Disclaimer: There is nothing to disclaim in this here story. You will need an open mind to read it, though. If you find something you think needs disclaiming, however, you are more than welcome to let me know. It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team. Thanks to Carol, Lisa, Marsha and Phil for the editing and 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 story picks up directly where A Valiant Interlude left off. You will have to had read it for this one to make sense. Although AVI is a stand-alone story, it is in actuality the first ten chapters lifted from this story and is the tie-in the title implies. The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is still in effect.

A Valiant Journey

By D



He stood at the scrying bowl, watching things play out as he’d expected. The dark smile was malevolent... eons of anger and unfulfilled desire made it a horrid, ugly sight. My time has finally come, he thought to himself. Revenge was going to be so very, very sweet.

"Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."


Chapter I

It was another full day before the Marine was able to finally reach Reed at the breeding ranch. And then, the information she got was less than what she’d hoped for, though about what she expected.




"I’m sorry, Randi." Reed looked as harried as she sounded. "This has literally

been the first opportunity I’ve had to get back to you. In fact, I only just got

your messages about ten minutes ago."

"You all right, Reed? You look exhausted."

"I am. I have been up for the past forty-eight hours. One of the bitches went

into labor unexpectedly, and without Tiny here to help me, it has been a little


"Is everything okay?" Despite her urgency, Randi put their friendship first.

She could sense the other woman’s need to vent a little.

The breeder gave a frustrated sigh. "Yeah, everything’s fine... finally... but

it was touch and go there for a while." The woman sighed again. "You’d think,

with all our medical advances, we’d either be able to control the birth process,

or at least have a better handle on exact delivery times." Reed gave a rueful

chuckle. "Guess that’s nature’s way of telling us she’s still in charge."

Randi had laughed with her. "I guess so." She sobered after a moment. "Reed."

The seriousness in the Marine’s tone caused an immediate change in the breeder’s

demeanor. She straightened accordingly. "Do you know where Tiny is, how to

reach him, or when he’ll be back?"

"No, no, and not really." They were the exact answers Randi had expected, but

had hoped against hope of not hearing. "He is supposed to be in the capital city to

meet with you and the Commandant by the end of the week, isn’t he? Can it

wait til then?"

The unease she had been living with since finding Geoff recalled grew

exponentially with the Sabre pilot’s words. Nothing she could put into words---

just a cold unreasoning fear. None of this was revealed in her manner, though.

The warrior had stoic down to a science. "It’ll have to, I suppose. Thanks,

Reed. I hope the pups will be all right. You’d best go get some rest, my friend.

You look beat."

"Thanks, Randi," with a smirk. "You really know how to turn a girl’s head."

"Good bye, Reed."

"Bye Randi," smiling. "See you Saturday."




It had been an uneventful but productive couple of days. Between planning for their wedding, and trying to reach Reed, Randi had prowled around Geoff’s workshop, and found some interesting new toys and gadgets. A few of them made her raise her eyebrows in question, but most of them were self-explanatory. Clever, Geoff. These are very, very clever. She tucked their uses and her questions in the back of her mind for future reference.

It was late Tuesday morning when the vid phone chirped, acknowledging an incoming call. Jill answered, thrilled to note it was Geoff on the line. Her enthusiasm turned to concern when she noted he was calling from a medifac in the capital city.

"Hi, sweetheart." His voice was normal, but it was evident by the look on his face that he was in severe pain.

"Oh, honey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?"

"I’ll be fine, Jill. It’s just my back again." She covered her hand with her mouth. She knew from times past that his pain was incredible. "Listen, I’m gonna be in regen until around lunch tomorrow. Why don’t you and the girls come down tomorrow morning? With a bit of luck, they will spring me from here, and we can all do the tourist thing for a few days."

"Will you be up to it, Geoff? You know how Gwen loves the museums. That’s a lot of walking, you know."

"I know. And I can always bow out if it is bothering me too badly. But I have to stay here until Friday or Saturday, and I thought you all might like to join me here."

"I’m sure the girls would be glad to come down. I know they were both upset you weren’t home when they arrived." For different reasons too I’ll just bet, the weapons smith thought to himself. "I’ll see what kind of transport I can manage to arrange, and get back to you shortly."

"All right, sweetheart. Just leave me a message when you will arrive about where you’ll be staying. I’ll find you when they release me."

"All right, Geoff. I’ve missed you, you know."

"Um hmm, I do know, because I have missed you too. I’ve got to go, but I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you, Mrs. Goldman."

"Love you back, Mr. Goldman." The connection went dark, and Jill sat quietly for a moment regaining her shaken composure, before searching out Gwen and Randi. They had plans to make.



As it happened, their plans fell into place with relative ease. The Sabre called in a favor from a pilot friend, and they flew a private shuttle into the capital city sunrise. Jill had been anxious to get to Geoff’s side, and though her manner did not show it, Randi was as well. She was certain the last pieces of the puzzle were in his grasp. She was anxious to have a bit of time to talk to him.

When they arrived, Tiny met them at the hub with a transport waiting for them. Jill went immediately to the medifac to check on her husband’s progress. Gwen, sensing Tiny’s anxiousness to speak to Randi, offered to check them into the resort. She knew it was Sabre business, and figured they might as well get it over with sooner rather than later.

Randi escorted the bard into the hotel, and pulled her off into a private alcove on one side. Their luggage proceeded to head to the desk, where it was tagged and sent to their room. Check-in was merely a formality.

"I’m sorry, love. Hopefully this won’t take too long."

"Randi, we knew this was something you were gonna have to take care of without me." Gwen glanced around and noticed they were quite alone and closed away from the world for the moment. She loosened her hold from the Marines, and reached up to cup her face. "You go, and get business taken care of. When this monkey is finally off your back, and you are free from your Sabre responsibilities, we will still have the rest of our lives together to look forward to. They can have a morning of your time, as long as they realize the rest of your lifetime belongs to me."

The Marine had noticed their solitude, and took advantage of the fact, pulling the bard closer to her. She wrapped her arms around Gwen’s back and gave her a hard squeeze. "Thank you for understanding, love."

The blonde returned the hug, before pulling back slightly to look into the blue eyes above her. "I do. Just make sure *they* understand the present reality." And without thinking, she pulled the Sabre into a passionate embrace. The kiss went on for some minutes, before dazed, Randi reluctantly withdrew.

"Oh," clearing her throat when her voice cracked slightly, "um, I don’t think I’ll have a problem remembering that." She smiled crookedly at the bard. "I love you."

"I love you, too. And I’ll be waiting here for you when you get finished. So, hurry home to me, huh?" She reached up and traced the lightly swollen lips. "We’ve got a lifetime to start."

Randi leaned in again, and recaptured the bard’s soft lips. It was only when her comm unit beeped that she pulled away. "I love you always," releasing Gwen and stepping away.

"Forever," the blonde answered. And green eyes tracked the progress of her lover to the transport until the vehicle was out of sight. Then with a whispered sigh, she went to the desk.



"I’m sorry to take you away from her, Randi. But the way things are breaking, I thought it best to move the timetable up."

"Oh?" The Sabre was all business now. "What developed while you were gone, Tiny?"

"I’ll tell you the whole story at headquarters. But it looks like your friend is behind the new revolution, and they are in the beginning stages of planning an all out war."


Nothing else was said for the remainder of the very short trip.



Gwen was startled when the vid phone chirped at her. It wasn’t like anyone knew they were in the city. Of course, it could be Mother. When she looked at the ID screen, though, she frowned, until realization dawned on her. Then with a big grin, she answered the call.

"Hi, Uncle Ben!"

"Hello, Gwen! How are you?"

"I’m fine, wonderful, excellent even!" She laughed and he joined her. "How are you?"

"A bit lonely, actually. Sam is out of town for the week. When your father called me yesterday, I thought we might get a bit of a chance to talk, but he is scheduled for regen for another half day. So I thought to appeal to your better nature, and invite you to have breakfast with a lonely old man."

Gwen was thinking while he spoke. She’d promised Randi to be here when she returned, but it was a good bet she wouldn’t see her partner for most of the day. Besides, breakfast with an old family friend would be a nice way to pass the morning.

"Sure, Uncle Ben. I’d love to. Where shall I meet you?"

"I’m not far from the resort. Let me come pick you up and we’ll ride out to Devon’s for breakfast. It’s been a long time since we shared breakfast there, but I’ll bet they remember us."

Gwen laughed again, remembering some of the many morning repasts they had shared together when she had been stationed in the city. "I’ll just bet they will." She smiled again. "That sounds like a plan, Uncle Ben. "I’ll see you here in, what...? Say fifteen minutes?"

"Fifteen minutes will be fine. Thanks, Gwen. See you shortly."

The bard wrote a short note for Randi and her mother, on the off chance either of them got back to the hotel before they returned from breakfast. Then she cleaned up and headed downstairs to the lobby, to wait for her old, trusted godfather.



The dark figure rubbed gloved hands together. "Soon, my dear. Very soon. You will be mine, and I will make Miranda Valiant pay dearly for what she did."



Their arrival at Sabre headquarters went virtually unnoticed, as Tiny had cleared them through the back door with the highest priority. Then Randi found herself standing in the Commandant’s office. Though she was not at all disrespectful in the nod she gave him, he observed that she neither saluted nor offered her hand. Jeremiah Daetwyler smiled sadly. Much had changed between them, and he was certain they would never regain the respect or camaraderie they had once shared as fellow compatriots. He offered them coffee and breakfast, then gestured her and Tiny to a seat.

"Let me just say, that I’m glad things turned out for you the way they have. I don’t know how you managed...."

"Please, General. This is neither the time nor the place. It no longer matters. I am here to give you my information, and then I am returning to Gwen. This is no longer a part of my life."

Tiny sat silently, eyes wide, and mouth agape. Though he had known without a doubt how Randi and Gwen both felt, he was surprised to hear the blunt fact put to the Commandant so vehemently.

"But, you can’t...."

"Oh, I most certainly can. I DIED, remember? Cleaning up a mess you left. So don’t you dare sit there and presume to tell me what I can and cannot do." Her voice had never risen, but she could have been shouting the force of her words was so strong. Jerry sat back after a moment, his shoulders slumping... his posture defeated. "Now let’s just get this over with."

"You’re right, of course. You’ve shown far more honor, given up much more than any one human being should be expected to. This is my problem now, though I would appreciate any input or assistance you can provide to ensure we end this, once and for all."

Without giving the warrior a chance to reply, he turned toward Tiny, and addressed him. "You have your reports ready?" The Navy chief nodded. "And were you able to debrief Geoff?"

"Yes, General. We went over everything on our way back."

"You were able to finish everything early?"

"He was able to see what he needed. I still have two teams out in the field, but all our information points in the same direction. They should both be in by late tomorrow night, though at this point, we firmly expect their information to concur with our own."

"Very well. Let’s get down to business. It’s time I finished this once and for all."



The hot humidity hit Gwen full force as she stepped out of the cool stone building. She figured her old family friend would be there momentarily, and saw no reason to make the older man have to wait. I wonder if it is getting ready to storm? The oppressive air made the bard look toward the now fully risen sun. The haze made her hope she was right, but in the meantime.... "Maybe I should wait inside. UGH! This is...." But at that moment, Ben’s transport came into view, and she smiled in relief.

"Ah, my dear," he said as he opened the transport and stepped out to greet her. He took her hands in his own and they exchanged a friendly peck on the cheek. "How well you look. Come," motioning the blonde toward the transport. "Let’s get out of this oppressive heat and humidity. I’ll warrant we’ll be having a storm by nightfall."

"I hope so. It wasn’t this bad at Mother’s, and we almost always have a cool breeze at home." She got in the transport, and immediately sighed at the cool, dry air. "Oh yeah, this works."

"Well, Gwen. You could have waited indoors."

"I know, Uncle Ben, but I knew you were due soon, and I didn’t want to make you have to wait." The transport moved away from the hotel. Gwen was too preoccupied with their reunion to take note of their direction.

"Thank you, dear. You have always been so considerate and thoughtful."

"Uncle Ben, you’re like family."

The expression on his face was one of sadness, Gwen noted, and she wondered what could have happened to put that look into his eyes. She mentally reviewed their conversation, then returned his gaze with a curious one of her own. "Uncle Ben?"

He shook his head, as if to clear it, and look at her again. "Yeah, Gwen. We are almost like family." He took a deep breath and glanced out the window, noting his hidden shuttle pad just coming into view. With snake-like speed, he reached across the space separating them, and hit a point on her temple, immediately knocking her out. "That’s what makes this so unpleasant for me. It’s a shame you didn’t use better judgment in your choice of partners. Miranda Valiant is going to be the cause of a lot of pain and suffering for you."



".... and so Geoff has confirmed the build-up of some interesting new weapons. He seemed a bit surprised at what they’ve got readily available for use. He kept some for further study. With any luck, he’ll be ready to give us an brief overview of his preliminary findings by Friday."

"You destroyed the rest?"

"Aye, sir. That depot is no longer available."

"Are they organized?" This from Randi, who had sat quietly during the entire debriefing.

"Not as organized as they were under Ghost Rider, but they are slowly recovering and rebuilding."

She sighed and moved from her chair to stand at the window to one side of the general’s desk. "It doesn’t concern you that they are aware you now know of their rebuilding efforts?"

Silence followed her question as the two Sabres thought about the implications conveyed in the simple statement. Randi was the first to break the silence. "Tell me, General... why wasn’t the leak plugged? Why did you make no effort to insure that the traitor was eliminated?"

He looked at the Marine, stunned. "You mean you didn’t take care of the leak? I thought... I mean... things stopped... it never occurred to me that...."

Randy focused her attention on Tiny. "You said he probably knew who it was."

The large man squirmed. The intensity of the fiery blue gaze was burning through him, and making him highly uncomfortable. "Well, I thought... I mean, I assumed...."

She refocused her attention on the General. "I gave you every possible clue for you to figure it out for yourself, to insure I hadn’t made a mistake." Her anger began to boil. "What’s wrong with you? And how have you managed to remain the Commandant for so long? You’re about as useless as...."

The Marine slammed her hand into the wall, insuring some serious bruising unless she got to a regen unit fairly quickly. Oh boy, that was stupid! Explaining this to Gwen is gonna be fun. Ow, dammit! That hurt! The silent conversation and thoughts of Gwen allowed her to regain control of her mounting temper, and speak calmly and rationally again.

She gave a deep sigh. "So let me understand this. Because you didn’t get the name from myself or Ghost Rider, and since activity pretty much came to a halt after we died, you assumed that the problem had been taken care of."

"Well, yes." This came from Jerry. He had to physically remind himself that he was the Commandant here. He felt like nothing so much as a boy in the principal’s office. "I could find no evidence to confirm my suspicions, and the leak ended when you... left."

"I DIED, Jerry." She let out a deep breath. "However, that is past. What remains is the fact that the leak is still around, and it’s time to plug it now."



He was secretly glad the blonde woman was unconscious for this procedure. He was really of two minds about this. He could still remember the young woman as a small child---all bright smiles and laughter and sunshine. Though the families had drifted apart in more recent years, he had always kept an eye on her, taking great pride in her skills and talent. It was only with her involvement with Miranda Valiant.... Here his thoughts turned dark and trailed off.

He seriously considered using a blade. He still had the first one Geoff had created for him when the weapons smith had begun his recovery. It had taken the smith months of work, since he could only craft for a few minutes at a time because of his continued pain. It was one of his most cherished possessions, and he hesitated using it to cause the bard physical agony. It was only the desire to inflict grief on Valiant that caused him to consider using a knife.

He shook his head, and stopped the transport. He wasn’t concerned that Gwen would come around anytime soon. The pressure point had seen to that. He took out a tiny laser, and lifted the small hand into his own. A scant minute late, the job was done. The man exited the vehicle, and moved to take the small blonde into his arms. He had chosen well. The private shuttle was isolated, and no one saw them board. Five minutes later, it lifted of, headed to parts unknown.



"You needed me, Jerry? I was just going to go get lunch."

"This shouldn’t take but a minute, Kene. Please come in and sit down."

The dark woman shrugged slightly, and did as she was bidden. A jolt of uneasiness slid up her spine when Tiny deliberately moved to stand in front of the door. Randi never turned from the window she was gazing unseeingly out of. The disquiet that had been roiling in her guts since shortly after their breakfast arrival, had become an unnamed, unreasoning fear. She wanted this over and done with so she could get back to Gwen, and they could get on with their lives together.

General Jeremiah Daetwyler, Sabre Commandant, sat quietly at his desk for a very long moment simply gazing at the woman who had been his friend and antagonist, confidant and compatriot. He wondered what had happened to make her turn. Knowing it was time to take the responsibility of correcting his mistakes back into his own hands, he cleared his throat and spoke softly.

"Why, Kene? Did Grace Rivers really mean so much to you?"

Confusion crossed that dark-skinned woman’s face. "Excuse me?"

"Was the love affair you desired from her worth everything?"

"I’m sorry, Jerry, but I am really not understanding what it is you are implying. Can you just say whatever it is you want to say straight out, please?"

The Commandant took a deep breath, and glanced toward the window. He wanted to be sure Randi had no desire to do the unmasking before he continued. The Marine never wavered from her studied observation of the world outside the office. He stood up, and circled around to the front of his desk.

"For some time, there has been a leak of information from this unit. Some of it has been trivial. Some of it..." and here he paused for another moment while he looked at Randi’s stiff back. "Some of it has been vital. It got our best warrior killed." Another glance toward Randi. "The worst thing, however, is that all of it has come from this office."

The light dawned in Kene’s eyes, as she realized the implications of Jerry’s statement. "You don’t seriously think that I...???"

"There are only two people in this office who has access to all of the information that was leaked." Jerry continued speaking as if there had been no interruption. "I was cleared. You, however, were not." He gazed at her sadly. "Was she worth your soul, Kene?"

The woman sat there stunned. "I haven’t given any information to anyone outside the Sabre community, General. And the last time I spoke to Grace was years ago."

Now Randi moved from the window to stand in beside the Commandant. "Then you can explain to ME how she came to know things that were planted only for you---to see if you would pass them on to her. You can explain to me why she named you as her Sabre contact in the last few seconds of her life."

"I don’t understand. I really have had no communication with her in years."

There was quiet, then an unseen voice announced, "She speaks the truth."

"Fine. Let’s start this at the beginning, and get down to the bottom of it."



It’s nice to retain Sabre perks and privileges, the man mused to himself. He had filed no flight plan; the shuttle was unregistered. All in all, very conducive to disappearing without a trace. He spared a glance toward the rear of the vehicle at the unconscious form, then returned his eyes to the rapidly moving world beneath him. They were almost to their destination, and he wanted no screw-ups at this stage of the game.

His objective came into view, and he powered down. It’s perfect, he mused again. The trees ended abruptly. He dropped the shuttle’s altitude, hovering just above the plain. The mountain loomed directly in his path, and he circled around to the far side. He spent a minute keying in various codes and giving several encrypted voice commands. Within a few moments, a small hole appeared at his eye level... about eighteen feet from the ground. He headed the shuttle towards it, and the vehicle disappeared from sight. The hole seemed to close in on itself. Thirty seconds later, there was no sign that it had ever been there at all.



"... and that was the last time I saw her. I got messages from her from time to time, right up until the first attack. Then I never heard from her again."

"She speaks the truth," the voice intoned once again.

Randi blew out a frustrated breath, running long fingers through her dark hair. They were missing a vital piece of the puzzle, and the disquiet in her guts was becoming genuinely painful.

"All right. Let’s come at this from another angle." Randi walked away from the window, and stood over the seated woman. Kene dropped her eyes after a long moment, and the Marine moved to perch on the corner of the Commandant’s desk. "You say you had no contact with Ghost Rider." She held up a hand for silence as the dark woman made to speak. "If that is true, and at this point we have to believe it is, then there is someone else you have been in touch with. Someone else who passed the information to her."

"There’s been no one. The only people who even knew about Ghost Rider are all Sabres. And there is no wa... waitaminute... unless... " She trailed off, her brows furrowed in deep thought. Randi clenched her hands in an effort not to shake the woman now lost in thought. Kene’s lips moved silently, as she reviewed some things in her mind. She reached her astonishing conclusion, and looked at Jerry with shock in her dark eyes. "Surely not...."

"WHAT??" The Marine ground her teeth in an effort to control her temper.

"Well now, mind you, he is still a Sabre, and he’s one of the four of us left who actually knew Grace before she became a rogue. But the only person I’ve talked to about any of this, outside of any of our active duty staff is...."

"Ben-ramen Ha’amaen." Both Kene and Jerry spoke simultaneously. In the next moment, Randi was rushing from the room, hardly giving Tiny time to step out of her path. The sounds of her being violently ill were very loud in the stillness of the silent office.

"Should I go check on her?" Kene asked in concern. It didn’t seem possible to be that sick for that long without physically hurting oneself.

"No." Tiny and Jerry both snapped out the answer. They looked at each other long and hard, recognizing the deep affection they each held for the Marine. The Commandant continued. "She’ll be back when she’s ready. She wouldn’t appreciate anyone seeing her right now, I imagine. God knows, I have never seen a reaction from her like that before." The large man at the door shook his head.

"You got that right, General." Silence reigned once more, until Randi returned. Her face was haggard, and drained of color. No one made a comment, nor moved to help her. The stiffness of her posture and bearing told them in no uncertain terms that such advances would be unwelcome.

"Tiny, I need you to take me back to the hotel now." Her voice was hoarse and ragged from being sick, but she spoke with ultimate authority.

"Now, Randi? But...."

"NOW. Ben Ha’amaen is like family to Gwen. She would welcome him as such."


"You’re not getting it, Tiny. There have been subtle indications that Gwen might be in danger from someone. I have been putting safeguards in place. But, not knowing that Ha’amaen was the real problem, I haven’t told her about any of them yet. I’ve got things ready on the island and at Midas, but nothing at Geoff’s and certainly nothing here." The strain of talking was clearly evident in her tone.


"If Ben Ha’amaen is the danger...."

"...Gwen could be walking into trouble. Let’s go."

They were halfway out the door when Jerry’s voice stopped them. "Keep us informed, Gunny. And if there is anything we can do...."

She nodded, but made no verbal answer. She was terribly afraid, from the churning in her guts, that they were gonna be too late.


Chapter II

The shuttle landed with nary a whisper of sound, and the engine was cut. The man exited the craft and moved to the back, and removing three key chips. He placed them into his pocket, and moved to the door. He lifted the bard out, then looked around. Though she was no heavyweight, there was no way he was going to be able to cradle her this way for the journey into the heart of the mountain.

Damn poor planning on my part, he grumbled to himself. He threw Gwen over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold, and moved to the elevator. "Open." The door immediately slid aside, and allowed him entrance. "Sick bay." He felt the slightest motion, but really could not feel the five-story drop, or the horizontal move that brought him right outside the medifac. He stepped off and moved to the nearest hover bed, securing the bard neatly to it. The man took a deep breath and flexed his shoulder. Been a long time since I had a workout like that. He sighed, and gently guided the floating bed back to the elevator. "Command Center."

Another horizontal move, and a drop of seven more stories brought them to the heart of the facility. From this vantage point, well over a hundred feet into the earth, he could monitor all activity for miles. No one would get near without his knowledge.

It had turned out to be a very good day for him indeed.



The Sabre pair made record time getting back to the resort. They bumped into Geoff and Jill arriving from the medifac. Randi left them standing in the lobby without a word as she raced to her room. She read the note Gwen had left, and crumpled to the ground without a sound.

A knock at the door brought her out of her despair. She donned the stoic Sabre mask that had been her faithful companion for more than 10 years, and countless missions. She wasn’t at all surprised to find Tiny standing there. The Goldmans brought up the rear, concern clearly etched on their faces.

Wordlessly, she handed the large man the note, while moving to pack up the things the bard had so lovingly put away such a short time before. His shoulders sagged as he read the bard’s brief message and realized what they were up against.

"Randi?" The one word from Geoff’s lips halted her motion, her turned back stiffening. "You wanna let us in on what’s going on here?"

Tiny saw the conflict in the blue eyes that turned to face him, before they moved on to look at Gwen’s parents. He answered before the Marine could speak.

"We have reason to believe that Gwen is in the hands of the enemy."

He would have said more, but Jill’s gasp caused him to stop. "The enemy? Geoff, what is he talking about? What is going on here? Where is my baby girl?"

The weapons smith drew his wife into his arms. "Let’s let them talk, sweetheart." He glared at Tiny, and the large man lowered his eyes. Randi took a deep breath, and walked over to where the Goldmans still stood wrapped tightly together. She reached for Jill’s hand, relieved when the woman took her own willingly. She led the woman to a chair and seated her, kneeling in front of her. The Marine never released the hand she held, taking small comfort in the firmness of the return grasp. She kept her eyes on their clasped hands when she spoke softly.

"Jill, when I died, I was, um... I was taking care of some rather nasty military business."

"Military? But I thought...." She stopped talking when Geoff placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed lightly. She returned his gaze with one of her own, absorbing the shake of his head with a single nod of her own. "I’m sorry I interrupted, Randi. Please continue."

"What I was during my service, what I did... there have been times I have had to lend my expertise since my retirement. As for what happened when I died... well, let’s just say I made a very bad enemy. And now he has apparently decided to take revenge. I’m sorry, I know I’m not to terribly coherent right now." She sighed deeply. The Marine felt her chin being lifted, and kept her eyes down.

"Randi, look at me." Jill’s voice was soft. The Sabre reluctantly raised her blue eyes to meet the older woman’s. "Do you know who has her?" A nod. "Can you find her and bring her home?" Another nod. "Then you do it. I am right in the middle of planning a reception for your wedding, and we can’t have that until ya’ll are together and married."

Randi appreciated Jill’s effort to lighten the atmosphere, and gave her a small, crooked smile. Tears filled two sets of eyes, but the Marine refused to allow hers to fall. She gently squeezed the hand still held in her own and then released it. Standing, she moved to pick up her bag. Her back to the room, she sent a silent prayer to Aphrodite to keep her bard safe. Then she squared her shoulders, and became the soldier she would need to be during this ordeal. When she turned to face them again, the woman was gone, and in her place stood the Sabre.

"Tiny, you contact Reed, and have her question Kene about Ben’s possible whereabouts. Geoff, I need you to get Gwen’s last known coordinates from Jerry. I need to go back to the beach house and get my stuff."


"Now, hold on just a...."

A raised eyebrow brought silence to the group. Jill watched in fascination as the tall woman took command of the situation with ease.

"I’m not asking. Tiny, Reed is the only seer I trust. She cleared Kene of being consciously involved. Now I need her to find out if Kene is aware of any possible hiding places he would have. And Geoff, I need to know where they last were. It might yield us a few clues."

"And it might be a dead end."

"Yeah, it might." She was getting frustrated and angry. "But it’s all we’ve got right now." She sighed and moved to the door. "I’ll be back before the day is over. Please have the information ready for me." She left the room without another word.

There was a very long pause filled with total silence. The two men looked at each other.

"I’m not letting her go alone, Geoff."

"Neither am I, Tiny. Neither am I. C’mon. We’ve got things to do before she gets back."



"You ready to explain what that was all about?" Jill wasn’t accusatory, but it was very clear she expected answers on this from him. He was busy sorting through a bag similar to the one Randi had been carrying.

"It’s a little... complicated. Suffice it to say that Tiny and I are going with Randi to bring Gwen home."

"Excuse me?!?" Her hands rested on her hips, and she looked at him with fire in her eyes. "I understand your desire to go, Geoff. She’s my daughter too, dammit!" The fire turned to tears. "But you are just out of regen for a chronic back problem that has plagued you for years. And Randi obviously has the experience and training for this kind of thing. You don’t."

He was quiet for a moment, considering. "Yeah, I do," he answered her calmly. "Those are our girls, Jill, and I’m gonna make sure they come home together. They deserve that much. They deserve so much more." His voice had become a mere whisper by the time he finished, and he looked to his bride of thirty years with tears in his eyes. "They deserve a lifetime together, like you and I have had. I intend to make sure they get that chance."

Her gaze had softened with his words. "You just make sure you bring yourself home to me," she said, realizing she would never talk him out of this. "We still have a lifetime to finish together."

He took her in his strong arms then, holding her for all he was worth. Her acceptance and faith meant so much to the Sabre. It would be a strength he would take with him. He had a feeling he was going to need every ounce he could get.



"Are you up for this, Reed?" Tiny questioned his lover. He had explained the situation to the seer as soon as he had arrived back at headquarters. It was rare that the unit used a person with Reed’s gift in such a way. It was accurate, but terribly draining on the individual seers. Several of them had actually died of exhaustion or exposure to the emotions of another being. She had been brought in to insure that Kene didn’t lie to them, and she was very near exhaustion now. Could he ask her to risk her life for this?

"Even if I wasn’t, love, I’d still have to try." He nodded his head, knowing that would to be her answer regardless of the danger to herself. It was one of the things that had made her such a good Sabre. It still was. She lowered her voice, forcing him to lean down to her level stretched out upon the couch "Athena came to me last night. Their link can’t be broken, Tiny... not again. Neither of them will survive it." She drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. "I can’t...." She smiled when he tightened his fingers convulsively around hers. "WE can’t allow that to happen. They are destined."

Now it was the man’s turn to draw a deep breath. He hadn’t realized they were destined. But thinking about it now, he understood full well. A bond like theirs was deep and abiding, and to have it broken, especially now that it had been consummated.... He shuddered in pure horrific reaction. He had seen what their break-up had done to Gwen before. He was certain no one wanted to see Randi’s response to the same situation now. Even losing Reed, as hard as that would be for him, would be nothing compared to that.

"All right, sweetheart. You get some rest. I’ll talk to her first. Maybe we can do this the easy way."



The shuttle touched down with a whisper. Geoff had been fast, and Jerry had cleared channels enabling her to make it back to the beach house in record time. She wondered how long it would take Tommy or Ella to make it over, since they weren’t due back for another few days. Her heart clenched at the thought that she’d had to return alone, then she pushed it aside. They would be coming home from this together, or not at all.

She walked slowly into the small room that held all her Sabre tools. Her armor hung neatly as she had left it; the cleaning closet beside it stood empty. Her weapons stood at the ready, and she inspected them carefully with a grim smile. Then she moved with precision, gathering the items this mission would require.

She’d just stepped out of her ritual shower when she heard movement at the front of the house. You never disappoint me, Tommy. A bittersweet smile appeared on her face and she reached for her short robe. Tying it off, she went to meet the man she called brother.

He knew the moment he saw her something was terribly wrong. He opened his arms, and she went to him willingly, though she never lost her composure. Her mask was in place, and he shuddered at the thought of what could have put it there. He stroked her back gently for a moment before she pulled away from him, and moved out of his arms completely. It was at that precise minute that he realized she was alone.

"Randi?" It was all he said, but it was enough.

"Someone took her from me, T. I’ve got to go find her and bring her home."

He wasn’t sure what to say at that point, so he offered his support to her in the best way he knew how. "You do that, little sister. And you come home safe as well. You’ve both got a nephew to help us raise."

She smiled at his effort, and kissed his cheek. Then she went back to the bedroom to dress.

The armor was surprisingly light, given its strength. It was a kevlar/titanium blend that made up the outfit, with a polymer underlay that protected her more vulnerable areas. She slipped into a black T-shirt. The polymer wasn’t particularly comfortable against bare skin. Socks next, then the pants, and finally the over-shirt. She stepped into her boots, tightening the laces to make the fit snug. She looked at the mask, shaking her head lightly before tucking it into a secure place in her belt.

Now it was time to add the weapons, and the grim smile returned. She had never expected, never planned to use these things again. Slowly, she added her boot daggers, thigh knives, samurai discs, crossbow, bolts, and both stun and laser guns. I feel like a fucking walking armory. You are, moron... that is the whole point. Now let’s go. We’ve got work to do.

Wonderful... I am now fully certifiable... arguing with myself at a time like this. Damn Valiant! Get your head on straight. Gwen is depending on you here.

That thought was enough to bring her back to herself with a start, and she grabbed the bag that held a few of the other toys she thought might be useful. Stepping out into the living area, she was surprised to find not only Tommy waiting for her, but Randall, Ella, and...."Uncle?"

The elder Mr. Steele came to stand in front of her, looking eye to eye. He awkwardly took her hands, and said quietly, "I’ve missed you, Randi. Welcome home." He pulled her into a brief, fierce hug. Now you go fetch that lovely young lady of yours. I owe her an apology."

The Marine raised her eyebrow in question, but there was really no time for answers. She would get them when she got back. She nodded an acknowledgment of his words, and he stepped back, allowing his grandson to take center stage.

"WUV!" The child yelled, and leapt into her arms. She caught him easily, cradling him gently for a long moment before kissing his head and handing him back to his mother. He struggled, unhappy with the transfer. Ella took him, and gently admonished the Sabre.

"You be careful, and ya’ll both come home safe." She reached up and pulled the dark head down, placing a kiss on her forehead as though in blessing.

Tommy didn’t say a word. He simply lifted the bag, and walked over to the door. He escorted her to the waiting shuttle, and only then did he release his hold on the bag. Now he took her in his embrace once more, and she returned it warmly, accepting the strength he offered. "Come home safely."

Randi stepped into the shuttle and stood at the door. Then she answered him with the thought she’d had earlier. "Either we’ll both come home, Tommy, or neither of us will."

He understood all too well why she said that, and he gave recognition to that fact with a nod and a small salute.

Then the shuttle doors closed, and she was making her return flight toward the capital city. The man stood there silently, watching the craft rapidly vanish from sight.

"Will she be all right, Tommy?" Ella’s question was soft. She had no desire to awaken the child who had just calmed down and fallen asleep. Her father-in-law gently pried the exhausted child from her grip, and continued back toward the Steele manse. Tommy waited until the older man had passed from hearing before he answered.

"One way or another they will, sweetheart." And Ella knew, by the look in his eyes, and the tears resting on his cheeks, that this was not going to be an easy vigil.



Jerry sat quietly at his desk, head cradled in his hands for a few minutes after his conversation with Geoff ended. When did I lose control? He groaned silently. When did I lose my honor? He took a deep breath, and came to a decision.

He turned to make a vid call, his attention momentarily caught by the woman who had been his compatriot for nearly thirty-five years. She stood at the window Randi had abandoned, looking out unseeing at the landscape in front of her. She had been in the same position for nearly half an hour.

"Kene?" He waited. "Kene?"

She didn’t turn, but answered him with a resigned tone. "Yes, General?"

He came to stand behind her... close enough to touch, but not crossing that line. "Kene, we’ve been friends for a very long time, and you’ve never lied to me. So I have to ask now... did you know Ben was in contact with Ghost Rider?"

Her shoulders slumped, knowing there was no good answer. "No Jerry, I really didn’t. We didn’t even talk on a regular basis; just if there was action somewhere or interesting Sabre news. He’s the only old buddy we have left from way back, besides Geoff, and I was pretty sure you kept in touch with him."

Neither of them heard Tiny McCall step into the room. The open door greatly aided his stealthy approach. He stood silently... listening.

"You’re right. I did. But up until Randi died, and Gwen went on her walkabout, we never discussed Sabre business outside of the few missions he was a part of."

"I was a fool."

"You were too trusting." The Commandant paused, thinking. "Did he ever talk to you... let you know things that were going on with him?"

The woman thought for a long moment. "Some. Nothing that would be helpful now though, I imagine."

Tiny pushed away from the door and spoke for the first time. "Did he ever mention any special places? Somewhere that could be used as a hiding place now?"

Both Sabres whirled away from the window at the first words from the Navy chief. He waited patiently with his arms crossed. Jerry crossed to sit on a corner of his desk. Kene closed her eyes and put her folded hands to her lips while she reviewed some of the information she and Ben had exchanged. She cringed inwardly as she realized how stupid and careless she had been. Finally, she opened her eyes and regarded the two men.

"I can only think of three possibilities." She drew a deep breath. "The first option would be his boat. As a Sabre, he never had to register it, and since he lives on an inlet, it would be very simple to launch it without anyone really noticing it."

Jerry moved around to sit at his desk once again. He dispatched a nearby Sabre to check this information.

"The second option is possible, though I’m inclined to dismiss it. It is a small cabin on a lake in the plains. He was telling me about it once when we were talking about comm upgrades. Said he’d never gotten reception quite like he did there."

"So what makes you want to dismiss it?" This from Tiny.

"It’s too wide open, from what he said. No good way to conceal someone, especially considering he had neighbors."

The two men nodded in agreement with her logical conclusion, and Jerry motioned for her to continue.

"The last... well, I think it would be the best place to take her. Especially if the idea is to keep her separated from the gunnery sergeant. Jerry, do you remember years ago, when we got a chance to study some of the old battlements? A few of the fortresses that remained after the Great War?"

The Commandant looked at her blankly for a minute, before comprehension lit up his eyes. "You think he took her to the mountain?"

"It seems the most logical place to go. You remember his fascination with the whole place, and it really wouldn’t be hard to upgrade the facilities. No one knows it’s there."

"Excuse me... hold on just a minute there. How can no one NOT know there is a mountain around?? That’s a pretty damned big object to try and hide."

"No, Tiny... you misunderstand. The mountain itself is hidden in plain sight. It is what is held within the mountain that no one remembers."

"And what secret does the mountain hold?

Reed appeared in the doorway as she asked her question. She had been resting on the couch in the adjoining room, but the conversation had gotten too interesting for her to remain out of it. The Sabre pilot was still drawn and pale looking, and Tiny immediately escorted her to the sofa along the far wall. Kene walked to the office door and shut it.

"What I say now, stays in this small group. Except for sharing it with Randi...."

"... and Geoff," the Navy man broke in. "We will be going with her."

The woman looked at him like he was nuts, before nodding her head in agreement. "He knows most of the story. It won’t hurt to fill him in on the details, but otherwise, everything stays between us. Years ago....


They had been young, and very drunk. The mission had been a success and they had all been glad to survive. So of course they had felt the need to celebrate. It had been their small unit--- Jerry, Geoff, Ben, Kene, Grace, and four Sabres who were no longer living to tell the tale. Their discussion turned to some of the wilder myths and theories they’d heard.

"I’m not kiddin’, man. It’s the gods honest truth."

"No way, dude. They were never that technologically advanced."

"I’m telling you, I’ve seen the plans."

This argument was taking place between Gunnery Sgt. Jerry Daetwyler and the usually silent Sgt. Ben Ha’amaen. Ben had a habit of never speaking until he was sure of his facts, and this made the others sit there and listen.

"All right then. This is something I want to see for myself."

After Grace had disappeared they managed to snag a copy of the plans for further study---not a difficult task considering the fortress had long since faded from public memory. It was some months later, after Ghost Rider had made her first attack, before they were able to get some time off together, and do a little investigating of their own. What they found....



"What we found was an impenetrable stronghold, which, though it was developed more than a century ago, was quite clever. If he has been able to fortify it, and modernize its systems...." She let the thought trail off as its implications sank in.

"I agree with you, Kene," Jerry finally spoke. It would be our best bet. Tiny...."


"You and Geoff still have your uniforms with you correct?" knowing they had returned to the city directly from their last mission. The Chief nodded. "Good. I need you to go to Supply and get uniforms for Kene, Reed and myself. Grab whatever tools you think would be useful for this little expedition. Kene, you come with me. We need to find those plans and have them ready for Randi when she returns. Reed, you stay here and rest. We’ll need your piloting skills later."

Reed nodded, and promptly fell into a deep sleep. The two officers moved down the corridor toward the old record room. Tiny stood in the middle of the office, shaking his head at the bizarre turn of events. Then closing the door softly, he headed for Supply.



Geoff wore a bittersweet smile. It had been a long time since he and Jill had been quite so... furious in their lovemaking. Not that their sexual relationship was lacking, but with his wife knowing the danger he was walking into.... He smiled again. Quite the little tigress! He looked at the timepiece on the bedside stand again, and gently extricated himself from her arms.

"You leaving me already?"

He gently kissed her cheek, smiling into her sleepy eyes. "Yeah. I gotta get a quick shower and go. Randi should be back soon. And I’m expecting an important package at headquarters right about now too."

She didn’t say anything for a moment, though her eyes spoke volumes for her. And when she did, she gave a small nod of understanding and support. "I love you," cupping his cheek. "You stay safe and come home to me."

"I’ll do my best." It was the only promise he could make her.

He tucked the covers back in around her. I will not cry, she chanted to herself. I will not cry.

His shower was short, and it wasn’t long before he stood before her as the Sabre he had been... the Sabre he still was. She kissed him hard, and sent him on his way. The door closed gently. Then she broke down in tears over the mess she felt responsible for causing, scared of what the cost of fixing it would be.



Randi stood stock still as she re-entered Jeremy Daetwyler’s office at headquarters. There before her very eyes was a tableau she’d never thought to see. Tiny and the General were standing in the middle of a holo-mock up of... something. Kene and Geoff were talking quietly off to one side. Only Reed was silent, still resting on the couch. Each of them was in armor, weapons prominently displayed. On the large desk sat some of the items she’d seen in the weapons smith’s workshop.

She shook her head, trying to clear it, sure that what she thought she saw was coming from her imagination. There is no fucking way.... But at that very moment, the Commandant caught sight of her standing there, and welcomed her in.

"Randi, come in. Your troops are here, and we await your orders."

She looked at him, confused. Then the reality of his words hit home, and she shook her head again. "No, sir. I don’t think so. This is something I need to do alone."

"No, ma’am. I don’t think so. You went off alone once, and look where that got you. No, this time we do it by the book, and that means we’re your back up. Got it?"

She held his eyes for a long moment, before turning to look at the remainder of the team. Each of them, even Kene, made it clear she was not going anywhere without them. She dropped here eyes in defeat, though secretly she was grateful for the support. Around her rose a collective sigh of relief. The biggest hurdle had been crossed.

"Let us show you what we have so far." The group moved over to the holo-mockup. "Kene helped us narrow down the possibilities of where Ben has gone, and we all agree her conclusion is sound and logical. It is also going to be extremely risky to try to penetrate."

The Marine looked at the older woman with a bit of trepidation. While her head understood that this was a chance for the colonel to recover her honor, and try to make up for leaking information to the enemy (however unwittingly), her heart wasn’t nearly as forgiving and accepting of the circumstances. Randi turned her attention back to the Commandant.

He was, at the moment, waiting for the Marine to refocus on him. There was too much at stake for her to miss something. He understood well her ambivalence, feeling the same way---both about himself and Kene. But this was something they needed to do, both of them... as much for Gwen and Randi’s sakes as for their own.

He resumed speaking, the sharp three-dimensional visuals helping them to greatly understand the challenge that awaited them.

"So he has her inside the heart of the mountain." Randi was speaking, studying the holo, and trying to form a clear picture in her mind. She was still trying to digest all the information Jerry had given her.

"We think so, yes. This facility was carved into and beneath the mountain itself more than a hundred years ago. And it is part of this chain of mountains right here. The mountains make it difficult to reach, and the meadow area has been created at their base. The forest area ends here," pointing to an area a good mile from the mountain’s base. "And it’s a given that he will have put security measures out to stop you from coming in." The Marine nodded her head in agreement.

"Actually, I’ve got something that might help in that area." Geoff reached back to the desk, and removed a small box. "I’ve been working on some small prototypes of this for a while. Mike was good enough to go to the workshop, and send these out to me." He pulled out a small, mirrored device. "These can be set to reverse the polarity of any stream he has running, without disrupting their flow, and setting of internal alarms. Depending on what he’s got going, they could be pretty useful."

"This," holding up another object, "will arch any type of force field he has, without breaking it. Again, so as not to alert him to our presence."

Randi nodded her comprehension, impressed with the array of ‘toys’ they had available for this mission.

"I want one thing understood here." Randi captured the eyes of each team member. The air around her suddenly crackled with tension. "This bastard is mine. I will deal with decimating his ass. Is that understood?"

Every person in the room nodded their understanding. Geoff wanted to say something, not liking the look in her eyes. He could only hope they found Gwen alive and in good shape. He couldn’t imagine the cost to Randi’s soul otherwise.



Chapter III

Bright lights.

Searing pain.

Stark terror.

RANDI!!! No, gods, no!!! Please don’t have taken her away from me again!

Gwen had no way of knowing that the precise moment the sickening panic flooded her system, Randi was reacting to its gut wrenching intensity. She closed her eyes again, willing herself to calm down. The bard also had hoped this would alleviate some of the lancing pain splitting her head.

It seemed to help, and as the throbbing settled into a dull ache, she tried to take stock of her current situation. The last thing I remember is...

Ow! Ow! Damn, that was stupid! She eased back down on the pallet, thankful she hadn’t actually opened her eyes when she shot up so abruptly. Okay, I can think just as easily laying down with my eyes closed. All right, Gwen... let’s see if you can figure out what is going on here.

She remembered saying goodbye to Randi before the Sabre left for headquarters. She smiled in memory. Then she had been waiting for... "Uncle Ben?" The voice was a mere whisper, as realization came rushing back to her. What the hell?? But the pain in her head was growing too strong to ignore, and she decided to rest a bit longer before trying to sort things out. She was fairly certain that whatever had happened was serious, and would take quite some mulling to overcome. So her first matter of business was more rest so her head would hopefully stop pounding,.



The next time the green eyes opened, the bright light wasn’t nearly so blinding. It still forced her eyes to shut again, but was not accompanied by the intense pain she’d experienced the first time she’d tried it. Oh, yeah. That’s much better. All right, Love. I’m gonna hold on until you get here. Just hurry, will ya? She took a deep breath. Time to take stock.

The bard slowly opened her eyes a second time, taking stock of the world around her. Hmm, bright lights, yep... gray walls, okay... what else? The blonde head turned to survey the room.

Very... functional. Aside from the couch she was laying on (not the pallet she’d originally thought it to be), the room had gray carpet, a stark table and chairs, and a functional kitchenette. There were no wall coverings or pictures. Two doors on one wall led to what she presumed to be a sleeping area, and a bathroom. She’d check that out to be sure.

Slowly she sat up, not wanting to encounter the rush of pain or any dizziness. Happy that everything seemed o be functioning properly, the bard rose from the couch. It was then that a reality hit her squarely in the face. This room is old. The furnishings... the doors.... She stopped to inspect the solid wood that surrounded her. Hmm, well, it looks like the real stuff, and if it is, that makes this place at least a couple hundred years old.

She walked over to the nearest door, amazed by its heaviness when she pushed it open. Guess it is the real thing. Wonder where we are. Gwen squared her shoulders. Think I’ll finish my tour, and then go see what I can see. She was rather amazed at her own calm. She was fairly certain it would take a while for Randi to get to them, even with the tracer chip. And it was apparent for the moment anyway that Ben had no intention of doing her any great harm, aside from keeping me apart from Randi, that is.

Now curiosity about why she had been brought here, and the manner in which it had been accomplished, got the better of her. She decided to seek out the man in question, and ask him directly. The blonde turned away from the door that had given her a glance into a neat, if stark, bedroom, and walked to the door opposite. As she suspected, it was a door leading to a hallway. She closed the door behind her, and stood listening for a minute. Then she turned to the left, and headed down the corridor toward the sounds coming from that direction.



"Did you locate the chip?" Randi was speaking as they loaded their gear and themselves onto the shuttle. Reed was doing her pre-flight checks. Jerry was the last to enter, and he closed the bay door behind himself, settling into a seat.

"Yeah, pretty much what we expected. His transport was found in a field not far from here. The chip was inside." He noticed the white knuckles of her clenched hands. "There was no blood or other evidence to show she had been hurt in any way."

"And we have no reason to believe he would harm her." Geoff’s hands were almost the color of hers. It was as if speaking the words aloud would make them true in his mind. "We’ve been friends for years, and he always adored Gwen."

"Yeah, right up til now. Amazing how I continue to screw up Gwen’s life." The bitterness in Randi’s voice was a surprise to all of them, but only Geoff answered her.

"No, Randi. You complete Gwen’s life, just as she completes yours. And when we get back from this, we will all be at your... um, reception with bells on. What Ben did... what he is doing, is his own choice." The man’s voice broke for a second, before he steadied it and resumed. "He will be the one who has to live with the consequences."

The Marine realized he was suffering as well, and addressed the unspoken part of his speech. "He will be the only one to pay for this."

It was silent for a time after that, before Jerry spoke again. "By the way, Randi. I heard back from the Sabre who visited Ben’s home. It’s clean. And the boat is still in the dock. So everything points to this being the right destination."

It’d better be. There are no points for second place. And we’re not gonna get a second chance at this.



"ARES!!! You self-righteous little bastard!! What in Tartarus do you think you’re doing???"

The dark god stepped from his domain, and met his sister with a smug smile on his face. "Problems, Aphrodite?"

"You know good and damned well I’ve got problems. You’re the one causing them!!" She poked him periodically, emphasizing her words.

"Excuse me?" He grasped her fingers none too gently, and pushed her slightly away from him.

The blonde goddess narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips. She was immediately joined by her two sisters, who stood in precisely the same positions slightly behind and to either side of her. "Don’t fuck with me Ares. You know the rules. And I claimed them millennia ago. So stay away from them." The three women didn’t wait for his response. They simply disappeared, headed to chambers to find a solution for the misery the unforeseen interference was causing.

"Too little, too late, Little Sister."



Gwen was quick to realize that finding her way through the maze this place was would take weeks without a map to guide her. She could find no identifying marks anywhere that were helpful. Well, hopefully, I won’t be here long enough for it to matter. It did disconcert her more than a little though, that after all the trouble Ben had taken to get her to... wherever *here* was, that there wasn’t some sort of security that she could identify. Though, given the fact that I have no idea where I am or where I am going makes it pretty secure, I guess. Oh, Randi, please hurry. This is more than a little creepy. The bard rubbed her ring in reassurance. She looked down at it for a long moment, then slipped it from her finger. The pain that act caused was palpable, and she drew in a deep breath to try to alleviate the worst of it. When it had passed to a tolerable level, she untucked and removed the chain she always wore around her neck. She slid the ring onto it, and clasped it again, securely tucking it under her shirt. I’m sorry, love. You’ll put it on me again, but for now....

She couldn’t have explained the urge that had compelled her to take such drastic action, but for now, she had to go with her gut. With another deep breath, she once again headed toward the only sounds of human occupation she’d heard in this place.

Another couple minutes, and she stood outside a door that did not slide open at her approach. How decidedly odd, she thought and proceeded to knock. She heard the scan rather than felt it, and seconds later the open door granted her admittance into the inner sanctuary.

The bard halted in her tracks, just inside the door. She looked around with mouth agape and eyes wide. What the hell?? Unconsciously, she put a hand to her chest to slow her now rapid heartbeat. The reassurance of the ring was calming, and she took another step inside. And stopped, as she felt, saw and heard the second scan take place.

The room she had entered was huge. Easily high enough to be a legitimate theatre, and long enough to host several sporting games simultaneously. One wall held a bank of monitors; another had a large holo field in play. The front wall was a huge holo map of the entire globe. She actually found that to be quite fascinating. There were several banks of computers. All the chairs sat empty.

Ben stood up in the corner, where he had been crouched tinkering with some of the new equipment. "Ah, my dear. You found your way here. Excellent! Come, let me show you around."

His manner baffled her. Gwen was certain he was a threat to her and Randi, yet now he was the same cordial man she had known for years. She decided to play it cool. Any information she could gather could only be useful. Right?

"Impressive, isn’t it?" He motioned to the holo map. "I have brought the technology up to date, but many of the original concepts are still in place." He waved to the holo wall. "This was not here, of course. They weren’t capable of this sort of thing when this fortress was created. But it really wasn’t that difficult to add."

"What does it do?"

"It gives me a three dimensional view of the perimeter here."

"Is that necessary?" The bard felt a sinking feeling hit her in the guts. It was apparent he was ready to intercept anything that interfered with whatever his plans were. And the fact that he referred to this place as a fortress didn’t bode well either.

"Oh, yes. You see, though I don’t know how she could figure it out, I actually expect your friend Randi to come after you. She’s shown herself to be incredibly gifted, and very, very lucky. And while I do want her to eventually find you, I don’t want it to happen too soon." His eyes darkened. "You see, I owe her, and you’re going to be my payback."

Gwen slowly backed away from him, careful to stay out of his reach. He laughed, a chilling sound that skittered up and down the bard’s spine. "Do you really think running away from me will help you, Gwen? This place is impenetrable. There is no escape for you, my dear."

"Why, Uncle? What did I ever do to you?" She felt her back hit solid wall, and she shuddered as he drew nearer. The bard continued to hold his gaze, however, and he felt a brief moment of regret for what she was going to have to endure.

He gently caressed her face, and she made a visible effort not to flinch away from him. "Honestly, Gwen. This is not personal, and has nothing to do with you directly. You simply made a poor choice in love, and there is now a price to be paid. For what it’s worth, I am sorry you have to be involved."

"So am I." She pushed away from him and ran to the door, only to be held up by the scanner. It concerned her more than a little that he did not attempt to stop her. Then the door slid open, and she left room.

The blonde wandered the hallways for a while. She found that this level was mostly the Command and Control Center, and what appeared to be Senior Officer quarters. She found several elevators, but none of them seemed to be working. It did show her however, that they were at the bottom level of whatever place they were at. Finally, she managed to arrive back in the quarters she’d vacated earlier. To her surprise, now that she’d been around the complex a bit, she found that she was actually quite close to the control room. She wasn’t sure whether or not to be relieved by that prospect.

She moseyed into the kitchen area, not really hungry, but quite curious. The cabinets were fully stocked, as was the refrigerator. The bard took out a bottle of water, and moved to continue her search. Something occurred to her right about then, and she took a seat on the couch. She assumed a meditation pose, closed her eyes and focused, trying to recall the details of the Command & Control. The truth of the situation was clear to her within two minutes, but she remained still for almost half an hour. Besides not giving her discovery away, it allowed her to concentrate on Randi. These thoughts brought a small smile to her lips, and she was more relaxed when she stood and retrieved her water.

She looked around carefully now, noting each spot where a vid cam was recording. She walked to the bathroom, pleased with the large tub, and glad that Ben was decent enough to allow her privacy here. She started the water running, and moved to the bedroom. The vid cam in this room was slightly different, allowing her to be monitored in the dark clearly. It was also in a place that could be easily covered. Bad move, Uncle. I don’t know what your game is yet, but you’re not gonna win. I have a wedding date coming up that I’m not about to miss. Especially considering what it took to get us there.

The bard took a robe from the closet, and walked back into the bathroom. May as well be comfortable. It’s gonna take a little time to figure all of this out. Her thoughts turned toward Randi. Be safe, my love. And be careful. I love you. We’ll get through this, and be stronger together for it. She closed the door and stripped, settling down for a long soak.



Far sooner than she expected, Randi felt the shuttle drop and come to a halt. She rose and moved to the cockpit, lifting her brow in inquiry at Reed. "Problem?"

"Possibly. I think we may have triggered some sort of security alarm."

"This far out? What makes you think so?"

"I got a brief blip on the console. I need to run a diagnostic to see what we’re dealing with."

"How long?"

"Depends on what I find." She held up a hand to forestall the argument she knew was coming. "I know, I know. I’ll be quick." The seer reached out and took the Marine’s large hand in her own strong grasp. "We’re gonna get her back, Randi. I promise."

The tall woman smiled through the tears that had pooled in her blue eyes. She clenched her jaw tightly for a very long moment. She swallowed, willing the tears away, then spoke. "You promise, huh?"

"Yeah, I do. Cause this is important to all of us. More than you know."

Randi sensed the serious intent behind the pilot’s words, but now was not the time to get into it. She simply nodded her head. "Let me know what you find out."

"You’ll know as soon as I do, my friend."

The Marine nodded again and left the cockpit. Tiny took her place. "What are we looking at?"

"I’m not sure yet," Reed answered, "but stay here. I could use an extra pair of eyes."



"How are you doing, Geoff?" With Tiny and Reed up front, Jerry and Kene had moved to the rear of the shuttle, ostensibly rechecking their weapons and supplies. This put Randi and this weapons smith alone together in the middle of the vehicle, and the Marine took advantage of their relative privacy to check on her soon-to-be father-in-law.

He smiled sadly at her. "I was just going to ask you the same thing."

She looked away from his gaze, unwilling for him to see the depth of her pain. "She is my source, Geoff. If he so much as harms a hair on her head...." She paused and shook her head, looking down at the floor before refocusing her sights on him. "I know the best way to devastate a person is to take away what they love the most, but... Geoff, do you think he’ll...." An audible swallow before she looked away again. "Do you think he’ll destroy her?" Unable or unwilling to mention the variety of ways he could accomplish such a feat.

