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Happily Ever After

By Caro Roberts

I love Cinderella
'Cause every time that it ends
Somebody gets a fella
Time and again
And the moral of the story is
For everyone there's a love that fits

But it was all
Nothing but a fairytale
Never comin' true
It was all
Nothing but a fairytale
Until I found you
- "Fairytale", Trisha Yearwood


Elle frowned hard at the canvas in front of her, trying to decide on just the right shading. In her experience, it was vastly better to decide such things before she applied the paint to the sketch already on the canvas, but perhaps this time she'd try something a little more spontaneous--

There was a knock on her door. "Come in."

Sierra pushed the door open and wandered in. Elle glanced over at her as she sat down on the bed. "How are you?"

"Fine..." Sierra answered a little dreamily, a rather starry-eyed expression on her face. Elle sighed.

"I'm surprised you managed to tear yourself away from Flash long enough to come see me."

"He had to help his mom move some things in the Archive," she admitted.

"I thought so."

"Anyway. A whole group of us are planning to go out tonight, I just thought I'd drop by to make sure that you're coming."

"Sierra..." Elle shook her head. "You know I hate crowds--"

"It won't be a crowd! It'll just be us! Your friends! We're just going to grab a pizza and go see a movie. Come on, it'll be fun."

"Who's going?"

"Well, me, Rain, Felicity, Bayard, Flash... possibly Tam and Tasmin, they haven't gotten back to me yet. Even Jayla and Kwame are coming. Come on, Elle, you have to come with us! Jayla said she'd only come if you would."

"Jayla is manipulating me," Elle stated calmly. "And she knows it. So are you, for that matter." She set down her palette and turned to the other woman. "None of you are going to leave me alone until I agree, are you?"

Sierra grinned. "Not likely."

"And if I turn you down, I can expect visits from Jayla and Felicity later, can't I?"

"Yep."

"Then fine. I'll come. I'll sacrifice an evening for the sake of my sanity."

"Good!" Sierra jumped up to give her a hug, then paused and looked at the portrait Elle had been working on. "Who's that? He looks familiar, but I can't place him..."

Elle smiled slightly. "Oh... it's no one special..." She picked up her palette again again, changing the subject back. "I'm surprised you and Flash even want to go out. I wasn't under the impression that newlyweds got out much."

Sierra flushed but smiled. "We don't want to neglect our other friends. And besides..." Both her flush and her grin deepened. "It's probably going to be a romance movie in a nice, dark holo-theater..."

"Ah. I see. Your ulterior motive is revealed. Just try not to moan so loudly that you disturb those of us who are actually interested in what's going on on the screen."

"Tease me all you want, Elle, it'll just make my revenge that much sweeter when you start coming out of holo-theaters with no idea what the movie was about."

"You'll be waiting awhile, Sierra, I very much doubt that that will ever happen."

"We'll see. I'm sure you'll find a lover sooner or later."

"Or later," Elle snorted. "I'm 'the freak', remember?"

"Elle!"

"I know, I know... but that's what they call me. I'm eighteen, Sierra, and no one has ever, ever been interested in me. I know you didn't start dating Flash until you were eighteen, but that was different. If you'd wanted to, you could have had other boyfriends, you just weren't interested. It wouldn't matter if I was interested or not, because there's no one who would ever want to be with me."

Sierra was about to object to that, loudly and forcibly, when she happened to notice the portrait. Working almost on autopilot, Elle's hands had started coloring in the painting. Not all of the colors and details had been added yet, but enough were there to make the person depicted recognizable. Sierra grinned. "That's Kwame, isn't it?"

Elle flushed, and her abnormally thin feathers made her blush even more obvious. "Well... yes..."

Sierra raised an eyebrow at the blush, then her grin widened knowingly. "You like him, don't you?"

"Sierra!" Her blush doubled, creeping down her neck and disappearing down her shirt collar, continuing who knew how far. "That's ridiculous! He's just a friend!"

"Uh... huh... whatever you say." A vicious little twinkle was lurking in the Sierra's eyes. "Then I suppose it doesn't matter to you that he's coming tonight. No, of course not, that had nothing to do with your accepting the invitation. Right. Well. I'll let you finish the painting... and if you'd like to borrow a nice perfume, be sure to come over later, I'll let you borrow some of mine. Flash can't resist it, either." She laughed and walked out before Elle could find a reply... or throw a paint pot after her.

