SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Villa of the Mysteries
Xena worked her way around a small group of Pompeians. She strolled across the marble floor of the large chamber - the main hall for worship in the temple. The warrior did not stop to admire the many panels of superbly painted figures nor did she stop to ponder the mysterious Dionysian ritual depicted upon them. Her target was the golden red head of hair hovering near the food.
Gabrielle was having a hard time deciding which dish to try first, there were so many. Xena stepped behind her, watching silently as the bard tapped her chin and tried to decide. She grabbed a piece of bread and dipped it in the garum sauce, a spicy Pompeian specialty, then brought it up to her lips to take a big bite.
"Hmmmm," Gabrielle hummed musically as she chewed. She scooped the bread into the sauce for another dip, but Xena wrapped a strong hand around her smaller one, bringing the motion to a halt.
"It's not polite to double dip, ya know," Xena said, her voice a deep purr. "At least not without sharing." She pulled the bread out of her partner's hand, eating it with a satisfied grin.
"Hmmmm," she said, mimicking Gabrielle's musical hum.
"It's not polite to steal food, either."
"Who's stealing? This is sharing."
"No," Gabrielle answered as she took another piece of bread, dipped it, and held it up to Xena's lips. "THIS is sharing. Open." Xena opened her mouth obediently and the bard popped it in. "You have a lot to learn barbarian."
"Hey, you two!" Sappho called as walked towards them, struggling not to drop the three full goblets she had in her hands. "Have a drink. On me."
Gabrielle reached to help the poet with her load, almost spilling one of the goblets in the process.
Sappho squawked. "Easy or it really will be on me. I'm wet enough already ... No comments from you, warrior princess, thank you very much."
Gabrielle steadied the goblet, waiting until the liquid inside settle down before handing it to Xena. She took the other cup from the poet and raised it in the air.
"To a plan well executed," the bard said as a toast.
Xena snorted. "You mean a plan almost ruined by one love-sick poet."
"Hey, I think things worked out just fine," Sappho said in her own defense. "Besides, you seemed to know what I was up to the whole time. How you manage to do that, Warrior Princess, I'll never know."
"We've been together for more than three years and I still haven't figured that out," Gabrielle admitted.
"It's no secret," Xena said. "Like I told ya, all you have to do is pay attention. Sometimes, it's the little things that count."
"You mean, like a little boy and a little girl?"
"Exactly," Xena confirmed with a wide smile. "It also helps to keep one eye on a little poet who likes to get in trouble."
"Why, whomever do you mean, my dear?" Sappho asked with the utmost innocence. "The most important thing is that that temple got the statue and I got Phaon's freedom." She raised her goblet . "To Phaon's freedom ... and one day, freedom for all slaves."
"Here, here!" Xena added, raising her own cup as well.
The three friends smiled and drank down the contents of the goblets, grinning at the unexpectedly pleasant flavor of fruit.
"Hmmmm!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "This is GOOD! What is it?"
"Traditional festival drink, made from flowers and fruit. I thought you would like it."
"What's it called?" Xena asked as she smelled the inside of the cup to try and identify the ingredients. Her brow furrowed a little at the strange odor.
Sappho shrugged. "Hey! Speaking of Phaon, where are those papers? I'd like to give them to her."
"She's here?" Gabrielle asked, getting excited for Sappho.
"Yeah. So is Paris. So are a lot of people. Even Julia Felix is here. A little soggy, but here. Vettii and Menander, too. I saw them over by the statue talking to the temple priest."
Xena scowled. "I'd better go over there. I want to make sure the statue and the festival stay where they belong."
"Right," Sappho agreed.
Xena turned to her way through the crowd. As she left, she could hear Sappho tell Gabrielle, in a voice breathless with excitement, "Come on, my friend. Let's go give Phaon her freedom."
Xena smiled as she made her way toward the altar.
Gabrielle followed Sappho through the hall. They wove their way around small groups of happy celebrants, all chugging down goblets full of the traditional punch. She spied Phaon talking with Paris in a corner of the room. The poet halted by a table and quickly dipped her cup into a bowl of punch, gulping it down in her nervousness.
"Ugh!" the poet said, making a face. "Don't they have any wine around here?"
Gabrielle laughed at the poet's anxiousness. "Tired of the party punch already?"
