Befana's Moon

<center>Befana’s Moon: A Macawba County Pack Holiday Short Story</center><P>

Ryan Neely’s eyes dropped from the display of Angus beef to the huge black wolf beside him. Emerald green eyes in the fluorescent light met his and the shiny black nose poked the plastic packaging that protected the ribeye roast. Ryan peeked at the price and flinched. <P>

“If I didn’t love you, babe, I’d spend a lot less on food,” He grinned to let Mega know he was joking.<P>

Herb Weems came out of the meat cutting area, “Hey, Neely, how’s it hangin’? You want some liver for that beast of yours?”<P>

Ryan shot a quick glance at Mega whose face had drawn up in distaste. He met Herb’s eyes, “Actually, I think he’s getting tired of liver. You don’t happen to have some game meat, do you? Maybe some venison or buffalo?”<P>

Herb shook his head and chuckled, “You must love that critter an awful lot, man. We’ve got some ground buffalo but, truthfully, it doesn’t taste all that different from beef. <P>

He stepped a little closer to Neely, causing Mega to growl quietly and push between them. “If you’re willing to wait a couple days, my brother-in-law has a couple hundred pounds of venison he won’t eat so he gives it to me. You want some?”<P>

Mega leaned hard against Ryan, almost knocking him into the meat case. His tail wagged to let Neely know he was in favor of the venison option. Herb dropped his hand down to pat Mega on the head. Ryan saw the flash of white teeth but Mega controlled his violent impulse and allowed the contact. Ryan smiled agreeably at the butcher. “That’d be great. How much do I owe you?”<P>

Weems shook his head. “No charge, man. I get it for free and my wife and kids get bored with it fast. You got a big freezer?”<P>

“No, we live in an apartment, so we don’t have room,” Ryan smiled and began to gently stroke Mega’s silky ears. “We definitely want some, but we don’t want to put you out.”<P>

“Ah, no problem,” Herb waved his hand dismissively and Ryan heard Mega start to growl. He tugged lightly at Mega’s ear to remind him that he wasn’t on-duty. “We’ll start you out with a couple steaks, a roast, maybe, and some organ meat. I’ll give you a call, okay?”<P>

“Great,” Ryan said and offered Herb his hand. They shook on it. They were in line to check out when Ryan’s phone dinged. He pulled it out and glanced at the message.<P>

“Call me when you have time to talk,” The message from Danae read.<P>

“Uh oh,” Ryan muttered to Mega. “I gotta call the crazy lady when we get home.”<P>

Mega’s tail wagged then he jumped up to slap his front feet on Ryan’s shoulders. Ryan laughed, showed him the screen then gently pushed at Mega to get him off. Mega dropped onto the floor and panted, his white teeth bared in a joyful smile. <P>

<center>****</center><P>

Ryan was only half listening to Shane “talk” to his nephew. Even then, Shane only uttered a word or two now and then. His nephew Antonello was a chatterbox, Ryan could tell. He’d never thought of having nephews before. It was a little scary.<P>

“You can tell me more tomorrow, ‘Nello,” Shane said gently. “Your madre and I need to talk, capisce? Go brush your teeth and take a shower now.”<P>

He waited, obviously listening to the reply. Finally, he said, “Good night, mi adorato. Ti amo.”<P>

Ryan knew when Danae got on the line with Shane because they spoke rapid-fire Italian. Ryan had taken enough Spanish in high school to follow spoken Italian if it was normal conversation. He had no hope of following this. He heard Shane tell Danae good night then he brought the phone to Ryan.

“She wants to talk to you now.”<P>

Ryan took the phone but slid his arm around Shane to hold him at his side. “Hello?”<P>

Danae’s voice was light and contained a hint of a laugh. “Well you’ve certainly made my <i>cognato</i> very happy. He’s really looking forward to that venison.”<P>

Ryan laughed softly and started walking Shane toward the couch, “Yes, well, he’s not the only one. What’s going on with Castle di Lupo these days?”<P>

“Oh, the usual. My mother came for a visit and spent most of the time complaining that my sons’ manners had deteriorated without Shane here. It’s not true but she could hardly confess that she missed <i>mi fratellino</i> because he is always so sweet to her when she visits. She’s not the only one,” Danae’s voice roughened briefly, and she grew quiet. When she spoke next, her voice was almost business-like, “So, what are you doing for Christmas, my friend?”<P>

“Um, I’m not really sure. Probably we’ll spend the day watching football and eating venison roast. Why do you ask?”<P>

“Can you take a few days off?”<P>

Ryan cuddled Shane against him then handed the remote to his lover, “I’ll have to ask the boss, but I think so. What’s going on?”<P>

“My stupid husband is,” She bit the words off then took a big breath. “We have always celebrated Christmas in this family. Amleto has decided that the boys are old enough now he can be away on business during the holy days. <i>To anóito skylí mou enós syzýgou</i>.”<P>

“Okay,” Ryan drew the syllables out before speaking again. “I assume you have something planned.”<P>

“Oh, yes,” She answered, trying to return to her happy voice with only partial success. “I have rented a house north of Kansas City and we will spend Christmas there. I’m hoping the boys will be able to see snow. Even if they don’t, we will visit Columbus Park, known to humans as ‘little Italy’, and have positive male role models in the home.”<P>

For a moment, Ryan was dumbfounded. He spoke cautiously, “Who would that be?”<P>

Danae burst into sudden laughter, “You and Shane, my friend, who else? What do you say?”<P>

“How can I say no to you?” Ryan couldn’t resist the smile. “We’d be delighted to spend Christmas with you.”<P>

He hung up the phone in time to hear Shane sigh heavily. “What?”<P>

“Now we have to shop for Christmas gifts,” Shane muttered defeatedly.<P>

Ryan stared at him for several seconds before he said, “Oh crap!”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

Fortunately, Christmas shopping wasn’t nearly the hassle Ryan was afraid it would be. They sat down on Sunday afternoon and went online. For Assunto, they bought a gift certificate to a science and engineering surplus center. Antonello would receive a very nice oil painting set. Not only was the container a lovely wooden box, but the paints themselves were the finest pigments. Ryan knew he’d chosen well when Shane acted as if he was going to be receiving the gift, including placing a hard kiss to his lips. Despite Shane’s assurances that Danae would not be expecting a gift, Ryan decided to buy her a set of hair combs with a beaded silver net between them. There were several ways she could use them, but Ryan had to admit, he wondered how they would look in Shane’s hair. <P>