*****

"Knock knock." Elle pushed open the door to Kwame's quarters. "Hi."

He turned his head in her direction automatically. "Hi. Felicity gave me a new book to try, since we finished the last one. She didn't tell me what it was about, though." He retrieved the rather thick-looking book from a shelf and handed it to Elle. She read the title and flushed, glad he couldn't see the expression on her face.

The Fire Rose... oh, no, oh no oh no oh no... She'd read this book before, she knew what it was about. A duck who mangled his body in an experiment gone wrong hires a young woman to read his books to him through an intercom and ends up falling in love with her. The parallels were too obvious to be ignored. Sierra must have told her, and then they picked this one. Oh, how could they? She noticed then that her chair had been pulled a lot closer to Kwame's than usual.

"Well?"

She realized abruptly that he'd been talking to her. "Sorry, I tuned out for a minute there. Say that again?"

"I said, have you read the book before, and is it any good?"

"Oh..." Should I tell him that I have read it before? Then he might think that I had something to do with choosing it. But if I say I haven't and then accidentally let on later that I have... Sierra, Felicity, how could you do this to me? "Yes, I have," she admitted. "A long time ago."

"Was it any good?"

"Well... yes, I suppose. Not as good as some of the author's other works, though, it lacks some of the artistry of her other books. I could get one of the others--"

"No, Felicity must have chosen this one for a reason, let's try it first."

Oh, she chose it for a reason, all right! "All right." She sat down next to him, noting that when they assumed their usual positions, facing toward each other, they were almost touching. She scooted her chair back a bit unobtrusively, then flipped open to the first page and started reading aloud.

She could feel him studying her, and that made her nervous and uncomfortable. She hadn't even gotten halfway through the first chapter when he stopped her. "You're upset, aren't you?"

"Me? Upset?" She tried to laugh. "No, of course not!"

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"You seem frustrated." He reached across and, after pawing the air for a moment, located her hand and patted it encouragingly. It wasn't anything abnormal, he did that often, but that day it made her blush. Elle had to force herself not to pull back; she was always conscious about her miss-formed hands and she had trouble letting anyone touch them.

"It's been a long day."

"What happened?"

"Oh..." She tried to think of a cover-up topic. "Sierra dropped by earlier to make sure I was going out with everyone tonight. I didn't want to go, but I agreed, just to keep her happy. She said that you were coming, had you been informed of that yet?"

He laughed softly. "Yes, Felicity was good enough to tell me that I was going. I suppose I don't mind."

"Oh." She shifted around. "If you don't mind my asking, Kwame... why do you want to go to a movie?"

"I can hear the dialog, at least. It's not so bad, Elle."

"Mmm." She picked up the book again and resumed reading. He was quiet the whole time. She knew that he knew she was still upset, but he wasn't going to force it out of her, for which she was grateful. She felt unreasonably conscious of his presence, of his nearness, of the way he was mentally analyzing her voice and movement and general presence, trying to figure out what was wrong. Elle was very grateful that he couldn't see the blush that she knew was spread all over her face.

Finally, it was time to stop, and she put the book down thankfully. "I gotta go," she told him with genuine regret, standing. "If I can, I'll come back later."

"All right." He stood with her and walked her to the door, then paused. For a moment he looked like he was about to say something, but changed his mind and didn't. Elle fled, her face burning.

How could they do that. How could they do that to me? She decided then and there to seek the conspirators out and confront them. It made sense that Sierra would be in the infirmary, working, but Elle knew she couldn't go there. Her parents would probably be there, and if her mother saw her, she'd know in a second that something was wrong. And she'd find out, too, I can't keep anything from her. She didn't feel quite up to telling anyone yet, so she detoured away from the infirmary. They're in Felicity's room, I'll bet, plotting how they're going to get us together. Well we'll just see about that. She marched up to B15 and walked in without knocking. Sure enough, both Felicity and Sierra were there, and they looked up as she came in. Felicity gave her a smile that was more than half-way a smirk.

"So, Elle... how does Kwame like the book I gave him?"

