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Punk lurched forward, sprinting into the town, towards her alley. She darted through a shortcut. What could be happening? No one ever went that way. One could hardly tell there even was an alley behind the pile of trash. If animals had gotten through, they couldn't reach Grace. The hammock was too far up. Maybe she had fallen?
She raced down her alley, skidded around the turns, and came to the last stretch. Her pace faltered. The pile of trash was gone. Completely gone. She careened around the corner and halted.
Two men crouched in the alley. City workers. One held Grace.
Jerry, the city worker holding Grace looked up. "Oh. And who is this?"
Punk stared at each of them, then at the wide-eyed Grace. The city worker that wasn't Jerry stood and took a step forward. Punk took a half step back. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Cleaning out the alleys. People are complaining about the smell."
"Is she yours?" Jerry asked, twitching his head to Grace.
Punk eyed him. "Yes."
Non-Jerry raised an eyebrow. "Yours?"
She clenched her jaw. "Yes, mine."
Jerry stood, still holding Grace. "Your daughter?"
"Close enough. I'm taking care of her for a friend."
"Ah, so you aren't her mother," Non-Jerry commented.
"I'm pretty much her mother."
"Where is her real mother?"
Punk worked her jaw. Grace shifted in Jerry's arms. "Mama's dead."
The city workers looked at each other, then Jerry addressed Punk, "We called the police when we found the girl. You'll both be placed in a foster home. A lot better than the alleys, let me tell you."
Punk blinked. A foster home. A home. Good food, clean clothes, a safe place to sleep. Confinement, having to go to school, having to sleep inside, having to behave and not get into a fight.
"No," Punk stated. "Give her to me. Now."
Jerry didn't seem to sure how to react, as if he had figured she'd go into ecstasies. "I don't think you understand. If we find homeless kids, we need to turn them over to the police. And the police contact the required people to get them homes."
"We have a home." Punk curled her fingers into a fist, glaring at the intruders. "Or had one. Until you tore it up."
"Just calm down."
Punk whirled around to face a new man. The policeman.
"Get out!" she screamed. "You have no right to be here! You have no right to take us!"
The policeman remained unflustered, as if teenagers screaming in his face were everyday occurances. "How old are you?"
Punk raised her chin. "Eighteen."
The policeman frowned. “You don't look eighteen. And anyways, she is still a minor.” He waved a hand at Grace. “You are not her guardian.”
Punk's eyes blazed. “I am to. She wouldn't want to be somewhere I'm not. She wants to stay with me.”
“Even if that is true, it is only because she's too young to know what is best for her.” He sighed, then continued, “Look, if I get a call about two people finding a crippled girl in an ally, it is my job to check it out. I'm doing my job.”
“Fine. You've done it. Now go!”
“I can't do that. I need to bring her in so she can be taken care of.”
Punk realized her outbursts were not going to get her anywhere. She slumped her shoulders and assumed a more submissive air. “How far away will it be?”
The policeman shook his head. “I don't know. But I assure you it will be much better than living on the streets.”
“Can I come too?”
“I'm really seventeen,” she admitted.
The policeman nodded, face softening. “I think we can arrange that, yes.”
Punk glanced at Grace. “Can I hold her now?”
Jerry looked at the policeman, who nodded, then he walked over and held Grace out.
Punk took her, hugging her close. Grace wrapped her arms around Punk's neck and rested her head on her shoulder. The policeman smiled, then motioned to them. “Come on. The car's at the end of the alley.”
Punk followed the policeman.
When they came close to the exit, she whispered in Grace's ear, “Hold on.”
The moment they stepped free of the alley, Punk bolted.
“Hey! Stop!” the policeman commanded, giving chase.
“No way, no how.” Punk gritted her teeth and shuffled Grace around as she ran. “Get onto my back,” she instructed. “And hold on tight.”
Grace put her arms around her protector and clasped her hands together. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” Punk panted as Grace bounced against her back. “We're gonna go visit Art.”
“Really?!” Grace squealed. “That'll be fun.”
“Yeah.” Punk swung into a new alley. The Pack's ground. But with a police officer, as long as she avoided Reaper, she would be fine, and, hopefully, the police officer would get distracted and lose her.
