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Crossing Lifelines Chapter I
by My Muse is a Hedgehog (fantasticpants)
at October 28th, 2006 (01:49 pm)

Here's the rest of that reallynotadrabble thing, hopefully not too infested by subliminal math.

Crossing Lifelines

Chapter I : The Beginning After The End

- I -

There are two ways for changes to occur.

They can adapt the mannerism of a snake – slowly and steadily creeping under your skin, tailoring themselves around your life with inhuman precision and neverending patience. It's the kind of change you stand no chance of noticing until it's too late, and everything has twisted beyond any recognition. You may never even remember how it was before.

Maybe - it tempts you to think – this is how it's always been, and the rest was nothing but a distant dream.

And then there's the hurricane variant. Riding alongside with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it nonchalantly sweeps whatever gets in its way. Everything you know, everything you care about, everything you love – it's all blown to hell in a blink-and-miss second, and you're left with nothing but the wreckage.

And the dead memories of what once was.

The hurricane likes me better.

It's not long after dawn, and the sun paints blood-spattered patterns on the morning sky.

There are no clouds in sight – a disturbing clarity that bears no relation to reality whatsoever.

The road stretches on for an apparent eternity - grey, dusty and completely empty. I'd make an analogy to the condition my soul happens to be in, but it's a bit too easy, really. I prefer some challenge to my metaphors.

I wonder if I'm supposed to be waiting for something. Or someone.

I should've ordered a cab, but it seemed redundant at the time.

Maybe I should just start walking, but I have no destination in mind. Not even a vague sense of direction.

That's what happens after the end of the story. The reader is gone, the temporary drama evaporated without a trace, and you're left all alone inside a field of static of your own making. No drive, no purpose, no future.

Only a past tied with quiet desperation around your ankles, growing more silent by the minute.

And once it's gone, there'll be nothing left.

A pleasant spring breeze passes by, catching my jacket in a nervous embrace. It strokes my face gently, and my breath becomes momentarily trapped in my chest.

No, the past isn't going anywhere.

And neither am I, at this rate.

Standing still is an almost natural reaction to this idyllic desert setting.

I half-expect the mandatory tumbleweed to roll by. Or at least the distinguished ghost of John Wayne to pay me a short visit.

Instead, I'm greeted by the distant roar of an engine - a manticore awakening in a faraway dreamland.

I turn to look at the source. So far it's only a black dot on an invisible horizon.

It's growing at an uncanny rate, though, and I get the fleeting feeling it's about to turn into a black hole and devour me whole. Not that I'd particularly mind, should that happen.

It doesn't, surprisingly enough. It turns into a dark outline continually painting itself with a stark assurance against the light canvas provided by the philanthropic morning.

Eventually, it manages to find its distinct physical shape, consuming short-lived rays of light in the process.

The black Mercedes is a sleek, deadly panther. But it's rightfully accustomed to hunt side by side with its best friend and even better camouflage, the night.

At this hour, it somehow retains most of its calm elegance while appearing entirely and painfully out of its element.

The man behind the wheel, however, doesn't have any recognizable element to cling to, or hide behind. He's crafty enough to know how to mingle with any of them, wear them like a second skin, and no one would be the wiser.

Of course, when you mess with too many elements, you often end up with a messy explosion on your hands. Or in your face.

The high school chemistry book isn't too bad, as far as guidelines to life go.

The car doesn't slow as it draws nearer, instead choosing the last moment to pull into a stop, emitting an impressive screech of abused tires.

The entrance's got to be properly dramatic, after all.

The window slides open with a sense of cinematic timing, revealing behind it a grin with a brightness level which easily contends with the sun in the field of sunglasses-requirement.

"Bang! You're dead, Max Payne."

And I wonder -

Am I?

- II -

"So how do you like being a free man?" he asks with a tilted, friendly smile.

I get the feeling that the question goes beyond the basic meaning that Small Talk for Freshly Released Cons dictates.

I look out the window, watch trees flicker by in the world beyond the box of metal and glass, like on a broken, inside-out television screen.

A loose smile takes temporary asylum on my lips.

"No man is free, Vlad."

Some are just better at pretending.

I turn back to him just in time to catch the smoky trace of instantly ignited, instantly evaporated anger in his eyes.

