JOAN

7-4-08/One hour before sunset, Hawaii time.

The Leilehua Plateau dominates central Oahu, but the vast area is mostly underdeveloped. The military controls large tracts of land, and a lot has been set aside as nature preserves. Still, there are a few scattered housing developments, and using her rental car's GPS, Joan locates the isolated cul de sac she is seeking. Travelling up, Joan heads for the house at the top of the hill. The houses on this street are small – mostly two bedroom/one bath, but this being Hawaii, they cost as much as the Girardi house back in Arcadia.

Joan parks at the curb and as soon as she leaves the car she is almost overwhelmed by the level of demonic activity in this area. Demons of varying ranks are patrolling about in broad daylight, which is unusual as they prefer the night or at least dark shadows. The dominant being is a violence demon – pretty high up on the power scale. These creatures never bother posessing a single indvidual, but rather they specialize in stirring violent moods in groups leading to things like lynchings, riots and mass murder. Although powerful, the violence demon is not beyond Joan's ability to handle. Curiously, the foul thing does not automatically retreat from the presence of an instrument of God. Perhaps it realizes Joan is too focused on her task at hand to bother with it.

As Joan nears the driveway she pauses as she knows this is not a house she can casually approach. Unseen by the eyes of ordinary people, a spiritual shield surrounds the hilltop house, keeping out all of those with a strong spiritual nature such as demons and…instruments of God. But Joan can tell that at one time the shield was much larger, encompassing the entire neighborhood. Steady pressure from the growing army of demons has caused the shield to slowly retreat in order to maintain its' integrity. Clearly there is something or someone in this house that the demons desperately want. While this quiet, remote neighborhood goes about its' mundane business, a war is being fought right outside their doors.

The trip from Honolulu wasn't that long, but Joan has arrived late in the day because she needed time to prepare for this moment. After hours of prayer and meditation, Joan is at the peak of her abilities – hopefully ready to penetrate the shield she must get through. Taking the silver cross lovingly given her by God, Joan places the item of her focused faith against the shield. At once the shield begins to waver and Joan steps forward. But the shield is a lot thicker than Joan anticipated and she finds she can not breathe while in it. Fighting off the natural urge to panic, Joan continues to advance through what seems to her to be a massive wall of jello. Finally through, Joan gasps for air even as she becomes aware of a rapidly approaching danger. Joan turns and sees the violence demon charging with astonishing speed. Joan holds up her cross and the combination of God's love and her faith is more than the blob of dark energy can endure. It screeches in dismay and retreats even faster than it attacked. The shield closes.

Joan mumbles, "Okay, I'm in. Let's hope I can get back out."

Joan walks up to the house – a charming, well cared for place with a wraparound porch. Joan rings the bell and a moment later a distant voice calls out…

"We're around the back!"

Using the porch that encircles the house, Joan heads for the backyard, but before Joan can take more than a few steps, the voice adds…

"Fair warning, we're naked."

Joan sighs heavily and continues her journey. There is a pool in the backyard, and as warned, the couple there are naked. The man naps in a poolside lounger, soaking up the last of the day's rays. The sun sensitive woman sits in a chair on the shaded porch. Joan has interrupted her reading of a stack of gossip magazines…

"Joan Girardi, what a surprise to see you here at my home…UNINVITED."

"Hello Hester."

Joan met Hester Rodney months ago during their mutual appearance on the game show 'Rapid Dough'. Hester is an albino over six feet tall, thin to the point of boniness with small breasts and a plain face. She is also a 'grey' witch – a being who precariously exists balanced between the forces of light and darkness, drawing on the spiritual energy of both to produce magic that can manipulate people and to a limited extent, the material world. Hester's emphasis on Joan being uninvited at her home is a warning. Strong spiritual laws govern the treatment of invited guests, but the uninvited are open to attack.

Joan can't help but glance at Hester's invited guest, the naked man still snoozing by the pool. He is an impressive example of masculinity – long, lean and muscular with a great all over tan. Only his face is obscured by a straw hat. Joan feels an automatic stirring within herself as her hormonal 20 year old body reminds her that it has been months since she was last touched by a man. It seems impossible that a guy like this would be involved with Hester Rodney, but Joan recalls that the grey witch occasionally casts seduction spells on beautiful young men who normally wouldn't touch her with a ten foot pole. Speaking of which…hello Mr. Happy.

