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Title: A Sort-Of Fairy Tale, Chapter 2
Chapter: Chapter 2 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: During the second round of The Culling, Subaru begins giving Toya surfing lessons and goes on his first date with Yo-ka – but when it comes time for the group to move on to their third destination, unexpected complications arise.
Comments: The tent city that Subaru sees on the way to the palace is based on reality – there is a row of such structures on Pilgrim’s Pathway in Ocean Grove, NJ. Like in the story, they were originally constructed as a religious retreat and are now vacation homes. You can see them here.

Subaru stepped off the train and looked around him. The first thing he noticed was he could smell the salt air immediately, the way he could when the wind was blowing a certain direction back home. The second thing was the train station was designed elegantly, with lots of latticework – the kind of design commonly referred to as “gingerbread house.”

“Does everything here look like this?” he asked his friends.

“I've only seen it in pictures,” said MiA. “But yes, the pictures had a lot of fancy buildings.”

The Earl approached their group. “I trust you gentlemen had a pleasant trip?”

“Given that none of us have ever traveled by private train before?” Hiyori said. “Oh, yes.”

“Good. You will go to that fleet of cars over there, which will take you to the palace. Staff will show you to your rooms, and there will be a card there listing your date schedule. Four men have been chosen at random to have individual dates with the prince this round. The rest will be organized into two group dates, during which there will be opportunities for one-on-one time with His Highness. There will be one date each day. If you are chosen for an individual date, the prince may present you with your ribbon for the week at the end if he is pleased with you, meaning you have automatic immunity from elimination.”

“What about when you aren't on dates? What do we do then?” said MiA.

“Same thing as the main palace,” said the Earl. “You will receive a guide telling you which areas you have the run of and which are restricted, and you can only go into town with chaperones. I can tell you that you have more of a run of the place than you did at the main palace.” He bowed. “Good day, gentlemen.”

When he left, Subaru said, slowly, “So . . . if the prince isn't pleased with you on a one-on-one date, can he eliminate you on the spot, too?”

“I guess that's how it works,” said Ruiza. “Wow. I'd hate for that to happen.”

“Makes me wonder if I want a one-on-one date,” Hiyori said as they made their way to the cars.

Subaru nearly leaned out the window as they drove to the new palace. Sure enough, the buildings in Lycaon were as elaborate as the train station was. As they turned down one street, he saw a row of small structures that had wooden bottoms, but the tops of them were literally white tents. “What's that?” he said.

“It's called the Tent City,” the driver said. “It was built as a retreat for a religious community years ago. It's vacation homes now.”

“Do they have indoor plumbing?” said Ruiza.

“Everything in the tents is the same as a little cottage,” said the driver. “Except the roof. If it's a nice night, the residents can even pull part of the roof back and sleep under the stars.”

“I'd like that,” Subaru said, looking back at the tents. He imagined they didn't come cheap, either. How strange that he was finding himself dreaming about luxuries like that, when back home, he was just content with what he had.

I can't get too used to this, he thought. I don't know how long this will last. I'm lucky to have made it this far.

Once they got to the palace, they were given their room keys. As Subaru headed toward his, a voice behind him called his name. He turned around, and saw . . .

“Toya!” he said. “You did come along with us!”

“The sooner I got away from the main palace, the better,” he said. “How have you been since I saw you last?”

“Terrific,” Subaru said. “I am so looking forward to the waves here!”

“Still going to keep your promise to teach me to surf?” Toya said.

“Of course!” Subaru said – before dropping his voice. “You're allowed to do that, right? I mean, I don't want to get you in trouble. I know your brother isn't allowed to see us outside dates.”

“This isn't my Culling,” Toya said. “I'm here as an observer. I haven't got any restrictions other than not hitting on the candidates – especially now that we’re away from my father.”

“I'm glad!” Subaru said. “I need to find out my schedule, but will I see you in the dining hall tonight? I can let you know when I'm free then.”

“You will,” Toya said. “I'm looking forward to it, Subaru.”

“So am I,” Subaru said. “Later!”

He unlocked his door and went into the room, which was a bit smaller than his rooms at the main palace, but you could probably still fit his house back in Royz into it. He went over to the desk, where an envelope was propped up. He tore it open and pulled out a card, then gasped.

He'd been chosen for a one-on-one date, three days from now.

Subaru sank down in the chair. He was happy . . . but also, a bit scared. He remembered the conversation back at the train station – what if he were eliminated on the spot? How humiliating would that be?

Well, he couldn't think about that. He just had to think that he was going to have a good time with the prince, and they were going to get to know each other, and . . .

There was a second piece of paper in the envelope. It was a note saying, “CONFIDENTIAL TO SUBARU OF ROYZ – The palace has allotted you a clothing budget in order to procure clothing and a suitcase suitable for one who is a candidate for the prince's hand. Please see Earl Ohara and please keep this in strictest confidence.”

