Chapter XX

Her nape hairs were standing on end when Randi realized she was staring at a now darkened screen. She came to abruptly, and pushed away from the desk. She still had a few reports to finish, but.... She audibly closed her computer screens and shut the system down all while preparing to leave. She’d heard her siren call to her, and she was following the song home.

She had her hand on the door when Tommy chose that moment to come see her. One look at her face, and he forgot his question. He simply said, "See you Monday, Randi." She nodded, though the reality of his words would not hit her until sometime early the next morning. He went back to his office with a smile. They really were just too cute together.

The Marine never remembered getting into the transport, nor most of the trip home. It was only as she slowed to wait for the bridge to extend that she realized it was barely mid-morning, and she had left work without so much as a by your leave to anyone. Then she was across the viaduct, and pulling into the garage.

The house was dark and silent as she entered, save for the candles that scented the air. She opened her mouth to call out to Gwen when the bard stepped from the kitchen carrying two glasses of merlot. Gwen never lost the sexiness of her walk or look, though her eyes twinkled at Randi’s open-mouthed reaction to everything.

She set the goblets carefully on the small foyer table, then reached up and drew Randi’s head down until their lips were almost touching. "Welcome home, love," she whispered, before meeting the warrior’s mouth with her own. Randi reacted instantly, wrapping strong arms around the slim body, and drawing the blonde tightly into her. Gwen moaned, and tangled her hands in the dark hair that was curtaining them.

The mutual exploration went on for long minutes before they pulled away by common consent, breathless. "Does this mean...?" the Sabre began.

"C’mon," Gwen replied, slowly unbuttoning the white shirtfront. "Let’s get you into something more comfortable."

The Marine took the proffered hand and willingly followed the blonde to the bedroom, shirttails flapping. She noted the candles and flowers almost absently, as her attentions were focused on the soft touch of her soulmate. Gwen slid the cotton shirt from broad shoulders with a lingering contact of her fingers. She unhooked the bra’s front enclosure, steeling herself for patience, but unable to help the flaring of her nostrils. Randi’s scent wafted to her, and she closed her eyes to steady her resolve, wavering when trembling fingers brushed feather light across her cheek. She opened green to meet ardor darkened blue, and met the Sabre halfway in a passion filled kiss.

Finally, she drew back and swallowed hard. "C’mon," she said, picking up the silk jersey, and holding it for the warrior, "before I change my mind and take you right now."

"Like I’d be complaining over that prospect," Randi smiled. The smile grew into a full-fledged grin at the blush that traveled up the bard’s fair skin. She tilted Gwen’s face up til their eyes met, inhaling deeply at the love and passion that were reflected back at her in those vibrant emerald eyes. "I love you, Gwenievere Goldman. Always."

"And I love you, Miranda Valiant. Forever." Small hands worked the buttons holding the pants on, then gently pushed them down long legs. She marveled at the softness of the skin, coupled with the strength of the muscles she could feel flexing as Randi stepped out of the garments. Gwen nuzzled her face against the smooth belly, causing a chuckle to ripple across the surface. She smiled at the warrior, and buttoned the shirt closed. Then she led the taller woman from the bedroom.

Gwen dropped Randi’s hand for a moment to retrieve their wine, then took the Sabre’s hand again, and escorted her to the nest of pillows she had set up in front of the gentle flicker of the fireplace. She’d adjusted the heat level to minimal so they could enjoy the ambience of the open flame. Randi smiled in delighted response to the change in atmosphere Gwen had affected with a few simple touches.

"Music," the blonde called out, and sound softly started rumbling in the background. The Sabre noticed the words as so much background, but was too preoccupied to notice their significance.

The bard seated the older woman, and set down her goblet. She started to walk away when a strong hand clamped around her calf. She leaned down, only to find herself drawn in by the intense blue gaze. Then her lips were captured, and she sank down into the warrior’s warm embrace.

The world faded out, as they found themselves awash in the sensations of sound and scent and touch. Gone were all thoughts of courting and settings. Instead they fell into the love and joy they felt being together as one again, and when skin finally met skin, twin moans resonated in the room.

Randi’s gaze lingered on the body she craved, and she moved to make it her own once more, when with a look and a touch, Gwen stopped her. "Let me love you," came the whispered words from the bard’s lips. "Please."

The warrior surrendered control then, offering herself up into the Gwen’s tender loving care. The soft touches were distracting and invigorating and stimulating all at once. Randi tried to keep coherent thought, but quickly lost the battle as Gwen moved her mouth down one side of her neck. The bard’s hands traveled lightly over the warrior’s torso, starting at her shoulders and lingering on her breasts. Randi arched up to meet the stroking, and Gwen smiled in pleasure at the reaction to her touch.

She lifted her head then, meeting the glowing blue eyes with her own shining green. Words weren’t necessary, as their souls communicated, and Randi lifted the bard back up to claim her lips passionately. The two stayed locked together for long moments, til the bard pulled away to trace the path her hands had begun. It was a very long time before the tray of finger foods made its way out of the refrigerator.



They were lying on the pillows in front of the fireplace with an afghan thrown over them. Gwen had turned the heat back up in deference to the cooling temperatures, but snuggling up naked together felt pretty damned good too. Randi snagged another tiny sandwich that she graciously split with the bard, before leaning back and regarding the flames.

"I love you."

Gwen smiled in reaction to the shivers her caress caused on Randi’s still sensitive skin. She looked up in surprise when a large hand covered her own, causing it to still.

"I love you and... gods... what your, um touch... oh, is doing to me. Wait, please."

The pleading in the blue eyes caused the bard to cease her movements and look at Randi fully. "Love?"

"I want to talk to you a minute, and I can’t think when you’re driving me to distraction with your touch."

"Ooookaay," drawing the word out, wondering where this was going.

The Sabre gripped the ring that still hung from the chain around Gwen’s slim neck. She looked at the symbol for a very long moment, before lifting somber eyes to meet Gwen’s questioning ones. "Why don’t you wear this anymore? I know you keep it around your neck, but...." She looked down at her own ring still on her hand. "It’s not the same thing to me." She swallowed and took a deep breath. "Have you changed your mind?"

A small hand rose and covered the fingers that clenched around the chain. She stroked the tightened fist until it relaxed, and she clasped the larger hand in her own. "Oh no, Stud. You don’t get away from me that easily. I don’t want you just for tonight, or tomorrow. You belong to me forever. I thought I just showed you that." She reached down her free hand and traced the planes of Randi’s face. The warrior closed her eyes reflexively and absorbed the touch. "I can see you’ll need regular reassurance on that," and here she smiled impishly, "that I’ll be more than happy to provide."

Randi heard the teasing in the bard’s voice, and had to open her eyes to smile up into the green that twinkled back at her. "Oh, you will, huh?"

"Oh yeah. This is a lifetime assignment, ya know."

"No love, it’s an eternal project."

Gwen smiled a full-blown smile at the words. "That is such an awesome thought."

Seriousness returned to the conversation. "Then...?" lifting the ring so it was between them at almost eye level.

The bard looked down focusing on nothing for a long minute while she organized her thoughts. When she looked back up into Randi’s face, the Marine had to draw in a deep breath at the love, pain and just the tiniest bit of confusion she saw there.

"When I had to take this off," Gwen’s voice was low and Randi had to strain to hear it. "It hurt me so deeply, in places I hadn’t realized were filled by you." She looked up shyly at her lover. "I promised myself, right before Ben stole my life, that only you would be the one to put the Soulmates’ ring back on me again. Keeping it around my neck kept it close to my heart in the meantime." She paused, looking down again. "I thought you’d put it on me again on our wedding day. Because it’s not coming off again."

The Sabre smiled at Gwen’s firm tone and the determination apparent in those emerald eyes. She slid her hand from Gwen’s clasp, then slipped the Soulmates’ ring from her finger. Without a word, she unhooked the chain around her own neck, and dropped the ring onto it. The Marine fastened the necklace back, and looked at the blonde with shining eyes. "Fair is fair, my bard. You will put it on me once more, on our wedding day, and it will never come off again in this lifetime."

For an answer, Gwen leaned back down and captured the warrior’s lips with her own, and the world faded out again for a long while.



Afternoon shadows were creeping in the windows when Randi opened sleepy blue eyes. She smiled down at the blonde head pillowed on her chest. Then groaned silently at the crick she could feel in her back. Before she could begin to stretch it out, small hands tightened around her waist, and the bard mumbled. "You okay, love?"

"Um, yeah. I think so. Just a little, um...."

"Stiff? Sore?"


Gwen blinked her eyes opened, which caused an unexpected chuckle to ripple through the body beneath her. She rose up and cast a questioning look in Randi’s direction.

"Sorry... butterfly kisses tickle."

The blonde frowned in confusion for a minute, before her brow cleared and she chuckled. "Always useful information to have." She lifted herself up, stretching her own kinks out, much to the warrior’s appreciative delight. "C’mon. I think a hot shower and a massage will solve that little problem, and then we can fix some dinner."

Randi took the proffered hand, and let Gwen pull her up from their nest. Now it was the bard’s turn to admire the Sabre’s body. Randi blushed then grinned rakishly, causing the bard to blush in turn.



"Oh, God... you have magic hands."

Gwen smiled in pleasure, continuing the firm massage. "And you’re all knots right here."

"I know," grunting painfully when the bard hit a particularly sore spot. "I fell asleep in a really weird position." The dark head turned so she could look into Gwen’s face. She smiled. "It was worth it, though."

The blonde didn’t say a word, but her eyes lit up in happiness. It was quiet for a few minutes, while the warrior relaxed under Gwen’s touch. Then a thought occurred to her, and she moved into a half-sitting position. The bard moved her hands to the broad shoulders, and leaned into her back, whispering into her ear.


A pleasant tingling sensation skittered up and down her spine, and the Marine savored their renewed physical connection for a moment. Then she opened her eyes, and met the bard’s at close range. She licked the nose, and laughed when Gwen scrunched it up in reaction. Then she flipped onto her back, and pulled the startled bard into her arms and held her in a long hug.

"Umm," Gwen sighed happily as she returned the embrace fervently. "This is probably my favorite place in the whole world." Randi didn’t respond verbally, merely tightening her hold briefly.

"Gwen, what was the music that was playing earlier? It was... almost... familiar. I...."

For answer, the bard simply said, "Music," and the song that had teased at the edges of Randi’s consciousness came into focus.

Can’t Fight This Feeling

Words and Music by Kevin Cronin

c. Epic Records/CBS, Inc./Marca Reg. (ASCAP)

All rights reserved. Used Without Permission.

Performed by REO Speedwagon

I can’t fight this feeling any longer

And yet I’m still afraid to let it flow;

What started out as friendship has grown stronger—

I only wish I had the strength to let it show.

I tell myself that I can’t hold out forever.

I say there is no reason for my fear.

But I feel so secure when we’re together—

You give my life direction; you make everything so clear.

And even as I wander, I’m keeping you in sight.

You’re a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

And I’m getting closer than I ever thought I might.

And I can’t fight this feeling anymore.

I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for.

It’s time to bring this ship into the shore, and throw away the oars forever.

No, I can’t fight this feeling anymore.

I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for.

And if I have to crawl upon the floor, come crashing through your door—

Baby, I can’t fight this feeling anymore.

The music continued but again became so much sound as Randi’s focus turned to her soulmate, whose soft sobs the Sabre felt wracking her own frame. Hot tears fell onto her skin, and she squeezed the smaller woman tightly to her in a gesture of comfort. Gwen took a shuddering breath, and raised a hand to wipe the wetness from her face, then from the broad chest beneath her head.

"Oh, love," the Marine whispered.

"I sat up one night, shortly before that fateful evening, just thinking about us. About the direction we seemed to be headed in. I remember sitting down to write out the pros and cons of just going with what felt so, so wonderful when we were together." She chuckled ruefully through the tears still in her eyes in remembrance. "Imagine my surprise when I looked down and found this finished instead. I don’t even recall writing it... still don’t, actually. But it seemed to sum up everything I was struggling with."

Gwen sat up and pulled the warrior up with her. Randi obligingly slid back against the headboard and cradled the bard against her chest. Gwen sighed in blissful contentment, simply absorbing the love that surrounded her before continuing her tale.

"Anyway, the next day I called Greg to see if he could set it to music for me. I wanted to surprise you with it. I was almost sure you would welcome the message. Of course, we were so busy those last few days, and he didn’t have time to get it done before the ceremony." She smiled sadly. "He told me at the party the night before that he would get to work on it the next week. He already had an idea of the melody line he wanted, and he expected to have it done and recorded for me fairly quickly. He was as good as his word."

The storyteller paused briefly, and Randi rubbed her back comfortingly. "You don’t have to say any more, Little One. I can feel how agonizing this is for you." The older woman reflected on the truth of that statement, but was brought up short by Gwen’s response.

"No, love. You deserve to know the whole story, and I think it will help me to get this out." The dark head nodded once, and Gwen sighed.

"When I woke up that morning," looking at Randi who understood just exactly what morning she meant, "I reached out to call Greg, to tell him not to bother." Blue eyes grew wide, and Gwen confirmed the thoughts racing behind them. "I was that sure you were gone from me forever. The emptiness...."

Now Randi’s eyes filled with tears at the agony her bard had suffered through, and she cast another prayer to Aphrodite for allowing them this second chance. "What happened?" she whispered when she realized Gwen was waiting for a response before she continued.

"He called me," she answered quietly. "He had been so inspired by us together during the ceremony and our first dance, that he wrote the music during the dancing. He had recorded it that morning." She smiled through the tears. "What could I do? I accepted it gracefully, and put it away, telling him I would share it with you at our first opportunity to hear it together. He never asked about it again."

"Well, remind me to tell him what an incredible job he did when we see him. You wrote beautiful words, my bard. Thank you for sharing them with me. Now, c’mon. I can feel your tummy rumbling, and I’m starving."



"How’s your back?" They were curled up together on the couch after dinner. Or more accurately, Gwen was curled up in Randi’s lap, and the warrior was obligingly wrapped around her.

"What back?" smiling into the blonde head tucked underneath her chin. "Oh, that... no problem." Not that I’d admit if it were killing me, if it meant I had to give this up. "Though," stretching and shifting until she could gather the almost asleep bard in her arms, "the bed would be more comfortable."

"Why is my mattress moving?" Gwen slapped at the chest that was rocking with silent chuckles. "Bad mattress."

"Here," setting the bard on the edge of the bed, and watching her fall gracefully onto her side. "Well, that wasn’t what I had in mind exactly," with another small laugh. Randi pulled one side of the coverlet down, and reached for the bard. Gwen smiled now, though she still didn’t open her eyes.

"C’mon, Stud," crawling up, and sliding under the cover, lifting the other side for the Marine to join her. "It’s bedtime for warriors and bards."

Randi slipped into place, smiling in the darkness when Gwen naturally gravitated to her place without ever opening her eyes. Life was very sweet.



Randi woke with a smile on her face, to the light stroking she’d become accustomed to. She sent a prayer of thanks to Aphrodite, and realized it was the second time in less than twenty-four hours she’d done that. The smile grew to a grin, when she recognized that she had so much to be thankful for.

"Why are you smiling like a Cheshire cat?"

"I am just counting my blessings."



Aphrodite looked down on the couple and smiled. "You are both most welcome, my friends. I hope it will be enough to see you through the times ahead."

"Have faith, sister. Their bond is strong."

"Yeah, well it’s gonna need to be."

The trio returned to observing the scrying bowl, smiling simultaneously at the picture they saw there.



