We Can’t Be Together Because…

I asked this question over the weekend on Twitter but I wanted to have more than 140 characters to ask it, so I’m going to re-post, or co-tweet-post or whatever the hell it is.

I’ve been thinking about conflict and the things that stop or imperil a relationship, and I’ve realized that I am very attracted to stories that have a forbidden element to them, when some powerful no-no prevents the protagonist pair from being together. As I said on Twitter, What conflict preventing the HEAin a romance novel is your favorite? I.e. “We can’t be together because….” What’s your favorite reason?

I’m picky, though, about that reason. It can’t be something so powerful that, despite their decision to be together, it will likely ruin their lives anyway. She’s a courtesan, he’s a lord, and what do you mean their children won’t be welcomed in society anywhere they go?! It’s difficult for me to “suspend my disbelief,” to quote Jennifer Crusie, in those circumstances because the reality is harsh.

Yet, I was a total sucker for Dallas, even though I was too young to really understand the nuances of the plots, and way, WAY too impressionable to be shown that many shoulderpads in contemporary fashion. The Barnes/Ewing family feud, the two characters from each family drawn to each other, and the conflict that results? Rwor.

The more I ponder the forbidden attraction, the more I think that my personal favorite is when the forbidding factor is something morally-based. Whoever is in conflict between duty and attraction has to balance out their moral compass such that they can attain the person they desire and still live with themselves (and be worthy in the eyes of the reader) afterward.

So what’s your favorite reason in a romance novel that prevents the hero and heroine from being together? Which “We can’t be together because…” is the story you gravitate toward and adore? And which ones totally don’t work for you?

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    JoanneL says:

    Just a quick glance over my keepers and I’m kind of surprised to see that my answer is that one of the protagonist is ‘broken’.
    Some kind of emotional or physical pain or abuse that the MC has to overcome to be with the other. If the story shows emotional strength and character growth then it’s a favorite.

    Just as quickly I know I hate a storyline that is based on they can’t be together because one of them had their ‘wittle hearts broken by a meanie’ when they were 18. Grow up already.

  2. 2
    Barb Ferrer says:

    Wrong side of the tracks is always good, as is the competition between two people with similar professional goals, but my favorite is the older woman/younger man.  Mostly because it’s really such a non-factor, but there’s still such a social divide there, in terms of acceptability.  Someone‘s always going to be against this relationship because they somehow think they’re something inherently wrong with it.  We haven’t yet socially gotten to a place where it’s okay for a woman to regularly be a fair amount older than a man (I’m talking ten years or more) the same way it’s accepted for a man to be considerably older than a woman.

    Even the partners in the relationship can have issues with it, because of the cultural divides they have to overcome as well as any external forces trying to keep them apart.

  3. 3
    JenD says:

    Wow. Good question- here’s hoping I’ve had enough coffee to formulate a coherent answer!

    I second the ‘damage to healing’ motif- as long as the damage is enough to be believable. Too much damage dealt with too quickly won’t work either. I can’t buy that a character who was abused for twenty years will overcome those issues in a hot Weekend Of Road Trip Wackiness. It’s all about the balance.

    I like the idea that they can’t be together because the character is looking for a type. I enjoy seeing the characters grow and become open (in a realistic manner) to the fact that *this* person is the right one- not their idealized notion of who they wanted. When they realize that they weren’t looking for a person- just a thing or arm candy. Hope that made sense.

    I really really dislike ones that are overly simplistic. His ex had blonde hair and she cheated on him- thus the heroine (blonde) is a filthy hooor too. It just makes me think that the hero is a moron that’s not worth all this trouble anyway. Fallacy (hur hur) of Logic need not apply.

    I can’t usually buy into the Lord/peasant/hula dancer in a brothel conflict either. I have read a few books that handled this in a good way- the couple moved to America to live. That I could buy. Back then there wasn’t a lot of DMV’s so they could make up whatever story they needed to. I can suspend the reality and just go with it. It’s still a bit hard to swallow that they would be able to get along and agree on how to raise children, should they have any. Just two very very different worlds.

    Last one- please dear God- No More Secret Lordships/Princesses. At the rate romance novels hand them out every single mofo alive between 850-1900 AD was a freakin princess. Was there some sort of Title of the Month club?

