Trouble by Della Street

Music carried over to the table where two women sat watching the celebration, a warm breeze passing lightly through their hair. Chin in hand, Gabrielle watched couples dancing together around the fire in the center of the village common.

An earnest young man shyly approached the table. "Would you like to dance?"

Gabrielle would very much have liked to dance. She glanced over at Xena, who sat with one leg resting on the table, drinking from a cup.

"Um, not right now, thanks." Her foot tapping in rhythm with the flute and drum, Gabrielle watched as the young man approached another woman, and the pair joined the others in the common. She looked over at Xena again, who spoke.

"Gabrielle, do you want to dance?"

The bard's eyes lit up. "Yes!"

"Well, go ahead, then."

Her face fell, and she stared out at the crowd. After a few minutes, Gabrielle set her jaw and walked away from the table, and was soon absorbed into a line of celebrants moving in graceful circular patterns around the fire.

Hm. This was harder than it looked. Gabrielle would have preferred dancing in the less structured manner of the couples; would have liked to press against Xena, to have Xena's arms around her. But no, the Warrior Princess didn't dance. Well, neither did she, although she thought she'd really gotten the hang of it in the Amazon camp.

She found herself next to the young man who had earlier approached her. He took another shot at it. "Would you like to dance . . . together?" He gestured casually toward the couples. Gabrielle tripped on her own foot again and, in frustration, accepted his offer.

* * * * *

Xena paused, cup raised halfway to her lips, as a young man led Gabrielle out of the line to the couples area. Once there, he took her hand and they began to dance. Xena set the cup down. Gabrielle seemed to be having a good time, talking and smiling with the youth, who began to be a little more bold in his contact with her. He reached out a hand --

A large figure blocked her line of vision. "Excuse me. You're in my way," she said.

The behemoth, who had obviously been one of the first to start celebrating that night, turned and tried to focus on the source of the comment. Eventually, he realized that he had been addressed by a great looking wench. He leered at her.

* * * * *

Gabrielle laughed and removed the young man's hand from her waist, shaking her head at him pleasantly.

"Gabrielle!" She spun around, and saw a man from her village standing a few feet away. She excused herself from her dance partner and grasped his arms.

"Dorius! What are you doing here?" She smiled brightly, pleased to see him.

"Looking for you."

She frowned. "Looking for me? What do you mean?"

"Your father sent me." Gabrielle's heart started pounding. "I have some news."

* * * * *

"Ow!" The oversized lout was being instructed in the hazards of calling the Warrior Princess a great looking wench. Twisting one arm behind his back, his tutor applied a curvaceous boot to his backside and propelled him into a barrel several feet away.

Xena settled on the bench again to watch her lover dance, her eyes wandering through the crowd. No Gabrielle. She started to rise, then heard someone calling her name. Frowning slightly, she saw several of the town's leaders approaching, and scanned the celebrants one more time for signs of her friend.

"Xena!" The men filled the seats at her table. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Is there anything you'd like? We have a lot to repay."

"I don't want anything," she said. "I was glad to help out."

"Say what you will. We won't forget what you've done."

Xena half-listened to their praises, mentally rolling her eyes, occasionally glancing out at the figures in the common. An hour later, the innkeeper's wife brought out another round, but Xena held up her hand. "Not for me, thanks. I think I'd better find Gabrielle and--"

"Gabrielle has retired for the evening."

"She has?" Xena considered the information. It wasn't like Gabrielle to go to bed without telling her. She must have been pretty tired. On the other hand, sometimes Gabrielle went to bed early when she wasn't tired . . . .

"I think I'll turn in, too. We have to be up early." Xena thanked her host, downed her drink, and headed for the inn.

Lying in bed in her nightclothes, Gabrielle turned her head at the sound of the door sliding open. Xena took off her leathers and climbed into bed. She cuddled against the warm body under the blanket, nuzzling her neck. Her lips traveled up the bard's sensuous throat, then she moved on top of her lover and kissed her. After a moment, Gabrielle turned away and shook her head. "I can't."

Xena looked at her in surprise. Gabrielle had never resisted lovemaking before. Far from it.

Gabrielle looked up into Xena's eyes and touched her face. "I'm sorry."

"What's the matter? Hey, I'm sorry about the dancing thing." Xena shifted her body and lay next to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle nestled into her. "It's not that," she said quietly.

Something was definitely wrong. Xena put her arms around Gabrielle and waited for her to speak.

"I have to go home."

Xena tensed.

"My mother is sick."

She rested her face on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm sorry. How did you find out?"

"Someone from my village. My father sent him to find us. He's been travelling around asking people if they've seen you."

"How sick is she?"

"I don't know. Dorius said she became ill almost two months ago, and she doesn't seem to have gotten any better. He said she's pretty weak."

"I'm sorry," Xena said again, kissing her shoulder. "We'll leave tomorrow. We could be there in a week if . . ."

"If I ride with you. I know. I'll do it. I want to get home as soon as I can." Gabrielle hesitated. "I don't know how long I'll be staying."

"We'll work it out." Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms and comforted her until sleep took over.

* * * * *

Xena finished stamping out the fire they had used to cook their dinner. The evening was hot, with little or no breeze. She walked over to the blanket and lay down, then was surprised to feel a hand on her forearm. Usually that was an invitation, but for the past week her friend had been too distracted with concern for her mother.

Suggestive fingers moved slowly up and down her arm. Definitely an overture. Xena tried to remain calm, although her body was reacting to a week of lying next to Gabrielle without being able to touch her. She turned onto her side and looked down into glowing eyes. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. It may be weeks before we see each other again. I can't wait that long."

Neither can I, thought Xena. She leaned over and pressed her lips to Gabrielle's in a soft, lingering kiss, fighting to control the urge to tear Gabrielle's clothing from her and make passionate love to her. This wasn't the right time for that.

Xena left the delicious mouth and ran her tongue down her lover's throat. Gabrielle's body began to stir. "I think we'd better take these off if we want to wear them tomorrow," she said, reaching for the tie on her skirt, watching Xena pull down on her leathers. Sometimes she liked Xena to make love to her in her warrior attire, minus the breastplate. The sight and feel of dark leather on her bare white skin excited them both. But tonight she wanted to feel the woman's softness.

