So, despite all this time, I still have issues with this chapter... but the delay is rather ridiculous. So, here we go. Apologies if a line or two is a little too cheesy...

After all this time, I ended up with an entirely new idea that I wanted to incorporate about a certain character's past. Basically: there will be a lot of flashbacks and OCs in a future chapter, and some new world building details, but I'm really looking forward to writing it, so hopefully it will work out okay.

Anyway, this chapter has some light smut in it. It's not exactly my strong point writing wise, but hopefully I did alright. Also, rules of safe sex are eschewed, but this is fanfic, and taking place in the sort of middle ages, so I think it's not really a problem.

I'll try to reply to reviews sometime this week. I can't say when the next chapter will be up, but I can say I have pieces of it written already. Thank you for your patience with me. I know what's it like to have a long wait for fic; I really am trying to put this together with some speed.

Enjoy. All reviews welcome, as always.

Chapter 8: Gallop

"There's no game, Akihiko, only me foiling your attempts to get away from me," his mother said, a cruel and yet genuine smile on her face. "Like I always have. You were supposed to be my source of happiness, my son, rather than my source of despair."

"Is your family always this dramatic?" Misaki mumbled from where he was watching the events unfold next to Akihiko.

"More or less." He sighed, running a hand through his hair, before meeting his brother's eyes. "Haruhiko – the throne's yours. I formally renounce any claim I have to the throne, as long as the guards don't touch Misaki. Or me."

"That's ridiculous," his mother said, rolling her eyes. "Guards! Take this boy to the dungeon, and my son to his quarters."

This was it. The moment of truth. The guards slowly started to walk towards Akihiko and Misaki, and Akihiko took their reluctance as a good sign. He looked back at his elder sibling, and for once, let his emotions show on his face, silently pleading with his brother to do what was right. His heart thumped painfully when Haruhiko promptly dropped his gaze.

But then Haruhiko lifted his head. "Guards, halt," he said, his clear voice ringing throughout the stables, and without hesitation they stopped. Haruhiko meet Akihiko's gaze again. "Prince Akihiko, I accept your relinquishment of the throne, and therefore, as son of King Fuyukiko the First, claim the throne as my own."

"No!" Akihiko's mother shouted at Haruhiko. "You can't do that! As Queen, I refuse to accept my only biological son's relinquishment! Guards, take my son and this stableboy prisoner, by order of the Queen!"

The guards looked at each other anxiously. Akihiko's father sighed and stepped forward, his hand massaging his temple. "Kimi-chan," he said, "it's time to give up the ghost."

Kimiko whirled around and pointed at her husband as she shook. "You!" she hissed, her voice lined with venom. "How dare you call me that name! You know only — "

She didn't finish the sentence. Instead, her face lost its fierceness and her voice started to quake. Akihiko had never seen his mother like this.

"I know," his father said. "But do you think that person would approve of what you're doing?"

The ferocity crept back into his mother's face. "What does it matter? They're dead now."

His father sighed, giving his wife a look of — pity…? "You shouldn't let history repeat itself, Kimiko."

Kimiko's face twisted even further into something almost inhuman. "How dare you even suggest that! I'm not —"

"Not one hundred percent, no, but in spirit…" his father trailed off, looking at Kimiko expectantly.

For a moment, she looked absolutely crestfallen. Then she regained her composure. "No! He —" she pointed at Akihiko, even though she continued to gaze fiercely at his father, "is all I have! He's my legacy! My duty has always been to produce the kingdom's next heir! And yet, I don't even have that…" She dropped her husband's gaze, murmuring, so quietly Akihiko could barely hear it, "she would have it instead…"

His father just sighed again. "Please, you think I want him to leave? But look at the facts, Kimi-chan: twenty-eight years under our control, and he still chose a barely legal stable boy to run off with. He doesn't belong on the throne, and you know it." He paused for a moment, and then added, "and, as I no longer recognize him as my heir from now on, Haruhiko is now the only recognized heir to the throne."

