Tristan, 8 years old.
He was scared.
He wasn’t supposed to be here.
Tristan knew he was breaking a rule even as he pushed himself as high as his small toes would allow. His short body leaned against the pillar as he tried to look into the dining hall at the big house. It was a big space, with tall lamps at every corner of the room, lighting the area brightly, side tables scattered close to the walls. There was a long brown table in the center, with twenty chairs on each side and two at the heads of the table. The walls were the same stone the big house was made of, the name of which he couldn’t remember, and the curtains were deep blue in color. Tristan liked the color. He liked the room too.
He’d only been inside the house twice before, both times when the Boss had been holding some party. His mother had helped organize everything. Tristan was keen to see this dinner meeting, while his dad protected the Boss.
It was a very important job, Tristan had been told enough times. Which was why his mother always left him out in the garden to play and never let him in the house. The two times he’d sneaked in, he’d just roamed around the large halls and escaped back, scared someone would see him and complain.
Tristan was old enough to know that if the complaint ever reached the Boss, he would be in big trouble. The Boss didn’t kill little boys, or so he’d heard, but he did punish them as he saw fit. Tristan didn’t want to be punished.
Though he’d sneaked in before, it had been a very long time since he’d entered the house. He really should leave, but his feet remained glued as he watched the hall. At first, his break-ins had been out of curiosity. This time though, it was for information.
Nobody told him anything since he wasn’t old enough to be told adult things. That didn’t mean he didn’t know.
So much pain. So much guilt.
His baby sister was gone and it was his fault. Her protection had been his duty; her safety his responsibility. It had been seventeen days and not a clue about her.
Tristan still remembered the night so clearly it was a vivid picture in his head. He remembered tickling his little Luna as she giggled in that sweetest voice, laughing with him in her white pajamas with red hearts on them. He remembered her big green eyes, looking up at him with such innocent love, such devotion it always made him feel funny in his chest. He remembered checking under her bed and hugging her good night, remembered that soft baby smell of hers as she gripped his hair in a tiny fist.
She was the most beautiful baby sister in the world. Tristan had vowed the first moment he had seen her pink scrunched face and held her tiny body in his thin arms that he would always keep her safe. He was her big brother, after all. That’s what big brothers did. They protected their baby sisters at any cost.
Yet, that night, he had failed. He didn’t know how, but somehow he had.
Her windows had been locked – he’d locked them himself. And the only way to enter her room was through his. Not even his mother could get through the door without him waking up to check on his sister.
That night he’d hugged her good night like any other night.
And in the morning, her bed had been empty.
The windows had been locked. He hadn’t woken up once during the night. It was as though she’d vanished without a trace, and somehow, he’d slept when she’d needed her big brother. He had failed her.
The hole of her absence was eating at him. He just wanted her back. He wanted to smell that baby smell on her skin and hear her giggles and just hold her. He missed her so much.
Tristan wiped the tears that fell down his cheeks quietly with his long white sleeves. His father had taught him to never cry. He was a big boy and if he wanted to be powerful, he could never cry.
Tristan tried. He tried really hard not to.
But every night he would look at the small empty bed across his room, and the tears would come down. Every night he would hear his father shouting accusations and screaming at his mother in pain, and the tears would come down. Every night he would hear his mother try and calm his father down with so much hurt in her own voice, and the tears would come down.
Everyone was crying these days. He just made sure his parents never knew he did too. He washed away all evidence in the morning and was really quiet about it.
No one knew he closed his eyes and whispered prayers every night for his little sister. He prayed for her to come back. He prayed for her to be safe and warm and fed. He prayed for her not to miss him too much.
He prayed so much, and he was so tired of praying.
The need to do something, anything, pushed at him.
And while no one told him anything, he had sharp ears. He’d heard his father shout at his mother last night, about some conspiracy that had taken away Luna and many other baby girls from the city. It had made him angry, to realize that there were other big brothers feeling the way he was, helpless and hurt. Tristan had listened to it all, looking at the rain outside the window, remembering how happy it had made Luna.
He had hoped for her happiness again.
But seventeen days was a long time without a word, and while he would never consider the possibility of anything bad happening to her, he knew his parents did.
And then his father had mentioned the girl – the girl who’d been found.
The only girl to have come home.
That was why Tristan had sneaked in.
