The insistent voice forced its way into his consciousness, pulling from the blissful peace of sleep. With a reluctant yawn, Ezra opened his eyes to see who was being so rude as to interrupt his rest. His stomach clenched when he looked up into the smug visage of Agent Farrell. Agent Kendrick stood to his left, his hands on his hips as he glared impatiently at the man in the bed.
"About time you woke up," Kendrick said tersely. "We've been waiting long enough for this."
Ezra glowered at him, but said nothing.
"Ezra Standish, I'm placing you under arrest for obstruction of justice and illegal arms trafficking." He recited the Miranda warning, then drew a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and snapped them on Ezra's right wrist, securing the other end to the bed rail. Farrell watched with a satisfied grin on his face.
Ezra leaned back into his pillows and raised a disdainful eyebrow, lifting his shackled wrist toward the two men.
Farrell snorted. "Those are necessary when dealing with snakes like you."
Ezra sent him a scathing look.
"Now, we have some questions for you," Kendrick stated. "How long have you been a member of the Brotherhood for a Pure America?"
Ezra looked at him and smiled.
"Well?" Farrell prodded.
Ezra continued to smile, maintaining his silence. He knew how Farrell operated; the man was too arrogant and stubborn to give in, even when he held a losing hand.
Farrell and Kendrick looked at one another and began a barrage of questioning, resorting to insults and threats when they continued to get no response. For two hours, they continued grilling Ezra, but he refused to say a word, driving the two agents into a frustrated rage.
"Damn it, Standish! You're gonna have to talk to us sooner or later!" Farrell snarled.
"You aren't helping yourself by being stubborn," Kendrick added. "You're only making yourself look more guilty."
Ezra's expression never changed as he regarded the two agents calmly, a mocking smile still playing on his lips.
"Shit!" Farrell turned away from the infuriating agent in the bed. "I'm going to talk to Travis," he told Kendrick. "Maybe he can loosen the bastard's tongue." Tossing a final glare over his shoulder, he stormed out the door.
Kendrick looked at Ezra coldly, shaking his head in disgust as he followed Farrell.
Once they were out the door, Ezra slumped into his pillow, breathing a sigh of relief that turned into a fit of coughing. It had been taken all of his strength to suppress the coughs while the two hostile agents were in the room, but it was worth it to see the aggravation his silence caused them. He smiled contentedly at the looks he had brought to their faces by the time they finally gave up. It wasn't going to work for long, but at least he had gained a slight reprieve. With any luck, Chris and Vin had extracted the truth from Bradley's cohorts.
The handcuffs on his wrist clinked against the bed rail as he tried to reach for the water pitcher on the nightstand. Glaring at them disdainfully, Ezra looked around for something to aid in their removal. Nothing was apparent in the immediate area and he leaned back against his pillows in frustration. His eyes started to drift shut of their own accord and Ezra decided not to fight the sleep that was attempting to claim him. He would remove the handcuffs later.
* * * * * * * * * *
JD looked up, his face clouding in confusion, when he saw Chris and Vin enter the bullpen laughing. There hadn't been much laughter around the office since the whole mess with Ezra had started.
He waved to them as they came closer. "Hey, guys. What's so funny?"
Chris chuckled. "Vin got Ezra off the hook."
"What?" JD asked, his eyes widening in astonishment. "How?"
"He has quite a way with interrogations," Chris said, unable to suppress a laugh as he thought of the looks on the men's faces when Vin had threatened them.
"What'd they say?" Buck asked, still doubtful of Ezra's innocence.
"They verified everything Ez told us," Vin said contentedly.
"That is truly good news," Josiah said thankfully.
"They just gave up the information, just like that?" Nathan asked with a frown.
"They did need a little convincing," Chris said with a grin. "Tell 'em what you said." He nudged Vin in the side.
Vin smiled and repeated what he had told the prisoners. The men burst out laughing, except for Nathan, who narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. It was going to take a lot more than a coerced confession to convince him that Ezra wasn't a bigot.
"Guess that means I won't have to quit after all," JD said happily.
"What?!" Buck shouted.
JD gulped, regretting his slip of the tongue, then stood and faced his friend proudly. "I decided that if they railroaded Ez, I was gonna quit. I ain't workin' anyplace that don't treat people fairly."