As she crashed around another corner, she found herself at the heart of the Pack's alleys. As she ran through, the peaceful alley became chaotic as the Pack recognized the police officer and ran. The policeman's steps faltered, already distracted.
Punk spotted Reaper and ducked down a different alley. She navigated her way out of the alleys and puffed out into the open. No one pursued.
She kept up her pace for a while, then stopped and set Grace on the sidewalk, shaking. She tugged the cover off of a manhole cover and lowered Grace in.
“Hold onto the ladder.” She let her down as far as possible, then scrambled in herself, pulling the cover back over the hole.
So she remained for several minutes, catching her breath. The dripping and trickling of water sounded far below. A musty, wet smell hung around her as the damp coolness clung to her. Grace whimpered.
“It's okay,” Punk assured her. “I'm just resting for a moment, then we'll be out again.”
She peeked out from underneath the cover. The coast seemed clear. She shoved the cover off and pulled herself out. She reached down for Grace and tugged her up.
“Is Art's place far?” the girl inquired.
“No, not too far. But we need to get goin' before it gets dark.” She slung Grace onto her back and trotted away.
Punk marched on, legs beginning to burn. She shifted Grace around, but found no relief from the dull ache in her shoulders.
“You okay, Punk?” Grace asked from her perch as she messed with Punk's hair.
“Yeah,” Punk forced out. “Just needa rest.” She flopped down under a tree. The sun's last rays were disappearing behind the horizon. Punk leaned her head against the tree as Grace played with the dead leaves beside her. Her stomach rumbled and she remembered the pizza in her pocket. She pulled it out.
“Hungry?” she asked Grace, holding a piece out.
“Ooh!” Grace squealed as she began devouring the slice. “What is it?”
Punk chuckled. “Pizza.”
Grace nodded and focused on her eating.
Punk ate her own piece at a more leisurely pace. Just as she swallowed the last bite, she heard someone approaching. She grabbed Grace and boosted her into the tree, then prepared to do the same.
“Well, well, well.”
Too late. She turned around. A boy, only a little taller than her, stood grinning. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Whaddya want?”
“Nothin' much.” The boy sauntered a couple steps closer. “What's a pretty girl like you doin' out here all alone at night?”
“Lookin' fer someone t'beat up on.” Punk sneered. “What about you? What's a puny guy like you doin' out so late? Thought you'd be tucked in bed with your mama readin' ya bedtime stories.”
The boy snickered. “You're feisty, ain't ya?”
“Yeah, so ya better get a move on.”
“Ha.” The boy stepped closer. “Why should I get a move on? I think I want to stay here.”
Punk watched his movements. If he came just a little closer... She smirked at the boy. “What's your definition of fun? A broken nose?”
The smile vanished from the boy's face as he leaped forward. Punk jumped to the side, kicking at his leg as he passed. He tripped and almost fell over.
Definitely not a Pack member. Good. It would be easier to deal with him then.
He whirled around, glaring. “You're a fighter, ain't ya? Well good. I like a good fight.” He punched.
Punk knocked his fist off course with a flick of her wrist. “Yeah, I like a good fight too. 'Cept you're not provin' t'be much of a fight at all.” She snapped her leg out, kicking him in the knee. He howled and Punk rolled her eyes. “Puh-lease.”
The boy bit his lip, scowling.
Punk lowered herself into a crouch and snarled at him. His face went pale.
“You're... You're from the... the Pack?”
“Yeah, ya could say that.”
The boy stared, then turned and ran. Punk straightened and sighed in relief. Fighting was perhaps the last think she wanted to do right now. She leaned against the tree, arms and legs shaking. She needed to get out of this place. Art had been right, as usual.
“Okay, let's go, girl.” Punk patted her shoulders and Grace slipped out of the tree, lowering herself onto her shoulders. Punk held onto her hands and started off.
“How many pictures does Art have?”
“So many that you can't see the walls of his alley.” Punk smiled. “You'll see them.”
“I can't wait to see the doggy.” Grace laid her head on Punk's.
“I'm sure you'll like it.”
At last, the lights of Art's city came into view. Punk stumbled to an alleyway and flopped down. She didn't know which alley Art lived in, and she didn't have the strength to look. She set Grace on the ground next to her. A breeze ruffled her hair, and she pulled off her hoodie to protect Grace from the cold. Then she closed her eyes. She didn't care what happened. She needed rest.
