A/N This story is set after Chamber of Secrets and was mostly written before Deathly Halows came out.
In a grimy and dank cell in the lowest level of the most feared prison of the Wizarding world, thirteen year old Harry Potter shuddered as the Dementors moved silently towards his cell and the unwanted memories rose in his mind.
"Phoenix tears. - ." said Riddle quietly, staring at Harry's arm. "Of course ... healing powers ... I forgot. . ."
He looked into Harry's face. "But it makes no difference. In fact, I prefer it this way. Just you and me, Harry Potter ... you and me...."
He raised the wand
Then, in a rush of wings, Fawkes had soared back overhead and something fell into Harry's lap -- the diary.
For a split second, both Harry and Riddle, wand still raised, stared at it.
Then, without thinking, without considering, as though he had meant to do it all along, Harry seized the Basilisk fang on the floor next to him and plunged it straight into the heart of the distracted former student.
There was a long, dreadful, piercing scream. Riddle was writhing and twisting, screaming and flailing and then he had gone.
Harry's wand fell to the floor with a clatter and there was silence.
Shaking all over, Harry pulled himself up. His head was spinning as though he'd just travelled miles by Floo powder
Slowly, he gathered together his wand and the Sorting Hat.
A faint moan came from the end of the Chamber; Ginny was stirring.
As Harry hurried toward her, she sat up. Her bemused eyes travelled from the huge form of the dead Basilisk, over Harry, in his blood-soaked robes, then to the diary in his hand.
A smirk curled the corners of her mouth.
"Harry -- oh, Harry -- I tried to tell you, but you just don't listen very well do you?" she said. "Although I must confess that I am surprised you had enough presence of mind to destroy my conjured body."
The magically summoned memories began to fade as the mind of the teenage boy slowly returned to the present. The cries of his murdered parents were no longer the worst memory of his short life. Indeed, those very same memories would have almost been a welcomed relief now. Other images haunted him these days, memories far worse than the death of people he didn't really know.
As the last effects of the monstrous guards left him, he heard a soft pop echo from the equally dank cell next door, and the worried sound of his godfather's voice echoed through the practically empty cell.
"Prongs, are you there?" came the hushed whisper from the corner near the head of the bare cot.
They had scratched away the mortar between some of the badly fitted stone blocks to make a small gap joining their respective cells. It wasn't much, but it meant they could talk to each other easier than through the grill in the metal door.
"Prongs!" came the shaky voice, slightly louder this time. "Come on, snap out of it."
Harry knew Sirius sometimes seemed confused about who Harry was, often mistaking him for his father, but the man was not nearly as far gone as most of the other inhabitants of this level.
"Come on, Prongs," insisted the voice. "Change back. Come on, kiddo. Don't give in on me now. Change back. You know you can't stay that way forever."
Why not? thought Harry.
What was so wrong with spending the rest of his certain-to-be-short life as an animal? His mind was more at peace this way. Maybe, if he stayed like this long enough, he would forget everything and never have to relive a nightmare memory again.
"Please?" pleaded Sirius quietly. "I don't think I could go on if you give up now."
Harry sighed inwardly.
The only thing, that could even remotely be considered good to come from his imprisonment, was the affect it had on his Godfather.
Sirius responded to Harry's presence, dragging his failing mind from the depths where it hid, out into the open. Sometimes, especially when he was recounting happier times to his godson, he almost seemed normal.
To give up now and leave him would no doubt destroy the man, especially after the effort the long-time prisoner made to introduce himself and win Harry's confidence.
"If you don't change back right this instant, I am going to come in there and give you a spanking like you've never had before, young man!" mocked Sirius, in what was supposed to be an extremely poor imitation of Harry's mother.
Incredibly, it made Harry laugh.
With a soft pop he was once again a malnourished, pale young boy lying under a threadbare blanket on a rickety cot in possibly the worst prison in the world, but he was smiling - A weak, crooked smile, but a smile nevertheless.
"Now that is something I would like to see," said Harry, his voice harsh and scratchy.
"Don't tempt me," answered Sirius, relief obvious in voice. "I have no doubt you are in reality sitting on that soft double bed of yours drinking pumpkin juice through a four-foot long straw while I rot in this toilet of a cell."