Subaru shook his head in disbelief. They must have seen the state of my suitcase and the clothes I wore here and been embarrassed, he thought. He knew very well he was the only person from the Lower Districts who had survived the first elimination – heck, one of the Lower Districts hadn't even bothered to send a candidate to the palace, elimination was so certain.

If nothing else, he'd be going home with a new wardrobe. But he increasingly didn't want to think about going home.

He was starting to get very used to this way of life. It would be very, very hard to go back.

* * *

That night at dinner, Subaru sat down at a table for six with his four friends, plus Hiro. “So what did you get for a date assignment?” Hiyori said. “I got the group date on the last day.”

“I got the same as you,” MiA said.

“Group date the day before,” Hiro said. “Damn. I can’t hang with you guys.”

“You can hang with me!” Ruiza said. “I'm on that one, too. Which one did you get, Subaru?”

Subaru looked confused. “I'm the only one of us that got a solo date?”

“You got a solo?” Ruiza said. “He must really like you!”

“It was random,” Subaru said, quickly. “Remember?”

“Who got the other three solos, I wonder?” said MiA – just as a familiar figure approached the table.

“Is this seat taken?” Toya said.

“Toya!” Subaru said.

“Hello, Toya-sama,” MiA said, bowing respectfully. “It's not taken.”

“I said you can just call me Toya,” he said, sitting down with them. “And that goes for the rest of you, too.”

Hiyori and Ruiza blinked at each other. “You two KNOW him?” Hiyori said.

“Um, yeah, remember when we disappeared at dinner the first night?” Subaru said. “We kind of, um, snuck off to see the crown jewels. And we kind of got caught.”

“He saved us,” MiA said.

“And you ALL know me now,” Toya said. “You're . . . no, wait, I'm not going to read your rosette, let me see if I can remember . . . Hiroki, right?”

“Close – Hiro of Fest Vainqueur. And that's Ruiza of D, and Hiyori of Kiryu.”

“And I'm Toya of Wherever-We-Happen-To-Be-Right-Now,” he said. “You guys are really going to enjoy the shiizakana these chefs make, that's usually the best part of the meal.” He leaned over and whispered, “But I can also tell you where you can get great ten don in town!”

“We can only go into town with a chaperone, remember?” Ruiza said.

“Well, the guards at this palace are less uptight than the ones at the main one,” he said. “They like the ten don, too.”

“How come you're such a regular guy?” said Hiro.

“Hiro!” said Ruiza.

“Well, I mean, he seems so . . . cool. Not formal at all.”

“It's okay,” Toya said. “It's because I AM a regular guy. I'm a regular guy who just happened to be born into a certain family. And I can be casual now because this isn't my Culling. So I can just hang out.”

“How's your brother handling all this?” MiA said.

“Classified information,” Toya said. “I'm not allowed to talk about that.”

“Sorry,” MiA said.

“No, it's all right,” Toya said. “I'm normally not one to obey the rules by the letter, but that one I'm obeying, for his sake. He really is a great guy – and I'm not just saying that because he's my brother.” He looked around at the group. “But enough about me. Let's talk about you guys, okay? So, what did you do after the first night?”

Subaru looked around at the other people at the table. I'm happy, he thought. I'm really happy right now. I wish my friends back home could meet these people, including Toya. They'd really like them.

* * *

When the meal was finished, Subaru pulled Toya aside and said, “I've got the fourth individual date. I'm free until then. When do you want me to start teaching you surfing?”

“When are you having your shopping trip?” Toya said.

“You know about that?” Subaru said.

“You're forgetting I'm an insider in these kind of things,” the prince said.

“I haven't scheduled it yet,” Subaru said. “Maybe tomorrow?”

“Then we'll meet up the day after,” Toya replied. “I'll be seeing you around this place, anyway. Although I do have business to attend to while I'm here. That's the main job of the second prince – being the royal family's ambassador. I have to touch base with the governor and the local officials and make sure everything's cool.”

“So you travel around a lot?”

“Yeah, I go through times when I'm bouncing from palace to palace. That's how I come to know where the best shopping and food are in every city. When we get to Versailles, I'll tell you where the best ikazaya is. They have great yakitori.”

“It sounds like you have a fabulous life,” Subaru said.

“Fabulous until my father gets involved,” Toya grumbled.

“Excuse me?” said Subaru.

“Never mind,” Toya said. “I'll see you later, okay?”

Toya headed for the royal offices in the palace. He was just glad that Subaru hadn't caught his little slip-up. He was keeping it a secret that he was the one who requested Subaru's clothing allowance. He wanted the boy to look just as good as the ones from wealthier districts – especially after hearing his father call him a “guttersnipe.”