It wasn't the answer he'd been looking for.

Too bad. Lost and found has never been a strong point of mine.

He doesn't say anything, turning his external attention to the road ahead.

There isn't much to see there.

Road. Road. More road.

A circular loop that's easy for the human mind to perceive.

Unlike change.

Most people who have just been released from prison would be ecstatic, ready to break into a spontaneous polka dance with the first stranger to cross their path.

They'd see a future at the end of that road, a fresh start.

I see a horizon I'll never reach.

And a past I'll never shake.

It doesn't matter if you're inside or outside. The only thing changing is the location, the backdrop. You might as well paint a picture of a jungle or a carnival over the prison walls and no one would be able to tell the difference.

The truth stays the same.

You're only free when you're dead.

Or maybe never.

I tap my fingers over the glove compartment, enjoy the mute sounds it offers in return.

"How did you know I was getting released today?"

"It's hard to miss when your face is decorating every television screen in the city," the grin returns, once more with feeling. "From armed and dangerous to national hero in sixty seconds. Television magic."

Alfred Woden had obviously mastered the fine art of string pulling when he was still in his cradle. The media must've been easy prey.

The disturbing image of a one-eyed baby playing with oversized toys is brought to abrupt closure as the warm presence of Vlad's hand comes to rest on my back, bringing an aura of closeness that should feel foreign, but strangely doesn't.

"You really are a hero now, Max."

I hope my snort expresses the amount of contempt I have for that word.

"I'm a killer."

"It's not too big a difference, you know."

It's true, of course. 'Hero' is an empty staple society likes to hand out to a convenient scapegoat so it can feel safer. Protected.

One of many patented illusions that shelter humanity from the grotesque beast surrounding them - the world.

A make-believe airbag.

"I'm not a hero."

He returns his hand to the steering wheel, pausing for a brief shrug.

"Maybe not. But you're the next best thing."

I don't have the energy to argue, so I let the words slide past me, escape through the slits that separate metal from metal.

There's a small inconsistency hiding in plain sight. A slight gap in the facts.

"They released me a day earlier than they were supposed to," I point out idly. "Wanted to avoid the attack of the rabid journalists."

A carefree smile. His default reaction to just about anything life is kind enough to throw his way.

"I have my sources, Max. It comes with the job description."

A need to know basis.

Good enough for me.

Back to view studying, then.

More trees. More road. The sun takes on a more central role, highlighting the city skyline in the distance.

The Aesir Corporation building must belong to that pack. A silent, gaping monument of the past.

Can't say I missed the sight.

"What did it feel like?"

The question tears through with uninvited softness, and I don't need to think twice about what he's asking.

Just in case, though, he clarifies, "Killing her."

There's comfort in confessing to something you can't even admit to yourself. Like using a pillow as a silencer.

"I don't remember."

- III -

The bar is a cozy, escapist little corner of the universe, detached enough from the constant humming of the outside world to be considered practically soundproof.

Even the sunshine fails to penetrate this miniature fortress.

I use the champagne glass to draw a disjointed pattern of circles on the surface of the table.

He watches with distinct curiosity.

"Actually, it's for drinking."

I let the glass come to rest in front of me, watching the silvery threads tell a meaningless yet captivating story.

He raises his to eye level, and I reluctantly mimic the motion.

"To freedom, Max."

His tone is light, breezy.

But at the same time, it renders any disagreement futile.

I wonder why the concept means so much to him.

The tiny bubbles perform a carefully choreographed ballet at the edges of the glass, frenziedly searching for a last audience.

My mouth twists in a cynical angle, going for a smirk but not quite able to reach it.

"To freedom."

Our glasses click, joining together in a thin, momentary embrace.

The delicate texture of the glass feels alien against my lips, a swan trapped in the ring of a bloody cockfight.

I realize that the last time I had champagne was years ago.

Our last anniversary.

Seems like more than one lifetime has passed since.

Everything is different now.

But the taste is the same.

What a cruel joke.

He keeps looking at me intently, and I wonder whether he can read the pain off my face.

If he can, he's good at keeping his observations to himself.

I suppose the mafia is a good place to pick up tact, if nothing else.

The rest of the liquid rolls mutely at the edge of my tongue, leaving only traces of denial in its wake.

