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Nene could hear Hanako’s laughter coming from the walking path.  Bright and kind, charming and endearing, it bounced off the hedges for all to hear.  Like the sun that day, it radiated warmth and filled the gardens with an air of liveliness.  Nearby flowers might have even bloomed just to get a better listen to the tenor of the prince’s jovial chuckles.

And it was the fakest laugh she’d heard from him yet.

Prince Hanako was well-versed in the niceties of social etiquette, of course.  He'd been brought up with such lessons as part of an elaborate curriculum training him for life as a royal.  As such, his charismatic diplomacy had developed into one of his most valuable weapons.  Quick witted and silver tongued, he could probably end a war with nothing more than his words.

But this laughter was not brought about by peace talks or trade negotiations.  This laughter was the treat of a young maiden visiting from a foreign land.  A princess of a neighboring country.

In other words, a suitress.

Visits of these types were nothing new.  Hanako had hosted many fair ladies at his castle and a decent handful of gentlemen as well, all seeking to make a lasting first impression so that the prince might be compelled to make a move of courtship.  And why shouldn't they?  By all accounts, the kingdom was prosperous and flourishing under the combined rule of Hanako's parents.  To obtain a solid connection to such success would surely spread good fortune to their own homelands.

Not to mention the rumors that traveled about relaying details of Hanako's debonair style and smart personality didn't hurt his popularity in the slightest.

“Oh, you flatter me!” Hanako crooned in what Nene recognized as his practiced performance voice.

Another round of giggles grabbed Nene’s attention, her hands stalling for a moment from the weed picking she had been assigned.

From what she'd overheard from her space in the garden, the two hadn't spoken of anything more consequential than tame political matters between their two countries.  Political matters that for all intents and purposes had remained calm and amiable for years upon years.  Indeed, the conversation seemed to have run its course through all varieties of pleasant small talk.  However, it seemed things were taking a turn for the personal now.

"Think of it less as flattery and more as an observation of fact," a woman replied.  If Nene had to picture her based only on voice, she could see a long-haired and mature lady with proper posture and an air of elegance about her.  A truly proper princess.  "You can't tell me that I'm the first person to say something about your stunning eyes, Your Highness."

An amused hum served as Hanako's initial response.  "Maybe.  Maybe not.  Do you take me as the type of man to flirt and tell?"  The mischievous smile dripped from his query.

In just as devious a tone, she shot back, "You don't have to say anything for me to know that you are certainly the type of man to flirt."

"Well, my lips are sealed, my lady."

"Then maybe I'll try opening them a bit…"

A zap ran up Nene's back and she tore a thicket of weeds so harshly that the roots pulled up with a snap and dirt clods jumped into the air.  How forward was this woman?!  Hadn't they just met yesterday?!  She couldn't have been trying to get Hanako into bed with her already… could she?

Low and with some intrigued bite, Hanako growled, "Mm, a feisty little princess, aren't you?"  There was a distinct pause and the sound of whispering that Nene couldn't make out, but soon enough Hanako spoke back up.  "Shall we make our way back to the castle then?"

Without even answering first, the two appeared from out of their small corner of the courtyard hidden away by branches and bushes.  "Let's," was all the woman replied, eyes dazed and glassy as she very conspicuously looked the prince up and down.

Out of the corner of her eye, Nene watched as Hanako offered the lady his arm and held back a wince at the eagerness with which she took it.  Despite the princess's decided lack of restraint, Nene hadn't been far off with her earlier guesses as to her appearance:  long and thick auburn hair flowed behind her and framed a well defined, olive skinned face.  Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes deep emerald, and her legs… perfectly slender… As was the case with most of these types of visitors, she was unabashedly beautiful.  Enough so as to turn Nene's head as she watched the two royals walk off together, a familiar and petty swirl of unease coating her stomach.

Eventually Nene had been removed from her weeding duty.  Admittedly distracted by thoughts of what Hanako and his visitor might have been up to, her grip on the pesky botanical invaders had become too forceful, resulting in patches of stripped grasses and messy loam sprinkling the lawn.  In the end, she was creating more work than she was completing and was abruptly dismissed to a less damaging job.

