Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

AN: Dedicated to Dacia!

My apologies for the delay (if you can call it that; more like delay-squared). I came down with a severe case of writer's block. Total impasse on this story. Huge thanks to Anaitis, who betaed the first crapiful version of this chapter, written right at the onset of my inspiration outage. I hope it didn't burn your eyes, hun. Thanks to her pruning and crits, this is now better (much better, I hope...) It's been so rewritten and prodded and polished and rewritten again, that some mistakes remain.

The fact that this chapter is here at all is largely in thanks to all the gentle, kindly pokes, prods, enquiries and encouragements I got in this last month. Thank you all, for reading, supporting me, waiting for me, and being very understanding when I mentioned I'd gotten stuck ^_^

Freeport + Chapter 28

"I am the man for which no god waits
But for which the whole world yearns
And I'm marked by darkness and by blood
And by a thousand powder burns"


- Nick Cave, 'O'Malley's bar'

+

Wufei laboriously scrolled down the document, trying to fit the appropriate pieces of interconnecting information he wanted to study onto the laptop's small screen; it’d be easier if he had a wall projector. Maybe he and Duo could build one from the scraps in the yard outside.

After several weeks of painstaking work, tailing and investigations, they were putting together more and more of the strands that composed the Breaker's web. It was fiendishly complicated. Forget the wall projector; what Wufei needed was a holographic matrix to show the multilayered threat that was slowly coming to light.

Two hours, ten minutes- no, Wufei was not going to worry about that.

He clicked a few keys moodily. Pages scrolled past.

Wufei and Duo had been following Tor Kendle, their one confirmed Breaker, the man who'd been the lieutenant of the forces that had attacked them in Recyc. They'd been tailing him for two weeks, recording every person he talked to, every one of his business deals, everything he did.

Wufei had studiously noted all that information, and only later had he realized that he'd put it all down in the format of a Preventer report; a crime sheet nobody would ever be getting. Despite this realization, he still added any new detail to the ongoing report, telling himself it was a handy format in which to organize information. At the back of his mind, though, he felt like the cop version of Pavlov's dogs, his brain wired to follow the routines of a justice system that no longer recognized him.

But he didn't need them anymore. Not for what he had to do now. He had their knowledge; the Preventer database that Heero and Trowa had downloaded to the hotbed of crime that was Freeport, probably breaking dozens of rules and regulations to do so.

The database was a goldmine of information, in that it contained a few nuggets of precious evidence hidden within tons and tons of unrelated facts. The Breakers had apparently raised paranoia and secrecy into a higher art form. They were buried deep in the most inaccessible colony there was, like a deeply hidden cancer that hadn't started killing its host yet. They rarely acted directly on the Outside, either. They made use of hired agents, or planted assassins like Carver to kill people, but only if they could make it look like some other agency was responsible. But after hundreds of incident reports, Wufei was starting to get a feel for the way the Breakers worked. He could tell, with some confidence, when an incident was just normal violence and when it had been incited by the Breakers.

The combination of Wufei's detective skills and reasoning, and Duo's intimate knowledge of Freeport and its citizens, was shaking results out of Freeport's steel jungle, too. But trying to tie all these pieces of guesswork, instinct, hearsay and incomplete or unreliable information together was like trying to knit fog. They still had only the vaguest idea of the final Breaker agenda.

Wufei was concentrating on the display he was scrolling through. He was not watching the clock. He didn't need to; his internal timer was excellent. So he was perfectly aware that Duo had been gone two hours and fifteen minutes, without having to refer to a bloody clock.

What the hell is Duo doing...?

Concentrate.

Wufei tried. He stared at the tangle of information before him.

The only thing he could really think of was that he shouldn't be trawling through all this data alone.

…Duo had only gone to get dinner...

The bastard was probably slacking off, Wufei growled to himself. Not that he could blame Duo if the latter wanted to take a break from the Breakers, the endless mounds of data and this bloody one-room apartment. Over three weeks ago, Wufei had refused Trowa's recall order. That was three weeks of intensive, dangerous work with few breaks and less sleep, and it didn't really feel like they were making any progress in the case. They were both getting irritable.

Two hours, twenty minutes. Where the hell did he go to get that food? L1?!

This was the third time in two weeks that Duo had disappeared like that, without any explanation. He was never gone more than a few hours. He was always just a bit too laidback and evasive when he returned.

