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Journey To No End

by M Phoenix


Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, T.S. Eliot, Green Day, and the Gershwin brothers -- via Janis Joplin -- own it all...well, except for the original characters and situations which are mine. Please don't sue me.
For Illyana and Sinbad.
Notes: This story started life as a vignette; luckily the pesky little critter escaped, and this is the result. Many thanks to YesPlease and MsGiles for the beta; to Jo, for being an excellent sounding board; and to Dan for all the research help and long distance immoral support; I couldn't have done it without you. Any remaining inaccuracies are mine.
Summary: Buffy/Faith. Willow/Kennedy. Set post 'Chosen.' 'Five states. Twelve days. One pair of jeans.'

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'For those who walk in darkness both in the daytime and the night time the right time and right place are not here.'

Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot.

'She who will free me is newly born of the storm. Seek her out. Seek her out.'

Our Lady of Perpetual Riddles.


Five states. Twelve days. One pair of jeans.

Buffy knows it seems strange. That her little band of Slayers and Scoobies are probably wondering why she is still wearing the same beat up shirt and pants; while they have all changed into a hastily grabbed assortment of summer-fashion-disasters. Gotta love Giles' credit card. A couple of times she has noticed Faith giving her that long, hard, unreadable look she probably perfected in kindergarten, if she ever went to kindergarten, then quickly looking away when Buffy catches her. It makes her feel vulnerable, defensive; like she's been found out doing something not strictly on the up and up. She knows she should slip into her new clothes with their sharp, fresh from the factory, smell; but somehow she doesn't feel ready for new just yet. Underwear is her only concession. So grunge-Buffy lives; and most nights, in whichever anonymous motel room she and Dawn are sharing, she washes her clothes in the too small sink. Rubbing the regulation tiny bar of soap over the dirt, and sometimes blood stains; watching bubbles form in the hot water, the colours of yet another day, another fight, bleeding from the cotton and the denim. And for a moment, standing, kneading the wet cloth in her hands, things seem almost peaceful. There is a hole stabbed through her once, white, shirt, front and back, that she can easily fit three fingers into; but she prefers not to think about how it got there. She can hear Dawnie in the bedroom humming tunelessly, then flipping through the TV channels, the shopping channel, some vacuous pop song about eternal luuurve, sudden high pitched chatter in Spanish; and the creak of bed springs as she shifts her weight in an unsuccessful attempt to get comfy. Yeah, almost peaceful.

There is quiet knocking at the door; probably Willow she's the only person Buffy knows who ever knocks that quietly. Dawn sighs and yells "Come in," adding, "if you have a pulse, and no scales, or dripping viscous fluid, or..." There is a murmur of voices, then -- "Buffy."

May 20th 2003. Peoria. Illinois.

"Zoe Jane, are you listening to me? Have you heard anything I just said? Honestly, sometimes I think...oh God, are you okay?"

Yeah, I was listening, but I was kind of distracted by the feeling suddenly hitting me, like that hurricane we got caught up in when I was eight and me and Mom and Dad all went to Florida for Dad's work. That feeling of being swept up into the middle of something powerful that could rip you to pieces or pass you by without hardly even noticing you. Only difference is that all at once I feel like the hurricane, and I'm so shocked I'm falling before I know it. I come to, face down in the grass with Mom shaking me and trying to turn me over. She's freaking, must be thinking I had a fit or something. I'm wondering the same thing, but I feel so great, so alive, that I just start laughing, lying on our front lawn, nose to nose with Mr. Earthworm. I stop laughing when I flip over and see Mom's face. She's gone completely white, she just grabs me and hugs me like I was still a kid, and I stiffen up 'cause it's kind of embarrassing, I'm nearly sixteen and people might see. But I decide to give her a break, she's been pretty over the top since Dad walked out, so I hug her back like I mean it. Well, I do.

1688. Rennes-les-Bain. Southern France.

The church smells more powerfully musty this evening, a sure sign that autumn is coming on. The moisture in the air after such a dry summer seems to seep into the ancient stonework bringing out all those scents that have accumulated over the years. Father Jean-Baptiste wonders if his nose could be educated to read it like a book of days. If, after the proper training, he could walk up to the place in the corner beside the vestry where the plaster has begun coming away from the wall, take a long sniff and pronounce 'Ah, yes, this is the place where Father Jean-Luc spilled the communion wine all over the floor in sixteen fifty-six.' He is certainly skilled in the acquisition of obscure knowledge, knowledge which in truth no God fearing man should have; but his desire to comprehend, perhaps even wield, a small portion of the miraculous power of the Lord, cannot be contained by his fear of Hell. At night, when he is left to himself, he takes out his carefully hidden books and continues his study of the Dark Arts.

Jean-Baptiste starts, almost guiltily, as a sound behind him disturbs his reverie; and becomes still more flustered when he turns to find Isabelle, the baker's daughter, standing beside the confessional. The evening light filtering through the high windows makes her fine features look almost ethereal, in contrast with her plain, flour dusted clothes, and too large boots. Hand me downs from one of her five brothers no doubt.

"What can I do for you child? Isn't it time you were at home beside your own fire?"

"I came to make my confession Father, if you will hear it." Isabelle has been rehearsing that sentence all the way here; holding her skirts up out of the mud the first heavy rains have brought to the main street, and repeating the words to herself, convincing herself that she will confess, she will be pure in the sight of God.

"Very well then." The priest runs a hand through his thinning sandy-yellow hair and takes up his place in the confessional box. He determines not to think of Isabelle as anything but a young girl in need of the loving guidance, and possibly admonishing hand, of Our Lord. He will not contemplate the rituals requiring a redheaded female virgin that he has read, and re-read, in Ziegler's 'Transformations.' He reminds himself he has not been watching her. He has not found himself standing in the narrow street outside her family's house waiting for some glimpse of her going about her daily, or nightly, tasks; imagining stealing her away to a place where no one knows them, Perpignan perhaps or even Toulouse. He stubbornly refuses to notice, as he has been noticing every day for weeks, that she has become a woman in the last year. That under the ever-present scent of fresh bread is another scent which his celibate life has not qualified him to identify, and it is driving him insane.

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned, it has been two days since my last confession." Isabelle stops, breathing hard, she will tell him. Of all the people she has met in her fourteen short years, he is surely the best, wisest and most holy; so he will understand. "Father, I had another vision; of Jesus."

