• Published 16th Jun 2020
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The Power of Two - Locomotion

A young changeling runs away from home, only to be attacked by timberwolves in the Everfree Forest. Fortunately, Locomotion is on hoof to save her - but little do they know that she has a spy on her tail...

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Chapter 6: Friend or Foe?

It was late in the afternoon when Hornette decided that she'd had enough for the day and wanted to head back to Steamer's house. She was sorry to have to leave the animals, but promised to come back and visit another time. Twilight, her work done for the time being, opted to stay behind and continue talking with Fluttershy, leaving Locomotion and Hornette to make their own way back home.

“So what did you think of Fluttershy then?” ventured Locomotion as they headed sedately down the path.

Hornette smiled. “You were right about her, Loco. She really is a nice pony,” she observed. “I like her.”

The red-furred teen chuckled and returned the smile in kind. “Yeah, she seems to be taking quite the shine to you too,” he remarked.

“Do you think the others will take to me as well as Fluttershy did?” asked Hornette hopefully.

“There's a good chance,” conceded Locomotion confidently. “Thing about Fluttershy is that...well, to put it bluntly, she finds it pretty tough to make new friends, and generally tends to hang onto those she already has. If you could win her over so easily, I shouldn't think the rest of the Friendship Council will be all that difficult.”

“Oh, good.” To say Hornette was no longer shy about meeting the Friendship Council would be untrue; but her time with Fluttershy had left her with an improved sense of optimism and self-confidence. “What about your uncle? Will he think any better of me if they do?”

“He'd better!” chuckled Locomotion. “I mean, I get that he's not happy with having a changeling around, but that doesn't...mean...he's...” but his voice trailed away mid-sentence, and he gradually slowed his pace to a complete stop, his brow furrowing with anxiety as he directed a sidelong glance towards the young changeling. “Do you get the feeling we're being followed?” he asked in a discreet, hushed tone.

Hornette stopped too. “Yes...yes I do, now you come to mention it,” she affirmed uneasily, her own voice little more than a faint whisper. Her eyes widened at this point as an awful thought struck her; “You don't think...do you?”

“Okay, calm down, Hornette,” instructed Locomotion quietly. “Just listen to me very carefully – turn around, nice and slow, and whatever you do, don't – make – any – sudden – moves.”

Cautiously, ever so slowly, the red-furred unicorn and his changeling companion turned to face the way they had just come, Hornette ready to take off at the first sign of trouble while Locomotion braced himself for battle should the need arise. Almost immediately behind them stood a shifty-looking Pegasus stallion whom Locomotion had never seen before. He was black in colour, with a spiky crimson mane and tail riddled with rusty streaks of orange, and his Cutie Mark consisted of a red jerry-can with a yellow lightning bolt on it. His sly green eyes seemed to be scanning the young changeling from head to hoof, but as soon as the two teenagers turned around, he quickly changed his demeanour.

“Excuse me, my little ponies,” he asked in an oily voice, “but could either of you help me? I seem to have gotten quite lost.”

Locomotion glared at the suspicious-looking stranger. “Who the hay are you? And what do you mean by sneaking up on us like that?!” he demanded.

“Oh...how remiss of me,” said the stallion, his expression a noticeable parody of dismay. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Diesel – Electro Diesel. I've only just moved here from my birthplace in Whinneapolis in search of a job. Tell me,” he went on ingratiatingly, “could either of you direct me to a place called Sugarcube Corner?”

Locomotion hesitated for a very brief moment. He wasn't exactly sure he trusted this Diesel character. “Ugh...I suppose so,” he grunted at last. “Carry on down the road for about...five blocks, turn left, then second right, and you'll see it straight ahead. You can't miss it.”

“Ah, thank you,” purred Diesel. “Most helpful of you indeed, young stallion.” He returned his gaze towards Hornette. “And most interesting to see that you're trying to tame a changeling as well.”

“What are you talking about?!” retorted Locomotion indignantly. “Hornette doesn't need any 'taming' – just food and shelter, same as the rest of us!”

The black Pegasus stallion smirked as if in amusement. “That's what they all say,” he replied greasily. “Anyway, I won't detain you any longer. Farewell, my friend – no doubt we shall meet again.”

