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Betrothed to the Dragon
Perhaps it was the news about my supposed betrothal, or maybe it was just relief my talk was over, but afterward, I felt restless, as if electricity lurked under my skin.
And I couldn’t stop thinking about the way that man had looked at me, like…he saw me.
Shen have control over the physical appearance of their descendants’ human form, and Grandma had designed mine to be perfectly ordinary. Wavy dark-brown hair, brown skin in the perfect blend of my mother and father’s coloring in human form, and brown eyes hidden behind glasses. When Grandma had realized I would have no shen abilities, she made sure to give enough proportionality to my features that with some clever makeup and clothing, I could gain attention, should I wish it.
And he had looked at me like he could see through it all.
I shook my head in a futile effort to shake out the image. New York City had more than nine million people in it: the chances I would see him again were immensely small.
Besides, I had more important things to worry about, like the fact that Grandma’s magical protection was weakening.
My shoulder tingled in the spot where Grandma had placed her hand and traced the sigil of protection on me so long ago. It still held.
For now, I still had my freedom.
I leaned back in my squeaking chair, my feet finally free of the stupid heels. I was alone in the doctoral student office. Late-afternoon sun streamed through the window in bars of light so sharp, they were almost solid, save for the dancing dust motes. At this time of year, there would be plenty of light to run and plenty of people running as well.
Safety was to be found in the human herd.
I grabbed the bag underneath my desk, changed in the bathroom, and in minutes, I was out under the trees, running, running, running.
I ran as fast as I could, escaping the thoughts that troubled me. I focused on the charging beats pounding in my headphones, yet Grandma’s words kept coming back to me.
My heart pounded, blood thumped, and my breath quickened, but my mind held on to those words like a woman grasping a pole for balance in a crowded subway.
I turned the corner and headed down an empty stretch.
A long time ago, Grandma had advised closing my eyes and letting out mental screams. It was a good way to relieve stress, release emotions, and, of course, to temporarily disorient any nearby mind readers.
For just a moment, I closed my eyes and screamed in my mind, the way my grandmother had taught me.
I slammed into a wall. Pain exploded through my body. I found myself sprawled on my ass, hard bits of gravel digging in and cutting skin.
“Are you okay?” a familiar resonant male voice asked.
I looked up and found black running shorts against a defined set of abs, flanked by rippling striated muscle up to a wall of pecs. His sunglasses were askew, and his tawny golden eyes gazed at me with an indescribable expression.
Immediately, my cheeks flooded even warmer. I knew exactly who he was—the man from the museum—and my breath hitched in my throat, as I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
He repeated his question, offering me his hand. “Are you okay?"
I squeezed my eyes shut in embarrassment. Let’s just pretend I hadn’t just made a giant fool of myself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.”
He knelt and looked me over. His scent of salt and man and something else unexpectedly alluring was surprising. “You don’t look injured.”
He picked up something beside me and slowly handed it to me. “Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about your phone.”
I stared at my shattered phone. I tried to turn it on. There was a bright flare, and then, it died.
“Be careful,” he said. “Broken edges can be sharp.”
I let out a low groan. “I didn’t even know phones could break like this. I just downloaded a digital subway pass.”
“Let me guess, without the subway app on your phone, you’re stuck,” he said.
Another jogger ran by, and belatedly, I realized I was still on the ground. I shifted to get up, and he offered his hand again. Without a thought, I took it and found his big, warm hand closing around mine, pulling me up effortlessly.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry about your phone. It was my fault it broke. Let me write you a check for it. I don’t live far from here. If you need to, you can use my phone to call someone.”
“Thanks. But I’ll be fine,” I said, the words automatic and tumbling out of my mouth before I could stop myself. I didn’t like accepting help from strangers. Especially handsome ones.
He looked at me with his unfiltered golden gaze that held an impossible temptation I knew I couldn’t indulge in now. Fuck, why couldn’t I have met him yesterday?
“Let me make it up to you.” He was hot, beautiful, and he stared at me like I was too.
The invisible sigil on my shoulder tingled, reminding me of my grandmother, the secret betrothal, the determination of my future without so much as a what-do-you-think-Sophie. Just because I didn’t have magic didn’t mean I shouldn’t have a say in who was going to be my husband.
