This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.

Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.

* * *


Some days I think lockers are made of some weird alien metal, since whenever they get hit really hard the noise they make seems to make all other sounds around them disappear, and the harder they're hit the faster things go silent.

This time I hit hard enough to make the corridor go instantly dead quiet, with everyone looking at us. Us, in this case, was me, Justin Payne, and my personal antagonist, Bobby Phillips. In this school I was a nobody junior, since I'd just moved to west nowhere Georgia from the Boston 'burbs a month and a half Bobby was the quarterback on the school football team, and while he was a junior too, he was definitely not a nobody. I was lucky enough to not have him in any of my classes. The halls, though, those were a different matter.

For reasons I didn't understand, Bobby'd decided to go out of his way to make my life a living hell. It was the standard school crap -- snide comments, speculations on my sexual preferences, slams into the lockers in the halls, anonymous hits, and book dumping. He'd been doing it non-stop for the two weeks school had been in session, the rest of the football team was starting to join in on the fun and games, and I'd gotten tired of it.

My roundhouse kick had gotten us to our current tableau. Bobby was flat up against the lockers, his books dumped on the floor. I was balancing on my left foot, with my right next to Bobby's ear, pinning him to the lockers by his hair, my body almost parallel to the ground, making a sort of sideways T. The band I used to hold my hair in a ponytail had come loose when I'd spun and kicked, so my hair, which normally hung down past my shoulderblades, was instead dangling almost to my knee. At least it was mostly out of my face.

It probably would've been funny looking if we weren't so serious. And yes, it hurt with my legs stretched out as far as they could go -- Bobby topped my five nine by a couple of inches, and I was definitely reaching. I suppose I at least had the mild consolation that there probably weren't more than two or three other people in the school who could actually do this.

The gathering crowd certainly didn't know what to make of it. The burly football player was supposed to have the thin mousy geek pinned to the lockers, not the other way around. I wasn't sure whether the crowd thought what I was doing was a good thing or a bad thing, but I didn't honestly care much, and I wasn't paying them much attention.

"What's your problem, Payne?" Bobby sneered, his rural Georgia accent pretty strong.

"That's my question, Bobby." I was trying to keep my own accent under control. Yeah, I admit, it can get thick when I'm not paying attention. I'm from South Boston, what do you want? "I've been here two weeks and you've done your best to make my life miserable. What have I ever done to you?"

"You're a stuck-up Yankee. We don't like your kind around here."

That one statement summed up every day of the past two months, every day since I'd moved to this hell-hole. Stuck-up yankee. I didn't want to be here, it wasn't my choice, there wasn't anything I could do about it, and I'd never done anything to them. It was last year all over again, only worse. I was past tired of it all, and I wasn't going to roll over for it any more.

"Stuck-up? What's that supposed to mean?"

"We've seen you around, acting like you're better than we are. Think you're too good for us, do you? Too good to talk to us?" Too good? I'd been heads-down and trying hard to stay out of everyone's way since the day I got here.

"What are you talking about, Phillips? I hadn't been here more than ten minutes the first day before you body-checked me into a locker."

And he had, too. That was our first meeting. I'd left the guidance office with a schedule and a map, trying to find my first class, when he slammed me into a wall of lockers. He and his buddies got a good laugh out of that one. That had set the tone for the next two weeks. Well, no more.

"Serves you right. Girlie-boy tree hugger."

Okay, that was low, and kind of pathetic. Yes, my hair was longer than the other guys in school. The last time I had it cut was more than two years ago and it normally hung down to the middle of my shoulder blades, though my current position made it seem longer. Bobby had the short haircut the football team seemed to favor, though there was enough of it that he wasn't trying to yank it out from under my foot. I assume the tree-hugger bit was because I was wearing sandals, something that wasn't all that common here. Still, I was wearing socks with them. Granted, they were unusual socks, what with the big toe being separated out and all, but socks nonetheless. More importantly, I'd just planted that sandaled foot right next to Bobby's head, and you'd figure being able to do that would count for something. Maybe it was the plaid flannel shirt I was wearing loose over my t-shirt, but that was just normal. I think.

"Are we going through the list of insults?" I sneered that one at me. "What's next, going to call me a lesbian because I'm wearing flannel? I thought you rednecks were all about manners."

