Everything is dark.
Which makes sense. The sun has been gone for about an hour now, after all. A sprinkle of stars can be seen in the patches of sky not covered by misty clouds. At this time of night, everybody should be tucked away safely in their cozy homes; warm and safe and content.
They should not be wandering around the pitch black forest, lost and alone, but the man has never been good at doing what he's told.
It's much too dark to see anything more than two feet ahead now. The chilling breeze that bites into his skin is almost painful, but there is nothing in sight even remotely resembling shelter besides the towering trees surrounding him. A yelp of pain tears from his throat as his foot is caught, yet again, by another god-forsaken tree root.
Curse this darkness, and his lack of foresight to bring a torch! If he stumbles one more time, he's going to scream. Hell, maybe he'll just do it anyway. There's been a scream building up inside his chest all day, and for the last twenty-five years if he's being honest; now seems like a good time as any to let it out.
"Ow!" He cries as something rough and sturdy blocks his path and his head collides with something that makes pain explode behind his eyes. He's just walked into a tree. "Are you kidding me?!" Well, he got his wish. It wasn't a root this time. A hysterical laugh nearly bursts past his lips. It's late, it's cold, he's exhausted, and Prince Ritsu Onodera would just like to make one thing very clear: he has no idea what the hell he's doing.
'Ex-prince,' Ritsu reminds himself sharply. It sounds strange, even just within his own mind. That change is going to take some getting used to. Oh, well. He can panic and worry about the consequences of his stupidly rash decision to run away later; after he's gotten out of this stupid forest. 'How is one supposed to find their way out of the middle of the woods again?' He can't remember. Damn it all, he really should have paid more attention to his studies. But it's hardly his fault; they were just so boring…
Ritsu's internal monologue is tragically cut short as he stumbles on the ground that has somehow just gone from uneven and soft to smooth and paved. A path? Finally! Now he can get out of here and find a place to sleep for-
"Hey, watch out!"
Ritsu's lungs freeze in surprise at the sudden shout of a deep voice piercing the previously silent night. Instincts, and pure dumb luck, are the only thing that keeps him alive as he leaps away from the path and onto the ground. Pain erupts in his leg, but he only spares it a passing thought. The thundering noise he'd originally imagined to be his empty stomach making its displeasure known now processes as the hooves of powerful stallions. The blast of air that runs through his hair tells him that he hadn't been a moment too soon. The vibrations from the horse's hooves travel into the ground and straight into his chest where his heart is beating wildly. 'Good going, idiot! Only your first night out and you almost get yourself run over!' Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, he wonders what the hell he was thinking leaving the same four, safe walls he's always known.
"Stop the carriage!" A deep, unfamiliar voice commands.
Compliance with the order is signaled by the grating, screeching sound of wheels on pavement.
Ritsu really ought to run. He knows this, but he can't seem to make himself move from where he's glued to the rough forest floor. He presses his hands against the ground when they start to tremble because holy shit, he almost just got run over! His heart rate picks up when what sounds like the door to the carriage swings open.
"Idiot, what do you think you're doing," a gravelly, irritated voice demands.
"What the hell does it look like," a low, but equally agitated voice snaps back in retort.
Strangely, while the first voice fills Ritsu with a burning desire to run, the second voice washes over him with a sense of calm.
A flame flickers into existence. Because clearly, these people are smarter than Ritsu and had thought to brought torches with them since they were traveling under the cover of night. "I'm going to make sure we didn't just kill somebody."
'I'm not dead,' Ritsu silently protests. His breathing falters as confident and steady footsteps slowly approach where he lies.
"Are you alright," the stranger asks, bringing his torch closer to Ritsu.
The abrupt change from dark to light disorients Ritsu, and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the initially searingly bright glow of the fire. After a minute of rapid blinking, the first thing he makes out is a head of hair, dark as a raven's wings. Pale skin, not marked with freckles like Ritsu's own. A strong, angular jaw. And then concerned filled eyes, not un-similar to melted pools of honey, that widen ever so slightly in surprise when they look into Ritsu's.
The torch is too close to Ritsu's face. That's the only possible reason for his cheeks to suddenly feel so warm. Belatedly, Ritsu realizes that he hasn't answered the man's question. "I'm fine," he says, proud when his voice doesn't betray him with hesitation or a stutter. Finally, something has gone in his favor on this god awful day.
The man blinks as if snapping himself out of a daze. "That's good." He smiles.
Ritsu's heart thumps.
"I'm so sorry about that, by the way. My friend who's driving has terrible night vision."
"Hey," the voice that had made Ritsu want to flee protests fiercely. "You're hardly one to talk about something like that. Your eyes are worse than mine!"