Arranged marriage, my ass.
“Actually, I might take you up on that offer.” I wiped my hand on my shorts and offered it to him. “I’m Sophie.”
He looked at my hand for a moment before taking it. “Hunter,” he said, almost expectantly.
“Are you on TV or something?”
He laughed and squeezed my hand. Strangely enough, I had the oddest sense I had just been caught.
* * *
I had never been slow by any means. In high school, I had run track and kept up with my running as much as I could.
After all, running was a skill that might save my life one day.
And as much as I knew I was fast, I had the distinct sense that, despite Hunter’s size and bulk, he could easily catch me if he wanted to. His strides were long, and he moved with an easy quickness.
He ran with me to the museum and waited for me outside while I darted into the office and grabbed my bag. We walked the remainder of the way to his place, and true to his word, he did live close by. In fact, he lived in the very building I admired every day on my way to work. With ornately carved 1920s art deco eagles, their wings widespread, it was a favorite location for movie shoots, and tourists often lingered in front of it.
He pointed toward the arched courtyard entrance, which very few buildings in Manhattan had.
I forced myself not to gawk or stutter in amazement. “Convenient.”
“It is,” he replied, nodding to the turbaned Sikh doorman who addressed him as “Mr. Hunter.”
“Mr. Hunter?” I followed Hunter’s lead back toward a set of elevator doors. They opened. Hunter gestured for me to enter before him, so I did. Something about his presence behind me made me automatically press myself against the back wall to make room for him.
“That’s how they do things in this building.” He stood next to me—so close, we were almost touching.
In the tiny space, I was surrounded by more of that strangely delicious scent of his. I trained my eyes ahead, determined not to stare at the fine sheen of sweat that clung to his biceps, which were easily the size of my head.
He inserted a brass metal key in the slot, turned it, and hit the PH button. Of course, he would be in the penthouse. Where else would he be?
Apartments in buildings like this were treasures to be held on to for generations. “Has your family lived in this building for long?”
“Not exactly. It was won in a game of chance.”
His pirate’s smile spoke of gambling treasures at the flick of a wrist. “No fun playing if it’s not.”
The elevator chimed, and the doors opened into a tastefully modern and crisp living room decorated mostly in neutral shades of gray and white with a dash of color here and there.
A song lyric popped into my head: Into the dragon's lair walked the maiden.
He strolled in. “Relax. I’ll get you my phone and some water.”
I walked in slowly across the threshold, following him past the living room toward the remodeled open-kitchen area. It was all silver and gray, as empty and pristine as a magazine spread, save for the phone plugged almost carelessly into an outlet above a counter.
I took a seat at the island counter. “You don’t spend a lot of time here, do you?”
“Is it that obvious? I travel a lot for work.” He unplugged the phone, tapped at it, and set it before me. “I opened my banking app. Just type your email and whatever you think a new phone costs and send it off.”
“You’re very trusting,” I said, teasing him. “How do you know I’m not going take all your money?”
Hunter looked me over with that penetrating gaze of his. “I don’t,” he said. It felt almost like a test. Abruptly, he turned his back on me. “The pin is 3752 in case it goes to sleep. I’m going to rinse off and put on some clean clothes.”
I tried not to think of him naked in the shower, but the mental image brought a warmth to my skin that was hard to ignore.
I picked up his phone and swiped the banking app away. The lock screen appeared, which showed a yellowed image of another man with Hunter’s chin and a woman with his eyes, laughing in a candid shot. It was a digital photo of a physical photograph. I knew from experience that people our age didn’t normally carry around photographs of parents in their youth.
Not unless there was tragedy involved.
I had photos of my parents as wallpaper on my phone as well.
I crossed my legs and typed in the pin. The wallpaper image was replaced by another, this one of palm trees and a white sand beach.
I stared dumbly at the phone. Who would I call? My roommate was off in Asia somewhere, and my grandmother wasn’t even in the city. The easiest thing to do would be to just borrow some subway fare, which irked me. If family stories had taught me anything, it was to never place myself in debt to a human.
Not that he would ever know I was anything other than what I seemed.
I held his phone, trying hard to resist the urge to snoop. Photos? Emails? Contacts? His entire life was in my hands.