"No! I have never accepted Haruhiko as a potential heir! And my word is greater than yours," she faltered, "the blood that runs in my veins –- "

"You're wrong, mother," Akihiko said, speaking up finally. "Do you remember when you had me study law so I could understand the court system? In the courts, royal blood is not formally recognized, as your dear father established some time before I was even born. And when there's a discrepancy between both rulers as to a decision, the deciding factor is the court system. And, considering I just relinquished the throne..."

"Well, that settles it then," his father said, before his mother could get a word in edgewise. "We can settle this whole squabble tomorrow in court."

His mother glared. "Fine! But know this: just because royal blood isn't formally recognized, it doesn't mean the judge won't consider it!"

His father frowned, eyebrow cocked, and looked about to say something, but a high-pitched whinny sounded throughout the stables, drowning out whatever he wanted to say. Walking from her pen, Suzuki was making her way to the front, and Misaki was on her back, seated in Akihiko's saddle that was actually too big for him. "Usagi-san!" He called out, and offered his hand to Akihiko. "Come on, I know an alternate exit on the other side." Akihiko forgo grasping Misaki's hand, not wanting to accidentally knock him off, and instead hooked his ridiculously fancy boot into the stirrup and pulled himself up onto the saddle, lifting Misaki so he was sitting on his lap. It was more than a little strange, especially since Misaki was squirming in an attempt to get in a more comfortable position, but somehow, it worked.

"Horse thief!" his mother shouted. "You're not absolved of this crime!"

"Actually, I'm perfectly fine with Misaki taking my horse," Akihiko said as Misaki used the reins to turn around. "If you don't order the guards to pursue me, I have no problem coming back tomorrow to hash this all out in court. But if you don't... well, your guards will be on a horse chase in a city. Sounds fun, doesn't it?"

The guards just took one look at the Queen and collectively started to leave. "You can't leave yet! Come back here! I'll torture all you traders!"

"Actually, Kimiko, it's time for changing of the guard," Fuyuhiko said. "They're perfectly able to leave. Although, if I remember correctly, oddly enough, there's only one assigned guard tonight for the rest of the night. Probably because... oh, because you decided to use nearly the entire guard to guard the ball. I forgot."

"Later, mother," said Akihiko. "If you want to save any dignity, I recommend you don't try to follow."

"So, is your mother staying back at the castle?" Misaki said.

Akihiko relaxed into the saddle. "She wouldn't bother. I said I'm going back tomorrow, and she hates being in the city almost more than she hates me. She's probably going to go through her contacts and try to figure out the best way to bribe the judge."

Misaki just stared at him. "But — then, we —"

"Don't worry about it," Akihiko said. "My father will be sure to bribe the judge, too. It will certainly all work out in our favor."

"Your family is out of their minds," Misaki mumbled. "Fucking royalty."

"Tell me about it," Akihiko mused. Misaki's face grew a sudden blush, and Akihiko decided now would be a very good time to find out just how far it went.

The Takahashi house was filled with shadows when Akihiko and Misaki reached it. What little light they had was from the moonlight shining in through the windows.

Still, Misaki seemed to have no difficulty guiding Akihiko to a small room with only one window, a small lacquered chest, a side table, and a bed. Even in the low light, Akihiko could clearly see Misaki blush.

"Is there a lamp or something in that chest?" Akihiko asked.

Misaki frowned. "Why?"

"I want to be able to see you, Misaki."

There was a heavy silence.

"I — we don't…" Misaki sighed. "Alright," he mumbled.

Misaki exited the room and came back quickly, an oil lamp and a small tin of lamp oil in his hands. He set the lamp down on the end table and poured in a small amount of the lamp oil, then struck a match, bringing it to life.

The yellow light the lamp cast lead to more shadows and a very clear vision of Misaki. He was blushing fully, wringing his hands and bouncing on the balls of his feet. His pupils were already dilated, the irises starting to darken.

Misaki may have had the courage to lead Akihiko there, but he certainly didn't have the gumption to initiate. That was fine with Akihiko; he certainly had no problem taking the reigns.

