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Title: A Sort-Of Fairy Tale, Chapter 1
Chapter: Chapter 1 of ? - this chapter is cut in two because of LJ's post limits, Part 1 is here
Author: Boots
Rating: This chapter PG, eventual series rating NC-17
Genre: Fairy tale AU, romance, drama
Warning: For this chapter, just language
Pairing: Final pairings of the series confidential for now. Currently, it involves Yo-ka (DIAURA) with a harem that includes Subaru (Royz), MiA (Mejibray), Yuuki (Lycaon/Initial’L), Ruiza (D), Hiyori (Kiryu) and Hiro (Fest Vainqueur). Although he's not in the pairing list (yet), the Toya in this fic is from Gotcharocka.
Disclaimer: DIAURA belongs to Ains, Royz and Kiryu belong to B.P. Records, Mejibray belongs to White Side Group, D and Gotcharocka belong to God Child Records, Fest Vainqueur belongs to PLUG RECORDS west, and I’m not yet sure who Initial’L’s new company is. I own the story only.
Overall Story Summary: Once upon a time, there was a prince named Yo-ka whose father forced him to go through a Culling – a process by which a group of young men are gathered from each district of his kingdom and he eliminates them one by one until he finds his true love. There was another prince named Toya, who came along to offer his brother moral support, but planned to stay away from the fray. And there was a candidate named Subaru, who arrived from one of the country’s poorest districts with little more than a head full of dreams. All three were about to get more than they bargained for . . .
Chapter Summary: Subaru is chosen for The Culling, and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a world of luxury – and facing a lot of prejudice. Can he make it to the second round – especially after being caught sneaking into a forbidden area of the palace?
Comments: The ultimate inspiration of this story was the concept behind ABC’s TV show The Bachelor, which I find repugnant – forcing a young man to eliminate women one by one, stomping on hearts and ripping apart friendships, until he arrives at his alleged true love. I began wondering, what if this ritual was applied to a Cinderella-like search for a royal consort . . . (During the planning stages of this fic, I became aware that there is a young adult series with a very similar concept to this fic called The Selection by Kiera Cass. While that series was not an influence on this fic – I have not read the books, just reviews of them – I figured I should note that here.)

In a corridor outside the ballroom, Crown Prince Yo-ka of Valluna was having the final finishing touches put on him by his stylists. One was applying a bit more color to his cheeks. Another was straightening the braid on the shoulders of his military uniform.

His father, in full royal regalia complete with crown, stood in front of him. “Yo-ka, I hope you appreciate the full gravity of what you are about to embark on,” the man said. “The choice of a life partner is not made easily for one in your position. This person is going to be your helpmate. Someone to talk to in times of crisis. Someone who can be relied upon. I don't want you to go choosing on the basis of a pretty face alone.”

“I'm not getting married tonight, Father,” Yo-ka said. “This isn't some fairy tale where I'm going to dance with someone once and then propose to him. I'm just meeting them for the first time. Then I interview them. Then there's week after week of dating.”

And I just want the whole thing to be over with, he thought. I just want my father to shut up.

“You may say that tonight doesn't matter,” said his father, “but this is the first step on your journey. Take the right step and it will lead you down the path to happiness. Take the wrong one and you'll be eternally lost in the woods.”

Yo-ka would have rolled his eyes if they weren't closed so the stylist could blend his shadow. His father could sometimes speak in prose more purple than a concord grape. “I know, Father,” he grumbled.

“I am going to speak to the candidates,” the king said. “You be ready to be brought in.”

As soon as he was gone, Yo-ka's brother, clad in a similar uniform, emerged from behind him. “Sometimes I wonder if we're really his children,” he said. “I mean, who the hell talks like THAT?”

“He's just making this even harder,” Yo-ka said. The stylists finished their work, bowed and retreated.

“Look, Yo-ka, I know this sucks and all, but just try to keep an open mind when you go in there, okay?” Toya said. “Like I said last night – you might actually meet someone you like. And if that happens? Go for it. Have fun with him – not because our father's being a blowhard, but because YOU like this guy and want to spend time with him.”

“I'm going to say that to you when it's YOUR turn to go through this, you know,” Yo-ka said.

“Just promise me you'll go into this with at least something of an open mind? I DO want you to find someone, you know. And you know we won't be allowed to date like normal guys as long as he's running the show.” He jerked his head toward the door their father had disappeared behind.

Yo-ka sighed. “All right,” he said. “I promise.”

The door opened, and one of the servants came out. “Your Highness,” he said, “your father is finishing up. It's time.”

“Showtime,” Toya said, patting his brother on the shoulder.

Yo-ka got behind the doors, tugging his jacket one last time. Here goes nothing, he thought.

The door opened, and he stepped into the ballroom. The candidates were all in one long line going down the side of the room, having been arranged by the servants.

He was trying very hard not to stare at them.

“Good evening,” he said. “I am, as you've probably guessed, Yo-ka of Valluna, Crown Prince of Veekay. But just call me Yo-ka – please. I'm happy to see you all here tonight, and I'm looking forward to getting to know you all. Those of you who are chosen to progress beyond the first round will get a chance to see some of the country, because we'll be traveling between royal palaces – and I really hope we get good weather, because I'd really like to take you on outdoor dates. So, yes, I hope we all enjoy ourselves during this process.”

