Chapter 23 THE TRUTH
I HAD THE SENSE THAT I'D BEEN ASLEEP FOR A VERY long time��my body was stiff, like I hadn't moved once through all that time, either. My mind was dazed and slow; strange, colorful dreams��dreams and nightmares��swirled dizzily around the inside of my head. They were so vivid. The horrible and the heavenly, all mixed together into a bizarre jumble. There was sharp impatience and fear, both part of that frustrating dream where your feet can't move fast enough�� And there were plenty of monsters, red-eyed fiends that were all the more ghastly for their genteel civility. The dream was still strong��I could even remember the names. But the strongest, clearest part of the dream was not the horror. It was the angel that was most clear.
It was hard to let him go and wake up. This dream did not want to be shoved away into the vault of dreams I refused to revisit. I struggled with it as my mind became more alert, focusing on reality. I couldn't remember what day of the week it was, but I was sure Jacob or school or work or something was waiting for me. I inhaled deeply, wondering how to face another day.
Something cold touched my forehead with the softest pressure.
I squeezed my eyes more tightly shut. I was still dreaming, it seemed, and it felt abnormally real. I was so close to waking�� any second now, and it would be gone.
But I realized that it felt too real, too real to be good for me. The stone arms I imagined wrapped around
me were far too substantial. If I let this go any further, I'd be sorry for it later. With a resigned sigh, I wrenched back my eyelids to dispel the illusion.
"Oh!" I gasped, and threw my fists over my eyes.
Well, clearly, I'd gone too far; it must have been a mistake to let my imagination get so out of hand. Okay, so "let" was the wrong word. I'd forced it to get out of hand��pretty much stalked my hallucinations��and now my mind had snapped.
It took less than half a second for me to realize that, as long as I was truly insane now, I might as well enjoy the delusions while they were pleasant.
I opened my eyes again��and Edward was still there, his perfect face just inches away from mine.
"Did I frighten you?" His low voice was anxious. This was very good, as delusions went. The face, the voice, the scent, everything��it was so much better than drowning. The beautiful figment of my imagination watched my changing expressions, with alarm. His irises were pitch-black, with bruise-like shadows under them. This surprised me; my hallucinatory Edwards were usually better fed.
I blinked twice, desperately trying to remember the last thing that I was sure was real. Alice was part of my dream, and I wondered if she had really come back at all, or if that was just the preamble. I thought she'd returned the day I'd nearly drowned��
"Oh, crap" I croaked. My throat was thick with sleeping.
"What's wrong, Bella?"
I frowned at him unhappily. His face was even more anxious than before.
"I'm dead, right?" I moaned. "I did drown. Crap, crap, crap! This is gonna kill Charlie."
Edward frowned, too. "You're not dead."
"Then why am I not waking up?" I challenged, raising my eyebrows.
"You are awake, Bella."
I shook my head. "Sure, sure. That's what you want me to think. And then it will be worse when I do wake up. If I wake up, which I won't, because I'm dead. This is awful. Poor Charlie. And Renee and Jake��" I trailed off in horror at what I had done.
"I can see where you might confuse me with a nightmare." His short-lived smile was grim. "But I can't imagine what you could have done to wind up in hell. Did you commit many murders while I was away?"
I grimaced. "Obviously not. If I was in hell, you wouldn't be with me."
My head was getting clearer. My eyes flickered away from his face��unwillingly��for one second, to the dark, open window, and then back to him. I started to remember details�� and I felt a faint, unfamiliar blush warm the skin over my cheekbones as I slowly realized that Edward was really, truly here with me, and I was wasting time being an idiot.
"Did all of that really happen, then?" It was almost impossible to reassign my dream as reality. I couldn't wrap my head around the concept.
"That depends." Edward's smile was still hard. "If you're referring to us nearly being massacred in Italy, then, yes."
"How strange," I mused. "I really went to Italy. Did you know I'd never been farther east than Albuquerque?"
He rolled his eyes. "Maybe you should go back to sleep. You're not coherent."
"I'm not tired anymore." It was all coming clear now. "What time is it? How long have I been sleeping?"
"It's just after one in the morning. So, about fourteen hours."
I stretched as he spoke. I was so stiff.
"Charlie?" I asked.