Sappho finished off the last drop from her cup and then put the goblet down on the table.
"Well, here goes. Wish me luck." The poet straightened her toga and then looked at her friend. "Gabrielle, what do you think she'll do after she gets her freedom? Do you think I should ask her to come with me to Lesbos?"
"Sappho, I don't have any idea what Phaon might want to do with her freedom. I hardly know her." The bard's answer was not what the poet wanted to hear and her face showed it. "But I do think you should ask her if she would like to go to Lesbos. If you don't, she might not know that she even has that option."
Sappho's features brightened considerably. "So, you think I should at least ask?"
Gabrielle nodded, smiling.
"So, what do you think I should say? How do you think I should ask?"
The bard shook her head in amazement. "Sappho of Lesbos, you are the most famous poet in the known world. Renowned, even by the Gods, as the Tenth Muse. Imitated by your peers, honored by scholars. Your verses are recited by kings and queens in empires from here to Chin and back. And you're asking me what to say?"
The poet scowled. "Writing about loving someone and telling someone you love them are two different things."
"I know. Parchment can't break your heart, can it?" Gabrielle replied, giving her friend's hand a squeeze. "But then, it can't keep you warm on a cold night either."
Sappho smiled sadly. "Yes, it can. But I've been sleeping with scrolls for too long. Time to practice what I preach, right?"
"Right," Gabrielle replied, grinning.
Sappho started forward, then seemed to lose her confidence and shuffled back.
"You think I should risk it? I mean, I could just give her the papers and say, 'have a good time.'"
"I mean, I could wait and see if she says something to me first. Maybe she'll ask me for a job?"
"Sappho, do you want her working for you?"
The poet blushed. "No."
"Just give her the papers, see what she does ... take it from there. If the moment feels right, invite her to leave Pompeii with you. Trust your instincts, Sappho. I know one thing: If you don't ask, you'll never know."
Sappho nodded and adjusted her toga ... again.
"How do I look?"
"You're beautiful, Sappho," Gabrielle answered sincerely.
The poet turned abruptly and started to stomp away. "Now, I know you're lying!"
Gabrielle grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back. "Sappho, I've seen grown women throw their underwear at you."
"When I'm on stage ..."
"And off stage." Gabrielle turned Sappho and gently pushed the poet in the direction of her heart's desire. "A very smart poet once told me that I should never doubt love. She said, and I quote, 'At the first possible moment, tell her how you feel. Make sure she knows and understands that the strength of your love is there for her to lean on, should she ever need it ... before something happens and it's too late.' "
Sappho looked over her shoulder at her friend and smiled, remembering the words. "I need to follow my own advice, huh?"
Gabrielle nodded. "And so do I."
The poet took a deep breath and hurried over, cutting into the conversation between Phaon and Paris. Gabrielle watched as the mime stepped politely back, out of the way in deference to the famous woman. Sappho was blushing as she talked and Gabrielle could tell that her gregarious friend had suddenly turned shy as Phaon was forced to lean in closer in order to hear the poet mumble.
Gabrielle snorted softly in amusement. Sappho’s love was so obvious, written as it was, not on a scroll, but instead all over the famous poet’s face. Smiling, her thoughts turned to Xena as she watching the scene play out before her. It was indeed time that she followed her own advice and let her partner know how deeply she still loved her.
She turned, mind set on finding Xena and her eyes strayed from the couple landing on the mime. Paris was staring her, smiling. Gabrielle groaned as Paris took their eyes meeting as a cue to leave the Sappho and Phaon, and join her instead.
"Ah, there you are, Xena. We were just talking about you," Vettii said with a smile. He picked up a silver goblet from the table at the base of the altar and handed it to the warrior. "Here. You must join us in a drink. It is traditional."
Xena lifted her hand to refuse, but the priest took the cup from the nobleman's hand. "Please. I must insist. It would be an insult to the goddess not to partake in the festival." He offered the goblet to Xena.
She took the cup and lifted it to her lips. The priest smiled and raised his own. "May Ceres bless us."
They all drank until their cups were empty.
"Well," Menander said, putting his goblet down on the altar. "I guess this will change things from now on. You are in agreement, right Vettii?"
"Yes. Yes. I said I was."
"What agreement is that?" Xena asked, suspicious about what they had negotiated.