I place the glass on the table, meeting his gaze.

"How are your Italian friends doing?"

The child-like smugness lurking in his grin is proficiently concealed, but succeeds to slip through the thick walls of nonchalance nevertheless. "Busy licking their wounds. That's what they're best at." Sliding his thumb over the edge of his glass to produce a muffled melody, he concedes, "Well, that and pizza."

"I wouldn't underestimate pizza if I were you."

"Nothing is invincible."

"Pizza is."

Sliding on a mask of mock exasperation, he allows several moments to roll by idly.

"There's no point arguing with you about it, is there?"

"Not really."

Deciding to gracefully accept defeat, he doesn't push it further.

He taps the glass lightly with a fingernail, studying me thoughtfully through the echo.

"What are you planning to do?"


"You know, people occasionally do things instead of just standing around. It spices things up." Tap. The veil of sarcasm is lifted in favor of an earnest expression. "There's a whole future ahead, Max."

A whole future the existence of which has been nothing but a severed thread in my recent lexicon.

Or a severed artery, to put it more gruesomely.

Either way, a future didn't work into any plan I had.

There was only surviving until I could get justice, revenge.

Then nothing.

The problem with nothing is that it's hard to sustain when you aren't dead.

Eventually, something will find its way into the nothing.

And ignite a chain reaction impossible to ignore.

I shrug.

"Return to the NYPD, maybe. There's no place like home."

The smile he offers is needle-thin, ready to fade out of existence at the whim of a second.

"And do what?"

The answer is as ridiculously obvious as it is obviously ridiculous.

"Serve and protect."

"That's nice."

He maintains the smile awhile longer, before letting it drift into a blank sheet.

Breaking eye contact, he digs into a pants pocket, resurfacing with a pack of cigarettes.

I briefly wonder if it's a nervous habit, but immediately rule against it.

He's either buying time, or suspending it.

The cigarette pack tilts in my direction, and I shake my head.

"I don't smoke."

It's bad for the baby.

He takes one for himself, rolling it between his fingers while wearing an invisible frown.

The world is on hold until the cigarette is lit.

I can wait.

The flame of the lighter sucks in the surrounding oxygen, engraving its personal spot in the universe without asking for permission or apologizing.

It dies out all the same.

"You can't be one of them again."

He's stating a dry fact, and I recognize the undeniable truth behind it.

I know that much, but I'm not sure that I'm supposed to care.

"Hero or killer, you're a stranger to them."

The cigarette, set on slow burn, slides closer to me as a slow yet concise hand gesture takes form.

"They'll never understand."

I don't need understanding. Don't need a future.

"And you do?"

His shoulders make a noncommittal motion.


Life's end is nearing for the cigarette, but it comes sooner than expected as it dives into the champagne glass, instantly extinguished by the expensive liquid.

"Never been that big a fan of champagne," he explains without a hint of apology. Grinning, he adds, "I prefer the kind of drink that lights up when you do that."

"Another way to spice things up, huh?"

"Something like that."

He reaches back into his pocket, and the next item that ends up on the table is a Beretta.

My Beretta.

"Where did you get that?"

He offers it a light caress with his thumb. "It got bored of being evidence. I just came to the rescue."

He twirls it in my direction. I take the hint and pick it up.

It feels like being reunited with a long lost twin. The physical presence is merely a reaffirmation of something I've known all along.

It's the only part of me that's truly alive.

"I booked you a hotel room. Figured that you'd have nowhere to go."

I nod absent-mindedly.

Accepting favors from mob bosses is probably not considered the wisest course of action in any scenario, but I couldn't care less about wisdom at the moment.

I offer him a faint smile.


He sees my smile and raises a radiant, possibly radioactive grin.

"What are friends for?"

- IV -

The sun is heading for a new, unknown destination. It stretches across concrete outlines, mercilessly twisting them into surreal, amorphous shapes.

There are no traces of winter left. Not even the most vague of evidence to a storm that raged and roared in legendary frenzy.

A part of me still expects to see the trail of bodies decorating the streets.

But the world forgets.

The world goes on.

And I'm left behind.

War veterans were the ones who first claimed the sentiment. Returning from the battlefield speaking in a language no one understood. Wielding scars too deep for anyone to reach.

