Relentless, p.21
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       Relentless, p.21
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         Part #1 of Relentless series by Karen Lynch

  Chapter 14

  I FELT THE Mohiri presence brush against my mind a second before I looked down the street to see Nikolas stalking toward us, his expression darker than the sky. Sucking up my courage, I braced myself for a lecture as we walked toward him. Whatever his honorable intentions, this was still my life. Eventually, he would have to get that through his head – I hoped.

  Whatever Nikolas planned to say was forgotten when he got close enough to take in our wet clothes and salty, fishy odor. “What the hell happened this time?”

  “We – ”

  “Nothing,” I said before Roland could answer.

  Nikolas muttered something in another language that sounded like swearing. He shook his head then looked at Roland. “I’ll take her from here.”

  “I don’t think so,” I sputtered and filled with dread at his look of determination.

  Roland stepped forward. “I’m not sure that’s such a good – ”

  “Sara and I need to talk – just talk,” Nikolas told him, ignoring my protest. “And judging by the look on your face, I think you agree with me.”

  I turned in disbelief to my friend. “Roland?”

  Roland’s eyes were troubled when they met mine. “You won’t listen to me. Maybe it will be good for someone else to…”

  “Traitor,” I accused, walking past them both. I couldn’t believe it; my best friend was siding with Nikolas – a werewolf siding with a Mohiri. If I wasn’t so upset, I would have laughed at the absurdity of it all.

  “Sara, wait…”

  I ignored Roland’s plea. The rain began in earnest, and the wind picked up as if the storm was tethered to my mood. I was drenched all over again by the time I reached my building.

  Peter was there in his mother’s car waiting for us. “What happened?” he called.

  “I’m sure Roland will tell you all about it,” I replied sourly, heading straight for the stairs.

  I contemplated locking the door behind me as I flicked on the light in the hallway, but I had a feeling that a deadbolt would be no deterrence to Nikolas in his present mood. For a moment, I held onto the faint hope that the troll ward would keep him out, but that hope was dashed when the door opened as I was kicking off my ruined Vans. I dropped my coat to the floor with a loud plop and moved to the stairs without bothering to look at him. “Make yourself at home,” I said in a voice that was anything but welcoming.

  Upstairs, the storm was louder as the wind groaned around the eaves and rain battered the windows. I cracked a window and whistled for Harper who sometimes liked to ride out bad weather inside. There was no sign of the crow, and I soon had to close the window to keep the rain out.

  I heard shuffling and turned as Daisy hopped over the top of the stairs. Storms didn’t bother her, but she always turned to me for company when Nate was gone. I rubbed her head, and she trailed after me when I went to the bathroom to start water running in the tub. Nikolas’s talk would have to wait until after I had that nice hot bath I’d promised myself. If he wanted to chat he’d just have to cool his heels downstairs until I was ready.

  I wriggled out of my wet jeans and reached into the front pocket for the vial of Ptellon blood, cupping it in my hand reverently. Everything that had gone down at the marina was worth it to secure Nate’s safety. We might not be as close as either of us would have wanted, but I’d do almost anything to protect him from the danger I had brought into our lives. I opened the bottom drawer in my bathroom vanity and stuck the vial in the very back to keep it safe until Nate got home. I only had to slip three drops of the blood-red liquid into his food or drink every month, and the vial held enough to last for at least a year. Between the wards and the Ptellon, Nate should be safe from almost anything supernatural. The Ptellon blood did not repel humans, but it wasn’t humans I was worried about.

  A happy moan escaped me when I sank into the hot water. I laid my head against the bath pillow and closed my eyes as the steaming soapy water soaked the grit and stench from my pores. My mind raced from what had happened at the marina. The men chasing us had been frightening, but it was the encounter with the rats that really shook me. I’d never felt anything like that thing in the rat’s mind, and I shivered in spite of the hot water. How was I able to push it out of the rat and then have the strength to affect a whole pack of rats at once? Was my power getting stronger? Nikolas had said that Mohiri powers grew as they reached maturity. Maybe that’s what was happening to me. There was so much about my power that was still a mystery to me, and I wished I had someone to explain it.