The man sat there silently for a long time, unsure of the right thing to say. Finally, he spoke from his heart. "Ya know, Randi, I’d like to think Ben has retained some of his natural affection for Gwen. But regardless of what he plans to do... our job is not to speculate on his intentions, but simply stop them." He stopped, gathering his thoughts. "And we will stop him, Randi. Gwen is a very strong young woman. I saw that strength grow in her after you died. She will be all right until we get there."

"I hope you’re right, Geoff." The Marine struggled from her seat, and moved to the hatch. "Because I don’t have her strength. I won’t make it without her."

Randi stepped outside and moved away from the shuttle. A little space and some fresh air would be a welcome respite right now. And the peace of the surrounding countryside might be a soothing balm to her aching soul.



"It’s very soothing out here, isn’t it?" Kene questioned as she walked toward the Marine. Randi had heard her approach, but had hoped the other woman would simply leave her alone. For her part, Kene debated a long time about disturbing her fellow Sabre. Randi had made it quite clear her desire to be left alone. And the colonel had respected that for a while. But there were still some issues to be worked out between them if they were going to work together as a team. So the dark woman took her courage in her hands, and went searching for Randi.

She wasn’t surprised that the Marine ignored her until she had spoken directly to her. The colonel watched the minute struggle warring in Randi’s body and soul before good manners took hold and forced the gunnery sergeant around to face her.

"Something I can help you with?" Kene noticed the lack of name or title anytime the younger woman was forced to interact with her. It rankled a bit, but she chose to let it lie for the moment. Randi had enough issues to deal with right now.

"No." The colonel moved closer to Randi. "I just wanted to check on you." She paused, contemplating her words before continuing. "In a very different way, I understand exactly how you feel."

The Marine didn’t make a verbal response, but it was clear from her body language that she really didn’t believe Kene’s words. "You see, for a very long time, I thought that Jerry took Grace away from me. So I know what it feels like to have the one you care about...."

"NO!" Randi whirled on the colonel, forcing her to take a step back. "No, you don’t understand. Grace and Gwen are nothing alike! Don’t you dare begin to compare them." She turned her back to the other woman, refusing to look at her any longer. Kene sighed, and took a seat some distance from the Marine, keeping her eyes on the vista in front of her.

"You misunderstood me. I wouldn’t presume to compare them, as I really don’t know Gwen. I was comparing us." She didn’t flinch when Randi turned her forceful gaze back to her. The dark woman merely kept her eyes focused in the distance. "I know I don’t understand everything you’re going through right now, but I do understand a little of it, and I can sympathize completely. We’re going to get her back." She paused, then continued in an almost whisper. "I’m sorry." Now it was her turn to turn her back. "I feel responsible for this, and I never would have had anything like this happen to anyone in a million years."

"Yeah, well it did," the Marine snarled.

"I know, but we will do whatever it takes to finish this." She paused, debating internally before she finally decided to continue. "You will probably never forgive me for this... I doubt I will ever forgive myself. It’s time Jerry and I cleaned up a mess we apparently left undone years ago. Thank you for giving us the opportunity." She didn’t give the tall woman a chance to respond to this. Instead, Kene turned and walked back toward the shuttle, leaving Randi to her solitude once more.

"Hang on, Little One. I’m coming."



She dressed slowly after her bath. It was actually a bit unnerving to find a closet full of clothes that had obviously been put there for her benefit. Wonder how long he’s been planning this. She yawned, suddenly overcome with exhaustion. Think I’ll take a short nap. I’ll figure out what to do next when I get up. She crawled in bed and pulled the covers up, asleep before her head hit the pillow. She had no way of knowing that Ben had laced her water to induce sleep, thus making it easier for him to begin his work with her. And her fatigue fogged brain forgot to cover the vid cam.

He smiled gleefully as he watched her breathing slow and deepen. It was time.



Randi knew by her stride that Reed wasn’t coming out with good news. The fact that Tiny kept a supporting hand on the seer’s shoulder was even less comforting.

"We have a problem." Reed spoke with no preamble. "We are grounded."

The Marine looked at the pilot, and then at the huge man standing behind her, disbelief clear on her features. "Excuse me? I KNOW I didn’t just understand you to say what I think I heard come out of your mouth."

"It’s true, Randi. We can’t take off again." He heaved a deep sigh. "The blip? It was a virus. Technically, we should have crashed... would have had not Reed caught the blip. It is designed to detonate 10 seconds after it’s introduction into the system. It takes it that long to spread through the entire network."

"Then....?" motioning to the still intact shuttle.

"When we shut down immediately, it stopped the spread. But restarting the shuttle...."

"... would cause the virus to resume its journey, and would cause a very messy explosion." Randi blew out a breath and scratched the back of her neck as she turned away. "DAMMIT!!" flinging her arm in frustration. She sighed again and her shoulders sagged. "How far?"

"Best possible speed? Three days."

"FUCK!!" The Sabre stood stock still for a moment, gathering her strength. Then she turned around and faced her two compatriots. "All right then. We’ve got no time to waste. Let’s move." She led the way back to the vehicle with long, precise steps. "All right, people. Get your gear together. We move out in five minutes."

She moved away to her own equipment, and began to don everything she would need for the coming journey. The others, though they had questions, followed her lead in silence. They knew they would find out what they needed to know in due time. In the meantime, it was obvious the game plan had changed, and they just needed to go with the flow. No one said a thing about the fact that it was only a couple hours until sundown. This was urging Randi on, and most of them had learned to respect her gut instincts. Even now, when they knew what was driving those instincts, they responded to her leadership.

It took three minutes for each individual to be suited up and ready. Holo map in hand, Randi motioned for them to fall in and move out. "Keep your eyes open," she cautioned. "I don’t want anyone getting hurt on my watch, and we all know he’s gonna be ready for us."

The group nodded its collective heads in agreement, and dropped into Sabre formation. It was going to be a long three days.



They hadn’t been gone more than an hour from the shuttle when they heard the muted explosion in the distance.

"So, it is a good thing we didn’t argue her decision to push on," Tiny commented sotto voce to his lover. "We would all be dead now if we had stayed there."

Reed looked square into his face. "*We* would be, but I think he knows *she* wouldn’t."


"Think about it, Tiny. He hasn’t advertised his whereabouts, but he has done nothing to hide them, either. I think it’s safe to say at this point, that his agenda calls for her to find them, eventually."

"I’m not following you here, hon."

The seer sighed. "You’re right. This probably isn’t making too much sense. But...." She paused. "What little bit I can sense, added to what we know about Ha’amaen, points to one thing. He wants Randi to find them eventually, so he can take his revenge personally. He’s not gonna make it easy, but he fully expects her to survive."

"And does he realize she will kill him when she finds them?"

The Sabre scrunched up her brows in thought. "That doesn’t seem to be a concern. He wants revenge... he wants justice, to his mind. I...." She trailed off. "I can’t shake the feelings of dread. This could go badly so easily, and in so many ways."

"Then we’ll just do our best to keep that from happening."

"I hope we can, lover. I truly hope we can."

Conversation dried up then, as they each fell into their own contemplative thoughts.



The man leaned back, the pressure points in place. He would wait for the bard to awaken, and then would begin the slow methodical process of taking her memories of Randi away.



Darkness had fallen completely before Randi called a halt. She was loathe to do so, but couldn’t justify the risk to her team. With swift efficiency, the six set up camp. Randi was set to take the first watch when....

"I don’t think so, Gunny. We all know what you’ll do, and no one here is prepared to let you risk it. We’ll keep watch. You go get some rest."

"I thought I was in command here," the Marine growled, furious at their presumption.

"You are, but it is our job to protect you, especially from yourself. Gwen is gonna need you when we reach her, and by God, I’m gonna make sure you’re there for her." Geoff was the one speaking, and Randi couldn’t help but cave-in to his wishes on the matter. She looked deep into his eyes for a long moment, their souls speaking of shared agony. She nodded once to him, acceding to his request, both spoken and otherwise.

"Thanks, Geoff." She moved off to the tent and crawled inside, knowing sleep would be an elusive thing until Gwen was safe in her arms once again.



"But, Master...."

"I said, NO. What part of that did you not understand? I want her to remember Randi. I just don’t want her to remember what they had together. She spent years not understanding the truth in her heart. I want that for her again."

"Why don’t you just do a god thing then? Wouldn’t that be easier?"

The dark god whirled on the man, stopping a hairsbreadth from knocking him across the room. Anger had no place here... not right now anyway. Besides, the former Sabre had a valid point.

"Of course it would be easier. It would also be breaking the rules, and believe me, the punishment for that is not worth the ease of ‘doing a god thing’, as you so aptly describe it." He shuddered in memory at the price he had paid for breaking the rules with these two particular souls before. "Once you make her forget, shrouding her heart again will be child’s play."

Ben shook his head in confusion. There were too many rules and nuances to those rules that he didn’t even begin to understand. But he had felt the shudder that had run through Ares’ form, and knew that whatever else, the god would protect himself from retribution.

"So, as long as she doesn’t remember, keeping her feelings hidden is okay?"

"No one knows they’re being hidden. That’s the best part. All anyone will know is that she no longer remembers Randi as her soulmate."

"Very well, Master. It will be almost more painful for Valiant to have her as a friend, but unable to claim her as a lover." Ben mused aloud to himself. "Oh yes. This could work out even better than I hoped. Very well Master," he repeated. "Thy will be done."

Ares nodded his head once, and disappeared in a shimmer of light. The man moved back into the bard’s bedroom where she remained in a deep, drug-induced sleep. "Tomorrow, my dear. Everything will change for you tomorrow.

In his excitement over the near completion of his revenge, he failed to notice the hand she had clenched up near her neck. Its significance would have been missed by him completely anyway. He had no way of knowing the outcome of the fray he had just entered rested in the palm of Gwen’s hand.



An hour before dawn Randi rose, unable to continue the farce of pretending to sleep any longer. She crawled out of the tent quietly, careful not to disturb those around her who might actually be getting a little sleep. Not that she really thought anyone was, but still, they all need rest for the long day ahead.

Tiny was on guard duty, and he raised a cup at her in silent question when she emerged. She nodded, and he poured her some. She smiled her thanks, cupping her hands around the mug for warmth. Even in the dog days of late summer, morning in the foothills of the mountains tended to be chilly.

Time passed between them silently for a while. He moved to start breakfast, knowing the sounds and smells would bring the others.

By the time the sun was reaching tentative fingers across the horizon, the camp was packed and ready to go. Randi smiled grimly, and the troupe took up their march once more.



"Come, my dear. Rise and shine."

The voice that tickled her back to awareness wasn’t the one that she’d grown to love and trust. She hesitated to open her eyes, knowing the truth would come home harshly to nest the moment she did. Instead, she kept them firmly closed, her mind’s eye tracing the features she had come to know so well. He can’t take this away from me. I won’t let him.

Gwen turned onto her side, away from the vid cam she suddenly remembered she hadn’t covered. She clutched the pillow to her more tightly, physically tracing the lines she could only feel in her memories. She clasped the ring in her hand, reminding herself of their history.

After half an hour, she turned onto her back and stretched. She felt stronger for the time she had spent focused on Randi and their love for one another. Amazingly, Ben had not bothered her again once she had pointedly turned away from his voice. It’s almost as though he knows he’s gonna win, so there’s no real rush to do... whatever it is he is planning. She felt a tendril of true fear creep up her spine. But we’re not gonna let him win, are we, love? I love you, Randi. I’m gonna be strong til you get here. Just get here soon, okay? She scooped up the robe and moved to take a shower. It was time to meet the day head on.



Chapter IV

It was slow going, and tensions were running high. More than once they had been forced to slow to a crawl or stop altogether to work through some clever little trap the former Sabre had laid against intruders. Tiny had a nice slice cutting a path down the length of one thigh, and Kene had a deep gash across one shoulder. The rest were tired, bruised, and decidedly cranky.

When darkness fell completely, it found them camped in a well-hidden dell. It was comfortably silent, given the circumstances, and dinner had been companionable. The single regen unit they had was already working its magic on Tiny’s leg, but it was going to take the small unit far longer than they had to erase the wound. For now, they would have to settle for mostly healed.

Randi now sat somewhat apart from the rest, going over in her mind again and again what she could have done, should have done to prevent this. And what she was going to do when Gwen was out of the madman’s clutches, and safe in her arms again.

"All the remorse in the world isn’t going to change things, you know." Jerry’s voice startled her out of her reverie, and though she made no effort to welcome him, she didn’t send him away either. "You can’t worry about the should haves, what ifs, or if onlys. And you can’t let revenge become your focus either. You need to concentrate on the here and now, and keeping Gwen safe. The rest will take care of itself."

She didn’t deign to answer him, not really sure what response to make. Instead, she kept her eyes on the tiny glow sticks that had been placed around their perimeter for warmth and a bit of light.

He sat down near, though not next to her. "That sounds ridiculous, coming from me especially, I’m sure. It is probably the one lesson I have had pounded into my brain in the last eighteen months. I can’t continue to retrace and regret the choices I made. I can only go on from here and hopefully learn from the mistakes I’ve made." He hesitated. "This is my responsibility to clean up. I’m not going to let others suffer from it or because of it any longer."

Randi saw no reason to comment, and they continued to sit in silence together for a few minutes before he rose. "I’ve got second watch, so I’m gonna turn in." He looked at her. "You should probably do the same."

She looked at him then, and nodded minutely. "Good night, sir."

He took her dismissal for what is was, and moved away to the tent. Geoff noticed the vacant seat next to the Marine. He walked over and took a seat, keeping a vigilant eye on the perimeter. They sat quietly for a time, before the weapons smith looked at her, then looked away.

"How’re you doing?"

"I’ve been better, Geoff. You?"

"We’re gonna get through this, Randi. You’ll see."

She whirled on him in a display of fear and rage. "Will we, Geoff? Will we? How can you be sure? How do you know everything is gonna be all right? My God, how can you stand to be near me, knowing I am the cause of all this. *I’m* the one who put Gwen’s life in danger, Geoff! Me!"

The Marine stomped off into the darkness before he could utter a word in reply. He sat debating for a long moment over his options.

"Best to leave her alone, I think." Reed’s voice preceded her body by scant seconds. "She’s teetering on the edge of her self-control."


"Trust me on this one, Geoff. Let her be." She looked at him hard with eyes burning silver in the night. He nodded his head in agreement, and moved away to do a perimeter check.

"Be safe, my friend," the seer muttered to the darkness.



Gwen’s day started incongruously enough. After her shower, she wandered to the kitchen, fixing herself a bit of breakfast and cleaning up. Finally, unable to stand the closeness of her room, she meandered down the hallway, still looking for a way out. Though she knew that Randi was coming, it did not lessen her desire to escape. She didn’t want to endure whatever it was that Ben had in store for her, and quite frankly, the suspense was killing her.

He waited for her to near the clinic before he beckoned her, his voice pitched to draw her in like a siren’s song. Helplessly, her body responded, while her mind screamed silently in denial. No! NO! I don’t want to do this. He’s going to hurt me! NO! But even as these thoughts crossed her mind, her feet carried her over the threshold into his waiting arms.

"Very well, my dear. It is time to make you forget."

"Forget? Forget what?’ She struggled over the words, as though her body was no longer her own to control, and her mind had taken a leave of absence. What is happening to me?

"What Randi means to you, of course." He spoke to her as though she was a child, asking a question whose answer was obvious.

"No! NO! You can’t do that!" She tried to fight against him, but her body failed to obey her commands. The pressure points he had put into place were doing their job admirably. "You can’t do that," she repeated. "She is everything to me!!"

"Now, don’t you worry, my dear. This won’t hurt a bit." He grinned evilly. "Well, it won’t hurt you. You won’t remember it." The sneer became a grimace. "But it will be a down payment to your lover as payback for the grief and pain she has caused my son and I."

"Your son? You have a son?" Her voice sounded thin and far away to her own ears.

"Yes, and he is poised to take his mother’s place, since Miranda Valiant destroyed her."

The bard shook her head uncomprehendingly, the pieces of the puzzle making no sense to her fogged mind. "But what about Sam? I thought he was your partner."

"Sam is my partner as well as my very dear friend. Grace was also my lover as well as the mother of my child."


"Sam and I have a very open relationship, Gwen. And Grace and I gave something to each other we would never have had otherwise. Now," abruptly and effectively ending the conversation, "close your eyes and relax. This will be over relatively quickly, and will be painless for you."

Against her conscious will, Gwen felt her eyes close, and she relaxed into his tender ministrations. Ben spared her a brief glance of remorse, then quickly got down to business. This was going to be more satisfying than his original plan in more ways then he could fathom.



The walls had been put in place very effectively the night before, and as the team gathered itself together for its second day of travel, they noticed the change. Randi spoke to no one, and her eyes had taken on a slate hardness that none of them could penetrate. With a brief nod to the assembly, she turned and started out toward the mountain they could barely see outlined in the distance.

She pushed them hard, the roiling in her gut sending spasms through her body in aching cramps. Her jaw clamped firmly shut, she tried desperately to ignore the pain in her heart. Something was terribly wrong. And her anxiousness to get to Gwen was going to cost her, and her team, dearly.

On towards afternoon, shortly after a rushed lunch that barely allowed them a pit stop, all hell broke loose.

It started simply. Reed, in the lead for the moment, stepped carefully around one trap, only to be caught firmly in the second, more agonizing one. Sharp tines flew at her, and given her height, hit her squarely in the eyes. She screamed in agony as she went down.

In his haste to get to her, Geoff, who had been right behind her, triggered the trap she had avoided. With blinding speed, a crude mace slammed into his back. His spine shattering echoed eerily in the sudden stillness, and he crumpled in an unconscious heap.

The remainder of the team, frozen as the events played out in slow motion in front of them, came to life. Even more cautiously now, they still moved forward quickly to come to the aid of their fallen comrades.

Tiny reached his lover’s side, gently prying her hands away from her eyes. She was curled into a tight fetal position, and it made his task doubly difficult. With infinite patience, the large man drew her hands back, unable to contain the gasp that escaped his lips at the sight that met his gaze. Diminutive, sharpened quills, dozens of them, were embedded in her eyes and upper face. Blood oozed from each and every one, creating a puddle beneath her head. Gently, the large man hit several pressure points, easing the woman into a deeply unconscious state.

Randi went straight to Geoff’s side, giving a prayer of silent thanks for his already comatose condition. A quick scan indicated several fractures along his spine, and the Marine cursed roundly for a long moment. She beckoned Kene and Jerry to her.

"Which of you has the med kit?" The colonel moved to pull it from her pack. "Jerry, you stay here with Geoff. If he shows signs of coming to, give us a call." Randi looked to the other woman and motioned with her head. "C’mon. Reed needs immediate attention."

Kene didn’t say anything, but moved to kneel beside the seer. It was only because of sheer willpower and biting her lip almost through that the small, dark woman managed to contain her gasp of horror. Instead, she withdrew a bottle, water tablet and saline pills, and mixed them together efficiently. Gently, she began to wash away the blood.

Randi looked into Tiny’s eyes, which were filled with unshed tears. "I’m sorry, Tiny. I wouldn’t have had this happen for anything."

"I know, Randi. No guilt, my friend. We knew the risks. She’ll be all right." He said it aloud as though to convince himself and Reed of that reality as much as to reassure his Marine friend of it.

Kene had finished her first rinsing, and looked toward them. "We need to make her more comfortable. And I need her head turned so I can remove the spines. Tiny, you’ll need to hold her still. Even unconscious, she may struggle against us."

Randi cut in. "Do you need me for anything?’

Kene was stunned by the question. "Um, no. Not right now I don’t think."

"Good, I got work to do."

"Huh?" Kene couldn’t see what was more important than what they were doing.

The Marine pointed toward a bank of dark, low clouds in the near distance. "I need to get the shelter built. It looks like we may need it soon."


"Yeah." With a squeeze of encouragement to Tiny’s shoulder, Randi moved to get started.



Thunder was rumbling ominously close by the time Randi had things set up. She brought out the collapsible hover bed they carried, and moved it over to Geoff. "I hate to do this, but we’ve got no choice." Slowly and carefully, they eased the bed beneath the weapons smith’s broken and twisted frame. Still in a deep coma, the man never felt the action taking place around him.

Meanwhile, Kene had finished pulling out the small spikes, and was once more cleaning Reed’s eyes and face. Satisfied she had done what she could, she nodded to the large man still maintaining his hold on his lover. He tenderly scooped the seer up into his arms, and moved to put her into the tent.

The first fat drops of rain started falling just as Randi and Jerry finished easing Geoff’s body onto the hover bed. With activation, the device started humming, and rose slightly from the ground. Just as the pallet rose to waist level, the bottom dropped out of the sky.

"Perfect," Randi muttered. "Just fucking perfect."

They moved quickly over the ground, but were still drenched by the time they reached the tent flap. The colonel ushered them inside, giving them each a dryer unit while she went to look at Geoff. She closed her eyes and breathed a silent prayer for him when she saw the damage that had been done to his spinal column. Then she set to drying his clothes to keep him from catching a chill. Her still damaged shoulder ached from the strain, but she finished, and pulled a light blanket up over him.

"Rest, my friend."

Satisfied that her two patients were as comfortable as they could be at the present moment, given the circumstances, Kene moved to the opposite corner of the enclosure, and motioned the rest to join her.

"We have a problem."

At this statement, the rest looked at her as though a gorgon had grown out of her head and was sticking its tongue out at them. She realized what the looks were for almost immediately, and held up a hand to stop the obvious comments.

"No, I mean beyond the noticeable one," gesturing at their two fallen comrades.

"She’s right," Randi replied. "We have one very small regen unit, and presently no way to get a shuttle to our location. Even if we call for help, we’re a good two days walk to the closest perimeter where transportation can land. Added to all this, Ben still has Gwen, and that’s easily another day and a half of travel from this location. And that’s only if we don’t run into anymore trouble."

"Our best bet is gonna be to split up. One of you can go with me, the other two can stay here."

"Now wait just a damn minute...."

"Hold on a second...."

"Are you out of your mind?"

Randi held up a hand, her blue gaze burning a hole in each of them until they sat quietly. "I don’t see the need for discussion or debate here, except to decide who goes and who stays. I’m going to get Gwen out, and I’ll do it alone if I have to."

"No, there’s no need for discussion." Kene was quick to break into the debate before it got rolling. "I am the qualified medic. I will stay. However, I don’t see a need for either of these two to hang around waiting for you to get back. Take them both with you. We’ll be all right here."

"And how do you propose to stand watch, hmm?" The softly spoken words were biting nonetheless.

"I don’t." The colonel was frank in her answer. "No one has come after us. And I don’t think he knows or cares about the rest of us being out here with you anyway, so I’m fairly certain that he’s not gonna send anyone or anything after us. Besides which, everything he’s done so far points to this being about you and him, and that he’s working alone. I don’t think we’re in that much danger of him coming after us."

"And I suppose Reed and Geoff laying unconscious over there is just a figment of my over-active imagination, huh? When did you decide to start thinking?"

"That’s enough, Sergeant." Jerry’s voice broke in firmly. "There is no reason for you to be this way with any of us. We’re on your side after all, remember? Besides, Kene could always trigger a medical containment field if danger was threatening. A temporary solution, but one that would work."

The Marine made no verbal answer, though the look she gave him could have seared his skin with its heat. Instead, she walked over and picked up her pack, hoisted it, and paced to the door. The weight of guilt was heavy in her eyes now, and it gave her the appearance of profound sadness. "The fact is, Jerry, that I should have done this alone. No one would have gotten hurt then."

She made a move to exit the shelter, but was held up by Tiny’s large hand on her arm. "Not this time, my friend. We all volunteered for this assignment. Each for our own reasons to be sure, but you need us as much as we need to be here. Now let us help... let us do our part."

She looked at him then, his eyes dark in the dim light of the interior. The sound of the rain cascading down in sheets was the only sound that could be heard while the two of them communicated silently. Though she didn’t understand the exact reasoning behind the thoughts he was sharing, Randi felt that Tiny was the guardian to secrets that she would find out later. She nodded her acceptance, and set the pack down, moving away from where the Army officers sat.

"Ya’ll decide whatever. I’m leaving out at daylight or when the rain stops, whichever comes first." She deliberately turned her back on all of them, and settled down to rest.

Tiny looked at her sadly for a long moment before returning to sit with Jerry and Kene. He opened his mouth to make an excuse for her behavior until he felt a hand on his arm. He looked to the colonel, whose dark eyes held warm understanding. "It’s all right, Tiny. I was wondering how long it was gonna take for her to crack. She’s holding herself together by sheer grit. She’s a remarkable individual put under an enormous amount of stress. Most of us would have snapped long before now."

"Thank you for understanding."

"Oh, understanding her losing it was easy. Trying to comprehend how she’s managed to hold it all together for so long was the hard part." She smiled. "We’re gonna get Gwen back, and you are both gonna go with her to ensure that happens."

Tiny looked over at the general, noting he did not dispute nor argue with his subordinate’s words. He cast a glance toward Randi’s stiff back, then shifted his gaze to his still unconscious lover. He leaned in toward the other two, and lowered his voice. "Reed told me something I think you are both entitled to know." Twin heads moved nearer, so as not to miss his low-spoken words.

"It is imperative that we get the two of them together soon. The feelings she has been getting are, um... well...." He pulled on his ear slightly, trying to figure out a way to explain something he had difficulty understanding. "You both know that Reed sees emotions, feelings. She can also sense emotions connected with the future, if they are exceptionally strong." He sighed, gathering his thoughts again. "Gwen and Randi, to use her words, are two parts to a single whole. They balance one another, and that, believe it or not, affects much of the world around us. She’s, well, let’s just say that she’s more than a little concerned over what the results would be if that balance is lost."

They each sat silently for a time after that, contemplating his words. Jerry broke the silence. "Then I guess we need to make sure that the balance stays in place then, don’t we?"

Kene nodded her agreement, then rose. "Right now, though, my immediate consideration is for my patients. I already placed a vid call requesting assistance as soon as possible, but like Randi pointed out, that help is a good two days away minimum. I am going to set the regen unit to working on Geoff’s back. I won’t let it fuse the bones, but I will set it to start strengthening them. He needs a doctor to do the fusing."

She looked at Tiny then, reading the unasked question in his eyes. "Reed’s eyes need to be examined with more delicate equipment than we have here. I would hate to have them heal, only to find out they were destroyed by something I missed. I *think* I got it all, but we want to be sure. I have enough saline tablets and water pills to insure more than a week’s supply of solution. We should be back to a treatment facility long before then. I will keep them both sedated, so they will be as comfortable as possible." Now she looked at both of them, catching their eyes to insure she had their attention.

"Regardless, you both should go with Randi. She is walking a very thin line, right on a razor’s edge, and she’s going to need your support. We’ll be fine here until you get back or the rescue team arrives."

A thought occurred to Jerry then, and he voiced his concern immediately. "A moot point, perhaps, but did you contact the team?"

The colonel nodded. "I had too. This is an unofficial expedition, and I don’t think we can afford to leave their health," indicating Geoff and Reed, "to chance."

Tiny spoke. "We set this up so that every communication that leaves is scrambled to sound like any of the natural sounds you’d find here. If he catches it, and takes the time to decode it, all he will get is a garbled audio message that will sound like Randi sent it. If he does, he will either think her alone and in trouble, in which case he will probably relax. Or he will think she came with a team that is now in trouble, and will still relax. Either way, it works in our favor." He paused. "Odds are, though, he won’t even notice."

"Reed and I have had several opportunities to speak at length. We are both of a mind that Ben is not interested in the team, only Randi. We don’t figure into his thinking at all."

"Well, in any case, we need to get some rest if we’re gonna head out with the maverick over there." Jerry nodded in Randi’s direction. "Why not put the field on and get some rest too? It’s gonna be a while until you’ll be able to sleep so well again."

Kene nodded her head in agreement, and moved to set the boundaries. A low hum began, and it wasn’t long before six sets of deep, even breathing filled the tent.



Ben was in fact monitoring them, and was well aware of the number remaining in their contingent. He was surprised they had stumbled upon his hideout so quickly, but he could adjust. He was actually ahead of the game at this juncture. His greatest drawback was that his surveillance did not extend to where the shuttle had landed, and though the explosion had registered on his screen, he had no way of knowing how many Sabres had started out from that point. It wouldn’t be unsafe to assume that the normal unit of nine had begun the journey. The six he was now tracking had only come into range that morning.

His sensors showed them halted, and that made him wonder, but he decided they were simply following standard Sabre operating procedure in enemy territory and waiting out the weather. He felt a niggling concern about the missing three Sabres, then shrugged it off. There was no way a single team of Sabres could catch him, even with Miranda Valiant. Oh, he acknowledged to himself, she’s good, but no one is as good as they say she is. Besides, caressing the vial he carried, this will solve that little problem quite nicely, eventually. He chuckled silently. No matter, though. I’ve already taken away from her far more than she ever thought of taking from me. Now he laughed aloud. Time to meet Gwen for tea. He laughed again. And this time he heard a counterpoint of dark laughter in the far distance.



Dark was just coming on when the downpour turned to drizzle. Randi woke at the change in sound outdoors, and sat up, looking around. Without a sound she moved to check on both Geoff and Reed, noting their deep, even breathing. She checked for fever, happy to note that they were both relatively cool to the touch.

She walked back over to her cot, and sat down to don her boots. A large hand on her arm stopped her.

"I don’t think so, my friend. It is too dangerous to go out there in the dark."

The Marine tried to jerk her arm from Tiny’s grasp. "And it’s not dangerous for Gwen to be out there with that lunatic?? Let go of me, Tiny."

"No, Randi. You are of no use to her if you are dead." He paused, thinking about what Read had shared with him, then continued. "He wants you to come after them. Whatever he has planned for her, he wants you to see it. He wants you both alive."

"I see. And you know this *how* exactly, Dr. Freud?"

"Randi, take a step back, and look at this dispassionately for a minute, will ya?" His anger and exasperation was clear in his tone and manner. "He didn’t kill her immediately. Except for removing her chip, he’s made no effort to hide himself. And if you look around, the traps he set were made to maim, not kill." He motioned to his own wound, as well as those of the seer and weapons smith. "It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you’re the target, and Gwen is the bait. Now, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and start using that fine mind to figure out a way to win here. We’ve all paid a high price... make it worth it."

She pulled away from his grip, and this time he let her go. She walked to the tent opening, wondering when she had lost focus. She stared unseeingly out into the blackness before her head dropped. C’mon, Valiant, your team deserves your very best effort. They have given of themselves to be here. What would Gwen think if she knew how you were treating friends because of her?

The Marine squared her shoulders, coming to a decision. She moved to her kit, reaching in and taking out her stash of chocolates. Tiny couldn’t help the grin that formed when he saw them. Randi smiled in response.

"And what are you looking so smug about?" Jerry’s voice was rough with sleep. "What is the joke?" He flinched reactively, but instinctively reached out a hand and caught the object flung at his head. His frown turned to a grin when he saw the miniature chocolate. He chuckled, a sound that turned to genuine laughter when two sets of questioning eyes swung his way. "I don’t suppose you realize you created quite a ruckus, Valiant." Her eyebrow rose in mute question, and he continued. "We all know what emergency rations are like." He scrunched up his face in reaction, and noticed they had both involuntarily done the same. "Right... exactly. Well, I think every team you served with more than once noticed you didn’t have near the problem with emergency rations that most everyone else did. I can’t tell you how many Sabres stood in my office *demanding* they get whatever rations you had."

Here Randi snorted. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Not at all. I assured everyone you got the same thing as they did. We just figured your taste buds had shut down in self-defense, since you went out so often." She chuckled wryly, and he joined her in sympathy. "However, I will thank you for finally sharing your secret." The general opened the small treat and moaned in appreciation. "No wonder you could tolerate the protein bars."

The Marine shared another bar with each of the men, then put her chocolates away. "I have come to a decision. You will both abide by it. Is that clear?"

Both men nodded. Jerry had to wonder in passing why she had never taken his job. People followed where she led without questioning. And until now, when her heart was involved in her decisions, her leadership had been almost impeccable. The Sabres were a stronger unit because of her.

"Tiny, you will stay here." A look silenced him before he could even open his mouth. "You are still healing, and I am not prepared to risk further injury to you. Besides, I am also not prepared to leave the camp unguarded. The colonel cannot do everything by herself. Therefore, you will stay and help her. Understood?"

Dark, stormy eyes glared into baleful blue for a full minute before he dropped his head in defeat. "Very well," she said, finally looking away from the Navy man. "General, you can accompany me if you wish. I am leaving at first light."

Without another word, she moved back to her cot. Hang on, love. I’m coming. Aphrodite, watch over her, please. And on that thought, she turned over and fell into a restless doze.




Tears of diamonds fell from the goddess’ face at Randi’s whispered prayer. "I will stand beside you both, but it’s going to be another uphill battle, I’m afraid." The sisters gathered around her, providing what comfort they could, and beginning to plan for the inevitable confrontation with an irate Marine.



"Uncle?" The two were enjoying dinner, though Gwen was experiencing a vague uneasiness. Something was just not right here. She was having trouble remembering things, and her head was killing her. The storm outside made the holo-image useless, and they had taken to the kitchen to experiment with new recipes instead. They were now supping from the fruits of their labors.

"Yes, my dear?" The man noticed Gwen was almost docile, and wondered if something had gone wrong in the processing. He had followed to the letter the steps his master had given him, but no mention was ever made of it changing the woman’s personality. He would have to look into this further.

"Why are we here?" Gwen was struggling. Her brain hurt. Images that made no sense floated in and out of her mind, conflicting with things she was sure she remembered. She was getting to the point where sleep seemed like the best idea she’d ever heard. She felt like she would sleep for days once she closed her eyes.

"We are here because you needed a place of serenity to work. How’s your chicken?"

She considered his response before answering. "Okay. And the chicken is wonderful. I think we did the right thing adding the pesto to the sauce." Conversation easily turned to the various dishes they had created, and Ben heaved a silent sigh of relief. This was much harder than he had anticipated it being. He was quite happy to excuse her to her room.

When Gwen arrived in her room, she looked around. It was nice enough, but something just didn’t make sense. However, at the moment, all she could think of was laying down. It would be weeks before she realized there was no desk or writing area in the place, and there was no sign of a computer or her glasses.



There were no windows in her room of course, so she was only ably to tell it was the middle of the night by looking at the clock by her bedside. Gwen sat up abruptly, wondering what had pulled her out of such a sound sleep and caused her heart to pound like a war drum. Or like Randi during band practice. She smiled then frowned. Have we been to band practice lately? A searing pain lanced through her skull, and she groaned softly. Lying back down, her hand unconsciously began to trace the pillow she clutched, willing her mind to remember. She fell back to sleep with a tiny smile gracing her lips.



By the time the sun was peeking over the horizon, Randi and Jerry were well underway. The day was already unbearably muggy, and it only promised to get worse as the day went on. She wondered silently if the heat would be overwhelming as well. Geoff had come to briefly before they had left the temporary hospice. The Marine thought back briefly to his commission of her.

"You do whatever it takes, Randi. You get my little girl out of this

mad man’s clutches and back into your arms where she belongs."

He looked at her with an innate knowledge shining through his pain-

glazed eyes, and she again had to wonder at his faith in her.

She thought seriously of asking him if he knew just who the mad

man was. Surely he did. But....

She shook her head. Not that it mattered. Friend or not, Ben Ha’amaen was a walking dead man. And he was going to die a very painful death at her hands.

The two walked in silence for hours. Surprisingly, the closer they got to the mountain, the fewer traps they found. By mutual unspoken consent, they stopped when darkness fell. There was no reason to tempt fate, especially since they both wanted to survive the remaining journey to assure Gwen’s safe recovery. Though they had encountered no trouble, going on in the darkness was asking for it in a big way. It had now been three days since the kidnapping.

The rumble of thunder sounded the same instant that the rain started to fall. It wasn’t the most pleasant of ways to wake up, but judging from the darkness of the sky around them, Randi didn’t see it getting much better for them anytime soon. So they got up, soaked to the bone before the camp was even packed up. It took them the better part of the day to reach the tree line. Before them stretched the meadow, and beyond that was their objective.

The mountain stood tall, though it blended in with the range it resided in quite nicely. The ancients had made a very wise choice. Unless you knew, you couldn’t pick it out from any of the ones surrounding it.

The rain had continued to fall unabated all day, and now they halted to take a short break. Jerry could feel the restlessness rolling from Randi, and knew stopping her this close to their goal was going to be almost impossible.

"Let’s get a bite to eat, and rest for a few, huh? The mountain’s not going anywhere, and we need to fortify a bit."

The Marine stood staring at the broad vista for a moment longer, before turning her attention back to the man who had once been her commanding officer. She considered him silently for a bit, wondering briefly how he had managed to retain his status for so long. Surely the Sabre Commandant should have more backbone, more honor, more... something. Randi hitched her shoulders slightly, pushing those thoughts away from her. She suddenly realized he had been busy.

"I thought we could use a bit of a break, and maybe dry out a bit before continuing." She looked closer at him now, and noticed the slight blue tinge to his lips. He already had a rough covering up, and she moved now to help him finish it. Soon, they were underneath the shelter, heat sticks doing their job of both heating and drying the immediate area. After several minutes, Jerry sighed in relief.

"Better?" came the low murmured question.

"Much," he answered. "Thanks." He sat for a few more minutes, before moving to his pack. "We have a few minutes?"

The Marine nodded, still a little surprised at his willingness to relinquish his command to her.

"Good. I’m gonna fix us something hot to eat." She didn’t comment, but he could see the twinkle of agreement in her eyes. Trail rations got old in a hurry, and the body welcomed any opportunity to indulge in hot food. In just a very few minutes, the Commandant had a hearty stew ready, and the two Sabres sat down to share a silent repast.



Chapter V

It didn’t take them long, but darkness had fallen before they were done eating. The rain gradually tapered off, and when they were finished, Randi rose and stretched. Without a word, she packed up her gear, and walked to the door. He stopped her with hand on her arm... a hand that he removed at her look.

"Are you sure this is prudent?"

"No, I’m fairly certain it’s not, Jerry, but I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter. I have to go. I have done my best for the team, poor as that seems to have been this trip. Now it is time for me to do the best thing for me."

"And that means walking into the lion’s den?"

"It means taking back what is mine." She turned, and again he halted her with a hand on her arm. This time, though, he left it there, ignoring her pointed look.

"Then you can wait five more minutes, and let me get packed up. I’m not letting you go in there alone."

Her eyebrow rose at his pronouncement, but she nodded calmly. He stood still a moment longer reading her acceptance, then quickly gathered his things together. Soon, they were moving through the darkness together slowly in silence.

Eventually, a curiosity he had long held became too much, and he decided to voice his question. "Randi? Why did you never accept a commission? Surely you know that you were being groomed to become Commandant one day."

The Marine stopped dead and looked at him hard for a long moment, before she looked away, and resumed her walk. They were being quite bold... walking defiantly through the meadow toward the mountain. The roiling in her guts had turned to a painful chill, and she was very afraid they were going to be too late. She figured at this point, Ha’amaen was expecting her, and would let them proceed unmolested toward their goal.

She was silent so long that Jerry figured she wasn’t going to answer him. He fairly jumped out of his skin when her low voice reached his ears. "I didn’t want to be Commandant, Jerry. Ten years in this business was almost more than I could bear." She paused, and the silence grew lengthy. The general kept still, sensing she had more too say. Finally Randi rewarded his patience.

"I don’t really like who I was, what I had to do. I will have issues with that until the day I die again, I suppose. But to assume responsibility for it all---no. I tried that. It destroyed me, and the one I love most. It has cost far too much on many levels. So, yeah, I knew. I didn’t want it... not the responsibility, and not the commitment. I wanted a normal life." She paused again. "I still do, and this lifetime, I have a real shot at it."

He understood the truth of her words, and accepted the fact that she was gone from them for good. And in a way, he envied her the opportunity she now had to make a life with Gwen. In another, he was thankful to be able to see it.

The stillness between them resumed, and they continued to make their way toward the stronghold. Suddenly, the quiet was shattered by a hideous screech, as it became clear that they were being hunted. It didn’t take long for them to determine that Jerry was the specific target. Without warning, he found himself taken down by the largest mountain cat he had ever been witness to. He screamed in agony as the lion’s fangs sank deeply into his leg. Seconds that seemed like eons passed, before the cat became dead weight, and he felt the beast loosen its hold. When Randi rolled the weight off him, he took a deep breath, then bit his lip against the searing pain.

"Lay still. I’ve got to stop the bleeding." With the med kit and regen unit back at the camp, Randi had only the very basics in first aid supplies with her. She rinsed the wounds carefully, knowing well the danger of infection. A couple pressure points, and she was able to slow the bleeding considerably. Still, she winced at the damage the animal had managed to do.

"Bad, huh?" he rasped, biting back a groan.

"Not good, no." She looked at the mountain, the longing clear in her eyes.

"You need to go. It’s obvious he wants you alone."

"I have to take care of you first. I have a feeling he has already done whatever he was planning for her. A few more minutes won’t matter."

He looked ready to debate the issue, but a wave of pain made him dizzy, and he passed out. When he came to, a temporary shelter had been built, and his leg was neatly stitched and bandaged. He also immediately noticed that he was alone.

"Good luck, Sergeant." Then sleep took him again, and his last thought was a prayer for the members of the team.



Randi could not shake the feeling of dread that filled her entire being. It was as though the warmth that was Gwen, their bond, was completely gone. She had felt it dissolve on their second day out, but knowing there was nothing that could be done until she reached her bard, managed to put the feeling aside. The series of crises had put it out of her mind and heart briefly, but now the chill assaulted her full force. Something was dreadfully wrong.

It took her a while, in the darkness, to find the release mechanism that allowed her to access the interior of the mountain. Oddly, the only thing it allowed her to use was a set of stairs leading up. Up? I thought this compound was underground. But knowing not to look a gift horse in the mouth, she sighed, and started climbing.

Four stories later, she heaved a deep breath. Gotta take up running again. She wasn’t really winded, but she could feel the pull in muscles that hadn’t had to stretch like that in quite a while. She gently opened the door, half expecting an attack now that she was closing in on her goal. The only thing that greeted her was silence and emptiness. She edged out the door, noting the open hatch on the shuttle. A cursory glance told her he had removed the key flight components, and she made a mental note to search for them once Gwen was back at her side.

She spotted the elevator, and continued past it, looking for the other stairwell. It was clear that he intended her to use the elevator, but she couldn’t resist the urge to foil his plans. That defiance would cost her dearly... both now, and in the future.

The locks were fairly easy to break, and disarming the alarm was a piece of cake. What she didn’t expect was the face full of nettles or the sudden drop off. Ben had removed the entire first two flights of steps, and the hole she was gaping at through her bleeding face was quite large.

She stepped back and let the door close, sinking to the floor. The Marine had left her meager first aid supplies with Jerry, so she didn’t have so much as a spare cloth to wipe her face. Just as well, she thought, gingerly trying to blot the blood. Without a way to remove the tiny barbs, there really wasn’t much she could do at the moment.

She had to wonder at the copious amount of blood she was losing from such little irritants, until she got a look at her reflection in the mirrored wall of the elevator she now occupied. There was a scratch running almost the length of her face from temple to jawbone. She wiped the blood on her sleeve, noticing it caught roughly along the cut. She wondered how she had missed feeling that, though the tiny little quills sticking in her skin along that side pretty much answered the question. They were burning, but she had little time to contemplate that, as the lift came to a halt.

She waited a moment, not noticing the burning had stopped and the barbs had dissolved into her skin. Even the bleeding had all but stopped. The Marine stepped out cautiously, listening intently. She heard Gwen’s soft laughter, and her heart fluttered. Her feet developed a mind of their own, and she was moving toward the sound before she realized her intentions.

Randi stood in the doorway for a moment, drinking in the sight of the blonde. She crossed the threshold... an action that drew the bard’s attention to her. Pointedly ignoring the smirking man seated nearby, the warrior walked toward Gwen. With a happy squeal, the blonde jumped into Randi’s arms, squeezing for all she was worth. They pulled away simultaneously, and Randi slowly lowered her head to kiss the lips she hadn’t tasted in far too long. She felt she had barely brushed their softness when small hands pushing on her chest made her halt, and she looked in green eyes that reflected the confusion in her own.

"Randi? What are you doing? I mean, I’ve missed you too, but why are you kissing me like that?"

"Gwen?" She gazed into the bard’s eyes, looking deep into her soul, and realized what they had lost. Her ire burned hot. She turned suddenly toward the man who had cost her everything.

"You fucking son of a bitch," in a whisper so filled with venom, it should have dropped him on the spot. "What did you do to her?"

"Nothing much." He laughed. "But things will never be the same between you ever again."

The speed that she approached him rivaled that of a striking snake, and she lifted him bodily from the floor with one hand. Gwen stared at the tableau in horrified fascination, unable to will her feet to move.

"Randi... NO!"

"What. Did. You. Do. To. Her. ?" She didn’t acknowledge the bard or her words at all.


Reflexively, his hands wrapped around hers, clawing at them as he fought for air. "No... thing... much... real...ly.... She...." He chuckled as much as his gasping would allow. "She...." he coughed. "Can no... long...er feel her... love fo...r... " He coughed again. "You... nor yours... for... her." He gasped again, his face turning purple. "It’s... like it w... was... before."


In that moment, the warrior’s soul turned to ice, and without batting an eyelash, she drew her dagger, and plunged it into the man’s belly. A warm shower of blood coated her hand, and he gasped again as pain seared from his gullet through his entire body. She jerked the blade upwards through his chest as she let him fall to the floor.

"No more living for you."


At the bard’s frantic scream, her shoulders slumped, the fire and fight drained from her. She looked to the corpse, avoiding the green eyes she knew would never hold love for her again. "I need to dispose of this, then we can leave."

Gwen approached her slowly. Tears slid down her face. Though they were no longer close, Ben still held a special place in her heart from childhood. And what she had just witnessed.... "What did he do to deserve to die?" Randi noticed the blonde stayed outside of touching distance.

"It no longer matters. It was military business, and it’s done now." The words and dead tone struck a chord in the bard, and she set them aside for further study. There was a piece missing to this puzzle. She reached a hand up to her head, struggling with her confusion, and a suddenly blinding headache.

"You’re hurt," motioning to the oozing facial wound. "Let’s get you taken care of."

"No. Let me take care of this mess, and we’ll get out of here." Randi’s tone now was brusque, businesslike, and Gwen was unexplainably hurt by her refusal. And unable to reconcile her best friend with the Sabre that stood before her, she began to distance herself from the Marine, both physically and emotionally.

It didn’t take long to dispose of the body and find the chips. In short order, they were in the shuttle closing in on Jerry’s position. The silence between them was palpable, and acutely uncomfortable.

It only took the Sabre a few moments to load the wounded general onto the transport. She had curtly refused Gwen’s offer of help, and the bard retreated further within herself. Randi felt the withdrawal, and began putting up walls of her own.

Mere minutes, it seemed, and she was maneuvering a landing. The trees in this area were particularly dense, and she broke more than one branch trying to land. Randi did manage to finally set the transport down safely. Tiny stood waiting at the shelter entrance, bow cocked and laser drawn. He smiled when he saw her emerge, then frowned at her expression and her bloody condition. The next instant, Reed screamed. The big man ducked into the shelter.

"Too late," the semi-conscious seer murmured. "Too late."

Randi didn’t seem to hear Reed’s words. Instead she turned her attention to the large man now cradling his lover. "Tiny, take her to the shuttle and get her settled. It’s gonna be a tight squeeze, but we should all fit." She looked around, seeing Geoff was again sedated. "Where is the colonel?"

"She went out. Said she had an idea."

A vague thrill of alarm crept up her spine. "Which way did she head?"

They stepped out, and Tiny nodded. "North. She was looking for some sort of herb."

"All right. Can you get these guys loaded up? She should have heard us coming in, and headed back. I’ll go meet her and hurry her along."

"Can do, boss. But be careful, huh?"

She nodded before she disappeared, following an almost invisible trail. She hadn’t gone very far since she was having to move slowly and carefully to avoid the traps. Suddenly, the smell of blood wafted past her nose, and she felt another chill skitter up her spine. Following her nose now, and watching her step, she closed in on a terrible site. Twenty yards in front of her stood Kene. She was actually pinned in place to a tree by three long skewers through her neck, torso and abdomen. Randi steeled herself, and made her way over. She gently lowered the body to the ground.

Though the woman had caused untold problems, she had died a Sabre’s honorable death in the service of others. Randi took a moment to ask Artemis to watch over the woman’s soul, and quickly cremated her remains. Then she made her way back to the waiting shuttle.



Jerry came to while they were waiting, and Tiny moved to check on him. He’d had to put Reed into a deep coma, afraid her thrashing and moaning would cause her to hurt herself. He spared a glance at Gwen, who sat apart from the rest, eyes unfocused and arms wrapped around herself. Other than a quiet hello, and an inquiry about her father, she had sat silently. He was sure she was in shock, but he needed to tend to Jerry first.

"How are you doing, sir?"

"She saved my life, you know."

"She’s good at that. She’s done it to me a time or two as well." There was silence for a moment while the big man checked the general’s stitches. Randi had done a neat job, but they were starting to swell and get red and puffy looking.

"General, I’m gonna have to open these up. It looks like there may be an infection."

"God," the older man moaned. "Do what you have to do." He bit his lip til it bled, holding back the screams that wanted to come. He forced himself to focus on something else instead. "We had quite a conversation out there."

"Did you now?" Tiny responded distractedly. He was too busy popping the stitches and watching them begin to drain.

"Um hmm," Jerry groaned. "I asked her why she didn’t want my job."

This got the chief’s attention. "And what did she tell you?" He had always felt that Randi would have made an excellent Commandant, and was fairly certain she could have had it had she been an officer.

"She didn’t want the responsibility or commitment." He paused to breathe for a bit. "She wanted a life." He paused again. "But it was hers for the taking."

Nothing else was said, as Randi chose that moment to board the shuttle. She handed him some leaves, as she moved to the cockpit. "This is what she what looking for. Put it on Reed’s eyes... it will help ward off infection."

He knew without asking the Kene was dead. He figured he’d get the details later. "I’m gonna put some of these on the Commandant’s leg as well. I had to open it up to drain the infection that was starting."

"Damn! I was afraid of that. How’s everything else otherwise?"

He swallowed. Seeing the dead look in her eyes, he suddenly understood Reed’s cries with blinding clarity. "Um, Geoff is still out, as is Reed." He lowered his voice and took a shot in the dark. "I think Gwen is in shock. Maybe you should...."

"No. Wrap a blanket around her. We need to get back now." No need to explain that the younger woman flinched the only time Randi had reached out to her. She didn’t want to inflict any more pain on Gwen than she already had. Maybe with time, they could be friends again. Right now, she held out little hope for anything more.

It didn’t take but a few seconds, before they lifted off, and were headed toward the capital.



"ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!! Somebody better remind me pretty damned quick why I can’t send Ares to Tartarus for this." The blonde love goddess stomped away from her scrying bowl.

"You mean aside from the fact that he broke no rules, and would probably enjoy it?" Artemis smirked briefly.

"Don’t worry, sister. We actually hold all the cards this time. Wait until Randi comes to you. And when she does, we will fire our first volley." This from Athena. "Remember, *everyone* wants to see them as a couple. We have lots of allies on this now, both mortal and immortal."

"You’d better not be yankin’ my chain, you guys. Too much depends on this, and well you know it." Their looks became solemn, and they nodded in agreement.



Randi set the shuttle down as gently as possible on the medifac pad. A Sabre emergency med team was standing by, with hover beds, and other emergency medical equipment. She motioned Tiny to stay seated, and she stepped off first. "It’s ugly. One with a broken back, two with possible infections, and one in shock."

The doctor tried to look at her face, but Randi shooed her away. "Go take care of those that need it. I can handle this myself." The woman looked doubtful... there was something about the cut that just didn’t look right, but the sergeant was correct. The others were much higher priorities right now. The medic made a mental note to check it out later.

The team moved swiftly now, and unloaded the much-damaged team. They moved Geoff out, and into a regen trauma unit they had set up as soon as they had received Randi’s emergency call. Reed was moved next, into a laser surgery room with an optical scanner. Jerry came next, accompanied by a walking but grumbling Tiny. The doctor had seen his wounded leg, and demanded he move inside for treatment.

The Marine waited for a few more minutes, concerned when neither the medic nor the bard emerged from the shuttle’s interior. She moved closer to the door, only to be met there by a frustrated looking doctor. "She’s asking for you, and she won’t let any of us near her." The Sabre looked closer, and noticed a bruise forming underneath the doctor’s eye.

"Let me talk to her. You got take care of the rest of the team, and I’ll get her inside."

The woman nodded, and motioned the rest of the medical personnel in. She followed them into the facility, with a single backwards glance, watching as Randi disappear inside the craft.

Randi stood for a moment, simply looking at Gwen, who was curled up in an almost fetal position. She offered up a small prayer of thanks for her foresight in washing up at the fortress. She slowly moved toward the bard, allowing her voice to precede her. She didn’t think she could bear the bard flinching away from her again.

"Gwen, love. It’s Randi. Can you look at me?"

The bard lay so still and silent that the Marine was afraid for a minute she had simply passed out... or worse. Randi kept up her murmuring, not reaching out to touch Gwen until the smaller woman finally looked at her and held out a hand.


The Marine muffled a strangled cry, and took the proffered hand. With a strength she didn’t know the bard possessed, she found herself pulled towards Gwen. She scooped the woman into her arms.

"Oh, Little One, we’re gonna be all right. Aphrodite, please. Help us. We have to be all right."

The bard, feeling safe and protected, snuggled into her arms and fell promptly into a deep sleep. Randi moved into the medifac. She had some vid calls to make.



"Thanks, Morph. This will be the easiest place to help her remember," watching as the blonde’s past began to unfold in her dreamscape. "I’ve got work to do."

The dream god nodded then blushed when Dite kissed him softly before leaving. "You’re welcome," he muttered, though she was no longer present to hear it.



Jill reached the facility quickly. She had been expecting... something. Her first sight upon entering this unusual place was Gwen cuddled close in a sleeping Randi’s arms. She was loathe to awaken the woman, whose disheveled appearance gave quite a testimonial to what they had been through. But she needed some answers, and the Marine was going to be her best source.

A mere touch on her arm brought the Sabre to full alertness, though she looked at Jill in confusion for a split second. "Hi, Jill. Um, let me put her down," indicating the sleeping bard," and we can talk."

"Only if you need to, dear. It certainly doesn’t bother me to see her where she belongs."

The blue eyes teared up at that statement, though Randi blinked them away immediately. Jill noticed, of course, and knew this was gonna be complicated. It always has been with these two though, hasn’t it? Why should this be any different? Oh, Sweet Hestia, be good to them. They deserve it.

"What’s wrong? And what can I do to help?"

The doctor stepped out into the waiting area just then, and indicated she needed to examine the bard. Randi stood to move the blonde to a gurney, but Gwen clutched at her convulsively when she tried to move away. The warrior smiled sadly, allowing the small woman to maintain a hold on her hand. The doctor nodded, and allowed both women to accompany them to the back.

A cursory glance told the medic quite a bit. She touched a couple pressure points, and the blonde fell into a deeper slumber, never relaxing her grip on Randi’s hand. She cocked her head in question, then adjusted the spots that were out of alignment. Odd, that. She shrugged. "She should be all right when she wakes up. You will need to schedule a follow-up with psych, though. She’s gonna need to work through whatever put her in this state." She hesitated, then continued. "I don’t see any physical damage, but it looks as though some manipulation had been done to make her more susceptible to suggestion. I have readjusted the points. It will help her recovery in the long run."

Jill looked to Randi to respond, but her eyes never left Gwen and their still linked hands. The woman glanced at her daughter’s peaceful face and nodded. "Thank you, doctor. We’ll take good care of her." The medic shook Jill’s hand and patted Randi’s shoulder. Then she crossed the room without another word, and left them alone.

The older woman sighed and took a seat opposite the Marine. She gently held her daughter’s other hand, not surprised when the younger woman didn’t respond to her touch. "Now, you want to tell me what’s going on here? I get a vid call from you in the middle of the night telling me Geoff and Gwen have been hurt, and rush over. And once I get here, no one will tell me anything." Her eyes sparked with angry fire. "I think I have a right to know."

