Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 4 - Diego

When Victoria next woke, it was evening, and the sun was just setting, according to the light coming in through the window facing the front of the hacienda. Diego resisted lighting the lamp, instead holding the book that he was reading more at an angle to easier reflect the flames of a small fire in the fireplace. But, still, it was too dark to make out the tiny print in his current reading material. He shut the book with a snap and set it on a small bedside table. When he raised his eyes, he found himself staring into Victoria's unblinking gaze.

Diego slowly smiled. Victoria! You're awake again! he said in undisguised delight.

Diego, she answered, smiled shyly at him, a gesture that he found most endearing, and then glanced around the room.

Instantly, he sat up straighter to lean towards her. Is there anything you need? Something to eat or drink?

Well, actually, Victoria said, then wrinkled her nose. I suppose this will embarrass you, though I'm not embarrassed at all, myself. Though I don't quite know what to do... At last, she said, I have to.. you know.. use the... use the latrine, she finally burst out. How do I do that when I'm still in bed?

Diego felt his face flush a shade of pink, even if he endeavored to push the feeling of vexation down. How about if I get Maria to help you with that? Diego asked quietly. I somehow don't think Father would approve of an unmarried man helping an unmarried woman to... Not in his house. He rose from his chair. It will be so much easier in the end this way...

Diego's comment wafted away in the sudden gust of warm wind that came through the open window. In spite of what he said, he was clearly mortified. Without another word, he left the room at a fast clip.

Five minutes later, Maria returned to the kitchen, where Diego was waiting for her reappearance while sampling a still-warm apple pie.

The apples are just turning red and ripe, Master Diego, Maria said. They make for a good pie, don't they?

Diego put down his fork that had carried the first bite of the first slice of pie to his mouth. He swallowed, and said, This is so good, I think I'll take some of this to Victoria... He smiled, Maria smiled, and Lupita, the assistant cook, glared at them both.

Too many sweets will rot your teeth, Lupita direly predicted.

But what fun we can have in the meantime! Diego exclaimed with a saucy, uncharacteristic wink sent to Lupita, sliced another piece of pie onto a second plate, grabbed a fork from the drawer in the dining room, then headed for the guest quarters in the hacienda.

As he walked down the empty corridor, he recalled his recent and unusual gesture of mischievousness that had been directed towards Lupita in the kitchen. It was true that he and Lupita were both near the same age, and she drew out the devil in him with all her warnings and unhappy predictions that always seemed to be present whenever she opened her mouth, but Diego didn't think he was feeling more fiendish than he typically did. He didn't wish to cause Lupita trouble, necessarily. He was just so happy that Victoria appeared to be mending that he couldn't contain himself. If his inner jubilation manifested itself as a wink towards Lupita in the evening hours of the day Victoria had awakened, then he could hardly be entirely blamed. He was simply too ecstatic to see Victoria alive and well, in spite of her trouble with her recent memory loss and what it might mean for her relationship with Zorro if she never regained those memories. He grinned a grin that he didn't even bother to hide.

Diego appeared through the open doorway, a plate in each hand. Look what I pilfered from the kitchen while Maria was gone. He handed the pie to Victoria, who was sitting up in bed with her back supported by the pillow, which was, in turn, supported by the headboard. It was the first time since the accident that she was able to sit up, and Diego wondered if he would simple curl into himself in glee at the sight of her in such a normal position after he had spent the last few days completely and utterly terrified that she wouldn't survive her initial injury. But, he said nothing, and, oblivious to his thoughts or his joy, she took the plate he held out to her.

Pie! she exclaimed hungrily. And I didn't even have to bake it! Immediately, their eyes met over the plates of the dessert. Am I a cook? she asked then. Do I work here? Is that why you're taking such good care of me?

Carefully, gently, deliberately, Diego set his plate on top of his book on the beside table. One moment, Victoria. He placed his hands over his face, and didn't move until he scrubbed at his eyes a moment later. There. Sorry. How are you feeling now? Any double vision or headache? he asked, changing the subject.

Double vision, but I can see normally a bit further away already without encountering any double vision, Victoria answered. Though I guess I do have a headache, a tiny one, that's right where the stitches are. Lying on them all the time makes them hurt.