"Really Joan, did you come all the way to Hawaii just to stare at my guy's penis?"

Joan blushes deeply and replies, "I'm here on a mission for God."

"So I guessed, but what has that to do with me? My home is neutral – a spiritual Switzerland."

"Is that neutrality why hundreds of demons are practically pounding on your front foor?"

"There has been a slight misunderstanding that has weakened my neutral status for the moment, but I have it under control. Now Joan, don't stand there looking so formal and official. Relax…strip down and take a dip in the pool. I'll open some wine and then you, me and the stud muffin can explore all of the possibilities of a threeway."

A mental image of that proposed event flashes in Joan's mind and it is all that she can do not to gag. Joan realizes Hester is manipulating her, perhaps for simple amusement or perhaps for a more sinister reason…?

"Stop it!" Joan warns, her hand automatically going to the cross around her neck.

"Aww, you brought your faith focus, your talisman. My, isn't it a big one, but mine is bigger." Hester says with a leer as she points at the young man. "Come now Joan, the sexual frustration you are carrying around dominates your aura. If another girl is a deal breaker, then feel free to enjoy this delicious guy all to yourself. I'll just watch…"

Again a mental image appears in Joan's mind - this time Joan and the young man are entwined, bodies sweating while they experience an amazing rhythmic pleasure... Joan gasps, finding it more difficult to return to reality this time. She must break the witch's concentration. Joan grabs one of the chairs, lifts it above her head and charges Hester with a scream. The startled witch tumbles out of her chair in fright...

"What the hell is going on?"

The shout comes from the man by the pool. He is angry and obviously concerned by what he sees. Joan gulps, feeling like a misbehaving child caught in naughtiness...

"Hey Dylan." Joan says as she puts down the chair.

Dylan Hunter scowls at Joan as Hester rises to her feet.

"Hester, are you okay?"

"I'm fine, sweetie. I was just having a little fun with Joan and she took it way too seriously. Sorry we disturbed you. Can I get you anything?"

"I'm down to my last beer."

"I'll get more." Hester says as she quickly scoots into the house.

Joan watches as Dylan takes a canned beer from a cooler, opens it and swallows down about half with a satisfied 'ah'. He reclines again, once more covering his face with his straw hat. Joan tries to not be offended by the obvious snub.

"Since when do you drink?"

"None of your business."

"You're a hard man to track down, Dylan Hunter."

"And you couldn't take the hint? What are you doing here, Joan?"

"I've been trying to reach you for months."

"I know - I've been ignoring you. That's why I didn't respond to your phone calls, text messages, e-mails, snail mail and personal notes delivered by Kevin and my Dad. Get a clue Joan, we're done."

Joan fights back the tears. She would leave now if she couldn't read Dylan's soul. She knows that he is in great pain, heartbroken and angry, but most of all she knows deep down he still loves her.

Joan starts with that, "You still love me."

Dylan hesitates a long time before replying, "Less and less every day. It's a process. You know how you were always concerned because I loved you more than you loved me? Well, that's over. In time you'll be completely out of my system. Be sure to apologize to Hester before you go."

So saying, Dylan flops over onto his stomach to add to the tan on his backside. 'A very cute backside' Joan thinks as she wipes away the latest tears she has shed over Dylan. Joan takes one more read on his soul and confirms her worse fear - he is not under a spell. Although he doesn't love her, Dylan is with the witch voluntarily.

Unsure of what to do next, Joan enters the house and finds Hester adding ice to another cooler filled with cans of beer. At least the witch has covered her chalk white skin with a short robe.

"Settle everything?" Hester asks with a smirk.

"Apparently Dylan has lost his mind. You know he doesn't love you, right?"

"You forget Joan, I can read people even better than you. Lover boy is at best slightly fond of me."

"Then why are you with him, jumping at his beck and call?"

"The 'jumping' is how our couples' dynamic has worked out. You've only experienced the nice guy side of him. I get the darkest part of his soul, which works for us. Being a witch, I've never been dominated by a man before. I find it...exhilirating."

