A/N:Going to post this while I seem to be able to do so. Due to computer problems on my side I am hoping I have all the corrections accounted for from my wonderful, patient and so skillful Beta, my sister of the heart Mary (). Any errors are to be laid at MY door, not hers!
So, without further ado, on to the much delayed chapter:
"An, sweetheart, look …I’m on my knees here. Makin’ a public spectacle. Way too broke to hire a skywriter and too scared to send a clown with balloons." Xander had spent the past hour outside his apartment begging his steamed girlfriend to just open the door a crack.
His key had proven as useless as he had expected it to be, since he knew Anya well enough to expect the locks to be changed.
"Okay, not in the mood for humor, check." He was really beginning to worry that he had finally pushed the ex-demon too far.
After Spike’s mom ripped him a new one and then comforted him with words meant to encourage him to be his better self, Xander had concentrated on trying to figure out how to make things up with Anya. It would be another week before he was payday man again, so a shiny bauble was out of the question.
Maybe he should credit his love with more than avarice, if he wanted to be fair. "An, you were right. I’m a first rate jerk who didn’t know the best thing to ever happen to him. You’re right about a lot of things… except one. It IS you that I love. I maybe needed a battle axe upside my head to make me realize it, but you are my whole world."
He could hear some movement inside and breathed a sigh of relief that he was at least being heard by more than nosy neighbors.
"An, please, if you don’t want me to come in, I do understand. I know I don’t deserve another chance, but please, at least come out and we can go somewhere to talk." His voice caught on a sob at the end. "I don’t deserve you, but, God, honey, I need you…I love you."
Sniffles could be heard from the other side of the door. "Go away, Xander Harris. Go run back to your precious Buffy and let me listen to dumb country music and cry in multiple glasses of cheap American beer."
"I’m not leaving, An," Xander promised. "You have to leave the apartment some time. You’ll have to step over my dead body if necessary, ‘cause I’m not going anywhere until we at least talk. even promise to listen for a change."
A door across the hallway opened and an annoyed gray head popped out. "I’m going to call the police, young man. It’s some people’s bedtime, you know!"
"An, Mrs. Tanner’s planning to have me arrested," Xander whined. You don’t want to become engaged to someone with a criminal record, do you?"
The sniffles stopped before the security chain made a familiar rattle as Anya opened the door a crack.
"It looks like the scene in "Excalibur" when Arthur is getting ready to do battle with Mordred. Only with no cool soundtrack," Clem reported with wide eyes. "You’d think these guys would drive Hummers or something instead of ride horses." The sad-faced demon shook his head in amazement.
"Yeah, well, no accountin’," Spike coughed out. He was feeling slightly better, having made good use of the bags of blood Clem had managed to appropriate for him. Human too, not pig swill! Still, there was lots more needing to be healed and vampires did their healing from the inside out. More bones and tendons would need to mend before the various cuts, abrasions and bruises could make an attempt to return to normal.
"How ya doin’, buddy? Still look like something a Traxlar dragged in though. Maybe I should get some more of the good stuff from The Alibi before it closes for the night," offered Clem.
"Wouldn’t turn it down, mate." Spike decided Clem was quickly earning a spectacular "thank you gift when this whole Glory thing was finished. His help was worth a lot more than a case of Bugles and the complete boxed set of "Best of David Hasselhoff."
"Mind a side trip to the Slayer’s?" Spike knew his mother would be beside herself with worry if he didn’t return soon. Then again, one look at her Willie boy in his current condition might just take away their unexpected miracle and return his mum to her grave. He had to keep her from worrying and buy time to heal.
"No problemo," Clem answered nervously. "Want me to send the Slayer by?" Clem hoped the answer was "no", because the last thing the gentle demon wanted was to beard the slayer of his kind in her own nest! It was one thing for Spike to cozy up to the girl, but Clem liked to keep HIS pair firmly attached!
Spike shuffled painfully over to the box he used to store his personal effects and withdrew a sheet of paper and pen. After a few moments of silence while Spike wrote and Clem shifted from foot to foot in uncomfortable tension, Spike finally gave his instructions. "Give this to anybody who comes to the door unless it’s a genteel older lady. Tell them to give it to the Watcher or the Slayer ONLY. Got that?"
