A Duet of Pigtails
His Prelude: Akane no Nichibotsu

By Libby Thomas

Magic Knight Rayearth and Ranma ½ belong to their particular owners. They're not mine. If they were, I wouldn't have to say this.

~*~

In my life, I have seen some of the most amazing things. Most have them have been magical. Many of those mystic experiences have been very negative. I don't consider changing into a woman anything positive, though I have learned to live with it in the ten years I've had this curse. But once in a rare while, there is something that happens in life that makes things seem, well, magical. Magical in the positive sense.

In those ten years, it's only happened four times that I really consider significant. One was my life, as short and sweet as it was, with Akane. Two, was the birth of my son, Akama, who I named after his mother, even as she went off to die. Three, are my sisters Nabiki and Kasumi--and yes, I think of them that way now. And last, but never least…

Four is my wife, my soul mate, my love. Hikaru. The person who taught me how to love again, how to open my heart once more, and to open my emotions before I destroyed myself, or worse, my son. As I'm here in the dojo, I can see her now, sitting with her pet wolf, Hikari, and our two newborns, Hikama and Hotaru.

And yet it still seems like things would never have happened this way. Maybe she would still be in that magical land, and maybe I'll wake up from a dream, to have Akane at my side. If this is a dream, it's one that fills me with more joy than I've had in the years previous. But since it's not, I'm content to know that while I love and cherish the times I was with Akane, I do love my current wife.

Even so, my mind trails back to where it all began, at least for me, that painful period six years ago that I both treasure forever and try to banish from my memory. Still, it's burned in my mind, and burned forever into my scarred soul. It was a day of gain and a day of loss. It was, quite simply, the day that Akane came back from the hospital with little Akama in her arms.

~*~

"Look at him, Ranma," she said, looking at me with all the love in her heart. "Our son."

"Yes, and he'll probably grow up to be as strong as you," I said. Kamisama, I was such an idiot back then, using my mouth long before my mind realized it was time to think. Looking back at it, I wish that I could take back every nasty thing I said to her, every cheap shot and stupid insult. But back then, those insults were words of love. I was never one for sentimentality.

We looked at our son, cheering and enjoying that tender moment. I turned and kissed her, as my parents and her father looked on, ogling and cooing at our baby boy. I thought I might have even seen a moment of kindness from Nabiki--back then I trusted her as far as I could throw her. Little did I know--how damn little did I know. Kasumi smiled sweetly and looked on at her first nephew, a joy on her face that made her look absolutely beatific. It was the best moment I'd ever encountered in my life.

I should have known right then and there that it wouldn't have lasted.

An arrow slammed through the window, shattering the peace that Akane and I had cherished for the last three years. Suddenly, my mind was racing. Who was it? Shampoo, challenging Akane? She had been the only suitor who had never given up. Ukyo, after the wedding, admitted a sort of defeat, at least willing to remain nothing more than my best friend--she knew I loved her in my own way; furthermore, she was in the room, next to Kasumi. Ryoga was happy with Akari, and in any case, was nowhere nearby at the moment. Kodachi was placed in an institution. Kuno was leaving us alone, ever in search of the Pigtailed girl, who I swore I "no longer had dominion over" (it's amazing that while he never listened to me in plain speech, I got through to him--in a sense--when acting formal). Mousse, maybe?

Nabiki picked up the letter and read it, confirming my suspicions. "Akane for too too long have had Shampoo husband. Stupid tomboy can no longer hide behind pregnancy of child that should be Shampoo's child. Shampoo challenge you for final time for Ranma hand. This fight to death. Shampoo be nice and give tomboy one week to train. Meet at Gotembamori at noon next Saturday."

Akane looked at me, a steely glaze in her eyes. "That's it. I've had it. I'm going to stop her, one last time."

"NO!" I shouted, even as the others joined in with fervent agreement. Akane just completed her term. She was not physically ready, not even remotely. She might have been as strong as an ox, but Shampoo was ready and training. Ukyo even volunteered to fight in her place. Nabiki offered to try to find some way around it, and I tried to think of a way to stall it until Akane could at the very least, be ready to defend herself against Shampoo.

Akane looked at all of us, and that was the end of that. It was her fight, she said, and that no matter what, she had a family to protect. She wasn't going to back down. She was going to do it, and she was going to win. She was angry at all of us for even having the slightest doubts in her. She would listen to no one, not my mother, not her father, not even Tofu or Kasumi, and certainly not me, the person she stood to lose.