Vin stepped up beside him. "And I was gonna go with him," he said, daring Buck to argue. "I told Travis the same thing."
"You guys would kill your careers for Ezra?" Nathan asked incredulously.
Vin turned to him and scowled, not liking the way Nathan had said Ezra's name. "I believe in 'innocent until proven guilty'. Just 'cause you don't like him, don't make him guilty."
JD lifted his chin defiantly and faced the former medic. "What he said."
Nathan glared at the two younger men. "Don't mean he ain't guilty, either."
Josiah smiled sadly at the confrontation. Their two youngest agents were certainly steadfast in their principles, just as Nathan was with his own, but the conflict between then concerned him. Even if Ezra were exonerated, things had been said and damage had been done. Trouble was brewing for the team unless they found a way to defuse it.
"That's enough," Chris said calmly, stepping between the three men. "We've got work to do."
Buck sighed as everyone returned to their respective desks. He was as shocked as Nathan that his two young friends would give up their jobs because of Ezra. Vin and JD had been the first to trust the reticent undercover agent and had been attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to draw him into their 'family' ever since. Buck had developed a measure of faith in the man, but he still harbored doubts as to his integrity. This recent fiasco had served to bring everyone's uncertainty to the forefront, except for JD and Vin, who rallied behind the embattled agent. Emotions were running high and Buck hoped that the team wouldn't self-destruct as a result.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra was asleep when they entered his room that evening. JD stood by his bed, bouncing on his heels anxiously, eager to share the good news with his friend. Vin shook his head and grinned, though he was also looking forward to Ezra's reaction. Nathan had come along grudgingly, but the rest of the team had been impatient to alert the injured man to the change in the prisoners' statements.
"Aw hell," Vin said, gesturing angrily toward Ezra's handcuffed wrist in response to the others' curious gazes.
"Geez, what assholes," JD said with a frown.
"Anybody got keys?" Chris asked, his jaw clenched tightly at what could only be a spiteful move on the part of the FBI agent.
Heads shaking in the negative were the only response he got.
"I'll bring some by later," Chris said with a sigh.
Ezra moaned suddenly and began to thrash in the bed. "Nooo... no... Monique...." His breathing grew more ragged and he began to cough violently.
"Ezra!" Vin called, shaking his shoulder gently. "Wake up!"
Ezra's eyes fluttered open and he looked around groggily, confusion etched on his features. "What...?"
"Easy, Ez," JD said soothingly, rubbing Ezra's upper arm lightly. "It's just a bad dream."
"Mr. Dunne?" Ezra said after he had awakened fully. He looked at the rest of the men inquisitively. "What brings you all here?"
"We got good news, Ez," Vin said cheerily.
Ezra lifted an eyebrow in inquiry.
"Vin got 'em to talk," JD said excitedly.
Ezra turned to Vin and smirked. "And what sort of persuasive powers did you use? The last I heard, they were rather adamant in their stance."
Vin leaned down and whispered in Ezra's ear.
Ezra stared at him, a smile forming on his lips. "You didn't?"
"Yes, he did," Chris confirmed.
Ezra started to laugh, clutching his ribs against the pain the motion caused. The laugh degenerated into another coughing fit, and it was several minutes before he could speak again. "That was unkind, Mr. Tanner."
"It worked, didn't it?" Vin stated with a shrug.
"Sorry we didn't bring any handcuff keys, Ez," Buck said.
Ez looked at the cuffs with disgust. "Agent Farrell has poor taste in accessories." Glancing at JD, Ezra reached over and removed a pen from his pocket. He carefully pulled it apart, removing the spring that controlled the retracting mechanism. Straightening it as much as he was able with his fingers, he inserted it into the key slot in the cuffs and began twisting it around. Within moments, the cuff popped open, freeing his wrist. Ezra turned back to JD with a grin. "I'll buy you a new pen, Mr. Dunne."
"Where'd you learn how to do that?" JD asked in awe. He had never seen someone pick a lock so quickly.
"My mother," Ezra said succinctly. "It is one of the skills Maude imparted to me when I was a child. I picked my first lock when I was seven."
