Across the table, Akashi gave her a look that obviously stated he didn't care one bit. Kimiko looked on in amusement as the redhead carefully avoided the seaweeds in his soup before resuming her meal. The two had gone for lunch at a nearby restaurant before heading to the manor. Akashi insisted.
"Something wrong?" Akashi asked her.
"Nothing," Kimiko replied, though her narrowed gaze at him earlier bothered the redhead slightly.
"You've been eyeing me critically since lunch," Akashi said finally when they got back inside the limousine. "Is there a problem?"
"Hmmm..." Kimiko said carefully. "I asked you earlier but you lied to me, obviously."
The redhead's brows furrowed in confusion. "What—"
He stopped as the girl scooted close to him, her hands on his cheeks as she stared into his eyes that are slightly wide with surprise. She was close enough for him to be able to smell her shampoo — which he noted was still the same citrus-scent that she'd been using since middle-school. However, much as he liked their current proximity, she still owe him an explanation for her actions.
"Akumi," he said, "What are you doing?"
"Your eyes are red," she said, still not letting go of his face.
Red? "I'm no longer heterochromatic?" he asked with uncertainty. His left eye was still golden in color when he looked in the mirror that morning.
Kimiko eyed him flatly. "As much as I'd like for your heterochromia to go away, no, your eyes still don't match each other. What I mean by 'red eyes' is that they are bloodshot. Ne, Seijuurou," she pulled away from him and gave him a creepy smile, as if daring him to lie again to her. "Have you been getting enough sleep recently?"
Well, it's not like Akashi can lie to her in the first place.
"Of course I am." He fought the urge to rub his eyes, averting his gaze from her golden one, and sighed when she nodded at him to elaborate. "Well, I don't get eight hours of sleep, much less ten hours — but you already know about that, right?"
Kimiko had to agree with the last one. The normal amount of sleep for Akashi was six to seven hours — and that was back when they were still in Teikou. Now that they are in high school, Kimiko can only wonder if his father had increased Akashi's workload as well, and Kami knows if the redhead even have time to rest.
She flicked his forehead with her finger, earning an annoyed glare in response. "You're overworking yourself again, aren't you? How many hours have you slept last night?"
Guilt flashed through his face as he told her the truth. Well, part of it. "My workload is pretty much the same from what you have seen years ago, but high school life is more hectic than middle school and... You get my point. Especially now, since the Nationals are about to begin. Since I will be gone for a week, Father gave me more work to compensate for my absence, and..." I finished a three-days' worth of paperwork overnight just to clear my schedule today, tomorrow, and next Saturday so that I can spend time with you. Akashi pinched the bridge of his nose. "About three hours." Well, more like two and a half — but Kimiko doesn't have to know that — she looked horrified enough as it is.
"Three hours? No wonder you look like hell!" Kimiko exclaimed in disapproval.
Did he really looked that worse? "That was only last night," he clarified. "The rest of the week I was able to sleep for six to seven hours, so it's not that bad."
"That's what you think, baka!" She punched him lightly in the arm. "You're not getting enough rest! One of these days you might suddenly get sick or something! Geez, you really need someone to look after you or else you'll overwork yourself to death! Tsk..."
Her phone suddenly rang.
"Who is it?" Akashi asked, noting the mixture of happiness and confusion in her eyes as she stared at the ringing device in her hands.
"Ah, it's Tatsuya," she replied as she accepted the call, missing the way her companion's eyes narrowed in response to her answer.
Tatsuya? Isn't that Murasakibara's teammate – Himuro Tatsuya? What does he want from Akumi?
"Moshi moshi!" Kimiko greeted Himuro cheerfully, and Akashi gritted his teeth. Why does she sound so happy?
"Eh? You're already in Wakayama?" she nodded, then continued, "Ah, I just arrived in Kyoto." There was a pause as Himuro said something to her. She laughed. "Well, I'm going with Seijuurou, you see... Yeah, he invited me to go with his team." Kimiko's brows furrowed. "On Wednesday?" She tapped a finger on her chin, the way she always does when she was thinking of something. "I'm sorry but I don't think I can go with you on that day. Seijuurou has a game in the morning and I already promised my kouhais in Teikou that I will watch their game in the afternoon, plus I have promised them dinner as well..."