  I made myself relax and pushed the confusing thoughts aside. The constant drum of rain on the roof lulled me into a pleasant doze, and I stayed there until the water began to cool. I let the water out and stood to wash my hair under the shower. Despite the last few hours and the unwelcome guest downstairs, I felt considerably lighter when I wrapped a large towel around me and walked into my bedroom.

  “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” I shrieked at Nikolas who sat on my couch with my traitorous cat curled up beside him. My sketch pad laid open on his lap as he studied one of the drawings. My drawings were like my journal, and there was something disturbingly intimate about him sitting in my private space, looking at them. “Get out of my room and keep your hands off my things.”

  He ignored my outburst, his gaze dark and unfathomable as he looked at me. “You took so long I thought you’d tried to run off again.”

  I pulled the towel tighter around me and tried to ignore the heat infusing my face. “Well, as you can see, I am still here. Now do you mind leaving my room so I can get dressed?”

  An infuriating smile played around the corners of his mouth, and the room suddenly felt too warm. “Of course.” He laid the sketchbook on the couch and stood. “Your drawings are quite good. Has anyone ever told you that?”

  “I don’t show them to anyone. They’re private,” I said pointedly to remind him again that he was violating my personal space. Inside I felt a small flare of pleasure at the praise, but I would never let him know that.

  He looked entirely unapologetic for the intrusion as he walked unhurriedly to the stairs. “I’ll see you downstairs shortly.”

  Fuming, I went to the couch to close the sketchbook and stopped just short of reaching for it when I saw Nikolas’s face looking up at me. I felt the familiar stab of fear I experienced every time I remembered that night in Portland. I didn’t write down my feelings in a journal. I drew them, and for some reason this image was the one that stood out most in my memory from that night. Maybe because it was the moment I knew I was not alone. It made me feel open and vulnerable having someone else look at it, especially Nikolas.

  I took my time getting dressed, and I planned to take overly long to dry my hair to avoid facing him for as long as possible. The storm had other ideas, however, and the power went out just as I picked up my hair dryer. “Great!” I muttered, groping for a flashlight. I grabbed a towel to dry my hair as best I could and then, unable to delay any longer, made my way downstairs with Daisy close at my heels.

  I found Nikolas in the kitchen, making sandwiches by candlelight with his sleeves pulled up and his leather jacket thrown over the back of a chair. The casual, domestic picture was such a contrast to the image of the warrior I was used to that I stopped short, and Daisy ran into the back of my legs.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Dinner. I would have ordered in, but it looks like power is out all over town. So sandwiches it is.” He slid a plate across the counter toward me. “Hope you like roast beef.”

  “Um, thanks… I do.” I mumbled, trying to figure out what he was up to. One minute he was furious, and the next he was making me dinner. If he thought he could throw me off guard by being nice to me all of a sudden, he was right. I had no idea how to respond to this new side of him. To hide my discomfort I grabbed a bag of potato chips from the pantry and a bottle of dill pickles from the fridge, laying them both on the table with two glasses of soda.
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  Nikolas carried our sandwiches to the table and placed the pillar candle in the center. I chewed my bottom lip and tucked my damp hair nervously behind my ear when it struck me what a cozy picture we made, eating by candlelight while a storm howled outside. I peeked at Nikolas who seemed quite at ease, piling chips on his plate as if we ate together like this every day. His hair was still damp from the rain and his features were relaxed, almost like he was enjoying himself. He looked up, and his eyes were like liquid smoke in the candlelight when they met mine. My stomach did a little leap, and I immediately found my own sandwich fascinating.

  The sandwich was just how I liked it: roast beef, cheese, and horseradish sauce on rye. I almost asked him how he knew what my favorite was, but I refrained. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how much he knew about me.

  We ate in silence for a minute before he asked the question I knew was coming. “You want to tell me where you disappeared to today and why you came back smelling like you went for a swim in the bay?”

  I stopped nibbling a chip to say, “It was personal business I had to take care of… and I did go for a swim in the bay. Satisfied?”

  “Not even close.”

  There was more silence as I picked up my sandwich and bit into it, refusing to expand upon my story. I felt Nikolas’s gaze, but I ignored him. It was going to take a lot more than a candlelight dinner to make me spill.

