One of my first Sentinel stories, and the very first with no characters other than Jim and Blair. It's also a companion piece to the Immortal Series.
Home Is Where The Heart Is
Jim Ellison opened the door of the loft, and dropped his keys in the basket by the door. "Chief, you home?" he called out. Not receiving an answer, but hearing his guide's steady heartbeat, he took a step further into the room. From that vantage point, he could see Blair out on the balcony, leaning against the railing, his shoulders hunched.
Walking to the open French doors, he spoke again. "Chief, you okay?"
His friend's head bobbed up and down. "Yeah, Jim, I'll be fine." The slight tremor in his voice betrayed him.
Jim moved to stand beside him, taking a long look at his partner's profile. Blair's hair was loose and wind-tangled, evidence he'd been standing outside for quite a while. His eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, and the sentinel could still make out the tracks of dried tears on his cheeks. "Come on, Blair, obviously something's upset you. You wanna talk about it?" He rested his hand on the smaller man's shoulder, giving it a comforting squeeze. "Nothing's happened with Naomi, has it?" Blair's attractive mother had blown through Cascade like a cyclone, upsetting Jim's comfortable routine, and getting involved with the car theft case they had been working on. She had been scheduled to leave that morning.
Blair took a trembling breath and said, "No, no, she's fine, she left as planned. It's just that... " A suppressed sob shook him, and Jim's arm went around his guide's shoulders, giving him strength. Blair's grip tightened on the balcony railing, and the words tumbled out. "Andy's dead."
Andy? Who in the hell was Andy? Jim gave voice to his question. "Sorry, Chief, I'm lost. Who's Andy?"
Blair made another little strangled noise, then handed a crumpled piece of paper to Jim. Once he had it unfolded and smoothed out, he realized it was an obituary page printed off the internet, from of all places, a website for the 'International Arabian Breeders Association'. The article was a glowing memorial to one Andrea Price, Australian breeder of Arabian horses. Apparently Ms. Price had saddled up her prize stallion, Seranej, and ridden out into the desert, never to be heard from again.
Jim sighed. His life had been so much simpler before he'd met the mystery that was Blair Sandburg. Less interesting, and much less fulfilling, but simpler. Taking hold of his partner's arm, he tugged him toward the loft. "Come on, Darwin, let's get out of this wind, and you can tell me all about it."
Once inside, Jim sat them both down on the couch, noticing for the first time that a photo album lay open on the coffee table. Blair picked it up and flipped through the pages, then handed it to Jim, pointing out a faded photo on the top right of the page. "Naomi left this album with me, and I was looking through it when I found this picture of Andy. I wondered what had happened to her, and so I looked her up on the internet. That's when I found out she'd... died last month." Blair wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve, then went hunting for a tissue.
While he was gone, Jim studied the picture. It really wasn't a very good photo of Andy. She sat astride a horse, dressed in jeans and a work shirt, her head tilted a little bit down, the shadow from the cowboy hat she wore hiding most of her face. In front of her sat a small child with curly blond hair and a broad grin on his face, a grin that was very familiar.
Jim looked up as Blair sat down next to him again. He'd been thinking this Andy had been an old girlfriend, but... "Is this you in the picture, Chief?" he asked.
Nodding, Blair said, "Yeah, that's me. It was my fifth birthday, and Andy'd promised I could ride Seranej with her. He was just a baby too, then, only three. God, he must have been... " he counted silently on his fingers, "twenty-four when... " A stricken expression crossed his face fleetingly. "Anyway," he continued, "Nej was my buddy, but I was too little to ride him. So for my birthday, Andy let me ride with her. That was probably the best day of my life up to that point. I mean, Andy had let me ride the other horses, some of her mares, but Nej was a stallion, and they can be... have you ever ridden a stallion, Jim?"
The sentinel shook his head. "I can't say that I have, cowboy."
The anthropologist continued uninterrupted, "Anyway, it was just awesome. It was like sitting on a case of dynamite. There was just so much power, so much energy waiting to be released, and it was under my control, well, mine and Andy's." He smiled at the memory.
Maybe if he got Blair to talk about his happy memories of Andy, he wouldn't feel so bad about her death. Jim had the impression that Blair was feeling guilty about not trying to contact her before today. "So tell me more about her, Chief. How in the heck did you wind up in Australia at that age?"
