Keystones in a Tapestry

By

Ambyrhawke Shadowsinger


Copyright June 25, 1999 Ambyrhawke Shadowsinger

All Rights Reserved


Disclaimers: The characters in this story are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and anyone else I don't know about who have legal rights to Xena: Warrior Princess. Of course I wish I owned 'em...not only would I be quite rich, but I'd also get to meet ROC, LL and all the other actors! This story is not meant to infringe on the rights of the copyright holders. I'm not making a penny off of it; it's just an attempt to temporarily alleviate Xena Withdrawal Syndrome.

Everything and anyone you don't readily recognize from an episode, however, is mine.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Spoilers: This story deals with events in and following "Ides of March." As such, if you haven't seen the end of season four and don't want it ruined, consider this your warning. If you continue reading passed this sentence don't come crying to me.

Violence: Yes, there is violence. It's a bit unavoidable given the episode with which I'm dealing. However, it is not extensive or gory by any means.

Subtext: Ah yes, our favorite disclaimer. This story depicts a loving relationship between two women. In case you haven't noticed, Xena and Gabrielle have only said, "I love you" about a million times or so on the show. If the idea of two women loving each other offends you, is illegal in your state, or you are under 18, you have my heartfelt condolences. If you're looking for a steamy and explicit story, keep looking elsewhere; they're out there, but this isn't one of them.

Special thanks: To Chica, who spent a year asking, "When are you gonna stop reading those stories and write your own?" To Mrs. LaCroix...here's another knot in my counting rope. And especially to Meja, who kept asking every two pages, "What happens next?"

All feedback is welcome at Ambyrhawke@ambyrhawke.com


The fighting was getting harder now that the Roman soldiers realized an escape was in progress. They had become lax in their confidence that no ordinary man would actually approach a Roman prison of their own free will. However, the Warrior Princess was far from ordinary, and definitely not a man. Though they had been slow to react to the alarm, the barracks were suddenly boiling with soldiers like a disturbed ant's nest.

Xena and Amarice held off the guards as Eli and his followers made their way to the gate. Gabrielle flung an arm out towards the thickest part of the forest, "Head for the woods and don't stop. Eli, keep them together...and stay away from the roads."

"What about you?"

Gabrielle shook her head, "I won't leave without Xena. Now go!" A moment passed as blue eyes pled with green. But the plea was rejected with a determination that would not be swayed. With a small nod, Eli turned to follow the others towards the forest.

A quick glance around the courtyard showed Xena cutting down Romans as fast as they engaged her. The sand turned a darker red with each new kill. As the bard ran over to Amarice, the Amazon flipped a young soldier over and smashed the pommel of her sword between his shoulder blades.

Gabrielle pulled the redhead towards the gate, "Amarice, I want you to go with Eli and the others. You have to protect them."

"No!"

"Please Amarice. Xena and I will divert the soldiers away from you. We'll catch up with you in a few candlemarks. Go on!"

"I won't run away from a fight...."

Green eyes flashed hotly into Amarice, "Then as an Amazon Princess, I order you to see to the safety of Eli and his followers!"

The young woman's jaw fell open, then clamped shut on her initial mutinous response. She gave a stiff bow, "Yes, my Princess." Swallowing hard, she added, "Be careful." Then she was gone.

It was almost time for Gabrielle and Xena to lead the prison guards on a wild goose chase. There were only a few more men in the way of the gate. That's when Gabrielle heard Callisto. She looked up to see the madwoman throw Xena's chakram. She stood there watching it slam into Xena's spine with a sickening thud. It fell to the ground, broken in two, an omen of ill fortune.

Gabrielle saw the shocked expression in the blue eyes, and a chill ran through her body. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. This can't be happening. Xena's the one who catches arrows out of a sound sleep. But the warrior toppled face down before her.

The bard kept trying to make sense of what was going on when she saw the soldier running up to make the kill. She was torn between helping her friend and doing nothing when Amarice's words to Eli sounded in her mind, "If someone threatened your mother, would you fight to defend her?" The question which had seemed so amusing in theory now struck a lightening bolt of truth in her soul. She would do whatever had to be done to protect the woman with whom she had made a life over the past four years.

Picking up a spear, Gabrielle threw it with all her might. It imbedded itself squarely in the soldier's chest; stopping when the blade hit his spine. As time sped up again, Gabrielle took up Xena's sword. The world dropped away, leaving the blond reacting faster than thought; meeting each new threat to her friend in turn.

Thus she fought until she saw her hand holding a bloody knife. She stared at it blankly until her mind caught up with what had happened. Gabrielle had killed several men. Suddenly, she saw another knife in her hand...one covered with Meridian's blood. She dropped the knife in shock.

Soldiers surrounded them both, and Gabrielle heard Xena call her name and hiss in pain. The words spoken during the fight finally registered in her mind, "Xena, get up! I can't. It's my spine." Her spine.....? "Oh gods, no.......," Gabrielle spun around, moving towards Xena. The world went black as the pommel of a sword came down on the left side of her head. When Xena saw the bard go down, she surged up on her arms, pulling her body forward. Another soldier stepped up and knocked her out as well.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Half a candlemark later, Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. Gingerly she felt the knot on her head, her fingers coming away with some dried blood. She looked around for Xena, finding the warrior just shaking away the effects of the hits to her face. She was wrapped in a long piece of dirty linen soaked with her own blood in the back. They were still in the courtyard of the prison. Glancing around, Gabrielle spied Xena's leathers and armor displayed as trophies above the gate.

The captain spoke to his men, "They're both awake now. Take the little one."

Two soldiers grabbed Gabrielle's arms, dragging her to a set of pillars and tying her between them. She faced Xena, and saw the warrior struggle in vain to move. Rough hands grabbed the bard's top and ripped open the back. She could feel the cold air on her exposed skin.

"NOOOOOO!" Gabrielle heard Xena's tortured cry split the air at the same time that pain exploded on her back. Her face twisted into a grimace as she fought the urge to cry out. She wanted to badly, but seeing the look in the blue eyes staring up at her, she knew she couldn't do that to her friend. Watching her get whipped was tearing at Xena's heart, she knew; she wouldn't let her cries of pain rend the warrior's soul.

