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Title: A Sort-Of Fairy Tale, Chapter 5
Chapter: Chapter 5 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: In the district of Dauto, the Culling group deals with a new challenge – a radio interview. Meanwhile, Yo-ka is starting to have some thoughts about his country's future.
Comments: The character of Yazawa isn't based on anyone in particular, even though there's been a few J-rockers with his first name, Naoki.

At the start of their last morning in Pentagon, rather than go to the dining room for breakfast as usual, all of the remaining candidates were asked to go out on the back terrace. “You'll have your meal there,” the Earl told Subaru, “and then we will leave directly for Dauto.”

As soon as he got to his destination, Subaru could see one big, round table – with eight places set. One each for the six remaining candidates, one for each of the princes.

“This is how we will be eating for the rest of the Culling,” Yo-ka said. “All together. It's more of an intimate atmosphere.”

Subaru looked around to see who was left. All of his friends, thank God – and Yuuki. Well, he knew Yuuki would be there, since they won the ribbon together, right?

But that means I'll be losing someone I've gotten close to in the next cut, he thought. Because everyone knows Yuuki probably isn't going anywhere.

“I've also called you all together because I'd like to talk about an activity planned for the next stop,” Yo-ka said. “You are all going to be interviewed on the radio.”

Subaru nearly knocked over his juice. Ruiza dropped a fork. MiA just sat there with his eyes and mouth wide.

“All of us?” Subaru said. “ALL of us?”

“Yes, all,” Yo-ka said. “I know it's not a usual step – in Cullings of the past, the last few candidates may have done a newspaper interview, but that was it. But . . .”

“Not much about this Culling has been usual,” Toya said.

“Well, yes,” said Yo-ka with a sheepish grin. “Not very much has been typical, has it? I decided I wanted the public to get to know you. To be able to see what I see in all of you. I think it, well, would humanize this whole process a little.”

“In other words, you want to show the world that you're not dragging around a bunch of vapid toyboys,” Yuuki said, dryly. Everyone laughed.

“Something like that,” Yo-ka said.

Toya leaned over and said in a stage whisper, “EXACTLY like that,” and everyone laughed again.

“We'll talk more about it before the broadcast airs,” Yo-ka said. “Make sure you wear something nice that day, even though it's radio, because there might be photographers, too.”

“Well, this is another first,” Ruiza said. “I've never been on radio before.”

“I have,” Hiro said. “Some guy was doing man-in-the-street interviews back home in Fest, and he asked me about the new tax levels. I told him just wait a few days, they'll go even higher. I didn't want to say what I was REALLY thinking.”

Subaru had something to distract him from thoughts of what inevitably would happen at the end of the week - because right now, he was occupied with the idea of being on radio. He wondered if his friends back home would be listening. They must have been keeping up with the news of the competition, they'd know that Subaru was still there, still a participant.

He glanced across the table at Toya, who was gently chiding his brother about allegedly having “a face for radio” - even though Yo-ka was one of the most gorgeous men in the country.

And I still am here with both of them, still hanging out, he thought. That was probably the best thing of all.

* * *

As they were headed for the cars to the train station, Subaru leaned over and whispered to Toya, “Big question – are there waves where we're going?”

“There are,” Toya whispered back. “But I'm a bit nervous about getting back on a board after a week off one.”

“You'll be fine,” Subaru replied. “You kept your reflexes up with the sidewalk surfing, remember?”

The train ride was a lot shorter than some of the ones they'd taken – and the residence they arrived at was, like the Pentagon one, more of a sprawling estate than a true palace, a mansion that seemed to have been built in a T-shape. The horizontal bar consisted of a wide front porch, a front foyer that opened onto a parlor, the kitchen and dining areas, and a large conference room, which Yo-ka said would be used for the radio interview.

The stem of the T was made up of a corridor of bedrooms – a large one for the Earl at the front, followed by a half-dozen smaller rooms for guests – in this case, the candidates. In back was a large area of greenery and gardens, which opened onto . . . yes, a beach. One corner of the garden held a smaller house, where the two princes would be staying.

“Since there are six of you now,” the Earl told his charges after they unpacked, “the normal procedure at this stage is for His Highness to have one individual date with each of you this week.” He held out a bowl. “There are six pieces of paper there. Everyone chooses one, that is the day of the week you will date the prince.”

