Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chapter 2

The Loyalty of Brotherhood

A few miles away from the station, Alec and Edward stood alongside of the tanker truck, refueling it after having filled it with water and driven around in circles while Alec lent him a friendly ear upon which to unleash his tension. They'd been friends for nearly their entire lives - having been classmates for twelve straight years, played pee-wee through varsity sports with each other, and even having gone through the fire academy together. He was the only person with whom Edward felt comfortable venting his frustrations — and he vented often.

Much like Alec did over his twin sister Jane.

Edward empathized with him, having worked numerous shifts with her over the years and become all too familiar with her "Just-because-I-have-a-vagina-doesn't-mean-I-can't-do-your-job-and-do-it-better" attitude. He, himself, had never doubted her abilities for a minute as he'd seen she was just as capable as the rest of the guys were, if not more so in some instances with her small frame and having the capability of squeezing into confined spaces they'd be otherwise unable to. It had proven to be a valuable ability a handful of times over the years, but it was a far cry from being a justifiable excuse for her superiority complex.

In his eyes, they were equals. She could weasel her way into crawlspaces and the occasional ravine crevice, and he could carry a hundred pound reel of hose on each shoulder while running up seven flights of stairs, an ability that came in handy when needing to carry a two hundred pound person to safety without assistance.

"You're not really going to bail on us, are you? We're a family, man...a dysfunctional one at times, but a family nonetheless," Alec chuckled, attempting to not sound disheartened at the news. If you asked him, he'd much rather the Chief put Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum on an alternate shift instead of the Lieutenant, his best friend.

"No. It's not worth the aggravation of the family drama that would ensue if I followed through with it," Edward replied as he kicked the truck's tire. Silently he amended his statement - it wasn't worth disappointing his parents to follow through with it. They'd entrusted him to keep his brothers safe as best he could, and transferring to another rotation wouldn't accomplish that at all.

"I wouldn't say that. Personally, I'd say it'd be worth every bit of the family drama if it took you back a step away from having a stress induced heart attack before thirty," Alec responded bluntly, unafraid of sharing his unfiltered thoughts. With anyone else, he might beat around the bush or sugarcoat his words, but between the two of them, they always spoke their minds freely.

A bark from inside of the truck had both men looking up to see Cash trying to stick his snout through the cracked open window, and the sight of him brought a question to Edward's mind.

"Hey, man...where were you this morning when I came in? Cash came running out from under the bay door so I knew you were there, but your truck wasn't in the lot," Edward questioned curiously as Alec removed the gas nozzle from the tank and replaced it in the holster.

"Heidi filed for a divorce and served me the papers last night. Jane dropped me and Cash off at the station around midnight because I just couldn't stand spending another night there, and since the truck was legally in Heidi's name, I left it with her," he smirked with a shrug.

"Pissed her off something wicked too, but I couldn't give a shit less. She can get her boy toy to finish paying it off for all I care. I never wanted that damn piece of crap to start with."

"That sucks, man. I'm sorry. If you need a place to crash, I got room," Edward offered without hesitation.

"Nah, I'm good. Thanks though. I just gotta get through this shift and then go apartment hunting tomorrow after buying a new truck. Should be able to move in someplace by the end of the week at the latest," Alec responded with ease and then laughed. "And leave the consolations at the door when ya get back in the truck. We should go out and celebrate the next night we both have off. I feel like I've been given a death row pardon by the Governor himself."

Edward laughed heartily as he climbed up into the cab, shaking his head incredulously. The ride back to the station was much more comfortable, the tension previously radiating from Edward's shoulders eased and no longer stifling the air around him. He didn't get irritated again when he had to remove Emmett's turnout gear from the frontload washer and hang it to dry even though he had been there the entire time and could have done it himself. And as he passed Jasper on his way into the lounge, he playfully punched his shoulder, smiling as he told him the repairs to his car had been paid for and he could pick it up in the morning.

He'd called the auto shop while they were filling the water tank and paid the bill over the phone, giving his little brother not only his car back, but also his wife and bed in one fell swoop. Had he done that a week or even a day before, Jasper would have just been happy about it and never thought twice about it—but it hadn't been a week or a day before, and instead of being happy, he felt guilty. Incredibly guilty.