The scars eventually grow to become cracks, then chasms. Soon enough, there's nothing left but an abyss.

And you go insane.

Textbook Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Most prefer Valhalla to that label.

Maybe it is better to be initially insane. A preventive measure. Inoculation.

Less trouble all around.

The street we walk on seems devoid of human existence. Even those few who pass by appear to be closer to mindless shadows than people.

But what else is new.

We've stopped talking awhile back.

Well, he stopped. I just kept riding the voiceless status quo.

We're pacing in a comfortable bubble separated from the surroundings, its vocals belonging in a choppy silent movie. His hand is draped across my shoulders like a thoroughly impenitent sloth.

In the back of my mind, something attempts to whisper that this unwarranted closeness is supposed to bother me, but it's too faint an inner voice to pay any serious attention to.

The street ends, eventually, making way for yet another street.

Life is built around endless repetition.

It drags you along, willingly or not, leaving little room for conscious thought.

It's easy to simply close your eyes and allow yourself to be swept by the tide.

But I'm used to standing alone against the flow, futile as it is.

You can't change who you are.

Too many sea-related metaphors rub off on reality, and the ocean begins to manifest in the distance, tagging along its trademark, cleansing smell. The sun's reflection looks almost diabolical, a drowning red giant hoping to pull the rest of existence along as bitter vengeance.

His voice arrives on a soft note, accompanied by a light tint of detached interest. Paradoxically, it keeps the silence unbroken, only temporarily trespassed.

"Do you like the ocean?"

She did.


"When you aren't busy liberating ships while dodging bullet typhoons?"

He smirks, and I find myself mirroring it.

"That never hurt my appreciation."

We keep walking.

Minutes pass, laying out the red carpet for his next words. He draws a long breath, letting it out in slow motion, like imaginary smoke.

"Sometimes it feels like I was born there."

"Like Venus?"

I receive a brief frown that fluidly transforms into a low chuckle.

"I've got to admit – emerging naked in a seashell would've made one hell of an entrance." He sighs mournfully, shaking his head, "I should've thought of that."

"Maybe next time."

His smile takes a turn for the serious, and he locks his gaze against mine.

The drum roll can be heard just over the corner.

"Max, I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse."

I sigh.

"You want me to work for you."

The spark of annoyance – he doesn't enjoy being deprived of the element of surprise - is short-lived, surviving only a second before the next grin buries it alive.

"Well, not for."

"Under you, then."

For a moment there, I believe that the grin is an entity on its own right. It seems too big, too encompassing to limit itself to just one person.

Yet somehow it has the ability to grow exponentially, going up to infinity.

There's got to be a formula for it.

I wonder what it is he finds so amusing.

"Actually, think of it as more of an," he waves his free arm about, pretending to search for words he already has, "equal arrangement."

"And what exactly would I be doing, in this… 'equal arrangement'?"

"The only limit, Max," he glances skywards meaningfully, "is imagination."

It's a shame mine never stretched to organized crime.

Except… that's not quite the truth, is it?

At least, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But the illusion needs to be maintained and nurtured, for sanity's sake.

A bit lacking in point, though, these days.

We must've reached an invisible stop sign, because the by-now-automated motion has ceased.

He nods in the direction of a building which subtly proclaims itself a hotel.

Subtle like using a chainsaw to trim your nails, that is.

"We're here."

The giant neon letters are the only eye-catching aspects of the building, though the catching also happens to involve a healthy amount of torture. Not the nicest way to treat a POW, but the Geneva Convention obviously isn't widely acknowledged in these areas.

Still, as far as hotels go, this doesn't even begin to scrape the bottom of the food chain.

That title belonged to Lupino's joint.

And that's hard to live up to.

"It's not as bad as it looks," he assures.

"It's usually worse," I concede.

He evicts his arm from its temporary home on my shoulder, shifting to face me.

Back to business.

"I'm not going to be a hired killer, Vlad. I don't take requests."

The glaring hypocrisy of the comment goes blissfully ignored as he crossbreeds a half-smile with a half-shrug.

"That's not what I had in mind."

Okay, then -

"So what am I going to do?"

He raises his brow, as if the answer is elementary.

"Serve and protect."

I suppose the element of surprise stays his, for now.

I feel a broken shard of laughter escape my lungs.

He watches me earnestly.

