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When Past Meets Present



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Release date

12th March, 2013

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The Spirit was sitting on the same tree, watching, following, influencing.

Time to add a little more terror into the mix, she thought to herself. Enough to infect Her... Hah, this will be fun... When it sinks in...

Iroh was reading the letters. Not all of them, it would take hours to completely go through their correspondence. No, he was going through his favourite letters. He knew this would happen, he knew she would put on a front. He was quite unprepared for the Avatar's reaction, though.

She has changed so much... Is he really going to brush that aside?

Finding the scroll he was looking for, he opened it gently, reading the raised dots with his fingers.

Thank you for helping me with this, Iroh. Now I can actually write what I want instead of dictating it to a maid. I have no idea how much she changes it. I could say I've become a vegetarian, and have a mutant child who can bend wood, and she might change it to 'I've become healthier, and there is a new addition to the family who is "unique"'. Truth be told, it's a little strange, and I've burnt my fingers a few times on the wax, but hey, it's so worth it. Thanks for talking. I sent a message to Yu Dao for Aang, the mayor should pass it onto him within a week. I made sure to include a chart so he could read it. I didn't really want a maid to write one, Dad still is a little uppity whenever I mention the Avatar. Seems to think he was a bad example. Pfft, Aang couldn't convince a badgermole to burrow. I was thinking of going up there to visit, but Dad convinced me to stay. I'll see them in a few weeks anyway. Either he's worried, or he doesn't want me to leave. Probably both. You know what the weird thing is though? I don't really mind. I could slip out if I wanted to, but I don't really. It's only a few weeks until I turn 13 anyway, might as well stay for the party!

Smiling, Iroh returned the scroll to its place on his desk, his hand brushing up against another. He generally refrained from reading that particular one, but perhaps it would give him an idea of how to help. He couldn't stand seeing his young friend in the condition she was in, trying so hard when she shouldn't have to.

Iroh? Have you ever done anything stupid? I don't mean forget a Pai Sho tile, or burn the tea, I mean something really, really bad... I did it to my best friend, too. I do not know if I'll ever talk to Aang again, he was so mad. I know Katara is going to be upset with me, and she's probably already told Sokka and Suki. Katara's birthday is a few weeks after mine—she's throwing a party... I- I can't go... It wouldn't feel right. I feel like I've betrayed them. I mean, how can something so stupid become something so... so bad? I just wanted him to see that there's more to the world than Air Temples and new cities. I've been around to the towns near here, and they're in terrible shape! He shouldn't be focussing so much on the past or the future—people need him in the present... He said something he shouldn't, he brought up Sokka. I know it's in the past, I know he isn't in my future, he has his own. What gives him the right to say stuff like that, though? I- I was angry, okay? I know I said stuff about Katara and Zuko I shouldn't have... That was it. He- he told me to not contact him again... I did, of course, just to say sorry, but I never got a reply. Hawky would come back empty-handed. I don't want to lose him as a friend, but I think it's too late now...

Heart heavy, he returned the letter to its place, jumping slightly when he heard someone enter the tea shop. Moving into the lounge area, he saw his young friend curled up on the couch, crying pitifully.

"Toph? Whatever is the matter? I thought you were having a lovely dinner with your friends?"

She turned to him, hair a mess, her face red and bloated.

"Not my friends, and no dinner. Could I just have some tea?" She could barely keep the tremor from her voice. Iroh looked at her sadly, wanting to ask what had happened. He refrained, though, knowing that she would tell him when she had time to process it. Making the strong, soothing passionflower tea, he made his way back to the earthbender, noting with a small smile that she was no longer crying, although the wrong thing said could push her over the edge again.

"I know I didn't have the chance to tell you earlier, but I am glad you decided to come, Toph, and I know your friends are glad you came," he told her, handing her the sweet tea. He noted, somewhat disappointedly, the look of derision that crossed her face.

"Sure. They miss me. That's why they're so keen on sucking each other's faces and talking about how great everyone else is for 'continuing the good work' after the war," she told him, not even trying to keep the tone of contempt and anger from her voice. Iroh was surprised, to say the least. He had never heard Toph speak so callously about her friends.