    I’m really eager to see everyone’s thoughts on this. Good question.

  4. 4

    I don’t think I have any “favorite” conflict in plot… almost anything will work for me if it’s well written.  I mean, even really, really good conflict can be screwed up by crap writing.

    I’m getting a little bit tired of “We can’t be together because I’m a vampire, and you’re not,” in paranormal romance.  I’ve always thought there was a pretty easy fix to that, right?  And yeah, the vampire man always says, “I don’t want to turn you into a soulless monster like me,” but isn’t what he’s really saying just, “I’m not ready for an eternal commitment?”  Unless you’ve got a Buffy-esque mythos going on, where everyone changes dramatically upon being changed, what’s the prob, vampire Bob?

    Basically, if a conflict between the characters is believable enough that I can go, “If I were in this situation,  I would feel the same way,” then it’s my favorite.  Stuff that can be cleared up with a conversation or just not being stupid and stubborn?  Blah, I can get that on Rock of Love Bus.

  5. 5

    Ditto JoanneL and JenD. I like it when one or both of them has a Serious Issue or really, genuinely believes they’re not worthy or deserving of love. My favorite books to reread have that conflict and my favorites that I’ve written have it too; I like the moment when they finally become brave enough to feel or accept love, and for me the conflict is always interesting because they’re really battling themselves in the deepest way.

  6. 6

    It can’t be something so powerful that, despite their decision to be together, it will likely ruin their lives anyway. She’s a courtesan, he’s a lord, and what do you mean their children won’t be welcomed in society anywhere they go?! It’s difficult for me to “suspend my disbelief,” to quote Jennifer Crusie, in those circumstances because the reality is harsh.

    Heh.  I’ve seen this multiple times from multiple people.  I have to admit, when I first started writing it probably dissuaded me from writing what I do best—which is writing about class-mismatches.  The heroine of my novel is not a courtesan, but she sure isn’t a class match for the hero.  He is way above her—at least in the social sense—because she’s illegitimate and literally has no idea who her parents are.  (This isn’t what keeps them apart.)

    But . . . you know, honestly, I don’t buy this “ruin their lives thing.”  I mean, yes, I agree there were large swathes of society who would shun their children.  But . . . so what?  The haut ton isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  It’s not like the tippy-top of polite society was a delightful Eden, where everyone was blissfully happy, so long as they were invited to the right parties.

    To put things in perspective:  Perhaps I feel this way because when my parents married back in the early 60s both sides of their family told them they were ruining their lives.  My dad’s very white parents told him that most people would run the other way when they found out he was marrying a Chinese girl; my mom’s Chinese dad said that Chinese boys wouldn’t want to marry her children, and white boys would all be too proud for them.

    And you know what?  Both sets of parents were right, in a way.  When I was growing up, my father had coworkers who literally wouldn’t talk to my mother.  (And this was with a Chinese-white alliance—which these days wouldn’t even attract the slightest comment except in very isolated areas—I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be for people in even less acceptable racial pairs.)  My parents were shunned by a lot of unthinking people.

    So they made friends with thinking people instead.

    The fact that by marrying a courtesan, your children might lose the chance of marrying into the class of people who insist that you not marry outside the class of boring people who sit on their asses for a living?  Your children might miss the chance to marry someone who can’t look past bloodlines to the person underneath?

    Dude.  That is so not ruining your life.

  7. 7
    Silver James says:

    I think my favorite is where ethics and duty clash and/or where one will have to give up something important to be with the other—something life changingly important. What happens down the line? Does guilt start to kick in? How about bitterness? Especially if the couple encounters a rocky period. When I think HEA, my emphasis is on the EVER. What happens after the book ends and the couple travel through life together? Is their love strong enough to withstand the negative emotions? How does s/he respond when s/he yells, “I gave up everything important to be with you and now you give me shit?” That’s when my imagination kicks in and I want the author to give me enough reasons to believe the love with last and overcome.

    I’m getting a little bit tired of “We can’t be together because I’m a vampire, and you’re not,” in paranormal romance.  I’ve always thought there was a pretty easy fix to that, right?  And yeah, the vampire man always says, “I don’t want to turn you into a soulless monster like me,” but isn’t what he’s really saying just, “I’m not ready for an eternal commitment?”  Unless you’ve got a Buffy-esque mythos going on, where everyone changes dramatically upon being changed, what’s the prob, vampire Bob?