That night, even as her body was out of shape, even as her breasts were weighted down from mother's milk, she trained. For the successive days, she continued to train, fervent in the belief that she could do it, that her confidence as a wife and mother would carry her on to victory. She would stop only to eat, sleep, and feed Akama.

This is the first of my crimes, for which I will never forgive myself. I let her continue. In my stupidity, and my naïveté, I not only let it continue, I helped her train as well, figuring on the "If you can't beat them…." line of thought. I taught her every trick I could, every stunt I knew. On my request, Ryoga came and helped out, as did Ukyo. For a week, Akane was surrounded with more martial arts lore and training than I had ever seen in my life.

A week passed, and I will never understand what was going through my mind when I said that I thought Akane was ready. The kami help me if I ever think that way about Hikaru, and I know Hikaru's more than capable of taking care of herself. Still, I deemed her ready, and I've been paying for that lapse of judgment ever since.

Finally, that Saturday came, that day that changed my life, the day I was plunged into hell. We left Akama with my mother, and Akane, Ryoga, Ukyo and I headed out for that little forested area near Fujiyama. After getting off at the train, Ukyo went to make reservations at the hotel, while the rest of us would head to the appointed spot.

Upon arrival, the two wasted no time in fighting. Not even a speech, or some stupid posturing, or even, "Hello old friend. Time for you to die." Akane arrived, Shampoo attacked. Simple as that. I followed as close as I dared, knowing that getting too close would trigger Mousse, who looked at me with obscene hatred. He never understood, simply thinking that since I'd had a child with Akane, Shampoo was next. Until that moment, I never realized how he really thought of me. Still, this was a matter of honor between the two women, and neither of us would interfere. Take on each other, maybe, but not interfere with the girls.

The battle raged on and on, and I have to admit, Akane never looked more beautiful. Motherhood must have done something to her, for at that moment, she was unleashing with ki strikes on a level that approached mine or Ryoga's. What she lacked in the training and readiness, her rage and need to win balanced out. Shampoo fought with a level that I'd never seen her at before, and for hours on end, both raged on, both gaining an upper hand at times, but never holding it for long.

Then it happened. Six hours later, far from civilization and on a ledge overlooking a river, Akane began to falter, her lack of full training catching up to her. Shampoo, sensing an opening as surely as a shark smells blood in the water, poured her remaining strength into that attack. I readied, unsure of what to do. If Akane won, Shampoo would die, and Mousse would attack her. If Shampoo won, then Mousse would attack me, or I would kill Shampoo--I'd already decided that course of action. I watched as Akane began to fall under multiple blows as Shampoo attacked with the Tenshin Amaguriken--I should have known the old ghoul would have taught Shampoo every trick possible.

I tensed and readied for whatever happened next. I never expected what happened next.

Akane, sensing defeat, threw the desperation move, one I never taught her, one I never knew she learned from all the times she saw me use it. The Hiryu Shoten Ha. She used her remaining strength, standing on the edge of the cliff, buffeting Shampoo with her own strength. Shampoo, never expecting it and letting the Amazon's rage take a hold of her, stood no chance.

When it was over, Shampoo's body slammed to earth, battered and broken. The light in her eyes seemed to die as she knew she was beaten, and I was forever lost to her. I then looked at Akane. Akane smiled weakly as she fell off the cliff.

I moved faster than I ever had, diving off that cliff. In mid-air, searching for her, seeing where she went, I heard the inhuman roar behind me shout, "SAOTOME!!!!! YOU AND YOUR WIFE ARE DEAD!" Nevermind Mousse and his empty threats; Akane was my all-consuming concern. There, just below me, as I neared the end of my dive, was a river. Akane could never swim in the best of times. She was near death, and the river was fast. I hit the water, immediately taking advantage of my female form as it moved me down the river. I was going to find Akane, or I would join her in death.

I found her, an hour later--what was left of her. As the sun set on the day, I found her dead body, waterlogged, bruised, battered, nearly blood-drained, and washed up against a large rock. I cried my heart out, not caring a damn bit of what was happening around me. All I remember was kissing her, telling her she won and begging her to wake up. My mind flashed to that day at Jusenkyo, but this was here and now, too horribly real. I kept hoping that she would come back, but her eyes never blinked, her mouth never breathed.