  It took me a few minutes to realize the scolding I was expecting was not coming, and I glanced at Nikolas to find him enjoying his meal. Where was the man who had practically shot daggers at me out on the waterfront less than an hour ago?

  “Aren’t you going to yell at me or something?”

  He shrugged without looking up from his sandwich. “Will it make you tell me what you were doing today?”

  “No.”

  “Then why don’t we just have a pleasant meal instead?”

  I scowled at him, not sure what to make of his answer. Was he trying to trick me into telling him the truth? He shows up looking like he’s about to bring the wrath of God down on me and then he makes me dinner and wants to exchange pleasantries. Did I just step into a Twilight Zone episode?

  His next words surprised me even more. “You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago. She was stubborn to a fault, too.”

  “If you say it was Madeline, I’m going to throw my pickle at you.” There was no way I was anything like the woman who had given birth to me. She was my biological mother, but that was where the connection ended.

  Nikolas smiled, and his eyes had an almost faraway look. “Not Madeline, no. Her name was Elena, and she was actually Madeline’s aunt, though she died before Madeline was born.”

  “Was she your girlfriend or something?” I asked, surprised by the fondness in his voice. Before tonight, I’d thought of Nikolas only as a warrior, all business and no time for a personal life. But I guess he had to have some kind of life outside of hunting vampires. My Mori stirred, and an alien feeling twisted my gut. Was that jealousy? I gave a mental shake to let the demon know that we didn’t give a fig about Nikolas’s romantic involvements.

  “No, Elena was like a sister to me. She was beautiful, but willful and very spoiled.”

  “Are you calling me spoiled?” Typical male. A strong man was just fine, but let a woman show some free will and she was spoiled.

  He laughed and took a drink from his glass without answering. I glared at him, and his grin grew. “Okay, maybe not spoiled but definitely obstinate.”

  “Pot, meet kettle.” I picked up my own glass. “What happened to her?”

  His expression darkened. “She ignored the rules that were there to protect her and went off by herself alone. She was killed by vampires.”

  I sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh, I’m sorry.” That might explain his overprotective ways toward me. His friend had died at the hands of a vampire, and here I was being pursued by one.

  “It was a long time ago.”

  “So does Madeline’s have any family left?” I asked in an effort to change the topic.

  It was the first time I’d expressed any interest in possible Mohiri relations, and Nikolas smiled in response. “She still has some living relatives; her sire for one.”

  “Sire? That sounds so… impersonal.” I thought of my dad, the way he would catch me up in a big hug and read to me before bed. I could not imagine thinking of him as my sire.

  Nikolas laid his napkin across his plate and leaned back in his chair. “It’s just a title. Mohiri families are as close as human families, maybe more so since we do not grow old and die naturally.”

  “So you and your parents all look the same age? Don’t you find that weird?”

  He shook his head. “We don’t think of age the same way mortals do. Humans see it as a way to mark one’s passage through life. Physically, we don’t age once we reach maturity.”

  He might find it normal, but I found it hard to imagine being the same age as my grandparents. Ugh. “So, my grand… Madeline’s father is still alive. Does he know about me?” It was a bit of a shock to learn I had a living grandparent I’d never met. My dad’s mother died when I was ten, and I never really knew her that well.

  “Yes, and he is looking forward to meeting you.” My hesitation must have shown on my face because Nikolas caught my gaze and held it. “He will wait until you’re ready to meet him.”

  “A patient Mohiri, who would have thought it?” I got up and carried our plates to the sink to hide my suddenly conflicted feelings. I had no intention of going to the Mohiri any time soon, but the knowledge that I had a grandfather – even if he was Madeline’s father – out there who wanted to see me caused emotions I did not want to think about.

  “A Mohiri has all the patience in the world when something is worth waiting for,” he replied, and I got the feeling we were no longer talking about my grandfather.

  I started running hot water over the plates. “I guess it helps that you guys are immortal, huh?”

  “So are you,” he said close to my ear, and I almost dropped the plate in my hand.

  “Don’t do that!” I choked, and he laughed softly. He took the plate from me and began to dry it with a dish towel. Does he have to stand so close? I griped as I rinsed the other plate and handed it to him. Something in his manner told me he was doing it just to irk me, and he was enjoying himself immensely. I found myself wishing the old Nikolas was here. I knew what to expect from him; this new Nikolas was too confusing by far.