So goddamn guilty that the half eaten sandwich in his hand that he'd been devouring up until that moment, ended up in the trash as he headed outside to call Alice to let her know that he was going to pick up Tyler's shift the following day in Edward's place. With the extra money he made from that additional shift and the others he planned to pick up until Tyler returned, he'd start paying Edward back for all the money he'd given him over the years.

His only hope was that it wasn't too late to start trying to make it up to him and, hopefully, enough of an incentive to keep his brother on their shift. Deep down, Jasper knew he couldn't handle the job without knowing his brother had his back every step of the way. He didn't want to admit it to any of the guys in the house, or even his own family, but their line of work scared the hell out of him. Every time he heard the station alarm or the pager tones, he feared it would be his last call.

What he didn't know, because he'd never bothered to confide in either Edward or his father, was that every man, and woman, in that station house had that same fear deep down. It was that fear that kept them alert and focused when chaos and danger surrounded them. It was also that very fear that drove them to save others from the same possible fate that caused their hearts to sprint in staccato rhythms within their chests each time they entered a burning building.

The other thing he didn't realize, was that Edward knew he was afraid.

And, an hour later, when the station alarm and pagers began to erupt through the air and the guys donned their gear and jumped into their trucks, Edward acknowledged that fear in his brother and tamed it with the simple gesture of turning in his seat and helping his fumbling fingers to secure the collar on his turnout coat. He didn't say a word, knowing that the action in and of itself was enough to assure his brother that he'd be by his side until they returned to safety.

Edward knew it was enough because it was exactly what their father had done for him as a rookie until he'd learned to tame the fear to the point where it guided him by instinct rather than placing him in increased danger by making him freeze up or panic at precisely the wrong moment. He'd done it for Emmett as well when his initial bravado had gone up in flames right along with the first structure fire he'd ever encountered that hadn't been carefully ignited and controlled for the purpose of training.

The real deal was impossible to experience in all of its unpredictable, unstable, and unforgiving nature in an educational setting. It was the one thing instructors tried to teach them but could never really be learned and understood until they were standing in the middle of it and trying to recall everything they'd been taught to keep themselves unharmed and alive.

Emmett, still riddled with shame after his father's words and unable to face his brother even after having hidden out in the station's sleeping quarters all morning, chose to jump on board with the guys in the rescue pumper instead of in the aerial ladder with his blood family. Throughout the entire ride to the scene, he muttered not a single word as he absentmindedly affixed his radio to his borrowed turnout jacket and fastened the collar flaps, trying to dredge up the enthusiasm he always had when responding to a call, but able to find none.

He couldn't find it because it was flying down the road fifty feet in front of him in the aerial ladder's cab. He couldn't muster it up on his own because it had never been in him to begin with. It wasn't the calling to fight fires that drove him, but the ability to share in the thrill of the job with his brother and to see the pride shining in Edward's eyes when they came out victoriously—and knowing that part of that pride was reserved for him.

Alec and Felix in the seats ahead of him noticed his abnormally pensive state instantly, but left him to his thoughts. Alec was fairly certain what had caused it after hearing about the one-sided phone call some of the guys had witnessed, and chose to keep quiet rather than give the gossip mongers any more fuel to add to their ever burning brushfires. Some of the guys in the department were worse than little old ladies at Friday night bingo; a regular bunch of Chatty Kathy's—and Newton in the backseat was one of them.

It was best for Alec to let sleeping dogs lie and keep an extra eye on the little boy he'd watched grow into a man who still idolized his big brother with every bone in his body.

Upon arriving on scene, Edward assessed the situation rapidly, noting the abandoned vehicle that had been set afire and had spread to the patch of woods beyond, and started yelling out orders.

"Emmett, Jasper, get those hoses unrolled and connected! Felix, I want you in the bucket! Do what you can to stop it from spreading! Alec, man the ladder controls! Mike, get on the radio and have dispatch hit up Station Ten for their brush trucks and a backup tanker," he commanded with authority.

Not a second was wasted as each of the men jumped into action. Intense waves of heat and clouds of smoke bombarded them with each gust of wind, but they ignored the sweat beginning to drench their bodies, dripping down their faces and adding to the burning sensation in their eyes from the smoke. They worked together, efficiently and with the synchronicity of a single unit performing a task.