My Akane, the rage of my life, my sunrise, was gone. Akane no nichibotsu was all that rang through my mind. I had lost the most important woman in my life. Despite all the battles that I'd fought to save her, all the opponents I'd taken on to rescue her, all the challenges I'd accepted for her, I lost her because of one battle I could not fight.

Those thoughts will haunt me for the rest of my life.

~*~

The next two years are so vague, I barely remember them at all. Most of the rest of that day, I'll never know what happened. Shampoo slowly died from a snapped vertebra when she landed the wrong way; what I saw in her eyes was more than just losing me, it was the loss of her life as well. Mousse bellowed his challenge, intending to kill both of us, but Ryoga intervened, taking him on and letting me search for her. Ten minutes later, Mousse was knocked out and incapacitated, and Ryoga and Ukyo were on the search for me.

It was they, my best friends, who carried Akane's body back to the hotel and helped me back as well. It was they who called our families and told them what had happened. It was they who took care of me as I sank into a depression so deep, I refused to even live, ignoring everything--even my son, though I'd never intended to. I came out of that depression as the weeks went by, tending to Akama, who would never see his mother, and feeling so empty about life.

The next major thing I remember was being at my father-in-law's deathbed. Although it had happened a few months after we lost Akane, at the time my mind was still in a blur, and thus it could have happened at the same time. Never having recovered from the loss of his wife, the death of his youngest daughter destroyed him to the point that he simply stopped the will to live. I know that feeling, for if it was not for my son, I would have joined him in death. It's funny: when I was younger, I never understood why he was the way he was. Now, watching him on his deathbed, dying in the spirit and body from the loss of his wife and daughter, I understood him more than at any other moment in my life.

As he lay there, his last words to me were that I should ensure that Akama had someone to be his mother. He told me that although the giri of marrying a Tendo was fulfilled, that he would still wish to see me wed to the last single Tendo daughter: Nabiki. Needless to say, we were both horrified, and we agreed only to humor a dying man's last request. A week later, the ashes of Tendo Soun sat next to Tendo Nanase and Saotome Akane in the family shrine.

Nabiki and I sat down and talked the next day. We were betrothed again, but it was in terminology only. We looked at each other, and knew how we felt about the other: we were siblings in marriage and heart, if not in blood. To her, I was a younger brother, and the head of the household, never, ever her fiancé, not truly. The same went for me, as well.

In those two years, I saw a change in Nabiki, and I can objectively say that I was wrong about what I thought she would do. Yes, she was a weasel, a scheming, conniving ice princess that would stop at nothing to make a yen, and not even her family was exempt. I thought that our re-engagement, such as it was, would end up as another money-making scheme for her, though her main customers for that were now either no longer interested, or dead. But after all that had occurred, after all our family had endured, Tendo Nabiki the Yen Cobra changed into Tendo Nabiki, my pseudo-inazuke but more importantly my sister. She waged a one-woman campaign to see that I didn't slide into depression, as though it was a silent vow that she'd made to Akane at the funeral. Perhaps it was; I don't know. All I can say is that Nabiki saved me from becoming like Ryoga had been, and in doing so, saved herself from the same fate.

Whatever it took, she did. In a period just shy of a year and a half, she did everything possible to keep my spirits up, even though the task seemed impossible. She began to study Anything Goes, just so I'd have a daily sparring partner in addition to my students. She was constantly making dinner (yes, she learned to cook) or doing things for Family Night: just me, her and Akama. I know that in my son's mind the words "Aunt Nabiki" have the same reverence and love as the word "Mother", and in some ways are indistinguishable to him. She and Kasumi were there for me in ways I can never repay or forget. And although Kasumi will always be a loving sister-in-law to me, it is especially Nabiki that is my sister.

In those two years, she'd also begun to date Kuno. Two years to the day after Akane's death, we went to lunch at the Tokyo Tower. She had some news to break to me.

~*~

"Ranma," she commented, her tone a bit exasperated, "Haven't you heard a word I said? Tatewaki's asking me to marry him, and I need your blessing." As you can guess, since we never considered our re-engagement official, she was free to marry whomever she wished, and I certainly would never stop her.

