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Title: A Sort-Of Fairy Tale, Chapter 4
Chapter: Chapter 4 of ?
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). Also Toya (Gotcharocka) x Subaru.
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: As the Culling moves to the town of Pentagon, Subaru faces a double dilemma – how can he keep giving Toya surfing lessons in a landlocked town, and what’s going to happen when he’s forced to partner with his biggest rival on a project where a wrong move could mean going home?
Comments: Skateboards really did start out as a way for surfers to keep up their skills while away from the waves, hence the sport’s alternative name of “sidewalk surfing.”

Subaru and his friends had a private car to themselves on the train to Pentagon. It consisted of two cushioned benches facing each other, with three guys on each bench – and it was wide enough that they were all able to sit comfortably. There was even enough room for the open book that Ruiza was reading.

“Hey,” Hiyori said, “how long do you think our luck is going to hold out?”

“What do you mean?” Subaru said.

“I mean all of us making the cut,” Hiyori said. “The pool's getting smaller and smaller, and there aren't very many guys besides us left.”

“Shows that the prince can't resist us,” Hiro said.

“That's another thing,” MiA said. “You'd think that in a competition like this, everyone would be at each other's throats, right? In fact, I was afraid of that when I came here.”

“Really?” Hiyori said.

MiA nodded. “I thought that it was going to be people backstabbing each other all over the place, making each other look bad, doing everything and anything to get the prince's attention . . .”

At that, Ruiza stuck his bookmark in his book and shut it. “MiA,” he said. “Let's be a hundred percent realistic. When we first came here, did ANY of us think we were going to be the prince's final pick? Did we even think we were going to make it as far as we have?”

“I thought I was going to be one and done,” Subaru said.

“I figured I'd make it through the first couple of rounds,” MiA said.

“I was just going to ride it for as long as I could,” Hiro said.

“But none of us thought we were really in it to win it, right?” Ruiza said. “And I'll tell you why. Not one of us is from the Upper Districts – and throughout the history of this nation, there has NEVER been a royal consort that wasn't from the Upper Districts. Not EVER.”

“How do you know that?” said MiA.

“That's what I've been reading.” Ruiza held up the book. “It's a history of the royal family. Damn, some of Yo-ka’s ancestors were real bastards – it’s a miracle that he’s a genuinely nice guy. I mean, one of the kings was such a son of a bitch that two districts – Gazetto and Alicenine – split off from Veekay and formed constitutional monarchies just to get away from him.”

“What's that?” Subaru said.

“A constitutional monarchy?” Ruiza said. “That's when the Royal Family's role is symbolic – they're still officially the heads of state and considered the embodiment of the spirit of the nation, but the actual running of the country is done by elected officials.”

“Like the district governors?” Subaru said.

“Sort of – but a constitutional monarchy has a parliament. Each district chooses a representative, and they decide on laws amongst themselves. And then the parliament picks one guy from within themselves to be the prime minister – that's the guy who actually runs the country.”

“So what's the idea behind that?” Hiro said. “I mean, how is that better than having what we do now?”

“It ensures all the people have an equal voice,” MiA said. “It means government couldn't turn a blind eye to the Lower-Middle and Lower Districts, because they'd be part of government, too.”

“But getting back to the original topic?” Ruiza said. “You know, why the candidates aren’t killing each other? We went into this with no illusions – so we all decided to enjoy it while it lasted. So, instead of backstabbing each other, we became friends.” He paused. “In fact? It's cool to be able to say you dated a prince, and Yo-ka's a sweetie, but my favorite part of all this has been hanging with all of you.”

“We haven't really spent enough time with Yo-ka to develop any romantic feelings for him, have we?” MiA said. “We only see him on dates. I mean, I'd like to see more of him, sure, but if he picked one of you? I wouldn't be heartbroken.”

“Same here,” Hiro said. “Besides, I’d be able to tell people I hang out with the prince-consort.”

Subaru was quiet. He knew he was feeling something more than all of them were. When he thought about Yo-ka, there was, well, a warmth inside him. He hadn't seen much of him yet, though, but what he did see? He liked. There was potential there, and a lot of it.

But then again, he felt just as warm when he thought about Yo-ka's brother . . . and that, he knew, he really shouldn't be feeling. He was supposed to be here for Yo-ka, not Toya.

“Subaru!” Hiyori said. “Subaru, we asked you a question!”

“Eh?” Subaru blinked.

“We asked if anyone else from Royz had ever been in any royal palaces before,” Hiyori said.

“Oh!” said Subaru. “Um, not that I know of, other than the people who were in other Cullings. And they were just in the main palace and were sent home.”

“Well, then, you've set a record, haven't you?” Ruiza said. “You’ve been in three, going on four!”

“I guess so,” Subaru said. “Sorry, I kind of got dazed for a moment there.”

He looked around at his friends, thinking that he really was going to enjoy every minute with them – because he didn't know how long their time together would last.

* * *

When they got to the palace – which was more of a sprawling mansion that went off in all directions than a true palace – Toya caught up to Subaru in the hall.

“Hey,” he said. “How was the trip?”

“It wasn't bad,” Subaru said. “Being in a private train car makes a big difference.”

“Look, we've kind of got a problem in this town,” Toya said. “As you might have noticed? It's landlocked. We can't have surfing lessons here.”

“Oh,” Subaru said. His face fell. He looked forward so much to being with Toya every day that he wasn't on a date. And now, in a landlocked town . . .

And then, he remembered something from back home, something people did when the tides weren't cooperative.