Spike saw the obvious nervousness of his friend and sought to reassure him. "They’re not used to demons just strolling up to the front door and knockin’ politely, so I doubt anyone will be armed. Daft gits probably SHOULD with that hell bitch out and about, but they likely won’t. Just try to look harmless, hand over the note and leave."
Buffy took the note from Dawn and opened it to read. She really needed to remind her little sister not to simply open the door. Just because the sun had been up for an hour didn’t mean it was safe. Everyone else living in Sunnydale might be blind to the dangers surrounding them, but the Summers household should know better.
Anne had watched the odd man as he muttered quickly and thrust the paper into Dawn’s hand before fleeing in a panic. "Oh, dear, that poor man! I’ve never seen such a dreadful skin condition in all my days, even when my beloved husband held open clinics! Perhaps we should discover his address and refer him to that wonderful Dr. Wilkinson who has given me such hope!"
"I believe ‘that poor man’ was actually a demon, Mrs. Pratt," Giles suggested.
"How strange then that he did not attack! In fact, he seemed far from hostile to me," Anne mused. "I thought you were of the opinion that all demons were bloodthirsty animals with only mayhem in mind?" Anne secretly delighted at the slight blush on the Watcher’s face as he struggled to hold fast to his firm opinions in face of challenge.
"Where on earth could William have gone?" Mrs. Pratt asked of no one in particular.
Buffy’s brow furrowed as she read the short missive. "I need to take a quick trip to see…an informant… at Restview Cemetery," she announced. "I won’t be long." She headed for the door after selecting a stake and small axe.
Giles followed her out onto the porch, concern shining in his eyes. "What is it?" he whispered. "Restview? Was that note from Spike by any chance? We noticed he hadn’t returned… Mrs. Pratt and I, that is."
"Yup, something about Glory and needing to see me in person but not here. We’ll probably both be back in a few minutes and you can grill him for details then. I really don’t know anything else." Buffy sighed, not happy at having to go out so soon after a late night.
She had wakened from her first dream-free sleep since her mom had died, wanting nothing more than to crawl back into bed and the arms of oblivion that awaited her there. Dawn’s exuberant chatter upon returning from her overnight stay with the Wiccans had jolted Buffy from her slumber and now it would be pointless to hope for a nap later. Before Buffy could properly scold her sister for her high decibel human alarm clock imitation there had been that odd demon at her door and now this. ‘Spike better have a damn good reason for making me come to him instead of just dragging his dead tush back home and talking to me at a civilized hour here,’ she thought peevishly.
Buffy was only a block away from her house when she nearly ran down Xander, who was walking down the sidewalk muttering to himself.
"Xan?" Buffy could see that her friend was troubled but didn’t really want to take the time right then to listen to the latest in the Xander and Anya follies. "Hey, I’m in a bit of a rush, but Giles is up if you need, you know, to talk or something."
"And just how am I going to afford a decent diamond on my salary?" Xander seemed to be asking himself. "I would have to hook up with a woman who can tell color, clarity and carat size in her sleep!"
As interesting as Xander’s mumblings seemed to be, Buffy just wanted to go and meet with Spike and get home before the day had a chance to get too crazy.
She had plans to work with Willow in getting that stupid robot ready for job interviews. The sooner some cash started coming in, the better. Buffy had just been informed that the life insurance money would all be used up paying her mom’s medical bills. Right now, time was of the essence and there would be time for deciphering Xanderisms later.
Willow made herself busy in the kitchen, preparing breakfast for the household. Buffy was hopeless in the kitchen and Dawn didn’t seem to have inherited any of Joyce’s skills in the culinary arts either.
Anne watched from the doorway as Willow piled waffles on a plate and muttered some foreign words over them before turning back to the stovetop. As the sausages began to sizzle, Anne decided to ask, "My dear, won’t those lovely cakes cool too quickly sitting on the counter in that manner? I do not presume to have any special skills in the kitchen aside from the planning of menus, but it would seem they would need to be placed in a chafing dish at the very least."
"Not a problem, witch here," Willow smiled. "A few words in Sumerian and presto… fresh as just grilled!"
"Do you often use magic for such trivial matters?" Anne was perplexed. Surely such important skills should not be so blithely put to use. "I would think it a great waste of power to do that which can easily be accomplished without an incantation."
"What’s power if not to use?" Willow asked.
