Happy April Fools' Day!

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

Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team. Thanks to Carol, Marsha, Phil and Liz for the editing and for the questions, comments, steering and encouragement. You guys ROC!

Special Thanks: To the many of you that have taken the time to send your kind words about the Valiant Series thus far. They have been much appreciated by the entire team (and yeah, they get to see the feedback too).

ICK Alert: My betas now having a full understanding of what the Southern meaning of UGLY is, asked that I forewarn readers that there is a section in Chapter VI that qualifies as serious ICK. Its beginning and ending is noted by **. Take the warning seriously. It is not for the faint of heart.

Author’s Note: This story picks up directly where A Valiant Journey left off. There is actually story in here somewhere, but they are on their honeymoon. They got married and reckoned they were entitled to one... go figure. Hey, *YOU* try arguing with them! The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is still in effect... mostly.

A Valiant Life



Chapter I

The early morning sun cut a swath across the bed, highlighting the golden hair of the woman who lay sprawled over her sleeping partner's larger body. Sleepy green eyes peered offended at the light, until they rested smilingly on the dearly loved features now backlit by the dawn. Married, Gwen thought, as a tingle of pure joy skittered up her spine. As though in response to the happiness the bard felt, the warrior opened her blue eyes, and looked down at her lover with an amused indulgence.

"Happy, my love?"

In answer, the younger woman rose up from her place, and captured the soft lips beneath her own for timeless moment. She paused and looked at the ring that once again graced her finger, wincing just slightly at the pull caused by the joining cut. "You wouldn't think a few words spoken aloud would make such a difference, but they do. It's like another beginning for us."

Strong arms wrapped tightly around the bard and engulfed her in a hug. "I love you," was all she answered, but Gwen understood. She leaned up once again, this time tracing Randi's face delicately with her fingers, before moving to follow the same path with her lips.

"I love you too," she whispered, before everything else faded out, and their world became solely focused on one another.

"I suppose we'd better get going before your folks figure out we're still here." It was later in the morning, but still early as they lay contentedly wrapped around one another. The soft sounds of the waves hitting the shore had lulled them into a peaceful lassitude, and coupled with their earlier lovemaking, made them very reluctant to stir from their warm nest.

"Oh, I'll bet they know," the blonde answered. "And I'll bet after that little prank last night, we don't have to worry about them showing up here either," Gwen growled. They looked at each other, then broke into laughter. "I suppose it is funny in retrospect," she said when they'd caught their breath. She lightly ran her hands up and down Randi's bare sides, delighting in the physical reaction her touch elicited. Randi's hands reciprocated, and she felt herself arching into the feeling they caused.

"Yeah, it is," the Sabre agreed. "Definitely something we will never forget."


The ride had been peacefully silent, the two of them still absorbing the fact that they were now bound to one another completely... emotionally, spiritually, physically and legally. Randi manipulated the controls while Gwen steered, lifting their bound hands to her lips for a gentle kiss. "I can't believe they ballooned the transport. I will be interested to see what they used to keep them in place." This said with a chuckle that was echoed by her blonde partner.

"Oh, you'll never guess," came a voice from the backseat, causing the warrior to slam the transport into a swift, sudden stop. Randi and Gwen simply stared at each other for a minute, until a childish voice cried out... "Wuv! Wen!"

"Fuck!" the Marine exclaimed sotto voce, though it was loud enough for the bard to hear. It caused Gwen to silently chuckle, and Randi, who felt the laughter, to glare at her. "What the hell?"

The balloons parted, and a curly blonde head stuck out. Randall, comfortably ensconced on his mother's lap laughed and lunged for the couple. Only Ella's quick grab saved him, because there was no way for the warrior to catch him, wrapped around Gwen as she was. "Ma!" he squealed, unhappy that she'd upset his plans.

"Nope, you gotta stay here, stud muffin. Wuv's got her hands full right now."

He pouted, then reached a hand forward and patted Randi on the head. Now it was the Marine's turn to chuckle. Then she looked Ella pointedly in the eye, difficult considering her position, but she did it nevertheless. "What are you doing here?"

The curly headed woman muttered to herself. "How did I let myself get talked into this? Don’t worry, Ella. It'll be fine, Ella. It's just a joke, Ella."


The other woman blinked and stopped muttering when the Sabre bellowed at her. Randall sat looking at Randi wide-eyed. Gwen lifted her hand from the steering mechanism, and gently reached to massage the now tense muscles on the Sabre's neck. Randi relaxed into the touch for a moment, then modulated her voice. "What are you doing here?"

"Geoff and Tommy's idea of funny."

The blonde reacted this time, with a raised brow, and an incredulous look of her own. "Excuse me? This was my father's idea?"

"They are equally guilty, I'm afraid. Those two are downright dangerous when they get to plotting together." Ella paused. "I just can't believe I let them talk me into this. It sounded downright hysterical when they described it to me."

"I'll just bet," the warrior answered drolly. "C'mon... we'll take you home."

"You don't have to do that. Tommy should be right behind us."

"It's all right. We were going there anyway."

The bard cast a questioning look at her companion, but Randi didn't elaborate. So they headed to the island, followed by a now very confused Thomas Steele.

They left the balloons with Randall and Ella, the woman rolling her eyes while the child cheered in delight. Tommy patiently waited until he saw their transport head for the beach house before he pulled up in front of his own. He was surprised, not pleasantly so, by his wife meeting him at the door. She grabbed him by the ear and pulled him into the house. "The next time you put me into the middle of one of your hair-brained schemes.... " The thought trailed off as the door shut solidly behind them.

The two pulled up in front of their home, and sat for a minute soaking up the newness of that thought. Ours... what an enticing idea. They looked at each other and leaned in, lips meeting for a long time. On an uneven breath the bard pulled back and looked into Randi's eyes. "C'mon, Stud. Let's find a more comfortable place to be."

"This isn't going exactly like I'd planned." The Marine removed her free hand from Gwen's waist and rubbed her face.

"Oh?" A frown creased the bard's fair features. "I thought it was going pretty well."

Randi chuckled ruefully. "A little too well, honestly. Um, actually, I had a different idea for the start of our honeymoon."

Green eyes softened, and Gwen smiled. "Oh?"

"Um hmm. We were gonna take the bike out. I have a little place in the mountains I thought we'd go spend some time at. It's private and secluded, and no one, not even Tiny, knows about it. It was the one place I could go when I needed to get away from being a Sabre for just a little while."

"And you want to share this place with me?"

"Everything I have."

Gwen's eyes watered at the sentiment, but she smiled. "That sounds wonderful. And if you want to leave tonight, well, where you go, I go, remember?" She lightly kissed the smile on her partner’s face. "But love, I can't think of a more perfect setting for our wedding night than the bed where we made love for the first time. There is something poetic about it."

Now the Marine had to smile. "You would know... you're the bard." Gwen giggled and kissed Randi's nose. The Sabre drew the blonde head down and captured her lips again for a long, passionate moment. "And now that you say so, I think you just might be right. The cabin will be there tomorrow." She drew an uneven breath.

They eased out of the transport, and moved as one toward the door. "So we were coming here first anyway, hmm?" Gwen gazed into twinkling blue eyes, and felt herself responding in kind to the quiet joy reflecting in them.

"Yeah. I couldn't see riding the bike in these," gesturing between them at their white clothing. She turned and keyed in the code, opening the door. Gwen stepped up beside the Marine and turned Randi to face her.

"Well," scratching the side of her nose, then moving her hand to the gold polished uniform buttons. "I think we need to do something about these clothes anyway."

"You do, huh?" The Marie smiled when a small hand moved up to the jacket's neck enclosure.

"Um hmm," working the collar clasp loose and moving her attention to the button beneath it. Two long fingers lifted the bard's chin and caught her lips in another breath-stealing kiss. Randi felt a second button work free. She moved them across the threshold and shut the door behind them without breaking their embrace. When Gwen opened the third button and slipped her hand inside the tunic, Randi growled. The Sabre pulled back from the kiss and looked down at her lover with darkened eyes.

"We have to remove the binding, Little One. You're not gonna be the only who gets to play tonight." The husky rumble sent shivers chasing up and down the bard's spine. Without a word she stepped back slightly and brought their bound hands up between them. Tenderly, she placed a kiss on each of the warrior's fingers, and slowly began to loosen the binding. Geoff had made a firm knot, and she carefully worked it free now. The silk slid from their hands, and they held one another's gaze for a long moment before Gwen tugged a willing Randi into the bedroom and shut the door firmly behind them.


"You know, I'm glad we stayed here last night."

The bard wiggled blonde eyebrows at Randi's statement. "Mmm, me too." She looked around their non-disheveled room. Their undressing of one another had been reverent, and knowing what the uniform had meant to Randi, she had taken it and hung it neatly away without a word. The Marine had reciprocated with her gown, and they had looked unspoken promises at one another for a long moment before resuming their wedding night activities. Gwen smiled at the recent memories.

"That's not what I meant." An arched brow from the bard caused her to chuckle. "That's not *all* that I meant, anyway, although that was wonderful too." Randi smiled at Gwen in perfect contentment. "Just being with you is wonderful for me, but you were right."

"How so?"

"So much of our life together has been here in this house. It seems only fitting that we begin our life as a married couple here as well."

"I promise," Gwen said solemnly, though her green eyes twinkled in mischief. "Your secret is safe with me." Now the Sabre looked at her with her dark brow raised, and Gwen laughed in response. "You are nothing but a big, romantic mushball."

Irate blue eyes glowered at her. "I am not!"

Gwen stood, absorbing the admiring look coming from her partner as she lithely stretched her well-loved body in the early morning sunlight. "Yes, you are. And I love that about you, just as much as I love every other part of you. Now, I'm going to get a shower." She reached the door, and turned to the still-reclining warrior. "You coming?"

In answer, Randi stood and stretched, enjoying the look of lust that crossed Gwen's features as she sauntered across the room. "Yes," was all she said, as she reached the bathroom, and drew the bard in with her, closing the door behind them.

It wasn't too late, close to mid-morning when they headed out on the bike. Geoff and Jill were at the window of the boathouse, puppy in hand, and they watched them leave together. Carbon howled once, and turned pitiful eyes on the older couple.

"It's all right, boy. We're gonna stay here with you... maybe teach you a few things." The weapons smith scratched the canine under his chin, and the dog whimpered in sheer pleasure. "We'll have a good time." Jill smiled as she watched the two of them together listening to the one-sided conversation the man was having with the pup. "Randi and Gwen need some time alone together... to celebrate their new life and the love that they share." He looked to his wife then. "How long before Tommy and I get forgiven for that little prank last night, do you think?"

"I have a feeling Randi and Gwen will have mercy before Ella will." Jill laughed softly. "Poor Tommy."

"Well, he and I are hoping to get some work done on Randi's boat. Maybe that will keep him out of trouble."

"Can you?" She gestured to his hover chair. "I mean...." The woman bit her lip. There was so much she wanted to say, to caution him against, but ultimately it was his decision. He read the concern and love easily coming from her eyes, and shifted the puppy to draw the woman down into his lap. The chair compensated easily. Thank goodness for modern technology, he thought briefly. Carbon began to gently lick Jill's face clean, and she squirmed away from his tickling tongue. "Carbon!"

The puppy looked up at her when she called his name, his tongue hanging out to one side, giving his face a comical expression. "Woof!" he barked at them, and they had to laugh. Jill stroked his back gently, and he curled up contentedly in her lap.

"Thank you love," the weapons smith commented quietly. "I know how hard it is for you sometimes. Thank you for not questioning my judgment, though I know you worry about me."

She cupped a hand around his thin cheek, feeling a noticeable difference since his injury. "Yes, I do. I think after thirty years, I've earned the right to worry once in a while," said with a smile to take the sting out of the words. "But I also trust you. You know what you can and can't manage."

He smiled at her. "Not always, sweetheart. The ego does tend to get in the way of the brain sometimes."

"Just be careful, all right? And try not to overdo."

"I will. I expect you to keep an eye on me, and make sure of that, okay?"

She smiled at him, and gently placed the puppy in her lap. Then she reached to frame his face tenderly in both hands, and leaned into him. "I love you," said on a whisper. And she caught his lips in a passionate kiss. He responded in kind, holding tightly to her waist.

"I love you, too," he said as they separated. Then they held one another in silence, comfortable in the love they shared. And they waited as Tommy, Ella and Randall slowly made their way down the dock toward them.

The wind was cold, and Gwen spared a brief though of thankfulness for the leather jacket she wore and Randi's warm bulk that blocked a vast portion of it from her. She snuggled up tighter against her partner, and felt the warrior's hand tangle with her own.

"You okay, Little One?" The low voice reverberated through her helmet.

"Um, hmm. Just perfect, thanks." She felt the taller woman's chuckle.

"Well, no argument from me on that point. But I'm a bit chilly, so I'm gonna stop for a bit of hot chocolate."

"Oh, I like that idea," Gwen agreed readily.

"Heh, I thought you might." The bike slowed and pulled into a little roadside stand that was very familiar to both of them. Rosie poked her graying head out the window of her home, and blinked at them in surprise.

"Didn't think to see you two anytime soon... certainly not this early." She smiled at their blush. "C'mon in." They followed the shamaness into the inner sanctuary of her home, bypassing the restaurant part and going to the private living quarters. "So what brings you out this way? I expected ya'll to be long gone from here."

"We're on our way now. Just stopped by for a bit of hot chocolate, if you have any ready. It's cold out this morning."

She looked at the two of them and smiled. They were so obviously happy, glowing with a quiet joy so rarely seen, even between new lovers. The woman sent a silent prayer of thanksgiving to her goddess, and moved to fix the requested drink.

"That was some party last night. Saw ya'll slip away early."

"Yeah, we did. But I'm glad you had a good time."

"Yep, it was something else." She set the cups down in front of them. "I know you've heard this before, but what you share... it is so rare, so special. It is beautiful to see. Soulmates who find each other are a gift... treasure one another and what you have together."

Randi reached out a hand and covered Gwen's, glancing at Rosie before holding the green eyes with her own. "We do, my friend. And we will, always."

She set their chocolate on the table, and sat down to join them. The next few minutes passed in quiet conversation and laughter. The two younger women finished their drink and stood, anxious to be in their way.

"Here," the proprietress said, having risen with them. "This may help keep you warm until you get somewhere you can help each other in that department." She handed them a container of the beverage. They stood looking at her, shell-shocked. "Aw, c'mon you two. It's a fact of married life... especially newlyweds. Everybody knows, and everybody does it." She watched twin blushes crawl up their faces equally, and shook her reddish-gray head in amusement. "The two of you are just too cute together, you know that?"

They were still gaping as they donned their jackets, Rosie's matter-of-fact words having chased off any residual chill that had been left by the hot chocolate. Finally, Randi shook her head and mounted the bike. Gwen put the thermos into the saddlebag, and let the warrior seat her.

"Thanks Rosie."

"Anytime, girls. You're always welcome." She watched them ride away with a smile on her face. They were gonna win out... they had to. It would be a hard row to hoe, but they had what they needed to overcome.

They moved into the gentle rolling hills by mid-afternoon, and stopped at a little out-of-the-way restaurant for a bit of lunch. The proprietor squinted hard at Randi, as though trying to place where he knew her from, but finally shrugged his shoulders and seated them.

"I take it you've been here before," Gwen said quietly.

"Yeah, but it's been years since I was here last. But if I remember right, the food is really good."

Her memory proved correct, and they were both pleasantly stuffed when lunch was over. The man had continued to steal occasional glances of them through the meal, as though trying to jog his memory.

"You could just tell him."

"He could just ask."

"Well, he's starting to make me nervous."

"We're ready to go anyway. It'll give him something to think about when we're gone."

"You're so mean," said with a twinkling grin.

A rakish smile answered her. "Yes, I am. Thank you for noticing."

They stopped for the night just before dark, having found a quaint, tiny inn that Gwen's bardic mind found picturesque and appealing. Randi just smiled at her partner's enthusiasm, happy she could indulge this whim. It wasn't like the blonde asked for much, and this was so easy to do. And truthfully, the soldier appreciated the atmosphere just as much.

"Randi?" They were tucked into a large, comfortable bed. The warrior was wrapped around the bard, and Gwen luxuriated in the feeling of being surrounded by love. She snuggled into the embrace a little deeper with a happy sigh. Randi reciprocated by holding her just a bit tighter, absently stroking her hands up and down the storyteller's bare skin.

"Yes, Little One?"

"Tell me about your cabin." A dark brow lifted, and she quirked a little half-smile at the blonde. "Our cabin." Now the smile became a full-blown grin. "Ya know," Gwen said in response to the look, "I really love that."

"What's that, love?"

"That smile, and the reason for it." She smiled. "I love that there is an us, an our, a we. I love you."

"Hmm," changing the movements of her hands and feeling the bard arch into the touch. "I love you too." And the discussion went to the wayside for the time being.

"It's small, just a single room with a tiny bathroom." Gwen sat up a little, leaning on an elbow so she could look down at her speaking companion. "It's made of real cedar wood, and it's tucked away into the side of a mountain. It's surrounded by trees, and has a little bitty steam running along one side. There are fish in the stream, and flowers in the field, and it's peaceful and quiet. It's not much really, but it's private, and it's ours."

"Did you build it?"

"Yeah. I... it... it was a kind of therapy for me. I needed to be constructive, and I needed some space. This worked well for both." The sadness that shone out of the blue eyes caused a jolt to run through Gwen's heart, and she lifted a hand in reflex to stroke the pain from Randi face. The Sabre closed her eyes at the first touch, relishing the attention.

"I'm sorry, love. Sorry you had to go through so much."

"I'm not. We are together, and if I had to go through it all again just to end up here, with you by my side and in my arms, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

The bard didn't know what response to make to that, so she laid her head back on the broad chest with her ear pressed against the warrior's heartbeat. She gently traced Randi's face until they both fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

Early morning found them in much the same position they had fallen asleep in. Gently, Gwen followed the sculpted planes of the Marine's features, smiling in response to the reaction she got from the still sleeping woman. A tiny frown crossed her brow, then Randi smiled a little as she recognized the touch, and leaned into the fingertips. The bard made a single circuit, then she was looking up into sleepy blue eyes.

"Good morning, love."

"It certainly is," the warrior replied, leaning down and seizing the bard's lips in a kiss. "Looks like we may hit some snow today, though." The blonde looked out the window, seeing for the first time the heavy clouds that seemed to hover close to the ground anxious to share their burden with a waiting world.

"Maybe we'll get lucky. How much further?"

Randi stood, and offered a hand to the bard. "With good weather? We should be there by nightfall."

"Well, c'mon then," pulling the taller woman into the bathroom. "The quicker we leave, the sooner we'll get there." The Marine couldn't help but laugh at her soulmate's enthusiasm. Gwen laughed at the joy she felt in Randi's happiness.

The roads had been open, and the light dusting of snow had only slowed them infinitesimally. So it was just twilight when they pulled into the well-hidden, overgrown path that led to the small cabin. It took quite a bit of maneuvering before the Sabre found the trail, but once they found the groove, the trip was swift, and within minutes, they were pulling up in front of a small, well-kept cabin.

Gwen stepped off the bike into calf deep snow, and looked around her grinning in delight. "Randi, this is incredible. She walked gingerly over the slick ground, not wanting to slip and fall. She went from one corner to the other, then looked back at the watching warrior who was observing her with a half indulgent, half hopeful grin. She ran back to the Marine's waiting arms, and jumped into them, heedless of the slipperiness of the snow. Even though she was braced for the impact, the bard's momentum still took them both over, and Randi ended up flat on her back. Not that she was complaining with Gwen cushioned on top of her. The Sabre chuckled silently when the smaller woman snuggled deeper into her arms.

"I really do like it here," the bard said softly.

"Here, in the mountains? Here, at the cabin? Or here, in my arms?"

"Yes," came the answer without hesitation. And the soldier had to laugh aloud.

"Well, could we move the in my arms part indoors? The snow is cold and wet."

"Really?" Green eyes twinkled down into blue. "I hadn't noticed."

With a single, graceful movement, Randi rose and Gwen went up with her and into her arms. "C'mon, love... it'll be dark soon."

The hand pad was a bit difficult to manage with the bard in her arms, but Randi refused to put the smaller woman down. "Nope. I couldn't carry you over the threshold at home... not between your wedding gown, my dress sabre and the binding. I'm gonna do it here."

It took a minute for the security to recognize her handprint, then the lock was released, and the door opened. The scent of cedar wafted out, and Gwen took a deep breath.

"You can't even tell it's been shut up for a while, can you?"

"Uh uh," shaking her dark head. "It's one of the reasons I built with cedar."

"Well, it smells wonderful."

For answer, The Marine stepped across the threshold and into the cabin, shutting the door firmly behind them. Then watched as Gwen looked around in awe. Randi slowly turned in a circle so the bard could see the entire room, and waited with bated breath for her soulmate to comment. She didn't have to wait long.

"This is so awesome." Green eyes looked back at her in startled wonder. "This is ours?"

A huge grin was its own answer. "This is ours."

The room was roughly square, with a fireplace that took up half a wall. Bookshelves lined either side of the door, and the bard looked in amazement at the collection of printed material. A bed, comfortable enough to fit Randi's large frame was set against the wall across from the fireplace. A dark couch sat along the wall close to the bookshelves, just to the side of the fireplace, and two well-cushioned chairs sat opposite the couch. A small table held a lamp between them. The tiny kitchen area was on the other side of the room, and the blonde was impressed by the efficiency of the space. A door stood between the kitchen and bed, and Gwen raised an eyebrow in question.

Randi walked the three steps necessary to reach it from where she stood, and opened the door. Inside was a state-of-the-art miniscule bathroom. There was a second door, and the Sabre opened it without being asked. It was a tiny garage area, with a small transport parked there.

"I had to have a way to get to the nearest town for supplies when I was here," she said in answer to the question she could feel forming on her companion's lips. "Speaking of... we'll need to do that tomorrow."

"Okay. You wanna put me down now?"

"I should," the Marine answered. "I need to put the bike up, and bring our gear in and get a fire started before it gets completely dark." She paused and drew a deep breath. "But I sure don't want to."

Gwen pulled the dark head down for a long soul-searing kiss. "Hang onto those thoughts for a little bit, okay love? I'll get the bags while you take care of the bike. Then you can start the fireplace fire while I rummage for dinner. And then...."

"Then?" seeing the mischievous twinkle in the green eyes.

"Then we'll take care of the fires that are already blazing."

Gwen was set on her feet so fast her head spun, literally, and she would have fallen had it not been for the warrior's steadying hands on her hips.

"You all right?" came a voice deepened in concern.

"Yep." The blonde smiled. "Just didn't expect that quick a reaction. You made my world shift."

Long fingers stroked the smooth cheek, and Gwen closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. Randi smiled, then her blue eyes darkened in all seriousness. She cupped the bard's face, and drew the chin up. "That is something you do for me every single day, love." Green eyes popped open in astonishment, and Gwen couldn't help the trickle of tears that flowed from her eyes at the sentiment. "I love you, Gwen." The warrior lowered her head until their lips were almost touching. "Always."

The bard couldn't answer for a long moment, her lips being occupied by something other than speaking. When they finally broke away from their kiss, breathless, she replied, "Forever, Stud. I'll love you forever."

The soldier smiled and moved to the door. "You stay right there... I'll hand you the bags, and you can...."

"You let me worry about the bags. You just hurry up and get back in here. It's too cold and dark for you to be running around outside."

Randi thought about the hundreds of missions she'd been on when it was dark and cold outside, never concerned about the dangers, except as they affected her work. I never had this to come home to though, did I? Never had her waiting for me at the end of the day. Amazing the difference a little caring, a little love can make in a person's outlook. She looked at Gwen, whose eyes were full of love and concern and just a hint of teasing. The Marine smiled rakishly.

"Yes, dear," she said, and slipped out the door.

"God, it's a good thing I love her so much", the bard muttered to herself, then smiled. She's such a brat. Thank you, Aphrodite. She stepped over to the kitchenette, and began looking for ideas for dinner.

High above, the watching love goddess whispered, "You're so welcome, babe."

Their things were put away, dinner had been eaten and cleaned up after, and now they were cuddled up in the big bed together watching the flames dance in the large stone fireplace.



"Tomorrow, will you tell me more about this place? About your life as a Sabre?"

"Anything you want to know, love."

"Good," the bard answered. She crept up on her hands and knees like a prowling tiger, smiling down at her soulmate with hungry eyes. The warrior ran her hands up the blonde's bare sides, grinning at the goosebumps that followed her touch. Gwen closed her eyes and swallowed. When she opened them, the green had darkened to almost black with passion. She drew a deep breath. "Because I have much better things to be doing with my mouth tonight." Then the talking was over, and the only sounds in the room were the soft music of their lovemaking, and the quiet crackle of the fire.

Chapter II

The winter sun felt more like spring sunshine, and by midday it had melted most of the snow in the open areas. Drifts were still scattered around in the various sheltered spots, but it was actually almost pleasantly warm. The couple walked slowly around the perimeter of the property while Randi showed Gwen around and introduced her to some of the hidden delights the land held.

"There are wildflowers in the meadow here from spring through fall. The orchard has apple and peach trees, and during the summer there are berries for picking as well. We have a swimming hole also," motioning to a deep spot in the water that had a rope swing overhanging it. "But I'll tell you... the water is frigid even in mid summer. It's a lot of fun though."

Gwen caught the ghost of a twinkle in her soulmate's eyes, and determined right then that they would be visiting here regularly, especially when it got warmer. She was eager to coax the kid she could see lurking in the blue eyes out to play. "Sounds wonderful, love. We'll have to come back then."

A big grin was her answer.

"This is the coolest thing though." They entered the garage, and Randi opened a second door that the bard hadn't noticed the night before. It opened right into the side of the mountain. The air smelled of earth and rock, and the Marine lifted a hand and flipped an old fashioned switch. Dim light washed through the cavern, and Gwen stood in awe looking around her.

The space was actually a series of caves carved into the mountain, and the first of them was filled with stalactites and stalagmites with a thin, winding path leading deeper into the mountain. She reached a hand out, and ran it over the rough stone. The bard's attention was caught by a bit of glitter reflected in the rock. She looked at her soulmate in mute question.

"There are several different minerals here... quartz, pyrite, limestone. I've found a bit of marble, some agate, and a little coal as well. There's a lot more to see." She held out her hand. "Wanna explore with me?"

Gwen took the proffered hand, eyes roaming the cave in interest. "This is amazing. How did you find this place?"

"I did a bit of research before I bought the land. We have freshwater pearls in these parts too. C'mon."

Gwen was quick to observe the switch that Randi activated at the entrance to each new cave. They wandered inside the mountain for the better part of an hour before starting their way back toward the surface, talking about the various things they were seeing.

"Will you tell me more about this?"

"What would you like to know?"

"Everything." Just then two stomachs growled in tandem.

Randi chuckled. "Let's go into town and feed the beasts. Then we'll pick up what we need for our stay, and come back and talk a bit. Sound good?"

"Sounds like a plan, Stud. Let's go."

The town was tiny, especially considering its attraction to travelers. A single grocer, a restaurant that was connected to the inn, a small temple, and a supply depot for every other need. But it was sought out for its solitude and beautiful peace, and its residents didn't see a need to change their way of life to cater to folks used to more. The people who visited came for the simple life, and were happy with the amenities they could find here.

Lunch was pleasant, and it became obvious to Gwen rather quickly that her beloved had spent a good deal of time in this place. Randi was greeted as an old friend by many of the people they encountered. And she was clearly thrilled to be able to introduce her companion to the people here. When they made to leave, they were reminded by many of the monthly social at the temple that weekend. The warmth of their welcome made the bard smile in reflex.

Gwen looked around the depot, spotting a pair of beautifully woven, matching tunics that coincidentally were just her and Randi's sizes. Nothing they had to have, of course, but she felt the desire to have them call out to her, and she succumbed to the temptation with very little fight.

The warrior meanwhile found herself in something of a dilemma, trying to find a wedding gift that suited Gwen. Wandering around on her own, she restlessly searched while keeping an unobtrusive eye on her companion. Finally, she relaxed, understanding it wasn't something she could force. When she found what it was her heart was searching for, she'd know. For now, she had supplies to purchase. The Marine glanced out the window. And they needed to hurry. The sun that had shone for a better part of the day was now obscured by heavy hanging clouds again, and Randi had the distinct feeling these might stick around a while.

They loaded the tiny transport up, and Randi heaved a sigh of relief as the last package was put into the vehicle. There would be room for them, just, and they might even beat the impending storm home. And they almost did. The vehicle was just pulling into the long lane that led to the cabin when a heavy snow began to fall steadily from the sky. Randi was thankful for the enclosure that housed the transport, and sighed deeply as she pulled the vehicle into it.

"This is nice," the bard commented. "How about I unload the transport, and you put things away? You know where everything goes," Gwen commented practically.

"I've got a better idea. Why don't we both do it? Then you can learn where everything is. Who knows," with her blue eyes twinkling, "maybe you can figure out a better system."

Remembering the totally organized space she'd seen the night before, the storyteller highly doubted that possibility, but the prospect of them working together appealed to her, and she smiled her agreement.

It didn't take them long before things were unloaded and put away. Then they took a carafe of hot chocolate and two cups, and settled themselves on the hearth rug, staring into the fire for a long period of silence. The Marine brought out the set of ribbons she'd brought with her for just this purpose. Then Randi's low voice rumbled between them, and took them back to a time almost fifteen years prior.


Marine boot camp was an interesting experience. Long grueling days and longer nights. Randi would have never admitted it to a soul, but she was lonely in ways she hadn't actually expected. She'd made friends with several of her comrades, but she missed her folks and Tommy. But she tried to put that out of her mind, and focused on getting through her training to the very best of her considerable abilities.

She was proud to be chosen as the squadron leader, and worked hard to make the squad into a cohesive unit. Her superior officers watched as the unit excelled, and passed every challenge set for them under her leadership.

Two days before graduation, the squad was doing their final five-kilometer run. They were running with full packs, weapons and armor, and keeping a fairly decent pace. The drill sergeant ran to one side, near the back, calling cadence, while Randi paced the group in the front. About halfway through the course, the soldier next to Randi stumbled, and she cut a look at him and muttered, "You okay, Henry?"

The man nodded his head and grunted in the affirmative, but didn't answer otherwise. Randi accepted his answer and continued leading the squad another fifty feet before Henry collapsed beside her. Immediately she called a halt and went to his aid, administering CPR when she realized her comrade was not breathing. The sergeant made her way to the front, moving soldiers aside to see the reason for their abrupt stop.

Immediately, the woman called for medical assistance, keeping an eye on the squadron leader as she and another recruit continued to breathe for the fallen man. Even though the medics arrived quickly, Henry had begun breathing on his own when they got to the scene. Randi and her comrade were commended for their swift action, and the man was evacuated to the base medical facility.

The Marines finished their run, and the drill instructor was pleased to report that their comrade, while still weak, was stable. He had suffered a severe allergic reaction to something he'd eaten, and that combined with the stress of the run had caused his collapse. Then she went on to mention that Randi's instant reaction had probably saved the man's life. The squadron had cheered, and Randi had blushed, and then with permission, slipped out to check on Henry.

She'd been glad to see him standing with them on Graduation Day. But she'd been shocked to hear her name singled out of the multitude of recruits standing on the field, along with that of her comrade who'd helped save Henry's life.

Butler received his, a silver medal, for joining her efforts. She was given a gold for taking the initiative and saving a fellow Marine's life. A cheer rose from the ranks, and before she could leave the platform, she was given a set of instructions to receive her orders. A confused frown crossed her face, but she saluted smartly, and joined her squadron once more.


"That was the very first medal I earned, and probably one of the ones I am most proud of." The Sabre fell silent then, and green eyes watched as the blue gaze turned distant, becoming sad and wistful. The bard wondered what memories the Marine was reliving, but had determined to let Randi tell her own story her own way. Gwen was pretty sure, given what she now knew about her best friend, that she would be able to fill in the pieces. Tiny had told her a lot about being a Sabre, and even without specifics, she knew the picture was gonna get kinda ugly.

The blonde looked at the ribbons still held loosely in Randi's hands, then liberated them from the Marine's grasp so she could take a closer look. The movement brought Randi back to the present, and she looked down inquiringly at the storyteller's inquisitive face.


"I was just noticing... you have two gold stars on this lifesaving medal." A nod was her only answer, and she scrunched up her features in thought. "If memory serves me correctly, that means you got this medal three times. Correct?" Another nod. "Was it for the same thing? I mean… did you save a fellow soldier's life?"

The Sabre scratched the back of her neck, thinking about the best way to explain this. "No. Um, it's different as a Sabre. You're expected to look out for one another, and cover each other's backs. It's part of the code." Gwen nodded her understanding. "No, the first time, I got it for saving a kid." She closed her eyes in memory.

"Randi? Love?"


The mission had been... peculiar. Their target was a single individual with known (to the Sabres, anyway) ties to Ghost Rider. The team had spent several days tracking and observing him, because his official presence was well-known throughout the world. It had been especially hard, as the man had a six-year-old daughter that he doted on, and they had all been witness to his affection for her.

The day before the takedown was scheduled, Randi was in town for some final reconnaissance. She was walking down the street following her target, when out of no where the man's young daughter spotted him from the other side of the road.

Without looking, the young girl stepped into the path of an oncoming transport that sped blindly around a corner. While the man froze in horror, the scene spurred Randi to action, and she rushed to remove the child from harm's way. The Marine managed to succeed by a hair's breadth, and her rescue caused the man to move from his place to gather his daughter into his arms.

Apparently his gratitude was overwhelming because, though the hit took place that night as scheduled, Randi was called to the Commandant's office week or so later. The general wore an enigmatic expression on his face.

"You asked to see me, sir?"

"Come in, Private, and shut the door."

She did, resting at ease when commanded to do so. She waited silently, wondering what she'd done to end up here. She reviewed her work, and nothing came to mind, knowing that things had been by the book on her last missions.

"I don't think I've ever seen a situation like this before, Valiant. And there is no delicate way to handle this."

A frown creased her forehead. "Sir?"

"I received notification from the Department of the Navy today that you are being awarded your second life saving medal." He easily read her confusion, and sympathized. "The little girl you saved last week...." He trailed off, waiting for recognition to dawn. When it did, her eyes grew wide. He nodded.

"Yes, well, you know her father was a big mucky muck, and he put you in for a commendation before his, ahem, untimely demise. The Navy saw fit to agree with his request, and well...." he finished awkwardly, not really knowing what to say. He laid the two gold stars on the desk; a large one for the medal, and a smaller one for the ribbon.

Big blue eyes gazed at him in horror. "Sir, I can't...."

"No choice here, Marine. The Navy decided, and to argue the point blows your cover and ruins your effectiveness. So suck it up, and put it on."

She reached a hesitant hand out to pick up the awards, and answered him softly. "Aye-aye, sir." She snapped him a stiff salute, which he acknowledged before dismissing her. "Sometimes the world just doesn't make sense, does it sir?"

She didn't wait for an answer, but slipped out the door to find a bit of peace.


"I always wondered what happened to that little girl. She'd be all grown up now." The Marine closed her eyes. "I wonder if she resents her father for dying, or resents losing him so suddenly the way she did... if she resents having lived... if she ever knew the truth...." A hand on her face caused her to open her eyes and she looked into verdant green at close, close range.

"You can't torture yourself with what ifs and maybes, love. That's not fair to anyone. Especially not yourself."

Tears welled in the blue eyes, and a blink sent them rolling silently down the warrior's cheek. "But Gwen, I still hate the man who killed my parents, and I had the satisfaction of seeing justice was done. She got none of that. Hardly seems fair."

The bard thought for a long moment. "Do you know her name?" Randi's eyes turned to her puzzled.

"Alyssa Armandon." She watched as green eyes grew round.

"You mean Fernando Armandon was...."


"I remember that. I was just fifteen or so, and we were overseas then. It was horrible." She shook her blonde head. It took a bare second for her to realize the warrior had pulled away from her, and she reached out a hand toward the Marine, pulling back when the other woman flinched away from her almost imperceptibly. A rapid review of her words caused her to smack herself in disgust. Brilliant, bard. Absolutely incredible. You gonna chew on that foot stuck in your mouth for a little bit?

She slid from the couch and knelt in front of the Sabre. She lifted the large hands into hers, and kissed them lightly, not allowing Randi to pull away from her the second time. She knelt there for a long time, staring into a face whose eyes would not meet her own. Patience was its own reward, but what she saw reflected back to her caused her soul to ache. Pain, regret, sorrow, and profound hurt. The storyteller released one of Randi's hands so she could cup the scarred face, gently running her fingers along the cut line.

"I'm sorry," she said clearly. "I didn't mean that to come out quite like that. It was horrible that it had to happen, and I remember there being quite a big to-do made of the fact that he died so suddenly and so unexpectedly. But to me, finding out that he had to die because of his warped beliefs.... Now wait and hear me out," she added when the Marine made to move away from her again.

"Here was a man who had everything... beautiful family, high profile career, wealth... and yet, he was willing to throw it all away over something that would destroy everything he had without thought. How horrible... how selfish. And to have put you into that position...."

"It's what I am, Gwen. It's what I'm good at. I was merciful to him... more so than I was to the man who killed my parents."

The bard was torn between wanting to reassure her partner and needing to let Randi talk about her parents. "It's not what you are, and it's sure not what you're good at," with a rakish grin, that got a crooked half smile in return as the warrior realized what her companion was implying. "But we can, ahem, talk about that later." Her gaze softened, and the Sabre felt herself responding. "Tell me about your parents."

"What would you like to know?"

"Anything you'd like to tell."


That first leave had been wonderful. She'd stood for Tommy when he and Ella exchanged vows. And she'd had the opportunity to visit with some old friends. Mostly, though, she'd spent her time with her folks, helping out around the place, and talking with them. For the first time, they interacted adult to adult, and they found it was a wonderfully pleasant experience for all of them. Different, but in a good kind of way. Without knowing it, her parents had helped soothe her troubled soul, and had unconsciously given her a reason to continue fighting the good fight.

They'd kept in touch with vid calls and emails, and though they knew she'd not be home for the holidays, since she was being sent halfway around the world, they made arrangements well in advance to have some vid phone time scheduled when they could all be there.

Festival Eve came and went, and Randi didn't get the expected call. She was worried since her own calls had gone unanswered, but was stonewalled at every turn. Finally, Festival afternoon, Tommy contacted her. The look in his eyes told her the news was bad, and with very few words, she found out her parents were dead, at the unwitting hands of a drunk transport operator. She requested emergency leave, which was immediately granted, and flew directly home to attend to her family’s affairs.

The funeral was mercifully brief, and Randi laid her parents to rest as they'd requested. She didn't grieve, but instead turned her emotion into a rage that she would subjugate the perpetrator of the crime to. As Tommy had once commented to Gwen, it had been brutal.

As the victim, she was allowed to choose and carry out the sentence if she desired, and the fury in her demanded that from her.

"Bring forth the prisoner." The man was led forward, knowing he would die, only waiting to find out by what means.

"Clifford Gabbott, you have been found guilty of the crime of murder. For that crime, you will be scourged with the lash... one stroked for each year of both victims’ lives. In the event you manage to survive those eighty-nine lashes, you will then receive one lash for each year they could have had remaining to them. If you live through the additional one hundred and eleven stripes, you will be a free man."

He had paled to such an extent that her final words didn't register. He didn't expect to survive the first eighty-nine, not having seen the blood in her eyes. He bowed his head and said a prayer, accepting her judgment.

Those who had come to witness justice being served looked at the Marine in shock. Most executions were humanitarian, and swift. Not so in the case of flogging. What was most disconcerting, however, was the fact that the Sabre looked glad to make the man suffer as much as possible.

Gabbott was stripped and tied spread eagle to the whipping frame. The first stroke made him scream in agony. By the fifteenth lash, he was whimpering. On the count of twenty-two, he fell silent, no longer able to remain conscious from the lack of blood and the excruciating pain. Randi was well-versed in the art of torture, and she exercised that knowledge to its fullest extent now. He was dead before she got to the fortieth lash, yet she continued to mete out his punishment, exacting the full payment for his crimes.

When it was over, the man was little more than a pile of ragged meat and bones. The gore covered Marine never batted an eye, but stepped from the judgment field without a backward glance. It was three days before anyone saw her again.


Gwen looked at Randi now, the memories making the blue eyes turn to ice, and the scar to flush an angry red. The bard placed her hand over the inflamed skin, noting the coldness beneath her touch. Something was going on here, and they needed to find out what it was, but first she needed to bring her soulmate back to her from whatever ugly place she was in.


It took a very long moment for the blue eyes to track to her green ones, and even then, it took another little while before the ice began to melt and recognition settled in.

"Love? Are you okay?"

Randi's eyes became the mirrors to her soul, and the bard held a breath at what she saw reflected back to her. Pain, confusion, and not a little anger were shone forth in stark measure. "I didn't regret what I did to him. I still don't. He deserved far worse."

"You did what you did, Randi, and its over. You can't change it, but I think you need to let it go."

"I can't. I...."

Searing pain swept across the scar, and bard and warrior gasped in shock as different sensations engulfed them simultaneously. Gwen flinched when the chill became overwhelming, making her hand ache from the cold. The Sabre's eyes water from the fierce burning, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. Then as quickly as it came, the feelings disappeared, leaving two very drained women who collapsed almost immediately into a deep sleep.

Seventy-five minutes later, the two woke up in tandem, tangled around one another comfortably. They looked at each other and smiled, not remembering anything about the reaction the scar had had to the emotional outpouring they'd shared. Nor did they remember the vitally different reaction they suffered because of it.

"I'm sorry about your parents, short stuff. I think I would have liked them."

Randi squeezed the storyteller in a firm embrace. "I know you would have, Little One. They were a lot like your folks. I think they would have gotten along famously. They genuinely like you." Her eyes twinkled every so slightly. "Hell, they *love* you. Not as much as I do, but then, what's not to love?"

Gwen blushed at the teasing, glad beyond measure that the soldier seemed to have moved past her painful memories. A large hand lifted to stroke the flushed face. "You are so beautiful," the warrior whispered, trailing her fingertips lightly down the jaw line, and up under the chin, raising the blonde's face slightly.

"In your eyes, Stud."

"Mine are the only ones that matter," leaning down and rushing a light kiss across willing, waiting lips.

"Nah, because to me, you are all that is beautiful," threading a small hand into the dark hair and pulling Randi's head down for another kiss.

"Still?" needing the reassurance.

"Always," came the prompt answer. "I love you."

The two lay snuggled up comfortably tangled together, reveling in the soothing warmth their cuddling provided them. Darkness fell with them still wrapped together this way, exchanging small kisses and light touches.

"What for dinner, Stud?"


Gwen burst out laughing, and Randi pouted just the tiniest bit. "I was being serious."

"So was I."

"Tell ya what... let me fix some soup and salad, and we'll have plenty of room for s'mores for dessert, 'k?"

An exaggerated sigh. "I s'pose."

"Do you *really* want s'mores for dinner?" the bard questioned as she walked into the kitchen space. She smiled and leaned back into the firm body that came up behind her and wrapped itself around her. She linked her hands with the ones locked around her middle, and tilted her head back to catch the blue gazed focused on her.

"Nah, we tried that once, remember? I don't want to be that sick again, thanks."

Gwen shuddered in memory. "Ew... me either."

Dinner didn't take long, and they crawled into the big bed together after the short shower that had become necessary as a result of their s’mores adventures. The storyteller had picked up Randi's bank of ribbons, and was gingerly examining them one by one.

"So many," she murmured almost to herself. "I don't think I had three. Well," after a thoughtful pause, "maybe three. Not much you can earn sitting in an office in the capital."

"No weapons quals?" the Marine asked. She found herself gently curious. The bard never really talked about her own military service, though she'd expressed interest many times in listening to whatever Randi wanted to share about her own.

Gwen rubbed the side of her nose, and laughed lightly. "Um, no. I mean, I passed the certs I had to to get through basic, but I was never really good at any of them. Until you taught me the staff, I never found one I was particularly comfortable with." She paused in thought. "You know, I never really thought about it until right now, but it fits." Green eyes lit in wonder.

"Fits what?" the Sabre asked curiously. She wanted to know what had brought that sparkle to Gwen's eyes.



"Um hmm. The stories. The Soulmates' stories." She glanced down at her ring, then Randi's, and she linked their hands together. "In the stories, the warrior is a stalwart defender, capable of offensive and defensive fighting, in all sorts of situations. The bard, while able to fight if necessary, usually only did so in defense and to cover the warrior's back." She breathed a moment. "Funny thing... while the warrior has always had a variety of weapons to choose from, almost inevitably the storyteller chooses a staff."

Randi felt a certain thrill run up her spine at Gwen's words, knowing she'd been the one to bestow the staff this time. Then something occurred to her. "How do you know all this? It's not in any of the stories you gave me."

"It's just something that dawned on me. But you don't have all the stories in the single volume I made for you, love. Those were just some of my childhood favorites. I can share the rest with you, if you like," she offered shyly.

"I'd like," blue eyes smiling down into green.

"I'd like too," Gwen sighed. "But I have to tell you, Randi, they're not all happy ever after stories."

"I understand, Little One," just as softly. "But that's okay, 'cause we've got our own happy ever after to look forward to."

It grew quiet after that for a very long while, and Randi was falling into a light doze when Gwen's breath whispered across her chest.

"Honey?" She fingered the ribbons one more time before she leaned up and placed them on the small bedside table.

A dark brow rose to her hairline, as the Marine studied this new address, deciding she liked the way it sounded when turned in her direction. "Yes, love?"

A small hand clenched at her waist as the bard yawned and resettled her head more comfortably on the cushioned chest she was pillowed on. The heartbeat under her ear settled her, and she smiled at the music it made for her. "Hmm, sorry. Tomorrow, will you tell me more about these? I'd like to hear the other lifesaving story, and I'm sure some of the others have equally as interesting tales behind them."

"I promise."

"Good," was Gwen's only reply. "I love you."

"I love you too, Little One. Happy dreams."

"You're here," the bard mumbled in response. "That makes them all happy." She hugged the body beneath her tightly before she slipped into sleep. A pair of soft lips dusted the top of her blonde hair.

"Goodnight, love."

Chapter III

Morning brought them awake very glad for the warm blankets that covered them as well as the body heat they shared. Randi groaned realizing she'd forgotten to light the heat sticks, and seeing the fireplace banked and almost dark, knew it was going to be frigid outside their cozy little nest. With a yip as the cold bit into her, the Marine slid from under the cover, careful to keep the heat trapped in with Gwen. The bard mewed a little at the loss of her partner, then cuddled more into the warrior's pillow with a sigh.

Randi broke the heat sticks open first, knowing it would take a few minutes for them to fully activate. Then she moved to the fireplace to rebuild the fire. It didn't take long, a matter of a few minutes, really, but she was freezing when she climbed back into bed and curled herself around the sleeping storyteller.

It took a mere blink before Gwen squealed when the cold hands hit her warm belly. "RANDI!!"