Locomotion didn't even bother to answer. He just leered warily as Diesel made his way down the road, quietly praying that they didn't. Only when the shady black Pegasus was out of earshot did he finally allow himself to speak. “What do you make of him, Hornette?”

“I don't like him, Loco,” confessed an uneasy Hornette without missing a beat. “He's creepy.”

“Yeah, he seems a bit too smooth for my liking,” agreed Locomotion darkly. “He reminds me of a Rodney the Railway Engine antagonist of the same name – and that Whinneapolis alibi of his hardly rings true either.”

Hornette cocked her head in confusion. “What's...Whinneapolis?”

“It's a city up in northern Equestria. Their natives speak with a pretty distinctive accent, don't-cha know?” explained Locomotion, putting on his best Whinneapolitan dialect. “But that wasn't how that Diesel character spoke just now. If anything, his accent sounded more like...somewhere between Prench, Griffonian and Høylandic.”

“Did it?” asked Hornette, a hint of dread creeping into her voice. “Because it didn't sound much like a pony to me.”

“Hmm...” Locomotion gazed down the road again, mulling over what Hornette had just said. “...yeah, now you come to mention it, I don't think I've ever heard anyone speak with that kind of accent before. Perhaps I'd better have a word with Twilight about him next time we meet up, see if she can shed a bit of light on the whole thing,” he decided.

Night was slowly descending over Ponyville as Steamer trudged wearily home. Today had been one of the most difficult days he had experienced in a long time – not only had his fellow drivers been poking fun at him again, but faulty brakes on one of the coaches had led to him stalling halfway up the Long Draft with the Appleloosan, and they had to remove the offending vehicle at Horse Junction. This in turn made him so late getting into Delamare that he ended up missing his “path” for Fort Maine, and a much slower local train was allowed to set off ahead of them.

The return journey was no better. The Princess Class locomotive that should have worked the Friendship Express that day had been failed with damaged firebars, so Steamer and “City of Cloudsdale” were drafted in at the last minute, while a smaller engine took charge of the semi-fast that they were meant to be pulling. But the heavy train was almost too much for “City of Cloudsdale” to handle alone, and the gradients over the Buckskin Mountains held her back to such an extent that the express was nearly an hour late reaching Ponyville.

The buff-coated stallion sighed heavily as he plodded into the house. His life seemed to be getting worse and worse – first the changeling, then his engine and workmates laughing at him, and now he had ended up messing up the timetable! What next, he wondered – Lord Tirek escaping from Tartarus again?!

“Ugh...what a day,” he groaned, collapsing onto the sofa.

“You alright, Uncle Steamer?” Locomotion emerged from the kitchen with a glass of water.

“What do you think?” murmured Steamer bitterly. “All day long, it's been nothing but delay after flaming delay.” He sighed again, trying to massage the tension out of his face. “Honestly, why does it have to be me? Why couldn't Twilight have taken care of the changeling?”

Oh grief, here we go again, thought Locomotion; slightly amused by the irony of the inexplicable role reversal. Usually it was Steamer who was consoling and steering him in the right direction while he himself lamented over whatever issue was troubling him, not the other way round. “Come on, Uncle Steamer,” he soothed, “you're just stressed is all. I know you don't exactly like Hornette right now, but there's no need to take it all out on her. Besides, you never know – someday, you might be grateful for her being here in the first place.”

“Maybe,” said Steamer, unconvinced. “I just...worry about you, Loco. You're taking on a big responsibility here...”

“Ah, you worry too much,” scoffed Locomotion. “I've been managing fine with Hornette so far. Okay, so perhaps we may have had a bit of a scuffle at Fluttershy's place...”

Steamer's blood ran cold.

“...but it was Angel who started it, the little blighter! The rest of the animals were fine with her, and so was Fluttershy.”

“Was she?” Steamer blinked in amazement. He knew Angel could be a right terror at times, but the last thing he had expected was Ponyville's most timid pony to befriend a creature who should have been her enemy.

“You bet your buffers she was!” smirked Locomotion. He meant to say “hooves”, but being a railway enthusiast, he often tended to use the locomotive equivalent. “Anyway, what good would being stuck in a castle have done the poor thing? I'm not just looking after her – I'm teaching her social skills and countless other life lessons that no castle in the world can teach.”