“Is there a sporting goods store here?” he said.

“I think there is,” Toya said. “But how is that going to help us?”

“There's something I've seen in some of the stores that can help us practice,” Subaru said. “Is there any way I could get an escort to take me there?”

“I'll take you myself,” Toya said. “I think I’m qualified to do that, don’t you?”

Subaru felt a little rush of fluttering warmth. “I guess so – especially after you took us to that izakaya in Charlotte!”

“Tomorrow morning, our normal time, in front of the palace?”

“You've got a deal,” Subaru said.

The Earl had informed them before they left that Prince Yo-ka would be focusing his individual date time this week on candidates who had not yet had a one-on-one. At least it means that Hiyori and Hiro will finally get their quality time, Subaru thought as he arrived in his room.

It was actually kind of scary, the way he was getting very used to this lifestyle. Another week, another palace, another beautifully appointed room. This one even had old-fashioned bedcurtains around the bed. Subaru wondered if they were originally intended to conceal a couple at play while servants wandered in and out of the room.

He found his date schedule on top of the bureau. As he expected, he was on the group date again. I wonder when the next time I'll be able to spend quality time with Yo-ka will be – if ever, Subaru thought.

His immediate concern, though, was his lessons with Toya. He could only hope the sporting goods store had what he needed.

* * *

They met at the front gate of the palace the next morning after breakfast. “Fortunately, it's not far from here,” Toya said. “I asked around – it's a few blocks.”

“Did the staff want to know what the prince wanted with a sporting goods store?” Subaru said.

“They looked at me kind of strangely,” Toya said. “But they've probably heard weirder before, especially if they've worked for royalty for a long time.”

The two of them headed out into the town, which leaned much more toward the European side of their nation's split personality. They passed a row of storefronts that wouldn't have looked out of place in Victorian London, complete with big brass lamps hanging in front of them.

“Why is this district called Pentagon, anyway?” Subaru said.

“It's built in a star shape,” Toya said. “The palace we're staying in – which is also the residence of the district governor – is at the center. And there's five sub-districts, each shaped like a star point, radiating off it. Either someone had a sense of humor, or it's the happiest coincidence ever.”

“You know a lot about every district,” Subaru said.

“Well, like I said, I travel a lot,” said Toya. “And you kind of have to know about your own country when you're a prince of it.”

“Including its history?” Subaru asked as they rounded the corner onto the street where the sporting goods store was.

“Well, yes,” Toya said.

“Do you know about Gazetto and Alicenine?” Subaru said. “The two countries that split off?”

“Way before my time,” Toya said. “But I heard about them.”

Subaru was going to ask about constitutional monarchies, and why the two countries formed them, but Toya said “Oh, here it is,” indicating they’d arrived at their destination.

I'll have to ask later, Subaru thought as they entered. He bowed to the salesperson. “Good morning. Do you carry sidewalk surfers?”

The man gave him a blank look. “Sidewalk WHAT?” he said.

Oh, crap, Subaru thought. This trip was for nothing. “Sidewalk surfers. It's a board with skate wheels on it.” He held his hands out about the length of a small surfboard. “One pair of wheels at each end.”

“You mean a wheelboard?” the man said.

Subaru's hopes brightened. “Yes,” he said. “A wheelboard.”

“Have plenty of 'em,” the salesman said. “Somebody said they were going to be big, but the things aren't selling. You're the first people to ask for them.”

“Really?” Subaru said.

“We'll take two,” Toya said. “So you can use these things to surf on the sidewalk?”

“Oh, yes,” Subaru said. “You use them to practice your balance and maneuvering. You can at least keep up your basic skills until we're near water again.”

The salesman brought out the two boards. “You know how to use them?” he said.

“I do,” Subaru said. “They’re pretty common where I'm from.”

“Well, send your friends from wherever you're from to buy this supply I have before it gathers dust.”

Toya paid for the boards, and they took them outside. “So . . . what do we do with them?”

“First thing is we need to go somewhere paved, preferably without traffic.”

“The park behind the palace, then,” Toya said.

Once they were there, Subaru put his board on the ground. “Okay, you do this. You put one foot on it, like this, and push off with the other . . .” He demonstrated. “And you're rolling. And while you're rolling, you control the board by leaning . . .” He leaned to the left, changing his angle. “Just like you would on a surfboard.”

“You people really are inventive, aren't you?” Toya said. “Surfers, I mean.”

“It's just a part of growing up where I did,” Subaru said. “We make the most of whatever we have.”

“Okay, I'm trying it!” Toya said. He put his board down, pushed off, wobbled, and nearly fell. He righted himself quickly, though, and kept going.

“Hey, wow,” he said. “It IS like sidewalk surfing!”

“You're catching on!” Subaru said. He rolled his own board again, and caught up with Toya. “We can practice with these every day, the same time we'd go surfing.”

“I think I like doing this almost as much as that!” Toya said. He put his foot down to stop the board before it could roll off the road. “I'm glad we can still do this every day.”

“So am I,” Subaru said. “I . . . I didn't like the idea of us missing a whole week.” He added, quickly, “Because I didn't want your skills getting rusty!”

“Yes,” Toya said. “My . . . my skills. Good to keep them up.”

They were both aware that they were blushing slightly, stammering just a little. They both pretended to ignore it.



* * *



At dinner that night, Subaru heard about Hiyori’s long-awaited date with Yo-ka. “He took me to an outdoor performance by an orchestra,” he said, “and we went for lunch at one of those bistros with outdoor seating.”