Blair lifted his eyes from the photo, gauging Jim's interest. "Are you sure you want to hear this, Jim? It's kind of a long story."
"Blair, it's obvious she was a very important person in your life, and if she was important to you, she's important to me. I just got through a visit from Naomi, and if ever there was a long story, she's it. I'll order something in, we'll have a few beers, and you can tell me all about it."
When Jim came back to the couch after ordering pizza and grabbing two beers from the fridge, Blair looked up at him and said, "It's funny you should mention Naomi in connection with Andy. Andy was nearly my mom."
Jim almost snorted beer out his nose. "What?" he finally managed after he'd finished choking. "How could she have almost been your mother?"
Blair laughed. "I told you it was a long story. I just forgot to mention it was complicated. It all started when my mom met this guy named Nate. He was from Australia, and was headed back there to make his fortune as a gold miner. Things were a little warm for Mom here in the States, seeing as she'd been quite vocally protesting the Vietnam War, and she decided a change of scenery would do us both good. So she packed us up, got us on a boat with Nate, and pretty soon we were in Australia. Only it was the middle of winter there, and Mom got sick, really sick and Nate was afraid he was going to be stuck taking care of me if Naomi had to go to the hospital, so he dumped us in some little Outback town. We had no money, and no place to go. We were standing on the corner in the pouring rain when... ."
Australia August 1973
Naomi Sandburg cuddled her four-year old son a little closer, trying, and failing, to shield him from the downpour. A coughing spasm shook her slim frame, and she silently cursed Nate. If she ever got her hands on him... It was one thing running out on them in the middle of nowhere, but not even leaving her enough bus fare to get to a bigger town was just pure evil. She hoped bad karma would follow him the rest of his days.
Peering out from under the small bar's awning, she could barely make out the shape of an approaching pickup. "Please, please, let this person stop," she prayed, as she stepped out into the muddy road, sticking out her thumb in the universal hitchhiker's symbol. The large pickup went past, then slowed to a stop and backed up.
The passenger side door was thrown open, and Naomi took a look inside. A tall, tan woman with short sun streaked brown hair was leaning across the bench seat. "Where you headed, sheila?"
Naomi hesitated. To quote Tennessee Williams, she had spent most of her life depending upon the kindness of strangers, but most of those strangers had been men. "Um, I'm not sure really. Just away from here. A bigger town, where I can get work." Blair shifted against her shoulder, and lifted his head to gaze at the woman in the truck.
"That's a cute little joey you have there," the woman said. "But I'm not headed anywhere but back to my ranch."
"Oh," Naomi said, her hopes dashed. She moved back under the scant protection of the awning as another coughing spasm doubled her over, and she had to set Blair on the ground.
When she finally straightened up, she found that the woman had gotten out of the truck and was standing in front of her. "Look, sheila, if it's work you're looking for, I'm in need of a cook. Can you cook?" Before the answer was even out of her mouth, the woman had grabbed their single suitcase and thrown it under the tarp in the back of the truck. Naomi could only nod as she watched Blair being scooped up in the taller woman's arms and placed gently in the cab. "Come on, honey, I haven't got all day. I've got horses to tend to."
Giving herself over to whatever the fates had in store for her, Naomi climbed in the truck, wrapping the blanket the other woman gave her around Blair. As she put the pickup in gear, she said, "My name's Andy. And you are?"
Naomi swallowed nervously. "I'm... I'm Naomi, and this is my son, Blair."
At the mention of his name, Blair yawned and said softly, "Bear."
"Yes, sweetheart, you're my baby bear." Naomi used a corner of the blanket to dry his hair. "He couldn't say Blair when he first started talking, so we just called him Bear. It's kind of stuck."
Andy smiled down at the child seated between herself and his mother. "I can see why. He's quite cuddly." She glanced at the road again, then turned her twinkling blue eyes on Naomi. "You're from the States? One of those," she searched for the right word, but her tone wasn't judgmental, "flower children?" Her intelligent gaze took in Naomi's braids, beads, and flowered dress.
"Yes," she finally answered, unsure of whether to defend herself or not.