Edward frowned. "Sleeping. You should probably know that I'm breaking the rules right now. Well, not technically, since he said I was never to walk through his door again, and I came in the window�� But, still, the intent was clear."
"Charlie banned you from the house?" I asked, disbelief quickly melting into fury.
His eyes were sad. "Did you expect anything else?"
My eyes were mad. I was going to have a few words with my father��perhaps it would be a good time to remind him that I was over the legal age of adulthood. It didn't matter so much, of course, except in principle. All too soon there would be no reason for the prohibition. I turned my thoughts to less painful avenues.
"What's the story?" I asked, genuinely curious, but also trying desperately to keep the conversation casual, to keep a firm grip on myself, so I wouldn't scare him away with the frantic, gnawing craving that was raging inside me.
"What do you mean?"
"What am I telling Charlie? What's my excuse for disappearing for�� how long was I gone, anyway?" I tried to count the hours in my head.
"Just three days." His eyes tightened, but he smiled more naturally this time. "Actually, I was hoping you might have a good explanation. I've got nothing."
I groaned. "Fabulous."
"Well, maybe Alice will come up with something," he offered, trying to comfort me.
And I was comforted. Who cared what I had to deal with later? Every second that he was here��so close, his flawless face glowing in the dim light from the numbers on my alarm clock��was precious and not to be wasted.
"So," I began, picking the least important��though still vitally interesting��question to start with. I was safely delivered home, and he might decide to leave at any moment. I had to keep him talking. Besides, this temporary heaven wasn't entirely complete without the sound of his voice. "What have you been doing, up until three days ago?"
His face turned wary in an instant. "Nothing terribly exciting."
"Of course not," I mumbled.
"Why are you making that face?"
"Well��" I pursed my lips, considering. "If you were, after all, just a dream, that's exactly the kind of thing you would say. My imagination must be used up."
He sighed. "If I tell you, will you finally believe that you're not having a nightmare?"
"Nightmare!" I repeated scornfully. He waited for my answer. "Maybe," I said after a second of thought. "If you tell me."
"I was�� hunting."
"Is that the best you can do?" I criticized. "That definitely doesn't prove I'm awake."
He hesitated, and then spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. "I wasn't hunting fot food�� I was actually trying my hand at�� tracking. I'm not very good at it."
"What were you tracking?" I asked, intrigued.
"Nothing of consequence." His words didn't match his expression; he looked upset, uncomfortable.
"I don't understand."
He hesitated; his face, shining with an odd green cast from the light of the clock, was torn.
"I��" He took a deep breath. "I owe you an apology. No, of course I owe you much, much more than that. But you have to know,"��the words began to flow so fast, the way I remembered he spoke sometimes when he was agitated, that I really had to concentrate to catch them all��"that I had no idea. I didn't realize the mess I was leaving behind. I thought it was safe for you here. So safe. I had no idea that Victoria,"��his lips curled back when he said the name��"would come back. I'll admit, when I saw her that one time, I was paying much more attention to James's thoughts. But I just didn't see that she had this kind of response in her. That she even had such a tie to him. I think I realize why now��she was so sure of him, the thought of him failing never occurred to her. It was her overconfidence that clouded her feelings about him��that kept me from seeing the depth of them, the bond there.
"Not that there's any excuse for what I left you to face. When I heard what you told Alice��what she saw herself��when I realized that you had to put your life in the hands of werewolves, immature, volatile, the worst thing out there besides Victoria herself��he shuddered and the gush of words halted for a short second. "Please know that I had no idea of any of this. I feel sick, sick to my core, even now, when I can see and feel you safe in my arms. I am the most miserable excuse for��"
"Stop," I interrupted him. He stared at me with agonized eyes, and I tried to find the right words��the words that would free him from this imagined obligation that caused him so much pain. They were very hard words to say. I didn't know if I could get them out without breaking down. But I had to try to do it right. I didn't want to be a source of guilt and anguish in his life. He should be happy, no matter what it cost me.
I'd really been hoping to put off this part of our last conversation. It was going to bring things to an end so much sooner.
Drawing on all my months of practice with trying to be normal for Charlie, I kept my face smooth.
