Author's note: This story precedes a quick fic Christmas story I wrote called 'A Friendly Gesture

"But, Buck, she doesn't know anyone in town and you -"

"And I what, Lou? Don't have a girl?"

"Well "

Lou's voice trailed off as she was once again forced to follow Buck as he moved to the pile of boards Kid had just purchased to be loaded onto the wagon. While her husband was busy paying for the new supplies, Lou had taken the opportunity of his absence to try to sway Buck's mind into realizing she wasn't making a crazy suggestion here.

Deciding her only course of action was to block his path, Lou moved to stand at the end of the wagon bed, making it impossible for him to place the boards in the back, unless he threw them over her head. She grinned triumphantly as he sighed loudly and raised his eyebrows at her in a warning that she had no intention of heeding.

"You're a good man, Buck Cross. You deserve to have someone special in your life."

Not having any choice but to place the boards at his feet before he dropped them, Buck stooped down and when he came back to his full height, he moved ever so slightly to stand over his short former bunkmate. "Just 'cause you and Kid are married and are now expectin' a little one doesn't mean everyone has to follow in your footsteps."

Lou rose onto her tiptoes, not to be intimidated by the man trying to overpower her because this was Buck and he had the most tender heart of nearly any man she'd ever known he was just having trouble in figuring out how to use it for his own good and happiness all of a sudden. And that was why she was trying to dissuade him one more time.

"You can't spend all your free time alone." When that didn't work and he looked away, she added, "She's a nice lady."

"And how would you know that? You haven't talked to her but that day we all first met her at the mercantile and that wasn't really talking, just an introduction. Even now that she keeps her horse at the old way station and sees me each time she comes to visit it, she only says the bare minimum of words to me. Even if I ask her something, she turns it around so she can answer yes or no, therefore avoiding all chances of explaining anything. So even if you would like to be friends with her because there aren't many girls around your age, you haven't talked to her so you don't know her at all." Buck folded his arms over his chest, satisfactorily, that maybe this time his friend would get the message and leave him be!

"No, I haven't talked to her but Rachel has. They work together for hours everyday at the schoolhouse. Rachel was just sayin' the other day how happy she is the school board hired her. Now I'll admit Rachel doesn't know much about her either. She said Miss Lamont won't open up much about herself, kinda like the way we acted when we first joined the Express, and that she seems troubled about something."

"That was quite obvious when she nearly jumped out of her skin at my offer to help her carry those school supplies back for her. I know we hadn't been introduced yet but still she couldn't hardly manage it on her own and there's nothing wrong with a person wantin' to help someone out." Buck tried to keep the hurt tone out of his voice but was sure he'd failed as that day plagued his mind repeatedly, so much so that he was tempted to ask her about it each time she came out to the way station but would lose his nerve at the last minute.

Lou quickly reached out to touch his sleeve upon hearing the sadness enter his voice, another reason she wanted to get these two together. "It had nothin' to do with you doin' the askin', Buck. She didn't even want to talk to me when I introduced me and Kid to her."

"I know and you're right about it not bein' because I asked or she'd never have agreed to let me care for that beautiful horse of hers, whether she's short on money or not."

She grinned happily to see him not being so hard on himself anymore. The grin threatened to turn into a full blown smile a moment later as an idea struck her so Lou bit the insides of her cheeks to ward off the feeling before speaking once more, "I was wonderin' if you could do me a favor, Buck." When he looked at her curiously, she went on, "Well, you know how Rachel said she needs some work done around the schoolhouse, well, she had asked Kid to look things over and he was supposed to now but I'm really getting hungry it's the baby doin' it to me and would like to get back to the ranch as soon as possible. Could you go see what she needed done then tell Kid and he'll do it tomorrow or the next day?" Lou folded her fingers together then realizing she looked like she was praying, she separated them and casually placed her arms at her sides.

Buck glanced toward the door to the lumber office. He'd spent over an hour with Kid as he'd gone over all the supplies they would need to finish repairing the stalls in the barn. "Really? Kid hadn't mentioned anything to me about it and why would Rachel ask Kid to help and not me? She knows you and Kid are tryin' to get a horse ranch up and running and all I do is help out when I can and care for what animals are left at the old way station. She sees me every day at dinner; why didn't she say anything to me then?"

