Early in the fourth season, Gabrielle and Xena encounter a market that leads each to wonder if the other has taken browsing a little too far. In honor of a real-life self-shopping devotee, who committed to unwrapping another of her many gifts during the January 2007 XWP Convention.
"Do something scary. The payoff is awesome." – Lucy Lawless
"Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s shop."
"What do we need?"
"No, not that kind of shop. Shop shop. You know – browsing, haggling, getting a deal."
"A deal on what?"
"Who knows? That’s the fun part. Something completely frivolous. Xena, come on. Let’s squander a couple dinars …. Okay, I can see it’s not your thing."
"If you wanna browse, haggle and squander, go ahead. I’ll meet you in the tavern."
Gabrielle wandered among the stalls enjoying she could do so without interruption or growls at her back, undaunted by flashbacks to conversation from of a past adventure when browsing had become the unexpected prelude to "fun" of a more serious sort – her getting kidnapped to serve as a sacrificial queen and Xena temporarily blinded. That escapade had certainly reinforced the warrior’s inclusion of shopping on her list of dangerous pursuits. The woman had no appreciation whatsoever for the finer points, tending to approach it like a battle – get in, get what you wanted, get out – ideally as fast as possible with minimal human contact.
In the beginning, Gabrielle had presumed Xena should be the one to deal with merchants. She’d wait for the warrior’s imposing aura to frighten someone into a better bargain. Instead, salespeople quickly sensed she was more interested in retreat than winning a deal. They’d hike the price over what Gabrielle had heard them charge another customer. Xena would nod and pay it. Only later did Gabrielle realize the ex-warlord had probably become accustomed to getting things free or having someone else make purchases.
"Can I interest you in something?"
"Mmm, just browsing, thank you," Gabrielle responded to a vendor displaying fabric. She trailed her hand along some silky material, imagining it hugging the curves of her body. Oooo, and that belt made of shells would make a nice accessory. A necklace hanging in the next stall caught her eye. She strolled over to finger its slim silver chain and small opaque stones. Simple, elegant. Perfect for a certain Warrior Princess who’d probably never wear it in a million years.
"Make a nice gift, eh?" The older woman on the other side winked knowingly. "Special occasion? I’ll give you a good price."
"No, I’m sure it’s way out of my budget. I’m supposed to be looking for something else." Gabrielle feigned interest in items hawked elsewhere.
"It’s worth 12 dinars. You can have it for 10."
"Oooo, sorry, I couldn’t do better than six." Gabrielle turned to leave.
"Wait!" The woman dangled the necklace enticingly. "It’s yours for eight."
"Let’s see how much I have left when I finish my rounds," Gabrielle said over her shoulder, savoring the feel of "finish my rounds" rolling languidly off her tongue, the unhurried movement of her feet toward yet another destination with no other point than to discover what was there.
With any luck, Xena would be dealing with raiders they’d heard had been terrorizing the area. She wouldn’t need to come striding into the market to find out how her partner’s reconnaissance was going. Which would leave the spy free to wander around for hours not even charged with buying the usual supplies. Gabrielle sighed contentedly. As much as she loved Xena’s company, she intended to suffer through this brief reprieve with as much browsing as she could. Maybe even purchase that necklace, if she could get it for seven.
"You can’t possibly be serious! Her offer is more than fair."
Gabrielle pivoted to see a clump of people beside a wagon stocked with dry goods. Children clung to the skirt of a woman with her hand on one end of a sack held firmly by the salesman. Gabrielle squinted at the back of a second woman who appeared to be haggling with the man on the family’s behalf. Despite her long dress and the scarf obscuring all but a few wisps of dark hair, the woman’s height and slender shape resembled way too much that of a certain Warrior Princess.
"Miss? Did you come back for that – ."
"Not now!" Gabrielle hissed at the merchant whose pottery she’d examined earlier. She eased herself into the shadow of his stall, attention riveted on the tall woman. When she glimpsed a high-cheeked profile, Gabrielle muttered her exasperation. "Just had to change the plan, didn’t you? Couldn’t risk missing any fun." She snorted. "Or let me have some of my own."
Part of her wanted to ignore the rain on her parade. Keep shopping as if fooled by the sunny disposition the woman now displayed at winning her battle with the salesman. The other part succumbed to a rush of indignation propelling her toward its source.
"Excuse me, ma’am." Gabrielle tapped her quarry on the back.
Hands on hips, Gabrielle scowled up into guileless blue eyes. "Nice day for shopping, eh?"
"Yes, it is."
Gabrielle glanced around at the others still gathered. She rolled her tongue in her cheek "Mind sharing some tips? In private?"
"On haggling." Gabrielle raised a brow. "Seeing as how you have a surprising knack for it."
"Oh? Something I can help you with?"
Gabrielle suppressed a growl. Too bad Xena liked fighting so much. She could’ve performed on the best Athenian stage. "If you wouldn’t mind. I’ve got my eye on something I’d really … really … like to get my hands on."
The blue eyes twinkled. A hand came to rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "I know just what you mean. I’m done here. Lead the way."
Gabrielle strode to the fabric stall. She whirled to confront the party trailing her. "What in Tartarus are you doing?!"
"Beg your pardon?"
"Thought you were gonna let me take care of things here."
"Um, I’m …. Sorry, I …. I thought you wanted me to come."
Gabrielle frowned. Xena seemed genuinely perplexed. "Maybe we got our signals crossed? It’s just, I’m surprised to see you." She gestured toward Xena’s garb. "What’s with the disguise?"
"Shhh. I don’t think anyone else recognized me. I don’t mind usually. But sometimes …. It’s hard doing the simplest things, you know? With all the attention."
"Well, sure, shopping. That’s why I figured you’d do your thing where you do it best. As you."
"I suppose you’re right. It was foolish of me to think …. It’s just, it feels good sometimes being an ordinary person. Solving problems like I did over there. You know, without special treatment. Using my wits. Or charm."
"Huh." Gabrielle stared at her partner. "You saying you’d be okay? Posing as your average shopper for a while longer? Go up and down these aisles like we weren’t on some mission?" She narrowed her eyes. "Be patient while I examined numerous items I had no intention of buying?"
"I’d like that. We have a good few hours before I need to … do my thing. I promise I’ll be the perfect companion."