"Edward," I said. His name burned my throat a little on the way out. I could feel the ghost of the hole, waiting to rip itself wide again as soon as he disappeared. I didn't quite see how I was going to survive it this time. "This has to stop now. You can't think about things that way. You can't let this�� this guilt�� rule your life. You can't take responsibility for the things that happen to me here. None of it is your fault, it's just part of how life is for me. So, if I trip in front of a bus or whatever it is next time, you have to realize that it's not your job to take the blame. You can't just go running off to Italy because you feel bad that you didn't save me. Even if I had jumped off that cliff to die, that would have been my choice, and not your fault. I know it's your�� your nature to shoulder the blame for everything, but you really can't let that make you go to such extremes! It's very irresponsible��think of Esme and Carlisle and��"
I was on the edge of losing it. I stopped to take a deep breath, hoping to calm myself. I had to set him free. I had to make sure this never happened again.
"Isabella Marie Swan," he whispered, the strangest expression crossing his face. He almost looked mad. "Do you believe that I asked the Volturi to kill me because I felt guilty?"
I could feel the blank incomprehension on my face. "Didn't you?"
"Feel guilty? Intensely so. More than you can comprehend."
"Then�� what are you saying? I don't understand."
"Bella, I went to the Volturi because I thought you were dead," he said, voice soft, eyes fierce. "Even if I'd had no hand in your death"��he shuddered as he whispered the last word��"even if it wasn't my fault, I would have gone to Italy. Obviously, I should have been more careful��I should have spoken to Alice directly, rather than accepting it secondhand from Rosalie. But, really, what was I supposed to think when the boy said Charlie was at the funeral? What are the odds?
"The odds��" he muttered then, distracted. His voice was so low I wasn't sure I beard it right. "The odds are always stacked against us. Mistake after mistake. I'll never criticize Romeo again."
"But I still don't understand," I said. "That's my whole point. So what?"
"So what if I was dead?"
He stared at me dubiously for a long moment before answering. "Don't you remember anything I told you before?"
"I remember everything that you told me." Including the words that had negated all the rest.
He brushed the tip of his cool finger against my lower lip. "Bella, you seem to be under a misapprehension." He closed his eyes, shaking his head back and forth with half a smile on his beautiful face. It wasn't a happy smile. "I thought I'd explained it clearly before. Bella, I can't live in a world where you don't exist."
"I am��" My head swam as I looked for the appropriate word. "Confused." That worked. I couldn't make sense of what he was saying.
He stared deep into my eyes with his sincere, earnest gaze. "I'm a good liar, Bella, I have to be."
I froze, my muscles locking down as if for impact. The fault line in my chest rippled; the pain of it took my breath away.
He shook my shoulder, trying to loosen my rigid pose. "Let me finish! I'm a good liar, but still, for you to believe me so quickly." He winced. "That was�� excruciating."
I waited, still frozen.
"When we were in the forest, when I was telling you goodbye��"
I didn't allow myself to remember. I fought to keep myself in the present second only.
"You weren't going to let go," he whispered. "I could see that. I didn't want to do it��it felt like it would kill me to do it��but I knew that if I couldn't convince you that I didn't love you anymore, it would just take you that much longer to get on with your life. I hoped that, if you thought I'd moved on, so would you."
"A clean break," I whispered through unmoving lips.
"Exactly. But I never imagined it would be so easy to do! I thought it would be next to impossible��that you would be so sure of the truth that I would have to lie through my teeth for hours to even plant the seed of doubt in your head. I lied, and I'm so sorry��sorry because I hurt you, sorry because it was a worthless effort. Sorry that I couldn't protect you from what I an. I lied to save you, and it didn't work. I'm sorry.
"But how could you believe me? After all the thousand times I've told you I love you, how could you let one word break your faith in me?"
I didn't answer. I was too shocked to form a rational response.
"I could see it in your eyes, that you honestly believed that I didn't want you anymore. The most absurd, ridiculous concept��as if there were anu way that I could exist without needing you!"
I was still frozen. His words were incomprehensible, because they were impossible.
He shook my shoulder again, not hard, but enough that my teeth rattled a little.
"Bella," he sighed. "Really, what were you thinking!"
And so I started to cry. The tears welled up and then gushed miserably down my cheeks.
"I knew it," I sobbed. "I knew I was dreaming."