  Wind rattled the kitchen window, and I rubbed my arms, wishing I’d thought to bring down a sweater or hoodie. Without the power, there was no heat, and this close to the bay, the air was growing cold fast. I reached for the flashlight to go upstairs and get something heavy to wear.

  “The temperature is going to drop a lot tonight. Does that fireplace in the living room work?”

  “Yes, it’s gas.”

  He walked past me to the dark living room. “Go put on something warm, and I’ll start the fire.”

  I spoke to his back. “So what, we’re going to sit by the fire and roast marshmallows now?”

  “You have anything better to do?” he called back without turning around.

  I had no answer for that, so I went upstairs and dug out one of my dad’s old sweaters. It was my favorite because I could still remember him in it, though sadly it had lost his scent a long time ago. I pulled on a pair of fuzzy moccasin slippers Judith had given me last Christmas and sat on my bed thinking of the irony of the situation. Nate had left me alone here knowing there was no way I’d have a boy over, and his first night away there was a guy here making dinner for me. My uncle would probably have heart palpitations if he walked in the door right now. Just one look at Nikolas and he’d never believe this whole thing was innocent. I couldn’t help smiling at the hilarity of it all as I made my way downstairs again.

  “Where did you find marshmallows?” I asked in surprise when I saw the open bag on the coffee table. I’d been joking a
bout roasting them, but now it looked like the best idea ever.

  Nikolas looked up from his seat on the floor as he threaded one on a long metal skewer and held it over the fire. “Top shelf in the pantry. Want one?”

  “Yes!” I sat in the chair closest to the fireplace and sighed as the heat surrounded me. Daisy came into the room and stretched out in front of my chair.

  “Here.” He handed me the skewer. I blew on the blackened marshmallow as he started another one for himself. For a few minutes, there was no sound but the hissing of the fire and the storm battering the building. I found myself strangely at ease. After my close call at the marina, I was surprised I wasn’t jumping at the slightest noise. But this was actually nice.

  “Have you always done this – hunting vampires? Do all Mohiri become warriors?”

  He sat with his back to the couch and his long legs stretched out across the rug. “Most do, though we have some scholars and artisans. Being a warrior is in our blood, what we are born to do. I have never wanted to do anything else.”

  I absorbed that for a minute. “What’s it like growing up there? Do you live in houses or on some kind of military base? Do you go to school or start training when you’re little?” Since I’d first learned about the Mohiri, I imagined them living like soldiers, sleeping in barracks and training to fight every day. It all seemed so cold and militant, and it did not reconcile with the way he spoke about family.

  He smiled and skewered another marshmallow. “We live in fortified compounds all over the world. The larger compounds look like private campuses, and the smaller ones are basically well-fortified estates. It is not safe for a Mohiri family to live outside a compound because they would be vulnerable to vampire attacks. Families live together, and the living quarters are large and comfortable. Children attend school until they are sixteen, and physical training begins when they reach puberty.” He leaned forward, and the fire played across his handsome face. “It’s a good life. There is a deep sense of belonging among the Mohiri, and everyone who comes to live among us is happier than they were living among humans.”

  I stared at the flames. His meaning was clear, and I did not want to break our moment of peace by replaying the old argument. Maybe the Mohiri were not as cold and impersonal as I’d thought, but I could not imagine being any happier there. My dad would still be gone, and I wouldn’t even have Nate or Roland and Peter.

  The ringing of the kitchen phone cut through the silence, and I jumped up to answer it. It was Nate, calling from his hotel in Boston, his voice full of worry.

  “Hey, I hear you guys are getting hit by a hard nor’easter. Everything okay there?”

  “I’m perfectly fine, Nate. You know how I love a good storm.”

  His relief was audible. “Well if the power goes, there are extra flashlights and a battery operated lantern in the hall closet.”

  “Don’t worry. I have it all under control. How is the conference?”

  He told me about his day and that he’d be at his hotel for the rest of the night if I needed to call him. I laughed and told him he sounded like Judith when she got all over Roland about something. That was enough to get him to say good night with a promise to call and check on me tomorrow.

