by Randi DuMois
It was a hot dusty day and the battle raged across the common area of the tumbledown little village. Hercules and Iolaus were fighting back to back, surrounded by a ring of mangy, filthy but well-armed men. Passing through on their way home from Epidaurus, they hadn't known about the bandits and hadn't expected to spend their afternoon this way, but it had certainly made a counterpoint to an otherwise relaxing trip. Heartened by the presence of the two men, the beleaguered villagers had come out to help, attacking the bandits with pitchforks, axes, and whatever else was handy.
Iolaus parried a swordstroke aimed at Hercules' back, ducked a quarterstaff leveled at his own head and slammed his swordhilt into a bandit's face, knocking him senseless. "Is my timing off?" he asked Hercules.
Hercules flipped a bandit onto the roof of the hut behind them. "Maybe, but I think that was my fault when I almost pushed that wagon over onto you."
"No, I was off before that-- Damn, they're setting fire to the barn. I'll be over there."
"Right." As Iolaus spun off to fight his way across the square, Hercules slammed two bandits together and whirled to face five more. He twirled the heavy stick he held invitingly and all five charged him.
From what the village headman had been able to tell Hercules before the bandits attacked, the leader was a particularly foul character called Nabis. While Hercules had been away from Greece so much this season, Nabis had set up a stronghold near the village on the Tenean road and proceeded to assault, kill, and exact tolls from travellers, plus terrorizing the local people. Nabis must also have sprung fully-formed from a lump of granite if he thought no one would be along to do anything about him sooner or later.
Hercules caught the first club to come at him on the stick, yanked it out of the wielder's hands, ducked aside from a swordstroke, kicked, whirled and punched. Iolaus is right, we're a little off today, he thought. They had resolved a lot of issues on this brief trip but Hercules still had the feeling that something was subtly out of synch between them. He was having trouble keeping track of Iolaus' lightning quick movements and he knew Iolaus was having similar trouble keeping track of him. Earlier this had led to Hercules almost flattening Iolaus with a large bandit he had had to fling across the clearing; fortunately his partner had dodged in time and they had escaped that embarrassment. Maybe we just need practice. Hercules sidestepped a sarissa someone thrust at him and slammed another man into the wall of the wellhouse. With this outbreak of bandits, they would certainly get it.
"Leave him to me, he's mine!" The men around Hercules drew back as what had to be Nabis himself finally deigned to appear.
He was big, nearly Hercules' height, with matted hair and a sword scar from his right eye to his mouth. Nabis twirled his sword and grinned nastily, showing a truly disgusting array of missing and yellowed teeth. "So you're Hercules?" he growled.
"That's what they say." It was what they all said.
"You don't look like much."
"Uh huh." I could have this conversation in my sleep, Hercules thought with a grin. One day one of them would say something original.
"That little blond piece of ass you travel with sounds like just my type."
Still no originality. Hercules rolled his eyes and said dryly, "Is that so." Warrior-companions were expected to sleep together, it was traditional. But the fact that he and Iolaus were demigod and mortal had made some people view it differently. For some reason he had never been able to fathom morons like Nabis expected Iolaus to be dependant and somehow weak; maybe because they expected Hercules as a half god to be possessive and tyrannical. He had always thought it very unfair; Achilles and Patroclus had never had to put up with this kind of crap.
Perhaps frustrated at his inability to provoke an angry response, Nabis continued, "Once I finish with you I'll save him all for myself. If he's good enough for a big hero's bed, then maybe he'll be good enough for mine. At least for the once, before I give him to my men."
Hercules' brows lifted. He said mildly, "Oh, you're going to be sorry you said that."
Nabis grinned. "You going to make me sorry?"
"I doubt there'll be anything left of you for me." The demigod stepped back, tossing his stick aside and folding his arms.
Nabis studied him suspiciously. "What's this?"
"Hey," a hoarse voice said from behind him. "Looking for me?"
Nabis spun around to see the blond piece of ass behind him in a fighter's crouch, his sword pointed at the bandit leader's throat. Iolaus was breathing hard, his chest marked with sweat and grime and a few splashes of his opponents' blood. His eyes were alight with a combination of raging fury and wicked anticipation that would have caused any sane man to drop his sword and bolt for his life. Nabis just growled and charged.