"Wellll." Gabrielle admitted to herself she’d wished they could do this together every now and then. If Xena wanted to try, why not? "Okay." She snickered, pointing her chin at the warrior’s costume. "What shall I call you?"
"Um … how about Roxana? And you?"
"Heh. Gabrielle’ll work."
"Gabrielle. Nice. Very pleased to meet you."
Gabrielle winked. "Likewise, I’m sure."
"My, my, my." Gabrielle found herself adding a few skips to her stroll back to camp, feeling like the peasant girl of yesteryear. Gods knew life with Xena truly was one big adventure. Maybe that’s why the little marvels made such an impression. Like discovering the warrior’s soft spot for children and star-crossed lovers. Her wry humor and fondness for pranks. Her chameleon-like ability to transform herself into whatever role she wanted -- seductress, tramp, lady of the castle, airhead beauty queen, prudish guardian of Hestian acolytes’ virginity.
But those were temporary roles born of necessity. Today was different. Xena had revealed an aspect of herself voluntarily – not so much playing "Roxana" as allowing this part of herself to play out in every way. A lightness in her face, her laugh and walk she seldom got to show for more than a few minutes at a time. Cheery interactions with the more pleasant shoppers, tolerance for rude or gossipy ones.
"I really hate to end this," the warrior had said after a couple hours or so cruising the market like two gal pals without a care in the world. "I should get ready to do my ‘thing.’"
"First things first, eh?" Gabrielle had hugged her tall companion. "It’s okay. This was more than I ever expected. Want me to come with you?"
"Thanks, but it’ll be better if I go alone. Besides, there’s some jewelry over there still calling your name."
"Not sure it’ll like my answer. Maybe we could do this again?"
"What about this evening? I hear there’s some passable entertainment scheduled," Xena had said with a wink, pointing to the main tent on the fairgrounds.
"Really? Oh, I’d like that!"
"Excellent. Bye for now. Enjoy your browsing." Turning to leave, the warrior had added, "Any of those merchants give you trouble, tell `em they’ll have to deal with me."
"And here I’d about given up on that," Gabrielle murmured to herself as she reached their camp. She wasn’t expecting to see Argo’s saddle and Xena soon sauntering in with some firewood. "That was fast. Everything go okay?"
"Turns out I knew the leader from the old days. Didn’t take much to convince `em they were hunting villagers out of season." Xena deposited the wood. "How’d your shopping go? Have fun?"
"You should know."
"Wanna talk about it?"
Xena shrugged. "Got in. Took care of business. Got out."
"Oh, yeah, there’s one thing," Xena said, continuing to arrange the wood. "Guy got lucky." Grimacing a little, she pointed to a spot just out of reach on her back. "Nicked me. Could use some help taking care of it."
Brow furrowed, Gabrielle went to get their healing kit. As she walked back, it occurred to her Xena might be a little embarrassed about their market adventure. She didn’t seem so, but you could never tell about the warrior’s reaction to revelations about her inner workings.
"So we treat everything like normal?" Gabrielle began working on the laces at the back of Xena’s battledress. "Business as usual?"
"Why not? Not like this is new or anything."
"Humph. Maybe for you."
"What? You saying it’s worse than I thought?"
"I don’t mean the wound, Xena. I kinda thought maybe we’d talk about …."
"Gabrielle?" Xena noted the disappointment in her partner’s voice. She tried to twist around. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle shook her head. She helped Xena push the top down to her waist and did the same with the undergarment. She patted the warrior’s shoulder. "Don’t mind me. I should be used to you by now. Expect the unexpected. Treat it like no big deal, huh?"
"I am human, you know." Xena snorted. "Well, I have my moments anyway. You of all people should know."
"I do. And you’re right. We don’t have to analyze them to death. Accept them as normal and that’s what they’ll become."
Xena chuckled. "Not sure about the ‘normal’ part, but we won’t quibble about that."
"No, we won’t." Gabrielle gently applied salve over the small wound. "I’ve had a wonderful day. That’s what matters most." She squeezed Xena’s shoulder "I can’t remember when you’ve given me a better time shopping."
"Heh. That’s what I’m here for."
"And you’ll go back with me?"
Xena’s head jerked up. "Shopping?"
"No, tonight. You know, for the entertainment."
"Oh." Xena let out a long exhale. "Hopefully I don’t have Brauneon’s gang to worry about anymore. Nothing else to do for the evening besides repairs." She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "Or chatting. Sure. We’ll take Argo just in case."
Gabrielle grinned. "And will you be going as your … usual … self?"
"Why? You got some other Xena in mind?"
"Not unless she does." Gabrielle ruffled the warrior’s hair. "If she looks like a Xena and moves like a Xena, I’ll take her any day."
The large tent on the fairgrounds buzzed with excitement. Children excitedly pointed toward the puppet theater already positioned on stage, most aware what they wanted to see would come first. Gabrielle felt lucky they’d found good seats four rows back. She would’ve preferred the middle, but was grateful her ever-vigilant companion settled for end seats, rather than sitting or standing in back.
The announcer finally came from behind the curtains to outline the program – "Something for the young at heart, music for the soul and a special treat for anyone with a beating heart." Soon laughter filled the air, followed by "ooo" at jugglers and acrobats. After a brief intermission, musicians had people swaying along to numbers they’d heard a hundred times or never experienced before. The next break was longer, to allow young families to leave and more mature folks to take their place.
Xena had stood to stretch and now honed in on a section in back. "Brauneon. Think I saw `im lurking." She scanned the place. "Don’t see any of the others, but …." She stepped into the side aisle.
"Surely he wouldn’t –."
"Don’t know. Wanna check it out," Xena responded, primed to move.
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle tried to grab the warrior.
"Hold my place. Shouldn’t take long." Xena plunged into those hurrying to snare the scattered vacant seats.
Huffing, Gabrielle soon became preoccupied fending off a succession of potential squatters on Xena’s territory. Fortunately people’s attention was drawn elsewhere as the light in the tent began to dim. Stage crew were snuffing candles and braziers until only a faint glow emanated from either side of the stage. A few minutes later the announcer’s voice boomed into the darkness.
"Laaaadies and gentlemen. It’s time for the moment you’ve awaited. Prepare for the experience of a lifetime, a rarity outside the likes of Athens."
The audience’s breath caught as the curtain slowly parted to reveal the outlines of a lone figure.
