B L Miller
Disclaimer 1: MCA/Universal owns most of the characters, I own the story.
Disclaimer 2: This story contains scenes of two women in love, yippee!!! If you don't like it, don't read it.
Note: Yes, I know this is just a 'she leaves her and then they get back together again' story, but hey, I was bored and the keyboard looked inviting. J B L
"Gabrielle, you've been so good for me. I don't think I would ever have let myself feel the way I feel now about Ulysses if it wasn't for you teaching me how to love." The words rolled over in over in Gabrielle's mind as the ship rocked back and forth. They had left Ithaca two days ago and still had another day to go before they reached land. Her seasickness guaranteed that she would not be eating anytime soon. As it was, the only meal she'd eaten in the last week was a brief dinner within Ulysses' castle shortly after Xena helped him restring his bow and thus reclaim the throne. She had hoped that Xena would wait at least one day for her stomach to recover. However, the warrior had insisted on leaving the very next morning. One candlemark after they embarked, the seasick bard's breakfast also embarked. She was certain that the ship was rocking now more than when they were headed to Ithaca.
Now lying in the hammock, staring at the rafters, Gabrielle knew that her stomachache was nothing compared to the pain her heart was in. Xena had kissed him. She had shared an intimate kiss with HIM. Gabrielle blinked back the tears as she remembered them talking quietly, thinking she was asleep.
At that moment, she had never felt so out of place, so confused, so utterly heartbroken. Lying there, pretending to sleep, listening to Xena speak gently to a man that she described with the word 'love'. Gabrielle wanted to jump up from the hammock and announce her presence to the two would-be-lovers, but she hadn't. She laid there listening to their voices caress each other and the sounds of her own heart shattering against the deck of the ship.
The ship was rocking more pronounced now, every movement imitated by her empty and nauseous stomach. Gabrielle could hear the men laughing and joking up on the top deck. She listened carefully for the sound of Xena's voice within the mix. The deep, throaty voice of the warrior was easy to pick out from the din. It had been at least three candlemarks since Xena had last checked in on her. The message that the absence carried to the bard spoke of a truth that she had previously refused to look at. Xena was tired of her and wanted someone else in her life. Gabrielle was unable to keep her tears in check anymore, letting them blur her vision as they rolled down her face. The life she had was ending, the future she hoped for was gone. As she cried herself to sleep, Gabrielle realized what she had to do.
Xena looked closely at the sleeping face. Yes, Gabrielle had definitely been crying. She gently brushed a stray lock of the honey hair off the bard's forehead. Xena decided that perhaps a trip to Athens was in order once they reached land. She felt bad that Gabrielle had been so sick while they were at sea. Xena hoped that a few days in the city, with all its different food vendors, would help to raise the bard's spirits. As much as Xena detested the big city, she knew that it was one of Gabrielle's favorite places. The bard loved to visit with the students at the Bard Academy, reading the latest scrolls or sharing stories. Not to mention haggling with the merchants. Gabrielle loved to dicker, whether it was for something they needed or not.
Looking again at the tear-stained face, Xena felt a pang of guilt. She knew that Gabrielle had been hurt by the warrior's affection to the King of Ithaca, but Xena wasn't exactly sure why. Was Gabrielle worried that she would find someone and settle down? It couldn't be. Why, the bard herself had said for Xena to follow her own heart and not worry about hers. It couldn't be that. Then what was it? Ever since she had kissed the king, Xena had noticed the hostility that Gabrielle had exhibited towards him. At the time, the warrior thought it was because the bard was so seasick and blamed him for having to be on the ship. Thinking more about it now, Xena decided that it must have been more personal than that. Did Gabrielle see him as a threat? If that was it, then the bard should have been happy to be returning to the mainland. The multitude of tear tracks told Xena that the bard was just the opposite. There was more to those tears than just Ulysses and the kiss.
The instant the gangplank was down, the young amazon shoved the men aside and ran down it. Her wobbly legs gave out halfway and she fell into the surf. Crawling on hands and knees, Gabrielle made it to shore. With a thank you to the gods, she kissed the sandy ground. She dug her hands into the dirt, saying how she would never leave it again.
Xena couldn't suppress a chuckle as she watched the young bard. It was good to see Gabrielle happy for a change, instead of the sullen, ill person she had been for the last week. "Don't eat it." Xena teased as she knelt down next to the bard.
"I'm so hungry at this point that the sand looks inviting." Her stomach growled in agreement. "Xenaaa..."
"I know, I know, you're hungry. All right, come on. There's a tavern about an hour away, maybe less if we walk fast."
"An hour?" She whined. "Xena, I could wither away to nothing by then." Gabrielle patted her firm abdomen as if to say 'see? I'm just skin and bones'.
"All right, all right. I'll get some food from the ship and we'll eat here, okay?" Gabrielle's eyes lit up and a animated smile came to her lips along with an equally animated nodding of the head. Xena chuckled and made her way back to the ship to get some food quickly before the bard whined again.
Xena's suggestion of Athens was welcomed by Gabrielle. Their trip contained mostly silence, an unusual thing with the normally chatty bard. Although concerned, Xena decided that she was just tired, worn out from the strain of the seasickness. Gabrielle was under strain, all right, but not at all from the seasickness. Her mind was racing through different plans and options, analyzing each choice thoroughly. She couldn't make any mistakes, take any chances. All the details, no matter how small, had to be looked at. Xena was much too clever to take any chances with. One stray clue would ruin everything. Gabrielle's mind sifted through her choices, all the time remembering the words that killed her. 'I don't think I would ever have let myself feel the way I feel now about Ulysses if it wasn't for you teaching me how to love.' An ironic thought occurred to Gabrielle. She had been the cause of the destruction of her life. She had taught Xena how to love, not realizing that the warrior would look elsewhere for someone to share that love with. Shaking her head to disperse the thought, Gabrielle forced herself to concentrate on what had to happen when they reached Athens.
Gabrielle haggled fiercely with the stocky man behind the bar. He twice said it was his final offer, and twice the bard refused. Only when his face turned red and he lowered the price did she agree to a room, but only if he threw in a hot bath. He stammered and stuttered but finally agreed. After tossing the offered dinars into the jar, he stormed off to the kitchen to take his frustration about losing to a girl out on the poor, unsuspecting cook. Gabrielle didn't take any joy in her victory. She wanted to save every dinar she could for Xena. She felt bad enough about the dinars that she would have to use just to make her plan work.
