September 15, 2000
Category: Star Wars, PG
Author: FernWithy

[Disclaimer]

Last Encounter

Author's note: This story takes place in the same interpretation of the SW universe as my "Father's Heart" stories. This one will undoubtedly be contradicted by Uncle George within six years - I usually stay away from the things I think he might breathe on, but I just wanted to write this.


Alderaan.

Her fine hair was getting long, and all her teeth had been cut. She'd switched from baby supplements to softened adult foods. She was dressed in tiny dresses instead of buntings. She was beginning to look less like a baby, and more like a little girl.

Amidala didn't know precisely how to feel about that. She thought perhaps she was supposed to feel regret, but instead, there was a fierce pride. Leia was not only a little girl these days -- she was a beautiful and smart little girl, and Amidala had managed to live to see it. Every day that she woke up, she wondered if it would be her last, if Palpatine would find an excuse to drag her before him, if she would need to... to stop her mind from working before it revealed anything to him. To stop her heart from beating before it betrayed her children.

"Pwetty," Leia cooed, poking her fingers through Amidala's single long braid, then tugged at her own hair. "Mine?"

Amidala shook her head, and smiled as well as she could. "My Leia hasn't got quite enough hair for a braid yet. Almost. Do you want a pretty ribbon instead?"

Leia nodded enthusiastically, and Amidala set about finding a ribbon soft enough for Leia to wear, and coarse enough to keep from slipping out of her hair in a few seconds. She had pulled her trunk out here onto the balcony, because Leia liked to play with the bright trinkets in it from time to time, so of course, as soon as she opened it, Leia was rummaging through it herself, pulling things this way and that.

She wondered what Luke was like now. She nearly always found herself fighting the urge to just "sneak" a visit to Owen and Beru on Tatooine. If she'd only had them adopt him, take their name, maybe she could have. As it was, she could only bring him to harm. He would call out like a beacon, according to Obi-Wan; if Ani somehow followed her to him...

Leia, on the other hand, had a natural blocking ability. Yoda had tried to read her when Amidala had learned she was carrying twins, and had been pushed away. "Privacy, this one enjoys," he'd commented dryly. "The other speaks loudly." She had developed into a child who spoke frequently, if not always clearly, but when she decided she was going to keep a secret, nothing and no one could pry it from her. She'd hidden one of Amidala's shoes last month, and no one had found it yet. She smiled smugly when asked about it. She was proud of this talent.

"Pwetty bibbon!" Leia said insistently, tugging on the blue ribbon that Amidala realized she'd been holding in midair for quite awhile without moving.

"Yes, of course, my little one." Amidala tied the ribbon securely around Leia's head, then let her toddle over to the window to admire herself in the faint reflection on the glass.

There was a laugh at the doorway, and Sache came in. "We'll get her a bit of facepaint," she said, "and draw on a beauty mark, and in a couple of years, she'll be Queen."

"I don't wish that job on her."

Sache sat down on the railing. She had looked weak for a long time after her miscarriage two years ago, but she was beginning to get her strength back. She often took Leia out publicly. After such a difficult pregnancy, the people of Alderaan were happy to see both Sache and the child they assumed had come from it looking so well. So far, Leia had not called either of them "Mother," and Amidala was not looking forward to the day she had to watch that title go to her handmaiden. "It's a beautiful day," Sache said, offering a smile. "What do you say, Your Majesty, shall we ride in the countryside? The three ladies of Naboo off on an adventure?"

Amidala was touched by the effort to include her in normal life, but hadn't the heart for it. "Leia will be a lady of Alderaan. And this lady of Naboo is otherwise -- "

She was cut short by an explosive sound in the entrance hall. Sache was off the railing and at the door in a fraction of a second, and back onto the patio in even less time. "It's Ani," she whispered urgently. "Amidala, it's Ani. He's pushed in the forcefield somehow and -- "

Amidala grabbed Leia, and ran toward the door. Sache stopped her. "He's at the end of this hall, Amidala. Bail is holding him, but you know he can't hold him long. If you move, he'll see you."

Amidala's eyes scanned the balcony frantically. Why had she trapped herself here? The drop over the railing was steep, the door was the only way in or out. She could hear Ani outside, the terrible sound of the mechanical breathing that had replaced his poor lungs. He hadn't mastered the use of the vocoder yet, and his speech was oddly broken.