Beside her, Akashi's frown deepened. So that Himuro asked Kimiko out... But when he heard her rejecting him, Akashi couldn't help feeling smug. Hah.
"Maybe another time, ne? Ja, see you tomorrow!"
Akashi was on her the moment she ended the call.
"What did he say?" Akashi asked, feigning disinterest so that he will not come out as jealous. As if. "And what was that dinner you were talking about?"
Kimiko turned to look at him, and she was smiling brightly. "Oh, the dinner!" she exclaimed. Whether or not it was intentional of her to ignore his first question, Akashi do not know, but then again, he'd rather talk about anything than that Himuro.
"Yes, the dinner."
"Seijuurou, are you busy on Wednesday afternoon?"
He raised an eyebrow at this. Wednesday afternoon...? Akashi ran through his schedule in his head.
"No, I'm not. I am free after our game in the morning."
Kimiko beamed. "Great! Then what do you say having dinner with Shirogane-san and the Teikou team?"
"Sure. I'll watch their game with you as well."
Akashi then noticed that they were already approaching the gates of his house. He looked at Kimiko who was typing a message on her phone, probably to Shirogane-san informing him about the dinner. That, or she's texting Himuro. Akashi preferred the former. He tapped her shoulder twice to get her attention.
He gestured in front of them, as the tall iron gates opened to let their vehicle in. "We're here."
"Welcome back, young master!"
"Aa," Akashi replied to the line of maids and butlers by the entrance of the manor, heads bowed down in respect. He could sense their growing curiosity directed to his guest, though some of them probably remembered her when she came to visit here years ago. He waved a hand to dismiss them and they all scurried away to their tasks. One of them was already carrying Mizuki's bag to one of the guest rooms, another was heading to the kitchen to serve them some refreshments while a butler was leading them to the grand living room.
As they settled on the couch, Akashi noticed the slight tension in her shoulders and wondered about it. However, before he could give it much thought, the maid has arrived with juice and some biscuits, and thus he did not ask her about it.
"Would you prefer to rest in your room for a while?"
Kimiko nodded. She then poked his forehead with her finger. "And you should do the same." She frowned upon noticing the dark circles under his eyes. "You' need to rest."
"I don't have to," he answered dryly, to which she snorted disapprovingly.
"Where's your father, by the way? Last time I visited, he's not around as well..."
As if I'd let you anywhere near him, Akashi muttered inside his head. He bit into his biscuit with controlled violence.
"He's rarely home. He's in Tokyo until Monday."
Akashi changed topics — enough of his annoying father. "What do you want to do this afternoon?"
"For you to sleep," came her instant reply. She'd been bugging him about this matter while they ate lunch at a restaurant earlier — how he looks tired and all. Seeing the look of disapproval on his face, the girl faked a yawn and grinned in satisfaction when the redhead yawned in the contagious response.
"See? You're sleepy," she giggled, pointing at him.
"It's natural response," Akashi shot back. Well, that's what he had read somewhere.
"I think not," she retorted. Raising an eyebrow, she yawned again, long and deep, and Akashi had to cover the lower part of his face with his hand to hide his yawn.
"Akumi," he warned through gritted teeth, only for the girl to laugh at him openly.
"Come on, Seijuurou," Kimiko said mockingly. "Just sleep for the rest of the afternoon. It will do you good."
"I'm not leaving you to wander around here by yourself," Akashi huffed. After all that I've done to be able to spend time with you...
"And enough with the yawns," he added in mild annoyance. Already, he could feel something moist in the corners of his eyes.
Kimiko shut her mouth and pouted. "You're no fun."
This time, it was Akashi who yawned first. And sure enough, Kimiko followed suit. Realizing that she'd been tricked, she placed a hand over her mouth and shot a dirty look at the smug-looking redhead.
Akashi was leisurely saying, "Mother spent most of her time there. She hates being left alone inside the huge house when father and I are not around. Mother loves being with nature; she's a Taoist. Father had always allowed her to do as she please, and so she created this secret garden inside the woods as her place of 'retreat'."
They sauntered over the granite stepping stones that led them deeper into the woods. Bundled in warm clothing, Kimiko clung to Akashi's arm as he told her about his mother's favorite place in the Akashi grounds. The stables were of course, his favorite place to hang out with — there is something comforting with the earthly smells and the sounds of the horses to the young heir, plus he likes tending to Yukimaru, brushing off his magnificent white coat diligently and giving him apples and carrots as treats. However, Kimiko had refused to go visit the horses, much to his disapppointment; he was about to show her Harukaze, Yukimaru's mate, one that his father had only gotten last year.