Anne felt a slight rush of fear run along her spine at those words. The girl seemed to have a too casual disregard for the wonderous gift she possessed.
Xander entered from the back porch before Anne could give voice to her concerns. "And hello, waffly goodness! Willow, my dearest and bestest cooking friend in all of Sunnydale, you must have known I was on my way!"
"Not really, but just remember, mister, that I CAN track you down if I ever really need to," Willow teased.
"And at that, I tremble," Xander said with a false shudder. "Of course you could always do that anyway; I’m a creature of habit and you know me too well." He smiled charmingly.
"Did you make up with Anya last night?" Willow wasn’t sure what to hope his answer would be. She had never warmed to the former demon, but she didn’t want her oldest friend to have his heart shattered either.
"Check and double check," he replied. "Or maybe I should say checkmate. I managed to get myself engaged last night, Will."
Willow scrunched her face adorably and said in a questioning tone of voice, "Congratulations? Why do I think you aren’t exactly happy moon-walking man about this?"
"I am," Xander answered quickly--too quickly. At Willow’s dubious look, he said again, "I am. I know I want to spend the rest of my life with Anya. I really don’t even want to see myself without her there with me. It’s just …I don’t know, I guess I’m not sure if I’m really ready."
Xander looked at Mrs. Pratt and nodded in greeting. "After that talking- to from a very wise lady, I realize that I have some growing up to do and now I’ve jumped right into the fire." Willow crossed her arms and gave him her most stern look. "It’s just that nothing was getting through to Anya. She wasn’t listening to my apologies." Willow continued to glare disapproval.
"I can’t lose her, Will."
"Perhaps Anya would be agreeable to a long engagement," suggested Mrs. Pratt. "That would give you a bit of time to know your heart better without withdrawing your request for her hand."
Xander looked like a drowning man who had just discovered a life preserver floating by. "Do you think she’d go for it?"
"Tell her that’ll give her time to plan a big, expensive wedding," Willow suggested. "Anya should jump at that," she added snidely.
"I would think that Miss Jenkins would have some traditional values, owing to her origins," Mrs. Pratt agreed with better disposition. "Long engagements were commonplace for most cultures in days gone by. She may want the time to properly prepare for her role as Mrs. Xander Harris. Meanwhile, you will have the time to finally realize that you are not your father."
Anne knew that the boy was still on shaky ground in spite of the inroads made the previous evening.
All in all, Anne was pleased to have been brought into this strange new world. Not only did he beloved son need her, but it was also becoming quite clear that these children were little more than a pack of orphans in all but legality. Anne had always wanted a large family; she had no difficulty embracing these young people as children of her heart to help lead, teach, guide and correct when needed. They appeared to accept her in that sort of role already. Between herself and Mr. Giles, the sad dearth of parental role models would be compensated for and possible tragedies averted.
Tara glided into the kitchen and was gathering plates and silverware to prepare the table for the meal.
‘Such a dear, tranquil child,’ Anne thought, not for the first time. "Tara, my dear, would you consider giving me your advice on updating my appearance later this afternoon? I am told that much can be done to shave off the ravages of time without making one appear common or fast."
Tara gave the older lady a crooked smile and assured her that she would be delighted to help. "I think a change of hairstyle and maybe haircolor would really go a long way in getting you right up to date."
Dawn became excited at the project and volunteered her help as well. "I watch all those makeover shows on TLC. I can SO figure out how to make you look young and hot in no time!"
Anne blushed. She wasn’t completely sure what ‘hot’ meant, but she was more than happy to embrace anything that might make her look younger than her middle-aged years. "I suppose if my William can lighten his hair to near blinding blondness, there is no harm in my removing a bit of gray. I would welcome your advice, Dawn."
Tara continued laying the place settings as they discussed various ideas for Mrs. Pratt’s makeover. Suddenly Tara looked startled as she recalled a previous engagement. "Oh! I am so sorry, Mrs. Pratt. Could we do this tomorrow? I agreed to meet a group of friends at the Multicultural Fair this afternoon! Willow was going to go with me, but we had a little spat last night so she plans to stay here. Maybe she could help if you are in a hurry."
"I am so sorry, dear!" Anne placed a consoling hand on Tara’s arm. "I had wondered at the two of you being in separate rooms since you arrived this morning. It isn’t like you-- two peas in a pod you are, usually."