“What about the radio interview?” Subaru said.

“The interview is 8 p.m. Wednesday night,” the Earl said. “Whoever draws Wednesday will have his date early enough so you can get back in time for the show.”

Each of the candidates put his hand in the bowl and pulled out a paper. “Monday,” Ruiza said. “I go tomorrow.”

“I got Wednesday,” Hiro said, sounding a bit disappointed. He had the pre-radio date.

Subaru unfolded his own, and read THURSDAY. Well, that was good, wasn't it? Not too early in the week, not too late . . . he'd have a few days to get back on the waves with Toya . . .

And he was more than a little aware that was his first priority right now.

* * *

The dining room consisted of a large, oblong table with one prince seated on either end and three candidates on each side. Subaru was in the middle, between MiA (seated closer to Toya) and Ruiza (sitting nearer to Yo-ka).

“This morning at breakfast was the first time we've all been together like this,” Yo-ka said. “I mean, we've been on group dates, but we haven't all been on them together . . .”

“I sure haven't. Far as I know, there's rules against dating your brother,” Toya said, and everyone laughed.

“But I'm glad for the chance,” Yo-ka said. “I'm going to be honest with you all – I'm enjoying this process a lot more than I thought I was going to. When my father told me I was going to have a Culling, I dreaded it, but . . .”

“But you picked a fun group of people,” said Hiro.

“You have good taste!” Ruiza added.

“I'm not arguing with that,” Toya said – and Subaru couldn't help but notice the younger prince was glancing in his direction as he said it.

“So, honest feedback,” Yo-ka said. “How have you guys been enjoying the dates?”

“I've had a lot of fun,” Subaru said. “Especially the cable car ride.”

“No complaints here,” said MiA.

“I have to say I liked the last group date,” Yuuki said.

“The baking contest?” Yo-ka looked surprised.

“It's not something I get to do very often,” Yuuki said. “And I had a good partner.”

Subaru smiled widely at that one. Yuuki still wasn't fully assimilated into their group yet, but at least the ice seemed to have cracked somewhat. “I had a good partner, too!” he said.

“Okay, honest feedback?” Ruiza said. “I love the dates. Really. And I love the places we've been staying. But the train rides? They make me very glad I'm carrying a good book.”

“Aren't you done with that thing yet?” Hiro said.

“It's a very big book,” Ruiza said. “Hey, there's been a lot of royals.”

“You're reading about the history of my family?” Yo-ka said.

“Take those books with a grain of salt,” Toya said. “No, the whole shaker. A lot of them are written by people with an axe to grind.”

“What kind of people?” Subaru said, suddenly interested.

“Certain branches of the nobility who think that THEY should be on the throne instead of us,” Yo-ka said. “A few of them even tried to get various provinces to secede because they wanted to be rulers so badly. Only a couple of them succeeded.”

“Like Gazetto,” Ruiza said.

“Oh, is that the one you were telling us about?” Hiyori said. “The one with the constitutional monarchy?”

“I'm amazed you remembered that,” Hiro said.

“Hey, I AM capable of remembering big words, you know,” said Hiyori.

“Okay, refresh my memory on how that one happened,” Yuuki said. “I remember hearing about it in history class, but that was awhile ago.”

“Well, there was a Grand Archduke who was a cousin to King Kisaki,” Ruiza said. “He got into a big blowup with his cousin over the way the government should be run. He thought the common people should have more of a voice, King Kisaki insisted on keeping an absolute monarchy.”

“Our family doesn't talk about King Kisaki very much, by the way,” Toya said. “He's not one of our more popular ancestors.”

“So the Grand Archduke finally decided he'd had it, and the district of Gazetto seceded and became the Grand Duchy of Gazetto. And they installed a parliament, with representatives of every town and city, and that parliament picks the prime minister of the country from within its members.”

“They still have that same form of government?” MiA said.

“Oh, yes, they do,” Toya said. “Grand Archduke Kai is still the nominal head of state, but the country is really run by Prime Minister Ozaki and the Parliament of Senate and Congress. Or, as the Gazettians call it, the PSC.”

“He must have an easy job,” Hiyori said. “Just collect the king salary, grand archduke salary, whatever, and let the parliament do all the work!”

At the other end of the table, the Crown Prince sat quietly, deep in thought.