"No you don't," I said, my voice thick as syrup. My mind was hundreds of kilometers away from here, in a riverbed where the mud ran red with the blood of my lost wife. I really was tuning out what she was saying, not giving it a second thought. For all I had paid attention, she could have told me that she was planning to take over the world and she needed my blessing.

"Yes I do, Ranma. Like it or not, you're the head of the household. Traditionally, it is your word that is required, and Tatewaki's coming by tonight to formally ask you--you have no idea how hard it was to convince him that he has to ask you. But as untraditional as you and I are, he isn't. More importantly, I want your blessing, little brother." She and Kasumi'd been calling me that since the day I married Akane, but it wasn't until after Akane's death that the phrase began to have actual meaning between us.

"And you have my blessing, Nabiki, you always have and you always will. But could we do this tomorrow? I'm not up to visitors tonight."

I could almost hear the gears in her mind click. "Shimata…how could I have forgotten? I should have thought about that. Ranma, I remember now what today is, and where your mind is right now. I know you're hurting; it hurts me, too. I loved my sister, and miss her terribly." She took my hand in hers, adding, "But you're killing yourself slowly and surely."

"I don't care," I said, feeling completely empty.

"What about Akama then? What about your parents and your friends? What about Kasumi and Tofu? What about me? We all love you Ranma, and we hate to see you tearing yourself apart like this. Ranma, you’re my little brother and I love you very much, and I can't stand seeing that ache in your heart anymore. Please--it's time to let Akane go."

"I doesn't matter," I replied in a dull monotone.

"It does to me, dammit, it does to me." She looked at her watch, a sure sign she had to get back to her job, and though she'd rather be here where she was needed, she had to climb that social ladder to continue to get the home out of mortgage. "Please cheer up, Ranma. You're not doing anyone any good. It's been nearly two years since she died. Let her go. You have no idea how hard it is for me to say that, and it means everything to know you still love her, but let her go before you destroy yourself. Please."

"I…can't, Nabiki."  My voice was barely a whisper, my mind barely able to register, much less process her request. "I just can't."

"I have to go to work now, Ranma. I'll talk to you tonight." I nodded solemnly and looked forlornly at her as she walked away. I couldn't believe she asked me that. I loved Akane, and I knew in my heart that there would never be anyone like her again.

Boy was I right. But not in the way I intended.

Before I knew what was going on, a very sweet and melodic voice rang out, asking me, "Excuse me, but is this seat taken?" I turned and looked at the sound of that voice…

…and stared straight at myself. Well, not really. She had brown eyes instead of my blue, and she wore a Tokyo Disneyland sweater and pants vice my usual clothing, but other than that, she could have passed as the twin of my female side. A thought flashed in my head: what if she was that creature that Happosai had created so long ago? I fully expected for her to start glowing with a green aura, coo "Come to me, my love," and try to kill my family. But she didn't do that, instead saying with a sweet voice, "I couldn't help but think that you looked so sad, so I thought misery loves company. By the way, my name's Shidou Hikaru. What's yours?"

"Ranma. Saotome Ranma," I replied, still staring at her in shock. And, as I've done so many times in my life, mouth first, mind last. "I'm sure I sound crazy when I say this, but are you for real?"

Surprise, surprise, she took it well. That is, she didn't hit me immediately, instead rising from her seat and began to leave. "Well, if you feel that I'm that kind of woman, Saotome-san, then it must have been a mistake for me to come over here and talk to someone who seems to be in as much pain as you seem to be. My regrets. Good day."

Something within me said, Stop her. Don't let her walk out of your life. You need her. Without being sure of what I did next, I reached out for her wrist, and not even I was sure that the voice was my own as I said, "Please. Let me explain."

"Okay," was her neutral response, though I could have sworn I saw a flash of delight in her eyes. In any case, I had her attention. Now I had to find a way to make her stay.

Easy enough.

I grabbed a can of tea off the table that Nabiki had been drinking; at least I think so, as my mind was still a little floaty at the time. It was open and still full, with more than enough water in it to accomplish what I needed to do. I poured it over my head, and in one move that completely stunned her, became her twin. While I still had the advantage of having her off guard, I focused my blue eyes onto those enchanting brownish-red ones, and spoke with an emotional strength that I hadn't felt in quite a while, "And now I hope you understand why I said what I did, Shidou-san. Sorry about this."

