The New Old Kid on the Block


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Scene Title The New Old Kid on the Block
Synopsis As promised, Wright swings by Huruma's office after having her picture taken on her first day back at work.
Date September 21, 2020

Deep breath. Coalesce, even though you don’t need to. She could have said anything just now but chose not to. She could have unwound all of it, unspooled you, but she didn’t. At the very least it’s an invitation to explain. Doesn’t make your heartbeat slow, even though you know she decided to not say what she saw. What could have undone you. In a word could have brought you back to the horror of somebody knowing.

"Hello, you… " Huruma is sudden in her appearance at the entryway, as is her custom. Her pale eyes are resting on Elliot and Wright, fixed on them even while she makes her way inside. "…two." Her clothes are all clean lines and professional cut; a black skirted suit and the blaze of a crimson blouse against dark skin. Fresh from some meeting or another, it appears.

Whatever has her so focused on new old faces has her looking over her shoulder while she gets a cup of coffee, brows furrowed in a look of suspicion, uniquely cat-like in her side-eye to them. "So you heard Epstein's pitch and decided to bite, hm?"

Never was going to be that easy, yet here you are. Focussing, calming your breath, shearing down the aura that you’re projecting just outside the door of an empath more skilled than you’ll ever be. An aura that reads all wrong, doesn’t show you. Shows the new you. The real you.

Huruma watches the pair across the table with all of her senses, concentrating mostly on the inside story. “It is good to see you again. Though you'll have to… enlighten me on your…condition, sometime."

The training, the purposefulness, none of it really made her ready. Creating and maintaining the lie has been a back-breaking amount of work. A stunning and exhausting labor that feels sick on the exhale, sharp on the in. So exhausting that she hasn’t been able to assure herself she can continue.

The Bastion
Phoenix Heights

September 21, 2020
12:15 PM

Wright checks Elliot’s perspective, sighs, nods, resolves. She taps her knuckles against the door to Huruma’s office. She hopes the good will from her past tenancy will be enough to protect her secret. Their secret. It’s now or never. Now is the time to rationalize something they’ve never been able to talk about. Other than when Elliot and Wright talked about what would eventually be. But this they isn’t that them. They’re what came after.

So she knocks—then, the briefest pause—knock knock knock, begging admittance. A cadence to convey gratitude to their comrade in arms for so far keeping a secret, Marthe’s example proving the danger of their well-meaning honesty. So here she is, a moment that lies at a fork. To the left: they have to leave the Safe Zone forever. To the right: she can say things that they have programmed themselves—at great cost—to never say out loud.

One learns to pick the right battles, when one can pick at any time. Threads are always hanging loose off of everyone when you can see inside. Unknotted or unfinished, untended. The frayed lines around old friends are much the same- - temptations, often forcibly ignored, but present in the way that an old sweater threatens to fall apart, yet manages not to. Huruma knows which ones to pull and which to trim. Which to ignore until further notice.

Wright's presence outside of her door is both expected and not; the empath knew she was coming, but this soon is a mild surprise. Perhaps it isn't quite as something she can ignore, exactly.

"Come in, darling." The door is open. Huruma is already busied behind her desk, though it doesn't appear to be pressing matters judging by the bored look she's still giving her laptop, mouth pursed in - - discomfort, maybe? - - as she lifts a hand and half-slaps the lid closed. "I need a reason to not look at my incoming messages."

Perfect timing.

Closing the door behind her, Wright leans back against it for a moment. She looks over Huruma’s posture, then relaxes a bit before meandering in the direction of a chair.

“Glad to help where I can,” she says jokingly. She settles in, crossing one leg over her knee, fussing with the laces on her boots. Her makeup has been fully applied since last Huruma saw her, bright cyan but not elaborate in design. “So, I figured this was one of those fast-like-bandaid situations, but I may have just been anxious. Obviously Avi is oblivious to most things that aren’t a punch in the mouth, whereas you are graced with subtlety.”

She’s grateful she discarded her jacket along the way, just thinking about all the crinkling noises it would make with her current posture is annoying. She’d worked hard to deflect conversation about what she’d feared Huruma would detect. Managed expectations. “I know you could tell who somebody was just by feeling their emotions in your vicinity,” she says, “Is that still the case?” Did you see me?

