Oil on Water by Dinky

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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by oldwrench » January 25th, 2009, 1:46 am

Well, Dinky's back with chapter 5, and for all her apologies, and writers block, I think it's pretty good. Hitomi made it through the banquet, but can she survive on Gaea? Will she and Van find any private moments? Or will they completely scandalize the court? And what of Poor Annie? Will Allan finally get his revenge? Is Annie in for a miserable night, or can the spunky little lady turn the tables on the gallant knight. Read on and enjoy, Gaea may never be the same again. Chapter 5

You Really Shook Me!

AN: I'm aliiiiiiiiiivvvvveee! Sort of. This chapter doesn't do a very good job of proving it, though. Sorry. Warning: There isn't a whole lot of VxH in this chapter, and I'm terribly sorry about that. I did warn you about that possibility after last chapter... Anyway, I'm trying really hard, honestly I am, but I'm so blocked up that my writer's block has turned into writer's constipation! So, this isn't great- but I wanted to post something. I promise more VxH next chapter. Really.

Working double time
On the seduction line
She was one of a kind, she's just mine all mine
Wanted no applause
Just another course
Made a meal out of me and came back for more
Had to cool me down
To take another round
Now I'm back in the ring to take another swing...
(You Shook Me All Night Long: AC/DC)

Hitomi sat on the edge of the massive bed, fear and excitement making her shiver delicately. Moonlight poured across the floor, illuminating the room in a soft, dim glow. The cool breeze wafting through the open window caressed her skin through the silky fabric of her very see-through nightgown.

This was it, the night she'd been waiting all her life for. Her wedding night. Soon, she would feel Van's touch, feel his fingers (and more!) exploring every inch of her. She trembled again in anticipation.

Suddenly, he was there, standing in front of her in all his lean, beautiful glory. His tanned skin glowed in the moonlight, and she had to crane her neck to see up into the shadows masking his face. She sighed in utter contentment when he reached out a hand to trace her face, grazing her lips with the pad of his thumb.

Slowly, seductively, he pushed her down into the pillowy softness of the bed. His lips drew a trail of fire from her earlobe to her collarbone, and she shivered in delight as his warm breath tickled her sensitive skin. Calloused fingers ghosted up and down her sides, along her legs, caressed her face, giving her goosebumps but never nearing the places she most needed touched. She squirmed impatiently under him, murmuring in protest as she tried to manuver her body under his questing fingers.

What was the matter with him?

Suddenly, a group of old men, their faces hidden in shadow, ringed the bed. Hitomi shrieked in shock as she simultaneously tried to shove Van off of her and clutched him tighter as a shield. Van didn't seem to notice they were there at all, his mouth and fingers never slowing even when she swatted at him.

“...and may you be fruitful and multiply. May you bless this land with the children created from your love...” the old men droned in unison.

“What the hell is this? What's going on?” Hitomi demanded as she struggled harder to push Van away from her. Merle suddenly appeared at the side of the bed, looking down her nose disapprovingly.

“It's the Fertility Blessing. It's tradition for the elders to witness the Royal Wedding Night, to make sure you're a virgin,” she said firmly. “It'll be over soon. Just deal with it!”

“NO!” Hitomi shrieked wildly as the men's voices droned louder. “No, no, no, no, NO!”

Her legs tangled up in the long skirt of her sheer nightgown as she fought harder to get out from underneath Van. She pushed and shoved frantically, screaming the entire time.


“Ouch, what the hell?...” Hitomi muttered. She blinked up at the dark ceiling of her bedroom; her legs still twisted up in her blankets on the bed while her head and shoulders rested on the hard wooden floor.

“Oh, god. It was just a dream,” she exclaimed in a breathy, relieved whisper. Of course it had been only a dream. A nightmare! Van would never do something like that to her.

Would he?

Hitomi climbed back onto the bed, thumping her pillows viciously. There was no way Van would allow something like that. She was being stupid for even remotely questioning it. Merle, though... she could see Merle being all for it, if it was a Fanelian tradition.

Hitomi shuddered and wrapped her blankets tightly around herself, staring out the windows at the double moons hanging low in the sky. Dear lord, what had she gotten herself into? Was Van as worried about everything as she was?

On the other side of the castle, Van snored blissfully, lost in dreams of saunas and itsy bitsy green bikinis.

Annie sat, her hair curled, coiled, pinned, and poofed to perfection, waiting patiently for Round Two to start. She wasn't really thinking about what she would say or do, or making any kinds of plans. Things seemed to get a little crazier if she just acted spontaneously, anyway.

But those shoes! Those damn, pinchy, lacy shoes! She was going to break an ankle if she had to wobble around in those all night- or at least get a bad case of toe cramps. No, those suckers had to go.

Annie glanced around casually, taking a quick inventory of the maids still in the room with her. Not a single one of them was paying any real attention to her. It was like she was an enormous, living doll to be dressed up and moved around how they pleased and forgotten in between. At the moment, that was just fine with her.

Slowly, so as not to attract any attention, she lifted her massive skirt and slid her shoes off of her pinched feet. Whistling an innocent tune under her breath, she quickly kicked them under the heavily ruffled love seat she was perched uncomfortably on. Flexing her mercifully bare toes against the plush carpet, she let her heavy skirts drop with a hugely satisfied grin. Problem numero uno solved!

Somewhere in the depths of the palace, a bell tolled with a loud, musical chime. The maids stopped their twittering conversations and approached Annie respectfully.

“The dinner bell, milady,” one murmured gently, and Annie bounced to her feet. Her ribs creaked under her corset, and she grimaced.

“Oops. Forgot I can't move around in this thing,” she muttered darkly to herself. Checking her bag for the fifteenth time to make sure her inhaler was safely tucked inside, she followed the maids as they glided gracefully out of the door. Not that the inhaler would do her a whole lot of good if she had an asthma attack anyway, since she couldn't take a deep enough breath to get the meds into her lungs. She scowled darkly for a moment. It would serve Allen (and Eries) right if she had an attack at the dinner table tonight.

The maids stopped her outside of a massive double door and whispered to her to wait until she was announced. Beyond the doors, Annie could hear muffled laughter and the clink of glasses. She tilted her head to the side and smirked mischievously to herself. If she was going to crash and burn, it may as well be with a decent audience.

“Announcing Lady Annie of the Mystic Moon,” a deep voice boomed, and the room fell silent as the doors swung open. Annie took a deep breath, lifted her small chin, and pasted her brightest smile on her face.

Round Two: GO!

Allen turned towards the doors as they opened, one hand protectively on Celena's delicate shoulder. He bit his lips to keep them from smirking at her new title: “Lady Annie”. Ha! Only good manners kept him from snorting with derision.

Celena strained to see past the fat, overly dressed courtiers to catch her first glimpse of the Mystic Moon woman who'd given her the treasured photograph album. Allen smiled softly at her childlike excitement, but he was hard pressed not to stand on his toes and crane his neck to get a look, too. He could hardly contain his chuckles just imagining Annie's reaction to Austurian fashion. And she laughed at his uniform! It was positively understated compared to the courtier's fashions!

The crowd shifted, and he caught sight of her in all her lacy, poofy, pink magnificence. She was dressed from head to toe in all the finest Austuria had to offer- namely lace, and lots of it. Those sleeves were enormous! And her skirt! Allen thought the entire crew of the crusade might fit comfortably under that skirt. Not that any of them had any business getting under her skirt...

Her glossy, mahogany hair was coiled and pinned into beautifully artistic curls and swoops, leaving the slender curve of her neck and shoulders bare to show off her creamy skin. And more skin... why the hell had Eries and Millerna dressed her in something that showed off that much cleavage? Okay, so it wasn't really any more than what most of the women in the room were showing, but still! Allen could see the men in the room jostling to get a better eyeful, and his blood boiled.

Across the room, Annie caught his eye, and the huge, shit-eating grin on her face killed any remaining urge to chuckle. Good gods, she looked like she was actually enjoying this! It wasn't fair! She was supposed to be uncomfortable, maybe even a little angry, but definitely not happy! Ugh! She just didn't make any sense to him.

“She's beautiful,” Celena sighed, and Allen was forced to agree, albeit very reluctantly. His plan was completely backfiring!

Eries moved swiftly to Annie's side, propelling her through the crowd as she introduced her to everyone of importance. Allen didn't know whether to laugh or groan at the astonished looks on the courtier's faces when she grabbed each of their hands and gave them a hearty shake instead of curtsying. He watched as she smiled and laughed, batting her eyelashes just so and throwing him the occasional glance as if to say, “see? I can behave myself!”.

