June 5, 2013 by Lyn
Monday, May 31, 2004
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
That wasn’t the opening Jovanna had expected – nor was it exactly a reassuring one.
“Who?” She finished getting dressed – now that Arna wasn’t spending all her energy pretending that they weren’t actually dating, she got to spend the night in her Keeper’s room more often than not. Which meant they got to be naked together more often than not, or at least as naked as Jo was comfortable getting.
“Well, several someones. Out in the Village.” Arna’s eyes skimmed over Jo’s skirt and blouse. “You look lovely.” There was a warm note of approval in her voice.
“Thanks?” Arna didn’t normally notice what either of them wore, at least beyond “does it cover everything and will it show the blood stains?”
“It’ll be good.” She nodded decisively and, in an even more uncharacteristic move, offered Jovanna her hand. “Come on. I want to get there before lunch.”
“Where?” Jovanna put her hand in Arna’s anyway; she wasn’t about to argue with the PDA.
“Out. You’ll see.” Arna held the door open with her free hand and gestured out into the suite and, from there, out into the hall.
“Out?” Jo really wanted to stall, to put forth some resistance, but it was hard to argue with Arna introducing her to people, visibly being her Keeper for once, holding her hand…
“Out, outside. It should be warm enough out, unless it’s snowing.”
“I’m never going to get used to the weather here.”
“It does take a while. It’s safe to expect snow unless it’s summer and rain unless it’s winter. Fall and Spring don’t really exist.”
“So I’m beginning to notice.” Jovanna faked a shiver – but not too much of one, because Arna was still holding her hand.
“I didn’t grow up all that far from here, so it’s not that odd for me. You…”
Jovanna barely managed to hide a flinch. There was so much Arna had never bothered to ask. “I grew up in Virginia. We moved to North Carolina when I was ten, and then to Florida when I was fifteen.”
Arna frowned. “When you were…”
This time, Jovanna couldn’t help the wince. “I’m sixteen now. I turned sixteen in November.”
“…oh…” Her Keeper’s pale complexion meant that she showed embarrassment very easily, although Jovanna hadn’t had all that much opportunity to see that. Today, her cheeks looked like they were on fire. “Jo…”
“Arna, please.” It was almost a whimper.
“I’m sorry. Jovanna, I’m…” She stopped in the hallway and caught Jovanna’s other hand. “For everything. I’ve made a mess of it, haven’t I?”
Damnit, she was going to cry – or start shouting, and she wasn’t sure which was worse. “I just don’t understand why. Why Keep me if you didn’t want me? Why make it a secret? Why everything?”
“Oh, honey.” Arna’s lips on Jovanna’s forehead felt as if they were burning hot. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want you. It never was. It’s just…”
“You’re in love with Jaya. That much was really clear.”
“I’m…” Arna flapped both hands. “I’m bad at relationships.”
“I thought…” Jovanna swallowed. “I thought at first, it was because…” She flapped a hand in the direction of her skirt. Dr. Caitrin had said they could make things right. But not while she was Kept.
“But you’re in love with Jamian. Jaya. And she – he – she-he?” She hated using the it that the Ellehemaei seemed to prefer for gender swappers. “Oh… jael.” Professor Drake had, at her very pointed request, let her know the pronoun for Ellehemaei, which, while it might mean “it,” at least sounded different. “Jael was male at the last visit.”
Arna stared at Jovanna for a moment. “You thought… you…” She swallowed. “Oh, honey.” She wrapped her arms around Jovanna’s shoulders in what was probably supposed to be a hug. “Honey, no. No, I promise you. It’s not that. I’m – no.”
“It’s not because I can’t change it myself? Because I’m stuck like this until the doctor says it’s okay?”
“Oh, no, love, no, I promise. I’m just.” Arna looked around, sighed, and patted Jovanna’s back again. “I’m just bad at this. I wanted to give you protection, so you didn’t get caught by some beast. But…”
“But you’re in love with Jaya. I know. That’s obvious.” She swallowed a sob. “But I mean, Adelheid and Llew…”
“Just because she’s my sister…” Arna’s snapped it out, and Jovanna tried to step backwards, away from the sudden anger. “No, no, baby, I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s not. People just do that. No…” She took a breath and pulled Jovanna back against her chest. “I don’t adjust as well as Heidi does. And it’s different. I think Heidi and Anwell are a little more secure with each other – sure of each other, something. Can we take this conversation outside? This is kind of public.”