Huruma and staring have always been bedfellows, and this is no different. Though her expression remains an ebony mask, the empath does not remove her gaze from the younger woman set in front of her. She only folds her hands over her lap, at rest in the lean of her chair.

"Of course it is." I did. Huruma's mouth curves at one side, a smooth half-smile along with the hooded stare. Still a tad too smug, but not in any way that matters. "So if I understand correctly… this is new territory for you, yes?"

“New… ish,” Wright offers with a resigned shrug. “I came to the realization about a year ago, though it obviously wasn’t an immediate transition. And it’s not…” she pauses to consider. Despite their preparation for this potential conversation, nothing seems the right way to say it.

“I’m still me,” she says, gesturing to herself as separate from Elliot. “I’m just—”

She doesn’t know why it’s suddenly sorrow that blossoms, not the fear of saying it out loud she’s been feeling. That they’ve been feeling. “I’m just also Elliot. Elliot is an equal amount Wright.” Because being who they are doesn’t make her sad. A strange nostalgia for the people they used to be before they became a person.

“Sorry, I haven’t had a lot of time to work on the language for it. I feel like it’s safe to say this is novel territory. And it’s safer to avoid drawing attention to it by being cheeky.” There’s a hollow dread that floats around her, suddenly interrupted by a flash of polite humor from wherever Elliot is at the moment. Her eyes lose focus for a second, then she looks back up to Huruma.

Huruma's posture says enough to her patience, and an unspoken 'take your time' lingers there in her gaze. The empath tracks along behind the ups and downs and tilts that their emotions take on the way through speaking on all of it. Particulars of the origins aren't something that she can properly sense, though Huruma does her best with contextual clues.

"No, I understand that you need to do what keeps you safe. If that means diverting attention from yourselves, well…" Huruma turns out a palm. What can you do. Her manner errs curious rather than judgmental, which isn't entirely surprising. "Is it more a symbiosis, or more synergenesis…? To you, I mean. Or do you see it as becoming, say, an amalgam…?"

"You do not need to answer if you are uncomfortable. But just how much do you really articulate such a thing out loud? It may help to speak truth to it."

Wright laughs quietly, feeling mildly embarrassed again. “Synergy seems like a better fit than symbiosis,” she says, “Though if we choose the former analogy I’d say I—I Wright—am the anemone and Elliot is the clownfish.” There’s a ripple of amusement from her, a noted lack of it from elsewhere; bits of individuality still playing out between the two. “The ability to share, in ways born of a decade of familiarity and practice, just makes it easy. Perfect cooperation.”

“Each of me does their own thinking,” she says, “I don’t control both bodies with a single intent, I just… I can’t remember the last time I disagreed. I remember when Wright and Elliot did, though honestly even then I was so codependent and eager to avoid conflict. Easy to play into that facade now.”

“But I can’t distinguish between discrete selves anymore. Usually.” That's followed by a memory, then remorse, then a conscious effort to behave like Wright in here and like Elliot out there. She covers her eyes with her hands and steadies her breath.

“Marthe reacted very badly,” she says softly. “The situation is still a mess. But she made me promise—well, she made Wright and Elliot promise—that they would never talk about it. That I’d stay separate. That I’d live in denial with her. And I tried. I’m trying. But honestly it’s exhausting at this point. It takes so much constant, careful effort to maintain the lie.” Elliot distances himself from her emotion with purpose, straining against the mesh of who they are.

Synergy, then.

Huruma stills, as she often does. The air in the room doesn't stifle, precisely- - it hangs, paused, as the empath tunes in with both manner of senses. She allows Wright to use the space and fill it. Eyes hooded and impassive, Huruma's invisible touch moves where words don't, spidery and sleek as it investigates the cracks.

"…Ignorance has never been a particularly effective solution for much at all." Huruma's brows arch delicately, remaining a statue otherwise. "And will never be."

In the end, however, Huruma does not have the station to really judge Marthe- - in the same place, it is hard to know what she would do either. From the outside, it is safe.

Nevermind that.

"You need not do that with me, wapendwa. You are safe to breathe here, whatever that may be worth to you." Huruma moves on from Marthe, instead focusing her own calm into the softened fall of her voice. A refuge, of a sort- - not a bad thing to have. "I know what it takes to hold oneself together so long that it becomes its own beast. It becomes a feat… one which you forget the cost of."