"I want... my... wife."

Then Bail, ineffectual. "Why do you have reason to believe she's here, Anakin?"

"Not.... my name. Vader."

"My apologies, Lord Vader...."

Amidala tuned out the rest. She needed a solution, quickly. Ani was moving down the hallway, a step at a time. He would find them here. If he saw Leia with Sache alone, he might assume what all of Alderaan assumed. But if he sees her with me...

She shuddered, and her eyes darted to Leia, who had jumped at the noise, but now had wriggled out of her arms and gone back to the more interesting diversion of the trunk.

The trunk!

Amidala swept her up, and placed her carefully among the folded state gowns.

"What are you doing?" Sache whispered harshly.

"He'll see her. He can't miss his own -- "

"Obi-Wan told you that she can -- "

"I don't care! I won't take chances! I have to hide her. He may not recognize her alone, but he'll know if she's with me. I can't hide it, not in my eyes, not with her here."

Sache glanced nervously toward the door. Ani's voice was closer now.

"Know she's... here... tell me, Organa, or... I'll tear the... place down."

Amidala urged Leia to lie down.

"It's so small, too small," Sache said, with obvious concern. "She'll be frightened... "

"She'll be all right. Won't you, my brave little one?" Amidala was finally able to soothe her down into the cushion of the clothes. She had to close the lid, but she could barely bring herself to do it. She caressed Leia's face. Ani was only a few steps away now, just out of earshot for a whisper. "Be strong and still, little one. You have your father's heart and your mother's love. Don't be afraid."

She closed the trunk.

Ani came around the edge of the door, and Amidala gasped. She hadn't seen him since he was released from the hospital (too early, according to the medics). He was wrapped almost entirely in the large-hooded cloak of the Sith, and the lower half of his face was encased in a metallic breath mask. She could see a strip of badly burned skin between the top of the mask and the bottom of the hood, and the scarred-over lightsaber wound on his cheek. And she could see his demon-haunted eyes, nearly glowing back there in the darkness.

And yet, they were his eyes, the same eyes that had met hers across the shadows of Watto's junk shop so long ago. She could not mistake them.

"Hello, Ani," she said, glancing at Sache, then at the trunk, and hoping Sache's long experience as a handmaiden would let her interpret the point.

Anakin said nothing. He looked stonily at Sache, waiting for her to leave.

Sache nodded. "I'll take your trunk back to your room, my lady," she said, and picked it up. Amidala prayed that Leia would remember to be still, just a little while longer.

Did Ani's eyes linger on it? Did he sense something? Was she calling to him in some way?

Amidala had no way of knowing. For a moment, she thought something had flashed across Ani's face, but then both Sache and the trunk were gone, and he seemed to forget about it.

Amidala took a deep breath, and reached out to him, pushing her hands into the folds of his hood, gently lowering it away from his head. His hair had been burned away; his skull and face were a network of scars and burns. He averted his eyes, looking at the floor, over the rail, anywhere that wouldn't reflect... and anywhere except to her. She waited patiently for him to see that she was not running in horror. After awhile, he did. His eyes finally rose to hers, and the pain inside them was far deeper than the pain of his wounds.

She looked at him, her heart breaking at the ruin of his body and soul. She remembered the sunrise playing across his face, the feel of his warm hands on her back, his voice whispering in her ear. "Oh, Ani," she sighed. She knew she had nothing to fear from him, no matter what name she used. He would always be Ani to her... in his mind as much as in her own. She knew this. So even if she had been inclined to concede to the Sith in the matter of his name, it would never be real to either of them. She stood on her toes, and kissed the burned skin just above the breath mask, then took his broken hand, and held it to her cheek, needing his touch more desperately than she remembered needing anything else. "My poor Ani."

He looked at her wordlessly and helplessly. Whoever this Other was, this Vader he had become, seemed to recede, and he was the same small boy he had been, shivering in the cold of space, and the same man he had been, holding her gently in the starlight.

But still... she could not forget the blood on his hands. Innocent blood, spilled in rage and hate. She couldn't forget that he'd sold his soul, whatever his reasons for doing so. She couldn't afford to forget that. She had other people to think about now. She let him go -- the cold that separated them chilled her -- and walked to the rail, looking out over the hills of Alderaan.