Because of the duality of her nature, Hester is normally very hard to read, but some things come through clearly. Joan experiences the same excited tingle that goes through Hester as she contemplates the rough, demanding, in-charge Dylan that she...loves? No, that's impossible. A grey witch must keep her life evenly balanced between good and bad/light and dark. Tip too much toward the dark and she will tumble in - her soul damned for all time. Tip too much toward the light and she will tumble away from her powers forever. True love would be an irreversible leap into the light.

"I know Dylan isn't under a spell, so how did the two of you hook up?"

"The end of May he called ahead - take the hint, and asked to stop by. I hadn't given Dylan much thought since I failed to seduce him when we were all in New York. We met here, did the usual chitchat thing...he admired my artwork." (Hester points to the next room. Joan glances in and sees a half dozen of Hester's paintings.) "What do you think?"

Joan shrugs. "They're dark and disturbing."

"Thanks, that's what I was going for. My work is in high demand with high prices."

"Demand being aided by the spells attached to them?"

Hester smiles. "A girl has to eat."

"You were telling me about Dylan."

"Oh right. At that first meeting Dylan boldly stated he was looking for a chance to shack up for awhile. I thought: 'Woo-hoo, great sex with the hottest guy I've ever met, and I don't even have to cast a spell'. So I invited him into my home and bed. Big mistake."

"Mistake?"

"Don't get me wrong, it started out as great as I had hoped, but I never expected it to last so long. My previous voluntary relationship record is six days. The witch lifestyle tends to freak most guys out. But with Dylan it has been 'woo-hoo' morning, noon and night - actually, twice at night. Once just before he goes out demon hunting, and then again when he gets back."

"Dylan goes demon hunting at night?" Joan asks with concern.

"Yeah...that's one of the problems. It seems you instruments of God are suppose to get 'assignments' on a regular basis, but since Dylan arrived here - nada. He gets bored and goes out looking for demons to cast into hell. Sometimes he comes back bruised up from whatever he encountered. This is why the local demons are massing and assaulting my shield every night. Normally we have a hands-off, neutrality relationship, but that changed when I started sleeping with the enemy."

"I noticed your shield has been in retreat."

Hester nods. "By now you realize that I've grown dangerously fond of Dylan, and that's weakening my powers. A few more days of this and I'll be out of the grey forever."

"From my perspective that's not such a bad thing, but if you value your witch status so much, why not just kick Dylan out?"

"I can't. You know there are spiritual laws governing hospitality and if I violate them, fate will deal me a punishment. With my powers so weak, I might not survive that. Dylan has to leave of his own accord, or if he betrays me..."

"Then you can kick him out. That's why you were trying to get me to jump Dylan's bones? You can't ask him to leave, so you choose to manipulate me into seducing him. But if you care for him...?"

Hester looks out the window at Dylan and hastily wipes away a tear. "What do you want me to say, Joan? That I would give up being a witch to be with him? Of course I would, but that isn't a choice I have. He doesn't love me. Dylan loves you and only you, no matter how much he tries to deny it. Every time we are together, he's thinking of you and crying on the inside because you broke his heart. It leads to a lot of angry sex. Fortunately, I love it rough."

Hester forces a leer to her face, but for once Joan can clearly read her soul. The witch's normally frozen heart is shattering from longing for someone she knows she can never have. She is risking her life and soul to be with Dylan, but she will never win his heart. Joan feels a sympathy for Hester she couldn't have imagined only minutes ago.

"I'll talk to him - get him to leave."

Hester nods and hands Joan the cooler. As Joan exits the house, she sees out of the corner of her eye Hester sagging to her knees, softly crying. Feeling less fond of Dylan than when she arrived, Joan drops an ice cube in the small of his back. He hastily turns over, brushing away the ice.

"Your beer, Lord Hunter."

Dylan grunts his displeasure as he accepts the cooler from Joan. She sits in a patio chair opposite him.

"Why are you still here, Joan? There's nothing left between us."

"I disagree. Considering all we've been through, you at least owe me a conversation."

Dylan pulls a beer from the cooler. "Want one?"

"Sure." Joan says as she takes the beer and sips. She has never been fond of beer, but she recognizes it is a symbolic granting of her request.

"What do you want to talk about?"

"Gee, I don't know...best tourist spots in Honolulu? What do you think? You cut me out of your life!"

"After you cheated on me."

"Did not."

"Did too. My abilities may not be as advanced as yours, but when you got back from Chicago I clearly read sexual guilt in your soul. You cheated."