It was probably for the best, though.  Watering the plants throughout the castle halls was a relaxing chore.  There was hardly a chance for her to embrace violence in this task.  She could watch the sprinkles of water as a calming distraction.  And as long as she didn't severely under or over water anything, there wasn't much she could harm.

Still, there were times when Nene would lose herself to her own thoughts.

Heading back to the castle had meant more privacy for the two.  Away from the prying eyes of staff and noblemen alike, who knew what could happen between them?

Nene's eyes landed on a select few droplets dripping gracefully down the petals of a large toffee rose.  She couldn't help the unsavory image of sweat sliding across exposed olive tanned skin from entering her mind.  From there it was all too easy to picture deep browned locks cascading over bare shoulders.  Shoulders that were being lowered to the crimson bedsheets Nene had occupied many times prior.

She probably would have continued on with her unnerving daydream were it not for the sudden flourish of a familiar cloak obscuring her vision and the set of arms wrapping around her waist from behind.

"Seems I've caught my little strawberry blossom in the middle of one of her fantasies again," Hanako murmured with a grin.  "How bold of you to be thinking of me out in the open like this."

Beneath the cape, she wriggled a bit, taken by surprise.  "I w-wasn't--"

"Oh weren't you?"  With limited responses, Nene groaned defeatedly, letting herself settle under Hanako's arms.  "That's what I thought."  He chuckled until his voice lowered into a purr.  "You know, I could make those fantasies a reality, Yashiro.  All you need to do is ask."

The embarrassment of her scandalous imagination involving the prince and another woman was enough to still her, but the thought of Hanako turning it into a reality froze Nene solid.  For all she knew, it could have been made reality already.

Stuttering out small sounds of objection, Nene eventually strung together something that wasn't nonsensical.  "D-don't you have a visitor, Your Highness?"

Making a noise somewhere between a pleasant laugh and warm hum, Hanako lowered his head, his lips teasing at her ear.  "She's retired to the guest's chambers.  So I thought it might be a good opportunity for us to retire to mine ."  Though he'd heard it countless times before, Hanako couldn't stifle the chuckle that escaped at the sound of Nene's bashful squeak.

Quick to recover, the gardener held up her watering can so that it peeked out of the cloak that surrounded her.  "I still have flowers to water," she pointed out, tilting the head of the can's spout at the line of filled vases down the hall.  "And besides," she added, voice quieting into something solemn, "she might be waiting for you to join her in the guest's chambers…"

This time it was Hanako's turn to freeze.  "Yashiro?"

No response.

Gently, the prince pried the watering can from Nene's hand, spinning her so that she faced him, still hidden under his cloak but for her head.  Her head that refused to look away from his chest in front of her.

Subdued and genuine, Hanako donned an affectionate smile as he brought a hand up to stroke the side of her face.  "Yashiro, we've talked about this."  He paused, setting the can on a nearby window ledge before sliding his now free hand up to tilt her chin toward him.  "These visits are nothing more than formalities.  Performances to satisfy my mother's romantic side.  And more importantly," his hands cupped either side of Nene's face, ensuring he had her full attention, "they serve as an effective cover for us so that you stay undiscovered.  So that you stay safe ."

Nene gave him a small nod, head still stuck between his hands.  She must not have looked terribly convincing, though, as Hanako frowned before placing a kiss on her forehead.

“I promise you, Yashiro.  You mean more to me than any prince or princess that gets paraded through those castle gates.  You always will.”  His voice was soft.  Velvety and warm on her skin, his lips barely moved from her forehead, his promise keeping him lingering there as if his words were a continuation of the kiss.

For a moment, Nene let the words soothe her and she basked in the fact that she was the one in his arms right then.  His attention was focused on her and quelling her worries.  So even if all of his pretty language and charming smiles turned out to be cruel lies, at least she could find some comfort in this moment when she was his.

Lost in her relish of his affection, Nene almost jumped when Hanako pulled away, a smile beaming down at her devilishly.  “Though, I do have to say, you being jealous over me?  It’s a very cute look on you, Yashiro.”