Tristan had come to see the girl. He had come to see the one who had come back while his Luna was still lost. He just wanted to see her, maybe learn something about what had happened to his sister. He wanted to know if she had been with her; if she’d seen Luna.
As Tristan lurked behind the pillar, he let his eyes roam around the hall, watching the people, observing them. There were ten men in total, including the guards and one woman.
His father had always told him to remember faces. Faces in their business, he’d taught little Tristan, were secrets. And secrets were weapons that could be used someday.
His mother had always told him to read eyes. Eyes, she’d said, were windows to the soul. That was why Tristan knew that his baby sister had the purest soul of anyone he’d ever met. That was how Tristan knew his father’s soul was getting blacker each day Luna wasn’t found. That was how Tristan knew his mother’s soul was dying under the weight of all the pain.
Tristan took his time, watching both faces and eyes of the people around the table, not looking at the security that flanked all around the circular room. His eyes went straight to his father.
David Caine stood beside the chair of the Boss, a tall, lean man with his hands clasped behind his back – hands that Tristan knew were shaking. They’d been shaking for a long time, and it had only gotten worse in the past few days. Not allowing that thought to bother him, he let his eyes drift down to the Boss.
The Boss – his actual name was Lorenzo Maroni but Tristan’s father called him Boss – sat at the head of the table on one side. He wore the black suit everyone in the family wore, his face covered in beard and head covered with short hair, his eyes dark.
Tristan remembered the first time he’d met the man. He’d been sitting outside in the garden while his mother had been organizing another dinner when the Boss had walked out. Tristan hadn’t known who he’d been at the time. He’d just looked at the tall, big man, at his dark eyes and a hard face, and he’d disliked him in an instant.
The Boss had held his gaze. “I eat people for looking at me like that, boy.”
Tristan hadn’t said anything, just disliked him even more for it.
The man had smiled then, a bad smile. “You’re not like other little boys, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” Tristan had said, narrowing his eyes.
The man had observed him closely, then walked away after that and Tristan had run back to his bench, never to meet the Boss again since then. He’d never understood why his father worked for a man with dark eyes and a hard face.
Tristan studied the man now, as he smoked a cigar, a gun sitting on the table before him, the metal glinting in the bright lights of the room. A few other men had their guns out as well.
That didn’t bother Tristan. Guns never had. His father had taught him how to hold a gun, and though he’d never fired one, Tristan liked guns. He liked the feel of it in his hands. One day, he was going to have his father train him in shooting them properly and he would own a collection of them.
One day. After Luna was home safe.
Moving on from the familiar faces of the family, the men Tristan had only ever seen in passing with his father but didn’t know the names of, he turned his neck to look at the other end of the table. That was where the guests from outside the city were.
He scrutinized them closely. The man at the head of the table was big, bigger than the Boss but not bigger than his father, in a dark suit like everyone else and a short beard. Tristan stared at his face for a long moment, memorizing it, and looked at his eyes.
Something heavy settled in his stomach.
He didn’t like this man. He didn’t like this man at all.
His face was regular and his eyes were dark, but there was just something about them that would have scared any other boy his age. It only made Tristan dislike the man even more.
Yet, it wasn’t him who held his attention a moment later.
It was the woman, sitting beside the bad man in a pretty blue dress, holding a baby.
Tristan felt the breath rush out of his chest.
She was so small.
So much smaller than Luna. Wearing a pink dress, her head sparsely sprinkled with curly dark hair, Tristan could only see her back as the woman held her.
Had she been with Luna? Had she been with his sister, sat with her, cried with her?
How had she been found? Why only she and no other girl?
The questions never left his mind as he watched the little bundle in the woman’s arms, everything else forgotten. She was wiggling like an inquisitive little worm, trying to get away from the woman he assumed was her mother. Tristan remembered when Luna used to do that, the noises she’d made in her little chest in frustration, the happy laugh that had bubbled out of her upon release.
This baby was making the same noises. Tristan could hear her across the room.
“Just put her on the table, Alice!” the bad man’s voice made Tristan’s eyes narrow in focus.
He saw the woman, Alice, hurry to sit the toddler on the table in a way that she could see the room with her back to her mother.
Tristan looked at her face, feeling the same flutter in his chest he’d felt the first time he’d seen Luna.