"Maybe she thought you do enough around the station that she wouldn't bother asking you for one more thing. Anyway, it doesn't really matter now, does it? If you feel so hurt and want to do the repairs instead of Kid doin' them, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"Either way, alright, I'll go see what needs doin'."

Buck moved to head in that direction when Lou blocked his path yet again. "Now what?!"

"I forgot, I, um, I need somethin' from the store. I'll just run over there right quick and get it while Kid's finishin' up inside. You wait until he gets out so he'll know where I am, then you can head to the school and we'll see you at the ranch in the mornin'. 'Member, I'll be makin' you dinner tomorrow night so come hungry!"

Lou nearly flew down the street, or it was as fast as she dared now that she was expecting. But however she did it, it was done so Buck couldn't ask her any more questions and she would have the few seconds she needed to get her plan set in motion.

Bypassing the general store, Lou rounded the bend that led to the newly expanded schoolhouse. While the addition was in perfect shape, the main part of the school had been hastily built following a fire that destroyed the original building and thus, there were repairs that needed to be made already. Just because Rachel had only casually mentioned them when she'd seen Lou last and hadn't actually asked Kid for help didn't mean that she couldn't move things along to help the children out the children and Buck Cross too, she thought with a smile as she climbed the steps and entered the building, calling out Rachel's name in the process.

"Rachel, where are you?" she called as she walked down the small entrance hallway. A blonde head popped out of each doorway simultaneously like it had been planned. "Oh, good afternoon, Miss Lamont, it's nice to see you again. Rachel, I need to speak to you for a minute." Without waiting for a response from either woman, Lou quickly pushed her way into Rachel's classroom, shocking the older woman to back up at her bold movements.

"It's nice to see you, too, Mrs. McCloud," Grace Lamont said to the retreating back of the close friend of her fellow teacher. Grace hadn't spoken but briefly to Lou when they'd been introduced but she'd heard enough about her from Rachel to feel she knew the young woman. A moment of sadness hit her as it did each time one of Mrs. Dunne's family came to see her. How wonderful it would be if someone came there to see her and her alone, Grace thought with a sigh. The blonde young woman then went back inside as the door to the newer classroom closed behind Lou.

"Just what was that all about, Louise?"

"Rachel, I need you to leave with me right now!"

"Excuse me? Louise, you're confusing me - first you come barging in here, loud as can be, you're almost rude to Miss Lamont "

"I'm sorry but trust me, in a few minutes she won't even remember I didn't try to engage her in conversation," Lou assured her, a sly smile playing across her face.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means I was as sociable as could be under the circumstances but I don't have much time and you have even less." If it was possible for Rachel to look even more confused than she had a moment ago, Lou would have laughed at the expressions crossing the other woman's face she just didn't have time to waste on laughter. So, in answer to Rachel's questioning stare, Lou explained, "Buck's gonna be here any second."

"And why is Buck coming here?"

"'Cause Kid isn't!"

Lou couldn't believe Rachel wasn't understanding her but that didn't matter; what mattered was that they make a hasty exit before Mr. Buck Cross makes his entrance and all her plans are ruined. "Rachel, I know this seems confusin' but I'll explain everythin' to you outside." She indicated the door with her head then began to wring her hands together as her anxiousness took over.

Rachel stared at the young woman in front of her. Lou was definitely up to something, that was for sure. It couldn't be bad, though, if Lou was standing there in front of her and not denying it. "Well, I don't really have any reason to doubt whatever you're up to," Rachel said slowly as her mind tried to decipher what Lou had told her, or rather, not told her.

"Good then let's go." Lou felt like clapping her hands together in excitement but instead, used them to grasp Rachel's hands and pull her out the door of the classroom and lead her to the front door of the building.

"Hold on a second." Rachel halted Lou's progress long enough to shout out in the direction of the other classroom door, "Grace, I'll be heading out now! I'll see you tomorrow."

"Oh, alright, Rachel, have a good day."

She'd heard the confusion in the other teacher's voice and felt bad for leaving that way but she kind of had no choice in the matter it seemed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"But, Louise, I never asked Kid to do any repair work."

Rachel walked back and forth in the dirt next to the porch they were hiding behind that gave them a perfect view of the schoolhouse steps. After being dragged across the street and placed out of view of any passersby, Rachel demanded to know why Lou had seemed in such a hurry to get her out of the building.

