Chapter Sixteen
His Prelude
Her Prelude
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen

I've played the powerless in too many dark scenes
But I was blessed with a birth and a death
And I guess I just want some say in between
Don't you understand?
In the day to day, and the face to face
I have to act just as strong as I can
Just to preserve a place where I can be who I am
Talk to me now

"So, what do you think?"

Nick blinked in surprise at Adia's shyly expectant gaze. Truth to tell, he wasn't sure exactly what to think. He was still paralyzed by the shock of the situation. Not only was the talented bar band asking him for career advice, but Ani DiFranco, the indie queen herself, was chilling on the couch, participating casually in the conversation and talking to him as though he were an equal. What do I think? This is seriously fucking surreal. That's what I think.

He cleared his throat tentatively.

"I'm not asking you for a yes or no," Adia clarified quickly. "I just...you know a hell of a lot more about this kind of thing than we do."

Nick stole a glance in Ani's direction and shrugged his shoulders modestly. "I'm not sure that's true."

"I am," Ani returned with a slightly bitter chuckle. "I started my own label so I could make records and then sell them to people. I know a lot about production, sure, but I know jack shit about the politics of a commercial career."

Nick blushed under the disguised praise and turned to Elena, who shook her head.

"I've worked with a lot of artists, kid, but no one at your level. I mean, I've sent songs to radio before, sure, but none that came from an artist who was touring through Jive Records. According to your label, Adia has the potential to blow up big time, and I have no fucking idea how to handle that. You're the superstar who's sold something ridiculous like seventy-three million albums worldwide. You've got unique experience in this area, kid."

Nick's blush deepened in embarrassment. The numbers had stopped surprising him years ago; he'd heard Jive reps recite them for years. Hearing them from Elena, though, seemed different somehow--instead of inciting pride, the statistic only reminded him exactly how far into the mainstream the Backstreet Boys had managed to bury themselves. We're freaking synonymous with media success. It's not even about good music anymore, is it? We've become a product.

He chanced a glance at the group of gaping musicians before him and realized the degree to which he didn't want them to become as jaded and commercialized as he was.

"Seventy-three million albums?" Shane repeated, his face a mask of shock. Beneath the surprised countenance, though, Nick could see admiration. He wanted to correct the guitarist before the man was even tempted to idolize him.

"The numbers don't matter," he could hear himself saying quietly. "They're hardly a reflection of talent and ability. They're just proof that we have enough sex appeal to sell records to little girls."

"Still," Shane persisted, shaking his head in amazement. "That's a hell of a lot of little girls, Carter. Shit."

"Sure," Keelia agreed with a curt nod, "but ask him how much he had to sacrifice to get there."

Nick turned to her in surprise, impressed by her insight. She locked gazes with him, brown eyes catching blue, and her gaze softened slightly in understanding.

"That's what you're getting at, right? The numbers are impressive as hell, but I bet you guys had to practically sell your souls to achieve those kinds of sales."

"Not our souls," Nick chuckles bitterly, "but close enough. Dignity, mental health, the ability to create the kind of music we wanted to create..." He trailed off and shook his head, realizing all of a sudden the extent to which he'd said too much. And in front of the indie queen herself, too. Way to go, Carter. "I mean, I'm not
saying we didn't make any good music or that we didn't have any fun, because we did. It just...it sucked a lot towards the end, you know? We weren't having fun with it anymore because it stopped being about the music. Numbers are great, but..." He shook his head sadly, remembering various business meetings that they'd been forced to attend on the Black & Blue circuit. "It's easy to become a mess of
statistics. When people start obsessing over the numbers, then you've got a career that's all business and no show."

Ani's eyebrows rose in appreciation. She'd expected a lot of things from Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, but a deep self-awareness had certainly not been one of them. To say that she was impressed with his occupational objectivity would be an understatement.

"So I take it you're not a fan of the business end?" she asked with a furrowed brow. Nick turned to offer her a sad smile.

"Not at all. I got into this business because I like to sing. Unfortunately, I was also too young to plan an appropriate career path, so I got caught up in doing what people told me to do." He shrugged. "By the time I was old enough to understand how much business was going on, our careers had kind of spun out of control. They weren't our own anymore, you know?"