It was while they were searching for a gift for Alamanno that Ryan made the decision. He wanted to buy something beautiful that Shane could wear whenever he was in his human form. For Alamanno, they finally decided on a set of leather-bound notebooks that could download their content onto a computer and be ready to use again. When Shane went to watch his favorite nature show (“Wild Dogs of the World” narrated by Peter Coyote), Ryan surfed over to a men’s jewelry web site. He spent some time fantasizing about big chunky gold rings and bracelets on Shane’s delicate fingers and wrists. He ended up searching the less expensive silver jewelry. Nothing struck him as appropriate. He was about to give up when a craft site caught his attention. <P>

He was about to give up when the black wolf’s head with brilliant green eyes showed up. Tungsten was the metal used with emerald chips. The leather bracelet was lined with opals and moonstones. The price was a bit higher than he had planned but it was so perfect, he couldn’t object. He placed the order with a quick prayer that it would arrive before they had to leave for vacation. When he joined Shane on the couch, he wrapped his arms around his lover and pulled him closer. Shane smiled and began to nibble at Ryan’s throat.<P>

Ryan sighed contentedly, “You’re not interested in—what are those? Hyenas?”<P>

“Jackals,” Shane replied and climbed atop him. “I saw this one before. You want to fuck me?”<P>

Ryan grinned wickedly, “You know I do, always. But I’ve been thinking, what do you think about you fucking me?”<P>

Shane’s head shot up, eyes wide, as he stared into Ryan’s warm amber eyes. “What?”<P>

“I just thought, maybe, you might like to switch things up a bit. I’ve never let anybody—before but if you want to, I’d be okay with it,” At Shane’s reaction, Ryan back peddled. “We don’t have to tonight. Just think about it, okay?”<P>

Shane shook his head as if Ryan were crazy then returned to nuzzling him. Shane straddled him and began to undo the buttons on his uniform shirt. A moment later, Ryan arched up as Shane slid his pants off, boxers included. Ryan’s cock was already hard, resting against his belly and drooling pre-cum.<P>

As far as Ryan was concerned, Shane’s take-charge attitude was thrilling. He wasn’t very experienced so letting Shane take the lead took much of the pressure off him. He also worried about causing Shane any pain. Shane was a foot smaller and looked like a strong wind could blow him away. With his night-black hair, bright green eyes, and pointed ear-tips, he resembled an elf as far as most people were concerned. Ryan, however, knew his lover was also the huge black Wolf most knew as Mega.

Before Shane could move out of reach, Ryan slid his hands from Shane’s slim hips up his sides, hooking the hem of his t-shirt to lift it off. He’d bought the shirt on-line. The heather green shirt read: DOGS – ‘cause people suck. Shane had asked him what it meant and was satisfied with the answer. He’d then looked up at Ryan and asked if they could someday have a dog. Ryan agreed they could. As he drew the shirt off Shane, he sat forward and began to kiss his throat up to his ear to nibble on the soft, tasty lobe. Shane moaned quietly then giggled when he felt Ryan’s dick throb between them. He was about to grab it when Ryan grabbed his hand instead. An instant later, Shane shouted, “Oh, yes!” when Ryan’s big hand enveloped his cock. Ryan, still busy exploring Shane’s neck with his mouth, smiled. Sometimes Shane was too eager to please and didn’t give Ryan a chance to please him.<P>

“Let’s go to bed, hmm?” Ryan whispered.<P>

Shane sighed, “I’d rather not.”<P>

Ryan drew back and eyed him dubiously. “Where would you rather go?”<P>

Shane giggled, “Outside.”<P>

To Ryan’s surprise, Shane jumped up and started to run for the door. Ryan roared, “Oh no you don’t!” and followed. Shane was opening the door when Ryan seized him and threw him over his shoulder. Shane growled at first but ended up laughing as Ryan shut the door and locked it. He whirled around and toted his captive off to have his wicked way with him in their very comfy bed.<P>

<center>****</center><P>

The twenty-third of December was too warm to be holiday-like. Snow was definitely out of the picture, even rain was unexpected. The high temperature for the day was only sixty but with the sun beating in the windshield of the pickup, Ryan had to turn on the air conditioner. It didn’t help all that much as Ryan found out when Shane rested his head on Ryan’s bicep and began to snore. When Ryan jiggled his arm in hopes of waking his lover up, Shane slipped under his arm to nestle his head on Ryan’s thigh. Ryan sighed heavily and turned the radio up in hopes Manheim Steamroller Christmas carols would keep him from thinking naughty thoughts.<P>

In the half-seat behind them sat four pretty packages. Three were addressed to the boys and the fourth was addressed to Danae. Ryan grew glum again at the thought that Shane was not going to get his gift until they got home, some time on the seventh of January. It wasn’t that bad, but Ryan wanted to let him show his gift off to his family. He sighed and rested a hand on Shane’s hair so he could run his fingers through it.<P>

When he turned north and the sun was no longer beating directly on them, Shane opened his eyes. “I fell asleep.”<P>

“Yup,” Ryan agreed with a smile. “You snored and drooled on me too. You ready to wake up now?”<P>

Shane stretched then yawned. He rolled onto his back, careful not to bump his head on the steering wheel. “You’re very pretty, my Ryan. Do you know that?”

Ryan chuckled, “You mean handsome. Women are pretty; men are handsome.”