Jovanna wormed an arm free to wipe her eyes. “You’re in charge.”
“You say that like it’s supposed to be a good thing.” Arna’s sigh seemed more embarrassed than put-upon, at least. She shifted back to holding Jovanna’s hand. “We’re almost to the exit, so close your eyes for me?”
They didn’t go outside often, but there was always this dance, as if somehow, knowing where the exit was would mean Jovanna would bolt for the hills at the first opportunity. She closed her eyes – even phrased as a request, it didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room – and clutched tightly to Arna’s hand. “Got it.”
“Right this way, just even more steps. Okay, you can open your eyes.” Arna gave her hand a quick squeeze. “It is weird, for me, being the Keeper.”
“Instead of being partners?” Looking at Jaya and Arna together – watching them and pretending not to – Jovanna had gotten mixed messages about their relationship. Partners didn’t quite fit, but nothing else did, either.
“Or something. I was Jaya’s Kept for two years; it was only last year that we were just… dating, I guess. This whole thing is new to me.”
“It shows.” Jovanna knew she shouldn’t say it, but the words slipped out anyway. She braced herself.
Arna just winced. “Yeah. I know. I’m trying to explain, I guess. I was trying to do something, I guess. Not make you feel like I did, sometimes, when I was wearing Jaya’s collar – like the only thing that mattered about me was the collar. I mean, Jaya tried to be good about it and all, but there was still the collar, there was still being hers before anything else.”
Still being hers… Jovanna let that sink in, trying to figure out where the problem was… oh.
“So…” She started cautiously, because Arna was clearly both upset and twitchy. “You ended up feeling like people looked at you and just saw Jaya’s Kept. And you didn’t want me to have to go through that.”
“Yeah.” Arna sighed. “Which is like what I told Evie not to do?”
“Not to treat Luna like a person? She does well enough with that on her own.”
“No, no.” Arna huffed. She still wasn’t looking at Jovanna directly. “I know she’s being sort of bad about things, but I’ve been trying to help. No, what I told her was ‘don’t do things with your Kept just to avoid doing something you hated. You don’t know if it’s something they’ll hate or not, and you might end up erring too far in the wrong direction.’ And then I went and erred way too far in the wrong direction.” She lifted her hand to Jovanna’s cheek. “I’m sorry, honey. I never meant to hurt you like this.”
“I know.” Jovanna was proud of how level her voice was – no breaking at all. “I’ve always known. That’s what made it so bad.” She swallowed against a lump. “It made it worse, because this was you trying to be nice, so I always felt bad being upset about it. ‘Cause you were trying.”
“Oh…” Arna sounded faint, barely audible at all. “Oh… shit. Jovanna… Jo-darling, I’m so sorry.”
“Please…” This time, she couldn’t quite keep the sob silent. “Please, please don’t be. Just be… different? Maybe? Not like this, for our last month?”
Arna’s expression was solemn. “I can do that. I don’t know how good I’ll be at it, but I can try to be different. Better.”
“I’d like better. And…” Jovanna flapped one hand, not quite sure how to say it. “It’s been better, I mean, better than before, with sleeping with you and, ah, sleeping with you?” She felt her own cheeks heating up. “It’s just… better, not good, you know?”
“I know. Or, at least, I can guess.” Arna kissed Jovanna’s warm cheeks. “I’m… okay. I won’t be sorry, but I can try my best.”
“I’d like that. Appreciate that. Stuff.” Jovanna found she was still having trouble not crying. “Shit. I’m sorry. It’s just…”
“I get it, or, at least, I can guess at it.” Arna hugged her again, a little more effectively this time. “If you need to cry, I’m not going to be mad at you.”
“I just… I don’t usually.”
“Me, neither. But when I was with Jaya… sometimes I did. The bond does that to your brain. It does a lot of things to your brain.” She twisted her face up. “I should have saved you all that.”
“Just stop, please?” Jovanna swallowed another sob. “You’re going to be a good Keeper now and I’m not a horrible Kept for making you feel bad, okay? Weren’t we coming out here to meet someone?”
