None of the boys were aware of the problems, and Conrad's rehearsal group were busy planning their part in the event.
"OK, I'm involved so there'll be some sort of photo shoot." Conrad said, " We'll dance with our partners for a time, but we'll finish with a full-blown Viennese waltz. That'll be a signal for the photographers to go, and we can relax then circulate. If others want to try our style of dancing we can carry on but if they want something different , then OK."
" And we'll be wearing formal evening dress ." A girl asked, "It'll feel weird because not many will be ."
"It is a rehearsal for the New Year's Ball, and everyone knows we're taking over the dance a bit. It's why circulating and involving everyone is so important. You might be in an evening gown but try getting the shy boy, standing against the wall, dancing. "
"That's what Jim and you will have to do at the ball, isn't it?"
"We'll have to work on the girls, but yes."
Elsewhere, another group of youths was being briefed.
"Don't kill anyone and concentrate on wrecking the place. You won't have that long so just do what you can and get out quick."
At the palace the King was facing the head of his bodyguard, and a line of secretaries.
"I understand your concerns, but security has infiltrated that group. We now know what they're planning, and I'm not letting the school deal with it alone. What better way of getting a large contingent of security men in than to protect me."
"Yes sir, but it's inappropriate for you to be involved in a brawl."
"I'll explain again. Bruce MacPherson is the figurehead for a group who wishes to turn this country more totalitarian., but this top group does nothing illegal or anything to draw attention to itself. What it does do is form links with other lower grade groups who in turn control others. Now if the MacPherson group donates money for printing, it can be as shocked as the rest of us when it gets diverted for bomb making.
"Security cannot get much on this central group, it's too rich and powerful but security's made good progress in the peripheral ones. Once again, links are tenuous, but there is one group: the T.E. or the Traditional Education Society. It seems to think learning basic reading and writing skills along with basic arithmetic, and a highly politicized history learnt by rote, is enough for the masses. One of its spokesmen has suggested gays be banned from schools, so you can imagine, it doesn't like Prince Conrad's support of state education.
"We have an agent who happens to be one of our more successful plants, and he's the one who informed us of this gang of thugs out to wreck the school dance. Now if this gang of thugs is successful, their line will then be: state schools are not secure enough for our beloved prince, and he'll be carted off to one of their schools."
"Yes sir. We know all this, but why must you get involved?"
"Because we are taking MacPherson's threat seriously. We want our man to do a good job and get further up the chain. By turning up unexpectedly, I'll beef up security, and they'll swamp the gang. Hopefully, T.E. will think like you and not believe I'd deliberately get involved. If they think it was bad luck, they won't go looking for a mole."
"I'm still not sure I understand, sir."
"When we arrest the thugs we'll interrogate them. They won't have much information, but what we already have could be from them and not the mole."
"But it'll still suggest a state school is unsuitable for the prince, sir."
"Yes, but I can compromise by suggesting Conrad's security be beefed up after a minor incident. It won't be a complete review because it was overwhelmed."
With so many problems building up, Mrs Jacobs was beginning to wish she could cancel the school dance. Many parents were concerned about gay couples openly attending. Others wanted to know how their children should dress to impress the prince, complaining they were not eligible for the dance lessons. The educational authorities wanted to showcase the school and, unusually, were pressing her to go over budget instead of complaining about the expense. Normally the music was provided by the school's own equipment producing a noise which just about sounded like music through the tinny sounding speakers. It echoed around the gym making any tune unrecognizable, but it did not matter. The kids could jiggle around, have a few fruit drinks, and a couple of sausage rolls and generally spend time with their girlfriend/boyfriend.
U nfortunately, films and TV programmes about royalty and the aristocracy were popular and suddenly, the school was being offered a taste of the life. On one hand were boys who steadfastly refused to take part and on the other were girls who dreamed of being Cinderella. Between the two extremes, there was a heady mix of attitudes, and excitement was steadily increasing. Since the press would be present, suppliers were offering their services, providing their brand was clearly on display. Now the King had offered his services as a supervising parent. It was all too much, but she answered the parents as best she could. The number of gay couples was surprising, but the situation was being monitored. The dress code was informal, but couples attending roy al events needed to show they could represent the school. With a bit of care, budget issues would be balanced by product promotions.