Ani nodded. She knew. After seeing the numbers, she'd automatically assumed that Nick Carter would be another semi-clueless industry puppet with the misconception that he was helping music to progress. She was glad that wasn't the case.

"Were you hoping to counteract that perception of you with the solo album?" Adia asked quietly. Ani was surprised at her young protégé's insight, but Nick only smiled demurely.

"We weren't talking about my career," he pointed out. He'd had enough dissection where Adia was concerned. He knew he'd made mistakes with the solo album, but he wasn't about to get into them in front of Adia's band. That's definitely a discussion for another day.

Acknowledgement of his mistakes, however, made him realize the degree to which he was qualified to give industry advice. Be shrewd. Be prudent. Say no. Hell, just don't do what I did.

"What the hell were we talking about?" Jason asked with a grin. "I got distracted by the dramatic story that was starting to unfold."

Adia's eyes narrowed in warning. "Jason..."

"What?" he demanded with a boyish wink. "I'm excited, dude. It's like a one-man episode of Behind the Music in here."

"You'll have to forgive him," Adia told Nick apologetically. "All the weed is finally starting to go to his brain."

"Certainly took long enough," Keelia muttered. "I mean, he's been a stoner since he was in diapers, right?"

Shane recognized the game immediately. "No, not quite that long. Think about it, Keels. He had to stand up to hold the pipe steady."

"You never know," Keelia volleyed with a smirk. "His parents could've just set a bong in front of him."

"Well, that would certainly explain how he learned to crawl," Shane grinned. "Can't you see it? 'Come get some Mary Jane, Jason! Oh, there's a good boy...'"

Jason rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Fine, fine, fine. Make fun. Go ahead. I can take it."

On the other side of the room, Nick was shocked. "Your parents let you smoke weed?"

Jason shrugged. "They were big hippies that never quite grew out of the Woodstock phase. Getting your first pipe was kind of like a right of passage in our family. Like First Communion for Catholics."

Nick was absolutely positive that he felt his jaw come unhinged. "Holy..."

"He's kidding," Adia muttered in annoyance. "In reality, his parents are two very sweet, very unassuming people."

"Who could smoke out the entire population of a small third world country," Shane finished with a laugh.

"Not to distract from this brilliant study of Jason's smoking habits," Elena began sarcastically, "but I believe this started as a business discussion."

"More of a debate, actually," Jason responded cheekily. He turned his impish grin back towards Nick. "So, Mr. Carter, do you have any words of wisdom regarding our possible transmission to radio? Pros and cons? A yea or nay?"

Nick heaved a sigh and tried to ignore how much Jason reminded him of AJ. Instead, he took a few moments to study Adia, who was watching him intently. She'd long ago managed to replace contacts with glasses and performance clothes with PJs, so he was no longer intimidated by her appearance. He was, however, careful to choose the right words. In listening to Adia explain her predicament, he'd come to realize exactly how seriously she took her career, and he wanted to treat the situation with the right amount of concern. He wanted to prove to her that she'd been right to confide in him but, as usual, he was at a loss for the right words.

"I can't tell you whether or not to take the song to radio," he told her seriously. "Ultimately, that's your decision."

"I know that," Adia said softly, "but I don't know enough about the music business to know what the consequences of that decision will be. I know it means more press and a few visits to the local radio stations, but I don't know anything more than that."

Nick nodded gingerly. "Jive would probably let you piggyback with me where the radio stuff is concerned. I mean, it means more publicity for you, yes, but it also means more publicity for the tour, which they ultimately benefit from."

"Sure," Shane replied with a nonchalant shrug, "but what else?"

"I'm not sure I know what you guys are asking," Nick admitted with a sigh. "The consequences of commercialization are really pretty predictable--more press, more exposure, more ass-kissing where the media higher-ups are concerned."

"Yeah, but from what you just implied, all of that makes for a pretty bumpy career ride," Keelia pointed out with a frown. "What do we have to do to prepare ourselves for that kind of career acceleration?"