A rush of red took Nene’s face and she tore herself away from the prince, freeing herself from the confines of his cape.  “I-I-I’m not jealous !” she defended adamantly.

“Whatever you say~!”  Hanako turned on his heel, striding down the hall with his arm stretched up in a casual wave.

Resisting the urge to chase after him, Nene grabbed her watering can and grumbled through the rest of the afternoon, receiving some odd stares as she finished watering the plants around the castle.

Once again, Hanako found himself resting in his tower, away from the hustle and bustle of the castle.  His visiting lady had left that morning, and not too soon.  He’d dealt with a plethora of men and women vying for his hand, but she had turned out to be one of the more direct ones.  Flirting was exhausting when he wasn’t the only one doing it.

With a sigh, he leaned against the window, eyeing the activity below.  It was early afternoon and he knew that Nene should be out in the gardens tending to the crops.  Tired eyes scanned the small fields and when he spotted no sign of the gardener, he sat up to get a better look at the grounds.

There was no head of creamy locks weeding the lawns, no thick ankles hobbling on a ladder to pick from the fruit trees, and no comedically slow snip of trimmers struggling to prune the hedges as perfectly as possible.


True, Nene did get dismissed to other chores quite often, but rarely was she ever pulled from her duties in the fields.  Crops were her expertise, after all.

Just as he was about to give up and initiate his own search, his ears perked at the familiar laughter coming from the small resting area of the gardens.  Almost relieved, Hanako smiled down at Nene, glad to see her relaxing on the bench of the stone fountain.  However, his smile was short-lived as he spotted another individual with her.

Hanako recognized the other as a member of the stable staff.  As far as he knew, the boy was trustworthy and conscientious.  An exemplary stall cleaner and an even better horse trainer.  In addition to all of this, he was also fortunate in his looks.  Lustrous blond hair, deep ocean blue eyes, and a smile genuine enough to tame even the wildest stallion.

And from the way he was leaning in toward her, it seemed that his current goal was to take Nene as his newest mare.

Nene was still laughing at whatever the kid had said, her smile bright and wide and all too comfortable for the prince’s tastes.  Since when had the two even been acquainted with each other?  Hanako certainly couldn’t recall seeing them together before.  And why would they?  One of them was stationed at one end of the castle grounds, busy with various equestrian duties, and the other was placed in a million different spots at any given moment, one of those spots being his own quarters when it pleased them.

Another giggle grabbed Hanako’s attention and he immediately grimaced at the blush that had appeared on Nene’s cheeks as the stable boy placed his hand on her shoulder.

Something hot bubbled up from the prince’s chest, escaping as a low growl in his throat.  It wasn’t three seconds before he was grabbing his mantle and rushing out of his room, taking the stairs two at a time as he fastened his cloak around his shoulders.

More laughter spilled from Nene as she shifted in her spot on the fountain bench.  “You’re not serious!” she huffed out at her companion.

“Serious as serious gets!” he assured.  “I’m no liar!”

Nene hiccuped through a few more breaths, attempting to calm herself.  She wasn’t typically one to lose her composure so childishly while she was working, but this time she would allow it.  She had just sat down for her break, the weather was warm and gorgeous, and her mood matched perfectly.

Or at least, it did match...

“Well, well, well!  What have I stumbled upon here?”  Hanako's voice was loud, commanding attention as he approached the fountain.  "A little rendezvous between royal staff?  How cute ."

Immediately, the boy was on his knee, head bowed to his prince in respect.  Nene, on the other hand, was a bit slower to follow suit, taken aback by the harsh tone of the prince's words and even more so by the expectant glower he aimed at her.  When she finally bowed down, the two quietly addressed him, "My liege."

Hanako turned his glare to the boy.  "A little far from the stables, wouldn't you say?" he stated more than asked.

"Yes, my liege," he responded, voice holding flat.

A suspicious hum resonated lowly in the prince's chest.  "Go then," Hanako ordered.  "To the horses' stalls with you."