Soon they lay next to each other, skin against skin. Staying by her side, Xena began to kiss the shapely body beside her, gentle caresses with her lips, trailing across shoulders, then down her arms to her wrists. She brought Gabrielle's hands to her lips and kissed the fingers, then the palms. She held her own desire in check, listening to the increasing passion of Gabrielle's sighs.

Gabrielle rested her hand lightly on Xena's waist, enjoying the sensation of soft lips exploring her body. They were at the bottom of her throat now, kissing a path across her chest, then downward . . . . She inhaled deeply as she felt them graze her breast, and nearly reached out to press the dark head against her. A low moan emitted from her throat, but Xena continued on her torturous trek, her lips moving to the other soft mound. This time Gabrielle felt the light imprint of several kisses, and waited for a rough tongue to end her anticipation.

Warm breath fluttered against the underside of her breast, then deliberately moved down to her stomach. Xena smiled as Gabrielle realized her lips were leaving her breasts and pleaded with her, "Xena . . . ."

The bard groaned in frustrated pleasure. Her hand slid to Xena's hip as the warrior leaned away from her, her lips blazing a path down her body, soft kisses covering her stomach, then her thighs, her knees, her calves. Gabrielle's body was electrified, and she felt dangerously close to succumbing without even being touched.

Xena worked her way up the insides of thighs firmed by months of constant walking. As she approached the heat at their apex, Gabrielle couldn't take it any more, and with a rough cry she grasped the dark head and forced it between her legs.

The warmth against her lips sent fire through Xena's own limbs. She pressed her mouth against it, then raised her head. "What do you want, Gabrielle?"

Her helpless lover moaned. "You know . . . ."

Xena lowered her mouth again, kissing her, then ran her tongue across the aching flesh. Gabrielle cried out desperately, arching her back. Xena lifted her head again and said seductively, "No, I don't."

Gabrielle spread her legs further apart and gripped Xena's hair tightly. "Xena . . . ." she begged.

Xena's desire overtook her, and she plunged into Gabrielle's wetness, listening to indistinct cries as she stroked with her tongue. She felt Gabrielle's hand move on her hip and heard a soft order, "Come here."

She arced her thigh over Gabrielle's chest and lowered herself. The touch of Gabrielle's tongue sent shock waves through her. She lowered her head again to Gabrielle and they savored each other, noises of pleasure and desire carrying through the trees.

Xena felt Gabrielle's body still, felt the familiar slight trembling, and it drove her own need to the edge. Gabrielle uttered a sharp cry, hands pressed tightly against her hips, and within seconds Xena joined her in her ecstasy, her moans muffled against Gabrielle's body.

After a few moments, she turned around and lay next to her lover. Gabrielle pressed herself against the long body and kissed her deeply, the moisture on their lips and tongues merging. She lay back and sighed. "Mmmm. I almost wish I didn't know what I'll be missing."

"Really?"

"No." She snuggled against Xena, who smiled. Gabrielle played with the fingers on a powerful hand. "I'm going to miss you."

"Mmm."

"I suppose you'll go off and have a good time somewhere, having beautiful women throw themselves at you."

"Yeah." Gabrielle grinned, and Xena looked at her lovingly. "But you're the only one I've caught." She brought Gabrielle's hand to her lips, then held it against her face. "I love you."

"Hey, you've already had your way with me. No need to start sweet-talking." She looked up into Xena's eyes. "You know I've loved you since the moment we met."

"That kind of talk will get you into trouble," Xena said. She ran her tongue up Gabrielle's palm.

"How about if I tell you that you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen?" Gabrielle reached out and touched a smooth cheek, and their eyes met. "I could get lost in the blue of your eyes." Xena took her finger into her mouth and Gabrielle reacted, stimulated. "Xena . . . ." Recognizing the tone in her lover's voice, Xena looked into bright eyes. "We may not get another chance for a while."

Xena leaned over and kissed Gabrielle's breast, running her tongue across it, then took it into her mouth. The two women made love again, satisfying not only their desire for one another, but the need for reassurance at the coming separation.

* * * * *

They rode into Potedaia the next morning, pulling up outside an unassuming house. Xena dismounted and turned to help Gabrielle, then saw that the bard had jumped down already and was hurrying into the house. She pulled a stone from the saddlebag and sat on the steps outside, sharpening her sword as she waited.

"Why are you still here?" If memory served her, she was being addressed by Gabrielle's father. Behind him stood a girl she recalled seeing in the house before, probably the sister.

"I want to be sure Gabrielle is all right before I leave."

"Gabrielle won't be all right until she's back here where she belongs."

The girl tugged at his arm, embarrassed. "Father, don't."

She didn't need this. "Gabrielle belongs wherever she wants to be," Xena said, rising. She belongs with me, she thought.

"Why does someone like you want to drag a young girl around to be your lapdog?"

Xena breathed deeply and counted to five. "Gabrielle is my friend."

"Your friend." He looked dubious. "If she was your friend, you'd know that she's better off here--safe--than out there, running around with you. You're going to get her killed."

"It's Gabrielle's choice."

"She's an innocent young girl. At least she was."

Xena ignored the implication. "And what else was she?" she asked.

Gabrielle's father stared at her, not comprehending.

"What else? Tell me about her." She waited. "All right. I'll tell you. She is innocent. And good. And brave." Xena took a step toward him, sheathing her sword. "She's clever. And wise. And compassionate. She is everything she wants to be." She held his gaze. "What do you think she'd be doing now if she had stayed here?"

"She'd have married Perdicus and they'd both be living here."

"I've met Perdicus, and he's happy doing what he's doing. So's Gabrielle. You should be happy for them."

"Until you bring my daughter's body home to be buried."

That stung, and he knew it. At that moment, Gabrielle stepped outside, and halted mid-stride at the sight of the two figures facing each other.. Xena turned to her. "I think I'll head out, Gabrielle."

"OK." Gabrielle walked up to her and took her hand, not caring what her father might think. "Come on. I want to talk to you before you go."

* * * * *

They stood, silently embracing, in the sisters' bedroom. Finally, Gabrielle spoke. "Did my father--"

"It was nothing. We were just talking."

Gabrielle nodded. She could imagine. "I'm sorry." Xena had been right to suggest that she leave and come back for her, rather than stay.

"How's your mother?"

"She doesn't look good. You don't think . . . ."

Xena shook her said apologetically, "I don't know how to treat that kind of sickness."