The first few days after Wufei had cut his connections to the Outside, they’d been both burning with exultation and breathless freedom. Wufei was no longer directly tied to the Preventers. The two ex-Pilots were on their own, and, being who they were, they found that more liberating than frightening.

Their alliance had grown strong; Wufei felt as if he'd truly earned Duo's trust now. They were a team, fully allies in a way they hadn't even been during the war.

And the sex had been pretty good, whenever they could make the time. Actually, Wufei conceded, staring blindly at the screen, the sex had been great.

But then Duo had started to disappear for a few hours. And he was occasionally withdrawn. Wufei didn't know if this was just the result of the long hours of work, or if something was truly bothering his friend. Or if he, Wufei, was getting close to earning that 'Paranoid' tag the Preventer High Command had tried to pin on him.

Quiet footsteps in the hallway, near the door. Wufei's hand was on his sword even as he recognized the familiar gait.

He didn't turn around as the reinforced security net was unlocked and the door opened. He heard Duo walk in on the tail end of a waft of cold air and the familiar Freeport smell of iron and chemicals.

"Where have you been?" Wufei asked without turning around, his fingers once more interlaced and supporting his chin as he stared at the screen.

"I told you I was getting some chow."

A bag of chips and a couple of foil-wrapped objects landed on the workbench five feet away from Wufei; sandwiches, the kind the commissary distributed, guaranteed to be nutritious, fairly healthy and utterly tasteless.

"Our commissary is only five blocks away," Wufei said slowly.

"There was a queue."

There was always a queue; it was kind of expected, and nobody really complained much about it. There was no such thing as the rat-race or business-deal deadlines in Freeport. Citizens treated time a bit cavalierly, especially since they never had enough of it anyway.

"You waited for sandwiches for two hours?" Wufei probed. He was getting used to Duo's patterns of evasion; just because Duo said there was a queue didn't mean that that was what he'd been doing all this time.

"Aw, did you miss me?" was the sarcastic reply, which answered both Wufei's asked and unasked question.

Wufei's intertwined fingers flexed, but he didn't pick up the gauntlet. They'd not needed - or had time for - their 'practice bouts' in the yard for the last few weeks, and Wufei found that he didn't really want to start them again, not now. They were both too tired and tense; it might get ugly.

Movement behind him, and silence. Wufei imagined Duo behind him, staring at the screen over his shoulder. He knew what Duo's expression would be; he glanced up almost reluctantly to confirm it.

There it was. That edge of savage darkness in the harsh dagger of a half-smile, in the blue eyes staring unblinking at the Breaker's web on the small display. At this moment, Duo looked older than he had any right to be.

Wufei was seeing that look more and more often. Was it because he and Duo were nearing their prey? Or was he seeing this side of Duo more frequently simply because Duo had let Wufei in, past the light-hearted persona of the cheerful smuggler, and the Preventer was now seeing the deeper, more dangerous currents that moved Duo Maxwell?

Or maybe something was bugging Duo. In that case, Wufei had to trust that the blasted adrenaline junky wasn't about to do anything brash or impulsive.

Wufei and 'trust' didn't get along very well. He was constantly having to remind himself that Duo had put himself on the line for Wufei time and again, despite lies and evasions on Wufei's part. That past shame still burned. It kept Wufei from saying anything about Duo's absences, once again. He did trust Duo on a professional and personal level; the man was more level-headed than he appeared to be. As for the rest...if Duo wished to discuss what was troubling him, he knew he could confide in Wufei.

Wufei felt fairly certain that hell would freeze over before that would happen, which in a way was a good thing, as Wufei wouldn't know what to do with a heart-to-heart discussion if it came up and stabbed him in a lung.

Duo slowly leaned into Wufei and gave him a full-body nudge, interrupting the Preventer's rather scattered train of thought.

"You hungry?"

"I was hungry two and a half hours ago. Now I'm starving," Wufei groused, glancing up and over his shoulder again.

"No you're not," Duo corrected him mechanically, then he blinked and grinned, a more natural, cheerful smile. "Sorry about taking so long, but I got more bad news for ya. We're going to be eating on the run. While I was out there-"

"Waiting in the queue?" Wufei asked a bit snidely, irritation and concern defeating his resolve to not say anything until Duo was ready to speak to him about it, if ever.