Innocent blue eyes peered back the green ones glaring back at her. "Yes, dear?"

"Don't you 'yes, dear' me! I'll get you for that."

"Promise?" with a devilish twinkle.

For answer, the bard proceeded to start a tickle fight that left her squealing even more as Randi reciprocated with ice-cold hands. "Augh! Mercy! You can stop now! You won!"

"But I'm still not all the way warm yet," said with just a teasing hint of a pout. Gwen could see this very easily becoming a formidable weapon in Randi's arsenal if she let it. She was just too damned cute for her own good.

"I have a better way to warm you up," Gwen replied, as her voiced became husky, and the green of her eyes darkened. She captured the poked out lip with her own, smiling when the warrior answered the kiss enthusiastically. Then the world faded out as the room grew warm, and things in the bed got very, very hot.

"Well," the Sabre commented as she stood at the window peering out. "Looks like we'll be inside for the day." The world outdoors was a wash of white, and the snow showed no of sign of letting up in the near future.

"Oh, the hardship," Gwen mock moaned. "Whatever shall we do?" melodramatically.

The warrior stalked back to the bed, tantalizingly aware of the bard's heated gaze on her, following her naked form. "I'm sure we'll come up with... something." She clutched the covers and jerked them off Gwen's warm body. Catlike, she climbed on the bed and hovered over the bard, reminding the smaller woman very much of a panther hunting its prey. Blue eyes darkened to an indigo, and Randi leaned down. Gwen's eyes half closed in anticipation. Then grew wide in consternation when the Marine licked her nose. "Breakfast sounds like a good idea."

Randi leaped from the bed while the bard sputtered in outrage. "Why you... I oughta.... "

"Yeeesssss?" The sound of the drawled purr made Gwen hesitate, loving the sound, and making her forget her mad. Instead, she got up and moved by the still waiting Sabre.

"Beat you into the bathroom," the bard giggled, and ran in, shutting the door firmly behind her.

"Clever, Little One. Very clever."


Breakfast became brunch instead, and the couple was cuddled up in front of the fireplace. "So," Gwen commented after a bit of silence, "tell me more about that other lifesaving ribbon." A hidden memory was niggling at her, though she had no tangible basis for the feeling.

"I'll tell you the story, then you have to tell me one, all right?"

"Seems like a fair deal,"

"Cool. C'mere." The warrior pulled the blonde into her lap and hugged her, not releasing her for several minutes.

"Not that I mind, but what was that for?"

"I needed a hug."

The bard was surprised that Randi laid it out so openly, and she squeezed her partner's neck again. "You can have all of those you need, Stud. I have an inexhaustible supply waiting just for you."

Randi kissed the top of the blonde head and loosened her hold, but did not release her completely. Gwen felt the warrior take a deep breath before she began to speak.


After her parents' death, Randi fell into a deep, dark place. She became the deadliest Sabre in history, being sent out on the most dangerous assignments, and always coming back successful. Killing was easy; living was hard. In fact, outside her contact with Tommy, she didn't live. She merely existed. He was the one sane factor in her entire world.

Two and a half years of killing, and she was tired in her very soul. The Commandant was notified of her slide into depression, and gave her mandatory leave to get away from the stress. She went more than a little crazy.

For the better part of a week, she went out drinking, looking for a new bed partner every night. Not a hard thing to understand, really. She was trying to live, or so she thought. But every morning she woke up empty, if not alone, and found this existence to be less fulfilling than the one she'd known since the death of her folks.

Finally, at the end of her first week of leave, she woke up alone with a hangover that would have felled a mammoth at a hundred paces. It was the darkest part of the night, and she got up to go out for a walk. Maybe that would clear her head.

She came round to the theatre area of town, where the performers were after their shows and late suppers. An odd sound at the end of an alley caught and held her attention. She forgot her heartsickness, and let the rage build at what she saw.

A girl, a young woman perhaps, had been cornered at the stage door by a group of punks, and it was clear from her body language that she wasn’t comfortable with their attentions. The Sabre hesitated, until the voice reached her ears.

"No, please. Just leave me alone."

Instead, the assembled kids moved closer into the girl’s space, and she went down in a crumpled heap. Without rational thought or planning, the Marine sprang into action.

She didn’t know that someone else had seen the problem and had called for help. But by the time help arrived, it was all over. The Sabre allowed her baser instincts loose when she saw the puddle of blood beneath the small frame that was huddled on the ground. She stood protectively over the form, and methodically decimated each of the five individuals. She did pull back from killing blows, figuring the punishment that would be meted out would be worse than death for these guys.

She checked the small form lying still on the ground. Blood poured from a cut in the girl’s side, and the Marine staunched the flow by applying pressure to the wound with a piece of cloth torn from her sleeve.

She heard the sound of running feet, and gently lifted the small body from the ground, and smiled sadly as vivid green eyes opened, and looked back at her. "Thank you," the soft voice whispered, and the Marine allowed the small woman a slight smile before the green eyes closed again in unconsciousness. Randi stepped over the downed bodies, and over to the waiting law enforcement officer.

"You‘ll need to get a statement from her when she wakes up." She nodded her head back toward the pile of bodies still lying unconscious in the alleyway. "And they need to be locked up for a multitude of sins... not the least of which would be attempted murder."

The law enforcement personnel moved to take care of the rouge, and the sergeant in charge looked back toward the medevac unit where the small blonde lay on a hover board receiving preliminary treatment before being transported. Much as he suspected, the Sabre had disappeared.

Eight days and hours of research later, the sergeant, a retired Sabre himself, finally found the Sabre he’d seen for a brief moment before she’d melted into the darkness. He put her in for a medal, knowing that for her it was a natural reaction, but thinking she deserved to be recognized for her efforts.

Randi looked in puzzlement at the Commandant when he called her into his office after her third week of leave had passed. Following the incident with the performer, she’d become reclusive, spending a lot of time meditating, trying to regain her center.

"Do you have something to tell me, Marine?"

The Sabre looked at him with complete puzzlement. "Um, no sir." She paused. "Should I?"

Randi looked much more rested and focused than Jerry had seen her for a while. The Commandant smiled slightly. "No, not really. I thought you might want to tell me how you ended up with your third life saving medal when you weren’t even on duty."

She looked at him in confusion, trying to understand what he could be talking about. She hadn’t given her name to anyone that night, and she certainly hadn’t shared that little incident with anyone. She shook her head negatively.

"I’m sorry sir. I can’t imagine where this is coming from."

He smiled. It was much as he expected it to be with her. He signaled to someone in the other room. The man came in and stood quietly while the Marine looked at him hard, trying to place him in her memories. When her eyes widened, he knew she knew.

"Yes, Corporal Valiant," he said. "I recognized you as a Sabre. I figured you should be recognized for your heroism."

"That wasn’t heroism," Randi growled at him. "That was decency."

"Nevertheless, you saved that girl’s life. She’s already gone back to performing, thanks to you. In fact," he continued, "she asked about you. Asking if I knew who you were, if she could say thank you. I didn’t answer...."

"Don’t." The word was bitten off. She made a visible attempt to bring her breathing under control. "It happened and it’s over."

"Well, you do need to add the award to your ribbons, Sergeant," Jerry interrupted. He could see she was not happy about the situation, but she merely nodded.

"Aye, sir. May I be excused?" The Commandant nodded his head and Randi snapped to attention. With a smart salute, and a nod to the second man she took her leave of them.

The two men contemplated the silence for a long while before the retired Sabre spoke. "It’s always hard for them to accept that kind of recognition, isn’t it?"

"Um," came Jerry’s answer. "And they are the ones who need it the most."


Randi was concerned about the bard’s stillness when she finished her tale, and she looked down to see tear-filled green eyes gazing back up at her in stunned silence. The Marine started to speak, but small fingers on her lips stopped whatever words were going to come from her mouth. She sat patiently, only closing her eyes when the hand began to move across her face in its ritual tracing.

"Open your eyes for me, love," came the whispered plea that the Marine couldn’t ignore. Blue eyes slowly opened, and the two simply looked at one another for a very long time. "It was you," Gwen finally spoke, in a voice so low the Sabre had to strain to make out her words. "It was you who saved my life that night."

Randi gazed at Gwen in complete non-comprehension, sure that what she thought she understood was not what the bard was really saying. The tall woman closed her eyes, and threw her mind back to that night so many years ago, picturing every detail clearly in her mind’s eye. She remembered the rage, the blood, the green eyes.... The green eyes... Randi opened her own eyes and gazed back into Gwen’s still tear-filled ones, and felt her own fill as well. Gwen spoke.

"I don’t remember much about that night, actually. I remember those kids..." Here she shivered. "From what the nice officer told me, I was some sort of initiation ritual. You kept me from becoming a statistic that night."

"And in so doing, saved my own soul," came the almost soundless response. The bard made a mental note to ask more about that. But she had other questions first.

"Why didn’t you come see me? I wanted so badly to thank you."

Randi flushed, and tore her eyes from the blonde’s. "I couldn’t. At that point in my life, I wouldn’t allow myself to care for anyone. Even though you were just a stranger then, coming to see you, allowing you to thank me, would have been caring. And I wasn’t going to do that."

"Is that when you built the cabin?"

"No, that came later. That was when I was assigned duty to the Amazons, and became a card-carrying Amazon myself."

Gwen smiled in spite of the tears that still sat wet on her face and in her eyes. "Amazing! Does this mean I get another story?"

"Um, no. Well, eventually. But you owe me one first."

"You’re right," she sighed dramatically. Then her voice softened. "But I owe you a thank you first." She shifted, until she was straddled the Marine’s lap. "What you did for me that night was amazing. Even though I didn’t know who you were, or why you were there, you changed my life that night."

Randi looked at her puzzled. "How so?"

Gwen sighed. "Well, until that night, my world had always been pretty safe. I was almost finished with school, and ready to serve my military commitment. I figured I had the world by the tail. Nothing could hurt me. And then something did."

Blue eyes ached with a profound sadness. "I’m sorry they took that away from you."

Small hands raised the chin so Gwen could look into the blue eyes. "What I lost was infinitesimal compared to what I gained." She smiled, and blushed just the tiniest amount. "I found a real life hero. Someone who cared, though there was no real reason to. You became the focal point of my stories after that."

Dark eyebrows rose to Randi’s forehead, and her mouth dropped open in shock. "Uh... buh... um...."

"Close your mouth, love," tapping on the chin she still held. "You’d hate to catch flies." Instead of closing her mouth, the Marine’s tongue gently began to lick the bard’s lips. Gwen groaned and captured the organ, giving herself wholeheartedly to the task of kissing her beloved. Long moments passed while the world faded, and finally they were forced to pull away to breathe.

"Ahem," the bard commented. "Wow! What brought that on?"

"Besides the fact that I adore you?"

"Um hmm."

"Because you saved my life that night too. You helped me find a focus I had lost when my parents died." The Marine paused and blushed. "Did I really become your hero?"

"Yep. You sure did."

"I love you, Little One."

"I love you, too." The bard cuddled down under Randi’s chin, and the morning passed quietly as they absorbed the knowledge of what they had just learned. When two stomachs began growling in tandem, they looked to one another and smiled.

"C’mon, Stud. Let’s fix some dinner, and I’ll tell you the first Soulmates’ story that made me cry."

"I remember Gramma telling me stories from the time I was itty bitty, and those are probably some of my favorites. But I noticed as I got older, that they were all happy ever after stories, and I didn’t understand that. Especially as I began going to school and started studying history, sociology, and human behavior."

The bard took a deep breath and continued. "So one day, when I was ten, I asked her about it. It was the only time I saw my Gramma cry."


"Gram, did all the Soulmates’ stories have happy endings? The only ones I’ve heard do, and it just doesn’t feel right."

Tears came into the old woman’s eyes, though they hovered on the edge of her lashes and didn’t actually spill down her face at that point. That would happen when she told the particular tale that occurred to her with her granddaughter’s words. A story she knew well, but didn’t share because of the heartbreak it caused her. There were a few unhappy ones, and Gwen would need to know them, but she had been hoping for a few more years of tranquility before they came up for discussion.

"No, little dove, they do not always end happy. There were times when circumstances or life keep them apart. And the wrenching was painful, and felt by the generations after. They always had longer interims in the afterlife together when things went wrong and they remained separated in life."

Gwen cocked her head while she processed her grandmother’s words. "Will you tell me, Gramma? Please?" Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. "I think I need to know."

The old woman sighed, and Jill left the kitchen where the three of them had been. This was something she couldn’t share. She and her mother had had several long talks about the bard, and they had both decided that she was indeed one half of the soulmates. Jill had heard the stories, but it was her mother’s responsibility to pass them along to Gwen. And the story her mother had in mind was one that made her heart hurt. She decided to go spend some time with Geoff.

Gwen was curled up at her grandmother’s feet, being too big to fit into the older woman’s lap. They had moved into the reading room to be more comfortable. The older woman took a deep breath and began to speak.

"You have to remember that for a very long time, humanity has been its own worst enemy. Different was considered wrong, and people were expected to fit into the boxes that society had set up for them. If you were the wrong color, you could be persecuted. People were killed in the name of God and religion. Loving the wrong person brought shame and beatings to many."

Gwen’s brows scrunched up as she tried to understand the logic behind that. The grandmother waited until the girl’s focus was back on her again before she continued. "Politics were ugly and complicated, and they determined much of the tenor that society followed and found acceptable. And one of those tenets stated that individuals of the same gender could not love one another."

"Wait, Gramma... how did they get to decide who a person loved? It’s not a conscious choice, is it? I thought it just happened."

"It does just happen, little dove. But there have always been those who think that their way is the only way, and when they get power...." She paused and took another deep breath. This story always got her worked up; just the injustice of it all. She centered herself and resumed the tale.

"There were two women, who met and fell in love over a period of time. And though they gradually found contentment in husbands and children, there was a part of them that shriveled and died because of the separation they endured."

"Tell me."

They met in the oddest of circumstances. The one, a soldier on leave; the other, an actress on her way to the theatre. A horrific accident occurred on the road in front of them, and both stopped to render aid. The soldier, an Army Major, began issuing orders and directives which the actress at first resented, and then followed without question when she understood that the Major really did have some sort of clue how to deal with what had happened.

In the fifteen minutes it took for emergency personnel to arrive on the scene, the two had developed a bond that would over time deepen into a rare friendship.

They exchanged emails and phone numbers, and spoke to one another nearly every day for almost a year. When the actress got a two-week break, she went out to visit her Army friend. The major was overjoyed to see her, and even had good news. She was being transferred to the base just outside where the actress lived. So the two weeks passed with them together every moment the soldier could spare from work. And the actress learned many things about military life.

Perhaps the thing that bothered them most was the ‘don’t ask’ policy. The actress understood her friend’s reticence at opening up to her, but she could feel something between them growing, and knew in her heart she was falling in love with the dark haired major. Odd really, considering she’d never found herself attracted to women before, but she knew what she felt.

The night before she was scheduled to return home, the actress cooked dinner for her hostess---quite an accomplishment for someone who rarely cooked. The soldier came home to wine, roses and candlelight. She stood speechless in the foyer, until the performer came and took her by the hand. She followed blindly, overwhelmed in mind and heart and body at the setting the other woman had gone to so much trouble to provide.

The soldier sat unsure what to do besides stay out of the way. When the smaller woman went to seat herself, the Major rose from her chair. For a long moment they simply looked at one another, then as if drawn together by an outside force, the two came together in a tentative kiss. Just a gentle brushing of lips, until by mutual, unspoken consent, mouths opened and tongues danced. Arms wrapped around one another, and the exploration continued for several minutes.

When they pulled back from one another, the Major’s blue eyes were filled with an aching sadness. "This is wrong, you know. Society, religion... everything we’ve ever been taught says this is wrong."

The green eyes flooded with tears, and dropped to the ground. "I know," the actress whispered. "But I can’t help the way I feel. And in my heart..." She looked up and held the soldier’s gaze. "In my heart, this is right. *WE* are right."

The soldier didn’t answer vocally, merely sweeping the smaller woman off her feet and into her arms. The night was spent exploring the love they had discovered for one another, and when morning came, they were making plans for their future together.

The next two years were spent almost as a couple. Because of the times, they maintained separate residences, though they spent every moment they could together. Rumors of course abounded, and it began to be detrimental to both their careers.

Finally, to their heartbreak, they started looking elsewhere for a safer love. Eventually, they both found husbands whom they were content to share a life with, and they settled into a more normal and accepted existence.

The military took the Major away, and though they still kept in touch, and retained a deep and abiding friendship, it just wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

Several years passed before they saw one another again, but when they met they felt the old pull towards one another. They embraced briefly, then withdrew at the anguish the momentary contact caused. Long moments passed while they simply looked at one another, unable to speak. The two men, each aware that his wife wanted a bit of private time with her best friend, scooped up their offspring, and left the women alone.

The hug was longer this time... their need overwhelming propriety. Soft, simple touches gradually became something far more intimate, and they found themselves curled together after furious lovemaking. The soldier reached a hand down to her lover’s face, gently wiping the tears from the green eyes.

"Tears, sweetheart?" She felt the tears flooding her own eyes.

"This is wrong. We have loving husbands whom we vowed to remain faithful to, beautiful children, successful careers." She reached up her own hand to cover the one still lying on her cheek. "And yet, my soul cries for you. Sometimes at night, you’re all I can think of, and my body hungers for your touch."

Tears rolled from the blue eyes, and small hands reached up and wiped them away. "I know, love. I know." And then there was silence as the two held one another in comfort, until good sense drove them from the bed to await their families’ return.

As the years passed, their separations and reunions grew more and more painful. They tried to keep their distance, but the parting was too painful for them to bear for too long. And their coming together was agonizing and racked with guilt.

Ten years after their initial separation, the soldier, now a colonel, was sent to war. The actress was in torment, doing her best to get to her beloved. Finally, she wangled a good will tour appearance, arriving two days before her world crashed around her.

Their reunion was brief and fiery, but the performer sensed a deep change in her companion. And when the soldier went out on patrol duty the following day, the actress felt the rending in the very depths of her soul.

When the news came the small blonde wasn’t surprised, and yet she was totally unprepared. She ran to the infirmary begging God for the chance to say goodbye. She skidded to a halt outside the field hospital, and the crowd of soldiers gathered moved aside silently to let her pass. She knelt down next to the colonel’s bedside, gently reaching for the broken and bloody hand. The room receded, and they were left alone for a few last minutes of privacy.

"It wasn’t supposed to be like this, love. We were meant to be together."

The blue eyes that had been closed in near death opened slowly, and focused on the bowed head of the blonde. "I will always love you. And I’ll be waiting for you."

Now at last, in their final moments together, they acknowledged who they were, and what they were to one another. And lamented the fact that they had let society force them to give up something so precious as the bond they shared.

The actress lifted the hand she held to her lips, and kissed the fingers lightly. "You won’t have to wait long love. I can’t exist without you in my life."

The soldier took a breath to speak, then her heart stopped, and her eyes closed in death. The performer sat by her beloved’s side for a while after that. Then without a backward look, she left the hospital, and took the first flight home.

Silence reigned for a few minutes while the young girl tried to absorb what her grandmother had told her. Her heart hurt, and tears fell quietly down her cheeks as the story impacted on her consciousness. Then, "What happened, Gramma? Tell me the ending."

The old woman sighed and nodded.

Fate stepped in and took a hand at that point. Their souls, unable to bear the separation, cried out in misery. And by some fluke, a twist of fate, the airplane that the actress rode in developed mechanical trouble that sent it spiraling out of control and toward the ground. She spared a moment of regret that she would not see her children grow into the responsible adults she knew they could become. And the unfairness to her husband that she had not loved him as she should. Then all she felt was blessed relief over the fact that her journey was over and the two halves would be a single whole once more.

"That is so sad, Gramma. And so terribly unfair to everyone."

"Yes, it is little dove, but life is like that sometimes. They were very lucky... they had husbands who knew, even if they didn’t understand, their need for one another. And they died almost together. Neither had to suffer alone completely without the other." She paused, then added in voice, "It was the last time the soulmates were here. They have yet to return and be united."

"I think they will this time, Gramma. I really think they will."


The bard could feel the silent sobs shaking the body she was cradled against, and she wrapped herself tighter around Randi, and held on. Gradually, the breathing became slow and even, and Gwen looked up to see if the warrior had fallen asleep. Blue eyes, shimmering with tears gazed back at her in mute horror.

"Love? Randi?"

The Marine lifted a hand to the bard’s face, and tenderly stroked the smooth skin beneath her touch. "So blind... so blind not to have seen what you meant to me. And so arrogant to assume.... My God, we came so close to having our lives be their nightmare magnified a hundred fold."

Gwen reached up her hand and cupped the scarred face. "It didn’t love. It didn’t. We are here, together, and we always will be."

By mutual, unspoken consent, they moved together, needing to confirm their reality in the most basic and satisfying of ways. They took their time, touching, exploring, loving, until with a cry their release washed through them, and left them spent and sated.

The snow still fell lazily, almost as though loath to reach the ground. The couple stayed entwined together as the darkness become solid and complete through the window. Finally, Randi shifted and spoke.

"C’mon, cutie. Let’s go see what we can wrangle for dinner."

"Oh, that sounds like a plan." She laughed when twin bellies rumbled loudly in complaint of their empty state. "In fact, it sounds like a most excellent idea."

They chuckled together, and began to rummage through the cabinets for something to eat.

"You’re very quiet," Gwen commented to Randi as they lay curled up together, tucked snuggly in the comfortable bed. They’d both made sure the fireplace was banked well, and the heat sticks were working before settling in for the night. The Marine especially had no desire for a repeat of the morning’s performance... well, she smirked, parts of it anyway.

"Just thinking about the story you told. Hope they’re not all like that." Indeed, her guts still clenched if she let herself think about it for too long. She smiled when the bard started a gentle rhythmic stroking on her belly. She felt the tightness ease.

"Not at all," Gwen answered. "Most of them are happy ever after stories. There are a few tough ones in there, though my opinion is that that one is one of the worst. It still makes me cry."

They lay wrapped around one another, absorbing the comfort they drew from being together. As they drifted into the twilight of sleep together, a thought occurred to the bard.

"So, I get to hear all about this card carrying Amazon business tomorrow, right?"

Blue eyes popped open in consternation. She’d forgotten about that. The Sabre sighed, and bowed to the inevitable. "Yep. It’s my turn for a story. And it’s attached to one of those ribbons as well."


"Hmm. We’ll see." She squeezed her smaller partner in an engulfing embrace. "Good night, love."

"Good night, Stud. I love you."

For answer the warrior brushed her lips over the light head tucked into the crook of her neck. And silence fell as two sets of breathing merged into one, as sleep overtook them.

Chapter IV

"How ya holding up there, Geoff?" Tommy had noticed the older man seemed to be pushing himself quite a bit, but had restrained from saying something until now. The weapons smith’s pallor was frightening, and the younger man quickly searched his mind for a reason to stop.

"C’mon. I need a break and a beer. This pace is killing me."

Geoff looked at Tommy, gauging the sincerity of his words. He had been pushing himself very hard the last few days, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. The sweat on the other man’s brow and his flushed face gave credence to his complaint though, and the ex-Sabre heaved a silent sigh of relief. Tommy noted it, but wisely didn’t comment.

"You’re right. We’ll get done when we get done. Not like we’ve got a deadline to meet... she doesn’t even know about this project, does she?"

The younger man grabbed two beers from the workshop refrigerator, and plopped into the nearest chair. He handed one drink to Geoff as he moved the hover chair over, then popped the top and guzzled half the bottle in one long swig.

"Damn, if that doesn’t just hit the spot. I didn’t expect to work up a sweat doing this in the middle of winter here."

The weapons smith looked wryly at Tommy. "About the only difference between summer and winter here is the humidity."

"Hey! We get our occasional cold day, ya know."

"Yeah, I know, and I think we had it for the wedding." The younger man gave Geoff a withering stare.

"I think I’m being pandered to." He mock-sighed. "But in answer to your question, no I don’t think she does. I mean, I certainly didn’t tell her, but with Randi, ya just never know."

They both looked at the partially built watercraft they’d already created. Then they looked to each other in understanding, well pleased with their progress so far. It had been a bonding experience, and they’d learned to use the strengths they each had. It had made them better friends, and they were both thankful for that. So now the two sat in peaceful contemplation, kept company by the whoosh sound of the crashing waves nearby.

The sun was blinding in its brilliance as it reflected off the mounds of newly driven snow that lay in heaps and piles outside the small cabin. Randi smiled in contentment, and hugged the bard tighter to her in reflex. Gwen, who had yet to open her eyes, snuggled closer in response.

"Good morning, beautiful," the Marine whispered at the blonde head. A grin broke across her face as she felt her companion fight to remain asleep. Small hands flexed at her waist and shoulder, and the warrior stifled the sudden need to giggle. Gwen had the ability to tickle her without trying, and Randi desperately wanted to keep the knowledge hidden. The bard nuzzled deeper into the Marine’s neck, her warm exhalation causing goosebumps to rise along the Sabre’s arms.

"Wha’s s’funny?" came the mumbled question.

The dark haired woman bit her lip to stop the silent laughter she knew the bard could feel. Then she decided to go with the truth... not the whole truth, mind, but the truth nonetheless. "I’m happy. It’s a beautiful morning, you’re in my arms, we’re married. I have a lot to be thankful for."

Sleepy green eyes peered up at the warrior’s profile. "Hmm," she answered thoughtfully. "That is true." She paused and flexed her hands, feeling the ripple in the Sabre’s abdominal muscles flutter beneath her touch. "I thought maybe you were just being ticklish sensitive this morning." She twitched her hands again, chuckling diabolically when the warrior squirmed just the slightest bit. "My, my... what have we here?" launching an all-out assault on old and new tickle zones alike.

Randi actually squealed before initiating her own war against Gwen. For several long minutes, the fight continued, until they mutually collapsed in a tangled heap of humanity.

"Oh," the blonde gasped trying to catch her breath. "That was fun. What an entertaining way to wake up." Then she drew in another deep breath when the stroking turned a little more sensual in its touch "Mmm."

"Like that, hmm?" the warrior questioned as she shifted her fingers just slightly. The bard’s body arched to meet her own, and she captured Gwen’s lips in a fiercely passionate kiss. The younger woman pulled back just a bit, and cradled Randi’s face in her small hands.

"I love you," she whispered. The Marine didn’t answer verbally. She simply gazed at her partner, letting the love she felt reflect in her darkened eyes. Then she moved things up several notches, smiling in approval at the sounds she managed to wrangle from Gwen. Randi applied herself wholeheartedly to the task at hand.

"Can we make a picnic?" Gwen’s voice was loud in the stillness they had been resting in.

"Excuse me?" the Sabre responded lazily. "It’s a little cold outside, love." This said with amused affection.

"I know, and if worse comes to worst, we can always picnic in the caves. But I’d like to get out and look around. I’ll bet it’s gorgeous outside."

"Tired of being cooped up with me already, huh?" A mock pout. "I guess the honeymoon’s over." An ersatz aggrieved sigh, and Randi tried to roll out of the bed. Only to find herself held by a surprisingly firm grip, and serious green eyes.

"Oh, you wish it was that easy, Stud. This honeymoon will NEVER be over. You’re stuck for the rest of your life."

"No Little One," the warrior said easily. "This is for eternity... lucky, lucky me." The smile on her face told its own story, and lit up the room with its intensity.

A bit later, they were moseying out of the cabin together, a picnic basket swinging between them. They moved slowly through the orchard towards the river. Gwen took a deep breath of the fresh air, imagining she could taste the scent of apples and peaches on the back of her tongue.

"It is so lovely here. So peaceful. How did you manage to find it?"

"Actually, I was given this land by an old Amazon shamaness after I passed the tests she’d set for me. This was the outcome of the final one, and I actually stumbled onto it by accident."

"Oh, this sounds intriguing. Tell me more?"

The warrior pulled them to a halt beneath the trees near the river. The icy water sped by, unimpeded by rocks and snow. Instead the barriers provided impetus for rushing whitewater that created its own music in the quiet that surrounded them. Randi reached down the small camping shovel she’d brought along, and began to clear an area under the trees. When she had a large square area scrapped clean of snow and rocks, Gwen reached into the basket they’d brought, and extracted a thermal blanket. The heat sticks were installed, and by the time they had lunch set out and had seated themselves, the material was warm and comfortable.

"It’s a long story, love."

"Warm blanket, good food, cold wine and each other. I think we’re set." The green eyes twinkled. "Go ahead and share what you’re comfortable with, Stud. We have the rest of our lives to talk."

The Marine smiled, pulling the bard into her arms, so they were sitting front to back. Gwen reached the basket over to her, and pulled out the wine and two goblets. Between then, they pulled the cork out, and the blonde poured the glasses about half full. Then she stuck the bottle into the nearby snow, and lifted a glass back to the warrior. Gwen leaned back against Randi’s torso, enjoying the absent stroking on her abdomen.

They fell into a silent peace, and the bard was almost surprised to hear the low burring of the Sabre’s quiet rumble in her ear.


Randi was sent into the Amazon camp under orders. Their leadership wanted to extend further good relations with the Sabres, and the Marine was invited in as the Sabre ambassador. No one expected her to turn the culture on its ear.

The idea had been, originally, that whoever was chosen would participate as an initiate. It seemed the easiest way to introduce the Sabres to the Nation’s way of life, and help them identify true Amazons from the renegade Fringe Amazons. If both sides had thought it through a little more carefully, they would have more easily seen the pitfalls in this particular plan.

To begin with, most of those in training were younger girls... pre-military service. This rite of passage Mariused them as adults in the Amazon culture. The small identifying Marius they bore on their neck was a symbol of their success, and Randi realized many of the military scouts were in fact Amazon women. Most initiates had grown up in one of the Villages that abounded in the more remote areas of the world. So they were already citizens of the Nation, which was the crucial first step to becoming a full-fledged, card carrying Amazon.

So the Marine’s first hurdle would be to learn the laws, history and culture of the Nation. This would allow her to become a citizen. Not an easy task, but not an impossible one either.

Then there would be the physical challenges... strength, endurance, observation, prowess, agility and ingenuity.

Finally, there was a spiritual challenge that the tribal shamaness was responsible for. It varied candidate to candidate depending on the individual need.

Randi knew it would be made tougher for her... one as an outsider, and two as an acknowledged adult female. She relished the opportunity to test herself against the standards set for her, especially in view of her Sabre training.

Looking back, she found the studying to be the most taxing for her. Not that she was by any means stupid. But the text was a little on the dry side, and the laws, some of them, were thousands of years old.

The history and culture, on the other hand, she found quite fascinating. These women had deep roots, some of their tales and traditions dating back millennia. She got a peculiar tingle up her spine when reading some of the stories. They were almost... familiar. She shook her head to clear the nonsense from it. That wasn’t possible... right?

Her nights were spent reading and studying, but her days were spent in pursuit of whatever goal was handed to her for the day. It felt good to have a definite goal to sight on, and with each day she grew stronger and more focused on her task. She did have the sense to be thankful for the forethought the Commandant had given to putting her in this assignment. She was beginning to feel like her old self... to believe again.

With her training, however, it became clear that there were some among the Amazons who did not want her there, certainly not to succeed. There was one woman in particular who seemed to have a very large chip on her shoulder in regards to the Sabres, but Randi had decided she wasn’t worth the energy to expend reacting to. Unfortunately, no one told Corky, and she was ready and willing to make an issue out of anything and everything that came her way.

After several weeks of training, the initiates began their testing. Each acolyte would be given three opportunities to accomplish her given task in each field. Most were expected to pass the first time, knowing the amount of training they’d had. Randi was looking for obstacles to come out of nowhere at her, understanding that her challenges would be tailor made to suit her abilities.

Her first challenge was that of strength. She and the other initiates were dispatched to free climb the rugged side of the mountain that had been built specifically for that purpose. The heat, however made everyone sweat, and getting a handhold was difficult.

This was an individual exercise, but they were supposed to look out for one another as well. Naturally, this group saw Randi as their leader, and she unconsciously accepted the mantle, and tried to keep an eye out for each girl. The Marine unknowingly became the object of several schoolgirl crushes because of her attention to them.

Today, however, everyone’s focus was trained on making it to the top of the mountain. Several times, girls had slipped, and Randi was right there to talk them through to the next handhold. Once, she’d even caught a fellow acolyte just as she lost her grip completely. It shook the group up badly, but with encouragement, they made it to the top, happy to rest there for a long moment before rappelling back down the way they’d come.

The Sabre endured the congratulatory hugs from her classmates, recognizing them for the good will they were. She was equally aware of the hatred that gazed back at her from gray eyes.

"What is her problem with me exactly?" she asked the Queen a little later in the day. "I have stayed out of everyone’s way, and have deliberately set out not to offend anyone here. But if the chip on her shoulder gets any larger, she’s not gonna be able to pick it up."

"Who, Corky?" waiting for Randi’s nod of affirmation. "She was the BWOC here until you showed up, and had made her intentions known toward my daughter in no uncertain terms. She’s not a bad sort, actually, and she adores Niall. She sees you as competition, a threat."

The Sabre’s eyebrows scrunched up in confusion. "Huh? Why? I am here to learn. The only person I’m competing with here is myself."

The Queen looked at the Marine to judge the seriousness of her statement. Understanding she was being completely open and honest about how she viewed the circumstances, she decided to fill her in on the realities of the situation from her perspective.

"No, dear. She sees you as a threat to her place in the nation, and in my daughter’s heart. Niall, like many of the initiates, and indeed, many of the girls her age, have crushes that change from week to week, depending on their mood. For a long time, Corky was the object of that attention from at least two or three girls at a time. Now that attention has turned to you, and she resents that."

Dark brows went up into the hairline. "Excuse me?"

The Queen snorted very unroyally. "C’mon, Randi. Look in the mirror sometime. You’re a beautiful piece of humanity, and every pubescent and prepubescent girl here has a major crush on you. Hell, honey... a lot of the big girls here are in serious lust with you." She chuckled as a blush crept unchecked up the warrior’s now stoic face. "It’s a compliment, honey. Just go with it. No one’s gonna approach you about it unless you make it clear that advances in that direction will be welcomed." She paused. "You have a pretty standoffish air."

"Good," the Marine replied gruffly. "Let’s keep it that way, shall we?"

The endurance test was the next item of business, and followed two days after the test of strength. Normally it was the next day following, but a vicious storm precluded any of the physical trials. Instead, the acolytes had a study session in the morning, and impromptu sparring in the afternoon. The girls were glad for the opportunity to practice, because watching Randi was a learning experience. She gave the lessons willingly, though she remained somewhat distant, and the trainees tried to respect her privacy. They were looking forward to the test of prowess now, though. The Sabre had given them some new tricks to try.

The sun shone brightly for the endurance test, and Randi could already feel herself sweltering in the heat. She was not looking forward to a twenty-mile run with full gear, even though Amazon gear was much lighter than her standard Sabre issue. She couldn’t begin to imagine how the kids felt about it.

The course was not flat. Instead, it wound over hills and valleys, around curves and across plains, through forests and at one point, crossed a rope bridge extended high above the river. There were lookouts posted every other mile to insure everyone was on track and doing all right. This event too, was normally seen as an individual achievement, so imagine the first Amazon’s surprised face when the troop of girls came over the first rise in perfect military formation. Well, maybe not quite perfect, but never in all the years of their recorded history had a group of initiates banded together into a cohesive unit like this.

So the acolytes ran at the pace Randi called out to them in cadence, and several hours later as a unit, they returned to the village. The elders and council didn’t know what to make of it. It was the first time in ages they hadn’t lost someone in the endurance test. It gave them something to think about.

The observation test was a seemingly simple test, but it was actually one of the more nerve-wracking. Each trainee was taken into a room singly, and allowed five minutes to study her surroundings. Then they were taken to another, and asked to identify the sights, sounds and scents they had observed in the first room. Finally they were taken to a third hut, and asked to name the differences between the first two rooms.

A pensive experience, and each was glad for the rest of the day off when their task was complete.

Randi was actually looking forward to the test of prowess herself. She was a weapons master, and had yet to come across one she did not soon become proficient in. The Amazon warriors participated in this event as opponents, and as Fate, with her twisted sense of humor would have it, Corky drew the Marine’s name twice.

The woman had been jabbing and taunting for a while, and Randi had simply ignored it, hoping the woman would just go away. But now the Amazon took her jeering to new levels, and she was standing on the Sabre’s very last nerve. Randi decided that enough was simply enough.

The first weapon was the bow, and its categories were long, short and cross. The Marine qualified easily and turned her attention to the next event... the staff. The staff was one of Corky’s preferred weapons, and with a flourish, she wielded it with great display of strength against the warrior, until she realized by the twinkle in Randi’s eyes that the Marine was simply playing with her. This made the Amazon angry, and angry people do stupid things. A spin and parry, a lunge and a twist, and Corky found herself disarmed and flat on her back.

Without a word, and with a complete lack of grace the larger woman rose and stalked off, already planning her revenge in the sword fight.

The short sticks were next, and it took very little time for Randi to adjust to using them. She found them to be much like knives without the sharp edges, and she applied her knowledge to using them in that direction. She made such an impression on the Queen, who was the Marine’s adversary in this task that she called for a halt, and asked for an impromptu lesson instead. Because the method in using the sticks was different than what the Amazons usually used, the Marine was able to maneuver around their usual defensive moves. And her offense had already bruised the Queen twice.

She took a few minutes to show the women how she approached the sticks differently than they did, and how that attitude made all the difference. It resulted in different handling, different tactics, different consequences. They cheered her when she finished the demonstration, and the Queen approached her about teaching her basic techniques to her own weapons masters. The Sabre graciously consented to once the initiation was complete.

The last weapons test that required a partner was the sword. Corky swaggered up to the ring, full of confidence. After all, she had never been defeated in this arena. It was time for the Marine to taste her own blood.

Or so the Amazon thought. And she did in fact draw first blood from the soldier, who seeing the deadly intent behind the gray eyes, buckled down into seriousness, and proceeded to demolish each offensive tactic the larger woman threw at her. Then quite deliberately, she went on an offensive that not only drew blood in a multitude of places, but drove the Amazon to her knees. Blue eyes lit with an inner fire gazed down on Corky, before Randi turned her back and left the field. Many of the Amazon sisters did the same, leaving Corky alone in her disgrace. She had crossed too many lines and pushed the boundaries of fair play and good sportsmanship way too far.

The final rounds, those of more conventional weapons were somewhat anticlimactic and Randi aced each of them easily. She was headed back to her small dorm room, when a hail from the Queen caused her to pause. She mumbled under her breath, anxious to get cleaned up but her good manners held.

Surprised when the Amazon leader handed not only the weapons token, but also the ingenuity token as well. Her dark brow rose in mute question.

"The council decided you had earned it, beating Corky at her own game like that. You could have forfeited and walked away. You could have killed her. Instead, you turned her efforts against her, and defeated her with her own arrogance. Quite clever."

"Nothing clever about it," the warrior responded. "It was either kill her or defeat her. And you said she wasn’t a bad sort. Just seems to have a personal problem where I’m concerned."

The Queen cleared her throat. "You have NO idea, and it only gets worse. My daughter has stated very firmly that Corky is no longer her preferred suitor."

The Marine looked pained. "Let me guess... after the bout just now."

"Um hmm. Told her that anyone who had to play dirty like that wasn’t suitable consort material."


"Um... coulda been worse. She coulda said she preferred you over Corky." Randi visibly winced. "You will still need to go on the overnighter tomorrow, though. You have to pass the agility part, and I think the girls might learn some ingenuity from you."

"All right. Let me go get cleaned up. I have to pass my citizen test tomorrow as well."

"You’ve surpassed any expectations we had when we invited you here, Randi. I think the council is willing to give you citizenship."

The Sabre smiled rakishly. "Nope. I’m gonna earn it. Everyone else has to, and I won’t be a special case."

"Well, if the rest of the Sabre women who come through here do half as well as you have, this program will be considered spectacularly successful as far as we are concerned."

Randi smiled and entered the quiet peace of her room.

The culture test was much easier than she anticipated, and took far less time than she expected. She couldn’t put her finger on the reason, but so much of it seemed... recognizable, comfortable and well-known to her. She resolved to do some more research on the things that were tickling her memories. But for now, she had a camping trip to prepare for.

The agility and ingenuity test were combined into one task. The group was sent out on an overnight camp out with nothing but the clothing on their backs, and one other item of their choosing. Randi tried to insure that each girl brought something that would help contribute to an overall comfortable camp.

The place they’d chosen for their camp was cleverly hidden, and definitely not in the clearing the Amazon leaders expected them to be in. Instead, they were in a grotto that barely fit the nine of them side by side. The river was at their backs, and the trees and brush made it difficult to approach. It was just what Randi had been looking for.

"All right, girls. We know they expected us to stay in the clearing we passed about a mile back. I’m sure it is a secret joke that each subsequent class learns to keep after their initiation."

One of the girls looked at the Marine questioningly. "What do you mean?"

Randi looked up from her task momentarily. "Think about it. That clearing is the perfect spot to stop after a long day right? Flat surface, nice fire pit, right on the water... I heard some of you grumbling when we passed it." Several girls had the grace to blush. "It is also the perfect set up for an ambush, and I would bet good money that is where the agility part of the test comes in. Remember the prowess tests yesterday didn’t involve hand-to-and fighting. We’re gonna have to escape using nothing but these," holding out her hands. "And this," indicating her mind.

"That is an excellent point." The princess looked around at her comrades. "What can we do?"

The Marine indicated the two weatherproof tarps they had. "We’ll need to make a shelter with these. A couple of you need to gather firewood, and some long straight sticks to help build the shelter. The two of you with canteens need to refill them. The ground needs to be prepared, and the blankets laid for the night. As warm as it is we shouldn’t need to cover up, fortunately. A couple of you need to go look for some edible tubers and roots to go with the berries we picked earlier."

"What about you? That’s a lot for us to do before dark," one girl said, indicating the almost setting sun.

"I’m gonna catch us some fish to go with the rest of dinner. And if you move quickly enough, there should even be time for a swim before we eat."

The girls scampered off to do her bidding, and it wasn’t long before they had a neat little camp set up, well hidden from prying eyes. The tarps nearly covered the enclosure, and the ground was smooth when they placed the blankets upon it. A tiny campfire faced the river, and slowly, each of the girls wandered down for a brief swim, relishing the cold water against their overheated skin.

The Sabre put the fish on to cook, and watched the girls idly for a few moments. She didn’t feel like a babysitter, exactly... more like a troop leader. When the food was ready, she motioned the girls to join her, well-pleased at their foraging efforts. They ate well, and set up a watch rotation, agreeing that it was unfair to expect Randi to stand one. She’d earned her token for ingenuity, after all, and had done more than enough to insure they were safe and taken care of. She gave in graciously, knowing this point of honor meant so very much to each of them.

Sometime in the middle of the night, a group of Amazon warriors arrived in the clearing, stunned to find it completely empty with no sign of recent habitation.

"What the hell?"

"Where the fuck are they?"

"What is going on here?"

The grumbling and cursing went on for several more minutes before the leader of the group motioned for quiet. "Well, obviously they figured out this was an ambush set up and got the hell out of Dodge. Spread out. They had to have left tracks or a trail for us to follow."

But they hadn’t. For the better part of ninety minutes, these seasoned Amazon warriors searched and hunted to no avail. No matter where they looked, there was no hint of where the initiates had disappeared.

"This is not fucking possible," Corky grumbled loudly. "They couldn’t just have vanished into thin air."

"Keep it down, will ya?" the leader hissed with a slap to the back of her head. "You want them to hear us out here."

"They’re not out here, Rita, or we woulda found them by now."

"Well, if they are, you and your big mouth just gave our position and intentions away to them." Rita hadn’t wanted to bring Corky along after the weapons fiasco, but she’d already been approved, and there was little choice without creating a scene the likes of which the gods had never seen. They’d kept Corky out of the leadership role because of it though, and she was intent on making Rita’s life miserable.

"Look," the Amazon leader whispered. "We’ve given up the element of surprise with all the searching and all the noise. We might as well go back to our camp and wait to surprise them in the morning."

"You can go back," Corky decreed, "but I’m gonna keep looking. They are close, and I’m gonna show that Sabre bitch up for the phony she really is."

"Corky, wait." But the big Amazon had slipped off into the darkness again, and Rita muttered under her breath.

"Whaddya think, Rita?"

"I think I am sorry I got assigned to this particular task." She sighed. "C’mon. She can’t beat Randi, and if I was her, I’d be ready to pummel Corky into the ground on principle alone."

Niall has been the one on guard duty when the Amazons were first spotted searching for them. Silently, she awakened first Randi, then the rest of their companions. They watched in silence as the warriors walked past their hidden camp on three separate occasions. The Marine wanted to growl when she spotted Corky’s face, but merely dropped her head, rethinking the strategy she’d had if they were found. Corky would make this personal, and the girls could actually get hurt. So when they slipped back to the clearing, the Sabre signaled the girls to stay put and followed.

She heard their plans, and watched the large woman fade into the darkness going the wrong direction. She moved back to the campsite, almost caught by surprise when two of the girls stopped her. She smiled at them in approval... both for their alertness, and their obedience in staying put. She explained the situation to them, and outlined her plan. The initiate eyes twinkled in delight. They had a real chance at defeating the warriors in this task.

Corky was fuming. Because of Randi, all her well-made plans had fallen to the wayside like so much dust. She had been stripped of her leadership and put on probation, and the princess had scorned her attentions because of her behavior. It just isn’t fair, she mused to herself. She’d earned her place here, and she really did care for the princess. Now she had something to prove.

It happened so fast she hardly had the time to fight. Then she found herself bound and gagged by the woman she’d learned to despise for no other reason than Randi was the best at everything she did. She struggled to no avail, then dropped her head when she realized she was destined to suffer further humiliation at this woman’s hands.

It took the better part of an hour for Randi and the trainees to methodically decimate the Amazon forces, and one by one capture the warriors. It was still a couple hours until sunrise, but the acolytes decided to march their captives home. As far as any of them knew, this would be the first time in history that the initiates had managed to capture the entire squadron of warriors sent to test them.

The acolytes were thrilled. The warriors wondered what sort of nasty punishment they were going to have to endure for the next twenty-five years because of this fiasco.

They entered the gates just as the dinner gong sounded at the village inn, and all activity simply ceased at the sight that met their eyes. The entire village turned and watched as the Marine walked to the back of the group, calling cadence, and the initiates, four to either side, kept their prisoners in step and in line. When Randi called a halt, the trainees forced the warrior to kneel and took up readiness positions around them.

The Queen and council approached, and with a nod from Randi, the acolytes released the warriors and knelt beside them in respect.

"Rise, my children," speaking to the girls. "You have done well, and have earned your right of passage. Tonight, we celebrate." A cheer rose from the entire village. "As for you," turning her attention to her erstwhile warriors, "I believe some refresher training is in order. You will each report to me tomorrow for a schedule of remedial training." Now the Queen’s attention focused on the Sabre. "Walk with me, my friend."