“And you're saying Twilight can't?” asked Steamer dubiously. “She is the Princess of Friendship, after all.”

“Yeah, but what's the point in turning to the Princess of Friendship for everything?” retorted Locomotion. “We're trying to make Hornette feel integrated, not trapped. And if you're still sore about the whole cocoon thing, you can forget all about it,” he added, “because she's already promised not to spin another one.”

Yet another sigh escaped Steamer's lips, this time one of relief. “Thank Celestia for that. I don't think I could have taken another clean-up session after today.”

Locomotion chuckled lightly and left his uncle to unwind. Even he had to admit that things had been getting rather hectic since rescuing Hornette, but he wasn't going to let a little thing like that dampen his spirits. At least he was doing her a good turn, he reasoned – any other pony would have either finished her off, dragged her away to a dungeon or left her for dead.

But what about that shady Diesel pony who had been stalking him and Hornette earlier, he wondered? What was he really doing here? He couldn't possibly be trying to find a job as he had claimed – Whinneapolis was a much bigger place than Ponyville, so he wouldn't have had any trouble finding employment there, native or not. And that voice...that creepy, slithery, oily and thoroughly intimidating voice, almost like a cross between a snake and a wasp...you could never trust anyone who spoke in that tone, even if that someone happened to be a pony. What really worried him, however, was how interested the black Pegasus stallion seemed in Hornette. It was almost as if he had been trying to hunt her down...

The red-furred railway enthusiast furrowed his brow as he entered his room. He could only hope that Twilight would be able to clear everything up. Then he remembered the Rodney the Railway Engine fan story he had been working on since before the fiasco in the Everfree Forest. Perhaps that might help him keep his mind off Diesel, he thought as he sat down, booted up his computer, opened up the appropriate word document and began typing;

Meanwhile, back at Onyx Junction, Claudia had finished shunting and was backing on shed for a well-earned rest before her next train. She was just coming to a halt over the inspection pit when a Porter came trotting across the yard.

“There's been an accident at the foot of Cardinal's Grade,” he reported to her Driver. “Manticore and his train have jumped the rails and gone down the embankment. We need the wrecking train out there immediately.”

“Anypony hurt?” asked Claudia's Driver anxiously.

“Afraid so,” said the Porter. “The Driver and Second Pony have broken their arms and can't get out.”

“Right!” stated the Driver, scrambling back into Claudia's cab. “We've not a moment to lose. Come on, old girl, let's get the cranes.”

Claudia frowned as she clanked away to fetch the wrecking train. “I warned him,” she murmured gravely. “'Diesels are meant to use brake tenders on unfitted goods trains for a reason,' I told him – but all he did was call me an old relic. It's no wonder he crashed.”

“Ah well,” chuckled her Firepony, “we live and learn.”

“I hope he does,” went on Claudia. “Too much of that attitude, and he'll end up damaging himself beyond repair.”

“You're telling

But before Locomotion could complete the paragraph, he was startled by a piercing scream from the guest room.

“Oh, grief,” he muttered. “Looks like my fanfic will have to wait,” and he dashed out into the hallway, inadvertently knocking his chair over in the process.

Hornette sat bolt upright, panting and sweating in terror as she scanned her surroundings. She almost expected to find herself in the very last place she could ever want to be, confronted by the one creature she feared the most – but as soon as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, the frightened changeling found herself back in the safety and comfort of the guest bedroom. Overcome with relief, but still horribly shaken, she buried her face in the soft pillows and began to cry.

Unbeknown to her, the door slowly, ever so silently swung open as Locomotion peered anxiously into the room. He couldn't see much, but the darkness did little to hide the sight of the distressed changeling curled up on the far end of the bed, trembling and sobbing feverishly as she hugged her blanket and pillows. The red-furred unicorn choked back a small gasp and lifted a hoof to his mouth in dismay, his eyes moistening slightly and threatening to produce a few small tears of their own. Quietly, so as not to startle her, he tiptoed inside and sat down next to her bed, propping himself up against the mattress with his right arm.

“Hornette?” he whispered.

Still sobbing, Hornette gingerly lifted her head. “Is...is that you, Loco?” she stammered.

“Yeah, it's me.” Locomotion gazed upon the traumatised changeling with an expression of kindly concern, trying to hide his own upset at seeing her in such a tizzy. “What's wrong?” he asked softly.