In the hours that followed, we went to dinner at this nice little place out in Yaesu-ku that she knew about. Of course, I had to explain to Kasumi where I was, since she was watching Akama at the time; it was hard enough to try to convince her--to convince myself--that I wasn't going out on a date. Hikaru and I went to a nice Italian restaurant; a cozy little place that would become a regular dining place for us. And for the next time in my life, that special magic must have intervened, because I found myself telling her everything about my life, even though I wasn't sure she'd believe me, transformation not withstanding. I told her everything, from the day I had first arrived in Nerima, to my marriage to Akane, and my son.

She in turn told me about her life and the magical world known as Cephiro. At first, I didn't know what to think about it, until the candle at our table went out, and she proved her truth. She tapped the top once with her finger, and it relit; it was the most trifling aspect of her fire magic, she admitted. She went on to tell me about her best friends Fuu and Kuu, though I could tell she'd left someone out. Additionally, she told me about her last boyfriend, a Cephiran swordsman who she could never be with, and had long since gotten past. She sighed as she said that, and I could tell that she was not past her heartbreak.

At that melancholy tone, my heart went out to her. This was a woman who understood me. This was a woman who understood every little detail of my life as though it were her own. As we said goodbye at Meguro JR, we traded phone numbers.

Something in me was different than it had been earlier in that day. I hoped I would see her again. I wanted to see her again. There was something about her that called to me, saying she's the one that I'd been waiting for.

As I got home that night, I was smiling, so happy that it gave Nabiki pause. She pestered me for a half hour about it, but I promised I'd tell her later…and to set up that meeting with Kuno later on. And as I slept that night, my dreams were not the nightmare of losing Akane, but of a redhead woman with a dazzling smile, that I had met a few hours earlier.

The next day, I called, and set up a date, and as I hung up, I heard Nabiki, spying on me from around the corner. My initial fears were that she'd react as though I'd betrayed everything I held dear, but she simply hugged me and said, "It's about time, Ranma. I'm happy for you."

That date went along wonderfully, like a dream. And so did the next. And the next. And every one we had, from the day she told me she loved me, to the day she became Saotome Hikaru.

~*~

In the four years since we met, my life's been an absolute joy. She's healed me in a way that I never knew I had a pain, in a way that I never knew my soul was aching. I still love Akane, but my heart is more than open to my loving wife; Akane would understand...after the obligatory mallet strike, of course. Although Hikaru's been a wonderful mother to Akama, I hope to tell him about Akane when he's older, and about how much she loved him. And wherever Akane is, I hope she's happy with the knowledge that I still love her, and am still living my life with someone I love.

I'm thrilled that Hikaru's been able to adjust to my family. I know she doesn't like Pop, and I don't blame her; I barely respect him myself. But even if he didn't raise me right, he still raised me, and I guess I care about him. On the other hand, she absolutely adores Mom, and she's often said there's nothing she wouldn't do for her. She also thinks the world of Nabiki (she married Kuno just before I married Hikaru), Kasumi, and Tofu. She doesn't seem to ever believe me when I tell her about Nabiki's past attitudes, and considering what a 180 my sister had done in her personality, I'd be hard-pressed to believe it as well.

As for my best friends, she thinks Ryoga's okay (she hasn't figured out about P-chan, though), and she gets along great with Akari. As for Ukyo, it took a long time for those two to get comfortable with each other. Ukyo, though she knew I could never love her more than as my best friend, still felt protectiveness and a certain possessiveness towards me. It was then that I found out how tough Hikaru could be: in the few initial fights she had with Ukyo, she showed more fighting skill than I had seen in a while. Also, as powerful as those fireblasts were, something told me she was purposely toning down her firepower. In any case, she eventually won Ukyo's respect and friendship, and now they're very close.

When it comes to her family, I think her brothers Satoru, Kakeru, and Masaru are the greatest, and I feel just like one of them at times. I've been teaching them (and Hikaru, before her pregnancy) Anything Goes, and they're picking it up pretty quick. Also, now that I have a much better relationship with Tatewaki, he joins us in the training, and he and Satoru have become the best of friends. They in turn are teaching me kendo…or so they think. In truth (though I think Hikaru knows this), I've learned just about everything there is to learn from them--I did learn some swordsmanship from my father, and Mom taught me her sword art--but I'd feel bad if I revealed it right away.