"I've had the honor of being the stag for the last three festivals," Menander explained. "Part of the contest was that the winner of the Golden Ceres also got to be the stag for the ceremony."
Vettii looked at Xena and blushed. "I really wanted to be the stag this year. Especially since you were here."
Xena put her cup on the altar. "What are you talking about?"
"The ceremony tonight," the priest explained. "We have agreed that Vettii will get his turn to be the stag. From this point on, all the noblemen will take turns at the honor. This will mark the end of the competition for the statue. After this, the Golden Ceres will remain here and the ceremony will reside in the temple, where it belongs."
"That's very good," Xena said, "But why is it so important for you to be this stag and what does it have to do with me?"
Vettii and Menander smiled at each other. The priest took a step in Xena's direction.
"We have a ceremony to honor Ceres. To describe it simply ... the stag represents virility and the maiden -- fertility."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I see. So you get to be the stag?" Vettii nodded enthusiastically. "Who gets to be the maiden?"
The priest smiled. "You do."
Xena's eyebrow dropped to a dangerous scowl. "That's not funny."
"It's not meant to be," the priest replied in a very serious tone. "You have no choice. We all must play our parts in the ceremony. It is the will of Ceres. You will have very little say in the matter once Ceres touches your shoulder."
Xena took an angry step toward the three men. "What are you saying?"
The priest smiled and lifted one of the silver goblets. "The drink. It's ceremonial. Everything will become clear very shortly."
Xena's eyes widened as she stared down into the empty cup. She looked up and glanced anxiously around the room, simultaneously trying to find Gabrielle and get a clue about the contents of the drink.
Her eyes rested on a large bowl on a pedestal in the center of the temple. Celebrants were walking up to it and filling their goblets with punch. Xena watched as a young woman lifted a bone ladle and filled her cup to the brim. The warrior's gaze zeroed in on the flowers floating on the surface of the elixir in the bowl.
"Blue lotus," Xena whispered.
"That's correct," the priest answered. "But try not to think about that. Just enjoy yourself. I think we'll be ready to start in just a moment."
Xena stared in shock at the priest's back as he turned to light some incense. She thought back to the chatterbox women at the baths. What had they said -- that all the men would be clamoring for the chance to be with the Warrior Princess?
A soft touch on her shoulder startled her.
"Don't worry," Vettii said as he caressed her skin. "Just relax and enjoy the ride. I knew it was meant to be the moment I saw you."
Xena shrugged his hand away and looked worriedly around the ceremonial chamber.
Where was Gabrielle?
Acolytes were running to and fro, preparing for the festivities to begin. They were bringing in couches and pillows and placing them all around the large square triclinium. Others were swinging golden incense holders, filling the air with a heady smoke.
The warrior's nostrils flared at the invasion of the scent.
She couldn't see the bard anywhere. Her eyes scanned the room anxiously until the gaze her rested on the next best thing.
She must have known what this was all about, Xena thought angrily. She pushed Vettii to the side and headed straight for the poet.
Sappho handed the parchment to Phaon. The beautiful woman smiled in puzzlement at her friend until she broke the seal and read the words written by Julia Felix's own hand.
Phaon looked back up at Sappho in absolute amazement. She threw her arms around the Tenth Muse; Xena could hear the happy sobs of the now freed slave even as she was taking long, angry steps in their direction.
And then the room tilted. Xena quickly lost all momentum. She came to a halt just before reaching the couple and stared mutely at them. Sappho was shining. There was a blue glow emanating from around the poet in small pulses, growing slightly larger with every beat.
Xena looked at Phaon. The now free woman was glowing as well, but her color was different -- not blue as Sappho, but an iridescent green.
"Xena?" she heard Phaon ask, her voice sounding as though she were in a tunnel. "Are you all right?"
Xena looked at Sappho. The poet was smiling wildly
"That drink. Blue lotus," Xena was barely able to say.
Phaon smiled, nodding. "Yes, I know. It's a powerful hallucinogen, part of the tradition. It'll be all right. Just relax. How many have you had?"
Phaon took a step closer to the warrior, wary of the look on her face.
"Xena, how many have you had?"
The warrior simply stared at her.