Ritsu shudders at his angry tone, but the man in front of him just ignores it. "Anyway, what are you doing out so late?" As he asks his question, he reaches his hand out, silently offering to help Ritsu up. "It's dangerous, as you just found out for yourself." His lips quirk with a teasing smile as if he and Ritsu are sharing a long-running, private joke.
Ritsu's heart jumps again, but this time it's because of the unexpected question, rather than the disarming smile on the man's attractive face. Dammit all, he's a terrible liar! "I, uh, got lost," he explains, and it's only half a lie. He doesn't even have to fake the pathetic embarrassment in his voice."
The man's eyebrow raises as he sweeps his gaze across the expanse of the coal-black forest surrounding them on all sides. "Hell of a place to get lost," he drawls. He motions for Ritsu to take his hand.
Once again, Ritsu's face heats up only because the torch is too close. He pushes himself from where he's lying awkwardly up into what he's sure is a ridiculous looking crouch, and then gets to his feet. He can stand on his own just fine, thank you very much! "I have a terrible sense of direction," he says truthfully, trying in vain to brush the dirt away from his clothes. He'd gotten them from an awfully nice villager whose jaw had nearly hit the floor in shock when he'd asked to trade outfits. That was funny.
"I see," the man hums thoughtfully. Yet the bemusement in his voice and the mirth glittering in his eyes says he isn't taking Ritsu too seriously; like he's indulging a hyperactive child.
'Like you're useless.' Ritsu stiffens. Anger warms his blood. He's all too familiar with that look. He's seen it every single day for the last twenty-five years. From the people, from the servants, from his parents. True, it was only a passing glance, but it was one that had chipped away at his soul day by day since he was born. It doesn't matter one bit if this man happens to have a slightly attractive face; he left to get away from that look, and he'll be damned if he ever lets anyone look at him that way again!
"Well," he says, trying not to let it sound like he's gritting his teeth so much. "I'm sorry for interrupting you. I'll be on my way now," he says, and even he can hear the venom in his tone.
The smile vanishing from the man's face and the way his eyebrows furrow in confusion tells Ritsu that he was not very successful in hiding his irritation. "Hey, what's the matter?" His voice is slightly panicked. "I thought-"
What exactly he thinks, Ritsu never finds out. Because the second he tries to take a step forward and get away from this strange, but admittedly good-looking stranger, and finally get out of this hellhole of a forest, white-hot pain shoots down his right leg. He chokes on a gasp and stumbles forward, while his leg traitorously gives out on him. He knows he's falling, but he's too blinded by the sudden sensation to brace himself to hit the ground.
Turns out he doesn't have to, though.
Instead of the rough forest floor he'd been half expecting, Ritsu gasps when he collides with a firm, but much more forgiving surface. He absently processes that his head is resting against a distractingly toned chest. Jolts of electricity shock him from where a steadying arm curls around his lower back to keep him upright. His heart pounds wildly, somehow in sync with the racing pulse he can hear thundering in his ears.
"Are you okay?"
Ritsu learns that this man's voice comes from his chest. He can feel the vibrations travel until they meet the cool night. He has to suppress the urge to shiver. "I-I'm fine." Dammit, there's that stutter. He mentally kicks himself.
"Good." The man sighs in relief and leans back just a bit. The flame of the torch reflects hypnotically in his amber eyes as he sweeps his gaze over Ritsu's body, searching for any obvious injuries. He doesn't show any signs of letting Ritsu go any time soon. "But it's a little early to be falling for me like that, don't you think?" He winks.
Maybe it's the stars twinkling in the night sky. Or it could be the flickering firelight that's to blame. Perhaps it's the deep, even voice that he can feel rumble lowly into existence. Whatever it is, it makes something happen that has never occurred in all twenty-five years he's been alive. For the first time in his life, Ritsu Onodera's heart skips a beat. "You," he sputters. "How can you just say-" Dammit all, he can't even form a proper sentence, he's so flustered!
The man's lips curve into an amused smile, but then his expression fades into something a little more serious. "Do you live somewhere close by," he asks, a mixture of concern and curiosity in his tone.
Ritsu's heart twinges. "Uh, no," he says simply, vaguely wondering why it suddenly hurts to swallow. He doesn't know how to explain that he… doesn't really live anywhere anymore.
The man hums in consideration. "Hm. Then we have a problem."
'Huh?' Before Ritsu can verbalize his confusion, the man turns away from him and faces the carriage that had nearly turned him into a much flatter version of himself earlier.
"Yokozawa, he's coming with us!"
Ritsu blinks. Then he blinks again. There's no way he just heard that right. "Excuse me?" He and the driver of the carriage scream in unison. Ritsu jolts. He'd totally forgotten that there was someone else here!
"You heard me. You can whine about it later."
Ritsu will whine about it right now! "Uh, isn't that kind of sudden? You can't just decide something like that on your own!" He finally pushes himself away from the man, and out of his arms. He tries to take a step backward, but that pain flares at his leg and he has to clench his jaw shut so that he doesn't scream.