She slipped off to exhausted sleep.
When she awoke, it was to dim light and shadow. She cracked open her eyes and stared at the figure looming over her. The figure... A boy! She scrambled to her feet.
“What are you doing here?” the boy asked.
“Resting. We're leaving now.” Punk glanced around for anymore people. Had she stumbled upon a private alley, or a gang's?
“That's fine.” The boy waved a hand. “As long as you know this alley is taken.”
Punk nodded. “I'm not plannin' on movin' in.”
The boy nodded back to her, then strolled down the alley.
“Hey!” Punk called after him. He looked over his shoulder. “Do ya know Art?”
“Art? No.” He continued on.
Punk knelt next to Grace. She didn't want to wake her, but the sooner they found Art's nest, the better. Both for their safety and for her sanity. She picked Grace up, cradling her in her arms. The girl cuddled against her, not waking. Punk smiled and strode away.
The sky had a grey hue to it, morning's herald. She trudged down the sidewalk, glancing into each alley, trying to remember.
She turned down one, thinking it familiar, but after traveling down it for some time and not finding a curtained off alley, she made her way back out.
A splinter of pain worked through her chest. She clenched her jaw and took a sharp breath, steadying herself on a wall. Her legs felt weak, as did her arms. She needed to rest. Soon.
“Where are you, Art?” she muttered. Another alley caught her eye and she stumped to it. This one looked more promising. She scuffled into it and craned her neck around a corner. The reassuring dirty grey sheet that covered the entrance to Art's nest waved a few yards down.
“Thank you!” She made her way to the covering and stuck her head through it. She saw no one, but stumbled in anyways. She deposited Grace on the hay bale Art used as a couch, then collapsed next to it, her whole body trembling. She felt sick.
Thank goodness the journey was over. The burning in her legs dissipated as she slipped into slumber again.
“Punk?” Someone touched her shoulder. She forced her eyes open.
Art's grinning face met her. “Changed your mind?”
Punk wiggled to get more comfortable. “Yeah, sorta. My mind was more changed for me though.”
“Ah, I'm sorry. You'll have to tell me about it later. Here, you look like you could use some food.” He held up a can of red sauce and noodles. She took it, inspecting it with curiosity.
“What is it?”
“SpaghettiOs. Pretty tasty, and all I have on hand at the moment, unfortunately.”
“This is fine,” Punk grunted, struggling to sit upright. Art helped her, then handed her a spoon. “Thanks,” she murmured, spooning a bit of the noodle and sauce mixture into her mouth. “Hm...” She pondered. “Weird. Tastes good though.”
Art nodded, grinning. “Yup. Not when you have it every day though. It gets kinda old.”
“It would.” Punk chuckled and scraped the last bit of sauce from the side of the can. “Thanks again.”
“Art?” Grace lifted her head from the hay bale to stare.
Art held his arms out. “Hey, girl! Welcome to my nest!”
Grace bounced to a sitting position and mimicked Art's actions with her arms. He hugged her tight, standing and twirling her while he was at it. She shrieked with laughter.
“Just don't drop her.” Punk rolled her eyes.
“I would never.” Art huffed as he set her back down on the hay bale. “I only dropped you that once because... Well you... Hm.”
Punk shook her head and pulled herself up to try out her legs.
“Do your legs still work?” Grace asked. “They aren't broken like mine, right?”
“No, they're fine,” Punk reassured, giving her a smile.
“Good.” Grace pulled at the hay in the bale.
“She just needs some strength in them again.” Art cast Punk a sideways glare. “I told you I'd carry her if you decided to move.”
“We didn't have time.” Punk waved a hand at him.
“What did happen?” Art questioned.
“City people. City workers found her while I was here. They were gonna put us in a foster home.” She scowled. “As if I don't have enough problems.”
“Wow.” Art looked at the ground. “You know...” He looked at Grace, who was still fascinated with the hay. “It might have...”
“Been good for her?” Punk challenged. “Maybe. But it wouldn't have been good for me. I wouldn't have done it! And if I wasn't there, it wouldn't be good for her. Anyways, have you seen how some of the disabled people are treated in the city peoples' world? No thanks. I don't want Grace exposed to that. I don't want me exposed to that either.” Punk curled and uncurled the fingers of her right hand, then crossed her arms.
