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, Part 1 is here.
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.

As promised, they met up right at the entrance to the park. “Oh, you're in casual clothes!” Ruiza said as he greeted the other man. “I almost didn't recognize you without the suit and tie!”

“Believe it or not, I don't wear them 24/7,” Tatsuya said. “And I definitely don't sleep in them!”

“I should hope not,” Ruiza said. “The tie would be hard to sleep in. It would make it easy to choke!”

They started heading out toward the town. “So what are royal balls like, anyway?” Ruiza said.

“A bunch of wealthy people with titles trying to impress each other, mostly,” Tatsuya said. “There's music, of course, and dancing, and really good food, and a lot of liquor. Most of the rich people aren't the kind of drunks who make fools of themselves, though. They're the kind of drunks who pretend they're sober, but they're really ready to fall over.”

Ruiza laughed. “That's got to be amusing.”

“It is, in a way,” Tatsuya said. “I usually don't stay until they get really drunk, though. I slip out early.”

“Not a dancer?” Ruiza said.

“We'll just say it's not one of my specialties,” Tatsuya said. “I mean, I'd do it if the right person invited me to dance, but I don't do anything fancy. Just kind of moving around.”

“You don't have to do anything fancy, really,” Ruiza said. They had arrived in front of a large department store. “Is this it?” he said.

“Yes,” Tatsuya said. “This is where all the royal employees shop, really. It's clothes that look fancy . . . but don't cost what the royals and old-money nobles would pay. Third floor is dresses, and the department is considered unisex.”

“Great!” Ruiza said. “You're not used to looking for dresses, are you?”

“Well, no, unless I'm with my sister,” Tatsuya said. “I've never had the urge to wear them myself, and I've never dated women.”

“I dated a girl in high school,” Ruiza said. “But anyone I've dated since then has been male.”

They entered the store through a gleaming array of cosmetics counters, sporting rainbows of lipsticks and rouges and nail polishes. Maybe I need to get makeup, too, Ruiza thought. I'm not going to have stylists helping me out like I did during the Culling.

“Why did you enter the Culling, by the way?” Tatsuya said, as they made their way to the elevators.

“It just seemed like something fun to do,” Ruiza said. “I never had any illusions that I'd be picked. None of us did, really. That's why we were all able to relax and have fun with it – because we knew it was temporary.”

The elevator pinged at the third floor. “I just went down for the interview, and the next thing I knew it, I was informed that I'd been picked to represent my district,” he said. “I went to the palace, made the first cut, and then just kept making the cut until almost the end. I finished fourth – but he still let me and the guy who finished fifth stick around the Royal Retreat until the end.”

“You went on dates with the prince?” Tatsuya said as they made their way to the dresses.

“Well, yes,” Ruiza said. “I thought of it more as hanging out than anything else. He's a sweet guy. So's his brother. I was shocked as hell when Yo-ka made me an Earl at the end of it. I didn't think anyone got anything out of it but the second and third place finishers.”

He pulled a dress off the rack, held it in front of it and examined it. Tatsuya was right. It was beautifully made and elegant – the sort of thing guys in his social class usually didn't own. “Didn't Yo-ka tell you about us?” he said to Tatsuya.

“He's restricted from talking about his Culling,” Tatsuya said. “He thinks it's bullshit, of course, but he abides by the rules. He did tell me that all the guys were fun to hang out with and that I'd be meeting them all eventually.”

“Do I live up to my billing?” Ruiza pulled another dress off the rack. This was going to be a very hard choice – they all looked fantastic.

“Live up to it, and then some,” Tatsuya said. I just can't see why he didn't choose him, he thought. Okay, Yuuki is a really nice guy, but if I'd been in Yo-ka's shoes? I would have chosen Ruiza in a heartbeat.

Ruiza pulled two dresses off the rack at once and held them at arm's length. “The best part of the Culling, for me, was meeting people,” he said. “Making friends. I got to know so many great people . . .” He held one dress in front of him, then the other. “Which one do you like better?”

“The right one,” Tatsuya said, pointing to a black dress with elegant ruffles on the cuffs and running down the front. “With the fuller skirt.”

“I'll try it on, then!” Ruiza said. “You have good taste, that's the one I was looking at, too.”

As it turned out, the dress Tatusya picked out was the one Ruiza ended up getting, followed by stops in accessories for a matching small hat and stockings, and the shoe department, where Ruiza tried on about ten pairs before he found the perfect one.

“I'm sure you've had enough of watching me shop by now,” he said to Tatsuya.

“No,” he said. “Not at all.” And, believe it or not, he meant it. In fact, he was mesmerized by the sight of Ruiza's excitement as he examined each item, as if they were the only clothes he'd ever seen in his life.

“Since you put up with all this, I'll pay for lunch,” Ruiza said, picking up his bags.

“You don't have to!” Tatsuya said.

“I want to,” Ruiza said. “It's the least I can do!”

They settled into the coffee shop and ordered – Tatsuya got a beef stew, Ruiza got curry. When the waiter departed, Ruiza said, “Well, I told you how I met Yo-ka – now, tell me about that school where you met him.”

“Like I said, I was a scholarship student,” Tatsuya said. “I felt kind of out of place there when I first arrived, because I was, well, one of the few guys there who wasn't a nobleman's son. But that's why Yo-ka and Toya were drawn to me. They thought I was the coolest thing ever. Yo-ka, especially. He kept asking me what it was like to grow up in a middle-class district like I'd grown up on an alien planet.”