After all, he deserved it.

* * *

Subaru was awakened the next day by a stylist pounding on his door. “Suuubaru-san!” the man said. “Subaru of Royz! Be ready to go right after breakfast!”

“Go where?” he murmured, stumbling out of bed.

“Shopping, of course! I've been assigned to take you on your trip!”

So much for secrecy, Subaru thought. This guy is bellowing loud enough for the whole palace to hear. “I'll be ready right afterward,” he said, stumbling toward the bathroom.

“Splendid!” the man said. “Meet me at the doorway right after you eat!”

Even though he was sworn to secrecy, Subaru told MiA what was happening, in a whisper, when they were on their way to breakfast – because Subaru couldn't come up with a credible excuse as to why he was going to disappear for most of the day. “Just don't tell anyone, okay?”

“I won't,” MiA said. “I'll just go to the library. I think the other two want to play tennis or badminton or something like that.”

Six hours later, Subaru was sneaking back into the palace – and a virtual army of guards was walking behind him, bearing bags, packages and a rather nice suitcase.

Subaru's guide on the trip had insisted he replace everything he'd brought – down to his socks and underwear. He had fancy clothes, casual clothes, a couple of yukatas, and even a couple of new pairs of board shorts for surfing.

In his hand, he carried a single bag from the sporting goods department – something he insisted on buying himself, with the little bit of money he'd brought with him. He knew he was going to need it in the near future.

He appeared at dinner that night wearing a new outfit, and the other regular occupants of his table were impressed. “Whoa!” Ruiza said. “Subaru, you look good! Where did that come from?”

Whoops. Well, did he expect that going from the kind of clothes one wore back home to the ones he was wearing now would go unnoticed? “I, um, went into town . . .”

“The people back in his hometown took up a collection for him,” MiA said, smoothly. “They wired him the money today.”

“Really?” Ruiza said. “That's cool!”

“Wish I could get the people back in Kiryu to do that for me,” Hiyori said.

Subaru looked over at his friend with gratitude. He'd never been a good liar. MiA had taken that heat off him.

As he was leaving the dining room, Toya approached him in the hall. “Hi!” he said. “Sorry I couldn't eat with you guys tonight. I got caught up with business.”

“That's okay,” Subaru said. He was actually surprised that Toya was apologizing for that. “Do we still want to meet up tomorrow for your lesson?”

“That's why I wanted to make sure the business was done,” he said. “I wanted to leave tomorrow free.”

“All right!” Subaru said. “Meet me at the entrance to the park” - he pointed to an area in back of the palace – “after breakfast, okay? Oh, and I'm going to be wearing a T-shirt and board shorts, but any kind of swimsuit will do.”

“The park?” Toya said. “Don't you want to meet on the beach?”

“You'll see!” Subaru said. “See you tomorrow!”

He headed back to his room – he had a lot of sorting and unpacking to do. Except when he got there, he saw the staff had done the sorting and unpacking for him – and hauled away his old suitcase and clothing. Good thing he'd told his guide what he'd planned on keeping.

I don't know if I'm ever going to fully get used to this part, he thought – having servants do things for me. He was going to have to remember that when he was back in Royz, if you as much as dropped a piece of garbage, you were expected to pick it up.

But the rest, he was going to enjoy while it lasted.

* * *

The next day, he waited at the entrance of the park, the sporting goods bag in his hand. Toya approached him, wearing a pair of baggy swim trunks that almost reached his knees – almost the proper length to be board shorts, Subaru thought – and a snug-fitting T-shirt with a small designer logo under the right shoulder.

It was the first time Subaru had seen him in anything other than a suit or the military uniform. And he looked, like he'd said at dinner, like a regular guy. He also looked incredibly gorgeous.

Don't think too much about that, Subaru thought. You won't be able to focus on teaching him.

“Hi!” Toya said. “So, are we going to the beach from here?”

“Not yet,” Subaru said.

“Not yet?”

“When you start surfing, you have to learn fundamentals first,” Subaru said. “If you try to get on a board without doing that first? You'll wipe out in two seconds. More than that, you'll put yourself in danger. People don't appreciate how powerful the sea can be until they're in it, and sometimes, it's too late. And the first thing you have to learn is . . .”

He reached into the bag and brought out what looked like a plank of wood resting on a ball, which he put on the ground. “Balance,” he said.

Toya looked confused. “What's that?”

“It's a balance board,” Subaru said. “You stand on it, and it wobbles around, and you have to practice staying upright. Perfectly upright. Because that's what the ocean is going to do. There are unpredictable currents running everywhere at all times – even when you're on top of a wave. Especially when you're on top of a wave. You have to keep perfect balance at all times.”