The candidates applauded, and Yo-ka took a deep breath. Well, that part went okay, he thought.

“Your Highness,” the king said, “Earl Ohara will now present each of the candidates to you. Candidates, when your name is called, you will approach the prince and speak to him briefly – remember, you will have a full interview with him this week.”

The Earl – who had seen to it that the men were lined up in the order that they would be called – spoke the first name. “Yuuki of Lycaon.”

A small man with curly violet hair stepped forward and walked up to Yo-ka, bowing to him gracefully. “Good evening,” he said. “I am pleased to meet you, Your Highness.”

“I'm pleased to meet you, too,” Yo-ka said. “How was your journey here?”

“I had a good book, or else I would have gone out of my mind,” Yuuki said. “You know how long the train trip is from Lycaon, don't you?”

“I've been on it,” Yo-ka said. “It can be brutal. You had a comfortable car, at least?”

“Private cabins are a godsend,” Yuuki said. “But at least I'm glad to be here.” He leaned over and whispered, “I don't envy you. This much formality in dating must be hell.”

Yo-ka instantly decided he liked this guy. “You hit that nail on the head,” he whispered back.

“Thank you, Yuuki,” the Earl said, signaling that the man's time was up. “Next, Teru of Versailles . . .”

For the next seeming eternity, Yo-ka exchanged pleasantries with his 20 candidates, and, like his brother said, tried to keep an open mind. And there were a few that did manage to make a decent first impression.

Ruiza of D was elegant and cheerful. Kana of Codomo Dragon was sweet. So was Hiyori of Kiryu, although Yo-ka caught a hint of a playful side. Hiro of Fest Vanqueur had even more of hint of mischief. MiA of Mejibray was lovely, relaxed and casual. All of them got filed away in a mental “actually looking forward to their interviews” box.

The Earl leaned over and whispered, “There's only the representatives of the Lower Districts left.”

“So?” Yo-ka whispered back. “They're people, too. Bring them up here.”

The Earl called out, “Subaru of Royz.”

A blond in a gray suit rushed toward Yo-ka – and then quickly caught himself, as if he knew he was going too fast. “Hi!” the boy said. “I'm Subaru.” And then, as if remembering his manners, he bowed and said, “It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness.”

“Hi yourself, Subaru,” Yo-ka said. “You look very happy to be here.”

“I am,” Subaru said. “I'm really grateful for the chance to come here, Your Highness. It's all so beautiful! Including my rooms. I never, ever thought I'd get to see a place like this. And I've met so many people so far! It's, well . . . is it a cliché to say it's a dream come true?”

“Not at all,” Yo-ka said.

“So, again – thank you, Your Highness. I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life.”

Yo-ka leaned over toward the boy. “You can just call me Yo-ka, Subaru. I said that when you guys came in, and I mean it.”

“Okay, it's Yo-ka, then!” Subaru said. “And I probably have to go. You have other guys to meet.”

“Yes – but we'll be meeting again, remember?” said Yo-ka. “At the interview?”

“Oh, yes!” Subaru said. “Well, I'll see you there!” He bowed again, and went to the other side of the room, where the other candidates were.

Yo-ka watched him go, as the Earl announced the next candidate. A boy from a Lower District, he thought, who's physically adorable, and genuinely happy about being here . . . no, flat-out joyful. In fact, his enthusiasm was contagious. For the first time, Yo-ka actually found himself glad this was happening.

* * *

Subaru was sitting at a table with his three new friends. The last remains of dinner were being cleared away by the staff, and tea and coffee were being poured.

Once they were done greeting the prince, the candidates were whisked into a dining room for a fancy meal – and were told that the royal family was dining in separate quarters tonight. “Once you start moving from palace to palace,” the Earl said, “the Prince will sometimes dine with the candidates.”

“If we make it to the palace moving,” Subaru murmured. He was still thinking about his first meeting with the prince. Yo-ka wasn’t what he expected. He was, of course, ridiculously beautiful – even more than he looked in photographs. But Subaru’s initial impression of him was that he was, well . . . natural. No phony airs.

He found himself very much hoping he’d make the first cut, so he could find out more about him.

Now, as they sipped their coffee, MiA said, “We can look forward to a week in the palace now, at least.”

“I’m dividing my time between the library and the beach,” Ruiza said.

“Are we allowed to go into town at all?” said Hiyori, picking up his teacup.

“I’d like to see the town, too!” said Subaru.

“As long as we have chaperones, they said,” said MiA. “Meaning, probably, one of the guards.”

“I’d like a tour of this whole palace, too,” said Hiyori. “The storeroom of the crown jewels, especially. I’d like to just be able to tell my friends that I touched the crown of King Yoshiki” – the legendary founder of their nation.

“Like they’d let you touch it,” MiA said. “It’s probably got 20 round-the-clock guards.”

“It’s right around the corner from here,” Ruiza said. “The storeroom, I mean.”