"What do you say?"

What can I say?

"I'll think about it."

He keeps still for a moment, then nods, smiles, and begins to walk away.

I gaze at his receding outline, tagging light along even as it diminishes.

I think, but the only thought that emerges is torn. Random.

An excerpt from a dead book.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done.

There is nothing new under the sun.

- V -

The hotel turns out to be some sort of elaborate inside joke.

It's got none of the grime associated with these places. None of the floor-adorning dirt.

It's fairly quiet, no ongoing pimp versus hookers catfights or laughably concealed drug deals.

It is, in fact and in shameless contradiction to Murphy's Laws, better than it looks.

My room is on the seventh floor.

It's small, but has just the right enough space for me.

It's also clean.

That's a new one.

The overall effect is close to that of entering a shabby tent and discovering a palace inside.

Welcome to Paradox Hotel.

Maybe it's a distant cousin of the Hotel California.

There's a balcony.

I'm standing on it, actually.

The ocean encompasses the view, and at this height, there are no distractions to mar the sight.

The sun is setting.

It feels as if the entire solar system hanging by a thin thread of hope, as fragile as a human life.

And it's breathtaking.

She had always been fonder of sunsets.

They were more romantic. Prettier.

But there was much more to it, and I couldn't see it at the time.

A sunrise can hand you a clean slate. Let you forget.

But a sunset forces you to face the past.

And dares you to live with it.


I don't deserve to.

Not when they're dead.

Don't want to.

But I can't die, either.

And survival in this homemade limbo has no purpose or meaning.

A sea of twilight spills onto the sky, chaperoning the sun's final descend into darkness.

A song starts playing in the background.

I'm not sure where it's coming from.

Maybe the room next to mine.

Maybe my head.

It was one of her favorites. Always an uncompromising oldies fan.

Raindrops keep fallin' on my head

And just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed

Nothin' seems to fit

Those raindrops are fallin' on my head, they keep fallin'

She should've lived in the sixties, maybe. Back when the world was still pretending to be innocent.

Or at least thoroughly drugging itself into that conviction.

So I just did me some talkin' to the sun

And I said I didn't like the way he got things done

Sleepin' on the job

Those raindrops are fallin' on my head, they keep fallin'

I don't notice when my eyes begin to sting.

Don't notice when my vision begins to blur and become distorted.

But there's one thing I know

The blues they send to meet me won't defeat me

It won't be long till happiness steps up to greet me

Don't notice when my feet decide that supporting me is no longer in their best interest.

Or when my hands press into my face, performing an emergency cover-up.

Raindrops keep fallin' on my head

But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turnin' red

Cryin's not for me

'Cause I'm never gonna stop the rain by complainin'

Don't notice curling up and letting the darkness close over me.

Because I'm free

Nothin's worryin' me

All I notice is the soft touch of her lips against my forehead.

Because once I let go of that, she'll be really gone.

Because I'm free…

Nothin's worryin' me…


The curtain closes.

And I don't notice anything anymore.

- VI -

I wake up thanks to the helpful prodding of the rising sun.

It's trying to feed me a tired, circular cliché.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

Too bad it has to start with this massive a headache.

I scramble to my feet, ignoring the desperate screams of every muscle in my body.

I make my way to the phone and dial a number.

A few rings later, there's an incoherent mumble on the other end.


The mumble repeats, now with a question mark at the end.

I let the world pause, balance on the edge of a breath.

Then I give it a light push.

And it rolls off.

Destination unknown.

"I'm in."

- o -

There are two ways for changes to occur.

They can adapt a snake-like mannerism – whisper seductively in your ear, feed you venom-tainted honey and make you unable to distinguish between the two. They lead you, gagged and blindfolded, to a fate you have no chance of escaping.

And then there's the hurricane variant. It catches you in its relentless drift, renders your feeble attempts to fight back useless. It carries you to a foreign land and gives you a crash course in crash landing. It forsakes you - all alone, without a map or a compass. Without hope. It makes you realize there's no place like home. But there is no more home. And there never will be.

But actually, that's no true.

There are three ways for changes to occur.

And the third way is the most elusive of them all.

You can't define it, can't capture or name it.

You don't know what leads to it, or how to get there, exactly.

It makes you appreciate needles in haystacks a hell lot more.

