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After Ever After: The Page Who Got Stuck

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Planning a royal wedding sometimes involved the same number of maneuvers as a military operation. You had to figure out who was doing what when, and for how long, and who with. You had to make sure everything was perfectly coordinated with everything else, from the flowers on the tables to the envelopes of the invitations.

And then, there was the matter of who was coming, and where were they staying.

An event like this brought every manner of nobles out of every corner of the woodwork. People who lived in the furthest-flung regions of the country but just happened to have a title would descend on the capital to see and be seen. Neighboring countries would send their dignitaries – and a full entourage.

Thus, there was the matter of where to house all of them. Because the last thing in the world the titled were going to do was stay in a HOTEL for a royal wedding if they could help it. The foreign dignitaries usually stayed in their respective embassies, but the domestic noble guests were all put up in the palace. (And THEN there was the matter of making sure nobody was housed next to an enemy or rival. God forbid the Earl of Pentagon be next to the Archduke of Merry; war could break out.)

The staffs of the royal getting married in this case, Prince Toya, and his intended, Subaru, Duke of Royz, thought they had this puzzle figured out. They had everyone staying in the right place. Everyone was guaranteed they would be safe, comfortable, and drama-free.

Then, a last-minute addition to the guest list started a chain of events that would change someone’s life.

* * *

“Your brother-in-law’s grandmother has decided to come,” said Toya’s page, Natsume, holding out the envelope he had just opened.

“His GRANDMOTHER?” Toya took the envelope from the younger man. “But she hasn’t left Kaypop in years! She didn’t even come to Yo-ka’s wedding! I mean, we always extend invitations to her because we have to, but that doesn’t mean she accepts them.”

“That’s what it says,” Natsume said. “She’s coming, and now she needs a suite in the Kaypopian Embassy.”

“Except there isn’t one,” Toya said. “There’s three guest suites in that embassy. My sister, her husband and their kids are in one. His parents are in the second, and Solar” - Princess Yongsun, a member of Toya’s wedding party - “is in the third.”

“That’s the other thing.” Natsume pointed to the envelope. “There’s also a note in there from the princess saying that she and her fiancee are willing to give up their suite and move somewhere else.”

“She can’t,” Toya said. “The whole palace is full! And we can’t tell the grandmother not to come, either.” He sighed. “Call Subaru’s office, we’re going to have to have a meeting about this.”

“I thought you were going to say that,” Natsume said. “So I already called them. They’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“You’re too good at what you do, you know that?” Toya said.

“I try,” Natsume replied.

Ten minutes later, both princes and their staffs were in one of the conference rooms, the letter on the table in front of them, Toya outlining the problem.

“So that’s our dilemma,” he said. “We can’t tell the Queen Mother of Kaypop not to come to the wedding. We sure as hell can’t put her up in a commercial hotel. And we can’t move anyone out of the palace – not after all the work we put into accommodating everyone.”

Subaru thought a moment. “What about the other embassies?” he said. “Are there any ambassadors willing to host the princess?”

“We can’t ask her to do that,” Toya said.

“She volunteered, love,” Subaru said. “And she’ll get the same level of hospitality in another country’s embassy that she’d get in her own. Maybe even more, if they want to gain her country’s favor.”

“Maybe I can make a couple of calls?” Natsume said. “I remember there were a couple of countries saying their dignitaries weren’t coming and their ambassadors would represent them at the wedding.”

“Which ones?” said Toya.

“I think Jiluka was one of them . . .” Natsume said.

“Perfect!” Toya stood up. “Call their embassy right now. I think the Ambassador should be on the premises right now.”

“He’s not in Parliament?” Subaru said.

“They’re not in session right now.”

Natsume went into another room and came back a couple of minutes later. “Lord Ambassador Sena wants to speak to you,” he told Toya.

“Right there!” Toya rushed into the next room and took the phone. “Sena! How is it going?”

The voice on the other end of the phone laughed. “That’s why I like you so much, Toya. Any other royal would address me as ‘Lord Ambassador and Baron of Faizh.’ You and Yo-ka talk to me like I’m a PERSON.”

“That’s because you are one, and so are we,” Toya said. “Listen, Sena, a favor – we need a place for my sister-in-law to stay for the wedding. She’ll be coming with her fiancee and an entourage of about five or six people. Do you have accommodations for her?”

“Are you kidding? We have a huge suite that never gets used. And I’ll put all my staff and my Knights at her disposal. We’ll be happy to have her.”

“And scoring points for Jiluka in the eyes of Kaypop doesn’t hurt, either, right?”

“Why do you think my uncle sent me here in the first place?” Sena said.

“Gotcha,” Toya said. “Thank you so much again, Sena, I’ll have my people call her people and deliver the message.

Well, the prince thought, that crisis is solved, right? On to other things.

* * *

Except it wasn’t solved. Not by a long shot.

“There seems to be a problem regarding Solar’s accommodations,” Subaru reported at the next meeting.

“Why?” Toya said. “Sena said everything was settled.”

“It’s not the accommodations themselves,” Subaru said. “It’s, well, security. Nobody can seem to agree on who should be guarding her on the day of the ceremony – the Royal Guard or Sena’s Knights.”

“I thought everyone of royal blood was under the direct guardianship of the Royal Guard?” Toya said.

“The Knights of Codomo Dragon say they’re responsible for her because she’s staying on their turf,” Subaru said. “She’s their guest, therefore she’s under their protection. Meanwhile, the Royal Guard is claiming that when she’s on the grounds of the palace themselves, she’s their responsibility. And neither side seems to be giving an inch.”

“Are you kidding me?” Toya said.

“Dead serious,” Subaru said. “Apparently, the Knights of Codomo Dragon take being someone’s guardian as some sort of holy mission.”

Toya was well aware of the Knights – they were the guardians that Sena had brought with him from Jiluka. Their captain, Hayato, was Sena’s personal bodyguard and his fiance – so their relationship with the Ambassador was not exactly casual.

