked Jill over coming out the door. The salad was saved by skill and a bit of luck.
"Sorry, Jill," coming out of her trance. "You okay?"
"Yes, dear. Thank you for asking. You?"
"Yeah," distracted. "I'm just gonna go change. I'll meet ya'll down there in a few minutes." Jill nodded her head, wondering what could have put the dazed look in the taller woman's eye. Then she proceeded to join the rest of the party on the dock deck.
She found the bard in the kitchen, having just pulled warm rolls out of the oven, and set them down on the counter. The Marine walked up behind Gwen, and engulfed her in an enormous hug. The younger woman relaxed into the embrace, until she felt the confusion emanating from the tall form holding her. She turned in Randi's arms, looking into her eyes.
The Sabre raised her head, and Gwen held her breath at the startled wonder she saw reflected back to her in big blue eyes. "He called us family, Gwen."
It took a brief moment before the implication sank in, and then a smile lit up the bard's features. "We *are* family, Randi. All of us. Together." She wrapped her arms around the Marine's waist, and laid an ear over her heart. Then she squeezed gently, reassured when Randi returned the hug and held on tight. "Now," after another long moment, "go change. We'll be waiting dinner for ya." Gwen smile tremulously, trying not to let the overwhelming emotions assaulting her senses get the best of her. They'd have time later for that.
Dinner was a pleasant affair, though Randi and Gwen were taken off guard by Geoff's casual announcement, as the Steeles made ready to leave.
"You two will come up and see us, soon?" gathering things together, and offering his hand to Jill. She stood as well, and moved over to say goodbye to Ella and Randall.
"Daddy?" Confusion echoed from the bard's being.
"Little girl, you and Randi deserve some time alone. We're gonna go on back home. You can come visit when you're ready."
"Besides," Jill cut in, "You'll need to come up to talk to Sal. You know how he feels about personal interaction, and he'll be devastated if you don't have him do the holos and pictures." Gwen stifled a chuckle at the silent groan she felt rumble through Randi's chest. She couldn't stop the grin that emerged as the hands at her waist tightened, though. Jill laughed aloud at the chagrined expression on the Marine's face.
"We'll be there, Mother. We are taking Ditto to Reed this weekend, to get her settled in to stay there for the next couple months. So we have a little bit of time." She looked up to see blue eyes gazing down at her, and they answered her unspoken question. "But we'll probably come up in the next weekend or two after that."
"That's fine, dear. Whenever is good for you both." Hugs, kisses and goodbyes were exchanged, then Randi and Gwen were left to peace and quiet.
It was some time later, and the warrior and the bard lay curled up in bed together.
"Hmm?" came the somewhat sleepy response. The day had been another emotionally stressful one, and the Marine was exhausted. She unconsciously tightened her arms around the woman who lay in them, and waited. Gwen shifted so she could look into the blue eyes that were, at the moment, closed to her. She ran her hands lightly up the sides of the torso she was sprawled on top of. The body beneath her jerked, and one blue eye opened to glare menacingly at her. She chuckled in response, then drew in a shaky breath as the large hands on her back returned the favor in kind, and kept up the action.
"Yeeeesss??" Randi drawled, fiendishly aware of the reaction the storyteller was having to her touch. Gwen shook her head to try and refocus her thoughts on the subject at hand. She clenched her fists and dropped her head down onto Randi's chest.
"Please," she whispered, unsure herself what exactly she was asking for.
The Marine smiled down in amused affection at the blonde head now resting on her chest. She dropped a kiss onto the top of Gwen's head and changed her stroking motion. The bard sighed, and drew a deep breath. "I know better. One of these days I'll learn."
Randi laughed and kissed the blonde head again. "Nah, you'll keep trying," thinking of all the times the bard had tried playing practical jokes to get one over on the warrior. "It's in your nature." She paused as she felt the smaller body relax against her. "Now, what did you want to ask me?"
The gentle motion of Randi's hands was coaxing Gwen into a doze, and she had to pull her thoughts from the twilight zone they were slipping into.
"I, um, I wanted to... uh, well, ask you to, um, do something... for me."
The Marine's brow rose into her hairline at the bard's hemming and hawing around. Gwen wasn't known to stutter and stumble over words. Intrigued, she asked, "Oh, what's that?"
The bard took a deep breath. "I'd like you to... would you mind... do you think you could... oh, damn!"
Now Randi chuckled, and Gwen rose up from the Sabre's rocking chest to glare at her. "It's not funny!"
"I'm sorry, love," though it took another moment or two for her to still her chest's movements. She smiled. "Just spit it out. Whatever it is, it can't be that bad."
"I'd like you design my wedding dress." Green eyes dropped to the suddenly still surface underneath her, not catching the widening of the blue ones now locked on the top of her head. The bard felt the deep breath that shuddered through Randi's body, and waited for the Marine to speak. The warrior cleared her throat twice before she managed to get more than a squeak out.
"Gwen, are you sure? Your mother probably knows dozens more qualif...." Slim fingers over her lips caused Randi's words to stop flowing. She kissed them, and waited patiently for the bard to speak.
"I'm sure. I have never felt more beautiful, or more loved than when I found out that you created those two dresses just for me. I'd like for it to be the same on our wedding day."
There was nothing Randi could say to the logic or the feeling behind those words. "Then that is how it will be," she answered with a smile. "I know Marie will be thrilled to craft another dress, and actually get to have you there for fittings this time." The Marine laughed in memory.
"Oh, I was just remembering her griping about having to use measurements without a body attached to them. It was hard for her. And still, she did a flawless job."
"She certainly did."
"It'll be beautiful, love. I promise."
"I know it will," giving the tall woman beneath her a long leisurely kiss. "Good night, warrior. I love you."
"I love you too, Little One. Good night."
The pair spent a quiet few days together, pleasantly surprised that their friends gave them a bit of time to themselves. Unbeknownst to them, Tommy asked their friends to give them a bit of space, and though anxious to reacquaint themselves with Randi, and celebrate the couple's newfound happiness, they were glad to respect their need for a bit of private time.
As the weekend approached, Gwen noticed the Marine getting more and more nervous. Even a daylong ride on the bike together with a stop by Rosie's hadn't helped relax her, and the bard decided to broach the problem that night. They were curled around each other comfortably. Randi's hand absently slid up and down the muscular back, her mind obviously miles away.
"Randi?" Gwen got no answer. She reached up and touched the face just above her head, leaning back to catch the blue eyes. "Love?" she tried the second time, glad when the eyes focused on her.
"It's gonna be all right," getting to the heart of the matter. "They're gonna be thrilled to see you, to know that you're alive." They had tried for several days to contact Reed and Tiny. When they had finally reached the ranch caretaker, they had been informed that Reed was expected home the day before Gwen was scheduled to arrive. No mention was made of Tiny, and Randi knew better than to even ask.
"I know. I just feel really bad about springing this on them. It seems really unfair.... " She trailed off when she realized that had been exactly what she had done to both Gwen and Tommy. But then, she reasoned, those had been completely different situations. "I'm sorry, love. I think I'm still just a little overwhelmed."
"It's okay, Randi. Sometimes I am too. But it's a nice kind of overwhelmed." The conversation would have gone on longer had not the both bard and warrior yawned monstrously together. They chuckled, and closed their eyes in sleep, anticipating the reunion the morrow would bring.
Friday morning found the Steele family at the beach house ostensibly to see them off, but mostly so Randall could say goodbye to his favorite pillow/playmate.
"O go bye-bye." He shook his head sadly at the fact.
Randi picked him up in her arms and he put his own arms around her neck. They stood thus for a long moment, and the Marine tickled his neck by blowing raspberries on it. He squealed in childish laughter, and Ditto came running over, barking. This little pandemonium caused an outbreak of hilarity to burst forth from the three remaining adults. It was a nice tension release.
"I'll tell ya what, love muffin. O will be back home in a couple months, okay? And maybe we'll even bring home a new playmate."
Randall's eyes took on a shine at the prospect of having another dog around to play with, and he gestured for the warrior to release him. When him feet were settled on the ground, Ditto nosed him in the chest and promptly caused him to sit down. The boy wrapped his arms around the dog's neck, and the shepherd proceeded to give the child a thorough face washing. Randall giggled. "Doggy tickles. Bye-bye, O. Good doggy"
And it was to this send off that the trio departed.
When they arrived a short transport trip later at Reed's dog ranch, Reed came out to meet them. Ditto was the first off the private transport, and Reed greeted the canine with enthusiasm. She expected to get some beautiful puppies in this litter. The male, Phil, came from a line of wolves, and he tended to have a throwback in some of the litters he sired. Reed had a feeling this might be one of those litters.
When Gwen emerged from the transport, Reed stepped back in sudden shock, her senses flooded by the aura the bard was emitting. She stood still, her hand on her chest, trying to catch her breath. Gwen rushed to her side, startled when Reed flinched violently at her touch. Hurt by the reaction, the blonde stepped quietly out of reach, but not so far from the other woman that she couldn't lend a hand if aid became necessary. Finally, Reed recovered her breath and looked Gwen squarely in the eyes.
"Where is she, Gwen? Is she here?"
Now it was the bard's turn to step back a pace and look shocked. Gwen had gotten off the transport first, to cushion the blow, but Reed's reaction to her had halted everything. The breeder had turned her back to the door of the transport when the aura had hit, and Gwen had walked around to face her. So she simply pointed over her shoulder where Randi now stood in the doorway waiting.
Reed turned slowly, allowing her heart and mind to slowly accept what her eyes told her to be true. She was better prepared for the force of the aura this time, but the sensation was still overwhelming. Slowly, Randi made her way to stand in front of the other woman, careful not to initiate physical contact. She had seen Reed's reaction to Gwen's touch. Instead, she held out her hand to the bard, who took it without a word, and moved to stand beside the Marine.
The breeder shut her eyes as their physical link caused the aura around them to burn so brightly, she feared for her eyesight. Several seconds passed while Reed meditated, bringing her breathing and reaction under better control. When she opened her eyes, they were bright with unshed tears.
"What happened? How....?" She trailed off as they moved a step closer. "No, please." At their puzzled looks, she continued. "Your aura, your essence," they nodded their understanding before she continued. "While it was strong before, it is simply overwhelming now. I can feel it manifested physically," she looked directly at Gwen, "and it's like an electric shock."
"Oh, God, Reed!" horrified. "Are you all right?" The bard was quite upset to know she had caused the other woman discomfort, and perhaps even real pain. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right, Gwen. You had no way of knowing, and frankly, neither did I. That has never happened to me before, though in truth I've never seen so strong a bond before either. I will have to do a bit of research into this." The last was muttered mostly to herself, but Randi heard it. She hoped to hear more about this later, but for now, there were other things to talk about.
"Forgive my manners. Please, come in. Let me get Ditto settled in, and then we'll have time for a nice long chat to catch up. Ya'll make yourselves at home, and I'll be back shortly."
"I'm gonna take Randi over to meet Phil, if that's okay?" The bard raised her voice in question. She suspected Reed needed a bit of space to recover a little bit of her still badly shaken composure. She took the Marine's arm when the breeder nodded, and they went to separate buildings.
The big shepherd was a bit of an anomaly, being most black with only occasional spots of brown. He thought to have a staring contest with the Marine, but she held her own, until the dog capitulated. Finding her acceptable, he then jumped up on her in delighted welcome.
"Oof!" came the whooshing sound of air leaving Randi's lungs. She'd never thought the big dog would have jumped up on her and had not really been ready for the movement. She staggered under his weight, but managed to keep her balance, barely. Dodging the doggy kisses was a little harder, and it sent Gwen into a fit of giggles.
"Would... you mind... ex...plaining... to me, uh, um... UGH!.... God!... get down!.... Get.... "
Suddenly Phil seemed to understand, and stood back on all fours, with a ludicrously contented look on his face. He barked sharply once, and stood grinning at her with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, as though privy to some private joke.
"Now," moving to the small bathroom to wash her face and hands. "Would you be kind enough to tell me why that *always* happens to me, and never to you?" She was glaring at the still chuckling bard, but her blue eyes twinkled with merriment.
"I dunno, Stud. Maybe it's just pheromones." Randi growled playfully. Phil growled for real.
"Actually, she's not that far off." Reed's voice came from the doorway. "You are apparently the Alpha, obviously the leader of your pack. The dogs simply respond to that."
"I... but... I.... " the Marine sputtered to her fellow Sabre. "Ah, hell."