“We were.” Arna brushed her thumbs over Jovanna’s cheeks and muttered a quiet Working. “There, all the puffy crying-eyes gone.”
“That does not seem like your sort of Working.”
“Jaya taught it to me.” She smirked dryly. “I’ve had two lovers in school, both were born male – male-ish biologically, and both were better at being girls than I am.”
Jovanna tried a smile, and found that it worked out okay. “Naah. Just… you know, differently girls.” She touched Arna’s shoulder, and her long blonde braid. “You’re beautiful, and you’re definitely all woman.”
“You’re nicer to me than I deserve.”
“But it’s all honesty. I can’t really lie to you, after all.” She kissed her Keeper’s cheek. “I like you. I might love you-”
“It might be the Bond.”
“Of course it might. But I like the feeling, so I’m going with it. I like you. And I like you being tough-as-nails and twice as sharp. All right?”
“When did you start comforting me instead of the other way around?”
Jovanna smirked. “When you needed it more than I did, of course.”
“You’re an awesome Kept.”
Jovanna braced herself as the surge of pleasure washed over her, but didn’t bother to hide the goofy smile. “I love it when you do that.”
“It can be sort of addicting.” Arna patted her head. “Come on, now that I’ve fixed your make-up, we still have people to meet.”
“Oh, yeah. Who?”
“Still a surprise.” She squeezed Jovanna’s hand. “Down the garden path we go.”
“It’s more like a over the meadow sort of thing… oh, god, I’m not going to start singing again, am I?”
“Well, there is a river. I mean, more like a streamlet.” The path was paved with wide, flat stones, laid perfectly evenly into the surrounding meadow. Workings, Jovanna guessed. Having magic had to make landscaping easier.
Having magic probably made everything easier, come to think of it. Cooking, skiing, cosmetic surgery, less-than-cosmetic surgery – after the fight, one of the probably-Arna’s-brothers had been missing an arm, and now he was as good as new.
The path did, indeed, wind its way over a little stream. Jovanna spent the time thinking about things you could do more easily with magic – preserve old books. Could you copy them? Maybe by looking at each page one by one. Put on make-up; you could just do a Mask so you were made-up. Walking? Maybe. Walking in heels, definitely.
This wasn’t the normal route they took when going outside; it didn’t lead down to the head of Main Street where the Café and the library were, instead heading through a park-like area before twisting up a hill.
While the whole “outside” area was set up with gently rolling hills – to break up the scenery, Jovanna was pretty sure – this was a hill, with steep sides and a tall Victorian-looking house at the top of it. The path meandered back and forth through shrubberies; at certain points, the view allowed a peek around the hill to the other side.
“It’s like some sort of stage set.” Jovanna gestured at the three buildings – still pretty but not nearly as Main Street Lovely as the Victorian house – hiding behind the hill. “Pay no attention to the buildings behind the curtain?”
Arna snorted. “Something like that. They need the space, but I bet Regine didn’t want it to mess with her ambiance.” She drawled out ambiance in an accent entirely unlike her. “This is all Lady Maureen’s.”
“Kay’s Mentor’s? Is it…” Jovanna had heard rumors about the imposing Lady Foxglove. “Is it a House?”
Arna choked out a laugh. “Oh… oh, no. I can see why you’d think that.” She tagged that on hurriedly, before Jovanna’s feelings could get hurt. “I think she used to run that sort of thing.”
“I was never sure. I love the way she dresses, though.”
“I’m not surprised. You know, if you wanted clothes like that, we could get you some…”
“It’s hard enough here. I don’t want to stand out any more than I already do.” Maybe next year. Maybe if Dr. Caitrin really could. Maybe.
Arna nodded. “I get that. I spent my first year really trying to fit in. After that, well… then I remembered I was cy’Doug.”
Jovanna smirked. “You have that. I’m… well, not.”
“Cy’Caitrin can be pretty scary too. I mean – body workings. That can be terrifying.”
Jo shrugged. “I guess? I’m just not used to people being scared of me at all.”
“Well, being terrifying isn’t everyone’s thing – but I bet by your fourth year here you’ll be a bit scary, at least.”
“I suppose?” Jovanna glanced around, and decided changing the subject was the best option. Fishing for a subject, she finally ended up back at the landscaping. “Who does all of this?” He gesture took in the hedges, but she really meant the whole thing. “There’s a lot of gardening here.”