He jumped up on the board to demonstrate. “See, you use your arms to balance yourself,” he said, holding them out to the side. “And you move them around constantly. Really experienced surfers don't always have to do that, but most people? Yes.” He hopped off the board. “Now, you try.”

Toya jumped on the way Subaru had, and instantly listed way to the left. “Whoa!” he said. He flailed his arms around, managing to right himself, but then started listing to the right.

“Don't flail,” Subaru said. “You don't have to do that – in fact, that might throw you more off-balance. Here, I'll support you until you get a feel for doing that.”

He got behind the prince, putting his hands on either side of his waist, holding him in place. “Now, try more subtle motions. You can also lean back and forth, just not too hard.”

“Like this?” Toya held his arms out to the side and slowly shifted their position.

“Perfect,” said Subaru.

He continued to hold onto Toya, and it slowly started registering that he could feel the man's body heat, and smell what kind of soap and shampoo he was using, it was a softly musky scent with some other exotic spices mixed in there, and . . .

Subaru quickly let go of the other man and took a step back, shaking his head to clear it. “There!” he said. “You're doing it! You're upright all on your own!”

He took a deep breath. What just happened now, he thought. For a second, I was distracted. Too distracted.

* * *

After Subaru was convinced Toya had mastered the board – and he told Toya he needed to get a balance board to practice with, “It's a skill we always have to keep up” – he took him to the ocean for the second lesson.

“You need to experience the waves themselves,” he said. “With your whole body. We call this body surfing. We're going to go out there and just stay in the water until a wave forms. When it does, you have to pay attention. I chose a place where the waves are smaller – they're a lot bigger down there.” He pointed down the beach.

“What affects how big the waves get?” Toya said.

“Lots of things,” Subaru said. “Wind on the surface of the water, mostly, but also the shape of the sea bed underneath and whether there's any reefs or sand bars in the area. The really ideal waves form a tube – they break so you can literally surf inside a wall of water. We usually don't get those in Royz.”

He led the other man into the water. “Now, when the wave forms, you start paddling. You need to try to match its speed. And pay attention to how the water moves and shifts under you and around you. When you get close enough to shore, put your feet on the sea bed, stand up and walk out.”

“I don't know if . . .” said Toya – and then, he felt a swelling under him. “Is that it?”

“That's it!” Subaru said. “Get ready to go!”

They were carried upward by a sudden upswell, and pushed toward the shore, and Toya found himself paddling frantically, desperate to stay afloat – but also, he found himself in the midst of a glorious chaos, with water pushing, surging everywhere, currents running this way and that. He found out he was close enough to the sea bed when his knee scraped sand, and he stumbled to his feet and out of the sea.

“Whoa,” he said.

“It's quite an experience, isn't it?” Subaru said. “But that's what you're dealing with. That's the ocean. It's powerful, it's unpredictable, and it's going to try to master you. The surfer's job is to outstmart the ocean and master it.”

“There's a lot more to this than I thought,” Toya said.

“Told you,” Subaru said. “Now, we're going to go out and do it again . . .”

* * *

Later, the two of them sat on towels on the beach to dry off. “So what did you think?” Subaru said.

“It's a lot more complicated than it seems when you look at it, isn't it?” Toya said.

“It's an art,” Subaru said. “I like to think of it as more of an art than a sport. And you're always looking to master it. I know guys who have been doing it for years who feel they haven't fully mastered surfing yet.”

“How long have you been doing it?” Toya said.

“Just about all my life,” Subaru said. “That's the way it is where I'm from. Everyone does it, and everyone starts early. The teenagers and adults teach the kids. It's just something that comes naturally, you know? We don't have much, but we make the most of what we do have – and what we have is the sea.”

“I could tell what you meant about the power of it,” Toya said. “I've swam in the ocean before – plenty of times – but that's not like trying to ride it.”

“And you haven't even stood up on a board yet,” Subaru said. “Our next lesson, we'll have you paddling on a body board to practice getting up to speed with the wave. And then, after that? We'll start you on what we call a funboard – that's a shorter board made of softer material.”

“Where are we getting the boards?” Toya said.

“Takashamiya,” said Subaru. “They have a great sporting goods department. I was actually surprised that they had such a good selection of boards. I didn't think surfing had caught on here yet.”

“Some of the younger people do it,” Toya said. “The ones who don't mind what older people think.”

“Why did you decide you wanted to learn it?” Subaru said.

“It looked like fun,” Toya said. “Plus, I want something I can call my own, you know? Too much of my life is . . .” He lay back with his hands tucked behind his head. “Prince stuff.”

“I imagine Yo-ka's is even more so,” Subaru said, quietly.

“You have no idea,” Toya said. “But I probably shouldn't be talking about him. You have your date tomorrow, don't you?”

“Oh!” Subaru said. “That IS tomorrow, isn't it?” He lay back next to Toya. “Time is flying by.”