“And did you talk about anything interesting?” Ruiza said.

“Lots,” Hiyori said. “Especially my plans for a comedy troupe. He even offered to hook me up with some actors he knows that might want to participate.” He looked around the table. “So who’s up next?”

“Me,” Hiro said. “And I’m guessing that the rest of you are in on the group date.”

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Ruiza said. He looked around to the other side of the room, leaned over, and said, “We’re going to be on the group date with HIM.”

“Yuuki of Lycaon, you mean?” Subaru said.

“Oh, yes,” said Ruiza. “And it’s going to be a smaller group than last time. Basically, the three of us and HIM.”

“And we all know that Subaru hasn’t talked with him face-to-face yet, has he?” Hiyori said.

“Well . . . no,” Subaru said. “I haven’t been on a group date with him yet.”

“We’ll all have to see how this works out, won’t we?” Hiro said.

“Why are you all saying that?” Subaru looked around the table in confusion.

MiA put his hand over Subaru’s. “It’s because he’s the only Upper District person left in this competition . . . and you’re the only Lower District person.”

“Oh,” Subaru said. Damn. He’d forgotten about that.

“We’re going to see Yuuki’s true colors,” Hiyori said. “We’ll find out if he’s a nice guy or a jerk by how he treats you.”

Subaru was suddenly worried. Yuuki was the only person in this competition he considered a true rival – and why he was worried about having a rival at all was silly. Not like he was going to make it all the way to the end – right?

“If he’s jerky to Subaru, somebody should tell Yo-ka about it,” Ruiza said, as the waiters arrived with their second courses.

“I thought we said that nobody was going to backstab anyone?” Subaru said. It seemed that all their earlier talk about everyone being nice dissolved when it came to someone who hadn’t made a particular effort to be friendly with them.

“That’s not backstabbing,” Ruiza said. “That’s warning the prince against a situation he might not want to get into.”

“If it’s a small group, Yo-ka might see it anyway,” MiA said, picking up his fork. “We may not need to tell him anything.”

Quietly, Subaru hoped it wouldn’t happen. He didn’t want to be the cause of any drama – especially any that could cause Yo-ka to send him home.

The longer he stayed here, the more he knew that leaving was just plain not an option.

* * *

As the week progressed, Yo-ka knew damn right well that he was going to choose who was moving on to the next level based on who would sound best on that radio broadcast.

He knew very well who a few of them were going to be. Yuuki, of course. Ruiza and his sparkly personality. Hiyori, the aspiring comedian. And, without a doubt, Subaru. He especially wanted Subaru to be part of the broadcast. Once the public heard what a boy from the lower districts could be like, it would sway their opinion of him . . . of everyone who lived in those places.

And, hopefully, it would also sway the opinion of his father. In fact, it was more important to him that he change his father’s opinion of Subaru – of everyone who wasn’t of the Upper Districts – than it was to quiet the unrest.

When I am king, he thought, I’m going to make sure that the voices of everyone in the nation are heard. I’m going to make sure everyone is equal, no matter where they live, no matter what they do. I just need to find a way to do it.

Meanwhile, Toya and Subaru were spending their mornings practicing on the sidewalk surfers, rollboards, or whatever you wanted to call them. Toya was getting as fond of that as he was of regular surfing – he was even figuring out how to do tricks like sharp turns and spins.

“This is amazing!” he said. “Why isn’t everyone in the country doing this?”

“Not enough publicity,” Subaru said. “You heard the guy in the store. There are people saying that the sidewalk surfers are going to be the next big thing, but nobody is buying them.”

“We definitely need a spokesperson,” Toya said. “Somebody to tour the country demonstrating the things. Somebody that could get attention.”

“That’s you, you know,” Subaru said. “You like to do it, and you’re a prince.”

“Me?” said Toya. “Yeah, right. If I did something like that, my father would . . .”

“What difference does it make?” Subaru said. “You’ve said yourself that your father considers younger princes to be small change. What’s it to him if you have a side career with something you genuinely enjoy doing?”

“Because I’d have to listen to lectures about conduct unbecoming to a prince. Oh, and about the sport being dangerous.”

“Aren’t princes expected to ride horses?” Subaru said.

“You mean, play polo?” said Toya. “Oh, yeah. Most boring sport ever.”

“Well, what’s the difference between polo and sidewalk surfing?” Subaru said. “I mean, horseback riding is dangerous too, right? The horse could throw you.”

Toya hopped off his board and said, “Damn. That's some of the best diplomatic arguing I've ever heard. Maybe we should send you to talk to our father.”

“Me?” Subaru said, hopping off his own board. “Why should he listen to me?”

“Because you sell sidewalk surfing like the guys in your fish shops sell clams and lobsters. And you're a good communicator. And you're cute.”

There was a sudden pause on both sides. Did he really say what I thought he said? Subaru thought. The idea made his heart beat a bit faster.

Meanwhile, Toya was thinking, crap, oh, crap, I shouldn't have said that, that was a total slip . . .

Then, Subaru said, quickly. “Well, I wouldn't get a chance to talk to your father, anyway. Only the top two are going back to the main palace, remember?”

And Toya replied, just as quickly, “You never know.”

As Subaru went back to his board, the idea of being in the top two flashed through his head. It would never happen, of course. Yo-ka would pick someone higher in status than him. But . . . what if it did? He wanted to stay around as long as possible, but suddenly finding himself with a 50/50 chance of being Yo-ka's chosen one . . .