At least, Edward had thought they were until he looked up from where he'd been fastening a hose's coupler to the valve on the pumper, and he couldn't find his baby brother.

"Where's Emmett?" he breathed, his heart taking off at a frantic pace.

"Where's Emmett?" he roared as he ran toward the fire.

His pulse picked up triple-time, sweat pouring off his forehead as he moved straight toward the trees that were beginning to burst from the moisture within their trunks and branches boiling and expanding from the scorching heat—and spotted him through the flames engulfing the unidentifiable vehicle between them.

"Emmett!" he screamed, bolting for him with the knowledge that at any moment the hunk of metal could explode if the flames reached the fuel tank.

"Em, goddamn it move!" he belted out as a mixture of sweat and tears slipped from his eyes, fear seizing his heart as he rammed full force into his little brother, launching both of them toward the trees at the exact moment the gas tank ignited.

The force of the explosion knocked them to the charred underbrush between the trees, tangled together as Edward shielded Emmett from the burst of flames that swallowed the rear of the vehicle before dissipating into a giant cloud of dense black smoke. Within seconds of landing on the ground, they were being soaked with a stream of water as their fellow crew members attacked the flames licking up the trunks of the trees surrounding them in an effort to keep the pair safe.

Edward rolled off of Emmett with a groan, his left shoulder and knee throbbing painfully from having landed on them, but gritted his teeth and moved to lift himself from the ground. Staying where they were just wasn't an option if they wished to remain unharmed. Once on his feet, he bent down to retrieve his brother's helmet - that should have been fastened - and held a hand out to help him up. Emmett, however, ignored it and stalked off toward the trucks.

Edward released a deep breath, calming his frayed nerves and nodded once to no one in particular. At least neither of them had been seriously injured, he'd thought, knowing he'd borne the brunt of the impact himself as he brushed off the sooty bits of earth from Em's helmet.

"You alright, bro?" Alec hollered down to him, warily eyeing the way he was favoring his left leg.

"Fine...just need to walk it off," Edward answered with a wave of his hand, but failed to meet his gaze.

In all the years he'd known and worked with Edward, Alec had learned two things about him that never wavered; not even in the most intense of situations.

Edward loved his family unconditionally and loyally—and he never looked a person in the eyes when he lied.

"Newton! Get your ass up here and man the controls!" Alec bellowed, incensed. He wasn't even sure who he was more infuriated with in that moment, Edward for lying or Emmett for being the reason he'd gotten hurt in the first place and then just walking away from him.
The very moment Mike was on the platform, Alec flew off the truck and to his friend's side behind the pumper.

"What is it, man? I know when you're full of shit and hurtin'," he demanded, calling him out on his fallacy.

"My knee...fuck," Edward ground out through clenched teeth as he slammed the side of his fist into the back of the truck just as Station Ten along with two medic rigs pulled up on scene. Alec stormed off, waving down the medics and ignoring Edward's shouts of protest.

Edward, in a fit of anger, ripped his helmet off and threw it at Alec's retreating back before slumping down against the back of the truck, keeping the weight off his leg. A minute later, Alec and a medic were jogging toward him and he grudgingly accepted the inevitability that his part in this fight was done. As he began to remove his turnout gear, stripping down to his navy blue uniform, he listened half attentively to Alec's account of how he was injured, but his mind was miles away.

More like about thirty feet in physical distance to where Emmett stood, angrily attacking the smoking hunk of melted and scorched metal that could have taken his life had his brother not saved his ass—again. Where he'd disappeared to for ten straight minutes after storming away from him, Edward had no clue; nor did anyone else.

"Alec, enough, man. He gets it...we fell and I jammed my knee," Edward huffed, wanting nothing more than to go check on his brother.

"How's it goin', Edward?" Marcus asked with a bob of the head added to his greeting.

"Just fuckin' peachy," Edward responded with a wry grin.

"Ah come could be worse," Marcus smirked, his voice saturated with a teasing tone. "He could have snagged Jessie from the other rig and she would have hauled you off to Tacoma General for no other reason than to spend forty minutes purposely botching IVs in your arm."

"I've already had enough piss in my Wheaties for one day. Please refrain from urinating on the lunch I haven't had yet, thanks," Edward retorted, rolling his eyes as his head thumped back against the truck.