That one was pretty lame on my part, and I was starting to regret starting the whole thing. I'm really not very good at the whole witty repartee/social banter thing, and I've never gotten the hang of off-the-cuff insults. Heck, I've never gotten the hang of simple social conversations. One of the side-effects of being borderline Asperger's, and I usually tried really hard to avoid situations like this, since I just didn't know what to do, and was always thirty seconds behind when I did. You'd think getting bullied would be something they'd train you how to deal with, but you'd be wrong. Or maybe you'd be right but it's been years since I gave up on the therapy.

That still left me in the middle of a high school corridor with the quarterback of the football team pinned to a locker. I was thinking that this situation probably wasn't covered anywhere.

"We don't like people who go acting better than they are, yankee." While I sucked at recognizing emotions, the contempt in Bobby's voice and on his face was obvious enough that even I caught it. Pissed me off.

"Oh, please, because I don't put on the fake gee-shucks bullshit?" I snapped back at him. "My father taught me not to lie. I am what I am, and I've never claimed better or worse. I'm not the one with the 3.98 GPA pretending to be a hick." Yeah, OK, I checked him out when he started all this crap. Bobby was second in his class on top of everything else he did.

He narrowed his eyes at me. Apparently I'd scored a hit of some sort. "You should watch yourself around your betters, boy." Betters? Boy? I was just called boy by someone who couldn't be more than a few months older than I was.

"Find me some and I will," I shot back. "As long as it's just you, you'll have to cope."

"I ought to teach you a lesson," he said. Bobby tried to pull away then, but I had his hair pinned. I was a little worried at this point, since I was in a vulnerable position. It was impressive, sure, but if he was willing to put up with a little pain could dump me over with no problem and lay into me before I could do anything about it. It was also starting to get really uncomfortable, and I could feel the muscles in my legs and back starting to complain, but I wasn't going to let that show. No weakness here.

"You? Yeah, right," I said, scorn in my voice. I should've been more careful, but I wasn't. On the other hand, I've been doing martial arts since I was four and could take care of myself. Unless there was some secret ninja training camp hiding in town, or someone was willing to drive a half hour or more to the closest dojo (I checked when we moved), the only sort of combat around here was backwoods brawling and maybe some boxing. "You couldn't teach me a damn thing. I already know how other people fall down."

The warning bell rang, giving us a minute to get to class. Time to end the macho posturing bullshit that always precedes a fight, and get to the actual fighting part.

"Okay, Bobby," I said. "Does this dump have a wrestling room?"

"Yup. Why, you want me to pin your little faggot ass?" That one drew a gasp from the crowd.

"You wish. I'm going to kick yours. Meet me after school at the parking lot doors. At 2:30 we start." I pushed off the lockers, dragging my foot and Bobby's hair down as I did. I saw him wince.

"Better get ready for a whuppin' then," he said as he grabbed the books I'd knocked out of his hands.

"Yeah, right," I sneered, stepping on his English notebook. "I'll get ready for yours."

* * *

At lunch, I went into the gym office. Coach Wilson was in. I had him for my gym teacher, though I doubt he remembered me. It was still early in the year, and seven classes weren't likely to leave an impression.

"Coach," I said, "Bobby Phillips and I need to use the wrestling room after school."

He just gave me a look. "What for?"

"He and I have something to... discuss." Yeah, subtle. We both knew what I wasn't saying, but this was school and you couldn't tell a teacher that you were going to go fight someone, even if that was exactly what you were going to do and the teacher didn't actually care.

"Well, y'all know Bobby's the best QB we've had in years." The drawl was thick in his voice. I gritted my teeth, and turned up my southie accent.

"Yeah, I know. I won't hurt him."

"Wasn't him I was worried 'bout, boy." Coach fixed me with a cold stare. I stared right back. Getting called boy was really getting on my nerves.

I fished out the registration card from my wallet. For reasons I never did understand, Massachusetts issues cards to some people with black belts in some arts -- I guess we count as deadly weapons or some such thing. I'd gotten mine a few years ago, and it'd been updated three times since I had. I dropped it on the desk in front of him.

"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine," I said, with steel in my voice.

Coach picked up the card and looked it over.

"This for real?"