It had partly worked. As the students arrived, the dress code had definitely improved but there was still a good selection of jeans and T-shirts on display. One or two parents glared at Jim and Conrad who arrived hand in hand, others looked uncomfortable, but most focussed on the students known for smuggling booze. Some guests were already dancing to the background music playing as the latecomers arrived. Mrs Jacobs had made her own plans helped by Conrad, she stepped onto the stage .
" Would the demonstration team, please take to the floor for the opening waltz?" She said.
It was an impressive sight as the formally attired couples swept around the dance floor. Jim and Conrad happily danced together, but suddenly the music stopped. The dancing couples parted and approached the watching students. Students content to stand and watch found themselves being pulled forwards. Couples found themselves separated but on the floor and then the dancing began again. This time the band played to the end, but then Mrs Jacobs made her second announcement.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, The King."
As King Constantine stepped onto the stage, the national anthem played. The boys in the dance club bowed their heads while the girls curtseyed. Others stood uncertainly or tried to follow suit. The King took Mrs Jacob's hand and led her to the dance floor before nodding to the DJ to start playing. It was a quick step, and they circled once before Conrad led the others onto the floor. As he circled the floor, so Conrad beckoned others on.
To Mrs Jacobs' surprise, as the tune ended, everyone waited hopefully, caught up in the moment, but it was then the doors burst open and a gang of youths, in boots and shorn heads crowded in. They carried baseball bats, and they were tense, ready for a fight. Everyone except for the king froze.
"Hello lads. If you've come for the dance, then welcome. Otherwise, please leave." He said.
"Shut it, you old fool." The leader snarled, "It's time to stand up against the poofters. Who's with us?"
The doors burst open again, this time, for men armed with tasers.
Normally, everyone seemed to forget Conrad's bodyguard which tried to stay in the background, but they also formed a line between the gang and dancers.
"Next time, please, at least make it: Your Royal Old Fool." The King said, "You'll have to go with my bodyguard because they'd like a word with you."
Onlookers watched as the menace disappeared from the gang, to be replaced by confusion then fear as they realized who they were dealing with. Bodyguards were already cuffing the gang before leading them out.
"Well that was interesting." The king said to Mrs Jacobs but in a voice loud enough for all to hear, "Would you join me in a waltz? Or maybe we should swap partners again."
Mrs Jacobs found herself dancing with Billy, while the King danced with a girl who wore jeans and had seemed a little bored by the evening but who was proving to be an excellent dancer. Mrs Jacobs expected the dance floor to gradually empty as the novelty of evening wore off, but it was getting more crowded.
"Conrad's made it cool to include everyone." Billy said, "Look at Dave Linderman. He's actually asked someone to dance. OK, it looks more like a shuffle than a dance, but he's doing it. Conrad's given him the thumbs up, so no-one is going to laugh at them. The only ones who aren't enjoying themselves are the ones who thought they were the top clique."
"I thought they joined the dance club." Mrs Jacobs said.
"And all the girls thought they would be dancing with Jamie or Conrad. They didn't like it when they were paired with Axel. Conrad preferred the girls who had fun and didn't try to impress."
"I thought he preferred Jim."
"I prefer Sven." Billy laughed, "Watch Conrad and Jim though. They keep glancing at each other and smiling. They touch hands between dances."
It also surprised Mrs Jacobs everyone seemed to have forgotten the incident with the gang, but with kings and princes present, it was no ordinary school dance. The presence of so much security was daunting for the odd student bringing in alcohol or who would normally cause trouble in some way, so the regular supervisors were having an easier time than usual.
As the dance ended, Conrad said to the girl he was dancing with.
"Thank you. It was great fun but would you mind if I spent time with Jim?"
The girl grinned as she shook her head, so Conrad smiled in return and hurried off. He found Jim sipping a cola. Conrad kissed him on the cheek.
"Enjoying yourself?" he asked.
"Yeah, I think I am. I wish I could dance with you though." Jim replied.
"So do I. Have I overdone it trying to include everyone?"
"Probably, but everyone appreciates it. Even your Dad is enjoying himself."
"He loves dancing. Have you seen Billy dancing with Mrs Jacobs?"
"That's the thing. Everyone seems to be mixing more, and everyone likes it. I'm glad that gang didn't wreck anything."
"I wondered why Dad turned up." Conrad said, "I reckon he knew about it."