"Perhaps you should begin by telling me what happened?" he suggested to her gently, watching her take a small sip of the anti-anxiety tea. At once, the look of anger was wiped from her face, to be replaced by an expression that could only be described as wistful sadness.

"They don't understand... I thought Aang would, at least... I missed them, they won't even listen to me. They forgot me, and moved on."

Iroh looked at her, nodding his head. He knew how much she suffered after the war, being left at her parent's home. Luckily for her, after training the Avatar, her parents accepted who she really was. She had told him though, that it was only because of Aang that the change had happened. She was glad though, that they did choose to try to get to know her. There were compromises on both sides. Curious, the old tea maker asked the most logical question.

"Have you told them of what has happened to you? Why you were unable to visit them? I noticed Aang looking at the scar..." Iroh looked meaningfully at the lighter piece of flesh on her still bared midriff.

"I'm sure you saw wrong. He didn't say anything about it to me... Hah, as if he would." She stopped, and Iroh waited patiently for her to continue. There was another issue she wasn't telling him.

"You know what the people in town said? They didn't recognise me... They just thought I was a blind nobody, attacking the saviour of the world. I felt them get out of the way for Lady Katara, but to them, I was just a poor little girl who hated the Avatar..."

Iroh couldn't believe she had fought with the Avatar. "You attacked Aang?"

"He upset me... I don't hate him or anything. It's just... It's just that Aang was my first friend, and even when I joined the group, he was still my only friend for a while. The rest didn't accept me. They thought I was a stuck up, lazy kid. He never thought so... I don't hate him. I hate myself... I should have visited him, I hold have made more than an effort. And then we had that stupid fight over nothing..." Her eyes had begun to water again, and Iroh refilled her tea cup. He opened his mouth to say something, but she began speaking before he could.

"Sometimes... Sometimes I think that if I had died..." She took an audible breath, shaking slightly. "If I died, no one would care... And sometimes I think that... Maybe it would be good, to get away from it all..."

Iroh's mouth was left hanging open. Toph had admitted to being terrified. She had admitted to the possibility of her not surviving, but never had she told him that she accepted dying—wanted to not survive. At once, he could feel nothing but sympathy and empathy for the lost little girl.

"Toph, you should never think that. You were lucky to survive, the spirits wanted it."

"The spirits wanted me dead in the first place."

"That cannot be true. There are more-" he began to reply before being interrupted by a loud shout.

"Aang! How's the tea coming?"

Iroh saw the look of angry shock on her face, and before he could take her hand, Toph was up and in the doorway to the kitchen, standing stock still. She was looking into the kitchen; he couldn't see her face, but he knew what it would look like. Standing up, he walked over to the doorway and placed a hand gently on Toph's shoulder. He could see Aang sitting on the floor, looking guiltier and guiltier by the second. Katara was standing in the other doorway, a confused expression on her face.

Iroh gently took her hand and lead Toph away. "Are you going to tell them?" "I can't- I can't do this... I don't care, I don't want them to know!" She turned abruptly and half walked-half ran out of the room, trying desperately to stop the onslaught of tears. Iroh shook his head sadly, and turned around to find Aang standing in the recently vacated doorway.

"Iroh...? What's happening to her?"

"It isn't my story to tell. Ask her, I'm sure she would like to talk to you all. Although, one at a time. Do not crowd the poor girl, she has been through more than you know."

Katara had joined her boyfriend in the doorway, hands on his shoulders, and shot Iroh a questioning glance.

"Uh... Katara? I'm uh, I'm going to go ask Toph if she wants some tea..." Aang knew very well that Katara hadn't heard much, and what she would do if she knew what had transpired, both outside the restaurant and what Aang had heard. She reluctantly let go of his shoulders, and watched him trudge outside towards Iroh's house.

Aang really didn't want to be alone with her. He didn't want her to be angry with him, he didn't want her to ignore him, but on the flipside he felt as though he deserved to be ignored, and he knew that Toph knew—she wasn't afraid of ignoring him, especially when he deserved it. But, it was her fault too; so why did he feel this way?

It's because she needed you, and you weren't there
How was I supposed to know she needed me?
By not ignoring her, not letting your pride get in the way
She could have apologised
She may have, you just threw away all the letters
.... Shut up. I'm trying now, aren't I?
Well, make sure you don't screw up again

Aang shook his head, stepping under the eaves of the tea maker's modest but cozy home.