"Yeah. I didn't get one for Aikido. It's not considered offensive."

He just looked at me for a minute, sizing me up. I wasn't sure where he stood, but it was pretty clear he wasn't stupid. "Football season isn't over," he said. The drawl was gone.

I got the message. "This is just between us. Nobody else, it doesn't go outside the room, and we both walk out when we're done."

"Make sure the mats get put away," he said. Then he fished his keys out of his pocket, took one of them off, and passed it to me.

"I'll leave the room clean," I said. I took the key, my card, and left the office.

* * *

Classes ended at 2:10. I dropped my stuff in my locker and went to the parking lot door. Bobby was waiting there, as we'd arranged.

"I've got to grab my stuff out of my car. Grab whatever you need. I'll be right back." He just gave me a half-sneer and leaned up against the wall. Whatever. I ran out to my car, a beat up grey Honda Accord, and grabbed my equipment bag out of the back seat. Back at the door, Bobby was still waiting.

"I need to go change," I said. "You?"

"Nah," he drawled. "I'm good."

I just looked at him. He was in sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt with his football letter jacket over it. Hardly the thing to wear in a fight. I was beginning to think his reputation was overrated, but it could be an act or something.

I took a couple of minutes to change, and was at the wrestling room at twenty past. Bobby was waiting there, leaning against the wall. He looked me up and down, the contempt clear in his face.

"How cute," he said, sarcasm mixing with a deep southern drawl, "got yer PJs on for this, huh?"

I let that one go past. Backwater sub-suburb or not, nobody's so out of touch that they wouldn't recognize someone in a gi.

"Yer mom need to sew one of your stripes back on too?" He was pointing at my belt. I was a fourth dan in the Kung Fu school I trained in, and third dan in Aikido, so the two ends of my belt had different tags on the end of them. Not required or anything, but I preferred to wear it when I was doing anything mixed-style. It was a way of letting my opponent know something was up, and if they asked, I told.

I opened up the room. The place was actually a small gym -- it was the size of a half-basketball court. There were mats down on the floor on one half of it for the wrestlers, and the other half had uneven bars and such for the girls' gymnastics team.

We still had a few minutes, so I went to one side of the mat and started stretching. Bobby just stood on the other side, arms crossed, an arrogant smirk on his face as he watched me.

"You ready?" he asked. He sounded almost eager.

"No," I replied. There was no way I was going to just get into it without some warmup. "Don't you want to get prepared or something?"

"Nah, I'm good. This should be quick."

While he might've been ready, I wasn't. And he was either very good, or a total idiot. It should've been clear I wasn't fooling around, and wasn't someone to fool around with. I gave away a lot this morning with that locker kick, but I'd no clue what he could do besides what the whispers in the hallway said. At least we didn't have an audience -- this could be really embarrassing for me. If I lost I'd still get points for standing up for myself, unless I lost badly and publicly, in which case it was open season on me. It was way too early in the school year for me to be looking forward to that.

I took the rest of the time to stretch and warm up. Figured there'd be no harm in doing it right, as he already knew how I could move. Bobby just stood and waited. He wasn't even bothering to watch me as I went through my warmup routine. Not a good sign.

When the clock ticked over to 2:30 I got up and walked into the center of the mats. "You finally ready?" asked Bobby. He was laying on the southern pretty heavy.

"Yeah," I said. I matched him with a thick southie. I got into a comfortable half-moon and had my fists up. Bobby matched me with a stance of his own, and from the looks of it he was more of a boxer. That was fine, I could handle that, but it could've been a front.

Bobby threw the first punch, straight at my head. It was a clean one, and if it hit it would've hurt, but I stepped aside and blocked it. He threw a second, clean as the first, but this time I grabbed him, spun, and threw him over my shoulder. He landed flat on his back. The thud and whoosh of the breath leaving his lungs echoed off the cement walls. I took a step back, waiting for a counter-attack from the ground.

"You gonna help me up?" he asked, as he sat up.

"You giving up already?"


"Well, there you go." Both of us had dropped the exaggerated accents. Things were serious, and neither of us were fooling around any more. I still didn't have a read on him, though. He could be just another high school brawler with some coordination and a reputation, or he could be hiding, trying to draw me out. I wasn't sure which, but I knew I could do it, so I had to figure he could too.