The pneumatics. Inhale, exhale. Steady and hypnotic. They kept him alive, yet they were the very sound of death. Inhale. "Our child?" he asked on an exhalation. "Where?" His eyes had drifted down to her gown; the last time he had seen her, it had not lain so flat against her.

She closed her eyes. How could she tell this lie? A part of her mind railed against it, begged her to remember that it wasn't too late, that Anakin would return to her, for love of his children, that...

That Anakin no longer existed in any meaningful way outside this room, and he was in thrall to a man who would slaughter both the children without a second thought. Ani wouldn't want it or wish it, but he wouldn't stop it, either. Or at least he probably wouldn't. It was too much to gamble. "I lost our child, Ani," she said quietly.

It wasn't a lie. She didn't dare lie to him; he would know. And she had lost Luke, forever. She would never know... The grief overwhelmed her. She hadn't meant it as a protection, but it served her well. Anakin felt it, and believed her.

She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, mostly metal, with a tiny bit of flesh clinging to the base of the thumb. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. "I, too. I lost him."

She could bear it no longer. Ani was the only person in the galaxy who could share this pain with her, the only one to whom it mattered as much. Obi-Wan and Sache and Bail and Owen and Beru... they could make sympathetic noises, but only Ani had lost what she had lost. Or was it more, because he had lost even the knowledge of his children? Or less, because he didn't need to wonder?

She turned to him, and slipped easily into his embrace. "Yes," she said. "I know."

He held her tightly, and stroked her hair as he always had. How she longed for him! And when he spoke, in that deep, broken voice -- "Come with me. Come, my love" -- it took all her strength to pull away from him.

She turned away. "There are places I cannot follow you, Ani."

"Yes," he said. "I know."

She didn't know how long they stood on the balcony without speaking, without only the obscene sound of the pneumatics filling the empty space between them. Without warning, he turned and left. She didn't watch him go.

***

Tattooine, two weeks later.

I have no business being here, Amidala thought, pulling the speeder toward the Lars farm. She was dressed as a trader, and had acquired a sales kit in Mos Espa. She'd seen no one resembling an agent. Nor had she seen Obi-Wan, who was a bigger concern. Obi-Wan would undoubtedly stop her.

Amidala didn't intend to be stopped.

She had hoped vaguely that seeing Ani would make things better, that she'd be able to let go, to mourn as a widow, then to get on with her life somehow. But it hadn't happened. Instead, she had discovered that she was still tied to him, still his wife, still...

Her heart wrenched inside of her. She had thought that she would be able to devote her life to Luke and Leia now, protecting them from a distance, focusing on them, letting them grow up into the light. Let Anakin go... the best part of him will survive in the children. In seeing him, though, she knew that part of him -- that same good, strong part of him that she had always loved -- still survived in his heart. Somewhere, buried under the horrors.

Buried alive.

She could no more turn her back on Ani now than she could will herself to stop breathing. He needed her help, had cried out for it from the bottom of his soul by the very act of coming here; he was far beyond helping himself now, and he knew it.

Sache and Bail had tried to stop her when she'd left, too, and she knew they both thought that she had finally lost her mind (she could almost hear the whispered conversations ending with "it was bound to happen someday"). But she also thought they wanted to be convinced; they knew as well as she did that as long as she stayed on Alderaan, she would draw danger to them.

And to Leia.

Walking out of the nursery had been the hardest thing she had ever done.

But she had done it. She couldn't bear to think about it any more.

There was only one stop to be made on the way to Coruscant, and it was here. Amidala knew well that this voyage might be her last -- if she failed it certainly would be, and if she succeeded... well, even then, she had only a vague chance at seeing her family together. She didn't want to die without at least seeing her son one more time.

And bring that danger here? Leave a pebble trail right to him? You know better.

But she had been careful, travelling a circuitous route from Alderaan to Sullust, and from Sullust to Corellia, where a local boy had helped her find a transport that would be somewhat less than meticulous in its record-keeping. The transport had stopped several times on its way to Mos Espa (she had hoped to find strength and memories there, to fortify her for the task she'd set herself; in truth, she'd found only a few trinkets) and the overland had wandered around the edge of the Dune Sea for three days to get to Mos Eisley. No one had followed.