She was behaving herself a little too well, perhaps. Already a few of the more vicious ladies were throwing venomous glances her way after she'd charmed more than half of the men in the room in under five minuets. Really, it was embarrassing how even the elderly gentlemen were falling over themselves to get a chance to meet her. Pompous old coots. What on earth was Annie saying to them that had Princess Eries about to go into conniptions?

Eries caught sight of Allen and hustled Annie forward abruptly. “Ah, Sir Allen. It's an honor to have you here tonight.”

“The pleasure is mine. Thank you for the invitation,” he replied formally, giving his perfect bow. Celena bobbed a curtsy at the princess, but her eyes were glued to Annie's grinning face. Before any proper introductions could be made, Annie leaned forward and grabbed her hand.

“You must be Celena. I'm Annie,” she exclaimed cheerfully, her eyes twinkling with delight. “Your brother stayed with me on Earth. I'm so glad I actually got to meet you!”

“You wanted to meet me?” Celena gasped in awe, and Annie beamed at her.

“Heck, yeah! I'd hug you, but I think we'd just bounce off of each other like two giant beach balls in these get-ups!” she laughed. Celena blinked at her, an astonished smile hitching up the corners of her mouth.

Allen couldn't stop the tiny smirk on his face. “How are you enjoying Austurian fashions, Lady Annie?”

“Oh, they're fabulous, Sir Allen,” she returned with the same sugary sweetness coating her voice as his. “I've always wanted to try on a dress like this.”

“I think your dress is beautiful,” Celena said shyly, still staring hesitantly at the beaming Annie.

“Isn't it wild? I feel like a bell-” she swung her hips so the skirt mimicked the movement of a hand bell as Eries and Allen stared at her in shock- “And I'm not sure, but I think I might be missing half of my top. My aunts would never let me out of the house with this much chest showing!”

Eries turned white, completely speechless, and Allen groaned inaudibly. Didn't Annie realize that half the room was listening surreptitiously to her every word? Specifically, the male half of the room? Allen gave her a significant glare and had to stifle another groan. Oh, she knew alright, if that mischievous twinkle in her eye was anything to go by. She was playing a dirty game that he couldn't hope to win, unless he somehow managed to shut her up. Which, quite frankly, was less likely than Eries suddenly professing her undying love for the Mole Man.

Annie watched Allen unsuccessfully trying to hide his astonished horror, her shark grin growing larger by the second as she curled her bare toes against the cold stone floor. Oh, this was way too easy. They put her into this ridiculous outfit. It was only fair that she found a way to use it to her advantage.

The only problem was that horrific corset. She was having a tough time breathing, let alone talking in a normal voice. Her hands itched to pull out her inhaler, even though she knew it wouldn't really do any good. And the way Allen kept eying her overflowing bodice like he couldn't help himself wasn't helping, either. It made her breathing hitch funnily, and that actually hurt like hell in the torture device hidden under her dress.

“Princess Millerna Sara Aston Fassa,” announced the guard, and the doors swung open to reveal the glorious beauty of the princess.

Millerna paused dramatically in the doorway, standing still just long enough to make the perfect impression. Her long, golden curls were piled on top of her head like a magnificent crown, and the curve of her neck was as graceful as a swan's. Her powder blue dress was just as fancy as Annie's, dripping with lace and glittering with jewels. She glided across the room gracefully, her enormous skirt giving the impression that she was floating rather than walking. All in all, she was the most beautiful person anyone had ever seen.

“Wow. Now there's a woman who can make an entrance,” Annie murmured appreciatively. Millerna may have been dressed in the same ridiculously ostentatious style as she was, but the princess actually had the height and figure to pull it off.

Spotting their little group, Millerna glided through the small crowd toward them. She held out her hand to Allen, and he took it lightly, bowing to graze her knuckles with his lips with the barest of touches.

“You look lovely, as usual, Princess,” he murmured and was suddenly very conscious of Annie giving a tiny snort of amusement. He straightened abruptly, his back ramrod stiff as he gave her a disapproving glance. At least, he meant it to be disapproving. His eyes wandered accidentally below her shoulders to her impressive, ahem, display, and the disapproval vanished like haze under a hot sun. Damn it!

“Isn't this exciting? When Father's advisers heard about Annie, they insisted on all of this-” she waved a perfectly manicured hand vaguely at the assembled courtiers. “I'm so glad we chose that dress for you, Annie. Doesn't she look perfect, Allen?”

Once more, his eyes strayed momentarily to Annie's plunging neckline before he could stop himself. Pursing his lips, he trained his gaze to a point on the far wall and gave a very noncommittal “hm”.

“I think so,” Celena murmured bashfully, and Annie leaned over to link their arms together.

“Why, thank you, Celena. I feel like I'm just a spiky crown and a magic wand away from Glenda in Oz,” she laughed, shooting a glance at the silent Eries. “So, are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”

“I beg your pardon?” Eries gasped, as Celena, Millerna, and Allen glanced at each other in confusion.

“That's Glenda's famous line from the movie, after Dorothy squishes the Wicked Witch under her house,” Annie explained, merely succeeding in confusing them further. Another bell chimed, and the crowd of courtiers stopped milling around and headed expectantly through another set of double doors. Millerna slid her arm through Allen's familiarly and began moving toward the door. He, for his part, played the perfect, chivalrous gentleman as he escorted her to her seat.

Annie rolled her eyes and smirked a little behind his back, keeping her arms linked with his bashful sister as they followed, Eries on Celena's other side.

“So, did you like the present I sent for you? Or did Allen confiscate it?” she asked the pretty girl cheerily.

“Oh, no. I love it. Allen tells me stories about the Mystic Moon from the pictures almost every day!” Celena told her, a real smile lighting up her face. Annie looked at her in astonishment, stopping dead in her tracks.

“Celena! You're smiling! Allen said you didn't smile...” she trailed off abruptly, glancing sheepishly at Allen's back. Celena tilted her head with a confused look, her lips slipping down into a slight frown.

“That book makes her smile. Right, Celena?” Eries murmured gently. Celena gave an infinitesimal nod, and Annie grinned at her as they started walking toward the enormous table again.

“Well, good. You've got a pretty smile. You should do it more often,” she declared cheerfully. “I'll bet Allen doesn't tell you all of the stories, or at least, he probably leaves the best parts out. I'll have to tell you how things really happened.”

Unfortunately, Celena was seated next to her brother, and Annie was closer to the head of the table, directly across from Meiden Fassa and surrounded by two of the fattest, most pompous advisers Austuria had to offer. Allen would've chuckled at her unfortunate seating arrangement, but the way the men kept staring down her bodice made him crack his knuckles surreptitiously under the table in fury. Those damn, dirty perverts were old enough to be her father!

Everyone stood formally while King Aston entered the room and huffed his way regally to his chair at the head of the table. Annie had to bite her lips hard to keep from giggling. The tubby king was decked out in almost as many ruffles and bunches of lace as the ladies of the court, and the little hat with the enormous feather jutting out perched on his round head wasn't helping matters. His double chin wobbled as he gave the order to sit, and Annie couldn't help but think he looked like an elaborately dressed bowl of jello. She would never laugh at Allen's uniform again. At least, not really. She'd still have to give him hell about it whenever she got the chance.

Everyone sat down in a rustle of silk and expensive fabrics, and Annie was secretly a tiny bit disappointed that her skirt didn't come flying up to smack her in the face. It would've added a bit of fun to an otherwise tedious evening...

“How was that, Eries? I practiced,” she said to the shocked princess with an innocent smile.

“Practiced, my dear?” the courtier on her left asked, his eyes once more straying to her cleavage. Annie resisted the urge to squirm under his squicky gaze and smiled sweetly at him.

“Mm. I practiced sitting. The first time I tried, my skirt flew up over my head! It took two maids to get me out of it!”

If proper etiquette had allowed, Eries might have smacked her head on the table. As it was, she merely clenched her linen napkin in a white-knuckled grip and tried to change the subject.

“Lady Annie is King Van's bride's dearest friend,” she said smoothly. “She will be traveling to Fanelia with my sister and I at the end of the week.”