"That's all right with me," Andy said. "I'm into the Eastern practices myself, meditation, Tai Chi, the harmony of the mind and body. It helps me a lot when working with the horses." She glanced over at her two passengers again, finding Bear curled up on his side, his head resting in his mother's lap. Naomi's head leaned against the window, her eyes closed. They were both fast asleep. Just as well, Andy thought, it was a long ride to the ranch.
Blair paused in his narration as the doorbell rang. Jim went to pay for the pizza as Blair got napkins and two more beers from the kitchen. Seating themselves on the sofa again, the open pizza box on the coffee table, they each helped themselves to a slice. Jim chewed thoughtfully, pondering the story his partner had told him so far. Setting his half eaten slice down on one of the napkins, he took a sip of his beer, then said, "So Andy just picked the two of you up and took you in?"
Blair nodded, and said around a mouthful of cheese and veggies, "Yep, I think she was a sucker for anything lost or wounded. She was always taking in injured wildlife, or stray dogs. And we had the real sympathy factor going, being soaking wet and freezing."
Jim could see that happening. There was nothing quite as pathetic looking as a wet Sandburg. "So, when does she almost become your mother?"
"I'm getting to that part, I'm getting to it. Just let me eat my share of the pizza first, big guy." He reached for another slice, only to have his hand smacked. "Hey!"
"The vegetarian half is yours, the meat lovers is mine."
"Jiiiiim! My memory is going. I don't think I can recall how the story ends... " He put his hands to his head dramatically. "I think I'm getting selective amnesia... "
Jim rolled his eyes, but he handed a sausage and pepperoni covered piece to his partner. "Thanks, Jim. Now as I was saying, my mom was getting sick... "
Australia, August 1973
Naomi leaned over the kitchen sink, the coughing spell leaving her light-headed. They had been at Andy's ranch for almost two weeks now, and it had rained almost every day, the cold and the dampness making her breathing worse. If she hadn't felt so lousy, she might have been enjoying their stay. Bear certainly was. The memory of her son's bright smiling face made her aches fade into the background.
Andy had introduced him to all the animals on his first full day there. She had taken him out to the barn and showed him the chickens, the cows, and the dogs, saving her pride and joy for last. Bear had come running in afterwards, describing each horse to her in detail, complete with sex, color, and temperament. She had been amazed at hearing the long Arabic names rolling off his small tongue, and he had finished up with, "And Mama, Mama, Andy let me sit on Farneerseyn's back, and she said she would teach me how to ride, if it's okay with you! Please Mama, please say okay!"
She had never been able to refuse her son anything, and now was no different. She'd given her blessing, but only after Andy had assured her she would not allow him to get hurt. Even though the Arabians were smaller and gentler than other horses, they were still much larger than her baby. Little Bear was soon rising with Andy every morning, helping her and her two Koori ranch hands with the chores. He was too small to muck stalls, but it became his responsibility to feed and water the horses, Andy devising a system to help him remember how many scoops of grain each animal got. She made up signs for each horse's stall, drawing the number of scoops on them, along with the numeral. He quickly got the hang of counting, and was handling the job by himself in a couple days.
Her proud thoughts were interrupted by both the sound of the back door opening and another coughing spell. This time she didn't catch the edge of the sink, and she collapsed to the floor, hearing Bear's small voice shrieking "Mama!" as the world faded to black.
When she was finally able to force her eyes open again, Naomi found herself in the bed she shared with Blair in the back of the ranch house. Pillows propped her up in a sitting position, and she could feel a cool hand on her forehead. "What happened?" she asked, her voice a raspy whisper.
"You fainted, hon," said Andy's accented alto. "You are one sick sheila. I've been on the radio to the doctor; he says it sounds like pneumonia. Pop this under your tongue for a few."
The Aussie slid a thermometer into her mouth. "Bear?" she managed to ask around the glass cylinder.
"He's right here, luv. Bear, come on in, your mama's awake."
Bear slowly entered the room, his blue eyes wide with fear. Andy picked him up and set him on her lap, brushing his curls out of his eyes. "See, Naomi's fine. She's just pretty sick. You've been sick before, haven't you?" Bear nodded. "I've called the doctor, and he's going to fly out here and see her. That'll be pretty neat won't it? I'll bet the doctors in the States don't have their own airplanes, do they?" Bear shook his head, still overwhelmed by what had happened to his mother.