"Well, I'm going to take care of her."

"I know you will," Xena said.

"You'll come back for me?"

"What do you think?"

Gabrielle smiled.

"When do you want me to come?"

"A month, I guess."

"I'll be here."

Gabrielle began to say something else, then changed her mind.

"What is it?"

"Nothing." Gabrielle knew that Xena loved her. She didn't know why she was thinking what she was thinking. But they hadn't been apart since they became lovers, and Xena had a strong appetite, coming to her nearly every night . . . . "A month is a long time," she said.

"Yeah." Suddenly Xena looked down, her brow furrowed. "What are you thinking?"

"Nothing."

Xena smiled down into deep green eyes. "Gabrielle, I would never look at anyone else. I don't care how long we're apart."

"Really?"

"I love you." She leaned down and whispered softly into Gabrielle's ear. "And you're everything I want in a lover. Everything." She tightened her embrace, wanting to reassure her, wanting . . . . She nibbled Gabrielle's earlobe. "Mm," she uttered, hurriedly releasing her. "I'd better go."

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Yeah, I think so." She turned her face up for a quick kiss, which turned into a longer kiss, then walked outside with Xena and watched as she rode away.

* * * * *

Gabrielle sat with her mother and sister at a table in the common, enjoying the warm evening, secretly watching for any signs that her mother might be tiring. Gabrielle was encouraged; the older woman's color had definitely improved over the past week.

"Lila, dear, will you take this over to that table?"

Gabrielle's eyes followed the tavernkeeper's finger to a table where three soldiers were sprawled. "Uh, Lila, give me that," she said.

"Orphea pays me to help out."

"I know, but trust me on this. I'll take it."

Two pairs of green eyes followed Gabrielle as she carried the tray over and set it down on the table. One of the soldiers spoke to her as she turned to leave, and they all laughed loudly at her response. After several more minutes of conversation, Gabrielle sat down.

Lila watched her sister become more animated, listening as the others talked, jumping in at various points, making them laugh. Now she was illustrating some story with slashing motions, thrusting an imaginary sword downward savagely. After a while, one of the men called out, "Keeper! More ale! And another cup!"

This time Lila brought the tray over. As she approached, the sturdiest of the group roared, "then he opened the box -- and it was the wrong head!"

Gabrielle's laughter rose amidst the roar of the group. "Yeah, I hate it when that happens." She picked up her cup and poured ale into it. "Thank you, Lila." Effectively dismissed, the girl returned to the seat next to her mother, who was also studying her daughter's interaction with the strangers.

"Hey, keeper! Bread and cheese!" Now they appeared to be singing, her sister's voice clearly joining in. ". . . and lying with the maidens . . ." The group laughed heartily at what Lila suspected was not entirely a nice song. As she approached the table with their food, Gabrielle pressed a finger to her lips. "Thank you, Lila," she said. "How's mother doing?"

"She seems fine. She's enjoying the night air."

"Yeah, it's nice. Will you help her in if she gets tired? I'll be in later."

Lila nodded and looked shyly at the three men, who remained dutifully silent while the young girl was near. "I'll see you later, OK?" Gabrielle repeated gently. Lila turned and walked back to her mother.

Hours later, no one remained outside except for the foursome at the far table and the brown-haired girl, now concealed in the darkness of her unlit table. Lila watched as her older sister stood and waved goodnight to her new acquaintances.

The youngest of the soldiers -- the most handsome man she had ever seen, Lila thought -- slipped his arms around Gabrielle's waist. His colleagues clapped him on the back encouragingly, and staggered toward the inn. Gabrielle pressed her hands against the young man's chest.

Lila stared as the man leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle, part of her shocked at such unseemly conduct, part of her excited at her sister's worldliness. Her eyes widened as Gabrielle pushed the man away gently, shaking her head. Intrigued, Lila spied the empty trays on the other table and went to retrieve them. As she'd hoped, the pair was preoccupied and didn't notice her approach.

"Come on, pretty thing. I think you know what it's like to be in a warrior's bed."

"Maybe, but--" Gabrielle turned her head, surprised to see Lila standing beside her.

"I'm just getting the trays," the girl said meekly.

"I appreciate the offer, but I'm not available," Gabrielle said to her disappointed suitor. She patted his chest apologetically. "I had a good time. Good night." She took Lila's arm and strolled back to the house with her.

"Didn't you want to kiss him?" Lila asked.

"No."

"He was very handsome."

"Yeah, but I--" Gabrielle let it drop.

"You what?"

"I don't even know him."

"Oh. Yeah."

* * * * *

Gabrielle lay in her bed, dreaming of Xena, remembering . . . .

. . . arms wrapped tightly around her, forceful body between her legs, thrusting against her, her own cries as she reached the threshold of her desire, gripping Xena's back . . . .

Then--loud pounding on the door. "Hey, when you're done with her we want some."

Gabrielle looked up at Xena's face, embarrassed that her cries had been heard by others. Xena opened her eyes, panting lightly, hair sticking to the sweat on her neck and forehead, and turned her head toward the door.

"Come on, buddy. Share and share alike."

"Ignore them," Gabrielle said. "They're just drunk."

Xena looked down into Gabrielle's eyes and kissed her.

"Hey, come on, we want a crack at her. There aren't that many good whores in this town."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. That would do it. Xena threw back the covers, tied a towel around herself, and stormed to the door. Turning the lock, she yanked the door open angrily, to the surprise of two drunken soldiers standing in the hall. Their eyes lit up. "Hey, you the little missie that's been making all that noise?"

Xena grabbed both of them by the collar. "Did you call my friend a whore?"

"Your friend?" The soldiers wrestled with their alcoholic confusion, then tried to look past the tall woman's shoulder into the room. Xena reached behind her and closed the door. Gabrielle lay quietly, listening to the familiar sound of bodies crashing against a wall, the clanking of metal helmets slamming together, and the loud "ohhh" that usually accompanied well placed kicks to the groin.

The door opened and Xena walked back in, locking it behind her. She looked at Gabrielle and smiled, letting the towel fall to the floor. "Now, I think you were about to drive me wild."

Gabrielle smiled in her sleep.

* * * * *

"Heeeyyy, come on!" It was a boisterous crowd in the tavern tonight, loud, intoxicated, obnoxious. Xena sat at a table in the center of the commotion, enjoying herself. At the moment, one voice was more obnoxious than the others.