“Ah, yes. Lady Hitomi Kanzaki of the Mystic Moon. Lord Van is a lucky man,” Meiden Fassa murmured quietly, his eyes fastened on Annie with a calculating look. Annie stared back at him with a sweet smile and a cold glare in her wide, dark eyes. This was the man who'd supposedly 'bought' Hitomi from King Aston and nearly kidnapped her in the night. Thank god for Merle and Van, or who knew what this calculating merchant would have done with her.

“So, how exactly do you know Fanelia's future queen?” he queried, and Annie found herself wishing she had left those awful shoes on so she could 'accidentally' kick him under the table.

“We were college roommates,” she said tersely, but then was forced into a long explanation about what, exactly, a college was and why, in heaven's name, did ladies like Hitomi and herself need a higher education.

“And what is it that you are studying?” Meiden asked mockingly, his chin resting on his steepled fingers as he continued to assess her with that coldly calculating stare. Annie pursed her lips, wishing there was a way out of giving him any information.

“Music,” she finally told him, and his smile made her skin crawl.

“Ah. Then before you leave us, you will have to grace us with your talents,” he murmured, and she hoped he didn't notice her tiny shudder. That was definitely not going to happen, if she had any say in the matter.

“My dear, are you not hungry? You've hardly sampled your plate,” puffed the courtier sitting on her right. “Here, you must try this. It is an Austurian delicacy.”

Annie eyed the grey goop arranged artfully on thin slices of some kind of vegetable and shook her head.

“Oh, no thank you. I'm sure it's delicious, but there's only so much room under this corset, you know. Don't want to risk popping out of it!”

Eries turned as white as the tablecloth, and three seats down, Allen's mouth thinned into a tight line. Annie herself almost regretted her words as the courtier's eyes fastened on her chest with a greedy stare. Almost. What was dealing with a few lusty looks compared to making Eries and Allen squirm a little?

At the head of the table, King Aston finished his meal and stood, the signal for the courtiers to follow him into first room for after-dinner drinks and mingling. Allen caught Annie's arm and nonchalantly pulled her out of the crowd to a semi-private corner of the room.

“Annie, what in Jichia's name are you doing? Do you think at all before you open your mouth?” he hissed at her angrily, and she blinked innocently at him.

“What are you talking about? I was just making conversation. It's not my fault you Austurian men are perverts.”

“Please do not put me on the same level as those men you were sitting next to,” he snarled.

“Why not? You're looking, too,” Annie said in a loud, conspiratorial, whisper to him, smirking broadly. Inadvertently, his eyes shot down to her bodice, and he turned away quickly, ignoring her amused snort.

“What do you expect, when you're dressed like that?” he demanded accusingly, waving a hand in the general direction of her chest without actually daring to look at her again. Annie tilted her head, put her fists on her hips, and gave him a serious glare. Unfortunately, the twinkling mirth in her eyes gave her away.

“You know what I think? I think it was your idea to get me dressed up in this prom dress from hell in the first place, and now your little plan is backfiring on you,” she drawled, one eyebrow quirked as her shark grin crept lazily across her face. Allen could feel the telltale burn of red in the tips of his ears and offered a silent prayer of thanks that his long hair covered them up.

“That's utter nonsense. Why would I care what you're dressed in?” he mumbled unconvincingly, and his ears burned redder under Annie's laughing grin. Millerna glided up to them, pulling an overwhelmed looking Celena with her.

“Allen, you can't keep our guest of honor all to yourself. She's barely gotten to talk to anyone,” she pouted prettily at him.

Allen bowed slightly, obviously in no mood for Millerna's small talk. “Your forgiveness, Princess. If you'll excuse me?...”

Millerna gave a bewildered nod, and he disappeared quickly through the crowd before another word was spoken. Annie's grin spread from ear to ear as she watched him retreat, the princess and Celena exchanging confused glances in his wake.

“Well, what's the matter with him?” Millerna wondered out loud.

“Oh, he's just jealous because my sleeves are poofier than his,” Annie told them casually, and laughed at the dumbfounded expression on the princess's face.

The laughter died abruptly as the three of them were suddenly surrounded by a mob of twittering court ladies. Celena looked like she couldn't decide if she wanted to melt into a puddle on the floor or run screaming out of the room, and Annie couldn't blame her. What a fakey bunch of vipers!

They gushed over Millerna's dress and hairstyle before turning the full force of their falsely friendly attention onto the brown-haired oddity from the Mystic Moon. She was hard pressed to keep her smile plastered on her face as they went on and on in admiration of her ridiculous gown.

“Oh, you need to see the shoes I found for her to wear. Right Annie?” Millerna exclaimed rapturously, and Annie's eyes widened in surprise.

“Oh. Yes... they're really something,” she agreed, stalling for time even as she tried to smother a laugh. Oh dear. Eries might just keel over dead when Millerna forced her to show the room that she wasn't wearing any shoes! The ladies all looked at her in expectation, and she blinked innocently.

“Well... why don't you show them to everyone?” Millerna finally said, a hint of confusion trickling into her voice.

Annie thought for a moment, wrinkling up her nose. “How about tomorrow?”

“Oh, no. We want to see them with your dress,” one of the ladies crooned, and everyone leaned in just a tiny bit closer. Annie wished she had room to step back; they were making her feel claustrophobic.

“Just show them,” Millerna insisted.

Annie shrugged, unable to stop the amused grin from tugging up the corners of her mouth. “Okay, you asked for it.”

She lifted the massive skirt, and the ladies jostled each other to get the first glimpse of the promised shoes. Instead, they got a good look at her multi-colored toenails and tiny, bare feet. She had to bite her lips to keep from giggling at their shocked expressions.

“Annie! What happened to your shoes?” Millerna finally gasped out after she'd dropped her skirts back into place. Once more, she shrugged nonchalantly.

“They weren't very comfortable, so I took them off. I think they're under the sofa.”

She grinned broadly as the room erupted into a low buzz of whispers. Eries materialized at her side, the stark white of her face at odds with her calm expression.

“You must be exhausted, Lady Annie. It's been such a shocking day for you,” she said sweetly. Her eyes ordered the smaller girl to agree or else.

“Oh. Right. Absolutely,” Annie agreed after catching the warning in the elder princess' glare. Under normal circumstances, there was no way she would have agreed to bow out so soon, but things were hardly normal. That dress was getting heavier by the second, and the thrice-accursed corset seemed to be shrinking. As amusing as it might be, she didn't really want to deal with a full-blown asthma attack tonight.

Demurely, she allowed herself to be led back to her rooms, giggling to herself a little when she imagined the gossip likely to be flying around the crowded room she'd just left. Honestly, it was too bad Eries had had the foresight to make sure she wasn't served more than one glass of vino. Things might have gotten really fun if she could've pulled a Hitomi and gotten trashed during dinner!

Once the torturous corset was unlaced, Annie gulped a few much needed deep breaths of air. The nightgown the maids gave her was almost as ridiculous as her dress had been- all lace and silk and nearly see-through in the moonlight. Victoria's Secret would've been put to shame. Shrugging, Annie tugged it on and tumbled into bed, absurdly thankful when the last maid finally left and closed the door quietly behind her.

“What a mess,” she groaned into her pillow, and then smirked to herself when she remembered Allen stalking off through the crowd. Score one for her! And maybe, just maybe, if she made herself enough of a headache, they'd speed up their schedule and bring her to Fanelia before the end of the week.

Yeah. That would be the plan, then. Because a whole week of being strapped into a corset just was not an option. The future taken care of, Annie rolled over and promptly fell asleep.
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Sakura » January 27th, 2009, 10:44 am

Wow I want to "pull a Hitomi" :love:
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Sakura » February 11th, 2009, 6:59 pm

What do you call a dinosaur with an extended vocabulary? A thesaurus.

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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Sakura » February 15th, 2009, 12:37 pm

That's quite some writer's block you have there. We're already chosing colors for the cover. Especially that label "NC-17" should match the background don't you think?
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Dinky » February 15th, 2009, 7:08 pm


AN: Whoohoo! I'm finally working through my writer's constipation! Sort of. But I've got a few chapters planned out, so things should flow a little smoother now, for me at least. Here you go, Sakura-chan! And NC-17? I'll work on it! :thumb:
Disclaimer: Me no ownies. Except Annie! Hahaha! I own her!