"You're impossible," he said, and he laughed once��a hard laugh, frustrated. "How can I put this so that you'll believe me? You're not asleep, and you're not dead. I'm here, and I love you. I have always loved you, and I will always love you. I was thinking of you, seeing your face in my mind, every second that I was away. When I told you that I didn't want you, it was the very blackest kind of blasphemy."
I shook my head while the tears continued to ooze from the corners of my eyes.
"You don't believe me, do you?" he whispered, his face paler than his usual pale��I could see that even in the dim light. "Why can you believe the lie, but not the truth?"
"It never made sense for you to love me," I explained, my voice breaking twice. "I always knew that."
His eyes narrowed, his jaw tightened.
"I'll prove you're awake," he promised.
He caught my face securely between his iron hands, ignoring my struggles when I tried to turn my head away.
"Please don't," I whispered.
He stopped, his lips just half an inch from mine.
"Why not?" he demanded. His breath blew into my face, making my head whirl.
"When I wake up"��He opened his mouth to protest, so I revised��"okay, forget that one��when you leave again, it's going to be hard enough without this, too."
He pulled back an inch, to stare at my face.
"Yesterday, when I would touch you, you were so�� hesitant, so careful, and yet still the same. I need to know why. Is it because I'm too late? Because I've hurt you too much? Because you have moved on, as I meant for you to? That would be�� quite fair. I won't contest your decision. So don't try to spare my feelings, please��just tell me now whether or not you can still love me, after everything I've done to you. Can you?" he whispered.
"What kind of an idiotic question is that?"
"Just answer it. Please."
I stared at him darkly for a long moment. "The way I feel about you will never change. Of course I love you��and there's nothing you can do about it!"
"That's all I needed to hear."
His mouth was on mine then, and I couldn't fight him. Not because he was so many thousand times stronger than me, but because my will crumbled into dust the second our lips met. This kiss was not quite as careful as others I remembered, which suited me just fine. If I was going to rip myself up further, I might as well get as much in trade as possible.
So I kissed him back, my heart pounding out a jagged, disjointed rhythm while my breathing turned to panting and my fingers moved greedily to his face. I could feel his marble body against every line of mine, and I was so glad he hadn't listened to me��there was no pain in the world that would have justified missing this. His hands memorized my face, the same way mine were tracing his, and, in the brief seconds when his lips were free, he whispered my name.
When I was starting to get dizzy, he pulled away, only to lay his ear against my heart.
I lay there, dazed, waiting for my gasping to slow and quiet.
"By the way," he said in a casual tone. "I'm not leaving you."
I didn't say anything, and he seemed to hear skepticism in my silence.
He lifted his face to lock my gaze in his. "I'm not going anywhere. Not without you," he added more seriously.
"I only left you in the first place because I wanted you to have a chance at a normal, happy, human life. I could see what I was doing to you��keeping you constantly on the edge of danger, taking you away from the world you belonged in, risking your life every moment I was with you. So I had to try. I had to do something, and it seemed like leaving was the only way. If I hadn't thought you would be better off, I
could have never made myself leave. I'm much too selfish. Only you could be more important than what I wanted�� what I needed. What I want and need is to be with you, and I know I'll never be strong enough to leave again. I have too many excuses to stay��thank heaven for that! It seems you can't be safe, no matter how many miles I put between us."
"Don't promise me anything," I whispered. If I let myself hope, and it came to nothing�� that would kill me. Where all those merciless vampires had not been able to finish me off, hope would do the job.
Anger glinted metallic in his black eyes. "You think I'm lying to you now?"
"No��not lying." I shook my head, trying to think it through coherently. To examine the hypothesis that he did love me, while staying objective, clinical, so I wouldn't fall into the trap of hoping. "You could mean it�� now. But what about tomorrow, when you think about all the reasons you left in the first place? Or next month, when Jasper takes a snap at me?"
I thought back over those last days of my life before he left me, tried to see them through the filter of what he was telling me now. From that perspective, imagining that he'd left me while loving me, left me for me, his brooding and cold silences took on a different meaning. "It isn't as if you hadn't thought the first decision through, is it?" I guessed. "You'll end up doing what you think is right."