She was beautiful – rosy cheeks chubby on her pink face, little cute legs folded on the wood of the table, pink mouth opened in a small ‘O’ of wonder as she looked around the room at all the people. But it wasn’t that which Tristan found so beautiful. It was her eyes. Big, pretty eyes the color of wheat and grass mixed together. Those eyes were blinking at people, at things – clear, sweet, pure. Untouched by the evil around her.
Tristan hoped his sister was the same way. He hoped he would see her like this one day soon. He hoped he would kiss her little fingers and blow raspberries on her tummy again.
Another tear left his eyes.
And then something happened.
He didn’t understand how. He didn’t understand why. But suddenly, the little girl’s eyes came to him beside the pillar in the shadows, found him.
She tilted her chubby little head in wonder.
And then she smiled.
A completely toothless, completely adorable smile that just knocked him in the stomach.
Tristan felt his own lips move.
He felt himself smile for the first time in days since Luna had gone missing.
The baby flapped her chubby arms wildly, wiggling on the table, her giggling cackles loud in the room.
“I’m glad to see little Morana is well.”
The Boss’ voice erased the smile from Tristan’s face.
Morana. A pretty name. Tristan saw the baby turn towards the sound of the voice, and tilt her head again. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like how they’d put her on the table along with so many guns. He didn’t like how the room was full of men with dark eyes and they were all looking at her.
It made him want to pick her up and leave the room like he did with Luna when men came to their house. He didn’t like anyone seeing his baby sister with their dark eyes. He didn’t like anyone seeing this baby with those dark eyes either.
But he stayed quietly hidden.
“You wanted to see her for yourself, Lorenzo, here she is,” the bad man spoke from one end of the table to the Boss at the other end. He leaned back in his chair, his hand on the table. “Now, can we get to business?”
Tristan grit his teeth at the man’s tone.
“In a second,” the Boss said, putting out his cigar, the smoke curling around him. Air swirled around the room from the overhead fan, spreading the smoke around.
“Alice,” the bad man spoke to the woman. “Take Morana and leave us.”
“Leave the baby,” the Boss drawled out as the woman stood up. She hesitated for a second, but then turned around and left the room. The door closed behind her. The little girl, Morana, completely oblivious to everything, put a piece of her pink dress in her mouth and started chewing on it.
The Boss’s voice broke the silence. “Since only your daughter has been found from all the missing girls, you will do me the courtesy of answering some of my man’s questions, won’t you, Gabriel?”
There was something in his voice Tristan didn’t understand – like he was speaking in riddles.
The bad man raised his eyebrows. “Who has these questions?”
The Boss’ eyes gleamed in the lights from around the room. “My head of security. His daughter has been missing for a few weeks.”
Tristan inhaled deeply as his father stepped forward, coming closer to the table as the bad man, Gabriel, nodded at him.
“How did your daughter go missing?” Tristan heard his father ask in his cool voice. He’d never understood how his dad could shout and scream at home like he did and yet stay so composed outside the house.
Gabriel indicated to the door from which the woman in the blue dress had left. “My wife took her to the park and lost her. We didn’t know she’d been taken until she wasn’t found for four days.”
The men near the Boss’ side straightened as his father nodded, stepping closer to the table. “And how did you find her?”
“We didn’t,” the bad man, Gabriel, said. “She was dropped outside our gates at night.”
Just like that?
Apparently, his father’s thoughts were on the same track.
“So, she’s taken and four days later, delivered to your doorstep?” his dad asked, his voice losing its cool and resembling the tone Tristan had heard for so many nights. “How convenient.”
The bad man glared at his father. “Are you implying something?”
“Damn right, I am,” his dad responded, walking right to the table.
Leaning down, his father’s face shone in the lights, the look in his eyes scaring Tristan.
Tristan looked at his face, looked at the bad man sitting at the edge of his chair, looked at the baby between them, and his gut dropped to his knees. She needed to get away before his father started his shouting and the bad man responded.
“I’ve looked into you, Gabriel Vitalio,” his dad spoke, his voice edging towards the blackness in his eyes. “I’ve looked at the things you have done. So many girls gone missing, and not one is returned. Yet, when it’s your child, she’s sent back to you gift-wrapped. It only means two things – you either scare them, or you know them. Which is it, huh?”
