The Village Called Respite

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, those who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.
When the village accepts a new family from Cloudsdale, a not-quite-altruistic pair of changeling siblings offer a young filly friendship and a chance to find her place in the strange village she hopes to call home.
http://www.fimfiction.net/story/291019/the-village-called-respite

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17. What We Aspire to Be

Suspicion was one of those emotions that could vary in taste depending on how intense it was. Sort of like cinnamon.

A little was what gave a pony’s taste a nice kick. It was part of the fun of a good prank, really. Standing next to a friend in disguise, slowly hinting that something was up, and then, right as they leaned in, eyes narrowed, and drawling something so adorably predictable like “Heeeeyyyyyyy …” just before pouncing on them, cackling madly while boasting about his successful imitation was great.

Too much, though, brought a feeling of discomfort to a changeling. If they were in disguise, it brought a feeling of worry that they were about to be revealed before a crowd of unfriendly ponies—or worse, a bunch of Locust—who would chase them out or try to imprison them in some cold place without love.

For a Caretaker like Aspire, it brought on something else: distrust.

Sure Stroke wasn’t entirely trusting of him as he led her away from their friends, away from the party, toward a small clearing off by the lakeside.

Wincing, Aspire let his ears droop. Of course she was a bit suspicious of him.

I would be after a nightmare like that. He let his shoulders slump, he hesitated in mid step as a thought occurred. Biting his lip, he glanced over his shoulder at her.

Sure Stroke’s face was creased with a small frown, her brows furrowed as she met his eyes.

He couldn’t help but duck his head. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea pulling her away from everyone else.

If she was having nightmares about being invited to dinner because he’d scared her, why wouldn’t she think he was luring her aside for a quick snack and a heavy dose of his charm spell?

At his hesitation, Sure Stroke pursed her lips. “Well?”

Aspire started. “Oh, uh, sorry!” He gave a tight-lipped smile, making extra sure not to show his teeth even though he’d shifted his fangs away.

No need to scare her again.

He faced forward, nodding to the clearing ahead. “We’re here.”

It was a nice little place set off to the side where they could still see everyone playing and having a good time, but far enough off that they could sit and dip their hooves in the cool water and talk without worry of being overheard.

Aspire stopped right at the water’s edge and took a deep breath. His gaze fell to the dampened dirt at his hooves.

For a moment, the pair stayed quiet. Aspire shifted in place, letting his right forehoof touch the water’s edge. He lifted it out and shook a few droplets off his chitinous carapace, then glanced up at Sure Stroke.

“Do you wanna sit down or something?” he offered.

Like he’d flipped a switch, Sure Stroke drew in a deep breath through her nose, her cheeks puffed up.

She narrowed her eyes. “I’d like you to explain why you’re being so distant!” she snapped, stomping a hoof into the dirt.

A few flecks of mud splattered onto his shin. Aspire ducked his head again. “I … don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He didn’t need to flick out his tongue to taste for anger. The glare she shot him could’ve burnt away his chitin.

Sure Stroke unfurled her wings and crouched low like she was ready to tackle him. “Don’t you lie to me!” she growled, pawing at the dirt. “You were all happy when I came over to your house for dinner, and then when you came back to your room, you were mopey and distant, and you wouldn’t come near me!”

Aspire bit back a curse. What sort of changeling was he if he couldn’t keep his emotions hidden?

“Actually, lying is a thing we do by nature, so this could serve as a very valuable—” Aspire clapped his hooves over his mouth, his eyes went wide. That was wrong. Very wrong.

It would only make her nightmares get worse.

Her glare pierced right through him. Sure Stroke stomped forward until her nose was but a hair’s breadth from his and snorted right in his face. She was challenging him.

Aspire looked away. No she isn’t. She’s not comfortable playing like us. Surrender was best, even if his first instinct demanded he answer the call.

Submission was the best way to make her feel safe and happy.

Something solid hit him on the left side of his face, stars burst before his eyes. Aspire dropped into the water like a sack of potatoes, clutching his bruised cheek and trying to figure out what just hit him.

He looked up, flinching back as he saw Sure Stroke’s face twisted into a mask of fury, her right hoof still extended from the punch.

She hits very hard.

