Chapter Six: Epiphany

The weather was chilling for the year and the grounds of Spade Preparatory Academy were suddenly littered with several feet of snow. Unfortunately for Nathaniel, this meant the post-lunch break was now held in the school's Common Area, a large hall packed with comfortable armchairs, small tables, and roaring hot fireplaces.

The Orington son didn't much appreciate being sequestered with his peers. They were loud, often raucous, and peered over at him while they talked. Nathaniel's fingers were itching to draw, but he did not much care for sketching while others were around. Half the reason they insisted on gossiping about him was because of his closeness with Hare, but for some reason that soft white rabbit was all his hands ever wanted to draw anymore. If they saw his art, he knew it would all be over. He would be mocked openly and relentlessly instead of occasionally behind hand-shrouded mouths.

But what did he care, really? He considered this as he withdrew his sketchbook from his bag. He was one of the richest and most powerful people in Wonderland. Did it matter to anyone what the Academy thought of him? Not in the slightest.

Seated in a plush armchair at the very end of the long Common Area, Nathaniel flipped to a pristine white page and touched his pen to the paper. Then, his hands took over. They were filling in swatches of black ink faster than he could think through what he was drawing, outlining not just one figure, but two. The details in their clothing, their expressions, their poses were filled in before Nathaniel could stop himself. When the piece was finished, his pen clattered to the stone floor, drawing looks from several surrounding students as he gazed upon the artwork that had flowed from his fingers without his consent. An embarrassed flush came to his face and he slammed the book shut, hoping against hope that no one had seen the drawing. The rush of panic that sparked through him made the Orington son realize that his peers did matter. If they had seen, he would have been absolutely done for.

Luckily, no one seemed to have paid him enough attention to notice. They were busy sipping tea and driveling on about their lives in their affected, obnoxious accents.

With shaking fingers, Nathaniel cracked open his sketchbook and peered inside. His heart was pounding against his ribs as his eyes flickered over the delicate strokes of ink on paper. There, in his book, drawn in extravagant detail by his very own hand, were he and Hare. But this was not just any portrait of manservant and master; this was a travesty. Hare's Orington Manor work shirt was halfway unbuttoned, revealing a strip of silky white fur down the middle of his chest. Nathaniel's hat was pulled low, hiding his eyes as he leaned in toward Hare. They were in each other's arms, Hare clinging tightly to Nathaniel's crisp dress shirt, Nathaniel's fingers cupping the back of Hare's head and pulling him inward. It was the moment just before a heated kiss.

The Orington son closed the book and held it on his lap as he gazed into the fire, brain whirling and fingers trembling. He had always been odd. He had always disregarded the apparently arbitrary social rules of Wonderland. But this? This crossed into a deep and shameful perversion. This artwork alone could land him years in prison. Acting on it could land him a death sentence.

But…it was Hare. Deep inside him, it felt like his brain was finally catching on to what his heart had known for months. Everything suddenly made sense. He had rescued Hare from a fate worse than death; in a way, Hare had saved him too. Their comfortable daily routine had cemented their friendship. As they spent so much time together every day, they had gotten to know each other deeply and intimately. In fact, each had begun to feel more comfortable with the other than alone. They lived together, played together, explored and learned together. All along, their friendship had been deepening and deepening. And now, very suddenly and forcefully, Nathaniel realized that he was in love with Hare.

He sat for a moment, eyes stony and staring straight ahead. This was surely a life-changing revelation, and his psyche was fluttering around it delicately like a ruby-throated hummingbird searching for a flower's sweet nectar. He wanted to drink it in, to be filled with love's delicious sustenance. But wouldn't that be dangerous for both he and Hare?

Only the bell could rouse him from his thoughts with its sharp clangor. Nathaniel stood, feeling his weight settle heavily onto his feet as he trudged toward his next class.

oooooooooo

Nathaniel kept the book on his lap for the rest of the day, as if he could feel with his fingertips the electric current of emotion it had caused within him. The rest of the day took an eternity to pass. Minutes felt like hours, for he was distracted by thoughts of Hare. How was he supposed to share this revelation with him? What if Hare's love for him went no farther than the typical devotion between manservant and master? What if he didn't feel the same deep yearning in his heart that Nathaniel was currently feeling?