Another vision. Jean-Baptiste senses a tide of anger and desire rising in him; would that this girl's spiritual raptures were filling up the void in his own heart.

"He came to me early this morning while I tended the ovens, alone. Stripped bare and bleeding he was, as he is shown on the cross in this church; and he spoke words without sound, and touched me with his own left hand, and I was pierced through to my heart with such a feeling of love that it was agony, and my whole body was full of fire, and when I wept it felt as though I wept tears of blood. But he vanished away, and I was left cold as stone, and wishing only for him to fill me again. Then I found my mind filled up with thoughts of the flesh, and I was ashamed. I so much want to be good, to be worthy, and I think maybe it was only my foolish pride which led me to believe that the Saviour would come to me, and maybe it was the Devil in disguise instead..." Isabelle stops. There is a strange sound coming to her through the dark cloth of the curtain, which gives the illusion of anonymity between her and the priest; the sound of the priest, moaning. "Father?" Perhaps he has been taken ill, he has been looking peaky lately; she will go and tend to him.

His hands are on her before she even has time to realize he has moved. "Father, please, what are you doing? Please -- Stop!"

This girl, Jean-Baptiste thinks, this stupid, innocent, tender girl, has been chosen, gifted with visions, while he, who has worked, and prayed and supplicated for twenty years, has been given nothing by God or the Devil. She could be a saint one day, or the greatest whore since Sodom fell. He could decide that for her, now. She must know after all how she inflames him, that she has no right to come here alone so late, and speak such words, and expect, expect him to...he has spells, he could work his will on her, make her want him, love him as he loves her; but his mind is too clouded by the sensation of his body finally touching hers. Through all his ministry he has never been tempted by a woman, but this little bitch has him sweating and grunting his lust like the lowest beast. Very well, let them both be damned for it. He can feel the fabric of her skirts tearing, hear her begging him to stop, and it only makes him thrust into her harder.

Later, when he rises from the floor and rearranges his clothes into some semblance of modesty, she is gone. No matter, she will be easy enough to find. After all, she is his now.

The river gives up Isabelle's body a day later. A boy out fishing finds it snagged in a fallen tree, near his favourite pool, and goes wailing home to fetch help. When the villagers manage to haul her sodden remains onto the bank they find her plain brown dress waited down by the stones she had bundled into her skirts to ensure her drowning; marking her out as a suicide, damned, and unfit to be buried in consecrated ground. It is remarked around the whole valley that the priest seems uncommonly distraught.

I was an idiot, Buffy thinks as she drags herself out of bed. Just for a second standing on the edge of the crater formerly know as Sunnydale I thought I might finally get to rest for a while, 'Ha, bloody ,ha!' Spike would say. Spike. Don't think about Spike. Spike lit up and burning. Spike dying, alone. She jumps at the slight shock of static as her bare leg slides out of the polyester sheets, then swears half-heartedly as her foot collides with a hold-all full of weapons. Slayer grace is not serving her well in the darkness of the early morning room. The illuminated travel clock reads four forty-nine am, another half hour and they should all be on the road again. She fumbles for the light switch. Amazingly Dawn is still sound asleep, making soft little snuffling noises like a new puppy. Buffy is loath to wake her but they have work to do, and Dawn would be none too happy if, when she finally surfaced of her own accord, around noon, she found the gang had abandoned her in a hygiene-challenged motel in South Dakota and gone Slayer hunting without her. A little gentle shaking and Dawn wakes, grumbling about how teenagers need more sleep than old people, and how this will probably stunt her growth. Absently, Buffy wonders if that explains why she never got any taller.

May 27th 2003. Peoria. Illinois.

Zoe Jane, tall and plain, never been kissed, tried but you missed. Freak. I know what you guys say about me. I see you whispering. I hear you laughing behind my back. 'Ooh, look at the queen of geek chic.' 'Hey, carrot top.' Yeah, check out the total lack of cool that is me. Only suddenly things seem different, I am different, and people are starting to notice.

Yesterday in gym class I won the four hundred meters, I beat Gwen 'I only date jocks' Stevens, and she's on the track team. I wasn't even out of breath, and everyone was staring at me with what looked a lot like respect.

Today when Donnie Walford pinged my bra strap I turned round and hit him, it was like a reflex, no thinking. Next thing I know, he's lying on the ground with his nose all busted up and bleeding like he was just decked by a heavy weight champ. Now I'm sure something very weird, like Twilight Zone weird, is going on with me, but what?

A few birds have begun chorusing in the solitary tree at the front of the motel by the time Buffy and Dawn return their room key and join the rest of the group. The dim glow of the motel sign combined with the coming sunrise makes the economy size army seem unreal, ghostly to Buffy, as she quickly scans them to see if anyone is missing. Principal Wood...Robin, of course, is gone, still in LA letting his battle wounds heal and using his administrative skills to impose some order on the global hunt for new Slayers. Most of the surviving girls have remained with him; except Chao Ahn, who gladly took the first flight back to China to join forces with a Watcher who had managed to escape the First Evil's purge. Her place was soon taken by Sanna, a fourteen year old street kid they tracked down in a Salvation Army hostel in Idaho; their second new Slayer. The other girls they found have stayed in their homes, in close contact with each other and the group. But Sanna has nothing to leave behind, nothing to lose, so here she is, deep in conversation with Rona and a confused looking Vi. She must be under five feet tall. Her clothes are way too big for her. And her greasy blond hair hangs over her eyes in a way that probably makes seeing a near impossibility. Yet she had already dusted one vamp solo by the time they found her, and Buffy can tell she is going to be one kick-ass fighter.

Then it begins happening again, just as it has every morning since they left the remains of Sunnydale. Buffy feels her eyes drawn to the space just behind those warm, solid, living, breathing human beings, to the shadows of those who will always be absent. They stand silently, little more than a dark ripple in the air, a person shaped space. Mom hovers protectively near Dawn. Behind Willow, who is leaning on Kennedy like she might fall down if left unsupported, stands Tara staring up at the sky. Anya is gesturing with her hands locked together in that agitated way she had whenever the subject of bunnies arose, but she is standing to Xander's left and he can't see her. Buffy doesn't know whether to be amused or horrified when Faith wanders up to the, now giggling, group of newbie Slayers and walks straight through Amanda's tall and angular shadow. She wants to turn away and not see the ranks of the dead, the ones she can name and all those she can't, flowing back until they become indistinguishable from the semi-darkness; but she feels compelled to stare until her eyes ache.