The way you move so scandalous
It's all about the two of us...
(Scandalous by Mis Teeq)

Van had never been so unwilling to wake up in his entire life. It felt like the whole night had been one unending stream of completely, scandalously, inappropriate dreams all centered on Hitomi and her marvelous, tiny, green bikini- or lack thereof. The only problem was, now that he was awake, the vague memories of it floating across his consciousness weren't going to help him get through the day at all. It wasn't as if he was going to get some quality 'alone time' with Hitomi any time soon. Damn Merle and his advisers and everyone else who had a hand in this stupid, ridiculous wedding!

He threw his clothes on haphazardly and bolted out of his room, about to be late for breakfast, which might be the only chance he had to see Hitomi. Although, really, could a king be late for anything in his own castle? Van supposed the answer to that was a resounding yes, especially right now when everything that constituted his future, both personal and private, was being controlled and scrutinized to the last, unimportant detail.

He skidded to a halt outside the breakfast room and smoothed his unruly hair ineffectively. Hitomi, his beautiful, astonishing Hitomi, was just beyond that door, and he resisted the urge to barrel through it just to reassure himself that she hadn't disappeared overnight. But that kind of behavior would hardly do; he wasn't about to let her see how ridiculously happy he was just to have breakfast with her.

Composing his face into what he hoped was a nuetrally bland mask that mimicked the one Allen so often wore, he reached out to open the door.

“My Lord Van!” puffed a servant that Van recognized as being one of his advisor's lackeys. “I have some documents for you to look over, and a few-”

“Later,” Van growled, shooting the man a dark, violent glare. The poor man blinked in surprise and backed away hastily.

“Of- of course, my lord. Later,” he stammered, before turning and retreating swiftly down the hallway. Van took another deep breath, erased the scowl from his face, and flung the door open with as much casual nonchalance as he could muster.

But all his efforts to impress were completely, utterly, and totally wasted- unless he could count the two serving maids waiting in the room. For a moment, all he could do was stare at the unoccupied, elaborately set table for two in disappointment. So much for making a grand entrance.

The maids curtsied respectfully, but he barely noticed them as he schlumped his way over to his chair and flung himself down with a barely concealed pout. Where the hell was Hitomi? He'd pulled himself out of his amazingly delicious dreams and rushed around like a madman so that he wouldn't waste one precious second of their limited time together, and she wasn't even here yet!

Briefly, he considered sending one of the maids to retrieve the advisor's servant, just so he could look important and busy when Hitomi finally showed up. Before he could act on it, the far door opened, and Merle and a pack of swarming maids ushered a flustered-looking Hitomi into the room.

He should have stood up to greet her. He knew that was what protocol and etiquette called for, but there was no way in hell he could manage that at the moment without embarrassing himself completely. The moment she'd walked in, all his exquisite, highly inappropriate dreams rushed into his head, and all the blood in his body rushed... elsewhere. And Fanelian men wore fitted pants. Damn it. Was this how bad it was going to be until they were finally married??

Thankfully, Hitomi didn't seem to notice, and she took her seat with a sheepish, apologetic smile in his direction.

“I'm sorry I'm late, Van. It wasn't exactly my fault,” she told him, shooting a murderous glance in Merle's direction. The cat merely shrugged and excused herself, taking all but the two serving maids with her.

Ah, of course. Merle. He should have known. Not trusting himself to speak yet, he made a valiant attempt at a casual nod. Honestly, he was terrified if he tried talking, his voice would either come out embarrassingly husky or crack like a pre-pubescent boy.

There was a long, awkward silence as their plates were filled and they tentatively started eating. Van grimaced to himself and wondered if the tension between them was due to more than just the uncomfortably forced situation they were in at the moment. The two maids standing attentively by the wall certainly weren't helping things, and neither was the great expanse of table between them. They'd practically have to shout just to hear each other.

Hitomi pushed her food around her plate disinterestedly before looking up to give him a hesitant smile. “So... um, did you sleep well last night?”

Oh, great gods! She just had to ask him that! Van shifted slightly, surreptitiously covering his lap with his large linen napkin and forcing his brain to push back the images dancing across his mind's-eye.

“Fine, thank you,” his voice cracked abominably, just like he'd dreaded, and he cleared his throat loudly. “Did you?”

“Oh, alright,” she murmured so quietly he could barely hear her. A slight blush creeped into her cheeks, and she dropped her eyes to the food she was mixing around on her plate. Van cocked his head to the side, studying her fidgeting movements with interest. Could it possibly be that she had some of the same kinds of dreams that he had?

This was stupid. On the Mystic Moon, they'd spent endless hours in each other's company, and now they could barely form a sentence, much less carry on a conversation. Abruptly, Van pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. Hitomi eyed him with surprised confusion as he quickly picked up his chair and set it firmly down on the left side of the table right next to hers. Van ignored the startled, uncertain looks the maids were giving each other as he settled himself comfortably and nodded.

“There. That's better,” he said with immense satisfaction. Hitomi gaped at him for a moment and glanced nervously at the maids before she giggled.

“Absolutely better,” she agreed and rewarded him with a beaming smile.

They ate in silence for a while, but now it was a comfortable, happy one instead of the strained, awkward atmosphere they'd started in. As often as he dared to run the risk of being caught staring, Van spent the majority of the time watching her eat instead of eating himself. His dreams really hadn't done her justice at all, he concluded. She was far more amazing in real life, although annoyingly more covered-up than his dream Hitomi. Her eyes flicked up at him, and they both blushed scarlet when she caught him staring.

“Do I look that strange like this?” she questioned in a nervous, hesitant voice. Van couldn't manage to do more than blink at her in surprised confusion for several long seconds.

“Strange? That's not at all what I was thinking,” he blurted out, his traiterous mouth forming the words before he could stop himself. Hitomi stared at him with expectant trepidation, obviously waiting for him to tell her what, exactly, he had been thinking about. And there was no way in the seven levels of hell that he was going to do that.

“I think... you look...” he licked his lips nervously, trying hard to figure out something devastatingly complimentary to say to her, something Allen would've been able to come up with on the fly. But he really didn't know how to say anything like that. How was he supposed to tell her that just seeing her sitting there in her simple, beautiful Fanelian-style dress made his insides twist up in the most pleasurable way possible? How could he explain how he felt to see her like that, like she had become a Fanelian now, instead of always belonging to a world so painfully removed from his own?

“I like it. I really like it,” he finally finished quietly. The words were embarrassingly lame, but the fervent honesty behind them was real. And Hitomi, as always, seemed to pick up on that, and her eyes glowed with pleasure. Instinctively, he leaned forward to close the gap between their lips.

“Lord Van, the council meeting is about to begin,” announced a servant, bowing deeply from the doorway.

Beside him, a maid curtsied and murmured, “Lady Hitomi, the dressmakers are ready for your first fitting.”

Sighing with ill-concealed frustration, Van pushed his chair heavily back from the table and stood up. Hitomi gave him a tiny pout, but she took his outstretched hand and rose gracefully to her feet as well.

“Will I see you later?” she asked him quietly, her green eyes glittering hopefully.

“I don't know. I hope so,” he answered honestly. “Merle's got every minute planned, I'm sure.”

Hitomi grimaced, and he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. At the door, the servant cleared his throat meaningfully, and Van had to fight the urge to glare daggers at him. All the same, he dropped Hitomi's hand reluctantly and followed the servant out of the room.

Council meeting. Wonderful. Another detailed account and boring hash-through of the upcoming ceremonies, with a whole lot of haggling and last-minute changes and additions thrown in for good measure. He had to remind himself that it couldn't possibly be any worse than Hitomi's dress fittings as he strode purposefully to his seat in the Council Room.

“What's on the list for today, gentlemen?” he asked politely as he waved them into their seats. The head of the council stood up and cleared his throat, looking decidedly awkward. Van eyed him with trepidation, wondering just what they'd come up with now that had the man looking so incredibly uncomfortable.

“My Lord Van,” he began slowly, then stopped and glanced around the table for support. Several men nodded, and he cleared his throat again. Now Van was getting really nervous.

“It is a sad and unfortunate fact that your esteemed father passed on in your early childhood. We all know that Lord Balgus became a father-figure to you, until he was lost to us during your younger years as well-” he paused, and Van merely stared at him in confusion. Where the hell was the man going with all this?

“That being said, it has become obvious to us, your council, that you may be lacking certain information- knowledge- passed on from father to son. My Lord Van, there are things a man, er, needs to know before taking a wife.”

Great Dragon God! Van turned pale and swallowed desperately against the breakfast threatening to revisit him. His council was actually trying to educate him on the finer points of sex?? It wasn't possible. It just couldn't be happening!