Subaru began rolling very quickly. He needed the distraction.

* * *

In the park surrounding the palace, Yuuki of Lycaon was reclining on a chaise lounge, dark glasses shielding his eyes, wide-brimmed hat keeping the sun off him. He didn't want to get burned – it was habit from being a cabaret performer. It was hell trying to put on makeup on sore skin, and besides, singing wasn't exactly comfortable when you were broiled like a lobster, either.

Part of him kind of wished all this would be over so he could get back on stage. He missed it like hell. Performing was most definitely in his blood – something his aristocratic father never understood or appreciated.

Most of him, though, was happy to be where he was – to his surprise. Yuuki hadn't wanted to be in the Culling any more than Yo-ka had. But his family had pressured him into signing up – which he did to keep them quiet.

They'll pick someone from a higher-ranking family, he thought when he arrived at the meeting with the selection committee. But as it turned out, he was the highest-ranking young man who showed up – and when it came to candidates from upper-class families, wealth and prestige were exactly what the committee was looking for. He was picked on the spot.

Fine, he thought. It'll get my name out there. I might get more gigs out of it.

The last thing in the world he expected when he arrived at the palace was that he would actually like Prince Yo-ka. In fact, Yuuki felt a connection to him almost instantly. Most of that, of course, was because they were coming from the same mental place. They were both sons of wealth and privilege who wanted to forge their own path – despite the objections of parents and other well-meaning-but-ultimately-annoying relatives.

And to his utter surprise, Yuuki found himself hoping that he'd be there until the end, because he wasn't going to let this man get away from him easily.

His biggest competition, he thought, would be Teru of Versailles – so he was utterly floored when the other aristocrat went home early. (The representative of Lunasea was also eliminated on the first cut, but there was a lot less fuss about it – mostly because his father wasn’t there, unlike Teru).

When the group moved on to his own hometown for the second round of the Culling, Yuuki began sizing up the other contestants from the Upper Districts, sure one of them would be his biggest challenge.

Except the representatives from Ekkisu and Bucktick were gone at the end of the second round, leaving Yuuki as the only Upper District candidate there.

He was beginning to see a pattern. The prince clearly craved the company of people who were NOT your typical aristocrats – and Yuuki's unorthodox choice of career was the reason he fit the bill. In fact, Yuuki noticed during group dates that Yo-ka seemed to lavish attention on one group of young men in particular . . .

The group he'd come to think of as The Clique.

They were a gaggle of middle-class boys from districts like Mejibray and Kiryu – not to mention the one genuine Lower District representative that was still around, the boy from Royz. Yuuki had yet to be on a group date with that last one, but he'd heard gossip that Yo-ka seemed especially fond of him. Oh, and there were reports of Subaru being spotted at the beach with the prince's younger brother, too.

What the heck, he thought, could be so interesting about a boy raised by merchant marines and fishermen that two princes would be vying for his attention?

As for Yuuki, he'd made friends there – he was particularly fond of Kana of Codomo Dragon and Mizuki of Sadie, currently the only non-Clique people there besides himself – but for the most part, he kept to himself. (And it also didn't help that the Clique were so insular. They hung out with each other, they ate with each other, and Yuuki quietly wondered if any of the members were sleeping with each other – which would get them kicked out of the competition, pronto.)

He also knew damn well that he was going to be on a group date with most of them at the end of the week – the individual dates this week went to Hiro and Hiyori of the Clique, as well as Kana and Mizuki. That meant he'd be going out with Yo-ka, Ruiza of that ridiculously long-named district whose name started with D, MiA of Mejibray . . . and Subaru of Royz.

So I finally get to meet this boy face-to-face, Yuuki thought. I'll be sizing up the competition, all right.

And if the idea of the other nobles pulling an early exit was a flat-out ridiculous thought, the idea of his possible main competition being a boy from a Lower District was flat-out insane.

No matter. He'd get through it. The group date would be worth it in order to spend more time with the man who'd managed to make a serious dent in Yuuki's heart.

* * *

The morning of the group date arrived. Subaru and his friends had breakfast at their usual table, casting anxious glances across the room to where Yuuki sat with the other two candidates.

“I don't think I've ever been this nervous for a date before,” Subaru said. “Not even the solo ones.”

“It'll be fine,” MiA said. “We just have to, well, play it cool, right?”

“I'm just not used to being around upper-class people,” Subaru said. “Well, okay, Toya and Yo-ka, but they're not really typical upper-class, are they?”

“How would you know that?” Ruiza said. “You just mentioned that you didn't know any.”

Okay, he had a point there. “I just don't know what to expect, that's all,” Subaru said.

And there was the frightening thought at the back of his head that if Yuuki was really as favored by Yo-ka as the others who'd been on group dates with him had said, then any kind of slight or insult to him might result in a one-way ticket out of the Culling.

At the other table, Yuuki was quietly observing The Clique, noticing them glancing over at him.

How the hell am I going to handle this? he thought. I'm not used to being around people from the Lower Districts. Well, okay, I've worked with some musicians who came from those areas – but if they were musicians, they weren't typical Lower District people, right?

The Earl came into the room. “Gentlemen,” he said, “those of you going on the group date, please assemble in front of the palace after you are done. There will be transports to take you to your destination for the day.”

Subaru swallowed the last of his omelette and drained his coffee cup. “Okay, here goes nothing,” he said.

“Let us know how it went, okay?” Hiro said.

“Oh, don't worry, we will,” Subaru said.

