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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 31 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 30 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 32 (The Spirit Within) 
She smiled. If anyone could make their marriage come to pass, it was Iroh. She had faith.
Iroh was not as certain. In fact, he was experiencing some misgivings, because, although he had told Lan Chi that he could convince Ozai to allow their marriage, he was not sure that he could. In fact, since he had begun to suspect that Ozai may have been responsible for their father's death, he was not sure of anything. However, he had no proof of any wrongdoing – only hearsay from Zuko, who had been only ten at the time. For the sake of all involved, he had to continue on as he had before, as if he knew nothing about the circumstances surrounding Azulon's demise. So that meant that, among other things, he must try to persuade Ozai to permit Zuko and Lan to marry. The thought that Iroh may actually end up giving his father's money to the man responsible for his death did not bear thinking – it was too horrible.
So, as he had promised Lan Chi, he sought out his nephew. He got his chance to speak to Zuko the next morning when he arrived for their usual bending lessons. Zuko was already there, and Iroh stopped to admire his nephew's form. The young man was practicing with his dao swords, allowing his fire to arc along them as he moved through his forms. The blades slashed through the air and the fire swirled around him, and Iroh, in spite of himself, was impressed. It appeared as if his nephew, despite the turmoil of his relationship with his father, had found serenity. Iroh thought he knew how his nephew came by that.
He did not want to sneak up on Zuko, but the young man was so engrossed in his bending that he did not hear his uncle's approach.
"Prince Zuko! Well done, my nephew."
Zuko jumped, and his fire sputtered out. "Uncle! You startled me!"
Iroh chuckled. "My apologies. I was just admiring your technique. Combining swordsmanship with firebending. Very innovative."
Zuko grinned, and he stood a little taller. "Thank you, Sir." He laid down his swords, picked up a towel and began to rub the sweat from his naked torso.
"You know, Prince Zuko, I think that you have had enough firebending practice for the day. Would you care to join me for a cup of tea in my office? In, say, a half hour's time – after you have cleaned up a bit?"
Zuko's eyes showed a moment of trepidation, but he answered in the affirmative, and Iroh left him to walk to his office.
Zhushou bowed as Iroh entered. "General Iroh, Sir. Good morning. I was not expecting you so early."
"I decided not to train Prince Zuko this morning. However, he will be here in a few minutes. We have family business. Could you please order a pot of lychee tea for the two of us?"
"Yes, Sir." He nodded as Iroh walked through to his inner office. "The Fire Lord sent over some papers about the forty-first division's deployment."
"Thank you, Zhushou."
The secretary followed his employer. "I also have some information about Princess Ursa's lady's maid."
Iroh sat down heavily. "Ah, good! Is she still employed in the capital?"
"Yes, Sir. In fact, she is still employed in the palace. She is Princess Azula's lady's maid, now."
Iroh considered this for a moment. "Hmm. That is – unfortunate. For both myself and the poor maid. Azula is a harsh mistress, I think." He sighed, trying to figure out a way to speak to the woman without arousing suspicion. Since the woman still worked for the royal family, it was probable that her allegiance would still be to the Fire Lord. "Zhushou, please find out her schedule. Where she goes when she is not with the Princess – where she lives. I think that I may need her assistance – Lady Lan Chi is in need of a lady's maid. Who better to consult as a resource than Princess Azula's lady's maid?"
Zhushou nodded. "Very good, Sir."
"I will come to her whenever it is convenient – she need not come here. And I would prefer that it be – a surprise visit."
"Any word on my father's secretary?"
"I have made quiet inquiries. Nothing yet."
Iroh nodded. "Keep on it, then."
"Yes, Sir." Zhushou bowed himself out of the room and shut the door.
Iroh began leafing through the papers that Ozai had sent him. He found a conscription report that showed that fewer and fewer able-bodied men were being drafted into the armed forces – the Fire Nation was being bled dry of its men, and the army had taken to drafting boys as young as sixteen. Iroh shook his head sadly – he was so damnably sick of this war. Too many lives lost – from every nation. These young recruits were not even men yet, and they were being sacrificed for the ambitions of the Fire Nation – and the ambitions of Ozai.
"Uncle?" Zuko's tentative voice came from the doorway.