"Come on, 'Warrior Princess.' You and me. Right here. For a pint."

Xena peered into her empty cup, and thought about their limited finances. Why not? She removed the cup from the table and turned to her new acquaintance. "All right."

He laughed and sat down across from her, confident he was about to humiliate the renowned warrior. He set his elbow on the table and waited for Xena to match it. She placed her elbow on the table and grasped his right hand, while his left slapped the table: One, two, three.

Clenched hands remained stationary for several minutes, pressure exerted on both sides. Sweat broke out on her challenger's brow while Xena sat calmly, looking almost disinterested in the contest.

Suddenly her expression changed, and with a grunt, she slammed her opponent's hand to the table. Xena rose and started away from the table, then turned back and burned her blue eyes into his. "Wine," she said meaningfully.

Leather boots strode purposefully toward a table a few feet away, startling its occupants, two men who looked nervously up at her. "Did I hear you say you've just been through Potedaia?" she asked the elder of the two.

"Yeah, three days ago."

"How were things there?"

He shrugged. "Fine, I suppose. There wasn't much going on."

"You didn't happen to run into a young woman there named Gabrielle? Pretty, strawberry blonde, carries a staff."

"I don't know. I saw a lot of girls there. I don't think I noticed one in particular."

You'd have noticed this one, Xena thought, smiling to herself. "Thanks," she said, and walked back to her table, where a full cup of wine awaited her. Xena examined the cup, smelling it before taking a small sip. She took a larger draught, then looked around.

Her mood had changed. She wasn't really in the mood for loud barroom commotion any more. She took another drink, reflective. She was in the mood for a story. Something hopelessly romantic, told to her softly under the stars by that captivating voice, and then afterward . . . .

Xena finished her drink and left the tavern. A few yards up the road, her horse whinnied at her approach. Xena patted the mare's neck and untied her reins. "Come on, Argo, let's go." She mounted, and rode slowly out of town.

* * * * *

Gabrielle picked up a gourd, inspecting the selection in the busy farmers' market set up inside the tavern. Lila took a deep breath and decided to ask what she had been wondering since the night with the soldiers. "Gabrielle, are you still a--"

Gabrielle stepped back to hear her sister over the crowd and bumped into someone. Turning to apologize, she found herself staring directly into a familiar face. Her smiled vanished, replaced by a look of recognition and fear. She turned her head quickly but, sensing it was too late, dropped her bag of vegetables and began to make her way rapidly through the crowded tavern toward the entrance.

"Hey . . . ." Lila protested Gabrielle's abrupt shove.

"Stop her!"

Gabrielle bolted through the entrance, only to be met outside by two men who gripped her arms tightly. A red-bearded figure strode up to her from the building entrance.

"How nice to see you again," he said. "I see you remember me."

Gabrielle remained silent while her mind raced. Townspeople watching them from the building and common, and Lila stood nearby, her heart pounding, not understanding what was happening.

Gabrielle slumped tiredly, and her captors relaxed their grip. "No! Keep your hold on this one," their commander said admiringly. "I saw her take on an entire army to keep me from tearing her friend's body apart."

Lila's jaw dropped.

"And you did quite well didn't you, my dear? Until you got to me."

"Xena took care of you," Gabrielle replied.

Talmadeus' face clouded. "Where is she?"

Gabrielle hesitated. He took a step toward her, and she spoke up quickly. "We're camped a half-day's ride from here. She sent me to get supplies."

"Well, now, that will work into my plans just fine. My men will be quartering here for a few days. That'll give me time to settle an old score." He looked at Gabrielle. "Two old scores. Bring her to the inn."

The warlord turned and addressed the crowd. "You have nothing to fear from my army at the moment. You will not be harmed as long as you cooperate. My men and I will be moving on in three days' time. In the meantime, my business is with this little thing" -- he gestured toward Gabrielle -- "and her friend. The rest of you, go to your homes." The villagers slowly began to shuffle away, uncertain what to do.

Gabrielle walked compliantly with her two escorts toward the inn, then tripped and stumbled. As she fell forward, she tore her arms loose from their grip and ran. The innkeeper's horse was tethered nearby, still saddled, and with the help of adrenaline and desperation, Gabrielle climbed up into the saddle. She had to get away before Talmadeus figured out this was her home town.

She took the reins in hand, need overcoming fear. "Ha! You lose again, Talmadeus!" she taunted, then charged away as fast as the horse and her bravado would carry her.

"Get her!" the enraged commander shouted.

Lila stared after her sister in disbelief.

"Get back to your homes," Talmadeus growled, and the stunned crowd dispersed.

* * * * *

Hours later, Lila tiptoed out of her mother's sickroom. Suddenly, she felt a hand across her mouth and heard a low "shhh" in her ear.

"Mmm!"

"Quiet, Lila. OK?"

The girl nodded, and the hand was removed. "Gabrielle! You're all right! How'd you get back here?" She kept her voice low.

"I circled around. I know the area better than they do. I had to leave Ariole's horse with Tyra, though. If she came back they would have known."

"They're still looking for you."

"I know."

"Who are they?"

"Long story." Gabrielle saw the frustrated look on Lila's face and quickly explained, "They were attacking a village, and Xena and I stopped them. They weren't too happy about it."

"You should go, Gabrielle. If he finds you, he might hurt you."

Gabrielle laughed humorlessly. "Slightly. But I can't go. I've got to talk to Xena, and I don't know where she is. She'll be here in a couple of days."

"If he sees Xena--"

"I know. I'll have to figure out a way to warn her. For now I'll have to hide out here." She paused. "How much does Mother know?"

"I told her what happened."

Gabrielle grimaced, then walked into the room. The older woman was awake and held her arms out to enfold her daughter.

"I'm fine, Mother." Gabrielle drew back and studied the drawn face. "You look better today." She touched her mother's cheek.

"I worry about you."

"I know. You shouldn't. Xena takes good care of me."

The older woman remained silent.

Gabrielle sighed. "What we do is dangerous sometimes, but it's important." She pointed toward the common. "You know those men out there? They were going to slaughter an entire village. We stopped them. I'm doing something worthwhile with my life, helping Xena do good things."

"And you're happy."

"I'm happier than you could ever know."

She had said too much. Gabrielle averted her eyes and got off the bed to pour herself some water.

"Do you love her?"