* * *

Yo-ka walked out of the conference room where the radio interview was being set up. He was feeling very good about everything that was happening right now.

His first two dates, with Ruiza and MiA, had gone well. Both of them were most definitely getting ribbons this round. He knew, increasingly, that this was more about “cool hangout time” than anything truly romantic in most cases – but he was enjoying it.

He was also happy with Yazawa Naoki, the radio interviewer who was going to be conducting the sit-down – who praised Yo-ka's attitude toward the Culling. “I like how you're using this interview as an opportunity to connect people, after all the divisiveness that's come out of the early rounds,” the host said. “Really, it's all foolish.”

“Have you seen the protests?” Yo-ka said. “I've only heard about them through my advisors.”

“Oh, yes, yes,” Yazawa said. “And that's why I say it's foolish. Really, the aristocracy needs to get over itself and remember that a Culling is supposed to mean choosing from a pool representing EVERY district in this country, not just the higher ones.”

“What about the counter-protests?” Yo-ka said. “The ones in the lower districts?”

“Haven't seen them yet,” Yazawa replied. “At least first-hand. But I can tell you why it's happening.”

“And why is that?” said Yo-ka.

“They're sick and tired of the aristocracy's entitlement complex, that's why. Because the Upper Districts have the Crown's attention all the time, the Middle Districts get shunted to the side and the Lower Districts, well . . . they might as well not exist.”

“My brother goes to all the districts to collect reports from the governors,” Yo-ka said. “He makes sure he brings ALL the people's concerns to our father.”

“In-person? I mean, does he sit down with your father and talk to him about it?”

“Are you kidding?” said Yo-ka. “Why would my father resolve anything with a conversation when paperwork could be involved? No, my brother dictates a report to one of the secretaries, and then she types it up, and she brings it to my father, and . . .”

“And most likely, he buries it under a pile of more paperwork,” said Yazawa. “Believe me, Your Highness, I've known your father awhile, I know how he works. And I've also been out in the streets and seen the frustration of people who think they're not being heard.”

Now, Yo-ka walked out of the broadcast room. He had to get ready for dinner and make a few arrangements for tomorrow's date with Hiro, but first . . . he needed to speak to one of his assistants.

He walked into his office, where a young man just out of college, his face covered with owlish glasses and his body by a severe business suit, was working at a typewriter.

“Motoki,” Yo-ka said, “I have a special mission for you. It may seem odd, but . . . I need you to do some research.”

The young man leapt up from the desk and bowed. “Whatever you need, Your Highness,” he said.

“I want you to find out the following figures, for the most recent year you can, for the Duchy of Gazetto: Total per capital income, annual gross income per person, and total job satisfaction. Heck, see if you can find statistics for total life satisfaction overall. And then, I want you to find out the same figures for our own nation.”

The young man looked baffled. “Sir?”

“Please don't ask why I need them,” Yo-ka said. “Just get them for me – and I need them by the time the Culling ends and we go back to the main palace.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Motoki said. “I will have them well before then!” He rushed out so fast that he nearly knocked over a plant.

Yo-ka watched him go. He knew the super-efficient assistant was the right person to get what he needed. And once he had those figures in hand, he'd see if the idea he had forming in his head was truly worthwhile.

* * *

The candidates assembled in the room where the radio broadcast was going to take place about an hour before airtime. “Welcome, all of you,” Yazawa said. “Come in, don't be shy. Nobody's going to hurt you here, you're among friends.”

“Well, it's just that none of us have been on radio before,” Ruiza said. “Except Hiro, and that was for a man-in-the-street interview. Maybe Yuuki has.”

“Well, yes, I have, but that was just a brief interview to promote a show,” Yuuki said. “I've never done something full-scale like this before.”

Subaru was just looking at the microphones set out on the table. He'd seen those in photographs plenty of times – with movie stars, royalty, and foreign dignitaries speaking into them. Yet another thing that usually didn't happen to a boy from Royz.

“Let me explain what's going to happen,” said Yazawa. “I'm going to open by talking to His Highness, then I'm going to have him introduce you. I'll ask each of you to tell me a little bit about yourselves – your names, where you're from, what you do, maybe hobbies. Then I'll ask a few general questions just to give everyone more of a feel for who you are. And don't worry, I will NOT ask anything embarrassing – or at least not anything you don't want the people back home to hear.” Everyone laughed.