I stared at the image of palm trees. Wait, wasn’t that like a default image? Warily, I swiped through. No apps other than the standard. As devoid of personality as his apartment, save for the lock screen.
He came back with wet hair, wearing a button-down shirt with sleeves tight across his biceps.
He smelled of the most generic soap and shampoo, yet it was totally distracting. I set his phone down quickly. Even though he had handed it to me, for some reason, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t supposed to be holding it in the first place.
I rested my elbow on the counter and perched my chin in the palm of my hand. “What is it that you do again?”
He set a glass of water in front of me. An ice cube clinked against the glass. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
I ran my finger around the rim of the glass, ignoring the phone. Time to start calling him on his mysterious-handsome-stranger act. “That is the most informative non-response ever.”
His lips quirked up in a smile. He leaned toward me, laying his thick forearms across the counter. “Interested in my whole life story, then? Where should I start?”
I matched his movement and leaned in closer. “You really going to tell me?”
“Well, I can start with my first memory: holding on to a stuffed pink elephant named Fanfan.” The thought of this serious, rugged man clinging to a stuffed pink elephant made me burst into laughter. His face cracked into a smile that irritatingly, made my heart beat faster. My life was complicated enough without meeting a man whose smile would have sirens singing.
“Did you reach anyone?”
“Nope. Don’t know anyone’s number. It was all in my phone. Can I borrow some subway fare?”
He took a sip of water from his glass and then looked inside it. Apparently, the ice within was fascinating. “You know, if you need a ride home, I could take you.”
I picked up my glass and examined my ice just as intently. “You’ll rescind that offer once I tell you where I live.”
He grimaced. “You live in Jersey, don’t you? Let me guess—Hoboken.”
I put the phone down. “Now, that’s almost insulting.”
“Hey, some of my closest friends are from Hoboken. Nothing wrong with being from Jersey.”
I looked at him, and we both burst into laughter again at the same time.
“Queens,” I said.
“Well, at least it’s not Hoboken,” he said.
We laughed again.
“I’m serious. The car is downstairs, and when the traffic lightens up in an hour or two, I’ll take you home.”
An hour or two with him. The prospect was tantalizing. With a man this handsome, it was too good to be true. It wasn’t that I suffered from a lack of self-confidence; it was more that I was pragmatically aware of how ordinary and unforgettable I looked, especially compared to the head-turning beauty of my mother and grandma in their prime. For me, in this day and age, beauty was a weapon that could be used to find me.
Yet, he looked at me with those golden eyes like I was the most captivating woman in the world.
Perhaps he was one of those humans who could sense magic. Some humans were drawn to it, even if they didn’t know what it was. And despite evidence to the contrary, Grandma said there was magic in my blood, even if I couldn’t use it or manipulate it.
This was why I preferred being around humans. They didn’t look at me with pity in their eyes.
I imagined myself to be Grandma, one of the greatest magic wielders of the shen, always confident and never self-conscious. “If I do take you up on that offer, Hunter,” I said, making my voice linger over his name, “what would you suggest we do for one or two hours?”
The air condition clicked on, and a hum filled the room. Cold air blasted me from above. My nipples tightened from the temperature change, and his eyes flicked to my chest.
His pupils dilated. Heat simmered within me at his response, low beneath my belly. “I can think of a few things,” he said.
I couldn’t help but swallow. What was I thinking? I wasn’t my Grandma; I had no experience playing this game. I didn’t do the one-night-stand thing with a man I’d just met. Maybe it was the shen in me, but I liked getting to know someone—the chase, the interplay, the hunt. Even if I wasn’t much of a shen when it came to magic, we had all once been hunters.
I crossed my arms and shifted to the next stool over, away from the air conditioning. “In the museum,” I said carefully, enunciating the words to show that I wasn’t brain-fogged by him. “You said you had questions for me. Here’s your chance.”
Hunter laughed. He came around the counter to take a seat on the stool next to me. He swiveled the stool toward me, and he was so big, his knees almost touched mine. “Open season on Sophie for questions. I like it.”
I gave him my fakest sultry look. “Anything you want to know about universal motifs in ancient Near Eastern and East Asian religious artifacts, I’m your girl.”
His grin was full blown but was as far from his eyes as a desert from the ocean. “I want to know more about the woman with the mouths.”