    Amen, Jennifer! That and the vampire saying, “We can’t be together because I’ve watched all that I love die and I just can’t take it anymore.”

  8. 8
    Julie Leto says:

    Courtney, what a fascinating perspective.  My family has a similar history.  My grandmother, who was considered black because she was Cuban…by my grandfather’s Italian family.  For the record, my grandmother had pale skin, blue eyes and very straight dark hair…she was white as white could be.  Her family was from Spain.  But it didn’t matter—to my grandfather’s family, she was black and therefore, this was an interracial marriage that was illegal.  (My grandfather’s sisters even when to the courthouse the following day to try and have the marriage nullified.)

    My grandmother’s family wasn’t even better.  To them, all Italian men beat their wives.

    Needless to say, my grandparents were married for over 50 years and our family wasn’t taught such prejudices.  But it would be a great conflict for a book…because it is very real.  However, it’s not the end of the world, the characters are better off…but it doesn’t take away the pain and torture of being ostracized by the people you’ve loved your entire life.  It’s heart-wrenching when I read that kind of conflict.

    To me, any conflict can work in the hands of the right author.  My favorite conflict to date was in the Kresley Cole book where the heroine was long dead and a ghost and the hero was insane and full of self-loathing.  I kept reading thinking, “how is she going to fix this?”  But she did and I loved every word!

    Comment verification: youre52.  Hey!  I am NOT!

  9. 9
    JoanneL says:

    Jennifer Armintrout said
    but isn’t what he’s really saying just, “I’m not ready for an eternal commitment?”

    *snort*! OMG… spewing coffee all over a new keyboard!

  10. 10
    Liz says:

    I don’t think that I have a favorite conflict persay.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I guess it depends on the rest of the story.  I just finished a book by Rachel Gibson (Truly Madly Yours) in which the hero doesn’t think that he is good enough for the heroine.  Usually I like this type of conflict, but not this time.  (Probably because I felt like the heroine wasn’t good enough for him.)  One of my favorites is the last book in the finding the dream trilogy, where this conflict works really well.

  11. 11
    Lynn M says:

    My uber-favorite reason for two people to be kept apart is the Buffy Factor – something real wherein if the couple does get together, one or the other of them would suffer some kind of physical issue (i.e., become evil). Remember the old show “Life Goes On” when Kellie Martin’s Becca Thacher fell in love with Chad Lowe’s Jesse and he was HIV positive? So they couldn’t be together physically for fear of her safety. I love that kind of tragic situation. However, this does present the ultimate challenge to find a realistic HEA.

    Secondly, I like conflict that arises from one of the characters already being involved in a relationship with a person who isn’t a bad guy/girl. For example, the whole Pam/Jim romance in the first couple seasons of “The Office” was so great because Pam’s engagement to Roy kept Jim and Pam from acting on their obvious attraction, and Roy was a fairly decent guy, so you could understand why Pam didn’t just dump his ass immediately to run off with Jim. This set up always creates so much UST because the characters can’t act on their wants.

  12. 12
    shaina says:

    i like best-friends-become-lovers, and like someone else said i also like you’re-not-my-type-why-do-i-find-you-attractive? And i’m TOTALLY a sucker for single dad stories…or even single mom stories, i guess. i don’t come from a single parent household, but i really love kids and if an author writes the kids well and makes them a part of the book in a believable way and/or incorporate it into the “problem” (kid is special needs, or a teenager, or the parent doesnt want to thrust someone new upon them, etc), i love it. oh, and also i like the two high powered executives/doctors/whatevs who are competing but then…boom! attraction. hehe.
    NONONO to the “you’re not a vamp and I am”, although i’ll deal with it from certain authors…also NO to “she must ask help from the very lord she’s always despised…yet found so undeniably attractive!!!” *pukes* again, for certain authors i’ll make exceptions, but rarely. hmmm, i think that’s the basics. i could go on, but nobody really wants that ;-)

    spamword is europe65—close, i’m in asia (Israel) and it’s 52…

  13. 13
    Jody W. says:

    I like protagonists who already have a platonic relationship so the “can’t hop in bed because we’ll ruin what we have if it doesn’t work out” is something I am prone to enjoy. Plus I like knowing the protagonists are building their HEA on an existing—and successful—foundation of friendship. In one way it’s less of a mountain to overcome than “we’ll die if we touch!”, but at the same time I don’t always want the angsty dramas.