Art ran a hand through his hair. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I know you're doing what you think is best for her and you.”
“You just don't think I can really take care of her.”
“No! That's not what I meant! It's just...” He rocked on his heels. “You're not an adult! You shouldn't have to deal with worrying about stuff like this.”
Punk smiled slightly. “And when did you become an expert about this?”
Art stretched. “When I turned eighteen, of course. That's when you get all your brains.”
“Right.” Punk let out a short laugh and shook her head. “Whatever.” She picked up her hoodie and pulled it back over her head.
“Yeah, whatever,” Art said, but Punk didn't think he quite meant it. He went over to a wooden box and pulled it open. From it he withdrew two sheets, which he double over, stuffed hay between, and began sewing shut.
Punk watched in amusement, and some jealousy. He had tried to teach her to sew quite some time ago, when they were still with the Pack. But with her hand condition, she hadn't been able to manage it.
“Could you help with the next step?” Art asked, tossing her the hay filled sheets.
“Of course.” Punk wrestled with the soon to be hammocks until they were under her control and arm. Art ascended the knotted sheet he used as a way up to his hammock, which hung about nine feet off the ground.
“Okay, hand one up!”
Punk stood on tiptoe and bounced a little to get Art one of the sheets. He leaned from his hammock, attached either side of it to the walls, then hopped into it.
“It's sturdy!” he commented, swaying back and forth. “Probably a lot more comfortable than yours too!”
“Probably.” Punk tossed him the other one. “Hopefully it won't give me hay fever.”
Art snorted. “You've never had trouble with hay or straw before. Don't see any reason you should start now.”
“I see one.” She leaned against the wall and grinned up at Art.
He narrowed his eyes as he tied the end of the hammock around a stone. “Why?”
“To be contrary.”
Art rolled his eyes. “Of course. Here, see that bucket over there?”
Punk turned her head. “Yeah.”
“Dump some of the water from that bucket,” Art pointed, “Into that bucket. Then in the crate three down from the hay bale, there should be a bag of concrete. Pour some of that into the bucket too. I want to make sure these are really secure.”
Punk brought the smaller bucket over to the rainwater bucket Art had indicated. Bracing herself, she tipped it just enough to slop some water out.
“How much concrete?” she asked as she opened the crate.
“A cup or two... or three. Try five.”
Punk scooped the powder out with the cup provided.
“Then stir it. There should be a stick or something around down there.”
“Yeah.” Punk glanced around, then took up a long stick and began stirring the mixture. She wrinkled her nose as the dust tickled.
“Okay.” Art tossed down a sheet rope from his hammock, which he had looped around a hook in the wall to make a sort of pulley system. “Tie it to this.”
Punk lugged the concrete bucket over to the rope. “What kinda knot?”
“Try a square knot.”
She nodded and started to begin the knot. Wavering between the sheet piece in either hand, she glanced up again. “Which goes where first?”
The hay in Art's hammock crackled as he shifted. “Right over left, left over right...”
“Makes a knot that's study and tight,” Punk finished, tugging the knot tight.
“Okay. Now do you think you can pulley it up? Or should I come down?” He motioned to the other end of the sheet.
Punk took hold of the sheet and tested the weight. “I can do it,” she decided.
“Just don't overexert yourself again.”
Punk didn't answer, instead putting all her effort into lifting the bucket of concrete.
“Got it!” Art called. The load lightened and Punk looked up to see Art balancing the bucket in his hammock. “Can you tie it to something?” he asked.
She looked around. “One of the crates?
“That'll work. Just make sure it's heavy enough that it won't drag it over here. That would be a fine entrance for you. Messing up my tidy home.”
Punk snorted and kicked one of the crates. It didn't move, so she fastened the end of her sheet to it.
“Careful with my crates,” Art muttered. “You might break some of the china.”
Punk turned to regard him with one eyebrow raised. He grinned and winked before smoothing concrete onto the ends of the sheets, where they connected with the wall.
As he finished the last one, he stretched. “Nothing short of a tornado will bring these down.”
“Let's hope that's true.” Punk untied the sheet rope and lowered the bucket. Art shinnied down his rope and bowed.
“Your beds, my ladies.”