“This really is part of the Newsmaker show? Meaning it's going out nationwide?” MiA said. “I mean, to stations in every district?”

“Every single one,” Yazawa said. “Even if you live way at the tippy-top of the country, your friends can hear it. Now, I'd like every one of you to sit by your mikes so I can check your sound levels . . .”

Yo-ka came in when the candidates were finishing their tests. He did a test of his own, and said, “Guys, make me proud of you. I know you'll be able to do it.”

“Do any of us get an extra date if we do REALLY well?” said Hiyori, and everyone laughed again.

When the time came, Yazawa's engineer, who had been listening to commands from the main studio in the capital through his headphone, said to the group at the table, “We're going live in 30 seconds!”

“All right,” Yazawa said, putting on his own headset. “Quiet everyone . . . in five, four, three, two, one . . . Good evening, everyone, I'm Yazawa Naoki, and welcome to a very special segment of Newsmakers. I'm here with His Royal Highness Prince Yo-ka of Valluna and the young men who are vying for the position of his Prince-Consort in a traditional Culling. It is a great pleasure to have you here, Your Highness.”

“Thank you, Yazawa-san,” Yo-ka said. “The pleasure is all mine.”

“Now, for the benefit of those who aren't quite sure how it works, could you please explain the Culling process?” the announcer said.

“Well, a Culling is a gathering of young men from every district in the country who make up, shall we say, a dating pool for me to choose from,” Yo-ka said. “Every week, some young men get cut from the pool, until I have two left – and from those two, I choose the one I will be Pledged to for the next six months. If that works out, we move on to an engagement, and if it continues to work out, he becomes Prince-Consort. Right now, we have six lovely young men in our group, and any one of them would make a great Consort. My job is going to be tough.”

“Why have you chosen to do this interview?” Yazawa said. “Traditionally, princes and their Culling groups have stayed isolated during the process. In fact, to my knowledge, you are the first prince to do a radio interview with his group.”

“Well, they didn't exactly have radio during the days of King Miyavi, did they?” Yo-ka said, causing the group at the table to laugh. “But seriously, I thought it was important that the public get to know these young men. I know some might be questioning the decisions I make during the process” - an indirect reference to the controversies - “and I want people to see how I arrived at them.”

“Without further ado, then, let's meet these young men, shall we?” the interviewer said. “Starting at my right, and going around the table.”

The one to Yazawa's right was Yuuki. “Hello, I'm Yuuki of Lycaon. As you can imagine from that description, I was raised in an upper-class district, but I've always been a person of an independent mind. I'm a cabaret singer – not because I need to be, but because music and performing are my passion.”

“I'm Hiyori of Kiryu, and performing is my passion, too.”

“We seem to have a theme here,” Yazawa interjected. “What kind of performing do you do, Hiyori?”

“I'm a dancer in a traditional troupe back home. But what I really want to do is . . .”

Subaru sat listening to the others, thinking, what am I going to say? My career isn't interesting like theirs. How am I going to come off sounding good?

The last person before him was MiA, who talked about his guitar playing – and then, it was Subaru's turn. Here goes nothing, he thought.

“Hi, I'm Subaru of Royz,” he said. “I'm a surfer. Okay, that's not what I do for a living – but I'd like to! No, I work for a tugboat company back home, and I'm so glad I got the opportunity to do this, because I'm seeing so many things I've never seen before!”

“You work for a boat company, but you haven't seen much?” Yazawa said.

“Well, tugboats don't go very far,” Subaru said, and the group laughed.

“All right, a question for you all,” the host said. “Now, we know that the Royal Consort usually does not make policy directly, but can have an influence on it. Say you are in that position – what is one issue that you would like to bring to the table for discussion and action?”

“Arts programs for youth,” Yuuki said. “I think the Crown needs to devote more time and funding to instruction and materials for our kids – especially in regions where the parents can't necessarily afford private lessons. There's so much potential out there that's being undeveloped.”

“Preservation of traditional culture,” Hiyori said. “It's probably a big deal to me because I come from Kiryu, but in some of the places we've visited? I've seen the old traditions slipping away. I think young people need to learn more about their traditional art, music and dance, because that's where we're coming from. That's our roots as a people.”