"Hey, be careful, would you?" The man's scolding tone is contradicted by the way he gently wraps his arm back around Ritsu's waist to offer support. "It can't be helped. You're hurt. And you don't have a place to go right now, right?"
And as much as Ritsu wants to argue, it is the truth, whether he likes it or not. Plus, he's tired of lying. Both to other people, and himself. "No," he admits quietly.
The man's lip purse, but he doesn't say anything.
Ritsu wonders what he's thinking. Before he can ask, though, he's being guided forward, and closer to the carriage. "H-hey! I still never said I would go with you," he points out in protest.
The man ignores him.
"What the hell are you thinking, Masamune," the driver of the carriage growls unhappily. "He's not coming with us," he declares coldly.
The breath leaves Ritsu's lungs in an instant when the arm around his lower back tightens fractionally.
"Yes, he is. Get over it," the man commands firmly.
'Masamune...' Ritsu's stomach flips a little at hearing the man's name for the first time.
"I don't care if you're a prince, dumbass. That doesn't mean that you can just do whatever you want."
Masamune, who is apparently a prince, scoffs in disagreement. "That's exactly what it means," he says reasonably.
Ritsu's head is spinning. What the hell has he just gotten himself into? "You're a prince?!" He can't even bring himself to be embarrassed when his voice cracks. "What, how, where the hell are you from? And why didn't you say anything?" The questions spill from his lips one after the other.
Masamune's eyebrows raise. "Whoa, slow down. Take a breath," he suggests. His voice is so soothing that all Ritsu can do is comply. "And you didn't ask," he shrugs like this is an oh-so-casual affair.
Outrage warms Ritsu's blood so much that he can't even form a proper response.
The carriage driver, (Yokozawa, Ritsu thinks?) snorts at Ritsu's sputtering. "You've done it now, prince charming", he says mockingly.
Masamune pouts at him sourly. "Shut up."
Yokozawa snorts again.
With all the dignity of a prince whose being laughed at by his driver, Masamune ignores him. "I guess I should have done this sooner, but allow me to introduce myself." Here, Masamune sinks his head slightly. It's the closest he can get to a bow, as he's still holding onto Ritsu. "Prince Masamune Takano, at your service." His smooth voice raises heat to Ritsu's cheeks once more.
"I'm," Ritsu fumbles with his words. "I'm Ritsu. Ritsu O-" his eyes widen and he chokes on air.
'Idiot!' He chides himself fiercely. He almost used his real name! If they find out who he really is… Well, that can't happen.
"Oda." The smallest but of shame films him, but he's not sure why.
Masamune raises an eyebrow, and clear doubt is conveyed in his twisted lips. "Ritsu, huh?"
Ritsu, barely hiding his shudder at the way his name sounds coming from Masamune, nods.
Masamune smiles. "Well then, Ritsu Oda." His amber eyes glitter in the torchlight. "Do you mind staying with me for a while?"
Ritsu suddenly can't remember how breathing works. He really shouldn't. He may have run away on a spur of the moment whim, but he has responsibilities he will eventually need to return to. Yokozawa's comment about not being able to do what you want just because you're a prince is all too true. But then again, Ritsu's not exactly a prince anymore, is he? What's the harm if he wants to say yes to this man, who he inexplicably finds himself trusting, despite his better judgement?
'This is stupid,' a voice that sounds suspiciously like his father warns him in his head. Ritsu agrees with it wholeheartedly. And yet, there's something about this man, Masamune… that intrigues him. 'You'll regret this later,' that same voice reminds him sternly.
Ritsu still agrees, even as he shakes his head. "No, I don't mind."
And with that, he essentially seals his own fate.
Masamune grins, which is already something Ritsu can tell is a rare occurrence.
Yokozawa groans, and grumbles his complaints under his breath when Masamune shushes him.
Carefully, being mindful of Ritsu's injured leg, Masamune helps him into the carriage. "I look forward to getting to know you, Ritsu Oda."
Ritsu surprises himself with his honesty as he says: "I look forward to getting to know you, as well."
Still mumbling that Masamune is a "Stupid, impulse-driven prince," Yokozawa starts the carriage forward.
As the stars glimmer in the sky outside the window, Ritsu can't help but think that his life will never quite be the same, now that he's met this, Masamune Takano; The strange prince who makes his heart race faster than it ever has in its life. It takes Ritsu a moment to identify the weird, churning feeling in his stomach that he'd never experienced being locked away in that damned castle day after day; the only reprieve from the soul-crushing boredom only relieved by equally boring lessons on "his responsibility as an Onodera." But when he finally recognizes it, it shocks him to his core.
For the first time since he can remember, Ritsu Onodera is excited about something.