puss_nd_boots: (Ruiza)
[personal profile] puss_nd_boots
Title: After Ever After: Love's Sweet Perfume
Chapter: Standalone sequel to the A Sort of Fairy Tale series. Cut in two because of LJ's post restrictions, there is a link to the second part at the bottom of the first.
Author: Boots
Rating: NC-17
Genre: Fairy tale AU, romance, drama
Warning: Male-male sex, 69, frottage
Pairing: Tatsuya (DIAURA) x Ruiza (D) (main), Toya (Gotcharocka) x Subaru (Royz), Yo-ka (DIAURA) x Yuuki (Lycaon/Initial'L)
Disclaimer: DIAURA belongs to Ains, Royz belongs to B.P. Records, D and Gotcharocka belong to God Child Records, Fest Vainqueur belongs to PLUG RECORDS west, Initial’L is property of Battle Cry Sound Company. I own the story only.
Summary: Ruiza, a former Culling candidate, gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he's asked by Prince Yo-ka to be the official royal perfumier. Tatsuya, a friend of Yo-ka's from school, already had opportunity in his life when he was named his friend's Undersecretary of the Exchequer. They come together for professional reasons, but the sparks that start flying aren't quite professional.
Comments: My first post-series fic in the A Sort of Fairy Tale universe! There will most likely be others about other people involved in the Culling. I just had to make Kazuki and Ruiza brothers after seeing a number of adorable pictures of the two hugging.

You might have heard the story of the Culling of Prince Yo-ka of Valluna, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Veekay. You may know about the Happily Ever After to that tale, how the prince’s brother found his own true love among the contestants, and the Crown Prince himself found someone to be his Pledged.

But that is not the end of the story, nor is it the only one. Because there is always life beyond Happily Ever After – both for those who found love, and for those who surround them. Even if someone did not find their happiness in the Culling, that did not mean they didn’t find it later.

This is one of those stories.

* * *

For the Earl of Denis-Auvergne-Puy-de-Dome, life after the Culling wasn’t as simple and straightforward as it was beforehand.

Of course, during the Culling, he hadn’t been an Earl, he’d been just Ruiza of D. At home, he’d been just Ruiza, a perfume chemist. But now, well . . . he was something of a local celebrity.

He’d arrived home to cheering crowds at the train station. They were proud a local boy had become a nobleman – even if he hadn’t won the prince’s heart. He was profiled in his local newspaper. Total strangers came up to him on the street to tell him they’d heard him on the radio and he sounded so good and he was so gorgeous and really, what was the prince thinking, not picking him?

All he’d wanted to do was go back to work and spend time with the people who meant the most in the world to him – his brother and his dog.

He lived with his brother, Kazuki, in an apartment in a fairly quiet part of the district. They’d moved there together once Ruiza graduated from university, since there were, Kazuki was quick to point out, more opportunities in the heart of the city than in “the sticks” where they’d come from.

“You know I’m proud of you,” Kazuki said to him one day not long after he’d come home. “I felt that way when you got chosen for the Culling and I still feel that way now. Our district never had a nobleman quite like you!”

“I don’t feel like a nobleman,” Ruiza told him. “Not really. I still feel like I’m just . . . me.”

“Well, of course you’re just you,” Kazuki said. “You might be attracting a bit more attention, true, but you’re still the same cute Ruiza you always were. You don’t regret doing the Culling, do you?”

“No,” Ruiza said. “Never. I met the best people I’ve ever known in my life there. In fact? I still miss them. A lot.”

“We could always go visit them, you know,” Kazuki said. “Even your friend who ended up with the prince. You’re an Earl now, they have to let you into the palace, right?”

Kazuki wondered if he could, indeed, just barge into the palace and ask to see Subaru or Yo-ka. He didn’t want to interfere with either one of them, though. They were trying to build new lives . . . just as Ruiza was trying to resume his old one.

He didn’t know, however, that his Culling life was about to pay off for him in more ways than one.

* * *

It started out as an ordinary day at work for him. Well, as ordinary as days got post-Culling, with workers in other departments making excuses to go past the fragrance lab and see “the Culling boy” at work.

And then, there was a knock on the lab door. He went to answer it, thinking it might be higher-ups tired of this spectator business proposing to move him to a lab with no windows.

Instead, he found a lot of uniformed military officers, led by a very official-looking commander with a scroll in his hand. “Um . . . can I help you?” he said.

The officer unrolled the scroll and read, “By order of His Majesty the King and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Valluna, His Excellency the Earl of Denis-Auvergne-Puy-de-Dome is hereby summoned and commissioned to become the Perfumier to the Royal Court.”

“I’ve . . . been summoned?” Ruiza said. He knew Yo-ka said he would find a way for them all to be together again – but he wasn’t expecting this! “But . . . but I have a job here . . .”

“A Royal Summons overrules all other employment,” the officer said.

“I have an apartment . . . my brother lives with me, and my dog . . .”

“Accommodations have been made for you in the capital,” the officer said. “There is room for the dog and your brother, and His Highness will find work for your brother in whatever he does.”

“Well, he’s an artist,” Ruiza said. “I’m actually the one who supports both of us. I . . .”