Hiro started talking about support for small business owners trying to get their companies off the ground, which moved on to Ruiza talking about preserving open space . . . and once again, Subaru found himself wondering what he was going to talk about. He really shouldn't feel a gap between himself and his friends. They were all the same on the inside – they just had different cultural experiences, right?

He held that thought, and began expanding on it as MiA talked about increased educational opportunities, so everyone who wanted to go to a university could. And so, when it was his turn, Subaru was ready.

“The issue I'd bring to the table,” Subaru said, “is understanding, compassion and equality for all in this country.”

“Oh?” said Yazawa. “Well, that's an interesting one – can I hear more about that?”

“I'm from what most people would call a lower district,” Subaru said. “And when I first came to the capital for this Culling? I heard remarks about that. But really – why do we divide this country into Upper, Middle and Lower districts? I mean, the work that ALL of us do is valuable, right? Everyone in this country contributes to keeping it running, whether it's the CEOs in the Upper Districts, the managers and small business owners in the Middle Districts, or the people who harvest food in the Lower Districts. Royz provides seafood for the whole country – how is that any less important than what everyone else is doing? I think what I'm saying is, well, we all matter. And I want everyone to understand that.”

There was silence around the table for a long moment. And then, Yazawa said, “His Highness is right. You really are fascinating young men. All of you. Now, I'm going to ask you a much lighter question – what has been your favorite place you've visited so far?”

In a parlor of the palace, Toya sat with a radio. He wasn't going to get directly involved in the interview – he didn't want to interfere with his brother or the candidates – but he most definitely was going to listen. And when he heard Subaru's statement about equality, he felt his heart swell.

There's a lot more to you than a surfer from Royz, Subaru, he thought. A whole lot more.

* * *

The day after the interview, Yo-ka and Subaru had their date. The car took them to a boardwalk at the seaside, where they strolled together, sharing an order of takoyaki and watching seagulls diving for pieces of bread thrown to them by kids on the sand.

“The interview went really well,” Yo-ka said. “Spectacularly, in fact.”

“You think so?” Subaru said. “I just kind of winged it.”

“You winged it very well,” Yo-ka said, sitting down on a bench. “You're a quick thinker.”

“Kind of have to be when you surf,” Subaru said. “The waves are always changing underneath you.” He looked over at Yo-ka and smiled. “I'm glad we did it, though. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but it was a lot of fun.”

“It was fun, wasn't it?” Yo-ka said. “And you guys really had some good thoughts about what government should be doing. Maybe I'll hire every one of you to be my advisors.”

“Only if we can travel around like this when we're advising you,” Subaru said. “I've gotten way too used to this.”

“I'm not going to spend my life in one palace, believe me,” Yo-ka said. “I'm not going to be a stick in the mud so wrapped up in the idea of being the be-all and end-all of the country that he forgets about the people around him.” Looking out at the water, wistfully, he added, “I'm not going to be my father.”

“Yo-ka?” Subaru said, looking a bit worried. “Yo-ka?” He waved his hand in front of the prince's face.

“Oh, sorry,” Yo-ka said. “Just thinking about something.” He tossed the empty takoyaki box into a trash can next to the bench. “Hey, there's a bowling alley about a block from here, I think. Want to bowl a game?”

“You bet I do,” Subaru said. “But I'll bet you want to even more.”

“You're not kidding,” Yo-ka said. He stood up – and offered Subaru his hand. Subaru gladly took it. They continued to hold hands as they headed toward the bowling alley.

What I was just imagining, Yo-ka thought, is a very different future than the one I think my father has in mind.

* * *

The closer the end of the week came, the more the reality that nobody wanted to face snuck up on them.

They knew what their numbers were now. They also knew it was highly unlikely Yuuki was going home – he and Yo-ka were both all smiles when they came home from their date, as usual. Which meant that two of them were being eliminated and sent home.

All of them had chosen to just not think about it – for the first part of the week, they'd focused on the interview, and once that was over, they just made the most of their time together. Every afternoon, there was a volleyball game on the beach with whoever wasn't out on a date at the moment.

By dinner on the final night, however, there was no avoiding it any longer. They knew this was their last meal as a group. And so, they all came to the table with long faces.

Yo-ka saw their mood. He had been planning a sit-down with them after the meal to explain his decision – but he knew he had to do it now. They weren't going to be able to make it through the meal otherwise.