Gabriel Vitalio whipped his head towards the Boss, his eyes angry, his men on edge and their fingers on their weapons. “Is this why you invited me here, Lorenzo? For this?”
The Boss laughed. “You know exactly why I invited you, Gabriel. We’re done.”
“You really want me to air our dirty laundry here? I’ve got you by the balls and you know it, Bloodhound.”
The Boss leaned back in his chair and chuckled even as his eyes remained dead. “Look around you, Viper. You’re in my city. My territory. My house. Surrounded by my men. With your inner circle here.”
As though on cue, all the Boss’ men trained their guns on Vitalio’s men. Tristan swallowed, watching.
Gabriel Vitalio breathed in deeply. “Even if you break our deals, you can’t kill me. I have my own territory and fail-safes in place.”
“I know. I may not kill you, now,” the Boss said. “But I can do to you what we did to Reaper.”
Gabriel Vitalio went silent.
“You fucking bastard.”
Tristan’s eyebrows went up on his head. Who was Reaper and what had they done to him?
“As I said, we’re done, Viper. That means my head of security can roll you in the mud for all I care. If you’re not the ally, you’re the enemy.”
“You’re stupid to think you can threaten me into silence, Bloodhound,” Gabriel Vitalio said in a low voice. “I can burn your empire with the things I know.”
“Then be ready to burn with me.”
Tristan didn’t understand what they were talking about but he held his breath as he took in the whole room. The two men glared at each other across the table, the tension so heavy in the air Tristan felt goosebumps on his arms. He rubbed them softly, trying to cool himself down.
Maybe he should leave. Just let the grownups talk. His father was there. He would find out whatever he could about Luna.
But Tristan didn’t move.
His eyes kept returning to the little baby smack in the middle of the men, the baby who had perhaps been the last of them all to see his sister. The baby who was curiously inspecting a spoon she’d grabbed with her hand.
Biting his lip, he stayed put.
It was his father’s voice that broke the silence, his harsh words directed at the bad man. Viper.
“Where are the girls?”
Viper grit his teeth. “How the fuck should I know?”
His father didn’t like that answer.
In the blink of an eye, his father pulled out his gun and pointed it right at Viper’s head, while the Boss sat back, watching the show.
Viper’s hand inched towards his pocket. His father shook his head.
“Don’t move an inch.”
Tristan held the pillar with his hand, his muscles tightening instinctively. Without moving his eyes from the scene, Tristan quickly bent down to his sock and took out the Swiss knife he’d stolen from his father’s stash one day, just in case he had to protect Luna. The knife felt slightly heavy in his small hand but Tristan held it, ready to fight if need be.
His father turned to the bad man and spoke in that loud tone that made Tristan flinch, the knife slipping in his hand, cutting across his palm. The pain exploded on his skin but he bit down on his lip, not wanting to give away his presence to anyone, wiping the tears streaking across his cheeks.
“I know you know, Gabriel Vitalio. I know that you know something. Spill it now, or I won’t be responsible for what happens.”
Viper chortled. “You poor bastard, you have no idea what’s going on, do you?”
Tristan wanted to punch the man in his face. Forget his bleeding wound, he wanted to hit the man and break his nose. His sister had disappeared and the man was laughing? When his own daughter had just returned?
Tristan hadn’t known men like this. He never wanted to know men like this. Men who could laugh with such evil.
His father shoved the gun deeper into the man’s face. “Tell me! What do you know?”
The man chortled. “You want me to tell him, Bloodhound? Want me to tell him why you want to break the Alliance so bad?”
Tristan looked at the Boss, who’d stilled.
“Remember Reaper every time you think of opening your mouth, Viper.”
The other man bared his teeth but stayed silent.
Tristan’s father snapped his fingers. “What does that have to with my daughter?”
And then Tristan’s father moved.
Before Tristan could blink, his father pulled his hand and shifted the gun, pointing it right at a small, chubby face and bright hazel eyes studying the gun in fascination.
Tristan couldn’t breathe.
His father’s shaking hand steadied, his eyes becoming completely black.
“You don’t tell me what I want to know,” his father said quietly, “she dies. Your daughter for my daughter.”
Tristan could only watch the scene in horror but stopped himself from thinking bad thoughts. His father was just bluffing. He was trying to find everything about Luna and playing the other man. Yes. That was it.