Phaon smiled and patted her arm. "You'll be fine. You're in Ceres' hands now. We will all be in her hands shortly. I only had one, so it'll take me a little longer."
Xena watched as the green glow pulsed around the beautiful woman, growing in intensity as the warrior studied her closely.
"Two," Xena finally said, answering a question she wasn't sure that anyone had actually asked. Was that her own voice? Where was Gabrielle?
Phaon chuckled. "Good. Two is good."
A warm trickle traveled down the length of Xena's spine like a sensual caress. She couldn't help but close her eyes and moan at the sensation.
Phaon grinned as she watched the warrior roll her head back and smile. "It's beginning."
Xena managed to get a hold of herself and push the sensation away. "I'm going to kill you, Sappho," she mumbled.
"Hey, I thought you were a woman of the world, Xena. You're the one who said you wanted to come. I assumed you knew what this was all about and well aware of you were getting into. By the muses, Xena, it's written all over the walls!"
Xena looked over at the murals. There it was, the wordless story of a solemn rite, depicted by portraits of followers in various stages of the profound ceremony, from the drinking of the elixir to the consummation of ritual intercourse. To Xena, the painted figures seemed to shimmer and come to life.
"You are starting to glow, Xena," Sappho said in wonder. "Bright as the sun. Such a color coming from you -- I've never seen anything like it. Tell me, what do you feel?"
Another shiver traveled the length of the warrior's spine, extending outward across her limbs. "Where's Gabrielle?"
Phaon's eyes widened in surprise. "Gabrielle? Xena ... do you feel a need for Gabrielle?"
A need? That wouldn't even begin to describe what Xena was feeling at the moment. The warrior opened her eyes and Phaon gasped.
"In the name of Ceres, Xena! You have been chosen!"
Sappho stepped up and looked deeply into the eyes of the Warrior Princess. "Xena, you're eyes are on fire."
"Xena," a male voice spoke from behind her. Sappho and Phaon looked up. Xena turned around. "Let me look at your eyes." Vettii smiled, grabbed Xena by the shoulders and pulled her closer. He studied Xena's face intently. "You were meant for me." He lifted his hand and caressed her cheek.
Vettii stroked the warrior's skin, smiling at the wondrous color that was flowing all around her. Her expression, however, remained blank and unfeeling.
Xena felt nothing at the touch, but she could see that Vettii was glowing a brilliant, iridescent green, matching the color of Phaon exactly.
The nobleman lost his smile when he realized his touch was having no effect on the warrior at all.
"You were supposed to be meant for me."
Xena lifted her hand and pulled his palm away from her face.
"Guess again," she said, giving him a firm push out of the way.
She was very worried about Gabrielle now. The chamber was large and crowded with people. Her progress was hampered even more by the assortment of divans and large pillows that had been brought in and placed in circles throughout the room.
All around, couples were forming. Men and women were joining hands and walking to various sofas as though their places had been assigned.
Xena glanced over her shoulder and saw Vettii and Phaon walking hand in hand to a couch. They were oblivious to everything around them, including Sappho, who was watching them with a glazed expression from a small couch where she sat alone.
But Xena could not concern herself with that now. Her mind had one thought and one thought only.
Where was Gabrielle?
She could barely walk. She needed to sit down. This was not good. This was dangerous. What if there was an attack? Xena tried to lift her arm to get to her sword, but it was no good. Her hand would not grasp the handle. She had no strength to pull the weapon.
Where was Gabrielle?
Her eyes scanned the crowded, throbbing room in confusion.
She needed a plan.
First step, find Gabrielle.
Second, she needed to find Gabrielle.
Third, she needed to get Gabrielle out of here ... fast.
Her eyes searched the room frantically for her partner.
And then she found her. Gabrielle was talking to Paris. The mime had his back to her and his height was blocking the bard from view. Though the warrior could not see her, Xena could see the shining glow of her bard. She would recognize it anywhere.
Get away from Paris.
Her mind screamed but her voice seemed disconnected and her mouth refused move. The room tilted and Xena forced her legs to walk. She staggered past a couch, ignoring the moans from the couple who were beginning to make love right .
If he touches her, I'm going to kill him.
She might not be able to manage her sword, but she sure as Hades knew that she could slit any rat’s throat at 30 paces with her chakram even blind drunk.