I looked at the glass in my hand, swirled the water around, and listened to the ice clink as I unsuccessfully tried to repress the chill of the room. Of all things, he would choose to ask about the menace. The monster that had killed my family over the centuries and hunted us until there were almost none left.
I swallowed, forced brightness into my voice. “Yes?”
“What do you think she represents?”
“The Chinese, Mayans, and Greeks have similar names for her. Devourer. Eater. Mother of Teeth.” I kept my voice as neutral as possible while inside, my instincts were screaming to change the subject as quickly as possible. “But they are all clear on what she is. Death.”
“Are there any stories of the Devourer being defeated?”
It was why I had started studying the Devourer in the first place. I wanted to know if the monster had ever been beaten.
“The Devourer is death,” I said, remembering a line from an Akkadian poem. “And Death cannot be defeated.”
His question had hit too close today. I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
“Your phone,” I said. “Are those two people your parents?”
He looked away, his long fingers curving around the water glass. “Yes.”
The ensuing silence was a terrible sort of affirmation. I reached out to cover his hand. He looked at me, and there was a blankness in his gaze I recognized all too well.
“I never knew mine. I was raised by my grandmother.”
He let go of the glass and entwined our fingers. His hands were big and incongruously rough.
“Sometimes it’s better, I think, that I didn’t know them,” I said. “Because to know that love and lose it…” I had become familiar with the kind of pity reflected in his eyes. But from him, it wasn’t as irritating, maybe because he too had been shaped by a similar loss.
His hand closed tighter on mine as his voice bent to a more serious tone. “I treasure every memory I have of my parents. As few as they are.” We looked at each other, in this moment of understanding. He slowly stroked the back of my hand with his thumb.
I struggled to think of a something coherent and relevant to say. I settled on something about childhood. “When I was younger, I would sometimes feel guilty for missing them because I loved my grandmother, and part of me felt like I was being ungrateful.” I wasn’t even sure if he knew he was touching me, but his thumb mesmerized me. “Especially every Mother’s and Father’s Day at school when we were forced to make craft gifts to bring home.”
His thumb stopped as he replied, “I once brought home a card with a tie. We had just come to this country, and my grandmother thought it was a noose.”
I let out a laugh and reveled in his responding smile.
Wait a minute, we were still holding hands.
“I have to admit,” he said, “you are not what I expected.”
My pulse sped up. “Oh, what did you expect?”
There was a confident, knowing gleam in his eye. Hunter knew the effect of his words on me. “I don’t know. I like you a lot more than I thought I would.”
His words buoyed and punched me at the same time. “I like you too, Hunter.” I knew I should tell him about my betrothal, even if I wasn’t going through with it.
He leaned in, his face above mine.
“May I kiss you?” he asked as though he were as proper as a lord in Victorian England.
I knew I had to tell him. I swear I was going to.
The moment his lips were on mine, I forgot my objections, forgot the betrothal, and forgot the monster hunting me. All I could think about was Hunter, kissing me. I slid off my stool and moved into the intimate space between his open legs. My hands were on his waist, and through the thin white cloth, I could feel the muscular indentations of the V of his hips. His fingers skimmed the hem of my shirt, leaving hot trails on my skin.
I was already so close to being mostly naked with just a T-shirt, a sports bra, and skin-clinging running shorts. I should stop. I wasn’t being cautious. He was a stranger. There was a betrothal…because of all those reasons and more.
But his touch was mesmerizing, his mouth even more so, coaxing, beckoning. Heat bloomed within me. I gave in to a reckless urge and fumbled at the buttons of his shirt. I loved the way he startled at my fingertips on his bare skin. He pressed harder against me.
I turned my head, breaking away from his kiss. “I don’t usually do this,” I said.
“Neither do I,” he replied, a hot whisper licking my ear. His hands slid up my shirt. Never had I been so thankful for my obsession in finding sports bras with actual back clasps as he undid my bra.
He pulled back and pinned me with that golden gaze. “This is the time to tell me to stop, Sophie.” There was something feral and not quite human in the way he looked at me. I didn’t know who he was, didn’t know what game was being played, and, at this moment, didn’t care. No one had ever made me feel this way before, so hot, so wanton that I would burst into flames if I didn’t have him now.