Akihiko could see Misaki's pupils widening further the moment their lips meet, and when their tongues did the same, Misaki began moaning. He held on to Akihiko tightly, his hands digging into the overpriced fabric of his shirt. Akihiko let his hands wander, trying to find the sensitive spots on Misaki's body while his tongue did the same in Misaki's mouth.

Nipples were a highly erogenous spot for Misaki, it turned out, along with multiple spots on his ass, back, and hips. Akihiko's lips caused a lovely response —keening and hands trying to gasp further — when he pressed them against the inlet of Misaki's collarbone, and his tongue found several places, including the ridge of his ears and jawline, were Misaki responded just as well.

Akihiko tried to memorize every point, blowing gently against Misaki's ear as his hands twisted his nipples, causing Misaki to arch his back and cry out beautifully.

Still, there was only so long both of them could last, and Akihiko had no intentions of leaving Misaki with a single piece of clothes on.

Even so, as Akihiko's hands started to pull of Misaki's shirt, Misaki's hands moved to grab his wrists, stopping him.

Akihiko raised an eyebrow. "We're going to need to take your clothes off, Misaki, if you want me to fu-"

"I know!" Misaki shouted, his cheeks a vibrant vermilion. "It's just… can you take off yours first?" He barely managed to say the last lines; they were choked out as his face somehow went redder.

Akihiko raised an eyebrow but started to comply, glad to be finally taking off the ridiculous get up he'd worn at his mother's behest. Now really wasn't the best time to think of his mother, though; he focused on Misaki instead, a smirking forming as he met his lover's lust-heavy gaze.

"Is my Misaki a voyeur? I have some books, you know…"

Somehow, Misaki's blush continued to go deeper. "Shut up! That's not —" He bit his lip. "All those gorgeous princesses got to see you in that outfit!"

Akihiko paused in the act of shrugging off his shirt. "Ooh?" he purred, "you're jealous, then?"

Misaki's eyes widened before he closed them tight and used his arms to block his face. "Stupid Usagi!"

Akihiko needed to take off his suddenly too tight pants and undergarments.

The nights this time of year were thankfully warm. His hands, however, ignored this fact.

"Your hands are cold," Misaki mumbled, jumping slightly as his lover's hands touched his abdomen as he pulled off the teenager's shirt, tweaking a nipple as they went.

"They've always been that way," he replied. He was delighted to discover Misaki's blush went rather far down.

It was after fully undressing Misaki, love marks now dotting the boy's chest, and Misaki's eyes watering but still watching him, chest heaving, that Akihiko saw the definite evidence of Misaki's attraction to him.

"I see you're good mood," he said as the his thumbs brushed over the head; Misaki only gave a delightful shiver in response.

Akhiko was not a virgin. Despite his inability to consummate his love for years, his own physical desires had led him to bed servants and nobles alike, bribing them later into silence. It had always been quick, as it was always only for physical release, but even so Akihiko had learned quite a few things from those experiences, such as exactly how to give an excellent blow job. He was grateful for that knowledge now, as Misaki's mewls and cries hit a new intensity and pitch, hands grasping Akihiko's hair as he worked his tongue in just the right way. Misaki was very much the vocal type, it turned and out, and Akihiko had always been good with languages.

Still, he was slightly surprised when he felt a salty liquid start to pour down his throat, but he had no problems swallowing.

When he'd finished, he lifted himself up, hands on the bed by Misaki's sides. He watched Misaki shudder, his eyes rolled back and still moaning, still riding out his orgasm.

Misaki looked beautiful like that, skin gleaming with sweet, his chest heaving as he experienced such intense pleasure.

The facial expressions Misaki made were amazing. For once, Akihiko was determined to make a sexual partner feel good; Misaki's pleasure only intensified his own. This time was different; Akihiko could the love etched into every one of Misaki's movements, and he tried to give back as much love in his own. The blush powdered across Misaki's face, his eyes scrunched tight and watering from pleasure, body quivering as his moaning filled the room, Misaki was more than just beautiful. He was blossoming beautifully beneath him, living up to his name.