"I've told you a millions times before," Harry answered. "It's a five-foot long straw."
Sirius laughed briefly before asking the question Harry knew was coming.
"So what are we going to do today, pup? We have a couple of hours before the Dementors come back with our dinner. Got any plans?"
Harry sighed again. It was a game they started playing not long after Harry first entered his cell, once Sirius got over the sight of a thirteen year old James Potter clone getting carried into the prison.
A number of prisoners responded to Harry's imprisonment. Surprisingly, a few that still held onto some shred of sanity, were outraged and disgusted that such a young boy could be locked up in the same section as them. Others were less courteous.
Many of the former followers of Voldemort laughed and jeered, risking a sharp shock from the wands of the human guards, to laugh in the face of the person once celebrated as the saviour of the wizarding world.
It was still a mystery to Harry how he was convicted of letting loose the creature from the Chamber to wreak havoc on the school, or how he was considered responsible for Ginny's catatonia. Then again, Sirius was never even given a trial.
"Not sure today, Padfoot," he answered. "Think I might just have a bit of a lie-in. You know, have a day off-"
An inhuman scream of terror and despair from a cell further down the corridor interrupted him.
Despite surviving the prison for months, he was still shaken by the occasional bout of madness that some of the other inmates suffered. Merlin knew how close he came to screaming out in madness himself.
Many of their talks were interrupted by other inmates in their more lucid moments, although few were sane enough to try and talk with them.
"SHUT IT, YOU HAG!" screamed Sirius almost hysterically, in response. "SOME OF US ARE TRYING TO HAVE A CIVIL CONVERSATION HERE."
Half a dozen other voices joined in, yelling until the screaming stopped.
Harry was in no doubt that he would have long ago become one of the 'screaming ones' as Sirius called them, if not, in a twist of irony too unbelievable to contemplate, he had been put into the cell next to his mostly sane Godfather.
Sometimes he wondered if Dumbledore arranged that, as a mercy, or if Malfoy set it up, as an additional punishment.
Harry may not have understood how he could have been put into this jail, let alone how he was transferred into the maximum security level, but he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, who was responsible.
Between Malfoy, that bungling idiot Fudge, the semi-recovered fraudster Lockhart, and Harry's own loving family - the Dursleys, Harry was convincingly presented as well on his way to becoming the next Dark Lord.
How anybody could believe the fantastic story Lockhart spun about battling the Basilisk, especially in light of Harry and Ron's testimony, was beyond Harry. Not only did the wizarding public believe it, they were totally convinced he was Voldemort reborn.
On the strength of the case made by Malfoy, and no doubt in part due to much gold changing hands, Ron was sent to St. Mungos, and Harry was condemned to hell, while Lockhart and Malfoy soared to new heights of popularity.
"Come on, Kiddo," urged Sirius, once all the yelling stopped and the noise level died back down to its normal dull murmur of misery and suffering. "You're far too young to waste away your life in bed daydreaming about girls and Quidditch. It's time to get up and get about. Come on, lazy-bones."
Sirius kept Harry sane, and alive. He talked him through the first few weeks almost non-stop. Even when the Dementors were standing in the same cell, Sirius kept talking to Harry, calling out to him through the bars, urging him to ignore the horrific memories and focus on a single fact; that he was innocent.
When the presence of the Dementors threatened to destroy Harry, Sirius told him tales of his parent's youth.
When even that started to be less effective, Sirius helped him become an Animagus.
That Harry was able to perform the complex transformation in such a short period of time astounded the both of them. Sirius was sure it was something to do with Harry's youth, since the Marauders found it easier to learn as teenagers than witches and wizards twice their age.
He speculated Harry's lack of familiarity with magic may also have contributed - something about his magic not being nailed down to his body yet - but Harry suspected it was because of the pressure of trying to survive the seemingly everlasting damnation that life in prison was for him.
It could even have been something like accidental magic that many teenagers still occasionally experienced well into their fourth year at school, pushing the transformation.
Not that it mattered how. All that mattered was that, over a month ago, he first successfully transformed, and it was saving his sanity and his life.
The problem now was that it was getting increasingly harder for him to change back, especially since the Dementors' affect seemed to be growing stronger.