"Yes, my liege," the boy answered again as he rose to his feet.  His small collection of personal items was quickly packed up as Nene remained obediently under Hanako's sharp view.  Before taking off for the other side of the castle grounds, the stable boy let slip a quiet, "I'll see you around, Nene."  She couldn't help but notice the clench of Hanako's jaw at his farewell.

Neither Hanako or Nene moved for several moments, Hanako hovering above her as she kneeled before him.  The silence between them was heavy, almost painful, and Nene hoped for a quick and simple resolution, a dream that was all but crushed when Hanako finally spoke, "Enjoy your little date?"

Nene's head shot up, eyes wide with surprised confusion.  "Date?" she parroted, her head flipping back and forth between Hanako and where the stable boy had once sat.  "That wasn't a date.  He shows up here to have his lunch some days."

"Is that so?"  Hanako seethed, his golden eyes burning as they inspected Nene's expression carefully.  And she held his stare unwaveringly, nearly a pout as she urged him with her eyes.  Before long, he was sighing, his tough composure melting as he flopped down onto the bench next to her.  "Is that so…" he repeated, more relieved and breathy than his prior suspicious tone.

Letting her own expression relax, Nene watched as Hanako leaned his head back, his hand pulling up over his face to pinch the bridge of his nose before raking through his choppy bangs.  Everything about his posture radiated the release of stress and she found it fascinating to observe.  Prince Hanako was a man of image -- if he didn't know something or wasn't able to do another, he would at least make sure he looked like he did.  His propensity to don a convincing poker face was his best weapon.  However, through their years of interaction, both professionally and personally, Nene had come to realize that it was also his strongest defense; an impenetrable barricade that separated him from the rest of the world.

Now, in front of her very eyes, she felt like she was peeking through the cracks of his facade, a small window into the walls that kept him just out of her reach.  And what she found there was…

"Could it be… you were jealous, Hanako…?"

"J-jealous?!"  Like the pitch of his voice, the prince shot up in his spot, his back straightening rigidly and feet planted firmly on the ground.  "Why would I get--?!"  His sentence cut short when he turned to Nene and saw her honest curiosity, leaving him stuttering as he searched for his words.  "I-I… There's… Y-you--"

"Were you?" she asked more directly.

After some stumbling and flubbing, Hanako eventually collected himself enough to clear his throat and fold his arms over his chest indignantly.  “I don’t get jealous,” he declared with finality, as if he had the last word.

And something piercing and raw clawed at Nene’s chest at that.  It spread from her core down to her stomach in a rushed froth and climbed up her throat to burn the back of her tongue.  More than anything, she wanted to unlock her jaw and shout so that the fire inside her might scald him as well.  But she knew Hanako.  She knew that he would respond in an instant with that insulting sneer and a line only he could utter without it seeming completely ridiculous.

Oh no.  This wasn't the time for loud outbursts or cold shoulders.  It was an opportunity for Nene to give his highness a taste of what she'd endured through watching him entertain candidate after candidate all this time, never knowing if the last time she'd lain with him would become her last.

So with resolve in her form and a sweetness in her voice, Nene sighed with feigned relief, "Thank goodness then.  I was afraid I'd misunderstood your instruction from yesterday for a moment!"

The prince's arms, still folded, loosened a bit as he turned to her, head tilted in confusion.  "Instruction?"

"Why, yes!  To do what we must so that I stay undiscovered!"  Soaking her tone in saccharine innocence, Nene turned her smile toward him.  "Taking a suitor as cover really does serve as effective cover!"

Hanako's shock was almost palpable.  It was plain as day in the size of his already large eyes, in the tight line of his lips as his jaw set, in the furrow of his brow that wasn't sure if he should be horrified or livid.  And it was oh so satisfying.

A dreamy sigh left Nene's lips before she was standing up, hands behind her back and grin joyful.  "It'll be so nice to go on a date tomorrow and not have to hide behind walls or get shoved beneath a heavy cloak…"

"I-I thought you said it wasn't a d-date…" Hanako sputtered out, laughably hoarse.