“It’s worse than ignorance,” Wright says softly. “She forgot, as best as I can tell. Deep in denial.” She’s tortured by it, glad when the panicking is over but sad she has to lie to preserve it.

Wright is honestly relieved. They let go together, no longer straining against the feeling. “But that means a lot to me,” Wright admits to Huruma’s offer. They didn’t truly think Huruma would out them, but after Marthe’s reaction it was impossible to escape the dread. It’s still there, for other people and other reasons.

“So my link is permanent, obviously,” she suddenly says, chagrined. “Feel like I should have opened with that. Has been since Pollepel, though the why is still a mystery. Elliot shouldn’t have even been able to make the link. He was catatonic the whole time.”

“It’s not like the links he normally makes,” she anxiously clarifies. “If he links somebody here they’re not going to get stuck. Whatever it was, he can’t reproduce it. And only Elliot can set links, I—Wright—am still, unfortunately, non-Expressive.”

Huruma can't comment much more on Marthe's decision to black this part of her partner out. It doesn't redact like she might hope it does. Trial and error for that one, then. It's fine, until it's not.

As the duo collectively release the tension tying them back like a truss, Huruma is quiet as it seeps into the cracks where it is meant to fit.

"A lot of oddities can be traced back to Bannerman Island." Huruma muses, leaning an elbow on her desk and cradling her chain atop the backs of her fingers. "It was …reformative, in many ways, for many people."

"Even in a state of unconsciousness, mental abilities tend to have a mercurial function. It could be that his mind knew what it was doing, even if he wasn't aware." She rolls her shoulders softly. "Hard to say, without it happening a second time." Huruma isn't keen to retry the circumstances for an anomaly, however.

Their memory of Elliot waking up and charging through the halls to save her is badly damaged. She reviewed it so many times trying to understand. Before he could put the words in order and explain what had happened. The pain, the terror, the cold, wet hallway floor, the unhurried click of a magazine being reloaded as a man followed her down the hall. The suddenly being here and there.

“Christ,” Wright says, alarmed but amused in a helpless way at the thought of it happening a second time. “That would be such a nightmare. Hard no. I think this is enough intimacy for me, honestly. Of the non-traditional-relationship variety. Other than sharing with other people in controlled circumstances for thankfully limited amounts of time.” She cuts a small tear from the corner of her eye with a fingernail before it can touch her freshly applied makeup.

She sits in silence, simultaneously wondering if she’s said too much, or hasn’t said enough. “Would it be okay if we talked this out more?” she asks, “As I figure it out? I can’t begin to think about opening up to a therapist. A stranger.”

There is a reason that Huruma has never given any affirmative or indication that she wants to become a part of the Network. Perhaps in some dire day, somehow, it could happen- - but even now she is reminded of her aversion to potentially allowing someone into the cockpit with her. The raw emotions which come to the surface now are the biggest deterrent, and this is just a recall of Bannerman.

"Yes, I could listen, if you wished to talk." Huruma tips her head, considering. "I've done it for others. Hounds." She pauses, hesitant over an addition. It comes along. "And… I've helped others find a counselor of better caliber than myself, but I understand your concerns there. I have one. I have peer groups.

"I can provide, one way or another." Given that others even use the empath's ability itself at times, providing can take on a dozen different roles; pick one.

“Thank you,” Wright says sincerely. “Maybe I could go to someone else eventually, but I had to make a laundry list of promises to Marthe to keep our family together. Including what is in reality maintaining a facade. The only reason I can get into letter of the law over spirit is that you were going to see…” she gestures in the air over and around her head, All this.

There’s a long pause as they adjust to having been able to say this all out loud without a catastrophic reaction. They enjoy the calm, anxiety about it all but gone, replaced with more flickers of amusement from elsewhere.

“Anyway,” she says, eyes returning to Huruma, “How’ve you been? How’s business? Have I made a terrible mistake by returning?”

Seeing is believing. Huruma's amusement stays in her eyes while they come down from the rest of that 'I can tell someone' high. Just being able to let go of it for a little while must be a relief.

"Business is steady. If you've made a mistake or not… I'll let you figure that out for yourself. It will be more exciting for you that way." Huruma smiles, this time with a flash of teeth. "And me, well, maybe the same. By and large… I am still standing, so to speak. It is something."