“How do you know that?” MiA said.

“I studied the maps they gave us,” Ruiza nodded in the direction of a door at the far end of the room. “It should be right through there.”

Subaru leaned over and whispered to MiA, “Do you think we could sneak out and see them?”

MiA bit his lip, thoughtfully. “We might get in trouble,” he whispered back.

“We’ll just peek in and come back here,” Subaru said. He turned toward the other two – but they were engaged in conversation with a newcomer who had approached their table, a sweet-faced boy whose rosette announced that he was Kana of Codomo Dragon.

Subaru remembered that Hiyori had wanted to meet the representative of that district. Well, those two were going to be occupied for a moment . . .

“Let’s go now,” Subaru whispered to MiA, “while the staff is busy.”

They got up from their table, and quickly, quietly moved toward the door that Ruiza had indicated. They looked around, and when they saw the coast was clear, they snuck through it and into a stone corridor.

Without saying a word, they walked toward an archway at the end of the hall. Already, they could see a soft light glowing off polished metal and stone, telling them that they were at their goal . . .

And a voice behind them yelled, “What are you doing here?”

Crap. Oh, crap, they were busted. They both turned around, slowly, to see a burly, scowling guard.

“We . . . we were looking for a men’s room?” Subaru said, feebly.

“Likely story,” the guard growled. “This is a RESTRICTED area! Nobody is allowed here without a member of the Royal Family present! And since the two of you came here without permission, this is EXPRESS grounds for IMMEDIATE expulsion from the Culling! Now, I’m escorting both of you out of here right now, and . . .”

“It’s okay,” said a voice behind the guard. “They’re with me.”

Subaru and MiA exchanged a look. Who was that? It wasn’t Yo-ka’s voice. But there was the guard, bowing and stepping out of the way, saying, “I beg your pardon, Your Highness.”

There stood a young man in a similar military uniform as Yo-ka’s, every bit as beautiful, though his hair and eyes were darker. “Sorry I’m late,” he said casually to the two of them. “Come on, I’ll show you what I was talking about.” He took hold of Subaru’s arm with one hand, MiA’s with the other, and began walking with them toward the royal jewels storeroom.

Once the guard had left, the newcomer said, “Be careful from now on, okay, guys? I don’t want to see any of you get thrown out.”

“Thank you for helping us,” MiA said, bowing low, and Subaru bowed as well. “I’m MiA of Mejibray, this is Subaru of Royz.”

“Hi,” Subaru said from deep within the bow.

“I’m Toya,” the newcomer said. “Okay, officially His Highness Prince Toya of Charlotte, but the hell with that. Just call me Toya.”

“Why were you in the hall, Toya?” Subaru said. “Weren’t you having dinner with your parents and brother?”

“Oh, no, the three of them took dinner in my parents’ chambers,” Toya said. “They let me eat in the room with the candidates. They put me at the table with the most boring guys in the place, though – so I was sneaking out. So what were YOU doing in the hall?”

“We wanted to see the jewels,” Subaru said, sheepishly.

“Well, then, I might as well show them to you, right?” said Toya. He led them through the archway. “This is the stuff my parents wear on formal occasions,” he said, gesturing toward a pair of elaborate crowns. “I mean, really formal. They’ll be wearing them when my brother picks his Pledge.”

“They’re gorgeous,” Subaru said, leaning over. “But they look heavy.”

“Heavy as hell,” Toya said. “Makes me glad I’m second in line for the throne, it means I’ll never have to wear it.”

“What’s this big staff?” MiA said, gesturing toward a long rod of gold encrusted with jewels.

“It’s for royal proclamations,” Toya said. “Supposedly, a law isn’t official until my father gets on the balcony carrying that thing, holds it in the air and yells at the top of his lungs that the law is passed. Yeah, I don’t understand it, either.”

They moved over to a case carrying a row of wide, bejeweled collars – like the ones pharaohs wore in Egyptian paintings. The collar at the center was the biggest and most sparkly of all, lined with gems in the royal colors – purple and amber – as well as a generous selection of diamonds.

“What’s this?” Subaru said.

“That’s what you guys are competing for,” said Toya. “It’s the Pledge Collar of the Crown Prince. When my brother picks the one he’s going to be pledged to, that’s going to be draped around the guy’s neck and shoulders, and he’ll wear it every time he makes an official public appearance. At least until they get engaged.”

“It’s gorgeous,” MiA said.

“It had better be, with all this fuss over it,” said Toya. “They have them for other royal children, too. See, that one is mine.” He pointed to a smaller collar with red and blue stones. “Those are the colors of the district of Charlotte. The second prince traditionally becomes governor of that when he gets married. I already have a palace there. I go there when I want to get away from this place.”

“Oh, are you having a Culling, too?” Subaru said.

“Unfortunately,” Toya said. “Personally? I think the whole business is bullshit. We should be allowed to choose who we want to be with like anyone else – but my father says we have to ‘respect tradition.’” He made air quotes with his hands. “So, yeah, my father is sending me on the road with you guys so I can ‘learn respect for the process.’” He made the air quotes again.