"Dylan, I have had sex with only two men in my life. Jimmy, whom I was engaged to, and you. I did not sleep with Tyler..."

"I thought so! Tyler Christian, he's the one you were with."

"I wasn't 'with'. You should be able to determine if I'm telling the truth."

Joan pauses, opening herself up and Dylan does an intense read of her soul...

"You reveal too much, Joan. Okay, you didn't sleep with him, but you really, really wanted to. You went to Chicago to have sex with the guy but circumstances interfered. Okay, I concede you didn't cheat...except in your heart."

The pair goes silent, each feeling the other's pain as clearly as their own. Their connection is too strong to deny, but it isn't helping them solve their problems. Joan tosses Dylan a towel...

"Do you mind? I find this three-eyed conversation distracting."

Dylan wraps the towel around his waist. "Better?"

"Yes. Okay...when I went to Chicago we were not officially a couple. You agreed, no labels on our relationship."

"So you're saying our night together meant nothing to you?"

"No, of course not. It was wonderful, but...it scared me."

"Scared you how?"

"Because I knew, no matter what words you said, you saw the two of us on a locked-in lifepath of serious relationship, engagement, marriage, kids and a house in the burbs with a white picket fence."

"Is that so horrible?"

"No, it sounds great...considerably down the road. I'm not ready for that at this point in my life. I...made those same plans with Jimmy, and I couldn't go through that again so soon."

"I was willing to go slow - take years if necessary, but you chose to chase after some old rich guy."

"Tyler isn't old, and I was free to pursue anyone I wanted."

"So, after leaving my bed you decided you needed a different guy for...comparison? Or maybe you just needed relief from my oppressiveness. What was the reason, Joan? Why were you with him?"

"He..used sexual charisma on me."

A look of pure rage crosses Dylan's face. "I'll kill him!"

For a moment Joan considers letting things stand as they are. She can talk Dylan out of any violent plans, and if he thinks she was compelled to chase after Tyler, he will forgive and take her back. But no, it would be a relationship built on a lie, and with Dylan's growing abilities, it would be a lie he would soon see through.

"Calm down, King Kong. Tyler used the mildest form just once in order to have me spend more time getting to know him. After that..."

"You pursued him out of a natural attraction."

"Sort of. True, I was attracted to Tyler, but I also felt this amazing connection that I couldn't explain. It turns out Tyler Christian was a retired instrument of God - one that God wanted back in the fold."

"Ah...so this was only about God's way of assigning you the task of getting Tyler back into service?"

Another easy out. "No. It was a part of the list of things I was suppose to do while in my old hometown, so God took advantage of the fact that I was already going there to...seduce Tyler. I'm so sorry, Dylan. But at least one good thing came out of my Chicago trip, I finally realized that it is you that I love and belong with. If you'll have me back?"

"No."

Joan is startled by Dylan's answer. In her mind she had carefully worked out this scenario and was sure he would take her back at this point. Could it be Dylan's love has faded too much to rekindle?

"Why?"

"I'm tired of you, Joan. You won my heart the first moment I saw you, but ever since then you have treated it like a door mat. This thing with Tyler, the mental images that haunt me, it's the last straw."

"Are you kidding me? You won't take me back over this after all of the things you've done? You're not the only one who has to deal with 'images'. Since the day you gave me your heart, you've slept with Dillon, Stevie, Caspar - all friends of mine, plus Natalie..."

"Who?"

"Natalie Gerling, the contestant co-ordinator from Rapid Dough. I have it on good authority that while you were under a certain witch's seduction spell, Natalie came to your room..."

"Oh, that. No, she made a pass at me but I knew there was something weird going on. I turned her down and spent the night in prayer and meditation."

"Oh. Well...what about the freaky image of you and Ms Chalky in there? If you have white bed linen, I don't know how you find her."

"The bedding is light blue."

"Not my actual point. If I'm willing to put aside the mental image of you plowing that albino bean pole, then you should be able to deal with me and a guy I didn't sleep with!"

Dylan sighs heavily. "Joan, I can't keep living like this. You've broken my heart too many times - twice in just the last year. After I proposed to you last year in L.A. and you rejected me, you turned around and became engaged to a man you had known for only a few days. And now, right after we 'consummated our love', you tried your best to seduce another man. No more! I wish I had never met you."