"May I present the amazing, beautiful, multi-talented …." The announcer paused dramatically as music that had begun softly now reached a stirring crescendo. "One and only … Roxy!"
Flames burst from braziers at the back of the stage. The figure came alive, skimpy silvery outfit a shimmering constellation of stars, long legs and arms stretching up to the sky, golden hair swirling atop a slender form that flowed like a mass of energy across the stage in a dancing, twirling homage to life and joy. Finally the woman at its center came to rest, facing out.
"Are you with me?!"
The audience rose as one. "Yes! We’re with you!"
"We want our Rox star!"
"Roxy! Roxy! Roxy!"
The performer spread her arms as if in embrace. The place quieted. "All right then! Let’s Rox this house!"
People seated themselves, chanting, "Rox the house!" until the music changed and the woman posed sultrily center stage. She began with a raunchy sailor’s ditty that made men slap their thighs and women blush, followed by beautiful love songs, foot-tapping folks tunes, even dirges that brought tears to the most stoic of listeners. In between, she enacted scenes from popular comedic or dramatic tales, sometimes coaxing people out of the audience to play with her, sometimes doing each role herself. All in all, a tour de force exhibition that left everyone screaming for more.
Except Gabrielle. For one of the few times in her life, she was utterly, absolutely, completely speechless. Feeling transported into a dreamscape of the Furies’ creation. This was the woman she’d mistaken for the Warrior Princess? The low-key shopper she’d spent the morning with? Who now looked like Xena in the blond wig and swatches of material she’d donned as a contestant in Salmoneus’ Miss Known World pageant?
"Roxana" had been disguised all right. Gabrielle leaned forward scrutinizing the tall phenom. Another look-alike? Surely not even Xena could have that many? And in such good shape. Because she danced a lot? And so commanding. From being in front of people all the time? Unless …. Where exactly was Xena? She did have an irritating tendency to go off alone on a mission or disappear in the middle of one, usually with a good explanation, sometimes with little at all. No. No way. Not even the wily Warrior Princess could pull off a ruse this complicated.
Finally becoming aware of how much time had passed, Gabrielle tore herself away from her musings and her eyes from the stage long enough to whisper to the man next her, "Sir? How long has Roxy performed here? Have you seen her anywhere – ."
"Shhh! She’s about to do her finale."
The place became like the quiet before a storm. People sat on the edge of their chairs, hanging on to Roxy’s every word. She perched on the stage apron, hands clasped in her lap, face aglow, her voice a satiny ribbon tying everyone together and her to them. As the last note faded, she bowed her head. The audience gazed at her raptly, certain the only sound they heard was hearts beating. A few moments later Roxy rose and stretched her arms overhead. The place went wild.
"Roxy! Roxy! Roxy!"
Roxy mouthed, "I love you," and blew kisses until the curtain closed before her.
Everyone now on their feet, they clapped and yelled despite the announcer’s indications Roxy would not reappear. They didn’t seem to care, as if determined to prolong the magic on their own. Eventually some headed for the exit. Others hugged each other or argued good-naturedly about the highlights of the show. Gabrielle glowered with frustration at the crowd she’d have to push through and the fact it didn’t include a certain leather-clad form.
When she’d eventually made her way outside, she searched in vain for her elusive partner. She caught sight of someone walking toward the line of torches bordering the fairgrounds. A blond woman, wearing the dress Roxana had on that morning. The figure ducked into the forest. Gabrielle ran a few steps in that direction and crouched behind a wagon, then moved to a pile of sacks. Before she could get any closer, she heard a horse whinny. A Palomino emerged with a dark-haired rider in leather atop, heading for the road out.
Gabrielle recognized Argo’s approach. She moved around the fire to sit with her back to the opening between the bushes. Continued writing on her scroll when she heard the soft boot steps. Xena wanted to act all cryptic and casual? Fine. Two could play that game. Her brow did crinkle a bit at the warrior’s greeting. Somehow it sounded like "hey" and "hi" at the same time. She put down her quill and took her sweet time turning around.
Gabrielle blinked. It didn’t clear her double vision of the same woman – one in Xena’s leathers, the other a blonde dressed like Roxana.
"This is the person you wanted me to meet?"
"You know Gabrielle?"
"You know Gabrielle?"
The object of conjecture decided she liked how the table had turned. She got up and closed in on the stunned conspirators. "You both know Gabrielle? Now what’re the chances of that?" She smiled at the blonde. "An artist who’s performed for hundreds of people from here to Athens." She punched the second woman’s shoulder. "A warrior who’s led legions across the known world." She folded her arms across her chest. "Huh. Yet apparently I’m the one who really gets around."
"Um, Gabrielle?" The first woman winced. "I don’t think you wanna be hitting her like that."
"Don’t worry. She’s used to it." Gabrielle glanced darkly at the warrior. "Her bark is worse than her bite. With me anyway."
"Who do you think she is?"
Myriad snarky comments came to Gabrielle’s mind, but got cut short by something … amiss … in the warrior’s eyes. She glanced at the blonde and caught a familiar flash of …. Gabrielle’s hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, I am so sorry." She whirled to give "Roxana" the once over. "I meant to hit Xena." And did.
Gabrielle regarded the women sitting across from her. They hadn’t changed out of their costumes yet. Very disconcerting at first, then rather intriguing. Xena especially. She looked a bit demure with blond ringlets framing her face, legs crossed beneath the peasant dress. Roxana, on the other hand, appeared somewhat aloof. Stiff even. Of course the snugness of the battledress did tend to straighten one’s spine.
"Who would like to begin?"
"I’d say the one who ‘gets around’ more." Xena bit her lip. "Starting with how she happens to be acquainted with a certain Roxy."
"Oh, I can answer that. We got to know each other at the market this morning. Had a wonderful time browsing and chatting."
"I see." Xena pursed her lips. "My usually talkative friend over there failed to mention that."
"Um …." Gabrielle ducked her head. "I did try. Sort of."
"You mustn’t blame her, Xena. I was incognito, so I could stroll about in peace. She recognized me but was kind enough not to let on." Roxana smiled at Gabrielle. "No doubt protecting my identity."
Xena sucked in her cheeks. "As Roxy, I presume?"
"Uh huh. Where did you first catch my act, Gabrielle? I haven’t been here in quite awhile."