“Why are there so many collars?” MiA said, looking down the line.

“There’s ten,” Toya said. “Royal families used to be a lot bigger before birth control. My parents stopped at three. My sister never used a collar, she and her husband just bypassed all this crap and eloped. She’s the smartest one out of all of us.” He turned toward his two guests. “So, what are a couple of nice guys like you doing in a place like this?”

“You mean, why are we in the competition?” MiA said. “My parents wanted me to do it.”

“I wanted to travel,” Subaru said. “I haven’t been anywhere. I at least wanted to see the capital.”

“Well, it’s . . .a city,” Toya said. “You’ll enjoy Lycaon a lot more, that’s the first palace we’re going to. It’s a beach resort. Lots of cool bars, nice shopping, huge waves . . .”

Subaru suddenly turned toward him, eyes alight. “Did you say huge waves?”

“Yep. Some of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen outside of Charlotte.”

“I’m a surfer!” Subaru said. “I want to ride those huge waves!” He looked over at MiA. “Did you hear that?”

“You surf?” Toya said. “I want to learn to do that. My father said it’s” – and he made the air quotes again – “Not a fitting hobby for a prince.”

“I can teach you!” Subaru said – and then, added, quietly, “If I get to go to Lycaon, that is.”

“Well, then, if you make it? You’ve got a deal,” Toya said. “And I’d better get you back to the dining room before the Earl kicks ALL our butts.”

“Thank you again for showing us the jewels,” MiA said, bowing.

“It’s my pleasure,” Toya said. “And it was my pleasure meeting you, too. Next time they let me in your dining room, I’m going to sit with you guys.”

He took the two by the arms again, and they walked through the halls together, slipping back in the door – just as the Earl was getting up to make the final announcements for the evening.

“Remember, gentlemen, be in this room at eight in the morning for breakfast,” he said. “You will find an envelope in your rooms that has your assignment for your interview with His Highness. Two hours before your scheduled interview, staff will be at your rooms to help you prepare for it. Review your handbooks to see where you can go on the grounds – if you want to go into town, contact a member of the staff. And so, good night, gentlemen, and thank you.”

Ruiza and Hiyori rushed over to MiA and Subaru. “Where did you go?” said Hiyori.

“We’ll tell you later,” Subaru said. He didn’t feel comfortable telling them with the staff around.

As they walked back toward their rooms, he whispered to MiA, “Can you believe it? If I go to the second round, it’s a place with fantastic waves . . .”

“I’ll take your picture on the wave,” MiA said. “You can show your friends back home.”

Subaru was suddenly very anxious about making the next round. When he came here, it was enough to see the palace. Now, it was important to him that he impress Yo-ka at the interview, and move on. He wanted to experience those waves.

Not to mention that he wanted to see Yo-ka again, and learn more about him. And . . . he wanted to see Toya again, too.

* * *

Subaru's interview was scheduled for three days after the cocktail party, in the afternoon. “You're going before I am,” MiA said over breakfast the next morning. “Mine is the morning after yours.”

“What do you think will happen?” Subaru said.

“Nobody knows,” said MiA. “And the people who go first are forbidden from telling everyone else, so we're not going to find out that way.”

The two of them went out to the beach after their breakfast was over, MiA bringing a book, Subaru his surfboard. “What is it you're reading?” Subaru said.

“It's a space adventure series called Star Wars,” MiA said. “They're my favorite books in the world.” He found himself a comfortable spot on the sand. “And this really is a nice place for reading.”

A couple of the other candidates walked by – one of them, Subaru recognized, was from one of the higher districts. “Well, HE's making the most of being here while he can,” the higher-class one said. “He's one and done.”

“Hey, the prince may shock everyone and move him on,” sad the second.

“Are you kidding?” said the high-class man. “He's from Royz. Last time anyone from Royz was in the palace, it was as the royal shoe shiner.” Both of them laughed.

MiA reached out and put a hand on Subaru's arm. “I'm sorry you have to listen to that kind of thing,” he said.

“It's okay,” Subaru said – although it wasn't. Those kind of words still hurt.

“I want him to pick you just so I can see their faces,” MiA said. “Especially if you move on and they don't.”

“MiA,” Subaru said, putting his surfboard down and sitting next to his friend, “what's it like where you live?”

“In Mejibray?” MiA said. “Pleasant enough, I guess. It's one of the artier middle-class districts – there's a lot of people with crafts and designing businesses. A couple of people from Mejibray have gone on to be designers to the rich and famous. It's what Koichi wants to do.”

“That's your friend?” Subaru said.

MiA nodded. “He really has original ideas. He said the last thing in the world he wants to do is work like anyone else's. He wants people to look at anything he's designed and say instantly, 'That's a Koichi.'”

“The outfit he designed for you for the party was sure original,” Subaru said.

“He's got some interesting ideas about life, too,” MiA said. “He said that as soon as you're born, the hourglass of your life starts running out – so you have to grab every grain of sand and make them count.”

“Is that how you feel about life, too?” Subaru said.

