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Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 10:23 am
Title: Lethewards: Chapter Three: Wayfaring Stranger part V
Rating: R
Fandom: Marvel - 616
Pairings: Primarily pre-slash Steve/Tony, but with several platonic relationships, as well as references to past relationships and a few minor relationships
Part word count: 4970
Genre: Drama, angst, hurt/comfort, character study
Warnings: These are warnings just this part, seeing as they may change from part to part. Please see this post for overall fic warnings Depiction and talk of mental illness.
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters and make no profit from them
Part Summary: Tony's house arrest let's him reconnect with friends he hasn't seen in months.
Thanks: My beta [personal profile] autolobotomysuicide and being absolutely fantastic. [personal profile] jazzypom and [livejournal.com profile] pandanoai for their adivce and beta work, as well as cheer leading. And last but not least, [livejournal.com profile] oddwildflowers for being an amazing cheerleader.
Author's note: Please, please, please see this post for a list of overall fic warnings and for background information/changes from canon.
As always, thank you for all the kind comments. New parts Sunday and Tuesday.
Finally, the last part of Chapter Three, and one where Tony and Steve finally get to sit down and talk.
Previous Parts: Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two part I part II Chapter Three part I part II part III part IV




"...We shouldn't have to worry about any relapses so long as he has something dampening the Extremis."

Maria sat listening to Samson give them a briefing of what'd they'd need to know before Tony got home, trying desperately not to bite her nails -- it was a horrible nervous habit she had developed years ago and the only reason she had any nails when she left S.H.I.E.L.D. was because the uniforms had gloves.

"He did see and hear and feel things during his break that still affects him. He may seem stand-offish at times, react strongly towards certain people and situations. For all intents and purposes, he has PTSD."

People should get PTSD on the battlefield, not their living rooms Maria thought sharply, as if cursing at herself.

"He has issues with touching, though he did say he wanted to work on those especially. Best thing to do is slowly reintroduce him to the contact, pat on the back, hand on his shoulder, until he's more comfortable with it.

"He seems to have developed a minor case of autophobia, so try not to leave him alone for extended periods of time."

"That's..." Beth's brow was furrowed, "What? Fear of yourself?"

"Fear of being alone more commonly," Samson explained, "Though Tony's seems to be fear of being alone because he's frightened of what he might do. He no longer trusts himself."

"What about suicide?" Maria asked bluntly, wanting to get to what they were all probably thinking, "Is it still an issue?"

"Well, it'll be an issue for the rest of his life quite frankly. However, I believe that Tony has...tried that route and found it ineffective, so he's not likely to try again," Samson paused here, letting out a sigh, "That's not to say he's out of the woods. Tony has clinical depression and issues with guilt. The experiences brought on by the Extremis seem to have broken down whatever allowed him to push that guilt aside and live a relatively normal life. Until he's able to come to terms with it all, he might be self-destructive."

Maria's gut twisted. Tony being 'self-destructive' was nothing particularly new - the drinking, the armor even - but to hear it in those terms in that situation, it was extremely unsettling.

Samson began to wind down his talk. He gave them his contact information and they parted ways. The three of them -- Beth, Pepper, and Maria -- drove to Tony's Arlington estate.

It was decided that, because she lived the closest, Maria would be the one checking in on him the most. Beth had duties as Iron Man and Pepper had the company, though in between lulls, both would stay with him. Rhodes was still a question at this point -- none of them had been able to reach him for the past few weeks. Maria had never learned what had transpired between Rhodes and Tony, but she had a feeling she wouldn't be seeing Jim for a while.

Pepper had done a damn good job cleaning the house up. She had telecommuted for a week, dusting, cleaning, stocking up. Maria had helped but she could hardly take credit for the result. She suspected it was something therapeutic for the woman -- something she was able to control and actually do. Part of the house was closed off due to damage dealt by some super-villain, but the place was livable and that was the least they could ask for.

Pepper ran around doing a few last minute chores while talking to someone on a Bluetooth headset. It would be a few hours before Tony showed up. All they could do was wait.

---

Maria jumped to her feet when she heard the door open. Beth and Pepper, who had been in the kitchen, came into the living room, both looking somewhat on edge.

"Is that him?" Pepper asked in a small voice.