"Yes, Gabrielle. I’m curious about that as well."
"Um …." Gabrielle’s mind raced. This was not the conversation she wanted to have. "All I can say right now is, I’ve never seen you perform better." She bestowed an admiring smile on Roxana. "Please, I’ve been dying to know more about you." She heard Xena clear her throat, but ignored it. "How did you get started? What’s behind the Roxy mystique?"
Roxana laughed. "A rather shy mouse, to tell the truth. I wasn’t good at things like the other girls. Gangly. Uncoordinated. Not particularly popular." She stared out, suddenly looking too small and delicate for the battledress she wore. "I stayed to myself a lot. I’d dance and sing, pretend to be my idea of a goddess or somebody famous."
"Heh." Gabrielle nodded. "I hear ya."
"Oh? Did you have such aspirations as well?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Not exactly. I liked making up stories. Xena’s the performer in this duo."
"It’s true. You might not guess it, but she has a wonderful voice. And she can play anybody she wants. Like she played you."
"You sing, Xena?"
Xena scowled at her partner. "What’s true is Gabrielle’s vivid imagination. Tends to get away from her sometimes," she said, twirling her finger at her head. "Go on with what you were saying." She stared pointedly at Gabrielle. "Much more interesting than tales about me."
"I doubt that." Roxana shook her head at her intriguing and much too modest new friends. "A traveling theater came to my village when I was about 14. They needed someone young to play a part. Soon as I stepped on that stage, I knew I’d found a home. Oh, I was petrified all right. Still scares me facing so many people, such high expectations. But it made everything I loved to do ‘normal.’ For the first time I felt appreciated for who I was, instead of ridiculed for what I wasn’t."
Roxana took a deep breath, smiling on the exhale. Once again filling the battledress as if it were a second skin. "I ran off with them and never looked back. Learned from a lot of talented people. I took a little from here, some from there. I realized I was happiest doing it all."
"This is so strange." Gabrielle cocked her head. "I look at you in that outfit and see Xena’s pride. Her acceptance that she is who she is. Her determination to be better at it. This morning I saw Diana’s grace and Leah’s innocence. Meg’s unselfconsciousness, her willingness to let it all hang out. Especially in Roxy."
Roxana frowned. "Meg? Diana? I don’t believe I know them."
"Xena didn’t tell you?" Gabrielle gaped at the expressionless warrior. It occurred to her Xena hadn’t mentioned something else. "More importantly, how is it you knew Roxy?"
"Oh, she didn’t." Roxana chuckled. "I’ll never forget her first words when she burst into my tent." She lowered her voice and assumed a dazed expression. "`Another one?! Ya gotta be kiddin’ me.’ I feared she was a fan disappointed to see me as my plain old self."
"You didn’t notice the resemblance? Between you and Xena?"
"Well, some. But …." Roxana gestured toward Xena as if that was explanation enough. "She was so imposing. So … feral. Nothing at all like me."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "And she was there why?"
"She’d gotten wind of a plot to kidnap me or something. An ardent fan who happened to be a vicious thug."
"Brauneon?! You really did go after him?"
Xena raised a brow. "Where’d you think I went?"
"Um …. I meant, who would’ve thought he’d come to steal Roxy?"
"Apparently he recognized the resemblance. Reminded him how much he wanted to see Roxy again. Always. I got hold of a couple of his gang. Convinced `em to spill what he was up to. I lost him in the crowd."
"So you went to protect her?"
"Wasn’t that sweet?" Roxana smiled her appreciation. "She was concerned about innocent people getting hurt if she had to fight him right there. Once she saw me, she solved that. We’d switch places. She’d draw them away, as me."
"But I a saw …."
"Yessss? You saw what?"
"I … um … happened to see Roxana …. I mean … you … go into the trees. A few moments later, you rode off, in your battledress."
Roxana giggled. "Oh, that was me riding off. Xena’d already hidden me there. She said her horse would know the way to your camp. I was to wait for her near there." She winked at Xena. "She wanted to surprise a friend. Someone who’d get a real kick out of meeting me."
Gabrielle snorted. "Me too. She beat me to it. As usual." She cut her eyes at Xena. "You see, you’re not the first look-alike we’ve run into. Meg was a barmaid, Diana a princess and Leah a Hestian priestess."
"Really? All in Xena’s image? How extraordinary!"
"I’ll say. Do they grow on trees? Haephestus make a mold of me or somethin’? Punishment from the gods?"
Gabrielle smirked. "Gotta admit, Roxy’s a lot more … interesting."
"Scary’s more like it. No offense, Roxy. I got enough problems being me, without constantly seeing myself coming and going."
"Quite understandable." Roxana winced. "I don’t mean you, of course. The others. Me. I’d be quite fine mistaken for someone like you."
"Roxana? Do you … know … who Xena is?" Gabrielle glanced sheepishly at her partner. "No offense intended."
"None taken." Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "What she’s trying not to say, Roxy, is that I have a rather bad rep to live down. I’m probably hated for bringing terror as much as you’re loved for bringing joy."
"Oh, Xena, that’s hard to believe. Gabrielle alone proves that." Roxana sighed. "I envy you. As much as I love what I do, I miss having a friend I can be myself with. Gabrielle gave me such a gift this morning. Being with me as though we’d known each other for years."
"Yes, she’s something else all right. One of her must be enough."
"None that matter anymore," Gabrielle answered at Xena’s silence.
Roxana suppressed a yawn. "Sorry. I feel like I met my best friend, performed my heart out, was nearly abducted, pretended to be a warrior, discovered there are actually multiple ‘one and only’ Roxies – all in a few hours."
Gabrielle laughed. "Be careful what you wish for. That’s pretty close to our life on a regular basis."
"Do you have room for one more? For the evening, I mean? I doubt I could make it to those trees without falling on my face."
"No problem," Xena answered. "I’d planned on putting you up for the night." She indicated the pot Gabrielle had been stirring earlier. "I could use a little of whatever our friend cooked up. How about you, before we turn in?"
"Yes, that would be nice. Relax around the fire first."
Gabrielle went to fetch some bowls. "It’s nothing much." She raised a brow at Xena. "I wasn’t expecting any VIPs."
"Don’t forget, I live on the road too, between gigs." Roxana made herself comfortable near the fire. "I usually don’t have to worry much about warlords or anything besides bad weather or bees. Must be scary, huh?"