“Where did you grow up, anyway?” Ruiza said.

“Ronove,” Tatsuya said. “It's a really small town near Pentagon, so we're legally considered part of the Pentagon district . . . even if we're outside it.”

“I remember Pentagon,” Ruiza said. “They had a really nice plaza in the middle of it and some cute-looking streets.”

“That's where you went if you wanted to do anything when you lived in Ronove,” he said. “Anyway, I felt out-of-place at first, but after I got to know Yo-ka, he started introducing me to other friends of his – Kei and Shoya I especially got along with. But then I met . . .” He looked down into his drink.

“Someone who you didn't get along with?” Ruiza said.

“No. That's the thing. I got along with him just fine. In fact, he and I started dating. I fell madly in love. Head over heels. He was the first guy I ever went to bed with. But . . .” He poked at the drink with his straw. “I told him, after we had been together a couple of months, where I was from. And it put him off. He was upper-class . . . and he only dated other upper-class people. Suddenly, I wasn't good enough for him. And, well . . . it broke my heart.”

Ruiza watched Tatsuya's face as he told the story, the way a total sadness stole over it, slowly. If I had that guy in front of me, he thought, I'd slap him silly. “Who would think you weren't good enough just because you were from a small town? I mean, you were the same person he met when he thought you were a noble!”

“You know that and I know it,” Tatsuya said. “Or, rather, I know that now. Back then? I was crushed. Absolutely devastated. I didn't go to class for about three days afterward. I was in danger of losing my scholarship. Yo-ka and Kei and Shoya brought me back from the brink. If it wasn't for them . . .” He looked at Ruiza.

“I know,” Ruiza said. “You were lucky to have them.”

“So, yeah, I went back to school and threw myself into everything full-force to get over him. And, eventually, I did. Well, as much as you can fully get over something like that. Part of me still smarts over that.” He gave Ruiza a small smile. “I don't know why I'm talking about this. It was really the only bad thing that happened when I was in school.”

“That was a very big bad thing!” Ruiza said.

“Well, anyway, after high school, Yo-ka and I moved on to the same college together, even though we were in different departments – he was in political science, of course, and I was in mathematics. He told me he'd find me a job after we graduated, and he did. First as a lower accountant in the Exchequer's office, then as Undersecretary.”

“And are you happy?” Ruiza said.

“Are you?” Tatsuya said.

“I asked you first!” Ruiza said.

“Things definitely could be worse,” Tatsuya said. “I have a stable job, a good home and good friends. Happy? Well . . . I'm not unhappy.”

“As for me?” Ruiza said. “I'm happy. I love my job and my home and having my brother with me, and being able to see Subaru again. But there's always room for more happiness. Don't you think so?”

You could make me the happiest man in the world, Ruiza, Tatsuya thought. But he didn't want to say it. After his bruising experience as a teenager, the last thing in the world he wanted to do was risk a fresh rejection.

He knew he was falling for the gorgeous Earl. No, not falling. Already fallen, like lead dropped from the highest turret of the palace. All he could think of was how he would look in that beautiful dress.

Ruiza, meanwhile, was having similar thoughts.

There's something so soft about him, in a way, he thought. So soft and gentle. No wonder he got his heart broken so easily – what a shame that someone like him crossed paths with such a jerk!

He wanted to ask him on another date – wait, was this one? Well, it felt like one now! – but he was afraid of being turned down. What if he's completely gun-shy about love now? Ruiza thought. What if he doesn't want to take a chance again?

At that moment, the waiter brought their food, and they were both snapped out of their reveries.

“Looks good!” Ruiza said.

“Looks great!” Tatusya said. “Well, thank you for the meal!” He pressed his hands together in front of him and bowed.

They started on their lunches, and talked about other restaurants they had gone to, both in the capital and in Pentagon, and what they thought other people would be wearing to the ball, and whether Yuuki was going to perform. And both quietly hid their growing feelings for each other.

* * *

For the next two weeks, the two of them found as many reasons as they could to bump into one another.

They had the usual meetups in Tatsuya's office, of course – Ruiza ran off to him with every bill that came in, any question about an expense report. During one of those meetups, Tatsuya asked him where he usually had lunch.

“In the employee cafeteria,” Ruiza said. “Around noon.”

“I'm usually down there around 1, unless I meet up with Yo-ka,” Tatsuya said. “Do . . . do you want to compromise and have lunch at 12:30 tomorrow?”

“That would be great!” Ruiza said. “Meet you at the entrance to the cafeteria?”

“Definitely!” Tatsuya said.

The next day, they met up, got their usual lunches and found a corner table to themselves. They talked about family and Ruiza's dog and what the other Culling guys were like and the projects Ruiza was working on.

“The scents for the two princes were easy,” he said. “Yo-ka is bold and unconventional. So I tried to find something that would capture that. Toya has the fascination with the ocean, so I wanted to include some scents that would suggest that . . . and also, his cheerful personality. The king and queen, well . . . they're a bit harder.”

“From the way that Yo-ka talks about his dad, an appropriate scent for him would be Eau de Stick in the Mud,” Tatsuya said.

“Well, I'm going for something that suggests . . . tradition,” Ruiza said. “A very old-school kind of masculine elegance. The queen provided me with a list of scents she likes, so I'm working from that. The trick is getting them to work together. My first attempt smelled like a bottle of old perfume you'd find at the back of your grandmother's bureau that she bought when your mom was about three years old.”