“We need some sort of go-between,” he said, “to negotiate with both sides and come up with a compromise.”

“I’ll do it!” said a voice next to Subaru. All heads turned toward the pink-haired figure sitting to the Duke’s right.

“Sora, you have enough to do,” Subaru said. “You have your normal page duties AND the wedding stuff.”

“It’s okay,” Sora said. “Most of what I’m working on for the wedding has been settled already. I can take this on.”

“Well . . . as long as you don’t mind . . .”

“Of course I don’t!” Sora said. “Just tell me who to get in touch with on each side and I’ll start on it right away!”

Later, as they left the meeting, Toya said to Subaru, “Sora really jumped on that assignment fast, didn’t he?”

“He’s been jumping on everything fast,” Subaru said. “I think the poor boy is going to work himself into a coma. He’s busy until it’s time to sleep – and then, he said he sometimes stays up half the night.” He shook his head. “I have a feeling it’s because of . . . never mind.”

“What is it?” Toya said.

“Well, he’s the only one of the four pages without a significant other. Natsume and Kosuke are with each other. Tacc has been dating Mamo. I think it makes him feel . . . lonely. And he fills that loneliness with work.”

Toya slung an arm around Subaru’s shoulders. “We’ll have to work on that problem after we’re done with the wedding, won’t we? I know a couple of people who might be good prospects for him. We’ll just have to throw a nice royal ball, make sure those people are invited, and THEN make sure your page accidentally on purpose meets up with them.”

Subaru laughed. “You’re devious,” he said.

“I just want to make sure all our friends end up as happy as we are, right? Because you’ve made me the happiest man in the world.”

“No, you’ve made ME the happiest man in the world.”

The two of them paused in the hall and kissed, and then Subaru said, “Maybe we won’t have to do anything. Maybe fate will step in for Sora like it did for me. Because if a certain old fisherman hadn’t come into my workplace and told me about the Culling, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Very true,” Toya said. “Well, let’s say this – if fate hasn’t taken a hand in things before the wedding, THEN we do something.”

“I like how you think,” Subaru said.

Quietly, Subaru hoped Sora really would meet someone on his own and have his own happily ever after. It was what he deserved.

* * *

Sora rushed down the hall, looking at his watch. He had ten minutes until the meeting. Good, he had a rare few minutes to catch his breath.

Granted, his life had always been busy ever since he became Subaru’s page. That was because he was pretty much doing double duty with conventional royal duties and with working for Subaru’s surfboard and rollboard company. (Quite frankly, he often found the latter more interesting than the former. Surfing people tended to be mellow and had great stories to tell – about the massive WAVE OF A LIFETIME they rode, to be sure, but sometimes about other aspects of their lives.)

He welcomed being busy. Very, very busy, even. He had his reasons.

But since the wedding went into high gear, he’d barely had time to sit down. Send invitations, open RSVPs, make out seating charts, sort out accommodations, run around between one office and another delivering messages . . .

He only saw the other pages anymore when they were crossing paths professionally. And he still shared a suite with Tacc – Natsume and Kosuke had moved into a suite of their own. Heck, he barely saw his own brother anymore.

Sora leaned against the wall and sighed. He couldn’t let things like that bother him. Subaru needed him. He really liked his boss – it was very telling that the duke had started life not just as a commoner, but in a lower-class district. As such, he was down-to-earth, approachable, and thought of his staff as a team along with him, not just his underlings.

He made people WANT to work for him – including Sora.

He’d taken on this latest task willingly. Negotiate between the Royal Guard and the Knights of Codomo Dragon? Why not? He’d gone to both sides and arranged a meeting with representatives of each – Yume, one of the Knights, and Shohei, one of the captains of the Guard. He’d reserved Conference Room 3 for the purpose and made sure he’d posted the reservation in each royal office.

I can do this, he thought. I can prove myself. I can carve out a place for myself in the world – just like I’ve been trying to do ever since I arrived here.

He walked over to the conference room in question, threw open the door, and walked in . . .

Only to see a man sitting there, on the phone.

What the hell? he thought. Who is this? He looks familiar – but I don’t think he’s one of the palace employees . . .

The man continued to talk on the phone, not noticing the newcomer. Sora frowned. What made him think he had the right to be here? And it was further bothering him that the intruder was, well, attractive. He stared at the chin-length blond-streaked hair, the soft-featured face.

Why am I noticing that? he thought. I need to focus! I need to do my duty!

Sora coughed loudly. The man looked up at him but didn’t get off the phone.

“Excuse me, sir,” Sora said. “I believe I have this conference room reserved?”

The man looked up from the phone and mouthed “Just a minute.”

Sora sighed and started tapping his foot. What the hell? What was going on here?

Finally, the man hung up and said, “Now, what can I do for you?”

“You’re in the conference room that I reserved,” Sora said.

“Reserved?” the man echoed.

“I had it on every bulletin board in every royal office,” Sora said, trying to hold his patience. “Who do you work for?”

“I don’t work for anyone. Well, not permanently. I’m helping out the Duke of Fatima with a legal matter, but I . . .” The man suddenly stopped. “Wait a minute. Are you Sora?”

He looked confused. “Um . . . yes?”

“Oh, my God, I haven’t seen you in years!” The man got up and ran around the conference table toward him. “You grew up and got hot!”

Now Sora looked baffled. “Excuse me?”

“I’m your brother’s friend from school. Jui. Remember me? You met me when your family visited the dorms.”

“Jui?” Sora wracked his brain. Did he know someone by that name?

And then it occurred to him. The guy who was Jun’s roommate for a couple of years, when they lived across the hall from the suite shared by Princes Yo-ka and Toya . . .

“His roommate,” he said. “The one who called me . . .” And the nickname suddenly filled his head like smoke from an explosion. “Shortcake.”

“Yes!” Jui said. “You’re not Shortcake anymore. Not by a long shot. When did you become an adult?”

“Um . . . when I graduated college last year?”