Misaki, Akihiko reflected, was spring, verdant eyes aglow with the life the season breathed into the world, his hair the color of soil of newly thawed earth. He was renewal and pure energy, the world come springing back to life after being frozen for so long.

Yet Akihiko felt he himself had never been correctly named; if anything, he was winter, his hair the color of dirty old snow, his eyes the tint of the season's sunrises. Yet Misaki came in and caused him to thaw, bringing him to life.

Spring was associated with rabbits, and Misaki was the one of the few to use his nickname, and the first to use it without a formal clunky title. It was all so very… poetic.

His prosaic writer's mind was interrupted by his own need. As much as he loved taking his time and watching Misaki enjoy himself, he knew that he couldn't wait much longer; he could already feeling himself leaking. He looked about the room and ended up reaching for some lamp oil, slicking down his fingers and then himself, before lifting up Misaki's legs and slowly entering him with his finger.

Misaki felt fantastic, so tight and hot, and Akihiko couldn't wait to be truly inside him. Still, he took his time, gently scissoring Misaki to prepare him for what was to come. He was pleased to see Misaki, now fully post-orgasm, starting to rise again at this ministrations. Truly, Misaki's age was an asset here.

"Ah!" Misaki cried out suddenly, back arching and eyes going wide, dark, dusky, the green barely visible. "What was that?"

"This?" he said, curling his finger in the same spot he'd just done so, watching with delight as Misaki shuddered and arched his back further. "Ah, just something to make it all feel good."

Misaki didn't say anything in response, just groaned as Akihiko took his finger out and lined himself up.

"This might hurt a bit, but it will also feel good eventually, I promise."

Misaki's cry of pain and his entrance twisted his heart even as the rest of his body was overwhelmed by the warmth Misaki possessed, the heat constricting around him as Misaki adjusted to his girth. Akihiko had to control his urge to just sink into that further.

"Tell me when I can move," he said to Misaki.

He stayed still , waiting patiently; it was long before he heard Misaki's breathing start to slow down, his body start to relax.

"Go ahead," Misaki said.

Akihiko nodded and moved inside his lover, groaned as he continued to take him in. Misaki was so perfect, and he delighted in hearing his sensual cries of pleasure.

He angled himself to hit the spot he'd found before. It wasn't difficult, and Misaki certainly seemed appreciated of his efforts.

He thrust in and out, Misaki grasping, his hands and feet in spasm as Akihiko built up a rhythm.

"Can I come inside you?" he asked, and couldn't help but smirk and Misaki's resulting embarrassment. Still, he acquiesced to Akihiko before his body went rigid and he went over the edge, shivering, gasping, moaning as he did so. The hot clench of muscle sent Akihiko to the height of pleasure as well, vision turning white at his zenith of ecstasy.

This is what sex feels like with someone I love, he thought, and it's a million times better than those before.

After he had fully come down from his orgasmic high, Misaki couldn't help but notice how — well, sticky he was, along with the sheets beneath him.

He'd dealt with this stickiness before, but only in the mornings, after dreams that left him panting and blushing, as opposed to, well, the actual, real live act of what he'd been dreaming of – which, really, was far better.

There was the rise of the slope of the bed as Usagi got out.

Startled, he turned his head and looked at the man, who was standing, his gorgeous body illuminated in the candlelight. It was almost enough for Misaki to want another round.

He unconsciously licked his lips.

"What are you doing, Usagi-san?" he asked.

Usagi paused and turned to look at him. "Cleaning up," he said.

Misaki blushed. "I was planning on doing that," he said. "In another minute."

"It's okay, I've got it," Usagi said, uncertainly casting his eyes about. "I just need to… find the sink…"

Misaki sighed. "I said I've got it," he began, "you have no idea where everything is —"

He almost collapsed to the floor as soon as he got out of bed.

Oww. There was a very unwelcome pain in his backside. Misaki looked up at Usagi and glared.

"Huh," Usagi said, unfazed, "I would have thought all that time horseback riding would have helped in that regard."

"What?" Misaki said.