"I'm not as strong as you give me credit for," he said. "Right and wrong have ceased to mean much to me; I was coming back anyway. Before Rosalie told me the news, I was already past trying to live through one week at a time, or even one day. I was fighting to make it through a single hour. It was only a matter of time��and not much of it��before I showed up at your window and begged you to take me back. I'd be happy to beg now, if you'd like that."
I grimaced. "Be serious, please."
"Oh, I am," he insisted, glaring now. "Will you please try to hear what I'm telling you? Will you let me attempt to explain what you mean to me?"
He waited, studying my face as he spoke to make sure I was really listening.
"Before you, Bella, my life was like a moonless night. Very dark, but there were stars��points of light and reason�� And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. When you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn't see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason for anything."
I wanted to believe him. But this was my life without him that he was describing, not the other way around.
"Your eyes will adjust," I mumbled.
"That's just the problem��they can't."
"What about your distractions?"
He laughed without a trace of humor. "Just part of the lie, love. There was no distraction from the�� the agony. My heart hasn't beat in almost ninety years, but this was different. It was like my heart was gone��like I was hollow. Like I'd left everything that was inside me here with you."
"That's funny," I muttered.
He arched one perfect eyebrow. "Funny? "
"I meant strange��I thought it was just me. Lots of pieces of me went missing, too. I haven't been able to really breathe in so long." I filled my lungs, luxuriating in the sensation. "And my heart. That was definitely lost."
He closed his eyes and laid his ear over my heart again. I let my cheek press against his hair, felt the texture of it on my skin, smelled the delicious scent of him.
"Tracking wasn't a distraction then?" I asked, curious, and also needing to distract myself. I was very much in danger of hoping. I wouldn't be able to stop myself for long. My heart throbbed, singing in my chest.
"No." He sighed. "That was never a distraction. It was an obligation."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that, even though I never expected any danger from Victoria, I wasn't going to let her get away with�� Well, like I said, I was horrible at it. I traced her as far as Texas, but then I followed a false lead down to Brazil��and really she came here." He groaned. "I wasn't even on the right continent! And all the while, worse than my worst fears��"
"You were hunting Victoria?" I half-shrieked as soon as I could find my voice, shooting through two octaves.
Charlie's distant snores stuttered, and then picked up a regular rhythm again.
"Not well," Edward answered, studying my outraged expression with a confused look. "But I'll do better this time. She won't be tainting perfectly good air by breathing in and out for much longer."
"That is�� out of the question," I managed to choke out. Insanity. Even if he had Emmett or Jasper help him. Even if he had Emmett and Jasper help. It was worse than my other imaginings: Jacob Black standing across a small space from Victoria's vicious and feline figure. I couldn't bear to picture Edward there, even though he was so much more durable than my half-human best friend.
"It's too late for her. I might have let the other time slide, but not now, not after��"
I interrupted him again, trying to sound calm. "Didn't you just promise that you weren't going to leave?" I asked, fighting the words as I said them, nor letting them plant themselves in my heart. "That isn't exactly compatible with an extended tracking expedition, is it?"
He frowned. A snarl began to build low in his chest. "I will keep my promise, Bella. But Victoria"��the snarl became more pronounced��"is going to die. Soon."
"Let's not be hasty," I said, trying to hide my panic. "Maybe she's not coming back. Jake's pack probably scared her off. There's really no reason to go looking for her. Besides, I've got bigger problems than Victoria."
Edward's eyes narrowed, but he nodded. "It's true. The werewolves are a problem."
I snorted. "I wasn't talking about Jacob. My problems are a lot worse that a handful of adolescent wolves getting themselves into trouble."
Edward looked as if he were about to say something, and then thought better of it. His teeth clicked together, and he spoke through them. "Really?" he asked. "Then what would be your greatest problem? That would make Victoria's returning for you seem like such an inconsequential matter in comparison?"
"How about the second greatest?" I hedged.
"All right," he agreed, suspicious.
I paused. I wasn't sure I could say the name. "There are others who are coming to look for me," I reminded him in a subdued whisper.
He sighed, but the reaction was not as strong as I would have imagined after his response to Victoria.
"The Volturi are only the second greatest?"
"You don't seem that upset about it," I noted.
"Well, we have plenty of time to think it through. Time means something very different to them than it does to you, or even me. They count years the way you count days. I wouldn't be surprised if you were thirty before you crossed their minds again," he added lightly.