“Everyone,” he said, “I know what you're all thinking. I have to make eliminations tonight. I know you've all gotten used to being together. I've gotten used to it, too. I want you to know that I've enjoyed the company of each and every one of you, and I want us all to stay in touch after this is all over. I came here to find a mate, and . . . well, I'm not saying whether or not I have yet, but one thing I've definitely found is friends – and you've found friends in each other.”

There was silence around the table. Here it comes, Subaru thought. He's going to eliminate two of us on the spot. What if it's me? What if I'm going back to Royz tonight? What if I'm never going to see any of them . . . well, until we have the reunion he was talking about? What if . . .

His eyes strayed over to Toya, and he felt his heart sink to his feet. The idea of not seeing him again was painful.

“And that's why,” Yo-ka said, “that I've decided . . .”

Subaru swallowed hard. He didn't want to hear what was coming, didn't want to hear, didn't want to . . .

“. . . that nobody is going home.”

Ruiza, who was drinking from his wineglass, nearly choked. Hiro dropped a fork. MiA looked like he was going to fall face-first in his plate.

“There's officially going to be two eliminations, of course,” Yo-ka said. “But I'm not sending those guys home. You'll all come with us to the final stop before the end, where we'll spend two weeks. The eliminated two will stay in a guest house instead of the main house, and will not have any dates with me – but you'll still be able to stay with your friends. When I take the final two with me to the capital, the other four will all go home at once.”

“Yo-ka,” Subaru said, quietly, “won't you get in trouble?”

“What my father doesn't know won't hurt him,” Yo-ka said. “Our staff is being told I decided to keep all the last group because I don't want to risk anyone going to the press about the inner workings of the Culling. Not that I don't trust you guys. I do. But I do need a cover story.”

“You're going to announce the eliminations to the public?” MiA said.

“I have to,” Yo-ka said. “But the eliminated guys will get a chance to call their homes and explain what's going on. Give them the story about keeping you there for secrecy purposes.”

“There's a precedent for that, by the way,” Toya said. “Our mother said that during my father's Culling, the fourth place finisher went and blabbed to the press the moment she was let go. Purely out of sour grapes, of course.”

“So, there it is,” Yo-ka said. “I'll go around to all your rooms later tonight and tell you whether or not you have a ribbon – but we'll all be on a train in the morning. It's just that the two eliminated won't be in a private car with the rest of us – but I'll at least make sure you have tickets in the first-class car.”

“Yo-ka,” Yuuki said, softly, “that's . . . that's incredibly generous of you. Really. Especially since it's unprecedented.”

“I couldn't NOT do something like that,” Yo-ka said. “I sort of wish that instead of just picking a mate, I could bring you all back to the palace with me to be my permanent group of friends. My court, so to speak.”

“Maybe there's a way that can happen, someday,” Subaru said – struggling not to look at Toya again.

The group was able to finish their dinner in much better spirits than they began, and afterward, they all headed for their rooms. Subaru's bags had been packed by the staff already – his nightclothes, toiletries and one outfit for tomorrow had been left out.

I've definitely gotten way too used to this, he thought. At least I know I'll still be doing this for two more weeks.

And then, his stomach sank again. Only two weeks . . . two more weeks with Toya . . . and then I'll either go home, or . . .

He sank down to the bed. Could he truly do it, if Yo-ka picked him? At the beginning of the competition, he would have thought he wanted nothing in the world more. But now that he'd gotten to know Toya so well, spent so much time with him . . .

A knock interrupted his thoughts. He opened the door to see Yo-ka, ribbon in hand.

“Hi,” Yo-ka said. “You've earned this with every bit of your heart this week. Your performance in the radio interview? It was so far beyond what I expected, Subaru.”

“Thank you.” Subaru walked over to Yo-ka and spontaneously hugged him. “And thank you so much for letting everyone stay. You're truly a good person.”

“No use in breaking up the gang, huh?” Yo-ka said. “I don't want anyone to be unhappy – not when there's more competition left.”

“Yo-ka,” Subaru said, quietly, “may I ask who the two officially eliminated were?”

“Hiro and Hiyori,” Yo-ka said. “Nothing against either of them, but their position in my life is definitely as my friends. They've both been told already, and they called their families. Hiyori said his family's really proud of him – he made it further in a Culling than anyone in Kiryu's history – and they said any of you guys are welcome to visit Hiyori at home any time.”