Hornette looked down at her dampened pillows, visibly ashamed. Realising that he might have touched a nerve, Locomotion hastily tried to backtrack; “Y-y-you don't have to tell me if...you don't want...”

“Oh, Loco,” burst out Hornette suddenly, her tears flowing thick and fast again, “I've just had the most horrible nightmare! I was back in my homeland, trying to escape just like I'd already done – only there were hundreds of other changelings chasing after me. I tried to outrun them, but they just...they kept coming at me from all directions, and just as I was about to reach the border, they surrounded me and dragged me back to my hive. Next thing I knew, I was in front of Queen Chrysalis herself. She was scolding me for betraying our kind, and there was some kind of magic flowing into my head from her horn that made me feel like I was slipping away...and that was when I woke up!”

“Blimey,” remarked Locomotion breathlessly. “That must have been horrific.”

“It was,” faltered Hornette. “I...I've been getting it every night since...since I ran away. I was just so afraid that other changelings would try to hunt me down...and that's why I kept cocooning myself.”

Locomotion smiled sympathetically and rested his hoof on hers. “You really have had it rough since your escape, haven't you?” he murmured.

Just outside the doorway, Steamer frowned with guilt and sorrow as he eavesdropped on their conversation. He too had heard Hornette's frightened scream, but didn't think very much of it at first – Locomotion had a habit of talking to himself when working out the dialogue for his fan stories, so the buff-coated stallion was used to him getting overly dramatic at times for no apparent reason. All the same, that voice sounded rather high for his nephew, so he grudgingly elected to go and see what was going on.

But when he reached the top of the stairs, he was beside himself with bewilderment to hear Hornette telling Locomotion all about some horrible nightmare she had just had – and what really stunned him was that she sounded genuinely terrified! It was almost impossible to believe that she was anything like as scared as she made out to be, but even Steamer knew that no creature alive, not even a changeling, could ever fake that level of fear. As he stood and listened, his wariness and disdain gradually melted away like a comet on a collision course with the sun, and he felt all the more ashamed of himself for treating her with such deep suspicion. As much as he hated to admit it, Locomotion was right – Hornette was nothing like what he had expected her to be.

“Sorry if I woke you up, Loco,” he heard Hornette saying after a while. By now, her sobs had ebbed away into tiny sniffles, allowing her to speak more calmly. “I didn't mean to...”

“Nah, it's okay,” soothed Locomotion. “I hadn't even got close to turning in yet, and I don't intend to for another hour. Is there anything I can do for you?” he added helpfully. “You know...just to help you get off to sleep or whatever?”

Hornette took a moment to consider this. “Um...well......there is one thing,” she stammered uneasily.

“What's that?” asked Locomotion kindly.

“Well...I know this sounds kind of weird...but......no, you'll only laugh at me if I told you.”

Locomotion looked surprised. “What makes you think I'm gonna laugh?” he objected.

“It's stupid,” replied Hornette awkwardly, trying to withhold the pang of embarrassment she felt for what she was about to ask.

“So what? As long as it helps you get to sleep, I'll try anything once,” coaxed Locomotion. “Come on, Hornette, please tell me what you want. I won't judge you for it.”

Hornette paused for another few seconds, turning her gaze back to her pillows as she tried to pluck up her courage. No creature in the world had been anywhere near as understanding as Locomotion, so she could probably do worse than confess what was on her mind. “Loco,” she ventured shyly, “can you tell me a bedtime story?”

Locomotion was suddenly overcome by an uncanny shyness of his own. He gazed blankly at Hornette, unsure how to respond. “Do...what?” he stammered.

The young changeling hung her head with shame. This wasn't quite the response she had been expecting, but she still felt abashed with herself. “I'm sorry,” she said sadly. “Forget I ever said that.”

“Wait, hang on, Hornette,” cut in Locomotion, quickly realising that he might have hurt her feelings, “I didn't say I wouldn't. It's just...I'm just trying to understand – why do you want a bedtime story? That's the sort of thing you do for foals.”

Hornette frowned, shedding another few tears. “I never had that luxury back at home,” she confessed wistfully. “I never even had a proper foalhood. All I had was my mother, and even she never cared enough to let me be as carefree and playful as I wanted to be. She saw to my daily needs, but she never played with me, she didn't care what I thought about my way of life, and she never even came to tuck me in at night.”