This question plagued him for the rest of the day, setting a sick knot in his stomach.

And then, as he was walking to his coach down the front steps after school, the unthinkable happened. Two rowdy first years were squabbling just ahead of him on the stairs. Nathaniel rolled his eyes as he walked past, in no mood to hear the bickering going on between them. He just wanted to get home, see Hare, and determine whether or not his anxiety had any foundation. But just as he passed, one of the obnoxious children swung his arm out in some grand gesture to the other, and his knuckles collided squarely with the sketchbook tucked protectively under Nathaniel's arm. The thwack was so sudden and unexpected that the leather bound volume went flying, cartwheeling down the steps before landing at the bottom, its pages fluttering in the chill winter breeze.

Nathaniel felt in that instant that he must have done something evil in a past life, for surely the world was correcting his previous wrongdoings by dealing him the worst luck it possibly could have dealt. First, the wind's sudden halt stilled the pages of the sketchbook, which settled on the drawing Nathaniel had done that day in the Common Area. Second, a student reached to retrieve the book from the ground. However, this was no helpful student—this was Cooper White, the biggest and most bigoted seventh year in school. Nathaniel stood, eyes locked on the monstrous boy as he gazed at the artwork. His face contorted in what could only be a disastrous mix of disgust and rage. Then, suddenly, his head snapped up and caught Nathaniel in a solid, stone cold stare. Something in Nathaniel's head told him to run; and so he did, feet flying fast back up the steps, down the crowded hall, and into the wintery courtyard. There was only one place he could think to hide, and he dashed down the forbidden path to the secret clearing where he had kissed Samuel months ago.

Heart thumping brutally hard in his chest, Nathaniel thought for a moment that he had evaded the mountain of a bully. Unfortunately, Cooper White had followed the footprints left in the snow. He burst through the foliage just seconds later.

They stared at one another for a moment. Nathaniel could see the rage in the boy's bright blue eyes, could see the steamy clouds of angry breath, could see the derisive sneer on his face. Without a word, Cooper tossed the book into the snow, stepped forward, and delivered a thunderous, lightning-fast punch to Nathaniel's face.

oooooooooo

Hare was frosting his newest creation—a chocolate-strawberry cupcake with a generous filling of cold chocolate mousse—when he heard the Orington Manor's large front door click open, creak slightly, and fall shut just as it did every afternoon at three twenty-three exactly. Nathaniel was home!

He made the frosting a thick, smooth swirl atop the decadent cupcake and placed the treat on a little plate of gold. Quickly, he scurried to the door of the kitchen, nearly tripping in his excitement as he waited for Nathaniel to burst through and toss his books aside. But that day, Nathaniel didn't appear as he always did when he counted to ten. Or twenty. Or thirty. By the time he got to sixty, he was rendered incredibly worried by the fervent whispers of Housepets in the hallway.

A slim golden mouse poked her head through the kitchen door, carrying a sad, concerned look in her eyes.

"Hare, dear," she said in a soft squeak. "The young Master Orington has stormed up to his room. We've never seen him so angry! It's frightening. I do hope he's all right…"

The white rabbit barely let the young mouse finish before he tossed the plate on the counter, not caring one ounce about what happened to the cupcake. He ran up the spiral stairs to his best friend's chambers, darting inside the small anteroom and knocking insistently on the door.

"Nathaniel?" he asked gently, extending both his ears along the cool wood of the door. "Nathaniel, can I come in? Are you all right?"

"Go away!" Nathaniel shouted, his voice obviously hot with tears and anger.

Hare was lost for a moment in indecision. He tried the handle, but the door was locked. Knowing that Nathaniel never locked his door caused even more fear in Hare's fast-thumping rabbit heart. He frowned deeply, withdrawing a small ring of keys he possessed for emergencies. This was certainly an emergency, wasn't it? He pressed the key into the lock and turned the handle.