“We shall inform the prince that your brother is to have a studio,” the officer said. “You have 48 hours to prepare to move to the capital.”

“But . . . our lease . . .”

“The palace will deal with your landlord, we just need the information. We will return in 48 hours to escort you to your new home.” The officer handed him the scroll and bowed. “Good day, Your Excellency!”

Ruiza just stood there in his white lab coat, staring at the scroll in his hands in disbelief. A commission . . . to create perfumes for the royal family? With paid accommodations? Commissions like this usually only happened to nobles, right?

But you ARE a noble, remember? he reminded himself. You’re an earl now.

He wondered what Kazuki was going to think. What he was going to tell his boss. What . . .

At that moment, his boss burst in, looking distraught. “They told me!” he said. “I know!”

“Sir,” Ruiza said, “I’m very sorry.”

“No need to be sorry!” his boss said. “Okay, I’m going to have to replace my best chemist, sure, but this is a royal commission, Ruiza! Almost nobody gets those! And besides – you can’t turn it down if you want to keep your head, you know what I mean?”

“I hardly think Yo-ka’s going to have my head removed,” Ruiza said.

“You just call him Yo-ka?” the boss said, looking shocked.

“Of course. We all called him that. And he called us just by our names.”

“Geez, if you're that casual with him, no wonder he made you an earl,” the boss said. “Now, go! Get ready to go to the capital! Enjoy your new life working for the royal family! You’ll be missed here, you know!”

Clutching his scroll, still smelling of the scents he was working with, he headed for the elevator. Oh, my God, he thought. I’m really going to the capital for good. I’m really going to be employed by the royal family! I may even see my friends again!

The Culling, it seemed, was just the start of a new life for him.

* * *

Tatsuya frequently got told by people that he was so lucky to be working for the Royal Family, that he had such a respectable title, that he had gone so much further in life than anyone else in his family.

He knew better. “Undersecretary of the Exchequer” certainly did sound respectable on the surface. It was even high-ranking enough that he had a “Sir” added in front of his name – which didn’t quite make him a member of the nobility, but it did make him one of the gentry. Not high-ranking enough to sit at the better tables at royal balls, but good enough to at least get in the door without question.

Privately, though, he knew that his title was just a fancy way of saying “rank-and-file accountant,” and he got his job because he was a school friend of Prince Yo-ka. Okay, so he had attended a very swanky private school – he wouldn’t have met the prince otherwise. But he got into that school purely on a scholarship, by winning a competition in his old school back in his middle-class home district.

So he quietly accepted people’s assessment of what his life was like and didn’t contradict it. And every morning, he left his apartment in the building owned by the Crown to house its employees. He went to work, where he crunched numbers supplied to him by his boss, the Secretary of the Exchequer – who WAS a member of the nobility. He listened to co-workers gossiping about the royals and higher nobility – which grew especially fast and furious during and right after the Culling.

And at night, he returned to his apartment – where, by the way, he lived alone – made dinner, listened to shows on the radio, maybe read awhile, and went to bed. An exciting and glamorous life it was not.

He was very glad when Prince Yo-ka returned from his quest to find a mate, because that meant he’d go back to working directly on his friend’s accounts again, rather than dealing with the king – who he found to be a bit of a blowhard. Fortunately, His Majesty tended not to scrutinize the financial records very deeply. Not that the Exchequer department engaged in any hanky-panky – on the contrary, they were extremely honest with everything – but Tatsuya would prefer not to answer questions about every single expense charged to every single government department.

A couple of months after the Culling ended, Yo-ka came into the Exchequer department. The lower accountants and secretaries all jumped up from their desks and bowed as they passed – even though the prince waved his hand and said, “Please – that is NOT necessary!”

Tatusya stood up from his desk as well. “I’m not bowing,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“Good, because I’d have to punch you,” Yo-ka said. “Big news – we’re adding another royal department, and I’m putting their finances directly under you.”

“ANOTHER one?” Tatusya said. “Your idea, or your father’s?”

“Entirely mine. And it’s more of a sub-department, it’s being put under the Department of Science and Chemistry.”

“Oh?” Tatusya replied. “Medical stuff?”

“Not quite,” Yo-ka said. “I’ve commissioned a Royal Perfumier.”

“You WHAT?” Tatusya said. “Look, Yo-ka, I know you can be picky about what you put on your skin, but your own custom colognes? Isn’t that taking it a bit too far?”

“That sounds just like what my father said,” Yo-ka said. “I managed to convince him that it’s a business venture. The department will make perfumes just for the royal family, yes, but it will also design a line of Royal Fragrances to be marketed to the public – at middle-class price points. Middle-class people will love the idea of smelling like royalty.”

“Clever,” Tatusya said. “If you weren’t a prince, you’d actually be a decent businessman. But what brought this on, anyway? Bad experience with mass-market perfumes?”

“No,” Yo-ka said. “I wanted to give one of my Culling candidates a job in the capital. In fact, I want to give ALL my Culling candidates – well, the top six, anyway – jobs in the capital. I’m trying to convince my father next that the culinary department needs an in-house ice cream chef. I’m currently working on the royal photography department to convince them they need one more guy. And I’ve got another candidate who’s putting together a comedy troupe. Once they’re together and have some performances under their belt, I’m going to try to get them a residency at a comedy club here.”