Nene regained her innocent tone.  "That wasn't a date.  But tomorrow we'll be enjoying dinner together at that quaint little inn on the east side of the village.  That will be a date."  As she relayed her little white lie, she hoped and pleaded that she could find the stable boy and alter their lunch plans into dinner plans.  In fact, it would probably be better to ask sooner rather than later… 

"Yashiro, you--"

"Well, would you look at the time!" Nene interjected.  "My break's over so I'll just be getting back to work!  I'll see you later, Your Highness!"

And with a skip, she was rushing out of the gardens, leaving a lone Prince Hanako dumbfounded and paralyzed in his seat by the fountain.

Nene and the stable boy, Kazuma, arrived at the little pub just in time for the supper rush the next day.  It was half a miracle that they'd landed a nice table against the wall in a more or less secluded part of the dining room.  Not that Nene would have minded a little publicity.  It might be a little fun to be part of "the new couple" gossip in town.

"Well, this is nice," Nene noted once they were seated.  "It's a lot cuter in here than I expected."

About to take a sip of water, Kazuma stopped short of his mouth.  "You've never been here before?  I assumed you had, the way you were pushing to go here."

As he took his drink, Nene twirled a stand of her hair bashfully.  "I wouldn't say pushing … Just… asking very, very passionately."

It had actually been quite a chore to track down Kazuma after she'd left the gardens the day before.  Waltzing into the stables and having a quick chat didn't exactly pan out for her.  So in between her royal gardening duties, she would peek around corners and anywhere she might find horses in the hopes that she'd spot him.  Fortunately, she did eventually manage to find Kazuma, but after a day running around the grounds tirelessly, her invitation may have been presented a tad more dramatically than she had intended.

No matter, though!  The important thing was that he'd accepted and, even better, he hadn't stood her up!  All that was left was to have a nice dinner and call it a date.  Easy.

"So Nene," Kazuma started, "any idea what you might want?"

Shuffling the menu in front of her, she skimmed the options once over and chuckled.  "There's so much here… It's kinda overwhelming--"

"Well, might I recommend the daikon slaw."

That voice.  That tone.  That gut wrenching feeling in her stomach.  All devastatingly familiar and indicative of none other than…

"Prince Hanako?!" Nene and Kazuma gasped in unison, staring up at the royal smiling at the side of their table.

Obviously pleased by the couple's gaping expressions, the prince's grin stretched even further.  "Well, isn't this a fun coincidence, running into you two here!  What a small world!"  Nene could practically see the devilish glint in his eye as he spoke.

Hiding her face behind her menu, Nene grumbled to herself, "Fun coincidence indeed…"

Ever the outgoing spirit, Kazuma was quick to smile, impressed at the prince's presence.  "Your Highness, I didn't know you came out to mingle around the village!"

"Every once in a while," he shrugged.  "Shouldn't a good monarch keep an amiable rapport with his subjects?  Besides, special occasions call for going out!"

Still clearly irked, Nene shot Hanako a side eyed glance as her curiosity got the better of her.  "What's the special occasion?"

"She is."  His smile morphed into something absolutely wolfish as Hanako stepped aside to present a brunette woman with deep green eyes and olive toned skin - the very same suitress that had plagued Nene's worries just a mere couple days ago.

Nene failed in holding back her rapid succession of surprised blinking as she turned to the two, and as if he'd pulled the winning trump card into his hand, Hanako smirked directly at her.

"Mind if we join you?"

There were a few ways Nene had imagined the night going.  A delicious meal with some friendly conversation, maybe a walk home.  If things went really well, maybe even a cute little kiss on the cheek that she could brag about to Hanako.  None of her imagined scenarios, however, crossed paths with what was actually happening in front of her in reality.

After Hanako had successfully invited himself and his date to the evening's activities, they arranged themselves so that each couple sat together on one side of the table.  And by some terribly predictable miracle, Nene found herself sitting directly across from the prince who discreetly aimed a cheeky wink at the gardener as the four of them settled in.

That had been several minutes ago.  Well before the waiter had come to take their order.  Yet somehow, Nene hadn't quite caught up to the situation.  She was too busy being utterly enraged at Hanako for her to even pay attention to the small talk at the table.