Still, her heart was beating frantically. She knew she was being foolish. But what was one more foolish thing, really, in the scheme of it?

The domes of Owen and Beru's home came into view over the horizon, and Amidala let the landspeeder slow down. She pulled into the yard. He was here. She was really going to see him.

Wrap your face, woman! Don't give him a memory that anyone could pick up on! You're here to see him, not kill him.

She'd barely finished pulling the long trader's scarf around her head, covering her face up to her eyes (a pattern of dangling beadwork interfered with her vision), when Beru Lars appeared at the top of the stairs, coming up from the homestead with something tucked --

Someone! She had Luke with her, tucked comfortably in the crook of her arm. Amidala took him in as Beru approached -- he was dusty and sunbrowned, and his blond hair was tossed by the desert wind. His face was round and open, his eyes a blazing blue. Ani's son. Oh, dear heaven, Ani's son. Her hand went to her heart.

"May I help -- " Beru started, then her eyes went wide. Her mouth formed the word "Amidala," but no sound came.

Amidala nodded. "I... " she stammered, then came to her senses. "I seem to have lost my way. I'm a trader, from Corellia. I was headed for Anchorhead, but I seem to have missed it."

"It's easy to miss," Beru said, not putting on much of an act. "Why don't you come inside? I can make us some lunch, if you don't mind watching my nephew for a few minutes."

"Gladly," Amidala said. She held out her arms, almost reverently, and Beru put Luke into them. She had a sudden urge to take him and run, and never let him go. Instead, she followed Beru into the Lars' home.

"Owen's out in the fields," Beru said, going into her kitchen to start lunch. "He's not likely to be happy about... traders... stopping by."

"Sometimes we have to."

"I know." Beru reached across the counter, and touched Amidala's arm. "I understand why you're here. I'm surprised it took as long as it did. We had expected traders to come more often. Or at least I had."

Amidala smiled at her, hoping she would see the motion beneath the scarf. Beru was a kind woman, and a good choice. She supposed it wasn't necessary to keep up the disguise -- Luke was probably too young to understand -- but she didn't want to take any chances, leave any traces in his mind. He wouldn't be pretending to be anyone else, but it was too soon to leave a recognizable path to him.

"Now," Beru said, "you go right on into his nursery and keep him occupied while I cook. It'll be a lot quicker without constant requests for just a little taste of everything." She shooed them out, and Amidala happily went.

Luke's nursery was as different from Leia's as was possible. A small bed with low walls, a chest with toys, and a pile of building blocks were the only features. He had painted on the walls -- Amidala could see smudgy blue handprints everywhere. It was a cheerful place, and Luke was a cheerful child in it.

He wiggled out of her arms, then took her hand and led her to the chest. "Mine," he said, then put one fist in his mouth. The other hand punched a button that opened the treasure trove. Amidala looked inside. There were rocks of all sorts, and several games. A ball for some kind of sport was rolled back into a corner, though she didn't think he really would be playing ball with anyone just yet.

"Well, isn't this all wonderful?"

Luke smiled around his fist, and nodded enthusiastically. He wasn't nearly as verbal as Leia yet, but he got his points across fairly well anyway.

Amidala opened the trader's kit, ignoring the stock that had been in it when she'd bought it. "Let's see if I don't have something to go with all these wonderful things... Let's see... " She rummaged, looking for one of the trinkets she'd found in Mos Espa. It wasn't much. She'd hoped for a holo of the Boonta Classic, to give Beru to show him when he was older, but there was nothing left of it. It was as if it hadn't existed. Finally, she'd found Kitster, and told him that she was just looking for anything of Ani's -- to remind her of her poor, late husband, of course. How she hated that lie! He'd given her a model ship that he and Ani had built together. It was only half done. She offered it to Luke, who took it curiously.

After a minute, he seemed to recognize the shape. He smiled widely, and began "flying" it, running around the room and making a buzzing sound. Amidala laughed. Ani would like that.

Luke stopped abruptly, and went to his toy box. He appeared to examine it carefully, then finally pulled out a red rock, with a blue handprint on it. He offered it to Amidala. "Trade," he said.

Amidala took it. "Why, that's the best trade I've had in years! What a profit I make!" She pulled him to her, and hugged him. She wanted to cover his face with kisses, but the scarf stopped her, and it was just as well. That would make a mark on his memory.