Gabrielle ladled soup into the bowls. She fixed her own and sat across from the other women. "Like I said, trouble is routine for us. It’s moments like this – chatting with someone like you – that’s scarier for some of us," she said, smirking at Xena.
Roxana glanced at the quiet warrior. "Gabrielle, you don’t strike me as someone who enjoys fighting. Not that there’s anything wrong with it," she quickly added with a smile at Xena. "How did you two happen to hook up?"
"Like you, I spent a lot of my childhood in my imagination. I knew I wanted to get out in the world. Do something important. I didn’t know how, until this female warrior popped up to save my village from a warlord. I knew immediately she was my answer. Not the answer at the time, but one worth checking out."
"Like the stage was for me?"
"Uh huh. Not as scary as you might think. Funny, I didn’t worry so much about dying or anything. Not just because I had Xena to protect me. Her mission was to do good. To make up for past deeds. I wanted to be part of making a better world too. Maybe it was romantic, but if I had to give my life, I liked it could be for a good cause."
Roxana smiled. "Well, I for one am glad you’re still here."
"Mm." Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully into her bowl. "There was one time …. I had a daughter. The one person who could’ve been my double. I … sacrificed myself because of her." She swallowed. "Looking back, I can’t think of anything scarier."
"Oh, Gabrielle. Your daughter …. Were you able to …?"
"No." Gabrielle exhaled a long breath. "I did save the one I feared losing most. As painful as it was, for both of us, it’s something I had to do. Something Xena taught me." She raised her chin and held the warrior’s eyes unapologetically. "That life is so much more precious when you have something – someone – worth dying for. Making the choice brings a kind of peace. A … confidence … you don’t get having to wonder if you could do it. Worrying about what you might lose." She smiled at her partner. "I discovered the love in my life will be with me always. No matter what."
"And you, Xena? Was it the same? Or perhaps some opponent you faced?"
Xena took a couple spoonfuls of soup before looking at the woman who could be her twin. Somehow she couldn’t deny the clean blue yearning for an honest answer. "I’m scared by most everything I do." Her mouth quirked at the expressions on the others’ faces.
"I’m my biggest enemy. My rage. My desire to be done with something and move on. Killing it usually being the preferred way." Xena gazed at her partner unapologetically. "Doing whatever I have to, especially to protect Gabrielle. Her light. Her life." Her jaw clenched. "That wasn’t the first time she almost died. I wouldn’t let her."
Roxana sensed a myriad of emotions passing between the two companions. "Forgive me. Both of you have been so patient and kind. I didn’t mean to pry."
"It’s okay. Dying seems to be another habit with us, I’m afraid." Gabrielle shuddered. "Like the time I nearly got cremated. Xena risked permanent blindness coming to my rescue."
Roxana gasped. "That must’ve been terrifying! Doubly so for you, Xena. Losing Gabrielle and your sight?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Being a warrior is who she is. It troubles her sometimes. She resists using her sword unless she has to." She studied her partner a moment. "Still, I doubt she can imagine life as anything else."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Such the dramatist. You forget, I can do many of my skills with my eyes closed. Even fighting. Or sewing. Tending horses." She smirked. "Singing." She reached up to remove the blond wig and shook out her hair. "Besides, who needs eyes, with my trusty sidekick over there? Bodyguard. Nursemaid. Seer. Career counselor. Entertainment. All rolled in one. Irreplaceable." Her mouth quirked. "And apparently permanent."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Job security does have its perks. Lucky for you I’ve gotten farther with them than going on strike."
Roxana gazed at the sky. "I love the stars. Little beacons to places far away. I used to spend hours looking at them. Imagining myself finally among them. Away from myself. From the ordinary life I felt holding me back." She smiled at Xena. "I sit here now looking at a different ‘me.’ A world apart, yet right in front. Someone I can touch. Who can touch me. Incredible."
"I hear ya." Xena snorted. "Be afraid. Be very afraid."
Roxana nodded. "Oh, I am." She pondered the fire and shivered. "I am."
The next morning, Roxana and Gabrielle continued conversing about their backgrounds, their journeys to their current circumstances and affinity for the creative process. Xena rode off to check on security. Upon her return, she and Gabrielle accompanied Roxana back to the fairgrounds. Her last performance would be that evening. She planned to join some of the musicians in producing a traveling show along the route to Athens.
When they arrived at their destination, Xena escorted Roxana to her tent, just in case. Gabrielle hugged Roxana goodbye and headed for the market area. She wandered around awhile in sight of the jewelry vendor before casually approaching the woman’s booth to see if the price of a certain necklace had dropped to seven dinars.
"Want some company?"
Gabrielle felt a long arm curl around her shoulder. "Xena?"
"Ya got a one in five chance it is."
"Huh. Thought you’d be at the weapons exhibit." Gabrielle scanned the area. "Or over at the blacksmith’s. Didn’t you say Argo could use some new shoes?"
"She’ll be okay awhile longer. Besides, who knows when we’ll get another chance to stroll around browsing?"
"We?" Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Define ‘browsing.’"
"You know. Inching up and down each aisle. Smelling every bouquet. Touching bolts of fabric. Examining the weave of baskets. Inspecting anything not nailed down. Haggling."
"The two of us. Together."
"Wait a minute." Gabrielle squinted at the warrior. "How’s that wound doing?"
"The one you got sliding down that gully. Remember?"
"Gully? What gully? You mean the scratch I got fighting …." A dark brow arched. "Oh, so you wanna test it’s really me?" Long fingers began pushing down the straps of the battledress. "Let’s see if you recognize me totally naked. I’ll do it, you know."
"Xena?!" Gabrielle grabbed the larger hands. "All right all ready. It’s you. What gives? Why the sudden interest in market life?"
Blue eyes blinked innocently. "You sayin’ I shouldn’t?"
"I’m saying the Xena I know would rather walk on hot coals."
"My dear Gabrielle. Has life in the wilds stunted your imagination after all?"
"Imagination?! What’s that got to do – ."
"With what gets my juices going?" Xena nudged Gabrielle into the flow of shoppers. "Fear, my friend. Spine-tingling, blood-curdling anticipation of the unknown. Nerves alive with anticipation. Of opponents to challenge your strength." She pointed to a large woman in front of them. "Hurdles to overcome," she said as they dodged children who darted into their path. "Traps, tricks and tests potentially greater than my many skills." She crooked her head toward a merchant sporting a wide-toothed, smarmy grin.