"It's getting worse, Sirius," he said, all traces of humour leaving him abruptly. "I nearly saw the whole Chamber this time; right from just after I killed the Basilisk."
He heard Sirius slump down on to the floor of his cell next to the hole.
"We have to escape then," Sirius said. "It's the only way."
It was a mad plan, almost certain to fail, but if he didn't get out of the prison soon, he knew he was doomed anyway.
Any hope of Dumbledore or one of his professors rescuing him was long gone.
The Headmaster's failure to stop him from being convicted in the first place left Harry feeling betrayed, and the elder Weasleys' fierce attack on him, despite Ron's staunch defence, made him feel guilty beyond anything he ever knew before.
At one point, he felt like he deserved to be here, for not saving Ginny.
Sirius talked him out of that self-condemning spiral of thought. Through the hours of conversations, the older man argued, laughed, and taught Harry about life, from his admittedly skewed point of view.
When Harry looked back at it now, he could clearly see how much Sirius improved since becoming his cell-neighbour, and in return, Harry found a true friend in a place that never before knew anything except fear and hatred.
"When?" he asked, knowing he was committing them to a probably fatal course of action.
"Tonight," answered Sirius, after a short pause. "No point in putting it off, especially if you are getting worse. This isn't going to be easy, you know?"
"I know," Harry said.
"Get some sleep then."
Harry nodded, knowing Sirius couldn't see him, and closed his eyes.
He ran his mind through the meditation-like exercises Sirius taught him, and was soon deep in sleep that would again be interrupted by nightmares.
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Ronald Weasley trudged down the long hospital corridor away from what he knew was going to be one of his last therapy sessions.
His soft slippers were incapable of making anything more substantial than slight shuffling noises, no matter how hard he tried, but at this point he was far too distracted to even think of trying.
After months of intensive therapy, Ron was actually beyond any childish need to flaunt his rebellion, but he usually did it anyway, just to be consistent.
In fact, mentally, Ron was almost a new man.
Subtle probing by skilled Legilimens, examining particularly significant memories in a Pensieve, and long hours of being forced to openly discuss and confront his emotions and feelings, gave Ron a calmness and stability he never before dreamt was possible.
All of the healers agreed, when they thought he wasn't around to listen to their frank discussions, that he was nothing more than a normal, angst-ridden teen with a slight inferiority complex and some jealousy issues, which they helped sort out fairly easily.
Now, after having many of the most accomplished mind specialist in Britain spend weeks working with him, he was a very level headed and sensible adolescent, years more mature than the vast majority of his peers.
Even his mortal fear of spiders was conquered.
Yet the one thing that they were not able to do, the one central issue that not even the vaunted skills of the highest paid wizarding healers could begin to change, was to make him blame Harry Potter for the state of his sister.
All of their hard work just made him even more confident in his belief, and instilled in him an unshakable faith in his best friend.
Even his parents, at first convinced that Harry somehow befuddled Ron, when faced with their youngest son's utter conviction in the boy-who-lived's innocent, started doubting their own beliefs and began questioning the various stories they were told surrounding the abduction of their only daughter.
Ron's older brothers were divided in their opinions, and were banned from discussing the issue, at home as well as when visiting Ron, after it once again degenerated into a fistfight during a 'supervised' meeting with the healers as part of the youngest boy's therapy.
One of the healers summed it up perfectly in yet another of their supposedly secret meetings.
"We might as well lie to Fudge about young Mr. Weasley's progress because the only way that boy is ever going to change his mind is if we physically pull it out of his skull and swap it for one from the Department of Mysteries. He pretty well has me convinced!"
That's how Ron knew his time in the immaculate, white walled prison was coming to an end.
He knew he had beaten them all.
It was not childish pride, or unwarranted arrogance. It was the calm confidence of somebody who had searched deep into the pit of their soul to find, fight, and banish the demons that lurked there.
Once he was out, he was going to rescue Harry - no matter what the cost.
That was the plan, until an 'interview' with the three healers who oversaw his case was rudely interrupted by an aggressive pair of Aurors demanding to interrogate Ron.
Through the barrage of meaningless questions thrown at him, with brutal disregard for his supposed 'delicate' state, and over the objections of his healers, Ron discovered one solid fact:
Harry Potter, the-boy-who-live, his best friend, had once again done the impossible.