Seeing Jim's puzzled look, he added, "I don't know, but it seemed security knew exactly what to do, and Dad seemed ready for it. Is it a problem for us?"
Jim leant forward to kiss Conrad on the lips, then led him to the dance floor. They danced until the King beckoned them over.
"I'm leaving now. I'm proud of you, Conrad, and James, you're a fine addition to the family. Your friends are also a credit to you."
As the king left, so the excitement waned, and the DJ switched to modern music. One or two of the boys loosened their tie, turning to Conrad who nodded and removed his own tie.
The social pages showed the photo shoots taken at the beginning of the dance. The social media showed pictures of Conrad dancing with both Jim and girls in his class, and one or two papers showed pictures of the king dancing with Mrs Jacobs.
The Prime Minister was furious there was no mention of the gang supposed to disrupt the dance except for one or two jerky and blurred videos.
"What the fuck happened?" He thundered.
"No-one expected the king to turn up." Richard Courtney replied, "It is most unfortunate. There have been a couple of pieces about how the State Education Service can provide a top quality education.
"They'll be suggesting top civil servants be recruited from it next."
"One leader column did. It more or less says elitist policies may have worked in the past but today too much talent is being overlooked."
"So how do we discredit those fucking queers then? I still say we get rid of the Poulson brat."
"There'd be too much public sympathy. I've been thinking about how we could involve the prince in military matters. Soldiers tend to be conservative so make him colonel-in-chief of recruiting and training. If there's an influx of gays, we should be able to make something of it. It's risky though. He's disappointed his challenge fizzled out, so I see him taking part in training exercises. That's the problem, there's too many pictures of him swimming, playing football and cycling. Add in pictures of him dancing with both sexes, and you've got a pin-up red-blooded youth."
"You keep saying what we can't do, but what can we fucking do?"
"We target the Poulson family. We've tried Mrs Poulson before, but we'll see if we can find grounds for her getting custody. We need to do it so there're grounds for appeal, and we play it up as a sordid family squabble, hinting the boy has just dumped his mother to chase the prince. We'll make the father seem weak, unable to control the boy. We can't use Sebastian Walker's father, but Mrs Walker is condoning underage sex and is encouraging Jamie to reject his father. Let's go for family values, and the cynical way they're being undermined."
"Haven't they turned another pair? What about them?"
"We focus on families breaking up, though one of the pair might prove useful. Taverner senior is unemployed, and we can suggest he uses royal connections to loaf around on the dole."
"Fucking hell, we've dealt with fucking troublemakers before. Why is a bunch of fucking brats so difficult?"
"Adults have all got their little secrets, so it's easy to find something. What do kids have we can turn into a scandal? Being gay should be bad enough, but how many times has someone said: he's only young; he'll grow out of it?"
Secretly, Mr. Poulson still hoped Jim would grow out of it, but he accepted it was highly unlikely. His side of the family still saw him as a drop out and Jim as an embarrassment, but more and more were seeing him as a celebrity. What frustrated them, was seeing the money that could come the family's way but neither Jim nor his father were interested. Lucrative sponsorship deals could make being gay so much more reasonable.
Mr. Poulson's in-laws were also upset. Jim preferred to stay with his father instead of seeing sense, and the opportunities they offered. Although confused and muddled Aunt Clara's views dominated. Royals were never gay. Jim needed therapy. He should be preparing for university courses reading law, economics and politics, ready to join the family firm of accountants, and finding a girl of the right standing to marry. As a female, his mother was less welcome in the firm, but she was helped to find a job in a high quality estate agency. If Jim continued to have an awkward private life, he would be similarly looked after providing he cooperated. However, Stella, Jim's mother's office displayed pictures of her connections to royalty. There was the hint she had royal patronage and that had to be good for business.
The problem for both sides of the family was the same: how to exploit his friendship with Conrad without admitting they were lovers? It was his mother's side who would generate the worst bad publicity by starting a bitter custody hearing, but it was Gerald's brother, Samuel who made the first move.
The two brothers got on after a fashion but Samuel always suggested Gerald was the poor relation which generated friction between them, but it was time to rescue Jim from the country bumpkin life.
"Uncle Sam is coming for the day." Gerald announced.
"OK!" Jim replied, "I take it, he's been promoted, and he's upgrading to a snazzier car."