Maria didn't have time to answer before Tony rounded the corner carrying a box, followed closely by Samson. Tony smiled wide and it hurt Maria to see because it was so clearly forced.

"There's nothing better than coming home to three beautiful women," he set down the box and hugged them each in turn, complimenting them on how fantastic they looked. The women played along.

Samson shuffled Tony along, apparently wanting to show him a few things he needed to know down at the guardhouse. The two left and the three women exchanged uncertain looks.

"He's faking it," Beth said unhappily. Maria and Pepper agreed.

"Do we go along with it?" Pepper looked ready to cry.

"Just don't..." Maria searched for the right word, "push him. Wait until he's ready."

This didn't seem to satisfy Pepper. She picked up the box Tony had left and whisked it away to someplace else in the house.


---


Tony rubbed a hand over his face, trying to shake off sleep. Third night in his prison-home and it was the first after which he felt remotely rested. They girls had told him it seemed he was having nightmares when he slept and he recalled them vaguely, but they were fleeting memories, nothing like before, so he was not troubled by them. They could always be worse.

Samson was scheduled to arrive in the evening and Maria would be here in time for dinner. Pepper wouldn't be able to visit until the end of the week. Tony sighed, shuffling into the kitchen. Beth was already awake, reading the paper and sipping coffee. She smiled as he walked in.

"Hey handsome,"

Tony laughed a little, sounding almost like a scoff, "Morning."

He poured himself a cup of coffee and went to sit across from her. He sat for a moment, hands wrapped around his mug, looking at nothing.

"Tony?"

Beth's voice brought him out of it. He sat up straighter, looked at her, and smiled.

"Yeah, hey, sorry," he took a sip of his coffee and felt the warmth travel down through his body.

Beth smiled. She took a sip herself, then put the cup on the table and folded the paper. She looked at him seriously.

"Uh oh," Tony shifted, "What'd I do?"

Beth's face lightened, "You didn't do anything. I just...think we need to get something out of the way early on."

Tony nodded and prepared himself for whatever it was on her mind.

"You're still recovering and I'm going to have to go back to Germany eventually, so I think we should just stay friends for right now."

Tony blinked. Honestly the thought of getting back together with Beth hadn't crossed his mind, probably because there was so much else he had been thinking about.

"Yeah," Tony nodded, "Yeah, that makes sense."

Beth smiled widely, looking relieved. She reached across the table and touched Tony's hand lightly. Tony fought the flinch that inevitably came, but the contact wasn't as uncomfortable as it had been in the past. He kept a smile on his face. She got up and took her cup to the sink.

"Christmas is coming up," she commented, rinsing the mug.

"Oh, is it?" Tony tried to sound interested, but the thought of trying to pretend everything was normal and happy for the holidays just plain hurt him.

"Did you want to do anything for it?"

Tony shrugged, trying to hide his feelings on the matter as best he could, "It's not like I could do much. It'd be a pretty lousy Christmas."

"We could make it work if you wanted."

"It..." Tony shook his head, "It's all right. Unless you want to do something."

Beth laughed a little, "No, I'm fine. It's your house anyway."

"I'm just...not feeling up to it."

"No, no, I understand," she smiled over her shoulder, "So, what do you want for dinner tonight?"

Before he could answer, there was a knock on the front door. They exchanged surprised looks.

"I'll get it," Beth was gone before Tony could say otherwise.

He watched where she had left the room, a bit unsure if he should follow -- whoever was at the door would of course be looking to speak with him, who else was there? He heard Beth make some surprised happy noise and a moment later she reemerged, smile on her face.

"Who is it?" Tony stood, setting down his mug.

"Go see," she grinned, nodding over her shoulder.

Tony passed her and headed for the living room. He froze when he saw the figure standing near the couch.

"Jim," the word seemed to leap out of his mouth. Tony felt his stomach starting to twist and his heart starting to pound.

Jim gave him an uncertain smile.

"Hey, I, uh, heard you were back in town. Well, dimension."

"Yeah, well, good behavior," Tony tried to say it casually, walking further into the room.

Jim smiled, but didn't say anything else. Tony tried desperately to calm himself. He had honestly never expected to see this man again after what he had done. He'd never understand why Jim -- why any of them -- kept coming back.