“I don't think this is necessary...” he began weakly, but the head council man ignored him and began pacing around the room.

“Though the most important aspect of physical love between a man and a woman is the procreation of children-” he shot a pointed look at Van's horrified face before continuing- “there is much to be said about the pleasure that is naturally derived from the act....”

Van wished desperately that he could bury his burning face in his hands, or at least stuff his gloves in his ears. The council member droned on in a clinical description of 'the ultimate act of love', as he put it, and Van surpressed a hysterical laugh at the difference between his descriptions and the things he'd learned from the crew of the Crusade. Oh, he already knew all about everything his council was trying to educate him on. The crew had made absolutely, mortifyingly certain of that. Not to mention the Kama Sutra Annie had given him. Not that he'd ever admit to studying it's pages during the long month he was separated from Hitomi.

After his first five “I already know all this” and “This isn't necessary” comments went ignored, he gave up trying to stop them. He slumped down into his seat to hear them out with a stony, agonized expression frozen to his face and wished fervently that he could exchange places with Hitomi. At least they weren't pulling out any visual demonstrations or charts.

“...the importance of producing heirs for the throne,” the councilman reminded him emphatically as he mercifully drew his embarrassing speech to a close. He merely smiled benignly while Van bored holes in his skull with his glare, completely satisfied now that he'd done his duty to his king and country.

“Are you finished?” Van snapped acidly when his entire council looked at him expectantly. Like hell he was going to thank them for their unneeded and unasked-for 'education'.

“Quite finished, my lord. Now, if we could move on to...”

The meeting dragged on, and Van steeped in his mortified indignation until it was over and he could bolt out of the room. Who the hell did those crotchety old men think they were, anyway? Gods, he was 21 cycles old. If he didn't know how to go about making a baby with a woman, then he had no business getting married in the first place!

And from their dull-as-dust descriptions, he wondered if maybe he could teach them a thing or two, even though he'd never actually... finished the job. Their poor wives.

If Van had hoped to see Hitomi over the noon-hour, he was destined to be disappointed. He spent his meal at his desk, hastily gulping down a few bites of food in between signing documents, approving accomodations for the more important guests set to be arriving shortly before the wedding, and weirdly, choosing a menu for himself and Hitomi for the two days following the ceremonies. He wasn't sure what to make of that; usually he just showed up at the table at the appointed times and ate whatever was there without thinking about it too much. Ah, well. The entire country had gone crazy.

Thankfully, half of his afternoon was taken up with touring the castle, the grounds, and the areas being set up for the ceremonies with his chief of security and general of the army. Listening to their plans for the safety and security of not only himself and Hitomi, but their multitude of noble guests was infinitely preferable to anything the council could come up with. And after that morning's fiasco, he'd rather not have to face any of those men for a long, long time.

“Is something wrong, my lord? Your face has gone very red,” commented his security chief, squinting at him through the glare of the mid-day sun.

Van squeezed the hilt of his sword in a white-knuckled grip and wished it was his head council man's neck. “I'm fine. Please continue,” he growled.

Giving him a vaguely bewildered look, the security chief began again, only to be interrupted by a servant running breathlessly up to them.

“My lord Van, it is time for your fittings,” he gasped out with a bow. Van stared at him uncomprehendingly.

“My what?”

“Your fittings, my lord. For your wedding clothes,” the servant explained patiently.

“Oh. Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of-” Van returned hastily, desperately trying to find a way out of it.

His general cut him off. “Not at all, Lord Van. We can resume this at a later time.”

The security chief nodded in agreement, and Van had the violent urge to decapitate them both. Out of plausible arguments, he turned on his heel and marched along behind the scurrying servant. This was Merle's doing, he was sure of it. For the last few years, she was always nagging at him to dress more appropriately, regally, as befitted his position as the king of Fanelia. Van still preferred a pair of comfortable pants and a loose, thin shirt.

An hour later, he had a much healthier understanding of just what kind of horrors his poor Hitomi was suffering at the hands of the nefarious cat-girl. Arms up, arms down, put this on, take that off, it was never ending! And he could've sworn those pins they were using were as long as one of his fingers, and those evil tailors stabbed him with one whenever he fidgeted just the tiniest bit.

“We've finished, my lord. You may take that outfit off,” the head tailor informed him, and Van sagged with relief.

“Thank the Dragon,” he muttered to himself as he shrugged out of the heavy material. A servant handed him a folded piece of cloth, but instead of the shirt he had been wearing all day, it was another overly elaborate shirt of thick, silky fabric.

“What is this? I thought you were finished,” he exclaimed in exasperation as the servant motioned for him to put it on.

“Oh, no, my lord. I merely meant we were finished with your first outfit.”

Van gritted his teeth against the protesting groan rising up his throat and shoved the shirt over his head roughly. Once he'd gotten the rest of the outfit on, the endless pinning, measuring, and scrutinizing began again. A needle jabbed him in the thigh when he fidgeted again, and he scowled down at the innocent expression on the tailor's face. He was going to be a bloody pin cushion before this was over!

The sun was low in the sky before he was finally- finally- handed his familiar, comfortable clothes and told he was free to go. He scowled heavily to himself as he headed off down the corridors toward his own rooms. So far today, he'd been treated like a brainless child, subjected to a ridiculously embarrassing lecture, dressed up like a doll and pricked an unnecessary amount of times, and worst of all, he'd barely gotten to see Hitomi, much less touch her. He'd better get to see her this evening, or so help him, he was going to find Merle and shave her bald.

Protocol demanded that he change for supper, and he took the fact that no one had laid out an overly formal outfit for him as a good sign. It seemed that after the elaborate banquet last night, tonight's meal was going to be the usual casual affair. Quickly, he changed into a black pair of pants, and a red, silky shirt that's only difference between his usual day shirt was that it had short sleeves and had one black, twisted knot at the top instead of the usual khaki-colored strings. Hitomi had seemed to like the red/black combo on him when he was on the Mystic Moon, so he was hoping she'd think he looked good in this, too. Actually, he was just hoping she'd be there at all, never mind how he looked.

He was a little later than usual thanks to the fittings torture as he strode his way into the dining room. It was much smaller than the enormous banquet hall, but it was still large enough to accommodate a large, highly polished wooden table that could seat twenty people comfortably. Every seat was filled now, and they rose to their feet respectfully as he entered the room. The person at the far end of the table, directly across from his at the head, stood up a second later than everyone else, and Van had to stifle a smile when he saw the blush creeping up Hitomi's cheeks. That sheepish, apologetic look really made her seem irresistably adorable, but besides that, he was just thrilled she was there at all!

Only... she was seated at the exact opposite end of the table from him. There was no way they could even talk to each other now! Van ground his teeth together in frustration as he took his seat, and everyone followed his lead. The meal started, and he ate in a brooding silence broken only by the dictates of etiquette when he was forced to answer a polite enquiry by his neighbors. Across the table, he could see the advisors and their wives seated close to Hitomi engaging her in conversation, and it only made him more frustrated. Who's idea of a sick joke was this? Did they have any idea how cruel it was to make him watch other people talking to her without being able to do that himself?

Merle. Damn that cat. She smiled brightly at him from her place by Hitomi, and he glared heavily back at her. Oh, he was going to skin her alive. He was going to lock her in the dungeons and swallow the key! He was going to-

The meal was over and Hitomi was being led away before he had a chance to scramble out of his seat after her. Diving through the small crowd of people, he grabbed Merle's arm and yanked her off to the side of the room.

“What's the matter, Lord Van?” she asked innocently.

“What's the matter? What's the- Merle! What the hell are you doing? At least let me talk to Hitomi!” he hissed at her angrily.

“Right now? You can't, Lord Van! There's about a hundred things Hitomi needs to do, and I want her to get to bed early tonight, too. Those dark rings under her eyes have to be gone before the ceremony starts, and she's got to soak in a milk bath tonight, and-”

“Merle,” Van growled warningly. “Are you trying to scare her away?”

She blinked at him, surprised. “What? No! How can you say that? I'm just trying to-”

“Then let me see her!” Van interrupted harshly. “Please, Merle. Ineed to see her!”

Merle's shoulders slumped, and Van knew he had her. His adopted sister never could refuse him anything.

“Oh, alright,” she agreed reluctantly. He grinned hugely at her, and she scowled, jabbing him in the chest with one pointed nail. “But just for a little bit! And no touchy-feely stuff!”

“Thank you, Merle!” Van breathed fervently, and she rolled her eyes at him.