  As soon as I hung up from Nate, the phone rang again. “Jeeze, what now?” This time it was Roland.

  “Well, you answered the phone so I assume you’re not bound and gagged,” he quipped.

  “No thanks to you.”

  “Ah, don’t be mad. I was kind of freaked out after what happened, and I thought maybe someone else should talk to you.”

  “I don’t want to talk about that now.” I was still a little hurt by his defection, and I was in no mood to assuage his guilt tonight.

  “Mom said the power’s out all over town. Are you alright there? Because I can come get you if you want.”

  I let out a sigh. It was impossible to stay mad at Roland when he was sweet like this. “I’m fine. We have the fireplace going and lots of candles.”

  “We? Is he there with you now?”

  “Yes.”

  Roland’s voice raised a notch. “I thought he kept guard outside or whatever. I’m not sure he should be in there with you with Nate gone.”

  “You should have thought of that before you left.” I couldn’t resist the dig. “Did you think we would talk outside in the middle of a storm?”

  “I… um…” he stammered.

  “I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I did not want to continue this conversation with Nikolas within earshot.

  “Oh, okay,” Roland said reluctantly. “See you tomorrow.”

  I hung up and went back to the living room to reclaim my seat by the fire. “Everyone’s checking up on me.”

  “The werewolf cares for you.”

  I glared at him. “He’s my best friend, and he has a name, you know.”

  His shoulders lifted indifferently. “We don’t make a habit of being on a first name basis with weres, and I’m sure you know they feel the same about us. It’s just how it is.”

  “Well, I am Mohiri and I have loads of werewolf friends, so you’ll just have to get over it.” His mouth curved as if I’d said something funny, and I snapped, “What?”

  “That’s the first time you’ve admitted what you are.”

  My hand smoothed the fabric on the arm of my chair. “It doesn’t change anything.” I had accepted my heritage weeks ago, because denying it didn’t make it go away. That didn’t mean I was happy about it.

  “It’s a start.” He put his arms behind his head and gave me a devastating smile that I bet had bewitched more than one female. I felt the urge to throw a cushion at the smug bastard, but the challenge I saw creep into his eyes stayed my hand.

  “What else would you like to know about the Mohiri?” he asked when I stayed silent. I didn’t want to satisfy him by showing any more interest in his people, but there were more than a few things I was curious about since I could find absolutely nothing about the Mohiri online.

  “Who is in charge of everything? Do you have a president or a king or something?”

  “Not exactly,” he said with a laugh. “We have the Council of Seven who make up the ruling body, and the most important decisions come from them.” He went on to explain that the seven seats represented the seven continents and the members convened once a month, always in a different location. I asked how they were chosen to be on the council, and he told me that if someone left the council or died, the remaining members selected someone to fill the empty chair. It wasn’t something that happened often. The last new member had been appointed to the Seven three hundred years ago.

  “Do you want to join the council someday?”

  He scowled and shook his head. “Never. I have no time for bureaucracy and not enough patience to endure the long meetings. I am a warrior, and that is all I aspire to be.”

  I tilted my head sideways. “Didn’t you just say you guys have lots of patience?”

  “When something is worth waiting for,” he qualified. “I care very little for political matters.”

  His statement did not come as a surprise. I could not picture Nikolas adhering well to rules or attempting diplomacy to please anyone. “Something tells me that sentiment doesn’t make you popular with the folks in charge.”

  His eyes gleamed. “They are good at their job, and they know that I’m good at mine. We differ in opinion sometimes, but we all work to the same end.”

  “What do they think about you hanging around some town no one’s ever heard of, wasting time with an orphan instead of out doing your warrior business?” I couldn’t see how one orphan’s safety was more important than all the evils out there that needed to be dealt with.

  “You think you’re a waste of our time?” His voice, though low, had taken on an edge I recognized.

  “I didn’t say I’m a waste of time, but there must be other orphans who need rescuing more than I do. And since I won’t change my mind about leaving, it d
oesn’t make sense to stick around.”

  “There is an immediate threat here. We were tracking vampire activity in the area before we found you; it was what brought us to Portland that night.” His tone did not soften, and I knew my comment had really bugged him. I didn’t bother trying to figure it out because I doubted I would ever understand Nikolas.