Randi really wasn’t sure it was a good idea, given the time of year and all, but Gwen was so excited about it that she held her tongue and packed up the overnight duffle. "You have your jacket? It could get chilly before nightfall."

"Yep, thanks." She hugged the warrior impulsively. "This is gonna be so much fun."

Randi didn’t answer that. Instead she said, "C’mon. Let’s go get Carbon and get on the road. You up for lunch at Rosie’s?"

"You ever known me to turn her barbeque down?"

Laughing, they went out to the motorcycle, and headed to Tommy and Ella’s.



Carbon howled piteously when they pulled up, running spraddle-legged on his short legs toward them. Randi reached down and scooped the puppy into her arm, wrapping the other around her bard as they made their way toward the Steele manse. Ella stood waiting at the open door, smiling at the picture they made together.

"Good morning, you two. C’mon in."

Randall squealed with delight when he saw them, waving bits of his waffle around the room. "Wuv! Wen!"

"Hey, there boy!" She kissed the top of his head while deftly avoiding his sticky breakfast. "You being good for your mama?

"Goo’ boy," trying to talk and eat simultaneously. It wasn’t working very well.

"So," Tommy asked as he entered the room. "What are ya’ll up to today? I didn’t expect to hear from you the entire weekend, to say nothing of this early this morning." He smiled at the look of joy that passed between them. Their bond had become an almost palpable thing.

"We are going camping." The man’s brown eyes met the blue of the Marine over the blonde head.

Camping? he mouthed. Are you nuts?

Randi merely shrugged her shoulders and grinned sheepishly at him. What Gwen wants, Gwen gets. This was something Gwen really wanted to try and it was within her power to provide the real experience the bard craved. He just chuckled silently at the ease with which Gwen had wrapped the Sabre around her little finger. Not something he’d ever held out hope to see in this lifetime. He was damned glad it had happened for the two of them.

"Well, Gwen," Tommy said, answering her statement. "I hope ya’ll have a really nice time together out there. I did the real outdoorsy thing once, and swore I’d never camp outside a holo environment again."

"That bad?" He was giving the blonde serious second thoughts.

"Let’s just say that the experience didn’t work well for me. But you," he added, trying to rid the blue eyes of the daggers they were shooting at him. "You have an expert to guide you. I was in a bad situation, and forced to make due and get by."

"Really?" Gwen relaxed. "You’ll have to share the tale with me someday."

"Perhaps one day, but ya’ll need to be getting started, yes?"

Baleful eyes pinned him for a moment longer before the soldier relented. "Yeah, we should. I have a special place in mind."

"Ya’ll be careful, huh?"

"Yep. We’ll be home sometime tomorrow, probably." Not stating that the possibility was there for an earlier return. He understood well what she wasn’t saying. Just then, Ella stepped from the kitchen.

"Here," handing them a small bundle. "You’ll need something for supper at least. Take this to go with it."

Gwen reached out a hand and took the package. "Thanks, Ella. This is going to be so much fun." The older woman had her doubts, but didn’t express them, merely smiling encouragement and agreeing.

"Ya’ll have a good time. I expect to hear a great story after this adventure, all right?" The bard nodded in concurrence, as this was one hope she shared. Her stories hadn’t yet returned to her fully, though she was beginning to weave bits and pieces for her warrior when they were alone together. Randi never pushed, but listened to and encouraged her whenever the opportunity presented itself. Slowly, she felt the pieces beginning to come back together. Her eyes sparkled in anticipation.



The first part of the morning was spent riding across familiar paths, catching faint hints of fall fruits. The apple orchard was sweet; by contrast, the orange grove was spicy. Gwen took a deep breath, letting her lungs fill with both tantalizing aromas. They weren’t in any hurry, and stopped several times just to stretch their legs. Twice they took unexplored roads a ways, just to see where they led. All in all, it was a fun and happy morning, and they were both in a relaxed state of being when they pulled up at the barbeque stand for a bit of lunch.

Rosie’s place was very busy, and there wasn’t much time for chitchat between them. She did manage to have a brief conversation with the couple. It managed to reassure the shamaness that things were indeed back on track for them, and for that fact, she was exceedingly grateful. She observed them slyly while taking care of her other guests, glad to see the playfulness had returned to them. She sighed when the two women waved goodbye, and headed out again.



They spent the remainder of the day riding aimlessly, no destination in mind. Just enjoying the time together, and the fresh air and sunshine. As sunset approached, though, Randi turned the bike purposely toward their favorite grotto, and shortly, the two were setting up camp for the night. Several times Gwen thought she had the ground cleared sufficiently to be comfortable, but each time she managed to find another rock she missed. She was a little bruised, and more than a little frustrated when Randi suggested a walk to the nearby spring.

The fall flowers were bountiful along the water’s edge, and the bard took a few minutes just to absorb the peace and beauty that abounded in this place. It soothed her heart and soul, and promptly took her mind off the aggravations that setting up their campsite had caused. She so wanted this to be successful. The blonde knew as a Sabre, Randi had been camping many times, and she suspected it was part of the Amazon training as well. And for reasons she didn’t stop to dissimilate, it was an experience she needed to share with the warrior.

Gwen breathed in deeply, smiling in contentment when Randi walked up behind her and wrapped strong arms around her, resting her dark head on the bard’s blonde one. "It’s so peaceful here. So soothing."

"I think it is the sound of running water. There is just something about it that is comforting to the soul." The soldier paused. "For me at any rate. Always has been. Even on the worst of missions." She fell silent, and Gwen wondered where she had gone. She turned in Randi’s arms, and circled her waist.

"Hey, you all right?"

The Sabre shook her head, and focused her gaze on the green eyes looking up at her. "Um hmm. Just thinking. It happens sometimes. I can’t seem to help it." She quirked a half grin at the bard.

"Thinking, you mean?" Gwen chuckled. "Honey, with your mind, you can’t help but think. C’mon. I’m starving."

Randi didn’t have a response to the first part of the conversation, so she answered the second. "Now there’s a big surprise. Oof!" as she was backhanded in the guts. "Well, it’s true," ducking away from the second playful cuff. "Heh... you missed," stepping away from the bard, whose eyes were twinkling with mock outrage, and real mirth.

She saw Gwen’s intent to lunge a mere second before she did, and was able to dodge the small body by a hairsbreadth. She laughed out loud when the bard came after her, and the chase was on. Carbon, recognizing a game when he saw one, joined in as fast as his tiny little legs would carry him. As darkness fell, laughter rang out over the campsite.


Finally, winded, the two collapsed down on the ground in front of the small fire they’d built. The puppy dropped panting beside them. They had heat sticks for the tent, but there was something about an open flame that was comforting, and besides....

"Randi," the bard called, slapping at yet another bug. "Aren’t the bugs supposed to be gone?"

"Not necessarily. It hasn’t really been cold enough yet," swatting at her own nuisances.

"Well, that just sucks." The bard retrieved their dinner, and handed out Randi’s portion to her. The warrior sat down next to her bard, wincing as tender flesh met another protruding rock. She reached around, and pulled it from under the cushion they were seated on, throwing it nonchalantly into the outer darkness. They ate their food in silence, occasionally batting away the annoying bugs that seemed to find a way past the field that had been set up to keep them out.

"Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea." The bard’s subdued voice was suddenly loud in the quiet that had fallen over them.

Randi looked over at the defeated slouch apparent in Gwen’s body language. "C’mere," giving the blonde a tug, who with a squawk fell tumbling into the Sabre’s willing and waiting arms. The blonde brow lifted in question, but Gwen found herself mesmerized by the blue depths so close to her. The green eyes dropped to the warrior’s parted lips, then glanced back into the now partially closed eyes. She leaned forward, into Randi’s body, and caught her lips passionately. Then pulled back abruptly at the ominous rumble of approaching thunder.

The bard’s head dropped on to the Sabre’s leather covered chest. "This is not going at all how I imagined it would."

Randi smiled down into the blonde her cradled on her chest. "Well, life is like that sometimes. I can’t tell you the number of times we had snafus when we were out like this. It happens. C’mon," getting to her feet and carrying Gwen along with her. "I think I can make this be more like what you imagined."

It didn’t take long to pack up, and they just beat the rain. It chased them all the way home, and the first drops fell as they pulled underneath the front portico. Randi hesitated, then left the bike parked. "No point getting soaked. She’ll stay dry here."

Gwen smiled at the Marine’s use of the female pronoun, but said nothing as she keyed the lock. She set the hastily packed equipment near the door, waiting to see what Randi was going to do. Carbon was too tired to care. He promptly trotted to his spot in front of the fireplace, and sank into his bed. With a sniff and a sigh, he closed his eyes, and curled his tail around his nose. The bard watched in surprise as the Sabre walked to the security panel and keyed in a code. Then watched in amazement as the far side of the living room converted into a holo suite

"How? Why? But...."

"This has always been here. I just rarely use it. We’ve always had something going on together, and until last weekend with your folks, I hadn’t been on a holo journey in years. However, I think we might want to utilize this a little more often now." She grinned rakishly, and the bard smiled and blushed at the implications apparent in the warrior’s look and tone.

"For now though...." Randi keyed in a set of commands, and waited for the system to indicate its readiness. Then she held out a hand, which the bard instinctively took. "I think this is more like you imagined."

They stepped out of the beach house, and into their clearing, only this time there were no rocks, no bugs and no rain. Gwen smiled at the setting. Randi had even made it late spring, so the air was scented with the perfume of flowers, and the temperature was pleasantly warm.

"This is wonderful," Gwen complimented the Sabre. "But I would still like to do the real camping experience with you someday."


"I... I dunno. I just... it seems to be such a part of who you are, or who you were, and there’s a part of me that wants to share that. It feels like the thing to do... it feels right for us to be together like that."

Randi smiled at the somewhat circular logic the bard was using. "I’ll tell you what. You come lay down here beside me," indicating the sleeping bags spread by the small fire. "And we’ll do some star chasing together. We’ll see what we can do about the other later."

"I’d like that," Gwen replied shyly, and lay down within the circle of the warrior’s strong embrace. "It’s a bear."

"A bear? Where do you see a bear? It’s a ladle."

"C’mon, love. Don’t you see the ears, and the tail?" gesturing at the sky overhead. Randi smiled affectionately, and the eternal debate began anew.



Chapter XXI

The next two days passed quietly for the couple. They spent a bit of time with Carbon, teaching him the basics in obedience. Randi marveled at the way the pup took to the training and to Gwen.

"Looks like you’ve got a new admirer," the Marine gently teased. Carbon had persistently followed the bard’s footsteps to the point of tripping her up twice. The first time she managed to avoid falling by hopping lightly over the ball of fur. The second time she wasn’t quite so lucky, and she could feel herself falling hard and fast. She closed her eyes and prayed.

Without warning, she felt herself caught and held by something soft, and she kept her eyes closed as she greedily inhaled the heady scent of her soulmate. "You all right?" the low voice growled in her ear, sending shivers up and down her spine.

"I’m just perfect, thank you."

A chuckle rumbled through the surface beneath her, and she smiled sympathetically. "You wanna let me down now?" opening her eyes, and admiring the Marine’s strong profile.

"No, not really. I kinda like having you here."

"Well, I really like being here. But I don’t think he’s gonna stop barking until he gets to see for himself I’m okay." The bard fully expected Randi to set her on her feet. Instead, the Sabre knelt, and let the puppy give Gwen a thorough face washing.

"AUGH! Carbon! Stop... that tickles! Carbon! Randi!"

The warrior stood then, causing the pup to drop from his perch on Gwen’s shoulder, and the storyteller to stand. Carbon cocked his head and lolled out his tongue, looking obnoxiously pleased with himself. The soldier choked back a laugh at his comical expression. "He is just too cute."

The bard stepped closer, noticing the hitch in Randi’s breathing. "Not nearly as cute as you are."

"Oh no, my bard," her voice dropped, and she watched the goose bumps travel up the arms now wrapped around her neck. The Marine’s hands fell naturally to the small of Gwen’s back, and eliminated the remaining space between them. "I am not now, nor have I ever been CUTE."

Gwen took in the passion darkened eyes, the beautifully planed face, and the well-muscled body touching hers along its length. She sighed, and pulled Randi lips down within reach of her own. "You’re right," watching a flash of hurt pass through the blue eyes at her swift agreement until they caught the twinkle in her own. "You’re gorgeous." Then she didn’t give the warrior time to respond, as she drew the waiting lips to meet hers.

The kiss went on for long moments, the two completely lost in one another until....

"Gwen," whispered.

"Yeah?" equally quietly.

"He’s staring at us." The canine hadn’t moved, but now focused on them with a determinedly perplexed look on his furry face. It was cute, but unnerving at the same time.

The bard giggled helplessly, and dropped her head onto Randi’s chest. "We’re gonna have to teach him about privacy." She felt the Sabre’s body shake in response. "For now though...."

Gwen picked up the puppy, and placed him in his bed near the dark fireplace. "Stay," she told him seriously. He sighed, ears drooping, as he settled his head on his paws. "Now," linking her hands with the larger ones of the warrior. "Where were we?"

Randi pulled the slim body into her own, and sighed in contentment. "Right about here," ducking her head and capturing the bard’s lips expertly. Gwen wound her arms around the Marine’s neck, and Randi took that as her cue to lift the startled blonde into her arms. The storyteller wrapped her legs around the Sabre’s waist, never noticing when they passed from the living room into the bedroom. Carbon closed his eyes, and reconciled himself to waiting for a while.



Monday morning found them heading back to Midas. They’d talked to Geoff and Jill the previous afternoon, making arrangements for the Goldmans to join them the following weekend. It would be Geoff’s first trip since the accident, and they’d spent quite some time getting all the details in place.

"I’ll be glad to see your folks here."

"Me too. I have a lot to be thankful for this Blessings Day."

The warrior reached out a hand and caressed Gwen’s smooth cheek. "So do I. Have I told you today how much I love you? How much I love being with you?"

The bard’s breath caught in her throat. "Yes, but it never hurts to hear it again." She swallowed. "No one can possibly understand how incredible it feels to love you, and be loved by you."

"That goes double for me, Little One. C’mon, let me walk you to class. We’ve got work to do."

She left the storyteller outside her classroom with a brush of her lips on Gwen’s knuckles, though she really wanted to take the smaller woman into her arms and just.... And where exactly did this sudden, overwhelming desire for PDA’s come from, hmm? She shook her head to clear it, then knocked on Tommy’s door.

"Enter," he beckoned, and she took him at his word, shutting the door solidly behind her. He raised an eyebrow in question. The closed door indicated serious discussion. "What’s up? You look great... the weekend was good to you." Then he grinned as the blush crawled slowly up her face, only to have his own face turn red at her matter-of-fact response.

"No, Gwen was good to me... very, very good, in point of fact. Thank you for noticing."

He cleared his throat, hoping the heat in his face would die down before the hair fried off his head. "Ahem, yes, well... what can I do for you, short stuff?"

Her manner turned serious, and he folded his hands on top of his desk, poised to listen. "How much influence do you have with the Festival Event Planning Committee? The one that does the musical storytelling broadcast Festival morning?"

His brow crinkled. "Well, I know them all by first name. I don’t know that that constitutes influence. Why do you ask?"

"I want you to suggest that they invite Gwen to be this year’s bard." She didn’t look at him when she spoke, and her voice was pitched so low he almost didn’t hear her. In fact, he looked at her in silence for several very long seconds before his mind wrapped around the words his ears had heard her speak. Then he cleared his throat, trying to determine the best way to answer the Marine.

"Um, Randi... you are aware that Gwen hasn’t told a story in more than eighteen months? Not by choice, but because of an inability to do so."