"No, we're not going there — you'll probably saddle Yukimaru in a flash and be racing the hell out there in the tracks before I can stop you, so no. No visiting Yukimaru. We'll do that tomorrow, okay?"
Having said that, Akashi still refused to stay inside the boring walls of the manor and had invited Kimiko for a walk to the gardens instead, and that had brought them here.
"Father added these—" Akashi continued, pointing to the stones that they were walking on, "—and the pavillion a year after she died."
A word caught Kimiko's attention. "Pavillion?"
"Ah, you'll see in a little bit," Akashi replied with a soft smile. He always looked peaceful when he talks about his mother — it was painfully obvious to Kimiko just how much Akashi loved the woman that gave birth to him.
They continued down the path until they reached a wrought iron gate covered with white-blooming creepers that completely obscured the view behind it. Akashi reached into his pocket and produced an ornate golden key. Kimiko was busy looking at the moss-covered walls and the stone fox statues perched on the pillars on either side of the gates like some sort of guardians to the place. She barely noticed Akashi pushing the gates open until he tugged on her arm.
Suddenly, she felt like an intrusive guest. She pulled away from him and asked, "Ne, Seijuurou, is it alright for me to be here?"
They had stopped moving as Kimiko refused to take a step into the place. Akashi was looking at her incredulously as if she had just sprouted two heads or what. "What are you saying, Akumi? I brought you here, didn't I?"
"But still! I don't want to trespass on such sacred grounds..." she trailed off, feeling unworthy at the moment.
Akashi suddenly chuckled and reached out to hold her hand. "You're acting silly, Akumi," he said as he brushed his thumb across her knuckles. "If mother was still alive, she would have loved meeting you as well."
Kimiko swore her heart had skipped a beat a those words.
The moment she laid eyes on the garden in front of her, Kimiko was speechless. It was like something straight out of fantasy. Who knew that such a heavenly place lies inside the dark woods?
The first thing that caught her attention was the lake, whose surface sparkled with its glittering waters, with lotus plants and water hyacinths floating leisurely here and there. The hedges surrounded it in rustic beauty, and luxuriant shrubs grew in pleasing order. Tall pine trees stood on the opposite shore and along their path, from whose branches the beautiful clusters of a wistaria hung in rich profusion. A sigh of the evening breeze shook them as they hung in the dappled sunlight, and scattered their rich fragrance towards them. There were also weeping willows near the edges of the lake, whose pensile tresses of new verdure touched the crystal clear waters underneath.
But what really captivated Kimiko was the small yet lavish pavillion in the middle of the lake, floating by itself like an isolated palace. Its crimson-tiled roofs rose in steep angles, lanterns and glass chimes hang around the edges, creating a haunting melody.
The place looks wonderful, really. However, one thing was bothering the girl, though.
"Uh, Seijuurou, how are we going to get to the pavilion? Or is it made to be like that — to be inaccesible to people?"
Akashi pointed to the left shore of the lake. "We use the boat."
It was a short trip — the lake isn't that wide — and soon enough, Akashi was tying the boat on the pole at the receiving dock of the pavilion. With no great hurry, he opened the doors of the pavilion and Kimiko gasped behind him at the sight that greeted her.
A jade urn, its lid shaped in the form of a chrysanthemum. Unlit scented candles and incense sticks. Roses in red and white.
Seijuurou brought me to —
Before her, the redhead had already crossed the room and was now on his knees, bowing in front of the well-cared butsudan at the other end of the room. "Good afternoon, Mother. I brought Akumi with me, as promised."
What Akashi hadn't mentioned was that the pavilion — or rather, the garden as a whole — was Akashi Shiori's resting place.
A picture of the Akashi matriarch hung above the urn, and Kimiko can see that Akashi had inherited most of his features from him — if not all, had his father not intervened by forcing him to act cold, severe, and calculating. The same crimson hair, the same ruby eyes though hers were much, much alive and open with their emotions than her son's, the fine aristocratic nose... Perhaps the only difference between mother and son was the fact that his mother was smiling openly in the picture, while Akashi's lips are much more reserved in showing such displays of happiness. Still, Akashi had gotten his kindness from her. However, Kimiko can sense a hint of sadness in the dead woman's smile.