"I know that it is due to your leadership and ability that the initiates in this class excelled in each of their challenges." She held up her hand to keep the Marine from interrupting. "You have given us a lot to think about... things we need to look into changing and improving the way they’re done. The girls are done with their testing, as they are given spirit journeys when they are very young."

"They don’t do them as adults?"

"Certainly... as they have the need or the shamaness feels led to direct them. The spirit journey you need to take is part of their growing up here. But the shamaness assures me you need to do so to complete your rite."

"Well, whenever ya’ll are ready."

The Queen placed a warm hand on the warrior’s arm. "You’ll know when the time is right." And she left Randi to get ready for the ceremony.

The ceremony was fun, and Randi was pleasantly surprised by the loud cheering she received. She’d earned a place in the hearts and lives of the woman in this village, and for the most part was made to feel very welcome... even by the warriors she and the other initiates had defeated. The girls had given her a robe for her spirit journey, knowing that was usually bestowed by the family and realizing they were hers in this place. Randi accepted it in the spirit it was offered in. She slipped in on, and moved to a relatively quiet spot to watch the festivities take place around her. She took a sip of the mead that had been pressed into her hand. Without meaning to, she slipped into a daze.

The place she saw was beautiful... a mountain with caves. The fields were green and covered in colorful wild flowers, and the trees bore the blossoms of fruit. The water ran swift and clear nearby, and she leaned over to take a drink. It was clean and sweet, and cold enough to make her teeth hurt even in the warmth of early summer.

The Marine took a deep breath, relishing the scent of earth and fruit and flowers. She ran like a child, enjoying the feeling of sweet freedom and peace that pervaded this place. She fell to her back at the side of the water, listening to the tinkling and rushing while watching the clouds chase one another overhead in the blue sky. She sighed, wishing she could stay here forever.

"You can’t stay here forever," came the voice of the shamaness who suddenly walked out of nowhere. "But this is now your place. You will come here when your soul needs to rest. You will build and grow and share love here."

Randi shot up, standing defensively until she determined that the woman wasn’t a threat. The woman stood silently while the furrowed brow put everything together. "This is my spirit quest?" a little disbelieving.

"Yes." The shamaness smiled. "Yours is a little different than any I have ever accompanied on before. The first, well, since it is usually children, they get to see what their future holds, to a point. Whether they are meant to be warrior or craftswomen or the like. Those that come later, or usually for a specific purpose... most looking for direction or resolution to something they cannot solve themselves. It’s different with you. You are focused, clear on your direction and purpose."


"You need a place to be Randi, to be a human being, to be a woman. So much of your life is wrapped up in being a Sabre. You need this place."

Randi simply stared at her, wondering where the other woman had learned so much about her.

"I saw, Randi. It’s my gift. It’s what I do." She smiled. "You will have to physically search out this place, but when you find it, claim it and make it yours. It will bring you great peace, and one day, great happiness."

The Marine came back to the party to find the shamaness sitting beside her. She blinked blue eyes trying to reconcile what she’d seen to where she was.

"You all right there, Randi?"

"Was it real?"

"Oh yes. And when you’re ready, you’ll know just where to look to find it."

She wiped her eyes and shook her head. "I think I need a break from the mead and the noise. Thank you, priestess." She nodded and moved away from the party. Once in her dorm room, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.


"I stayed there for another couple weeks, helping the council rework their initiation tests, and streamlining their weapons program. I think it is used exclusively throughout the Nation now."

"And how you found this place…?"

"Is another story, and you owe me one first." The Marine grinned at Gwen’s frustrated face. "I promised you’d hear everything. And we have all the time we need." She wrapped the bard up in her arms, gratified when the smaller woman practically melted into her. "How about some of that lunch? All that talking made me hungry."

The bard chuckled and opened the hamper, while the warrior poured fresh glasses of wine.

Chapter V

The sun was at its short day zenith when the couple finished their repast. Between the heated blanket, the sunshine, their combined body heat and no wind, they were comfortably warm. And now that they were pleasantly stuffed as well, a nap was sounding like a better idea all the time.

They stretched out along side one another, spooned front to back. The Sabre’s hand lightly traced an absent pattern on the bard’s belly, smiling slightly when she heard Gwen’s breath deepen into the evenness of sleep. She extended her senses, and found them to be alone, save for the few fish near the bottom of the river. Then she let herself drift off as well.

It was the chill in the air that woke them almost simultaneously. The sun had set behind the trees, though it still had a bit of a drop before it hit the horizon, and the wind had picked up.



The two looked at one another and chuckled. "I think we’re right on both counts, Stud."

"Hmm, yeah. C’mon... let’s get back to the cottage. We can figure out what’s for dinner, and then it’s your turn for some storytelling. But happy ending this time, please? My heart is still aching from that last one you told."

They picked up the basket, wrapped the blanket around them, and slowly meandered together back toward the tiny home. Gwen took a deep breath. "I know. That one always makes me cry. Some of the others are equally sad, but that one always struck me as being senselessly so."

"Mmm," was the only reply Randi could make through her closed throat, though she had to smile when the blonde moved a little closer and wrapped her arm just a little tighter.

Dinner ended up being bits and pieces... fruit, raw vegetables, cheese and bread. They took their meal in front of the fireplace loath to give up the closeness that setting afforded them. "This is nice," Randi sighed softly, finding herself cradled by Gwen’s smaller body for a change. They were stretched out on the thick fur-like rug, with the smaller woman propped up on pillows at an angle. The dark head rested on the bard’s chest, and Gwen’s hand lay lightly on Randi’s hip. One of the warrior’s hands was on the bard’s hip; the other encircled her small waist. The position made eating a bit of a challenge, but feeding each other got around a lot of the awkwardness.

"Yeah, it is," Gwen quietly agreed. "I like being able to hold you like this sometimes... to be able to take care of you too."

The Marine inclined her head, and kissed the smooth skin of the bard’s neck. "You do an excellent job of taking care of me everyday, love." She met the lips that caught her own, and was forced to clear her throat to get her voice back to its normal pitch when they pulled apart again. "Ahem. What about my story?" She poked her lip out just slightly, and muttered, "You’re trying to distract me, and it’s working."

Gwen grinned, both at the expression and the sentiment. "No, I’m not, but I bet I could if I tried," dragging her hand from Randi’s hip slowly up the front of the Sabre’s torso. The grin grew wider with the hitch in Randi’s breathing when her touch circled and lingered on the warrior’s breast. Setting her glass gently down, the bard wove her now free hand into the raven tresses and tilted the full lips up to meet her own. Then she passionately staked her claim. "And suddenly," she said on a ragged breath when they separated again, "I feel like trying." She eased Randi over on top of her, and proceeded to possess every inch of the Marine.

Sometime later found them bonelessly slumped in much the same position as they had been before, though now they were naked and draped with a blanket. "Let me tell you about one of our earlier reincarnations... several generations removed from the original soulmates."


They were two scared boys, taken into slavery just as they’d reached puberty. In the ship’s hold, they became fast friends, looking out for one another and cementing a bond that would sustain them through the brutalities they expected to face when they reached the heart of the Roman Empire.

Rome was an old whore now, gasping her last before falling into the putrid heap she’d become. In the final days of her glory, the two boys were bought as slaves... to be trained as gladiators for the games. It was horrible. They spent their days being beaten and ridiculed, but amazingly, they were left alone together at night.

The first night after their arrival, one of the older men had come in, intent on taking his pleasure from the younger of the two boys. The older turned on him ferociously, ripping his manhood from him before snapping his neck with an audible crack. The slave master, hearing the commotion, stepped in to see his compatriot fall to this almost child, and watched the boy stand protectively in front his friend.

"No one touches him," the elder said defiantly. "And no one touches me."

The big man knew he had a potential winner in this fierce child, and decided to make a deal with him. "You learn to fight, and you keep winning, you both get left alone. You do something stupid, or you start losing, and I’ll let every single man in this place have a shot at your friend. And he has to find something useful or entertaining to do to earn his keep."

"No, Dominic. Don’t do it. It’s not fair to you. I can do this."

The dark haired boy ignored the younger blonde and said to the master, "Done."

The man nodded his acceptance and turned away from the pair. When he reached the door, he looked over his shoulder. "You will both still have to do your service as pleasure servants, but I’ll put it off until you’ve had a chance to grow up a little more." He looked Dominic in his bright blue eyes. "As long as you win, you will get your choice of whom you serve." He walked out without another word.

"Dom, why did you do that?" the blonde boy asked when they were alone again. "I haven’t got any skills."

"You can tell stories, Raphael. I heard you do it on the ship." The older boy paused, awkwardly taking his green-eyed companion in his arms as the settled back on the small cot they’d been issued. "I couldn’t let them hurt you. Not like that." He sighed. "I’ll teach you to defend yourself. We’ll get through this... together."

The blonde patted the older boy’s chest and nodded. "Together... I like the sound of that." And they feel into a peaceful sleep.

Days became weeks and months became years, and the boys became strapping young men that were very pleasing to look upon. Dominic was the most successful gladiator Rome had ever seen, and Raphael was known throughout the court for his skillful weaving of tales. They were now lovers, and very protective of what they shared. Still, as slaves, they were forced into service on occasion, and by the time they reached majority, they had fathered several children apiece.

Not that they were allowed to be a father to their descendents... they were being bred for their strength, intelligence and beauty.

"It’s not fair, love." The blonde man gently caressed the face of his partner. "We have children. We could be a family if we weren’t still slaves."

"I know, Rae. But we are also high profile. The patricians would notice if we disappeared."

"I don’t care, Dom. We deserve more. We deserve to be happy."

The warrior put his fingers on his lover’s lips to still his speech. "I know, baby. It’s closer than you think." These words spoken very low into the smaller man’s ear. "I’ve heard rumblings of a slave revolt. If it happens, we go."

Raphael kissed Dominic full on the lips then, taking the time to gently coax the older man’s mouth open with his tongue before claiming him fervently for long moments. When they broke apart, both were hard and ready, gazing into the other’s passion glazed eyes for a timeless space. As the blonde man leaned down to capture the gladiator’s lips again, he whispered solemnly, "Where you go, I go, beloved."

Then reality faded around them for a while as they reaffirmed the bond and the love they shared.

The revolt did go off as planned, and the two men managed to escape with seventeen children. Several were theirs, and the rest were orphans. They raised all of them with love and devotion, living to see several of them marry and have children of their own.

Years passed, and the two soulmates were nearing the end of their time together for the lifetime they’d shared. "We‘ve had a good life, haven’t we, love?"

They were laying in bed together, cuddled in their favorite position with the blonde head cradled on the broad shoulder, and the strong arms wrapped around the smaller body. "We really have. Didn’t start off that way, but everything happens for a reason." They smiled in silence as their memories took them back over the years they’d shared, and the children and grandchildren that they counted as theirs. "I think it’s time to go home for a while though, Little One. I’m tired."

"Where you go, I go, Dom," Raphael responded quietly. Then they drew a deep breath and closed their eyes in eternal sleep.


"That was amazing. Sounds like despite everything, they were happy together. And my God, seventeen kids! Can you imagine?" The bard had to chuckle at Randi’s tone of voice. The warrior scowled up at her moving mattress. "Hey, we’re resting here."

"I’m sorry, honey. You’re just too cute. And no," she added hastily, "I can’t imagine. Just thinking about it makes my head hurt. But Raphael left some interesting tales with his children."

"Did he say if they had the rings? You didn’t mention them in either this story or the first one."

"No, they didn’t. Dominic and Raphael were taken away from their families as children, and in fact did not meet until they found themselves together in the ship’s hold. When they escaped from slavery, they went away from their families and the rings. There are a few instances when that happened, but they are rare. For the most part, when the soulmates join, the rings are present."

"And when we miss, like we did with the soldier and the actress?"

"Our descendents continue to hold them in trust until we meet again... like now."

The warrior took Gwen hand in her own and placed a kiss of promise upon her ring. "I love you, Gwen. I’m so happy we got a chance to do this right. And so glad we got past our last meeting as soulmates. I can only imagine the misery...."

"Don’t, please. Society is accepting of us as a family. Things are different in this time and place. Let’s just be thankful for what we have now, instead off reliving the ache we suffered before." A tear fell from each eye before the bard could stop them, and she swiped at them angrily. "Shit! I shouldn’t have told that damn story."

The Sabre moved swiftly to keep the small woman from bolting away from her, and she quickly reversed their positions. She looked down at the tear-filled green eyes and smiled sadly. "I’m sorry, love. You were right. That first story is haunting, and I can’t help that it troubles me so. But we’ve shared many lifetimes, and I want to hear about them all... good and bad. But I want to hear more about you too. ‘K?"

The Marine watched the rapid play of emotions that flew across Gwen’s tell-tale features, and unbidden, she leaned down took possession of the bard’s lips in a fiery kiss. The blonde responded deeply, sincerely and totally, until they were born away on a wave of passion that crested and crested again until the couple fell back spent and sated into their little nest.

"What was the hardest thing about adjusting to military life for you?" It was late, and they had been enjoying the quiet sense of peace that pervaded the tiny cabin. Gwen was finally getting back to Randi’s request of her, in a somewhat roundabout fashion.

"Being away from my family and friends," the Marine responded without hesitation. "I have never been so lonely as I was those three months of boot camp."

"I know what you mean. When I did that six-month tour, I was miserable." She rushed on at the warrior’s expression. "Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to do it, and grateful to have made such a difference for so many, but it gave me a new, deeper understanding of just a little bit of what military life must have been like for you all those years as a Sabre." She sighed. "I didn’t really realize til right then how very lucky I had been in my service."

Randi remained silent, knowing the blonde had more to say.

"I mean I never left the capital city, except for a couple weekends to go see my folks. And apparently once the general found out who I was and where my true skill lay, I suddenly had much more "free time" to visit the sick. I wondered about having so much time to volunteer to visit the medifacs. But a lot of my duty time was used for morale boosting. Public performances. An Army ambassador, I think he called it."

"Tell me?" the Marine asked softly.

"It’s nothing special. I...."



Gwen was, technically speaking, the general’s aide de camp. She was to set his schedule, arrange his trips, take care of his correspondence, and generally do whatever needed doing around the office. She realized it was cushy duty, and had more than one passing thought as to how she had ended up with such a plum assignment. She had no way of knowing that Geoff had asked for a favor from an old friend.

The weapons smith had neglected to tell his old buddy about his daughter’s talent, however, preferring to allow her to reveal herself if and when she felt comfortable doing so.

The bard, for her part was enjoying the anonymity of the Army at first. As Gwenievere Goldman, bard extraordinaire, people expected particular things from her. But as Army Pvt. G. Goldman, she relished a certain freedom she hadn’t experienced since she was a child. So her three months of boot camp, and her first seven weeks of regular Army life, she didn’t tell a story. But story telling was as natural to her as breathing, and the silence was wearing on her. She actually started losing a little weight, and sleep was slowly becoming more difficult.

When the weekend came, she decided to try a little experiment. She had managed to put off the Army buddies who’d asked her to participate in a base softball game, instead choosing to go to the base clinic to see about visiting some of the soldiers who’d been more seriously hurt in the war games the day before.

She stepped into the repair unit, the largest room in the building, and where most of the injured were housed for their regen processing. She was clad in jeans and a thick white T-shirt, cowboy boots sounding loudly as she crossed the floor in the stillness of the room. The bard expected to be stopped, but apparently all the personnel were attending to other tasks at the moment she chose to walk in, because there was no one at the desk, and no one who asked for her identity.

She walked to the first bed, and said quietly, "Hi, I’m Gwen. What’s your name?"

Around the room she went, introducing herself, and making small talk to put the men and women in the room at ease. When she reached the front of the room again, she spoke louder, so the entire room could hear her.

"Well, now that we’ve gotten to know one another a bit, I thought maybe you all might indulge me for a little while and let me entertain you."

"Whoo hoo!"

"Take it off, girl!"

"Let’s see you shake it, honey!"

A furious red blush follow some of the more graphic suggestions, and it was by sheer grit and determination that Gwen didn’t bolt and run. Instead she summoned her stage presence and answered them.

"I am a bard, and I’d like to tell you a story." There were catcalls and whistles, but the blonde stood her ground.

"All right storyteller," a voice near the back called out. "Make us believe it."

It didn’t take but a few minutes, and they were all drawn in to the spell she wove around them with her voice alone. By the time she finished, she noticed her crowd had grown, and that the staff had joined them somewhere along the journey. Her audience clapped and cheered... whooping and hollering for long minutes. And in the melee, she disappeared, needing a little space to think.

She took a long walk that afternoon, coming to understand in a way she hadn’t thought about before just how much storytelling was a part of her. It wasn’t a conscious decision on her part to tell stories... this was something she needed to share to be complete as an individual. Her time away from it just made it crystal clear to her.

Talk of the storytelling spread like wildfire, and it was all over the base Monday morning. General Hampton noticed the change in his aide, glad to see a new exuberance in her eyes and step. He greeted Gwen, and went into his office, an idea tickling at the back of his mind.

The second weekend, she went out into the nearby community center, where a lot of the neighborhood children gathered to play on their days off. They ranged in age from five to seventeen, and Gwen’s target audience was somewhere in the middle. Old enough to understand and appreciate a good story, but not so old they would mock and deride her efforts. She needn’t have worried.

The kids were segregated by age groups; the smaller children in the sand boxes, the older kids on the swing sets and jungle gyms, and the teens on the basketball and volleyball courts.

Gwen chose a swing, and sat down quietly, rocking slowly while her mind drifted back to her own childhood. She was the only adult who was playing... the rest sat along the perimeter involved in discussion, watching the kids play, and breaking up the occasional argument. Finally, a youngster bolder than the rest gathered her courage and, approached the bard.

"Hey lady," waiting for Gwen’s attention to turn her way. "Whatcha doing out here with us kids?"

The blonde brought the swing to a halt, and turned the full force of her considerable personality on the child. "Well, I like to swing, and this one was empty. It helps me think of stories to tell. It always has."

The child’s eyes lit up. "You’re a bard?" When Gwen nodded she squealed with excitement and called out to her friends, motioning them over. "Hey, you guys," cupping her hands around her mouth to get their attention. "She’s a storyteller." She waved them in. "Will you tell us a story? Something with a princess, maybe, and a hero, and...."

Gwen had to laugh out loud at their enthusiasm. This was what she needed. This was what she’d been missing. The joy that came from being able to touch another’s imagination. "Let me see what I can come up with," she answered, already laying out the bare bones story in her mind.

The group started out with twenty children, ranging in age from eight to twelve. Before she’d finished her first tale, all activity in the center had ceased, and all eyes of every single person were focused on her in rapt wonder.

The bard told so many stories that day that she had no voice left at the end of it. But the soreness of her throat was miniscule compared to the elation she felt in the depths of her soul.

Monday morning was awkward, since she was unable to answer any vid calls except with text messaging. It made for an interesting plight. Rumors abounded now about the mysterious blonde storyteller who had woven such magic for so many on a Saturday afternoon. Many of those kids were military brats whose parents had heard the same fair-haired bard the week before. Stories were flying bout this new sensation, and General Hampton had a very good idea where the source for these rumors was.

He hadn’t realized how very lively Gwen’s voice was, or how he enjoyed listening to her soothing tones until he noticed just how quiet his office had become without the sound of her voice. Now more than ever he was determined to prove his suspicions, once and for all.

By Wednesday, Gwen’s voice was back to normal, and the general smiled at the lilting sound. He made a note to himself to be outside her barracks before dawn the following Saturday, then flushed at his foolishness. It had been a while since he’d engaged in ‘cloak and dagger stuff’.

He almost missed her. He’d fallen into a light doze because of his exceptionally early hours, and now it was late morning. He’d begun to wonder if he’d already missed her when he saw her emerge from the building. He noted that she was alone, and had to wonder why someone as friendly as she was didn’t seem to have any friends. Then he forgot to wonder anymore, as he became engrossed in a game of hide and seek... keeping her in sight while remaining hidden from her view.

He needn’t have worried. She was far too involved with planning her stories to see she was being followed.

When she arrived at the retirement center, she didn’t hesitate, but simply walked in the door. She spoke to the woman who sat at the desk, who smiled politely and pointed her down the hall. The blonde nodded her thanks, and went the direction indicated.

The general waited until Gwen turned into a doorway and disappeared from sight before he approached the same desk.

"May I help you sir?

"The young lady that came in ahead of me... who is she here to visit?"

"Everyone. She’s here to tell stories to the folks who live here."

"Oh? Isn’t that somewhat unusual?"

"Yes, and that is exactly the reason the director didn’t turn her down when she called yesterday. This is a rare treat."

"Would you mind... do you think I could join the residents while they listen?"

The woman gave him a good going over, hesitating between good manners and good sense. He allowed her scanner to identify him, and she smiled in agreement. "Come this way, general."

The man followed the woman a different direction, and found himself in a corner that kept him from sight while permitting him to view the entire room. "I figure there’s a military reason for this, and this will keep you secret." She smiled at him conspiratorially.

"Thank you, ma’am. You are most definitely correct."

She sat down next to him, conveniently forgetting her post as the director introduced their guest to a full room of older people. The applause was polite as they waited for her to impress them. And impress them she did... easily, totally captivating them until they stood clapping and whistling when she drew her tale to a close.

"That was phenomenal," the woman whispered to General Hampton. "I wonder who she is?"

The general was too busy smacking his palm on his forehead to reply. He couldn’t believe how incredibly dense he’d been. It was time to employ the resources he had at hand.

Monday morning found a very somber General Hampton sitting sternly behind his desk when the bard arrived for duty. She hadn’t even settled in for work when he summoned her into his office.

"Pvt. Goldman, we have a problem."


"I have to claim stupidity on my part... it is the only excuse I can find for not figuring things out sooner."

"Sir?" Gwen was confused, and her boss’s round about speech wasn’t helping matters at all.

"Apparently you’ve been hiding your light under a bushel, Private, and I am having an issue with that." She looked as bewildered as she felt at that point. "Is there a reason you neglected to mention who you really are?" The bard broke from attention, and rubbed her hand across her forehead. "You are still at attention, Goldman," he reminded in a stern but not unkind voice.

"I’m sorry, sir. I’m just more than a little confused by the conversation."

"You see, Gwen, it has come to my attention that the world-renown bard Gwenievere Goldman was my aide de camp. Now, Private, would you like to explain to me why I had to discover this situation right under my very nose?"

To his unpleasant surprise, the small blonde didn’t say a word as tears rolled down her face. He waited patiently for her to collect her composure, then he indicated a chair and handed her a glass of water. When she seemed able to talk, he took the chair next to her, and turned his attention to her.

"This was the first place I was able to be one of many, and for a while, it was fine. It was a novelty for me, and I enjoyed it. But the stories... they are so much a part of me. They define who I am, and even though I have to be like everyone else in this uniform, out of it I have to be me. I have to be a bard."

The general steepled his fingers together in thought. "How would you like to be a bard in uniform?" He held up a hand to forestall her speech. "You would still be my aide de camp, but with shorter hours. We could arrange for small gatherings for the hundreds of military personnel who pass through this city every week." He focused inward and continued to talk as if she was no longer in the room with him.

"This could work very well," he mused, "and be good for morale. Would you be amenable to something like this?"

Her eyes began to glow, and she nodded firmly. "Oh yes general. Most certainly."

"Wonderful," was his comment. "Let’s get the correspondence out of the way, and we’ll sit down and come up with something of a schedule that will allow for you to be our ambassador of good cheer."

Gwen cringed inwardly at the descriptive, but merely nodded her agreement.


"I didn’t realize until the night of the awards ceremony that he knew about the volunteer work. I figured he’d finally recognized my name and put it all together that way. God, sometimes I am so dumb."

"Nope, sorry... can’t let you talk about yourself like that. Never dumb, love. Focused maybe, naïve, but never, ever dumb."

Gwen shifted slightly, sliding off the Marine’s body to lie at her side. Her objective was to get a better angle to see from, but Randi took exception to the movement. Instead she pulled the bard completely on top of her, draping the smaller woman’s body to cover her own. The skin on skin contact caused funny little tingles to run up and down Gwen’s spine, and she growled low in her throat before leaning down to thoroughly kiss the Sabre’s full lips.

"Do you know just how much I love you?"

"Almost as much as I love you, I think," came the instant reply. The Marine tightened her arms around the bard and hugged her intensely.

"I love you with all my heart, and because of you, that heart gets bigger and bigger. Because everyday I seem to love you just a little bit more." She laid her head down on the broad chest beneath her, pillowing her head on the soft breast. Randi’s heartbeat was strong and after that sentiment, rapidly beating out a rhythmic tattoo that slowly, surely lulled Gwen into sleep.

The Marine kissed the blonde head tucked under her chin when she heard the breathing even out into sleep. "Goodnight, love," she whispered.

The freezing rain falling on the roof was loud enough to wake them in the early morning hours. Randi smiled to herself. Maybe we could go explore the caves a little more today. Her thoughts became much more carnal when Gwen’s shifting caused tingles to skitter across her skin. Or maybe we should just stay in bed all day. I still have that lovely.... Her thoughts drifted off, remembering the day she’d bought it.

It wasn’t as though she had any reason to buy something as frivolous and daring and risqué as the silk negligee that hung in the window. Except for the odd tryst, she hadn’t dated in years, and even those flings had been all too rare. Not that I’d waste something like this on a casual tete a tete. This would be for someone special... someone like.... Unbidden, her mind’s eye flashed to her best friend, toward whom her feelings were deepening beyond her logical control. She shook her head uselessly, but still found herself drawn into the small boutique.

She arrived home with her purchase, feeling more than a little foolish, and hid it away. And hidden it stayed, completely forgotten until she went to pack for their honeymoon. When she was at first surprised, then flustered at her audacity, then tucked the garment in her bag for Gwen’s preview.

"I bought it for her... I should wear it for her," the Marine muttered sotto voce.

The bard hummed her delight in her circumstances, and cuddled even closer into the warrior’s body. Randi wrapped her arms tighter, reveling in their closeness. She drifted off again into a half doze that was perpetuated by the constant noise of the rain falling. Their combined warmth made her hesitant to crawl out of the bed.

When Gwen opened her eyes, she stared at the profile beneath her, and gently traced the facial pattern now ingrained in her mind’s eye. The Sabre didn’t twitch a muscle or flicker an eyelash, and the blonde lavish special attention on the scar. She noticed that is seemed more faded, and was the same temperature as the skin that surrounded it. She smiled when Randi leaned into the stroking. The bard leaned down to kiss the full lips that were twitching just slightly.

Then, of course, nature had to scream... loudly.

A quick peck on the lips, and Gwen jumped from the bed. The bathroom door slammed rather loudly, and Randi sat up and looked around. "Huh? What the...?"

She got up and puttered around, relighting the stoked embers til they caught and burst into flame. She leaned back into the smaller body when Gwen came out of the bathroom, and wrapped herself around the taller woman, reaching her hands around to lightly tease the warrior’s breasts. "I was thinking about a shower," she whispered hotly in Randi’s ear. "Care to join me?"

For answer, the warrior spun in place, and swept the bard up into her arms, searing their mouths together for a long passionate moment. At the bathroom door, she set the younger woman on her feet and admonished, "Go start the water. I’ll be right there."

Gwen looked at her mystified for a minute before moving into the tiny room to do the warrior’s bidding. Randi turned back to her luggage before scooping up the packages, and heading into the bathroom.

"When do I get to see what’s under the robe?" the bard questioned sometime later when both of their physical appetites had been briefly sated. After their shared shower, Randi had wordlessly handed her a package and picked up the second before she started to leave the bathroom. Gwen’s hand on her arm and the look of confusion in her eyes caused the warrior to turn and offer her a bit of explanation.

"I got this... well, I’d kinda like to surprise you with it. I can’t do that if you’re standing here watching me put it on."

Gwen watched in fascination as a slow blush crawled up Randi’s face. "Oh, something I am going to like, I take it?" She wasn’t sure, but thought the brunette mumbled "I hope so" when she nodded her head. "And something I get to take off you later?" Seeing the blue eyes darken when they met her own, and returning the rakish grin. "Oh I certainly hope so," was the firm, clear answer.

"Get along with you, then. Let me know when it’s safe to come out."

They’d fixed breakfast, sharing teasing touches and nibbling kisses between bites of food. Then they’d moved over in front of the fireplace, comfortable in the silence. The colorful silks of their robes blended nicely together, and each was absently stroking the softness of the material in lieu of the skin they could not reach. Gwen was almost startled when Randi’s question broke the silence.

"Finish your story from yesterday?" The bard cocked an eyebrow, wondering what machinations her companion was playing at. She reviewed her story from yesterday, trying to gauge where she’d left off. Understanding that she had indeed stopped before the end of the tale. "All righty, but then it’s your turn again."

The warrior nodded her agreement, knowing that the bard had not yet realized that her muse had returned to her with a vengeance. Though not polished with the practice and study she put into a performance, the storyteller had staged a comeback. And Randi was looking forward to the moment that the truth dawned upon her beloved. She smiled secretly to herself, then settled back with Gwen in her arms, preparing to listen to the story that would bring their lives to cross once again in the past.

Chapter VI

"You have to remember," Gwen mused as she settled back into her partner’s warmth, "that my entire life up until my military service I was telling stories. So I knew what kind of time I needed to prepare, and I knew what the best performance times were. I was used to setting my own schedule for that... I’d been doing it for myself for three years, and I’d paid real close attention to Sal and my mother before then. Imagine my surprise when the general refused to let me do it my way."


The bard had been insistent... weekends had always been her biggest draws. The general refused to listen, and finally put it to her point blank.

"Look, Private. I can’t have you out of the office four days a week. As nice as it would be to have that be your assignment for the remainder of your tour, you are billeted as my aide, and I need you here." He didn’t add, and would not reveal until the night of her award ceremony, that he wanted her to have the opportunity to continue her various volunteer projects as much as anything else. He had a feeling she would be a great community asset if she was given the time to participate.

"Yes sir," she answered solemnly.

"I think doing a presentation on Wednesday afternoon and another on Friday night should be sufficient. We can always do some sort of management to insure that the widest audience possible gets the opportunity to hear you. I’d kind of like to keep the afternoon thing for the kids. Once the word gets out you’re doing this, we will have to have some sort of rotating schedule, because they’re gonna want to come from all over."

"And the military guys? What about them?"

"Friday nights will be for them. If it’s really successful, we’ll see about doing a week at a time every few months."

Thoughtful green eyes turned inward, and the blonde chewed her lips in thought. "You don’t think we need to do weekends?"

"No," Hampton replied, grinning inwardly. "We need those days free in case we need to catch up here. And you need some time off."

Gwen nodded her agreement. "All right, sir. That is acceptable. Thank you."

"You’re welcome, soldier. Let’s get to work."


"By that point, I had been in the army just over six months. I continued to do my volunteer work on the weekends, but the Wednesday and Friday night sessions were a smash hit as well. After the first three months, I was slated for my first week of nightly storytelling duty. I was a nervous wreck."

"Why? You’d done it before."

"Yes, but this was different. This time I wore a uniform, and represented something much bigger than myself or my stories."

"That was the first time I saw you perform, you know."

Green eyes widened. "I read a bit about that in your diary. Will you fill in the blanks?"

The warrior gave a silent sigh and smiled shyly. "As long as you keep me warm, I will." Gwen cuddled more deeply into her lap, and turned her head to catch Randi’s heartbeat as the warrior began to tell her tale.


It had been a nightmare of an assignment, and having lost Poppy was almost more than the stoic Marine could bear. Loss like that didn’t happen very often among the Sabres, and the fact that it was pointless just made it that much more intolerable. The Marine had stayed behind recklessly to recover her mentor’s remains, and was now headed to the capital city to receive yet another commendation and a week of hard earned R&R.

Randi snorted to herself, clad in her dress blues. A look at her medal covered chest was impressive, especially when one knew that she had only been in the military for a little over four years at the time. But the ache in her chest made her wish she could rip them off and trade them in for Poppy’s safe return.

However, she knew that there was no way for that to happen, so she bit her lip, and wiped her eyes a final time. The stoic warrior put her cold mask on, and emerged from the transport into the bright sunlight of the late fall day. She would have appreciated its beauty more if she hadn’t been so anxious to just get away for a while.

Like the best-laid plans, however, it was not to materialize quite the way the Marine had envisioned. She had gone to the Sabre cottage she was using during her stay in the city, and changed into more casual attire. She was just headed out the door when Brenda, Lacey and Lacey’s new girlfriend Nicky arrived at her front door.

"Um, sorry, guys. I was just headed out."

"Yes, you were," they cheerfully agreed. "In fact, you’re going out with us." Brenda and Lacey each took a side, and started escorting her down the short walk to their waiting transport.

"Um...." But that was all she could manage before she found herself safely ensconced in the back of the vehicle with her dark skinned compatriot. She settled back and closed her eyes, missing the concerned look that passed between her Sabre friends.

Without opening her eyes she asked, "So where are we going?"

"Oh, this is too fabulous, but Nicky was able to score us some tickets to the hottest show in town." Lacey reached over and clasped her girlfriend’s hand tightly, giving it a brief squeeze. The other woman smiled brightly with a quick look at her lover, then turned her attention back to their surroundings.

Randi pulled her head up off the back of the seat where she’d been resting it, and opened her eyes. "Guys, I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m really not in the mood for raucous and rowdy. So...."

"Good," Nicky broke in. "Cause that’s not what this is. You’ll like this, Randi. I promise."

The Marine looked at her skeptically before turning her attention to her surroundings, and noticing for the first time that they were at the entrance to a theatre. "You have got to be kidding me," she muttered to herself, but exited the transport and waited for her friends to join her.

They entered, and she was pleased that Nicky had managed to acquire a box for them. She was also amazed at the fact that here it was, a Sunday night, and the place was packed... literally standing room only. She took a seat in front at their insistence, though the logic of their choice escaped her. She settled back comfortably slumped in her seat, listening to the conversation that flowed around her until the darkening of the house lights indicated the beginning of the performance. She didn’t move when the bard was introduced, though her laughter at the petite figure in Army green was covered entirely by the cheers and whistles of the crowd around her.

Randi propped her head on her hand, wishing silently to herself that she could just get away and be alone for a while. All these people were making her skin crawl. Then Gwen opened her mouth and began to speak, and without realizing it, the warrior was drawn into the tale being woven around her as if by magic. Her posture changed with her attitude, and before the end of the first story, she was sitting on the edge of her seat, leaning forward on the railing.

The entire performance held her mesmerized, and by the end of the bard’s final ovation, she was sitting spellbound. Except for the change in her posture, her comrades didn’t notice the rapt expression on her face, so captivated had they themselves been. But Nicky saw, and understood that on some level, the storyteller had filled a need within the warrior’s troubled soul.

Lacey and Brenda were full of chatter at dinner and on the ride back to the cottage. Randi was quiet, but since that was her standard operating procedure, no one thought twice about it. The Marine sat down as soon as she reached the haven of her room, and shot off an email to her cousin cum business partner. Midas was doing well under Tommy’s guidance, but a performer like this bard could put them over the top... make them a strength in the Artist’s Guild.

The Sabre awoke with the sun, all her R&R plans shot to hell overnight. She spent the day trying to get tickets to the night’s performance, only to find there were none to be had. When the weeklong series had been announced, the tickets had sold at an astronomical rate. They were gone.

Finally, in desperation, she placed a vid call to Nicky, hoping the young woman could hook her up. As luck would have it, Nicky had been waiting for the contact, and had spent the morning acquiring the tickets she had the distinct impression the Marine would need. She smiled to herself in triumph when the call came through. Lacey was gonna owe her breakfast in bed for a month.

When her two Sabre friends called to see what was on for the evening, Randi explained that she was going to be busy the remainder of the week. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where she was going, and Lacey groaned to herself. How had Nicky known?

She and Brenda harangued their comrade about her sudden interest in the theatre, but Randi would not be deterred. This went beyond physical comfort. Somehow, Gwen’s words reached down and fed the very depths of her soul. And she wouldn’t give that up. She couldn’t.

Night after night she sat awestruck under the auspices of the bard who knew how to touch lives... minds and hearts and souls. She soaked up each word like a man in the desert dying of thirst, storing it for the drought she knew was sure to come in the days and duty that would follow.

Not once did she ever approach the younger woman, content to appreciate the skill and absorb the feeling from afar. As she watched and listened, her determination grew, and once again her strength resolved to protect the little ones like Gwen from the unknown dangers that threatened them.

When the final ovation of the final performance was finished, the Marine was ready to take up her burden and walk forward into the darkness once more.


The wet heat of tears slowly rolling between her breasts brought Randi back to the reality of the present. She bent her head slightly as she tilted Gwen’s chin to bring the bard’s eyes up to meet her own. The warrior gazed into her lover’s eyes with a mixture of confusion, upset, and compassion.

"Crying, Little One?" she asked the blonde tenderly.

"Happy tears. Sad tears. Angry tears." The lost look in Gwen’s eyes was something the warrior understood all too well, and she smiled sadly while gently wiping the wetness from the smooth cheeks. Instinctively, Gwen leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. Randi cupped her cheek, and waited for the green eyes to open to her.

"Dance with me," she whispered huskily.

"Yes." Plain and simple, and said as she rose from the Marine’s lap, her eyes never leaving electric blue.

"Music," Randi called out softly, and a light jazz tune wafted through the air. They wrapped themselves in one another’s arms, and slowly began to sway to the music that surrounded them. Gwen’s ear was pressed to Randi’s chest, and she listened contentedly as the beat kept time with her own.

The couple stayed locked together like this for an eternity. Randi brushed a light kiss across the top of the blonde head. The bard turned and nuzzled the tiny bit of exposed skin, just above the warrior’s cleavage. She greedily inhaled the scent of soap and silk and Randi. It was intoxicating, and she felt the Sabre’s heart rate pick up at the contact. Gwen blew a gentle breath across the pulse point just above her lips, watching the goosebumps break out across the skin then placed a ghostly kiss on the fluttering spot. She edged her nose into the robe, nestling further into Randi’s breasts and placing light kisses across the top of the exposed curves. She felt the hitch in the Marine’s breathing and smiled.

Gwen slid her hands down from where they rested behind Randi’s neck, coming first to caress the broad shoulders. Her smile grew even broader when she felt the warrior’s large hand begin to return the touch up and down her spine. Slowly, she moved her hands down to rest lightly on Randi’s chest, her fingertips tracing the path her lips had just made. Again her hands moved downward, and Randi moaned softly as her touch lingered briefly on hardened nipples. She continued moving down over the ribs and the washboard stomach she could feel even beneath the robe, until her hands rested lightly on the knot tied just below the warrior’s waist.

The bard unknotted the sash slowly, then gasped as the robe parted to reveal the treasure that was hidden beneath it. The gown was a deep purple silk lace, with strategically placed solid weave. It was sexy, appealing, and entirely touchable, and caused the blue eyes to reflect a lavender color of desire. She pushed the Marine away from her slightly, causing Randi’s arms to drop away from Gwen’s body, and a furrow to cross her dark brow. Gwen didn’t have to explain. She ran her hands back up the warrior’s torso, eliciting an involuntary shudder from her partner as her fingers lightly caressed Randi’s breasts again then continued up to her shoulders. The bard eased the robe from the taller woman, letting it drift to the floor as she pulled Randi back into her body.

The Sabre stopped short, reaching her hands down to loosen the blonde’s robe ties, arching unexpectedly when Gwen ducked her head and began kissing the valley between her breasts. The sash loosened quickly with her almost frantic pulling, and she returned the favor to Gwen as she eased the material to the floor. Randi stepped back away from the bard, drinking in the sight of her for a long moment.

Her gown was a black silk, almost sheer, and slit up both sides to allow teasing glimpses of well-toned legs. Randi pulled the smaller woman back into her, and their dancing resumed slowly.

"You are so beautiful," she murmured in the ear just below her lips. She felt the vibration that trembled through the smaller woman’s body. "I love you so much," then gasped when she felt her nipple captured in a pair of hot, wet lips. Her head fell back as her body arched forward. Her hands went from gently caressing the firm ass she held to firmly kneading it. One hand slipped upwards to tangle in the short blonde hair.

Gwen lifted her head from her task at Randi’s subtle tug. Smokey green eyes met lust filled blue, then their mouths met fiercely, passionately. Silk became too much of a barrier between them, and as they lowered themselves to the fur hearthrug, skin met skin in a blinding sensation of passion. The rain kept tempo with the music, and the soft sounds of their lovemaking blended to create a new symphony.

It was still raining when they opened their eyes again in the early afternoon. The fire had died down, and though it was still warm in the room, Randi rose and stoked the flames, feeling her lover’s eyes follow her naked body around the small room. She smiled when Gwen blushed and lowered her head when she was caught staring. The warrior crossed to the bard’s side, and placed the refreshments she had gotten on the small table by the couch. Then she knelt, and raised Gwen’s eyes to meet her own.

"Never be ashamed of that, love. The fact that you feel that way... to know I inspire that kind of desire...." she grinned rakishly. "Does a hell of a lot for the old ego."

Green eyes dropped, then raised again to ensnare the blue above her. "Do I....?" Her eyes dropped again, uncertain how to voice her concern with out seeming petty or needy. Randi understood her unvoiced question, and rapidly wrapped the bard up in strong, sure arms.

"Oh, Little One, do you doubt it? You did so long before we became lovers, before I would let myself admit I had fallen in love with you." Gwen’s eyes turned and gazed at her, seeking reassurance. The Marine chuckled lightly. "Let me tell you about how I ended up with that silk lace gown."

The bard smiled sympathetically. From the color that was slowly climbing up Randi’s face, it was going to be an interesting tale. Besides, it wasn’t something she would have picked out as the Marine choosing for herself in a million years. She couldn’t wait to hear the story.


The assignment hadn’t been bad. Routine, but with the increasing violence against the team that seemed to be becoming the norm these days. A prickling along her spine caused the Marine’s nape hairs to stand up as she slowly gathered up pieces of a puzzle far more complicated than she could imagine at that point in time. Soon, many things would be revealed, and be much clearer to her mind’s eye.

But for now, for today, she was simply a woman visiting a fair sized Mariuset, doing her best to blend in. Her blue eyes and her height made her stand out in this community, but her demeanor diverted what little attention her physical aspects garnered, and she was almost able to relax.

There were several Mariuset stalls that featured local delicacies, and she gamely tried several as she strolled along the broad avenue. The toy maker caught her attention, and she found several interesting old-fashioned gadgets to amuse her and add to her collection of unique items back home.

Randi paused to watch a conventional glass blower in wonder. This type of artistry was rare, and she watched in fascination as he performed his craft. She picked up a little trinket, thinking how Gwen would enjoy the novelty. The warrior couldn’t see the expression these thoughts brought to her face, but those around her noticed, and wondered who put such a look of sheer love and joy on the previously stoic face.

The Sabre continued to walk, turning when she reached the end of the shopping district, and crossing to walk back on the opposite side. There was music coming from one storefront, and she winced when the singer continued to sing just slightly flat of the tune.

"Great," she muttered. "My ears will be twanging for an hour." She hurried past the noise, and didn’t stop to look again until she was out of sound range. When she looked up again to see where she was, she drew in a quick breath. She had found a master weaver, and the garment that hung in the window was created from the most delicate silk lace she had ever seen.

She shook her head, knowing she had no real use for something like that, gorgeous though it was. It would have to be shared with someone extraordinary, and the only person in her life that qualified in that regard was....

She shook her head again, unable to control the brief thought that had skittered across her imagination. Gwen was her best friend, nothing more. Still, as though drawn by a siren’s song, she entered the shop, and purchased the gown. She was frankly amazed at her audacity when she stepped back out into the bright sunlight.

Randi shook her head a third time, trying to reconcile what she’d done with who she was, and what she and Gwen were to one another. She felt the fool, but took the garment home anyway as ‘an excellent illustration of quality and master craftsmanship.’


"I tucked it away... out of sight, out of mind. And I literally forgot about it until...." She blushed beet red again.

"Until when, love?" Gwen lightly stroked her soulmate’s face, smiling when Randi closed her eyes and leaned into the touch.

"Um, when Ben took your memory, and you were sleeping upstairs. I did a bit of cleaning up, and came across it. I found it totally ironic. We were bound, and I still couldn’t wear it for you. And then I got to thinking about why I bought the damned thing in the first place."

"Oh?" The blonde brow arched just slightly.

"Hope. As much as I denied us, denied my feelings for you... well, it is part of the human condition to have hope. Even for one insane moment, the heart sometimes has to hope beyond the logical constraints the mind tries to put on it. There was no other reason for me to buy it. I would never have worn something like that for anyone else."

"Well," the bard said with an ebullient grin. "I’m flattered. That has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of work I have ever seen, and you do such justice to it. Will you take me there some day? I’d like to meet the weaver, and express my thanks."

"Your wish is my desire, love. We can take a little weekend trip; see what we can see. I will be interested for her to meet you."


"When I purchased it, she held it next to me for a long moment. Her words as she wrapped the package up were...." Her brow furrowed as she thought back to that day. The one who holds your heart holds your soul as well. One who will appreciate the gift you offer in this. She wrapped this up, and laid a second package on top of it. For her. Her strength will be your greatest asset.

"I never really understood what she meant by that, until I was gone from you. Because with you by my side, I can do anything."

Gwen smiled, and shifted their positions so she was pillowing the dark head on her soft chest. Randi sighed in contentment as nimble fingers slipped through her disheveled hair, gently coaxing it back into some semblance of order. They ate slowly, Gwen feeding both of them as Randi stroked her bare sides almost absently. When the food was finished, the Marine raised her head and looked into the green eyes above her.

"You owe me another story, and then I want to show you something."

The bard looked dubiously out the window at the still pouring rain. "Ooooookay," she drawled. "What would you like to hear about?" fairly certain she knew the answer to her question.

"Can I have another Soulmates story?" Hopeful blue eyes peered back at her, and the bard felt herself melting under their intense regard.

"Um, all right, but this one isn’t happy ever after either."

Randi dropped her eyes, considering, then raised them back to Gwen’s face. "That’s okay, love. I know they can’t all be happy, and I’m more prepared this time. That first one just sorta blindsided me."

"Yeah, that one always makes me cry at the injustice of it all. This one is sad also, but the cruelty in it makes me angry." A dark brow rose at the fiery sparks that flew from the bard’s eyes.

"Tell on then, please."


The young soldier was tired and bleeding when he crawled into what smelled like a barn in the darkness. He struggled to get behind the small stack of bales near the corner and collapsed. He had no idea if he was in friendly or enemy territory, but he was beyond caring. He closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.

When next he woke, the sun was fully up, and he was gazing into the most intense green eyes he had ever seen. Surprisingly, given the young woman’s attire that indicated her as an enemy to his clan, she continued to approach him gently. The man was too injured to worry about her intentions. If she wanted him dead, he would die this day. Instead, her touch was soothing, and welcome to his fevered brow, and her whispered words of comfort carried him back into the depths of healing sleep.