Nathaniel sat on one of the plush couches, head buried in his hands. He looked up as the door swung open, revealing a badly bruised left eye, a bleeding lip, and a nose that looked swollen and tender. Nathaniel's hazel eyes appeared mossy green with the wetness of his tears. His hands were clenched in fists, his face openly displaying his rage and hurt and sadness and…was that a hint of fear and shame?

Hare shut the door firmly behind him, looking on in horror for a moment before hopping softly over, perching on the table near the couch, and holding both Nathaniel's hands. The battered boy choked back sobs, clinging to Hare's soft white paws.

"What happened?" breathed Hare almost silently.

"I hate school," exclaimed Nathaniel, breaking Hare's grip and standing swiftly, pacing up and down the aisle of carpet between the couch and the coffee table, clearly agitated. "Each student runs around thinking he's some sort of vengeful god, some entitled warrior whose job is to enforce all the social customs of our time. They're pathetic!"

He was shouting, his tightly clenched fingers digging into the fabric of the expensive sofa as he paused behind it. Hare looked on for a moment in worry, then rose and crossed to the table in the corner of the room, soaking a thick, soft towel in a porcelain bowl of warm water. He rang it out carefully as Nathaniel continued.

"'Look, I've got this, I've got that. This that and the other thing!'" said Nathaniel, mocking their haughty accents and stifling more sobs as hot tears scorched a trail down his cheeks. "In their eyes, anyone who is different is absolute shite. Sod it, Hare! They find one little piece of paper and suddenly I'm enemy number one!"

"Please sit, Nathaniel…" he urged gently, taking hold of his master's bony wrist and guiding the boy to the couch. Something in Hare's tone, some fear or deep concern, made Nathaniel sit and take a deep breath. He wiped angrily at his tears, trying to breathe through the pain of his wounds.

Hare felt helpless, but he sat next to Nathaniel and cupped his injured jaw gently in his paw, shaking with nervousness as he touched the cool cloth to the swollen, bruised eye. The Orington boy complied willingly, allowing the rabbit to tend to him, to clean his wounds. After all, Hare was the only one who could ever calm him down from that level of rage and pain.

"What paper did they find? Why did they do this to you?" Hare asked, dabbing lightly at the still-bleeding lip. He found his voice shaky and he swallowed, hoping to steady it.

Nathaniel winced, but leaned into the warmness of Hare's paws.

"I can't tell you," he whispered, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

"You can tell me anything," said Hare as he hesitantly wrapped an arm around the ailing boy. Nathaniel said nothing for a moment. He leaned in close, comforted by the soft white fur against his good cheek. He seemed to waiver for a moment, stuck between speaking and remaining silent.

"I…Well, I…They got a hold of my sketchbook," he finally managed.

"Is your art not up to their standards?" asked Hare, trying to lighten the mood a bit. This was the wrong choice, though, for Nathaniel slumped again and pulled away, putting his face back in his hands.

The book in question was lying just feet away, badly tattered on the floor. Hare crept up to it, lifting it in his arms and bringing it over.

"Can I look?" he asked softly, sitting next to Nathaniel and resting his head lightly on his bony shoulder.

Nathaniel huffed, standing suddenly and leaving Hare wobbling unsteadily on the couch.

"Why not?" he asked sarcastically. "You'll beat me too, when you see it."

"I will not!" said Hare sternly, flipping to the end of the book and riffling through the slightly damp pages until artwork began to appear.

Nathaniel winced, but didn't stop the Serviteur. Part of him, deep down, wanted Hare to see. At least then his disgusting secret would be out in the open. Hare would leave, and he would be alone in the world once again, and that would be that.