Grace grinned. “Can I get in mine now?”
“Definitely!” Art picked her up. “I made something special for you so that it will be easy to get in and out of bed.” He reached the wall and took up a loop of sheet rope. “Just sit in it, just like this.” He lowered her into it. Punk smiled. He had made a pulley just for her Grace.
Grace grinned and bounced a little. The knot at the top of the rope kept it from slipping through the hook in the wall.
“Now hold on tight! I'll pull you up to bed.” Art took hold of the rope and began pulling her up. “Oh! You're so heavy!” He feigned a grunt and leaned forward to pretend he needed all his strength to get the girl up. Grace giggled all the way until her knees brushed her hammock, then she slipped out of the loop and latched onto her bed. She tugged herself in, swinging her legs over the edge with the little strength they had. She poked her head over. “Thanks, Art!” she chirruped.
“You're welcome.” Art smiled and waved at her. “Be sure to pull your rope up, so no one can get to you!”
Punk sighed as she leaned against the wall. Life here would be better than in the Pack's town. She already knew that. She had known it for some time. But she had been stubborn. Why should she leave her old home? The Pack would think she was afraid. Her pride would take a blow. She shook her head. She should have moved here long ago. When he first offered her shelter. When they first left the Pack, two years ago. It would have saved everyone some trouble.
“Would you like a tour, my lady?” Art flashed a smile and offered his arm.
“Sure.” Punk pushed off of the wall and strode for the exit of the nest. Art trotted beside her.
“It is customary for a lady to take a gentleman's arm while she is walking.”
“Sorry to break it to you, but this is the modern times.” Punk flicked the alley covering aside and cast a half smile back at Art. “Boys aren't gentlemanly anymore.”
“Doesn't mean I can't be.” Art shoved his hands in his pockets and frowned, walking alongside her. “Who says what other people do should make me do something?”
“So would you care to take my arm?” Art brightened.
“Yes I would care.” Punk scowled. “I'm not weak.”
“I didn't say you were!” Art exclaimed. “A man offering to let a woman lean on him is a sign of respect and care!”
“Oh.” Punk didn't feel inclined to say any more on the subject. Who cared about what people did years ago? They didn't do those things anymore. Why should it be started again?
“There's Ms. Harrison's house.” Art pointed. “She's the one with the big garden. She's a real nice lady. Why don't we stop by so I can introduce you?” He glanced down the street, then jogged across before Punk could protest. She hustled after him, not thrilled with the idea of meeting this Ms. Harrison, but not wanting to ruin Art's enjoyment of showing off his city either.
He pressed the doorbell and stood, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Punk turned to inspect the meticulous flower garden that made the whole front yard into a kind of faerie land. Daffodil stems lined the front of the house, flowers expired long ago, and behind them stood bushes with purple flowers bursting. Light blue flowers shaped like trumpets grew from a vine that wound up and around the corner posts of the wooden picket fence. Bushes with white flowers grew alongside the fence, along with a variety of other flowers of all colors and description. Too bad they would all be dead soon, all covered in snow and ice.
The door creaked. Punk turned her attention to it as it cracked open. “Yes? Oh, Art! Come in, sweetie!” A grey head appeared, smiling and bobbing. “And who is this?”
“This is my friend Punk. I've told you about her. She takes care of Grace.”
“Yes, yes, I remember! How are you doing, honey?”
“Fine.” Punk shifted.
“Well come in! I just made some fresh cookies.”
Punk slunk in behind Art. A sweet smell hung in the air, mixed with a strange spiciness. An old grandfather clock tocked in the corner. Faded furniture sprawled around the room, along with an antique looking cage that held a whistling canary.
“Make yourselves at home!” Ms. Harrison said before bustling into the kitchen.
Art flopped onto the couch. “Isn't it great?”
Punk shrugged and let herself down onto the couch next to him, not sure what to think about being in a house. One thing she knew though, she liked the fuzzy carpet. Much better than concrete. She wiggled her toes into it and breathed in the scented air.
“Here you go.” Ms. Harrison returned with two cups of milk and a plate of cookies. “Didn't bring Grace?”
“No,” Art said as he plucked up one of the cookies. “Hopefully I can bring her next time though.”
“Do. I would love to meet her. She sounds like an angel.”
“She is.” Art nodded.