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle felt a surge of nostalgia for the warrior of old. "You don’t really have to do this. I’m perfectly fine – ."
"Oh, but I’m not. Roxy got me thinking. Perhaps I’m too jaded about fear. Too comfortable. I need something that makes me sweat just thinking about it. Those hot coals?" Xena shuddered. "You’re right. Shopping definitely qualifies."
They’d decided to stay for Roxy’s show, once again in good end-row seats. Xena lounged with her legs in the aisle, arm resting on the back of Gabrielle’s chair, smugness dripping from half-lidded eyes. She’d faced one of her greatest demons with impressive aplomb. Given herself over to it without inhibition. Matched Gabrielle toe to toe, stall for stall. Graciously, cheerfully, not even a hint of impatience. Surprising them both. Indeed, the expression on Gabrielle’s face was priceless, worth every moment of effort. Xena sighed contentedly. It had been awhile since she’d appreciated as much the payoff in overcoming one’s fears. And with a little payback mixed in as well? Awesome.
Gabrielle was counting herself fortunate to be a win-win kind of gal. True, she’d considered going overboard to call the warrior’s bluff. Allowed suspicion or competitiveness to prevail. Succumbed to fears the warrior would turn browsing into a nightmare. Instead, she’d followed Xena’s lead. Graciously, cheerfully, not even a hint of skepticism. And discovered herself in the company of someone as enjoyable as she’d dreamed. Someone she refused to doubt was as genuine as she appeared. Gabrielle smiled to herself, her face expressing enough wonder to acknowledge Xena’s victory, sufficient pleasure to celebrate her own. Payback could come any time. The payoff of those priceless moments together? Awesome.
"That how I looked? In Salmoneus’ beauty contest?"
Xena pointed her chin at Roxy. "When I played Miss Amphipolis."
Gabrielle realized she’d been staring at the stage, but somehow forgotten about the blond woman shimmying in silver. "Um … pretty much. Not quite the same enthusiasm, but similar overall effect."
The crowd murmured as the curtains began closing before Roxy’s usual finale. "It’s okay, folks," the announcer came out to assure. "Roxy’s planned something special. Take a few moments to stretch and get ready for it."
"Whew!" Xena jumped up before the stagehands could light a few torches to aid those needing to exit for a potty break. "Could use some air."
Next Gabrielle knew, she was staring at an empty chair. "More fidgety than a two-year-old," she muttered. She stood and rolled her shoulders. Butt kicking paled in comparison to a good day shopping, coupled with a good evening sitting. She might’ve joined Xena outside, if not concerned about missing Roxy’s finale. Surely the warrior would make it back in time? Minutes passed. Music surged, signaling resumption of the show. But no Xena.
"Laaadies and gentlemen! Please take your seats. You’ll have to the count of five." The announcer slowly intoned, "One …. Two …. Three …. Four …. Fiiiive!"
The curtains parted. In place of the usual dramatic flaring of braziers, a few candles illuminated the woman on stage. She sat on a stool in a simple dress. No makeup. Dark hair falling to her shoulders rather than the expected wild gold tresses.
"Where’s Roxy?!" someone finally shouted.
"Roxy, Roxy, Roxy!"
"We want our Rox star!"
Voices piped up from around the room, but the woman continued gazing out, unfazed. Finally she leaned forward. "Roxy’s here," she said, smiling. "In me. In you. In anyone with a yearning to spread their wings." She stood and walked to the edge. "She’s been with me since I was a little girl. Has done for me what I dreamed." She swept her eyes around. "She loved it. And you loved her."
"Yes! Yes, we do!"
"And she loves you. You gave her the chance to fly so high and far." She hugged herself. "Tonight she’d like to love someone else. To risk that you will as well."
"No! We want Roxy!"
"Who, Roxy? Who?"
Bowing slightly, she answered, "The little girl inside." She moved back to her stool, closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Later, few would recall the exact lyrics, so struck they were by the purity of the clear, unaccompanied voice. It didn’t sing so much as evoke emotions. Images. Scenes. Stories. Transforming the bare, dimly lit stage into whatever the listener wanted to see. The last note seemed to float to stillness like a curtain coming down.
Hand pressed against her heart, the performer walked to the edge of the stage. Neither she nor her audience had to say anything for them to know how much they had moved each other. After a moment silently exchanging acknowledgements, she grinned sheepishly. "Wow. That felt good."
"Sounded good too!"
"Yeah. That little girl ain’t bad!"
Some laughed. Others waved their arms in the air. One by one they stood, clapping or yelling their appreciation. They quieted when the object of their affection put up her hands.
"Don’t get too fond of her. She’s had her day. Personally, playing with Roxy’s way more fun." She grinned at the relieved amusement on the faces in front of her. "I thank you for this. Sometimes the scariest thing is to be ourselves. The most wonderful is learning you have someone to do that with and still be loved. I’ll keep that with me from now on." She curtsied and began walking backwards. "I hope you do too, whenever Roxy sings." The crowd roared as she disappeared.
Gabrielle didn’t bother searching for the leather-clad figure among those leaving the tent. She jogged instead to the tree line behind, where she could observe those queued up in hopes of bidding adieu to Roxy in person before she left. Green eyes merely narrowed a bit when they spied the figure in question exiting Roxy’s dressing tent and sauntering to lounge against one of the fence posts by the road out. Gabrielle walked in the opposite direction and circled back.
"Gabrielle! Over here!"
"Hey there." Gabrielle strolled toward Xena. "Get enough … air?"
"Sorry. It was so stuffy in there. The good news is, the tent had a hole. Just my height. Big enough for a box-seat view." Xena pointed to the road. "Ready? Or you wanna test your VIP privileges. Butt in line, say goodbye to Roxy?"
"No. I’m sure she knows we wish her well."
"Yeah." As they walked away from the fairgrounds, Xena asked, "So what’d you think?"
"Quite a change from her usual routine."
"That chat must’ve rung a bell"
"Last night. About trying something new. Scary."
"Mm. She took quite a chance. Being vulnerable like that. No disguise or theatrics. Trusting her fans would accept her for herself."
"I liked it. You?"