Gabrielle wrapped the bindings in her hands and held on as the lash bit into her flesh again. Xena's fist slammed into the sand, and she moaned out the bard's name. At the third hit, she saw Xena mouth the words, "I'm sorry." Tears were streaming from the blue eyes.

Gabrielle felt a cold anger well up in her gut for what they were doing to Xena through her own beating. She grabbed onto it, using the emotion as a source of strength. She held the warrior's tear-filled gaze unflinchingly as the whip kept falling.

After the eighth stroke, the captain stopped the beating, "That's enough. One lash for each man killed." He looked at the small woman in astonishment. Never had he seen anyone stand through eight lashes.....much less remain silent. "Cut her down."

When she was untied from the posts, Gabrielle swayed. Come on bard, don't you dare fall now. You're an Amazon Queen; now act like one! She straightened her shoulders.

The captain arched an eyebrow, "Strip her." Her clothes were quickly cut from her body. The captain ran his eyes over her form slowly. He felt a rush of blood to his loins as he imagined the look of fear on her face when he took her.

When he reached the green eyes, Gabrielle lifted her chin defiantly, casting him a withering look. It was that of an Amazon Queen looking at a mere man far below her station. He hadn't broken her spirit, and those chips of jade fire told him that nothing he could do would break her. Suddenly, he didn't feel up to trying. He turned away, "Cover her, and put them in the cell to await their crucifixion."

Gabrielle secured the two linens around her body and walked all the way to the cell on her own.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They had been traveling through the forest for nearly three candlemarks, and everyone was tiring. Amarice brought up the rear of the group. Turning, she looked for any sign of Xena and Gabrielle. It was taking too long for them to catch up, and Amarice wanted nothing more than to go back and find them. But she had been given an order to protect the peace lovers, so that had to be her first responsibility. Sometimes this responsibility thing is a real pain in the rear.

She went up to Eli, "Hey, we can slow it down now. I want to start looking for a place to hole up until Xena and Gabrielle catch up."

"But Gabrielle said to keep going."

"I know what she said...you keep reminding me," the woman hissed. "She also charged me with keeping everyone safe which we won't be unless we have someplace to shelter when those clouds open up." As emphasis, she jabbed a finger up towards the heavy grey clouds. "That's gonna be a bad snowstorm."

Looking up, Eli frowned, "You're right. Where should we look?"

"By the gods.....it's a miracle," came the dry retort. "You can admit that someone else is right. Let me guess, your Way isn't that great at finding shelter." Amarice scrambled up a nearby tree to scout the landscape.

Returning moments later, she started off, "There's an outcropping this way." Looking back, she shot the preacher a glance, "Why don't you start humming and think of a nothing in the rock big enough to hold all of us, hmmm?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle sat in the dusty cell holding her sleeping friend in her arms. She thought about the eight soldiers she killed. So much for high ideals of nonviolence. Her brow furrowed when images of using her powder case and ordering Amazons to battle flashed in her mind. Was I ever really nonviolent? Eli doesn't get involved in fights at all. What is the difference between using a staff or sword and ordering someone else to kill while I sit and do nothing? She sighed. Taking responsibility for my choices is the difference. I can't delude myself with a staff or sword. Seeing the faces of Meridian and the soldiers, a shiver ran through the bard's body. No, they made their own choices as well.

But if the Way of Love isn't mine, then what is? She saw scenes from the past...standing between Xena and the mob in Amphipolis, throwing herself over Terreis' body, hitting Xena with a pitchfork to protect innocent people, challenging Xena to let Meleager escape, tripping the man who would have killed Amarice. Protecting my friends...even from themselves. I guess I always knew my Way....I just got scared of killing after Meridian. I would have killed for Phlanagus if I hadn't been scared. Gabrielle looked down and caressed Xena's face, a weight finally off her shoulders. "No amount of fear could make me stand by and watch you be killed," she whispered softly.

Xena had been slipping in and out of consciousness over the past few candlemarks. Gabrielle could feel the blood still oozing out of the wound on the warrior's spine. The cuts on her back burned fiercely, yet she would not let go of her friend. Xena had asked her not to cry, but as she fell back into the darkness tears escaped the green eyes.

She knew the woman was dying in her arms. Stroking the dark hair gently, Gabrielle quietly begged her sleeping friend, "Please Xena, hang on for just a little while longer. I know it hurts, but I need you. You promised a long time ago that you wouldn't die on me again; now I'm holding you to your word. Please don't leave me to face this alone. We tried so hard to keep your vision from coming true, but now I need it to happen. Because I know we won't make it out of this one, and I'm scared. I'm scared of living through my last few candlemarks having lost you once more, my love. I can't do that."

A faint whisper reached Gabrielle's ears, "You won't have to, love." Lifting her head, the bard saw glazed ice blue eyes clearing by force of will alone. "I'll be with you until the end, Gabrielle."

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Breathing was pure agony. The only way to draw in a breath involved pulling the body up with the arms in order to decrease pressure on the lungs. The only things Xena had to pull against were the nails driven through her flesh. Had her legs been working, she could use them to help press her weight up. Of course, she would also be pressing against a third nail.....just like Gabrielle. She gauged how much strength she had left to lift her body and knew she was almost out of time.

The bard looked up when Xena called her. It hurt her to see the pain Gabrielle experienced. Added to that pain was the knowledge that there was nothing she could do, coupled with the realization that she might not be able to keep her promise for much longer.

"I don't.....know..........how much....longer.....I can stay with you," Xena gasped between breaths. "I......want you to.........do something for me."

Her companion forced herself up for another breath, "Anything."

"Turn away.........and go to.....sleep. Don't fight it."

The bard took a few breaths before nodding, "We'll be.....together soon."

"I love you, Gabrielle."

"And I you." Gabrielle took one more breath, spent one more moment memorizing the face of her warrior with its expression of promise. Then she turned away and, bending her head, she closed her eyes. She held that last image in her mind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A candlemark after Amarice found the outcropping, the refugees were huddled together in a small cave for warmth against the first flakes of snow. They had gathered wood in case the storm got strong enough to risk a fire. Amarice sat close to the entrance, searching the landscape for any sign of friend or foe. Where could they be?