"I'm sorry," he blurted out finally, "I just -- I'm not -- I-I'm sorry."

He felt himself breaking. He couldn't bring himself to look at the other man any more, to see his reaction to words that would never make it right. He braced himself on the back of the couch, at the very least hoping he could keep some semblance of composure.

He heard Jim's heavy steps to move beside him. A hand gripped Tony's shoulder and Tony could only hope the other man didn't feel him tense.

"You were in a bad way."

Tony laughed. That was an understatement.

There was a long silence between them. Tony tried to collect himself and Jim didn't more.

"So, what?" Tony said weakly, trying to brush the whole thing off, "You've just been walking about with no arm for three months?"

Jim chuckled, "Somethin' like that. There was no one else around to fix it."

"I'll," Tony swallowed, finally standing up straight again, "I'll get to work on it tomorrow."

Jim's good hand left Tony's shoulder, "There's no rush. I mean, I've managed so far."

Tony shook his head, "I'll get it. I'll fix it."

Another silence.

"So, Beth, huh?"

Tony looked up at Jim. He was grinning.

"Yeah," Tony smiled back, "I honestly will never understand why you people put up with me."

Jim said nothing in return. He patted Tony on the back, then headed toward the kitchen.


---


The weekend arrived and Pepper came with it. Beth had made her exit though -- called off to some hero duty somewhere, probably either with Hank or James' teams (Tony noted that they seemed to be much more willing to work with her than they ever were with himself).

Pepper brought some work with her, including a few schematics for new Stark projects. He suspected it was more for him than anything. She wanted to keep him informed in the direction the company had taken. She sat with him, curled up on the couch, as he looked through the papers with disgust.

"These plans are horrible," Tony sighed, "overcomplicated. Half of this isn't even necessary. It's a waste of money."

"It's what the board wanted," Pepper shrugged.

"The board always was full of idiots."

Tony set the papers aside and leaned back with a sigh, "You've done a really great job, though," he smiled, running a hand through his hair.

She smiled back, "Thanks."

Suddenly a thought occurred to him.

"Can you cut hair?"

Pepper blinked, "Um, I guess."

"Can you cut mine?"

"Sure, yeah," Pepper gave him a bit of a confused look, but the smile was still there.

Tony washed his hair quickly, then met Pepper in the bedroom. She had gathered a variety of scissors, though none of them typically used for cutting hair. She gave him a shrug.

"You sure you want me to do this?"

"Believe me, Pepper," Tony smiled as he sat down, "You could shave me bald and cut off an ear and I'd still be happy with it."

"Well that's a vote of confidence if I ever heard one," Pepper rolled her eyes a bit, "How short do you want it?"

"Give me the Maria Hill look."

This made Pepper laugh loudly, "I think that might be a little too short of you."

Tony grinned, "Yeah, maybe."

Pepper took a length of hair in between her fingers and started to snip with the smallest pair of scissors she had found. Tony kept himself tense, trying to control any reflex that he might have, but soon found that no flinch came. He felt himself relax under her light touch.

They chatted and joked. Pepper made uncertain looks as she worked and Tony watched her in the mirror, finding himself smiling despite her obvious lack of confidence in the job she was doing. Thirty minutes later, Tony's hair resembled something close to what he had before everything happened. There were a few stray strands, but it looked pretty damn good.

"Looks fantastic," he grinned and she brushed hair from his shoulders and neck.

"Thanks," she fluffed his hair a little, "Not bad considering it's only the second time I've done that before."

"Yeah? Who else have you been offering your this service to? I don't like to share."

Pepper's smile faded just slightly, "Happy. He had me do it once when he didn't like the job the barber had done."

Tony swallowed, feeling a bit like an idiot, "Oh, well...I'm willing to make exceptions."

Pepper just smiled in return. She patted his shoulders. Tony muttered something about going to rinse the remaining hair off, then wandered back into the bathroom.

He cursed at himself as he stood under the spray. He and Pepper hadn't really ever talked about Happy after his death, and considering the circumstances surrounding the man's demise, that comment had not been the best way to start off the conversation. He knew that Pepper knew he was joking, but that didn't make him feel any better about it.



---



"Name?"

"Henry Hellrung."

"Occupation?"