He not only escaped Azkaban prison - supposedly the most secure facility that existed - he also rescued his godfather while he was at it.
A smile bent Ron's mouth as he returned to his sterile room and the pile of schoolwork patiently waiting for him.
It seems he wasn't the only one with an indomitable will.
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"Harry -- oh, Harry -- I tried to tell you, but you just don't listen very well do you?" Ginny said calmly. "Although I must confess that I am surprised you had enough presence of mind to destroy my conjured body."
Fear gripped Harry's heart as her voice echoed through the chamber. It had a hard, cold quality to it, just like Riddle's.
"That's right," agreed the younger girl, seeing his expression. "My soul is now in this body, just like I told you, and nothing you can do will change that."
And then Ginny laughed a terrifying laugh that chilled Harry even further as his panic grew.
"She can't be dead," he said. "I destroyed you!"
The laugher stopped and cold eyes regarded him as if they were looking at a bug.
"No, Harry, you only destroyed the simulacrum of my memory - the conjured body I would have inhabited once the life had been drained from this one."
Ginny/Riddle stood, a wand suddenly appeared in her hand.
"Of course, I cannot allow you to leave here alive, Harry. So goodbye."
As she raised the wand, he threw the hat at her and launched himself forward.
Ginny batted the hat aside but couldn't avoid Harry as he grabbed her robed wrists and knocked them both to the floor.
Despite his battered condition, the strength of his fear was driving him, but the fight with the Basilisk had taken its toll, and Ginny's superior condition started to show as they wrestled. Slowly she started to twist the wand towards him, despite his best efforts to hold it away.
Grunting with effort, Harry knew he was going to loose, and the second that wand was aimed at him it would be all over.
"Give in, Potter," she snarled. "You are going to die."
In desperation, Harry suddenly changed the direction he was pushing her arms and swept the wand past his face. The dangerous gambit worked and Ginny's hastily released spell shot over his shoulder so close that he felt the hair above his ears burn with its passing.
"What do you think you are going to do, Harry?" Ginny asked, obviously trying to distract him while struggling to bring the wand back. "Kill me with your bare hands?"
Suddenly Harry knew what he had to do.
Thrusting her arms away with one hand, Harry reached out clamped his other one on the side of Ginny's face, just as he had done with Quirell years earlier.
Ginny screamed an inhuman cry of pain and let go of the wand, trying to twist out from under Harry. The side of her face was blistering, just as Quirell's had; her fingers smoked where they touched Harry's flesh.
Harry grabbed the other side of Ginny's head with his now free hand and held on for dear life.
Her screaming reached new heights as she flailed her arms wildly and jerked her body violently trying to escape the torment, but he pinned her with his legs and held on.
The flesh was almost boiling off her face, and Harry inwardly recoiled at the horror of what he was doing, but still he held as her struggles began to lessen and her cries fade.
When she stopped moving, he collapsed on top of her, crying. He felt the warmth of his blood mixing with his hot tears as they ran down his face.
The drops of water on his face woke Harry.
Gradually he became aware that, while he was apparently snuggled up under a warm furry blanket, and was warmer than at any time since entering prison, he was very uncomfortable.
Part of it was because he was lying down on his side while still in bird form, a somewhat unnatural position his Animagus body was not designed to cope with.
Another reason for his current level of discomfort was the weight of the 'furry blanket'. Sirius's dog form was quite large, despite his near emanciated condition, and the weight was because Harry was currently resting on the Grim's paws, tucked under the chin of the sleeping dog.
Finally, Harry realised that the major cause of his discomfort, was the smell.
Wet dogs stink, and Sirius was very wet.
They managed to escape the black walled fortress a few days ago; Sirius's insane plan working almost exactly as he predicted. The Dementors didn't noticed the dog slip out the door when they were collecting the empty meal tins, and had barely any time to react when the same dog snuck into the next cell they opened and then darted out carrying a large bird in it's mouth.
The emptiness of the two cells became apparent at the next meal rounds, but Sirius gained enough time to carry the unconscious Harry through the maze-like prison and out into the night before any sort of search for them began.
How he managed to scale the parapets and then swim the vast rolling sea, was a mystery to Harry, who recalled only a few brief flashes of consciousness during that nightmare journey.