“What about your father? Was he ever there for you?”

“No. I never even knew him.” Hornette almost began sobbing anew as she spoke. “It was like I...like they didn't even notice me – like I wasn't even there to begin with.”

Locomotion nodded understandingly. His own parents had always done their best to ensure he led a happy life, so he couldn't even imagine what it was like to not be able to have the fun and innocence that every little foal should. But this only strengthened his sorrow for the troubled changeling, and how she had been forced to suppress her inner child all these years. “Okay, Hornette,” he conceded with a broad grin, “you've talked me into it. Yes, I'll tell you a bedtime story.”

Hornette perked up. “You will? I...I mean...you don't have to if you don't want to.”

“After all you've been through, it'd be tactless not to,” said Locomotion resolutely. “In fact,” he went on, an eager smile crossing his face, “I'll tell you one of my favourite Rodney the Railway Engine stories. It's about a little tank engine named Timothy who was...rather like you, in a way. He was on the run as well, except that where you were trying to escape from oppression, he was trying to escape from scrap.”

“So...what happened?” asked Hornette.

“This,” replied Locomotion, “is what happened,” and with an enthusiastic glint in his eyes, he began his story in earnest. “It was a dark, moonless night. Brian had taken the Midnight Goods to a station in a faraway part of Equestria where only the diesels worked...”

Steamer allowed himself a small smile of his own as his nephew eagerly recited the tale of how Brian, a heavy goods engine, had discovered Timothy languishing in a cold, damp siding and taken him back to the safety of the Crystal Empire. He could remember his own brother reading that very same story to Locomotion when he was younger, and though he didn't see diesels as anything like the threat that they posed to steam engines in the Rodney the Railway Engine books, it had provided all three of them with joy, entertainment and a perspective of what life must have been like for refugees escaping from Adolf Hawker's Griffonia.

Hornette, for her part, was awestruck by the similarity of Timothy's plight to her own. It almost felt like she was living the story, particularly when he was explaining about his dangerous journey north;

'We've had worse,' smiled Timothy. 'We ran mainly at night. Friendly signalponies would pass us from box to box when no trains were about. We got on well until Control heard of a mystery train. Then they tried to hunt us down.'

'What did ya do then?'

'A signalpony let us hide on an old quarry branch. Driver, Firepony and Guard blocked the cutting with rubbish and levered one of the approach rails away. We stayed there for days and days, with diesels baying and growling like timberwolves outside. I was frightened then.'

'Can hardly say Ah blame ya,” said Brian feelingly...”

Even when they made it across the border and into the Crystal Empire, the story almost read like a carbon copy of her own adventures. After Brian had left Timothy at the Works for restoration, he went home and told the other engines all about his find, leading to an anxious debate on the danger still looming over the tank engine refugee. It reminded Hornette of the lengths to which Locomotion had gone to ensure her own safety; and even the Crystal Dispatcher, the pony who ran the railway, seemed to play a similar role to Twilight by resolving the situation.

The story ended on a high note. After being “mended and painted in full Great Western colours,” Timothy and his coach Bella were sent to work on a seaside branch line alongside another tank engine named Griff, while his brake-van, Caboose, chose to work regularly with Brian as a token of gratitude. The Crystal Dispatcher was even good enough to give their line the air of a typical Great Western backwater, making the two tank engines feel right at home. “The other engines laughed at first, and called their branch 'the Little Western'. Griff and Timothy were delighted – and now, nopony thinks of calling it anything else.”

“So there you have it,” finished Locomotion. “The story of an engine who strove for a new lease of life, overcame all opposition and finally achieved his freedom. Did you like it?”

But he got no reply. Hornette was so tired from earlier that she had drifted off before Locomotion could finish the story, and was now sound asleep with a warm smile adorning her lips. The red-furred unicorn chuckled quietly as he stood up and pulled the covers over her – and then, with a soft smile of his own, he nuzzled tenderly against the side of her head. She purred contentedly at the feel of his soft fur against her chitin flesh, a soft, gentle sound almost like a cross between a cat's purr and a parasprite chirp, but more within her natural vocal range.