"Akumi," Akashi called out to her frozen form by the doorway, snapping her to attention.
"Kami, forgive me — where are my manners?!" she gasped as she hurried beside the amused redhead. She knelt in seiza position, hands together in prayer as she brought them to her face and bowed low before the altar, palms laid flat in front of her, her thumb and index finger forming a triangle, her nose touching the polished wooden floor. "Good afternoon, Akashi-san. I hope you forgive my intrusion."
"You're not intruding," Akashi said once she had straightened up. "Mother has been expecting you for some time. She knows quite a bit about you."
Now, that surprised the chartreusette. Gold eyes regarded the male before her carefully as she accepted the hand offered to her to pull herself up.
"You told her about me?"
She watched as Akashi went out on the porch. It felt a bit chilly outside since it was still winter, and there was a slight breeze blowing over the garden, giving the occasional rustle. There were a few birds were chirping in the trees. Akashi remained standing before her, leaning against one of the pillars, his back to her as he murmured, "I tell her everything."
Kimiko remained inside, just a step past the entrance, and she sat back down, ankles crossed, arms wrapped around her legs bringing them close to her chest, her chin resting on top of her knees. When she didn't reply, Akashi turned to face her and she simply patted the space beside her, silently asking him to come sit beside her.
"You should at least have given me fair warning," she said sulkily as Akashi settled cross-legged on the floor.
"Hmm," Akashi replied noncommitally. Kimiko, finely-tuned to notice the slight changes in Akashi's demeanor, had noticed how relaxed the redhead had become once they stepped inside the place. And there was also that repressed excitement in those mismatched eyes as he led her here, akin to a child having a show and tell.
She heard him inhale, then held it in for a few seconds, before letting it out silently through his mouth.
There he goes again — hiding his yawns. If he doesn't want me to notice then maybe he should be more quiet with it.
She rolled her eyes as she straightened her legs before her. Damn it, can't stop acting invincible, can you?
"Seijuurou," she said in an annoyed tone as she pulled down on his shoulders. It was easy to get him to lay his head on her lap since he was not his usually sharp self — which only happens with her (Akashi always had his guard up — in his world, one cannot afford to show the slightest bit of weakness as there are always eyes watching your every move, waiting to catch that golden opportunity to strike you down). His head landed softly on her thighs, her hands on his arm to prevent him from getting up.
It was not an order, rather a request, almost a plea from the honey-eyed girl, her face a picture of concern. The two stared at each other until Akashi sighed im resignation. Moving his body, he might as well make himself comfortable — as comfortable as one can get on lying at the hard wooden floor for a bed. Kimiko can have a one-track mind sometimes.
And here I thought she'd already forgotten about it, Akashi idly thought as she played with his silky scarlet hair. Apparently, my 'not-so-healthy' sleeping habits are a big deal to her.
Slim fingers massaged his scalp, and Akashi found the sensations very soothing. His eyes drooped and fluttered open as the girl hummed a quiet lullaby, punctuated once in a while by the sound of the chimes. He shifted and laid his head sideways on her lap.
Exhausted, Akashi Seijuuro was asleep within ten minutes of lying down.
When Kimiko was sure that Akashi was deep asleep and his breathing was even and steady, she slowly took off her jacket, minimizing her actions so as not to wake him up. She balled the garment and gently eased herself away from him and tucked the makeshift pillow underneath his head before standing up to search the pavilion for a real one (and a blanket, if she was that lucky).
Her search was fast and yielded excellent results. The pavilion is just a one big room: one can see everything in it with just a single glance. The altar seemed to be the one dividing the room in half — the right side was equipped for making tea (a small stove and a kettle for boiling water and cupboards containing an exquisite tea set and various kinds of tea) while the left side served as the living room, a low table and a large closet at the far wall being the only furniture there. Kimiko zeroed on the closet and opened it, and to her delight, it has the things that she needed. Grabbing the pillow and blanket, she went back to the slumbering heir and retrieved her jacket from under his head and replaced it with the more comfortable pillow, then draped the blanket over him. She had seen a futon in the closet as well and though it would be more comfortable than having to lie on the bare floor, Kimiko would rather not wake Akashi up.