"I'll be over here," Hercules said, strolling off to deal with the rest of the bandits.
The fight petered out after that, as Hercules and the villagers took care of the few remaining ambulatory combatants and chased down the ones that bolted when they saw what was happening to Nabis.
"Just keep an eye on them until the garrison from Tenea gets here," Hercules told the headman Agis as he hauled the last pair of hogtied bandits into the barn. A group of battle-weary but determined villagers had volunteered to guard the prisoners until their messengers returned with help.
"Thank the gods you and Iolaus came by when you did," Agis said in relief. The old man looked distractedly around the square, wiping the sweat off his brow. "Ah, your friend seems...."
Not far away, Iolaus had the bandit leader face down in a scattering of horse manure, his knee planted firmly in the man's neck. With Nabis' arm twisted into an easily breakable position, Iolaus was methodically snapping the man's fingers, ignoring his struggling and cursing. Hercules heard Iolaus say, "I've got nice eyes, too, I didn't hear you say one word about that. How do you think that makes me feel?"
Hercules nodded. "Yeah, I should, uh.... See if he's done."
It was late afternoon by the time they left the village, heading up into the forested hills above it to make for one of their favorite camping spots along this route. Iolaus, usually bouncing with leftover energy and excitement after a battle, was oddly quiet. Yeah, we still need to talk, Hercules thought. A few days ago Iolaus had unexpectedly run into the Iolaus from the Sovereign's world before Hercules had had a chance to tell him about the other man's presence here, and it had been something of a surprise. Well, more like a shock. Already struggling with the nightmares and memories left to him by Dahak, Iolaus hadn't needed that to deal with too. They had resolved a lot of it on this trip but Hercules meant to make sure Iolaus wasn't harboring any lingering doubts; he didn't want this coming between them in any way. He drew breath to speak just as Iolaus said, "Hey, I'm going to split off, see if I can't find something for dinner."
"Uh...all right." Hercules absently accepted Iolaus' pack and scabbarded sword. This isn't putting things off; we've got to eat. Maybe it was putting it off. It had been brought home to him recently that he had a problem with putting off conversations he was uncomfortable with. He was determined not to do it this time. He stopped and looked back. "Iolaus, wait."
"Huh?" Iolaus paused in the brush at the edge of the trees, practically twitching with impatience. He had appropriated a hunting bow and a quiver of arrows from the bandits' stockpile and Hercules realized this was the first time he had had a chance to go hunting alone since they had returned to Greece. Since Iolaus had returned to life.
No, better not. "Get some quail."
Iolaus snorted. "You want to order dinner, go to a tavern."
While his partner headed off through the woods Hercules followed the ridge up to a place where the rock formed a sheltered hollow. It was heavily overhung by trees on the rise above and looked down on the terraced steps of the forest that fell away below. The shadows were deep under the green canopy and the spot was well screened from the wind that bent the tops of the pines further up the mountain. Hercules deposited their packs under the overhang and propped Iolaus' scabbarded sword up against the rock. He had always liked this place; it felt both protected and open.
By the time Hercules had gathered wood for the night, brought water from the stream trickling down the nearby gully, and built a fire, Iolaus strolled into camp.
"That was quick," he said as his partner dropped the brace of quail beside the firepit.
Iolaus flashed him a grin. "There's game everywhere. Nabis' bunch must have kept all the travellers off that road for a month." He dropped his quiver near their packs and then bent the bow to unstring it.
Hercules shook his head, wincing with guilt. He couldn't believe things in Greece had gone downhill so quickly while he had been gone. Perseus and most of the other heroes only concerned themselves with monsters and other flashy menaces; bandits and petty tyrants and other threats to ordinary people tended to go unnoticed by them. Digging in his pack for a knife to gut the birds, Hercules said ruefully, "I lost a lot of ground for us last year; we're going to have some catching up to do."
"So we're going to be busy. What else is new?" Iolaus sat on his heels beside the fire, looking out at the woods where the shadows deepened in the fading light. He had a preoccupied expression and it didn't seem as if the brief foray had improved his mood much. We can talk while I'm making dinner, Hercules told himself. No, maybe it would be better to wait until after. With a full stomach Iolaus might go back to being his normal talkative self.
While Hercules was still debating it, Iolaus blew out a breath and shook his head as if coming to some decision. Frowning, he said, "Hey, Herc, do me a favor."