"Know what you want from the media circus," Nick answered quietly. "Not to sound preachy, but...if there's anything I regret with the guys, it's that we didn't have a single clue what we wanted out of our careers. We knew we wanted to sell records, and we knew we wanted to sing, but we had no concept of the way in which we wanted to be perceived by the public. Y'all are lucky in that you have a label that's willing to work with you," he concluded with a sideways glance at Ani. To his surprise, she smiled gratefully at him. "Take advantage of it. Don't let yourselves get stuck with an image that you aren't comfortable with and a schedule of press that doesn't in any way reflect what you're hoping to accomplish as an artist."

Adia frowned. "What do you mean? How can press reflect our image as artists?"

Nick sighed heavily, feeling much older than his twenty-two years. "You guys are all about the music, and you want to target an audience that recognizes that in you. If you're going to agree to an interview, do it with something like Rolling Stone or Spin--you know, magazines that focus on a musician's artistry. Don't do it with something like Teen Beat."

"Well, duh," Keelia grunted. "I'd drop dead before I'd agree to be part of one of those teenybopper rags."

Funny, we had the same reaction when they pitched us the Burger King commercial. He cast a sad, serious look in Keelia's direction. "Remember that when you're in high demand."

"High demand?" Jason chortled. "Let's not count our chickens before they've hatched, man. Hell, at this point, we're going to be lucky if we don't break half the eggs."

"No shit," Shane agreed. "I mean, one look at Keelia and you can see how commercial we're not."

"Amen," Adia laughed. "I can think of a lot of words to describe our little bar band, but 'savvy' is not one of them."

"Yeah, we're lacking in everything but Joe Schmoe appeal," Jason grinned.

"Just stick to your guns," Nick finished with a shrug. "Not to sound like an old geezer lecturing the youngsters or anything, but I wish I had." He looked up with sudden curiosity. "How are they planning to pitch you guys?"

"There's no 'they,'" Keelia informed him with a laugh. "It's just us, Elena, and Ani."

Nick smiled gently, hoping for their sake that it would stay that way. "Have y'all decided how you want to be pitched, then?"

"As a solo act with a back-up band," Adia explained quietly. "The others aren't interested in being a part of the commercial process."

Nick's eyebrows rose in surprise at the thought of shy Adia taking center stage. "Are you sure you can handle all the media pressure on your own?"

"Are you kidding?" Jason laughed. "The girl went through the death of two parents and four years of college under the guardianship of her brother. Furthermore, she lives with us." He turned to wink at his best friend. "Media's going to be a piece of cake, right Dia?"

Adia rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "I don't know if I'd go that far."

"Ace would," Shane responded with a smile. "He still remembers the way you charmed the local news reporter into reviewing our gig."

Nick's eyes narrowed in curiosity. "Adia charmed some New York City reporter?"

"A guy from the New Yorker," Elena answered with a chuckle. "How do you think I ended up in a dive bar a block from the college campus checking out some long-shot chick band?"

The blonde's eyes widened in appreciation. "You got a reporter from the New Yorker to review an unsigned college band?!"

"Don't let the shy, sweet demeanor fool you," Keelia laughed. "Adia can be insanely persistent when she needs to be."

"She gets it from her brother," Shane muttered with a roll of his eyes.

"It's not all about the persistence, though," Jason boasted with a grin. "We've got fans in high places, dammit."

"Speaking of fans," Keelia beamed excitedly, "do we have internet access on this bus?"

Elena shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me."

Nick glanced up immediately. "I have wireless access on my laptop..."

Four wide-eyed faces turned to him incredulously, and he felt as though he'd just offered them a million dollars. Man, they really are simple people, huh?

"Dude," Jason stressed. "If you let us use it for, like, two seconds, I'd love you forever."

"He means that in a totally platonic way," Shane clarified with a laugh. Nick gulped.

"Um, sure? What are y'all looking for?"

"We have fan sites!" Jason squealed. "Someone fucking records our covers and posts them all somewhere for people to hear! Isn't that insane?"

Nick's glance drifted immediately to Adia, who was grinning broadly.

"I don't think I'll believe it 'til I see it," she admitted with a laugh, "but it really is exciting. I mean, the thought that we have fans..."

Nick shook his head in amusement. "Oh, you have fans," he assured her with a chuckle.

"How do you know?"

"I've seen the site!" he replied cheerily, no longer embarrassed about his admiration. He was far too busy enjoying their enthusiasm. "I've actually got the bootlegs of the covers in my mp3 files if you guys want to give them a listen."