Elle ignored her and turned to look at Sierra. "Sierra, how could you?" Now that the humiliation was fading, her anger was being replaced by hurt. "How could you tell? I told you because I trusted you. Jayla doesn't even know yet! The only reason I felt safe enough to care for him was because I knew he would never find out, he would never return it. And that book-- I've read that book, I know what it's about... You might as well have put it up in neon lights! I don't think he's picked up on it yet, since we've barely started, but he does know something's wrong... How can I go out with him tonight? No, I can't, I can't, I'm not going out tonight, you can just go without me!"

"Elle--" Sierra started, but Elle left, slamming the door behind her. Sierra and Felicity looked at each other in helpless horror.

*****

"Elle? Ella?" Sierra rapped on the door again, biting her lower lip nervously. "I know you're in there... Come on, at least let me apologize."

The following pause was so long that Sierra was afraid Elle was going to ignore her, again. She was just getting to repeat her knock when Elle's voice, tired and strained, carried through the door. "Maybe later, Sierra. Right now I'd just-- rather be alone."

"Elle, I'm so sorry-- I'll just stand out in the hall and apologize, I can't believe I was so cruel--"

"Sierra, I'm tired, and I've got a pounding headache. Please, leave me be, all right? Go out tonight and have fun."

Fat chance, Sierra thought bitterly, but chose not to further intrude on her adopted little sister's privacy. Huh, it's a fine time to think of that. "I'll... come back later."

"All right. Bye."

"Bye." Sierra walked away, her shoulders slumping slightly.

*****

One Month Later

Elle checked herself in front of the mirror one more time, absently reaching up to tuck a strand of hair back into the loose knot she'd tried to pull it into. Unfortunately, her hair was so fine that doing anything with it seemed to require literally bottles of hair spray, so she tended to just let it float around her like a light, airy cloud. Tonight, though, she'd taken special pains with her appearance, even though she knew it didn't really matter. It's the thought that counts, she mused sadly, dabbing a bit of perfume on her neck. Just a tiny bit, because strong scents would bother her later, and there was going to be plenty of perfume floating around, anyway.

The expected tap on her door came, and she turned in a swirl of skirts, hurrying with almost unbecoming eagerness to open the door. "I'm coming!" She had composed herself again by the time she opened the door, smiling at Kwame and stepping out into the hallway. "Hi." She felt a sudden flush of shyness and didn't quite look at him, but he couldn't tell that, of course.

"Hi. Are you ready?"

"Yes." She touched the back of his hand gently to signal that she was going, and he fell into step beside her. The walk down to the Mess Hall was nearly silent, but it was a comfortable silence. For once, Elle thought with a slight twist of her beak that didn't quite make it all the way to a smile. The silences between them had been becoming more and more awkward lately. And whose fault is that?

They turned into the Mess Hall-turned-Festival Room, and were nearly blown off their feet by the sudden blast of music and conversation. Elle reached out and grasped his hand-- perhaps a bit more firmly then necessary-- and steered him inside. "Are you sure about this?" she whispered undercover of the noise. He squeezed her hand, giving her a flush of pleasure, and nodded.

"I'm sure."

"All right..." In the press of the crowd, they quickly discovered that she couldn't guide him properly by holding just his hand. "Kwame, I think I should... maybe... I mean..."

Kwame seemed to understand what she was trying to say and nodded. "Go ahead, if it's easier for you."

It wasn't easier for her, not by a long shot, but it was necessary, and so she put an arm that shook slightly around him. He didn't seem to react to her touch, and Elle wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. She steered him easily through the crowd until they were both safely a little out of the way, helping him into a chair that she'd dragged over before sitting down next to him. They sat in near silence, soaking up the festivities around them, and after awhile Elle drifted off into her own thoughts.

She was almost uncomfortably aware of how close he was to her. They'd been friends quite literally since they'd been born, their mothers had often put them in the same crib while they visited. That wasn't all that uncommon in the Lair, but Kwame was the only guy anywhere near her age that she could even look at without wanting to flee, much less hold an actual conversation with. When she was fifteen she'd vaguely realized that she was starting to think of him as more than just a friend, and by sixteen she was head over heels in love with him. It was bound to happen sooner or later, she thought with another dry twist of her misshaped beak. I wouldn't have had any material for my works, otherwise. She had a rather romantic soul-- she supposed that all artists did, to some extent or another-- and it had only been a matter of time before those amorous leanings found someone to attach themselves to. Thus she'd put it down as a childish crush and had prepared to ignore it until it burned itself out, which was a perfectly sound plan. The only flaw in it was that her feelings hadn't burned away, they'd only gotten stronger, and now, two years later, she still adored him. He had no idea, and she liked it that way-- she thought.