Tatsuya shook his head. “Damn,” he said. “You actually found a way to keep your whole harem. I’m impressed.”

“I’m not keeping them as a harem!” Yo-ka leaned over and gave his old friend a playful smack. “Seriously, I never really had romantic interest in any of them except Yuuki – and, yes, Subaru.”

“But you turned him over to your brother,” Tatsuya said.

“They fell in love,” Yo-ka said. “They were happy. Who the hell was I to stand in the way of that? Besides, Yuuki was the one I really wanted all along. It took having the Culling come to an end for me to realize that.”

“So how are things going with him, anyway?” Tatsuya said.

“They couldn’t be better,” Yo-ka said. “He and I are really cut from the same cloth. Both of us really should have been something other than – well, high-born people.”

“So, back to my original question – why hang on to the rest of the guys, too?”

“We all became friends,” Yo-ka said. “I enjoyed hanging out with them so, so much – I’d forgotten what it was like to meet a lot of people who weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths.” His voice softened. “I think that’s why you and I became friends so fast in school. You were so . . . real.”

“As opposed to a mannequin?” Tatsuya said.

“You know what I mean!” Yo-ka said. “Some of these people, well . . . they might as well be mannequins. They’re fake through and through.” He looked at his watch. “I have to go – my new employee should be arriving at the palace any minute now. Once he’s settled in, I’ll send him to you.”

“Okay,” Tatsuya said. “Just say the word.”

“Oh, by the way,” Yo-ka said, “did anything ever work out with that guy? You know, the one from the Health and Human Services department?”

Tatsuya shook his head. “One date,” he said. “That was it. He never called again.”

“Too bad,” Yo-ka said.

“One and done has been the norm for me for awhile now,” Tatsuya said, shrugging. “I’m used to it.”

“Yeah, and I don’t want you giving up hope, either,” Yo-ka said. “If you do, then I will have to punch YOU!” He waved and left the office.

Tatsuya sat down at his desk, sighing. Really, he didn’t mind the “one and done” dates. He never felt much chemistry with any of the people he’d been with – hadn’t for a long time, really. He’d rather spend quiet evenings alone than force a relationship with someone where feelings weren’t quite there.

Still, he had to admit that part of him was sort of hoping he’d have more to do in the evenings someday than listen to the radio.

* * *

Ruiza hadn’t had time to breathe since that commission scroll was put in his hands.

Before he knew it, a swarm of royal staff was descending on his apartment, packing everything up and loading it onto trucks. (He and Kazuki had to scramble to keep them from packing the dog into a crate).

Then, they bundled HIM into the back of a car, with his brother and his dog, and drove them all the way to the capital – which was a 13-hour journey. (Okay, it would have been about 10 or 11 if they hadn’t had to make stops now and then to let the dog run around and do his business, but still).

“Wouldn’t it have been better just to put us on a train?” Ruiza asked the driver. “That’s how we did it during the Culling.”

“You weren’t traveling with a dog during the Culling, Your Excellency,” the driver said. “His Royal Highness decided this was the best for the comfort of all involved.”

If It were anyone but Yo-ka, Ruiza would want to give the prince in question a tongue-lashing for making a driver work that much and putting the needs of a newly-minted noble over the needs of an ordinary citizen. He figured, though, that the prince would probably give this guy a few days off and a raise.

They arrived in the capital to find that the movers had already unpacked their boxes and put things in an approximation of where they were in the old apartment. Approximation, because the new place was much, much bigger.

“Damn,” Kazuki said. “You could put our whole old place in this living room.” He walked across to the kitchen. “Holy crap, Ruiza, over here? There’s a dining room. A DINING ROOM. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anywhere but in a kitchen since I got out of school.”

“I can’t believe this is ours.” Ruiza walked toward the back of the apartment. There was a bathing room three times the size of their old one, a water closet, and two bedrooms – both with full beds, not futons.

“Beds?” Kazuki said. “BEDS? Good Lord, I feel like I need to do something to earn this – except both princes are attached romantically, aren’t they? So much for a thank-you blow job.”

“Kazuki!” Ruiza said. Quietly, he was wondering something similar, though. They’d been told by their driver that this was an apartment house reserved for royal employees, and they lived here rent-free. I feel I should be doing something more to earn this than making perfumes, he thought.

Kazuki went over to his brother and hugged him. “Did I tell you how proud I was of you?” he said. “Well, triple that. I’ve never been so proud of anyone in my life.”

I feel like I need to keep making everyone proud, Ruiza thought. I just hope that’s not too big a bill to fill.

* * *

His first visit to the palace to be officially presented to the royal family started out very awkward.

He couldn’t just walk into their audience chamber. Oh, no. He had to be escorted to the door by a guard. Then he had to wait while said guard knocked on the door and spoke to an inside guard.

“I bring His Excellency the Earl of Denis-Auvergne-Puy-de-Dome to speak to Their Majesties and Their Highnesses,” the outer guard said.

“Let him approach,” the inner guard said. Ruiza hesitantly stepped through the doorway – at which point his hand was seized by the inner guard, who led him to the center of the room. Meanwhile, Ruiza just blinked at his surroundings, at the gilded walls and the paintings of historical scenes and the row of golden thrones in front of him.