Now both the other woman just looked at each other and smiled. They didn't want to embarrass Randi any further, but the look on her face was impossibly cute. The breeder smoothed over the moment with an invitation.
"C'mon up to the house, guys. We'll have some talk, and a bite of lunch, and then I'll give you both the tour. We've added a few new things since you were here last."
The walk up to the house was a quiet one. Reed noticed that her friends stayed in constant physical contact, and had to smile. The sweetness of the action, and the strength of their bond was a wonderful, unsought-for memory she would come to treasure and guard dearly in the weeks and months to come.
Reed listened amazed and open-mouthed as Randi once again explained her miraculous restoration to life. She was making a holo-recording for Tiny, as it was a fairly sure prospect he would not be home before they left.
"How are things going?" The Marine finally asked. Reed knew exactly what Randi was referring to, and cast a covert glance in Gwen's direction. She knew Tiny had had a talk with the bard, but they had never discussed the details of that conversation between them. Tiny's only comment about the matter had been, "I gave her a bit of peace." The breeder had asked no questions, and the big man had volunteered nothing else.
"She knows everything, Reed."
"And I'm not letting her go back to that life." Gwen wrapped her hands firmly around the larger ones of her partner. "Ever."
"Do you think you can stop it?"
"No. I *KNOW* I can. She doesn't belong to them anymore. She did her duty and DIED for them. I won't let that happen again!!" By this point, Gwen was on her feet and yelling, and Reed was once again hit with an outpouring of emotional energy that was staggering. Randi stood and enveloped the bard in a hug. Gwen couldn't stop the tears that ran down her face. "She's mine now, Reed. She lives for me," she whispered, reaching up a hand and stroking a smooth cheekbone, "for us." Their eyes locked, and for a moment there was no one else in the world as their souls communicated.
"Always," the Marine vowed. Finally they sat back down next to each other, touching along their lengths.
"Well," Reed croaked out, as she tried to catch her breath at the flood of energy flowing, "I, for one, believe you. And quite frankly, I agree. You've done enough. And it really hasn't been nearly as bad since.... "
"Since I died?" A brief pause as the breeder hesitantly nodded. "Reed, it's okay. It's a fact of our lives, and something we will be working through for a long time."
"I can only imagine," the woman half muttered to herself. "This is only the third trip he's made since then." Randi's brows rose into her forehead, remembering the frenetic pace they had been going in those last few months. Reed noticed and continued. "It's mostly just little pockets of resistance. Or so it seems. This trip was a fact finding trip." She paused again, gathering her thoughts. "Rumor is that there may be a new leader."
Gwen saw Randi's jaw lock, and her gaze turn inward. She reached a hand over to turn the beloved face toward her. "It's not your fight, love. Not anymore."
"I know, Gwen. It's just.... "
She rose from her place, and moved toward the window. Reed subtly moved to the kitchen. This was between the two of them. Besides, all the energy floating around in there was starting to make her muscles cramp, and she needed a break from it. She quietly did her clean up, thankful to be out of hearing of the discussion in the next room.
"What, Randi?" The bard wasn't sure whether she was hurt, stunned or angry by the turn in the conversation.
"It was just a part of me for so long. I... I dunno. I think it's just an instinctive reaction, knowing what I do about the world and the Sabres. I can't help it."
And somewhere, in the recesses of the heavens, a dark god laughed.
Gwen moved to stand in front of the Marine, slipping under the outstretched arms on either side of the windowsill and placing herself between the window and Randi. "I'm sorry, love. I know it was your life. It *is* your life. I don't mean to be selfish. It's just I, um.... " White teeth worried the full bottom lip, and green eyes full of tears fell to the floor.
"Whoa, whoa! Hang on a minute, love. I think we are talking at cross-purposes here. *You* are my life... you have *always* been my life, though until recently, I didn't show you that very well. And I will spend the rest of *our* lives and all of eternity making that up to you. My life as a Sabre is over, and nothing will change that. But it will probably be a long time, if ever, before I can control my instinctive reaction to a situation like this."
"I love you."
"I know, Little One. I love you, too. Let's go find Reed. She owes us a tour, and then I have some questions."
They found the breeder in the kitchen, calmly meditating. Her eyes were closed, and in her hands she held a steaming cup of coffee. Randi had to speak twice before the other woman heard her, careful not to touch her in any way.
Reed slowly opened her eyes, glad to see their energy was a bit more settled. They had solved whatever had caused the sparks to fly, and the woman breathed easier. She would be okay with them, she hoped, as long as they didn't fight. Then a second thought occurred to her. Oh, merciful mother, what if they make love? But it wasn't a topic of discussion she was going to broach, unless they made it necessary.
The tour of the grounds and new facilities took the remainder of the afternoon. They visited Ditto, who had settled comfortably into her temporary new home. Phil came traipsing out from his kennel to greet them loudly again.
"You must've made quite an impression with him. I don't think I've ever seen him quite so enamored of anyone so quickly before."
"They had a staring contest earlier," Gwen supplied. "Randi won."
Reed stopped so quickly that they nearly fell over her trying to keep from running into her. She whipped her head around to look the Marine in the eyes. "You stared down my best stud? He thinks you're the Alpha dog now." She shook her head. "Sweet mother, I hope I can still get him to breed."
The tall Sabre stood stunned at the turn of events. "Um, I, um... Sorry, Reed."
"Nah, it's not a problem. You just can't be here when I'm breeding them. He'd expect you to fight for the privilege, ya know."
Randi's head dropped into her hand to cover the blush she felt rising up her neck. "And then there are those days," she mumbled to herself. Reed took pity on her and started them moving toward the house. Gwen laughed silently.
After dinner, which was a noisy affair, the three women made their way to Reed's front porch. The Sabre pilot and Tiny had lovingly restored an antique home, which retained much of it original materials. So the floors were real wood, and squeaked, ditto on the doors, and the windows were made of glass. Many of the inside walls were polymer, but the frame was as antique and original as possible. The house's best feature, in Reed's opinion, anyway, was the porch that caught the breeze, and gave her a place to relax and still be a part of the world without interfering in it.
They sat quietly for a while, simply absorbing the night sounds which surrounded them. They were so different here from what they knew at the beach. You could actually hear the quiet. Once in a great while, a bird would whistle, or a cricket would chirp, but for the most part, in the hour between twilight and dark, they listened to the wind blow. A peace settled down between them.
"What makes you think there is a new leader springing up?" Randi had some definite ideas, based on her experiences with the scrying pool, but she needed to know what they actually knew, or at least strongly suspected first.
"Little things. The rebels have had a few uprisings, but until just recently, they have been pretty unorganized, ineffective. A lot of it is just hearsay... a gut feeling. They're still not really organized, but it looks like they are making an attempt to try again." A beat. "It's gonna take a while, considering the damage you did to their hierarchy and structure. But we all want to end this. Finally. For good."
Randi sat quietly. When she spoke, her eyes were focused on the now darkened landscape, but she reached out a hand to Gwen who took it without hesitation. She gently stroked the soft skin under her thumb. "Do you know who is being groomed for the leadership position?"
"A kid by the name of Bramble. Apparently he is the Ghost Rider's progeny. We are still trying to determine if he is her son by birth or adoption."
"WHAT??" Randi's head swung around to meet Reed's eyes, and the blue fire that blazed from her own was almost scorching in its effect. "This kid is her son?!?" She dropped Gwen's hand and stood to pace. "Do you know what this means?!?" She ran long fingers through her dark mane, the frustration rolling off her in waves.
Gwen stood up directly in front of her, and halted her stride. "Randi, look at me. Calm down."
"Calm?? Gwen, do you underst.... ??" But her words stopped when her gaze was captured and held by warm, love-filled eyes. Naturally she reached out, and wrapped long arms around the bard's small waist. "I'm sorry, Love. You probably understand better than the rest of us. But you know what this means, don't you?"
She nodded. "But you don't go without me, 'kay?"
"You betcha. Together forever."
The bard smiled at her Sabre, and turned to the Sabre pilot who had sat quietly during their exchange. "Can I ask?" Reed commented.
Randi nodded at Gwen, and resumed her seat. The bard took her customary instructional stance, leaning against a porch rail instead of a desk. "What this means is that your Sabre Commandant will need to be told of Randi's return to life, and her not returning to the Unit. It also means he will be informed precisely of who the leak is, and expected to clean up his own damned mess this time." Green eyes grew hard at the remembrance of the last mess he'd made and left for someone else to handle. The world had been paying the price for years, and they would no doubt suffer for quite some time longer over the ultimate price they had paid together.
Now it was the Marine's turn to supply comfort and strength, which she did willingly. She reached a hand out to the blonde, who accepted with alacrity, and went gladly to the lap that offered her shelter. Reed smiled and excused herself to get some drinks.
"We don't mean to keep running you off, Reed. Maybe we should just leave in the morning."
"No, I won't hear of it. You are both more than welcome to stay. I just need a break from the energy now and then. It's very palpable to me." She paused, then continued. "It's wonderful to see, however. To know that the circle is complete once again. I'll be back in a few minutes." And she rushed into the house.
They sat in the dark, comfortable in the relative silence between them, listening to the teeming nightlife around them. With full darkness had come new sounds, and they quietly tried to identify each new noise. The whisper of a shuttle was unmistakable, and the Marine realized Tiny must be home. She searched for Reed, who passed them silently with a squeeze to Randi's near shoulder, as she stepped off the porch to meet him. Gwen made motions to leave, to give the couple a bit of privacy, but the Sabre held tight.
"Reed asked us to stay put, love."
"When she passed us on the way out to greet him." She smiled at the blonde's confusion. "Trust me."
Gwen's eyes narrowed at Randi's nonchalance. "You're awfully calm about this suddenly."
"No, but it's a little different with him. Hard to explain."
"He wasn't mad at me for dying. He was mad at me for not holding to tradition. The Commandant should have corrected what was ultimately his mistake. Barring that, we should have drawn lots." She drew a deep breath. "We didn't, because I thought my death would have less impact on the people around me."
She buried her face in the short golden hair tucked into the crook of her neck. "I'm so sorry, love. And even if I do nothing but apologize every minute of every day for the rest of our lives, it will never be enough to make it up to you."
The blonde head tilted upward, and sapphire and emerald met. "No more apologies. Just live for me, Randi. That is all I ask. Stay alive and love me." Lips moved toward a kiss, but before they could meet, a great shout arose, and pounding footsteps headed their direction.
The big man scooped them both up in his massive arms and squeezed until Gwen felt like the filling of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In fact, she felt in danger of passing out from lack of air, until she heard Randi's voice call out.
"Put us down, ya big oaf! You're squashing Gwen!"
She felt the constriction loosen, and took a deep breath. Randi resumed her seat, and took a moment to make sure Gwen was all right. Tiny as swiftly fell to his knees beside them, giving the bard a cursory once over glance. His mind was still reeling.
"I'm sorry, Gwen. I didn't even realize.... "
"It's all right, Tiny. I'm fine." She suspected she might be plenty sore in the morning, but she wasn't going to break up this reunion for a few bruises that could be taken care of later.
He turned his attention to the Sabre in front of him. "This is so awesome. How? When? What?" He chuckled in glee. "I can't tell you how happy this makes me."
Randi smiled in reflex. "I'm starting to get the picture."
"C'mon, big boy," Reed pulled Tiny up standing next to her. "They'll be here tomorrow. We can talk more then."
"But.... " Then he realized this was as overwhelming for his partner as it was for himself, and she needed him. He turned to Randi. "You will still be here in the morning, won't you?"
"Yeah. We won't leave until we have a chance for a nice long talk." He gave her a grateful smile, then followed Reed up the stairs.
The two women sat quietly alone together simply relishing the quiet peace for a very long time. Finally, Gwen slid from her partner's lap, and pulled the Marine up behind her.
"That wasn't too bad, was it?"
"No," with a smile. "I think Reed needed a break from our, um, energy."
The bard chuckled. "Yeah, I think she did. Guess that means we have to behave tonight." Not that either of them had the slightest intention of *not* behaving, but the temptation to tease a little bit was more than the warrior could withstand. Long arms wrapped around Gwen's middle, and a warm mouth captured her earlobe in gentle teeth. She gasped slightly at the sensation that skittered up her backbone.
"Why do you say that, love?" The Marine turned her attention to Gwen's neck. "Hmm?"