The first time this happened was in the aftermath of their flight from the 'all the Turok-han you can stake buffet' at the, finally closed for business, Hellmouth. They were milling about the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel in LA, patched up and glad to be away from the ER at last; though the smell of antiseptic and blood lingered. Dawnie was sitting with Angel, leaning her head against his shoulder and the soft leather of his jacket. Off in a corner Willow sat cross-legged and very upright, her body still suffused with pale light, like the momentary after-image of moving fire in the dark. Something about her posture said, keep your distance you are not ready to touch this, and Buffy understood, she needed to keep her distance too. She was trying to find something witty to say to Angel about world save-age, when she felt as if she had taken a sudden plunge off the top of a skyscraper; and as she plummeted by office windows her mom waved cheerily at her from behind the plate glass of each one and continued playing Mah-Jong. She hit the metaphorical ground with crushing force, and when she opened her eyes, all around her she saw the shadows of the absent, the never to be present again, ever, unless Will really irons out the kinks of those resurrection spells; and she passed out.

That first time at least, Buffy could tell herself it was a crazed hallucination brought on by exhaustion, or blood loss, or concussion, or all of the above. Later that night she and Dawn folded themselves, still fully clothed, into the single bed of their spacious twin room, not caring about the damage they were probably inflicting on Angel's clean, oatmeal coloured, sheets. They clung onto each other for dear life until a shaft of daylight broke through the curtains, and the pure relief of being alive, and together, and of having a future, enabled them to move again.

1688. Rennes-les-Bain. Southern France.

Almost midnight. Kneeling just outside the churchyard wall, in the dirt of the graveyard of lost souls -- still born children, the ex-communicated, the suicides -- Father Jean-Baptiste stares up into the ominous blue-black sky, and finally feels certain that he is damned. The strange thing is that at some point during the previous nine sleepless days and nights he has ceased to care. All his study, all his hording of books, poring over forbidden knowledge until the tight calligraphy seemed to spider around the inside of his skull every time he closed his eyes, has brought him to this moment. The moment he will learn what it is to be as God.

The full moon rose while he was digging, grave robbing strictly speaking, and is casting a wan light on Isabelle's body, laid out before him in her burial shroud; his beautiful girl, the wanton bitch that brought him to this blasphemous act. Soon she will be whole again, and his forever, but presently he is trying not to breathe too often because of the stench of decay. He narrowly avoided retching all over his irreplaceable volume of resurrection spells earlier, and he wants to avoid a repeat performance. A priest turned necromancer, hardly a surprise. He wonders how many of his fellow brothers in Christ are also conducting dark rites tonight; but his sardonic smile turns into grimace as he forgets himself and inhales too deeply.

The circle is cast, black candles guttering in the cold breeze coming in off the nearby mountains. Jean-Baptiste's delicate hands are shaking, grazed and bloody, as he pauses for one excruciating moment before beginning the invocation. The thin layer of quick lime the grave digger left scattered over the shroud is eating into his skin. If God is going to intervene, send him a sign that it is not too late, that perhaps he can still turn back, it must be now. But there is no voice from the heavens, no burning bush, no ecstatic vision of Our Lady, only the sound of a dog barking mournfully somewhere in the village. Very well then. He raises the chalice he has filled with certain choice herbs and the egg of a T'thek demon -- which cost him nearly half a year's pay -- above his head; and does not notice a drop of blood from his own hand, fall and mingle with the precious mixture as he pours the offering over Isabelle's corpse and begins murmuring the ritual words to Osiris in his precise Latin, over and over, like saying a rosary.

The jolt of power he feels pass through him, shocks him to his core. He is enveloped in a flux of harsh yellow-grey light and flung forwards, his fingers digging into the damp earth, his lips almost touching Isabelle's right foot, which has come free of her shroud, and he finds that in spite of everything he is praying, though to who or what he no longer knows, "bring her back...bring her back...bring her..." The girl's toe twitches, imagination, it twitches again, yes, and now Jean-Baptiste dares to look at her face. The signs of putrefaction are still there but less evident, and fading fast. Her sunken eyes slowly open, and gaze vacantly upwards, he is in awe. He expects to wake up any minute face down in a pile of books, but the all too real ache in his back from the unaccustomed digging is telling him he truly is awake, and Isabelle is...alive. He whispers her name and she moves her head, a minute nod of acknowledgement. Mine, he thinks; mine now, and reaches out to touch her exposed foot -- his hand meets rotting flesh. He screams and rolls backwards, something is going terribly wrong. The body, which seconds before, had been taking on the semblance of life is beginning to decay again, the decomposition moving rapidly upward from the girl's feet. Jean-Baptiste lurches upright, pulls back the shroud, completely, and almost passes out when the stench of rotting meat hits him. There are already maggots burrowing through the corrupted skin of her belly and breasts, clearly visible through the remains of her dress. But far worse than this, she is watching him, eyes wide and terrified, weeping, her mouth twisted in a silent scream. He has to think... his stomach is heaving... think... he can't breathe...think...there must be some spell, something useful you would learn just in case you ever needed to stop a girl you happened to resurrect from disintegrating in front of you...her legs are just shrivelled leather on bone now...both her hands have fallen away...think...there must be a way to save... something.

In the grey light of dawn a man, who is no longer Father Jean-Baptiste, walks out of the village of Rennes-les-Bain humming an old, old song. He moves with his mud and blood spattered head held high, though his feet drag from exhaustion and his face is blank. A momentary pause while he decides whether to take the road north or south, then he hitches up the weight of the large wooden box he's carrying on his back, turns north and trudges onwards.

Back on the battered yellow school bus, rattling through the edge of town, Buffy shifts in her seat, trying to pay attention to what Willow is telling her. But her jeans are still damp from the wash, and Xander and Andrew are arguing about Star Wars, again, and Vi's knitted pink and orange hat seems to be actually glowing, and Faith is draped over the seat in front, smoking a cigarette like she's just sauntered out of a classic film noir. It's all kinda distracting her from the matter in hand. The smell of burning tobacco is a painful reminder of Spike, but Buffy finds it's one of the less emotionally confusing things about having the prodigal Slayer back in the mix.