The dark haired woman jumped from her seat, pacing around the room in agitation at his words and the immediate implication. She walked to the window, looking out at the bard’s classroom across the courtyard. "She’s started writing again, Tommy. And she’s started telling me bits of stories she’s coming up with. It’s good stuff, T. Her muse is returning. I think this would give her the push she needs to force it out. It’s there, brother. I’ve seen it... I’ve heard it. She just needs a reason and the confidence to let it live again."

"And putting her into a position where she is forced to perform publicly accomplishes this how, exactly?"

"The Festival reading is just that... a reading. She can choose to tell it, or simply read it from the scrolls. But it puts her in front of an appreciative audience, and helps build her confidence. It shows her that she still has what it takes."

"What if it doesn’t, hmm? What is she freezes? What if she fails?"

"It will, and she won’t. I will be right beside her every step of the way."

Now the man turned a shocked visage toward the window, and Randi’s back. The few times he had ever seen her step away from her fiercely guarded privacy had been on Gwen’s behalf. She was serious about this then, and as had always been the case between them, he couldn’t deny her what was in his power to provide.

"I’ll ask, Randi. But you have to understand this is a fairly late request. It is very possible that she won’t even be considered, much less invited."

"Thanks, Tommy," turning from the window to look at him squarely. He noticed the tear tracks, but didn’t say a word. He waited for her to continue speaking.

"She doesn’t know I asked you this. I’d appreciate it if this stayed between the two of us."

"You know it will, little sister."

"Thanks, T. You’re the best."

"Anytime, Randi," opening the door for her as she reached it. Then he moved back to his desk to make a few vid calls, crossing his fingers and whispering a prayer as the first signal went through.



When lunchtime came, Randi was waiting outside Gwen’s door astride Excalibur, picnic basket in hand. "Hey adorable. Can I talk you into sharing lunch with me?"

The bard held a carnation to her nose, looking up at the warrior from underneath fair lashes. "I believe I could be persuaded," she replied teasingly. "What’s involved?"

Randi grinned rakishly, ignoring the students who were loitering, and doing their damnedest not to be caught staring. "A little food, a little wine, a blanket, you, me and some quiet time alone together. Whaddya say?"

Gwen lifted her arm, waiting for the Marine to help her into the saddle. "I say," whispering into the now nearby ear, "what are we waiting for?" She licked the ear for good measure, chuckling when Randi shivered in response. "Let’s go, Stud," wrapping her hands firmly around the trim waist in front of her.

"Yah!" was all Randi said in answer. And the stallion moved out at a gallop.



"This was a wonderful idea." The bard was leaned back against Randi’s chest, looking out over the small lake that sat on Midas property. The Sabre was reclined against the backing of a low-slung chair designed for just such a purpose. She’d dug it out of her military equipment for their erstwhile camping trip, and had brought it along when this impulse overcame her. She was glad now she’d followed the whim, and smiled down happily at the blonde woman in her arms. Randi tickled Gwen’s belly, eliciting an outraged squeak from the bard, and getting her a raised eyebrow glare.

"Mm hmm, it’s beautiful out today."

"Randi, even if it hadn’t been perfect out, this still would have been a great idea. I am having the best time just being with you. One day, soon, I am going to have the words again to be able to tell you just exactly what all this, and having you here with me again means to me."

"I know you will love. I have great good faith in your gift. And when your muse starts talking again, I’m betting she’s gonna have a lot to say for a very, very long time."

Gwen didn’t answer, but snuggled deeper into the warrior’s encompassing embrace.



The next few days were spent in like manner, except for the picnic, as rain moved in and settled down with a vengeance. Evenings were spent quietly... preparing the boathouse for the Goldmans’ arrival, and making some minor modifications to the beach house. Carbon was mesmerized by the activity, and stayed under foot constantly. So they spent a portion of every afternoon playing with him so he was happy to rest in his basket when they needed to work.

By Thursday night, things were ready for the parent’s arrival the following day. The women were thankful for the three-day weekend. They were looking forward to the time spent with family.



"Whose idea was this anyway?" the bard grumbled into the pre-dawn darkness. "God is not even up at this time of day." Gwen was mostly upset because they’d barely had time to get ready to meet her folks, and she’d missed her ritual tracing that morning. She wondered if Randi missed it as well. Her question was answered before she could voice it.

"Your mother wanted to get in and have a chance to rest before Temple later this morning. It will also give us some time to cuddle when we get home." She clasped the bard’s fingers lightly, and brushed them with her lips. "I missed our time together this morning."

Gwen smiled as she returned the kiss with a smile. "Me too. One reason I’m so grumpy, I think. Of course, starting out running late didn’t help either." She smirked, then grew thoughtful. "Wonder why they didn’t just come in last night."

"Probably has something to do with Geoff’s reserves level. Starting the day here, he can rest as he goes along. But if he had therapy and renewal sessions yesterday, I’m sure he was drained by the end of the day."

"I guess you’re right. Hadn’t thought about that. Glad you had them come to the private pad, though, and got this larger transport for their stay." The bard would have said more, but just then, the transport landed, and their concern turned toward getting Geoff and Jill back to the boathouse.

Hugs went around the group. Randi was happy to see the strength returning, albeit slowly, to the weapons smith, and the lines of pain and exhaustion fading. Though she wouldn’t for the world have had this happen intentionally, she was glad to see his determination to overcome the obstacle winning out.

The four didn’t talk much, agreeing to wait until after they’d rested and been to Temple before starting conversations that once begun would take hours to complete. Instead, Gwen and Randi got the older couple settled, and went back to their own bedroom.

The bard raised a hand to the warrior’s face, tenderly following the lines and planes of the features she knew so well. She felt Randi smile in the near darkness, then gasped at the tingle that ran up her spine when the Marine kissed her palm and sucked two fingers into her mouth. Gwen leaned up on an elbow, catching the twinkle in the blue eyes in the faint light. She leaned down then, replacing her fingers with her tongue, and luxuriating as the warrior’s arms cocooned her in their embrace. The bard let her fingers begin tracing down the strong body beneath her own, and their world narrowed to the touches and scents and feelings shared between them.



They were a striking quartet as they entered the temple. The older couple entered first. Geoff sat erect in his chair, and Jill guided it smoothly with one hand. He wore a dark gray suit, complimenting the rich burgundy of her dress. Behind them followed their daughters. The Marine wore a deep brown leather overcoat, which covered chocolate leather pants, and forest green silk shirt. The cinnamon dress Gwen wore flattered her beautifully. The gold thread it was shot through with picked up highlights in her hair, and it went well with Randi’s colors nicely.

Tommy and Ella were already there, and Randall squealed when he saw them. "Best if I take him to the nursery. We won’t hear a thing otherwise." The man started to stand when Randi stopped him, holding out her arms.

"Let me have him. He’ll be good for me, won’t you boy?"

The child leaped into her waiting embrace, and looked up at her solemnly. He nodded, the wrapped his childish arms around the soldier’s neck. "Wuv Wuv." Then he settled back, content now to simply watch the activity taking place around them.

The service was brief, then broke up to allow individuals an opportunity to visit the prayer rooms privately. Ella knew without asking Randi wanted some time, and reached out her hands for her son. Randall protested loudly, but calmed again when the Marine turned The Look his way and spoke to him in a no-nonsense tone of voice. The mother in her watched the change in amazement, and made a mental note to try that approach with him in the days to come.

Randi took the storyteller’s hands in her own, and raised a brow. A nod was her only answer, and they made their way together to one of the small rooms. A particularly small room, that Randi remembered clearly rushing out of almost five months earlier, headlong into her future.

The remainder of their small group watched them disappear into the alcove, then Geoff turned to Jill. "I’m gonna go find me a room for a few minutes."

"Me too, actually. Meet you back here, sweetheart?"

"Yep. Thanks, honey." She nodded her acceptance, understanding very well what he was thanking her for.

Tommy looked at Ella and then at the Goldmans. "We’re gonna head back to the island. We’ll meet ya’ll at the beach house shortly." The older couple agreed, and moved off toward the small rooms off the main sanctuary.



Geoff found himself comfortably ensconced, and focusing on the flame that burned brightly on the small altar. He composed himself, then began his prayer.

Goddess Athena,

I know I’m not as faithful about this as I should be. But this year of all years I couldn’t

let pass by without some small bit of thanks. What you did for Randi, for Gwen... I will

never be able to do or say anything to express how deeply I feel about this. So, thank

you... for giving them a second chance together. I know it’s unusual, and most folks don’t

understand it. But I for one am profoundly grateful to have been witness to the miracle

that it is.

He sat there for long moments, his head bowed in reverence, and the tears falling from his eyes. He would have sworn he felt a soft touch on his head, but when he looked up there was nothing to be seen in the room, save for the flame that continued to burn brightly.



Jill stepped into the small room, and knelt before the altar with bowed head before standing and lighting several candles, offering a thanks to a different goddess with each one.

Thanks be to Hestia, for the hearth and home I share.

Thanks be to Hera, for the family I share it with.

Thanks be to Artemis, for watching over my little girl, and to Aphrodite for returning

Randi safely to her.

For the many blessings I have received this year, and for the special gift of our

daughters’ newly found love... for all these things I am very thankful.

Again the woman knelt, closing her eyes in meditation and contemplation.



The priestess who ushered them into the tiny room, nodded solemnly at Randi, and closed the door for privacy as she left. Gwen looked around in a bit of surprise, wondering at the placement of a cot and table and chairs in a prayer room. The Marine answered the unspoken question in the green eyes as she glanced around the room.

"Four and a half months ago, I came to in this room, trying to figure out why I was here and how to get home to you. So close, and still so far away." Gwen looked around the room with newly appreciative eyes. The warrior seated the smaller woman on the cot, and knelt at her feet.

"I am so thankful, Gwen... for you. For the second chance we’ve been given. For the love we share, and the future we have to look forward to together." She lifted both hands, and cradled the bard’s face tenderly. "So today I give thanks to Aphrodite, Athena and Artemis for the miracle of restored life. For the opportunity of second chances. For friends who accept the possibility of miracles without asking for reasonable explanations." She paused and swallowed, closing her eyes and savoring the bard’s touch when Gwen reached out a hand to stroke her face.

"Mostly, though I am thankful for you, my love. And for the difference you have made in my life," Randi finished reverently.

"I am thankful for the fact that you are here and whole and with me. That you chose to suffer and come back to me because you knew how badly I needed you. So to the goddesses who made it possible, I offer up my most humble thanks. It has made all the difference to me, and I don’t know that I will ever be able to really show my true appreciation for the gift we have been given."

"Love one another, babe, and be happy together always. That is all the thanks we require."

The two mortal women looked up, startled, as the three immortals materialized in the small, now crowded room.

"Well, that and an invitation to the wedding." Artemis added, and Randi and Gwen grinned in response.

"The ceremony is going to be a very private affair. Close friends and family only. You would all be most welcome."

"You know, Dite," looking at the love goddess who appeared oddly pleased. "I’m glad we did this for them. It’s nice to see a plan come together with results like this."

The warrior and bard flushed in tandem, and the three goddesses laughed in delight. "We have a blessing for you both before we leave." Gwen slipped from the cot to kneel with Randi, facing her and holding both hands tightly in her own.

"May your lives always be filled with the love and joy you know today, and may you never lose sight of how rare and precious your bond is. A long and happy life together is yours if you never lose sight of that, and of each other." A shiver of premonition skittered down Randi’s spine at the vague warning, but she set it aside when Athena continued. "Blessings on both of you, and much happiness."

"Peace and joy be yours," from Artemis.

"Love one another always... often and well." A tear spilled down Aphrodite’s cheek, and the diamond fell into Randi’s lap. The Sabre looked up puzzled into the clear blue eyes. "For remembrance," was all the love goddess offered. Then she and her sisters faded out with a sparkle, and a dusting of rose petals.

Warrior and bard looked at one another confused, before Randi removed on hand from Gwen’s grasp, and moved it to the fair cheek. "I love you," she said, before capturing the soft lips for a timeless moment. "Always."

"And I love you. Forever," leaning their foreheads together. They stayed that way, sharing air until the Marine rose smoothly to her feet and reached a hand down to her lover.

"C’mon. Let’s go home. We have a wedding to finish planning and a future to start."

Gwen twitched her dress into place, and resumed her hold on the Sabre’s hand. "I’m with you, Stud. Let’s go."



The couple found the Goldmans patiently waiting, talking to a priest and a priestess. Jill covered her mouth, as though to contain her surprise, and Geoff literally glowed from excitement. The woman clergy nodded her head in confirmation, and Jill moved her hands to cover her heart.

"Wonder what’s up?" Randi whispered in the blonde’s ear.

"I dunno, but judging by the looks on Mama’s face, it must be pretty spectacular." The older woman had clasped her husband’s arm by this point, and they were looking at one another in astonished wonder. "I’m sure we’ll hear all about it in due time."

The priest and priestess nodded greetings and farewells simultaneously, and departed the company just as Randi and Gwen reached the Goldmans. The Marine looked to Geoff, bemused. "Was it something we said?"

"Nah, they knew we were waiting for you so we could leave," neatly diverting attention from their discussion.

"Oooookaaay," wondering what she was missing by the niggling at the back of her mind over the whole thing. "C’mon, then. Let’s get home. I imagine Tommy and Ella are at the house already."

"Yeah, and I’ll be glad to get there. I’m tired." Green and blue eyes swung to him in concern as they made their way to the transport. "I’m all right," answering the unease he felt pouring from them. "Just tired. I still don’t have a lot of stamina, and Blessing Day is very emotionally draining, especially when we have so many things to give thanks for. I am overjoyed to feel this way." The two younger women smiled at him in delight.

"Well, we’re glad you felt up to coming down for this weekend."

"Gwen, we wouldn’t have missed it. Not this year particularly. We talked about it at length. We have so much to be thankful for, and no place we’d rather be than here with our family." Jill spoke, and Geoff patted her hand in agreement and support.



It was quite the gathering by the time the four arrived at the beach house. Ella’s parent’s and Tommy’s father had joined them for the traditional Blessings Day feast. Gwen went into the kitchen followed by Randi, to take care of the last minute details, only to find the curly headed woman finishing things up.

"Ella," from Gwen with laughing exasperation, "don’t you ever get tired of being in the kitchen?"

"No, not at all," the woman cheerfully informed them. "Especially with so many hands to do the cleaning up." The three shared a chuckle as they brought things to the table. Then Randi seated everyone around the table. She remained standing, and waited for their attention. When all eyes were on her, she swallowed hard and lifted her glass to them.

"My friends," she said quietly. "I know this is a new tradition, with all of us coming together to spend this holiday together. But I was wondering if you would each stand and tell one thing that you are thankful for. One blessing you’ve had this year."

"I dunno, Randi," the elder Steele answered solemnly. "I doubt anyone here could narrow it down to one."

"Well try, Uncle. We’d like to eat the food before it gets cold." Everyone tittered about over the matter-of-fact statement from the Marine. Then he took up the gauntlet and stood, glass in hand.

"I am thankful to have my family again."

They went around the table slowly, each person briefly offering gratitude for a blessing received. When it came time for Gwen to speak, having been saved for last, except for the Marine, she stood slowly, her gaze focused on the tabletop. She took a breath to speak, when from her left erupted... "Wuv!"

The entire table convulsed into laughter at Randall’s impeccable timing and response. "Hey you," the bard reached over and tickled his tummy. "That was MY line." She kissed the top of his head, and he looked insufferably pleased with himself. Gwen picked up her glass, and walked to the other end of the table. She stepped up close to Randi, and linked their hands together in a tight clasp.