On a dais were two large thrones in the middle and a small one on either side – the king to the right, with Yo-ka next to him, the queen and Toya to the left. The king and princes were wearing the type of uniforms they had on the night of the ball at the beginning of the Culling.
This is pretty intimidating, Ruiza thought. It’s all so . . . formal.

“Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Highness, it is an honor for me to present His Excellency the Earl of Denis-Auvergne-Puy-de-Dome,” the inner guard said.

Ruiza quickly bowed, and then realized he was still holding the guard’s hand. I hope I didn’t rip the poor man’s arm off, he thought.

“Welcome,” the king said. “My son has said your talents as a perfumier are among the highest in the nation.”

“Well, my boss always called me his best chemist,” Ruiza said. Ouch, he thought, that probably sounded lame. I have to work harder at this being formal and royal thing.

“You do know that you will be creating custom scents for each of us,” the king said, “as well as a line to be marketed to the public.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Ruiza said. “I plan to do my best.”

“I will give you a list of my favorite scents,” the queen said. “I trust the rest of my family to do the same.”

“That won’t be necessary for the princes, Your Majesty,” Ruiza said.
The king looked startled. “Oh?”

“I mean, sir, that I got to know both of them during the Culling, and, well, I know their tastes and their personalities. I think I know what to do.”

“It is standard procedure,” the king said, “for all royal employees to follow explicit guidelines from . . .”

The queen put an arm in front of him. “If the boy is known for his creativity in perfumes, let him do what he does best,” she said. “Our son hired him for a reason.”

“He hired him because he was one of the participants in . . .”

“And he got to know the talents of his Culling candidates, did he not?” the queen said. She gave the king a glare – and Ruiza picked up on that.

It almost looks, he thought, like she’s the one really in control. Like she has something she can hold over his head.

“Fine,” the king said. “Use your talents as you always have. Now, Prince Yo-ka will give you further instructions, as your department will be reporting to him.”

Yo-ka stood up, walked over to Ruiza and handed him a packet of information. “This is the specifics on your lab,” he said. “It’s in the sciences building, third floor. You will have room to hire several assistants.”

“I can?” Ruiza said, looking surprised. He’d never been responsible for hiring before.

“Yes,” Yo-ka said. “It’s your department, you’re the manager. And you need to go to the Department of the Exchequer and speak to Undersecretary Tatsuya Aoki. He will be working with you on the financial end of things.”

“I need a pen to write this down,” Ruiza said.

“It’s in the packet,” Yo-ka said. “Trust me – it’s all you need. I want you to be successful, Ruiza. Any more information you need, just ask.”

Ruiza noted the king glaring daggers at them. He figured it was because Yo-ka used the informal “Ruiza” instead of his formal title. He wondered why the heck the king expected Yo-ka to be anything other than, well, Yo-ka.

“Thank you,” he said, bowing again. “You’ve been more than kind. I have to thank you for everything – the movers, the driver, the apartment . . .”

“It’s standard,” Yo-ka said. “It’s how we treat our employees. Now, why don’t you go get settled into your lab?”

Ruiza nodded, and bowed again. “Thank you again,” he said. The inner guard escorted him to the door and turned him back over to the outer guard, and he was led down the hall . . .

At which point, a human tornado suddenly hurled itself at him, screaming “RUIZA!” The tornado glomped him, holding on for dear life, and solidified into the form of Subaru.

“Oh, my God!” Ruiza said, hugging back. “I haven’t seen you since . . .”

“You’re really here!” Subaru said. “Toya said you were coming, but I thought it was too good to be true, and I wanted to wait until I saw you with my own eyes.” He stepped back. “You really are going to be living and working with us for good?”

“Until they decide to kick me out, at least,” Ruiza said. “My brother and I are in the royal employee apartments.”

“I have to meet your brother!” Subaru said. “And your dog! You talked about a dog during the Culling, right? Leo, his name was?”

“Leon,” Ruiza said. “Yes, he’s here, too. He’s still getting used to it, but he likes having a big park behind the apartment house to run around in.”

“I’ll help you walk him!” Subaru said. “Oh, Ruiza, you wouldn’t believe what my life is like now. Well, some of it isn’t so good – the royalty lessons are a pain.”

“Royalty lessons?” Ruiza said.

“The king insisted I have tutors to teach me about royal behavior, history and protocol,” Subaru said. “Knowing what to say and how to move and what fork to use when and how to address people and how to bow . . . it’s a pain, all right! But it’s worth it. Toya and I are so happy! Happier than I’ve ever been with anyone.”

“I’m glad,” Ruiza said.

“And we can go surfing every day! There’s a private beach just for the use of royals and courtiers and their guests! And we’re setting up a business to make and market surfboards and rollboards!”

“What’s a courtier, anyway?” Ruiza said.

“A noble who lives on the palace grounds. Some of them work for the royal family. Hey, maybe you’d be considered a courtier, right? The royal apartments are kind of on the palace grounds!”

“That’s one more thing to be,” Ruiza said. “I’m having a hard enough time getting used to being an earl and the royal perfumier!”