“The houses down by the Village, everyone does their own thing. But this, and the meadow, and all of that, that’s Valentina.”
Jovanna had heard that name, but never met the person that went with it. “All by themselves?”
“Sometimes she has Students, and sometimes she has student workers, like the people that work in the Store.”
“Seems like, I don’t know, coming to this school and then working on top of everything else…”
“Well, for some people it’s just a nice change of pace, and I’ve heard that for some, it’s a way to deal with money if you find your Store account running low.”
“It can run low?”
“Oh, yeah. Pretty easily, actually.”
“They don’t ever tell you how much is in it.”
“They will if you ask all the right questions. But, I mean, by ‘pretty easily,’ I mean you have to be spending more than just food and some clothes. I know someone who did it by being really obsessed with clothes, and a couple others whose Keepers helped them drain their accounts.”
“Can they – of course they can. That’s pretty shitty.”
“Not everyone is a good Keeper.”
“Yeah, figured that part out.” She wrinkled her nose.
“I wasn’t talking about you. Not really.”
“Not really.” Arna made a face at her. “I know, I know.” She waved her hand at Jovanna. “Æowyn and Ahouva and Ceinwen.”
“Yeah. I mean, Ahouva’s got it better, and I’m never really sure about Æowyn and Ceinwen.”
“Fafnir’s an asshole. Thorburn… is a different flavor of asshole.”
“Yeah, but Arna, you don’t like guys at all.” They had come to an elaborate wrought-iron gate that seemed to grow out of the hedge. Maybe it did, here.
“Well, not much. I blame my father.” With that unhelpful sentence, she pulled a bell-cord. Somewhere, a deep bell rang.
“You blame… not asking. Who are we here to visit, anyway? I already know Lady Maureen.”
“Patience, grasshopper. Someone should be here in a moment.”
“I’m not a big fan of surprises.”
“It’s going to be all right, Jovanna. I’m not going to feed you to the wolves.”
“Anr-björk!” A rocket launched itself at Arna, shouting gibberish. Jovanna took a prudent step back while the projectile wrapped itself around her Keeper.
“Woah, easy.” Arna was laughing – really laughing, her smile broad – as she shifted into gibberish. Jovanna blinked, finally managing to identify the squirming former-rocket as a young boy, maybe up to her shoulder in height, missing two teeth and needing a haircut. The gibberish…
“Jæja, hún er Björk.” The boy smiled, showing all the gaps in his teeth.
“Jovanna, this is Hawthorne. He lives here at the crèche. Hawthorne, this is my girlfriend, Jovanna.”
Girlfriend? She’d take it. “Hello, Hawthorne.” She offered him a hand politely. “I’m afraid I don’t speak Icelandic yet.”
“But you knew what it was! That’s pretty awesome. If you can tell what it is, we can teach you.”
“Nuunh-unh, not Icelandic, that’s silly. Vi kommer til at lære hende Dansk.” Another small person hurried up to Jovanna; this one was female-looking, with black curls in disarray. She thrust a hand out. “Hi, I’m Chandra.”
“Hi, Chandra, I’m Jovanna.” She shook this second hand as politely as the first one. Was this…?
“Chandra’s Professor Pelletier’s granddaughter. She lives with her grandmother, but she spends her days at the crèche.”
Yeah, it looked like she was. The question remained, why?
“Hi, Chandra. Dansk… Danish?” She smirked. “I already speak Spanish and English, and I’m learning French.”
“All romance languages.” The child was surprisingly well-educated in languages.
“Allow people to choose their paths, Chandra.” The placid, terrifying voice of Lady Maureen carried over the heads of the children. The… not-a-madam? Nanny?… was carrying a small child on her brocade-clad hip.
“Oh, is this Azariah?” Arna reached for the small child.
“You know it is.” Lady Maureen handed the child over with no apparent concern. “Come on in, both of you. This must be Jovanna.”
“Yes. Jovanna, Lady Maureen. I think you’ve run into each other before… aren’t you adorable, yes you are, yes you are…”
“Yes, we have. Could I get you something to drink, Jovanna?”
“Oh, no, I’m all right…” She lost her train of thought as a smaller child wrapped himself around her leg. “Hi?”