"Alright, get a move on. I got all day to stand around but it's hotter than Hades out here so hike 'em up and let's see what we got goin' on," Marcus chuckled as he squatted down to the ground. He jokingly whistled out an obnoxious catcall as Edward tugged his pant leg up over his knee, but as hard as he tried to stifle it in his chest, Edward laughed. A little.

"Can ya bend it?" Marcus asked and Edward nodded as he did so, albeit painfully. When he lowered his leg back down, Marcus poked and prodded around it. "On a scale from one to ten, rate the pain when you bear weight on it."

"Three," Edward lied, looking down at his knee to avoid Marcus's eyes. He knew how his district's medics worked; pain level of three or under and you're in the clear to stay, four or five and they'd let you walk to the rig, six and above and you got rolled out on a stretcher.

"Solid six, Marcus! Don't let his ass fool ya! If he didn't look you in the eye, he lied!" Alec shouted from the aerial ladder control platform.

Twenty minutes of arguing with Marcus and attempting to convince him it was nothing more than a dull throb and that he was perfectly fine, had earned Edward nothing more than a glorified chauffer service to the local hospital - complete with swirling lights and sirens just to piss him off after having been loaded onto a stretcher, making him look like a man dying from a boo-boo to his knee-bone that his mother could have kissed and made better when he was four. He found it utterly ridiculous, but at least Marcus hadn't gone as far as torturing him by sending him off under Jessica's care. He could live the rest of his life without having another dramatic run in with that broad, he was positive of that.

"So what happened with you and Jess, if ya don't mind my askin'. You two were an item for a while back in the day weren't ya?" Marcus asked as he secured the IV in Edward's left arm with tape and a Tegaderm that was gonna smart like a bitch slap when he ripped it off in an hour or so. Edward knew first hand what both felt like—unfortunately.

"Yeah like two years ago and nothing happened aside from me breaking it off because I just couldn't see it going anywhere. There wasn't really anything more than friendship between us, well at least on my side...but even that bit the dust when she busted out all the windows on my car. It's nice to know she's still carrying a grudge though, even after I denied pressing charges for vandalism and destruction of property against her," Edward responded with dry sarcasm.

He wasn't about to go into how she tried beat the snot out of him when he charged her in his driveway, because Lord help him, if his mother hadn't taught him not to hit a woman he would have laid her out on the pavement after her second strike to his face. The first strike had caught him off guard, the second had her pinned in a restraint hold until the police arrived. She was just lucky she hadn't left a visible mark or she would have been hauled off for domestic violence regardless if he had pressed charges or not. His face had escaped her wrath, but his shins sure as hell hadn't.

He still had faint scars on his left leg to serve as a reminder of that psychotic encounter.

"So you saved your brother from an exploding gas tank, huh?" Marcus asked absently as he filled out paperwork regarding Edward's vitals, injuries, and an account of how they were obtained.

"Sorry, what?" Edward asked, his mind having drifted away momentarily.

"Your saved him from an exploding gas tank, in that car?" Marcus asked again, looking up from his paperwork with an assessing eye.

"Yeah, I guess. Just standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time," Edward sighed, leaning his head back against the stretcher and staring at the roof of the rig.

"Was this the same brother that got lost in his first real structure fire?" Marcus asked with a hint of amusement that instantly made Edward bristle.

"No," he growled without pause, "And that could have happened to anyone. You don't have to be a rookie to lose your way in a labyrinth of unfamiliar hallways when you can't see a foot in front of your face."

Marcus's eyes widened as he heard the warning tone in Edward's voice and quickly issued a sincere apology. He'd heard of Edward's fiercely protective demeanor over his brothers, but until that moment, had never been on the receiving end of it. His apology, however, did virtually nothing subdue Edward's anger over the slight joke at his brother's expense.

"What is it with you some of you friggen medics thinking running into burning buildings is a game? Do you guys think we're in there playing around or some shit? A little game of hide and seek or Marco Polo whenever the opportunity presents itself? Do you guys ever laugh when a cop drops his gun and gets shot or gets into an accident when chasing a perp? This shit ain't funny, dickhead," Edward spewed vehemently. "We put our lives on the line every day we step foot into our station house."

"I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to poke fun, really," Marcus responded instantly, contrite and feeling like a cad over bringing it up to start with.