“You graduated college already? Time flies. And what the hell are you doing here?”

“Working,” Sora replied. “I’m the page to the Duke of Royz.”

“No kidding!” Jui said. “Jun must have gotten you the job!”

“Well . . . he helped . . .”

And then, Sora remembered what he was supposed to be in this room for. How could he forget? He had to fulfil his duty to the Prince-Consort-To-Be, dammit!

“This has been very pleasant, but I do have to ask you to leave the room,” he said. “In about a minute, I’m moderating negotiations between the Royal Guard and the Knights of Codomo Dragon to see who’s guarding the Princess of Kaypop when she comes for the wedding.”

“Negotiations, you say?” Jui said. “Negotiations are what I do best. I’m a corporate attorney.”

Sora looked shocked. “You are?”

“Why? Does that surprise you?”

“Well, I mean, you don’t SEEM very much like a corporate attorney.”

“That’s what they all say. Well, I’m not going to act like a stuffed shirt all the time. Life’s too short for that. But I’ll moderate the negotiations for you – and I promise I’ll come up with a compromise they’ll both be satisfied with.”

“I . . . I can’t ask you to do that . . .”

“Sure, you can. Come on, I want the wedding to come off well as much as everyone else does. I’ve got a personal stake in the royal family, since one of my best friends is dating their cousin. And besides . . .” He leaned over toward Sora. “I’m doing it as a favor to YOU.”

“To . . . me?”

“Because a boy as cute as you shouldn’t be spending all his time negotiating settlements. How much time do you have earmarked for this meeting?”

Sora looked at his clipboard. “Three hours,” he said.

“If I’m able to negotiate a settlement before that time, will you let me buy you a drink afterward?”

“But . . . but I have to . . .”

“You reserved a three-hour block for the meeting, right? You had nothing else planned for if it finished early. And I promise it’s just a drink. Just time to catch up with you, no funny business.”

Sora finally let out a sigh. “All right. But ONLY if you get it done with an hour or more to spare. I have a schedule after that.”

“It’s a promise,” Jui said. “You can trust me, Sora.”

Sora glanced toward the door. He heard voices in the hall. “I think they’re coming,” he said.

“All right, then,” Jui said. “Step aside, and let me do my thing.”

As he watched the two representatives enter the room, Sora swallowed hard. What did I just do? he thought. I just entrusted my mission to a stranger. Well, not entirely a stranger, but someone I haven’t seen in years.

He just hoped the person in question could be trusted with it. But Jun had always been fond of Jui. Right? If his brother trusted him, he should also.

And then, there was the matter of that gorgeous face. Why did thinking about that make a slow warmth spread over Sora’s body?

* * *

One hour later, not only had the guard and knight shaken hands to seal an agreement, the two of them were agreeing to go out for a drink together to further discuss their newfound agreement.

Sora shook his head. “I don’t know how you did it,” he said. “It’s like magic. Or a miracle.”

“Just a matter of knowing how to communicate with people, that’s all,” Jui said. “You figure out what each person wants – not what they say they want, what they REALLY want. And then you figure out how they can give it to each other without hurting themselves. It’s a lot simpler than you’d think, really.” He glanced at his watch. “And it seems we have two hours to go in our three-hour time block. Now, as I was saying before . . .”

“The drink?”

“We have enough time to do it.”

Sora glanced down. “I don’t know. If someone finds out . . .”

“If someone finds out, tell them you met up with an old friend of your brother. Nobody in the palace is going to say anything about that. They love Jun.”

Sora sighed. “You have a point there.”

“So, then?”

“All right,” Sora said. “One drink. Just to catch up.”

“You’ve got it!”

They left the conference room and headed for one of the side exits. What am I getting into? Sora thought. And why aren’t I worrying too much about not getting back in time?

* * *

Once they were settled into a booth in a bar across from the palace, Jui said, “So, tell me . . . what’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?”

Sora looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, why did you decide to work in the palace?”

“Because I thought it would give me an edge in life,” Sora said.

“An edge?” Jui looked rather bemused. “Being a cute guy doesn’t get you an edge in itself?”

“Well, I mean . . .” Sora picked up his drink and swirled it around in the glass a bit. “As you know, I come from the Spiv States. It’s pretty much the middle of nowhere. Nobody pays very much attention to us, we’re just kind of a cluster of islands out in the ocean. A lot of people are happy to stay there for their entire lives, but . . .”

“You weren’t one of them?”

“I thought I was, at one point. I went through the local high school, started picking out colleges, figured I was going to end up middle management in some desk job. But then, well . . .” He looked out the window.

“Something jump-started your ambition?” Jui said.

“You might say that.”

“Did it have something to do with someone you might have dated?”

Sora frowned. “What makes you think that?”

“Nothing, but that’s the reason a lot of people make life choices, isn’t it? It’s why people switch jobs, switch locales, switch clothing and hairstyles. Love can make people do crazy things.”

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“So, you have someone in your life?” And why was he feeling a pang of anxiety about the answer?

“Not anymore. I had a guy I was pretty hot and heavy with until a few months ago – but it fell apart in an ugly way. He wanted to date other people from time to time, I wanted us to be exclusive, and, well . . .” He looked away. “He did what he wanted anyway. So, we broke up, and now I’m in the process of leaving Vidoll and moving to the capital.”

“That’s where you lived?” Sora said. “Vidoll?”

“Yes. Decent place, but . . . I’d kind of had enough of it. So maybe the breakup was forcing me to make a life change that needed to be made.” He paused. “But we’re getting off the subject we were talking about before.”

“Which was?”

“You and your career path. What you’re doing here.”

“Yes,” Sora said. “I signed up to be a royal page because I wanted to get a job in the government. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, shall we say. And being a page was the best way to do it. So, I’ve tried to be the best page I can.”

“Which means being a workaholic?”

“What makes you think I am?”

“Well, I just about had to drag you over here.” Jun gestured around him. “And I had to promise you that I’d have you back in time.”