“Yuk,” Tatsuya said. He had a grandmother with perfume bottles like that. He knew precisely what Ruiza was talking about.

“So, yes, it's definitely a test of my skills,” Ruiza said. “My assistants have been a huge help in that. It makes all the difference when you have a workable crew. Not that I didn't at my old job, but . . . it feels strange, in a way, to have picked my own assistants. It took awhile to get used to that.”

“Oh?” Tatsuya said. “You've never been a boss before?”

“No. Something else I had to get used to, on top of being an Earl. But I'm so glad that it happened now.”

“I'll bet you make a good boss,” Tatsuya said.

“I try to,” said Ruiza. “It comes much easier to me than I thought.”

“A lot of things come easier to us than we think, sometimes,” Tatsuya said.

“Oh?” Ruiza said. “Like what?”

Like sitting here talking easily with you, Tatsuya thought. Like having feelings come to life that haven't been there in years.

“Like dealing with nobility,” he said. “The born nobility. You just have to learn when it's proper to bow and when it's proper to start a conversation with them – as opposed to them starting a conversation with you – and what term to address each rank as. If you call a Marquis 'My Lord' he'll freak out.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because 'My Lord' is reserved for Barons, Viceroys and members of the Upper Gentry” - people who fell in the cracks between nobility proper and the gentry, usually relatives of the royal family. “As you probably know from Subaru, a Duke is called Your Grace. A Marquis is Your Eminence. An Earl, as you know personally, is Your Excellency. And a Viscount is Your Honorable Lordship or Ladyship. Give the wrong salutation to the wrong person and hear about it for the rest of your life.”

“I wouldn't do that,” Ruiza said. “I just want to be called Ruiza, that's it. Earl is just a title that lets me wear dresses to parties.”

Tatsuya laughed. “I can see why you made it so far in the Culling, Ruiza.”

“Because I like to wear dresses to parties?”

“Because you're always YOU. No matter what. You're unspoiled and natural, no matter what situation they put you in and what titles they throw at you. A lot of people wouldn't be like that. A lot of people . . .” His expression darkened. “Think they're above everyone else just because of a few words in front of their name.”

“Your ex didn't deserve you, you know,” Ruiza said, quietly. “You're a million miles better than him.”

Tatsuya put his hand on Ruiza's. “Thank you,” he said.

They sat there quietly for a moment, just smiling at each other . . .

Then Ruiza said, quickly, “I need to finish up – I have to be back in the lab in a few minutes!”

“Me, too,” Tatsuya said. “Um, I mean, be back in the Exchequer's office.”

Both of them were smiling much more broadly than usual after a lunch when they returned to their respective workplaces.

* * *

They met several more times for lunch before the day of the ball arrived, and each time, they had cheerful conversation, and found themselves looking into each other's eyes or touching hands a bit longer than they had to, after which they quickly pulled back.

Ruiza's brother definitely noticed the way his brother looked when he came home from work in the evenings. “Work must really be agreeing with you,” he said, dryly.
\
“It's going great,” he said. “Worked some more on the queen's fragrance today, I think I've got the king's down . . . and I've started working on a side project.”

“Really?” Kazuki said. “What kind of side project?”

“Oh, something that'll be revealed at the same time as the others,” he said. “Also, I had lunch with Tatsuya again today.”

“So THAT's why the smile.”

“He's just a really nice guy, okay!” Ruiza said.

“Okay,” Kazuki said. “So, tell me . . . does he live in the employee residence?”

“Yes. Third floor.”

“You've been there?”

“No!” Ruiza quickly turned toward his brother. “I mean, not . . . yet. He just told me about it.”

“Well, then, I'll know where to look for you when you don't come home some night,” Kazuki said, dryly.

“Kazuki!”

But privately, Ruiza felt a small thrill at the idea of not coming home some night. He was quietly hoping that it would happen.

And meanwhile, he kept working at his secret side project. It was vital that it be finished by the night of the ball.

* * *

When the big day arrived, Subaru told Ruiza, “Come to my and Toya's place a couple of hours before the ball. I arranged for my stylist to do your look.”

“Really?” Ruiza said.

“Oh, yes. Bring what you're going to wear, he'll do your makeup and hair and maybe even accessorize your outfit.”

“I haven't worked with a stylist since the Culling. I've just done my own makeup,” Ruiza said. “This is going to be fun.”

Sure enough, he arrived with his dress and shoes and hat. The stylist looked at the outfit and practically applauded. “Marvelous! You have a good sense of what works for you. We'll just add to that . . .”

He sat Ruiza down and started attending to him with combs and sprays and rather alarming hot irons, which he used to curl his hair. After that, he started on his makeup, then asked him to put the outfit on.

“Hmm,” he said, looking at the dress. “We'll put the little hat . . . here.” He positioned it and pinned it down. “And we'll add black gloves . . .”

“I don't have any,” Ruiza said.

“Fortunately, I do,” the stylist said. “Black and white gloves are a part of every stylist's bag of tricks. Now, look in the mirror . . .”

Ruiza did. The sight that greeted him stunned him flat. There he was, in the black dress and hat, his hair curled in soft ringlets around his face, his makeup flat-out perfect.

Oh, my God, he thought. What is Tatsuya going to think when he sees this?

Subaru came into the dressing room, where Ruiza was looking in the mirror. “Wow!” he said. “You're GORGEOUS!”