“One way or the other,” Ruiza added as they rose from the table and made their way to the front of the palace.

Yuuki left his own table as well, walking a few steps behind the Clique members. And so it begins, he thought.

They were unusually quiet when they lined up. Subaru had to restrain himself from casting nervous glances at the violet-haired man next to him.

I shouldn't let him intimidate me, he thought. In the end, he's just a guy, right?

Yo-ka came out of the palace and joined the group. “Hello!” he said. “Are we all ready to go?” And instantly, the prince noted they were all more subdued than they normally would be. Uh-oh, he thought.

“Ready as we'll ever be!” Ruiza said. Everyone else was quiet.

“Okay!” he said. “Get in the car, then – four of you in the back, I'll be sitting up front next to the driver. It's not going to be a very long ride.”

The driver opened the door. When MiA got in, Subaru quickly scooted in next to him – only to realize the benches were facing each other, and he had Yuuki right across from him. Crap, he thought. Come on, come up with something to say, anything . . .

And he found himself saying, “Breakfast was really good this morning, wasn't it?” Ouch. Well, that was . . . nothing at all.

“It's good every morning,” Ruiza said. “We haven't had a bad meal since we got here.”

The car started to move. Subaru found himself glad for the shifting scenery, for the chance to look at something, anything . . .

Yuuki, meanwhile, was noticing the blond boy's nerves. He's even more awkward than I thought he'd be, he thought. This is going to be one long date.

Fortunately, Yo-ka was right about the ride to their destination not being long. He opened the back door himself. “Here we are!” he said.

The group stepped out onto the curb – and found themselves looking at a storefront. “A bakery?” Subaru said, looking confused. They had just eaten!

“It's not for eating,” Yo-ka said. “Not right away, anyway. We're going back into the kitchen, and the master baker is going to give us a lesson on constructing the perfect cake.”

And then, suddenly, Subaru remembered the conversations with Yo-ka on their solo date. After they'd talked about bowling, they'd discussed learning to bake. So . . . here they were.

You really took it to heart, Yo-ka, Subaru thought. And then, he felt that now-familiar warmth inside him.

They were led back to a room filled with monstrous versions of the appliances Subaru's mother had in her own kitchen – a giant mixer with an enormous rotating blade, a whole wall of ovens, mixing bowls almost big enough to climb into. Presiding over all this was a rotund man with a white T-shirt, white pants and a white apron – probably all the better to camouflage constant dustings of flour, Subaru thought.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” the man said. “I'm Hoshino-san. So His Highness said you all want to learn how to make the perfect cake, do you? Well, you've come to the right place. By the time you leave here today, you'll be able to make the most delicious and dazzling cakes you friends and family have ever seen!”

He looked around at the crowd. “So how many of you have made cakes before? None of you? Where are you all from?”

“Lycaon,” Yuuki said.

“Ah, then you probably have your servants make the cakes for you,” he said. “What about the rest of you?”

Yuuki rolled his eyes. Why, why did people always assume that everyone in his hometown was the stereotypical idle rich that sat on their butts and let the paid help do everything? It was, quite frankly, demeaning. He'd lived in his own apartment, without servants, for some time now.

After the introductions, the chef said, “So if you WERE to make a cake, what would be the first thing you'd do?”

“Get eggs and milk and butter out of the fridge?” Subaru said.

“Ah, but that's where you're wrong!” Hoshino-san said. “The first secret to great baking is to use all room temperature ingredients! You don't want to take everything out right before you start – take it out about a half-hour before. Cold ingredients usually result in your cake being tough, and we want it to be light and fluffy, don't we?”

Yo-ka watched from the sidelines as the chef demonstrated the right way to beat eggs, to properly measure both solid and liquid ingredients, to fold the flour into the batter. And his eyes kept dodging from Subaru to Yuuki. He knew very well that this was their first time being together for any length of time – and even with the attention of both focused on Hoshino-san, you could cut the awkwardness with a knife.

He watched as their eyes shifted toward each other, then back to the chef. If they leaned toward each other, they immediately leaned away.

The prince knew what he needed to do.

As soon as the basic lecture was over, he stepped in front of the boys and said, “And now, for the real heart of the activity. I'm going to divide you into two teams, and you're going to have to work together on a cake. When you're done, I'll taste them both and pick a winner – and the winning two will receive their ribbons for the week as soon as we get back to the palace.”

He was already planning to keep everyone in this room for the next round – for the radio broadcast – anyway, so it didn't matter which team won.

“The first team consists of MiA and . . .”

Please let it be me, Subaru thought. Please don't make me have to be partners with . . .

“Ruiza. Meaning the other team is Subaru and Yuuki.”

Both of them suddenly snapped to attention with an “Oh, NO” expression in their eyes – followed by Yuuki narrowing his in a way that seemed to indicate he was contemplating regicide.

“Very well, then!” the chef said. “Let me get you aprons. One team will be over HERE, the other will be over THERE . . .”

Subaru shuffled over to “there” feeling like a man going to his own execution. Yuuki dragged behind him, looking no more cheerful.

“All right,” Yuuki sighed once they were at the table, recipe propped in front of them, ingredients laid out in a neat row. “I suppose we have to do this.”

“How hard can it be, right?” Subaru said, trying to force a smile. “I mean, he just showed us what to do.”

“I'll let you know that I don't know how to bake,” Yuuki said. “At all. And it is NOT because I'm waited on by servants.” He began cracking eggs into the bowl.