Opening his eyes again, he found himself lying on a small cot, his wounds tended to, and a small fire going in the pit nearby. Tenderly, she wiped his forehead, and he sank into a healing sleep once more.

On the morning of the fourth day, he was able to sit and take some broth. By the sixth, he was gingerly easing himself around under her watchful eye.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months as he healed and regained his strength. He helped her around her small farm, and she continued to minister to his slowly healing body. Evenings were spent quietly talking, or in long comfortable silences neither felt the need to break. And so summer became fall, and fall passed into winter. Then winter turned to spring. With the coming of spring their time together ended, and the rending was horrific to both souls.

Over the months, they had fallen in love, and one cold night in the dead of winter, they had exchanged vows and promises between them, and consummated their love one for the other. Daily they saw their bond strengthen as their souls wove themselves into a single entity.

The young man’s father, a brutal warlord and clan chieftain had been scouring the countryside looking for his son’s remains. When he came across the homestead, he thought to take his fill of the beautiful young woman he found. The son, out in the fields, heard the cries of his beloved, and rushed to the cabin to find a bear of a man thrusting in and out of his wife. Consumed with rage, he attacked, only to find himself gutted by his father’s sword.

"Yours then, lad?" the cruel man chortled. "She’ll make a fine whore for meself and me men. The price ye pay for deserting and taking up with enemy scum. And t’think I was gonna gi’ye a hero’s burial." He spat on the son as he released into the woman’s body. "Ye’re no man, no hero, and ye’re no longer me son."

The warlord pulled himself out of the woman, and moved to step around the body that lay still in a pool of his own blood. A hand reached out and grabbed his ankle, yanking with an unnatural strength, and causing the man to fall on his own blade. It pierced his heart, and he died instantly. With his remaining strength, the ex-soldier pushed the corpse off his body and coughed. His wife made her way to his side, and cradled his head in her hands.

"Oh, beloved." The tears ran down his face, mingling with the blood that speckled his lips. "I am so sorry. I failed you. I failed us." He closed his blue eyes and turned his head away in disgrace. Gentle fingers turned his face back to her bosom, and warm lips brushed his own. He had to open his eyes, and when he did, he found only love and sorrow reflected back at him. The man reached for his wife’s hand, and tenderly kissed her fingers.

"No, love," she answered him softly. "You didn’t fail. You brought me joy... made my life complete." Tears flowed freely from the green eyes and dripped onto his lips in sacrament. "Our time together here is done. Rest now, I will join you shortly."

He closed his eyes in death as her lips brushed his one final time. Then she moved, placing their pillow under his head. The she gathered all her anger, and kicked the dead hulk that had been his father out the door, and removed her husband’s knife from the warlord’s heart. She washed the blade, not wanting any part of him to touch her again. Then she went back inside and carefully shut and locked the door. She built up the fire, ensuring that it would catch the cottage on fire after she was dead, and lay down beside her husband’s body one final time.

With his knife, well-honed and sharpened, she slit the skin on both wrists with only a slight gasp at the stinging pain she felt from the cut. She was mostly beyond pain now. One more small cut at her neck, and she lay her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes in eternal sleep. It didn’t take long for the cabin to burn once it caught fire, and by mid-morning the following day, it was nothing but a pile of smoldering ash.


The fire that had sparked from the bard’s eyes now burned brightly in the warrior’s as well. "Why that slimy, no-account goddamn worthless bastard." She jumped from the bard’s arms and started pacing. "When I get my hands on him...." Her hands clenched and unclenched reflexively, and her jaw ground in anger. Gwen leaped to her feet, and caught Randi’s hands in her own, her thumbs gently stroking the throbbing pulse points on the thick wrists.

"Love? Love, look at me." Green eyes focused solely on the Sabre’s face, patiently waiting for the ice blue gaze to rivet her way. When it did, the bard drew a deep breath at the lost look hidden behind the pain and anguish so clear in their depths. She released one hand to tenderly cup her soulmate’s planed face, unconsciously tracing the warrior’s features.

Randi closed her eyes, absorbing the sensation and the heartfelt emotion she could feel emanating from Gwen. She drew a deep breath and then another, only opening her eye when her partner began to speak.

"Randi, honey? It’s over. He’s dead and gone, and has been for a very long time."

Another deep breath. Then she wrapped her arms around the bard and pulled her closer until they were touching along their lengths. She sighed and kissed Gwen’s forehead. "I know, Little One, and I’m sorry. There is just so much ugliness, so much cruelty in that story, and it makes me want to reach out and return the hurt to him a hundred fold."

The blonde chewed on her lip. "I wish we had access to a holosuite here. I have someplace fun I’d like to take you."

The Sabre pulled back just slightly, until she could see the knitted brow clearly. "Well, as a matter of fact...."

Gwen caught the teasing in her tone. "Do you?" looking around the tiny cabin, wondering where her companion could possibly have installed one. She caught the blue eyes above her twinkling with mischief.

"Um hmm," Randi managed to hum in a drawl. "But you gotta get dressed first. The caves tend to be kinda cool year round." The storyteller looked at her, startled.

"Waitaminute. Hold on right there," lightly splaying her hands against the taller woman’s chest. "You mean to tell me you really have a holosuite in the caverns?"

"Yep," with a saucy grin. The Marine lifted the hands to her lips and kissed them both, then moved to get some clothes on. "Remember, this is my sanctuary. A place I built for my own rest, relaxation and comfort. And since there was nobody around unless I drove into town to socialize, that meant supplying my own entertainment. There are a couple rooms you didn’t see the other day." This last was said with a wicked gleam as Randi tied her shoes. "Now hurry up and get dressed so we can go play pretend."

God, Gwen thought as she finished tying her own shoes. I’m married to a seven-year-old. Her smile was big and wide though, as she gazed upon her lover’s happiness. Just how did I get so lucky? Then she reached out, and took Randi’s large hand in her own smaller one. "C’mon, you overgrown kid. Let’s go ride."

Their clasped hands made an excellent anchor, and the bard found herself pulled to an abrupt stop. Gwen looked at the Marine in question, only to have Randi quirk an eyebrow at her. "Ride? Ride *what* exactly?"

The smaller woman gave another tug on their joined hands and smiled mischievously at the Sabre. "You’ll just have to trust me on this one, Stud. But I promise you’ll have a good time."

The Marine gave a crooked little grin and shrugged. "All right. Let’s go."

They passed into the caves, gingerly skirting the stalactites and stalagmites in the first few enclosures before reaching the more open spaces of the mining caverns beyond. It was in the second of the open caverns that Gwen noticed several shadowed areas she hadn’t noticed before, and it was in this direction that Randi lead her.

The Sabre stopped at the first opening and motioned. "This is pretty self-explanatory." And it was. The space was filled with a number of weight machines and exercise equipment, and of course her favorite old standby... the punching bag. Gwen looked on in appreciation at the well laid out space and the variety of training tools Randi had outfitted the gym with.

"This," motioning to the next space as they moved on, "is my office. I don’t use it much, since I always came up here to get way, but it’s nice to have if an emergency arises." The storyteller looked around in approval at the state-of-the-art work sanctuary. She smiled. Her soulmate was nothing if not thorough. Then Randi was guiding her to the third opening, which had door that had been carefully built to seal the doorway.

"This is the holosuite. I haven’t used it in a while, but it should be ready to go. Do you have a chip, or will you need to program it. Oh, wait," smacking her forehead. "Never mind. You didn’t know this was here. Of course you need to program it in."

She would have continued berating herself, except Gwen chose that moment to cover her lips in an extendedly passionate kiss. So long, in fact, that they were both breathing hard when they separated.

"What was I saying again?" the Sabre asked dazedly.

"Nothing," the bard mumbled. "Not a damned thing."

"Good," she agreed. Now let’s get this thing set up. I am looking forward to this adventure of yours."

Gwen stepped back into the office space and accessed the computer. It was simply an extension of Randi’s home format, and the storyteller had no problem getting into the program file she needed. She downloaded the information onto a tiny chip, then forwarded the chip into the holosystem. She took the warrior by the hand and led her back to the holosuite room, ensuring the door was firmly closed before she called up the specs for her program. She set the parameters in place, then turned to her companion.

"When you took us to the happy place, I had such a good time that I did a little research. Seems a lot of the entertainment for that bygone era focused on spots like that. And remembering the rush from the shuttle jump, I did a little more looking, and found that they had some amazing and bizarre ‘thrill’ rides." She smiled at the childlike enchantment that sparkled back at her from the warrior’s smiling face. "So I had the computer put the best of them together for us in one place. I was gonna surprise you with it sometime, though I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon. Anyway... surprise," said with a nervous chuckle and a tiny half-shrug of assumed nonchalance. She hit a button, and the room became all outdoors filled with some of the most curious objects Randi had ever seen.

Blue eyes widened in delight as she looked around in sheer wonder. Then she turned her gaze to her soulmate who stood hesitantly watching her, waiting for her reaction. Gwen gasped slightly in startlement when large hands clasped her waist, and swung her around in a high circle.

"RAAAAANNDDDIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!" she squealed, closing her eyes, and grasping the Marine’s strong shoulders. Randi laughed excitedly.

"Oh, Little One... this is fabulous!! Thank you!!" She set the now unsteady woman on her feet, and held onto her until the bard regained her balance. "C’mon. We got some ridin’ to do." The blonde cheerfully followed where the Sabre was leading her, overjoyed that her gift had been so well received. She was hoping this would prove half as much fun as it appeared to be when she set it up.

Chapter VII

"Oh my God!" the Marine breathed as she collapsed onto the bed much later. "That was so incredible. I can’t believe some of the stuff they did for kicks, but God, what a rush. Oof!" The wind left her lungs as Gwen fell on top of her deadweight. She gently rubbed the strong back. "You okay there, love?"

A groan was her answer.

"I guess riding the last coaster was a bad idea, huh?"

Another groan.

She felt the smaller body slowly beginning to relax into her own. "I had a fantastic time. Thank you for sharing such an incredible experience with me." A third groan, but this one sounded suspiciously like a purr. "I love you."

The blonde head rose from its rather comfortable pillowed position on Randi’s full breasts, and smiled. "I love you too, Stud. And there is no one else I’d want to share incredible experiences with. I had a really good time too."

"Right up to that last ride."

"Yeah. I’m not sure if it was the shot-like start, the three loops, or that ugly drop. But something just didn’t sit right."

"Coulda been the fact that we weren’t sitting."

"Yep, thanks for reminding me of that." The bard made a mad dash for the bathroom. Randi followed quickly when she realized her partner was honestly not well. She rubbed the younger woman’s back, and gently wiped her face.

"You feel any better?" asked contritely. She didn’t know Gwen was feeling so badly.

The storyteller cupped the warrior’s face. "Yes, actually. Just got to be a little too much. I’m gonna take a lukewarm shower and...."

"And I’m gonna make you some tea. See if we can’t make you well."

"Randi," in a commanding tone that forced the Marine to meet intense green eyes. "I’m okay now, really. It was just a little more than I expected it to be. Maybe we should do it first next time."

"You want to go again?"

"Of course, silly. We did some incredible things today. I had a great time."

The sparkle returned to the sapphire eyes. "Me too. Next time, we won’t spend so long at it."

"Sounds like a plan, Stud. You wanna join me in the shower?" waggling her eyebrows comically. The Sabre chuckled at the sight.

"No, I’m gonna fix you some tea. See if we can settle your stomach. And then I think I owe you another story."

"Yep, you sure do."

"Well, the sooner we settle in for the night the sooner you get your story. So chop chop!" saucily. The bard stuck out her tongue before retreating into the shower fully clothed with a shriek. The Marine laughed evilly as she went back into the main room, and pulled out the peppermint tea.

When Gwen stepped from the bathroom, Randi had a cozy nest set up in their bed with the blankets pulled down and the pillows propped up. She settled her lover into place, then excused herself to shower while the blonde sipped her tea.

The Marine was a little distracted when she stepped out of the bathroom, concentrating on the picture Gwen made and the story she wanted to tell her more than her surroundings. So she was mightily surprised, and not pleasantly, when she felt a now familiar smack to the back of her head. One hand reached for her head, while the other covered her mouth where she’d once again bitten her tongue. The towel she’d been wrapped in fell to the floor, and Gwen whistled and cheered in appreciation. The Sabre was torn between glaring at the now visible goddess of love, and blushing under Gwen’s fervent, lust-filled admiration.

"What’d you do that for?" opting to glare while she blushed. She snatched the towel from the floor, and rewrapped it around her tall body.

"Oh babe, I don’t think you need to like cover up that totally luscious bod of yours. We were enjoying the view." Aphrodite actually cringed when a bardic throat cleared, and green eyes glared daggers in her direction. "Ahem, yeah well anyway." She walked over to the not-so-carefully discarded gown from earlier in the day. She picked them up, and physically folded them carefully herself before placing them gently on the arm of the couch. "I do something totally radical, and this is how you treat it? Of all the ungrateful...." the goddess fumed. She was met by a blank stare. "Oh wait, you like so don’t have a clue here, do ya?"

Randi’s hand moved from the back of her head to the front, and she looked at her bard plaintively. "Ya know, just once I’d like to have a coherent conversation with these guys that doesn’t start in the middle of something." Gwen hid her laughter behind her hand, and the warrior’s attention returned to Dite.

"*I* gave Maiora the designs for these gowns. They were made *for you*... for you both."

The warrior didn’t know whether to be pleased or angry. She settled for upset. "You set me up? Whatever happened to free will?"

"Oh, you bought them of your own free will, babe. We just set up the circumstances and opportunity. Trust me, if you didn’t have free will," the love goddess’s eyes darkened in something akin to rage, "a lot of things about the past few years would have been different."

Randi’s head lowered in acknowledgment, and she started to speak when Gwen’s voice interrupted her breath.

"Now, just a damn minute, Aphrodite." Remembering the bard’s fearful reaction to the goddess the first time they’d met once the Marine had returned, Randi had to wonder where the fire in her tone came from. Then she understood that her soulmate was speaking in her defense, and that lent a fire all its own. Gwen slipped from the bed, and tightened her robe as though in preparation for doing battle.

"There are a lot of things a lot of people would change over the course of their lives if they could go back and redo with all the knowledge they have garnered in their life experiences." The blonde stepped into Dite’s personal space, and poked a finger at her chest. "I’m sure there are even a lot of things the gods would do differently given a second chance." Now she stood nose to nose with the goddess. "But that’s not how life works. The fact that Randi and I have a second chance at happiness together is nothing short of miraculous, and for that I am forever in your debt. BUT... but, you are not going to continue to lord that over her, do you understand? We are past that."

Aphrodite stared at Gwen for a very long moment... an amazing feat, considering her eyes were crossed. Then she kissed the bard’s forehead, and broke into a heartfelt, joyous giggle. "Oh, Little One. I am so proud of you. You so totally ROCK!!! Later, guys!" And she disappeared in a shower of rose petals and the tinkling of fading laughter.

Gwen looked at Randi curiously, who was gaping at her in astonishment. "What? I swear encounters with her are getting bizarre." She stopped talking when Randi wrapped her up tightly in her strong arms and held on as though for dear life. After a timeless moment, the Marine eased up just enough to gaze into Gwen’s eyes before lowering her head and capturing the bard’s lips.

When they pulled apart with several small kisses, Randi whispered over the sound of their joint heartbeats thrumming loudly in the stillness. "Thank you." Blonde brows scrunched up as she tried to determine exactly what she was being thanked for. The Sabre interpreted her confusion easily, and she continued speaking. "You stood up for me. You defended my choice. Even though it was wrong, and hurt us both horribly, you still defended my honor."

"Of course I did. I love you. Laugh lines, scar, bellybutton lint, freckles and all."

The warrior couldn’t help it. She burst into unrestrained laughter. "Oh sweetheart," she said when she finally caught her breath enough to speak. "I love you too... so much. Don’t you ever forget that." And she kissed the bard deeply once more.

"Oh, baby... you keep reminding me like that, and I’ll be lucky to remember anything else." Randi chuckled delightedly, and this time Gwen joined her. They started toward the bed, but hadn’t moved two steps before the Marine’s towel slipped again.

"Damnation!" she muttered, and went to rewrap it yet again, when a pair of small hands stopped her progress.

"Don’t bother, please? Aphrodite was right... you are totally luscious, and *I* was certainly enjoying the view. It just wasn’t one I felt needed to be shared with her. I’d like to cuddle up naked with you, if you don’t mind."

For answer, the Sabre let the towel slide to the floor, and reached to remove the bard’s robe. As the material slid to the ground, Randi took her companion in her arms, and simply held her. "This what you wanted?" whispered in a nearby ear as they both savored the intimate sensation.

The blonde head nodded against her chest. "Um hmm. I just need to feel you near. Can we go lay down? I’m still a little wiped."

Randi bent down, and tenderly cradled the smaller woman in her arms. She walked the few remaining steps to the bed, and reverently laid Gwen on the sheets. "Finish your tea, love. It will help you feel better."

"It has already," she answered with a smile. "It’s very good. Where’d you get the recipe?" The bard settled back with the cup in her hand and an expectant look on her face.

Randi sighed. This wasn’t the story she had planned, but it was one she would be happy to share. "A friend," she replied with a smile. "It’s been long time since this happened, but I’ll tell you as much of the story as I remember."

"I’d like that. Is it someone I know?"

"Nope. Now let me tell it," said with a grin. The bard stuck out her tongue, but settled back into her pillows with an eager appearance. The expression changed to amused indulgence when Randi curled up into her, and gently wrapped an arm around the bard’s sore midsection. The taller woman lightly massaged the tender area, caressing the skin as much as anything else. Gwen purred at the sensations flooding her body.

"That feels wonderful. You have magic hands, ya know?"

"So you’ve said before," with an evil leer.

"And I’m sure I’ll say again," with a snicker. "But that is not what I meant, and you know it."

"I know. I’m glad it’s helping you feel better. I still feel bad...."

"Don’t. It was worth every minute. Now," swallowing the last of her tea, and curling up on her side so the warrior could spoon around her. "Tell me the story of your friend and this tea."


Herbology wasn’t something she’d anticipated studying in depth when she started her Sabre training. So the young Marine was a little surprised to find it in her class listing when she started the second phase of her training.

"I dunno about this, Randi," the young woman striding next to her commented as they made their way across the compound. "We already have advanced first aid and lifesaving techniques. What good is a class on herbs gonna do for us? I don’t want to be a medic."

"Keep an open mind, Becca. You may learn something."

The redhead laughed. "Marine, if my mind gets anymore open, stuff is gonna start falling out of it." Randi joined in her laughter, and they entered the small classroom still chuckling. The rest of their unit wondered at the joke, but there was no time to share as the instructor stepped in right behind them, and motioned them to take their seats.

"I’m sure some of you are wondering why you are having to sit through a class on herbs," the older Sabre intoned. "My name is Poppy, and I’m here to teach you how to survive." The class looked at each other in silence. Wasn’t that what *all* their training was about?? What difference was this class going to make?

The training facility had a holosuite that was dedicated to the herb class year round. In it, one could find every single type of plant life found on the planet in its natural habitat. The class spent two hours every morning of the next month learning and studying each and every single plant and its many varied uses.

It became clear to all the Sabres-in-training just how important this class was to their survival. It could mean the difference between life or death.

Shortly after the unit finished the class, they were sent out into the field on a real life training exercise. Success was imperative. Failure washed a recruit from the program. Poppy drew instructor duty, to monitor the unit’s progress through the test. The older Sabre had to smile at some of the unorthodox methods used to accomplish the task that had been set before them, but the instructor was well pleased with their success.

The next two months went swiftly enough, and the new Sabres were officially inducted into the ranks by their comrades. Then they were sent to their various new postings to await assignments. Randi’s first mission was routine... a scouting job. But the area the team was sent to was remote, and it was rough, slow going. The one bright spot was Poppy. The older Sabre had drawn the duty, and Randi, for one was thrilled to see her former instructor. Poppy had some great stories to tell, and kept the small team entertained in the evenings.

Once the mission was complete, and the unit had secured the information they’d been sent for, they slowly began to make their way to the nearest base. Sometimes, to alleviate the boredom, someone, usually Poppy, would throw a brainteaser question out to the group. It was an activity the unit had come to appreciate.

One evening, just a day or so out from the base, Randi began to feel a bit sick to her stomach. Nothing horrible, just a little nauseous. Lacey, the new medic noticed her pallor, and the fact that she’d barely touched the dinner she’d helped to prepare.

"Randi," spoken quietly, with a hand on the Marine’s arm. "You all right? You look...."

"I’ll be fine, Lacey. I’m just a mite off my feed tonight."

"Can I get you something?"

"No, thanks," Randi replied with a wan smile. "I think I’m gonna just get some rest. I don’t have duty tonight."

"If you’re sure."

"Yeah. Thanks, though."

"Not a problem, my friend. It’s my job."

"Nah, the fact that you cared enough to notice isn’t your job. It just makes you really good at what you do," the Marine replied quietly and sincerely. Then Randi slipped off to the tent, and crawled into her space.

Lacey went to Poppy then, still concerned about the Marine’s pallor. The instructor moved to the fire, and carefully measured out herbs into a cup. A little hot water, and the older Sabre walked into the shelter.


"My first mission as a Sabre and I was sick from what I thought was nervousness. I just *knew* this would wash me from the program. When Poppy came in, I assumed it was to tell me to pack my bags, figuratively speaking. We were only a day out from the base, and I expected to be dropped from the program and reassigned."

"Well, obviously that didn’t happen." Gwen paused, and spared a brief moment to wonder how different things might have been if she had. We wouldn’t be the same people. And I like who we are. The storyteller smiled at her companion. "So what did?"


"How do you feel, Marine?" Poppy crossed the small space, and set the tea down by Randi’s bedside. The instructor’s hands briefly rested on Randi’s forehead, then moved with some alarm to the younger Sabre’s neck, finding a weak, thready pulse. Poppy moved swiftly to the shelter opening, and motioned for Lacey.

The medic recognized the urgency in Poppy’s eyes, even though the herbologist’s motions were calm and controlled. "What’s up, Poppy?" At that moment, Randi could be heard retching. The two Sabres walked back into the tent, and raced to the Marine’s side.

"She probably thought it was a nervous reaction to her first mission," Poppy said to the medic, who was already doing a preliminary scan on her friend. "Look for a viral infection of some kind." The instructor moved to Randi side, and began cleaning her face carefully. Then Randi felt herself eased into a semi-reclined position, as Poppy gave her the tea. "Drink," the older Sabre commanded. "It will help ease your stomach until we can figure out what is wrong with you."


"Turns out, I had been bitten by... something... that made me sick as a dog for three days. I don’t remember much of those three days, but when I came to my senses the fourth day, the nurse pressed a cup of tea into my hands. I thought she was nuts. I hadn’t had anything on my stomach in almost four days, and the last thing I’d eaten had had a return flight I really didn’t want to think about, much less repeat. I would have protested if I’d had the strength. But then I got a whiff, and I realized it was Poppy’s special blend. And I did remember vaguely that it had helped. So I sipped it down slowly, and it did help me feel better. I determined right then to have the recipe, when I felt well enough to ask for it."

"Poppy didn’t mind sharing it?" Gwen found herself more than a little curious about the Sabre who had been her partner’s friend and mentor. But despite the fondness that the bard could see reflected in Randi’s eyes, there was also a lingering pain, well-hidden, but not completely concealed.

"No. And it became an instant Sabre favorite. Somebody always had the herbs for tea on any given mission. It was just... comforting. It always reminded me of caring friends."

"I can see why." The younger woman turned in the Marine’s embrace, until they were facing one another. "I’m glad you had them then." A pause. "Did they ever find out what made you so sick... specifically, I mean?

Randi thought long and hard about that for a while, absently running her hands up Gwen’s strong back. The storyteller closed her eyes as the stroking touch became firm, and the Sabre began to coax knots from the muscles beneath her fingers. "Not that I remember, now that I think about it." She shrugged. "It didn’t seem important once I felt better, and nothing like that ever happened again."

"Mmm," the bard murmured, falling into a light doze. Randi smiled down indulgently at her soulmate, then pulled up the covers and closed her eyes. It wasn’t long before the only sound in the cabin was their synchronized breathing as sleep overtook them.

It was pitch dark outside, and the only light indoors was the faint glow from the fire’s banked embers. The Marine’s features creased into a frown, wondering what had awakened her, only to reflexively tighten her arms around Gwen at the loud crack. The blonde shifted slightly, resting her hand on the soft skin just above Randi’s heart.

"It’s all right, love. It’s just ice."

A deeper frown as she thought about Gwen’s words, before Rand looked down and realized that the green eyes were still tightly shut. She must be dreaming, the older woman thought as another loud sound reverberated through the room. The raven head raised from the pillow as blue eyes tracked around the room.

"Randi, hon? Relax. It’s just ice." This time, sleepy eyes peered back at her when the warrior looked down at her lover. "The temperature must have dropped when it stopped raining earlier. What you’re hearing now is the ice breaking up."

The Marine cocked her head just slightly, and caught the very faint patter of rain underneath the crackling sound of the ice. Now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense. "Amazing. I didn’t even think about that. Not that I have ever been exposed to that much cold weather. Even as a Sabre...." She looked down at her companion, now cuddled up against her with her eyes firmly closed again. "How’re you feeling, love?"

Gwen smiled without opening her eyes. "Much better. My stomach is a little sore, but otherwise, pretty damned good."

"I’m glad," the warrior answered. "Would you do something for me?"

One green eye opened and rolled up to peer at Randi’s profile, which could barely be seen in the dim light. "Does it require me to move in any way?"

"Uh huh. A little."

The storyteller gave an aggrieved sigh, and sat partially up to look fully into the Sabre’s face. "You’re so lucky I love you so much," said with a lightly teasing note in her voice.

"Oh Little One. That I most surely know," answered with utmost seriousness. "I love you too." Gwen reached out and wrapped a hand in Randi’s hair, pulling the Marine to her sharply, and capturing her lips with surprising fierceness. The kiss went on for long moments, until the bard felt the warrior relax and whimper softly. Only then did she release her.

"Now, what can I do for you?"

Randi ducked her head, thankful for the darkness that covered her sudden blush, wondering where her embarrassment was coming from. There was no need to be shy. She and Gwen were married... joined in heart, mind, body and soul. No reason at all not to ask. She stuck out her tongue.

"I wath gow’n to ast you to kith i’ an’ mate i’ bedda," she replied, pointing to the spot in question. Gwen clasped her chin, and turned to look, squinting to see in the near darkness.

"Oh," as light finally dawned. "Lemme guess. That’s where you bit your tongue when Aphrodite smacked your head earlier." Randi nodded. "And now it hurts, and you want me to kiss it and make it better?" she hazarded, her hand gently stroking the facial scar in a soothing manner. The warrior leaned into the touch, soaking up the comfort like a sponge. Her eyes closed, and she waited, until she realized that Gwen was waiting for an answer. Blue eyes popped open and met Gwen’s, and she nodded once, swallowing hard at the passion she could plainly see just for her.

"Well, then. I guess we should kiss it and make it better then, huh?" A third nod, and this time as her eyes closed, she felt the bard moving in closer. She took a deep breath, savoring Gwen’s scent, and felt a tingle run up her spine as her soulmate sat for a long moment, simply breathing in the same air. Then came the most tender of touches. Lightly, Gwen’s tongue traced one side of her tongue, lingering on the spot she had bitten. Then the warmth moved to the other side, delicately mapping the muscle. When Gwen moved to the bottom of Randi’s tongue, the warrior moaned loudly, and opened her mouth, inviting the bard to come in and play. The invitation was not refused, and the last coherent thing Randi remembered was the soft warmth of Gwen’s body on top of her own. The sounds outside couldn’t begin to compete for their attention.

"How do you suppose Carbon is getting along with the folks?" Gwen cocked her head at the peculiar phrasing, and thought about the question.

"Well, Reed was supposed to bring Rox with her, and knowing Daddy, he’s started training them both. So I imagine everybody is doing pretty well."

"You think Dad is ready for that? I mean, Mom told me that if he hurts his back again, there is no fixing it. The fact that he recovered any mobility at all this time is nothing short of a miracle." Randi paused when the tears welled up in Gwen’s eyes. "Oh, Little One, I’m sorry. I thought you knew." She drew her soulmate into her arms, and wrapped her in a tender embrace.

The bard had waved a hand to halt the warrior’s speech, and she melted into the hug with a sigh of abandon. Reluctantly, she pulled back enough to look the Marine in the eye. "Mom and Dad?"

The dark head ducked in embarrassed acknowledgment. "Um, yeah. Ji... *mom* insisted. Said since we finally made it officially official, I couldn’t get by with calling them by their first names anymore." She looked up at Gwen then. "Does it bother you?"

"Oh, love. No. No, not at all." She pulled the taller woman back in for another hug, squeezing tightly. "I... I’m... these are happy tears. I know they can’t replace your own parents, but I had always hoped...."

"Gwen, I would never presume such an intimacy. I’m... glad your... *our* folks insisted. I know our parents would have been great friends had they been given the chance to know one another. I’ve looked at them as family for a long time."

The storyteller just hung on fiercely, trying to convey the depths of her feeling by action alone. When they separated, Gwen looked up at her soulmate with smiling lips and shining eyes. "I’m glad," was all she said. "Now, let’s go see what all the racket was about last night," and she held out her hand to Randi who clutched it, and followed Gwen out the door.

"Sit." Pause. "Stay." Pause. "Good." The man rewarded the two small shepherd pups for their obedience. "All right, you two. That’s enough for now. Time for *my* training now."

Geoff was frustrated with his seeming lack of progress. Even though his doctors assured him repeatedly that his advancement thus far was unheralded, he felt he should be walking. Not still trying to remind his muscles what their purpose was. He sighed quietly. He knew he was risking a lot pushing himself, but he was ready to be a whole man again, dammit, and not an invalid! Jill deserved better than he was able to give her.

With another sigh, he maneuvered his hover chair to a separate area of the workshop. Tommy had set this up for him when he confided to the younger man that he needed a space he could do his exercises privately. Jill didn’t mean to hover, but sometimes she worried too much for either of their own good.

He made it to the parallel bars, noting wryly that little had changed in this area of physical therapy in a very long time. Oh he could walk electronically aided, and he would do that after he made it through his regimen, but this was an exercise in freedom of movement. The muscles needed to remember their function, and if doing things the old fashioned way was what it took, then that is precisely what he would do.

The weapons smith looked down at his strong hands for a long minute, and offered up a benediction of gratitude that his still had function of his upper body and his hands and arms. Then he reached out and latched onto the bars with a firm grip, and hauled himself to his feet. He gasped in pain as he straightened, and gritted his teeth in determination. It was time to get to work.

"Geoff!" The now profusely sweating man looked up when he heard his name called with something akin to alarm. "That’s enough!" He was so close to the end of the rails. He shook his head negatively. Jill moved to stand in front of him, blocking his progress. "Sweetheart, you’ve done enough for today. You’re going to hurt yourself...."

"I already did that," he snarled, lifting both hands from the bars in his anger. Without hesitation, his legs gave out from under him, and he crumpled to the ground with a moan. When his wife approached him, however, he growled a warning. "Stay. Back."

"No, Geoff. Not this time," Jill answered just as fiercely. "I promised you I’d keep an eye on you, and keep that ego in check." She took a deep breath. "Well, checkmate, buddy! You are done trying to do this on your own. I won’t have you hurt yourself!"

"No, you don’t want an invalid on your hands, do you?" snarling at her.

"ALL RIGHT!" the woman roared. "Enough with the pity party already! We will get through this." She took his face in her hands, softening her voice and gently stroking his cheeks. "We will get through this," she repeated, "together. You will be able to walk again, or you won’t. What matters is that we do this together. Everything else is secondary."

Geoff gazed into the eyes he had fallen in love with so many years before, and saw not pity or anger, but love and acceptance. His head would have dropped had Jill not been cradling it. Instead, the weapons smith lowered his eyes until a tap on his chin made him look up at his spouse. "Together?" he asked softly.

"Together," came her smiling reply.

He just looked at her for a long moment, the tears unashamedly falling down his face. "I hope Randi and Gwen have together what I have been so lucky to have with you." He paused. "I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart. Can we get off the floor now?"

He chuckled at her plaintive question. "I think that might be a good idea. I’m not sure the puppies know what to make of this recent development." Indeed, the two tiny shepherds sat with cocked heads, looking for all the world like they were trying to solve a riddle. When the big humans looked their way and laughed, they took that as a sign for playtime, and rushed over on little legs, yipping and barking.

When Jill found herself flat on her back with two licking, nipping, squirming puppies ferociously attacking while Geoff laughed himself silly, she gave up the struggle to get up. Instead, she gave thanks for the laughter, and proceeded to join him.

It was to this scene that Tommy, Ella and Randall walked in on. The child thought it looked like great fun, and rushed forward to join the melee. Jill sat up, laughing when both puppies and the boy rushed to her lap. Randall squirmed and giggled as the dogs attacked from both sides, licking his face with abandon.

"We came to see if ya’ll wanted to join us for lunch. I have a new recipe I want to try out," Ella offered in explanation. She didn’t add that she’d called Tommy home when Geoff had been cooped up alone in the workshop for an inordinate amount of time. She’d promised Randi she’d keep an eye on things, and damned if she wasn’t going to do just that!

"Oh," Jill answered, evading a shepherd’s tongue, "that sounds wonderful. I’m starving. What bout you, honey?"

Geoff glanced up from his spot on the floor. "Actually, if you’ll give me a few minutes to shower, it sounds like a great idea to me too." Then everyone paused awkwardly when he did not move from his place.

"Well, then," Ella replied, clearing her throat. "Let me take Randall, and go get things started. "Ya’ll come on up to the house when you’re ready." Jill stood up, scattering puppies, and handing the child to his mother. Tommy didn’t budge.

"Can I help you up, Geoff?" No condescension or pity, but still the weapons smith stiffened. The other man just waited. Jill held her breath, looking at her husband. He finally turned his gaze to hers, and held her eyes, even as he spoke to Tommy.

"I’d appreciate that, my friend. Thanks."

Jill smiled with tears in her eyes, and turned to Ella. "C’mon. Let’s go get lunch started." She stopped at the threshold, and looked at Geoff. "I’ll meet you at the boathouse shortly, sweetheart." Jill called the puppies to her side, and left arm in arm with Ella. The men in their lives watched them go, and then began maneuvering Geoff into the hover chair.

"We are very lucky, Tommy." The other man glanced to the now empty doorway that Jill and his family had exited through.

"Yep, we sure are. And I am so glad Randi and Gwen are blessed as well. C’mon, let’s get you home so we can get back to lunch. Whatever Ella’s got cooking smells fantastic."

Geoff just chuckled, his optimism restored, and he led the way to the boathouse.

Chapter VIII

"God, this is incredible." The warrior drew a deep breath, and gazed in awe at the beauty that surrounded them when they stepped outdoors. The weather the previous day had created some of the most interesting ice sculptures Randi had ever seen. Gwen was equally stunned.

Over everything lay a fine sheeting of ice, broken in places and reworked by nature’s firm hand. The relative warmth of the day had already started small rivulets dripping down the longer icicles, and part of the ground was turning to mush.

"C’mon." The bard tugged at the larger hand enfolded around her own. "Let’s take the transport. I have no desire to take a freezing mud bath this morning."

Randi chuckled, and they ducked back into the small shed. Within moments, they were in the transport, and speeding toward the tiny town.

"I can’t believe you got these for us," the Marine acknowledged quietly, as she absently stroked the new material covering her arm. "They are so beautifully crafted, and they tell a story, you know."

Green eyes swung to hers. "No, I didn’t know. I just thought they were lovely. They seemed to... I dunno... um, suit us, somehow."

"Oh, they most definitely do, my bard. The beadwork tells a story of two who overcame everything to be together."

Tears flooded Gwen’s eyes. "I didn’t know... I didn’t realize...."

"And that makes them even more special." Randi smiled warmly. "I love you, ya know."

"Yeah, I do. I love you too."

The couple entered the town in time for lunch, and they naturally drifted over to the inn. The meal was fortifying, and satisfied their appetites quite well. The Sabre looked down at her now empty plate with a bit of trepidation. "I don’t know if Lancelot is gonna welcome the additional weight Jack’s cooking just added." She looked wryly at Gwen’s clean plate. "He may sit down and refuse to get up."

The storyteller laughed, and Randi chuckled in sympathy. "Nah, you’re still gaining back." She reached across the table, and gently stroked the scarred face. "Besides, it wouldn’t matter to me if you had gained extra. I’d make Lance get up and go."

A wry eyebrow rose. "You’ve never met Lancelot, have you, Gwen?"

The bard’s blonde brow rose in response. "No, but he’s never met me, either. You think I’d let him treat you like that?"

Randi looked at her soulmate with amused, reverent affection for a long time. "I think Lancelot isn’t gonna know what hit him, quite frankly."

It was a short walk to the stable where the stallion was housed in rough weather. Though not *her* horse per se, Randi was about the only human being the somewhat nasty tempered animal would let ride him. He spent many of his days in the big corral running and snorting his outrage to the world. As the two approached hand in hand, the horse caught sight of them, and stampeded over to greet them.

Lancelot’s head butt against her chest caused the air to leave Randi’s lungs in a sudden rush of air. She laughed a little, then reached to scratch behind his ears, and he whickered his contentment. The warrior looked him in the eye, and turned his chestnut head toward Gwen.

"Lance, this is Gwen. Little One, meet Lancelot." The stallion moved unexpectedly, and the bard was knocked to her ass rather hard. The equine snorted and whinnied, almost as though her were laughing at the smaller woman. The Marine cut her eyes at the horse, and reached down to help Gwen stand. She looked back at the horse. "Be nice," she hissed, and he proceeded to knock the storyteller flat on her back. She reached a hand down, and helped the bard back to her feet, then Randi stood to her full height, eyes blazing. A gentle touch on her arm caused her to look into verdant eyes. Gwen lifted her hand and stroked the now fiery red scar, willing it to cool beneath her touch.

"Let me, love." The dark head nodded at the soft request, and the bard stepped in front of the soldier and looked the horse directly in the eye. Without warning, she pinched the tender skin of his nostrils, and he immediately settled, realizing unerringly who the boss was. The blonde head leaned in to speak softly in his ear.

"You don’t have to like me, Lance, though I’d like for us to be friends. But you’re not going to upset her by hurting me. Do you understand?" Gwen took a chance then, and released her hold, waiting for the horse’s reaction. The whuffling sound of air exhaled from his nostrils, and he turned to stare at the bard intently. The contest of wills went on for seemingly forever, then the equine gracefully ducked his head, and ever so gently butted his head into her chest. Gwen chuckled and scratched the stallion under his chin. Randi stared at her in amazement.

"Just had to show him who was boss. C’mon, Stud. I think he’s ready to ride."

Randi saddled the horse, and they mounted up. Gwen wrapped her arms around the firm body in front of her, snaking her cold hands underneath the tunic, and resting them on the warm skin of Randi’s belly.

"YEOW!" The Marine swung her head around and glared in Gwen’s direction. "Damnation, woman! Why the hell...." Her voice trailed off as Gwen started trailing her hands lightly up and down the hard muscles of her stomach. "You don’t play fair."

The bard leaned up, chin on the taller woman’s shoulder. She leaned close, warm breath sending chills up the warrior’s spine. "I know. Let’s go."

"Hup," Randi said, sending the horse on his way. Lancelot walked slowly, picking his steps carefully through the ice and snow. Nature’s sounds settled around them peacefully, and the two relaxed into the ride. After a time, the Sabre spoke. "Tell me another story, love. Please?"

She felt rather than saw Gwen’s smile, and her face responded in kind. "What kind of story would you like?"

Randi thought about it for a long moment. "Something about you."

"Something about me, huh? Hmm. Well, all right." She sat thinking, absently tucking her hands around the warrior’s ribcage and running her thumbs lightly up and down the soft skin. "I remember...."


It was a month long engagement in a place she’d been before, and was comfortable performing in. Sal was thrilled to be back, and very enthusiastic about the response Gwen was receiving.

"This is just wonderful, my dear. The reviews are very good, and you haven’t even given your first performance."

Gwen placed her bag on the bed, and sat down wearily. "That’s great, Sal," she answered with little enthusiasm, reaching down and removing her shoes. The bard lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. He sat down tentatively and hesitantly patted her leg.

"What’s wrong, Gwen?"

"I’m tired, Sal," a little tersely. The green eyes had gone gray when she opened them, with an emotion that closely resembled defeat. "I’ve been working a lot lately. I just need some rest."

The man bent down and lifted Gwen’s legs, gently tucking her into bed. "You get some rest, dear. I’ll have tea sent up later."

She didn’t respond, having turned on her side and closed her eyes again. He stepped out of the room soundlessly, never seeing the silent tears slide down her face.

The knock at the door woke her up from an uneasy sleep. She wiped the sleep from her eyes, and pushed the long locks out of her face. The bard slipped from underneath the covers, and shuffled to the door. "Open," she mumbled, and the door slid aside. She pulled the tea service into the room, and walked over to the window, leaning her head against the glass.

Gwen stood looking down at the humanity that walked the streets far below, then her gaze turned to the river beyond. Her attention was caught by the strong, smooth stride of a figure. She watched the individual stop and stare at the water for a very long moment, and she wondered what thoughts caused the broad shoulders to slump. She felt her muse come to life as a burst of colorful images flashed through her mind. Gwen observed the person lift their burden and straighten their shoulders before moving out of sight. With a smile, the storyteller sat down to her tea, and focused her gaze inward as she began to put the images into a comprehensive story.

When Sal entered the door with a bit of trepidation some time later, he was pleasantly surprised. Gwen was refreshed, the nap apparently having worked a small miracle. He didn’t stop to question, but was simply thankful for the change. The bard waved him over to the window, where she sat drinking tea and working furiously.

"Feeling better, my dear?" A rhetorical question at best, since he could see the difference in her demeanor, but he felt better for the asking. A smile lit her face that he answered in reflex almost immediately.

"Yeah, I do. Thanks for asking."

"I have to take care of my best girl, ya know," he said, wiggling his eyebrows rakishly to emphasize the point. His smile grew even wider when she chuckled and blushed prettily.

"Sal! What would Carmen say?" Now he joined her laughter, but she could see the slow color rising up his neck.

"Oh, honey," he replied gamely. "You flatter me. But we’d adopt you in a heartbeat if we could... you know that."

She looked at him affectionately, laying a hand on his arm. "I know. You’re a good man, Sal Bouvier."

He patted her hand, and turned his gaze out the window. "You ready to go do rehearsals and sound checks?"

"Yep," she said, with more enthusiasm than he’d seen from her in a while. "Let’s go."

Sound and lighting checks went well, though Sal noticed that Gwen’s attention seemed to be focused inwardly instead of what was going on immediately around her. He didn’t bother her, however. The man had seen her creative process in action too many times to disturb her muse when she was working. Instead, he walked her through the motions, getting the technical end taken care of, and feeding her before dropping her back at her room to get some rest. She moved immediately to the window, gazing out at the rain-lashed darkness beyond.

When performance time came, she was ready, though a niggling feeling on the back of her neck was giving her butterflies like she hadn’t had before a presentation in many years. Her mind kept drifting back to the beaten slump of broad shoulders, and she wondered what caused the feeling of utter defeat to emanate so strongly from the being’s soul. Her soul felt the echo of depression, and she made a conscious effort to put her uneasiness aside. Closing her eyes and focusing, she relaxed and felt things settle into place just as a light tapping resounded on the door.

The performance was going smoothly, as everyone expected, when without warning, the bard faltered and hesitated momentarily. For an instant, she thought she had seen a familiar silhouette. It wasn’t a noticeable pause, except to three people, but to them it screamed. Picking up her train of thought, the storyteller finished her performance, almost visibly shaken by the fumbling. Sal wisely did not mention it on the way back from the hotel, having made Gwen’s excuses from the opening night festivities before they left. She was silent, and bid him a quiet goodnight, before closing the door.


"I had never been so driven as I was that night. For whatever reason, the muse deemed it imperative that the story I’d been given by the figure at the river be finished and presented that evening, and I worked feverishly long into the night to get the details down." Gwen turned and looked at Randi curiously. "I had never had to fight with the words like that before."

"So, what happened?"


Sal’s knock went unanswered the following morning, and he entered the key code he’d been given. When Gwen was on a creative roll, she tended to block the rest of the world out. What he found when he opened the door was alarming.

The storyteller was pacing back and forth, hand gestures rough and frantic. Her bed didn’t look as though it had been slept in, and her demeanor was that of a person on the edge of madness. The man wondered what had come over the normally ebullient bard.

"Gwen," he said softly, not wanting to disturb her process, but knowing he needed to ground her. Gently he took her arm, and led her to the bed. He seated her, removing her shoes and tucking her in. He watched, fascinated, for even as sleep overtook her, her mind continued to fight to complete the daunting task it had set for itself. He stayed til she settled, and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

When she woke, Gwen felt a sense of peace and calm envelope her. The muse had done her duty, and the new story had been birthed. It remained to be seen how the progeny would develop, though.

"All right, Gwen," the bard murmured to herself backstage. It was mere minutes before her performance was scheduled to start, and the butterflies from the previous night had returned with a vengeance. She took a deep breath and exhaled, closing her eyes and focusing solely on her breathing. The meditation worked wonders, and she felt the butterflies settle lightly in her belly. "We don’t know if they will be here. Just take the story you’ve been given and tell it." Another deep breath. Sal hesitated to interrupt her pep talk to herself, but finally moved over to give her his customary pre-show well-wishes.

"You’re gonna do great, Gwen. I’ve never seen a crowd so expectant, or you so ready." She peered at him then, disbelief clearly written on her features. "No, it’s true," he added, before she could question his sanity aloud. "I know this new story is wracking your nerves, especially since it came to you so unexpectedly and ferociously. But it has given you back a fire that the months of traveling robbed you of. Trust me, hon. I can see it... in your eyes and in your carriage. The muse won’t let you down on this one. Whatever you’ve got this time is a winner."

She smiled at him then, a full smile that lit up her whole face. "Thanks, Sal," she said quietly, pulling him into a brief hug. "I needed that."

"No problem, my dear," he smiled back. Now go get ‘em." She smiled at him again and nodded, stepping away and waiting for the applause to die down after her introduction. When she walked onto the stage, it resumed, and she stood relaxed and silent, suddenly confident in the story she had to tell. It was different than anything she had tried to do publicly before, but she was ultimately, unexplainably sure of the reception it would receive.

When the hall quieted, she spoke with hushed certainty. Instead of the several short tales that generally populated her storytelling, tonight’s rendition contained a single epic story. It told the story of a lonely soul, struggling to do right. She told of the soul’s fight with darkness, and its reshouldering of its burden on a daily basis. And finally, triumphantly, the bard wove the wonder of the soul’s final immersion in the light it sought, and the joy of reuniting with its other half. When she reached the point of victory, Gwen was literally startled out of her story by the roaring approval that echoed throughout the theatre. Her smile shone through her tears, and she felt the overflow of emotion rush through the crowd. For long minutes, they rode the crest of the wave together, before the assembly quieted, and allowed her finish her tale.