“You think so?” Ruiza said. “I don't think I've looked like this since the Culling!”

“You've never looked better,” Subaru said. “Come on – it's just about time to go downstairs. Toya's almost ready. We'll go in after you.”

“Why after?”

“The Royal Family always comes in last, and a Prince's Pledged enters the ballroom with him. So they'll just have the gentry come into the ballroom by themselves, then the nobility will enter and be introduced, then the Royal Family will be introduced. Myself and Toya, then Yo-ka and Yuuki, finally the King and Queen.”

“I'm being introduced?” Ruiza said.

“It's just a few seconds,” Subaru said. “You'll walk in, they'll say your title and then you'll enter the ballroom. And there's no assigned seating, you can sit with whoever you want.”

Whoever you want, he thought, meaning Tatsuya. “All right,” he said. “Just have to get used to an elaborate introduction every time I enter a room where Yo-ka's parents are, right?” He picked up the bag that matched the dress – a small pouch of black silk. A heavy object in the bottom created a little, but very visible bulge.

“What's that?” Subaru said.

Ruiza smiled to himself. “Something important,” he said.

* * *

When Ruiza got to the ballroom, the last thing in the world he expected was to find himself in a lineup like a high school graduation.

But as soon as he arrived, he was hustled to a hallway. “What rank are you, sir?” a guard said, checking the badge of office pinned to his dress. “Ah, an Earl. Right this way, Your Excellency.”

“What is this about?” Ruiza said.

“Ah, this must be your first time at a royal ball,” the guard said. “We line everyone up to enter the ballroom according to rank, lowest to highest, with the royal family coming in last. Then everyone is lined up within their ranks in alphabetical order, so we know what order to introduce you in.”

“Well . . . okay,” Ruiza said.

And before he knew it, he was standing in a line between the Earl of Cassis and the Earl of Dir en Grey. They shuffled forward slowly, bit by bit, as the people in front of them were introduced – Barons, then Viscounts, then Earls, with Marquis and Dukes finishing the line.

“You're next,” the guard said. “Just walk to the officer at the center of the staircase, let him take your hand and introduce you, then walk down to the stairs to the main ballroom. Nobility remains standing at the sides of the room until the entrance of the Royal Family.”

“Thank you,” Ruiza said. He walked out . . . into a white-hot spotlight. It occurred to him that the whole room was looking at him at once.

This would NOT be a good time to trip over his own feet.

He reached the uniformed officer, who took his hand, held it up, and announced, “His Excellency, the Earl of Denis-Auvergne-Puy-de-Dome.” Ruiza gave a small bow and headed down the stairs . . . yes, he had to walk down a grand staircase to get to the ballroom. It would figure that the hallway where they had the nobility was on the second floor.

Except he got a surprise when he finally reached the bottom. Tatsuya was there, eyes shining. “Ruiza!” he whispered.

“Tatsuya! Are . . . are you allowed to be here?”

“Nobody said otherwise.” He looked the other man up and down. “You're beautiful. REALLY beautiful.”

“Subaru's stylist helped me,” Ruiza whispered. “Come on, I'm supposed to be on the side of the room . . .”

The two of them rushed over to a spot between the tables and the dance floor. “You look really nice, too,” Ruiza whispered.

“Thanks,” Tatsuya said. “I tried.” Indeed, he looked lovely – he had a grey silk suit with a white shirt and a violet tie – granted, he wore a suit and tie to work every day, but there was a definite extra dose of sophistication to what he was wearing tonight.

Ruiza applauded as each of the marquis and dukes entered the room – but he kept stealing glances over at his companion. Tatusya really was deeply attractive – in a quiet, shy, unassuming kind of way.

He's my date tonight, isn't he? Ruiza thought. Yes, he is. No two ways about it. And I'm thrilled.

Finally, the officer announced, “And now, our royal family will enter the room.” He paused. “His Highness the Prince of Charlotte and his Pledged, His Grace the Duke of Royz.”

Ruiza watched as Subaru and Toya walked out on the top of the stairs – the prince in his military uniform, Subaru in a black suit with the red and blue collar around his neck. His friend caught Ruiza's eye for a second, but Ruiza knew it was against protocol for Subaru to wave.

When the two had gone down the stairs, the announcer said, “His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Valluna and his Pledged, His Highest Grace the Grand Archduke of Lycaon.” Ruiza noticed that Yuuki was rolling his eyes, as usual, at the overblown title – and he had never looked more stunning, wearing a black dress with a slit up the side, long black gloves, and a matching black wide-brimmed hat.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the officer said, “will you all please rise for the entrance of Their Royal Highnesses, our King and Queen.”

The room rose to its feet, applauding, and Yo-ka and Toya's parents came out to the top of the stairs. “May you all enjoy yourselves tonight,” the king told the crowd, before descending the stairs with his wife.

Ruiza noticed, however, that the king glanced over at the bandstand, where Yuuki's backing band was setting up, and mumbled something about “freaks with top hats and people named Zero.”

“I guess we can find a seat now,” Ruiza said.

“We have one already,” Tatsuya said.

Ruiza looked surprised. “We do?”

“When I came in, the guard escorted me to a table for two over there.” Tatsuya nodded his head. “There's even a card on it that says, 'Reserved for The Earl of . . .”

“You don't have to pronounce that big, long thing,” Ruiza said.