"He’s right though. I am most thankful for you... for us. This year has been such an extreme in experiences for me, but having you here has made it all worth it."

Randi didn’t answer immediately, but lifted their joined hands to her lips and brushed a light kiss across the bard’s knuckles, then spent a minute just looking into the verdant eyes. She swallowed hard, and spoke in a near whisper.

"I am thankful for so much... but mostly for the opportunity I was offered to come back and make things right." She swallowed again and looked down, before returning her focus to Gwen’s gaze. "And I will always be thankful that things worked out so much better than I dreamed. I love you."

More than one set of eyes was surreptitiously wiped while the small group observed the palpable bond flowing between the two. Once again, Randall was the one to dissipate the intensity of the moment. "WUV!!" His impatience was clear by the scowl that covered his face.

Randi’s laugh was a tension release, and she kissed the bard’s nose before walking her back to her chair and seating her. The Marine stopped beside the child, riffling his hair with a smile. "You hungry, boy?"

"YES!!" very emphatically.

"Well then... Let’s eat!" Cheers greeted this announcement, and the assembly began to dig in to the deliciously prepared meal. Silence reigned for a time after that, aside from the general murmurs required to get every one served.

When the eating had slowed perceptibly, Tommy looked up and cleared his throat. "Um, I have some interesting news."

All eyes swung his direction, and he flushed slightly under the intense scrutiny. "Oh?" Ella’s brows arched upwards. "Do tell." It wasn’t often her husband kept secrets, but he hadn’t given her any "interesting news" since the night he’d gotten Gwen’s note from Randi. And that kind of interesting news she could live without going through again for the rest of her natural life. However, the twinkle in his eyes when he turned to her caused her to smile, knowing whatever he had up his sleeve was a good thing.

"I got a very interesting call before I left the office yesterday." He studiously avoided looking at either bard or warrior. "It seems the Festival Committee has decided they want Gwen to do the reading this year. I told them I’d ask, but I didn’t see why not."

Gwen sucked in a breath and paled. "You didn’t," in a flat whisper.

"Sure I did. You told me two years ago that if they ever offered it to say yes."

"Things were different then, Tommy. You shouldn’t have done that." Without warning, the storyteller rose from her seat and walked out the French doors. She stood watching the waves crash against the shore, arms hugging herself tightly.

"Well, that didn’t go like I’d hoped. I’ll go talk to her." He set his napkin on the table, and made a move to rise from his seat, only to be forestalled by a hand on his shoulder.

"Let me. This is my responsibility."

The room remained silent as the warrior walked out the door. The group watched her enfold the bard in her embrace and saw Gwen relax into the hug. A sigh of relief went around, and quiet conversation ensued.



"You all right, Little One?"

"No. How could he do this to me? He of all people knows my muse has left me. I can’t get up in front of the world and tell the Festival Story."

"I told him to."

Dead silence while the bard digested Randi’s words. Not even the roar of wind and waves could penetrate the stillness that surrounded them. Gwen stepped out of the Sabre’s hold. "You? Why?"

Randi reached for Gwen, hurt when the bard stepped away from her. She dropped her arms to her sides, and willed the pain from her voice and countenance. "Because I wanted to help. Your muse is still there, Gwen. You’re writing again, and telling me bits of stories. You just need some confidence in your self and your abilities."

"And putting me on display in front of the whole world accomplishes this how? Dammit, Randi! I haven’t told a story in eighteen months. There’s nothing there!" Her head dropped, and the Marine heard the anguish in her tone. She stepped closer again, relieved when Gwen didn’t step away, but instead moved within the circle of her arms.

"Oh, it’s there, love. I’ve seen it in your eyes, and I’ve felt it in your soul. And the Festival Reading would be the perfect return. You choose whether to read or speak. The story never really changes. And I will be right there beside you every step of the way."

Green eyes looked up into soulful blue gone gray in the stormy light. "You mean that? You’d stand up there with me?"

"Absolutely. If that’s what you want... what you need... I am right there."

The bard hugged the warrior tight to her, and Randi melted into the connection between them. "I love you," Gwen whispered low, but loud enough for the taller woman’s hearing to pick them up easily. "Thank you love."

"Anytime, Little One. I love you too."



Chapter XXII

The next few weeks passed quietly. Geoff and Jill had enjoyed their stay immensely, and the weapons smith had even found to his delight a sense of renewed strength and determination to get well. Especially since Randi and Gwen had chosen the first day of the New Year as their wedding day.

"I’m looking forward to this," he’d confided to Jill as they’d prepared to leave that Sunday afternoon. "I *will* be standing when the time comes to give our daughter away."

"Of that I have no doubt, sweetheart. Your greatest strength has always been your single-minded determination. I am looking forward to the end results as well." Her tone gave him no doubt where her thoughts were headed, and he flushed.

"Oh, you bet, Mrs. Goldman. We have months of lost time we’ll be making up for."

She leaned down and kissed him firmly and long before she answered. "Not lost, love. Invested." He smiled and reclaimed her lips.


"Are you sure this is a good idea, love?" The bard sat on the floor surrounded by boxes, gifts, wrapping and red ribbon.

"You mean the Festival reading, or this thing?" holding up the pink nightie Gwen had gotten for her mother. "This just doesn’t strike me as something Jill would, um, like."

"I’ll have you know that was one of forty-two different items she gave me to choose from. Apparently pink is one of Daddy’s favorite colors on her."

"Well, if you say so. I think I’d like to see you in something purple myself." She raised rakish brows up and down at her lover. She smiled gently at the blush that suffused the bard’s face. "You’re so beautiful."

"Only in your eyes, love." A hint of...f ear... confusion... anxiety... Randi wasn’t sure which was stronger in the bard’s expressive green eyes, but it was clear that something was troubling her partner greatly. She offered her hand to Gwen, who took it with a puzzled look on her face, and allowed herself to be pulled up and away from the bundles and boxes of gifts still surrounding her on the floor. They had decided to give small gifts to the many friends who had supported and comforted Gwen during Randi’s absence. They hadn’t realized how very many that was going to be when they first started, but now they were glad they had. It made them understand how truly blessed they were.

The Sabre led the bard over to the couch, and sat down. Gwen immediately claimed her place on Randi’s lap, and the warrior felt a tremor run through the blonde’s body.

"What is it, love?"

"I don’t know if I can do this, Randi. I haven’t told a story in almost a year and a half. How can I get up in front of the entire world in five days, and just expect everything to be there for me?"

The warrior took the beloved face, and cradled it in her hands. "Gwen, if you’re not comfortable with this, don’t do it. You need to do this for yourself, not anyone else."

"But, you...."

"No, love. Not even for me. As much as it would please me for you to do it, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or embarrassed. This is supposed to be a time to celebrate and be happy. Please don’t make yourself miserable over this. We deserve to be happy, especially this year."

The bard dropped her head onto Randi’s shoulder, and stayed silent a very long time, thinking over the Marine’s words. "I want to do this, I really do. I just don’t know if I can," came the soft-spoken answer.

Now the long arms tightened around the smaller body, and Randi dropped a small kiss on the top of the blonde head. "I know you can." She lifted Gwen’s chin with her fingertips, and gazed into trusting green eyes. "I believe in you."

Gwen’s smile at those words rivaled in brightness the sunrises and sunsets they could view from the island. "I love you."

Randi returned the smile. "I love you, too." She looked at her watch. "C’mon. Tobias will be here soon to pick up all the things that go to Midas. Is everything wrapped and ready?"

"Uh huh." The blonde pointed to a neatly stacked, rather large pile of gifts. "It’s a good thing you arranged for a pick-up, though. Those things would have never fit into the bike’s saddlebags." She chuckled at Randi’s expression. "Do you think Tori and Scott will appreciate these?" holding up a pair of beautifully made baby booties. "Maybe we should have gotten something more practical for them."

"I think they will treasure them. Now...." But a request from Tobias for the bridge extension came at precisely that moment, and stopped the conversation for the time being.

Sometime later, when the transport had been loaded, and was headed back to the mainland and Midas Enterprises, Randi called Gwen over to a small cleared space she’d made in front of the fireplace. "I know it’s not the same as having a campfire, but I thought you might want to share some s’mores with me." The bard grinned her delight, and hastened to turn down the lights. She even lit a few evergreen candles she’d gotten for their holiday scent. Randi smiled in response.

"Nice touch, love."

"I have many skills," Gwen replied airily, but her eyes were twinkling.

"You do indeed," the Marine agreed saucily, smiling largely at the ensuing color that flushed Gwen’s face. "Now, c’mon. Let’s ruin our dinner." The bard laughed outright at Randi’s childish enthusiasm, and they proceeded to do just that. The puppy curled up on the rug with them, but had to settle for a chocolate covered dog biscuit.



The following morning, after her shower, Gwen marched upstairs to the exercise room, knowing she would find Randi there. Indeed, her lover was just putting up the dumbbells, and had grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat from her face, when the bard stuck her head in the door.

"Morning, love."

Gwen couldn’t help but smile at the genuine love and affection that radiated from Randi’s eyes and voice. Then she remembered her reason for coming upstairs and scowled.

"Don’t you ‘morning, love’ me, Miranda Valiant," the smaller woman mock growled as she poked the Marine in the chest.

Big blue eyes went round as saucers, and her Sabre mind went scrambling for what could have possibly happened to the woman whom she’d left in bed humming with delight and contentment a short hour earlier to have caused her to be so grumpy. She didn’t have long to wonder, though, since the bard was quick to point out the problem.

"Do you see this, Randi?" The Marine could hardly miss the large bruised area along Gwen’s neck and pulse points. "You gave me a hickey!"

The blue eyes turn sheepish, and the tall woman defended her actions. "You didn’t mind it an hour ago."

"No, and I don’t mind it now." Emerald eyes twinkled up at sapphire. "It just dawned on me that the whole world is gonna see it too."

"You’re gonna do it then?" dropping the other line of thought like a hot potato when she realized that not only was Gwen not really upset, but that she’d made a huge decision.

"I’m gonna do it. I think it’s something I need to do. For me... for us. It’s something I can do for you, and that gives me a reason to try."

The Marine looked like she wanted to take the younger woman into her arms, but she looked down at herself and said, "I love you," quietly. "C’mon. I wanna give you a hug, and I don’t exactly smell as fresh as a bouquet of daisies. Let me get a quick shower and we’ll get the day started."

Gwen ignored the sweat and wrapped her arms around the slender waist. "I love you too." And she smiled when she felt a tender kiss pressed to the top of her head.



An hour later, dressed in leather pants, a blue silk shirt, and leather duster, the warrior found herself seated behind the bard on the motorcycle headed in toward town. Today was the annual Festival party at Midas, and they were gonna surprise everyone with their gifts. Normal gift exchange was a private affair between friends sometime during the party. But because of what they wanted to do, there was going to be a public presentation of gifts from them to each and every person who worked at Midas. Unknown to both women, Tommy had invited several unexpected guests. They had something special for Randi and Gwen as well.

The buffet set up in the company mess hall was enormous, and Randi found a favorite dish she hadn’t had for a very long time. It took her back to her childhood, and Gwen was loath to disturb the peace of the moment reflected in the face she loved. But the warrior felt her presence, and turned to welcome her with open arms, and a fork full of food.

The bard gratefully accepted the food, then moaned in appreciation as the culinary delight hit her taste buds. She made as if to go for seconds, but Randi protectively covered up her plate. "Mine," she growled, motioning to the table. "Get your own."

Gwen turned puppy dog eyes on her partner, and Randi growled again. "No fair." But she smiled and offered her the plate.

The blonde ignored the plate, and planted a kiss on the tall woman’s planed cheek. "Thank you, love." Then she turned to the table, and proceeded to fill her own plate. The Marine went to their table and took a seat to wait.

Randi was still looking after her, when Tommy walked up beside her. She looked up at him, and burst into laughter. His choice of attire was... interesting... to say the least. His baggy red velvet pants were held in place by a pair of red suspenders, and the fuzz on his face hinted at another effort to grow a beard. Wonder how long before Ella makes him shave it?? "Is there a reason you look like a hobo?" she asked, still sniggering.

He rose to his full height, crossed his arms over his chest, and glared at her, though the twinkle in his eyes reputed his stern visage. "I’ll have you know it’s a costume that dates back to ancient times."

"Uh... huh...." she drawled out.

"Hiya, T. What’s up with the scruffy stuff?" Gwen motioned to the man’s face even as she set a precariously full plate on the table.

"Yeah, what she said!" Randi added with a twinkle. He kept growing them and shaving them. Ella loved them, then hated them... he wanted one; it made his face itch. It was an ongoing thing between them lately, and the company never knew from one day to the next how the boss was gonna show up that day.

"Hmph!! I can see I’m not appreciated here," and with a grin, he went off to greet more of his people.

"He’s so funny," Gwen commented as she sat down. "Wanna bite?" holding up a small bit of food.

"Um, no, thank you. Squid is squid, no matter what it’s called."

"Your loss," and the bard continued to munch happily on the fried calamari.

As the meal began to wind down, Tommy signaled for everyone’s attention. "Folks, we’re gonna do things a little differently this year. I’ll turn the floor over to Gwen and Randi, and let them explain. Ladies." He gestured them to join him on the platform, and the Marine allowed the bard to lead her to the stage. They took up what had come to be their customary positions, with Randi standing just behind Gwen, hands resting lightly on her hips. Tommy went to take a seat near the back, so he could observe the entire proceeding, and watch for his special guests.

"We asked, as a special courtesy, to be allowed to distribute gifts to everyone this year," Gwen spoke quietly. "You were all so kind and supportive, and continue to be so, and we just wanted to take a moment and say thank you." The room applauded. Gwen and Randi were favorites, and everyone was so glad things had worked out the way they had.

Slowly, each person made their way to the front of the room. Randi handed the gifts to the bard, who in turn gave them to the recipient with a personal word for each and every one. As the small boxes were opened, exclamations of delight were heard around the room. For inside each was a small gold horseshoe pendant and chain, engraved with the name of the receiver and the date.

"We consider ourselves very lucky to count so many as our friends." Gwen explained as the last of the presents had been given out. "We thought we’d return a bit of the luck." The crowd chuckled. "Thank you all... for caring, and for being part of our extended family." Now the crowd whistled and cheered. "Happy Festival!" The assembly echoed her good wishes.

Tommy remounted the stage before the two women could scramble off. "Wait, hold it... hang on a minute." He snagged the Marine’s arm, and effectively halted their escape. "We have some things for the two of you as well." The people tittered, and Randi noticed for the first time her former band mates in the back of the room. They came forward now, carrying a long narrow box between them.

"We know you’ve been really busy in the last few months, and haven’t really had a lot of time for music since your return, Randi, but we thought this might put you in a musical mood. Gwen helped us pick it out, so you should like it. Everyone," indicating the large room, "pitched in to get it."

The Sabre turned a wary eye towards her partner, and tried to glare, but the smiling impishness peeking back at her made it impossible. Instead, she took the rather heavy box from the guys, and set it gently on the floor, and began unwrapping. Her breath caught when the object was revealed to her wondering eyes. Inside was a lyre she had stopped to admire many months prior, with a casual comment on how she’d like to learn to play one some day. Now, here, with very few words, she felt part of herself come alive again.

"Thanks, guys," whispered where only they could hear her. "This is just...incredible." She picked the instrument up carefully, and softly stroked the strings. "I can’t wait to learn how to play this." A little louder. "Thanks, everyone. This is great!" Then she replaced it gently in its case, and turned to her partner. She wrapped her in an engulfing hug. "Thank you, love."