Sora looked down. “I just want to make sure I’m doing everything I can for the royal family. I want to be someone they can depend on, someone they can be proud of. Someone that they know they can go to in times of need.”

“But are you doing everything you can for yourself?” Jui said.

“Helping the royal family IS doing something for myself,” Sora said. “It’s giving me satisfaction that I can make their lives a bit easier.”

“But are you making time to give YOURSELF satisfaction?”

Sora looked confused. “I’m trying to establish my career. I don’t have any time for . . .”

“Sora, you’re a young guy. You should be enjoying being young. Believe me, I know the temptation to spend all your time on your career. I’m a lawyer. When we get going on a case, we could live on coffee and adrenaline for days. But between busy spells? You need to step aside and breathe.”

Sora looked away. “I’m just afraid, well, that if I do something like that . . . someone else will swoop in and pick up my job, and I won’t be as valuable to the Duke anymore.”

Jui frowned. “Wait a minute, is this because you have a thing for Subaru?”

“What?” Sora said. “No! I’m very happy Subaru is with Prince Toya! They’re an adorable couple and I want them to have a great marriage!”

“Is there someone else on the staff you have a thing for?”

“I don’t have time for . . .”

“For romance, I know,” Jui said. “Sora, can I ask you something? If there was a way you COULD take time for yourself, without risking your job, would you?”

“Well, I guess so.” He paused. “Why are you asking me these things?”

“Maybe because I’m an old and dear friend of your brother, so your welfare is important to me, too. Maybe it’s because I remember how relaxed and happy you were when you were younger. Or maybe it’s because I hate to see such a hot guy become a serious workaholic.”

Sora looked away. “I think you’re, well . . .”

“Overstepping my limits?”

“No. I was going to say, you’re not so bad yourself.” He blushed bright red. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to . . .”

“Nothing wrong with it at all,” Jui said. “You’re being honest. That’s good.”

“I . . . I think I need to get back soon.” Sora nervously looked at his watch.

“It’s all right,”Jui said “We agreed to one drink, didn’t we? But can I ask you if we can do this again in the future?”

“If I have time.” Sora bowed. “It was very nice spending time with you, thank you very much for the drink.”

“Any time.”

He rushed back toward the entrance of the bar, very much aware that his cheeks were flushing.

* * *

Back at the office, Sora was quietly going through a schedule of VIPs who needed to be met at boat docks or the airport – heaven forbid VIPs travel by train, unless they rented out an entire car – and escorted to the palace by staffers or guards.

But what Jui said didn’t leave his mind. Overworking myself? He thought. I’m just doing what needs to be done. And there is a LOT that needs to be done before a royal wedding.

Who does he think he is? Sora thought. Taking over the conference room before my meeting, then taking over the meeting itself, then taking me out and telling me to relax . . .

But he had to admit, grudgingly, that Jui was a huge help. He’d gotten the Guard and the Knight speaking civilly to each other within minutes. Not only did they come to a compromise – the Knights would be in charge of the princess when she was on embassy grounds or out in town, the Royal Guard when she was within the palace and going to and from the airport – but the two of them agreed to go to a bar together afterward for further discussion.

And as for the advice he gave Sora . . .

Okay, it’s true that I work a lot, he thought. I work more than the other pages, even. But . . . I have a lot to do! There’s a lot of responsibility! I have double-duty with his duties as Duke of Royz and his surfboard company, plus the wedding on top of that . . .

So why does Natsume not work that hard? he thought. He works for Toya – he has double responsibilities, plus time to be with Kosuke. And Tacc had the same amount of workload when Yuuki was about to get married – royal duties plus wedding plus Yuuki’s music career – and he was still able to see Mamo . . .

The lack of a love life wasn’t something that bothered Sora. Not when he was so career-minded. He hadn’t had a boyfriend or girlfriend since early in his college years. He hadn’t sought something like that out, either.

Why am I even thinking of that? he thought. I don’t have time for it! Not at all!

And then, he grabbed what he was working on and furiously started filling out schedules. He needed to work hard now more than ever.

* * *

The next day, Sora was finishing typing a letter when two of Hitomi’s assistants – one male, one female – entered the office and just stood by his desk, expectantly.

Sora looked up. “Um, can I help you?”

The female assistant said, “We’ve come to relieve you.”

“What do you mean, relieve me?”

“Take over for you for a couple of hours,” the male said. “So you can have dinner with Jui.”

“I didn’t get a dinner invitation from him,” Sora said, looking confused.

“This IS the dinner invitation,” the male assistant said. “He felt you wouldn’t have agreed to it if you’d known too far in advance.”

“Here’s the address where he has the reservation.” The female assistant handed him a paper. “We’ll be here until you come back. Anything His Grace needs you to do, we’ll do.”

“Does your boss know about this?”

“He asked us to do it.”

“Oh, my God.” Was Jui conspiring with EVERYONE to get him to relax? Now Hitomi was in on it, too! He took the paper – it was a sought-after restaurant, too. Well, he thought, he IS an attorney, he can afford it . . .

Fine, he thought. I’ll go, if he went through all this trouble.

He left the palace and made his way out into the street, turning a corner, then another. The restaurant had a doorman in front, who bowed when he approached. “Good evening, sir,” he said. “Would your name happen to be Sora?”

“Um . . . yes?”

“The gentleman you are meeting with is here already. The maitre’d will take you to his table.”

Sora entered, and the staff member in question bowed to him and escorted him to a corner table. Jui was already there, and he stood up when he saw Sora approach. “Good evening,” he said.

“Asking Hitomi’s staff to cover for me?” Sora said.

“You wouldn’t have come otherwise.”

“Isn’t that going a little far?”

“Not when it comes to being able to see you again. Now have a seat. I held off on ordering wine until you came, because I wanted to know what your preferences were.”

Sora sat down. “So Hitomi knows about this date?”

“Yes,” Jui said. “And he was happy about it.”

“He is bound and determined to keep this going between us, isn’t he?”