Something still bothers Wright, it squirms around her like a snake. “I’m sorry,” she says, and their emotions pivot away from the cultivated calm. “I lied earlier. I’m so afraid all of the time but I don’t want you to be afraid of me, of what I can do.”

She takes a deep breath, and lets it out slowly. “I know why this link is permanent,” she admits, eyes rising to meet Huruma’s in an admission of the shame that saturates the world around her. “Links become self-sustaining after about three weeks of unbroken connection. This can happen to anyone, but only if they stay linked too long. There’s also a cool-down period that needs to be observed to reset the clock. I can feel it building and receding. As long as the amount of time after leaving the network is greater than the amount of time spent linked in, the clock resets to zero. If I link someone for an eight-hour work shift, they’re back to square one before the next workday. If I link someone for two days, then one day off, then two days, then one day off, that’s four days of connection despite cool-downs.” She’s rambling and embarrassed because she knows it.

“And I don’t,” she slashes her hand through the air, “ever, want another body. I don’t want to become another person again. I would never make someone else become that person with me.” The thought makes them sick.

“I swear to you that nobody who works here is in danger of it,” she continues, “and if you need me to submit proof to you, I will check in every time.” They are aware they aren’t worthy of trust, but dedicated to being trustworthy.

I lied isn't anything Huruma seems terribly ruffled over; she simply refolds her hands on her desk and waits for the rest. She is a person used to waiting, for a myriad of reasons- - Wright gets no interruptions as she gets deeper into her explanation and the hope to never have to make such a solid connection again.

"Always drain the cistern, hm?" Huruma posits a passive attempt to generate metaphor to assist herself. "I have experienced complications with… long term exposure to others, but of course not to that degree- - so I hesitate to compare the two. I mean to say that I understand the burden of what is too much." She taps at her temple, mouth pursing but for a moment.

"That itself is often a unique burden to those like us. Those with gifts of the mind. Muscle and bone know when to give out."

"I do not expect you to prove a danger to the others," Huruma drums her fingers against the desk, examining Wright as if from a dissociated distance. "However… if such things will make you feel more in control, I can always mandate them regardless."

Huruma is more right than she knows; if Relevance had weight like matter, they would collapse into a black hole beneath it, buried by the place formed from it. They wonder what Relevance's dark matter is. If there's an analogy that works in that type of space.

Waves of fear begin to fall away, they let out a ragged sigh. "It's not like alcoholism," she says. "Where I still want to drink sometimes but I don't. This is where I usually lie and say, 'I couldn't have done it without Elliot doing it too,' but that seems unnecessary. I stopped drinking after the epiphany. It wasn't a discussion, it was a choice I made." They'll never forgive themself for the damage they did to Marthe. For the way they treated Merlyn.

"But," she continues, "accountability never killed anybody. If you sense a connection going on longer than you think is appropriate, I will end it. I'll let you know whenever somebody zeros out." They feel determined, and relieved to have made the determination.

In at least the case of comparing it to alcoholism, Huruma can cross the line out in her head. Not to mention she had never made a point of asking. People just decide for themselves, and at this age she lacks the willpower to fuss (much).

"Accountability has killed at least one person, I'm sure - -" Huruma raises a brow across the desk, head tipped as she considers Wright from under lidded eyes. "- - but I understand. There are times when you can see yourself slipping, and having anyone who knows what's going on- -" A breath leaves her, tired and small. "It can make all the difference."

Wright laughs in agreement, surely someone was done in by accountability, statistics being what they are. "I've been getting into making fancy, alcohol-free cocktails," she says with a bit of embarrassment. "That control is important to me. Being conscious of my bad behavior and becoming my best self. All I ever do is change, though I'd wager few people change as much as I have. I don't really think of the people I was as me anymore. They were them, and this me is new. I'm the person they became."

"That's the scariest part," she continues quietly as the sounds of settling into the chair subside. "And if I'm honest with myself, that's the part that's too much for Marthe."

Tears form in the edges of her eyes, though not enough to spill. Emotions are kept at the same threshold; she's not here to grieve. She lets the heartbreak bend against her mind and fall away, focusing on the here and now. "I'm afraid, but I like this me," she says. "I don't want to one day look back at me as just one of the people that became that me."