Dylan once more covers his face with the straw hat, trying to look indifferent, but he isn't fooling Joan. She can feel his misery and it amplifies her own. Joan breaks down and begins to sob. Her tears flow freely, her breaking heart draining her of all energy so that she can't run away as she wants to. Dylan looks at Joan and he feels his own tears begining. The urge to take her into his arms, to comfort Joan and tell her all is forgiven is overwhelming... No - no - no, not again. If she breaks his heart one more time...it will kill him. Dylan strips off the towel, dives into the pool and begins swimming laps.

Joan wipes away her tears and braces herself for what she must do. She goes to the side of the pool, kneels and watches Dylan swimming for awhile. He has always been a great all around athlete, and he swims with strength and speed. Joan calls out...

"Don't you want to know how I found you?"

Dylan pauses, treading water. "Only my Dad knew where I was. Some how you got it out of him."

Joan shakes her head. "No, I tried everything I could think of to get Dr. Huinter to tell me, but he wouldn't betray your trust. I even tried an intense, focused read of his soul but his charism is too strong...oops, did I just give away a secret?"

"Nah. I told Dad a couple of months ago about being an instrument of God - turns out, he already knew. That's when he revealed that for most of his life he has been getting divinely inspired dreams and visions. But, I wasn't aware you knew."

"We shared our secrets back when you guys were living in Arcadia. And in full disclosure, my Mom has the same charism."

"So...your point is that because our lives parallel, we are some how fated?"

"Get over yourself. That part of the conversation is done. The way I found you is that a really, really big bird told me."

Dylan instantly gets the inside joke. "My tutor-angel told you where I was?"

"No, mine did. I'm not sure if they are the same one, even though their descriptions are identical. I suppose God has thousands of the same model. Anyway, I was given a message to pass along to you: get your lazy butt home A.S.A.P. before you're charged with desertion."

"Literally?"

"The Joan Girardi translation. The point is, you're a soldier in God's army. No matter what emotional drama you may be going through, you just don't take off for weeks and months at a time without His permission."

"If God wanted me to know this, why didn't he tell me himself?"

"Figure it out, genius. He hasn't been coming around because you're shacked up with a witch! Do you think God goes near a situation like that?"

"What about my own tutor-angel? He still shows up at dawn every morning for my training sessions. His knock on the spiritual shield sounds like being inside a giant bell. He could have passed along this message. And I thought you were done with training?"

"I'm being tutored in spiritual law - long story. I guess I was picked as messenger since God knew I was looking for you already. His way of killing two birds with one stone."

"I see. Then I guess I better pack. Can you give me a lift back to Honolulu?"

Joan looks at the sky and shakes her head. "It's almost dark and it wouldn't be safe to face all of those demons then."

"I've done it before."

"There's a new one out there, a violence demon - one rung lower than a death demon. Trust me, you're not ready to face that."

"We could face it together."

"No thank you. Unlike you, I know better than to randomly demon hunt. It leads to messes like the one outside this shield. I only deal with the demons I run across during assignments. Remember, you have a General who is all knowing."

"Oh yeah, I seem to recall reading that somewheres." Dylan says with a grin.

Joan smiles back and a daring thought crosses her mind. Should she? Oh, what the hell...

"Mind if I cool off with a swim?"

"Okay, but I don't think any of Hester's swimsuits will fit you - especially on top."

"Who needs a swimsuit?"

With haste, Joan strips off all of her clothes and dives in. She swims directly to Dylan, who smiles with pleasure at the sight of her nudity.

"Joan..."

Joan splashes Dylan and swims away. Dylan chases after her, catches up and splashes back. This begins a water fight with the two of them playing and laughing like children. Joan gets Dylan with a big splash of water and again swims away. Dylan easily catches up with her, but this time he takes Joan into his arms. Their kiss begins gently but quickly builds with passion. With neither treading water, they sink to the bottom still kissing...

X X X X X

7-5-08/Saturday, three a.m.

Joan leaves the guest room wearing a borrowed robe and heads for the kitchen. After getting a bottled water, she heads back but notices a light shining in the master bedroom. Joan goes to the slightly open door and sees Hester working on another of her dark and disturbing paintings. She uses a lot of black and grey, and Joan briefly considers buying one to give to her former spymaster boss, I.B. Dunn. Since he sees only black, white and grey, he might think it beautiful.