I bet it does, Diego agreed with her, his voice light and breezy all by itself; he didn't need to actively keep his voice disguised so that he could keep Zorro's secret identity a... a secret... when he was with a woman who had no recollection of Zorro.

Victoria hesitated a moment before she said, I don't suppose we can just take the bandage off?

Diego instantly protested, But Dr. Hernandez said we should wait until the end of the week.

Victoria sighed in irritation. But he's so cautious - I suppose he has to be to be cautious to be considered a good doctor... Then her face took on a pleading expression. But it's so uncomfortable and is so tight that it feels like something is squeezing my head all the time, and it's removal might help my headache go away, and I...

Diego held up his hands and laughed. You don't have to convince me, Victoria! he said. I just bring the dessert, I don't pretend to be a doctor; you can do what you want.

This statement seemed to make Victoria hesitate. Well, can we at least take it off so that I can look at the stitches and let my injury get some air?

Diego stared at her. I guess that can be arranged, Seņorita, he said a tiny bit flirtatiously. What was wrong with him? he asked himself a moment later as he left the room in search of the two mirrors needed that would allow Victoria to see the back of her own head. Had he actually flirted with her just now?

When he returned, he handed her a round mirror with a handle on it that had belonged to his mother, and held the square, unadorned hand mirror that he used for shaving every morning and kept on his dresser in his room. Sorry for the small size of the mirrors, but there's not much need for the ability to see reflections in a house full of men. We don't have to check to see if our dress hangs just right, after all. Diego chuckled a bit deprecatingly as he did his best to hold the piece of glass steady after he had carefully unwound the bandage from her head and set it aside. Then he stared at her stitches just as critically as Dr Hernandez had stared at them earlier that afternoon.

Your injury is a good pink color rather than the red of the severe swelling that it once was, Diego commented, his interest immediately piqued as the scientist in him awoke. Your stitches do look good, like the doctor said.

Why didn't you become a doctor? asked Victoria as she carefully studied the light film of her hair around the stitches.

Diego hesitated, himself, at her innocent question. Should he tell her why he hadn't become a doctor, in spite of his obvious interest in medicine; that he had been far too busy fighting injustice as Zorro for the past four years to indulge that interest? He hesitated again. Well, that's complicated, he finally said.

She seemed to take his answer at face value, for she set the mirror on the other pillow on the bed, then reached again for her pie. Well, it's much better, having the bandage off than having it on! I feel like I can breath again.

Diego grinned at her, mirrored her actions, and pulled his pie from the side table, where he had placed it, into his hands. He took a bite of the warm apple concoction.

Victoria took a bite, too, then paused as she was about to take another. How do I know how to eat this... pie... It's called pie... Then she shrugged, and ate without waiting for an answer to her question. I'm so hungry, I don't think I care. She took a second bite, and reached her fork for more. And you changed the subject again when I mentioned that bit about cooking... that's the second time I've noticed you've done that... why change such a normal, boring subject like baking? she asked guilelessly.

Victoria, Diego began in a patient tone of voice, as if he wanted to explain something very important.

Is it something awful about me that I don't know, but you do? What's going on, Diego? she asked, interrupting his recitation.

He sighed. Perhaps I should just tell you everything right now, even though it can't be good for you to hear something that might be... distressing... after suffering such a nasty head injury.

The forks stopped as Victoria eyed him over the cutlery. I knew it was going to be bad!

Diego chuckled. No, calm down, Victoria. It's nothing so horrendous that... he stopped talking and just stared at her.

Victoria commented, At least you didn't change to a safer subject this time. Okay, I think I would rather know than not know; start talking. It was amazing how quickly she and Diego had struck up a bantering, secure friendship with each other. It was almost as if they had always known each other... She shrugged again... Perhaps they had. She went on eating as he considered how to respond to her command for information.

Diego sighed again, the sound filling the room with sadness. When he looked up from his pie again, his forward position took him very near to Victoria's new arrangement on the bed with the blankets and pillow propped up behind her. He was so close, in fact, that he could smell her skin, her soap, her hair, her... everything that made her who she was. Diego's heart did a flip inside his chest without any encouragement on his part, and before he knew it, the two inches that separated them grew smaller and smaller, and then... He just couldn't control his spiking emotions any longer; he kissed her.