“ . . . and the Undersecretary of the Exchequer. I don't know how we got it – tables for two are supposed to be for the most honored guests.”

“I know,” Ruiza said with a smile. “Subaru. He must have set it up.” He definitely had to thank his friend later.

They settled in at their table, Ruiza putting the little bag beside him. He wasn't ready to unveil its contents . . . yet.

“Bet you never went to any parties like this back home,” Tatuya said.

“Well, the office year-end party came the closest,” Ruiza said. “But it was nothing like this.”

“There were no parties like this during the Culling?”

“We went causal through almost the whole thing,” Ruiza said. “That was the best part about it. One night in Ekkisu, we even cooked over a bonfire on the beach.”

“You have to tell me about it,” Tatsuya said. “I've never been to Ekkisu.”

“Oh, it was gorgeous. Okay, all the places we went were gorgeous, but that town seemed, well, lived-in and homey, even though it was big and grandiose.”

As Ruiza continued to tell Tatsuya about the Royal Retreat – pointedly avoiding spelling out the former use of the Pavilion of the Heart – there were eyes very much on them from the royal family's table.

“They definitely look happy,” Subaru whispered.

“They're cute together,” Toya repled. “Really, really cute.”

“Turns out this was a good idea,” Yo-ka replied. “Worth putting up with this, anyway.”

“You seriously don't like royal balls, do you?” Yuuki said.

“I wouldn't do this for just anyone,” Yo-ka replied.

On the opposite end of the room from the stand where Yuuki's band was, there was a smaller bandstand where a four-piece combo provided dinner music.The waiters began bringing out one sumptuous course after another – canapes and soups and salads and pate and sorbets and filet mignon with vegetables and potatoes.

By the time the dessert – a creamy chocolate mousse cake with strawberries – came out, Ruiza said, “I don't think I've ever eaten so much in my life!”

“We're going to have to dance this off,” Tatusya said. “Or semi-dance, at least.”

“I'm just going to need to move, period!” Ruiza said. “Good thing I broke in my new shoes.”

“How did you do that?” Tatsuya said.

“Oh, I wore them to walk the dog.”

“You did?” Tatuya laughed.

“I got compliments, too,” Ruiza said. “One guy said he thought I was the bravest guy he'd ever met, wearing shoes like that to take a dog out.”

“What did the dog think?” Tatsuya said.

“He just kind of sniffed them,” Ruiza said.

Tatsuya laughed. “The guy was right. You were brave.”

“I thought of it just as something that needed to be done,” Ruiza said. “Sometimes you need to take out the garbage, sometimes you need to do the laundry . . . and sometimes, you need to go out and walk the dog wearing fancy shoes.”

The waiters cleaned the final dishes away, and Yo-ka got up on the stage where Yuuki's band was now completely set up and ready to go. “And now,” he said, “for your dancing pleasure, may I introduce a very special vocalist . . . Yuuki.” When his father loudly cleared his throat from the royal table, Yo-ka added, “Grand Archduke of Lycaon.”

As Yuuki walked toward the stage, Ruiza could have sworn he saw him mumbling something like, “Even singing at a ball, I have to be introduced that way . . .”

As the band began to play, Tatsuya leaned over toward Ruiza. “Well . . . here goes nothing, right? If we're going to do this . . .”

Ruiza stood up and held his hand out toward his date. “Let's dance,” he said.

The two of them made their way to the dance floor, Ruiza putting his hand on Tatsuya's waist, holding the other one out to grasp the other man's hand. They began to move, a few tentative steps to the right, then the left . . .

The two of them turned around, slowly, moving in slow circles around the dance floor, and the crowd started to melt away. All they could see was each other, all they could feel was their closeness and the fact that they were moving as one.

In reality, they might have been sort of half-dancing, but to them, it felt like they were floating on air. It was one of those moments in life that you wanted to just capture and relive again and again.

By the time Yuuki and his band took a break, they were both breathless. They made their way back to the table.

“I can't believe it,” Tatusya said. “I can't believe I actually enjoyed dancing that much!”

“Same here,” Ruiza said. He sat down at the table. “It's because I had the best partner.”

“No, I had the best partner,” Tatsuya said. “Wow – we actually navigated that crowd without running into anyone or anything, didn't we? It's kind of a miracle.”

“A huge miracle!” Ruiza said. “Considering how many people are here?” He leaned over and put his hand on Tatsuya's. “I meant it about having the best partner, you know.”

“So did I,” Tatsuya said. “I would't have danced like that with anyone else.”

“I have something for you,” Ruiza said. He opened the black bag, reached inside and pulled out a small cut-glass bottle with an ornate, diamond-shaped stopper. He quietly thanked all that was holy that the stopper had held.

“What is it?” Tatsuya said. “A sample of what you're working on?”

“More than that,” Ruiza said. “In addition to the scents I'm doing for the royal family, they wanted me to create a few more to be marketed to the middle-class public under the Royal Scents name. So I worked on a few original fragrances, and, well . . .” He handed over the bottle. “This one was inspired by you.”

Tatsuya looked shocked. “By me?”

“I wanted to create something that had the essence of you. Gentle and sweet, but still male. Open and unpretentious, but with underlying class. Go on – smell it.”

Tatusya opened the bottle, slowly, and brought it to his nose. An assortment of wonderful scents suddenly assaulted him – spices and musks, a hint of floral, a definite sense of wood and smoke.

It was most definitely the kind of thing he'd wear.