  That reminded me of something else I had wondered about. “Where are you from? You have this faint accent I can’t place and sometimes I think you’re speaking another language.”

  “I was born in Saint Petersburg, and I lived there for the first sixteen years of my life until my family moved to England and then America.” One corner of his mouth lifted. “My accent is usually noticeable now only when I’m aggravated.”

  I wanted to say that wasn’t true, that I had picked up on it since the first time he spoke to me, but instead I moved to another subject. “And what’s Chris’s story? Is he your partner?”

  “I normally work alone, but we sometimes work as a team. Christian and I have known each other for many years.”

  “Christian,” I repeated the name. “It suits him better than Chris.”

  “I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear that,” Nikolas said dryly.

  “Well, I aim to please,” I replied just as tartly, relieved we were moving back onto familiar ground. Arrogant, sarcastic Nikolas I could handle.

  He actually snorted. I had to suppress a smile because we both knew I’d done everything to thwart his plans since we’d met. I still had no intention of letting him dictate my life, but it seemed like we had reached a truce of sorts tonight.

  “Listen, I know you’d rather be off hunting monsters even if you guys feel like you need to be here. And I know you think I’m a pain sometimes, but – ”

  “Sometimes?”

  “What I’m trying to say,” I continued, ignoring his interruption, “is that even though you are way too bossy and you can be an arrogant ass sometimes, I guess you’re not all bad.”

  His eyebrows rose. “I think that’s the most backhanded compliment I’ve ever gotten. And I will say that you are without a doubt the biggest pain in the butt I’ve ever met.”

  I couldn’t hold back my smirk. “The biggest pain, really?”

  He grinned back. “Yes, but I do like a challenge.” The gleam in his eyes unnerved me, and I knew he would not give up easily. I was loath to shatter our fragile truce, but backing down from my own position was not an option.

  “I don’t want to fight with you anymore.” The words were out before I knew what I was going to say. I didn’t know who was more surprised by my statement. At that moment a gale of wind made the walls creak and the fire dance as if the elements themselves were in agreement.

  “I’m glad to hear that.”

  “I haven’t changed my mind or anything,” I rushed to add before he mistook my olive branch for surrender. “I just don’t want us to be at each other’s throats all the time.”

  “You want to be friends?” His voice held a note of amusement.

  I made a face. “Let’s not get carried away. How about we agree to disagree and take it from there?”

  “A truce then?”

  “Yes – or a cease-fire.” I had my doubts either would hold up long between the two of us.

  He studied me for a few seconds before he leaned forward with a hand extended. “Okay. A cease-fire it is.”

  I tentatively reached out my own hand, and he grasped it in his larger one. His grip was warm and strong, and a tingle ran up my arm at the contact. When he made no move to let go, I yanked my hand away and buried it beneath my thigh. If he noticed my quick withdrawal, he made no mention of it.

  A yawn rose inside me, and I wondered why I was sleepy before I remembered my freezing dunk in the ocean and the power I’d used on the rats. I almost cringed when I remembered the foulness that had infected those poor animals.

  “You look tired.” Nikolas stood, and I had to crane my neck as he towered over me. “Go to bed. I’ll let myself out.”

  The windows rattled again, and I thought of him standing out there in the storm all night just to watch over me. “You can stay in here tonight – if you want to.”

  His eyes reflected his surprise at the unexpected offer, and I suddenly felt self-conscious. It wasn’t like I invited guys over as houseguests every other day. Hoping my blush wasn’t visible in the dim light, I said, “You’re already here, and it makes no sense for you to be out in that weather when you could have the couch. I’ll get you some blankets.”

  I almost tripped over myself to get to the linen closet where Nate kept the spare quilts. When I returned with a quilt and a pillow, Nikolas was standing where I’d left him, his face hidden in shadow. He took the quilt and pillow from me with a quiet “thank you.”

  “Um, okay, good night.” I didn’t wait for his reply before I turned to the doorway. I heard the creak of the couch when he sat on it.

  “Sara?” His voice was deep and warm, and my heart sped up a little as I stopped in the hallway to look over my shoulder.

  “Yes?”

  “You’re still the biggest pain in the ass I’ve ever met.”

  I grinned all the way to bed.

 

 
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