After a filling meal and a hot bath, both women quickly fell asleep. Xena was exhausted enough to have a relatively dreamless sleep. It was the bard whose night was filled with pain and sorrow. Her dreams revolved around the profound loss that was going to occur the next day when she left Xena.
"I'm going to go to the market for a little while, okay?" She asked as soon as the morning meal was finished. "I want to pick up a few things. Why don't you go to the stable and spend some time with Argo? I'm sure she misses you, after all, she hasn't seen you in almost two quarter moons." It was important to get Xena out of the inn without suspecting anything.
"Sounds good to me. Try not to spend all our dinars, huh?"
"Don't worry, I won't. I just want to look around." Gabrielle grabbed her staff and headed for the door.
"Try to stay out of trouble."
"Me? What kind of trouble could I possibly get into?" She feigned innocence. Xena arched her eyebrow, then lowered it and gave the bard a toothy smile. Gabrielle's heart lurched at the sight of Xena's smiling face. She hoped that she never forgot that look.
Once she was certain that Xena was at the stable, Gabrielle doubled-back to the inn and entered their room. Taking four rolls of parchment, her ink, and her quill out of the saddlebag, she sat down at the table and began to write. She had to force her hand to remain steady, lest her shaky writing give her away. Once her task was done, she returned the ink and quill to the saddlebag. She thought about taking something, even a spare pair of breeches, but decided against that. She could only leave with her staff. Any other missing item would tip Xena off too soon.
Gabrielle cornered the barkeep and made him a generous offer, one that more than made up for the low rate at which she had gotten the room. Although nervous, the thought of the extra dinars caused him to agree to her terms. Satisfied that he would do as she asked, she handed him one of the parchment notes, a leather pouch, and some dinars, then left.
Once in the heart of the city, it didn't take Gabrielle long to find the messengers she was looking for. After selecting three, the gave them each a note along with instructions of where and when to deliver them. She gave two of them a few coppers for their trouble. The other messenger was much more expensive, since it required delivery to a place much further away than the inn.
Time passed quickly for Xena as she talked to Argo, filling the warhorse in on the events of the last dozen or so days. By the time she had returned to the inn, it was almost dark. The barkeep motioned to her. "Your friend said that she was going to spend some time with an old friend and that you shouldn't wait up for her." Xena nodded and went upstairs. The barkeep smiled to himself. A few simple words, a note the next morning, and a handful of dinars to show for it.
After leaving the messengers, Gabrielle made a quick stop at Hermes temple to pray for a safe journey, then turned and left the city, trying not to scream out at the pain that stabbed through her heart. She had no idea where she was going, she only knew where she couldn't go, Amazonia and Potodeia. Those would be the first places that Xena would look, if she bothered to look. Gabrielle knew deep inside that Xena would try to find her, at least for a little while. Eventually the warrior would realize that this was the right decision, Gabrielle was certain of it. Despite knowing where she couldn't go, the bard had no idea where she would go. The world suddenly seemed empty and lonely, not really something to look forward to anymore.
Xena stared out the window at the dim night. 'Where are you, Gabrielle? Are you safe? Who are you with?' All those thoughts and more passed through her mind as she waited for Gabrielle to return. She had hoped to sit down and talk to the bard about what had happened since they had first set sail to Ithaca. Now Gabrielle was off gods-know-where, with gods-know-whom, and she was sitting there acting like a nervous mother. 'When you get back, my little bard, you and I are going to have a serious discussion about the amount of detail that messages should have.' Xena thought to herself as she started to pace the floor again.
With just her staff, Gabrielle was in no position to hunt for food, so she tried to satisfy herself with berries and nuts that she found along the way. Xena always insisted that they not travel at night, but she needed to get some ground between them, and quickly. She stayed off the main road, sticking to the trees that lined the side. It took longer to travel, but it was much safer, especially now that she was alone. Only when exhaustion threatened to claim her did she locate a thick tree and climb up to rest in the branches. There was no need for a fire. It's flames could only warm her body, not her soul.
Xena went downstairs to see if perhaps Gabrielle had come back and decided on breakfast before coming upstairs. Her hopes were quickly dashed as her gaze revealed no honey-haired bard. The barkeep waved her over. "A message arrived for you this morning. I didn't know you were up." He handed her the note that Gabrielle had left with him. Xena took it and immediately recognized the handwriting.
I went to visit an old friend. She isn't feeling well and asked me to stay with her until she feels better. I should only be gone for a couple of days. The room is paid for as well as Argo's stable and feed. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine.
She reread the note, not believing what she was reading. No location, no name. Gabrielle was going to be gone for a couple of days and didn't think to let her know where. A thought flashed through her mind at a possible reason for the vagueness of the letter. Taking the steps two at a time, Xena burst into the room and reached for the saddlebags.
A thorough search revealed that nothing of Gabrielle's was missing. Xena breathed a sigh of relief. Then she thought of having to spend the next two days sitting around, not knowing where Gabrielle was. She didn't want to leave the inn in case the bard returned. Xena started to pace again.
Gabrielle's stomach growled for the fourth time in a candlemark. There weren't enough nuts and berries in all of Greece to satisfy her. She needed food. She leaned against a tree and took a deep breath as she decided how she was going to get some food. She didn't even bother to take a dagger so she couldn't catch any fish. Xena could catch them without any weapons, but she wasn't as skilled. The sound of approaching riders caught her ear. Quickly climbing the tree and hiding in the leaves, she watched the horses approach. Her eyes went wide when she saw the familiar skirts. Without thinking, Gabrielle let out a squeal and started to climb down.
She was halfway down when strong arms grabbed her and yanked her down the rest of the way. She looked up to see two sets of amazon eyes staring down at her. "Uh, hi. I'm Gabrielle." She put on her friendliest smile but knew better than to make a move, especially since there were two very sharp swords only inches from her neck. It only took a moment for them to realize who she was.
"My Queen, I'm sorry. I didn't realize who you were." The dark haired amazon helped the bard to her feet. "Why didn't you use the peace call?"
"I'm sorry, I was just so excited to see amazons." Gabrielle replied. "Besides, my mouth is so dry that I seriously doubt I could have made a dove call if I tried."
"Excuse me, my Queen, we didn't mean to harm you." The blue eyed warrior said. "I am Vikki and this is Garnet. It is an honor to meet you." The women started to bow, but were stopped by Gabrielle's hands on their shoulders.