MiA looked out to the ocean. “I just feel that while we're on this planet, we need to treat everyone with respect, you know? We need to see the beauty and humanity in everyone. We're all the same, no matter where we're from or what we do.” He smiled at Subaru. “That makes me sound weird, doesn't it?”

“No, it doesn't,” Subaru said. “It makes you sound like a truly good person.” (If he says that to the prince, Subaru thought, he's guaranteed making it to the next round).

As he headed off to the water with his board, he found himself wondering if he was ever going to meet MiA's Koichi. Did former candidates remain friends after their Culling was over? Or did friendships get torn apart by jealousy?

If it was the latter, Subaru didn't want to know.

* * *

Time passed more quickly than Subaru thought it would on the way to his interview. He visited the royal library, he tried out the local waves (a bit bigger than at home), he and MiA hung out with Ruiza and Hiyori and compared stories from their hometowns. Hiyori, as it turned out, was part of a traditional dance troupe – but he really wanted to form a comedy group.

“That's my dream,” he said, “to be part of one of those groups that goes around performing funny skits. I've even got a name for the group – My Dragon. See, that's the name of my district, Kiryu, in English.”

Ruiza wrote poetry in his spare time when he wasn't working as a chemist in a perfume company. “You develop scents?” Subaru said.

“It's a very complicated thing,” Ruiza said. “You have to think about how every oil you put in there is going to interact with every other oil. Chemical structures have a very big effect on these things. You put together two things you think will smell great, and they smell like used motor oil.”

“That's not something you want to give to the prince,” Hiyori said. “Unless, of course, he has a motor oil fetish. Hey, I've heard of weirder things.”

When the morning of the interview arrived, Subaru went back to his room after breakfast – and sure enough, the stylists and tailors were there shortly afterward, making a fuss over him.

“I have SUCH a lovely look in mind for you if you're one of the final two,” the tailor said as he handed Subaru a pair of black pants, a black ruffled shirt and a white bolero jacket. “You won't believe your eyes when you see it.”

“I probably won't,” Subaru said. “But thanks for thinking of me, anyway!”

“My boy, never say never,” the tailor said. “The prince isn't your normal monarch. He could choose anyone!”

Finally, the appointed hour arrived, and one of the staffers came to Subaru's room to fetch him. “Subaru of Royz,” he said, “come with me.”

Subaru followed the man through a series of corridors, amazed that the palace had so many twists and turns. How, he wondered, did anyone manage to work here and not get lost?

“In this room, sir,” the guard said, bowing and opening the door. Subaru took a deep breath, and walked in.

Try not to think about what's riding on this, he thought. Try not to think about the big waves in Lycaon. Just be yourself.

The room was a small conference room, with a short table surrounded by half a dozen chairs. Yo-ka was seated at the far end of the table, in another military uniform. He got up when Subaru entered the room and bowed. “Hello again, Subaru of Royz,” he said.

“Hello, Your High-I mean, Yo-ka,” Subaru said. “How are you today?”

“The more important question is, how are YOU today?” Yo-ka said, sitting behind the table. “Are you enjoying yourself at the palace?”

“Oh, very much so, sir,” Subaru said. “You have a beautiful garden, and beach, and library, and . . . well, everything!”

“Subaru,” Yo-ka said, “I'm going to ask you some questions. Yes, they're kind of standard, but it's to help me get a grasp on who you are and where you're coming from, okay?”

“Sure,” Subaru said. “Go ahead!”

“All right,” Yo-ka said. “First of all, what would you say your dream job would be?”

“I want to work on one of the merchant ships,” Subaru said. “You know, the ones that go all around the country carrying goods on them? Yeah, I want to do that.”

“And why is that?” said Yo-ka.

“Because I want to see the whole country,” Subaru said. “I'm just curious about things, that's all. And being on a merchant ship . . . well, it's the only way someone where I'm from can get around.”

Yo-ka leaned back in his chair. “Subaru . . . imagine the brakes were taken off you. Imagine you didn't have the restrictions of someone who lived where you do, and you really could do anything. Now what would you say to my question?”

Subaru thought a moment, and then he said, “I'd be an ambassador. Or a diplomat. One of those people that travels around to other countries representing Veekay to the rest of the world. That would allow me not only to travel, but to do something helpful, you know? It would be nice to enjoy yourself and help other people at the same time.”

Yo-ka nodded. “It's important to you to help?”

“More it's important for people to be happy,” Subaru said.

“Next question,” Yo-ka said. “I hand you a blank check and say you can use it to buy one selfish, indulgent item for yourself, price no object. What do you buy?”

“Oh, that's easy,” Subaru said. “A car. With a lot of storage in the back.”

“And why is that?” said Yo-ka.

“So I can bring myself and my friends to the beach – with our surboards,” Subaru said. “It's important that I be able to drive my friends, too. I mean, we've been together our whole lives, and if I came into good fortune, I'd want to share it with them.”

“Okay, last question,” Yo-ka said. “What has been your favorite thing about being at the palace so far?”

“Oh, there's been a lot of things,” Subaru said. “The scenery is beautiful, the food is better than any I've ever had, the cocktail party the first night was terrific – but I'd say my favorite thing has been the people I've met so far. Well, most of them. Some people haven't been so nice – the ones who think that someone who comes from the place I do doesn't belong here. But others have been terrific. And some . . .”