Iroh smiled at his nephew, and laid down the papers. "Zuko! Zuko, my boy. Come in! Sit down!"
Zuko did as he was told, and smiled at his uncle uncertainly. He wasn't sure why he was here, but he had an idea. An idea that was slightly unsettling.
Just then, Zhushou came in with the tea tray.
"Ah, perfect timing, Zhushou. Come, Zuko, let's have some tea!" He walked to his tea table and indicated that Zuko should join him.
Zuko seated himself across from his uncle at the low table, and watched as Iroh poured them each a cup. He accepted it with thanks and a small bow. He was just raising it to his lips when his uncle spoke. "Tell me, Prince Zuko, what were you doing with my niece last night?"
Zuko fumbled the cup, and tea spilled down his front. He grabbed a napkin and ineffectually rubbed at his tunic while Iroh watched him with an amused expression.
"Is it a hard question to answer, nephew?"
"N-no, Sir." He put the napkin down. "How did you know?"
"You weren't as quiet as you thought, Zuko," Iroh answered kindly.
Zuko blushed. "Oh. Are you angry?"
"I was. Did I not tell you that Lady Lan Chi is not for you?"
"But, Uncle!" He began, but Iroh held up a hand.
"I said that I was." He refilled Zuko's cup. "I can see that keeping you and Lady Lan Chi apart is like trying to hold back the ocean with a toy shovel and pail. Still, you should have come to me first, as is proper."
Zuko looked at him with nascent joy on his face. "Are you saying that you approve?"
"Since it seems that I have no choice, yes. But I still am not pleased at you sneaking into my home and meeting with my niece in secret."
"It wasn't her fault, you know. I forced her to come downstairs."
"I doubt that you forced her, Zuko. She is a young lady who knows her own mind."
Zuko looked off into the distance, a dreamy look on his face. "Yes, she is."
"So, tell me, Prince Zuko; what are your plans for Lan?"
Zuko looked down at his hands, clasped tightly around the napkin. "I want to marry her, Sir." He looked up to gauge Iroh's reaction. "I have not changed my mind."
"And you asked her?"
His chin lifted. "Yes. And she said, 'yes'."
"Do you think it proper to ask a girl not yet fourteen such a question?"
"We have spoken of self-restraint before, Zuko. You obviously did not exercise any last night. In more ways than one. I am aware of your liberties with Lady Lan Chi. "
Zuko shrank inside his uniform, speechless.
"Have you nothing to say, Prince Zuko?"
"I apologize, Uncle. It was dishonorable of me to ask Lan to marry me without speaking to you first. And I should not have kissed her."
Iroh shrugged. "Well, you are a young man. I would be surprised if you hadn't kissed her. But you are right about proposing." He waved his hand blithely. "Still, as I said, I am long past opposing your desires." He sipped his tea.
Zuko was puzzled. "M – my desires? My desires towards – Lan?"
Iroh blew the tea out of his nose. "What? No! I did not mean that! No! You may not have – desires towards my niece!"
Zuko brought his hands up to his head. "Uncle! I'm so confused! What are you saying?"
Iroh put down his cup, closed his eyes, and took a deep, calming breath before speaking. "I am saying, Prince Zuko, that you may marry Lady Lan Chi – in time. And I am also saying that I understand your – desire to be, well, I suppose, close to her would be the best way to put it. However, and this is quite a big however, you may not take liberties with her."
"I'm afraid I don't understand. Am I allowed to kiss her?"
"Yes, you may." He pointed at his nephew. "But no further. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Sir." He mumbled into his shirt.
"I want to help you, Zuko. If you want to marry my niece, I think that I can help you. But you must help yourself as well. I do not want to be a great-uncle too soon, Zuko, if you understand my meaning. And that would be disastrous to your plans."
Zuko's head snapped up. "Uncle! I would never dishonor Lan in that way."
Iroh sighed. "It is difficult, Zuko, when you are in love, to sometimes halt your show of affection. Very difficult indeed. So, although you may not intend to, you do more than you should. I want you to pledge to me, Zuko, that you will keep your head about you when you are alone with Lan. At least until you are sixteen, and I can see you married. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sir. I will."
"Good. I would like you to come to dinner tonight, my nephew, so that we may discuss this with Lan – to make certain that you both understand what is going on, and what I intend to do."