Horror washed through me.
So his promises meant nothing, in the end. If I were going to turn thirty someday, then he couldn't be planning on staying long. The harsh pain of this knowledge made me realize that I'd already begun to hope, without giving myself permission to do 5.0.
"You don't have to be afraid," he said, anxious as he watched the tears dew up again on the rims of my eyes. "I won't let them hurt you."
"While you're here." Not that I cared what happened to me when he left.
He took my face between his two stone hands, holding it tightly while his midnight eyes glared into mine with the gravitational force of a black hole. "I will never leave you again."
"But you said thirty," I whispered. The tears leaked over the edge. "What? You're going to stay, but let me get all old anyway? Right."
His eyes softened, while his mouth went hard. "That's exactly what I'm going to do. What choice have I? I cannot be without you, but I will not destroy your soul."
"Is this really��" I tried to keep my voice even, but this question was too hard. I remembered his face when Aro had almost begged him to consider making me immortal. The sick look there. Was this fixation with keeping me human really about my soul, or was it because he wasn't sure that he wanted me around that long?
"Yes?" he asked, waiting for my question.
I asked a different one. Almost��but not quite��as hard.
"But what about when I get so old that people think I'm your mother? Your grandmother?" My voice was pale with revulsion��I could see Gran's face again in the dream mirror.
His whole face was soft now. He brushed the tears from my cheek with his lips. "That doesn't mean anything to me," he breathed against my skin. "You will always be the most beautiful thing in my world. Of course��" He hesitated, flinching slightly. "If you outgrew me��if you wanted something more��I would understand that, Bella. I promise I wouldn't stand in your way if you wanted to leave me."
His eyes were liquid onyx and utterly sincere. He spoke as if he'd put endless amounts of thought into this asinine plan.
"You do realize that I'll die eventually, right?" I demanded.
He'd thought about this part, too. "I'll follow after as soon as I can."
"That is seriously��"I looked for the right word. "Sick."
"Bella, it's the only right way left��"
"Let's just back up for a minute," I said; feeling angry made it so much easier to be clear, decisive. "You do remember the Volturi, right? I can't stay human forever. They'll kill me. Even if they don't think of me tillI'm thirty"��I hissed the word��"do you really think they'll forget?"
"No," he answered slowly, shaking his head. "They won't forget. But��"
He grinned while I stared at him warily. Maybe I wasn't the only crazy one.
"I have a few plans."
"And these plans," I said, my voice getting more acidic with each word. "These plans all center around me staying human."
My attitude hardened his expression. "Naturally." His tone was brusque, his divine face arrogant.
We glowered at each other for a long minute.
Then I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, I pushed his arms away so that I could sit up.
"Do you want me to leave?" he asked, and it made my heart flutter to see that this idea hurt him, though he tried not to show it.
"No," I told him. "I'm leaving."
He watched me suspiciously as I climbed out of the bed and fumbled around in the dark room, looking for my shoes.
"May I ask where you are going.'" he asked.
"I'm going to your house," I told him, still feeling around blindly.
He got up and came to my side. "Here are your shoes. How did you plan to get there?"
"That will probably wake Charlie," he offered as a deterrent.
I sighed. "I know. But honestly, I'll be grounded for weeks as it is. How much more trouble can I really
"None. He'll blame me, not you."
"If you have a better idea, I'm all ears."
"Stay here," he suggested, but his expression wasn't hopeful.
"No dice. But you go ahead and make yourself at home," I encouraged, surprised at how natural my teasing sounded, and headed for the door.
He was there before me, blocking my way.
I frowned, and turned for the window. It wasn't really that far to the ground, and it was mostly grass beneath��
"Okay," he sighed. "I'll give you a ride."
I shrugged. "Either way. But you probably should be there, too."
"And why is that?"
"Because you're extraordinarily opinionated, and I'm sure you'll want a chance to air your views."
"My views on which subject?" He asked through his teeth.
"This isn't just about you anymore. You're not the center of the universe, you know." My own personal universe was, of course, a different story. "If you're going to bring the Volturi down on us over something as stupid as leaving me human, then your family ought to have a say."
"A say in what?" he asked, each word distinct.
"My mortality. I'm putting it to a vote."
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