"I know that and you know that but Buck doesn't and neither does Grace Lamont." She covered her mouth as a giggle escaped then waited for it all to sink in for Rachel.

"You mean ?" The young mother-to-be nodded. "I'm just givin' him a little push in the right direction. Ooh, here he comes." Lou crouched down behind the stairs, pulling Rachel with her. Both women then looked over the top of the porch as Buck climbed the schoolhouse steps, paused in front of the door then entered, at the same time calling out Rachel's name.

"See? Now he has to talk to her and not you about what needs doin'." Lou sighed in contentment.

Rachel watched Buck as he walked into Lou's trap. She couldn't believe it had taken her this long to figure out why Lou wanted her out of the picture. So, Rachel had given some thought to Buck getting together with Grace and had tried repeatedly to ask him if he might be able to think of Grace as anything more than a possible friend and each time he'd avoided the subject. She could understand him not wanting to get hurt again, as he had in the past, but it wasn't like she was setting him up or anything. Now as for being set up, Lou had done a good job of it but when Buck found out he'd be livid, there was no denying that. But what if it didn't work out as she'd planned and Buck felt lonelier than ever? Him getting rejected was something Rachel didn't want to see the young man go through.

She stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "You playin' with that boy's mind?"

"Nope, I'm playin' with his heart."

"Sounds worse in my book."

"It's not; it's just the opposite." Now that her plan was in motion, Lou was able to take a breath and explain her actions of earlier. "Buck's forgotten what it's like to feel somethin' other than sadness, disappointment. His heart needs a little remindin' of some of the other possibilities out there. I see little hints of it now and then and you can't deny he gets a different look in his eyes each time he sees Grace or hears her name, even if he covers it up and says it's for another reason. It's the same look I had each time I saw Kid, that same look that I thought would give me away when I first joined the Express."

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to play with Buck's emotions in that way. He was fragile these days and yet "I have noticed it - each time Grace comes to the old way station to visit her horse she and Buck usually spend the first five minutes just standing there staring at each other or trying not to stare at each other, is more like it." Rachel gave a small chuckle. "Maybe what you're doin' isn't such a bad idea after all. It's not really hurtin' anyone and it might just make things clearer." She turned to the ex-rider. "If this works the way you're hoping it will work, I'll try to help things along by insisting she stay for dinner or something so they have to be together."

"He'll appreciate the help, I'm sure of it at least he will as soon as his thick heart realizes it. And if he don't come out of there with at least a dinner date, I'll have to dunk him in a horse trough or somethin' to wash away all the cobwebs cloggin' his feelin's!" Lou grinned triumphantly at her friend then gasped as another thought struck her. "Kid! He'll be wonderin' where I am and worryin' somethin' fierce; you know him." With that said, she called out a hasty good-bye and thanks then took off around the bend to find her husband.

Rachel watched her leave then turned her eyes toward the schoolhouse. She couldn't exactly go back in there and retrieve the papers she hadn't taken during her hasty retreat, not after the hard work Lou put into getting those two young people together alone. Rachel smiled as she hoped something positive would come out of their encounter. Well, the children will appreciate it tomorrow as their test will obviously have to be postponed now. With one more glance at her place of employment, Rachel moved to follow the path Lou had taken. Maybe she'd stop by to visit Teaspoon, or see what was new at the store, or sit on the porch before starting dinner, or .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As soon as Kid had come out of the lumber office, Buck hadn't bothered to ask him about helping at the schoolhouse. He'd just told the new husband where his wife had gotten to then hurried on his way to the other side of town. Once out of Kid's sight, he'd slowed down his steps as his mind kept replaying his strange conversation with Lou, at least the last part of it had been strange. The beginning of it had caused him to think about things he didn't want to think about, mainly the new teacher in town, one Grace Lamont.

To deny he was attracted to her would be a lie as would the fact that he'd entertained Lou's notion himself a time or two since meeting her; he just couldn't let Lou know that or he'd never hear the end of it. He did find her an attractive woman but more than that, there was a mystery to her that he found intriguing. Buck felt a connection whenever they were near each other; she was a kindred spirit, he was sure of it. Miss Lamont was troubled and from her actions and the few words she'd spoken to him, he had the impression she was hiding from something or someone. She tried to keep to herself and didn't talk to many people in town; it was as if she felt she didn't belong somehow and if anyone could relate to that, it was Buck Cross.