Bobby got up, brushed himself off, and got ready again. He threw another right, but it was a fake, trying to hide a roundhouse left. Didn't work -- I blocked it, dropped, and swept his feet out from under him. He slammed down onto his back again, and again I stepped back, waiting for a counter. There were a couple he could use, and any of them could lead into something serious. He didn't.

"What's your problem with me anyway ?" I asked, as he got back up.

"Guess I just don't like you," was all he replied. Swell. Hardly helpful.

Two more punches, two more blocks. I was still on the defensive, figuring out what he was up to. If he beat me I knew the rest of the year was going to be hell, and I didn't want that.

"So you hassle everyone you don't like?" I risked a punch, which I pulled before it hit, to see what he'd do. He'd made half a block, but it wouldn't have stopped me if I hadn't pulled back. Interesting.

"You brought it on yourself."

"Oh, cut the crap, Bobby. You didn't know me from anyone when you started in."

"I know your type, Payne. Coming in, all high and mighty, flaunting yourself like you own the world. Like you're better than everyone else. Like we don't matter."

He threw another punch, and I dumped him hard.

"That's a load and you know it. You're the honor student, you're the quarterback, and you're the big man around school. You're the one with the attitude, and you're the one coming at me."

That made him angry. This time he lunged and tried to grab me instead of punching. I backed up, and he only caught my gi top, but he got it with a good grab. I'd been sloppy with the ties, and he managed to yank the thing half off me. It was just in the way so I shrugged it off and left it in his hand. Bobby just froze up and goggled. Great. A redneck and a prude. I grabbed at the top myself and yanked it out of his hands. He went sprawling out on his face, so I took a moment to put my top back on while he got up.

We circled a little bit more, the talking done. I was tired of being on defense, and it was time to figure out what he could do. Bobby threw another right, a hook this time. I blocked it, kicked him in the chest, spun, and planted a back kick in his gut. I was careful and pulled the kicks, but they were still solid and he landed on his ass. If I hadn't pulled them he'd be down and out right now. It was pretty clear that he wasn't hiding anything -- he just wasn't that good.

I gave Bobby a disgusted look and walked over to the gymnastics equipment.

"Giving up," he wheezed, as he stood.

"Not even close," I replied. I probably could've kept the disgust out of my voice, but I didn't bother trying. There was a bag of chalk dust that the gymnasts use for traction or something over by the uneven bars. I opened it up, dusted up the tops of my feet and both my hands. I was trailing a little cloud of chalk as I walked back onto the mats.

"What I'm doing," I said, as I moved in a little closer, "is putting an end to this." And with that I moved in and let fly with a volley of kicks and punches, finishing with another leg sweep, only this time I helped him down to the ground with a palm on his chest. It was fast, taking maybe fifteen seconds, and only because I wanted to prove a point.

"Now," I said, "we're done."

Bobby looked down at himself. His chest was covered in chalk handprints and footprints, evidence of what would've been solid blows if I'd not pulled them. Far more than enough to have taken him down and put him in a hospital. Bobby might've been arrogant but he wasn't stupid, and I saw the blood drain from his face as he realized what exactly I hadn't done to him.

Without a word I stood and extended a hand to help him up. We were done, and we both knew it. I dusted my hands off, and turned to leave. As I opened the door to leave, it struck me what exactly was going on with Bobby and my top. He'd had that same stupid look on his face that most guys get when they're staring at girls' breasts, and there's only one reason you see that in a guy. Bobby was a closet case. My timing stunk though. The door was half-open when the thought had hit me, and so did the door. Right in the face.


"You ok?" The concern from Bobby was touching, and really out of character, but the pain in my face was a more immediate issue.

I turned to look at Bobby. He hadn't moved, still standing in the middle of the mats. "Yeah, fine. Walked into the door." I put my hand up to feel around. There was some blood from a cut on my eyebrow.

"Gonna have a shiner from that one," he said.

"And I'm sure everyone's going to believe I walked into a door, too."

Bobby cracked a smile at that, the first trace of humanity I'd seen in him. "Won't hear me say otherwise."