"No, on my way back," Duo answered without losing a beat. "Anyway, somebody dropped me a note. We got to be in sector D8 in thirty minutes."

"We'll be late then," Wufei answered, grabbing his sword as he stood, stiff from sitting so long. "Unless we're lucky with the shuttle and then run the rest of the way, we can't make it to D8 in that time. Who are we meeting?"

"A snitch, and it’s okay if we’re a few minutes late. He'll wait if he knows what's good for him."

"An informant?"

"'Informant'? Nah, that's too good for him. This guy is just a snitch," Duo sniffed with obvious distaste for the man they were about to see. Must be one of the roaches that crawled through the underbelly of Freeport, like Basil the Rat and others they'd met. These creatures were unpleasant, and they could be dangerous. Wufei checked that his various weapons were in place and easily accessible. He grabbed his jacket, a few essentials and the sandwich with some resignation, and headed towards the door on Duo's heels.

+

Industrial sectors were not given the names of past revolutionaries, just numbers and letters, reflecting their functional role and design. Factories and warehouses sprawled on either side of the large road, open yards stretching here and there, full of containers, batches of produce and junk.

Sector D8 was in the middle of its night cycle; the factories were silent, the streets empty. It was probably why the snitch had chosen this time and place for a meeting; it wasn't easy arranging a secret meeting in Freeport without dozens of eyes on you at all times.

Wufei walked a few steps behind Duo, far enough apart to not be taken in one ambush, close enough for support in a fight. Duo had not started any of his usual rambling conversations, and Wufei wasn't a chatterbox by nature, so the entire trip was spent in silence.

That silence made the small rasp behind them all the louder, like the noise of a pebble bouncing down an avalanche slope.

Wufei was on the ground, hands stinging as they bit into the cold, rough metal of the street. The crossbow quarrel slammed into a man-high bobbin of cable Wufei had been passing. The fool who'd taken aim at Wufei had fingered the trigger before firing; the string of the crossbow had creaked. A stupid mistake for a would-be assassin, and one he would not be repeating.

But Wufei wasn't angry; in fact, the prevalent emotion he felt was relief. Finally!

He listened attentively. Footsteps, a scurry of two sets of feet, their owners taking cover. Two attackers. But only one bolt. The other man hadn't fired, or else he didn't have a projectile weapon.

Just in case there were more, Wufei lunged and rolled into the cover of the big roll of cables. The relief made his body feel light, energy crackling through his frame, the tip of his drawn sword dancing under the streetlight. In the three weeks since Wufei had ignored his recall order and stayed in Freeport to track down his enemy, this was the first proof that the Breakers were falling back on Plan B. Up until now, the unspoken concern between Wufei and Duo, shortening their tempers and making their investigation that much more intense, was that they weren't getting anywhere; despite all their efforts, they were not getting near enough to the Breakers to pose a threat, and could safely be ignored.

The bolt still vibrating in the bobbin of cable was proof positive that Wufei's presence in Freeport had driven somebody to attempt murder. Now they just had to find out who it was and why.

Wufei glanced around, ears pricked. He couldn’t see anybody else in the shadows of the factory yard. Duo was ten feet away from him, under the cover of some big pipes sprouting out of the sector floor; he was moving swiftly and silently, circling their attackers.

Wufei kept his head down but unsheathed his sword with a noisy clang and scraped his boots on the metal concourse as he put his back to the man-high roll of cable. A sudden rumble of footsteps and a curse from Duo told Wufei that his attempt at keeping the enemy distracted had failed. The men had broken and run.

To Wufei's left, Duo scrambled over the pipes and shot after them. Wufei sheathed his sword and followed.

For an instant, he saw two figures up ahead - two men, average height, one with blonde hair. Then they dodged down an alley. Duo was halfway there already. Wufei stretched his stride, trying to keep an eye on both Duo and the streets around them in case their attackers had backup. He wasn't about to underestimate the Breakers again.

He ran down the alley, saw a flash of black leather coat disappear to the right in the street up ahead.

When Wufei emerged into the larger road, he spotted Duo a block away and gesturing at him.

"They split up! Take left!"

Then he shot down the right-hand street.