“You’re going to be so happy here, Ruiza,” Subaru said. “I’m so glad to have one of my Culling friends here! Hey, we can go to one of Yuuki’s performances – he’ll be glad to see you, too!”

I just hope he’s right, Ruiza thought. I just hope all of us end up happy – me, my brother and my dog. Otherwise, what if all this upheaval was for nothing?

* * *

It started as an ordinary day for Tatusya. He was at his desk, quietly working on expense accounts for the prince’s personal staff.

And then, a secretary’s voice said, “Sir Tatsuya, there’s an Earl here to see you.”

“What Earl?” Tatusya said, not looking up. He hoped it wasn’t the Earl that had been the candidates’ caretaker during the Culling. The man had been in here several times, haggling over every little bit spent on the road.

“He’s from a district with a big, long name,” the secretary said.

“Just call it D,” said a voice behind the secretary. “Everyone else does.”

“The Earl of D, then,” the secretary said, stepping aside.

Tatusya looked up – and beheld the loveliest creature he’d ever seen in his life. Long, blond hair, full lips – artfully made up, too. Well, he was an Earl, and Earls would have grown up learning how to use makeup, right?

“Um . . . hi?” he said. Okay, that was real smooth. Nice way to address someone who outranked you. That would have gotten someone who wasn’t an old friend of the prince bounced. He quickly stood up, bowed and said, “May I help you, Your Excellency?”

“Please, just call me Ruiza,” he said. “Yo-ka said I should talk to you, since you’ll be in charge of finances for my department – I’m the royal perfumier.”

“Oh!” Tatsuya said. “You’re the guy from the Culling!”

“Well, yes,” Ruiza said. “I was in the Culling. I finished fourth.”

“Yo-ka . . . um, the Prince of Valluna . . .” Tatsuya rubbed the back of his head. Shit. His professional composure was right out the window around this beauty. “He told me about you.”

“You can call him Yo-ka,” Ruiza laughed. “We all did. He insisted on it.”

“He’s an old friend from school,” Tatsuya said. “Nicest guy I ever met.”

“I’ll agree with you on that one,” Ruiza said. “He was extremely sweet. So is his brother. I really had a good experience in the Culling.”

“Were you expecting to?” Tatsuya said.

“Not really,” Ruiza said. “I mean, I didn’t expect to be kept around. I’m not noble. Or, I wasn’t born noble, I’m noble now.”

“Yo-ka isn’t the type to hang around nobles all the time,” Tatsuya said. “I was actually surprised he chose Yuuki – until I met him.”

“He’s not a typical noble, either,” Ruiza said. “But I’m taking up your professional time.”

“No, no, it’s okay!” Tatusya said, quickly. “I need a break sometimes! So . . . can we go over the specifics of your new office, then?”

He was grateful to have the opportunity to look away from Ruiza and at a paper where he could take notes. The gorgeous man really was a distraction. He found himself wondering why the hell Yo-ka would ever let someone like this go.

* * *

Ruiza left the Exchequer’s office and leaned up against the wall, catching his breath.

The meeting had gone well. They’d gotten everything straightened out that they needed to. It was final – he was the head of a department. He was going to be in charge of employees. That seemed – well, as unreal as everything else.

But there was one thing he hadn’t counted on. He didn’t think his contact would be so, well, cute. He had shy and awkward mannerisms, yes – but that was rather charming. His face was flat-out adorable.

Stop that, Ruiza, he thought. He’s an old friend of Yo-ka. He’s probably got a boyfriend or girlfriend who’s a noble. And even if he doesn’t? The palace probably doesn’t look kindly on fraternizing between employees.

But still, he was finding himself very much looking forward to the next time he was going to work with him – even though he knew he probably shouldn’t.

Inside the office, Tatsuya was having similar thoughts. He’s gorgeous, he thought. He was in the Culling, so people know who he is – didn’t they do a nationwide radio interview? He’ll be snapped up by some high-ranking guy or woman before he’s been here a month.

And, he figured, it was a bad idea to be mooning over a guy whose department he was supposed to be handling financially. A very bad idea indeed.

Just go back to the books, he thought. Do your job, and don’t think of him as anything more than someone I’m helping as an accountant. Excuse me, Undersecretary of the Exchequer.

That, however, could be easier said than done.

* * *

The next few weeks, Ruiza barely had time to breathe.

He was busy setting up his perfume lab, hiring assistants – and fortunately, there were some bright young chemists working in other departments who were all too willing to transfer over – and starting to develop the formulas for each of the scents – one for each member of the royal family, and a few to be marketed commercially.

His brother began observing that Ruiza was falling asleep a lot. “You come home, you walk the dog and you pass out. Now, I don't mind making dinner, but I'd like to see my brother every once in awhile!”

“Sorry about that,” Ruiza said, sheepishly. “It's just that I've been busy. Real busy.”

“And there's nothing wrong with that,” Kazuki said. “You think I don't want you to be a success? But you also need to remember to take care of yourself. Having the best-selling scents in the world isn't going to do you any good if you're not around to see it!”

And throughout it all, he kept making regular visits to the Exchequer's office to speak to Tatsuya. He tried to keep the conversations professional. He really did. Except he'd be there a few minutes, and then Tatusya would ask how he was making out with his new lab, and Ruiza would start talking about how things were going with the new co-workers, and then he'd talk about the place where he used to work . . .