Why had he felt the need to interrupt what was supposed to be a fun night for her?  She had to watch him flirt and fawn over his suitors without so much as a peep, lest she receive his usual lecturing.  Couldn't she have just one for herself with the same expectation of decency?

"… Nene?"  Startled as she registered her name being called, she looked around the table to be greeted by three pairs of waiting eyes.  She looked to Kazuma who had roused her from her wave of irritated thoughts.  "You okay?  You haven't said anything for a while."

A dusting of red creeped across her face at the attention as she rushed to deny, "No, no!  I'm fine!  Perfectly fine!"

"You sure, Yashiro?  You're looking a bit flushed," Hanako joined in.

The sound of his tone was more annoying than anything else.  He was completely aware of what he was doing and it came through in his voice, disguised to the other two but crystal clear to Nene.  And she made sure he knew what she was feeling as she pointedly responded to him, "I said I'm fine ."

"His highness is right though," Kazuma countered, sounding genuinely concerned.  "Your face is really red… Hold still a sec."

Nene and Kazuma had known each other for a decent amount of time.  They were acquaintances, just a couple of friendly coworkers that shared a laugh or two during breaks.  By no means were they what you would call close.  Definitely not close enough to impose on the other's personal space.  So it was only expected that she would freeze when the stable boy took her chin in his hand and turned her to face him so he could rest his forehead against hers.

Everyone was quiet as Kazuma concentrated for a moment.  "Hmm," he hummed in thought.  "You don't feel too warm.  But still," he pulled his face away from hers, keeping her chin in his hand, "if you're feeling unwell, I can take you home."

Less than a minute ago, Nene wasn't feeling the slightest bit ill.  But she had to admit that suddenly she was feeling somewhat dizzy as Kazuma continued searching her eyes with concern.

That was, until he suddenly retracted his hand with a yelp to rub at his shin.

"Oh!  I'm terribly sorry!  Didn't mean to kick you there!" Hanako piped up, all too lively.

When Nene turned to glare at the prince for his rude behavior, she caught herself taking in an odd expression on his face.  She barely heard Kazuma accept the apology as she studied Hanako's grin.  On the surface, it was pleasant and friendly, but the longer she looked, the more cracks she found.  A tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth.  The taut strain of his brow as if it was fighting against being pinned in place.

And those eyes.

No longer were they the honey gold that conveyed amity and goodwill.  They had instead scorched into a blackened char, searing and spiteful and eager to burn the unfortunate souls who dared to exist under his gaze.

And then he blinked, the blaze disappearing back into his normal expression just as quickly as it had appeared.

She'd seen those eyes before.  Sometimes they would flash quickly across his face when his aide, Tsuchigomori, would make an offhand comment about her.  Other times, she'd seen them appear just as Hanako hid her out of sight before she could be discovered by whoever was interrupting them.

They were icy and dark, terrifying and hostile…

Possessive and covetous...


Keeping her eyes on Hanako's face, Nene leaned so her shoulder rested against Kazuma's, and she watched as his eyes flickered to their contact, a nearly undetectable stiffening setting his mouth in a straight line.

Oh .

"Alright folks, I have your meals right here," a server announced as they appeared with trays of food, setting full plates in front of everyone.  Once everything had been distributed across the table, the server took a step back and asked, "Is there anything else I can get for you right away?"

Stare still trained on the prince, Nene shook her head.  "No.  No, I think I have everything I need," she put a hand on Kazuma's shoulder, "right here."

Prince Hanako had received an endless wealth of advice throughout his lifetime.  Some of it regarded relations with his people; some, strategy in political matters; and an ample amount of philosophical babble in which his father found an inexplicable interest.  Accepting the little morsels his father offered in passing, sometimes a stray piece would float to the surface when the opportunity called for it.

To get what you truly desire, let your emotions guide you.  To lose what you already have, let them control you .

Those were the words that came to him as he begrudgingly sipped at his drink, watching Nene giggle like a schoolgirl at the man seated next to her.