The remainder of the ride was tense and silent as Edward willed the medic up front to drive faster so he could get the hell back to the station house at some point before the end of the day. As he was rolled into the emergency room, his arms were crossed over his chest and his eyes were closed, not wanting to see all the familiar faces staring at him and wondering what happened to him. While they all played a game of "Who's on second?" trying to figure out which exam room to put him in, he felt like fish trapped in one of those tiny little bowls in the pet shop. A Japanese fighter fish in a potpourri dish just waiting for someone to come over and tap on the glass just to annoy him...

Or, more accurately, make him feel like a complete invalid by not allowing him to move onto the other stretcher himself and then shine megawatt beams of light into his eyes and ears even though he'd only hurt his leg. Take his temperature even though he wasn't sick. Take his blood pressure and question why it rose each time they took it again, seeing as how five times in ten minutes wasn't just a wee bit excessive considering the nature of his injury.

"So help me God if you even think about cutting off my uniform I'll hop off this bed and gimp right out that damn door," he warned the nurse wielding the trauma shears just an inch off the hem of his pants.

"This is ridiculous," he groaned, sitting straight up in the bed and eyeing the dozen people in the confined room. "Hey, Peanut! Where are ya?" he hollered, receiving numerous questionable looks until Alice waltzed into the room with a slight smirk on her lips.

"You rang?"

"Can you please clear this room out and find me just a single attending? Just one...that doesn't have half the University's med-program following them?" he pleaded, giving her the puppy eye and pout combo he'd learned from the master herself. She snickered as she shooed the flock of residents and nurses from the room and returned only a minute later with Dr. Regan.

"Christ, you guys sure do know how to make a person feel like a lab rat around here," Edward scoffed as Alice tried to suppress another snicker, leaning in to kiss his cheek and whisper in his ear.

"Jas called. I'll have you out of here in twenty tops, hon', and if you can hang tight for another ten after that, I can drop you off back at the station on my way home."

"Have I told you lately how much I adore you?" he grinned at her, getting a wink before she closed the curtain behind her as she left him alone with the doc.

True to her word, twenty minutes and three x-rays later, he was sprung from the joint with a diagnosis of nothing more than a possible strained ligament. They hand him a prescription for painkillers and muscle relaxants - which he promptly tore up and deposited in the trashcan on his way out to the waiting room.

"Ready?" Alice asked, peeking her head around the corner into the "waiting room of doom" as he'd come to refer to it over the years. It was probably the only place worse to sit and wait than even inside an exam room. At least the stretchers were padded.

"Been waitin' on you for hours, Peanut. What the hell took ya so long?" he joked as he pushed himself out of his chair and walked toward her stiffly. The pain in his knee had subsided to a dull throb at some point, but it still took him a few steps to acclimate himself to the irritating sensation.

Once beside her, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders as she wrapped one behind his back and patted it gently, leading him out of the hospital and toward her car. As they strolled slowly, he relished in the ease of his relationship with his sister in-law. Had she been a few years older when they'd met—and had not been brought home and introduced at dinner as his brother's girlfriend—he most likely would have asked her out on a date. Their friendship had always been an easy one, filled with laughter and understanding of one another. She was everything he could have asked for in someone to call his significant other, but, rather unfortunately, she was significantly taken by his brother.

"I want to thank you for what you did for Jasper...for us," she spoke finally, quietly as she watched their footsteps upon the concrete before looking up at him, "I'll pay you back as soon as I can, I promise."

"Peanut, I don't want your money," he sighed, draping his forearm over her shoulder. "If anyone should pay me back it's Jasper, not you. So I hear you kicked him out of the bedroom last night. Any truth to that rumor?" he joked, expecting her to smile and nod as she usually did and then burst into a tale of his over the top groveling—but she didn't.

Instead, her steps faltered and she dropped her purse on the ground as she stumbled forward just feet from her car. But it wasn't until she crouched down to retrieve her spilled belongings and froze with her hand on her tube of lip gloss upon the concrete that he knew last night had been much worse than Jasper had led him to believe.

"Alice," Edward sighed painfully as he lowered himself down to her level in time to see her attempt to stealthily swat her tears away. She gave him a meek smile as they gathered the rest of the spilled contents together. "Talk to me, Peanut. Why'd you really lock him out of the room this morning?"