"Say what? I didn't say anything," she mumbled, before turning in the other woman's arms, and capturing her lips. Now it was Randi's turn to be a bit overwhelmed, and she felt herself falling deeper into the embrace. They broke for air by mutual consent, and stood gazing into one another's eyes for a long moment.
"I know. I love you, Little One."
"Love you, too, Stud. C'mon. It's bedtime."
Saturday morning dawned, but it was hard to tell with the dark clouds and rain that completely obscured the sunrise. Randi and Gwen lay cuddled up in bed together. The bard flinched every time the thunder rumbled, which made the ritual tracing of Randi's features difficult at best. The Marine gently stroked her back, whispering words of comfort and reassurance in her ear. Gwen gave up, and simply accepted the love flowing toward her, letting it fill her being and wash away the painful memories.
Randi stayed quiet, hoping the bard would share whatever was troubling her, and eventually, her patience was rewarded.
"They were all three days like this, as though the gods themselves were crying in anguish." It was all she said at first, and the Marine wondered what she was talking about. However she decided not to push. She knew that Gwen would talk when she was ready. The warrior was curious, though. The blonde had never expressed a fear of storms... before... and suddenly things feel into place. At that moment, Gwen resumed speaking.
"I remember waking up that morning, disoriented... knowing *KNOWING* that you were gone from me forever. I put the nightmarish reaction down to the terrible storm that shook the beach house, but I knew, even then."
There was a silence then that stretched for quite a while. Randi continued her gentle stroking, offering the bard her love and support. Gwen began to speak again.
"The day Tommy came to the house with your letter, it was horrible. Almost a hurricane, it seemed, it was storming so badly out. I couldn't imagine what could be so important to make him come out in weather so violent. I.... "
She broke off, and took up another train of thought. "The day of your... mem... the uh, the day I met Tiny and Reed for the first time, it was quite vicious again. I remember sitting in the temple, wondering if the tremors would shake the building apart. And I thought how appropriate it was that the world cried, too."
Randi's hand never stopped moving, but now soft sobs wracked her tall frame. She was beginning to see all the small, tangible parts of Gwen that had been altered by her death as well. Here was a woman who had found such beauty and wonder in the power and strength of storms, that she would stand outside in the middle of one marveling until Randi pulled her inside. Now the same woman flinched every time the thunder rolled. The same woman held on for dear life when the rain poured. That explains so much about the bike ride the other day. No wonder I had bruises.
"I'm so sorry, love. So many little things you lost, because of me." The Marine tried to roll out of bed, but found herself firmly pinned.
"And so much more I've gained." Serious green eyes held her in place. "Don't run away from me, Randi. Don't run away from us. I need you here."
"Always," the Sabre breathed, as small, gentle hands began their ritual tracing once more. And this time, the storm raging outside didn't stop them.
They didn't make a move to get out of bed until the smell of coffee drifted up toward them. Both had decided that was their cue to get up. When it came, it didn't take them long to start the day, and head downstairs.
They were greeted in the kitchen by two smiling "Good Mornings", a cup of coffee, and the scent of breakfast cooking. It was homey and inviting, and almost enough to make all four forget the Sabre link that still unwittingly bound them. It was nice, for just a little while, to sit and visit like normal friends, who had no worries in the world.
"And so, hon," the breeder commented through the laughter, "I think Randi may have ruined our best stud." They had moved from the kitchen toward the living room. They had stopped at the door of the training room, while Tiny showed his compatriot some of his newest equipment.
Tiny's eyes popped open and his mouth sagged as he turned astonished eyes on his friend. He wasn't sure what was more surprising... the fact that she had managed to stare Phil down, or the blush now suffused her face. Gwen and Reed burst out laughing at the comical look that crossed the large man's features.
"I never thought I'd live to see the day... Phil cowed and Randi embarrassed. This is too funny."
He didn't hear the growl that emanated from the woman, nor did he catch the wicked twinkle that sparkled from her eyes. All he knew, quite suddenly, was the he was on the bottom of a very small pile being pummeled.
"Oh, so ya wanna play it that way, huh?" He made a move to throw her off, but she didn't budge. She laughed.
"C.mon, tough guy. Show me whatcha got." She moved to the center of the training room, and took up a defensive stance. He mimicked her actions, rolling his eyes. He knew better, and yet he had asked for it anyway. There were just some challenges that could never be passed up. She was one of his.
Reed and Gwen exchanged glances and smirked. "They're worse than two kids. You wanna stay here, or you wanna come with me to visit the dogs?"
"Well, I imagine they'll be at it a while, I'll bet. Let's go to the kennels."
"They'll be at it a while if they are sparring. If they turn it into a match, it will be pretty short-lived." Reed looked at the bard with a droll expression. "Tiny has yet to learn, for want of a better euphemism, to let sleeping dogs lie. He eggs her on, hoping one day to get the better of her. He hasn't done it yet."
"And I don't think he will."
The dogs were all quite happy to see them, and responded to their presence with enthusiasm. Conversation went nimbly from one topic to another, while the two women lavished attention and affection on each of the canines in turn. When Reed nonchalantly placed a hand on Gwen's arm to get her attention, the bard jumped in surprise. She had studiously avoided touching the breeder, knowing the pain it had caused the previous day.
"It's not a problem right now. Tiny is here to ground me. I can tap into his strength, if I need to." The seer answered the unspoken yet very loud question that resonated in the green eyes. "Besides, the physical distance between you, and the fact that she is concentrating on something else helps a lot."
"What is it like for you now? Obviously it's not like an electric shock."
"No, right now it's a pleasant warmth, a tingling. Your bonding is different from any other I have ever experienced. And I'm so glad it's whole again."
Tears rushed to her eyes as Gwen absorbed the implications of these words. "Me, too, Reed. Me, too."
Realizing they had been gone from the house for the better part of two hours, the two left the kennels, and headed back into the house. Not surprisingly, they could hear soft grunts and hits still coming from the training room. Now, though, the hits had a distinctly non-human sound.
When they reached the doorway, they stood stock-still. Both Sabres were drenched in sweat, and showed signs of being a little worse for the wear. They both bore marks of the previous hand-to-hand sparring, though it was a given Tiny 's black eye was the worst marking. Reed winced when she saw it. It was nothing that a bit of time with a regen unit couldn't fix but it must hurt like the very devil in the meantime.
The blades were moving at a speed faster than could be followed by the naked eye, and the two spectators watched in fascination at the skillful display. By mutual unspoken consent, the two warriors drew to a close with a flourish, and stepped away from each other to the applause of their lovers. Gwen and Reed stepped into the room then, and picked up a towel and a bottle of water for their respective partners.
"That was fun. I can't tell you how I missed that."
"Me too, Tiny."
The silence that followed could have grown awkward, had not the large Navy chief broken it. "We need to talk." The Marine nodded her head in agreement. "But first we need to shower and clean up."
"Boy, isn't that the truth," Gwen commented with an exaggerated motion of holding her nose and waving her arm wildly in front of her face. Reed broke into laughter. Tiny looked astonished at the playfulness. Randi just got a fiercely feral look in her eyes.
"Oh, you think so?" The Marine began intently stalking the bard. Gwen, realizing she was up to her eyeballs in trouble, began slowly backing away towards the door.
"Now, Randi, you really don't want to do that." The dark woman drew closer. "I mean, c'mon, now. I'm clean."
The Marine stood still for a moment. "Actually, you smell.... " She sniffed the air. "... doggy. A little sweat shouldn't bother you any." Tiny and Reed watched the drama unfold with barely contained surprise and delight. They were getting to see a side of Randi few ever had, and a side of the bard that had been missing since the Sabre's death. It was a fascinating spectacle.
Gwen kept her arms extended in front of her, hoping to keep the Marine at bay. But Randi continued her steady approach, knowing it was only a matter of moments before she had the blonde trapped. They had both forgotten their watchful audience.
Reed clutched at Tiny's arm, physically grounding herself from the energy that was rolling from the two women playing chase in the training room. She gave a deep sigh. His presence helped diffuse it, and made the sensations tolerable.
By now, Randi had Gwen caught in a corner close to the door, and proceeded to give her a full body hug. The bard flinched when the wet body came in contact with hers, but, resigning herself to her fate, returned the embrace fully. The Marine bent her head to nip at Gwen's full lips, then backed away, and moved to the door.
"I'm gonna go get a shower." And she started up the steps.
"Hey, you! Get back here! Hey!" The bard flew out of the room behind Randi. "You can't just.... " The words froze in her throat when the Sabre turned halfway up the staircase, and bounded back down, headlong in her direction. She slung Gwen over her shoulder, and the bard's tune changed.
"Wait, Randi! Put me down! Randi! Randi!"
The Marine didn't say a word, but calmly marched up the stairs and into their room, gently closing the door behind them. The breeder looked at her partner. "Come walk to the kennels with me. I need a break from the energy. You can clean up when we come back in."
The couple followed the enclosed path Reed and Gwen had walked shortly before. The suddenness and severity of storms in the area had made it necessary. It was one of the true luxuries they used.
"You doing okay?" Tiny put an arm around his lover, knowing that the bond that Gwen and Randi shared was hard on the woman. He was thankful his trip had ended early, and allowed him to be home to help her get through it.
"Yeah." She paused, idly scratching the nearest pup's ears. "I'm of two minds about this." She looked at the big man, who waited patiently for her to continue. "On the one hand, I will be so glad to have them go home. Their bonding is just so intense, it can be almost overwhelmingly painful at times. On the other, what they share together is so rare, that getting a chance to see it fulfilled, is absolutely incredible." She paused again, leaning against him for support. "I'm glad you came home early though. I needed the grounding."
He chuckled. "Nice to know I'm appreciated."
She mock punched him. "Smart ass! You know what I mean. I'm glad you came home regardless, but it's extra nice with them here." A beat. "The news isn't good, is it?" They hadn't talked much the night before. Tiny had asked for a moratorium on "business", and Reed had been happy to comply. Now was a different matter.
The Navy man sat down, and was soon surrounded by curious canines. He shook his head. "No." They sat in silence for a while, enjoying the simple pleasure of petting the dogs before he rose to his feet. He extended a hand down to his lover, and easily lifted her to her feet. "C'mon. I need to clean up, then we all need to talk about this."
The woman nodded her agreement, and walked beside him into the house.
They were sitting spread out a bit on the front porch, glasses of cold iced teas next to them. The rain had finally stopped, and the sun was valiantly trying to make an appearance. Its sluggishness, however, looked to be soon overtaken by the approach of more heavy-looking clouds. Gwen was leaned up against the porch railing, with the Marine curled up at her feet. She ran gentle finger through the dark locks, and could almost feel her partner purring in contentment. Tiny looked at them briefly, then shook his head, chuckling. No wonder Reed needed a couple minutes. Even *I* can feel their bond. At that moment, the seer stepped out onto the porch, bearing a pitcher, and refilling everyone's glasses. Then she took the rocker next to Tiny, sitting opposite the bard and warrior.
"So, when are you due to report to the Commandant?" This from the Marine to Tiny.
"I have several more places to go next week. Then a cumulative recap to put all the info together. So I'm scheduled to see him two weeks from yesterday."
Randi's eyebrows hiked up. "Oh?" sensing more to the story than was being said.
"Uh huh," confirming her suspicions. "He's taken a much more active role of late. I think Geoff dressed him down." Gwen's head popped up to look at Tiny, then down to catch Randi's eye. The Marine shrugged. It didn't sound like the Geoff she knew, but it did sound like a father who loved and suffered with his daughter's loss.
"What does he know?"
"Not much... about what I've already told you. We know Ghost Rider had a son. We don't know who the other parent is, or where the leak is, though I think the Commandant has a good idea who it was."
"So I need to go with you and give him my information...."
"No, Randi," the bard interrupted. "*We* need to go." She raised a hand to forestall the protest she saw rising in the Marine's eyes. "I will not go with you to the Sabre Head Quarters. But I will be close by, just in case I need to explain to Jeremiah Daetwyler the facts of life."
Randi was startled, and then touched by the statement. It was a nice feeling to be claimed so boldly... so defiantly... so openly. She found herself blushing under Gwen's intent regard just the slightest bit.
"Okay, *WE* need to go to HQ in two weeks." She looked at Gwen. "We could tie this into the trip up to see your folks, and do this on the way home?" The bard smiled her approval of the idea. "Good, then it's settled. We will meet you in the Capital City in two weeks time. We need to get this resolved quickly." With the decision made, the talk among the four friends turned to other things. A rumble of nearby thunder sent them scrambling into the house, unaware of the events beyond their control that were even now moving to destroy them.