“i can't believe you did this,” he said. “I can't believe you actually created a scent for me . . . inspired by me . . .”

“I wanted to,” Ruiza said. “It was fun coming up with the kind of essences that would fit you and making just the right blend out of them. But most of all? I couldn't wait to see your face when you smelled it.”

“I'm never going to wear any other scent for the rest of my life,” Tatsuya said. “Ruiza, this is incredible. It means so much . . . it's just so damn personal. I just don't know what I could possibly give you in return.”

“You don't have to,” Ruiza said. “Just give me more lunches and more shopping excursions. More time with us together.”

“I'll give you all the time you want,” Tatsuya said, running around the table to hug the other man. “I'll give you all the time in the world!”

On the royal family's side of the room, Subaru had a big smile. “Look over there,” he said. “I think this ball is a huge success.”

“Good,” Yo-ka said. “I don't have to have another one.”

“Why not?” said Yuuki, who had returned to the table between sets. “I'm starting to like singing for a crowd like this. I could do it again, easily!”

And back at Ruiza's table, they didn't notice the attention they were getting from the royals at all. They were too wrapped up in each other.

* * *

When they left the ball, Ruiza looped his arm through Tatsuya's as they approached the royal employees' residence.

“That was such an amazing evening,” Ruiza said.

“Amazing isn't the word,” Tatsuya said. “I actually ENJOYED a royal ball!”

“I'm just sorry it has to end.” Ruiza squeezed Tatsuya's arm.

“It doesn't have to, you know,” Tatsuya said – and then, immediately thought, oh, God, that was a mistake, what if it was too forward? I've just blatantly hit on him, plain and simple.

But Ruiza smiled at him. “Do you mean stopping at your place?” he said.

“Yes.” Might as well come out with the full truth, right?

“I was hoping you'd say that,” Ruiza said.

“Really?” said Tatsuya. He was feeling everything flutter – heart, breath, even his eyes.

“One hundred percent yes,” Ruiza replied.

They walked into the lobby and rode the elevator together to the third floor, Tatsuya pulling out his key. “It isn't much,” he said.

“I'm sure it's fine,” Ruiza said.

They walked into the apartment, Tatsuya turning on the light. Ruiza glanced around. Tatsuya was right that there was nothing overly florid or decorative – well, save for a print hanging on the wall of a sunset over a snow-capped mountain range, the blinding whiteness dappled with pinks and golds and violets. The furniture was utilitarian – a couch, two chairs, a table, a record player and record cabinet, a radio.

But Ruiza was perceiving all of it as beautiful.

“I could show you the rest,” Tatsuya said, knowing damn well there was only one room either of them were interested in at this point. “Over here is the kitchen . . . back there the bathroom and water closet, and here . . .”

He opened the door at the end of the hall. Again, nothing particularly fancy – a desk, a chair, a bureau. But it was the one thing that both of them most wanted to see. Both sets of eyes focused on the bed.

“I definitely know what 'here' is,” Ruiza said, turning toward Tatusya, closing the last few inches between them.

“So do I,” Tatsuya said. “Where we want to be.”

Before they knew it, they were kissing hard and fast and deep – in fact, to Tatsuya, it felt like the most intense kisses of his life. He held the other man closer, pushing his tongue into his mouth, moaning softly in his throat.

Ruiza pulled away from him, breathing heavily – and reaching behind him. The sound of a zipper filled the room. He just had to get the dress open enough to yank it over his head . . .

He got it on the first try. He pulled the dress up and off, tossing it on the bedroom floor – and thus fulfilling Tatsuya's fantasy.

Except the other man was even more beautiful than Tatsuya thought he'd be. He ran his eyes up and down the bare torso, the flat stomach, the garter belt that was holding up his stockings, and then the black bikini underwear . . .

Don't just stand there gawking, he told himself. Get your own clothes off. Nothing's going to happen if you're fully dressed. He slid off his jacket, pulled off his tie, and unbuttoned his shirt as fast as his fingers could move. His pants landed on the floor next to the shirt, and he just kept going, peeling off his socks and underwear.

Then, he froze. Oh, hell, he thought, did I go too far? Take it too fast? Maybe I should have stopped at the shirt and pants? What if I drive him off? Maybe I should put my underwear back on . . .

But Ruiza approached him, slowly, running a hand down his chest. “I like,” he said, with a sly smile.

“Like . . . what?” Tatsuya said.

“Everything.”

Ruiza quickly stripped off his garter belt and stockings, then his underwear, and pulled Tatsuya into his arms, kissing him hard again . . . and as soon as they felt the contact of their naked flesh, both men moaned. They moved toward the bed, stumbling in their efforts to reach their destination without letting go of one another, tumbling to the mattress in a heap.

They rolled over so Ruiza was on top, and the blond wasted no time in kissing along his lover's neck, running his tongue along it, a hot, wet trail. This is happening, Tatusya thought. This is really happening. It's not a dream, or a fantasy.

His hands slid down his new lover's back. His skin was so smooth, so soft and warm . . . the texture was like finest satin. And Tatsuya kept moving down more, and more . . .

Before he knew it, his fingers were gliding over a perfectly shaped ass. He felt himself hardening even more as he squeezed the firm flesh, then slowly released it, then squeezed it again. He cupped his hands over the curves, moving them up and down, feeling the shape.

“Oh,” Ruiza moaned. “Tatsuya . . .” He stretched his neck upward, and Tatsuya took advantage of the exposed flesh, kissing it softly, tonguing it, moving downward slowly.