“Get up!” Sure Stroke demanded. She stomped into the water, glaring as she towered over him. “Get up right now and tell me! And don’t you dare lie or misdirect or whatever changeling nature says you should do or I’ll hit you again!”

Anger bubbled beneath the surface. She hit him. She challenged him, hit him, and then stood over him like she was ready to fight.

He was trying to be nice and apologize. And she’d hit him.

Grinding his teeth, Aspire let his lips peel back. Flecks of green fire washed over the flattened pony teeth he’d shifted his fangs to. He hissed as they sharpened. If Sure Stroke wanted to challenge him when he was trying to be nice, he’d show her why he was the best wrestler in their class!

Her terrified face as she looked back at him in the forest flashed before his eyes. Aspire blinked, letting his lips settle back into a frown.

No. I won’t.

I can’t.

He hung his head. Green fire washed over his fangs, filing them down until they were flat once more.

His mouth was full of pony teeth. All for her.

No more nightmares. No more thinking their friendship was false.

And no more thinking she was just food.

Aspire looked down at the water. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

Sure Stroke didn’t say anything for a moment. He heard her take a deep breath, then let out a sigh.

A wet hoof touched his right cheek, gently turning his head until he was forced to meet her gaze. Concern flashed in those pretty blue eyes. Another pang of guilt shot through his heart.

“You already apologized for that,” she said, still frowning at him. “And you promised you’d stop treating me like a filly and not hide your fangs anymore.”

Aspire grimaced. “Not when they give you nightmares,” he mumbled under his breath.

Sure Stroke’s ears twitched. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

Her eyes hardened again. “I told you not to lie unless you wanted to be hit again.” Sure Stroke raised her right hoof, ready to strike.

Gritting his teeth, Aspire fought down his instincts and looked away again.

He snuck a flick of his tongue and blanched at the burn of indignation that greeted him. She was even angrier.

“Going to let me threaten you?” she taunted. With a dismissive snort, she pushed his shoulder, trying to goad him on. “I thought changelings always answered a challenge.”

Aspire let his ears droop. “You’re not challenging me. You wouldn’t want to after hide and seek.”

“I’m not? Then let me make it clear.” Sure Stroke brought herself down to eye level, glaring straight at him. “I am challenging you. Get up and talk to me so I can help you, or get hit again.”

His hackles raised. Aspire met her gaze with a glare of his own. “Hitting doesn’t solve problems,” he said, pushing his snout against hers. If he couldn’t get her to stop, he’d at least get her to back down. “Caretakers don’t hit to help.”

She snorted right in his face again and pushed back, using her leverage to force him down until his back was in the water. “Pegasi like to call it percussive therapy. And I’m going to give my friend a round of it if he doesn’t tell me what changed!”

That tore it. Aspire gave another hiss and planted his right hoof so he could push harder and brought his left up to grab hers so he could pull her over and change positions.

The moment he touched it, he felt something. Curious, he paused a moment and furrowed his brow as he stole a glance out of the corner of his eye.

Her hoof trembled in his grasp. Aspire let his eyes flit back to hers, just in time to catch the faintest glimmer of tears welling up.

Blinking, he let his muscles relax. “You’re crying,” he said.

“I’m angry,” Sure Stroke shot back, her voice strained. “Because one of the few friends I have in this village has been acting strange since I went over to his house because he thinks I’m afraid of him!”

“But you are afraid.” Aspire turned his head away and shifted so he could sit back on his haunches, facing out toward the opposite shore.

Sure Stroke scoffed. “I was afraid when you scared me in the forest! We talked about that!”

He heaved a sigh. “I heard our parents talking before I went to make tea. Yours told mine that you had a nightmare after we walked you home.” Aspire squeezed his eyes shut. “A nightmare about us wrapping you up in cocoon slime and taunting you all before we fed on your love.”

Aspire readied for another salvo, another of her furious denials, maybe even a smack over the head. It was fine. He could deal with it just this once if it made her feel at ease.

None came save for the sound of splashing water.

Still bracing himself, Aspire dared to crack open an eye.

 

 

No.

Aspire wasn’t supposed to know about her nightmare.

Sure Stroke tried to find a way to say that she wasn’t afraid of him, that it was just lingering doubt.