Eli approached cautiously, "Amarice, you should come sit with us. Without a fire you'll get chilled sitting by yourself."

Still looking out into the forest, she made a decision, "It's been too long. I'm going to find them."

Kneeling beside the redhead, the dark man reminded her, "Gabrielle told you to stay with us. I can't let you go out...."

"Stop telling me what to do!" she hissed. Green eyes flashed with fire, "We'd all be dead right now if Xena hadn't come to free us. They're my friends. I don't know how you do it, but in my tribe, we never abandon a friend."

Eli winced at this, "Then you're not going alone."

A hand shot up as Amarice shook her head, "Oh no...I'm not bringing somebody along I'm gonna have to baby-sit."

"And if they are hurt, how are you going to get them both back here alone?"

The Amazon stared at him, searching desperately for a retort. Damn! Why did he have to ask me that? "This is just not my day!" she grumbled, getting up and shaking her head.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eli and Amarice made their way back to the prison in a two-candlemark run. Snow was lightly covering the ground, but it started coming down harder. Amarice scanned the edges of the forest, looking for the point where Xena and Gabrielle had entered. She whispered so that Eli could barely hear, "It's going to take a little while to...."

Her voice trailed away as she felt Eli's hand touch her shoulder. Looking over at him, she saw a tortured expression staring off into the clearing outside the prison walls. Following his line of sight, Amarice gasped as her heart and breathing stopped and time ceased to move.

Hanging on two crosses were Xena and Gabrielle; their heads slumped forward and to the right. Never more noble or tragic fruit did two trees bear than the Warrior Princess and Bard Queen, heavily thrusting towards the earth on dislocated arms. Only five nails and a bit of rope around the warrior's legs kept them from crashing down. Two soldiers with pilum spears stood behind the crosses with a few more off to the side. Another three stood before the cross of the warrior. They turned and strode back to the prison.

The Amazon's heart started beating again, and a soft strangled cry forced its way passed the lump in her throat as she surged from her spot in the snow. She stopped almost before she started when surprisingly strong arms wrapped around her slight frame. She struggled, landing a few kicks that were sure to bruise, demanding to be let go before a hand clamped over her mouth. Eli held her too tightly to be bitten. He whispered next to her ear, "Stop it! There's nothing you can do."

Amarice shook her head free, "Let me go, damn you!"

"It's too late." Eli looked up, watching the bodies for a long moment. He sighed, "They're gone." Amarice panted for a moment, then tried in vain to break free as Eli still held her. "What are you doing?" An elbow in the gut forced some air out of his lungs, but he didn't dare loosen his grip.

"Let me go!" the Amazon demanded 

"You'll get yourself killed."

"I...I have....to get them back. Greece.....t..they must have an Amazon funeral." It was so hard to think. Her body relaxed a bit in shock.

Eli moved enough to look deeply into wild green eyes, "What are you going to do . . . walk up there and ask for their bodies? You attacked them today." Softly he spoke, trying to calm and reason with the lost looking youth, "We'll wait for them to be taken down. We can get them after they are buried."

Absently Amarice nodded and sniffled. She looked up at the blond head and reality smashed into her gut with blinding force. Tears flowed from her open eyes as she stared into thin air. Images of a young woman on a cross mingled in her mind with those of curly blond locks framing a lifeless face. "Oh Goddess," she breathed, "not another queen." Eli held her gently as she cried bitter tears. His robes warmed her shoulders, but nothing could touch the icy grief of the passing of two great queens in a moon's time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The high, golden double doors to The Chamber exploded open. They gazed at the unique scene before Them. No one ever entered The Chamber with such...irreverence. Aside from the power contained within, its looks alone should have caused one to pause.

Twelve malachite columns stood creating a circle with a fifty pace diameter. Eight of the columns were paired off at the front, back and two sides of the room. The remaining four pillars were spaced singly halfway between one pair and another. Extending behind the back set of malachite columns to the double doors were two pair of azurite pillars. Smooth, unpolished onyx made up the floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling. The effect was such that the columns seemed to float in empty space.

Before the front set, They...just Were. It was impossible to tell if They stood, sat, or floated. Two beings of tall crystalline light are how They appeared. What They were, to most who entered The Chamber, was a mystery. They were simply "They."

Down the row of azurite columns, a woman stormed. She stood slightly above average height, with a medium sized, powerful frame. She was dressed head to toe in midnight blue deerskin that flowed like silk as she moved. Her leggings were tucked into calf high riding boots, while her tunic came down to her knees. Silver swirls accented her midnight bracers while a sash woven of the same metal belted her tunic at the waist. On her right arm, the woman wore a crescent shaped shield. Strapped to the warrior's back lay a quiver of arrows and a horse bow, and she bore a labrys in her left hand. All of these weapons were made of the brightest of silver. A thin metal band circled her head with an upturned crescent centered on her forehead. Upon her shoulder sat a hawk with feathers so white they seemed to glow.

At first glance, this warrior appeared old because she had long flowing tresses the color of moonlight. Upon closer inspection, she looked close to thirty. She had a fiercely beautiful face which now twisted into a mask of rage. Looking into her eyes was like gazing into the star strewn blackness of night with twin crescent moons for pupils.

Those eyes flashed in anger at Them. Stopping before the center of the circle, she launched her chakram voice around the room, "What is the meaning of this?" The hawk mantled and screamed out a battle cry at the same moment.

As the last echo faded away, They spoke softly with voices that could be either tenor or alto, "We could ask that of you. Why have you come to Us?"

"What do You intend to do about them?" She lifted the labrys, and a beam of moonlight shot to the pair of columns to the left. Between them appeared an image of Xena and Gabrielle hanging dead on the crosses.

"They are dead."

"Yes, I can see that," growled the moonlit woman, "and it's Your fault."

They laughed, "We did not...."

"Yes, You did!" interrupted the silver one. "You sent Callisto to Him when the hind's blood dagger should have brought oblivion."

"Oblivion would have been reward for that one. It was only just."

"So instead You sent Callisto to Hell where He used her to destroy My Chosen and her partner!" the warrior bellowed. Again the hawk screamed from the woman's shoulder.

They spoke warningly, "The Amazons are no longer yours, Artemis of Ephesos."