“Huh, maybe it'll shut Hitomi up. She's been begging to see you all day. Meet us by the waterfall pond in fifteen minutes.”

Her tail disappeared around the door, and Van barely resisted the urge to pump his fist in the air and shout victoriously. He did his best to look casual as he wandered through the castle to one of the doors leading out into the gardens, but once he was out of anyone's sight, his feet fairly flew over the ground in his haste. He was going to see her! He was going to see her without a bunch of snoopy, nosy servants hanging around watching their every move! Just a nosy Merle...

Reaching the pond, he stopped and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. The light from the two moons glittered on the ever-moving surface of the clear water, and he tipped his head back to study the magnificent night sky. It wasn't long before he heard quiet, stealthy footsteps coming up behind him. He stayed where he was, hoping to look confident and relaxed instead of the jangling bundle of nerves he really was.

Either it worked, or Hitomi didn't care either way, because suddenly she ran the last few steps up to him and wrapped her slender arms around his waist. Screw being casual and relaxed! He wound his arms around her and pressed her body into his tightly, burying his face in her hair so he could drown himself in her scent.

“Van...” she murmured happily into his chest, and he grinned like a fool into her honey tresses.

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Merle complained with a roll of her eyes. Van lifted his head enough to crack an irritated eye at her.

“Go away, Merle,” he commanded, though it actually sounded a little bit more like begging. “Please? Just ten miets. Five miets?”

She glared at him, her hands planted firmly on her hips. He lifted his head to give her his best puppy-dog eyes, and she threw her hands up in defeat.

“Fine! Five! But only five. And you keep your hands to yourself!!”

She scampered away through the trees and Hitomi giggled softly into his shirt.

“How'd you manage that? I've been trying to get her to leave me alone all day!” she exclaimed ruefully. Van grimaced to himself as he wound his fingers through her silky hair.

“Has it been awful?”

He held his breath as he waited for her answer. It scared him to think that her first days in Fanelia were unhappy. What if she decided he wasn't worth it after all and demanded to be sent back to the Mystic Moon?

“No, not really. Just different,” she finally replied in a small, wistful voice. “It would be easier if I could see you more often.”

“I know, Hitomi. Believe me, I know,” Van replied fervently, once again burying his face in her hair to hide his own grimace. Although, when he really thought about it, having Hitomi there for that horrific 'sex talk' would've made things unbearably more difficult.

“Did you have a bad day, too?” she wanted to know in a slightly amused, slightly sympathetic voice. He hesitated, then decided to go with an easy answer.

“Just long. Very, very long without you,” he replied honestly without going into any details. He could only imagine how mortified she would be if she found out about his council giving him baby-making tips.

Apparently, his answer was just about the best one he could've made, judging by the shining look on Hitomi's face as she pulled away just far enough to see his face. Maybe he wasn't so horrible with this romance thing after all. Nothing near Allen's uncanny knack for the sport, but at least he wasn't tanking miserably.

Unable to resist any longer, he leaned down to brush his lips gently across hers. He wasn't prepared for her passionate reaction and he had to scramble to keep his balance without breaking the hot, insistent pressure of their mouths. Her hands buried themselves into his hair, clinging to him, as he took a step or two backwards so he could lean his back against the tree for support.

Suddenly, his foot dangled out into nothingness, and he toppled backwards with Hitomi still clinging onto him. Icy water closed over top of them as they hit the pond with a resounding splash, and Van swallowed a mouthful of water as their lips broke apart in shock. They surfaced together, spluttering and coughing as they worked their way to the rocky edge. Van couldn't stop staring at the way Hitomi's dress now clung to her like a second skin as he helped her out of the freezing water, and his lips hiked up into a rogueish grin.

“What?” asked Hitomi, an embarrassed blush creeping over her cheeks at the decided gleam in his eyes.

“You look good wet,” he replied simply, and her blush glowed crimson in the moonlight. Self-consciously, she tried to pull the sticking material away from her body, but he caught her hands and tugged her into his arms. He could feel her body heat seeping through her wet dress, and it threatened to destroy his fragile hold on his self-control.

“You don't look to bad yourself. No drowning us this time,” Hitomi told him huskily right before she leaned up to press her lips against his own. He grinned before quickly deepening the kiss, his hands sliding down to areas Merle would never approve of.

“Ai! What happened to you two? I leave you alone for five miets, and you decide to go swimming?”

Guiltily, the two jumped apart at the sound of the irate cat girl's screech.

“It was an accident, Merle. See, we-” Hitomi began, but Merle cut her off with a wild flapping of her hands.

“Save it! I don't even want to know. What are we going to do now?” she moaned. “How the seven hells am I going to cover this up?”

“Well, we could tell everyone that I slipped and fell in, and Van jumped in after me to rescue me,” Hitomi suggested hopefully. Van quirked an amused eyebrow at her and Merle shook her head angrily.

“No way. That's too melodramatically sappy even for me. No, we're just going to have to say you fell in, and Lord Van will have to wait out here until he dries off.”

“What? Merle, that'll take hours!” protested Van.

Merle scowled darkly at him. “It's either that, or you cause a huge scandal. Take your pick.”

Grabbing Hitomi by the arm, she started to haul her through the trees back toward the castle. He waved helplessly at her as she disappeared into the night gloom before he flopped down to pull of his sopping boots.

Gods. What a horrible day. At least he'd gotten to see Hitomi dripping wet...


Annie clung helplessly to the torture pole as the evil, heinous maids yanked her corset tighter than a wasp's waist. She would've refused to be strapped back into that thing if it wasn't for Princess Eries standing a few feet away watching the proceedings with a tight-lipped smile. Annie gritted her teeth as her breath whooshed out when the maids pulled harder than ever.

“Okay, okay! Enough! I think my spleen is about to be punctured by my spine!” she exclaimed weakly. “If you pull it any tighter, I seriously don't think I'll be able to breathe.”

“If you can still talk, you can still breathe,” Eries stated with an sarcastic quirk of her eyebrows. She motioned for the maids to continue, and Annie gripped the pole in a white-knuckled grip. This was revenge for her behavior at dinner last evening. Fine. She could take it. And she'd find some way to use it against the Ice Princess, too.

At least today's dress was infinitally less ridiculous than the previous evening. It was still a horrible, pale, pastel pink, and it still had about fifteen yards too much lace on it, but at least it was sleeveless. And, even better, no underwire skirt cage. Although, when she thought about it, Annie wondered if that wasn't a bad thing after all. One sure way to scandalize the Austurian court would be to 'accidentally' flash her bloomers by sitting improperly.

Annie stifled her giggles and composed her face quickly as Eries shot her a sharp, icy glare. No need to make the princess any more suspicious of her little plan than she already was. Meekly, she submitted to being dressed like an oversized baby by the twittering maids. Eries watched the entire process with a stern face, her lips pressed into a thin white line, and Annie had to stifle another giggle.

“Wow. The rumor mill must be churning out something really craptacular to give you that bad of a lemon face,” she commented, arching an eyebrow at the princess.

“Wasn't that your intent?” Eries returned dryly with a dark glower. Annie flashed her a broad shark grin just as Millerna sailed through the door.

“Good morning, ladies! Annie, I have the most wonderful news! Allen has agreed to escort us around the city today so you can see all of Palas!” she exclaimed gleefully.

Eries tried to hide her alarm under a bland, neutral mask. “Millerna, dear. Annie's really had a shock being brought unexpectedly here. A quiet day in her rooms would be-”

“Oh, heck no! Touring Palas sounds awesome, Millerna!” Annie interrupted her cheerfully. Like hell she was going to be locked up in her room like a naughty child. That tactic hadn't even worked for her grandmother.

“Excellent! Allen and Celena will be joining us for breakfast, so we'll go down to meet them as soon as you're ready,” Millerna said, clasping her hands together in sheer excitement. Eries' lips disappeared into a a thin, white slash again, and Annie cheered inwardly.

To Annie's utter annoyance, her two maids trailed along behind them as they headed toward the breakfast room, whispering occasionally to each other behind their hands. And they weren't alone. Each of the princesses had at least two or three maids following them as well, like some kind of bizarre procession.

The whole group entered a brightly lit room dominated by floor to ceiling windows on three of the walls. Many of them were open to the warm morning air, and Annie wished futilely that she could rip that damn corset off and take a deep, satisfying breath.

Allen and Celena rose from their places at the highly polished wooden table and gave a perfectly correct bow and curtsy. Millerna waved them both back into their seats.