"I didn't want him to know that...God," she croaked as her eyes darted around and another tear slipped from her eye. She made no move to swat it away, knowing full well he'd seen it. "I didn't want him to know that while he'd spent the night at the bar with Emmett and the guys...I...I spent the night packing all my stuff from the bedroom."

The breath that had been trapped in his chest left in a stuttering burst as he sat there unsure of what to say to her. Not once had Jasper mentioned any of this to him—not that he'd spoken to him much at all throughout the day for that matter either.

Her hazel eyes continued to flicker back and forth minutely, the only outward sign of the thousands of thoughts running through her mind as more tears trailed down her cheeks. He reached out and took a hold of her hand, rubbing his rough, calloused thumb across the back of her soft hand gently in a gesture of comfort as he waited patiently for her to process whatever it was she was working through in her mind. And when he saw the resolve set behind those familiar greenish and brown marbled eyes of hers as she looked back at him, his heart ached for the both of them.

"I can't do it anymore, Edward," she confided, her bottom lip and chin quivering.

"Peanut...I know you two can work it out. You still love him, right?" he questioned, giving her hand a slight squeeze.

"Yeah," she nodded, looking back down at the ground. "I love him...but not the way I used to, and not the way I need to for us to make it work."

"What changed?" he asked, standing because his knee was throbbing in that position and offering her a hand to help her up.

"," she sighed as she leaned against the trunk of her car. "I don't know. I was only eighteen when we met and I thought he was exciting and adventurous. He made me laugh like crazy. I was smitten. Out of my mind for him, so we got married two years later and looking was too soon because somewhere in the last four years, I grew up and he..." she trailed off, shaking her head and looking away as she swiped at another tear.

"Didn't," Edward finished, nodding his understanding of what she was talking about.

"We just...we're different people now than we were back then. We want different things and can't seem to find a middle ground between our desires...ever," she stressed her last word and even punctuated it with an aggravated splay of her hands.

"Give him some time, Alice. Everyone knows girls mature faster than boys...well some of 'em anyway," he chuckled, trying to lighten the atmosphere as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders again.

"It wouldn't matter if I did or didn't, Edward," she said softly, shaking her head again as he furrowed his brow at down at her. "It wouldn't matter because I'm in love with someone else and I've been blind not to have seen it for this long."

Her words had been addressed to the hood of a car across from them, leaving him at a complete loss of what to say as he turned his head and stared off into the distance — until he felt her lips at the corner of his jaw.

"Shit," he muttered, his eyes closing as he slowly extracted himself from her side and turned toward her. "Alleycat, don't," he whispered as he opened his eyes and took her hands in his own.

"Hurting you is the last thing I'd ever want to do, please understand that. I love you and I always will regardless if you leave Jas or not, but even if you do...we can't...I can't be to you what you think you want me to be," he paused, letting go of one of her hands to thumb away a tear and move a lock of hair away from her eyes. "I can be your friend until the end of time, but that's it, honey. He's my brother and I could never hurt him that way, the same way I could never hurt you by letting you believe there could be something more between us than what we already share."

"Okay? Friends 'til the end?" he asked as her eyes unleashed a torrent of tears, her chin quivering as she pressed her lips together between her teeth and nodded.

"Hell...c'mere, Peanut," he sighed, pulling her into his arms and wrapping her in them tightly as he rested his cheek atop her head.

"I'm sorry, honey. Really, I am. In another time or another life...things could have been different, but in this one...this is the best I can give you, both of you."

He held her until her tears subsided, rubbing her back soothingly and wishing he could shoulder the hurt she was feeling for her. She was the last person he ever wanted to see in so much pain, much less to have been one of the pair of people that caused her to feel it. She was his little Peanut, a nickname she'd earned by the devastating number of peanuts she'd devoured one night when she'd joined him at the bar for a hockey game that his brothers had left him hanging for.

"You okay?" he asked worriedly. She gave him an unconvincing smile, but nodded as she used the collar of her scrub top to wipe under her eyes and over her cheeks.

"Can we just...never speak of the last fifteen minutes of our lives ever again?" she chuckled in embarrassment.

"What fifteen minutes? I do believe the doc misdiagnosed my temporary amnesia as a possible strained ligament in my knee."

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