“Danae says I’m beautiful. Is that like being pretty?” Shane was smiling in that coy way he had when he was fishing for a compliment. <P>

“Hmm,” Ryan shrugged. “Pretty is nice but beautiful? That’s something way beyond pretty.”<P>

Shane sat up and reconnected his seatbelt. He cocked his head, “What does ‘way beyond pretty’ mean?” <P>

“It means,” Ryan hesitated, searching for the words. “To me, it means somebody who is pretty on the inside. It makes them extra-special to the people they love. I’m handsome, but you, my honey-bear, are beautiful.”<P>

Before either of them could say more, the GPS voice spoke up to inform them they were within fifteen minutes of their destination. As they got closer, Shane began to bounce in his seat, despite the seatbelt.<P>

“Excited?” Ryan asked, grinning ear-to-ear at Shane.<P>

“Yes, very. I love my nephews and Danae is my favorite person in the world,” Shane caught himself up short, his face a study in concern. “Except for you, my Ryan.”<P>

Ryan caught up his hand and squeezed it gently. “I know, sweetheart. You’re my favorite person too. Let’s have fun, all right?”<P>

Shane nodded then leaned over to kiss Ryan’s knuckles. Despite the fact that the GPS took them a mile and a half out of their way by adding in an extra loop of asphalt road when they could have taken a gravel road directly to the house. They pulled up the drive and parked next to the garage. They got out of the truck and Ryan snagged their suitcases from the bed. He started up the walk then noticed Shane stood, motionless, by the truck.<P>

“Come on, honey-bear,” Ryan urged.<P>

“But what if they don’t want me here?” <P>

Ryan set the bags down then went to him, sliding his arm around Shane’s waist. “They would have told me if they didn’t want you. More importantly, I wouldn’t have come if they didn’t want you. Your family wants to see you. I bet even your brother would like to see you.”<P>

“Now that’s just silly,” Shane whispered. “Amleto—never mind.”<P>

Ryan opened his mouth to ask Shane what he meant. Instead, he resisted the impulse and planted a kiss on Shane’s forehead. He pulled Shane forward then picked up the suitcases and stepped up on the porch. Ryan nodded for Shane to ring the doorbell. Shane pushed the button then retreated behind Ryan, who shook his head. When the door opened, the dark-haired, dark-eyed woman stared at Ryan for several seconds then spoke.<P>

“May I help you, sir?”<P>

Before Ryan could respond, she saw Shane behind him. “Shane? <i>Quello è il mio piccolo?</i>”<P>

He emerged and threw his arms around her. “I’m so happy to see you! Azelia, this is my Ryan. Ryan, this is Azelia. Her mother was the housekeeper when I was growing up and she inherited the position.”<P>

Ryan nodded, “It’s nice to meet you.”<P>

She smiled at him then leaned over and whispered in Italian, “No wonder you wanted to go home to him! He’s very handsome.”<P>

Though Ryan didn’t understand what she said, he could tell her words were about him. The fact that Shane’s face flushed bright red and he shot a glance Ryan’s way made it obvious. “Are they here?”<P>

Azelia shook her head. “No. They went to the city to do some shopping. They will be home soon, but I can show you to your room, si?”<P>

Si,” Shane chatted animatedly with Azelia as she led them up the stairs and down the hall to a bedroom featuring a king-size bed. It was probably one of the most beautiful rooms Ryan had ever seen and he placed their suitcases on the bed gingerly.<P>

Abruptly, Shane grabbed his arm. “They’re here!”<P>

Shane bolted out the door and down the stairs. Ryan followed more sedately. Still, he was standing at the top of the stairs when the door opened. The three boys flooded their petite uncle with loving embraces, a veritable babel of words, and the occasional kiss on his cheek. Ryan didn’t try to hide the pleased smile. He did swipe quickly at the tears in his eyes. He was nearly to the bottom of the stairs when a gorgeous woman, green-eyed and raven-haired, approached.<P>

“Ryan, I presume?”<P>

“Danae, I presume?” Ryan replied. He started to reach for her hand when she threw her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his cheek.<P>

“I am so happy to meet you!” She let him slip away a little but placed a hand on his cheek to keep him from escaping. “The cubs want to meet their new uncle so much. They want to tell you how much they appreciate you making Shane so happy. Come here, let them meet you.”<P>

Ryan tried not to seem reluctant, but he didn’t want to horn in on the family reunion. They stepped up to the raucous group. Shane was holding the smallest of the boys on his hip and the middle boy was holding him around the waist. The oldest rested his head on Shane’s shoulder. <P>

“Boys, I want you to meet your uncle’s <i>fidanzato</i> Ryan. Ryan, this is Assunto, Alamanno, and Antonello. Shake your new uncle’s hand please.”<P>

Assunto was the first to offer his hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Uncle Shane tells me you are very important to him.”<P>

“Thank you, Assunto,” Ryan smiled.<P>

“Call me Sunto, sir, everyone does,” The child said it with a shrug and a grin of his own. “Can I call you Uncle Ryan?”<P>

“That would make me very happy,” Ryan replied.<P>

At that moment, the youngest one launched himself from Shane’s arms toward Ryan. Ryan grabbed for the toddler and held him the same way Shane had. Antonello threw his arms around Ryan’s neck and kissed him sloppily on the left cheek. “I’m Tony. Are you a policeman?”<P>

Ryan grew serious, “Sort of. I’m actually a sheriff’s deputy.”<P>

“Do you ‘rest bad guys?” Tony’s face had grown as serious as Ryan’s.

Ryan nodded, “Sometimes. But I can’t here. I’m on vacation.”<P>

Tony grinned down at Sunto, “See? You’re very tall!”<P>

Obviously there had been a discussion of whether Ryan could arrest someone or not that he wasn’t privy to. When Tony pushed against him, Ryan put him down. The middle boy, Alamanno, still had his arms around Shane and his face buried against his side. Shane was conversing with Danae, mostly in English but with a healthy dose of Italian. Ryan slid his arm around Shane’s shoulders. Shane lightly tapped the top of the last boy’s head.<P>

When the boy glanced up at him, he whispered something that Ryan couldn’t hear. The boy shook his head and pressed his face back against Shane. Shane looked up at Ryan with a sad smile. “Alamanno is feeling a little shy today.”<P>

“I think he’s going through a phase,” Danae moved closer and gently disengaged her child from his uncle. “Manno, <i>ragazzo dolce</i>, why don’t you go play with your brothers? We’ll have lunch soon, all right?”<P>

Manno nodded then ran off to find his brothers. Danae watched him until he was out of the room. She turned back with a brilliant smile, “So, what did you think of your room?”<P>

“It’s very pretty,” Shane answered as they followed her to a comfortable leather sofa nearby. “Are we all sleeping in the bed?”<P>

Ryan and Danae both laughed. Shane’s puzzled expression forced Danae to speak. “No, <i>mio caro</i>. I know it’s a big bed but it’s only for you and Ryan.”<P>

Shane nodded then reached for Ryan’s hand. “We like to sleep very close.”<P>

“I suspect so,” Danae said. “So, tell me everything.”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