Zuko's face lit up. "So I can see her tonight?" He asked eagerly.
"You will remember your promise to me, Prince Zuko?"
"Oh, yes, Sir, I will."
"Then you can see her tonight."
Zuko arrived early to his uncle's house. He had gone out earlier to the open market to buy flowers for Lan, and he was dressed in his best uniform. He wanted to make a good impression on her, and on his uncle. He had showered and washed his hair, had brushed it until it shone, and he had arranged it very neatly into his usual queue. He had shined his boots until they shone, too. He looked good, and he knew it. Lan would not be able to resist him. The only thing that marred his perfection were the bruises on his face, which were now purple and yellow. He hoped that she did not notice them, although he knew that was a forlorn hope, at best.
He heard the bell as he entered through the gate, and skipped up to the front door. He gave a lively tattoo on the wood, and waited nervously until his uncle's servant opened the door. The man bowed and allowed Zuko to enter. The prince looked around for Lan, but did not see her.
"This way, please, Your Highness. I will tell General Iroh and Lady Lan Chi that you are here."
The man took Zuko to the sitting room, and Zuko laid the flowers down on a table. He looked around the room. It was familiar, but, tonight, through the eyes of love, it all looked new to him. He paced back and forth, inexplicably nervous. He did not know exactly what to say when he saw Lan, but he wanted to see her desperately. He heard quick footsteps down the stairs, and knew that they did not belong to his uncle. He stopped and faced the stairwell. Lan appeared, looking more beautiful than he had ever seen her, in a green robe, with her hair down around her shoulders, its colors caught in the flickering candlelight. Zuko drew his breath in sharply.
Her face lit up at the sight of him, and she ran lightly into the room, into his waiting arms. His lips covered hers immediately. She sighed deep in her throat as she settled into his embrace. He kissed her hungrily, as if he could not get enough. He finally pulled away after a long time.
"Zuko," she breathed when their mouths parted.
He laid his forehead against hers. "I missed you."
She smiled shyly. "It's been less than twenty-four hours since I last saw you."
"Are you saying you didn't miss me?" His tone was teasing.
She laid her head against his chest and heard his strong, regular heartbeat. "Oh, no. I missed you terribly."
He kissed her again, and steered her towards the small sofa. He sank down with her and leaned back so that she was settled across him. His hands wandered down until they were across her lower back, and he pulled her close against him.
It was then that he remembered his pledge to Iroh, and he reluctantly sat up and put her away from him.
"What is it?" Her eyes were glazed.
"I promised Uncle that we would – restrain ourselves."
Her eyes refocused, and she looked sheepish. "I did too."
"So, he had the same talk with you?"
"Yes." She entangled her hand with his.
"I was about to break my promise."
"We'll try harder next time."
"To break the promise?" He closed his other hand around hers.
She smiled. "No. To keep it."
He caught sight of the flowers on the table, and he reached over to give them to her. "These are for you."
"Zuko! Thank you." She took them from him and brought them to her nose, inhaling their sweet fragrance. "They're beautiful."
He pushed a lock of hair from her face. "So are you."
She turned to look at him, saw the bruises, and gasped. "Zuko! What happened to your face?" She touched his cheek gently, and he flinched.
"Fell down the stairs." There was no way that he was telling her the truth.
"What? When? Are you all right?" Her concern was evident, and his heart swelled.
She kissed his bruised cheek. "Please be more careful."
"I will." He tried to change the subject. "Do you like the flowers?"
"What? Oh, yes. I should put them in water."
"Later." He leaned forward and kissed her again, but he was careful not to touch her, the pledge to his uncle ringing in his ears.
It was good that he was mindful of his word to his uncle, for just then Iroh walked in. He cleared his throat, and they jumped apart and scrambled to their feet.
Iroh gave a small smile. "Good evening, Prince Zuko."
Zuko bowed. "Good evening, Sir."
He turned his attention to his niece. "Ah, what lovely flowers, Lan. Why don't you take them to the kitchen and give them a drink?"
"Yes, Uncle Iroh."
"And mind you go put your hair into order."
"Yes, Sir." With a last, longing look at Zuko, she took the flowers from the room. The prince's eyes followed her.