"Toph? Where are you?"

"Go away." Aang heard her voice coming from behind one of the doors of one of the numerous rooms. He approached it, but she yelled out to him again, and he only narrowly managed to avoid the spikes of earth that she sent his way.

"Fine, I'll be in the tea shop if you want anything!" He stormed out, fuming. Didn't she understand that he was trying to make amends? He wanted to help her, wanted to be there to make up for the time that he hadn't been. Why was she making this so difficult?

Storming back into the tea shop, he was met with several shocked and surprised faces.

"She uh, she didn't want any tea..." he mumbled to the floor, not wanting to meet anyone's gaze. Iroh walked up to him slowly and pulled him to the side.

"Perhaps, Avatar, you can have a nice chat with her? It has been a long time." Aang looked at the old man. For some reason, he felt as though it wasn't a suggestion.

"She doesn't want to talk to me, though..."

"Yes, she does. She is going through a difficult time, and she needs her friends. Be a friend to her. The past doesn't matter, what matters is the present, and how it affects the future. Do not let this experience destroy whatever future you have with her."

Aang nodded numbly, ignoring the confused expressions of his friends before turning around and walking back out. Iroh turned to the remaining teenagers.

"Do not worry, little ones. I'll make some tea."

"Actually, I'm feeling a little tired, I'm going to go to bed," Suki spoke to Iroh, but she looked pointedly at Zuko and Mai.

"Oh, uh, yes! Tired- tired! We'll uh, be in bed too." Zuko took Mai's hand and led her from the room, followed closely behind by Suki, who gave Sokka a small encouraging smile.

"Tea for three, then."

This time, there was no internal debate, no arguing with himself. Aang was sure of what he had to do; he just hoped he could without getting hurt. Using his air bending, he softened his footfalls so as not to alert Toph of his approach. He needn't have bothered. As soon as he stepped into the house he could hear her heartbreaking sobs. He could feel his own tears forming and as he gently pushed open her door he felt his own heart breaking. Toph was sitting on Iroh's spacious bed, knees under her chin, curled up into herself shaking and weeping inconsolably. Aang opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it.

"Come to laugh at the poor blind girl, Aang?" She managed to ask between the desolate whimpers.


"Just leave me alone!" She flung her hands out as though trying to strike him, before curling up again tighter than before.

Aang fidgeted slightly. He wanted to help her, wanted to comfort her, but he had no idea how. She was different than Katara—but she was still a girl. Walking slowly up to the bed, he sat down, and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders. She was a girl, a lost little girl who had been forgotten by the one person who she thought would always be there for her.

She fought against him momentarily, but he refused to relinquish his grip. He held her against his chest, arms surrounding her in a tight hug as she began to sob harder onto his tunic.

He shushed her, gently whispering as he kissed her temple and rocked her soothingly against his body.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry Toph. I didn't know. I should have been here, it's my fault."

It didn't matter that he didn't know what was wrong, it didn't matter that they had fought, it didn't matter that she would probably beat the living day lights out of him later. The only thing that mattered was that here and now, she needed him. Hours later, it seemed, although really it could have been only five minutes, Toph's sobs subsided, although he could still see the occasional tear work its way down her face as she continued to shake slightly. Eventually, even those small shakes stopped, and Aang could hear and feel her breathing deeply. Adjusting his position, he found that she had fallen asleep. Gently, so as not to wake her, he lifted her from on top of him and lay her on the bed, tiptoeing out of the room. Closing the door behind him, he slid down to the floor, head in his hands. He didn't know how long he sat there, but he knew he had to move eventually. Standing up slowly, he made his way over to the tea shop, looking up as he moved into the living room. He noticed that Mai and Zuko had both left, and Suki was nowhere to be seen. Shrugging it off, he turned to Iroh.

"She's asleep now," he told Iroh, who nodded appreciatively. Sitting down on one of the lounges, Aang avoided his Water Tribe friends' gazes, not really sure of what happened and unwilling to talk about it. Sokka unfortunately had other plans. "Okay, what the Spirit World was that?" His voice was loud but controlled as he turned to Aang, demanding an answer.