His first instinct was to say 'actor' but he hadn't been one of those in years.

"Superhero." He felt a little dumb saying it, but it was simple and required no real explanation.

"Are you registered?"

"Yes."

"Can I see your ID?"

Henry dug into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and got his registration card out. The guard looked at it a moment, then copied down some information. He handed it back and Henry put it away.

"What's the purpose of your visit?"

Henry started at him a moment. He held up the bottle of sparkling cider.

"It's New Year's."

The guard said nothing in return, simply wrote something more on the form he was filling out. Henry raised an eyebrow, letting his arm go back to his side. It was a few more minutes and a few more questions before they let him through and escorted him up to the house.

Henry knocked on the door. A moment later, Tony Stark himself answered.

Tony blinked, but then grinned widely, "Henry! The hell are you doing here?"

"Just in the neighborhood," Henry rolled his eyes, grinning.

Tony welcomed him in. Henry had been expecting something more extravagant from the home, knowing Tony, but everything was rather subdued -- sparse furnishing, bare necessities, the most expensive item appeared to be the flat screen that was playing some History Channel program.

"You're not going to watch the ball drop?" Henry commented.

Tony shrugged and waved a hand, "I'd have to sit through all the preamble and that's never worth it. You want to put that in the fridge?"

"Yeah, sure," Henry followed him into the kitchen, sparkling cider still in hand, "Is it just you?" Henry looked around, taking the place in. He hadn't noticed signs of anyone else here.

"Rhodey and Pepper are coming later," Tony took the bottle and put it into the fridge, "Everyone else has hero stuff."

"Ah," Henry nodded wisely, "Hero stuff." He let out a sigh, "What'd the heck you do to your hand?" he noticed a large bandage wrapped around the other man's hand for the first time.

Tony's face soured, "I was working on something for Rhodey and it got away from me. It's nothing."

Henry raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. He was quiet a moment, then laughed a little, "God, remember the last New Year's we spent together?"

Tony laughed loudly, "Remember? Samson's certain it's the root of all by problems."

The two laughed again. It had been an interesting New Year's Day. The two of them had been so completely drunk that they hadn't noticed when their dates left at some point during the night. They had woken up next to each other that morning, half-dressed and hung over, the exact details of the previous night unknown. It wasn't too funny at the time, but it was hilarious now.

They wandered back into the living room and sat on the couch, volume on the TV turned low.

"How's things with you?" Tony asked nonchalantly.

Henry shrugged, "The new guy they sent me to replace Pepper is annoying as sin, but everything's getting along well. Got a good sized donation for the program, too."

"Yeah? Probably some celebrity with a guilty conscience."

There was a sort pause. "So, how, uh," Henry cleared his throat, "How are things going for you? I mean, I know how things are going for you, but I mean with the program. Everything that's been going on --"

"I took a drink," Tony cut him off, looking disappointed, "More than a drink. When I was...out there."

Henry nodded, not really surprised, "Anyone would have given the circumstances." He watched Tony carefully, "What about now though?"

Tony smiled and it was hard to read, even to someone who was trained to read people like Henry was.

"Well, through that little escapade, I found out I can't get drunk any more, so all the fun got taken out of it."

Henry blinked. He started at Tony for a long while, "You can't get drunk?"

"Yep," Tony nodded, "the, uh, thing that did all this to me speeds up my metabolism so it literally won't let be get drunk."

Henry blinked again, "Wow. Congrats. You've found a cure for alcoholism."

Tony snorted, "Yeah, side effects include emotional defectiveness, schizophrenia, and occasionally turning into a woman."

"Do what now?"

An alarm on Tony's wristwatch went off and he made to stand, "Don't worry about it. I'll be right back."

Tony went back into the kitchen, leaving Henry fairly confused. He heard the man open a cabinet, then there came the rattle of pill bottles. Medication time, Henry supposed. A lot of medication from the sounds of it. Henry turned his attention back to the TV. It looked like a documentary on Howard Hughes. Henry couldn't help but laughed a little at the choice.

A few minutes passed. Henry looked over his shoulder toward the kitchen. He couldn't hear Tony rummaging around any more. He sat for a moment longer, then got up to go check on him.

Tony was standing in front of the sink, bracing himself on the counter, looking out the window to the backyard.