At the very time that Gwen and Randi were waking up, Jeremiah Daetwyler was entering his office at Sabre head quarters. The months since Miranda Valiant's death had been hard on him, and it showed in nearly every way. Geoff had never once mentioned it, but Jerry was intuitive enough to know the man was furious at him, and felt betrayed by him... a feeling which had grown in the months following Randi's death, and Gwen's walkabout. He felt a little in awe of the man's self-control, not sure he could have done the same had positions been reversed.
So now, he worked long hours, far harder than he had worked in years, getting personally involved in many aspects of the Sabre life once again. He had heard rumblings, as had his team, and they were all determined to squash this new threat. No one wanted Randi's sacrifice to go for naught.
He smiled when Kene came into the office not long after his arrival. Things had been surprisingly smoother between them in the months since the Ghost Rider had been vanquished. Almost as though the last of the friction had been laid to rest with their comrade's passing.
With brief "good mornings", they went to work with a will. It was well into mid-morning when the vid-phone rang. Jerry looked up startled, until he remembered he'd had all his calls forwarded. He was even more surprised to see Jill Goldman's flushed, excited face pop up on his screen. Though she always welcomed him warmly into her home, she had never been the one to seek him out or invite him over without going through Geoff. He had to try twice to speak, before sound actually emerged from his throat.
"Jill? Um, hi."
"Hi, Jerry. I have the best news, and since you were so good to help us keep track of our little girl when she was gone for so long, helped make sure she was taken care of, I thought you might be interested in the news. It's just so incredible, so unbelievable, and I had to share it with someone." She knew she was babbling, but in her excitement, she couldn't seem to help herself.
"Ooookay. Take a deep breath, and tell me the news." He couldn't imagine what had her so flustered, but figured she'd get to the point sooner or later.
Jill made a visible effort to calm down, taking a couple deep breaths, rubbing her hands together, and closing her eyes. When she opened them, she was calm enough to speaking coherently, and started over.
"Jerry, I know this is going to sound outrageous, but I assure you, it is the truth. I have seen it with my own eyes." Her hand unconsciously flexed in memory, and she closed her eyes again briefly. When she opened them again, the Commandant could see the tears that were ready to fall, but still her smile was bright.
"Randi is alive, and she and Gwen are engaged to be married."
He had turned away from the monitor to check something, but whipped around with a shocked expression and sagging jaw as her words penetrated his thinking.
"Excuse me?!? Jill, I just thought I heard you say Miranda Valiant is alive!"
"Yep, that is exactly what I said. She is alive, and she and Gwen are going to be married."
It took another few seconds for his brain to wrap around the truth of her words, and the conviction in her voice. Then the questions started. "How? When? What happened?"
Jill laughed at his enthusiasm, and began to answer him.
Kene had been working diligently when the vid call came through, and she didn't pay it any mind. Though she and Geoff were still friends, she'd never really met his wife. She was too intent on trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together, whose sum total did not add up to a picture that made sense. Since Randi's passing, though she had not been close to the younger Sabre, several things had come to her attention that she found more than a little disturbing. Not the least of these were the facts that there was a leak in the Sabre unit, which had made things easier for Ghost Rider to operate, and that the true identity of the Ghost Rider was indeed her old love, Grace Rivers.
The Sabre smiled a bittersweet smile, wondering if she would ever know the whole story on what had turned Grace into Ghost Rider. She stayed lost in memories for a brief moment. It was only Jerry's loud exclamation that brought her back to the present, and focused her attention on the conversation he was having with Jill Goldman.
"It's the truth, Jerry. I wanted you to know, because you did so much for us when Gwen was gone. You'll never know how much of a relief it was to me knowing she had a guardian angel, as it were."
The Commandant sat, his head still reeling from the information he was trying to absorb. It was almost more than his mind could handle, and the implications were somewhat overwhelming. Still, he realized some sort of response was required on his part, and said as graciously as he could muster, "I was glad to be of help, Jill, and I'm so very happy for Gwen. She deserves all the happiness she can get, and for Randi to be alive again...." He trailed off as the unbelieveability of his statement rang through his ears. He shook his head. This was going to take some getting used to.
He cut the connection, and stood up. "Kene, I'm going out for a bit." He didn't say any more, and in his dazed state, he didn't consciously notice the shocked look on his subordinate's face. It was something he would think about later.
"C'mon. Let's go say goodbye to Ditto before we leave." It was late afternoon, and the sun had finally emerged from the wall of clouds it had been hidden behind most of the day. Randi and Gwen had decided to return home. Reed had had to excuse herself several hours earlier, pleading exhaustion and a headache. The two women knew it was because of them that the breeder was suffering.
Hand in hand they walked to the kennels, where Ditto greeted them with enthusiasm. Randi smiled as she scratched the shepherd behind the ears. "You be good, girl. And we'll be back soon, okay?" Ditto responded by proceeding to try to lick the Marine's face clean. Gwen laughed quietly as Randi tried to dodge the wet tongue. She glared at the bard. "Not one word."
They walked on into the kennel, and said goodbye to Phil as well. "S'long, mutt!" The blonde backhanded the Sabre in the stomach.
"He is not a mutt! He's a cutie patootie, aren't ya, big guy?" She scratched his neck, and he rubbed up against her like a kitten. "You be good," she admonished the big dog, as they straightened to leave. "We'll come see you again, okay?" He whined, and they headed back toward the house.
"I'm sorry ya'll have to leave so soon," Tiny started, but was cut off by his lover as she emerged from their bedroom.
"Next time, I'll be better prepared. I'll have a barrier in place."
"You can prepare for this sort of thing... so we're not hurting you when we're together?" The bard was intrigued. She had met a few seers in her lifetime, though none of them were as gifted as Reed was. And she'd never seen one so physically affected by their gift, as well. She found the whole situation intriguing, if not downright bizarre.
"Oh, yes. There are different techniques I can use to shield myself from an onslaught of emotional energy. What I conditioned myself for, and what I got, were not very compatible, and the result was I was overwhelmed rather quickly. But now that I know," smiling at Randi, "I can fortify myself."
"Well, thank you for having us. And we're sorry...." The bard stopped at the upraised hand.
"Don't be. It was worth it." The breeder smiled the sincerity of her words, then with a wave, moved back into her bedroom. Tiny walked them to the door.
"I will see you again in a couple weeks, right? And you'll come back when the puppies arrive, won't you?"
"Do you think Reed will be ready for us then? She's lost a lot of energy just in the last thirty hours."
"Yeah, she'll be fine. Her recovery will be swift, once she gets started. Besides, we still have a lot of talking and catching up to do."
"That we do, my friend."
The big man pulled his Sabre comrade into his strong arms, and held her tightly for a long moment. "I am so very happy you're back with us again, Randi. I've missed you."
She returned the hug full force, knowing Tiny could take everything she had to give and then some. "I missed you too, Tiny," whispered for his ears alone. "We'll talk again soon, I promise."
"I'm gonna hold you to that," was his response as he set her on her feet again. He was much more gentle with the bard, and embraced her tenderly. "I am so, so happy for you, Gwen. I'm happy for you both." He smiled into emerald eyes full of unshed tears. "I'm happy for us all. This is awesome!"
A thought occurred to him then, and he lightly set her down. "Wait right here. I'll be right back." He turned and left them standing alone together, looking at each other with wondering eyes. Two sets of shoulders shrugged in tandem. The motion elicited a chuckle from them both.
"Guess we'll find out in a minute. I hear him headed back this way now."
Sure enough, the man came through the doorway just them, a package awkwardly tucked in his hands. Coming to a halt in front of the Marine, he offered her the parcel. "This belongs to you, I think."
Blue eyes widened as she recognized the object he was extending in her direction. She made a gesture, as though to refuse it, when he stopped her. Tiny took her hands in his, and placed the book of stories in her grasp. Gwen let the tears fall as she realized what he was doing.
"Tiny, this is yours now."
"No, my friend. This was something I held in trust until I could return it to you and yours. Thank you for your faith, but the time has come to return it to its rightful place."
"Thank you... I-I-I... I don't, um, I don't know what to say."
"Then don't say anything. Just accept it."
This time, Randi took the big man in her arms, and hugged him again with all her might. "Thank you, Tiny. Thank you."
When she stepped back, she moved to take Gwen in her arms, but the bard stepped into Tiny's instead. "Thank you, Tiny. I'll make you a book of your very own. How's that?"
He laughed out loud, alleviating a lot of the emotional tension that had built up. "I'd like that, Gwen. I'd like that a lot."
"Then consider it done."
Kene sat in silence after the vid call was finished, staring at the black screen. She wondered about the rather unusual response to her news from her old comrade. The Sabre had never known Randi, yet had been devastated by her sacrifice. Now it was as if... she couldn't put her finger on it, but something in the reaction made her skin crawl. Was she missing something vital?
They moved over to the transport that was waiting for them. Tiny held the door for them, then leaned in a bit to bid them farewell.
"Keep your schedule clear for about three months from now."
The big man wrinkled his brow in confusion at Randi's words. The bard chuckled, and took pity on him. "Our wedding, Tiny. We'd like you and Reed to be there."
Randi's head swiveled toward the bard, then her face broke into a delighted grin. "Yes, we would. As soon as we have a definite date, we'll let you know."
He beamed at the two of them in return. We'll be there, all right... with bells on. And in the meantime, ya'll will be back soon to see the puppies, right?" A nod from both women was his answer and he replied, "Safe journey, then. We'll see ya'll in a couple weeks."
None of them could have foretold the changes that the next few weeks would bring to disrupt their lives again.
"How did you know?" the warrior asked, once they were safely away from the ranch. "How did you know I'd want them there with us? Not just at the reception, I mean."
Gwen snuggled up in Randi's arms, glad to be alone again. She really liked Reed and Tiny, but trying to watch her every single reaction to the Marine had been wearing. She could only imagine how the breeder felt being bombarded with such emotional energy. She had rather missed it, just in the last few hours. She wondered, in passing, how she had ever lived without it, and how she could not have recognized it for what it was for so long. It was only a brief thought, before she turned her attention back to Randi's question.
"Because I'm smart." She laughed when a hand tickled her ribs. "And because I know you. There aren't too many people you are comfortable enough with to share anything personal. Tiny is one of those rare few. I knew you wouldn't mind sharing our wedding day with him."
"You're right... you are smart... Oof!" reacting to the light, backhanded slap she'd just gotten in the stomach. "I love you," she whispered, nuzzling the blonde head tucked under her chin. "Thank you for being so good to me." Gwen's reply was simply to bury herself deeper into the Sabre's neck, nibbling gently. The rest of the trip home was made in a comfortable silence.
The figure sat at the vid monitor for a long time, contemplating the news that had just been given. An evil smile slowly crossed the dark features, then broad shoulders shook in a mirthless laugh.
"So, Miranda Valiant... you're alive after all. Revenge will be that much sweeter, then." The growled whisper carried a chilling menace. And malevolence was a tangible feeling in the laughter that followed.
"It's so peaceful here. It's not the same stark quiet that Reed and Tiny have." The two stood together on the deck, and listened to the roar of the ocean. Unexpectedly, a chill ran up her spine, and she shivered in response. Her arms tightened around Gwen, who fervently returned the warmth of her embrace. Even as calm as the night was around them, the relentless pulsing of the water kept its steady beat. Randi found the sound soothing, and considering the length of their day, felt her eyes growing heavy.
"C'mon, love. Bedtime for bards." The blonde turned in her arms to retort, and saw the fine lines of exhaustion cut into the warrior's features. She arched a concerned, questioning brow, and Randi continued. "Besides, I'm beat. Been a long day."
Gwen heard what was not said as clearly as she did the spoken words, and took her lover by the hand. She led her to their bed, and proceeded to strip her, then tucked her in. The Marine was suddenly too tired to offer a protest, and was asleep when her head hit the pillow. The bard disrobed and joined her, kissing Randi lightly and whispering, "I love you."
The mumbled, "Love you", and the strong arms that pulled her into an unconscious embrace brought tears to her eyes, and she fell into slumber with a smile on her face.
When Monday arrived, it found the pair headed toward Midas once again. Randi was going in to talk to Tommy, and Gwen was going back to teach. Tiny's story, a lot of which had been conveyed privately during their sparring match, had started creepy crawlies up the Marine's spine. Tommy would make a good ally in keeping Gwen safe.