Ruiza tipped his head back more, eyes closed, hands tangled in the other man's hair. He shifted his body upward, so his chest was level with Tatsuya's mouth.

“Suck,” he gasped. “Please. . .”

Tatsuya knew what the other man wanted. He brought his lips to one of those delicious nipples, tongue coming out to stroke it, running back and forth over it before he drew it in, sucking gently.

God, he'd never experienced anything like this before. He felt and tasted so good. The feel of the hard bud against his tongue was erotic delight, made all the hotter by the way his lover trembled beneath him.

He pulled his lips away, only to move them to the other nipple, wrapping them around the bud, holding them there, licking, pulling his tongue back, licking again. He sucked, and Ruiza let out a long, low groan, his usual elegance disappearing in the raw heat of their shared passion.

Ruiza shifted again, bringing his lips back to Tatsuya's, and they kissed hard, their hands moving down each other's bodies, both seeking the same thing. Tatsuya's fingers closed around Ruiza's cock just as Ruiza did the same to him, and they began to stroke slowly, familiarizing themselves with textures and curves and sensitive spots.

They took note of what made each other moan the loudest, of how Tatsuya liked being caressed at the base of the head, and Ruiza arched forward when Tatusya's fingers teased the opening at the very top. Their hands slid up and down shafts, fingers moving and dancing and stimulating.

“You're delicious,” Tatsuya moaned, as caressing fingers ran down to his balls, lightly teasing, then moving back up his cock. “You're so delicious . . .”

“I want to know just how delicious you can be,” Ruiza whispered.

“How?”

“Like this.”

And Ruiza was rolling away from Tatusuya, the two letting go of each other, and Tatusya's hand instantly felt cold, missing that hard, intense heat. He watched his lover shift position on the bed, turning himself around, moving his leg so he was straddling Tatsuya's shoulders.

Ruiza leaned way over, opening his mouth, and his tongue began to stroke the head of his lover's erection, moving back and forth over it, then sliding down to that sensitive area his fingers had found before.

He slowly licked around the base of the head, and Tatsuya arched forward, crying out – and his lips bumped into Ruiza's erection. Of course – they were in a position to pleasure each other like this, weren't they?

Tatsuya lifted his head, starting to take as much of Ruiza as he could into his mouth. Ruiza slid down further, taking Tatsuya into his lips and sucking, pulling back, tonguing the head again, then moving down. He began to move in rhythm, speeding up little by little, as Tatusya sucked harder, his fingers running up and down the part of his shaft he couldn't get into his mouth.

They both started to move faster, the sucking getting more intense, Ruiza pulling Tatsuya all the way out of his mouth so he could stroke his tongue slowly from the root to the tip, then Tatsuya doing the same thing to Ruiza.

They wrapped their lips around each other again, both moaning in their throats, moving faster and harder, Ruiza now taking Tatsuya deeper than he could ever remember taking any man in his mouth, Tatsuya making love to Ruiza with lips and tongue, sucking, then licking, then sucking again.

They were both writhing, grinding, thrusting into one another's mouths, in an erotic frenzy . . . and then a sweep of Tatusya's tongue in a particularly sensitive spot made Ruiza cry out, his whole body stiffening . . .

Before Tatsuya knew it, his lover was letting out a ferocious, primal cry, and there was hot wetness pouring into his mouth, then on his face. It felt glorious.

Ruiza managed to keep enough of his wits about him to keep sucking, to wrap his lips around Tatusya and move down on him again and again and again . . . and then, Tatusya felt an explosion of pleasure unlike anything he'd ever experienced. He lifted his hips, letting out a loud yell as delicious feelings swept through him, and swept through him again, until he was absolutely and completely drained.

Ruiza moved back up so they could kiss each other's lips again, clinging to one another, tasting themselves on each other's mouths, feeling sweat-damp skin. Both were basking in an afterglow that was as warm and sweet as honey left in the sun.

“I don't think I've ever felt quite like this before,” Ruiza said, breathlessly.

“Neither have I,” Tatusya said. “You were . . . wonderful. Just wonderful.”

“Mmm.” Ruiza snuggled against him. “You're not getting rid of me easily now.”

“I wouldn't want to,” Tatusya said. “You're not getting rid of me, either.”

“Being stuck with you doesn't sound bad at all,” Ruiza said. He kissed the other man. “I'm so glad I went to the ball. So, so glad.”

“So am I,” Tatusya whispered. “So am I.”

* * *

They woke up later, cuddled and kissed some more, and grabbed a quick shower, with lots of washing each other and kissing. Afterward, they snuggled under the covers again.

“I do want to bring one thing up,” Tatusya said. “Not bad, I promise.”

“What is it?” Ruiza said.

“When it comes to sex, well . . .” Tatsuya shifted a little. “I don't usually like . . . penetration. I mean, I know most guys do that, but . . . for some reason, it doesn't do much for me. Either being on the giving or the receiving end. It's weird, I know . . .”

“It's not weird,” Ruiza said. “It's just what you like and don't like, that's all.”

“You're . . . not disappointed, are you?”

“Why should I be?” Ruiza said. “Not when there's so many other wonderful, delicious things we can do. Like . . .”

Their lips came together again. Which led to hands exploring bodies, lips moving along naked flesh, moans and sighs and murmurs that this was so, so good . . .