"It’s not that big a deal. We just had a slight disagreement. I was getting to be a bit of an ‘I lost my mother and know how it feels’ expert according to Willow and she was not too happy with my advice to Dawn."
Tara sounded so sad and more timid than Anne had ever seen her. It was as if the rebuke had made the sweet girl run for emotional shelter.
"I suppose I have angered many of you in my short time here then, as I tend to speak my mind as well. I cannot imagine you being anything but loving and well-intentioned, Tara. You have all suffered a loss…perhaps Willow was merely reacting from grief."
"Maybe. I hate having her mad at me though. Willow is amazing!" Tara looked toward the kitchen and frowned slightly as she noticed Willow floating a serving platter from the cabinet to the side of the stove for the sausages. Tara knew Willow had great untapped power and it both terrified and thrilled her. Right now, however, she doubted that Willow would care to hear any criticism from her.
"She is at that," Anne agreed. "This too shall pass. As for my makeover, I shall await your leisure, Tara. You chose such lovely things when you went shopping for me initially. I trust your instincts implicitly."
"Thank you!" Tara was touched. Her confidence needed just such a boost and it felt wonderful to have someone value her opinion so openly.
"Can I come to the fair too?" Dawn begged.
"I think Buffy wants you closer to home right now, hon," Tara answered. At Dawn’s crestfallen face, she promised, "But as soon as things get back to normal around here we’ll make a special date to go check out that new family fun center that opened, okay? I think they even have paint ball."
Dawn brightened at the prospect and scampered off to enlist Xander to be her teammate when they did go.
"Such a sweet child," Anne pronounced. "So innocent, fresh and young. Full of energy too. Buffy will have quite a task keeping her in order."
Tara bit her lip rather than reply. No one had explained Dawn’s keyness to Mrs. Pratt. No one had warned her about Glory either. Maybe it would be a good idea to at least tell her about the insane hell goddess. ‘I’ll ask Mr. Giles what he thinks later,’ Tara decided.
Buffy opened the crypt door gently in near silence. Something in Spike’s brief note made her forgo the normal ‘kick it in and take no prisoners’ method of entry.
The light that streamed in behind her did little to dispel the gloom of the burial place that only seemed to come alive in the presence of its not-so-dead-like undead resident.
A quick glance around confirmed the absence of the vampire in question, so Buffy made haste to the hidden trapdoor that led to the underground portion of Spike’s home. The torches below lent an amber glow to the lower chamber as Buffy spotted Spike’s form under the deep blue sheet covering him as he lay inert on his bed. Vampires did sleep in the daytime, but Spike was usually alert enough to intruders to have her less than stealthy approach trigger some response. Buffy had never seen him more corpse-like.
"Spike," she hissed into the shadowed expanse. There was no reply and Buffy was beginning to get nervous. Spike in stillness was creepy, but Spike in silence was just plain unnerving.
She made her way to the bed and reached out to shake the vampire to wakefulness. In doing so, she became aware of the slight rattling sound that accompanied his unnecessary breathing. Buffy felt the small hairs on the back of her neck stand up with the ‘can’t put your finger on it’ sense that something was dreadfully wrong in Spikedom.
Steeling her nerve further, she tugged the sheet back, exposing his black-, blue- and red-marked alabaster chest. "Oh my God…Spike! What happened to you?"
Spike groaned as he drifted to consciousness. His left eye could be opened enough to recognize the concern on Buffy’s face. "Wish I could say you should see the other guy, pet." He made to sit up, only to have Buffy still him with a gentle hand on his bloody, ripped chest.
"No, don’t try to get up," she encouraged. "What the hell happened to you?"
"Hell god actually, so you’re not far wrong," Spike replied. "Few of those hairless Ewoks that Glory bint keeps as housepets decided I must be the soddin’ Key for some reason. Took me over for some tea and no sympathy. Didn’t like my answers to her questions and used her own brand of encouragement to change ‘em."
"Oh, my God! I’ve got to get Dawn out of here," Buffy panicked. "Glory may be at the house already."
"Relax, Slayer," Spike said with a sad, disappointed tone in his voice. "Didn’t say who the Key is. Well, okay, told her it was that Cheney git, but she knew I was yankin’ her chain. Never give her the Niblet, even if the bitch killed me… and she nearly did."