“I'll bet you're having fun, though, aren't you?” Toya said.

Subaru closed his eyes. “More fun than I've ever had in my life,” he said.

“Good,” Toya said. “Because I've been having fun, too.” He looked over at Subaru. “And I'm looking forward to the next lesson.”

“Can you get to the store and get the body board by the day after tomorrow?” Subaru said.

“You've got it,” said Toya.

Subaru closed his eyes and relaxed. He was trying not to think too hard about his date with Yo-ka, although there were butterflies flapping around his stomach – because so much rested on this. Not only getting to know Yo-ka – which he very much wanted to do – but also being able to stay with his friends, and to keep giving Toya his lessons.

He wanted to see his first adult student through to being able to use a funboard, at the very least.

* * *

Toya knocked on the door of his brother's office. “Just me,” he said. “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” Yo-ka said, his voice sounding a bit . . . down, maybe, Toya thought.

He entered the office, to see his brother sitting in his desk chair, facing the window. When Yo-ka turned toward him, his expression confirmed Toya's worst suspicions. “Uh-oh. What's wrong? You didn't get a call from Father, did you?”

Yo-ka looked his brother up and down. “Your hair is damp.”

“I just got out of the shower, I was . . . on the beach. And you're dodging my question.”

Yo-ka looked down at the desk. “My date today didn't work out,” he said. “I had to let him go on the spot. Okay, we mutually agreed that he should leave. He thought I was too uptight, I thought he was too rude and crude. So he just handed me his rosette, went back to the palace and packed.”

“I'm sorry,” Toya said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the desk. “But better you find out early in the competition, right?”

“I didn't want to have to do this,” Yo-ka said. “I didn't want to have to cut guys – not in person. That was one of my biggest objections to this thing. It's why it's so cruel and inhumane. And then, when we get further in, and the guys have developed friendships, and you have to cut one guy and leave all his friends there . . .”

He turned his chair toward the window again. “I like to think I'm not an asshole. And I don't want to be forced to be one.”

“You're not an asshole,” Toya said. “Okay, I may have called you one when you took the last beer on Christmas, but I didn't mean it.” He got up and walked around the desk so he was in front of Yo-ka. “Look – what if you could promise the guys something nice afterward? Like, maybe, a reunion for the Top Ten finishers?”

“A reunion?” Yo-ka said.

“Sure! Give them a chance to meet up with their old friends again. Maybe give them a week at Madara” – a retreat on a private island owned by the royal family. “Let them reconnect with each other and renew their friendships. You could even invite some other friends of yours, give them a chance to meet some more people. Maybe someone will meet somebody he wants to date.”

Yo-ka gave a feeble smile. “It's a nice idea. Really.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I just don't want these guys to hate me when it's over.”

“They're not going to hate you,” Toya said. “Nobody could hate you. Not with a smile like that.”

“Thanks,” Yo-ka said. “I guess I'm lucky. Not everyone has a one-man pep squad as a sibling.”

“Glad to be of service,” Toya said. “Okay, I'll let you get ready for dinner. I need to do the same.”

“Dry your hair!” Yo-ka called to his brother's retreating back. He turned toward the windows again. He just hoped his date with Subaru was going to go well tomorrow. He really had high hopes for the blond boy – and he couldn't bear two failures in a row.

* * *

The instructions Subaru had received for his date said that he should meet Yo-ka at the front gate of the palace after breakfast. He was standing there now, feeling half-breathless, restraining himself from clenching and unclenching his hands.

Yo-ka walked up toward him, noticing that the boy seemed better-dressed than one would expect for someone from Royz – a nice jacket, a cute wide-brimmed hat, pants tucked into fashionable boots. “Hi, there,” Yo-ka said. “I didn't keep you waiting, did I?”

“Oh!” Subaru jumped a little. “No, I've just been here a few minutes.” He bowed. “Good morning, Yo-ka-sa-” He caught himself before he could finish the “-sama.”

“At ease,” Yo-ka said. “No formalities today, we're just going to have a good time.”

“Okay!” Subaru willed himself to be as relaxed as possible. It wasn't working very well. “Where are we going?”

Yo-ka pointed toward the town. “See those wires up there?”

“Um . . . yes?” said Subaru.

“And see that hill over there? Where the wires are going? There's a sightseeing gondola that goes over the whole city, and to the top of that hill. There's a place up there where we're going to have lunch.” He looked over at Subaru. “You're not scared of heights, are you?”

“Not at all,” Subaru said. “I used to climb to the tops of trees all the time. I even climbed to the top of a tree and onto my best friend's roof.”

“Why did you do that?” Yo-ka said, leading Subaru to a fancy car, with a driver holding the door open.