He would be the first to admit that when he arrived at the inn, he did so without much of a plan.  All he knew was that he wanted to interrupt whatever was happening that evening between Nene and the stable boy.

It was a pure stroke of luck that his visiting lady had arrived mere hours before the evening meal.  She had returned to his castle to supposedly retrieve a jewel that she had forgotten in her chambers, a family treasure of some sort.  He found the excuse almost laughable.  What sense was there in turning a whole caravan around just to fetch a piece of jewelry?  Surely, one or two men would be capable of accomplishing such a task.

With the direct attention she had given him and bold gestures during the entirety of her visit, Hanako could see her real motives hiding lamely behind her weak explanation as if they were standing under a sheer curtain.  His original description of her character was spot on:  She certainly was a feisty princess.

Whether she was there for affection or lust, Hanako cared not.  Perhaps he would have been a bit more understanding had she been more forthcoming with the truth.  But seeing as she was insistent on sticking to her underhanded tactics, he held little shame in taking her on as his pawn.

After all, he was the king in this chess game.  And he was more than willing to sacrifice the pieces he needed to get to his queen.

"My liege, you're so quiet tonight.  You were such a wordsmith just a few days ago."

Speaking of the devil...

Hanako put on his usual prince charming smile as he set his drink down and turned to the princess.  "My sincerest apologies, my lady.  I was simply basking in the miracle that we were brought together once again."  He could practically feel the roll of Nene's eyes at his ridiculous line.

But it was no issue since the opposite effect was taking place on his intended target.  "O-oh my," she muttered, blush climbing up her face.

"Here, my sweet."  He plucked a piece of fruit from his bowl and held it to her lips.  "Say ahh~"  The woman was obedient, dancing along to the tune he played as she ate up every drop of his attention.  "Good girl," Hanako whispered as she chewed and gave her a pat on the head.

Hearing the praise from across the table, however, Nene felt something well up in her throat.  Protests caught in her vocal cords and she struggled to swallow them down.

Don't say that to her!

Those are your words just for me!

No, no, no.  If he was trying to make her upset, she wasn't going to allow it to happen.  She could play this game just as well, if not better, than him.

As she raised her fork to her mouth, a shiver shook through her, one that she made sure was noticeable to her date.  "Nene?" Kazuma called kindly.  As expected.  "Are you sure you're feeling well?"

He really was sweet.  Nene almost felt bad using him for such a petty battle.  "I promise I'm fine, Kazuma.  Just a bit chilly."  To add a little pizzazz to her act, she rubbed her palms up and down her arms, skin bare to the cool air.

Kazuma considered for a moment, seeming to weigh options.  "I don't have a jacket to offer you, I'm afraid…" he confessed sadly.

Finally.  This was Hanako's chance to show this kid up.  Fully prepared to offer his mantle to Nene, the prince brought his hands to the clasp at his neck.

However, before he could remove his cloak, Kazuma's bashful voice piped up.  "But if you're okay with it, I can…" he trailed off, too shy to continue as he wrapped an arm around Nene's shoulders, scooting his chair closer and rubbing his hand up and down her arm.

Both Hanako and Nene froze in their places, one burning with embarrassment and the other blazing with rage.

"O-oh… That's…"  Nene paused to clear her throat.  "Thank you…"

"Y-yeah… No problem…"

On the other side of the table, the prince stared at Nene's upper arm and the fingers that curled around it.

Don't let him touch you!

Your skin is mine alone to warm!

There wasn't much chatter after that as the two couples ate their dinners in tense silence.

"Well, that was a lovely meal!" Hanako's date declared once the four had stepped out of the restaurant.

Nodding in agreement, Kazuma turned to Hanako.  "You really didn't have to pay for our meals, Your Highness.  I was prepared to pick up the cost--"

"Oh think nothing of it," he responded, waving dismissively.  "I can't in good conscience crash my staff's dinner date and not cover the expenses."

Grimacing, Nene refrained from making a comment about how his conscience was fine with crashing the date as long as he paid them off with money.  She could always tell him off for it later.