Rounding the bend that led to the school, Buck took off his hat and scratched his head when Lou's crazy antics crossed his mind again. It wasn't the first time she'd tried to set him up with someone and he was sure it wouldn't be the last. What he didn't like about it was that no one seemed to have any trust in his ability to find a woman on his own; of course, his record in the romance department did give her and even Rachel good reason to doubt he could succeed there. He also wasn't sure he wanted that in his life right now. It would depend on the woman and when the moment was right, he would act on his instincts and do something about it.

What Buck couldn't understand was that Lou had gone from pressuring him into finding a girl to seeming like she wanted to get away from him. She sure wasn't acting like the Lou who used to ride for the Express. As soon as he'd heard the news his friends were expecting he knew it would have an affect on how she behaved and he'd been right. If she got worse as the months went on, maybe it would be smart on his part to not spend so much time at their ranch! If he wasn't careful she'd have him married and on the way to being a father without him even realizing it had happened!

That thought brought to mind him hugging a blonde woman and not someone dark. Wondering why he was thinking along those lines, Buck climbed the steps to the porch. Dismissing anything but the task at hand, he called out Rachel's name as he entered the building. He was met with the answer of a chair scraping against the floor and footsteps heading his way.

Expecting to see the former station mistress, Buck was surprised to find himself face to face with a beautiful younger woman. "Miss Lamont."

"Mr. Cross, what a surprise. What are you doing here? I mean, it's nice to see you." Grace gave a nervous laugh as her hand went to the back of her neck to play with a few stray strands of hair.

Buck grinned at the sound of her laugh. He'd only heard her laugh out of nervousness and not because something made her happy. He found himself wanting to be the person to make that happen for her for the first time. But when a person wouldn't speak but a word here or there to you how could it happen? "It's nice to see you too."

Nice the word brought back something Lou had said to him at the lumber office. "She's a nice lady." His grin turned into a pleased smile as he took in the sight of her before him. Yes, she was a nice lady kind, pretty, had a way of filling out a dress so a man couldn't help but take notice wait, he was noticing but shouldn't be. It wasn't proper; she had given him no indication that she might be interested in pursuing anything with him, not even friendship, despite what Lou had tried to talk him into.

He wanted to look away but always found himself drawn to her when he was near her. Buck also couldn't help but notice that she kept sneaking a glance at him when she thought he wasn't looking. He wondered what she was thinking about him but then it didn't really matter now did it? Hadn't he just spent twenty minutes convincing Lou that he wasn't interested in having a girlfriend, no matter who she was? So if he'd said those words, then he must mean them and besides, he hadn't had any luck in the past with women. It was probably safer for him and any woman he might like to just keep things on a friendly nature; that way no one would get hurt. When Grace began to speak to him, he thought of nothing other than the sweet sound of her voice. Yeah, she definitely had an affect on him, he thought sarcastically, with a mental note to kick himself later. "I didn't mean to come across as rude but with Rachel not here, I wasn't really expecting any of her friends to come by." She frowned, mad at herself for once again letting that word 'friends' get to her. She wasn't trying to make friends, that wasn't what she'd come here for but each time she saw Rachel, Mr. Cross or the McClouds together jealous feelings of what she'd never had would pop up.

"It's alright, you weren't really rude, just surprised. That's understandable. What did you say? Rachel's not here?" Buck asked in confusion.

She began to shake her head then stopped as she recalled what made her come out into the hallway in the first place. "Oh, wait, you, um, you called for Rachel so you obviously didn't know she was gone." Buck gave a nod. "I'm the only one here. I'm sorry you wasted your time but she called to me not too long ago that she was heading out for the day. I will admit it was odd as we were supposed to sit down and go over some tests we were preparing for the children for the morning. I tried to catch her before she left but she was too fast for me. I did notice that she'd left all her papers here so she must have been in a terrible hurry."