Randi looked at her directly then, and Jill gasped in reflex at the pain she saw reflected back at her. She eased the bard’s hand back onto the pallet, and moved to sit at Randi’s side. "Talk to me, Randi." She put her hand on their joined hands, and turned a gaze full of unwavering love and support on the Sabre. The Marine swallowed hard, and started talking.

"It’s very complicated, and starts a long, long time ago." Her hushed voice was a mere whisper, and Jill had to lean in close to hear her words. "Suffice it to say for now that this whole incident was brought on by a myriad of things. The straw that broke this particular camel’s back, though, was my death. Or at least, the events surrounding my death. When I died, I took some very bad people with me. This was revenge for one of them." She held up a hand. "Please don’t ask. Just go with it."

The older woman nodded, and motioned for her to continue. "Geoff was hurt when he triggered a trap trying to rush to Reed’s aid. They were our point people at the time." She waited a beat, swallowing hard. "His back was broken in three places. Even once he’s regenerated, it will be a problem for him. The damage was too great."

Randi kept her eyes down, unwilling to see the love and support fade from the older woman’s eyes. Jill lifted her free hand and cupped the Marine’s chin til the blue eyes focused on her own. The understanding was overwhelming, and it was almost her undoing. She swallowed and looked away again until Jill spoke.

"Randi, no matter what else, I want you to know something. Even if Geoff had known what the outcome was going to be, he still would have gone. He loves you both that much."

Now the tears that Randi had been so valiantly been holding in slid silently down her face. "She doesn’t love me anymore, Jill. He took that away. He took her memories of us away." And now she broke down sobbing, as the reality of her statement sank into her conscious heart and mind. She swore she felt the shards ripping her guts out.

With a muffled exclamation, Jill took the Sabre into her arms, and cradled her like a child. She hummed softly to her, hoping to calm her. Finally, the sobs seemed to lessen, and she lifted Randi’s face. Without a word, she dried the tears tracks left on the Marine’s face, and lay the younger woman’s head back down on her shoulder.

"Now, you want to start from the beginning? Who did this?"

"Ben-ramen Ha’amaen."

"Ben? BEN is the cause of all this trouble??"

She felt the Sabre’s answer when the dark head bobbed up and down in the affirmative. She swiped a hand across her eyes. "Can we start this over? I think I lost a few pieces somewhere."

Randi moved to sit up, and Jill released her, though she kept a hand on her arm. "I’ll tell you what I know, though it is precious little."

She told her mother-in-law the story then. How Gwen had pulled away from her kiss. How the connection their souls had shared had been severed. And how her heart had shattered when the bard had flinched away from her touch.

"That bastard," Jill hissed vehemently. "I’ll kill him."

"I already did... right in front of her. God, no wonder she doesn’t want me to be near her."

The older woman looked significantly at their tightly linked hands. She thought for a moment before she spoke. "I don’t think that is the case at all. I think it is more a case of her heart being hidden from her."

The Marine’s eyebrow rose, and she cocked her head questioningly at Jill. There was something familiar in the phrasing, and she wanted to hear what Jill had to say on the matter. She couldn’t help the tiny grain of hope that had sprouted at those words.

"After you... um, died.... There came a time when Gwen and I were able to talk about her love for you. About the fact that the whole world had been aware of her feelings for you, while she was completely blind. And she mentioned the fact that her gradual realization was like stepping out of a fog into sunlight. She felt like she’d been kept in the dark... a deliberate manipulation by someone or something determined to keep you apart."

"Listen to your mother-in-law there, warrior babe. She’s telling more truth than you know."

Both women jumped when the voice spoke out of nowhere, but only Randi answered it. "Aphrodite?"

"In the flesh, babe," as she shimmered into existence. "How’re you doing?" She gently brushed dark bangs, and the Sabre leaned into the comforting touch. Jill felt a thrill of jealousy on Gwen’s behalf shoot through her. "Cool it, little mama. I’m not here to ruin the best match I’ve had in millennia. I’m here to get it back on track."

"Mom here is right, though. This was a deliberate manipulation to rip the two of you apart. Her memories, like her feelings, aren’t gone. Just dormant. It will be up to you to awaken them again... to bring her back into the sunlight."


The love goddess cradled the lost face of the Marine, the forlorn look in her eyes causing tears to form unbidden. Dite blinked, and smiled crookedly. "Hon, you courted her before, without even being aware. Imagine what you can do *knowing* what the score is. Have a little faith in yourself, and in the two of you and the bond you share. There are a lot of people, both mortals and gods on your side."

"Goddess," Jill spoke up hesitantly. "May I ask who is behind this?"

Aphrodite paused so long, they were sure she wasn’t going to speak. "Ares. Because of a stupid bet whose time has long since passed."

Electric blue eyes sparked fire. "Excuse me? I KNOW I didn’t just understand you to say what it is I think you said."

Now the goddess took a seat. She squirmed a minute trying to get comfortable. "Grody!" With a snap of her fingers, the sturdy, functional chair became a cushy, pink chaise lounge. She felt the fierce stare burning a hole right through her and sighed.

"Millennia ago, when the original soulmates of these lines united, Ares insisted he be given an opportunity to reclaim the warrior who had been his chosen. He lost, needless to say. The bond that runs between the two souls is strong. But he continues to try. The new rules make it harder for him, but...."

"But. Isn’t you’re being here breaking the rules?"

"Not this time. You see, I claimed you as chosen when your bond held against him. To find he had Gwen under some sort of spell, well... let’s just say Daddy wasn’t pleased. It’s one reason we were allowed to return you to life. And this, this has crossed the line." She looked like she wanted to say more, then stopped. The love goddess rose, and the chaise disappeared. "Look, babe, we’ll work this out. You do your part, and the rest will just slip into place."

Dite shimmered out of existence, and Jill spoke softly. "You’ve got good friends in high places. I think she’s right, too."

"I hope so, Jill," looking at the still sleeping bard and the co-joined hands. "I really cannot survive without her."

And then it grew quiet, as they each considered the trying days ahead of them.



Chapter VI

The doctor was kind enough to let Jill know when Geoff was moved into the regen unit. He had spent several hours sedated while the medical personnel did their best to align his spine properly. It was Jill’s turn to hold tightly to the Marine, who provides her with strength and unwavering support.

"I want you to understand something first, Mrs. Goldman. Given the severity of this injury, and having seen how extensive the previous one was, there is a very good possibility that your husband may never walk again."

Jill gasped and covered her mouth with one hand. The other clenched Randi’s hand in a death-breaking grip. The Sabre didn’t even flinch.

"However, there is also a possibility that he will. A lot is going to depend on both the regen and his attitude. He’s gonna have to want it badly enough."

"No problem there," Jill smiled through the tears. "He’s gonna want to be on his feet to give his little girl away." Randi squeezed her fingers slightly in both support and appreciation.

"Well then," the doctor rose. "I’ll let you know when he is moved from regen to a regular room. When your daughter wakes up, ya’ll will be free to leave." She set the release chip on the nearby stand. "Remember what I told you about a psych. I made a couple recommendations that should be able to help her." She turned her attention to the Marine. "I need to check you out, Sergeant."

"Later," Randi replied absently. "Right now she needs me."

The woman knew the Marine was no longer active military, and she had no grounds to insist. But she was concerned by the look of the wound itself. She would keep an eye out, and try to catch the Sabre before the trio left. By the slight stirring coming from the bed, she was fairly certain they would be ready to leave soon.

Meanwhile, Gwen was slowly coming to. Her hand clenched reflexively around the comforting strength she clasped, and she moaned a little. She squirmed, drawing the hand to her chest, smiling in her sleep. Randi couldn’t help the smile that crossed her lips, nor the hope that flared in heart. It was shattered in the next instant.

Gwen opened her eyes, and the first sight she saw was Randi’s face. She flinched and pulled away, rolling away so her back was to the warrior. Jill squeezed the Marine’s shoulder, and moved to take her daughter in her arms. It hurt her to see the pain reflected in Randi’s eyes, but even as she watched, the face became a mask. The Sabre stood, and walked out the door without a word.

The doctor saw the tall woman exit, and stopped her. "Please, Sergeant. This won’t take but a minute. Your Navy buddy is just about done with his regen." Randi nodded, not really caring, but needing something to do to pass the time until Jill needed her to take them back to the hotel. Then she was going home. Regardless of what Aphrodite had said, she needed some space from the bard. She wouldn’t force her affection.

"Hey, you listening to me?" The medico’s words brought her out of her haze, and she just looked at the woman numbly. "I asked you how this happened," softly fingering the cut. The warrior flinched away from her touch. The doctor picked up the regen unit, and her tools, deadening the area before she started to work.


"And the barbs?"

"Mace," wondering why the woman wasn’t paying attention.

"But they’re embedded."

"Look, doc, it doesn’t matter. Are you done?"

"Well, yes and no. I’ve done all I can without admitting you for a while. But you need to have someone take a look. Those barbs are embedded pretty deep. You’re not gonna be able to just pull them out and let them go."

"Fine. I’ll go see my doctor when I get home." She slid off the bed and stood up. "Now, are we all done? I need to check on the rest of my team before taking Mrs. and Ms. Goldman back to their hotel."

"Yes, Sergeant. We’re finished." She hated to let the other woman go, but she really had no authority to stop her, even though she knew in her heart that about this, Randi was lying. She shook her head. Warriors hated to admit weakness, and that almost makes them view us as the enemy. She sighed, and moved to check on her other patients.



Tiny was fairly easy to find. His good-natured grumbling caused Randi to chuckle despite her pain. She knocked at the doorway to his regen cubicle. His face lit up in response.

"Randi! Come in! No, wait. Let me get my pants on and I’ll join you." She politely turned her back, and waited for him to join her at the door before she looked at him.

"Any word on Reed?"

He shook his head. "That’s why I’ve been griping. No one is telling me anything about anyone."

"Well, let’s go get some answers, my friend."

It was a small facility, used exclusively by Sabre team members. So it didn’t take them long to find the other members of their unit. Reed had been moved to one of the regen body chambers the facility had. Geoff was in the other. Reed’s prospects for regaining her sight were quite good, and several comments were made praising the actions that saved her eyes. Randi made a mental note to see that a posthumous award was made to Kene for her outstanding fieldwork.

Geoff’s prognosis wasn’t nearly as good. The doctors gave him a less than twenty-five percent rating for a complete recovery. However, they had high hopes for him regaining the use of his entire upper body region. With those words, she decided to stick around for a day or two, until he regained consciousness. She wanted to be the one to insure he knew the truth. She wouldn’t ask Jill to bear that burden.

Jerry was in the next room, with a portable regen unit set over his thigh. He beckoned them in at their knock.

"Hey, guys! Come on in." He grimaced as the movement shot pain through his body. Amazing how his whole body hurt in sympathy with his damaged limb. "What’s the word?"

They told him about the team. He expressed sincere regret for Geoff, and smiled at Reed’s excellent prognosis. He teared up at the mention of Kene’s passing, though Randi refrained from detailing the gruesomeness of her death. She did mention awarding her a posthumous medal for her actions, and the general nodded his agreement.

"For all our bickering and fighting, for all the mistakes, she was an excellent Sabre, and she died in the service of her comrades. She deserves to be remembered well."

There was a respectful silence for a minute, the Jerry asked, "Randi, are you all right? What happened to your face?"

"It’s just a cut, sir. I ran into a mace unexpectedly. Guess I zigged when I should’ve zagged."

"Well, see that it you take care of it. You can’t let these things go." She didn’t answer, and he realized he’d overstepped his bounds. "I’m sorry, Randi. I meant that as a friend, and not an officer. It was honest concern."

"Well, sir I appreciate the concern. I will have my doctor look at it when I get home."

"Are you sure it’s wise to wait that long? Why not just let them go ahead and take care of it now?" He flinched as her eyes grew hard and cold, but continued. "Tiny, help me sit up." The large man eased him up gently, and held him steady by the shoulders. He pulled up his shirt on one side, and motioned her closer. "Let me show you something." He raised an arm slightly. "Do you see the lump?"

She looked, and nodded, wondering where all this was leading.

"When Grace... Ghost Rider committed her first act of terrorism, I ended up with a shard of polymer through the ribs. At the time, my team was in much more dire straits, and I put the thoughts of it out of my mind." He paused for a moment, lost in thought as he relived those first few terrifying minutes. "It took us the better part of the day to get through the rubble to our comrades, only to discover five of them were dead. And two of them... God, Geoff was bent at such an angle, we thought he was dead at first too." His eyes were distant, and Randi got the distinct feeling he no longer remembered they were in the room. A tear slipped unbidden down his face.

"It took us two days to get back to reach help, and twice I thought we had lost Geoff. Poor Kene... trying to be a medic with one arm. We were lucky to have been out with the experimental collapsible hover beds. Geoff and Ben wouldn’t have survived otherwise." He shook his head. "Anyway," he looked up and captured her eyes, " all told, it took almost five days before I got it looked at. By then, the polymer had melded with the bone and muscle. They tried to remove it, but it was going to cause too much damage. So I have had a lump there for a very long time, and every time it gets cold, or is going to rain, I know about it days in advance. It can be quite unpleasant."

"Look, Randi," lowering his shirt, and allowing the silent man still supporting him to ease him back down onto the bed. "You’re a grown woman, and no longer someone under my command. I just want you... be aware of the risks, okay? Take care of yourself."

She nodded again, but didn’t answer. Instead she rose, and moved to the doorway. "I’ll be back tomorrow to check on ya’ll before I head home. I need to get back. Rest well, Jerry."

The two men glanced at each other. "I’ll keep an eye on her, sir."

"You do that, chief. Thank you." And the general closed his eyes.



"Tiny, did you need a lift back... anywhere?" Randi had waited outside the door for her friend. She looked at him closely as he exited, noting with alarm for the first time his haggard appearance. She didn’t realize he simply mirrored her own.

"No, thanks, Randi. The doc in charge of the regen offered me a bed next to Reed, and I’m gonna take him up on it. I need to be near her right now."

The Marine nodded her understanding and acceptance, realizing what the whispered conversation between himself and the doctor had been about. She walked her exhausted friend back to the regen chamber. A cot had been set up for him to use, and he dropped into it rather haphazardly. He closed his eyes, only to have them pop back wide open when he felt the covers being drawn up to his chin. He smiled lazily into the blue eyes staring back at him.

"Go get some rest, my friend. This has been a rough one."

The Marine touched her face. "Indeed it has, Tiny. Rest well." His eyes closed and almost immediately his chest rose and fell in the rhythmic breathing of deep sleep. Randi took a deep breath, steeling herself for her next ordeal, and dropped the stoic mask into place. Then she moved down the hall to Gwen’s room.



Jill’s touch on her shoulder had caused the bard to burst into tears, and the woman took her daughter in her arms and comforted her in much they same way she had just done with the Marine. "Why, Mama? Why did she kill him? He didn’t do anything." Then the younger woman sobbed, and Jill just held on tightly.

When the tears had abated, and the breathing was calm, Jill sat her daughter up, and cupped Gwen’s face. She waited until the younger woman made eye contact, then spoke.

"Gwen, apparently Ben was into some very bad things, things that hurt a lot of people." She held up her hand, asking the bard to wait. "I don’t know all the details yet, but your daddy does, and it meant so much to him, that he insisted he be part of the team that brought him to justice."

"But she just murdered him... killed him in cold blood!"

"Did she? Or did he have the chance to defend himself? I know this is hard, especially having had to witness it first hand, but daughter, think about something for a minute. Why were you there in the first place? It’s not like you and Ben have been particularly close in the last few years. Were you perhaps being used as a pawn to draw Randi out for some reason, do you think... a pawn in a larger game?"

"No, that’s not true. I was there for the solitude. I was there to write." Her brows scrunched up in furrowed thought. "At least, that’s what Uncle said."

"And did you? Write, I mean?"

"I think... I mean...." She rubbed her forehead. "I don’t remember."

"Gwen, I want you to think about something for me. In all the years you have known Randi, has she ever lied to you? I know she hasn’t always told you everything, but has she ever lied? Has she ever set out to hurt or betray you? Or has she watched over you, and taken care of you?"

"She’s always been my best friend, Mama, you know that. She looks out for me."

"Do you remember being brought here? The blonde shook her head. "You were in shock," Jill stated. "You were in shock and refused to allow any of the medical personnel to touch you. But you let Randi take you in her arms and bring you in here." She paused a moment. "Why is that, do you think?"

The bard concentrated on her answer. There seemed to be so many holes in her memories, so many things that suddenly made no sense. "I trust her to take the best care of me, Mama. She always has."

"Then cut her a bit of slack here, daughter. She needs your faith now more than ever. If you want to remain friends, you’re gonna have to continue to trust her all the time."

"But she...."

"... had her reasons. Give her a chance to explain. She doesn’t deserve your withdrawal, and you’re not in a position to pass judgment on her actions."

"But I would nev...." She thought about her reactions. Her head dropped. "Damn! I did, didn’t I? What the hell kind of friend am I anyway? I owe her an apology." Tears slowly slid down her face. "What if she doesn’t forgive me for my lack of faith and trust?"

"Give her a chance, Little Girl. I’ll bet she’ll be glad to give you another one."



Randi took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. She waited then raised her hand to knock again, when the door opened and Jill stepped outside.

"I’m going to stay with Geoff. You girls have some things to work out, I think." And without another word or a backward glance, she moved to be by her husband’s side.

The Marine thought about knocking again, then she considered walking away, then shrugged. She knows I’m here. Might as well get this over with. She squared her shoulders, and opened the door, stepping in softly and closing it behind her. Only to turn around and find herself with an armful of flying bard. Her strong arms closed reflexively on the familiar body, and she held on tightly for a long moment, before the smaller woman’s words became clear to her ears. She drew back slightly, trying to catch the green, tear-filled eyes.

"Whoa, Gwen. Slow down a minute, huh?" She lifted the bard’s chin with her fingers, keeping the other arm firmly around the blonde’s waist. Her mind screamed against the pain she was setting herself up for again in being this close, but her heart and body made her mind go sit down and shut up for now. Because right now, for whatever reason, Gwen was back where she belonged. And her mind had no way to fight the feelings that brought.

Randi’s kindness brought a fresh wave of tears to her eyes, and Gwen just stood there for a very long moment, looking into those incredible blue eyes. Then she buried her head into the Marine’s chest, and proceeded to sob all over again. Randi simply picked her up, and moved them over to the bed, holding her and waiting out the storm. Finally, it seemed to slow, and she gently dried the tears. Her gentleness brought another wave of tears.

"Hey, hey now. What’s all this? You can’t keep crying like this. I’m running out of dry spots," said with a rakish grin, hoping to get a smile out of Gwen. All the tears were becoming alarming.

It wasn’t much, but she did get the smallest little quirk of lips from the younger woman, and that was enough for now. Gwen brushed at her own eyes, then smiled again, a little better this time. "Can we get out of here? I think we need to talk."

Randi’s heart seized at this, but she nodded. "The doc said you were free to go whenever." She made to get off the bed, but looked down to find herself held by a glaring bard. Her brow rose in question.

"We’re not going anywhere until the doctor takes care of you. I’m not going to let you suffer unaccountably for days because of me." Before the Marine realized what was happening, she was in the bed with the doctor standing over her, and the bard at her side.

"I don’t need...."

"What you need to do is let the good doctor work, so we can get out of here." Randi felt her eyelids grow heavy. The emotional roller coaster she’d been on, coupled with Gwen’s extreme attitude swings, and the stress of the mission were finally taking their toll. "Rest. Let the doctor take care of you. I’ll be right here when you wake up. Promise."

That had been what she’d needed to hear, and the words let her body sink down into oblivion. Gwen looked at the doctor. "How long will she be out?"

"The meds will keep her out for the next several hours, but I imagine her body will demand more, so my best guess would be until tomorrow morning at the earliest."

The bard stood, and unclasped her hand from the Marine, who frowned in her sleep at this action. "All right. I’m going to go check on my father, and I will be right back."

"I’ll still be here," the woman answered, indicating the scarred face. "This is going to take a little while."



Gwen made her way down the hall to the large regen chamber where her father was currently ensconced. Her father’s doctor was speaking to both her father and mother in low tones, and the bard smiled briefly, knowing Geoff was for the moment at least, conscious. Then tears filled her eyes, and she rushed headlong into the room, flying into her father’s outstretched arms.

He breathed a brief prayer of thanks that his upper body was still functioning properly, as he clasped his daughter in a comforting embrace. The doctor stepped up to move the young woman, afraid for both his patient’s well-being as well as fearful of any adverse affects the regen unit might cause the bard. Geoff motioned him back, and Jill moved the two of them away to allow the weapons smith and Gwen a moment of privacy.

Geoff allowed his daughter to cling to him, for a long minute, then he eased back, still holding her hands. "What’s wrong, baby girl?" He could see the tear tracks, and the redness of her eyes indicated some serious crying recently.

"Oh, Daddy." The tears started fresh, and she began to wonder if she would ever run out of them. In the meantime, she seemed unable to stop them. She rested her head on his chest, unable to look into his eyes. "She killed him. Just... she took a knife and...."

He looked at Jill who regarded him with an even stare. Apparently she knew more of what had happened in that fortress than he did. The short time they had been together had been spent with Jill crying in his arms. She’d managed to convey the loss Gwen and Randi had suffered, but that was about it. Well, no time like the present.


"It was Uncle Ben, Daddy." He was thankful her head was resting on his chest, because his eyes flew to his wife in shock. He read the confirmation in them, and closed his own in regret. Even though he’d been told that his old comrade was the villain, he’d been hoping against hope that the information was incorrect. Ben had been his best friend for many years, and though they had grown apart, he had still held the man in his thoughts with some affection. He would be very interested to get the whole story from Randi. Meanwhile, he brought his attention back to his daughter’s words. "She just marched in, and...." Here she broke off. The feelings her memories of Randi’s lips on her own created confusion, and she wasn’t ready to share that with anyone yet.

"They had some words... nothing that I understood, and then she just... she.... It was horrible, Daddy. Blood and.... he just let her...."

"And do you think she enjoyed it? Did she seem to relish it in any way?"

Horrified green eyes met his own as she abruptly raised her head. "No, Daddy! How could you think that?"

"I’m not the one thinking here, Gwen. You are."

His words froze her, and she paused. "No," she whispered. "She didn’t get any joy from it." She thought about the myriad of emotions she had seen float through the expressive blue eyes before they had shuttered against her. "It seemed to make her very sad."

"Then maybe you should spend some time thinking about why she was willing to let you see that side of her. This is something she had to do for many years, daughter. And she has had to live with the consequences and the self-loathing. You need to decide if you can. Because if can’t support her... ALL of her... then perhaps you don’t love her like you should."

Her brows scrunched in puzzlement over his choice of words, but she nodded her understanding.

"One thing though, Gwen. She wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been necessary. Ben had turned his back on the things he believed in, and became... well, he chose a bad course, and paid the price for thinking he was above the rules. Randi was an instrument of justice."

"Thank you, Daddy. For reminding what is important."

"You’re welcome, little girl. I love you, ya know."

"I know. I love you, too. Now," stepping back, but leaning in to whisper conspiratorially, "I’d better go before your doctor has a conniption." She smiled at her father. "You get some rest, and I’ll be back to see you later, okay?"

He simply nodded, eyes closed, his body already giving in to its need for more rest. Gwen walked to her mother and gave her a long hug. "Thanks, Mama. I love you." Then she turned and walked out if the chamber. Jill simply stared after her daughter, hoping her husband’s words would help. She had a feeling this was going to be a long, bumpy road before all was said and done.



Gwen didn’t head directly back to what had become Randi’s room. Instead she wandered out to a tiny, enclosed garden area at the back of the unassuming, small building. She sat down on the lone bench, watching as the sun began to peek over the horizon.

There were so many pieces missing, so many things that didn’t make sense. She found it odd that she had no clear memories of her time spent with Ben. Pain lanced through her head again. Oh Artemis! What is happening to me? She continued to stare out at the horizon, hoping to find some answers.



The goddess in question looked down at her favored, wishing she could give her the answers.



The bard wondered why she didn’t feel tired enough to sleep as she made her way back inside. In truth, she was exhausted, but too wired, her mind seemed to be racing at the speed of light. That in itself was frustrating, but the images... well, a lot of them just made no sense. She wondered if she’d ever figure out what had really happened while she’d been gone.

She opened the door to the room silently, the frown on the doctor’s face causing her immediate concern. "Is there a problem, doctor?"

The woman whirled at the sound, having been surprised by the bard’s entrance. She looked at her a long moment, before turning back to study her patient. "I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before."

"What do you mean? I would think in your line of work, you would have seen it all by now." Gwen smiled slightly.

A tiny smile graced the other woman’s features. "Yeah, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? These guys have come back with just about every conceivable wound or illness imaginable. But this," motioning to Randi’s face. "This is something new." She moved to re-examine the wounds. "The barbs were deep, penetrating almost to her bones. And they were moving deeper when I pulled them out. And the cut... it doesn’t want to regenerate.

The unit keeps cutting out."

"That is odd," stroking the uninjured side, and smiling a bit when Randi unconsciously turned into her touch. "Are you sure it’s not the unit?"

"Pretty. This is the third one I’ve tried." She paused. "This redness is causing me some concern too." She pointed out the inflamed area. "It should have been readily healed by the regen unit." She shook her head, trying to understand what the problem was and failing miserably. The doctor looked at Gwen. "Are you going to be here a while?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Because she seems to rest better with you here. And right now, more than anything, she needs rest." The doctor did not mention the struggle she’d had with the Sabre after Gwen had left the room. The bard’s brows rose at the first comment, and frowned at the second. She could see now the dark circles and haggard appearance more clearly, and wondered what had happened to the Marine in the time they had been apart.

She sat down in the comfortable reclining chair Randi had been using earlier, though contrary to her friend, the bard did not sit up ramrod straight perched on the edge. Instead, Gwen moved the chair as close to the bed as possible, and leaned back comfortably. The bard could see most of the warrior from this position, and it was somehow reassuring. She took one of the larger hands into her own, smiling reflexively when the hand clasped hers firmly, and the warrior gave a little sigh. She noticed there were no traces of blood on Randi’s hands, but her mind’s eye clearly saw what had been there, and she sat back to think about what had happened.

She must have fallen asleep, she realized some time later, as her eyes opened, and she spent a moment trying to focus. The after images of her dreams were confusing, and she wondered what had happened to awaken her. She looked around here, realizing where they were. She was stiff and sore, and she grimaced at having to move. A whimper from the bed drew her attention, and she hesitatingly rose up slightly to be able to see Randi’s entire face. What she saw surprised her.

The Sabre had curled up into a tiny ball, and her hands were moving, as though searching for something. Gwen noticed immediately that their hands were no longer joined. She cocked her head and listened to the whispered words, hearing her own name called out pleadingly by the still soundly sleeping Marine. Her mind went back to another time and place, and with only a moment’s hesitation, she crawled into Randi’s bed. Instantly, the warrior curled around her. She held the older woman close, whispering words of comfort and reassurance until the tears and cries stopped.

Gwen heard the Marine sigh again, then the five-year-old voice emerged from the still sleeping woman. "Gwenie?"

The bard stroked the soft hair underneath her cheek, wondering if the child was a defense mechanism that allowed the Sabre to cope with the many atrocities she had to deal with, without completely losing her mind. She put it aside for further study when the voice rang out again in mild alarm.

"Gwenie?! Gwenie, where are ya?"

"I’m right here," the blonde answered soothingly, continuing to caress the dark locks.

"I’m sorry, Gwenie. I’m sorry I hurt your friend. He was a bad man, Gwenie. I had to make him go away."

The bard was silent a long time, and she felt the warmth of tears flow from Randi’s eyes onto her chest. "I’m sorry, Gwenie. Really I am," the Sabre whispered. "Please don’t leave me."

"I won’t leave you, Randi. I’ll always be here." And surprised herself by the fundamental truth of that statement. She still had some serious issues, both with the holes in her memories, and with Randi’s actions. But nothing was going to change the fact that they were best friends. They loved and cared for one each other, and one way or another, they would make it through this intact.

The older woman sighed a third time, and curled up closer into her. "I love you, Gwenie."

Gwen kissed the top of the warrior’s head. "I love you too, Randi. Happy dreams, now." And she smiled when the Marine nestled down into her, and drifted back into a deeper sleep. She watched as darkness fell, her thoughts keeping pace with her heartbeat. It was a long time before her eyes closed in sleep again.



Randi woke up vaguely disoriented, confused by the feeling of emptiness and loss. She would have sworn.... With a sigh, she turned over onto her side, noticing for the first time the bard curled up in the recliner pulled very near her. A small hand rested on the bed, and she reached out to touch it. She hesitated, withdrawing before she felt the softness of the skin she missed so much. The last day or so was blurry, and she was no longer sure what was reality, what was dream, and what was simply wishful thinking. She wasn’t ready to risk the truce they seemed to have reached. She moved to sit up, and her stirring caused Gwen’s hand to unconsciously start tracing on the bed.

The Marine watched in fascination for many minutes, trying to figure out what was so familiar in the pattern. So lost in though was she that she never realized when it stopped. Only when a throat cleared, and sleepy green eyes twinkled back at her did she notice that she’s been staring. A light blush traveled up her features.

"Good morning." Her sleep-hoarse voice came out as a bare whisper, and she cleared her throat. The bard saved her further speech by speaking.

"Good morning," just a bit shyly. "How do you feel?"

"Honestly? Like I slept all day. But better. I guess I needed to rest. How’s your dad?"

"I don’t know. I haven’t been back to check on him since early yesterday, and Mother’s been with him since she left us here alone." She paused, then continued, "Randi, we need to talk."

The Sabre cut her off. "Yeah, but I think you need to stay here with your folks for now." The blonde drew a breath to speak, but Randi held up a hand to forestall her. "They need you here right now... need your love and support."

"What about you?"

"What about me? They’re your family. You know where to find me when the crisis is over. We still share an address, ya know." Not a home, not now. She tried to make light of the pain that caused, but she didn’t quite succeed. The bard could read clearly the agony in the blue eyes, though she did not understand the meaning behind it all. "I’ll still be there if you want to talk when this is all over."

She slid down from the bed, ignoring the tears she felt forming in her own eyes. She couldn’t see the reciprocal ones forming in the green eyes she loved. Randi couldn’t bring herself to look into them. "I’m gonna get dressed, and say bye to your folks. Then I’m gonna head out."

Gwen sat in the chair, stunned and hurt. This was the last thing she expected from Randi, after the discussion they’d just had the night before. What happened? What did I miss? She mentally reviewed their conversation of the previous evening. She almost missed the Marine’s voice, as she stopped on her way out the door.

"You take your time, Gwen. I know I’m not what you thought I was, and if you can’t live with what I really am, I’ll understand. I’ll always love you." The door closed behind her silently, and it took the bard a moment to realize that she was alone in the room. She sat there another minute, reexamining Randi’s words. Now wait just a damn minute... She thought about it, until her train of thought brought her upright in the chair. She doesn’t remember... she thinks... Oh shit!

She got up in such a hurry that she got tangled in the blanket she’d been covered with. With a frustrated cry, she threw it on the chair, scrambling across the room and out the door as quickly as she could. She rushed into the regen chamber, only to hear the whoosh of a shuttle outside. Her shoulders slumped. This day was not starting out very well.



Chapter VII

You’re a coward, Miranda Valiant. You didn’t even give her a chance to say anything!

I can’t take the chance. I can’t risk that what I remember is only a dream. She knows where to find me when she’s ready to talk.

She WAS ready to talk!

She grabbed her head in her hands, hoping to still the argument she was losing with herself.

The pilot who had been summoned didn’t say a word, but merely waited while his passenger collected her belongings from the hotel room and rejoined him. He did silently wonder what caused the tears that slid down her face, but even as he wondered, he saw her wipe them away. He looked away, respecting her privacy. The next time he looked back, to announce their landing, her face was a stoic mask.

Randi went into the house only briefly to take care of her armor and equipment. It was a habit so ingrained, she didn’t even think about it. But when she was finished, and the house was silent, a heavy depression settled on her shoulders.



"Why’d you run away, warrior babe?" The love goddess sounded... almost disappointed. "You didn’t even give her a chance."

The Marine became immediately defensive. "I’m giving her a chance now, Aphrodite. She’s all over the place. Doesn’t know what she wants. I’m giving her some space to put things in perspective."

"No, you’re hiding... running away from her feelings and yours."

"NO! She has no feelings for me anymore, remember? We’re ‘just friends’." The pain in her voice resonated through the sarcasm.

"Did you hear a thing I said to you yesterday?? Were you listening at all?" Randi tilted up her head, looking at Aphrodite through confused, grief-filled eyes. It was then that the goddess noticed the scarring still on Randi’s face. "What happened to you?" She touched the rough skin, pulling back instantly when the Marine flinched at her gentle touch.

"It’s nothing," the warrior mumbled. "Please, Dite. Just leave me in peace for a while. Please."

The blonde stood looking at her for a long moment, before lightly touching the bowed head. She frowned in thought, and with a soft kiss to the scar, disappeared. The Sabre fell almost immediately into a deep, troubled sleep.



"What happened, little girl? I thought ya’ll were gonna work things out." This from Jill. Geoff was still in the regen unit, and was once again sleeping. The doctor was cautiously optimistic now about his regaining use of his entire upper body. His responses had all been normal, and they were waiting for him to wake up to give him a more thorough testing.

"We were, Mama. We are. She just... I dunno. Maybe she needs a little space." Her eyes went distant, and her hand impulsively grasped the chain around her neck. "I remember...." A sharp pain lanced through her head, and drew a gasp from deep in her chest. Jill immediately took her arm, and ushered her to a chair.

"You all right, Gwen?"

"Yes, Mother. Thank you. I just get this pain in my head sometimes."

The woman looked at her daughter strangely. "Really? When did this start?"

"I’m not sure. Fairly recently?" A pause. "I dunno. It just bothers me when I try to remember sometimes."

"That’s odd. Maybe we should get you seen for that also." It was then that her eyes were drawn to the bard’s naked fingers, and she wondered where her ring was. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, but she stopped, knowing a better opportunity would present itself later. "What were you gonna say you remembered, dear?"

"I remember, she’s gone away and come back before and needed some space. If what she went through before was anything like what I saw...." Gwen shuddered involuntarily in reaction. "Mama, it was so horrible. And she was so cold, so... it didn’t matter to her that he was a human being." She swallowed. "I think she feels she loses her humanity when she goes out on these trips. Not that I can disagree right now, but maybe she needs the space to recover it. So she’s comfortable in her own skin again."

"Do you really think so, daughter? Or are you trying to justify staying away from her now? You remember what your father told you last night."

"Yes, Mama, I do. There were times she’d go away before... Mama, I remember the first time she disappeared for weeks when I first worked at Midas. We were just becoming friends...."

It became still in the room, save for the quiet sounds of machinery running in the background while the bard got lost in her memories of the past. Jill noted that once again Gwen’s hand reached for her chain, and stayed there, until the woman put a hand on her daughter’s knee. "Gwen?"

"Hmm? Oh, I was telling you about Randi. She was gone... no word, no warning, no explanation. For three weeks, she simply up and disappeared. When she came home, she avoided me for a while. She avoided everybody. It took her a long time to open up again. I think she would probably like a bit of privacy to regroup from... this."

The blonde put her hand back to her chest, and her head fell forward. Her voice became the merest whisper, and Jill saw two tears hit the shiny floor before she heard a word spoken. "I think I need a bit of privacy to regroup as well."

The mother understood both the spoken and unspoken words, and with a comforting squeeze to Gwen’s shoulder, she rose and moved back to her husband’s side. The bard sat until her vision cleared, then without another word, left the chamber in search of some fresh air and solitude.



Tommy was thrilled to hear the shuttle set down, and take off again almost immediately. That meant Randi was home, and that only meant good news. He was quite certain she’d been telling the truth about not coming back without Gwen, and until he heard the shuttle, that had, quite frankly, scared him. He had no desire to lose her again. And he knew without the bard, that was a real possibility.

So he picked up his son, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed across the island to see his best friend. His happy steps slowed when he saw her sitting at the deck table, staring out at nothing, alone. She held a bottle of whiskey loosely in her hands, and he stood in silence for a moment simply watching her. He couldn’t be sure, but he though he saw tracks of tears on her face, but it was nearly impossible to be sure.

"WUV!" Randall’s voice rang out to disturb the quiet, and he watched as she surreptitiously brushed a hand across her eyes before waving them over.

"Hey there, boy!" Randall leapt into her arms, and she hugged him tight til he squirmed. She sat down with him, keeping her attention focused on him for the moment. He wouldn’t ask probing questions, or so she thought.

The child played with her hair, and patted her cheeks, chattering at her a mile a minute. The Marine tried hard not to flinch when he hit the scar, and mostly succeeded. She nodded and answered him back as best she could. After a few minutes, though, he took her face in his small hands and looked her squarely in the eye. She found the intenseness of his focus a bit daunting coming from one so young, but she met him stare for stare.

"Wuv, where’s Wen? Want tory."

That almost broke her. She took a deep breath, keeping her gaze on Randall, though she was intently aware of Tommy’s scrutiny. She took a deep breath and finally looked at Tommy. "Her daddy got hurt really badly, and she needed to stay with her folks for a few days."

"Is he gonna be okay?" Concern radiated from Tommy.

"They don’t know," on a shaky breath. "It doesn’t look good for his being able to walk again."

"So what are you doing here? Why aren’t you there with her, supporting them?" A bit of accusation in his tone.

"It’s long and drawn out, Tommy. Let’s just say this is the best place for me to be right now, and leave it at that."

"Why don’t you draw it out for me?"

"Because it’s none of your goddamn business!! Now let it alone!"

He got up and stormed off, leaving Randall in her arms. He knew she would take care of the boy, and he sensed instinctively she needed that connection right now. He just had to get some space.

He walked a little, out of her sight, but not out of hearing. Something terrible had happened this time out, and he’d bet his last credit it had everything to do with Gwen. He sent up a prayer for them. It was time they got a little peace together. He was just making his way back, when he heard the whispered conversation between his son and Randi.



"Miss Wen. Wuv her."

"I know, buddy." She hugged the toddler tightly. "Me too."

He watched as she got up, and moved the two of them to the hammock. Randall wiggled around for a few moments, until Tommy heard a low hum coming from the Sabre. The boy lay his head down on her chest, sighing in contentment. The sound of her voice, and the sway of the swing lulled him to sleep, and it wasn’t long before his comforting presence beckoned the Marine to join him. Tommy waited until he was sure she was asleep, before he took up a sentinel’s post at the table to keep watch over them.

He wondered, as he watched his two special people sleep, what had happened to make Randi cry. And he speculated why Randi was not with Gwen. None of the conclusions he reached were good. He would contact Jill later. He was fairly sure he could get to the truth. Maybe there would be something he could do to help.



Gwen found a small gate at the back of the garden that led to a tiny stream. The light danced across the ripples of water, creating sparkles in the reflected sunlight. She took a seat near the edge, entranced by the sight and sounds the surrounded her. The bard let her mind drift, finding comfort in not having to focus, or think, or feel. For right now, in this moment, she was content to simply be. There would be time later to think and feel and analyze.

She felt her battered soul being soothed, and closed her eyes in contentment. She found her mind wandering to the meditation techniques Randi had taught her, and she concentrated on letting herself float away in them.

Unbidden, a picture of Randi standing naked before her flashed in front of her, and the green eyes opened abruptly. What the hell?? Where did that come from?? She concentrated on slowing her suddenly rapid heartbeat, the tightening in her groin making her shift uncomfortably. What is wrong with me? This is Randi... my best friend. But she couldn’t stop the image from reoccurring, nor the flood of warmth it caused.

The bard was so intent on trying to banish these disturbing thoughts, that she didn’t hear the footsteps approach her from behind. She squealed and jumped when a large hand came down gently on her shoulder. Her eyes opened, and Tiny looked back at her in concern. Gwen’s face flushed in embarrassment. She knew the big man couldn’t see her thoughts, but nevertheless....

He arched an eyebrow at her quizzically, wondering what he’d missed. Something was going on, that much was certain. Randi had stopped by very briefly on her way out, and asked him to keep an eye on the younger woman. He’s been happy to agree, though more than a little intrigued on why it would be necessary. The two of them hadn’t been apart for more than a few minutes at a time since Randi’s return from the dead, up until the kidnapping. What could have changed between them in those few short days that they are now so far apart by choice?

"You okay, Gwen?"

She swallowed, and took a deep breath, thankful to have something else to focus on. "Yes, Tiny, thanks for asking. How’s Reed?"

He smiled. "Better. Better than we had a right to expect at this point, actually. If her progress continues steadily, we will be home before the weekend. We’ll be there when Ditto has her puppies."

"Oh, that’s right!" slapping her forehead. "I’d forgotten all about that."

"Well, things have been kinda hectic for you lately. How’s your dad?"

"He was sleeping the last time I saw him, but I got to speak to him earlier. His recovery is gonna be slow. He does have the use of most of his upper body, and they are saying he will fully recover his range of motion. The rest though," she shook her head sadly. "That will be up to him, but they’re not holding out much hope."

Tiny clasped his hands around one upraised knee, and looked thoughtfully across the water. "The mind is a powerful tool, Gwen. I’ve seen people do things they shouldn’t be able to do, because they made up their minds to do so. Don’t discount the human will. If Geoff wants it badly enough, there’s no telling what he can accomplish."

It was quiet for a while then, with Gwen digesting the man’s words, and trying to find a tactful way to ask a question that had been haunting her. Finally, she decided blunt was best.

"Tiny, have you ever killed anyone?"

The large Sabre looked directly in her eyes, and she flinched involuntarily at the pain she found gazing back at her. So this is the problem, eh? Well, let me see if I can help make this better. I owe Randi that much at least. He cleared his throat. "Yes, I have. Many times." He swallowed, and returned his gaze to the water. "And it never gets easier." He paused, and the blonde woman waited, sensing he had more to say. "Even when it’s justified, even when it’s the right thing to do, it’s a very difficult thing to live with... a terrible burden to bear."

"Then why do it? Isn’t everyone entitled to live?"

"Oh, if only it were that simple, my friend." He hesitated, and looked at her briefly. He saw her honest confusion, and tried to answer the unspoken question. "Do you remember a talk we had a few months ago, about what the Sabres are?"

Blonde brows furrowed, and she concentrated. "I think so." She rubbed her forehead. "I’m not sure. You wanna refresh my memory?"

He looked at her curiously, then patiently explained again about the Sabres, their purpose, and their mission. She sat listening to him thoughtfully, trying to put together the pieces. "It’s not a life any of us would have chosen, Gwen, given the choice, but it is a duty we do our best to fulfill with honor. As ugly as the job is, the world needs us, to keep the peace. To keep millions of innocents safe from the thousands who would do them harm."

"Do you enjoy it?"

"Parts of it, yes," he answered honestly. "But most of it, no. It is very trying, and even more so for Randi, I think."

The bard cocked her head inquisitively. "Why do you say that?"

"I have Reed, and even though we can’t always discuss the details of our missions with one another, we each understand what it is like. We know what the other is going through. Randi, well, she never had anyone to share that side of her with. And she’s always been the best, Gwen. She’s always gotten stuck with the hard jobs."

"So why does she go away from people? Why doesn’t she share that with someone? Let someone help her bear that burden?" Gwen was starting to see things in a little different light.

"It’s not who she is, Gwen. You know that. She would never consciously ask someone, anyone, to take on the weight of her life as a Sabre." He looked the woman squarely in the eyes. "You will have to offer to share the load, and coax her until she is willing and able to share with you. But you will have to be the one to take the first step. She would never ask you to bear what she considers to be an unforgivable past."

He rose then, turning back toward the building. He stopped when he reached the gate. "Think about it Gwen. She needs you and your faith in her, but you have to be willing to share her darkness as well as her light."

Oh, my friend. I hope that helped. I don’t understand everything that is going on here, but I know ya’ll need to get through this together. He thought about his lover who had cried stinging tears just before she’d sent him to look for the bard. "Go to her, Tiny. There’s something not right between them, and it needs to be fixed." He could only hope his words would be enough.

Gwen sat for a few more minutes, thinking over the man’s words. The truth in them hurt her, especially for Randi’s sake. So much pain, my friend. So much for you to bear. Will you share with me if I ask you to? Can I accept the darkness? Would you be willing to let me help you? It was a while before her mind stopped whirling with questions, and she got up to go talk to her father.



Geoff was glad to be awake. He felt as though he had slept for days. The doctor was pleased with his progress so far, at least as far as his upper body was concerned. He was able to sit on his own, and the fact that he could hug his wife completely was a blessing he was thrilled to experience again. They sat cuddled together quietly, having emerged from the regen chamber for a while. Though they all knew he would have to go back in, the doctor was glad to give him a break, knowing he needed a bit of quality time with his family.

"How do you feel, love?" Jill stroked her hands through his short-cropped hair.

"Like I got hit in the back with a mace," he quipped lightly. She looked at him seriously. "I’ve been better, sweetheart, but I’ve also been worse." He hugged her to him tightly. "We’ll get through this."

She sighed and squeezed him back. "Yeah, we will. I just hope Gwen and Randi will."

He pushed her back away from him slightly, so he could look into her eyes. "Why? What happened?"

"Do you know.... Wait. Let me start from the beginning. I don’t want to confuse the issue any more than it already is. You know Ben was the kidnapper, correct?" He nodded. "And I guess you know the story behind it."

"Um hmm. At least I think so."

She sighed. "Long story short... apparently he is tied in to someone who died when Randi did, and he blamed Randi for this person’s death. He took Gwen in retaliation. What you don’t know is that he somehow managed to make Gwen forget about her love for Randi. As far as she is concerned, they are simply best friends."

"Oh damn! Not again."

"Uh huh. Aphrodite told Randi to keep the faith, but she’s struggling with it right now." A beat. "Gwen watched her gut Ben."

"Oh no."

"Oh yes. And she’s gone back home, and left Gwen here. I don’t know if it was self defense or a desire to give Gwen some space." She paused. "I think maybe it was a little bit of both. But we’ve got to do something, Geoff. Those two kids belong together."

"Let’s play it by ear, hon. We’ll do what we can. For now though," he motioned toward the door where their daughter stood hesitating, not wanting to intrude. "Let’s see what’s on her mind." He waved the bard in.

"I’ll tell you what... I’m gonna give the two of you a little privacy to talk in. I need to go back to the hotel, shower and change. Besides, I’m betting she’ll open up to you better if it’s just the two of you alone."

He smiled at her, as the bard approached the bed. "I love you, Mrs. Goldman. Don’t take too long."

"I love you, Mr. Goldman. I’ll be back shortly." She kissed her husband soundly, squealing when he pinched her firmly on the behind. She turned to her daughter. "Thanks for keeping an eye on your old man for me, little girl. I never know what kind of trouble he will get into when my back is turned." She gave Gwen a peck, and walked out the door.

The weapons smith patted the bed, thankful again for the time away from the regen chamber. "What’s up, Gwen?" going right for the heart of the matter. "You look disturbed."

She looked at him a long time before she looked away, realizing that he too must share the service bond that Randi, Reed and Tiny did. "Daddy, have you ever killed someone?"

Whatever he had been expecting, it hadn’t been this. This came from out of nowhere and blindsided him. Of all the discussions in the world, this was one of the few he had never thought he’d ever have to have with her. While these thoughts were running through his head, he realized he was gonna have to share a lot of this with Jill as well. It was time she understood what he had been... what Randi was.

His answer was clearly written on his face before he spoke, and Gwen turned away a bit at the knowledge.

"Does it change the way you feel about me, Gwen?" he asked sadly. "I am still the same person I’ve always been."

"It doesn’t change the way I *feel* about you, I don’t think, but it does change my *view* of you. It’s probably not very fair of me, but there it is. It’s the truth."

He reached for her hand, pleased when she didn’t pull away from him. "Let me tell you something, Gwen. This is something I’ve found to be true throughout the entire Sabre unit. No one... NO ONE would have chosen this duty as a way of life. But there always has to be someone who stands between the innocent, and those who would defile them. The Sabres are the first line of defense, and not one of us would hesitate to kill to protect our loved ones, and our way of life."

"Now Ben did some horrible things. I don’t know the whole story of why he turned, but I do know he was a threat, and had caused hundreds, maybe even thousands, to die. Now Randi’s reasons for gutting him were as much personal as they were military. But you can bet your last credit, that any member of this team would have done the same thing."

"Even you?"

"Especially me. He had to be eliminated. The fact that he took you, and threatened you simply gave Randi first shot. He had no hope of coming out of there alive, and he knew it."

"But why, Daddy? What do you all, does she, get out of killing?" Tears welled up in her eyes, and clung to her lashes. He smiled sadly in sympathy with the confusion he saw shining so brightly through the pain.

"Oh, baby girl. She has lived with guilt and grief and self-loathing since becoming a trained killer. She has learned to hide away parts of her for fear she can’t be loved. The only thing she gets from killing is a heavier burden to bear. Do not judge her too harshly, daughter. She is hard enough on herself."

"I don’t want to judge her, Daddy. I want to understand, but every time I close my eyes, and see her running that blade into him...."

He nodded. "Would you be willing to talk to the doctor here, Gwen? Dr. Litzer is a Sabre, has talked to most of us, and understands not only what we do, but also how we feel. Perhaps he could help you. He’ll be glad to listen, and if you want, he can even try to explain."

She hesitated, and he continued. "I know it sounds awkward and uncomfortable, but it may help." He paused again. "It certainly can’t hurt." She nodded slowly in agreement then, and he squeezed her hands. "Good girl. Let’s get him in here."



When Jill returned from her outing, Jerry was sitting with Geoff, and Gwen was nowhere to be seen. She raised an eyebrow in question, and her husband simply lifted a hand, inviting her to join him on the bed. "Jerry was kind enough to come keep me company while Gwen talked to the doctor. Actually, he was bringing me up to speed on everything."

The Commandant rose from his place. "I don’t want to intrude, so I’ll leave you two alone. You get to work on walking, my friend. I expect to see you up and about soon."

"Is that an order, sir?" with a slight twinkle in his eyes.

"It can be, sailor... just remember that," said with a smile. "Now, I need to get back to work, but I’ll be back to check on you."

"Thanks, Jerry." Jill sat quietly, marveling at the weapons smith’s capacity for forgiveness.

"No, thank you, Geoff. This mission was so costly... so... needless...." He trailed off, unsure of what to say. "So, thank you, my friend." And he walked out slowly, mindful of his newly healed leg.

The Goldmans sat for a long moment, both staring at the empty doorway where Jerry had made good his exit. Then simultaneously, they turned and looked at one another.

"Well, that was... interesting," Jill commented.

The weapons smith looked thoughtful. "C’mere." Jill slid obligingly into his waiting embrace, sighing in contentment when his strong arms closed around her. He let the surrounding peace permeate his senses, until his soul became saturated with the warmth of it. "You haven’t asked any questions about all this... about the things you have seen and heard here."


"Why? Don’t you want to know?"

She sat up a little at this, pulling away from him to look him in the eyes. "Geoff, from the little bit I have learned in the two days I have been here, it is obvious this was, at some point, a part of your life. A part that I have never been privy to. If you want to share with me, I would be honored. And if you can’t, well... I have learned there are some things I can live with without ever understanding. I have you back in my arms again, and that is more than enough for me right now."

He pulled her back into his embrace, kissing her hard and long. When they drew back, slightly breathless, he gazed into her eyes. "I love you, Jill. Let me tell you the story of the Black Sabres."



Randi didn’t doze very long. The weight in her arms was wrong, and it brought her out of the light haze she had fallen into. She smiled a little crooked grin at the boy she cradled, picking up a fist that curled reflexively around her own. She listened, hearing Tommy nearby.

She let the child fall into a deeper sleep, then carefully stood and put him in his father’s arms. "Go home, Tommy. I’ve got things to do."

He hesitated, but the look in her eyes was serious. He nodded, and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "Just remember we all love you, okay? Take care of yourself." He walked off without a backwards glance, knowing what he would hear.

He hadn’t crossed into the treed area between the two properties, before he heard the sound of the motorcycle engine. Always before, when she was disturbed, she’d taken the bike out and let the sound run full throttle. He’d suspected this time would be no different, and he grimaced in self-knowledge. He turned and watched as she sped off recklessly toward the bridge.

Tommy shook his head. He needed to find out what was really going on.



Gwen walked in to the doctor’s office, looking around at the various hologrids he had hanging there. He had an entire wall full of old-fashioned, paper filled books, and these were what caught her attention and held her imagination. She didn’t understand the titles to most of them, but there were a couple rows that seemed to be nothing but fictional tales, and biographies. The rest of the space was quite comfortable, tending more toward the technical functionality of the present.

She chose a chair, only then noting that the doctor sat comfortably at his desk, his eyes following her with twinkling amusement. "Oh!"

"They capture everyone’s attention. It is one of the reasons I have them. Nobody can resist a look, even those of us who still use paper and maintain handwriting as a skill."

"Where did you get so many? Are they all real?"

"Oh, yes. They are quite real. I am quite a collector, though a lot of these were in the family, and survived the war."

"Do you read them? They look to be well read, but also well cared for."

"I have indeed read quite a few of them. It is more soothing when the words aren’t moving for you, for some reason."

"I know. Randi has shared some of her books with me. I find it much slower going, of course, but it is more relaxing."

The bard grew quiet at the mention of her friend, and the doctor patiently waited. He hadn’t been told what the problem was, or why the bard needed to talk, but for now, he was content to wait her out and listen. Then he would see what he could do for her.

"Dr. Litzer, are you really a Black Sabre? Have you really had to do what it seems all these others have done?"

"I really am a Black Sabre, yes, but I’m not sure I understand what you are asking, Ms. Goldman. What is it you would like to know?"

She swallowed, and closed her eyes, once again faced with the image of Randi’s dagger sliding so easily into Ben’s torso. "The killing, doctor. Have you had to kill as well?"

The sadness in his eyes was its own answer, and she closed her eyes again in acknowledgement. "Why? How do you all bear it so easily?"

"I never said it was easy, Gwen. It is the most difficult thing any of us live with. But it is also a necessary evil." He paused. "I want you to think about something, and I want you to be honest with yourself. You don’t have to reach a decision today, but I will ask you about it again soon, all right?"

She looked at him warily, then decided he was being up front with her. Besides, it wasn’t like she had to come back if she didn’t like his question. She nodded her agreement.

"Close your eyes. I want you to picture in your mind someone who means a lot to you... parent, best friend, significant other... the most special person in your life." An image of Randi smiling at her made her smile unconsciously, and the doctor wondered who the lucky bastard was that brought that expression to her lovely visage. He cleared his throat and continued. "Do you have them firmly in your mind?"

She nodded. "Yes."

"All right then, Gwen. I want you to think, to seriously consider, and then to decide what you would be willing to endure for that person. Don’t answer now. I want you to honestly and openly think about it. And when you find your answer, you come back, and we’ll talk some more."

Slowly, the green eyes opened, and refocused. "Thank you, doctor. You’ve given me quite a lot to consider." She got up, and left, deciding to head back to the hotel. She hadn’t done anything but think all day, and though it was just sunset, she was exhausted. Some dinner, and a good night’s sleep seemed to be in order.

She stopped by her father’s room on the way out, and kissed him goodnight. He was due back in the regen chamber shortly, and then Jill would be joining her at the hotel. She left the two of them wrapped up in the serenity they found in being together, and the bard cast a wishful thought heavenward to find that for herself one day. Then she was arriving at the hotel, and her only thought was of a warm bath and dinner.



Chapter VIII

Randi rode for a long while with no particular destination in mind. The sound of the engine drowned out everything else, including her thoughts. By unintentional design, she found herself speeding down the road that she and the bard regularly took on their Saturday morning rides. The scent of barbeque wafting in the clear air made her stomach rumble, and she realized how long it had been since she had eaten.

Rosie came out to greet her, looking around deliberately when she saw Gwen was nowhere to be found. Her questioning eyes came back to meet Randi’s.

"Her father was terribly injured. She’s helping her mom out a bit while they try to get him back on his feet."

"I see. And you’re not with her because...."

"It’s a family matter. There really isn’t a place for me there. And I had stuff here that had to be taken care of." She bit her lip. She couldn’t say any more, for fear of either bursting into tears, or flying into a rage. The older woman’s sharp eyes missed little though, and she accepted the Sabre’s words without questioning. It wasn’t her place, at this point and time, anyway.