“He'd left his watch at my place when we went surfing,” Subaru said. “I knew his father would kill him if he didn't have it, so I had to get it back to him.”

“Do you always take chances like that?” Yo-ka said as they got in the car.

“Sometimes you have to,” Subaru said. “You can't live your whole life on the edge – but when somebody needs you? You do what they need.”

“Your friends must mean a lot to you,” Yo-ka said.

“They always have,” Subaru said. “We grew up together, the four of us. Well, there used to be a fifth one of us, but Kazuki ended up leaving Royz. His family got work in another district.” He looked over at Yo-ka. “What about you? Do you have friends you grew up with?”

“I have school buddies I see a lot,” Yo-ka said. “And I have people I hang out with in town sometimes” – what his father always called “carousing.” “My best friend has always been my brother, though.”

“Really?” said Subaru.

“We're closer in age to each other than we are to my sister,” Yo-ka said. “And we understand each other – what we go through in life.”

The car pulled up in front of a building that had an architectural style that evoked an earlier century. The driver got out, spoke to someone at the gate, and then pulled up at the entrance.

“We get out here,” Yo-ka said. “The manager will take us right to the gondolas.”

“Have you ever done this before?” Subaru said. “This ride, I mean.”

“No,” said Yo-ka. “This is going to be a first for both of us.”

They were ushered over to an enclosed car that looked, to Subaru, rather like one of the cars on the ferris wheel he'd rode when a carnival came to town. The two men sat opposite each other, and the guard closed and locked the door. There was a grinding of gears, and the gondola started to move, ascending up the wires and over the town.

“Look at that,” Subaru said. “It's bigger than I thought it was!”

“Lycaon and its outlying districts go out pretty far,” Yo-ka said. “There's a lot of different things going on here – tourism and shopping, yes, but there's also a university, some museums, a couple of radio stations – and some movies get filmed here.”

“And the waves are terrific,” Subaru said.

“That's right, you surf,” Yo-ka said.

“All my life,” Subaru said. “Do you have something like that you do?”

“I used to bowl,” Yo-ka said. “I wasn't that good at it.”

“Why used to?” Subaru said. “Did you give it up because you weren't good?”

“Not enough time,” Yo-ka said. He didn't want to tell the truth – his father had berated him for playing a “middle-class sport.” As if he wanted to learn polo or cricket.

“You have time now, though, don't you?” Subaru said. “I mean, you have free time between dates and stuff you have to attend to? You should go out to a bowling alley! They have them here, don't they?”

“Well, yes,” Yo-ka said.

“Just get away for a few minutes and do it!” Subaru said. “We all have to enjoy ourselves sometimes, right? I mean – what's the point of being on this planet if we don't?”

Yo-ka turned a smile on him. “Are you always this cheerful?” he said.

“No,” said Subaru. “I have my down moments. But I do try to make the most of what's there, you know?”

Yo-ka looked out at the passing scenery. This guy had an effect on him, all right – the effect of making the dull dreariness of everyday life seem better. And the more he had him around, the more he decided he liked that.

He didn't have to worry about this date being a failure.

* * *

By the time they were at the end of their lunch, they had shared stories about their schools and found out that things weren't much different at the stuffy private academy Yo-ka had gone to than they were at Subaru's typical public school. They compared notes on movies they enjoyed and radio shows that they listened to – Yo-ka admitted to listening to crime dramas through a carefully concealed earphone, since his father thought such things were “garbage” and “beneath one of your station.”

And when the dessert menu arrived, they found themselves talking about their tastes in sweet treats. “I like parfaits,” Subaru said. “You know, with fruit and ice cream? Especially if they have strawberries.”

“I love strawberries,” Yo-ka said. “I briefly dated a guy who absolutely cringed at the very idea of them. So if I kissed him after eating them? He'd almost gag.” Pause. “That's why I BRIEFLY dated him.”

Subaru laughed. “So how do you usually eat your strawberries?” he said.

“Straight up with whipped cream a lot of the time,” Yo-ka said. “Or in a strawberry shortcake. I love those.”

“I can make those!” Subaru said. “I mean, I don't bake a lot, but I learned to make a strawberry shortcake for my mother's birthday. It came out pretty well. I just figured, well, I have to do what I have to do, right?”

“It must be nice,” Yo-ka said, wistfully.

“What must be?”

“To just decide spur of the moment you're going to do something and do it,” Yo-ka said. “I mean, my brother and I got away with that kind of thing more when we were younger, but now that we're adults . . .”

“You can, you know,” Subaru said. “You're away from the main palace now, aren't you? Nobody's looking over your shoulder. If you want to learn to bake? Just bake! Get a cookbook and follow the recipe. It's a lot easier than it looks.”

The waiter approached them. “So, would you like dessert, sirs?” he said.