"Please, there is no need for such formalities with me. And call me Gabrielle. Would you mind sharing your water?" She was already heading over toward their horses.
"By all means, your high...I mean, Gabrielle." Vikki said.
"Are you hungry, Gabrielle? We have some fresh meat and fruits." Garnet offered.
"Oh, yes please."
They pulled their horses off the road and escorted Gabrielle to a clearing. Garnet pulled out the food they had in their saddlebags and kept the queen company while Vikki insisted on patrolling the area to make certain they were safe.
"Gabrielle, why are you traveling alone? Isn't Xena with you?"
"No, Garnet is it?" The amazon nodded. "No, she isn't. She's in Athens right now."
"Well, we're on our way to Athens. We can escort you, if you'd like." It was indeed a great honor to escort the Queen.
"I'm not going to Athens." Gabrielle said quietly. "I'm going in the other direction." Garnet knew better than to ask the question that her mind wanted answered. No matter how personable and friendly the young queen was, it was still considered inappropriate to ask personal questions.
"You are traveling alone then?"
"My Queen, I'm afraid I must insist that you have a properly armed escort. This isn't Amazonia, you know." Garnet turned to see Vikki returning. "The Queen is wandering around with no escort." The blue eyed warrior looked down at the small queen with surprise.
"No one is protecting you? But I thought Xena..."
"Xena isn't traveling with me anymore. She's in Athens." Gabrielle said quietly. A murderous look came over Vikki's eyes.
"She left you alone?" She said incredulously. Gabrielle held her hand up.
"No, she didn't leave me, I left her. I'm heading west. I am not asking for assistance, I only wish that she not know where I'm headed."
"We can't let you wander around alone." Vikki looked over at the dark haired amazon for confirmation. "Wherever you're headed, we'll escort you."
"I'll be fine, really. You're heading in the opposite direction. I don't want to-"
"We have no choice but to escort you, Gabrielle." Garnet spoke up. "You are our Queen. We have all taken an oath to protect you, with our lives if necessary. You have no weapon other than your staff. If we were to continue on and leave you without amazon or other suitable protection, we would be violating our oath."
The amazons waited quietly while Gabrielle pondered the situation. She hadn't planned on running into any amazons when she thought out her plans. She looked over at their horses. While strong and sturdy, as an amazon's horse should be, they were shorter than Argo. Shorter meant closer to the ground, a place Gabrielle held near and dear to her heart. Especially after her most recent adventure. Thinking of the ship brought back the painful memories. "Can I ride with one of you?" She asked quickly, wanting to be as far away as possible.
A note arrived on the third day. A frantic Xena had already been to the academy, the healer, and several times to the market. No one had seen Gabrielle. She was pacing again, wondering when the floor would wear out under her feet, when a timid knock came on the door. The barkeep had agreed to do what the little bard asked because it was a simple way to earn money. Now he wasn't so sure. The tall, ferocious looking warrior had been bothering him every candlemark, asking him if he had received any word. The poor man was tempted to give up and hand the warrior the note and pouch when a messenger arrived.
Xena opened the door quickly, startling the barkeep. "T-there's a message for you." His shaky hand held a rolled up piece of parchment. The scrawl was definitely Gabrielle's. She snatched it out of his hand and slammed the door. He quickly went downstairs, put the note and the pouch on the counter, and hid in the basement.
The note was simple. Go downstairs. Xena bolted out the door and leapt down the stairs, missing most of them. No one was in the room, only a scroll and a leather pouch appeared on the bar. The scroll was tightly wrapped with a leather thong tied in a knot that Xena had taught the bard months earlier. The outside of the scroll said simply 'read alone, away from other people'. Xena felt a lump in her throat as a fearful thought entered her mind and locked itself there. Fearing the worst, Xena frantically ran back upstairs to grab their belongings. She ran to the stable and saddled the horse in record time, urging the horse full force out of town, far away from other people.
Almost a full candlemark out of town, Xena found a quiet spot in the woods. The sun was just starting to set, a time when Xena was normally making camp for the night. She nervously removed the thong and unrolled the scroll. The length alone was enough to tell Xena the horrible truth. Gabrielle was gone. This was a goodbye note.
I'm sure you understand now what has happened. I had to leave. After watching you with Ulysses, it became clear to me just how much more you need in your life that I can't provide. I know that you care about me and want me to stay with you, but it's better this way. I realize now that you are a much stronger woman than when I first met you so long ago. You're ready to share your heart with someone and have that love returned. It is utter sadness that I realize that the person you want to share that gift with is not me, and never will be.
If only you knew how many nights I laid awake by the campfire, listening to you sharpening your sword. I heard more than just a simple routine, a necessary habit. I heard the rhythm of your breathing, the temper of your mood. You didn't know that, did you? I could tell what your mood was just by the sound of the whetstone against the metal. Soft and gentle, you were relaxed. Harsh and forceful, you had many things on your mind. I learned to read your moods because you so often chose to keep them private.
I foolishly allowed my heart to believe that we would always travel together. A childish dream that is now dead with the bright truth of the morning. Ulysses opened my eyes to your true feelings. I could no more continue as just a sidekick than I could look at you as just a friend. You don't know how many times I wanted to speak up, to reveal the truth hidden deep in my heart. I held back because I was afraid of rejection. I was right to do so.
Please don't come after me. In time you'll realize that this is the right thing to do. I can't handle the pain of seeing love in your eyes and knowing that it is for someone else.
Remember your promise to me, and remember always that I love you.
Xena noticed several spots where the bard's teardrops had fallen, blurring the words, but enhancing the meaning. Gabrielle was in love with her. All the confusing moods, expressions, and comments that she made during the incident with Ulysses now made sense. It was more than just the seasickness, it was jealousy and loss that had controlled the bard's moods and actions.
She looked up at the night sky, trying to sort out her thoughts. The first thing she had to do was find Gabrielle. She thought about the different places that the young woman would go. The two most likely places were Amazonia and Potodeia. Amazonia was closer. As much as Xena hated traveling at night, the thought of Gabrielle out there alone bothered her more. Forcing her mind to not think about the letter, she mounted Argo and headed south.
Xena reached the edge of the amazon territory late the next day, having driven Argo non-stop, ignoring her own need for sleep. She dismounted the tired horse and announced herself with a dove call. She was quickly answered in kind, then saw Eponin step forth from behind the trees. "I want to see Gabrielle."