Gwen returned the embrace fully. "Welcome, Randi."

"KISS HER!" someone yelled from the back of the room, and everyone burst into laughter. Gwen turned four shades of red, and turned her face into the Marine’s chest, which was shaking with the chuckles Randi couldn’t contain. The laughter released what had been a rising emotional tension, and the room around them relaxed as well. The band, heartened by the reception of the lyre, sat back down and waited for the proceedings to continue. Tommy cleared his throat.

"For our star bard, who had to be a princess without a crown," referencing a night that was a whole other lifetime away from them it seemed, "we have a tiara," placing the object on the golden head. The crowd laughed and cheered appreciatively, while Gwen herself laughed and cried. "And for the teacher who in the last nine months has taken the time to help and encourage others even when she herself was struggling...." He held up a small object. ".... a golden apple. A reminder of the good you do, and of the difference you have made." They exited the stage to cheers and whistles, and the party started shifted to a different mode.

Just as the two reached the floor, a childish voice was heard above the din. "WUV!!" The boy impatiently motioned to his mother to put him down, and she did so with alacrity. He ran on his short, little two-year-old legs, through the crowd that parted in front of him, until he ran smack into the long legs of the Marine. Randi hoisted him up, and he squeezed her neck before planting a rather sloppy kiss on her cheek. He squealed with laughter when the bard reached up and tickled his tummy.

"Outside, Wuv, pwease?"

"I dunno, love muffin. Mama may not want you outside right now."

"Wuv! Now!" grabbing her long hair and pulling.

"Randall!" The sternness of her voice got his attention, and he yanked. "No." She loosened his grip from her hair, and setting him down. She knelt at eye level, and said quietly, "No, Randall. That hurts."

He looked at her defiantly, before his face crumpled, just the least little bit. "Sowwy."

"C’mon, slugger. Let’s go talk to your mama." She picked him up again, and he snuggled into her neck for a brief second, before the sparkly crown on Gwen’s head caught his attention. He reached for it and she chuckled.

"You wanna be a little prince now, huh?" He gestured for it again, but she didn’t give it to him. "No, Randall. I don’t think it’s safe." The combs were somewhat sharp, and the dangling parts could be dangerous. He started to get angry, and Randi took a firm grasp on his grabbing fists.

"No." It was all she said. He put his head down and pouted.

They had reached Ella by this point in time, and the Marine just looked at the frazzled woman. An arched brow said more than words could, and the curly headed woman understood immediately. "He’s been like this for a while. We haven’t even eaten yet, because it’s been a war to get him in here. Gotta love those terrible twos."

"How about we take him out for a little bit and let you eat and socialize a bit? We’ll bring him back in when he’s calmed down, and ready to eat."

"Would you mind?" The woman looked ready to throw herself at their feet. "I’d appreciate a few minutes to regroup."

Gwen spoke up. "You take all the time you need. We’ll be fine." Then in a supposed aside to their friend, which she knew very well the Marine would hear she continued, "I think the um, "big kid" needs to get out and play for a while."

"I heard that, bard."

"I know you did." And she ran out the door carrying her jacket followed by a growling Randi and a cheering Randall. The room erupted into laughter at the antics that had caught their attention.

"What took you so long?" Tommy whispered to his wife. The harried look in her eyes prompted him not to question further, but to call for the attention of the assembly once more. It didn’t take long for the excited buzz to start.



"Are you sure this is what she said she wanted?" Jill questioned her husband as she walked into the room with two glasses of homemade watermelon wine. It was a very old family recipe, and they tended to drink it on the most bitterly cold days of the year, to remind themselves of the warmth and promise of summer. "She seems a little old and um, technologically beyond a kite."

"Oh, that is good stuff. Hits the spot on a day like today. Yes, sweetheart. I’m sure. I asked. It reminds her of her childhood. And you have to admit, it makes perfect sense for her to want to enjoy the simple things in life, now more than ever."

"I suppose it does," after a bit of thought. "That was a beautiful dartboard you created for her as well. Where did you get the idea?"

"Tommy gave it to me. He has one in his study, and we’ve played a bit. It’s really an interesting game. And she enjoys it as well. She’s just never taken the time to have one made."

"I guess Gwen has changed a lot for her, hasn’t she, Geoff?"

"I think they’ve changed a lot for each other, hon. I’m glad the doctors let me come stay here. I am much more relaxed than I was in the medifac."

"I’m glad you’re here too."



"Oh, this is lovely," the bard breathed as she took in the grandiose old structure of the Sword and Scroll Inn, situated in the heart of the capital city. The warrior looked down at her in amusement.

"Haven’t you stayed here before?"

"No. When I came the first few times, I was still considered a child, and this is for adults only. And when I was stationed here.... well, I was stationed here. I was quartered in the barracks." Neither of them mentioned the other hotel, where Tommy and his family were neatly ensconced. Gwen was still terribly uncomfortably with the memories that location evoked in her.

They were led to their suite, and Gwen smiled to see a tiny stuffed penguin sitting on the bed with a single red rose and a small box of truffles.

"Hmm, looks like Festival elves have been at work already."

"You must have been a very good girl this year then." Randi flopped on the bed as Gwen snatched penguin, flower and candy out of harm’s way.

"I have been a very lucky... very blessed girl this year." Tears filled her eyes. "I love you."

"Ditto, Little One." She looked at the clock. "You don’t have rehearsal for a while. Wanna snuggle?"

Without a word, the bard carefully placed her presents on the nightstand, and closed the heavy drapes.



It was sometime later that they awoke, and they lay curled around each other talking quietly.

"I still can’t believe you brought black powder for Daddy. What are ya’ll up to anyway?" The bard was far too comfortable to really scold much. It was curiosity as much as anything.

"*We’re* not up to anything. He asked for it, and I was able to find him some." Randi shrugged. "He’s a weapons smith, Gwen. He collects weapon relics. Maybe he just wants to see what an old fashioned explosion sounds like. Maybe he wants to make some of those ancient fireworks he’s been studying about. I dunno. I didn’t ask." She didn’t mention the antique handcuffs and lock pick set she’d gotten at his behest. Some things were best left alone.

"Well, I’m glad we were able to find that hand made whip. He will appreciate the craftsmanship involved there."

The Marine smiled. "Yeah, it cracks really loud." She chuckled. The bard had to laugh in tandem with the other woman’s exuberance. It was nice to see the five-year-old peeking out more often these days. The newly revealed playful aspect of her lover was something Gwen was learning to very much enjoy and appreciate. "C’mon," the warrior said as she rose and extended her hand. Let’s go get ready for tonight’s rehearsal."

When they came down the stairs a bit later, they startled the Siamese cat who had been resting by the fireplace by their hasty halt. Gwen, who had been trailing slightly behind the Marine, couldn’t see the reason for Randi’s quick stop, and was a little miffed by it.

"Randi, what’s the problem?" She came around to stand in front of the warrior, who simply turned her toward the small holographic message board tucked discreetly behind the front desk. She stood stock still as the implications stuck in her mind. Then whirled to face the Marine still standing rooted to the spot.

"An Artist’s Guild convention?? Why didn’t he tell us?" The tattoo of their rapidly beating hearts was the only sound either heard for a very long moment. The bard trembled, and leaned into Randi’s chest. "How can I perform now? The entire Alliance is having a convention here?!?" Randi moved to put a stop to the hysteria before it started.

"Love, I’ll bet they are here to support you. It’s been a long time since you performed, and your peers are as anxious for you to succeed as you are."

"Not all of them," Gwen muttered under her breath. But the Marine’s sharp hearing caught the mumbled words, and she wrapped the bard up in a hug.

"Well, we’ll take care of the detractors later. Maybe I’ll show them my fire spitting trick." The evil grin that accompanied these words caused Gwen to laugh out loud.

"I love you," she said, returning the embrace finally and relaxing in the warrior’s arms.

"I love you, too. C’mon, bard. You’ve got work to do."

As they exited the building, Gwen looked to her partner and asked, "Can you *really* spit fire?"

"Oh yeah."



The following morning, they met Tommy and Ella for breakfast. Randi was quick to take Tommy by the ear, and pull him to one side. "You’ve got some ‘splaining to do." The look on her face told him she was serious and he was in trouble if he didn’t talk fast.

"We, uh, we wanted it to be a surprise. The entire Alliance is here. The Guild from Midas came as a group and has special seating right at the front. We just wanted to show our support."

Tears sprang into crystal blue eyes before Randi could stop them. "Thank you, Tommy. She sorta freaked when we saw the board. I think some of those Alliance folks have been giving her grief." Her expression turned feral.

"Don’t worry, Randi. After her performance, they’ll be giving her nothing but adulation. C’mon. Food’s getting cold." But the both stopped to take in the scene. Randall was telling a story to the bard, while Ella watched with the biggest grin on her face.

".... pider!" he said emphatically.

"Oh, you were chased by a sand spider?" He nodded hard. Gwen hugged him. "Well, I’m glad you ran away and came to see me instead. Maybe we can talk Wuv into a day in the park. Whaddya think?"

"Pwease, Wuv?" Two sets of pleading puppy dog eyes turned toward the Marine, who melted, then blushed at the chuckle Tommy was emanating from behind her. He laid a hand on her shoulder.

"I couldn’t resist that either."

It was still dark on Festival morning when Randi and Gwen climbed out of bed and headed straight to the shower. They had been up very late visiting the bard’s parents, and it was going to take them a little extra effort to get moving. When they emerged, dressed and ready to go a very short time later, Geoff was knocking at the door with coffee for them both.

"Least I could do after we kept you up so long last night." He smiled, noticing the grip his daughter had on her partner’s hand. "You girls go get ready. We’ll be seeing you soon."

Gwen had made the stipulation that Randi be allowed on stage with her during the story telling. It was a bit unorthodox, but the Guild had been so happy to see her return, they had readily complied. And unable to resist when the bard had asked, the Marine had agreed as well.

So now Randi accompanied Gwen across the stage, carrying the scroll that had long ago become the bard’s trademark, seating her before moving into the chair beside her. The warrior heard the bard’s breath catch as the introductory music began in the voices that were swelling behind them.

"What’s wrong, love?" sotto voce from the Marine. Gwen simply gripped her hand tight, and motioned toward the audience. Row after row was filled with their friends and colleagues. A tremulous smile crossed the bard’s face. Their love and support washed over her and she felt the confidence that she had been missing for months flow through her veins. Gwenievere Goldman was ready to make her triumphant return to the stage. Randi felt the change flow through her partner as a living thing, and posed a questioning look at Gwen. She smiled, and the Marine understood what had happened. She smiled in response. She knew she’d get the full story when they were alone again. And then came Gwen’s first cue.

She stood and took a deep breath. Her voice quavered just slightly at first, but quickly settled into her natural rhythm. "In a time of ancient gods...."



Randi sat with tears rolling unashamedly down her face, as she listened to the bard’s voice. She had waited a long time for this renewal.

"And so it came to pass, when the war was over, that mankind finally discovered a few basic truths about itself. That we are all the same, regardless of race, religion, sex, or creed. We breathe the same air, eat the same food, bleed the same color. We all feel love and loss, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. The only real differences we had were the ones we had created for ourselves."

"The time for differences had passed, and with peace came a new beginning, and a melding of traditions and ideals. And so we come together for Festival every Winter Solstice.... to celebrate our uniqueness, and our cultures, and our oneness together."

"Happy Festival, my friends."

The bard and the warrior stood together at the end, as applause rang out from around them, and from around the world. Gwen soaked in the adulation, its sound filling a place in her heart that had been barren for a very long time. Randi felt the change, and hugged the bard to her, knowing it had made a difference.



Sometime later, they were being seated at the table in the long room Tommy had reserved for the Guild to share Solstice dinner together. The room had broken into impromptu applause when they’d entered, and Gwen had acknowledged it gracefully and with a blush before taking the seat reserved for her. She was glad to see that some of their closer friends shared the table. Tori and Scott were there, and they chatted for a moment about the woman’s pregnancy. She was due any day, but....

"I wouldn’t have missed this. It was wonderful to see you return to the stage."

"It felt so right to be there, and I have Randi to thank for it."

"Did I hear my name?" The warrior turned from where she had been greeting a couple of late arrivals, and Gwen squealed when she saw Reed and Tiny standing beside her lover.

"I’m so glad to see you guys!" Introductions went round the table, and Geoff and Tiny greeted one another like old friends. Then they sat down to begin the wonderful meal whose scents were making their mouths water. Talk moved lightly from subject to subject, finally homing in on the upcoming nuptials.

"I never thought to see you hooked, my friend. But she has done wonders for you," Tiny commented privately to Randi, whose eyes were adoring her beloved. "It does my heart good to see you both so happy."

"I never thought to have what I share with her, Tiny. She’s become my whole world."

"I think it works both ways," noticing the bard’s possessive hold on the Sabre’s hand, though her attention was taken with a conversation with Reed and Tori. "I’m looking forward to the wedding." He paused. "Speaking of, Geoff really looks much better." They glanced down to where the weapons smith was in conversation with Scott and Tommy.

"Yeah, he does. The wedding has been very inspirational in his recovery. He’s determined to be standing to give Gwen away."

"Well, I for one am looking forward to it. It has been a long time coming."

Randi never had a chance to answer, for at that moment, Sal swept up to them, bubbling with unbridled enthusiasm.

"Such wonderful work today, my dear," addressing Gwen. "We got some marvelous footage. Now, we need to discuss the details for your wedding. It’s only eleven days off, you know. And we want to make sure everything is just perfect for you both."

"Sal, the fact that we are finally getting married makes it perfect for us. But we appreciate your wanting the recording part to be perfect as well. Let’s get together tomorrow for breakfast. Today is a day to celebrate."

"Thank you, ladies," and he kissed Gwen hand. "And thank you for the most memorable Solstice I’ve had in years. Seeing you perform again was wonderful. We’ll see you in the morning."

They chuckled as Dei led her brother safely away while shaking her head with long-suffering patience. The man’s wife stood waiting with hands on hips, and he dropped his head as they approached her.

"Ya know," Randi leaned over to whisper in the bard’s ear. "You’d think he’d know better than talk business outside of business hours by now. The women in his life just won’t let him get away with it."

Gwen turned and faced the warrior fully. "He’ll just have to cope. But for now, can we go rest a bit? The performance this morning took a lot out of me, and I’d like some recovery time alone with you."

Concerned blue eyes took in the shadows under the sparkling green eyes, and she realized the bard’s exhaustion was a physical one as well as a mental one. Emotionally, however, Gwen was on top of the world, and for that, Randi was very thankful. She was overjoyed to see that particular twinkle that had long been missing return to emerald depths. It made all the difference.

"C’mon, love," rising and taking Gwen by the hand. "I think folks will excuse us for a while."

They bade their friends a good afternoon, promising them more time later in the day, and headed upstairs for a well-earned rest.



Chapter XXIII

On the eve of the wedding, in the late afternoon, Randi sat out at the end of the dock watching the clouds drift by. She was bundled up warmly. Three days worth of rain had brought in a cold front, and it was quite chilly even in the middle of the day.

She was alone, except for the puppy that sat cozily curled in her lap, having finally reached her tolerance limit for having people around. She’d muttered an excuse to Gwen, whose concerned eyes had followed her. But the bard remained behind with their company, knowing her soulmate needed a little private time and space.

The Marine heard a slight whirring sound behind her, and knew that Geoff was headed down the dock towards her. She sighed soundlessly, understanding her peace and quiet was about to go the way of the wind. Surprisingly, the weapons smith pulled his hover chair up beside her, and sat wordlessly gazing out at the vista that lay before them. Nearly a half hour passed in silent contentment before he spoke, never once turning to look at her.