Subaru looked at Yo-ka. “Why don't we get one parfait and one strawberry shortcake, and split them?”

“You've got it,” he said. When the waiter left, he reached into his pocket. “Subaru, I said I wasn't going to do this, because I want to stay absolutely fair to everyone, but . . . you earned this today. I really do enjoy spending time with you.”

He pulled out a little box and handed it across the table. Subaru opened it – and saw a little ribbon with a hook on the end.

“Is this for my rosette?” he said. “Does this mean I have immunity?”

“Yes,” Yo-ka said. “You're definitely moving on with us to the next palace.”

“Thank you!” Subaru closed the box and put it in his pocket. “Um, I'm going to keep this a secret, okay? I won't actually put this on my rosette until the other guys get theirs back.”

“That's exactly what I expected you to do,” Yo-ka said.

Subaru beamed as the waiter arrived with their desserts. “Oh, wow!” he said. “They're huge! I might be skipping dinner tonight.”

His hand reached down and rubbed over the box in his pocket, tenderly. He was feeling very warm and happy right now. His friends back home would be hearing another announcement at the end of the week about him making the cut. He was just hoping Kuina would let someone else buy the round this time.

* * *

Subaru saw off his friends who were going on the next day's group date, and then met Toya on the beach for their next lesson. While he hadn’t brought a body board with him from home, he did manage to borrow one from one of the staff members, who was trying to learn to surf himself.

“You look happy this morning,” Toya said. “Did things go well yesterday? My brother isn't allowed to talk about his dates in detail.”

“They went great,” Subaru said. “I'm, well . . . I'm glad I went.” He looked wistful. “If I had a solo date in this city, I won't have one in the next one, will I?”

“That's the way the rules work,” Toya said. “And really – it's only fair.”

“Who came up with this system, anyway?” Subaru said as they made their way toward the water, body boards under their arms.

“It's only been around about a few hundred years,” Toya said. “Before that, all the royal children were sent to other countries in arranged marriages, except the crown prince. He got a bride imported for him whether he wanted her or not. This resulted, of course, in a lot of people being married to people they couldn't stand and having affairs. Most of the high-ranking nobles are descended from what they used to call 'royal bastards.'”

“So how did they go from that to this?” said Subaru as they reached the water's edge.

“One of the princes asked to have several princesses from different countries brought to him that he could make a choice among, instead of having a bride forced on him,” Toya said. “He got his way. That went so well that when he had a son of his own, he did the same thing. But for his younger son – since, you know, us younger princes are kind of regarded as spare change – he took things one step further. He let him choose from the daughters of the noble families within our own country. Next generation, they took it further still and the younger son chose from one representative of every district – like we're doing here. And finally, we arrived at the older son getting to do that as well.”

“That means every royal consort since then has been a commoner?” Subaru said.

“Not really,” Toya said. “Every Culling of a crown prince has resulted in him marrying the child of a high-ranking noble family. And, yeah, given that they're all descended from royal bastards? We're inbred as hell. It's a miracle Yo-ka and I don't have three ears and 16 toes.”

“You don't look like a mutant,” Subaru said. “Not in the slightest. You look . . .” He paused, blushing. He was about to say flat-out gorgeous. No, no, that would be a bad thing to do. “You look like what you are. Human.”

“I don't first thing in the morning,” Toya said, paddling out into the water.

“Nobody does,” Subaru replied. (And why was he liking the idea of seeing Toya first thing in the morning very, very much? He needed to stop that line of thought, now.)

“Okay, what are we supposed to be doing with these boards, anyway?” Toya said.

“We're going to practice paddling until we reach the speed of the wave,” Subaru said. “We're going to just wait here a moment . . .”

* * *

At dinner, Ruiza and Hiro were all smiles. “We had a great time,” Ruiza said. “We went out to this place in town where they had a traditional dance show, and they taught us to dance, and we all had to show off what we'd learned.”

“I put my own spin on it,” Hiro said. “I added in extra hip action. The dancing girls seemed impressed.”

“And then afterward, we went to a place where we could have a picnic, and we all got one-on-one time with the prince. He is REALLY a sweetie,” Ruiza said. “He said I have a sparkly personality.”

“Yeah, but somebody got more time than anyone else,” Hiro said.

“Not THAT much more time,” Ruiza said.

“Who are you talking about?” said MiA.

“Yuuki,” Hiro said. “The prince couldn't take his eyes off him. And Yuuki kept pulling him away – he said it was because this is his hometown and he figured he should show the prince around, but . . .”

“Bet he gets a one-on-one date next city,” Ruiza said. “In fact? I think he slipped Yuuki his ribbon early. You know, to go on his rosette?”

Subaru found himself looking down at his plate. Okay, he thought, I should have expected this. This isn't a normal dating situation. We're all here to capture his heart. I shouldn't be jealous, right? He has someone else that he liked enough to give a ribbon to, that doesn't take anything away from yesterday.