"She's not here, Xena." Eponin watched as several other amazon sentries moved into position. Ephiny had insisted on not taking chances with the warrior. "Ephiny is expecting you."
"If she isn't here, then how did you know I was coming?" The tone of mistrust was clear. "Eponin, if you're trying to hide her from me, it won't work."
"Xena, it's not a good idea to threaten an amazon." Eponin responded as she waved her hand. Two dozen sentries appeared from their hiding places. "As I said, she isn't here. I've been instructed to take your weapons and escort you to see Ephiny." The dozen or so crossbows trained on her made it clear that the acting queen wasn't about to take no for an answer. Reluctantly, she handed over her weapons.
Surrounded by sentries, Xena was escorted to the palace, where Ephiny was waiting. "Where is she, Ephiny?" Xena asked once she was escorted to the throne room. She noted grimly that the sentries had not left her alone with the acting queen. They considered her a threat, something the amazons had never considered her before.
"I cannot tell you that, Xena. She has asked that we not reveal that information to you. I can tell you, however, that she is not here nor has she been here."
"Where is she?" Xena asked again, this time through gritted teeth and with more force to her voice. Ephiny remained calm but did cast a glance at a nearby sentry, who immediately put her hand on the hilt of her sword, ready for any sudden movement from the angry warrior. Xena noticed the movement too and forced herself to calm down. She didn't want to get into a battle with the amazons. "Is she safe?" She asked quietly.
"As far as we know, she is." Ephiny's answer betrayed her own concerns. A soft knock at the door interrupted them. The acting queen nodded and a sentry opened the door. A young amazon woman handed the sentry a note. Xena recognized the handwriting and moved to take the note away from the amazon. Six swords were released from their sheaths and pointed at her neck in the span of a heartbeat. "Don't think about it, Xena." Ephiny said as she walked over to retrieve the message. Reading it quickly, the amazon breathed a sigh of relief. "She is safe. Two of our best warriors are with her."
"Where?" Xena's temper was quickly getting the best of her. Ephiny's patience snapped.
"I'm not telling you, Xena, so stop asking! She wants you to move on and leave her alone." The queen walked back over and sat down.
"I can't. I have to talk to her and work this mess out. She doesn't understand."
"She doesn't understand?" Ephiny roared. "What exactly is it that she doesn't understand, Xena? Love? Hurt? What?"
"It's a crush, Ephiny. She's too young and innocent to understand that, but that's all it is."
"How anyone can remain innocent around you is a something I'll never understand. I do know that you're wrong, however. If you're so blind that you can't see her love for what it really is, then perhaps she's right to leave you." Ephiny picked up the scroll that had arrived by messenger the previous day and quickly reread some of the passages, again noting the spots that were marked by the young queen's tears. "When they kissed, my heart shattered in a million pieces. I knew then that my life with her would never be what I dreamed of. Being with her and not being able to express my love is too hard for me." Ephiny read the passage aloud, trying hard to drive home the point to Xena.
"I have to go find her." She turned to leave, only to find the exit blocked.
"Your horse is in no condition to go anywhere, Xena. Argo looks like she hasn't rested in days. You don't look much better."
"You can't keep me here, Ephiny. I'm not an amazon that you can order around."
"You are a guest on amazon land, therefore you are subject to my wishes and commands." Ephiny tried to keep the anger out of her voice. "You are welcome to stay for the night as a guest, or as a prisoner. It's your choice, but either way, you are staying. In the morning, after your horse is rested, you are welcome to leave."
Sensing the direction the conversation was going, Eponin stepped in to ease the situation. "Of course she's staying, aren't you, Xena? She'll be my guest."
"That makes her your responsibility, Eponin."
"No problem. You won't give me any trouble, will you?" Xena glared at her, but nodded that she would behave. In the morning she could leave and find Gabrielle. Tonight she had no choice but to stay, and she didn't really want to see what the inside of the detainment cells looked like.
Xena sat down at the table, helping herself to a tall mug of port while Eponin brought their plates over. "Xena, why is it so hard for you to accept Gabrielle's love?"
"She doesn't understand what she's asking for, Ep."
"Doesn't she? Xena, you know her. Has she ever made such a decision without thinking it through first?"
"That's not the point."
"Do you love her?"
"You know I do, Ep. I would give my life for her, if need be."
"Then why do you fight so hard to avoid giving her your heart? Would it be so horrible to love her? You've been with other women before, why is it so different with her?" Xena took another sip of the port as she considered the question.
"I never really thought about her that way. Before, she was too young. Then, when she married Perdicus, well, I just figured that was what she wanted."
"And now? Now that you know she wants you, is it different?" Eponin stood up and finished her port. "You need to do some heavy thinking, my friend. If you can't love her the way she needs to be loved by you, then stay away from her."
"Why can't it be like it was before we met Ulysses?" Xena's frustration was showing. She desperately wanted things to be the way they were, when both women were happy traveling together.
"Because you kissed him, Xena. Until then, Gabrielle thought she had a chance. That kiss destroyed her dreams. You can never go back to what your relationship with her once was. Gabrielle needs you as a lover. If you can't give her that, then let her go. Anything less will kill her" Eponin pulled an extra blanket from a shelf. "Sleep on it, Xena. Give yourself time to think about what's happened."
Garnet entered the inn first, making certain that it was safe before allowing her queen to enter. Vikki took up the rear. A kindly old woman was wiping down the counter when they entered. Her eyes lit up at the sight of the young bard. "Gabrielle!" Cyrene said happily. She looked at the women traveling with Gabrielle and the woman's face became sad. "Xena?"
"She's fine, Cyrene." Gabrielle said quickly. "She's not with me, though."
"Why not?" She stepped from behind the counter and motioned for the trio to take a table. "Gabrielle, did my daughter do something to upset you?" Cyrene sat down next to the young woman that she considered her other daughter.
"It's not something I can talk about right now, Cyrene. She didn't send me away, I left." The strain of everything that had happened washed over the young bard as tears came unbidden to her eyes. Xena's mother patted Gabrielle's hand gently. Vikki decided that a trip outside was in order. Dragging her lover by the arm, she and Garnet left the two women alone to talk.