Lunch was delicious. Duck (or rather ducks) a l’orange, vegetables that Ryan’s grandmother never grew, and a great IPA made Ryan very happy. The expression on Shane’s face, however, put him over the moon. Shane was surrounded by his nephews. He let them monopolize his attention and had a difficult time keeping the smile off his face. Every now and then, he glanced at Ryan or Danae with a blissful expression. After the meal was over, they all took a walk in the woods behind the house. <P>

“No, Tony, you cannot play as your Wolf right now,” Danae said for the fifteenth time. <P>

“But. Mamma, I want to show Uncle Ryan what a Wolf looks like,” Tony wheedled, twisting his body as he spoke. <P>

Ryan squatted down and took Tony’s hands gently, “I know what a Wolf looks like, sweetie. Your zio works with me as his Wolf. If you turn into a Wolf, you might scare me. I’m human; I don’t turn into anything else.”<P>

“Are you sure?” Tony asked, leaning very close to Ryan and looking deeply into his eyes.<P>

“Yes, he’s sure, <i>ragazzino sciocco</i>,” Shane said with a bit of a growl in his voice. He pushed between them, forcing Tony to break eye contact.<P>

“Go find your brothers, ‘Nello,” Danae gave him a little pat on the back, and he ran off, his nose in the air to help him find them. “You might want to lock your door tonight. I think Tony finds you fascinating, Ryan.”<P>

To Ryan’s surprise, Shane slid his arm around his waist. “I will take care of it.”<P>

Ryan lifted his eyebrows then wrapped his arm around Shane’s shoulders. “That works for me, honey-bear.”<P>

The afternoon went quickly. By the time the sun started to set, the boys had worked off most of their excess energy. Too much of it, it seemed, as Ryan ended up carrying Tony back to the house. Ryan placed Tony in the room he was sharing with Manno so he could finish his nap undisturbed. <P>

After washing up and dinner (venison steaks, potatoes, and asparagus), the whole family settled in to watch “Miracle on 34th Street.” Tony started the movie seated between his mother and Shane. Before long, he wormed his way across Shane’s lap and settled in Ryan’s lap. To Ryan’s pleasure, Tony turned and asked him questions whenever they occurred to him. When he hit on one particular question, though, Ryan was stumped.<P>

“When does la Befana come?”<P>

“La Befana? I don’t know who that is,” Ryan looked around to find the answer and Sunto spoke up.<P>

“La Befana doesn’t come until January 6th. She’s the <i>strega</i> who the Three Wise Men asked to accompany them to visit the baby Jesus.”<P>

“Oh,” Ryan said then glanced down at Tony. “This movie ends before she comes along.”<P>

Tony pouted, “But I like la Befana.”<P>

“It’s okay, kiddo,” Ryan winked at him. “I think la Befana is like Santa. She knows where all the good little children are.”<P>

Tony sighed, “Well, then that’s all—okay. Can you read me a story before bed?”<P>

“Sure,” Ryan agreed readily. He’d never had a lot of contact with little kids before, but he found he really liked his new nephews, and especially Antonello. “Let me know when you’re ready for bed and we’ll just do that.”<P>

They were soon watching the movie again but when Ryan turned to look at Shane, his lover was staring at the floor, a downhearted expression on his face. Ryan started to reach for Shane’s hand, but Tony held tighter to him. When the movie ended, Danae declared it was bedtime for the youngsters and led everyone upstairs. Each adult took a cub to help get ready for bed. As a result, Shane ended up with Assunto. <P>

Sunto brushed his teeth. When he came out, he picked up his sketchbook. “Zio, can I show you some ideas I’ve been working on?”<P>

“Of course,” Shane nodded, trying to put on a happy face for his nephew’s benefit.

Sunto flipped open the cover and began to explain the brilliant design he’d invented. He spoke for several minutes then noticed his uncle wasn’t paying attention. He fell silent until Shane took notice.<P>

Zio, what’s wrong?”<P>

Shane shook his head, “Nothing, why?”<P>

“Are you upset about Ryan liking ‘Nello?” Sunto cocked his head.<P>

“I-I’m not, not really,” Shane’s face flushed at the idea of being jealous.<P>

Sunto hugged him and spoke while resting his head on his shoulder. “You don’t need to be. Ryan loves you so much that he’s willing to put up with your crazy family. He’s a very lucky human to have you and you’re a very lucky Wolf to have him, <i>ho ragione</i>?”<P>

Shane hugged him back, hard enough to make him squeak. “Of course, you’re right, sweetie. Now tell me again about this invention.”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

The next day was declared by Danae to be “<i>mettendo su l'albero</i>” or “putting up the tree” day. It necessitated, first of all, a trip to Smithfield to choose a tree at a lot. This disappointed the boys greatly. They were hoping that Ryan would walk them into the shelterbelt to chop down a tree with his axe. Unfortunately, their walk had revealed to the family that there were no pines in the stand of trees that were small enough to use. Even had they found one, Ryan wasn’t sure they could legally just chop down somebody else’s tree. The whole group loaded into Ryan’s truck and started down Highway 169. As they drove, Danae led them in singing Christmas carols. Some of them Ryan recognized the tune but not the words. A few Ryan had never heard like “<i>Mille Cherubini in Coro,</i>” but he figured Shane could teach him later. They arrived at the business district of Smithfield to find a small tree lot at the Food Saver, another at the Ace Hardware, and a third on an empty lot at the corner of Fifth and Main. <P>

“Well?” Ryan asked, letting the truck idle as they waited on the corner of Fourth and Main, within walking distance of all three locations.<P>

“There’s not much of a selection at the Food Saver,” Sunto shook his head. “And the ones at the Ace are all tied up.”<P>

Danae glanced from her son to Ryan, “I guess that says it all.”<P>

Ryan nodded and backed the truck up to park it by the curb, “All right, <i>i miei piccoli</i>, remember where we parked.”<P>

Shane helped the boys out of the back of the truck. Tony was the last one out but instead of running off with his brothers, Tony claimed Shane’s hand. “Zio, can I ask you a question?”<P>

Shane smiled, glanced up to see Ryan and Danae a few yards away, then turned back to his nephew. “I love when you ask me questions. What is it?”<P>

“Would you be mad at me if I liked Ryan like you like Ryan when I grow up?”<P>

Shane frowned, “I don’t know. I think maybe it would depend. Do you know how Ryan likes me?”<P>