Gently, reverently, the bard united the lovers, and settled them into the beginning of their story together. Then with a sweeping bow, she left the stage, and the multitude went wild. Screaming and cheering continued for long minutes, before she returned to the stage.

"I know you would all like to hear more of what happened with these two." Thundering applause greeted this statement. "But I can only give to you what has been given to me. The glimpse I was given of the figure that inspired this tale was much too fleeting. Perhaps one day...." She let the thought trail off. "Thank you all for being here." And she exited the stage without another word. On this one night, she offered no encores, and was in fact asleep before they were halfway back to the hotel.

Sal looked at the blonde head that rested exhaustedly on his shoulder. "That one really wore you out, didn’t it kiddo? Musta hit a lot closer to home than we’ll ever know." Gwen didn’t answer him. She was deeply asleep, and reliving her story in her dreams.


"I never saw the figure again. I don’t know who it was, or what it was that my muse found so inspiring. I don’t even know if they ever got the chance to hear that story. I only told it that one time. It was so... personal... for me." A pause. "I don’t understand it, myself. I mean, it’s not like it’s the story of my life or...."

"No," Randi’s now husky voice replied. "But it is mine."

Moss green eyes locked onto teary ice blue. "What do you mean?"

"I was there that night. I heard that story. And I am the figure you saw outside your window the afternoon before." Gwen looked at the warrior disbelievingly... not at her words, but at the fact that once again their paths had crossed inadvertently, and apparently necessarily. Randi felt the need to expand on her statement.

"I was just coming off a routine mission that had gone very well, but I was tired... to the very depths of my soul." Randi sat breathing for a long moment, thinking back to that tumultuous time in her life. "I stood at the riverbank, staring unseeingly at the water and the ducks, wondering if I really made a difference. Wondering if there was actually a point to my life, my work." She paused when Gwen stiffened in her arms at the implication. Randi lightly rubbed the hands locked around her waist, and continued. "Then a couple of kids rode by, laughing and talking, and they stopped and spoke to me. I realized right then, that if they felt that safe, safe enough that they could talk to me without fear, then I must be doing something right. I picked up my rucksack, and moved on to HQ, finding to my delighted surprise that you were in town performing. The base CO was kind enough to rustle me up a week’s worth of tickets, and for days I sat under your tutelage, my soul healing under your gentle ministrations. When I heard that story, I knew whom you were speaking of, and to. You gave me hope that night."

"Oh, love," was all Gwen could manage. They had managed to complete a wide circuit of the town, and were now converging on the barn once again.

"I dunno about you, Little One, but I think I’m ready for a cup of hot chocolate. The sun isn’t as warm as it looks, and the wind is biting." She had planned to give Lancelot a bit more of a workout, but was more concerned about Gwen’s reaction. The warrior herself was still reeling from their mutual revelation, in point of fact, and wanted a little time to sort through the emotions.

Randi heard the tears in her companion’s voice when she spoke, though the smile on her face was equally apparent in the tone. "I’d like that, I think. Let’s take care of Lance, and go home." A beat. "I think I need some private time alone with you to work through this." Another pause. "Besides, I need to do a little research."

The Marine waited patiently for further explanation, but none was forthcoming as they entered the barn and started stripping the stallion’s tack. Lancelot was comfortably ensconced in his stall with fresh feed and water, and the couple was back in the transport headed home before Randi broke the silence.

"Um, Gwen," waiting for the bard’s eyes to turn her way and sharpen in attentive focus. "What do you need to research, love?"

"Hmm?" wondering for a minute just what the Sabre was referring to. Her mind had actually been reviewing a couple other incidents, and wandering through her mental catalogue of Soulmates stories. "Oh, sorry. I was just wondering if any of the others had crossed timelines like we did... you know, influencing one another before actually meeting face to face."

"That’s a good question. Do you think the answer will be in the journals?"

"I hope so, but I dunno. It’s gonna be the best place for us to start looking, though."

They were silent again then, until turning down the short, hidden drive that led to the tiny cabin. "I built this place right after that," Randi informed her partner somewhat unexpectedly. "I took a bit of time off, and came up here and started building." She eased the transport into the shed, and shut down the vehicle.

"C’mon. Let’s go get that hot chocolate, and I’ll tell ya about it." A huge grin was her only answer.


Every minute the Sabre could spare was spent in the mountains, carefully choosing the trees she wanted to remove for the tiny cabin she’d decided to build. Slowly, over the months she gathered enough cedar wood for her purposes, stripped it, and set it out in the sun to dry and age.

Gradually, it became the texture she wanted, and she got leave for a long weekend. She was never so glad to have earned her wings in her off time as she was then. Being able to pilot her own shuttle was preferable anytime, but it was necessary to maintain the privacy and solitude she craved from her newfound retreat.

"C’mon, Randi," her dark-skinned friend Brenda called. "Spill it. Where do you go in all this time off you’re taking off?"

"Yeah, what’s up with that? Why the secrecy?" from Nick.

The Marine didn’t answer, but continued to pack her small kit, hefting it to her shoulder when she was done, and moving toward the door.

"Let her be, guys," Tiny called from his bunk. "She probably needs a break from all of us. God knows I could use one some days. Oof!" he finished, as Brenda’s pillow flew with deadly accuracy and pinned him square in the mouth. Randi smirked, though the smile never reached her cerulean eyes, and the pillow fight started in earnest. They never saw her leave.

The physical labor was something the Sabre found soothing, and the cabin frame was up by the end of her first day. She smiled tiredly at her accomplishment, as she moved wearily into the caverns. Her hand went to the wall, flipping the switch to light her way. The small action brought another smile to her face. The caves lighting system had been fraught with trial and error. Her state of the art equipment that was sensitive enough to pick up the barest whisper caused her no end of grief in the echoing hollows of the caverns. Ditto with the less sensitive but still audio triggered clapper switch. Finally, after some serious research, the warrior resorted to creating some old fashioned flipper switches. It took a little longer to figure out how to make them work with her power system, but eventually she reached a compromise. So the caves kept her warm and sheltered while she built her cabin, and she had several ideas of what she wanted to do with several of the caves when she had the chance to improve them.

The following morning, Randi had to get out some of the more sophisticated equipment she’d brought along. There was no way for her hold both ends of each log and drive it into place at the same time. The hover braces kept each log lifted seamlessly at the level necessary to allow Randi the chance to add it to the wall. Slowly, surely the walls went up on the house, and before noon of the third day, the Sabre was ready to begin laying the roof.

Darkness was falling when she placed the final shingle. The shingles were hand cut cedar as well, and fitted together precisely. Randi stepped gingerly down from the roof just as the sun slipped completely beneath the horizon. She stood back for a moment, reflecting on her handiwork proudly.

Her final day of leave, Randi spent hauling river rock for her fireplace, and putting the polymer sealant in between the log cracks. She couldn’t have explained her need to do everything herself the old fashioned way, but never had she felt the same sense of honest accomplishment as she did when she left her newly built cabin in the early morning hours to return back to base.


"Wait just a damn minute," came the bard’s disbelieving voice. Gwen’s eyes stared deep into Randi’s. "Hold on there. You mean to sit there and tell me you built this place in four days??"

The Marine chuckled out loud. "Just the rough outline, love. Foundation, walls and roof. It took a lot longer to finish the rest."

"Four days?!? The storyteller repeated. "FOUR DAYS?!?" Now the chuckle turned into a full-fledged belly laugh.

"Yes, Little One. Four days. And more than another two years to completely finish the inside. Plus six months to renovate the cave chambers I altered, and make the rest of them safe. I learned a lot of patience on this project, but I am proud of the results. I put a lot of myself into this place."

As if for the first time, Gwen took a good look around the snug, well-made cabin. The floor was smooth as glass, a high gloss polish seemingly inches thick on the cedar wood. The inner polymer seals on the logs were spaced exactly an inch apart, and the grooves that mounted the wooden shelving to the wall were flawless. The shelves and cabinets were smooth and level, with interesting little bits of scrollwork carved into them. The countertop, she suddenly realized, was hand-tooled from materials found in the caverns. And the fireplace that took up half of the one wall was a work of art, and well crafted. Gwen caught the inquisitive look in her companion’s eyes.

"You are amazing, you know that?" the bard blurted unexpectedly.

A slow lazy grin formed on the Marine’s face, lighting her blue eyes until they seemed to glow. "I have many skills," she drawled with a smirk, until her soulmate batted her in the stomach. "But this was actually very therapeutic for me," she added seriously. "It was important for me to be creative. It gave me a direction away from the killing and the death."

They both sat quietly for a time after that, neither sure what to say. Finally Gwen whispered, "I’m glad you had this." She swallowed hard. "If I couldn’t be there for you, I’m glad you had something like this to help. The work you put into this place is truly incredible. I can see so much of you here."

"I think," Randi answered slowly, "that if things had been different, I would have been a builder. I’m no artist, but I enjoy working with my hands."

Gwen looked for a long moment at the finely crafted and superbly fitted furnishings that grace the cabin interior. Floor to ceiling, it was a work of art, but the gleam in the blue eyes told her that Randi didn’t view the work the same way. The bard took the large, calloused hands in her own and caressed them tenderly. "I think you can be anything you want to be." She reached up a hand to stroke the scar that was noticeably faded even in the dim light. "I believe in you."

Tears welled up in Randi’s eyes at the simple, profound statement. "And I believe in you, Little One. I always have." The warrior opened her strong arms, and the storyteller slid into the spot reserved for her alone. They kissed softly, and the afternoon faded into evening in quiet, sleepy contentment as the two dozed in one another’s arms.

They hadn’t slept two hours when they woke from their nap. Or rather, Gwen woke to gentle, tickling kisses being rained upon her neck and shoulders. As soon as Randi realized the bard was awake, she escalated her attack, shifting to put Gwen completely beneath her and deepening her kisses. The blonde moaned languidly, smiling when she felt the Sabre do the same above her. The couple separated to breathe, only to have the silence broken by a low rumbling. They looked at each other, and burst into laughter.

"Guess we’d better feed the beasts, huh?"

"Yeah, before the neighbors in town come looking for the earthquake." Still chuckling, they moved to the kitchen, and began fixing dinner together.

"Did you ever use a staff before we started working together?" the Sabre questioned her partner. They were in a cleared space of the gym chamber sparring. Randi was once more impressed by Gwen’s natural aptitude for the weapon, and continued to encourage her to become more aggressive with her use of it.

A furrow formed in the blonde’s brow as she thought over the question while trying to maintain her focus of thought on the exercise match. "Um...." Smack. Swipe. Crack. "Sort of, I guess, maybe, but not really."

Now it was the Marine’s turn to frown. Muttering, "Sorta, I guess, maybe, but not really. Uh huh. Very informative. Yep. A LOT of help there." She pulled up, catching the younger woman’s staff with a sharp popping sound, and grimaced inwardly at the strength behind the blow. Randi was gonna have to start being more careful. It was a sure bet Gwen didn’t know her own strength at this point. "You wanna be a little more specific, please?"

"Can we finish sparring first?" Gwen asked shyly. "I’ve missed this."

A feral grin crossed the warrior face as she released Gwen’s stave, and returned her own to a ready position. "Certainly, Little One. I’ve missed this as well."

For almost an hour, the only sounds echoing throughout the grotto were the solid thunks of wood upon wood and the slight quickening of two sets of breathing. The hits kept a rhythm, then suddenly the pace increased rapidly before ending abruptly. Now only the fast, heavy breathing of the two women could be heard as they locked eyes in the charged silence. Randi was the first to break it.

"You’re getting better, Gwen." she stated, stepping away and leaning the practice stave in the corner. "I mean, you’ve always been something of a natural, but you’re obviously become more comfortable with your staff. You seem more sure of yourself."

The bard blushed furiously at the compliment and dropped her gaze. Randi reached out with both hands, taking the staff in one hand, and raising the younger woman’s chin with her other. Another hot blush raced across Gwen’s face as their eyes met. The bard had to grin at the arched eyebrow the warrior gave her, then Randi responded with a smile of her own.

"Thank you," Gwen whispered. "It feels a little more a part of me every time I work with it," she added a little louder.

"As it should," the Marine stated, putting an arm around the blonde and dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "If you keep it up, you’ll be the best I’ve ever seen... maybe even better than I am with it."

Gwen stopped dead in her tracks then, and looked at the Sabre in amazement. "Excuse me?"

"Okay, you’re excused," Randi replied, resuming their forward motion with a slight tug on the bard’s shoulders. She waited patiently, knowing the questions would come.

Gwen, for her part was flabbergasted, trying to wrap her mind around the fact that someone as decorated as her Marine could think that about her ability. She *had* gotten better, and in fact felt very comfortable with her progress, but still. To hear Randi say something like that aloud was....

"Why do you think that?" finally making sense of the questions swirling in her brain. "You’re one of the best there is."

Now it was Randi’s blush at the bard’s frank compliment, especially since she knew the praise was sincere and not just hollow flattery. She nodded indicating both her acknowledgement of the tribute to her skills, and the truth of her words. "Yes," she agreed slowly, "but it is not my only weapon, and not usually my weapon of choice. I am most comfortable with a blade, even more so than with a laser or a gun, though I am a top Mariussmen in all of them."

Gwen nodded her head at this statement, as though it was the most natural declaration in the world.

"You have a natural aptitude for the staff," Randi continued. "You took to it like a duck to water, and you are far advanced to where most students are at this point in their training. It’s almost as though you were born to it."

Gwen chuckled, and Randi looked at her in surprise. "Share?"

Green eyes twinkled as they re-entered the cabin. "C’mon, Stud. Let’s get ready for bed, and I’ll tell you just how natural I *wasn’t* with this thing once upon a time."

Chapter IX

They were curled around one another in the center of the big bed with only the waning firelight illuminating the small cabin. Gwen nuzzled the soft skin under her lips, smiling at the hitch in Randi’s breathing. She turned her head slightly and kissed the spot, then shifted slightly to prop her head on her hand and look down at the dark woman’s profile half hidden in shadow. Randi turned her head, and caught Gwen’s eyes with her own, and the bard felt her heartbeat trip over itself in double time at the fierce strength of the electric gaze.

No words passed between them and yet Gwen felt a lifetime of stories being told in that brief moment. Without warning, the storyteller leaned forward and captured her soulmate’s lips in a possessive, passionate kiss. Randi groaned at the intensity of feeling the gesture conveyed, and wrapped her hands in the blonde locks to hold Gwen in place. Not that Gwen had any intention of moving anytime soon. Long moments passed before they were forced to pull away for air.

"Thank you," Gwen said softly. The Sabre’s smile reached her eyes, and made them glow with an inner light.

"You are most welcome. Wanna go again?" gently urging the bard to meet her lips. Gwen stopped her with a hand on her chest and a quiet chuckle.

"Not for that!" with a laugh, then laughing harder at the mock hurt expression on the Marine’s face. She raised a small hand to trace Randi’s mouth. "Ooo, look at that pout." She gasped when sharp white teeth caught the fingertips outlining the Marine’s full lips, and a warm tongue began lightly teasing. "Okay," Gwen admitted, her voice cracking. "Not *just* for that." She cleared her throat, and eased her fingers from the wet warmth. "Ahem. Hold that thought. Whoo," willing her heartbeat to slow and her pulse to stop pounding. She smiled at her companion almost shyly. "Thank you for believing in me. Knowing you have that kind of faith in my abilities is... um, wow!" She laughed. "Especially when I remember my first try with a staff."

Randi smiled again in sympathy with the bard’s humor. She turned on her side, her posture mimicking Gwen’s and asked, "Story time?"

"Uh huh. Story time, love." The Marine’s grin broadened in anticipation.


At almost fourteen, Gwen Goldman tried to convey an air of nonchalance, but she was far too excited to carry it off properly. So many of the older kids caught the sparkle in her eyes, and couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm. They were all anticipating a fun and interesting summer, but it had been a while since the thrill of newness had touched them like that. The bard had taken a sabbatical of sorts. She’d told her mother she wanted to try something new for the summer, and confided that she loved the whole drum and bugle corps phenomenon. Jill had pulled some strings, and gotten her daughter a shot a participating in a corps for the interim.

Playing a musical instrument was out of the realm of possibilities. Gwen had never shown an aptitude for music, and there was no way to teach her even the basics in the ten weeks they would be together. That left her with color guard, and her only viable option was the position of flag. So Gwen Goldman, renowned bard, started a crash course toward becoming Gwen Goldman, color guard flag.

Every morning, she got up before dawn, showering and eating breakfast to make it out onto the practice field at sun-up. There she stood, hour upon hour, doing her level best to learn the maneuvers required of her. More that once the tears welled in her eyes when she hit herself in the head or shins, but she clamped her jaw and kept trying. Night found her collapsing into bed exhausted, and falling into a deep dreamless sleep, only to start the cycle all over again the following morning.

There were a few who resented her presence at first... after all, they’d had to earn their way into the corps. But slowly, day by day, she earned their respect. She kept working, and even when she was on a break, she was learning. After two weeks, she had the bare basics, and she moved up into the more advanced group.

Now it was even tougher, because these kids had years of experience on her, and there was no way she could catch up in a single summer. Still, many of the older kids complimented her efforts, and were always rewarded with a deep grin, and sparkling green eyes.

The summer passed quickly, and before Gwen realized it, there were only three weeks left. The corps master took her aside. "Gwen, I know you’ve been practicing hard behind Ryan. Do you think you can perform in his spot tonight?" The blonde looked wordlessly at the instructor for so long that he waved his hand in front of her glazed eyes. "Gwen?"

"Oh, wow! You mean it?"

"Yes. He’s not feeling well, and needs to rest. The big competitions start next week you know."

"I know." It had been all the corps had talked about for weeks. Everything they did culminated in a three-day competition with all the other corps at the end of the summer. "You can count on me, Mr. Bryson."

"Thanks, Gwen. I’m sure I can."

The truth was Ryan had asked the director to allow Gwen the chance to perform with the group once before the summer was over. He had taken quite a liking to the younger girl, and looked out for her like he would have a kid sister. It concerned him that despite her apparent friendliness the bard didn’t seem to have any real friends, so Ryan kept an eye on her.

That night, Gwen was so nervous she kept hitting herself in warm-up. Finally, Ryan couldn’t stand it any longer, and gave up the pretense of being sick. He moved with purpose and stopped when he stood in front of her, capturing her eyes with his own.

"Ryan?" she spoke, looking at him with confusion. "Mr. Bryson said you were sick."

"Gwen," he said softly, putting his hands lightly on her shoulders. "Can you do this?" She continued to look at him uncomprehendingly. "Look, Gwen, I thought you might like the chance to perform once before the season was over. You’ve worked really hard, and it only seemed fair." He looked right at her then. "You’re good... you can do this."

Suddenly the green eyes began to glow, and the young teen threw her arms around Ryan’s neck. Impulsively she kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Ryan! I owe you." Then the bard backed up and began her routines again, and this time, they were almost perfect. He smiled at her contagious enthusiasm.

Her routine on the field wasn’t flawless. There was a minor bobble, and an almost missed step, but she caught herself and kept going. When they came off the turf, and settled in the stands, Ryan met her.

"You sure you never picked up a flag before, Gwen? ‘Cause you have a natural aptitude for this." He didn’t mention her mistakes, and to this very day she still wondered whether he’d seen them.

"I’m sure. But this is gonna make the coolest story! Thank you, Ryan. That was so amazing." The grin she gave him was huge and infectious, and soon it had spread through the whole corps.


"The night before we were scheduled to go home, we had a big party. They recognized me as most improved, but considering I was a complete novice when I arrived, it wasn’t that hard to get everyone to agree with that." She smiled in memory. "You know, some of those guys had done this for years. A lot of them were past their military service and in college or their apprenticeship training. They came together every summer to do this. It was fascinating, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough with the flag to do anymore with it. I went back to storytelling, and until I saw you exercising the Midas security unit, I never considered picking up a staff again."

"Why? Ryan was right... you’re a natural."

"Tell it to the parts of me that were black and blue for the better part of ten weeks. I spent a lot of nights with ice packs. And honestly, as exciting a time as that was for me, it never *felt* natural until you started teaching me." A blush slowly climbed up the Marine’s features, and Gwen was instantly charmed by the sight. "You are too cute. I love you."

The blue eyes darkened intently at the promise so apparent in the bard’s voice. "I love you too," her voice thick with desire. Long fingers gently wove themselves through the blonde hair that fell across Gwen’s forehead and cheeks as Randi rolled onto her back and pulled her soulmate’s body on top of her own longer one. With only the slightest pressure, the Sabre guided Gwen’s lips down to within a hairbreadth of her own, staring intently into verdant green eyes. Her tongue reached to taste the bard’s lips, smiling slightly at the whimper that Gwen emitted when she was pulled back just out of reach.

"No, Little One," Randi whispered softly. "Tonight I am going to love you." She scratched the storyteller’s scalp lightly, smiling in pleasure at Gwen’s thrown back head and moan of appreciation. Her hand continued its path down the strong back, fingernails delicately raking slowly along Gwen’s spine until Randi reached the small of her back. When she hit the sensitive area at the top of the bard’s shapely ass, Gwen took control, and captured Randi’s lips with searing, passionate heat. The Marine let the invasion continue for long moments, savoring the taste and fire of her lover. Then she moved her hands lower, slowly kneading the firm muscles of Gwen’s behind. The bard arched into her, and Randi neatly rolled them over so that Gwen was comfortably tucked beneath her.

Her hands slid along the backsides of Gwen’s thighs, her touch feather light and teasing. "Tonight, I am going to love you slowly, surely... everywhere... all night." Randi slid her body down Gwen’s, sitting up on her legs, and running her hands down the bard’s well-defined calves. The Marine lifted a slim foot, and kissed the sensitive insole before moving her tongue to gently trace the bard’s toes. Gwen gasped at the erotic sensation that radiated from the core of her being at the sensual touch. "Tonight, you are mine, and mine alone."

The bard struggled to bring her mind into focus as Randi’s attentions were rapidly sweeping away her conscious awareness, and making the Marine’s touch the only vital part of her present world. With extreme effort, Gwen sat up enough to pull herself out of Randi’s tantalizing reach. Burning blue eyes pinned her in place, and Gwen felt the thrill of love and desire course like molten lava through her veins.

"Not just tonight, love," she whispered huskily. Gwen cupped Randi’s face in her hands, and tugged them closer together until they were breathing the same air. "Always. Always yours alone." Then their mouths met, and words became an unnecessary form of communication between them.

The sun had barely risen, and Randi knew she hadn’t been asleep for very long when she woke up with a blinding headache, her face burning along the length of the scar. She moaned in pain, struggling to get up. Simply rolling out of Gwen’s embrace had been agonizing. Randi wasn’t sure what a change in latitudes would do. She never got the chance to find out.

"Randi? Love?" came the seemingly shouted voice of Gwen directly behind her. "Are you all right?" The bard reached out a hand toward the Marine, but Randi flinched violently at a mere brush of her skin. Gwen pulled back, hurt and stung at the reaction, then she noticed her soulmate’s tremors. This time she reached forward firmly, and grasped the trembling woman, pulling Randi into her arms. A double gasp... one of intense pain from Randi, who was struggling desperately not to yank herself away from Gwen and hide away privately in her agony as she’d always done before. The other gasp fell from Gwen’s lips as she got her first look at the fire red streak that ran the length of Randi’s jaw.

Hesitantly, she lifted a hand to touch it, and Randi reflexively stilled her internal fight as Gwen’s soothing contact brought relief from the burning pain. Her head still pounded in time with her heartbeat, but the Sabre curled herself into the bard’s body, and tried to will the pain away. Gwen kept one hand on the scar, and the other began a firm kneading at the base of Randi’s neck.

The bard hit a particularly sensitive spot, and Randi leapt from the bed, eyes blazing fiercely. "DON’T TOUCH ME!!!" she screamed, reaching for her head. She fell to her knees, keening in agony. Gwen stared at her, torn between hurt and concern. Concern rapidly won out, but just as she reached out a hand towards the warrior, Randi collapsed unconscious at her feet.

"RANDI!" Gwen screamed, even as she fell to her knees beside her Marine. She reached out a tentative hand, pulling back when the warrior curled into a fetal position. Now, without hesitation, the bard wrapped herself around Randi, struggling to pull her into her arms. Finally, she succeeded, and stopped for a long moment to catch her breath.

Randi’s blue eyes opened for a long moment, then closed again without a flicker of recognition. Gwen closed her eyes at the pain of it. She noted in the back of her mind the fact that Randi no longer flinched at her touch, a fact for which she was devoutly thankful. Instead the Sabre gave no reaction at all.

The bard eased away from the warrior, sadly comforted by the whimpers and searching Randi made when Gwen moved out of touch. The blonde woman spent several minutes arranging a semi-restful nest for them to relax in until Randi woke up.

Gwen arranged herself, and gently drew Randi into her arms again. From her deep, even breathing, it was clear to Gwen that the Sabre was in an intense state of sleep. Yet she turned in the bard’s arms and snuggled up so tightly to her that Gwen couldn’t move. It was then that the storyteller noted the fierce inflamed look of the scar, and she lifted a hand to cover it. The initial contact was so forcefully painful Gwen felt herself beginning to black out. She wrenched her hand away, breathing deeply and trying to stabilize her equilibrium. When the searing electric shock faded to a slight buzzing, she stared in fascination first at her hand, and then at the now somewhat faded disfiguring wound. Gwen looked at her hand again, and steeling herself with a deep breath, made contact with the blemish again.

Again there was searing pain, but not so great that it caused near unconsciousness, and the bard gritted her teeth and held on for dear life until the agony faded into nothingness. Her hand slipped down to cradle Randi’s neck protectively even as she joined her soulmate in a fathomless healing sleep.

When the blue eyes opened again, it was early afternoon. She felt drained, and her eyes and limbs seemed exceptionally heavy. The Marine closed her eyes, her forehead scrunching up in confused thought as she tried to understand why she and Gwen were curled together on the floor in a makeshift nest of pillows and blankets. And how did we end up down here any way? The last thing I remember....

A smile chased itself across her face as lascivious images from the night before passed through her mind’s eye. She cuddled closer into Gwen’s body, relishing the scent of her. Randi lay there in a light doze until she felt Gwen’s fingers trailing lightly through her hair. The Marine looked up at the bard with a lazy smile.

"Hello, love."

Gwen gave the Sabre a tentative smile in return, gently caressing the scar before cupping Randi’s face in her hand. She saw recognition in the blue orbs, and her mind relaxed faintly. She also felt the warrior leaning into her touch, and felt her nerves uncoil a bit.

"Hi," Gwen replied softly. "How do you feel?"

Randi gave the question due consideration. "Tired... exhausted, actually. Disoriented. How did we end up on the floor exactly?"

"What’s the last thing you remember?" Gwen answered one question with another.

"Making love with you all night long and falling asleep wrapped around you just before dawn this morning." She watched as the bard’s brow furrowed at some unpleasant memory, and frowned in response. "What did I miss?"

The storyteller sighed heavily, and looked at the woman cradled in her arms with compassion. "The entire morning, it seems." She hesitated, then continued. "You woke up in severe pain, and passed out from it." She didn’t see the need to tell the dark haired woman about her cutting words and reaction. "The scar...." Her voice trailed off in thought.

Randi lifted a hand to cover Gwen’s. "What about it?"

"Something is going on. Something... I dunno, love. I’ve never.... It was a fiery red color, and when I touched it, the pain...." Her voice seized up in memory. The Marine tenderly clasped her shoulders.

"What, Little One? What happened?"

"It hurt... God, so badly. But the longer I touched it, the more it faded. And you seemed to rest better."

Tears rushed into Randi’s eyes, and a single tear tracked down her face before she could stop it. "Oh, love. I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you." The words were soothing especially in that Randi’s apology touched on hurts she was unaware of having caused. "I would never...."

"I know, Stud. I know. It’s all right. I would suffer anything for you. I just wish I knew how to fix this. There’s something here I’m not understanding. It’s like looking for the keystone to a puzzle."

Randi threaded her hands into the blonde hair, and pulled Gwen down for a brief, passionate kiss. "I love you. We’ll figure this out."

Gwen leaned down to capture the warrior’s lips for a long time. "I hope so, love," she whispered when they parted. Intense eyes locked onto her own.

"We will."

They were both subdued after a shower and a light meal. Too tired to go for the walk they’d planned, they settled in on the couch, and watched the dancing flames of the fire.

"Will you tell me another story?" the Marine asked into the silence. Gwen flashed her a grin.

"Isn’t it your turn?"

"Um, yeah, but.... Please?"

"It’s a good thing I love you so much." Gwen peered at Randi, seeing the fatigue and confusion etched deeply into the planes of her face. She coaxed the warrior into laying her head in the bard’s lap. Gently she stroked the thick, dark mane, smiling at the contented murmurs that rose from Randi’s lips. The Marine slid on arm around the blonde’s back, and wrapped the other around Gwen’s knees. "What kind of story would you like?"

"A Soulmates story," Randi responded immediately. "A happy one."

Gwen smiled. "A happy one, huh?" She tenderly scratched the warrior’s scalp, her smile becoming a grin at the purring she felt rumbling from Randi’s chest. "You sound a lot like a cat there, love." An outraged blue eye opened and peered in her direction. "A very big, very dangerous, very satisfied cat."

Randi couldn’t contain the chuckled that sprung from her lips and turned into a full-fledged belly laugh. "Nice save there, Little One."

"Um hmm. I thought so," she said with the tiniest smirk, then gently eased the eyelid shut. "Now hush and listen." She kissed the tanned forehead, and sat up, surprised when blue appeared again. It didn’t close until the bard resumed her tender ministrations on Randi’s head. The Marine sighed in bliss.

"Let me tell you about a time long ago."


The War Between the States was over, but bad feelings pervaded throughout South and North. Beau packed his bag, glancing around the room that had been his sanctuary all the years of his life until the war came. They had been lucky. It really didn’t look much different, but everything on the Virginia plantation had changed.

"You don’t have to go, brother. There is plenty to be done around here." Michael smiled sadly at the melancholy look in his younger sibling’s bright blue eyes. They’d shared some bitter words, fought on opposite sides of the war and eventually come home to realize that home wasn’t the same anymore. Their youngest brother who’d chosen neither north nor south, but had stayed home to help his mother and sister tend the plantation, had been brutally murdered by a rogue band of outlaws six days before the ceasefire was signed. Now, nine weeks after coming home, Beau was packing to leave again... this time for good.

"No, Mikey," using the nickname he’s always called his older brother until the war had separated them. "I do have to go. This is not home for me anymore. You have a new bride, and Elizabeth is due to wed Andrew in the fall. There is no place for me here now."

Michael nodded, accepting the veracity of Beau’s words, and the feelings behind them. They had settled things between them, but Michael knew how the younger man felt. There were days he would give anything to leave and start over. Sometimes being responsible just sucked.

"Will you at least write occasionally? Let us know where you are and how you are doing?"

"Yes. I don’t want Mama coming after my behind." The brothers, who looked so much alike they could have been twins if not for the two-year age difference, chuckled. Mama had aged, and the war had done its worst, but she was still a formidable woman.

"Where will you go?"

"I’ve given it a bit of thought. The government is offering land to settlers out west. Think I may do some looking in that direction." He straightened, and hefted his case. He held out his hand as he approached his brother. "Wish me luck, Mikey. Ya’ll are gonna be fine."

The older man took the younger in a stunningly strong hug, and the brothers embraced for a long moment. "So are you, little brother. Sure you don’t want a ride to the station?"

"Nah. I’ll say my goodbyes here. I’ll let you know where I end up."

"See that you do."

Fourteen months later, the younger Southern soldier had staked a small claim in the west. His small herd was comfortably pastured, and he had a sizeable garden plot at one side of his cabin. Daily he worked hard to make things successful and as late spring approached he began making plans for his first roundup.

Things were snug and tight, and Beau decided he needed a trip into the not-so-nearby town to pick up some much needed supplies. On his way into town, he found a family in distress. Their wagon had broken a wheel, and Beau was quick to help the man repair it, though it took the better part of the day to get it done.

MacDonnell had a wife and six daughters, ranging in age from eighteen down to three. Beau offered to escort the family into town, and the older man accepted the help and the guidance readily. He was dismayed to find that the soldier had fought for the Southern side, but Beau was so polite and courteous that he decided to try and overlook what he considered to be a glaring flaw.

MacDonnell watched the young man who was pleasant and respectful to his wife and himself, yet steadfastly keep away from his daughters. His manners were impeccable, and it was clear that he had been well raised. Beau’s conversation gave him insight into a keen intellect, to the point that the older man understood and accepted his reasoning for fighting on the "wrong side" of the war.

When the town came into view late the next afternoon, MacDonnell felt a bit of a letdown. He had enjoyed the young man’s company, and was fairly certain his eldest daughter was smitten as well. He’d noticed the furtive glances she’d cast Beau’s way when she thought no one was looking. And he’d seen the blue eyes stray in Sarah’s direction more than once. MacDonnell wondered, then thought... Well, she could certainly do worse. I’ve never seen her take to a young man like she’s obviously taken to this one. No wonder she couldn’t find one back East. Do you suppose....

MacDonnell didn’t have time to speculate anymore, as Beau was dismounting his wagon and holding out his hand in farewell. The soldier hated to leave her, *them* Beau corrected his thoughts silently, but he had no excuse to linger. Funny that he was no longer anxious to carry out the plans for the evening that he’d been looking forward to for months.

"Thank you, son," MacDonnell said, clasping the proffered hand. "You were a godsend."

"Glad I could help, sir. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the general store."

The older man nodded, noting Sarah’s crestfallen expression out of the corner of his eyes. "We have to pick up a few supplies ourselves. Will you join us for dinner? Please," he added when he saw the young man’s hesitation. "I have a proposition for you."

Finally, Beau cast his eyes briefly in Sarah’s direction, noting the hopeful look in her beautiful green eyes. "All right, sir. I’d be honored." His expression never changed, but Beau couldn’t stop the twinkle that glittered in his eyes. He didn’t miss the swiftly hidden smile that crossed Sarah’s features, either.

The children were well behaved in the store, and it was a short time later that they were loading supplies into the two wagons. "The hotel is right down this way," Beau motioned in the twilight. "That’s where the local restaurant is," he added shyly. "They serve a pretty good roast beef, if I recall correctly."

He had remembered perfectly. MacDonnell seated his wife, and Beau provided the same service for Sarah. Seated around a circular table, they were positioned to look at one another without overtly staring. MacDonnell watched them watching each other, and it occurred to him that the Soulmates were soon going to be reunited. He smiled sadly... glad for the fulfillment of prophecy, and sad for the imminent loss of his daughter to this man who was still in many ways such a stranger to them.

The conversation flowed well among the adults, with the younger children only breaking in occasionally. Finally, as the waitress appeared with their dessert, MacDonnell turned to engage Beau in a more private conversation

"I need your help," the older man stated quite bluntly. Beau cocked an eyebrow in question, and waited quietly for him to continue. MacDonnell sighed. "I need to get a decent shelter built for my family." The young Southerner nodded his head in agreement. He had been lucky in that it only took him a few days to dig a sod hut for himself that first winter, and he had only had himself to think of. Mac had an entire family of females to worry about, and though Beau acknowledged the truth that his mama had instilled in him by example about a woman’s strength, he also felt they deserved whatever comfort he could provide. And the tugging he felt in his very soul towards Sarah....

"I was planning to hire some men, but some of what I have seen out here so far...." he paused. "You’ve given me every reason to trust you," with a glance toward Sarah, "and none not to. I know Rebecca and the girls would help," the older man was saying, "but I...." MacDonnell broke off when Beau raised his hand.

"Sir, I would be glad to help you, but a lot depends on where you are planning to build. I only have a few men right now, and I can’t leave the herd for an extended period of time." He stopped speaking when the older man took a map from his breast pocket. Sarah and Rebecca were listening intently, but neither broke the silence.

"This is the town here," Mac said pointing. "I own this area here." He motioned to an area that was back the way they had come, and a little farther north. Beau’s eyes widened when he realized MacDonnell’s land butted his own, but he didn’t say anything. He simply nodded his agreement.

"Do you know where you’d like to build?"

Mac indicated a small valley. "I thought here would be the best. There is a spring nearby." He sat quietly, watching Beau’s gaze go inward for a time. When he refocused, the Southerner looked at Mac.

"May I offer a suggestion?"

"Please," with a nod.

"Leave the women here for two weeks. We can get a sod shelter built that they can be comfortable enough in until you can get established, and have the time and materials to build a more permanent home."

Mac nodded his head, considering the younger man’s words. Then he looked towards his wife. "Mama?" was all he said, but the word conveyed layers of meaning.

"I like the idea mostly, but the girls and I prefer to accompany you. We can certainly make due in a temporary shelter until things get settled. There are things we can be doing while you men are building."

Beau nodded his head in acceptance of her speech. "I was only thinking of your comfort ma’am. I had no wish to offend."

She looked him directly in the eye, and he noticed for the first time the green so like that of Sarah’s. "I appreciate your thoughtfulness, Beau. You didn’t offend. But I have no desire to be separated from my husband this close to our goal. We came out west for a new beginning, and we are going to start it together."

"Yes ma’am." The young man drew a deep breath. "May I make another suggestion?" He waited for Rebecca to nod before he continued. "Ya’ll come stay at my place until we get the temporary shelter built. It will only take a few days. Ya’ll can stay in the house, and I’ll bunk down in the barn." Beau held up his hand stopping her speech. He pointed to a spot on the map. "This is my property line. And here is my place. We can easily go back and forth in a couple hours everyday if need be."

"I think we should take the lad up on the offer, Mama. I would feel better knowing you had a roof, even a temporary one over your head again."

Rebecca considered Mac’s words, knowing the long wagon trek had been draining on all of them. "You’ll come home every night?" letting a little of her unease slip out unbidden.

"Yes, dear. We’ll come back every night before dark."

"Very well, then. If Beau will allow us to do something in return, I would appreciate the offer very much."

"I don’t have.... I’m sure we can come up with a suitable arrangement," seeing the proud look that was reflected in Mac and Sarah’s eyes as well. "Maybe some help with the garden or something," he mumbled.

"That we can do," with an approving nod. "Come now, children," she said, rising to her feet. "It is time for bed. Your father has arranged a room for us tonight."

Beau hesitated, torn between what he wanted, and what he needed to do. The want won out when he caught Sarah’s eyes on him, and he took Mac aside privately for a word. At the older man’s gruff nod, he relaxed, and approached the young woman with a shy smile.

"Your father has given permission for us to take a short stroll through the town, if you are willing." He could have kicked himself for his seeming lack of graceful words, but he completely lost his train of thought when the small warm hand curled around his muscular arm. Father and mother exchanged knowing glances and smiled in sad knowledge. Their little girl was all grown up.

Beau and Sarah walked down the short street without talking for a few minutes. They were simply absorbing the feelings of soul contentment and familiarity, and trying to find some way to bridge the awkward newness of actually getting to know one another.

"It is so different out here, isn’t it?" Sarah observed quietly. They had crossed the street and walked by the noisy saloon on the far side of the road, and she’d clutched his arm a little tighter until they were well past. "Boston was never like this. At least," she amended as his twinkling blue eyes turned in her direction, "not that I was ever exposed to. Papa...."

"What brought you out here?" Beau asked kindly, trying to ease her discomfiture.

"Papa wanted a new life. He was a professor before the war, but it wasn’t the same after Sean was killed."

"I’m so sorry."

"Thank you." She gave him a smile. They walked on in silence to the end of the street, before slowly turning around and heading back the way they came.

"But why did you come?" the young man asked, pushing for reasons he couldn’t understand himself. Good manners dictated that he back off and let the subject alone, but there was something so about Sarah that called to him. Not just her outward beauty, though truth be told he’d been smitten the moment he’d looked into those green, green eyes. There was something about her that answered the restless calling in his soul. He wanted to know everything.

"I’m sorry," he apologized again, as he watched the slow flush color her face. "It’s just... you are so beautiful, and," he swallowed, feeling his own face darken in embarrassment. He scrubbed his free hand over his cheeks trying to erase the blush. "I’m sorry," beginning to feel like an idiot. "It really is none of my business." Much as I would like it to be.

Sarah stopped walking then, and turned to him. "It’s all right, Beau. You’re not the first person to wonder. Just one of the few brave enough to ask." She saw the acceptance in his eyes and nodded almost imperceptibly before retaking his arm, and resuming their leisurely stroll. She swallowed then spoke in a near whisper. "All my life, I’ve seen stories in my mind... vivid, colorful, real. I was never able to capture the essence of those tales in my life, and I decided as a little girl that I wouldn’t settle for second best. I want it all, Beau. I want everything I ever dreamed of. I swore I’d keep looking til I found it, or die trying." She broke off, and he remained silent, allowing her to gather her thoughts to continue. "I have experienced more on this trip, good and bad, than I ever had in all the rest of my life put together. I think this may have been the best decision I ever made."

Sarah looked directly at Beau when she uttered the last words, and now it was his turn to swallow hard. They had reached the hotel and Mac was waiting in the small lobby for his daughter’s return. Beau stood at the door with Sarah, his mind scrambling. He caught her hands in his own.

"Sarah, um, I uh...." He cleared his throat. "I know we’ve only just met, but I would appreciate the opportunity to get to know you. Do you...? Could we...?"

"I’d like that too, Beau. There is something... um, I mean I would like the chance to.... um, yes," she finally blurted, realizing he was as drawn as she was, and felt as awkward and uncomfortable as she did. He smiled in relief, and she mirrored it, glad the first hard step was taken. A voice clearing behind them made them step away from one another slightly, and drop their linked hands.

"Goodnight, Sarah."

"Goodnight, Beau."

He waited until she had gone inside, and her father was escorting her up the stairs to her room. Then with a barely contained grin, he turned and made his way to his wagon, intent on making a small camp just outside of town.

The next few days were interesting. Beau and Mac got the women settle at Beau’s ranch house, and spent their time cutting and laying sod for the temporary shelter on Mac’s property. They left at sun up, and got home just before dark, but every morning Rebecca and Sarah saw them off, and every evening they were greeted with a hot meal. It took them a little longer than Beau had originally assumed it would. Mac wanted to make sure his family would be as comfortable as could be managed in the sod hut, and it was a somewhat larger than Beau’s own had been.

The young man didn’t mind, though. Well chaperoned by her parents, he and Sarah began to get to know one another as people. Every night they had the chance to talk, and he was learning things about her that she had never shared with anyone else. She told him of her dreams and of some of the stories that had been passed from generation to generation in her family. He found himself drawn to the stories, and captivated by her words. He shared with her as well his hopes and dreams and when the time came for them to be parted, it was with heavy hearts. MacDonnell came to their rescue, having seen the growing truth between them.

"We’ll see you for Sunday dinner, right?"

Beau was about to refuse. He had been away from his ranch duties long enough, and though his foreman was trustworthy and able, he felt wrong about asking Caleb to continue to run the ranch. A touch on his arm, and he was looking into pleading green eyes, and that was his undoing. He couldn’t say no to her. He turned his attention back to Mac. "I’d be obliged, sir. Thank you for the invitation." He turned his focus to Rebecca. "And thank you for planting such a fine garden. I expect you’ll be sharing this with me." It wasn’t a question, and she accepted his need to be somewhat assertive about it.

"It will be a welcome addition to our table. Thank you."

He acknowledged her words with a nod, and moved his attention to Sarah. Her parents quietly loaded up the other children, given them a moment of privacy.

"I’m going to miss our conversation," Sarah said just above a whisper. Beau had to lean down to catch her words, since she was looking at her shoes and not at his face. Gently he lifted her chin to meet his own eyes, and took her hands in his own.

"So am I," he agreed. Her eyes dropped. "Sarah," he said softly, noting that her folks were waiting to leave. Beau waited until her eyes came up once more to meet his. "Sarah, I know this is quick, but I would like permission to call on you." He heard her sharply indrawn breath. "I spoke to your father last night. He said it is up to you."

Tears formed over the emerald eyes, and Beau felt his heart break until her whispered, "Yes," fell on ears almost deafened by his heartbeat. The relief that flowed through him almost made him giddy. His smile lit up all outdoors.

"Guess Caleb’s gonna be doing a lot more bossing around here for a while," he joked. Sarah laughed and squeezed his hands.

"Guess he will."

He let her go slowly then, as badly as he wanted to just take her in his arms and kiss her senseless. He stood watching as they drove away, never noticing Caleb behind him until the big man spoke.

"You got a good thing there, boss."

"I think you’re right, Caleb."

Spring became summer, and summer turned to fall. Every single Sunday, and whatever evenings he could spare, Beau ventured over to visit with Sarah and her family. Mac and Rebecca liked and respected the hard working young man, and were sadly proud when he asked for Sarah’s hand. And Sarah’s eyes shone like stars themselves when Beau dropped to one knee and proposed while they stood alone on the vast prairie, within sight but out of hearing of her parents.

"Yes, love," she answered tenderly. He stood then, and rested his hands on her small waist. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his head down even as he urged her closer to him and sealed their vow with a tender first kiss.

Beau went into town the next morning, wiring the good news to his family in Virginia. He expected excitement. He expected good news. He did not expect his Mama to come make sure the girl was acceptable. But that is precisely what happened.

Two days before Christmas, Mama arrived. Actually, the entire family did. Michael couldn’t allow his Mama to travel alone, so he’d packed up the entire family and they’d traveled west on the train to the now burgeoning town. He arranged transport, and just before sundown, the family arrived on Beau’s door, bag and baggage in hand.

The following morning, Beau took his Mother to meet his bride-to-be. They spent quite some time alone while the rest of the family got acquainted, and then Rebecca went and joined them. When the three women came into the main room, they were comfortable together. Sarah sat down next to Beau, and he took her hand in his larger one.

"Everything all right?" he asked.

She nodded, still reeling from the conversation she and Mama had shared. She squeezed his hand reassuringly. "I think we should move our wedding date up, though." He looked at her, waiting for her to continue. "My mama made a good point. Your family can’t stay here indefinitely, and it would be nice to have them here for the ceremony. What do you think about a New Year’s Day wedding?"

Beau grinned. He hadn’t been thrilled about waiting until spring anyway.


Chapter X

Randi’s eyes opened when Gwen stopped speaking. "We share their anniversary?"

The bard smiled back at her. "Yep. We sure do. More by accident than design, but true nonetheless." She took a deep draught of water, and returned the glass to the short table. "Would you like to hear the rest of their story?"

"Yes, please." The blue eyes closed once more as Gwen resumed both her stroking and her story.


The day of the wedding dawned bright and clear and cold. Snow lay in patterns on the ground, broken by patches of bare earth. Shaking hands straightened the collar of the morning suit Beau had never thought to wear again. A light knock on the door turned him away from folding his cravat,

"Come in."

Mama peeked around the door, smiling when she saw her son in the clothes befitting the gentleman he was once more. She was proud of him, and glad he’d been able to carve a niche for himself. But the roughness of this country... she missed the gentility of home.