The silver goddess stood up taller, "That is where You are wrong. The Amazons were mine long before Leto gave birth to Zeus' daughter, and I will never abandon them. She is but a child; she craves the glory and forgets the responsibility. Though I choose to let my Amazons stand on their own strength when I could easily treat them like children and coddle them back to greatness, I will not let them suffer through broken rules."

The two points of light moved closer a pace, "He has been given leave to destroy."

"Yes, but only on the spiritual level." The silver labrys leveled towards Them, "The one You gave Him harmed the warrior physically." Artemis saw the lights flicker in surprise and gave Them a wolfish grin, "What has passed cannot be undone, I know...besides, My Chosen has finally found her true path. However, I demand that reparation be made! After all," the Silver One's voice became cold moonlight on snow, "it is only just. So.....what are You going to do?" came a mockingly singsong voice.

"You forget yourself, Artemis of the Silver Moon," They growled.

"No.....I simply do not fear You as do the others. You forget.....I helped create You."

The two crystalline beings looked to one another for a long moment. Finally They spoke, "You make a good argument. The transgression was not Ours, but His minion's. And of course, He cannot be trusted to make amends. However, the sacrifices of the warrior and bard saved the Avatar. Rest assured, Artemis of Ephesos, We shall see to a reparation of which, even you will approve."

The Silver One hooked her labrys to her sash. Then she touched her fist to her chest twice and extended it out to Them in the Amazon salute before leaving. A cry of victory pealed from the hawk as her mistress strode away.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A point of light floated down from the sky, touching the top of the dark head. The light awoke the spirit within, gently revealing that the time for letting go had come.

Xena raised her head, realizing the unbearable pain had finally gone. It felt amazing to have warmth flooding in to replace agony. She looked around, searching, "Gabrielle?" She had thought the awakening touch to be that of the bard. Looking at the cross to her right, she knew Gabrielle's spirit was still dormant.

Xena floated before the still form. Reaching out, she touched a cold cheek, then searched more deeply until she found Gabrielle's essence. Concentrating on sending a warm call through the caress, she coaxed the bard's spirit awake.

Gabrielle raised her head to the sight of Xena's soft smile. The pain and cold receded under the power of that look. Gazing into each other's eyes, they held hands for a long moment.

They glanced up when a bright light began to shine in the sky. It grew until it was stronger than the sun. Suddenly, the light flashed and the warrior and bard were gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Brutus raced his horse up the road to the prison. The time immediately following Caesar's assassination would be tumultuous with the Senate needing to find a new triumvirate to provide leadership. Brutus should be there lending them his voice and the strength of his Centurions, he knew. But there was something else that he had to do first, and he dare not trust the mission with anyone else. He just prayed that he make it in time...and that the Senators keep Caesar's death a secret long enough for him to return before a coup d'etat.

The prison came into view, and soldiers called down to open the gates. As Brutus galloped up, a flash of gold caught the corner of his eye. He glanced up and sawed back on his steed's reins. The stallion thundered to a halt, dancing in a circle as Brutus strove to stop the beast. He kept his wide eyes fixed on the sight while absently settling the horse with skill. Both were panting from the ride. Only the sound of the armored man's breathing broke the silence for a long moment. "Oh gods," he barely whispered and swallowed hard.

Xena. She had been a remarkable warrior. He shook his head slightly. I'm sorry. I should have believed you. A cross didn't seem to him a fitting death for such a fighter. Succumbing to wounds after defeating a legion of Centurions...maybe. Taking a killing blow meant for Gabrielle...yes; this he could see. That thought moved his eyes to the gold he had originally spotted.

Gabrielle. Pained brown eyes slid shut. The young woman had intrigued him. When he first met her, he never imagined she had the strength needed to lead anyone. His time with the Amazons changed all of that. She had more than ample strength, yet only used it as a last resort. She led by her charisma, not the strength of a weapon. He also suspected she would rather not lead at all given the choice. That lack of avarice was so foreign to him. I wish I could have seen how the Amazons would have fared with you as Queen, he silently mused.

Brutus took a deep breath and bellowed for the captain. As the captain approached, he noticed who the rider was and suddenly felt very nervous, "Sir?"

"How long have those two been up there?"

"Since midday, sir. They died just before you arrived."

The rider sighed, "Take them down."

"Yes, Brutus." The captain motioned, and the soldiers moved to comply.

Brutus dismounted and handed the reins to a young soldier who stepped up, "Take care of this mount and saddle a fresh one." The youth saluted and took the tired horse away. Suddenly remembering something, Brutus spun around, scanning the other crosses. "Where are the other prisoners I brought here?"

It was just this question the captain had been dreading. "Well, sir...." Brutus turned and gave the man a hard look. The captain swallowed, silently saying good-bye to his family, "They're gone."

"What?"

"They um...Xena led an escape. B....But, sir, I have men looking for them......I assure you, they shall be apprehended," explained the nervous man.

"Call off the search parties," came the casual command.

"Sir?"

Brutus didn't have time for this. "Do you not understand Latin? I said let them go," he spoke crisply through the driving snow.

The captain swallowed hard, "I'm sorry, sir, but Caesar's orders were quite clear . . . ."

Brutus held up a hand. He was cold and pressed for time, "Caesar's dead." At the shocked expression on the captain's face, he produced the Imperial ring he had taken from the dead man's body. "He died before the Senate today. As his second in command, you will follow my orders now."

"Yes, sir!"

Brutus stepped up to the other man until their noses almost touched, and spoke with menace, "And if you speak of what I've said before official word from Rome, your head will be replacing Xena's armor at the gate. Have I made myself clear?"

"P.....Perfectly, sir," stammered the nervous man.

"Good." Brutus glanced at the bodies which were now on the ground, "Bring a horse with a litter and Xena's things. Now!" Soldiers scurried to carry out the order. "Gabrielle's things?"

"Destroyed, sir."

The Roman general looked closer at the bodies, noticing the whip marks on Gabrielle. "Captain, why was this woman beaten?" he demanded angrily.

The captain was really beginning to hate his job. "She killed eight of my men." Brutus stared at him incredulously. "It's true!" he hastily confirmed. "After the warrior went down, that one took up her sword and cut down everyone who threatened Xena."