"What I saw."
"What you saw?"
"My mind drifted a couple times."
"Reminded me of … things. Good things." Gabrielle peered up at Xena. "But yes. I liked what I saw. Probably wouldn’t hurt if she did it again sometime."
The flames illuminated two figures relaxing on their bedrolls, one propped against a saddle repairing a bridle piece, the other sitting cross-legged, shoring up a small hole in her boot.
"I must say, my travel agent didn’t do too bad this time."
"What?" Gabrielle’s head bobbed up, though her attention really hadn’t been on her boot.
"This trip. Kind of … refreshing. Glad we stayed awhile."
"Really. What did you like most? The shopping? Chatting?" Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Singing?"
"Contrary to popular opinion, I do have tastes beyond pummeling. In fact …." Her eyes glinting, Xena took something from between her breastplates. "Seems you’re not the only queen of the market." She tossed a small cloth bundle into Gabrielle’s lap.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the much too satisfied warrior. "What’s this? A new bit for Argo?"
"Noooo. Nothing slimy either. Promise."
Eyes warily on Xena, Gabrielle unfolded the cloth. She gasped when she touched the contents. "It’s …. It’s a necklace!"
Xena could barely contain herself. "Uh huh." Her enthusiasm waned a bit at Gabrielle’s expression – a cross between confusion and something … confusing. "That’s not it? The one you wanted?"
"Um …yes, but …. How did you …?"
"A little birdie told me. Actually, a big birdie. She saw you eying it. Yesterday morning. Figured I’d get it when we shopped today." Xena snorted. "Before I realized we’d be glued together the whole time. Had to get it tonight."
"When I ducked out during the break." Xena blew on her fingertips. "Got a good price too."
"Yup. She wanted 15 dinars. Haggled her down to 12."
"Quite a steal, eh? Don’t worry. Roxy chipped in half. Said it was the least she could do to repay us for everything."
"It’s … um …." Gabrielle struggled for the right response. She certainly didn’t want to burst Xena’s bargaining bubble or appear disappointed at the warrior’s gift.
"Oh, no. It’s lovely. I’m … um …."
"Speechless? Never underestimate a Warrior Princess." Xena smirked. "But you can keep the market queen title. Way outta my league. One conquest was enough. Heh, I’m surprised you didn’t buy it yourself." She frowned. "Worried we couldn’t afford it?"
"Afford it?" Gabrielle fingered the thin chain. "Maybe a little. I considered it yesterday. Then I ran into you and …." Her head jerked up. "I mean, I thought about you and …. Well, I know Argo has expensive needs." She forced a grin. "Not sure she’d understand going shoeless over a bauble."
Xena regarded her companion a moment. "Hold it up."
"Hold it up?"
"Wanna see how it looks on ya."
"The necklace?" Gabrielle stared at it a moment before slowly putting it against her throat.
Xena rubbed her chin. "Not exactly what you usually go for."
"I … uh …." Gabrielle assumed a haughty expression. "You saying I’m not sophisticated enough? A girl can change her image every now and then, you know. Browse for new ones, so to speak."
"Mm." Xena cocked her head. "And which of mine do you prefer?"
Gabrielle blinked. "What?"
Xena slumped her shoulders and sported a silly grin. "Meg?" She straightened regally, batting her eyes innocently. "Diana? Leah?" Flung her hair from side to side, moving her upper body as if to music. "Roxy?" Finally relaxed with a pleasant smile. "Perhaps the gal pal you shopped with yesterday?" She raised a brow. "You know. The one who turned out to be … Roxana."
Gabrielle gaped at Xena like a deer at a crossbow. Yes, she of all people should know better than to underestimate her partner. "You forgot one," she finally responded, trapped but not defenseless. "Smug. Into pummeling. Denser than a rock sometimes. Quick as a whip when you least expect. Some call her the Warrior Princess."
"Doesn’t sound the type to easily mistake for those others."
"Pffft. She’s certainly the type to be a type. Physically anyway." Gabrielle shook her head "Still, who’d’ve thought there’d be yet another one? It’s not like Roxana was doing something idiotic like the others. Getting herself burned at the stake. Mooning over Joxer."
"Mm. ‘Idiotic.’ Yet they too fooled you. And here I thought it’s my dark side I needed to work on."
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle’s cheeks reddened. "They caught me off guard. I meant, Roxana seemed normal in comparison. It was only logical to assume it was you. Ready to bring mayhem into my peaceful shopping."
"Logical. Of course." Xena’s lips pursed. "So you pictured your hands around ‘my’ neck."
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Uh, yeah, at first. Then you … she … said it was because she wanted to be like a normal person for a change. She thought I knew about Roxy. Anyway, didn’t seem that far-fetched – you getting tired of being the Warrior Princess sometimes."
Xena shook her head. "Which you’d indulge as usual." She smiled. "A compliment, not criticism."
Gabrielle smiled back. "It wasn’t entirely selfless." She shrugged. "Guess I saw what I wanted to."
"Same with Roxy? You honestly thought that could be me?"
"Well, there is an ‘x’ in her name." Gabrielle noted the warrior wasn’t buying. "Come on, Xena. You’re the master of enigma. As close as we are, you amaze me all the time. It’s not like you haven’t had other secret lives." Gabrielle snickered. "I admit, this would’ve been a doozy. Seems crazy in hindsight, but with you, anything’s possible."
"Suppose I should be flattered. That you’d imagine me as good as Roxy on any level." Xena frowned. "But why would I? Our life isn’t perfect, but it satisfies me. My quest. What I need most. You doubt that?"
"I know." Gabrielle toyed with the necklace, pondering Xena’s question. "Change is so much a part of it. For both of us. We risk being new, different, nearly every time the sun rises. More importantly, better. Why wouldn’t I support that? A part of you wanting to express itself? You talk about me ‘indulging.’ What about you? You think I’m crazy?"
"Crazy? What’re you – ."
"Switching between bard, warrior, pacifist, Amazon Queen at the drop of a hat. Idealist one day, pragmatist another. Maybe cynic the next."
"You’re still finding yourself. I’ve already – ."
"Experienced everything? Lived all your dreams, not just your nightmares? Pushed yourself as far as you can?"