"Well, c’mon in. You can share dinner with an old woman."

Randi made to protest, and then thought better of it. Why not? She’s a lonely woman who wants a bit of company. It won’t kill me. Besides, she’s always been kind to Gwen and me. It won’t hurt to repay the kindness.

She took a deep breath and followed Rosie inside.

Their talk was light and general. Rosie kept the conversation rolling, telling Randi about her family, and the latest exploits of her grandchild. The Marine listened politely, even adding occasional commentary. The hour passed pleasantly, and it was only when Randi stood to go that the old woman asked the question that had been bothering her.

"What happened to your face, hon?"

The Sabre turned away reflexively, becoming more self-conscious about the scarring with every inquiry. In a society where deformity was unheard of, it was difficult to suddenly be in the possession of one.

"Cut," she answered briefly.

"And you haven’t been to regen.... ?"

"Yes, I have. It won’t," briskly. "Look, I appreciate lunch. But I gotta go." She was on the bike and gone before Rosie had processed all her words. The old woman stood looking after her for a long time. Then, tapping her fingers on her lips in thought, she turned and headed back into her cottage. "Oh, Athena," she prayed aloud, "Let me be wrong about this, please."



"Honey, are you sure you don’t mind?" Jill and Gwen were having breakfast together. The bard’s long soak the night before had become a very short bath, and she had fallen into bed without the benefit of dinner first. Her exhaustion had taken precedence, but now her hunger was coming to the fore. The mother just watched in amazement as her daughter continued to devour her breakfast. "Were you starving, dear?"

Gwen nodded and swallowed. "Pretty much. And no, Mother, I don’t mind." She took a sip of juice and cleared her throat. "You go find a place for you and Daddy. I’ll go home and pack up your stuff."

The doctor had come in before Jill had left Geoff’s side the previous evening, and they had spent a bit of time going over treatment possibilities. The one that looked most promising was quite drawn out, and would require at least a temporary move to the capital city. So now Jill was going to find a place for them to live. Gwen had offered to travel back up north to retrieve enough of their things to make them comfortable during their stay.

"I’d really appreciate it, dear. I’ll tell you what... I’ll make you a list of what I need and where it is. You should be able to get it done, and be back here in a day or two."

The blonde nodded her agreement again, and swallowed her last morsel of food. "While you’re doing that, I’m gonna go say goodbye to Reed and Tiny. They should be headed back home before I get back here."

"All right. I’ll meet you there then."

Gwen got up and kissed her mother absently, then went to the medifac.

It was quiet when she stepped inside the small building. The few staff members seemed to be elsewhere at the moment, and a peek at her father showed him back in the regen chamber, soundly asleep. She looked around for Tiny and Reed, hoping she hadn’t missed them. Chance took her out to the garden, and she saw them sitting contentedly wrapped up in one another’s arms. It sparked a longing within her, but she pushed it aside.

"Hey, guys! How ya doing?"

Two heads turned in her direction at the sound of her voice, and both smiled a welcome. Tiny wondered at the flinch he felt tremble through his partner’s body as the bard neared them. He looked down in concern, but she didn’t say a word. He knew it would be up for discussion later.

"Better," he answered for both of them. "We are waiting for the doctor to give us the go ahead, and then we are out of here." He smiled. "We’ve gotta get home before those puppies arrive."

The bard smiled back. "I had forgotten all about that. Is it still okay for me to come out for the birth?"

Reed nodded. "Of course. Ditto would never forgive any of us if you weren’t there."

Gwen looked squarely at the breeder now. She could see the newly healed tissue in and around her eyes. "How are your eyes, Reed?"

The woman shrugged. "Sensitive, but much better. They still have some healing to do, but they are going to be fine."

"I’m glad." The bard sighed. "I am so sorry you...."

"Enough. I was glad we could be there, for you and for Randi. And they will heal fine. How is your dad?"

"Better. Taking it one day at a time. They are going to try a new treatment therapy on him. It is still gonna be a difficult road to travel, but he’s willing to try it to regain the use of his legs."

"Well, given his incentive, I don’t see anything stopping him from walking again."

Gwen’s brows creased in puzzlement, but then she agreed. "I’m gonna go back home and pack up some stuff for them to have here, since they’re gonna have to live here for at least a while. But I wanted to come say goodbye to ya’ll, and wish you luck. You’ll be gone before I get back."

"Yep, but you’ll be coming out for the weekend. Still, I’m glad you stopped by to let us know the news." Tiny noticed she never mentioned Randi. "You travel safe, and we’ll see you in a few days, all right?"

"Ya’ll too." She stood, and patted Reed’s hand. "I’m glad you’re gonna be okay, my friend."

"Thanks, Gwen." They watched until she walked out of sight. Reed looked up sadly at Tiny. "It’s gone, love. Their bond is gone."



Randi returned to the beach house very late. She had long since turned the rumble of the motor off, losing herself in the night sounds of crickets and wind and waves. She parked the motorcycle, taking care to wipe it down meticulously and tarp it before entering the dark structure. Almost immediately, the familiar aromas assaulted her, and for a very long moment, she feared becoming physically ill. Knowing there was no where she could go to escape them, she shed her clothes, and crawled into the big bed she and Gwen had shared so happily only a few days before. The sheets still held the bard’s scent, and the warrior was helpless to do anything, aside from curling herself around Gwen’s pillow, and crying herself quietly to sleep.

When the sun rose the next morning, Randi woke from a fitful doze. The first few hazy moments, she lost herself in the familiar scent that surrounded her, and she smiled with pleasure. But awareness came to her abruptly, and she found she craved the gentle fingers tracing her features in discovery. She got up, and made a haphazard toilet, before taking off down the beach for a run. She needed to make a few decisions, and running would give her the clear head she needed.

It didn’t take long, relatively speaking. By her second lap around the island, she had come to a decision, and formulated a plan of attack. Well, love, if you don’t remember, I’ll just have to remind you. And this time, I’ll court you like you deserve to be courted."



Aphrodite smiled to her sister when they heard these words. "You go, girl," she whispered the image in her scrying bowl. "This might work out better than we hoped."

Artemis smiled. "I’m glad she finally figured it out. She had me on pins and needles for a while there."

"You and me both, sister. You and me both."

Athena walked into the room, a worried frown on her face. "We may have a more serious problem here than we thought."

"What’s wrong, The? Randi has finally figured out what she needs to do, and Gwen is actually trying to understand what happened from the Sabre’s point of view. Things are slowly coming back together." Dite smiled, quite pleased with the turn of events. The goddess of wisdom chewed her bottom lip, her nervousness causing her sisters grave concern. "Athena?" The smile turned to a frown.

"I just spoke to one of my priestess. You remember Rosie?" Twin heads nodded simultaneously. "She comes from a line of shamanesses, well practiced in the art of healing." She hesitated, and the pause grew so lengthy, that Artemis felt the need to nudge her along.

"The? Is there a point here somewhere, or are we supposed to guess?"

"Hmm? Oh, sorry. Randi went out riding today, and stopped by to see Rosie. And the shamaness noticed a scar on Randi’s face."

"I know about that. I saw it the other day."

Athena whirled on Aphrodite then. "Did it occur to you that it might be a problem?"

The blonde goddess looked thoughtful. "I did wonder about it. She flinched when I touched it, and it didn’t heal for me." Now she frowned. "What is up with that?" She looked at her sister. "Did you want to leave her scarred?"

Athena sighed. "I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t stop it from healing. I didn’t even know it was there until Rosie called it to my attention."

Artemis held up her hands. "This is all very interesting, but could we get to the point here? I’m beginning to get a little confused."

"Rosie called on me shortly after Randi left. She noticed the scar, and wondered what had happened to cause it, and it’s continued lack of healing. Assuming that I hadn’t decided to punish Randi for something, she started doing some research." The goddess heaved a sigh. "We know that this Ben person used some ancient practices to hide Gwen’s heart from her. I suspect he’s done something to Randi as well. You will remember after Ares lost the warrior to you and the bard, he had his priests brand his warriors to ensure their loyalty to him. I could never prove it, but I am almost certain many of them were coerced by drugging."

Both goddesses sucked in a breath. "How long before we know?"

"I’m thinking it will be extremely slow acting, to hide any trace of itself as a gradual change."

"How do we counteract it?"

Athena simply shook her head. "I don’t know that we can. We never had an antidote for it because I could never find anything to work with."

"Then how can you be sure that’s what happened?"

"I’m not. I’m just telling you it is a real possibility. We will have to do some investigation, see what we can find out about it. Because if Miranda Valiant has become one of Ares chosen, branded warriors, even against her will, there is no telling what kind of effect this will have on the world."

"Um, why hasn’t he tried this before now?"

The goddess of wisdom sighed again. "I don’t know. Rosie is doing some research. We need to keep an eye on Randi. I’m thinking Gwen may be the key to all this. This has been the first time Randi has been truly vulnerable."

Dite’s head dropped into her hands. "Just when you think things couldn’t get any more complicated...."



Gwen stepped into her parent’s home with a sense of pleasure. Even all grown up, she found comfort in the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood home. It was mid-afternoon, and she’d decided just to stay overnight, so she wouldn’t have to rush.

She went to the kitchen, fixing a pot of coffee before she moved to the den. She collected the email there for her folks, knowing her mother hadn’t taken the time to do it in the past few days. While it downloaded, a file with her name on it caught her eye, and she sat down to look at it. Her eyes grew big as she read the most recent one, and she stared at it for a long moment, before going to the beginning of the folder.



Midas is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever worked. The people here are kind,

and pretty friendly. I could really learn to like it here.

I made a new friend today, in fact. Her name is Randi Valiant, and she’s a retired Marine

gunnery sergeant. She’s very decorated, and quiet. A private individual, but she strikes

me as exceedingly complex. I think I’m going to like getting to know her better.

More later.


The more I talk to her, the more I have to wonder about what makes her tick. Randi

is such an interesting person. Extremely intelligent, and knowledgeable on any number

of subjects. We have a lot of common interests.

I stayed the night with Randi last night. Tommy had a party at his place, and Randi

asked me to stay over. We talked until the sun came up about everything, and nothing

at all. I don’t think I have ever had so much fun. She asked me to help her decorate

the spare bedroom at her beach house.



Well, I’m not *helping* her decorate, I’m doing it for her! She said, since I’m gonna

be the one using it, I should pick out what I like.

She seems very lonely... worse than me, I think. I’m glad she’s let me be her friend. I

think she needs me as much as I need her.



I wish I knew what I could do to help her. She’s so lost, so alone, and she won’t talk to

me. She won’t talk to anyone. She’s closed off, and I don’t know how to help her. It

hurts to see her like this.



I hate this. I finally have a best friend, and now I have to be gone for the next eighteen

months. On the plus side, she’s promised to keep in touch with me faithfully, and she’s

never broken a promise to me. But, God, I am going to miss her.



I don’t know if I laughed or cried more this Festival. It was so wonderful to see everyone,

even via vid comm., but damn, it made me miss everybody so much more. Already I am

counting the days until I get to go home. Funny, it is the first place I’ve been I ever looked

at as home.



Oh, God! That was the best week of my life. I haven’t had that much fun in years. But it

was so hard to leave again. I will be so glad to settle here. This military tour scares me a

little bit. But then I think of Randi, and I know that her service career was tough. Maybe

it would have been easier if she’d had some kind of diversion like this. I have to hold on to

the thought that this might help someone, even just a little.



I’ve been out in the heat too long. I could have sworn I saw Randi here this afternoon.



This is really bad. I miss my best friend so much that I am seeing her in places she can’t

possibly be. I’m so glad this will be over soon. I want to go home.



My heart hurts. She wasn’t her to meet me when I got home, and she’s been avoiding

me since she got back from... wherever she disappears to when she leaves. It’s time

for a showdown. We can’t keep on like this.



My God! She sings... and dances! Why has she been hiding this talent? She could be

part of the Artists’ Guild, if she wanted to be.



What an awesome birthday! She sang to me. And the song she chose... so beautiful.

One of my very favorites. But she’s gone again. Why does she leave like that?? Is

she running from something??



Oh, um... God! Randi is so beautiful. I’ve known that I suppose, but seeing her naked today....

It makes my skin tingle and my mouth dry just to think about it again. I wonder if there is

something wrong with me. Best friends don’t react that way to each other, do they?

But I can’t help it. My body is responding to her ways I never thought I’d feel towards

anyone. I can’t think about this anymore. It’s making me crazy.



Can you believe her? Thinking I would choose Scott over her! Even if he wasn’t engaged

to be married, God, I would still choose her. She’s my best friend, and the things she

makes me feel.... Can I let go and just let myself feel? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s

worth the risk. Because if she doesn’t feel the same way.... Maybe I’ll just play it by ear.



Be still my beating heart!! She sang... she sang for me last night! The urge to just... I

wanted to kiss her, so badly. But.... The party was so much fun, and I am exhausted.

We are going to an awards ceremony tonight, and she’s promised to dance with me. I

am so excited. I’m gonna run with this feeling. I can’t stand not to any more.



Gwen sat stunned looking at the screen for a long time. She couldn’t fathom why she had sent these snippets of her diary to her mother. She certainly didn’t remember having written with this particular slant. She rubbed at her suddenly aching head. She would have to go back into her diaries, and investigate this further. For now, though, she had things to do for her mother, so she got up, and went upstairs.

It didn’t take long, really, though it was good dark before she finished. Her mother had been quite thorough and accurate in her lists, and Gwen breathed a sigh of relief when she got done. Who knew two people needed so much stuff to live? Then her thoughts turned briefly to the massive amount of stuff she and Randi had moved from the penthouse apartment to the beach house. On the other hand.... she smiled as she went down to the kitchen.

She scowled at her first sip of coffee. Having sat for most of the afternoon, it was now strong enough to make her hair curl. "Ugh," she groaned, pouring it out, and looking into the fridge for some water. She fixed herself a bite of supper, cleaning up after herself neatly. Then she made a sweep of the entire house, making sure it was set to be closed for a while. Satisfied, she turned off the lights, and headed upstairs to her own room.

The bard paused at the threshold, sensing something unfamiliar in well-known room. It was a scent, a presence that hadn’t been there before. Her mind tried to place it, and failed, but she found it comforting. With a shrug, she changed for bed, and crawled beneath the sheets. As she dozed off, her body gave way to her heart’s desire, and she traced a familiar pattern on the pillow she cradled.

She slept past dawn, her dreams making her smile. When the green eyes finally opened, the dreams faded, but the feeling of contentment they gave her remained. She stretched, and crawled from the bed, heading for the shower. She was anxious to get back, and see how her folks were faring.

Midday found the bard back at the hotel she and her mother had been staying at. Jill was nowhere to be found, so Gwen left the things she had brought with her, and made her way over to the small medifac where her father was.

Geoff was in the small exercise room, working his upper body under the watchful eye of his therapist. He smiled when Gwen walked through the door. "Hi, little girl."

"Hey, Daddy. How ya doing?"

"Better, I think. I’m glad to be out of the chamber for a while, though this is not the first way I would have chosen to spend my time." He glared in the therapist’s direction, who merely shrugged and smiled. "On the other hand, I’m gonna have to work to walk again, so...."

"Do you regret having gone... having done this?"

Gray eyes met and held earnest green ones. "Gwen, if you never believe anything else, believe this. I would do it again in a heartbeat, even knowing what the outcome was going to be. There are some things in this world that are always worth the price, even when the price is high." He paused. "So don’t let it concern you any more, little girl. No one on this team would have stayed behind, even knowing how it would end."

The bard thought on that for a moment, then looked her father in the eye. "Sabres are a breed apart, aren’t they?"

Geoff chuckled. "Pretty much, little girl. Pretty much. Now," looking to the patiently waiting therapist, "let me get back to work. I’d like to be able to leave here nights and stay with your mother again as soon as possible."

The blonde gave her father a hug, and walked out of the room. She went back to the hotel, at something of a loss. She didn’t quite know what to do with herself. She didn’t want to sightsee alone, and she had nothing else to do here. She felt as though she were marking time, in limbo, waiting for something momentous to happen.

Finally, she took herself out to the pool area. She thought about writing, but couldn’t seem to get motivated. She fell asleep. Jill returned, a fond smile lighting her face at the innocent expression on her daughter’s face. She sent up a brief prayer to Artemis to help Gwen remember.

"Hey," lightly shaking the bard’s pink shoulder. "You’re getting quite a bit of color out here."

Green eyes opened, surprised at how far the sun had dropped. "Um, oh. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. Musta been the heat. Hi, Mama." The bard sat up, and rubbed her eyes.

"Hello, daughter. I think we better get you in out of the sun." Jill smiled indulgently. "I know you and Randi stay out in the sun a lot, but you’ve still got quite a bit of pink going on here."

"Hmm, yeah. Besides," her stomach rumbling loudly, "I’m hungry."

Jill chuckled. "Nice to see some things never change. C’mon."

They were sitting at an early dinner, the bard digging in happily to her pre-dinner salad. If it hadn’t been considered bad manners, Jill felt fairly certain that she would be humming happily. "How did your house hunting go?" Gwen asked, as she took a sip of water.

"Quite well, I think, actually. I’ve found three that have possibilities. I’d like you to come out with me tomorrow, and give me your opinions on them." The blonde nodded her agreement. "How’d the packing go? Did you have any problems?"

"No. Everything was just where you said it would be." Her eyes took on a far off look, and she grew quiet. Jill let it continue, until she realized her daughter was in another world completely.

"Gwen? You okay?"

"Hmm? Oh yeah. Sorry. Just thinking."


The bard dropped her head, studying the plate of food that had just been placed in front of her. "Mama, when I downloaded your mail, I found a file with my name on it." She took a deep breath. "I read it." Now she looked up, and found her mother’s eyes trained on her. Jill waited patiently, knowing there was more. It didn’t take long for that patience to be rewarded.

"I’m not sure I understand it. I don’t know why I’d send things so private to you, and I...." She trailed off. "Some of the things I wrote just don’t make sense to me."

The mother took a deep breath. Here then, was her first chance to help her daughter remember. She whispered a prayer for wisdom, and spoke. "Gwen, first... if it makes you feel any better, the things in that file are things you put there. Your father and I have never read them." The bard gave a silent sigh of relief, and Jill had to smile slightly to herself.

"As for what you wrote, I know you started keeping an actually written diary after Randi taught you how to write. Perhaps the answers to your questions are in that part of your journal. It might be a good idea to go back and read them in their entirety." A beat. "It might help you understand."

Gwen nodded her head slowly. "It probably would. I guess I’ll have some reading to do when I get home."

Jill smiled. It was only a tiny first step, but it was a step in the right direction.



The following day was spent going from house to house, looking, studying, and discussing possibilities. As it happened, they didn’t choose one of the three Jill had mentioned. The house they settled on they found quite by accident.

It was a small cottage, set on a bit of land in a quiet neighborhood only a couple miles from the medical facility where Geoff would be continuing his therapy. It was small enough to make it easy to take care of, but large enough for them to be comfortable. Jill was very pleased by the find, and her enthusiasm carried over into her visit with her husband that evening.

"We’ll be comfortable there, Geoff, until you can walk again, and we can go home."

He squeezed her tight in his arms, smiling at her optimism. "That may not happen you know, sweetheart."

"Geoff, you are going to walk your daughter down the aisle, and give her away to the woman she loves. I know that in my heart of hearts."

"You have that much faith then? In them and in me?"

"No doubts, love. This will happen." She turned to face him, and kissed him passionately. "Now, you concentrate on getting well. I’m going to have Gwen help me get the house set up tomorrow, and then I am sending her home. She has some discoveries of her own to make."

The man’s eyebrow rose. "You know something." A statement of fact.

"I know something." She grinned at him impishly.

"Would you like to share?" he drawled.

"Gwen found the folder she sent us. Apparently it had some pretty thought provoking items in it. So I want to get her home, so she can do some more reading." He continued to look at her. "I know it’s not much, but it’s a start, and I have faith. They are meant to be together. Gwen will see that again."

He kissed her again. "I love you, Jill."

She smiled. "I love you, too."



The morning found the two women moving the boxes Gwen had brought back with her into the cottage. "This is gonna be nice, Mother."

"Yeah, I think it is. Even given the circumstances, I think your daddy and I will be happy here. Thank you for your help, dear. I don’t think I could have managed without you."

"I was glad to help, Mama. After all, ya’ll wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for me."

"You know, I don’t think that’s true. Your father has been headed for a decline for a long time. There have been some mornings... well, I think, in a perverse way, he’s glad it happened the way it did."

Gwen looked at her mother askance. "There is a mentality here I am missing completely."

"Hmm, well, I’ll admit I don’t understand it, either, but there you have it. Now, let’s go get your father, so you can go home."

It was quiet when they entered the medifac. Geoff was still in the regen chamber, and Jill excused herself to speak to the therapist. Gwen headed out through the small garden to the tiny stream. She found peace here, and sat soaking it in. She heard the gate click shut and sighed. So much for peace and quiet. She started to get up.

"You don’t need to leave, Gwen. I heard you were going home shortly, and thought we could finish our talk before you left, if you’d like."

Dr. Litzer stood casually by the gate, hands in his pockets, waiting for her to grant him permission to approach. She found she appreciated that, the fact that he didn’t just force his presence into her solitude. Besides, there was a part of her that wanted to finish their conversation, so she nodded for him to join her.

They sat quietly together for a while, simply listening to the melody of the rippling water. H e finally glanced at her, before looking out at the vista again. "Did you think about what I asked you?"

Her brows knit together in a thoughtful frown. "Yes, I did." She paused. "I spent a good deal of time thinking about it actually."

He nodded, understanding both the spoken and unspoken words. "Did you come to any conclusions?" He didn’t ask until it became clear the bard wasn’t going to continue. He turned to her again, this time keeping his eyes focused on her expression. He watched, fascinated, as a myriad of expressions crossed her face. It took another little while before she returned his gaze unflinchingly.

"Anything. I would endure anything."

"Then remember this. A Sabre has taken a vow to endure anything, both to protect the ones they love and those who cannot protect themselves. It is a heavy burden to bear, but one we shoulder gladly to keep the peace safe from those who would destroy it. Think about it when you think of the killing. It’s not nice, but it is necessary."

He left her then, and she sat a while longer, thinking on his words. Her mind pictured Ben dying again, only this time, she stood in Randi’s place. And she realized, with a sudden intake of breath, that she could very easily have killed him if their situations had been reversed. It wasn’t a pleasant discovery of self, she noted, but one of truth nonetheless.

The bard swallowed hard, and got up. She had some business to take care of, then it was time to go home.



Chapter IX

"Randi? Randi, I’m home."

The bard was calling out before the door was completely open. She was surprised when only silence met her. She looked carefully around the beach house. Everything was tidy and in its place. There was no sign of occupation at all. "Randi?" knowing it was a futile gesture.

She sat down on the sofa, facing the portrait of the two of them that Sal had taken years prior. There was something between them... she could almost see it. Her mind struggled to put a name to it, and failed. Sighing, she got up, stepping out the French doors, and heading to the boathouse. The utter stillness, the silence was oppressive. The bard paced to the end of the dock, noticing that even Pilot and Peanut seemed to have abandoned her.


She smiled when the childish voice reached her ears, and she walked back up the dock to meet the approaching pair. Ella held Randall in her arms, and he leaped for Gwen when they got close. It was only the bard’s fast reflexes that kept the boy from taking a header into the water.

"This child is gonna be the death of me," Ella half-joked. Her pale face belied the teasing of her words.

"Wen! Wuv miss Wen. Miss Wuv." She kissed the boy’s smooth cheek, accepting his rather sloppy affection before she turned to look at the boy’s mother.

"Where is Wuv?" smiling at her own use of the warrior’s nickname.

Ella looked at her in puzzlement. "Don’t you know? She’s gone to Reed’s place. Ditto is due to have those puppies this weekend. I figured you’d be there, as a matter of fact."

"Damn! I forgot about that, but... that’s still a couple days away. Why isn’t she here now? It’s not but an hour trip by shuttle."


"She took the bike. I guess she felt the need for some space." Ella didn’t mention the restless energy that seemed to pulse through the woman when she’d stopped by the day before to say goodbye. "How’s your dad, by the way?"

They walked back up to the house, with the child humming contentedly in her arms. Before she could answer Ella’s question, Randall demanded her attention.

"Wen! Tory, pwease?"

The bard thought for a moment, before looking the boy in the eyes. "This is the story of a brave knight, who risked everything she had for love."

Ella’s eyes grew big, as she listened to the bard spin her first tale since Randi disappearance more than fifteen months ago. It was a simple tale, and nothing like her normal storytelling, but it was a first step. Ella wondered what had happened that brought the muse back to the bard. As she listened further, she realized Gwen was telling a story of Randi’s heroism. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask what had happened, but she checked herself. The first rule she had learned about the Artist’s Guild was to never interrupt the creative process.

Upon further study, she figured out the bard was not even aware of the transition. So she sat quietly until the tale was finished. "Lovely story, Gwen. Is it new?"

"Um, yeah," the bard rubbed her forehead. "I’m not sure... hmm. I...." The soft voice trailed off in confusion.

"So you were gonna tell me about your dad," Ella reminded her kindly. Gwen smiled, grateful for the diversion.

"He’s doing better than they expected him to at this point, actually. Mother says his motivation is strong enough to make it possible for him to beat the odds, but she won’t tell me what his motivation is." She looked at Ella. "Do you ever feel like you’re the only one missing out on the joke that everybody else is getting?" The curly head nodded solemnly, though there was a distinct twinkle in her eye. "That’s the way I feel, but I’m not pushing the issue. As long as he gets better, I don’t need to know."

"What are their immediate plans?"

"Well, Mother found them a house. They will be staying in the capital city for a while to try a new recovery treatment therapy. As I said, things look very promising for him right now. It’s just gonna take a lot of time and effort on his part."

Ella patted Gwen’s knee, and reached for her sleeping offspring. "I’m glad things look so good for him. I like your folks. They are real people." She grunted a little as she hefted her son up. "You gonna head out to the ranch?"

The blonde thought, then nodded. "Yeah. In the morning. Ditto would never forgive me if I missed this."

"True. I gotta admit... Randall and I have missed having her around the past couple weeks." She sighed. "I’d better get home. I have a ton of stuff still to do today. Lemme know how things go with the puppies, all right?

And ya’ll let us know when you get back. You have no idea how we worry."

"That’s sweet, Ella. I’ll make sure to keep you posted... about both." She looked at the still sleeping boy. "You want me to give you a ride home?"

"Would you mind? He’s getting so big. It won’t be long before I can’t carry him at all." She smiled sadly.

"Let me get the transport."



Gwen had conveniently forgotten how quiet the beach house was without Randi’s presence. She couldn’t figure it out, really. It wasn’t like the Marine was a loud individual, nor was she particularly messy. In fact, the bard grinned to herself, they had had a discussion once about Randi’s meticulous neatness. So it bothered her when she returned from having dropped off Ella and Randall to the sterile quiet of an empty house.

She moped around for a few minutes, not really sure what to do with herself. What is up with you today, Gwen Goldman? What has put you so out of sorts? Finally, she went up to her room, rooting around in her closet until she came up with a good-sized polymer box.

The bard sat on the edge of the bed, fingering the cover for some length of time. She remembered the day she’d asked Tony to craft this for her, wanting a special place to store her journals. She’d never realized how much more personal her thoughts became by actually writing them down, but she was so thankful Randi had taken the time to teach her the almost forgotten art of handwriting.

With a sigh, and not a little trepidation, she lifted the cover, and took in the scent of ink and paper. She smiled now, and lifted out the first book. Gwen frowned after a moment’s reading, realizing that she had not started *writing* on paper until after she and Randi had known each other for just over two years. Disgusted with herself, and her faulty, selective memory, she set the box to one side of the bed, and trudged downstairs to the large computer system.

Hours later, she was rubbing her eyes. The holo program had been reading entry after entry, and she was only just a few months into their friendship. The temptation to skip this was almost overwhelming, but something held her back. It was a fascinating to watch, the ever–so-slowly changing dynamic of their relationship. Already she had heard them go from being mere strangers to very good friends. She had smiled a lot, even laughed a couple times. But the most startling difference was the way she was able to view the separations the Sabres had forced upon them time and again.

It broke her heart to realize that every time the warrior had left her, it was to kill... to keep her and the rest of the world safe for another day. The hurt was compounded by the knowledge that Randi shut out everyone when she returned, bearing a burden no one should ever have had to bear. She wondered what other secrets her own words would reveal to her, but her eyes were heavy, and she yawned.

She would continue her research when they got back from the breeding ranch, but for now.... she turned off the holo emitters, and set up the security system. Then she trudged upstairs, and fell asleep, still fully clothed.



Her dreams were a mish mash of confusing images, and she frowned before she slipped into a deeper, dreamless state.

"What happened, Morph?" The blonde tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as she stood in Morpheus’ realm observing the bard’s sleep.

"I’m not sure, Cuz. I think it may just be a sensory overload on her part. I’ll keep an eye on her, though."

"I know you will, and I totally appreciate it. I swear, these two are enough to make a goddess pull her hair out sometimes, ya know?"

He just chuckled at her expression.



Gwen slept much longer then she intended to the next morning. She got up, and immediately put in a vid call to Reed. She was surprised when the breeder chuckled at her in greeting.

"Just got up, huh, and haven’t looked in the mirror?" Reed chuckled when the bard frowned grumpily at her words. "I’m sorry, Gwen, I shouldn’t laugh. But you look so cute, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see that." She went on without giving the blonde a chance to answer. "What can I do for ya?"

"Well, I was wondering if Randi was there yet?"

"No, not yet, but I wasn’t expecting ya’ll til tomorrow. Looks like the puppies will be right on time."

"Um, okay. I’ll probably come in sometime tomorrow morning. She’s riding the bike over." She said this with studied casualness.

Reed’s eyes nearly popped from her head at this pronouncement. It was quite a long trip to be making on the bike. Randi must have had some issues to work out, and not knowing if or when the bard would be able to make it out.... She tucked the thought away for further study.

"That’s fine, Gwen. You’re welcome whenever you want to come over."

"Thanks, Reed. I’ll see ya’ll in the morning, then." The Sabre pilot just chuckled again, and waved goodbye. The bard cut the connection, and wandered over to the mirror, stopping in horror as she stared at the reflection of herself. Then she burst out laughing. "Reed, you are a woman of amazing self-control." With another wry chuckle, she went in to the bathroom, and shut the door behind her.

"Well, since I’m not going until tomorrow, let’s see where I left off." She had gotten comfortable after her shower, and was happily ensconced in a pair of running shorts and a sports bra. She found her place in her holo-diary easily, and let it run while she went to fix herself something to eat.



Randi had left for the ranch at daybreak. She craved the peace and solitude traveling on the bike gave her. She had several things she wanted to work through in her mind---among them what she would say to Gwen when they sat down to talk. It would have helped, of course, if she knew what the bard was going to say to her first. But she didn’t, so she spent most of the first day’s travel running through different scenarios, trying to imagine all the possibilities.

A couple of times, she’d actually had to stop the bike. Some of the things she envisioned literally hurt her very soul, and she was forced to stop and simply breathe until the pain passed. When night came, exhaustion forced her to stop and seek shelter. She grimaced wryly to herself. Never had a Sabre mission been as wearisome as dealing with all this emotionalism was.

The inn she stopped at was quiet and quaint, and she was glad of the chance to rest. She stripped down to her underwear and crawled into bed, too tired to eat, and sound asleep before her head hit the pillow. Morpheus took pity on her, and sent her immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The following morning, fueled by a good, hearty breakfast, she mounted the bike, and headed out again. And when Gwen arrived home, she was almost halfway to her destination. Her thoughts on this day were much more pleasant. She passed the hours thinking of different things she could do to court Gwen properly. Her mind reviewed many of the things they had done together when they were still just friends... long before they realized and admitted their love for one another. Aphrodite had accused her of unconsciously courting the bard then. She could use some of those ideas, and make a conscious effort to woo her girl.

She was smiling when she stopped for the evening. There were a lot of things she could do to show Gwen her true feelings without being overbearing or invasive. The only thing gnawing at her in the back of her mind was that little talk they still needed to have. The Marine consciously put it aside, knowing she could do nothing until she and the bard had the privacy to talk.

It occurred to her when she sat down to eat, that she didn’t know if Gwen was going to be at Reed’s for the birth or not. This wasn’t something she wanted to do in their home or with an audience. The Sabre shook her head. She’d cross that bridge when she came to it. Worrying in advance was gonna get her nothing but an ulcer if she wasn’t careful.

Her last day on the road was one spent in thoughtful meditation. She was deeply attuned to everything going on around her, but her mind was on another plane of awareness. And just about dusk, she pulled into the long driveway that led to Tiny and Reed’s home.

Tiny was almost ready to put supper on the table, and Reed was setting their places. The odd disturbance of air outside drew both their attentions, and together, they stepped out onto the front porch. The big man’s face broke into a delighted grin. "Guess Gwen was right," and headed down the steps to meet his friend. The seer hung back a moment longer, scanning Randi’s aura before approaching her. Satisfied with what she found, she joined the duo, and welcomed the Marine into their home.

Reed took Randi up to her room, so Tiny could finish up in the kitchen. "You look better, my friend. How are you doing?"

Randi looked at the seer, puzzled. Reed had been unconscious or in regen for most of the time they had been together during the last week. How could she know? The breeder smiled.

"You remember we talked about your aura?" Randi nodded. "Even unconscious, I could see it, feel it. For a while there, I was afraid." The seer reached a hand toward the Marine’s face, who drew back reflexively from the pain she knew a touch would cause. Reed stopped. "It’s still not right but it is better. You’ve found a focus, a center, yes?"

"Yes," smiling and looking away bashfully. "This time, she’s gonna get the treatment she deserves."

"Then I wish you much happiness and joy, Randi. You are sure to win her heart."

Earnest blue eyes met the seer’s fathomless ones. "Do you really think so?"

"My friend, I know it in my heart. You won her last time unknowingly, didn’t you? How will she be able to resist a deliberate attempt to win her love?" Randi set her small bag down, and crossed to the bathroom to wash her hands. "Have faith, Randi," Reed continued when the Marine stepped out of the enclosure. "This time, I think you may have help.



Ditto howled in delight when Randi stepped into the kennel after supper. The Marine instantly went to her knees, allowing the shepherd to give her a good face wash. She returned the attention by scratching the dog behind the ears for long minutes. Ditto fairly purred in delight, and rubbed up against her like a cat.

"How’s she doing, Reed?"

"Very well. Everything is on schedule, and Phil has been strutting around here like he was king of the mountain for the past two days. I’m thinking these pups should arrive right on time."

"Good. These guys already have places to go."

"Yep, I have your list right here," waiting for Tiny to hand her the vid chip she needed. She slipped it into her comm. link, and watched the list come up. "Hmm, one for the sound technician, Liz." Randi nodded.

"She’s always taken care of my girl well, and when her dog passed away recently, it seemed like the right thing to do."

"Okay. Then I have one for Lacey, one for Scott and Tory, and one for Tommy. That covers all the puppies I’ve counted in my examinations. I think they are gonna be big pups, though... they are sure taking up the room."

Randi looked down at Ditto and had to agree. She gave the dog a good last scratch, then stood up and stretched. "I don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m beat. Would you consider me rude if I excused myself and went on up to bed?"

"Not at all," Tiny instantly responded. "Truth is, we are still turning in early ourselves. Reed’s eyes are still recovering, and rest is the best thing for them at this point."

Randi took Reed’s hands in her own, and looked deep into her eyes again, knowing how close the other woman had come to losing them. "Are you sure you’re all right? I know how...." She paused when Reed squeezed her hands hard.

"We’ve already discussed this, Randi. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even if I lose my physical sight, that doesn’t affect my gift. I’m fine. I’ll be even better soon. So please let the guilt go, and move on. We have more important things to focus on."

The Marine looked into Reed’s newly healed eyes for a long moment, assuring herself of the truth and rightness of the seer’s words. Then with a nod of acceptance, and a return squeeze to the breeder’s hands, Randi slipped out of the kennel and into the house. She was asleep so quickly, she didn’t hear the couple come upstairs a short while later.

At breakfast the following morning, Randi was pouring the waffles while Reed fried up the bacon. "Why is it," the Marine mused aloud, "that in this day and age of technology, we get such simple pleasure from something like cooking?"

Tiny looked up from where he was grinding the coffee. "I think it has something to do with the satisfaction we feel providing for ourselves. I know the food we prepare is always much better than anything we get at those instant places." In fact," putting the pot on to boil, "when we go out, either they cook, or we don’t go there."

"I think that is probably one of the reasons Ella’s place is so popular." They sat down to a hot meal. "Her stuff is prepared right there fresh. And it’s set up that you can actually watch Ricky and the chefs cook."

"Sounds like a fascinating experience. We’ll have to come down and try it." The conversation drifted to other places of similar quality they had each had the opportunity to experience. Reed never mentioned to Randi that the bard was expected to arrive that morning. It completely slipped her mind.

Mid-morning found Randi in the kennel, stroking Ditto’s soft head. Things were right on schedule, and the pups were due to arrive very shortly. She looked up when the door opened, then looked back down again when a familiar blonde head poked in, and green eyes caught hers. She had been so caught up in the excitement that had started before breakfast was over, that she’d temporarily forgotten that Gwen would probably be showing up today. Time to bite the bullet, Valiant. "Hi, Gwen," she murmured, keeping her focus on the dog beneath her hands.

The bard didn’t utter a sound as she crossed from the door to Randi’s side. Neither she nor the Marine noticed Ditto’s lack of reaction to the bard save an anxious whine. She placed two fingers under the Marine’s chin, and urged her face upwards til their eyes met and she smiled. "Hello, Randi. We have a lot to talk about... later." The Sabre focused on what she could see in the soul held in those eyes, and felt some of the burden slip away. Gwen was here, and ready to give her a second opportunity to talk, and for now, that promise was enough. She nodded her agreement, and looked back down at Ditto. "How’s she doing?"

"She’s doing very well," Reed commented from the doorway. She and Tiny had been hidden in the shadows of the building, watching the reunion with interest. Reed winced at the raw energy, and the off kilter factor it contained. This was almost worse than the strength of their bond.

"She’s right on schedule," Tiny said.

"Is it normal for the stud to be present?" Gwen pointed to the corner where Phil stood soundlessly, watching the proceedings with interest. He didn’t interfere or get in the way of things, but his silent presence was strongly felt in the room.

"For him, yes. He takes quite the proprietary interest in each batch of puppies he fathers. He has stood sentinel at each birth."

"I think that’s adorable," Gwen whispered in Randi’s direction. Quite without her knowledge, her small hand grasped the Sabre’s larger one, as one by one, they watched the puppies enter the world. Randi smiled to herself in quiet satisfaction.



"Well, two boys and two girls," Reed said sometime later. "Whatcha gonna call them?"

Blue eyes went big and round. "Isn’t naming them, um, your job?"

"Nope, not this time."

"I don’t suppose Dog One, Two, Three, and Four would be acceptable," Randi muttered. The three adult humans around her burst into laughter.

"Randi!" the bard admonished. "Um... I know. How about Mim and Rox for the females, and Carbon and Copy for the males?"

Reed chuckled, and her eyes lit up in delighted laughter. "Oh that is priceless," understanding the hidden joke. "Absolutely perfect. This little guy," holding up the solid black runt, "will naturally be Carbon."

"Naturally," Randi replied drolly.

The remainder of the day was spent with Ditto and her babies. Phil remained in the room, circling occasionally, making sure everything was fine. It was a peaceful day, right up until it was time to go to bed. When it came time for bed though, things got a little awkward.

"Um, Reed, which room should I take?" They had been too busy to worry about room arrangements before, and now Gwen wasn’t sure where she was supposed to be.

"Randi’s right here," the seer answered without thinking.

"Um, yeah, but where do you want me to sleep?" Gwen was a little confused over Reed’s answer, but figured the stress of the day had made her misunderstand the bard’s question.

"Oh!" Damn, Reed! Pay attention here please! "Sorry. You can take the adjoining room."

"Thanks." Gwen reached around and gave her friend a hug. "Thanks for letting us come and witness a miracle." She opened the door. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Gwen." Reed waited until the door was closed before she muttered. "If we’re very lucky, we will see another miracle again very soon."



"You sure you have to go home so soon?" Tiny asked his Sabre comrade early the next day. "Seems like a hell of a long way to come to stay over for just two nights."

"Yeah, but I will have been gone for the better part of a month all told by the time I get home again. I’ve got work I need to do. Next time I won’t bring the bike. Or better yet... next time, you come see me."

"You’ve got yourself a deal. Besides, we have a date to come out that way already, remember?"

"I remember. And no one is looking forward to it more than I am."

"I hear you, my friend. Safe journey."

"Thanks, Tiny." She turned to Gwen, who had just stepped off the front porch. "You sure you wanna go home this way? Shuttle would be faster and more comfortable." She really wanted the bard with her, but was trying to take the best care of her that she could. Gwen read the longing in her eyes, though, very easily.

"Would you rather I go that way?"

"No, not at all," hastening to reassure the blonde. "I was merely thinking of your comfort."

"I have always been most comfortable wherever you are, so if you don’t mind, I would like to go home with you."

"I would like that best too," said shyly.

"Well, then," taking up her helmet, and dropping in her bag. "What are we waiting for? The road awaits." And with a final round of hugs and a wave, they were off.



The day was beautiful, and Randi sighed in contentment as they eased down the road. In all honesty, they were taking it a little slower than she had coming out. It felt so wonderful to have Gwen’s arms wrapped around her, even loosely, and she had a good feeling about their coming talk. So they moseyed through the countryside, enjoying the breeze that their riding stirred.

Lunch was a brief stop under some shade trees, sharing the food Reed had so thoughtfully provided them with before they’d left. They didn’t talk much, simply enjoying the peace of the day and the happiness of being together again. Gwen found it odd how much contentment she felt just being with Randi, despite everything. There was a place in her that felt complete. Part of her wanted to have their talk now, for better or worse. Another part of her needed to get back to her diaries to do some more reading. Still a third part wanted to curl up in Randi’s arms and just be. It was this part that was causing her so much confusion. So lunch passed quietly, with each of them lost in their own thoughts.

Dusk found them pulling into a little town that seemed unusually busy for its size. And when they went looking for a place to sleep, they began to see the problem. Randi shook her head grimly as she came out of the town’s second and only other hotel establishment.

"No luck?" the bard questioned sympathetically. The first place they’d stopped had been full up. There was some sort of reunion going on, and the proprietress wasn’t too hopeful about them finding anything. But she gamely gave them directions and wished them good fortune.

"Well, sorta." The warrior was kicking herself for stopping here, but it hadn’t been a problem three days ago. The tiny town had been almost deserted, it had been so quiet. Now, however.... "We have a room, but...." She scratched the back of her neck. "We only have *A* room. There was only one room left." She breathed. "I’m sorry, Gwen. The town wasn’t like this three days ago, honest. I didn’t realized there was gonna be an Amazon family reunion here."

Gwen, stepped off the bike, and lifted up her small duffle. "Randi, it’s okay. We share living space at home." She paused in though a moment. "I was a little surprised at Reed last night, but maybe it was a natural assumption. I mean, no one knows we have separate beds in separate rooms, I guess huh? It’s not like it’s anyone’s business."

Randi couldn’t find a comment to make right then to save her life, so she simply grabbed her bag, and headed for the lift. The room was nice enough, though one look made the Marine put her head in her hands and close her eyes. She had to wonder if the gods were conspiring for her or against her.

Gwen eased by her, stepping into the room, and looking around with approval. "This is nice," she nodded. "Not bad." She set her stuff down on the small table, and turned to face the warrior. "Shall we go get something to eat?"

The Marine entered the room and shut the door behind her. "Do you trust me?"

"Huh?" Gwen wondered what that had to do with getting dinner.

"Do you trust me?"

Green eyes gazed into startlingly blue. "I always have."

"Then we can go get dinner. Just stay with me, please, and go along with what I say?"

"All right."

It only took them a few minutes to clean up, and they stepped back out into the melee. It didn’t take long for them to find a place to sit and order some food, and they sat back to people watch. What Randi had said earlier finally sunk into Gwen’s brain. "Amazon family reunion?"

"Yep. They get different parts of the nation together during the course of the year. I think their big reunion is in the fall... a couple months from now."

Their food arrived, and the next few minutes were filled with silence as they each concentrated on the fare in front of them. As they began to fill up, they noticed more and more women coming out and headed toward a big campfire area to their left. Gwen watched intrigued as several musicians took their places and began warming up. Another group of what looked to be dancers was off apart from the crowd, doing some stretching exercises. The bard watched the activity quietly, then looked to her companion. "Would you mind... can we go watch for a little while?"

Randi sighed inwardly. She had been afraid of this, but it was what the bard wanted so.... "Okay, just follow my lead, and you’ll be fine." She took Gwen’s hand, pleased when the blonde grasped her own firmly in return. They found a place to one side beneath a tree that offered them a decent view of all the activities, yet kept them far enough away so that they could speak without yelling. Rand sat, stopping the bard when Gwen made a move to sit beside her. "Sit here," patting the ground between her legs.

Gwen looked at her dubiously, but complied, knowing there was a legitimate reason. The tingles that traveled up and down her spine caused by the strong arms now wrapped around her middle made her look back at the Marine with a question in her eyes. It wasn’t that she minded... on the contrary, it was quite the pleasant sensation. But there were still so many holes, things she didn’t remember. And there was still the issue of Ben’s execution between them yet.

"I’m sorry, Gwen. I don’t mean to take liberties, but look around." Green eyes traveled the area and noticed a pattern. She met the patiently waiting blue eyes. "Couples sit this way. It is so the other women know to leave each partner of the pair alone. Only the single women sit side by side. It is their way of stating their availability. Unless you’d rather be single." Arms pulled back from the bard’s waist. Gwen merely reached back, and pulled the hands to her front again, leaning back slightly into the body behind her. Randi sighed in relief. The first hurdle had been crossed.

The rhythm of the music was sensual, hypnotic. They watched the dancers in contented silence for a while, before Gwen decided to open up the conversation. "Randi, how do you feel about killing?"

The Sabre sucked in a breath. Well, nothing like getting right to the heart of the matter. "Can we walk? I’d like to go somewhere with a little more privacy."

Gwen looked around, noticing more and more women were getting up to join the dancers. She felt a fleeting wish pass through her, and then stood, dusting off her pants. She smiled, and reached a hand down to her companion. Randi reached up hesitantly and took it, laughing a little when the bard neatly pulled her to her feet.

"Been working out some there, hmm?"

Gwen blushed. "Guess those staff workouts have helped more then I realized."

Randi smiled gently. "Guess so. C’mon," holding out her hand. "Let’s get out of here."

They hadn’t moved more than two steps, when they were stopped by a huge hulk of a woman. "No one leaves without dancing first."

"Excuse me?"

The big woman looked at her patiently. "You are a card carrying Amazon, right?" She waited for Randi’s nod. "Then you know that everyone is committed to at least one dance to give thanks to Artemis for her protection of our Nation." The Marine’s head dropped. She didn’t need this right now... they didn’t need it. She looked up when the small hand still clasped in hers squeezed gently.

"C’mon, Randi. We can do this, and then we’ll go talk. We don’t want to offend Artemis now, do we?" Green eyes twinkled, and the Sabre had to smile.

"You sure you don’t mind?"

"No." A pause. "Honestly, I wanted to try it, but I thought we should talk first."

"See, you’ve got a good woman here. Now go give thanks, and enjoy." The large woman slipped back to her perimeter post before Randi could make a reply. Not that she had a clue of what kind of response she could make. She felt a tugging on her hand.

"C’mon, gunny."

The dance was slow and sensual, and the press of bodies kept them close together. Gwen wrapped her arms around Randi’s waist, laying her ear on the Marine’s strong heartbeat. Randi closed her eyes in tortured enjoyment... praying for the moment to be over, and hoping it would never end. The music wound down, and she pulled back from the bard slightly, smiling when Gwen grinned up at her.

"That was nice. Can we do it again?"

"Let’s talk. We’ll see how you feel then."

The Sabre reached her hand out, and Gwen took it without hesitation. And they moved off into the cool darkness of the night.



Chapter X

There was a rise just outside the town proper, and Randi led them up onto it. It gave a clear view of the activities, without making one a part of them. The Marine seated Gwen on the smooth, conveniently placed rock, before turning her back and looking down at the activity below. The bard sat silently, letting Randi choose her time and manner to speak.

"All my growing up years, I was just a normal kid, and Tommy was my best friend. I excelled in my studies, and I had quite a few outside interests. When it was time to do my service, I chose the Corps. I didn’t want to do the Navy thing... the thought of all that time at sea...." She shuddered. "Anyway, I ended up being put into the

Sabre program, and I was good at it. Hell, I was better than good... I was the best. And for a while, it was enough. The rightness of the cause, the justice in it."

She sighed, and her shoulders slumped. "But it wore on me... it wears on me still. The killing, it eats at your soul, sapping your humanity drop by precious drop. But the alternative... to let the peace, our very way of life be ruined... to see those you love and care about be destroyed. I couldn’t do that either. So I accepted the responsibility Fate handed me."

"So, no Gwen, I don’t like the killing. I don’t like the fact that I am exceptionally good at it either. But it is very much a part of who I am. I would not hesitate to kill to protect you."

It was silent again for a very long time. Randi kept her face turned away from the bard, so Gwen could not gauge the other woman’s feelings on anything except her words, and the flatness of her tone of voice. She came to a decision, finally, and slid off the rock. The bard circled around to stand in front of Randi, coming to rest between her and the view of the town below. She waited until blue eyes met her own, and drew in a quick breath at the pain and tears she found lingering there.

She reached down, and grasped the clenched hands, drawing them to her and pulling gently forward, leading the warrior to the rock. She eased the taller woman down, then lifted a hand and softly wiped at the tear that had rolled down a chiseled cheek. The bard reached down for the hand she had dropped. Now it was her turn to look down, and examine the ground beneath her feet. When she started to speak, Randi had to strain to hear the whispered voice.

"When you... killed... him... I felt so many things. Fear, anger, confusion, disbelief... I was overwhelmed. The stress was more than my mind could handle apparently, because Mama said I went into shock." She looked up to catch the dark head nod, even though Randi’s eyes appeared to be closed. It was hard to tell with the face turned away from her. "Mama and I had an interesting talk when I woke up, and she asked me something that got me to thinking... something that made me start asking questions of my own."

The silence dragged on for what seemed like ever, before the Marine cleared her throat and asked, "What did she say to you?"

Gwen smiled slightly. "She asked me why, in the state of shock that I was in, caused by my reaction to what had happened... what you had done... why you were the only person I would let near me. I told her it was a matter of trust. She reminded me then that trust was unconditional, and if I trusted you, I needed to have faith, not to judge, but to talk it out with you."

She paused and swallowed, composing her thoughts. "While you were sleeping, I went and talked to Daddy, and he made me think a little more, and realize that there was a lot I didn’t understand. And when you left, I decided to see if I could understand a little bit more. So I talked to Tiny, and Daddy, and Dr. Litzer. And they all made the same point you did... about it not being something they would have chosen, but a duty they were honored to perform."

She sighed, and looked at Randi, reaching a hand up and turning the warrior’s face toward her. "Dr. Litzer, though... he brought things home to me in a very real, very honest way. He put me in your place, and asked me what I would have done." Blue eyes dropped. Gwen knelt until she was looking up at Randi, who closed her eyes at the unexpected scrutiny.

"Randi, look at me." Finger’s touched the Marine’s chin softly, careful to stay away from the cut. "Randi, please." Sorrowful blue met vibrant green. "I learned something about myself, Randi. Put in your place, I would most certainly have done what you did. I would kill to protect you as well." Tears welled in two sets of eyes. "Not something I ever expected to learn about myself, but it is the truth, nonetheless." A pause. "Does it change the way I view myself, you, Daddy and Tiny and Reed? Yes, it can’t help but. Does it change the way I feel? Only in that I have grown to respect you, your inner strength so much more. I don’t know how you have managed to live with this weight for as long as you have. You are still my best friend, and I still love and trust you."

"I still have some problems with it. I probably will for a while. It has changed the way I look at a lot of things. However, I want you to know I would like to share the burden, if you’ll let me. We can get through this together."

For a very long moment, the stillness was palpable. Then without a word, Randi reached down, and pulled Gwen into her arms, hanging on for dear life. The bard returned the embrace glad she’d made the right choice for both of them.

They stayed wrapped up together like this for a while, until finally the bard pulled slightly away. She tipped her head back to look the Marine in the eye. "C’mon, gunny. I’m exhausted, and I hear a nice, big, comfortable bed calling my name." Without a word, Randi held out her hand, and Gwen grasped it, leading the way back down the slope and into town.

The Sabre instinctively took the lead as they approached the hotel. She keyed in the code and opened the door, keeping the bard shielded as a matter of course. Gwen smiled in reaction. She always does that... always looks out for me. It only took a moment for these thoughts to pass through her mind, and by that time, they were in the room with the door closed.

Randi looked around, embarrassed. Though they had worked out a major problem, she didn’t want to assume anything. Gwen still regarded her as only a friend, and her comments earlier made the Sabre realize that a lot had changed when Ben had stolen her lover’s memories. So she was caught by surprise when the bard kept hold of her hand and led her to the bed.

"C’mon, gunny. It’s been a long day, and I’m tired."

"I’ll make a pallet on the couch, Gwen...."

The bard eyed the tiny loveseat dubiously. "I don’t think so. The bed is big, and we’re both adults. It’s not like we haven’t shared before."

Randi nodded. "As long as you’re comfortable." The bard grabbed her bag and moved to the bathroom area.

"I won’t be but a minute."

Then Marine turned to her own bag, and pulled out her pajamas. She was changed, had brushed her hair and teeth, and was comfortably ensconced on one side of the big bed before Gwen emerged from the bathroom. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so long. Do you....?" motioning toward the toilet area. When Randi shook her head, she turned off the light, pausing to let her eyes adjust before moving to the bed. "Geez, I didn’t expect it to be so dark." The Sabre chuckled silently. "Hush, you," reaching over and giving the other woman a light smack on the ribs.

They were quiet for a time after that, falling into a pleasantly lethargic haze. They listened to the muted sounds of the ongoing party outside. "That was interesting," the bard murmured.

"What was?" Randi asked. She’d been almost asleep when Gwen spoke, and she had no clue what the blonde was referring to now.

"That Amazon party. I’d like to do that again sometime. And what’s a card carrying Amazon, anyway?"

Randi rolled over onto her side. "Yes, it was, yes, we can, and we’ll talk about it later."

Gwen yawned, and nodded. "’K. Night, Randi." The bard tucked a hand under her cheek, and promptly fell asleep. The Marine lay there looking at her in the darkness for a few minutes before she replied.

"Good night, love."



Gwen was the first to awaken the next morning. She had vague recollections of this happening before but never in quite this position. They had started out innocently enough, on opposite sides of the bed. As the night wore on, however, the space between them diminished. From facing one another, they had migrated to end up wrapped in each other’s arms. So when Gwen opened her eyes, her head was pillowed on Randi’s shoulder, with an arm thrown across the warrior’s middle. She smiled wistfully at how natural it felt to be cradled by those strong arms, then sighed.

The bard got up, surprised at how cold it was out of that embrace. She pushed her pillow into Randi’s arms, which had started searching for her the moment she moved. She smiled again as the Marine wrapped herself around it, and fell back into a deeper sleep. Then she moved off to take a shower.



"Thanks, Morph. I appreciate all the help."

"No prob, cuz. You’ve always been good to me. I’m glad to repay a favor or two."



The two women got back on the road shortly after breakfast. The whole town was quiet, having spent a majority of the night partying. Only a very few people were out and about in the early morning sunshine.

"Wow, this place is a lot different during the day, huh?"

"No, this is how it is most of the time. This is how it was when I came through the other night. It’s the family reunion thing that changes it, and then the change is temporary. Two or three days of celebration, and then the place goes back to normal."

They were making good time, until suddenly, shortly after lunch, it started to rain. Randi slowed down, but kept going, hoping to make the distance she needed to get them home the following day. When she felt the bard start to shiver, however, she began to look for a place to stop.