* * *

As I expected, the next day nobody believed I'd walked into a door, even when Bobby backed it up. That annoyed me some, though Bobby'd at least stopped giving me a hard time around school. Most of his cronies had picked up on that too, or were at least willing to grant a little respect to someone who stood up to Bobby's alleged fighting prowess and come away with just a black eye. Still, today was only marginally better than yesterday. I knew it was going to be a long year.

I'd stayed after school to use the music room, but I'd lost track of time practicing and it was getting dark by the time I finally bugged out of school. There were still a few cars out in the parking lot, though they were covered by the long shadows cast by the trees that ringed the lot. I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention as I walked out -- I was tired and hungry and just wanted to get home.

I should point out here that it's at times like these that I'm glad of Hollywood fight scenes. Those long, drawn out things you see on TV or in the movies, where everyone's dancing around, trading insults and witty banter, and throwing lots of punches? It's crap. Most fights you see in school are too. Those are just brawls between people who don't know what they're doing, or punch-ups on people who aren't fighting back. Real fights are nasty, brutish, and short. People still expect the theater, though. Fighting with people who do is nice, since those of us who don't think that way can end things quickly. Anyway.

"Going somewhere?" I heard, as someone grabbed me from behind and put me in a headlock. I got a whiff of stale beer breath just before someone else stepped out from behind one of the trees and hammered me in the gut, hard. I would've doubled over if I wasn't being held up by the guy behind me.

"Gonna teach this Yankee faggot a lesson," said someone else, and a second punch caught me hard in the ribs.

That was all I was going to give them. I didn't know who was doing this, and they caught me by surprise, but there was no way I was going to let myself get pummeled by anyone. I kicked up hard and caught the guy who hit me first in the chin with the side of my foot. I heard his mouth snap shut, and he started to crumple. Might've broken a couple of teeth or his jaw with that one, but he was definitely stunned. That left me with two.

Or, rather, three, as someone else started to move out from the trees. He wasn't close enough for me to care yet, but I needed to hurry, since three on one's a lot worse than two on one. I kicked out low with the other foot and connected with the kneecap of the second guy who hit me. I didn't have the leverage to break it, but it hurt and in the half-second he was off-guard I managed to jerk my left arm out of the grip of the guy who had me. He didn't let go, so I took the opportunity to keep the hold he had on my right arm, spin around him, and twist it up from behind. He gave out a strangled cry -- no surprise as that hold hurts when done right. I kicked him in the back of the left knee hard with my toe and as he dropped I made sure to hold on long enough to dislocate his shoulder. The popping sound wasn't pretty, but it took him out of the picture. Two down.

The two left looked nervous, but not nervous enough. I was hoping they'd run, but no luck. I was feeling the punches I took and didn't want to mess around any. The guy I'd caught in the kneecap was a little closer, and looked off. I stepped up fast, smacked him lightly in the throat, then brought my knee up into his crotch as hard as I could. His eyes bulged and he dropped.

As number three went down I drew my right leg up and let fly with a side kick at goon four. I caught him in the ribs and rocked him a little, but not enough. He was muscled up, I could feel that from the kick, which meant body blows wouldn't get me anywhere quick. I was in luck, though -- he threw a roundhouse left at me. I leaned back, grabbed his wrist and elbow as his fist went past, and slammed his forearm down on my knee as I brought it up. I heard at least one bone break as I did.

That was it. From start to finish it might've been twenty five seconds. These four didn't know what they were doing, and had no idea what they'd walked in to. Serves them right.

I heard footsteps running up behind me so I spun around, fists ready. It was Bobby, and as he saw me he drew up short and put his hands up. Figures he'd be here.

"You know these guys?"

Bobby looked down on them, his face in a grimace. "Yeah. Football team."

That just didn't surprise me. I guess getting his ass handed to him hadn't sat well with Bobby and he was looking for payback. Too bad for his buddies it didn't work out that way.

"Fine," I said, my voice harsh. Our eyes locked and I stared hard at him. "You deal with them."

Bobby just nodded, but didn't say anything. I didn't figure this'd go anywhere -- the last thing they'd want would be for word to get out as to how badly they'd screwed up, and if there were any cameras around it'd be damn clear they went first. The goons could deal on their own with the consequences of jumping me.