Gabrielle's breath caught for a moment. She wasn't sure exactly what the question was referring to, then she realized that the answer was the same no matter what she meant. "Yes."

"Does she love you?"

She shrugged. "She says she does."

"Are you lovers?"

Gabrielle turned red. "Mother!"

"You're my daughter. I want to know about your life."

She hesitated, embarrassed. "We're together. A couple."

Her mother nodded. "Good."

Gabrielle stared at her.

"Daughter, come here." Gabrielle walked over and sat beside her on the bed. "You once told me that you were grateful for everything we've given you, but this wasn't the life for you. I already knew that, and it broke my heart because I didn't know what else there could be for you." Gabrielle felt tears welling up in her eyes. "When you left, I worried about you, but I knew you had to do it. Now that I see you, see that you're finally happy, I thank the gods that you found her."

Gabrielle hugged her, feeling the comfort of a child in her mother's arms. "Father doesn't feel that way," she said.

"He just wants you to be safe." A cool hand brushed back strands of her little girl's hair. "He doesn't understand that sometimes it's more important to be happy."

Gabrielle drew back and looked at her mother, loving her.

* * * * *

Lila felt a hand over her mouth again.

"Shhh."

The girl nodded. She knew this routine.

"Where's Gabrielle?"

Lila pointed, and the hand was removed. Xena stepped into the other room.

"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed quietly. She hurried over and the two embraced warmly. "What are you doing here?"

"I decided to come early. I thought maybe we could spend some time together." She released Gabrielle and acknowledged the other woman in the room with a glance.

"I wish. We've got problems."

"I noticed."

Lila came into the room and stood in the entryway, listening as her sister spoke.

"It's Talmadeus."

Xena grunted. "Great."

"Yeah, and here's a surprise: He wants to kill you."

"Only slightly more than he wants to kill you, I imagine."

"He's got men looking for you."

"I know. I ran into them." Xena met Gabrielle's gaze, advising her not to inquire about the encounter in front of her family.

Gabrielle nodded. "There's more. I climbed up the outside wall of the inn and listened to them planning." Lila stared at her with wide eyes. She was continually surprised by her sister. "They're going to meet with Parmer's army and attack a kingdom," Gabrielle said.

Xena pursed her lips. She hated to see Talmadeus take advantage of someone, but she didn't like to interfere with internal affairs of kings and warlords.

"I think it's Gregor."

Xena looked at her sharply, and Gabrielle continued. "I heard them talking about the box. They plan on taking the treasure room, but they want to make sure no one touches the box, or Pandora." She laid her hand on Xena's forearm. "They might hurt Gregor. Or Gabriel." She ran her fingers down the warrior's strong arm. "Our baby."

Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own and nodded. "We'll stop them," she said. "What else did you pick up?"

"They're worried about Gregor's army. They don't think they can do it unless they have both of their armies at full strength."

Xena met her eyes. "So . . . ."

"Uh huh."

"I'll go find Parmer," Xena said.

"I'll take Talmadeus."

"Wait. We only need to break one off."

"What if you can't find Parmer's army in time?" Gabrielle asked. "We may not be able to stop them once they get together. Talmadeus is right here."

Xena hesitated, aware of Gabrielle's mother and sister still listening. "Gabrielle, if Talmadeus catches you, he won't be satisfied with just killing you."

"I know. But I'm still right."

"We should send word to Gregor," Xena said, stalling. Finally, she sighed. "All right. You follow Talmadeus when he leaves. But don't try anything unless it's absolutely clear."

"OK."

"I want you to take Argo."

"Argo?"

"You're going to have a lot of riding to do or you'll lose them once they're in the flatland. Even with your natural affinity for horses" -- Xena pressed her lips together in a smirk -- "you're better off with one you know." She turned to Gabrielle's mother. "Is there somewhere I can get a horse?"

"Yes. Lila will show you."

An hour later, Xena and Gabrielle stood bent over a map. "No, that road's too overgrown now; it would be hard to get foot-soldiers through it. There's another road here," Gabrielle pointed. "I saw it last time I came home." She studied the map again. "OK.

They're leaving here the day after tomorrow. They expect to meet up with Parmer in two or three days, then another two days to Lurna. So . . . ."

"Here." Xena placed her finger on the map, then traced a path.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah."

"How many men does Parmer have?"

"They didn't say. But he's short on horses; they're planning to use Talmadeus's."

Xena looked at her friend, who closed her eyes, feeling stupid. Of course. They'd probably take the town's horses with them. Xena nodded. "We'll have to take that into account." She straightened, and stretched vigorously.

Gabrielle turned to Lila. "Is there anything to eat?"

* * * * *

"And they named him Gabriel." Gabrielle finished telling her mother and sister the story of Pandora, obviously pleased to have a namesake.

Xena smiled to herself, then yawned involuntarily. "I'm going to try to get some sleep before I take off," she said.

"How are you going to stop this Parmer's army?" Lila asked, gathering up the cups and bowls from their late dinner.

"I won't know until I get there." She kept her eyes on the floor as she unlaced her boots.

Gabrielle's mother spoke up quietly. "Lila, let's let Xena have your bed tonight. You can stay with me." Gabrielle smiled at her mother, acknowledging her kindness, then she and Xena walked to the bedroom she shared with her sister. They undressed and climbed under the covers of Gabrielle's bed.

Gabrielle rested her head against Xena's shoulder. "If you want, we could . . . ."

"I think we're both too tired."

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "Rats. This isn't how I imagined our first night together again."

"I've had a few thoughts about that myself. When I get back, we'll go for a ride somewhere." She lowered herself and looked into her young lover's eyes. "Gabrielle, don't take any risks with Talmadeus. Please."

"I won't. Don't worry."

They settled into each other and drifted off to sleep.

* * * * *

Xena slipped out of bed and reached for her leathers.

"Do you have to go right now?"

"I need to get the horse and be out of town before it gets light," she replied.

Gabrielle got out of bed and walked to the window, moving the covering and staring out into the night. "You've got at least an hour before the sun starts to come up." She turned around, barely able to make out Xena's form in the darkness. "I'm not as tired as I was earlier," she said softly.

Xena gazed at the perfect body silhouetted against the window. It wasn't a hard decision. "I'm not either." She set her leathers down and lay back on the bed, her pulse rising as Gabrielle walked toward her.