The inn she found was nice, and Randi got them two rooms. The Marine really didn’t want to, but she respected Gwen’s need for a bit of space. The bard herself wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. She was at once both somewhat relieved, and oddly disappointed, and that just put her in a state of confusion she wasn’t really comfortable with. Goldman, just suck it up. What the hell is up with you, anyway? She moved into the bathroom, settling into the very warm water for a nice long soak.

Because they had stopped early, it put them behind schedule in getting home. It was just coming on noon of the fourth day when they crossed onto the island. Randi’s behavior was baffling Gwen. She was polite, but distant, catering to the bard’s every need, but not forcing anything upon her. The storyteller decided to call the warrior on it shortly.

For now, though, a rustling noise from the tree line made them both look in that direction. It didn’t take a moment before Randall toddled out, headed toward them as fast as he could manage. He squealed in delight on spotting them.

"Wuv! Wen!"

The bard knelt down and opened her arms, and he rushed headlong into them. "Wen! Tory... pwease?"

Gwen smiled and ruffled the child’s hair. She picked him up, and walked to the patio table, settling down and talking quietly to him. Ella had followed her offspring more slowly, and she went to the shed where the Marine was carefully stowing the motorcycle.

"Good to see ya’ll back," she welcomed. Tommy had cautioned her that something wasn’t right, and Randi had in fact called the night before and given them a brief synopsis of what had happened. So she was trying to keep from intruding, knowing so many subjects were taboo now, but still wanting to get things back to as normal as possible. "We expected ya’ll in last night."

"Yeah, the weather delayed us. We got caught in an awful shower coming home."

"Um, we saw that. I figured that was the hold-up. How’s Ditto?"

"Fine. She gave birth to four beautiful puppies, and they all have homes already. There is one, all black with yellow eyes... Reed swears he is a throwback to some ancient wolf forefather." She smiled when Ella’s brows shot up into her hairline. "Yeah, I know, but she is convinced. Says she can trace the lineage." She paused. "He does look a little like a wolf, come to think of it." The Marine laughed lightly. "They’re a cute little bunch, though."

Randi picked up both her and Gwen’s bags, and headed out toward the house. The bard and Randall were playing chase on the shoreline. The boy stopped, bending over slightly, with his hands on his knees. He pointed, and Gwen ambled over to take a closer look.

"Sand spider," she answered, as the other two women approached. "Let’s leave him alone and play over here."

"Wuv!" The child lost interest in his surroundings as his other playmate came into view again. He ran to her, latching onto her legs, intent on pulling himself up. She lifted him up, blowing raspberries on his belly, which made him scream with laughter. Ella watched Gwen watching them, and realized the bond between the two women was altered, reverted back to what it had been in the time previous to Randi’s death. She found herself wondering what had happened in the days they had been gone that could have changed the dynamic between them so drastically.

They spent a nice afternoon together, watching the boy play at the edge of the water. Several times he walked back to one or the other of them, bringing an offering of sand or shells. Talk among them was light and varied, and they were surprised to note the sun was setting as they heard Tommy’s transport stop at the front.

Randall ran to him as the man came around the corner. "Pa!" waiting to be hoisted up and flown like a shuttle. Tommy gamely complied, even though the child was very wet and sandy. He brought the boy in for a landing, and leaned into his wife for a kiss.

"Hello, ladies. Nice to see you back with us again. How was your trip? And how is Ditto?"

He took a seat, and Randall was quite content to sit on his lap quietly and rest for a few minutes. Gwen answered his questions, and gave him an update on her father.

"Well, I hope he gets better pretty quick. He and I have a project to finish. But for now," he continued before they could ask, "I’d like to take the three special women in my life out to dinner. How ‘bout it?"

"That’s fine with me," Ella answered. "As long as we get to go home and clean up first. Somebody here needs a serious bath."

"Randi?" the man questioned, expecting her to take the lead.

She glanced to the bard. "It’s up to Gwen. It’s fine with me, though."

Gwen looked hard at the warrior, trying to figure out what was going on with her. Randi returned the stare with an impassive one of her own. The blonde gave up trying to fathom the thoughts running behind the mask, determined to ferret them out at the earliest opportunity. She faced Tommy squarely and nodded. "Thanks, T. We’d love to."

"Wonderful! We’ll be back in an hour to pick you up."

Randi walked the trio around to the front of the house. Ella had refused to take the child through the house, citing his disheveled appearance. Gwen said her goodbyes, cleaned up the deck area, and went inside. She stood waiting for the Marine to enter from the front, facing the door with her arms crossed on her chest. Randi’s face showed her surprise when she saw the bard standing there.

"Gwen, aren’t you gonna get ready? I thought you wanted to do this."

"Randi, we need to talk."

"Um, okay," not sure what had happened to bring this about. "But can we do it later? We need to get ready."

"That depends."


"Do you really wanna do this?" A confused frown crossed the Sabre’s features. "I’m not sure what is going on with you, with us, Randi, but I’m getting all kinds of mixed signals from you. Now, do you want to do this?"

"Yes, I just didn’t want you to fell pressured or obligated."

"Pres.... Obli.... You’re right... we do need longer than we have right now to talk this out." She poked a finger into the warrior’s firm chest. "But we are gonna talk about this. Soon."

"Agreed," the warrior said, wondering what kind of mess she’d just managed to land in so firmly with both feet.



Dinner passed quickly and pleasantly between the four friends. Randall’s antics kept them in stitches, and it was fairly easy to avoid any uncomfortable subjects. It was very late when the Steeles dropped them at the front door.

"That was nice. We don’t do that nearly often enough."

"I know." The bard yawned. "I really wanted to stay up and talk to you tonight, but I’m beat. And since we need to go to work tomorrow... can we talk later?"

"Yeah," the warrior answered, grateful for the reprieve. "I’m always around, and you know where I live," she lightly joked.

"Smart ass!" Gwen replied, lightly smacking her in the stomach. "I’m headed up to bed. See ya in the morning. Night, Randi."

The Marine waved a hand in response, and watched the bard walk up the stairs to her room. "Good night, love," she whispered when the door closed behind her.



For the third night in a row, the bard tossed and turned in the big, empty bed. She fluffed the pillows... twice. Got up and got a drink of water. Pushed all the cover off, then pulled them all up over her head. Nothing helped. Even though she was exhausted, sleep eluded her.

Gently, she traced her fingers over the pillow in a now well-known pattern. She wracked her brain, trying desperately to figure out what was so familiar about the outline. Her hand continued to move, quite without her conscious permission, until the hypnotic rhythm lulled her to sleep just before dawn.

Gwen was quite grumpy when the alarm went of a couple hours later, but she grudgingly got out of bed and got on with her mornings ablutions. She tromped down the stairs, and Randi looked up wide-eyed at her when she caught the expression on the bard’s face.

"Good morning, Gwen," she said quietly. "Problem?"

"Yes," came the short answer. "I don’t know what is going on with you, but I want it to stop. I want things to go back to what they were before. I know something happened while I was with... Ben. There are things I can’t remember... other things that don’t make sense right now. But I’m gonna figure them out. In the meantime, I want my best friend back. Stop treating me like... like... whatever it is you’re treating me like! I don’t like it!" She rubbed a hand across her forehead. "And good morning, by the way, although it really isn’t." She sighed. "I have got the worst headache."

"Turn around."

Gwen complied with the low spoken command, and immediately felt a sense of relief as the large hands dug firmly into the knots in her neck and shoulders. "Ooooh," she moaned, "you have absolutely no idea how wonderful that feels. I haven’t slept the last three nights, and I think it’s starting to get to me. Sorry about the outburst, by the way. I wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t want to come off sounding like a harpy."

Randi smiled. "I’m glad you said something. I wasn’t sure what was going on with you, and I wanted to give you plenty of space to figure it out. I know he messed with your mind somehow. He told me as much."

"Yeah, and I’m gonna figure everything out. I’d just prefer we be normal. I need you close, not far away."

Blue eyes widened at the comment. "Good, because I’ve missed having my best friend around." A beat. "Now, why aren’t you sleeping?"

"I dunno, but it is starting to get to me in a very big way. C’mon, we need to get to work. Maybe we can try to figure it out this afternoon."

The warrior nodded her agreement.



Things had stacked up for both of them while they’d been gone, though Gwen’s class had continued on in her absence. The pile of things Randi had waiting for her, however, caused her to call down to the stable and have Excalibur saddled for her. "If I need to tour the place, I might as well enjoy it."

The stallion was happy to see her, mostly, and after a nip in scolding of her prolonged absence, was patient to stand by while the woman mounted. The ride was peaceful, and Randi was happy to see that things had been maintained so well while she’d been gone. It was coming on to lunchtime, and she decided to take the bard at her word. She angled the horse’s steps in the direction of the classroom, arriving just as mess call was announced. She watched as the classroom of eager beginners emptied out, leaving the teacher alone in the doorway.

"Hello there, stranger." The blondes shaded her eyes against the bright sunlight. "What are you doing in this neck of the woods?"

"I was out taking a look at things, and thought I’d mosey by, and see if you wanted a lift over to the mess hall." She grinned rakishly, and waggled her eyebrows. The blonde laughed, stepping out to meet her.

"Sure," raising her arm to be pulled up behind the warrior. She grinned at the comfortable familiarity the sensation gave her, then held on for dear life when Randi sent the stallion into a gallop.

It was quite a ride. The Sabre took the long, circular route to get back to the barn, and they’d spent the few minutes wiping down the horse catching their own breaths. "That was fun," Gwen commented with a laugh. "We should do that more often."

"Um... I don’t know that he’d be quite as anxious to run so hard if we did that everyday." The animal seemingly took affront to the comment, and stamped his hoof in protest. "Then again," Randi chuckled, "I could be entirely wrong about that." She set down the brush, and reached a hand toward Gwen. "C’mon. I’m starving, and I smelled roast beef cooking this morning."

"Oh yum! My favorite." She took the larger hand, and started pulling the tall woman with her. "Let’s go."



Their table was empty, and Tommy smiled when they walked in hand in hand. Maybe things are getting back to normal between them. Their interaction had been off at dinner the other evening, and he now observed them idly while he recalled an unrelated conversation he and Ella had had after they’d gotten home.





"I don’t know what to make of it, hon." They had put Randall to bed, and were sitting on the patio enjoying the peace of a nightcap together. The night was warm, and the sky full of stars. The ocean breeze was salty, and they were glad of the opportunity for a bit of quiet time together.

"What to make of what, babe?" Tommy had been letting his mind wander, and had no actual clue what his wife was referring to.

"Gwen and Randi. I mean, something has obviously changed between them. It’s like it was before... before Randi came home." He nodded, but didn’t speak. "But, even stranger... Gwen has started telling stories again." Now his head whipped in her direction.

"Excuse me? Come again, please?"

It was her turn to nod solemnly. "It’s true. Not much, not like it was before, but I’ve heard her tell two very simple stories in the past few days. I’m curious to know what happened. It was peculiar to see."

"Hmm, yeah, I guess it would be. Well, we’ll keep an eye on them. We seem to have gotten pretty good at that over the years."

"Yeah," she smiled, "we have. But for right now," taking his glass from his hand and standing, "I want to concentrate on *us*." She reached her hand down and he took it in his own, rising and following her inside.




He came back to the present with a start, and resumed his covert observation of the two women. Their interaction was much as it had been before they became committed lovers, though he sensed a new element in their relationship. It’s almost as if... as if Randi is making a conscious effort to court her bard this time. He wasn’t sure what exactly gave him that impression, but he’d be willing to bet the company on it. He smiled. He’d never known Randi to decide she wanted something without getting it. He sat back, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and crossed his arms over his chest. This is gonna be sweet to watch.



"Now I wonder what he is up to?" Randi posed the question to her companion as they ate. She’d caught the expression on Tommy’s face. It made her senses tingle.

"Who? The boss? Why does he have to be up to something?"

"He has the oddest look on his face. That usually means he’s up to something."

"Oh, I dunno... I’ve been accused having some pretty funny faces when I’ve been working on a story myself." She smiled impishly at the warrior, crinkling up her nose adorably. It was all Randi could do not to just lean over and....

"I dunno," she responded in kind. "I think you’re just too cute." She chuckled at the blush that crept up the bard’s face. "Maybe you will tell me a story later?"

"I’d like that. Seems like it’s been a long time since I told a story." She rubbed her head. "But then...." she trailed off and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand. Randi covered the other one, and squeezed it gently in concern.


"I’m sorry," the bard replied. "So much of my memory seems... almost hazy. It hurts to think about it."

"I’ll tell ya what.... You stop thinking in that direction for a while, and when we get home, I’ll give you a rubdown. How’s that sound?"

"Like heaven. I think I’ll keep ya."

"Oh you do, huh?" with a saucily raised brow. That had sounded a lot like her lover, and not just her best friend.

"Yep. Besides, that may help me get some sleep tonight. Now c’mon... we’ve both got work to finish, and I’ve got reading to do at home."

Randi’s second eyebrow joined the first, wondering what on earth was so pressing at home. Then she shrugged mentally. No doubt Gwen would share when she was ready. The Marine rose, picking up their trays and extending her elbow. "Shall we walk?"

The blonde linked her arm through Randi’s. "Yes, let’s."



It wasn’t afternoon, but early evening before the Marine finally left for home. Randi had work she needed to finish, so Gwen took the transport home when her class was over in the early part of the afternoon. She had reached the end of her first tenure with Midas, and finally found the answer to one question that had been plaguing her.





I am going to send duplicates of these files and all the ones following to Mother for

safekeeping. I will feel better about having them in one central location. I know

the odds of anything happening to them are slim, but I’d rather be sure.





Well, that helps explain a thing or two, Gwen sighed to herself. I must have kept the habit, right up until.... She turned her mind away from unpleasant thoughts, and dove back into her diaries with determination.

When Randi called, indicating her soon-to-be-readiness to be picked up, Gwen was surprised to realize that the entire afternoon had passed with her reading. Even stranger were the relative lack of entries during the time she had been away from Randi. Then it occurred to her that she had been given her first written journal during that time, and realized it was time to pull the diaries from the box, and begin reading in them. Not right now though. First, she needed to pick up Randi. The Marine owed her a serious back massage.



"Go soak for a little while," the Sabre instructed Gwen when they re-entered the house. It was full dark, and they had the house open to catch the lovely breeze that was now blowing. The scent of the ocean was nice, and the sounds were soothing. "I’ll be up in about half an hour."

"Okay," the bard answered, already halfway up the stairs. She was glad. Something had been bugging her since she’d made the discovery about those files, and she needed to see if she could find a quick answer. She set the temperature and fill level on the tub, and walked back into the bedroom. She pulled out the books, and looked through their dates, noting that they were in reverse order.

"Figures," she muttered to herself, then opened the one on the bottom of the stack. She flipped through the pages quickly, skimming the entries til she found what she was looking for. "Ah ha!"

About midway through the first journal, she had made a note to herself. It was even highlighted, so she couldn’t miss it.




I find I get great joy from actually writing down my thoughts and feelings, and re-

recording them for the file just isn’t the same. I will record the highlights and send

them to Mother. The rest of it will stay here, in written form. With the highlights,

I should be able to fill in the blanks if I ever lose these. But I feel comfortable with

this. It seems a natural thing to me.





Gwen reflected on that summation for a bit, before she made a move for the bathroom. It was true, she understood, on a multitude of levels. The she stripped and stepped into the tub, sighing in blissful contentment as the warm water enfolded her. She closed her eyes.



A full thirty minutes passed before she heard a light knocking on the outer door. "Shit!" she muttered, then spoke in a louder voice. "C’mon in, Randi. It’s open. I won’t be but a minute." Quickly she bathed and rinsed, stepping out of the tub, and wrapping herself in a big fluffy towel.

Randi had her back to the bathroom door when the bard stepped out. She turned to face Gwen, then whipped back around to give the blonde a little privacy to dress.

"’K, Randi. I’m ready," Gwen mumbled from the bed.

The sight before her made blue eyes widen, and the Marine’s heartbeat to race. Randi swallowed hard, remembering the many times in the weeks she had been back that she’d been allowed to take the vision before her to passionate, carnal heights. And the many times the pleasure had been returned to her. She closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to assume a clinical attitude. Even then, she had to admire the strength of the muscular back, all the way down to the dimples just above the bard’s thin waist and shapely behind. The Sabre drew a deep breath, and oiled her hands.



Chapter XI

"So, how did you spend your afternoon?" the warrior asked as she started gently probing Gwen’s tight back.

"I was reading." She didn’t add anything else, and Randi was about to question her further, when something caught her attention. She moved her hands over different key spots across the landscape of muscle and skin, touching lightly, noting the oddity of several key pressure point locations. She cursed to herself. That son of a bitch!

"Randi? What are you doing? That tickles."

The Marine pulled her hands away and wiped them on the towel she’d brought with her. The bard started to roll over to face Randi, before realizing she had nothing on covering herself, save the towel that was pushed down around her hips. Instead, she rose a little and turned her head toward the warrior.

"Randi?" noticing the grimness around her mouth. "Is there a problem?"

Randi’s head dropped, and she contemplated the comforter’s intriguing pattern for a long moment before she lifted her head, and let blue eyes meet green. "Yeah, Gwen, there is." She sighed, and scratched the back of her neck. "Ben did something to you while you were gone." She got up to pace. "It’s what is causing your headaches, and most likely, your memory problem."

"Well, if you found the problem, you can fix it, right?"

The absolute faith that question conveyed made Randi smile just the slightest little bit. "I think so, but it’s gonna take a bit of time."

Gwen took advantage of the fact that Randi had her back turned to rewrap the towel, and scoot to sit on the edge of the bed. One arm across her stomach, she propped the other on it, and covered her eyes with her hand.

"This means no massage tonight, huh?"

Randi dropped to her knees in front of the bard, instantly realizing her mistake as Gwen’s own unique scent wafted up to her. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes, opening them at the gentle touch on her cheek.

"Randi?" Concern radiated from verdant green eyes.

"Gwen, there are pressure points in your body that can be influenced, and depending on the manipulation, they give control of your mind and/or body to the person who moved them."

"Ben has control of my mind??? But Randi, he’s dead!!!"

"Yes, I know, and not exactly. He had some control. He set things up to remove your memories, and then effectively locked everyone out... himself included. Now," her head dropped and then she looked up again. "There is a key to unlocking it, but I’m gonna have to figure it out completely before we try it. I don’t want you getting hurt...." Here her eyes lowered again, and this time they stayed down. "... Or worse. I couldn’t live with that," she finished in a whisper.

Two small hands gently cupped the Marine’s face, and forced her eyes up until they met the bard’s own. "Randi, I told you this before, and I meant it. I trust you. And apparently, I always have." Gwen let her hands drop now, and her eyes followed. Randi moved from the floor to sit beside the bard. She took the smaller hands in her own large ones, chafing them softly. She bent her head to catch Gwen’s eyes.

"What do you mean, Gwen?" confusion clearly written in her eyes.

The bard lifted her eyes and sighed. "I’ve been studying my diaries, re-reading my journals in the hopes that something in them would jog my memory." Another sigh as she looked back to the ground. "It hasn’t helped me to remember anything yet, but it is fascinating."

"In what way?" Randi found this little exchange extremely spellbinding. The bard had never actually talked about her journals before, and the Marine respected her need for privacy and hadn’t asked. Now that Gwen had brought it up, though.... Well, she’d learned as a Sabre never to pass up a golden opportunity, and this certainly was one, handed to her on a silver platter. Still, she would let the blonde lead the conversation, not wanting to pry, but curious nonetheless.

"Well," standing and moving to the closet, "you remember our meeting?" She grabbed her pajamas and Randi nodded. "And you remember the things we’ve done together?" She slipped her shorts on and turned her back as she dropped her towel. The Marine couldn’t help but steal a peek, smiling bittersweetly at the memories this scene provoked.

"Well," the bard continued, stepping from the closet buttoning the last two buttons. "A lot of things I remember... some things I don’t. But the things I do remember... they don’t make much sense. And the feelings and emotions that I’ve written about don’t exist in the memories. It’s a very confused hodge-podge for me. Is this making any sense at all?"

"Uh huh." Randi was telling the truth, though she did hope the younger woman would continue to explain. She was getting a headache from it. So she could only imagine how Gwen was feeling about now.

"Okay, well," Gwen put her folded hands to her lips and started to pace the room. She went back and forth for several minutes, muttering to herself. The Sabre sat quietly, having seen this process many times before when the bard was in a creative mode. Finally, she came to a stop, and put her hands on her hips.

"When I started my diaries here, I was very thorough. I recorded events, thoughts and emotions. And I’ve been listening to them... wait...." waving her hands. "You have to know that I decided to do this after I went to Mother and Daddy’s the other day to pack up some stuff for them. I found a hard file copy of snippets of my diary that made me decide to see if listening to the holos, reading the actual written journals would help anything."


"Okay, so I’ve been reliving things... watching our friendship grow and change."

"And is that a good thing?"

"So far, it’s been a very good thing. It’s been a very enlightening experience. Do you know that we are the most unlikely of friends? We are so different. But you know," hastening on at the hurt she could see blooming in the blue eyes. "I think that is why we’re are such good best friends." She sat down next to the warrior and leaned against her comfortably.

"Ya think?" smiling a little.

"Yeah, I do. We compliment each other, complete one another."

Randi rubbed the back of her fingers along the bard’s smooth cheek. "Yeah, we do." She cleared her throat. "And you know if you ever want to talk about things you find in your diaries, I’ll be glad to listen or answer any questions. But I don’t want you to think I’m prying. You don’t have to share anything you’re not comfortable with."

"I know, and I appreciate it... on both counts. Now," taking the warrior’s hand and pulling them both to their feet, "let’s go rummage for dinner. I didn’t fix anything, I got so caught up in my reading."

"That’s okay. What do you say to eggs and bacon?"

"With biscuits and jelly?"

"With biscuits and jelly... and peanut butter too, if you like."

"I like... let’s go."



Again sleep was difficult for the bard. The only thing that helped was the mysterious tracing. She determined to finds its origin at the first opportunity. That was her last coherent thought as her hand stilled, and her mind raced ahead.



The following day was Friday, and Gwen only had half a day scheduled. Her students had their first performances slated for the evening, so she had the afternoon free. Randi got stuck with several afternoon meetings, so at lunch she said casually, "Would you mind taking the transport out to Rosie’s place, and picking us up some barbeque? I know we normally ride out there on Saturdays, but I thought we’d shuttle out to Reed’s to see the puppies again." She blushed slightly, but maintained eye contact. "If you want to, that is," she added belatedly.

Gwen smiled. "I like that idea... both of them. Are you coming tonight?"

"Yep. It’ll be tight, but I’ll be there. I’ve never missed when I was in town to see it."

"Cool. I’ll go and get back. We can have a late supper?"

"Yep. We need to check on your folks too, Little One."

"I know. I spoke to Mother briefly when we got home from Reed’s but I need to call her again."

"Tell ya what... why don’t we go up there tonight, and then head out to Reed’s tomorrow afternoon?

"I’m liking this idea better and better, Stud. I’ll pack your bag if you wanna make the arrangements."

"Actually, I keep a couple bags packed for emergencies. Just grab the one that says summer. And bring them with you to the theatre. I’ll make sure we leave straight from here. We should get there before it gets too late. I even have a place for us to stay," thinking of the bungalows reserved as temporary quarters for use by Sabres only. She was sure Jerry would waive that little rule. He owed them that much.



Gwen smiled as she stepped out of the transport. Rosie stuck her head out, doing a double take at her familiar customer.

"Well, now... I didn’t expect to be seeing you today. Come in! Come in! Where your girl? And where’s that lovely bike you two usually ride in on?"

The bard shook her head, chuckling silently. She realized that Rosie was referring to Randi as "her girl" and wondered where she’d gotten that idea. It occurred to her briefly that the proprietress was not the first to refer to them together that way, but she put it aside til later, hoping her diaries would lend some insight. Meantime, the old woman was ushering her in to the inner sanctum, chattering at her the entire time.

"Now, what brings you out here on a weekday, hmm?"

"Oh, I just wanted to pick up some dinner. We’re gonna be out of town this weekend again, and I’ve been missing your wonderful cooking. So, Randi suggested I come get something for supper."

Rosie watched the bard carefully, looking past her words and listening to the tones and intonations behind them. Oh, little one... the feelings are still there, aren’t they? It is just a matter of you finding the truth in your heart again. Well, we’ll make sure you find it. The world is gonna need the strength of your love for her to survive the coming tribulations. Aloud, she answered Gwen cheerfully. "Well, then. I guess we’d better take care of you then, hmm?" And she started moving about in the kitchen, getting their supper together.

"So tell old Rosie what you’ve been up to. I’ve missed seeing ya’ll around for the last few weeks."

"Um, this and that," the blonde answered vaguely. There was so much that had happened that was so personal she didn’t feel comfortable sharing. "My dad hurt his back, and is having to go through some rather serious rehabilitation. We’re going up to see them tonight. Oh, and Ditto had her puppies!" She grinned largely at the thought. "And they are soooo cute."

"I’m sorry to be hearing about your father. How is your mother coping?"

"Very well. She’s a very strong woman. And she’s really come through as his support through all this. If he’s able to walk again, it will be in large part due to her."

"Ah, I had no idea it was so serious for them. I’ll make sure to send up a special prayer for them."

"Thanks, Rosie. Every little bit helps."

"Now tell me about those pups," hoping to get a smile from the sadly thoughtful face.

It worked. Gwen put her concerns aside, and told the woman about Ditto, Phil, and the four puppies that made up their little family. Almost half an hour passed in pleasant chatter before Gwen caught sight of the time. "Damn... I’ve got to get going. My students have their first public performances tonight, and I have to stop by the beach house first. Thanks Rosie," holding up their dinner.

"Anytime, child. Come back and see me again when you can stay and visit for a while, okay?"

"Will do," the bard answered, climbing into the transport. She waved to the watching woman, and headed back down the road toward home. Rosie’s eyes followed her progress until she was out of sight. The old woman didn’t even flinch in surprise when another figure suddenly appeared beside her.

"It’s bad?"

"Everything points in that direction, yes."

"Shit," the deity cursed, and the shamaness simply looked at the goddess. "What can we do?"

"Wait and pray?? There are too many factors in flux for me to be able to give you the pat answer you want Athena."

"I know." The goddess hung her head. "I’m sorry, Rosie. You know what the consequences are here." She sighed. "Just keep an eye on things, will you? I will be watching too."

"You know I will, goddess."

"Thank you, my friend." And the wisdom goddess simply disappeared in the mist.



"I was beginning to wonder if we were gonna get a chance to eat before the performance," Randi teased the bard as they entered the security office with full hands. "You certainly believe in cutting it close, don’t you?"

"Be nice to me, gunny, or I’ll be forced to take drastic measures!"

"Oh yeah?" the Marine scoffed. "What could a bitty thing like you do to me?" standing to her full height, and gesturing to her neatly muscular body.

"You wait... I’ll get you, and when you least expect it too." The Sabre chuckled soundlessly, and dug into her meal with relish. She wasn’t surprised to see the bard moaning over her fried apple pie about halfway through the meal.

"Couldn’t wait, hmm?" with a grin. "I hope you got one for me."

"Well, I had, but I don’t think I’m gonna give it to you now. I’ll keep it for myself."

Outraged blue eyes captured twinkling green. "You wouldn’t dare!"

"Well," removing the treat from its wrapping, "You wanted to know what I could do to you, didn’t you?" The blue eyes went round as the bard broke off a small piece and sucked it off her fingers into her mouth. The movement was as much erotic as it was teasing, and Randi swallowed the moan she felt rising in response. Gwen took a second bite, this time allowing her own little moan to escape. The Sabre reached across the small table.

"Give me that!"

Gwen jumped back out of her reach, laughing a little. "I don’t think so."

Randi rose, and so did the bard, and they had a short chase around the room. The Marine’s obvious height and reach advantages came into play, and she captured Gwen rather quickly. She pinned the small body between her own and the wall, intent on taking the pie away from the blonde. Her body turned traitor, though, and she felt herself mesmerized by the feel of Gwen in her arms.

The bard felt the change, and the electricity running between them caused her darkened green eyes to meet their deep blue twins. They stood still for a moment, breathing each other’s air before Randi pulled away a bit, and stole the last half of the treat.

"Thanks Gwen!" with a smile on her face while her body screamed in outrage and her soul cried in anguish at being separated from its mirror twin. She popped half the pie in her mouth, and held out the last bite to the bard. "Here."

"Thanks, Randi," placing the sweet in her mouth absently, while still processing the tingling reaction she could feel throughout her body to the Marine’s possessive touch. It made her very glad to have packed her first written journal. She knew the answers she was searching for were there, if she kept looking.



The recital went off quite well, and Gwen and Randi managed to make their escape rather quickly when it was over. The bard yawned for the third time in as many minutes once they were comfortably ensconced on either end of the soft couch in the private shuttle.

"Ya know, I’ve noticed we always have a private shuttle when we go anywhere. Why is that? Damn, I’m tired."

"Still not sleeping?" Gwen shook her head, and Randi thought about it for all of two seconds before she patted her lap. "C’mere." Willingly, the bard put her head on Randi’s strong legs, closing her eyes as a peaceful warmth pervaded her senses. "This is one reason I travel privately when I can. I like the personal space." She smiled down at the blonde head whose eyes were tightly shut. "Besides," she continued, shifting a little, "it’s a great way to catch a few zzz’s."

She watched in fascination for a minute as the bard began her absent tracing. "Um hmm," the Marine heard Gwen agree. "It sure is." The next sound Randi heard was a soft almost snoring sound.

"Good night, love."



The bard didn’t stir when the shuttle landed, except to coo slightly and cuddle closer when Randi carried her to the waiting transport. During their short trip to the bungalow, she stayed nestled in the Marine’s lap, whose face was the picture of bemusement. She was quite comfortable, but more than a touch confused. What is going on with you, Gwen? You sleep with me, but not away from me? And what is with the tracing? Is your mind trying to remember?

The transport stopped, and Randi opened the door by key code and password information that controlled the security system. The driver brought the duffels in, and exited as silently as she had entered. Randi, meanwhile, carried Gwen into a bedroom, and after removing her shoes, tucked her into bed. The bard emitted a slight whimper of protest when the warrior released her, and Randi wrapped Gwen’s arms around a second pillow. She noted again the fingers moving unconsciously. Then she left the room, and went to her own.

Yawning, she entered the dark room, and stripped down to her underwear. She walked into the dark bathroom, and brushed her teeth, and then slid into the cool, clean sheets. She was asleep within minutes.

It didn’t take very long once Randi had left the bard alone for Gwen to wake up. She sat up and looked around, disoriented and confused. What the....? She scrubbed her face, and ran her hands through her hair. Oh, I musta fell asleep on the shuttle, and now we are in the capital city. Well, since I’m awake....

She got up and went to the bathroom, brushing her teeth and putting on her pajamas. She walked towards the bed, then hesitated. Maybe I’d better check, just to be sure. She felt a little foolish, but her feet continued out the bedroom door, and toward the only other inner door in the small cottage. The door was cracked, and she eased it open. The moonlight provided an interesting backlight, and the hallway nightlight gave enough foreshadowing that Randi’s face was perfectly outlined. She stopped, staring at the warrior’s profile in startlement. There was something curiously familiar about it.

A hand came up to cover Gwen’s mouth, and she reached out with the other. Finally, the bard’s mind commanded her feet to move forward, to confirm what her eyes were telling her was true. Slowly, step by eternal step, the storyteller made her was to Randi’s bedside. She sank to the floor, hand still extended, and gently touched the soft skin of the warrior’s face, confirming her suspicions.

Randi froze at the first tentative touch, hardly daring to breathe. She’d felt Gwen come in the room, heard her soft gasp, and laid there drowsily wondering what was going on. At the bard’s first touch, she felt the tears gather in her eyes. Oh God, how I’ve missed this. It was the sobbing that brought her own tears flowing, and caused her to sit up on an elbow.

"It’s you. Oh my God, it’s you." The bard repeated the mantra several times, tears flowing, before Randi grasped Gwen under the arms and literally hefted her into the bed. The warrior lay down flat on her back, and cuddled the blonde up next to her, placing Gwen’s head over her own strong heartbeat. The bard lay there peacefully for a few minutes, as her crying diminished. Then she propped up on an elbow, and looked down at the tear filled blue eyes gazing back at her. She raised a hand, still slightly shaking, to Randi’s face. Their eyes closed in tandem as sensations now deeply engrained as the ritual itself washed over them.

Finally, Gwen placed her head back on the warrior’s chest, and whispered, "Night, love," snoring before the words registered in Randi’s ears.

"Good night, love." And thank you, Dite. It’s only a start, I know, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. And without another thought, the Sabre fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.



The Marine resisted opening her eyes when morning’s light began to stream in through the window. If I can just keep them shut a little longer.... In her mind’s eye, she could picture Gwen curled up next to her, gently tracing her features in the early light. Randi smiled in her sleep, then frowned when her imagination produced the very real sensation of warm, wet tears falling onto her chest.

Slowly, she let her eyes open and focused on the small hand lightly touching her face, and the blonde head tucked neatly under her chin. In reflex, she hugged the bard’s body closer to her, and whispered, "Good morning."

Gwen sat up slightly then... enough so her tear-filled green eyes met the deep blue of her companion’s. She lifted a shaking hand to wipe the tears, and smiled down tremulously. The Marine caught the hand, and impulsively brought it to her lips. Then she placed Gwen’s hand on her own chest, over her heartbeat, and wiped the tears away with her own, larger hand. The Sabre smiled when the blonde closed her eyes, and leaned into her touch.

"It was you," Gwen whispered again, as though still trying to make herself believe the truth now so obviously in front of her. She traced the fine facial features once again. "I still don’t remember, still don’t understand. He took this from me, from us. He took so much."

"Yes, he did," Randi replied quietly. "But it is nothing we can’t regain, if that’s what you want."

"I want."

"Well, c’mon then. We need to get ready and go see your folks, and then, well, we’ll just have to see."

Impulsively the bard turned and gave Randi a tight hug. "I love you, ya know. I’m so glad you’re a part of my life."

The Sabre returned the embrace as fiercely as she dared. "Ditto, my friend. I love you too."



They heard Geoff cursing all the way down the short hallway as they stepped inside the medifac. He had therapy six days a week, working different muscle groups alternately. And he hadn’t been allowed to stay in the cottage with Jill yet. So he was tired and cranky and frustrated. Jill plunged headlong out of his room, and crashed straight into the pair approaching. Only Randi’s quick reflexes saved them all from falling butt first to the floor.



The older woman hesitated, then wrapped her arms around both necks. "Oh girls! It is so nice to see you both here. You have no idea."

"What’s wrong, Mama?"

Jill sighed. "Nothing, really. Your father is just a little aggravated with himself and the world today. Nothing a little time and improvement won’t solve." She gave a shaky smile. "It’s just been one of those days. But I’m glad to see you both. What a nice surprise." The woman took a long look at them, noting their close proximity to one another and smiled a little more strongly. Things weren’t back to normal, yet, but they were much improved over what they had been even just a week prior.

"Gwen, why don’t you take your mom and go get some coffee and maybe catch her up a bit. I’ll go talk to Geoff."

"I’m not sure you want to do that right now, Randi. He’s in quite a mood."

"It’s okay, Jill. I can handle anything he can dish out. I have dealt with far worse than his attitude. You let me take care of him, and let Gwen take care of you for a little bit, all right?"

Jill looked up into blue eyes, filled with caring and determination, and sighed. "I’d like that, honestly. It’s been a rough couple of days. Thanks."

"No problem, Mama. C’mon. I brought some wonderful blueberry muffins," green eyes twinkled at the Marine. "They are still warm. Bet we can find some butter to go with them. Maybe go share them out in the garden?"

"Oh, that sounds like heaven," Jill answered, then turned to Randi. "You sure you’ll be okay with him?"

"Trust me, Jill. We’ll both be fine." She looked to Gwen. "Try to save me a muffin, will ya?"

Randi watched the two Goldman women walk off toward the small mess area, before turning and heading for Geoff’s room. She heard the muttering and cursing more clearly as she approached the doorway, not at all surprised to hear the guttural yell that followed. The weapons smith caught sight of her and roared his disgust.

"YOU?! This is all YOUR fault! How dare you show your face here! Do you have any idea what this feels like??? Goddamn you!"

Randi stood still as a statue, knowing the words came from his pain and frustration. It didn’t make them hurt less, but it did make her understand their source better. She was calm as she pushed off the doorframe and walked to his side.

"I will accept the responsibility for your injury, though you made the choice to go on this mission yourself. I was the commander, and therefore everything that happened ultimately lies on my shoulder. But I will NOT accept responsibility for your piss-poor attitude. Yes, I DO know what it feel like, as a matter of fact. I KNOW what it feels like to have to push and work and hurt and cry to regain the use of a body I once took for granted. I know what it feels like to have given up everything, to have lost everything. So don’t you DARE presume to lie there and take out your bad mood on me or anyone else. You got me, mister?"

Geoff, shocked, simply nodded his head mutely. He snapped his mouth shut, and swallowed, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the pillows propped behind him. "I was being an ass, huh?"

"Uh huh. Not that it’s not understandable... it is. Especially from my point of view. But Jill doesn’t deserve the shit."

"No, you’re right." He sighed. "She doesn’t. She has been very supportive, and exceptionally understandable about the whole Sabre situation. It’s just hard."

The Marine gestured to the bed, and took a seat when Geoff nodded affirmatively. She squeezed his shoulder firmly. "I know, my friend. I really do understand how you feel right now."

He looked deep into her eyes, and realized the truth of her words. "You really do, don’t you? Was it very terrible, Randi? There are times the pain is overwhelming, even with the treatments, and it seems my progress is non-existent. It’s very disheartening."

"Oh I know all to well what you’re feeling, Geoff. You have actually made remarkable progress. The fact that you already have almost full use of your upper body is amazing. It took me a full year to recover, and Geoff, I was very lucky. I was so determined to come home to Gwen. I really wasn’t completely healed. I had horrible scars, and a very bad limp. I was still in quite a bit of pain."

"But, what happened? I mean...." gesturing to the obviously fit body.

"A gift, from Aphrodite. Because of Gwen’s faith, and mine. My willingness to be less than perfect, and to let her choose, no matter the cost to myself.

He thought about what she was saying, and what she wasn’t, and nodded. "I’m sorry," he finally said quietly. "This was no one’s fault, and I have no right to blame you for what happened. As I recall, you weren’t given an option on taking a team or who the team members were. You didn’t deserve my anger. It’s not your fault."

"No, it’s not, but I bet you feel better for having gotten the rant and the apology out of your system, huh?"

"Yeah," he grinned slightly. "I do. Thank you. Now, how are things with you and Gwen? Jill filled me in on what happened, and I’ll tell you Randi... Gwen asked some hard questions."

"I know. We’ve talked quite a bit. Things are not where they were, but I have faith. She wants them to be, and they will. It’s just gonna take a little time and effort on my part... time and effort well spent. This time, I’m gonna court my girl properly."

"Oh? Do tell."

"Well, I’m still working on the details. But if I can win her by unconsciously courting her, imagine what I could do if I TRY." She grinned broadly, and the weapons smith couldn’t help but smile in return.

"She’ll lose her heart to you all over again."

"I hope so, Geoff."

"I *know* so, Randi."



The air was warm, but not stifling like it had been. The bumblebees buzzed lazily past, and there was a slight breeze. The bard led the way through the garden and out the gate to the small stream. Jill looked at her surroundings approvingly before sitting and helping herself to a muffin.

Silence, save for the outdoor summer sounds that encompassed them reigned for a time, while they dug in heartily to the warm muffins and coffee. When they were satisfied, Gwen leaned back and closed her eyes to the bright sunshine. "How are you doing, Mother?" She tilted her head in Jill’s direction, and waited for the older woman to answer her.

"I’m fine, sweetheart. I just get tired and frustrated. I’m glad you girls are here, even just for a little while. I think your daddy will be encouraged. He loves both of you girls so much."

"How’s he doing?"

"Well, he has good days and bad days. Today didn’t start very well, and he is under the impression he should just be able to decide he is fine and everything will work again like it should. It’s one thing to understand it is going to be a slow road of recovery... it is another to accept it as truth. But we are both doing pretty good, all things considered." She smiled at her daughter. "How are things with you and Randi?"

Gwen had been looking at her mother as she talked about Geoff, but that question made her flush pink and look away. She reached a hand up for the chain the hung around her neck, and grasped the ring.

"Gwen? Honey?"

She sighed, looking down at the ring she held. "Mama, I’m not really sure how to answer that question. It’s like... I know I am missing some pretty big pieces, and I’m working on getting them back, but Mama... it’s like I’m drawn to her. We’re a part of each other." She looked at Jill then. "Is any of this making any sense?"

"More than you know, daughter. Go on."

"I feel connected to her on levels I didn’t know I felt. She completes me." She looked down at her ring again, then looked at her mother. "And there is a story behind this, I’m almost sure of it. I’ve seen the one Randi wears, Mama. It is a perfect match."

"Have you asked her about it?"

"No. I... I want to find what I lost first. I don’t want to force her into a position she might not want to be in. That would be embarrassing for both of us, and I need her friendship in my life."

"So you think you know what it symbolizes?"

"I think so, yes. I remember the story that Gramma told me as a child."

"Well, you take your time. I’m sure Randi won’t begrudge you the opportunity to work out things for yourself. And I would imagine she’ll answer any questions you ask. But remember, Gwen, she cares about you. Be good to her, and be fair."

The bard looked puzzled at the statement, then nodded agreeably. "I will, Mama. Friends stick by one another, you know, and I think that is what Randi is doing... sticking by and letting me relearn at my own pace. She could very easily have told me anything... everything... but she didn’t. And I’m not losing her over something stupid like a little memory problem!"

Jill had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing aloud.

"Now, let’s take her the last of these muffins, before I forget how to share," said with a grin. "Besides, I want to talk to Daddy." And the two women rose and moved as one back toward the small building.



Chapter XII

The two women stopped and stared at the spectacle that greeted them in the doorway. Randi and Geoff were in the middle of what looked to be a serious arm wrestling match. Neither of them even noticed the women’s approach.

"Just *what* is going on here, exactly?" Jill put her hands on her hips when she spoke. The contestants looked up sharply in surprise, and Randi’s attention was caught by the most intriguing look on Gwen’s face. Geoff took advantage of the Marine’s distraction to slam her hand down on to the table.

"Ha ha! The winnah!" he proclaimed, clasping his hands above his head in victory. Randi looked at him dourly.

"Ahem. One out of *how* many?"

His arms came down and he scratched at his clean-shaven face. "Well, now that is beside the point. I won."

Her eyebrow rose. "You wanna go again, old man?"

Jill and Gwen looked at each other, and burst into laughter. "You two are impossibly cute." Twin scowls met this statement, and their laughter became slightly hysterical. It was catching, and before long, the entire room had dissolved into chuckles. It was a great tension breaker, and when Randi rose from Geoff’s bedside, Jill was quick to take her place. The Goldmans talked quietly in low tones, and the Sabre went to stand beside the bard.

"Did you save me any?" looking pointedly at the basket Gwen still carried. She sniffed suspiciously.

The bard had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. "Yes, you big baby. Didn’t I promise?"

"Yeah... gimme!!" Randi reached out with her left hand, and found it caught and held by Gwen’s surprisingly strong but gentle grip. She looked up to meet green eyes suddenly gone serious. The blonde swallowed hard.

"One day, soon, I’m gonna ask you about these," she whispered, holding the ringed hand up, and clasping the one around her neck.

"Whenever you’re ready Gwen," reaching out her other hand and cupping the bard’s cheek, stroking lightly. "You know that. I’m in this for the long haul."

"I know, and you don’t know how much I appreciate it. I value you and your friendship."


The conversation stopped then, as Jill chose that moment to interrupt. "Girls, we have a couple hours to kill. Would you like to go visit one of the museums with me for a while?" The confused looks prompted Geoff to speak up.

"I have a couple hours of therapy and massage. It’s better for everyone if I do it without an audience."

Comprehension dawned on two faces simultaneously. "Gotcha." "Sure, Mom." The answers came at the same time, and caused smiles to break out again. "Would you like to fortify with a couple muffins first?" Randi ask, holding up the basket. "We’ll bring back lunch."

"Ill share with you, Randi, cause I’m betting these two already filled up on them." Twin flushes acknowledged the truth of that statement. The warrior opened the basket, and offered it to the weapons smith, who took a couple muffins out and smiled. "Thank you. Now, you all go have a good time together. I’ll be here when you get back."

The tech that had been patiently waiting in the doorway, entered the room now, and started the process for moving Geoff to the regen chamber for his next series of treatments. The women took their cue, and left. Randi happily munched her muffins, humming delightedly. Gwen and Jill smiled fondly at her and one another at her obvious childish delight in her breakfast. And they headed out at a brisk walk toward the nearby science and history museums.



Geoff was glad to hear their cheerful voices coming down the corridor some hours later. He chuckled silently at the bit of conversation he could make out between them

"I don’t think my hair is ever gonna lay flat again. That was mean, Miranda Valiant." Gwen’s voice was a little exasperated, but the weapons smith could clearly hear the good humor in her tone as well.

"Oh, I don’t know, Gwen. I think you look kind of cute with that retro ‘spike’ look."

"Mother, you’re supposed to be on my side here. And you, don’t you look at me with those big blue puppy dog eyes. It’s not gonna work. Now stop that. Randi.... Augh! All right! All right! I forgive you for the electrical shock. The train ride and the ice cream were a nice apology, but the puppy dog eyes saved you from retaliation.

Where’d you learn about that old fashioned stuff anyway?"

The trio was standing in his doorway now, and Geoff had to cover his mouth to muffle his laughter. Randi didn’t see the grateful look Jill gave her, but the bard did. She put it aside to ask her mother about later. But for now....

"I’m sorry, Gwen, but the last time your hair stood up like that...."

"Daddy, don’t you dare!"

Randi couldn’t resist. "Please, Geoff... continue." She thought a moment, then held up her hand. "Wait. Hold that thought. Let’s get you in a hover chair and get you outside in the fresh air and sunshine. You’ve been cooped up in here long enough."

Jill’s eyes widened when, after an almost imperceptible pause, her husband nodded his agreement. "I think I’d like that, Randi." His eyes twinkled. "Then do I have some stories to tell you!"

Gwen and Jill hung back together, and watched in awe as the Marine helped Geoff move into the hover chair as though he weighed no more than a feather. "She is amazing," the mother whispered to her offspring. "I am so glad you girls came up. I haven’t seen him laugh this much since... well, not for the past week anyway. And her getting him outside is nothing short of miraculous."

Well, guess that answered that question, the bard thought. Aloud she said, "Let’s grab the stuff we brought back. We can have a picnic."

"The staff has been after me to get out here. I told them not until I get to go home with my wife." But Geoff took a deep breath of the fresh air, and closed his eyes. "God it is so nice to get outside for a while. Thank you for not giving me a choice." The Sabre raised her brow, and he answered. "I think I needed this. So, thank you."

"You are most welcome."

Mother and daughter laid out the blanket they had snitched from Geoff’s bed, and set the food out on top of it. Then they sat and watched the Sabre step out into the warmth of the day, easing the chair out in front of her. They paused to speak to each other quietly before they resumed their approach toward the two, seated women.

"Our girls are very beautiful, aren’t they, Marine?"

Randi looked up, and caught Gwen staring at her. She smiled rakishly at the bard, who flushed, but didn’t look away. "They sure are, Navy. We are very lucky."



".... so in walks four year old Gwen, dried glue making her hair stand straight up all over her head. I believe that was the last time we sent her to public school."

Said bard in question had her head, with its now relaxed hair, hidden behind her hand. Her ears glowed a bright red. "Daddy, I am gonna have to kill you for this." The rest of the group was merrily chortling.

"Oh." The Marine had swallowed a bit of the fragrant iced tea, and nearly snorted it out her nose. Now she tried to speak in a normal voice. "That is priceless. Do you have holos?"

A small hand smacked her arm. "No! Please." Green eyes turned beseeching. "You really don’t need to see that."

The Marine felt herself fall into those eyes, and her heart melted. The Goldmans, watching the tableau, felt the heat between them, and wondered that the two women were not seared by it. Randi reached out a hand to stroke Gwen’s face. "It means so much to you, then?" The blonde simply nodded. "All right."

They stayed that way for a timeless moment, totally forgetting their surroundings. The spell was broken when the weapons smith spoke up.

"Thank you for this, Randi. I can’t tell you the difference it has made."

"I can," Jill responded instantly. "And thank you, Randi... from the bottom of my heart. We needed this."



The sun was just hitting the edge of the horizon when the warrior and bard took off for Reed and Tiny’s place. They felt much better about the Goldmans, and the parents were in a much better mood. Not only had the day relaxed a lot of the tenseness brought on by Geoff’s injuries, but their mind’s had been set at ease about both their daughters.

"They’re gonna be okay, I think."

"Yep, I think they are."



"Thanks, Randi. That was a lot of fun, and I think the folks needed it. I know they appreciated it. And the picnic was a great idea."

The Marine smiled shyly, and even blushed slightly. "I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. Maybe we could do it again... just the two of us?"

"I think I’d like that." Gwen reached over and took Randi’s larger hand in her own. And they remained that way for the relatively short trip to the ranch.



"Well, this an unexpected but pleasant surprise," Tiny commented as the shuttle settled silently on the pristine pad nearby. He reached out a hand to Randi, who gave him a brief clasp and turned to offer a hand up to Gwen. It was fully dark, and the pad had no lights for obvious reasons. "We were just sitting down to eat. Reed will be glad we waited. Hello, Gwen." He smiled.

"I’m sorry for the unannounced visit. I did try to call, but no one answered. And since you told me we could drop in at any time, I thought we’d take you up on the invite, and check on Ditto and those puppies."

"I’m glad you did. You are both welcome here anytime... you know that. I guess we should have checked the messages today, huh?"

"And yesterday. And the day before."

He rubbed his ear and blushed. "I was away on business for a couple days. We, um... spent the day... well, ahem... we didn’t go near the phone."

"Ya know, Randi," regarding the big man with twinkling green eyes. "He’s kinda cute when he blushes." This only made him blush harder of course, causing him to almost glow in the night air. He cleared his throat, but said nothing. He held the door open, and motioned them to enter ahead of him, flushing yet again when the bard kissed his cheek and chuckled.

"How do you....?"

"I don’t. I just go with the flow where she is concerned."



Ditto was glad to see them, but her reaction was a little off. She regarded Randi warily for a long moment before allowing her near. Gwen she circled several times before accepting her presence.

"What is up with her?" Tiny sat with the bard and introduced her to the puppies, while Randi and Reed stood back. Actually, the seer had held her friend back when it looked as though the shepherd was not going to accept Gwen.

"Dogs are very sensitive creatures. If you remember, Ditto didn’t even greet her last week. Now that she has babies, well, she’s more protective than ever. It helps that things are looking better between you. The aura is not right yet, but it is getting there. Am I right?"

"Yeah, you’re right," dropping her head and flushing a little. "And it’s so damned nice. I just wish...."

"Be patient, my friend. It will happen. I am so very happy for you both."

"Me too, Reed. Thanks."

The warrior moved to reacquaint herself with the pups, not realizing the same thought that was crossing through her mind, was crossing through Reed’s as well. Why had Ditto reacted so strangely toward her?



It was quite late when the four finally decided to turn in. Reed inadvertently stepped in it all over again when she led them to their rooms.

"I put you in the same rooms you had last week." One look at the bard’s crestfallen face made her realize more had changed than she realized. "Is that a problem, Gwen?" she asked gently. She wasn’t trying to be nosey, though her curiosity was piqued. She was doing her level best to understand without causing anyone grief or embarrassment. A task she’d apparently failed, she recognized, when Gwen’s eyes dropped and her face turned red.

Randi came to the rescue by stating quite bluntly. "Gwen has discovered the only way she can sleep peacefully is by sleeping with me. Think of me as a big security blanket. Ow!" rubbing her side where Gwen had poked her. But the Marine smiled at the slight flush and tiny smile that still covered the bard’s fair features.

The seer’s gray eyes widened in comprehension, and now it was her turn to blush. She was torn between sheer embarrassment, and true joy at their progress. Embarrassment won momentarily. "Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize, and after last week.... Damn! And I know better than to assume too."

The breeder stopped speaking when the small hand touched her arm. "Please don’t. Our sleeping arrangements are really no one’s business but ours, and you were simply going by what you knew. I appreciate your trying to make us comfortable."

"Next time I’ll ask."

"Next time you’ll know. I don’t expect it to change again." The bard’s voice lowered and she spoke to someone whom she knew would understand her next statement. "No matter what I’ve lost, I know in my heart that is home for me, and always will be." Gwen squeezed the strong arm under her hand stepped away from Reed. "Thank you for caring, and for understanding. Good night." Then the blonde took Randi’s hand and led her into the room they would share.

"Goodnight, guys," seeing the sheen of their combined auras beginning to meld and rebond. The Marine’s blinding smile was almost painful but so worth it. Only when the door closed and she had started to walk away did Reed answer the bard.

"Oh Gwen, yes I do understand. And you have no idea how wonderful that feeling is right now." She smiled to herself with a glance toward the closed door as she reached her own. "But you will."



"Carbon seems to have taken a real liking to the two of you," Reed commented to Gwen the next day as they sat petting the puppies. Randi and Tiny had gone into the exercise room before breakfast, and the two women had decided to delay the meal to go check on the pups. They were pleasantly surprised to find them awake and nursing, and had stayed around to play with them a little afterwards.

"Hmm, yeah, but what is up with Ditto? She is pricklier than a cat in heat whose fur’s being stroked the wrong way."

Gray eyes twinkled merrily at the colorful description. "Being a bard gives you an interesting way of putting things, doesn’t it, Gwen? Actually, I think she senses that things are not all right, and it makes her wary. Animals are very sensitive to change. And you are different from the person who brought her here."

"I’m working on that," the bard muttered half angrily. "It’s not my fault."

"I know that hon, but you just can’t explain that to a dog. Give it some time. She’ll come around... and so will you." She clasped the bard’s shoulders, and gave her a brief hug. "C’mon. I think they owe us breakfast this time."



"That was an amazing weekend. Thank you so much for suggesting it." The two women were comfortably sprawled on the couch. A bottle of merlot sat on the table, and they had the French doors open letting in the night breeze coming off the water. "This is so nice."

"Hmm, yeah, it is. And yeah it was." The Marine leaned back and stretched. "I’m beat though."

Gwen yawned. "Me too." She set her empty glass on the table. "The wine is making me sleepy. I think I’m gonna get ready for bed." She stood and reclaimed her glass, picking up the wine. "You want some more?"

"No thanks," Randi replied, then yawned. "I think I’ll lock up and head to bed myself."

The bard reached down and took the glass from the warrior’s hand. She had the things put away, and was up the stairs before Randi moved off the couch. Hmm, maybe she’s comfortable enough sleeping alone because we’re home again, the Marine thought to herself as she shut the doors and set the security. That doesn’t make sense though. We were here before, and she wasn’t sleeping. She shrugged her shoulders. The most obvious reason didn’t occur to her.

Randi finished her evening’s absolutions, threw on her pajamas, and crawled into the big bed. She stretched again, stopping in mid-motion when she heard a small sound at the door. Relaxing, she turned her head, to see Gwen standing hesitantly in the doorway. Without a word, she lifted the covers in silent invitation. She saw the relief flow through the bard’s body, and she felt it a moment later when Gwen practically collapsed on top of her.

"I wasn’t sure you wanted me here," Gwen whispered.

"Oh, my bard. You belong here. You always have. I wondered when you went upstairs, but I figured you’d do what made you comfortable." A breath. "I’m glad you’re here."

"Me too." Gentle fingers started an almost absent tracing, and twin sighs accompanied the touch. "I just figured we couldn’t both get in the bathroom at the same time, ya know? So I used the one upstairs." She paused and her hand stilled. Randi reached up and took the small hand in her own.

"What is it, Gwen?"

"I... would you mind... I mean.... Look, I know that this is your room and all, but... wouldyoumindterriblyifImovedin?" The words came out in a rush as though she was afraid of the answer. Now Randi sat up, bringing the sprawled bard up with her. With her free hand she cupped the smaller woman’s chin, until Gwen’s eyes met her own.

"Gwen," softly, tenderly. "Take a good look around you. This is our room, and has been for a while. Light." They both blinked at the sudden brightness, and she waited while the bard hesitantly looked around. Gwen took the time to really study the room, and saw the truth in Randi’s words. "The only things not here are the things you took upstairs after we got back after...."