"I see you've made a friend," Beru said from the doorway.

"He's wonderful." Amidala's smile was wide beneath the scarf, but she could feel tears on her cheeks as well. She was sure that she looked quite mad. "He really is."

"He comes by it honestly. His parents were good people. I tell him so all the time."

Amidala breathed deeply. "That's important. And it's especially important for a little boy to believe in his father. To love his father. He does, doesn't he?"

"Yes, he does. And I'll see to it that he always will."

Amidala tried to maintain a distant sounding tone. "That's a kind of sacred promise," she said.

"Yes," Beru told her. "It is."

For a moment, their eyes locked, and Amidala's heart slowed for the first time since she'd seen Ani two weeks ago. Even if she failed, there would still be Luke, holding his heart, believing in him. Beru would see to it. She wished Sache could afford the same luxury with Leia.

Then Luke's chubby hand was tangled in the beadwork of her costume, and he was pulling her to the pile of blocks and asking her to help him build something. They spent the next twenty minutes making (and knocking down) a desert town, then Beru called them in for lunch. Amidala was holding Luke on her lap and wondering how to handle eating around the scarf, but she was saved the trouble of solving the riddle by a shadow at the door.

She and Beru both stopped in their tracks, and Amidala suspected they were both thinking the same thing: we're trapped. Ani's come after all, and we're trapped. Then Luke smiled brightly, slid off her lap, and ran to the stairs. "Ben!" he said, tangling himself in the long robes.

"Hello, young Luke," Obi-Wan said.

Luke pulled him in by the edge of his robe, and led him to Amidala. "This Ben," he told her. "Uncle" (or maybe it was "Unk-Ow"; Amidala wasn't sure) "get mad." He grinned with some delight at this prospect.

"I won't be staying long enough for your uncle to be displeased, Luke. I've simply come to... confer... with your new friend. Outside."

Amidala allowed herself one last hug, then gave Luke reluctantly to Beru. She had no hope that Obi-Wan would allow her back inside, but she pretended to herself that she thought it was a temporary interruption, and that was the only way she found the strength to leave. It was the same way she'd left Leia. She took her trader's kit and followed the Jedi master out into the noonday heat.

Obi-Wan took the kit from her, and put it into the back of the speeder without giving her time to question it, then climbed into the driver's seat. She got into the passenger's position. He started driving.

"We've discussed this," he said after nearly ten minutes of silence. "You can't be here."

"It's only this once. He can follow you better than he can follow me, and you seem to be here often enough for Luke to be quite attached to you." She could hear the bitterness in her own voice. She could live with his clear affection for Beru, but for some reason, the attachment to Obi-Wan cut her deeply. "Don't you think you're a little more visible than I am?"

"I also know how to hide myself better. Anakin knows every path into your mind, Amidala. He spent most of his childhood learning them."

She could think of no manufactured argument with this. The only real argument was the truth. "I saw him," she said. "I saw him, and he believes me."

Obi-Wan looked at her sideways. "When?"

"Two weeks ago. On Alderaan. He's... Obi-Wan, he's still in there. I'm going to Coruscant. I'm bringing him back."

Obi-Wan stopped the speeder, sending up a cloud of sand and rocks ahead of it. "Anakin is gone, Amidala. You must understand that. If there is any hope for all of us, it is in the boy you just placed in danger's path. He has a great deal of strength, waiting to be found. When he is old enough, I'll train him. I won't do it while he is too small to defend himself, but it will be done. He will stand a chance against his father. You do not."

"You misheard me. I didn't say I was going against him. I'm going to him, Obi-Wan. And for him."

Obi-Wan closed his eyes, going into himself to meditate. That wasn't a good sign. Finally, he opened his eyes again. "Amidala, this is a hopeless quest. You need to let go."

Amidala's anger rose up in her. "I've let go of my children, Obi-Wan. At your insistence. I've let go of my old life. Two of my handmaidens are dead, and I've put the others in danger. Sabe has disappeared. I've let go of my old friendships. If I let go of Ani, what, exactly, do you think I'll be left holding on to?"

For a long while, Obi-Wan sat silently, looking out across the desert. Tatoo I was starting to descend to the horizon. Tatoo II was still at mid-afternoon. At last, he started the speeder again, and headed it out over the Jundland Wastes.