She laughs, suddenly. "Still a lot of Wright left though," she says. "I—Wright—will still fucking ramble like I'm the only one in the conversation." She'd talk, Elliot would keep his thoughts to himself or have trouble talking. They've evened out so much, but the brains still hold the pathways that their former selves wired into them.

"To some degree, everyone can be the sum of what others contributed." Huruma starts, turning over the too much for Marthe in her head. It is an unfair weight to put out there, especially for a series of what can amount to fundamental misunderstandings. But she isn't here to fix that, at least right now.

"I understand more closely than others might. The attachments an empath can form have the potential to develop into something of a fold in the brain, tethered there, and they can become second nature to read, or even influence." It is by no means the same, and Huruma leaves out quite a lot of the in-betweens, giving a half smile. "Suffice to say, losing the thread is difficult, and those frayed ends remain, picking up pieces where they can. It all leaves behind a fine layer of detritus. I cannot know if this is relatable to your situation, but perhaps it can give you some comfort in knowing there are others of a similar way. I like this me, too."

"I've also met others, crushed and blended into someone new or just superimposed into the picture- - it is a peculiar feeling for me, but useful all the same." The empath smiles, albeit somewhat thinly.

Wright nods thoughtfully. It's not the same but the themes are there. "I kind of get that," she says, eyes momentarily elsewhere. "I get to feel everybody's emotions all at once when they're linked in. Normally mine are pretty level across my bodies, especially when I'm in the same room or situation. But I can also feel the edges of other co-hosts, the things about their emotions that are unique to them. And I can easily find where to put a link if somebody is still cooling down. It's not like I'm keeping part of them with me, it's like… familiarity with where the links connect. But that goes away at the end of the cool down."

She crosses her legs and picks at her pants absentmindedly for a moment. "I'm kind of terrified I'll run into an empath as skilled as you are and just get outed on the street," she says, and the fear manifests. "That the immediate conclusion will be that I'm a body snatcher. I've done enough mad science dungeon time for several lives and I don't want to get black bagged for more of it. The data Avi showed me when he came to offer me the job makes me feel the bad kind of valuable."

Linkages are certainly unique to this case; Huruma's ability finds the route of least resistance and adjusts to it. Wright finds that familiar socket and plugs back in.

"You would be hard-pressed to find one like me," Huruma raises a brow, unafraid to bring levity to the exchange without undue influence. "Or, if you prefer, it is especially unlikely on the street." Humor as it may be, it is a reassurance she can play to. The rest of the data is more difficult to discount.

"You are the bad kind of valuable." It's not a feeling, just a fact. Huruma's tone remains softened somewhat, even for her words. "It is something you must come to terms with. I will not mollify the truth, darling."

“I appreciate that you wouldn’t,” Wright says gratefully, seeming content with Huruma’s assessment of empathic unveiling. “I hate being told everything will be fine when it’s more likely than not that it isn’t true. A lot of people died to make all this possible, good and evil both.” Died in the Ark or in Elliot’s hands outside it. Died one after another in a line before he ever got there.

“And now I have a family that can be leveraged against me,” she says with feigned flippancy. “And not what I would consider paying-off-a-kidnapper money. Not that I’m in a bad place financially, I’ve managed my payout well considering the addition of the wife and tiny baby Ames who is five and not tiny in a literal sense. But I don’t think it would be narcissistic to assume that I could prompt a bidding war.”

"'Fine' is a word which people use- - including me- - to mask everything else. Nothing is ever fine, and there is a sort of… peace in that." Huruma lets the thought roll out as it comes, a touch of tiredness in the words despite the truth of them. In any case- -

"You know your family is ours too, hm? Kidnapping aside, if there is ever anything you need," Huruma turns a hand out, head tipped knowingly. "It never hurts to ask. Just as you've done here."

"Thank you," Wright says sincerely. She shuffles in her chair awkwardly for a moment. "I should bring Ames by soon so everybody can meet the little gremlin. I'm worried she'd be a bad influence on them, though." She chuckles grimly.

"Would it be okay with you if I share around you?" she asks. "Part of Marthe's rules is that we—I—don't share across my bodies. Maintain the illusion of separation. But it would be nice if there was someone I could be myself around, even if I have to pretend I'm not in order to reinforce the narrative."