"Are you fucking serious?!" Jason hollered. "You downloaded our bootlegs?"

Keelia smirked at Nick knowingly. "Somebody's a fan."

Nick shrugged easily. "Of course I'm a fan. It's good music."

Adia seemed shocked. "But...you've seen our fan site?"

"One of your fan sites," Nick corrected with a smile.

Adia's eyes widened to twice their size in something halfway between humility and horror.

"There's MORE than one?!"

He burst into hearty laughter. "Are you kidding? You've got a good dozen to your name! They're kind of sparse, nothing but music and discography and band history and such, but they're definitely extant."

Shane shook his head in amazement. "Holy shit."

"No joke," Jason agreed. Keelia chanced a hopeful glance in Elena's direction.

"Hey, Lena? Can we, like, postpone the business discussion and throw a party in honor of our newfound internet fans?"

"Hell yeah!" Jason hollered. "Party on the tour bus!"

Nick reached into his duffel bag to retrieve his laptop and booted it up, glad to be able to lighten the mood. As soon as Internet Explorer popped up onscreen, he beckoned for the rest of the band to join him on the couch.

"How do we get to the sites?" Adia asked uncertainly. She'd done her fair share of web surfing for projects in college, but she was hardly technologically proficient.

"Point and click," Nick responded with a grin in her direction, clicking on his bookmarks and scrolling down. Beside him, Adia gave a little gasp.

"You have them bookmarked?!"

He turned to wink at her, undoubtedly his boldest move since making her acquaintance. "The bootlegs are updated after every show. I like to keep a complete collection."

"See Adia?" Ani called from the other side of the room, "you've already got a Backstreet Boy frequenting your fan site."

The entrance page flashed onscreen, and Adia buried her face in her hands.

"Oh, God, this is too much."

"What the hell are you talking about, girl?" Keelia shot, playfully smacking her friend. "This is fucking awesome!"

Shane shook his head incredulously at the site's detail. "Man, these people are insane..."

"Look!" Elena pointed out, already having joined the group on the couch. "They've already posted 'Here For Now.'"

Ani ventured over to share in the excitement. "Click on it! Let's hear."

"Let me download it first," Nick chuckled. "We don't want to use up too much of their bandwidth."

"This is un-fucking-believable," Shane muttered. "We just got offstage a few hours ago."

"Fans are like the secret service," Nick answered with a groan. "You'll see."

"We might not," Adia sighed. "This could be a fluke. You know, a couple of insane people who..."

"Are intrigued and excited by the music?" Nick finished. "What do you think fans are?"

"I think she's saying that they might realize their error in judgment and find another obsession," Jason laughed.

"No way in hell," Nick insisted. "They'll hear the album and fall in love, and you'll have people following you around before you know it."

"Don't say that!" Adia cried, covering her eyes again. "You're gonna jinx it."

"Not possible," Nick told her seriously, gently pulling her wrists away from her face. "If you decide to send that single to radio, Adia, there's no going back. You're a fucking amazing musician, and you're destined for success if you want it."

A broad grin slowly spread itself across Adia's quiet, charming features. "I can't believe we have fan sites. This is so cool..."

"No shit," Keelia intoned. "Plus, they're smart fans. All of the stuff on here has to do with the music and only the music. Kick-ass."

Behind the girls, Jason and Shane slapped high fives, and Nick couldn't help but laugh as he passed the computer to four very psyched musicians and two highly amused executives. However, as he watched their wide eyes and broad smiles, he found himself praying that the road ahead wouldn't change them. Hell, I hope they stay this headstrong. I hope little things like this never cease to get them excited. I hope the business never gets in the way of the music, and I hope they never forget how much they love to do this.

He couldn't help but wonder if he'd already forgotten.

*      *      *      *      *

He tossed. He turned. He flipped. He flopped. He stretched his legs out. He curled up. He snuggled under the blanket. He kicked it to the back of the bunk. At long last, he rolled his eyes and sat up.

Nick Carter was having serious trouble sleeping.