Brutus contemplated this for a moment, but the arrival of the litter ended his musings. "Put Xena on the litter." After the soldiers deposited her above the armor, he walked over. He moved her right arm out a bit, "Put Gabrielle next to her." It seemed fitting that they lay like that.

Scanning the tree line through the falling snow, the general instructed the captain while handing the man his sword, "Have the new mount ready for me when I return. I don't have time to waste." Confused, the captain nodded while Brutus led the horse and its cargo to the trees. I hope I don't regret this, Brutus thought grimly.

Amarice saw where the Roman was headed and angled off to intercept him. When the trees and snow hid them from the soldiers in the prison, she tackled Brutus, coming up with a sword pressed against his throat. He resisted the impulse to fight back.

Eli ran up in front of Amarice asking her to lower the sword. "Shut up, Eli. He's the reason Xena and Gabrielle are...." She shook her head, pressing the weapon into his neck a bit harder. "Are you ready to die, Roman?"

"I'm worth more to you alive."

"I'd rather see you dead than get a reward. Two Amazon queens have died because of you."

"I never wanted to see Gabrielle hurt.......and I didn't mean a reward."

Amarice pursed her lips. She saw Eli get ready to say something, so she spoke first, "All right, I'll hear what you have to say, but it better be quick and good." She pulled the sword back far enough to let him speak without fear of skewering himself.

Brutus chose his words carefully, "Caesar is dead, so those soldiers follow my commands now. I called off the search party, and I can give you safe passage on any ship for you and your friends." Amarice made a face at the word "friends." "But if I don't return, those soldiers will come after you again...and this time they won't stop." He wanted to say more, but the Amazon was testy as it was.

For her part, Amarice really wanted nothing more than to send this Roman to Tartarus and have her ideas of Amazon justice fulfilled. There was just this little annoying problem of Gabrielle's voice constantly sounding in her head, giving her that last order. She flicked at some snow on her arm in frustration, for she hated that this little Roman was again weaseling his way out of immediate death.

She leaned closer to him and growled, "You had better thank Gabrielle for charging me with the safety of her little friends otherwise I'd end your miserable life right now." When she stepped back a pace, Brutus carefully got up. He pulled a token out of his pouch and handed it to Amarice, "Give that to the captain of whatever ship you want passage from. He'll be able to turn it in for payment. It identifies me as the one who gave it to you....you'll have no problem getting wherever you wish to go. The closest seaport to here is east over the pass. Head south and you'll run into the road that will take you there." He took one last look at the bodies; features somewhat obscured with snow, then began making his way back to the prison.

Amarice took the reins of the horse and headed toward the cave while tucking the token into a small pocket in her boot. She didn't look at the bodies. The howling storm was enough to face without being reminded that her friends were dead. That could wait until she got out of the snow.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When the light faded, Xena and Gabrielle gasped, looking around. They were in a vast expanse of rolling hills. Wherever they turned was a sea of grass the shade of green only found in the early spring mornings when the sun touches brand new growth. A light breeze caressed the hills, moving the blades in waves. Above, white clouds floated lazily in a bright blue sky.

"Xena, where are we?" Gabrielle breathed. "It's not the Elysian Fields."

"No, it's not," agreed Xena. "It's not the Amazon Land of the Dead, most likely not Eternity beyond either. It's too empty for that."

"Well, I don't care as long as you..." Gabrielle trailed off. "Oh Xena!"

The warrior met the bard's eyes quickly, only to find them staring up and down her form. Wrinkling her brow, Xena glanced down at herself and held out her arms. She was wearing a tunic of flowing silk the shade of her eyes. It fell down as far as her leather battle skirt had and was belted with a sash as green as Gabrielle's eyes. The bard fingered the soft, cool material, murmuring, "It's beautiful...."

"So is yours," purred the tall woman with a smile, feeling Gabrielle's clothing. Looking down, the bard saw that she wore a top and skirt cut like those worn before the trip to India. However these were made of the same green silk as Xena's sash. A doeskin belt the shade of the warrior's tunic held the skirt in place. Both women were barefoot.

Xena was about to say something when a doe and her fawn bounded passed them. The fawn turned to bounce in a circle around the two women. Gabrielle giggled, kneeling down with an extended hand. The fawn boldly walked up, nuzzling the offering. Then she softly butted her head against the bare belly as the blond scratched the little neck. Smiling, Xena knelt to join the scratching session.

After long minutes of eye-rolling bliss, the fawn hopped off, turned and shook her head at them before hopping another step. At a second and third shake of the little head, Gabrielle turned towards Xena. With a quizzical half smile, she mused, "Huh.....I think she wants us to follow her."

"I think you're right." They both stood and as soon as they took one step forward, the little fawn bounded away. The two women exchanged amused glances and took off after the young deer.

They ran up the hill; grass licking at their calves. Xena laughed as Gabrielle almost fell when, trying to grab the fawn, she caught an armful of air. The dark woman sped up to nab the baby when, suddenly, it switched direction in mid-leap, cutting directly in front of the warrior's feet.

Without thought, Xena dove to the right so as not to hurt the deer. She hit the ground rolling.....right into the bard's path. With a surprised squawk, Gabrielle hurdled the body and came to an awed stop. "Xena, look down there," she pointed down the hill. At the bottom was a level field full of flowers. Every color imaginable was present, making a patchwork quilt of blossoms.

Xena was still lying in the grass from her dive when Gabrielle got a wicked gleam in her green eyes. "Can't catch me!" she shot over her shoulder, and she was off down the hill in a headlong flight.

Hauling herself to her feet, the tall warrior started after. "That's what you think!" she playfully growled. Loosening her knees, Xena bent low into each step, absorbing the shock of impact and propelling herself forward faster with every rolling bound. She was gaining fast.

At the bottom of the hill, Xena took one last powerful stride, launching herself at the blond. Catching her quarry around the waist, Xena twisted so that she hit the ground first. They rolled a short way; coming to a stop in the flowers. Hearing a thousand noises at once, the two looked up to see a myriad of butterflies taking wing at being disturbed.

Xena glanced back down at the bard, azure eyes gleaming and a wide smile on her lips. Jade eyes sparkled and Gabrielle's nose crinkled up in a grin while watching the cloud of butterflies. Glancing at the woman above her, their eyes locked. For a long time their breaths mingled as the two tried to recover from the run.