Wufei didn't waste breath in acknowledgement as he followed Duo's instructions. Duo must want this lead as badly as he did, to risk Wufei going off on his own, without a Handler.

After half a block, Wufei heard the footsteps of his quarry again, up ahead. He should be easy to follow; this was an industrial sector and practically uninhabited. It didn’t contain any heavy industry; it was side by side with normal 'dorm' sectors, it contained textile works, a big bakery, a distribution centre for the local commissaries, a few small goods factories and the Freeport clinic. And-

Shit. The Black Hole.

Wufei and Duo had been in the large building before, following a lead. The Black Hole was one of Freeport's bars-cum-drug-dives; a place where workers went to relax and broken souls went to die. In Wufei's eyes, the sniffers at the doors, keeping the hopped up clientele in, had seemed like the jaws of a vicious trap. The darkness inside the Black Hole had been suffocating and the music way too loud. Despite all this, the citizens of Freeport treated it like one more piece of entertainment, instead of the seedy anteroom to Hell that it was.

His prey was heading straight for it.

It made sense; it was the only part of sector D8 that actually had a lot of people in and around it. Wufei didn't even know what his target looked like; if the man reached it, he'd lose himself in the crowd around the bar.

Wufei broke into a desperate sprint. There were faint echoes of music in the distance, tinny and full of percussions. Up ahead, Wufei saw a blond man in a dark jacket dodge between two buildings, silhouette briefly outlined by the glow of floodlights near the joint.

It was probably too late, but Wufei had to try. He made his way to where his target had disappeared and glanced around cautiously.

The Black Hole had other attractions besides drinking and drugs. There was a huge pit outside full of oddly shaped blocks of cement. It was officially for testing secondary engines and circuits from a local factory; part of it formed a crude wind tunnel. But when Freeport didn't need it for factory testing, it could be used as a skating or boarding rink, concert pit, a paintball field, an outdoor cinema or the reckoning ground for public duels between gangs.

There were scores of people sitting on the concrete blocks or on the lips of the pit. There would probably be some entertainment later, or maybe it was already finished and these people were relaxing and chatting before going back for a short rest and then another day in the factories and shipyards. Citizens milled around, talking, laughing and drinking - non-alcoholic drinks, since they were outside the perimeter of the Black Hole's sniffers. Finding one lone runner in that crowd was nearly impossible, especially since Wufei couldn't leave the protection of the alleyway; not with a Blade's collar and no Handler nearby. He stood in the shadows, eyes scanning the crowd for signs of someone running or dodging into the Black Hole or another alley. Though if the man was smart, he'd sit down and act casual and Wufei would have lost him for good.

People were moving around, some were leaving, waving goodbye to friends...Wufei's eyes skipped from face to face, looking for the fugitive and failing to find him.

But there were a couple of people looking at Wufei now. One of those nearest to him was staring at his collar and frowning. Damn.

He prudently stepped back into the alley, walking away slowly and trying to radiate innocence from his shoulder blades. But he wasn't as good at it as Duo was; when he was far enough from the Black Hole for the music to fade, he heard quick footsteps behind him.

"Hey, you!"

Wufei turned calmly down a side street, and, once out of sight, bolted towards the gap between two buildings. It was blocked by a six-foot high chain link fence; Wufei didn't grip the noisy metal wire, but sprung up lightly onto a box nearby and leapt. His hand hit the top bar of the fence, elbow bending to cushion the impact as much as possible; he vaulted over it cleanly, barely making it shiver. He landed in a crouch on the other side and dived towards a bank of shadows beneath a fire escape.

The footsteps hesitated between hurried and cautious. Three or four people. He caught sight of one of them as she paused near the gap between buildings; a woman in her forties dangling a bottle from her fingers, a frown on her face as she looked around, visibly puzzled. Someone behind her spoke. Wufei heard the word 'collar' and a question. In Wufei’s field of vision, the woman shrugged.

Wufei crept away cautiously. As usual, he was impressed by the attitude of Freeport Citizens to challenge anything odd that they saw; a refreshing change from the apathy and 'not my problem' attitude of the people the Preventers interviewed after murders and shootouts in the rest of the Space Sphere. It was to their credit that the colony’s inhabitants took such a personal interest in anything that might threaten their sector, but damn, it was a nuisance for him sometimes.