True — she would have loved to spend time with him as well, but Kimiko was happier with this. Akashi needed to sleep – five hours would do him a world of good.
She knelt in front of him and peered closely at his face. His lips were a bit pale to her liking, and seeing as he fell asleep immediately, Akashi was indeed really, really tired. He's just good at hiding it.
Not from me though.
Looking at him, peacefully sleeping, Kimiko couldn't help but wonder. When she had gone off to France, who had kept him and his workaholic tendencies in check? Most likely no one. Who would? But most importantly, why would they? Problem with people are they place too much trust in the redhead that they don't think that he's capable of feeling tired as well. Yes, she knows how Akashi does things with perfect ease — as if everything was child's play to him. But of course, accomplishing such feats with all the grace and elegance is the norm to Akashi.
Seijuurou must look like a god to them, she mused, hugging herself.
But that's because they have not witnessed what she had witnessed.
They never saw Akashi glaring at a report like he'd rather burn the thing than to make the necessary corrections.
They never saw Akashi gripping a pen so hard that it could possibly break. (It actually happened twice though.)
They never saw Akashi running his hand across his face in sheer frustration when his father gives him a problematic business deal to work on.
They never saw Akashi — the ever calm and composed Akashi — rushing to finish his homeworks and projects just so that he could start doing his work for the company.
Aa, Kimiko nodded thoughtfully to herself.
Akashi-sama is perfect, ne? That's what everyone says.
But that's because they have not heard what she had heard.
They never heard Akashi, the ever polite Akashi, curse — yes, curse — under his breath when he gets tired of dealing with people whose levels of idiocy are just so damn frustrating.
They never heard Akashi, the ever capable Akashi, complain about his life and how tedious it gets at times, how his father is always so annoying all the time, how Aomine and Haizaki are always testing his patience, how the other girls irritate him when they call him 'Akashi-sama' and follow him around like lovesick fools —
'Akumi, stop laughing and don't you dare try imitating them just for the heck of it because it certainly is getting on my nerves.'
— how the tofu soup in the school cafeteria tastes like shit —
'Akumi, your cooking is much better than this.'
— how he'd rather be a professional shogi player or horseback rider than to be a freaking businessman, how all his father's business partners are a bunch of backstabbing, tongue-wagging fools, and a lot more how's and this and that and Kimiko finds it thoroughly amusing when the redhead would work diligently on whatever he is doing while going on a vicious diatribe on his chosen subject —
'Akumi, would you please stop laughing because it certainly is no laughing matter.' But seriously, how could she, when he was discussing how despicable seaweeds are and why they are even considered as food in such a manner as if he was talking about the upcoming Apocalypse?
Hmmm, people and their ignorance.
Seijuurou hates those kind of people. Kimiko sat back on her heels. Her eyes wander around the room and found herself staring at the picture of the smiling woman on the butsudan.
Akashi Shiori. The first woman that Akashi Seijuurou had ever loved — and one that loved him greater in return.
She stood up and went over to the altar and once again, she paid her respects. She bowed as low as she could, giving her utmost respect and gratitude to the one who bore Akashi Seijuurou into this world. It was too early to light the candles, and Akashi might awaken when he smell the incense, so Kimiko decided to just...talk.
Yeah, she wants to talk to Akashi Shiori.
She breathed deeply as she stared at the picture in front of her. Kimiko was saddened by what she was seeing. Akashi Shiori was too young, too beautiful, too kind and too caring to have an early death.
The world isn't fair, eh?
And death doesn't discriminate.
"Good afternoon again, Akashi-san," Kimiko began in a silent voice and gave a cautious glance at her sleeping companion. When he didn't stir, she faced the butsudan and continued, "Seijuurou told me that he had told you stories about me... I hope they're all good ones," she laughed sheepishly. "Well, I would like to introduce myself again — if that's alright with you, Akashi-san." She smiled as she gestured to herself. "I am Kimiko Akumi, and I've known Seijuurou since middle school." The chartreusette then launched into a brief narrative of her history with Akashi — starting from their first meeting and ending with the choking incident. She was surprised when something warm trailed down her left cheek.