"You know what happened, don't you?" Aang ignored Sokka, instead speaking to Iroh who nodded again.

"Yes, I do," he replied simply. He held up a hand when he noticed Aang about to ask another question.

"I am sorry, Aang, but I cannot tell you. This is her story, and when she wants you to know, she will tell you."

"I don't understand... I didn't think a fight would make her so... so devastated..."

"I'm sorry, Aang... Did she never try to contact you? Try and explain her actions?" The way Iroh asked made Aang think he knew; knew of the events that had transpired a little over two years ago. Hanging his head, he avoided Sokka's piercing gaze, and Katara's angry one. His girlfriend didn't even know!

"She did... I- I ignored it," Aang muttered quietly, shame creeping up his neck to colour his face red.

"What? Aang, what did you do to her?!" Katara had joined in the conversation, worry and anger in her voice. She had moved to hug her boyfriend, but stopped at his ashamed admission.

"Sh, keep it down!" he replied in a subdued whisper, gesturing with his hands. "Perhaps we should move to the living room to discuss this?" Iroh suggested gently before moving into the room himself carrying a tray of tea. Katara and Sokka both shot Aang a look that said 'you're not getting out of this', before following Iroh into the comfortable den. He hesitated only the briefest of moments before moving behind them. Who knew, perhaps this would be the perfect time to get everything out in the open? Hei Bai knows he had held it in long enough. Honestly, he couldn't even remember why.

"So, Aang, what happened?" Straight and to the point. That was just like Sokka, no skirting around the issue. He wanted answers, and he was going to get them.

"Well, we uh, fought..." Aang was reluctant to go into any details. He had kept the reasons for severing communication with Toph a secret. For all Katara and Sokka knew, she had simply stopped writing.

"When?" Katara's voice invaded his thoughts, and he knew he couldn't keep it to himself anymore. This was more than just pride and dignity (which he had none of at that moment). Toph was hurting, and it was his fault—he couldn't get that thought out of his head. Whatever had happened tonight had been the effect of something he had done, he didn't know when, and it may have been indirectly, but it was still his fault.

"... Over two years ago... About five months before she turned fourteen. That's why we didn't go to her party..."

"What party? She cancelled it; we didn't see her at our wedding either, and that was only a few weeks before her birthday..." Sokka interrupted him, his voice a mixture of confusion and anger.

"I thought that- she couldn't wait to see everyone!" Aang didn't realise she had cancelled her party. He had come up with an excuse not to go, and convinced Katara to stay with him—really, he tried to ignore her for as long as possible. They had travelled down to visit Sokka beforehand, making it up to him with a very special gift of an all-you-can-eat coupon for an expensive restaurant in the city they currently found themselves in.

"Well, she didn't show up to my wedding, and as we were about to leave for Gaoling, we got a letter from her parents saying she had fallen ill and that the party was off. We didn't hear from her after that. I mean, we tried! But we never got a response back..." Sokka was slumped tiredly in his chair, looking between Katara and Iroh who were sharing a lounge, and Aang who was standing awkwardly in the doorway.

"Oh, by Koh's Stolen Faces, that's what this is about? Why didn't you tell us, Aang!" Katara cried out. "What could she say that was so terrible you had to ignore her! You're supposed to be about peace and unity!"

"I don- I didn't- she started it!" He tried defending himself, but that seemed to make his friends angrier. Only Iroh was sitting calmly. Oh yeah, the old man knew, she had told him.

"You had to have done something to make her this way. She wouldn't change like this just for the fun of it! You saw how broken she was!" Every accusation plunged the guilt deeper into his stomach—he had to make them understand that it wasn't just his fault. That wasn't really fair; the argument had been the result of both their actions, but it was his fault that she was so- so shattered. So heart-wrenchingly broken.

"She wrote to me... She wanted me- us, you and me, Katara—she wanted us to visit her before the party. I said- I said no, because we were still working on rebuilding the Air Temples and we were needed to start the foundations of Republic City... I told her we would see her soon, but she didn't really listen... She got really angry and upset... She uh, she accused me of living in the past, trying to repair my home, and that I was too focused on the future with the new city..." He gulped, not willing to go on, but knowing he had to.