Then, there are my--our--children. Akama looks so much like his birth mother, with his short black hair and soft brown eyes that mirror Akane's so much; it is through him that she is still here for me. Then there are Hikama and Hotaru. Hikama looks like my onna-side, or Hikaru. His red hair and blue eyes are kinda different, and I think he'll follow in his mother's footsteps. Hikaru originally wanted to name our daughter after Akane, but I thought that the past should be the past, and I'd already given that honor to Akama. Hotaru takes after me in every way, shape and form, and I know she'll be just as much a bundle of nerves for us as I was for my parents.

Taking the time to stop my training with Akama, I wander over to my wife and hug her gently, whispering, "They're as beautiful as you, love." She moves slightly, as though she's been jolted out of some memory or daydream; I hope it was a pleasant one. As she turns to look at me, she's hugged by Akama. Hikaru's been the best mother she could be to him, and I think that Akane would approve. As he lets go, she turns to me and whispers a silent word of love, one that absolutely lights up my heart.

Before I get a chance to answer, the phone rings. Bad timing, though, as I wanted to return her gesture of love, and spend a few seconds with the whole family. "I'll get it," I comment, turning towards the door. "It's probably Ukyo wanting to know if we're still coming for dinner tonight." At the mention of her name, Akama jumps up and down in delight about how he just loves his Aunt Ukyo. I've told Ucchan that she absolutely spoils him rotten, but then again, with no prospects on the way--and I never intended that for her--my children are the closest thing she has to offspring of her own. As I go inside, I hear the gleeful noises of Akama trying to play sumo with Hikari.

Wandering into the main room, I notice the base is empty--Hikaru must've left the phone in the bedroom again. I wander into get it, and hit the switch. "Saotome desu."

//Ranchan!// Sure enough, it's Ucchan. //Just wanted to make sure that you'll be coming tonight, sugar. I'm workin' on a new recipe and I want you and Akama to try out.//

"Sure thing, Ucchan," I say. I was always a sucker for her new recipes, and I hope that Hikaru never notices (either that, or she's ignoring, to her credit) the 'I LUV RANCHAN' comments that Ucchan still writes all over my okonomiyaki. "Is six okay by you?"

//Six is fine. Oh, and tell Hikaru to bring her appetite this time, ne? She eats way too much like a bird.//

I can't help but chuckle at that one. "I will, Ucchan. See ya." I click the off switch, and turn to step out of the room, when a light catches my attention. The light's coming from the dresser, and in particular, Hikaru's delicates drawer. Wondering what could be making that glow, I open the drawer, rooting around in it and thankful that Happosai disappeared years ago, even before Akane and I had Akama.

In a silk bag towards the back, I find the object. It's a white glove, with a gold inlay on top, framing a fiery red ruby. Hikaru showed this to me once, and as the ruby continues to strobe, my stomach turns. There's only one thing that it could mean, but I hope I'm wrong.

Cephiro. That magical place where she's been; that place where she's said a million times she never wants to return. Even now, whenever she talks about it, I can see the pain in her eyes. I can't let that happen. I won't let her go back. I love her too much, and I won't let anything hurt her. I've already lost a loved one to the madness that surrounds my life; I won't let the chaos that has been hers consume her.

Still, I may be wrong; for all I know, it could be a 'This is a Test of the Emergency Broadcast System' kinda things. The best thing is that I ask her. However, as I walk out of the bedroom, holding the offending item behind my back, Hikaru picks that exact moment to wander into the house. From the look on her face, I must not be hiding my shock that well.

"Who was on the phone?" she asks, concern in her voice.

"Just…just Ukyo," I reply, sounding a bit on the shaky side. Smooth move, Saotome. Panic your wife, whydontcha? "She asked what time we'll be over, and I told her sometime about six or so." She's looking just past me, noticing I've got something behind my back. So much for the casual route.

As always, I never seem to be able to hide anything from her. "Ranma, what's wrong? Don't deny it. I know something's wrong." Caught like a rat in a trap, I hold out the white glove.

My worst fears are realized as the look on her face goes from concerned to horrified in a heartbeat.

They're calling her back to Cephiro, whoever they are. But it ain't going to be so easy this time.

They gotta get through me, first.

NEXT:
Part One: Falling Down

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