Faith is laughing at something Sanna just said like it's the funniest thing ever. She catches her breath with difficulty. "Titch, you're a genius."

"No shit Sherlock -- and will you quit calling me Titch, I'm almost as tall as Kennedy..." Sanna pauses then adds defiantly, "and I'm not done growing yet."

Faith grins at her, warm, unguarded. "Okay...short-ass."

Momentarily Buffy forgets to be wary, to hold onto the vestiges of her anger. But then she wonders what would happen if she tried taking Faith's Marlboro's away. How much damage could a nicotine-deprived-rogue-Slayer-(reformed) do in a confined space? She concludes that wary is the way to be.

"Buffy, focus, please." Willow tries for her old appealing half smile, but can't quite manage it at this hour of the morning. She looks paler than usual, and Buffy notices lines on her face that make it clear she's not a teenager anymore; she realizes how long it's been since the last time she could really bring herself to see Willow.

"Sorry Will. Okay, here I am, back in the land of focus, ready to absorb the information, like...an absorb-y thing."

"Great Buffy, that's great. So, I only had a basic location for this new Slayer last night. I could feel her but it wasn't too well defined; like sometimes when you feel something really, really hot, or really, really cold, but it's so intense that you can't tell which is which, ya know? So then I went back and found a spell to cut out some of the input so I could tell if I was hot or cold, and it was amazing. I could see her, her house, her room, she even has this toy pig that looks just like Mr. Gordo...Buffy, what is it?"

Buffy doesn't answer, she doesn't trust her voice right now, and she doesn't want to cry over toy pigs. Think about the girl, the sooner you get to her the more chance she has of surviving her life, your life, the new life you and Willow and that nifty spell with the Scythe gave her. Finally she grunts "Huh, yeah" and nods at Willow to continue.

Willow gives Buffy a worried semi-quizzical look, tucks a strand of her long red hair behind her ear, and waits. But that tactic is not working today. Clearly whatever is troubling her friend is not to be shared just yet, maybe not ever, not with her. It's true the good guys are not renowned for their communication skills, and Willow has learned from bitter experience that that is of the bad; but she knows that now is not the time to push it. It hurts to admit it but she and Buffy are not as close as they once were. How can she expect Buffy to confide in her when she has not told Buffy half of what has happened to her since they closed the Hellmouth? Later, after they find this new Slayer, Slayer number six in this breakneck dash across country, from the Nevada desert to the mountains of Idaho. From 'it's Nebraska so it must be Wednesday,' to Buffalo, South Dakota; she will sit with Buffy in some generically comforting coffee house, and they will order mochas and talk, and perhaps it will be like old times.

"Hey, Red," Faith murmurs, her eyes half closed against the smoke drifting from her cigarette, "don't stop, I can feel you were just getting to the part where you just happen to see her blowing her boyfriend late one night in his daddy's penis extension of a car."

Willow shoots Faith a steely glare, and Faith can almost see her mentally re-shuffling her lecture notes. Giles, driving this leg of the journey at his standard forty-five miles an hour, takes a moment to turn and give her an exasperated look. Damn he must have good hearing. Only B makes no response. Faith wishes she would do something. A swift right hook would be almost welcome; better than being watched from so far away by those tired green eyes.

"The abridged version," Willow says, with none of her previous enthusiasm, "is this. I know pretty much exactly where we should be able to find this girl, but there is something else, more a feeling, a hunch, than solid info -- we need to be in a big furry hurry, because trouble is brewing, something is coming for her soon, and I want to get to her before it does."

May 28th 2003. Peoria. Illinois.

So I got a weeks' suspension for beating up on Donnie Walford. My mom is seriously not happy. She gave me this whole big speech about how I've never been in trouble before, how could I lower myself to that kind of behaviour, don't I understand that violence only breeds violence and is no way for civilized people to solve their problems. In my defence I pointed out that I only hit him once, and not that hard. Then she got all stern and understanding and asked me if I was in a gang, or, oh dear sweet Jesus, on drugs! Who stole my mother and replaced her with ''fifties mom'? I denied everything, and in the end she sighed and stroked my hair, and I thought she might cry, but thank the flying monkeys, she didn't.

Paulie thinks all this is cool, and funny, possibly the first simultaneously cool and funny thing I've ever done. He laughed so hard when I described the expression on Donnie's face after it connected with my fist that he blew Pepsi through his nose -- gross, must remember never to make him laugh while he's trying to swallow. He said he'd come over later, and sneak up the Virginia creeper underneath my bedroom window, 'cause my mom is in no mood to allow visitors right now. I hope he remembers to check his bootlaces are tied this time. I don't want to have to untangle him again.

Fact is I need to talk to him tonight, 'cause I'm starting to get scared, scared of what is happening to me, of what it might mean, and he's the only person I know who won't think I'm going psycho if I tell him that I think I'm seeing things, or more like sensing things, creature feature type things, and I'm not sure if they are following me or if I am following them.

On the open freeway, heading for Peoria, Illinois. Sounds like an illness, Faith thinks. Yeah, you caught Peoria once while you were trekking through the Himalayas seeking enlightenment, but you're all better now. Grasshopper, understand, sickness only part of life illusion. She smiles to herself, head's still full of crazy shit, but at least it's not 'kill them all' crazy shit so much these days. Life is as good as it's ever been, and Faith is enjoying her turn behind the wheel. Actually she's a little amazed they're letting her drive, but she isn't about to ask why in case they come to their senses and take the privilege away. It's going to take a while to adjust to being one of the in charge people. You can take the girl out of the pokey, but...

It's a wicked hot day, and after two weeks of almost constant travel the cramped interior of the bus is starting to smell pretty ripe. Faith's black tank top is clinging to her and she's considered taking it off, but she wouldn't want to cause a lust related traffic pile up. In temperatures like these she's almost glad Giles wouldn't shell out for leather pants. The driver's window is open as far as it will go -- not far, it's a bit the worse for wear like the rest of the bus and its passengers. But she is still burning some rubber in comparison to the G-man; being a wanted fugitive is a great incentive to travel light and fast.

During the last hour of motoring Faith would have really been riding the mellow; well, as much as she ever does; if it wasn't for one small thing -- Robin was right, she was -- is -- worried about Buffy. Of course the vibe around her these days is different than it was way back when; everyone changes, but it's more than that. Faith has tried to ignore it, it's none of her business really, but the original Chosen Two are still connected in ways she can't explain, and you don't have to be fucking Freud to see that something is far wrong.