The Marine walked the teacher to her classroom, and they stood outside the door. The two looked at each other for a timeless moment, large hands on small waist, small hands on broad shoulders. Finally, the bard broke the silence.
"Ya know, we didn't have this much problem separating at the ranch. What is up with us?"
Randi shrugged lightly. "Different circumstances, I think." She blew out a breath, and leaned her forehead in to Gwen's. "I'll be with Tommy all morning, probably, but I'll be back to walk you to lunch." She brushed a light kiss on the bard's lips, and moved to turn away. The blonde snagged a belt loop, and tugged the taller woman back to her. A surprised look blanketed the warrior's face.
"Erk!" She arched an eyebrow, and looked pointedly from the hands now bunched at her waist to the sparkling green eyes smiling up at her. "Yeeeessssss?" she drawled, a mischievous grin crossing her face.
"Ya know, if you're gonna leave me here alone with these kids for the next few hours, the least you could manage is a proper goodbye kiss." Challenge now sparked out of the bard's eyes.
A dark brow arched as Randi took up the gauntlet. "Oh? You mean this," brushing another light kiss across Gwen's lips, "doesn't count?"
"Um, no." Student bards in the classroom virtuously tried to ignore the tableau taking place just outside the door, though several had moved to the holo-area to record the thoughts the scene was inspiring. The warrior and her bard were oblivious to anything but each other right then.
"Well, then," the Marine continued, "does this satisfy your requirements?" Another kiss this time... longer, harder, but still very brief.
"Um, closer, but... no." She opened her eyes that had fleetingly closed. A thrill traveled up her spine at the intensity she now saw staring back at her from brilliant blue orbs. She naturally stepped back a pace when Randi stepped forward, but there was nowhere to go.
"Hmm, well," stepping so close that there was no space between them, "maybe this will be more to your liking then." Firm, gentle hands found purchase on small hips, Gwen naturally let her arms encircle the Marine's neck. The love reflected between them as they gazed at each other a long moment permeated the air around them. She grinned in conjunction with the smile that crossed Randi's face just as she lowered her head.
The Sabre spent a few leisurely moments nibbling and teasing the full lips below her until, with a low growl, Gwen tangled her hands in Randi's thick locks, pulled the object of her desire within reach, and started her own assault. Timeless minutes passed, until they separated slightly, breathless.
"That... was *entirely* to my liking," Gwen remarked when she could speak.
"Mine, too. See you in a bit."
"I love you, warrior."
"Love you too, Little One."
Both women blushed furiously at the applause that rang out from the classroom when Gwen opened the door and stepped inside. The Marine managed to ignore the guard who stepped up to rigid attention out of the bard's sight when she closed the door.
Randi's face was almost back to its normal color by the time she'd crossed the short compound, and entered the main building. Waitaminute... her brain re-kicked into gear, and made conscious note of the guard. Did Tommy know.... ?? And then she was knocking on his door, and entering his office.
"Ya know, you might want to consider a less public venue than the courtyard. Ya'll are gonna be the talk of lunch." Tommy turned away from the window with a smile. "Good morning, Randi," he continued. "Have a seat."
Ignoring him, she stepped to the window and looked out toward the ell-shaped building that housed the bards' and writers' guild. It was easy for her to pick out Gwen's classroom. "We were alone out there, Tommy."
"You think so, huh? Trust me when I tell you that every eye was focused on the two of you. Parts of the ells of each conservatory," pointing to the four corners, "were groaning under the weight of people trying to get a good view." He paused a beat, then continued when she remained silent. "What you two have is amazing and beautiful, and people just want a glimpse of that, sometimes, to be assured that it is real."
"It's real, and it's ours, and it's private. We'll have to be more careful."
"No, Randi. The expression of your love is a wonderful thing. I just know how private you both are, and I thought you might appreciate the heads up."
"Speaking of heads up," changing the subject. She was gonna have to think on this for a bit. She and Gwen were not ashamed of each other, but they were both very private individuals who didn't care to be the objects of other people's gossip or speculation. "What's with the guard?"
Tommy accepted the change gracefully, and motioned the woman to a seat. She sat, and so did he, folding his hands lightly on the desk. "That is something the security team took upon itself to do when you left. Except when Gwen was gone on walkabout, it hasn't stopped yet. And it probably won't, til you give the word."
"But why was it started?"
"Because you were no longer here to protect her. And everyone with half an eye could see she meant everything to you. The team was determined to keep her safe for you until such time as you returned to take up your self-appointed task once more."
"Well, that will make things easier, anyway," half muttered.
Now Thomas Steele straightened in his chair and pinned her gaze with his own. "You will, of course, explain that rather cryptic remark."
"Yes, T. It's one of the reasons I'm here. I need your help to keep Gwen safe here."
When Tommy saw she wasn't going to continue, his eyebrow went up, and his mouth opened. "You wanna give me a little more here, Randi? That's not at all enlightening. Why does Gwen need to be kept safe, here of all places? We've never had a real problem, and all the security measure you put in place are still there."
"No, they're not," she interrupted. "Not really. But we can take care of that fairly quickly, I think." She rushed on when the man would have spoken. "I don't know for a fact that she *is* in danger yet, T. But given what I know of the enemy, I'd say she was in more danger than I am."
Tommy scrubbed his hands over his face. "Can you start from the beginning, please? It is too early in the day for me to figure out what is obviously a convoluted puzzle."
Randi rose and went back to the window, facing Gwen's classroom, but her unseeing eyes weren't focused on anything but whatever inner picture she saw. "You know most of the story of why I left. It was supposed to take care of everything. The Ghost Rider would be gone, the leak plugged. Case closed."
Tommy sat quietly, knowing he would get the story in due time. Randi had never been quick to speak.
The Marine took a deep breath. "Unfortunately, in all my planning, I neglected one serious detail. I did not *insure* Tiny had the name of the leak, and he lost communication with me before Ghost Rider confirmed my information."
The silence grew long again.
"Tiny has found out some very interesting information now, and all of it together is making my skin itch."
"Why?" Finally he ventured a question, and she turned from the window to look at him. She appreciated the fact he had asked why the information bothered her, instead of asking for the specifics of her information. It said a lot about his continued respect for her.
She heaved a sigh, and moved to sit on the edge of his desk, facing him. "Because, it suggests thay there is someone between the leak and the Ghost Rider. And all indications point to that person being a threat to Gwen."
"I'm not seeing your logic in coming to that particular conclusion."
She blew out a frustrated breath, rubbing the back of her neck with both hands. "I'm not sure I can explain it clearly enough for it to make sense to you."
"Randi, I will help you in any way I possibly can. But I would really like to understand this."
She stood, and started pacing. "Okay. Jerry has a leak in his office, but with Tiny's new information, the facts point to there being a third party involved, and it was the third party that was the go-between for Grace and the leak. As far as he has been able to ascertain, the leak is not even aware of being a leak. She is simply relaying information to another Sabre." She paused, then continued.
"Now, other facts have been brought to life that show this third individual might take offense to Grace River's death, and her manner of dying. It is highly likely that this individual is looking for revenge."
"Revenge on a dead woman *for* a dead woman?!? That's absurd!!"
"Depends on your reasoning, doesn't it? And most religions feel the dead can hear the thoughts of the living directed toward them. You can, by the way."
"Hear the thoughts of the living directed to or about you. It's a very interesting thing. Anyway," shaking her thoughts clear and returning them to the subject at hand. "The best way to get revenge on the dead, or the living, for that matter, is to destroy what they care the most about. In my case, that would be Gwen."
"So you think Gwen is in danger?"
"I think it a distinct possibility, yes."
"Well, then, let's get to work and see what we can do to make things safer around here, shall we? First though," he rose, and took her arm, leading her out of his office, by Beth's desk, and to the office across the hall. "I think it is time for you to take repossession of your title as head of security."
"What about Preston? Won't he object to being usurped?"
He opened the door without a word and ushered her inside. She stopped, just past the threshold, stunned by what she saw. Her office was crowded with a majority of the security staff not on duty, flowers, and a banner welcoming her back. Preston stood front and center, a big smile on his face, and a bouquet of balloons in one hand.
"Welcome home, my friend." He took her in his arms and gave her a brief hug. "It's wonderful to have you back."
"You sure you don't mind, Pres?
"Mind?? Oh, you're not laying this job on me permanently, boss. I've had all of being in charge of this bunch that I can stand."
"Oh, and like you were some great prize there, Pres!"
"Watch it, Houston!"
The room broke out in chuckles. This had been ongoing for as long as the two had worked together. It was a great tension diffuser, and the people dispersed to help themselves to cookies and punch. Preston, Tommy, and Randi remained near the door watching the activity.
"Nothing much has changed, has it?"
"Not really. We've been trying to keep the status quo, but you made it look so easy. Now that you're back, things can get back to normal."
Whatever the Sabre's reply to that would have been was lost when Houston came over to welcome her back, slowly followed by the rest of the room.
"Thanks, guys. It's good to be back. I would like a meeting of all security personnel first thing tomorrow morning. I'd like to see where we are." There was silence while the Marine gathered her thoughts. "Ya'll have done a good job while I was gone, and I, um, I especially... appreciate ya'll keeping an eye on Gwen. It means... she... I...."
"We were glad to do it, boss. We all like her too, ya know. Just not quite the same way or with the same intensity that you do."
She couldn't help it. She had to laugh. Then the room laughed with her, and the gathering broke up on a high note. "Tommy, I'm gonna take a ride, look around a bit. Wanna come along?"
"I'd love to, but I've got tons to do today. You gonna take Excalibur? He's been exercised as much as Gwen could manage, but he was pretty picky about letting her ride. I'm guessing he'll be glad to see ya back."
"Yeah, I've missed him too. We'll be back for lunch."
She made her way to the company stable, glad beyond words that the writer's guild sometimes needed live animals props as part of their presentations. She knew Tommy would have gotten and kept a stable full of horses if she'd asked him, but it gave her pleasure to know there were more there than just "her" horse.
It was funny. She had never really contemplated having a horse of her own until the first time she'd set foot in the Midas stables. It was as much as though Excalibur had chosen her as she had chosen him. She remembered the day so clearly.
Already her head was spinning. The uniform that she wore was her only reminder that she was who she remembered herself to be. Everything else about this new world she found herself in was odd and different. The most surprising thing in this new reality was the woman at her side. For years, she had admired the blonde bard's talent and stories. And now to find herself casually escorted around the Midas property on a tour by the same bard was just a little bizarre. She wondered if she would ever feel normal again.
They entered the barn with Gwen telling her a bit about the animals housed there, and stopped dead in the doorway. At the end of the stable, rearing up on two hind legs, was the most beautiful stallion the Marine had ever seen. Solid black coat and mane, except for the hand-sized sword marking on his chest. He continued to stomp and kick while the trainer struggled to control him. Without thinking, Randi strode over to the horse, and grabbed the bridle, turning the stallion's head in her direction. For a long moment, liquid brown locked eyes with electric blue. Then without warning, the horse snorted in her direction, and butted his head in her chest.
The trainers looked on in amazement while the Sabre spoke quietly to the horse, gently scratching his head. Gwen walked over to stand beside her.
"Looks like you made a new friend."
The Marine looked down at the bard and smiled. "Looks like I made two." Gwen returned the smile.
"Yeah, looks like you made two."
The head trainer walked over at about this point. "That's amazing. We have had no luck with this stallion at all in the two weeks he's been here. He's been vicious to the point that none of us could get near him without risking serious injury. How'd you do that?"
Randi never broke eye contact with the horse as she answered the trainer. "I think he chose me. I had very little to do with it." The horse nodded his head solemnly, and Gwen bit back a chuckle.
"Well, if you wouldn't mind exercising him a bit.... " The trainer let her words trail off.
Randi looked down at her uniform, then over to Gwen. "You up for a bit of a ride?"
The bard suddenly looked very uncomfortable. "I don't think so. Horses and I don't seem to get along very well."
"C'mon, Gwen. We can finish our tour by taking... " She turned to the trainer. "What's his name, anyway?"
"Excalibur. Named for the marking on his chest."
"By taking Excalibur for a little exercise."
"I can't." The blonde was almost whispering now, and her color had faded noticeably.