Blurred memories of tumbling waves threatening to sweep them off the log they were using as a raft intermingled with flashes of the Grim's massive jaws gently closing around his fragile body.
Sirius swore that he kept getting a surge of energy from Harry every so often, but admitted he wasn't particularly lucid at that time either.
Since then they were barely ever in human form, changing every few hours for short breaks to try to keep them from the madness that comes with staying an animal for too long. As it was, they knew they were pushing it close, but it was not as if there was much choice.
Harry was having a difficult time learning how to fly. It would have been quite amusing, if they were not so desperate.
Sirius reasoned that they he had not actually had a chance to be dry since their 'swim' to safety, which had led to Harry's current predicament of Sirius's Grim trying to keep Harry dry and warm through the rainy night by sheltering him under his shaggy coat inside of the rough hovel made out of tree branches.
Harry's indignant squawk disturbed the slumbering dog, who took a few moments to wake up before suddenly standing up and inadvertently tumbling Harry to the ground.
Harry hopped to his feet and gave another squawk, hoping to convey the depth of his disgust. He was rewarded by a goofy looking grin from the massive black dog before it took a step backwards and shook itself in the much-vaulted tradition of wet dogs everywhere, but with entirely too much satisfaction for a normal animal.
Harry spread his wings and gave them an experimental flap, unexpectedly lifting off the ground a few inches. There was no doubt they felt lighter, and stronger.
This might actually work, he thought, before giving it an earnest try.
To Sirius's barked delight, his first powerful flap thrust him from the ground, and directly into the branch above his head, almost knocking him out and causing him to fall flat onto his back with stars in his vision.
With a soft pop, Sirius returned to human form, howling with laughter.
Harry joined him a few seconds later, rubbing the top of his head where a definite lump was growing.
He knew they were acting a bit hysterical, but they deserved the break. Eating the little game to be found that Sirius could catch, and hiding from various magical search parties, including groups of Dementors, kept their nerves on a knife's edge of fear for two days straight.
Only in the last few hours did things ease off a bit, possibly because they were further from the prison, or possibly because, with no sign of two fleeing humans for the search parties to follow, their pursuers may have decided the pair perished in the raging sea.
Either that, or Harry and Sirius were heading the wrong way and were moving closer to prison, where the search parties already checked, instead of away.
"Oh, Tweety," laughed Sirius. "I swear, you may have learned the Animagus transformation faster than anybody in history, but I bet you equally have the worst record for mastering the actual animal."
"Hey!" protested Harry. "I resent that. It's not my fault the first few weeks trying to learn how to fly were done in a room barely large enough to spread my wings in! "I don't even know what kind of a bird I am, aside from your brilliant observation that 'it's a kind of 'falcony' thing'!"
They laughed for a few minutes more before the seriousness of their situation caught up with them again.
"So where are we going to go?" asked Harry.
His whole focus had been on surviving, and then escaping the prison. Sirius mentioned a few possibilities, but they had not discussed it much, not daring to tempt fate by planning too far in advance.
"First, we concentrate on getting you fed properly," answered Sirius, looking at Harry critically. "You are far too skinny and weak for a boy your age."
Harry didn't comment. His treatment at the hands of the Dursley's always left him unhealthily thin, but the months in jail made his former self look positively fat in comparison. Sirius was not particularly well maintained either.
"Eventually we are going to need help," Sirius continued. "I have a friend or two who might be willing to risk their neck for us, but we are going to have to be very careful. The Aurors and Malfoy are not going to let you go easily."
"Or you," said Harry. "Next to me, you are probably on top of their most wanted list."
Sirius straightened in mock indignation. "What do you mean 'next to you'?"
It took another hour or two, but finally Harry was airborne and quickly getting the feel his Animagus form. He still wasn't sure what kind of a bird it was, and other than saying he was definitely a falcon, Sirius didn't really know either.
"Hey the only kind of birds I used to pay attention to wore robes and makeup," Sirius joked.
Once Harry was in the air, everything started to come naturally. It was like his first time on a broom, but a thousand times better. Before he knew it, he was swooping and diving at incredible speeds, startling other birds out of their wits with dramatic fly-bys.