“I didn't think that was the case, Yuuki,” Subaru said, quietly.

Yuuki looked at him, surprised. “You didn't?”

“Well, no,” Subaru said. “I mean, all the stereotypes about rich people don't apply to everyone, do they?”

“Not to me,” Yuuki said. “Now, how the hell do you do the butter and sugar again?”

“I'll handle that,” Subaru said.

“I suppose you do a lot of cooking, where you come from?” Yuuki said.

Subaru started to measure out his ingredients. Here it comes, he thought. The insults, the assumption that everyone in the Lower Districts is a lazy slob, the disdain I got from the staff at the main palace . . .

He chose his words carefully. “We don't all cook,” he said. “There's usually one or two people in a household that cook, and I still live at home, so . . .” He shrugged.

“You do live at home, still?” Yuuki said, before consulting the recipe to see what they were supposed to do next.

“Well, yeah,” Subaru said. “Not that I'm planning to forever, of course.” He beat the sugar and butter vigorously.

“Nobody does,” Yuuki said. “I left home about four years ago. My parents weren't happy about my career choice.”

“Career?” Subaru said. “Oh, sorry. I didn't mean that . . .”

“It's okay. People think that none of us work. That isn't true. We have some very hard-working people in Lycaon – doctors, lawyers, company chairmen – they don't just collect money for nothing.”

“That's like us,” Subaru said. “We work very hard, too – on boats and fishing. And not all of us spend all our off-duty time drinking, either,” he said. He finished creaming the butter and sugar, and started mixing in Yuuki's eggs.

“We're kind of in the same boat, aren't we?” Yuuki said.

“What do you mean?” Subaru looked up from his bowl.

“You're from a Lower District, so everyone thinks you're a ruffian. I'm from an Upper District, so everyone thinks I'm a . . .” He sighed. “Upper-class twit. Yes, I had a musician call me that – he refused to be in my band strictly because he thought I was a 'rich bitch.' This was before he even met me, mind you.”

“Rich bitch?” Subaru began to measure out dry ingredients. “That's like the guards at the first palace calling me one of THOSE people.”

“People like that shouldn't be working for the king,” Yuuki said, stirring the batter as Subaru added spoonfuls.

“So what was this career that your father didn't like?” Subaru said. “You're in a band, you said?”

“I'm a cabaret singer,” Yuuki said. “It's what I wanted to do, it's what I decided to do, and my father's opinions weren't going to influence me.”

“You ARE?” Subaru looked shocked. “But . . . but that's AWESOME!” And here he thought Yuuki was an upper-class jerk. He was actually a cool guy. Very much self-possessed – in a lot of ways, like Yo-ka himself.

No wonder they get along so well, Subaru thought – which made a knot form in the pit of his stomach.

“I wish my family would see it that way,” Yuuki said, ruefully.

“Is that why you entered the Culling, Yuuki?” Subaru said. “So your father would look at you favorably?”

“More to shut him up,” Yuuki said. “He harped on me the moment it was announced. He wanted me to do something a PROPER man of my class would do for once.” He took over the stirring from Subaru. “What about you?”

“I entered it to see things other than my hometown,” Subaru said. “Though I never thought I'd see anything but the palace. I'm so glad I've seen more, though! So many beautiful places, so many experiences, so many great people . . .”

A vision of Toya appeared in his mind's eye. He quickly pushed it away. He needed to focus on what he was doing . . .

“You have your group of friends,” Yuuki said, quietly, trying very hard to conceal his jealousy of that fact.

“Well, yes,” Subaru said. “We just sort of found each other, and stuck together. That's been a great experience, too.” He looked at Yuuki. “Why don't you come over and eat with us sometime? I mean, if we both make the next round?”

That caught Yuuki off-guard. Here he thought they were an insular little group that shunned outsiders . . . and here Subaru was, offering him an open invitation . . .

No wonder Yo-ka likes him, he thought. He seems genuinely innocent and unspoiled. That's a quality a prince doesn’t get to see very often.

And then, suddenly, Yuuki said, “We ARE going to both make the next round. Because we're going to win this contest. Now, let's make this cake the best that we can.”

“You're on,” Subaru said. “Okay, I'll pour the flour, you fold it in . . .”

When the batter of both teams was done, it was put in the oven, and the contestants got a lesson on making buttercream frosting and using pastry bags to apply it perfectly. They practiced on milk cartons while their cakes baked.

While they cooled, the group went into the main part of the bakery, where they enjoyed some of the establishment's other offerings – toasted ham and cheese sandwiches made with thick slices of white bread.

All of them sat together at one big, round table, and discussed their experiences making the cakes – and Yuuki surprised himself by fitting in a lot better with the group than he thought he would. Maybe, he thought, they're not as cliquish as I thought they were.

After their lunch, they went back to their work areas, where the cooled cakes were laid out on wire racks. “Okay!” Subaru said. “This is it! We each take a bag, and let's get this thing looking professional!”

Well, the end result wasn't quite pro – but at least it was frosted neatly and evenly, and Subaru even managed a few icing rosettes. When it was done, the team members high-fived each other. They knew they'd created a damn fine cake between them.

Yo-ka walked up to where the two cakes were laid out on a table. “Don't tell me which team made which,” he said. “Let me decide on my own.”

He tasted a slice of one cake, then the other, going back and forth. Damn, he thought, this is a hard decision. Both sides obviously paid attention to their lessons

“Well,” he said, “This isn’t going to be an easy choice. The bad news is that only one team can win – because you all did an outstanding job. However . . .” He pointed at the rosettes on top of Subaru and Yuuki's cake. “I think these are the deciding factor. So, yes, the makers of this cake are our winning team.”