They saved the world; again. In theory this should be a time of celebration, vacation even, wasn't that the plan? Yet the unnameable shadows gathered around Buffy have started creeping into Faith's own mind, like the memory of a shared dream, or nightmare; and she can feel a familiar downward spiral starting. She needs to understand, she needs to help, before things get any worse. Like she would ever ask for your help; real funny Faith, excuse me while I die laughing, you clearly missed your calling as a stand-up. You're pathetic. Why the hell does everything always have to be about the skinny-blond-one anyway? You should have been over this long since -- should have closed down, shut her out, and curled up tight in your own skin; alone, safe, immune.

But it's not that simple, it never is, and that desperate stab of wanting her is still there every time Faith lets her guard down. Sometimes, after they've been slaying, and her thoughts are ragged, and her whole body is humming like an electric wire, she wonders what would happen if she finally gave into it; pinned B up against a wall and screwed her into the other side of tomorrow and back. Fucking like animals until they were both torn up raw; half dead, fully spent; and all the bitter pain, and fear and darkness of a life time of bad choices, missed chances and betrayals had bled away and left them empty and clean. Other times she wonders what it would be like to wake up in Buffy's arms, knowing she'd been held all night. She thinks that last idea might scare her more, but, whatever, it's never gonna happen.

Her hands are shaking on the wheel; the mellow has officially gone bye-bye. All her life she's been a strictly 'get some, get gone' girl -- 'cause, one of the first things you learn is it's always harder to hit a moving target -- but this is different, this is something she doesn't even have a word for anymore. Christ, you're as bad as Angel. The faded scar on her belly has started itching again. Think about other things. Yeah. Faith scans the interior of the bus in her rear view mirror. There's B, she's slumped down in her seat; head resting against the dirty window; eyes closed, looks like she's sleeping. The flickering sunlight is striking little golden highlights in her hair. She's gotten her legs wedged up at some unlikely angle, and she's still wearing those goddamn jeans -- so beautiful. The brat is beside her, watching her protectively, playing at being big sis, what a picture, it's almost sweet.

There are raised voices from near the back of the bus. Xander adjusts his eye patch and leans forward, for effect, until he is looking down on Andrew, who is squirming on the seat in front. "And I think I speak for all of us," Xander announces, "when I say you have taken annoying to a previously undreamed of level. Personally I feel that makes you very special. Now shut the hell up!"

Andrew tugs nervously at a piece of the fake leather seat that is beginning to peel up at the edge of a deep hole left after Rona accidentally shot it with a crossbow. He and Rona had been alone on the bus at the time, waiting for the others to return from a mission, and he had decided to alleviate the boredom by reciting his 'fifty things everyone should know about Dr. Who' list, in alphabetical order. He had just reached D, for Daleks and Davros, when the crossbow bolt embedded itself in the seat two inches away from his right arm. Andrew isn't convinced it was an accident. "Bu, but..." he says, not looking up, hearing a slight whining tone come into his voice, "Timothy Dalton was the best James Bond".

For a moment Xander is silent, breathing hard as if struggling to control himself, his hands gripping the back of Andrew's seat; eventually he mutters "Don't make it so I have to smack you down," and collapses back into his corner. Man, he enjoys these tussles with the uber-geek. For almost a whole thirty seconds there he forgot that Anya isn't beside him, poised to join him in a volley of deadly sarcasm; and he's grateful to Andrew for that.

Giles sighs wearily and lowers the thick leather bound tome on 'Vampyre Cults Through the Ages' he has been engrossed in for the last hour. "It is clear," he says in his most adult and reasonable voice, "to anyone living, that Sean Connery was, and always will be the best James Bond. Boys, have you not ears to hear and eyes to see? Or, er, eye at least. Sorry Xander. Now kindly change the subject or be quiet, otherwise I'll be forced to ask Kennedy to remove you from the bus." Giles smiles a slight conspiratorial smile at Xander and returns to his book. He finds that revisiting his inner librarian is oddly comforting in the present circumstances, he can almost imagine himself back amongst the stacks at the old Sunnydale High, his kettle boiling in the office ready for four o'clock tea; and the Scooby gang gathered around the imposing wooden table gossiping and laughing. In a moment he'll march down there, clean his glasses and glare them back to work. Was it ever really like that he wonders. He can no longer remember. 'And I who am here dissembled proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love to the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.' Ah, T.S. Eliot. Yes. Quite.

May 29th 2003. Peoria. Illinois.

Zoe Jane, tall and plain, finally got kissed, Paulie didn't miss. Eeeek. My mom still won't let me leave the house. At this rate I'll be grounded when I hit my mid life crisis, but right now I don't fricking care! She's out at work and I'm drinking a cherry soda...Paulie kissed me...and working on my last English assignment, poetry by yet another middle class dead white male, big whoop...Paulie kissed me...and I've got Ani DiFranco, singing Not A Pretty Girl, pumped up to full volume, which is frightening the cat. And did I mention that Paulie kissed me, did I mention that?

Last night I was pacing up and down my room like Van Gogh, in the movie, right before he cuts his own ear off. Paulie could tell how nervous I was; and so he sprawled out on my bed pretending to be a walrus to make me laugh so I'd stop pacing, and rambling about power, and premonitions, and scary faces in dark places, and this feeling I have like I'm being watched...by something evil. Usually it would have worked and we could have talked about South Park, or how the Republicans are agents of Satan and the whole country's going to Hell. But something changed in me that day the hurricane knocked me flat on my face, and now I can't go back to who I was before, even if I wanted to. Paulie knows I'm a freak, so's he, that's why we've been friends so long, but even he couldn't quite believe what I was telling him. It was like his reality couldn't bend that far in case it broke. Finally he said, 'Hey, no more scary movies for you, it seems they really do corrupt impressionable young minds.' I was so pissed at him that I went and picked him up bodily and hoisted him above my head yelling, 'Are you imagining this? Well, are you?' He just hung there limp like a kitten when you pick it up by the scruff of its neck; he was so surprised he couldn't move, he wasn't the only one -- I was frozen. When I eventually remembered how to put him down he sat next to me on the edge of my unmade bed and stared at me for what seemed like years; running his hand through the spikes of his newly purple hair like he was checking it was still attached, and making that low humming noise he only makes when he's thinking real hard; then he leaned over and kissed me.