An image flashed through Subaru's mind of the night of the cocktail party of Toya coming to their rescue, being nice to them, showing them the crown jewels, and treating him as an equal the whole time – despite knowing where he was from.

“Some have gone above and beyond,” Subaru said. “They've really made me feel like I belong here.”

“You do belong here,” Yo-ka said. “You have as much right to be here as anyone else in this . . . this . . .”

Subaru looked puzzled. “Yo-ka?”

“Sorry, I don't know what to call it,” Yo-ka said. “I don't like the term Culling. It sounds like a heard of animals. I don't like calling it a competition, either. This isn't a game. This is something with the potential to affect lives. Maybe too much potential. It's . . .” He sighed. “Never mind.”

Subaru gave him a little smile. “Maybe call it a gathering?”

“A gathering works, Subaru,” Yo-ka said. “But you do have a right to be here. Never forget that.” He stood up. “And I think we've come to the end of our interview.”

“So soon?” Subaru said.

“It's a set list of questions, what can I say?” Yo-ka said. “But maybe we'll have more time to talk, later . . . if you move on,” he added, quickly.

Subaru stood up and bowed. “It has been a pleasure, Yo-ka,” he said.

“No,” Yo-ka said. “The pleasure has been all mine. I'll see you later, Subaru.”

He escorted the boy to the door, and Subaru went out into the hall, leaning against the wall, taking a deep breath.

He'd been on automatic pilot that whole time. He just heard the questions and said the first thing that popped into his head. He just hoped he didn't say anything foolish, or stupid, or nonsensical babble.

And then, there was Yo-ka. He seemed so formal when asking the official questions, but then at the end, talking about how he didn't like the terms for Culling . . .

He seemed so natural, Subaru thought. So casual. I just wonder what he'll be like in a date scenario, when it's just him and one other person, no formal protocol . . .

And he wondered if he'd ever get a chance to find that out.

“Subaru-san?” the guard next to him said. “You need to go back to your own quarters. The prince will be receiving another interview.”

Subaru nodded, and followed the guard down the hall.

* * *

It was the last night of the week. Before they went to bed, the candidates had turned in their rosettes, to be returned to them the next morning – with a ribbon attached if they were moving on.

Yo-ka was sitting in his office with a pile of notes and a stack of rosettes and ribbons. Now it was decision time. He had to make his first cut, and send five men home.

He shuffled the piles in front of him, putting each note into “yes,” “no” and “maybe” piles. Some were easy. MiA? Definite yes. The more Yo-ka talked to him, the more he was intrigued. Hiyori? Another no-brainer. As soon as he revealed in his interview that his dream job was comedy troupe member, he made the cut.

And then, there was Yuuki of Lycaon . . .

Yo-ka held the paper in his hand, thinking about their interview. Yuuki had been straightforward and candid – in a way that you didn't expect the son of a heavily moneyed family to be. He said his dream job was “Exactly what I'm doing now. I have a cabaret act.”

“Why did you decide to do that?” Yo-ka said.

“Partly because I'm a natural exhibitionist. Partly because I knew it would piss my father off. Mostly because I love the feeling of singing in front of an audience and connecting with them. It's a strange sort of bond, isn't it? In a way, it's intimate, because you're baring your soul to them. But at the same time, it's distant – because they will never know you one-on-one. They'll only know what you choose to reveal.”

Yuuki was, Yo-ka thought, emphatically determined to be himself in a social environment that discouraged individuality, that tried to fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all aristocracy box. That was one hell of a strong pull.

Especially since it fit how Yo-ka saw himself. Yuuki went emphatically into the “yes” pile.

He picked up the next paper. Subaru of Royz – sweet, natural, unspoiled, viewing the world with genuine wonder. He wanted nothing more than a car he could drive his friends around with. He was the antithesis of the jaded, cynical people Yo-ka had known for most of his life . . . like the sons of MOST of the rich and privileged.

He put Subaru's notes in the “yes” pile – and then looked at the next sheet. It was a name he recognized very well – one he had known even before the man came here. And that man . . he just wasn’t feeling it. There was no connection, no chance of one.

Yo-ka looked at the pile of ribbons and rosettes. He'd asked to put the ribbons on himself – to make sure that his wishes were carried out and that his father, and his father's cronies, didn't tamper with the results.

Good thing, Yo-ka thought, because I'm about to make some decisions my father won't like.

* * *

Subaru was awakened the next morning by a knock on his door. He got up, yawning and stretching. It was quarter after 6 – a good half-hour before his alarm was set to go off.

He stumbled to the door, blinking blearily, and opened it – to see a guard handing him an oblong velvet box with a bow. “Your rosette, sir,” he said.

And then, Subaru realized the significance of what was about to happen. He was about to find out if he made the first cut. He clutched the lid, thinking about what the old man said, about what those jerks on the beach said, about people from Royz always being “one and done.”

At least if it doesn't work out, he thought, I got to see the palace, and meet nice people, and wear great clothes, and . . .