The past two years had certainly been... interesting. Sometimes she was glad he had no idea how she felt about him, knowing that if he'd known, she would have become so shy and awkward that even their friendship would have deteriorated. Other times she had longed for him to know, for him to hold her and tell her he loved her and-- She cut the thought off abruptly.

At any rate, she'd been fairly content with the state of things up to this point. After all, the only thing more romantic than mad, passionate love was mad, passionate, unrequited love. She would have been satisfied for things to remain in that state indefinitely.

But now her friends knew, and that changed the entire situation. Now she knew that Sierra and Felicity and-- who knew?-- possibly even Jayla as well would be taking every opportunity to get them together. Oh, Elle knew her friends meant well, that they were of the opinion that she needed someone to love, and that Kwame needed the same, but it would never work. Thanks to their unwanted attention and thinly-veiled attempts at matchmaking, Elle was finding herself more and more awkward around Kwame, and he was getting more and more confused by that awkwardness. Too much longer, and he'd realize what was going on-- if he hadn't already. He was becoming conveniently oblivious to her stammers and hesitations, not pressing her or trying to find out what was wrong, and that was very un-Kwame-like. It was possible that, for whatever reason, he just hadn't noticed, but it also suggested that he knew, to some extent at least, what was going on. That thought never failed to clamp an icy hand around Elle's stomach. If he knew how she felt...

"Elle?"

She came back to reality with a start as he touched the back of her hand. "Y-yes?"

"What's wrong?" There was so much concern in his voice that she wanted so badly to tell him...

"Nothing." Her face was uncomfortably warm, and an overwhelming desire to leave landed on her like a semitruck. "Kwame, I-I really don't feel well, I think maybe I should leave--"

She started to stand, but his hand grasped hers and she hesitated. "Wait... I'd rather you stayed."

Another flush of pleasure. "If-- If you want me to stay, of course I will." She sat back down, but didn't let go of his hand. In fact, as he didn't seem to be pulling away, she took a deep breath and dared to tighten her grip and move a little closer. What am I doing? I've heard that being a crowd can make people do strange things... I should let go... I should... really...

"Thank you." He smiled gently at her, and she basked in the warmth of it. She vaguely surprised that he didn't seem to want her to let go of him. Part of her wanted to move even closer, but she didn't have the courage to do that. Not yet, at least.

Someone moved by, bumping into her chair and unbalancing her, and Elle had to grab onto his arm to stay upright. Once steady, she realized abruptly that she was still holding onto him and gasped, but didn't release him. "I'm sorry-- someone bumped into me--"

"No, no, it's all right." He reached up to touch the hand on his shoulder. "Are you? Ah, are you okay?"

For a moment, she felt like replying "I am now." Oh, now that's just too cliche. I feel like I'm in some dime-store novel. Let's see, all I need now is some cad to come up and try to abscond with me, and the cast of characters will be complete! She swallowed a slightly nervous giggle, forcing her voice to be close to normal when she answered. "I'm fine. All he did was bump my chair and throw me a bit off balance. I'm fine," she repeated, more to reassure herself than to reassure him, still holding onto him with no intention of letting go, unless he indicated that he wanted her to.

"Are you sure?" he asked, still concerned, and it seemed not just over her fall. He hadn't taken his hand off hers, she noticed, watching his four fingers resting lightly on her five. At any other time, she would have been worried and self-conscious, but right then it didn't seem to matter.

"I--" She looked up, then stopped abruptly at the look on his face. She knew him as well as she knew herself, and she recognized that expression in a heartbeat. He knows. He knows. Of all the horrors she'd feared encountering, this one was the worst. She looked down at their hands again, and realized that she was actually touching him, with those hideous, deformed hands -- Her face burning with shame and humiliation, she jerked herself away. "I'm sure." The tone was different from any she'd ever used on him before, and he withdrew without comment. Silence descended between them, and this time it was not just awkward, there was a wall forming between them, one that had never been there before.