He made it back to the junction where he'd split up with Duo, and walked swiftly down the road his friend had taken. Duo had been closer on his target's tail than Wufei had been. If he'd caught his man, he shouldn't be too far up ahead. Hopefully Wufei had lost his followers, but if they found him again, he wanted his Handler nearby.

There was a choked scream up ahead and the sound of a body hitting a flat surface.

Every one of Wufei's alarms shot to Red. His sword was in his hand and he charged towards the sound, forgetting anybody who might be following him. If there'd been someone waiting in ambush- if that was Duo screaming- if they'd hurt Duo, they were going to die.

A bank of dusty neon was bleeding raw light over two figures against a factory wall. The man on the ground wasn't Duo, to Wufei's immediate relief. Duo was standing over the fallen man, a fist raised back slightly, the other hand twisted in the man's collar and pinning him to the prefab plastic.

Their attacker was a Caucasian male in his late twenties, dressed in a factory one-piece suit and a worn jacket. One of the man's hands was raised in dazed defence. The bottom half of his face was red with blood from his nose. The other hand was curled up against his stomach, protected by his bent legs. The fingers were scuffed and twisted, as if they’d been stomped on by a boot. He was wheezing in a way that didn't sound too good.

"Talk." Duo's voice was deadly.

The man made a noise of pain deep in his chest, and fresh blood trickled from his nose.

"Talk," Duo said, very softly. "Who. Is. Your. Boss."

The beaten attacker stared up at Duo, then his split lips moved.

"Fuckyou-...-c'n kill me...won't talk..."

"Yeah? You'd be surprised." Duo drew back his fist slowly. The man flinched, but there was a light in his eyes that Wufei recognized as he drew near. It was the sort of fanaticism that Treize had inspired.

"Won' le' you destroy F-Freepor'," the man hissed quickly, a bubble of blood popping incongruously from his lips. Then he hunched up, as if expecting an immediate retaliation.

Wufei shook his head. Great, some lead this was. This guy was probably a Breaker, but he seemed to be as zealous as the men who'd dared to invade Recyc to get at Herb. He wasn't going to be much help, not without applying the kind of means that Wufei, for one, wouldn’t stoop to.

His senses suddenly prickled. Duo hadn't moved; he was still standing with one hand twisted in the man's jacket and the other raised in the air in a fist. His eyes had gone wide but the pupils had shrunk to dangerous pinpoints and he was smiling in a way that made Wufei's mouth suddenly go dry.

The man twitched, one arm lowering a bit as he glanced up cautiously through swollen eyes-

The blow caught him against the chin and smashed him back into the wall.

Duo's hand disappeared from view and reappeared in the instant it took Wufei to blink; a flick-knife gleamed balefully under the light.

"Duo?!" he hissed, alarmed.

The blue eyes twitched towards him. As if Duo had momentarily forgotten his presence.

"He attacked us," Duo said, his eyes back on the man at his feet. "Tried to kill us where there were no witnesses."

Wufei gave the empty streets around them a pointed look. "So you're about to do the same?"

"Don't worry. I'll carve my name on him after I'm done. Anybody got any complaints, they can come and see me," Duo stated with a distant half-smile.

"No." Wufei's voice hesitated between an order and an appeal. Duo was serious, Wufei could feel it. Deadly serious, and not inclined to stop, and Wufei wasn't sure how much influence he had at this juncture. Something had set Duo off, bad.

Wufei hadn't seen this coming, but something in him thought he should have.

Duo's hard gaze slowly lifted from his victim to Wufei, and the ugly light went out of his eyes. Or maybe it was just banked a while.

Wufei relaxed, no longer quite as concerned even when Duo braced himself and hauled the man up by a fistful of collar.

"You tell your boss..."

Then Duo's voice died. His lips twisted back over his teeth in a smile that was almost a snarl.

Without a further word, he slammed the man, who was all but unconscious anyway, against the wall and stalked off.

Wufei hesitated, looking down at their precious lead bleeding on the metal of the street. Just as he was about to say something, he heard footsteps echo somewhere behind him. The people who'd been following him previously? Or maybe other Black Hole patrons, or factory workers putting in some overtime. Either way, he and Duo probably shouldn't hang around. He fell into step in the safety of Duo's shadow.

"What about the snitch?" Wufei asked, trying to keep up. Duo was walking fast.