He pulled the sheet back up his body and fell back on the bed with a groan. "If you’ve got that little faith in me, you can just close the bloody door behind you on your way out!"
Buffy stared down at the broken body of her former enemy and actually saw him for the first time with blinders off. He had always seemed to have a soft spot for Dawn and had never been less than kind to her little sister, even when Dawn was being especially annoying. Spike might turn on one of the Scoobies-- okay, mostly Xander-- but Buffy knew in her heart of hearts that Dawn would always be safe where Spike was concerned. If Buffy had to admit it, so would she.
No matter how Buffy tried to deny Spike’s genuine emotions where the Summers girls were concerned, she wasn’t so stupid as to not know the truth.
"I believe you, Spike. I just panicked." Buffy’s voice was barely above a whisper, but the wounded vampire heard her well enough. "I’m just so worried about how to keep her safe, you know?"
"Yeah, well, about that…," Spike had to stop as coughs racked his body and Buffy heard more of the rattling sound.
"Spike, what all did she do to you?" Buffy reluctantly asked. She really didn’t want a laundry list because, from the looks of him, the damage was substantial. Still, he’d taken one for the team and she really was concerned.
"Got lots of mendin’ to do, but I’ll get there. Demon friend of mine’s been bringin’ blood by. He’s the bloke that took my note to you. Name’s Clem, by the way." Spike didn’t want the Slayer’s pity and hated being seen as less than strong. He didn’t really want to give her the blow by blow. "Think I’ve got a rib playin’ darts with a lung; sounds all bubbly."
"Look, Slayer, need to let you in on something and ask for a favor," Spike continued. Part of it was to take the spotlight off his condition and part was because he was beginning to really tire and needed sleep to heal.
"What do you need?" Buffy was glad someone had been seeing to Spike’s feeding since he clearly couldn’t.
"Need you to get me mum off the scent. Make up some reason I’m gonna be gone for a tic. Can’t let her see me like this. Would worry her sick again and she’s just now on the mend. Never could lie to her though, so you’ll have to come up with something and I’ll play along later," Spike requested earnestly.
"Okay, I can do that," Buffy promised, her mind already toying with some possibilities for subterfuge. "What else?"
"See, that’s the thing. Was hopin’ Clem’d get back with some proof, but you’ll just have to take my word for this bit." Spike drew a watery breath and prepared to reveal his hard- won information. "See, Glory morphs into a human. That doc you were all hot for, the one treatin’ my mum…Ben something or another. One minute Glory was rearranging my insides and the next there stood the good doctor in a slinky slip and heels. Not a good look on him either."
Buffy looked intently at Spike as if struggling to wrap her mind around his information. "So you’re saying that Glory KNOWS Ben?"
"No, I’m saying that Glory IS Ben," Spike said with rolled eyes.
"There’s a connection of some kind between Ben and Glory. I’ll have to get the gang on it. Maybe Ben’s met Glory, ran into her that day at the hospital. I’ll bet that’s it!" Buffy was pacing in excitement. "I’m not sure how much help Ben can be though. I doubt he knows she’s a hell god."
Spike’s eyebrows were raised to a painful extreme as he listened to Buffy go on and on. This was more than Buffy taking a dip in the Egyptian river, more than her embracing her image as dumb blonde. Something was definitely wrong. For some reason Buffy was not hearing the words he was saying…as in really not hearing them!
‘Maybe it’s magic of some kind. Somethin’ to keep anyone from glomming on to the truth. Must be the key to defeatin’ the vicious bitch. Clem heard me well enough, so the mojo must not work on demons,’ Spike realized. ‘Looks like I’m on my own with this one, unless it’s only the Slayer that’s shielded from the truth.’
"Yeah, good idea, pet," Spike said with a sigh. "Might want to send the Watcher over later so we can suss it out a bit." Spike hoped Giles would be able to hear his information clearly and they could work on taking out the threat in Prada that held Dawn’s life in her sadistic hands. Maybe Clem’d be back before the Watcher got there and Spike would have reinforcements to back up his claims.
"Okay," Buffy winced at Spike’s pained moan as the bed moved upon her rising. "I’ll come up with a good lie to tell your mom and send Giles over. Need anything else?"