Suddenly, his stomach grumbled in hunger, and his instincts kicked into overdrive. In blink of an eye, he held the broken carcass of a fat pigeon in his claws.
Harry could tell Sirius was very impressed when presented with their dinner, but was trying hard not to show it.
"Not quite as good as that rabbit I got last night," Sirius said, looking over the pigeon critically. "But acceptable."
"Can we please cook this one?" pleaded Harry.
"Sure. Just as soon as you learn how to make a fire," answered Sirius, smirking.
Harry groaned. He previously tried the old 'rubbing two stick together' for an hour before giving in and changing to his Animagus form to eat the rabbit. Sirius could eat almost anything in either his dog or human form, wether it was cooked or not, but Harry's was a much weaker stomach.
Just then, a horribly familiar coldness swept down on them out of the previously clear sky.
"Change!" snapped Sirius, dropping the pigeon and grabbing Harry. "Change NOW!"
Harry fought against the rising tide of memories and panic, and tried to force his body to change.
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Hermione Granger was having the worst year of her life.
After being petrified before she could tell anybody except a Ravenclaw prefect about her theory of what Slytherin's monster was, she awoke in the hospital wing to discover her best friend was under arrest for nearly murdering her other best friend's sister.
Not only that, but her well thought out, logical arguments for Harry's innocence were brushed away by the authorities as nothing more than the meaningless denials of a love stricken fan-girl.
Even her professors seemingly pushed her aside, ignoring her suggestions in their haste to protect the Headmaster, who was held responsible for Harry's supposed actions.
Having to stand back and watch her two best friends condemned when she knew they were innocent was the last straw. Although she was strong, and was braver than almost anybody, watching helplessly as Ron and Harry were railroaded was more than she could take.
"Mum," she said, after hearing the verdict and watching as a chained Harry Potter was carried away by Dementors. "I don't want to go back to Hogwarts."
"I understand," her mother consoled. "There is only a day or two of school left anyway. I am sure the Headmaster will let you come home early."
Hermione shook her head sadly, tears continuing to stream down her face.
"No, Mum. I don't mean this year, I mean ever. I never want to go to Hogwarts again.
"In fact," she continued, the conviction in her voice strong despite the river of tears flowing from her eyes. "I never want to set foot in the wizarding world again, not while Harry is in jail and Ron is in a mental institution."
In the end, she got most of her wishes. She did not return to Hogwarts, and withdrew almost completely from the wizarding world, but continued her magical education through tutors and self-study.
Discovering under-age witches could use magic for educational purposes was another nail in the coffin of the hypocritical society for the brightest witch of her generation.
For decades witches and wizards, no doubt from rich pureblood families, enjoyed the option of using magic under one of the stupidest loopholes imaginable. With only a single tutor assigned for a mere hour a week, Hermione could use magic twenty four hours a day, seven days week, school year or holidays.
The fact there were many more than one tutor, and for significantly more than one hour a week, was irrelevant.
She did not seek to learn how to be a part of the hidden community - she simply sought to learn what they knew. Instead of restricting her studies to the Hogwarts curriculum, she set herself the task of also catching up on her Muggle peers, and was determined to attend a Muggle university and have a Muggle career - and the wizarding world could go hang itself.
Throwing herself into her studies to deaden the pain of her friends' fate, she started to become a shadow of her former self, with only her drive and determination keeping her going.
Her tutors, both magical and Muggle, expressed their concerns to her parents, who in turn became desperate to somehow break their only daughter out of her deepening depression. Not knowing where to turn, they wrote a letter, and posted it with the vaguest of addresses imaginable on the envelope.
Two days later, an unexpected ringing of the doorbell disturbed Hermione's intensive study regime.
Both parents worked most of the day, although they changed their schedules to ensure usually at least one of them was home when there were no tutors, and almost nobody came to visit during the day.
On this particular day, the Muggle maths tutor left some ten minutes earlier, and mother called to say she was going to be a bit late because of a complication with a difficult root canal patient, so Hermione was alone.
Not willing to break her concentration to handle what was probably a doorknocker collecting for some worthy cause, Hermione kept her eyes on her book and opened the door without fear, knowing she locked the security screen after her tutor left.
When she finally looked up, it was into the amused eyes of somebody she did not really expect to ever see again.
"Hello, Hermione," said Ron.
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