Slowly, Xena lowered her face to Gabrielle's. Lips brushed against each other softly, then with more pressure. After a few moments, the bard hesitantly tasted the lips above her. Xena's breath caught before returning the tender caress.

Parting, blue eyes smiled into green, each holding the faintest hint of tears. Xena traced the bard's cheek before rolling onto her back. The blond scrambled half on top of the older woman, nuzzling into the shoulder to find her old spot. Arms wrapped around each other and legs tangled together.

It had been their first kiss in close to a year. So many things had kept pulling them apart. Neither one had ever stopped loving the other; though there were times when each wondered if the other felt the same way. There were many times when both were afraid love wouldn't be enough to make the relationship survive. It was in those times that they stayed together because the thought of leaving hurt even more than remaining.

Eventually though, Xena and Gabrielle realized they were just going through an emotional winter.....a time for love to rest while each focused on individual growth. Accepting that, their friendship was able to save them. The last couple of months had showed the approach of a new spring. They began to joke and play together again. Each day brought them closer.

Now in a field of new growth, in a land of the dead, Xena and Gabrielle basked in the warmth of renewed love. Fingers found patches of skin not covered by silk on which to trace idle patterns. Slowly, they fell asleep snuggled together; a smile faintly touching each mouth.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Amarice led the horse into the cave stiffly. She was freezing, her hair was soaked with snow, and a stone of grief sat in her gut. The others rushed to Eli, who was following, each with words of relief on their lips. Words which disappeared as they saw the cargo the horse bore.

Two of the men turned to help Amarice unhitch the horse from its litter. Eli softly instructed another to prepare a fire. Some of the women murmured condolences to the Amazon, but she seemed to only half hear. She was straightening the pile of Xena's armor and weapons when the fire pushed the shadows back from the bodies.

Green eyes widened, then narrowed with fury at the sight of the bard's back covered with whip marks. A fist slammed onto her thigh. "Wasn't crucifixion enough without whipping her, too?" Amarice raged. Eli placed a hand on her arm which she shook off, "Get away from me!" He motioned the others to stay back as he moved across the bodies from Amarice. He would wait and watch until the young Amazon was ready to hear reason.

The redhead stared at the whip marks for a long time. She was breathing hard, trying to accept the deaths of these friends. But why? "No," Eli heard the whispered word and glanced up. "Do something . . . ."

"What...?" he furrowed his brow in confusion.

"You heard me," fiery green eyes met his, "Do something."

"There's nothing....."

"Yes, there is!" Amarice shouted. She jabbed a finger towards Mazu, "I saw you heal him, so heal them!" It sounded crazy, she knew, but something was not going to let her back down.

Eli calmly explained, "It doesn't work that way. They're dead.....I can't heal them."

"Then bring them back," Amarice insisted.

"They're gone. It's time to let go."

"No!" the Amazon leaned far over the bodies, challenging the holy man. "You call yourself their friend, yet you won't even try to save them." She searched the blue eyes for a tense moment. Her face took on a look of disgust as she spoke calmly and quietly, pronouncing judgment, "Gabrielle said you were something special....but you're not. You're just a fake with a few magic tricks up your sleeve." She glanced down at the body of the bard, "She was wrong to believe in you." Her eyes caught Eli's again, "They both were."

The holy man looked at the Amazon in disbelief. Then he turned his face downward. Staring into space, he remembered a time in India when a warrior told a scared street magician that he had the power to save her friend. Eli nodded quietly, "I will try, but I can't promise anything."

Amarice shifted back slowly, sitting silently on her heels. Eli moved to sit cross-legged on the cave floor. Lifting his palms upward to shoulder level, he looked up, "Abba, help me." The azure eyes closed as he began humming in meditation while the rest of the cave fell deathly silent.....watching.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eli had been meditating for a long time with no result. He had no idea if it were even possible to bring someone back from the dead. Feeling his spirit rise out of his body, blue eyes opened to find himself standing in a darkness deeper than he had ever known. A glow appeared behind him and grew stronger. Turning around carefully, Eli saw innumerable points of light of all colors dancing around in the air.

As he watched, some of the points moved down, beginning to weave around one another. Where they moved, solid threads of light of the same color marked their trails. At different times, some lights winked out of the light cloud above to appear within the growing tapestry. Sometimes, the lights disappeared from the weaving, leaving only the light threads. These reappeared in the mass above, and, given time, they returned to the tapestry in another area. Eli could see a cycle of entering, leaving and entering again.

The more his awe calmed down, the more Eli could understand about the tapestry of lights. He began noticing the patterns within the weaving. There were some threads which supported the patterns; holding them together like keystones in arches.

Many of the points flashed brightly; after which time the threads sparkled iridescently. Eli felt drawn to one thread in particular. Upon touching it, he saw events in his life. When he touched the spot where the light had flashed, he relived the moment when he found his Way. Looking closer, the holy man found that the lines which shimmered when they left the weaving returned a bit brighter than before. He knew that these were the people who had died following their Way.

Tilting his head to the side, Eli saw two lines closely intertwined; one silver marbled with blue and the other green. His thoughts were interrupted by a black point and line rising into the tapestry from below. It was the only black line among all the colors. Eli watched as it moved to a gold light and snuffed it out. This was one of the support lines. The other lines continued weaving, but the pattern began to unravel. The black thread disappeared soon after, not to return.

A smaller blue keystone light disappeared, and more of the pattern unraveled. Eli looked on as the silver and green lights flashed and then winked out, further weakening the design. Rather than showing up in the light cloud above, they hovered to the side of the weaving. Touching them both, Eli smiled. The silver light was Xena and the green, Gabrielle. Their threads shimmered at the ends, and he smiled. He was happy that they both were following their Way when they had died. As he reached to touch the ends of the threads, he heard a doubled voice, "No one may know the Way of another unless told by them."

Eli spun around to face Them, and his jaw dropped. After a moment, he found his voice, "Abba?"

"Your Abba is not here, but what you seek is."

"Who are You?"

"That is unimportant."

Eli sensed he wouldn't learn anything more about these beings. He could feel that They didn't mean any harm though, so he indicated the tapestry, "Xena and Gabrielle....why did their lights go to the side rather than with the rest?"