He dropped his plate to her bed and put his hands gently on Victoria's cheeks in a loving caress of her skin as his lips met hers. The kiss was magic, it was amazing, it was heartstopping, it was love, and he knew that she knew it. He also knew that he shouldn't be taking advantage of this situation like he was, had even told his father that he had no designs whatsoever on Victoria, in spite of his clear and abiding affection for her, but he simply couldn't help himself any longer. According to the way Victoria was leaning into him, languidly slipping her arms around his back and embracing him even closer, she certainly didn't mind his attentions.

When they parted, Victoria smiled that shy, endearing smile of hers again, and whispered, That was extremely... nice, she ended, and her ending would have sounded lame if not for the smile on her face and the light in her eyes that gave weight to validate her statement and make it mean more than the mere definition of the words she used. She stared into his eyes, saying many things without uttering a word, then leaned in and kissed him again.

When they parted a second time, Diego closed his eyes and surrounded her in the soft, safe cocoon of his arms. Victoria, I was so worried for you... You have no idea...

I'm here, Diego, I'm all right, Victoria whispered, her voice coming to him from over his shoulder. I'm all right, you're all right, we're in the same place, together... I'm so sorry for any misery I caused you...

No, Diego said, as if she didn't quite understand what he was saying, doing, feeling... It's because of you that I can do what I do, that I am who I am. He looked into her eyes, his blue gaze unflinchingly meeting her brown one. I was so terrified when you were hit that I would be destined to always live without you... alone.

Victoria placed her hand soothingly on his cheek, kissed him one more time, an action of affection that was full of love, whether she knew it or not, and sat back against the pillow again, but retained the curl of her fingers around his hand. Tell me about that day, she tenderly commanded with a puzzled frown to her forehead.

Diego continued to stare at her beautiful face, at a loss for words. Now that she had discarded the bandage, she appeared as she always appeared... like normal. But, no matter now 'normal' she seemed, she was promised to Zorro, not Diego de la Vega. On the other hand, she had just kissed Diego, not Zorro, and she didn't even remember the masked bandit. But the events leading up to the fight in her tavern, which had directly led to her injury, were undeniably linked to that new edict... an edict that claimed she would have to pay a large fee or go to jail in less than a month if she chose not to marry. How could Diego discuss the edict without discussing what had upset her in the first place about marrying Zorro, and how could he bring up Zorro at all, knowing that she could remember him at any mention of his name? Diego had no doubt in his mind that he would lose Victoria to the masked avenger if she recalled him, and, now that he had kissed her and touched her as himself, he found that he was selfish and didn't want to go back to being just her friend while Zorro 'won the girl.' He didn't know what to do.

Hesitant, uncertain, Diego leaned back in his chair and stared at her. That's complicated, too, he said at last.

Oh no, she said as her face whitened. I cooked something bad and killed someone, didn't I? I'll be going to jail after I'm completely healed.

Diego laughed, in spite of not wishing to see her face grow so pale. No, nothing as dramatic as that! he exclaimed. He could see now that, because of her fears caused by 'not knowing' the truth, he would have to tell her everything about that day, including her fears about Zorro, and, perhaps, Zorro's identity, just to rid her of her sense of worry and self-condemnation. It is, however, surprising. Are you ready for the truth?

As ready as I'll ever be, she said.

Diego began. There's a new law, which was posted in your tavern... that's why you remembered cooking... you own the local tavern and prepare all the food served in it... you're quite a good cook, actually... Anyway, the edict caused a fight among your current customers, and the fight caused you to sustain your injury... The edict says that unmarried people over the age of twenty-five, who also own property, will have to marry in a month, pay 500 Pesos, or go to jail for a year. Widows and people who inherit property, or will inherit in the future, are exempt. Therefore, both I and my father have nothing to worry about from this new law: he's a widow and I won't inherit the de la Vega ranch until he dies sometime in the future. You, on the other hand..

I'm not married? asked Victoria, forgetting all about the fact that she had just kissed Diego, a man she had already determined was not her husband, not five minutes before.

Uh, no, said Diego, feeling uncomfortable the closer he arrived to the part of the story where Zorro appeared on the imaginary scene. But he had to mention the bandit, for her sake, to calm her fears, if nothing else.

Why aren't I married? asked Victoria with an artless shrug, for she knew, already, that she was plenty old enough to be married. Is there something wrong with me? Some reason why nobody wants me?