    That being said, animosity from the past (that isn’t related to a sexual encounter) is a workable premise that can keep two people apart, too. When the protagonists have a valid reason to believe the other person is a tool (based on fact, not rumor or big misunderstandings), it is interesting to see them sort through that. It’s not as much a draw for me when they had an affair that didn’t work out, though. In fact, I am less inclined to read a former lovers story.

  14. 14
    Sarah Frantz says:

    I pretty much only read m/m right now, and I adore the closet cases. “I can’t be with you openly b/c I’ll lose to much if I’m out” and them having to learn that, no, it’s better to be in the open. Particularly like military heroes, but not actually finding many of those, unfortunately. Got one in my own head, but he doesn’t actually want to come out and play, unfortunately.  I love it when the MCs overcome a huge internal barrier and/or a huge social taboo.  I also love bestest of all the books wherein the conflict arises during the book, comes out because of the strongly-drawn characters and their relationship. So, not antagonistic to begin with, but during the progress of the relationship, one of the characters (or better, both) does something to trip some switch the other character might not even know they had, and they have to overcome together the problems that arise as a result.  That’s the most realistic romance for me.

  15. 15
    MB (Leah) says:

    I like—- can’t be together due to cultural differences. People from different countries or very different ethnic backgrounds. I’ve lived it so I know what it feels like and really relate to the truth in it.

    I hate—- the poor me, I’m so emotionally tortured and broken—- hero. Ugh. Get over yourself already.

  16. 16
    lustyreader says:

    For some reason it’s easier for me to say what I DON’T like, than what I DO. I get really irritated when the Hero is constantly pushing the Herione away because “He is not worthy and will not make her happy.” She will be the judge of that!

    I agree with the other comments that I enjoy a well written and well handled story line involving emotional scarring or issues they have to get over in order to have a HEA, but after I watch the Hero push her away for 300+ pages, then to have a huge climactic scene near the end where he is HORRIBLY cruel to her, just to PROVE he really is undeserving and bad and she leaves in tears/heartbroken, and then in the last few pages he finds her and reconciles months later…just not as satisfying/believable to me.

  17. 17
    Keira says:

    I run from friends to lovers 98% of the time. I much prefer the “I despise you utterly – your hands are sexy! Crap!” and it’s close cousin the “You’re not my type! Your hair is pretty! Damn! Couldn’t you have a snaggle tooth???”

    Damaged heroes – internal and external – limp, scars, blindness, raging headaches from head wounds – I love them all. The boys who are beastly and think their attentions impose on the heroine, the shrapnel that could kill him with a sneeze, the headaches that make making love to her impossible or so it seems.

  18. 18
    JewelTones says:

    I love a good conflict.  My favorites are ones that stem from more than just you like tea, I like coffee.  I like conflicts that stem from a character’s promise to themselves or a code they live by.  One that really digs deep into *who* the character is and—by falling in love—challenges them to really change.  The love has risk.  The love changes them. 

    I have a favorite book where both the hero and heroine have suffered horrible loses that have left them both with physical and mental scars and because of that they are perfect for each other… but it offers many challenges for them to get past in order to even try to be together.  He lost his entire family (wife and kids).  She was so injured she can’t ever have children or offer a man a future with a family.  To open up and let someone else in on that kind of pain was, to them, just… wow. 

    I think my favorite conflict, though, is when you have two people who seem so opposite, so different, that they can’t possibly fit together… who do.  She’s the light to his dark.  She’s fire to his ice.  And yet they both have the same core characteristic of, say, honor or the same idea of loyalty.  If he’s lacked someone in his life who has ever stood by their word to him, then the heroine is someone who doggedly stands by him through everything because she gave her word.  That kind of thing.  I like finding the “unexpectedly the same” connection between characters because the conflicts tie directly into demonstrating why these two people would and should be together above all others.