The Marine looked the horse in the eye. "You behave. I'll be right back." She took Gwen by the elbow, and moved them over to a quiet corner of the barn. The rest of the trainers moved about their business, and Excalibur stood majestically still, waiting.
"Gwen, what's wrong?" Randi liked her new friend, and couldn't imagine a reason for her hesitation to ride. She herself was looking forward to the experience.
"I can't do it, Randi. I... I'm afraid of horses, especially that one. I've heard nothing but horror stories the whole time he's been here. He's mean."
The Sabre looked from the downcast eyes of her bardic friend to the proud eyes of her equine one. "No, he's just terribly proud, and not a little misunderstood. But if you're really that uncomfortable with it, I'll ride him alone. We can get another horse for you, if you'd be more comfortable that way. Or we can keep walking... whatever works best for you. " She looked back and forth between them again. "If I promise to keep you safe, will you ride with me?"
Green eyes looked up then, searching blue orbs. "This means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
Randi thought a moment, and then answered honestly. "Yeah, it does.
The bard studied the Marine for a long moment. "Nope. Friends don't let friends ride the first time alone. If you really wanna ride him," she swallowed, "I'm game."
It took them a few minutes to get him saddled. The horse wasn't particularly thrilled with this new aspect of their newly formed friendship. But Randi made it clear to him very quickly who was in charge, and he settled down. She helped Gwen mount first, then slid into the saddle behind her.
"Remind me not to do this in a Class A the next time, will ya? It just doesn't fit right up here."
"Well, you're not gonna be wearing it anymore anyway. That shouldn't be a problem."
Randi couldn't help the twinge that crept over her spine at the bard's nonchalant words. To know so much of her world was changing so fast. Instead, she turned her focus to the Midas property, and Gwen's running commentary about the place. The Marine's eye could see several security issues that would need addressing in the near future.
"Such a long time ago," the Marine muttered to herself. Then she opened the door to the stable. Quiet welcomed her, and she realized all the animals were out in the exercise yard. She crossed the length of the barn, and exited out the other side, only to be greeted by the sight that had just been playing in her memory. Excalibur stood pawing the air with his front hooves, while dancing around on his back two. No trainer stood nearby trying to tame him, and when he came down on all fours, he proceeded to run around the yard at a gallop.
Randi edged to the fence, and watched him for long moments. Then she whistled, and the stallion came to a dead stop. Only his sides quivering with his breathing showed any sign of movement. She whistled again, and his head turned in her direction, as though trying to determine if what his ears told him to be true really was. The Sabre climbed up onto the fence railing, and sat, and whistled the third time. This time, the horse made a beeline directly to her. He butted her in the chest, hard enough that she had to lock her legs and hold on to keep from being knocked off the fence. Then the stallion reared again, perilously close to her head, but she never flinched. It had been a game between them before, and she was determined to show Excalibur that some things, though they had been delayed, hadn't really changed at all.
Finally, when the teasing and testing was over, the horse began to race around the practice yard. This was what Randi had been waiting for. As the stallion approached her at full speed, she leapt from the fence onto his back, and held on for dear life. Excalibur, for his part, took this as the true sign that his mistress had returned, and made for the fence. They were long, long overdue for an all-out ride.
The outer perimeter was extensive, and it was nearing lunchtime before horse and rider finished their initial round. One quick stop, and then they head over to the writing building. Randi was quite windblown when she and Excalibur came to a halt just outside Gwen's classroom.
Teacher and students had become absorbed in their work. Gwen had been surprised by way her class fell to work with a will, but she did not yet understand the inspiration she and Randi had provided that morning that had proved the impetus for their dedicated work now. She would later, and be torn between embarrassment and gratification. But for now, she and they were totally immersed in the work before them.
It was the whinny that brought her back to the present. She looked up, and caught Randi's eye, flushing with pleasure at the unspoken question she saw twinkling in the blue depths. There was something about the wild look, as though the Marine was a hero from one of her stories come to life in front of her. She brought her
attention back to her students, who, to a person, were smirking knowingly at her. She blushed again, and as nonchalantly as possible said, "Class, I know it's a little early for lunch, but I think we've earned a break, so why don't ya'll pack it in and head on over to the mess hall."
To which one student replied cheekily, "You go, teach!" The rest of the class hooted and cheered, a sound that grew proportionally to the color which highlighted the bard's features. It was especially loud when the Marine lifted Gwen into the saddle in front of her, which she had made sure to place on the horse before stopping to pick up Gwen. They set out at a walk, and the class stood in the doorway watching, until they became a speck in the distance.
"Wasn't that just the most romantic thing?" The youngest amongst them almost swooned.
"They are such a stunning couple."
"Yeah, they are. I'm glad they've found happiness together."
The entire class murmured their assent. Gwen had always been a favorite, but the difference they had seen in her, just today, was overwhelming. It was an amazing thing to observe. The picture warrior and bard had created had made a lasting impression, and would provide inspiration for a long time to come. It gave them all a bit more faith in something bigger than themselves. They sighed collectively, then moved as one body toward the mess hall.
Gwen's hands automatically locked on the arms wrapped around her middle. Though much had changed in the years they had been riding this stallion together, the bard had never quite lost her initial fear of horseback riding. Excalibur took special pains to not make the blonde woman any more uncomfortable than she already was now, unlike when they were first getting to know each other. Then it had been a battle of wills, and for a very long time the horse seemed to begrudge the times he had to share Randi's attention.
When Randi left, though, he learned to appreciate the bard. Gwen had visited him several times a week, taking her own time to groom him and give him a bit of exercise and a treat. He had missed her special attentions while she was on her walkabout, and though they had long since gotten along, it marked a real turning point in their relationship. The stallion seemed to consciously gentle his demeanor for her, and it did not go unnoticed by anyone, especially Gwen.
Even the Sabre noticed that Excalibur was acting differently once the teacher was aboard, and she leaned into the bit just slightly, trying to coax the horse to a faster gait. Gwen noticed the stallion's hesitation to obey, and she looked back to Randi. "Can I have the bridle a minute?"
The warrior shrugged, and passed the reins to the woman seated in front of her. Excalibur recognized the change in hands, and immediately slowed his steps to a walk. The bard leaned forward to whisper in his ear, "It's okay, boy. Randi wants to run. So let's run."
The black head turned to look in her direction, and an ear flicked as though questioning her words. "It's okay, boy, really," she repeated, and she patted his neck in reassurance. He nodded his agreement, and took off again at a gallop.
Randi was caught mostly unawares, and the change of pace made her clutch Gwen's mid-section somewhat tightly. She consciously loosened her hold, starting slightly when the bard shifted the reins back into her grasp. They rode silently for a bit, until they came around to the stable just as the lunch bell sounded. Each took a brush, and brushed the animal down, insuring that he was clean, and had plenty of fodder and water. Gwen reached an apple over the stall door just as they were leaving, and he lipped it up with quiet contentment. Randi noticed the added interaction. On their way back to her office to clean up, she asked Gwen about it.
"What happened with you and Excalibur?"
"I mean, I know things had gotten better between you, but I don't remember ya'll being quite so chummy." A hand lifted and scratched the back of her neck. "Did I miss something?"
Something about the question hit Gwen the wrong way, and she was abrupt in her answer. "Yes, Randi. You missed a lot. You were *dead* for fifteen months, remember?" The Marine didn't reply immediately, torn between anger and hurt. But once they reached her office, she calmly closed the door, and turned to face her irate lover. Gwen didn't give her a chance to respond, launching another offensive. "How dare you assume that everything would stay status quo in your absence! Things change... people change."
Randi sank to the couch as the stiffening left her knees and the blood drained from her face. She ran an unsteady hand through her dark locks. "What are you saying, Gwen?" spoken in a tremulous whisper. "Do you not want 'us' anymore?"
The bard finally turned from the window where she had been standing with her back to the room, and Randi. Now, hearing the terror in the Marine's tone, she reviewed their conversation, before dropping to one knee beside the older woman.
"Randi," grasping the large hands in her own, and cringing at the lack of reaction. "Randi, look at me." Dark hair hung down, covering the Sabre's facial features. "Please, Randi... look at me." Gwen loosened the hold of one hand, and reached up to cup the Marine's chin firmly. Her soul cried out at the pain radiating from blue tear-filled eyes. "Oh, love... I am so sorry. I didn't realize... I didn't stop to think how that sounded."
She moved onto the sofa, and pulled Randi into her arms, cradling her close to her heart. "I don't know what set me off with your question. Maybe I'm PMSing or something. It's just.... When you were gone, so much changed. Cal and I bonded out of necessity, I think, as much as anything."
"Mmm, nickname, sorry. It was much easier than Excalibur. But I was the only one he would let close enough to groom or exercise him. And he was the one person I could talk to without being told what I *needed* to be doing, or what I *should* do. Besides, Ditto, I mean. And he could take me away for just a little bit, and help me remember better times."
Randi relaxed into the bard's embrace, and Gwen smiled when she felt her do so. "I am sorry, love. I never meant to hurt you."
"I know, Little One. That just blindsided me a bit. I really not sure where the reaction came from."
"I am," laying a hand on the warrior's heart. "Just like mine did, believe it or not. Guess we've still got a few issues to work through, huh?"
"I guess so. But I hope they don't all hurt this bad."
"Me too. But we have a serious pending issue to confront right now."
"Oh?" Concerned blue eyes locked with twinkling green. "What's that?" The Marine really wasn't sure she was up for dealing with any more issues like this last one at the moment. That little episode had taken more out of her than she cared to admit. Right about then, though, two stomachs growled in tandem, and the two humans they were attached to chuckled in response. "Hmm, I see your point." She tried to rise, but was held quite firmly in the bard's grasp. Randi turned to look up at Gwen.
"I love you, Randi."
"Ditto, my bard."
"Are we okay?"
"Yep, we're okay. I think we always will be, as long as we're willing to talk to each other."
"Oh, you can count on that, Stud. Now let's get cleaned up and go get some lunch. I'm starving."
It didn't take long for them to make an appearance in the mess hall, but it was long enough that everyone else was sitting down eating. Everyone cheered when they walked in the room hand in hand, causing them both to blush. What they found touching however, was the fact that their table, the same one they had shared every meal at Midas for the better part of four years, was reserved for them, and sat empty.
"And then again," the bard commented as she squeezed the hand in her own, "sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same."
"Yeah, I think it's a nice way to tell us we were missed a little bit."
They each grabbed a tray, and got themselves some lunch, then moved to their table. Once the applause died down, the level of conversation never altered around them. Still, there was an air of expectancy until they seated themselves and started eating. Then as life resumed its normal routine, the room sighed collectively, and turned its attention back to matters at hand.
Much of the rest of the week passed in similar fashion. Each morning Randi walked Gwen to her classroom, though their partings were much more subdued than they had been that first day back.
Early Monday afternoon, Gwen and the Marine excused themselves from Midas, and left. The bard had noticed that Randi was still a bit upset by their earlier altercation. She made sure the warrior was comfortably seated in the transport, before assuming control. Without a word, she headed them out of town, and toward their private hideaway.
Randi didn't comment, lost in her thoughts over Tommy's words, and her misunderstanding with Gwen. She hadn't realized how different things would be... what a difference her dying had made to them and to her. She had always been a very private person, and it niggled at her a lot that people, friends, though she knew their fascination was harmless enough, made she and Gwen the objects of their scrutiny. Especially now that they were officially a couple. She had never been big on PDA's from anyone, and to be the focus of the attention those brought her was more than unnerving.
The Marine really had no idea how Gwen felt about public expressions of their devotion to one another. It would be something else to talk about when they got....
About that time, Randi noticed that they weren't headed back to the island, but instead was headed to the glen. An eyebrow raised, then she had to smile. The Sabre reached a hand over to her partner. "Good choice," smiling in the bard's direction.
Gwen came back to the present with a start. Randi had been so quiet and withdrawn, and her mind had wandered in the interim. "Thanks," wondering where the Marine's thoughts had wandered. The transport came to a stop, and they climbed out, joining hands, and moving to the safe haven of their favorite oak tree.
Seating themselves at its base, they remained quiet for a while, simply absorbing the peace that the glade offered. The whisper of the wind, the rustling of the leaves, and the tinkling of the nearby stream all contributed to the relaxing atmosphere. When she felt the body behind her finally settle in comfortably, Gwen ventured to speak.
"You ready to talk about it?"
"Hmm? About what?"