"After all this time, despite everything …." Gabrielle scooted over to rest a hand on the warrior’s leg. "I’ve always seen the little girl in you, Xena. Free, playful, an open heart. Capable of imagining – being – whatever she wants. Her innocence got cut short, but she’s still there. Maybe afraid if she comes out she’ll be hurt again. Rejected because that’s not who people see or want."
"Yeah. Maybe so." Gabrielle leaned back on her hands. "All that talk about doing something scary …. Seems it wasn’t you I saw so much. More like what I wanted for you. Wanted to believe you could do if it was important to you. Guess I kinda confused that with the real you." She snorted softly. "It was like I was seeing double. Triple. Was it Xena? Roxana? Roxy?"
"I do wonder sometimes who you’re talking to." Xena chuckled. "Last couple days, I started wondering if it was me."
Xena drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. "The little girl in me? She gave up on what people thought a long time ago. Grew to be pretty much whoever she wanted. As you said, she gets to express herself in a lot of ways now. Act however suits her, silly or otherwise." She reached over to tweak Gabrielle’s nose. "Counts on a sympathetic audience in someone whose opinion does matter."
Gabrielle’s brow creased. "I hadn’t really …. You do, don’t you?"
Xena adjusted her bracers before peering up at Gabrielle with a hint of sadness in her eyes. "Maybe it’s not me we should worry about? Maybe it’s the little girl in you?"
"Me? Didn’t we just talk about all the – ."
"You left out a couple. Mother. Friend."
"Xena, what are you …." Gabrielle felt a surge of emotions she’d thought washed away in Illusia. She searched the warrior’s face for reproach but saw none. "I don’t understand. You know I betrayed them both."
"No, you tried to be loyal to both. To do the right thing. But I’m not talking about that." Xena let out a long breath. "Hope should’ve been the child of your dreams. Your innocence. Whatever I felt about her, I mourned your loss. The suffering of another child Dahok nearly stole. The one who’s inspired you all along. Her confidence in her ideals, her goodness. In her power to overcome evil."
"Yes," Gabrielle acknowledged softly. "She has taken quite a beating."
"She’s a survivor, Gabrielle. Still there. Healing. Searching for ways to grow stronger. No less beautiful or capable because she risked protecting an enemy. Defending against someone she loves. Who loves her." Xena lay her hand over Gabrielle’s. "I am so sorry my own fear and anger and grief kept me from recognizing it sooner."
Gabrielle’s eyes brimmed. "You’ve really thought about this."
"Somebody had to. It can’t always be about me, you know. I’ve been reminded of that a lot lately." Xena took a moment to push down images of Gabrielle at the mercy of Dahok’s curse, tied to a cross in Alti’s vision. "So yeah, I’ll support you no matter how crazy it seems. Long as it takes you closer to the Gabrielle you once imagined."
Gabrielle swallowed. "She’s already more, thanks to you." She let out a shaky breath. "I used to be so full of answers. Now, it’s questions." She gazed at Xena through the lens of this new perspective. "Maybe it has been more about me. What I saw in you. Wanted for you. In reality, my own fears and dreams." She crooked her head. "That’s mighty insightful for a crusty ex-warlord."
"Mm." Xena leaned back with a rueful smile. "Roxy kinda lit a candle in my … denseness."
Gabrielle laughed. "And here I thought it another of your many facets. Xena: Warrior Sensitive Chatter."
"Heh. Don’t get too fond of her. Much more painful than playing the pummeling version." Xena grinned. "Roxie got a payoff too. I talked to her after her show." She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "As you know."
"What?!" Gabrielle swatted Xena’s leg. "You saw me following you?"
"I’m not the only one with purported secret lives."
"I was merely concerned about your disappearances."
"Wasn’t sure why then. Figured I’d find out in due time. Subterfuge isn’t one of your strongest talents."
Gabrielle ground her teeth. "How about you get back to your chat with Roxy."
"I showed her the necklace. She was really glad I’d gotten it. Said she was grateful not to envy us so much anymore. She’d learned to appreciate her fans as friends who’ll be there for her wherever she is. Whoever she chose to be."
"Speaking of that …. I got the feeling you didn’t come entirely clean. When she asked you what scares you most?"
"It’s certainly not shaking my butt in public, as you seem to think. Or shopping."
"I said what mine was."
"Fine. Your near death in Thessaly? Big shock. It hit me I’d already endured something scarier." Xena’s lips pursed in a crooked grin. "Letting you in in the first place. So deep I couldn’t get you out if I fell on my sword. Loving you …. What you said? About finding you had it in you to die for something? I felt a kind of peace. The courage to face just about anything." She swallowed. "Even losing you if it was meant to be."
Gabrielle smiled. "Except we know now that’ll never happen. Something worth jumping in that pit to find out."
"Mm." Xena let that thought spark a gleam in her eyes. "Letting you weasel your way in? If I had to do it all over again …."
Gabrielle snorted. "Like I gave you a choice."
"Let’s pretend I did. For the purposes of this deep discussion, if nothing else."
Gabrielle laughed. "Think you got me beat on this one." She yawned. "Whew! Morpheus is lookin’ mighty attractive right now."
"Yeah," Xena agreed, stretching. "Strenuous exercise, heavy chatting. I could sleep for a hundred years."
"Xena?" Gabrielle caressed the necklace before wrapping it in the cloth. "Really, this means a lot to me. Thank you."
"You’re welcome. Maybe next time you’ll pick one that suits you better."
"Mm. Maybe so." Gabrielle started to put her gift in her carry bag.
"May I?" Xena took the small bundle and opened it. "Or maybe you had someone else in mind? Let’s see how it suits me, hmm?" She slipped the necklace over her head. "Whaddya think?"
Gabrielle rubbed her nose. Appreciating the silver chain against bronze skin. How the stones complemented twinkling blue eyes. The fact that once again she’d underestimated a Warrior Princess. "Perfect. Like it was chosen just for you."
"Better I keep it then?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Would you? Actually wear it sometimes?"
Xena got comfortable on her bedroll, clutching the necklace to her chest. "Even sleep in it." Smirking, she closed her eyes. "If it gets too dangerous?" She patted the cleft between her breasts. "Got just the place for safe keeping."
Gabrielle gazed down at the woman she could alternately die for or throttle. "You win. Again. Queen of the market and sensitive chats. Today anyway."
Gabrielle lay back and snuggled next to the larger body. To herself she murmured, "Awesome."
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