The book fell open to a series of small sketches Nathaniel had drawn just days ago. On the page, by Nathaniel's talented hand, was a collage of images: a laughing Hare, a blushing Hare, a cooking Hare, a comically angry Hare in cartoon style, and he and Nathaniel drinking tea. All of them were detailed and pretty, and Hare smiled at the time and effort his master had devoted to each one. He smiled as he cast his eyes across the page, running his fingers softly over the images, feeling deeply important in that special way that Nathaniel made him feel—valued, cared for, respected. He wanted to see more!

"Don't!" urged Nathaniel as Hare's fingers fumbled with the corner of the page. However, he turned it anyway. Glancing at the date, he realized with a shock that this one had been drawn that very day.

Nathaniel just looked down, biting his lip, his heart pounding so hard he could barely hear the birds chirping happily outside the window, loud as they were. Hare's eyes lingered for a moment and he didn't speak, his gaze following the strokes of ink on paper, which were all made with softness and care. The smile faded slowly from his face to an expression more like confusion and shock, his lips parted and his eyebrows both raising and coming together slightly. He turned his head toward Nathaniel, but his eyes stayed glued to the image for a few moments more before they darted nervously to those hazel orbs, still bright green from crying.

"N-Nathaniel…wh-what is this?" he stammered quietly, his trembling fingers absentmindedly stroking the page.

Nathaniel started pacing again, clearly nervous. He appeared almost as jittery as Hare.

"Cooper was outraged. He called me a bloody low life perverted sick son of a bitch," spat Nathaniel. "But he doesn't get it! You're not just a Serviteur. You're a friend and he…I…you…UGH."

Nathaniel was clearly tripping over his words, stuttering badly. Hare had never seen the typically loquacious boy so tongue-tied. He stopped suddenly, standing in front of the seated Serviteur. With a deep sigh, he collapsed next to his friend and leaned back, sinking slightly into the plush cushions.

Hare sat still as stone for a moment considering the irate, battered boy beside him. They were silent, each gazing into space as the air turned awkward. Hare was the first to recover from the overwhelming discomfort and tension between them. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and rested his head against Nathaniel's lean bicep. More than anything, he wanted to comfort his master, to calm his nerves, to reassure him. But how? A thought flashed across his mind, searing as a lightning strike, and set him to trembling. Could he do what he saw in the picture? Could he kiss Nathaniel? Everything in his heart told him it was right. And he couldn't deny that he'd thought of it too, increasingly often as of late, when he was alone late at night.

Nathaniel lowered his eyes, watching as the Serviteur leaned against him and absentmindedly began smoothing one of the creases in his already blood-ruined button up. Hare could feel Nathaniel's gaze. He was so close to his best friend that when he looked up, he could count the Orington boy's long eyelashes one by one. His mind tried to do it for a moment until he realized that the gap between them was closing and he could feel Nathaniel's breath on the corner of his mouth. An involuntary whimper issued from his lips, whisper soft. Those downy cotton-gloved hands came to the back of his head, just as pictured, and drew him in. They were mere centimeters away now, noses bumping lightly together. And then, as Hare rested his hands on Nathaniel's chest, their lips met.

The kiss was soft, nervous and hesitant…and yet, it was stern; it was playful. Hare gripped at Nathaniel's shirt, tasting a hint of coppery blood from his split lip. One of Nathaniel's gloved hands covered Hare's on his chest, gripping it gently. And Hare didn't realize until right then how long he'd been waiting for that moment, and how much they had been flirting, in broad daylight, in front of the Orington parents and everything! He blushed then, his heart racing in his chest. After a few moments Nathaniel pulled back, a bit bashful, astounded by the depth of emotion surging through him. It was as if a tsunami had been towering high above him, roaring with the threat of crashing down upon him. Now it had finally clobbered him, drowning him in an incredulous euphoria that left his skin tingling and his head spinning.