"You look nice, Beau. Quite the gentleman."

"Thank you, Mama." He stood nervously, knowing there was a purpose to her visit. She didn’t make him wait long.

"Son, for many years our family has held in trust the ring that symbolizes the ancient joining and reuniting of two souls." She looked into the blue eyes so like his father’s. "The time has come for them to be joined together once more."

He’d heard of the Soulmates. It was a favorite story. Now Beau looked hard at his mama, trying to grasp the truth of her words. "Mama, are you sure?"

Her gray eyes softened when they met his, and she smile at him. "Aren’t you?"

Beau let his mind wander to the peace and completeness he felt with Sarah. Beyond the friendship, beyond the love... them together made two halves a whole and his soul rejoiced in the knowledge. "Yes, Mama. I am," he answered confidently.

"Take this then," folding her hand over his and dropping the ring into it. "Wear it in happiness."

He leaned down and took his mother in his arm, hugging her tightly for a long moment. When he pulled away, he kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Mama."


"They were married for sixty-two years. They had five children, twenty-three grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren before they died. It was a very happy marriage, which grew stronger over the years. The children said you could see the bond between them grow. When Beau was killed by a runaway stallion at the age of eighty-three, Sarah simply closed her eyes and joined her beloved."

"She decided to die?"

"It is said that she felt his soul slip away from hers, and the rending of it killed her." Gwen paused and swallowed, then said in a low voice. "I know what she felt. I felt that with you." The pain that ripped through Randi was incredible, drawing a gasp from her, and then from Gwen as the bard picked up on her distress.

"Randi? Love?" The bard reached out a hand and tangled it in the warrior’s hair, drawing her closer and holding on tight. The Marine closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. She realized she felt her own pain, as well as the remembered pain that resonated from Gwen’s soul. A tear ran unchecked down her face.

"Shh... shh...." The bard wiggled around until she was able to cradle Randi’s torso, then she gently rocked them together. The Sabre greedily absorbed the comforting scent and feel of her bard surrounding her, and felt her heartbeat slow. Gwen edged back from Randi just enough to be able to look down into her face. "You all right?"

The warrior cleared her throat. The storyteller offered her a drink, and Randi accepted with alacrity, downing the remainder of the glass in two swallows. Then promptly choked as the second went down her windpipe. Gwen held on, patting her back until the Marine indicated she was fine.

"Yeah, I’m okay," she finally responded to the bard’s earlier question. She closed her eyes again, and leaned her weight into Gwen’s body. She smiled when the blonde adjusted her hold to accommodate the weight and keep them both comfortable. Randi drew a deep breath, and continued. "I remember what it felt like as well." She paused. "You see, I could feel your pain as well as my own, and it was almost unbearable. Only when Aphrodite offered me the opportunity to come home did the anguish we were feeling together become tolerable for me."

"You felt what I was feeling?"

"Yes, it was part of my restitution. I vowed never to cause you that kind of pain again."

Gwen didn’t say anything after that, but was content to hold her warrior in her arms. Randi, for her part was emotionally exhausted, but she couldn’t help the feelings of pure bliss that resonated through her soul as the comfort Gwen offered patched holes she hadn’t realized still existed. They sat together in peaceful silence then, not even realizing when they slipped into a light doze.

Late afternoon shadows were making interesting patterns on the walls when Randi opened her eyes again. She looked up at the bard who still cradled her, wondering how she could possibly be comfortable with her neck at such an awkward angle. She ran gentle hands up the slim sides, noting with some amusement that Gwen was even ticklish in her sleep.

"Gwen," she whispered, not wanting to startle the younger woman out what was, by the expression on her face, a very pleasant dream. "Gwen," rubbing her hands over smooth rib muscles. "Wake up, love."

Green eyes opened sleepily, and blinked in confusion until they caught the blue peering back at her. "Hi," she murmured sleepily, then looked around in surprise. "OUCH!" came the exclamation upon moving her head. "That was not the most brilliant thing I have ever done," she moaned as she tried to rub the stiffness out of her neck." She looked down at the woman in her lap. "How do you feel?"

"Well," Randi replied, grinning slyly. "I had the most comfortable pillow in the world," moving her head between the bard’s thighs and breasts. "So I feel great!"

"Wonderful! You can fix dinner then," Gwen added with a smirk. "And it’s your turn to tell a story." She chuckled at the chagrined look on the warrior’s face. "Heh."

A slow, sexy grin eased its way across Randi’s face. "I’ll make a deal with you."

"I’m listening."

"You help me with dinner and...."


"And I will get the kink out of your neck and shoulders. A real nice rubdown."

Gwen looked at the Sabre speculatively, tugging slightly on her ear in thought. Finally, she pursed her lips and nodded. "As long as it stays a massage, it’s a deal." The bard blushed at the raised eyebrow. "Being with you is an incredible experience for me. Since we made love for the first time, all I can think about is immersing myself in you. I can almost feel our souls bonding, blending together to form the one whole that we are meant to be."


"But honestly, I’m a little sore. And you still look tired from whatever it was that happened today."

Randi rolled off the couch and stood, reaching a hand down to Gwen. "I am, actually. It is driving me nuts trying to figure out what in the hell is going on. Why I don’t remember it." She scratched the back of her neck, then wrapped the arm around Gwen’s shoulders, brushing a kiss on the top of the blonde head. The Marine leaned down to whisper in the bard’s ear. "Besides, I’m a little sore myself. But you are a craving impossible for me to ignore." A slight blush covered the warrior’s face now. "I love you; I want you; I desire you. But over and above all that, I need you... like I need air to breathe, and water to drink."

Gwen smiled through the tears that flooded her eyes. "That has to be one of loveliest, most romantic things you have ever said to me." She cupped a hand around Randi’s cheek. "You are my reason," and she urged the warrior’s soft lips to meet her own in a soul melding kiss. Then Gwen pulled away with a light peck. "I love you." A rumble interrupted any further words. The Marine chuckled.

"C’mon, Little One. Let’s go fix dinner. I’m starving."

"Ya know, most people don’t have steak, eggs and marshmallows together," Gwen commented with a smirk. She was bringing the iced tea in, while Randi walked behind her carrying the condiments. Their plates were already sitting on the hearth in front of a roaring fire. Propped up nearby were two carefully fashioned sticks, each already adorned with two marshmallows on their ends.

"We’re not having them together," Randi replied in amused exasperation. "Those are for dessert," with an almost virtuous air.

"Uh huh," came the bard’s skeptic answer. "So you came into the kitchen with marshmallow on your lips because...."

"Well, I had to make sure the fire was the right temperature, didn’t I?" But she couldn’t help the tiny grin that crossed her lips or the twinkle that sparkled from bright blue eyes.

"You are so busted, gunny. Besides," Gwen pulled the warrior’s head down to meet her mouth and darted out her tongue to lick Randi’s lips meticulously. "You missed some," she finally finished with a mischievous smile. Randi just stood blinking for a long moment.

"Whoo boy," she muttered, and seated herself on the fur, leaning back into the pillows.

They sat eating in comfortable silence after that for a bit, enjoying the food and one another’s companionship. As the eating slowed to a more conversational level, the bard turned to Randi. "Can I have a story now?"

The Marine swallowed and nodded. "Anything in particular you’d like to hear about, sweetheart?" she asked with a fond smile.

Gwen gazed at the fire thoughtfully for a minute, then turned and looked at Randi. "Do you have any funny Sabre stories? I mean... so much of... what I’ve heard about that part of your life was...."

"Horrifying? Disgusting?"

"Frightening," the bard interrupted, cutting into the pronounced bitterness in Randi’s tone. She set her nearly finished plate on the hearth, and took the warrior’s as well. Then she clasped Randi’s hands in her own, gently chafing them. "I understand all too well what was required of you as a Sabre. What you endured... it scared the life out of me. Still does," she added quietly, though the Marine heard her well enough. "I would just like to hear some of your good memories, if you can share them."

"Good memories, huh?" Randi rubbed her chin thoughtfully, then broke into a delighted grin. "I know just the thing," almost chuckling in her eagerness. "Lay down and get comfortable and I’ll tell you about the mission from hell."

Gwen, already stretching out in front of the hearth, halted her movement, and turned her torso in Randi’s direction. "Waitaminute. A mission from hell is funny?"

"Well," the taller woman commented as she moved into position over the bard, and gently coaxed Gwen down onto the pillows. "It wasn’t at the time of course, but looking back, it had to be one of the funniest escapades I’d ever endured." Seeing the persistent frown on her lover’s face, Randi continued. "Trust me. You know how you can have days that absolutely nothing goes your way?" Gwen nodded, sighing as the warrior’s strong hands began to work the stiff muscles in her neck. "Well imagine that happening to nine people simultaneously."

Green eyes popped open, and the blonde head lifted slightly from the pallet. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Oh no, my bard. Every word of this story is true."


Five years into her Sabre service, Randi was tapped for what should have been a standard recon mission. The team was made up of people she’d worked with many times in the past and felt comfortable with. The Marine expected a routine in and out job. What she got was anything but routine.

She should have suspected there was going to be trouble with this particular mission immediately. Randi was abruptly awakened from the light doze she’d just fallen into by an angry muttering. A blue eye popped open and peered at her comrade backlit by the midday glare.

"Problem, Chase?" she burred.

"YES, Goddamn it!!" He ran a hand through sandy blonde hair. "I’ve got the wrong fucking bag. A raised eyebrow caused him to stumble into an explanation. "Jess got sent out this morning too, and um... we were running late." He blushed slightly. "The bags are identical, and we scooped them up literally running out the door." He held up some mostly practical, but still very feminine cotton underwear. "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?"

A short, black woman sauntered into view. She chuckled. "Well, not what you usually do, I’ll bet." Brenda laughed louder as Chase flushed a deep scarlet, and she plopped down next to Randi. "I don’t think it’s quite his color," with another chuckle.

The male Sabre slammed the things back into his bag, and stalked off muttering under his breath. Brenda motioned at his back.

"He thinks *he’s* got it bad? Wait til Jess finds out he has her chocolate." Now Randi chuckled too, knowing Jess was as fond of the treat as she herself was. It would be ugly, and she almost felt sorry for the other team.

They ate a bite of lunch, and were packed and ready to leave when Nick came running out of the woods he had disappeared into a short time before. He didn’t even slow down as he raced by them, uttering a single word in a perfectly calm, rational tone. "Run," he said. Behind him lumbered the biggest black bear any of them had ever seen outside a holo chamber or a zoo. They didn’t need any more encouragement. The Sabre team scattered like leaves in the wind. The bear hesitated, confused and then continued to chase Nick. It took the unit the remainder of the day to regroup, and by then, several other things had just plain gone wrong.

Tiny had managed to find the bee’s nest that the bear had been raiding before Nick had disturbed his lunch. The bees were extremely unhappy with this second disruption to their day, and set out after the big man with a vengeance. Tiny hadn’t been a track man his whole life for naught, though, and he made it to the nearby water with only a couple stings and completely wet armor. He faired better than Lacey had, however.

She had managed to find the water as well, but she had found the shallow end. The shallow, muddy end that dropped right off into a mud pit. A mud pit Lacey had to launch herself into when she heard the loud, buzzing approach of a hive of angry bees. There wasn’t a single part of the medic left untouched by black, clinging mud. Lacey stood when the insects gave up their hunt, and glared at Tiny as he rose slowly while the water ran off him in rivulets. He just shrugged his shoulders helplessly and began slogging his way back to shore.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team was having difficulties of their own. Brenda had shimmied up a tree, hoping the ursine mammal would not look up if he headed in her direction. Not a bad plan, really, until her handhold turned out to be a squirrel’s nest. The squirrel was furious with the intrusion, and thinking the Sabre’s hand was a thief, preceded to take a hefty bite of the nearest finger. Brenda bit her lip through to keep from crying out. The back of her hand was raked by sharp, cutting claws, and it was by sheer grit alone that the Sabre managed to maintain her hold on the tree with the other hand. Brenda adjusted her weight and sat down among the leafy foliage hidden from view, and tenderly cradled her injured hand. She could only hope the squirrel’s scolding chatter wouldn’t draw the bear’s attention.

Marius wasn’t so lucky with his tree experience. In his haste to get away from the bear, he neglected to watch his step and hesitated an instant too long on a dead, rotting branch. The wood gave way beneath him, and with a smothered, inarticulate oath, he plunged earthward. Not a long drop, but far enough that when he hit the ground he fell forward, right into Tabitha’s arms. His momentum carried them both to the ground, and the impact drove the wind from their lungs and knocked his forehead against her cheekbone. For long minutes all either of them could see were stars.

"Damn, Zamansky!" Tabitha pushed the larger man off of her, and struggled to get up until a wave of dizziness forced her to lie back down again. "I knew you always wanted me, but geez, you coulda at least *asked* first," she teased him lightly. The dark-skinned man blushed to the roots of his hair so badly Tabitha could feel the heat radiating. "How’s your head?" she asked quietly. She had the peculiar feeling she’d hit a sore spot, and she didn’t want to embarrass him further.

Marius lifted a hand to his throbbing head. "It hurts. But I don’t think it’s gonna bruise like your face will." He moved his hand from his head to her chin, lifting Tabitha’s face so he could get a good look at the injured area. "Oh yeah," he said softly. "That is gonna be quite the shiner." He slowly pulled himself into a sitting position. "I guess we’d better go find the others." He started to rise, but halted all movement when a pale hand covered his dark one.

"It can wait five minutes for us to be steady. The world is still swirling for me."

He laid back down, and closed his eyes. "A few minutes can’t hurt." He swallowed, absently running his fingers gingerly over the now swelling bump. "Wonder how the rest of the team is doing?"

The rest of the team wasn’t faring too badly right at that point in time. Of course, it took mere minutes for that fact to completely change.

Correctly figuring that the immediate danger was over, both Cam and Randi had started back to rendezvous with the unit. Cam walked silently along, alert but chuckling to himself over the predicament Nick had inadvertently managed to place them all in. He heard the rustling and stopped dead to listen, a move that cost him dearly. Without any further warning, the bear’s female mate stepped from the woods, and the two foes stood within inches of each other. She swiped a paw at him, only to find him gone. She roared in frustration then fell to all fours and waddled back the way she had come.

Cam waited until he heard no more sound before he sat up slowly and peeked around. It was then he noticed the foliage that had cushioned his face first landing.

"Oh shit!"


The bard lifted up so she could turn her upper body towards the warrior who still sat straddle across her hips. "You are making this up."

Randi shook her head, and eased Gwen’s head back down to the pillows. She spent a moment admiring the sculpted back muscles before resuming her massage, and answering the accusation. "Oh no, my bard. Every single word of this is true. We had to file reports on it and everything. Even earned a unit commendation for it."

Gwen thought about it a moment. "That makes sense, I guess, given the handicaps you were working with by the time you actually got to the recon part of the mission. So what happened to you?"

"Mumble, mumble, mutter, mutter."

"I’m sorry, gunny; I didn’t catch that."

"You really don’t want to hear about that. It wasn’t much of anything really."

"Then you won’t mind sharing it."

Broad shoulders slumped, and Randi sighed silently. Maybe Gwen wouldn’t laugh *too* much.


Randi was making her way back to the spot where they’d split up, knowing it would be the first place everyone would return to for a rendezvous. A thumping sound alerted her, but before she could move, Nick strong-armed her out of his way as he sped by, the bear still on his heels. The Marine had time to wonder what on earth the man had done to make the bear so angry before her attention turned to the bramble bushes she’d been knocked into. Thank God for Kevlar and titanium, she thought, knowing she was well protected over most of her body. Fortunately, he’d thrown her butt first, so her face hadn’t been affected by the briars at all.

A rustling to her left caused her to freeze, and cut her eyes in the direction of the sound. What she saw caused Randi’s eyes to widen and then close, just before the skunk sprayed a noxious fume in her direction before scampering off.

For a long moment, the Sabre refused to breathe, knowing the scent was going to be intolerable. When her ears began to ring from lack of oxygen, Randi drew as shallow a breath as she could manage only to find that even that tiny inhalation caused her eyes to water incessantly. Disgusted, she untangled herself from the briar patch, snatched up her bag, and headed for the rendezvous point once more.

When she stumbled into the makeshift camp, no one said a word. But when Nick stumbled in, covered from head to foot in tar, the entire outfit fell to the ground in laughter.


"It took the entire next day to recover from it. Bren got a tetanus shot for the squirrel bite, I had to sit through two hours worth of decon, Cam had time on the regen unit, and Nick ended up being shaved bald. Marius had a real nice lump, and Tabitha’s shiner, well, she was real glad for her turn at the regen unit."

"I’ll bet," the storyteller muttered. "God, why didn’t ya’ll just give up and go home?"

"Doesn’t work that way, love. We had a job to do. Ya can’t just quit because a few things don’t go your way."

"I know, but my word...." Gwen lay there thoughtfully for a few minutes before speaking again, then her shoulders gently moved under Randi’s fingertips in laughter. "You’re right, though. It is pretty funny after the fact."

"Um hmm, but now you see why I holo camp. Sometimes predictability is a good thing."

"Stud, if I’d ever had an adventure like that, I would never have gone camping again."

"Well, not much choice there either, but fortunately, most of the time it was simply routine. Even those times when the unexpected happened, it usually didn’t happen to everyone all at once."

"Thank goodness."


There was silence for a time after that, while Randi continued to tenderly massage the bard’s body. Gwen was in the twilight between sleeping and waking when a thought occurred to her. "What happened to Chase?"

The Sabre chuckled. "He was lucky. I guess the gods felt his having Jess’ bag was torture enough. He did a LOT of laundry while we were out. But those chocolates of hers sure came in handy. I think everyone felt better when he shared those around." The blue eyes shone in fond memory, and the hands slowly came to rest lightly on the blonde’s shoulders.

Gwen eased herself over, the warrior lifting slightly to allow the smaller woman to lie flat on her back. The bard smiled when Randi resettled herself lightly across her slim hips and let her hands rest on Gwen’s belly. "What was the craziest thing you ever did as a kid?"

Twin dark brows shot into the equally dark hairline. "What brought that on?"

"You are just so military... such a rule follower." She didn’t get to say anything else, as the Marine burst into hysterical laughter, and slipped to the ground in a boneless heap. Gwen moved to perch on the warrior’s rocking abdomen, making random patterns that were at the same time soothing, stimulating and ticklish.

"AUGH! Stop that! Gweeeennn!!!!" Randi couldn’t help the squeal she emitted when the bard’s hands hit a particularly sensitive spot. The warrior clamped her lips together, and with a show of sheer determination sat up and grasped Gwen’s hands. The shift in positions put the storyteller firmly in Randi’s lap, and the Marine had no trouble holding on to the small hands while she stole a sweet kiss from the bard’s lips.

Gwen managed to loosen her hands from Randi’s grip and then twine in the raven tresses. The warrior didn’t complain since her now free hands wrapped around the slim waist. The long, leisurely exploration went on, until Randi slowly pulled back and rested her forehead on Gwen’s. "That was nice."

"Um hmm," the blonde agreed, "but what was so funny?" She started shaking again as Randi convulsed in laughter once more.

"I’m sorry, Little One," she said once she could draw a deep breath. "The Sabres were NEVER rule followers. We had our code, but for the most part, we did whatever it took to get the job done." She thought for a moment. "I don’t know that I could come up with a *single* crazy stunt from my childhood. To hear my mother tell it, I was always into something. I do remember one time, though when I was about ten years old...."


"I will too," the gangly dark haired child muttered to herself as she walked down the dirt path. "If Tommy can do it, then so can I." She swung the stick she was carrying in a vicious arc. "Papa can’t stop me. I will ride those rapids."

The Valiants and the Steeles had decided to observe the Celebration holiday with a long weekend at a rustic lodge quite some distance from home. Most of the activities offered were outdoors, and not things they could find in the flats where they lived.

Tommy had fallen in with a group of kids his own age, and with him just entering puberty, Randi felt distinctly left out. She’d tried to understand, but having Papa tell her that Tommy needed to be with kids his own age, and do things she just couldn’t do had made her very angry. So she’d made up her mind to show them all.

She knew where the big kids had gone, and now she made her way down the steep slope, careful not to do damage to the colorful flora along the banks of the river. She stood transfixed for a long moment, staring at the rapidly swirling water, then thrust out a determined chin, and went in search of a rig.

The group of kids Tommy was with had pulled to the banks to rest and eat a bit of lunch before preceding down the roughest, final part of the river. They were talking, teasing back and forth good-naturedly when a shout went up from one of the girls in the group. Eyes wide, she simply stared and pointed. "Shit!" Tommy cursed when he recognized the dark head paddling hard and holding on to the oar for dear life.

He jumped into his rig, and noted gratefully that several of the others did the same. Randi hadn’t uttered a sound. Her concentration was entirely focused on the white water churning around her. In the peripheral part of her mind, she realized she had company in the water, but it wasn’t a conscious concern. Her entire world had narrowed to the vicious water she was swiftly approaching.

She hit the first eddy, and was nearly tossed from the craft. The next wave drenched her, and she went into a spin. The spin nearly cost her dearly, as she almost lost control of the rig. She grit her teeth, and brought the rig under control again, just in time to hit the last, and ugliest of the swirling eddies. The tiny boat tilted, and she threw herself to the opposite side to right it, then was forced to thrust her oar against a rock to redirect her motion. The force of the shove snapped the oar and Randi was now forced to hang on and hope.

Fortunately, she was through the worst of it, and Tommy and his friends were right behind her. They guided her craft to the bank, and everyone stared at one another for a long, silent moment, then Tommy lifted Randi up in his arms, while the rest of the group whooped and cheered.


"Papa didn’t know whether to be furious or proud when he found out what I’d done. Mama was scared after the fact. But for the rest of our vacation, I was hanging out with the big kids."

Gwen had to smile fondly at the smugly pleased expression on Randi’s face. "It was worth it then." A statement, not a question.

"It absolutely scared the piss out of me, and if I’d actually thought about it... if I had known how really dangerous that was, I might not have done it." Randi paused, and a rakish grin covered her face. "But yeah, it was totally worth it." The warrior slid her hands underneath the material and rubbed the soft skin of the bard’s back. Gwen mewed softly, and curled her body more inwardly towards Randi’s. The Marine was content to listen to the quiet sounds of happiness emerging from the bard’s lips. Peace reigned in the cabin.

Randi passed her lips over the blonde hair, and the storyteller tilted her head up so she could look at her soulmate’s face. The Sabre looked down at the sleepy green eyes filled with adoration and love for her alone, and knew hers reflected the same by the slight but perceptible widening of Gwen’s eyes she saw. It caused a smile to crease her face, and got her an answering one from the bard.

"So, what was the craziest thing you did as a kid?"

"I ran away from home," came the prompt answer, as though Gwen had been waiting for the question.

Dark eyes skyrocketed into an equally dark hairline, and the blur eyes widened into round saucers. "Um, excuse me?"

"I ran away from home," the bard repeated slowly.

"I heard what you said. I even understood what you said, as far as the words go at any rate. You wanna tell me the story?"

"I tell ya what... let’s clean up the few dishes, and crawl in bed."

"But my marshmallows?" It was almost a whine, and Gwen had to bite her lips to keep from laughing out loud.

"Well you can have your marshmallows while I clean up. It won’t take but a minute." She started to rise, but was held in place by strong, sure hands.

"I’ll help you and then...." the Marine whispered into the small pink ear right at lip level. Gwen laughed out loud in delight.

"Oh you’re on, Stud. And I’ll tell you tale of my life as a runaway... all six hours of it."

Randi looked intrigued, but wisely didn’t ask. Instead she rose, lifting the bard with her as she stood, and carried them both to the kitchen area. Laughing when she had to turn them back around to pick up their plates before returning to the kitchen.

Chapter XI

"Um, yum," Gwen hummed in delight as she smacked her lips in appreciation. "This was a good idea."

The blue eyes inches from her own twinkled in delight before Randi withdrew and moved back to the fireplace, picking up her stick and adding a couple more marshmallows to the end. "So we can do this again, huh?"

"Ummm hmmm," came the instant, hearty agreement. "We can do this anytime you want, Stud." The warrior’s figure was backlit by the firelight, and Gwen just watched the movement and flexing of muscles in sincere appreciation. And even though her eyes followed Randi’s progress to the side of the couch, she was a bit startled by the soft, sweet touch on her lips. Her mouth opened to accept the treat and Randi’s kiss, and she surprised the Sabre by wrapping her arms around the taller woman’s neck, and deepening the embrace.

It continued for long moments, before they mutually pulled away to breathe.

"Um, whoo," Randi exhaled as she gazed into the bard’s dreamy eyes. "What was that for?"

"Do I need a reason?"

"Uh, no, but...."

"Good. I was just showing a little appreciation for what is mine."

A feral glint entered the Sabre’s eyes. "Yours, huh?" The blonde head nodded emphatically. "I think I like that," Randi added, her eyes and voice softening as she dropped her lips to catch Gwen’s once more. The stick fell to the floor with a clatter when the Marine wrapped her arms more securely around the storyteller’s lithe body.

They moved apart again, and Randi slid partway down Gwen’s body so she was nestled between the bard’s legs with her head resting on the firm belly. The bard’s hands came up to scratch the dark head gently, and the Marine reciprocated by running a light stroke up the smooth arms. After a full minute of this in silence, Randi tipped her head back awkwardly to catch Gwen’s eyes.

"So, you have a story to tell me, my little rebel?"

Gwen couldn’t help but laugh at that, both from the mischievous looking sparkling back at her and from her own, long forgotten memories.


"I was seven, and you have to keep in mind the fact that for as long as I could remember, I’d been telling stories. I could see the pictures and colors so clearly that sharing them was almost a necessity for me. Now, don’t misunderstand... Mother and Daddy never once forced me into something I didn’t want to do. But it is hard sometimes to know you are completely different from everyone around you, especially as a kid."


A soft touch on her thigh brought the bard back to the present, and she glanced down to see deep blue eyes gazing back at her with compassionate understanding. Gwen smiled, and tenderly resumed the light caress on Randi scalp. The warrior closed her eyes in perfect contentment, and the bard was able to continue her story.


"At seven, all I wanted was to be like the other kids I saw around me. I was the youngest student in the Artists’ Guild, and most of my education was focused on developing my gift for story telling. Looking back, I couldn’t have asked for a better or more secure upbringing. But living it day after day was not always easy.

Daddy worked at home, so he took me to the Guild for school every morning. And we passed the local neighborhood school on our way, where all my weekend playmates attended.

Now for three weeks, all the kids had talked about was their upcoming field trip to the science center, and I had begged and pleaded to go with them. So when Daddy dropped me off at the Guild that morning, I decided if I couldn’t go with them, I would go by myself.

I went to attendance, and sat through class until the first break rolled around. Then I calmly walked out the front door, and headed for where I thought the science center was. Of course, being seven, and never having been on my own before, it didn’t take long before I was completely and totally lost. Not that I actually noticed it at first. I was enthralled.

It didn’t occur to me to be scared. I was too busy investigating the world around me in a light I had never expected to see it from. Everything looked different, felt different, and I was having a grand old time. Right up until I realized that not only did I not have the first clue where I was or how to get home, I also had no lunch. And I was getting hungry.

Now I didn’t know that Daddy had been notified the minute I left Guild property, nor did I know that the local law enforcement personnel were keeping an eye on me. I started crying, looking around for somebody I knew, someone who could help me.

I was scared at first when the officers approached me. But Daddy had always insisted that if I ever got into trouble, the nice people in uniform would help me out. So I took each officer by a hand, and walked between them down to the precinct office.

They fed me pizza and chocolate milk, and then the officers who found me asked me why I was out wandering around during school hours. So I told them. I told them about everything I had seen and done. Every officer in the room stopped what they were doing to listen. I didn’t think it odd... until the Captain cleared her throat and everyone went back to work when she and Daddy came in the room. I thanked the officers nicely, and took Daddy’s hand."


Gwen stopped talking then, remembering. Randi looked up, and wondered about the peculiar smile on the bard’s face.

"Um, Gwen? Love?" waiting until green eyes met her own. "Whatcha thinking about?"

"Hmm, just remembering the talk Daddy and I had after my little impromptu field trip. And the ice cream party we had with the neighborhood kids that weekend."

Silence again for a little bit while Randi tried to find a tactful way to ask. Finally she mentally shrugged and just asked. "So none of those kids were your friends?" remembering a conversation they’d had several months prior.

"It’s kind of hard to explain." Gwen closed her eyes and offered up a short prayer for guidance. "We were all friends, in that we played together some on the weekends. I was never excluded as far as that went. But there was so much we couldn’t share because we didn’t go to the same school, and I had performances at least once every weekend. A lot of times we were gone for the weekend. My life was just so different from theirs that there wasn’t a whole lot we had in common, and as we got older it was more obvious."

"I’m sorry. That sounds...."

"I’m not," Gwen cut in. "What would have been the odds in us meeting if my life hadn’t happened exactly the way it did? If I hadn’t been a bard, I wouldn’t have been at Midas the day you arrived. Our lives crisscrossed because of who and what we are, and I wouldn’t change a thing if it meant giving that up." The bard paused and swallowed, shifting until she was resting on Randi’s chest. "Can I be honest?"

The dark head nodded and large hands traced up the strong back, curious as to what revelation was coming.

"I knew my life was different from those around me, but most of the time I didn’t mind it. I liked it, and I loved being able to tell stories. It was something I needed to do, even as a child." Randi nodded again, waiting. "But I never realized how lonely I was, how isolated I’d become, until I met you. You opened up the world for me. And that was something no one had ever done before. So you had to be my first real best friend."

Randi focused her gazed on Gwen, and the blonde could see the faintest hint of tears in the blue eyes. "Funny," the warrior whispered. "You did the same for me."

Gwen slid off the warrior’s body and reached a hand down to help her up. "C’mon, Stud. It’s been a long day, and I am tired." They made their way over to the big bed, and crawled between the sheets with a sigh. "God, that feels good. What do you want to do tomorrow?"

"Well there is that social in town, if you’re interested."

Oh yes, let’s. I’d like to meet some of our neighbors."

"It’s a date, then. Goodnight, love," and the room fell silent as the couple fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

"Oh, what a beautiful mornin’. Oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feelin’... everything’s goin’ my way."

The words floated softly around the cabin, and Gwen peeked out from the covers she found herself alone in. Randi was moving quietly in the kitchen area, and the smells that were emanating from that direction were causing the bard’s stomach to rumble. She pushed the hair out of her eyes, and sat up yawning.

"Good morning, gorgeous," the Marine greeted with a big smile. Her hair was still wet from its recent washing, and Randi was already dressed for the day.

"Good morning, beautiful," Gwen answered, giving her soulmate a peck on the lips before pushing the cover aside and standing up. "Let me go get cleaned up... do I have time?" A motion in the direction of the kitchen. At Randi’s nod, the bard gathered her clothes together. "Casual, I take it," she added, motioning to the Sabre’s well-worn jeans and flannel shirt.

"Yep. Everybody here likes to be comfortable first and fashionable second."

"Thank God," Gwen muttered as she shut the bathroom door, even though it was still loud enough for the warrior to hear her. Randi just chuckled, and returned to her station by the stove.

"Do we have time for a walk? I feel the need for a bit of exercise."

"Yep, we sure do. We can even do some more sparring later if you want. The social is a late morning/ early afternoon deal. Most of the people around here hold to the old traditions, and are in bed pretty early, so they do their socials early as well. Gives folks plenty of time to talk and catch up."

"Very nice. This is the first place I have ever been, besides the Amazon town we were in that one time, that does something like this. I think it is intriguing." She took the larger hand in her own. "Now, c’mon, before I decide I need a nap instead."

They walked in silence for a while, Randi guiding them along a path through the thick forest of trees. Not much snow had penetrated here, and the leaves made a carpet of sorts beneath their feet. She turned to ask Gwen a question, and was caught by the furrowed brow that cut a deep frown into the blonde’s features.

"Love?" she asked, stopping their progress, and waiting for the green eyes to track to her and become focused. "What’s wrong?"

Inexplicably, a tear rolled down Gwen’s cheek, and she swiped it away hurriedly. "A memory, I think. Another Soulmate’s story."

"Not a pleasant one, huh?"

The blonde head shook negatively. "No. I... it...."

"Tell me about it."


"Please. Let me help carry the burden as well as share in the joy."

Gwen nodded, smiling her heartfelt thanks before she tugged on their joined hands. "All right," she agreed. They resumed their walk and Gwen took a deep breath to start her story.


Being a spy was dangerous and exciting, and Jacques had always relished the edge he lived on. It certainly didn’t hurt that he lived the high life as a perk of his job, and he considered himself to be lucky as well as happy. That changed the day he met Nigel.

Their first encounter left the two men stunned by the feeling of almost intimate familiarity that washed over them, as though they had known one another for years. In point of fact, not only did they not know each other, but they had no idea they were playing at a deadly game... one that would one day cost them both very dearly. They were enemies, opposite numbers on the same playing field. And by the time they exchanged this knowledge, it was far too late.

At first, they met openly at parties and soirees, establishing a connection which each hoped would help his side’s cause in the war they were engaged in. Soon, that wasn’t enough, and they began to meet a little more privately outside the social gatherings, and their causes took a back seat to the more personal bond they could feel growing between them.

Nigel as it happened, was something of a successful playwright as part of his cover, and one evening they were set to attend the opening night to his newest production. Jacques knocked on the door of the penthouse. When Nigel didn’t answer it, he knocked again, and called out. When there was still no answer, Jacques turned the knob to find a nervous, half-clad playwright pacing back and forth, alternating between wringing his hands together and twisting his neckwear beyond recognition.

The dark haired man entered the room fully, and hung his cloak and hat on the stand reserved for such. Then he walked over and took the blonde’s hands in his own, chafing them lightly. "Nervous?" Jacques asked, smiling.

"Yes. And it’s worse this time because of you." The blue eyes reflected profound hurt, and Jacques started to pull away. "No, love," the endearment fell from Nigel’s lips unbidden. When he realized his slip, he tried to pull back. But Jacques held him with a gentle strength and a blinding smile.


Green eyes dropped to the parquet floor, and the blonde head gave a single nod. "I’m sorry, Jacques. You probably think me some sort of pervert, but...."

Long fingers covered the soft lips and mustache. Then they circled to lift the chin so they met eye to eye. Jacques pulled Nigel more firmly into him, and the smaller man was able to feel just how incorrect he had been in his assumptions.

"No, beloved not perverted at all. Do you feel what you do to me, how hard and ready I am for you just knowing that you love me?" Tapered fingers traced his soon-to-be lover’s lips. "How I have longed for the courage to tell you." Slowly the dark head lowered, until they were breathing the same air. "I love you, Nigel. And as soon as this play is over, I am going to spend the night showing you just how much."

Nigel moaned at the words, and drew the taller man down to meet his lips furiously, passionately. Jacques brushed a hand over the blonde man’s nipple, and mutual groans echoed in the room at the sensations the single touch caused.

"Forget the play. Make love to me now, Jacques."

The temptation was almost overwhelming. The playwright tasted so good, and he was so obviously hard and ready. And the needful groaning so evident in his voice almost pushed Jacques right over the edge.

"No, sweetheart. You especially have to be there tonight. But I promise to make it worth your wait," and he seized Nigel’s mouth in another searing kiss.

The play was an outstanding success, and Jacques made good on his promise. As dawn crept over the horizon, the couple lay twined together, supremely sated and talking quietly.

"There is something you need to know, my love, before we go any farther," Jacques spoke softly into the quiet stillness of the early morning. Nigel was comfortably resting on his chest, running idle fingers on his torso. The blonde man looked between them, remembering the night they had just spent together, and even now seeing Jacques’ manhood start to harden again at the light touches Nigel was lavishing on him. "Oh, God, Nigel, please. I can’t think when you do that."

"Thinking is sometimes overrated, lover," as his hand moved strategically, and the stroking became firmer.

A large hand came up to cover the smaller one. "Please, this is serious."

"What is it, handsome?" Nigel asked rolling the two of them over so that he rested half on Jacques’ body. The blonde laid his head down, and listened to the slowing rhythm of the other man’s heartbeat. "I don’t think we can get more serious together than we have already been."

Then Jacques started talking, and the green eyes got big and wide as understanding dawned on Nigel. When the older man stopped talking, the blonde lay absorbing it all, before taking a deep breath and answering.

"This is unbelievable," and he began relating his tale.

When the two were finished, they lay there considering their options, realizing the trouble this could cause for them both, but not understanding the grave danger they were already in.

The next nine days were heavenly for the couple. Even though they were apart during the daylight hours, nights found them blissfully wrapped up in one another, strengthening the love and the bond between them. In the early morning hours of the tenth day, long before daylight crossed the sky, their world came crashing in around them.

They were spooned around each other, having fallen to sleep a scant hour before when the door to the apartment bedroom burst opened, and they found themselves separated and yanked unceremoniously from the bed. Forced to their knees, their hands were bound, eyes covered and mouths gagged before they were drug, still naked, out the door, and into the cold winter night.

The blindfolds were removed, and they could see the stage setting for their mock trial. The clearing they were brought to was surrounded by trees, and from one of the stronger ones hung twin nooses. At least we will die together.

The supercilious sneer made it easy to spot who the instigator in this plot was, and Jacques shuddered. It was one who had desired him, and been turned down flat repeatedly, the last time only five days prior. Though they would be hanged for treason, the truth was that jealousy was the motivating factor involved in the entire scenario.

"For treason to the crown, and consorting with the enemy, not to mention your obviously perverted ways, Jacques Xavier Trenchant, you are hereby condemned to death by hanging. Do you have any last words?" A disdainful silence met his question. "May God have mercy on your soul."

The horse Jacques sat on was led to one side of the tree, and the noose placed carefully around his neck. He met the green eyes of his lover directly and honestly. "I will wait for you, beloved."

"Now, isn’t that just too special," the other man mocked derisively. "Just for that, you can watch him die first, Trenchant."

"As an enemy of the people, Nigel Donovan Masters you are hereby sentenced to death by hanging from the neck until dead. Do you have any last words?"

Green eyes met blue squarely and their world narrowed its focus to the two of them.

"I love you, warrior."

"I love you, bard. I’ll see you on the other side."

"I’ll wait for you."

Nigel was jerked unceremoniously back to reality when he was dragged to the second noose and felt the rough hemp slide over his head.


"It was over in two minutes, and their bodies were left for the scavengers to find. This grove, these trees, just reminded me of their story, and the heartbreak I felt that they, *WE* had so little time together in that life. How did they get caught so easily, do you suppose?"

The warrior took a moment to consider, eyes suddenly lighting in a smile with remembrance. Gwen’s forehead scrunched in confusion. "What is that look for, love? It wasn’t a happy story."

Randi took the bard in her arms then and halted their progress. "No, it wasn’t. But I was actually thinking about your question and it reminded me of something."


"Um hmm. You see, I was very good at my job, and unless I wanted to be seen, I wasn’t. But I was trapped and caught by a pair of green eyes one night, and almost gave myself away." Gwen continued to look confused, and the Sabre chuckled.

"It was during your overseas tour. You were at a base, pretty remote, and the entire camp turned out to hear you. I had been on a mission that turned particularly ugly, and all I could think of was that I wanted to go home. Imagine my surprise when I found that not only could I not leave, but we were expected to attend some sort of function the commander had planned."

A gasp. "It WAS you." A shaking hand riffled the blonde hair as Gwen turned her eyes to meet Randi’s. "We were outdoors... we had to move because they wasn’t room for everyone in the mess hall. I had this sweater on, as a matter of fact," looking down at the article in question. She bit her lip in thought. "I was telling a Soulmates story...."

"Francesca and Evangeline were soulmates?" Randi asked quietly.

"You remember?"

"I remember every story you’ve ever told in my presence." The warrior paused, seeing the stunned look on Gwen’s face. Randi blushed slightly and cleared her throat. "The first few times I heard you, I was amazed that you had so many different stories. Most bards that I’ve heard have a limited repertoire. You never seemed to have that problem. The only times I heard a story more than once, it was by special request."

The look in the blue eyes prompted Gwen to ask. "Is there a story you want to hear again, love?" She moved her hand to touch the scar, and was struck by how faded it now was. It was only a brief passing thought that slipped away as the bard’s hand continued its path downward to link with Randi’s.

"I... um, I, well, I always felt like that story was never finished. Like it was incomplete."

"It was... at least that night. For one thing, parts of that tale are private, for the soulmates only to share. And honestly, when I looked up and thought I saw you looking back at me," the blonde head shook, and Gwen chuckled. "Do you know the only times I have stumbled in a performance have been because of you? Seeing... *recognizing* your eyes in the darkness caused me to lose all rational thought, and I wrapped up the story as well as I could quickly. I tried to find you, but you disappeared."

"I had to. But I really liked that story. Would you tell it to me again? I’d like to hear it with all the parts and the real ending."

"We deserve a happy ever after story after Jacques and Nigel. Let’s head back to the cabin, and I’ll tell you the story on the way. Francesca and Evangeline was always one of my favorites."

Randi grinned and pulled Gwen to her by their linked hands. "Have I told you today how phenomenal I think you are?"

The bard laughed. "You’re so crazy, and I am crazy in love with you."

"Oh, sweetheart, that is very mutual. Now c’mon. You got a story to tell." Randi turned and tugged Gwen toward the small house.

Gwen froze, and the expression that crossed her face was inexplicable before her chin dropped to her chest. The warrior snapped around at the sudden stop, perplexed. She looked at the bowed blonde head, wondering what she had missed in the scant seconds she had been turned away from the bard.

"Gwen?" she whispered, sensing the confusion flowing off her soulmate in waves. "Love, what’s wrong?"

Tear filled green eyes met Randi’s, and she could see the joy reflected in their depths. Wondering what could have caused such a conundrum the warrior spoke again hesitatingly. "Little One?"

Gwen reached a hand up to cover Randi’s mouth, smiling when the soft lips brushed a kiss over her fingertips, then smiling broader as she felt the mouth form its own smile. She swallowed hard twice before she was able to give voice to her emotions.

"You gave me back my stories. You gave me back my muse."

The warmth that flooded her being at Gwen’s joy was gratifying, but even as she enjoyed the sensation, Randi answered with a slight shake of her head. "No, love. This was all you. I simply provided a willing audience."

"No, Randi. You don’t understand. You’ve *always* given me back my muse." Gwen looked at their linked hands and brought them to her lips for a kiss before she resumed walking again. Randi continued to walk beside her, content to wait as the bard sorted through her thoughts for the words she needed to say.

"Every time I have come to a crossroads in my life, every time I have had to struggle for the stories and fight for the words, you have always been there for me. The first time you saved my life, and gave me a hero to focus on. My stories took on a whole new quality, a new depth." A pause.

"The second time, you saved my spirit. I was so tired, so discouraged that day, but seeing you take up your burden and carrying on... it touched something in me. Set off a spark that burned for years."

Tears slid silently down Gwen’s cheeks even as a smile crossed her features. "Today I realized that you have saved my soul. Not only have you given me back my muse, but you have woven your soul into mine. I was incomplete until we met, and without meaning to we became a part of one another. Not that I caught a clue until you were gone," wryly. "When you came home to me, I was whole again. And my muse was free. My muse is inherently wrapped up in you... in us. You coaxed her back out to play again. Thank you, Randi."

"Nothing I did on purpose, love. And it works both ways. You know that, right?" She stopped a moment, lost in thought. "We have given to each other... because you certainly did the same for me and more. Now," said with a laugh and a tug on their linked hands, "enough with the mushy stuff. I wanna hear about Francesca and Evangeline."

Gwen had to laugh just a little at the petulant voice and the tiny little pout. The warrior reminded her so much of a little child with that expression. "C’mon, Stud. We have a party to get ready for, and I have a story to tell you."

"This is paramount, Usher. The Master has assured me we will be successful, and this will solidify our efforts toward rebuilding. I am trusting you with everything, my friend."

The blonde headed man looked at the hologram of the man he considered to be a brother and nodded his head in agreement. "Don’t worry, Bramble. Once Valiant is taken care of, the way will be clear for us. We will continue the work your mother started." He finished dressing, adding his weapons to his armor and checking things thoroughly.

"That we will, Ush," the black haired man answered. "We will *finish* her work, and the world will know chaos once more." Bramble sighed. "I only wish I could be there to lead you, to take her out personally, but the Master has ordained that I remain here for now." His handsome features hardened and turned ugly. "You make sure she suffers greatly, Usher. She deserves to die painfully for all the grief she has produced... not just for me personally, but to our cause as well."

A cold, evil smile creased the blonde’s face. "It will be my pleasure, Bram. She owes us, and I intend to see she pays." He finished his final check and nodded in satisfaction. "Wish me luck, my friend. The time has come to extract payment from Miranda Valiant."

"Do well, my friend. Our time is near."

The closing of a door was his only answer.

"This is so not good, ‘The. What are we going to do?"

"Their bond is strong, Dite. You’re gonna have to give them some credit. You’re gonna have to give yourself some credit. You didn’t miss with this one. They will be all right."

"Yeah, but what will they have to endure in the meantime?"

"Keep the faith, sister. If we lose faith, how can we expect them to believe? And we need them to believe in themselves and each other. That is where their strength lies, and that is how they will overcome."

"Ya think?"

"No. I know. Trust me."

"Excellent, my children," the dark god chortled to the images his brown eyes beheld in the scrying bowl he was currently focused on. "You will be the instruments to launch her final awakening, and with it will come the alliance I have waited millennia for. Finally my time has come, and nothing, NOTHING is going to stop me."

He continued to watch the preparations, a dark chuckle emanating from his chest. Success was very nearly in his grasp.

Chapter XII

"It was a different time, and a different place."


Francesca stood at the portal taking in the sight of the earth that surrounded her and sighed. Master of all I survey, she thought derisively, but what a hard fought battle to get here. Truth on many levels, but at least it was done now. Peace had settled in the region for the moment, and she was free to concentrate on bringing prosperity to her clan.

A commotion caught her eye, and she sighed again, wondering what sort of mischief her men were up to now. Her army was strong and full of high-spirited men who forever needed a guiding hand to keep them in line. Not that she herself was above temptation or having a little fun, but some behavior was simply unacceptable, and from the looks of the melee below, this had the potential to turn ugly quickly.

She walked out the door and down the stairs, stepping out the door into the courtyard. Her cloak swirled around her legs as she took a minute to absorb the late autumn sunshine before moving over to the ever-growing crowd of men. She couldn’t make herself be heard over the catcalls and hooting, but a sharp tap on the shoulder in front of her garnered the attention she needed. The man grumbled but stepped aside, pulling on the arm of the woman in front of him. She jerked away until she met fierce ice blue, and slowly the army moved aside to allow their leader an opportunity to view for herself the cause of the present commotion.

Francesca didn’t know whether to shout or laugh, so she schooled her features into a stoic mask, only the twinkling in the blue depths revealing her hidden mirth. She crossed her arms over her chest, braced her long legs firmly, and regarded the latest subject of amusement.