Her fingers fumbled for the weapon, freezing when a sensation flowed across her skin so strong, she had to groan.
Paris was saying something. Gabrielle was sure he was talking, but he wasn't making any sense. Something about how they were meant to be together. The bard's eyes wandered unfocused on the features of the face before her. Yes, she thought to herself as she stared at the strange, soft glow pulsating around Paris' head, I am meant to be with someone.
But it's not you.
Gabrielle looked over Paris' shoulder and spotted Xena across the room. The warrior was glowing as bright as the sun.
Xena felt a wave of rage pass over her as she watched Paris bend his head to nibble on Gabrielle's neck. The warrior's only desire now was to see her chakram sticking out of the mime's back, but her stubborn limbs refused to obey. She could not move. If her rage were a monster, it would have devoured the entire room.
Couples everywhere froze in horror, each experiencing their own impression of the manifestation of such anger. It shot across the room in a myriad of colors, disrupting the flow, paralyzing all energy.
Sappho gasped at what she saw. Xena was exploding. She was Vesuvius and she was exploding!
But Gabrielle did not appear afraid. Sappho watched as the bard gently shoved Paris aside. She walked up to her partner and placed a calming hand on the warrior's arm. Sappho smiled and relaxed back onto her pillows as the angry burst of colors emanating from Xena subsided to a warm glow.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Xena asked, looking with great concern into her partner’s eyes.
"I'm fine. I feel funny, Xena," Gabrielle responded, suddenly noticing how soft and warm Xena's skin felt beneath her touch. She began to caress the arm absently.
The sensations that simple touch created sent the warrior's mind into a whirl. She fought back the urge to moan, then heard someone close by do it for her.
"It's the drink." Xena's voice sounded raw, even to her own ears. "It was laced with a very powerful drug."
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle's hand had wandered from the arm up to a strong shoulder and then her fingertips were traveling along Xena's collarbone, leaving little electric jolts in their path.
More groans echoed throughout the temple chamber.
"We have to get out of here," Xena rasped.
Gabrielle's palms were massaging whatever bare skin she could find. She ran her fingers up and under Xena's epaulets and pushed them aside, trying to connect with as much flesh as possible.
"I don't think I can leave, Xena." She ran her hands up along the warrior's neck and onto her face, stroking her cheeks. "I don't think we're meant to."
Xena's senses were threatening to overload. Her skin was on fire. Gabrielle’s touches were making her knees shake. She had to sit down. She had to touch her. They had to get out of here.
"Gabrielle, we have to get out of here. It's just a drug. If we concentrate, we can get to safety."
"We're safe," Gabrielle whispered as she moved herself against the length of Xena's body, planting small kisses on the skin just above a breast. "We're together."
Xena was helpless against the feel of Gabrielle's lips on her skin. She groaned and let her arms encircle the woman.
An answering chorus of moans echoed throughout the hall.
"Oh, gods, Gabrielle. Please stop."
Xena barely registered the fact that two acolytes had stepped up and were removing her sword and chakram. They placed them carefully next to a couch not far from where the couple now stood.
Gabrielle moved her attention to Xena's neck; her hands traveled up and across bare shoulders then she grasped Xena roughly around the back of the head, pulling her closer so she could reach to kiss the tender flesh.
Xena thought she was going to pass out. Her legs wobbled, threatening to give way. She pulled Gabrielle into her body, grateful for the added support, feeling as if they could melt into each other. Gods, the woman felt delicious against her.
Gabrielle paused and stared up in amazement at her partner. They were both completely out of breath.
"Xena," she said softly. Her fingers reached up and lightly played with the warrior's soft lips. "I can't stop ... I don't want to."
There was no choice in the matter. Gabrielle's lips were irresistible. Xena found herself staring at them, wondering how anyone so beautiful could possibly want to be in her life.
Their lips were touching before Xena could stop herself. An indescribable feeling of warmth coursed through her body. Her lips moved over Gabrielle's, delighting in the sweetness she tasted there. It had been too long, Xena thought as she tighten her arms and pulled Gabrielle closer.