"Whatever is still bothering you. I know that what happened before lunch is probably still upsetting you, but I get the distinct impression there is something else wrong. So you wanna talk about it?"
The Sabre had to smile at the top of the blonde head that was nestled in the hollow of her throat. Since Randi was certain they were alone, they had assumed what was quickly becoming one of their most comfortable pairings. Gwen was couched between Randi's long legs, leaning back into the Marine's firm body. Strong arms wrapped around the bard's waist, and she held on tightly to the hands locked at her front.
The tall woman drew in a deep breath. "Gwen, how do you feel about this?"
The blonde's brow crinkled in confusion. "Huh? Feel about what?" She felt like she had missed something important.
Randi squeezed her gently around the middle. "This."
"Um, Randi? Do you think we could start at the beginning of the conversation? I'm not getting what you're asking me."
The Sabre leaned her forehead on the blonde hair in frustration "Sometimes, I wish I was a bard," she muttered. Gwen just smiled to herself and waited.
Randi was silent so long trying to figure out a way NOT to be blunt, that finally the bard turned to face her in concern. "Randi?"
She decided just to plunge right in. "How do you feel about public displays of affection?"
Green eyes searched blue before she answered, and she understood immediately what was bothering her companion. "Do they embarrass you, love?"
"Yes... no... not exactly... I mean, not... ARGH!!"
"Take a deep breath, and start over. Take your time. We're not going anywhere til we get this sorted out, okay?"
The Marine nodded. "I'm not embarrassed by us, or what we feel for each other."
"But what we share is ours, for us alone. I don't want to be the talk of the lunch table." She drew a breath, and continued. "It's different with Tommy and Ella, your folks, even Reed and Tiny to a point. They better than most know what we have suffered to be together, and none of them would make us the gossip of the day." The bard started to speak, and Randi put a finger on her lips. "Wait, I'm not finished." Gwen nodded and the Marine proceeded. "I know the people at Midas didn't mean any harm, but to be so conspicuous... It's really not in my nature. As much as I love you, I'm not sure I can change enough to ever be comfortable being publicly affectionate."
Gwen took a bit of time analyzing the Marine's words, hearing both the spoken and unspoken. She wondered what had happened to draw the Marine's attention to their behavior. Obviously someone mentioned it, as neither of them had noticed it before. She locked eyes with her companion, insuring she had Randi's full attention before she spoke. "Love, I would never ask you to change who you are. You are probably the most private person I know. Now that I think about it, I'm not really surprised this bothers you, Randi. I'll admit it never even occurred to me, since so much of my life is geared toward a public persona. But I have no problem keeping things between us. I've never been too big on being the subject of gossip myself."
They sat quietly for a time after that, soaking in the warmth of the bond between them. "Thank you, Little One," the warrior finally muttered into the peace. "I will try to broaden my horizons somewhat, though it may take a bit of time."
"Randi, you can have all the time you need. And even if you never get comfortable with PDA's, we will always have our time. Forever, remember?"
"Uh huh. Forever."
Their separation at the classroom door was noticeably restrained on Tuesday morning. The two walked hand in hand to the guild building, and stood talking outside the door.
"Tommy was right," the Marine mentioned casually to her companion.
Well, now at least I know who opened their big mouth and made Randi so self-conscious. I'll be having a word with him later. These thoughts crossed her mind even as she responded to Randi's spoken words. "About what?" They were still holding hands, facing one another.
"You can feel it.... feel them watching us. I understand why, but I still don't like it."
Gwen loosened one of her hands from the warrior's grasp, and cupped the beloved face in her palm. "Don't think about it, love. What we have is rare, so it's no wonder others want to catch a glimpse. But what we have is ours, and we only have to share what we're comfortable in sharing. Okay?"
"I love you, you know."
"I know. I love you, too. Now go to work. I'll see you at lunch." She removed her hand from the Marine's face, and patted their still linked hands. Randi, surprisingly, brought their joined hands to her lips, and brushed her own against them lightly, before squeezing the bard's hand and releasing it.
"I'll be back to escort you to the mess hall." And without a backward glance, Randi headed toward her office.
Gwen stood at the door, watching the Sabre until she disappeared from sight. There was almost an erotic quality to their parting... a tease. Gwen felt like she was being courted... again. Because she knew now, that that was exactly what Randi had been doing, unwittingly, for at least the last year before her death.
This little development could lend itself to some interesting possibilities. Then she walked into the classroom, and set about teaching the day's lesson.
Randi's meeting with her security team went smoothly. She pointed out things that they had been doing well, and made mention of some of the changes she was initiating. She didn't explain her reasoning, and they knew better than to ask. She had proven her skill many times over in the years she had been their leader. And most of it, they had expected, since it was in areas that had grown slack in her absence.
When the warrior met the bard for lunch, it was very sedate. Randi was waiting outside the door when the bell rang, and both students and artists poured from their respective buildings headed toward the mess hall. Several of the student bards saw her and giggled, but she never lost her stoic demeanor. Only when Gwen stepped from the room did she break into a smile. Randi offered the blonde her arm, which the smaller woman gladly took. Then they began a leisurely stroll toward the lunchroom.
The rest of the week flowed similarly for them, and the people at Midas learned a subtle but pointed lesson. By the end of the week, no extra attention was given to them, and they were both devoutly grateful.
Friday afternoon found Gwen with a bit of free time. Randi was instructing part of her staff in some new defense measures, and the students were working in the holo-suites on their first public presentations. Since her presence was not required, she decided to seek out Tommy.
A knock on his door gained her entrance, and she went in. He looked up form his work as she entered, and smiled a welcome. "Come in, Gwen. Come in. Have a seat," waving her to a chair. "I'm almost done, and I'll be right with you."
"That's fine, T."
There was silence for a few moments, then he looked up at her and smiled again. "So, what brings you here this afternoon?"
"I have a bone to pick with you, Tommy."
He studied her face, trying to gauge the seriousness of her tone. He gave her his full attention, and put his folded hands on the desk in front of him. "What seems to be the problem, Gwen?"
She was obviously agitated by something. With his question, she popped out of her seat and began pacing. Finally, she turned and looked at him, tears brimming in eyes that burned with anger and confusion. "Why, Tommy? Why did you have to say something to her? Did you have to make her self-conscious?" She took a deep breath and whirled on him. "I don't mind keeping things between her and I. That's not the point. What we share is personal... it's ours, and if we want to keep it to ourselves or share it with the whole world, that should be up to us. You shouldn't have made her so... so... Damn! Damn you, Tommy." She slumped into her seat.
Tommy sat stock still for a long moment. A myriad of reactions flowed through him, and he hesitated to speak. Still, his first reaction was one of anger. "And did you stop to think about how she'd feel when ya'll became the talk of the mess hall?" He stood, and walked around the desk, stopping to stand in front of her. "Did you?"
Now the bard let her temper loose, and stood facing the taller man with fire glowing in her emerald eyes. "No, I didn't stop to think how she'd feel. Neither of us stopped to think, Tommy. We were simply feeling. And it was so wonderful."
He gazed into her eyes then, seeing the pain he had inadvertently caused in trying to spare them embarrassment. The man relaxed his stance, leaning back onto his desk. He reached for her hands, relieved when she didn't pull away from him. "You're right. I'm sorry." He sighed. "I was thinking of her reaction to gossip, instead of the feelings that were causing the behavior in the first place. I really am sorry."
Gwen pulled her hands from his grasp, and moved to the window that afforded her a view of the practice grounds. She stood for long moments watching Randi as the Marine took her personnel through a complicated weapons' exercise regimen. She sighed, and dropped her shoulders in defeat. "No, T. You were right to try to keep us out of the gossip circle. Neither of us would have been happy there. I just wish it hadn't been necessary."
"Me too." The man came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Feel better now?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry for yelling at you."
"Well, I'm sorry for yelling back, so we're even, huh?"
"You're a good friend, T," the bard said, laying a hand on one of those that still covered her shoulders.
"Hm, well, you've been there for me a time or two as well, my friend. Ya'll still going up to your folks this weekend?"
"Yeah. We're going there for the week, then over to Reed and Tiny's for the birth of the puppies. They should be so cute. We'll be back here ready to go again Monday morning. The students have their assignments, and Marilyn is gonna keep an eye on them.... "
He turned the bard around to face him. "Gwen, it's all right. I know ya'll are still adjusting to everything. It's gonna take a little time. Go spend some time with your folks. We will still be here when you get back, and you'll still have a place. You both will, for as long as you want one."
"Thanks, T. That's always nice to know." She watched as the security class broke up, and her lover headed in toward the offices. "Let me go catch up with Randi. We'll see ya'll when we get back."
"Ya'll have a safe trip and enjoy yourselves, Gwen. We'll see you both in a few days."
But there was much on the horizon that would change all their well-laid plans.
"YOU DID WHAT???" The weapons smith closed his eyes and took a deep breath, counting to ten. Twice. Finally, after a full sixty heartbeats passed, he opened his eyes and resumed his packing. He had thought the summons odd, but after hearing Jill's news....
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm a little stressed. Would you repeat that for me again?"
Jill surreptitiously wiped her eyes and looked at her husband. "I'm sorry, Geoff. I didn't know it would be a problem. I was just trying to do the right thing."
"It's okay, hon. You... this... it all just caught me off guard. Let's start over again, all right?"
"I just thought, you know, since he was kind enough to have used his connections to keep an eye on her while she was gone, that Jerry might like to know that Gwen and Randi will actually have a happy ending to their story."
Geoff didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this point. Odds were, given the situation, the wrong people now knew that Miranda Valiant was alive. If that were the case.... And as if that didn't complicate things enough, there was also the extremely peculiar fact that he had been recalled for a mission. Nothing dangerous, really. Nothing he hadn't had to do before, though it hadn't happened very often. It was a simple matter of investigating some weapons sites and installations with a small Sabre team. No, more than anything, it was the timing that bothered him. He felt an ominous foreboding in the pit of his stomach.
He had time to pack a bag, and that was it. Even now, the team was waiting for him. He didn't even have time to leave Randi a message. He would have to hope and pray it would wait til he got back.
Geoff locked his bag. "Baby, I've gotta go."
"Now?? But, Geoff, the girls are due in soon."
"I know, honey. I know. And believe me, I am not at all happy about it. But this can't wait." Jill nodded her head. There had been a few instances in the lives when Geoff had mysteriously left them because of his craft. But it had been a very long time since it had been so urgent for him to do so. "I'll be back as quick as I can. Tell the girls I love them and will see them soon."
H e walked out the door, setting in motion a chain of events that would alter the course of the lives of those nearest and dearest to him.
When the transport landed, it was almost dark, and both Gwen and Randi were happy to be arriving. Though the bard had not yet told her lover of the confrontation she had had with Tommy, the Marine could see the emotional toll it had taken. She longed to ask Gwen about the source of her exhaustion, but knew the smaller woman would confide when she felt comfortable. Maybe she'll tell me tonight after we settle down for bed.
Randi knew the source of her own fatigue. She and her security team had worked very hard physically, and for all her efforts, exercise in the other realm had not been the same as it was here. The work she had done did not translate well in terms of strength and stamina. Her body was still not back to its optimum performance. She would have to make a serious effort to improve. She didn't like the feeling of foreboding that continued to overshadow her thoughts.
Then Jill was there, waiting for them with open arms. And all her dark thoughts were chased away for the time being.
The ride home from the hub was quick and quiet. The two younger women took their things upstairs and stopped when they got to the two bedrooms. It was the first time they had been in the Goldman's home as a couple. Gwen set her bag down in the hallway, and did the same with Randi's. "C'mon. We'll ask Mother which room we're supposed to have." They headed back downstairs, but the bard's attention was diverted by something that seemed to be missing.
"Where's Daddy, Mother? I thought he'd have met us too." Gwen wasn't upset, really. Just a little confused. Her father had doted on her from the time she was a baby, and for him not to welcome her home was.... Surely he wasn't having second thoughts about her marriage to Randi.
Her thoughts were clearly reflected in her face when she turned to gaze at Jill. The Sabre reached over and took her hand, calming the bard's frantic heartbeat by touch alone. "It's all right, love. I'm sure there is a reasonable explanation." Blue and green eyes turned to Jill in tandem, and she found herself momentarily mesmerized by their singular focused intensity.
"You know your father wouldn't miss your being here if it could be helped, dear." The older woman paced in front of the two seated in front of her. "The fact of the matter is that he was called away on urgent business. Unusual, but not unheard of."