    JT

    idea93.  I’d kill for any book idea at this point.  *sigh*

  19. 19
    Katie Ann says:

    Wow, I was just thinking the other day that I’ve really enjoyed books where one of the protagonists is a man/woman of God and wind up questioning everything under the sun in their new found love.  Luckily AAR has a huge list of books just like this.  From “To Love and to Cherish” with the lovely Christy, and LaVyrle Spencer’s “Then Came Heaven” with a nun and the church’s janitor, it’s such a huge thing they have to overcome if they want to be together.

    I also love the physically scarred heroes (the scarred heroines I’ve encountered have been something lame like “oh dear I have three pox scars on my left foot, how could he possibly ever want to be with me”) who think that they are so deformed they aren’t worthy of love.  Just started reading Zsadist’s book yesterday, and it seems like it will be bursting at the seams with this kind of turmoil.

  20. 20
    Madd says:

    Damaged and broken, they are my loves. I like friends to lovers and enemies to lovers. Different types, races, cultures, and species (shifters, vamps, etc.). Class miss-matches. I like the ones where one of the characters has to cross-dress for some reason and the other has feelings for them, but is freaked because they don’t swing that way. I get a real kick out of those.

    I do like the “we can’t be together because I’m a vamp and you’re not” in short storied, but I can’t do a whole book.

    ust started reading Zsadist’s book yesterday, and it seems like it will be bursting at the seams with this kind of turmoil.

    I love that one. I like all the other books fine, but Zsadist is my fave for the fact that he is so damaged and broken. I like how, when it comes to the softer emotions, he’s almost child-like in his confusion. It reads true for someone who was damaged when they were so innocent.

  21. 21
    Rainbow Tea says:

    How about… exes? I’m picky with this though. It has to be handled just right – so that the story doesn’t become *about* their failed relationship/marriage but that it is still a big part of the story.  I don’t want to read about their hundred heartbreaking fights they had back then. (one is fine, thanks) I want to see how they’re going to deal with each other NOW, and the issues they’re carrying around with them. Preferably when put in a spot where they are forced to deal with each other.

  22. 22
    S.J. Ku says:

    Yeah, I’m in the minority for this one, but I actually can’t stand those emotionally damaged/unworthy of love books. I’ve found two or three good ones, but in general, nothing, and I mean NOTHING makes me roll my eyes and throw it into the nearest wall faster. However, I had a great upbringing, so I ended up very confident, self assured, full of love, and fully accepting of love. So in my mind, anyone who rejects love, for whatever reason… it’s just too foreign, I guess. I should be very thankful I can’t relate to or understand that plot, and that’s why I don’t like it. Hehe.

    As for the “we can’t be together” reasons I do love, the cross dressing plot is definitely always fun. Opposites/enemies to lovers is a safe usual as well. Class differences… eh, do or die.

  23. 23
    SonomaLass says:

    I can take broken/damaged sometimes, but only if it’s handled certain ways.  Too much focus on the bad stuff makes it hard for me to believe in the HEA—it also depresses me, and that’s not why I read romance.  Not enough development of the bad stuff trivializes some important issues (child abuse, rape) and that just pisses me off.  So the balance is important to me in those books.

    I enjoy stories where the obstacles are external rather than internal, where the characters recognize that they love one another, but there’s something about the situation they’re in that keeps them apart.  I guess that’s because I get more sappy “I love you” scenes that way, rather than just one big bursting emotional dam at the end of the book.

    Of course I’m also a big sucker for more mature characters, so any conflict relating to that (complications from the past, being past child-bearing years, reluctance to give up one’s independence, believable reluctance due to past disappointments) all work for me.  If written well, of course—as others here have commented, and as I have said else where, a good writer can make me love a plot I normally would hate, and bad writing can ruin a favorite trope faster than fish going off in the trunk of my car.

    Re-reading comments above, I have to say that I’m also tired of the “vamp/not a vamp” conflict.  And I’m picky about cross-dressing, because that’s closely related to my academic specialty, and it’s way easy to get it wrong and turn me off.  But then I just love it when it’s done well!