"Don't worry about it, it's unimportant," he said, shrugging it off. "Anyway, if you tell me where the sheets are kept, I can fix it up myself."

"You sure? Haven't you had servants do that before?" Misaki said, frowning and rubbing his backside.

Usagi waved his hand dismissively. "Please, how hard can it be?"

True, all he had to do was plop some sheets on the bed. "In the wardrobe by the apron and the washbin, in the kitchen area."

Usagi took off and Misaki tried his best to get up despite the throbbing pain. He was still sticky himself, but any personal cleaning supplies were far enough away…

Usagi came back rather quickly, sheets in his arm along with a full basin and a small cloth. He wiped Misaki down, then himself; the smell of sex still permeated the room, but at least they were clean.

"Thank you," Misaki said.

Usagi nodded, taking one of the soft pillows and offering it to Misaki to sit on. Misaki received the cushion with a buzzing feeling of warmth filling his chest. He watched Usagi changing the sheets.

Or trying to.

Somehow, Usagi was screwing this up, too.

In the end, Usagi had one half of the messy sheet still on the bed and part of a clean sheet covering the other half. He scratched his head. "You commoners sure are talented…"

Misaki rolled his eyes. "I'll do it," he mumbled, doing his best to ignore the pain as he completed the job.

Usagi didn't say a thing as they got into bed and under the sheets, both still without clothes. It was only when he was lying comfortably between the sheets, face buried in Misaki's hair, that he spoke.

"Thank you." His voice was a sweet vibration against Misaki's head.

"For what?" Misaki crumpled his nose. "For changing the sheets? Someone had to do it."

"For being you," Usagi replied, "and for having a beautiful heart and soul understanding enough to accept a man like me."

Misaki pretended the tears forming in his eyes were from the irritation caused by some stray hairs of his bangs. "I love you," he said softly, his voice thick and a blush creeping onto his cheeks.

There was a slight bit of movement as Usagi met Misaki's gaze. His eyes held a beautiful heliotropic fire, and he was smiling. He had a magnificent smile. Misaki hoped to see it a million times more.

"And I love you," he replied. There was a poignant silence. "Sleep well, my Misaki."

"Same to you." Misaki paused before forcing himself to choke out, "my rabbit."

Usagi only continued to smile.

Misaki held Usagi as tight as he could and closed his eyes, ready to face the uncertain dawn.

The sheets were a rough cotton, far more scratchy than the silk he was used to. The pillow beneath his head wasn't filled with goose feathers, and the mattress beneath him wasn't, either. There was a gentle warmth radiating from beside him, and the soft sound of breathing. For a moment, Akihiko almost couldn't breathe himself; last night had not been the dream of a fervent and lovesick imagination. When he opened his eyes, he was not greeted by the cold masonry of the castle, but the warm wood of the bedroom of a commoner. A very certain commoner — Takahashi Misaki, his beloved.

He wanted to stay in that moment forever, Misaki beside him and far from the cage of stone he'd grown up in. But, alas, he could not; his mother would track him down if he didn't return to the castle for arguing in court.

There was a part of him that was afraid that his mother would win out in the end. He kept telling himself the possibility of that happening was slim, but the fear that loomed within him like a deep abyss wouldn't go away.

He felt Misaki shift beside him and did his best to snap out of his gloom. It wouldn't do him any good to worry.

He gently lifted himself from the bed, careful not to wake his bedmate. He stood up, about to stretch, and gazed at the bed. He stopped mid-stretch as he was almost overwhelmed with awe.

Misaki, bathed in the early morning light, was asleep, sheets twisted around his body. Skin peeked out where the sheets didn't cover, and even though his mouth was open slightly and he was drooling, arms splayed above the bed haphazardly, it was still one of the most beautiful sights Akihiko had ever seen, a picturesque tableau he almost could not look away from.

But he had to. He tore his eyes away and stretched out his sore muscles; he hoped he hadn't hurt Misaki too much last night. He made his way across the creaky floorboards slowly.