"Eh?" She wiped it hurriedly with the back of her hand and gave an apologetic glance at the picture. "I apologize, Akashi-san. I didn't mean to cry in front of you." A period of silence as she calmed herself so as not to make her voice crack.
"Seijuurou shared to me his memories of you, Akashi-san, and I can clearly see how much you loved your only son... Well, Seijuurou is quite adorable at times — I wonder how he was when he was a child... He told me that you were the one who introduced basketball to him, and for that, I am very grateful, because that's what connected us in the first place. Thank you, Akashi-san, for giving me the chance to meet Seijuurou." Kimiko clasped her hands together and bowed in gratitude.
"Akashi-san, I care about Seijuurou as much as you did when you were still beside him. I know that he once sought comfort and security in your arms, but now that you're gone, I would like to ask your permission to continue doing that for him. I'm not asking to take your place, but you see, Akashi-san, Seijuurou pushes himself too hard. Someone has to keep an eye on him to make sure that he doesn't overdo it, that he doesn't have to sacrifice more than what he already had. He already has been denied a lot of things. A normal childhood. Paternal love. Freedom... I don't want him to be denied his happiness, too. It's the best I can do for him, so please allow me, Akashi-san. Allow me to take care of Seijuurou." She bowed once again, longer this time.
"Akashi-san, has Seijuurou told you about... About the kiss?" Kimiko blushed slightly in remembrance. She played with the ends of her coat. "Well, he said earlier that he tells you everything so... Akashi-san, did he told you why he did that? I might be wrong but I think his possessiveness level over me has gone through the roof. I didn't expect him to do that! A-and it was my first kiss, too... I'm sure Seijuurou is well aware of that — ne, Akashi-san, do you know that Seijuurou has this clairvoyant abilities in him?" she gave a short laugh. "But going back to our topic, I don't know... Is it his first kiss, too? Because...I am having doubts — not that I'm implying that Seijuurou has kissed a lot of girls before but... Akashi-san, I don't know what to make of it. We're bestfriends, then Seijuurou suddenly kisses me out of the blue and what does that make us now? I don't want to assume anything unless Seijuurou says something about it because I'm afraid that I might ruin our friendship, and I wouldn't want that to happen. Ever. Seijuurou is the best thing that has ever happened to me despite everything that had happened in the past and I would be the world's biggest idiot if I ever let him go. Uhm, am I sounding possessive? I think I am. Goodness, I don't know what to do, Akashi-san. Please guide me so that I will not do something stupid that I will regret later." Kimiko took a deep breath and touched her forehead to the floor.
"Thank you for listening to me, Akashi-san. It was nice talking to you. I apologize if I am quite a chatterbox — this is our first meeting and I'm already getting comfortable around you. Pardon me if you find it rude. I've been talking here for hours, ne? Yet, Seijuurou is still asleep. Guess he's really tired... See what I mean, Akashi-san? Oh, and has he told you that he only slept for three hours today? That's why I promise to take better care of him, Akashi-san, so don't you worry. Seijuurou will be in good hands. Trust me! So, until next time, Akashi-san. I hope to talk to you again. Again, thank you very much. For everything."
It was already getting dark when she finished her conversation with Akashi's mother. She lit the candles, bathing the room with a soft, warm glow. She saw the incense beside the candles and thought that maybe a little won't wake Akashi. She lit one and waved it over the butsudan.
"Thank you, Akashi-san."
She laid down the burning incense and clasped her hands together twice before bowing deeply until her nose touched the floor. She remained that way until she was satisfied she had properly paid her respects to Akashi's mother.
The sun was already setting — earlier than usual due to the season. Kimiko returned to Akashi's side and stared at his peaceful face, curling up into a ball himself. He held himself tight, his chin on top of his knees. She fixed the blanket around him and closed the door to keep the cold winds out.
I'll take care of Seijuurou, Akashi-san, Kimiko thought, as she bent down to kiss his cheek. A gentle breath escaped from the red head's lips.
A glance at her wristwatch told her that Akashi had been sleeping for four hours. She decided to give him another hour before waking him up. Hopefully, he'll wake up before the time was up. Kimiko would hate to disturb his rest.
His oh-so-needed rest.
She tiptoed around his body and took her place by his head and leaned against the wall. Talking by herself for four hours is quite tiring, she realized. Closing her eyes for a short nap, she failed to see the faint smile that appeared on the redhead's lips.
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