And, ultimately, Ruiza on top of Tatsuya, their mouths caressing one another, their cocks rubbing together, their hips grinding. Tatsuya gripped Ruiza's ass again, moaning as he felt hardness sliding against hardness, the shape of Ruiza's erection pressing against his own flesh, the wetness of the droplets of precome from them both.

“More,” Tatsuya gasped, and Ruiza moved faster, grinding harder, hips pumping as he moved against his lover. Tatsuya's hips matched Ruiza's pace, moving against him stroke for stroke, looking up at the beauty above him, how his face bore an expression of pure, unbridled passion.

The two men moaned louder as their movements sped up, slowed down, then sped up again, becoming more intense, more urgent, sending both of them hurling toward an absolute ecstasy.

Tatsuya cried out first this time, his whole body arching forward as he lost himself in unbridled pleasure, and then Ruiza let out his own cry right afterward, his head buried in Tatsuya's shoulder as he trembled with heated delight.

The two fell to the bed together, kissing softly. “I want this night to last forever,” Tatsuya murmured.

“It doesn't have to end,” Ruiza replied. “We could have this happen again . . . and again . . . and again. Any time we want to.”

Neither said it out loud, but as they snuggled together, both were entertaining thoughts of a shared apartment, of being there when the other woke up every single morning. Of starting to build a life together.

In short, of forever.

* * *

Ruiza just about waltzed back into his own apartment the next day.

Fortunately, the ball was held on a weekend night, so he and Tatsuya could stay in bed until . . . well, the sun was pretty high up by the time they made it to the kitchen. And then, their breakfast was punctuated with kisses (since they'd both brushed their teeth) and endearments and where-do-we-go-from-here talk.

“We have something,” Tatsuya said. “And I want to see where it goes from here.”

“So do I,” Ruiza said. “I like where it's going already.”

“So from now on,” Tatsuya said, “we're 'official.'”

“I thought you'd never ask,” Ruiza said, leaning over for another kiss.

He only came home because, well, they weren't quite ready to be spending 24/7 together yet, plus he had to see his brother, and walk the dog, and . . .

“So, how was the evening?” Kazuki said, coming out of the kitchen.

“Wonderful!” Ruiza said. “Terrific! Everything I wanted and more.”

“And since you're just now coming in,” Kazuki said, “emphasis is on the 'and more.'”

“Ack!” Ruiza said. “Come on, Kazuki!”

“Hey, who's happier for you than me?” Kazuki said. “You've found this guy. You're happy. Now what?”

“Well . . .” Ruiza sat down. “We work it out, day by day. We learn each other's likes and dislikes.”

“Bet you did some of that last night,” Kazuki said.

“KAZUKI!”

“Sorry, sorry.”

“But seriously,” Ruiza said, “I was thinking this morning . . . I know now why I was in the Culling.”

“Why?” Kazuki said.

“Because, deep down, I wanted to elevate my life,” Ruiza said. “I was stuck on a boring treadmill back home – and I didn't even realize it. I knew that being in the Culling would change my life forever. And, well . . . it did. I'm a leader now instead of just another technician churning out scents. I'm living in an exciting place rather than a small city we moved to in order to get away from the sticks. And . . .” He smiled. “I have Tatsuya.”

“So you realized it,” Kazuki said.

“What do you mean?” Ruiza said.

“I saw the rut you'd gotten yourself into back home,” Kazuki said. “I saw you staying in the same job, not really advancing, not really finding a real boyfriend, not really going anywhere. And I saw you were getting frustrated – but you were afraid to say it out loud. I was going to suggest we try living in another city for awhile . . . and then, the Culling came along. It was like a gift from a fairy godmother. You're now the Ruiza you were always meant to be.”

“You think so?” Ruiza said.

“I know so,” Kazuki said. “I know my little brother more than anyone.” He patted Ruiza's shoulder. “Go get some rest, I'll walk the dog. You obviously didn't get much sleep last night.”

“Argh!” Ruiza said – but he knew Kazuki was right. He didn't get much sleep at all. And that was a very good thing.

This had been, in many ways, the first night of the rest of his life.

* * *
Word that they were “official” got out pretty quickly – and it resulted in some very excited friends. Subaru hugged Ruiza for about five minutes straight, saying over and over, “I am so, so, so happy for you!”

Yo-ka, meanwhile, slapped Tatsuya on the back hard when he friend told him the news. “I told you! I told you that you had the potential to be happy again! Now, you go make Ruiza the happiest man alive, or I'll smack you!”

The two of them were seen around the halls quite a bit, holding hands and whispering to each other and even sneaking kisses in the lunchroom. It was very obvious to anyone who looked at them that they were the happiest of couples – and that made Ruiza all the happier. He felt like the whole world was sharing in the joy of this relationship.

Ruiza's scents were presented to the royal family a few weeks after the ball. Of course, Yo-ka and Toya immediately fell in love with theirs, and the queen said it “surpassed my expectations. You truly do have talent.”

But both Ruiza and the king were shocked that the king actually liked his. “It wasn't the first thing I'd pick to wear,” he said, “but it most definitely captures what I'm all about. It's what I'm going to wear from now on.”

However, when the fragrances went on the market, the one that sold the most wasn't any of the royal ones. No, it was the fragrance that had been inspired by Tatsuya – which Ruiza ended up calling My Heart for Men.

The public can always tell when an artist's heart is truly in his work – and that includes the manufacture of scents.
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