“Yes!” Subaru and Yuuki yelled in unison, and high-fived again. They were both coming back next week!

“Great job,” Yuuki said. “Your rosettes won it!”

“No, it was the way you mixed everything that won,” Subaru said. “If it wasn't for you, my rosettes would have been on top of a board.”

Yo-ka watched with a quiet smile. The real victory, he thought, is the fact that they're getting along now. They're going to have to . . .

The broadcast was at hand. Just a few more days, now.

As they were leaving, he leaned over and whispered to MiA and Ruiza, “This is a secret, but you're both going to be getting ribbons, too, okay?”

He'd definitely made up his mind about who was moving on. Tonight, after dinner, he'd go talk to Mizuki of Sadie and Kana of Codomo Dragon and tell them, as gently as possible, that they were going home. Enough with the anonymous who-would-or-would-not-get-a-ribbon – eliminations were a lot more personal at this stage.

* * *

Toya was sitting in the royal salon – one of the areas of the palace that was restricted to members of the royal family and staff only (though if he had his way, nothing would be restricted but their bedrooms). He was looking at a map of their next destination – it had been awhile since he'd been to the royal residence at Dauto.

It was right on a beach. Thank God – they'd be able to surf again. He'd really been enjoying the sidewalk surfing, but he was eager to get back in the water and feel the power of the waves again. Surfing was even more enjoyable than he thought it would be.

Stop kidding yourself, he thought. You know that part of why you love it so much is because of your instructor.

Subaru was absolutely adorable, fun to be with, and there was just something about his connection to the waves – it was almost spiritual. If he had known back when he was grouching about having to go along with his brother’s Culling that he'd meet someone like Subaru, he would have been waiting in front of the palace with bags fully packed two days in advance.

Of course, there was the small matter that his cute little surfing instructor was part of Yo-ka's harem – and that his brother seemed to like him as well. Quite a bit, in fact. And he knew that if Subaru was part of the final two and Yo-ka was torn between both guys, he might pick Subaru just to send a message to their father.

I'm not going to worry about that until the end, Toya thought. For now, I'll enjoy every moment I can get with him.

He especially wasn't going to think about the prospect that he might be seeing Subaru every day, all right – but he'd be his brother-in-law.

The door opened, and Yo-ka came into the room, followed by the Earl. “I might as well brief both of you at once,” the Earl said, “once His Royal Highness calms down a little.”

“When I say just call me Yo-ka, that applies to you, too, Earl Ohara. At least as long as my father isn't around.” He sat on the love seat and leaned over, head in his hands.

“Oh, crap,” Toya said, putting down the map and leaping up from his chair. “What happened? Did something go wrong with the date?” Please don't tell me Subaru is gone, he thought.

“The date went well,” Yo-ka said. “Better than expected, in fact. All four guys got ribbons. No, I just had to personally let Mizuki and Kana go. I went to their rooms after dinner and talked to them, told them it was nothing personal, that I was glad to meet them, that I wanted them to keep in touch with each other and with me afterward, but . . .” He looked away. “I figured it would be better for them than being rejected by a guard with an empty box, but it was worse for me.”

Toya sat next to his brother, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “I know,” he said. “This is why this sucks. Well, there's a LOT of reasons, why this sucks, but that's the biggest.”

“I didn't think I'd genuinely come to like any of the candidates,” Yo-ka said. “But the group that I have left . . . I don't know if I'll be able to do it when the next round of cuts comes.”

“Think we can get Father to amend the law so you can marry six guys?” Toya said.

“Yeah, right,” Yo-ka said. “He'd be more likely to swallow a whole jar of hot peppers at once.”

“I'd like to see that,” Toya said. “It would be hilarious.”

“The rules say that I have to send two guys home next week, and one next week . . .”

There was a quiet moment as both brothers contemplated the prospect. Then, Toya said, “Hey – what if you eliminate, but not eliminate?”

“What do you mean?” Yo-ka said.

“I mean, you cut the guys from the competition, and tell them they're not in the running to be your consort anymore and not going on any more formal dates, but give them the option of not going home right away. Remember, there's an extra little guest house on the property at Ekkisu” - the royal residence where they would be spending the final two weeks of the competition. “It's pretty basic and they'll be sleeping on futons instead of a big bed, but at least we have comfortable futons, right?”

Yo-ka paused. “You realize we're taking a gamble with this? If Father finds out about that, we'll both be married off to princesses in the most far-flung countries he can find.”

“He won't find out unless someone tells him,” Yo-ka said. “The king and queen aren't supposed to intervene in a Culling in progress, right?” He looked at the Earl. “Can I count on you to not say anything to my father?”

“Your Highness, this is most unorthodox,” the Earl said.

“So is keeping an entire pool, minus one, of Middle and Lower District candidates,” Yo-ka said. “What is the harm of letting these boys hang out together until the end? I won't be going back to the capital with anyone but the final two – at that point, everyone WILL be going home. But what's the harm in letting them hang out with their friends for an extra week or two?”

“Expense?” the Earl said. “If your father sees an inflated food bill . . .”

“Earl,” Yo-ka said, “how closely does my father scrutinize the bills? He usually has the Ministry of the Exchequer just pay them sight unseen. Besides, I can always give the cut candidates an allowance to go eat in town if necessary, and that comes out of MY pocket, not direct from the royal treasury.”