"Yes. That's what his last visit was about, wasn't it. He still played football with you and gave you some money for doing so well at school. He's not all bad."
"No, he was impressed with how hard you work, so imagine what you could do in a real job."
"Just give him a chance, will you?"
Jim and Conrad were hosing down a farm buggy when he arrived, but they hurried over to greet him.
"Hi Uncle Sam." Jim said, "This is my boyfriend, Conrad."
Boyfriend, Conrad. Just two words and like Aunt Clara and others before, his understanding of the world was in turmoil. However, he had been warned, so tentatively offered his hand, expecting Conrad to ignore it.
Instead, they shook hands as Conrad said, "I'm pleased to meet you, sir."
"Call me Sam or Uncle Sam. Actually, I was half-expecting to call you, sir."
"It would sound weird while I was doing my Saturday morning chores." Conrad grinned.
"OK! A prince doing Saturday morning chores sounds weird. I'm sorry, but it's my first meeting with royalty, and it's not what I expected. Where's Gerry."
"I think he's in the kitchen. He said some something about you arriving about now and putting the coffee on."
"How well he knows me. I'd like a chat with you, Jim, but later will do. Give Gerry and me a bit of time to catch up, will you?"
"Is it me, or was that a little odd?" Conrad asked, "I get wanting to catch up, but why on their own?"
"Yeah. It sounds reasonable, doesn't it but …"
The boys worked in silence before heading for the kitchen. They heard raised voices as they approached, but all they heard was, "OK, so he won't fit in with our brand ethics. Why not give him a chance to do something boys like that enjoy?"
"What do boys like me enjoy, Uncle?" Jim asked as they entered.
"I'm sorry, Jim." Sam said, "Your Dad's being his usual stubborn self, and it came out wrong. I meant, young, good-looking lads like showing off, and I'd like to explain."
"OK! It sounds even weirder now, so you'd better."
"One of our clients is a sport's agency and has connections with a top sportswear manufacturer. Now, this manufacturer is always looking for models to display their products. You're already becoming a celebrity, so they'll pay good rates. If you and your Dad sign these papers making me your agent, I can get things moving."
"I don't think I'm interested, but leave the papers, and I'll get someone to read them. I think I should also ask Mrs Brampton at the palace to look them over."
"There's a bit of a time limit, so we need to move quickly. Surely you trust your old uncle."
"I thought it was standard business practice to get a lawyer to check them. Why is there a time limit?"
"Models are already being shortlisted. We need to get in quick."
"OK! I'll scan them and email them to Mrs Brampton. She'll be quick."
Sam looked at his brother for support.
"I agree with Jim." Gerald said, "Conrad's our guest, and we must make sure he wouldn't be embarrassed. Take the papers, Jim and get busy. Conrad, you can help him."
Sam was not too happy, but he handed them over, and the boys headed for their bedroom.
"What's wrong? You know the palace can't stop you." Conrad said.
"I know. I like living here. Uncle Sam's OK, but he was always on about me missing out on stuff. Is it like when Aunt Clara brought a spy here? And you know I don't like all that press stuff either."
"It's a pity though. I'd love to see you in shorts or speedos. I dunno, you look more sexy than when you're naked."
Smiling, Jim peeled off his shirt and dropped his shorts leaving him in black briefs. He arched his back, hands behind his head, as he said, "Get those papers sent off, then let's play with your camera. I'll do it for you. No-one else."
It took about an hour before Mrs Brampton rang back, by then, photographs had been forgotten, and they were both naked on the bed.
"I'm not a lawyer, but it all seems fair and above board except for a couple of clauses. The first says you will accept any assignment offered. It means you could get a phone call Christmas Day to fly to Brazil. The other specifies Poulson & Foyle as accountants, while Samuel Poulson will be entitled to all reasonable expenses. I will not comment on your family, but consider how far you can trust them. I did phone a friend of mine who works in advertising and yes, you are in the news enough to be marketable, but possibly not the major promotion your uncle mentioned."
"How do you mean?" Conrad asked.
"Supposing this sports firm is vaguely interested, and you sign the deal. They then decide you're too young or not experienced enough. You'll still be under contract and under your family's control."
It was a video call angled to show the boy's head and shoulders, so both boys were online.