Naomi's heart broke at the look on his face. She had never been sick a day since Blair had been born. She had always been healthy and strong, a rock for him to cling to in the swiftly moving current of their lives. Now his security had been shaken, and she didn't know what to do to make it better again. She couldn't lie to her son and tell him everything was going to be all right, when she didn't know if it was.
Andy took the thermometer out of her mouth and read it. "104. We're going to have to get that down." Popping open a bottle of aspirin, she gave two to Naomi, and helped her hold the glass of water steady as she took them. "We'll see how those work, and if necessary, we'll get you in a cool bath to bring that fever down. But right now, you need to rest. The doctor said he will try and get here by morning, if the weather clears up." She put another quilt on the bed, and turned out the bedside lamp. "Don't worry about Bear, Naomi. I'll look after him until you're on your feet again."
Taking Bear by the hand, she led him from the room. "Come on, honey, your mama needs her rest. Lets go brew up some herbal tea for when she wakes up, okay?"
"'Kay," was Bear's response. He looked back over his shoulder from the doorway, and somehow, Naomi found enough energy to blow him a kiss. He grabbed it out of the air and giggled, pressing his small hand to his mouth. Once they were gone, she fell into a feverish sleep.
Blair set his empty beer bottle down on the coffee table and let out a sigh of satisfaction as he surveyed the remains of their dinner. Nothing was left in the pizza box but a few bites of crust, and four beer bottles sat on coasters. They'd broken one of the house rules by eating in the living room, heaven forbid they'd get rings on the table. With a snicker, he gathered up the used napkins and the box, and took them out to the trash in the kitchen.
Jim followed with the beer bottles, asking, "You want another beer?" as he put them in the recycling bin.
His roommate shook his head. "No, man, two's my limit. Any more and I'll be snoring, and you did want to hear the rest of the story, didn't you?"
Raising an eyebrow at the younger man, Jim said, "I'll make some coffee."
With a laugh, Blair headed back to the couch, pulling the photo album into his lap again, slowly turning the pages. He stopped on a photo, his finger tracing his mother's profile slowly. It was a close-up the two of them, Naomi nose to nose with a giggling Blair. If he remembered correctly, Andy had snapped the photo a few months before they'd left Australia. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. What would have happened if they'd stayed? Andy had wanted them to stay; he'd wanted to stay. Memories of being torn from the only real, stable home he'd known before Jim took him in flooded his mind, clutched at his heart, and a small sob escaped his lips.
Jim was at his side in an instant, his arm going around the younger man's shoulders. "Hey, what's this?" he asked. "I can't leave you alone for a second, can I?" He pulled Blair into a hug, rubbing his back soothingly until the episode passed.
Blair sat back up a few minutes later, his expression embarrassed. "Sorry, man, I didn't mean to get carried away there."
Ruffling his hair affectionately, Jim leaned back into the sofa cushions. "Bad memory?"
"Yeah, kind of. I just realized the year and a half we spent at Andy's ranch was the longest we'd ever stayed in one place until I started college and even then, I moved just about every semester." He gave Jim a small smile. "The longest I'd stayed anywhere until I moved in here with you."
Sighing, he turned another page in the album, but didn't really see the photos. "My mom had to come back to the States because her mom, my grandmother, was sick. I didn't want to come, I wanted to stay with Andy. I mean, I'd never met my grandmother, and I didn't want to leave everything I had there. I had a horse, and a dog, and a best friend in Andy. Andy even offered to keep me while Mom went home to see my grandmother, to look after me until she came back. I wanted that so badly. I cried for days when Naomi said no." He wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Sometimes I think if she'd left me there, we both would have been better off."
"But then you'd never have met me," Jim said softly.
Blair glanced up quickly. "No, no, man, I didn't mean it that way. I just meant that... it would have saved the both of us a lot of heartache. I finally found what I was looking for in my life, but I'm not sure Naomi ever has, and I don't know if having me to look after kept her from her dreams." He shrugged. "Just what if-ing, Jim. Any way, where did I leave off? Oh yeah, my mom had pneumonia, and the bad weather kept the doctor from getting there for nearly a week. So Andy did the only thing she could. She called in a Koori healer... "
Australia August 1973
Andy's arm around Naomi's back supported her as she held the cup of medicinal tea the aboriginal healer had made for her. Naomi drank as quickly as she could, the vile liquid burning the whole way down her throat. When the cup was empty, Andy set it down on the bedside table, and leaned the smaller woman back against the pillows. Her hand cupped Naomi's forehead, and she cursed softly as she felt the fever still burning inside her.