And it might possibly be my last chance to make a choice like this, one that was wholly mine.
I reached for him and tugged his shirt upward. “If you stop, Hunter, I will hunt you down.”
He stopped with an almost comical look of disbelief at my terrible pun. It made him seem more human, and, ironically, made me want him even more.
I burst into nervous laughter.
He grinned, his hands on my hips. “You’re going to pay for that.”
He lifted me, eliciting a yelp of surprise, and set me on the bar. Now, I was the one who spread open my legs as he closed the distance between us. The stone of the countertop was cold against my ass, a delicious contrast to the inferno at my core.
His mouth was on my ear, and he pressed his hard, male body against me. “I’m going to taste you. Here,” he said, placing a finger on my lips. I licked him and was gratified by a squeeze of my ass, pulling me closer. “Here,” he said, cupping my breast. He slid his hand downward, past the elastic waistband, up into the leg of my shorts. “Most especially here,” he said, stroking the damp crotch of my panties. Hot, delicious need surged with his words, with his touch, burning away my common sense. I had just met him; he was a stranger, yet the knowledge, the reckless danger, only made me want to fuck him more.
“And just when you think you can’t take anymore, I’m going to fuck you so well, you’ll masturbate to the memory for the rest of your life.” He slid a finger into my panties, stroking that sensitive bud with his thumb. I gasped at the desire in my veins.
“Are my intentions clear?”
“Promises, promises,” I said, as he slipped a finger inside me.
My sex clenched around him, and he smiled. “Just the truth,” he said.
He slipped another finger inside me, and I shuddered.
I gripped his shoulders. I’d never understood the expression “dazed with desire” until now. I felt drunk, wanton, and if he didn’t fuck me soon, I would die.
“Hunter.” I put my hand up. I pushed him back, but it was like pushing a wall.
“Wait." When he realized what I was doing, he withdrew and eased up.
It was bizarre, but the absence of his touch made me feel cold.
My words, came tumbling out in a rush, escaping my attempts to be cool and calm. “I have to be honest. It doesn’t really matter, but I want you to know that I’m betrothed.”
He stopped and looked at me like I had just smacked him in the head with a bat.
“Betrothed,” he repeated.
My chances with him were evaporating. I said as quickly as I could, “To a man I’ve never met, in an agreement I never made.”
He raked his hand through his thick hair, taking a step back. “What?”
I was losing him. A bizarre, terrifying desperation gripped me, one that was wildly out of proportion to how long I had known him. “My grandmother arranged it on my behalf when I was a child. I didn’t even know about it until today.”
He blinked and stared at me as if he didn’t recognize me. “Today,” he repeated.
“Just before I gave my talk at the museum.” I forced a weak laugh. “She has the worst timing.”
“You didn’t know?” he asked, almost biting out the words.
Shit. He was really pissed. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
I slid off the counter, my heart pounding and stomach sinking. Better to have this conversation now, I knew, but still, this sucked. The realization sunk into my limbs like weights. “I refuse to believe that I’m beholden to any promise made on my behalf, without my knowledge. I am not chattel to be bartered.”
“So, you intend to break the betrothal?” he asked.
I rehooked by bra and folded my arms across my chest. According to Grandma, it was the only way I would be safe from the monster. “I don’t know.”
He looked at me, his gaze so intense, I had to take a step back. I was trying to think of what to say, but he spoke first. “You should have a say in who you choose to marry,” he said finally. He turned. “Wait here. There’s something I want to show you.”
The air conditioning clicked on again, making the room seem colder without his presence. Whatever had been about to happen between us wasn’t going to happen now. Disappointment mixed with sexual frustration made me want to punch something.
There was a vibrating noise. A message flashed itself with a disturbingly familiar image.
I generally didn’t go around reading other people’s messages, ever.
I entered the PIN he had told me and read the message displayed.
Cold dread seeped through my veins at the information.
“Sophie?” Hunter’s questioning voice came from behind me.
He stopped when he saw the look on my face and me with his phone.
I put on my calm war face, the one my grandmother had made me practice, even though my heart was racing.
I held up the screen so he could see it. “‘Here is the rest of the information on your betrothed; apologies if some of this is in duplicate: Sophie May,’” I said, starting with the first message. “Daughter of Yi-Fan and Breaker-of-Storms. Grandmother, Lady Keiko Asakusa. PhD Candidate in Art History. Assistant Curator at the New York Metropolis Museum of Art.”