They moved closer, towering well above Eli by three feet. When he looked at Their radiance, he could see it was made up of many points of light, like the cloud. However, Their light felt different...more powerful. They pointed to the threads which were Xena and Gabrielle's, "Because they are to come back to their current lives."

Eli's heart pounded in joy and confusion, "But they died."

"That has not stopped them in the past. However, that is not all. You noticed the gold and blue lines, We trust?"

The man nodded, "The pattern fell apart when they left."

"Yes. It can be saved with their return, but there is no time. Gold must go now, and blue will follow." The gold light touched Eli's hand, revealing it's identity before returning to the cloud of lights. "Tell the warrior and bard this..." They said. As Eli faded away, he heard Their message.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Xena felt someone watching her. Opening her eyes, she glanced around and saw Eli sitting quietly nearby. Gently, she shook the bard who was still curled up against her in slumber.

Gabrielle snuggled closer to the big warm pillow when she heard her name being called. The calling didn't stop, so sleepy jade eyes opened and turned upwards. With a smile and flick of her baby blues, the warrior indicated their guest.

The smaller woman looked, then sat up. "Eli?" she whispered. Her face lost its color as she realized why the man must be here, "No...."

Eli quickly raised a hand, "It's okay, I'm not dead." Gabrielle visibly relaxed. "I'm here to bring a message."

"What message?" asked the warrior, wrapping an arm around a knee.

"Before I came here, I was told that you both get to come back. And for your sacrifice, Xena, you have earned a reward."

"Go back.....but why?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.

Xena turned to her, drawling, "My guess is because Callisto was supposed to tempt me from the warrior path, but instead, she struck a physical blow." Eli nodded. "But why go back? We've already been judged....why take the risk of losing this?"

"True, you both will be judged again. However, you've both found your Ways. You need only stay on those paths," the man explained. "The reason to go back is your reward."

"Which is?" Xena arched a brow.

Eli took a deep breath, choosing his words, "Your son wasn't supposed to die." Xena felt Gabrielle flinch, and wrapped her arms around the bard's waist. "Solon had an important task which he never got to complete - one that can't wait much longer to be done. He has to go back now." He met Xena's eyes with a soft smile, "Because you saved me, Xena, you are to be rewarded with a second chance to be his mother."

Gabrielle turned to see Xena's face beaming with joy. She started smiling, too, because she could feel how happy her love was, "Xena this is wonderful!" Happy blue eyes turned to the blond. "The chance to watch Solon grow up.....of course you're going back."

The smile faded in apprehension, "And you, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle snorted, "What...you think I'd miss the chance to see you out to there?" She held a hand in front of her stomach. "Oh no, Warrior Princess; you're stuck with me." Xena smiled again. "Besides, who else are you going to get to lace your boots when you can't see your feet?" the bard asked innocently. She got a scowl for that.

Not commenting, Xena turned to Eli, "When do we go?"

"Solon will be here in a moment. After you go back, he won't remember his last life." The two women nodded. "I'll go now."

"Wait!" Gabrielle held out a hand, "Who's the father?"

Eli smiled, "There is none.....it's a gift," with that he faded. The two women looked at each other quizzically.

Hearing a call, they turned to see Solon and Ephiny walking through the flowers, waving at them. Solon trotted up, giving Gabrielle a big hug and smile. "Hey, I've got a lot more hair than you!" he said, ruffling the short blond tresses.

"Yeah, well not for long," the bard laughed back, tugging a long lock.

Solon grinned into the green eyes, "When I get older, you'll tell me stories about myself, right?"

"I sure will."

He turned serious, "Please let go of the rest your guilt. I never blamed you."

A tear escaped Gabrielle's eye, and she hugged him tightly, "Thank you. I will."

Ephiny clasped arms with Xena, who surprised her by pulling the Amazon in for a hug, "Xena, I wanted to thank you." The dark head cocked in question. "For taking care of the Amazons."

"I won't let them die, my friend," Xena promised solemnly.

Ephiny nodded, and turned to Gabrielle. They hugged hard, tears springing to the bard's eyes. Ephiny pulled back with a shaky smile, "Hey now . . . you know I hate seeing you cry."

Gabrielle nodded, sniffling, "I miss you."

"And I you. But we'll see each other again.....when the time is right." She looked into the green eyes, visibly holding herself together, "Tell Xenon that I love him."

Gabrielle's breath caught, and she fought down the sudden lump in her throat. "I will. I'll make sure he knows what a wonderful person his mom was." They embraced again.

When a humming was heard, Ephiny turned to where Xena and Solon were hugging each other. She rested a gauntleted hand on Solon's shoulder, "It's time to go."

Solon gave his mother one last hug. He began to fade in her arms, and as he did, Xena's belly grew. Gabrielle moved next to her, clasping the warrior's hand.

Ephiny gave them the Amazon salute as they faded away, "Take care until next we meet."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They were floating near the ceiling of the cave. The fire burned low, for no one had tended it while Eli meditated. Everybody kept shifting their attention between the humming man and the cold bodies.

Gabrielle dove down to hover over her corpse for a moment before entering. Everything was still...then ribs expanded as a breath was drawn in and held. She heard muffled gasps around her.

Opening her eyes, the bard focused on what it felt like to be alive again. It felt a bit heavier than what she had gotten used to in the field. A lot colder as well. She glanced up. "Xena?" she whispered. The warrior's body was still lifeless. Turning her head, Gabrielle could feel Xena's spirit beside her, hesitating. "It's okay...come back to me," she assured the woman.

The very pregnant spirit turned over and sank into her body. Taking a breath, she opened her eyes. Eli relaxed his arms as awed murmurs arose throughout the cave. Slowly Xena turned her head to gaze into the smiling face of her bard. "Hey you," she whispered.

"Hey yourself," came the delighted answer.

"Gabrielle?" a cautious voice sounded behind the blond. Glancing around, she saw Amarice staring, afraid to believe her eyes. The bard smiled while sitting up.

Xena could see that the lash marks were gone from the small back, as were the holes in her own hands. She sat up as well, happy that she could move her legs. But oh, was her body sore.....probably Gabrielle's, too.