"Hey," Henry said quietly.

"Hey," Tony returned.

Henry walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. He wasn't sure what to say, so he said the first thing that came to mind.

"One day at a time."

Tony snorted a laugh and gave him an appreciative smile.

The doorbell rang. Henry gave Tony a pat on the back, then went to answer it himself.

He opened the door and was greeted by Pepper and Rhodey. Henry's stomach leapt a little when he saw the redhead.

"Henry!" Pepper grinned widely.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, taking him in a hug. Henry laughed nervously, hugging her back. Rhodey walked in after her, hitting him on the shoulder.

Tony came back in, arms wide with greeting. He was smiling again, laughing, and Henry could tell it was real -- even after his years of denial, Tony was not that good at acting.

The rest of the evening and early morning hours were spent telling embarrassing stories of the good ol' days and watching a couple movies that Tony had missed over the passed year -- Henry could hardly believed this all started nearly a year ago already. They all stayed the night, sleeping in the abundance of guest rooms this place had.

"He seems like he's doing a lot better," Pepper whispered to him in the hallway, sleepy smile on her face.

Henry nodded, though he didn't have much to judge by as this was the first time he had seen Tony after all that's happened. She gave him one last hug, then headed off to her room. Henry watched her go, hand on the back of her neck, feeling a little warm.


---


Peter was sitting in Tony's kitchen, complaining about the guards out front.

"...They let me keep the camera but took the memory card!" he waved his hand, "I mean, what's even the point of that?"

"Well it's not like you were actually here for Front Line anyway, Pete," Tony smiled, pouring himself a cup of coffee. He turned to Peter now, "Why are you here? Not that I don't appreciate the visit."

Peter gave a smile like he had been caught.

"Recon."

Tony raised an eyebrow, "Recon? Don't tell me you all are trying to break me out."

Peter's eyes went a bit wide and he shook his head.

"No, no! It's just...Steve wants to talk to you."

Tony's stomach leapt. He tried to keep an appearance of calm. He hadn't been able to see Steve while he was in 42. He was somewhat dreading the moment they'd actually sit down and talk, knowing that everything between them still needed to be settled. But the idea that they might just sit and talk about nothing in particular like they had on those late nights at the mansion...More than anything else, he just wanted things to be back to the way they were before everything went to hell.

"What about?" Tony asked, keeping cool.

Peter shrugged a little, "I dunno. He's trying to keep it quiet or something. It's kind of hilarious -- he's not really the sneaky-sneaky type, you know?"

Tony nodded, knowing what he meant. Steve was the perfect solider and could be trusted with any secret of military importance, but tell him there's going to be a surprise party for Jan's birthday and he practically wears it. Tony couldn't help but smiled at the thought, though he was confused as to what Steve might possibly be trying to keep secret.

"That's a little worrisome," Tony laughed a little.

Peter smiled, "But, yeah, so I was supposed to scope the place out."

Tony waved a sweeping hand, "This is it. The house doesn't have much protection itself but, you know, guards."

Peter nodded, "How can he get in?"

"Back door," Tony jabbed a thumb in the general direction of the door. "There's a guard change every six hours, so midnight's probably his best bet."

Peter stared at him a moment.

"What?" Tony sipped from his cup, "I have a lot of free time."

"I guess," Peter raised an eyebrow, grinning a little, "When can he come?"

"Any time," Tony said nonchalantly, hoping it sounded something like a standing invitation, "I'm around."


Steve's visit came at the end of the week. Tony felt stupid for being so excited about it. He knew it was a bad idea to get his hopes up that maybe, just maybe, Steve just wanted to talk.

At five passed midnight, Steve slipped in the back door, dressed in all black, looking like some muscle-bound, six-foot-tall ninja. Tony couldn't help but grin.

"What?" Steve froze when he noticed Tony's expression.

Tony shook his head, "Nothing." He led Steve towards the kitchen, "Coffee?"

"No thanks."

Steve took a seat at the table and Tony grabbed the cup he had been working on, then joined him.

Steve didn't seem to think a preamble was necessary.

"Registration Act is coming up for review before Congress."

This had been what Tony was expecting. Of course he wanted to talk about Registration. It was the last thing they had talked about so of course it would be the first. Tony felt that excitement leave him though he had known it was coming.