Hercules looked up, worried. "What?"
Iolaus jerked his chin at the quail. "No rosemary."
Later the setting sun changed the sky to a rich purple and the stars were just coming out. They had had a good dinner of quail and the bread, olives, and cheese the villagers had given them and it had been a quiet evening, just cool enough to make the fire welcome. The breeze moving through the trees below made the leaves whisper like gossiping dryads and the air had the sharp scent of pine. Hercules decided he couldn't put it off any longer. There just wasn't going to be a better time. He added another stick of wood to the fire and plunged into the conversation with, "You seemed bothered this afternoon, after the battle. Did something happen I didn't notice?"
Iolaus shrugged, not looking up from sharpening his skinning knife. "I've just been thinking lately, about the past. About Ania and the boys and how things used to be."
Hercules nodded, understanding. "I think about Deineira and the kids...a lot. It doesn't matter how long it's been, it doesn't get any easier."
"I'm just starting to feel like I'm never going to get married again, never have a family." Iolaus snorted wryly. "Unless I meet an Amazon who's ready to have kids and just needs somebody for stud service."
"I've thought about that too," Hercules admitted. Amazons often chose warriors when they wanted children, taking the girls to raise in their tribe and giving the boys to the father. He and Iolaus knew a lot of Amazons, but it had always seemed a barren sort of compromise, something for lonely warriors who were hovering on the brink of old age. It might come to that eventually, but.... "But it would mean giving up any girls, and I don't think I could do that."
"Yeah, that would be hard," Iolaus admitted. He ran the sharpening stone down the blade one more time, testing the edge with his thumb. He knew how much Hercules had loved his daughter. He wasn't sure how he would feel about giving up the girls either. With your luck, there wouldn't be any boys and you still wouldn't have a family or a hearth to call your own. He added, "It wouldn't have made Alcmene very happy either. She wanted a daughter-in-law."
"She missed Deineira and Ania a lot too," Hercules said, lost in his own reflections for a moment. "I wish I'd had a chance to bring Serena home to meet her." He took a sharp breath and shook his head, realizing that instead of talking Iolaus out of his mood he had just managed to depress himself too.
Iolaus wiped the knife off on his pants, then sheathed it and pulled out the fighting blade. "Yeah, she would have liked that." He hadn't approved of the marriage to Serena at first; anything that meant Hercules giving up his demigod powers, especially at Ares' instigation, just had to be wrong. Well, it had been wrong and Serena had ended up the innocent victim of Strife's plot. At least she isn't really dead, he thought, trying to look on the bright side. No, she and Hemnor and their other friends in Cerynia just had no memory of them, and the village where they had spent so much time was just another place that had been a home and wasn't anymore. Even more dejected, he sighed and looked out into the dark woods.
"Don't give up yet," Hercules told him, shaking his own mood off. "You could meet somebody tomorrow. What about your other girlfriends?" His brows lifted. "Hey, we're not far from the road to Scyros, why don't we stop there and see Dirce? I'm not saying you should get married, but maybe just spending a few days with her would make you feel better."
Iolaus winced. "After what happened with Dahak.... I just feel I shouldn't--" Frustrated, he ran a hand through his hair, trying to think of a way to explain. "I'd feel obligated to tell her about it. Dirce, Danielle, Moira, the others, they think they know me and--" He broke off. He couldn't face telling somebody like Dirce, or any other woman he knew, about the corrupt predatory thing that had been inside his body and soul for so long. And he couldn't face not telling them about it.
"Iolaus, you haven't changed," Hercules said quietly. Iolaus shook his head and looked away. The fire crackled between them. Hercules shifted around and finally said, "So...since you've been back, you haven't...because I thought while we were in Egypt you and Tawaret and Dahluka-ta-sherit--"
Iolaus sighed. "Well, yes, we did, but I was still kind of confused and-- Dahluka-ta-sherit knows tricks, and she's just not an easy woman to say no to."
"I noticed that." Hercules thoughtfully poked at the fire again, hesitating. Then he asked, "What about Nebula?"
Iolaus took a sharp breath. He had been hoping to avoid that question.
Hercules watched him worriedly. "I wrote her while we were in Egypt, told her what happened."