Gabrielle knelt on the edge of the bed and crawled slowly up it, lowering her weight onto her waiting lover. Xena grasped the sides of Gabrielle's head and they kissed passionately, urgently, until finally Gabrielle broke away to catch her breath. "I wish we had more time," she whispered.

"Yeah," Xena said, also out of breath. "But since we don't," she rolled over abruptly, "I'm going to do what I've been wanting to do for weeks."

Conscious of her family in the next room, Gabrielle concentrated on remaining silent while Xena sucked hungrily on her breast. She couldn't believe Xena was being so cruel, driving her crazy like this knowing she had to keep quiet. Xena moved to her other breast, squeezing it, licking the nipple. "Don't!" Gabrielle whispered, but her plea was ignored.

Xena found the enforced silence oddly stimulating. She knew she was torturing Gabrielle, knew she shouldn't, but . . . . She glanced up and saw the look of pleasure and torment on Gabrielle's face as her lover fought to contain herself. Xena instantly felt a wave of desire shoot through her, and pressed her lips against a soft breast to stifle her own cry.

She slid her hand between parted thighs, at the same time kissing Gabrielle to keep her from crying out. She kept her hand there, motionless, until Gabrielle regained control. Gabrielle withdrew from the kiss to catch her breath again.

Xena couldn't hold back any longer. Gabrielle was more than ready, and she slid into her. She felt teeth sink into her shoulder, and heard a small noise from the back of the bard's throat. Xena closed her eyes for a moment, luxuriating in the feel of wet, smooth skin against her fingers, then placed her lips against Gabrielle's ear and said breathily, "I've wanted to be inside you for so long . . . ." She kissed Gabrielle again to silence her moan.

She drew her fingers almost entirely out, then drove them in again, repeating the motion over and over, her palm pounding gently against Gabrielle's sensitive center. Warm lips eagerly explored the throat beneath her, and Xena's thrusts accelerated until she heard Gabrielle start to cry out. Xena kissed her and applied pressure from her palm as Gabrielle seized her tightly, gripping dark hair, shuddering violently, trapping Xena's fingers inside her. Xena ground her palm gently against her until Gabrielle's tremors subsided, and they lay breathing raggedly.

A moment later, Gabrielle turned Xena onto her back and whispered, "Now I get to do something I've been wanting to do."

"We don't have much time," Xena warned her.

"Mmmm." Gabrielle lowered her head to Xena's breast.

Xena stirred, agitated, as her enthusiastic lover kissed and caressed her breasts. "I don't think I can hold out," she said quietly.

Gabrielle gradually lowered herself until she felt rough curly hairs against her lips. She paused for a moment, eyes closed in anticipation, then immersed her mouth into the wet silk between Xena's thighs. Hearing the warrior's sharp intake of breath, she wished that they were alone under the moonlight, that they had more time. She caressed Xena with her tongue, watching the rapturous face, listening to strained breathing.

She felt a familiar hesitation, and Xena's hips rose. Xena clutched wildly at blonde hair and pressed Gabrielle's mouth against her as the waves overtook her, teeth clenched to suppress the groan from deep in her throat. Finally, she lay back on the bed, still breathing hard. Gabrielle pulled herself up and sank into the languorous body.

After a few minutes, Xena sighed. "I have to go." Gabrielle laid her forehead against Xena's, then rolled onto her side. She watched the warrior cover that gorgeous body with leather, and raised up on her knees for a goodbye kiss. "You be careful," Xena ordered, then she stepped out of the room and sneaked outside through the loose panel on a back wall.

Gabrielle lay peacefully on her bed and relived recent memories until she heard her family moving around.

* * * * *

At sunrise the following morning, Xena rode into a campsite, and was immediately surrounded by soldiers. She smiled and addressed them confidently. "I'm looking for Parmer."

A voice boomed out behind her. "At your service." A tall, balding man walked toward her. "Do I have the pleasure of speaking with the great Warrior Princess?"

"Yes." She dismounted, unconcerned about the men gathered around her. "I want to talk to you."

"Go ahead."

"King Gregor is a friend of mine."

Parmer blinked in surprise, then recovered. "No point in denying it, I guess. How do you know our plans?"

"I've got a spy in Talmadeus' camp."

Parmer absorbed the information, obviously intending to take Talmadeus to task for the security breach. "Well, what do you intend me to do with your information?"

"I intend you to call off your meeting with Talmadeus and leave Lurna alone."

He laughed. "Well, Xena, I'll take your suggestion under advisement." He stroked his chin, then looked at her in mock surprise. "I've decided not to follow your advice." His men laughed.

"If you won't listen to reason, I'm afraid I'll have to take other steps," Xena said. "How many men do you have?"

"Now why would I tell you that?"

"So I won't have to take out more than I need to put you out of commission."

"By the gods you're arrogant!" He looked her over appreciatively. "And as beautiful as they say. It's a shame I don't have time to get to know you better." He signaled to his men. "Take her."

Xena unsheathed her sword, quickly striking down two of Parmer's men with the hilt. Her elbow landed on the jaw of a third assailant, and she kicked another between the legs. Four swordsmen approached cautiously, and Xena smiled as she twirled her sword in anticipation. Suddenly, she startled them with a piercing yell, and somersaulted over their heads. As they recovered and turned around, she slashed her sword across their exposed chests, then spun quickly around, instinctively ducking to avoid the blade of another attacker, and leaned in and plunged her sword into his side.

Enjoying herself, Xena saw a man approaching her from each side. At the last moment, she dropped to her knees and grabbed their armor, pulling them together, their swords piercing each other. A slight noise reached her ears from behind, and she used one of the dead soldiers as a shield, hurling his body at her attacker. The surprised man tossed the corpse aside, realizing too late that he had let his guard down. Xena ran him through, then turned and waited for more comers.

She grinned. A nice little romp with Gabrielle yesterday and now this. Things were definitely looking up.

* * * * *

Gabrielle didn't have to worry about anyone hearing her. Talmadeus' men were the noisiest bunch she'd ever heard. She led Argo down a well-covered path parallel to the main road, cautiously tracking their progress, hoping to find some opportunity to do something. Finally, the men stopped and prepared to camp for the night.

She left Argo grazing and slowly made her way toward the campsite. As she approached, she noticed horses tied to a couple of trees between her and the camp. At last -- an opportunity. She retraced her steps and waited for dark.