"So, if I spent a weekend with Mum, they could drag me away to audition for a dog food commercial, which gets cancelled." Jim said.
"There's one other clause I nearly missed. You'll have to conform to their brand image."
"I know what that means." Jim exclaimed, "I'd have to be straight. Thanks, Mrs Brampton."
"It's my pleasure. I could find you an agent who would approach youth charities. You know, encouraging sport or something."
"No, thanks. I'm happy as I am."
"I thought you'd say that, but the offer's there. I'll leave you to it."
Reluctantly, they slipped on pairs of shorts, but when Conrad picked up his shirt, Jim shook his head. They headed downstairs, but before they entered the kitchen, Jim took Conrad's hand. Uncle Sam glanced at them, turning bright red.
"Must you behave like that?" he asked managing to stay calm.
"Like what, Uncle? Not conforming to your brand image?" Jim asked.
Sam smiled, "You've made your point. How about publicly conforming?"
"No. I'm sorry, Uncle, but I'm not interested. You'd have more control over me than Mum would have. I know he doesn't like it, but Dad lets me be me. Yeah, he expects us to do chores, and he expects me to do well at school, but he doesn't take over. Apart from Dad, the rest of the family wants me to grow up to be a good little businessman, married with children, and it's not going to happen."
"I wish you luck." Sam said, "your Granddad bought this place, so he could claim to be landed gentry. How long will it last after the real money your Dad earned in our firm runs out?"
"It ran out in six months." Gerald snapped, "I've got a nice little profit and no loans. I'll buy Jim a car when he turns seventeen, but it'll be a small runabout, not a flashy sports car. We do well enough if we cut out the swank and show."
"And is that what you want, Jim?" Sam asked.
"I want the nursery's name changed to Poulson & Son." Jim said, "I think agricultural college would be good."
"Well, if that's your choice, so be it. You're missing out on an opportunity to become wealthy and mix in the best circles." Sam paused, "I'm sorry, Conrad. You probably think you're already offering all that, but how long are you going to put up with being in this backwater?"
"I don't think I'm offering anything like that." Conrad replied, "I like it because I'm not trying to mix with the best circles. I've done it, and I hated it."
For Sam, such a notion was unthinkable. It all had to be down to their brains being addled by all their gay depravity. They were obviously having sex with Gerald's consent so could the police do something? After all, they were underage, but involving the police would alienate Jim and make him less responsive and Sam saw the money Jim could earn. He had no choice but to fall back on his image of gays: they were all camp, flamboyant show-offs at heart, so maybe Jim would come around in his own time. It was time to check the deeds of the nursery and the will again. Did he have a claim on it or the profits? Again he would have to be careful because in his turn, Gerald might have a claim on the town house Sam inherited.
The visit remained as uncomfortable as ever, but Gerald was glad to keep up with the family news.
"Georgina's getting married." Sam said at one point, "Her mum's not sure what to do about your invitation. Should she invite Conrad? She's worried about a blatantly gay couple upsetting the other youngsters and how would she refer to Conrad?"
"We won't go." Gerald said, "Conrad has enough family problems of his own. I'm not going to inflict our ours on him."
"You could go, Mr. Poulson. Jim and I could go and see Dad, and Jim could invite his mother again." Conrad said, and he had guessed right. Gerald's family was not going to allow Jim's mother that sort of advantage.
"Just out of curiosity, how would she invite Conrad?" Sam asked.
"Send separate invitations." Gerald said, "One to me and one to Jim and partner or Jim plus one."
"It's a pity you're driving." Conrad said a little later, "We could take you to the Dawlish winery."
"Thanks, but I only drink French wines. Tiny establishments like that hardly match."
"Dad doesn't think so. He has them served at state banquets. He hits it off with the French ambassador and is talking about his family visiting. The ambassador's not even worried about us upsetting his son because Jim and I would look after him."
A reminder of the circles Conrad, and now, Jim moved in. A dig at the family image, and an attack on their innate snobbery. It undermined everything Sam believed in, and it was the moment he was beaten. Sam's visit was partly a genuine wish to catch up with his brother, but it also carried an element of trying to set him straight. He managed to keep his visit pleasant but everyone was relieved when he left.