I swiped to the next one. “Required wedding date—”
His big hand was suddenly wrapped around my wrist. “It’s not what it looks like.”
At that moment, if I’d had magic, I would have burned him to a crisp. I had been on the verge of having sex with him, and…
I couldn’t think about it, I was so angry. If I had been a true shen, there would be things exploding around me and lights flickering. Instead, I was limited to what I could convey with my voice. “Let. Me. Go.”
He released me.
I backed away from him, sidling toward the door. “Why the pretense, my dear betrothed?” I put as much disgust into the word as I could.
“Seeing you at the museum, yes, that was intentional. But running into you at the park, that was not.” He shook his head. “I thought you knew. I thought you were playing shen games.”
That would be a shen thing to do. But I was never good at those sorts of things.
“Shen games,” I repeated. The way he said it, implied he wasn’t shen. Which didn’t make sense. On Earth, there were humans, and there were shen. Shen who had human form but who also had access to deeper magics and other physical forms with horns, tails, wings, scales and many more. I was the strange anomaly of being shen with no magic.
“I am not shen,” he said. He held his hand out. A ball of flame appeared in his palm. It flickered in a way that no natural flame did. Smokeless, colorful, and mesmerizing.
No shen could manifest such power in their human form.
My grandmother had betrothed me to a dragon.
I took a step back. “This can’t be for real.”
Long ago, around the time Rome fell, my father had tried to bar the dragons’ arrival to this world, when they’d arrived as refugees from a dying planet. The same monster that had destroyed their world had followed them to Earth.
And instead of hunting them, it had turned its attention to the shen.
“You brought the Devourer to Earth,” I said slowly. “You are the reason the shen are nearly gone.”
“I was born in New York,” he said. “My parents may have been immigrants, but I was born on Earth. We are alike, you and I.”
I turned. “No,” I said vehemently. “Because I didn’t agree to any of this.” I began pacing. “Why the hell would Grandma do this?”
“You are a child of Earth. And your bloodline goes back to the very formation of this planet,” said Hunter, so, so maddeningly calm.
The potential of your blood is still there.
“This is why the betrothal was arranged,” I said, bitterness emerging from my voice. “You’re here because you need my bloodline.”
His eyes met mine. “Truthfully, when they told me, I wasn’t too thrilled either. But I’ve changed my mind.”
Nobody, not even the shen, knew much about the dragons because they were literally aliens to this world. But there were still stories of what dragons did. Sex was often a way to create a permanent magical enslavement bond of sorts. My voice raised in incredulity. “Were you going to ‘seal’ me with sex?”
His lack of denial was all I needed. “I thought you knew.”
Impossible, infuriating heat began welling up within me. He hadn’t actually wanted me, just the magic in my blood.
I had almost lost my freedom. He had been planning to enslave me. My stomach turned at the thought. I backed away, holding up my hand. “We’re done here.”
He came forward. “You can’t expect to just leave.”
I grabbed my bag and headed for the door. “I am leaving. I’m still free to do that.”
“You have no ride home.”
“I’ll walk if I have to.” I tried to open the door, but it was locked. There was no knob, which meant it was probably a fingerprint or a phone-controlled lock. I spun on my heel and found him closer than I had expected, but thankfully, not as close as he could have been. “Are you going to keep me here against my will?"
There was a grim look on his face. “Your grandmother’s protection won’t last forever.”
For some reason, it only made me even more pissed.
I tried the door again. Still locked.
I turned back to him, and he tapped at his phone.
“I swear I’m going to break this door down if you don’t let me out.” Fear, rather than anger, probably would have been a more reasonable emotion at this moment because, after all, he was an actual dragon with all the magic he possessed at his command and I had none. No tricks, no trinkets, nothing. But I was so angry at myself for believing in this delusion that reason seemed like a distant land I’d once known.
The phone beeped, the lock clicked, and the door opened.
“I’ve called a car service for you,” he said.
I marched into the elevator and jammed the door-close button as hard as I could.
The doors slid together much too slowly.
“Take the car, number eighty-eight,” he said.
The elevator closed behind me.
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