"I…" Nathaniel swallowed, feeling a sudden need to apologize. But as he thought more about it, he decided the damage was done. If there was any time to tell Hare exactly how he felt, wasn't it now? He tried to talk himself out of it for a moment, but finally sighed in defeat and muttered, "I just try to get through the day, ignoring all the ridiculous nonsense of my school and my family just to come home to you; to spend time with you, to see your smile, the wiggle of your nose, the spring of your step. I can taste love in the treats and tea you make, and I…I find myself wishing you could show that love to me." Nathaniel smiled to himself, looking at the floor, abashed. His smile then dropped and his eyes rose to meet Hare's. "Do you ever…think you could? A rich asshole like me? A human man? Do you think you could ever love me?"

The rabbit paused for a moment, taking Nathaniel's hand in his paw and admiring the sight of the crisp white glove against his own white fur.

"Do you ever think I haven't?" Hare asked in an incredulous breath, bashful himself as he slid his paw up the soft human arm in a sort of awkward caress. He pushed Nathaniel's sleeve with it, baring his skin to the cool air, his soft fingers running over the pale flesh. "Until now, those cakes have been the only way I could ever show my love to you. You've shown me more kindness than a human has ever shown any Pet. It's because you don't look at me that way, like some lowly animal. You are the only person in the world who doesn't look down on me. You're not an asshole," he whispered, looking up with his deep pink eyes, his nerves overtaking him now. "I've thought of crawling into bed with you at night a thousand times, drifting to sleep as you hug me. I never thought you'd...f-feel the same. I...I..." but he bit his lip and looked down, shaking his head.

All the energy left Nathaniel. He had been holding in so much tension, so many frantic, fearsome thoughts, dreading Hare's reaction and the damage to their friendship. Now that all that was over, however, he grew weak, drained of all the liveliness his worry had given him. Nathaniel stayed quiet, lying back on the couch. He silently drew his Hare into his arms, lips tingling from the kiss they had shared. Honestly, it was nothing like kissing Samuel. He had thought those kisses powerful, but they didn't make his chest ache with the unique pain that could only be love. They didn't make his legs weak, his mind race; not like this. He gave the pet a squeeze and pressed a kiss to the top of his head, nestling his nose into the silky fur before remembering he was injured, then wincing in pain.

Hare blushed deeply, pressing himself close to Nathaniel's side and resting his head on his shoulder, closing his eyes as the afternoon light filtered in through the golden curtains. His paws softly stroked down Nathaniel's sides in a calming massage. He found it much easier to relax when Nathaniel was relaxing as well. He felt giddy and lovestruck all at once, lips still tingling from his first ever kiss. This was his master, his human. Most Pets felt chained to theirs for life and dreaded waking each day, and he was fortunate enough to feel the complete opposite.

"I want to do to that boy what he did to you. He's got no right…" grumbled Hare angrily.

"I'm not weak," Nathaniel muttered firmly, tensing a bit. The last thing he ever wanted was for Hare to think of him as fragile. "He was just big, and it was sudden. Don't you dare get near him."

Nathaniel scowled gently at the thought of Hare fighting to defend him. He looked down at the small rabbit and tugged him gently and protectively closer. Hare tremored at the feel of Nathaniel holding him so possessively, so firmly, and he pressed himself a little closer as well, hiding in the safety of the Orington son's arms.

"You're not weak, Nathaniel. You're…" He breathed, trying to come up with some word other than 'beautiful' or 'wonderful.' Hare shook his head, looking up into those scowling hazel eyes, touching his soft nose to Nathaniel's uninjured cheek as he mumbled. "If it had been a fair fight, I know who would have won. You're smarter, guaranteed. You're a quicker thinker and a better person. I don't think you're weak. Not one bit."

Nathaniel sighed in relaxation, then winced. Now that he was calmer, he felt the throb of pain in his eye and nose, previously masked by fear, then anger, then love. Each heartbeat sent a pulse of agony through his handsome features.

"Hare, I need to rest. Could you stay with me? If anyone comes in, pretend to be tending to me."

It was Hare's turn to move first this time, gently touching his lips to Nathaniel's. They paused there for a moment, holding each other comfortingly, lips touching and chests aching with emotion. When they parted, Hare tenderly helped his master to bed and slipped the thick, silky blankets around both of them. He nestled back into the boy's welcoming, tender arms, his heart and his body warmed with love.