The tingling these words stirred in her gut was not at all pleasant, and Randi found herself on edge. Gwen noticed the change in her bearing immediately. "Randi?"
The Marine clasped the small hand to her more tightly, but continued to look at Jill. "Did he say where he was going? Or how long he'd be?"
"No, dear. He didn't. Anytime the military has recalled him like this, I get no details... either before he leaves or after he comes home." Her tone wasn't bitter, but it was clear she resented her exclusion from this part of her husband's life.
"Randi?" Gwen was more insistent this time, and the Marine looked at her.
"It's okay, love. Remember what I told you about my reactions?" The blonde nodded, sure she wasn't getting the whole story, but unwilling to push things in front of her mother.
Jill continued. "He did say he would wrap things up as fast as he could, and hoped to be home to see you both very soon." She paused. "He was very upset at the timing."
"Yeah, well, I'm not real happy with it either."
"None of us are, honey, but we can still get a lot done towards getting ready for your wedding." And for the rest of the evening, the talk turned to other things.
Bedtime found them curled up together in the center of Gwen's old canopy bed. Jill had given them their choice, and they chose to be family instead of guests. The bard lightly traced Randi's face in the dark.
"You okay, Stud?"
"Yeah. Why do you ask?"
"You just seemed a little distracted tonight, especially once you learned Daddy had been recalled."
"I'm a little upset, I guess. Geoff was gonna show me some of the new things he's been working on. I really don't appreciate the military's timing here." She didn't elaborate. There was little she could explain as more than a gut feeling. The Sabre would do some checking, and see if she could find some answers.
"There have been a lot of times with you I have felt the exact same sentiment about you. Especially once.... " The bard trailed off. The silence only intrigued Randi more.
"Especially once what, Little One?" The Marine posed her question when it became clear Gwen was not going to continue without prompting. She felt the bard squirm in her arms, and even though she couldn't see the blonde's face in the waning moonlight, it was easy to ascertain her embarrassment. Randi shifted to lie on her side, drawing Gwen into a tight cuddle next to her. "Love?"
Gwen pushed the warrior so she was once again reclining on her back, and the bard took up her favorite position laying half sprawled on top of the taller woman with her head tucked under Randi's chin. This confession would be much easier if those piercing blue eyes were not focused so directly on her.
"There were times, especially once I began to realize and understand my feelings for you, that I really resented the military's interference in your life." Her fingers started moving in a light pattern over the Sabre's torso. Gwen smiled when she felt as well as heard the hitch in Randi's breathing. "I... I mean, I didn't *know* it was the military, but I was very put out with whatever kept taking you away from me."
The revelation was a little unexpected, and the Marine grabbed Gwen's hand to still it momentarily. The bard had touched on a subject that Randi was curious about, and this was the first opportunity that it had presented itself for discussion. She wanted to explore it a bit more, and the bard's stroking was driving her to distraction. The blonde waited briefly, then lifted her head to look at the Marine. The intensity of the gaze regarding her caused her to drop her head back to onto Randi's chest.
"What?" the bard whispered, wondering what thoughts had put that look there.
Randi swallowed hard. This was going to be awkward for her to admit, but it was only fair in light of what she was going to be indirectly asking Gwen. "During one of the first of our many long talks, Aphrodite railed at me for leading you on. She accused me of courting you with no intention of following through." The Marine swallowed hard again. "I wasn't, Gwen. Not intentionally, anyway. But when we looked back, she showed me each and every instance where I was. Courting you, I mean." Her arms tightened against the smaller body, and she smiled in the darkness when Gwen returned her embrace. "The funny thing is, you responded... every single time, though I didn't realize it at the time, and I'm sure you didn't either."
She waited now, hoping the bard would understand what she wasn't asking out loud, and open up to her. Randi let go of Gwen's hand when the silence dragged on, and almost unconsciously, the younger woman resumed her stroking. She took a deep breath, and began to speak.
"When we first met.... " She took another breath and started over. This was something she had had more than fifteen months to think about, and she still wasn't really sure how to voice things. It wasn't something she herself was entirely clear on, but maybe saying the words aloud to Randi would help them both to know the truth.
"You have to understand that when we met, I was alone. You were my first real friend. Don't misunderstand, I had many, many acquaintances, but no one really that I confided in or shared things with. No one who knew me better than I knew myself."
Randi was quiet. She knew all this, but waited patiently, knowing the bard was leading up to something.
"Looking back," she shook her head a little to clear it, and Randi chuckled as the blonde hair tickled her neck. Gwen pulled back a little to catch her eyes. "Sorry." The bard lost herself in the deep blue regard for the longest moment. Anyway," she remarked, clearing her throat and laying her head back down on the broad shoulder. "Looking back, it was as though I was existing in a fog."
Artemis paused in her routine moderating of the scrying bowl. She sighed. This was one part of godhood that she really didn't care too much for, but it had to be done. Her favorite couple came across her monitor, and she smiled, watching them for a moment. Their interaction was so passionate, even in repose that she found herself hesitant to move on. Then the goddess caught a few of the words, and she concentrated on what was being said. Her expression changed to a frown as she listened, then blossomed into alarm. Then she headed off in search of her sisters. This was something they needed to know about immediately.
"How so, love?" Randi was a little confused, though she felt Gwen was pretty much in the same boat. Maybe they could figure it out together. "What do you mean?"
The bard sighed. "I... it's not... it's like something was keeping me from seeing the obvious." She leaned up on an elbow, and looked directly into the Marine's face. "Randi, everyone, EVERYONE around us could see what was between us. Everyone but me. It wasn't until just before you left that last time that I even considered something more than friendship even possible between us. And once we got official word.... " Her eyes teared up, and they spilled over onto her cheeks without warning. Randi reached up a trembling hand and gently wiped them away. The bard leaned into the caress, and swallowed. "The moment public acknowledgement was made of what I already knew in my heart to be true... as soon as we were informed of your... your death." Here she gave another big sigh and swallowed. "It was as though someone drew a curtain away from my heart and mind. Suddenly, everything became crystal clear."
Now Gwen put her head back down on Randi's shoulder and sobbed. The Sabre engulfed the blonde woman in a tight hug, and held onto her. Tears rolled down her face in sympathy as she silently rocked Gwen. After a long while, the convulsions lessened, and the bard lay still trying to catch her breath. When she finally spoke, it was in a bare whisper.
"As much as losing you again physically scares me, I am just as terrified that.... " She broke off, and the Marine felt the warm tears hit her chest. "I don't want to lose this, Randi. I don't want to forget, or be blinded again."
Randi shifted them then, rolling them over so that her own larger body covered Gwen's completely. "Little One, open your eyes." Slowly, reluctantly, watery green eyes opened and focused on the countenance hovering above her. Quite without her conscious permission, Gwen lifted a hand to traces the planes of Randi's face once more. A sad smile crossed the Sabre's visage as she allowed the exploration. Then she began to speak.
"Gwen, I want you to listen to me very carefully, and I want you to remember this." She waited for the smaller woman to acknowledge her words with trusting eyes and a nod before she continued. Randi took hold of the bard's left hand and raised it to her lips. She held it so that the Soulmates' ring was in Gwen's line of sight. "No matter what, love... no matter where, or when or why... whenever you need reassurance of what we have together, what we are to each other... if I'm not right there to remind you of the truth of our reality together, I want you to look at this ring. And I want you to let it be your reminder of what we share, and our life together now. And I promise you," then fiercely "I. Promise. You." She cradled the bard's face gently in both hands and teasingly nipped at the full lips beneath her own. "If that ever happens, I will get to you as quick as I can, and will reassure and remind you personally."
Her voice dropped to a seductive purr, and Gwen's eyes darkened in response. "Really?"
"Um hmm," leaning down again to nibble on the blonde's proffered neck. "I think a little reminder and reassurance might be a good idea right now." Hands and lips moved lower again.
"I... um, oh God... I.... " Gwen's voice trailed off as Randi proceeded to put all coherent thought right out of her mind.
It was very early in the morning, but still full dark outside when Randi slipped from their bed. She needed answers and she needed them fast. The bard whimpered slightly in her sleep when the Marine left the bed. She relaxed when Randi stroked her face softly and whispered loving reassurances in her ear. Randi smiled in the darkness when Gwen curled around the Sabre's own pillow with a deep sigh. "I'll be back shortly, love," and after pulling on a robe, stepped out into the darkened hallway.
Thirty minutes later, a fuming and frustrated warrior crawled back into bed beside the still sleeping bard. Gwen was quick to abandon the pillow in favor of the warm body, then opened one eye when she felt the upset present in the Marine's body.
"You okay?" mumbling against the smooth skin now conveniently underneath her cheek. "You seem awfully tense."
"Yeah, love. I'm fine. Everything's fine," lightly scratching the bard's back, and feeling her settle back into sleep. Then, under her breath to herself, "I hope everything is fine. Damn, Tiny! Where the hell are you??"
Jill was up and had breakfast almost ready when the two of them ventured downstairs the following morning. "Good morning, you two. I wondered if I was gonna have to start without you."
"Sorry, Mother. Late night." The words slipped out unheeded. When the bard realized their implications, she blushed to the roots of her fair hair. Her mother didn't noticed, as she had her gaze fixed on the impassive expression on the Marine's face.
"Is everything all right, dear? I heard you prowling around the house early this morning."
Though caught off-guard, the Marine didn't bat an eyelash. "Yes, Jill. Thanks." She didn't add anymore, and both the Goldman women respected her privacy enough to let the matter drop.
"By the way, Gwen," redirecting her attention to her daughter, "Sal will be here this afternoon. I told him you were going to be in town. He, um, he doesn't know about Randi. I thought you might like to be the one to tell him."
As it happened, no one had to tell him. He had promised to stop by, but hadn't been more specific as to a time. He honestly hadn't been able to be that specific, and thinking it was purely a social, as opposed to a business call, knew Gwen would understand. So, Jill was gone to market to find something for dinner, and Gwen was indisposed when he knocked on the door.
Randi looked in the direction the blonde had disappeared in, then raised her eyes heavenward and shook her head. There are just times.... Then she bit the bullet, and moved to answer the door.
The Sabre caught the man as his knees sagged, and half-led, half-carried him toward the sofa. It was in this position Gwen caught them, and she simply crossed over to help the Marine lower the stunned man to the couch. Then she knelt beside him, while Randi moved off to fix him a stiff drink.
"Looks like I've got some explaining to do."
The older woman simply nodded, and passed Sal a tumbler of brandy. This had the makings of an interesting afternoon.
"So, you'll let us do all the pictures, holos and vids? The ceremony and the reception?" Sal had finally recovered his wits, and was exceptionally enthusiastic about the upcoming nuptials. It was an event he found himself looking very forward to. Just the rekindled light shining out of the bard's eyes made the idea an appealing one, but it was the obvious love shared between the two women before him that made Sal want to do this. "Please... we promise to be so discreet, you'll never even know we're there."
Gwen looked at Randi, unsure. She really wanted Rico to do the work. He had never let her down yet, and the work he had down of them at her award's ceremony had been magnificent. Except for the posed pictures, they hadn't even noticed his presence. The Marine caught the longing in the green eyes, and smiled slightly. The bard smiled back and started to answer when Randi cut in.
"Sal, you honored my last request of you, and we would be very happy to have ya'll record this most important event for us as well." Gwen stared open-mouthed for a moment. She had never expected the Sabre to be so agreeable to the idea, given that she had never seen the work that had resulted from that final request. Then again, the bard mused, Randi had been gradually adjusting to Sal's personality before she'd left. It was nice to see them a little more comfortable together.
"Yes, Sal," she finally responded. "We want ya'll there. We know you will capture the day for us beautifully, and we will be glad to have you there as a friend as well."
He clapped his hands together enthusiastically. "Excellent! Excellent! I will get with Jill then, as soon as possible, and get things underway." He beamed at Randi and Gwen. "Congratulations to the both of you. I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to have had this happen to you. You two are one of the most romantic couples I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. This is just going to be so... so.... " Still gushing, he took his leave of them, and headed for his studio.
"Everything is in place, Grace," the dark man whispered aloud. "I expect to join you very soon, because Miranda Valiant will never let me live. Sam won't be happy, but he'll understand. And it will be worth it to know that she will suffer interminably for the rest of her natural life."
He chuckled, and turned his attention away from the window, and back to his packing.
To Be Continued....