"All getting to be a little much for you in there, Marine?"

She sighed again, and he smiled in sympathy. It had been getting to be a little too much for him as well. "Yeah," she answered softly. "I know they mean well, and I’m sure I’ll appreciate it, but...."

"But they’re driving you nuts."

"Something like that, yeah."

Geoff laughed, and Randi finally turned to face him. He looked much better than he had even a mere month prior. Blessing Day seemed to have given him the impetus he needed to cross the hump, and the strides he was making toward recovered health were visible in his ruddier color and rested features. The weapons smith shifted a bit, turning to look squarely at Randi.

"I remember, the day before Jill and I got married... a few of my buddies took me out, and several of her girlfriends got together to do the same. I think the intent was to get us so drunk that our wedding night would be a blur." He chuckled again at the memories. "It was funny, but we gave them the slip, and spent a quiet night alone together. The wedding was beautiful, and I remember every single detail."

Randi didn’t see a need to answer, and the two of them sat quietly for a long time, just watching as the sun edged its way toward the horizon. A second sound, and this time the Sabre smiled. She recognized the roll and weight of the steps that were approaching. She leaned back into the smaller body, as the bard’s arms came around her neck from behind in a fierce hug.

"I missed you," Gwen whispered into the nearby ear. "You okay?" The canine stirred from his warm nest and stood on his hind legs and began licking Gwen’s arms. Nibbling as he tried to get a good hold on them with his baby teeth.

"Carbon!" the blonde squealed, laughing. The puppy took that as his cue to play, and began gnawing in earnest. Gwen giggled, an infectious sound that caused answering chuckles to emerge from both her lover and her father. "Ya’ll are not helping me here," growling. The dog thought this was more play, and growled back at her in response. She loosened her hands from around Randi’s neck, using one to stroke the puppy’s soft fur, while he nibbled the fingers of her other hand. Deciding he liked the attention a lot, he proceeded to crawl up the warrior’s body and over her head into the bard’s arms. Now it was the Sabre’s turn to growl.


Geoff couldn’t help it. He laughed out loud, tears rolling from his eyes in his merriment. He had a passing thought of thankfulness on the steadiness of his hover chair, and then was grasping his sides, and trying to catch his breath. He glanced down at the tangled heap of humanity and caninety looking back at him in bemusement. "I’m sorry," he giggled again. "That has got to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen lately. Thanks, girls. I needed that." Without another word, but still laughing, he turned his chair and went into the boathouse, where he could now see Jill’s figure as a shadow.

Gwen looked down at her partner in some amusement. "Um, you wanna move now?" The Marine had her head quite comfortably ensconced in the bard’s lap, and Gwen had managed to wriggle into a more relaxed position, and was actually very content to be where she was.

"Nope, I’m happy here," Randi answered. "Unless you need me to move." She started to lift her head. The blonde pushed her back down, gently combing her finger through the dark hair.

"Nope. I like you here just fine. This is your place, ya know."

The Marine glanced at the puppy, who was looking slightly miffed that he’d lost Gwen’s attentions, and was now curled up beside them. He huffed in Randi’s ear, and the warrior started. "Hey!" She glared at the puppy, who promptly began licking her ear studiously. "That tickles!"

Randi could feel the bard’s stomach convulsing in laughter, and turned her stare to her lover. "You’re supposed to be on my side here, ya know."

"I am, love, but ya’ll are just too cute sometimes." The sun had fallen below the horizon while they’d sat there, and it had grown almost bitterly cold. Gwen shivered... a sensation the Sabre caught from her position, and Randi rose to her feet in a smooth, swift motion.

"C’mon, Little One. It’s cold out, and I’m getting hungry. Besides, we can’t leave everyone unattended to fend for themselves, can we?"

"Actually, I sent everyone away, with the promise that we would join them for dinner. And with the understanding that it was going to be an early night for us."

The Sabre picked the bard up in her arms, and hugged her tightly, twirling her around for good measure, though she did so slowly as a concession to the fact that they were still on the dock. "Have I told you today how much I love you?"

Gwen slowly opened her clenched eyes, and smiled up into blue looking back at her in adoration she could see even in the near darkness. "Um, yes, but it never hurts to hear it again." She smiled. "What brought that on, anyway?"

"I ran out on the wedding preparations, and you still look out for me."

"Can I tell you a secret?" The Marine plowed through the sand, never relinquishing her hold. She gazed down at Gwen and nodded, a question in her eyes. "I would have run out with you, but I figured you needed a bit of space. It was beginning to get to me too."

"Oh, Gwen. I’m sorry. I...." Soft fingers covered her lips, and she pressed a kiss to them. The blonde smiled at the gesture and spoke.

"Don’t be. I think they got the point. No one grumbled when I told them we were done, and set my conditions for dinner." She paused. "I know everyone wants everything to go perfectly tomorrow, and so do I. But truthfully, as long as you and I are there and married, the rest can go by the wayside. We’ve waited too long to allow details to make us miserable."

Randi stopped walking as she hit the deck, and dipped her head, claiming Gwen’s lips for a very long, heady moment. The sound of whimpering drew them apart, and they separated slowly, looking at each other in puzzlement. The sound continued, and the Marine turned, looking for the source of the sound. What she found made her grin.

"What?" the bard asked.

For answer, the tall woman turned slightly, so Gwen could see in the direction of the dock. What she saw made her chuckle in sympathy.

"Oh love. We need to go get him." Obediently, the Sabre headed back across the sand, the bard still held tightly in her arms. "Randi, wait. Put me down a minute. You don’t need to be carrying me back and forth across the sand like this. I’m not a featherweight, ya know."

"Oh, I beg to differ, Little One."

"Randi, please. You’re gonna hurt yourself."

Sad blue eyes with a look of profound hurt swung in her direction. "Oh no. Not that look. Not the puppy dog eyes. C’mon now, love. I.... Argh!" She put her head down in surrender, and wrapped her arms tighter around the Marine’s neck.

Randi’s grin was bright enough to have lit up the night sky, but Gwen didn’t see it. She could feel the joy, though, and smiled to herself in the darkness. Then they were stopping by the puppy, who was looking pitifully back at them from a hole that was almost as deep as he was tall.

Earlier in the day, Randall, having been exceedingly tired from the continued adult conversation, had coerced his father into some playtime outside. He had spent some time digging and apparently, Carbon had decided to investigate. Sand, being what it is, and slippery to boot, collapsed beneath him while he stood at the edge, taking him into the hole. And since he’d had no way to gain any traction, any digging just sent him deeper. When Randi had spotted him, only his eyes and ears, and a tiny bit of tail were visible. By the time they’d traversed the short distance to him, he had disappeared from sight completely. Now he looked back at the mournfully, trying to scramble out to them with no success.

"Ahh... c’mon, love. Put me down so we can get him out of there."

Instead of releasing her, as the bard fully expected the Marine to do, Randi dropped to one knee beside the pup, and motioned for Gwen to reach out and grab the small dog. Then centering herself, she rose and moved back to the beach house. The bard looked at her scoldingly.

"What? You were keeping me warm. You didn’t think I was gonna give that up, did you?"

Gwen opened her mouth to respond, then closed it. Opened it... closed it. Finally, she drew a deep breath and said, "C’mon. We need to get ready to go. We’re supposed to be at the Golden Touch in about forty-five minutes. Mother said she and Daddy would take the larger transport, so we could go alone together."

"That was nice of her," Randi replied, as she moved them into the bedroom. Finally, she let go her hold on her lover, letting Gwen slide into a standing position. They stood there for a long moment, absorbing the peace and sensations, then concurrently moved closer as one pair of lips captured another.

They pulled back reluctantly, and blue eyes gazed down into green. "We really have to go to dinner, huh?"

"Well, I did promise." She drew the dark head back down again. "But I never said we’d be on time."

Laughter followed this pronouncement, followed by a long stretch of near silence.



"That was a lovely dinner," Jill commented to Geoff as they readied themselves for bed much later that evening. "The girls have so many nice friends. It’s been fun getting to meet them all."

"Yeah, and I’m glad we’ll get more of a chance over the next week or so." He looked to his wife. "Did they ever tell you how long they expect this honeymoon to be?"

"I don’t think they know... at least, I don’t think Gwen does. I think Tommy said something about them being off for two weeks. I told the doctors we would be gone up to a month; so even with being gone since Solstice we’re not in any rush. That gives us better than two weeks." She watched as the man eased his legs to the floor, then moved to kneel at his feet. Without a word, she began a slow, deep, methodical massage, and Geoff groaned at the relief.

"The exercises still bother you so much, love?"

"I think it is the fact that I want so badly to do this on my own two feet tomorrow." He sucked in a breath when Jill hit a particularly tender spot. "I have been pushing extra hard."

"I know you have. You’ll do fine, sweetheart. I have faith."

"I love you. You have always been the wind in my sails."

Jill flushed, and rose up to kiss him firmly. "I love you too," she whispered. She knelt back down and finished the massage, watching without a word as the weapons smith hoisted himself from chair to bed. His legs still didn’t cooperate the way he wanted, but the doctors were constantly amazed by his progress. He was doing things in months that, given the fact that the regen unit couldn’t heal him, he shouldn’t have been able to do for years, if ever again.

He’d been frustrated by his seeming lack of progress, until Dr. Litzer had taken him aside, and very frankly explained how things *should* have been. From that day forward, he’d made every effort not to complain or make life more difficult for anyone, especially Jill. But there were still days....

Jill, for her part, had learned to refrain from helping too much. She was vocally supportive, but she’d learned the hard way to let her husband do for himself. It had eased a lot of the strain that his injury had caused, and they found themselves developing an even deeper relationship than they’d had before the accident.

Now he smiled up at her, gray eyes twinkling. He lifted the covers, and patted the space beside him. "Join me?"

"Um hmm. Thought you were never gonna ask. Lights."

Darkness fell in the boathouse, and the weapons smith smiled in the night. Jill snuggled up tight against him, and he held her close, once again reminded of how blessed he truly was. He fell asleep with that smile on his face.



Late the next morning found Gwen and Randi in the big bed wrapped tightly around one another. The Marine woke first, a bit surprised, then remembered the relaxation technique she’d helped the bard learn the night before. Guess it worked, she smirked to herself and smiled wholeheartedly when Gwen began to stir.

She watched as the green eyes fluttered open several times before finally remaining that way. The lithe body stretched on top of hers, and Randi gave it a firm squeeze. "Good morning, love," she whispered into blonde hair.

"Hiya, Sexy," the bard drawled with a grin. Then her face became more serious, and she reached a questing hand up to gently trace the strong features below her. Randi closed her eyes, absorbing the sensation through touch alone. Gwen took her time, following every plane and curve, committing them to memory once more. When she was finished, she laid her head down on the Marine’s chest, and hugged her tightly.

"I love you, Randi. Always."

"Forever, Gwen. I love you too."

Finally Gwen slipped from the bed, and headed upstairs to take a shower. It was a promise she’d made to her mother, and though she saw it as slightly ridiculous, saw no reason not to humor the older woman’s request. Randi had simply rolled her eyes when the bard had told her about it, but had cheerfully agreed. So the Sabre bathed downstairs while Gwen was upstairs. Then they took their wedding clothes from their individual closets, and headed out the door together to go to the temple.

There were a few who were scandalized by what was seen as a lack of respect and decorum, but Randi silenced their detractors with a Look and "If it was that much of an issue, I doubt we’d have gotten a second chance in the first place." And left it at that.

When they arrived at the temple, the priest and priestess were waiting for them. A long, loving look, a brush of fingertips on the cheek, and the two were separated until it came time for the actual ceremony.

The priest led Gwen into a small room off the sanctuary specially built for the purpose. The bard thanked the man, and hung her dress on the rack, gently removing it from its protective covering. She stared at it for long moment, remembering the long hours Randi had put into the design, making sure it was just right. She looked at it again with a sense of wonder, letting the love it represented fill her very soul. Then she sat at the vanity, and began preparing herself for this most important day.



Randi followed the priestess into another tiny alcove on the other side of the sanctuary. She nodded her thanks to the woman, who closed the door softly behind her as she left the warrior alone to change. The Sabre hung the garment bag up, taking a deep breath before opening the enclosure on it.

The scent that wafted up to her was at the same time familiar and foreign to her senses, and she took in the essence surrounding her with a wistful smile. She removed the uniform gingerly, not wanting to lose a crease. She looked at it for a long moment, her memories surfacing and reminding her of how she’d earned her many awards. She stood lost in thought, until a knock at the door brought her back to the present with a start.

She walked over to the door, peering out, then opened it further to admit Geoff. He entered, and found his gaze caught by the uniform that hung ready. "There is a lot of honor wrapped up in that."

She looked at it again, seeing it through his eyes. "Yeah, I guess there is." Randi ran a hand down the smooth front, brushing lightly over the medals and ribbons. She was adjusting the braids when she felt the ex-Sabre slide in next to her.

"Does Gwen know about these?" pointing out different awards.

The Marine took a breath and looked at him, shaking her head. "No. She asked me about them once or twice, but that was before... when I was so wrapped up in the darkness of what I felt I had become." She blushed slightly. "It hasn’t really been a topic of discussion for us since I came home."

"I’ll just bet" Geoff muttered sotto voce. To Randi, whose blush had deepened at his words, he said, "Maybe it’s time you shared that with her."

Randi looked at him thoughtfully, then turned her attention to the outfit that represented so much of who she had been... who she was still. "Maybe it is. She certainly has the right to know."

"I should go so you can get dressed." Randi didn’t answer him, but just walked to the door to open it for him. Geoff held out a hand, to prevent her from doing so, and she threw an inquiring gaze his way. "Before I leave though," he locked the brakes on the chair, and slowly stood. "I wanted to welcome you into the family... officially. I have always thought of you as a daughter, from the very first." He swallowed hard, and caught her blinking back tears furiously. "I can’t tell you the joy it gives me to be able to embrace you as family finally, and to know you and Gwen have claimed responsibility for one another."

He opened his arms, and she moved into them, her excitement and fear and nervousness overcoming her normal reserve for once. The weapons smith held on to her tightly, until he felt her pull away. "I have one more thing for you," Geoff said, as he resumed his seat in the chair. That brief period of standing had his legs quivering with exhaustion, and he had to do it one more time.

An arched brow was his answer, and he chuckled. The emotional tension dissipated, and he reached into the pocket of his formal coat. What he withdrew was a wooden box, two inches square and remarkably heavy when he placed it in her open palm.

"This talisman has been passed down every generation for hundreds of years. When people were still small-minded, before who you married wasn’t as important as your loving them completely, this was passed from father to son, with very little exception. Since the peace when mankind became more accepting, the holder has chosen who the next bearer will be."

"The token is yours now. Keep it well."

He ducked out the door before she had a chance to respond. She stared at the box, then glanced to the closed door in consternation. With a sigh, she shrugged her shoulders, and sat down at the vanity. The Sabre examined the box from all angles, then slowly lifted the lid. Her breath caught in surprise.

Inside the box, nestled on soft bedding, was a coin. At least she was fairly certain it had been a coin at some point in history. It was very worn, so that the outlines were barely visible. It was silver in color, and by its weight (which was great considering its size) probably silver in make-up. She studied the object for long moments, before nodding her head in acceptance. She determined she’d ask Geoff for more of its history sometime soon. But not now, not today. Now it was time to publicly pledge her life to Gwen.



A light tap on the door caused Gwen to turn away from the mirror, and she called out softly. "Come in."