"He'll be long gone by now, he wouldn’t have waited for us this long," Duo growled without looking back at him. They were nearly at D8's sector wall, with an out-of-the-way airlock that their attacker had probably been running towards in his attempt to escape. "If the bastard was even there in the first place."

"No, I meant, we need to find him; someone got him to set us up, we need to know who," Wufei said, lengthening his stride. He'd been keeping an eye out for people following them as soon as they left Makhno, just as he had been continuously for the past few weeks. Nobody could have followed them from their home, he was sure of that. That meant the assassins were waiting for them in an ambush and they knew Wufei and Duo would be there.

"Why bother? It won't be the Breakers." Duo hit the airlock release with unnecessary force, and stepped through quickly. "We know that's not the way they operate. They'll have asked one of their connections to pressure the rat into luring us out here, but he won't know anything concrete."

"You can't be sure of that. Shouldn't we at least talk to him? Where does he live?"

Duo was already at the other lock leading to the next sector. He didn't answer.

"Duo? Do you at least know who that was back there? The name of the guy who attacked us? Did you recognize him?"

The black coat was beating against Duo's legs as he walked up ahead, out the airlock and into the street.

"Duo?!"

The next sector wasn't an industrial sector, there were a few people about: a cart owner half asleep next to some homemade wares, and a few mothers with young children walking down the street; this sector was apparently at the start of its day cycle. Wufei bit his tongue and followed the silent tread of his Handler.

He automatically kept an eye on their surroundings on the way back, though he didn't think they were at risk in the more crowded areas. He was also thinking hard. He was trying to fit the attack in some kind of pattern he could assign to the Breakers, and failing.

Here was a group so tight in their security and secrecy that nobody in Freeport even knew they existed. They'd gone to huge, expensive lengths to bribe the Preventers and get them to pull Wufei off their back. That had failed. And this was their next strike? Sending out two lone assassins, and apparently amateurs at that? If they wanted to kill Wufei, why wasn't Carver helping them? Along with Tor Kendle and thirty men, like the force they had sent after Herb in Recyc?

Blank, exhausted faces surrounded him in the shuttle, workers returning home. Wufei met each and every interrogative scrutiny with his own challenging one, familiar with Freeport's ways by now.

This row upon row of eyes was perhaps the reason why the Breakers hadn't moved in force. What had happened in Recyc was exceptional, but apart from the Trolls, nobody in Freeport had been aware of it, and the Trolls didn't share information outside their ‘temple’, particularly if it exposed a weakness of theirs. If they didn't know who the Breakers were, their ability to retaliate would be limited. That was why the Breakers on that strike force had been stripped of all personal effects; to avoid giving any lead if they were caught. It had been a huge risk for the Breakers, nonetheless...But it was nothing like the risk of openly attacking Wufei and Duo where everyone in Freeport might see it. You couldn't move a thirty-man attack force around in this colony discreetly, that just didn't happne. It would lead to questions among people who were a good deal less secretive than the Trolls.

Then why not a few professional assassins, like Carver? That would be discreet enough to get rid of Wufei and Duo without too much of a risk. That was the thing Wufei couldn't figure out.

The shaking of the shuttle car was numbing him, pounding into his head like the questions that were gathering without answers.

Lesley...Herb's sister. According to her, Herb had said there was somebody else after him, somebody other than Wufei and Duo. And Carver was a striking figure. He was also a Blade, and not supposed to wander away from his Handler, though Wufei was ready to bet that Carver lost the collar whenever it suited him; the Breakers were not big on rules. Wufei hadn't been about to believe Herb's assumptions without proof, but the Breaker's behaviour did make it look like there might be something behind it. The Breakers were not just hiding from Wufei and Duo. Maybe somebody else was watching them, and their key men like Carver. If they wanted to keep their presence in Freeport a secret, they had to be careful.

So why this pitiful attack tonight?

Wufei watched the stations drag past. They'd be back in Mahkno in a few minutes. Frustration and the remains of adrenaline were twisting in his throat. The Breakers had made their move, and Wufei had been unable to capitalize on it, or even understand it.

He was missing something...or he didn't have some crucial piece of information...he stared at Duo's reflection in the grimy window. The cheap plastic pane was full of scratches; they bled the light from the carriage’s weak neon, dissipating the smuggler's image until Wufei could barely make it out.

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