But it was a lie. She was still afraid to a point. Not necessarily of his fangs or of him, but …

Like he said, lying was a part of changeling nature. Deception was their greatest ally, so why couldn’t he be lying now?

Simply put, he could very well be. If he hadn’t been so distraught and the rest of their friends hadn’t noted how strange he was acting.

She took a deep breath and licked her lips. If there was one thing she could do to help him, it was tell the truth. If deception was a changeling’s ally, then honesty would be hers. “I … I’m still a bit afraid,” she said. “Not of your fangs or how you look, or even how you act. But there’s still a nagging worry that you’ll be just like those old stories and want to feed on me.”

Aspire sucked in his lips, but nodded. “I know. And … I’d be lying if I said your love wasn’t appetizing.” Almost as soon as he said it, his eyes went wide. He waved his hooves in front of him and hastily added, “But not like that!”

“That’s the problem!” Sure Stroke stomped a hoof, splashing water onto herself. “You do want to feed on me! And Toola! Even though we’re friends! Esalen even said your mom loved having friends for dinner!”

Groaning, Aspire brought a hoof to his forehead. “She didn’t mean it like that! I mean, yes, we do, but not with cocoons and biting!”

Sure Stroke flicked her tail. Why can’t I just get a straight answer? “Well, which is it? Do you like having friends for dinner or not?”

He blanched. “We do! I mean, not like—we don’t—not like your nightmare! I’m not a Locust! We’re Caretakers!”

With a groan, Sure Stroke turned away from him. “I don’t know what that is! And that’s still the problem! I don’t understand what all this even means! Am I your friend or am I your food?”

For a moment, Aspire didn’t say anything. She heard the sound of water sloshing and trickling off his sides as he stood. A look out of the corner of her eye found him frozen in mid step, like he wanted to come closer.

If only he would.

“The first tenet of the Caretaker hive of Respite,” he began, “was practiced years before the founding of the village, but never written down until Queen Serenitatem formalized the first laws in our history for the ponies she hoped would come in search of a place to rest, find treatment, and even live.”

Puzzled, Sure Stroke turned to face him again, tilting her head to one side.

Aspire continued, “Do not take what is not yours, or not offered to you. Give with kindness, ask politely, and you shall receive love in turn.” He paused a moment to take a breath, then added, “The expanded version states that when receiving love, take only what is offered and stop when asked, and give thanks in turn. She wanted ponies to know that we thought of them as friends before food, even though to us you’re both.”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. That didn’t sound at all like the shapeshifting tricksters from old stories. They all charmed or lured ponies away to feed on their love, they didn’t just walk up, do something nice, and ask.

“I don’t understand. That doesn’t make sense with how changelings play tricks, charm, and deceive.” She rustled her wings. “Or how some of our stories portray them.”

Aspire slumped. “We’ve always been predators,” he said. “But before the Sainted Ones fell, we were all one hive. And before them, we were like the Locust. We changed. Some of us, at least.” He wrinkled his nose. “We Caretakers do like our tricks, though. And your love is still food.”

Another groan escaped her lips. “That just raises even more questions than it answers! I don’t know any of your history, so that just confuses me more!” Sure Stroke swiped at the water, sending a tiny wave out toward the center of the lake.

Why couldn’t this be simpler? Why did Aspire, Esalen, Nimble Hooves, and Zephyr have to be so different?

And why couldn’t she accept it when they accepted her?

Sure Stroke let her head hang. “I wish I could get past it,” she said. “I like you all so much, but I can’t get over how … changeling you are.”

Aspire didn’t answer. Well, not verbally.

The little whine and sad rumble in the back of his throat were enough.

But she had more. She turned to face him, bringing a wet hoof up to touch her chest. “I almost envy Toola and Vector for growing up with you—they don’t see you like I did when I first came here, and still sometimes do.” Sure Stroke let her wings droop along with her ears. “I like being your friend, and I want to understand you so I don’t have to be scared.”

“I like being your friend too,” Aspire said. “I just don’t think I’m a very good friend, or Caretaker, if I can’t even make you feel at home without giving you nightmares.”

With a sigh, Sure Stroke splashed water at him. “Would you just let my stupid nightmare go?”