Iroh settled himself onto the sofa that Zuko and Lan had just vacated. "You wear your heart on your sleeve, you two."
Zuko frowned. "That's bad. If we want to keep this a secret, we must learn to hide our feelings."
"Or never be in the same room with her if anyone else is around."
"It may not be too hard. I only ever see her if I come here."
"True. But you would do well to learn to keep your emotions close. It's a measure of self-control."
"A measure of self-control that I should learn, I suppose."
"Everything that is worth having is difficult to attain, Prince Zuko."
Just then, Lan returned with the flowers in a vase. She set them prominently on a table in the center of the room.
"Perfect." Iroh smiled at her, but found that she was looking at the prince as if he, her uncle, was not in the room. He sighed. "Your hair, Lan Chi?"
She tore her eyes from Zuko. "What? Oh, yes." She smoothed her hair over her shoulder. "I'll be right back."
"We'll go into dinner." He smiled at Zuko. "Shall we, Prince Zuko?"
They walked together into the dining room, and settled down around the low table there, Iroh on one side, Zuko on the other. Lan joined them a few minutes later, out of breath, her hair back in its usual braid. She bowed to Iroh, smiled broadly at Zuko, and slid in next to him. His hand sought hers under the table immediately, and she shot him another smile, shy this time. Iroh watched them with knowing eyes.
"Lan, you know why Prince Zuko is here tonight."
She looked down at her lap. "Yes."
"So, since it seems that you two are of a like mind, we should make plans for your eventual marriage. Of course, you cannot be married until you are sixteen. Since a betrothal of a year is customary, we should make the announcement after Lan reaches fifteen, which, as you know, is more than a year away. That means, of course, that any relationship you have should remain secret until that time. It would not do well for talk about the two of you to circulate around the palace before then. We cannot, of course, stop the talk after your betrothal is announced, but, since you will, at that time, be committed to one another, the talk will be rendered relatively harmless. Do you understand what I am saying?"
They both nodded, and Zuko again took her hand beneath the table.
"There are those who will object to your marriage, of course, due to the fact that you are heir to the throne, Zuko, and to the fact that Lan's mother was not of Fire Nation blood." At this, Lan blushed. "Do not be embarrassed, child. Any objections to your marriage are born out of ignorance and racism, and have no merit. Still, you should be aware that those people will try to make it difficult for you to marry Zuko, and will also try to make you feel inadequate. You should not give them any credence, either of you. There is really only one serious impediment to your marriage, and I will take care of that."
"You're referring to Father." Zuko said quietly.
"Yes. There is much that I can offer Ozai that I believe will bring him around to allowing and accepting your marriage. But you must do your part, Zuko. For the next two years, you must be the model of a perfect son, a perfect prince, and a future monarch. You must resolve yourself to controlling your emotions and practicing self-restraint in all things."
"You must also prove to me that you are worthy of my niece. You must redouble your studies, in self-defense and in learning the ways of governance. Commit yourself to understanding the role you are to play in this world, Zuko. Learn the proper manner of the Fire Lord, so that, when you succeed, you will have the wisdom of knowledge at your disposal."
"Yes, Sir, I shall."
"I think it best that you give up some of your academic studies in the afternoon and begin to assist me in my work. Then, perhaps, when you are older, you can begin assisting your father in his work. That is really the best way to learn the inner workings of the government. Are you amenable to that arrangement?"
"Yes, Sir. When will I get to see Lady Lan Chi?" He shot her a sidelong look.
"When I say, Prince Zuko. Do not think that you are going to have the run of my house, or that you are going to monopolize my niece's time. She must prepare, as well. The life of the Queen of the Fire Nation is not easy." He turned to Lan Chi. "Are you prepared to sacrifice what you must to marry Prince Zuko? Your privacy, the freedom to command your time as your own?"
She nodded. "Oh, yes." Zuko squeezed her hand beneath the table.
Servants brought in the dishes, and they all dug in with gusto. When they had filled their bowls, Iroh continued. "There is much you need to learn, as well, Lady Lan Chi. Madame Nushi can assist you, of course, but it will require more commitment on your part. If you are willing, that is."
"Oh, I am! I am."
"Good. It seems that we are all of a like mind. So, then, shall we turn our attention to this delicious food?"