“Well, then, I'm going to say thank you two times over,” Subaru said, “because I'm not ready to say goodbye to either of them yet.” And he suddenly realized he'd still been hugging Yo-ka this whole time. He quickly eased back from him. “Sorry . . .” he said.

“For what?” said Yo-ka. “For hugging me?” He took his hand. “Subaru, that is the last thing you should be sorry about. We're dating, remember?”'

“You're dating everyone else, too,” Subaru said.

“Well, yes,” Yo-ka said. “But, well . . .” He squeezed the hand. “I'm just really glad I got to know you. You're a special guy. Really.”

“I'm glad I've gotten to know you, too,” Subaru said. And he was very much aware of the nearness of the other man, and the fact that they were in the entrance to his bedroom . . .

Yo-ka quickly dropped his hand and stepped back. “I have a couple of other ribbons to deliver,” he said.

“Yes, you should,” Subaru said. “Don't keep the other guys in suspense.”

“I'll see you tomorrow, okay?” Yo-ka said.

He left, the door closed, and Subaru slowly moved over to his bureau, picking up his rosette and attaching the new ribbon.

Only two hooks left, he thought. I'm very close to being in the final two.

He dropped the rosette and flopped down on his bed, thinking how he'd felt when he and Yo-ka were close – the sudden rush of heady excitement, of heart-pounding desire. It was just compounding his confusion earlier about how he'd feel if Yo-ka told him he was the one.

Not to mention that in the back of his mind was a pang of guilt – as if he were being disloyal to Toya. But how could he be? Toya wasn't the one he was officially with – right?

* * *

Yo-ka went back to his office after delivering the final ribbon, where he was met by the Earl. “Your Highness, this is most irregular . . .”

“I know it's irregular, Earl Ohara,” Yo-ka said. “But I can't see the point of breaking up a group of friends with two weeks to go. Besides, I wasn't lying when I said I wanted to prevent press leaks.”

“And yet, you had the boys speak on the radio,” he said.

“Yes, about themselves,” Yo-ka said. “Not about the inner workings of the process. Has there been feedback on the broadcast, by the way?”

“It seems the protests in the wealthy areas have calmed somewhat,” said the Earl. “Whether that's a direct result of the broadcast or they're re-grouping or planning their next move, I'm not sure. But reactions to it in the Middle Districts seems to have been overwhelmingly positive – especially after the companion piece appeared in the newspapers, with the pictures. Apparently, the young girls have been picking out which of the candidates is the cutest.”

“What about the Lower Districts?” Yo-ka said.

The Earl looked confused that he'd even ask such a thing. “The Lower Districts, sir?”

“Any reaction there?” Yo-ka said.

“We didn't even try to get that information, sir,” the Earl said. “We didn't think it would be of much use, really.”

“I still have a candidate from Royz, remember,” Yo-ka said. “Never mind that for now.”

Of course, he thought, the Earl wouldn't think the Lower Districts matter. But I do. Especially now.

* * *

In the district of Royz, Subaru's old friends sat around their regular table in their favorite bar, listening to the weekly announcement of who did and did not advance in the Culling.

“Goddamn, he made it AGAIN!” Kuina said. “This is unbelievable!”

“He's how close now?” Tomoya said. “They've got three left? Four?”

“Four,” Koudai said. “The prince cuts one person this coming week, then one guy the next week, and then he picks from the final two.”

“It's unbelievable,” said Tomoya. “Seriously – this is the most attention anyone from the Palace has ever paid ANYONE from Royz. They usually pretend we don't exist.”

“And that's precisely why this boy matters,” said a voice behind them. They turned, and saw Captain Hotori – the captain of one of the biggest merchant boats in town. In fact, it was his boat that had brought Subaru to the capital.

“So what do you mean by that?” Koudai said.

“I mean, we've been neglected by the Crown for years,” Hotori said. “Lower Districts like us? Feh, we're scum to them. Our infrastructure is falling over and we need money to fix it? Not coming from them. We need more doctors for our citizens? No help from the Palace. Need more police trained? Falls on deaf ears. And meanwhile, those bastards in the Upper Districts – who get anything they need – have the nerve to whine and bitch because their boy got cut from the Culling in the first round. Well, now the tables are turning. It's OUR boy who's getting close to the throne. And the closer he gets, the more the chance that we will finally matter!”