He felt very comfortable around his financial helper. And, of course, he continued to find him cute – and continued to feel a bit breathless as he left his office.

I shouldn't do this, he thought. I really shouldn't do this. I have a professional relationship with this man, and it should stay professional. But he's just so cute, and so sweet, and . . .

And acting like a swoony teenager isn't going to get you anywhere, he thought. Back to work with you. He'd rush back to his lab and bury himself in his tubes of scents, glad for the distraction.

Remember, he thought, he's your financial advisor. And he very well might have someone. Or be on his way to having someone.

But that wasn't stopping a tiny part of his mind from having hope.

* * *

Meanwhile, Tatsuya's co-workers were starting to notice the way the Undersecretary of the Exchequer acted whenever the pretty blond entered the room.

“He lights up whenever that guy comes in,” one of the secretaries whispered. “It's like a Christmas tree.”

“He talks to him forever,” another one replied. “Tatsuya never talks to anyone! He's as shy as they come.”

“Tatsuya's never been romantically interested in anybody,” one of the younger under-accountants said. “Never. It's like he's off the radar for that kind of thing.”

“He did date, you know,” the first secretary said.

“Yes,” said the accountant. “But nothing ever came of those dates!”

At that moment, Tatsuya would come into the room, and the people discussing them turned around and fled for their desks. He looked puzzled. “What were you all talking about?” he said.

“Nothing,” said the first secretary. “Just what we're wearing to the next office party.”

Tatusya sat down at his desk and looked at his file of tasks for the day. Alas, there was no scheduled appointment with the perfume chemist. He realized he was starting to look forward to those appointments just a bit too much.

Don't think about it, he told himself. He's a client, nothing more. It has to be that way. He's probably beating men off with a stick, anyway. You wouldn't stand a chance.

Part of him couldn't believe that, though – but what could he possibly say to the guy to get him interested? Fraternizing with a co-worker was frowned on – right?

* * *

As it so happened, their situation ended up attracting the attention of the right people.

Subaru would frequently have lunch with his friend in the employee dining rooms on the lab premises – although the staff of the facility always made sure they had their own private room and the best of service. Subaru being the Pledged of a prince carried privileges.

“Why do you look happy today?” Subaru said to Ruiza during one such lunch.

“What do you mean?” Ruiza said.

“You seem, I don't know – extra-alive,” Subaru said. “Almost like you're sparkling.”

“Oh,” Ruiza said, putting a hand up to his face. “Is it obvious?”

“Ruiza,” Subaru said, “what's been going on?”

“Nothing!” Ruiza said. “Well, I mean, we've been doing the usual stuff with the lab department, but that's it. I think I have a scent almost done for the queen. I've been working hard on Toya's, I think you're going to like it.”

“But I think there's something else going on,” Subaru said. “What did you do before you came here?”

“Nothing!” Ruiza said. “I mean, it wasn't nothing, I went to the Undersecretary of the Exchequer's office. We had matters to discuss regarding payroll.”

“Ruiza,” Subaru said, slowly, “is there someone in that office that you like?”

“What makes you say that?” Ruiza said, looking a tad panicked.

“Soon as you started talking about going there,” Subaru said, “you started glowing even more than ever.”

“I did?” Ruiza looked panicked again, and put his hand to his face.

“Ruiza,” Subaru said, “it's okay. Really.”

“No, it's not,” Ruiza said. “I can't date a guy I'm working with!”

“Why not?” Subaru said. “The royal family doesn't have rules about that. Not even the stuffy old king. Toya was even telling me that a lot of couples met and got married while working together here.”

“But . . . he's handling the finances for my lab,” he said. “If something goes wrong between us . . . well, you don't want a guy who's in charge of your money mad at you.”

“Why are you convinced it'll break up before it even starts?” Subaru said. “Give it a chance, Ruiza! Why don't you ask him on a date?”

Ruiza looked down. “I don't know. He probably already has someone.”

“Want me to find out?” Subaru said. “You're forgetting that as the Pledged of a prince, I have access to a lot of information.”

Ruiza sighed. “All right,” he said. “But be discreet about it, okay?”

“You can trust me,” Subaru said. “Believe me, I want you to be as happy as I am.”
Unbeknownst to them, however, there was a similar conversation going on in another private dining room – private because one of them was a prince.

“So tell me – who is this guy you like?” Yo-ka said.

Tatsuya nearly choked on his beer. “WHAT?” he said. “What gave you that idea?”

“I have ears,” Yo-ka said. “And I heard what the secretaries were talking about when I was waiting for you to come out of that meeting.”

“They were talking about it?” Tatusya said. He tried not to look annoyed.

“They said that there's one client of yours where every time he walks into the office, you light up,” Yo-ka said. “And then after he leaves, you just about float around the office. Come on, Tatsuya – who is he?”

Damn secretaries, Tatsuya thought. “Just – just someone who comes in here from time to time. And he's probably got someone, anyway. Or if he doesn't, he's going to in the near future. He's . . . he's not the kind of guy that gets ignored.”

“So,” Yo-ka said, “because of that, you're not going to go for it?”