Buck started to laugh, the others joining in soon after. Nathan merely sighed and shook his head. What kind of mother teaches her child to pick locks?
"Why didn't you do that earlier, brother?" Josiah inquired, still chuckling.
"I didn't have a pen," Ezra replied with a smirk.
"How'd it go with the Hardy Boys today, Ez," Vin asked.
Ezra rolled his eyes and groaned. "They were quite annoying."
"Travis said you weren't very cooperative," Buck said with a grin. "What did you say to them?"
"Nothing," Ezra said.
"Come on, Ez," JD prodded. "You must have said something to tick them off."
"No," Ezra shook his head. "I said nothing. Absolutely nothing at all."
"You exercised your right to remain silent?" Josiah queried.
"Indeed," Ezra said with a smirk.
"No wonder they were pissed," Vin said with a laugh.
"Travis is going to want to talk to you, but he said it looks good for getting the charges dropped," Chris added.
Ezra nodded, relief shining in his eyes. He swept his gaze over the men who surrounded him, studying their expressions. Vin and JD seemed truly pleased by his exoneration. The light of accusation had faded from Chris and Josiah's eyes, but Buck's face still harbored some skepticism. Nathan's expression remained impassive, though Ezra could detect the hostility that was lurking under the calm surface. He might have been vindicated in the eyes of the law, but it was clear that Nathan remained unconvinced.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," a feminine voice interrupted, pulling Ezra from his reverie. All eyes in the room turned toward the nurse, who stood patiently in the doorway. "I'm afraid visiting hours are over."
"Guess we'd better go," JD said with a sigh.
"We'll hoist a few for ya at the Saloon tonight, Ez," Vin said with a grin, slapping JD on the back as he headed for the door.
"See ya later, Ez," Buck said, lifting his hand in a wave.
"Rest well, brother," Josiah said as he patted Ezra's knee.
Nathan followed Josiah out of the room without a word, leaving only Chris behind.
"Travis will probably be by to see you Monday," Chris said. "Try not to give him a hard time, okay?"
Ezra smiled. "I shall try my best."
"I'm sure you will," Chris said with a grin. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said to his leader's retreating back.
His smile faded the moment the door closed. Ezra leaned back into his pillows with a sigh. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Yet, there was a new emptiness inside him; a hole that remained unfilled. Yes, he had been cleared of any wrongdoing, but the hurt remained. His teammates, these men that he trusted with his life, had, with the exception of Vin and JD, turned on him without the slightest hesitation. All it had taken was a few photographs for them to suspect the worst of him. To be fair, he had given information to his cousin, albeit unwillingly. But their mistrust had begun to manifest itself long before the first bust was compromised.
Ezra shut his eyes, wishing that his thoughts would leave him in peace, but they continued to hound him, keeping the tranquility of sleep at bay. The sharp sting of betrayal took up residence in his heart yet again as he struggled to rebuild the walls that had once kept out the hurt. It was his own fault for allowing those first tendrils of friendship and trust to sneak past the barriers that had protected him for so long. Somehow, these men had breached those walls and he was now paying the price for his foolishness and lack of vigilance.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris eyed the closed door with a grimace. Taking a breath and steeling himself for the encounter, he pushed the door open and strode confidently into the office.
"Chris," Travis greeted him.
"Sir," Chris nodded in his direction, then turned toward the other two occupants of the room. "Farrell, Kendrick."
"Larabee," Kendrick acknowledged his fellow agent. Farrell sat quietly and glowered at him.
"Well, gentlemen, it seems we have come to a successful conclusion to this case," Travis began, shooting a quick glance at the FBI agent who sat fuming on one side of his office.
"Successful for whom?" Farrell retorted.
Chris sighed. "We caught the bad guys, Farrell. What more is there?"
"I don't know what kind of stunt you pulled, Larabee, but I know you coerced that confession from Connor and Phillips," Farrell said disgustedly. "You're letting Standish get away with his crimes."
"There are no crimes, Farrell," Chris said, straining to remain civil to the irritating agent.
"What about Standish's involvement with the BPA?" Kendrick asked.
"His only involvement was being related to Hanford," Chris replied curtly. "He never knowingly gave up any information. Hanford's men confirmed that they used drugs on Ezra to get the information they wanted."