The blond took one of Amarice's shaking hands, "It's true.....we're really here." The young Amazon bent her head, silently thanking Artemis. Finally, the knot in her gut was relaxing.

A tear of relief leaked out of Amarice's eye before Xena's voice broke her reverie, "Where are we?" Eli moved around next to the youth while she filled Xena and Gabrielle in on everything that had happened. The others built up the fire and tried to get some sleep. There would be a long snowy trek starting in the morning.

Amarice turned to Gabrielle. She had to know, "Why did they whip you?"

Scratching her chin, Gabrielle glanced at Eli before answering, "Because when Xena went down, I defended her.....and killed eight soldiers."

The young warrior's green eyes went wide. She glanced at Xena who only nodded. Eli's jaw moved without making a sound. He looked like a fish. Finally, he found his voice, "It's common to falter on your path...but you found it again, and that's what is important."

Gabrielle met the blue eyes gently, "No, Eli, I didn't falter. I had a choice, and I chose to defend Xena. I've been searching for my Way; I didn't realize I was always on it. Friendship. To protect those I love," she met Xena's gaze. "Those I call friend," she looked at both Eli and Amarice. "And those who can't protect themselves."

Amarice was beginning to look smug, but Xena caught her attention and gave her a stern glare. She jerked her head and excused herself. Amarice followed, but didn't look too happy about it.

Gabrielle moved over and took Eli's hands. When he glanced up, they searched each other's face in silence. Finally, the bard spoke softly, "Eli, the world needs people like you, and I appreciate the things you taught me while I followed your Way. I just realized that I can't stand by and do nothing when my friends are in danger. A part of me would die if I did." She took a deep breath, "It was the Way of Friendship that I was on when I went to the light."

Eli breathed slowly as the words sank in. He remembered the shimmering green thread of light, and nodded slightly, "Then that is the right path for you. You were the first to follow me," his face softened. "And for that, I will always be grateful."

They smiled and hugged. Eli glanced in Xena's direction before turning to Gabrielle once more, "Xena isn't the only one to be rewarded for her sacrifice." The bard shot her head up in confusion. Thinking of the blue light, he said, "It's not time for your daughter to come back. Not Hope," he hastened to add, seeing the black thread in his mind. "She only existed because of Dahok's machinations, and her spirit doesn't follow the Karmic Cycle like the rest of us." His grin returned brighter than before, "You will have a true daughter when the time is right."

Gabrielle broke into a smile which made the sea green eyes sparkle. Eli bid her good night as she thought about having a daughter one day in the future.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle finally persuaded Amarice to get some sleep. The girl had finished a very emotionally trying day, and was so over tired that her body refused to relax. However, four years of practice in soothing a stubborn warrior princess to sleep made the Amazon youth seem relatively simple. Soon, the low persistent voice gentled her enough to lie down and close her eyes.

The bard glanced around the cave, taking in the slumbering forms. Looking to the cave mouth, she saw the dark silhouette of the warrior. Picking her way carefully, she moved up next to Xena who was gazing out at the landscape. The storm had finally stopped, and now the full moon was bathing the two women in silver light. The tall woman had changed back into her leathers, giving her length of cloth to Gabrielle to use. It was dirty, but the extra warmth was all the bard cared about. She broke the silence softly, "Hey...."

Xena looked down at her companion, "Hi. Can't sleep?"

"I was looking for my pillow."

One dark eyebrow arched up wryly. She looked at the rags that Gabrielle was wrapped in, "Sorry about your outfit. Ride with me to keep your feet out of the snow. At the first town, we'll sell the horse. Then we can get some food for everyone, and boots and clothes for you."

The blond nodded, "Sounds good. That sari wasn't exactly made for fighting in anyway. And well, I was getting sick of having rocks in my sandals."

The corner of Xena's mouth quirked up, then she let out a soft sigh as she looked out into the night once again. Uh oh.... Gabrielle turned toward Xena, throwing her face half in shadows. She laid a hand on a tanned arm, "You wanna talk about it?"

Silence stretched between them, as Xena searched for the right words. She faced the bard, speaking lowly, "I wanted to thank you..." Her eyes met those before her, "for what you did in the prison. I've never had anyone protect me like that."

"How does that feel...now that everything is over?"

Xena's brow furrowed, "It feels....good. I've never allowed myself to be that vulnerable before. What about you?"

"I think I understand how you always make the impossible happen when I'm in trouble. I'd never used a sword before, but there was no one else, and I just did whatever had to be done to keep you safe."

"And now?" came the hesitant question.

Gabrielle looked openly into Xena's eyes, "It's comforting - knowing beyond a doubt that I can and will protect you if I ever need to." She placed a knowing hand low on the leather-clad stomach. "I will be there to look out for you in the coming months."

Xena nodded, looking at the ground, "Gabrielle......a baby can be raised just fine with one parent...."

"Of course it can."

"But two parents would be better, right?"

Gabrielle shivered nervously, "Probably."

She found herself falling into the crystal clear depths of Xena's eyes as the latter raised her gaze, "Gabrielle.....will you be a parent to this child?"

Tears sprang from her eyes, and Gabrielle tried to make her throat form words. She knew the time when Xena blamed her for Solon's death was long past. But it still made the bard flinch to think of it. "Are you sure?" she tearfully asked.

Xena reached up and tenderly wiped away her love's tears. She smiled as her own eyes moistened, "I can't think of a better mother than the woman I'm in love with. And I do love you Gabrielle...very much." She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman as Gabrielle stepped into them.

Solon's right...it's time to let go of the guilt. Gabrielle reached her hand around Xena's neck, drawing her lips down into a deep kiss. Only when they were both breathing hard did she pull back. Smiling up into the face so close to her own, Gabrielle breathed, "Yes!" She was rewarded with a grin that lit up the night and another burning kiss.

They finally went to the fire to find a place to sleep. Gabrielle laid her ear to her warrior's stomach for a moment. Then smiling, she snuggled up into Xena's shoulder and whispered, "Our baby....."

"Yes....ours. I love you, Gabrielle." Xena pulled her closer.

"And I love you, Xena," Gabrielle sighed, burrowing in further.

Outside, a hawk's cry pealed through the night and the full moon shone even brighter than before.

THE END

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