“So, Punk, how old are you?”
“Almost eighteen,” she replied, nibbling on the edge of a cookie. It crumbled in her fingers from the fresh warmth of the oven.
“Oh how nice. Enjoy being so young, sweetheart. It doesn't last forever.”
Of course it didn't. Punk kept her thoughts to herself and just nodded to the old woman.
“Have you ever been to church?”
Punk stared at her. “Church?”
Punk switched her gaze to Art for a moment. Had he put her up to this? “Yes. I've been to church. I used to go.”
“Oh... Why did you stop?”
Punk shrugged. “Art moved and I didn't feel like it anymore. Better to sleep in on Sundays. Or do some scavenging.”
The woman didn't reply and Punk fidgeted with her cookie.
“Have you seen Art's new paintings?” Ms. Harrison asked.
Punk nodded, relieved for the subject change. “Yes. I'm staying with him now.”
“Oh? How nice! Where did you used to live?”
“The town up the road from this one. I don't know the name.” Of course, she did know the name, she just didn't feel like telling it.
“How nice.” Ms. Harrison smiled and nodded. They sat in silence for a while, then Art rose.
“We should be going. I just wanted you to meet Punk and Punk to meet you and all.”
“Well I'm happy you stopped by!” Ms. Harrison rose and gave Art a hug. “Come again soon!” She stepped towards Punk, arms out to offer a hug for her too. Punk stepped away.
“It was nice meeting you too,” she said for the sake of being polite.
Ms. Harrison dropped her arms. “Same to you. Come again soon! Here, take some cookies back for Grace. I'm sure she'd love some.”
“Thanks! And we will be back, don't worry!” Art opened the door and Punk walked out.
“Isn't she nice?” Art asked, coming alongside her, holding the handful of cookies Ms. Harrison had given him.
“Sure.” Punk kicked a piece of gravel into the street. “Honey, sweetheart, sweetie.” She shook her head. “She's very sweet. Too sweet. Makes good cookies at least. Here, I'll keep track of those.” Punk took the cookies and shoved them into her hoodie pocket.
“Yeah, her gingersnaps are awesome. And you should try her snickerdoodles. They're great too.”
Punk glanced at Art. “Snickerdoodles?”
“I know!” Art chuckled. “Sounds like a disease or something.”
“You can say that again.”
“Oh no, madame!” Art reached forward and held a hand to her forehead. “I do believe you have a severe case of the snickerdoodles!”
She laughed, swatting his hand away. “Yeah, yeah. And what does this disease do?”
“Causes long bouts of snickering, and makes you crave Snicker bars.”
“Say what?” Punk turned her head towards him. “Snicker bars? I didn't know you knew anything about bars.”
“Not bars as in bars. Snicker bars are caramel and peanuts covered in chocolate.” He half closed his eyes. “Mm... Utter goodness.”
Punk snorted. “Also rots your teeth.” She stuck a finger in her mouth to pick at the pieces of cookie. “I'm gonna get a toothache, and it'll be all your fault,” she said around her finger.
“Punk! Do be civilized! Get your hand out of your mouth! You won't get any toothache. I have a toothbrush and toothpaste back at the alley. You can't use my toothbrush, but until I can get you one you can use your finger or something. When we're in my nest, not out here.”
“Where do you get all this stuff?” Punk demanded as they crossed the street again.
“Church. They have a food pantry thing and give stuff out to anyone that needs it.”
“Here's the fountain I painted.” Art waved at the water rocketing into the air. “A pity it's going to be turned off soon.”
“Yeah. A pity,” Punk muttered. “How far did you say the lake was?”
“Not too far. We can walk there if you like.”
“Don't think I'm telling the truth, huh? Thought I was bluffing to get you to move here.”
“Yep.” Punk pulled the side of her mouth up into a smile. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Will Grace be all right? Maybe we should go back and check on her first.”
“She'll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Punk! She's nine feet in the air! And this isn't like your town. Relax. She'll be fine. If you really want to, we can go back and check on her, but I'm telling you, she's fine.”
Punk rubbed her arms and nodded. “I know. It's just... What happened back at my town made me nervous. I don't wanna go through it again.”
“It's fine. I know what you mean.” He took Punk's hand and swung it. “Let's continue with the tour!”
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