Iowa really is as dull as Kennedy thought it would be, wholesome, all-American farm country, rolling hills, green fields, a cow, oh look, another cow, golly gosh, a whole state full of fucking cows. She is sure that if Andrew suggests a cow spotting game and she kills him it will be considered justifiable homicide, and for the greater good.

It will soon be her turn to drive, which is something to do at least; but in spite of her boredom she doesn't want to move just yet because of Willow, who is curled up asleep on the back seat with her head pillowed in Kennedy's lap. Her eyelids are fluttering slightly, and she's twitching her way through another bizarre dream; probably of frogs and fire raining from the heavens, or nude academic failure. There are other, much less amusing, dreams that she will not talk about no matter how appealingly Kennedy pouts at her. The young Slayer has discovered that sharing a bed with Willow can be like doing ten rounds with an all in wrestler. Sometimes she thrashes about so violently in her sleep that if it wasn't for superhuman strength Kennedy would find herself on the floor.

She looks so fragile, strangely childlike right now, all the masks she usually wears stripped away. It's hard to believe just over a year ago she almost destroyed the world. Yet Kennedy will never be able to shake from her mind the image of Willow, glowing white and ecstatic as she channelled the power of the Slayer to every Potential in the world -- to her. Or forget the times, since they have been on the road, when Will has come back to her after some ritual to pinpoint a new Slayer in Burma or Albania, with the air around her still charged with magic; and smelling faintly metallic the way it does just before a summer thunderstorm. One of those times, in Nebraska, Kennedy had pulled her into a kiss a little too roughly in her urgency to find some lingering taste of that magic before it dissipated. The next thing she knew, a wave of energy had flung her against the wall on the other side of the room; knocking all the cockiness out of her, but certainly not the desire. Willow had crumpled up on the floor shaking and babbling apologies so fast they had lost all coherence. That day Kennedy, the smart kid, the rich kid who always knew what she wanted and exactly how to get it, understood that there are some things she may never entirely get. And if, when they make love in a snatched break between Slayer tracking and exhausted sleep, she thinks she hears Tara's name whispered instead of hers she chooses not to notice. Yeah, Will is unimaginably powerful, and Kennedy is often unsure if that is scaring her, or turning her on, or both.

Vampyre Cults Through The Ages.

Crevecour the Priest. Pages 214 - 217.

Over the centuries many tales have become attached to the shadowy figure of Crevecour, known as the Priest; and his constant companion Our Lady of Perpetual Riddles, the severed head of a young woman contained within a stout oak box. Present estimates place the cult of vampires, which has formed around him, at between one hundred and three hundred strong.

It is said that Crevecour has at his disposal powerful magicks -- can fly, summon storms, command various demons and animals, transform water into blood, speak many ancient demon tongues, raise the dead, and is supremely strong, even for a vampyre. He is renowned for his religious obsession and his cruelty, and seems to take particular delight in ripping out the still beating hearts of his victims. It as been postulated by some academics, well known in the field of vampyrology, that this particular practice may have earned him his name, which translates from the French as broken heart. Most strikingly, it has been reported by surviving witnesses that he does not fear the cross, and in fact wears a small silver crucifix next to his bare skin to demonstrate this power to his followers.

I'm sure he can also fox-trot and make an exquisite vodka martini. Giles has long since become immune to the overblown claims made about certain vampires. In his experience the bloodsuckers themselves are often the ones starting the rumours. He finds it all rather vulgar.

Of 'Our Lady' little is known. It is told that the head, although having the appearance of death, is animated and capable of speech. She is given to unintelligible prophetic announcements, and on certain occasions is said to weep bloody tears.

Hmm. Giles skims down the next page, a list of atrocities probably connected with Monsieur un-holier than thou and his cult.

1692. Gruissan. Rousillon. Southern France.

A mysterious priest was reported preaching in the town, inciting religious hatred between Catholic and Protestant factions. A riot began which rapidly lead to a massacre, during which the man, Crevecour, was seen to be in the thick of the fighting; strangely for one in such a situation, with a heavy wooden box secured tightly to his back. Although this man does seem to match the description of the vampyre Crevecour, he must clearly still have been human at the time these events took place, as he was reported to have, ' -- stood, the sun blazing behind him like the fire of God's judgment.'

1701. Lucena. Andalucia. Western Spain.

A Good Friday mass was interrupted by a group of people who, the only surviving witness described as 'hardly human their faces were so hideously distorted with bloodlust, and their teeth grown so long and wolfish.' They held the congregation captive and forced thirteen of them to enact an outlandish parody of the Last Supper; during which 'one who they treated as leader buried his teeth in the neck of our poor priest, sucked out his blood, and, so doing, killed him. Then he laughed and blasphemed venomously until I was nearly sick with fear and rage.' At the conclusion of the tableaux the vampyres' leader, singing softly and whispering endearments all the while, ceremoniously unveiled the disembodied head of a young woman in a box, almost as if to witness the massacre of the terrified worshipers. Only the man who had played the part of Judas was set free to tell the tale.

A long litany of incidents follow -- Nuns found drained of blood, their hearts removed. Slaughter at an Irish seminary. Famous theologian found crucified upside down, heart missing. A Rabbi found dead, covered in blood and bacon rashers. Eight Buddist monks found etc... Mormon choir found etc...then.

1977. New York. New York State. U.S.A.

On the night of June the first nineteen seventy-seven, fifteen year old, Loretta Rand was snatched from outside the church she attended in Brooklyn by 'two big white guys that were seriously messed up in the face.' Her account follows. 'They carried me way down into the sewer system. We went on for what seemed like miles, and I kept on screaming and fighting knowing ain't no one gonna hear me where I was, and they'd keep smacking me around and laughing. Finally we get to this broken down old brownstone, all abandoned, and it's full of these messed up dudes, five or six of them, like you couldn't imagine. They looked 'most like vampires from the movies, I swear, and I don't do no drugs. So, they got me tied up to a chair in the corner, and the tall blond one that seems like the leader, they all do what he says, he's talking crazy to this big wooden box like it's alive. Suddenly he comes over and scoots down on his haunches and looks me up and down real hard with his freaky yellow eyes; then he turns to his gang and hisses out 'she is not the one.' He looks like he's about to pop. Then he starts to smile and says 'there are always other things to do with a good hearted woman,' whips out the biggest switch blade I ever saw and starts singing The Way We Were. I'm sure now that these are my last moments on earth. And I'm just begging dear God please help me, and I'll pay back that money I took from my mom's underwear drawer last week, when this young black sister comes busting in from nowhere; all flying kicks and long swirly coat, and takes on the whole crew. Wham, bang, bam. And these bumpy forehead guys are just exploding into dust around her. It's like the coolest, scariest thing I've ever seen. Somehow she got me out of there, and home. She saved me. The Good Lord sent her, and she saved me; and though I've never seen her again since that night ten years ago I'll pray for her until my dying day.'