Xena traveled aimlessly, not certain where to go. She found herself alone on the edge of a cliff, the rock face jutting out over the sea. She realized, ironically, that this was the same place where she had first decided to make a stand with Ulysses and help him regain control of Ithaca. The sea churned with activity as Poseidon rose from his watery bed.
"I warned you that I wouldn't tolerate your meddling in my affairs, mortal!" The watery form of Poseidon rose from the sea, dwarfing the tall warrior. Xena made no effort to move out of the way when the large water hand reached for her. He picked her up in his grasp, holding her like a grown man would hold a kitten for inspection. The watery fingers crushed against her chest, squeezing the air out of her lungs. "It would be so easy for me to finish the task, mortal."
"If...you're going to...kill me, then...do it." Xena said through gritted teeth as she struggled for breath. A confused look came over the god.
"Why don't you fight me, mortal? Did you come here to die?" He moved his wrist, twisting her body within his grasp. She made no sound, her face unreadable. "Where's your little friend, warrior? The one with the big mouth." There was a flicker in the blue eyes, but the expression remained neutral. "I hope she enjoyed the extra rocking I gave your little ship. Is she still green?" He chuckled at the memory of the little woman heaving over and over at the bow of the ship as he forced it to rock more and more. "Where is she? I wouldn't want her to miss the fun of watching me kill you." When no answer came, the god became more angry. His grip increased. "Where is she?" He demanded.
"Don't...know." Was all Xena could manage to squeak out. Bright colors and black spots started to dance before her eyes. She felt herself slipping into the darkness.
"That's why you're here, isn't it?" With an angry grunt, the watery hand dissolved, causing the warrior to fall through the water and onto the sandy beach below and land with a thud. Poseidon moved his arm in a giant arc, forcing a wave taller than ten horses to crash upon the beach, the force enough to move her helpless body halfway across the beach. "Come back when you're in a fighting mood, Xena. I want to kill you for the sport of it, not to ease your pitiful suffering." He pounded her with another wave for good measure, then dissolved into the sea again.
It took almost a full candlemark for the soaked and hurt woman to mount Argo. She felt her strength ebb from her body. Tying the reins around her wrist, she leaned forward and whispered into the horse's ear. "Amazons." Argo nickered, then followed her mistress' voice and headed for the amazon territory. Every movement caused pain for Xena, but she knew there was no other choice.
Xena opened her eyes to see a familiar room surrounding her. She was in the palace, resting on the queen's bed, Gabrielle's bed. Shifting slightly, the movement caused a flare-up of pain, a low groan rising from her lips. "Easy now." Ephiny said gently.
"How?" Her words were mere whispers, her strength sapped.
"You were unconscious. Your horse brought you here." Ephiny held a waterskin to the warrior's parched lips. Xena drank greedily, wincing as the movements ignited the pain. "Do you remember what happened?"
Xena licked her lips and tried to focus on the events. "I was on the beach. Poseidon grabbed me, tried to crush me, then tossed me on the ground." She shook her head in confusion of the god's actions. "I thought he was going to kill me."
"Did you want him to?" Ephiny asked quickly.
"Of course not." Xena protested. "Why would I want to do that?"
"I can't think of any other reason to invoke an angry god, especially one whose plans you had just so recently ruined. Perhaps you thought it would be easier that way."
"I don't know why I went there. I just started riding, not paying any attention to the direction. The next thing I know, I'm on the cliff face, staring at the sea."
"Xena, what was it about Ulysses that attracted him to you?" Under normal circumstances, such a personal question directed at the warrior princess would be unheard of, but Ephiny knew the big dumb warrior needed to examine her feelings. The wounded warrior arched her eyebrow at the question. Ephiny maintained a firm look on her face, despite the withering gaze.
"I don't know. I guess there were many things. His skill as a fighter, the gentleness of his words, the nobility of his quest to regain his homeland, no matter what the personal cost."
"Sounds a lot like Gabrielle."
"It's not the same, Ephiny." Xena shot back angrily as she tried to sit up slightly. "He was a king trying to get back his homeland, his only love."
"And she's a queen trying to get back her only love, the woman who holds her heart. I don't see the difference."
"It's not the same, Ephiny. Don't turn my words around on me."
"It's not? Think about it, Xena. You felt a need, something missing in your life. He came along, full of pleasant words and gentle smiles. You thought he could fill the need for you, not knowing that the answer was standing next to you the entire time." Ephiny stood up. "You need to rest. Think about what I said, Xena. It may have hurt to let Ulysses go, but how much more is it hurting to lose Gabrielle?" Ephiny knew she had hit a mark when she saw the warrior's eyes close and her head sink back against the pillow. "Look into your heart and tell yourself which one you can't live without, which one truly loves you, which one would lay down their life for you. Look deep, Xena. The truth is there, it's just waiting for you to discover it."
The next morning found Xena saddling Argo, her things already packed and tied to the saddle. "Where do you think you're going?" Ephiny said as she walked up next to the warrior.
"To find Gabrielle." She answered flatly as she gave one last tug on a strap.
"Xena, you can barely walk, much less ride."
"I heal quickly, Ephiny. I'll be fine in a day or so."
"There's no way to talk you out of this, is there?" Ephiny said with a touch of defeat in her voice. Xena didn't answer, merely continued to finish her preparations. One last check of her supplies, then she led Argo out of the stable, the acting queen following.
Xena mounted Argo, then looked down at Ephiny. "Where am I headed, Ephiny?"
"Xena, you know she doesn't..." She was cut off by the warrior.
"I can't tell you." Ephiny tried to be firm, but her resolve was fading. Xena looked at the sky, then closed her eyes and asked again.
"Please tell me where she is, Ephiny." Xena said quietly, in a defeated tone. As much as it went against her grain to beg for information, this was too important to worry about that. All that was important was that she find Gabrielle. Ephiny looked at the ground as she made her decision.
"Go visit your mother." She said quietly.
"Ephiny," Xena waited until the amazon met her gaze. "Thank you." Before the amazon could answer, she urged Argo on, out through the gate.
The ride was hard on Xena. Every step that Argo took reverberated through her wounded ribs. Her torso and chest were still a deep purple from the bruising she took at Poseidon's hand. By the third day, most of the pain was gone as well as most of the bruising. The sun was starting to set and she was still a good ten candlemarks from Amphipolis. Xena decided to ride half the remaining distance, then set up camp. She would be able to arrive at the village around mid-day.