Iolaus rubbed a hand over his face and looked away. "I don't know. I blame me, so I know she should. And maybe I blame her, whether I should or not." He shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it right now."
Hercules didn't argue. Dahak had violated Iolaus' soul, wanting his memories of Hercules, Xena, Gabrielle and all the others Iolaus loved; it had needed the knowledge of them that Iolaus' heart held, the knowledge it could use to worm its way into their dreams and destroy their resistance to it. Well, Dahak had never taken Iolaus' heart. It had fought him for his memories but its confused and often ludicrous impersonation of him was proof it hadn't gotten what it wanted. Nebula was the only one it had known well enough to invade and drive to the brink of madness. Hercules looked at the fire a long moment, frowning. "You know, you never answered my question," he said finally.
Iolaus looked up, annoyed. "What question?"
"If anything happened during the battle to bother you. It wasn't something Nabis said, was it?"
Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Maybe Nabis had me confused with somebody else."
"What?" Hercules stared and promptly took the comment in completely the wrong way. His jaw dropped and he sputtered, "I never-- I would never--"
"I know, I know. Will you calm down? That's not what I meant!" Iolaus knew Hercules couldn't sleep with anybody he wasn't in love with. It was the only sane reason the demigod could give for turning down a woman like Atalanta. A beautiful, sweet, built-like-the-Athena-Parthenos woman like Atalanta. Oh, don't think of Atalanta right now. He was going to have to stand under the cold stream where it spilled down from the rocks before he could get to sleep tonight as it was.
"Oh, sorry." Hercules was quiet a long moment.
Too long. Iolaus looked up and read guilt in the set of Hercules' shoulders. He froze, feeling sick. Rather than drive himself crazy trying to determine the exact amount of guilt -- if it was what he was afraid of, surely there would be more guilt than that -- he said sharply, "What?"
Hercules lifted his brows, hesitated, and finally admitted, "He offered once."
Rendered temporarily speechless by the heady combination of relief and fury, Iolaus had to wrestle with his vocal cords for a moment. Then he slammed a fist into the ground and shouted, "I knew it!"
Hercules stared at him incredulously. "You can't be jealous."
"Of course not," Iolaus snapped. He took another whack at the blade with the sharpening stone. "I'm dead and in Tartarus so why shouldn't the first guy who comes along and looks exactly like me take a shot at you."
"Okay." Maybe I shouldn't have told him. No, we did the not telling thing and that definitely didn't work out. Hercules knew he should have explained about the other Iolaus' presence before Iolaus had found out on his own. When Hercules had been helping the other Iolaus get used to this world, he had been too preoccupied and wrapped up in his own grief to realize how it would look to other people. That it would seem like he thought the two men were interchangeable. As if he preferred the version who wasn't a warrior, who was afraid to argue with him, who was used to being a slave and not an equal partner. It wasn't the other man Iolaus was jealous of, it was his own sense of identity. Shifting uncomfortably, he said carefully, "Iolaus, he didn't do it out of any kind of feeling for me, he just thought...." he gestured helplessly, "I expected it of him."
Still sharpening the knife with an emphasis that would have scared the Tartarus out of most people, Iolaus had settled into a slow fume. "Oh, sure."
"You know what it was like in his world," Hercules persisted.
Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Yes."
Hercules poked at the fire again, ill at ease. Talking about this was incredibly awkward, almost as incredibly awkward as the incident itself had been, but he had to make Iolaus understand. "He didn't trust me, he didn't really know anything about me, he didn't know if I was really as different from the Sovereign as I'd told him I was."
"I know, I know."
"This is just because it was such a shock when you found out he was here." At Iolaus' expression he added, "Which was my fault."
"Whatever," Iolaus snarled. "Can we just drop it?"
"No, we can't," Hercules said pointedly. Agitated at having to discuss this at all, he slapped the stick against his hand for emphasis but it snapped. He tossed the pieces into the fire and said grimly, "We're going to talk this out--"
"--if it kills both of us," Iolaus supplied, eyeing him warily.
"Right." Hercules nodded firmly, then processed the rest of that sentence. "Wait, no." He let out a frustrated breath. Iolaus had been having unusual trouble talking about his feelings, about dealing with the nightmares and memories Dahak had left him, but now his partner seemed to be reaching a new height of defensive ambiguity. Hercules eyed him, trying to think this out. He went back to the point that seemed to have started the whole thing and said again, "You still haven't answered my question."