“If he has someone else,” Tatsuya said, “I'll be let down.”

“And if he doesn't, and he ends up with someone else?” Yo-ka said. “You'll be kicking yourself for days. Weeks. Months. Just go for it!”

Tatsuya looked down. “I know. I'm . . . I'm not quite the go for it type. You remember what happened when we were in school.”

“That was one incident,” Yo-ka said. “One. And that's not likely to ever happen again.” His voice softened. “He didn't know you, Tatsuya. Not really. And he didn't deserve you.”

Tatsuya sighed. “I'll . . . think about it, okay?”

He needs a boost, Yo-ka thought. He needs a serious boost if he's going to start dating this guy. And I think I know what it's going to be.

* * *

That evening, the two royal couples had dinner together in one of the private family dining rooms. It was a fairly common occurrence by now – unless Yuuki had an early performance and had to get to the club by six.

Once everyone was settled in, and the waiters had brought the first course, and they'd talked about their days (Subaru going on for quite awhile about a phone conversation with a factory that might build their surfboards), Yo-ka decided to make his announcement.

“I'm having a royal ball,” he said.

“Well, I'm enjoying dinner as well, but I'm not going to go that far,” Toya replied.

“No!” Yo-ka leaned over the table and gave his brother a playful smack. “I mean I'm LITERALLY having a royal ball! A party where people get dressed up and dance!”

“Why the hell would you do that?” Yuuki said. “You hate those things. You told me yourself you'd like to have an excuse to avoid them!”

“Yes, but there's a reason.” Yo-ka picked up the small glass of melon soda that was always next to his wineglass. “Trust me on this.”

“This had better be a good reason,” Toya said. “Yuuki's right – this is flat-out not you. The Yo-ka I know thinks of royal balls as being about as appealing as stubbing your toe.”

“It has to do with a friend,” Yo-ka said. “I've got a friend who likes someone. A lot. And he's got cold feet and jitters about asking him out. So . . . I decided to give him a reason to ask the person out. And what better reason than a royal ball?”

“Can't he just ask him to the movies?” Toya said.

“If it were that easy, I wouldn't be doing this, would I?” Yo-ka said.

Subaru said, quietly, “You know . . . it sounds like what's been going on with me lately. I have, well . . .” He looked around at the others. “Ruiza has told me he likes someone. Somebody he's been working with. And he's got cold feet about telling him, too.”

“Oh, yeah?” Toya said. “Who is it? One of the guys who works in his lab? Bet its that cute guy with the big pink streak in his hair.”

“No, no, not in the lab,” Subaru said. “He said it was a guy in another department, one that he has to go to . . . oh, yes, the Undersecretary of the Exchequer's office! It was someone in there.”

Yo-ka looked startled. “Really?” he said.

“Oh, yes,” said Subaru. “He said the Undersecretary of the Exchequer.”

“Oh, my God,” Yo-ka said, rubbing the back of his neck. “This may be even better than I thought!”

“What do you mean?” Subaru said.

“The friend I was talking about,” Yo-ka said, “is Tatsuya. He's the Undersecretary of the Exchequer.”

“Whoa,” Toya said. “We might have an opportunity to play matchmaker, big-time!”

“No,” Yo-ka said. “I don't like that, either. I don't like people feeling forced into a relationship.Remember, I wasn't crazy about the idea of the Culling.”

“Well, that worked out okay for both of us, didn't it?” Toya said.

“Yes, but I don't want Tatsuya feeling pressured to ask this guy out! I just want to provide a nice atmosphere – romantic, special – for them to meet up in. Add to that some drinks to loosen things up, and hopefully, things will happen naturally.” Yo-ka looked around at the others. “Look – how many old stories are there about people meeting and falling in love at royal balls?”

“Those stories also include dragons and witches and fairy godmothers,” Yuuki said. “Last time I looked out the window, I didn't see any of those.”

“Come on!” Yo-ka said. “You've got to agree it's worth a shot, right?”

“It's worth a shot,” Subaru said. “I believe that.” He smiled. “I'm willing to try anything if it means Ruiza ends up happy!”

“All right,” Yuuki sighed. “I imagine you want me to sing for this thing.”

“Well, love, if you don't want to . . .”

“Of course I want to!” Yuuki said. “I may still think this is an odd idea for you, but that doesn't mean I'm going to turn down an opportunity to perform in front of an audience!”

“It's settled,” Yo-ka said, as the waiters arrived to collect their dishes from the appetizer course and started bringing out the soup. “I'm having invitations printed tomorrow. And then, we'll see what happens from there.”

“Yes!” Subaru said. “I want it to work out, I really do!”

They began on their next course. After a moment, Toya said, “You know, one of these nights I'd really like to ditch the fancy stuff and just go out for pizza . . .”

* * *

Two days later, the invitations went out to all palace staff, courtiers, friends of the two princes, and, in Yo-ka's words, “People I have to invite or else Father will never let us use the ballroom again.”

“You hate royal balls, remember?” his Pledged reminded him. “You're just doing this for Tatsuya.”

“Yes,” Yo-ka said. “But what if I need the ballroom for, say, a command performance by a certain singer? I'd have to have it then, right?”