"I care very deeply about you, Hare," Nathaniel whispered. "Nothing could change that."

"I care about you too, Nathaniel, more than anything," Hare whispered into the curve of his master's neck.

And almost at once, the Orington son was drifting to sleep.

oooooooooo

Nathaniel had hidden from his parents for hours, locking himself in his room and refusing to attend dinner. But of course his stomach was weaker than his will. Once the sky had darkened and the moon had risen high among the evening stars, he could no longer take the furious gnawing of hunger. Hare was deeply asleep, buried in the plush blankets of the large bed. Feeling too guilty to wake him, Nathaniel decided to sneak down to the kitchen alone to find something to quell the grumbling in his stomach.

It was on his way back that he rounded a corner and nearly collided face-first into his brother's broad chest. He suddenly remembered that Elizabeth had given birth several weeks ago and that she and William had come to the manor to introduce their new daughter.

"I see now why you weren't at dinner earlier," said William, reaching up to light one of the hallway wall sconces. He winced and leaned forward, concern in his eyes as he examined his brother's wounds. "What happened?"

Nathaniel sat, perching anxiously on one of the plush hallway benches.

"Connor White happened," he responded, readjusting his white gloves and looking down at his slipper-clad feet.

William snorted.

"When I was in school, he was just a small, unimpressive first year."

"So was I," said Nathaniel. "Times have changed."

"So why'd he do that to you, then?" asked William, mirroring his brother's way of sitting.

"It's nothing," Nathaniel said firmly, his tongue absentmindedly tracing the split in his lip. "No one at school likes me much."

Above all, he could not tell his brother about the altercation. He could not look to one of the only family members he respected and tell him the truth about what he was.

"Was it about Hare?" William sounded hesitant, as if he knew better than to be asking.

Nathaniel didn't even need to say anything; the look in his eyes was enough. He sat there silently, an expression of surprise clear as day on his face. Behind that, there was shame and panic.

"Because Nathaniel, you can tell me anything, you know. I'm not Father. I can think for myself…"

"I can't," he said sharply, standing. "You wouldn't understand. And you're not even here. How do you think you know anything?"

William saw the outburst for what it was: fear.

"I've been visiting Grandmother," explained William. "She's lonely at her cottage in the country. Elizabeth and I bring her meals and keep her company. She was there when Alexa was born; she helped Liza through it all. We were talking over tea one afternoon and she mentioned the closeness that you share with Hare." William relaxed into the bench, patting the seat next to him in invitation to his brother. "I remember the conversation you and I had the night of the party, and I'm capable of putting two and two together."

Nathaniel could feel the blush coming to his cheeks. He sat down and slumped for a moment, astonished by how obvious all this was to others when it had taken him so long to figure it out.

"I won't tell anyone, certainly not Father or the Heart Guard. Just…talk to me," urged William. "It'll help. You can trust me."

Finally, he shrugged and mumbled, "We kissed today."

And maybe it was how ashamed and defeated he sounded, but William wrapped an arm around his brother and gave him a reassuring squeeze.

"And…?"

Nathaniel sighed heavily, absentmindedly adjusting his gloves.

"And it was perfect. I've never felt more passionate about anything," and then, as an afterthought, "I hope you don't think poorly of me."

"I assure you, I don't. There are a few things I would like to discuss with you, though, and it's because I care about your wellbeing as well as Hare's. Society has a problem with this kind of love for a lot of reasons. Some of these reasons are born of fear and ignorance, while others are legitimate concerns about potential consequences. You know by now that Serviteurs cannot give legal consent. That being said, humans did genetically manufacture the first Serviteurs to be sexually and emotionally compatible with our species. I don't think anyone takes that into account when discussing the relationships that inevitably grow between humans and Pets. Hare is a reasoning creature. He was designed with a human mind and therefore is capable of processing his surroundings and experiences as any of us would. That being said, I believe he can give meaningful consent even if he cannot give legal consent, and that is why I do not have a problem with what is occurring between the two of you. However, you are in a unique situation in that you have ownership over Hare, and that raises some ethical dilemmas. I know you are good to him; I know you treat him kindly. But do you truly feel that he can be honest with you about his emotions, about whether or not he wants to develop a deeper relationship with you?"