Iolaus swore in frustration. "Well, Nabis was wrong, wasn't he? I'm not warming your bed! I'm not warming anybody's bed!"
Exasperated, Hercules burst out, "Well whose fault is that?"
Iolaus stabbed his knife into the dirt and shot to his feet, stomping away from the fire. He strode toward the trees, desperate to avoid the rest of this conversation. "Iolaus!" He heard Hercules behind him and ducked sideways, meaning to leap down the hill and lose himself for a while in the night. But Hercules caught his arm. "Will you listen--Ow!"
Hercules jerked back in time to avoid Iolaus' second swing and shouted, "Will you listen to me?"
"What?" Iolaus shouted back.
"I meant, you've been pushing people away," Hercules said deliberately.
Iolaus stood there a moment, breathing hard. "I have not."
"Let's just sit down and talk about it, all right?"
"Fine." Iolaus wrenched his arm free. He stomped back to the camp and flung himself down beside the fire, suddenly weary of the whole thing. Let's just get on with it. He couldn't think of any women he knew who would be dumb enough to want him after the Dahak thing, why should Hercules be any different? Why did they have to drag it out into the open? It would all be much easier if they just didn't have this conversation, but there was no hope of that. After all this time, Hercules had discovered under extreme pressure how to force himself to talk about things he didn't want to talk about and now there was no stopping him. Be careful what you wish for, Iolaus told himself bitterly. It was a fine thing to happen just as he was discovering there was a lot to be said for just pretending everything was okay.
Hercules sat down next to him, watching him closely, ready to throw a body block if Iolaus made a break for it again. He began carefully, "Okay, well...." He took a sharp breath and looked away, his eyes going toward the heavy shadows under the trees, up at the stars, following a crack in the rocky overhang. He was definitely working up to something. Iolaus found himself perched on his heels, having to fight the urge to leap up and run into the woods again.
Hercules said finally, "Do you know you talk in your sleep?"
Baffled, Iolaus burst out, "No, I don't know I talk in my sleep! I'm asleep, how would I know...." He trailed off, starting to get an inkling of where this might be going.
Hercules looked at the fire, his brows drawn together. "I knew Dahak appeared to you as me."
"Yes, but...." Iolaus shook his head, confused.
"Over and over. It wouldn't leave you alone."
The anger that suddenly lay under the deceptively mild tone of Hercules' voice seemed to vibrate in the charged air; it made Iolaus' muscles tense and his back teeth itch. "But it did the same thing to you, as me."
"But it wasn't in my head. Thanks to you." Hercules met his eyes, the anger leaving his voice, replaced by worried uncertainty. "After everything it did to you, I wasn't sure if things could...be the way they were before."
Iolaus stared at him for a long moment. He hadn't thought about it like that. Yes, Dahak had tricked him sometimes but that had been when he was dead, his heart with Hercules and his soul trapped with the demon god. He had had trouble believing he was really alive and back here at first but now.... Now he knew where he was. He swallowed in a suddenly dry throat and said, "Sure they could."
They just looked at each other for a long moment. They leaned toward one another at the same time, bonking heads. Then they were rolling together away from the fire, wrestling for the pure enjoyment of it, playful and rough. Iolaus had always found something irresistible about pairing off with someone larger than himself. Smaller was good too but this was like mountain climbing and it made his warrior's blood sing. They were breathing hard, laughing and gasping when Iolaus tried to twist out of a hold around his chest. Hercules shifted with him and Iolaus got thumped down on his back, a heavy demigod pinning him to the ground. Iolaus knew he had to counterattack immediately and wrapped a leg around Hercules' waist. Momentarily diverted, Hercules missed the chance to brace himself. Iolaus pushed up and rolled all in one motion and suddenly he was on top, straddling his partner.
Hercules looked the way he always did when Iolaus got the better of him, startled and mildly affronted and pleased all at once. Then his blue eyes darkened with need and he grabbed a handful of Iolaus' vest to pull him down.
Their movements abruptly got purposeful. It wasn't like when they were young, before time became finite and they both discovered just how fragile life was. They had always had this, since the Academy when it had been like discovering a new continent or during their first years of journeying and the wars, when it had been a celebration of survival and glory, and later during their settled-down phase, when it had been a reminder of old adventures. After they had lost their families it had often been a comfort against the long nights and the loneliness and the pain of memory. They had both lost so much over the years, they didn't want to lose this too.