She felt strange knowing how much she owed the vampire for his silence in the face of torture. She wasn’t quite sure how to relate to him at all lately and this just amplified that unease. It had been simpler when they were just enemies trying to kill one another. ‘Yeah, like either of you ever took the many chances you had to actually do each other in!’ Buffy hated when her traitorous mind threw out that bit of truth.
Buffy surprised herself by leaning over the battered hero and placing a chastely tender kiss on his swollen, bruised lips before saying, "I won’t forget what you did, Spike. I get what it cost you."
Spike blinked in amazement. Had the Slayer just kissed him? This kiss was different from the heated exchanges he remembered fondly from Red’s spell. This kiss was of her own free will and it meant something. Just what it meant would occupy Spike’s thoughts for the next few hours as he sought the relief of sleep.
"Maybe Giles’ll slip you a bottle of something to take the edge off when I tell him what a mess you are," Buffy suggested with a slight smile. She really was not sure what had just happened between them, but on some level she knew that things would never be the same. That thought kept her busy all the way back to Revello drive.
"Mousy little package for my beautiful key," Glory opined as she watched the shy blonde girl move from booth to booth at the fair. "Then again, clever little priests putting all that power in such an ordinary package. Pretty clever."
Tara held the lovely jewel-toned Batik fabric against her sun-kissed skin and began to imagine the right pattern to choose for a Javanese- influenced top. She lifted the fabric to her nose and inhaled the fragrant, earthy scent that proclaimed the fabric as hand-dyed in the traditional manner. ‘Maybe I could get enough to make something for Willow too,’ she decided with a smile.
Tara had hoped that Willow would change her mind and join her at the fair, but the absence of her lover was not going to spoil the day. Tara’s sweet disposition made it impossible to hold onto grudges or anger. Willow was more volatile in temperament but never one to hold back affection for long.
Tara next indulged her cravings at the ‘Flavors of India’ booth, biting into the Besan Halwa enjoying the almond and pistachio flavors competing for attention with the buttery ghee of the treat. "Willow would be asking for recipes everywhere," Tara said with a twinge of sadness. "Maybe I’ll pick up a few for her."
Tara headed for the bench ahead, planning to enjoy a brief rest in the sunshine while savoring the smells and sounds of the various cultures surrounding her. ‘I wonder what kind of multicultural fair we could have if some of the friendlier demon cultures were able to have some booths too,’ she mused. Caught up in that thought, she didn’t sense the garish blond woman as she sat down next to her on the park bench. She did feel the pressure on her hand, however, as Glory grasped it tightly.
"Nice," Glory taunted, "Just hangin’ out with the girls. You like that sort of thing, don’t you?" She squeezed Tara’s hand hard enough to crack multiple small bones. Tara winced from both the pain and the unnerving sound of cracking. "Shhhhhh, don’t make a sound."
Tara looked around, desperately hoping salvation might lay in one direction or another. For the first time in her life, she wished her father had been right about her being a demon. A demon might stand a chance against Glory; a shy co-ed didn’t.
As if sensing Tara’s thoughts, Glory issued a taunt and a threat. "No one here can help you. Anyone tries, I’ll just kill them and it will all be your fault."
Glory’s nails had dug into Tara’s abused hand and blood started a slow trickle past the hell god’s grip.
Tara stifled a cry of pain and looked with terror at her tormentor. "No, don’t hurt anyone, p-p-p-please," she begged with an untimely return of her long lost stutter.
"You be a good girl and these worthless meat sacks will be just fine. They can keep living their meaningless lives, because that’s what they really are— meaningless." Glory grinned maliciously and continued, "Now, keys… not so worthless!" Glory raised their joined hands and flicked her deep pink tongue over the blood.
In a lightning quick moment, her whole attitude towards Tara changed from simple threats to overpowering rage. "You lying whore! You’re not my key, you’re just another meaningless piece of walking mud!"
Tara tried to pull back from the furious hell god, but her hand was in a death grip. She vaguely considered gnawing off her own hand to get away if it had been possible to do so quickly enough. Instead she frantically twisted in her seat, trying in vain to work loose in a more conventional manner.
"Worth nothing," Glory continued. Then her rage faded as fast as it had appeared and a cruel smile crossed her face. "Wait, not totally useless. I am feeling the need for a little pick- me-up. You wanna make it all better, mouse girl? Be my little pick-me-up?"
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