The Earl shook his head. “You're going to be one hell of a king, sir. I can't wait until you have to deal with foreign governments. Nobody would dare undercut us on a trade deal – you'd outfox them in two seconds.”

“We'll worry about that when the time comes,” Yo-ka said. “Now, is there an update on the Versailles situation?”

“It has most definitely spread to other districts,” the Earl said. “Your father has sent what he calls a 'peacekeeping force' to Ekkisu to make sure it doesn't happen there while you're in residence.”

“Great,” Yo-ka murmured. “Intimidating the people with soldiers constantly marching down their streets. THAT's always good for the public image of the royal family.”

“But yes, there have been major protests reported in Bucktick and Lunasea – which also had their representatives eliminated in the early rounds. They're claiming that the palace is thumbing its noses at them.”

“I'm not thumbing my nose at entire districts just because I didn't want to date their representatives!” Yo-ka said. “That's flat-out ridiculous!

“Try telling them, sir,” the Earl said, dryly.

“Oh, I will,” Yo-ka said. “That's why the nationwide radio broadcast, remember?”

“And your father did make a speech addressing the issue,” the Earl said. “He told the nation that we need to have calm, that nobody has been personally slighted, and that the Palace considers everyone equal.”

“That is RICH coming from him,” Toya murmured. “We'll see what he says if he ends up with a Middle or Lower District son-in-law.”

“The speech did no good, I take it?” said Yo-ka.

“It seems to have had an interesting side effect, though,” said the Earl. “There's talk of counter-protests springing up in the Lower Districts. They're protesting the fact that the rich people are protesting. They say the rich have always had attention paid to them, and it's about time the palace noticed their needs.”

“Lovely,” Yo-ka said, rubbing his head. “I need to make this broadcast more than ever.”

“You really think letting the candidates talk in public will make all this go away?” the Earl said.

“It can't hurt,” Yo-ka said. “The public needs to know I didn't choose these guys for political reasons, or to slight anyone. I chose them because they'd be good companions – for anyone.”

“Very well, sir,” the Earl said. “I'm still not sure how it's going to help in the end, but I will make sure preparations are in place for it – and for our departure in the morning.” He bowed low, and then left the salon.

When he was gone, Toya said to his brother, “Damn. You're just taking risks on every level.”

“I have to,” Yo-ka said. “We're dealing with our father, remember? If I did things his way . . .” He looked out the window. “I wonder how many kings were miserable in their personal lives because they ended up picking an upper-class bride in a Culling, when they really loved someone else?”

“You're not going to have to worry about that,” Toya said.

“Unless Father really does bring his full wrath on our heads,” Yo-ka said. “You know what? The irony of this thing is I thought I'd go into it, go through the motions with the dates and just kick everyone out without a second thought. Now I can't stand letting them go. And as much as this process sucks? I wouldn't have gotten to know any of them without this Culling.”

“You're right,” Toya said. “We wouldn’t have met them otherwise. If either of us as much as brought a middle-class date home, we'd be treated like we'd brought a giant spider into the palace.”

“So, ironically, I got to know these guys because of a father who hates their classes,” Yo-ka said. He draped an arm over his eyes. “I hate having to be grateful to him – for anything.”

“Think of it this way. You are the one who created this pool of guys with your own choices. That had nothing to do with him.” He put his hand on Yo-ka's shoulder. “I'm going to bed, all right?”

“I'll be going in a few,” Yo-ka said. “I'll see you in the morning.”

He looked out the window, thinking, I really am a softie. I can't bear the idea of letting these guys go – and it's not just because I don't want to lose their company. I can't stand breaking up their friendships. That's the real reason I'm taking this risk.

Yo-ka began to wonder, ironically, if his life would be easier if he were a heartless bastard like his father.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
hamhamheaven
Nov. 17th, 2016 04:23 am (UTC)
Interesting tidbit about Gazetto and Alicenine breaking away from the country to form their own nations. If the current king isn't careful, he could lose a few more districts that way! (I'm sure Yo-ka won't let that happen, though.)

Funny how both sides had misconceptions about what those not in their circle were like. All of which cleared up as soon as everyone started communicating. Shocking. Seems like Yuuki's fallen pretty hard for Yo-ka. I wonder if he will be the first one to figure out about the emotional connection between Baru and Toya.
puss_nd_boots
Nov. 23rd, 2016 02:57 am (UTC)
There has been a LOT of miscommunication in that country due to the fact that rich, middle class and poor all stay in their own little enclaves - and we're starting to see how it affects the country as a whole. We'll also see what Yo-ka ultimately does about that . . .
leifang666
Nov. 17th, 2016 09:04 pm (UTC)
Another great chapter. I'm so glad Yuuki and Subaru learned to get along. I guess they had both been falling back on stereotypes themselves, without even realising it.
puss_nd_boots
Nov. 23rd, 2016 03:00 am (UTC)
Even though Yuuki isn't exactly your typical upper-class guy, and Subaru isn't your typical lower-class guy, they've both ended up absorbing the stereotypes that are part and parcel of a nation where upper, middle and lower classes stay in their own little groups and don't communicate. And a big part of this Culling has been what happens when those barriers break down and people actually talk to each other. (Something Yo-ka's father has yet to learn about).
leifang666
Nov. 23rd, 2016 07:55 pm (UTC)
Well isn't that what a stereotype is? A preconception of what a person is like, based on looks, religion, birth place etc etc.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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