"Ye Gods." Giles lets out a deep breath and closes the book, "Barbara Streisand -- this Crevecour is a true creature of evil."

"Uh, who's a what with the who?" Buffy asks, sleepily blinking at Giles while trying to straighten out the crick in her neck.

"Ah, Buffy, sorry, I didn't realize I was thinking aloud. You mentioned that you had dreamed of a vampire with less fashion sense than Caleb, who 'keeps a girl's severed head in a box as some kind of bizarro table ornament,' yes?" Giles turns carefully to the correct page in his reference book, and hands it to the frowning Slayer. "I believe I've found your man."

The constant motion of the bus rolling on hour after hour is making Xander vaguely nauseous. Yet his stomach is rumbling 'feed me, feed me,' so loud that Dawn, who has moved to sit with him, can probably hear it. It's confusing and he'd like to resolve the conflict a.s.a.p.; but the only food he has left is the remains of breakfast from McDonald's Drive-Thru back in Kadoka, in what already feels like another time zone. He rummages under his seat until he finds the greasy paper bag and sniffs its contents suspiciously. Holy rancid Egg-Mc-muffins Batman, if he ate that he would be redecorating the interior of their transport in no time; and much as it's in need of redecorating he doesn't think his fellow Scoobies would thank him. Xander remembers the big innocent smile the girl in Kadoka gave them as she asked, 'School trip huh?'

'You could call it that. It, um...yes, it is certainly an educational excursion of sorts, certainly is that,' Giles had replied.

The girl had flashed them all that big smile again as she crammed their order of eleven breakfasts through the half open driver's window, and told them all to 'Drive safe, and have a nice day,' with what sounded like genuine warmth; at seven am. Xander wonders how long it will be before she is calling on vengeance demons, or greeting rude customers with an AK-47. But it is long past the hour they would normally have stopped for lunch and he is more immediately concerned with his need to feed. Judging by the semi-mutinous looks he can see Rona, Sanna and even Dawn flashing in Buffy's direction, he isn't the only one. "Hungry Dawnster?"

"You betcha," she gestures to the crumpled paper bag he is still holding, and wrinkles up her nose, "but not enough to eat that...yet."

"Honestly, I think I'd rather eat my Mom's Cajun surprise than this. And that is not something to be said lightly, it may well have contained actual Cajuns." Xander turns and raises his voice to be heard above the noise of some Green Day album that Kennedy is insisting on playing to accompany her stint behind the wheel. "Hey, Buff." He waits for the Slayer to acknowledge him. She, Faith, Willow and Giles have their heads held close together and are speaking in low urgent voices. Which could either mean they are discussing how to avert yet another apocalypse, or whether Fudge-Choc-Chip or Rocky Road is the superior ice cream; it's always hard to tell. "Buffy." This time she looks up. "What say we all take a break at the next town and form a foraging party, see what kind of vitals they live on in these here parts? No good for the fighting if we're running on empty."

"I have low blood sugar," Andrew pipes in, "I'm starting to feel kinda dizzy, and if I don't eat soon there could be serious consequences. Also, I need to urinate. I'm just saying..."

"Okay, Xander. Go and tell Kennedy to stop at the next diner that doesn't look like it has a progressive approach to pest control; I don't really want to be finding a cockroach chowing down on my Happy Meal, again. Oh, and if you could persuade her to stop singing you would earn my eternal gratitude. There may be cookies."

The singing part could be a challenge he thinks; as he edges down the narrow isle of the bus, Kennedy is belting out, "I want to be the minority, I don't need your authority, down with the moral majority, 'cause I want to be the minority," in a surprisingly Janis Joplin-esque rasp. When Sanna joins in with great enthusiasm, but in an entirely different key, he can feel Giles' pained expression, even with his back to him. "I pledge allegiance with the underworld, one nation under dog, here of which I stand alone, a face in the crowd, unsung against the mould, without a doubt, singled out, the only way I know."

June 1st 2003. Peoria. Illinois.

Summertime, and the livin' is easy.

It's a scorching hot day. I've been flaked out in a shady part of our garden for an hour trying to read, but I'm too spaced to actually understand complex things like sentences; my mind is so full of thoughts it's like they're cancelling each other out. I try to focus on small things, like the way brushing the palm of my hand over the spiky tips of the fresh cut grass, tickles and makes my toes curl. Or how the cut on that hand from this morning -- when I forgot how strong my grip is now and broke a glass -- has already vanished. But then I start wondering what in the hell is going on with me? Why has that cut gone, like it was never there, when I should have had it for days? And my brain starts to overload again.

I haven't seen Paulie since the night he kissed me. He was supposed to be coming back the next night but he never showed up. I kept trying to call him but he wasn't answering my messages. So yesterday, when, after some serious grovelling, Mom un-grounded me, I went round there but nobody was home; the house was all shut up like they had gone away for the weekend. I can't help feeling like I screwed up big time -- that I should have stayed quiet and not told him all the freaky stuff that's happening to me, because now he's probably hiding from me. And maybe he only kissed me because he was in shock, and he's embarrassed and doesn't know how to tell me to my face that it was a mistake.