What would a cheap heroine do right now? Probably begin weeping uncontrollably, giving her hero the opportunity to comfort her.

Elle did feel like crying, but not just at the shame smothering her. No, it was the almost-palatable wall between them that made her want to weep. Her face was on fire from shame. "Kwame-- I-- I--" Nothing would come out. "I'm really feeling awfully tired, Kwame," she heard her own voice saying, "I'm going to bed. Good night." She got up and walked away, hardly hearing his confused and rather hurt reply, in such a haze of horror and shame that she barely knew what was going on around her.

Once she was out in the hall, she kept up her calm, measured walk, instead of running, even though she felt like just sprinting to her room and slamming the door. A paperback novel woman would undoubtably run away-- even in full skirts and heels, doubtless without tripping once-- so that her hero could run after her, catch her, and promise his undying love and devotion to her. Why do I keep comparing this to cheap romance novels? Probably because in those everyone lives happily ever after. The villain is properly vanquished, no one ever dies, and the lady and the hero are happy together and madly in love for the rest of their days. It only goes to show how far real life is divorced from books. Elle reached her quarters and eased the door shut behind her before going to the mirror and staring hard at herself. The washed-out, pale, limp blonde hair that was even now tumbling out of its confines-- the hideously large, vacant blue eyes-- the repulsive, twisted, malformed beak-- and worst, worst of all, the freakish, deformed hands that shamed her every waking moment--

Tears formed in the soft eyes that were neither hideous nor vacant, then spilled over, making tracks across her scarlet cheeks before dripping onto her pale blue gown, one of the few colors that didn't make her look like a ghost. She put her head down on her hands and started sobbing weakly. I can never face him again after this... never... never... After awhile, she was asleep, slumped on her desk, with tears lingering on her face.

*****

The first thing Elle was aware of, when she woke up, was that her body ached terribly. She'd been slumped forward on her desk all night, and now her shoulders, neck, and back were letting her know about it, as loudly as possible. She sat up with a small groan, noting in the mirror that her eyes were red, her face was tear stained, her hair looked like she'd just been out for a walk in a hurricane, and her gown was a wrinkled mess.

She was wondering what had made her wake up when she heard it again: a soft knock on her door.

"Darn it," she said with vehemence, wishing that she swore. It could be anyone. Maybe one of her friends had noted her abrupt departure last night. Maybe one of her parents had realized that she wasn't up yet. Maybe it was even Kwame-- no, no, it can't be him, he'd never want to see me again...

She got up-- slowly, as she discovered a thousand new aches and pains associated with sleeping in awkward positions-- and hobbled for the door. "Coming," she called, horrified with how raw her voice was. If she'd ever had any hope of convincing whoever-it-was that she was all right, she lost it then. She opened the door--

--And came face-to-face with Kwame.

Of course. It couldn't have happened any other way. "K-Kwame," she stammered, painfully aware of how hoarse she sounded. "I didn't expect-- I didn't-- didn't think you'd want to see me... I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me, I was stupid, I'm so sorry--"

"Shh, hush." He cut her off by reaching out and touching her face gently. "It's okay."

"No, it's not, I should never have snapped at you that way. I'm so sorry." His hand lingered for just a moment longer than necessary before moving down to her shoulder, and she almost instinctively put her hand over his.

"No, it is. I'm sorry, I should have let you go before. I know..." He paused, as if he'd been about to say something else, then changed his mind. "I know how crowds tire you out, it was thoughtless of me."

"If you could stand it, I certainly should have been able to. Um..." She paused, realizing that they were still standing out in the hall. "Come inside," she added shyly, taking his hand and drawing him inside, to the bed. There were other chairs in the room, and he knew his way around well enough that he didn't need to be guided, but the bed was the only piece of furniture wide enough for them to sit side-by-side on. Elle had a feeling they'd want to be close for this conversation. Or that could just be my own desires. Either way.

If Kwame was surprised at her choice of places to sit, he didn't mention it. In fact, he didn't respond at all for a moment, and she continued hesitantly, "Maybe... maybe next time we'll skip the festival and go somewhere where there aren't as many people." The instant the words were out, she realized how very badly that had been phrased and her free hand flew to her mouth. Oh, that wasn't supposed to sound so much like an invitation! She was dreadfully afraid she'd offended him, that he'd be repulsed, that he might get up and leave--

"Maybe," he said quietly, with absolutely no sign that he'd been anything but pleased by her suggestion. "I'd like that."