He could hear his friends talking cheerfully about how MiA and Hiyori were next up at bat, and Subaru tried not to think about a very ugly possibility – what if, he thought, I move on, and one of my friends gets cut?

* * *

The next night, at dinner, Subaru pretended to go up and hand in his rosette to the staff with the others, although he put it in his pocket instead. He had his ribbon already.

It had been an uneventful day – he and Toya had practiced with the body boards again, he'd spent some time hanging out with Ruiza and Hiro, and they heard all about the group date, involving a boat trip to see dolphins, at dinner. Subaru just had a lump in the pit of his stomach thinking about the next day.

“Those of you who get ribbons tomorrow morning,” the Earl told them, “will be moving on to the city of Versailles. The ones who don't, we will arrange for transportation back to your hometowns.”

Subaru knew he was going to be on that train. He just wondered who else would be.

* * *

In his office, Yo-ka was personally putting the ribbons on the rosettes. He had them divided into three piles – “yes,” “no” and “maybe.” He had to decide which of the four “maybes” would fill the two available spots after the “yes” pile got their ribbons.

Two rosettes were conspicuous by their absences. As Ruiza and Hiro had observed, he'd given Yuuki his right away, just as he had with Subaru. Yuuki was someone that Yo-ka found fascinating. Besides, he “got” him – on every possible level. He understood what it was to struggle to be yourself when everyone around you seemed to have their own ideas about who and what you were.

The door opened and the Earl walked in, looking rattled. “Your Highness?” he said. “We have a problem.”

“Is it one of the candidates?” Yo-ka said, looking up from the rosettes.

“No. It's our next destination. We're not going to be able to go to Versailles.”

“What do you mean, we can't go to Versailles? We have the train ready to go. We have a palace there. We . . .”

“They took your rejection of Teru seriously,” the Earl said. “I mean, very, very seriously. His father was at the palace when it happened. He came back home and started yelling. And yelling. And now, the people there are in flat-out revolt. There's been anti-royalty demonstrations in the streets everywhere. They're talking about coming to the capital when you make your final choice and protesting there. Our staff has even reported seeing threatening graffiti – directly threatening YOU. I'm sorry, Your Highness, but we can't take that risk.”

“I'm not afraid of protests, Earl. We have guards. We have . . .”

“You will have ten young men with you, and your brother. Do you want to put them at risk? Can you imagine the outcry if an innocent candidate is hurt or killed – especially if it's a young man of a high-ranking family? We CANNOT go to Versailles, Your Highness.”

Yo-ka sighed, running his hand through his hair. “So what are we supposed to do, then?” he said. “Remain here?”

A voice outside the door shouted, “Yo-ka? Hey, Yo-ka, I've got some bad news about . . .” Toya entered the room and saw Earl Ohara – and the expression on the man's face. “Oh. You beat me to it.”

“I know about it, thanks,” Yo-ka said. “Apparently, we've been directly threatened.”

“Well, why don't you all come to my place, then?” Toya said. “Charlotte isn't much further away than Versailles. My palace can hold all these people.”

“We had arranged for dates in Versailles, though . . .” Yo-ka said.

“Dammit, boy, the hell with the dates!” the Earl snapped – causing both princes to eye him oddly. The Earl quickly bowed low and said, “I beg your pardons, sirs. I spoke out of turn.”

“No, you didn't,” Yo-ka said. “You're right. I can't risk my brother, and Yuuki, and Subaru, and . . . and everyone,” he said, quickly. “Toya, can you make some calls for me?”

“Sure thing,” Toya said. “And, yeah, don't worry about the dates. Just take the lucky guys to the beach bars.”

As the younger prince left, Yo-ka said, “If you'd yelled that way in front of my father? He'd . . .”

“Have my head on a pike, yes, I know, sir,” Earl Ohara said. “But I know very well you're not your father.”

“Thank God,” Yo-ka said. “All right, let me finish this, then we'll get ready to go to Charlotte.”

As the Earl left, he thought about the names that Yo-ka had mentioned while in his flustered state. I wonder, he thought, if we just got a preview of who the final two will be. And if it's that boy from Royz . . . I don't want to be around the king when he hears.

Coming Next Chapter: Two princes, two group dates, one pulled-in-two-directions Subaru.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 1st, 2016 09:27 pm (UTC)
It looks like Subaru is becoming torn between two men, and winning the hearts of both. I can sense drama along the line.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 12:37 am (UTC)
Yep, Baru-chan's falling hard for Toya. And while he's having fun getting to know Yo-ka, I don't get the impression it's much beyond what he feels hanging out with the other friends he's made so far. Interesting wrinkle that they have to go to Charlotte now instead....
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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