And then Gabrielle opened her mouth slightly so their tongues might touch. Xena's world exploded into color. A growl escape from the back of the warrior's throat and her strong hands traveled all over the bard's sculpted back, feeling their way across shirt and muscle down to the soft skin just above the skirt. With a mind of their own, her hands grabbed at the coarse material of the skirt, pulling up roughly, wanting to remove the obstacle to warm flesh. She needed to feel skin and was rewarded with a moan from Gabrielle as her hands slipped their way under cloth to the smoothness waiting underneath. Xena clutched at the flesh and pulled Gabrielle roughly against her, grinding their bodies together.
"Xena, please," Gabrielle groaned.
Xena broke off their kiss and pulled her hands away, letting the skirt drop. She held Gabrielle in a gentle hug and waited for their breath to return. Looking over the bard's head, she noticed the couch waiting for them, beckoning to themr. She kissed the top of her partner's head and then guided them to the sofa.
"We have to sit down," Xena managed to choke out.
Gabrielle nodded mutely and followed Xena's lead. She allowed Xena to gently steer her backward until she felt the couch against her legs.
She sat, sighing gratefully, and lay back, smiling at Xena as the warrior removed her armor.
For Xena, there was no one else in the room. They were alone. They were at their campsite. They were in a room in a tavern. They were anywhere but in a strange temple in a strange city surrounded by strange people.
The warrior's entire attention was focused on her lover, who lay before her smiling. Gabrielle opened her bodice and offered herself for Xena's consumption.
Without even knowing how, Xena was suddenly naked. And when she gently laid her body on top of Gabrielle's, basking in the incredible sensation of skin upon skin, the entire room responded with moans.
On the other side of the chamber, with a clear view, Sappho watched as Xena lowered herself, covering the bard's naked body with her own. The warrior melted into Gabrielle, moving against her, groaning. When they kissed, Xena's hair fell down and mixed with Gabrielle's golden locks. The poet held her breath when Xena slid lower, letting her dark hair glide over Gabrielle's golden shoulders. And when Xena captured a tender nipple with soft lips, a chorus of moans sang out across the chamber in answer to the bard's.
The ceremony was in full swing, and Xena and Gabrielle were at the heart of it.
Sappho somehow found the will to turn her head and look at Phaon and Vettii. Though the sight of them lying together broke her heart, she did not have the strength to look away. Sappho could do nothing but lay on the couch and watch as Vettii hungrily kissed and took possession of the woman she loved.
A sudden flash caught her attention. The poet forced herself to lift her head up from the pillow and look away from Phaon and Vettii making love to the altar.
Impossibly, the golden statue of Ceres moved its legs.
Sappho blinked to clear her eyes, staring in amazement as the gold figurine descended from the pedestal and started to walk across the room. With every step, the icon grew in height until she was as tall as Xena.
The Goddess strolled through the chamber, smiling in approval at every couple she passed.
Sappho watched in awe, speechless, when Ceres paused at the edge of her divan and looked down at the poet, who was lying on a sofa alone.
"I'm sorry, Sappho," the golden goddess said. Her voice was smooth, her words like music. "It was not meant to be at this time."
"Will it ever?" Sappho somehow found her voice to ask.
The goddess smiled in surprise. "You can speak?"
Sappho gulped, not sure she would be able to do it again. "Will it ever be meant to be?"
The goddess laughed. "If you can speak, then you can sing. It would please me if you would sing for my festival. I am very happy with the way things have turned out."
"I'm not," Sappho mumbled.
The goddess laughed again. "If I answer your question, will you sing for me?"
The poet nodded and suddenly a lyre appeared in her hands. She looked up at Ceres and waited.
"You and Phaon do have a destiny together," Ceres said, but she was not smiling. "Now sing."
Ceres floated away from the Tenth Muse. Sappho watched her hover over the central sofa. Xena was kissing Gabrielle softly. The warrior's large hands were touching the bard's beautiful body everywhere and so gently; the poet had no idea that Xena was capable of such tenderness.
Ceres paused, floating over the entwined bodies of Xena and Gabrielle. The Goddess glanced back at the poet and nodded at her from across the room, smiling in approval of her song.
Sappho continued to sing as the golden goddess reached down and touched Xena's shoulder. The warrior looked up, surprised. The poet half-expected Xena to jump up, ready to fight, but the warrior did not. Instead, Xena reached out to accept a gift from the goddess herself. Ceres placed something in Xena's hands ... and then, with a bright flash, Ceres was gone.
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