He wiped water off his face, fixing her with a dry stare. “I’ll let that one slide, but it’s the last,” he warned. “And no, I won’t, because you haven’t let your fear go. I can’t taste it as much, but it’s there. You shouldn’t have to be afraid of me—or any of us here.” Grimacing, he looked away. “Maybe you should spend more time with Essy instead of me.”

Sure Stroke drew back like he’d struck her. Her ears stood up. “What are you—”

“You both get along well, and she doesn’t scare you like I did,” he continued. Closing his eyes, he sighed. “I’m good at reading books and tasting emotions, I can recite all I want about our tenets and laws and history, but I guess I can’t put it to practice like she can. She’s always been more personal than me, and she’s better at toning down the teasing and stuff.”

“I don’t want to push you away!”

“It wouldn’t make you scared.”

She frowned. He was being stupid, incredibly so. How could they fix anything if he just treated her like a foal and tried to run away from the problem because he couldn’t solve it alone?

Perhaps it was a flight of fancy, or a rush of raw emotion she just couldn’t contain. Either way, the answer came to her like a friendly wind.

Aspire wasn’t looking at her, so he didn’t see her crouch low, readying her muscles to spring into action.

He didn’t see her knees bend, or her ears pin back.

Not until she’d stayed quiet too long, at least. And by then, it was far too late.

Sure Stroke leapt upon him in a splash and a rustle of feathers. The startled nymph let out a surprised chitter, rearing back to try to fend her off, only to fall right back into the water.

She made sure to pin his shoulders, thoroughly soaking him from mane to tail.

It took all her self-control not to take pride in the surprise written plain across his face. But that fell secondary to her goal.

Sure Stroke leaned down to nuzzle him. His smooth, chitinous carapace both warm and full of life, and cool with the water coating him.

“I’m still challenging you,” she said softly. Her eyes locked with his. “I challenge you to be yourself and be my friend, Aspire. I challenge you, Esalen, Nimble, and Zephyr to be my first changeling friends, and not shy away because I think some things about you all are weird.”

Aspire stared in silence. He licked his lips, his ears twitched. “You’re sincere,” he muttered.

“Yes, dummy, I’m very sincere.”

“Huh.” Blinking, he gave a small smile. “Okay.”

Sure Stroke furrowed her brows. “That’s it? After all that, just ‘okay?’” she mimicked his voice as best she could—which wasn’t very good at all.

By the look on his face, he knew it too, but just didn’t feel like saying it. “Yes. Okay. I already said I wasn’t going to let the next challenge slide, so I’ll take this one.” With a wry look, he ran a hoof through his sopping wet mane. “Even though you messed up my mane.”

“Deal with it! It comes with being tackled by a chubby little filly, mister ‘I’m the best wrestler!’”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re treading into dangerous waters, little filly!” Green fire sparked, Aspire’s teeth lengthened and narrowed into his normal fangs. “Don’t you think it’s best you quit while your ahead on getting away with challenging a changeling?”

Sure Stroke stuck out her tongue. “You’re just mad that I’ve got you pinned! And I think I’ll tell everyone it wasn’t even a struggle!”

“Alright, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Aspire’s eyes flashed green, a wicked smirk tugged at his lips. “Remember how I told you your first lesson was not to challenge a changeling?”

She felt him shift beneath her, readying to try to move. Sure Stroke pressed her weight down on his shoulders. “Yeah. After you scared me and slimed my legs.”

“Good. Here comes lesson one in wrestling. Ready?”

Eyes narrowed, Sure Stroke snorted defiantly. “I’ve got you pinned, what do you mean ‘ready?’”

Aspire’s smirk turned into decidedly smug grin. Without a word, he bucked his hips, shooting her forward, then wrapped a hoof around the back of her head and tugged her to the side.

Her world went sideways. Sure Stroke gasped at the cold rush of water upon her back. She tried to stop herself, but Aspire caught her by the shoulder and planted a knee firmly on her chest.

Sure Stroke let out a wheezing gasp as the wind left her chest. She shifted left and right, doing her best to wriggle out from under him, but to no avail.