"So, this is where I’m supposed to be?" She paused, and the Sabre nodded. "Good. Light." The room fell into darkness and Randi eased the two of them back at Gwen’s gentle urging. "Because this has become home to me." Her hand resumed its feather-light motions, and she felt Randi smile. "Good night, gunny."

When the Marine didn’t respond, she figured she was already asleep, and was quick to close her eyes. Only when Randi felt her deep even breathing did she answer.

"Good night, love."



Morning came much too early, but the pair got up and did their morning sparring before getting ready for work. Gwen still wasn’t entirely comfortable with sharing bathroom space, but she was perfectly content with Randi’s acceptance of the progress she’d made so far. She herself was fairly anxious to get back to her diaries, and see if what she suspected was true.

It was a very odd feeling. Half hoping, curious, and completely unsure. It caused her belly to ache in anticipation, her palms to sweat, and her head to buzz slightly. Quite disconcerting, actually, and it caused her to stumble as she came down the steps.

Randi had seen her misstep, and had rushed to catch her before she hurt herself too much. So the bard landed happily in a pair of strong Marine arms.

"You all right?" came the low voice very close to her ear. The sound sent tingles traveling up her spine, and cascading down again. "Gwen? Did you hit your head? Are you hurt?"

The Sabre was sure she’d managed to stop the fall before it became painful, but Gwen’s lack of a verbal response was causing her some serious alarm. Before the bard could answer or protest, Randi swung her up into her arms, and moved them to the bedroom. She tucked the blonde back into the big bed, happy she was without shoes, and sat down next to her, riffling her bangs out of her face. Gwen closed her eyes, savoring the touch.

"Maybe you’d better stay home today. I think the events of the last couple weeks are finally catching up and taking their toll."

Green eyes reluctantly opened and peered up into concerned blue. There was nothing she wanted more in this moment than to snuggle down and take Randi up on her offer. But she knew there was nothing really wrong with her so she sat up protesting... only to be hit by a wave of dizziness so severe her entire world buzzed and went black.

She fell into Randi’s chest unknowingly, and the Marine caught her easily. She laid Gwen back on the bed, stripping the covers away to elevate her feet. Randi pulled the sheet back over the bard, and grabbed a wet rag from the bathroom. When Gwen finally opened her eyes, she put a hand on the Marine’s arm. Randi immediately stopped wiping the pale face, and looked down.

"You all right?"

"What happened?"

Spoken simultaneously. The Marine motioned for the bard to speak, keeping a slight pressure on her shoulder to make sure she remained still. Gwen wasn’t in a rush to move, however, and lay back comfortably. She patted the arm Randi was holding her down with, and the Marine started to move it. She was surprised when Gwen simply held on to it.

"I’m okay, I think. Just a little weak. That was weird. What happened?" She reached a hand up to her head.

"You blacked out... completely. I think it may have something to due with those pressure points. I’m gonna call a medical friend of mine. See if she can come help me figure this out. And I need to call Tommy, and let him know we won’t be in today."

"Randi, you don’t need to do that. I’ll be fine."

"Gwen, you are NOT going into work today... or did you mean you don’t want me to stay with you?"

"Randi, I know you’ve got several important meetings today. You can’t just miss them because I had a little dizzy spell, no matter how much I’d like that. We’ve missed so much time there recently. It’s not fair to everyone at Midas."

"The hell with them! My primary concern, my only concern right now is you."

The intensity in the blue eyes was mesmerizing, and Gwen felt herself falling into them easily. Unconsciously, her hand stroked the thick, dark hair away from Randi face, coming to rest at the back of the Marine’s head. Of it’s own volition, the bard’s fingers began a gentle scratching, grinning outright when Randi closed her eyes and purred like a kitten. Gwen looked at the sleek form in front of her, and revised her assessment. Hmm, more like a panther.

She kept it up for a few minutes, until she felt the warrior relax. "Randi, I’d much rather you be here. You told Reed the truth, you know. You really are like a security blanket for me. I always feel safe, protected... home... when we’re together."


"Wait... I would rather you be here, but you have other responsibilities as well. Your friend won’t get here til this afternoon at earliest, right?" Gwen waited for the Marine to nod. "Well, I’ll be honest... I may read a bit, but I am just as likely to sleep a bit more. So what if you do half a day, and come home around lunchtime?"

The Sabre gazed into the blonde’s eyes for very long moment. Then she nodded. "That is an acceptable compromise... IF...."


"If you promise to stay here in this bed until I get home." Gwen opened her mouth to speak. "I will move your diaries, or get you some juice or whatever you want before I leave." A large hand caressed a pale cheek. "I’m really.... I worry about you."

"I’ll be good."

"And I’ll be back as quick as I can."



The vid call to Lacey was made on the way in to Midas. The Sabre promised to move her appointments around, and be at Randi’s before dark. When she reached the Guild, Randi went straight to Tommy’s office. Beth didn’t even try to slow her down the look on her face was so fierce.

"Good mor..." He stuttered to a halt at the look on her face. "Randi?" He stood up and opened his arms. With a little cry, she fell into them. He stood holding her tightly, rocking them both gently back and forth. They stayed that way for a time before he felt her draw a long, shuddering breath, and pull away from him slightly.

"You all right there, short stuff?"

She stepped back further, and he allowed her some space, letting her regroup her defenses. "Yeah, thanks, T. I just needed a hug."

"You wanna talk about it?"

"Nothing to talk about, really. It’s just... God, this is so hard."

"Randi, you don’t have to share... you know that. But I can’t help if I don’t understand."

She smiled tremulously at him. "You can’t help with this anyway, T. But... it’s just hard, all this stuff with Gwen. Sometimes, I just want to tell her, but...."

"But it’s better if she learns the truth of her own heart in her own time."

"Yeah, exactly. There is something else too." His brow rose in question. "Ben manipulated some pressure points, which are a big part of her memory problem, and they’re the reason she’s having headaches and dizzy spells lately." She took a deep breath. "I have a medical friend coming later today to help me see if we can figure out how to unlock them. Until then, she’s at home in bed."

He nodded in acceptance. "Is she gonna be all right?"

"I’m gonna do my best to make sure she is."

"Then she has nothing to worry about. She is in the best of hands."

Randi smiled, genuinely this time. "Thank you, Tommy. Let me go and get to work. I’ve got a couple things to clear before I get back home to her."

He took her in his arms, and they exchanged another hug. "You’ve got it bad, huh?"

"She owns me, T... body, heart, and soul... even if she doesn’t know it yet." He stood stunned, never having expected such a frank admission from the proud warrior. "Close you’re mouth, brother. You’re gonna catch flies."

His jaw snapped shut with an audible sound, and Randi had to stifle a giggle. "Thanks, Tommy."

He shook his head to clear the fog. "Anytime, short stuff. You know that. Glad I could help."



For a while, the roiling in her gut kept her in the bathroom. When she finally went to work, she was courteous, though brisk, and it was clear to everyone that her mind was not really on her work. Her eyes kept straying to the clock, willing the time to pass faster.



Gwen sat up, gasping. The images that remained from her dream were haunting in the extreme. Randi killing Ben morphed into Randi killing her... her killing Ben... her killing Randi. It was so confusing, so terrifying. She wasn’t sure what to make of the things she saw. Her mind understood it was her subconscious helping her cope, but she wondered why, or how this was going to help. It certainly wasn’t helping her emotionally.

I thought I had accepted this... put it all behind me. Why am I dreaming these things now?

She lay back down, curling herself around the warrior’s pillow. She found comfort in the scent, and she closed her eyes, trying to think of more pleasant things. She didn’t plan to fall asleep, and never even realized when she drifted off in slumber.



Gwen was surprised when she opened her eyes again, and found it to be well into mid-morning. She felt much better, and she stretched and yawned. Maybe I really did need some sleep. Wow! She scooted up to the head of the bed, and slid into a sitting position. She reached over and picked up the thermal cup, swallowing the cold juice gratefully.

"Mmm," she hummed to herself. "That hits the spot."

Gwen replaced the cup on the nightstand, and picked up the diary she had asked Randi to retrieve for her before the Marine had left for Midas. The bard looked at the cover for a long moment, before she opened the book, found her place and began reading. Soon, she was engrossed in her own words, reliving and reviving memories that had been stolen. She never even heard the warrior come home.



Chapter XIII

Randi stood for a long moment at the bedroom door, taking in the absorbed face Gwen wore before she stepped into the room. She withdrew a single rose from the dozen in her hand, and placed the vase silently on the nightstand. Then she seated herself gently on the bed at the bard’s side.

The movement of the bed caused a frown to cross her features, but Gwen did not look up until the silky softness and sweet fragrance of the flower assaulted her senses. At the first brush of petals along her face, she looked up, and caught the perfumed smell under her nose. She looked up into deep, concerned eyes, and smiled back. Without thought, she launched herself into the Marine’s arms. Randi reflexively reached out to catch her, holding on and stroking the blonde head for long, quiet moments.

"Hey, Little One," breaking the silence at last. "Did you miss me that much?"

"Yep, I sure did."

"Well. I missed you, too, and I was wondering... would you like to go on a picnic?" She smiled as green eyes twinkled in appreciation of the idea. "T said we could use the boat. I thought maybe a short cruise... maybe watch the sunset?"

"Oh, I like that idea, but what about your doctor friend?"

"I’ll get in touch with her. She mentioned something about setting up some equipment she’s bringing with her. We’ll see what she says."

"’K. Meantime, I’m gonna go take a shower."

Randi was hard pressed not to stare as Gwen emerged from the bedroom a short time later, pulling a T-shirt over a very brief two-piece swimsuit. The bard was secretly flattered, feeling the admiration in those blue eyes warm her to the core. She hadn’t advanced much farther in her diaries, but she’d decided to go with what felt right, and in her heart, being with Randi felt right. As to where it would lead, well, she wasn’t sure where it was going, but she liked that it seemed to be headed... somewhere. The circular logic was making her head spin, though, and she put it out of her mind with conscious effort.

"What did the doc say?"

"Actually, she thinks a little R&R would probably be a good thing. Tommy is going to meet her and bring her over when she arrives, and she will set everything up. Ella is bringing dinner, and we’ll be back shortly thereafter. So everything is set."

"Great! Now go get changed, and let’s get this show on the road." A dark brow rose, and then she capitulated, and smiled at the enthusiasm.

"All right. I won’t be but a minute."

True to her word, the warrior re-emerged from the bedroom a very short time later. Now it was the bard’s turn to stare, and Randi felt herself blushing and shyly smiling. She picked up the large wooden basket that had been sitting on the table, and extended a hand to Gwen. "Shall we?"



The day was hot, cloudless. Randi was thankful for the slight breeze as they pulled away from the boat slip. "You wanna drive?" she asked the bard.

"Um, no. Thank you. This is a little bigger than I feel comfortable with."

"Okay, well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me."

"Is it all right if I stay here and keep you company?"

A big grin was her only answer.



The sky was almost white in the heat, and in stark contrast to the deep blue water that surrounded them. Randi slowed to a stop. "Whaddya think? Look like a good spot?"

The bard took in the serenity that surrounded them with a deep breath. Before she could answer though, a chittering off the port bow spoke for her. The two women wandered over to the railing, smiling in tandem when the two dolphins nodded their heads vigorously at their choice.

"Guess that settles it," the warrior laughed. "Let me go drop the anchor. Wanna grab lunch?"

The bard nodded, and went below to grab the basket. Almost as an after thought, she picked up a blanket, and headed back to the bow. Gwen stood for a moment, framed in the doorway, admiring the profile before her. Randi stood silently, the wind blowing her dark hair back from her face. As though sensing the blonde’s regard, she turned, and smiled at the sight that greeted her eyes. She walked to Gwen’s side, and removed the blanket, folding it neatly in half and placing it on the deck. She threw several of the cushions onto it, then took the basket from Gwen’s hands. Randi knelt, and extended her hand.

"Join me?"

The bard complied, helping the Marine spread out the inviting looking lunch and sat back. "Wow, nice choices."

"Actually, you can thank Ella. I had her make it up for us." She leaned back and extended her arm, pleased when Gwen relaxed into the curve of her body. They shared the bits of food mostly in silence, chuckling over the noise the dolphins were still making at the side of the boat.

"You get the feeling they want us to come play?" Randi turned her head toward Gwen, who chose that exact moment to turn toward her. She sucked in a breath when she realized just how close they were. The bard froze, mesmerized by the deep blue looming above her. Unconsciously, she licked her lips, reaching a hand up to the warrior’s lips. Her hand shook slightly, Gwen noted to herself in some surprise, as she lifted it to Randi’s trembling lips. The light touch sent a shock through both women, and it was all the warrior could do to retain the gasp. She heard Gwen’s sharp intake of breath, and nearly missed her whispered words.

"You had some crumbs...." She dropped her eyes and the spell was broken. She cleared her throat and when she spoke this time, it was in an almost normal voice. Only the huskiness of her tone gave anything away. "Yeah, I do," answering the question the Marine had posed earlier. Gwen stood and backed away slightly. "I’ll put things away and meet you in the water, ‘k?"

Randi put a hand out to stop the bard, gently cupping her cheek with a soft touch. "I’ll do it. You go relax." And without another word, she started picking things up. Gwen hesitated, torn between a desire to stay and a desire for space. Now it was her turn to reach out. The Sabre stopped moving at the slight touch.

"Thank you for understanding." Then she moved to the railing, stripped out of her shirt, and made a light dive into the water.

"Oh Aphrodite, give me strength," Randi muttered, before moving to finish cleaning up.

Gwen used the time to regain her composure, and was riding on Peanut’s back by the time Randi entered the water. Laughingly, she challenged the warrior to a race. It might have been better, though, if Pilot had been clued into the whole idea. When Randi reached for him, he scooted away, causing a serious game of chase between himself and the Marine. She managed to get her hands on him finally, and then the dolphin just stopped moving. The bard could hardly hang on to Peanut, she was laughing so hard. It didn’t help that both of the aquatic mammals sounded suspiciously like they were laughing also. Randi mock-glared at her.

"Oh, I see what is happening here. This is all a plot, isn’t it? Um hmm, yep. I’m being set up."

Randi reached over toward the bard, her fingers moving in a pinching motion. Gwen squealed when she saw them coming, and the resulting noise caused the dolphins to take off like a shot. The four of them rode around for quite some time. Finally, tiring, and sensing the same from her companion, Randi headed them back toward the boat.

The two women thanked their dolphin friends, and climbed back aboard. The Sabre had left towels out, and Gwen took one and dried off with a sense of relief. Then she dropped into the cozy nest Randi had left from earlier. "That was a lot of fun."

"Yeah, it was," the Marine commented, draping the towel around her neck. She disappeared below, and the reappeared a scant minute later. "Here."

She handed a water bottle to the bard, who accepted it with alacrity. Half the bottle was gone before Gwen spoke. "Oh yeah. That hits the spot. Thanks, Randi."

"You are most welcome, my dear," giving a mock bow. "I live to serve."

"Careful there, Marine," with a teasing twinkle. "I could get to like that idea way too much."

The playfulness caught Randi flatfooted once again, and she merely stared with mouth open for a long moment. Then she smiled rakishly at the bard. "I’ll keep that in mind." Gwen blushed.



They toasted the sunset with a sparkling honey mead that Tommy proclaimed a favorite of his. The event didn’t require words from either of them. They sat curled up contentedly together on the blanket and cushions, content to rock with the gentle motions of the boat, and watch the sun sink lower and lower toward the horizon. The orb was halfway down before Randi reluctantly made a move to rise.

"We need to get back."

Gwen looked up at the now standing warrior. She sighed. "I guess we do. This was a wonderful day. Thanks, Randi."

The Sabre reached out a hand, and gently stroked the bard’s cheek in response. Then she turned and took the wheel, heading them back toward home.



It wasn’t quite full dark when they arrived back at Randi’s boathouse. "Oh, this is nice," Gwen commented. "We need to see about getting a boat." She didn’t notice the slip into plural, but Randi did, and she smiled from her heart outward.

"We’ll talk about it."

They linked hands and walked up to the house. Randall was the first one to spot them, and he collided with Randi’s knees at the door.


She picked him up with glee, and swung him around. Then she gave the little boy a fierce hug, careful to keep him on the good side of her face. "Hey there, Love Muffin! You been a good boy today?"

He pointed a thumb at his chest. "Good boy." Then he saw the bard standing patiently watching them together, a twinkle sparkling out of her very green eyes. "Wen!" He lunged for her, and it was all the Marine could do to keep her balance with him.

The boy went into the blonde’s arms, giving her a squeeze and a sloppy kiss before she put him down. The child ran to his daddy, who moved out of the doorway to let them inside the house. The scent of gumbo was strong in the air, and Randi felt her stomach grumble in protest.

"Lacey and Ella are in the kitchen." The warrior nodded, able to see them from where she stood. She took Gwen’s hand again, and led her the three steps to the kitchen. The two women inside turned around when she cleared her throat.

"Well," Ella commented to Lacey. "Look at the pair of beach bums the wind blew in."

Lacey chuckled. She’d never seen her comrade outside a military setting, and the picture she presented now was vastly different from the neatness and precision she offered as a Sabre. The sight made her more human. Although, just being allowed into Randi’s home made the tall brunette seem more human. Tommy and Ella obviously cared for the warrior very much, and Lacey felt she had made a new friend in Ella. She turned her attention to the diminutive blonde at the Marine’s side. So much became clear to her, even in the first glance.

Her eye for detail caught strength and intelligence reflected back to her from those sharp, verdant eyes. This was not the same woman she had met briefly at Randi’s memorial service. This woman was vibrant. She noted the physical strength of the compact body, and the possessive way Randi held on to her. And then it occurred to her that the possessiveness ran both ways, and she smiled. Oh, Randi, my friend. You have finally been gotten for good. I am so happy for you. Aloud, she simply extended a hand and spoke.

"Hello, Randi. It’s been a long time."

"Thank you for coming, Lace. I appreciate it." She ignored the outstretched hand, and pulled the other Sabre into a brief, hug. Then she reached back and pulled Gwen up beside her, keeping a hand on the slim waist. "This is Gwen. Gwen, this is Dr. Lacey Monet."

The bard’s response was cordial, but cool, and it caused the Marine to wonder what she’d missed. "Ella, do we have time to clean up?" It was funny, Randi mused. Though it was their house and their kitchen, when Ella took charge, it was hers, and they all, deferred to her.

"Be quick. Lacey has been a wonderful assistant. I’m sure we’ll be fine."

Ten minutes later the two were emerging from separate bathrooms, clean, neat and....

"Oh, wow! Nice sunburn."

"Yeah," the bard grimaced. "You’d think I’d learn."

"We’ll be very gentle in our examination of you," Lacey replied.

Gwen didn’t answer, simply nodding her head. Randi felt a clue by four smack her in the back of the head. She’s jealous. The thought made her smile at the implications it presented.

"C’mon, ya’ll. Time to eat," Ella called. "You," pointing the spoon at the warrior, "get to do the cleanup."

"Yes ma’am," Randi replied meekly. She seated the bard, and took her own. She could sense Gwen’s frustration, and decided to put her at ease.

"You’re looking good, Lace. I guess things between you and Nicky are going pretty well."

"Oh yeah. We’ve even talked about getting married."

"Wow, that’s great! Congratulations!"

Randi felt the bard’s tension ease perceptibly, and smiled when a small hand covered her own briefly before she joined the conversation.

"Tell us about Nicky. I understand that Randi knows, but we’d like to hear a bit too, if you don’t mind sharing."

So the meal was spent with Lacey talking a bit about her beloved. It turned out that Ella had known Nicky during her growing up and service years, and it served to bridge another gap between them. Time passed swiftly, and before they realized it, Randall was nodding off.

"Hmm, I think we need to get someone home to bed." Tommy commented. He had been content to sit quietly and listen.

"Oh my yes. Would you look at the time? Lacey, it has been lovely to meet you. You make sure to tell Nicky hi from me, will you?"

"Oh absolutely. The pleasure was mine. Thanks for the gumbo recipe. I think I’ve got the trick now." Gwen and Randi stared at one another in amazement. Never in recent memory could they recall an instance where the restaurateur had shared her secrets in the kitchen. "We’ll be back in touch, if you don’t mind."

"I’d like that. Been a long time since I talked to my old friend." They walked to the door before Tommy spoke.

"It’s been nice to meet you, Lacey. I hope you and your girl will come visit us again when the need is not quite so urgent. You two, I do not expect to see either of you in until the doc here gives you the clearance to come back. Is that understood?"

Twin nods and hugs all around, and they were gone.



Randi went into the kitchen to clean up, and that left Gwen and Lacey in an uncomfortable silence together in the living room. They sat quietly as the tension grew, until finally the Sabre could not stand it anymore. She stood up and faced the bard.

"Look, Gwen. I think you need to know that Randi and I are just friends. That’s all we’ve ever been. You have no reason to be jealous." She held up a hand when the bard started to speak. "I know this is difficult and confusing. But it will work a lot better if you will trust me." A pause. "If not on my own merit, then on Randi’s."

It was quiet again for a while, while Gwen considered all that Lacey had said. She exhaled loudly. "You’re right. I don’t know you well enough to take you on your own merit, but I trust Randi implicitly. I’m... I’m sorry for...." She scratched the back of the neck and tugged on her ear. "I... oh, never mind." She walked to the French doors, and stared out unseeingly at the darkness.

Lacey stood in place, carefully considering her next words. "Gwen, I know you’re confused right now. A lot of things don’t make sense. That’s why I’m here... to see if we can help undo some of the confusion. Or at least get rid of the blocks so you can recognize your feelings again."

"What do you mean?"

The doctor understood immediately she had revealed more to the bard then Randi had. "The memory block... it’s taken away much more from you then you realize. I can’t say more. These are things you’re gonna have to learn for yourself. But I’m here to help you, help you both, if you’ll let me."

Gwen caught sight of Randi’s reflection in the glass as she stepped into the room. She turned and walked over to the Marine, wrapping her up in a tight embrace. Now that the actual moment was here, she admitted to herself that she was a little scared. She looked up into ice blue eyes, seeing nothing but love and trust reflected back to her. She sighed and looked to Lacey.

"Let’s do it."

"I set the equipment up in your room Randi, per your instructions. We’ll let Gwen get undressed and settled in, and then we’ll get started."

"What do you want me to do, Lace?" The bard was lying on her stomach in the big bed when the two Sabres walked into the room. She turned her head in their direction, and smiled at Randi. The warrior returned the smile, and moved to sit on the edge of the bed.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, just a little nervous."

"Randi, I think for now you should be Gwen’s pillow," answering the question the Marine had asked of her before. "Let her put her head in your lap, and concentrate on helping her relax. This will work much better if she’s not uptight."

Randi nodded and turned, leaning against the headboard and stretching her long legs along the length of the bed. Gwen slid into place, which put her somewhat diagonal across the bed. Lacey continued to talk, addressing the bard directly, and telling her each step before she did anything.

"All right now, Gwen. I’m gonna pull the sheet off from your feet to your buttocks. I need you to relax and breathe naturally."

"Little One, relax and look at me." The bard took a deep breath, and turned her head, angling her face upwards a bit.

"You have bony knees," Gwen quipped lightly, bouncing her head against said appendages. She smiled in reaction, which caused the blonde to smile in response.

"Oh, I do, huh?"

"Uh huh. Probably from all that exercise."

"Hmm, well... you exercise with me. You s’pose your knees are bony too?" Blonde brows rose into her hairline.

"I dunno. I never really looked."

The desire to look down to where Lacey was patiently working was almost overwhelming, but Randi kept her eyes focused on Gwen’s. She could feel the bard relaxing with their nonsense conversation, and didn’t want to draw attention to her state of nakedness.

Meanwhile, the doctor was patiently making her way up the compact body, the scanner making notes of each pressure point that had been manipulated. When she reached the small of Gwen’s back, she smoothly pulled the sheet down to cover her lower body, and expose the upper. The two women were so engrossed in their conversation, they never even noticed. Lacey smiled.

When she finished with the back, the medic signaled Randi. The Marine looked down at the almost sleeping bard. "Gwen?"

Sleepy green eyes peeked up at her. "Hmm?"

"Little One, we need you to turn over, so Lacey can finish her examination." The startled look caused her to continue. "Gwen, you’re a gorgeous woman. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, even though Lacey appreciates a beautiful body as much as the next person, this is purely medical on her part. And I promise not to peek." The rakish grin that accompanied this statement earned her a light smack on the thigh before the bard turned over.

Green eyes locked onto blue, and they were almost able to ignore the doctor’s presence. "Do you really find me beautiful, Randi?" The whisper was shy and half hopeful in tone. The warrior’s smile conveyed love, and not a little lust. Talk about your loaded questions.

"Oh, Little One," tenderly stroking the smooth cheek beneath her hand. "Yes, you are very beautiful. Not just of body, but of mind and spirit as well."

Green eyes closed, and tears slid silently down Gwen’s face. Without a word, Randi began humming the melody to the song she’d sung to the blonde on her birthday, a year gone and more. Gwen never even realized when she passed from the waking to the sleeping world.



Lacey finished her work, then nodded to Randi. "Let me put the equipment away, and I’ll be back... unless you’d rather talk out there," nodding toward the living room.

The warrior looked down at the now covered bard, who had turned over in her sleep, and was cuddled up into Randi’s stomach. One arm was thrown across Randi’s lap, and the other was clutching her shirt at the ribs. "Um, I think you’d better come back in here. I don’t want to give her nightmares."

The medic smiled at the picture the two of them made, then walked out the door. Her smile turned to a thoughtful frown as she reviewed Randi’s words. She’d have to take the time to find out more about that later.

It took her a few minutes to store the equipment properly, and when she came back down, Randi was dozing. She watched the two of them breathe in sync for a moment, before she reached out a hand toward the Sabre. Lacey wasn’t at all surprised to find her hand caught and firmly held. She met the sleepy blue eyes squarely.

"Oh, damn! Sorry, Lace." Randi motioned to the bed. "Have a seat."

Instead, the doctor pulled up the rocking recliner that sat in the corner and sat back. "You want the good news or the bad news?"

One thing Randi had always appreciated about her comrade in arms was her ability to shoot straight from the hip. She was especially glad for it now. "Bad, then good."

"Well, the bad news is he has messed up several very major points, and lots of little tiny ones. The good news is, I think I see the pattern. I’m gonna take a couple days to review the data, and then I want Reed here. It’s gonna take both of us to unlock this right."

"Ill give her a call tomorrow. Is Gwen okay to go back to work, or.... ?"

"That’s gonna depend a lot on how she feels." The doctor sighed, and rubbed her hands over her eyes. "What seems to be causing her headaches is the fact that she is fighting the block. She wants to remember, and she’s trying to understand her feelings, and it is going counter to everything he did to her."

"When you remove the block, will it bring back her memories, her feelings?"

"No." The Marine’s shoulder slumped and her head fell at the stark answer. Lacey leaned forward and took the large hand in her own. "No, Randi, but it will allow her to remember when she is ready." She paused. "You forget, that when he removed her memories of your love for one another, she lost a lot of the pain and grief she dealt with when she lost you. I’m sure, in some subconscious way, she’s not ready to remember that... to relive it. It will come back. You just have to be patient, and let her remember it at her own pace."

Randi nodded in comprehension. "I understand that, but it doesn’t make it any easier for me."

"I know. Now," rising and putting the chair back in its accustomed spot, "Is there anything else I can do for you before I go to bed? I would like to have some time to catch up with you, but later." Lacey smiled.

"Yeah, me too. I’d like for Gwen to get a chance to know some of my Sabre friends as well." She frowned at the cocked brow. "Oh, yeah... can you help me slide down? I think if I sleep like this my body will be screaming for days." She spared a brief thought being thankful that she’d stayed barefooted after her shower.

Lacey noted her cockeyed position, and had to agree. She lifted the bard slightly, allowing Randi to move into a more reclined position. Gwen whimpered when she lost contact with the warrior, then sighed in contentment when their bodies met again.

Randi realized, as they touched, that the bard was naked, and she gave an aggrieved sigh. There were just some things in life that were totally unfair. This was one of them. Lacey chuckled soundlessly at the warrior’s plight, and the Marine simply glared at her.

"It’s NOT funny."

"No, I know it’s not, but it is ironic. Be patient, Randi. I promise it will be worth it.

Now the glare became a vulnerable glance, before the blue eyes dropped to the peacefully sleeping face. "As long as she still loves me, Lace, it’ll be worth anything."



"Anything, my dear?" the war god queried. "You have no idea yet what the price will be." Dark laughter followed, echoing through the halls. It sent chills through the sisters who were watching the same scene unfold in another room.



"She will, my friend. She will." The doctor tucked them in, and headed upstairs.

"Light," the Marine said. In the darkness, she kissed the blonde head tucked underneath her chin. "Goodnight, love."



Morning brought an interesting new reality. The first thing Gwen noticed upon waking was her state of undress, and the fact that she and Randi were comfortably tangled together. Unsure whether to move or stay, she raised a hand, without thinking, and began to stroke the warrior’s smooth face. She thought of their conversation the night before and smiled. So strong, yet so soft. She watched as Randi, even in sleep, leaned into her touch. Still, while she traced, sleepy blue eyes opened, and smiled at her.

"Good morning, Little One." The voice was low, and husky with sleep. "How are you feeling?"

A flush covered her face. "A little embarrassed, actually. I didn’t mean to fall asleep on ya’ll last night."

"It was okay," Randi responded. "You needed the rest, and it was, quite simply the easiest way for you to relax."

"Did Lacey find anything? Can she help?"

"Well, she wants a couple days to study the data she collected, but yes, she does think she can help. Between she and Reed, they should figure out the key to unlocking the points."

"And I will get my memories back?"

"Well, you will be able to remember when you are ready. It should clear up the headaches, though. Um, I’m gonna go for a run. You want me to tuck you back in? You could probably use some more sleep."

Gwen noticed that the warrior had glossed over her answer about remembering. She decided she’d call Lacey on it later. She figured there was something Randi wasn’t comfortable saying. She doubted the doctor would be as hesitant to be completely honest with her.

"Hmm. Maybe I will get up and shower." A concerned frown met her words. "Randi," just a touch exasperated, "I’ll be fine. There is nothing wrong with me, and I can’t just lay here in the bed."

The warrior clenched her jaw together in an effort not to speak. She nodded her head and moved to the bathroom, shutting the door with an air of finality. Gwen scrubbed her hands through blonde locks, frustrated. Then she eased up out of the bed, warily eyeing the closed door. She’d managed to slip into underwear and shorts when she heard it open.

"You’re right, Gwen. It’s your decision. I just...." Randi’s breath caught at the sight of the bare back. The bard had frozen at her first words, and the pause made her finish dressing. The Marine turned her back, closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. Sometimes, self-control leaves a lot to be desired. A picture of that beautiful naked body flashed through her minds eye again. Bad choice of words there, Valiant. She took a deep breath, and cleared her throat.

"Bathroom’s all yours. I’ll be back shortly."

Gwen went to the kitchen to start fixing breakfast. She hadn’t had a chance to start moving her stuff back down, and couldn’t really see disturbing Lacey to get her clothes. She’d wait.

She didn’t have to wait long. Breakfast was well underway, and sending delicious smells through the house. The doctor came stumbling down the stairs, scratching her head and yawning. "Mmm, something smells really good in here. Oh, man... is that clock right?" She looked at Gwen in confusion who simply nodded her head. "Hmph! Been quite a while since I overslept like this."

The bard cocked an eyebrow. It wasn’t that late, and she wondered to herself what time the good doctor usually awakened. That wasn’t important, but good manners were, and she rose to the occasion. "Coffee?"

"Oh yes," Lacey exclaimed with relief. "You, my dear, are a godsend."

Gwen poured the medic a cup, indicating the cream and sugar. The other woman shook her head, and took a long sip. "I drink it black. I need my caffeine straight. By the way, this is really good coffee."

"It’s a special blend Ella made up for Randi and me." Lacey raised a brow, but didn’t comment. Gwen cleared her throat. "I, uh... I owe you an apology. Who Randi has or has not slept with you is really not my business. I had no right to be rude to you. You came to help, and I appreciate that a lot. So, thank you, and I’m sorry for my earlier behavior."

Lacey sat thoughtfully still for a long moment before answering. Then she looked at Gwen directly. "Gwen, you’re in a really bad spot right now, and I understand that. So I accept your apology, and say, ‘You’re welcome’ to the other. But maybe you should sit down and decide why you were so jealous when you thought Randi and I might have been lovers. It might make a world of difference in your thinking."

The bard stood stunned at the implication, but before she could ponder it further, a dark head appeared in the kitchen, just slightly breathless. "Umm, smells great." Randi grabbed a carafe of orange juice. "I’m gonna shower. I’ll be right back."

Gwen quickly finished up breakfast, with Lacey setting the table. Neither woman exchanged another word, but Lacey smiled to herself. It was clear the blonde was considering her words carefully. She hoped they would help make a difference.



Chapter XIV

The next two days passed quickly. She did go back to work with Lacey’s blessing, though she noticed the warrior tended to keep a very close eye on her. Nights were spent talking quietly together. Gwen grew to like Lacey, and found her to be full of interesting tales that featured Randi rather prominently.

"Ya know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you turn quite that shade of red before," the bard murmured as they settled in to sleep that night. The warrior turned onto her side, her back facing Gwen.

"I *knew* this was a bad idea," she muttered.

"Ah, c’mon, Randi," Gwen teased. "It’s been fun. And Lacey’s a nice person. I’d just bet she’s holding back some of the best stories in deference to your sensibilities."

Randi snorted, trying to bite back the bubble of laughter she felt escaping. The blonde leaned forward to plant a small kiss on the Marine’s cheek, just as Randi rolled over onto her back. Their lips brushed, and both froze, electrified, staring at the other in startled reaction. Gwen laid her head down on the broad shoulder beneath her.

"Goodnight, Randi," she whispered, one hand lightly rubbing her still tingling lips.

It was quiet so long after that that Gwen figured the warrior was either asleep or in shock from what had just passed between them. I liked that. Wonder if we can do it again, was her last thought before she settled down to sleep. And she was almost gone when she finally heard Randi’s whispered reply. "Night, love." The words brought a smile to her lips that lasted until she awoke the next morning.



They were just settling in for lunch the following day when Lacey called. "I think I’ve got it, Randi. Is Reed....?"

"She’s standing by, waiting for word from you."

"All right. I’ll give her a call. We can get started on the deprogramming tomorrow." A small hand reached up to clasp hers. She covered it with her own larger one.

"Thanks, Lace. We’ll see you at home, later."

"Yeah, I think I’m gonna take advantage of this private beach for the rest of the afternoon. Later."

Randi looked at Gwen as she shut the comm unit down, more than a little disturbed by the bard’s lack of color. "Hey, you okay there, hon?" A pause. "Gwen?"

"Yeah," she answered, her voice cracking just slightly. "I’m just a little scared."

"Can I tell you a secret?" She waited for the blonde head to nod in agreement. "It scares me too. But I wouldn’t have suggested it if I thought it was dangerous."

"I know. It’s just... I have no idea what this is going to do to me. I don’t know what memories or emotions this is going to evoke."

"Does it help that I will be here for you?"

"It makes all the difference."

"Then you take that to heart, cause I’m not going anywhere."



There are definitely some distinct advantages to being a Sabre pilot the dark haired woman smirked to herself as she settled the small shuttle on Randi’s private pad. It sure beats public transportation. The seer had been very glad to get the vid call from Lacey. It meant things were getting closer and closer to being back to normal between her two friends. And as much as their aura burned, it was awe-inspiring and rare. She didn’t want to see them have to give it up.

She knocked on the door, frowning in surprise when no one answered. She heard a voice at the back, and wandered around to see what was going on. The sight she got was quite unexpected. Lacey lay stretched out in a deck chair, naked as the day she was born. She was on the vid phone with a striking red head who pointed out Reed’s presence behind her.

"Oh hey Reed," waving the brunette over. She returned her attention to the screen. "Gotta go, babe. I love you."

"I love you too, beautiful. Good luck."

They exchanged an air kiss, and Lacey darkened the screen. "Hey, Reed," she greeted again. "Pull off your clothes and have a seat."

"Why, Lacey Monet," she teased with a laughed. "If I didn’t know you better I’d think you were propositioning me." She laughed outright at the waggling eyebrows and rakish grin she got in return. "How’s Nicky?"

The sunset brought the sound of a transport pulling into the garage, and the two women paused in their conversation. "Hmm, guess this means recess is over." Lacey smiled as she grabbed her towel and wrapped it around herself. Reed did the same and the pair headed toward the house.

"Wasn’t like we needed to stay out there after dark anyway. Glad I took my bags in earlier, though."

"Well, now," the Marine drawled when she saw them ambling up onto the deck. "Don’t you two look all lazy and decadent? If ya’ll wanna get cleaned up, maybe put on some clothes, dinner’s gonna be about a half hour." She turned with a smirk, and went back into the kitchen with Gwen.

Sure enough, thirty minutes later found the quartet sitting companionably around the table, eating fried chicken and corn on the cob.

"This is good. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a girl’s night out." Reed looked to Gwen, then Randi. "Despite the circumstances, I’m glad to be here."

"Well, we’re glad you came," Gwen answered. "And I appreciate it."

"I’m glad to do it, Gwen, for more reasons than you could possibly understand at this point." The bard cocked her head in question, but the seer had turned her attention to Randi. "Your face is looking a little better." She reached out a hand, then dropped it when Randi flinched away.

"Please don’t." She covered it and turned away from them slightly. "It hurts when people touch it."

Lacey cocked her head interestedly. "Yet you are. That’s odd."

"Well, all I know is it doesn’t bother me unless another person touches it."

Now Lacey frowned. "Nothing else? I mean... water, fabric, the wind... nothing else makes it hurt?"

"No, only human touch." Lacey and Reed exchanged disturbed glances. This would be up for further discussion later.

"Interesting, and the conversation moved to other things.



Later that night, when they were snuggled up in bed together, Gwen mentioned something that had been bothering her from earlier.

"There’s something here I don’t understand."

"What’s that, Little One?"

"It bothers you to have anyone else touch the scar," reaching up a hand and gently tracing it. "And yet, you lean into my touch, as though you find it comforting. Why is that?"

Shit! Talk about your old fashioned hidden minefield. Truth? Stall? Maybe I can get by with a partial truth for now. "It’s just different with you."

"But why?" Gwen persisted. The warrior sighed. Shoulda known it wouldn’t work.

"Because we are part of the same whole."

It was quiet for so long, Randi was sure Gwen had fallen asleep. She was startled, then, when she felt a small hand reach for her own larger one, and gently caress the ring that still resided there. "Soulmates," came the whispered word from the bard’s lips. Then almost immediately, the Marine felt the body curl up into hers, and relax into sleep. When the breathing was deep and regular, she kissed the blonde head.

"Good night, love."



"All right, Gwen, I need you to relax." She tried, for several minutes, before the warrior slipped underneath her.

"Here," Randi said. "Your choice... bony knees or hard thighs," chuckling.

Green eyes twinkled just slightly, before pulling the Marine into a more reclined position. "I’ll take the firm stomach, thanks." The other two women looked on in amazement.

"We’ll have to work around it, I guess," Lacey commented to Reed. "I don’t think she’ll relax enough otherwise."

"She won’t, because they are still linked. We’ll manage." They turned their attention back to the duo, who were quietly talking together.

"These are the Soulmates’ Rings, aren’t they? We are the soulmates my grandmother always told me about, aren’t we?"

Randi sighed. This wasn’t something she wanted to talk about. It was something she wanted the bard to rediscover on her own. "Gwen, how far have you made it through your diaries?"

The blonde looked at Randi with a frown. "Um, I’m just got up to my homecoming... when you weren’t here. I haven’t had much time to read this week, with Lacey being here." She paused, thinking. "Though, I recognized that song you sung to me yesterday. It is the one you sang at our last birthday together. When we had that big party at the Golden Touch." She blinked. "Wow... I actually remembered that on my own." She raised a hand to her head. "Ow... um... I feel...." Her words were cut off as she blacked completely out. Blues eyes rose to meet Lacey’s.

"It’s to be expected, Randi. She’s on overload with this stuff. We’re gonna go ahead and get started. Try to keep her still and calm when she starts coming around."

Gwen kept her eyes closed when she became cognizant again, enjoying the light stroking on her face and hair. It made her smile, though, and the low voice rumbling under her ear made her turn toward its owner, and open her eyes.

"How ya doing, beautiful? You had me a little worried."

Green met blue, and Gwen saw more than just a little worry staring back at her. "I remembered, Randi. And I remember so clearly the wash of emotions...." She reached for her head again. The Marine clasped it.

"Take it easy, Little One. It’s great that you remember, but we need Lacey and Reed to remove the blocks first. The conflict is what’s causing you the pain, remember?" She breathed. "We can talk about the other later too. I think it is something you need to discover at your own pace."

Gwen looked thoughtfully at the Sabre before nodding her head in agreement. "Thank you, Randi."

The dark head cocked. "For what?"

"For letting me determine what’s truth for myself."

The Marine smiled at her, and continued the soothing motions through her hair, lightly scratching her scalp. "Close your eyes and relax. I’m not going anywhere, and it’s the quickest way to get through this." She waited until the blonde shut her eyes again, before beginning to hum. Randi smiled when Gwen slipped into a light doze.



They had been working for about four hours, and were about a third of the way into the procedure, when Lacey frowned. "Is there a problem?" Randi asked, a little disturbed.

"I hope not," was the unsatisfactory reply. "Reed, can you take a look at this?" She pointed to a monitor off to her right. "Something very peculiar is going on here." The seer moved to stand in front of the flashing equipment, blocking Randi’s view.

"What is going on?"

The two ignored her as they tried desperately to unravel the mystery. They spoke in whispers, forgetting the warrior’s keen hearing could pick up every word.

"Has this ever happened before?"

"No, system failure of this magnitude is unheard of."

"And it checked out?"

"Oh yeah. Four times I made sure it was calibrated, and ready. This should not be happening."

"No, it shouldn’t. And it’s not like we can stop now. We’re committed."

"I know, but without this...." The doctor looked to the seer in despair. "I don’t know if we can pull this off now."

"Would one of you like to tell me what’s going on?" The low, menacing growl startled them, and frightened them a bit as well.

"We have a bit of a problem."

"Yes, I gathered that. What kind of a problem?"

"Well, we have an equipment failure. And this is the one piece of gear we really couldn’t afford to lose. Unfortunately, we can’t stop, and it’s gonna be almost impossible to go forward without it. Now before you get angry, Randi, I checked it... four times before we got started. It shouldn’t be doing this."

When Lacey looked up, though, the Marine wasn’t angry. The emotion that shown clearly out of her eyes was stark fear. She realized exactly what the doctor was not saying. "Do your best, Lace. I can’t lose her."

The medic and seer nodded in tandem. "Athena, bless us this day," Reed whispered in prayer, as their attention turned back to the bard.



"Are you sure about this, The? You know the rules."

"We let them be separated once, Art, and look where it got us. You can’t tell me you think that failure is strictly coincidental in its timing. I’m not gonna let it happen again, not knowing what the stakes are this time. Besides," looking at their blonde sister who was at that moment curled up on the bed in a fetal position. "I can’t see her suffer like that again. You know what a drain on her it was."

The huntress nodded as she took a seat near Aphrodite, gently stroking her hair. "I agree with you, sister. Something stinks here, and it’s not one of us." She glanced down at the small pile of tear shaped diamonds near the sleeping face. "Do what you have to."

The goddess of wisdom extended her awareness.



Things had slowed considerably, and after eight hours of exhausting work, they weren’t even halfway done. Randi had placed a vid call to Tommy, who’d rushed over with Ella to help however was needed. His father had volunteered to watch Randall for them, and they had graciously accepted before hurrying over to the beach house.

Ella kept them supplied with water and cool cloths, since even the cooled air wasn’t enough to keep them from sweating under the strain. Gwen had been dozing off and on. She understood why they couldn’t put her out totally. Reed could easily lose the bard’s stream under that kind of blanket. But Gwen was growing uncomfortable.


The warrior’s attention was focused on the two other women who were currently deeply in her personal space as they worked on Gwen’s back. They had become even slower in their movements as they worked along the bard’s spine and near her neck and head.

"What is it, love?" distractedly, looking down to meet the now startled green eyes gazing back at her. "I’m sorry... I mean...."

Gwen felt a warmth travel through her at the words that settled in the core of her being. She raised their still linked hands, and brushed them against her lips. "It’s all right." She flinched as Lacey touched a particularly sensitive spot. "It makes m...." Her words broke off as she moaned in pain, and her eyes rolled back into her head. She went completely limp, and the warrior looked to her two comrades in alarm. She was not comforted by the startled looks on their faces.

"What happened?? Do something!! Help her!!!"

It was evident that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.



Green eyes opened to a fog. She couldn’t see much, but enough to determine she was alone. Where’d everybody go? And what is this place?

"This is a place of choices," came a voice from the mist. "And the time has come for you to choose."

Gwen shook her head. Okay, evidently the treatment finally got to me and I’m hallucinating. Just fricking great.

A dark haired woman stepped into her line of sight. "No, you’re not hallucinating. This is very real. Right now, in real time, you are dying. You’ve stopped breathing, and you need to choose now whether or not you live or die."

She didn’t even think about it. "Send me back." The bard thought of Randi. "Send me back to her now."

"No matter the consequence? No matter the price?"

"Send. Me. Back."



Tear filled blue eyes were the first things she saw when she opened her own again. She was cradled in the warrior’s strong arms, and it was a feeling she cherished. Here was a place she was safe, and cared for and loved. She snuggled deeper into the embrace, even as she reached up a hand to stroke Randi’s face.

"Oh, God. You’re all right. I thought for a moment.... We all thought...." The Marine looked down at the bard in wonder. "You came back. You came back to me." And she hugged the younger woman fiercely. "Thank you. Thank you." A shuddering sigh. "Promise me," she whispered. "Promise me, you’ll never leave me again."

Gwen wasn’t sure if Randi was thanking her or a god, or simply talking. But she savored the warmth that flowed through her at the love and concern she felt emanating from her companion. This was home. "I promise." Then she fell into a deep sleep.



"You all right?" the doctor murmured to Reed as they stood back and watched the reunion. The seer was holding her head in her hands, covering her eyes. She nodded in answer to Lacey’s question.

"Um, yeah. Just a little overwhelmed by the unexpected energy."

"Are you gonna be all right to finish? We can’t stop, and I need you."

"I’ll be fine. Besides," pointing to the piece of equipment that had failed earlier. "We’re back on track."

Lacey looked at the recalcitrant system, shocked to find it up and running again. "Thank you, Athena," she muttered. "And thank you for guiding my hands to be able to bring Gwen back to us." She looked at Reed. "C’mon, my friend. Let’s get this finished. Then I’m gonna buy you a beer."

"I believe I’ll have to take you up on that."



"Damnation!" Ares vented. "Someone is always on their side. But I’m gonna win this time, Randi. You belong to me now." The laughter that followed sent chills up the sisters’ spines.



"It was a close thing, love," Ella whispered to Tommy when she came out of the room. She walked into his open arms and laid her head on his shoulder. "For a minute there... for a minute, I was sure we’d lost her." The man was quiet while his wife struggled with what to say, but she felt his heartbeat pick up at her words. "She stopped breathing." Brown eyes met in bleak understanding.

"Randi... oh goddess... I never thought I’d ever see her break like this." He led them over to the sofa, and seated them together. Ella was still clinging to him, and he was loath to remove her.

"What happened, sweetheart?" His whisper broke the silence that had dragged on interminably.

"Um," she scrubbed her hand over her face. "Reed and Lacey moved in immediately to revive her. Randi clung to her talking to her constantly... begging Gwen not to leave her. I’ve never seen her this emotional. Tommy, the tears were pouring out of her eyes, even as she breathed for Gwen. God, it was awful."

"Is she all right now? Are both of them all right?"

"Well, Gwen is breathing on her own, but is in some sort of a coma. She came to long enough so we knew she was okay, and then fell into a deep sleep. Randi... Randi is a basket case, honestly. I’m thinking she may be staying close to Gwen for a good long time after this. I just hope she doesn’t smother her." She shook her curly head. "I need to get some juice for the girls and get back in there. Thanks for listening, hon."

"Thank you for sharing. I love you."

"I love you too. Will you go check on Dad and the boy? We’re gonna be here a while longer."

"Yep. You’ll call if anything changes."

"Um hmm, though they expect Gwen to be out at least until tomorrow morning now. Lacey said she’ll need at least that much recovery time, though she wouldn’t be surprised if she sleeps for two days." She walked him to the door.

"Ya know... you kinda have to wonder if we’re missing the bigger picture here sometimes. Because they seem to have more than their share of odd experiences." Tommy shrugged his shoulders. "They attract trouble like bees to honey." He stole a kiss. "See ya later, love."

"Bye, baby." She shut the door, and returned to the bedroom loaded down with juice and some high-energy snacks.



Seventeen grueling hours later, Reed and Lacey stepped back from the bard a final time with a sigh of relief. "That’s it. Now we wait." They were thankful Randi had finally fallen into a fitful doze. This would be something that would haunt her for a while.

"What do you think?" Lacey asked Reed as they leaned back on the couch, feet propped on the table. Ella sat quietly, listening.

"I think Gwen will recover from this faster than Randi will. She should be up and about in two or three days. How long things take after that will be up to them. But given the strength of their bond.... I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that bond that got them through this."

"You really think?"

"Yeah, I do." The seer closed her eyes, and laid her dark head back on the couch. "I felt her essence leave, Lace. For a very long moment, she was really dead. It...." She scrubbed a hand through her hair and peered at the other woman through slitted eyes. Lacey’s eyes were pinned to her in fascination. "It’s hard to explain. I felt her leave, and I felt the physical force of her soul being pulled back by Randi’s." She sighed. "It was almost painful."

"That’s why you turned so white?"

"Um hmm. But the relief when she woke up was almost as intense. We’re gonna need to keep an eye on Randi for the next couple days."

"We can do that. I arranged my schedule to be here through Sunday. Gwen should be awake by then."

"Well, since Tiny works from home, he can keep an eye on the puppies. It’s not a problem for me to stay either. We can watch out for them in shifts. However, after the last seventeen hours, I’m pretty sure we can all get some rest tonight."

"I concur." Lacey rose, and stretched, groaning when her back popped back into alignment. "Damn, that feels good. C’mon... I hear a bed calling our names."

They slowly climbed the stairs, and the house fell silent in the darkness.



It was still dark outside when Randi lurched out of sleep. She struggled to sit up, until her senses recognized the scent and weight of the warmth in her arms that pinned her neatly in place. She brushed back her sweat soaked hair, and greedily inhaled the aroma that surrounded her.

Oh, God, love... that was too damned close. You can’t leave me alone here, not now. Not like this. She gently covered the bard’s small hand, noticing for the first time that Gwen’s hand was clenched around her Soulmates’ Ring, even in the depths of sleep. It brought a smile to her face. We will get through this, love, and be stronger for it. It was a long time before her eyes closed again in sleep.



Morning was nearly gone before the household stirred. Randi was the first to awaken, but she was loath to give up her comfortable nest. It took both Lacey and Reed to convince her to leave Gwen long enough to shower and change. She nearly broke when the bard whimpered when she got up.

"I’ll be right back, love. Nothing will separate us again." The seer and the doctor exchanged glances. This was going to be a long road of recovery.

Randi padded back in to the bedroom, combing through wet hair as she settled back into the bed. She felt justified, and not a little gratified, when Gwen immediately snuggled up close to her. She hesitated, then took out her own journal. She opened it, and it fell to a day she had long since forgotten. She reread the entry and smiled. Some day, love, I will have to share all this with you. But I want you to be awake and cognizant when you see the difference you made in my life... years before we met.

She gently turned the paper pages, caressing them with respect. Finally, she found the place where she wanted to read from, and cleared her throat, and began reading aloud.

"I’m going to Midas for the first time today. I’m really quite interested to see what Tommy has done. He’s established quite a reputation in the Artist’s Guild. I really wish he could have snagged Gwen Goldman, though. She is the most impressive bard I’ve ever heard." She laughed retrospectively as she noted the next entry.

"If the news wasn’t so good, I’d have to kill the little twerp for keeping such a secret from me." Randi chuckled again in memory. "You know, I was so bowled over by your presence, by finally getting to meet you, that my hand was shaking when I wrote this. You would never believe how nervous I was when I looked up, and caught those pretty green eyes staring at me."



Lacey and Reed stood in the doorway listening for a long moment, then turned away to give the two women a bit of privacy. "Ella said she’d bring us some lunch when we were ready. Whaddya say?"

"I say that woman is a damned fine cook, and I’m not about to let an opportunity like that pass me by. Let’s see if we can get in touch with her." And they went to place the vid call.



Two full days passed while Gwen slept, and Randi read aloud from her personal journal to the bard. The nights were harder, as Randi tended to slip into nightmares when she slept. Reed happened to be watching when she woke the second time that second night, and the seer woke Lacey. It didn’t take *much* convincing before the doctor gave her something to insure they would all get a peaceful night’s sleep.

Reed cocked her head as they left the two to sleep. Something in Randi’s aura, now that she was relaxed and resting, was off-kilter. She shrugged... probably the still unhealed link between them. With a shake of her head, she stretched out on the couch. She and Lacey had agreed they needed to be nearby, and were taking shifts on the couch. Both had their fingers crossed for the bard to awaken on the morrow.



Sunday morning dawned with a haze, and Randi knew when she opened her eyes there was a storm brewing somewhere nearby. None of that mattered, though, as about the time she got a good stretch and opened her eyes more fully, Gwen started moving herself.

First, the arm around her waist tightened and relaxed. Then a sighing breath, and eyelashes tickling her neck. The warrior couldn’t help it... she had to laugh, albeit silently. It was the adorable scowl on a sleepy face with two half-opened green eyes that made her laugh out loud, though. But when the bard reached a hand up, and gently started tracing her face, the laughter stopped, and she waited.

"Good morning," Gwen whispered, her voice still hoarse from sleep and nonuse.

"Welcome back, Little One. I’ve missed you." A beat. "How do you feel?" A serious question on many levels. The Sabre knew the procedure wouldn’t give Gwen her memory back. It would simply allow her to remember and feel again without destroying herself. The bard had to be ready to remember before the memories would return, and there was a lot of bad mixed in with the good. Randi knew she’d have to be patient.

Gwen gave the question due consideration. "Tired, actually. Sore, and I’d really like a shower."

"I’ll tell you what... I’ll give you a bit of privacy to get your shower while I rustle us all up some breakfast. Then I’m sure Lacey’s gonna wanna check you out. Then we can worry about what to do with the rest of the day."

"Sounds like a plan." She gathered the sheet around her while Randi prudently kept her back turned. "What day is it anyway?" The bard moved to the bathroom door, before the warrior’s words registered. "Sunday?? I’ve been asleep for two and a half days???"

"Yep, but Lacey said it was normal, all things considered." She didn’t mention the bard’s brush with death, and neither did Gwen. "This was harder than the original adjustments he did, because he set it up over several sessions. And it took longer to fix than it did to put in place." She paused, uncertain about saying more. "Go get your shower. We’ll talk more about it when you get out."

Gwen nodded thoughtfully, and closed the door behind her.



Chapter XV

The remainder of the day was spent quietly. The storm that had appeared so imminent in the morning hours blew itself out to sea in the early afternoon. Reed and Lacey both stayed for lunch, then took their leave. Both promised to return again soon with their significant others before Gwen said goodbye.

The doctor made sure the bard knew to take it easy. "I know you’ve been asleep for a couple days, but this is a major ordeal to recover from. Just take it easy, and do what you can. Don’t force, and don’t rush. Everything will return to you in its own good time."

"Thanks, Lacey." A beat while she studied her hands, then green eyes peered into brown. "You don’t know how much I appreciate your coming here. I’m sorry...."

"I’m not. I’m actually a little flattered that you were jealous. But I assure you it was without cause, and I’m looking forward to coming back with Nicky. I think you two will get along famously." Unexpectedly, Gwen engulfed Lacey in a hug, and though startled, the doctor returned the embrace fully. "We’ll be seeing you again very soon."

"You’ll be all right, my friend," Reed said to the bard before she took her leave. The doctor was talking in low tones to the warrior, and the seer took the opportunity to speak to Gwen. "Already your aura is returning to its normal state."