A bark of objection exploded out of Diego, but he managed to curtail any more of his unvoiced response. When he could speak again, he assured, Don't worry that nobody wants you. In fact, I know for sure that somebody wants you very much.

Then why am I not already married? she asked, growing more puzzled by the minute.

Because, Diego said with a serious expression on his face. Because... and this is where things get complicated... Right before your accident, you told me that you couldn't get married, because for the last four years, you've been in love with Zorro... It felt extremely strange to be talking about himself in this detached, objective, manner.

I'm in love... with a fox? Victoria questioned.

Again, Diego laughed. Not a fox, the fox. The Fox of the Night, Zorro, the outlaw with a 6000 Peso price on his head, the dueler for justice, who promised, and very publicly, that he'll marry you only when he can remove his mask without fear of persecution, in all essence, after his fight has ended.

Victoria stared at him, a look on her face that said she didn't quite believe everything he had just said. I'm in love with an outlaw? she asked dubiously.

Yes, you've claimed to be in love with him quite often in the past, and now, you're worried that this new law will force you to marry someone else or unwittingly reveal his identity, Diego dutifully reported.

Victoria continued to gaze questioningly at him. I'm in love with an outlaw? she asked again, still disbelieving. What do my parents think of this?

Your parents are dead, Diego blurted before he could think better of saying this news in this bald manner and softening this particular blow for her.

They're... dead? she squeaked, and her eyes grew round with the knowledge.

Diego's hand tightened on hers, and his voice sounded regretful, now. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but there really is no way to soften this information about them. However, it's hardly a secret that your father and brothers left Los Angeles in search of joining with the revolutionaries, and in the meantime, your mother was killed by a governmental firing squad for aiding and abetting one of those very revolutionaries; she tended his musket wound when he couldn't find anybody less obtrusive to tend it for him.

Victoria's eyes had grown wider at each of his words. Now, they were almost saucer shaped. And my father?

Diego sighed, wishing he didn't have to tell her this, that no memory of this event might be a good thing. He died in a prison called Devil's Fortress as an enemy of the state. You tried your best to find him before he died, but you were too late to do anything for him, and weren't able to save him. He died while speaking his last words to you.

Victoria looked at the blank wall, obviously hoping its blandness would overtake and coat what her mind now knew as well. And I don't remember any of this?

Diego sighed again. Apparently not. They were both very emotional times for you - perhaps that's the reason you have no memory of either event.

Victoria breathed rapidly for a moment, trying to retain control of herself. Finally, she was able to whisper, I have no mother, no father, and I'm in love with an outlaw?

Who will be hung if his identity is discovered, and marrying him practically guarantees that his identity will be discovered, and by the Alcalde, a man who has vowed to capture Zorro and hung him as the bandit he thinks Zorro is. Diego clung to her hand, but admitted, See, things are a bit complex were your immediate future is concerned.

Victoria remained quiet, processing all that Diego had said. I'm in love with an outlaw? she burst out again in disbelief, speaking at last.

Well, Diego tried to make her understand without hurting her any further. You've always claimed to be.

But an outlaw? Victoria asked with that same endearing wrinkle to the bridge of her nose. I find that hard to believe.

Diego shook his head and said, Your sense of justice matches your sense of outrage at injustice. He wondered why he was telling her of these qualities about herself; even if he had always admired them, it felt more and more like he was driving her away from his true identity of Diego de la Vega with every word he uttered. But, she had the right to know about herself and her past. You've always championed the poor, and Zorro fights for the rights of those poor people who are tyrannized by a government who doesn't seem to care about them; naturally you claim to be in love with him.

Victoria was silent again for the next few moments, pondering his words. Just as silent, Diego waited patiently by her bedside, leaning towards her in the straight backed chair, waiting for her to be ready to talk once more. At last, her face brightened suddenly, and she suggested, I know! - I can just marry you - I already think I could fall in love with you very easily - what's to stop me from falling for you after we marry?

Diego moved uncomfortably as he sat back into his chair. Well, I may not be what you think I am, Victoria, and a marriage between us may seem like the right thing to do, but, may, in fact, not be the right thing to do, Diego said, sounding vague, even to his ears, and he inwardly winced at the uncertainty of his words.