He sat, staring at the back wall of his bunk for about thirty seconds before resigning himself to the fact that he wouldn't be visiting dreamland anytime soon. With a deep sigh and a barely audible groan, he slid his feet over the edge of the bunk and set them on the floor of the bus, arching his back so as to stretch his sore neck muscles. He reached over to grab his wrinkled t-shirt and slid it over his
head. If he couldn't sleep, then he could at least make his way to the back of the bus and do something productive. Hell, maybe I could do a few sit-ups. You know, work on that non-existent six-pack.

He grabbed his backpack from the drawer underneath the bed and plodded quietly towards the common room in the rear. As he neared the back area, he could hear the distant strains of a guitar riff, and he smiled at the thought that Adia too might be struggling with insomnia. He opened the door gingerly, and his smile immediately faded to a frightened frown.

Sitting on one of the couches with a bass guitar and a bathrobe was Keelia. Adia was nowhere to be found.

He was about to duck back out of the room in hopes of avoiding a run-in with the anti-mainstream bassist, but she caught sight of him first.

"So you couldn't sleep either, huh?"

He turned back around to face her and shook his head slowly, feeling a lot like a kid who'd gotten caught trying to sneak cookies into bed. To his surprise, Keelia leveled him with a knowing smirk.

"It's Jason's snoring, isn't it? It took me a week to get used to it."

Nick laughed nervously. "Nah, I'm just restless. Too much adrenaline, I think." He swallowed forcefully. "Anyway, I'm sorry to bother you. I didn't mean to interrupt..."

Keelia waved him off. "Not at all. I was just screwing around with the loop pedal. I couldn't sleep, so I figured I'd attempt to get some practice time in."

"Well, I'll let you get back to that," Nick agreed quickly. Keelia rolled her eyes.

"Oh, please. Like I'd send you back into nasal surround sound just so I can pretend I'm Seth Horan for an evening? I might be a bitch, but I'm not that cruel. Close the door and come on in."

Nick was nothing if not apprehensive, but he hesitantly obeyed, pulling the door shut behind him until he heard the lock click. Great. My fate is sealed for the evening. I'm going to be chewed, swallowed, and digested by a bassist with purple hair and a bad attitude.

He gulped. "You, uh...you sounded good."

She offered a tight-lipped smile. "Whatever. I was just screwing around. It's Jason's turn to pick the cover tomorrow night, and he gets off on picking songs that he knows I won't be able to play."

Nick returned her smile nervously. "You two...uh, you guys definitely seem like you...well, y'all bicker a lot," he finished lamely. Gosh, I'm pathetic. I can't even string a fucking sentence together right. No wonder she's not impressed.

Keelia shrugged nonchalantly. "It's a love/hate relationship. We give each other shit, sure, but I know he's got my back at the end of the day."

Nick smiled wistfully at the phrasing. Truth to tell, it was exactly the same way he felt about the Backstreet Boys. Hell, even now that I'm on my own, I know I can count on them to support me. They'd been through a lot together, and he was grateful to have four wonderful people in his life.

"The guys and I are like that," he admitted quietly, dropping his gaze to the floor. He'd heard enough from Keelia to know that the Backstreet Boys were far too mainstream for her stamp of approval.

"Yeah, you impressed me today."

Nick's head jerked up in surprise. He'd expected to hear a number of things from Keelia for the duration of the tour, but that definitely hadn't been one of them.


She laughed lightly, and he noted that she had a pretty smile. "Don't act so surprised, Backstreet Boy. I might not admit to liking your music, but I have infinite respect for intelligent artists."

Nick couldn't help it. He immediately started laughing. It was Keelia's turn to be confused.

"What? Why in the world is that funny?"

"You've got to be kidding me," Nick returned with an amused grin. Keelia's face remained stone cold.

"I don't kid about music," she told him seriously.

"But...but..." He trailed off, shaking his head incredulously. "Me? Intelligent? No fucking way, man. Not in this lifetime."

"Then you obviously don't know yourself very well," Keelia grumbled, "because you know a hell of a lot about the music industry."

"That doesn't make me intelligent," Nick countered. "That means that I've been screwed over a lot, and THAT makes me stupid."

"You've learned from your mistakes," Keelia volleyed. "THAT makes you intelligent."

Nick continued to shake his head. "Nuh-uh. I still stumble my way through interviews. I don't know jack shit about history, science, math...hell, I barely managed to nab my GED. People use words I don't understand on an hourly basis. How in the hell does that make me intelligent?"