But it's also painfully simple.

Because sometimes, just sometimes -

You can make the change happen.

And no snake or hurricane can take that away.


Posted by: khronos_keeper (khronos_keeper)
Posted at: October 29th, 2006 07:25 pm (UTC)


Oh my God, wow.

Seriously, this wrapped up in such a way that literally left my mouth hanging open. Everything was just so perfectly balanced, don't with such a light, skillful hand that the light handling made a huge impression on me.

I loved the way you made Max break down. It was as if it was politely allowing the reader to look to the side as he just had a break down. It's really amazing that, without going into the depth of his sorrow, just mentioning a few of his thoughts, his memories, that it leaves such a gargantuan impact. It's sad and done in a very sympathetic way. I'd compare it to the feel when you witness someone comforting another person who is crying. That's what the relationship in that part felt like between you and Max.

That last part? Jesus, but can you make a huge picture. I loved that ending. It's like you managed to capture this tiny part in his life, but also managed to allow it to link to everything up to and past that point. That requires a lot of skill, and it's an attribute of yours that I'll never hope to possess. So I'll just jaw drop over the way you manage it. Really, it indicates that you have a great understanding of and with the characters, that you can fill in gaps that make absolute sense.

And it does end up having a mood change. Very gradually, it goes from 'in suspension' to a full realization. I think it happens in the way he thinks. His voice gets shorter and shorter, less and less strung together, like he's coming to terms in a way that may be giving him a headache. Or in a way that he may not be fully prepared to grasp yet.

Anyway, you have what I thought on the last installments (wherever that went >_>), so I think I'll just leave it at that. :D

Oh my god, but was this good. :D

Posted by: My Muse is a Hedgehog (fantasticpants)
Posted at: October 30th, 2006 05:20 pm (UTC)

Thank you! *Pouncemolestbite.*

Uh, I'm not really sure what tone I was going for, exactly. It was more detached than usual, in some ways, and I did go for something fairly drabblish, in the beginning. Well, not in length, it seems. *Cough.* >_>

I think I see what you mean, about my approach to the Max breakdown. I was wondering about that, because it's a new area for me. You're the expert in that particular field.

And I'm glad the ending worked for you. I wasn't entirely planning on any of this, and it was kind of refreshing to write, because of it. I wonder how it'll go when and if I continue it. I do feel like it, but I don't wanna masterplan it like MLF. Meh, we'll see.

*Hawt very collapseful lovin'.*

Posted by: one of the lucky ones (voitaic)
Posted at: October 29th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)

What she said.

What I don't get is how it all manages to come together, like you get all your ideas at once and they click into a perfect piece with no effort, even though we all know how much work and thought go into your writing.

I love how the two of them seem to shift one another's perceptions, like they're taking turns. How 'serve and protect' changed meanings.

Mmf. I wish I could really express how endlessly you impress me, but I can only offer confusing comments and tummyrubs. :\


Really, though, there'll always be something new and paynefully amazing about your stuff.

Posted by: My Muse is a Hedgehog (fantasticpants)
Posted at: October 30th, 2006 05:39 pm (UTC)
Expressively Challenged rawr


I think tail is officially ded. ;_;

The ideas... Uh, there's probably mostly random, since this was pro'lly my least planful fic other than Pain and maybe Katz. 'xcept my head is always in damn plan-mode even when I'm trying to improv. Ihunno. 's strange.

The 'serve and protect' has been hovering about in the back of my mind for awhile now, though. Not in this context, though. xD

You have no idea how much your confusing comments mean to me. The tummyrubs are nice, too. *_*

*Bubble up fluff + Cottontail molest.*

And, with the email, 'm so sorry about my slowness. It's getting rapidly more doomful at uni. I'll reply as soon as my brain stops tring to shut off just to avoid Infi & Co. -_-

Posted by: one of the lucky ones (voitaic)
Posted at: October 31st, 2006 01:45 am (UTC)

Is Infi the new Alfie? xD;

*Puzzles over equationtail.* =_= This is one tangle I don't think I can clean up.

S'okay, with the e-mail. Actually, while I figured you were just busy, I'm relieved I was right, and that it wasn't that I (in my infinite paranoia) said something stupid. Wah. <O3 <O3 <O3

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