“Hi.” He smiled up at her with a wide grin. “You’re warm.”
“Now, Key, what have I told you?”
“That’s right, ask first. Key, this is Jovanna. Jovanna, this is Key.”
“Key is Fran’s son,” Arnbjorg provided, “and Azariah is Birgit’s daughter. You know both of them, I think?”
“Fran’s got the horns and Ovid, cy’Fridmar? And Birgit – she’s the one with the doggy ears?” As the word ears slipped out of her mouth, she looked down at the children, and then over at Arna and Lady Maureen, who were both Masked. She left her Mask up as a matter of course, but that didn’t mean… “Should I not talk about those things?”
“It’s quite all right.” Lady Maureen dropped her Mask. “The children know that we are not all entirely similar to one another, and that this is a Village secret.”
“Like the flowers.” Hawthorne was bouncing up and down. “Or the fires.”
“Like the flowers and the fires, exactly. Such things are private things, for within the Village. Family secrets.”
“Family secrets.” Jovanna smiled. She liked the sound of that. “Like we’re all one big family.”
“We are, in a sense.” Lady Maureen patted Jovanna’s shoulder. “Here, in my House, more than in most places.” There was no missing the capital letter she put on House; Jovanna raised her eyebrows.
Arna distracted her from the Lady’s responding eyebrow-lift by handing her Azariah. “Here, have a baby.”
“A baby. Arna, what am I going to do with a baby?” There was an implied order in the here, have a baby, so Jovanna took the small squirming person.
“You can hold her. You won’t drop her, it’s okay.” Arna patted the small child with one hand and Jovanna with the other. “Azariah’s a good kid and a good one to practice with.”
“Practice…” Oh, yeah. “Oh.”
“My two are off with their other mom, or I’d introduce you to them, but the school has plenty of babies to meet, and Lady Maureen said it would be okay.”
Jovanna shifted the child carefully. “You want me to get used to the idea of babies?”
“Well, at some point, you’re going to need two of them. We all do.”
“Babies.” Hawthorne grinned, and patted Azariah’s foot. “Babies everywhere, like on Noah’s ark. In two-by-two.”
“Like Noah’s ark.” It sounded like just a clever turn of phrase for a small person, but Lady Maureen and Arna both got strange expressions twisting their faces. “Are we hiding out here from the flood, then?” She was asking Hawthorne, but she glanced up at the adult’s faces as well.
“Tallest hill here!” Hawthorne gestured around. “We don’t have any elephants though. Lady Maureen says they wouldn’t fit.”
“Maybe they have their own boat.” Jovanna found that there was a chair behind her, so she sat down, carefully cradling Azariah. “Maybe this is the two-by-two boat just for the babies.”
“Who needs that many babies?” Hawthorne seemed entirely unimpressed. “Babies everywhere. All they do is poop and puke and cry and sleep.”
“Well, you were a baby once.” Jovanna assumed that was true of most of them, even if she had heard that Curry was giving birth to trees.
“I’m afraid it’s true.” Lady Maureen smiled down at Hawthorne. “I can show you pictures, if you’d like. I have your baby book on the shelf with all the others.”
“I have a baby book?”
“They all have baby books?” Jovanna was Ninth Cohort. There were eight cohorts before her, all with maybe, what, twenty or more students, all with two kids each – although that probably averaged out to one kid each, more or less – still, that made a lot of baby books.
“You all have baby books.” Lady Maureen patted Jovanna’s shoulder. “I have been asking for pictures for decades, for all of you.”
“I have…” She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. “Oh, no.”
“It’s not as bad as all that. You children wait here, and I will go get Hawthorne’s book – and yours, Jovanna. And, perhaps Arnbjorg’s children’s books as well. I know you miss them, dear.”
“I do.” Arna settled into a seat near Jovanna and coaxed Key into her lap. “Hey.” She patted Jovanna’s hand. “It’ll be all right.”
“It’s…” She didn’t want to say it. She didn’t want to try to explain in front of all the small people. It didn’t seem like it was a child-appropriate conversation.
“Trust…” Arna frowned. “It’s okay to trust Lady Maureen.” Her rephrase sounded uncomfortable. “She understands a lot. More than most…” Arna twisted her lips in a smile. “Well, more than most adults. She pays attention.”