Victoria was confused, and she looked it. But why not? she asked guilelessly. You did kiss me just now... was it an unpleasant experience for you? she asked in the same, childlike, blunt, voice. Because it was certainly very pleasurable for me; in fact, I think I'd like to do it again... if... if you don't mind, she added, far less certain, suddenly.

Diego's hand tightened again in assurance. No! he exclaimed. I mean, yes! I mean, he said, flustered, What I mean is that, yes, I enjoyed it immeasurably... You have no idea how immeasurably! Diego went on in unrefined protest. That's the problem...

Victoria's nose puckered again. What is? I'm afraid I don't quite understand...

Me, Diego answered, still flustered. I'm the problem... You see, I... am... He needed to take a deep breath and try again. As he did so, he recalled the time only a few weeks prior that he had tried to tell his secret to his father and Victoria while in the Los Angeles plaza. He had changed his mind about speaking his secret aloud, then, but was just as determined not to have a repeat of that particular experience. With renewed courage, he went on to say, I... am... I.. am... Zorro.

Z Z Z

Victoria stared at Diego for the first few moments after his announcement. You..? she asked in abject puzzlement, and with a rustle as she moved against the pillow propped behind her back. Another few silent minutes crawled by before she finally wrinkled her eyebrows until they practically met on top of her eyes. You're Zorro? she asked, sounding confused.

Diego tried to stay calm, but his heart was pounding in his ears. Um... er... yes, he answered in a whisper. Admitting that he was Zorro was much harder than actually being Zorro, he found, and his voice refused to raise above the wisp that it had reached for his affirmation of the truth. No wonder he hadn't been able to make his confession earlier in the year in the plaza... He cleared his throat, hoping to also clear it of the lump of fear and apprehension that had lodged near his vocal chords. He stared at the expression of frozen incomprehension on her face. To dispel any bafflement she might be feeling at such a divulgence, he went on to warn, You have to understand that this is also a secret, and you can't say anything to anybody about this... He was as emphatic on this point as he could be, and his frame shook with the strength of his sincerity. He took her hand into his as the insecurities he had felt about her ever reawakening at all over the last few days accosted him again. It had to be something akin to the sensations she was undergoing even now: the doubt, the insecurity...

Diego gazed into her eyes once more, meeting them with a direct stare for once. He understood how rare that occurrence was, even if she didn't. He shook his head back and forth. Victoria, please don't look at me like that...

Like what? she asked in a monotone, dumbfounded tone of voice. Even if she didn't understand the momentousness of this occasion, she realized that something tremendous was happening. She was too deadened by her surprise to react at first.

Diego gently squeezed her hand, trying to encourage her comprehension with the gesture even as he explained how she appeared. You look like someone just kicked your favorite dog.

Victoria balked a bit at his tone, but recovered quickly, and smiled a small smile. She drew a deep breath, and let it explode out of her mouth, then blinked, and Diego felt her hand suddenly wrap around his fingers more tightly in a familiar warmth. She visibly gathered herself together to more calmly say, Now, let me get this straight... Diego could tell by the way she was clutching at his hand with hers how much the effort to remain calm was costing her. She gathered herself together again, then regarded him. You say that you're Zorro, she stated.

Yes, I am, Diego declared once more, confirming his outrageous claims of a moment before.

Victoria went on, then. You also say that I have always been in love with Zorro, the bandit..?

That's what you've always proclaimed, and everyone believes, Diego reiterated.

But you're Zorro...

I am.., Diego started to say, but you should probably say so in something more like a whisper if you say it at all, Diego softly cautioned again, one eye furtively flicking over to the room's open door. Zorro's identity is so sought after, so prized and desired, that I... Diego's warning was arrested by the smile that suddenly blazed across her face. Victoria...

I knew it! she exclaimed in a furtive whisper.

Knew what?

His look of perplexity encouraged her to explain her outburst. She wriggled against the pillows again. Don't you see? she asked in a pleased tone.

His perplexity increased. See what? Diego inquired.

Victoria looked irritated for a second that he couldn't simply read her mind. You, me... She gestured between them with her free hand. The new law... At his further confusion, she went on to say, The law says that I have to marry in a month or go to jail or pay a fine that you say I can't afford... She shrugged once again under the white nightgown. It doesn't matter any longer! It's settled that I can just marry you and...