A coughing spasm struck then, and Andy lifted her more upright, leaning her over her arm as she massaged her back. When the fit passed, Naomi eased back against the pillow and closed her eyes. Was this what it felt like to be dying? Tears burned underneath her closed eyelids as her first thought was what would happen to Blair if she didn't get better.
"Naomi, you try and rest. I'll be right here if you need anything." Andy's weight shifted on the edge of the bed as she moved to get up. Naomi's fingers caught her arm before she could rise.
"Andy," she whispered, and the other woman had to bend down to hear her. "Andy, you have to promise me something... "
"Okay, luv, anything. What is it?"
"Promise me, if I... if I don't get better, you'll take care of Blair for me." Naomi's expression was serious.
"Oh, honey, that's not going to happen. You're not going to die... " Andy sought to reassure her.
Naomi's grip on her arm tightened. "Please, Andy, please promise me. I have family in the States, but most of them have never even seen Blair, and I know you would raise him the way I would, that you would love him, and teach him to love and respect others and the world around him. He loves it here, he loves you, and the animals... please Andy."
"Okay, okay, I promise you. But you have to promise me something in return. I want you to promise me that you will not give up, that you will keep fighting this illness." She gave Naomi's hand a squeeze.
"I promise," she replied, then closing her eyes again, she slept, her heart lighter, knowing her son's future was no longer uncertain.
"So that's what you meant when you said Andy was almost your mother, that Naomi had made her promise to take care of you." Jim carried two mugs of coffee into the living room and handed one to Blair.
The guide took a sip of the hot beverage before he replied. "Yep, Naomi's always been a good judge of people. Maybe not so good in regards to her own relationships with them, but she knew who she could depend on and who she couldn't. And Andy, well Andy was one of those people you could depend on. So if Mom had died, Andy would have raised me as her son." He paused, his eyes taking on a far away look.
"And in a way, that's what she did, at least for the time we lived with her."
Picking up the photo album from the table, Jim turned to the page with the picture of Andy and Blair. "Is this the only photo you have of her?" he asked.
"Yeah, I think so, unless there's one in a different photo album, one that Naomi still has. Why?"
"Oh, this one doesn't give me any idea of what she really looked like. I was just curious. Was she much older than your mom?"
Blair thought about that for a moment. "I'm not really sure. I don't think she ever mentioned her age, though I know her birthday was in June, almost a month after mine. If I had to guess, I'd say she was about 10 years older than Mom, and Mom was probably 22 or 23 then."
Jim gave him a sideways glance. "Naomi had you pretty early in life, didn't she?"
Blair flushed slightly. "Yeah, she was sixteen when she left home, almost eighteen when I was born. As for what Andy looked like, well, she was tall, taller than Mom, and she had really short hair, almost a military kind of cut. I think she wore it that way because of the heat, and her being outside with the horses most of the time."
Setting the album back down, Jim stretched, yawned, got more comfortable on the couch. "Okay, Chief, let's hear the rest of the story. Since your mom was just here, I presume she came through her bout of pneumonia okay?"
Nodding slightly, Blair said, "Yes, she did, but it took a long time for her to fully recover, almost six months. She managed to hang on until the flying doctor got there a week after she became really ill. Between the antibiotics he gave her, the Koori healer's herbal medicine, and Andy's nursing, she survived, but it was a long time before she could even get out of bed, let alone go back to working around the ranch. For someone as full of life as she is, it was very hard for her, and very hard for me too. I was used to a mom that could run and play with me, and I was driving her crazy with my hyperactivity."
"Like that's changed much, only now it's me you drive crazy," Jim said with a laugh.
Blair lobbed a couch pillow in the sentinel's direction. "Hey, are you going to let me finish this story or not?" Satisfied Jim was going to keep his comments to himself, he continued. "So Andy came up with this thing called Andy time and Naomi time. When it was Andy time, I got to go outside with Andy and play with the dogs, or help her with the horses, or what I loved best, go riding with her. When it was Naomi time, I had to come inside and sit with Mom, and we would read books together, or color, or make up stories. Andy had a ton of books, but they were all classics. Naomi taught me to read using Dickens and Shakespeare. I learned to write that winter and spring too, and Andy taught me basic math."