"I'll be heading out then," Nene said finally, taking a step toward the path.  "Everyone be safe going hom--"

"Nene, wait!"

Almost as soon as she was turning back to Kazuma were his lips pressing against hers, his hands grasping either side of her face as he exhaled through his nostrils as if he'd been waiting the whole night for this.  Nene, on the other hand, squealed in surprise, her scarlet eyes wide and blending with the reddening color of her skin.

What was happening?  What was he doing?  This was an accident right?  They had just bumped into each other, right?  But his moan didn't seem like an accident.  What was she supposed to--

And suddenly she was running.

Kazuma's shout quickly disappeared behind her as the light of bright windows zoomed past her vision.  She had no idea where she was going.  She had no idea how she'd started running.  She didn't even know if her next turn would be left or right.

It had taken her far too long to notice that she was not the one commandeering this impromptu sprint.  She was merely being dragged along by the grip of a hand around her wrist.  And though it was too dark to actually see who was leading her through the village streets, Nene had a decent idea who her captor was.

It wasn't long before the two rushed down an alley and her suspicions were confirmed as Hanako pressed her against a stone wall, his mouth crashing against hers as if the very air he needed to breathe were trapped in her lungs.

Her voice struggled against the prince's hungry movements.  "H-Hana--mmph--ko?!"  When her only response was more of the same, she tried once more.  "Hanak--!"

"I can't stand the thought of you knowing another man's lips!" he finally shouted, bringing the two of them into a standstill as he held her against the wall.  "So I just… I needed… to make you forget…"  His breath hitched as he panted, still recovering from their run, and he brought his head down to rest their foreheads together.  A few moments of silence passed before he sighed defeatedly.  "I was jealous," he confessed, embarrassed.

"Hanako…" she breathed, amazed that he would admit such a thing.

"Please, Yashiro.  Don't ever let anyone else touch you like that."  Pulling his head back, Nene could see the smallest hint of tears rimming the prince's eyes.  "I don't think I could take it."

Something about Hanako's voice was so small.  In that moment, he was no longer a powerful monarch who could access anything.  Instead, he'd shrunk into just a boy trying to hold on to the only thing he wanted.  It was endearing in a way.

Eventually, Nene ran her fingers through the hair on the side of his head, tucking a lock behind his ear.  "Hey," she started quietly.  "I can still remember a bit of Kazuma's kiss, you know.  Do you think you could…?"

Without hesitation, Hanako resumed kissing her.  It was less desperate this time, but more knowing and just as passionate.  She let herself join this one, tangling her hands in his hair to elicit a warm groan that rumbled low in his chest.

When they parted, both of them just took in the sight of the other, faces pink and breathing labored, until Hanako whispered, "How about now?"

Cupping his cheeks, Nene gently tugged him toward her again.  "Almost," she mouthed before fully pulling him to her, speaking in the spaces between their lips.  "I'll forget… with just a little more…"

Hearing the prince's chuckle warmed Nene and she felt him smile into the kiss.  "It's okay if it takes even more, you know," he said after breaking apart.  "If I have to, I'll work through the whole night to make you mine again."

It was her turn to don an affectionate smile as she wrapped her arms around the back of Hanako's neck.  "Then we better get started, hmm?  And by the way," she paused to rub their noses back and forth, "I never wasn't yours."

Perhaps a little too dramatic, Hanako released a pleased sigh.  "Oh, say it again, Yashiro~  Say you're mine again~" he moaned, Nene laughing at his antics.

"I'm all yours, you dummy," Nene giggled, trying to escape his hold as he moaned even louder.  "Stop that!" she squealed, pushing his face away.

"I can't ~  It just sounds so good coming out of your mouth~"

Eventually, Nene managed to free herself from his grasp and made her escape running away from the teasing prince.

Of course, that didn't stop Hanako from chasing after her, moans and groans spilling from his lips to pull even more laughs from his cute little gardener, the only suitress he'd ever need.

The next day, Nene made sure to find Kazuma and apologize.  He easily forgave her, but spotting a hickey and an expensive looking handkerchief on him, she didn't feel too terrible anymore.