Last time I felt this bad was the summer Dad walked out on us. It was like he had died, only worse because he had chosen not to be with us. Death didn't drag him away, he just didn't want us anymore; and every time I found something that had belonged to him lying around the house, I started hurting all over again because I knew he was never coming back. Bastard. Mom decided we had to have some fun, so she took me and Paulie for a tourist cruise down the Illinois River on one of those old-fashioned steamboats with the big, dangerous looking, paddle wheels at each side. That evening we all stood on Pekin Pier to watch the sunset. Paulie was silhouetted against the red-orange sky pretending to fish with an invisible rod. He must have hooked a giant 'cause he was struggling to reel it in, and I was laughing, and life was so beautiful I wanted to catch hold of it and make it stay just at that perfect moment. But even as I was thinking it, the sun dipped below the horizon, and I sat down on the rough wooden pier and burst into tears. Mom came and wrapped her arms around me so tight I could hardly breathe; and told me she was never going to leave me, that she just wanted to protect me, that everything was going to be okay -- all those things I wanted to believe and never quite could. I sobbed my heart out while Paulie stood a little way off pretending not to hear, and clutching his invisible fish.

There's a storm brewing, Faith can feel it. Her head is aching, and that, combined with too much enforced quality time with the Slayeretts is starting to make her edgy. She is jonesing for a fight, any fight will do. So now they are in the parking lot outside of the Double Meat Palace, Ankeny, she is standing a little apart from the others, talking herself down like she's some nut-job balanced on a high ledge ready to jump -- screw gravity. Yeah, only when you jump you tend to take bystanders with you, so better stay on that ledge. Be still. Find your centre. Focus on breathing, in...out...in...out, and you won't do the crazy. These are the moments she begins wondering whether she has changed, or if Wes was right and she never truly will. If those years talking to Kovsky, the shrink, in lock-up taught her to deal with her inner psycho; or just hide her better, even from herself.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Buffy says, glaring at the Double Meat logo on top of the diner.

Willow gestures to a trail of French fries scattered on the hot tarmac leading to the entrance. "Hmm, you could be right, looks like they're trying to lure us in there with fried re-constituted potato sticks. It's probably a trap; we should go."

Xander marches purposefully forward. "Well you guys can stand here and starve if you want, but I'm primed and ready for action and I'm going in. Who's with me?"

Buffy has to take a speedy side step out of the way as he is answered by a tidal wave of hungry girls, and Andrew, making for the door as if it was the entrance to paradise. Willow and Giles tag along at a more sedate pace, and Buffy is about to follow them when she notices Faith is missing and turns to look for her; after all, Faith is usually the last person to miss out on munchies. There she is, at the far edge of the parking lot, standing under a tree like she's rooted to the spot, head down, shoulders tensed. Buffy thinks she should probably leave her to it, whatever it is, but finds herself walking over before she realizes what she's doing. Damn.

"Faith, are you okay?"

As Faith's head jerks up, Buffy thinks she sees a brief flicker of pain, and something that looks a lot like fear in her eyes, before she manages to cover it.

"Five by five." Faith folds her arms and nods towards a tall, well-muscled biker returning to his Harley. "Check out the beef-stick."

Buffy gives him an appraising look. She knows Faith's avoidance game and right now she's too tired not to play along. "Lunchable. With a change of clothes, and a sizeable investment in personal grooming products."

"Says the woman currently wearing the jeans that time forgot. You're hardly in a position to throw stones B."

"No, I'm really not." Buffy turns to leave, but hesitates when she feels Faith's, surprisingly gentle, hand on her arm. The gentleness throws her, it makes her care more than she would like; makes her remember a far off time when Faith had tasted of warm spring nights, and cheap whiskey and longing. She'd wanted her then, and she hates to admit it but part of her occasionally, very occasionally, wishes things could have turned out differently. Bad Buffy. She'd probably taste of ashes now. Faith is frowning, and seems to be on the verge of saying something. Be quiet, don't make any sudden moves or you'll frighten the honesty beast back into hiding.

She waits; not looking directly at Faith, but letting her eyes focus at some indistinct point just past her left shoulder. A plastic bag blows along the ground, lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped by the feeble breeze.

Faith wonders if she will ever know how to say the things she needs to say, or if when it really matters she will always be a shit for brains jerk. How can she tell B that that empty look in her eyes scares her more than any demon. That sometimes she still dreams Buffy's dead, and wakes up in a panic, with the sheets twisted tight around her, crying like some stupid little kid because she knows that she's truly and forever alone. How can she tell her that she wants to make amends, to be forgiven, and that it's hard, so hard not to hate her for making her feel this way.

Buffy shuffles her feet. The silence is starting to get uncomfortable. "What is it?" She is aiming for sympathetic, but it comes out as sharp and irritated.

There is a rumble of distant thunder. Faith lets go of her arm and glances up at the sky. "Nothing...I'm hungry is all."

Willow is contemplating the plight of the Double Meat employee. Not unlike the story of Sisyphus, condemned to spend eternity in Hades pushing the same gigantic boulder up the same hill; or the story of the bad-ass Wiccan who will probably spend the rest of her days attempting to deal with the fall out from calling thousands of Slayers at once. It was the right thing to do. Share the power. Spread the load. No longer, 'one girl in all the world,' but an army, who can, perhaps, even rid the earth of vampires and demons once and for all. She should be rolling in puppies, Willow done good. Instead, she's having a hard time keeping from breaking down and begging someone else to take the job. To live with the sensation of mystical connection to all those lives, responsibility for finding all those girls, pressing on their nerve endings 24-7; driving them on way past the point of exhaustion or the ability to pun. But there is no one else. What remains of Watchers' Council is in chaos. Not even the Coven's most powerful seer can track Slayers this effectively; and Willow can never give this up. She has been chosen just as the Slayers have, and in spite of her present state of frazzlement she is grateful.

She has almost convinced herself that that moment of bliss during the Scythe spell is a gift she can live on for years if she has to; the grace of the Goddess that Tara always believed in but she never really did -- until then. She remembers one, ridiculously early, morning in Nebraska, waking in Kennedy's arms, shaking and drenched in sweat, after surviving yet another nightmare of flayed skin and incinerated meat. And as her girlfriend talked softly to her about the time her family 'did Europe,' and she got lost in the old Jewish quarter of Vienna, Willow felt the faint afterglow of forgiveness. She knows she has been given a second chance, and she is determined not to waste it.

Most of the Scooby gang are wedged around a rather sticky table in the corner of the diner nearest the fan that counts as the only air conditioning. Faith adds a liberal squirt of ketchup to her Double Meat Medley, replaces the top half of the bun, and licks her fingers. "Playing connect the incredibly obvious dots here. It seems like Buffy's dream vamp, Giles' Crevecour, and the general wiggins Willow's having about this new Slayer, all join up in Peoria. So what's the scoop on this city? What do we know about the place?"

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