He sighed, getting up and walking over to gaze out the French doors. "I never realized how great I had it there, until we had to leave."
Australia, December 1974
Naomi stepped out onto the ranch house's small porch, closing the door a little harder than necessary behind her. The heat of the evening hit her skin, and she was drenched in sweat in moments. She inhaled deeply, trying to calm her racing heart. "I'm letting this go, I'm letting this go," she chanted. Why, oh why couldn't Andy understand? She had to go back to the States, she had to make things right with her mother before she died. And didn't her mother deserve to see her grandson at least once? Why couldn't Andy understand that for once in her life she was doing the responsible thing, the thing she had learned from her?
Sitting down on the porch swing, she buried her face in her hands, trying to keep the tears from falling. A few minutes later, she heard the screen door squeak open and shut, but she didn't look up. She felt Andy's lanky frame drop into the swing next to her, and an arm snaked around her shoulders, pulling her into a hug. Naomi buried her face in the soft cotton of Andy's work shirt, and let the tears flow.
Andy's hand stroked her hair gently as she whispered apologies. "I'm sorry, luv. I just don't want to see the two of you go. It's been a long time since I've shared my home, my life with anyone other than my animals. I've gotten rather fond of the two of you. You're the... " she hesitated, "the sister I never had, and Bear's the son I've always wished for. So I'm just being selfish, you see, because it will be awfully quiet and lonely here when you're gone."
The older woman's quiet confession only made Naomi cry harder. "Shhh, shhh, it'll be all right, honey. I'll be just fine, and you'll be just fine. Making things right with your family is the important thing. Besides, I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here for years to come. You know where I am, and you'll always be welcome here."
Naomi sat up, but kept one arm around Andy. She gazed into the other woman's eyes as Andy wiped her tear streaked face, finding in those cool blue depths only love, and support, and a tiny bit of sorrow. Leaning forward, Andy planted a soft kiss on Naomi's temple, then she released her hold on her.
Startled by the unexpected show of affection, Naomi was about to comment on it when a small voice at the screen door said sleepily, "Mama, are you and Andy done fighting?"
"Come on out here, baby," she said, and Bear padded across the wood floor of the porch, climbing up to sit between his mother and Andy.
Andy ran her fingers through his bed-mussed curls. "Hey, little Bear, you're supposed to be sleeping."
"Couldn't," he replied, his lower lip trembling. "You and N'omi were yelling."
Both women gave him a squeeze at the same time. "It's okay, honey. Your mama and I straightened it all out. We kissed and made up." Andy's eyes met Naomi's over the top of Bear's head. "Isn't that right?"
"Umm hmm, we're all done fighting, baby. In fact, Andy's going to go with us to Melbourne, to see us off on the plane."
"I don't recall agreeing to that," Andy said, "but okay."
Fat tears began to roll down Bear's cheeks. "I don't wanna leave, Mama, I wanna stay here with Andy, and Nej and Bo... and... and Farneerseyn's gonna have her baby really soon, and Andy promised he would be my horse... ." He sobbed as though the world was coming to an end, which for him it was.
"Oh, bloody hell," Andy swore, "now I'm gonna cry."
Naomi slid Bear onto her lap and scooted closer to Andy, pulling her head down to rest on her shoulder, one arm hugging her son, the other around her friend, the three of them finding comfort in each other.
When Blair had finished his story, Jim was silent for a few moments, watching his guide struggle with the painful memories. Then he pulled his friend into an impulsive hug, and hearing Blair's relieved sigh, he knew he'd done the right thing. Now if he could only find the right words...
"Chief, you are welcome to stay here forever. This is your home now, and no one's ever going to make you leave." The hold Blair had around his neck threatened to choke him, and Jim knew he'd gotten lucky twice.
Finally Blair let him go, wiping at his eyes. "Thanks, Jim," he said. "That means a hell of a lot to me, more than you'll ever know."
Giving him a grin, Jim couldn't resist reaching over and messing with his hair once more. "Yeah, well, Chief, that's what friends are for."
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