Gabrielle didn't feel like telling stories, and the innkeeper didn't push it. She helped Cyrene clean the inn each day, then sat with the amazons in the evening and learned more about the culture and traditions of her people. At night, she cried herself to sleep. The next morning, she would repeat the process. Gabrielle knew she should move on, start her new life alone, but something held her back. She didn't want to leave Cyrene, the only connection she still had to Xena. One morning before Cyrene went to the market, the bard pulled her aside and informed her that they would be leaving the next day.
Xena arranged for a stall for Argo, then looked around. Spotting a portly man near a wagon of apples, she walked over. "Ariss." The man smiled.
"Xena, my dear. What brings you home?"
"I have to see mother, is she at the inn?"
"No. I just saw her in the market. Your friend, what's her name, she's here. Won't tell any of her wonderful stories though."
"Thanks, Uncle." Xena turned and headed to the market area.
The market area was nothing more than several booths and wagons that filled one small street. It didn't take long for her to spot the gray haired woman. Xena quickly made her way to her, stopping just behind her. "Mother."
Cyrene turned around. "Xena! You've come. I knew you would." She put her arms out and waited for her too tall daughter to bend over so she could give her a hug. Xena obliged, slightly uncomfortable with the public display, but this was her mother, after all.
"I want to see her." Xena said as they broke the embrace. Cyrene's head lowered.
"She's at the inn." The older woman said matter-of-factly.
"I can't go there. Please just tell her that I'm here. If she wants to see me, she'll know where to find me." Xena turned and walked away, quickly disappearing into the crowd.
Gabrielle looked up from wiping off a table when Cyrene entered. "Here, let me help you." She said as she removed the heavy bundles from the innkeeper. Vikki and Garnet moved over to help.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk." Cyrene said quietly. The bard stared at an empty mug sitting on the counter.
"She's here, isn't she?"
"Yes, child, she is."
"That's something you have to ask her, Gabrielle. She won't come here. She said you would know where to find her." Gabrielle said nothing, keeping her gaze focused on the mug. "Gabrielle, go talk to her. You know you want to."
"She doesn't love me the way I need her to, Cyrene." Gabrielle said quietly.
"You don't know that, Gabrielle. She's here. She came to see you." Cyrene looked at the two amazons. Vikki shook her head, she didn't know what to say either. Finally the innkeeper walked over and put her hand on the bard's. "I don't know which one of you is more stubborn. Gabrielle, go see her. The fact that you came here instead of going to your own family tells me that you're not ready to let go of her yet."
"What if she tells me that she really is in love with Ulysses?" Gabrielle's finger was making small circles on the countertop. "I don't know if I can handle that."
"Would she be here if she did? Actions speak louder than words, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle thanked both warriors for all of their assistance and support, granting them extra time for their vacation and promising to officially promote them to the royal guard once she returned to Amazonia. Vikki protested, saying that they deserved no special favors or rewards for escorting her. A quick reminder from the bard that a gift from the Queen is not something to be refused was all it took to quiet the blue-eyed Amazon. Eager to get on their way to resume their romantic vacation, Garnet and Vikki excused themselves to pack. Gabrielle rose, looked at Cyrene for support, then walked out the door.
Gabrielle entered the stable and walked straight over to Argo. She knew Xena was there, she felt her presence. She gave Argo a gentle pat on the neck, her gaze focused on the golden mare's flanks. Xena watched her from across the stable, waiting for the bard to speak. Gabrielle crossed her arms and rested them on Argo's back, burying her head between them. Her vision showed only the hay on the floor and the edge of the horse's leg. A deafening silence filled the stable. The time had come.
"I missed you." Gabrielle said quietly, afraid her voice would break if she spoke any louder. There was no need to, Xena's keen hearing picked up on both the words and the pain in the bard's voice.
"You shouldn't have left, Gabrielle. Do you have any idea how worried I was about you?" Xena did her best to keep her voice even, trying not to reveal the torrent of emotions that were running through her. When Gabrielle first entered the stable, it was all the warrior could do not to jump down out of the loft and take the bard in her arms, never letting go. The feeling was still there, coupled now with an increasing desire for intimacy with the woman who had been her constant companion and friend for so long. Thighs that once held baby fat now held supple, strong muscle formed by moons of walking. Xena never really took notice of the physical changes in Gabrielle over time until now. The person leaning on Argo was no longer a helpless girl from Potodeia, she was now a full grown woman whose shapely body commanded Xena's attention. Xena let her eyes wander up the bard's body. Defined, muscled calves gave way to equally muscled thighs. Her gaze settled on the parts covered by Gabrielle's clothing, trying to remember what the bard looked like the last time they bathed or went swimming together. Xena felt a tightening in her lower abdomen as she envisioned the bard naked.
"I-I can't go back to the way things were, Xena. It hurts too much." Gabrielle's eyes never left the floor, but she was aware of Xena moving closer to her, almost right behind her now.
"I never meant to hurt you, Gabrielle. I'm sorry." Inches away now, Xena reached out to touch the bard's shoulders. Gabrielle stiffened at the contact, but didn't pull away. Her skin burned beneath the strong hands.
"Do you love him?" She closed her eyes as she asked the painful question. She felt Xena's hands tense on her shoulders, then relax. Heartbeats passed as she waited for the answer.
"No, Gabrielle. He's not the one I love." Xena said firmly.
"But on the ship, you said-"
"I said that I never would have felt the way I did if it wasn't for you teaching me how to love. I never said I loved him." She paused, trying to find the right words to convey her thoughts without hurting the young woman more. "I cared about him, Gabrielle. I guess I still do. But I never would have been truly happy with him, you know that." She gently squeezed the bard's shoulders, trying to give reassurance but also to confirm that Gabrielle really was there with her, that it wasn't a dream.
"Are you happy..." She choked on the words as tears started to blur her vision.
"Turn around, Gabrielle. I need to see you, please?" Xena used her grip on the bard's shoulders to turn her around. Her heart lurched at the sight of the tears she caused. Gabrielle kept her head lowered, her gaze now fixed on the warrior's boots. Reaching out with one callused hand, Xena gently took Gabrielle's chin and forced the blue-green eyes up to meet hers. "Gabrielle, I am very happy with you." Her thumb started to gently stroke the soft skin beneath it. "I didn't realize how much I need you in my life."