"Thank you for coming. Reed. You seem to have been rushing to my rescue a lot lately."

"No more than you would have done for me, had positions been reversed." Gwen nodded her head in agreement, knowing it for the truth. "We’ll be in touch. Tiny is anxious for a real visit."

"You are welcome any time." And the pilot and doctor had left swiftly and silently from the private pad, and left Gwen and Randi in peaceful solitude. Words between them weren’t necessary right now, as they sat soaking in the joy of simply being together again. The weekend had been extremely draining, though, and they sat cuddled on the couch together in a half-daze when Tommy and Ella came over to check on them in the early evening.

"How do you feel, Gwen?" In true motherly fashion, Ella rested a hand on the bard’s forehead checking her temperature, then absently placed a kiss there before taking a seat nearby. She found the fact that she and Randi clung to one another both endearing and heartbreaking.

"Tired, which sounds really stupid, I know, given that I was asleep for two days. But I feel like I ran a marathon."

"Well, you don’t have to come back to work til you feel ready."

"I’ll be there tomorrow, T. Even if I have to take things slow, I’ll be there."

"But...." Randi cut in. She stopped speaking when warm fingers lightly touched her lips.

"I need to. I need to let things get back to normal." Blue eyes searched green intently before the dark head nodded in agreement. Tommy and Ella looked away to give them a little privacy in what their glances had made an intimate moment. Then he cleared his throat.

"Gwen, how are your folks?"

"Doing pretty well, actually. Talking to them earlier is the one thing we accomplished today." She smiled. "Daddy is hopeful and determined about regaining the use of his legs. He must have some serious motivation. And Mother, well... she is supporting him in every way she can think of. We’ll probably go up again next weekend," clasping Randi’s hand. "They both seem to get such a renewal from our visits, and Randi is good about keeping Daddy in line." The group chuckled at the visual this description produced.

"That’s too funny. We’ve talked about going to see them for a day or two."

"Oh, please do," Gwen answered Ella’s statement. "That would do so much for them."

"Well, I had an idea. What do you think about getting some of his friends together, and making a small party? It might be a good way to show him support, help them to see they are not alone."

"Oh, I like that idea. I’ll bet Reed can get you the names of some of his military buddies, and I know some friends from home that would come, and...." She chewed her lip in thought. "It might not be a small party, though."

"That’s all right. I only suggested small, because I have no idea who their friends are. "I’ll tell you what... you give me a number, and I’ll set up the details. You and Randi can do the inviting."

An uneasiness crept up Randi’s spine, sending chills skittering back down it. She thrust the unexplained anxiety away from her, and forced her attention back to the conversation at hand. Gwen gave her a searching look, before clasping her hand a little tighter. The bard returned her attention to Ella.

"Okay. Are we planning this for this weekend?"

Ella and Tommy exchanged looks, then the woman nodded. "Sure. Why not?"

"All right. I’ll give Mother a call. Shall we plan for Saturday?" Gwen looked at Tommy. "I’d like to take half a day on Friday to go up and help Mother get ready."

"Take the day, Gwen. We’ll all go up a day early. We don’t want to make more work for Jill. This is to encourage, not kill." He was startled when she reached out and gave him a short, tight hug.

"Thanks, T."



"Do you feel the darkness approaching, warrior?" Ares’ smile was threatening and mysterious.



Monday morning dawned hot and clear. Gwen found herself wishing for the cooler days of autumn. She still felt a little tired, and was moving a little slower than normal. She was sure the heat wasn’t helping. Randi looked at her in concern.

"You okay, Little One?"

"Hmm? Yeah... just wishing for cooler days already."

"Me too. C’mon. We’re gonna be late."

Randi walked the bard to her classroom, and returned to her office. She sat at her desk for a while, trying to concentrate on the work in front of her. She read the same sentence three times, before she growled in frustration, and stood to pace. She tried reading aloud while walking around, but that didn’t help much either. Finally, she thrust her hands into her hair and groaned. Then she flung her door open with enough force to make it bounce, and strode out of the main building, heading for the stables.

Tommy came out of his office at the noise, and just shook his head at the expected reaction. "This is gonna be a tough situation for you to get around, isn’t it, short stuff?" He watched until she came charging out of the barn on Excalibur’s back. He called an alert to the security team, and went back to work.

Gwen noticed the stallion’s hoof beats outside her room several times throughout the morning. She wondered what was going on, but every time she looked, there was nothing to be seen. Unsurprisingly, though... when the lunch chimes rang, Randi sat right outside the room waiting patiently.

"Is something wrong, Randi?" They were sitting at the table eating. Or rather, the bard was slowly chewing, and the Sabre sat mostly pushing her food around her plate. Gwen had a very good idea what was bothering her friend, but felt the warrior needed to bring it up.

"No," Randi answered hastily, shoving a bite of food in her mouth. "Just a mite off my feed, I think. You had the right idea about the heat this morning. I’m looking forward to a break from it myself." She paused. "I’m gonna make a few calls to get things started for Geoff’s party. Anyone special you want me to call?"

The bard recognized the change of topic ploy, but went with it. Things would come to a head or dissipate in their own good time. "Yeah, actually. Will you invite Sal and his family and also Tiny and Reed?"

Randi’s brow scrunched up at the mention of Sal’s name, then smiled. If anyone could make Geoff forget about his difficulties, the eccentric talent manager would be the one to do it. "All right, I can do that." A beat. "You about done?" nodding to the half finished plate. Gwen nodded. "Well then, let me walk you back, and I’ll go make some calls."



Gwen kept an eye out the window the remainder of the afternoon. She could almost time how long it would be between sightings of the dark head outside her room. She hoped it would just be for today. She wasn’t sure how long she could be patient with this kind of scrutiny.



"You up for a walk on the beach?" Randi asked the bard after dinner later that evening. "It’s a beautiful night."

Gwen looked at the warrior and agreed. "Yeah, it is. And yes, I would." She took the proffered hand and allowed Randi to help her up. She made no effort to remove her hand, and noticed that the Marine seemed to cling to the connection. The walk was nice, and their conversation was light and varied.

They reached the shelter of the dunes, and by mutual, unspoken consent meandered over to them and sat. Randi sat first, not at all displeased when the bard sat in front of her, and leaned into her for support. Tentatively, she wrapped her arms around the bard’s middle, sighing silently when Gwen wrapped her own firmly on top of them.

They sat together that way for the longest time, simply listening to the waves crash and looking at the stars. When the blonde began to droop in her arms, the warrior gently prodded. "C’mon, Little One. Let’s go home and get into bed."

Sleepy green eyes peered up at her adoringly. "I am home."

The response took Randi by surprise, and stole her ability to breathe for a very long moment. Then she leaned forward and kissed the bard’s forehead. "Me too," was her only answer, and they trudged through the sand back to the beach house in silence.



Tuesday and Wednesday passed much the same way, though Randi noticed Gwen was getting snippier and less patient with her hovering. They still took walks in the evenings, and cuddled up together at night, but the days were becoming unbearable. Thursday morning, things came to an ugly head.



"C’mon, Gwen. We’re gonna be late."

"No, you’re gonna be late. I already let T know I’m not coming in."

Randi crossed to the bard side, reaching a hand out to touch her forehead. "What’s wrong? Are you sick? Do I need to call Lacey?" Crossly, Gwen swatted it away.

"No, I’m fine. I just need some space. You’re driving me nuts!"

Stung, the Marine jerked away from her as though scorched by fire. Hurt shone out of blue eyes before they shuttered, and became cold and impassive. "I see. I apologize for caring. I won’t trouble you further." She stalked toward the door.


Aphrodite watched, her smacking hand tingling.


"Don’t you walk away from me, Randi. I’m not gonna die on you again. And you need to accept and get past that."

The Marine froze when Gwen mentioned dying, and she took a shuddering breath. The mask never fell, though, and when she turned to look at the bard, her face was expressionless.

"We don’t have time to talk about this now. I’m going to be late." Without another word, she strode out the door.

The blonde stood rooted to the spot in shock, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Tears fell from her face as she relived the moment of wide-eyed hurt in Randi’s eyes before they had closed against her. "Damn!" she muttered. "That isn’t how that was supposed to go." She scrubbed an impatient hand across her eyes and picked up her journal, falling gracelessly onto the couch as she began to read.



Tommy saw the fire in her eyes as she entered the building, and sent out a quick warning to the security staff. He hadn’t been surprised to hear from the bard... he knew things had to break between them soon. His surprise had come from Gwen’s tolerance of the over-protectiveness. From the look on Randi’s face, things had come to a head, and it hadn’t been at all pretty.

The morning passed slowly at Midas, except for members of the security division. Each and every member was called on the carpet for an impromptu review. Mid-afternoon, one of the agents made a comment overheard by Randi that gave her pause into her actions.

"I’ll be glad when she and Gwen make up. Every time they fight, we end up with an inspection."

Is that true? The warrior thought to herself. Do they suffer every time we disagree or fight? She had several more operatives to speak to, but they were waiting in the outer office. She was alone at the moment in her inner sanctuary, and she walked to the window. While she stared out unseeingly at the vista before her, and at one classroom in particular, her mind reviewed her time at Midas.

I’ll be damned! She moved to her calendar, checking dates that went back to her first day. I have. Shit... I owe these guys some kind of apology. The sound of thunder drew her from her musing. She was torn now... wanting to comfort the bard, yet still allow Gwen the space she needed.

She debated with herself for all of a minute before she stalked to the door and yanked it open. "Patterson, Jones, Jenkins, Randolph.... you guys are dismissed. I have something to take care of that will keep me out of the office for the remainder of the day." She looked at Beth. "Make sure Parker knows I’m gone, will ya?" She was out the door before the other woman could reply.

"Sure," Beth answered the closed door.



The bottom fell out of the sky just as she started across the bridge. The second rumble of thunder caused her to speed up, knowing what the sound did to Gwen lately.

She brought the transport to a halt with a jerk, and rushed in the front door. She came to a blinding halt just inside the foyer, wondering now about the wisdom of her hasty, gut-instinct reaction. Well, nothing to do for it now, but go in and face the music. If she still needs her space I’ll go see Ella for a while.

She crept silently out into the living room, then froze at the tableau she encountered. Gwen sat on the floor by the French doors, curled up into a tiny ball. Her forehead rested on the glass, and even from where she stood, Randi could see the tear tracks on the bard’s face. The Sabre forced hesitant feet forward, until she stood in front of Gwen. After several long seconds, the blonde head turned, and Gwen gave her friend a tentative, welcoming smile.

Randi felt the constrictive bands around her heart loosen, and shyly returned the smile. She started to sit, when Gwen stopped her.

"No, help me up, would you?" Her voice was still husky from the tears.

The bard took the larger hand and stood, then led the taller woman back to the couch, but surprisingly, seated her on the coffee table. The thunder continued to rumble and the rain still fell, but it had been put aside by the two women as inconsequential. What concerned them now was the electricity between them that Randi could almost see, and she wondered what had happened in the interim she’d been gone to change things so drastically. She waited, though, giving Gwen the opportunity to formulate whatever it was she so obviously wanted to say.

"I was able to catch up on my reading today." The bard drew a shaky breath. "And when the storm started, I remembered." Green eyes looked into intense blue. Having Randi sit on the coffee table while she stood put them almost at eye level with one another. "I remembered everything." She moved to stand in front of Randi. The warrior spread her legs slightly, and Gwen stepped between them, resting her hands lightly on the broad shoulders. Of their own volition, the Marine’s hands went to the bard’s waist, gently caressing her strong back.

"I remember what meeting you felt like." A small hand drew itself through dark locks. "I remember these intense new feelings I’d never felt before, and wondering what they were, and where they came from. I remember being scared when I figured out I was falling in love with you, afraid of what it would change between us. I remember admitting to myself that it was love, and deciding we were worth the risk. I remember how wonderful that feeling was." She looked down, then up again, and found herself captured once more in that blue regard. She moved her other hand to tenderly trace the well-known, beloved face. "I remember how devastated I was when I knew, I KNEW, it was too late for us. That you were gone from me."

A single tear escaped her eyes, and Randi reached up a hand to wipe it away. Her hand moved into the blonde locks, tangling itself gently.

"I remember, Randi, and I’m not giving it up. Not again."

Time stood still then. Gwen looked into Randi’s eyes, then dropped her gaze to the warrior’s full lips. Involuntarily, she licked her own, before bringing her eyes back to the Sabre’s. She leaned forward slightly, pleased when the hand at her waist tightened convulsively.

Her lips barely brushed those of the warrior, then she pulled back to look into hooded, darkened eyes. Randi’s nostril’s flared slightly, and Gwen could feel the tension singing in the hand at her waist and the one clutching her hair. She realized in that moment that Randi was showing remarkable restraint, waiting for her to lead the way.

She leaned in again, taking the time to savor the senses that surrounded her. Randi’s spicy scent and her own co mingled. The soap and shampoo they shared, though it smelled slightly different on each of them. The clean smell of sunshine and rain. The sound of the warrior’s rapidly beating heart, and her own in tandem with it. The silky smoothness of the skin under her fingertips.

Her eyes followed the path her fingers took, and once again fell on the full lips. This time, the kiss lasted longer. Her tongue darted out to trace those lips, and she was lost. The taste, the feel and the moan that opened Randi’s mouth to her exploration produced a moan of her own, and she felt herself drowning in the sensations being created throughout her body.

At the first touch of Gwen’s tongue on her lips, Randi groaned and closed her eyes, and gave herself over to the feelings surging over her. She pulled the bard into her, thrilled when she felt Gwen’s arms tighten around her. For long moments they stayed that way... touching, tasting, rediscovering.

When the need for air forced them apart, they were slow and averse to do so. Several small kisses before they physically separated and still they remained in each other’s space, breathing one another’s air.

"Oh, God," Gwen whispered. "How could I have forgotten this? How could he take this away from me?"

"All that matters is you remember now, and that is enough." She stopped speaking when the bard leaned in again, and recaptured her lips. Banked fires burst into flame, and twin moans merged into a single sound. With great reluctance, Randi pulled back again.

"God, you’re good at that." She smiled tearfully. "And I have missed you so much." She hugged the smaller woman tightly to her, pleased when Gwen snuggled deeper into her. "Would you mind... would you be greatly offended... I mean, I’d like to take things slowly." Gwen pulled away from her with a look of disbelief on her face. "What I mean is... I’d like the chance to court you properly. And when you’re ready, we’ll move this relationship forward again." She looked down, then up into those verdant eyes gazing at her in wondering admiration. "It’s your call, but I’d really like the opportunity."

The Marine leaned into the small hand that cupped her face. "It means that much to you?" Randi’s eyes dropped and she nodded. The hand moved down her cheek, and along the scar, to lift the warrior’s chin. Blue eyes peeked up at indulgent green, and she had to smile in response to Gwen’s grin. The bard nodded. "I’d like that." A beat. "As long as we don’t have to give up the kissing."

Randi captured the lips in front of her with a fierce intensity that took Gwen’s breath away and made her respond in kind. She slid down onto the warrior’s lap, whimpering. An answering growl from Randi made the Sabre pull back, eyes darkened to an indigo. "No," she smiled. "We certainly do not have to give up the kissing."

"Good," the bard replied, nibbling lightly on the lips, before moving her attentions across the jaw line until she reached an ear. She blew lightly into it, then chuckled silently at the quivering she felt chasing up the Marine’s spine, before she leaned in and whispered. "Because I think I’m addicted to you. The way you taste and your scent, and the feel of your body in my arms."

Now it was Randi’s turn to whimper, and she looked at Gwen with pleading eyes. "You don’t play fair, you know."

"I’m sorry," contritely, but with eyes twinkling merrily. "I just love you so much, and to be able to feel that again.... God, it’s like being high, I’m so giddy."

The warrior swung them over to the couch, where they landed in a tangle of limbs. "Sorry," she said, "But my butt was starting to hurt."

Gwen started to laugh, and when Randi realized the absurdity of her words in conjunction with their conversation, proceeded to join her.

The bard gently traced the well-known and much loved features. She smiled when Randi closed her eyes and sighed at her touch. "I love you."

The Marine softly kissed the fingertips on her face. "I love you too, so very much." She turned them so they were sitting front to back, her body encompassing the blonde’s completely. "And speaking of being high, I have a surprise for you tomorrow, if you’re willing to try it."

Gwen turned slightly in Randi’s arms, until she could see into her face. She studied her for a long moment before she nodded, turned around again, and snuggled back into the soldier’s strong arms. "All right," was all she said.

"Just like that?"

"Just like that." She squirmed until her body was being cradled, and she bent her head back to catch Randi’s eyes. "I trust you. I always have."

Tears welled up in the blue eyes, and she placed a chaste kiss on the forehead under her chin. "Thank you, love. That means the world to me. *YOU* mean the world to me."

They grew quiet listening to the rain continue to fall outdoors, never realizing when they dozed off in each other’s arms.



The rain had not abated when mutterings and curses quietly emerged from the larger of the two bodies laying almost prostrate on the sofa. "Ow." Pop. "Damn!" Pop. "Stupid." Pop. Snap. A low groan, and the squeak of leather as she tried to stretch without waking her companion. Several pops this time, and the figure gave a moan of appreciation. "Oh yeah. That’s much better."

She was startled when she looked down into a pair of sleepy green eyes. "You about done there, Stud? It’s really hard to sleep with all the moving my mattress is doing." Gwen patted the firm stomach beneath her hands, and felt Randi’s chuckle rumble through it.

"Yeah, well, yours is more comfortable than mine." The Sabre lifted a hand and rubbed her neck. "I think I have a crick in my neck."

"I’ll tell ya what... let’s fix some dinner, and I’ll see if I can rub it out for you."

"Steak and potatoes?"

"Sounds good."

They worked together in silence for a time. Then Randi cleared her throat and spoke. "I think I owe you an apology."

The bard quirked her eyebrow in question, confused. "Hmm?"

"For this morning... this week. I knew I was being overprotective, but I couldn’t seem to stop. I just...." She broke off as Gwen’s hand covered her mouth.

"No apologies, unless you accept mine as well." Now a dark brow rose, and the blonde had to laugh lightly at their similar reactions. "Sorry... it’s just...." She traced the eyebrow in question. Gwen sighed. "If any one person in the world should have been able to understand where you were coming from, *I* should have. And I didn’t. All I could see was that you were making us both nuts."

She took the larger hands in her own small ones, and led them over to a chair that she eased Randi into before kneeling at her feet. "I’m not going to die on you, Randi. Not again. I made you a promise, and I always keep my promises. You know that. You’re stuck with me... forever."

Gwen leaned into the stroking touch that caressed her face. "And you with me," the warrior answered. "I love you, Little One."

"I love you, too," the bard answered, rising to her feet and lightly kissing Randi before moving back to the kitchen. The warrior sat admiring the smooth walk, and rolling hips. She had the good grace to the blush when Gwen turned around, smirking.

"If you’re done staring at my behind, you can come help me finish dinner."

A rakish grin appeared. "If we wait for that, we’re gonna starve to death. Cause I don’t see that happening for a very, very long time." The she laughed aloud at the flush of red that suffused Gwen’s face. "C’mon. I’m hungry." And hand in hand they walked into the kitchen.



The chirping and calls of early morning birds was all Randi heard when she opened her eyes to the gray of the pre-morning dawn. She smiled, knowing that the rain wouldn’t prevent them from doing what she had planned. This is gonna be so awesome! I hope she likes this. The Sabre had spent the two weeks of Gwen’s memory loss planning different new things for them to do together. She wanted to introduce the bard to some new experiences, as well as revisit some old favorites. Courting wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked.

She smiled again when the body in her arms squeezed and snuggled closer with a sigh, before resuming the deep, regular breathing of sleep. The Marine gingerly stretched, trying to decide if she really wanted to climb out of her warm nest and go for a run. She shook her head and closed her eyes. The hell with it, she thought. I like where I am just fine.

It was the gentle touch on her face that woke Randi the second time, though the sun in her eyes wasn’t very conducive to sleep either. She kept her eyes closed, enjoying the soft contact, until the fingers traced her lips. She sighed and kissed them, then bodily pulled Gwen up to meet her lips. The kiss was warm, and sensual, and her hands, of their own accord ran up and down the smooth skin of the strong back. Thank God for T-shirts. She noticed the bard’s hands wrapped in her hair, and smiled as she drew back slightly.

"Good morning."

"Good morning, love." Gwen returned to the lips beneath her for another sampling. "I like waking up this way."

"Um hmm. Me too. But we...." A pounding on the door cut her off. "Let me up. It’s probably Reed and Tiny. Tommy and Ella should be here soon too."

Gwen’s eyes got big when she looked at the clock. "Oh man... we really overslept."

"Yep, so come on." Another loud knock. "Go get your shower. I’ll let them in."



"They must have overslept, Tiny. Give it a rest. We can always wait in the shuttle."

"I know, but considering how trouble follows these two...." He broke off when the door opened, then whirled to face Reed as she yelped and turned away. Randi moved toward her, but stopped when she held up a hand.

"Stay there, please," the seer instructed her Marine friend. Reed took a deep breath, relaxing into Tiny’s arms, but still not looking directly at Randi. "You two are back together again. She remembers."

"Yes, she does, but what does that...." Realization dawned on her and Tiny at the same time. "Oh God, Reed! I am so sorry. I completely forgot about the aura thing in my excitement. She just recovered it yesterday afternoon, and...." She would have babbled on further, had not the other woman put out a hand to stop her.

"Randi, it’s okay. It’s wonderful that she remembers. Here," pressing a package into the Marine’s hands. "We’re gonna go wait in the shuttle. I should have time to get a temporary shield in place... long enough to get us to the capital." She and Tiny turned and walked away.

"Okay, Reed. We’ll be there in a bit. I’m sorry."

The seer waved her acknowledgment, but didn’t turn around again.

She laid the package on the bed, and knocked on the bathroom door. "Gwen, you need to wear what is on the bed, okay?" Randi waited for verbal confirmation that the bard heard her, before she went out to start the coffee. She’d just gotten it on, when Tommy and Ella knocked at the door. Twin sets of eyebrows rose when they noticed her state of undress.

"You’re going to the capital city in your pajamas? Kinda informal, don’t you think?"

"Smart ass!" smacking the back of his head. "We overslept. Tiny and Reed are here, but they are waiting in the shuttle." She would have said more, but Gwen poked her head out the bedroom door at that moment.

"I’m done, Stud, if you want to get in." A beat. "Oh, morning, guys!"

Randi couldn’t help the smile, and she headed toward the bedroom. "Coffee should be about ready if you want a cup, and you know you’re welcome to wait here. We won’t be long." She disappeared inside the doorway.

Gwen looked at the suit for a long time, and had just pulled it on and zipped it up when the warrior stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. She didn’t even look at the bard, but disappeared into her closet, re-emerging a few minutes later dressed in an identical outfit to the bard’s own.

"Um, Randi? What are we doing exactly? I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you wear something like this before, but you’re obviously quite comfortable in it."

The Marine came and stood in front of Gwen, giving her a good once-over before resting her hand’s lightly on the bard’s hips. The suit was borrowed from Reed, who was closer to Gwen’s size than Randi was. She smiled, and pulled them together, meeting the bard’s lips in a long tender exploration before releasing her and stepping back.

"We are going skydiving."

In answer, the green eyes went big and round.



Chapter XVI

"Breathe, love," waiting for Gwen to blink and look at her. Randi smiled. "You okay?"


"Um hmm."

The bard was silent for a bit, processing. "Okay, I’m up for trying that, I guess. Is it fun?"

"It’s incredible. I promise you’ll love it."

For her answer, Gwen merely took the big hand in her own, and led them out into the living room. Tommy was still waiting for them. Ella had taken coffee out to Reed and Tiny. He took one look at the two of them and grinned from ear to ear. Then he reached for the duffle Randi carried. She frowned.

"You’ve got better things to be holding in your arms, I’m thinking. And I am so glad."

Randi took advantage of her now empty arms to wrap them around her lover. "Me, too."



"Waitaminute... wait just a damn minute. You’re telling me the two of you are going to intentionally jump out of a perfectly good shuttle?"


"Because it’s fun."


"You’re nuts."

"I’ve been called worse, Tommy." The trio was almost to the shuttle pad. "Look, T. It’s something I did throughout my military career. It’s a rush I want to share with Gwen."

"I can think of far better and more interesting ways to get that rush that don’t require falling into the air at fifteen thousand feet," he muttered, then watched the color rise in the two faces in front of him. He cleared his throat. "Ahem. Sorry. C’mon, let’s get going."

A mischievous twinkle entered the bard’s eyes. "As good as sex, hmm?"

"Well, no," Randi answered with her own twinkle. "But it makes for a nice feeling anyway."



They stayed away from the cockpit, trying to give Reed as much space as they could manage in the confined area. Tiny came out to them when they were airborne with all the straps and harnesses they would need for the jump.

"How’s Reed?" The Marine questioned her friend, as she began to don the various bits of equipment.

"Better," he answered tersely. "She’s got the temp shields in place, and we will work on getting a more permanent one once we land." He looked Randi squarely in the eye. "You could have given us a bit of warning, ya know."

"I’m sorry, Tiny. You’re right. I just honestly didn’t think about it. Gwen didn’t recover her memories until yesterday afternoon, and, well... everything else went to the wayside after that. I was just so happy, that I forgot about how our bond affects Reed. Especially since it wasn’t a problem last week."

His gaze softened at her words, and he realized that her last visit with his partner had been fresh in her mind, if not the reason for her lack of reaction to the two of them.

"We both plan to apologize more fully to Reed, once she’s able to barrier. We figured she’d need some space until then." Gwen had come up alongside the warrior during her speech, and wanted Tiny to know she felt they were both accountable for forgetting. He smiled when he realized the truth they spoke, and he handed the bard her gear.

"Let’s get ya’ll suited up and strapped together. We’ll be over the jump point in about twenty minutes." He backed up when Randi reached forward to help Gwen with her apparatus. He saw Tommy and Ella watching the proceedings in fascination.

Tiny lifted the chute and helped Randi into it, allowing her to adjust the fit for her comfort. The Marine was strapped and locked in moments, then he watched in bemusement when Gwen slipped in front of the warrior, and began to check the lock mechanisms. Randi just smiled at her bard indulgently.

"You know what you’re doing there, Little One?"

"I’m keeping you safe," came the serious answer. "Let me."

The Marine reached out and covered the small hands working the buckles on her chest. "I love you." She moved the hands to a different spot. "Here... this one first."

It didn’t take long until the bard was satisfied that the harness was secure, and Randi turned Gwen away from her, then pulled her back to her chest. "Now," motioning Tiny over to them, "We’re gonna be strapped together." He handed over the last of the equipment, and stepped back.

They stood together quietly, enjoying the closeness, while Randi fastened them together at both shoulders and hips. When the locks were fasten and secured, Randi handed around the electronic deployment mechanism. Two clicks, and it was locked on Gwen’s chest waiting for the moment it would be activated. The Sabre patted the ripcord, making sure their backup was ready, just in case the EDM did not work. She had checked their equipment twice, but it never hurt to be sure. They donned their helmets, and proceeded to duck walk to the door. Tiny slid it opened, then helped ease them into a sitting position at the edge. Gwen was pretty much sitting in Randi’s lap, clutching at the long legs stretched out on either side of her. Tiny looked to Randi, who gave him a thumbs up, and he responded with a nod. Knowing he would signal them when it was time, the Marine turned her attention to the bard.

"You okay?" She spoke quietly into the helmet’s mic.

"Ummm hmmm," was the drawn out answer. "Just a little nervous, I guess." She took a firm grasp on the shoulder straps.

Large hands found their way between them, and the Sabre tenderly rubbed the knots out of the bard’s back. "We don’t have to do this, Gwen."

The blonde head turned as much as it could with her shoulders strapped. "No, I want to do this. I just...."

"Okay. I just wanted to be sure."

At that moment, Tiny got the word from Reed that it was time. He tapped Randi’s shoulder, giving her the thumbs up, and she nodded and responded in kind. "We’re at fifteen thousand feet, Randi. We’ll meet you two on the ground."

"Here we go, love. We’re just gonna fall out, okay?"

"A-a-all right." But by the time she’d finished, the Sabre had rolled them out the shuttle door, and they were free falling toward the planet. Two seconds of stark terror, before the adrenaline kicked in, and then she had to cheer. "Whoo hoo!!" Randi’s response was a soundless chuckle Gwen could feel at her back.

The feeling of freedom, of absolute awe pervaded Gwen’s psyche, and she felt herself wishing for the moment to last forever. Then she felt the chute open, and found herself pulled upward in a rush of motion. As they floated planetward, the bard felt a peace invade her soul, and she began to mentally order her thoughts and feelings, experiencing the first stirring of story composition she’d had in eighteen months.

"Oh God," she whispered, shaken to the core.

"You all right?" The warrior’s words filtered through her hearing, and into her consciousness. Randi couldn’t wrap her arms around the younger woman, and endeavored to send comfort through the sound of her voice.

The warmth that enveloped the bard made her gasp again, and she couldn’t have stopped the tears of she’d tried. But they were happy tears, and she welcomed the release they brought. She smiled, even though she knew Randi couldn’t see it. "I’m wonderful. Thanks for asking."

The Marine felt the warmth returned, and smiled. "Good. We’ll be down in about three minutes."

"We could stay here forever. This is incredible. Being with you is awesome."

The remainder of their decent was smooth, and Gwen watched in fascination as the stately old buildings of the capital slowly swept into view. The ground began to come up to meet them faster, and the bard could clearly see the grassy plain that was their target. She felt Randi’s legs hit the earth a second before her own did, and they ran a few steps together before stopping. She stood still, only her knees shaking, while Randi separated them, and dropped the chute pack. Without warning, she turned and launched herself at the Marine, who caught her on instinct, and fell backwards onto the ground.

Randi felt the bard tighten her arms convulsively, and responded with a fierce grip of her own. The hug lasted a couple minutes, and when Gwen pulled back slightly, the Sabre gave her a crooked grin. The blonde didn’t say a word, but leaned down and captured the full lips beneath her. Randi just closed her eyes, and enjoyed the warm tingling Gwen’s touch ignited all along her length.

"I love you," the bard whispered, pulling away after a long moment. "Thank you for sharing that with me. That was awesome."

Randi looked back at her with a satisfied smile. "I’m glad you think so. And if this is gonna be the kind of reception I get after every jump, we may have to make this a regular event."

"All right, you two!" Tommy’s hail startled them. "Get a room, will ya?" His good-natured teasing made them both blush. Gwen slid smoothly to her feet, and extended a hand down to Randi.

Her voice dropped to a level she knew only the Sabre would hear. "We do this on a regular basis, and the reception will be hot enough to land us both in jail." She felt the Marine’s eyes burn into her as she made her way to the transport. Randi swallowed hard before turning to the orderly, and giving him a few terse instructions about her equipment. Then she moved to the waiting vehicle.

Tiny prudently kept his eyes forward when the Marine slid inside. Tommy took one look at her face, and shut the darkened window between the front and rear of the transport. Then he nodded to Tiny, and they started moving away from the field.

Gwen could feel the energy radiating from the dark form beside her, and chanced a look in the Sabre’s direction. Randi’s nostril’s flared from time to time, and she was clenching and unclenching her hands. The brunette felt the blonde’s regard, and turned her head to catch the green eyes. The bard drew in a breath sharply at the passion darkened eyes that met her own.

Without thinking, she reached up a hand to stroke the scarred skin. Randi captured the hand, and pulled the bard into her lap.

"Do you know what you do to me with mere words, Gwen? With your touch? With your taste and scent?" Her low voice growled. "Can you control the fire you’re starting?"

"I don’t want to control it, love. I want to immerse myself in it."

The growl this time vibrated between them. Randi pulled the bard into her and captured the soft lips with an intensity that surprised them both. Gwen wound her fingers tightly into the dark locks, anchoring herself as sensation cascaded through her body at the Marine’s possessive touch. Randi leaned over, pushing the bard onto the seat until she was completely reclined. The Sabre pulled her lips away, but still loomed over Gwen.

"You, my bard, are a vile, evil woman." The fire in the blue eyes banked as she took in the look of pure unadulterated love shining back at her from the green orbs beneath her. "And I love you so much." This kiss was gentle, and reverent, and as intoxicating for Gwen as the first. Their breathing was heavy, and their hearts beat in rapid tandem when Randi pulled away again. Gwen combed her fingers through the dark hair... one hand coming to rest at the base of the Sabre’s skull, and the other continuing around to tenderly caress the still healing scar. Randi closed her eyes at the soft touch.

"I love you, too, Randi... so much that it hurts to breathe sometimes." She pulled the Marine back down to her, but before their lips could meet yet again, the transport pulled to a stop, and both men got out without a backward look. Randi dropped her head to Gwen’s soft chest.

"We have got to work on their timing," the Marine muttered, though she was secretly thankful for the reprieve. She’d made a promise she intended to keep, but looking at the kiss swollen lips, and passion darkened eyes of the bard, she could feel her resolve flying out the window. "C’mon," sitting up, and running a hand through her mussed hair. "Let’s get changed and we’ll go meet your folks."

They stepped out under the portico, thankful for the shade it provided. The hotel was the same one they had stayed at only weeks before, and Gwen shivered in reaction. "I can’t do this," came the whispered words. "Not now that I remember."

Fire and passion melted to tenderness and concern, and Randi gently cupped the bard’s face in her strong hands. "All right. Let me go...." stopping when small hands clenched her jumpsuit in a tight grip. "Okay, love. I’m right here, and I won’t leave you. Let me call Tiny. We’ll go over to the cottage."

The blonde head nodded her agreement, and Randi pulled them over to lean against the transport. Gwen cuddled in her arms, happy to be in her one safe port. It took less than two minutes before the large Sabre had their bags in his arms walking out to the transport, with a chagrined Tommy in tow.

"I’m sorry, Gwen. We’ve had a suite here for as long as I can remember, and I just didn’t think when I made the reservation."

"It’s all right, T. Ya’ll shouldn’t have to change your lives for me. Thank you for understanding why I can’t do this right now." He engulfed her in a hug, and kissed the top of her head.

"Thank you for forgiving me. You’ll get over this, and we’ll be right here with you."

She brushed her lips along his smooth cheek, and pulled back. "We’ll meet ya’ll at the medifac in about an hour."

"That’s good," Tiny answered. "Reed will have some shields in place by then. We have a couple of appointments with the docs, and then we’ll join ya’ll."

Tommy and Gwen nodded simultaneously, and the man moved back toward the building. "I’ll go get Ella, and we’ll head on over. I’m looking forward to this."

"We all are." Randi, who had stood silently by, now spoke. She took Gwen’s hand. "C’mon, love. Later, T."



"Waitaminute, Tommy." Geoff pulled himself into a more upright position, wincing at the pain the movement caused to shoot through his lower back and legs. A good sign, the doctors told him. Comforting, perhaps, but that didn’t make the hurt any less. "Randi took Gwen up in a shuttle and they jumped out of it?? Tommy, Gwen is afraid of heights."

"Well, I don’t know, Geoff. She seemed to have enjoyed it well enough," thinking of how he’d found them tangled together on the ground. "Why don’t you ask her when they get here?"

"Oh, I will," he vowed, and the conversation moved on to other things.



"Where is Randall? I was hoping you’d bring him." Jill and Ella were out in the tiny garden.

"My folks took him for the weekend. I figured the party tomorrow might be a little much for him. He doesn’t know most of the people involved, and it’s more for the adults anyway. Besides, mama claims they don’t get to see enough of him. She was glad to get the chance to spoil him a little, I think." The curly haired woman looked at the beauty surrounding them. "It is so very peaceful here."

"Yes, it is, and I will be so very glad to leave it behind."

"How’s he doing?"

Jill smiled. "Much better than the doctors ever hoped for. He’s got the right motivation, and this party will do wonders for him, I imagine."

"And you too, yes?"

"Yeah, me too. He is going to be pleasantly surprised. I know I was when people started letting me know they were coming."

"Good, I’m glad we were able to put this together then. I’m looking forward to it."



Jill knew by the glow on Gwen’s face that something fundamental had changed again. The bard walked right into her mother’s arms and gave her a big hug.

"I remember, Mama. I remember everything."

"Oh, baby girl! That is so wonderful. I can’t tell you how happy I am for you. This means the wedding is set then?"

"Oh, yes. Most definitely. She is in fact, courting me." Jill did a double take at Gwen’s words.

"You’re kidding."

"No ma’am. She actually asked for permission to court me for a while. Mama, she looked at me with those big blue eyes, and I couldn’t tell her no. She went out last night, after the storm, and found me some honeysuckle. You know I adore the smell." Jill nodded. "She brought it in to scent the bedroom for me, just because I like it."

Heated voices from Geoff and Randi broke into their conversation right then, and waylaid any more questions or comments that Jill could make. Gwen, catching the gist of the argument, walked over to put a stop to it.

"That’s enough, Daddy."

Surprise was enough to quiet him, as his daughter had rarely spoken to him in that manner.

"But, Gwen...."

"I said that’s enough. Randi didn’t know about my fear of heights. I never told her much about it. And when she invited me... Daddy, I knew I’d be safe. Not once has she ever not taken care of me. And I’m so glad I went. God, it is such an incredible feeling... the rush, the freedom, and the awe. It’s... breathtaking. So don’t blame her, Daddy," taking the larger hand in her own, and smiling when the arm continued to wrap around her middle. "This was my choice, and my decision."

The weapons smith looked at the glow on his daughter’s face, and at the link he could clearly see reformed between them. "You’re right, Gwen. I apologize, Randi."

"It’s all right, Daddy." She stepped closer and gave him a hug and kiss. "You were just being the daddy."

"Yep, that does tend to happen occasionally. I’ll work on that," said with a grin.

"Don’t. I like you just the way you are."

"Thanks for caring about her, Geoff."

"She’s my daughter... it’s my job. And even when I give her to your keeping, Randi, she will still always be my daughter."

"And I think we’re all pretty grateful for that fact." He looked at her, stunned at such an admission. "C’mon," ignoring the expression, "let’s get you out into the sunshine for a while."



The afternoon was well spent. The friends enjoyed their time together going to one of the many museums while Geoff was in his afternoon therapy. The doctor had given Reed’s eyes a clean bill of health, and the group was in a celebratory mood.

Final plans for the morrow were gone over and adjusted. Jill had been quick to realize that her small rented cottage with its tiny yard would never accommodate the number of people who were coming.

"The park will be perfect," Tiny said. The others agreed. It was going to be a good day.



Saturday morning came earlier than the bard was prepared for. They’d had a late night, and a little too much to drink, and she winced at the pounding headache and cottonmouth she woke up to.

"Ugh!" she moaned, then winced again in reaction. "Ow!" And she slowly lifted a hand to her face. Then stiffened in reaction when the surface under her cheek began to shake with laughter. "Please don’t move. I’m close enough to being sick without any help here." Her voice was a mere whisper, but it got the results she needed.

"Here," came the equally quiet voice from above her. "Ease up and drink this."

Gwen grimaced, and did as she was told, swallowing the mixture down with a shudder. She handed the empty container back to Randi, and gently placed her head back on the warrior’s shoulder. The light stroking on her back coaxed her into a doze, and the two lay that way for some time before the blonde stirred herself again. Finally, she lifted a hand and tenderly ran her fingertips over the soft face. When they crossed the Sabre’s lips, Randi brushed a gentle kiss across them, and murmured, "Morning, love."

"Good morning, beautiful."

Another soundless chuckle. "You must feel better."

"I feel wonderful, thank you. And thank you for that awful mixture. My head has stopped pounding as well."

"I’m glad it helped."

"Well, not as much as being here in your arms, but it did enough." She felt the blush crawl up the warm skin she was laying on. She decided to bring things down a notch. "However, now I have this desperate desire to brush my teeth and take a shower." The Marine laughed without a sound again. She rose up and peered at the warrior. "Wanna join me?"

Randi had them out of bed and on their feet before the bard was through with her invitation. "Well," indicating the bathroom, "what are we waiting for?"

OK, so maybe I kicked things up a notch instead, and smirked as she sauntered into the bathroom, feeling those intense blue eyes focused on her every movement.

"Coming, Stud?"

"God, I hope so," was her muttered answer, as she followed Gwen and shut the door behind them with a firm click.



The medifac was quiet when Gwen and Randi entered. Geoff was very glad to see them.

"Hi, girls."

"Hi, dad," they answered in tandem.

"Listen, I have a favor to ask." He was looking at Randi, and she nodded for him to continue. "Jill just called and said the transport is giving her some sort of problem. Could you...?"

The Marine gave the request some serious thought. "I’ll tell ya what," she responded finally. "You let me take you and Gwen over to the park, and then I’ll go get Jill. We can pick up some supplies, and have us a nice little cookout."

The weapons smith shrank back at the thought of meeting people, then scoffed at himself. You presume you’d even be a note of interest, old man. God, what an ego. He smiled, and the two women wondered where his thoughts had taken him. He nodded. "All right. Let me call in an intern to help me get ready."

Warrior and bard left, and went to wait in the sunroom.

"This is gonna be so awesome."



It hadn’t taken long really for him to get dressed, though to him it seemed like forever. He somewhat resented the fact that he needed help, but his logical mind accepted that truth, and he allowed the young man to help him without much fuss.

His eyes closed instinctively against the bright sunshine, and it took a long minute before he opened them again. Then he was settled into the transport, and they headed to the park.

His eyes were closed when the vehicle halted, and he left them that way. He was surprised at how drained he felt just trying to get into the transport. It didn’t take long to lose the stamina, especially with the treatments he’d been going through. He sighed, a bit upset that he could doze so easily, and seemed to need it so badly. He felt the depression creeping up on him again. Then Gwen was gently shaking him and he lifted heavy lids.

"Sorry, little girl. I may need to nap awhile while Randi goes to get your mother."

"That’s okay, Daddy. I know this has got to be terribly hard for you. You do what you need to, but first," looking back at Tiny, who had come up behind them, "we need to get you out of there."

The hover chair sat conveniently at the door of the vehicle. It was simply a matter of reaching in and lifting the weapons smith out. The big Sabre stepped around Randi, and came into Geoff’s line of sight.

"C’mon, Geoff," Tiny said softly. "Let me help."

"Tiny? What are you doing here?"

The Sabre didn’t answer, but gently cradled the man as he lifted him from the vehicle. Then he set him into the hover chair and stepped back a pace. Randi straightened his legs, and Gwen adjusted the built-in pillow. Then they moved so he could guide the chair to the shade. And they waited.

It took him all of two seconds to see that one, they were not walking with him, and two, the park seemed to be inordinately crowded. It took another five full seconds before the reality of the scene entered his conscious thought, and he realized the truth of this outing. He turned to look at Gwen, who simply pointed toward the figure that was rapidly approaching.

"You did this?" He pinned his wife with a stare, motioning to the hundred plus people waiting for him. She was quick to note the tears in his eyes, and she knelt by his side.

"No, love. They and they and they," pointing to Randi and Gwen, Tommy and Ella, and Reed and Tiny in turn, "did this. All I did was give them a list of people. They did the rest."

"It was Ella’s idea. We probably would have gotten more folks here if we’d had more than two days to plan."

"He swiveled his head in Gwen’s direction at her words. "Waitaminute. You’re telling me this many folks dropped everything and came on two days notice?"

"Yep." This from Randi.

"Well I’ll be damned." A solitary tear rolled down his face before he brusquely wiped it away. "C’mon," he finally said briskly, "let’s find us some shade and get the party started." The small group smiled. It was going to be a good day. A cheer rose from the large gathering as Geoff approached, and things settled into a comfortable rhythm.



It was early afternoon, and the party had been going strong for several hours. Randi was bothered by a burning sensation in her scar that she couldn’t seem to shake. She and Gwen were separated momentarily, as the bard was talking to some of their Midas friends. The warrior came up behind her. The bard excused herself immediately and turned to her, sensing her distress. The twitching in the Marine’s jaw made Gwen wince in sympathy, and she raised a hand to stroke it. Strange, it feels almost cold to the touch.

"Love?" Randi placed her hand on top of Gwen’s, and held the soothing contact in place. "It’s really bothering you, huh?" The dark head nodded once, but Gwen could easily read the pain shining in those blue eyes. "Would one of the medifac doctors be able to give you something for it? I know there were a couple grumbling about being stuck on duty instead of being here today."

"I’d thought about going. The two I talked to said there is a cream I can put on it that might help."

"You want me to go with you?"

"No, Little One. You’re a hostess. It won’t take me but about ten minutes total. If I walk, I can cut through instead of going around like we had to with your dad. I’ll be right back, ok?"

"Yep, and then you can rest a little til it works."

The Sabre leaned down and brushed her lips lightly. "I love you."

Gwen smiled. "I love you too, so hurry back to me."

"Yes ma’am." And received a smack on the butt as she turned and walked away. "Heh."

That was the last clear thought Randi remembered, until she woke in Gwen’s arms nearly an hour later.



Chapter XVII

Jerry scrubbed at his eyes, and looked at the clock. It was mid-Saturday afternoon. His new second was working out better than expected, and his return from the field yesterday provided the Commandant with the excuse to work. Not that he intended to completely miss Geoff’s party. He would never dishonor his comrade so. But he found it hard to be in the man’s presence any more. The guilt and shame he felt over recent events had left him feeling old, and disillusioned. Only twice since the incident had he visited the weapons smith. He would go today... he would just be late, and leave as early as possible.

"That’s everything, sir."

"Very well, Russ. Let’s call it a day."

The younger man smiled, and bounded back to the outer office. Jerry smiled sadly, remembering a time when he had been as enthusiastic... about the Sabres and his life. Now....

"Do you need a lift, sir?"

"No, Russ, thanks. We’re getting together at the park. It’s not far, and the walk will be good for me."

The commander looked seriously at his superior. "Well, be careful. You have to move through some territory, and remember what I told you earlier. Things are unsettled there." A beat. "I wish you’d let me take you."

Now Jerry chuckled. "You worry like an old woman, Russ. I’ll be fine. I’m still a Sabre, ya know, despite the gray and the stars."

"As you say, sir," was the grave response. "I’ll see you on Monday." He closed the door quietly behind him.

The general was glad he’d chosen to wear civilian clothing, and didn’t have to change. Locking the door, he stepped into the outdoors, and stood soaking in the sunshine for a moment. Then he turned his steps to the nearby park.

He understood what the commander had been telling him as he began to pass through what was clearly marked, to his trained eyes, as gang territory. How did this happen? When did they get so close? And then he didn’t have time to worry about it, as he found himself pinned to the nearest polymer wall with a twelve-inch blade through his middle.

Wha... This isn’t supposed to happen. I’m not supposed to die this way. Because even his fuzzy mind recognized the fact that he was going to die. He closed his eyes, trying to center himself, then reopened them and tried to focus. There was nothing but a black-clad form in front of him, and blearily he realized this was his attacker. And then the figure spoke in a whisper, and he shuddered at the sound.

"You owe me, Jerry, and the time has come for you to pay up." Swiftly, what he saw was the light reflected off his own blade before it cut off his head in a fell swoop. Then the warrior pick up the head, and with a single thrust pushed the sword through his forehead, and into the wall. "The scavengers can have what’s left now."

It took a moment to strip off the outfit that covered the attacker from head to toe, and another to dump it into the nearest incinerator. The entire incident had taken less than two minutes.



"The pity of this is, Randi," Ares spoke to the scrying bowl, "You’ll never remember any of it. A shame too, because that has to be some of your finest work." He laughed, and the chilling sound echoed throughout the halls. "Very soon, my dear. Very, very soon."



Randi opened confused blue eyes, disoriented with her surroundings. What the hell? She looked up into worried green eyes that peered down at her with hawk-like intensity.

"Are you all right?"

The Marine tried to sit up, realizing she was lying cradled in Gwen’s lap, but she found herself held firmly in place by the gentlest touch. "What happened?"

"The cream the doctor gave you apparently had some sort of narcotic in it that knocked you out like a light."

A dark brow rose, and the bard rushed to explain. "Do you remember leaving here to walk over to the medifac?"

"Yeeessss," came the drawled answer. Her brow furrowed. "It’s the last thing I remember clearly before waking up."

Gwen took a deep breath. The whole tale was just... bizarre. "When you got there, the doctor got you some of this cream," holding up a tiny jar. "Apparently you put it on, and shortly thereafter, it knocked you out. We were just lucky you had gotten back here when it happened." Gwen didn’t tell her about how she’d stumbled into the park and collapsed. The bard had been frightened out of a year of her life when that had happened. The doctors that were already there called the attending physician. It was an unusual reaction, but not unheard of. She suggested they settle the warrior somewhere, until the sleep wore off. Still shaking, Gwen directed them to a large shade tree. She sat leaning against it, and directed them to put the Sabre across her lap. And she spent the next hour stroking the dark hair, trying to calm her racing heart.

"I guess so." Randi sat up slowly. "At least my face doesn’t hurt any more."

"How do you feel otherwise?"

The Marine scrubbed a hand over her face. "Not bad. A little tired."

"C’mon, Stud. Let’s get you something to eat. That might help."



The sun was setting when folks started leaving. Geoff was exhausted, but happy and refreshed at the same time. When only the eight of them were left, he turned to Ella and extended his hands. She took them in her own with a questioning look.

"Thank you, my dear. I can’t tell you what this day has meant to me."

She squeezed his hands lightly, and smiled at him. "It was our pleasure, Geoff. I hope it helps."

"More than you know, young lady. Much more than you know."



Randi and Gwen were curled up together much later that night. The bard was tenderly touching the scar that ran down the Sabre’s jaw line. She looked and sat up frowning, as something occurred to her.


"Randi, how does your face feel? Any residual pain?"

"No, it’s fine. Why?" The Marine leaned up on her elbows. "Love?"

"I don’t know, Randi. Something’s not right here." She paused, gazing unseeingly out the window while she formulated her thoughts. The Sabre waited patiently, giving the blonde time to organize her ideas. When Gwen’s gaze returned to her, the green eyes were dark with worry. "I didn’t realize it at the time, but today when it was bothering you, it was fiery red. It didn’t dawn on me then I guess because I rarely see it at all anymore. I was focused on the pain you were in rather than its cause."

Now it was Randi’s turn to frown. "How does it look now?"

Gwen took the warrior’s face in her hands and gently tilted her head. "Almost normal." She probed lightly. "And the temperature is almost normal as well. It was cold, earlier. Maybe we should go talk to the doctor tomorrow before we leave."

"I’d rather not. I have the cream if I need it. And we already know there is nothing they can do for my face. Otherwise, it would already have been done."

Gwen looked at Randi for a long, hard minute. "All right," she finally agreed, pushing the warrior back and resuming her place on the broad shoulder. "But if it happens again we go together to have it seen about, okay?"

The Marine’s answer was initially silent, wrapping Gwen in a fierce hug. "I love you," she finally whispered. "Thank you for caring."

"It is my joy and my privilege to do so. And we’re still gonna go to the doctor together if it happens again." Randi chuckled silently at the bard’s persistence.

"Yes, mom."

"Grr," Gwen growled, eyes darkening again. "Not even close," she muttered. Then left the warrior with neither chance nor breath to reply. "Do you know how hard it is...?" she said on an uneven breath as she pulled back from the kiss. Randi stroked the bard’s smooth cheek as she concentrated on calming her own racing heartbeat.

"We don’t have to wait. I just thought...."

"Oh no, Stud. I intend to enjoy every moment of this courtship. We’ve got time. I just love you so much, it’s hard sometimes."

"It’ll be worth the wait, Little One. I promise. I love you."

"It most certainly will," thinking ahead to her own tentative Blessing Day plans. Hoping she could survive another two months. "I love you, too."

Blue eyes widened at the sultry tone and darkened eyes, but the blonde merely replaced her head on the warrior’s shoulder, and began her tracing. "Happy dreams, Randi."

"You are those dreams, love."

Gwen felt the bubble of joy well up, until she felt like she would burst. Her only response though, was a fierce hug. Randi’s words had robbed her of speech. She kissed the soft skin under her lips, and fell asleep with a smile on her face.

Sunday morning found them at the medifac waiting for Geoff to awaken. The previous day’s activities had exhausted the weapons smith, and the staff was glad to see him sleeping peacefully without pain for the first time in the weeks he’d been with them.

Jill met Gwen and Randi in the sunroom with coffee. The three had hardly sat down to chat when Dr. Litzer poked his head into the room. The women welcomed him, and they made small talk for several minutes before an orderly came to let them know Geoff was awake and ready for visitors. They stood as one and moved toward the door. Before she’d taken two steps, however, Gwen felt the doctor place a restraining hand on her arm.

"Gwen? You got a minute?"

She looked at the man, then turned her attention to the warrior. Randi waited patiently, knowing the bard needed her support, but understanding the medic wanted to speak privately to her lover. Gwen found the strength and reassurance she was looking for, and she leaned forward to peck the Sabre on the lips.

"Go on. I’ll be there in a minute."

The Marine held her gaze for another long moment, then nodded. Without a word, she turned and followed Jill down the short hall.



"I see you followed your heart, Gwen. I am very happy for you both."

"Thank you, doctor. I did what you said... I put myself in her place. I would have done the same." She paused, and looked down at her hands. "It makes a difference, especially knowing... trying to understand how she’s had to live with that sort of burden for all of her adult life."

The doctor smiled, remembering the difference Gwen had made for Randi through the years, even before they had admitted their love for one another. "Someday, Gwen. Hopefully someday you will understand the difference you made for her."

Dr. Litzer squeezed her hands, and departed before the bard could formulate any one of the questions floating around in her mind. She shook her head, then moved down the hallway toward her father’s room.

"That is peculiar," she heard Randi comment as she walked in the door.

"What is, love?" She wrapped her arms around the Marine’s waist, putting the strong heartbeat under her ear. She smiled when the muscular arms cocooned her gently.

"Jerry never showed up yesterday," Jill answered. "I spoke to him Friday, and he assured me that though he’d be late, he would be there."

"Maybe he was just uncomfortable. You know he’s only been here twice," said Jill.

"I know. But it’s...." Geoff started.

"Yeah," Randi agree. "It is. Especially since he swore to me that he would be here." She turned to Geoff. "You think maybe something came up."

The weapons smith looked thoughtful. "It’s possible. I’m sure we’ll hear from him sometime later this week. Meanwhile, let’s get out and get a little fresh air and sunshine together before ya’ll leave. Jill tells me its nice out right now."

The three women looked at him in some surprise. This was the first enthusiasm they’d seen from him. They smile at him and each other, and readied him for the trip outdoors.



The next week passed pleasantly for the couple. Every morning, Gwen found a different flower on her desk. They took long walks in the evening, and talked about everything and nothing again. The bard really did feel like she was being courted once more, and she reveled in the knowledge. She appreciated it immensely, knowing that Randi was making a concerted effort for her. It was wonderful.

When Saturday came, the warrior said to Gwen, "Pack an overnight bag. It’s time you learned about being a card carrying Amazon." Verdant eyes widened in delight, and the blonde scurried away to get packed. They missed the frantic vid call from Geoff by a mere thirty minutes.



It was early when they started out, and it wasn’t even mid-morning when they stopped at a graceful old Victorian house. Randi hadn’t even shut off the bike when the proprietress stepped out onto the porch and froze at the sight that sat in front of her. Then she clapped her hands and squealed, rushing down the steps and throwing her arms around the Marine’s neck.

"Oh, Sweet Artemis! It’s true! You’re really alive again!" She turned to Gwen. "How wonderful to see you again, child. And so nice to see you so happy. Such a difference from our first and last meeting."

"Hello, Kate. Allow me to introduce you to my fiancée, Gwen Goldman. Gwen, this is Kate Thimble. Kate is an Amazon staff maker. She crafted yours."


"Amazon? Staff maker?"

Both women spoke at once looking at each other, then turned to Randi simultaneously. She smiled. "Can we get a cup of tea? We have some catching up to do."

Kate jumped into motion then. "Of course! Where are my manners? Archie’s gone to Mama’s. Ya’ll come on in."

She led the way into the house, ushering them into the quaint living room. She proceeded through the hall to the kitchen. Minutes later she started back out to the living room, only to be stopped by the two bodies standing in the doorway.

"Thought we’d save you some work. Besides, we always took tea here before."

"I was hoping you would. Have a seat."

"Are you a card carrying Amazon, too?" Gwen asked Kate while the tea was steeping. The other woman blinked dark eyes before turning to Randi. The dark woman shook her head slightly, and Kate just smiled.