"Agent Larabee is correct," Travis said, interrupting the retort that Farrell was about to make. "There is no evidence that Agent Standish was anything but an innocent pawn in Hanford's scheme. I would appreciate it if you kept any further slanderous statements to yourself unless you have the proof to back them up."
Farrell glared at him, but gave a tight nod in response. "Fine."
"Agent Kendrick?" Travis inquired. "Do you have anything to add?"
"No sir," Kendrick replied reluctantly. "The charges against Agent Standish have been dropped due to lack of evidence."
"Good," Travis said, a satisfied smile playing on his lips. "Then I trust our business here is concluded."
Kendrick nodded and stood to leave.
Farrell stood and followed, stopping by the door. "I'll be keeping an eye on Standish. He won't stay out of trouble for long... and I'll be there the next time he decides to play on the other side of the fence." With that, he turned and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
"A bit hostile toward Standish, isn't he?" Travis said, lifting his eyebrows at the FBI agent's behavior.
"Apparently, he was involved in the mess back in Atlanta," Chris explained. "Ezra isn't too fond of him... referred to him as a 'sanctimonious bastard'."
Travis chuckled. "I'd say he's right."
Chris grinned. "So would I."
"I'll speak to Standish this afternoon," Travis said. "I'm sure he'll be glad to have this cleared up."
"I hope so," Chris said.
"Is there a problem?"
"I don't know," Chris said. "This has caused a lot of friction between the guys. Nathan was having an especially hard time with it."
"The racist aspect?"
Chris nodded. "He's not entirely convinced that Ezra isn't a bigot."
Travis leveled his gaze at his agent. "How big of a problem is this?"
"I honestly don't know," Chris said with a sigh. "We'll just have to wait and see."
Travis nodded thoughtfully. "Keep me apprised of the situation. I'd hate to see something like this ruin my best team."
"I'll do that," Chris said, giving Travis a crooked grin as he got to his feet. "I've kind of gotten used to 'em myself."
* * * * * * * * * *
The room was quiet when Orrin Travis pushed his way quietly through the door. The shades were closed and one small lamp cast a dim light into the room, illuminating the outline of the agent sleeping in the bed. He eyed the man sympathetically, noting the bruises that had yet to fade and the bandages wrapped around the damaged wrists. Travis suspected that if the slick undercover agent ever realized how innocent and vulnerable he looked in sleep, he would have found a way to maintain his sarcastic façade even in unconsciousness.
"Who's there?" the sleepy voice called warily from the bed.
Travis started at the sound, unaware that the man had awakened. "Agent Standish," Travis greeted him, moving closer to the bed, where he snapped on a second lamp. "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you," Ezra replied politely, stifling a yawn with the back of his hand.
"That's good to hear," Travis said sincerely. "We were very worried about you."
Ezra raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly, indicating that he didn't quite believe that. Travis watched him thoughtfully. Larabee might have more problems than he thought, since he suspected that this much-maligned agent was not going to forgive so easily. The watery green eyes held a coldness that hadn't been there before and he knew it wasn't going to be easy to erase that look. With a sigh, he pushed that thought aside and proceeded on to what had brought him here in the first place.
"I wanted to inform you personally that all charges against you have been dropped," Travis said, studying the man carefully. To most, Ezra's reaction would have been unnoticeable, but Travis had once served as a judge and had learned to read people quite well. He saw the minute relaxation in the shoulders and the decrease in tension around Ezra's eyes, as his words sank in. It might not have been obvious to anyone else, but Travis could tell that he was relieved at the news.
"That is good to hear, sir," Ezra stated blandly, as if it meant little to him.
Travis smiled at his agent's admirable effort at dissemblance. It might have fooled others, but he knew that the man was still troubled by the recent events, despite his attempts to pretend otherwise.
"When will they be letting you out of here?" Travis asked.
"Not soon enough," Ezra grumbled.
"I figured as much," Travis laughed. "Just make sure you take whatever time you need. You won't help yourself or anyone else if you fall flat on your face from overdoing it."
Ezra eyed him suspiciously, then nodded slowly. "I expect to be out of here in a few days."