Locomotion's smile grew wider. She sure was cute for a changeling, he thought – and she sounded like it too. “Goodnight, Hornette,” he whispered fondly. “Sweet dreams.” With that, he backed slowly and quietly out into the hallway, keeping his eye on Hornette until he had closed the door.

“You sure make a decent storyteller.”

Locomotion spun round, startled. “Uncle Steamer? How long had you been standing out there for?”

“Long enough to realise I might have been wrong about Hornette,” said Steamer gravely.

This caught Locomotion completely off guard. “Um...did I hear you right just now?” he asked incredulously, almost expecting it to be some kind of prank. “Because I could have sworn I heard you saying you were wrong...and since when did you start using her proper name freely?”

Steamer sighed ruefully. “Yes, you did hear me correctly,” he admitted. “I'm gonna be honest with you, Loco – from the moment Twilight told me about her last week, I was kinda torn down the middle. I wanted to believe you were doing the right thing, but...well, you know what happened the last time we had changelings here in Equestria, don't you?”

“Um...yeah? Where are you going with this?” quizzed Locomotion.

“Well, it rather clouded my judgement,” his uncle continued. “I was so focussed on the negative that I feared Hornette might be taking advantage of your kindness just so that she could make a meal out of it. I can see now that she was telling the truth about her escape from the Badlands – and about wanting to fit in with us ponies like an equal.”

Locomotion's jaw dropped open in astonishment. “So...you actually trust her now?”

“Well...sort of. Not fully, but after hearing what she's been through in the past, it'd be wrong of me not to at least give her a trial run.” Steamer reached forward and rested a hoof on his nephew's shoulder. “I know you're probably more than a little upset with me – and you've every right to be, considering how cold I've been towards Hornette. But I really do want to make it up to her,” he added softly. “Do you...reckon you can find it in your heart to help me?”

Locomotion paused, hanging his head. He was still a little annoyed, and part of him wanted to go into a rant there and then, demanding to know why he didn't still hold an unwarranted grudge against her – but the rest of him felt ashamed of himself for even contemplating such an outburst. This pony had taught him so many tricks of the railway trade, supported him through so many bad patches in his life and helped him face so many new challenges that it just seemed ungrateful to ignore the remorse in his voice. With a deep sigh, he made up his mind and lifted his head again to meet his uncle's gaze. “Well...alright then.”

“That's my boy!” smiled Steamer gratefully, giving Locomotion an affectionate pat on the back.

“I don't get it, though,” went on Locomotion, still visibly perplexed. “I thought you didn't like her – why are you being so...inviting towards her now?”

The rueful frown returned to Steamer's face. “Well...I didn't so much dislike her as fear for your safety, Loco,” he admitted. “I was afraid she might toy with your affections and then betray you out of thin air. When I heard her talking to you about that nightmare of hers......she almost sounded like you after the Horse Junction crash, only worse. You remember how much it stung, hearing you put yourself down for the nine lives lost back then?”

“Yeah...I remember,” murmured Locomotion, casting his mind back to when the Bridleway Limited had rammed into a pair of light engines. It had been over seven years since the accident, but the events of that fateful night remained fresh in his memory. It had taken him a long time to get over the whole fiasco, and even though he had been treated as a hero for saving so many lives at such a young age, his only real consolation was that he ended up reuniting one of the victims with the love of her life. “Yeah, now you come to mention it, it does ring a similar tone to what Hornette's going through.”

Steamer nodded faintly. “Just as well she's got somepony like you in her life,” he observed.

“Well...I try my best,” chuckled his nephew, managing a small smile at long last. “By the way,” he added thoughtfully, “I might have one little idea for how you could atone for your earlier behaviour.”

“Oh right? How?”

Locomotion grinned knowingly and whispered something into Steamer's ear...

Author's Note:

Yes, this is where I bravely admit that I'm still a Thomas fan; and okay, it might seem a bit childish to some, but I still like it for the more realistic and railway-like episodes. That's why I've chosen to reference a few old favourites in this story, with the infamous "Escape" as the basis of the bedtime story Loco tells Hornette. Her contented purring (think Cri Kee, from Disney's Mulan) stems from a pet theory of mine that, if insects were big enough for their voices to be heard, some of them would probably make that exact same noise - although the slightly feline appearance of her original design may have had something to do with it too.

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