In the silence of the night, she crept toward the trees where the horses were tied, her heart pounding. As Xena had predicted, Talmadeus had commandeered most of the town's horses when he left. Gabrielle knew them all, had fed them and stroked them while she was home, trying to improve her communion with large four-footed mammals.

The bard patted each of them gently, praying for them to keep quiet while she untied them. She led the blacksmith's horse toward the other path, pleased to see the others following, but noting to her dismay that it was apparently impossible for horses to do anything quietly.

The blacksmith had traveled on the hidden path many times to visit his brother. Gabrielle held her breath, exhaling gratefully as his horse began to head toward the village, the others tromping behind it.

She returned to find Argo waiting patiently where she had left her. "Good girl," she praised softly, leading the horse up an incline where she would have a good view of the camp. She would follow them to the rendezvous site, hoping there wouldn't be a rendezvous. She sat on the ground, and within minutes had dozed off.

It was still dark when the alarm was raised. "The horses!" Soldiers were scrambling, and Gabrielle instinctively climbed onto Argo. Her heart raced, then slowly she began to relax as she saw that they had not noticed the other path. The freed horses were several hours away by now.

"Check the hill!"

Uh oh. Two riders rapidly approached, and Gabrielle hesitated, unsure what to do. "Argo, you'd better be the fastest," she said, urging the horse into a gallop away from the camp.

"Up there!" The riders pursued her, now too far from camp to summon any others. Gabrielle clung to Argo as the horse galloped down the main road, putting some distance between them. They approached a crossroads, and she straightened and pulled up on the reins. Argo slowed and Gabrielle jumped off, sending the horse on ahead. Argo could outrun and outthink her pursuers, and would come back for her.

Gabrielle quickly retreated from the roadway into the brush and crouched against a tree. Her eyes narrowed, then widened in surprise as the riders slowed to a halt at the crossroads. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. They were supposed to follow Argo. She could see them talking, but couldn't hear what they were saying.

She backed up and stepped onto a fallen branch, which crackled under her weight. She froze, and one of the riders turned and looked straight at her. Gabrielle could see him, but her mind was clear enough to realize that he couldn't see her, thick foliage overhead screening out the moonlight.

She didn't move, but suddenly the branch couldn't take her weight anymore and she heard another crack. The rider turned again and launched his knife into the darkness.

"There's a good knife wasted."

"I'm telling you, I heard something."

"Yeah. Some squirrel probably dropped his nuts. Come on." They turned and rode back to the camp, wondering what Talmadeus would do to them when they returned without the intruder.

Gabrielle leaned against the tree, hand clenched tightly over her mouth, conscious of nothing but pain and the blood flowing from her side. Breathing with difficulty, she tried to focus. She needed to stop the bleeding.

She calmed herself, then reached down and pulled the knife out, nearly passing out from the pain. Fighting a wave of nausea, she reached behind her to unwrap her skirt, then rolled it up and pressed it against her side. She tied the skirt around her, keeping pressure on the wound.

She didn't think she could move. Wait for a while, she told herself, let them get farther away. Then she focused again. If she waited too long, she'd bleed to death. She breathed for a few seconds or a few minutes, she wasn't sure which, then put two fingers to her mouth, desperately hoping Argo was somewhere nearby. In a few moments, the horse walked up to her through the brush.

She tried to climb up but fell weakly to the ground, still holding the reins. "I can't do it," she sobbed. Argo snorted, then slowly lowered herself to the ground. Gabrielle laid her head on the horse's neck gratefully and climbed into the saddle.

* * * * *

The sun had come up over the horizon, but Gabrielle knew she couldn't ride any farther. She looked for a place to stop, but the decision was taken from her as she passed out and fell to the ground.

She couldn't tell how much time had passed when she awoke to Argo nuzzling her shoulder. Pressing her hand against the wound, Gabrielle felt blood seeping up through the cloth of her makeshift bandage. She looked up at Argo through her dizziness. "I can't . . . ." She looked around, shaking her head weakly, then waved Argo off. "Go." The horse stayed by her side. Gabrielle gathered her strength and swatted Argo with all the energy she had left. "Go get Xena. Go!"

* * * * *

Xena trotted up to the house, leaping down gracefully from her borrowed horse. She started to open the door, then thought better of it and knocked instead. Lila appeared in the doorway and stepped aside for Xena to come in. "Gabrielle's not back yet."

"That's probably all right. She may still be following them."

"So how'd it go?"

Xena suppressed a smile, finding it amusing to report to Gabrielle's little sister. "Fine." Lila looked at her, not certain what to say next. That was fine with Xena. Gabrielle would have known that she wasn't in a mood to talk. Not that it would've mattered to her, Xena thought, grinning.

* * * * *

The warrior sat on the steps outside the house, trying not to worry about her lover. She bolted to her feet at the sight of Argo galloping through the common, slowing as she drew up beside her mistress. Xena caught her reins, and froze. After a moment, she noticed Lila approaching and tried to turn the horse's body away from her view.

"What's the matter?" Lila saw the bloody handprint on Argo's flank and fell silent. She looked up to see Xena hurriedly climbing into the saddle.

"I'll be back."

Lila watched her ride away, thinking she would never forget the look on Xena's face.

* * * * *

Xena urged Argo on at top speed. After several miles, the palomino slowed, coming to a stop near a cluster of trees. Xena jumped down and scanned the area quickly, her heart stopping when she caught a flash of brown cloth a few yards away. She ran the few steps and bent over Gabrielle's still form, calling her name. Xena reached out, then pulled her hand away, covered with blood.

No . . .

Years of training carried her through the next few minutes. Xena dug into Argo's saddlebag and pulled out two rags. Untying the soaked cloth of Gabrielle's skirt, she pressed a fresh rag to the wound, then tied a second rag around it. Knife, her mind automatically registered.

She carried Gabrielle over to Argo and held her as they rode carefully back toward Potedaia, wincing at every jolt as if she herself were in pain. After an eternity, they passed through a clearing, then entered the town common. Oblivious to the stares of curious onlookers, Xena lifted the limp form off Argo and hurried up the steps, shouldering the door in and carrying Gabrielle to her bed.

Lila raced into the house and stopped at the entrance to the bedroom, horrified at the sight of Xena's bloody hands and the pallor of her sister's skin. "Gabrielle!"