Keelia set her bass against the back of the sofa and leaned forward, locking gazes with him. "Intelligence isn't measured in one's ability to harvest five-syllable words from a conversation with a bunch of dictionary buffs, Nick. There are different types of intelligent, and you're smart enough to know not to take anyone or anything for granted. Hell, you were smart enough to elude me, and that takes talent."

He frowned deeply. "How did I elude you?"

Keelia shrugged nonchalantly. "I read you wrong. I had you pegged as some Hollywood superstar who thought he was too cool to hang out with the underground kids."

"And now?" he inquired quietly. She offered a half-smile.

"Now I just think you underestimate yourself a lot. I think Adia's right. You're shy. Furthermore, you don't have enough confidence in yourself to know what you're really capable of." She leaned back against the leather of the couch. "I'll be honest with you. That's what I don't like about a lot of your music. I feel like you're
laying some of yourself on the line, but there's a lot more that you're holding back."

His eyebrows rose in appreciation. Man, what is it with these people and their musical psychoanalyses?

"That's what makes 'Do I Have To Cry For You' such a phenomenal song," Keelia explained. "I mean, yeah, your lyrics are simple and your metaphors leave something to be desired, but you really opened your heart up and bared the bloody pulp of it. You allowed yourself to be real, to be human and vulnerable, and it fucking shows." She laughed. "Adia's itching to get you into the studio, and I can see why. If you wrote that, then there's a hell of a lot that you're capable of."

Nick Carter was officially speechless. Holy hell. The bass player actually likes my music. Oh my God. He cleared his throat nervously. "Uh...thanks."

Keelia nodded shortly. "Sure."

"No, really," he persisted, searching for words that would properly convey that which he was feeling so strongly. "You guys...you're all so talented. I heard Adia's CD, and it immediately became the only thing in my CD player. As musicians, you guys are just so freaking...you know what you're doing, and you have no shame in laying it all on the line, and you come across with so much power that..." He shook his head in frustration. "I don't know what I'm trying to say. I guess...just that a compliment of that depth from one of you guys is really, really...it means a lot," he finished quietly. To his complete and utter amazement, Keelia dazzled him with a full-out grin.

"Well, thank you," she laughed. "Good to know that people out there respect us for all the right reasons. You're welcome, too. The other three will tell you; I don't say things that I don't mean."

Nick nodded his understanding. He'd figured that much.


Keelia nodded. "Hey, I've got to give props where they're due." She paused a moment and raised a menacing eyebrow in his direction. "I'll tell you this, though. You might be cooler than I thought you'd be, but that doesn't mean that we don't still have our eyes on you. If you fuck with Adia, we'll rip your pieces to pieces,

Nick's brow furrowed in something akin to shock. "Why on earth would I...?"

"I don't know, but know that she's got a pack of pit bulls in her corner," Keelia warned. "She's a bit naïve about this industry thing, and I'm glad you're willing to guide her through it, but do NOT screw her over."

Nick shook his head. "I wouldn't dream of it. I..."

Keelia held up a hand. "That's all I need to know." She carefully switched gears and offered him the outstretched limb. "So are we cool now? You aren't going to go around telling Jason that you're scared of me?"

Nick was absolutely positive that his cheeks turned at least fifty different shades of pink as he shook her hand. "Yeah, we're cool."

Keelia nodded. "Good." There was a moment of silence as she studied him. "Why the hell are you so shy? You're a freaking Backstreet Boy. You should have an ego the size of Jupiter by now."

Nick laughed ironically. "With popularity comes scrutiny," he explained gently. "It's hard to get a big head when there are so many people focused on tearing you down."

Keelia's brow furrowed in thought. "I guess I can see how that would work." She glanced at him sideways as she retrieved her bass from the cushions. "That sucks."

Nick shrugged. "It keeps you grounded, right?"

"Maybe too grounded," Keelia remarked pointedly. "It turns you paranoid."

Nick didn't say anything. He was too busy trying to ignore the verity of Keelia's statement.

"You know," she commented casually, plucking the strings absentmindedly, "you should stick around. You might just end up with a few pit bulls in your corner too."

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