"That is odd," Buck agreed as he glanced from the doorway of the new section of the building to the front door. "My friend Kid was supposed to meet her here about some repairs she wanted him to do around here but Lou needed to head home instead so she asked me to fill in for him. She musta known Kid was comin' or why else would Lou have asked me to come in his place?" He placed his hands on his hips as he thought over their conversation again.

Grace couldn't help but stare into his dark beautiful eyes as he spoke. She'd never met a man like him before and she didn't mean him being an Indian. There was an intensity to them that she seemed to drown in each time she was near him. She tried to look away but always seemed mesmerized by them and unable to look away.

She finally broke the contact of his gaze and glanced away before answering. "I don't know why she would leave if she knew your friend was coming. She hadn't mentioned anything to me about it but I do know what needs to be repaired so if you want me to show you then it won't be like you wasted a trip coming here."

"I'm talking to you so it's anything but a waste," Buck told her then realizing that might be too forward, he chuckled nervously. "What I meant to say is that being in the company of a lovely lady is just what I needed to make my day complete I mean " Buck paused and laughed as he couldn't figure out why he was sounding like a poet all of a sudden. "If you could show me those repair jobs that would be great."

Grace had caught her breath at Buck's kind words. No man had ever said such a nice compliment to her or about her in her whole life. She blushed, pleased, then giggled along with him as he got all cute and embarrassed for saying she was pretty. "Thank you and I'd be happy to show you. They're in here."

Buck grinned as she walked away from him. It was the first time Grace had given any indication she liked to hear something he was saying to her. Alright, so he was complimenting her but he'd done that a few other times in the barn and she'd shown no reaction. Maybe she was warming up to having him be near her.

"This is one of the problems," Grace said softly as she tried not to look at him. "The windows don't close all the way. It wasn't too much of a big deal before because it was warm out but now that the air is changing, there's always a draft coming in, not to mention that we get puddles in here each time it rains."

"Yeah I could see how that could cause a problem. From what I recall, the town was in an awful hurry to get the new school built so the kids had a place to do lessons again. Maybe some of the men took a few shortcuts. I know me and the other Express riders worked on it as much as we could but that was also mainly with getting the four walls up. The fine detailing, like windows and floors and doors were left to other men who had more time than we did." He went to one of the windows and tried opening then closing it to see what she meant.

"Speaking of floors " Grace paused until she had him looking her way. "It seems like some shortcuts might have been taken there as well." The young teacher stepped aside so Buck was able to see behind where she'd been standing.

Following her eyes, Buck noticed a hole in the floor just past where the first desk was situated. "Whoa, it's a good thing you noticed that before anyone stepped in it and got seriously hurt." He moved to the hole and crouched down next to it to inspect the wood. "I don't know who built this but they obviously didn't know what they were doing if they left it weak enough to allow someone to maybe fall through it," he wondered out loud, but more to himself than to her.

"Well that's kind of how we realized the floor was weak," Grace told him as she followed him to the hole. To show what she was talking about, she lifted her skirt up to her knee and showed him her bandaged up calf.

Buck took one look at that piece of cloth wrapped around her leg and without thinking about it, reached out to gingerly touch her injured leg. "Are you alright? You did go see a doctor, I hope. You could get a bad infection if you didn't." He rubbed his hand up and down her leg wanting to wipe the pain away. Suddenly realizing he was touching a woman who wasn't family, Buck pulled his hand away as if he'd been scorched. A woman getting hurt always bothered him immensely and to see it had been Miss Lamont upset him more than he wanted to let on.

Grace hadn't even realized she'd done something so improper as to show her legs in the presence of a man. For some reason, her showing something personal to him wasn't bad and neither was him reaching out and touching her skin. "It's my fault, not yours. I'm the one that showed you; I could have just said I'd fallen through the wood. I guess it was just a normal reaction as Rachel had made me show her right away. In answer to your question, I'm fine and, yes, I went to see Doctor Hamilton right away. He gave me an ointment to put on it. Doc said to keep it covered so the cream can soak into my skin and stop any kind of infection from setting in." She slowly let her skirt float to the floor, realizing she was still holding it up. She'd almost felt disappointed that he'd let go of her but at the same time, there was no mistaking the concern in his voice and it warmed her up as much as the compliment he'd given her in the hallway.