Jill stuck her head in the door, then walked over to where the dress still hung in its bag. "Nervous, little girl?"

The bard looked down at her slightly trembling fingers, then smiled tremulously up at her mother. "I shouldn’t be. I mean we are simply making a public acknowledgment of something everyone is already aware of."


"But yes. I’m a little nervous. I’ve waited my whole life for this, for her. She’s the only one, Mama. I won’t do this again."

Jill smiled, remembering having voiced a very similar sentiment to her mother thirty years before. She moved to stand behind Gwen, taking a brush in her hand and gently pulling it through the blonde locks. Green eyes met in the mirror, and Jill asked softly, "Shall I put it up for you one last time?"

Gwen nodded, not able to get sound past the lump in her throat. Both mother and daughter had happy tears in their eyes as they participated in a ritual they had shared from the time Gwen had been very small.

"There," the mother replied as she wisped the last little bit around Gwen’s face. "You like?"

The bard stood, and cautiously enfolded Jill in a hug. "It’s perfect. Thank you." She kissed her mother then, careful not to leave lipstick on the other woman’s face. "You look lovely, by the way."

Jill smiled, looking down at the dress she wore. It was a floor length emerald silk, with a long-sleeved black jacket. She wore a pendant that matched the material almost perfectly, that aside from her wedding set was her only adornment. "Thank you, dear. Your father is wearing the frock coat and ascot. We make a great looking couple, if I do say so." She paused then continued. "Now, let’s see about getting you dressed for this wedding. It’s time to get you married."

She removed the covering from the dress, and stood still gazing at it for a long moment. "Did she...?"

Gwen smiled wistfully and nodded. "She certainly did," tenderly fingering a fold of the soft white material. The silk shimmered in the early afternoon light, and picked up the luminescence of the pearl buttons and accents. It was beautiful in its simplicity, and Jill stood amazed.

"What a magnificent testament of her love for you, daughter. Cherish what you have together."

"I do, Mama. Everyday."

"Good girl. Now," becoming brisk and businesslike, "let’s get you into this."

Another knock sounded at the door, and the Goldman women exchanged glances. "Yes?" Gwen called out.

"Gwen, it’s Ella. May I come in?"

"Sure, Ella. Door’s open."

The curly haired woman entered, walking over to the nearly ready bard. "You look gorgeous, Gwen. Absolutely radiant."

"Thanks Ella." She turned her back to her mother so Jill could fasten the buttons. This put her facing Ella squarely. "So, what’s up?"

"Oh," extending a hand. "Randi asked me to give you this." She opened her hand, and on her palm lay the warrior’s Soulmates Ring.

"God, how could I have forgotten that?" She reached up to unclasp the chain around her own neck, but was stopped by Jill’s squeal when the buttons started moving. "Sorry, mama. Ella, could you...?"

"Sure, honey." The other woman reached around and unfastened the necklace, dropping the bard’s ring into her own hand. "I’ll just take this one back to Randi. You let me know when you’re ready, okay? Everyone is here, but we are having a good time talking, and the reception doesn’t start til five. So take your time, all right?"

"Thanks, Ella. You’ve been a good friend, and become like a sister to me. I’m glad to be joining your family today."

"Oh, hon. You’ve always been part of the family. Today just makes it legal." She kissed the fair cheek. "Now let me get this back to Randi before she wears out the soles in those white boots." And she slipped back out the door, her footsteps fading rapidly.

Gwen looked at the ring in her hand before slipping it onto her middle finger for safekeeping. Then she turned and faced her mother. "How do I look?" twitching at the material nervously.

"Like the beautiful bride you are. Now," taking a deep breath, "Do you want me to wait with you or...?"

"No, Mama. You go be with Daddy. He needs your support now more than I do, and I’m willing to bet you need his as well."

"When did you get to be so smart?"

The bard just smiled shyly and opened the door for Jill. "I love you, Mama"

"I love you too, baby girl. Happiness always."

Then she walked out and into the sanctuary. It was almost time.



Ella knocked on the door, and opened it. Tommy was sitting at the vanity, gazing on the woman he’d considered family his whole life. Currently, said woman was stomping her feet, trying to get the white boots settled without losing the sharp crease in the white trousers. The tunic hung neatly, waiting patiently until time for it to be donned. "I dunno, Tommy. Does it look all right?"

At the sound of the opening door, both heads swung to it, and smiled when the curly haired woman stepped in. "You look wonderful, Randi. Here." She extended her hand, offering the Marine Gwen’s Soulmate’s Ring. The warrior reached over with slightly trembling hands, plucking it from Ella’s grasp, and sliding it onto her pinkie finger.

"Come on, husband," the older woman said to Tommy. "Let’s leave the little sister to finish dressing in peace. It’s almost time."

"I’ll be there in a minute, sweetheart." Ella nodded her acceptance, and left the two of them alone again.

"Here, short stuff." The man lifted the tunic from its place, and held it open for her to put on. He slid it onto broad shoulders, and dropped his hands, coming around to stand in front of her and face her. "This has been a long time coming, but I’m so glad it has. She’s a wonderful woman, Randi, and ya’ll make a beautiful couple." He swallowed, a little embarrassed but determined to finish his say. "Take care of one another, and love each other well. Remember to always talk to one another." He paused. "I wish you both much happiness and peace."

"Thank you, T," and she reached out and gave him a hug, despite the tunic. She had the passing thought briefly, of being glad it wasn’t closed yet, and then she let his embrace engulf her for a very long moment. "Now, go out and be with your wife. We’ll be ready in just a couple minutes."

He nodded and stepped from the room. Randi slowly fastened her jacket, looking into the mirror to see the Sabre staring back at her. She let the wave of nostalgia wash over her, before adding the ceremonial blade and sais to the outfit. Then she smirked just the least little bit at her reflection, and her loose, flowing hair. Gwen’s request, of course, and one she was happy to indulge.

Finally, satisfied that her appearance was as spit and polished as she could make it, she retrieved a lone red rose from the vanity, and stepped out the door and into her future.



All eyes turned her way as Randi closed the door determinedly behind her. This was as much a part of the ceremony as anything, and no one wanted to miss a single step of this journey. She crossed the vestibule area, in full sight of the friends who were gathered in the sanctuary. She knocked lightly but firmly, smiling when the bard opened the door to her. Then the blue eyes lit up in true delight at the beauty of the woman who stood before her, and the answering smile on Gwen’s face as she took in the sight of the Sabre she loved.

No words passed between them. Randi handed the bard the single rose she carried, and Gwen accepted it. She then extended her arm, and the blonde placed a small hand on the white sleeve, gathering the folds of her long dress, and pulling them to her so Randi could close that door as well.

They walked slowly toward the altar, never taking their eyes from one another. The small group of friends parted for them, then closed around them again as they reached the front, stopping as they reached Geoff.

He stood slowly, willing his legs not to give out. Gwen and Randi tore their eyes from one another to watch as he stood, and took the solitary step necessary to reach them. Without a word, he lifted Gwen’s hand from Randi’s arm, then took the warrior’s hand in his hand as well. Then he positioned them together, and picked up the ceremonial blade and binding. He looked to them both, and they nodded, and turned to gaze into one another’s eyes again as the small dagger was pulled through their linked hands. A small flinch, and then the cool binding was being applied, joining them physically.

The weapons smith then returned to his chair, legs shaking in exhaustion, and not a small amount of pain. Jill came and stood behind him, her hands comfortingly lying on his shoulders. He leaned into the contact and absorbed some of her strength, glad beyond words his part was done and had gone so smoothly.

Bard and warrior turned toward the altar, and knelt before it, bowing their heads. They heard the rustle behind them as their friends afforded the entering clergy the same courtesy of respect. After a moment, a touch on their heads caused the couple to look up and gasp. On the dais, instead of the expected priest and priestess, the three goddesses stood patiently waiting.


"We came to offer you our blessing in person." There was no trace of the flighty personality so often seen in the love goddess. She was serious and dignified.

"You honor us," answered Gwen. "Thank you."

"Ah, no child. It is you who honor us," the huntress said.

"It is as Artemis says. What you share reaches farther than your eyes can see," from Athena. "It will be pivotal to you in the days and weeks to come."

"Find strength in each other and the love that you share. It will make all the difference. A long and fruitful life full of love and happiness. That is our wish for you today." Dite paused. "Now rise, and exchange your vows one to another."

The Sabre rose first, then offered her free hand to Gwen. They stood facing each other for long moment, their eyes exchanging promises that would never pass their lips vocally in public. They were far too private for even this intimate gathering.

Finally, Gwen swallowed and looked to their now standing friends. "I’m, uh... I’m glad you could all join us today." Her voice, which had quivered at the start of her speech, grew steadier as she spoke. "It is so nice to be surrounded by loving family and friends for something this special." She turned her attention to the woman who stood before her, and loosened a hand. She stepped closer, moving the free hand into the dark hair, letting her arm rest on the warrior’s gilded shoulder. Randi’s hand naturally went to the bard’s waist, bringing them into contact all along their lengths. To a person, the small gathering found the need to bow their heads again, feeling the profound bond they were being exposed to overwhelmingly sacred.

"I wrote down everything I wanted to say, but it seems so trite now." Gwen’s voice was just above a whisper. "Instead, let me say before the goddesses who stand here and our friends and family that I will always, *ALWAYS* love you, and protect you from harm. Keep you warm when it’s cold, and take care of you when you’re sick. Stand beside you through the triumphs and trials of our lives, and lend you my strength when your own is gone. I will grow old with you and remain faithfully yours for eternity. "I love you, Miranda Valiant, and pledge my life to you for as long as we both live, and beyond." Gwen took the ring from a finger on her right hand, and grasped the warrior’s left hand in her right. Then she slid the warrior’s ring onto her finger.

The Marine couldn’t help it. The words were so moving, they brought tears to her eyes, and she leaned down and captured Gwen’s lips passionately for a timeless moment. Long enough that they both lost sight of where they were, and Aphrodite decided to take matters into her own hands.

"Hey, you two!" She smacked the back of Randi’s head lightly, though it was hard enough to get the soldier’s attention. "We’re like in the middle of a wedding ceremony here. You wanna wrap things up first before you start that? Some of us are so looking forward to that radical wedding cake." A chuckle tittered through the crowd. "What?" the blonde goddess asked, looking around at her sisters. Athena nodded toward Randi who was glaring at them. "Oops, sorry, babe. Continue," waving a hand in their direction.

The Sabre took a deep breath. "I’m not good with words. We all know who the bard in this relationship is," with a smile at Gwen, who smiled back through her tears. "However." She drew the blade carefully from its sheath across the front of her body then knelt before the bard. With sabre drawn, she saluted the bard, then extended it hilt first to the smaller woman. "All that I am, all that I have is yours. And I promise you, in life and in death I will be with you and love you and take care of you. You are my life and my soulmate, and I treasure and cherish you above all things. I will remind you daily of the special place you hold in my heart, my life, and my soul. I love you, Gwenievere Goldman. Forever." Gwen accepted the blade. Randi put the ring on Gwen’s finger, working around the binding to slide it into place.

The bard slipped the sabre into the sheath, needing both hands for the next part of the ceremony. Then she helped Randi to stand and drew her close, but paused to look at the love goddess first.

"Well, what are you waiting on? Kiss her already!"

Now the entire room burst into laughter. Even Gwen chuckled and Randi rolled her eyes, and they held one another tightly. Then their lips were meeting again, and the world faded out beneath the wash of passion between them and the cheers of the friends that surrounded them.



Chapter XXIV

Friends and family gathered around after they parted, though it took them another full minute to notice, and remove their gazes from each other. Then the next few minutes were spent in the giving and receiving of congratulations.

Finally, the small group made its way out of the temple, leaving the warrior and bard alone with the goddesses.

"Thank you for presiding over what has to be one of the best, most memorable days of our lives," the bard gushed. "I mean... thank you all," smiling at Randi through the tears again. "From a sincerely grateful heart."

The goddesses all smiled in return, the happiness that flowed from the couple filling them all with an unexpected joy. "Just remember our words to you, and yours to one another." And then the trio disappeared from sight.

"Guess we need to get to the reception, huh?" Randi rolled her eyes, but nodded her head reluctantly agreeing. "You okay? Except for our vows, you’ve hardly said two words."

"Just trying to absorb the newness of everything." She paused and breathed, gathering her thoughts. "I know a few words spoken aloud don’t change the realities of how we feel, but it seems more real now, more permanent. Like it’s not a dream I’m gonna have to wake up from."

"Oh no, love. This is as real as it gets." She squeezed their bound hands lightly together, careful of the dual cut. "This is forever."

Randi pulled the bard to her, and indulged in a long, passionate kiss. When they separated, breathless, green eyes glared at her.

"You had to go and do that now, hmm? We still have the reception to go to, ya know."

"You think anyone would notice if we didn’t show up?"

"I think *everyone* would notice if we didn’t show up. It’s gonna be a zoo, you know. But it’s gonna be *our* zoo."

The Marine chuckled at the image of their friends as different zoo critters. "C’mon, then. Let’s get this done so we can be alone for a while." The warrior gave her beloved a melting, heated look. "Cause I don’t think forever alone with you would be long enough for me to get my fill of you."

Gwen blushed and muttered. "Are you sure you’re not a bard under all those medals?"

"Nah, though I do find you to be particularly inspiring. Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about the medals and ribbons on this little trip."

The bard looked up, totally caught by surprise at the offer. Then she answered shyly, "I’d like that." Randi merely nodded her agreement to share. Gwen held onto the moment as another special part of an extraordinary day.



They had forgotten the little detail of their having to get to the reception, and didn’t realize the problem until they got to the transport.

"Damn! I can’t believe we forget about this binding thing."

"It’s okay, love. We’ll manage."

Randi stood drumming her fingers on the top of the transport, thinking. "Do you trust me?" she asked the bard.

"Implicitly," Gwen answered without a second’s hesitation. "You know that."

"Well, c’mon then. We’re gonna have to drive us over to the reception." A blonde brow quirked in question, and the bard waited patiently for Randi while the Marine keyed the lock. She stood still as the Sabre stepped behind her, wrapping their bound hands around Gwen’s small body. "Now," backing them toward the open door and the seat. "If I sit first, and you sit in my lap, you should be able to navigate while I take care of the other controls."

Gwen looked a little dubious, but her faith in her partner far outweighed her doubts, and she willingly followed Randi into the transport. It took them several moments to get comfortably situated, and then they were slowly easing their way towards the Golden Touch, and their reception.



When they arrived, Tiny, Tommy and Geoff were outside waiting for them. The three men went goggle-eyed when the transport door opened, and they realized how the women had overcome the little binding issue. To a man they wanted to rush over and scold the two, but realizing they had no room to criticize since they’d left them alone to get past it as custom dictated. "We should have known they wouldn’t call for a driver. If there was an unorthodox way to get here, they were gonna find it." Tommy’s comment to the other two was received with nods of acknowledgement.

"They *did* find it, Tommy. How many people do you know have managed to drive themselves after being bound for their ceremony? This from Tiny. "I know I’ve never seen it."

"Me either," Geoff agreed. Then he turned and went into the restaurant.



Sal was ecstatic. Just from the ceremony, the holos and picture images he had were incredible. All of Rico’s work so far had been candid, nothing posed, but then they hadn’t needed to. The two men were looking forward to getting back to their studio later, and reviewing everything. It was a pretty sure bet this was going to be some of their finest work.

Jill approached him, and he clasped her hands enthusiastically. "You have done a magnificent job, my dear," gesturing to the atmosphere of the room around them. "The vivid color choices of your arrangements set off the bridal couple so well. We are getting some excellent material for them."