Diego felt so utterly torn at her simple comprehension of their problem that he had to put a stop to her plans for their future before she became even more carried away on her enthusiasm. Victoria, he gently said, we can't do that.

Her face fell at his seeming reluctance. Why not? She stared at him. Didn't you just kiss me a minute ago? Don't you want to do it again?

Her artlessness proved much harder to contend with than he had ever anticipated. Yes, oh yes, desperately! he thought, but refused to allow himself the luxury of saying the words aloud. Diego swallowed, but had to close his eyes against her beseeching expression lest he immediately give in to her without an explanation, and he knew that he couldn't do what she was suggesting... Victoria, listen... Diego drew her hand up and kissed the back of the knuckles, trying to give comfort with the familiar gesture. You don't quite understand yet...

She shrugged again, and Diego had to marvel at how natural that movement seemed to him. What is there to understand? You say that I'm in love with Zorro... You say that you are Zorro... You did kiss me just now... Doesn't that mean that we have feelings for the other and no one will suspect that it's strange for us to marry one another before...?

But that's just it, Diego said, cutting her off without looking her in the eyes now. I'm a bandit, a criminal, he tried to explain. According to Spanish law, I'm the one who has been in defiance of that law, I'm the one with a price on my head for my capture, and I'm the one that DeSoto has vowed to hang if he ever discovers who I am.

Victoria gazed at him in undeniable confusion. But you're the kindest man I've ever met, she protested. Then, she closed her eyes and amended, Not that I've met very many men since this injury of mine... She went on, How can you be a wanted man?

Diego sighed, trying to say the right words that would make everything understandable for her in their odd situation. Because I have always defied the Alcalde in the past... Worse yet, I have always humiliated him and the men under his command...

Victoria grinned in spite of the discussion. I bet you're good at that, she declared.

Diego had to smile at her comment. Yes, I am rather good at it, he admitted with a shy smile tugging on the corners of his lips. It almost felt refreshing to talk to her like this, so honest and open. Then, he lost his smile the second the words of his larger explanation coalesced in his mind. But DeSoto is the alcalde of Los Angeles, and he hates to be embarrassed... He'll punish anyone who does that to him... Don't you understand now, Victoria? Diego entreated, pulling her hand to his chest. Anyone who marries you will surely be suspected of being Zorro and will then surely be hung... And unless you want to watch me die a gruesome death in the plaza a month from now, you'll keep what you know a secret, and I'll remain a bachelor... At her thunderous expression, he continued, And if we marry right now, there's a good chance that you will be hung right next to me on the gallows, and I don't want you to die because of me, can't bear it if you're even hurt... Thinking of his agony the last two days, his next words came out as a whisper of entreaty, Please, Victoria, I love you too much to do anything that will cause you harm...

Victoria gazed at him as his voice trailed away to silence. So I can't marry you? she asked in a matching whisper, sounding lost and hopeless. We can't get married?

No, Diego had to answer, and he felt as if his heart was being wrung dry when he spoke. Unless we want to die the next day, we can't do a thing.

Victoria remained quiet for a moment, digesting all that he had said and decreed in the last few moments, her sense of desire warring with her wants according to the sour expressions that flitted across her face.

Diego watched, fascinated, as she attempted to reach some kind of a decision regarding him. He felt thin, as if he no longer had control of something that had been an integral part of his existence in his past. But he also felt more grounded, more complete as he contemplated the information that she now acknowledged. He also had to admit that he was remembering in great detail the endearments that he and she had just shared, and he hoped would share again.

Victoria hesitantly smiled and said, All right, Diego, I won't do anything. Then she held up a finger to stop him when he started to show his gratitude to her. But there is a condition to this promise I'm making, she said. When his eyebrows raised in question, she continued, I will agree that, for our safety, we shouldn't get married right now. Then she stopped and grinned. However, that doesn't say anything about how I'll feel a month from now. She paused. Or how you'll feel, as well, she thoughtfully added.

A ray of the hope that was in his eyes shot across Diego's heart. He smiled at her. Agreed, he said with that smile.

Victoria made the same gesture back to him. Agreed, she said, and nodded her head in finality.

Diego couldn't ignore the sense that he might regret such a promise; Victoria could be difficult to resist, he had to admit to himself. With a sigh, he conceded that he had never been particularly good at resisting her at all.

Go on to Chapter 5


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