Jui suddenly looked serious. “Sora, do you really mind my attentions? Because if you do, I’ll call it off right now. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, or date anyone without their consent.”

“No,” Sora said, quietly. “I don’t mind.” And he didn’t. Not in the slightest.

“Good. Then let’s choose a wine and look at the menus, okay?”

When the bottle had been brought, opened and poured and food had been ordered, Jui said, “So, tell me how your day went after I saw you.”

“Well, we had to arrange escorts to the palace for the guests. Which sounds easy on the surface, since a lot of them will be arriving at the airport at the same time – until you realize that most of them do NOT want to share limousines with other guests. They consider it the height of indignity – even if the other guests are friends of theirs and are flying with them.”

“Typical aristocrats,” Jui said.

“And then, on top of THAT, we had one of the suppliers of rollboard wheels start hedging on their deal . . .”

Jui sat and listened, patiently, as Sora went on and on about his professional troubles, only occasionally injecting a comment. When Sora was done, he said, “Is that all?”

“What do you mean, is that all?”

“Did you read a book? Listen to the radio? Go for a walk?”

“You just heard everything I did! I didn’t have time for any of that!”

“When was the last time you did any of that?”

“I don’t know. . . before the wedding started?”

“Okay, this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to get people to take over for you precisely at 5 again tomorrow. We’re going to go for dinner, and then we’re going to a movie.”

“A movie?” Sora looked slightly panicked. “No way in HELL do I have time for . . .”

“I told you, other people would cover for you, right? Sora, things are going to work out. Subaru will still have his wedding, his surfboards and rollboards will still get made, he’ll still keep all his appointments. The only difference is that YOU will be relaxed and less tense.”

“I’m not tense!” Sora said.

“You’re extremely tense!” Jui said. “Your shoulders look like two rocks!”

“I always sit like this!”

“Won’t you just agree to tomorrow?” Jui said. “Just one date like that, I promise. If you have a good time, we can arrange for more – if you want.”

Sora let out a sigh. “You’re not going to let up until I agree, are you?”

“Probably not.”

“All right. I’ll do it. But ONLY if I get coverage!”

They talked about Jui’s work with Hitomi for awhile, and then the kind of movies Sora used to like to go see when he was younger and had more time.

“Adventure films were my thing,” he said. “The type where you had a hero who had to retrieve a mysterious artifact from a dangerous location? I was ALL about that. And also comedies. If there was an adventure film playing with a good comedy short? I’d be thrilled.”

“You’re in luck. The new Daring Duo film is playing downtown – with My Dragon’s new short.”

“Really?” Sora suddenly felt a flutter of joyous excitement inside him – an emotion he hadn’t experienced in, well, forever. “I haven’t seen a Daring Duo movie in years!”

“It’s supposed to be the best one yet, too,” Jui said. “One of the guys in Hitomi’s office was absolutely raving about it. There’s a good restaurant near the theater, too, and if you get ambitious . . . a bar across the street for afterward.”

Sora chewed his lip. “I don’t know about . . .”

“Only if you want to. And, remember, you’ll be covered for any work the Duke needs you to do until that evening.”

“We’ll see,” Sora said.

“Okay,” Jui replied, with a smile. “We’ll see.”

What am I getting myself into? Sora thought. Am I going to fall into a trap where I keep doing things like this instead of working? And . . . why does that not seem so bad?

* * *

In the office the next day, Sora and Natsume went over the transportation plans for guests, and Natsume took a copy to bring back to Toya’s office. Before he left, he gave Sora a good look up and down, and said, “You know, you look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time.”

“I . . . I do?”

“There’s a light in your eyes that hasn’t been there in awhile. Like something has lit a fire inside you.” He paused. “Or is it someone?”

“I had a few drinks with an old friend,” Sora said, quickly. “That’s all. Um, and dinner.”

“Oh?” Natsume leaned over toward him. “Who’s the old friend?”

“A family friend, that’s all. A friend of Jun’s. Nice guy, he’s a lawyer, he’s doing some work for Hitomi . . .”

“A lawyer, huh?” Natsume said. “Not bad.”

“It’s not a relationship like that!” Sora said, quickly. “You know I don’t have time for . . .”

“It’s okay.” Natsume gave him a big smile. “You’ll make the time, I’m sure.”

“But . . . but it’s . . .”

“It’ll be what it’s meant to be,” Natsume said. “I’m happy for you, Sora. Really.” He patted his friend’s shoulder. “And hopefully, this means you’ll have more time to relax. Well, I have to go back to Toya’s office. Catch you later!”

Sora just facepalmed. Why was EVERYONE telling him to relax, and judging what his relationship with Jui should be? He was just a family friend. They were just doing a few things together. Really.

* * *

Halfway through the movie, Sora realized he was feeling emotions he hadn’t allowed himself to feel in a long time.

He’d accepted the date with Jui reluctantly. He promised me coverage for it, Sora thought. We can’t fall behind with anything Subaru is doing. I’ll just go to dinner and the movie, that’s all, then make sure everything is done here before going up to my suite.

He only left after staffers of Hitomi’s arrived in the office. Quickly, he made his way to the restaurant near the theater – where Jui was waiting, as gracious as he’d been last time.

“You look terrific tonight,” he told Sora.

“It’s pretty much the same thing I wore all day to work,” Sora said. “I just added a tie.”

“Still, it suits you. The blue goes well with the color of your hair.”

“This?” Sora raised a hand to his head. “It’s such a pain having pink hair sometimes. It clashes with a lot of other colors. But . . . I don’t want to change it, either. My mother said it’s a strong trait in our family – so it makes us unique.”

“Unique?” Jui gave him a big smile. “That’s definitely a good word to describe you!”

Sora blushed a little. “I did get called Pinky a lot as a kid. Usually by the same people who called other kids names like Four-Eyes or Fatty Fatty Fat Fat.”

“Didn’t have much imagination, did they?” Jui said. “They weren’t worth listening to.”