"I need you in my life too, Xena." Gabrielle's eyes flashed with determination. "But I can't go back to being just friends." She said firmly, although her heart was begging her to take whatever she could get so long as Xena was with her. She reached up to capture the warrior's hand. "I need you as a lover, Xena. I need to share my soul and my heart with you and have that love returned." She let go of Xena's hand and brought her own up to caress the warrior's cheek. "Can you give me that? Xena, can you share your soul with me?" Her fingers shakily traced the jawline from ear to chin, her heart pounding in her chest, as she waited for Xena's answer. Wherever Gabrielle's fingers touched, the warrior's skin tingled.
Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hands in her own. "I'm not good with words, Gabrielle, you know that." She waited for the bard's head to nod before continuing. "I'm also not good with feelings." Gabrielle smiled gently, encouraging her to go on. Xena swallowed. "All I know is that I can't live without you in my life. I've never felt that way about anyone else before, not even Marcus. Being without you is killing me and all I want to do right now is take you in my arms and hold you forever." She forced herself to stare into those all-knowing blue-green eyes. "Gabrielle, I..." She started to falter, to let her walls build up. Her heart started racing, the emotions bubbling to the surface, no longer willing to be locked away. Taking courage from the love she saw in Gabrielle's eyes, she found the inner strength to speak the only words that would ever matter to the woman of many words. "I love you."
Gabrielle closed her eyes as the beautiful words that she had only dreamed of hearing for so long reached her ears. Only Xena's quick hands flying to her elbows for support kept her steady. Gabrielle opened her eyes, her vision blurred by tears. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't find the words to express her emotions. Xena pulled her into a tight embrace as the emotional bard cried silent tears of joy. Holding her precious bundle against her, Xena reached up with one hand and gently stroked the honey hair. She breathed in the scent, so fresh and sweet compared to the rest of the stable. Xena's eyes closed as she enjoyed the warmth and pleasurable weight against her.
"I never thought I would hear those words from you." Gabrielle murmured against her neck. The intoxicating smell of leather and Xena filled the bard's nostrils. It was a scent that the young woman hoped she would never have to miss again. Unable or unwilling to resist, she parted her lips and tasted the skin of the woman she loved. Her desires fed her boldness as her lips traced the taut muscles of the warrior's neck.
Xena's heart raced when she felt the warm softness against her skin. She couldn't remember when she last felt this way, almost dizzy with pleasure. Her head lolled to the side to allow the hungry bard's mouth better access. Xena was unable to stop a sigh from escaping her lips.
The sigh fueled Gabrielle's passion. She brought her hands up, slipping her fingers under the leather straps that stood between her and the skin she wanted to taste.
"Gab...Gabrielle." Xena's normally low voice dropped to a whisper. Never before had her body reacted this way to a woman. Her respiration increased as Gabrielle's teeth nipped softly on her shoulder. Xena turned her head and captured the nearby earlobe, sucking it gently while flicking her tongue against it. Gabrielle stopped her exploration and gave in to the luxurious sensation, moaning with desire and pleasure. Argo snorted, bringing both women to their senses. They separated and looked at each other, their thoughts plain on their faces.
"I have a room..." Gabrielle began.
Cyrene beamed when she saw Xena and Gabrielle walk in together. The haggard, worn down look that had come over the young chatterbox was gone, replaced with a glow of happiness. Xena looked at her mother's expression and frowned, then followed Gabrielle up the stairs. The beaming smile didn't leave the innkeepers' face as she returned to polishing the bar.
Once inside the room, an awkwardness fell over them. Gabrielle chuckled at the odd sensation. "I'm nervous."
"I'm glad I'm not the only one." Xena replied. They were standing arm's length apart from each other. Silence followed for several heartbeats.
"I love you." Gabrielle said softly as she took a step forward and placed her hand on Xena's cheek. Strong arms wrapped around the bard's back, pulling her closer as they gazed into each other's eyes. Lips were drawn to each other by an unseen force, moving closer until their breaths mingled. Gabrielle's fingers weaved their way into the raven hair until they reached the back of the warrior's head. They kissed again and again, each woman reveling in the softness of the other's lips. Gabrielle moaned and deepened the kiss, letting her passion and desire lead her beyond the realm of her experiences. Her tongue didn't ask, it demanded entry into the warrior's mouth. Xena surrendered to the bard's passion, parting her lips and allowing the bard's tongue to explore. Gabrielle reached up with her hand and cupped the warrior's left breast, eliciting a deep, throaty groan from Xena. Breaking the kiss, Gabrielle smiled at her newfound power. "It seems, my dear warrior princess, that you prefer my kisses to-"
She was silenced by Xena's finger on her lips as her other hand, which was still continuing it torturous exploration of the warrior's left breast through the leather, was captured within the warrior's strong grasp. "No." Xena said softly. "Don't compare. Don't cheapen this that way." Soft lips replaced the finger, the warrior now taking her fill of Gabrielle's mouth. Releasing her hold on the bard's hand, Xena decided that turnabout was fair play and wrapped her strong hands around Gabrielle's breasts. Their tongues danced in tune with the ministrations of Xena's hands. Unable to stand the material separating them anymore, the hands left the breasts and roughly tugged at the laces that held the shirt closed.
"Let me help." Gabrielle whispered as she broke the kiss long enough to step back and quickly remove the top, letting it fall to the floor. Her passion fully ignited, Xena reached out and pulled her close against her body. Gabrielle moaned at the contact of her hardening nipples against the soft leather. Xena's leg pressed against her thighs, parting them the same time that her lips parted to take the warrior's tongue into her mouth.