"Absolutely. He has no reason not to be," said Nathaniel, suddenly appreciating that his brother was well-versed in legal and ethical debate. While the conversation made him nervous, it was well organized and easy to follow. "We're always honest with one another, even on the occasions when it is uncomfortable to be."

"Then a more challenging question must follow. Let's say you develop a relationship with Hare. It's passionate, it's communicative, it's very loving. Then one day, you have a fight, or one of you falls out of love, or something else unexpected happens, and you decide that you do not want to be in a relationship any longer. It would be deeply inhumane to keep Hare in your servitude if that were to happen. Are you prepared to risk the solid and dependable Serviteur relationship you have with Hare in return for a potentially larger amount of happiness, knowing that if things end badly you will be morally obligated to free Hare?"

This question gave Nathaniel pause. It reminded him of a situation long ago, when he had been visiting his grandfather at the large Orington warehouse to the west. Running around outside, no older than seven, Nathaniel had come across a set of cement steps leading down to one of the basement levels. There weren't many steps—maybe three or four—but they were flanked on either side by brick ledges. Standing atop one of those pillars of brick and mortar, he could see down to the landing below. The temptation to jump across, from one ledge to the other, was overwhelmingly tempting. And so he did. He made it the first three times, back and forth, laughing at the newfound game. That was, until the fourth jump when he did not quite make it. Instead of landing happily, his thigh slammed into the ledge he was attempting to land on and scraped roughly all the way down the bricks as he fell. And now here he was, standing on a metaphorical ledge, contemplating his urge to leap. What if he made it? What if he didn't? Was the euphoric rush worth the risk of a gravel-filled wound and weeks of limping?

"I'm falling in love with him," he finally said, shrugging his shoulders. "Pretending that I'm not won't change anything. I have to take the risk."

They sat in silence for a moment, both lost in their own thoughts as they contemplated the old portraits hung throughout the corridor. Younger versions of themselves stared back at them from gilded frames.

"I'm proud of you," said William finally, standing. "I know Father gives you a difficult time, but you've become your own person. There is immense value in that. Remember that I'll always be just a letter away, if you ever need to talk."

Nathaniel nodded in thanks as he stood, grateful that his brother was as understanding and open-minded as he was. William clasped him in a tight hug for a moment before they parted ways.

When Nathaniel returned to his room, the sight of the dozing white rabbit immediately warmed his heart. Hare was buried in blankets, limbs twitching as he dreamed. The young Orington son sat on the edge of the bed, gazing down at the peacefully sleeping Serviteur and occasionally tracing his fingers over the edge of a silky ear. That morning, he had not even realized that he wanted to kiss Hare. Now, the word love was echoing through his mind, clear as day. He leaned down, grazing his lips over Hare's soft cheek. The rabbit stirred at the gentle touch. As Hare's magenta eyes blinked open, a smile of pure happiness came to his face.

"Nathaniel," he sighed sleepily, reaching up and locking his arms around the handsome human's neck. "You're back."

"I'm back, Hare," he replied gently, leaning down and touching his nose to the rabbit's. "Go back to sleep."

The half-sleeping hare nestled close, bumping his lips clumsily against the human's. Nathaniel winced, the split in his lip suddenly stabbing him with pain. However, the pain didn't matter to him. A radiant happiness was flowing through his veins. Hare was kissing him. Hare was looking up at him with sleepy magenta eyes. Hare was tucking the covers around them both, pressing them close as they held one another. Though the rabbit dozed off quickly, Nathaniel remained awake, thrilling at the otherworldly feeling of being in love for the very first time in his life.