Jim mentioned Sam's visit and offer to his mother when she phoned, and her family worried how the paternal side was getting control. In their eyes, Jim could be straightened out with therapy, not by condoning his perversion. Conrad was as weak as all gays, hiding from his responsibilities and clinging onto Jim for protection. Of course, they could see the kudos in having royal connections, but gays were too flaky to have lasting relationships, so he was probably already losing interest in Jim.
No-one took much notice of Aunt Clara: they agreed with her views, but she was too muddled. It was part of her confusion she thought highly of Conrad. She justified it by claiming no royal would ever allow himself to be gay, so he was just rebelling against the demands of his role as heir, but she was far less certain than she claimed. Her family thought it possible, but it still meant Jim would be dumped unless he straightened out too.
None of it made much sense, but it maintained family core values which meant Jim needed help. The family needed to show Jim and his father would lose out by standing up to them, so Jim's mother applied for full custody. Her case was Jim led an immoral life by having underage sex. He was being led astray by a corrupt youth using his influence to lead Jim to a life of depravity. His father was condoning it all and discouraging Jim from reaching his full potential.
The family's regular lawyers said the case would be thrown out, as did the second law firm they approached. Richard Courtney's agents informed him, so he asked another to approach the family. This firm was more interested in politics and doing favours than representing their clients so were happy to take on a hopeless case.
The next day, Adam took Jim and Conrad to school. They did not pick up Seb and Jamie any more as they chose to cycle, so Seb could stop to talk to any reporters hanging around the school entrance.
"Morning Seb. Any thoughts on Jim Poulson's mother's custody application?"
"What application? I don't know what you're talking about." Seb replied, "Lunchtime?"
He cycled into school before rushing over to the others.
"I'll phone Dad." Jim replied, but his father had heard nothing either.
At break, he phoned Mrs Brampton.
"No. We've not heard anything. Either someone's got their wires crossed or jumped the gun. Can you handle the press?"
"I think so." Seb replied.
At lunchtime, he went out to them.
"No-one seems to know anything about it." he said, "Is it genuine or has there been a leak somewhere?"
"You know we can't reveal sources. Can you give us a quote?"
"I thought family cases are supposed to be secret. If there is a case, who gains by telling you?"
"I don't think we can go for a conspiracy theory. Any other thoughts?"
"Same thing really, why is someone more anxious to tell you before they tell Jim?" Seb asked.
"OK. Keep us posted, will you?" Adrian Chapman, the reporter said, "Can I have a private word with you."
Seb nodded, and they walked a little into the school grounds.
"My editor is thinking along the same lines as you. So am I if it comes to that. You've let us into Conrad's life more than normal, so we owe you. There's a threat to the freedom of the press by making RNN the official mouthpiece. RNN released the news first, but then we all got copies of this. If it goes through the usual process the Poulsons will get the court papers in a couple of days, so it's either leaked from the court or the mother's lawyers. I'd bet the lawyers."
As he handed Seb an envelope, Adrian added, "There's a slot for you on Teen World if you're interested. They've dug up pictures of you swimming, and they'll find a way to get your shirt off in the studio, but they'll do an interview on your role as spokesman, and probably your sexuality."
"I'm only fifteen. Can they do that?"
"If they keep to your public persona and not what you do in private, it's OK, and you admit to being gay."
"OK! What do I do?"
"They'll ring you."
Seb hurried back to find his friends and recounted his conversation with Adrian. They huddled round to read the document. It was his mother's statement alleging his immoral lifestyle plus the allegation she was denied visiting rights and Jim never visited on the allocated weekends.
" OK. I did stay with her on weekends, but she kept getting appointments, and I was left on my own." Jim said, "They seemed pointless if she was never there. I'll show it to Dad, tonight. So you're going to be a TV star, are you, Seb?"
"If Conrad and Jamie don't mind. I've only been asked because I know Conrad and I need to ask my boyfriend if it's OK."
"Don't you mind being objectified?" Sven asked.
"No. Why should I? I'm more worried about using Conrad."
"Do it." Jamie said, "I like having a hot boyfriend."
"I don't see a problem, either." Conrad said, "Just treat it like another press conference."
"Thanks. What about Jim?"
" We'll scan the papers and send them to Mrs Brampton. She' l l be quicker than a lawyer." Conrad said, "Apart from that, it's for Jim and Mr. Poulson to decide. I'll support them no matter what happens."
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