"Where are you taking me?" Amidala asked.

"I'm taking you to my home. I'll help you build up your mental blocks. You'll need them."

***

Coruscant, three months later.

The shuttle lowered itself slowly onto the platform, and Amidala glanced over her seatmate to see the familiar towers. She didn't particularly like Coruscant, but after three months in the Jundland Wastes, any kind of city -- even this one -- looked like heaven to her.

She incorporated her thoughts of the city and the country into the shifting patterns of ideas that built a wall around her mind. Obi-Wan had been able to teach her to do this, to maintain the wall without focusing on it. She hoped it would be enough.

She had silently rehearsed a dozen times what she needed to say when she saw Ani. It boiled down to, "I've come home, my love."

Her heart surged. She wanted to say it. She wanted to be home with him, to see his eyes again. She wanted to see him hold his children. She wanted to hold him. She wanted to be held. There were... problems... of course, and their marriage could never be precisely normal again. It would also probably be of short duration -- if Ani did return to her, he would have charges to face, and Obi-Wan had told her to be realistic about the likelihood of any Republic court showing mercy after everything he'd done, unless he managed to tear down all of Palpatine's works in the process of leaving. But she wanted whatever time there was. She wanted it desperately.

The shuttle came to a stop, and Amidala left in the middle of a group of passengers. It was a far cry from being met by the Chancellor... a good thing, considering who was currently in that role.

Ani lived in a part of town that had been built recently, in Imperial standard issue, over a neighborhood that had been destroyed in the course of the Clone Wars. Amidala hadn't been there since the development had been completed. She didn't much like it -- after the gracious world of Theed, little else appealed to her aesthetically -- but she supposed she could live with it.

"My lady!"

She turned. A woman was coming out of one of the buildings behind her. She vaguely remembered having seen her before, in the crowds that had once gathered when she came to Coruscant.

"Oh, Queen Amidala!" she said. "We had all heard that you were dead! Everyone says so!"

"No, I'm... I'm fine. Is this house Lord Vader's?"

The woman sniffed. "It is. What business do you have with him?"

"It's personal."

She shook her head. "Well, I hope you can make some sense of him. It's a shame what happened to him, and I don't wish it on anyone, but if I did wish it on someone, it would be that creature."

"You mustn't say such things."

"Oh, I suppose not. But I am glad you're alive. Everyone will be glad. Something good has lived through all this."

"Thank you."

"No, no, no. I will thank you. You can give us hope. I'll never believe all the good things are dead again."

The woman bowed quickly, and disappeared back into her own house, leaving Amidala dazed and bewildered. What hope was she giving to anyone other than herself? What possible use was she to the rest of the galaxy now? She had been queen of a small planet, and she had started this wretchedness herself, by listening to Palpatine at the wrong moment. What hope were people possibly taking from that?

She took a deep breath, and went to Ani's door. The windows to the side of it had been covered with dark cloth, and she couldn't see in. She rang the signal, and a moment later, the door slid up. She stepped inside.

"Ani?"

No answer. She went further inside. The house was essentially a great open space, with boxes here and there. She supposed there must be furniture, but it wasn't in evidence.

At the far end of the room, she saw him, draped in his long robe, looking strangely stooped against the light from the small windows beside the back door. She crossed to him.

"Ani, I've come home. I've -- "

Footsteps behind her, clattering on the metal floor. She turned. Twenty stormtroopers had emerged from behind the boxes, and their weapons were drawn.

"I'm afraid I've sent your husband on an errand, Your Majesty," the figure in the black cloak said. He turned. "He left yesterday, about the time you boarded a transport on... Anoat, was it?" Palpatine smiled. "You were clever. I lost you for a long while after Alderaan. But I have eyes in Anoat. I had foreseen that you would make one last, futile attempt to turn Vader. You are somewhat later than I had anticipated. I wonder what other concerns you may have had."

Amidala felt him looking for her mind, and she shored up her defenses. "Deciding whether or not it was worth it," she said.

"Alas, Your Majesty, you seem to have reached the wrong conclusion. And you will pay for it. Set for stun."

Amidala dove for cover, but there was none. She was struck between the shoulder blades, and the world went dark.

***

She awoke with no way of knowing how long she had been out, in a place she didn't know, at the beginning of a nightmare that would last many long years.

FernWithy

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