It was a... boy? Girl? Woman? Whatever it was, it was hard to tell underneath the tunic and trousers and the layers of dirt and grime. It was also tiny, and very defiant. The being had golden hair with more than a hint of auburn shining in the light of the setting sun, and held a staff of sorts in front of itself to keep the army from getting too close. The voice was husky, leading Francesca to believe the individual was indeed a woman.

The warrior stepped forward, and her army by correlation stepped back a pace to give their leader room to work. She stepped closer, careful to stay out of range of the stick, and noting that the figure kept its back to the wall and its rather intense green eyes focused warily on her.

"What’s your name?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because calling you ‘Hey, You’ will get old real fast."

"What’s yours?"

Francesca didn’t even try to hide her chuckle, and the army tittered behind her. A fact that only served to increase the fire in the green eyes that faced them. "My name is Francesca. Now, do you have a name?"

"You can call me E for now."

Now the warrior was certain the person in question was a woman. There was no other reason for her to hide her identity. She decided to allow the young woman a bit of anonymity in the hopes that it would help her to relax.

"Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, E. What brings you to my fortress?"

"It wasn’t of my own free will, I assure ya."

"OH?" A single syllable, and an arched brow as she looked around the camp, and everyone felt the temperature drop. Francesca turned her gaze back to the small person now watching her with a look of almost awe. "Point out who brought you here."

E took a breath and raised her hand, but before she could open her mouth to speak, a young man stepped forward.

"It was me, Mistress. We was only havin’ a bit o’ fun. Honest." His eyes dropped to the ground as the warrior’s stare pierced him. "This one," with an offhanded motion toward the smaller woman, "stumbled into the guard post, then wouldn’t tell us nothin’ about herself. We figured her for a spy, so we bought her here. Now she says she’s a bard."

"Did they hurt you?"

E was caught off guard by the swift change in subject, and had to stop and think about the question before she answered. "No, not really. I wasn’t particularly cooperative." There was almost a twinkle of mischief peeking out of her eyes, and Francesca couldn’t help the slight response in her own.

"Are you a storyteller, truly?"

"Yes, I truly am. My name is Evangeline."

"Well, Evangeline," rolling the name off her tongue smoothly. "Why don’t you come with me?" She looked around the encampment once more and raised her voice. "I believe the rest of you have chores that need finishin’. Get to ‘em. Maybe if we ask nicely, our guest will give us a story after the meal."

A roar of approval greeted this statement, and the army quickly dispersed to wrap up its work for the night. Francesca turned back to Evangeline who was regarding her with still wary eyes. The warrior noted that the woman hadn’t dropped the staff or her defensive stance, and raised an eyebrow in question.

"You coming with me?"

"Why?" There was obvious hesitation, and Francesca had to wonder what lay behind it.

"I just thought you might like a bath, some clean clothes." The staff lowered slightly, but Evangeline didn’t move. "Look, you are free to leave. But you’re free to stay as well. It’s your choice."

The staff came down completely. "Why are you being so nice to me?" The voice grew suspicious. "What do you want?"

"Not a thing," Francesca answered, extending her hand. "The choice is yours, but it would be nice to have another friend." Then she stood patiently waiting for the golden haired woman to make her decision.

Evangeline stared into mesmerizing blue eyes for a very long moment gauging the sincerity plainly displayed for her to read. She reached out a hand and lightly clasped that of her benefactor, a small smile creasing her face.

"Thank you," she whispered. "A bath sounds *really* good right about now."

The warrior gave the storyteller the once over and chuckled. "I’ll just bet."

"Yeah, you wouldn’t believe the story if I told ya."

"I dunno... try me."

The bard hesitated, then shrugged lightly as they made their way across the camp. "It started out fairly simply...."

The days became increasingly shorter as the cold settled in and the army settled down to endure the harshness of winter. Evangeline had become a welcome addition to the camp, spending time every day teaching the fighters to read and write. Her evenings, most of them, were spent in the telling of tales. Two nights were devoted to music and dancing, and one night was a night of rest for everyone.

She and Francesca started sharing quarters as a matter of course. Her first night in the compound, she was given a room in the fortress close to the warrior’s, but they had gone into Francesca’s room to talk. They had fallen asleep together... one on the low couch and the other on the bed. This pattern continued for several weeks, until one night Evangeline fell asleep sitting on the bed. Francesca didn’t have the heart to wake her, so she moved to the couch. Only to discover that it was much too short for her tall frame.

After a couple hours of fitful tossing and turning, a grumpy warrior returned to her bed and climbed in, sighing in utter relief at being able to stretch out comfortably. She turned over, almost asleep, when she felt the warmth of the storyteller curl up around her. She smiled and drifted off into deeper sleep.

As the months passed, everyone watched and noticed the transformation that was taking place between the two. No one said a word, but in the cold and dark of winter it was one of the few bright spots, and seeing the two of them fall in love was simply a beautiful experience.

Their nightly conversations were about anything and everything that came to mind. Their touches were subtle, tentative, until they fell into sleep. Then they curled around each other and became one in body, mind and soul.

Warmth during the day signaled the coming of spring, though the fierce cold at night made it clear that winter was not yet ready to release its grasp on the land. As yet, neither woman had made a move to officially acknowledge their feelings or intentions toward the other. Then came an evening when the issue was pushed to the fore of their awareness.

It was technically the Spring Equinox, and the compound was celebrating with a day long party even though there was still snow in many places on the ground. As darkness drew nearer, the evening feast was laid out, and the musicians began tuning up for dancing. The clan had taken the opportunity to change into its finery, and slowly people began to emerge from their homes dressed in their very best. This was a night when intentions were declared and couples were promised.

Francesca stepped from her room, glancing over at Evangeline’s room briefly before descending the stairs and exiting into the torch lit compound. The warrior gazed around in satisfaction. There were signs of new life in their community. Several couples stood together waiting to be officially recognized as such. The food was plentiful and people were happy, looking forward to the coming growing season. Francesca glanced down at herself, and felt the flutter of butterflies in the stomach. She had decided to declare herself to Evangeline, and nervously twitched her sleeves. Dark trousers were neatly tucked into polished, knee-high boots, whose color matched the belt tied around the bright blue tunic.

Many of the older members of the community looked at her with knowing eyes, and she couldn’t help the flush that slowly crawled up her face. Instead she smoothed her braid and smiled self-consciously, then began to make her way around the complex.

She felt rather than saw Evangeline step from the shadows and into the light. It was as if the whole world held its breath, waiting for them to see one another. When the warrior turned, she stood stunned for an endless moment. The bard also wore dark trousers and knee high boots, but her shirt was a deep green that reflected her eyes and brought out the red highlights in her blonde hair. Francesca moved to take a step forward when one of the biggest, meanest guys in her army stepped toward Evangeline and offered her his arm. The bard hesitated and looked to the warrior imploringly.

The man lost his smile when Evangeline didn’t accept the proffered arm immediately, and he reached out his hand instead to grab her. The army started exchanging money on bets as to how long exactly Francesca would let the imbecile live. That sort of behavior had never been tolerated before, and the claim the two had on one another was unmistakable.

The warrior’s hand on the man’s wrist stopped all movement, and he turned an outraged look in her direction. "What t’ ‘ell?" but he never got to finish he sentence as Francesca hit a pressure point in his wrist that sent him kneeling to the ground.

"She is mine, Milo, and you would do well to remember that." She didn’t need to look to see the flush rising up the bard’s fair cheeks to match the one rising up her own. "Heart to heart, body to body, soul to soul. We are destined. Do you understand?"

"T’aint right. She deserves a man...." His voice became a squeak as the warrior’s other hand reached up and wrapped around is throat.

"You will not speak of her so disrespectfully. She has the right to choose."

He reached for it, but screamed as the bone in his wrist was snapped twice. Francesca pulled the knife from his other hand, and bared her teeth at him fiercely. "You have ten minutes to be out of this fortress and out of my sight. After that, I will kill you."

"You wouldn’t."

"Try me."

She dropped his wrist hard, and he screamed in agony again. The warrior stood and dusted off her hands before turning to Evangeline. She didn’t need to see the widening of the green eyes to know that Milo was going to be stupid. Almost lazily she turned and caught the blade, and twisted it into his gut. He looked at her in sheer surprise before dropping dead to the ground. Without waiting for a signal, two men from the army immediately moved forward and removed the body from the compound.

Francesca started to move away from Evangeline, as much to escape the disgust she feared to see in the bard’s eyes as to wash the red, sticky warmth from her hands. A light touch on her arm halted her progress before she’d moved a foot.

"I’m sorry you had to do that, but thank you," the blonde whispered. "I’d tried to tell him before to let me be, but he just didn’t seem to be able to take a hint."

"He’s bothered you before?"

"Um hmm. Usually one of the other soldiers got him away from me, but he seemed to think he had some sort of rights." She grabbed a towel from the table as they walked by, and drew a bucket of fresh water from the well. Francesca tried to take over that chore, but Evangeline shook her head and poured the cold water into the basin one of the matrons had brought over. The older woman clapped Francesca on the shoulder in sympathy, then left the two of them in peace. The rest of the community moved a respectable distance away though their attention remained focused on the pair.

The bard lifted one of Francesca’s hands, and gently began to wash the blood away. She felt the disquiet growing within the warrior’s soul, and waited silently for the leader to speak. She finished washing the first hand, and picked up the second.

"I’m sorry you had to see that. I wanted tonight to be so special for you." The strangled whisper was so soft Evangeline could barely make out the spoken words. Deliberately she carefully dried the large hand and then her own. Then she cupped Francesca’s face in her hands, and forced the blue eyes to meet green unflinchingly.

Francesca leaned into the touch, greedily absorbing the warmth and love she felt flowing from the bard. "I’m not," came the strong response. "That makes tonight even more special for me."

Evangeline move one hand to cover the warrior’s lips with her fingers while the bard tried to explain. "I didn’t want to see you have to do that, but to know that you value what we share so greatly, so fiercely...." She shook her head. "I have no words for how that made me feel. Except...." She fell to one knee and clasped Francesca’s hands in her own. Evangeline focused on their hands, finding the strength and the delicateness fascinating. She raised Francesca’s hands to her lips, and brushed the fingertips lightly with her lips.

"Join with me, Cesca. Marry me."

The warrior for her part sat stunned by the turn of events. The night was not going anything like she’d planned so far. The silence extended for so long that Evangeline took it for her answer and dropped Francesca’s hands and moved to stand. The rejection was making the bile rise in her throat, and her singular thought was to get away and be sick somewhere in private. Only to find the world spinning when she was lifted up and spun in strong warrior arms before landing in a warm warrior lap.

Large hands tangled in blonde hair as they gazed at one another before two sets of lips met in love and passion. Softly at first, barely touching. Then deeper, until not even a breath of air could slip between them. The kiss went on interminably before the two separated to breathe, and even then they simply pulled apart a hairsbreadth, their lips still touching.

"Does this mean yes?"

"You are the air that I breathe and the nourishment that sustains my being. Your soul is the completion of mine. Yes, my love, this mean yes." Their lips met again, and this time a cheer rose from the entire community that stood by watching the tableau. Their chuckling broke the kiss. Francesca decided to take the lead this time.

"In my family there has been a legend which we have waited for several generations to see fulfilled." She dropped her gaze, and pulled a heavy chain from beneath her tunic. The warrior lifted the necklace over her head and cupped it in her closed fist before raising blue eyes back to meet intense green. "I know that our tradition calls for the exchange of wedding bracelets. But the legend says...."

"That when the soulmates are reunited, they have the rings to exchange one with another." The bard reached into her own shirt, and withdrew the token she’d hidden there. Evangeline laid it gently on her open palm, trusting Francesca to hold her steadily on her lap. "I am so glad to have found you again, beloved. My soul has missed you."

"And mine you," Francesca answered softly. She removed the ring from the chain, and lifted the bard’s left hands, tenderly sliding the ring into place. "As the sand is to the ocean and the trees are to the forest, so our souls are two parts of the same whole. For today... for tomorrow... forever."

"Always, Cesca. I love you."

The warrior didn’t answer audibly, merely resuming their kiss with a fervent passion. Evangeline kept up the kiss until the ring now clenched in her hand began to imprint her palm. Still she drew back slowly, gently teasing Francesca with a soft tracing of the warrior’s lips with her tongue. The brunette whimpered, and tightened her grip around the bard’s slim waist. Evangeline kissed up the smooth jawline until she reached Francesca’s ear.

"I know we can’t make this formal in front of everyone until the harvest, but between us tonight, right here and right now, I pledge to you all that I am and all that I become. We are forever."

The warrior felt the ring slide onto her finger, but her attention was focused on the tingles running up and down her spine as a warm tongue and hot breath simultaneously caressed her sensitive ear. She felt the moan resonating from her chest, and knew if she didn’t put an immediate end to the sweet torture, she would take Evangeline to bed now and to hell itself with tradition.

Francesca firmly grasped the bard’s face, and drew their lips together for a brief fiery moment. "C’mon, love," she said huskily when they parted. "Let’s get this party started."

They moved to the center of the square, blushing under the knowing cheers and stares. Francesca signaled the musicians, and the dancing and celebrating began in earnest.

No one was surprised when after the feasting was started that Francesca and Evangeline were nowhere to be found. It was common for promised couples to disappear sometime during the festivities to consummate the private pledges they had exchanged.

The warrior led her bard slowly up the stairs to what had over time become their room. No words were necessary between them as their communicated by looks and touches alone. Francesca unlaced the smaller woman’s tunic, taking her sweet time and raining kisses on each bit of skin as it was exposed to her eyes. When she pushed the shirt to the floor, the warrior gazed reverently upon her lover and breathed, "So beautiful." Her hands lightly traced up the exposed torso, and cradled Evangeline’s face.

The bard drew in a shaky breath and raised her own hands to loosen the ties on Francesca’s overshirt. She eased the fabric off strong shoulders, then traced with her fingertips the path her eyes took up the muscled torso. Evangeline felt the warrior’s breathing go erratic when her touch lingered on Francesca’s breasts. Hazy green eyes lifted to meet smoky blue and then the warrior lowered her head to claim Evangeline’s lips fervently.

The kiss went on interminably, and Francesca guided them toward the big bed they had shared for months in loving companionship, and were now ready to share in passionate love.

Without understanding exactly how it happened, the bard found herself naked lying beneath an equally naked, ardent warrior. Then thought and reason left the room as they became one in body and in soul and in spirit.

Spring became summer and soon autumn was upon them. As the harvest festival approached, Francesca and Evangeline made their final preparations to exchange their vows publicly. The night before the celebration, they were cuddled up together in front of the fireplace basking in their union.

"It strikes me as funny," Evangeline commented softly.

The dark head bent slightly to catch the bard’s words. "What does, beloved?"

Evangeline snuggled deeper into Francesca’s embrace, and the warrior obliged by holding her tighter. "This," gesturing between the two of them, "and tomorrow. Tomorrow we stand before the community and make pledges and promises they already know."

The warrior’s grip loosened slightly, and she pulled away just a bit. "Do you not want to marry me now?" Hurt was plainly evident in her tone.

The blonde head swiveled, and startled green eyes met wounded blue. Evangeline turned her entire body in Francesca’s arms until she was straddled across the warrior’s lap. "Oh no, beloved. You don’t get away from me that easily. I was just laughing at the irony of repeating aloud some of our most private and intimate thoughts so our friends can be told something most of them recognized before we did." She cupped the planed face, and brushed her lips lightly across Francesca’s. "I would shout it from the mountaintops daily if I didn’t think it would get me locked up for madness."

The warrior had to smile at the sentiment. She had little doubt the bard would make good on her threat if given half an opportunity. "Well, we’re not repeating the private and intimate stuff. There are some things a leader and her consort do not have to share. They know that we love and are committed to one another. That is enough. The rest is for us alone."

"I can agree with that."

Harvest festival dawned as a clear, cool day, and the morning was taken with games and competitions. Shortly before noon, the cantor who served as their holy man stepped forward to bless the meal, and offer thanks for the abundance. Then he did something surprising only to Francesca and Evangeline.

"Lady," bowing his head to the bard. "Mistress," saluting the warrior and bowing his head to her in turn. "We had a meeting last night, the community did, and we took a vote. It has been talked about between us since the spring, but last night we made it official." He removed a square cloth wrapping, and opened it to reveal two simple gold bands. The cleric turned to the nearest among them, and placed the package in his hands, lifting the larger of the two rings. Reaching up, he placed it on Francesca’s dark head.

"By the power vested in me by this new nation, I hereby declare you sovereign ruler and protector of all we are and all that we possess. From this day forth, you are the monarch, Queen Francesca."

The warrior stood stock-still, unable to respond. The warm clasp of Evangeline taking her hand brought her out of her sudden shock, and caused her to focus on her beloved. The love and pride she saw swelling in the gentle green eyes caused her to return the smile before turning her attention to her new subjects.

"Queen? Are you sure about this Rodrigo?" She looked at the sea of happy expectant faces. "I am just a hack fighter."

"Not so, my Queen. You are a formidable leader, and one we are proud to follow. Allow us to honor you the most fitting way we can see how."

The raven head bowed in a gesture of humility, then she raised it up, standing tall while she met the gaze of each and every individual in the compound. The air was charged and the change that came over them all was palpable. Finally, the warrior nodded her agreement. "I accept the tribute, and will do my best for you all."

A cheer rose then, and it wasn’t until quiet reigned again that Rodrigo spoke. "Now, my lady," nodding to Evangeline, "before I can make you the Queen’s Queen, I need to marry you." He paused, thinking how odd that sounded. "To each other, I mean," he clarified. A chuckle rippled through the crowd at his discomfiture. "Ahem, so if you will join hands...."

The first ten years were a struggle, as nearby provinces wanted to challenge the Queen and her community. But gradually, through much fighting, peace and prosperity settled in the tiny queendom, and people began to seek it out as a place to live in harmony with those around them. The hamlet grew a reputation for fairness and acceptance, and it grew steadily as the years passed.

Evangeline was exceedingly happy to see peace come to the land. She’d held her heart in her throat every time Francesca would leave, hardly daring to breathe until her warrior had returned safe and whole to her once more. Several times the bard had accompanied Francesca, but each and every time, the warrior was seriously injured. Evangeline took it as a sign, and stayed behind to wait. She more than anyone was glad to see the fighting come to an end.

"We have been very lucky," the Queen said to her consort on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary. "I think it is right that it ends this way."

"Are you sure beloved? You know the people would love to see you remain their Queen."

"Us, you mean," Francesca chuckled. Her hair was an iron gray, but time had not dimmed her eyes nor stooped her back. She gazed lovingly at the woman with whom she’d shared her life. Evangeline was still a beautiful woman. Though her hair was pure white, her eyes still twinkled merrily at the life that surrounded her. "No, it is time for Petrinko to learn to be a king in his own right. Our nephew is a wise man. He will do well. Besides, I grow weary of this. I want our remaining time to be for us alone."

The two had made the decision very early in their life together that they would not have children. Neither wanted to share themselves or their lover with another. So they watched their siblings’ children closely to choose an heir. Everyone seemed pleased with their choice, though none were anxious to see Francesca or Evangeline step down.

The celebration and coronation went beautifully, and the two Queen mums were happy to have more time for themselves and each other. For the better part of a year they watched, growing more confident that they had done well in their choosing. As harvest approached yet again, Evangeline took Francesca’s hand in her own, and they looked out into the star-filled night.

"I think it is time, beloved."

The warrior looked down into the bard’s eyes, seeing the pain and weariness they held. She took Evangeline in her arms and gently kissed the top of her head. "I think you’re right, sweet one. Come."

Francesca led them to the big bed that they had shared for almost thirty-two years. In an intimate ritual they had always shared, Francesca gently lifted the gold circlet Evangeline wore from her head, and placed it on their bedside table. The warrior bent slightly to allow Evangeline to do the same for her. We must have known, the Queen pondered, as they rarely wore the crowns anymore except on formal occasions.

They turned the covers on the bed down, and Francesca climbed in first, situating herself before Evangeline crawled in next to her and snuggled up closely. A gentle tugging pulled the bard up to her, and they indulged themselves in a final, lingering passionate kiss.

"I love you, warrior," the bard murmured when they parted. "We have had a good life."

"Yes, we have my bard, and I love you too." Francesca kissed Evangeline’s forehead and tucked the white head beneath her chin. "Sleep now. We have earned our rest."


"It was customary for Petrinko to wake his aunts on special occasions, and he found them wrapped up in one another’s arms when he went in the following morning to wake them for the harvest festival. Though sad for his own loss and that of his people, he couldn’t help but smile at the picture they made together still, and for the last time."

Randi was silent for a long time, and Gwen let her be, seeing the tears roll silently down her cheeks. She cradled the dark head beneath her chin and kissed the top.

"That is what I want," came the words whispered so lightly the bard only felt the barest of sound.

"Hmm?" Gwen asked, tenderly stroking the silky hair. She leaned her head down slightly to catch the warrior’s words.

"When our time comes," Randi said softly, "that is what I want for us. I want us to lie down and go to sleep together."

Gwen lifted her soulmate’s chin, and caught Randi’s lips in a fiery lip lock. "When *our* times comes, we *will* go together. But that is going to be a long, LONG time in coming, love. We have a lifetime to share first."

The Sabre reached around and drew Gwen into an engulfing embrace, holding on tightly and finding it returned in equal measure. "We sure do, Little One. We sure do. Now," taking a deep breath and wiping her cheeks negligently with her sleeve, "I think we have a party to go to. Let’s go meet the neighbors."

Gwen extended her hand. "Good idea, Stud."

The ride into town was short and uneventful. The couple was not the first to arrive, but they were by no means the last either. They took off their coats and set them aside, and began to walk around the room. Randi was familiar with almost everyone, and she took great delight in introducing her bard to people she considered good neighbors and acquaintances.

Slowly, people filtered in, and by early afternoon, the building was filled with bodies chatting, laughing and having a good time together. When Sky Connecah, the town’s chieftain stood, everyone drew quiet in deference to his position and waited for him to offer the ritual blessing.

"Great Spirit, giver of life and all that sustains us, we come together today with grateful hearts and joy in the company we find with one another." Piercing black eyes looked at the members of the community gathered around, and his face creased into a smile. Gwen wondered at the hint of familiarity she saw in his gaze as he held hers. "Thank you for new friends as well as old, and the fellowship we share." He paused then chuckled. "Let’s eat."

Good-natured laughter broke out this pronouncement, and folks began to ease towards the food-laden tables even as conversation quietly resumed. The chieftain made his way slowly to where the bard and warrior still sat, greeting people along the way. Finally, he stood before the couple, and involuntarily drew a deep breath.

"It is no wonder she needs shields," he mumbled, even as he reached a hand out to clasp Randi’s own. She raised an eyebrow in question at the older man.

"Excuse me?"

Sky shook his dark head. "Introduce me to your soul, Ravenhawk. Then I will try to remove the foot from my mouth."

Both women blushed lightly at his phrasing. The soul bond they shared was certainly not common knowledge, nor was it something they shared with people. Randi’s mind ran on a double track even as she introduced the bard.

"Sky, this beautiful woman is my beloved Gwen." She wrapped an arm around the bard and pulled her close. "Gwen, this is Screaming Sky Connecah, the tribal chieftain among other things." She turned a hard blue stare at the man. "You wanna explain that remark now?"

"Um, no, not really," he mumbled then swallowed when her features began to harden. "But I will. I owe you the courtesy."

She nodded, and motioned him to take a seat. He joined them, helping himself to a cup of coffee from the carafe that sat on the table.

"Can I ask a question first?" Gwen queried softly. Sky nodded his head. "Um, Ravenhawk?" looking between the two warriors.

The chieftain smiled. "It is what my people call your warrior. Raven for the color of the night she is forced to hunt in, and hawk for the hunter she is."

The bard looked at Randi confused. "But...."

"No, Gwen, Ravenhawk has never told us that much about herself. Her name comes from what we can see about her." He waited for the knowledge to sink in.

"You’re a seer?" from Randi.

"Yes, warrior. All my people are seers to some degree. For most of us, it is a dormant skill... something we rarely use. Occasionally, an aura will be so strong that it pushes its way into our awareness. Yours does, because together it is blindingly powerful. Still for most of us, it is just a tangible sense of what is between you." He paused, and took a swallow of coffee.

"The strongest of us, though can feel the strength of your bonding like...."

"... like raw energy running through your veins." Gwen paused and looked at Randi. "Reed is a seer." She turned back to Sky. "Reed is part of your tribe?"

"Yes, she is. She is the most gifted among us... one of the most gifted my tribe has ever known."

"But...." Randi put her head in her hands. Her thoughts were of her private paradise slipping away. Sky stopped her by raising his hands.

"She has known about your place here since the first time you came. We project a distinctive aura as well, and she recognized it when you went back. You never brought it up, and she respected your privacy enough to let it lie." He hesitated. "She did contact me, and asked me to keep an eye on you." He smiled at the raised eyebrow. "It was honest concern, warrior. She never explained more than that. I respected her gift enough to do that. Then I met you and did it for you."

"I... I, um...."

The chieftain patted her hand. "You do not have to explain, Ravenhawk. Whatever darkness you were a part of was never your own doing. It made us feel a part of the fight to watch out for you when you were here." He crinkled his brow as a shadow crossed his awareness.

"Sky?" the Sabre asked in concern.

He studied her then, noting for the first time the thin, almost invisible line of the faded scar. He reached a hand out to her chin and turned her head slightly to get a better look at it. She pulled away when he tried to touch it.

"No," was all she said, but he respected the firmness of her tone and withdrew the contact.

Sky folded his hands together in front of him and gazed unseeing at the tabletop. The flash of images he had briefly seen had left him shaken. Finally, black eyes looked up and held ice blue. "I am afraid for you, my friend. There is a darkness coming that you can neither contain nor control." He looked at Gwen, who was studying him seriously. "You are the key. Remember that. You are the key." Without another word he rose and moved away from them, needing a bit of space to collect himself.

The two sat quietly for a long moment before Gwen took a deep breath. "Well, that was interesting," risking a glance at Randi, whose face had gone quite still. "Love?"

Without looking at the bard, the Sabre said softly. "I think I need a minute... if you’ll excuse me." And she was up and out the door before the storyteller had a good grip on the words she had spoken. Then Gwen’s face hardened, and she went in search of Chief Screaming Sky Connecah.

Randi shivered at the cold air that blew across her face when she stepped out the door. Her jacket lay forgotten in the building, and she wasn’t prepared to go back inside to retrieve it. She stuck her hands in her pockets, and stomped her feet, then took off purposefully down the road toward the barn.

Meanwhile, Gwen had cornered Sky, and brought him back to the table to explain a few things. She had a warrior to console, but she needed to understand the damage he had done. He didn’t strike her as the malicious type, but she wanted to know where his words had come from.

"You want to start at the beginning? Because I really don’t appreciate what you did to Randi."

"I probably could have been more tactful in my wording, but you needed to both be aware of what is coming." He looked at her with his dark eyes.

"What is coming?" she asked in a whisper. "And why can you see it if you aren’t a strong enough seer to feel the bond?" direct and to the point. He smiled. If Gwen was this forthright with everyone, Randi had no chance to fall to the darkness.

Chapter XIII

Lancelot stood majestically still while the warrior drew the curry comb through his mane. She didn’t speak out loud, but she didn’t need to. He understood her agitation. Her slow, measured strokes were a complete antithesis to the chaos that presently reigned in her mind.

She replaced the comb with the brush, and gently began to groom the stallion’s sides. The Sabre forced the words and the subsequent emotions they caused from her mind, and slowly concentrated solely on the task before her. Gradually, she reached a meditative center, and felt herself calm and focus.

Randi put the brush down, and took the long face in her hands. "Thanks, Lance," she whispered, dropping a light kiss on his nose. She lifted and apple from the nearby treat barrel and held it still while he lipped it from her palm. "You’re a good friend."

The Marine stopped at the door. The eerie silence caused a prickling to run up her spine and her hair to stand on end. There was no sound... none. Even the natural sounds were gone save the slight whistle of the wind. Blue eyes darkened to black, and she was peripherally aware of the scar burning even as the red wash of rage coursed through her veins. Gone was the loving, tender soulmate of Gwen Goldman. In her place stood the deadly Sabre Miranda Valiant. She slipped easily into the role she had played countless times before, and without a whisper of sound blended into her surroundings and disappeared from sight.

"So because you had ample time to get the shields in place...." Gwen let the thought drift off. The older man nodded his head.

"Yes, that and the fact that my strength lies in a different direction. You see, Reed is an exception in that her gifting is equally strong in all areas. She feels the bonding, she can separate truth from lies, and she can see glimpses into the future. Most of us only have a single gift, and even then it is not always strong." He paused and took a sip of coffee. "When Ravenhawk came home to you, Reed alerted us to prepare. It was a warning we heeded seriously."

Gwen folded her hands, though Sky could easily see her tension in the white knuckles and she moved the clenched fist up to her lips. The bard took a deep breath before resting her chin on her hands and speaking. "What did you see, Sky? What made you say such a thing to her?"

"Nothing tangible that I can put into words, actually. Fleeting impressions."

"And for this you had to upset her??" Green eyes blazed furiously. Her tirade never got any further. Compelling black eyes met and held the bard’s.

"Let me show you what I saw." He held out his hands, palm side up, and waited patiently for Gwen to decide to trust him... or not. The storyteller gazed at him for long moments before sliding her hands into his. His eyes locked onto hers, and without warning, her mind was filled with images and emotions she could not readily identify nor understand. In the space of seconds, hundreds of impressions left their mark, but it would be a while before she could sort through and begin to make sense of everything.

He smiled slightly at her shell-shocked expression. "It took years of training before I could separate and understand what I saw. Don’t try to analyze it too much. It will become clear to you in time."

The blonde head nodded numbly. "Still, there is clearly a feeling of coming darkness. I see why you warned Randi about it and I...."

Whatever else she was going to say was lost in the cacophony of noise that erupted just outside the building. "SEAL IT!" was the shouted command, before the sound of lasers and rapid fire ricochets sounded along the small street.

Randi stood in the shadows, as the sound of multiple transports reached her sensitive ears. "SEAL IT," she heard before all hell broke loose. The few people who were wandering the street were immediately slaughtered before the small force began to spread out to lock up the town.

The first rebel walked by the Sabre unaware. She let the woman slip past her, then Randi silently stepped up behind her and casually snapped her neck. The woman slid from her grasp to the ground, and the warrior promptly relieved the body of the tools she needed. Then Randi merged into the shadows, searching intently for her next victim.

She counted a dozen, less the one already dead. The Marine briefly wonder about their objective, before slipping a knife between the ribs of the young man she had crept up on. He fell with very little sound, and she moved him deeper into the building where he wouldn’t be found easily.

The next soldier actually gurgled at the end, as the knife sliced neatly across his neck. Two more met their demise almost simultaneously. The twin shuriken sliced deep into the right eye of one, and the left eye of the other.

With almost half the rebel force now decimated, Randi’s attention turned as a commotion broke out near the restaurant. The entire rest of the town was being herded into street. A smug grin crossed her face briefly as the Sabre noted the lines of worry that crossed the apparent leader’s face. He motioned two of his remaining team to circle around the perimeter and locate the missing team members. Then her features went still and hard when she caught a feeling of Gwen’s fear.

"I want to know where Miranda Valiant is," the blonde man stated quite matter-of-factly. "*Exactly* where Miranda Valiant is. No reason for anyone to die needlessly. I know she is in this area somewhere." Randi kept an eye on him even as she raised the blowgun to her lips and shot the first dart at the woman fast approaching her position. The rebel reached for the stinging spot on her neck, even as she dropped dead in her tracks. Dark brows rose to her hairline as the Sabre pondered the poison the rebels were using. They had come prepared for slaughter, which didn’t ring true with the leader’s recent words. She blew a second dart at the other woman still some distance away. Randi jumped silently from her hiding place before the second woman hit the ground.

"Either you can give her up, or I will kill you one by one until you do," the man called Usher stated.

"We don’t know where she is," a little old lady said bravely. "We haven’t seen her."

"Well, that is just a damn shame," he answered nonchalantly while wrapping his hands around her slim throat. A twist, and the woman slumped bonelessly to the ground. He looked around, a little surprised to note a lack of fear on the faces that surrounded him. Interesting. "Who’ll be next?"

Randi’s rage grew exponentially as she watched Nanny fall to the ground. The older woman had been the first to welcome her into the community, and had always had a pleasant word anytime the warrior had come into town. When Usher reached out towards Gwen and Chief Screaming Sky, the Sabre went on autopilot and became a bona fide killing machine.

The first two of the remaining five died when swift kicks to the neck crushed their windpipes. The next never saw the blow that sent a bone from his nose up into his brain, and the pressure points she hit on the eleventh rebel caused him to fall over gasping for air. She had to wonder at the poor planning involved in this little raid. The blonde leader had no idea his little force now lay dead around the perimeter of townsfolk.

"Well now," the leader drawled. "What do we have here?" He grabbed Sky by the scruff of the neck and yanked him forward. The heirloom necklace around the chieftain’s throat came off in pieces, and Usher threw it to the ground. "Tell me, old man... where can I find Miranda Valiant?" He closed his hand around Sky’s neck, and slowly began to squeeze the life from his lungs. "It doesn’t matter to me if you all choose to die. You see," he continued conversationally, as the older man’s face went a deep red. "You people are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. You are merely pawns in a larger game." Sky’s face began to turn purple. "And ultimately, your deaths will rest on Valiant’s shoulders."

Usher never noticed that during his speech a ripple in the crowd has caused the people to edge away from him, and he and Sky were left standing basically alone. Randi had edged her way into the congregation, and the sight of her hard, set face and blood covered clothing caused them to pass her through their midst easily. Simultaneously, they eased back, understanding that their champion was far more dangerous than her foes. No one realized the deadly damage she had already perpetrated until much, much later.

Gwen gasped when Randi stepped into the inner circle... an involuntary reaction to the transformation she could clearly see written on Randi’s visage. She clasped her hands to her lips to contain the sound, but it was too late. Usher’s attention focused on her.

He dropped Sky, and the old man lay on the ground gasping for air. The Sabre didn’t even slow down, but reached the rebel just as he touched Gwen. He didn’t even have time to process the thought that he was going to die before the blade entered his stomach. Usher looked into cold dead eyes, and understood in that moment that he had been set up, and wondered why. Then it didn’t matter, as she jerked the knife upwards, and he scrambled to catch the innards that were suddenly spilling on the ground around him. He fell to his knees, dead before he hit the ground.

Randi looked up then, black eyes meeting green even as a wash of confusion caused them to return to their normal brilliant blue. Almost immediately, the Marine grabbed her head, and screamed in agony before dropping down unconscious beside the dead rebel.

Gwen did not even hesitate, but was cradling Randi before her head could touch the earth. Sky eased up still wheezing and rubbing his throat, and moved to call directions to his people. Without complaint, they moved to do his bidding immediately. The first detachment reverently removed Nanny’s body to the ritual preparation area. Two other groups quickly gathered the dead rebels and placed them in the incinerator. The last group carefully moved the soulmates together indoors. Within minutes Gwen and Randi were comfortably ensconced in his guest room above the restaurant.

Sky followed them slowly up the stairs, noting that the entourage waited respectfully just outside the door to do his bidding. He poked his head just inside the room, noting that Randi remained locked in the bard’s embrace still covered in blood and gore. The one woman who was still attending them met his eyes and shook her head just slightly negatively.

The chieftain withdrew for a moment, before opening the door wider and allowing himself and several of the young men who had been waiting to enter the room. Gwen looked at them questioningly, and could not contain the gasp when they were lifted bodily together and moved to the small bathroom. Green eyes turned to Sky.

"I thought you might like a chance to clean up." She nodded at his words, and people began to withdraw from the suddenly overcrowded space. "Redwing will stay and help you," he added before pulling the door shut behind himself.

The bard slowly unbuttoned the flannel shirt, numbly grateful for the help, and the fact that the woman was courteous enough to keep her eyes averted as much as possible. It was awkward as hell, but Gwen was loath to let Randi go. Redwing worked around it as much as she could, and in short order the warrior was stripped naked, and her clothes headed out to be laundered.

The storyteller glanced around, realizing there was no way for her to undress without help. Silently, Redwing leaned the warrior forward enough the Gwen could wriggle out of her clothing, then rested Randi in her soulmate’s arms once again when the bard resettled herself.

"I’ll be right outside when you’re ready," the young woman commented softly, even as she shut the shower enclosure and moved smoothly out the door. Gwen spared a brief thought of thankfulness for the warmth of the room as she waited for the water to reach the desired temperature. Even expecting it, she flinched when warm water cascaded down from the nozzle. It disturbed her that not only did the Sabre in her arms not react to the initial shock, but she did not move even as the water continued to pelt them.

Gwen let the wetness rinse away as much of the blood and gore as it could while she lathered the sponge Redwing had place within her grasp. Then she bathed the warrior everywhere she could reach, thankful that Randi was turned in her arms. Once the blood was gone and Randi was clean, the bard cleaned the residual blood from herself and commanded the water to shut off. On cue, Redwing opened the door and handed Gwen two long, thick towels. When the two women were covered, the men moved back into the bathroom and lifted them out together, moving them to the bed that was now pulled down and covered in fresh linen.

Gwen wondered why they did not simply let her walk. It would have been infinitely easier, and made a lot more sense. When they were settled, Sky stepped back into the room, even as everyone else made their way out. He answered the confused look in her eyes.

"She needs you. You are her connection... her lifeline. We had no desire to sever that for her, or for you. It is far too important."

"How did...?"

A smile actually lit the older man’s features at the honestly puzzled question. "It was easy. You have a very expressive face, and you had the same confused look both times you were carried around together." He became serious. "You need to sleep now. Join her in the dreamscape so she knows she is not alone."

She nodded, not completely understand, but knowing Randi needed her. He tucked them in more comfortably together, a smile lighting his eyes when the warrior burrowed even more deeply into Gwen’s embrace. He placed a hand on either forehead and began a soft, rhythmic chanting. The storyteller struggled to figure out what was being said, but her eyes felt so heavy. She closed them, hoping to understand better if she did, and drifted off into slumber.

Sky finished the mantra sitting completely still for a long moment until he knew they had safely crossed into sleep. Then with a sigh he rose, and moved to wait with the others downstairs.

The darkness was tangible... thick and cloying. Gwen wished for a light, rather surprised when a tiny spark appeared by her head. It didn’t illuminate this... nothing... she was in much, but it did bring a measure of comfort. Haltingly, she took a few tiny steps, glad beyond belief when the speck of light moved with her. The bard took a deep breath, and slowly moved forward, seeking out her soulmate in the inky darkness.

She couldn’t have said how long or how far she traveled before the sound of soft breathing reached her ears. The shard of light grew, until she was able to make out Randi’s features in the dim light. The warrior’s eyes were closed and she appeared to be hovering above the ground. The question was answered when Gwen ran squarely into the solid object that blended perfectly into their surroundings Randi was perched on. The bard reached out a hand to wake the Sabre when the Marine’s hand snagged it inches from her face. Blue eyes looked confused, and Randi released the small hand to scrub her face.

"Gw...." She cleared her throat of its hoarseness, sitting up slowly and rubbing the back of her neck. "Gwen? What are you...? How did you...?" She broke off, trying to formulate her thoughts a little more clearly. Gwen understood what she was asking, though, and endeavored to answer the question.

"Sky helped me to get here. He said you needed me." She took Randi’s hands in her own. "Um, where is here, exactly? I’ve never seen a place like this."

"No, I certainly hope you haven’t. This is not a nice place. You really shouldn’t be here." The warrior closed her eyes and made to turn away from Gwen. The same eyes popped open in surprise when the bard jerked her hands free and clasped the drawn face firmly between them.

"Miranda Valiant," whispered fiercely, "don’t you DARE shut me out!! I married you for good and bad, and you’re not gonna hide things from me again. I won’t let you." She drew a shaky breath. "I meant what I said... they can’t have you back, and I will fight for what is mine." She cupped Randi’s chin, and poked her in the chest with her free hand. "You. Belong. To. Me. Understand??"

"No, no, Blondie. Randi belongs to me now. The scar is gone. She belongs to me, like she should have from the beginning," Ares commented to the scrying bowl even as he watched the scene play out before him. He had waited millennia for this moment.

Gwen let the truth sink into the Marine’s mind. Watching as it became clear in her eyes. Then she captured the soft lips passionately, moaning softly when the warrior’s arms wrapped securely around her and drew their bodies closer together. She threaded her fingers into the dark hair, and the two lost themselves in timeless moments of reassurance. Finally, breathing heavily, she pulled back. "Mine, warrior. Forever."

"Always, my bard."

"Now tell me about this place."

Randi looked around slowly. "This is where I came whenever I had a particularly trying mission. This darkness is my darkness. Things I could not consciously bear to carry." She looked around bewildered. "What I am not sure of is why we are here. What happened?"

A frown crossed the blonde’s features. "What is the last thing you remember, love?"

Large hands covered the Sabre’s face before running her fingers through raven hair. "Um, we were...." She scrunched up her brows in thought. "We were sitting down to coffee with Sky, and...." She shook her head. "I missed something pretty important, huh?

Gwen didn’t answer directly. The frown grew deeper as she thought, then she turned to Randi abruptly. "Did you ever have this happen before?"

"I’m not sure I understand."

Gwen paused, trying to formulate her thoughts. "When you visited this place before, you knew why you came here, even though the memories were put away once you left, correct?"


"But now you are here of your own volition, and yet have no knowledge of *why* you are here. Has that ever happened before?"

Randi paused and considered, contemplating the question seriously. "No," she finally said, after some internal debate. "Even the memories I have put here can be extracted if I need them." She rubbed her forehead. "What the hell is going on? Why can’t I remember?"

"I don’t know, love, but we will figure this out." A deep breath. "Let me tell you what happened as far as what I saw." And knowing they needed one another’s support for what was coming, she took the strong hands in her own and began to relate the events of the day.

Randi pulled away sharply before Gwen could finish, moving out of the dim light and into the shadows. "My God! What kind of monster am I becoming?" She paced back and forth in the darkness, examining the story Gwen had shared thus far. The bard came up behind her and hugged her, and she reflexively stiffened in the embrace for an instant before her body accepted the touch. It was so odd to have someone else in this very private space.

The storyteller stood quite still, but her hold remained firm while she waited for Randi to allow the embrace. Gwen could feel the internal struggle the warrior was having, and chose her next words very carefully.

"I don’t think you’re a monster."

The warrior whirled on her. "How can you...?"

The blonde placed her hands over Randi’s lips, knowing it was the only way to halt her speech. "Let me finish, please." She felt the dark head nod and moved her fingers, smiling in the blackness at the light kiss she felt the Marine place on them.

"What you did was become the Sabre you have always been, and you responded to the threat just like you always have. The difference this time was the fact that it was more personal. You knew the people being targeted. You felt more." She drew a deep breath. "Now I want you to think about something, love, and be honest with yourself and me."

Unconsciously, Randi reached for Gwen, resting her hands on slim hips. The bard traced her hands up the Marine’s torso, coming to rest firmly on the strong neck, and she felt Randi nod her agreement.

"Except for the leader, the rest of them died swiftly and mercifully, didn’t they? You gave them the same courtesy all those who targeted you before had been given, didn’t you?" She waited while Randi hesitated and thought about what bits Gwen had revealed that she had done to the rebels. How the way they had died had been decidedly merciful given the accoutrements they carried and obviously planned on using against her and the people of the small town.

"Yes, but...."

"And the reason the leader died so violently is because he made me a target. Just like Ben. It crossed the line from professional into personal for you."

"The darkness you have to walk in sometimes scares me, Randi. No you don’t...." holding fast to the warrior’s body when she made to pull away. "No, let me finish." She slid her hands forward so she cradled Randi’s face tenderly. "It scares me for YOU, beloved, not for me. You go into a darkness I don’t understand, and can’t follow you into, and you do it willingly... for me. You walked into the darkness again, because that man made me a target, but at what cost??"

"For you, it was worth any cost, Little One."

"Not if it costs me you again, it wasn’t," the bard hissed. "Randi, you SCREAMED when it was all over. You looked at me and screamed in pain. Then you came here. That would tend to make me the culprit in whatever happened, wouldn’t it?"

"No! Yes... I dunno. Maybe. It would help if I understood how I got here, and why I screamed. I honestly don’t remember anything after we sat down to have coffee with Sky." And she didn’t really... just words the bard had shared with her.

Gwen took Randi’s hands in her own and led her back toward the place she’d found the warrior resting. "C’mon love. Let’s see if we can find a more comfortable dreamscape to share together, and when we wake up we’ll talk to Sky. Maybe he can help shed some light on what happened."

The Marine smiled, knowing her soulmate could hear it in her voice. "You know of a good place to go?"

"Oh yeah, Stud... I have just the place."

Randi help Gwen up onto the protrusion and settled in behind her, wrapping herself firmly around the smaller woman, and allowing the peace and tranquility she felt invade their souls and soothe troubled spirits. She never even realized when she drifted off again.

The tickling was making her nose twitch, but Randi was loath to open her eyes. She couldn’t help the grin that formed, though, and when the feather-light touched moved to her neck, she squawked and opened her eyes. Taking in the twinkling green eyes of her tormentor, the Sabre flipped them over so Gwen was lying beneath her.

"Well, well... what do we have here?" laughing diabolically, and starting a teasing touch up the bard’s sensitive sides. Gwen squirmed to get away from the tickling fingers, but only succeeded giving Randi even more skin to conquer. The blonde distracted her warrior in the only way she could think of, and drew her into a fiery kiss. The touches subtly changed, and soon Gwen’s shortness of breath wasn’t due to laughter, but the sensations cascading through her body.

Randi pulled back slightly, looking into passion darkened eyes. "I love you," she said softly.

"As I do you," came the equally muted response. "We will figure this out together you know." She broke eye contact to look again at the surroundings she’d already had the opportunity to investigate. "Do you recognize this place?"

The Marine rose up a little more, and took a good look around. They were in a clearing by a stream that had a waterfall. The grass was soft, the flowers fragrant, and the trees provided ample shade and just a tiny breeze. There was a thick bearskin spread on the ground, and a neat, well-laid fire was built nearby. She looked back at Gwen.

"This is...."

"This is our place, yes. We have been here before. Sometimes we camp out, sometimes there is a rustic little cabin, once in awhile there is an inn. But we always come here together."

"You mean our time here together is real? It’s not just a dream... not wishful thinking or imagination?"

"Apparently so. We share this place in our dreams."

"That is so totally incredible."

"Yes, it is. And I want you to understand something." She held Randi’s face in her hands securely and captured her gaze effortlessly. Gwen looked into blue depths for a timeless moment, willing the warrior to recognize the truth of her words. "This will always be our safe place, and I will always, *ALWAYS* be here for you."

Randi closed her eyes as the words embedded themselves in her mind and heart, and when she opened them again, Gwen saw the acceptance in the Marine’s. She didn’t have a chance to say anything else as Randi leaned down and took fervent possession of her lips.