  24. 24

    I luuuurrrve(TM) Forbidden Love. Katie Ann mentions LaVyrle Spencer’s “Then Came Heaven,” and I want to chime in and say I think Spencer covered almost every trope of forbidden love there is: She’s married to his brother; He’s a working man and She’s rich in the 1890s; She thinks she’s a widow—but she’s not!, etc., etc. One of my favorites is “Family Blessings”, about a 45-year-old widow whose companionship with her late son’s 30-year-old roommate turns to love. O SO GOOD!

    I think the reason Spencer can play her readers like weeping violins is because she takes the time and opens up the story so you can really appreciate what going through with the relationship will cost the protagonists. Her later books straddle the line between romance and Women’s Fiction, which means she focuses on stuff beyond the H/H pairing. Frex, in “Family Blessings,” we meet the heroine’s sister-and-business-partner, her college-aged daughter, her parents, and we get a real feel for the family ties that sustain her. Then when she falls for the Hot and Sensitive and Wonderful 30-year-old, everyone around her is horrified. The start withdrawing from the heroine, to the point where she, and the reader, honestly feels she’ll lose everything if she stays with her lover.

    It’s hard, for me, to believe a contemporary Forbidden Love (unless, like,  she’s a priest and he’s married or something) but Spencer nails it for me.

  25. 25
    Tammy says:

    Some favorite conflicts which immediately come to mind: 

    -  when the hero or heroine was previously sexually involved with the heroine or hero’s same-sex sibling,
    –  when the h/h come from different socioeconomic backgrounds: for example, he’s a construction worker/she’s an heiress, or she’s an exotic dancer/he’s a CEO,
    –  when the h/h have to deal with “no fraternization” rules – in a military chain of command, or in a corporate environment.

  26. 26
    Jessa Slade says:

    the shrapnel that could kill him with a sneeze

    Ha. 

    I love damaged characters who learn to heal themselves.  It’s not so much that the lover does the healing as the character is challenged by the loved one and has to rise above.  Stories like that give me hope that all obstacles (many of which we generate ourselves) can be overcome.

    Insert kum-ba-ya here.

  27. 27
    Carrie Lofty says:

    I recently finished a slightly oldie called Whispers of Heaven by the faboo Candice Proctor. Hero = Irish convict in Tasmania. Heroine = well-to-do educated miss with a fiance. Conflictamundo! If they were caught together, he would be hanged. I couldn’t breathe for how tense some of their love scenes made me feel, part sexual chemistry, part “OMG they’re SO gonna get busted!” It was great. Great great great.

  28. 28
    DeeCee says:

    I’m a sucker for a good reunion between former flames. Used to be Lovers by Linda Lael Miller is one of my faves, because it doesn’t rely on the OMFG big secret, but instead focuses on how you have to focus on staying in a relationship. Friends/Enemies to lovers and the broken soul stories when they are done well are perfection.

    I love Soulmate books, but when there is a legitimate reason behind the mating. The trend of the superhot stud sniffing ass and proclaiming in he-man speak “you mine” doesn’t cut it. C. L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul series doesn’t fall into that trap.

    I hate the older/younger excuse. That doesn’t matter as much nowadays unless your Anna Nicole Smith kissing a corpse.

    The I Can’t Be with You Because I am a Superhuman Paranormal Creature and You are a Weak Human That I Will Break During Sex is annoying all to hell. Twilight was a huge hurdle to jump when that seemed like the only excuse/plot device Edward could find.

  29. 29
    Nadia says:

    Damaged heroes and heroines work for me.  I’ve got some damage in my own background, so I’m a big cheerleader for their HEA.  Friends to lovers and exes – meh, can take or leave.  I just don’t buy the whole “I loved you so much when we were 15, and now we’re 30 and the first time I saw you I knew it was still there!” Abhor secret babies with a white hot passion.  Only the very best writers can pull that off for me. 

    Enemies to lovers, bring it.  Because I love me some action/adventure, probably my all-time fave is when enemies (either personal or just opposite sides of a conflict) team up to fight an even worse evildoer, and discover each other during the process.  Overcoming preconceived notions and ingrained distrust because you’ve come to know the person (and can’t keep your sweaty hands off their hot bod?)  Full of win!

  30. 30
    Karen Junker says:

    I read a Nora book (Seaswept, I think) where the heroine was the social worker who placed a foster child with the hero.  In real life, you’d probably get fired for even thinking of dating a client, but it was never mentioned in this story.  It drove me nuts.

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