Jovanna wasn’t certain that was a good thing. “That sounds like… Oh, I don’t know. Surveillance.”
“Cameras!” Hawthorne scoffed. “Lady Maureen doesn’t need cameras. She’s just that cool. She always knows.”
“She’s just that cool?” Jovanna found herself grinning at the boy. “I like you, kid.”
“I like me too. Careful, ‘Zar likes to spit up on strangers. You’ve got to get her head over your shoulder.” He handed Jovanna a length of cloth. “Put this over your shoulder, then put her face there.”
“Like this?” She felt more than a little silly as she shifted the baby.
“Very good, Jovanna, Hawthorne. Well done. Here.” She pulled up a seat between Jovanna and Arna, although there hadn’t appeared to be any space there. “Your baby book, Jovanna.”
She cringed, but couldn’t bring herself to look away. She knew what her school pictures looked like – hastily chopped-back hair except the one year she’d “lost” the notice, the shirts she never liked wearing that her mother forced her into “Just for picture day, Jovan, if no other time,” and then, in later years, the scrubbed-face look as a teacher insisted she get the makeup off of her face. They looked like strangers; they looked like someone she wasn’t.
Lady Maureen flipped the pages slowly: a tiny baby, smaller than the one she was now holding, wearing yellow and smiling sunnily up at the camera. A larger baby, in green and blue. A toddler, and then a pre-schooler, wearing green and blue and yellow and, sometimes, dark pink – overalls and t-shirts and then the peter-pan collar shirts a young Jovan had talked his mother into.
Nobody at school had made fun of the lace on the shirt. The teacher had complained, though.
Jovanna’s eyes got a little damp. These weren’t the school pictures, carefully posed to make her look like someone she wasn’t – these were the pictures her mother and father – and aunts and uncles – had taken, pictures that looked as much like herself as she felt she could be short of surgery.
“Thank you.” She was all choked up, but she could still manage that.
Lady Maureen seemed to understand. She patted Jovanna’s knee. “This, my dear, is part of what I do.”
Friday, June 4, 2004
“I’ll see you later.” Kheper punched Curry lightly in the arm and peeled off to the Boom suite. The kid had needed a couple more friends, friends that weren’t Basalt and Thorburn, and when you thought of him like a twelve-year-old, he really wasn’t that bad.
“Hey, man, you know if…” Curry shrugged uncomfortably. “I mean…” He tugged on the neck of his T-shirt.
“My shirt’s too tight?” Kheper let him off the hook, though. “Things are good with Cya.”
“Fafnir didn’t like it, last year.”
Kheper had heard that one more than a couple times. “Fafnir doesn’t like anything. Besides, Cabal was fine with it the year before.” He’d met both of his Keeper’s former Kept, and he had to admit he had his own preferences. It didn’t help that Fafnir looked a lot more like Leo and Howard, while Cabal kind of looked like he could be related to Kheper (although Cya assured them that he wasn’t). “I’m fine, Curry. Thanks for asking and everything.”
Although what asking in the end of the school year would do, he didn’t know.
“Friends, ya know?”
Curry shrugged. “Anyway. Next year’ll be different, right?”
“Next year.” Kheper tried to hide a wince at the idea of Curry trying to Keep someone… at the idea of himself Keeping someone. Next year, Cya would be gone… It didn’t really bear thinking about. It wasn’t anything he could do anything about right now. “I’ll see you around, man.”
“Cool.” Curry finally left, off to whatever he did when he wasn’t trailing around behind his friends. Kheper steeled himself. She’d be gone in less than a month. She’d decided to carry Leo’s kid, of course. He wondered, bitterly, what she’d have done if neither Leo nor Howard had managed to finish off their grad requirements on time.
“Kheper!” Cya popped her head out the door. “There you are. Come on, we’re going out for dinner.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the hall.
“What…?” He couldn’t very well not go with her, but he could argue all he wanted. “Out, why?”
“Zita’s in a state. And I’d like to be in a single piece when tonight is over.” She stopped dead in the hall and stole a kiss. “And I’d like you intact, too.”
“…Thanks?” She kissed him again, and Kheper stopped trying to argue. She’d be gone in less than a month… but she wasn’t gone yet.
Art by Kuroseishin
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