Tony rolled his eyes, “Yes, he likes you like Papa likes Mama.”<P>

“You’re right,” Shane nodded and patted Tony’s hand. “I guess I wouldn’t be mad at you. I might be mad at him if he liked you the same way and took you out on a date or something. Why do you ask?”<P>

“I just wanted to know. But I don’t think I will. He’s too old for me,” Tony said. “I think he’s like thirty!”<P>

Shane nodded and put a serious expression on, “And that is definitely too old for you, <i>mi nipote</i>.”<P>

As they turned around to follow Danae and Ryan, they realized the duo had disappeared. Shane glanced down to see Tony looking up at him in bewilderment. “Where did they go?”<P>

“I don’t know,” Shane shrugged. He turned to Ryan’s truck, but it was gone too. Fear punched him in the gut, but he knew he couldn’t show it. He was about to start walking toward the last place he saw Ryan, hoping to pick up his scent, when a female voice stopped them in their tracks.<P>

“And what are you two <i>cari lupi</i> looking for? No, let me guess! <i>Forse un albero</i>?”<P>

They turned to find a nonna regarding them with a twinkle in her dark eyes. She wore a denim jacket over a long black skirt. Her white sneakers poked out from under the ragged hem. Her metal-rimmed eyeglasses were frighteningly thick and magnified her eyes at least twice over. The hair that stuck out from under her red straw hat was a pure white haze. She looked from Shane to Tony then back, raising her eyebrows in expectation.<P>

Si,” Shane managed to answer. “Yes, a tree, but our family was here just a moment ago. Did you see them?”<P>

“<i>Il tuo ragazzo e la tua mamma</i>, hmm?” She asked then slid the glasses off to examine Tony through them. “Do I look like I could see them?”<P>

She laughed then put her glasses back on. She reached down to tilt Tony’s face up. “<i>Figlio e padre</i>?”<P>

“No, <i>signora. Lui è mio zio,</i>” Antonello said with a serious air. <P>

“Ah,” She took their joined hands between hers. “Such <i>bravi ragazzi!</i> What do you two deserve for Epiphany?”<P>

Shane shook his head and nodded for Tony to tell her. He glanced from Shane to the little old lady then beckoned her down so he could whisper in her ear. When he finished, she drew back a little.<P>

“Are you certain, nephew?” She asked solemnly. <P>

Tony nodded. “What can I call you, signora?”<P>

She smiled, “You can call me Estrela, both of you. And you are Antonello, si? And you are Shane. It’s a pleasure to meet you, <i>miei preziosi amici</i>. Oh, do I hear your family?”<P>

Shane and Tony turned toward the sound of Danae’s voice calling for Tony. When they turned back to Estrela, she was gone. Out of the corner of his eye, Shane caught sight of Ryan’s truck parked on the street behind them. When Ryan appeared around the corner bearing a tree that was at least seven feet tall, Shane sighed and they both hurried forward. <P>

“Where did you two get off to?” Danae asked when she emerged seconds later.<P>

Shane opened his mouth to speak but Tony beat him to it. “We met la Befana! She was very nice and asked what we wanted for Epiphany. I told her--.”<P>

Antonello slapped his hands over his own mouth, looking around as if he just noticed who was present. After a few seconds, he spoke up again. “Her name was Estrela.”<P>

Shane frowned for a moment, remembering doing the same thing when he was afraid to speak, “We did meet a nice older lady, but I don’t think she said she was la Befana. She could be, though.”<P>

“Ah, don’t be a baby, Tony, everybody knows there’s no--,” Sunto was instantly silenced by a withering look from his mother.<P>

Shane smiled down at Tony, “I believe in her too. We’ll have a visit from her, don’t you think, Sunto?”<P>

Sunto, properly chastised, nodded. Danae handed him a huge wreath to carry to the truck. Manno was allowed to carry the bag of mistletoe. Shane helped Ryan load the tree into the pickup then tie it down. When they finished, Ryan beckoned Shane to him. He held a sprig of the green leaves and white berries above Shane’s head. When Shane noticed it, he stretched up to let Ryan kiss then cuddle him.<P>

“You okay, baby?” Ryan asked, realizing that Shane was trembling.<P>

“I-I’m fine, I guess. Just a little confused. I thought you-you left us,” Shane sighed and buried his face against Ryan’s chest.<P>

“Never, honey-bear, I’d never leave you.”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

That night, after the house was decorated to the hilt, they were served a traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes. Danae had the seafood flown in from the Gulf Coast. Azelia’s skills as a chef made it the best seafood Ryan had ever tasted. They watched another Christmas movie (“A Muppet Christmas Carol”) and played a game of Trouble, which Shane and Tony won. When bedtime came, Shane saw to the boys on his own, leaving Ryan and Danae to have some time away from the cubs. Danae had a glass of rosé while Ryan enjoyed a whiskey neat. <P>

“Tell me something,” Ryan asked as he swirled the whiskey in his glass. “What was Shane like when you first met him?”<P>

Danae sighed heavily, “He was terrified. He couldn’t talk to me for almost a year. I wanted to touch him, to offer him comfort, but when I did, he cowered away. How-How much has he told you?”<P>

“Enough,” Ryan grew sad. “I’m familiar with victims of abuse of all kinds and I could tell he’d been victimized. I was so worried that I’d hurt him accidentally, but he wanted to touch, to be close. I let him take the lead usually.”<P>

“You have been very good for him. He is so much braver, thanks to you,” Danae took another sip of her wine.<P>

Ryan chuckled softly, “Nope, he always had that in him; he just needed a reason for it to come out. I won’t take credit for something I didn’t do.”<P>

Danae smiled into her wine and dropped the subject. “So, do you believe in la Befana?”<P>

Ryan shrugged, gesturing widely, “I don’t know. Shane has played jokes on me in the past but they’re not usually too complicated.”<P>

“He has a wonderful sense of humor. I really wish he knew how to read. He would enjoy it so much.”<P>

“How did he learn to write his name?”<P>

She shook her head, “On my tablet on the way from Austin to Huston. It only took about ten minutes. I was afraid we’d never see him again. Amleto told us he was taking Shane to Portugal. <i>Marito sciocco</i>.