“I never did,” Sora said. “The opinion of bullies doesn’t matter. What matters is the opinions of, well, other people.”

“Like me?” Jui said.

“Well . . . yes.” And Sora found himself blushing again.

The two drank wine and got into an easy rhythm of conversation, and Sora found it strangely amusing when Jui talked about some of the more unusual people he’d gone to in law school – like a guy who carried a bronze statuette of a monkey everywhere.

“He said it was his father’s good luck charm when he finished law school and passed the bar – so he wanted to have it with him every minute. He didn’t want to take any chances of not having the same luck.”

“Isn’t that an odd thing to drag around?”

“We got used to seeing it after awhile. We named it Hachi. We even put a Santa hat on it at Christmas.”

“Why did you decide to become a lawyer in the first place?” Sora said.

“Maybe because I want to do what’s right. I believe in fairness – and sometimes, there isn’t enough of that in this world.”

“You’re overly idealistic, aren’t you?” Sora said.

“Aren’t you? You remind me of someone who mostly sees the good in people.”

“Well . . . I am, in a way,” Sora said. “But I’m also . . . practical.”

“Were you always that way? Or did you become that way?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’m wondering if there’s someone still in there who’s fun-loving and mischievous. The kind of person who’d carry around a brass monkey. The kind of person who’d . . . skip out of work every once in awhile.”

Sora looked horrified. “Skip out of work?”

“We’ll say after the wedding.”

“But . . . but there’s so much to do . . .”

“And so little time to live, right? We only have a certain number of years on this planet. We should make them count.”

Sora sighed. “I suppose,” he said.

After the meal, they headed over to the theater, where Jui paid for the tickets. “You’ll enjoy this, I’m sure,” he said. “Especially if you enjoyed these films as a kid.”

“I always did,” Sora replied.

“And I’m treating you to a big popcorn, too!” Jui headed for the concession stand. “And candy! What do you like? Chocomels? Fruit Bombers?”

“I . . . I . . .”

“I’ll get both, then! This is a treat yourself night, right?”

When they were settled into their seats with junk food and drinks, Sora thought, this is ridiculous. I’m sitting here in a theater about to watch a Daring Duo film with a My Dragon short, with a bunch of stuff I haven’t eaten in years on my lap, with one of my brother’s friends . . .

He slowly looked over at the man next to him, suddenly aware that describing Jui that way felt, well, wrong. Because he was starting to think of him as a lot more than one of his brother’s friends.

Then, the lights went down, the cartoon started, and suddenly, Sora forgo everything. His worries about work, his thoughts that he should be somewhere else . . . He was laughing at the antics of the funny animals on the screen in front of him, the way he used to when he was a kid.

Thoughts of work came back briefly during the newsreel, since they showed the palace for a story about preparations for Prince Toya’s wedding – but they were quickly forgotten again when the My Dragon short came on, and Sora found himself laughing uproariously. It seemed that everything they did was hilarious – he could forget all about the fact that at least a couple of those guys had been in and out of the office to talk to Subaru.

When the feature came on, he was ready for it. He wanted to truly feel like he did when he was younger. And when the first notes of the Daring Duo theme song crashed through the speakers, he felt shivers down his spine.

He found himself leaning forward in his seat, breathless with excitement to see what was going to happen next. He cheered at the thrilling stunts and narrow escapes, laughed at the one-liners, and applauded when the rest of the audience did.

He was filled with joy and giddy excitement. He was breathless and carefree. And he looked next to him at Jui, sitting there in the dark with him, and thought, I owe it all to him. If it wasn’t for him, I’d be burning the midnight oil at work yet again.

Sora found himself smiling – and very glad that Jui had come into his life again, even if it was in a most unexpected way.

When they left the theater, Sora had a spring in his step. “That was fantastic!” he said. “Absolutely spectacular! I want to see it again!”

“I knew you’d love it!” Jui said.

“I don’t want this night to end,” Sora said. And he meant it. He didn’t want to lose these delicious emotions, these rediscovered sensations.

“We COULD go to that bar across the street I was telling you about . . .”

“Yes! Let’s!”

They walked across the road. The place was filled with twinkling lights everywhere, laughing people at banquettes and music from a piano player in the corner. The whole thing seemed like a relaxed and happy atmosphere – and Sora felt like he belonged there.

Jui went to the bar and brought them both drinks. When he came back, he handed Sora his glass and said, “Remember what I said before about how you looked?”

“Yes?”

“You look even better now. A smile definitely suits you.”

“Does it?” Sora smiled even brighter.

“So, what did you like best about the movie?”

“Everything! Oh, my God, you’re right, it’s the best Daring Duo movie ever! I couldn’t believe the airplane scene! And the swordfight in the rain! And the car chase! And . . .”

“Whoa, whoa, one thing at a time!”

So for about three drinks, Sora enthused and gushed about the movie, and Jui listened, and occasionally commented – but mostly, he let Sora talk. It was something, he felt, that Sora needed to do – and he was right.

When he was finally done, Sora took a deep breath. “Thank you so much for this,” he said. “From the very bottom of my heart, Jui.”

“It was my pleasure.”

“I can’t believe I haven’t done this in so long . . .”

“You only had to allow yourself to.”

The piano player took a break, and one of the customers began feeding money into the bar’s jukebox. A dance song came on, loudly, and Sora found himself bopping to the beat.

“Do you dance?” Jui said.

“I haven’t in years.”

“Well, maybe it’s time you did that again, too!”

Jui led Sora out on the dance floor, and soon, the two were twirling around, both of them laughing loudly, Sora wrapping his arms around Jui. He felt . . . free. Truly free. If he didn’t want this night to end before, he really didn’t want it to end now.

When Jui pulled him closer, Sora leaned in and brought his lips to the other man’s, and Jui kissed him back, softly. Sora gasped and pulled him closer still, losing himself in his partner’s warmth . . .

I’m drowning, Sora thought. I’m drowning, in the most wonderful way.