"What happened next?" Sokka asked, sounding resigned and upset, as though he didn't really want to know the rest but had to in order to make sense of the chaos around him.

"I brought up... I brought up you, Sokka," he answered, his face pained but mercifully free of tears. He had started the story. And now he couldn't stop.

"I said that she was still living in the past... Hung up about you... That she wasn't focusing on the present; she was still hoping she had a future with you..." He saw their faces and cried out before Katara had a chance to yell at him.

"I was going to apologise! I had a letter already written, but then she sent me another one... She said that I shouldn't have mentioned Sokka... I shouldn't be worrying about her love life, I should worry about my own. She said- she said that I should be scared of Katara leaving me for Zuko, because he was more worthy than me... I lost it. I ripped up the letter I had prepared and I sent another one telling her not to contact me. She didn't listen, she kept sending me apologies. I didn't read them, any of them; I threw them over the side of Appa when I was travelling from the Air Temple. I didn't actually think she would turn up here, not after she ignored your wedding."

"She didn't completely ignore it... I mean, I got a letter from her about a month afterwards saying congratulations... But the she didn't send me another one... I kinda got distracted with moving the Warriors, so I didn't really find the time to send her one..."

Katara looked between the two boys and Iroh, who was gently blowing on his tea. "You idiot, Aang!" He boyfriend shrunk under her withering gaze. "You hurt your friend and you lied to me. Do you really think I would leave you for Zuko?!" She glared at him again for emphasis.

"I didn't know it would get like this! I mean, I kept wanting to contact her, but I ran out of time! Do you know how long it takes me to write a letter to her? All the wax and stuff... Anyway, she didn't want anything to do with anyone else! She didn't even go to Sokka's wedding."

"Ah, but you are assuming the reason, Aang," Iroh said quietly, gently blowing on his tea. "Perhaps you should speak with her before you judge her?"

"Why can't you just tell us? At least then we might understand! Toph isn't one to talk bout her feelings..."

"She is hurt. She doesn't trust anyone anymore—especially after she put her faith in someone, and he betrayed her." He looked pointedly at Aang as he said this. "It will take her a while to open up again. You mustn't force her, however. She has been hurt more than you know, Aang. Now, it is getting late. If you wish, you may stay here tonight; although, perhaps it would be best if you give her some time to herself. She isn't used to this anymore." Iroh stood up and took the tray of tea back into the kitchen.

"This?" Aang couldn't stop the question tumbling from his lips. Iroh stopped and turned, giving the saddest smile Aang had ever seen.

"Friends," the old man answered before shuffling out. Aang felt tears prickling at his eyes, and desperately wished them away.

"Aang, I'm going back to the hotel," Katara began. "You, on the other hand are going to stay here and then take Toph out tomorrow. I don't care how this started, I care about how it's going to end. Me and Sokka," she indicated to her brother as she said this. "We're gonna tell everyone that it was nothing, while you treat her, okay? Take her to the zoo or something. Let her know that you want to be friends. Make sure she needs to forgive you, not the other way around."

"Why me?" Aang asked, almost whined to his girlfriend.

"Because you hurt her more than she hurt you..."

Toph slept all through the night—a feat she hadn't accomplished for years. She would have preferred to wake up though, if only to cut the nightmares short. Terrible visions of loneliness and solitude that she hadn't had since before her earthbending days. Waking up in the morning after a less-than-restful night's sleep, it took a while for her to realise why she couldn't see, why her face felt slightly sticky. Remembering that she was on Iroh's bed, she groped her way across the feathered mattress until she found the edge. She could remember what happened last night, her own abhorrent display of weakness. Groaning, she put her hand to her head, before she overbalanced and slipped off the downy quilt. Landing roughly on the floor, she was suddenly able to see everything—including the tall monk curled on the floor in front of the door.

Suddenly, she was overcome with a sense of fear and dread she had only felt once before. Four years ago, she would have kicked him awake, laughing at the unusual position she had found him in. But that was a long time ago. Toph didn't know how to act around them anymore. She didn't want to either, because that would involve getting to know them again. Opening herself up to learn a little of the people who had hurt her so much didn't really appeal to her. Stepping away from the sleeping airbender, she could feel that they were the only ones on the house. She could sense Iroh in the tea shop, lying on one of the stone benches. The heartbeats were fuzzy—he must have laid down a few blankets to soften the hard surface. She couldn't feel anyone else—they must all have returned to their inns and hotels. Quickly making her way through the expansive window, she snuck into the Jasmine Dragon. Walking past the sleeping Iroh, she made her way into the kitchen, using her superior sense of smell to locate the jasmine tea. Preparing a pot (and burning her hands a little on the hot water), she slowly walked over to Iroh and shook him awake.