“I regret that Amleto’s not here. He misses Shane so much,” Danae shook her head sadly. “I suppose that sounds odd to you.”<P>

“No,” Ryan said, examining the amber liquid as it reflected the light through the cut crystal. “I’m just reluctant to let him near Shane, especially after some of the things he’s told me. Shane’s so happy with you and the boys.”<P>

“As are we with him,” She smiled. “And you. Has Manno spoken to you yet?”<P>

“No, not yet,” Ryan drained his glass. “Shane thinks he’s scared but I’m wondering if he’s angry at me. I stole his zio after all.”<P>

Danae rested her head back on the couch, “I doubt that’s the case with Manno; he’s got a romantic streak a mile wide. No, if there’s one of my sons who should be angry with you, it’s Tony. He is very attached to Shane.”<P>

Ryan stretched then winked at her, “So’m I. I think I’m off to bed. That tree wasn’t that heavy, but it was a big one.”<P>

“I understand,” Danae grinned. “Good night, <i>mio amico</i>, see you in the morning.”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

The second that Ryan crawled into the bed, Shane woke up just enough to move into his arms. Ryan drifted off with a smile on his face. He was having a dream about being a kid again and throwing a stick for his big black dog when the sound woke him. He opened his eyes and the sound became clearer.<P>

“No, Leto, don’t . . . I-<i>Fa male! Per favore non farlo . . . Mamma, mi aiuti</i>!” Somehow, Shane had moved away from Ryan and nearly to the edge of the king size bed.<P>

Ryan slid over to Shane and gently rested a hand on his shoulder. At the touch, Shane snarled and snapped his teeth, turning to face Ryan. Cautiously, Ryan drew Shane close, beginning to whisper comforting words to him, “You’re safe, honey-bear, I promise! He can’t hurt you anymore. Come here, baby. I love you.”<P>

“<i>Madre? Mamma, sei tu?</i>” The green eyes fluttered open and filled with tears. Ryan gently wiped them away as they rolled down his cheeks. After a moment, Shane nuzzled

Ryan’s palm then sighed. “My Ryan, <i>ti amo</i>.”<P>

Ryan closed his arms around Shane and kissed his temple. “<I>Ti amo</I> too, hon. You can relax. I’ve got you.”<P>

He heard Shane sigh. When Shane pressed his face into Ryan’s chest, Ryan began to stroke his hair. They fell asleep within minutes.<P>

<center>****</center><P>

The next morning, Ryan was dozing with Shane cuddled against his side, his head resting on Ryan’s chest. Suddenly, a small human bolted through the door—which wasn’t locked—and threw himself on the bed to begin jumping and yelling.<P>

“It snowed! It snowed!! La Befana is real! Estrela is la Befana!” Tony didn’t notice where he was landing and came down hard on the inside of Ryan’s thigh, narrowly missing his man-parts. “Zio and Ryan, you have to get up—la Befana made it snow!!”<P>

Shane, used to dealing with the cub’s naughtiness, sat up immediately to grab Tony. He pulled the child into his lap. “Slow down, <i>nipote</i>. What’s going on?”<P>

Tony panted for air then spoke, “It snowed last night, Zio. That’s what I asked her for.”<P>

“Who?”<P>

“Estrela,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “You know, la Befana! We met her at the tree place yesterday, remember?”<P>

“I remember,” Shane said quietly. Beside them, Ryan had turned over and was cautiously examining his injury. “Tell me as if I wasn’t there.”<P>

Tony huffed crossly. “You and I got lost in the trees and Estrela found us. She asked me what I wanted for Epiphany.”<P>

“No,” Shane held up an index finger. “She asked what you deserved for Epiphany. What did you tell her?”<P>

Tony’s chest swelled with pride, “I told her I wanted snow for Christmas. She made it snow for me!”<P>

Shane shook his head, “I don’t think so. We have twelve days until Epiphany. The snow could be all gone by then. Maybe somebody else asked for snow, did you think of that?”<P>

Tony lowered his gaze, propping his chin on his hand like Rodin’s Thinker. After a moment, he raised up and fixed Shane with a solemn gaze, “I don’t think it matters, Zio. This way everybody who wants snow for Christmas can share!”<P>

Shane chuckled then leaned back a bit to speak to his mate, “Are your parts in working order?”<P>

“Yeah,” Ryan replied. “It was close there for a minute.”<P>

Tony, revealing that he was aware of what he’d done, interrupted with a twinkle in his eye, “Are you gonna kiss it better, Zio?”<P>

At that, Ryan glanced over his shoulder with a wicked smirk, “Well, are you?”<P>

“Later,” Shane answered then kissed him on the cheek.<P>

Zio,” Tony patted him on the cheek to get his attention. “Why didn’t you ask la Befana for something? You deserve something too.”<P>

Shane shrugged and smiled, “I don’t have anything to ask for, <i>nipote</i>. I have you, your brothers, your mamma, and my Ryan; what more do I need?”<P>

That stumped Tony for a few seconds, “I don’t know but everybody needs something. You didn’t get anything last year.”<P>

“I don’t get presents, ‘Nello, you know that.”<P>

“Oh, yeah,” Tony sighed and rose. “Mamma said we could go play in the snow after breakfast. I hope it doesn’t go away!”<P>

“It’s your lucky day, kiddo,” Ryan said as he pulled Tony into a warm embrace. “My weather app says the high for today is going to be thirty degrees. That’ll keep the white stuff around. Go get ready for breakfast! And don’t forget to wake your mom and brothers like you did us.”<P>

Tony kissed Ryan’s chin then bit it. “Too late. They told me to wake you up.”<P>

Ryan set Tony on the floor before standing with arms outspread, “You little monster! You better run or I’m gonna throw you in a snowbank!”<P>

Tony squealed and ran from the room, giggling like a lunatic. As soon as he disappeared into his own room, Ryan shut the door and locked it. He turned to Shane. “I suggest you dress in layers, hon. We’ll be spending a lot of time outside, I bet.”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

Ryan didn’t remember ever working so hard in his life. Slogging through six inches of snow, engaging in a running snowball fight, and building a snow-fort made him want to take a long, hot shower then a long nap. Instead, he ended up sitting on a bench in the backyard to take a breather. Soon Assunto joined him.<P>

“Tired, Uncle Ryan?” He grinned.<P>

Ryan nodded, “You got me. I forgot how strenuous being a kid was.”<P>

“Yes, especially when you have a Tony around. He’s a force of nature.”<P>

Ryan was about to reply when Azelia trudged up to them, a stack of paper cups and a thermos in hand. She handed each of them a cup then poured thick, rich hot chocolate for them. After they were served, she trekked over to the hill where Shane and Danae were taking turns giving Manno and Tony sled rides. They watched her giving the others their drinks then Ryan worked up the courage.<P>