He didn't bother to pick up his clothes. They had to be washed, along with him; he'd cleaned himself and Misaki up with a basin last night, but he knew he needed a proper bath. Takahiro had extra clothes he could borrow. He'd feel bad about it, except Takahiro had given him permission when he was younger and they'd talked of a sleepover that never happened. Besides, he could always pay Takahiro back tenfold.

That thought made him pause in his tracks. Could he? Would he be able to, after — how was he going to live? He didn't exactly have skills —

It didn't matter. All that mattered was Misaki. They'd make it out somehow; he knew they would.

Satisfied, Akihiko made his way into Takahiro's bedroom. It struck him as strange how not long ago he'd have given anything to be in here, Takahiro by his side as they made their way to the bed, but now that fantasy didn't appeal to him at all. All he wanted to do was to get back to Misaki.

Takahiro's room was the same size as Misaki's. The largest room they used as some sort of study, since neither of them could feel good about taking up a bedroom larger in size than the other's. They couldn't be more different from everything and everyone he'd ever known.

Takahiro kept his clothes stored in a chest by his bed. There wasn't a key; they had no need for one. As Akihiko started to pull out an outfit to wear for the day, a small box came tumbling out of the chest.

The heavy box was gilded and ornate, though covered with a thin layer of dust; Akihiko gently blew against the box, causing the dust to swirl off the box and hang in the air before dissipating completely. For some reason, Akihiko could swear he'd seen a box like this before, though exactly where he could not recall.

The lid of the box was what really caught Akihiko's attention. Engraved with colored metals was a design he'd recognize anywhere; the purple shield with black furs, the golden crown resting atop it, the banner below and ivy curling along the sides. Except on the shield itself...

On the upper left was the bear grasping salmon representing the royal house of Usami. Akihiko had seen it enough times to know it at a moment's glance. As for the rest of the symbols...

The heraldry of the house of Usami was slightly odd in that the other three symbols on the shield were somewhat unique to the individual. Two of the symbols, to the upper right and bottom left, represented the father and mother, respectively. On Akihiko's own, for example, rested his father's bull's head and his mother's chimera. His brother's was similar, only with the chimera being a yellow rose instead — a sign of infidelity and envy; Akihiko's mother had picked out that one herself. The final symbol, in the lower right hand corner, was that of the individual. Akihiko had lazily chosen a rabbit on his sixteenth birthday, when the crest was designed as was custom; Haruhiko had drawn a castle for his own.

But this crest...

He'd seen the mother and father's symbols – an azalea and a lion's head – before, on his own mother's crest. But in the bottom right corner was a white rose, not the chimera of his mother's design. He'd never seen the white rose before, not on any family shield...

He knew he shouldn't open the box. It wasn't his. But… what if it turned out he and Misaki were related? Akihiko shuddered. No, that didn't matter, but…

He looked over his shoulder. The house was quiet. It wouldn't hurt anyone if he looked inside. Besides, it clearly belonged to the royal family…

Shrugging away feelings of guilt that were starting to come up in his gut, and forcefully telling himself he was not like his mother, his mother would demand the owner open it in front of her, that was very different from what he was about to do — he attempted to open the lid.

It stayed shut. The damn thing was locked.

Akihiko inspected the box. There was no visible keyhole or button to press. He considered it was a sign to let the box go, but then he looked at the Usami coat of arms again.

There — the motto. That had never changed from the time the coat was first formed. But this one was off; a princess must hide — that wasn't it. It was something else, something even more ridiculous…

That was it. Akihiko touched the words of the motto and found he could spin them, like the dials of a combination lock, each one revealing different words as he scrolled them by. He fiddled with the box until he got the correct motto to show — the king shall provide.

There was a click. Carefully, Akihiko opened the lid. The box was lined in plush purple; on the bottom cushion sat a crumbling marigold and a golden locket in the shape of a heart. Inside the locket was very fine dark hair, like that of a baby's. Strange.

He emptied the box and felt along the sides. There, in the plush cushion, was a false bottom.

He removed the false bottom and carefully picked up what he discovered inside. As he read, Akihiko realized there was truly no reason to fear his mother after all.