Maybe, Tristan could help him if Viper did something.
Swallowing down his nerves, stepping out from behind the pillar, Tristan stayed in the shadow, looking around.
His eyes landed on the gun lying towards his right on the small table against the wall. Without any thought, Tristan placed the knife gripped in his bleeding hand quietly on the wooden surface and picked up the gun. He didn’t know what kind it was, or how many bullets it had. But it was heavy in his small, shaking hands. It was heavy.
Yet, Tristan raised up his thin arms, pointing the gun at Viper, unlocking it like his father had taught him to do. He was ready to shoot the bad man who didn’t realize what a miracle he’d received when his daughter had come back to him. He would do anything, give anything away to have his sister back with him.
He wanted his sister back so much.
His father missed her too. That was why he was bluffing. That was why he was trying to get information in any way he could. Tristan understood that.
He just kept his hands steady even as they started aching, the bleeding gash on his palm throbbing.
Gritting his teeth so he wouldn’t make any noise, Tristan kept his eyes on the scene from the shadows. He saw the Viper’s eyes move to the Boss, saw the Boss shake his head ever so slightly, saw the man lean back again.
“I can’t tell you anything,” he said aloud, his voice controlled. “Do what you want to do.”
Blood rushed through his ears. The Boss’ men kept their guns on Viper’s men while his father kept his own gun pointed to the head of the little girl. Tristan understood his father’s motivation but he was unable to understand how these other men could do what they were doing, and why nobody else standing there did a thing to stop them.
How could a man do that to his own daughter?
Tristan swallowed, waiting for his father to lower his weapon and do something else.
His heart started thudding, the gun shaking in his trembling hands.
Why wasn’t he putting his gun down?
Why wasn’t he moving away from the baby?
Why wasn’t anyone else doing something?
“Last chance, Vitalio,” his father said softly.
Viper shook his head.
The Boss spoke. “Leave it be, David.”
Move the gun, dad, Tristan urged in his head, his lips trembling.
His father shook his head. “His daughter for my daughter.”
Move away, dad.
He shouldn’t have been here.
He shouldn’t have sneaked in to see this.
He couldn’t understand.
He didn’t understand.
Oh god, why wasn’t his father moving away?
He was so scared. He was so, so scared.
He wanted to leave.
But his feet wouldn’t move. They wouldn’t move.
He tried to swallow his whimpers as his heart started to hurt. He just wanted to go home. He just wanted to sleep in his bed. He just wanted his sister back. He wanted to go home.
But his shoes were stuck to the ground.
He shouldn’t be here.
Oh god, he was so scared.
His heart pounded so hard he could hear it in his ears, his stomach heavy.
His entire body started shaking, his arms trembling, bleeding, hurt.
His father cocked the gun, unlocking it.
Tristan started to cry, unable to stop his tears anymore. He loved his dad so much. But why was he doing this? He didn’t understand. This wouldn’t bring Luna back.
His breathing became heavy.
Tristan watched his father’s finger hold the trigger and saw his muscles move, and he knew with sudden certainty that his dad was going to pull the trigger.
This wasn’t a bluff. This wasn’t a game. It was life and death.
Tristan looked at his father’s face and saw nothing. No hint of the face he had when he looked at Luna. No hint of any softness.
His father’s finger flexed.
The finger started to pull.
Tristan whimpered, terrified.
And before he even understood, he pulled the trigger.
The force of the hit pushed Tristan down to the ground, the gun still gripped in his arms as the loud sound of the bullet broke through the hall, accompanied by curse words and screams, and the crying of the girl.
The sudden onslaught of noise became white as Tristan looked back at the table, only to see the little girl with splattered blood on her face.
Without a thought, his mind silent, completely silent, Tristan walked out into the fore, straight to the girl who was getting red in the face from her cries. Hands trembling, Tristan wiped the blood off her soft face, forgetting his own bleeding palm.
Instead of cleaning her skin, he marred it even more with his own blood.
His dad was going to punish him so badly for this.
Ready to apologize for hitting him, to accept whatever punishment he gave out, Tristan turned to the side.
His heart stopped.
No. No. No. No. No.
The gun dropped from his hand, clattering loudly in the suddenly silent hall.
Tristan shook his head.
No. No. No. No. No.