Elle was so shocked that for a moment, what he'd said didn't quite sink in. "You-- you would?" Then she realized how absolutely inane that had sounded and tried to recover herself, but words failed her. I'm sounding like such a love-sick idiot... Hmph, I am a love-sick idiot! He knows, anyway, I don't know why I'm bothering to pretend not to... Oh, darn it, I can't stand this any more. Very, very cautiously, she lifted his hand and kissed it softly. Then she quickly started to let go, her cheeks flaming at her own audacity. Oh, that was stupid, this is becoming more and more like a trashy dime-store novel and I don't want that!

To her further shock but incredible pleasure, Kwame smiled gently and cupped both his hands around hers, not letting her draw her fingers away. For a moment, there was a deep, very profound silence between them that spoke volumes. Or... maybe I do want that... This must be a dream, and I'm going to wake up-- but I don't want to, I really don't want to.

He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek. "Has it taken you this long, Elle?"

She put her free hand over his, keeping it there. "I-- how long have you known?"

"Almost a year-- ten months, give or take."

Her heart was hammering so loud she was surprised he couldn't hear it. Part of her mourned the fact that they could have spent the past year together, but mostly she was in too much of a happy haze to care. She cast her eyes shyly down to their still-linked hands, even though she knew he couldn't tell where her gaze was. "I... I thought you'd never want-- no one could ever want someone like me."

Kwame smiled at her without a hint of bitterness. "Most people would say that about me."

She flew to his defense automatically. "But-- but that's not true--"

"Isn't it?"

"No-- I mean--" Somehow he managed to give her a too-knowing look, and she was forced to concede, "Well, maybe... but Kwame... I... you..."

"Hush." He rubbed her cheek gently and she leaned her face into his touch. "You weren't ready."

"Neither were you."

"No."

"But we are now."

"Yes."

A minimalist conversation, perhaps, but it said all they needed to. Still moving cautiously, as if still suspecting that this was a dream, Elle leaned against his side, resting her head on his shoulder, and felt a thrill of unexpected delight as he put an arm lightly around her. She reached an uncertain finger up to brush his face. "I love you."

"I know. I love you too."

All right, now I know this is a dream. This is impossible, no one could want to be with me, but he does... it must be a dream. Mmm, but I don't ever intend to wake up. I'll just sleep forever, thank you. This isn't some paperback romance, this is a scene right out of Drakespeare. There was an expectant pause, during which she tried to find something appropriate to say, and came up with nothing better than, "I'm so glad we finally came out and said it." Elle even managed a light laugh. "I'm going to have to actually thank Sierra for meddling. If she hadn't forced things to a head, I'd still be mooning over you in private. Two years..." She reached up and ran a hand through his deep blue hair, thinking about the contrast with her pale blonde. He was twining a few strands of hers through his fingers, and only made a thoughtful "Mmm" in reply. She smiled and allowed herself to relax a little bit more against him. "In a way, I'm almost glad it took this long."

He turned his head slightly, until he was more-or-less looking down at her. "Oh?"

"Yes. At least I know that... I'm sure." Her smile faded into an expression of uncertainty that found its way into her voice. "Are you sure? Because if you're just doing this for me--" She started to sit up, but at a little gentle pressure from his hand leaned against him again.

"I'm sure." His hand came up to touch her face. "I'm very sure."

"Mmmm..." She yawned hugely and flexed her tired, sore muscles, finally coming down off her emotionally-charged state enough to feel tired. He smiled gently and took her hand.

"Tired?"

"Mmm, yeah. I didn't get much sleep last night."

"Get some now." He started to stand up and she reluctantly allowed him to. "I'll come back later."

"All right." She was too tired to object, already thinking about slipping out of the confines of her dress and crawling into a nightgown for a least a few hours' rest. "Kwame..."

He paused at the door and looked back at her so directly that, if she hadn't known he wasn't seeing her, she wouldn't even have guessed. "Yes?"

"I love you."

Another quiet, gentle smile. "I love you too."

She returned the smile and, as soon as he was gone, changed and fell into her first deeply restful sleep in days.

 

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