“Oh, Allen. You know you don't need to be so formal with me,” she trilled beautifully and smiled her glorious smile at him. Eries pursed her lips, but said nothing as the three ladies were ushered to their seats by their respective maids.

“Yes. Thank you. Okay. Good enough. Back off already,” Annie snarled as her maids hovered around her, unnecessarily helping her sit, putting her napkin on her lap, and generally treating her like a toddler. Nevermind that Millerna and Eries were getting the same treatment; it sure as anything didn't sit well with her independent, self-sufficient nature. She caught Allen's amused smirk from across the table and narrowed her eyes dangerously. Eries glanced at her and hastily excused the maids before she could do anything rash.

The heavy silence was punctuated only by the clink of silverware against delicate porcelian, and Annie had to fight the urge to jump on the table and dance jig just to liven things up. No wonder Allen was such a boring prick with a stick up his--

“Oh, hey! Is that my photo album?” she suddenly exclaimed as her eyes fell on a large, innocent looking book sitting next to Celena's plate. One glance at Allen's face- which definitely looked like he wanted to smash his head into his plate- would have confirmed it, even if the tiny, shy smile lighting up Celena's face hadn't.

“You said you would tell me more about the pictures,” she said in a quiet, halting voice, as if she was afraid that Annie would chide her for being ridiculous.

Annie beamed and reached across the table for the book. “Absolutely! Here, give it to me, and I'll pick a really good one!”

“Perhaps this should wait until a later time,” Allen managed to get out through his gritted teeth, but Annie waved a casual hand at him.

“No time like the present, Sweetpea. Now, let's see here...” she trailed off as she quickly flipped through the pages. Allen looked imploringly at Eries, but she focused on her breakfast and avoided his pointed gaze. Allen ground his teeth in frustration. That traitor!

“Ah ha! This one!” exclaimed Annie triumphantly as she pointed to a picture of Van, Hitomi, Allen, and herself posing in front of an impressive display of snowmen.

“I've told them all about your childish game of building those things,” he informed her with a smirk. The shark grin creeping across her face unnerved him, and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“I'm sure you did. But I'll bet you didn't tell them about the snowball fight afterwards,” she replied with an evil, amused glint in her eyes.

“Snowball fight?” asked Millerna, her smooth brow wrinkling with confusion.

Annie nodded gleefully. “That's right. Ya'll might not think he's so chivalrous after you hear this one...”

She launched into an admittedly hilarious recounting of Allen attacking her with a snowman's head and her eventual defeat at his cheating, nefarious hands. Allen gritted his teeth together so hard his jaw creaked under the pressure. Millerna was laughing so wildly, she nearly fell off of her chair several times, and Eries worked hard to hide her amusement behind her napkin. Celena watched Annie's animated storytelling with rapt attention, a genuine smile lighting up her face. Apparently, she was well on her way to absolutely idolizing the small, strange, Mystic Moon woman, and Allen couldn't decide if that was a good or bad thing. After all, she'd be leaving as soon as she could get to Fanelia.

“Who knew you were such a devil, Allen!” Millerna giggled, out of breath from laughing by the time Annie finally wound to a close. He scowled darkly across the table.

“That's not exactly how it happened.”

Annie arched her eyebrows accusingly. “Are you calling me a liar, Allen Shezar?” she taunted. He opened his mouth with a sharp, sarcastic reply, but snapped his teeth together before he could say it. He took a deep breath and had a momentary struggle to compose his face into a blandly friendly mask.

“Shouldn't we be going if we are to show Annie all of Palas today?” he managed to get out in a suitably nuetral voice. He could tell by the amused sparkle in Annie's eyes that he wasn't fooling her one bit.

Celena looked slightly crestfallen as they stood from the table and headed to their waiting carriage, and Annie took her arm cheerfully.

“I'll tell you another one as soon as we get the chance,” she told her laughingly. Even though Allen balled his fists in annoyed fury, he was grateful to see his sister looking decidedly more cheerful.

Sadly, the remainder of the morning passed by uneventfully, since Allen and Eries insisted that they all remain in the carriage as they toured the city. At least it had no top, so they could see everything freely, and the fragrant ocean breezes cooled them from the heat of the sun. Annie was secretly thrilled when they returned to the palace for the midday meal, bored out of her mind from being shown building after building. Millerna and Allen's enthusiasm hadn't dimmed in the slightest, and Annie wondered sourly if that was simply because they had been seated next to each other. They sure seemed cozy, what with Millerna touching his arm like that and batting her impossibly gorgeous blue eyes at him. Really, Allen should be ashamed of himself for flirting with a married woman like that and- wait. Why did she care who Allen was sitting next to? What difference did it make to her if he was bamboozled by Millerna's blond bombshell looks? Stupid, insanely beautiful, perfect Barbie look-alike.

Ignoring the slight headache throbbing at his temples from the strain of remaining politely enthusiastic with Millerna, Allen forced yet another smile at one of the princess's witty remarks. If only he'd managed to sit next to Annie.... although why he should be thinking that, he wasn't sure. Maybe it was just because she was wearing another dress that showed off ample amounts of cleavage, and if he was sitting next to her, he could easily sneak a peek down-

No, no, no, no. For Jichia's sake! He wasn't as big a pervert as those over-dressed, chubby courtiers last night, was he? During the whole trip, he'd never once tried to get a look down Millerna's top, so that had to count for something.

The noon meal flowed the same as breakfast had, with Annie doing more talking than eating as she entertained everyone but Allen with another story at his expense. This time, she told them all about her gag gift and how he'd chucked a wad of wrapping paper at her face. Allen would've defended himself, but he was too busy listening anxiously to the slight wheeze in her voice.

Annie, for her part, was determinedly trying to focus on anything that would distract her from the searing ache in her ribs and the lightheaded dizziness that was causing little black spots to dance across her vision. It was an effort to keep talking, but it was worth it to see the smile lighting up Celena's face.

Eries suggested quietly that they tour the palace gardens after lunch, and Annie agreed heartily. It sounded infinitely more interesting than staring at buildings listening to Allen and Millerna twitter at each other, and anything would be better than just sitting there trying to make polite conversation all afternoon. She had to clutch the table for a moment when she stood up as she fought a strong wave of black that threatened to obscure her vision completely. That damn corset! If she had any strength at all left in her oxygen-deprived muscles, she'd tear it off with her bare hands! But she wouldn't give in. No way. Allen and Eries were not going to beat her just because she couldn't breathe!

The group wandered through the garden paths, and Annie wished that she could actually appreciate the beauty around her. All she could concentrate on was struggling to take another breath. It wasn't long before she trailed behind the others as they slowly spread apart through the magnificent botanical displays, and eventually she just stopped altogether. Her breathing was a shallow wheeze, but she didn't bother to pull out her inhaler. What would be the point if she couldn't get more than a drop of air into her lungs, anyway? Feebly, she pressed her hands to her ribs and swore viciously under her labored breathing.

“Annie? Is something the matter?” Allen's voice suddenly murmured from a point directly behind her left ear. She jumped and whirled around to face him, and then clutched at her right side with an almighty wince.

“Ouch! Lord, bloody hell, dammit! Stupid thing just broke my rib, I know it!” she wheezed out angrily.

Allen stared at her in alarm. “What thing? Where?”

“What thing. Like you don't know,” she spat out in what should have been an indignant snap, but came out as a pathetic wheeze. “Look, I get the whole revenge thing. I do. Hell, I'm all for it-” wheeze- “but this crosses the line-” wheeze- “This is cruel-” wheeze- “torture.”

“What is? What are you talking about?” he demanded in panic. Annie's face was deathly pale, so much so that the whites of her eyes looked yellow in comparison, and a slight bluish tinge was starting to become noticeable around her lips. She looked like she was about to fall over, so he grabbed her upper arms to support her.

“The corset,” she finally managed to force out between her shallow, struggling breaths. Allen scrunched up his face in confusion. Corset? That thing that women wore to enhance their figures?

“Where's your inhaler?” he asked urgently, figuring that was more important than talking about women's undergarments.

Annie shook her head weakly. “No use. Can't.... breathe.... too tight.”

Too tight? But what- oh! Her corset was too tight! Allen wanted to brain himself for wasting precious moments being an idiot as he swiftly turned her around. His anxious fingers fumbled with the row of tiny buttons on the back of her dress, and he cursed under his breath. Why the hell did there have to be two thousand buttons the size of a grain of sand on the stupid thing? Finally, he got it undone and pushed the fabric aside to get at the ties of her corset.