He remembered, again, being shown the crown jewels by Toya. I haven't seen him since that night, he thought. If I have to leave, will they let me see him and thank him again for helping us?

Slowly, Subaru pulled the lid back, not breathing . . .

There was his rosette, with a blue strip of ribbon hanging from it.

And suddenly, it hit him. He'd done it! He'd made the first cut! He wasn't “one and done!”

“YES!” he shouted, leaping in the air, punching his fist upward. And then, he realized there were people who might not have received their rosettes yet, and were still sleeping, so he whispered, “Sorry!” to whoever might be listening, shut the door and leaned against it.

He was going to Lycaon. He was going to ride the big waves, and get to know Yo-ka more, and spend more time with MiA and his other new friends, and see Toya again. It was suddenly the best day of his life.
* * *

The candidates had all been told to pack the night before, because they would be leaving the palace in the morning, one way or the other. Included in the rosette boxes of the fortunate were notes telling them to put their suitcases in the front hall before going to breakfast, so they could be transported to their next destination.

Subaru added his to the pile, not noticing or caring that his beat-up, shabby, hand-me-down suitcase looked so out-of-place next to the designer cases surrounding it. He put his surfbord next to it, labeled with his name.

“Subaru!” called a voice behind him. “You made it!”

He turned around and saw Ruiza, who had another guy with him – one that he hadn't seen before. “Yes!” Subaru said. “I'm in! I'm so excited!” He bowed to the newcomer. “I'm Subaru of Royz, by the way.”

“Yes, I know,” said the newcomer.

“You do?” Subaru said, looking baffled.

“It's on your rosette, remember?”

“Oh, yeah!” Subaru said, looking embarrassed. He'd forgotten that detail. “And you're . . . Hiro of Fest Vainqueur?”

“Yep!” said Hiro. “Ruiza and I were just talking over there.”

“He had some interesting news,” Ruiza said. “Real interesting. Remember how we were talking about the betting pools – about how Yuuki of Lycaon and Teru of Versailles were the favorites?”

“Yes?” Subaru said.

“Well,” said Hiro, “it seems that Teru didn't make the first cut.”

Subaru looked shocked. “Are you serious?” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” Hiro said. “He had the room next door to mine- well, actually, it was a suite. His father was staying with him this week - he'd been at the party the first night." Teru's father, the Duke of Versailles, was a powerful man indeed - just a couple of steps below royalty himself.

"Well," Hiro continued, "right after I got my rosette, I heard the father out in the hall yelling at the guard, 'You gave my son the wrong one! This has to be a mistake!' And the guard assured him it was the right rosette, he'd been cut. The father demanded to speak to the prince, he was told that decisions were final. And then, a few minutes later, the father stormed out of the palace. He was just about dragging the poor boy behind him.”

Subaru's jaw nearly dropped. “Wow,” he said.

“Wow is right,” Ruiza said. “I nearly fell on the floor when I heard. The people who bet on him must be throwing themselves off cliffs now.”

“How would they know?” Subaru said.

“Oh, the Culling makes the news,” Hiro said. “The results are going to be broadcast on all the radio stations this morning – especially if their local guy made the cut. When the king's younger brother got married, a woman from Fest made it to the final four, and my dad said everyone was glued to their radios every week to see if she'd advanced again.”

Subaru was quiet. They're hearing about this back in Royz, he thought. He could just imagine his friends getting the news – and breaking out into wild celebrations. Heck, Kuina might even buy a round of drinks for everyone in the bar tonight – and then regret it when he had no money the next day.

He just wondered, though, what the royal family thought of Yo-ka's first choice.

* * *

Yo-ka and Toya were taking their breakfast in Yo-ka's suite when their father stormed in, looking outraged.

“YO-KA!” he said. “What. Is. The. MEANING of this?”

“Of what, Father?” Yo-ka said, calmly. “Everything is in order. The dismissed candidates have left the palace. The ones who are moving on are having breakfast and getting ready to leave.”

“You know DAMN well what I mean!” his father said. “You kept a GUTTERSNIPE from Royz and let the candidate from Versailles go! FROM VERSAILLES!”

“Yes,” Yo-ka said, still calm. “Because Subaru is a sweet man that I want to get to know, and Teru was nice, and said all the right things, but he didn't do it for me.”

“Young man,” the king bellowed, “I will let you know that the representative of Versailles has ALWAYS at least made the final four. ALWAYS. Going back to the time of King Atsushi! King Sugizo! Even King YOSHIKI!”

“King Yoshiki didn't have a Culling,” Toya said, bluntly. “They weren't invented until . . .”

“YOU keep quiet!” the king shouted. “Versailles has always been the right hand of the palace. Their nobility is deeply ingrained in the royal family – there have been COUNTLESS royal consorts from there. Countless! To cut Teru is a HUGE insult to the city, and its governor, and . . .”

“I am NOT choosing candidates based on political history!” Yo-ka said, suddenly standing up. “The purpose of a Culling is supposed to be so I can find a mate I'm compatible with, isn't it? And I chose the men I have the potential to be compatible with. If I choose someone based on political alliance, we might as well go back to the days of arranged marriages!”