"You're very skillful. You know, your work would probably sell even if you didn't enchant them."

Without pause Hester replies, "Probably, but they wouldn't sell for nearly as much. Are you and Dylan done for the night? I was about to start searching for earplugs."

Joan gulps, "Were we...loud?"

"Are you kidding? The probably heard you in Honolulu. You sure must like that Boss of yours - you called out his name often enough."

Joan blushes furiously and quickly changes the subject. "Uh, thanks again for letting us stay the night."

"Purely self interest. The last thing I need is an epic good versus evil battle right outside my door. Now that Dylan has officially cheated on me, I can toss him out on his ass anytime I want and things can finally get back to normal around here."

Joan hears the brave words, but she can feel the pain behind them. "Hester..."

"So, are the two of you going to enjoy a Hawaiian vacation or head back to the mainland?"

"Back to L.A. on the first available flight and then...get him to a health clinic for testing."

"Testing?"

"Fortunately I had condoms, but let's face it - Dylan has spent weeks having unprotected sex with the state's biggest slut."

"Hey...!"

"Denial?"

"No, but considering what I did for you guys, you could have phrased that nicer."

"What do you mean: what you did for us?"

"If only you had let me handle things my way, you would have avoided so much pain. It was pathetic listening to all of that romantic angst. I couldn't stand it anymore, and since you both were distracted, I put mutual seduction spells on both of you."

"Then...our reconciliation isn't real?"

"Of course it's real. Seduction spells only work once, and by my count, you guys have gone back for seconds and thirds. Why do you think most couples' fights end with make-up sex? When you're in love, passion cleans the slate. Honestly, since the two of you have done the sexual hat trick, can you detect any lingering anger, resentment or pain?"

Joan smiles. "No..."

"You're welcome. And by the way, don't worry about Dylan's health. I use magic to protect myself from things like STD's and pregnancies. Trust me, it works a lot better than a thin layer of latex."

"You are an unusual woman Hester Rodney, and I mean that in a good way."

"As a great philosopher-sailor once said: 'I yam what I yam'."

Joan nods and begins to leave but Hester softly adds...

"Do you know why he came to me?"

"Not a clue."

"In the weeks that we've been together, in between all of the 'woo-hooing', we talked often and I explored his soul. I know Dylan better than he knows himself. Of course he's a man, so he's not that complicated. When the two of you broke up in high school, he immediately hooked up with a friend of yours..."

"Dillon Samuels. We weren't close, but I saved her life once, so yeah - we were friends."

"It was a wildly inappropriate choice designed to hurt you."

"Had that figured out day one."

"But Dylan, good guy at his core, knew that by using the Dillon girl to hurt you, he would eventually hurt her. He also knew that would cause him enormous guilt and painful regrets. Subconsciously, it was his self-imposed punishment for hurting the two of you."

"Dylan spent months apologizing to the other Dillon, making himself her virtual slave until she forgave him. They parted on good terms. And I get it. When I heard Dylan was with you, I immediately thought it was a wildly inappropriate choice that was designed to alarm and hurt me."

"He repeated his pattern. Like I said, he's not complicated. Only...he assumed that with me being a witch, I couldn't be hurt when it ended."

"But you knew, and you went ahead with the relationship anyway. Why?"

Hester shrugs. "People who play extreme sports know they will eventually be hurt, but the thrill is still there. Joan, do a witch a favor and don't let Dylan know...about what I'm feeling. I'm a big girl and I can handle it, but it will be a lot easier if he isn't hanging around feeling guilty and trying to make up for it. Okay?"

"I'll do my best."

"Thanks."

Joan goes back to the door, but before she exits she pauses. "You know, you're not fooling me."

"I'm not?"

"You were listening to our conversation. You knew Dylan had already agreed to leave before you put those spells on us. It wasn't because you needed an excuse to kick Dylan out."

Hester sighs. "Caught me. If I can't have Dylan, I will take solace in his happiness, and that means you, Joan."

"Thank you, Hester."Joan says as she heads back to the guest room while Hester closes the door. When she is sure she can't be overheard, Hester laughs...

"Of course, I do get major 'dark points' for having successfully manipulated not one but two instruments of God - putting me solidly back in the grey and replenishing my powers."

The witch continues to chuckle as she resumes painting.

THE END

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