Aspire brought his muzzle in close, nuzzling her nose just as she had his. “Never put all your weight forward or backward,” he said. “It makes it way too easy for me to sweep you.” Waggling his eyebrows, he added, “It also helps if you put a knee on someone’s chest. Makes for a nice little spot to sit, and it’s really uncomfortable.”

“I’ve—oof!—noticed!” Sure Stroke groaned and let her hooves fall flat. Her only option was surrender. “Okay, okay! You win! I give up, mighty changeling! Now get off!”

“Hmm. Nah!” He shook his head and let out a strange, almost purring sound from the back of his throat. Like he were a big cat.

Changelings make the strangest sounds.

Aspire fixed her with a half-lidded stare and a knowing smirk. “What was that you said about us being strange? I’m curious, do enlighten me.”

Sure Stroke rolled her eyes. “Do we have to play this game?”

“I could tickle it out of you if you want.” He let a hoof drift down her side. “I bet I can keep you pinned if I just use one hoof.”

Crabapples. “Fine! Yes, you’re strange to me.” Her eyes flitted to his legs. “Ponies don’t have holes. Or chitin. Or fangs. You do.”

Aspire made a show of opening and closing his mouth. “Anything else?”

Sure Stroke huffed. “Yes. You all have long tongues.”

He’d been waiting for that. Aspire stuck out his tongue, just as she had before, and waggled it at her before blowing a raspberry.

She writhed and tried to cover her face. “Gross!”

Aspire pulled his tongue back in. “Gross, huh?” he parroted, laughing. “Aren’t you forgetting something else?”

Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. “Um, no.”

“You suuuuuuuure?” he drawled, his eyes shone with mirth. “It’s something else you think is weird! Here, lemme give you a hint!”

She watched in mute fascination as Aspire sucked in his lips. He seemed to be manipulating something around in his mouth, just like he had when …

Her eyes went wide. Sure Stroke unfurled her wings and flapped as hard as she could, splashing him in the face again and again. “No! No slime allowed!”

Cackling like a loon, Aspire nuzzled her. “I’m joking! Geez, stand down already!”

Sure Stroke huffed and glared up at him a moment. Then she splashed him again. “Get off, you jerk!”

He moved off of her and sat back on his haunches beside her, his smirk still in place even as water ran down his chitinous face. “Pegasi are sore losers,” he quipped.

“And changelings play dirty!” she shot back, a smile tugging at her lips as she sat up and turned to face him.

“Of course we do. We’re changelings.” Aspire cast a wink at her. “So, next one of your doodles is me with a clown face and a long tongue instead of fangs, right?”

Sure Stroke cringed. “You guys saw that?”

He gave a rueful smile. “Kinda clued us in that you were scared of our fangs.”

Comprehension finally dawned on her. Sure Stroke felt her breath hitch in her throat. “I … didn’t mean to—I just thought if I drew it, I could get out how I felt and—”

“It’s fine.” Aspire shrugged. “It’s not like you’re the first pony who came and freaked out when they saw our fangs.” Fixing her with a sideways glance, he gave a lopsided smile. “You’re just the first to sit down and doodle me looking like Queen Euphoria when she’s mad instead of babbling and pointing.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head and sucked in her lips, her cheeks burned.

He was right back to teasing her like normal. I wanted this?

“Wait!” Aspire gasped, his ears perked up. “I’ve got it!”

“Got what?” Sure Stroke asked, a feeling of dread rising as he slowly turned to beam at her.

Aspire jabbed a dripping wet hoof at her. “Your nickname is Doodle! I finally got one that works!”

“What?” she shrieked, blanching and bringing up a wing and a hoof as if to ward him off. “No! You can’t nickname me Doodle! Pick something else!”

“Nope!” He leapt to his hooves and stuck out his tongue again. “You’re Doodle from now until the day I get bored or you leave Respite! And I’m gonna make sure it sticks, Doooooooodle!”

Before Sure Stroke could even try to grab him, Aspire took off in a dead sprint, chittering like mad as he dashed back toward the party.

Sure Stroke glared at his retreating form. She stood and shook the water out of her coat, glaring as she watched Aspire’s form burst into green fire and shift into that of a rather lithe orange coated unicorn with a messy red mane.

If he thought he was the only one who could play to his kind’s strengths, he had another thing coming!