Jui pulled away from him, leading Sora back to the table. Sora felt wonderful, breathless, floating . . .

“If only it could be this way forever,” he found himself saying out loud.

“It can, you know,” Jui said. “It can if you really want it.” He paused. “Sora . . . why is it that you do these things to yourself? Why . . . do you work yourself half to death?”

Maybe it was the alcohol, or the dancing, or just the fact that Jui was so wonderful to be near, but suddenly, Sora found himself answering truthfully, saying words he’d never even admitted to himself out loud.

“It’s . . . because of my brother.”

“Your brother? Seriously?”

“When we were growing up, everyone looked at us equally,” Sora said. “I was the smart one. He was the artistic one. And then, well . . . he started his guitar business, and it took off, and he got a job with a big company and started getting all these wealthy clients.” He looked down and took a deep breath. “Suddenly, my family, and all our old friends . . . they were going on and on about how wonderful Jun was, and how successful. And they started doing it even MORE when Jun started dating the king’s nephew.”

Jui just nodded. He definitely knew how tough it could be.

“And, well . . .” He sighed, looking up at the ceiling. “People STOPPED noticing me. So I started driving myself. I wanted to do well in school, and then I wanted to be a royal page, and then I wanted to EXCEL at being a royal page. I wanted to impress Subaru and Toya enough that they’d give me a special commendation at their wedding ceremony – maybe even a title. They can do that, you know – bestow titles on deserving people at their wedding.”

Jui reached over and entwined his fingers with Sora’s. “But do you REALLY think you mean less to people than your brother? That you have to earn their love? You have to knock yourself out to prove yourself worthy? Because . . . you don’t. You just have to be you – because who you are is pretty damn wonderful. And you’re even MORE wonderful when you let yourself be YOU – like you did tonight.”

“You . . . really do like me for ME, don’t you?” Sora said. “Not just for what I can do or be.”

“Every little bit of you,” Jui said. “And I want to get to know you more . . . as long as you have time for me.”

Sora found himself saying, “I’ll make sure I have the time.”

“You sure about that?” Jui looked bemused. “You would have to give up some working time, you know.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

“Really?”

“Really. I . . . I think I’ve missed this version of me. In trying to prove myself . . . I lost myself.” He looked over at Jui. “And you’re helping me find myself again.”

“It’s my pleasure.”

“Can we . . . do this again tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

When Jui dropped him off at the palace, Sora kissed him again, and they lingered for a long moment – before he said “Goodnight” and went into the side door.

He went straight up to his room, without stopping in the office at all – and he didn’t care.

* * *

He walked into the office the next day in a small panic. He’d woken up, realized there were things he’d left undone before he left for his date . . .

Only to find out that they’d been done by the substitutes. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. I went out and had fun, he thought. Heck, I had the time of my life. And . . . the world didn’t come to an end.

It seemed to be a flat-out revelation to him. It was also a massive relief.

He started his workday like usual – when his desk phone rang about a half hour before lunchtime.

“His Grace the Duke of Royz’s office, this is his page, how may I help you?”

“Well, you can agree to have lunch with me today,” said a voice he’d known literally all his life.

Sora sat up straight. “Jun?”

“Of course. We need to talk about a few things, Sora.”

“Oh . . . oh, sure.” Crap, he thought. Does he know about me and Jui? Is he mad about me dating his friend? It’s got to be a weird thing, knowing your old friend is with your little brother . . .

“Great. Meet me at the dining rooms – I had Hitomi request a private one for us.”

Well, that confirmed it. Private dining room? This conversation wasn’t going to be good. “Fine, I’ll meet you there.”

He hung up the phone. Okay, he thought, focus on what you were doing. Get it all done, and then go downstairs.

Jun was waiting for him outside the dining room. “Exactly on time as usual,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be me otherwise, right?”

“Come on in, I asked for that curry ramen you like.”

“You know me too well.”

“Of course, I do. I’m your brother, aren’t I?”

Once they were settled into their seats and their drink orders had been taken, Sora began fidgeting. Don’t think about it too much, he told himself, don’t think about it too much . . .

“So,” Jun said, “I was talking to Jui this morning.”

Oh, no, Sora thought. Here it comes.

“He was talking about your date last night, and the dates before that . . .”

“I . . . I had a good time,” Sora said, averting his eyes from his brother.

“Sora, why didn’t you TELL me you’d been working nearly around the clock? No wonder I haven’t seen much of you lately!”

Sora blinked at his brother. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me! That’s what Jui said – that you haven’t been just burning the candle at both ends, you’ve been setting it on fire and throwing it in an active volcano. He’s concerned – he really likes you.”

“He told you that?” Sora looked shocked again.

“Yes, he did. And, well . . . I’m happy about it. I really am. I’ve wanted you to find someone you could click with for years. And if it’s him? So much the better.”

“Are you KIDDING me?” Sora nearly fell face-first on the table.

“Did you think I was going to be mad at the idea of one of my best friends possibly finding love with my brother?” Jun said. “Hell, no! I’m thrilled about it.”

“Oh, my God!” Sora nearly leapt across the table to hug him. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

“Of course, I do! If anyone deserves Jui, it’s you, and vice-versa. But, Sora . . . why the hell were you killing yourself with work? Why weren’t you asking for help?”

Sora glanced out the window, chewing his lip. Do I tell him? he thought. He took a deep breath, swallowed hard . . .

And said, “I . . . I wanted to live up to you.”

“To me?”

“Everyone’s always saying how great you are,” Sora said. “How you built yourself up from building guitars in the garage to working out of a major company and having famous musicians as clients. How you traded up and got yourself Pledged to the king’s nephew. And I, well . . . I always felt like I was in your shadow. But also . . .”

He looked straight up, into his brother’s eyes. “I wanted to be worthy of you.”

“Sora, you ARE worthy of me,” Jun said. “The very fact that you got accepted as a royal page says something in itself.”

“You helped me get the job.”