“We need to make SURE that we'll matter!” yelled another voice, approaching the table. Kuina recognized the guy as Ohbuchi-san, one of their co-workers in the tug company. “If those rich assholes can threaten to go to the capital and demonstrate? So can we! If Subaru can get the attention of the throne, so can we! Hell, if he's in the final two, they'll have no choice but to pay attention to us, right?”

He pointed to the captain. “Tell you what – that boy makes the final two, we're ALL gonna go down there in a group! We're gonna make noise and wave signs and march in the streets and they won't be able to dismiss us as some poor bastards from Royz, because, guess what? One of the two guys the prince will be picking from will be from Royz, too!”

“Um, we don't know he's going to get that far yet . . .” Kodai said.

“If he does, are you with us?” Ohbuchi said. “Are you going to go to the capital? Are you going to DEMAND our voices be heard? Demand POWER TO THE PEOPLE?”

“YES!” shouted one of the guys at the surrounding tables. “Power to the people!”

“I'm in!” shouted another voice from across the bar. “I am SO in!”

“Me, too!” another man yelled.

Kuina leaned over and whispered to the others, “Good God – is this a revolutionary movement forming around Subaru?”

“He hasn't even gotten to the top two yet!” Kodai said.

“Looks like he'd better, now,” Tomoya said. “These guys are getting fired up!”

By the end of the evening, the bar was filled with men stomping and waving their beers in the air, shouting, “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” and just waiting for Subaru to get the official nod from the prince so they could swing into action.

And meanwhile, the object of their revolution was arriving at his new destination, completely unaware of what was brewing back in his old hometown.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
hamhamheaven
Nov. 23rd, 2016 04:58 am (UTC)
Oh wow! Baru-chan's become a figurehead for revolution. I wonder how he'll react once he finds out; wonder what Toya will think.

The radio interview went really well, I think. All of them had a chance to show what sweet, intelligent guys they are. (And of course, once their pictures were published there are fangirls!) The decision to let the eliminated candidates continue to hang out with their friends is a very sweet gesture on Yo-ka's part, but his excuse of not wanting them to go to the press is only going to fool the king. No one who listened to the interview would believe that of any of them!
puss_nd_boots
Nov. 23rd, 2016 01:31 pm (UTC)
Not only do Subaru and Toya not know about what's brewing in Royz, Yo-ka doesn't, either. And the palace hasn't got a clue - because, of course, all the hoity-toity consider the lower classes "not worth worrying about." They're all expecting a cranky gang from Versailles to show up, but the lower classes? We'll see how that develops . . .

What Yo-ka did was definitely sweet and generous - and it shows that he's not ready to let these guys go, either. He may or may not have found true love, but he's definitely found people he wants to hang around with! (Seriously, who wouldn't want to hang out with Hiro and Hiyori a couple weeks longer?)
leifang666
Nov. 23rd, 2016 08:01 pm (UTC)
It's nice to see Yuuki finally making some friends. :) It's going to be interesting seeing what happens from now on. Especially if Royz do rise up.
puss_nd_boots
Dec. 1st, 2016 06:24 pm (UTC)
Yuuki is fitting in a lot better with the group as a whole now that he's over his perception that a bunch of middle class guys don't want an upper class guy around! (Prejudices affect the upper class in this world as much as they affect the lower classes). We will definitely see what happens with the brewing uprising when we get to the ending!
lucycamui
Nov. 24th, 2016 04:34 am (UTC)

I'm glad that Yuuki is fitting into the group. It would be easy to stir up drama and be cliche, but this is so much better with theme of them all coming together.
Subaru and Toya are thinking about each other a lot too, I am always eager to see their interactions together because they fit well together naturally so far...

puss_nd_boots
Dec. 1st, 2016 06:27 pm (UTC)
One thing I definitely wanted to avoid with this series was that all of Subaru's rivals were jerks and he considered them all competition and nothing else. I mentioned in the notes to the first story in the series that there is a YA series called The Selection that has a similar plot to this series, and I wanted to steer clear of as many of that series' pitfalls as possible - including the "all my rivals are jerks, except for the saintly best friend" thing. As for Subaru and Toya? We will have to see how that develops . . .
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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