Iolaus knew right away he was trying too hard, but he couldn't make himself slow down. They both still smelled of the battle mingled with the normal scents of sweat and woodsmoke and well-worn leather. It brought back a host of memories, fond, familiar, erotic. He was putting everything he had into it but he could feel something wasn't right.
Then Hercules rolled him over onto his back, pinning him to the ground with a thump. Half-laughing, his partner said, "Will you relax? This is not an event in the Isthmian Games."
"I am relaxed," Iolaus said through gritted teeth.
"Uh huh." Hercules gave him an experimental squeeze and twisted to avoid the knee that jerked up in involuntary response. "I can see that."
"I have issues," Iolaus muttered defensively.
Hercules stretched Iolaus' arms above his head, loosely clasping his wrists. "Close your eyes."
With the same expression he always got when he was forced to be reasonable against his will, Iolaus did. Though his breathing quickened, he said grimly, "You'd better not...." He trailed off and Hercules knew it was because Iolaus could barely say the word "tickle" without wriggling uncontrollably.
Hercules tasted the sensitive skin at the base of Iolaus' neck, feeling earrings tangle in his hair. Iolaus watched him through slitted eyelids, twitching a little in unwilled resistance as Hercules settled more firmly on top of him. He didn't do any thing else for a moment, giving Iolaus time to settle down. He thought he knew what was wrong. It hadn't been that long in objective time, just a winter and a spring since Sumeria, but it felt like forever. He reminded himself that for some part of Iolaus it had been forever.
Hercules was starting to wonder if Iolaus was still fiercely defending himself, bracing against an attack that was long over. When Iolaus had been in the throes of returning to life, he had said Dahak had gotten Nebula because he didn't love her enough. Maybe in the part of Iolaus' mind that had been able to resist, where sentiment and self-deception was stripped away, he had sacrificed Nebula to distract it, to keep it from the others he loved more. Now, when his memories of that time were vague and confused with nightmare and illusion, maybe all he could recall was the sacrifice itself and not the reasons for it. And that was why he didn't seem to trust himself with people he loved anymore.
With that in mind, Hercules reined in his own need. He shifted his weight, coaxing those strong thighs apart and tucking Iolaus' leg up against his hip, fitting their bodies together. He worked on slow and intense, finding all Iolaus' sensitive spots from long experience, making his partner catch his breath and feeling the tense body under him turn warm and yielding. Going slow wasn't easy and took a good deal of Hercules' considerable self-control. He had missed Iolaus so profoundly; he was just getting used to being able to look at him and talk to him again. And it had been so long since he had heard Iolaus gasp for a good reason.
Then Iolaus arched against him, wound a hand in Hercules' hair, and they were moving together in rhythm, anticipating each other and cooperating the way they always had, back in synch.
Iolaus drifted slowly back to reality, the cool ground under his cheek reviving him. They were lying in a confused tangle of limbs and hair, Hercules a warm heavy weight atop his back; he didn't even have the urge to make the usual joke about the time the plowhorse fell on him. He blinked sweat out of his eyes, every muscle relaxed, pleasantly achey in just the right places. Feeling the knots of pain inside his heart loosen. He roused himself enough to make a contented noise in his throat. There was an answering murmur of agreement from above his right ear.
Nothing had changed. They still had all the same problems. Iolaus still had Dahak's shadow on his life. They were still one demigod and one aging warrior who had buried far too many friends and lovers and children. They had no wives or families and no prospects of changing that state, and lots of healthy enemies. And Hercules, especially, should have children and pass along what he was. But now Iolaus felt it was eventually going to turn out all right, somehow.
Hercules rolled them onto their sides, an arm around Iolaus' waist. Enervated and mellow, Iolaus brought up a knee to make it comfortable and didn't put up more than a token resistance to being cuddled. In a little while they would have to get up and get their clothes back together in case they were attacked during the night, but there was time for a nap first. "So what was the problem?" he asked, already sinking into sleep.
"My problem was I thought you were vulnerable, I didn't want to take advantage of you. Of course, it's so unlike you to overreact to anything...."
"Oh, shut up."
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