Xena guided them to the pallet, her mouth continuing to assault Gabrielle's senses as the warrior's hands reached down to cup her shapely rear. Using her strong arms to support the young woman, Xena lowered them gently to the bed. Gabrielle turned her head upward to allow access to her mouth. Xena didn't miss the invitation. She lowered her lips upon the younger woman. She parted Gabrielle's lips with her tongue. The bard reached up and put her hand on Xena's cheek. The kisses seemed to go on forever. They took turns exploring each other's mouths, losing themselves to the sensations. Gabrielle brought her hand down and cupped Xena's breast, causing a moan from the older woman. She rubbed her hand up and down against the leather, feeling the nipple hardening under her touch. She brought her forefinger and thumb together, lightly pinching the sensitive nipple through the dark material. Xena broke the kiss as she inhaled deeply, enjoying the pleasurable sensations. Gabrielle rolled out from under the warrior and stood up, holding out her hand. Xena allowed herself to be pulled up to a standing position. Gabrielle's mouth found hers as her hand returned to caress the hard nipple. With quick, purposeful movements, Gabrielle peeled Xena's leathers off, letting them fall to the floor in a heap. With mouths interlocked, their hands now explored each other's bodies. Gabrielle cupped Xena's ass and pulled her closer, gasping when she felt the warm wetness against her taut abdomen. Xena unlaced the waistband of Gabrielle's skirt and worked it down over her hips. They separated long enough to remove the last of their clothing, throwing them with the rest of the crumpled clothes on the floor. Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and pressed her down on the bed. She climbed on top of her and intertwined their legs. Xena propped herself up on her hands, looking down on Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle...I want tonight to be special." She rocked her hips, causing her mound to rub against Gabrielle's leg and her own leg to rub against the bard's sex. Both women could feel the wetness of the other. Gabrielle pressed her leg upward, putting more pressure on Xena's sex. Xena's arms buckled as she brought her mouth down to kiss Gabrielle with more passion than before. Gabrielle's hands worked their way back to Xena's breasts. She rolled the nipples between her fingers, pinching firmly.
Xena moaned. She broke off the kiss and blazed a trail with her tongue down to Gabrielle's nipple. She licked it lightly, enjoying the softness. Gabrielle arched her back, pressing her breast harder against Xena's mouth. She responded by covering the nipple with her mouth, licking and sucking. Xena heard Gabrielle's moans and switched nipples, launching a new assault. Gabrielle's manipulation of Xena's nipples increased.
"Xena...it feels so good...mmm....that's nice..." Gabrielle sighed.
"That goes for me too." Xena replied as she brought her mouth off the rock hard nipple. Xena slid downward, too far for Gabrielle to continue her hold. Xena placed tiny kisses on her stomach as she worked her way down. Gabrielle spread her legs, welcoming Xena to explore her sex. Xena kissed the soft curls on Gabrielle's mound.
"Xena...please.." Gabrielle arched her hips. Xena slid her tongue in and up, covering it with Gabrielle's juices. She used her fingers to separate Gabrielle's folds. A hungry look came over Xena's face as she gazed at the soft, pink nub in front of her. She brought her mouth down, covering the sensitive center of Gabrielle's sex. Gabrielle cried out when Xena's tongue connected with her most private part. Her hips rose, pressing harder against Xena. Her tongue flicked lightly against the sensitive point, sending Gabrielle higher. Gabrielle reached down and put her hands on Xena's head, pressing her down. Xena refused to lick any harder. She wanted to make the younger woman wait. "Ohh...please...take me there...please....mmm...I can't stand it..." Gabrielle's moans increased as the fire between her legs grew. Xena waited until Gabrielle was on the edge of climax, then pressed down with her tongue. She licked and sucked with a passion, quickly sending Gabrielle to orgasm. With a shout, Gabrielle thrust her hips up as she pressed her hands down hard on Xena's head. Xena felt the young woman's body shake and felt the flood of juice coming from her hole. She continued to lick with her tongue, letting Gabrielle ride wave after wave of pleasure. Only when she heard the moans subside and felt the body still did she bring her mouth away, planting a small kiss on the outer lips. She crossed her arms on top of Gabrielle's hips and rested her chin on her hands.
"Mmm.." Gabrielle's eyes were still closed.
"I take it you enjoyed that?" Xena's smile was warm and gentle. Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes and stroked Xena's hair.
"Very much so. You are a wonderful lover."
"Well, I have to keep my bard happy." Xena leaned down and kissed the outer lips again. Instinctively, Gabrielle's hips shifted, pressing against the soft mouth.
"Hmm, are you ready for more?" Xena's fingers were lightly stroking the curls of Gabrielle's mound as her lips kissed the inner thighs slowly. She took her time, wanting to touch every inch of the soft flesh. Gabrielle felt renewed stirring within her loins. "Mmm...that's nice." Xena worked her way back up to Gabrielle's sex. She kissed the outer lips again.
"Gabrielle...I want you. I want to please you again." Xena said huskily as she continued to press her lips against the bard's mound.
"Mmm...I want that too. But I want it to be mutual." She pressed her hand on Xena's forehead, stopping the kissing marathon. "I want you, Xena. I want to taste you. I want to love you and feel you loving me. I want us to both rise together." Despite her inexperience, Gabrielle had learned enough from her time with the Amazons to know how two women could love each other in bed and she knew what pleased her would probably also please her lover.
Xena kissed her way up the bard's body until she reached her mouth. There she planted a series of dizzying kisses that left the young woman breathless before turning herself around, her hips above Gabrielle's waiting mouth. She reached out with her tongue and licked up and down Xena's center. They settled into a rhythm, licking and sucking each other. In her position, Xena was most vulnerable to Gabrielle's inexperienced, but eager tongue. It wasn't long before her hips started bucking up and down, riding the warm soft muscle.
Xena's moans were muffled as she tried to continue pleasuring Gabrielle's sex. Every thrust from her tongue brought an equal thrust from Gabrielle's. Both women were finding it hard to concentrate. Xena felt her control slipping away under the continued ministrations of the bard's tongue. She pressed down hard on Gabrielle's mouth as her climax neared. "Oh...mmm..." With a final shriek, Xena exploded, soaking Gabrielle's face. The young storyteller licked greedily, not wanting to miss a drop. Xena tried to move off of her, but Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her hips and held her, continuing to lick with a fervor. She returned to Xena's sensitive nub, causing the warrior's hips to jump slightly. She licked lightly, then harder as she felt Xena rising again. Xena continued to explore Gabrielle's sex, alternating between licking the nub and probing the hole with her tongue. Soon, both women were on the verge. Xena cried out as a powerful orgasm enveloped her. She reached forward and slipped two fingers deep into the writhing woman beneath her. Gabrielle screamed and shuddered as her own orgasm hit. It was several heartbeats before Xena slid off her and laid on the bed. There was a long pause before either could speak. Xena moved up and laid next to her. She stroked Gabrielle's hair lovingly.
"How do you feel?" Xena said softly as she continued to gently caress the honey hair.
"Loved." All the pain and sorrow since running into the King of Ithaca was gone, replaced now with the soft, warm glow of knowing that she truly was part of Xena's heart. Both women snuggled close, drifting off into contented sleep.
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