"The doctor said Friday, I believe," Travis said, lifting the corners of his mouth in a knowing smile.
Ezra rolled his eyes to show what he thought of that.
"I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that Agent Farrell is back in St. Louis," Travis said.
"He is rather unpleasant, isn't he," Travis commiserated.
"That is being kind, sir," Ezra replied with a smirk.
Travis chuckled in agreement, then said with a sigh, "I have to get going now," Travis said. "The mayor is having another one of those boring dinner parties of his, and will be insulted if I'm late again."
Ezra chuckled at the pained look on his superior's face. It was well known throughout the department that Travis hated the more social aspects of his job. He had been overheard more than once complaining about having to "suck up" and "kiss ass" at the various political functions that his position forced him to attend.
"You take care of yourself and do as the doctor says," Travis warned. "I'll hear about it if you don't."
"Yes, sir," Ezra said, tipping his imaginary hat at the Assistant Director, who shook his head and smiled as he left the room.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra picked up some of the grayish substance that the nurses had called 'meatloaf' from his plate and studied it suspiciously. With a grimace, he dropped the fork back onto the plate and pushed the tray away.
"You're s'posed to eat that, you know," said a familiar voice.
Ezra glanced to the door and said with a sniff, "It's criminal to call that substance food."
Vin chuckled as he entered the room with Chris. "I know what you mean. I couldn't eat that shit either last time I was in here."
"You would think they would try to prepare something that would actually make one feel better," Ezra complained.
"Here," Chris said, handing him a brown paper bag. "Maybe this will help."
Ezra opened the bag and smiled as he removed the cardboard container of cashew chicken. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Chris shrugged. "Wouldn't want you malingering due to bad food."
Ezra rolled his eyes as he dug into the food with the chopsticks he found in the bag. "Much better," he commented gratefully.
The three men chatted companionably while Ezra finished his meal. Finally, he settled back into his pillows with a contented sigh.
"Guess he liked it," Vin said with a smirk.
"Mr. Tanner, even that sugar-loaded trash you like to eat would have been preferable to the dreck being served by this establishment," Ezra said archly.
"He's got you there, Vin," Chris said. "Hospital food ain't exactly gourmet cuisine."
"Quite true," Ezra agreed. "I do thank you gentlemen for rescuing my palate this evening."
"Our pleasure," Vin said, shooting a glance at Chris.
Ezra caught the look and eyed the two men closely, noting the sudden change in their demeanors. "Is there something you wanted?"
"Ez, we need to talk," Chris said with a sigh.
"About what?" Ezra asked guardedly. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like what they had to say.
"We need to know about your relationship with your cousin," Chris said reluctantly.
Ezra stared at him dispassionately, hardening himself against the emotions that began to churn inside of him. "For what reason? Bradley is dead. I see no need to talk about this further."
"We just want to understand," Vin offered lamely.
Ezra turned his head away and sighed. "This is about that damn picture, isn't it?"
Vin and Chris shared a guilty look.
"I could care less about that picture, Ez, but..." Vin trailed off, not knowing what else he could say.
"But there are still some who believe I am prejudiced against people of color," Ezra said flatly, turning back to face his blond superior.
"Hell, Ez. The photo shows you hanging out with the KKK," Chris said. "It would help if you could explain it to us."
Ezra stared blankly at him for a moment, then said, "Fine."
Vin watched his friend's face and groaned inwardly. The fragile strands of friendship between Ezra and the rest of them had just taken another blow and he wasn't sure how much more they could take before they were completely severed.
Turning away from them again, Ezra began to speak. "I stayed with Bradley and his father for the summer when I was eight." He turned back to face them. "Dwight Hanford was Maude's distant cousin third cousin twice removed, or some such thing."
He looked back toward the window and continued. "He was an unpleasant man. Bradley and I spent the summer working on the farm." Ezra paused and shook his head. "I wasn't very good at that kind of work, which made Dwight very unhappy. He wasn't very tolerant. He had a tendency to let his fists do the talking."
"Guess that's why you don't like menial labor," Vin commented.