“You are DAMN lucky I don't cancel this whole thing and make an arranged marriage for you! With a woman! The only reason I didn't is the press office had already sent the news to every radio station in the country, so now EVERYONE knows about your bad judgement!”

“His HONEST judgement, you mean?” Toya said.

“One more word out of you, and you WILL be shipped off to an arranged marriage!” the king shouted at his younger son.

“Father, let me ask you one question,” Yo-ka said. “Just one. When you had your Culling, how far did the representative of Versailles get?”

“She was third,” the king said.

“And did you advance her because you truly cared for her? Because you enjoyed her company? Or because she was from Versailles?”

The king was suddenly silent. He stood there, huffing and puffing, rubbing the back of his head. Toya snickered behind his hand.

“You just THINK about your choices for the rest of this process, Yo-ka,” said the king. “And choose WISELY!” He stormed out of the room.

Once he was gone, Toya held up his hand to his brother for a high-five. “You burned him like old garbage,” he said.

“I'm sorry,” Yo-ka said. “He can force me to go through this farce, but he can't force me to keep someone I'm not feeling it for just because of where he's from. That's going too far.”

“Is it really a farce now, though?” Toya said. “You did meet a few promising guys, didn't you?”

“I surprised myself, yes,” said Yo-ka. “I actually think I might get something out of this.”

“Any names you can name?” Toya went back to his coffee. “Oh, hell, it's cold! That blowhard sucked all the hot air out of the room!”

“You know I'm not supposed to say anything at this stage,” Yo-ka said, pouring into his brother's cup from the pot. “But I'll tell you one thing – I wanted to punch him when he called Subaru a guttersnipe. I'm not judging anyone by where they're from – just who they are.”

“I wanted to punch him, too,” Toya said, adding cream and sugar to his rewarmed coffee. “He doesn't deserve that.”

“You know Subaru?” Yo-ka said, surprised.

“Met him the first night, remember? They let me eat with the candidates.” He wasn't going to say anything about Subaru's illicit adventure, just in case his father had spies listening. He'd tell Yo-ka about that once they were away from the palace.

“Oh, I forgot about that,” Yo-ka said. “Well, you can eat with them every night once we're on the road – and away from Father.”

“It will be my pleasure,” Toya said.

“Eating with the candidates?” Yo-ka said. “Or being away from Father?”

“Both.”

They went back to their breakfast. They, like the candidates, had to get ready to travel.
* * *


Coming in Part 2: The dates begin, along with Toya’s surfing lessons!

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
hamhamheaven
Oct. 27th, 2016 11:19 pm (UTC)
*more mad flailing* KANA! Even if he's not gonna make it far, I'm so glad he's included. I can definitely see Yo-ka appreciating Yuuki's candour as the Culling progresses. He seems like he'd get very tired of people cowtowing very quickly. And Subaru's frank wonder with everything must be a refreshing change of pace.

Is Toya going to fall for Subaru? (I don't actually think you're going to tell me; totally a rhetorical question.) Baru-chan's gonna teach Toya to surf, which will probably get them both into trouble, but... just that quick, and I ship it! >_<

I LOVE that Teru got sent home right away! I have no reason whatsoever to dislike him, but I DO dislike him so thoroughly. *dances a jig* (Acchan and Sugi and Yo-san as former kings. Now there's some wonderful fodder for the imagination!) <3
puss_nd_boots
Oct. 28th, 2016 04:40 pm (UTC)
I figured Kana was a natural to have in the harem - I definitely did not want Hayato in that situation! I mean, can you see him charging around the palace going, "OMG WHAT'S THIS?" over and over? The guards would boot him before the prince got a chance to!

As for the booting of Teru . . . you'll see what the fallout from that one is. Not to mention Subaru's surfing lessons . . .
leifang666
Oct. 29th, 2016 02:13 pm (UTC)
I'm loving this so much. Poor Teru though! (I adore Teru and Versailles are one of my two favourite bands). I am glad Yo-Ka is standing up for himself though.
puss_nd_boots
Nov. 1st, 2016 07:53 pm (UTC)
Yo-ka is insisting on doing this on his terms - if he's got to go through with this crap, he's going through it with his head held high - and with a result that HE is happy with at the end. We'll see how long he can get away with it, though.
lucycamui
Oct. 30th, 2016 02:53 am (UTC)

Ahh, this is a really cute idea and I am looking forward to reading the rest of it.


It's light and camp, and I am hoping for drama, fluff and scandal coming up.

puss_nd_boots
Nov. 1st, 2016 07:56 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you're enjoying it so far! (The second part has just been posted). I fully intended it to be a light and fun story - as an American, with us still going through the most brutal presidential election in recent memory, we all need something light right now!
lucycamui
Nov. 2nd, 2016 06:39 am (UTC)

Oh yes! I have a meeting with a few Japanese clients next week when the election day will be halfway done with, so they asked if we could keep open a live news feed during the meeting cause they want to see updates as they happen. No matter how it goes, we will all need something light and fun long after the fact to recover from the mess it has been.

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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