And so, the royal mailroom distributed the small envelopes into all the employee mailboxes. Ruiza pulled his out and read it. “A royal ball?” he said. “Really? I haven't done anything like that since the first day of the Culling . . .”

He tucked the invitation in his coat pocket and started going through his other mail. Well, here was a bill for some essential oils they'd had delivered last week . . . and then, he realized that he was smiling.

A bill, of course, was a reason for him to visit Tatsuya's office. He never thought he'd ever be happy to see one in his life.

He called to his assistants, “Be back in a few!” and headed out. By the time he arrived at Tatsuya's office, he was humming to himself.

“Hello!” he said, as he entered. “I have an invitation! Um, I mean, a bill!” He handed the bill over.

“Hi,” Tatsuya said. “Invitation? You got one, too?”

“I think everyone did,” Ruiza said. “I never thought I'd be going to a royal ball so soon!”

“I don't think too much of them, usually,” Tatsuya said. “I only go to them because of Yo-ka.”

“You're going to this one, aren't you?” Ruiza said.

“Oh, yes,” Tatsuya said, and then added, quickly, “I mean . . . I always do. For my friend.”

“I figured,” Ruiza said, just as quickly. “I need to think about what to wear. One good thing about having been made a noble? It's acceptable everywhere for noble men to wear dresses. All kinds of younger men wear dresses in D, and they do in Kiryu, too – but it seems it's frowned on for middle-class men in other districts.”

“Well, that isn't fair,” Tatsuya said – wondering what Ruiza would look like in a fancy dress. Which was leading to another thought of said dress on Tatsuya's bedroom floor. And that was a line of thought he had to stop right now.

“Tell me about it,” Ruiza said. “Anyone should be allowed to wear whatever they want to wear, regardless of age or class or gender. The only thing is, I don't think I have any dresses fancy enough for a royal ball, and I don't know where I can get one around here that someone on my salary can afford.”

“I can show you where to get it!” Tatsuya said, and then suddenly realized that sounded an awful lot like a date invitation. Oh, crap, would he take that as hitting on him?

“You can?” Ruiza said. “That would be wonderful!”

“It would?” Tatsuya said. “Oh, yeah, it would!”

“Maybe we could go this weekend?” The ball was, after all, two weeks away. Getting the dress this weekend meant he'd have it in plenty of time.

“Sure!” Tatsuya said. “Maybe we could meet up in the park in front of the employee residence? Um, you do live there, right?”

“Yes,” Ruiza said. “You live there, too?”

“Third floor,” Tatsuya said.

“We're on the eighth. My brother and I. Oh, and our dog.” He figured it was important to get that last part in – because he didn't want Tatsuya thinking there was a significant other.

“We're practically neighbors, then,” Tatsuya said. “Okay, Ruiza. We'll meet up Saturday and go shopping. And there's a nice coffee house next to the store, too.” Great, he was just turning this into even more of a date. He just hoped he wasn't scaring the guy off.

“Wonderful,” Ruiza said. “All right – I'll see you then. If I don't have to come back here before then, that is!” He waved goodbye, and rushed out into the hall.

A date, he thought. Oh, my God, we're going on a date. No, don't call it that. It's just a shopping trip, remember?

But he was feeling like a teenager right now – and that definitely made it seem like a date.

* * *

Ruiza was just about waving the invitation when we came home. “Look!” he said to his brother, who was putting groceries away in the kitchen. “The prince is having a ball, and I'm invited!”

“Really?” Kazuki said. “Did your fairy godmother show up?”

“It's a REAL royal ball, not an old story!” Ruiza said, just as his dog, Leon, bounded up to him. He rubbed the dog's head. “Hi, there,” he said. “I'd take you to the ball, but they don't allow dogs!”

Kazuki walked into the living room and took the invitation from Ruiza's hand. “Wow, this really is the real deal,” he said. “What are you wearing?”

“Well, that's the thing,” Ruiza said. “I need to get something – and I've got someone taking me shopping on Saturday!”

“This person must be one hell of a someone,” Kazuki said. “Your whole face just lit up.”

“Oh, no, he's just someone I work with,” Ruiza said. “Not directly – but he does the finances for our department.”

“He works over your figures, huh?” Kazuki said, plunking down on the couch, invitation in hand.

“It's not like that!” Ruiza said. “He's a friend, okay?”

“And that's how they all start out,” Kazuki said. “I'm happy for you, Ruiza. I really am – getting invited to a ball is a big, big deal.”

“Tatsuya said that he's been to a lot of them,” Ruiza said. “That's what happens when you've been working for the royal family for awhile.”

“Oh, so his name is Tatsuya?” Kazuki said. “Well, that's a nice name!”

“Um, well, yes, it is,” Ruiza said. “But he's a friend! Really!”

“Okay,” Kazuki said. “I'll believe it. And I'm going to want to hear every detail about this ball, you know. Including Tatsuya.” He stretched out on the couch, hands behind his head.

“You'll get them!” Ruiza said. “Okay, I'm going to walk the dog now!” He went to the hook on the wall where the leash was hanging.

It really was, in a way, like an old story. He found himself looking forward to the ball with nervous anticipation. But in a way, he found himself looking forward to the shopping trip just as much.

To Part 2

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