* * *

The next morning I was dealing with the consequences too. While I've been hurt worse before, I was still sore, and I had a nasty bruise on my right side. Matched the black eye, I guess. At least that was starting to fade. Ricky noticed that when I sat down in Trig first period.

Ricky's the only person I've actually said more than a handful of words to so far. He sat next to me in my first period trig class. The kid was smart, funny, and very outgoing, pretty much everything I wasn't. He'd gone out of his way to get to know me, something I was oddly grateful for.

"You OK?" he asked. He looked a little worried. "Bobby didn't hurt you too badly, did he?"

"I told you, Rick, I walked into a door." I was peevish and a little annoyed that everyone assumed Bobby connected, so I was a little louder than I should've been.

"Mister Payne," came the voice of doom from the front of the class, "since you are obviously familiar enough with the material that you don't need to pay attention, perhaps you can do the first homework problem on the board." Bitch.

I walked up and grabbed some chalk from the tray. My ribs twinged as I lifted my arm to start, and I winced.

"Fighting again, Mister Payne?" Her voice was thick with contempt. Geez, did everyone know about that?

"Mugged in the parking lot last night," I replied, as I started drawing triangles. There was a sharp intake of breath at that, but it wasn't from Mrs. Daniels. Standing in the door was some guy holding a manila folder, looked like he might've been a football player. His right arm was in a sling and strapped to his body. I stared at him, with my eyes narrowed. He paled.

"You might ask him if he saw anyone at the hospital last night," I said, pointing a thumb at the guy in the doorway but not breaking eye contact. "Four guys. Broken jaw, broken arm, dislocated shoulder, bruised nuts." He knew I knew it was him, and we both knew the score.

"N... no, nobody," he said. He was busted, though, and he knew it. So did everyone else in the room. The rumor mill would spread this around the school before the end of the day. Everyone would know, but nobody would say, which was fine with me.

"Give me that, Michaels," said Mrs. Daniels as she snatched the folder from him. She was probably the only one who wasn't sure what was going on, and she didn't much like it. Too bad. He left, I finished with my triangles and formulae, and sat back down.

"Who was that," I whispered at Ricky, as another victim was up at the board doing the next homework problem.

"That was Dan Michaels. He's second string something on the football team," Ricky whispered back. "Word is he and some of his friends got hurt pretty badly last night."

"Really," I said, with a smile. "I wonder what happened."

Ricky just shot me with a stare of his own. I didn't know how he was tapped into the school rumor mill, but in the few weeks that school'd been in session I knew he knew an awful lot about what was going on, and knew it quickly.

"Bullshit," he said. That was actually surprising, since I'd never heard Ricky swear. He was the quintessential brainy goody-two-shoes freshman, despite being a sophomore. Puberty hadn't yet been kind to him, at least in the obvious ways. Hearing him swear was disconcerting.

"Not much to tell. Got jumped yesterday in the parking lot by four guys. Someone grabbed me, someone else took a couple of swings, and then they all fell down." Ricky's eyes bugged out at that.

"Four? You got beat up by four guys?"

I was kinda embarrassed. "I wasn't beat up," I said. "They got in a pair of sucker punches in straight off, that's all. They didn't know what they were doing."

"Wow..." whispered Ricky. He seemed impressed, but I couldn't really figure why.

"Mister Barker!" The voice of doom cracked down on us again. Ricky had a reputation as the teacher's pet, but I guess I was tarnishing that for him. "I hope this discussion involves mathematics!"

"We were just discussing starting a self-defense class," I threw in. "Since there seems to be some violence in the school this year." I have no idea why I said that. I think it might've been the first time ever I volunteered anything anywhere.

"This is not the place for that sort of thing, Mister Payne." So I dropped it.

* * *

Ricky grabbed me on the way out of class. "Were you serious about the self-defense thing?"

I gave it a thought. I wasn't sure I could teach -- I could do the moves, but doing the moves and teaching the moves were two different things, and I wasn't at all good with people. Still, I'd sort of promised. "Yeah, sure," I replied. "I'll talk to one of the coaches and set things up."

A thought occurred, as I noticed people in the halls scowling at me. Bobby'd tried to get even for losing. I couldn't just go and kick his ass again, but I could get even with the closet case. "But I need a favor from you, too. Do you know anyone with taste?"

* * *

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