“Yes, I did, but . . . even with my backing, they wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t special. You don’t need to prove you’re wonderful. You ARE wonderful. I think that. Subaru and Toya think that. And so does Jui. But you won’t keep being wonderful if you’re a burned-out mess.”

Sora gazed at him. “Well, when you put it that way . . .”

“Sora, I’ve arranged for help. After I talked to Jui, I sat down with Hitomi. We made some calls around the palace and rounded up all the people we could to pitch in with your office – people from administration, finance, even the queen’s office. They’ll help with the wedding, with their surfboard company, whatever you need a hand with. All so you can leave the office at a normal time and see Jui.”

“You’d really do that?”

“I did it. Or, rather, WE did it. Hitomi pulled a lot of strings. It helps to be dating the king’s nephew, you know.”

“Jun . . .” Now Sora did jump out of his seat, run over to his brother and hug him. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure. And remember – you’re no less special if you’re working less. In fact, this makes you MORE special, because you’re taking care of yourself as much as other people.”

“How can I thank you?”

“You can thank me by making yourself AND Jui happy.” He patted Sora’s head. “My little brother, all grown up . . .”

“Jun!”

“Can’t help it. Part of me will always see you as a kid.”

At that moment, the waiter arrived with their food. Sora quickly scooted back to his own seat.

I can live the life I really want now, he thought. And I don’t have to make everyone proud of me by working myself to death from Jun’s shadow. Because JUN is proud of me. And that means more than anything.

* * *

That night, promptly at 5, Sora waited outside the palace side entrance for Jui to meet him. He smiled as his date came around the corner.

“Well,” Jui said, “what’s this? No hesitancy? No insistence you’ll only come if someone relieves you at work?”

“Nope!” Sora said. “We had extra help come into the office today. We actually got everything done by closing time!”

“Will miracles never cease,” Jui said. “So, you’re going to relax and enjoy yourself tonight?”

“Oh, I definitely will!” Sora suddenly rushed toward Jui and hugged him. “I’m glad you came into my life,” he said, softly.

“I’m glad you came into my life, too,” Jui replied.

“And it’s going to be different from now on, I promise.” Sora pulled back from him. “I’m not going to feel the least bit guilty about fun.”

“Any fun?”

“Any fun at all.”

“In that case,” Jui took Sora’s arm and led him away. “Dinner AND dancing! I know a terrific dance club not too far from here.”

“Let’s go, then!” Sora said.

He leaned his head against the other man’s shoulder as they walked together. I’m so happy, Sora thought. So very, very happy now. And it’s only going to get better in the future.

No more all work and no play for him. He was going to live life to the fullest.

* * *

Jun peeked into Toya’s office. The prince was still in there, looking at papers.

“Hey!” the pink-haired man said. “I had to give my brother hell earlier today for being a workaholic! Don’t make me do it to you, too!”

“I’m just finishing up, I promise,” Toya said. “I have to have this to my father’s office tonight. It’s the Honors List.”

Jun nodded. When a prince got married, it was tradition for him to bestow honors on those who had helped the couple – royal commendations or lower-level titles. At Yo-ka’s wedding, Hiro had been promoted to Baron of Fest Vainqueur and his old Viceroy title had been given to the prince’s aide-de-camp, I’ll. In addition, he had made his page, Kosuke, the first Viceroy of Valluna, and Yuuki’s page, Tacc, the Viceroy of Lycaon.

“So . . . you’re doing what I asked for, right?”

Toya nodded. “Jui is being named the Baron of Vidoll. Fortunately, they don’t have one at the moment. Your brother will be named the Viceroy of Royz. Although . . . that may be only a temporary title.”

“Temporary?”

“From what you told me, if things work out, he might be a Baronet.” He shook his head. “Never thought Jui would end up with your little brother.”

“It’s working,” Jun said. “Don’t knock it.” He paused. “He’s better for Sora than anyone in the world. You know and I know that Jui went through his own workaholic phase.”

“You mean, when we literally had to pick him up off the floor because he pulled two all-nighters in a row?”

“Exactly. He’s the best thing in the world for Sora. Because . . . he understands him.” He added, softly, “Probably more than I do.”

“Empty nest syndrome?”

“Fuck off!”

Toya laughed. “Still the same old Jun.”

“So who else is getting the honors?” Jun said, brusquely.

“Trying to distract me from the subject?” Toya gave his friend a grin and got a withering glance in return. “Never mind. Okay, we’ve got Hiyori being promoted to Baron of Kiryu, Natsume being named the Viceroy of Charlotte, and My Dragon being named the Official Court Jesters.”

“You can do that?”

“My father just kind of grunted at me when I suggested it. That’s better than I’ve gotten for some of my suggestions.” He put the paper down. “And my offer of a title promotion for you still stands, Jun.”

“Nope, I’m good. Besides, if things continue to go the way they’re going with Hitomi? I’ll be a Ducat sometime next year.”

Toya shook his head. “We’ve come so far from our school days, haven’t we? You with your guitars, and with Hitomi about to pop the . . .” He suddenly caught himself. “Whoops. Never mind.”

“Never mind . . . what?”

“Info slip. Anyway, you and your successful guitar business, me with the surfboard thing and getting married, Jui a hotshot lawyer, and your little brother . . .”

“My little brother becoming a man,” Jun said. “In every sense of the word. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

“Amazing to think about what the future is going to hold, isn’t it?” Toya said.

It is, Jun thought. And I’m hoping it holds happiness for my brother. Jui may be my best buddy, but if he breaks Sora’s heart? I’ll beat him senseless.

Part of him knew, though, that wasn’t going to happen. Sora was well on his way to being as happy as Jun and Hitomi were.

“I’ll tell you what the immediate future holds,” Jun said. “Dinner. Send that paper off to your father and come with me. Hitomi and Subaru are probably pacing grooves in the floor waiting for us.”

“Okay, okay,” Toya laughed.

The two of them left the office together, turning out the light as they went. Tonight, nobody was going to be a workaholic.