Holy gods, she wasn't kidding about it being too tight! Did all the women wear it like that? The ribbons pulled themselves into a knot when he tried to undo them, and he pulled frantically at it as Annie's breathing got more shallow than ever. In frustration, he finally hooked his fingers onto either side of the corset and ripped it apart. Annie sagged against him, and he caught her around the middle to hold her upright.

“Inhaler?” he demanded harshly. Weakly, she raised her left arm slightly, a small silk bag dangling from her wrist. Still supporting her with one arm, he pulled it open and yanked out the small, other-wordly device. She took it with a shaking hand, brought it to her mouth and inhaled several times.

Her wheezing eased off slightly, and Allen swept her up into his arms to carry her over to a nearby bench. Her trembling form seemed too weak to support herself, so he sat down and cradled her on his lap. Her deathly pale, exhausted face worried him as she wearily closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest.

“What should I do?” he asked anxiously, and she shook her head slightly.

“Nothing. I'll be okay,” she whispered, and then paused to catch her breath again. “Thanks, Al. I think you might've saved my life there.”

That scared him, and he couldn't help but hold her a little tighter as he grimaced. “Why were you wearing that thing so tight? And why didn't you say anything sooner?”

“Ha. If I had my way, I wouldn't have put the stupid death-trap on in the first place. And like hell I was going to let you win so easily.” She stopped and caught her breath again, never lifting her head from his chest. “Death first, you know? But then I changed my mind.”

“What do you mean, 'let me win'? I didn't know anything about you wearing a corset.”

“Right, sure. 'Cause it wasn't your idea for Eries to dress me up in Austria's finest. Corsets are all part of the deal, so I wasn't going to say anything about how bad it was,” Annie replied in a weary, breathy whisper. She took another puff of her inhaler and relaxed, oblivious to the frozen stiffness in Allen's arms. He stared unseeingly at the lush green gardens spread out in front of them as her words sank in.

It was his fault this had happened. If he hadn't asked Eries to dress her up, if he hadn't been so childishly bent on getting payback, Annie would never have suffered like this. What a selfish fool he was.

“Stop it, Al. I know what you're thinking, and it's dumb, so just stop,” Annie murmured as she shifted slightly into a more comfortable position. “It's not your fault I'm a stubborn idiot.”

“I'm so sorry. I never meant for you to be hurt,” he replied slowly in a rough, gravelly voice, and Annie patted his arm.

“No need to apologize. It's all in good fun.”

Allen sighed, but the frozen stiffness left his body. He couldn't stop himself from gently stroking the long, silky swath of her hair as he cradled her just the tiniest bit closer. She was much too forgiving for her own good. Somehow, he'd find a way to make it up to her.

“I'm afraid I might have destroyed your corset,” he murmured after several long minutes. She laughed weakly, and it was one of the most beautiful things he'd ever heard.

“Thank god,” she returned fervently. They lapsed into silence again as she rested against his chest and he stroked her hair. Unfortunately, as much as he would've liked to stay like that until he was sure Annie was her usual, perky self, he was acutely aware of her exposed back resting against his arm and the way her fitted gown was... not quite so fitted at the moment. And any minute now, Millerna, Eries, or some servant would come wandering through the garden looking for them. He moved a little so he could see her face, and congratulated himself when he forced his eyes to stay there instead of straying to see how much the bodice of her dress had, er... shifted.

“Annie? We need to go back to the palace. Do you think you can walk?” asked Allen gently. She sighed and pushed herself away from his chest into more of an upright sitting position.

“Probably. If you help me,” she told him, looking and sounding completely exhausted. “I suppose you'd better close me back up first, though.”

Wordlessly, he swept her long hair over her shoulder and began the impossible task of getting her dress re-buttoned. The stupid things were so tiny and slippery that he was finally forced to yank off his spotless gloves so his fingers could be more effective. Five minutes later, he'd only managed to get it almost half-way done, and he was concentrating so hard that he didn't hear the quiet footsteps moving up the path toward them. The soft, respectful voice floating over to them froze Allen's fingers on the button he was fumbling with in pure, horrified shock.

“Sir Allen? Princess Eries sent me to- Oh!” the maid finally registered what exactly Allen was doing to Annie's dress, and her hand flew up to cover her surprised mouth. “Oh, I am so sorry. Please, pardon me for interrupting, Sir!”

She hastily bobbed a curtsy, her face a brilliant scarlet as she trained her eyes anywhere but at the frozen couple on the stone bench. Allen could feel his own ears flaming red, and he hastily lifted Annie off his lap to stand up.

“Wait, this isn't how it looks-” he began imploringly, but the maid was already disappearing down the garden path.

Oh. Dear. Gods.

His heart sank straight into his toes, and all his blood followed after it. Even if he chased that stupid woman down and told her the real story, the damage was already done. No one would believe that the infamous playboy Allen and the strange Lady Annie weren't getting busy canoodling in the gardens, no matter what he said to refute it. And when they find out about the ripped corset.... Great Jichia, it would be like throwing fuel on an already out of control fire. Eries was going to murder him. Not to mention the damage to Annie's reputation....

The sound of muffled laughter forced him to turn around and face her, and he stared in disbelieving shock. Annie clasped both hands over her mouth to stifle her helpless laughter as her shoulders heaved.

“Oh, man. That was too hilarious! Did you see her face?” she exclaimed. Allen just gaped at her as she laughed again, shook her head, wheezed, and took another puff of her inhaler.

“Annie, are you insane? You do realize what that woman thinks we were doing, don't you?” he demanded incredulously.

“Absolutely! That's what's so damn hilarious, Al!”

Allen pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, firmly resisting the urge to grip her by the shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattled. She was still fragile, after all.

“Annie, think about it. The rumors are going to be flying around the palace before we even get back there. All of Palas is going to believe that we- that you and I... oh, gods, your corset,” he finished with a groan, but it only served to make Annie grin more broadly.

“Oh, yeah! That is going to look bad, isn't it?”

“Be serious about this! Think about what it's going to do to your reputation! The scandal! What people are going to think about you!” he pleaded desperately. Somehow, he needed to make her grasp the seriousness of their situation, because so far she was acting like it was the biggest joke of the century. Something in his words must've sunk in, because her mouth turned slightly down into a small frown.

“Is it going to hurt your reputation?” she asked in concern.

“No. I doubt anyone will even be surprised,” he reassured her dryly after a moment's thought. It hardly mattered that his reputation was honestly more fiction than fact; the stories about his 'conquests' were stuff of legends in the gossip circles.

Annie relaxed, and the broad grin was once again in place. “Well, then there's nothing to worry about.”

“What do you mean, nothing to worry about? Annie-”

She stopped him with one raised hand. “Al, what difference does it make to me what rumors are going around Palas? I'm outta here as soon as you get me to Fanelia. As long as you aren't going to be affected by it, then I really couldn't care less.”

“I care,”Allen growled, running a frustrated hand through his long hair.

Annie sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Care, then. But in that case, you'd better finish buttoning me up so you can get inside and do some damage control. Although-” she watched the way he ran his hand through his hair again with an amused twinkle in her eye- “messing up your hair like that probably isn't going to help your case any.”

Sheepishly, Allen stopped his hand in mid-air and dropped it uselessly by his side. Annie smirked and turned her exposed back toward him again, waiting. He stood helplessly for another minute, clenching and unclenching his fists at the ridiculousness of their situation before sighing in defeat. Once again, he turned his attention to the tiny buttons and tried to ignore the dread mounting inside of his chest at the thought of what they were about to face inside the palace.

Eries was going to shred them both.
.....sometimes you have to lose your mind to find it......

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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Raine » February 15th, 2009, 9:30 pm

yay!!!love it dinky!!!
so interested to what happens with allen and annie...
poor van and hitomi though
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Sakura » February 16th, 2009, 1:50 am

Arigatou :kiss:
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by JHawkNH » February 18th, 2009, 3:54 pm

"You look good wet."
That could be takes the wrong way so easily. :gg:
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Raine » February 24th, 2009, 8:57 am

no more stories....waiting for it :sob:
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Re: Oil on Water by Dinky

Post by Dinky » February 25th, 2009, 4:56 pm

a short chappie is coming- I swear. Life sure gets in the way, though!
.....sometimes you have to lose your mind to find it......

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