Ezra gave him a mirthless smile. "That's one reason." He sighed and continued the story. "Every weekend, he would drag Bradley and me to Klan meetings. I never thought they were anything more than a men's club." He shrugged and looked at Chris. "An uncle with whom I stayed the previous summer had been a member of the Elks club, and the meetings were very much the same. They would get together, drink beer, and watch sports on television. Bradley and I never paid much attention to what the adults were discussing."
"I thought you always knew what was going on around you," Chris said doubtfully.
Ezra smiled again. "I was too busy teaching the other children to play poker."
Vin snorted. "Beat the pants off 'em too, I bet."
"Of course, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with a shrug. Toying with his blanket, he dropped his gaze and continued. "I never realized what they were until that rally where the photo was taken. That night, they decided they were going to go... 'nigger baiting'." Ezra paused, the disgust he felt at that statement showed clearly on his face.
"After drinking a lot of beer, barbecuing, and burning a cross, they dressed themselves and all of the children in those tacky white robes and made us ride along in the backs of pickup trucks. A black minister and his family had just moved into town, and, naturally, these God-fearing members of the Klan took offense."
"Shit," Vin muttered. He knew where this was going.
Ezra sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I'll never forget the disgusted, sorrowful look on the minister's face and the fright in his children's faces as they watched out the window while those bigots set a burning cross in their yard." The memory of the burning cross, its flickering flames of hate reflected in the eyes of the besieged black family, was all too vivid. If he closed his eyes, he could even remember the acrid scent of gasoline and smoke as it overpowered the delicate scent of the roses that lined the small front yard. Ezra shook his head to clear the remembered horror away. "After that night, I told Dwight I wasn't going to go to any more meetings."
"Did you?" asked Chris.
"Yes," Ezra replied quietly.
"Why?" Vin asked.
"He dragged me into the barn later that night and beat me with his belt until I was unconscious," Ezra stated casually, as if he were talking about what he had for dinner last night.
"Jesus," Vin said.
"Oh, that was his favorite topic," Ezra added, eager to change the subject. "He would read from the bible every night, proclaiming that Jesus was the white man's salvation and that the Jews and blacks were the devil's spawn." He chuckled. "One night I said to him, 'Wasn't Jesus a Jew?'"
"What did he say?" Vin asked.
"He hit me in the face with his bible and said that was blasphemy. Knocked out two of my teeth."
"Damn, Ez," Chris said. "You never did know when to keep your mouth shut."
Ezra shrugged and closed his eyes. "So, is that enough information to appease you?"
Chris let out a long-suffering sigh. "I don't like having to pry into anyone's personal life, but I'm not going to sit by and let any misunderstandings tear this team apart."
Ezra shot him a glare but said nothing. Once again, his feelings were being trampled in favor of someone else. No apologies for their behavior and mistrust were offered not that he had really expected any. But that didn't make it hurt any less.
Chris watched the emotions play across Ezra's face: anger, hurt, disgust, and finally, resignation. It wasn't something he was accustomed to seeing, since the undercover agent normally kept his feelings well hidden, protecting himself from those who might exploit those emotions as a weakness. But tonight, he was either too tired to hide them... or he simply didn't care enough to make the effort. Despite his candor in answering the questions he and Vin had posed, Chris knew that this was not the end of their problems. They had lost much of the hard-won trust that they had previously shared with the guarded agent, and it was going to take a lot more than a few platitudes to regain that lost ground.
The nurse chose that moment to bustle into the room, bearing a loaded syringe. "Time for your medication, Mr. Standish."
Vin looked at the needle and grimaced. "Uh, looks like we better get going, Ez."
Ezra glared at the nurse, but she was not easily intimidated.
Chris hid a smile and said, "I'll see you tomorrow, Ez."
Ezra shrugged and gave them a disinterested wave as they left.
Outside the room, Vin turned to Chris and said sarcastically, "That went well."
Chris rubbed his face tiredly. "I don't know what else we could have done. Nathan isn't going to cut Ezra any breaks unless he hears the truth. And he's not the only one."
"It ain't fair to Ez," Vin reminded him.
"I know," Chris conceded, then shook his head in exasperation. "This would be so much easier if you all weren't such a bunch of stubborn bastards."
Vin grinned impishly. "But that's why you love us."
Chris rolled his eyes. "Don't push it, Tanner."
Vin laughed as he followed his friend down the hall.
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