The food was delicious, and although Lan and Zuko both filled their bowls, neither of them had much of an appetite, nor any desire for talk. Iroh carried the bulk of the conversation, making idle chitchat about the weather, about his boyhood exploits, and about anything he could think of. His audience, however, seemed only to have eyes and ears for each other.
After three-quarters of an hour of a silence loaded with meaningful looks and small smiles, Iroh sighed. "Go!" He pointed at the door.
They both looked at him with astonished expressions. "I beg your pardon?" Lan asked.
"And so you should! Talking to you two tonight is like talking to stones! You're excused from the table."
Lan smiled and stole a look at Zuko. "May we go out to the courtyard, Uncle?"
Iroh looked at them suspiciously. "Why?"
"To talk!" Zuko said eagerly.
"And to kiss, a little." Lan admitted, to Zuko's stunned look.
Iroh smiled. "At least you are honest, Little Duck. Fine. Go."
They jumped up, still holding hands.
"But mind that you both keep your hands to yourselves."
"Yes, Uncle!" Lan said, pulling Zuko from the room.
They barely got out of the door before Zuko stopped and dragged Lan into his arms. The kiss he gave her was wild and hungry, and she was rather startled at its intensity.
She put her hands up between them and turned her head. "Zuko." Her voice was breathy.
He sighed. "Yes. I know. I'm sorry." He gentled his hold and kissed her more softly. "I just lost my head."
She giggled, and slid her arms around his waist. "This is going to be a long year."
"But a good one."
She nodded. "Yes. It will be. I love you."
"I love you, too." He kissed her again, his fingers sliding down her back towards her buttocks.
"Hands!" Uncle Iroh's voice came from the doorway.
Zuko and Lan jumped apart.
"He sees everything," Lan sighed.
"Then let's go where he can't see." He grabbed her hand and pulled her across the courtyard to beneath the cherry tree. The light from the torches was dimmer here, and they were both cast into shadow.
There were several more kisses and hands placed where they shouldn't have been, but after a few minutes, Lan put a stop to it. "You told Uncle that we would talk." She turned her head so Zuko's lips found her cheek.
He sighed, and reluctantly released her. "Fine. Yes. Talk. Let's do that, then." He slid down the trunk of the tree, and patted the spot next to him on the ground. "What should we talk about?"
She sat beside him. "I – I don't know. Tell me about your day, I suppose."
"Really? Tell you about my day?"
"Is something wrong with that?"
He shrugged. "No. I guess not. It's just that – no one ever asks me about my day."
She laughed, certain that he was kidding. "Don't be silly."
He shook his head, and stretched out, laying his head in her lap. "I'm not trying to be. I mean, I don't often see Father – and we never eat dinner together. Just Azula, and she never asks about my day."
She was amazed. "Well, once we are married, I shall ask about your day every day. In fact, I will start now. How was your day?"
He smiled, and brought his thumb up to rub her lower lip, his eyes remaining on her face. "It was very good. One of the best, in fact."
She smiled, as well. "Was it?"
He nodded. "Mm-hmm. I was promised something today that I never thought that I would get."
"And what's that?" She stroked his head.
He smiled roguishly. "The love of my life."
She was touched. She leaned over and kissed him. "I do love you."
"I know." He looked at her for a long moment. "Will you take your hair down?"
"Why not?" He shrugged.
"Take yours down! I've never even seen you with your hair down! I've known you for eight years, and I've even agreed to marry you, and I have never seen you with your hair down. Ever!"
"I'll take mine down if you take yours." He smiled and sat up.
"All right, then." She brought her braid around to the front, untied the ribbon, and began untwisting it, never taking her eyes from him. While she did that, he reached up and untied the band that held his queue, and allowed his hair to fall.
"Your hair is down to your shoulders!" She marveled.
"And yours is down to your waist."
She held one of the springy curls out, as if to gauge its length. "Not quite." She turned back to him. "You look so different."
"Different in a good way or different in a bad way?"
"A good way, obviously." She touched his hair. It was fine, and shiny, and beautiful. "When you're Fire Lord, will you wear it long, like your father, or in a topknot, like Sozin?"
He was thoughtful. "I don't know. Which do you prefer?"