"I am indeed," she answered the bard. "I was born and raised an Amazon, and learned my crafting skills when I was still very young. When Archie and I fell in love, I left the community to join him here, but I still participate in all the ceremonies and rituals."

"She loves a good party," to Gwen. Then Randi turned to Kate. "Aren’t you going?"

"Yes, but I am only going for the celebration tomorrow. I can’t compete anymore. You know that."

The Marine looked back at Gwen who was listening to the conversation with absorbed interest. "Kate was the longbow champion four years running, til a broken hip threw her balance off." Her attention moved back to the Amazon. "You should still go *watch* the contests. They still rely on your support, you know."

"I know. It’s just so hard, sometimes."

"So what is a card carrying Amazon, anyway?" The bard’s question broke the pall of silence that had settled over the group.

"Hmm, well basically, it is indicative of membership status in the Amazon nation. I was born an Amazon, and received mine after my ritual right of passage. It is a sigil of adulthood. Those not born to the Nation can earn it or have it bestowed for different reasons... valor, merit, achievement. It depends."

Green eyes focused on blue. "You’ll share this with me one day?"

"Yes." That was all the warrior said, but it was enough. Gwen accepted that as her answer and moved on.

"I have to tell you," the blonde commented to the staff maker. "I absolutely love the staff you made for me. It is an amazing piece of craftsmanship."

"Well, Randi chose your symbols, dear. I just carved them out."

"But you made that staff itself, right? Because it is so well-balanced... I spar with Randi with it."

Dark eyes swung to the Marine’s face. "Ya’ll spar?" A nod. "Can she hold her own?" Another nod. Gwen had become quite proficient, and Randi was proud of the hard work she’d done. The added muscle she’d put on during her walkabout was only enhanced by their morning workouts. "You should enter her in the competition."

"Kate, if she wants to compete, I will. But I’m not gonna force her into something she doesn’t want, either."

"Excuse me...." biting. "Could the two of you not talk like I’m not sitting right here, please? It’s rude." Two heads dropped with muttered apologies. "Now. Would one of you like to clue me in?"

"This weekend, the nearby tribe is having an athletic fair. There are competitions in all sorts of events... running, archery, wrestling, gymnastics, marksmanship, swordplay and staff. If you can hold your own against Randi, you should consider competing." She forestalled the blonde’s question by holding up a hand. "You can compete as a guest of the Nation. You’re a woman, so you qualify." She paused. "Just something to think about."

"Well, she’ll have to think on the road. We need to get moving. We’ll see you tomorrow?"

"Maybe tonight."

The Marine nodded, accepting the answer for the promise it was. "Good. Thanks for the tea."



They arrived in the little town Gwen had stopped in her second night out of her walkabout in the early afternoon. She sat stock-still on the bike, taking in the changes to the village. The sporting events had already begun, drawing a huge crowd, and producing a lot of noise. Streamers flew from rooftops and light poles, and vendors lined the main street. Randi got off the bike, removing her helmet and stowing it in. She watched the bard with twinkling eyes. It wasn’t til she lifted Gwen’s helmet that the wide green eyes tracked to her own. A brilliant smile lit the bard’s features. The Marine extended her hand. "C’mon. Let’s go play."

Hand in hand they walked down the street, headed for what was today, the arena area. It was a large field to one side of the town with tiered seating all around. Many of the seats were filled with cheering, happy women. A number of things were going on at once, and the two walked around taking in bits of the different events. They came to the area where the staff competition was going to be held and slowed. Randi watched Gwen as the bard watched the contestants warming up.

The Marine didn’t say a word, waiting for Gwen to turn and look at her. She did, finally, eyes shining. "Can I really compete here?" The dark head nodded once. "Then I’d like to try. I can do this... I was trained by the best." Randi grinned, feeling satisfaction in the bard’s self-confidence. Then she led her over to the registration table, and started the process of getting her listed as a competing guest. "You’re not participating?" the blonde asked when her companion didn’t add her name to the roll.

"Um, no." Her voice dropped to a level where only Gwen could hear her. "Given my occupation, it really isn’t fair to the other competitors."

"You think you’re that good, huh?" asked with a twinkle shining out of very green eyes.

"No, love," complete with a cocky grin. "I KNOW I am."

"Hmph. Well, I think I can take you." Gwen had to wonder where the words were coming from. She knew good and well she couldn’t beat the warrior. She’d never even come close in their sparring sessions when Randi went at close to full speed and strength against her. She had improved a lot, but still.... Still, the truth was she wanted Randi to get involved and play and enjoy herself.

Twin brows rose into a dark hairline. Her competitive nature was screaming to come out and play, and the Marine was hard pressed to keep it under control. "Excuse me? Would you like to try?" She smiled evilly, teasing the bard. "C’mon... right here... right now. I’ll even give you the first shot."

"Oh no," came the smaller woman’s firm answer. "You wanna play, you gotta pay." She pointed to the roster. "You can earn the chance to kick my butt into the ground."

Randi looked at Gwen for a long moment before she let her competitive spirit out to play. She put her name on the list, much to the surprise of the elder sitting there. "One thing, bard," she said with a grin. "You’d better be around for me to beat."

"You keep dreaming, Stud. I’ll be waiting for you."

The preliminary heats were easy, and Gwen found she could more than hold her own. For the most part, the other competitors were pleasant, even though they found themselves losing to an ‘outsider’. One or two were obnoxious until they found themselves looking into a pair of stormy blue eyes. They were quick to mumble apologies and move on.

As the event progressed, the bouts became more serious. The women had learned to admire Gwen’s skill and training, and approached her with a bit more respect. She was determined to meet Randi in a match now, though, and was focused on winning. Apparently, Randi had the same idea, because she approached each round with single-minded determination, eliminating each of her opponents with seemingly little effort.

It was in the semi-final round of their respective categories when things turned nasty. Randi groaned mentally upon learning who her opponent was going to be. It had just moved from harmless fun to personal vendetta.

Corky DeValle was the antithesis of what her name implied. She wasn’t petite, personable or polite. She was instead an obnoxious individual with a chip on her shoulder and an ego bigger than she was. She snarled when she stepped into the arena, anxious to settle an old score.

Gwen’s bout was over, and she moved to Randi’s side. The warrior stiffened then relaxed, recognizing her lover’s soft touch at her back. "You all right?" the bard murmured.

"Yeah. Just some old history here. She has issues with me."

Green eyes caught blue with intent. "Then you’d better kick her ass. Or I’ll give her issues."

Randi couldn’t help the grin that blossomed on her face at the bard’s fierce defense. She placed a finger on Gwen’s nose, and tapped it twice. "Oh you will, huh?"

"You bet your sweet bippy I will."

"I love you. Let me go take care of this, and then we can go have some fun."

"I’ve been having fun. Besides, I still have to beat you."

The Marine laughed. "Uh huh." She leaned down for a kiss, melting into Gwen’s arms, and taking her time exploring. The blonde’s eyes widened at the behavior, then closed as she reacted to the sensations the touch was causing in her body. The world faded away for a timeless moment until they separated. They pulled back, gazing into one another’s eyes, and Gwen whispered, "Wow." She cleared her throat, trying to remove the husky note in her voice. "Good luck."

"I don’t need luck, love. I’ve got you." Green eyes widened at the casual declaration, and words deserted her. So she watched in silence as the warrior entered the ring.

Randi tensed again when she entered the arena. Corky’s bone with her was old and well gnawed, and the woman actually growled at her. The Sabre smirked. Some people just never learned. She stood patiently, waiting for the woman to attack. She did, and Randi easily deflected the strike. This went on for several minutes with the warrior remaining on the defensive, and making no move to engage Corky in any real fight.

Smack went the staves together. "Whassa matter, Valiant?" the larger woman taunted. Smack, thwack. "Don’t have what it takes anymore, huh??" Smack. Thwack, smack, crack. "I knew you were nothing but a fraud. You thought you were so hot, coming in here and showing off. Disrupting our traditions and way of life." The staves crossed, and Randi stood in place impassively holding the woman at bay. Corky was getting frustrated and angry, and that made her more careless. It also made very stupid things come out of her mouth.

"Ya know, Valiant... I like that little piece you got out there. She’s cute. I think once I wipe the floor with your ass, I’ll take her ba...."

Corky saw the change take place in the visage before her, and began backing away instinctively. Randi felt the scar begin to burn, and let the rage flare. Now she went on the offensive, taking vicious swipes at the Amazon, and knocking her staff from her hands. A crack to her ribs, and a sweep of her feet, and Corky found herself flat on her back with a furious Marine kneeling on her chest. Her airflow was cut off when Randi’s staff pinned her at the throat, and she looked up into the eyes of death itself.

"Now, you listen good, you piece of shit. You even think about disrespecting her again, and there won’t even be a grease spot left of you. I ever hear anything like that come out of your mouth again, and I will make you pray for death. Do we have an understanding?"

By now, Corky’s face was turning a conspicuous shade of blue, and she merely nodded, hoping for a respite. At that same moment, Randi felt a gentle touch on her back, and the rage abated. Gwen had seen the change come over Randi, and had struggled to get to her. The officials wouldn’t let her in the ring until a winner was declared, but when she’d seen the woman’s face turning blue, she’d escaped their clutches and ventured in. Corky lay on the mat, coughing a bit and rubbing her throat. Randi stood without a backward glance, and moved into the bard’s arms.

"You all right, love?" Gwen gently combed her fingers through the dark locks. She put a cool hand on the red scar almost unconsciously, smiling a little when the warrior leaned into the touch. They became lost in their own world, never even realizing when they were left alone in the ring.

"Yeah. She just pushed the wrong buttons with me. Old history... long story."

"You’ll share this with me one day?"

"Yeah, one day, but not today. Let me get some water. I think our bout is next."

Concerned green eyes looked up into still-darkened blue. "No, it isn’t. I’ve had enough. I forfeit to you."

"But you can’t do that!"

"Yes, I can."

Profound hurt peeked out of very blue eyes. "You afraid of me?"

"No, love. Never. But I am afraid *for* you. I won’t see you hurt yourself, and that could very easily happen right now." She moved her hand to cup a planed cheek. "It is my privilege to take the best care of you I can. So, c’mon," reaching out her other hand and clasping Randi’s firmly. "Let’s go play. There is shopping to do!" A chagrined expression crossed the Marine’s face.

"Hey!" a voice called out to them as they were leaving the ring. "You can’t go yet. We don’t have a winner."

"We’re done here," came the bard’s firm answer. "Find someone else who wants it." Hand in hand they walked out of the arena, leaving a bewildered crowd staring after them.



The remainder of the day they spent walking around, watching the different events, and doing some shopping. Several of the merchants were left with heads reeling by the time the bard finished bargaining with them. The fury had dissolved, and all she felt now was drained, with a residual anger coursing through her veins if she let herself think about what had happened too very long. So the Sabre concentrated on her lover’s joy. Randi couldn’t help but smile at the happiness and contentment on Gwen’s face. Except for Corky, it had been a nice day.

The games wound down as dusk settled in to darkness, and the women drifted away back to their residences. "Where’s everybody going?" Gwen asked the Marine as they headed to the small bed and breakfast the bard had stayed at during her previous visit. They entered, the proprietress greeting Randi like an old friend, and nodding politely to Gwen.

They took the stairs together, and entered a small, comfortable room. Gwen looked around approvingly. Randi set down their backpacks and watched the blonde absorb the atmosphere. The Sabre sat on the bed, and pulled off her shoes, curling her toes into the carpet in relief. Green eyes came back to hers, and she arched an eyebrow in question.

"What’s next? I know something is coming... the atmosphere fairly tingles with expectation."

"The party starts at moonrise. So we have an hour or two to simply relax and rest." She lay back and groaned. "God, this feels good."

Gwen came over and sat next to the prone body, riffling her fingers through the unruly dark hair. "You okay, Stud? I was a little worried about you."

"I’m fine. Better than fine, actually, with you here." She pulled the bard back into a reclining position, half sprawled on top of the Marine’s own body. "You make my life worth living."

Robbed of words, Gwen said nothing, but let the love shine out of her eyes as she leaned down and captured the warrior’s soft lips. They lost themselves for a bit, touching and tasting. Then the blonde pulled back slightly and breathed, "As you do mine." Then focused on the kissing again as strong hands came up to gently cradle her face.

"I love you, my bard."

"I love you too, warrior. Always."



Chapter XVIII

The necking session quickly turned into cuddling time, and both women, exhausted by the day’s activities, fell into a light doze. The moon was just beginning to rise when Randi opened her eyes again. Whoops... didn’t mean for that to happen. But looking down at the relaxed, peaceful face on her chest, she didn’t begrudge a moment of the time they’d slept. Gently, she began to nudge Gwen toward wakefulness.

She combed long fingers through short blonde locks. "C’mon, love." Scratching her back. "We need to get up and get ready for the party."

"Don’t wanna," came the mumbled answer. "Wanna stay here with you."

The Marine’s chest moved with silent chuckles. "How ‘bout we go out together?"

"Nope. Wanna stay here and snuggle with you alone. Don’t wanna share."

Blue eyes looked down at the blonde head and closed eyes. Obviously the day had upset her bard more than Gwen had let on. "You’re serious."

Green eyes opened and peered up at the warrior. "Yeah, I am."

Randi thought solemnly about this for a moment. "I’ll make a deal with you. We go and share one dance, then we grab some food and come back up here and snuggle up together. Sound like a plan?"

It occurred to Gwen then that Randi had mentioned dancing. "This has something to do with that card carrying thing again, doesn’t it?"

"Yes, and the fact that I’d really like to dance with you again."

The bard considered all the angles, trying to find a downside to dancing with her partner, even to Artemis under a full moon. Especially with a promise of more snuggle time. She couldn’t find one. "All right," she said rising slowly from the bed. "A dance of thanks on the fall equinox, then some snuggling time." She looked down at the still reclining warrior. "I’m gonna get cleaned up. You wanna join me?"

Randi flushed to the roots of her dark head. "Uh, no. The last time we tried that, I almost broke my promise." She looked down, faintly embarrassed, then back up again to meet the bard’s eyes squarely. "When we make love again, I want it to be special. Something we can take our time with."

Gwen stepped close to the bed, and tilted the warrior’s face to brush her lips lightly with a kiss. "When we make love again, it *will* be special, but all our time together is special to me. I am enjoying this courtship, and when we’re both ready, we will move forward, ‘kay?" The dark head nodded. "I love you Randi. And what you make me feel... and the fact that you love me enough to take the time and effort to court me...." She leaned in again, and caught the Sabre’s lips in a fiery kiss, not pulling away until they were both breathless.

"Whoo... think I’d better make it a cold shower." She walked into the bathroom, turning to look at the still-seated Marine before she shut the door. "I’ll be out in ten."



It was closer to an hour later before they walked out of the room, and made their way out toward the field that had been converted again to hold the party. Several large campfires were spaced around the perimeter, and tables of food were placed between them. There was a large area set aside for sitting, and another cleared space for dancing. Sounds were muted at this distance, and as the two women walked toward the gathering, Gwen looked up.

"It’s nice out tonight, huh?"

"Um hmm."

"It’s so clear. Reminds me of the nights I spent out under the stars on my walkabout. I’d look up at them, and think of you, and just talk to you about stuff." She paused and swallowed hard. "Do you think we could maybe do that together sometime? Just go out somewhere and sleep under the stars?"

The Marine couldn’t keep the grin off her face. "You leave things to me, Little One." And then they were welcomed by Kate into a group of nearby women.

"I hear you two caused quite a stir this afternoon. Leave it to Randi to rock the boat."


"No, Gwen, it’s all right," Randi broke in, then turned to Kate. "Anne knew better than to put Corky in that ring."

"Yeah, well maybe Corky learned something this time. However," before it could get serious or ugly, "this is a party, and I’m starving. I’m gonna get something to eat." Several of the women excused themselves and went with her. Gwen just looked around with bright eyes, taking in all the details.

"There seem to be so many more women here than I remember from before."

"There are. Many women come from the surrounding communities to participate in the festivals. There are a lot like Kate, who marry men, and live outside the tribe confines. There are some who, like us, simply have lives too far away to live here actively. But every one here is either an Amazon, or an Amazon guest."

"This is amazing. Wonder why I’ve never heard of them before now."

Randi just smiled enigmatically, and took the bard’s hand as the music started. "C’mon... you owe me a dance, and I owe you some snuggle time."

The beat was kinda fast, and they wound in and out of the other dancers with grace. The music paused, and the Sabre went to lead Gwen from the dance space. Then the music returned with a slow erotic beat, and the bard just held on and pulled Randi to her. "I want a slow dance," Gwen whispered. "Please." The warrior nodded, closed her eyes, and wrapped the bard in her strong arms.

Nothing existed in this time and space except for the beat, the movement and each other. They were not aware of the many eyes focused on them, only the almost visible bond that could be seen between them. And when the music ended again, the two came back to the present to cheers and whistles. They blushed faintly, and moved off the floor toward one of the laden tables. Kate walked over to them.

"Enjoy it, my friend. It is wonderful to see you so happy. What you have together is a beautiful thing."

Randi looked down at her flushed lover, and smiled into eyes that twinkled merrily back at her. "Yeah, it is," eyes never leaving the bard’s. "And if you’ll excuse us...."

"Oh, yes. Certainly. By all means." The staff maker realized she was babbling, and simply stopped talking. Gwen and Randi finished filling their plates, and edged out of the fire-lit plain. They slipped out into the quiet darkness of the town and the privacy their room afforded them.



Sunday morning was beautiful and cool. The awards ceremony was fun, with the staff championship being conspicuously left out. But all in all, it was a very pleasant experience. After a celebratory luncheon, many of the women went their separate ways, headed for home. It wasn’t long before the town became the sleepy little hamlet it was most days of the year.

"This was a lot of fun. Maybe we can do this again," Gwen said with enthusiasm. "Even with that other woman’s issues, I still had a great time." Randi eyed the many sundry boxes that she was going to have to have delivered for lack of room on the bike.

"We’d have to have a bigger house first. Oof!" mock flinching when the blonde slapped her in the stomach.

"There’s not that much here. Besides, most of it is not for us."

"Well, that’s a relief. It’s not gonna get home until tomorrow, anyway." The Sabre picked up her helmet. "Speaking of which... you ready to go?"

"Yep." Gwen pulled the warrior to her, giving her a light peck. "Thank you."

Randi just smiled. They waved their goodbyes to folks as they rode out of town, headed back to the beach house. The day was nice, and they took their time. Randi even circled around the long way, so they could stop and pick up barbeque for supper that night. They stopped and chatted with Rosie for a bit, and she watched their interaction carefully. The shamaness smiled grimly. Gwen was the key... of that she was now sure. Their bond was a visible connection to her, and it was of a strength she had never seen before. The question was... what would they have to endure before they emerged on the other side of the challenge that had been set before them? The old woman shook her head as they rode off together.

It was twilight as they crossed the bridge that lead them home, and they stopped just to enjoy the serenity of the moment. The warrior smiled when she felt Gwen’s hands tighten around her waist. "I love you," the bard murmured. Randi squeezed the small hands in response.

"I love you too." Then they finished the short trip to the house.

No sooner had Randi shut the bike off and stood up, than Tommy’s voice came through the comm link. He sounded frantic.

"Randi! Thank God you’re home! Where’ve you been? Are you okay? What is going on?


"Did you hear? Is Gwen with you? Have you talked to Geoff?"


She heard his jaw snap shut audibly, and had to bite back a smile. "Are Geoff and Jill all right?" His distress warranted the question, and she felt Gwen’s relief when he answered positively. "Good. Now, you can either come over for a conversation in person, or you can give me ten minutes to get in the house to the vid phone. Your choice. But I am not going to stand in the garage and talk to you about whatever has gotten you so upset."

"I’ll be over in ten minutes."

The bard’s face scrunched up in concern as Randi cut the connection. "Wonder what happened?"

"Guess we’ll find out in a few minutes. You wanna take stuff in while I clean up the bike? I’ll be there in a few minutes. Leave the bag," when Gwen went to grab too much. "If you will take the food in, I’ll bring the rest."

"I’ll come back and help. No reason you should have to do it all either."

The warrior reached out a hand to gently stroke Gwen’s cheek, then leaned down for a kiss. "Thanks," she said simply when she pulled away. The blonde smiled, and walked to the house.

They were just settling in when Tommy came flying in the door, without so much as a knock or a by your leave. Gwen wordlessly handed him a glass of water, and he gulped it down as he tried to catch his breath. Finally, he was able to speak.

"Have you talked to Geoff?"

"T, we just this moment walked in the door. You know that. Now," glaring at him, "what is wrong?"

"Um, okay." He sighed, trying to marshal his facts together. "You remember last weekend that your friend Jerry never made it to the little get together we had for Geoff?" He waited for her agreement. "Well, he didn’t show up for work Monday either." He swallowed. "And they didn’t find what was left of him until Wednesday."

The Sabre sat up straight on the couch, and pinned him with a baleful stare. "What exactly are you telling me, T? Just spit it out."

"Apparently, from what they have been able to piece together so far, he left his office Saturday afternoon, headed to the park. He passed through some rough territory, and from the looks of things, was executed gangland style. Like I said... there wasn’t much left."

"So why are we just now hearing about this? And what took them so long to find him? And are there any suspects?" Gwen leaned in closer as the Marine shot off her rapid-fire questions, lending her unspoken support. Randi smiled and pressed back into the comforting hand stroking her back.

"Well, you’ll have to ask Geoff about the first two. As for the third, um, no. Not that I’ve heard of. I think it is being put down to a case of wrong place wrong time. But you’ll have to get the details from Geoff. I just got the bare facts."

"Okay," rising from her seat. "Let me call him, and see if we can get the whole story." She moved over to her comm. unit, and began the security overrides to get in touch with Geoff. Gwen stood and walked over to Tommy.

"Thanks, T," seeing Randi’s gaze go introspective as she tried to figure out this new puzzle. "How are things otherwise?"

"It’s been great. It was a very quiet weekend, until your dad called this morning. He was getting panicky, I think. He’s been trying to reach ya’ll since Friday." He turned and smiled at her. "Speaking of which, how was your weekend? I knew ya’ll were gone, but she wouldn’t tell me where."

"It was a lot of fun. Met some new people, did some shopping. Had a great time, in fact."

"Geoff, calm down," Randi’s voice cut into their conversation. "Now, take a deep breath and start over." Gwen swallowed a gasp, seeing the stress that seemed to have aged her father years in just a few days.

"Okay... Monday morning he didn’t show up for work, and his second got concerned. You know the man was notoriously punctual. Bureaucracy being what it is, it took until mid-afternoon before he could start a search. The house was clean. No signs of forced entry, or any indication that Jerry had been there recently. So they started a street to street hunt."

She interrupted him. "The Sabres did the legwork?"

"Yes, no one else is involved at this point. And given where they found him, the logical consensus is he was on his way to meet us Saturday when this happened."

"So we’re just now hearing about this because...."

"Last in the loop? I dunno, unless it’s because they think we just don’t know anything. So many people were in and out that weekend. I think they are all being contacted, but I can’t say for sure. They were looking for information that I doubt they’ll find. Especially since it looks like a random, gangland execution."

"So no suspects, then?"

"As of this morning, no. I spent the weekend trying to remember who all was with us at the park. There were a lot of Sabres, and it’s possible they saw something unusual, or maybe their contacts heard something. But it’s going to take a while to sort it all out."

"Okay, Geoff. Keep me posted. I’ll let you know if I hear anything on my end, though...." She trailed off. "Let me see what I can find out, all right?"

"Thanks, Randi. I’ll be honest... this has me a little spooked."

"You focus on getting better. We’ll see what we can see."

"Yeah, daddy. You heard what she said. Focus on getting better, okay? You’ll be walking me down the aisle before you know it."

"I love you, baby girl."

"I love you, too, daddy. We’ll see ya’ll again soon."

He exchanged a look with Randi even as he nodded his agreement to Gwen. "Bye, girls."

"I need to get back to the house." Tommy spoke up as the Marine closed the connection. "I’m glad ya’ll had a nice weekend. Sorry it had to end so badly."

"Thanks for coming over, T. Give Ella our love and Randall a kiss, huh?"

"Will do. See ya’ll tomorrow."

It was quiet for a few minutes while the bard and warrior stood together in a comforting embrace. "C’mon," Randi said easing back. "Let’s get something to eat, then I want to call Tiny."

As it happened, she didn’t have to call Tiny, because they had no more than sat down to eat when the vid phone chimed for their attention.

"You’ve heard, I take it," was the big man’s greeting when he saw the set look on her face. "Before you ask... we decided to keep you out of the loop for a reason. You’re not a Sabre anymore, and it’s not fair of us to continue to rely on you to take care of things for us. Besides, unless you know what happened, there’s really not much you can do right now. Everything points to a gang killing... except...."


And he told her in graphic detail how the Commandant was killed, and how his body was pinned and left for the vultures. And how little the scavengers left of him. Gwen excused herself rather quickly, and Randi glared at the screen. "Next time ask before you get so visual, will ya? Damn, Tiny! Just because we’re immune to the ugliness doesn’t mean everyone is." But the pictures his words had created in her mind caused her to swallow the bile a couple times before she continued to speak. "Are they sure it was his sabre?"

"Yeah, that is what is making this complicated. Otherwise it looks like a case of wrong time, wrong place."

"Hmm...." She looked up as Gwen returned. The warrior held open her arms, smiling when the bard slid into her embrace without hesitation. Gwen cuddled up into her, and the Marine ran a comforting hand up and down the smaller woman’s back. "Well, do me a favor, and keep me posted, will ya? I’d like to know if this was random or targeted. And if it’s targeted, was it directed at the Sabre population, or at Jerry alone."

"Those are valid issues. I’ll see if we can get someone looking at those angles. I’ll let you know what we find out. Reed sends her love, as do Ditto and the puppies. When do you want her to bring them out?"

"She’s welcome anytime this week, until midday Friday. Gwen and I have a date Friday night."

Randi didn’t see the bard’s eyes rise into her hairline, but Tiny did. He swiftly hid the smile that still twinkled out of his eyes, and focused on the Marine. "All right, then. How ‘bout if she comes out tomorrow morning?"

"That’s good. I can be here if you give me a time to expect her." She loosened her arms when the bard patted them, smiling absently when Gwen touched her face briefly before moving away.

"She can be there before lunch."

"That works. "I’ll be glad to get Ditto back. And I’m looking forward to giving Carbon to the boy. Every boy needs a dog."

"Yep," remembering the talk he and Reed had had about the shepherd’s odd reaction to both bard and warrior on their last visit. "Expect them in the morning, then."

"Will do. Ya’ll have a good week."

"You too, my friend."

The Sabre sat quietly in the dark thinking for a moment before realizing that Gwen had moved into the bedroom. She got up and secured the beach house, noting the moonlit path on the sea that lent a faint glow to the room. Then she moved into the bedroom, stopping short at the sight that met her gaze.

The bard was dressed for bed, sitting up against the headboard. She was wearing her glasses, and in her lap sat her open diary. She held a pen in her hand, and was engrossed in whatever thoughts she was putting down. Randi smiled in pure happiness. It was the first time Gwen had written in her journal since just before the late unpleasantness. The soldier’s mind shied away from that experience, and she moved to the bathroom.

A very short time later she stepped out, and picked up her eBook. She wanted to give the bard the time and space she needed to write. Randi moved to go back out into the living room, when a firm hand on her wrist clamped down, and pulled her tumbling into the bed.

"You going somewhere, Stud?"

"I thought...."

"Park it, and stop thinking so much." Now vulnerable green eyes looked up. "I need you here with me."

"All ya had to do was ask." Randi set down her book, and cradled the bard’s face. She said nothing, her soul and Gwen’s communicating with a look alone. She leaned forward, brushing her lips against the smaller woman’s, moaning when Gwen’s tongue touched her lips seeking entrance. Randi felt the bard’s hands wind into her hair pulling her closer. She reached up one hand, removing the glasses and setting them aside somewhere as she felt Gwen slowly pushing her onto her back. She went with it, thrilling to the feel of the woman filling her arms.

The bard actually had the presence of mind to set her diary off her lap. Then she crawled on top of the Marine’s firm body, setting her hands free to roam. Their eyes locked as Gwen’s hands began to trace up Randi’s shirtfront, pausing to lightly tease hardened nipples. The Marine groaned at the sensations the touch caused, her eyes darkening and fluttering shut. Her body arched into the contact, and she reached down to cup Gwen’s buttocks, pulling the bard tighter into her still.

Now Gwen moaned, and leaned down to aggressively capture the Sabre’s full lips. Something in the contact made Randi blood rage, and she felt the need to simply consume the bard. Confusion swept through her, and caused her to pull back. This wasn’t simply desire or longing or lust. This was something more... much more frightening, and much more intense.

Gwen felt the change, and peered up into passion-charged eyes. "You all right?" a bit breathless, and flushed.

"Um, yeah... um...." She reached out a tentative hand toward the bard’s face. Gwen closed her eyes at the feather light touch, and leaned into it. Her smaller handed covered the larger, and they simply sat that way for a very long moment. Randi blew out a shaky breath. Gwen felt the multitude of roiling emotions that were flowing from the warrior, and looked at her in concern.

Something is going on with her. Do I call her on it? Green focused on blue, and saw the frank pleading to let it go for now. The blonde gave an almost imperceptible nod, and asked slyly, "So, we have a date on Friday, hmm?"

The Marine smiled in gratitude and relief. "Yep, we do," she answered, and waited.







"Well what?" chuckling at the almost little girl demeanor. Sometime her bard was just too cute for words.

"What are we doing? Where are we going? What should I wear?"

"Courting. Out. Clothing."

"Augh!!" pounding on the soft, firm chest beneath her. "You’re trying to make me nuts, aren’t you?

"It is something you’ll love. We’ll be up visiting your parents. And your mother should have that all taken care of by the time we get there."

Gwen groaned in frustration, and dropped her head on Randi’s shoulder. She slid off the warrior’s body, and burrowed herself into the warm body, mewling softly in the sheer sensuality of the experience. The Sabre tightened her hold, kissing the top of the blonde head.

"Lights," she called softly. Then into the darkness, "I love you, Gwenievere Goldman. You’re the very best part of me."

"I love you too, Miranda Valiant. You are my heart."

Reading and writing was forgotten as quiet settled over the room. Two sets of breathing slowed and became one. The only other sounds were those of the wind and the waves, and the soft hissing of rain.



Ella and Randall came over in the drizzle the next morning, eagerly awaiting Reed’s arrival. Gwen came around the couch and handed the Sabre a cup of coffee. "Would you like more, Ella?"

"No thank you. I can’t tell you how glad I am that the shepherds are coming home. I never thought Randall would miss Ditto like he has, but he’s asked about her everyday."

Randi got an uneasy feeling in her gut again, but let it pass. And then they heard the shuttle land, and walked out into the rain to meet them.

Ditto sat majestically in the door of the shuttle, awaiting Reed’s command to step out into the elements. When the breeder spoke, the shepherd leaped to the ground, coming to stand in front of the Marine. She gave the large hand a solitary lick, then dashed to the boy’s side, knocking him down and proceeding to give him a thorough face washing.

"O!" The child squealed, giggling and laughing at the dog’s antics. Randi smiled sadly at the picture they made together. She’d had a feeling things might fall this way, but it didn’t make it any easier to bear when the reality set in.

Reed stepped down from the shuttle, holding an umbrella in one hand and the squirming Carbon in the other. He howled on seeing the Marine, and jumped from the seer’s grasp. Only Randi’s quick reflexes kept the puppy from a mud bath.

"Looks like you’ve got yourself a new friend, love."

Indeed, the tiny puppy was avidly licking away the rain from the warrior’s face. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she blinked them away. "It sure does. Let’s see how Ella feels about this."

They smiled a bit at the picture in front of them. Randall was sitting on the ground, much to his mother’s chagrin, hugging Ditto’s neck. She looked up at Randi with a mixture of consternation and embarrassment.

"I’m sorry, Randi. We should have thought about this."

"I did, Ella. It’s to be expected, really. They grew up together while I was gone. It’s not fair for me to demand either of them to give the other up." She swallowed hard. "If you’re okay with keeping her, Gwen and I will take Carbon home, and make him ours."

The curly haired woman nodded. "I’m betting Ditto keeps an eye on ya’ll. She seems to think the island is her territory."

"Ya’ll get in out of the rain. Randall," kneeling down to the boy’s level. "You take good care of O for me, ‘k?"

"Wuv Wuv. Wuv O." He nestled his face in her neck. "Good."

"You and Ditto take mama home, and get her in out of the rain, all right?"

"Puppy!" he squealed when he spotted Carbon. The tiny pup sniffed and licked gently at the child, but made no effort to move out of Randi’s hands.

"We’ll bring the puppy over to visit soon. But O wants to go home and play with you."

"Tay. Go pway." He gave her a hug and a sloppy kiss, then slid from her lap, and took the dog by the scruff of her neck. "Go, O. Go pway."

Gwen came up behind Randi, and laid a comforting hand on the small of the Marine’s back. The tall woman pressed back into the touch, enjoying the warmth and consolation she could feel emanating from the gentle stroking. She smiled a bit when the puppy yawned and snuggled down in her arms closing his eyes firmly.

"Let’s take the little guy home and get in out of the wet. C’mon, Reed. Let us feed you a hot meal at least before you head back home."

The trio fell into step as they made their way back to the beach house.



Chapter XIX

"Is everything ready, mom?" The bard and her mother were alone for the moment. Geoff had asked to speak to his Sabre compatriot privately, and Gwen had taken advantage of Randi’s absence to corner Jill. The older woman was in on both sides of this secret, and smiled happily. She hadn’t had this much fun in a long time.

"Yes, dear. Everything is set up just like you asked for. I think it’s a good idea."

"I just wanted her to get in on the courting too. She’s been so wonderful to me. Not that she hasn’t always been, but...."

"This is different."

"This is different. Making such a conscious effort to make me feel special and loved. I wanted to do something in return."

"I’m sure she’ll appreciate it, dear. And it fits in perfectly with her plans, so it’s all to the good. Now c’mon... let’s go get some coffee."



"So there’s nothing new?"

"Not really. Tiny said he’d do some checking on some new angles, but the fact is we’ve gotten complacent. No one even considered his missing being a problem until it was too late. I don’t expect them to find anything, really. The only thing that is making them even look twice at this is the fact that he was a Sabre, and he was killed with his own sword. That moved it from a random wrong time, wrong place kind of thing to what they feel is something more sinister."

"And what do you think?"

"I dunno, Geoff. The whole thing feels off to me."

"How so?" He’d had his own misgivings about the oddities surrounding Jerry’s death, but he couldn’t really put his finger on what was bothering him. Maybe Randi’s thoughts would help clear up the picture.

"It’s hard to explain. A feeling mostly. Could it be a random thing? Sure, but not likely, given the sword aspect. It could be directed at the unit, but again it’s unlikely at this point, given that it hasn’t happened before or since. That may change, of course, but for now it is a solitary incident. That leaves a personal grudge, but why? As far as anyone has been able to determine, the few people who wished him harm are already dead." She sighed. "I’m not even sure we have all the pieces yet. It just doesn’t add up for me."

He nodded. "Yeah, I can see why. Well, maybe they’ll figure it out soon," but his tone bespoke of doubt. And at that moment, his wife and daughter peeked their heads in the door, and conversation turned to other things.



"It’s good to see your dad in such high spirits," Randi commented to Gwen as they made their way back to the cottage. "I think having the wedding to focus on has really helped his recovery."

"I know it has. He told me as much. He’s determined to be standing to give me to your keeping."

The warrior stopped walking and drew the smaller woman into her arms. "I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. To know that you will be mine to love and protect and cherish."

"Works both ways, Stud," gently stroking the scar. "Always."


When they stepped into the cottage, Randi froze. Something was... waitaminnute... where the hell did the flowers come from? She looked at Gwen who was smiling nervously, waiting for her response. The reality hit her heart and mind at the same instant.

"These are for me?" reaching a hand out hesitantly to caress the silky petals. Her hand fell away from the flowers and she cupped Gwen’s face tenderly between her hands. Tears sat in the green eyes, but the bard refused to allow them to fall.

"Because I love you," she whispered. She leaned up, and captured the soldier’s lips with her own. "C’mon," on an uneven breath. "We have a date." She looked at Randi through wet lashes. "You gonna tell me where we’re going yet?"

"Nope. Your stuff is in the front bedroom. I’ll meet you back out here in thirty minutes."

Gwen stood staring at the closed bedroom door for a full minute before she moved to get ready for their night out.



Randi closed her eyes and groaned silently when she looked in the closet. She wasn’t sure where the impulse to buy this particular... clothing had come from, but it was too late to back out of it now. She could suffer through it for one evening.

The Sabre slowly slipped the sapphire sheath over her head trying to remember the last time she’d worn a dress. It had been years. Something for school, maybe? She shrugged. It would come to her eventually. The Marine looked into the mirror, and saw the woman looking back at her. The color made her eyes stand out in vivid relief. How long since I allowed myself to be just a woman, instead of a female Marine Sabre? Her brain started to hurt, she thought about it so hard, and she shook her head to clear the thought out.

A dab of perfume and a touch of eyeliner and lipstick, and she was ready. The warrior took a deep breath and released it, heading for the door.



Gwen stepped from the shower and opened the closet, drawing in a sharp breath when she caught sight of the emerald sheath hanging there. Oh wow! This is beautiful. She removed the dress from the closet, and took it off the hanger. She dropped the towel she was wrapped in, and slid the silk over her head. How decadent, smiling at the picture her reflection made. I could get to like this a little too much.

The bard was still smiling when she left her room, looking around in surprise when she saw the Marine was not waiting. She could count on one hand the number of times that had happened. Gwen moved to the window, looking out at the setting sun. She didn’t realize how the backlighting framed her until she heard the warrior’s gasp behind her.

"God, you’re beautiful."

The blonde turned from the glass to face... Oh. My. God. Green eyes took in the vision that stood before her, raking the warrior’s form in bold possessiveness. Gwen circled the Sabre, eyeing her up and down. Randi bore the scrutiny stoicly, consciously fighting down the blush that wanted to rise at the hunger she could see growing in the bard’s eyes.

The Marine waited, wondering. Gwen didn’t say a word, but slipped around in front of the tall woman. She reached out to Randi, sliding her hands up the blue silk-clad sides. Blue and green eyes met and locked, and Gwen moved her hands lightly up the warrior’s chest and around her neck. No verbiage was necessary, as with a gentle tug, she brought Randi lips within reach of her own.

Long moments passed before they separated. Gwen lifted a hand and stroked the scar tenderly, then she chuckled as she gently wiped their lips. "Even now, they just can’t make a lipstick that doesn’t smear during extracurricular activities." Her eyes lit up at the real smile she got from Randi. "You’re gorgeous. I love you."

"I love you too. Shall we go?"

The small hand reached for the larger. "Lead on, love."




The transport pulled to a stop in front of the performing arts theatre, and Gwen turned to Randi with wide eyes. "How did you...? I know this performance was sold out."

During one of their many conversations, they had discovered a mutual love of old musical theatre. And by coincidence, the bard had learned her favorite production was one shared by Randi. When the Sabre had gotten wind of the revival, she had gotten with Tommy, and arranged tickets. Had things not changed, had she not returned from the dead, the tickets for this performance would have been the Marine’s final birthday gift to her bard. Instead, her being alive again had been reason enough for celebration, and she’d held onto the tickets as a surprise.

Now with the chill of fall in the air, they emerged from the warmth of the transport, and moved down the red carpet toward the front doors. Randi gave a brief prayer of thanks for Jill’s foresight in including wraps with their dresses, and then they were entering the warm theatre.

"Happy birthday, Gwen," the warrior whispered into a small ear when she removed the blondes stole from her shoulders. "I know it’s late, but...."

"Having you come back to me was present enough," said with a teary smile. "But this is pretty special too. There is just something about live theatre, especially musical theatre that I find fascinating. Holo programs just aren’t the same."

"Part of it is the performer in you, love. It’s what you do everyday, and this let’s you see what others see when you tell a story." No mention was made of the fact that the bard had yet to return to story telling.

"I guess so. And part of it is the fact that I can’t sing, and to watch them tell a story to music is enthralling." She paused while they entered the box Tommy had secured for them. "Do I want to ask when you arranged all this?" She took a look at the expression on Randi’s face. "That would be a no."

"By the way," Gwen continued, changing the subject. "Did I tell you that I’ve written a couple songs by default?"

The Sabre’s head swiveled around from her observation of the room to lock onto the bard’s green orbs. A dark brow rose in mute question.

"Some of the poetry I wrote." Gwen took a shaky breath. "There was one I asked Greg to put music to... he finished it the day you... died," finished in a bare whisper. "Even though I wouldn’t get the official news for three months, I have never been able to open the disc to hear the finished product."

"Oh, Gwen," taking the bard’s face in her hands and cradling it tenderly. She kissed the closed eyelids. "Maybe one day soon, we can listen to it together."

"I’d like that." She paused as the musicians stepped into the pit and began their warm-up. "Amazing that so much noise will come together as beautiful music shortly. Reminds me of the band. I miss that sometimes."

"Me too. I wondered what happened, but we’ve been so busy, I never really found the right time to ask."

"The guys quit. When you... left, you took the heart of the group with you. I mean, they did try, but it didn’t take long for it to just peter out."

The Marine swallowed hard, but she refused to allow the tears to come. "Well, then, maybe after the wedding, and our honeymoon, we can see about getting the guys back together again."

Gwen started to answer, when the house lights dimmed. Instead, she reached over and clasped Randi’s hand in her own, smiling at the squeeze she received in return. Then she focused her attention on the stage as the music started in at a low rumbling bass, and the narrator’s voice took her off to a land far away, once upon a time.



"That is such a fabulous story, and so timeless. I love ‘Happy Ever After’ endings. Especially since I got one of my very own, and it’s just starting." Gwen looked up with smiling eyes into blue that came back from a thoughtful distance to return her smile. "Where’d you go?" she asked Randi in some concern as they stood to leave the theatre.

"Hmm? Oh, just thinking."

"Feel like sharing?"

Randi glanced at the stage, then back at the bard. "Would she have loved him anyway, if he’d remained a beast?" Her hand self-consciously covered her face.

Gwen reached a hand up, and removed the warrior’s. With the other hand, she drew Randi’s head down to her lips, and gently planted soft kisses along the scar. "Yes," she whispered confidently. "Because she loved the person he was inside. I don’t think what he looked like on the outside really came into play." She smiled up into the Marine’s eyes. "But I meant what I said to you earlier. You’re gorgeous to me, and sexy as hell, and you always will be."

Randi wrapped her arms around the bard in an engulfing embrace. "I love you, Little One. So much."

"I love you too, Stud. Now, let’s go. I’ve got a little surprise for you too." Now, suddenly, her mother’s message made sense. Dinner at 11:30 made much more sense *after* the theatre. She took the Sabre’s hand after wrapping Randi in her cloak, and led her to the waiting transport.



The restaurant was well known to them both, as it was a favorite. The maitre`d greeted them warmly, and by name and exchanged small talk with them as he led them to their preferred table. He seated them both, and signaled the wine steward over. She presented the bottle first to him, and when he nodded, she turned to Gwen. Gwen approved the selection, and when the wine was poured, the maitre`d stated, "Your first course is ready," and motioned their waiters over.

The meal was slow and sumptuous, and they spent it engaging in light-hearted banter, and lively conversation. Randi realized she was falling more in love with Gwen, and shook her head in bemusement. I didn’t think it was possible, but it’s true. Everyday, she captures a little more of my heart, a little more of my soul.

The bard caught the intense expression, and blushed. "Penny for your thoughts, love."

"I was thinking about you," the Marine stated bluntly, "and how I fall more deeply in love with you with every passing moment."

Gwen sat and stared, caught speechless once again by the open honesty of the warrior’s soul laid bare. Instead, she reached out a hand to Randi. "C’mon, love. Let’s go home."

Things didn’t go exactly as either of them had planned, though. They were both exhausted, and fell asleep in the transport on the way back to the cottage. Randi was awakened by the cessation of movement, and reached over to shake the bard awake. Gwen opened sleepy eyes, and lifted her head from the Sabre’s shoulder. "Damn. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep."

"No worries, Little One." A chagrined expression crossed her face. "I fell asleep, too. C’mon. I hear a nice soft bed calling our names."

Gwen smiled at the picture, and followed the warrior into the cottage. They undressed one another, trading soft kisses and tender touches before falling in a tangled heap together into the bed. The bard snuggled closer into her favored spot, smiling in the darkness when Randi’s arms tightened around her reflexively. "I love you, warrior mine."

"I love you too, my bard." She yawned then smiled sleepily as she felt Gwen slip into deeper sleep. "Goodnight, love."



"I have a surprise for you." It was early morning, and the couple had spent a few minutes in exploration before Randi spoke. Gwen leaned back away from the Marine, enabling her to gaze deeply into the blue orbs that were looking back at her in adoration. She gently touched the scar before she resumed her light tracing.

"Is it a nice surprise?" with a hint of teasing.

"Well, you can tell me when we’re done," Randi answered with a smile. She rolled out of bed, and reached a hand out toward the bard. "C’mon. We’re meeting your folks in an hour."

Geoff and Jill were ready and waiting when the two women arrived at the medifac. The weapons smith was sitting in his chair neatly dressed, and Jill sat next to him as they watched the news play out on the holo grid. They discussed the various bits as they played through, and Randi was struck again by their friendship, as well as their abiding love. Gwen knocked lightly on the doorframe before calling out.

"Morning, ya’ll."

The Goldmans’ attention turned to their daughters, and they were again struck by the blindingly strong connection that bound them. It was so refreshing for them to see the two women revel in the love they shared instead of hiding from their feelings. Both sent up a silent prayer of gratitude that the friendship had survived, and the love allowed to grow to fruition.

"So," Geoff asked lightly to break the intensity of emotion that seemed to enter the room. "Where are we going today, fearless leader?" addressing Randi with a smirk.

Gwen muffled a giggle at the raised eyebrow the title invoked. It turned into an outright chuckle when the glare swung in her direction. "Watch it, bard," came the growled murmur. With a look at her in-laws, and their indulgent expression, she sighed. "C’mon. I want to show ya’ll a place that used to be a Mecca for people to gather... eons ago."

The holo experience was incredible. The three women stepped from the boat pushing Geoff slightly ahead of them, to emerge at the gate. They were ID’d and admitted into the inner sanctuary, and Randi watched as the three faces took in the amusement park with eyes shining in childish wonder.

"What is this place?" Gwen breathed, turning wondering eyes to face the Sabre.

"It used to be known as the happiest place. I found the program years ago, but it’s very difficult to find the time to devote to visiting here. It takes days. But I thought ya’ll might enjoy a look at how things once were, and what people did for fun hundreds of years ago."

"This is amazing," Jill whispered.

They walked slowly down the only street, being funneled toward the center of the park. It wasn’t too crowded, nor was it empty, for Randi had discovered that empty was no fun, and just a tad bit spooky.

"All this shopping, and we can’t take any of it with us."

The Marine debated on sharing the truth, then relented. "Actually, that’s not entirely true. If you find something you really like, you can put in an order, and it will be waiting in the last shop. Almost like you were a real tourist, in this time and place."

Gwen and Jill’s eyes sparkled in anticipation; Geoff just groaned.

The day passed pleasantly. They took things slowly, in deference to Geoff’s gradually rebuilding reserves. The group visited shops, and rode rides, marveling at the fun to be had on such antiquated attractions. They ate at a themed restaurant, and sat and people watched for a while. They found some more rides, took in two parades, and ended in the upstairs restaurant late that evening watching the fireworks.

"This has been truly spectacular, Randi. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you shared this place with us. Perhaps we can come again another time? Do this again?" Geoff was exhausted, but he couldn’t remember a better day spent with his family in years.

"Oh, you betcha," Randi answered happily. She was cheerfully sharing wisps of cotton candy with her lover, and the contact was sending tingles up her spine. "There are more parks to visit in this time and place, and I always love a trip here."

"Well, this was a lovely way to spend the day. Thank you for sharing this with us, dear."

"You’re welcome, Jill. Let’s get Geoff back to the medifac, then Gwen and I will escort you home."

"You don’t have to do that, dear. I know you need to get back home."

"We will get home when we get home, but we will see you home safely. It is much later than you realize, Jill. We really have spent the entire day here."

"Listen to her, Mama." The bard was comfortably tangled on Randi’s lap, and until she’d heard the firmness in the warrior’s voice, had been distracted from the conversation going on around her by the pleasant stroking sensation of the Sabre’s hands running up her back. "She means business when she speaks in that tone of voice."

Jill looked at the two entwined around each other. They were too cute, and she didn’t want to make them self-conscious of the picture they made. They exuded playful sensuality, which was an incongruous contrast to the seriousness of tone and words. She just shook her head, deciding not to debate the issue. "All right. I would appreciate the escort."

The Goldmans were surprised to find the day they had spent in the holo arena had actually been an entire day of real time. Geoff fell asleep on the short tip back to the medifac, and didn’t even awaken when he was transferred from the chair to his bed.

"Poor baby. This was exhausting for him." She looked at her daughter’s in wonder. "Thank you. He will get a peaceful night’s sleep, and have lots of happy memories from today." Randi and Gwen nodded, but didn’t answer, then left the room to give her privacy to say goodnight. A few minutes passed, and then a few more. The warrior looked at the bard, whose furrowed brow denoted her concern.

"Maybe I should go check on them."

"We’ll go together." Randi stood and extended a hand to the blonde. "C’mon."

Gwen took the proffered hand, and allowed the soldier to pull her up. Their footsteps echoed eerily in the silent hallway, and they came to a halt just outside the weapons smith’s room. The bard raised a hand to cover her mouth, and Randi smiled reflexively at the picture in front of them.

Jill had climbed into the bed with Geoff, and curled up into his chest. They lay asleep in one another’s arms, and the two younger women were loath to disturb them. At that precise moment, an intern came by with a blanket. "It’s not the first time," he whispered, and Gwen took the covering from his hands. Randi took one side of the blanket, and together they covered the older couple. Then they tiptoed out without a backwards glance.

"C’mon, Stud. I’m tired. Let’s go back to the cottage tonight."



"So, was it a nice surprise?" They were coiled around one another in the darkness, and Randi felt a warm lethargy stealing over her. Gwen’s breath warmed the spot above the warrior’s breast when she exhaled.

"It was a wonderful surprise. Thank you for sharing that with me... with us."

"You are most welcome, love. Everything I have, you know that."

"I know. You have no idea how treasured that makes me feel." The blonde smile into the chest beneath her cheek when she felt lips brush a kiss against the top of her head. Silence fell for a time after that, and Randi was teetering on the edge of sleep when Gwen’s voice whispered through her consciousness.


"Hmm?" She kept her eyes closed.

"What happened to the happy place?"

"A lot of things. Greed, then hatred. And when the war came, well, it was quickly and easily destroyed."

"How horrible!"

"A lot of things about the era were, love. Remember, humankind didn’t really come to an acceptance and understanding of each other until we nearly destroyed ourselves completely." She sighed deeply, thinking of all the ugliness she’d had to combat as a Sabre. "And even today, there are pockets that would love to indulge in the same childish, judgmental behavior."

"Why is that, I wonder?" the bard asked aloud, but mostly to herself.

"Human nature. Upbringing." The warrior sighed. "Some folks just can’t get past the differences to see the similarities."

"That sucks."

"Yeah, it does. But it’s better now than it was then."

Gwen snuggled up closer into the Marine’s arms. "I’m glad we’re here now then." She paused. "But I had a great time today. It must have been an awesome place, once upon a time."

"Yeah, I think it was."

"I love you, Randi," on a whispered sigh that slipped into the deeper, even breathing of sleep.

"I love you too, Little One." She brushed another kiss over the top of the blonde head tucked underneath her chin. "Goodnight, love." Silence settled in the room as two sets of breathing became one in the darkness.



The following week was hectic, and it started the minute they stepped from the shuttle that returned them from the capital.

"Hey, T! What’s up?" Surprisingly, Tommy had met them at the hub. Usually, he just arranged a transport to meet them.

Gwen glared playfully at the warrior, reaching up to hug their friend. "Hi, Tommy. It’s nice of you to meet us." He returned the squeeze and patted the blonde’s back, grinning over her shoulder at the scowling Marine.

Randi just rolled her eyes at the mocking rebuke, and gave the man a quick embrace. "Now," briskly, "what’s wrong? Don’t bother," holding up a hand to forestall any excuses. "I know you well enough to know, so save us all some time and just spill it, ‘k?"

"We have a situation. Nothing horrible, but it needs your personal attention. It’s a little more than the team can deal with without your input and experience."

"I see," the warrior answered thoughtfully. "Well, let’s get to work. You can fill us in on the way, and we’ll see what we can do."



The bard was rubbing the knots of tension from Randi’s neck before the transport arrived at the Midas compound. "This just sucks, T." She rubbed a hand over her face. "All right, I’ll take care it." She turned to Gwen, and lowered her voice so only the bard could hear her. "This is gonna mean some late nights for me for a bit. Are you okay with that?"

"Make it as quick as you can. I’ll be here waiting for you."

The look in her eyes told the Sabre exactly what would be waiting for her when she was done with this project, and she smiled in anticipation. She cradled Gwen’s face tenderly, gazing into the green eyes for a long moment before lowering her head and claiming the bard’s lips for an eternal instant.

"Quick as I can. I promise."

Every night that week found the soldier coming in very late, and literally falling into bed. Twice Gwen had to pull the shoes and pants from Randi’s body and tuck her under the covers. Their weekend plans fell to the wayside; the Marine left town Friday morning, and was gone until Monday afternoon. Still, faithfully, a new flower arrived every morning for Gwen, and she smiled at the thoughts that little gesture evoked.

"You called me, Tommy?" The blonde stuck her head inside the door, and waited for the man to beckon her inside. He did so, and she crossed the threshold, closing the door at his signal.

"You have been very patient, Gwen. I know Randi has been working her ass off, and ya’ll have seen each other a sum total of ten minutes in the last ten days."

She smiled and nodded her head, dropping her eyes. "I’m glad she’s been able to get things straightened out for you, but yeah, I’ve missed her."

"I’ll tell ya what... she should be done, and have everything wrapped up by mid-morning tomorrow. How about if ya’ll take the rest of the weekend? It would give you almost four days of alone time. Now, before you say it, Ella and I are taking the boy up to see your folks this weekend, so they’ll have company. You and Randi will have the island to yourselves."

The mischief grew in Gwen’s eyes. "Oh, I’m liking this idea." She paused. "You’re sure she’ll be done by mid-morning?"

"She’ll be out of here by lunchtime, I guarantee it."

"Thanks, Tommy," crossing to the other side of the desk and giving the man a heartfelt hug.



The following morning, Randi was up and gone before Gwen was even out of bed properly. The bard smiled to herself, knowing the day would not only end their temporary separation, but also be the beginning of their physical renewal. She’d enjoyed the courtship part of their relationship, delighting in the extra care and attention Randi had paid her. She made a silent vow to keep the courtship going long after they were celebrating fifty years together. But the time had come to restore the physical intimacy as well.

It didn’t take long to clean the house. Neither of them were particularly dirty or messy individuals. Setting up took a little longer. She pulled out the jasmine scented candles and placed them strategically around the downstairs, focusing on their bedroom. The bard looked thoughtfully at the small bouquets the floral artist had just left. She hadn’t realized the large variety of flowers Randi had chosen to send her until the florist had put them into several bouquets for her. She set them casually around the room, smiling at the difference the bits of color made.

Satisfied with the setting she’d created for them, Gwen moved into the kitchen and put together some of their favorite finger foods. She slid these and a bottle of Merlot into the fridge to chill, then nodded in contentment. Then she walked to the bathroom to take a cool shower.

Refreshed, she stepped from the enclosure, wrapping the towel around her body. Then she walked to the closet, choosing an emerald silk jersey, and laying a matching sapphire one across the bed for Randi. She lit the candles, and added a dab of perfume, pausing to brush her hair nervously.

"What is up with me?" asking her reflection. "It’s not like this is our first time together." She gazed into the mirror a moment longer without finding an answer and shrugged. The she blew out a breath and opened a link on the vid phone.

It took bare seconds before Randi’s visage filled the screen, and the bard took the time to simply stare at her lover, memorizing the face she adored. When the dark brow arched in amused question, Gwen’s eyes darkened, and her voice went husky.

"Come home."

Part 2

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