“Tony mentioned that Shane didn’t get any presents at Christmas or Epiphany. Why not?”<P>

Sunto took a long sip of his cocoa then, “Because he was omega. You don’t give somebody who isn’t a person a gift. Heck, we don’t know when his birthday is because it wasn’t considered important enough to keep track of. Manno keeps talking about how Wolf society needs to change, especially where omegas are concerned. The change is coming but I’m afraid a lot of people will get hurt.”<P>

Ryan patted Sunto on the back, “Not your uncle, not if I can help it. You ready to go back to work?”<P>

“I guess,” Sunto muttered. He stood suddenly and lobbed a snowball at Ryan, striking him in the chest. “Oh crap!”<P>

He took off running through the snow. Ryan stood and followed. When he caught up, he grabbed Sunto up and tossed him into a snowbank. He then fell backwards into the pile himself and began to make a snow angel, his nephews soon following suit.<P>

<center>****</center><P>

That night, after Shane and Ryan took a long hot bath in the 88-jet spa in the master bath, they headed to bed. Both of them were dressed in the brand-new Christmas pajamas Danae gave them. As they slid between the sheets, Shane reached out to begin unbuttoning Ryan’s top.<P>

“Now stop that, you animal,” Ryan pushed at his hands, the leer on his mouth to tell Shane that he was kidding. “Don’t you like your new ‘jammies?”<P>

Shane studied the green pajamas with red nutcrackers on them. After a few seconds, he raised his eyes to Ryan’s. “I don’t think so. They make my eyes hurt.”<P>

Ryan nodded, “Yeah, they do, don’t they? Can you answer a question for me?”<P>

Shane grinned, “I just did.”<P>

“Ha, ha,” Ryan started undoing the buttons on Shane’s shirt. “My question is: You said to Tony this morning that you didn’t get presents. Why not?”<P>

“It does not matter to me, my Ryan. I have all I need right here.”<P>

Ryan leaned in and pressed his lips to Shane’s. “That’s sweet, babe, but Sunto said you don’t even know when your birthday is. Is that true?”<P>

Shane scowled, “I guess so, but it’s not important, is it?”<P>

“It will be for you to get ID, especially a Social Security card. I really don’t like the way Wolf society treats omegas. None of you deserve that kind of abuse,” Ryan hesitated. “Do you understand what I mean?”<P>

Shane shrugged, “I think so. But does that make a difference between you and me?”<P>

“No, honey-bear, not at all,” Ryan kissed Shane, sliding his tongue along his lover’s. As always, Shane tasted wonderful, salty and sweet. <P>

When they parted for air, Ryan slid his hands up the back of Shane’s shirt, removing his pajama top. Shane sighed then moaned as Ryan began moving his kisses down across his chest. Shane giggled when his fingers danced across his ribs. Ryan was about to remove Shane’s bottoms when he paused. He glanced up at Shane, his eyes a bit panicked.<P>

“Is the door locked?”<P>

<center>****</center><P>

On the 27th of December, Danae decided they should all go visit Kansas City’s “little Italy,” a.k.a. Columbus Park. More importantly, she decided she should take the cubs to church to allow them to have a “growth experience.” The regular Wednesday afternoon mass would do nicely. Long enough to give them a challenge, short enough to keep Tony under control. She decided that Luca would drive so that Ryan could relax and enjoy the excursion. So it was that Shane and Ryan were wandering through a little gift shop just a few blocks from the church. Shane was sipping at a bubble tea that Ryan purchased for him at the banh mi food truck out front.<P>

“Would Tony like this little truck?” Ryan asked Shane, holding up a fire engine.<P>

Shane shrugged, “He would like the police car more. Did you want a drink of this, m-Ryan?”<P>

Ryan exchanged the fire truck for the police car. He took the cup from Shane and sipped from the straw. “What flavor did we get you?”<P>

“Dulce de leche,” Shane said, his slight accent made the phrase the sexiest thing he’d ever heard.<P>

“Not bad,” Ryan answered then leaned over to plant a modest kiss on Shane’s mouth. “But that’s better.”<P>

Shane flushed bright pink and buried his face against Ryan. Ryan slid his arm around Shane’s shoulders. “Let’s go see if the service is done.”<P>

They started toward the church, walking leisurely. It was only two blocks so they didn’t need to rush. They were talking quietly when Ryan realized they had walked well past the two-block mark. He turned around.<P>

“Did we pass the Holy Rosary?” <P>

“I don’t know,” Said a voice behind them. “But I can use some company on my walk, if you don’t mind.”<P>

“Estrela?” Shane turned to see the familiar sight of the older woman. She cocked her head and regarded him curiously.<P>

“Why, it’s you, Shane! This must be your Ryan. What a strapping young man!” She took her glasses off and moved them toward Ryan, as if trying to see him better. “How handsome. My, but it’s nippy out here today!”<P>

Ryan glanced down at Shane then back up at Estrela. He shucked the coat he wore, a quilted purple anorak that he loved, and gently placed it around her shoulders. “Here, ma’am, have my coat. I’ve got another at home.”<P>

Shane started to speak up, to offer his own coat, when Estrela interrupted. “Thank you, sweetie. But surely you need this coat for yourself?”<P>

“No, ma’am, I’ve got plenty of things. You seem to need it more,” Ryan smiled in the way he had that reassured Shane that everything would be all right. “We’d be happy to walk you to the church.”<P>

They turned to accompany her. She was spry for someone who looked so ancient. As she walked, she chatted about her neighbors, children she knew, and recipes she enjoyed. Shane continued to hold to Ryan, expecting him to start shivering. Instead, he seemed to have an internal furnace. Presently, they arrived at the church.<P>

“Well, I thank you boys for helping me. Are you sure you don’t need your coat, son?”<P>

Ryan shook his head, “No, ma’am, you keep it. I’ve got a uniform coat at home. Is there anything else we can help you with? I have a few dollars. I’m sure Danae wouldn’t mind if we bought you some groceries.”<P>

“Oh, <i>grazie</i>, but no. I’ll be fine,” She turned to Shane and took his hand in hers. “You do me a favor, my young friend, and take care of <i>il mio gioiello</i>. He’s important, no?”<P>