She tilted her head to the side. "I don't know. Long, I think. It's much too pretty to be confined in a topknot."
"Pretty? My hair is not pretty! It's manly, perhaps."
"How can hair be manly?"
"I don't know, but mine is."
"You are being silly now."
"I'm not silly." He grinned at her.
"Just manly?" She grinned back.
"Yes. Manly." He leaned forward, and lifting her hair away from her face with one hand, kissed her gently.
Despite the number of kisses that they had already shared, her heart leapt in her chest. She tentatively threaded her fingers through his hair and cupped his head.
He smiled against her lips, and then sat back. "I see why you shivered last night when I did that. It's rather odd, someone touching your scalp like that."
"Odd in a good way or odd in a bad way?"
"A good way, obviously." He echoed her words from earlier. He lay back down with his head in her lap. "Tell me, how many children do you want?"
She had begun to run her fingers through his hair, but faltered when he finished the question. "Children? How many children do I want?" She turned red, which, luckily, in the dim light, he could not see.
He turned to look at her from below. "You do want children, don't you?"
She was surprised. "I – I suppose so. I guess I hadn't really thought about it." Or about how to get them.
"We'll need to have children, you know. To continue the monarchy. A boy, of course. Or two. Or perhaps three."
She was aghast. "Three boys?"
"And three girls. To keep it even."
"Six children? Six?"
"What's wrong? Too many?"
She could feel heat in her face. "I would say that my limit is four."
He considered that a moment. "I guess that's okay. But we must have two boys. An heir and a spare."
"I am going to pretend that I didn't hear that. I will not have a child as a spare – like an extra wheel for a wagon."
"Two boys and two girls." He spoke as if she had said nothing. "What will we name them? Ursa for our first daughter, of course."
She smiled slightly. "That would be – nice."
"And for the first boy – how about Lu Ten?"
Her smile became wistful. "That would be – very nice. Thank you. Uncle would like that. So would I."
"And the other two – well, we'll come up with those names later. We still have time, after all."
"Yes. We do. All the time in the world."
Zuko finally left that evening, and, although he tried to extract a promise from Iroh that he could return the next day, his uncle refused. "You will be distracted all day tomorrow otherwise. You can come after dinner the day after tomorrow."
"But, Uncle –"
Iroh held up a hand. "No arguments. I will not spend the next two years with you mooning over each other."
"Too late." Zuko smiled and tried to take Lan's hand, but Iroh stepped between them.
"Yes, it is, indeed. Late. Now go."
Zuko gave Lan Chi another intimate smile as Iroh shoved him gently out the door.
He kept the smile on his face as he walked slowly back to his bedchamber, dreams of the next time they met already in his mind.
After he had gone, Iroh turned to Lan Chi with a stern look. "Young lady, we must talk."
She sighed. "I know. I know. Hands to yourself. I tried! Really, I did. He does seem to be all –" she waved her hands at him, then dropped them suddenly. "Sometimes."
"Hmm. Yes. I gathered that. Well, I think I have a solution."
She looked at him warily. "What is your solution?"
He smiled at her beatifically. "A chaperone." He turned for the stairs.
A look of horror came over her face, and she chased after him. "A what?"
He continued up the stairs. "You heard me. A chaperone. Someone who can be in the room with you and Prince Zuko when I am not available."
"Why?" She whined.
"Because Prince Zuko can apparently not keep his head around you."
"He will! He will! I promise that he will!"
Iroh stopped mid-flight, and Lan Chi ran into the back of him. He turned and touched her on the nose affectionately. "It's not a punishment, Little Duck. It's merely a precaution. Besides, you need a lady's maid, so I'll just hire someone who can be both."
"But then she'll know about Zuko and me! And I thought you didn't want anyone to know about us!"
"If I pay her well enough, she will keep all of your secrets." His brow furrowed. "From the rest of the world – not from me, of course."
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Uncle!"
He patted her on the head. "No arguments. It will do no good."
"But, if I promise that we really will behave? Will that change your mind?"
He turned and began climbing the stairs again. "Probably not."
"Ha! But that means it's a possibility?"
"It means that it is bedtime." He gave an exaggerated yawn. "I'm tired." At the top of the stairs, he stopped for her, and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "You must be, too. All that kissing is exhausting."
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