"She's out." Xena tore a clean sheet into rags and brought a water pitcher over to the bed. "Do you have a sewing basket?"

Lila stood motionless. Xena turned to her and repeated gently but firmly, "A sewing basket."

A few minutes later, Lila handed her a small basket. "Thanks. Now make sure no one bothers us." Lila retreated, grateful for the assignment.

Xena removed the blood-soaked rag and brought a candle toward the wound, inspecting it in the light. She dipped a rag into the water and wiped Gabrielle's skin. The angle of entry wasn't good; stitching would be difficult. "Lila!"

The girl appeared, staring with trepidation at the bloody rags on the floor.

"Get a fire going."

Lila looked confused.

"A fire, Lila. Hurry."

Xena heard a sound in the doorway, and turned to see Gabrielle's mother standing there, looking at her daughter lying on the bed. The older woman's eyes held a question.

"She's lost a lot of blood," Xena said. "I'm going to try to stop the bleeding."

"How?"

Xena hesitated.

"I'm her mother."

"I don't think I can sew the wound. I'm going to seal it." Xena looked up at the woman who looked so much like her lover. She seemed to take the information fairly well. She's stronger than she looks.

Gabrielle stirred.

"Shhh," Xena whispered. "I'm here. You're going to be all right."

A weak hand raised a few inches off the bed.

"Stay still, Gabrielle. Don't move, OK?" Xena leaned down and pressed her cheek against the pale face, caressing her gently. Gabrielle calmed and lay back.

Xena spoke again, quietly. "I'll be right back, Gabrielle." She rose, touching her lover again to reassure her, then reached into the saddlebag lying nearby and pulled out a knife, dipping it in the water and cleaning the blade with a rag.

Lila walked in, her eyes drawn to the knife. "Fire's going," she said quietly. Xena walked out of the room, glancing back as Gabrielle's mother sat on the bed and murmured softly to her baby, who had lapsed into unconsciousness again.

The warrior returned a few minutes later. "Wait outside." When she saw that Lila had obeyed, she unwrapped a red hot blade and approached the bed. She glanced at Gabrielle's mother. "Are you sure you're up to this?"

"Are you?"

Xena looked at Gabrielle with determination. "I don't have any choice. But . . . ."

The other woman waited.

"I don't like to see Gabrielle hurt."

"I know."

Xena sat down on the bed, and Gabrielle stirred again. Xena whispered softly, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," and knocked her out with a blow to the side of her head. The warrior was proceeding on automatic now, her instincts taking over while her heart was breaking. "Hold her arms in case she comes around again," she ordered. "If she reacts it'll cause more bleeding."

She applied the hot blade to the wound, cauterizing it, nausea rising in her stomach. Mercifully, Gabrielle did not regain consciousness. When she was done, Xena wet a rag and tied it loosely around the wound, then sat on the bed and stared at nothing.

"Will she be all right?"

Xena felt drained. "She has to," she said without thinking. "I can't go on without her." Suddenly she realized what she had said, and straightened. "I don't know how much blood she lost," she said curtly. "It looked like she bandaged it soon after it happened, and that helped. She needs to rest."

"You should lie down for a while, too."

Xena nodded, exhaustion overwhelming her. She rose and took off her breastplate, then looked down at the sleeping figure on the bed.

"Go ahead. She would want you to."

Xena lay down next to Gabrielle, their bodies touching, careful not to put any weight on her. The older woman stood in the doorway and watched as Xena, her eyes closed, caressed Gabrielle's hair, tears trailing down her face.

* * * * *

"I won't have her in my house."

"She did save your daughter."

"She put her in danger in the first place. She puts us all in danger just by being here."

"It's true - that warlord would have let us be if it weren't for Xena."

"Well, he didn't actually do anything to us."

"No thanks to her."

The four men around the kitchen table looked up as the woman drew near and met her husband's eyes. "She is welcome in this house as long as I draw breath. I will have no more words against her." She turned and walked out of the room.

All four men stared after her. She, who never raised her voice to anyone, had just given them an unconditional order. They sat quietly, glancing nervously at each other, and drank their juice.

* * * * *

Gabrielle spooned soup out of a bowl. "This is really good."

Lila smiled proudly. "My eighteenth secret spice."

"I think you're getting the hang of it."

"Really?" Xena smiled as she heard Gabrielle's arch tone, diluted somewhat, coming from her younger sister.

Lila took Gabrielle's bowl and turned to Xena. "Would you like some more?"

"That'd be nice." Lila beamed again, pleased that the Warrior Princess liked her cooking, and left with the bowls.

"Come over here."

Xena rose and walked over to the bed.

"I'm sick of being in this bed," Gabrielle said. "I want to get up."

"You were up for a while yesterday."

"And what a thrilling five minutes it was."

"You're just being difficult, Gabrielle. You know it was longer than that."

"Yeah. And I didn't have any problems moving around, did I?"

Xena did not reply.

"So you admit I'm right."

"I didn't say anything."

"That's right," the bard said. "You never say anything when you agree with me. I'm going to get up."

"Wait." With a sigh, Xena wrapped one arm around Gabrielle and helped her out of bed. "You know, I like it better when you're unconscious."

"That's not what you said before."

They smiled at each other, moving apart when Lila came back with seconds for Xena. "Gabrielle, you're up!"

"Yeah. Xena insisted."

"Do you want to go outside?" Lila nodded toward the common. "Tyrus is playing tonight."

The three women listened, and could hear the chords clearly.

"That sounds good. Why don't you go on? I'll probably come out later."

Lila turned, smiling shyly at Xena as she left.

"Lila likes you."

"That's one."

"My mother likes you."

Xena did not reply, the memory of her display of weakness to Gabrielle's mother almost painful to her.

"I like you."

Xena smiled.

"I like you a lot," Gabrielle said. "In fact, as soon as I'm well again I'm going to show you just how much I like you."

"Mmmm." Xena eyed her. "I might have to look for a way to speed up the healing process. For educational purposes, of course."

"Of course." They grinned at each other. Music filtered into the room, and Xena looked down at her lover. "Would you like to dance?"

Gabrielle smiled, and Xena gathered her into her arms. She pressed against the swell of Xena's breasts and closed her eyes, luxuriating in the sensation of Xena's cheek against her hair as they held each other close, swaying slowly.

END

7/13/96


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