“<i>Si, nonna</i>,” Ryan agreed, sounding a bit more Italian every day. “He’s very important, especially to me.”<P>

The bells began to ring. “There it is, the end of mass. Is that your family over there?”<P>

They both turned to look but Shane remembered the trick she’d played on Antonello and him on Christmas eve. He spun back in time to see Estrela flip the hood of the coat up and fade out of sight. He had to grin though he thought maybe he should be afraid. He heard the distinct voices of the di Lupo family and faced them. He knew how to keep a secret. There were some he’d kept for decades.<P>

<center>****</center><P>

The rest of their vacation was spent playing, eating, and enjoying the time they spent together. On the eve of Epiphany, Danae and Ryan brought out the brightly wrapped packages. Everyone gathered in front of the tree. As Danae passed out the gifts, Ryan made sure to take pictures before and after each present was opened. <P>

The oil color set was met with more than a little squealing by Tony. Danae rolled her eyes and recorded a memo on her phone to buy a bonus gift for Azelia, who would have to clean up after him. Manno was thrilled with the notebooks and couldn’t wait to get home to try them out. Sunto asked his mother if he could borrow her tablet in order to get his order placed for parts. She let him take it and settle in to use his gift certificate.<P>

“Now, I wonder who this one is for,” She said as she checked the tag. “Oh, it’s for me!”<P>

She gently undid the dark blue paper with white and silver snowflakes on it. When she opened the box, she gasped softly. “Oh, Ryan, you and Shane shouldn’t have!”<P>

She pulled the hair ornament out. Within a few seconds, she had twisted her hair into a chignon and contained it with the net, hooking the combs just above her pointed ears. Ryan smiled at the reflection of the tree lights off the silver. He could fantasize about Shane wearing the combs in his hair now thanks to Danae.<P>

“Now, I know who gets this one,” Danae pulled a large box out from under the tree. The box was covered with purple and yellow dressed Santas. She placed it carefully in Ryan’s lap. “The boys and I noticed your warm coat had gone missing, so we decided to replace it for you.”<P>

Ryan shook his head. A pang of remorse stabbed his heart when he realized Shane had no present to open. He smiled sadly at Danae then opened his gift. The purple anorak had a yellow inner shell so he could wear the coat for more seasons in the year. He held it up for everyone to see and Danae took a picture.<P>

“Try it on, Uncle Ryan,” Sunto said. Either he had spent all the gift certificate, or he was simply taking a break.<P>

“Yes,” Danae urged. “Let’s see if it fits.”<P>

Ryan checked the tag inside. “It should.”<P>

“Try it on,” Shane and Antonello said at the same time.<P>

Ryan rolled his eyes, “Oh, all right!”<P>

He stood and swung the coat on. It fit perfectly, as Ryan knew it would. He instinctively slid his hands into his pockets to test them out. In the right-hand pocket, his hand encountered something papery. He pulled the item out and it was a small rectangular box. The box was wrapped in shiny red paper with gold curlicues on it. The tag indicated that the gift was for Shane. Uncertain what was going on, he turned to his lover.<P>

“Here, honey, this one’s for you.”<P>

Shane, who had been smiling, was suddenly looking shocked. He refused to reach for the box so Sunto grabbed it and put it in his hands, “Your turn, Zio.”<P>

There wasn’t a sound while they waited and watched. Shane carefully unwrapped the box, folding the paper delicately. He looked up and blushed deeply when he realized everyone was watching him. Finally, he pulled the box apart and lifted the tissue paper inside.<P>

“Oh, that’s--,” Moonstones and opals gleamed in the twinkling holiday lights. He slowly drew out the bracelet that Ryan had ordered for him. He looked directly up at Ryan then ran over to him, leapt into his arms, and planted a solid kiss on his lips.<P>

Ryan held him for a few minutes, their foreheads touching, before he placed Shane back on the rug. “Try it on, baby.”<P>

Shane slid the leather cuff on his left wrist so that the wolf faced the right and his ears pointed toward Shane’s fingers. He turned so the wolf’s eyes caught the light. The family approached and took turns examining the piece. Danae gave him a little hug as she said, “It’s gorgeous, <i>mio caro</i>.” <P>

“I like it,” Tony piped up. “I want to paint a wolf like that. Mamma, will you pose for me?”<P>

“Of course, I will,” She grinned then checked her phone. “Oh, my, it’s almost nine, boys. Time to head to bed.”<P>

The boys grumbled a bit but started up the stairs. Shane followed them then glanced back at Ryan and Danae. Ryan winked at him, “We’ll be up in a minute.”<P>

Shane nodded and blew him a kiss. As soon as he disappeared up the stairs, Ryan addressed Danae, “How did you know what I got him?”<P>

“What are you talking about?” She asked. “Didn’t you use sleight of hand to get that out of your pocket?”<P>

“No,” Ryan squeaked then cleared his throat. “No, I don’t know how. Even if I did, the package didn’t arrive before we left. That’s why I asked--.”<P>

“I’m not psychic, my dear. I—Wait, maybe it was la Befana?” Her eyes reminded Ryan of Shane’s when he was being mischievous.<P>

“Did Shane tell you about our visit?” Ryan gave her a suspicious look, still skeptical about her involvement.<P>

She shook her head, suddenly subdued. “You saw her?”<P>

Ryan nodded and was about to speak when a wet, naked toddler came down the stairs as fast as his chubby little legs could carry him. They heard Shane call for him then he appeared at the top of the stairs. He looked rather harried and more than a little damp. Ryan yanked off his new coat and met Tony at the bottom of the stairs. <P>

“All right, buddy, you’re under arrest for naughtiness,” He seized Tony by the waist and settled him across his shoulder. Tony squealed in indignation then cackled gleefully as Ryan took the stairs two at a time to get him back to his bath. “You have the right to remain happy. If you choose to give up that right, I’ll just have to hug the stuffin’ out of you!”<P>

Danae watched them go until they disappeared from sight and she could no longer hear Tony’s giggle. She picked up Ryan’s coat and hung it carefully on a hook by the door. She glanced out the side window and noticed it was snowing again, tiny white flakes drifting lazily toward the ground. After a few moments of watching the precipitation, she pulled her phone out and texted Amleto.<P>

“My darling, you should have joined us for the holy-days. Do we have a story to tell you!” She pocketed her cell, shut off the main lights, and headed for her own bed.

<center>****</center>


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