Unfurling her wings, Sure Stroke gave chase, flying as fast as she could. With her hooves outstretched, she flew low, weaving around a couple stray trees as Aspire tried to slow her down.

Aspire darted past Façade, Duplicitous, and Pear Tree, cackling as he called out, “Come on, Doodle! Keep up!” He turned sharply, racing as fast as he could toward their friends over by the drink table. “I’m gonna make sure Nimble knows what to call you when she finally catches you!”

“You’d better not or I’ll give you such a smack!” Sure Stroke cried. “Aspire! Get back here!”

Her warning only served to make heads turn toward them, the villagers began laughing as they watched the pair go racing by.

“Better run fast, Aspire!”

“Give him a good swat, Sure Stroke! Teach that naughty little nymph we pegasi aren’t to be messed with!”

“Yeah, right, Rain! Aspire’s got her beat!”

They didn’t even know what they were cheering for, nor did they really seem to care. The villagers just knew it was fun and wanted to join in.

Despite herself, Sure Stroke let a smile cross her muzzle. It was rather nice to hear, like they’d already accepted her as one of their own.

She put on an extra burst of speed, the distance between herself and Aspire closed.

With a cry of victory, Sure Stroke swooped down and tackled him, sending them both rolling in the dirt, laughing, yelping, and flailing hooves as each struggled for dominance. In the end, it was Sure Stroke who came up on top. She sat on his back, pressing a hoof between his shoulder blades while covering his mouth with the other.

“Caught you!” she crowed.

Aspire narrowed his eyes. In a burst of flames, he was in nymph form again. His carapaced cheeks crinkled as though her were smiling, then she felt his lips part and a warm, wet tongue run across her leg.

She shrieked and pulled her hoof away. “Aspire! That’s gross!”

He didn’t hesitate. “Her nickname is Doodle!” he called at the top of his voice. “I finally got one!”

Sure Stroke clapped her hoof over his mouth again, but it was too late. Pinning her ears flat, she looked up to find their friends but a few steps away.

Slowly, their ears perked up and broad grins crossed their faces. Vector and Toola Roola even swished their tails happily, the latter sucked in her lips to hold back laughter.

The sound of low, almost sibilant chuckling tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. She looked over her shoulder and felt her heart sink when she came face to face with Queen Euphoria once again.

“And just when I was about to come looking for you!” The Queen said, amusement tinging her voice. “Would you be a dear and let Aspire up, please?”

Nodding, Sure Stroke slid off him. Aspire simply sat up on his haunches and grinned before turning to face the Queen himself.

Queen Euphoria’s smiled brightened. “Thank you. I only wanted to ask if you would mind coming to visit me sometime, Sure Stroke.”

Sure Stroke ducked her head. “Am I in trouble?”

“No, no trouble at all!” Queen Euphoria waved her off. “I just had a lovely little talk with your parents and they happened to mention your …” she trailed off, her eyes flitted to Aspire. “Adjustment to the village, and I thought I might offer my help. Just a talk, really. Perhaps tea if you’d like.”

Shifting in place, Sure Stroke glanced at Aspire. He didn’t seem worried, though maybe a bit tense when Queen Euphoria’s gaze fell upon him.

“Why don’t you give it some thought?” Queen Euphoria offered. She smiled and tussled Sure Stroke’s mane. “It doesn’t have to be now. If you want, just come by my house. If I’m not busy with village matters, I’d be happy to talk.” She started to walk away, but stopped in mid step. Bringing a hoof to her lips, she feigned a gasp. “Oh! I almost forgot! Sure Stroke?”

There was something about the gleam in her eyes that set Sure Stroke on edge. “Yes, Your—um …” she trailed off, catching a wry look from the Queen. “I mean, yes, Euphoria?”

“I think Doodle is a lovely nickname for you. Your mother tells me that you’re quite the artist.”

Sure Stroke groaned and buried her face in her hooves, grumbling under her breath as Aspire cackled and wrapped her in a tight hug.

“This stupid name is going to stick, isn’t it?” she muttered.

Aspire brought his muzzle close to her ear, she could almost feel the smugness radiating off him.

“Come on now, Doodle. Was there ever any doubt?”

 

 

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