"I’m so glad. I want this to be special for them."

"It will be. They will have beautiful memories of this day."

"Thank you, Sal. I’m so glad you and Rico are handling that. There is no one I trust more to make it perfect for my children."

"I was honored that Randi asked me. For a very long time there, I was convinced she hated me."

"That’s because you come on like a downpour," replied Dei, who’d heard his comments to Jill. "One day you will learn finesse, brother." The siblings looked at each other. "Nah," in unison. Then they chuckled. At that moment, Geoff came through the door.

"Excuse me, I need to start the music. They’re here."

Sal moved over to the door to alert his brother, while Jill went to the musicians, and had them change the tune they were playing. Everyone present recognized the signal, and turned to face the door as the two women walked in. A rousing cheer went up and the couple flushed, but stood in place bearing it bravely. When the noise died down somewhat, they moved into the room, and began greeting the multitude of their friends who’d joined them for this most special occasion.

Lacey was the first to approach the newlyweds, and they opened their arms to her jointly. She moved into the hug, and the three embraced for a long moment. "I am so happy for the both of you. So glad things worked out so beautifully. Congratulations!"

"Thank you, Lacey. What you did for me, for us, was simply amazing, and it’s a debt I’ll never be able to repay." The bard spoke sincerely from her heart, and the Sabre doctor smiled.

"Tell ya what... if you’ll invite Nicky and I for a weekend at the boathouse, we’ll call it even."

Gwen looked at Randi who nodded faintly. "You’ve got yourself a deal, Lacey. We’ll call you when we get back, and set up a time."

"That’s wonderful. Thanks, guys. Now, will you come meet my better half? She’s been anxious since she learned who you are. She’s a fan from way back."

"Sure, we’d love to."



Slowly, they made their way through the crowd, receiving congratulations from scores of friends. "It’s amazing," the bard whispered to Randi, knowing the warrior could hear her. "I hadn’t realized we knew so many people."

The Marine looked around, and realized that she did indeed know everyone at least by name and who they were with. But most of the folks she considered friends. She found she was more than a little surprised, since she’d never considered herself a friendly sort of person. She looked down at Gwen, who somehow was in her arms, and she felt the world fade out around them.

"Thank you," she whispered back. Green eyes looked questioningly at her. "You changed my life for the better, in ways I am just starting to understand, and for that I will always be profoundly grateful."

"Ditto, my love." And they smiled, and Randi lifted their bound hands to her lips for a kiss.

"Are you getting hungry, Little One? Ella is signaling us. I think they are about ready to start serving."

"Lead on, love."



The atmosphere around the room grew noticeably quieter when folks were seated and being served. Reed turned to Gwen, whom she was seated next to. "This has been an absolutely beautiful occasion. Something I’ll always have as a treasured memory. I’m so glad we could be a part of it."

"So am I, Reed. I am so thankful for many things, but I am especially glad of your friendship. I am grateful Randi decided to introduce me to this part of her life. I owe you twice for myself, and...."

"No, my friend. What I did for you was freely given. You offered me your friendship and accepted me without question or judgment."

"Of course. Why wouldn’t I?"

"Ah, Gwen. Don’t you ever go changing, all right?"


"Let’s just say that even though the majority of society aren’t, there are still plenty of people around who want to be judgmental. Being a Sabre exposes me to that on a regular basis. You were like a breath of fresh air."

"You and Tiny were that for me. You both helped me to understand what Randi was, and helped her to see that there being an us was not a bad thing."

"And just what are you two conspiring about over here, hmm?" Randi asked, holding a bite of food to the bard’s lips. Gwen took the morsel, and kissed the finger, causing a tremor to run through the tall frame sitting beside her. "Behave, you," growled the Marine sotto voce.

"Oh, I am, Stud. I haven’t crawled into your lap and danced yet, have I?"

An audible swallow was its own answer, and Randi took a long, deep draught of her drink before responding. "I don’t think you could in that dress, but I guess we’ll be finding out tonight, won’t we?" The rakish grin cast in her direction caused the bard to blush profusely.



"They really are well suited to one another, aren’t they?" Jill and Geoff were seated at the end of the table at their own request. It had been Ella’s idea to put them next to the warrior, and herself and Tommy at the end of that side to facilitate her management of the reception. However, Geoff’s need for extra space she certainly understood, and it had resulted in the arrangement they had now.

The weapons smith watched them together with a smile, their playful banter and teasing well apparent in their responses and expressions. "They certainly are. Was a time I had given up on ever seeing them this happy together," he replied thoughtfully. Then Tommy stood, and banged his glass for their attention. The room got quiet, and everyone including Gwen and Randi turned to hear him speak.

"My friends and colleagues... this happy event has been a long time coming," he said with a smirk in the Marine’s direction. "I for one am thrilled that it finally did. ‘Bout time someone put a leash on you, short stuff." The room chuckled, and waited for Randi’s response. They didn’t have to wait long.

She stood, drawing Gwen up with her, and wrapping the bard in her strong arms. She had to smile when the smaller woman leaned into her naturally, and she took a minute to breath in the younger woman’s unique scent. She smiled and answered, "I walked into this willingly, T. No leash was necessary." Now the room cheered wildly, and the man had the good grace to acknowledge the Marine’s well-made and very valid point. Then he had to wait for the crowd to quiet once more. When it did, he lifted his glass.

"Join me in raising a glass to the happy couple." Almost instantly there was complete compliance, and he turned to the two still standing wrapped up together. "A toast... to a couple who means the world to one another, and whose soul bond in readily apparent to all who see them together... a wish for a long and happy life together. May the sun of good fortune shine on you often, so that when the rains of adversity fall, it only enables the flowers of joy, strength, faith and love to blossom in your life together. Long life, my friends, and happiness always. Salut!" He lifted his glass again in salute to them and drank.

"Salut!" the gathering echoed and then drank with him. Applause rang out around the room.

When it got quiet again, Gwen began to speak. "Randi and I were reminded once again when we entered the reception this afternoon of just how truly blessed we really are. Not only do we have one another, but we are fortunate enough to count so many," gesturing to the assembly, "as our friends. Thank you, for sharing your friendship and our wedding day with us." The crowd whooped its response.

The cake was brought out and set in front of them. This was one thing they had discussed in all seriousness. For what it represented, they were not willing to make a mockery of their feeding of one another. They had lost one another once. Making a joke about taking care of each other was not something they found funny at all, even off handedly.

So they took up the knife together, awkwardly, considering their bound hands, but they managed, and sliced a portion of cake to share. Then almost reverently, the warrior fed the bard, and then Gwen reciprocated the act. And without conscious thought, they sealed the unspoken promise with a kiss that lasted until the sounds of cheering and clapping brought them back to the reception, and their friends.

They resumed their seats, slowly feeding one another bites of the remaining cake while the rest was served out to their guests. Conversation buzzed around them, but for the moment, they were lost in their own little world alone together. It caught the eyes of more than one guest, and many an indulgent smile was turned their way. As the eating wound down, the musicians returned to their places, and began playing again.

It took a few minutes for the sound of music to penetrate the little haven they had created for themselves. They looked at each other knowingly.

"We have to start this, don’t we?" the Marine mumbled to the bard.

"Um hmm. But you know what, I am looking forward to dancing with you again. It is one of the things I dreamed about when you were gone." Unbidden, tears rushed her eyes.

"No bad memories, Gwen. Not today. I will dance with you every single day for the rest of our lives if it will erase the emptiness you bore."

"Just hold me in your arms and love me, Randi."

"Always, my love." She stood and drew the bard with her. "Now, dance with me?"

For answer, Gwen led the way to the floor. The warrior pulled her close and wrapped her in a blanket of love so tight that the bad memories evaporated before the warmth that surrounded her.

The music changed subtly, and the couple smiled into one another’s eyes as they recognized the song. It was the one Randi had sung to Gwen the night of the big awards party at Tommy’s house almost two years prior, and without thinking about it now, the warrior sang the words to her beloved again, only changing the tenses to make it a current fact instead of a past one. And in their hearts and minds the song took on a whole new meaning.

They were so focused on one another, that they never noticed that the room had fallen silent, and every eye there was watching them intently. Not that it would have mattered in the least. This was their day, and PDA’s were the least of their concerns. For the most part, nothing existed outside their little bubble, and those gathered together to share in this event were very grateful for the peek into something as rare and beautiful as what the two of them had together.

As the song ended, Gwen tightened her arm around Randi’s neck, pulling a willing pair of lips into range of her own. "I love you, warrior. Forever." But she gave the Marine no chance to respond, as she captured the tempting lips and they spent long minutes in mutual exploration. They didn’t notice the music slide into a new melody, nor did they realize others were slowly joining them on the dance floor. Not, that is until they slowly separated, and blue locked with green.

"I love you too, my bard." Gwen smiled, and laid her head down on the firm chest, careful of the medals and ribbons. Randi looked around then, noticing the movement. There were several couples on the floor now, all smiling indulgently, and giving them a wide berth. The Sabre wasn’t sure whether to be pleased, annoyed or embarrassed. Finally she shrugged her shoulders a touch sheepishly, and hugged the bard tighter to her, reveling once again in the feeling of just how perfectly they fit together.

Gwen’s voice brought her out of the haze of sensual delight she’d fallen into. Blue eyes blinked a couple times before they focused on the green now staring back at her. "I’m sorry, love. What did you say?"

An indulgent grin this time, at the relaxed state the soldier had allowed herself to fall into. It was rare in the extreme, and something the bard intended to coax along and cherish for as long as she possibly could. "I was just wondering," motioning to the room around her, "if Mother gave the guys in particular some sort of dress code."

The Sabre frowned, noting for the first time that Tommy, Tiny and Geoff all wore the same frock coat and ascot, only the color of the neckwear distinguishing them. A glance around the rest of the room showed most of the rest of the men in similar eveningwear. A longer look made her realize that Ella, Reed and Jill were also dressed alike except for their colors that coincidentally matched the ones their partners wore. She decided to call Jill on it, but first she answered Gwen’s query.

"I dunno, Little One. Not like guys have a lot of variety to choose from in the eveningwear department."

"Yeah, but Mama, Ella and Reed match as well." She shrugged lightly. "Ever get the feeling everyone is in on the secret but you?"

"Um hmm, but I bet I can find out what’s going on." The warrior smiled engagingly, and Gwen had to grin in return. Just to see the joy in Randi’s face made her happy.

"I’ll bet you can too, Stud. But not right now. Right now, I want another dance." They finished the third dance before deciding to take a break. Randi seated Gwen next to her father, then leaned down to whisper in her partner’s ear.

"I’d like to talk to your mom." The blonde head nodded, and she planted a chaste kiss on the smooth lips.

"All right." And then she started a quiet conversation with her father.

"Will you sit with me?" Randi asked a startled Jill, who accepted the held out hand gingerly, and rose from her seat. She looked at Geoff who was engrossed in a talk with their daughter, and patted his shoulder as she passed.

"What’s on your mind?" inquired Jill as the Marine seated her next to herself. A dark brow rose in mute question, and the older woman nearly giggled in response. "I’m sorry, hon. You just seem so different today. So much more relaxed and open. What changed for you?"

"Aside from getting married, ya mean? Actually, I wanted to talk to you, and asking seemed the easiest way. I’m sure I’ll go back to being my dour, unsociable self after today."

Jill wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that until she caught the twinkle in the blue eyes, and she smiled. "Well then, as long as I have a captive audience here, so to speak, let me just say I’m glad whatever the reason. Thank you for the invitation." A gracious nod of acceptance. "Now, what did you want to discuss?"

"The dress code."

The dumbfounded look on the elder’s face nearly caused the younger to crack up. Only years of discipline helped her to keep a straight face. "The dress code? What dress code? Did I miss a memo here or something?"

"Funny, that’s the way Gwen and I felt." She motioned to the room around them with a slight jerk of her head. "Everyone here is in formal wear, and to a man, the guys pretty much match. And you, Ella and Reed match both each other and the colors your partners are wearing. And Geoff, Tommy and Tiny are identical as well. Can you see why we feel a little out of the loop?"

The older woman flushed a bit, and turned her gaze to look up into the blue eyes. "Um, well... when we started getting the RSVP’s back, almost everyone asked about what to wear. I just told everyone formals. And you know there just isn’t a lot of variety for the men in that department. Never has been."

The dark head nodded in acceptance. "That was almost exactly what I told Gwen." A pause. "And the other?"

The blush grew darker. "Well, the girls and I got together and decided to be the somewhat impromptu wedding party. We figured you two wouldn’t mind, and you might actually like the idea of having us all standing with you, as it were. Especially since we were the only ones there," she finished with an impish grin.

"That’s a good point." Now Randi had to chuckle. "I’m glad ya’ll did."

They sat for a while in silence, a warmth settling between them. When the music stopped, Jill gave the strong body next to her a firm hug. "Thank you, dear. You’ve made me very happy today."

"My pleasure, mom."

The unexpected salutation brought tears to the older woman’s eyes. Jill moved back to her seat beside Geoff, and Randi brushed her fingers across the bard’s cheek tenderly. Gwen captured her hand, and held it while she and her father finished their conversation. Then she turned to face her beaming partner.

"Are you having a good time, love?" Knowing the answer to her question without having to hear it. But she got the feeling the warrior might want to voice it.

"It’s been perfect. And the best part is, it’s just the beginning for us." The wonder in Randi’s voice was painfully apparent to Gwen.

"Yes, it is," she agreed quietly. "And it’s only going to get better."

The Marine lifted her free hand, gently threading it into the blonde hair, and urging her bard forward. Their lips met slowly, and they took their time, as the world around them gradually faded out of their consciousness. Gwen brought her hand up and slipped it up under the Sabre’s tunic. Randi’s hand clenched convulsively in the blonde hair when the small hand began tracing the contours of her body through the t-shirt she wore underneath her uniform. She could no more stop the moan that escaped her than she could stop breathing, although that function was becoming more optional by the moment.

Slowly, but much faster than either wanted, they separated, spending another timeless moment simply looking into one another’s eyes. "C’mon, Stud," Gwen whispered huskily. "It’s time for us to go. I want to take you to bed, and make love til the sun comes up. And I can’t do that here."

Blue eyes darkened in anticipation of the promise those words held. The warrior stood silently, pulling the storyteller up to stand beside her. And to Gwen’s surprise, she was led to the dance floor. "Randi?"

The Sabre held her close, smiling when the smaller woman unconsciously relaxed into her body. "We don’t want to announce to the world at large we’re leaving, do we?" whispered in the ear near her mouth. "You know they will do everything possible to delay us if they know we are ready to leave."

"Oh, that’s a good point. What’s your plan?"

"We are simply gonna dance our way out the door." She nodded to a small niche that housed a side entrance. "Billy moved the transport to the service door for me. We glide over to the alcove, and slip out the door. People are busy having a good time. They’ll never miss us until we are long gone."

"I love you."

"I love you, too." And they slowly began easing their way toward the door.



"They’re getting ready to escape, you know," Jill commented to her husband, as they watched the two lovers dance. It was a good feeling to see the soulmates so happy together, and it brought back lots of memories for the older couple. They smiled at one another for a minute, reliving their own wedding and reception.

"I know. They lasted longer than I expected them too, actually." He grinned evilly. "Besides, the transport has been duly decorated. Everything is all set for them."

Jill noticed the evil twinkle lurking in the weapons smith’s eyes. "What did you do?"

"Well, let’s just say we’ll be seeing them again, before they actually leave on their honeymoon. They’re gonna want to return Ella and Randall to Tommy first."


The room echoed his laughter as the party rolled on.





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