"Yeah," he hoped he hide his disappointment well, "In a few months."

"May," Steve offered, "We need to do something."

Tony's disappointment bean to turn into something else.

"You want..." Tony swallowed, "You came here because you wanted to talk about fighting registration?"

"Tony," Steve's voice was firm, "You can't honestly still think the SHRA was the right choice--"

"There was no other choice!" Tony was on his feet without realizing it, "There was never any choice!"

"You could have fought it," Steve was standing now as well.

"And I could have ended up like you!"

"Well you didn't fare much better."

Tony clenched his jaw and looked away. His eyes drifted to the scar on Steve's forearm. The phantom scent of burning flesh filled Tony's nostrils. He shook his head, turning away, trying to block the memory he didn't want to recall.

"I'm sorry," Steve's voice was gentler now.

Tony shook his head again, grabbing his mug and going to top it off just to give himself something to do.

"Registration isn't going away," Tony forced his voice to be steady, "Even if the Act isn't renewed, someone will present a new bill the next day."

"And we have to be there to make sure it goes our way."

"Then get someone else to do it," Tony's hand shook as it held the coffee pot, "Because it didn't work when I tried."

"No, Tony," he could imagine the steadfast look on Steve's face though he wasn't turned to face him, "This was our war. We have to be the ones to finish it."

Tony set the mug and the coffee pot down. He set his hands on the counters and took a few deep breaths.

"I don't want anything to do with this any more, Steve. I just want to move on."

"Well I'm sorry," he could hear frustration growing in Steve's voice, "But not all of us have the luxury of forgetting."

He grabbed the mug, whirled around, and chucked it at Steve, barely missing his head, though he hadn't been aiming for it in the first place. Steve was on his feet, body tense, watching Tony carefully.

"I have spent every day regretting the choices I've made!" He couldn't hold it back any more. "I have spent every day trying to fix it! Trying to make up for it. I have given up everything I am to try to please people only to get bitten in the ass. I don't have my dignity, my health, not even my mind because I've given it all to you people! I don't have anything else to give, Steve, so if you want to do this again, find someone else."

Silence. Tony was taking deep breaths, trying to regain himself. Steve was watching, looking a little stunned.

"Tony, I don't..." he started, but stopped. He looked like he wanted to walk over to Tony, but didn't. "I'm sorry."

Tony shook his head, not thinking he could speak again quite yet. He couldn't look at Steve, embarrassed by himself, but not regretting his words. He went over and started to collect pieces of the mug he had thrown.

"It's just..." Steve started again, "If we're going to do anything, we need to present a united front. And the two of us..."

"I know," Tony said shortly. He had cut himself on the edge of the ceramics, the blood pooling in the palm of his hand. He didn't care. "It would make a great photo opp."

Steve made a little frustrated sound, "It's more than that, Tony."

"Well what's your plan then?" Tony stood and went over to the trashcan, "You have a plan, right? Let's hear it."

Tony tossed the pieces into the trash and glanced over at Steve while walking to the sink. The other man had his arms crossed and was looking annoyed.

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about."

"Right, of course," Tony rinsed the blood from his hands, avoiding looking at him again. Maybe he would just give up and leave, "And what did you expect me to do?"

"You're...better at this sort of thing than I am. I thought we could work on it together."

Tony dried his hands. He thought for a long moment.

"My name on it will hinder more than it will help," he said finally, "It doesn't carry any weight any more."

"I don't care about that," Steve's voice was almost gently.

"Others will."

Another long pause followed. Tony took a deep breath.

"I don't want my name on this. At all. Even if it's somehow successful."

"Right. Okay."

"You're going to be the one to present this, do all the footwork."

"Right."

"I don't want anything else to do with this."

Tony hadn't realized Steve had gotten close until he felt the other man's hand on his shoulder. Tony looked to him. Steve's face was kind.

"I get it, Tony. I promise, no one will know."

Tony swallowed, searching Steve's eyes for a moment, then nodded, "Yeah, okay. Okay..."

Steve's hand led him back to the table. Tony sat. He felt tired, exhausted. He didn't want to do this. He watched Steve go around to his own chair, looking almost happy. Tony let out a deep sigh. He didn't want this, but it was the least he could do.

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