"I made you some tea... I hope it tastes better than Zuko's." She offered him a wan smile that only accentuated the bags under her eyes and how pale her skin was.

"I'm sure it will be delicious, thank you, Toph," he told her gently as he sat up. She moved to sit next to him, this time making sure to keep her feet on the ground. Iroh watched her with curiosity.

"Anything the matter, Toph?"

"No! Nothing's wrong..."

"Ah," he smiled slightly. "I did not ask if anything was wrong, I asked if anything was the matter. There is a distinct difference, I believe..." He watched as a small smile graced her face at his word play.

"Just... I don't want them to think any less of me... I behaved terribly last night... God, I even needed Aang to comfort me! Ugh... What was he doing in front of my door?"

"Katara kicked him out of their hotel room, and he had nowhere else to go. I'm surprised he didn't collapse on the bed with you, Toph."

Toph glared at the old man, knowing full well that she wouldn't stand for Aang being in the same bed as her.

"You could have woken me up. I would have slept here on the floor. It's more comfortable for me than it is for you."

Iroh smiled at her before taking a sip of the tea. It was definitely better than Zuko's. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he turned back to the earthbender. "What are your plans for today, Toph?" he asked.

"I don't know. Earthbend, avoid everyone, go shopping. Maybe go and visit the zoo? Oh, and I'll avoid everyone." She gave a slight shrug of her shoulders, as if ignoring your friends was the most casual thing to do.

"That does not sound like an earthbender to me. It does not sound like you." "I made an ass of myself last night. I don't want to talk to them about it," she told him bluntly.

"You do not need to talk. They will listen when you do, but they are your friends, and will not force you to say anything you don't want to. They won't make you talk about anything you don't want to. They have missed you, I know it. If you give them a chance, you will know it too."

Toph looked at the old man in surprise. He had never said anything so straightforward to her before. She didn't say anything for a moment, before shaking her head.

"No... It won't make a difference. They're going to behave weird, be on edge around me now. Maybe I should just go home, I've probably ruined this get-together for everyone."

"You can't leave!" Toph started as Aang's voice carried through the room. She had been so caught up with talking to Iroh that she hadn't noticed Aang walking into the room. He rubbed his eyes and sat down on the floor in front of Toph and Iroh. The earthbender slowly lifted her legs off the floor and tucked them under her chin protectively, a position similar to the one she had last night. Aang looked at her curiously, feeling as though he had interrupted something.

"Hey! Do you wanna go to the zoo or something today?" he asked, a smile on his face in anticipation. Toph raised her head slightly, her eyes wide and mouth in a perfect 'o'. Iroh nudged her, and she closed her mouth quickly and looked away. "Don't you wanna go?" Aang questioned her again, peering up underneath the hair covering her eyes.

"I need to go and prepare the shop for trade today," Iroh told the Avatar and the earthbender, leaving the uncomfortable conversation behind. Aang moved from the floor to sit next to Toph, not at all surprised when she tensed next him.

"Toph, please... Let me take you out to get something to eat or... I don't know... Lets go on a flight on Appa..."


"Look, Toph, I get it if you don't trust us, or want to talk to us or- just... I wanna be your friend again..." He looked at his friend plaintively, wanting her to understand how much he hated himself for how he made her feel.

"... I'm- Maybe the zoo?" she said in a small voice, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Aang let his own smile cover his face.

She was hungry. Starving. The Bei Fong girl's initial shock of surprise and fear had worn off and was replaced by anger. And now this. This was the last straw. The trust the girl once held for the Avatar was coming back in, its small but strong tendrils and threatening the existence of the fear the Spirit had taken so much care in installing in her heart. The Spirit needed to blind her, literally. It had taken two years, but now it was time for the torture to begin.

All this waiting and work had better be worth it, she thought sourly.

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