"Do you suppose," the warrior asked huskily as she pulled back until their lips were just touching. "If we were to make love here," her tongue sneaking out to trace the soft, full lips beneath her own. "Do you think we would be making love in real time as well?"

"I suggest we experiment, and see what we can discover." Twining her hands into the thick dark hair hanging down and curtaining them, she tugged lightly until they were in full contact along their lengths. Randi’s hands slowly traced up Gwen’s sides as she kissed the bard deeply once more.

"I think that is a very sound idea, Little One. We can’t be too careful with experiments, ya know."

The soft trill of blended laughter was heard before the sounds turned passionate. And the lovers never noticed when the dreamscape faded into reality.

Down below, Sky heard the soft laughter and smiled. They had found one another, and for now, it was enough. Later would have to take care of itself when it came.

"ARES!!!" The blonde goddess thundered across the heavens as she stormed into his lair. "You can’t do this!" she shouted. "They belong to me!"

The smug smirk on his face made Dite itch to wipe it off with her nails. "Not anymore they don’t. I am taking back what you stole from me. Your whole will become two parts once more as I reclaim what is rightfully mine!" He screamed at her furiously, the fire in his eyes alarmingly clear.

"You can’t do that!" she shouted again, her face going red in her fury.

"Oh, but I already have. Months and years of planning have finally come to fruition." He strode away from her, only to turn back and point a finger in her direction for emphasis. "Do you know how long I have been working on this? Even for a god, it was an eternity. The scar is gone, and her soul is mine for the claiming." He gave an evil chuckle. "The best part is, she is unaware of the change, and will remain so until it is too late. She has no choice this time." He grinned evilly, then went on, anxious to cause the love goddess some of the hurt and frustration he himself had suffered for millennia because of her machinations.

"It was a thing of beauty, really. Ben was *kind* enough to insure the infestation of the drug." He looked at her. "Do you know how long it took me to perfect that... to insure my success?" He shrugged. "Not that it matters. The point it, it did succeed... even better than I expected. She has no memory of the darkness that overtakes her, and the change has been so gradual no one has even noticed." He laughed again.

"Nothing can stop me now. I will be ruler of the world once Randi has done my bidding and conquered it, of course. Then she will reign by my side as my Queen Consort."

Aphrodite’s face had gone quite cold and still during his little speech, and now she turned to him with a look that would have burned him to ash, given her choice. "You little rat bastard," she whispered in fury. "You will not get away with this. I am not going to let you win."

He laughed heartily now. "You can’t stop me, Dite. I have already won. And I didn’t break a single rule to do it. There’s not a damn thing you can do."

"We’ll see about that," she snarled at him, glaring for a long moment before disappearing in a shower of sparks.

"There is nothing to see, sister," he commented to the thin air where she had stood. "I won fair and square." He chuckled. "Well maybe not quite fair." He grinned in evil contentment, throwing himself on a comfortable chaise. "It doesn’t matter, though. I won. The warrior’s soul is mine. And nothing will stop me this time. My victory is finally complete." The sound of his laughter echoed through the heavens.

When the couple awakened from their sleep a few hours later, they weren’t sure whether to be pleased or embarrassed by the blissful, sated satisfaction they felt. Wrapped together in naked contentment, they concluded quite happily that their experiment had been a success and settled for pleased.

They lay together for a few moments before Randi rose up on her side and looked down at her soulmate. She put her palm on Gwen’s belly gently rubbing in comforting circles. The warrior smiled when the bard purred and arched into the light touch. She leaned down and kissed Gwen’s nose. "I love you."

"Umm," humming in delight, "I love you too." She ran her hands lightly up Randi’s torso before locking behind her neck, gazing at her with eyes full of love and affection.

"Thank you," the Sabre said quietly. "Having you come... knowing we...." The dark head dropped to Gwen’s chest and she moaned in frustration. "This is not coming out right at all."

The bard pulled gently on Randi’s hair until the warrior’s eyes met her own. "I meant what I said, love. You will never be alone to face the darkness again. What we do, we do together." She slipped her hand along the Marine’s smooth cheek, halting in confusion as she replayed the sensation over in her mind. Smooth?? She turned Randi’s head away from her, trailing her fingers along the smooth flesh.

"Gwen?" Randi was bewildered by the storyteller’s abrupt action. The bard released her hold and allowed the blue gaze to meet her own astounded one. "Love, what’s wrong?"

Gwen swallowed hard, trying to fathom the implications of the day’s events, knowing instinctively something drastic had changed. She looked up into Randi’s eyes. "The scar," she whispered, her voice so low Randi has to strain to hear it. Gwen cleared her throat and tried again. "The scar... Randi, it’s gone."

The warrior’s eyes widened perceptibly. "I think we need to have a talk with Sky. Maybe he can shed some light on things. At least he might be able to help me remember today."

The blonde head nodded her agreement. "C’mon love. A quick shower, then we’ll see what we can see together."

Randi smiled. "You do not know just how incredible I find that word. But I intend to show you everyday for the rest of our lives."

"Good," was Gwen’s one word reply, before entering the bathroom and closing the door firmly behind them.

Chapter XIV

The sound continued for a seeming eternity, and when it ceased, the silence was deafening. Artemis and Athena peeked around the corner, their eyes going wide at the devastation the love goddess had wrought. Shards of pottery lay strewn across the marble floor. Silk material lay in shredded tatters around the room, and feathers wafted at the slightest breeze.

Only in front of the bed was there a clear space, and there was a decided groove where a rut was forming. The two goddesses looked at one another askance, and gingerly crossed the threshold in case there was another outbreak of rage. When they saw Aphrodite was curled up in the middle of the now disheveled bed, they stepped forward with more confidence.

"Dite?" the goddess of wisdom softly called. Athena traversed the room and eased down onto the bed. She gently ran her fingers through the tangled curly locks, trying to straighten them into a more orderly fashion. "He’s not going to win, ya know."

Aphrodite sprang into a sitting position instantly, and pointed her finger at her sister goddess "He CHEATED, The!! How can you be so sure he won’t?" The brief flare of anger died as quickly as it had arisen, and the love goddess fell back onto the bed in a heap.

"Well, there are several reasons." Athena resumed her gentle stroking and felt Dite relax into her touch. Artemis came up and sat lightly on the other side, taking Aphrodite’s hand in her own and caressing it lightly.

"Oh yeah? Like what?"

"Like the fact that they have beaten him before, even before their souls were pledged and blessed. You really think he can break the bonding? Gwen was able to defeat him before. Besides, Rosie and several of my priestesses are looking for an antidote for the poison. Some of Arty’s Amazon’s were able to obtain a sampling."


"Yes, really," the huntress responded. "She is still my Queen, even if she no longer remembers that role, and we all have a serious stake in the outcome of this. They need each other, and the world needs them."

Aphrodite raised her free hand, and brushed the tears from her face. She sat up determinedly. "You’re right, of course... both of you." She looked around her now decimated lair. "Ew, grody! Let me get this mess cleaned up. Then we need to sit down and do some serious planning."

Athena laughed. "We’ll help." And in short order, the room was restored to its normal opulence. Then the deities headed for the small conference room to strategize. Dite stopped in the doorway, shocked by the roomful of gods already present.

"You knew?" she turned to Athena and Artemis.

"We suspected. These two are highly favored," Artemis replied softly.

"Besides, Art was telling the truth. We need them, and we know it. Everyone here was rocked when they were separated by Randi’s death."

The goddess of love thought about it for a moment before nodding her head and clasping her hands together in agreement. "You’re right. And we’re gonna use everything we have against him." She moved briskly into the room, and assumed a no nonsense attitude. "Let’s get to work."

Sky walked away from them and stood unseeingly at the window. "This is not good," he muttered. "This is very, very bad." Those of his tribe that had helped the bard and the warrior still remained clustered together on one side of the room. Outside, the flames from the incinerator lit up the evening sky, and low moans and the beating of drums could be heard as they prepared to give Nanny a proper send off into the afterlife.

The chieftain nodded his head at the small group, and they silently went out to join the rest of the family in mourning. Sky bowed his head. "I need to go walk Nanny to her reward before we do anything. Would you like to wait here, or...?" He trailed off, not wanting to pressure them into something neither of them was ready for.

"If you think we would be welcome, we would like to attend." Randi cleared her throat and spoke again hesitantly. "I would like to say a few words, actually."

The older man nodded his head in agreement, glad that she had offered, and he didn’t have to ask. "Come. Let us go lay our friend to rest, and speed her journey to the afterlife."

Each member of the tribe was offered the opportunity to say a short piece about the woman they had known, and though not everyone availed themselves of the opportunity, each and every one did lay an object in the carefully crafted coffin. Some of the items were personal, and others meant to bring comfort to Nanny on her journey in the afterlife. But they all held significance for both the giver and Nanny.

Gwen walked beside Randi as they approached the coffin. The bard stood silently as the warrior offered a short prayer for Nanny’s safe passage. Then Randi placed a small prayer stone in the older woman’s cold hands and folded her warm ones carefully around them.

"Thank you for your friendship, Nanny, and for your acceptance. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop the.... Well, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve what happened, and I feel like I let you down." A breath. "I, uh... I was hoping you would, um, bless Gwen and me today, but since you can’t, um, keep an eye on us, huh? Some thing screwy is going on, and I don’t like the way it feels. Safe passage, my friend and happy journeys."

She took Gwen’s hand, not expecting the resistance she got to her slight tug. Instead, she listened as the storyteller spoke her last to a woman she’d barely known. "I don’t have anything to offer but my words, Nanny. But I remember so clearly your words to me the day we met. And I will treasure them, and her, for all the rest of my days. Thank you for sharing a glimpse with me."

The dark head turned toward the blonde at these cryptic words, but Gwen’s attention was focused on the body of the woman in front of her. "Peace and happiness to you both, Nanny. Be happy together again."

The bard turned and looked at Randi then, gently pulling her from the side of the casket so others could take their place. A dark brow rose over a blue eye. "I didn’t realize you knew her," the warrior offered quietly.

"She sought me out, the first time we came into town. She was the one who showed me the story behind our wedding shirts."

"You want to share?"

"I’d love to... I’m just not sure I can."

The second brow rose to meet its mate at this statement. Randi watched as Gwen worried her lip, trying to find the words to say what she meant. She started to speak when she was forestalled by the chieftain’s words.

"The time has come to sing our sister to her final rest in this life. Since she has no living next of kin, Ravenhawk has asked permission to lead the chant, and I have granted it." He nodded in the Sabre’s direction, and motioned for her to begin.

Gwen was surprised by Randi’s next action. Instead of separating from her and moving to the front of the room, the warrior simply dropped a long arm around her shoulders in a firm embrace, and started singing right where she stood.

The first verse was a solo voice, and tears sprang to Gwen’s eyes at the mourning tone that the Marine was producing. She noticed many among the surreptitiously wiping their eyes and she wished she was able to understand the words that were being sung.

As Randi’s voice held the last note, Gwen watched as one by one, each member of the community united with her, and the whole feeling of the service changed. The tempo increased, and the drums and other instruments joined in what was quickly becoming an uplifting song. Hands began to clap and feet started tapping out the rhythm on the floor. Smiles grew broad as the song went on, and it wasn’t long before the entire room was wreathed in happiness.

As the song neared completion instruments and voices began to drop out again, until only the warrior was left. She sang the last alone, but the change from the beginning was palpable. As she reached the last line, everyone rose to their feet and merged their voices together one more as they released the body into the flames, and sent Nanny’s spirit soaring.

The sun had set by the time the service was complete, and the community dispersed quietly to their homes. Sky guided Gwen and Randi back toward his residence, knowing they needed to talk together before the couple headed back to their cabin.

He motioned them to a seat on the couch even as he moved to fetch the coffee. He was back in minutes, and he set the tray down on the table before assuming a seat in the chair across from them. He waited casually for them to finish fixing their coffee the way they liked it before he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

Eagle eyes focused on Randi, and she held his unwaveringly. He reached for her hands, and she laid her own in his. They sat motionless for a moment, before he sighed and dropped both his grasp and his gaze. "You really do not remember, do you?"

She shook her head, and he noticed for the first time that the scar was gone. He raised his arm then hesitated when he recalled her earlier words. "The scar is gone."

She nodded her agreement. "I know. Gwen thinks it might be what caused me to scream before I passed out." She absently rubbed a hand along the smooth cheek. She drew her face away in frustration, and hit her balled fists on her knees. "This is making me crazy, Sky. I know something is wrong. But I don’t know what or how to fix it."

The man sat back, contemplating her for a long moment. He came to a decision, then reached for her hands again. "Let me show you the darkness that made you run from me earlier today... what probably saved all our lives."

She was cautious in taking his hands, for the first time very much afraid of what she might see. Gwen slid closer, and wrapped her arms around the narrow waist, laying her head on the broad shoulder. "Together," she whispered in the nearby ear.

Randi turned her head to see green eyes full of love and faith fastened on her. Without unlocking her gaze from Gwen, she extended her hands to Sky. And was bombarded by the images that assaulted her consciousness. The Marine drew in her breath sharply, but the bard’s eyes never left the blue, and Randi let the images wash over her. She saw the darkness, felt it like before. She even understood it to a point. But its power over her was lost as the strength of Gwen’s love surrounded and shielded her.

"Gwen, I need you release your hold. She needs to see this... to understand it."

"No, Sky," she answered firmly without ever breaking eye contact. "You send it through where we can both see, but she is not walking this path alone this time. I won’t let you do that to her again."

He sighed. He was afraid it might come to this. Their soul connection was strong enough to dilute the darkness. The only thing he could try was.... "Gwen, give me one of your hands, and Randi the other."

"No, Sky. I...."

Gwen laid a finger across Randi’s vehemently protesting lips. "It’s okay, love. I’ve already seen it. I’m sorry, Sky. I know you’re not the enemy."

The warrior looked steadily into Gwen’s eyes, seeing the truth clearly written there for her to see. "You’re sure? I don’t want...."

"I’m sure." She offered one hand to Sky, and the other took Randi’s own in hers. Then she focused her attention solely on her soulmate, giving the Sabre her strength to withstand the coming onslaught. The chieftain took their hands, and both gasped involuntarily at the overwhelming sensations.

Instead of diluting them, their bonding made the images much clearer, and besides the approaching darkness, they both felt a rending at their very cores. Randi jerked to break the connection, but Sky had been anticipating such a move, and held on for dear life. The sensation ended as abruptly as it had begun, and the small group sat exhausted as though they had been running for hours. Gwen chanced a look at the clock, and saw that less than a minute had passed. Her eyes closed again.

"Oh my God... what the hell does all that mean?" Randi asked Sky in a shaky voice. Nothing she had seen made much sense. It was more feelings that left their impression on her psyche. She didn’t like the thoughts she’d been left with by the encounter.

"I wish I could tell you," the older man answered slowly. "That is what I got from the brief glimpse I was given today. Even after three viewings, I can’t say it is any clearer than it was the first time." He scratched his jaw. "I am missing something vital."

Gwen had not said a word since Sky had released them, and she’d never lost her grip on Randi’s hand. Now the Marine turned her head to the bard, becoming alarmed by the sudden pallor and shallow, rapid breathing.

"GWEN?!?" Randi took the storyteller in her arms and gently cradled her. "Gwen? Gwen, c’mon love. Wake up... wake up!" She gently patted the bard’s face, and turned to the chieftain. "Do something!" Sky was already moving towards the kitchen before the plea was out of Randi’s mouth.

Gwen meanwhile was in another place she had never been before.


"We don’t have much time, Sweet Pea. The battle for the warrior’s soul has begun, and for now we are fighting handicapped." She held up her hands when Gwen’s lips parted to speak. "Just listen. It is yours, yes, but you are going to have to fight for it, and for her. A time will come when you have to make a choice. Fight for her and walk away, or give up and give in. You will have to remember what I have just told you, if you are going to make the right decision. Choose wisely. The fate of the world... the fate of your souls will depend on the choice you make."


"I can’t say anything more right now. We are almost out of time. We are doing our best to help you, but you are going to have to do a lot of this on your own. I’ll come see you again like this from time to time when we can manage to do it without suspicion."


"Remember what I said. You are fixing to have a very rude awakening." Then the goddess was gone, and Gwen was opening her eyes to the most horrific smell. Her only consolation was the fact that she was being tenderly cradled in the warrior’s strong embrace. She put Aphrodite’s warning to the back of her mind. She would ponder it later, but for now, she had a Marine in need of solace and comfort.

"Are you all right?" Randi questioned even as she pulled her tighter in to her own strong body. "God, you had me scared for a minute." She smiled and tried to make light, but Gwen could easily see the stark terror that lingered deep in those blue eyes.

"I’m fine," the bard answered softly, "except for the burning smell in my nose. What was that stuff, anyway?"


"God, that stuff stinks."

"Yes, it does," the chieftain said s he handed the blonde woman a tall glass of water. "But it gets the job done.

"I’ll say. Phew!" Gwen drained the glass and gently eased up into more of a sitting position on Randi’s lap. The warrior was loath to let her move, however, and kept a tight hold around Gwen’s middle. She patted the Sabre’s hands lightly in a gesture of comfort.

"I’m all right, Stud. Just a bit of an overload. That was the second time I experienced that today, ya know." She didn’t mention the differences between the first and second meldings. The bard turned and looked at Sky. "How did you get through without collapsing?"

Actually, he looked pretty drained as well. He sighed and chuckled tiredly. "I actually feel like I was hit by a falling tree, but it was different for me. For one thing, I was projecting instead of receiving. For another, we have a natural barrier against any backlash, and remember what I told you this morning.... We were prepared for your coming, so our shielding was stronger than normal." He collapsed on the seat and looked at them wearily. "Not a day I wish to repeat again in this lifetime, though."

He rubbed his hands across his face. "It is late, and I think you should stay the night. I’m exhausted, and I know you both are, and well... I just think it would be for the best. That’s all."

Blue and green met in wordless communication before Randi looked up at the chief. "Thanks, Sky. We appreciate the hospitality."

"Take the room you had this afternoon. It is already made up, and no offense, but I am way too tired to have to make another bed up tonight."

"We wouldn’t let you even if you weren’t, Sky. Thank you for offering."

"It is my pleasure, Little Dove. You are both most welcome and honored guests in my home."

"What did you call me?" Gwen’s head had snapped around when her Gramma’s old pet name for her rolled off Screaming Sky’s tongue. He looked at her slightly bewildered.

"Little Dove?" he asked uncertainly. He hadn’t meant to offend, but it was the name the tribe had been given for the bard.

"How did you know...?" She shook her head to clear her thoughts and gazed steadfastly into his deep brown eyes. "What made you decide on that as my tribal name?"

"It was given to us by the Great Spirit. Nanny mentioned it after she gifted you with your story. Why? Does it mean something to you?"

The blonde head nodded, but she didn’t speak. Sky looked at Randi in confusion.

"It was the name her Grandmother called her. A private name, between the two of them."

"Oh. My." The expression on his face was a little strained. In all his years, he had never seen a situation quite like this one. "Does it upset you for us to use it, Gwen? We can easily call you by your given name."

She held up her hand and his speech ground to a halt. "No, it just took me by surprise is all. I haven’t heard it for a long time, and I was somewhat unprepared for it." She drew a deep breath and met the man’s steady regard. "It’s like family... makes me feel like I have a place here."

He smiled broadly, and the two women couldn’t help but return the gesture. "You do, and perhaps on your next visit, they two of you would consider letting us adopt you into our tribe officially."

Gwen’s eyes met Randi’s. "Why are you asking now, Sky? And why not adopt us this visit, if that is the desire of the clan?" The Marine’s eyes widened at how well the bard had read her mind.

"Hmm, well," he answered slowly, as he pondered the best way to phrase his answer, "we couldn’t ask Ravenhawk to be a part of the tribe until she was complete. That did not happen until the two of you became one in mind and body and spirit. You are still in the process of becoming one soul on this journey. When you return to us, we will guide you on a spirit quest together because your soul will be one entity then."

He rose and paced a moment, finally turning back to them. "The spirit quest is not a journey to be taken lightly, so we ask now to give you time to decide if it is right for you. But it is a necessary step that each tribe member takes upon reaching maturity."

"What does a spirit quest do, Sky?"

"Your spirits, your soul is taken on a journey that will answer questions that you have and show you things you need to know. The time is not yet right for you. But you will know when you are ready."

"What questions? What things?"

"I cannot answer that for you. They are different for everyone." He held up a hand when Randi opened her mouth, and she promptly shut it. "Come, it is late and we are all in need of rest."

The couple slowly stood, Gwen still cradled in Randi’s arms. "I can walk, you know."

"I know," the warrior responded softly as she moved to follow the chieftain up the stairs. "But I like having you here."

Gwen studied the look in the blue eyes gazing at her and surrendered to the need in them. She rested her head on the broad shoulder, squeezing Randi’s neck in a light hug, and feeling the pressure returned ever so gently around her body. Then Sky opened the door for the warrior, and they were crossing the threshold into the guest room.

"I will bid you both a pleasant goodnight and happy dreams together," he said as he pulled the door closed behind himself before moving on toward his own room.

Randi set the bard on her feet slowly, keeping her hands at Gwen’s waist for balance just in case. The blonde woman took a deep breath and steadied herself with her hands on the Sabre’s arms for a long moment. Then she looked up into eyes filled with loving concern.

"I’m all right, love. Just very tired."

"Me too."

In short order, they had stripped to their underwear and crawled beneath the thick covering. They wrapped up in their favorite position together, and for a little while let the peace and warmth of the quiet pervade their senses.

"What do you think about Sky’s offer?" the bard asked sleepily.

Randi had been in a half-doze when Gwen’s question was spoken into the darkness. She forced herself to a higher awareness.

"Hmm, I think it is interesting... something we should consider. I never expected to be asked to be part of the tribe. It’s not like I mix and mingle all that much. I would like to know more about why we were invited." She paused and thought a moment. Gwen felt the sigh more than heard it.

"What, love?"

"I’m a little concerned about the spirit quest."

The bard leaned up and propped her head on her elbow so she could lean up and look into Randi’s face. She absently stroked her free hand up and down the warrior’s torso, making goosebumps chase in the wake of her touch. "How so?"

Randi grasped the hand, and tangled their fingers together. "I can’t think when you touch me like that," she admitted shyly. She kissed Gwen’s fingers. "I have a sneaking suspicion that a spirit quest is a much more complicated and extended version of what we experienced together earlier."


"I think there were extenuating circumstances that made Sky do what he did. But I am really not sure if any of us could survive anything longer or stronger than what we sat through today."

It was quiet again for a while as they processed their thoughts on the matter. Gwen rolled until she was mostly lying on top of the Marine, and she put her free hand under her chin to cushion Randi’s chest.

"I’m sure, that is, I would imagine there is usually a lot of preparation made for all parties involved in a normal quest. Tonight’s situation was not normal, and you know that as well as I do. What is the age of maturity in this community?"

Randi thought a minute, wondering at the subject change. "Um, thirteen, I think."

"Now do you really think that any parent would let their child sit through a ceremony if it was going to be harmful or dangerous?"

"No, but...."

"Love, we don’t have to do it if you are not comfortable with it. In fact I’d rather not do it until we are both ready, but I don’t think we should dismiss it as a possibility because of our introduction to it."

The Sabre lay quietly, thinking on the bard’s words. "I wonder why Reed never mentioned having this sort of skill, or her connection to this place," Randi mused aloud.

"Well," the bard yawned, putting her head down and curling into the warrior’s warm body. "It could be she was trying to respect your privacy, Stud. And would you really be telling people if you could sense and share visions like that?" Another yawn. "Even in a society as accepting as ours has become, that is still a difficult talent for the close minded or ignorant to accept as a gift rather than an abomination."

"Um, good points, Little One."

"I love you, Randi."

"Ditto, beloved. Good night."

Had to have East windows, didn’t we? The warrior grumbled as a slash of light cut across her eyes. Then she noticed how late it was, and that she was in bed alone. What the....? Oh yeah... Sky’s. She pushed the covers back and stepped from the bed. When she opened the door, Gwen was standing there juggling a tray trying to get the door open. Green eyes flew up in surprise.

"Oh, you’re up."

Randi grinned. "It certainly looks that way. What’s all this?"

"This," setting the tray on the nearby dresser and pushing the Marine back toward the bed, "is breakfast in bed for you." She lifted her lover’s legs, running a tickling hand down one length before pulling the covers back up to her waist. She turned to grab the tray, and found herself falling into Randi’s lap instead.

"Good morning," the warrior whispered, before leaning forward and kissing Gwen fiercely. The bard wove her hands into tangled dark locks and abandoned herself to the sensations Randi’s taste and touch evoked all over her body.

She smiled up dreamily at Randi as the Marine slowly pulled back from the embrace. "Good morning," Gwen replied. She slipped from the bed and retrieved the tray. When she stepped from the bed the second time, Randi’s hand in her arm stopped the bard in her tracks.

"Where ya goin’?"

Gwen had a fleeting thought to wonder where the sudden insecurity was coming from before she leaned down and kissed the warrior’s warm cheek. "I thought I’d join you in bed," waving at the empty half.

"Oh yeah," the Marine smiled rakishly as she flipped the covers back so Gwen could climb in beside her. "I like that idea." She motioned to the full tray. "Share with me?"

Breakfast didn’t take very long, really. They were quite conscious of their status as guests in Sky’s home, and somehow the circumstances surrounding their being there were not the same as if they had been invited as friends or family. So in short order, they were dressed, the room was straightened, and they were headed down the stairs.

"How did you sleep, my friend? Your beautiful bride shared the delicious breakfast she cooked for you, and I have to say... you are a very lucky woman." He chuckled as twin blushes crawled up both faces. He extended his hand, and Randi took the tiny holochip from his fingers. "This will explain to you more fully about our life, history and culture, and will give a better idea about what your rights and responsibilities would be as a member of our tribe. It will also give you a complete guide to the spirit quest, so you will know what to expect."

"Thank you, Sky. We talked a little about it last night." The warrior swallowed and looked down before taking his hand. "We appreciate the honor you are offering. I know it is not a usual thing."

"Well, this will probably answer some of the questions you have, and I think the Great Spirit will guide your decision. Fortitude and strength for the journey that lies ahead for you both, and much happiness in your marriage."

"Thanks, Sky. We’ll be in touch."

They had reached the transport, and he held the door open while they slid inside. "Will we see you again?"

"Not this trip. We’ll be leaving for home in another few days. But I promised Gwen we would be back for some swimming. Perhaps we will make it for Celebration this year."

"We’ll look forward to it, Ravenhawk. Safe journey," he called as he closed the door, and the transport headed back on its short trip to the cabin.

"Watch over them, Great Spirit. Their union has being a long time coming, and the trial ahead is indeed going to be rough." He watched them out of sight, then returned to his house. There were still things to do in the village to clean up the mess from the previous day, and he had a vid call to make.

Chapter XV

"That was interesting," Gwen commented. They lay curled up in the big bed together watching the flames dance in the fireplace. Randi’s hand stroked lazily on the bard’s belly in gentle circles, and Gwen shivered just a little at the sensations the touch elicited.

"Cold, Little One?" the warrior asked with a smile in her voice. "Maybe we shouldn’t have taken that sunset walk."

Gwen grabbed the large hand and stilled its motion. The long fingers wiggled against her skin just slightly, and the storyteller squawked in outrage. "No, I am not cold!" she huffed trying to ignore the goose bumps and shivers Randi’s voice in her ear was causing. She drew a deep breath when the Sabre’s hand slipped from hers and slid upwards. She clasped the wandering hand again.

"I can’t think when you do that."

Randi chuckled and placed a light kiss on Gwen’s neck. "Well, I tend to believe that thinking is WAY over-rated sometimes." But she tucked her hand around the bard, and hugged the smaller woman to herself. "But you’re right. It was interesting. Brings up a lot of questions, though."

"Like?" Gwen had her own ideas, but she was curious to see if they were in the same vein as the warrior’s.

"Like... why us? Why now? And that doesn’t even begin to cover the whole spirit quest issue." Randi scratched her head with the hand she was propped up on. "That train of thought leads to all sorts of unpleasant speculation."

Gwen was silent. She could feel the warrior behind her struggling with something, and wanted to give her soulmate every opportunity to say what was on her mind.

"I’m scared, Gwen," was what Randi finally said very quietly. "There is something going on, and I don’t know what it is or how to stop it. I don’t like that feeling."

"Well, I think our awareness of it is half the battle, love," thinking over the words Aphrodite had spoken to her the night before. "We’ll get through this. I’ll be right beside you, and we’ll figure out what is going on." She paused, thinking. "Maybe the spirit quest will help. Give us some answers."

"Maybe, but that brings us right back to my original questions... why us and why now?"

The storyteller shifted in Randi’s arms until they were facing one another. "You’re thinking in circles, Stud, and that’s not gonna get us anywhere. I think," Gwen continued, reaching behind her and taking the hands that was caressing her back. She placed it on her hip even as her own hand teasingly traced up the warrior’s rib cage, smiling when Randi caught her breath. "You were right earlier. Thinking *is* way over-rated sometimes, and this is one of them."

Gwen pushed the Sabre onto her back, and slid sensuously on top of the longer body. She lowered her head to Randi’s lips and nipped them softly. "We can talk about this more when we are not thinking in circles, but we only have a couple more days left of our honeymoon here, and I intend to make them count for everything they are worth."

She had a reply for that, Randi knew she did, but it got lost in the taste and scent and feel of her soulmate in her arms and on her lips. Then it became unimportant as passion took possession of them completely, and the night was spent in loving communion of body and soul.

"You okay, sweetheart?" The big man put his hands on Reed’s shoulders and gently rubbed at the tension he could clearly see there. Something about her recent vid call had been very disturbing, because she had been very relaxed before she had taken the call.

The seer moaned and dropped her head forward, focusing on the intense relief Tiny’s touch was giving her. She hadn’t realized how uptight Sky’s information had made her until the Sabre’s hands began their gentle kneading.

"You have magic hands."

Tiny snickered just a bit. "You said that earlier as well, as I recall." He couldn’t help the smirk. She backhanded him in the stomach.

"That wasn’t all I said was magic as *I* recall, but in this case they are your most important assets." Reed smiled rakishly at him before groaning as he hit a particularly sore knot. "Oh gods, that hurts," she hissed. The banter disappeared from his expression as his eyes grew concerned.


She stood and took him by the hand then, and led him back to their bedroom. She dropped her robe and flopped gracelessly face down on the bed. In wordless understanding, he tightened the knot of his own robe and straddled her, rubbing oil on his hands before beginning a firm massage on her bare back.

He waited until he felt the tension drain from her body before he asked. "You ready to talk about it?’ Tiny felt her tense and then relax beneath his hands. The big man slid off Reed’s hips and lay down beside her, before she rolled over to face him. He turned on one side and propped his head up on one hand while she pulled the sheet up and did the same to face him.

Her eyes dropped to the sheet and the seer absently drew designs on the bedding. Tiny just kept his eyes on her face and waited. His patience was rewarded.

"That was Chief Screaming Sky," she began. The Navy man nodded his head. He had met many of Reed’s tribe members, and the chieftain stood out in his mind. "Apparently, there was some sort of incident in the community yesterday." She swallowed hard. "Nanny was killed."

"Oh, honey, I’m so sorry." Tiny knew that Reed considered the older woman a friend and mentor, and the loss would be palpable in her life. She nodded, accepting his sympathy as tears ran silently down her face. This was when she resented her gifting... not when it let her see, but when it didn’t. She found it especially disheartening when it happened to friends and family. This time, it was both.

She swiped an angry hand at her eyes. She hadn’t told him the worst of it yet. "That’s not all, Tiny." She drew a deep breath. She hated to betray give up Randi’s privacy, but knew her sailor would hold the knowledge in confidence. He was one of the Marine’s closest friends.

He cupped her cheek and tenderly wiped at the wetness that remained. Then he tipped her chin up, bringing her eyes to meet his own. "Tell me the rest."

She sighed. "I need to go up there in a few days." A pause. "It might explain the nightmare."

"Why wait? Why not go now? You know Mischa would watch the kennels, and Charis can always handle the office without me for a few days."

She took his hands in her own, and kissed his fingers. "Tiny, something happened up there." Another deep breath. "Randi has a cabin up there, a retreat. It is where she and Gwen are honeymooning."


"In the attack that killed Nanny, well, Randi managed to kill the raiding party. There weren’t but about a dozen, all cleanly done. Just like any number of Sabre missions in the past."


"But she had absolutely no memory of it. Sky looked, and there was nothing there for him to see." Reed looked down at the bed again before resuming eye contact. "He wasn’t very clear on the details... I don’t know if it was because he doesn’t have them or because he wasn’t comfortable sharing them so publicly. He saw darkness coming to her. He... I... it.... I need to go up there. I think I would understand better if he can show me what he saw."

"I’m sure you would. It’s what you are best at. But sweetheart, why wait?"

"Tiny, it is their honeymoon, and her private retreat. I am not going to betray a trust that has been in place for years to rush into their sanctuary. They are only going to be there a few more days, and Sky said at this point, I can wait until they are gone. Besides, given their bonding and the fact that they are on their honeymoon, it would take two to three days to put enough shielding in place for me to be in the same *area* they are in. The wedding and reception drained my reserves dry."

"Can’t the tribe do something to boost your shielding?"

"Well, we’ve been working on it, but I would prefer not to have them there while we are trying to put it in place. Sky said their bonding was almost overwhelming for most of the clan, even those not as gifted."

"I see your problem." He shrugged, trying to sound more nonchalant than he felt. Something in her story was making his skin crawl. "Do you think...?"

"Let’s wait til we get up there, please?" she asked almost pleadingly. "There are so many images, so many feelings.... I’d like the opportunity to see for myself before I have to make any judgments."

"All right, honey. I didn’t mean to push."

"I know, Tiny, and you’re not pushing... not really. I’ve just got the worst case of creepy crawlies going up my spine about this one, and I don’t like it."

The Sabre was silent as he looked at his partner for a long moment. "Me either," he agreed at last. "Thank you for telling me though."

"Hmm, thank you for listening. I love being able to share with you."

"I’m glad you do," Tiny said, cradling her to his chest. "Now, let’s get some rest. We have a lot of work to do before we head to the mountains."

"Thanks for looking out for me," the seer mumbled, even as she fell into sleep.

"Always, sweetheart. I love you." Then the only sound in the room was that of their breathing as it evened out into sleep.

Geoff sat upright in the bed, groaning in agony. Jill was up almost immediately, easing him back into a more prone position, and turning him onto his belly. She gently climbed on top of him, careful not to hurt him further as she straddled his body.

"You overdid it again today, didn’t you?" she chided softly, even as her hands began digging into muscles that were cramped and spasming.

"Um hmm," he groaned, clenching his jaw together to keep from screaming in agony.

"Why Geoff? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?"

"Ungh... ow... oh God, that hurts!!" He took a deep breath. "I’m close, Jill. Uh... oh!" He realized that he sounded quite orgasmic, and spared an ironic thought that he should be so lucky at this point in time. He missed being able to hold Jill and share physical intimacy with her. They still cuddled together, but he wanted it all back again. It was one of, though not the only driving force behind his furious push to regain the strength and mobility he had lost.

"Close to what, sweetheart? Becoming one big knot? I’d say you’ve got that pretty much covered." She leaned down and kissed him tenderly on the forehead, noting the sweat from the pain he was in. She was both proud of and frustrated with him, and just a bit bewildered by what seemed to be driving him so hard.

"Uh... ow... ugh!"

"Well, it’s not doing anything for your coherence level, hon."

He would have laughed at her teasing if he had not been in quite so much pain. As it was, the smile he tried to give her was nothing more than a grimace. He howled when she hit the spot that had actually been broken.

She gentled her touch even further, knowing he had to relax soon. The doctor had warned her about occurrences like this, and Geoff’s stubborn determination to push himself made them inevitable. "I’m sorry. Geoff. I’m not trying to hurt you any more."

"I... know you’re, uh... not, sweetheart. You’re ugh, um, actually doing a... ouch very good job of urk... helping me to relax. Ungh... It’s just... umm that I... yi yi yi, God... I can feel it, umm waiting for me there... ow, just beyond my reach."

"It?" She dug a little harder, feeling the muscles beneath her hands beginning to relax and unclench under her soothing touch.

"My, oh yeah, that feels good... my mobility. My strength."

"That’s wonderful, sweetheart. But Geoff, what’s the rush? You are so far ahead of where the doctors ever thought you’d be. You weren’t supposed to recover at all."

"It’s hard to explain, Jill. It’s almost like... anxiety? All I know is there is a driving need... a force almost pushing me to get well."

"Well, Geoff, I’m really glad you’ve got such focus and drive, but honey, you’ve got to harness it." She took a deep breath. "What is the point of working so hard that you hurt yourself, huh? You gave your daughter away standing on your own two feet. Re-injuring yourself because you pushed too hard is senseless."

"You’re... right, sweetheart." He panted his way through more pain. The relaxing of his muscles was almost as agonizing as the spasms had been. He was gonna be sore for days after this little debacle.

Slowly, her contact became more of a caress and he lay there relishing the simple touch. The weapons smith reminded himself to be thankful for the closeness and comfort they could share, and for Jill’s infinite patience. With rare exception, the only times she had lost her temper with him was when he hurt himself pushing too hard.

"I love you, ya know," he said to her.

"I know you do. I think it is one reason you are pushing yourself so hard. But Geoff, I will love you no matter what. For better or worse, come hell or high water." She blew out a breath, and pulled the sheet up over his naked back. "I think you need to stay in bed tomorrow and rest." She paused and waited for the outburst that didn’t come. She looked down to see him regarding her seriously.

"I think you’re right," he answered after a bit. "All my extra pushing is doing is landing me back in bed in agony. I’ve got pace myself a bit better...." He sighed in frustration. "I just need to get back on my feet."

"You will, love. You will. Rest now. We can worry about it tomorrow."

He would have answered, had not Carbon chosen precisely that moment to stand on his hind legs and lean on the bed to give Geoff a good face washing. The weapons smith laid there chuckling until the puppy was satisfied Geoff’s face was clean. Carbon looked up at Jill with an almost grin, tongue lolling out one side of his mouth. It was clear he was quite pleased with his efforts.

"Still working on that whole obedience thing, huh?" She took a warm, wet rag and wiped her husband’s face.

"Well," he replied still chuckling. "We haven’t had him two weeks yet, ya know."

"And it’s REAL hard to try and tell him to sit when you’re laughing so hard," Jill said with her own little giggle, giving the shepherd pup a good scratch behind the ears. The dog whimpered in response and nuzzled her hand affectionately. "Now, go lay down, Carbon."

The puppy cocked his head in question, then with drooping ears, headed for the bed they’d made up for him in their room. You could almost hear the sigh in his body language as Carbon resettled himself for bed.

"You know, it’s a good thing the girls aren’t going to be gone any longer than they are."

"Why is that, Sweetheart?" Geoff turned his head to face his wife who was gently climbing back into bed. She made her nest, laying on her side and placing a hand on his back to stroke it softly.

"Because he’s a very smart little guy, and I could get attached too easily."

"Yeah, I noticed he stayed in his bed watching until he was sure you were through, and he seemed to know that you were helping and not hurting me. I could get attached to him too." He thought a moment. "Randi would kill us."

"No, dear. Randi would be devastated. *Gwen* would kill us."

"Ooh... good point. That would not be pretty, especially after having given up Ditto to Randall."

"Um hmm. Besides, we really don’t have a good place for a dog at home."

"Good point," the weapons smith agreed aloud, though he knew it wasn’t entirely true. "But it’s been fun having him visit. And training him has been a hoot."

"You just like watching him chase his tail," Jill chuckled again, before the room fell into the silence of sleep.

"When are we expecting them back?" Ella asked Tommy as she prepared breakfast. He was pouring juice and Randall was happy to see his coming. His father smiled at the child’s enthusiasm.

"I dunno for sure. Randi wasn’t real specific about it, but I’d suspect in the next day or two. They’ve been gone almost two weeks."

Randall banged his spoon on the table, trying to remind his parents of their need to feed him.

"Hmm, it’ll be nice to have them home again and settled down to married life finally," Ella commented as she put the boy’s plate in front of him. Randall dug right in. Ditto sat in her spot beside him, waiting for the inevitable fallout. "I have never seen two people more deserving of a little peace and happiness than those two. They suffered so much just to be together."

"Um hmm. The latest pool running on them at work is what their first married argument will be about."

Ella turned to look Tommy fully in the face then, eyes wide in astonishment. "You are joking. Please tell me you are making a very bad joke to get a rise out of me."

"Nope. Word got around to me yesterday afternoon."

"For heaven’s.... Why I oughta just...." Her tirade was stopped by his warm touch. "Why can’t people just mind their own damn business?!? Haven’t they been through enough without having to be so much gossip?"

"Honey, I agree with you. But they are a fascinating couple. What they have is so rare, and most of these people watched them fall in love. Hell, these folks knew that Gwen and Randi were in love long before the two of them caught a clue."

"Then why are their friends," said with a bite of sarcasm, "waiting for them to fight?"

"No, honey," he answered, putting his arms around her and drawing her back into his body. "That’s not it at all. Randi and Gwen are usually so in tune with each other, the guys at work are curious to know what they will disagree on first." He chuckled. "Though I guess some of them just want to see the sparks fly and the make-up afterwards."

She pulled out of his embrace. "I don’t think it’s funny, Tommy. They really have been to hell and back for each other. And now when they have a chance for happiness, their friends play games like this??"

"You’re right, babe. But you know the two of them have been a favorite topic of speculation and gossip since Randi first came to Midas."

"And you are *so* lucky Randi has never gotten wind of those particular bits of gossip either." Ella raised a brow to emphasize her point, but she couldn’t help the smile that crossed her lips at the thought of some of the pools the company had held on their behalf.

"Oh, no kidding. The sparks of THEM fighting and making up would be nothing in comparison to the fires she’d light kicking my butt to kingdom come." He paused. "And I’d just be the first in a very long line."

"Um hmm."

"Maybe I should put a quick end to this pool."

"Or be very sure she doesn’t find out."

"That I can do. We have LOTS of practice in that particular skill. Nobody wants Randi *or* Gwen to hear about this particular activity."

Ella chuckled, and Tommy smiled that the tension was broken at last. "I’ll just bet. What’s the odds-on favorite?"

"Randi’s over-protectiveness. Most everyone thinks it will cause Gwen to blow first."

"Well, it will be good to have them home again regardless," she said. Randall beat his spoon on the table just then, and Tommy turned around and laughed.

"Not getting enough attention there, buddy? Well c’mon, little man. Let me eat a bite, then we’ll go get cleaned up for work today."

"O go?"

"We’ll see. I imagine O can go for a little while."

Ella just smiled as she watched them interact.

"This is such a beautiful place. Thank you for sharing it with me." They had spent their final day re-walking the property, and Gwen was looking forward even more to returning when warmer weather would allow them to access the other activities available. Randi stopped walking then and released the bard’s hand, only to wrap her strong arms around Gwen and pull the blonde back into her body.

They stood entwined together like that for long moments, watching as the sun dropped below the horizon. With its passing, the temperature started to plummet, and they walked hastily back to the warmth of the small cabin.

"I thought our honeymoon would be a good time to share this sanctuary with you. A place just for us."

"I really do like the sound of that. It is nice to know there is a place we can come to where it is just you and me."

They stepped into the cabin, and were immediately surrounded by the heat the large fireplace was emitting. Gwen sighed, and went to stand in front of it, her hands extended before towards the flames. When the fire was tended, and the warrior had added more wood, Randi did the same, and within a few moments they were warm enough to move back to the kitchen area.

They took their prepared dinner back to the living area, and curled up together in front of the fireplace to eat. The meal passed in silence for the first few minutes, then Gwen looked up at the warrior with a twinkle in her eyes.

"You know what I think I’ll miss most about this place?"

Randi smiled rakishly and wiggled her eyebrows. "Can’t be the love making. I don’t see anything changing on that front for decades, except getting better."

The bard laughed, turning beet red even as she slapped at the firm belly beside her. "Pretty sure of yourself aren’t ya there, Stud?"

In the blink of an eye, the mischief in Randi’s eyes turned to seriousness, and she captured Gwen’s hand in her own and brought it to her lips. "No, love. I am that sure of us."

The storyteller was stunned into speechlessness, but it didn’t keep her from reacting. She slipped her hand from Randi’s and slid it into the dark tresses, urging the warrior’s lips down to meet her own. "Always," she whispered as they pulled apart breathlessly.

"Forever," the warrior answered as she drew them together again. Their dinner cooled as minutes passed in gentle exploration.

"Hmm," Gwen murmured as they separated again and resumed eating. "You sure are good at that."

"Mm, so are you, but a little extra practice never hurt anybody." She paused and waggled her eyebrows once again. "So can I interest you in practicing with me later?"

"Oh yeah. Practice makes perfect, ya know."

The silence that fell over them as the finished their meal was comfortable. Randi took her empty plate and Gwen’s to the sink. The bard refilled their wineglasses and they returned to their places in front of the fire. This time though, the blonde sat between the Marine’s long legs and Randi wrapped her arms around Gwen’s torso.

"So," The Sabre asked her companion, "what are you going to miss the most about this place?"

"The atmosphere. My muse came back to me here. There is just something about this place that made it easy to tell stories again... even the ones that hurt to tell." She leaned back a little more into the body behind her. "I’d like to take some of that home with me again."

Randi leaned forward and nuzzled the ear. "I don’t think you have to worry about that, love. You promised me more Soulmate stories when we get home, and once you get started, there will be no stopping the flow."

"I hope you’re right."

"You know I am. You’re gonna keep telling them to me, and pretty soon the world will be hearing your stories again."

"Thank you, love. You have no idea what your faith in me means to me,"

"Yes, I do, Gwen. Because it works both ways."

"Can I tell you something?"

"Anything, you know that. No more secrets."

"I am going to like being married to you, I think." Gwen could feel the silent laughter flowing through the body behind her. "Something funny back there, Stud?’

"No, beloved. I’m glad you think so. So do I. This is a lifetime commitment for me."

"Longer than that, Randi. We are eternal."

It was quiet again for a time after that, as they both sat contemplating the flames and affirming again in their own hearts and minds the bond between them. Gwen squeezed the hands encircling her waist and felt them tighten in response.

"Wanna go practice some more?"

"Oh, I like that idea."

They never noticed when the fire turned to ember and ash. They were totally immersed in the fire they were creating between them.

"You ready to go home, love?" Everything was packed and put away, and they were loading the last few things on the bike for their return trip.

Gwen came up behind the warrior and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. "Yep. I’ve had a wonderful time here, and I know we will be coming back again. It is time for us to go home and start our life there as a married couple."

Randi turned, and drew the bard more fully into her embrace. "I really like the sound of that. I never thought all this would be possible, and now I hold the world in my hands." She brushed a tender kiss across the blonde head.

"So, do I, love. So do I. Let’s go home."



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