Buck was finding it hard to look at her. First he'd given her two compliments about her appearance then he'd been so bold as to touch her; it wasn't just a case of skin brushing against skin which had happened once when he'd handed her a brush in the barn at the way station, no, this was him deliberately wrapping his hand around her calf and running his fingers up and down her leg. What was provoking him to make such actions around her? he wondered.

Grace moved away from him, feeling very awkward. He must think her a very forward woman, showing off her body that way to him. It wasn't like he'd been anything other than nice to her but she was sure it was out of courtesy because she worked with his friend. He must have a lot of girls interested in him, as handsome and kind as he is, though she hadn't seen him in town with anyone in particular.

"Well there are other small things that need fixing but those are the two major things so if you could tell your friend Mr. McCloud about them so they get repaired Mrs. Dunne and I would greatly appreciate it." She went back to being her usual formal self, knowing that was how she should have been acting all along.

"I'm going to be the one doing the repairs." When Grace looked at him curiously, he explained, "I have more time on my hands than he does and I live in town while he's out at his ranch so it'll be easier for me to get here after school's closed for the day to get started on things." He didn't tell her that he wanted to repair that floor right away so there was no chance of her getting hurt again. Like Lou had said, none of them knew Grace Lamont but Buck wanted to know, more than he'd wanted to know about any other woman he'd met.

"I'm sure that will make it easier and Mr. McCloud will appreciate the gesture on your part." Grace was suddenly very nervous. That meant she would have to be around Buck more than she had been so far. Each time she went near him caused her to want to see him again and that was a dangerous notion to have floating around in her mind.

Buck nodded, pleased that she thought he was doing something nice for his friend and that was the only reason he would be coming back. Maybe if he was here working and she was in the room as well then they could come up with a conversation that might show something they had in common. "Well I'll tell Rachel when I see her tonight that I'll be coming by to do the repairs. I hope to see you again maybe you'll be here?" he asked hesitantly.

"I'm here most afternoons; I have nothing else to do," she admitted then regretted it as that made her seem desperate for company. "But even if I'm not here, you can just come in and start the work." Grace hoped that covered up how much she wanted to be here when he did begin the repairs. "Well, maybe I'll see you then," she told him as she walked with him out to the hallway and to the front door.

Buck opened the door then was just about to step out when he quickly pulled his foot back in and turned to her. "Miss Lamont, would you go for a ride with me sometime?" The look of shock on her face and what came across as worry scared him into thinking she was going to reject his impulsive thought so he quickly added, "Your horse could use some exercise and with all the horses I have to take care of I'm just one man I haven't been able to get around to taking yours out for a ride."

Oh, he's only looking out for my horse's well being, she thought with a trace of disappointment. Grace had been surprised at his outburst but a part of her had been pleased as it meant he wanted to spend some time with her. Well he didn't and she should be relieved of that fact. But then why did he look like he was pleading with her with his eyes? Going against all her instincts, Grace gave a small nod. "Alright, I suppose I could do that for my horse's sake. I will admit I haven't seen any of the beautiful landscaping around town and I hear it's a sight to see."

"It is and I promise you you'll have a good time. So, I'll set things up when you come out to the way station next time, how does that sound?" At her nod, he nodded back happily and placed his hat on his head. "Well, good afternoon then, Miss Lamont."

"You too, Mr. Cross."

Buck headed down the steps and turned in the direction of the way station. His stride had a bounce to it that he didn't try to hide, even if she was watching him walk away. Buck felt happy, happier than he had in a long time. Whatever her reasoning was, she'd accepted and he would take that for now. If he thought about it, nothing had really happened other than a conversation between the two of them but it had been their first real one and it had felt so nice to talk to her. And if there was one conversation between them, there was bound to be two then maybe more and eventually they could become friends. They'd take it from there when the time came.

It was a start, like he'd been given a push in the right direction where she was concerned. But then that couldn't be; he'd only gone there to see Rachel and chance had him meeting with Grace instead. He stopped as a thought suddenly occurred to him. He'd only gone to the schoolhouse because of Lou. She couldn't she wouldn't would she? He wouldn't put it past her but if she had been behind the little meeting, he'd give her what was coming to her. And the best way to do that to Louise McCloud was to keep her in the dark about something. He'd have no trouble doing that as he'd be quite busy getting his tools together and getting two horses ready to ride and getting clean clothes on

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