Another bad influence wouldn't exactly make waves; Huruma gives a short, smug look for that chuckle. The kid will certainly fit right in, influence or not- - they love kids here. Totally safe and everything.

"I give you permission." Huruma lifts her brows slightly, thoughts on Marthe's rules kept silent. "Pretend, or do not. You would not be the only strangeness around here. I promise." A truth, at least in the empath's eyes.

"Thank you," Wright says, sighing discreetly as Elliot's emotions pour comfortably back into the shapes of her own. There's a hint of reluctance to believe Huruma which is hard to hide, though the commander wouldn't have the context to understand that the truth is so much more complicated. That there's a door inside their mind, a door that hides a door that hides a door. That they're not alone and everyone is in danger. "Confident I'll still win the award for most strange if it comes down to it, though."

She doesn't dwell on it much, and it passes. The weight of the truth is so old that they've adapted to carrying it. The lies told so many times that they can spout them with nearly impenetrable confidence. "As Elliot, I talk a lot more than he used to," she says distractedly. "I say it's therapy because the truth is too weird. And keeping up the facade of all his old quirks is honestly fucking exhausting. So if anybody notices the difference, that's the lie I'll be relying on. He was making progress, as you may recall. He was able to take on missions back in the day when I was him. But I've progressed a lot faster than he ever would have alone."

"As for Wright, I'm less angry and reactive," she continues. "Which I chalk up to becoming sober, that one has been the more believable lie. But I've progressed faster than she would have, this brain taking some of Elliot's calm confidence as they merged into me. And obviously the process isn't quite finished, I think the lies are holding it at bay. The forced separation."

Doors behind doors is not as foreign to Huruma as one may assume, although in much different capacities; the reluctance is no surprise, even without every crumb of context. The commander leans back in her chair, eyes still in her quiet study of them. She mouths a small 'probably' in return for 'winning awards'.

"Calling something therapy is sometimes as effective as real therapy, dear. It certainly depends on you." Although Huruma stops short of asking if there is a professional already in the mix, she still approaches the edge of it. "I know discretion is important. I have some contacts, if you want them." Ever.

"Your partition as a coping mechanism is itself not unheard of, though that lends itself to more dissociative identity disorders, rather than- - a novel merging of two separate minds. It is fascinating, but I am not here to solve you." They may be a mystery, and god knows Huruma loves mysteries— it is just not the right time for this one.

Wright considers it in silence, not bothering to bottle up her apprehension. There are ripples where their emotions don't line up, but after a moment they settle back into agreement. She taps her fingers methodically against her knees, something Elliot would have done in the past.

"I will give real therapy serious consideration," Wright promises. "It isn't easy to talk about this. The only reason I can right now is because you were going to know whether I wanted you to or not. And because when I was Wright and Elliot I always trusted you."

"Sometimes it does get easier." Huruma intones, eyes half-lidded and gaze briefly elsewhere, elsewhen. "Your telling me before I became too curious- -" She sighs, bringing levity back with the upward tick of brows. "- - this, I think, was progress in that very direction."

She can, at times, be a firm believer in 'the more you talk, the less difficult it gets' methodology. It certainly works for her when she needs it to. "Thank you, for your trust. I know it is just as tricky."

Wright wishes it was that simple. Technicalities are an interesting facet of the rules that make the Locks. Mutable, contextual. Lying about something verifiably obvious would just draw attention to the lie and the motive for lying; therefore the relevant truth can, in some cases, serve the lock better than its antithesis. Maybe someday they can find something as powerful to serve in the place of the lock they make by lying. Until then, deception is too powerful to waste by revealing the truth in its entirety. The door labeled SWITCHBOARD can never be opened.

"Baby steps," she concedes. "The worst case scenario of this information getting out is pretty fucking worst."

"Thank you for your trust," she adds when she realizes she should. "Generous of you considering we've only just met." She chuckles to acknowledge the parts of the statement that are a joke.

"What can I say, I am a fool for a good pedigree." The edges of Huruma's eyes crease in a moment of silent laughter. "Pandora's Box will stay closed, at least with me." She reiterates the important thing- - the comparative safety of her own mind; there is already no way to know what she knows, and Huruma is a master of omission.

Hopefully Pandora's Box stays closed forever; because once it opens, there's not even hope left inside.

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