His father lay there on the floor, his eyes open, staring up at the ceiling, his body motionless.
With a hole right in the center of his head.
The hole from a bullet.
Something lodged in his chest.
“You killed your own father?”
Tristan heard the Boss’ voice. He heard him ask, heard the words, but kept looking at his dad, denying it in his heart.
No. No. No. No. No.
“That’s his father?” someone else asked.
“How could he aim from there?”
“How did no one know he was here?”
“He’s ruthless for a kid. Can you imagine what he’d be like?”
Rushing all around.
No. No. No. No. No.
“The next course is ready when–”
It was the sound of his mother’s voice that pulled Tristan’s head up.
Oh god, what had he done?
Tristan saw as she came to a stop in the doorway, her eyes on him.
“Tristan, what are you doing here?” she asked, her eyes angry as she came towards him. Turning to the Boss, she started speaking, “I apologize for him, Mr. Maroni. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doin–”
Her voice cut off abruptly as her eyes fell on his father, the words choking in her mouth.
Tristan saw as her hands came up to her lips, tears streaking down her cheeks as a sound escaped her chest. His jaw started to hurt from the way he’d clenched it.
‘Who?’ her mother’s voice wavered on the word.
The Boss stepped forward towards Tristan. “Your son.”
His mother’s eyes snapped up to his, disbelief etched on her face. Tristan let her watch him silently, watched the disbelief change in horror as she saw the truth on his face. The horror he saw in her eyes killed something inside him. His jaw trembled as he stepped towards her, wanting to rush into her arms and have her tell him everything would be okay.
She jerked back from him, her mouth agape in terror. “Get away from me.”
His mother looked at him for a long time, shaking her head. “Why?”
‘I.. it…’ the words stuck in his throat, lodging there, unable to escape.
She took a step back. ‘You lost your sister. Now, you’ve killed your father. My husband. My daughter.’
Tristan clenched his hands to keep from reaching out to her, not uttering a word. There wasn’t anything he could say.
‘My son was a sweet boy,’ his mother whispered almost to the door now. ‘You’re not him. You’re like them. Monsters.’
Something broke – damaged beyond repair in his chest.
“I don’t want to see you again,” her voice cracked as she stepped through the door from whence she’d entered. “You’re dead to me.”
Tristan stood there.
Without his baby sister.
Without his father.
Without his mother.
Only with men who looked at him like they would eat him alive.
And a baby who had stopped crying.
A baby who, a few minutes ago, had been nothing to him. A baby for whom he’d murdered the father he’d loved so much.
Tristan looked at her – her eyes swollen from crying, the colors in them shining and twinkling; her little mouth rosy and soft; her chubby face smeared with his and his father’s blood.
The flutter he had felt in his chest minutes ago was gone. In its place was something else instead. Something he’d never felt before. Something he didn’t understand. Something twisted and ugly and alive, taking root inside his chest as he watched her breathe, because of him. Something poisonous bleeding its way into his heart, paralyzing it, deadening it, until he couldn’t feel it anymore.
Until he could feel nothing but the poison. Until he could see nothing but her face with his blood.
He had spilled his father’s blood to protect her.
His mother had called him a monster. She’d been right. He’d become a monster, more evil than all the men in the room, in one second.
All because of her.
Because she’d made him choose.
And he had nothing.
Nothing except this feeling in his chest. He latched on to it, looking at her face, etching it to memory. He looked at her eyes, seeing her soul forever tainted with his blood.
As of tonight, her life was his. He’d given up everything so she could live.
Her life was his.
He didn’t know what he would do with it. But it was his.
“Come with me, boy.”
The Boss’s voice reached him. No. Not the Boss. He’d been the Boss to his father. And his father was dead.
Tristan Caine was dead too. In his place, someone else was born. Someone who looked up at Lorenzo Maroni and the gleam in his dark eyes dispassionately.
He kept quiet, everything inside him detached except for the strange, bitter sensation he felt when he looked at the girl. The men around him were considering him, all bigger than he was, with heavy weapons and the power to scare him.
He wasn’t scared anymore.
This was the last time, he vowed to himself, that he’d be scared.
He was going to become the scariest of them all.
Saving her had destroyed him. One day, he vowed as he watched a man pick up the little girl and take her away, his blue eyes on her, he would collect his debt.
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